Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Shanghai Girls and Dreams of Joy by Lisa See

A little while back I was debating whether I should preface my current book club selection (Dreams of Joy) by first reading its precursor (Shanghai Girls).  You all were kind enough to give me your opinions on either side of the question, and (based on Sam's (@ Tiny Library) thoughts and the fact that I already owned Shanghai Girls) I ended up going for it.

I'm glad I did.  While not necessary for the comprehension of the story in Dreams of Joy, (all the plot points are very well filled in,) reading Shanghai Girls added greater depth to my appreciation and ended up with me enjoying Dreams of Joy more than I would have otherwise, and even more than I did Shanghai Girls itself.  Lisa See does have a talent for transporting a reader to another time and place.

Shanghai Girls is the story of two sisters, two "beautiful girls" from Shanghai before WWII, who find themselves desperately trying to escape to America and adapting to lives they neither expected nor wanted.  I found the historical aspects interesting:  how the Chinese were treated even so many years after the Gold Rush had made them a despised race in California, how the "immigration" process worked, and the details of Chinatown in Los Angeles.  However, the use of present tense was very distracting and irritating to me, and there was a chunk of the book that felt like filler before the frantically paced ending.

Dreams of Joy picks up where Shanghai Girls leaves off, and I must say that it was pretty satisfying to be able to jump into it soon after finishing Shanghai Girls.  I'm rubbish at reading sequels and series: if it hadn't been a book club choice, I wouldn't have read either one.  That's one of the things I love about my book group: it forces me to branch out.  I've discovered some fabulous titles and authors that way.

Covering a point of history that I was abysmally ignorant about, (The Great Leap Forward in China in 1958,) Dreams of Joy was very interesting for me on the historical end.  Between seeing the difference between city life and country life, seeing how the socialist/communist government progressed, and getting a peek at the role art played in the whole propaganda scheme, I couldn't set the book down.
(images of propaganda posters (incredible agriculture!) courtesy of Wikipedia)

From Shanghai Girls:
"Because inside we still carry the dreams
of what could have been,
of what should have been,
of what we wish we could still be."

My book club finally met to discuss this book. The meeting ended up getting pushed at the last minute, and even two weeks later hardly anyone had finished it. Understandable, as the school year is ending and things are a bit crazy, but resulting in a very small discussion.  Of course, I've read so many other things in those 2 weeks that the books weren't fresh on my mind anymore (I try to time my reading so that I finish the book right before our meeting, ).  We met at a traditional Chinese restaurant, which was fun...I'm so much more used to mainstream Asian fusion, Thai, Japanese, etc. that it was nice to experience some no-nonsense Chinese.

So now that I've finally been coerced into reading Lisa See, I'm glad to have had the experience.  While being distinctly "contemporary fiction" in the sense that it is fairly quick to read and is more about the plot than anything else, I still found it enjoyable and came away having learned about a period of history I hadn't known about before.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Discovering W. Somerset Maugham

Maugham was, until this last week, another mysterious classic-ish author of whom I knew nothing.  A spur-of-the-moment jaunt into my local bookstore changed all that, however, when I picked up The Painted Veil.  I was a lost cause from the very first words: She gave a startled cry.  Not the most complex writing, but it sure sucked me in.  I adored every bit of this book.

(Actually, my interest was piqued before that bookstore trip...I was at a book club meeting and two of the girls were talking about MOM, except they weren't...they were talking about MAUGHAM which apparently has a nice handful of silent letters similar to the name VAUGHAN.  Who knew?  Everyone but me, of course.  Welcome to my universe.)

