Tag Archives: re-post

Where a woman is both beautiful and wise.

I am re-posting this book review because even I who wrote it am fascinated all over again when I consider the character and the story. I’m sure many of my readers have not read all the book reports I’ve made, and some of you who read this review the first time might not have been interested back then. I might need a reread of Peony myself.

I am so blessed to have met the appealing character of Peony in Pearl S. Buck’s novel about Jews in China. It seems that as early as the 8th century Jewish traders settled in China and their tribe increased through the centuries. Buck thoroughly researched their history and includes many authentic details in this story that tells about their community in the city of K’aifeng in the northern province of Honan. She gives a short intro and timeline of the Jewish presence in China in a preface, and my Kindle edition includes an afterword by Wendy R. Abraham with a thorough history up to about 1990.

The events take place in the middle of the 19th century. At this time the last rabbi died and the Jews were in the final stages of being assimilated into the Chinese culture. One big reason can be summed up in this question that several of the characters ask themselves: “…here [in China], where all are friends to us and receive us eagerly into their blood, what is the reward for remaining apart?”

The story is told from the point of view of the Chinese bondmaid Peony, who belongs to a Jewish household and for her own survival uses all her resources to promote this abandonment of her owners’ practice of their Jewish lifestyle. She and the Young Master of the household grew up as playmates and good friends, and now that they have come of age she works to turn his heart away from the faith that has been passed down from his parents. That may sound bad, but she is honestly playing her part in this drama in which each one tries to follow the most prudent path he can, while at the same time honoring his elders. From the distance of time or in a novel we can see a broad view, but when you are thrust into a role with no script, you can only do your best.

The substance of the Jewish faith portrayed in the novel is somewhat vague. Other than the goals of “remaining separate” and remembering their history, any tenets of faith mentioned were ideas the Chinese neighbors could and did easily agree with. An example of this is in a synagogue mentioned in the story, on whose stones are written “‘The Temple of Purity and Truth,’ and beneath the words are carved the history of the Jews and their Way, and it is there said, ‘The Way has no form or figure, but is made in the image of the Way of Heaven, which is above.'”

The name of the temple is factual, and if the confusing statement about The Way comes from Pearl Buck’s imagination, it is probably based on the truth of what it is like to try to live out a faith tradition that is more history than reality. This experience — or rather, lack of it — is certainly not foreign to many moderns.

I don’t know when I last read such a wonderful work of fiction. It was a page-turner because I could not at all imagine how the plot would flow. The setting in China was the primary strange aspect for me; I don’t think I’ve read any of Buck’s other works set in that country and I’ve been fairly incurious about Asia generally. But recent exposure to the writings of Lin Yutang has made the history and culture of China seem much more accessible and intriguing, and prepared me to enter into this tale.

Peony is a young Chinese girl whose depiction I fully trust, because Pearl S. Buck grew up in China as the daughter of Presbyterian missionaries and was immersed in that world. She returned as an adult and wrote many books about China and its people, including the most famous one, The Good Earth. Lin Yutang himself was a friend of hers and they seem to have encouraged each other in their writing.

Peony was sold by her mother to the family whom she serves; she has no one else but them in the world. So she sees that it is in her interest to be the very best servant she can be, and she truly loves not only the Young Master but his parents. About the Young Master she thinks, “His heart was centered in himself, and so must hers be centered in him.”

Her love for the family increases as the years go by, even as they come to depend on her in countless ways. That’s o.k., because she always tries to make things work out for their health and welfare. Her own happiness must be found in the context of disappointment, and in relationship with people who take her for granted.

When she is still fairly young she asks the older servant a philosophical question:

Was life sad or happy? She did not mean her life or any one life, but life itself— was it sad or happy? If she but had the answer to that first question, Peony thought, then she would have her guide. If life could and should be happy, if to be alive itself was good, then why should she not try for everything that could be hers? But if, when all was won, life itself was sad, then she must content herself with what she had.

“You cannot be happy until you understand that life is sad,” Wang Ma declared. “See me, Little Sister! What dreams I made and how I hoped before I knew that life is sad! After I understood this truth I made no more dreams. I hoped no more. Now I am often happy, because some good things come to me. Expecting nothing, I am glad for anything.”

Getting to know Peony and watching how she matures over the years was pure pleasure. She has good sense and character even as a teenager, and as she responds to the sometimes cataclysmic changes in the household her competence and wisdom grow, often through struggling to overcome her own desires and heartache. Through her we get an idea of how the Jewish religious practices might have appeared to the Chinese, and she also epitomizes many of the best qualities of the Chinese and their outlook on life that I was only recently reading about in Lin Yutang’s books.

For me the Jewish characters in the story were also unpredictable, though they are well-drawn and believable. They are people of their particular time and place, most of them already a unique blend of the Chinese and Hebrew. The patriarch of the family is of mixed-blood, having had the “consolation” of “a rosy, warm little Chinese mother.” This image is contrasted with his own wife who is almost single-handedly trying to preserve their religious tradition, and who causes a Jewish friend to muse, “For a woman to love God too much was not well, he now told himself. She must not love God more than man, for then she made herself man’s conscience, and he was the pursued.”

