The Sugar Queen

by Sarah Addison Allen

sugar queen
I totally love this book. I didn’t expect much of it, it is not my usual type of read, but being a selection of my book club, I figure I will give it a try. Once I started, I couldn’t put it down. I took it along while I went dinner w my hubby, reading it while he read the menu, then finished it in bed. (Yeah my poor hubby…)

Josey Cirrini is the only child of the late, great Marco Cirrini, who came to Bald Slope and almost single-handedly brought prosperity to the small town. Now living with her aged and disapproving mother and a maid, Josey is a sorry excuse of Southern belle. She hides candies in her closet and chauffeurs her mother to her hair appointments, teas and social clubs, the day only livens by the visit of the handsome mailman.

Then one morning she found someone hiding in her closet. Della Lee, a local waitress with a bad reputation, decides to camp out in Josey’s closet while she breaks up with her boyfriend. One part nemesis and two parts fairy godmother, Della Lee has stirred up Josey’s stagnant life, and nothing is the same here on.

Like Garden Spells, the story has a tinge of magical element in it: people who literally can’t break their promises, a girl’s temper and passion can boil water and fry eggs, and books showing up mysteriously (and we are not talking about BookCrossing)… giving the story an unusual charm. The characters, however, are very flesh and blood. The author never did quite explain why Josey was such a horrid child, though. Other than that, the characters are solidly portrayed. Together the realism and magic weaves an enchanting tale of love and friendship.

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Published in: on April 20, 2012 at 11:39 am  Leave a Comment  

Saving Fish From Drowning

by Amy Tan

This tale is quite a departure from Amy Tan’s well known and well received mother-daughter stories. Inspired by the real-life disappearance of 12 American tourists in Myanmar, the story is narrated by Bibi Chen, a San Francisco socialite and dealer in Chinese antiquities. She has arranged a tour to western China and Myanmar for her rich, art-loving friends. Shortly before departure, she dies under mysterious circumstances, and after some debate, the group decides to proceed with the tour, saying that Bibi will join them in spirit – an invitation she accepts.

Mostly well-meaning, but ignorant and naive, the travelers blunder their way through China and Myanmar, fighting and flirting, resulting in an entertaining travelog. Misfortunes seem to follow them everywhere, and then on the morning of Christmas Day, 11 of them board a boat and disappear into the mist.

While this book is not as memorable as her others, it is a wickedly funny and engaging read. At times Tan touches on heavy matters, such as genocide and government oppression, but she soon skips back to a light-hearted, humorous tone, thus dooming this book to a lesser status compared to her earlier works. The ending, where Bibi finds out the circumstances of her death, is probably the most Amy-Tanish part of the book, making me remember how great her other books were. Nonetheless, I like how the author steps outside her comfort zone to write a different novel, and will look forward to her next title.

Published in: on June 14, 2011 at 12:39 am  Leave a Comment  

The Blood of Flowers

by Anita Amirrezvani

In 17th century Iran, a girl and her mother leave their village to live with their half uncle after the death of her father. In the big city of Isfahan, they are treated more like servants then family. However, the girl’s talent in carpet making is soon recognized by her uncle, who teaches her the craft like she were his son. Nonetheless, she is a girl, and without a father and a dowry, her future looks bleak.

This is a beautifully crafted book. The author’s description makes everything comes to life: the bustling bazaar, the exquisite carpets; and every character, with flaws and strengths, love and hate, stands out as real, life-like person that develops and changes, not caricature of kindness or evil. Even a beggar has his moments of kindness and cruelty.

In the afternote, the author mentioned that she spent nine years researching and writing the book, and the effort shows: little details of life that makes the story real, folktales that cast a magical air, and trivia about carpet making that entices the reader.

I also like how the author portrays an array of Persian women. There is woman locked in unhappy marriage arranged by parents, (which Western readers fully come to expect) but there is also woman with loving husband who refused to take a second wife even if her first is barren. Sigheh is a temporary marriage contract that can in some way be viewed as legalized prostitution. For many women it is a disgrace, but for one woman, it is thanks to it that she can carry on a relationship with her childhood sweetheart.