So then, who is this Maugham fellow?  According to the Wiki:
  - Reputedly the highest paid author of the 1930s (wow!)
  - His mother had tuberculosis, for which her doctor prescribed childbirth (sheesh.)
  - He developed a stammer after his parents died when he was 8 (aww...)
  - He was a British spy during WWI and went on special mission in Russia (exciting!)
  - He didn't lead a very happy life, esp. regarding family/loved ones (poor guy)

From the get-go The Painted Veil felt like a Guilty Pleasure.  You wonderfully delicious that it must not be very healthy somehow.  In a time of literary giants such as Faulkner, Joyce, and Woolf, Maugham once described himself as being "in the very first row of the second-raters".  Sad, right?  But in a way I can see how he may have come to that conclusion.   His writing was fairly simple compared to the experimental modernist fare, though fun to read and not unintelligent.  The story was rather quickly paced and a bit racy, exploring the boundaries of social/emotional rules rather than the boundaries of fictional composition.   The Painted Veil was the definition of accessible, no secret-decoder-ring required, and published in the hey-day of symbolic obscurity.

The two things that fascinated me the most about this particular title both happened to be related to the times.  First, the peek at life in Colonial Era Hong Kong and the cholera epidemic (not that I'm so familiar with non-Colonial HK, but still, it was an interesting perspective) and second, the social expectations on marriage at the time.  Having so many limitations on socially acceptable behavior, and so few viable options for women regardless of the circumstance, certainly adds a dynamic to a story that  is absent (or difficult to recreate) in modern fiction.

Now, I can't say that I loved any of the characters, or even that I truly sympathized with any of the characters.  They all had faults, and most had made bad choices, but I was truly absorbed in their thoughts and actions.  There were so many different personalities.  Kitty journeyed from an extremely shallow existence to some actual thought, while her husband was a much more intelligent, complex person that ended up finding that he'd made a very silly choice.  This was a book that I actually didn't want to put down until I'd finished it.  More Maugham is definitely in my future.

(By the way, is there a female word equivalent for cuckold?  ...Do we have a word that defines a woman whose husband commits adultery?  I'm not one to usually be all up in arms about women's rights, but this word has always bugged me for that very reason.)

World English Dictionary
cuckold (ˈkʌkəld)
— n   

   1. a man whose wife has committed adultery, often regarded as an object of scorn

— vb   

   2. ( tr ) to make a cuckold of 

[cukeweld, from Old French cucuault, from cucu cuckoo; perhaps an allusion to the parasitic cuckoos that lay their eggs in the nests of other birds]

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

It's Not You, It's Me: Vol. 3

Nothing like a sunny spring day to spotlight some quality books that left me disgruntled, right?  I have 5 books here in which I was interested and subsequently disappointed...not because the book was terrible (necessarily) but because we were a poor match.  Or something.

I became intrigued by Haruki Murakami after reading The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle for a book club back in 2009.  (It was far more bizarre than anything I was used to reading, but it grew on me.)  After the Quake is a collection of stories revolving around the aftermath of the Kobe earthquake in 1995.

One of the stories was a good deal of fun, but most of them left me thinking "AND??"  His writing is excellent, his characters are detailed and realistic, his settings are vivid and the pacing is seamless.  The plots were obviously not the focus (either that or I'm just a bit clueless...wouldn't be the first time) and the themes weren't provoking enough to capture my imagination.  It's a bit of a strange experience for me to find that although plot isn't usually the deal-breaker for me, it sure seemed to be this time.

Will I read more Murakami?  Yes.  His writing is too good to swear off forever, and besides I own The Elephant Vanishes.  But maybe not this year.

Mr. Churchill's Secretary was an ARC from LibraryThing, which I was very happy to receive.  The setting was very agreeable, and I was so very ready for a lighter read, which this was certain to be.

What happened, though, was that the setting was only easy to picture because I've been there (I've walked through the war rooms in London and was able to mentally recreate the feeling that the author was trying to tell the reader about) not because the writing showed me anything.  So the writing was out.  And then the characters had the depth of paper dolls.  The main focus was the mystery-plot, implausible though it may have been, and yet Was I Satisfied? Of course not.  I'm hard to please, apparently.

