The Devil and Miss Prym

by Paulo Coelho

Many years back I read The Alchemist and absolutely loved it.  In fact, I considered it one of the best, most inspiring books I’ve ever read,  its message simple yet beautiful and potent.

So naturally, I checked out Coelho’s other books.  I read The Valkyries, The Fifth Mountain, and The Pilgrimage, and was rather disppointed with all.   Not only could I not find the poignancy and beauty in these later works, I did not even consider them very good fiction at that. I don’t quite know why, but I continue to pick up his work…

After a few disappointment, this comes as a nice surprise.  I still won’t rate it as high as The Alchemist, but at least this one has an engaging storyline and characters.

 A man roams the land searching for the answer to a question that torments him since a tragedy: Are human beings, in essence, good or evil?  He comes to a remote, idyllic village, and strikes a deal with the villagers: if they could commit a murder, the gold will belong to them.  This throws the community into a turbulance of greed, cowardice and fear.

I enjoyed the story as it delves into the true nature of humankind.

Published in: on May 9, 2007 at 4:17 am  Leave a Comment  

Five Quarters of the Orange

by Joanne Harris 

Thanks again noumena12 at BookCrossing for passing on this excellent book.

The first page reads: “When my mother died she left the farm to my brother, Cassis, the fortune in the wine cellar to my sister, Reine-Claude, and to me, the youngers, her album and a two-liter jar containing a single black Perigord truffle.”  You sense immediately the undercurrent in the family. The narrator returns to her childhood village, but something sinister happened, many years ago, during the German occupation at WWII, that forced her family to flee their home, and forced her to return under an alias.

Frambroise returns, and remodels the old house into a successful cafe, making dishes based on her mother’s recipes.  (The lucious description of the dishes is almost a food porn.)  However, scribbled all over the album are lines of an enigmatic language, the key to unlocking what happened all those years ago.

Frambroise is not a likeable character.  (Simply have to quote this from Amazon: “named for a raspberry but with the disposition of, well, a lemon.”) Not likeable as a thin-lipped old widow, and definitely not as a spunky nine-year-old.  For she was diabolic, calculating, and cold hearted. However, the complex story itself is excellently told, in a dark tone that captivates me well after the book is closed.

 Definitely will check out her other works.

Published in: on April 27, 2007 at 3:09 pm  Leave a Comment  

A Pale View of Hills

by Kazuo Ishiguro

SPOILER WARNING

It’s a really interesting book and I very much wish that my book club will read it, it would make for such interesting discussion. 

It’s a book that you read it, and you somewhat sense that something is not right.  At first you thought that the story doesn’t make sense, then “click”, it dawned on you, you go “aha”, and realize how brilliant a story this is.

I am still curious on some issues though –

1. Is Etsuko pregnant before moving to England? With Niki?
2. Where does the father-in-law fit in? Just a general old men?
3. So did Etsuko have an affair w Frank, then leaves Jiro her husband to go to England? Or the Jiro part was when she was pregnant with Keiko, and then after she left Jiro (or the bomb killed him) she was alone w Keiko when she met Frank? That is, the past Etsuko with Keiko in her belly befriending an Etsuko a few years down the road as a single mother?

Published in: on April 24, 2007 at 10:49 pm  Leave a Comment  

Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister

by Gregory Maguire 

I have read plenty revised versions of Cinderalla, such as Ella Enchanted and Just Ella, most of them I enjoyed, but this is definitely an outstanding accomplishment.  It swifted the focus onto Iris, the stepsister who is plain in looks but kind, wise and observative, a young girl on the brim of maturity, painfully aware of her plain looks and insecure. It is striped of the fairy godmother and landed squarely into a specific spot in history and place.  It adds depth and reasoning to each character, so we can understand why each do and say the things one does, and how the story goes where it should go.

I have never been particularly interested in Wicked, despite the hype around it.  Now I look forward to what Mcguire’s next work is.   

Published in: on April 17, 2007 at 5:43 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Silver Wolf

by Alice Borchardt

I picked this up at the library book sale because of the enthusiatic endorsement of Anne Rice, who happens to the suthor’s sister. 

