Waiting by Ha Jin

200px-Waiting_a_Novel_Book_CoverTitle:  Waiting by Ha Jin

Publisher:  Pantheon, 1999

Pages:  308

Genre:  literary fiction

Setting: Communist China during the Cultural Revolution

Where did you get it? It was a Christmas gift when it first came out in hardcover.  It won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1999.

Why did you read it? My book club chose it for our March discussion. I’ve had it on my shelves for years, and this was my second reading.

What’s it about?  Based on a true story the author heard from his wife on a visit to China, Waiting is about a doctor who waited 18 years to divorce his wife so that he could marry a co-worker at the army hospital where they both worked.

Following parental and societal expectations, Lin Kong enters into an arranged and loveless marriage with the traditional Shuyu, an older woman who was willing to care for his ailing mother.  Lin works in an army hospital in the city, where he forms a bond with a nurse named Manna.  They are forbidden to be together and their every move is watched and dictated by the army.

Each year on his annual visit to the countryside to visit his wife and daughter, he asks Shuyu for a divorce so that he might marry Manna, and each year something happens to prevent it.

This is a tragic story, not a love story.  Bound by custom and duty to both the loyal Shuyu and the more modern Manna, Lin feels trapped.  He is indecisive, emotionally immature, repressed and unfulfilled.  His guilty feelings over stringing Manna along and watching her become an “old maid” in the eyes of others had him trying to set her up with his cousin and promoting a relationship with a high ranking military official, both of which failed to materialize.   Manna resigns herself to waiting for Lin.  Finally, after 18 years, the law says he can divorce his wife without her consent, so he does.

Conforming to expectations like good Comrades and following the rules, Lin, Shuyu and Manna are all waiting for a love that never really comes, and while they’re waiting, their lives pass them by.

What did you like?  The story was interesting.  I noted some symbolism, which I generally like, even though some of it was a bit heavy handed.  The writing was spare and straightforward, even blunt.  I learned a lot about Chinese culture and the political climate of the time.

What didn’t work for you?  The author basically tells the entire story in the prologue.  I would have preferred to discover it in the reading of the book, rather than have it handed to me in the first few pages.  Some of the language is clunky in the way it might be if it was a translation, but it’s not.  In fact, the author’s first language is Chinese, not English, and while it is all technically correct, sometimes his word usage is odd.  The writing is quite restrained, which I suppose is reflective of the political climate, so perfectly appropriate.  The plot is somewhat repetitive.  And finally, Lin is such a passive character, I wanted to shake him.  I’m not sure why any one woman would wait for him, let alone two.

Share a quote or two:  

“You strive to have a good heart. But what is a heart? Just a chunk of flesh that a dog can eat.”

“Life is a journey, and you can’t carry everything with you. Only the usable baggage.”

Who would enjoy this book?  Anyone interested in Chinese culture and communism.

Who else has reviewed it?  I couldn’t find too many reviews, but Lu’s is excellent:

Regular Rumination

Anything else to add?  I liked this book a lot better the first time I read it, and I’m not sure why, but it was definitely a good choice for our book club, giving us a lot to talk about.  Click HERE for discussion questions from Book Browse.

Review: Impatient With Desire by Gabrielle Burton

Westward, ho!

Many know the story:  The Donner Party was a group of doomed pioneers who left in a wagon train from Springfield, Illinois in 1846 for the promise of great adventure and a better life in California.  Due to a series of mishaps, poor choices, an ill-advised shortcut, early winter weather, and time-wasting travails, the trip took much longer than planned.  The group became snowbound in the Sierra Nevada Mountains for several months with few supplies and little food.  They are infamous for the way they attempted to survive, by eating the flesh of those who had died before them.

Impatient with Desire by Gabrielle Burton is told through the imagined letters and fictional journal entries of Tamsen Donner, 45 year old wife of George Donner, the party leader.  The book was a bit tricky to follow at first, because it’s not chronological, so it would shift from the present horror of starvation and death to happier times in their past, including Tamsen and George’s courtship, their decision to go on the journey and how it was made, memories from Tamsen’s childhood and first marriage, etc., then back to the freezing, starving, mind numbing realities of the Sierra Nevadas.  It didn’t take long, though, before I got into the flow of the narrative, and I was riveted.

