It took me forever to finish this book because it was so depressing. I loved The Dive from Clausen's Pier, so I was psyched to read Ann Packer's secon...moreIt took me forever to finish this book because it was so depressing. I loved The Dive from Clausen's Pier, so I was psyched to read Ann Packer's second novel. Songs Without Words, though, was just downright bleak with few redeeming qualities. It was a well-written depiction of a depressed teen who cut herself and her family's efforts to cope in the face of this tragedy. But I felt little investment in the characters' recovery process mostly because I didn't like any of them very much. The one character who did have an interesting spark, Sarabeth, soon crumbled into a pitiful mess. I guess I would recommend this book for someone who is feeling down and wants to wallow in other people's misery for awhile.
I really wanted to like this book. After all, it was Wong's debut book, Red China Blues, that first whetted my appetite for visiting China five years...moreI really wanted to like this book. After all, it was Wong's debut book, Red China Blues, that first whetted my appetite for visiting China five years ago. The premise of this follow-up memoir intrigued me: seeking some form of redemption, Wong set out to find a former Beijing University classmate whom she snitched on during the Cultural Revolution and whose life she likely ruined.
But having just finished another book about contemporary China--Peter Hessler's excellent Country Driving--I found Wong's book terribly disappointing. Like Hessler, Wong interweaves her personal story with reporting and commentary about the dramatic changes taking place in China today. However, Wong's memoir is much clunkier than Hessler's elegant narrative and, worse, much less reliable. Whereas Hessler backs up his commentary about China with detailed reporting, Wong tends to make generalizations about Chinese society based on one or two personal examples. For instance, after a grand total of two people tell her how much their pet cost, Wong concludes, "Dogs really are like real estate. Everybody wants to talk about how much they paid and what the animal is worth now."
These small liberties that Wong takes with the truth--her tendency to overgeneralize--undermine her credibility when she is commenting on much more serious issues, such as censorship around the Tiananmen massacre. She claims that in 2006, when a documentary maker showed Beijing University students photographs of the Tank Man, the students were completely stumped and asked if the pictures came from a parade or a piece of artwork. If this is true and an accurate reflection of a broader phenomenon, it would be a dramatic manifestation of Chinese censorship, but I really have no idea whether I can trust Wong's reporting here.
Other smaller issues detracted from my enjoyment of the book. A former history major, Wong's memoir includes many historical tangents, but rather than deftly weaving these tidbits into the rest of the narrative, she just plunks them down in clumsy multi-page chunks.
Another minor irritation: when referring to her husband, Wong has an annoying tendency to switch constantly between his English and Chinese names. On one page, he's "Fat Paycheck"; then suddenly, he's "Norman" and then back to "Fat Paycheck" again, for no good reason.
The strongest part of the book is when Wong lets Lu Yi, her lost comrade, tell the story of what happened after her expulsion from Beijing University. Lu's story is truly inspiring. Instead of reading this book, I would much rather have read an entire memoir about Lu's remarkable life. (less)
This book started out so brilliantly that I was convinced it was going to end up being one of my favorite novels. Weisgall re-imagines author George E...moreThis book started out so brilliantly that I was convinced it was going to end up being one of my favorite novels. Weisgall re-imagines author George Eliot's honeymoon in Venice following the death of her longtime lover George Lewes and her subsequent marriage to a young admirer. What made this premise intriguing was the contrast between her new relationship and the old, underscored by Eliot's memories of her past visit to Venice with Lewes. Eliot had shared a joyful relationship with George Lewes, who was clearly her intellectual and sensual match, but she had to endure the ignominy of being in an illicit affair since Lewes was already married. Eliot's new husband, the handsome and much younger John Cross, offered her his devotion and the respectability of being in a sanctified marriage but ultimately could not fulfill her in more ways than one.
