The Phoenix Song: 'Real-life' book club discussion

by Guy Somerset / 28 November, 2012
'A compelling and vivid story - but I had troubles with the heroine.'
Spoiler alert ... spoiler alert ... spoiler alert

November’s participating club – The WBBC or World’s Best Book Club as they are modestly known -  was started in a restaurant in 2006-ish and has since met monthly in each other’s homes over dinner and drinks and good times. 

Books are chosen to reflect ever-rotating genres (from thrillers to cook books, classics to humour, vampires to biography, history to romance), and the WBBC prides itself with being au courant – and often reads books before they win awards or become best-sellers. Additionally, during New Zealand Book Month, the WBBC often invites authors to visit it. Guests have included Sarah-Kate Lynch, Sue Orr, Nalini Singh and Nicky Pellegrino. 

Currently, there are nine members in the club – with a long waiting list of hopefuls. Not surprising, given this is - after all - the WBBC.

As so much of the WBBC rotates around food, this description by member Katherine Percy is apt:  “The book club flavour for me is like anchovies with lamb, enhancing the complexity and depth of flavour and adding a sometimes subtle (and sometimes not) interest and saltiness.”

The members of the book club follow and I did have to abbreviate their selection of favourite reads. Most of the book clubs struggle to give a condensed list of favourites, but none more so than the WBBC.

As always, discussions took place via Facebook, with some still reading as the month went on.

And as always, all bets are off spoiler-wise.

The members discussing John Sinclair's The Phoenix Song are...

Richard Llewellyn, 44 (Where the Wild Things Are, by  Maurice Sendak; Into Thin Air, by Jon Krakauer; Modesty Blaise, by Peter O'Donnell).

Katherine Percy, 56 (favourite book club reads: This is Where I Leave You, by Jonathan Tropper; The Help, by Kathryn Stockett; The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer; The Ice Princess, by Camilla Lackberg).

Mary Minter, "age younger than you think" ( "I tend to buy authors like: Julie Garwood, Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Deborah Smith, Nora Roberts, Jayne Ann Krentz, Lisa Kleypas. From the WBBC, my favourite reads include: A Thread of Grace, by Mary Doria Russell; Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr Paul Farmer, by Tracy Kidder; To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee; and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot").

Steve Allen, 51 (Raising the Dead: A True Story of Death and Survival, by Philip Finch; Consider Phlebas, by Iain M Banks; Stormy Weather, by Carl Hiaasen; The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger).

Monty Wawatai, 51 (Shogun, by James Clavell; Snow White and the Seven Dwarves [1937 Disney version] originally written by Brothers Grimm; Dune, by Frank Herbert; The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Schaffer).

Donella Parker, 46 (The Bronze Horseman, by Paullina Simons; Collapse, by Jared Diamond; Catherine the Great, by Robert Massie).

Philip King, 47 (Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh; A Suitable Boy, by Vikram Seth; The Balkan Trilogy, by Olivia Manning).

Without further adieu, let the saltiness commence...

Mary: I liked it a lot. It's the kind of story that sent me to Wikipedia looking up info on Harbin etc. The author has painted a compelling and vivid story - but I had troubles with the heroine. And I wanted to know more about other characters, sadly ignored. 

Steve: I also enjoyed the historical aspects and the musical details but had trouble establishing any empathy with the characters.

Mary: I had no empathy for the heroine but I have been thinking about her a lot, though. For instance, there is seemingly little free will in Mao's China, yet she expressed a lot - choosing to spy, choosing when to make astute and sometimes dangerous comments, when to run. Yet I had no more understanding of her at the end, or consideration for her, than at the beginning. Does she symbolise a Westerner's view of the mysteries of China?

Steve:  I think the lack of empathy stems from the seemingly dispassionate way our heroine observes her life. I really liked the writing though - eg, "before applying the gentle acid of her intellect to erase it from her thoughts."

