I liked this book well enough but it definitely had its flaws. It was an excellent book club book though, and we had one of our longest discussions inI liked this book well enough but it definitely had its flaws. It was an excellent book club book though, and we had one of our longest discussions in a long time.
Claire is a vapid blank and a young woman who marries an equally (if not more so) milquetoast of a man, mostly simply because he asked, and because she wanted to escape her parents. And he was leaving for Hong Kong and she wanted to go. He was helping to rebuild the infrastructure after the war (this was 1952). Claire meets Will, the chauffeur for the Chens, where she teaches piano to their daughter Locket. Will is exciting and doesn't care what other think. He does as he pleases and the Chen even seem a little scared of him. Claire immediately falls into bed with him, as she is utterly bored and he seems to give her a tiny bit of personality. Through flashbacks we see Will's experiences in 1942, when at first he is squired around by the wild and exotic Trudy, but eventually the Japanese come and he is sent to a POW camp and things get quite terrible.
So why is the book called The Piano Teacher? Will is really the main character, not Claire (although Claire is the mirror through which we see everyone else so she's the main character in that regard, although personally I like my main characters to have a tad more character.) Why is Claire sleeping with him? Why do all the British ex-pats in town feel the urge to unburden their secrets to Claire? Why are so many (perhaps all) of the characters pretty irredeemably bad? Why is no one sympathetic? Will Claire become pregnant? Will her affair be revealed? Who gave away the secret of the Crown Treasures? What became of Trudy?
It was fascinating to read about an occupied territory during the war, particularly one where all our characters are British but it's on the other side of the world. In that regard, it did remind me a little bit of A Town Like Alice, but that book is far superior.
This book made for a fast, easy read, there are a lot of interesting topics to discuss, and it was neat to learn about this different culture I was unfamiliar with. I'd describe this book as literary lite. It won't hurt, it's a good palate cleanser, and you learn a bit along the way, but don't expect too much. ...more
I am late to the game but I finally read Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (another Friends of the Library find!) And I'm so glad!
Set in mid-nineteenth-cI am late to the game but I finally read Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (another Friends of the Library find!) And I'm so glad!
Set in mid-nineteenth-century rural China, This book tells the story of Lily and her sworn best friend forever, Snow Flower. At first Lily is self-conscious of her low standing, and Snow Fower teaches her the finer details of embroidery, manners, and the secret women's writing, while Lily teaches Snow Flower how to draw water from the well and feed the pig. Lily has been matched with Snow Flower due to her perfect feet, which should become perfect "golden lilies" after their binding when she is seven, which will raise her family's standing. What Lily doesn't realize until much, much later is that the reason Snow Flower's family agreed to this match is that their fortunes are on the way down. They remain friends as they get married and have children, though they live in different towns and in increasingly different circumstances. These friendships between women are sacred, expected to be the closest relationships they will ever have (for instance, Lily doesn't ever call her husband by his first name until they have been married for 15 years, and then it's under extenuating circumstances.)
Needless to say, there is eventually a crisis in their friendship. It is heartbreaking and frustrating and beautiful nonetheless. And I learned a lot about the culture and the formality of the society, even in the countryside, that was fascinating.
While I still lived in NYC, I went to an exhibit at The Museum of Sex that was about footbinding. I'm glad I did as I don't know if I otherwise would have understood the complex explanations of the process. If you want to know more, Google it. But it's a wild, bizarre, debilitating practice that I am very glad has gone out of fashion....more
This book is enormous. 1210 pages. I started it back at the very end of February. It was one of the five fat books I broughtWow. I finished. Finally.
This book is enormous. 1210 pages. I started it back at the very end of February. It was one of the five fat books I brought on my cruise, just to be sure I wouldn't run out of reading material. Not to worry. Not only would this one book obviously have kept me more than entertained the whole trip, but my ship had a library! (I borrowed two books.) I had no idea that it would be FIVE months for me to finish it, whew!
