Sunday, December 27, 2009

Wild Ginger

In Wild Ginger Anchee Min introduces us to two teenaged friends who grow up during China's Cultural Revolution. Many books expose readers to the brutality and betrayals that marked this age. Min adds to the usual expected experiences by focusing on Wild Ginger, whose grandfather was French and thus gave her light colored eyes, and her admiring friend Maple. Both are victims of the class bully, who has the power of the Red Guards behind her. Yet Wild Ginger whose mother's death forces her to scrounge to survive, gains power when she is honored for catching a thief. We soon see her transform into a Model Maoist.

The story reads fast and is detailed and accurate. Of course, when a handsome boy enters the picture romance ensues followed by sex and betrayal. The ending was a surprise, though I knew the story wouldn't end happily.

After reading a few books on this era, one gets saturated. If you have't read many, this is an easy, interesting read.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Three Cups of Tea

Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace . . . One School at a Time chronicles Greg Mortenson's journey from mountain climber to one man NGO powerhouse, as he takes on the challenge of building schools in remote areas of Pakistan and eventually Afghanistan. Mortenson is a nurse by profession and lived a rather hand to mouth peripatetic existence centered around saving money for the next climb. An unplanned stop in Pakistan where he's nursed back to health in Korphe, a remote Pakistani village. He promises to build a school for this forgotten town.

In the beginning he does bumble along. He has no clue how to raise funds. He's got no savings so even the needed $20K is well beyond his reach. Lucky breaks interspersed with cultural misunderstanding characterize his early experiences. It takes longer than he figured but in the end he does build a school for Korphe. From that school, others follow and in time Mortenson gains wisdom and builds trust in the region as he builds school after school. Along the way he faces conflicts with extreme Muslims, kidnappings and money problems. Yet he perseveres and his mission flourishes.

The book is part hagiography, though we do see some of Mortenson's short comings, e.g. his lack of organization skills and his early refusal to hire staff. Yet there's no arguing that he's doing good work. More power to him.

In the early chapters I wished that the book were written in the first person, but then it's clear that Mortenson's not going to take time off from his NGO to write about himself. His story is compelling, but sometimes the prose was overblown, and sometimes it was just mundane. A better co-author, like Tracy Kidder, who did a great job chronicling Paul Farmer's work in Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the Worldwould be even better. Kidder was more objective and his subject was just as admirable.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Celebrating Another Law School Failure

It's the birthday of Gustave Flaubert, (books by this author) born in Rouen, France (1821). His father was a surgeon, and the family was one of the most respected in Rouen. He was nonplussed about the prospect of leaving Rouen for to Paris to go to law school. He wrote to a friend: "I'll go study law, which, instead of opening all doors, leads nowhere. I'll spend three years in Paris contracting venereal diseases. And then? All I want is to live out all my days in an old ruined castle near the sea."

Although he enjoyed Paris for its brothels, he didn't like much else. He failed his law exams and ended up collapsing, dizzy and then unconscious. It was the first of many such episodes throughout his life, probably epilepsy, and Flaubert gave up on law, left Paris, and moved to a house in Croisset, near Rouen.

He worked hard on his first novel, The Temptation of St. Anthony, and he thought it was a masterpiece. He spent four days reading it aloud to two friends, and he wouldn't let them comment until the end, at which point they suggested that he burn it. So he stopped working on it although it was eventually published in its finished form more than 25 years later, and even then, he considered it his best novel.

Flaubert traveled for a while, and then he started a new project, a novel about a doctor's wife named Emma who tries to fill her empty life by having affairs. He wrote carefully, working long hours, agonizing over each word. He wrote to his mistress, the poet Louise Colet: "Happy are they who don't doubt themselves and whose pens fly across the page. I myself hesitate, I falter, I become angry and fearful, my drive diminishes as my taste improves, and I brood more over an ill-suited word than I rejoice over a well-proportioned paragraph." But after five years of work, he finished his novel, which he published in installments in 1856, and it was Madame Bovary.

In 1911, The New York Times reported that Madame Bovary had been voted by the French as the "best French novel." In 2007, editor J. Peder Zane published a book called The Top Ten, in which he asked 125 contemporary writers to name what they consider "the ten greatest works of fiction of all time," andMadame Bovary was number two, after Anna Karenina.

Gustave Flaubert, who said, "I can imagine nothing in the world preferable to a nice, well-heated room, with the books one loves and the leisure one wants."

From The Writers' Almanac

Friday, December 11, 2009

From the Writers' Almanac

It's the birthday of cartoonist and writer Ashleigh Brilliant, (books by this author) born in London (1933). He's famous as a writer of epigrams, and best known for what he calls his Pot-Shots, which are an illustration with a one-liner below. 