Katherine: On the surface, the plot has everything I love in a book: politics and culture along with plenty of opportunity to explore the characters’ motivations during a time when farmers on mass failed to plant the coming season’s food crops. The general willingness to comply is most strongly evoked for me in the interminable group criticism of Debussy. But it is one thing to imagine why young musicians would defer to teachers and more senior party members about whether musicians are good or bad, and another to imagine the motivations behind defecting with an acquaintance.

Richard: I'm still going, and to be honest am struggling a bit. But as a whimsical aside I was pleasantly surprised to learn when originally googling the book that there is a song called The Phoenix Song, by a band called Harry & The Potters.

Philip: I'm only half-way through and am enjoying the general setting and atmospherics but am struggling with the characters....I haven't bonded with any of them. I'm not sure if this is because they live in tough circumstances and have hardened themselves against what may happen or that they are our observers, our eyes, for the bigger things happening around them in a time of a radical social experiment.

Monty: Okay, first impressions: I would have to say I struggled to settle into the rhythm of this book. I find that when reading a book I attempt to see it as a movie so that I can flesh out the characters and the plot. To be frank, I found the book discordant and lacking at least historical flow until the 80th page. The characters, especially the heroine Magou, were particularly flat with little emotional power. Magou’s recollection and delivery of her experiences was reminiscent of a Bob Howitt co-authored NZ rugby biography: a series of events with the occasional personal observation. I'm not sure if it was the author’s intention; but when thinking of the movie analogy the book seemed to be perfectly "Kiwi movie" in character: an underlying dark thread of menace throughout, and actually little to celebrate.

Katherine: Does anyone with knowledge of music know if there is a back story to the music that is out of favour? After Kasimir and Piroshka’s negative reaction to Wagner’s music, presumably for his anti-Semitism, I wondered about the significance of the other musicians that fell in and out of favour?

Monty: Shostakovich vs Prokofiev were the two contesting composers at the time of the Russian revolution. Shostakovich probably got the lion’s share of favour, and quite understandably so because his symphonies were, in my opinion (for what it's worth musically), overly jingoistic and prone to bold and flash statements, in between discordant stanzas of unfathomable rhythms and melodies. It just struck me that it would be perfect as a background score for some of the All Blacks rugby performances. Magou was a symbol (instrument if you will) of the only inalienable fact: that there is truth in the beauty of music; that it transcends the laws of logic, maths, science and political rhetoric/ideology. And yet... there seems to be no end to the people or organisations who will seek to corrupt and twist its beauty to suit their own purposes. The sad aspect of this book is we were never allowed to feel the depth of the connection between the music and the underlying character of our heroine. Or that of Kasimir and Piroshka.

Katherine: The gaping hole for me in this book is the failure to explore the feelings and motivations of the main characters. The author recounts events but gives too little insight into the feelings that would explain the relationships. What did Magou feel about Kasimir and Piroshka, Ling Ling, Tian Mei Yun and Leon? How does she decide whom to trust? What about the possible consequences of her defection for her mother? The balance in the novel is tilted heavily in favour of plot development, rather than character development. The control imposed on the people is communicated through the events rather than the thoughts and feelings of the people. This works better in non-fiction than in a novel. The book seemed to move faster in the second half and maybe that is due to a reduction in detail.

Monty: I learnt more about the father throughout the book than I did the heroine. Here was a man who was very reminiscent of Oliver Cromwell: killing the bourgeois and expounding the virtues and quotes of the most recent edition of Communist manifesto; whilst secretly hoarding classical (and often banned) European music and Chinese philosophy.

Mary: I too felt I knew the father better than Magou. In terms of writing style, a couple of comments: I felt the first half also got bogged down -- not so much in detail but in terms of writing style. Too many similes and metaphors (Bill Manhire's style? Or trying too hard to lose the terse lack of adjectival style needed for policy writing?). And yes, the author mentioned it took 10 years to write so I suspect he just wanted to complete it! Katherine, that was an interesting note about non-fiction versus fiction.