This was actually an enjoyable read...I had a fun time tromping through 1940s London...but was rather like drinking a glass of air.  Not very filling, you know?  Once the thrill of turning the pages was over, there was nothing left.  The good news?  I think that qualifies it as an excellent summer read! Maybe I just read it at the wrong time of the year.  I should have been lounging by a pool.

Aimee Bender, anyone?  After reading The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, I wasn't sure I wanted to explore this author further, but the topic of An Invisible Sign of My Own sounded interesting, and it was recommended by a girl from my book club.  GoodReads says this:

"Mona Gray was ten when her father contracted a mysterious illness and she became a quitter, abandoning each of her talents just as pleasure became intense. The only thing she can’t stop doing is math: She knocks on wood, adds her steps, and multiplies people in the park against one another."

It was all just so fantastical that I couldn't keep myself engaged.  I didn't understand, couldn't identify, was unable to suspend disbelief.  Quirky, rather like Jonathan Safran Foer for me (only more so,) I find the process of discussing it more interesting than the process of reading it.  I almost didn't finish reading this one, but I persevered.

And then there's Muriel Spark!  I knew nothing about her, but doesn't this book have an adorable cover?  Before I was more than a few pages into The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, I found myself thinking that this was exactly the kind of oddball storytelling that I could fall in love with.  If only that sentiment had held!

I enjoyed the snatches of repetition and how bits of the future kept popping into the past.  I liked the brief visit back to Edinburgh (what a beautiful historical city that is!) and the nod to the blossoming era of female individuality.  I should have liked the suspense of the unfolding social drama.

You know that undefinable bit of magic that a book can hold for some people and not for others?  I was in the not-for-others camp on this one.  It just didn't captivate me.  My appreciation was clinical - after the first few pages I didn't have any emotional reaction whatsoever...not even to the mechanical aspects.  It was a time of literary ennui. Ho-hum. The End.

And then there's that awkward moment when you are in the middle of a book you've owned for years by an author you've enjoyed greatly in the past, and all you can think is how not-wonderful it is. John Adams sold me on nonfiction years ago, and McCullough's The Johnstown Flood was a fascinating bite of history as well.  But 1776 was so much less than the bestselling Pulitzer Prize winning history that I expected to find.

First of all, expectations.  I expected a history of the American Revolution.  Which it was, in part.  Specifically, the 1776 part.  (duh.)  The problem was that there was so. much. more. to the Revolution than just the year of 1776, and because I kept expecting the book to end at the end of the war, that first year took FOREVER.

The other problem, perhaps, is that this was history in a name/fact/date/textbookish sort of way, and though well-written for that sort of thing, after reading pieces of narrative nonfiction such as Unbroken, this just fell flat.  I didn't learn as much as I could have because I was struggling with trying to keep track of who was who and where and when and it was all quite muddled together.

Now I want to know if you've read or connected with any of these books or authors.  Does the problem lie in me?  Or can I blame the book after all?

Monday, May 14, 2012

It's Monday! What AM I Reading??

I found myself thinking that a weekly sort of update might be nice this week...and then it occurred to me that it would be easy to do with Book Journey.  So here's what's happening around these parts:

I just finished reading The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.  I found it refreshing at first, and then got kind of bored.  Took more willpower to read than a book of 137 pages should.  Hm.  I'm glad, however, to have experienced Muriel Spark.

The Shakespeare Stealer is next up in my Junior Lit...including this one, I have 4 books left in my Junior Lit challenges & I'm hoping to wrap those up before June hits.

Team of Rivals is glaring at me from the coffee table, the nightstand, and anywhere else I happen to tote it to.  I need to dive into it, because I have a few other nonfiction books lined up, but it's big and I'm procrastinating.  Blogging instead, see?

