Sunday, September 13, 2009

Memories in a Marble

I actually started and finished a 400+ page book recently, primarily because I had to for my upcoming book group, but this is not to take anything away from Margaret Atwood's very good book, Cat's Eye.  Female readers beware: you may experience unpleasant flashbacks to long suppressed memories of childhood cruelty (girl-to-girl) and the culture that allows this. I certainly had one, which helps me understand how the main character, Elaine, could  have repressed her very awful memories for so long.  Male readers can sit back, at least partially, in their seats and not feel too much heat, with the exception that they should please note the presence/absence of the fathers in this book. Having heard these forewarnings, you might not even want to start the book, but the first line will hook you and pull you into a superbly written novel exploring how time and memories fold into one another and how we salvage bits of ourselves from this continuum. There are many areas to explore in the book including the role of creativity (Elaine is a painter) vs. destruction, the symbolism of light, mirrors and eyes, and the clash of nature vs. conformity. Cat's Eye was mood-filled and thought- provoking.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

A Perfect Place To Disappear

Lake of the Woods, the 950,400 acre lake which straddles the border between Minnesota and Canada, is not a locale where you want to get lost, but it is THE perfect place in which to disappear. With over 14,000 islands and extensive forests, this remote area could easily swallow up a lost person. It is also a great place to stage one's disappearance if so desired. In addition, the massive lake affords a wonderful opportunity to dispose of a body without detection. What if someone suddenly vanished here? Who would know which possible scenario had really happened? That's the premise of Tim O'Brien's excellent book, In the Lake of the Woods.

The lake proves to be the ideal setting for O'Brien to examine the idea of inexplicable loss with all its myriad, painful angles. In this 1994 book the author creates a fascinating human drama centered on a troubled couple seeking solace and/or escape on a remote section of the lakefront. The husband is trying to blot out the disappointment and disgrace of his political downfall, and it is clear that he has become figuratively lost. His wife's story, on the other hand, is revealed mostly through her husband's reflections and the must-read footnotes. For early in the plot, it is the wife who becomes physically lost, vanishing suddenly in the night. From this point on, the story expands into both a mesmerizing mystery story and a somber reflection on self-knowledge. In fact, the idea of being lost to oneself becomes paramount as the story unfolds.

In true Tim O'Brien style, a traumatic episode from the Vietnam War plays a significant role as do the recalled experiences from the man's youth. There are a minimum of characters, but they are well drawn, and additional character input comes from the truly engrossing footnotes. While there are no comforting resolutions or easy answers, In the Lake of the Woods is a fabulous book right to the ending.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Won't Be Half Finished For Long

I've been picking up and putting down a few books lately, but this one, In The Lake of The Woods, by Tim O'Brien is not easily put down. In fact, I will probably finish it very soon. As I moved through the early part of the book and got pulled in immediately, I started my little prayer that the author wouldn't let me down. So far it is working. Will report more later. This book does not require snacks to finish!

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Sweeping Up After Myself

Kept you hanging about Shanghai Girls, didn't I? Sorry, life interrupted.

Verdict: Book discussion groups will definitely love Shanghai Girls because it is packed with oodles of atmosphere, interesting characters, historical facts, and a climax groups will want to tear apart or tear up over, depending. The story line progresses from one continent to another, addresses issues of assimilation and discrimination, and takes place during a time of tumultuous cultural and historical upheaval. The ending also screams "sequel," so Lisa See lovers may find the "girls" marching forward into new Sino-American scenarios in a possible follow-up book.

My personal feeling is that the author's material was more than adequate for five books, but too much for this one book. Lisa See introduced many fascinating angles that could have been explored more deeply, and the early section set in Shanghai would have made a great story by itself. I finally reconciled myself to the fact that the author tends to overwhelm her books with her thoroughly researched details, and yet they don't always inform us. In the early Shanghai part, for instance, she mentions that the girls practically stepped over dead bodies which seemed to have been brought to the curb like garbage. What's with that? There are other little quibbles, too, but I will graciously admit that Shanghai Girls kept me interested until the very end. It is not a book I would want to leave half-finished.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

From Beautiful Girls To Propaganda Tools

The Paris of the East - Shanghai's Bund 1930

Shanghainese Girls in Hand-Painted Advertisement 1928

Maoist Propaganda Poster

Our brave Shanghai Girls, May and Pearl, once enjoyed popularity in old Shanghai as "beautiful girls" who posed for calendars and advertising artwork. Such hand-painted posters, calendars, and advertisements depicted lovely young ladies in beautiful dress. Still, this was considered controversial, as is the case in Lisa See's Shanghai Girls. Another name for the women who posed for these paintings was Shanghai girls, which is where, I guess, the author gets her double-entendre title.

