REVIEW: Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes by Eleanor Coerr

EPSON scanner imageFormat:  Paperback
Genre:  Children’s Lit
ISBN:  978-0-14-240113-2
Published:  1977

Rating:  4 out of 5 stars

Back of the Book Blurb:

The star of her school’s running team, Sadako is lively and athletic…until the dizzy spells start. Then she must face the hardest race of her life—the race against time. Based on a true story, Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes celebrates the courage that makes one young woman a heroine in Japan.

My Thoughts:

I liked this book a lot. I think the author did a really good job of dealing sensitively with the death of a child, in a way that was accessible to children. I liked that it is based on a true story, because it gives an opportunity for further conversations about the realities of war, of terminal illness, and of living with hope in the face of impossible odds. Finally, I liked that this girl was spirited and determined, that she worked hard, and that she persevered in the face of difficulty. These are such good lessons for kids to learn, and reading of someone their age, who did all of those things under increasingly dire circumstances, is inspiring to kids and adults alike.

REVIEW: The Red Thread by Ann Hood

The Red ThreadFormat:  Hardback
Genre:  General Fiction, Adoption Lit
ISBN:  0393070204
Published:  May 2010
Setting:  Providence RI, China

Rating:  4 of 5 stars

Back of the Book Blurb:

“In China there is a belief that people who are destined to be together are connected by an invisible red thread. Who is at the end of your red thread?”

After losing her infant daughter in a freak accident, Maya Lange opens The Red Thread, an adoption agency that specializes in placing baby girls from China with American families. Maya finds some comfort in her work, until a group of six couples share their personal stories of their desire for a child. Their painful and courageous journey toward adoption forces her to confront the lost daughter of her past. Brilliantly braiding together the stories of Chinese birth mothers who give up their daughters, Ann Hood writes a moving and beautifully told novel of fate and the red thread that binds these characters’ lives. Heartrending and wise, The Red Thread is a stirring portrait of unforgettable love and yearning for a baby.

My Thoughts:

This isn’t a great book, but it gets an extra star for what would otherwise be a 3-star read for me because of content.  I really enjoy literature about and/or set in Asian cultures, and this is no exception.  However, due to my own interest in adoption, as well as our undertaking the process of adopting a child ourselves, I was keenly interested in the story of Chinese adoption.  While this will very likely NOT be part of our adoption story, it was extremely interesting to get a sense of how families come to decisions about adoption.

Ms. Hood didn’t really spend a lot of time on the “why” of choosing Chinese adoption, as opposed to other options, and I would have liked to have more focus on that.  However, her story writing is not usually heavy handed, and she stayed in keeping with her traditional style here as well.  Learning after the fact that she adopted a child herself leaves me hoping that she has written that story, which (I am sure) have far richer detail and history.

Finally, I love the Chinese legend that a red thread connects a baby girl with her parents (all of them).  That is such a beautiful way to describe the providence of God, and to show that even in a predominately non-Christian culture, God’s providence still brings the families together as He has planned.

REVIEW: The Bonesetter’s Daughter by Amy Tan

Format:  Audio CD, 10 disks
Genre:  General Fiction, Asian/Am Lit
ISBN:  1597770760
Published:  January 2006 (audio)
Setting:  San Francisco CA / China

Rating:  4.5 of 5 stars

Back of the Book Blurb:

Ruth Young and her widowed mother, LuLing, have always had a tumultuous relationship. Now, before she succumbs to forgetfulness, LuLing gives Ruth some of her writings, which reveal a side of LuLing that Ruth has never known. . . . In a remote mountain village where ghosts and tradition rule, LiuLing grows up in the care of her mute Precious Auntie as the family endures a curse laid upon a relative known as the bonesetter. When headstrong LuLing rejects the marriage proposal of the coffinmaker, a shocking series of events are set in motion — all of which lead back to Ruth and LuLing in modern San Francisco. The truth that Ruth learns from her mother’s past will forever change her perception of family, love, and forgiveness.

My Thoughts:

There are so many things about this book to love – the setting (China, in particular); the vast scope of the story; the deft way that the author ties together the present and the past; the commitment and love between LuLing and Ruth, LuLing and GaoLing, LuLing and Precious Auntie; how Tan’s writing style and word choices seem to exude the culture she is writing about, including a subtle but still noticeable shift in tone in section two (LuLing’s story).

I connected with the story immediately, and particularly with Ruth.  I related to her inability to feel confident, to believe that she actually had something to say, to think that anyone would be interested in her words.  I got how she allowed herself to “disappear” in her relationship, never seeming to require anything concrete or real from Art, not even sure he really loves her, yet continuing on in a sort of hazy mediocrity.  I understood her choice to do the work she did – behind the scenes, anonymous or very nearly so (even if, in the end, she tended to resent the lack of credit), and risk free, meaning any criticism of the work would be directed to the author of record, not her (a “ghostwriter,” but in reality the actual author of all the books she worked on).