Decadent Rome in the Dark Ages is mired in crumbling grandeur.  Into which comes Regeane, a beautiful young woman, bethroned to a mountain lord as a political move.  While she inherited her royal bloodline from her mother, from her murdered father she received the genes of werewolf.

While trying to escape the abuse of her uncle, she meets Antonius, a wise and gentle soul trapped within a body grotesquely disfigured by disease; Lucilla, the courtesan of the Pope himself; and Elfgifa, a Saxon captive whom Regeane rescued from slavery.  Regeane must fight for her life, her freedom, to live as she is, woman and wolf, partaking of both yet infinitely more than either.

This book certainly doesn’t feel like an Anne Rice book.  The writing style, with fragmented sentences, gets some taking used to, and ocassionally the woman/wolf narrative feels muddled.  I also feel that the character Lucilla should not be so full of emotional outbursts and hysteria, for who she is.  However, once into the story, I find it interesting enough to continue.

Published in: on April 17, 2007 at 5:43 pm  Leave a Comment  

Passing Under Heaven

by Justin Hill

I started reading this while I was on The Tale of Murasaki, and it soon dawned on me the interesting parallels of the two stories.  Well, it was more than interesting parallel – the similarities are uncanny, so much so that I have to put aside Murasaki least I get the two mixed up.

Both tales are historical fiction about a female writer, heavily interlaced with original works written by the protagonists themselves. Murasaki is the creator of The Tale of Genji, one of the, if not the, best known classics from medieval Japan.  Yu Xuanji is among the most well-known female classical poets in China.

While the upbringing of the two girls are rather different – Murasaki grew up in a noble family, Lily was of humble birth – they share a strong streak of stubbornness and independence, not the meek and obedient ideal figure as expected of their tradition.  They both become concubines to prominent officials and at one point of their lives, lived in a monastery.

Interestingly, in Murasaki, Fuji mentioned the visit of a Chinese ambassador, while in Passing Under Heaven Lily went on the street of the Capital to view the passing by of a Japanese convey.   Both girls are also very much intrigued with the poem The Song of Everlasting Sorrow, about Yang Guifei and the King.

I did not realize, till well pass half the book, that Passing Under Heaven is a fictional biography of Yu Xuanji (she did not acquire the name Xuanji till rather late in her life). I could not say I know much of her, though I remember there was a porn movie about her – The Slut of the Tang Dynasty (: P).  She is also, more flatteringly, given the title as the Most Talented Woman of Tang.  And the Tang Dynasty is, mind you, the most liberal period in Chinese history, even counting modern times.

I was glad to read this book which prompted me to look deeper into Yu’s life and work.  Part of the plot does not fit in with what little was known of the historical figure, though that is the license of fictional creation.  I do wish that the quotations are translated in a more poetic style – they do not quit convey the beautiful nature of the original work, though I understand that poetry translation is probably the hardest of all.  I also do not quite understand how the author created Lily with an almost monstrous streak of meanness.  While she was a child she would kill insects, an act that likely many kids may have done, but in fictional work, such acts are usually reserved for characters to brand them as evil to the core.    While he may want to use this to explain her ultimate crime, it is unnecessary.

I do not remember reading her works during my Chinese Literature classes back in high school.  Maybe her unconventional lifestyle has banned her work from making it to classrooms?  I remember that Li Qingzhao’s work was thoroughly discussed, and she was a upperclass housewife with a doting husband. However, reading Passing Under Heaven, I was reminded of a saying by my Ch. Lit teacher, Miss Wong: there are two types tragedies: one made by tragedic events (being at the wrong place at the wrong time), and tragedic personalities (personalities that make other people hate or misunderstand a person.)  Yu is definitely a poster child of the latter.  She could have been so happy, so loved, and lived a comfortable life to death.  Her wilfulness ruined it all, she had nobody to blame but herself.

And, for those who are interested, here’s the “official” biography of Yu’s short and sad life.  A life that, in fact, is more unfortunate than the fictional one.

