Book Review: The Good Earth

Book Review: The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck

book-cover_The-Good-EarthA fictional portrayal of the full life of a Chinese man from his start as a farmer to his death as a townsman still clinging to his farmland and its place in his heart, The Good Earth rarely wavers from the perspective of Wang Lung. Written in third-person point of view, the narration makes Wang Lung the central character from beginning to end. In so doing, the author delivers an unwashed, complex depiction of a human being who is very much a product of his time, his country, and his land while still being unique in his blend of naiveté, instinctual wisdom, hot temper, and abiding affections.

There is no happy ending, no comeuppance for moral wrongs done, no neat destruction or spectacular triumph. Just the steady, everyday hopes, aspirations, worries, resentments, choices, goodness, mistakes, successes, failures, moral decay, and general imperfections of a man making a living and raising a family in late 19th- and early 20th-century China.

The plot is less a plot than a complete time line of a life, but the story shares the journey through that life as lived by the main character Wang Lung. Although that journey may seem to lag in places, I interpreted those parts to be necessary components of the full picture of this character study, and the vast majority of the text never strays into tangents and never dwells on anything that is not relevant to the development of the character and his story. There is always something happening, something brewing, or something being reflected upon, but none if it feels indulgent on the author’s part. Nothing felt particularly extraneous; much of it felt very essential to a full portrayal.

The issue I take with the lagging parts is that the writing is not strong enough to support them properly. Overall, Buck is a great writer. The diction, rhythm and flow of the text keep the preponderance of pages turning. In part, the meandering quality of the prose effectively reflects the stream-of-consciousness thinking of our protagonist Wang Lung, which associates the book with other modernist literature. Written in the 1930s, The Good Earth, too, is recognizably a product of its literary moment. Still, despite these considerations, the applied technique does not escape tedium in its repetitiveness, which drags the novel down a bit.

Characters, even minor ones, never felt over-simplified. Buck had a knack for revealing personality in the sparest of gestures and shortest of lines. Some readers may disagree with this appraisal in light of Wang Lung’s sexist viewpoint, but his attitude is a reasonable revelation of context-bound character—true to both history and fictional integrity—not any kind of misogyny in the author.

Even the best of men in Wang Lung’s midst held the same foolish and limiting judgments of girls, women, and their places in Chinese society. A very strong current of Chinese culture is the favoring of male over female offspring, which persisted well into the late 20th century, with echoes even today through, for instance, high numbers of unwanted Chinese girls adopted outside of China.

Foot binding, seen in Western cultures as a barbaric form of female bodily mutilation and crippling, was common practice in making women attractive to male Chinese sensibilities. As in too many other societies of centuries past, girls and women were seen and used primarily as socioeconomic commodities and objects of male control and pleasure. To follow some misguided moral instinct of shame-based concealment into the erasure of these cultural imprints on Chinese history would have been not only false rewriting of history but also dangerous hindrance to modern efforts toward equality. How can the past be improved upon if it is not fully represented?

Yes, this is a thread in the depicted culture that reveals Wang Lung’s and his fellow men’s flaws and failings, but even a main character need not be morally superior to be worth writing and reading. The fact that their fates do not reflect a karmic meting out of justice does not make their characters any less flawed, but such neat justice might have made their lives less fascinating. The flaws make them human, and the getting away with it makes life unfair, which is eminently realistic. If reader ennui is the necessary result, I say so be it.

Furthermore, this is the story of Wang Lung, not the story of O-lan, his first wife, which means that Wang Lung’s perspective is uppermost in telling his story. Readers are free to take on the fan-fiction project of telling the same or similar period of fictional existence from O-lan’s or Lotus’ or Cuckoo’s or one of the daughters-in-law’s perspectives.

