Friday, December 10, 2010

A Reader's Holiday Gift Guide

I don't have specific books to recommend this year (other that the ones I have blogged about in 2010) but I wanted to give some thought to gifts that you might give to a reader or that a reader might like to get.  Your favorite book is always a thoughtful gift--I think it is even okay to re-gift a book or read a book you are giving first.  Here are a few favorite things and websites to give you other ideas.

  • My favorite reading related charity is called Room to Read.  These people take schools and books and libraries to developing countries.  Consider a donation to these amazing people in someone else's name.
  • My writing group is called Women Writing for (a) Change-Bloomington.  If you know of someone who would benefit from writing in a conscious community consider getting her a gift certificate to one of these classes.  The group runs programs for girls and teens and could always use scholarship money for young women who would like to attend but can't afford it.  We also do outreach to women in the local jail so a donation to WWf(a)C would help offset the expenses of this program.  WWfaC has programs in Birmingham, Ala., Burlington, VT, Grand Junction, Colo., Indianapolis, Cincinnati and Louisville.
  • Ever heard of NANOWRIMO? I've been excusing myself for the past few years.  Lots of good reasons why, but I still love the program and love how they encourage writing.  Consider a gift from their way cool on-line gift store.
  • How about a poem?  For your friend that has everything or if you yourself are looking for many gifts and can afford few try giving the perfect poem. There is one for every person and every occasion.  Try the Poetry Foundation's way cool poetry tool and check out this audio site of emerging poets.
  • Or how about the gift of poetry to students?
  • I've not read this book but am enjoying the website that launched the book.  Is someone you know interested in awesome things?  Better yet, make a list of your own awesome things and give the list as a gift.
  • Consider a gift or purchase from Half the Sky Foundation: an organization dedicated to helping orphans in China.
  • Organize a group (or go solo) to a Messiah Sing in your community.  I just googled those words and trust me when I say there is one about everywhere in the country.  The chance to sing (or just listen) to beautiful music is one of the rare non-commercial opportunities of the holiday season.  In Bloomington the price of admission is canned food for our food bank.  Take someone who could use a lift.
  • Buy local!  Craft fairs, tickets to sports or theatre, gift cards to small local shops and restaurants, memberships to local museums and history centers.
Okay readers, what are your favorite gifts for readers?  Writers?  Anyone?  I would love to hear from you.

Happy Holidays from Esmerelda's Bookthing.  I'll be back after the New Year with more reading and writing fun!  

Sunday, December 5, 2010

It Gets Better

You've probably seen at least one video from the series, It Gets Better, that is being promoted by Dan Savage (syndicated advice columnist) to help gay youth realize that life gets better after high school.  His videos are a response to the recent well publicized gay teen suicides which largely came as a result of bullying. I have watched many of these with fascination and even shed a few tears.

I began reading a great memoir this week called Where's my Wand?  by Eric Poole. He writes a great coming of age story about a young boy beginning to understand his own sexual identity.  The writer recounts scenes from his life that are quite funny and full of heartache.  The thread that begins to tie them all together and becomes more and more prominent as the stories continue is the role of magic in his life.  He conjures images which are solutions to his troubles which may or may not work.  He puzzles over what works and what doesn't.  His magic becomes his line to God and he begins to question God when the magic ceases to work.  The end of this memoir is quite worth the whole book. The magic and the understanding of his life and his parents love for him all come together at the end in a very magical and important scene.  It got a lot better for Eric Poole and this book prompted me to think of other similarly themed memoirs I have read.

One of the most riveting tales I ever read was by Paul Monette who won The National Book Award for Becoming a Man. It has been more than 15 years since I read this book, so all I have left are my impressions. I remember that getting a glimpse into one person's grappling with these issues was so interesting that it prompted me to steal the book from the Bed and Breakfast in which I was staying.  This book was full of Monette's early sexual adventures and is incredibly painful to read.  Monette's anger is palpable.  Becoming a Man was the memoir that set the stage for all future coming of age tales.  Sadly, Mr. Monette died in 1995 of complications related to AIDS.

Two prominent gay artists have written books about adding children to their families.  BD Wong wrote Following Foo the story of how he and his partner hired a surrogate who gave birth to a child who was biologically his and his partners.  Wong adopted a series of emails he had written to friends and family following the birth of their child into this beautiful memoir.  (A subtle reminder that everything we write counts!)

I first became acquainted with Dan Savage when I read The Kid, his story of his and his partner's adoption of  DJ through the open adoption laws of the state of Oregon.  In his own It Gets Better video, Dan shows pictures of a growing DJ and tells stories about their family life.  The Kid tells the beginning of the story.  Again, I read it many years ago, but I remember the book as being cute, sweet, and compelling reading.  The two gay fathers have just as much worry and parental angst as any straight parents would have.

Memoir of a Beautiful Boy, by Robert LeLeux charmed me.  LeLeux recounts the antics of his mother who is out to become beautiful again in time to snag another man after Le Leux's father leaves the family.  I remember it all seemed very antic and very full of Texas wit and a memorable mother and son relationship.  LeLeux comes out late in the book and the reader rejoices with him as he finds his true love.  This was a funny fast read, and when Robert meets his true love and settles into what his life is supposed to be about, you know it got a lot better.

Last, but not least, one of my favorite memoirs is Travels with Lizbeth.  The story of Lars Eighner as he finds himself homeless and doesn't want to part with his beloved dog Lizbeth.  I'm not really fond of animal stories so I stared at it on the shelf for years until a friend prompted me to read it.  For Lars and Lizbeth, life was bittersweet but they had each other.  The writing was lovely and I fell in love with both writer and dog and cheered for them at the end.

Please consider this my personal contribution to the It Gets Better campaign. If you are out there, check out these funny, interesting, haunting and candid books about parenthood,  coming of age, homelessness, and coming to understand your own identity.  These true stories are proof also that it gets better.  Much better. All are available at the public library.

I would love to hear other reader recommendations on this topic.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Motherland by Fern Schumer Chapman

At it's heart, this book by a Holocaust survivor's daughter, is a love letter from daughter to mother.  In 1990 Fern and her mother Edith, make a trip back to Edith's hometown in Germany.  The time has come for Edith to visit the past from which she was cut off 50 years before when her Jewish parents sent her to live with relatives in Chicago. The horrors being heaped upon Jewish citizens were growing every day.

The bulk of this memoir is the story of this trip and the memories that Edith relives by setting foot in her village.  This book is a powerful testament to memory and how we care for and shape our memories as we age.  Edith visits her family home and picks up dirt off the basement floor as she is overcome with thoughts of her past.  She visits an odd museum where she swears she sees some of her family's possessions including her school satchel.  These scenes filled me with sadness for Edith, long parted from her family.