Tamsen tries to distract her children from their hunger and harsh surroundings by describing the apple trees and cherry orchards from home, the lovely warm breezes of a Springfield summer.  When one of the children asks, “Why did we leave?”  their mother, sadly, has no adequate answer.  It’s something she thinks about constantly.

It is well known that the real Tamsen Donner kept a journal, but it unfortunately was destroyed.  One can only guess at what might have been written there, but certainly she would have recorded births, deaths, and details of the trip.  One might also expect to find dreams of the American West (the last frontier), fear of the unknown, feelings of regret and blame at the horrific turn of events, and hope for the future of their children.  That is all here in this fictional account.

I knew of the Donner Party because of the cannibalism but wondered how things could ever have gotten to that point.  By the time I discovered the answer to that question, it seemed like the only feasible option a mother could make- survival.  Tamsen Donner comes across as courageous, loving, strong, and full of wanderlust.  This book is a fascinating account of how things might have been and truly captures the pioneer spirit.

Highly recommended.

Many thanks to the author for sending Impatient with Desire for me to review.  It was lovely, and I will pass it along to my mother, who also enjoys historical fiction.  I think it would also make a great book club selection.

Not Feeling the Love for A RELIABLE WIFE

In which I rip on a book everyone loves…

Disclaimer:  This is not a review, just rambling.  I’m not trying to be a literary critic, just a reader who didn’t care for a popular book.  I know many people will disagree with me.

When A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick was suggested and then voted in as my book club’s selection for March, I was so excited.  Having seen the buzz on the book blogs last year, my expectations were pretty high.

I thought it would be a dark story set in a bleak environment.  It was.  I assumed the setting would play a role on the psyche of the characters.  It did.  Beyond that, I wasn’t sure what to expect, and I couldn’t wait to find out.

Well.  Let’s just say this book is not for everyone.  I did not love it; in fact I found parts of it silly.  I’m clearly in the minority, so maybe it’s me.

Ok, so to bring you up to speed in case you haven’t read the book, there is Ralph Pruitt, a wealthy man in frozen-over Wisconsin living in a town named for his family.  He’s lived alone for 20 years with no love in his life and no family.  He owns everything and everyone works for him.  He advertises for a reliable wife and Catherine Land has answered his ad.

Catherine, we know immediately (from the back of the book and in the very beginning), is anything but honest.  She’s playing a role.  She flings her red velvet dress out the window of the train headed for Wisconsin and dons a basic black wool dress, more appropriate for an honest, sensible woman.  She has tiny blue bottles of liquid that she keeps with her.  She sews gems into the lining of her dress.  She’s up to something.

We find out soon enough that Ralph had another family, years ago.  He has an estranged son, Tony (or Andy, or some form of Antonio) from his first marriage.  Ralph made him pay for the sins of his mother and feels guilty for the way he treated him.  That guilt is the driving force of the story.

So it sounds good, right?  These aren’t really spoilers, mind you.  All of this unfolds very early on, and I’ll admit I was hooked.  I knew something was up- there were big red flashing signs all over the place- it was just a matter of what.  The book got off to a great start.  I wanted to know what would happen.

But then a lot of things went wrong, for me.  Without giving anything away, let’s just say Ralph sends Catherine on a big errand- which is the entire reason he needed a reliable wife.  My question, for those who’ve read the book, is why?  Why would he need to get married to do this?  Why did he need her to do this particular task?  Couldn’t he have paid one of the many townspeople who answered to him?  He had buckets of money.. there was no other way?

And Tony.  He also sends Catherine on an errand.  Why couldn’t he accomplish his mission on his own?  Couldn’t he have carried out his personal vendetta without her?

Yes, these men were using Catherine for their own purposes.  But please don’t feel bad for her, for she is a lying, murderous, despicable person who I thought at times was becoming a decent human but really wasn’t.  She had me fooled more than once.

There were some gaping plot holes and unexplained motivations and some head-scratcher stuff.  There was some laughable, silly dialog.  I found myself thinking, “That’s dumb” or “WTF?” a number of times.

