Red Sorghum Book Review - Lunchtime Lit With Mel Carriere

Updated on September 7, 2019
Mel Carriere profile image

Reviewer Mel Carriere finds ¨other concerns¨ to be a satisfying part of a literary lunch, yummy sorghum molasses to spread on his sandwich.

Mo Yan´s Red Sorghum, as seen in Mel Carriere´s bright orange Homer toolbox, along with the needle nose pliers, cortisone, ibuprofen and tootsie pops he needs to ease the sisyphean load of his postal penance.
Mo Yan´s Red Sorghum, as seen in Mel Carriere´s bright orange Homer toolbox, along with the needle nose pliers, cortisone, ibuprofen and tootsie pops he needs to ease the sisyphean load of his postal penance. | Source

Liking Books For All The ¨Other Concerns¨

Books speak to people in a multitude of different ways, but don't try telling your stuffy English professor that. He expects you to use the same recycled themes he's been grading for the past 1000 papers, all of them comfortably like yours. You hate writing book reports and he hates being an English teacher. This is your common ground to start from, so keep it short and don't try thinking outside the box. It will only give him a headache.

I usually discourage people from using Lunchtime Lit as a source for such English Literature assignments, because obviously they want a passing grade. My reviews are never as good as Cliff's Notes, or Red Sorghum for Dummies, or any number of cookie-cutter book review sites, because I won't tell you the plot or what the hidden meaning is. The hidden meaning is in your own heart, that's the only clue I'll give.

However, in this particular edition of Lunchtime Lit I feel compelled to give you some assistance, because if you do choose to copy my review onto your paper you'll be attending community college next year, instead of Stanford, like you thought. Therefore, if your literary paper is on Red Sorghum, here are some "safe" themes to write about, instead of the ones I will explore, which are not themes at all, but just the twisted ravings of an unsettled mind. Here goes.

Grade-friendly Red Sorghum Themes: (From Grade Saver)

1. Family honor and shame

2. The balance of opposites

3. The tragic passing of time

Honestly, after reading Red Sorghum I wouldn't have picked any of these themes on a multiple choice test. So if you want to save your grade, don't rock the boat and quit reading this now, because I'm not going to discuss any of them. Instead I am going to delve into the more interesting parts of the book, the ones Grade Saver says emphasize "...too much mythological thinking and violence, among other concerns." It is particularly these forbidden other concerns that make Red Sorghum one helluva book.

The primary lesson to be taken away from Red Sorghum is the sorghum itself
The primary lesson to be taken away from Red Sorghum is the sorghum itself | Source

Lunchtime Lit Rules

Lunchtime Lit books are read only on Mel´s half hour postal lunch break, no exceptions. Even if he has an English Lit assignment due tomorrow, which is unlikely because he became too cool for school a long time ago, Mel keeps the book securely locked in his bright orange Homer toolbox, along with the needle nose pliers, cortisone, ibuprofen and tootsie pops he needs to ease the sisyphean load of his postal penance.

Lunchtime Lit Year To Date Recap * ** ***

Book
Pages
Word Count
Date Started
Date Finished
Lunchtimes Consunmed
The Martian
369
104,588
6/7/2017
6/29/2017
16
The Slynx
295
106,250
7/3/2017
7/25/2017
16
The Master and Margarita
394
140,350
7/26/2017
9/1/2017
20
Blood Meridian
334
116,322
9/11/2017
10/10/2017
21
Infinite Jest
1079
577,608
10/16/2017
4/3/2018
102
Wuthering Heights
340
107,945
4/4/2018
5/15/2018
21
Red Sorghum
347
136,990
5/16/2018
6/23/2018
22

*Thirteen other titles, with a total estimated word count of 3,182,320 and 429 lunchtimes consumed, have been reviewed under the guidelines of this series.

**Word counts are estimated by hand-counting a statistically significant 23 pages, then extrapolating this average page count across the entire book. When the book is available on a word count website, I rely on that total.

***If the dates are lagging, it is because I am still slogging along, trying to catch up after a prolonged sabbatical from reviewing. Six more books and I will be whole again.