Mostly I'm avoiding books all of a sudden.  What's the deal?  Well, I made myself a goal to finish a certain 4 books before my book club date (last Monday) and though I accomplished my goal, my group's discussion got pushed 2 weeks at the last minute and it threw me off.  It's taken me a little longer to regroup and set a new goal.   I'm in the mood for classics and nonfiction, but having a hard time drumming up the concentration and patience they can demand.   I'm working on it though!

Oh, and one more...I read another story last night from New Irish Short Stories.  I haven't gotten through very many of them, and haven't had a huge amount of success with them either, but I haven't given up yet.

What are you reading?

Friday, May 11, 2012

The Fault in Our Stars and A Monster Calls: a Literary Pairing

  • both are books geared towards younger-than-adult people, 
  • both are written by authors whom I hadn't before experienced,
  • both were recommended by fellow bloggers, 
  • both are about cancer and dealing with loss, 
  • both approach the subject from very different, non-traditional directions,
  • both are books that I loved.

The Fault in Our Stars: A Synopsis (via GoodReads)

"Diagnosed with Stage IV thyroid cancer at 12, Hazel was prepared to die until, at 14, a medical miracle shrunk the tumours in her lungs... for now.

Two years post-miracle, sixteen-year-old Hazel is post-everything else, too; post-high school, post-friends and post-normalcy. And even though she could live for a long time (whatever that means), Hazel lives tethered to an oxygen tank, the tumours tenuously kept at bay with a constant chemical assault.

Enter Augustus Waters. A match made at cancer kid support group, Augustus is gorgeous, in remission, and shockingly to her, interested in Hazel. Being with Augustus is both an unexpected destination and a long-needed journey, pushing Hazel to re-examine how sickness and health, life and death, will define her and the legacy that everyone leaves behind."

A Monster Calls: A Synopsis (via GoodReads)

"At seven minutes past midnight, thirteen-year-old Conor wakes to find a monster outside his bedroom window. But it isn’t the monster Conor’s been expecting — he’s been expecting the one from his nightmare, the nightmare he’s had nearly every night since his mother started her treatments.

The monster in his backyard is different. It’s ancient. And wild. And it wants something from Conor. Something terrible and dangerous. It wants the truth.

From the final idea of award-winning author Siobhan Dowd — whose premature death from cancer prevented her from writing it herself — Patrick Ness has spun a haunting and darkly funny novel of mischief, loss, and monsters both real and imagined."

Despite all the similarities listed above about these two books, they are very different stories, and provide very different reading experiences.

John Green lets you know right from the get-go that things are not going to end up well for Hazel and Augustus.  He is blunt about the crappy hand that those with cancer have been dealt, without getting sentimental.  Showing the practical side of the ordeal isn't as depressing at it would seem to be, however, because Green's writing deftly incorporates that other side of humanity: humor.  His characters can be quirky, treating their conditions almost irreverently, but it is exactly that perspective that illuminates the gravity of the situation and connects you to the characters.

Patrick Ness, on the other hand, approaches the subject from an almost opposite angle.  Instead of being all, "Oh hi! I'm a cancer book!" this one sucks you into Conor's internal anguish from the very first words.  As the story unfolds, pieces of the story start to come together and begin to build on each other, telling a fairly simple story in an incredibly layered way.  There's a surprising amount of depth here, making it all the more amazing that it is a gripping, very readable story.  It isn't overtly about cancer, it's about fear and love and being distinctly human.

Green sneaks up on you - making you surprised that you are so invested by the end since you were having fun all along.  Ness captures you from the first word, the first picture - making it impossible to look away.  Green's story encompasses how other lives are affected by cancer - not only the one whose body is playing traitor, but also the family, friends, acquaintances.  Ness shines a light on the pain and confusion that hover beneath consciousness when coming to terms with an unfortunate reality.

While cancer touches many lives on a daily basis, hurt and fear have touched us all.  The wonder of literature is the power it has to touch those hurts and fears and offer some comfort and companionship, whether you're in the midst of it or not.