Well, MUCH has transpired in the book since May and Pearl's early days, and now the reader has followed the girls through to the early 1950's. No Spoiler Alert necessary here, but the girls are surprised to now see themselves depicted in Maoist propaganda posters. Refer to the UCDavis article for a brief intro to these posters and the Maoist transformation of earlier calendar art into propaganda.

By the way, I finished the book! Will give my thumb's up or down later.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Am Feeling A Little Blue About This Book...

(pardon the artistic license taken with the truly lovely, pink and pretty bookcover)

The Royal Thumb's Up looks like it may be turning downward for our sweet maidens from Shanghai unless they can break out of the sticky formulaic plot they are ensnared in right now. Currently the author is moving them around her chessboard in a predictable fashion as they adapt to life in Los Angeles while contending with their miserable, miserly father-in-law and unwanted marriages. Book clubs, no doubt, will love this book. I may yet love it, too. Hang in there with me.

But fear not! My appetite has been tantalized by mention of traditional Chinese dishes, and so I am happy to share pictures of No. 1, or is it No. 2? son (twin, so both sons should be No. 1) making traditional pork dumplings in his apartment in China with his No. 1 companion.

One cannot buy tidy packages of chopped pork there - one must brave the markets and hope for the best. My "Americans in China" managed to find chunks of pork and pork fat which they chop chop chopped until their wrists hurt so as to make minced meat. More chopping ensued as huge quantities of ginger, garlic, scallions, hot peppers, and chicken bouillion powder were reduced to individual molecules. All was then blended together to make a scary-looking mound of pink mush.

With chopsticks, bowls of water, and won ton skins at the ready, the intrepid chefs stuffed hundreds of dumplings, most of which were frozen for later. To cook them, bring chicken stock to a boil, add some hot pepper oil and other seasonings, and cook the dumplings until they float to the surface. Sprinkle in more chopped ginger and scallions to make a pretty presentation. Now you, too, can make your own yummy won ton soup!

Sunday, July 19, 2009

A Happy Coincidence

The New York Times today has an article in the Metropolitan section, p. 8, which happens to be quite pertinent to Lisa See's new book Shanghai Girls. (By the way, I am making further progress with the girls as they wend their way south from San Francisco to Los Angeles.) The online version of this article offers even more information and images regarding the Chinese immigrant practice of stowing away cheat books as they sailed to America. It was hoped that these cheat books would give them the right answers to U.S. Customs Service questions. This practice was deemed necessary due to the restrictive nature of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which only permitted entrance to Chinese immigrants in limited occupations.

Our Shanghai Girls, May and Pearl, have been stowing their cheat book in one of the girl's hats, but The New York Times indicates that many immigrants threw their books overboard before they landed, having already memorized the information. In the case of Chinese immigrant, Chung Fook Wing (below), his cheat book was found in New Jersey in 1941 even though he entered the country in 1932.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Will Shanghai Girls Disappoint Me?

So far, I am progressing part way through Lisa See's newest novel, Shanghai Girls, without nodding off or needing to reach for chocolate. In fact, I would feel guilty squeezing the bottoms of mystery bonbons out of respect for the trials and travails of sisters May and Pearl, who at this point are waiting out a pregnancy in the detention camp on Angel Island in San Francisco Bay. Have to say, the story's set up in Shanghai was very good, although I recognized the author's usual tendency to overstuff her storyline with heaps of descriptive detail meant to educate the reader. In this case, she seemed to better blend in her well researched factoids so that I didn't feel like I was being hit over the head with them. Yay, Lisa See! I will plod on at my supersonic reading pace and report more later. I have hopes for this book.