When Sorghum Strikes

The themes listed above miss the obvious, which is that the primary lesson to take away from Red Sorghum is the sorghum itself. Author Mo Yan couldn't have made this more clear if he had written your book report for you. The sorghum feeds the people and the people feed the sorghum, their blood nourishing the soil when the invading Japanese soldiers ravage the landscape. It's a big circle of life thing - let's all hold hands and sing the theme to the Lion King. If the Chinese were Catholics you could draw all kinds of allusions and conclusions about the body and the blood, the bread and wine(sorghum wine being a centerpiece of the story), but they're mostly not so there's no point going there. Where we can go is the understanding that you don't have to be a Catholic or Chinese to understand that religion, fertility, agriculture and their symbology walk hand in hand, part of the great cross cultural, Joseph Campbell hero-myth motif.

Agricultural myths are not limited to China, and neither is sorghum. I have my own sorghum story that takes place a lot closer to home than Shandong Province, China, the setting of Red Sorghum, though I didn't know I was dealing with sorghum at the time. It only dawned on me about 15 years later, on my postal lunch break, while reading this novel.

Years ago, my family and I were driving across Kansas on Interstate 70, coming home from an east coast road trip. The weather forecast was bleak, tornadoes were a possibility, and we were all on edge because of that. The sky was a peculiar shade of gray that computer developers have never been able to assign the appropriate RGB code to, and the air was buzzing with a weird electricity that threw off my internal radar. I was driving due west, but my senses swore I was going east. It was almost like Kansas was trying to lure us back in, to our doom.

All around us, the unchanging flatness of the landscape was stained by an unorthodox shade of red that had hues of pink and orange stirred into its latex base. The color percolated from the bulky tassels of a crop I had never seen before, planted in unending rows that entombed the 1-70 pipeline.

In dire need of something to sweeten our gloomy journey, we paused at a roadside stop to partake of Dairy Queen. Being by nature too curious for my own safety, I asked the cashier what the crop was out there, growing without cessation to the ends of an Earth so flat it made you stop ridiculing Columbus's crew for thinking they would sail off the edge. The Kansas terrain was like a table you could roll off and splat like an egg. The soft-serve slinger replied sardonically that the plant was Milo, his attitude expressing surprise that anyone would be interested in it. He said Milo was mostly used as pig food.

When we got back in the van, my sons and I amused ourselves at Kansas´ expense, inventing a video game about a storm chaser inspired to get revenge against the elements when his loved ones get waxed by a tornado in a Milo field. We could just as well have invented a Children of the Corn 2.0, where a lost, wayward family ventures off the road in some creepy small town hidden among the Milo, where they are ultimately sacrificed to the fertility gods.

All great fun, these active imaginations of ours, but Kansas was not amused. After nightfall Kansas tried to kill us for our impertinence, just shy of the Colorado border. Torrents of water fell from the sky, turning the freeway into a river. Somehow I managed to canoe into Colorado, where the storm abruptly ceased, but I vowed never to go back to Kansas.

I've since changed my mind about Kansas. I want to go back again, but for reasons other than to look at the Milo, if that makes any sense. Anyway, fast forward to 2018, when while reading Red Sorghum it dawned on me that the Milo of Kansas and the sorghum of Shandong Province are pretty much the same thing, with different names. I did a little research, and found out that Shandong and Kansas are separated only by two degrees of latitude in the Northern Hemisphere, about 140 miles. Furthermore, I discovered that the odd brown goo my grandparents used to put on their biscuits in lieu of honey, the stuff they called molasses, is also sorghum. The point is that sorghum, both in its uses and its mythology, connects people in as far flung of places as Kansas and China.

The color percolated from the bulky tassels of a crop I had never seen before, called Milo, planted in unending rows that entombed the 1-70 pipeline.
The color percolated from the bulky tassels of a crop I had never seen before, called Milo, planted in unending rows that entombed the 1-70 pipeline. | Source

Man´s Best Friend?

Now that I've written your literature paper for you, when I swore I would not, it is time to explore one of those "other concerns" that the Eggheads at Grade Saver think devalue Red Sorghum, but which I think turns it into one of the most unique wartime novels of recent vintage.

Of course a good war novel is going to focus on the combat, the destruction, the uprooting of life, as well as the human misery caused by combat. Red Sorghum certainly does all these things, but then crosses over into another previously unexplored component of modern warfare, which is - what happens to people's pets after their owners are killed off? Mo Yan is not afraid to talk about this, and so delves into a topic that might be a bit unsettling to those disposed to think of their cuddly canine companions as furry people.

After a town is wiped out by the Japanese, hundreds of dogs in Shandong Province find themselves without human supervision. It shouldn't be particularly surprising, but is anyway, that these dogs revert back to a state of nature, going feral. With thousands of human corpses to feast on they find they don't need people, and seem to prefer it that way.