So, to back up: On the Dutch ship Erasmus in 1600, the Pilot, Blackthorne (a Brit), and his remaining men arrive at the until-then mythical island of Japan. There are Portuguese there, mostly Jesuits, but it was still not entirely known if the rumors about it existing were true. Partly that's due to the fact that so recently after the Reformation, the Protestants (Dutch and English) don't believe a word they learn from the Catholics (Portuguese). But now Blackthorne must rely on the priests to translate for him as he attempts to navigate his way in this world, trying to keep his ship and his crew safe, and eventually negotiate for their return to the sea (although to do so, they'll need to hire some locals as seamen as they have lost too many crew to get back to Europe by themselves.) Meanwhile he learns of the incredibly lucrative Black Ship - the annual trading ship that runs between Portugal, China, and Japan (which he wants to capture), and he's attempting to learn the Japanese language and ways, with the help of the beautiful Mariko, who through the Catholic church has learned both Portuguese (the language of sailing) and Latin. Blackthorne convinces Lord Toranaga that he can be more helpful alive than dead, as he can help Toranaga build a navy, and teach them how to fight using guns. While Toranaga and the four other lords of the council come to the brink of war over Japan (they are ruling while the heir to the throne is not yet of age), Blackthorne and Mariko grow closer.
Why is the book so darn long? It covers roughly 6 months' time, and there are very intricate political relationships and maneuverings and plotting leading up to possible battle. The translating takes up a lot of time, even if we never get the Japanese. We do get a lot of wondering about the translation's accuracy, comments on its speed, occasional editing by the translator, and so on. But mostly it is due to the extreme formality of the Japanese culture, and the newness of it. Mr. Clavell spends a great deal of time explaining everything from "pillowing" to why Japanese house are made of rice paper to what are ronin. The language is very convoluted, where someone has to ask for a thing in a certain way, and will be repeatedly denied, over and over, and yet must keep asking because that is the tradition and the approved manner to behave. A simple conversation that, in English, could be conducted in a few lines, sometimes takes page after page, in order that no one's rank or sensibilities are insulted. I don't mean to imply that it's tedious - the foreignness of these rituals make them quite interesting - but it is long. And of course learning about samurai and seppuku and bushido and hatamoto all takes a lot of explanation. Even more than you might think because back when the book was published, in 1975, I don't know that there was as much familiarity with concepts like karma as there is now.
Personally, another thing that slowed my reading down was all the Japanese language. I am terrible at languages. Really horrible. It's a family trait, and despite great struggles in high school and college, I remain dreadful at languages. Through the book, as Blackthorne is learning Japanese, more and more of it is sprinkled in the text without explanation. Thanks to Styx, I always could remember domo arigato, but words and phrases like gomen nasai and wakarimasu ka kept cropping up that I was much fuzzier on. So not only did those slow me down as I puzzled to remember their meaning, but I also then wasn't sure I was getting the meaning of the dialogue where those appeared, which further slowed me. Even the names were confusing. Clavell had obviously tried hard to use Japanese names that were dissimilar from each other, but what threw me was that most people had 3-4 different names, even Blackthorne (the Japanese couldn't pronounce that so that called him Anjin which means pilot in Japanese.) There are many, many other readers who would not struggle with this issue even half as much as I did and it shouldn't alarm anyone unless you too decided to not apply to a college you otherwise liked that required 3 years of a foreign language.
These speed bumps notwithstanding, it's still unprecedented that it would take me MONTHS to read a book! So, did that mean I didn't like it? Well, I did have trouble really getting into the story, partly because of the above issues. I love to really get sucked into a story, and when that happens I often will pick up the book at every opportunity, spend entire Saturdays doing nothing but reading, but that never happened with Shogun. I liked it, but I never got sucked in. Well, until the last 150 pages. I thought that I knew how the book was going to end, but several twists in the last 150 pages completely broadsided my assumptions and made the ending much more interesting than I had anticipated. I like an author who is willing to take risks like Clavell did there, and don't worry, they weren't out-of-character events at all (in fact the opposite is true). But I'm not going to spoil it for you.