Published in: on April 29, 2011 at 12:06 am  Leave a Comment  

Michael Cunningham @ Miami Book Fair

Cunningham @ Miami Book Fair

I was really happy to get to see Michael Cunningham at the Miami International Book Fair. I absolutely love The Hours. I also went to Simon Winchester’s session, another one that I enjoyed tremendously, though his tale of fattening sheep on the cliff then rolling them off the hills sound somewhat dubious. It doesn’t always happen, but at both events I can feel the exchange of idea, the works of brilliant minds, and make me like the authors even more.

I forgot to bring my Winchester books along, but managed to get Cunningham to sign on his. A permanent copy of The Hours.

Cunningham signing @ Miami Book Fair

I also brought along an audio CD of A Home at the End of the World.

Michael Cunningham

Happy BookCrossing!!
Michael Cunningham and BookCrossing

Published in: on November 30, 2010 at 12:20 pm  Leave a Comment  

Peony in Love

by Lisa See

I really loved Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (and I’m looking forward to the movie
http://www.screendaily.com/news/distribution/fox-searchlight-strikes-us-deal-for-wangs-snow-flower/5013717.article though I was surprised to hear that Hugh Jackman will appear in the movie… huh? I love Wolverine but… Apparently they have included a modern timeline to the story… maybe two women trying to find out the link between their grandmothers?) so I started reading this with high expectations.

Peony in Love begins with a young girl who loves books and is totally enchanted by the opera Peony Pavilion, about a cloistered girl who met her lover in dream and after dying of lovesickness, her body was found by the man in her dream and she returned to life. Peony’s father stages a performance of her favorite opera in their house for her birthday, and Peony chances upon a young man with whom she promptly falls in love. Knowing that marriage matters are arranged by parents and each has a betrothal, Peony is sick with longing for love.

In all honesty, I did not like the story in the beginning. It is way too obvious where the plot is heading. Star-crossed lovers is one thing, but tragic romance bore out of stupidity doesn’t quite get my sympathy. After the story reaches the predictable point, there is a while where little happens, as Peony mills around doing nothing much. Fornutately I persevere and the second half of the story becomes interesting. So, my word of advice is, skip or skim through the first part if you like, but it’s worth the effort to continue on!

After reading the novel and the author’s notes, I have to say that I like it even more than Snow Flower, and also that this is a more accomplished work. Wu Wushan’s Three Wives’ Commentary 吳吳山三婦合評〈牡丹亭還魂記〉is an actual book that was published in 1694, and still in print after over 400 years (you can buy a copy at http://book.douban.com/subject/3177126/). So are Xiaoqing’s poems. Lisa See has closely woven the known historical facts into her fiction, and create a superb story. With Snow Flower there is more creative liberty, but with Peony, she is more limited by the facts, and thus I am more impressed with her success. Originally I had thought that Peony will reincarnate to finish her work, but I have to say See’s way of linking the three wives works better in a novel, and gives Peony more opportunity to grow as a character.

I really like how the author chances upon a little known cultural work/fact, things that even the average Chinese may not know about, makes it an obsession, and spins out a lovely tale, like nu shu in Snow Flower, and the Three Wives’ Commentary in Peony. She has reached across time, to give voices to the women lost in history. A strong, powerful amd memorable voice.

I have to give another warning for readers: keep an open mind. Lisa See has created in detail an afterworld according to Chinese beliefs. A place with its own rules and likely very foreign to most readers. Just suspend your belief. Afterall, come to think of it, doesn’t the vampire world has equally bizzare taboos and beliefs? That said, I do find the idea of single entry visa from the afterworld, and other concepts quite interesting. And the idea of a ghost who goes around binding little girl’s feet — the most horrifying ghost of all!