When the protagonist of the tale encounters his own sweet lost poochies among the vicious, prowling pack, the dogs demonstrate their undying devotion, their commitment to the concept of man's best friend, by trying to kill him. A dog among these former pets, now pack leader, actually bites one of his testicles off.

Since reading Red Sorghum, my views on the relationship between man and canine has altered considerably. In captivity dogs will certainly suck up to people for good pay and benefits, but how sincere are they? Red Sorghum implies that at heart, dogs are still dogs. When the balance of power shifts back to nature, dogs revert back to nature. In this condition people become a food source, or a competing predator that must be eliminated. So that fuzzy little furball in your handbag, the one you make annoying baby noises to? Don't kid yourself, he will eat you if given the right opportunity.

With thousands of human corpses to feast on, the village dogs of Red Sorghum find they don't need people, and seem to prefer it that way.
With thousands of human corpses to feast on, the village dogs of Red Sorghum find they don't need people, and seem to prefer it that way. | Source

Other Other Concerns

Now that I have ruined your day dispelling the myth that your dog actually loves you, here are a couple of other other concerns about Red Sorghum that merit discussion, by way of wrap up.

1. The movie sucks. I don't care if it has won all kinds of awards, it's a real stinker, a dog of a movie, but without the dogs. They left the part about the dogs out, as well as most of those charming "other concerns" that make the book fun and powerful. Another fun and powerful incident excluded from film is when a corpse is reanimated by a spirit while being prepared for death, an event made more convincing because it is the single inclusion of other worldly hocus pocus in the story.

2. The movie portrays Commander Yu as a sort of loveable but bungling drunk, but in the book he is a complete and total badass, a real leader of men and the scourge of the Japanese. The film also fails to mention that the Chinese could not really mount an effective resistance against the Japanese invaders because they were too busy fighting among themselves. It seems obvious the film version was heavily sanitized by Chinese censors. It goes so far as to portray the Sorghum wine distillery owner as the champion of the proletariat. Huh? Not the same story I read. So if you haven't read the book you might like the movie but if you have, skip it.

3. Author Mo Yan was called a "patsy" and a "prostitute," among other ugly pejoratives, for not calling for the release of Chinese political prisoners in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech. This begs the two questions of, first of all, can a writer just be a storyteller without getting involved in politics? If the answer to the first question is no, the second question is, who decides which political causes are "correct" to harangue about from the acceptance speech soapbox? Or maybe, just maybe, could this criticism be sore loser sentiment from Stockholm-stiffed authors, sucking sour grapes for not getting the Nobel nod themselves?

Too bad we can't forge all of our Nobel Prize winners from the same politically acceptable mold, and too bad all of our book reports aren't cut from the same pattern. Wouldn't the world be a wonderfully simplified place if we could eliminate ugly debate by thinking alike, and oh boy how we would put a smile on your overworked English prof's face, by turning in the same regurgitated sorghum hash your sister submitted last semester.

But, alas, those ugly little "other concerns" sometimes get in the way, forcing us out of our comfort zones to look at reality in a new way. The good thing is that I don´t think Mo Yan, the superb author of ¨other concerns,¨ is concerned about anybody else´s concerns. I think he set out here to spin a hell of a good tale from an unusual perspective, one that speaks to different readers for different reasons. If Mo Yan can't resolve all social injustices from his Nobel podium platform well, I for one am willing to give him a pass, in gratitude for the marvelous 22 days of lunchtime reading he gave me.

Mo Yan, at left, among the wintry sorghum fields of Shandong that look a lot like Kansas, dreaming up other ¨other concerns¨ for your amusement and edification.
Mo Yan, at left, among the wintry sorghum fields of Shandong that look a lot like Kansas, dreaming up other ¨other concerns¨ for your amusement and edification. | Source

Questions & Answers

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      • Mel Carriere profile imageAUTHOR

        Mel Carriere 

        7 weeks ago from San Diego California

        Thank you Lawrence. I remember those opening scenes in the cornfield in Interstellar, a very intriguing movie that makes you realize how small and insignificant we really are. I am glad you enjoyed the review and you are right, as all of these zombie apocalypse programs point out, we humans would also revert back to a state of nature.

        I really appreciate you dropping by.