Daughter Fern spent her life never really knowing her mother Edith.  Edith could never share with Fern her sorrows and her regrets. Fern never knew any of her mother's childhood or memories of life in Germany.

So there they were togther, building bonds about the past. Edith and Fern learned about all that had happened to Edith's parents after she was shipped from Germany to the USA.  Everything they see and do in Germany feels meaningful and filled with great sorrow.  Toward the end of their trip they hear a confession of a man who treated her family poorly. They meet an old family friend who was filled with vitriol and unhappiness of the time during the war.  Where Edith had shut off the past totally, Mina had lived in the past constantly.  The contrast between the two old friends couldn't have been more stark. 

I loved this story.  Every situation pulsed with meaning and reader's will have a richer understanding of the role that memories can play in all our lives.  It felt like Fern and Edith were solving a real life mystery that involved cemeteries and old photographs and haunting times.  Without spoiling too much, as a reader will want to let this interesting trip unfold to them without knowing much in advance, there is a conversation between Fern and her mother on the last night of the trip which changes the way Fern sees her mother after all these years.  It involves Edith's description of being placed on the boat to America and saying good-bye to her parents forvever. It broke my heart.

The writing was excellent and the story sweet and sad. I highly recommend it.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Extraordinary Ordinary People by Condoleezza Rice

Throughout reading Condoleezza Rice's memoir, I kept wondering why Republicans don't have more women like her campaigning and running for office.  Rice is bright, articulate and humane, and even though she is a prominent Republican she has always fascinated me.  How did she get to be National Security Advisor then Secretary of State and most importantly, how does a black woman get to be a Republican?

Rice's voice throughout this book was simple and clear.  I felt like she was sitting across from me having tea and telling me the story of her life.  It was all written in very plain language and yet so compelling.  What a life she has led!

But  this is really only her own story vis a vis the two extraordinary people she really wants to write about:  her parents John and Angelena Rice who raised her as part of a middle class black enclave in Birmingham, Alabama during the waning days of Jim Crow.  These two people are the glue that ties Rice's life together. They are the people that made her who she is.  She ends the book after her father dies just after George HW Bush is elected to office and before he is sworn in.  She hints at events to come and notes with sadness that her father never lived to see her as Secretary of State, but he did know she would be Bush's National Security Advisor.  (I needed a hankie for the last chapter.  Her love for her parents is palpable and important to the story.)

I found the story to be most interesting when she writes of her early days in the south and what was like to bear witness to the changing times during the civil rights era.  I also thought her involvement in the end of the USSR was equally as fascinating.  She really has seen and done a lot thanks to the values and education she received from her remarkable parents.

I will say that the only part I had trouble reading was the second to the last chapter titled Florida.  I'll allow the reader to figure out what that means.  Of course she was rejoicing, but I remember crying a little that day.

Condoleeza has seen the world, met many many important people, lived through tumultuous events and had a hand in governing the country in a very troubled time.   She is also an accomplished pianist, a figure skater and was Provost at Stanford.  Her remarkable life is worthy of reading about, even if you have to skip the chapter on Florida.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Fat Girl by Judith Moore

"Even sad stories are company.  And perhaps that's why one might read such a chronicle, to look into a companionable darkness that isn't yours."    --Mark Doty, Firebird.

It took me less that 24 hours to read this tragic coming-of-age tale.  Fat Girl is by far one of the most well written contemporary memoirs I have come across in these past few years.  The writing is immediate and very very raw; it will tear your heart out as it draws you in. 

Judith Moore's ability to weave a rich haunting tale about her girlhood in a loveless home leaves me wanting so much more from this writer.  She uses every sense to evoke the feeling and the anguish of the girl at the center of the story.  I tasted food and felt repulsion at smells and empathized in every way with this honest account of growing up and being fat.  I could not put this down. I simply loved this story she wrote. 

This is not a happy story.  The writer warns the reader at the start that there will be no happy endings.  She gets no repreive, no prince in a white horse comes riding in, she doesn't magically loose a lot of weight.  But the truth is, in spite of the tragedy of this young girl's life, you know that the very act of writing this has brought the author to truth and healing.  Writing can cure our deepest wounds and somehow nurture us in a way that no one else can. 

In fact, Moore concludes with this:  I never turned suicidal, and I never jumped up happy.  As I recounted those boys in my second grade class or my terror on weigh-in days or the beatings with the belt when my mother hissed, "I'm going to cut the blood out of you," I felt relief.  Among reasons people keep sad stories to themselves is that they do not want anyone to feel sorry for them.  I don't, I don't want you to feel sorry for me.  I do not feel sorry for myself. I am what I am.  I am glad I wrote this, and I am grateful--very grateful--that you kept me company while I did. 

This book--and anything by Judith Moore--gets five stars.  Read this to learn about memoir and really amazing, immediate writing.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliett

I've had a great few weeks reading with my son.  Usually he picks a fantasy novel where I have to keep track of various characters names Tryvar and Elred and who have magical characteristics or swords that keep them adventuring.  This time he chose a novel about kids involved in an art caper and it was a lot of fun.

The novel takes place on the south side of Chicago and follows the adventures of Petra and Calder as they try to figure out who stole a priceless painting by Vermeer and track it down.  The book is filled with coincidences and odd circumstances which lead the kids into mysterious mansions and in the basements of old schools.  There is code to decipher (Grayson loved that!) and pictures with clues drawn into them.  We spent several evenings playing with a set of pentominoes in an effort to understand one of the props with which Calder, the boy in the story, spent a lot of time playing.  

Sometimes it was hard to keep track of all the details and coincidences.  At first we would leaf back and forth through the chapters and try to remember where we saw a name or what the clue was referring to, after awhile we just kept reading.  

There were a few breathtaking observations about art, and what it could mean to our world if we actually started paying attention to art and gave it glory.  I loved the characters and setting and would love to see Petra and Calder involved in another great caper together.  This is a great gift for a young adult, a mystery lover or an art lover.  You also might get a kick out of it if you grew up on the South Side of Chicago. 

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Attention Please!

This early review book caught my attention because of the topic: a mother’s year of paying attention to her distracted son.  Paying attention and focusing  has been on my mind a lot these days because I feel I do everything at once.  I am the champion of multi-tasking.  Or rather, I do nothing well because I am distracted by everything else. What does it take to focus?

Katherine Ellison wants to specifically spend a year focusing on her son because he is diagnosed with ADD—Attention Deficit Disorder.   He is chronically misbehaving in school and fighting with his parents and brother.  Ms. Ellison realizes that she shares a lot of these problems with her son and thinks a year of learning to focus can be good for them both.