Perhaps more than any of the above, I had a visceral and immediate connection to her relationship with her mother.  Their conflicted, competitive, critical and volatile relationship was as familiar to me as the back of my hand.  I was transported time and again back to my own experiences as a child, an adolescent, and a young woman as I read the arguments & struggles between Ruth &  LuLing.  I found LuLing controlling, irrational, hypercritical, and impervious to reason.  I felt the frustration that Ruth felt right along with her, and when time & again she allowed herself and her own desires to be eclipsed by her mother, I wanted to shake her out of her lethargy.

And then came Section 2.

Once again, I felt like shaking someone and screaming “Wake UP!”  But this time, it was LuLing herself.  As I progressed through this middle section, I began to understand LuLing in a completely different way, and while I still didn’t (and don’t) understand the necessity of incessantly criticizing and insulting one’s daughter, I did ultimately comprehend the enormous suffering that LuLing endured & overcame.  I understood how it shaped her and hurt her, how it gutted her and made her strong.  She was so much more than Ruth’s experiences, GaoLing’s interactions or Precious Auntie’s recollections.  It was clear that Ruth needed to know her mother’s history and understand where she came from in order to appreciate her strengths, weaknesses & eccentricities.  She needed to know those things to also heal herself, to recognize that despite herself she had a good partner, and to allow herself the luxury of committing fully to the relationship, loving with reserve, and being likewise loved in return.

Amy Tan weaves this exotic, timultuous, and ultimately cathartic story in such a way that it leaves you wanting more…to continue on with the story, to find out what happens next with the characters you’ve come to love.  That’s good writing…really good writing, and it’s worthy of a place on everyone’s bookshelf.

On Reading Patterns

I ran across this post on The Broke & the Bookish and immediately realized that I am a pattern reader.  There are times when I could call it a rut, because I get into a mood for a specific type of book, and I can’t seem to break out of that rut until I have read several in a row.  It has happened for as long as I can remember

There was the Rosamunde Pilcher phase, the Maeve Binchy phase, and (yes, I’ll admit it) the John Grisham phase.  Granted, in each of these there are some stellar books…and some stinkers.  I’ve read most of both categories, and everything in between.

Obviously I am not alone in this behavior, as the post that inspired this one does attest.  Unlike the author of that post, I don’t get in a holiday phase (though I do enjoy the occasional Christmas story).  Like the author, however, I do get in noticeable ruts, for which there is no particular explanation except that, well, that’s the mood I’m in.  So, you ask (or maybe you don’t), what rut…er…pattern is it now?  There are two that seem prevelant for 2011:

  1. Classics:  Though this was purposeful, directed reading, I have read close to a dozen classics this year, which makes it a banner year for me.  I’ve been enjoying them a lot, not only because they are filling the gaps in my reading history, but because they are, for the most part, damn good books.  I’ve been gratified with each classic to see that there is an obvious reason it has gained classic status, and I’m looking forward to continuing this particular reading pattern into 2012.
  2. Asian / Indian Literature:  I have been fascinated by both Asian and Indian literature for the past several years, and as a result I’ve read several Chinese & Japanese authors and several Middle Eastern or specifically Indian authors.  I have loved them all.  There is something very intriguing about these cultures that, in each and every instance, has sucked me in from the very beginning of the book.  If you are wondering which books are on my list (so far), here they are (in no particular order):
    The Samurai’s Garden by Gail Tsukiyama
    Women of the Silk by Gail Tsukiyama
    Sky Burial: An Epic Love Story of Tibet by Xinran
    Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto
    The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid
    The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
    The Sari Shop by Rupa Bajwa
    Balzac & the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie
    Sister of My Heart by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
    Shanghai Girls by Lisa See
    Dreams of Joy by Lisa See
    The Bonesetter’s Daughter by Amy Tan (currently reading)

I’m curious!  Does this happen to anyone else…well, other than me and the author at The Broke & the Bookish?  Is there a type of book you can’t seem to get enough of?  A particular author?  A genre?  I’d love to know, and to have a recommendation for my next reading tangent (or rut).

REVIEW: Dreams of Joy by Lisa See

Kindle Edition, 336 pages
Published May 31st 2011 by Random House
ASIN  B004J4WKXS
4.5 stars
After having listened to Shanghai Girls by Lisa See, and learning that this sequel existed, I could not wait to dive into it.  I loved Shanghai Girls, and Dreams of Joy is equally mesmerizing.  See does a wonderful job of building on the foundation of Shanghai Girls, and moving the story forward in a believable and beautifully rendered way.

The research she has done in advance of writing about Communist China is evident in her descriptions, and in her accentuation of the disparity between the masses (peasants) and the elite (leaders).  As a reader I was heartbroken when Joy could not see through the propaganda, but I understood that as a headstrong daughter who believed she had been lied to about Red China, she had to see for herself.  Like so many young adults, she thought she was so much smarter and more savvy than her parents, when in reality she was impressionable and easily manipulated.  She thought she understood the world better because she was getting a college education, and she didn’t realize (until much later) that real education comes from one’s experiences.  I thoroughly appreciated Lisa See’s ability to create in Pearl Chin a woman (a mother) who goes after her daughter in spite of her fears, but after finding her, understands that forcing her back to the United States will never work.  This understanding does not come easily to Pearl, especially in the wake of her own life experiences, but it is gratifying that facing the demons of her past allows her to understand her daughter in a way she never would have otherwise.

