Saturday, January 30, 2010

A Good Fall, Ha Jin, a collection of short stories

"What to Keep"

This book is a collection of short stories about Chinese immigrants and their new experience settling in New York. Some are relatively new transplants, while others have been in the US for many years. The process of immersing self into a new culture and place, while retaining cultural traditions and personal beliefs, is complex and bewildering to many of the characters.

The first compliment has to go to Ha Jin’s prose: clear, clean and crisp. Each story is astonishing in its simplicity, deceivingly so. Because none of the stories and life experiences are simple. He writes beautifully, making you care for this odd mix of people so much with so few words. I appreciated how he didn’t feel the need to over-explain the complications, he’s expecting his readers to have some basic knowledge about Chinese culture. Yet he still adds nuances of depth to these characters so you come away with new understanding of them and their plight, both individually and collectively.

For example, the Chinese have the well known reputation for respecting their ancestors far more than the American norm. While assimilating into American culture, some walk a fine line between behaving like everyone else or staying close to their cultural heritage. It’s not simple at all. An overbearing mother appears for the most part to be an obnoxious insertion into her son’s life, yet she is behaving in the norm. What is fascinating is how he relates to her, trying to respect her and her value system while keeping the peace with his wife. In the end, he makes a painful choice, because the two cannot be blended. Grandparents clinging to their past battle with grandchildren who only see their future, and in the middle a couple try and maintain respect and reasonableness for both generations.

In “A Composer and His Parakeets”, Fanlin finds that his new role as pet sitter for his girlfriend’s parakeet has more depth and meaning than his relationship with her. He finds inspiration, as well as happiness and contentment, by simply caring for the small needs of the little pet. He realizes that just as she had pawned the bird off to him, soon she would leave him. As he composes, his work actually improves significantly as he can openly express himself and not hold back

“The Bane of the Internet” shows the suffering of a newly immigrated woman who has to deal with the ease of keeping in contact with her family back home, one she thought she had escaped. While I laughed at some of her plight, the reality of her complaint is all too true.

In “An English Professor”, we watch a fully competent Chinese professor drive himself insane in his attempt to get tenure because he finds a typo in his application. The lengths he goes to in his desperation and pain, his paranoia and his lack of confidence are by turns humorous and tragic. Underlining it all is the intense drive to succeed and to save face, a theme that runs through many of the stories.

A few things surprised me. In immigrant communities, the newspaper business is still alive and well, a collection of news and trivia and anecdotal events that serve as background and a connection to culture. I found it fascinating that once immigrants have entered the US, they eagerly seek association with other immigrants from their past, even if these ones were not of their previous ‘class’ structure (who they would never have sought out back home). Their focus on financial and social standing remains, yet they desire to gather as family members to interact in the old ways.

As I read, I kept thinking of the phrase “what to keep”. Every single character in this has to make that decision, in small decisions and in large, in order to get what they wanted from the new land and remain faithful to their values. Ha Jin illuminates the complications and makes these lives and decisions of these ordinary people a fascinating chronicle of personal sacrifice.

Special thanks to Pantheon Books (Knopf) for the Advance Review Copy.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Link to amazing article from The Bane of Your Resistance

This is a blog by Rosanne Bane that frequently features motivational and inspirational thoughts that are realistic and promising.  Trust me, read this!

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Australian Legends award

Tim Winton is one of six authors honored.

Additionally, the movie rights for his latest book, Breath, have been purchased by actor Simon Baker for US production. 

the origin of the book

The land still provides our genesis, however we might like to forget that our food comes from dank, muddy Earth, that the oxygen in our lungs was recently inside a leaf, and that every newspaper or book we may pick up is made from the hearts of trees that died for the sake of our imagined lives.  What you hold in your hands right now, beneath these words, is consecrated air and time and sunlight.

Barbara Kingsolver

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

White Sheep Can Dance too!

Go take a nap with a book and a cat!

"Reading is the best way to relax....Even six minutes is enough to cut stress by more than two-thirds." 
India Today International, India

"A 2008 study conducted at the University of Minnesota, suggests a benefit unique to cats: cat owners were found to be less likely to die of a heart attack or stroke than people who don't own cats." article "How Owning a Cat can Help"

"Get More Sleep:A lack of sleep is a strong contributing factor to excessive stress. Most chronic stress sufferers feel extreme fatigue, and getting more sleep can help relieve a lot of that fatigue. When your body is rested, you are much more capable of coping with things."