Each chapter is devoted to a different kind of practice and learning about ADD and the therapies that have arisen to teach people to focus in spite of ADD.  In the chapters we see a very interesting story of a mother and her real struggles with husband and children culminating in an emotional but successful Bar Mitzvah for the boy who is subject of this story.

The thread that ties most of the chapters together and the most interesting debate and argument that runs through the book is whether or not to medicate one’s ADD child.  It is a rancorous debate and one which I will need to stop pontificating on myself.  The author suggests that you can not really know what you will do unless you have a child with these problems. 

I did find this memoir to be very interesting especially if you are a parent who is struggling with these issues or thinking about medicating your child.  It got a bit dry at times—mostly when discussing various therapies and how they work or don’t work. The real interest for me was in her sweet relationship with her son and her own realizations about how to be a better parent.  The chapter when she went to the mediation retreat was funny.  I really related to her struggles with silence.

To be sure there are lessons for all of us in here about being a better parent, focusing on your life and what is important to you, loving your children in spite of who they are and a great discourse about the place of big pharma in all our lives.

How about you?  What do you pay attention to?  Ever been to a meditation retreat?

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Book Groupie!

Finally after all these years, I can finally say I have a book group.  Actually, I probably had a book group for a few years, but I never went so it was hard to say they were my book group.  Standing invitation, all are welcome, but I never could quite read the book that they had on the table.  Today marked the second month in a row I read the chosen book and attended the discussion, and I was hugely excited to be able to talk about a book I read (and enjoyed) with a group of thoughtful interesting readers. 

We read and discussed this biography of Paul Farmer, a Christ-like character who has set about to provide health care for the world starting with the most impoverished of nations, Haiti.  Pulitzer Prize winning author Tracy Kidder wrote this in 2003 after spending many months traveling with Farmer and interviewing his friends and colleagues. 

Paul has almost literally given himself over to the lifetime pursuit of patient care of the world's poorest people and advocating for treatment and prevention of large scale epidemic class diseases like TB and AIDS at the expense of normal family life, comfort, safety, and general ease of living.  Paul Farmer sets his own rules and plays by a set of standards that treats the poorest of the poor as though they were entitled to all the medical care that middle class white people are.  He does not apologize, take no for an answer, or apparently sleep.  He writes individual thank you notes to donors of even $25.    He hikes for 7 hours to bring a patient medication.  He understands that the cultures and traditions of a country help you treat their sick people. 

This story is a remarkable tale about a very unique and inspiring man.  I encourage you to read it in your book group. 

"As you did it to the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me" (Matthew 25:40).

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Phone Book

 "This is a volume of wishes, lies and dreams, each and every 
page containing the makings of a story untrammeled 
by anything except your willingness to invest in it."

Ammon Shea has written a quirky homage to the book that everyone uses but no one reads.  I heard him interviewed on NPR last week and I picked The Phone Book up at the library as it sounded well..quirky and fun.

 The first 50 pages or so are dedicated almost exclusively to the history of the telephone and communication systems as we began to enter the 20th century.  Questions of how people started to acquire phones have always fascinated me.  Why should I get a phone? Who would I call?  No one else has one. Of course once people started to subscribe to this new device called the telephone, people began publishing lists of who subscribed.  This seemed funny to me.  Picking up your phone directory list, lets see, who can I call? Who else has a phone?  But this is probably precisely what happened.

After an early history of the book itself, Shea discusses all manner of odd tidbits about the phonebook, and its uses in our lives.  He meets phone book collectors and investigates whether or not Strom Thurmond really read the phone book as part of a filibuster on civil rights legislation.  He investigates the phenomenon of phone book ripping and has a marvelous anecdote about John Dewey and the phone book.  He clearly is fascinated by this odd book. Shea's love of the white pages and endearing words about the place of the phone books in our culture made me a little wistful.  Could I too, sit down and read the phone book?

But it does not matter.  All sorts of plans are afoot to rid our planet of this scourge called the phone directory.  It is really highly unnecessary in this day and age.  Will it or won't it dissappear?  We shall see Mr. Shea concludes.

"I'm not dead yet!" says our friend the phone book.

Monday, October 4, 2010

red cross book fair

Fun book I found
This past weekend was the Monroe County Red Cross Book Fair.  I used to turn up my nose at used books, but several years ago I discovered that you can really find some fabulous treasures in the vast tables filled with books. The trick is to come with a few hours to spare, don't bring your kids unless they are book nuts too, and just tune out the madness and focus.  I found some books by Chinese authors for Catherine, a book that is about to be read by my book club (I returned the library copy so that someone else could read it), several copies of books I have loved and loaned and never gotten back, and several books that I might like to give out as well.

Perfect copy
I am always amazed by how many pristine copies of books ones finds on the tables.  Did someone buy the book and never get a chance to read it.  Was it a gift that the receiver was never interested in?  I love also getting a book that has been inscribed by someone else or has notes in it.  It adds to the story and mystery of the book.  I am always interested in what there seems to be an abundance of.  This year there were a lot of copies of Eat, Pray, Love and Anita Shreve books.  I wanted to find some Alexander McCall Smith books as my mother is always raving about them, but I could not find a single one. I also wanted to find some books on writing to help me generate ideas for some writing workshops that I am running this fall.  I also found some interesting little gems and fiction that I might get to someday. 

Inscribed by the giver.  Remember to Laugh!
I tend to stick mostly to fiction, biography, poetry and reference sections.  The friend I brought came away with some treasures from the travel and language sections.  Another friend I ran into loves the old books that show women in aprons cooking entire meals from scratch and another likes cookbooks and cooking magazines. There are a fair number of children's books, puzzles and games which I stay away from.  We have plenty of our own which would make a good donation for next years book fair.

Remember diagramming sentences?
Another interesting thing I noted was that I saw several books that I own and thought to myself, "oh, I can part with that."  I made a note to start emptying some of my own bookshelves.  I will make an unwritten rule that I must get rid of (donate to next years book fair) at least as many books that I took in this year.  Shouldn't be too hard.    If you missed this years book fair, you can always head to the Friends of Library book sale which takes place every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.  You can find lots of gems there as well.  In general I try to stay away.  I am pretty overwhelemd with book as it is.  Find any treasures?  I'd love to hear about them.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Barefoot in Baghdad by Manal M. Omar

Books like this become must reads for Westerners because all of us need to put a face on Iraqis and Muslims. We need to understand that in so many ways they and especially women are the victims of war.

Manal Omar has worked tirelessly for the rights of women around the world but she clearly has left her heart in Baghdad. She wrote this memoir to document her time spent in Iraq. It is part harrowing adventure in a war torn country, part how-to manual on responding to women's needs in times of destruction, and part Islamic love story.

The writing is at its most compelling when she tells individual stories of women she meets, their often horrifying problems, and the struggles she has to help each one.