The destructive, deceitful, selfish, sexually fixated characters were disturbing- and this book has three of them.  And I’m generally ok with dark and disturbing.   But then there were long looooong passages about sexual obsession that were a complete yawnfest.  It’s a sad day when reading about sex is boring, but the lengthy descriptive paragraphs were icky and tedious and I found myself doing a lot of skimming.

Another thing that was creepy and odd was Ralph’s obsession with people in town going mad and killing themselves or their families.  Apparently all that Wisconsin snow during the long hard winters made them crazy. Why was he so fascinated with sex, money, his long lost son, and tragic stories, to the exclusion of all else?

Ralph seemed so pathetic to me.  He did not seem like a powerful, wealthy tycoon so much as a passive old man.  Catherine, with her little blue bottles, is not a loving wife, and he knows it, and he does not care.  In fact, he welcomes her betrayal, allowing it to happen and even hastening it’s progression.  She’s aware that he knows, and everyone is acting like it’s perfectly ok.  And I did not understand that.  Why would he resign himself to that fate, willingly?  Somebody smarter than me, help me out.  Was it because he thought Andy/Tony would never come home?  And if that’s the reason, could he think of nothing else to live for (regular sex, perhaps, after the 20 year drought?)

There was a ton of repetition.  Like the phrase “such things happened”.  And I found the imagery of birds tedious.  Also the imagery of water- at first I thought the author was doing something kind of cool and subtle with the imagery, but after the 5th description of something being like water, or another mention of a bird (the heart beating like a bird, her hands fluttering like birds, “welcome home” sex like the singing of a bird, and the bird in the cage, and the bird in the garden..) I was rolling my eyes.  Again, maybe it’s just me, but I don’t need to be beaten over the head with imagery (or feathers) to get the meaning.

The whole scenario seemed vaguely familiar to me.  The frozen tundra, the long-suffering and wealthy bachelor with a haunted past, the beautiful woman with secrets of her own..  where have I read this before?  An old dusty classic from high school, perhaps?  I couldn’t place it but it had a very familiar feel.

So tonight is our book club meeting, and I cannot wait to see what everyone else thought about A Reliable Wife.  Someone else is leading the discussion tonight and I’m guessing she’s done a little research.  I’m going to sit back with my mouth closed and let the meeting unfold before I say a word about my impressions.  Maybe I will learn something and be enlightened.  Maybe I’ll see the error of my “analysis,” such as it is.  Maybe I’ll be the only one who doesn’t think the book is amazing and brilliant.  Or maybe not.

I’ll let ya know.

Book Review: When The Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka

When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka is a book I accidentally read twice.  Has anyone else ever had that kind of lightbulb moment, when things start to sound vaguely familiar?

For me that rarely happens because I generally get rid of my books after I’ve read them.  They go to friends or off to the library; I keep very few.  But for some reason I kept this one, and it only took 11 pages for that reading lighbulb to go on with a scene so vivid and visual and unforgettable that at first I wasn’t sure if I’d seen it in a movie or read it in a book (this book).  I had to read a little bit further to realize that yes, I’d read this before, probably when it first came out in 2002.

It is spring of 1942, in the early days of WWII.  Evacuation orders for over 100,000 Japanese Americans living on the West Coast have been posted.  Japanese AMERICANS who’ve done nothing wrong; who love baseball and school, who own stores and homes and little white dogs, whose only crime is their ancestry, are suddenly enemy aliens and ordered to leave their homes to reside in internment camps far away.

This book is about one family’s experiences.  Told in sparse, simple prose, it focuses on the small things, the quiet details.  It feels bare.  Direct.  Subtle.  Sad.

The first chapter is told from the mother’s perspective.  The father has been taken away for questioning late at night, months before.  Taken away in his slippers and his bathrobe, with the neighbors peering out from behind their curtains.

Now the mother (never named) is making careful and necessary preparations for the rest of the family to leave their home in Berkley, California, not to join the father but to be taken to a different place. She’s packing up the house, making painful decisions about the pets, waiting for the children to come home from school.  She doesn’t know where they are going or how long they’ll be gone or who will live in their home while they are away; she only knows that they have to go and can only bring what they can carry.

The next chapter is from the perspective of the eleven year old daughter, on the train and then later on a bus toward their destination in Utah.  It’s hot and they are bored, cranky, sad.  Their minds drift to other places.