Monday, January 25, 2010

Woman with Birthmark (an Inspector Van Veeteren mystery) by Hakan Nesser

This is the perfect rainy day read. It is the classic style of detective novel with an ensemble of unique characters and a intriguing mystery to solve. A sharp pace and many surprises keep it moving and it feels like a much faster read than you'd expect. As classic the style is, there was still a few "oh no you didn't!" spots where I was genuinely surprised at a turn of events.

There are some personal details that make Inspector Van Veeteren anything but ordinary: his escape with the scented candle, bathtub, and beer for one. The clever wit is required, of course. But what makes the pace work so well is that there isn't too many personal details...the story is the focus rather than character studies. Some might be disappointed in that, but nobody comes off as vague. They simply are part of a greater whole which is the search for a serial killer. After reading more of this series, one would no doubt pick up on more character details of the other policemen.

This novel is also lean in content (in a good way) and action based. If characters go to dinner, you don't have to plod through pages of details about what they ate or how the fish tasted. It is far too snappy to waste time on that, rather, you are allowed to follow the steps of the investigation (kind of like the old Homicide: Life on the Street series) as it twists through the partner's heckling and the gripes of the underlings.

I suggest reading this in as close to one sitting as you can, and on a good cold day if you want to really get into it. The Scandinavian landscape makes you shiver as you read, and it's not just the crime. I appreciated that this novel wasn't overtly gory or shocking (not Jeffrey Deaver, thank goodness). A great detective story that could easily become a television series with this unique Inspector.

special thanks to J. Kals at Pantheon Books for this Advanced Reader's Copy

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Girl Who Played with Fire, Stieg Larsson

I was really eager to start this book, and even more eager to finish it. I had high hopes for this book, having read the first novel in the Millennium Series (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) by Stieg Larsson, and enjoying it so much.

That said, this book was a huge disappointment. I’m going to review it based on the premise that most readers will have read the first book like I did before taking up this sequel. What worked so well for the first were the two fascinating characters of Mikael Blomquist and Lisbeth Salander. They were unusual on their own but as they worked together to solve a mystery they became intriguing. They solved a complicated problem using common sense, detective skills, some computer hacking, and hard work. While there was a large cast of assorted lesser characters, it was a great read.

The problem with the sequel is that Mikael is virtually non-existent. He shows up here and there with a role verging on incidental. Rather the focus is on Lisbeth, and while that might have been interesting to see how she’s grown and what she’s overcome, it never gets to that. It discusses her newfound wealth (shopping spree at IKEA, new boobs) and what she does for a few days. But it never gets into what makes up her personality and why she behaves as she does. Sure, there’s the big mystery of “All the Evil”, but it’s foreshadowed so much in the first ¾ of the book that once you found out you really aren’t interested anymore. Further revelations about her were also unsurprising.

Besides Lisbeth, there’s an enormous amount of new characters as well as repeats from the previous book. It seems most of the characters are either very, very good or very, very bad. Not much of a middle ground and none of them become fleshed out enough to seem real. Some were dumbed down caricatures (i.e. the sexist cop, the introspective and troubled captain, the good hearted and selfless female detective, the bumbling and fame hungry prosecutor). And the mystery that unfolds has so many subplots that it seems like an especially complex Venn diagram that becomes ridiculous and unbelievable after awhile. The new characters are intertwined in such a complicated way that normally I would have kept notes on who was who. But at that point, I really didn’t care anymore.

Another letdown was that none of the puzzles were solved by deduction and clever questions or even thinking outside of the box. Instead, Lisbeth basically hacks everyone else’s computer to view their research. And there is not a single scene where Mikael and Lisbeth interact, so the partnership that was so enthralling before doesn’t exist anymore.

In the first book, everything seemed clever. But in this, simple mistakes are made that seem jarring: Lisbeth’s leaving the keys with Mikael, the police not interviewing Palmgren, etc. Essentially every twist could be predicted (when Lisbeth moves out of her apartment and Mimmi moves in? Anyone could see that coming). And while this may seem trivial, this book had no sense of place like the first. Sweden was as much a character as Mikael in the former, and descriptions of the land and people added depth and meat to the story.

All said, I’d wish I’d stopped after the first book. Just for reference, here is a photo of Kalle by Astrid Lindgren that is repeatedly referred to in the book (and that gets annoying too).

special thanks to Lauren Helman at Knopf for the Advance Review Copy

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Window cat

Monday, January 18, 2010

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Steig Larsson

I was completely unprepared for this novel. I had seen it on bestseller lists and read magazines where the reviewers were completely wild over it. I thought the book couldn’t possibly live up to the hype. I even thought, with dread, that it may just be some sort of Twilight hysteria thing. As usual, I was completely wrong.