The question of whether any of the characters was likable is irrelevant to the evaluation of the book as a whole. I never need to love a character absolutely to follow his or her journey with curiosity and absorption. The need for a moral hero to champion is, in my view, a sign of unreached intellectual and emotional maturity in a reader. Such a reader either has not read enough traditional heroic tales to have outgrown or assimilated their appeal, or the reader utterly resists all semblance of the sharp, rough edges of realism, or both. This reader seeks literature to enjoy in an escapist, fantasist quality only. The trouble is that classic literature, often categorized as such through a solid foundation of many readers of balanced wisdom, is rarely, if ever, fodder for escapism.

The more pertinent literary question for me is how does any character relate to his environment? How does he express himself as a product of his environment, how does he navigate that environment, and how if at all does he transcend his upbringing and environment? By environment I mean all those people, places, and things that make up a character’s immediate sphere of influence and being influenced. On the other hand, too, how does a character relate to himself, transcend himself, or not?

Wang Lung is no great hero, but he is no great villain either. Yet this does not make his story a bland one at all. I found moments of great sympathy for him and moments of gritting my teeth and shaking my head at him. Perhaps it is a form of Stockholm Syndrome, but when a reader spends this much time with a character, a rising affection is understandable, regardless of the character’s goodness score. I found myself rooting for Wang Lung even as I waited for his punishments for wrongdoing, for there are worse moral actors than he in Buck’s story, just as there are better ones.

Moreover, Buck’s drawing of Wang Lung is wonderfully consistent and unapologetic in its nuanced results for plot and character. Although not a completely static character, Wang Lung possesses a frank incorrigibility and pervading tenderness worth loving.

There is relativism, and there is “it is what it is” and “que sera sera,” but The Good Earth never descends into this pit of simplistic judgment. In the end, the reader is free to wonder at the great changes that have occurred in Wang Lung’s life, family, and society by the time he comes to his passing. Glimmers of the wider cultural changes, in the words and actions primarily of his sons, peek through the closed curtains of Wang Lung’s singular, personal focus. At the same time, the proliferation of his family and his accumulation of wealth greatly change the needs and aspirations of that family.

The earth has been good and it has been bad for their livelihoods, but Wang Lung’s connection to the land is what is dying most with him. Even to him, however, the ground lost some of its sacredness well before he decides to move to town. The cultural and economic tides are turning under his nose and far from his sight almost his entire life. Perhaps it is the gradual nature of this change that makes the letting go less bitter and its long embrace less sweet in the reader’s eyes.

Ultimately, like so many, Wang Lung is a creature of habit and tradition. He rides the plow of these principles until there are none left anymore to work such an implement. New conveyances for new habits and traditions plant new roots for these transplanted people. While the fates of his family do not appear to be all bad in the end, Wang Lung sees the ceasing of earth works, or at least earth ownership, as the great tragedy of his legacy. However, there are worse things a family can come to, and they were coming long before the land’s primacy was ending.

In The Good Earth, the land begins and remains a powerful symbol of a simpler time of simpler pleasures, but like all things, the purity of the land’s beauty and the centrality of its importance throughout the story are always both real and illusory.


Reader Rating for The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck
4.2 stars overall: 5 stars for consistent, unflinching characterization; 4 stars for vivid description and atmospheric setting; 3.5 stars for story and plot; 4 stars for prose; 4.5 stars for cultural, including literary, resonance


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Kurdish in Edinburgh

Vegetarians beware: Although the featured restaurant has plenty of veggie options, this review unapologetically delights in meat from assorted animals.

Hanam’s in Edinburgh, Scotland: A restaurant review

In a tourist town, most prominent restaurants can’t help but be pretty great. Our recent trip to Scotland is a testament to this trend. We were able to sample the high-quality wares of several Scottish, British, Italian, Chinese, and Middle Eastern establishments from Edinburgh and Glasgow through central Scotland, up the Great Glen, and into Inverness. We even managed to find the occasional suburban jewel.

Hanam’s is a Kurdish and Middle Eastern restaurant in Old Town Edinburgh, a short tumble down the hill from the castle. In keeping with the idea that Edinburgh and Glasgow may be more cosmopolitan than particularly Scottish in population, several of our servers at various ethnic restaurants were transplants from Greece or other countries in the European Union. Our server at Hanam’s was from Romania or Bulgaria, if I recall correctly.

