There is simply not enough good historical fiction books in English set in Asia. You can’t enter a bookstore without tripping over a novel that takesThere is simply not enough good historical fiction books in English set in Asia. You can’t enter a bookstore without tripping over a novel that takes place in Tudor England or Revolutionary France, but one set in ye olde China (much less Japan or Korea or Southeast Asia)? It’s like looking for a coelacanth.
There’s the additional problem that the two most prolific authors in this area are Lisa See and Amy Tan. I don’t want to knock either of them—they are both talented. BUT, they both have a very specific focus: showing How Much It Sucked To Be a Chinese Woman. And they will POUND this message into your head over and over again, in every single book they write. And that’s fine, and if they were writing about How Much It Sucked To Be A Woman in Tudor England (hello, Phillipa Gregory) then I could either choose to read them or choose to read the six bajillion other books set at the same time that have a different focus, like mystery or romance. But, no, See and Tan are, for the most part, currently the be-all-and-end-all of Chinese historical fiction (though with the occasional guest player like Allende’s Daughter of Fortune). And I KNOW it sucked to be a woman in China. Frankly, it has sucked to be a woman in a great many places for a great deal of the time, including many countries in the world today. But I want a new theme. I don’t want to read the same book and woes over and over again. Because, you know what? There have been women—yes, even in past China—who have lived quite happy lives even if society thought they are less worthy than men.
So, anyway. This book. I don’t understand why it’s called SNOWFLOWER and the Secret Fan when the narrator is Lily. The way the title reads it sounds like Snowflower should be the protagonist and it’s about her and her secret fan. Or it should be Lily and Snowflower and The Secret Fan. Am I just misreading that?
I do wish Snowflower had been the protagonist, because I didn’t like Lily. I had hope for her in the beginning, and could feel sympathy for this poor, desperately lonely child who tried to be absolutely perfect so she would be loved. But then her deep insecurities twisted her into a selfish, proud, smug woman who I just wanted to shake. Being in her head grew aggravating. Snowflower might have had her spirit broken, but she never lost her innate gentleness and kindness.
There was also the problem that See, whether for unreliable narrator purposes or not, failed to develop most of the people in Lily’s life. In Lily’s household, her father-in-law’s concubines were simply “the concubines,” scheming, conniving, shrill creatures who Lily despised. They had no names and no personalities and were summarily dispatched when a plague hit. What a waste of supporting characters that could have brought some depth and complexity if fully developed. And Lily’s husband! He didn’t seem like all that bad of a guy, but he also had no personality. Again, unreliable narrator or lazy writing? I know Lily and her husband weren’t close, but they spent many decades together and he should have been fleshed out. It would have been very interesting to see a not-unkind arranged husband as a full character instead of the cardboard stand-in he was in the book.
And then there was the climax, the break-up of Lily and Snowflower that Lily had hinted at throughout the book. I thought that this would be dramatic. Something exciting and scandalous must have happened to tear these sworn sisters apart. About fifty pages into the book I read about the movie and saw that Hugh Jackman (<3) was in it!! Oh my! I thought. Does this mean that a handsome foreign devil comes to town and Snowflower has an affair with him that Lily tells everyone about? Maybe a love triangle and out of jealousy Lily betrays Snowflower?!?!?. Hey, this was set in the 1800s. White guys were in China so it wasn’t an impossible dream (though I dunno if they made it that deep into rural China). Alas, no Hugh Jackmans in the story. After I finished the book I found out that the movie has an original modern storyline, and I guess ol’ Hugh is in that. Instead, the cause of the breakdown and the secrets Lily revealed were shockingly lame.