This novel is set in Sweden and you jump in to an immediately fast paced plot, with lots of twists and surprises. It’s a mainstream novel now, but is surprisingly deep. It touches on journalism and ethics, business and economic theories, and then builds in an in-depth family mystery with a huge cast of characters. You can trust no one, and you can’t even pretend to know what happens next.

Great plot aside, the novel introduces two very intriguing characters. Most people seem to love Lisbeth, and she is unique, sassy, resourceful and tough. But I actually found the journalist Mikael even more interesting and deep. He’s not your typical “lead” male detective: while he is an obvious ladies man, he is also a good friend. He can keep a secret, and he isn’t pushy or demanding. He sets up situations in order to see how a character responds, and is still shocked and distressed by the horrors that occur. In some ways he is almost child-like in his innocence, and yet by way of his business history he is not na├»ve. He appears to have money and status but needs neither to exist: he’s simple and direct without having any affectations.

Part of the genius (yes, I said genius!) is that the novel works from both of their viewpoints, and lets each of their personalities exist, rather than one character simply assessing the other and defining them to the reader.

That being said, I was surprised at some of the turns the novel took in that some main characters that are referred to heavily are never fleshed out, and some of the situations that took place (mostly involving illegal wiretapping and computer hacking) were so easily done without incident, too easily and quickly to be believable. Some of the precursors to extraordinary events unfolded with crisp writing and suspense, but the denouement seemed choppy.

My suggestion to any reader of it would be to turn the pages slowly and savor it, because you’ll be so sorry to see it end. You’ll also want to be sure to install heavy duty encryption on your computer as soon as possible, and you’ll never read another article in The Economist in the same way again.

Special thanks to Lauren Helman at Random House for the Advanced Readers Copy.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Let The Great World Spin, some great quotes

Colum McCann's lovely prose...subtle and graceful.

I especially loved these two quotes:

"Revolving doors pushed quarters of conversation out into the street."

"The watchers below pulled in their breath at once.  The air felt suddenly shared. The man above was a word they seemed to know, though they had not heard it before."

Wednesday, January 13, 2010


I discovered this fabulous web site last year,  It is for anyone obsessed with books, and it makes my collection look teensy.

The details:  it's a big thrill entering the titles you own or have read, and see all the covers laid out for you in different styles (okay, a nerdy thrill).  They even sell a Cue Cat scanner that allows you to simply scan the barcode on the back and it's entered into your virtual bookshelf.

It gets better.  Based on the books you own, and those you've rated and/or reviewed, the site supplies you with automatic recommendations of new titles you may enjoy.  These are surprisingly spot-on in accuracy.

To top it off, it shows you other members who have similar tastes in books, and you can connect with them and discuss titles or any other book chatter that you wish.  Really great site!

The site features an opportunity to review free books, and join groups that have similar interests. 

Tuesday, January 12, 2010


photo from blog "rhapsody in books" from Isle of Skye, Scotland
no photographer cited...they deserve credit though, wow!

The Great Fire, by Shirley Hazzard

The further I distance myself from this novel the more I dislike it.  I read it fairly eagerly, as the story was intriguing and the setting, post WWII Asia, was fascinating.  I initially reviewed it favorably, but whenever I think back, I realize how unrealistic it was.

In summary, a British war hero, Aldred Leith,  is assigned to investigate the aftereffects of Hiroshima, and throughout this story he completes his research, connects with some old friends in Japan, and begins an emotional 'affair' with a teenage girl.  But really, it is more of the story of the world's most boring man.  Most of this book is him recounting his various travels, which would in actuality be dreadful and tedious.  Everyone he meets tends to be a shade or two beneath him somehow, so he's always giving advice or assistance in a not quite selfless way. 

All other characters are minor, and while Hazzard spends very little time physically describing him, she actually "shows" him well by his actions and speech.  But he's too good.  His behavior is exemplary.  His speech refined.  Everything about him reeks perfection.  In other words, he's a bore.  I was rooting for him to do something bad, or ill advised, or even be tardy to an event, just to see him act less elegant or graceful.  Perhaps a spot on his tie?  He's not the kind of guy to pull weeds, but he'd gladly give the gardener a generous sum to do it for him, along with a wrapped book of Chinese verse to take home and treasure.  Obnoxious.