He limits his sayings to 17 words, and many of them are found in the titles of some of his books: I Have Abandoned My Search for Truth, and Am Now Looking for a Good Fantasy (1980), We've Been Through So Much Together, and Most of It Was Your Fault(1990), and most recently, I'm Just Moving Clouds Today, Tomorrow I'll Try Mountains (1998).

(This is the sort of guy I could marry.)

Monday, November 30, 2009

The Jungle

Upton Sinclair's The Jungle (Norton Critical Editions) is an iconic book, that everyone knows something about without even reading it. After reading Oil I felt compelled to read his earlier classic.

I had my qualms as I'd heard that it's a gory indictment of the meat industry in the early 20th century, but was relieved that the gore wasn't as bad as I expected. The novel follows Lithuanian Jurgis and his family who immigrate to Chicago hoping to prosper. He soon gets a job as does his fiancée and adult relatives. They get a house and check with a lawyer that everything's kosher. They're assured that the contract is good. No worries.

They don't really get the discontent and skepticism of their neighbors. They suppose they're just lazy. Well, the system begins to take its toll. They discover a load of hidden fees for the home, which they'll lose if they miss a payment. The kids must work. One by one they're plucked out of school. Back-breaking labor soon results in an accident. Lost wages, lost job. The women are shocked when they go to work and the factory's closed so there goes that much needed income. The family spirals downward.

The book doesn't just deal with the Stockyard environment. One learns a lot about the political machine, real estate scams, prostitution, sexual harassment, child labor, farming, of course food safety and saloon life. The bars were the one place one could get a cheap meal and a place to stay warm. Sometimes it was the only place a homeless person could go and the bartender would allow some congenial bums to linger if they could get a patron to buy them a drink and a meal out of charity.

The characters are rather flat and the story is quite polemical, but it's interesting historical fiction. Again I love the Norton Critical edition which has essays Sinclair wrote, editorials on social ills his contemporaries wrote and literary criticism. It is a book that should be read by more Americans. We should know more about this era than the glossy view we get from high school history.

The writing style isn't as good as Oil! but the events are riveting.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Sea Change

What a disappointment! In Sea Change Peter Nichols recounts his journey in a small wooden boat across the Atlantic. The back cover hinted at adventure, disaster and insights into the reasons for his divorce. None of this was really delivered.

While I hoped for something like Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster that planted a strong interest in Everest climbs, this book just bored. Too often, without much penetrating insight Nichols rattles off all he experienced as he sailed his boat, the Toad across the ocean hoping to sell it after his marriage broke up. The voyage is complicated by a leak in the boat, but while that meant towards the end he couldn't sleep well, it was never the life or death situation I expected. The trouble that comes to a head doesn't appear till p. 205 and is resolved by 218..

Mixed in with the tales this journey are his thoughts reading his ex-wife's diary, his superficial understanding of his marriage and its demise, and probably tidbits on every interesting solo journey Nichols knew of. How I wished I was reading those books!

His writing style is subpar and I'm shocked Penguin published this. I'd just groan over phrases like: Instinctively, without thinking I . . . . Redundancy anyone? I admit I skipped whole paragraphs and skimmed the last pages because nothing essential was being said and I just wanted to finish..

This is one boat I wish I had missed.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

An Area of Darkness

What an exquisitely written book! Nobel Prize winner, V.S. Naipaul's nonfiction account and his conjectures on traveling through India, the home of his grandparents is trenchant and compelling. It's beautifully written and though I've never been to India, I have dealt with third world life and can imagine he's described the bureaucracy and way of life with dead-on accuracy. He manages to do more than to scoff and complain, he does provide insights into the culture, his immigrant and culture hopping heritage and his own bad moods as well as those of the people who surround him.

Each page was a joy to read. I can't believe I had 20 pages left to go, that I decided to save for the train ride back home, and I left the book on the train to Beijing. It'll be the first book I get from the library when I get home.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Jan Wong's China

I usually wait till I finish a book before reviewing it, but who knows if I'll be able to get on to blogger then?

I'm currently on page 265 of Jan Wong's Chinaand really find it engrossing. The author of Red China Bluesreturns to the Middle Kingdom in the late 1990s to see how things have changed. (Seems it's time for another return trip for Ms. Wong.) She visits villages and friends she had when she left in the '70s and '80s. Some have grown rich and others bitter. Some are furious with her for Red China Blues, which they thought was all lies. (Those were Americans who came to help with the Revolution and are die hard in their allegiance to their adopted land.)

Since she speaks fluent Chinese she gets the scoop on AIDS in China, car ownership, corruption, gay rights, Tibet, and drug addiction. Her chapter on customer service is hilarious. It's filled with anecdotes. I thought passengers on US flights had it bad. Not too long ago the Chinese flight attendants would refuse to take people's food trays, spent most of the flight time lounging in Business Class and at least once were caught having taken all the meat from the meals and eating it themselves in the galley.

Though it's bound to be dated, Jan Wong's China presents an interesting snapshot of China circa 1999.

The book's got 321 pages so I should finish soon.