(view spoiler)[Lily gets upset after she thinks that Snowflower doesn’t want to be her best friend anymore. This isn’t exactly true, but I could see why Snowflower WOULD want to break-up, considering that Lily has become an aggravating shrew to her, trying to badger Snowflower into happiness instead of being a sympathetic ear and good friend. Anyway, when Lily calls Snowflower out in public, how does she humiliate her? By telling everyone that Snowflower enjoys sex with her own husband (scandalous!) and is poor. Thus Snowflower is deeply betrayed. Because…I don’t know. I guess that’s not very nice and fairly humiliating, but, really that’s the shocking, horrible, friendship-ruining betrayal? (hide spoiler)]
See also has a tendency to show her work a little too much. She has obviously done a lot of research, which for the most part benefits the book. But then sometimes she has Lily rattle of statistics of, for instance, how many girls in China died from foot-binding. Umm…did the average Chinese woman really know statistics like that? Where would they hear them? Lily lives in an isolated region with little contact or interest in greater China beyond the necessary. It’s obviously information See got from her research and was probably calculated by historians. It was just a bit awkward. (view spoiler)[This is especially strange given the fact that Lily talks about how she didn’t know a girl could die from footbinding and learned it later from her mother-in-law…and then before she meets her mother-in-law, Lily’s cousin dies from footbinding. You’d think she would’ve figured it out then. (hide spoiler)]
Despite all my complaints, I didn’t dislike this book. I was hung up on what it could have been, but for what it was it was good. See is quite gifted in setting you in China. The average American reader (myself included) probably doesn’t know much about China and is easily confused by Chinese words and See does an impressive job of making it easy for the reader to understand terms and ideas and all that they aren’t very familiar with. And a quarter of the way into the book, I found myself itching to pick it back up every time I had to set it down. See makes you want to keep reading. See has undeniable talent. I just hope that she one day soon expands her focus. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
Oh my word, what a bonza book! Sorry, had to do that (for those of you who haven’t read this, male lead Joe Harman says “oh my word” and “bonza” in abOh my word, what a bonza book! Sorry, had to do that (for those of you who haven’t read this, male lead Joe Harman says “oh my word” and “bonza” in about every other sentence [okay, not every other sentence, but a noticeable amount]).
So, this is one of those books I had completely the wrong idea about. First off, I thought Nevil Shute was a woman. Don’t ask me why. I knew Nevil was a male name. Second, I thought this book would be all about a small town in outback Australia, most likely in Alice Springs itself. It’s not—it’s a lot more sweeping than that. Alice Springs, in fact, is barely in the book. The name references Jean’s eventual desire to build a town like Alice Springs.
I will say that Shute is not intimidated by all that authorly advice to “hook” the reader. Oh no, Shute begins with a lengthy digression about Jean’s ancestors and how the money she eventually inherits gets to her. Luckily, Shute picks up the action pretty soon after.
Once Jean herself came into the picture, the book becomes a lot better. Jean is a tough little cookie, but is so modest that she comes off at first as a normal, not terribly impressive secretary. And then you learn that she was the de facto leader of a group of women and children marched to exhaustion around Malaysia by Japanese soldiers during World War II. And when she inherits her wealth she returns to Malaysia (by herself!) to build a well and then tracks down the man she had fallen in love with who she thought was dead to Australia and then basically single-handedly makes the one-dirt-road Australian outback town of Willstown (where her love interest makes his home) into a viable, bustling place. So, yeah, Jean is no shrinking violet, even if her grandfather had such a low opinion of women that he didn’t want a single lady having complete access to her inheritance until she was thirty-five.
Joe Harman, the love interest, comes off in Malaysia as a lot more daring and rough-and-tumble than he ends up being in Australia. I mean, this guy did get crucified for stealing chickens to feed Jean and her ragtag bunch, which is pretty intense. But then he gets all shy and awkward when Jean catches up to him in Australia and doesn’t think he can/should convince a girl to return to the barren wilderness he ranches so doesn’t even try. Jean has to be the one to step up and tell him she will go back to Willstown and she will make it livable. Plus, all the “oh my words.” This is shallow, but I want my Australian outback men to be a bit more…manly. A bit more Hugh Jackman. Joe Harman was almost there, but not quite. I think because Shute really wanted to make an impressive female protagonist (which he did) so he didn’t want the main male to steal her thunder.