<POSSIBLE SPOILER>

There was no mention of adoption, but Yu’s father died early and she was working as a washing maid with her mother when the famous poet Wen discovered her. He became her mentor, though there was no indication that there was anything beyond a teacher/student, father/daughter relationship or friendship.  Once when they went to view the public exam announcement, she wrote a poem on the wall, whcih drew Li Zian’s attention.  Wen gladly became the matchmaker, considering them a young, talented and handsome couple.  They had a lovely honeymoon, but Li’s wife was extremely jealous of Yu and beat the girl with a stick the moment she stepped into the house.  The beating went on till three days later, Li sent Yu off to a monastary till he straightened things out.  Yu was only 17 then.  She later found out that Li had moved away with his wife, and she was abandonned.  When the abbot of the monastery died, Yu started inviting admirers to visit, for drinks, literary discussion and more, making a notorious name for herself.  One day, she killed her maid out of suspicion that she had an affair with her sponsor.  She was beheaded for her crime, at the age of 24.

Of her poems, the most famous line was: “Easy to find a priceless treasure. Hard to find a loving man.”

Published in: on March 21, 2007 at 10:25 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Tale of Murasaki

The Tale of Genji is a classic in Japanese literature.  This novel is a fictional diary of its author, Fujihara (commonly known as Murasaki Shikibu, after a well loved character in her fiction and her father’s official title).

This historical ficiton is well researched, offering realistic glimpses into the life of a noble woman in 11th century Japan.  It’s interesting though hard to imagine how blackened teeth is a symbol of beauty then, and how the Chinese customs differs from the Japanese ones.   The line about the Regent’s complain that his wife bore him nothing but sons indeed sounds unreal to many cultures, then and now.

The story imagines how Fuji’s life experience enriches her writing – a discussion she overheard of his brother’s and his friends about women inspires Genji’s version, for example.  Unfortunately, towards the end, the story seems to drag on slightly too long to a fizzled ending, when details such as the color combination of the clothes is no more novel but tedious.  (But then as a lady in waiting at the Imperial Palace, life is not exactly exciting.)

I also love the small novella of Ukifune, the supposed lost final chapter to the Tale of Genji.

Some pictures from Waki Yamato’s manga version of Tale of Genji:

http://www.kodanclub.com/cgi-local/comic.cgi?id=999-00135-01-001

http://www.internal-dream.net/library/yamato.htm

Published in: on March 20, 2007 at 3:49 pm  Leave a Comment  

Malinche

by Laura Esquivel

When Malinalli, a member of a tribe conquered by the Aztec warriors, first meets Cortes, she-like many-blieves that he is the reincarnated forefather god of her tribe.  Naturally, she assumes that her task is to help Cortes destroy the Aztec empire and free her people.  However, she gradually comes to realize that Cortes is all too human, although by that time, she is so swept up in the events that she could no longer turn back.

Throughout Meixcan history, Malinalli has been reviled for her betrayal of the Indian people.  Esquivel’s fiction is an attempt to create Malinche as she is, a young girl in hope of love, of belonging, of following the will of God. As events unfold, she desparately tries to reconcile her beliefs – her traditional belief and the God of the Spaniards, to figure out what her role should be, what action she should take.

 A few lines from the book I find interesting:

“She couldn’t believe that god’s emissaries would behave in such a manner, that they would be so rough, so rude, so ill spoken, even insulting their own god when they were angry… There was one thing, though, that was worse than the unpleasant manner with which the Spanish gave orders, and that was the odor that emanated from them.  She never expected thtat the emissaries of Quetzalcoatl would smell so bad… If they in fact were gods, they would be concerned with the earthm with the planting, with making sure that men were nourishedm,  but that was not the case.  Never had she seen them interested in the cornfields, only in eating.”

“Gold, known as tecocuitlatl, was considered to be the excrement of the gods, waste matter and nothing else, so she didn’t understand the desire to accumulate it.”

“(from her grandmother) Your task is to walk.  A still body limits itself to itself, a body in movement expands, becomes a part of everything.  Walking fills us with energy and changes us to allow us to lok into the secret of things.  Walking transforms us into butterflies that rise and see truly what the world is.  What life is, What our body is.  It is the eternity of consciousness.  It is the understanding of all things.  That is god iwthin us.” 

Published in: on March 20, 2007 at 2:34 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Historian

by Elizabeth Kostava

I agree with Nicky74, who recommended this book to me, that it is an excellent story but a little too long.  But at least I am used to vampire books being slow paced (Anne Rice is a good example), and the extra length is used nicely to illustrate the little details of a place or a person; things that add color to the tale rather than just padding the book, and they were never excessive (though a little here and there do add up..)  