      • lawrence01 profile image

        Lawrence Hebb 

        7 weeks ago from Hamilton, New Zealand

        Mel

        When I first started reading this, and your descriptions of Kansas it made me think of the Movie 'interstellar' and the opening scenes, then I got to the review I really enjoyed it.

        By the way, it shouldn't be a surprise that dogs revert back to nature, so would we.

      • Mel Carriere profile imageAUTHOR

        Mel Carriere 

        2 months ago from San Diego California

        Thank you Devika for your encouraging comment. I hope you are doing well.

      • DDE profile image

        Devika Primić 

        2 months ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

        Mel Carriere you are good at it and i enjoyed a book review of a unique writer.

      • Mel Carriere profile imageAUTHOR

        Mel Carriere 

        2 months ago from San Diego California

        Ha ha Mr. Mills, you flatter me. I really detested doing book reports in high school, primarily because my attention span was limited in those days (still is -half hour tops), and the overly verbose literature they assigned me regrettably required an attention span. Only the lessons of years have saved me, because now I can somewhat fathom what these authors are talking about and relate to it.

        Thanks for your uplifting comment.

      • profile image

        Pat Mills 

        2 months ago from East Chicago, Indiana

        Something tells me you didn't hate writing book reports. Here you are, still doing it, and doing quite well.

      • Mel Carriere profile imageAUTHOR

        Mel Carriere 

        2 months ago from San Diego California

        Thank you Pamela. You made me stop and ask myself - did I really write a book review? I guess I did, I called it that, but a review of a really good book is more like a life review, because it connects to things in our own lives. This book is one of those.

        I appreciate you dropping in.

      • Pamela99 profile image

        Pamela Oglesby 

        2 months ago from Sunny Florida

        I think this may be one of your most interesting book review. This book has so many interesting dynamics and I would like to read it.

        I have almost always been disappointed in a movie after I read the book, but the movie for this book sounds especially awful. If they don't portray the main characters well it is always disappointing. Thanks for a good book review.

      • Mel Carriere profile imageAUTHOR

        Mel Carriere 

        2 months ago from San Diego California

        I may have approached this subject light-heartedly Linda, but Red Sorghum deals with some pretty dark topics. The thing is - and maybe it's just the translation, but Mo Yan seems to treat the subject of war and death in a whimsical way, like they're all part of the order of things. Anyhow I think you will like this one, though it does get mixed reviews. Thanks for dropping in!

      • AliciaC profile image

        Linda Crampton 

        2 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

        This is a very interesting book review, Mel. You've introduced me to a book that I very much want to read and an author that I'd like to investigate further. Thank you.

      • Mel Carriere profile imageAUTHOR

        Mel Carriere 

        2 months ago from San Diego California

        There should be a law in Kansas for going less than 110, Eric, as a matter of public safety. Maybe you could find a homeless encampment, I have heard mites abound there, and you might get a good price for a mite in that locale.

      • Ericdierker profile image

        Eric Dierker 

        2 months ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

        Now what in the heck were they thinking jailing us for going 110 in our 1971 GTO in the flatlands just this side of Kansas city. I mean, if they force you to go through there they should let you do it in a hurry.

        And on your later note -- where do you buy mites for birds?

      • Mel Carriere profile imageAUTHOR

        Mel Carriere 

        2 months ago from San Diego California

        Thank you Road Monkey. Yes for me, Kansas was kind of a creepy place. I was expecting endless rows of corn, but we got sorghum instead, with its eerie reddish glow. I feel gypped.

        Anyhow, I would indeed like to go back to Kansas, to see that marvelous painting ´Tragic Prelude´ of the John Brown incident, there in the capitol dome. Fortunately, Topeka is not far from the eastern border, so I can slide back safely into Missouri when I´m done gawking.

        Thanks for dropping in!

      • Mel Carriere profile imageAUTHOR

        Mel Carriere 

        2 months ago from San Diego California

        Dreamer Meg, it has been decades since I read Lord of the Flies, but I suppose your analogy is an apt one, since the little kids in that story revert to a horrific state of nature as well. Goes to show that the beast in everybody and everything comes out in certain situations. Thanks for dropping by!

      • Mel Carriere profile imageAUTHOR

        Mel Carriere 

        2 months ago from San Diego California

        Eric, unless you have handfuls of live spiders and mites just hanging around, I doubt the little ¨Bullshits,¨ as you say, would be interested in any fare you might leave them in a feeder.

