Saturday, January 29, 2011

Beachreader's Review - Wolf Hall

Title: Wolf Hall
Author: Hilary Mantel
Published:  2009, Henry Holt and Company
Genre: Historical Fiction
Accolades:  2009 Man Booker Prize winner, 2009 National Book Critics Circle Award winner, 2010 short list for The Orange Prize

Wolf Hall is a very detailed book that chronicles the life of Thomas Cromwell focusing on his impact on the house of Tudors and Henry VIII.  The book is divided into two sections with the first emphasizing the fall of Thomas Wolsey, Archbishop of York and Cromwell's patron and the second half the rise of Cromwell and his role in the separation of England from the Catholic church, so that Henry VIII can marry Anne Boleyn.

I have been sitting here trying to figure out how to write about an award-winning book that is masterfully crafted and amazingly detailed in its historical accuracy, but that I just didn't enjoy.  I have been trying to pinpoint what it was that didn't captivate.  I think one thing that put me off on this book is that I did not really care about Thomas Cromwell - I didn't form a bond, so to speak, with the character.  I was more interested in the people around Cromwell than Cromwell himself.  The other characters seemed more intriguing and life-like with Cromwell almost like a shadow figure.  But maybe that's what Mantle was doing in her book, focusing on the historical story through Cromwell's eyes.

Is this book worth reading? I would say yes, because of the historical element, but it goes slowly - at least for me.  I read three other books while reading Wolf Hall because I needed a book that was more gripping, more alive. 

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Laura's Review - The Colour

In 1864, Joseph Blackstone, his new wife Harriet, and his mother Lilian emigrated from England to New Zealand in search of a better life. Lilian, recently widowed, pines for her former lifestyle and resents having to live on their remote farm. But at the same time, she also hopes to rise above her station, and is disappointed to encounter familiar class barriers in New Zealand:
The familiar feeling of being snubbed -- a feeling she'd thought belonged only to England, where the disdain of the upper classes infected every encounter -- made Lilian want to weep, or, worse, give Dorothy Orchard a vicious swipe across her badly coiffed head. Lilian was particularly vexed by the knowledge that she never understood exactly how people like Dorothy Orchard achieved their instantaneous mastery over others outside their class. It happened before you noticed it, like a perfectly executed card trick. (p. 78)
Joseph is arrogant and stubborn, refusing to listen to advice from the locals on where to build his house, and what materials to use. Joseph and Harriet have an odd relationship. Joseph has a secret in his past, and married for all the wrong reasons. It's not clear what they see in one another, and it doesn't take long for Harriet to realize she will never truly love Joseph:
For day by day, she kept secret from him her own lovelessness. It piled up in her. At times, it was not merely lack of love that she felt; it was hatred of the blackest kind. And though she struggled to conceal it from him, perhaps she succeeded no better than he did with his blatant heaps of earth? In the nights, she often awoke at first light to see him staring at her, his eye close to hers, his fists clenched around the sheets. Did he know that she did not love him? Did he understand all too clearly that she loved the wilderness he had brought her to, but not him? (p. 95)
Yet both Harriet and Lilian are committed to making their farm a success, even after Joseph finds gold in a nearby creek and decides to join the hundreds of other men seeking their fortunes in New Zealand's gold rush. Circumstances eventually force Harriet to go off on her own, in search of Joseph.

The story is told from alternating points of view with chapters narrated by Harriet, Joseph, and a couple of other characters who weave nicely into the storyline. Joseph turns out to be an arrogant and hapless loner, unable to relate to women and desperate to please his mother by accumulating wealth. Harriet is strong and independent, undaunted by Joseph's failings and refusing to bow to societal expectations of women. It is only through Harriet's intelligence that the couple have any chance of finding gold and making something of their lives together.

But that's only part of this story; Rose Tremain has more to say than "just" historical drama laced with love. She also shows how the quest for gold took its toll on the land and destroyed both individuals and communities. Those who are untouched by greed and continued leading simple lives were by far the happiest and, one could argue, the most successful.

Cross-posted from my blog

Friday, January 14, 2011

The Hundred Secret Senses - Wendy's Review

“… Yin people, after while, just speak heart-talk. Easier, faster that way. No misconfusion like with words.”

“What does heart-talk sound like?”

“I already tell you.”

“You did?”

“Many time. Don’t just use tongue, lip, teeth for speaking. Use hundred secret sense.” - from The Hundred Secret Senses, page 211 -

When she is five years old, Olivia meets a half sister she never knew she had. Kwan is twelve years older and arrives from China to live with Olivia and her family in San Francisco. It is 1962 and Kwan has lived a life light years away from Olivia in terms of culture and language, religion and belief – she is a puzzle to Olivia as she offers up stories of an ancient previous life lived in mid-nineteenth century China. Kwan seems to have the power to communicate with the dead through her “yin eyes,” something that fascinates, frightens and bewilders Olivia.