The storyteller is skilled at nestling one tale in another, layering them through time and space.  My only disappointment is that the ending seems somewhat anticlimatic after all the build-up. 

Published in: on March 20, 2007 at 1:38 pm  Leave a Comment  

White Ghost Girls

by Alice Greenway

I was originally interested in the title because it tells of two young girls in Hong Kong.

The author herself grew up in Hong Kong, and this beautiful fiction likely has some autobiographic elements in it.  The story is told through the eyes of Kate, an innocent American girl, younger sister to the more rebellious Frankie.  While their father photographs the Vietnam war for Time magazine, the girls live with their mother in Hong Kong, a safer haven to shield them from the horrors of war.  However, there is no escape from the turbulent political situation, which posts a omnimous fascination for the girls. 

While the war is in the backdrop, this certainly is no epic tale.  It is a touching, intimate story about two sisters close to each other in an unfamiliar world and fearful time, and growing apart as they enter adolescent and test their individuality.

Published in: on February 5, 2007 at 6:06 pm  Leave a Comment  

Blessed are the Cheesemakers

by Sarah-Kate Lynch

From Publishers Weekly:
In the spirit of Chocolat, Lynch’s debut novel is a tender love story told through the medium of food, in this case cheese. In
County Cork, Ireland, Joseph Corrigan and Joseph Feehan, better known as Corrie and Fee, are the aging manufacturers of world-renowned Coolarney Blue. Their chief worry is a conspicuous lack of successors, and the narrative chronicles the solution to their quest in the unlikely but fated convergence of two characters. Abbey Corrigan, granddaughter of worrywart Corrie, who hasn’t seen her in 24 years, sits abandoned on the Pacific Island Ate’ate while her irrigation-obsessed and hypercritical husband gets biblical with the natives. Meanwhile, in
Manhattan, Kit Stephens is a burned-out stockbroker and despondent alcoholic, heartbroken by the recent departure of his wife and now fired from his job. In a series of fantastic coincidences, the two end up at the Coolarney factory, a meeting that will forever change their lives and the future of cheese.

I read the first page, and began to lament the lack of cheese in my refrigerator. I would so love to pour a glass of wine and slice some cheese to accompany my reading. I love cheese, ice cream and chocolate too much to become a vegan. “But thought of those poor cows!” said my vegan friend. I like veggie burger, soy milk and plenty other things, but I truly believe that among China’s five thousand years of history, someone must had experimented and put a cross next to the items like “ice cream”, “yogurt” and “cheese”, with a notation: must make with real milk. I reserve the right that I may change my mind several years down the road, but for now, I continue to allow my decadent body enjoy the sensation of some good cheese.

It doesn’t take long into the book to figure out what the ending must be. The colorful characters do a lovely job to keep the book interesting though. I do agree with one Amazon review that everybody in the book – from Southern Pacific Islander to NY hotshot broker to an Irish girl all sounds alike. But overlooking that, the author does a good job crafting each person and it is a very good debute for the author. And this should make one interesting movie too.

Now, if I could have finished this book with a nice wedge of cheese…

Published in: on January 15, 2007 at 4:50 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Fifth Mountain

by Paulo Coelho

Talk about unplanned themed reading! I was listening to Anne Rice’s Christ the Lord (I was curious how the Queen of Vampires protrays Jesus.) I happened to see a visiting friend reading The Alchemist, and decided to read this to pass on to him, and hopefully recruit a new BCer. So I picked up the book with no clue that it is based on a Biblical figure!

I am not too familiar with Elijah’s story in the bible, but I certainly find the portray of God rather weird in this book. I guess there is a very fine line of following his will or battling it to show yourself worthy ( “There are moments when God demands obedience. But there are moments in which He wishes to test our will and challengs us to understand His love.”) Well, please God, grant me the wisdom to distinguish the two.

I also so not understand very well the reasons for the High Priest to opt for war… to stop alphabet from spreading? Okay, I suppose he wants the privileges of being a minority of educated. Still it sounds as far-fetched as a comic book villian’s desire to conquer the world.