The opening scene of the book, in which painter James Whistler spies George Eliot across the Piazza San Marco, is one of the most satisfying revelations of character I have ever read. We get to see the layers of this remarkable woman unfold through Whistler's thoughtful eyes. With her back turned to him, from the way she speaks and carries herself, Whistler first imagines Eliot to be a great beauty, only to be taken aback at her ugliness when she finally turns around. But as he continues to watch her marvel excitedly at the sea snail fossils embedded in the stones of San Marco square, he finds her magnetic and begins to identify the nuances of her beauty. Clearly, he "gets her" in a way that her dunderhead of a husband never will.
What kept this book from being one of my favorites was the ending--though I can't really fault the author, can I? After all, Weisgall stayed true to the facts of Eliot's life. But having fallen in love with George Eliot, I wanted a better ending for her.
Interspersed between the chapters about Eliot is the story of another character in Venice, a modern day woman married to a wealthy and controlling older man. Perhaps Weisgall gives her the happy ending that she would have wished for Eliot. (less)
This excellent book explores the series of developments that lead to a dramatic appreciation in value of the left tackle position on professional and...moreThis excellent book explores the series of developments that lead to a dramatic appreciation in value of the left tackle position on professional and college football teams. This change happened to occur at just the right time to benefit Michael Oher, a young black football player from Memphis, Tennessee, who was born to play left tackle.
The story of Michael Oher is a marvel. One of 13 kids of a crack addict, Michael grew up fending for himself in the gang-plagued projects of Memphis. Through an amazing confluence of events, he ended up at an upper crust white Christian school where he attracted the attention of a wealthy white family. Within a short time, the family fell in love with Michael and adopted him. Little did they know that they had adopted a future football sensation. Though Michael had barely even played football before coming to this new school, his rare combination of quick speed and gargantuan physique made him one of the top recruits in the country; coaches whipped themselves into a frenzy trying to woo him. Provided with love and nurturing he had never experienced in his life, as well as the intense tutoring and hand-holding he needed to navigate academic waters, Michael succeeded where so many young black athletes have failed. He made it to college. In a few years, he stands the chance of becoming one of the most highly paid players in NFL history.
Michael's success is all the more gratifying because his early life story is so heartbreaking (I cried, Steven cried; I heard even Malcolm Gladwell cried). Though ostensibly about football, what makes this book fascinating is that it offers a rare look at what happens when a child deprived of everything--responsible caretakers, love, education, even the basic necessities--is suddenly given the privileges of a well-connected, wealthy white family. It also reminds us that there are still countless Michaels out there whose life stories are equally devastating.
One more comment about this book: it is seriously funny. Despite the obviously sad elements of the story, I found myself bellylaughing over and over at three in the morning. This one is definitely a good read.
I loved this book. I leave it awed and humbled by the trees, by the explorers, and by the writer who wove together the many strands of this story with...moreI loved this book. I leave it awed and humbled by the trees, by the explorers, and by the writer who wove together the many strands of this story with precision and grace. The men and women whose lives unfold in these pages are truly pioneers discovering the tallest trees on earth and exploring uncharted worlds in the canopies of the giant redwoods. I was fascinated by the vast and intricate ecosystems, not to mention all the alcoves of beauty, that exist atop these ancient trees. Most of all, though, I was fascinated by the shockingly intense relationship these people have with the trees and the way this relationship makes them face their limitations and potential as human beings. It made me contemplate my own relationship with the natural world and the sliver I occupy in the lifespan of the universe, thoughts that usually get edged out in the course of everyday life. I am left marveling, wickedly jealous of these tree climbers and their ability to confront their mortality so tangibly every time they ascend a tree...Getting to pet a flying squirrel isn't bad either. (less)
This slim novel, about a nervous couple on their wedding night, exceeded my expectations. I didn't expect to care so much about these two characters,...moreThis slim novel, about a nervous couple on their wedding night, exceeded my expectations. I didn't expect to care so much about these two characters, and at the end, I felt like someone had punched me in the stomach, hard.(less)