It's been quite a while since I've read an Amy Tan novel, even though I count The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God's Wife among the most life-changin...moreIt's been quite a while since I've read an Amy Tan novel, even though I count The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God's Wife among the most life-changing books for me. While I read The Valley of Amazement, I kept thinking, "This is SO different from the other Amy Tan books I've read!" But when I thought about it a bit more, I realized that Tan very much draws upon the same themes that she did in her previous work: suffering at the hands of men and subsequently learning to be strong without them, lack of intergenerational communication, and the disconnect of being from one culture and living in another. What made it different is that two of the three main characters identify as white, and the other one does at the very beginning. Upon further research, I see that Saving Fish From Drowning has mostly white major characters. I guess that with the time period, I thought to myself, "What is this? Lisa See or something?" And I didn't mean the Lisa See reference in a positive way. The truth is, The Valley of Amazement, at the end, felt like an Amy Tan book, one that I enjoyed very much. Like all of her books, it was gut-wrenchingly sad and at times I felt very helpless "watching" everything take place. I'll put a lot of my observations and ponderings behind a cut so that there's no spoilers, but it gave me a lot to think about it and although it included quite a lot of story (almost 600 pages!) it made me think about what Tan chose to leave out.
The story spans over 40 years and three generations, starting with Violet, a young girl, born in Shanghai, to an American madam of a high-class courtesan house. Called Hidden Jade Path, Lucia, or Lucretia Minturn's house is slightly unusual in that it caters both to Western and Chinese customers. But the house falls on hard times during the Chinese revolution, when Westerners' lives are threatened, Chinese and Westerners shun each other in fear and hatred, and the economy is collapsing. Mother and pampered daughter become separated through some trickery, and Violet finds herself a virgin courtesan, sold to the highest bidder, doing exactly what she had once turned her nose up at, all out of a need to survive. The narrative structure is interesting: it starts when Violet is seven years old and continues until she is in her twenties, then switches back to Lucia's teen years, then back to Violet. Other stories are told through long monologues, mainly that of Magic Gourd, the former courtesan who becomes Violet's coach and mother figure, and later on Violet's lost daughter Flora. Tan is shockingly frank in her depiction of sex. As expected, most of it is unpleasant and abusive, and though there's talk of a man's "stem" (they do work in "flower houses," after all, there's a disturbing element of violence that is horrific but also accepted). There are many parallels to the current sex trade industry in Asia, and I hope that this draws attention to that. Magic Gourd's section, in which she imparts advice to Violet on everything from what instrument to take up to how to accept gifts from "suitors," perfectly sums up the matter-of-factness of the whole thing. Here's an example on waxing: "We'll simply have to call in Vermillion's maid once a week to keep your mound a white tigress."
Read this part if you have read the book: (view spoiler)[A lot of Amy tan's work is criticized for its one-dimensionality of the male characters. The Valley of Amazement is no different. Although some male characters are sympathetic, and some are evil, their purpose is really just as a foil for the women. I don't and never have had a problem with this, as there are plenty of characters with underdeveloped female characters. As I see it, Violet got her happy ending (the ending, though tenuous, was so happy I almost did a double take, but again, I remembered that The Kitchen God's Wife and The Joy Luck Club also end with reconciliation). I wrote earlier in this review about what Tan left OUT of the book. The main thing that I thought about after finishing was how unresolved the Teddy storyline was. As I understand it, Lucia really did disavow him as her son, claiming Violet as hers and Teddy and Lu Shing's. However, it surprised me that it wasn't something that Lucia or Violet was at least curious about, and I certainly was. I suppose that a contributing factor is that Tan really isn't interested in what happened to the male characters. Violet does end up married to Loyalty at last, but like all of Tan's novels, she finally fills that void when the generations are reconciled. (hide spoiler)]
I can see why this is becoming a popular book club book. There's a lot to think about, even if it's really difficult to take in. There's still a hard-earned and satisfying redemption to it.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
I needed a book to read on the plane, and Crazy Rich Asians seemed like a good candidate, since it's pretty light but also juicy in a bordering-on-soa...moreI needed a book to read on the plane, and Crazy Rich Asians seemed like a good candidate, since it's pretty light but also juicy in a bordering-on-soap-opera way. Of course, it's not going to win any literary prizes or anything, but it's a fun read that's just a little over the top.