Monday, September 21, 2009

People of the Book

People of the Bookoffers Pulitzer Prize winner Geraldine Brook's conjectures into the history of a rare Medieval haggadah which survived the Inquisition, invasions, book burnings and the Bosnian war. Book conservator, Hannah Heath is charged with examining the book which is about to be put on display at a museum in Sarajevo. What follows is part Biblio-CSI, part historical fiction and part modern fiction dealing with dysfunctional families. I found the descriptions of book conservation fascinating. Perhaps you have to be rather nerdish or bookish to do so. If you aren’t maybe this book isn’t for you.

The novel moves back and forth between the “present” and Hannah’s work and life and the past when the book was created and saved. Since it did go from one era to another and another, I found I was quite aware of the structure so I didn’t completely forget that I was in a story. I always knew I was reading a story that a writer constructed.

Hannah’s like a lot of intrepid single women, usually they're detectives. She’s very independent, sleeps with one of her colleagues, but maintains an emotional distance and was an only child with a demanding parent. She was interesting, but other than her work, she wasn’t unique. Also, I couldn’t believe that a smart woman would agree to take on the mission she took on at the end. That didn’t ring true.

Still it’s a good story that introduces one to interesting bits of history like life for Jews in the Middle Ages, and gambling practices in days of yore. I did find the voices of some of the historical characters to sound very much alike. Their narration was almost identical. Also occasionally, I just quietly groaned when there was a statement like “I smelled the rank smell of fear.” Yeah, right. The history is intriguing though and I learned about these eras and book illumination.

Bridget read and reviewed this novel a few months back.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Conch Bearer

A book for older children, The Conch Beareris a typical adventure story with a bit of spice, a little bit. It follows the formula of a young, unwilling hero getting chosen for a quest. A magical object, here a conch, accepts him and protects him. Like Dorothy's ruby slippers an corrupted character tries to get it and doesn't mind if the hero must die. The usual hardships and friendships ensue and eventually the hero learns and wins. The characters were fine, but the conch could be rather annoying. I should mention it can talk.

The story is spiced up because it's set in India, but once the boy, his wizard-like teacher and Nisha, a girl who tags along leave Kolkatta leave the city there are few reminders that this story takes place in India. The story's gotten several positive reviews, but I disagree that it's a page-turner that will make me want to stay up to read. I actually misplaced the book for a week and wasn't induced to exert much energy to finish it.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Home Game

I heard about Michael Lewis' Home Game: An Accidental Guide to Fatherhoodon

I'm happy to say that the book was as engaging and funny as the interview. Lewis, who's written Liar's Poker and Money Ball, kept a journal of key points in his career as a father, a role that never came easily to him. He's refreshingly honest and witty. He muses over how he fits in now that his family's grown and shares great stories of raising a baby in France, navigating fatherhood in Berkeley and taking his girls to the horse races in New Orleans. It's a fun quick read. Do NOT skip the introduction.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Looks very interesting

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Christopher McDougall
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorHealthcare Protests

I've got no time to read it before I leave for China, but it is on my list of books I plan to read.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Winning the Race

John McWhorter's Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America follows his earlier book Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black Americawhich I read last year .

I picked up Winning the Race expecting McWhorter to offer solutions to the problems stated in his first book. While there are some implicit in the book, this book continues to identify and explain the problems McWhorter sees which hold African American's back. He's very logical and thorough as he picks apart ideas he doesn't agree with so the book's a good model for argumentation, and boy do people need that. He writes with intelligence and style, and that's always welcome. Yet I suppose I wanted more hope, say a program that will change things, but that's not here. I realize my hope was naive and that to a large degree change can come from people who read the book and decide to change themselves. Yet how many kids dropping out of high school, for example, will pick this up at the library?

This is an intelligent, novel book, but if you've read Losing the Race you probably don't need to read this book as well.

Renovation of the Heart

Dallas Willard's Renovation of the Heart: Putting On the Character of Christ
is a book for smart people interested in Christianity. Willard intelligently gets to the heart of spiritual formation. As a reviewer on writes he begins " an introduction to spiritual formation, he then outlines the avenues through which transformation takes place, including thoughts, feelings, choices, social context, the body, and the soul." I respect how he grounds his points in history, theology and scripture. He can concretely convey complex ideas.

Since many churches seem to aim to deliver a nice service with extracurriculars like bridge clubs and golf outings to spice things up, it seems that spiritual growth is really left up to each individual. This book helps one figure out how to do that and why. I got it at the library, but will buy it. It's a book you can refer back to as time goes by.

Monday, August 10, 2009

The Beautiful Struggle by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates came up in Baltimore, a middle son of a father who had seven children by four women. A Beautiful Struggle is the lyrical, poetic story of Coates’ parents’ struggle to imbue their children with the skills and education needed to master their often unfriendly environment.