The memoir turned into a page turner at the end as she fled Iraq and realized her love for a man with whom she had been working. Seeing how two Muslims would manage to find love and pursue a life together in Islamic culture was also fascinating.

This is an early review book so I have a copy if anyone would like to borrow it.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Breaking Night by Liz Murray

Breaking Night: 
Urban slang for staying up 
through the night until the sun rises.

Breaking Night by Liz Murray is rightly being compared to Jeannette Walls gripping account of her rise out of poverty in The Glass Castle.  Both memoirs feature a harrowing tale of a childhood in hell, and how each woman manages to pull herself up out of despair and create a life for themselves.

Even though these tales are similar, Breaking Night does feel new and fresh and original as Liz Murray does a great job of telling her own very authentic tale.

Recently, I read a memoir writing book that cautioned the writer never to  paint oneself as a victim. It is more important to tell your story with regard to your own truth, but never let it devolve into self-pity. Liz Murray has painted herself as an authentic believable human who has overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles  in rising from living on the streets and rejecting all formal schooling, to finishing school and being accepted at Harvard.  One of the most touching scenes I have ever read comes after a newspaper story of her is printed, men and women from all over the country come to her and offer to help.  A wall she had built for herself between us and them came toppling down.  She could not believe the generosity of people who she had never even met.

Equally as touching are the scenes she paints with her mother.  Even though her mother was an addict and refused to care for her children in any of the ways that we have come to regard as normal parenting, Liz loves her mother.  Liz's mom, in her own screwed up way, loves her right back. I loved that I always understood that.  As a reader, I never hated her parents, even though plenty of people probably should.  

Just as The Glass Castle kept me turning pages so did Breaking Night.  Don't be fooled into thinking this is the same story though. It is very different and very much worth the read.  Liz Murray has gone on to become a motivational speaker and owns a company which encourages people to be all they can be.  An important message for any of us.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Hoarding and Stuff

I have been thinking a lot lately about stuff.  My stuff, your stuff and all the stuff we have together.  I think we can all agree that we humans have created a lot of stuff.  There has been a lot of press lately about this guy named Dave and his 100 thing challenge.  Dave writes about paring the things of his life down to 100 and even lists them on his website.  (I love lists, so it was kind of fun to see what he deemed necessary.)  He set up his challenge, so of course he gets to set the rules which included all his books counting as 1 thing (library=300 plus books) and all his underwear counting as 1 thing ( for sanitary reasons).

I am not sure what it was about his challenge or about the many articles generated because of the challenge, but I immediately began to defend my ownership of things.  It is not bad to have long as they don't get in the way of life or loving your family or take precedence over the important stuff.  But hey, I like my books and the art on my walls and the cool old card catalog I bought at the surplus store.  My closet is not as full as some, but I clean it out about once a year and send stuff to charity.  I like saving mementoes for posterity: report cards and child's handprints made into turkeys, birthday cards and little scribbles on napkins that remind you of a fun time you had bowling.  It all seems to be part of a time capsule and someday someone will piece together the story of you by what you leave behind.

Whenever I hear about someone getting rid of their things and living a simpler life, I feel a little sad inside.  Who will speak up for the stuff?  Surely you can be simple and still have some teapots and linen napkins and a junk drawer filled with treasures.  I have an antique desk that I no longer use and I opened it this afternoon to see what was there.  It was a perfect collection of who I was 16 years ago when I used the desk last: a party favor from a wedding, a picture of my dear Aunt, directions for how to write a manuscript for Harlequin romance novels, some stationary and pens, a little doll and a book mark.  This desk is a preserved piece of me.  I cherish it and I close the desk...happy to know it will always be there.

Anyway, as I am thinking about stuff and this seeming war on my stuff and how I might pare down even a little, I picked up this fascinating book on people who are exactly the opposite of the 100 things man.  The book is aptly titled Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things.  It turns out, according to this book, there are legions of people who have so much stuff it has become a pathology.  It seems I am the last to know that there is an entire A & E series devoted to people who hoard stuff and the vermin who live in their homes because there is so much stuff that it becomes a natural haven for critters.  Wow.  I had no idea.

The unsettling part is that although I don't think anyone could classify me as a hoarder -- my house is neat there are no pathways through the stuff.  I have only one pile and it is on my desk--I do relate to a lot of the characteristics of stuff.  I assign meaning to things that couldn't possibly have meaning.  I hang onto things for longer than most people would.  When I catch my husband throwing things away without my permission, I often retrieve it from the trash and wait to give it my own blessing.  Although on the hoarding scale of 1-10, I am barely a 1, it still feels a little awkward, my attatchement to things.  I guess I'll need to watch out for hoarding tendancies as I age.  I do want my kids to come and visit me.

Anyway,  this book is written by a pair of scientists, writing about this odd psychological disorder.  It is fascinating for all the reasons you might suspect.  I did try to watch an episode of Hoarders last week and it turned my stomach.  I couldn't watch. 

How about you?  Do you tend toward the hoarding behavior or the 100 things lifestyle?

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Dreaming in Chinese by Deborah Fallows

"Chinese may be the most difficult language for a Westerner to learn," Deborah Fallows writes in a clever book of essays about how Chinese culture is reflected through its language.  Fallows loves languages and linguistics, and when she and her husband are sent to live in China for three years, she uses her time there to study Mandarin. 

The way she deals with this subject is not only fascinating, but it really does allow us great insights into China and her people.  She writes about what seems to westerners to be Chinese rudeness but is really thier way of being polite. She spends generous time with the subject of the difficulty of understanding the tones of Chinese language, and how her inability to articulate tones would often lead her into humorous situations.  She discusses gendered pronouns and how Chinese have difficulty with that concept.  She writes of the multitude of Chinese languages and how they are all tied together by the characters: people who cannot understand each other's language across China can read the same characters.  She has another essay on the development and complexity of Chinese characters. 

I marvel at the brilliant discoveries one can make about a culture when examining the intricacies of language.   I feel like this primer would have served me well just before I went to China this past spring.  My husband, who is a language maven, is next in line to read this.  Anyone who is interested in language and how it is revelatory would love this collection.  Has anyone who studied Arabic written the same book?  If you know of one I would like to hear of it.

I close with this quote from the end of the book which is how I felt about my small time in China and my new commitment to embracining Chinese Culture.

"I did inch away from being overwhlemed at such a massive,intense, overwhelming country, toward touching a few people one by one, and getting a little closer to thier lives, however small the increment.  This reward gave me at least the illusion that I belonged, if just for a little bit in this extraordinary country at this moment in history". 