Crazy Rich Asians takes place all over the world, from London to Sydney to Hong Kong to New York, but is about families who come from Singapore. Super rich Chinese families, that is. Nick Young lives in New York but decides to spend the summer in Singapore, where he'll be the best man in a wedding. Although he hasn't told his family about his girlfriend of two years, Chinese-American Rachel Chu, he decides to take her along with him, since they are both professors with free summers. However, there's a lot of family background that he neglects to share with Rachel. For example, he grew up in a huge manor-style house that resembles Downton Abbey. Or that his family members are friends with the Gettys. Or that his cousin flies to Paris every year to buy couture. Or most importantly, that his parents are snobby about who their son associates with and would never let their son marry someone who didn't come from a pedigreed Chinese family like their own (especially from Mainland China, like Rachel, gasp!) and that they will do whatever they can to prevent that from happening. Each chapter is told from a different character's perspective, most of them recurring: Astrid, the cousin known for her impeccable taste in couture but who fears that her husband is cheating on her; Eleanor, Nick's mom, who will go to any length to "protect" her son; Edison "Eddie" whose parents actually make him support himself and as a result doesn't have the private planes that his friends do; and of course Nick, who's charming but totally clueless about what his friends and family are putting Rachel through.
The settings are over-the-top and I love reading the unique Chinese Singaporean dialect. The spending is on a whole other level and almost like a character. In one scene, the aforementioned wedding takes place that purportedly costs $40 million and involves Cirque du Soleil, the Vienna Boy's Choir, and molecular Chinese gastronomy.
It's especially interesting that author Kevin Kwan actually grew up in Singapore, had an upbringing similar to the families depicted in the book. There are so many depictions of really fantastical spending that are completely unbelievable, but according to this Vanity Fair Article it's completely based on reality. I find the lifestyles of the incredibly wealthy fascinating, especially because they can be so secretive. Also, there's this theme that I've seen with other portrayals of the super-rich, that not only does money NOT make them happy, but that it also makes them miserable. The Youngs, T'siens, and other families are trapped, with far less options than the rest of us have, and snobbery that makes most of them truly horrible people. Still, it's a satire, and a very well-done, enjoyable one. I'd recommend it if you're looking for something fluffy and easy to read.
Recommended if you want: an Asian version of Dynasty, a wealthy version of The Joy Luck Club that takes place in Singapore, a satire, or a story about a big crazy family.(less)
I wasn't quite as taken with Grace Lin's Where the Mountain Meets the Moon as some people, although I did still like it in a "folk-tale-side-of-an-Amy...moreI wasn't quite as taken with Grace Lin's Where the Mountain Meets the Moon as some people, although I did still like it in a "folk-tale-side-of-an-Amy Tan-novel-for-kids" kind of way. Admittedly, a lot of that had to do with the audiobook narrator that I didn't love, but another piece of it was that, while I really enjoyed the writing style, I didn't feel that the stories really went together very well. (In case you're not familiar with Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, it's a story told like a folktale with lots of folktales within it.). While all the stories were good, and most were relevant, sometimes it kind of felt like they were inserted in there, like "Hey! Let's tell a story!" Here, each story that a character told was about them, and their life, so it really was more of a character development piece.
Starry River of the Sky, Lin's follow-up to Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, is the story of Rendi, a boy running away. He stows away in a wine merchant's cart, only to be unceremoniously dumped at an inn in the Village of Clear Sky, so named because long ago, the innkeeper's ancestors moved the moon. Though the innkeeper takes great pride in his work, hardly anyone ever visits the inn, since everyone is so poor. You see, the moon has been missing from the sky for some time, and with it water, and with that, crop growth. Rendi is bitter at having to become a chore boy, but he becomes intrigued by Madame Chang, a strange and beautiful guest at the inn, and her stories, so that he eventually starts to tell his own. All the stories are woven together so well, and so intricately. This is a really interesting story, full of magic toads, forbidden love, the moon, and the moon lady. And oh yeah, lots of Chinese folktales.
