Wednesday, September 30, 2015

September Library Checkout

I believe it is only fitting and proper that I participate in this monthly posting hosted by Shannon of River City Reading. There are several reasons:

1) I am currently President of our local library's Board of Trustees and should use it as much as possible! You know...set a good example! :)

2) I love the library!! Always have...always will! This was virtually my only source of reading material when young. 

3) I should know all about how our local library system and the electronic lending system network functions! Since I am technically a part of our library... :)

4) I already own way too many books and really shouldn't purchase many more... :) Well, okay, to be honest, I should never purchase ANY more books! But that just isn't going to happen! :)

5) I want this to serve as further encouragement to read more library books. Plus, I do have an "in" with our Library Director since I can recommend books for purchase! :) But all library patrons have the option to request specific titles for future purchase!

September 2015

Books Read: 

1) Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
The blog post says it all for me! Poignant, heartrending, yet in the end, hopeful! 

2) Golden Boy by Abigail Tarttelin 
(Only a Goodreads review posted, blog post under construction!)
A powerful and informative read! (Update--blog post finally done!!)

3) Yes Please by Amy Poehler 
(Only a Goodreads review posted, blog post under construction!)
Since I haven't watched TV in over 15 years I have never watched Amy Poehler, the comedian/actor, but I really enjoyed this audiobook during my commute back and forth to work and I like this woman! She seems to be genuine and honest. I love her description of her love for her sons--she could just eat 'em up! :)

Currently Reading: 

1) Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
Another audiobook, as with Yes Please, Woodson is the narrator. I am 1/4 done and loving it. Very simple language. Heartfelt. Genuine.  

Checked Out, TBR:

1) Open and Shut by David Rosenfelt
A mystery and first in a series!

2) Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively

Man Booker Prize winner in 1987.

3) Andrea Martin's Lady Parts by Andrea Martin

Looked like it might be humorous and enjoyable--a break from some more intense reads.

Returned Unread:

None. One huge perk to serving on the Board of Trustees is that I never accumulate or owe fines! So I can keep books as long as no one else places a hold on them, with no penalty. :) However, in all fairness I have only taken advantage of this a few times over the past few years! :)

On Hold: 

1) Let's Pretend This Never Happened: A Mostly True Memoir by Jenny Lawson
Another humorous one for the car during my daily commute!

Ng on Everyth(i)ng...

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
Hardcover Edition
I felt I really must read this after seeing Shaina's review at Shaina Reads at the end of August 2015. As I read her review, I said aloud, "No not 'everyone and their pet cat' has read/reviewed this one...for instance, I haven't!" :) When I started checking out others' reviews, I had to read it myself...just to see! 

Firstly, I was reminded of Jhumpa Lahiri's writing style. I have read and absolutely loved Interpreter of MaladiesThe Namesake, and Unaccustomed Earth. Like Lahiri, Ng has quite the knack for making each character real and believable, as if they could be my friends and neighbors. I also felt elements of Ng's writing were similar to Maeve Binchy (Too many books published to list them all, even just the ones I've read!) in that we got to know the characters so very well as to realize the underlying motivations for their intentions, actions, and attitudes. Miss Celeste is a master of the first sentence(s), too. I realize everyone else has also used this in their review, but it really is incredible as an least it was for me! 
  Lydia is dead. But we don't know this yet. 1977, May 3, six-thirty in the morning, no on knows anything but this innocuous fact: Lydia is late for breakfast. (1)
Wowzers! I was hooked instantly! Who wouldn't be? Her mother, Marilyn, starts searching, inside the house, outside the house, confirming that her car is still in the garage, though Lydia doesn't know how to drive, and then she learns Lydia is not in her first-period class, 11th-grade physics (though she is in 10th grade). We later see how ironic that is...

We learn that Lydia has done much to camouflage who she really is and wants to be, simply to keep peace within her household, especially with her parents. Her father, James is of Chinese heritage, though born and bred in the U.S.A., his phenotype is definitely Asian/Chinese, as are Lydia's brother and sister, Nath and Hannah. However, Lydia's phenotype is much more similar to her mother's, who is 'white.' She has her mother's blue eyes, though her hair is dark. The prejudice within this family is no different than so many others, the child most resembling the majority race/ethnicity is the favored one, and that would be Miss Lydia, the middle child of James and Marilyn's three children. I remember reading that even Malcolm X preferred his own children who had lighter skin and facial features that appeared less ethnic. That shocked me! But I have read many other articles confirming that same prejudice for those most resembling the majority among many cultures and subcultures. 

As with many females in the late '60's and throughout the '70's, Marilyn abandoned her own academic/career dreams to get married and have a family. As a female who graduated from high school during the '70's, my mother told me I should definitely go to college, "just as a backup" in case I didn't get married or I ended up divorced and single (like her) or something happened to my husband... I still chuckle at that even now. Though it is more sad than funny... I suppose most of us as we get older sometimes wonder what might have made a difference for us in our lives and the decisions we made as teenagers. But we can't go back! :) We must continue onward and upward! 