Narrated mostly from the point of view of Olivia, but interspersed with Kwan’s fantastic stories, The Hundred Secret Senses is a novel about two sisters and their complicated relationship. As Olivia struggles with her failing marriage, Kwan is her constant companion, whether Olivia likes it or not. Olivia is removed from her Chinese heritage and embarrassed by Kwan’s stilted English and superstitious beliefs. But despite her best efforts to dismiss Kwan’s stories, Olivia finds herself drawn into a world where dead people speak, the past becomes entwined with the present, and fate seems unavoidable.

Fate has no logic, you can’t argue with it any more than you can argue with a tornado, an earthquake, a terrorist. Fate is another name for Kwan. – from The Hundred Secret Senses, page 168 -

Amy Tan’s characters jump to life on the page. Original, funny, and deeply complex, the characters drive this story about human connection, love, secrets, and the mystery of life itself. I loved Kwan, a character who is quirky, lovable, and immensely wise.

Kwan, in contrast, is a tiny dynamo, barely five feet tall, a miniature bull in a china shop. Everything about her is loud and clashing. She’ll wear a purple checked jacket over turquoise pants. She whispers loudly in a husky voice, sounding as if she had chronic laryngitis, when in fact she’s never sick. She dispense health warnings, herbal recommendations, and opinions on how to fix just about anything, from broken cups to broken marriages. She bounces from topic to topic, interspersing tips on where to find bargains. Tommy once said that Kwan believes in free speech, free association, free car-wash with fill-’er-up. The only change in Kwan’s English over the last thirty years is in the speed with which she talks. Meanwhile, she thinks her English is great. She often corrects her husband. “Not stealed,” she’ll tell George. “Stolened.” – from The Hundred Secret Senses, page 21 -

Tan takes her readers back to China, into an old world of tiny towns and breathtaking vistas, and immerses us in a world of Chinese ghosts and deeply entrenched superstition. She slowly reveals the relationship between Olivia and Kwan, moving toward a conclusion which is surprising, heartbreaking, and filled with hope.

I loved this book with its mix of humor and sentiment. Tan alternates between reality and spiritual knowledge, turning what we think we know on its head. She reveals a deeper understanding about what it means to be human and connected in a world which seems vast and mysterious. Readers who appreciate lyrical writing and complex characterization will want to add this Tan novel to their must read pile. The Hundred Secret Senses earned Tan a spot on the 1996 short list for The Orange Prize for Fiction.

Highly Recommended.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Laura's Review - Alias Grace

In 1843, Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper Nancy Montgomery were brutally murdered at their home in Kingston, Ontario. Two servants, James McDermott and Grace Marks, were tried and convicted. McDermott was sentenced to death, but Grace's sentence was commuted to life in prison. In Alias Grace, Margaret Atwood uses scant historical evidence, and the character of young Dr. Simon Jordan, to tell Grace's story.

Dr. Jordan is somewhat of a specialist in mental illness, and in 1859 is granted permission to conduct a series of interviews with Grace at the penitentiary. He hopes to learn her side of the story, not just what her attorney told her to say at trial. But Grace has blocked all memories associated with the murders, and uncovering the truth is a long process requiring much patience. Jordan visits Grace nearly every day, and she recounts her life story from early childhood in Ireland all the way up to the murders.

Very early on, I fell into reading Alias Grace as I would any murder mystery. I forgot it was historical fiction, and began reading between the lines, searching for red herrings and expecting surprise plot twists. But the fascinating aspects of this tale are actually due to its basis in historical fact. In the 1840s, the field of mental illness was going through tremendous change, with many new theories and treatment methods. Many psychological conditions were simply not well understood. And Grace herself was a victim of society's prevailing attitudes toward women. Because she was attractive, some thought she must be the mastermind behind the murders. Others claimed her youth made her an unwilling victim. Margaret Atwood brings out another side of Grace, that of a strong independent woman whose psychological reaction to trauma fundamentally changed the course of her life.

Cross-posted from my blog

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Laura's Review - Lottery

Perry Crandall is a 31-year-old man with an IQ of 76, which is just above the level that defines mental retardation. Perry was raised by his grandmother and grandfather, his own parents having bailed on him for reasons that are never fully explained. Thanks to Gram's affirming parenting style and deep love for Perry, he grew into an adult capable of living independently, although complex decisions are difficult for him to make on his own. Perry's life changes permanently when Gram passes away, and shortly afterwards he wins $12M in the lottery.

Perry is innocent and trusting ("suggestible," Gram would say), so his family easily convinces him to let them sell Gram's house and keep most of the proceeds. After Perry wins the lottery, he is besieged by his money-grubbing "cousin-brothers" (his mother's children by another man), and a host of organizations all hoping to benefit from his windfall. Fortunately, Perry has two people who care about him: his boss Gary, and co-worker Keith. Gary provides Perry with an apartment above his store and includes Perry in family gatherings. Keith grows from friend to protector, bringing common sense to situations where Perry lacks experience. Keith uses colorful language, drinks too much, and generally abuses his body; his earthiness is a marked but amusing contrast to Perry's naiveté.