The other thing that annoyed me was that the author foreshadowed many events that fizzled out.  I realize that added an element of suspense, but some of it was almost like it was forgotten or she ran out of time.  The long anticipated confrontation with the parents of his intended never happened, and his deep friendship with Peter (a lifelong friend) fizzled when Peter became sick and attempted suicide (but Aldred did send Peter a get-well telegram).  It concludes as you'd expect (I won't spoil it for you).

Monday, January 11, 2010

Diagnosis: Antisocial...I don't even want to talk to my plants

Is there something wrong with hating a plant?  Is it a sign of some sort of emotional deficiency to despise a beautiful piece of nature? 

My mom got me a lovely orchid, almost four feet tall, that sits on my dining table.  It is huge and dramatic, it literally commands you to admire it.  Of course, being an orchid, it is "special".  It has all the personality of the little girl whose parents tell her how lovely and special she is, and pamper her just because she is so beautiful.  I.e. insufferable.  It is haughty.  I am being mocked.  We just aren't getting along.

See, the plant knows it's too good for me.  It knows that I care for plants just about as well as I do for the crud behind the fridge.  The joke is on it, though.  It hasn't stopped smirking long enough to realize that it is on the way to a slow and unpleasant death, because I can't keep any houseplant alive beyond the strangely luxurious bamboo on the mantel and the silly green pathos plant in the living room.  That plant is so good natured that it just grows and grows, almost reaching out when you walk by, waving for attention.  What does it get for it's good humor?  I have to cut its little limbs off regularly to keep it contained.  And the cats nibble it.  See what you get for being nice?

Back to the orchid:   I was given strict instructions on watering and feeding.  I studied the damn "rules" and even Googled care requirements to keep it alive.  No luck.  It's fading fast.  And I find some sick fascination in that.

Maybe it's me.  Maybe I'm the problem.  Today at the store, it seemed that the customers and staff were too friendly.  I wanted to snarl.  The lighting was too bright.  All the packages were colored in ridiculously cheerful shades.  And I'm not even in a bad mood.  I've been having a really great day actually.  But when the checker inquires how my day is going, and I say fine, and she says "what have you been up to?" I find my inner-irritation-meter going off the charts.  I realize that friendliness is a job requirement there;  they have a secret shopper that docks them if they aren't cheerful.  So I don't get mad or even openly annoyed, I just seethe a little.   I don't want help out, just give me my yerba mate and my avocados and let me be!  I sighed with relief at coming home to a quiet house and a box of books waiting.  Peace!

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Islandport Press

A huge thank you to Melissa Kim at Islandport Press for her generous gift to my little guy.  Sharing that review from Dave Eggers was my pleasure, I hope you can use it in publicity.

Dahlov Ipcar is amazing!

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

This is a simple and gentle story about a young woman's immigration to New York from Ireland in the years after WWII. Much of the novel contains her personal thoughts and her analyzing her future and decisions and life in general. It has an easy pace with lots of descriptive elements and a vast array of characters.

I really wanted to love this book, but it just seemed oversimplified. I think virtually anyone could have thought up the plot if they were given the basic elements (girl alone in big city, first real job, meeting new people, family crisis). In fact, at one point it felt like an After School Special.  Essentially, there were no surprises or twists.

While Toibin depicts the female brain very well in some areas, there are other things that don't ring true. For example, other than her work and classes, the main character seems to have no curiousity about the world in general, or about the exciting new country she has come to. In subjects such as racism and the Holocaust, not only does she know nothing but she has no interest in learning more. And while we hear much of her thoughts, some subjects she doesn't even visit mentally: when her female boss makes a sexual pass at her, she feels uncomfortable but never ponders it again. Yet she ponders so much more trivial stuff all the time throughout the book (what to wear or where to eat).

Additionally, while there are some tragic events, overall there doesn't seem to be enough conflict to make the story interesting. All the other characters are almost too good to be true, some crusty or cranky but all of them (excepting Miss Kelly) are big hearted and generous. Money is never really an issue, and things go amazingly smooth for such a huge life change. Everything goes her way for the most part.  Again, that seems incredibly unrealistic. And the strange behavior of her fiance's moodiness, her mother's unpleasantness, and her landlady's suspicions are never really explored.

I intend to read more of his work (I have ordered the Blackwater Lightship) and I hope things become a bit more complex and realistic.