        Red Sorghum is really not boring at all. People getting flayed alive and the like tends to get the pulse moving. And Commander Wu is one bad mother shut your mouth. Thanks again.

      • RoadMonkey profile image

        RoadMonkey 

        2 months ago

        Your description of driving through Kansas waiting for a possible tornado was awesome. It made me think of Dorothy's exclamation that she didn't think she was in Kansas anymore. I bet the fim makers would love to be able to create an atmosphere like you just described.

      • Mel Carriere profile imageAUTHOR

        Mel Carriere 

        2 months ago from San Diego California

        Besarien, the Chinese are indeed a resilient people, all one billion and counting of them. This book definitely gives you a feel for the place, and makes you want to go there.

        Please don´t think I dislike dogs, I love the little furry buggers, I can´t help myself, even though I don´t think their intentions are exactly pure. But whose are, for that matter? Would we have loved our parents if they had failed to feed us or abused us as children? I think what I am really trying to say is that love is rarely completely unconditional, for any species. Thanks for dropping by!

      • Mel Carriere profile imageAUTHOR

        Mel Carriere 

        2 months ago from San Diego California

        I´m glad you made it out of Kansas alive, Bill, after that state tried to nab you twice, no less! I´m not at all surprised that a Pacific Northwest guy like you, where they have all those lovely trees and mountains, is not impressed with a flat, treeless place like Kansas. At a later date I will be reviewing a book called ´Cloudsplitter´ that has inspired me to want to go back. Thanks for dropping in!

      • DreamerMeg profile image

        DreamerMeg 

        2 months ago from Northern Ireland

        I always enjoy your lunchtime reads. With the dogs reverting to wild, it sounds like a canine version of Lord of the Flies.

      • Ericdierker profile image

        Eric Dierker 

        2 months ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

        Write on brother they are clearly Bullshits. Fantastic to lean more about them. What can I leave them to eat.

        Back your article. I love your reviews. And this one seems so boring I respect you for reading and sharing it.

      • Besarien profile image

        Besarien 

        2 months ago from South Florida

        Novels set in China always make me cry at inappropriate times, even months later. I don't know why I love them but I do. I think it has something to do with the ability of the spirit to overcome great suffering, or at least enough to read about it. I haven't read Red Sorghum but it is now on my list thanks to you. I'll let you know what I think. BTW I don't blame you for being wary of dogs. I'm pretty sure I start looking tasty to mine whenever she doesn't get fed twice a day at six o'clock exactly. I'd hate to see what she could do to anything softer than a shoe.

      • billybuc profile image

        Bill Holland 

        2 months ago from Olympia, WA

        Good humor sprinkled in with interesting historical information....and for the record, I have driven through Kansas twice, and I shall never return. :)

      • Mel Carriere profile imageAUTHOR

        Mel Carriere 

        2 months ago from San Diego California

        Eric, coming from a poet-philosopher-king like yourself, that is high praise. Ah shucks, weird stuff just spawns in my head sometimes like spontaneous generation creates mice out of a haystack. Instead of deleting that stuff like most decent people would, I write it down, hit save, and let the chips fall where they may. Sometimes I entertain, sometimes I get arrested.

        As for those chickadee-like birds with the long tails, they could be Bushtits. Are they sort of grayish-brown? Do they travel in flocks of about 20-30? Do they have a sort of roller-coaster, undulating flight as they leak out of a tree one by one and move to the next? If so, I'm betting Bushtits. I love those little boogers. They are a free pest control service for your shrubbery.

        Great to hear from you. Thanks for dropping in.

      • Ericdierker profile image

        Eric Dierker 

        2 months ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

        Well I will be hog swallerd and put out to dry. "unorthodox shade of red that had hues of pink and orange"

        "sorghum, both in its uses and its mythology, connects people in as far flung of places as Kansas and China."

        My life is made richer when I read your stuff. It seems to me the idea is "turn a phrase".

        Now what are those Chickadee type birds with extra long tails?

      • Mel Carriere profile imageAUTHOR

        Mel Carriere 

        2 months ago from San Diego California

        Thank you for the nice words John. I try not to bore, though my wife often rolls her eyes and yawns in my general direction when I am on a rant. I appreciate you dropping in.

      • Jodah profile image

        John Hansen 

        2 months ago from Queensland Australia

        Another wonderful review, Mel. Most book reviews tend to bore me but your "Lunchtime Lit" never does. Putting this on my must reads for the future.

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