Katie Takeshima has always looked up to her older sister, Lynn. Lynn gets straight As, compared to Katie's straight Cs, and is beautiful, with her per...moreKatie Takeshima has always looked up to her older sister, Lynn. Lynn gets straight As, compared to Katie's straight Cs, and is beautiful, with her perfect skin, and long silky hair. Since both of their parents work long hours trying to provide for their family, Katie and Lynn are all each other has, best friends and sisters. When their family moves from Iowa to a small town in Georgia, Katie and Lynn are ostracized at school and stared at in their community because they are Japanese-American. It is Lynn who explains the stares and the racism to Katie, and her parents who teach her to hold her head up high. But when Lynn becomes sick, and her family begins to fall apart, Katie must take up the mantle and be the kira-kira (glittering), hope to her family.
I didn't intend to, but I somehow ended up reading a few coming-of-age stories in a row: Olive's Ocean, Bless Me, Ultima (review forthcoming), and Kira-Kira. It reminded me how much I love this genre. There's so much emotional depth and self-reflection that translates to beautiful, thoughtful writing (when done well!) that I love. Kira-Kira is a sad book (and the Newbery committee does seem to favor sad books!), but it's beautiful, managing to be quite and reflective while a lot actually does happen. Cynthia Kadohata captures these jewel-like moments, full of beauty and sadness. It's a beautiful book, and the descriptions of the poverty that Katie and Lynn's family go through, as well as Lynn's illness, will be eye-opening for children/teens.
Speaking of audience, Kira-Kira is the first children's book written by a primarily adult author, winner of the Newbery medal, and cataloged in my library as a young adult book, so I wasn't sure what the audience would be. Although the protagonist starts at age 4 and ends around age 12, this reads to me like a young adult novel, or maybe late "middle grade." I had thought that this was historical fiction, and it sounds like it, just from the descriptions of setting, characters, etc. but as I read through, I noticed that there weren't the identifying features of historical fiction. For one thing, I couldn't identify what time period this was supposed to be set in, and it was never mentioned. But there is a feel of looking back, and of this being a different time.
Lady Hahn and Her Seven Friends is a retelling of a classical Korean folktale. Lady Hahn is a seamstress who has seven friends: Mrs. Ruler, Newlywed S...moreLady Hahn and Her Seven Friends is a retelling of a classical Korean folktale. Lady Hahn is a seamstress who has seven friends: Mrs. Ruler, Newlywed Scissors, Young Bride Needle, Young Bride Red Thread, Old Lady Thimble, Young Lady Flatiron, and Little Miss Iron. Each of the seven friends boast about their worth, and how important they are to getting a shirt sewn. Annoyed, Lady Hahn snaps at them, telling them that in fact SHE is the most important of them all. But when the seven friends decide to run away, she realizes how important they really are, and they reunite in appreciation of one another.
It's a cute story, with colorful illustrations (each of the seven friends are Korean women shaped like thread, scissors, etc.). I'd recommend it for API Heritage month or just a good friendship tale.
I always like reading new genres, and meta-folktale is a new one for me. Where the Mountain Meets the Moon is the story of Minli, a poor girl with liv...moreI always like reading new genres, and meta-folktale is a new one for me. Where the Mountain Meets the Moon is the story of Minli, a poor girl with lives with her Ma and Ba by Fruitless Mountain in China. As the name would imply, the land they live on is barren, and they are very poor. Minli is still happy, and loves to sit at her father's feet and hear the Chinese folktales he is so skilled at telling, but Minli's mother's sighs grow great over how poor they are. One day, Minli goes to the market with only a few coins, and decides to buy a goldfish instead of food. Minli's mother grows angry with her, complaining that their fortune will never change. Remembering Ba's stories about the old man on the moon, who will answer any question, Minli decides to leave Fruitless Mountain to ask the old man on the moon the question of how to change her fortune. Along the way, she meets many characters, like a poor orphan boy with a buffalo, a dragon who was born from a painting and can't fly, and even the king.
