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The Star Online: Lifestyle: Bookshelf

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The Star Online: Lifestyle: Bookshelf

The Marrying Of Chani Kaufman

Posted: 23 Dec 2013 03:00 PM PST

EVE Harris's first book, longlisted for the Man Booker prize this year, lies between comedic and serious. The serious subject at its core – the semi-arranged marriage of two young Haredi Jews – is belied by the warmth of the writing. There are demons here, but they do not terrify.

Twenty-year-old Baruch Levy sets his heart on 19-year-old Chani Kaufman but the pair are from starkly contrasting backgrounds, even within their narrow Hasidic world: Chani is one of eight daughters growing up in a shabby home in Hendon, north London; Baruch is the elder son of a dubiously wealthy landlord in neighbouring Golders Green, their luxurious house presided over by his social climber of a mother. What Baruch and Chani share, though, is spiritedness and stubbornness. Each has rejected the various suitors offered up to this point. As denoted by the title, Harris's premise is that this union is not just a binding agreement between two people – it affects families, friends, the wider society.

As the novel opens the bride is waiting in the sequestered bedeken room, where the groom will verify that she is the right woman, sweating in a wedding dress worn by so many generations it is rotting at the armpits. Harris captures Chani's combination of anxiety, sexual curiosity, teenage boredom and deep pride in tradition. She also sets up a figure of comic but serious opposition in Baruch's mother – her crude attempts to bully Chani provide enjoyably icy stand-offs.

Humour abounds, but so do pathos and anger. Chani despairs that she will become an exhausted shell like her endlessly childbearing mother, and frets that her parents will bankrupt themselves with the task of marrying off eight girls. Baruch, destined to train as a rabbi, secretly yearns to study at university.

Harris's eye for suburban social mores is wickedly acute, as is her evident relish in describing both the sensual life and its absence.While perhaps too breezily written to have taken it further in the Booker stakes, her book has the potential to be that rare thing – a crowd-pleaser about Orthodox Judaism. – Guardian News & Media

The Dogs Of Littlefield

Posted: 23 Dec 2013 03:00 PM PST

Our reviewer admires a cross between a comedy of manners and a whodunnit.

LITTLEFIELD is a lovely place to live, especially if you like being part of a soccer carpool or book group, or knowing the names of your neighbours, or strolling down the road to get a cup of coffee in the Forge Cafe – a bit more of a hit-and-miss affair than the Starbucks opposite, but with its own hand-cut doughnuts and wicker basket filled with plastic daisies.

In fact, the compact Massachusetts town is, according to a (fictional) list in the Wall Street Journal, the sixth best place to live in America, which is precisely what has attracted the scrutiny of sociologist Clarice Watkins. Dr Watkins, whose previous work on "the effects of global destabilisation on urban matriarchal structures" based on fieldwork in inner-city Detroit and Mexico City has been much admired, has decided her next study should be into the far more mysterious business of equilibrium. What, in other words, do the contented find to talk about?

But Dr Watkins' project is somewhat scuppered before it begins, because Littlefield has come under what one resident, George Wechsler, calls "a domestic fear campaign"; he might be forgiven the slight grandiosity given that its first target was his bull mastiff, Feldman, whose poisoned body, "almost too big to be believable", has just been found in meadows adjacent to a local park.

Unlucky for Feldman, but also for his discoverer, Margaret Downing, a woman so attuned to potential catastrophe that she often sets off to buy milk with the words, "Well, wish me luck." Margaret, who provides the novel with its primary point of view, is contending not only with her natural melancholy but with her husband Bill's sudden detachment from their marriage. A canine corpse is not really what she needs.

Dog deaths continue, grotesque, menacing and unexplained. Is the pooch-poisoner simply a mistaken do-gooder, trying to free the community from troublesome coyotes but catching beloved pets in the crossfire?

Is he or she enraged by proposals for a new dog park, which contentiously seeks to formalise dog-walking practices that have existed without causing commotion for years?

Or is there a more sinister threat afoot to Littlefield's dog-owners and their companions – to Emily (Boris the old English sheepdog), Naomi (Skittles the labradoodle), Sharon (Lucky the basset hound) et al?

The scene is set for a cross between a comedy of manners and a whodunnit, and there are elements of both in Berne's tale of suburban shenanigans; as the author of the Orange prize-winning A Crime In The Neighbourhood, she has a track record for this kind of nuanced, darkened but thoroughly enjoyable small-canvas writing.

There are excellent set-pieces including a raucous town hall meeting ("Do dogs pay taxes?") and a horribly claustrophobic and disastrous Christmas dinner, complete with ersatz mashed potato and a ham decorated with pineapple rings and maraschino cherries, "as if it were covered in tiny archery targets".

There is gossip, much of it centring on Wechsler, who is a recently separated novelist: "Last week Naomi had spotted him in Starbucks with his arm around a blonde in biking shorts and a white Spandex top with no bra." There is even a seductive graduate student named Willa Clamage (it rhymes with damage).