Well said, Ms. Fallows.  I hope you continue your lifelong journey of understanding China.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Baby We Were Meant for Each Other by Scott Simon

Many thanks to the friends and family who heard the myriad of interviews that Scott Simon did for NPR and alerted me to his new book.  Memoir reader and adoptive parent that I am, I had the book ordered before it was even available for purchase.  I have read so many stories about adoption from China that I was eager to note how he could put a different spin on the story than had already been done.

Jiangxi Province
Simon simply told his own story as a backdrop to tell other adoption stories and make a case for the importance and naturalness of adoption.  He gives a short history of adoption and then interviews and tells stories of friends who were either adopted themselves or adopted children as adults.  Although all the stories were compelling, none were as weepy and lovely as his own.  Perhaps I am a bit biased since we share a very similar story.  His daughters both came from the same province as our lovely girl and we both spent a rainy morning traipsing to the Chinese Bureau for Adoption Affairs in Nanchang, China.

The most interesting part of the book is the  discussion of the ultimate contradiction in my life:  how do I celebrate the culture of my lovely Chinese daugher, but also recognize that it is her culture, because of thier policies and beliefs, that left her on the doorstep of the Yiyang Social Welfare Institute one morning in May?  Simon discusses this part with such passion that I was left breathless.  One day, when she is old enough to understand, I will read her from this book.  By then, we can only hope, the the world's attitudes towards girls will have changed and the orphanges in China are only a footnote in history books. If you are interested in the issue of gendercide, Scott Simon does not reveal anything new, but he states his truth quite eloquently. 

So dear readers, the book was wonderful.  I have written to Mr. Simon and asked him questions about how I can know what is true or not in the vast army of things I hear and am told about China and my daughter.  Since he is a journalist, I hope he has a good sense of the trustworthiness of sources.  I'll let you know if I hear from him.

If you are interested in this topic, the book is a worthwhile Sunday afternoon read.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Why I don't like e-books

  • When you accidentally leave your e-book on the plane, you loose a $200 device and your entire library.
  •  All e-books look the same.  I do judge books by their cover and the glossy picture on the front of the screen doesn’t do it for me.
  • You can’t lend or borrow an e-book.
  • You don’t know what others are reading, which means you can’t start conversations about a book, or find commonalities with other humans over books.   All our reading is suddenly done anonymously.  One of the pleasures of reading is sharing what you read.  I bought my husband a book for his birthday only to find out he had already downloaded it and was reading it. 
  • Books look great lined up on shelves.  They have a feel and a smell and a place.  E-books are just pixels on screens. 
  • Curling up with a good e-book doesn’t even sound like fun.
  • When e-books take over we will loose the most important public gathering place: the public library. 
  • When I drop my books, I pick them up.  If I drop a book reader, I have a pile of glass. 
  •   Academics have a harder time citing passages from e-books since page numbers in e-books are all relative.
  • What will happen to book fairs and book sales and book stores? 
  • E-books don’t have a smell or a feel or carry nostalgia.  When my books are lined up on the shelves I can peruse them and remember where I was and who I was with at each one.  When I was 24 I backpacked through Europe and carried one book: a volume of women's travel adventures.  It lasted me most of the trip and started up several conversations with fellow female travelers.  I still have the book and I think of my adventure often when I see the book on my shelf.
  • What about children's books like pop-ups and touchy-feely books and board books?  I'm not letting my toddler run around with a reading device in her hands.
  • Everyone talks about the environment.  Does an e-book reader recycle?

 (I’ll grant you e-books are great for travelers, and for people with eyesight problems who can’t read small print, or people with small spaces who can’t have a huge library.  Sometimes I feel like one of those musty old writers who still write on typewriters and can’t see the benefit of a word processor.)  

Please comment and tell me about your vision of our book future.  Are they destined to end up only in resale shops like LPs?  Why do you like or not like the e-book reader?  

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Some reading from the NY Times

Dear Readers,

The heat has officially worn me down and I haven't been able to focus too much on the reading life.  I am expecting a new book from the ER program, and I have started reading about a dozen books which are laying around my house collecting dust and overdue fines.  I have read two very good (and long articles) in the NY Times that I'd like to share. These are by a writer named Daphne Merkin.  The first was out last year and was about depression.  A friend who suffers sent it to me to help me understand.   The other I stumbled across a few weeks ago and found fascinating.  I do know people who have been seeing therapists for many years, and I wonder how they can function living so closely under the mirror.



Saturday, August 7, 2010

The Artistic Crime of the Century

Man on Wire won an Academy Award in 2007 for best documentary. The subject was Philippe Petit who stretched a cable from World Trade Center building one to World Trade Center building two and did a high wire act--110 stories up in the air.  I can't comment on the artistic merits of the movie.  I am sure it was fine.  But I can never stop thinking about this extraordinary crime (Petit was arrested afterwards!) and feat of daring.  I find it difficult to describe with superlatives because it seems impossible.  On the morning of August 7, 1974  Petit and his accomplices strung a cable from building to building and Petit danced and hopped and laid down on the cable.  For 45 minutes he performed for the crowd below.  This was before CNN and videocameras on cell phones and well before 9/11.  When I think about what it must have taken to perform so high in the air, I absolutely shiver.  I do not believe anyone else could ever do this.

It is against this amazing story that Colum McCann sets his fabulous novel Let the Great World Spin. Philippe Petit is a minor character performing high in the air and 9 other characters tales are woven into this historic high wire walk in strange and beautiful ways.  What is even more magical about the story telling is that all the stories finally weave together into a heartbreaking, jaw dropping, yet redemptive tale set on a hot summer August day in 1974.

In addition to some great characters and fabulous stories (McCann can really get into the hearts and minds of many different types of people.) he evokes the 70's and makes it feel more magical than I remember it being.   I felt nostalgia for 1974.

One critic I read wrote that this is the only good novel written in tribute to the World Trade Centers and 9/11. When I read that I realized that this was the true beauty of this novel:  it never lets you forget these stunning buildings that are no longer dotting the NYC skyline.  

After you have read the book, check out the documentary. Let me know how you would describe this man's walk on the wire.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

A letter to Mei-Ling Hopgood

Dear  Ms. Hopgood,

I was at a party recently and a guest, who was admiring my recently adopted daughter from China, asked if I hoped to find her birth family someday.  I told the guest I did not think that would ever be possible given the situation for girls in the People's Republic of China.  "Oh yes," she replied. "I just read this great book about that. It's called Lucky GIrl."

Because of my recent trip and adoption I have a huge interest in memoir and China adoption story, and so I did not hesitate to pick up a copy.  I loved it all, and I wept copiously over many parts.  Specifically the part where you met your biological family for the first time in Taiwan, the part where you forgave your family for their attitudes rather then dwell on them, and when you imagined the boy baby brother, starving as he lay alone.  Last, the birth of your own daughter felt like a miracle.

