Wednesday, June 29, 2011

An Old Book by Amy Tan

The Joy Luck Club Having just read The Silent Girl, Tess Gerritsen's latest, with its setting in Chinatown and Chinese myths and culture, I remembered I still had two Amy Tan novels waiting on my shelf to be read. I decided to read her first one, The Joy Luck Club.

Earlier I had read another of Tan's books and liked it, but this one was a disappointment to me. It involves four women who were born in China and came to this country as adults, and their daughters. The mothers have retained their Chinese ways. They agonize over the western ways of their daughters who have been raised in the U.S. The story is told in a series of vignettes. One of my problems was that I'm not used to Chinese names so I had to keep looking back to see which person's story I was reading. At the end of the book I was still checking the names, which means of course that I wasn't involved enough to get to know them by their names.

The mothers' stories were definitely more interesting, even though the daughters had their own difficulties with their strict and suspicious mothers as they tried to assimilate with their friends and neighbors. One mother, for instance, had been widowed young in China and then tricked into becoming the fourth wife of a rich man. Her story was engrossing, and maddening for an American reader.

Amy Tan is a great writer but it amazes me that this book was the one that made her famous. Apparently it worked for other readers much more than for me. Admittedly, I found the Chinese culture fascinating, so different than what I grew up learning. Perhaps you will like it.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Silent Girl by Tess Gerritsen

The Silent Girl: A Rizzoli & Isles Novel Just in time for the return of the TNT series "Rizzoli & Isles," July is the release date for Tess Gerritsen's newest novel in that series. I love the TV series but hadn't read one of the books for quite some time. I won this one from LibraryThing's Early Reviewer program.

Gerritsen's Acknowledgments notes that this story is more personal than her others, drawing as she did on her mother's background growing up in China. We learn Chinese legends and culture in a story that is wonderfully mysterious and gripping. Jane's team is joined by a Chinese policeman who seems to have a chip on his shoulder but he is a great help as they investigate the murder of a woman on the roof of a building where a massacre happened 19 years earlier. The widow of a waiter who was killed in the massacre is also material to the investigation. They must open the cold case to solve the current murder.

Maura Isles has just testified in a trial where a cop is charged with murder. Her facts don't help his case so she suffers the consequences at every crime scene. The blue line is suddenly the enemy. In this story Jane is married to an FBI agent and has a little daughter, and Maura has just broken up with her boyfriend. That's a little jarring to someone who hasn't kept up with the books but doesn't hurt the story at all if you're just discovering them. Nor does the fact of Jane's parents' break-up.

It's a little difficult to tell you any more about the story without giving too much away, but I will tell you that a Chinese legend about a stone monkey is central to the mystery, a legend that Jane and her team begin to wonder might actually be true. There is also a Boston mob boss involved, which is timely since Whitey Bulger, the real mob boss, has just been arrested and returned to Boston for trial.

This is one of the most unique mystery novels I've read in years and I thoroughly enjoyed it. You'll love Jane and Maura.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

This Beautiful Life by Helen Schulman

This Beautiful Life: A Novel This isn't a type of novel I normally read, but the subject matter sounded like a dilemma that unfortunately is becoming almost commonplace. I was curious about how a family would survive it.

Richard and Liz Bergamot have a 15 year old son, Jake, and a 6 year old daughter, Coco. Coco was adopted from China. They had lived happily in Ithaca, NY for some time when Richard accepted a dream job in New York City. Settling in Manhattan was difficult for Liz and Jake, who longed for the simpler life in Ithaca. The children were in private schools with wealthy families' children and Liz struggled to fit in. Only Richard was profoundly happy, and possibly Coco.

Then Jake goes to a party with his friends, gets in over his head because he drinks too much and tries to be one of the guys. He later receives a sexy video email from a younger girl, and does absolutely the wrong thing - he forwards it to his friend.

The effect of this mistake on all of them, but especially Jake, is traumatic. The reaction of each member of the family is shown to the reader, who becomes increasingly afraid for them all. I fear some readers will decide it's Manhattan or the wealthy kids who are to blame for what happens, but the same thing could have happened in Ithaca or any other town in America. Like sexting, it is happening all around us.

We all ruefully recall our own dumb teenage mistakes, but now those mistakes happen all too publicly. Thanks to cell phones, computers, and all the other electronic gadgets most kids have access to, the pictures and words that can be terribly damaging are broadcast all over the world. Meanwhile parenting, always a tough job, increases in difficulty.

If you have the stomach to read about a parent's worst nightmare, you will want to read This Beautiful Life. The book is insightful and delves deeply into this family's journey through that nightmare. I received the book from Amazon Vine.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Woodcutter by Reginald Hill

The Woodcutter: A Novel This is a stand-alone novel by the author of the Dalziel and Pascoe series. It's a psychological thriller about a mysterious, disfigured but mesmerizing man from Cumbria in England. His name is Wilfred Hadda but everyone knows him as Wolf which is much more fitting. Wolves can be vicious killers, but they are also tender toward members of their pack, i.e. the ones they love.