And now let’s talk about the racism. This book is, hands down, racist. I was actually impressed that the Japanese weren’t painted as uniformly awful, though none of the sympathetic Japanese got names and there was some of that “the white man will never understand the Oriental mind” bullshit. The real racism involved the Aboriginals. Not only is Joe’s nickname for Jean a racial slur for an Aboriginal (because she was tanned and ragged when he first encountered her) but all the Aboriginals in the story were simple, child-like, unreliable and obedient. Jean feels immensely sorry for a white man who is forced to marry an Aborignal because there aren’t enough white women around. Oh that poor dear! Also, the Aboriginal he marries doesn’t speak and carries a kitten around with her at all times which gives the impression she is not all mentally there. Jean also decides, as if it were completely normal, that her ice cream parlor will have to be segregated. There is no way that the town will accept young white girls serving Aboriginal men.
It is hard for me to tell how much of all this is Shute being racist and how much of it is Shute reflecting the time period. I think there are few books as good for giving a glimpse into outback Australia during the 1950s: the idea of England as “home” for the whites (even if they had never once been there), the need for a woman to keep up her reputation (because no man would let his wife and no woman would let her daughter patronize a business owned by a loose woman), the small-minded notions (businesses open on Sunday are suspect), the high male-to-female population and, of course, the racism towards the Aboriginals. Jean’s acceptance of segregation as practical is horrific to us now (as it should be) but very realistic for the character as a product of her time. ...more
This is a pictorial representation of how I felt while reading your book:
Shanghai - Angel Island section: \(^o^)/ San Francisco, the earDear Lisa See,
This is a pictorial representation of how I felt while reading your book:
Shanghai - Angel Island section: \(^o^)/ San Francisco, the early years: (-_-;) Joy grows up: ヽ(ｏ`皿′ｏ)ﾉ
It started out so well. Sure, Pearl and May were sheltered, spoiled and selfish. But that's the start of a heroic arc, yes? A character has to start low so when she becomes mature and generous, it is clear how far she has come. The attack on Shanghai was terrifying and horrific. I loved how the Chin matriarch had more backbone and intelligence than either of her daughters ever dreamed she possessed. I very, very much liked the Shanghai section of your book. I'm not saying that I liked reading about the horrible things that happened to the Chin family. But the novel had a sense of urgency and drama and potential that it quickly lost once the girls got to America.
Ms. See, I know the tragedy of Chinese immigrants for far too much of the 19th and 20th centuries (blatant, persistent racism that extended into the lifetimes of those still alive today) is near and dear to your heart. But there is a place between dogma and silence where subtlety lies and you have not found it. There are certain scenes in the book that are not part of the organic stories of the characters. They are there because you want to SHOW the reader another aspect of white racism against those of Chinese descent. Example: Pearl gets a job in a department store. This is good, because she has spent far too much of her time in San Fran whining and refusing to move beyond her porch. Her English is perfect and she is apparently a natural born saleswoman. Of course, she hits a glass ceiling because she's Chinese. A paragraph later, she's left her job. Why? It's never explained. Probably because your point is made: Chinese were discriminated against in employment. Now that you've shown that, Pearl never again uses her perfect English (or any of the other languages she's fluent in) or her apparent innate selling skills, even when the family is in need of money. This happens again when Pearl and Sam want to enroll Joy in a white school. The kindergarten teacher is a racist and poor Joy is so mercilessly harassed they give up and move her to the local Chinese school. This could be a normal plotpoint, but it was so brief and random it felt more like another message: Chinese were discriminated against in public schools. I'm not saying that you aren't writing about important messages. I'm saying that shoe-horning in messages whether or not they are natural to the characters and storyline leaves a bitter aftertaste and actually distracts from what you are trying to say.