Published in: on July 21, 2010 at 7:42 pm  Leave a Comment  

Luncheon of the Boating Party

by Susan Vreeland

I knew little about this Renoir painting. Well, to be honest, I knew little about Renoir or fine arts… I guess whatever I learned in school had been forgotten. However, the story is nicely written to draw me in, and I enjoyed feeling that I was there to witness the birth of a masterpiece, from its conception to difficult pregnancy to birth. This is a fictionalized account of August Pierre Renoir’s creation of one of his most famous works depicting a gathering of his friends enjoying a summer Sunday on a café terrace along the Seine.

I don’t believe I have read a book where I flipped the book to see the cover as much as this one. In the beginning I kept wondering which character is who in the painting, and towards the end, they are seem so real to me I can imagine them move from their poses, stretch, and continue on with their lives. As I write this now, I am looking at the cover, and each character comes alive to me again.

The book also gives me a better understanding of impressionism. The challenges Renoir face while painting provides a suspense to the plot, almost like a mystery that makes me eager to see how it gets resolved in the end. The story also piques my interest in other works mentioned. Kind of wish it includes an appendix showing all the paintings referred.

I really enjoy the creativity of this type of historical fiction, spinning a story from a painting. Now Renoir’s painting is going to hold a special place in my heart!

Renoir

Published in: on April 12, 2010 at 10:29 pm  Leave a Comment  

Krik? Krak!

by Edwidge Danticat

The youthful face on the cover and the title had misled me to expect a light, young adult read. This book is, however, a serious and excellent collection of short stories about life in Haiti and Haitians in America, and is in fact a finalist for the National Book Award.

In Haitian tradition, a story teller says “Krik!” to alert listeners that a story is about to be told. The audience responses with “Krak!”, to let the storyteller that they are giving her their attention in anticipation of a good tale. In this book, your anticipation will not be disappointed, for Danticat is a genius in capturing the spirit of her characters and creating beautiful imagery with little words. Powerful, memorable characters, often living an impoverished and at times tragic life, that stay with you after the story ends, dispite the little time you have come to know them. The woman who longs for a baby to hug, the woman who prositutes while her son sleeps, the immigrant mother who lives with her Americanized daughter, the man who goes on a raft, the girl who finally finds her name, the little boy who recites his speech in a play.

Often an anthology may have a few good stories, padded by mediocre ones, but this collection is excellent throughout. Higly recommended and likely to earn a spot on my best ten of the year list.

Published in: on June 24, 2009 at 2:37 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Teahouse Fire

by Ellis Avery

“When I was nine, in the city now called Kyoto, I changed my fate. I walked into the shrine through the red arch and struck he bell. I bowed twice. I clapped twice. I whispered to the foreign goddess and bowed again. And then I heard the shouts and the fire. What I asked for? Any life but this one.”

Thus begin the story of Aurelie, a French American girl of nine in last 19th century. She was taken from her mother, against her will, to accompany her missionary uncle to Kyoto to “convert the barbarians”. When a fire broke out in the house she and her uncle stayed in, she ran away, and ended up in the garden of a Japanese tea master. She was taken in by Yukako, the tea master’s daughter, as partly a maid, partly a younger sister. They did not consider her a foreigner, as she did not have blue eyes and golden hair, but thought that she was just born a bit defected and retarded (as her language skills seeed seriously limited). (I guess if a child with Down’s syndrome can be called Mongol, such perception can go both ways…) As the two girls grew up, they witnessed the political changes in Japan: the birth of Tokyo as the new capital, the demise of power of the samurai clan, the influence of Western culture, the resulting nationalism… and with it, the realization that the art of tea had to adapt to the new world or die.

The beginning of the story strongly reminds me of Memoirs of a Geisha. Both are about a young girl being plucked from her normal childhood, to enter into a highly codified community of a Japanese traditional art as an outsider. For Aurelie, she was doubly an outsider, barely speaking the language and totally ignorant of the social rules and etiquettes. Thus, a perfect protagonist was created. As things were explained to her, they were explained to the readers, without feeling contrived.