(Note on Content:  The Fault in Our Stars contains some boyfriend/girlfriend interaction and angst that would make it more of a YA level, while A Monster Calls is suitable for all ages.  My 6th grader adored it to bits and pieces and immediately sold her teacher, librarian, and fellow students on it.)

Monday, May 7, 2012

Silver Sparrow and Dance Lessons

A great example of how life has been all crazy for the last month or so:  I'm just finally getting around to posting about the winner and runner-up for the Indie Lit Awards.  Sorry about that!

The awards process is always a unique one - comparing books to the point of determining a winner is not something that you have to (get to) do every day - but when the two finalists are similar in merits and drawbacks, the decision is that much more complex.  (I could insert a comment about the Pulitzer Prize here, but I'll resist.)

One of the things that all the books on the Indie Lit Awards short list had in common was that they were fairly quick to read.  Last year there were a couple (Great House, C) that took a bit of perseverance, but not so this year.  Of the five books, two didn't impress me much, and one shone with a polished gleam and an intense publicity campaign but didn't seem to have a lot of depth.

Comparing the final two: winner (Silver Sparrow) and the runner-up (Dance Lessons) was an especially stimulating process.  Both were good books: enjoyable, thoughtful, with interesting characters and a plot that kept me hooked.  The conversation and ultimate decision got down to details and nuances.

Silver Sparrow was a book about bigamy, but even more it is a book about sisters, about family, in the various ways it may be defined.  I love how Jones showed a different side of bigamy by making each character quite a real person.  In fact, by switching point-of-view midway, you really get a close look at each of the sisters and their unique perspectives.

My complaints were few: there was a sentence or two that seemed very odd/out of place to me, and I didn't think that the epilogue was faithful to the characters' personalities.  Truth be told, it made me angry initially...though that opinion improved upon discussion.

The largest thing that discussion illuminated for me was that the themes jumping out to me weren't the themes that jumped out to others.  Carrie (NomadReader), especially, picked up on a lot of things that I didn't, or viewed them in a way I hadn't, likely because she is from the area where the book takes place and understands the nuances.  That's one of the wonderful things about really talking about a book, don't you think? Getting to view it from a different perspective?

Thanks to Tayari Jones, the author, for creating such vivd characters and being gracious enough to spend the time to do an interview (posted on the awards site) and thank you, readers, for enjoying her book enough to take the time to nominate it for the awards.  Pick it up if you get the chance.

I personally connected more with Dance Lessons (despite the terrible--& terribly misleading--cover art) partially because it felt so Irish (good thing, since the author is Irish) and made me miss Ireland even more than usual.  This is another book about family in its many forms whose characters really came alive.  Greaney wove the past and the present together in an enticing manner.  (I may have even gasped a time or two whilst discovering of some of those deep dark secrets.)

In this book it was the prologue instead of the epilogue that threw me.  I read it through a few times and still wasn't sure what was happening or who the main characters were.  The writing style was different than the rest of the book, and overall didn't add anything to the story.

Some of the characters were very layered and complex: I loved Jo even though she had some major issues with bitterness and a capacity for cruelty.  Other characters, however, remained somewhat flat.  It was Fintan's and Jo's story that held prominence.  Ellen, rather than being the main character she seemed to be, was more of a vehicle to tell her husband's story.  Dance Lessons is a wonderful example of how bitterness and secrecy can ruin lives, as well as showing the contrast between a small town's warmth & welcome and their ultimate reticence & privacy.

The characters, for me, is what the decision boiled down to.  The plot, pacing, and writing quality of the two books were at similar levels.  One had an epilogue I didn't like, the other a prologue.  I connected with the themes in Dance Lessons more than I did with those in Silver Sparrow, but the minor characters were much more fully fleshed out in Sparrow.  Even those that were only encountered for a page or two were very real people.

It was a difficult decision, but we persevered and came up with a winner (unlike other awards, ahem).  I think that both are on par for quality, and both are worth reading.