This theme of women and their power is another element of the story that fascinated me, being myself a woman with power. Of the only son David we read,

His mother, Leah, Peony, Kueilan, these four women who had somehow between them shaped his life were shaping him still. He longed to be free of them all, and yet he knew that no man is ever free of the women who have made him what he is. He sighed and tossed and wished for the day when he could return to the shops and the men there who had nothing to do with his heart and his soul.

In the end it is Peony who has the best and sweetest sort of influence. Her conversation with the father when she is giving him a foot-rub:

Peony knew his thoughts. Nevertheless, she asked, “Why do you sigh, Master?” “Because I do not know what is right,” Ezra replied. She laughed softly at this. “You are always talking of right and wrong,” she said. Now she was pressing the soles of his feet. They were hard and broad, but supple. She went on in her cheerful way. “Yet what is right except that which makes happiness and what is wrong except that which makes sorrow?” “You speak so because you are not confused between Heaven and earth,” he said. “I know I belong to earth,” she said simply.

I’ve tried not to spoil the story by telling too much. One review I read ahead of time said something about the ending being sad, but I didn’t find it so. We find Peony considering her life and that of the people she has served, and wondering if she had been wrong to have a part in closing the book on the Jewish tradition in her city. In keeping with her outlook on life and religion, she concludes that it’s all o.k.:

Long she pondered, and as often happened to her in her great age, the answer came to her. She had not done wrong, for nothing was lost. “Nothing is lost,” she repeated. “[The Jew] lives again and again, among our people,” she mused. “Where there is a bolder brow, a brighter eye, there is one like him; where a voice sings most clearly, there is one; where a line is drawn most cleverly to make a picture clear, a carving strong, there is one; where a statesman stands most honorable, a judge most just, there is one; where a scholar is most learned, there is one; where a woman is both beautiful and wise, there is one. Their blood is lively in whatever frame it flows, and when the frame is gone, its very dust enriches the still kindly soil.”

kaifeng-jews-450x532

I revisit my fellow pilgrim.

Kristin Nunnally wifeIt’s been ten years since I posted this review. Since then I have revisited the story itself, and it seemed good to publish again. It’s well worth sharing at least that often.

A big part of the plot is how Kristin’s husband, whom she chose in youthful rebellion, gets involved in an insurrection. That, and his recklessness on the moral level, combine to cause the loss of a heritage that had taken generations to build.

The first time I came to the end of Kristin Lavransdatter I resolved to read it again very soon. The friend of a friend reads the trilogy once a year, and certainly it could stand up to that degree of intimacy; Kristin’s world of Norway in the 14th Century is vast with well-developed characters, complicated politics, and a daily life where the pervasiveness of the church and Christian faith often shows cracks revealing the old pagan traditions as an under layer.

My own initial discovery, in the translation from Norwegian into English by Charles Archer, seemed to provide a mere introduction, partly because I was reading too fast, eager to see how the heroine’s life turned out. There were so many people involved, as I noticed midway, I started taking notes on how they were related to the protagonists, knowing that it would help me understand their significance. My plan was to take even more extensive notes from the outset on my next reading.

That was more than ten years ago, and by the time I got to my second reading this year I was willing to try the new translation by Tiina Nunnally, touted by pretty much everyone as a better one, in that it does not involve the unnecessary–and, to some people, stilted and cumbersome–older English words and syntax. I had rather appreciated the language, as a reminder that Kristin’s world was not much like my own, no matter how similar some of her womanly and just plain human concerns resembled those of people everywhere down through the ages.

This time, I was reading in bed, lying down before sleep, or at the gym on the treadmill, so my smart plan to take notes wasn’t feasible. I had to make my second tour through the novel as I’ve been admonished to travel through a foreign country, fully expecting and planning that it won’t be the last time I visit. They say that is the only way to make yourself relax enough to enjoy and retain what you do manage to see and encounter.

And I did see new and different things this time through. There are many books I truly want to read more than once, but not many novels have I actually gone back to again, so this kind of rereading was not a familiar exercise. As I came to remembered parts of the Kristin tale I was surprised to see that they didn’t take up as many pages as I thought they would need. Many sub-plots and attributes of Kristin’s family and friends were as good as new to me; evidently I missed them completely before.

As infused with a sacramental faith as the medieval world of these books is, I’m sure they influenced me on my path to Orthodoxy. Now that my own perceptions and beliefs are being forged into something more like the tradition that was Kristin’s foundation, I think I am better able to appreciate some parts of the story. The deathbed scenes were striking, for the way the Christian reverence for the body, and the repentant hearts of the Christians, were displayed. I’d like to write more on how they compare with descriptions of similar scenes in the Islamic culture of The Cairo Trilogy.