There are wonderful, satisfying conclusions at the end of Dreams of Joy, and yet there are hints of a future story still to be told, and I hope the author will one day indulge us.

REVIEW: Shanghai Girls by Lisa See

Audio CD, 11 disks (13.5 hours)
Published May 26th 2009 by Random House Audio
ISBN:  0739359339
4.5 stars overall / 5 stars audio narrationGoodreads Synopsis:

In 1937, Shanghai is the Paris of Asia, a city of great wealth and glamour, the home of millionaires and beggars, gangsters and gamblers, patriots and revolutionaries, artists and warlords. Thanks to the financial security and material comforts provided by their father’s prosperous rickshaw business, twenty-one-year-old Pearl Chin and her younger sister, May, are having the time of their lives. Though both sisters wave off authority and tradition, they couldn’t be more different: Pearl is a Dragon sign, strong and stubborn, while May is a true Sheep, adorable and placid. Both are beautiful, modern, and carefree . . . until the day their father tells them that he has gambled away their wealth and that in order to repay his debts he must sell the girls as wives to suitors who have traveled from California to find Chinese brides.

As Japanese bombs fall on their beloved city, Pearl and May set out on the journey of a lifetime, one that will take them through the Chinese countryside, in and out of the clutch of brutal soldiers, and across the Pacific to the shores of America. In Los Angeles they begin a fresh chapter, trying to find love with the strangers they have married, brushing against the seduction of Hollywood, and striving to embrace American life even as they fight against discrimination, brave Communist witch hunts, and find themselves hemmed in by Chinatown’s old ways and rules.

At its heart, Shanghai Girls is a story of sisters: Pearl and May are inseparable best friends who share hopes, dreams, and a deep connection, but like sisters everywhere they also harbor petty jealousies and rivalries. They love each other, but each knows exactly where to drive the knife to hurt the other the most. Along the way they face terrible sacrifices, make impossible choices, and confront a devastating, life-changing secret, but through it all the two heroines of this astounding new novel hold fast to who they are–Shanghai girls.

My Thoughts:
The last paragraph above is a perfect description of Lisa See’s wonderful novel Shanghai Girls.  At its heart, this book is a story of the intense and unbreakable bond between Pearl & May that lasts through a lifetime.  The story begins in Shanghai…Pearl & May are young women, footloose & fancy free, extravagant, disrespectful, rebellious, jealous, and woefully ignorant (or perhaps purposefully so?) of current events and their family’s loss of status & descent into poverty.  As they are faced with the fact that their father has lost everything – including what they thought was theirs – they slowly come to grips with the new realities that face them.

What comes as a surprise to them is the strength their mother demonstrates in the face of terrible danger as the green gang tightens the noose around their family, and as the Japanese their invasion of China.  She has saved money, unbeknownst to the rest of her family, and she is able to use it (along with a few other personal treasures) to facilitate their escape from Shanghai.  As traditional a Chinese wife as she is, she shows herself to be a woman of great strength and foresight, and she ultimately sacrifices herself to save her daughters…something that they will not fully appreciate until many years later.  They do not realize how very much like their mother they both are, because in the wake of her death, both Pearl & May demonstrate their own loyalty to each other, and strength in the face of seemingly indomitable circumstances.  This scenario of loyalty & strength repeats itself again and again over the course of their lives, and becomes the defining characteristic not only of their relationship with each other, but also the relationships they forge with their paper family in the US.

I thought Lisa See  did a masterful job of balancing Pearl’s and May’s personal life experiences against the backdrop of the second World War.  I was swept into the story in such a way that I felt like I was experiencing it along with them…fearful for their lives as they made their escape from Shanghai, anxious that they pass the inquiry at Angel Island, thankful that they made it safely to Los Angeles, wishing that they could find contentment, and happy when they reconcile their relationships with their new family.  They were thrown together by necessity and circumstance, and they (all of them) found a way to respect and love each other in spite of the circumstances that brought them to this point.  I grew to love each of them as they grew to love each other, and ultimately felt that Ms. See created a story that was realistic, and that showed a perspective of WWII life that gives a more well-rounded picture of what the Chinese ex-patriots truly experienced.

In the end, I felt the same frustration and fear over Joy (their daughter) that Pearl, May, Sam & Vern feel.  It’s so difficult to understand how she can be sympathetic to China’s new communist regime when she has family who escaped dire circumstances to pursue a life (of freedom) in the US.  Granted, their US life was far from ideal, but Joy was so entrenched in her own misguided beliefs, and so embarrassed by her family’s “fresh off the boat” lack of assimilation that she would not listen to reason or wisdom.  I loved that Ms. See brought Pearl’s story full circle, and allowed for her to tap into the courage that brought her to the US in the first place, so that she could return to China in search of her daughter.  What a beautiful love story!