Walter Moseley called Coates the James Joyce of the hip-hop generation and before starting the book, I questioned this assessment as perhaps overblown. As I read the book, however, I came to fully agree. Coates has an amazing facility with language, creating vivid visuals utilizing an interplay of rap inspired prose.

Having lived in DC and Maryland during the years Coates was growing up in Baltimore and aspiring to Howard University, I connected all the more with Coates’ memoir. But, even those readers not familiar with the world Coates inhabited will find The Beautiful Struggle a beautiful read. Sorry, I couldn’t resist . . .

Thursday, July 30, 2009


Oil!by Upton Sinclair, the author of The Jungle,caught my eye at the library. I'm so glad it did.

Oil! is a brilliantly constructed satire or exposé of the oil industry in the early part of the 20th century, with many parallels with recent history, sadly. Sinclair makes each character realistic and flawed. He has great insight into people and how they muck things up because they're too soft, too greedy, too idealistic, too divisive, etc.

The main relationship is between Bunny, who is a young teenager, and his father, an oil man who's driven to make more and more money and to give his son a good life. The father feels that school doesn't teach much of importance so when Bunny's middle school age, he travels around with his father learning how things are done. (When there's time a tutor comes to get the boy, who eventually does go to high school and college, up to speed on the three R's.) The father is a self-made man who can sincerely justify any short cut in business. He reminded me of the first Richard Daley, since he was more street smart than book smart and really often came across as clueless about how things should be done.

Bunny, is a refined, nice boy, who attracts some interesting friends. There's Paul a boy about his age, who's run away from home and trying to escape a father who's a religious fanatic, while earning money for his siblings' food. There are Socialist friends at college and a movie starlet girlfriend. Since he's a sympathetic person, Bunny becomes associated with people from all walks of life, often on very different sides of the era's burning issues. He uses the money his father earned from fields fleeced from families like Paul's to pay Paul's bail when his friend cum hero is arrested by instigators his father's associates hired to put an end to unionizing. There are many shades of gray though it's clear some are far darker than others to Sinclair.

Through this story which follows Bunny as he matures, Sinclair skewers business, government, religion, Socialism, academia, college sports, the movie industry, well just about every institution in the society with the exception of the food industry, which he tackled previously in the 1903 novel The Jungle.

There are many history lessons in this novel as Dad is one of the men who funded or bought Harding's way to the White House.

This book is action-packed and witty. It reads fast, but it's no longer in print, even though it was the inspiration for the film There Will be Blood. It should be at your library though.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Living Gently in a Violent World

I'd read other books by Jean Vanier and have been blown away. Living Gently in a Violent World: The Prophetic Witness of Weakness had such a promising title for our times, but it wasn't what I expected. I had thought there'd be references and anecdotes about living in L'Arche, the community Vanier helped start to connect with people with disabilities. I thought it would then provide insights for people who don't live in that community to deal with the violence, large and small in our society.

It really doesn't. Instead Vanier and co-author Hauerwas describe Vanier's life and times in L'Arche and add some theology to shed light on our attitudes towards those with disabilities. It never offered enough about life in other settings. It was just too limited for me in that regard. Also, I could have done with out Hauerwas' chapters since they seemed so distant and theoretical.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Book Geek

This is a much more interesting book list thingie than the "15 Books" or "page 56" ones that are out there -- Thanks to Jan for posting it! I look forward to reading the answers from all my book friends (you know who you are) .... (And I love the "Don't italicize" instruction!)

Rules: You have received this note because someone thinks you are a literary geek [not that that's a bad thing!]. Copy the questions into your own note, answer the questions, and tag any friends who would appreciate the quiz, including the person who sent you this.

Don't bother trying to italicize your book titles, even though we know you want to...

This took a lot of thought - I bet I'd change this every year.
  1. What author do you own the most books by?
    Thomas Merton or Jane Austen

  2. What book do you own the most copies of?
    Japanese - English dictionaries

  3. Did it bother you that both those questions ended with prepositions?

  4. What fictional character are you secretly in love with?
    Mr. Darcy springs to mind

  5. What book(s) have you read the most times in your life?
    Pride & Prejudice (Jane Austen)
    Catcher in the Rye (J.D. Salinger)
    The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald)

    The Doll's House (Ibsen - took a lot of classes that required that)
    Gulliver's Travels (Jonathon Swift - see above)
    King Lear (Shakespeare - see above)

    Actually something by Dr. Seuss or a fairy tale would probably be right since kids reread a lot
    I'm not much of a rereader. I intend to go back and reread, but there are too many good books I haven't read.