As the mother of a girl from China, I marvel every day at the seemingly random circumstances that brought us together.  I think about the birth mother every day and imagine that somehow she has gotten word that Xiaojian is okay and healthy and happy and will have this amazing life in America.  I especially loved the part where you discussed some women's obsession with birth mothers.

You really gave me a wonderful gift.  Although I know my daughter will have her own set of feelings and emotions about her country of origin, it gave me great solace to know your story.  

People frequently call her a lucky girl.  I always respond that I feel like the luck is all mine.

My best to you,
Amy Cornell

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Bermuda Shorts by James J Patterson

When Bermuda Shorts arrived in my box from the ER program, I had to study it a minute.  I thought this was a new book by the famous author who is known for thrillers and detective novels. The one who has all those books on the best seller list.  Why does he need an early review? I wondered.

I realized after glancing at the back that this was a different James and a different kind of book: a collection of thoughtful, humorous, bittersweet essays about love, growing up, sports, politics and telephones.  There was also a short story thrown in at the end as a kind of bonus.

The personal essay is not an easy form to master, but it is also the most compelling reading, and I found myself thinking of people who would like to read certain essays.  My father-in-law would love his essay on the Washington Redskins (in fact there was a whole series of sports essays that for some would be quite compelling.)  The ministers at my church would have loved an essay titled God, Gordo and Gandhi.  Anyone who has been in love would like The Conjecture Chamber.  There is something here for everyone.  

I hope more than a few people notice this small book.  I enjoyed every essay and found them all to be clear and intelligent and worthwhile.  He manages to tell stories and be thoughtful.  He draws almost always from his rich and interesting life as a sports fan and a musician and son.  James J Patterson is a good writer and you will spend an enjoyable afternoon with this collection.

If you saw my last post you know I also love the publishing house that put out this collection.  I am more than willing to lend this to anyone local, but would also like to encourage you to buy it or to request it from your local library.  Support small presses!

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Alan Squire Publishing

I recently received an ER copy of a collection of personal essays put out by a small publishing company called Alan Squire Publishing.  I'll be reviewing this book in a few days, but before I get to that I want to share a bonus story that was included as part of the package.

Included with the book and the obligatory letter from the publisher was a 6 page photocopy of a newspaper story.  I blew it off at first.  One night as I was drifting off, it caught my eye and I became caught up in the story of the man behind this small press.  The newspaper article was from a 2008 edition of The Washington Post Magazine and was by an incredible feature writer by the name of Laura Wexler.

It seems Andrew Gifford the founder of Alan Squire Publishing was heir to the famous Gifford Ice Cream stores which all went out of business when Gifford's father left town with all the money.  Andrew was 10 years old at the time and never saw his father again.

Gifford was left with nothing and eventually found his way to a routine day job trouble shooting for the APA.  In the meantime, he always had this dream to publish books, and so using his own credit card he began to publish.  He has published three books now and has teamed up with the Santa Fe Writers Project to start offering a literature prize.

Thirtysomething Gifford also suffered from a horrible disease  called Trigeminal Neuralgia.  For 14 years he had a searing pain in his face.  Apparently this disease is also nicknamed the suicide disease because the pain is so horrific and apparently very difficult to treat.

So Gifford labors away at his day job, heir to a scandal that rocked the Baltimore ice cream world, and by night labors to produce good books and deals with searing and enduring pain.

The article I read recounted how finally he met a doctor who offered him a risky procedure to end the pain (brain surgery) and after all the years of the most painful existence you could imagine, he woke up after surgery to find his pain was gone.  Andrew Gifford went through a period of time after the surgery where he actually missed his pain.  He fingered the pills he used  to take. He mourned his missing pain like one might mourn a missing lover.

I reread that last page several times.  How could you miss your pain?  Is it true that we can become so attached to even the most horrifying life set backs that we actually miss them when they are gone?  I was amazed at Andrew's story and kept turning that idea over and over in my head.  How could someone miss a pain so awful that you feared breeze on your face or the feel of the shower on your skin?

The newspaper story did exactly what it intended to do.  My heart is very big for this young sweet man, and I hope that his business does well, and I intend to go out and buy and read all his books.  I am telling you to do the same.

Readers, this is the kind of guy we want to succeed.  So take a look at these books and ask yourself if you wouldn't like to read one or two of them. I don't mean to say buy these books cause you feel sorry for a guy who has had a rough life and is trying to do something to make himself a little piece of happy.   I am saying, the books are pretty good and we should patronize this guy because he is a good guy and he is trying to make for himself a little piece of happy.

At least request it at your public library so they will buy a copy of these good, good words.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Banned in China

At the end of Pearl of China the author, Anchee Min, writes a short note to the reader about her inspiration for writing this book, a fictionalized account of the life of Pearl Buck in China, as seen through the eyes of her (fictional) life long best friend Willow Yee.

Min writes that she had never read The Good Earth (Buck's most famous work) and in fact during Buck's bid to return to China with Nixon in 1972, Min (along with other school children) was forced to denounce her.  While Min was giving a reading of her memoir Red Azalea at a book store, a woman stepped up to her and asked if she had ever read The Good Earth.  Min replied no and the woman handed her a copy of the book as a gift.  While doing so she told Min that The Good Earth taught her to love China.

Min took the book and read it on the flight home, and when she was done she wept.  She never imagined that a Western writer could capture the essence of China, especially the peasant class, so beautifully.  And then there was that whole denunciation thing.  Min resolved to write this novel at that time.  

Min tapped exactly on why I have become fascinated with Pearl Buck.  She really understood China and its people and was able to write to tell the world and begin to bridge gaps.  We underestimate her importance on East West relations.  Remember that Nobel prize.

This novel was filled with moments like the one Min experienced herself: regret and longing and friendship and deep abiding love, especially toward the latter half of the book when we see Willow struggling to keep her faith and her dignity in spite of all the horror heaped upon her by the Chinese government.  The narrator foreshadows saying good-bye to Pearl for the last time.  She kneels at her grave in the US heartbroken that she did not see her friend for the last 37 years of her life.  She meets Nixon who brings her greetings from Buck (true?) in the US and you can feel the whole town tense and then admit that they know and love Pearl.  All these moments had me reaching for my box of tissues.  I loved this fictional story for that reason.

I was struck by how much Min's style of writing copied Buck's style.  They write in short sentences that move the plot forward quickly.  There are heros and there are villains and there exists no subtlety in any of the characters.  I was surprised to note that in Min's story the missionary work of Pearl's father, Absolom Sydenstrecker, was regarded as heroic. In fact, all the characters who converted to Christianity were heroic.  The Christian conversion narrative was so thick and annoying that it could easily be mistaken for a Christian tract.  While I find reading about missionaries in China interesting, I think there are always downsides and upsides and Min seems to really push a Christian agenda.  