The opening is beautiful, and the scene of the bowman very powerful. The rest of the book seems somewhat muddled though. And I find it hard to believe that Elijah would claim to love someone yet dragged his feet to rescue her from a burning house. To reason that she must be dead by then and just thought of sitting down and do nothing is just beyond me. Surely, if the love is strong, you would rush there, dig your fingers raw, for the one millionth of a chance that she is still alive.

I am afraid I do not like this one as much as The Alchemist. The Alchemist is a beautiful, magical story, with a crystal clear message: “When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.” I don’t see a message as loud and clear in The Fifth Mountain though. I think this is what the author wants to say:

“[God] desired that each person takes into his hands the responsibility of his own life. He had given His children the greatest of all gifts: the capacity to choose and determine their acts.”

“A warrior knows that war is made of many battles; he goes on.”

“If you have a past that dissatisfies you, forget it now. Imagine a new story of your life, and believe in it. COncentrate only on those moments in which you achieve what you desired, and this strength will help you accomplish what you want.”

 

Published in: on January 15, 2007 at 4:21 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Book of Proper Names

by Amelie Nothomb
I was so glad that joining bookcrossing gave me an opportunity to get acquainted with new authors. (I mean new to me, not novice.) Amelie Nothomb is one gem I recently discovered.

This book reminds me a lot of the movie Amelie. The French seems to have a magical wand that can put a whimsical spin on any tale. Moreover, Amelie in the movie has large, expressive eyes, the most notable feature of Plectrude. The orphan Plectrude was born under a most unfortunate circumstance, but was lovingly raised by her aunt. She aspired to be a ballerina, until the day a leg injury shattered her dream-like existence, and the broken shards left her heart bleeding.

At times a fairy tale, at times a heart-wrenching growing-up memoir, this little book is totally enjoyable. In fact, I went online to request more books of hers from the library.

Published in: on January 3, 2007 at 10:20 am  Leave a Comment  

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

by Lisa See

I have been too busy reading to blog, but I guess I just have to do some catching up here.

I cried so much while reading the book my husband got quite alarmed. I tried to explain to him what the story was about (as I truly want to share it, though it was a miserable attempt) and that started another round of tears and sniffles.

This book is hauntingly beautiful, as exquisite as a handcrafted fan, as delicate as the nushu, and as intricate as an embroidery. Every time I opened the book, I fell mesmerized into the world of Lily and Snow Flower. The writer spent a lot of time and work on researches and it shows, as rather than portraying a generic Chinese village, she paints a vivid picture of the special locale and its unique culture.

I heard of nushu a while back, but all I know could be summarized in one line: developed in
China, nushu is the world’s only language exclusively for use by female. It’s a secret code for women to express themselves to each other, behind men’s back.

I read The Kite Runner a few weeks ago, and somehow end up comparing the two. Both tell of a wrongdoing that breaks up a friendship that is close like siblings, a wrongdoing that imepairably damaged the relationship and left both scarred for life, and the protagonist’s attempt at redemption. Both stories are masterfully crafted and very moving, but to me, Snow Flower feels less forced, and the story never loses momentum like Kite Runner does.

 

Published in: on November 21, 2006 at 5:49 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Hours

by Michael Cunningham

This is one of the best novels I have read recently. Elegantly and expertly crafted, it is like a delicious slice of cake, set on fine china, to be enjoyed slowly and with respect, so that your eyes can feast on its display, your nose can take in the amora, your tongue allowed a small lick, a tentative courtship before a full embrace. The monthful slowly melts, then linger on, sending the sweet sensation throughout your body. Until you finish it with a satisfied, euphoric sigh.

Okay, I was a little carried away with that piece of chocolate cake…

The Hours is about three women: Clarissa, who one New York morning goes about planning a party in honor of a beloved friend; Laura Brown, a 1950s housewife who feels unhappy with her perfect family and home; and Virginia Wolfe, recuperating with her husband in a London suburb and planning her next book Mrs. Dalloway. Just as the booksake Mrs. Dalloway, the three stories, though interwoven, are about one day, a snapshot, of each life. These three parallel tales, different yet similar, are finally brought together at the end, to deeply touch your heart.

Published in: on October 11, 2006 at 2:50 pm  Comments (2)