Monday, November 10, 2003

Wow. I wasn't all that far into The Good Women of China: Hidden Voices when I started thinking that: "Wow." The author of the book, Xinran, hosted a Chinese radio program, "Words on the Night Wind," for several years, focusing on what it was like to be a woman in China. Life is likely difficult enough for any journalist in China, with the extreme care necessary not to cross Chinese Communist Party doctrime; Xinran says it is one of the professions with the lowest life expectancy in China up there with police officer and chemical engineer. But despite being hemmed around by rules, she was able to collect amazing stories of women in situations no one else wanted to talk about. Women watching their children die in buildings collapsed in an earthquake. Women who scavenge junk and live in shanties constructed of these found materials. Lesbians in a country where homosexuality is "a forbidden subject under media regulations." Women driven to madness by interrogations and mistreatment based on who their parents or grandparents were, and women who survived similar mistreatment with no external change. Parents separated from children and lovers from one another because of Communist Party decrees. University students and fashionable businesswomen who live near-Westernized lives but still deal with men who apply old-fashioned standards in sizing up a woman. Arranged marriages, child sexual abuse, religion, poverty -- it's astounding how many issues are touched on in fifteen chapters, each telling one woman's story except for the final one which focuses on women's conditions in the tiny rural village of Shouting Hill, where people live in caves in the side of the hill and women use (and re-use) leaves for sanitary napkins.

Xinran moved to England in 1997 with "the idea that I might find a way of describing the lives of Chinese women to people in the West." She and translator Esther Tyldesley have done an impressive job of that, showing both the samenesses and differences, and I think as many people as possible should hear these stories.

Wednesday, November 05, 2003

I was a little concerned about whether my stomach could take reading Mary Roach's Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers. In fact, I probably wouldn't have checked it out on my own, despite my general love of detailed histories of things you don't normally think about. It was my boyfriend who borrowed it from the library (once the waiting list got down to him) and read aloud a few amusing bits (particularly the footnotes -- we both love authors who go off on tangents in footnotes). So once he'd finished the whole book, I picked it up, and found that it was a fascinating, fairly easy read, with only a few slightly stomach-turning passages. (Though I did abandon it temporarily when it was time to have lunch, preferring The Life and Death of Peter Sellers by Roger Lewis as companionship for my meal.) As a devoted reader of social histories of locations and medical fields, much of the historical material in Stiff was somewhat familiar; it was the current information on the many research and teaching, as well as life-saving, uses for donated bodies and the increasing number of modern ways to return the elements of a body to the environment that were new to me -- and quite interesting. I never much liked the idea of burial anyway. And the book does contain very funny remarks that somehow never seem disrespectful to the dead whose bodies are being made use of by the living. You might want to take breaks between chapters to avoid becoming a little overwhelmed, but it is definitely a book worth reading.