For a few pages near the end of this recent reading I found myself thinking that I was getting boreSigrid Undsetd with medieval Norway, or at least, that I didn’t want to spend time on a third reading when there are so many other books still to be known. That feeling didn’t last long, because by the time I came to the last pages I knew that I still have a lot to gain from acquaintance with the themes in this amazing epic by Sigrid Undset. It’s a glory to God that one human mind can create a complex and rich world like that of Kristin, peopled with characters whose drama reflects our own struggles to love God and repent of our besetting sins. Image Journal included the novel in its list of 100 best books of the 20th century that “manifest a genuine engagement with the Judeo-Christian heritage of faith.”

The Nunnally translation has extensive notes on the history and politics of that era in Norway, and some real historical characters come into play in the fictionalized account. Wikipedia’s entry on the novel lists many of the characters; I think I’ll print it out and use it for an outline on which to build my notes, those notes that I am still hoping to make on one of my revisits. I’m eager to return again and again to a place where my faith and thankfulness are encouraged as I make friends with fellow pilgrims.

The darkness has not overcome it.

And this is the verdict: The Light has come into the world, but men loved the darkness rather than the Light, because their deeds were evil. John 3:19

Today is the commemoration of the Beheading of John the Baptist, which we Orthodox Christians who use the Gregorian Calendar remember on August 29 every year.

John was the Forerunner of Christ, and his preaching of repentance prepared many hearts to receive Christ.  You might say that John intruded into (family) politics when he spoke up about the governor Herod’s unlawful relationship with his brother’s wife Herodias. It doesn’t appear that they had asked for his opinion, but Herodias was angry enough about it that she asked Herod, via her dancing daughter Salome, for John’s head on a platter, which was granted. In the Gospel of Mark is one passage that recounts these events.

The hymns lament that Herod and Herodias missed their opportunity to repent and gain eternal life, but rejoice that God was glorified by the prophet’s death as well as by his life, and speak of John continuing to preach repentance even to the souls in Hades.

Icon Reader tells in depth about the iconography of John the Baptist, who is often pictured with wings. These symbolize the fact that he was a prophet or messenger from God. He is also called an “angel of the desert,” because like angels he was not involved in normal mundane things. John is holding his own head on the platter; some Orthodox do not eat anything from a plate, or from anything round, on this day, and we all keep a fast in St. John’s honor.

I have a particular interest in the Glorious Forerunner’s beheading because the saint whose name I bear, Joanna, was married to Chuza, Herod’s steward, and used her connections to retrieve the head so that it could be given an honorable burial.

This is a repeat of most of my post from five years ago. This morning I attended Divine Liturgy for the feast and was more awed than ever by the life of Jesus’s cousin John who was imprisoned for speaking the truth. Then he was killed because, though Herod was “sorrowful” about this unexpected outcome, he was a coward and wanted what he wanted, no matter that he seemed to like talking with John about spiritual things. As we heard in today’s homily, the rulers of this world always operate on the terms of their power above all.

But The Forerunner went joyfully to his reward, as do all martyrs; what they want more than anything is to be with Christ. That’s why we celebrate their deaths, which are glorious as the Cross of Christ is glorious. On this feast day we also fast, because it is to us a sort of Holy Friday; and to help our prayers for strength to have courage ourselves, to live and die in the spirit of the martyrs, in bright contrast to whatever darkness is currently trying in vain to extinguish the inextinguishable Kingdom of God.

In Him was life, and that life was the light of men.
The Light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness has not overcome it.
John 1:4-5

More or less in Poetry Month.

It’s National Poetry Month, and also Lent, which is a helpful confluence. “Less TV and more poetry” sounds to me like going in the right direction. But I don’t watch TV… What about my own tendencies to less housework, less attentiveness, less prayer…? Clearly, these things must be worked out on an individual basis, and may God give you wisdom. We are early in the month and I don’t think I’ve overindulged in poetry yet. I want to take advantage of the reminder and post a couple of poems before the month is over.

My thoughts about children’s books and Lent converge on this excerpt from Richard Wilbur’s More Opposites, which I think one of The Most Fun collections of poems and drawings. I don’t even require another person to read Wilbur’s humorous poems to — they often make me chuckle contentedly or muse to myself. I see that I already posted this particular one, but it was years ago, and I for one can benefit from a rereading.

The illustrations of this question in the book include a simple drawing of people with distressed faces holding their tummies. I think the cartoon at bottom makes a similar companion to the poem. It’s

#15 in the More Opposites book:

The opposite of less is more.
What’s better? Which one are you for?
My question may seem simple, but
The catch is — more or less of what?

“Let’s have more of everything!” you cry.
Well, after we have had more pie,
More pickles, and more layer cake,
I think we’ll want less stomach-ache.

The best thing’s to avoid excess.
Try to be temperate, more or less.

-Richard Wilbur

There is a Mennonite cookbook titled More With Less, from which I gleaned many good cooking ideas in the early days of my homemaking career. But more valuable than the actual recipes was the refreshing concept that one might have more health and more enjoyment of eating and probably more money to spend on other things if you ate less.

Of course this is something we need to keep in mind all the time, not just during Lent. The church fathers caution us not to eat so much food that we aren’t able to pray after eating it; an overfull stomach hinders prayer. If it’s possible that Less Food = More Prayer….

Let’s just pause and think on that.

(re-post from 2013)