This small part aside, I loved Pearl of China.  Because so much of the plot revolved around historical evidence, I am eager to turn now to some history books and biographies to see what of this volume happened and what was an invention of the author.  

By the way, as my title indicates, I don't think I can send this one to Catherine.  It is not very nice about Chairman Mao and Anchee Min's books all appear on the banned list.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

For all you e book readers out there

We have an on-going debate in our household over portable e-reading devices.  I say bad.  Husband says, good for the environment.  (He has managed to loose two of them on airplanes at this point.)

I stumbled across this fabulous series of youtube films pitting one of those devices against the book in a series of 10 films.  Guess what?  The book wins every time.

This is my favorite of the 10 films.  Go to youtube to enjoy the other nine.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Early Review Angst

What was I thinking when I put a bid on Little Big World by Jeffrey Hammond?  I think I was misled by the genre tag which read "memoir".  You know I am nuts about a good memoir.  I also have a weird interest in reading about people who collect things and this one was about collecting toys.  Boom.  This slim little book (116 pages) arrived in the mail, and has been torturing me for weeks.  I couldn't read anything else until this one was done.  The problem was the book was just was not that interesting.  I have never not finished an ER book.  It is my duty to read and review all the books I get for free, but I just could not get excited about this man's collection of toys.

It wasn't really a memoir either, it was more a rumination on collecting particular types of toys from e-bay that the author used to play with in the 1950's.  To some, I am sure it was infinitely interesting, but to me it was simply 116 pages of heady prose about what a miniature Dale Evans figurine means to the wider world.

The second chapter went into the history of the man who made these toys:  Louis Marx who made his fortune on toys in the great depression.  This was more interesting that the rest of the pages which dealt primarily with lining up plastic figurines on his desk and contemplating what play means to 50's kids.  It reminded me of the sad toys of the Toy Story movie franchise that are getting packed away when Andy goes off to college.  Only Toy Story is way more enjoyable.

Also, this quirky tidbit: Louis Marx had a daughter named Barbara Marx Hubbard who rejected her father's cult of capitalism and became a new age speaker/guru.  Interestingly enough, I have seen one of her films.  I never knew she was heir to a toy empire!

Anyway, the moral of this story is to think really hard before bidding on a book.  This blasted 116 pager kept me way down for far too long. I finally finished the review this morning and I feel free.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

On-line reading

My attention span and time to read are getting shorter and shorter during these summer days and nights.  Please excuse me as I recommend an interesting series of articles from that was published last January.  Sarah Wildman has written Paper Love:  Inside the Holocaust Archives, a fascinating series on the huge post war archives established by 11 countries at Bad Arolsen in Germany.  They were closed to the public for many years and only since 2008 have their myriad contents been open to researchers.  If you are an historian this is a treasure trove beyond imagination of source documents.  It is, of course, treasure documenting one of the worst crimes against humanity, but Sarah Wildman shares an interesting tale of her excursion to examine them and solve a small family mystery.  Pictures too!

After you read them, you will be certain this should be made into a full length book. There are so many questions to be answered and so many stories to tell.  I love to read about old mysteries solved through archives and talking to elderly people who remember and reading old diaries.  This probably stems from being the daughter of a genealogist and tracking my mother all over towns looking through courthouse records and cemeteries.

In any case, this series is fascinating, and I will be the first in line to read her book, if she writes one.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

A classic!

It seems funny to review a classic.  After all, many many people before me clearly thought pretty highly of this book or it would not be a classic.  Instead, I will tell you about a favorite character and a scene that made me cry, and tell you why you might want to read the tale of life in pre-revolutionary China called The Good Earth.  

Pearl S. Buck, who was raised in China and spoke English and Chinese, tells an epic story of the rise and fall and rise of the family of Wang Lung.  It felt a little like The Grapes of Wrath meets Dynasty.  When it was published in 1931 it made every best seller list and won every award.  Eventually Pearl Buck won the Nobel Prize in literature--the first woman to do so--for her body of work which increased understanding and awareness between East and West.  One of the notable things about the book, reports Oprah Winfrey's book club website, is that it was the first English language book to portray childbirth so realistically.  No one had read about birthin' babies before The Good Earth.

Buck was unsentimental about the fact that day to day life in China simply saw women as objects to be bought and sold. They were either sold as slaves so that families could have money or they were sent away at young ages to live in their future husband's homes rarely to be seen again.  All of it was sad and heartbreaking to me, but part of normal life in China which Buck portrays elegantly and simply.  

One of the main characters is O-lan who was sold into slavery when she was 10 so her parents could eat.  Wang Lung the farmer wants a wife, but is poor so he makes a deal with the House of Hwang and for a few pieces of silver takes home O-lan as his bride.  O-lan turns out to be a rock star.  She cooks and cleans and stands by him and works the land and most importantly bears him sons. Not just one son, but three sons.  She does not speak much and Wang Lung speaks a lot about her lack of beauty and her BIG FEET, but she is very smart and of course there are those sons.

O-lan saves the day many times. She always knows what to do, and she is faithful and loyal and understands her place.  The only thing she ever asks for is a pair of pearls from a cache of treasure that she finds in a rich person's house.  The rest of the treasure she gives to her husband so that he can buy more land. She takes those pearls and she wraps them up and keeps them in her bosom.  They represent a lot to O-lan.  They represent her freedom (she is not a slave any more).  They are a thing of beauty and value and the remind her of her value.  Those pearls, tucked away in her bosom, give her much hope and as a reader, you really can picture those perfect pearls and how special they are.

As Wang Lung's fortunes increase, he is not very content with his plain wife anymore so he goes in search of a perfect petite woman who he can have as his second wife.  The more he woos the second wife the more he grows unhappy with O-lan and even though he feels bad, he can't help himself but to be rude and callous toward the woman who helped him build his empire.  The final act of cruelty toward the wise and faithful O-lan was to demand her pearls and give them to his new concubine.  O-lan protests because she would like to give them to her daughter on her wedding day, but that just makes Wang Lung mad and he takes them anyway. Those pearls. Traveling from the quiet nest of O-lans breasts to the earlobes of his concubine make quite a picture.

As time goes on, O-lan becomes very ill and dies and after all the years and all the sons and all the duty Wang Lung is forced to recognize what a fabulous wife he had:

But when the Earth was covered over and the graves smoothed, he turned away silently and he sent away the chair and he walked home alone with himself.  And out of his heaviness there stood out strangely but one clear thought and it was a pain to him, and it was this, that he wished he had not taken the two pearls from O-lan that day when she was washing his clothes at the pool, and he would never bear to see Lotus put them in her ears again.  