After visiting Edinburgh Castle and the Real Mary King’s Close, among other Old Town attractions, we followed our fledgling fancy for Turkish and Middle Eastern victuals back up that steep hill. Incidentally, walking in Edinburgh is, largely, hill walking. My husband’s mouth watered just knowing there was a Turkish restaurant in town, so what was one more climb after a long day of sightseeing and fetching our rental car for excursions northward, which would start early the next morning?

During several business trips in years past he got to know Turkish culture and cuisine, nurturing what would become a deep, abiding affection for both. Unfortunately, the way things are going in Turkey, they’re unlikely to earn membership in the EU any time soon. The restrictive state of things there after the recent unrest and attempted coup saddens us, but I digress. It doesn’t stop us from celebrating the best of their gastronomy.

The husband has even gone gourmet at home with his own recipe for Turkish chickpea stew spiced with baharat, a special blend of spices the combination of which depends on where you’re from and what you like. Hubby uses black pepper, cumin, crushed mint, coriander, a dash of cinnamon, some cardamom, cayenne pepper, and sometimes AllSpice. Chickpeas, crushed tomatoes, tomato paste, onions, garlic, Yukon gold potatoes, and sometimes ground lamb round out the main ingredients.

He has made the stew on several occasions both special and mundane, sometimes with meat, sometimes without. Although I’m not a fan of the cumin or cayenne, generally I like it when he makes this meal, especially since I don’t have to do much of the work!

Thus, among the restaurants we planned to sample in Scotland, we heartily agreed: For our last night in Edinburgh, we would try that Kurdish-slash-Turkish place on the hill.

Soujuk is another one of Hubby’s favorites, which he describes with glee as “spicy, flavorful, cured goodness,” but it’s basically a Middle Eastern and Balkan beef sausage. So there would be Soujuk on the table that night, this time Lebanese style, “sauteed in tomato, green pepper, garlic and chilli, served with naan bread,” which made it very stew like.

His main course was Gosht Kebab, a spiced, minced lamb kebab he thoroughly enjoyed.

The cooking types at Hanam’s also make a mean leg of lamb, which was my main course. It’s called Qozy Lamb on the menu. This magical meat slides off the bone so easily, no edible morsels remain. Ah, tender, juicy little lamb. . . . Accompanying that wonderful meat was a spicier side dish. The menu describes it this way:

“Qozy Lamb – A generous portion of tender braised lamb on the bone, perched on top of rice, with bread and a portion of your choice of tapsi or bamya – simply delicious!” And it was.

leglamb_closeup_hanams

Qozy Lamb at Hanam’s, photo from their website

For my side dish, I went with the tapsi. It’s a type of Shilla, or shilah, sauce, a “Kurdish favourite of aubergines (eggplant for you non-French speakers), green peppers, onions & sliced potatoes layered with a spiced tomato sauce.” Very tasty–and vegetarian.

Bamya is a type of Shilla sauce made with “tender okra cooked slowly with chopped tomatoes & a hint of garlic.”

Other uniquely Kurdish items on the menu include their version of chicken biryani and the Mushakal Kebab Platter, “a real Kurdish feast to share with 4 skewers: chicken wings, minced lamb, lamb fillet and chicken breast kebabs.”

Hanam’s also offers culinary gems in the traditions of Saudi, Persian including Iranian-style kebabs, and other Middle Eastern staples such as fatoush, falafel, baba ghanoush, hummus, and shawarma wraps. Baklawa (baklava) was on the dessert menu, but we were too full and spent to sample any. I drank mango lassi with my dinner, a refreshing mango juice drink often served at Indian restaurants.

Hanam’s full dinner menu is an 8-page document clearly describing each item and how it’s served.

Despite its being a Monday night, we didn’t arrive especially early so we were a bit surprised more people weren’t partaking in the wonderfulness. Granted, it was late September, not exactly the height of the tourist season. But take note: This food really is good, people. If you haven’t tried it, make a point of doing so.