  6. What was your favorite book when you were ten years old?
    The Little Princess (Frances Hodgson Burnett)

  7. What is the worst book you've read in the past year?
    The Crazed (Ha Jin)

  8. What is the best book you've read in the past year?
    A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (Betty Smith)

  9. If you could force everyone you tagged to read one book, what would it be?
    The Flounder (Grass)
    A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (Betty Smith)
    Factory Girls (Leslie Chang)

  10. Who deserves to win the next Nobel Prize for literature?
    Haruki Murakami

  11. What book would you most like to see made into a movie?
    The Republic by Plato - actually it could be a good play
    Maybe The Flounder could be a good movie

  12. What book would you least like to see made into a movie?
    Ulysses (James Joyce)

  13. Describe your weirdest dream involving a writer, book, or literary character.
    Can't think of any

  14. What is the most lowbrow book you've read as an adult?
    Who Moved the Cheese? (Or is it "my cheese'?)

  15. What is the most difficult book you've ever read?
    In Search of Lost Time (Marcel Proust - worth the effort)

  16. Shakespeare, Milton, or Chaucer?
    Tie Shakespeare & Milton

  17. Austen or Eliot?

  18. What is the biggest or most embarrassing gap in your reading?
    Can't think of one.

  19. What is your favorite novel?
    Hard to choose. The Adventures of Augie March (Saul Bellow), Soul Mountain (Gao, Xing Jian and The Flounder (Gunther Grass), Brideshead Revisited (Evelyn Waugh), The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald)

  20. Play?
    Our Town

  21. Short story?
    In Dreams Begin Responsibilities (Delmore Schwartz)

  22. Work of non-fiction?
    Mountains Beyond Mountains (Tracy Kidd) or Working (Studs Terkel or anything by him)

  23. Who is your favorite writer?
    Can't limit to one: Proust, Austen, C.S. Lewis, Gunther Grass, Salman Rushdie, Thomas Merton, Parker Palmer

  24. Who is the most overrated writer alive today?
    John Grisham?

  25. What is your desert island book?
    Grimm's Fairy Tales

  26. And ... what are you reading right now?
    Oracle Bones (Peter Hessler)
    Oil! (Upton Sinclair)
    Symposium (Plato)
    Living Gently in a Violent World: The Prophetic Witness of Weakness (Stanley Hauerwas, Jean Vanier, and John Swinton)

  27. Who's your favorite children's author? (I'm adding this one)
    E.B. White

  28. And on the immediate to-read list (meaning I have the copies in hand):
    Through the Painted Desert (Donald Miller)
    An Area of Darkness (V.S. Naipal)
    Winning the Race (John McWhorter)
    The Discovery of Heaven (Harry Mulisch)
    Never the Bride by [Cheryl McKay (from Act One) & Rene Gutteridge - it's enroute from]

Saturday, July 18, 2009

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

My July book club selection was A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,which I didn't realize was almost 500 pages when I alloted 10 days to read it. In the beginning I didn't get into this. I was impatient with so many details and found Betty Smith's off-hand racist comments offensive. I realize she wrote this in the 1940's but I wasn't able to let her off the hook. Luckily, there weren't many slurs, etc as the book progressed.

Smith's Francie Nolan and all her family did win me over as they struggle amidst poverty moving from one tenement to another. The characters were smart, witty, (often) diligent, kind and worthy of respect. They were drawn warts and all including Johnny, the idealistic, dreamer alcoholic father and Sissy, an aunt who went through men in a hurry. Sissy was one of my favorites. She couldn't read, but she did outsmart Francie's teacher when felt her niece needed someone in her corner. She posed as Francie's mother and confronts and fools a snobbish teacher who Sissy sized up immediately.

It was interesting to read as a sociological portrait of a culture with descriptions that I came to relish. For example, in Brooklyn they used to celebrate Thanksgiving as we do Halloween with kids dressing up and going to different stores begging for treats. Since kids were the did so much of the shopping ("Here's a nickel go to the store and get two loaves of bread) smart merchants catered to them (frugally) to win their loyalty. Smith provided so much insight into how people doctored up old bread and left overs to last days. I also loved how dignified the Nolans were, how they wouldn't accept charity and always found a way to survive.

Francie has interesting relationships with all her family members. It was fascinating to see how honest and open Katie (the mother) was about sex and boys when Francie was a young teen, how she didn't sugar coat romance, how she was always practical even when Francie broken hearted.

The story got more vital and witty as I went through it. It's really got everything: injustice, jealousy, endurance, murder, weddings, births, deaths, success and failure. When I started reading, it felt like a homework assignment. Now I'd definitely read more Betty Smith.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Factory Girls

Leslie Chang's Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China fascinated me. Chang is a journalist for the Wall St. Journal posted in China. In this book, Chang spends years getting to know two girls who migrate from their villages to factory cities, where they pursue fortune and opportunity. It's the story of the people who make the glue for our shoes, the molds for the plastics we use, our Coach bags, well, more or less everything we touch in a given day.

Chang becomes their confidant and thus learns all about their work, their bosses, the struggles to survive in a society that promotes movement and makes long term friendship or trust seem foolish. Chang discovers how dating works or doesn't in modern China. What do these women look for in men, how do they find it and how do they make do till the man with the apartment and good job come along?