Reading the book gives me the pleasure of understanding more about chado and recent history of Japan. I had attended a tea ceremony once and couldn’t say I enjoyed it, just found the whole thing too artificially formal, sitting painfully on my legs in a constrictive kimino, and a big show for just a cup of hardly palatable tea (the tea was made with grounded tea leaves froth to a foamy, bitter, dark green broth, served with a sweet that supposedly balances the bitterness but for me had the effect of making it more bitter.) I won’t rush for another cup of tea but at least I can see the reason why someone would love it, and appreciate better the thoughts and care that go into the art. Really a lot of thoughts and care. In one ceremony, the windows were closed off except for one, fitted with glass. The ceremony was timed such that the moon would sail into view at the moment the tea was prepared. When the guest arrived in a kimino that doesn’t go well with their decoration, the master had to rearrange the furniture, change the tea box, move the flowers… if they could repaint the room and change the carpet… they probably would too…

As a fiction, Memoirs is without doubt more accompanished. As Aurelie is more an observer in the background, she is often a reporter of events rather than the actress in the center stage. At times the pace feels too slow, the characters walking around the stage without much action and purpose, and some scenes and events are simply uninteresting. Definitely a bit of editing could make the read more pleasurable.

However, I was glad that I stay with the book, because the ending was worth it. In the last fifty pages or so, everything picks up speed, like a train leaving a station, building up, building up, and then with a blast and a loud horn, it runs at you with full force. I closed the book with tears in my eyes, and realize that if not for all the little clues and information the author painstakingly paved along the road, it would be impossible to fully understand Nao’s revenge, and to fully understand Yukako’s gift. All of a sudden I feel like asking Aurelie, don’t stop, don’t stop, tell me more…

Published in: on March 3, 2009 at 3:29 am  Leave a Comment  

Dear John

by Nicholas Sparks

It is a bit unusual for me to end up reading two of Spark’s books in a month as I am not particularly a big fan. I do however, like this a lot more than the other one I read, Nights in Rodanthe.

Nights in Rodanthe is about a magical weekend when two people fall in love. I found it somewhat unsatisfying: it’s so easy to have a perfect love for one weekend. Dear John starts similarly with two people falling in love, but it continues on to the not-quite-happily ever after, and we see the couple struggles as real life sets in. This gives me a much more authentic voice, and I feel so much more for John and Savannah as they try their best under the circumstances. Like most of Sparks’ books, the plot is rather predictable but the strength of the story lies not in any creative plots but in the telling of a very blood-and-flesh story that most readers can relate to.

Published in: on December 27, 2008 at 9:59 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Shadow of the Wind

by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

A bit of cut and paste here because I just can’t say it so elegantly…

From The Washington Post

“I was raised among books,” writes Daniel Sempere, “making invisible friends in pages that seemed cast from dust and whose smell I carry on my hands to this day.” Young Daniel’s father runs a used bookstore in Barcelona; his mother died when he was 4, and he misses her desperately. One afternoon in 1945 the older Sempere informs his not quite 11-year-old son that he is taking him to The Cemetery of Forgotten Books. “You mustn’t tell anyone what you’re about to see today.” Daniel’s father tells him that “according to tradition, the first time someone visits this place, he must choose a book, whichever he wants, and adopt it, making sure that it will never disappear, that it will always stay alive.” Daniel chooses — or perhaps is chosen by — “The Shadow of the Wind,” by Julian Carax.

Daniel loses himself in the book — we are never told too much about its gothic-thriller plot — and soon asks for other works by Carax, who seems to have been a Spaniard living in Paris during the 1920s and ’30s. He learns that his works are virtually impossible to find. Rumor has it that over the past 10 years or so a dark figure with a limp has bought up every Carax available, and that libraries and private collections have had their Carax titles stolen. It’s hinted that all the copies — never plentiful to begin with — have been burnt and that the man with the limp goes by the name of Lain Coubert. Daniel knows this name. In “The Shadow of the Wind” it is the one used by the devil.