  How had it begun? Like everything: with mothers and daughters. Because of Lydia's mother and father, because of her mother's and father's mothers and fathers. Because long ago, her mother had gone missing, and her father had brought her home. Because more than anything, her mother had wanted to stand out; because more than anything, her father had wanted to blend in. (25) 
Much cooler Paperback Cover! 
And this pretty well sums it up! There was a time when Marilyn had simply driven off, moved to another city, and enrolled in college courses, determined to complete her bachelor's degree and then obtain an MD. She had simply abandoned James, Nath, and Lydia to their own devices with no notice. I could relate to her desires, as I had my own similar desires during years spent as a stay-at-home mother, though I was fortunate enough to be able to return to college and complete by bachelor's degree once my three children were in school. I could understand Marilyn's desire to be 'different,' as I was much the same way in high school. Fortunately for me, however, there were at least 4-5 other female classmates who were also science/math nerds, so I was not the ONLY female in those science classes, which I am sure helped me feel much more comfortable than if I had been alone amongst the males. Though I typically preferred hanging out with the males, as opposed to females--I was not interested in talking about boys, dating, clothes, or gossip, which I considered to be a 'waste of my time.' After all, I always had a good book I could be reading, or a sewing or knitting project I could work on... So it might have been easier for me than it seemed to be for her. 

James might not have felt quite so 'different' as an adult had he been hired as a faculty member at Harvard, as he had expected. Once that prospect was removed from his list of possibilities he took a position at a small college in Ohio, where, of course, there would be very little to no 'diversity' among the students/faculty/staff on campus, or the surrounding community. He and his children bore the brunt of prejudice and discrimination as meted out by the local citizenry. I can also relate to that. Though my situation in childhood wasn't nearly as dire, I experienced similar behaviors and attitudes in my own small-town rural Midwestern community simply because my mother was divorced and she and I lived with my grandmother. That was unheard-of back in the '60's and '70' least in such rural mid-western small-town environments in the U.S. Overall, it was fairly easy to ignore the older kids on the bus, but I remember not understanding why other adults disliked my mother and talked about her so. (It wasn't like she slept around or anything!) It was obviously much more intense, blatant and hurtful for Lydia and Nathan in small-town Ohio than it was for me. James had worked hard to learn as much as possible as a child, so he could earn a scholarship to attend the private school where his father worked in maintenance. And as a child he was constantly worried that other students would learn of his connection to his father, the janitor. That's just awful! But I'm sure it would be true! He continued to feel uncomfortable even as an undergraduate and then graduate student at Harvard--he had no friends and had never truly connected with any of his peers, until Marilyn...though she was his student, not truly a peer...until she dropped his 'Cowboy' class and they became lovers. They were not that far apart in age. 

Ah, people do create others' stories for themselves, as Lydia and Jack's relationship demonstrates. In a startling discovery, Hannah is the only one who sees Jack's true feelings and the target of his love. Everyone believed Jack was having sex with all the girls who rode in his car. No questions asked. Though no one knew the truth except Jack and those girls. I was shocked by James seeking out Louisa, though of course, they did share the same Asian/Chinese looks, and perhaps that, combined with the loss of his daughter and his seeming inability to connect in a meaningful way with Marilyn at the time 'pushed' him into anothers' arms...but personally, I still cannot condone sleeping with people other than your own spouse/partner when in a committed relationship. And poor little Hannah! It was as if she was always just an afterthought to James and Marilyn, and of course, we can easily imagine it might be difficult for Marilyn not to resent Hannah as the reason she had to once again abandon her own college education and hopes of a professional career. During her mother's absence, Lydia discovers her maternal grandmother's cookbook under a bookcase and as she reads it realizes how unhappy her mother must be and blames herself and Nath.
  If her mother ever came home and told her to finish her milk, she thought, the page wavering to a blur, she would finish her milk. She would brush her teeth without being asked and stop crying when the doctor gave her shots. She would go to sleep the second her mother turned out the light. She would never get sick again. She would do everything her mother told her. Everything her mother wanted. (137)
And so begins Lydia's own 'hell on earth' as she attempts to be the person her mother and father both expect her to be...what they were not. Any loving, caring parent always wants life to be 'better' for their child/children, however, pushing anyone too much to make them into the person you want them to be is a dangerous proposition, and will usually destroy a relationship.

One of the underlying themes in this book was resentment...there was so much to go around! Both Hannah and Nathan couldn't help but resent Lydia because she was the obvious 'favorite' of both parents. Although Nath had one day actually pushed her off the pier into the lake, Lydia was petrified to think of daily life without him to confide in and debrief with, as well as resenting his apparent freedom to do as he pleased, select his own program of study, and school, etc. Poor Hannah, of course, had to resent both her brother and sister and the way she was constantly ignored, but especially her mother and father for their lack of love and attention, which was all showered on Lydia, then Nath, and then...not her,never her... I believe James resented Marilyn's constant attention to Lydia, feeling she carried her expectations for her daughter too far, putting too much pressure on her. I had a good friend in elementary school who was pressured by her parents to be 'perfect' in her schoolwork. She once scored an "A-" on a high school exam and was grounded and had to eat supper with a textbook at the table, studying. She was punished for an A minus! Each grade she earned must be an "A." She ended up not going to college, though she was our valedictorian! Why? Simply because she refused to allow herself to be pressured like that any more--she knew her parents would never leave her alone, but harass her as they had always done. Isn't that sad? Not that every single person should go to college, it is definitely not for everyone, however, you should at least give your children the freedom to decide without undue pressure. I felt sad for her, as I did for Lydia.