So how is this "meta-folktale?" Well, the main story (about Minli) is told in the style of a Chinese folktale, with traditional Chinese folktales woven throughout. It actually took me a while to figure out that these were real Chinese folktales retold by Grace Lin, because they fit really well into the story.
I listened to this on audiobook, thinking that since it's a folktale (and thus, part of an oral tradition), it would translate well to audiobook, but I didn't like it at all, and will not be listening to Lin's follow-up, Starry River of the Sky on audiobook (but I do plan to read it). The narrator and the format of the book are the type where you need to be hanging on every single word, which doesn't lend itself to changing lanes and the like. I had to listen to each disc a couple of times at least to make sure I got everything, so I didn't feel as much like I enjoyed the story. Plus, I just read that Lin has full-color illustrations in the book, so I guess I missed out on that.
I try to read award winners and books getting a lot of buzz, even if I don't think I'd like them. But I put off reading Inside Out and Back Again beca...moreI try to read award winners and books getting a lot of buzz, even if I don't think I'd like them. But I put off reading Inside Out and Back Again because I really can't stand novels written in verse. In my mind, why write a novel in verse, when it seems so much more effective to write in prose? I read an interview with author Thanhha Lai, in which she said that she chose to write in verse because it is similar to how Vietnamese is spoken. Having the vaguest of familiarity with Asian languages, that does make sense, and I was surprised by how much of the plot was effectively told through verse.
Ha (sorry, I don't know how to use diacritical marks in goodreads, I don't think, so imagine an accent over the 'a') is a ten year old living in Saigon. She is poor, as a result of the ongoing war, but she still enjoys eating papayas and toasted coconut. However, the war grows every closer, until Ha, her mother (her father is missing in action) and her brothers are forced to flee the country and head to a refugee camp. After weeks there, they are sent to Alabama, where they must learn about their strange new land, where there are no papayas. Inside Out and Back Again takes place in the span of one year, from Tet to Tet (the Vietnamese name for Lunar New Year).
Thanhha Lai accomplishes something really neat here; each poem can stand alone, but they all serve to tell the story. I especially liked the chapters about learning English. For example, "Passing Time:"
I study the dictionary because grass and trees do not grow faster just because I stare.
I look up Jane: not listed
sees: to eyeball something
Spot: a stain
run: to move really fast
Meaning: ____eyeballs stain move.
I throw the dictionary down and ask Brother Quang
Jane is a name, not in the dictionary.
Spot is a common name for a dog.
(Girl named) Jane sees (dog named) Spot run.
I can't read a baby book.
Who will believe I was reading Nhat Linh?
But then, who here knows who he is?
Lai tells this story with a great mix of humor and homesickness. She really portrays the cultural dissonance of being Vietnamese immigrants in Alabama well. I read that this is based on Lai's personal story (but condensed into the span of a year, and six brothers turned into three). I don't know if I'd continue to seek out other novels in verse, but I liked this one a lot!
National Book Award winner (Young People's Literature category), 2011(less)
Since I'm a big fan of American Born Chinese, Gene Luen Yang's wonderful award-winning graphic novel about being Chinese-American, I was excited to le...moreSince I'm a big fan of American Born Chinese, Gene Luen Yang's wonderful award-winning graphic novel about being Chinese-American, I was excited to learn that Yang had another book coming out this summer. Level Up is the story of Dennis Ouyang, a Chinese-American young man who longs to play video games but is denied them by his parents and told to focus on his studies. He loses his father at the end of high school, and immediately goes out to purchase a Nintendo. From that point on, he is focused on nothing but video games, which he is very good at, but loses sight of his studies, and gets kicked out of college his junior year. Four guardian angels, characters from the 8th grade graduation card his father had given to him, come to his aid and turn him around to the point that he ends up in medical school, studying to be a gastroenterologist. Then he begins to question whether or not being a doctor was truly his destiny...
