Saturday, August 16, 2008

The Colour by Rose Tremain (Jill)

The Colour
By Rose Tremain
Completed August 16, 2008

On the surface, The Colour by Rose Tremain was a beautifully written account of English settlers in mid-nineteenth century New Zealand, trying to escape their demons while carving a new life for themselves. However, if you scratch deeper, you saw that it’s also a story about the attainment of happiness, and more importantly, how to be happy with what you’ve already attained in life.

Joseph and Harriet Blackstone, along with Joseph’s mother, Lilian, settled in their cob house in rural New Zealand, and while dredging the creek, Joseph discovered gold dust. New Zealand was at the throes of a gold rush – much like in California – and Joseph immediately was struck with gold fever. He hid his discovery from his wife and mother, until the fever (literally) overtook him, and he voyaged out to strike it rich. Meanwhile, Harriet and Lilian were left to make do on an undeveloped farm in meager shelter.

Joseph was an interesting character. Hard-working but unconfident, he was hell bent to redeem himself from his “mistake” in England, especially in the eyes of his mother. Redemption for Joseph was in the form of money and success, which is why he was so determined to find more gold. Harriet was another interesting character. Strong, smart and practical, she longed for the mountainous life in New Zealand, but became steadily uneasy with the life Joseph wanted for them. For her, a simple but successful farm filled with warmth and love was more important than wealth.

I have never read a book set in New Zealand, and I was fascinated with the inclusions of the native culture, wildlife and customs that Tremain sprinkled in this book. The rigors of farm life and gold camps were blatant and telling, with tragedy poking its head around each corner. You wished the best for each character, even when he didn’t know what was the best thing for him (or her).

This was my first Rose Tremain novel but not my last. Her storytelling, vivid language and fascinating characters left me begging for more. I highly recommend The Colour to readers who enjoy great historical fiction or want to learn more about the settlement of the British in New Zealand. ( )

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Laura's Review - A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers

A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers
Xiaolu Guo
283 pages

This is the story of Zhuang, a 23-year-old woman who arrives in London to spend a year learning English. She is never far from her "concise Chinese-English dictionary," looking up words and keeping a diary of her new vocabulary. Early in her stay she meets an older man and quickly moves in with him. Through their intense relationship she learns the language, and much more about "the West," about her sexuality, and about herself.

The book is written in the first person, organized by month. Zhuang's language improved over time, and so did her ability to tell her story. Her feelings of confusion and isolation were most well developed. If there was one aspect i didn't like, it was that Zhuang's world was entirely centered on men. There were very few other women in this story, and all were ancillary characters. I would have liked this book more had Zhuang also grown as an independent woman. ( )

My original review can be found here.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

The Amateur Marriage by Anne Tyler (Jill)

The Amateur Marriage
By Anne Tyler
Completed August 2, 2008

Once again, Anne Tyler takes a poignant look at everyday life in her The Amateur Marriage. In this book, Tyler examined the ups and downs of marriage and family life through main characters, Michael and Pauline. The story opened with the couple meeting during the whirlwind of the attack of Pearl Harbor. They married after a brief courtship – each with their own goals and opposite personalities. Michael was quiet, calculating and withdrawn; Pauline was talkative, extroverted and impulsive.

With some couples, the opposing personalities strengthen their marriage, but Michael and Pauline struggled deeply with communication. I wanted Michael to talk more openly and Pauline to really listen. They faced many hiccups –issues with their children, deaths of their parents and raising a grandchild – but they always missed the mark about being open and honest with each other.

This story was a great primer on what to do and not do with your spouse. Perhaps engaged couples could benefit from the lessons taught in The Amateur Marriage. Despite the many books, counselors and friendly advice, we really are amateurs when we marry.

To me, Tyler is at her best with The Amateur Marriage. Some readers may get frustrated with her narrative style and leaping time frames, but it did not distract me. If you loved Breathing Lessons or The Accidental Tourist, then I would highly recommend this book to you. ( )

Saturday, August 2, 2008

The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai (Jill)

The Inheritance of Loss
By Kiran Desai
Completed July 27, 2008

It’s hard to review The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai. Overall, it was a good story – not spectacular but not horrible. It certainly appealed to the critics, but for an average reader like me, I was slightly disappointed with parts of this award-winning novel.

The Inheritance of Loss was the story of a judge living with his granddaughter, Sai, at the foothills of the Himalayan mountains. The judge was cold-hearted and demanding, and Sai found more fatherly comfort for their cook. The cook told her stories of grandeur from the judge’s past life (as well as his own). The cook dreamed of the day when his son, Biju, settles successfully into New York City so the cook could live with him. Interwoven with this story were commentaries on colonialism, Indian culture (particularly their caste system), immigration and nationalism.

Where The Inheritance of Loss excelled was in the illumination of Indian culture and the treatment of Indian immigrants in the U.S. I learned tremendously about both themes from this book. I often interact with Indians at work, and I discovered a newfound appreciation for their culture and how hard it is to acculturate into my country.

However, there were parts in this novel that just dragged for me. Perhaps the plot and character development were too subtle for my reading taste. In areas where the story didn’t seem to advance, I found myself skipping pages. I don’t think I missed much by doing so either.

I believe that The Inheritance of Loss is one of those books people either gush over or shrug at. I enjoyed Desai’s writing style, her humor and her subtle touches, and I would read another novel by her. I would recommend this novel to fans of Booker Prize winners with one piece of advice: bring your patience when you read this novel.( )