Nath's resentment is finally released somewhat as he pushes Lydia off the pier and into the lake,
...the second he touched her, he knew that he had misunderstood everything. When his palms hit her shoulders, when the water closed over her head, Lydia had felt relief so great she had sighed in a deep choking lungful. She had staggered so readily, fell so eagerly, that she and Nath both knew: that she felt it, too, this pull she now exerted, and didn't want it. That the weight of everything tilting toward her was too much. (154)
...It was too big to talk about, what had happened: it was like a landscape they could not see all at once; it was like the sky at night, which turned and turned so they couldn't find its edges. It would always feel too big. He pushed her in. And then he pulled her out. All her life, Lydia would remember one thing. All his life, Nath would remember another. (155) 
Everywhere things came undone. But for the Lees, that knot persisted and tightened, as if Lydia bound them all together. (158)
Yet Lydia herself was coming 'unglued,' so to speak, as Nath thought:
When I get to college--he never completed the sentence, but in his imagined future, he floated away, untethered. (168)
As Nath imagined a life of his own, Lydia was drowning in thoughts of a bleak future without him to save her. Though just as new insights appear to her, her life ends...

I loved this book on so many levels and for so many reasons. Ng brilliantly depicts the marginalization felt by so many who are 'different' from the majority population, especially how that can negatively affect relationships. The danger of parents exerting too much control over their children, living through them, forcing their own unfulfilled goals upon their offspring, effectively smothering any hopes they may have for asserting themselves. Simply put: a great read! Have you read it yet? Are you considering it?

Some other insightful reviews: 

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Top Ten Tuesday--Fall TBR Top Ten

Now this...this is a Top Ten listing I can get behind...perhaps because 
I am sooooooo far behind on my TBR "schedule." :)
Thank you, The Broke and the Bookish
You might be muttering to yourself or perhaps even exclaiming aloud, 
"Schedule?!? A TBR 'SCHEDULE'?!?"
Yep! You read that right! :)
In reality, I do these things to myself, don't I?
Much as I would love to 'blame' someone else...<sigh> 

However, I am 'ahead' in that I have already read The Silent Wife by A.S.A. Harrison for the October 5 Literary Wives post. At least that gives me 2 weeks or so to work on the blog post/review and I needed that time since we are traveling over the next two weekends! BONUS! I am 'on schedule' with my 'self-imposed' schedule for Literary Wives! And it was a great read! I was fearful it would be scary (since I am quite the wuss), but I didn't find it to be! BONUS!! This one will also count toward the RIP X challenge! :)

Oh, but wait! I am to list the Top Ten from my TBR listing the I really want to read, not the books I've already read... <AHEM!> 
No we go! But honestly, I do love to celebrate my victories! 
(They sometimes seem so few and far between!)

#1 The most important (to me) book to complete reading NOW/FIRST!! (No, it is not Gone With the Wind...but it should be! lol) Golden Boy by Abigail Tarttelin! The Socratic Salon already posted their book breakdown this past Sunday, but my hold on this one through my local library system didn't arrive until Monday (yesterday), so I am now 70 pages into this and hope to finish it tomorrow evening. (I would love to complete it tonight...but at some point in time reality should insert itself into my reading goals!) This morning, though I had planned to get another hour's reading done in this, I really needed to take a break to further 'digest' those first 70 pages. Wowzers! Shocking betrayal! Glad I read Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. (Whom I saw in person 3 years ago! If you ever get the opportunity to hear him speak--"Do it!" He was quite humorous and very engaging!)

#2 This one must be my next read because another 3 chapters are due by this Saturday as Check-In #3 for the Joy Luck Club Read-Along hosted by Rachelle at The Reading Wench! This is a heartrending read! These poor girls! How are they to ever live productive even halfway happy lives after these childhoods? Unbelievable to me! I can only hope that even in the outlying small villages of China things have improved mightily for females. I have mentioned previously that I tend to be an 'eternal optimist,' right?!? :) This is my first Amy Tan--definitely NOT my last! :) Another Classic and Historical Fiction

#3 Still savoring one of my favorite reads EVER!! Gone With the Wind!! And...yes, I am well aware this Read-Along was scheduled to end August 1st! But I am a rebel, after all, setting my own schedule! :) Seriously, I do love this book so very much! Although it is historical fiction and a Pulitzer-Prize-winning Classic, this is at least the 6th time I've read it in this particular lifetime and I just love it more every single time! Mitchell's writing...well, it is A-M-A-Z-I-N-G!! Not a single unnecessary word or syllable, in my humble opinion! 

#4 X by Sue Grafton 
I love mysteries! Kinsey Milhone is one of my absolute favorite protagonists...ever! If I could grant immortality to one author, Grafton would be among several at the top of my list for consideration! :) If you haven't read this series, I would definitely recommend you start with A is for Alibi! I have reread that one several times. It is classic, in my opinion and no better introduction to Kinsey! This will also count toward RIP XI also loved Kinsey and Me
#5 Another mystery for RIPX and Classics Club! The Red House Mystery by A.A. Milne! I had no idea the author of the adorable Winnie-the-Pooh books ever wrote a mystery! I just have to try it out! 
#6 And speaking of mysteries, I have yet to read Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier! That will change by the end of RIP X at the end of October! :) And, of course, this will also count as a Classics Club read! 

#7 Man's Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl! A good friend of mine recommended this as a MUST-READ almost 20 years ago! I am ashamed to note that I have yet to read it, but that will change this month! I will review it as my Classics Club Spin #10! Review to be posted by Friday, October 23! I'm fairly certain I really need to be in the correct frame of mind for this one. I expect it to be I-N-T-E-N-S-E!! And emotional! Definitely qualifies as a Classics Club read! 

#8 Season of the Dragonflies by Sarah Creech! I am so anxious to read this one! We are discussing it on October 24th for the Borders Book Club! Set in the Blue Ridge Mountains and what I expect to be an engaging read! And who doesn't love dragonflies?!? They have always fascinated me! And a debut novel! I always marvel that a first published work can be breathtakingly beautiful!  