So would I recommend this book? Sure. I learned a ton which I always enjoy. But it's more of a guy's book with action and machinations and cross-alliances and secret plots, and it's definitely a beach read type. I liked it but I didn't love it. But when I posted it as a "to read" on Facebook, I had more people comment that they had loved the book than on any other TBR posting, so obviously many readers have fallen in love with Shogun. However for me the constant back-stabbing and trying to remember who is on whose side and are they really on their side or are they secretly allied with someone else, well it was a bit exhausting. I enjoyed it but I didn't love it. Many people will, and if you find it intriguing, please don't let my review put you off. Domo arigato. ...more
I have long heard good things about Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie, and I really liked it.
I thought the choice of B. D. Wong aI have long heard good things about Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie, and I really liked it.
I thought the choice of B. D. Wong as narrator was interesting as he's Chinese-American, but of course on an audiobook, you don't see the narrator so there's no reason to have found someone of the appropriate ethnicity (particularly as he doesn't have an accent, and presumably - although I haven't researched - English is his first language.) But I liked that detail as I did picture him as the main character.
Our hero and his friend Luo have been sent out to a rural village during the Chinese Cultural Revolution to learn how to appreciate the proletariat. They are subjected to demeaning, backbreaking work, but all the boredom and stress melts away when they discover the beautiful daughter of the region's tailor, and a stash of translated Western novels.
The novel was very evocative. I found myself physically recoiling at some very accurate imagery more than once, as I was out walking. I would make faces, clench up, and sometimes even try to move out of the way, as the descriptions were so visceral that they seemed real. B. D. Wong was good at giving the different characters different voices, and I never was confused about who was speaking. With the Chinese names, I was a little glad to have someone else pronouncing them instead of me guessing, although many of the characters didn't even have names, but nicknames, like "Four Eyes," the owner of the illegal novels.
Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress was a romantic, delicate story that opened my eyes to the Cultural Revolution (I had heard it referenced before but never understood what it was.) A fine gem, the book has moments of humor, fancy, danger, and passion. ...more
I wanted to like this book. Really, truly I did. But there were problems. For me, the biggest problem is that the book made me mentally pull out my edI wanted to like this book. Really, truly I did. But there were problems. For me, the biggest problem is that the book made me mentally pull out my editor’s pen and never put it away. While that’s a big problem, it’s not the worst – at least this book I think is fixable.
This is a chick lit novel of 3 Chinese-American women in their late 20s in Manhattan. The biggest issue for me, that would have fixed 70% of the problems, is the structure. First M.J.’s story is told, then Alex’s, then Lin’s. The whole story takes place over a year (bookended by visits to a fortune teller on Chinese New Year’s) and each woman’s story is told sequentially and consecutively. So they don’t overlap at all. M.J. and Alex each get about 2 months for her story, Lin’s takes 8 because she goes to London for 6 months, although it’s really the 2 months before London that are her story. As such, everything is highly compressed. You have the whole traditional chick lit story arc – introduce our protagonist, introduce a couple of men, have her pick the wrong one, go through a whole mini relationship, break up, get over him, and then pick up with the new guy – in only 60 days, and 80 pages. Sure, I buy that this happens from time to time, but not to three best friends all in such a short time frame. And it’s repetitive. While each woman’s story is going on, the other 2 are simply shunted aside to an occasional chorus/conscience role and are indistinguishable. Nothing goes on in their stories whatsoever while they’re on hold. Meanwhile, because of the 60 day deadline, the protagonist at hand seems overly emotional, erratic, short-tempered, and impulsive (otherwise there wouldn’t be enough forward movement of plot, as there isn’t enough time for it to progress at a normal pace.) This does our girls no favors. Also they are all too similar. They all work in male-dominated industries, they all are treated misogynistically at some point and react with anger (can’t just one of them react with humor? Or work in a 21-st century workplace where alpha males are at least forced to keep their sexual-harassment comments to themselves?) They all want to get married and have kids. But they all have only had bad relationships with other Chinese men who apparently are all sexist assholes (not my opinion – this stereotype is consistent and loud throughout the novel.) They all have a boyfriend from the past resurface during their story, although with varying results. If the structure was changed so that perhaps each chapter alternated narration and all three women had 12 months for their story to unfold, many of the above issue would either go away, or the repetitions would have been so much more obvious when they were side-by-side rather than separated by 100 pages.