Monty: Perhaps that’s why I felt it reminiscent of a Howitt co-authored rugby player's biography: a chronicle of events, where the manner of how a try is scored or punch thrown in the debating chamber that is the front row of a scrum is somehow meant to be a metaphor for life, etc?

Here, I interjected and asked a series of questions to the book clubbers: Do you think the father was most empathetic because the narrator's attention, her focus, was on him? What does Sinclair do well in this novel? And what do you have to say about the title and its relationship to the novel?

Monty: I wouldn’t claim to know what Sinclair's intentions were with the father. But perhaps there was a better insight into how the father was thinking because the author is a man. In fact, one of the things Sinclair did well was clarify the roles of each of the men. The discussions the Russians had in the "privacy" of their apartments were borderline hysterical, and he was successful in exposing the absurdities of the Russian and Chinese communist ideology towards life, the universe, music and everything. It is amazing that at the same time the United States (the home of the evil capitalism, rampant consumerism and blonde violinists with impossibly white smiles) was in the grip of McCarthyism and essentially tearing apart the art, literature, music and movie world with their fear of Communist influence. Both of the superpowers were heavily under the influence of ideological idiots, both afraid of each other's social policies and evidently rampantly homophobic.

Mary: Wow, Monty - big thoughts! Loved your comment about the Russians' conversations, and also about the author being able to depict male characters with more ease and clarity than females. I did wonder if the author was a bit in awe of trying to develop a female Chinese character (ie, female and Chinese) and the task was more daunting than simply tackling one unknown.

Monty:  It’s a tough ask to keep my attention in any book that has made me work for it for the first 80 pages. It did redeem itself in that there was a more conventional proceeding of events through to the end. Question: did anyone get the impression the attention to the detail of events dropped off as the book progressed? I was wondering if there was pressure to get it finished.  Rating: it was Okay. Would I recommend it? Yes to other Kiwis in a staunch "support Kiwi writers" mentality. I would probably take it out of a library in the first instance rather than buy it.

Mary: What does Sinclair do well? He really weaves an intricate picture of the complexity of life in China - in Hunan specifically - in the early days of Mao. His picture of Shanghai was not as telling, although the life at the academy was clear and engaging. His use of music to tell his story was inventive and lyrical (ha!), but as I did not know enough about the music he refers to a lot was lost on me and often became filler. In fact, I began to think he was lecturing me a bit in this area. The title of the book was nice, especially as it is explained both in the notes and in the book. For me, the other mythical reference (the Aztec phoenix) also came into play, tying Western and Eastern mythology together.

Monty: There were phoenix notes in the book? My book didn’t have them!

Richard: I've been working a lot with a large Chinese company over the last few years, and while reading The Phoenix Song tried to marry my understanding and experience of the concept of Guanxi, and the Chinese way of building business via strong personal relationships, with the way the characters in the book related to each other. To be honest, I struggled to make the connection and I wonder if that is because I am an "outsider" looking in on these fictional characters unable to appreciate the nuances, or if it is a deliberate approach of distancing each from the other, and subtly demonstrating that Western assumptions about Eastern life are misplaced.

Mary: Ah so, grasshopper. A conundrum within a puzzle...

Katherine: What Sinclair did well for me was bring the Russian teachers to life through their dialogue. I couldn't relate much to the father - maths is no more engaging when it is related to music.

Donella: My very first impression was "What can a white Kiwi guy write about China?" Reading the blurb and then reading the author's background seemed to me like a juxtaposition that could never marry. But I thought the story of the time was amazingly well told. This author gave me a great sense of empathy. It is a time of giving to the greater good, which millions of people believed they were doing. The phoenix for me grounded the story in a way that wasn't necessary but that gave a whimsical element to an otherwise grim part of Chinese history. I know and have talked to many Chinese immigrants and their tone is not dissimilar to this book in its extolling of Mao. For us, it seems extraordinary but for them (and they greatly outnumber us so who is right here?) he was and is still a saviour of China.

And on that note the phoenix exits the book club. Whether it is rising or just walking out the door is hard to say.

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