#9 After Her by Joyce Maynard! I LOVED Labor Day and own several others of her books, but have yet to read them, then was fascinated by the premise for this one! It will count for RIP X and Historical Fiction! I have faith it will be fabulous! 

And...#10! Last, but by no means least...The Girl in the Spider's Web 

by David Lagercrantz, Stieg Larsson (creator), 
George Goulding (translator)

Yes, I adore Lisbeth and the Millennium Series! 
Definitely a RIP X book, though I don't need another!
I am very sad for Larsson's partner and the fact that she was legally shut out of his estate and I mourn the death of what I consider to be a literary genius, but I am at the same time thrilled that someone is continuing Larsson's legacy.
My husband thought it was well done and I am so very anxious to re-enter Lisbeth and Blomkvist's world!

I was lucky enough to catch an NPR interview with Lagercrantz and I was so very impressed with his thoughtful approach to writing this book! He is, of course, hopeful that readers like his work, but he is even more excited by the fact that this release is motivating those who have never before read the first three books in the series to do so! Now that is cool! 
Have you read any of these? Do you have any thoughts about any of them? 

Sunday, September 20, 2015

The Joy Luck Club Read-Along Check-In #2

There is a Joy Luck Club (by Amy Tan) Read-Along hosted by 
Rachelle at The Reading Wench!
For this second Check-In we have read the last two chapters in the Feathers From a Thousand Li Away section: "The Red Candle" and "Moon Lady."

I am in disbelief about the (what I consider to be) bizarre beliefs accepted as 'traditions' in the Chinese culture as described by on this book. It would be a huge adjustment to live in a society based much more on accepted knowledge which disproves many of these superstitious beliefs. 

"The Red Candle" begins with a dramatic statement,
  I once sacrificed my life to keep my parents' promise. (49)
Wherein Lindo describes her betrothal at the age of only two years to a male infant one year younger than herself! Unbelievable, right?!? Lindo notes that her birth was not the result of a soldier promising her mother to return to her, and then marries someone else back in his own country, but rather "an earth horse for an earth sheep" as the matchmaker bragged of her--"the best marriage combination." This "earth sheep" was named...Tyan-yu--tyan for "sky," because he was so important, and yu, meaning "leftover," because when he was born his father was very sick and his family thought he might die. Tyan-yu would be the leftover of his father's spirit. But his father lived and his grandmother was scared the ghosts would turn their attention to this baby boy and take him instead. So they watched him carefully, make all his decisions, and he became very spoiled. 
  But even if I had known I was getting such a bad husband, I had no choice, now or later. That was how backward families in the country were. We were always the last to give up stupid old-fashioned customs. (51) 
Lindo's family then started treating her as if she belonged to the Huang family rather than their own,
  My mother did not treat me this way because she didn't love me. She would say this biting back her tongue, so she wouldn't wish for something that was no longer hers. (51)
Yikes! No way I could see myself doing that to my own child--any of it! Though I say that with the perspective of a 21st Century American, born and bred, and not a person living in the Chinese culture of this time. So who knows what I might have done as a matter of 'tradition.' Different times, different places, call for different actions. 

When Lindo is 12 years old, her family is flooded out of their home and land, with the current year's crop a total loss; they have nothing and are forced to relocate, though they decide she is now old enough to live with the Huang's. All their household belongings (covered with mud and soaking wet) are left as her dowry. I cannot imagine being given away to another family at the age of 12! Much as I might complain about my own mother, at least I had my grandmother as my main caregiver and she was kind and sad for Lindo! She basically became a slave in her future mother-in-law's house, learning how to do all the housework, cooking, etc., to the woman's expectations. The Huang's 
almost washed their thinking into my skin[.] I came to think of Tyan-yu as a god, someone whose opinions were worth much more than my own life. I came to think of Huang Taitai as my real mother, someone I wanted to please, someone I should follow and obey without question. 
  When I turned sixteen on the lunar new year, Huang Taitai told me she was ready to welcome a grandson by next spring. Even if I had not wanted to marry, where would I go live instead? Even though I was strong as a horse, how could I run away? The Japanese were in every corner of China. (57)
Then the Japanese invade their province and hardly anyone attends Lindo and Tyan-yu's wedding, which was quite the social affront at that time! As she prepares to be wed she thought to herself
I was strong I was pure. I had genuine thoughts inside that no one could see, that no one could ever take away from me. I was like the wind.
  I threw my head back and smiled proudly to myself. And then I draped the large embroidered red scarf over my face and covered these thoughts up. But underneath the scarf I will knew who I was. I made a promise to myself: I would always remember my parents' wishes, but I would never forget myself. (58)
And this is ultimately what saves Lindo--she saves herself! 