Wolf Hadda is the son of the estate manager at Ulphingstone Castle. His father teaches him to be a woodcutter so that he'll always have a skill to fall back on. Wolf is besotted with Imogen, the daughter of Sir Leon and Lady Kira of Ulphingstone, and she lusts after him as well, but tells him she could never marry him unless he becomes rich, speaks well, and learns proper manners. Of course he goes away, which is a mysterious story in itself, and comes back a finished product to marry the now pregnant Imogen.

Several years later he is suddenly arrested, charged with fraud and pedophilia. The case is solid against him; he doesn't stand a chance. He attempts escape and is hit by a truck. The accident nearly kills him.

That's just the beginning of this intriguing, masterful story. Wolf's character is fascinating, as is Imogen and several other characters, mainly the psychiatrist assigned to him in prison. You learn background gradually throughout the book and I was taken aback many times at a new twist, each time learning something new about Wolf but never quite catching him entirely. There is a shocking, surprising ending and only then did I feel like I understood everything that had happened.

This is a great story, a long one but worth the time and effort. No light beach read, this is a book that makes you think and ponder and just when you think you know what's going to happen, there's another "gotcha." I can't recommend this highly enough. Thanks to Amazon Vine for sending this amazing book to me.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

"The King's Speech"

Just realized I haven't posted anything here for several days. No excuse really, except that yesterday I was out mowing for about three hours. I think I'd better do the same today.

Last night we watched the movie "The King's Speech." I can relate because I stuttered when I was a child and had speech therapy for that and my lisp. In fact I still occasionally stutter a little when I'm very nervous or angry. I certainly didn't have it as bad as King George VI but then I didn't have his position in life (thank heaven), his belittling and exacting father (thank heaven), or family members making fun of me (thank heaven). The poor man; I felt so sad for him.

The speech therapy and the therapist in the movie are hilarious. I couldn't decide whether to laugh or cry at times, but it's all so well done that I found myself totally wrapped up in the movie.

Well, I was engrossed until I felt someone staring at me and discovered Scaredy Cat with her nose pressed up against the glass in the bottom of our combination back door gazing at me. She had brought two of her kittens over and they each had their front paws on the rim of the dry food bowl as they put their heads in to get pieces of it.

But back to the movie, the story ends as Great Britain declares war on Germany in World War II. The king, with his therapist standing in front of him like he's directing an orchestra, makes the radio speech to tell the British people it is war. All in all the movie is very moving, particularly when you keep in mind that it's a true story. The little girls who play the young princesses, Elizabeth and Margaret, are precious and their relationship with their father is a feel-good relief from the drama of the stuttering disability. I also admired his wife for her unflagging support and love.

I can certainly see why this movie won Academy Awards. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Saw a Good Movie . . .

Now that we have Netflix, I'm finally getting to see a lot of movies. Coming up soon, The King's Speech.

One evening this past week when it was too hot to move, we watched an old one, "Temple Grandin." Have you seen it? Temple is a real woman who is a professor in Colorado now. The movie is about her childhood and into womanhood, and her struggles to be accepted since she has autism.

Now don't go thinking this is a woe-is-me, I had a tough life and no one understands me type of movie. Not a bit. Temple is tough and brilliant, and she fortunately had a science teacher who recognized that brilliance, understood her, and guided her into college and a career. She was also blessed with a mother and an aunt who pushed her to be a success and to be happy, while letting her be herself.

Temple is a visual thinker, so there are many laughs when someone says a normal figure of speech and Temple pictures it literally. You also have to laugh when she is determined to do something and perseveres despite objections - usually the objections of men who don't understand that she has something important to say about cattle. Cattle and other animals are her passion and she revolutionized the treatment of cattle in feed lots and slaughter houses.

I defy you not to cry when Temple speaks at her college graduation, and when she gets up to speak at a conference about autism. She is quite a woman and the movie of her young life is a heartbreak and a joy to watch.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Homecoming of Samuel Lake by Jenny Wingfield

The Homecoming of Samuel Lake: A Novel I do love a book populated with characters who just crawl right into your heart and stay there. That's exactly what happened with The Homecoming of Samuel Lake. At first you might wonder about it of course. Samuel and Willadee Lake did, after all, name their three children Noble, Swan, and Bienville. As southerners say, "Well, I swan!"

Swan Lake is the main character in the story. Her father is a preacher who has lost his church because he refuses to stop his intolerable activities such as driving out to pick up poor (and poorly dressed) people to bring them to church services. My goodness, there are proprieties to keep. Anyway, Willadee and the kids are at her Moses family reunion and Samuel arrives after a family tragedy. He's a lost soul and doesn't know what will happen to his family.