Perry's story is told in the first person, and much like the character of Jack in Emma Donoghue's Room, the narrative voice rang true for me. Seeing the world through Perry's eyes, but armed with a better knowledge of the real world, I could anticipate his brothers' shenanigans, and I knew when Perry was misinterpreting people's actions. And I also felt his ups and downs, his elation and his grief. There were some aspects of the story I wish were better explained, especially some details surrounding Perry's family. But the real story revolved and Perry and his relationships with Keith, Gary, and a young woman named Cherry, who become more like a family than his brothers could ever be. This book moved beyond a "person with a disability overcomes adversity" story, to a story of love and devotion with a surprising emotional impact.

Cross-posted from my blog

Monday, January 3, 2011

A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Xiaolu Guo

This book sat and waited for me for a very long time. It looked good, and yet I didn’t pick it up. I thought that I knew just what it would hold, just what it would be about before I even read it.

The combined forces of my own Clearing The Decks Project and Orange January made me pick up A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers on New Years Day. And I’m very glad.

Yes, the story, the themes were very much as I had expected, but reading brought them into my heart and into my mind.

“Beijing time 12 clock midnight.
London time 5 clock afternoon.
But I at neither time zone. I on airplane”

Zhuang Xiaoqiao (called “Z” because people find it difficult to pronounce her name) is a 23-year-old Chinese girl sent to the UK to study English. I wondered if I could cope with Z’s fractured English, but that didn’t worry me for very long at all.

The picture painted of Z is perfect: she is naive, and eager to learn, she is always watching and thinking. I was charmed, and I wanted to follow her, to walk beside her into her new life.

Her impressions and experiences as she found her feet in London were wonderfully observed, and her use of language illuminated the gulf between Chinese and English in a way that was both beautiful and clever.

I was also struck by the bravery of anyone who travels alone to a country with a very different language that they hardly know. A country so different, so far from home. I’m not sure that I could ever be that brave.

A chance meeting and a linguistic misunderstanding result in Z much older man, a failed artist, a drifter. In time she falls in love with him.

That relationship illustrates wider cultural differences. Attitudes to food, travel, sex, openness, privacy … so many things that go to the very heart of relationships. So many differences, so many things that Z’s dictionary just can’t explain.

And it’s one thing to identify differences, but quite another thing to understand everything that those differences mean and to learn to live with them.

“But why people need privacy? Why privacy is important? In China, every family live together, grandparents, parents, daughter, son and their relatives too. Eat together and share everything, talk about everything. Privacy make people lonely. Privacy make family fallen apart.”

All of the other characters, even her lover, were faintly drawn, emphasising how different and how alone Z was. She clung to her lover and there was no room for others. How I wished she would mix with her fellow students, experience a different life, but no.

I still loved her, but at times she infuriated me.

How much was character and how much was culture? I really couldn’t say.

A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers has is flaws: the use of language is sometimes inconsistent, and the story does drag in places.

But it illuminates some wonderful truths as Z navigates through her relationship.

“People always say it’s harder to heal a wounded heart than a wounded body. Bullshit. It’s exactly the opposite—a wounded body takes much longer to heal. A wounded heart is nothing but ashes of memories. But the body is everything. The body is blood and veins and cells and nerves. A wounded body is when, after leaving a man you’ve lived with for three years, you curl up on your side of the bed as if there’s still somebody beside you. That is a wounded body: a body that feels connected to someone who is no longer there.”

I am so pleased that I have read this book at last: I have met a heroine to cherish, and her has touched my heart and my mind far more that I thought it would.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Laura's Review - Everyman's Rules for Scientific Living

In the 1920s and 30s, the Better Farming Train traveled across the Australian state of Victoria, educating isolated rural communities on farming and household management practices. Jean Finnegan and Robert Pettergree met on the train; she was a specialist in sewing and household management, and he was a soil scientist. The train's close quarters stoked their passion, and soon Jean and Robert decided to marry, leave the train and start their own farmstead.

Robert adopted a highly scientific approach to wheat farming, and enlisted Jean's help to conduct experiments in bread production following each year's harvest. He is idealistic and convinced his way is the correct one; she trusts him and provides moral support. She also keeps detailed records for each year's crop, as if writing a laboratory report for a high school science experiment:
The sample has a low bushel weight (61 lbs). In accordance with standard sampling procedure a portion of FAQ (fair-average quality) wheat was critically examined and subjected to analysis and a milling test in the experimental flour mill.

The sample is very bright and plump, and has a generally pleasing appearance. The moisture content and the protein content are normal. (p. 78)
Jean's report continues with a description of the "experiment's" purpose, quality test results, and the measurable characteristics of 10 loaves of bread baked with flour from the year's harvest. This is repeated each year, allowing the careful reader to see for themselves the effectiveness of Robert's scientific farming methods.

When the government launches a wheat-growing scheme to stimulate the economy, Robert uses facts and figures to convince other farmers to increase wheat production by adopting his techniques. What follows is a classic example of the effects of messing with an ecosystem. As farming becomes increasingly difficult, Jean and Robert also suffer -- individually, as a couple, and as members of their community.

Everyman's Rules for Scientific Living is written in spare prose, laced with both understatement and irony. The character development is subtle; both Jean and Robert are fully formed, and yet there's so much more I wanted to know. But the style perfectly conveyed the stark landscape and the harsh life of a farm family.

Cross-posted from my blog