Initially, she was quite relieved to learn that Tyan-yu had no interest in sex, though her mother-in-law became very impatient for her to be pregnant. Lindo uses these superstitious beliefs about marriage to her advantage, convincing the her husband's family that she has been visited in a dream which told her one of the servants was actually Tyan-yu's spiritual wife and that she actually carried the child to be born to him...for Lindo knew the woman was pregnant and unwed, so everyone was happy, including her when she was bribed with tickets and enough money to emigrate to the U.S. Problem solved! :)

Ying-ying begins "The Moon Lady" by complaining about her daughter's life and lifestyle:
...I want to tell her this: We are lost, she and I, unseen and not seeing, unheard and not hearing, unknown by others. 
  I did not lose myself all at once. I rubbed out my face over the years washing away my pain, the same way carvings on stone are worn down by water. (67)
I love this passage!! So true of humans, we can indeed lose ourselves in just this way. (It adequately describes the last 10-12 years of my first marriage! I just worked at overlooking my lack of happiness until any thought of or consideration for it disappeared.) I made a solemn vow to myself to never again lose myself...
Ying-ying describes her experience as a 4-year-old child falling off the boat her parents had rented for the Moon Festival (Held on the fifteenth day of the eighth moon--the same day chosen for Lindo's wedding!) and becoming totally lost from anyone she knew.

Again, we see fear used as a motivator for 'good' behavior among children, as Ying-ying's caregiver/governess demonstrates:
  "What is a ceremony?" I asked as Amah slipped the jacket over my cotton underpants.
  "It is a proper way to behave. You do this and that, so the gods do not punish you," said Amah as she fastened by frog clasps.
  "What kind of punishment?" I asked boldly.
  "Too many questions!" cried Amah. You do not need to understand. Just behave, follow your mother's example. Light the incense, make an offering to the moon, bow your head. Do not shame me, Ying-ying." (69)
One of my college literature classes included one story written by an Indian author which described a man who had shamed himself, his family, and his society by losing all his money, so he disemboweled himself as a sacrifice/penance for his failure. I realize societies of the past have been based much more upon the reputation you maintain, especially through appearances and 'following the rules.' I am very glad that humanity appears to be evolving beyond such beliefs and standards for behavior, hopefully focusing much more on the motivations behind our actions and the sincerity, compassion, and philanthropic intent of our behaviors. 

I had to laugh out loud at all the equipment and food these people took with them onto this "boat," which must have been huge to hold everyone plus their accoutrements! :) The description of the two boys using the large bird to fish for them was was the description of her father eating a shrimp with its legs still wriggling!! (Yuck!) I love to eat shrimp, but I definitely prefer them dead and cooked first! I cannot imagine how frightened Ying-ying must have been to fall off the boat and then land in someone's fishing net! Fortunately, they treated her well, though they just left her on shore for whomever to claim. But that is when she saw "The Moon Lady" show! 
Of the Moon Lady character:
An eternity had passed since she last saw her husband, for this was her fate: to stay lost on the moon, forever seeking her own selfish wishes.
  "For woman is yin," she cried sadly, "the darkness within, where untempered passions lie. And man is yang, bright truth lighting our minds." (81)
Admittedly, this made me shiver with sexist!!! Ugh!! Ying-ying thinks to herself,
  At the end of her singing tale, I was crying, shaking with despair. Even though I did not understand her whole story, I understood her grief. In one small moment, we had both lost the world, and there was no way to get it back. (81)
Afterward, the crowd was invited to make their wish known to the Moon Lady so she could grant it, for a small fee, of course! Ying-ying wants the Moon Lady to grant her wish,
  "I have a wish," I said in a whisper, and still she did not hear me. So I walked closer yet, until I could see the face of the Moon Lady: shrunken cheeks, a broad oily nose, large glaring teeth, and red-stained eyes. A face so tired that she wearily pulled off her hair, her long gown fell from her shoulders. And as the secret wish fell from my lips, the Moon Lady looked at me and became a man. (82)
I couldn't help but chuckle at this! Can you imagine being only four years old, lost from your family, in only your underclothes and bare feet, in an absolutely unknown location, and then that shock?!? Poor child! 
...I remember everything that happened that day because it has happened many times in my life. The same innocence, trust, and restlessness, the wonder, fear, and loneliness. How I lost myself.
  I remember all these things. And tonight, on the fifteenth day of the eighth moon, I also remember what I asked the Moon Lady for so long ago. I wished to be found. (83)

Such traumatic experiences in childhood. I always marvel at the ways individuals can recover and continue living their lives after such events! Are you reading this book with us? Or have you read it? It truly is a picture of a culture/society very different in many ways from the one in which I have been raised. 

Friday, September 18, 2015

Beautiful?!? Not how I would describe this Bureaucrat! :)

The Beautiful Bureaucrat by Helen Phillips
This book was definitely not the norm... 
I knew this was scheduled for discussion with The Socratic Salon (TSS) and it sounded unique and rather fascinating--definitely different, so I had my favorite local independent bookstore owner order a copy which I coincidentally picked up just one day prior to the TSS discussion. Coincidentally because by the time this one arrived, I had totally forgotten about the TSS Book Breakdown scheduled!! :)

I read this in several hours the following afternoon and then when I checked email, discovered this was also the day for the big discussion! Funny how things work out sometimes!! Normally, I would prefer to post my own review first and then discuss, but I didn't have time! (You will note that it has required several weeks just to distill my reactions to this one into what I hope to be a coherent composition!) I was quite grateful for the discussion, because my initial reaction to this one was YUCK! Whew! I literally felt as if there was so much and yet so little to discuss! I am a reader who most enjoys finely drawn characters and relationships among them, and in that regard I found this one severely lacking...and yet not! I have such mixed emotions about it! (I couldn't tell, could you?!? Stick with me for such unexpected and shocking disclosures! lol) However, I do know this for certain--were it not for a discussion forum similar to TSS or another group of readers with whom to discuss this one, I wouldn't have enjoyed it at all. In my humble opinion, this book is excellent at sparking discussion because it was strictly a symbolic allegory-laden text. (I doubt that phrase is an accepted literary term...but it works for me! And, it is my blog, after all!) 