The next two chapters are told by the 8 year old son/brother during the family’s time at camp and are filled with a kids view of the heat, the white dust, the cold, the hunger, the boredom, the thin walls, the cramped quarters, the lines, the barbed wire, the armed guards, the censored letters, the longing for old times, the wondering about friends at home.  Finally they do return home but things are not the same, will never be the same.

The very end of the book, after the father’s homecoming, is a political tirade that seemed unnecessary and tacked on.  The stark realities of the family’s experience and the injustice of it all is a potent enough political statement all by itself.

At 144 pages, When the Emperor Was Divine is an understated, extremely well written book with a poetic feel that pays close attention to detail and focuses more on feelings than on actual events during this painful and ugly period in our country’s history.

I loved this book and highly recommend it for anyone over the age of 12.  It’s a keeper.

Teaser Tuesday- November 24, 2009

Miz B and Teaser Tuesdays asks you to: Grab your current read. Let the book fall open to a random page. Share with us two (2) sentences from that page, somewhere between lines 7 and 12. You also need to share the title of the book that you’re getting your “teaser” from … that way people can have some great book recommendations if they like the teaser you’ve given!

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

My teaser comes from page 51 of When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka.  At 144 pages this is a minimalist story told by a young boy about his Japanese American family during WWII, when they are split up and sent to the internment camps.

My (step) grandparents were children during WWII and went to the camps with their families, so I have a personal interest in these kinds of stories.  I’m pre-reading this one to see if it would be ok for my 12 year old daughter to read.  So far, so good.  Here’s the teaser, from page 51:

“There was a window above the boy’s bed, and outside were the stars and the moon and the endless rows of black barracks all lined up in the sand.  In the distance, a wide empty field where nothing but sagebrush grew, then the fence and the high wooden towers.”

Review and Giveaway: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

GuernseyTRCoverI recently had the pleasure of reading The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Annie Barrows and her aunt, the late Mary Ann Shaffer.  Where do I start in reviewing a book that has become a modern day classic in such a very short time?  A book that is almost universally loved?  A book that so many people have lauded, admired, and reviewed before me? 

Do I even need to say what it’s about?  Is it possible there are readers out there unfamiliar with the premise? 

In short, it’s a book told in letters.  It’s a cool format.  I know there is a real word for that.  Epistolary?  Is that it?  Or is that a religion?  Hmmm.. must check that out on Dictionary.com.  

Anyway, let’s dispense of the unwieldy book title for this review and just call it Potato.  Potato starts out in 1946.  WWII with all its devastation has ended, and the world is forever changed.  Early in the book Juliet Ashton, a writer, gets a letter from Dawsey Adams, a man living on the island of Guernsey, which had been occupied by the Germans during the war.  He found her name and address written on the inside of a book that intrigued him and, isolated on the island but seeking more information on the author, he reaches out to Juliet, the former owner of the book.  Their correspondence is the foundation for Potato.  

Dawsey tells Juliet about his book club, the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.  Juliet is intrigued and asks him to have the other members write to her as well, because she is looking for material for an article and thinks their group would be interesting to her readers.  Soon she is corresponding with several members of the Society, and before long she is charmed by the people and by the idea of the island, so much so that she is compelled to go meet them and see it for herself. 

Yes, Guernsey is a real place

Yes, Guernsey is a real place

I love my book club- love talking about it- love the many positive changes it has brought about in my life (including this blog).  However, I could never say that it saved me or got me through the worst times of my life.  I could never say that it became my lifeline during a war.  But that is precisely the function the Society served for many of the people on Guernsey. 

And I loved this book for all it’s bookish quotes and insightful observations.  There are so many to choose from, but here is one from page 11, which I adored: 

“That’s what I love about reading; one tiny thing will interest you in a book, and that tiny thing will lead you onto another book, and another bit there will lead you onto a third book.  It’s geometrically progressive-all with no end in sight, and for no other reason than sheer enjoyment.” 

How true that is?!   That has happened to me so often.  