The stereotyping and yelling and crying all needed to be toned down drastically. There was also some sloppiness that should have been caught in editing. For instance on p. 18 M.J. bumps into a long-ago acquaintance, Kevin, while in the press room at Madison Square Garden. She says “What are you doing here?” and when she introduces Kevin to Ming, he says “So, you and M. J. are old high school pals, huh?” On the very next page she runs into Jagger and says “what are you doing here?” (gee, a producer for RealSports, what would he be doing at Madison Square Garden at a Knicks practice?) She introduces him to Kevin, and he says “So, you knew M.J. back in high school huh?” Also Brady takes out a cigarette in his office! On p. 154 which made me wonder if it was 1986. M.J. has a DVD of favorite Michael Jordan highlights, but sends out her audition clips for sportscaster jobs on VHS. Oh, and both she and Alex drive cars! In New York City! Alex and Lin make 6-figure salaries but M.J. doesn’t, so where does she park her car and why on earth does she have one? It only appears once in one scene, and there’s no reasons he couldn’t have been in a cab or even on the subway.
All this being said, I liked the breezy tone. I liked that this was a slightly different take on the usual chick lit genre. I loved that the women all had real jobs and were successful and had their own apartments. I hate the chick lit novels where a confused woman just sits around waiting for life to happen to her so she doesn’t have to make any decisions. While I was very frustrated by this book, I do look forward to their next one to see if hopefully they learned a lot after this one which should make for an improvement.
Oh, and publishers, please stop publishing first-time-novelists of chick lit in hardcover. Just stop it. That’s what original trade paperbacks are for. This was a perfect book for that format, not hardcover.
It's certainly true that once an editor, always an editor. But when reading for fun, I want to be able to keep that part of my brain shelved. ...more
I first read this book in 1993 when the movie came out. I absolutely loved it and ran out and bought the book immediately, reading it in a day or two.I first read this book in 1993 when the movie came out. I absolutely loved it and ran out and bought the book immediately, reading it in a day or two. I was thrilled when a few months later, the book appeared on the syllabus for my 20th Century American Lit class. I loved it, and read Ms. Tan's next several books (although with decreasing enthusiasm, and haven't read the last couple.) As usual, I was worried about rereading, but I thought it was worthwhile. I'd seen the movie several times since then, including last week, but I remembered the book had nearly twice as many stories as the movie, and I no longer remembered those and wanted to give it another go.
Luckily, it was fantastic. And I strongly recommend a reread with this book. When I first read it, I was 19. With this reread, I am 36. The daughters in the book are also 36. I still identify with them more so than with the mothers (perhaps because I remain not a mother myself) but now I understood them differently. At 19, I aspired to be them. At 36, I AM them. However, I dealt with my own mother-daughter issues a while back, in my late 20s. In that regard, they seemed a little juvenile, even though most of them were married with kids, a divorce, and maybe more. On the other hand, since I know it is a completely different culture, I think it probably makes sense that they've had a bit more trouble cutting the apron strings. Not to mention, all of them staying in their hometown and living near their parents exacerbated the mother-daughter issues.
The different voices (7 in all, 8 if you count Suyuan) were distinct and the stories were illuminating. You really did see, as An-Mei said, the stair steps of the mothers and daughters going up and down, and them learning to use their own voices and tell their stories is the central theme. But it's a resonant story today. I have a friend who needs to learn what she's worth, and to ask for it, who I'm thinking of giving a copy of this book. An odd fact: This book was originally published in 1987. Which means that the daughters aren't really my age, they're just 4 years younger than my mother. Which makes it all the more interesting for me to identify with the daughters, who are baby boomers, and who grew up in a drastically different America than I did, regardless of their culture. It's interesting how siblings almost never came into the story, except for Jing-Mei's found half-sisters, and they mostly are just a story.
I'm thrilled I reread this, and I finished it in just 2 days. It was powerful, evocative, heart-breaking, and in the end hope-giving. ...more