In reading others' reviews on the blogosphere, I am definitely in the minority, so please do not take my word for it! I will say I was reminded of Animal Farm by George Orwell, which I reread just a few years ago. The main similarity between these two books is the reliance upon a reader's interpretation of the symbolism and allegories contained within. However, The Beautiful Bureaucrat is, in my opinion, much less well-defined than Orwell's work. TBB can be interpreted in so many different ways...this is definitely NOT a book for those who demand an ending that wraps up all the loose ends and provides definitive answers. However, it is a superbly written work. Phillips uses all types of writing tools and wordplay to make for a strongly expressed yet concise text to engage the reader. 

I was reminded of A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick (Literary Wives Read #3) in that both Phillips and Goolrick are so highly skilled in creating a bleak oppressive atmosphere throughout each of these books. I believe I actually enjoyed TBB better than ARW, however, mainly because there was, in my opinion, absolutely no HOPE in ARW! Yuck! There was not one character I could even like a little bit--they all struck me as being totally despicable! TBB did offer a bit of hope at the end, however, and I could like some aspects of both Joseph and Josephine. Even Trishiffany had her good points! I think she was genuinely trying to be kind and helpful to Josephine to avoid her getting in 'trouble' and/or keeping tabs on her...

I admit to being intrigued from the start:
  The person who interviewed her had no face. 
  The illusion of facelessness was, of course, almost immediately explicable. The interviewer's skin bore the same grayish tint as the wall behind, the eyes were obscured by a pair of highly reflective glasses, the fluorescence flattened the features assembled above the genderless gray suit. (1-2)
Can we say 'alliteration'? :) works! This Bureaucrat asks some unique (read: 'illegal') interview questions and makes some bizarre comments: "You're married," "You wish to procreate?" At the conclusion of the interview:
  Hourly rate $XX.XX (not so very much, but so very much more than nothing), benefits, tax paperwork, the stuff of life, direct deposit in case of a change of address, sign here, 9:00 a.m. Monday, and off she went, employed, regurgitated by the concrete compound out into the receding day. (8) 
That last phrase hit me like a brick. It was so powerful to me! Not a pleasant vision, almost like a birth or rebirth? Initially, I was relieved...okay, good. 

Now she has a job and her husband has a job, both after a rather long period of unemployment, so on to rebuilding their lives! But...she arrives 'home' and...
  Joseph was sitting on their bed.
Okay...that's not so weird, especially if they live in a rather small apartment, perhaps a studio? But continuing...
Their bed was out on the sidewalk in front of their building, surrounded by everything they owned, all the objects they had brought with them from the hinterland.
  "We're evicted," he said neutrally..." (9)
Oh, no! My immediate thought was that this was a rather strange coincidence, was it not? The same day she is hired by this enigmatic stranger, they are evicted... The concrete compound was marked into sections A through Z and she works in Z... At this point I was wondering about any possible tie-ins or connections... 

Josephine describes her office walls: 
...she realized it wasn't just years of tack holes and tape that made these walls look so tired. These were scratches, smears, shadowy fingerprints, the echoes of hands. (21) 
And she feels as if the walls are closing in on her. At this point I'm wondering if past 'employees' were actually imprisoned or just seemed so sinister...ah, perhaps alliterative writing is 'catching'! :)

Josephine's vision becomes bleary, blurry, and her eyes are always so tired and red/bloodshot! As she notices with everyone else who works in this compound. Then she purchases a candy bar from the one vending machine she finally manages to locate at work following much searching, and out pops lavender candies that cut her tongue as they dissolve in her mouth. WHAT?!? Joseph becomes moodier and moodier and actually stays out all night a couple of times. She starts referring to him by his social security number rather than using his name. Their life is so depressing, they keep moving from sublet to sublet, each with bizarre elements and yet there are attempted deliveries for her though they've informed no one else of these new addresses. The man in the gray sweatshirt seems to be ever-present. Josephine begins to imagine/see things that aren't there.

Later, they sat on the couch, eating carrots. She leaned her head against his skull while he chewed. She listened to his jaw moving. She liked to hear the sounds of his skeleton. (86)
As she is opening every door in the A section, searching for Joseph:
Without him she was just a lonely brain hurtling through space, laughing quietly to itself. (149)

When Hillary, the waitress explained that the snake tattoo on her arm was due to the fact that she told fortunes,
  Josephine smiled politely. She and Joseph didn't believe in fortunes. (12)
Okay, I wonder what they do believe in? Self-destiny? That they could/would make their own lives. Pre-ordained destiny? As determined by a deity or multiple Gods? However, Josephine repeated phrases throughout the book from her 'fortune' as told her by Hillary, particularly "Some of your expectations are unrealistic." Then near the end of the book she catches Hillary giving someone else the exact same 'fortune,' verbatim! 
  "Stop it!" Josephine said... 
  "That's my fortune!" ...childish in her despair....
  Hillary wasn't sheepish.
  "That's everyone's fortune, sugarplum!" she replied. "Anyway, I'm just a hobbyist." (140)
So, again, each person is the same? Interchangeable?  

..."baby" was too tame a word for this vitality. Beast, miniature beast, precious perfect beast just emerged from the blackness of the universe, rich with desires. (116)
One blogger mentioned that use of the word 'beast' for the baby bothered her, but then Joseph had claimed he was a "demon," "demeanor," "demoner" on the night they had sex and I think we are to assume is the time of conception. 

