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 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.