I am also sad that you managed to waste Sam. He is the perfect set-up for a romantic hero: (1) even Pearl admits he's handsome and he's buff from all that manual labor (2) he has a tragic backstory (3) he loves his daughter and cares for Pearl (4) he is patient, kind, loyal, hard-working and good. But, no, he is male and therefore can never develop into a full character. Can you PLEASE write a male who is not a place holder or a prop? I know you are all about sisterhood and female friendship rah, rah, but you can do that AND have a romance. I WANTED to fall in love with Sam and have Pearl and him have some real connection, but after his tragic backstory confession he doesn't really do much again until the end. If you need some ideas for how to write good romantic interests, try Isabel Allende's Daughter of Fortune, because I was ready to marry Tao Chi'en myself when I read that book.
Also, what is up with you writing such annoying protagonists? Pearl is Lily all over again. Pearl and Lily are the same selfish, passive-aggressive, cold, bitter, whiny, obstinate woman. Is Pearl actually Lily reincarnated? I would have much rather have had May as the narrator. She might've be flighty and selfish, but at least she did more than mope around, feel like a martyr and complain.
This applies to Joy. I know she was your representation of the entitlement and rebellion of first generation Chinese-Americans. But am I SUPPOSED to want to bitch-slap sense into her? She takes after her mother in the whining department, but instead of being annoyingly passive she is stupidly naive, which makes her brash. (view spoiler)[I hope she DOES feel bad about what happened to Sam! And how am I supposed to like a character that throws away the college education her parents scrimped and saved for, on top of stealing her family's life savings? I actually hope she is a victim of Mao's Cultural Revolution. It would serve her right to be killed because of her own stupid fantasies. (hide spoiler)]
I cannot believe there is a whole other book on Joy. Why? Why?!?!?. I would declare that I won't read it, but I can't promise I wouldn't be lying. I got through almost all of Philippa Gregory's Tudor series despite raving about how horrible they were (well, The Queen's Fool was pretty good). I like to finish what I start, whether that's wise or not.
And please, for the love of God, please kill the term "the husband-wife thing." I accepted it with Lily, who was a sheltered country girl. Maybe that's the term they really used, I don't know. But Pearl was loudly and proudly cosmopolitan. She had American friends and watched American movies. She had perfect English. She would know more ways to allude to sex. "The husband-wife thing" makes my skin crawl, because it sounds like the speaker is not all mentally there.
I think you are a talented writer, Ms. See. And you have probably already forgotten more than I will ever know about the history of China and Chinese immigrants. So I hope you can expand your focus a little, throw in some romance (or at least a male character that's more than "the husband"/"the father-in-law", etc.) and not show your work so much. I have high hopes for you.
Your humble reader, Bonnie ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
A very sparse, poignant little book on the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. I liked that the family the book follows doesn’t getA very sparse, poignant little book on the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. I liked that the family the book follows doesn’t get names. They are simply: Mother, Father, Boy, Girl. This might annoy, but for me it shows that this is not a story about the Okadas or the Tanakas. This is the story of any and every Japanese-American family who was put in camps simply for being of the wrong ancestry at the wrong place at the wrong time. I also like that Otsuka didn’t draw things out. Some authors would spend pages and pages and pages and never-ending sentences and paragraphs trying to say everything that Otsuka packs into 160 pages.
And for everyone who looks at the brutalities that take place in another country and thinks, “That would never happen here”, a book like this reminds us that it can and did. No, the internment of Japanese-Americans was nowhere near as brutal and horrible as the internment of Jews at the same period. They weren’t being sent off to die. But because they looked different and someone in government thought they were a threat, underlying racism was played on to get a group of people ripped from their homes and lives and sent away to desolate camps. And people stood by and let it happen and turned their backs on their neighbors and classmates and co-workers. In America. Less than a century ago. While the country was fighting the good fight against Hitler. ...more
A good place to start if you're interested in Japanese history. The focus on 20th century history is obvious, given that it takes up more than half thA good place to start if you're interested in Japanese history. The focus on 20th century history is obvious, given that it takes up more than half the book. As someone who is not a fan of 20th century history (for any country), I'm not enthused and wished he'd spent more time on earlier periods. I did like the first 70 pages, which covers up to the end of the Tokugawa Period (1868). I also liked the summarizations at the end of each chapter. If I wasn't particularly interested in a given chapter, I could just read the end summary and get all the important information there (plus, it's good for future refrence).
