Monday, August 31, 2009

Saving Fish from Drowning

Saving Fish from Drowning
Amy Tan

I fell in love with Amy Tan last summer when I happened across The Joy Luck Club in a small library in Southern Russia. I read the book in a single sitting, and was so engrossed in it that I didn't notice the sun until I had finished the book and had second-degree burns. I was left with the wackiest tan lines ever and a strong appreciation for Tan's whimsical and witty way of portraying serious truths. So when I came across another of her books in a used book store in Finland, I bought it right away.

With such a wry, contorted zen title, it is no surprise that the book is quirky, glancingly philosophical (although there is more to chew on if you choose to look), and set in Asia. China and Burma, to be precise, with some before-and-after in California. It follows the misadventure of twelve rich, cultured Americans as they tour Buddhist temples, view artwork, sample local cuisine, and encounter indiginous tribes. They are meant to be guided by their friend, Bibi, a spunky Chinese woman who emigrated to America and became the foremost scholar on Buddhist art. Unfortunately, just before the trip is to depart, she is found dead of mysterious causes.

That does not leave her out of the story, however: her spirit follows the group, narrating to us with her wise humor. If only she had lived to keep her friends from making so many cultural blunders and unwise mistakes! But she can only watch, listen, and sigh helplessly as the group gets itself into predicament after foible, leading finally to their mysterious disappearance.

I enjoyed the commentary on tourism, Western ideals forcing themselves on a local setting, and the changing interactions of a group required to live, eat, and sleep together for weeks under stress and change. The characters are quirky and privledged, yet very human. Insightful, exotic, suspenseful, and full of wry humor, Saving Fish from Drowning was an absorbing and fulfilling read. Just make sure you have a good layer of sunscreen on before you start.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day

What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day
Pearl Cleage

To be perfectly honest, I bought this book for its cover, which is graced by a chic silhouette of a purple tai chi woman. The typefaces are clean and the cover's understated design intrigued me. Certainly an editor who had chosen such a designer would also have chosen a book to match.

I shouldn't have ignored the "Oprah's Book Club" logo in the top right corner.

Nothing against Oprah (well, nothing that has a part in this discussoin); I buy books for myself, and for my students to practice their English. Oprah tends to recommend books that are a bit more syrupy than I like. Other Oprah book club books I've read have also been big on realistic cultural lingo, which confuses English as a Foreign Language students faster than a page from the book of Job. So I usually avoid the books Oprah has sent her clubbers off to read.

This time, lured by the oh so intriguing cover, I bought the book anyway. It's the story of a 30s-something African-American woman who ran away from her tiny Michigan town to find a life. Now she's back for a short visit between big exciting cities, facing a life with HIV and disillusioned with the prospect of Mecca.

Visiting her sister, she finds that their hometown has changed for the worse, filled with cocaine addicts, abusive boyfriends, single teenage mothers, and ignorance. But her older sister, a widowed social worker, is trying to give the kids enough life training to be able to make something of themselves. The neighbor, a dreadlocked Vietnam vet who practices Tai Chi between carpentry jobs, is helping, too. And as main character Ava starts to help out, she accidentally begins to like the place.

The themes of grassroots-driven social change, small-town community, and looking out for each other are strong, but they work out too quickly for this story to read as anything but a fairy tale. Crack babies are quiet, teenage girls immediately adopt safe sex, the abusive boyfriend is stupid enough to land himself safely out of the way in jail, the cocaine addicts are shuffled off to rehab, and the interfering pastor and his wife are banished to Chicago. It's a story that should be gritty, but somehow we manage to keep our hands clean all the way through.

A little too quickly told, too neatly packaged, but I did like the themes and the characters are quirky and entertaining (if a tad flat). I didn't hate it, but I probably won't be reading this one again. Maybe I'll just prop it up so I can look at the cover.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Snow Falling on Cedars

Snow Falling on Cedars
David Guterson

Though it may be difficult to immediately appreciate the aptness of titling the story of a murder trial after trees and snow, I have never read a book with a more fitting title. The narrative is grey, quiet, thick, inescapable, brutal, beautiful.

The story itself explores the lives of a small island fishing community off the coast of Seattle as the inhabitants interact with each other, their memories, and the first murder trial in twenty-three years. A murder trial is anything but impersonal in such a small community, and we walk through the reflections and encounters of community members as they recognize how their lives are intertwined with each other. They held their breath and walked with care, and this made them who they were inside, constricted and small, good neighbors.

Illegal immigrants, racial prejudice, World War II, childhood romances, relocation camps, strawberry farms, and salmon fishing weave in and out of the story and the island. And, of course, at the end we finally find out the truth. But will justice be done?

Monday, August 17, 2009

104 Books You Really Should Read

This is not a meme; I spent hours compiling this list myself.

Ordered by difficulty and alphabetically. Roughly. I have read every one of these books, and I did not include any books which I myself have not read and been changed by. Which means The Kite Runner is not on here, because I haven't read it yet....

It is 104 because I could not stop after 100.

How many of these have you read? What would you add to the list, and why? Have any questions about any of these books?

1. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Roald Dahl
2. Dr. Doolittle, Hugh Lofting
3. Little House on the Prairie, Laura Ingalls Wilder
4. Misty of Chincoteague, Marguerite Henry
5. Over Sea and Under Stone, Susan Cooper
6. Stories from Grandmother's Attic, Arletta Richardson
7. The Princess and the Goblin, George MacDonald
8. The Secret Garden, Francis Hodgeson Burnett
9. The Trumpet of the Swan, E.B. White
10. The Wheel on the School, Meindert DeJong
11. Winnie the Pooh, A.A. Milne
12. A Winter Book, Tove Jansson
13. A Wrinkle in Time, Madeline L'Engle
14. Aesop's Fables
15. Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll
16. All Creatures Great and Small, James Harriot
17. Anne of Green Gables, L.M. Montgomery
18. Another Fine Myth, Robert Asprin
19. Black Beauty, Anna Sewell
20. Hans Brinker, or The Silver Skates, Mary Mapes Dodge
21. Heidi, Johanna Spyri
22. King of the Wind, Margurite Henry
23. My Side of the Mountain, Jean Craighead George
24. Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle
25. Swallows and Amazons, Arthur Ransome
26. The Black Arrow, Robert Lewis Stevenson
27. The Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis
28. The Giver, Lois Lowry
29. The Jungle Book, Rudyard Kipling
30. The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, Sherman Alexie
31. The Outlaws of Sherwood, Robin McKinley
32. The Prisoner of Zenda, Anthony Hope
33. The Scarlet Pimpernel, Baroness Orczy
34. The Wizard of Oz, Frank W. Baum
35. A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens
36. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, Mark Twain
37. A Long Way Gone, Ishmael Beah
38. A Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine Hansberry
39. Born on a Blue Day, Daniel Tammet
40. Diary of a Young Girl, Anne Frank
41. Frankenstein, Mary Shelley
42. Ivanhoe, Sir Walter Scott
43. Kim, Rudyard Kipling
44. Links, Nuruddin Farah
45. Little Women, Louisa May Alcott
46. Lord of the Flies, William Golding
47. Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien
48. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
49. Rebecca, Daphne Du Maurier
50. Short Stories, Rainer Maria Rilke
51. The Bronze Bow, Elizabeth George Speare
52. The Clan of the Cave Bear, Jean Auel
53. The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
54. The Hiding Place, Corrie Ten Boom
55. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams
56. The Hoosier Schoolmaster, Edward Eggleston
57. The Invisible Man, H.G. Wells
58. The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan
59. The Last of the Mohicans, James Fenimore Cooper
60. The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver
61. The Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane
62. The Swiss Family Robinson, Johann D. Wyss
63. The Three Musketeers, Alexandre Dumas
64. The Yearling, J.K. Rawlings
65. To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
66. Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain
67. Treasure Island, Robert Lewis Stevenson
68. War of the Worlds, H.G. Wells
69. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert M. Pirsig
70. Anil's Ghost, Michael Ondaatje
71. Cry, the Beloved Country, Alan Paton
72. Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte
73. 1984, George Orwell
74. A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens
75. Animal Farm, George Orwell
76. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, Die Sijie
77. Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
78. Cat's Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut
79. Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger
80. Gulliver's Travels, Jonathan Swift
81. Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad
82. How Green Was My Valley, Richard Llewellyn
83. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou
84. Les Miserables, Victor Hugo
85. My Name is Asher Lev, Chaim Potok
86. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Alexandr Solzhenitzen
87. Out of the Silent Planet, C.S. Lewis
88. Picture of Dorian Grey, Oscar Wilde
89. Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce
90. Robinson Crusoe, Daniel DeFoe
91. Silas Marner, George Eliot
92. Tales from the Scriptorium, Paul Auster
93. The Cruel Sea, Nicholas Monsarrat
94. The Dispossessed, Ursula K. LeGuin
95. The Good Earth, Pearl S. Buck
96. The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck
97. The Illiad, Homer
98. The Killer Angels, Michael Shaara
99. The Pilgrim's Progress, John Bunyan
100. The Prince, Machiavelli
101. The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne
102. Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte
103. Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand
104. Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky


Sir Walter Scott

One of the most easily located landmarks in Edinburgh is the monument to Sir Walter Scott. The gothic steeple rising over his statue can be seen from all over the Northern side of the city.

Having just visited the capitol of his country for the first time, I found it appropriate to re-visit his most famous book. I thoroughly enjoyed it as a young teen, and thoroughly forgot it in the meantime. Which was an unfortunate thing, as it is an excellent tale of chivalry, adventure, and the thin lines between law and right.

What struck me most in the midst of this merry tale (with appearances by Robin Hood and his legendary gang, Prince John, King Richard the Lionhearted, and more knights than you could shake a lance at) was the deep animosity between Saxons and Normans, and the even greater hatred everyone cherished toward Jews. I am glad modern Great Britain is more accepting, but it is worth remembering that our past is not as pure as we often conveniently believe.

I also really enjoyed the exploration of identity; several times Scott makes use of masks and anonymity to showcase the difference in the way a person is treated when gaged by ability and character, and how he is treated when more commonly labeled by name, rank, and country. (In what ways do you do this?)

Overall, a delightful jaunt through the castles, forests, and lanes of medieval England.

The First Official Post

Hello! Welcome to my book blog. It may or may not be updated regularly, and will probably depend strongly on how often I travel to Finland to buy more books. But the idea is for me to share my opinions on stories I encounter. Hopefully you will reply with stories and opinions of your own.

Let the reading begin!