If this review seems disjointed, even incoherent at times, that reflects TBB as it is written. This is one of the very strangest reading experiences I have ever had, perhaps the strangest! If you are the least bit interested, I strongly advise you to read The Socratic Salon discussion and each of the bloggers' reviews listed there. I can apply many different interpretations to this work:

1) Living and working in a large urban environment can lead to all people seeming the same or conforming to standardized mores, customs, etc.

2) Working within a bureaucratic system eventually warps the mind, body, and spirit until everyone morphs into an identical entity who only "follows the rules" and never truly 'thinks' for themselves. Drinking that corporate "Kool-Aid." 

3) As an allegory to the Christian Bible/belief system(s)? Joseph/Josephine--definitely could be considered as strictly symbolic names, as well as an echoing of that "everyone is the same" theme. Creation is predetermined? By whom? Or what? A system, a mechanism, a beaurocracy? 

4) A treatise on 'fertility'? One blogger noted there is fertility symbolism given to pomegranates one of which is pictured on the cover. 

5) The specific beetle and pomegranate depicted on the cover reminded me of a documentary I watched decades ago showing the symbiotic relationship between a certain wasp species and figs in a tropical locale--each required the other to reproduce/live. Perhaps there is a similar relationship between these two? And that means...what? We all need each other? We all must rely upon each other? We all must 'work together' to survive? and procreate? 

6) What does the final scene represent? Are we to believe their is a separate file folder for each creature, be it insect, mammal, whatever, in this room that extends 'to infinity and beyond'? (As Buzz Lightyear would say!) 

It is a fascinating premise...this seeming lack of...a theme or premise! If you're in the mood for something REALLY different and unique, then this is the one for you. If you only appreciate reading structured 'stories' with tightly-wrapped endings, this one is definitely NOT for you! Have you read it? What are your thoughts? Now I would kinda like to know what the author's intentions are/were.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

The Joy Luck Club Read-Along Check-In #1

There is a Joy Luck Club (by Amy Tan) Read-Along hosted by 
Rachelle at The Reading Wench!
For this first Check-In we have read the first two chapters in the Feathers From a Thousand Li Away section: "The Joy Luck Club" and "Scar."

The book begins with a one-page 'parable' of a woman who emigrates to the U.S. with a swan, one which I can only assume was a victim of taxidermy. Upon arrival, the immigration officials confiscate the swan, leaving her only one feather, which she plans to gift to her daughter:
  "This feather may look worthless, but it comes from afar and carries with it all my good intentions." And she waited, year after year, for the day she could tell her daughter this in perfect American English. (17) 
After reading this, I could only assume that day never came to pass for this Chinese woman...

The Joy Luck Club is comprised of four couples: the Woos, the Hsus, the Jongs, and the St. Clairs. We learn that Suyuan Woo, Jing-mei Woo's mother, founded this 'Club' in 1949 and has died just two short months ago. Although Jing-mei has learned English as Suyuan desired, she is obviously not well versed in Chinese:
  She said the two soups were almost the same, chabudwo. Or maybe she said butong, not the same thing at all. It was one of those Chinese expressions that means the better half of mixed intentions. I can never remember things I didn't understand in the first place. (19)
This definitely felt as if Jing-mei was at best disinterested in all things Chinese. Jing-mei's father asks that she serve as the fourth corner at the Joy Luck Club's mah jong table in her mother's stead. Suyuan had sensed that these other three women (An-mei Hsu, Lindo Jong, and Ying-ying St. Clair) 
...also had unspeakable tragedies they had left behind in China and hopes they couldn't begin to express in their fragile English. Or at least, [she] recognized the numbness in these women's faces. And she saw how quickly their eyes moved when she told them her idea for the Joy Luck Club. (20)

Suyuan had founded the first Joy Luck Club in Kweilin, China, where her first husband, a Kuomintang (military) officer, had delivered her and their two young children as a location deemed safe from the invading Japanese. 

  "The hostess had to serve special dyansyin foods to bring good fortune of all kinds--dumplings shaped like silver money ingots, long rice noodles for long life, boiled peanuts for conceiving sons, and of course, many good-luck oranges for a plentiful, sweet life." 
I was struck by the superstitious symbols used in this culture. 

As she described the various immigrant factions living in exile in Kweilin, I felt grieved by the reality that this same travesty of justice and morality has continued unceasingly across the globe; there have always been various cultures/subcultures displaced by war...and, as we all are acutely aware, this continues in the present day. I never cease to be truly saddened by the fact that humans continue to mistreat, abuse, and kill each other. When will the peaceful 'collective consciousness' overtake the 'warring mentality'? I always hope it will be soon. :) (Just call me the eternal optimist!)
  "Each week one of us would host a party to raise money and to raise our spirits. We were a city of leftovers mixed together. If it hadn't been for the Japanese, there would have been plenty of reason for fighting to break out among these different people." (22)
Ironically, perhaps the displacement of war tends to make humans much more tolerable of their fellow refugees. Though that feeling doesn't seem to persist and prevail once a sense of 'normality' is restored to their everyday life...rather, it seems the old prejudices and discrimination take hold once more.

Suyuan's description of the underlying theory behind the first Joy Luck Club reads much like many of the 'New Age'/modern-day or ancient Eastern philosophical foundations: these few chose not "to sit and wait for our own death with proper somber faces," but rather to "choose our own happiness." I view this as realization of the locus of control...which was NOT within their power--their only choice was in their reaction to their circumstances. 

