Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Book You want to Savor

Do you ever buy a book that you are so looking forward to reading that you put off reading it?  It seems like the perfect book with the perfect cover and you are sure that all the answers you need for whatever questions are haunting you will be found in the covers of this book.  OR you know the story will be exactly what you need and will leave your heart beating fast, and so you read the book as slowly as you can? All you want to do is savor the book so you put off picking it up and reading it?

And so it is with my latest purchase from  an English translation of a Chinese book by radio reporter Xinran called Message from an Unknown Chinese mother.  

These days I am interested in China and in books that I might share and send to my friend Catherine in China, and in looking for stories from China I stumbled across this collection of stories and interviews that help to explain why so many girls are abandoned in China from the point of view of a Chinese journalist who is now living and writing in the UK.

Xue Xinran's radio program involved the host telling stories of Chinese people she met and interviewed over the course of her day to day travels.  She eventually turned those stories into a book called The Good Women of China: Hidden Voices.   Western women who had adopted girls from China began to write her and asking her to tell the stories of Chinese women who had abandoned or given up their daughters.  Xinran wrote this volume in response to those requests.

I think what was most surprising about this book was that it was not simply a story of 10 women who Xinran interviewed, it was really a loose journalistic account of Chinese adoption policy and the history of orphanages and the cultural norms that lead families to preferring boys over girls in China.

Parts of it were painful to read.  Girls and women in some places in China are treated quite literally like garbage.  Other parts were enlightening. Xinran, as a good journalist does, tried to uncover some of the government's secrets about orphanages and explain why adoptions slowed down so drastically in 2006 or why they refused to acknowledge adoptions were happening until 1993.

Xinran interviews orphanage workers and adoption officials and several mothers who she meets who give up their babies. She also tells a few painful stories of her own of things she has witnessed through the years.

Although the translation felt awkward at points, this was a book I definitely savored.  The end of the book includes several appendices about Chinese adoption law and family planning law that were quite interesting. She also includes the letters from the adoptive moms asking her to write this book.

 I do not think I can send it to Catherine as I have noted that Xinran is on the Chinese government's list of banned authors.  It is easy to see why.

So now which books do you read slowly?

PS All Xinran's books are available at the MCPL or the Herman B Wells library at IUB.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Making Toast by Roger Rosenblatt

This is a short sweet elegiac memoir about Roger Rosenblatt's family.  Roger lost his 38 year old daughter Amy to a heart attack owing to a very rare heart condition that no one knew she had.  Amy was a doctor and a mother to three small children.  Roger and his wife move in with their widowed son-in-law to help raise their grandchildren, and so goes Roger's very sweet and sad story of his new life and his effort to understand his grief and keep himself whole for the sake of his three grandchildren.

Roger Rosenblatt is an accomplished author.  He has written for the Washington Post and Time magazine as well as several books of fiction and non-fiction.  I did not feel this story was anything surprising or earth shaking.  There were no new revelations about grief or death.  I think when I got it from the library, it had been so advertised that I was expecting something like writing miracles. I expected to crack open the BIG STORY!

So no miracles, no revelatory writing or insights.  Really just simple truth. The only thing the author seems to be able to do for his growing grandchildren is to make their morning toast.  And so he does.  Life goes painfully on.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

A Reader Recommends

A loyal reader wrote me after I announced my Chinese-American series to tell me about a book she read with her book group: A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Xiaolu Guo.  Technically this work is not a Chinese-American authored novel but rather a novel written by a native Chinese woman who had written several novels first in Chinese.  Dictionary was her first all English novel and it is set in England where the Chinese narrator/main character goes to live for a year to learn English.  Z (her name is too hard to pronounce so she tells the English to call her Z)  meets a man and falls in love and narrates her way through her year in London by calling attention to words and meaning and how they teach her the differences between Western culture and Chinese Culture.  This year of learning language and culture for Z is also a love story and a year of learning about what it means to love a man.

Z educates herself about place and home and love and family and most of all self, by using her dictionary to help her put each word and each meaning fully in the context of her changing self-perception.

I really fell for Z and I cared about what happened to her.  Her affection for her lover was tangible (even if I did not see what she saw in him.) and her growing mastery of the language and her understanding of east meets west was fascinating as it unfolded to the reader.  She metamorphosed into a citizen of the world through her journal of words.

As a love story it was sweet and sad and compelling.  The end is not surprising but yet, you keep turning pages wondering how Z will resolve the major tension of the novel and end her love affair with the odd bi-sexual, vegetarian artist.  Or does she?  More interesting though is her own growth and development. She has become the star of her own life.

I would like to mail this work to my friend back in China.  I found the exploration of language from a Chinese native's perspective to be utterly fascinating.  I think my friend would love it.  It would make her laugh.  But I am starting to wonder about censorship in China, and I am a bit convinced that anything I send will not get through especially if it is written by Chinese.  This book also has several explicit scenes depicting sex and masturbation, and I worry the Chinese government would confiscate it for these reasons.  

I have been  searching for a list of banned books in China...hoping that I could have some definitive answers.  I found a list of books by an American ex-pat who knows a bit about books and China.  Here are at least some books, I should not try to send.

So readers, if you know this book.  Should I send it over to China?  Will it reach it's destination?  Or will I get her put on some list by sending contraband?

Thanks for the recommendation Ann!  Keep em coming.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

A Prisoner's Story

I was amazed that I was chosen to receive this book from the ER program. I spend some of my free time volunteering at the local county jail leading writing circles for female inmates. When I saw I had been chosen to read and review a book about arts in the prison, it felt very familiar and very interesting.

The memoir is actually billed as two memoirs: teacher and pupil/prisoner. Both were fine stories but each had a different rhythm and a different ebb and flow. The more interesting story is that of the poet-prisoner Spoon Jackson. Ms Tannenbaum's is fine, but since this is a kind of follow up to her first memoir which is an actual account of her four years of teaching poetry in San Quentin, I got the impression that her chapters in this book were more to give Mr. Spoons some legitimacy or weight. I don't think they needed it; his story stood very well on its own. By the end, I really wanted to read Disguised as a Poem (Judith Tannenbaum's original memoir) and I wanted to see Spoon's own narrative fleshed out a bit more.

Any reader of this would naturally root for some change in the criminal justice system that might allow Mr. Jackson to get out of prison, but to truly be a well rounded memoir--Mr Spoon would need to explore his crime a bit more. He did kill someone and it would be interesting to hear him write a bit about what that means..even now 20 years after the crime. He glossed over it very quickly in an early chapter.

I found his experiences with the arts in prison quite profound. I thought the way the system moved him capriciously between prisons and programs interesting and I was really astounded to read that he was married not once but twice while incarcerated. (One with "family visits"; one without) These aspects of Spoon's life were the heart and soul of the narrative and I would have liked more.

I did appreciate Ms Tannenbaum's reflections on teaching in the prisons. Some of her thoughts and wisdom I will carry with me next time I go into the jail. If you would like to read this book please contact me.  I will be glad to share it.