And so Daniel plunges deeper and deeper into the enigma of Julian Carax and his accursed books, and along the way risking the lives and happiness of all those he loves. It grows ever more apparent that much that has seemed random or mad or unlucky — the burning of Carax’s novels, sudden disappearances, the blighting of so many lives — may be part of a larger insidious plan, that there are wheels within wheels.

Suffice it to say that anyone who enjoys novels that are scary, erotic, touching, tragic and thrilling should rush right out to the nearest bookstore and pick up The Shadow of the Wind. Really, you should.

And now my little bit of thoughts:

“Scary, erotic, touching, tragic and thrilling”? Sure, but that doesn’t quite describe it. To me it’s one big love story. A love story that, striped to its basic, maybe a little too cliche, but after the author spins his magic around, and add in the layers of mystery, adventure, fantasy, humor, gothic horror… it is one great story that grips you and won’t let go long after the last page is read. To me, the story is mostly about love: the passionate love between two teenagers, the heroic love between friends, and the enduring love between father and son.

Honestly, it’s rather hard to write too much about it without giving away the plot. Suffice to say that it’s one of the best books I’ve read this year. Impossible to put down once I started.

Published in: on October 25, 2008 at 3:39 am  Leave a Comment  

A Thousand Splendid Sun

by Khaled Hosseini

I kept crying for a while after finishing the book.  A moving story indeed, especially towards the ending – well, it was well written from page 1, and continue to build up to a lovely ending.  A strong, solid work throughout and, unlike The Kite Runner, did not falter in the middle part. 

The title comes from a poem about Kabul writen by Saib-e-Tabrizi back in the seventeenth century:

“One could not count the moons that shimmer on her roofs,
or the thousand splendid suns that hide behind her walls.”

It’s this beauty that draws the city’s sons and daughters home, despite of the danger and the rubbles.  The story is about Mariam and Laila, two women who are wives to a brutal man.  Both of them harbor loss of their loved ones, and in a world where they seem to be lone survivors of their families who departed them in brutal manners,  they slowly they overcome their hostility and become like friends, like sisters, like mother and daughter.   Unlike the protagonist in Kite Runner, these women are strong, and they have hopes and dreams that they are not afraid to pursuit.

It is also chilling to see how much the political and social environment could change in such a short time.  When Leila was young, she was able to run around the neighborhood and visited her male friend.  Then she had to done a burqa, and could not step outside without a male family escort.  It reminds me of The Handmaid’s Tale — somehow, that story doesn’t seem so foreign, so fantastical after all.  If it could happen in Afghanistan, what guarantee it couldn’t happen elsewhere?

Published in: on October 4, 2007 at 11:47 pm  Comments (4)  

A Hive For The Honeybee

by Soinbhe Lally 

When I first lay hands on this book, I was impressed with the beautiful cover, and the artfully done illustrations heading each chapter. 

This book is quite different from other stories I’ve read.  In fact, I suppose I can call it my first novel about bees.  There is Alfred, a poetic drone who dreams about the virgin queen but gets tongue-tied when facing her; Mo, a radical drone who tries to negotiate peace talk with ants and wasps and introduce the idea of idling to the worker bees; Thora, the first worker bee to have a dream; Belle, always practical and efficient. 

In the beginning I wasn’t too into the story, though I find interesting for all the tidbits of information about the lives in, and the working of, a beehive.   Towards the end, however, I come to like the story, and feel very much for the characters Thora and Mo.  Their presence is much bigger than itsy little bees.

I love Alfred’s poems too:

Life is
A sip of honey
Yesterday

Published in: on September 22, 2007 at 3:20 pm  Leave a Comment  

Year of Wonders

by Geraldine Brooks

Year of Wonders is a fictional work based on the real events of the 17th-century plague that was carried from London to a small Derbyshire village by a tainted piece of clothe.  As villagers begin, one by one, to die, the rest face a choice: do they flee the village in hope of outrunning the plague or do they stay?

I read this for The Reading Lounge’s  August bookclub.  In retrospect, my taste is rather morbid to have picked this book up in the library sale in the first place.  Who else would see “A Novel of the Plague” and say “interesting”?