Besides housing great food, Hanam’s decor was rich with reds and golds and a few woven tapestry-type wall hangings, fresh yet crisp night air wafted in from a nearby window we could open or close as desired, and the service was friendly and professional.

A terrific dining experience I’m happy to recommend. 4.5 out of 5 stars.

So if you find yourself in Edinburgh and you’re visiting the castle, walk by Hanam’s and take a whiff of their delightful preparations. Chances are, the rest of your body will follow your nose inside, and your palate will thank you.

The sister restaurants of Hanam’s in Edinburgh are Laila’s and Pomegranate.

Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry, 3: Wordsworth’s Daffodils

While my last post focused on animals with two poems by American poet Elizabeth Bishop, this piece travels back in time and across the sea to England, just for a little flowering magic.

The father of Romantic poetry in English, William Wordsworth made poetry more accessible to the “common man” by purposely avoiding alienating vocabulary and using a less formal tone. Wordsworth published the poetry collection Lyrical Ballads with Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1798, influencing the verse of later Romantic poets such as John Keats, Lord Byron (George Gordon), and Percy Bysshe Shelley.

daffodil w light pool BW

The Daffodil Trail, Furnace Run Metro Park, Richfield, OH, 2004. Image by C. L. Tangenberg

One of Romanticism’s key characteristics is delight in nature. This poem emphasizes the impression of seeing thousands of flowers at once. If you have never been through a daffodil field, it’s quite something. We have a daffodil trail at a park on the border between the Summit County Metro Parks and the Cuyahoga Valley National Park here in northeast Ohio. It’s a chance to see a brief explosion of blooms each April. I imagine tulip fields in Holland and elsewhere are similarly breathtaking in person.

In time for summer wild flowers as we look back to spring, this poem also offers a “twinkling” reminder (see stanza 2) to check out the Perseid meteor shower in the Northern Hemisphere, which peaks on the early mornings of August 11, 12, and 13 this year.

Reminisce on former, take in current, and welcome future fields, or single stems, of flowers and stars. Star gazers might also enjoy Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s short poem “The Evening Star.”


“I Wandered Lonely As a Cloud,” a.k.a. “The Daffodils”

William Wordsworth, 17701850

I wandered lonely as a cloud
  That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
  A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
  And twinkle on the Milky Way,
They stretched in never-ending line
  Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced, but they
  Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A Poet could not but be gay,
  In such a jocund company:
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
  In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
  Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

                 - published in 1807

I felt comfortable sharing the entire poem because Wordsworth’s poetry is in the public domain.

If you haven’t already, see samples of Elizabeth Bishop’s excellent nature poetry featured previously as the second posted subject in the series.

Wild Verses: Bits of Nature Poetry, 7 of 10

A second excerpt from the first poem of this series, the free verse piece “If I Had Known,” this stanza starts the poem. See the first sample here.

that the sea floor can be
a negative of the night sky,
each dark sea star sprinkled 
among friends in irregular constellations
on the white sand carpet, blurring black, 
fusing as one, when shadowy alien rays 
flap and glide overhead;

copyright C. L. Tangenberg


  1. Wild Verses: Bits of Nature Poetry, 1 of 10 ice and coral
  2. Wild Verses: Bits of Nature Poetry, 2 of 10 – the lizard
  3. Wild Verses: Bits of Nature Poetry, 3 of 10 – competition
  4. Wild Verses: Bits of Nature Poetry, 4 of 10 – lightning
  5. Wild Verses: Bits of Nature Poetry, 5 of 10 – danger
  6. Wild Verses: Bits of Nature Poetry, 6 of 10 – in the soil
  7. Wild Verses: Bits of Nature Poetry, 7 of 10 – under sea
  8. Wild Verses: Bits of Nature Poetry, 8 of 10 – feeble competition
  9. Wild Verses: Bits of Nature Poetry, 9 of 10 – the hawk
  10. Wild Verses: Bits of Nature Poetry, 10 of 10 – the turtle