Books Are Pretty

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Mao Tse Tung V. Jill Soloway: Soloway Beaten Down.

I bought Jill Soloway's book last month, Tiny Ladies in Shiny Pants, and would have started reading it earlier, but I was stuck in Communist China reading Jung Chang's Mao, and like many of the Chinese under his rule, I seemed to be unable to escape until he was dead. And when I say stuck, I mean stuck. I read this book for months. I read this book for so long that when I finally finished it, I felt like I hadn't. I felt like I was still swimming in this Red Communist haze of paranoia, making me unable to commit to reading anything else without guilt. My friend Elle told me that while reading Grisham's The Firm she started to become paranoid because the main character was so constantly freaked out about being bugged and trailed. This finally ended with her sitting with the book in a Starbucks, completely convinced that Someone Was Watching Her. I can totally relate. I spent so much time with the Chairman that my three-year-old son knows more about Mao than any other three-year-old currently living in the Midwest. My six year old can also spot Mao out of a line up, and tell you that Mao was a bad man who starved millions of his own people to death to further his own modest political goal of becoming the ruler of the world. This was mostly thanks to me reading excerpts to them while they were busily pushing their toy boats around in the bathtub. This sometimes led to good discussions.

"So you see, boys, Mao made it impossible for people to see doctors, yet was obsessed with his own health. Even so, he suffered from constipation his entire life."

"What's constipation?" asked the older one.

"When you can't go poo-poo."

"He should put poo-poo in his mouth. That's how you get diarrhea."

Think for just a second about how different the world would have been had my children been the Chairman's advisors.

But that's not really the point. I wanted to cheat on Mao with you, I did. Sometimes I would go up to Shiny Ladies where it was sitting on my bookshelf and think about picking it up, but I just couldn't do it. I don't know why. I'm a total roundheel when it comes to a new rock hard binding. If the book I'm currently reading begins to flag as far as providing me with constant stimulation, I'm off with another one. What should have happened was you and I sneaking up to the bedroom, leaving Mao to sit on the back of the sofa, where it would continually clock my husband in the head everytime he sat down. (After this happened the fourth time, I heard him cursing the book, muttering, "Damn you, Mao. Still hurting people, even from the grave.")

But I couldn't, and I'll tell you why: I felt like I owed it to Chang to see her book through to the end. She was raised under Mao's rule, finally leaving for London in 1978, two years after Mao's death. She lived as a peasant, was a member of the brutal teenaged Red Guard, a steel worker, and an electrician before going to school and majoring in English literature. She survived the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, and my God, does this woman hate Mao. She hates him so much that the book is not a biography so much as an indictment of his crimes, which are detailed in minutia. And she doesn't want to hear any garbage about writing without proof, either. Her purpose in writing was to nail his ass to the wall so thoroughly that the world is forced to acknowledge him as its biggest mass murderer, so each one of his crimes is documented with at least two different sources. She and her husband and co-author Jon Halliday spent 11 years interviewing hundreds of individuals all over the world, from Henry Kissinger to Mao's daughter Li Na to the woman that washed his dirty underpants. Her husband, fluent in Russian, pored over thousands of official documents in Moscow concerning Mao's meetings with Stalin, Khrushchev and Brezhnev. They even took a trip to Pyongyang and irritated officials there. It's interesting to read a biography written by someone who despises her subject and wants to destroy him so utterly that she drowns the reader in proof. This had the effect of making Mao simultaneously boring and horrifying, because military minutia and political machinations aside, the man was as total a sociopath as you could ever meet, and let's face it, Jill, you don't look like a sociopath.
This is not the face of a person who didn't brush her teeth for 27 years, like Mao. This is not the face of someone who would deny her lifelong assistant treatment for his bladder cancer, letting him piss blood for two years. This is not the face of someone who would ban flowers and have all the gardeners in the country killed. This is not the face of someone who would hunt me down and kill me if I didn't put down the book I was reading and read her book right now. I know you work in television, Jill, but you're just not that ruthless. I do not fear you, Solloway. I'm finishing Mao. He's spooky.

But finally that freak got Lou Gehrig's disease and died. No longer would I have to hear my three-year-old say, "Are you still reading Mao?" Now I could pick up Tiny Ladies and I have to tell you, it was like I'd spent a year in a 400 level Women's Studies class reading MacKinnon and Butler, then, at the graduation party I got to hang out with the cool TA and discuss the fact that Jessica Simpson never drove the General Lee when we all know that Catherine Bach sometimes did, and isn't it bullshit that they cast a blonde anyway?

It can't be easy to be a thirty-something feminist in L.A., surrounded by women too thin to menstruate (just like in Mao's China - hot damn, I knew there was a connection somewhere!) and who think being on Girls Gone Wild is empowering. But you've managed to use all that silicone as a floating device, writing for Six Feet Under and giving us Claire, the only tv character in recent memory to have an abortion and feel relief, and Ruth, a character over 50 who had a hotter sex life than her 20 year old daughter. And you wrote a great book, one that blends feminism with memoirs of groupie aspirations with writing tips for industry hopefuls. Not to mention trying to single-handedly reclaim the word "Jewess" for yourself. It's not a word I enjoy, myself. It's a bit too antiquated for my taste; outdated, sticky, and bitter, like a drop of absinthe on the tongue.

I really had a great time reading Shiny Ladies (a day and a half read, with minimal child neglect.) But you're right, you're probably going to get your ass kicked for what you said about dogs.

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