We also get to know Willadee's brother Toy, a veteran who lost a leg saving a black soldier, and her mother Calla. Both of these characters have hearts as big as their farm. There is also a purely evil character who beats his wife and son and animals. Meanwhile, Swan, Noble and Bienville have great adventures on the farm using their wonderful imaginations, until they encounter actual danger.

I laughed so much reading this great story, and then I cried and then I laughed again. We watch Samuel struggle to find his place in the world and the kids as they struggle to understand evil. Meanwhile, Willadee and Calla sacrifice to make the farm a place of safety and love. I can't really tell you anymore without ruining the story for you and I would hate to do that because this is the best book I've read for a long, long time. Please do read it. I know you'll love it.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Pioneer Women, Voices from the Kansas Frontier

Pioneer Women: Voices from the Kansas Frontier Since I've been so busy catching up with yard work, I feel like I've been reading this old book forever, but it was so good it was worth the time. It was published in 1981, authored by Joanna L. Stratton, with an introduction by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.

Stratton used a collection of journals and letters from women who homesteaded in Kansas prior to the Civil War, and some memoirs from their daughters to tell what their life on the homestead was like. That's what makes the book so fascinating. As Stratton writes, "This is an unusual history of the frontier, for it is written through the eyes and the words of the women who lived it." One limitation is that these memoirs were written only by white homesteading women simply because the experiences of Indian and black women of the time, as well as the saloon girls and other marginal residents, were not recorded anywhere. It is also the story of those who stayed, rather than including those who returned east for whatever reason.

And there were plenty of reasons. Crop failure due to weather or locusts or stampedes. Hungry wolves lunging at the door and windows lured by the smell of food in the cabin or dugout or soddy. Horrible loneliness, especially when the husband had to go away for supplies or work and the wife was left alone or with small children, and the closest neighbors were a mile or more away. Curious Indians who walked in unannounced and looked at everything, sometimes taking food. They didn't have any concept of ownership so they didn't know they were doing anything wrong.

Their days were filled with hard work that I doubt many of us would stand. For instance, the cover photo shows a woman with a wheelbarrow full of buffalo chips (hardened manure) that they burned for cooking and heating since there were so few trees on the prairie. Water had to be hauled from streams, animals cared for, and in all kinds of weather. Childbirth alone in a sod house was a normal event.

Despite the distance between homes, people helped each other. They joined together particularly during the time known as "Bleeding Kansas" when proslavery folks and abolitionists fought violent battles, and Quantrill's Raiders made incursions into Kansas from Missouri, drinking and killing indiscriminately. That terrifying time made the earlier years look easy by comparison.

This book is such an eye-opener about the life of those women and children it makes me wonder how anyone survived without going crazy. I'm in awe of their courage and stamina. This is good reading and I recommend it.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

I'm Still Among the Living

I haven't really dropped off the face of the earth. I've just been mowing and mowing and mowing some more. Most of our grass was a good 12" high so I've been mowing it twice - once to get it down a little, the second time to mow it lower and make it look good. It's hard enough to mow it once, but twice is a bit much. I think I'll take a break from it today; partly because a bolt came off of the seat of my rider so the seat rocks as I mow. I don't think I've ever gotten seasick mowing the yard before! We'll look for the right bolt today (since I have no idea where the old one is) and if we can't find one, Dave will make one. Nice to have a machinist for a husband. :D

The whole yard is actually dry now! Of course it's cloudy today, and chilly the last 3 days, and showers are in the forecast for the weekend. I simply cannot win.

I've also been reading but haven't had a lot of time for it. I'm reading an old book about pioneer women of the early 19th century who settled Kansas. My great-grandparents homesteaded in Nebraska and I knew their life must have been difficult there but this book has opened my eyes to just how hard it was. The dirt floors, sod houses or dugouts cut into small hills or riverbanks, the crop failures, the wild animals, all of these things are pretty scary. In my great-grandparents' case, he lost an eye while splitting wood, a friend of theirs was murdered by an outlaw, she gave birth to my grandfather and his sister on the homestead, and then Gramps had polio. And that's just the hard luck stories I know about. It's no wonder they returned to Illinois where he got his desk job back at the railroad. My great-grandmother made the best doggone biscuits you could ever dream of, and her pies were to die for.

The book is fascinating and I'll review it, probably tomorrow, because I only have a few pages left to read. That's a relief since I have three ARCs waiting for me that look very good too.

Update on Scaredy Cat: She has a litter which Dave has seen but I haven't and she let me pet her head one morning but not since. Not sure what we're going to do about all this but I don't want her to spend another winter outside, and we would love to adopt one of the kittens and momma. We'll see what happens.