Another quote I loved isn’t specifically about reading, although I guess it could be: 

“Have you ever noticed that when your mind is awakened or drawn to someone new, that person’s name suddenly pops up everywhere you go?  My friend Sophie calls it coincidence, and Mr. Simpless, my parson friend, calls it Grace.  He thinks that if one cares deeply about someone or something new one throws a kind of energy out into the world, and “fruitfulness” is drawn in.” 

That reminds me of when you get a new car.  I never knew how many Nissan Quests were on the road until I started driving one.  Or how many pregnant woman were in the world until I was one (and how they multiplied tenfold after I lost my baby). But it’s true in a bookish sense as well.  I have thrown my “book club energy” into the world, and I am constantly amazed at how often I meet others who participate in book clubs and who love to read and discuss what they’re reading.  You attract others like you into your sphere when you send out the right vibes.  And apparently I have some really strong book club vibes floating through the universe. 

Another quote I loved (LOVED!) is this: 

“I wonder how the book got to Guernsey?  Perhaps there is some secret sort of homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect readers.” 

I am that perfect reader, in this case.  I adored this book. 

I will leave you with one last quote, and (shock) it’s a book club one.  From page 51: 

“None of us had any experience with literary societies, so we made our own rules:  we took turns speaking about the books we read.  At the start, we tried to be calm and objective, but that soon fell away, and the purpose of the speakers was to goad the listeners into wanting to read the book themselves.  Once two members had read the same book, they could argue, which was our great delight.  We read books, talked books, argued over books, and became dearer and dearer to one another.” 

Yes.  I can relate.  My book club is very dear to me, and it is a delight to debate a point in a book. 

If you are interested in WWII or historical fiction, you’ll appreciate this unique look at the war.  If you enjoy letters, are a member of a book club, or an avid reader, I strongly recommend this literary gem to you.  It is timeless, charming, insightful, and soothing.  It was the perfect book for me and I hope it finds other perfect readers. 

The publisher, Random House, has generously offered 5 copies of the trade paperback of this book to give away as part of it’s TLC Book Tour.  Please leave a comment by Friday, August 28th for a chance to win.  If you’ve already read Potato, please let me know what you thought of it!

Visit the Guernsey website HERE and the author’s website HERE (she also writes children’s books).  You can find discussion questions for your book group HERE.

Review: The Red Tent by Anita Diamant

15201408The Red Tent by Anita Diamant is a fictional interpretation of a biblical family. Narrated by Dinah, the only daughter of Jacob and sister to his 12 sons, whose life is barely mentioned in the Book of Genesis, it is rich in stories and characters.

Vividly bringing the ancient world to life, The Red Tent is filled with dust and shepherds and caravans and slaves. Diamant shares the joys, sorrows, and traditions of women in the world of the red tent, a haven during their menses, illnesses, and childbirth.

Dinah is loved by her four mothers, sister-wives Leah, Rachel, Zilpah, and Bilhah; strong women who pass down all their secrets, talents, stories, and feminine gifts to her, along with the religious and sexual practices of the tribe. Like her beautiful mother-aunt Rachel, she learns the skill of midwifery, which is instrumental to her future. Her destiny is forever changed while attending the birth of a child in the king’s house, where she falls in love with Shalem, the prince. This meeting sets into motion the events that shatter and scatter Dinah’s family, bringing shame to Jacob’s tribe but also bringing her great joy through her son, who will be raised as a prince in Egypt.

The Red Tent shows how vital female relationships and family traditions are to women, how much they enrich our lives. Diamant’s words paint a brilliantly imagined, emotionally lush world, a fascinating portrait of biblical women and the lives they might have lived.

This novel was such a satisfying read; I feel like I’ve just finished a 6 course feast after weeks of eating nothing but snacks. In the 12 years since it first came out it has become a book club favorite, so I let The Red Tent sit on my shelf for two years, hoping my book club would pick it. So far they haven’t, but I didn’t want to wait any longer.

This is historical fiction at it’s very best. I would give The Red Tent my highest recommendation. I loved it.

imagesAnita Diamant’s new book, Day After Night, is based on the true story of the rescue of 200 prisoners from an internment camp during the Holocaust and is due out in September. Visit her website HERE.

And is it just me, or does Anita Diamant look an awful lot like Ellen Degeneres?  I wonder if she’s funny..