Naturally, the book contains gruesome scenes of plague infection, render more gory by the author’s skill to create vivid imagery.   Some of the best scenes, however, are in the emotional landscapes of the various characters.   

The plague breaks out in the village, leaving 18 year old Anna not only a widow, but childless as well.  She works with Mr. Mompellion, the rector, and his wife Elinor, almost around the clock to tend to the sick , to comfort the dying, to help those living as sole survivor of a big family.   After the deaths of several families, I began to wonder where would the tale lead us, to carry the story on for many pages to come.  Several events transpire, showing us the best and worst of human nature.  The bacteria is not the only killer, as hatred, fear, greed and superstition kicks in.   After the death of Elinor (not a spoiler as this fact was made clear on page 2, the first part of the book written to date after the plague), events unfold that make me think, aha, I know that this is what will happen, I can smell that coming all along the way… when the crafty story takes a turn.  What would be the ending of a conventional historical novel spins off in a surprising new direction, making for an unexpected finale.   I am glad Brooks didn’t stop where most would have stopped, although the ending feels rather improbable.  An unreal conclusion to a hitherto very realistic historical tale.  

The decision for the village to remain quarantined is heroic; though on the other hand, as one of the characters points out, they really don’t an alternative to up and move.  The rich are the only one who can, and are they really evil for wanting to escape when they can?  It is ironic how the author wrote that, as they leave town, the villagers, instead of pelting them with rotten eggs and hissing, curtsy and take off their caps as signs of respect, just because they have been trained, since birth, to do so. 

Published in: on August 21, 2007 at 1:35 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Coffee Trader

by David Liss

I read this for my bookclub.  I would admit that if this were just a contemprary “financial fiction” I would have aborted the reading long time ago. However, with the historical background of Portuguese Jews in the 17th century, this becomes a much more interesting read; and while some of us felt that the business maneuvour is above our heads, the historical backdrop keeps us going.  The plot itself is quite brilliant, one layer of deception upon another, and until the last page, you don’t quite know who has the upper hand.

According to the author notes, this book was originally about chocolate.  While I can image Miguel’s sister-in-law becomes more lustful after munching some cacao beans, I don’t suppose Miguel can claim his energy and clear-mindedness from something other than a cup of joe.

A big part of our discussion centers on whether Miguel is a good or bad guy.  In that aspect, the author excels in portraying all characters in a very three dimensional manner.  Each is full of life and stands out with his/her own personality.  The book is rich in all the senses: the smell of the city, the colorful clothes of the merchants, the buzzing of the exchange, and together with the characters, recreates a very solid world of 17th century Amsterdam.

Published in: on August 17, 2007 at 4:08 pm  Comments (1)  

My Year of Meats

by Ruth L. Ozeki

When documentarian Jane Takagi-Little finally lands a job producing My American Wife!, a Japanese television show straaing “authentic American housewives preparing beef dishes, she discovers some unsavory truths about love, fertility, and a hormone called DES.  Meanwhile, on the other side of the globe, Akiko Uerno, wife of the show’s adveristing executive, finds her life irreccably changed by the show.

I signed up for this Bookcrossing bookring because of my interest in the “unsavory truth about meat”, but this novel, the debute of Ruth Ozeki, delivered much more than I expected.   The characters are rich, authentic and colorful, the plot original and exciting.  It feels like a ride into unknown territory.  You don’t quite know what the next turn will lead you, but you are always in for a pleasant surprise as you move from one scenery into the next.  Ozeki is really defted with her pen; she captures a scene like a camera lens, so vividly that you can “see” it.  Especially outstanding is the scene about the young girl on wheelchair. 

It’s amazing how Ozeki can write a fiction on a subject as serious as agribusiness exploitation and managed it so entertainingly.  There was not a moment that the story felt preachy or dry, even though the message comes through loud and clear. 

Published in: on July 10, 2007 at 12:30 pm  Leave a Comment