The first part of the book centers on life scrabbling in the city how fresh off the bus or train, these girls, some as young as 15, manage to survive in spite of little education, no contacts, and no experience. I was completely engrossed to read about how the girls quickly succeeded and failed. Chang accompanies them to "finishing schools" that train workers in public speaking, success, people skills, bluffing your way through a job interview, and all the skills needed to make it. Chang also returns to the village with her subject to see the family and home. As a young Chinese-American who speaks the language fluently, Chang blends in well and is very much a fly on the wall, privy to everything. Both girls Chang follows are completely candid about all their desires and means of attaining them.

These girls may lack education, but they soon show themselves to be shrewd and bright. While they are exploited, this never stops them. One day, they're ripped off, the next they're off to the next opportunity without looking back.

Any language teacher will appreciate the chapter on "Assembly Line English," a new method developed as a get rich quick scheme by a man who's never taught and holds the
guiding principle that treating people like machines was the key to mastering English. After learning the alphabet and the phonetic sounds of the language, a student sat at machine while columns of English words rotated past. The student read aloud each word and wrote it down without knowing what it meant, week after week, until he attained the highest speed. He (sic*) then proceeded to another machine that showed the Chinese definitions of words; next he advanced to short sentences. At each stage, he wrote the word or sentence in English and said it aloud without comprehending its meaning.
once the student could reach "top speed" i.e. 600 sentences an hour could she start to learn basic grammar. studnets would work eleven hours a day on this and yes, they paid handsomely for such lessons.

My only criticism, and it was a real annoyance, was the two and a half chapters on Chang's family history. While her grandfather's story is interesting and significant, it belongs in another book. Once I'd turn a page and see the next part was about her relatives I slowed down, sighed, promised myself that soon I'd get back to the girls' story. I have no idea why an editor would let her keep these sections in.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Taking Woodstock by Elliot Tiber

Not for the prudish or homophobic.

But so long as you don't belong to either of those two groups, this book appeals.

Many of the anecdotes beg disbelief and, of course, since most of the players are deceased, there's no real fact checking to be done but Tiber's story is an aspect of Woodstock that hasn't been previously explored.

How and why The Woodstock Music & Art Festival ended up 50 miles from Woodstock is yet another piece in the improbable, nay, impossible event that took place nonetheless.

As a baby boomer who was 7 years old at the time, my knowledge of Woodstock was woefully lacking and Tiber's book is an intriguing, if at times appalling, introduction.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Widows of Eastwick by John Updike

Um, not so much.

Much more graphic sexually than the original, not as interesting and really just blah.

Updike's last novel and certainly not his best (although what do I know, having only read this one and the Witches of Eastwick?).

Every once in a while, his descriptions caught me up short but for the most part, I was reading for plot, in a hurry to get it over with and find out what happened to the three friends.

If not for the plane ride, I still wouldn't be done with it.

Friday, July 10, 2009

From Today's Writers' Almanac

It's the birthday of a man whose entire reputation is built on one novel that is more than 3,000 pages long: Marcel Proust, (books by this author) born in Auteuil, France (1871). His parents were well off — his father had been born poor but had worked his way up to become a respected doctor. Marcel was a sickly child, prone to asthma attacks, and he was in and out of school. He studied law and philosophy, but he was most interested in writing and in his own social ambitions.
He published stories and essays in literary magazines, and he started work on a long novel, but after writing several thousand pages he was frustrated and gave it up.

He continued to live with his brother and parents in their apartment. Finally, his father insisted that he get a job, so he found work as a volunteer and almost immediately applied for sick leave, and never went back to work.
But then, within a couple of years, his brother got married and moved away from home, and both his parents died. After his mother's death, he spent awhile recovering in a sanatorium. When he got out, he started to write again — supported by a large inheritance left him by his mother — and he set out to write his great novel.

And he spent the rest of his life working on The Remembrance of Things Past, which is sometimes titled In Search of Lost Time, a more accurate translation of the French.

In one of the most famous scenes in the novel, the narrator, Marcel, tastes some cake with tea:
I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory — this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I sensed that it was connected with the taste of the tea and the cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savours, could, no, indeed, be of the same nature. Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it?

Monday, July 06, 2009

Looks Good

I saw Ms. Moyo, the author of Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africaon CNN yesterday. She's got an interesting perspective. A former World Bank economist, Moyo believes that aid does more harm than good in Africa. She feels if the aid stopped, so would the corruption and new, innovative solutions to serious problems would result. I remember a class in grad school with a woman from South Africa who asserted the same idea. I'll read this once I finish the stack of books I got today at the library.

With Moyo yesterday was the author of The Blue Sweater: Bridging the Gap Between Rich and Poor in an Interconnected World, who did strike me as well-meaning but ineffective.