It may be unfair to compare Level Up with American Born Chinese, but such comparisons are inevitable. The style and storytelling are very similar in the two books (except that Level Up tells just one story, while American Born Chinese tells three intertwined ones). I appreciate the way that Yang writes about the Chinese-American experience. At first it seems stereotypical... a story about a Chinese-American man choosing between video games (geeky) and medical school (nerdy). But Yang turns this into a thoughtful and entertaining examination of how our family affects our choices, and whether or not that's even a bad thing. Like in American Born Chinese, the ghosts turn out to not be what they seem, but in a slightly ludicrous/campy way. Like American Born Chinese, Level Up is a coming of age tale about being Chinese-American, but has a pretty wide appeal--not just for teens and Chinese-Americans.
Level Up just doesn't have the level of cultural transcendence that American Born Chinese did, and a big part of that, in my eyes, are Thien Pham's illustrations. I'm not sure why Yang didn't illustrate Level Up himself, as he did American Born Chinese, because I loved the high-contrast, slick, simple illustrations in ABC. Pham's illustrations in Level Up are simple, but have a dull palate, all grays and beige. Also, the watercolor style doesn't look as refined as ABC's, although I got used to it midway through.
In all, Level Up is more of a minor work from Yang, an intriguing introductory work from Pham, and a decent quick (~30 min) read.
Ages 15 and up (there isn't really mature content or anything, that's just the age that I think will be interested in this book).(less)
Lucy Wu is getting ready for sixth grade, which promises to be the best year ever. She's planning on trying out for captain of the basketball team, an...moreLucy Wu is getting ready for sixth grade, which promises to be the best year ever. She's planning on trying out for captain of the basketball team, and will have plenty of time to practice free throws with her best friend Madison. Her know-it-all sister Regina, who speaks perfect Chinese, is pretty, and gets good grades, is moving away to college, leaving Lucy with her own room. Lucy, a budding interior designer, is looking forward to this immensely until she finds out that she will be getting a new roommate: her deceased Po Po's (grandma) long-lost sister, visiting for several month from China. It's like The Hundred Secret Senses for kids!
I'm always on the lookout for good Asian-American/Chinese-American books, and The Great Wall Of Lucy Wu is one of the better ones. It portrays Chinese-American characters in non-stereotypical ways (basketball star?) while still injecting Chinese-American culture (including a sprinkling of Mandarin). However, I'd recommend Millicent Min, Girl Genius over this book, because it has great laugh-out-loud moments (which I'm a sucker for). Also, The Great Wall Of Lucy Wu has kind of one-note characters with not a lot of character development, except for Lucy and her great-aunt.
Ages 9-12 (should appeal to that tween demographic)(less)
I started Girl in Translation when I got on the bus in the morning, and finished it this evening at 11:30pm. This semi-autobiographical tale (based on...moreI started Girl in Translation when I got on the bus in the morning, and finished it this evening at 11:30pm. This semi-autobiographical tale (based on author Jean Kwok's childhood) is riveting: eleven year old Kimberly Chang moves from Hong Kong to Brooklyn with her mother, only to work day and night in a sweatshop and live in an apartment with no heat and roaches. Their poverty is jaw-dropping: Kimberly and her mother make clothes out of found stuffed animals, keep the oven on day and night to attempt to keep the house warm, and emerge from their shift at the sweatshop 16 hours later covered in dust and sweat.
Of course, I didn't merely enjoy Girl in Translation for the shock factor of reading about the protagonist's destitute life. Jean Kwok writes a powerful and poignant story, and the writing is superb. I loved nearly all of the book, but feel conflicted about the ending. (No spoilers.) The ending, which is something of an epilogue, had a few twists (in that I wasn't sure what was happening), but I was disappointed in some aspects of how Kimberly's life turned out and the way that Kwok wrote them. One thing I want to note, though, is that I loved how Kwok mixed up words so that the reader could get the experience that Kimberly was having of not understanding what people were saying. For a similar technique/writing style, try An Na's A Step from Heaven, which is also wonderfully written, but not as emotional.
This genre happens to be right up my alley: strong woman of color rises above seemingly insurmountable obstacles, in which male characters are not a major part of the story. I call this genre "Oprah's Book Club-esque." If you like this genre, you'll love this book too.
Read if you like: Amy Tan, strong female characters, characters who overcome obstacles, Asian-American fiction Alex Award 2011 winner(less)