Thus thinking heavily, he went on alone and said to himself, "There in that land of mine is buried the first good half of my life and more.  It is as though half of me were buried there and now it is a different life in my house."

And suddenly he wept a little, and he dried his eyes with the back of his hand as a child does.

--From The Good Earth by Pearl Buck

I found this passage to be so beautiful and so poignant and exactly why this book has existed for so long.     Buck made her main character to be perfectly reflecting of the times, but he was a dynamic character and the reader weeps along with him as he realizes how he failed.  Those pearls come out of hiding and they represent so much that was Wang Lung and O-lan's relationship.

The first few chapters of this book also reminded me a lot of the Little House on the Prairie books I read as a girl.  (Well maybe a PG version.)   Buck goes into a lot of detail about what life is like in the earthen house for a poor farmer and his wife which I found interesting in the same way Little House was interesting. This saga of pre-revolutionary China was very readable and enjoyable.

So this summer at the beach go ahead and skip over the latest from Jody Picoult and pick up this heartbreaking story of a place from long ago and far away.

Also, I am interested in the new book by Anchee Min who writes a work of historical fiction based on the childhood of Pearl Buck.  If you have it out from the library, please hurry and finish it so I can read it.  I am next on the list.

Ever been to her birthplace in West Virginia?  I would be interested in knowing if that is worth visiting as well.

Happy reading!

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Waiting by Ha Jin

Catherine introduced me to Waiting by Ha Jin, and I was embarrassed that I had never heard of this award winning poet and novelist.  Chinese-American Xuěfēi Jin, who writes under the name Ha Jin,  came to Brandeis University to study English and decided to emigrate here when he watched the Tienanmen Square massacre on TV.  He writes all his books about China in English in order to preserve their integrity.  Interestingly, his name does not appear on a list of banned authors in China.

When we arrived home from China, Waiting was the first book I put on my library reserve list.  I received it the next day and was eager to begin reading the book my new reader friend had found so enjoyable.  Unfortunately, it took me awhile to become engaged.  I dragged out reading the book so long that I could no longer renew it at the library.  I had to return it and check it out again.  I am pleased to say I finally finished it and enjoyed it tremendously.  

Waiting is a love story set in a fictional city in China in the late 60's and sets about to explore many kinds of love.  Lin Kong is a doctor who was arranged to marry Shuyu as a young man.  Lin's parents needed someone to care for them and decided Shuyu would do the trick. (In China it is common for sons to care for their elderly parents.) Lin is stationed at an army outpost in the city and his bride remains in the country where he only sees her for a week every summer.  In his role as a doctor at the hospital he meets Manna Wu, a nurse, with whom he begins a friendship and falls in love. He wants to marry her but cannot get a divorce from Shuyu.  Marriage and divorce is regarded much differently in China than it is here.  Manna and Lin are in love, remain celibate, and year after year wait for the divorce so that they can marry and be open about their love.  The story spans 20 years time.

The story felt fresh and original.  The Chinese view of marriage seems so different than my Western view.  This new understanding of love and commitment is what keeps the reader riveted to the story.  Also, we wait to know will Lin and Manna wed? and what will become of Shuyu who truly loves Lin even though they have spent scant time together?  And who does Lin really love?  Or does he love anyone?  (A word of warning, there is a graphic rape scene that I had a hard time reading.)  Mr Jin has received numerous awards for this book.  He seems to have perfectly captured the Chinese worldview and presented it so that we westerners can understand and empathize.    

I am looking forward to writing Catherine to let her know I have read the book and hearing what she thinks of it all. By the way,  she did receive my copy of The Joy Luck Club so I will look forward to hearing what she thinks of it. I'll post her reactions with her permission.  Any recommends out there for love stories?

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Point of View

A friend gave me a hand me down copy of Against Medical Advice by Hal Friedman and James Patterson and told me I would enjoy it because it was readable, and it would remind me of some similar struggles I have had with doctors while trying to understand and treat my son's epilepsy.  I avoided the book for weeks because, as many readers know, I often judge books by their covers and this one smacked of the "disease of the month club" genre.

Finally, I needed some light easy to read plane fare, and I decided to swallow my fear of the genre and picked it up.   It was compelling because the whole story, save the prologue and epilogue, were written from the point of view of the boy who was experiencing the illness.  The reader goes inside Cory Friedman's head to begin to understand what is going on as he struggles to understand his own complex case of Tourette's Syndrome and OCD.

It is a very quick read and Cory makes for an interesting narrator and tour guide through his hellish childhood.  I could relate to the feeling of hopelessness that parents feel when all doctors seem to offer is drugs, and I shed a tear or two when he finally seemed to overcome this horror that had beset him for his whole life.  Tourette's really stole his childhood.

The only complaint I had was that the POV perhaps got a bit too sympathetic toward Cory, and I really wanted to hear from the mom and dad or the teachers in his school or the doctor who treated him.  Toward the end the POV started to work against Cory.  He seemed whiny and entitled and even though I knew he had been through a lot, I suddenly stopped feeling sorry for him.  Then again, this was supposed to be a disease of the month club book and not necessarily great literature. 

Anyway, I am interested if hearing reader's comments on point of view.  What works and what doesn't work?  Who is your favorite trustworthy narrator?  For an excellent novel that is all about POV check out this favorite of mine and let me know if you would like to borrow Against Medical Advice.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

For the adoptive mother in your life

My recent adoption has brought several very good books on the adoption journey for children my way.  Since I have been traveling and have had a hard time getting any serious reading done, I thought I would share a few titles.

The first, The White Swan Express, is specifically directed at the crowd headed to the White Swan Hotel in Guangzhou, China to meet and adopt a Chinese daughter.  This was an especially beautiful story for me.  I loved that they portrayed the experience of a diverse group of families and the special day they had when they met their new daughters.

I Love you Like Crazy Cakes is a single mother's journey to adopt a baby girl from China and is also very appropriate for people on the Chinese adoption path.  The pictures are gorgeous and it also an apt way to explain a Chinese adoption to a little girl.

Motherbridge of Love explains to girls or boys (note: the illustrations are all of girls but the text can be for either gender) the importance of both their mothers:  their birth mother and their adoptive mother.   Although the woman who published the book, did so specifically with Chinese and Western mothers in mind, it is really appropriate for any adoptee and their adoptive mother.  The poem was sent anonymously to the not-for-profit organization Motherbridge of Love which exists to promote Chinese culture between the West and China and specifically to educate adopted Chinese girls on the place of their heritage.  It seems to me a very good way to explain my child's birth mother to her when she begins asking those questions. It is a lovely lovely book. Be. sure to check out the website too.  Its based out of the UK but is helpful for ideas and contacts.

Any other adoption children's books to recommend?  I would love to hear about them