15 Books

This can be a quick one. Don't take too long to think about it. Fifteen books you've read that will always stick with you. First fifteen you can recall in no more than 15 minutes. Tag 15 friends, including me because I'm interested in seeing what books my friends choose...

1. The Flounder by Gunther Grass
2. The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow
3. Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austin
4. The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
5. Our Town, Thornton Wilder
6. Wild Sheep Chase, Murakami Hiruki
7. American Dreams Lost & Found, Studs Terkel
8. Charlotte's Web, E.B. White
9. The Procedure, Harry Mulisch
10. Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh
11. In Search of Lost Time, Marcel Proust
12. Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton
13. The Enchiridion, Epictetus
14. Seven Story Mountain, Thomas Merton
15. The Bible, a whole slew of folks

It's really hard to think of just 15. Fifteen authors might be easier. This list just gives you a feel of the scope of things I really like. And I tagged more than 15 people since I know a lot of readers.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Red China Blues

I found Jan Wong's Red China Blues: My Long March From Mao to Nowso compelling. It's a memoir of Wong's relationship with China. In the late 1960's Canadian-Chinese Wong convinced her dismayed parents to let her go to Maoist China to learn the language and soak up some Maoism. They couldn't fathom why their daughter wanted to go back. Why would a middle class girl opt for bad food, cold showers and deprivation?

But that's what Wong wanted. She donned the whole Mao look from cotton Mao jacket to black cloth shoes. She and a Chinese American Yale student were the two first foreigners to study in the new China. She lobbied against the comforts like a private dining room to the dismay of the staff. Who'd want to eat gruel twice a day? It was fascinating to read about her relationships with her roommate, other students, teachers and the administration. She begins very idealistic view of Maoism early on, and holds on to it for quite some time, but does question her beliefs as she bumps into the secrecy, restrictions, sexism and hypocrisy that was part of this system.

Her one year language immersion becomes a longer stay as she is allowed to enter Beijing University as a bona fide exchange student. Her studies coincide with the Cultural Revolution and she participates in the peasant labor and marching that entailed.

Eventually Wong marries another Sinophile, an American man who'd grown up in China. As she becomes fluent in the language and can pass as a native, she gets a position as a New York Times reporter. Except for a brief stint in the U.S. when she and her husband get graduate degrees she remains in the country to witness the end of the Cultural Revolution, the Tienanmen Square protests and massacre, and the beginning of China's economic boon as a reporter for Toronto's Globe and Mail.

She provides fascinating background on both the personal and political events she experiences. Readers learn about Chinese history and her firsthand experiences working at Big Joy farm, about such issues kidnapping and selling brides and her travails getting the interviews with these girls. There's no comparison between Wong's description of the Tienanmen protests and the tepid account by Jin in The Crazed. Clearly, Wong lived the experience and it changed her. Jin must have just heard about it - third hand.

The question of what was all the suffering during (and due to) Mao's tenure which sought in part to eliminate inequality, exploitation and materialism plagues Wong and I think must at least nag at outsiders like me who now see the new China. If you know the history, you have to ask that.

This book was absorbing. If you're curious about China, read it.

What to read for an encore? That is a dilemma but I'm a quarter of the way through Lesley Chang's Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China. So far it's just as engaging and even better written in my humble opinion.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Canterbury Tales

My online book club read The Canterbury Tales. (original-spelling Middle English edition) I got started late due to inertia, grading, and packing, but I did get started. I was daunted by the bulk of my edition - over 800 pages.

But once I discovered that this edition by Barnes & Noble had the Middle English on the left and a modern version on the right, I became more enthused.

I had read the Canterbury Tales in high school and in college (twice) and I do appreciate the humor and how groundbreaking it was to write in English rather than French, the language of the court. Yet this time around I wasn't in the mood. I read the Prologue and thought, "Yes, these characters are funny and Chaucer is poking fun at them, but they're all rather one dimensional. Shakespeare would give them more complexity." Perhaps that's not fair, but it's what I thought.

I did enjoy listening to BBC 4's In Our Time: Chaucer, which is my new find on unlocking philosophy and culture, etc.

As I got into the Knight's Tale my mind drifted often. I did remind myself that there is an alternative interpretation of the staid, good guy knight but Terry Jones of Monty Python fame. When in college, I read his Chaucer's Knight: Portrait of a Medieval Mercenary which contends that we just don't get the allusions and satire directed at this character. If one's more familiar with the history and culture of the day, you'd view it as a portrait and tale of a hypocrite. Warning: when I mentioned this book in my survey of English literature class the professor got incensed. He would not consider this thesis and immediately deemed me a trouble maker, rather than a student with a curious mind who went the extra mile. My grade suffered as a result. I vividly remember that class when I shared this alternative view and got eviscerated for it.

In the end, I learned to shut up. I did write to Jones and got a rather encouraging letter about how it takes a long time for new ideas to percolated throughout the halls of the academy. That was a thrill.