Also, since it's so slim, there obviously can't be too much depth into daily life of Japan and the focus is more on important names/dates/wars/trends/etc. While this is understandable, I do miss the interesting anecdotes and ability to make history "come alive" that I get from my favorite history books.
Its focus on the 20th century and its necessarily cut-and-dry text is what gives it three stars instead of four, but for what it is (a brief overview of Japanese history), it's very good. I feel like I've now got a decent foundation for future readings on Japanese history. ...more
Finding a popular history of Japan is very nearly impossible. Unlike popular histories about western Europe and the US which can be spotted a mile awaFinding a popular history of Japan is very nearly impossible. Unlike popular histories about western Europe and the US which can be spotted a mile away hiding in a tree, popular histories (in English) about Asia can't be found on a clear day in an empty field.
This is in fact the FIRST and ONLY popular history I've ever found about Japan. I have theories about why this is so (1) the reading audience is more interested to read about the Founding Fathers and the Tudors and other well-known historical events/figures (2) Asian names are less familiar to the average reader and thus harder to keep straight (3) there's much less background knowledge so nearly all the information is new and thus harder to retain (4) the sources are in languages that are generally harder to learn and fewer people study.
Anyway, I was inclined to like this book just for what it is. And then it went and was excellent on top of that.
This book wasn't strictly chronological. Each chapter was devoted to one or two individuals or a central theme. My favorite stories were definitely those about Japanese figures, like the teenager who was shipwrecked and grew up partly in New England before returning to Japan. Or the Japanese official who had an affair with a diplomat’s wife (!) and the wife ended up being forcibly committed to an insane asylum by her angry husband (!) (I knew that shit went down in England, but who knew it happened in Japan, too?).
I only had two big problems with this book:
(1) I know Benfey is really big on how much Japan influenced stuff like modern poetry and Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture, and isn’t that neat? But frankly I don’t care about art and poetry and architecture and talking about minute details of those things bore me and there was far too much of that in this book as far as I’m concerned
(2) I didn’t realize going into this book how much it was about Americans; I thought it would be much more about Japan but a lot of it—especially the second half—is really about America, specifically New England. Japanese people barely even show up by the end, except in passing. It’s all about these New Englanders and how they went to Japan this one time. I really wish more of it had been set IN Japan. There seemed to be much more tenuous ties to Japan as the book went on. (though the Americans could at times be very interesting, like that huge scandal with Emily Dickinson’s brother and his nymphomaniac mistress, who was married to a guy who willingly pimped her out and was quite a ferociously sexual man himself). I guess it is easier to get sources on Americans, so I can see why Benfey spent so much time on them. But I wish he had done more with Japan.
Still, definitely worth reading and it gives a look into late 19th century Japan in an interesting way....more
An impressive memoir about from a Chinese ballet dancer. Cunxin is one of seven sons of a poor peasant family. Through luck, he was picked to be sentAn impressive memoir about from a Chinese ballet dancer. Cunxin is one of seven sons of a poor peasant family. Through luck, he was picked to be sent to a prestigious Beijing dance academy. There, mostly through inexhaustible hard work, he becomes one of the top dancers and eventually defects to America.
My favorite part was Cunxin’s years at the dance academy. He lived a classic boarding school tale – a talented but poor boy, initially lonely but who makes some fantastic chums. At first, the school is hard, but eventually he buckles down and becomes a top student. ...more