  "It's not that we had no heart or eyes for pain. We were all afraid. We all had our miseries. But to despair was to wish back for something already lost. Or to prolong what was already unbearable." (24)
Yes, so wise...leave the past in the past, live for and be in the moment--just be there! 'Just do it'! 
  "Each week we could forget past wrongs done to us. We weren't allowed to think a bad thought. We feasted, we laughed, we played games, lost and won, we told the best stories. And each week, we could hope to be lucky. That hope was our only joy. And that's how we came to call our little parties Joy Luck." (25)

As Jing-mei interacts with and watches the other 6 'Aunties' and 'Uncles' and her father, "it mother's life has been shelved for new business," since the only mention of her death is in the recited 'minutes' of the previous meeting. 
  I wonder what Auntie An-mei did to inspire a lifelong stream of criticism from my mother. Then again, it seemed my mother was always displeased with all her friends, with me, and even with my father. Something was always missing. Something always needed improving. Something was not in balance. This one or that had too much of one element, not enough of another. 
  The elements were from my mother's own version of organic chemistry. Each person is made of five elements, she told me.
  Too much fire and you had a bad my father...
  Too little wood and you bent too quickly to listen to other people's ideas, unable to stand on your Auntie An-mei.
  Too much water and you flowed in too many directions, like myself...
  I used to dismiss her criticisms as just more of her Chinese superstitions, beliefs that conveniently fit the circumstances. (31)
Oh, can I ever relate! My own mother also constantly criticized and was always unhappy with everyone and everything in her life. Although perhaps Suyuan had valid reason as she may have never completely grieved the two children and first husband she was forced to abandon in China.  

The women retire to the mah jong table in a back room:
...I can tell before everyone sits down. The chair closest to the door has an emptiness to it. But the feeling doesn't really have to do with the chair. It's her place on the table. Without having anyone tell me, I knew her corner on the table was the East.
  The East is where things begin, my mother once told me, the direction from which the sun rises, where the wind comes from. (31)
As the other three women talk about her mother, Jing-mei realizes
...My mother and I never really understood one another. We translated each other's meanings and I seemed to hear less than what she said, and while my mother heard more. (37)
Though again, it sounds as if Suyuan was much like my mother with whom there really was no 'conversation,' rather you were simply forced to listen to a seemingly endless diatribe each time, hoping you weren't the target of the criticism and negative energy.

These women are the typical back-biting hypocritical females which I have always avoided, both in childhood and as an adult, "It's the same old game, everybody talking in circles." These women keep making back-handed comments as if playing a game of tennis, trying to pelt Jing-mei and each other with thinly veiled criticisms and jabs. Though in the end they prove their loyalty and kindness as they present Jing-mei with the address of her two sisters (Suyuan's first two children left in China) and $1200 to fly to Shanghai to tell them about her/their mother's death and life. Her aunties and uncles and father have all sacrificed their usual end-of-year banquet to send her to China so she can meet her two sisters. She realizes the symbolism in the fact that she is
  sitting at my mother's place at the mah jong table, on the East, where things begin. (41)
And this is certainly a beginning...

An-mei Hsu's story of the scar is heart-breaking and haunting. It is shocking to me to read of the stories told to children to scare them into 'behaving' well and to force them to always obey. I rarely ever used fear as a motivator with my own children, considering it to be ineffective in the long-term. You might believe you have accomplished good behavior in the short-term, but you have instilled so much more that is negative, and in my opinion, simply wrong.
...a ghost who tried to take children away, especially strong-willed little girls... (2) 
It is a certainty that ghost would have gotten me! :) Her mother has been exiled from the family and she and her brother are being raised by their aunt and uncle, and Popo, her grandmother, her mother's mother. Popo becomes very ill when An-mei is nine years old and her mother miraculously reappears and brews a special potion to try to save her mother. An-mei watched as her mother cut flesh from her arm and added it to the concoction. Popo did die that same night, though not before passing along some gems of wisdom:
  "If you are greedy, what is inside you is what makes you always hungry."
  "Your own thoughts are so busy swimming inside that everything else gets pushed out."
  Another time, Popo told me about a girl who refused to listen to her elders. One day this bad girl shook her head so vigorously to refuse her auntie's simple request that a little white ball fell from her ear and out poured all her brains, as clear as chicken broth. (43)
Yikes! How can anyone grow into adulthood and be halfway well-adjusted when they're fed such awful stories and visions? An-mei describes her aunt as having "a tongue like hungry scissors eating silk cloth." That kinda made sense to me, since I could easily describe my own mother using the same words. :)

Following the pot of scalding hot soup pouring on An-mei's neck when she was four years old, Popo described the funeral clothes made for her and informed her 
  "Even your mother has used up her tears and left. If you do not get well soon, she will forget you."
  Popo was very smart. I came hurrying back from the other world to find my mother. 
The following could be used to describe both the physical healing of the burn and the emotional 'healing' of her mother's departure as mandated by her own family...
  In two years' time, my scar became pale and shiny and I had no memory of my mother. This is the way it is with a wound. The wound begins to close in on itself, to protect what is hurting so much. And once it is closed, you no longer see what is underneath, what started the pain. (47)

Have you read this book or any others written by Amy Tan? I am fascinated by this one. The Chinese culture with its superstitions and what appear to me to be far-fetched beliefs seem unbelievable. What a shock for those who immigrated into the U.S. Perhaps that is one reason Chinese immigrants tend to socialize only with other Chinese immigrants. At least I see that happen quite often amongst graduate students faculty on U.S. campuses. Your thoughts?