Anyway our discussions' come and gone. I chimed in with some thoughts, but no one else in the online group read it, so I will but it aside till the fall. One thing that is cool about the book, or maybe just distracting is the language. For example Chaucer doesn't use "go" he uses "wend" as they did in that day. Doesn't wend make more sense since "went" is the past tense? For some reason we pretty much abandoned "wend" (seems only rivers "wend" now) for "go" which had no past tense. Makes no sense to me.

Fifteen Books

The meme is to choose fifteen books you've read that will always stick with you. This can be a quick one. Don't take too long to think about it. First fifteen you can recall in no more than 15 minutes. Tag 15 friends, including me because I'm interested in seeing what books my friends choose . . .

1. D'Aulaire's Book of Greek Myths by Ingri & Edgar Parin d'Aulaire
2. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
3. The Velvet Room by Zilpha Keatley Snyder
4. Our Bodies, Ourselves by The Boston Women's Health Book Collective
5. The Red Tent by Anita Diamant
6. 1000 White Women by Jim Fergus
7. Ahab's Wife by Sena Jeter Naslund
8. The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
9. Go Ask Alice by Anonymous
10. A Story that Stands Like a Dam by Russell Martin
11. Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner
12. Native Son by Richard Wright
13. The Color Complex by Midge Wilson, Kathy Russell and Ronald Hall
14. Sally Hemings by Barbara Chase Riboud
15. Divided Sisters by Midge Wilson and Kathy Russell

In no particular order! I'm sure I've left more momentous books out which I will think of as soon as I post this. Many of the books, especially the older ones, I've included because of the lasting impact they had on me, either by virtue of the book itself or because of where I was in my life when I read it.

The Witches of Eastwick by John Updike

Since I really enjoyed the movie version of Witches of Eastwick, I decided to read Widows of Eastwick. But I couldn't read Widows of Eastwick without having read Witches of Eastwick first.

The book and movie are vastly dissimilar. That I found this surprising is surprising. I mean, I've read enough books after seeing the movie adaptations to be well acquainted with the fact that the book and the movie are often vastly dissimilar. But I was surprised.

What I also found surprising is how intriguing I found Updike's prose. I read novels for plot. I skim the extraneous details, the superfluous descriptions. If it doesn't move the plot forward, it doesn't hold my attention.

And yet, Updike's prose grabbed me in spite of myself. Yes, even the ridiculously lengthy recitation of Jane's middle of the night cello concert kept me, if not engrossed, at least paying attention.

I enjoyed the story told by the movie better, especially the end but on a more superficial level. I found the book's story deeper, more conflicted, more unapologetic about its main characters' amorality.

Now, on to the Widows . . .

Friday, June 26, 2009

I just finished reading Susan Isaac's funny, insightful Angry Conversations with God: A Snarky but Authentic Spiritual Memoir. The book chronicles Isaac's ups and downs as she tries to make sense of the confusion and disappointment that she encounters in her life. She'd been told to consider God as her spouse and takes that imagery seriously so she goes off to couples therapy with God. (She lived in California at the time so finding a therapist to go along with that was possible.) The memoir is very funny, honest and insightful. I could feel for her as she copes with all kinds of disappointments and doesn't get why things are not working out for her.

She's got her own style, but does remind me of Anne Lamott. Isaacs is on the Act One faculty, which is how I learned of her.

Friday, June 19, 2009

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

Brooks uses the true story of an ancient Jewish book saved by a Muslim museum curator during the Bosnian war as a jumping off point to take the reader on a sweeping, if fitful, journey through the centuries.

In the spirit of novels which imagine the realities behind works of art such as Tracy Chevalier's Girl with the Pearl Earring, Brooks uses clues found in the binding of the ancient work to fashion a creation story, one that unblinkingly exposes the reader to the separate and intertwined struggles of Jews and Muslims, especially as they attempted to navigate a harsh Christian world.

A bit choppy as it jumps back and forth between present day and days past, the novel also has a disingenuous foray into romance which hits a false note.

But, when it's focused on its primary mission, that of detailing the past, the book finds its groove.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Girl with No Shadow by Joanne Harris

A pleasant enough read.

While I have read another Joanne Harris novel, it was not Chocolat. That one I saw as a movie. I mean who can pass up a movie adaptation with Johnny Depp? Usually, if I hadn't already read the book, I would read it as a follow up to the movie but with this one did not do so.

So, while I picked up this book because of my familiarity with its characters, I'm unsure as to whether the book version and the movie version of the characters are all that similar, although it does occur to me that since Harris wrote this sequel after the movie, she could very well have smoothed out any discrepancies.

I was never enthralled but the book kept my interest well enough. Because Harris makes no bones about Zozie's amorality, a sense of impending doom hangs over the entire novel which frustrated me but also kept me invested enough to see how it all played out.

The novel is rife with identity issues and morals about the perils of not being true to one's self.