Much is also made of Littlefield's egregiously welcoming attitude towards the outsider Dr Watkins, who is first described as "a small fat black woman in an orange turban" and later as looking like a fortune-teller who may even be a friend of the Obamas.

She is invited to a Celebrate Your Heritage Day and prevailed upon to bring some examples of her favourite "tribal cuisine". Meanwhile, Margaret dutifully instructs her teenage daughter to use the phrase "person of colour". "But who says that?" retorts Julia. "Who says: 'Hey, guess what, today I met a person of colour'?"

Dr Watkins herself is both fascinated and mildly repelled by Littlefield; she is also prone to writing summary sketches that, even allowing for academic jargon, seem harshly reductive of her objects of study. At the same time, despite knowing her profession, the town's residents continue unaware, and perhaps wilfully so, that she may be looking in their direction.

Would their lives ever seem worthy of examination to them? Or would they simply feel that they are human beings trying to get by in an increasingly unstable world, where even a magazine listing doesn't inure your blissful surroundings to divorce, disease, depression?

The dogs of Littlefield do, eventually, stop keeling over; the fraught apprehension and the appalling mystery lifts. Temporary inhabitants move on; people die; children grow up.

Meanwhile, Berne has created an intriguing portrait of the kind of loneliness that can only exist in a crowd, and given the lie to all those surveys that suggest a place or its community can be summed up by its house prices, crime statistics and performance indicators. – Guardian News & Media

Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China

Posted: 21 Dec 2013 08:00 AM PST

Historians might not agree with the conclusions of this book but its author has done a fine job of ensuring that they will now certainly discuss this lesser known historical figure.

HISTORY, it is well known, is written by the victors: the vanquished are rarely in a position to write anything at all. So it is always interesting when a historian goes back to hitherto unknown or untapped source material and puts together a picture which is completely at odds with the received view.

It appears that, up until now, the Empress Dowager Cixi has had pretty poor press. Words like tyrant, dictator, poisoner, traitor, self-interested, immoral and incompetent seem to crop up regularly in traditional accounts of her rise and exercise of power. Jung Chang's book changes all that. In her hands, Cixi becomes a skilled and far-sighted ruler who has been much maligned but who, in fact, guided a reluctant nation towards the modern world. It makes for an interesting argument.

Chang is, of course, best known for her international blockbuster, Wild Swans, published originally in 1991. It became one of the best non-fiction sellers of all time, some 10 million copies and counting, and was translated into 37 languages.

It told in unflinching terms the story of three generations of Chinese women: her grandmother, her mother and herself. For most of those who read it, the book was a gripping eye-opener: so this was what China was really like in those years when little reliable information leaked out. It read like the nightmare those years really were for ordinary people and it made Chang the voice of China in the West. Needless to say, it was banned in her mother country.

It is unlikely, I think, that Empress Dowager Cixi will enjoy the popular acclaim accorded to Chang's previous two books. While Wild Swans reads like a gripping novel, this is much more of a history book – a brief look at the sources and index at the back of the book confirm the amount of scholarly research that has gone into its writing. This becomes increasingly evident as the book progresses.

As Cixi begins to wield power, the demand on the reader to recall names, factions and political deals significantly increases. These were clearly complex and difficult times for China as a nation and as if that wasn't enough, there were the additional complications caused by court factions, not a few of whom initially had very considerable difficulties in accepting that a woman should exercise any power at all.

That she did so was due to her delivery of a first male child to the Xianfeng Emperor in 1856. That maternal act gave her status and influence, and after the Emperor's death her route to real power opened up, helped along the way by Cixi's skilled and effective, some might argue devious, manoeuvring. She was to remain a key player from that time on, albeit frequently from behind the scenes.

Chang presents Cixi as a far-sighted reformer. The China she "inherited" was militarily weak and falling rapidly behind the times. Its traditions and practices were locked in centuries old beliefs and traditions. Foreigners were almost xenophobically distrusted.

But China had no means of defending itself against incursions into its territories. The bullying tactics adopted by European powers in search of trading ports make for shocking reading. There was nothing noble about their territorial and trading demands – they were motivated by pure and simple greed.

Cixi recognised that China needed to be much stronger and to have much better relations with the outside world if it was to retain its political and geographical integrity and although she was not always successful, she did effect a distinct change in attitude and diplomatic practice.

Chang concludes that, "In terms of groundbreaking achievements, political sincerity and personal courage, Empress Dowager Cixi set a standard that has barely been matched. She brought in modernity to replace decrepitude, poverty, savagery and absolute power, and she introduced hitherto untasted humaneness, open-mindedness and freedom. And she had a conscience. Looking back over the many horrific decades after Cixi's demise one cannot help but admire this amazing stateswoman, flawed though she was."

Historians, of whom I am not one, will doubtless argue over this verdict and point to significant flaws in both judgement, such as her misguided support for the Boxer rebellion, and to her ruthlessness in, for instance, poisoning Emperor Guangxu to ensure that he should not succeed her. But, of course, the ongoing debate it stimulates is both the interest and the fun of revisionist history. And Jung Chang is a very fine proponent.

Kredit: www.thestar.com.my

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