Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Pavilion of Women by Pearl S. Buck

I'd wanted to read another book by Pearl S. Buck since I read The Good Earth a couple of years ago, but just never got around to it.  After reading an excellent post about her book Peony by Eva at a Striped Armchair, I started looking through the library's catalog to see if there were enough copies of another book besides The Good Earth, which I've discussed with two different groups already.  Luckily, we had about nine copies of Pavilion of Women, plus I was easily able to get another for myself from Paperback Swap.

This story has a really interesting premise:  On her 40th birthday, Madame Wu, the matriarch of a large wealthy Chinese family, has decided that she is going to get a concubine for her husband.  This will have serious repercussions, as it will upset the balance of the entire extended family who live in the house, including her two daughters-in-law and four sons, two of whom are unmarried. Madame Wu needs to get one of those sons paired off quickly, and decides that an English tutor would help him to find an educated bride.  She finds a European monk, Brother Andre, and his presence at their compound begins to affect both the son and Madame Wu herself, in her philosophy about religion, education, marriage, and life in general.

I really enjoyed this book.  It was a fast read, and I found the characters and the family dyanamics very interesting.  It's one of Buck's few books about characters who are not poor, and I found it very interesting to learn how this upper-class Chinese family functioned in the early part of the 20th century, just before the revolution.   There are a lot of books about Asians written by Westerners nowadays, and there are some good ones, but I really feel like Buck had a very authentic viewpoint for much of the book, since she did grow up in China among Chinese people. I did think Madame Wu was a bit too perfect, and the ending was a bit preachy for me, but overall I really liked it.

This book was the May selection for my library's book club, and I have to say it was a big hit.  There was a lot to discuss about the role of women, religion, poverty, and the rumblings of communism in the story. Another big plus at the meeting was the appearance of Amanda from Ramblings, who was finally able to attend!  I've been attending her classics book group for more than three years, so it was really fun to have her come to a group that I was hosting.  She liked the book too, and if you want to read her review of Pavilion of Women, click here.

If you're looking for an interesting book about Chinese culture, and you've already read The Good Earth, I would recommend this book.  I do have several others of her books on my TBR shelves, including some of which I've picked up at library sales for as little as $1.  Has anyone read any other books by Pearl Buck?  Which do you recommend?

Saturday, May 26, 2012

50 Nonfiction Titles in 5 Years

Yes, it's true, I've made another list.  I can't help it.  I do love nonfiction, and I don't read nearly as much as I want to.  Now that I'm running the two book groups, I'm hoping to read more nonfiction.  And recently, I saw another blogger who'd made a list to challenge herself to read fifty nonfiction books in five years, inspired by the many bloggers who have signed up for the Classics Club challenge (I apologize, but I can't remember where I saw it.  If it was your blog, please let me know in the comments so I can give you credit).  Anyway, I think I can handle ten nonfiction books in a year. . . though I've now added a whole bunch more books to the TBR list.

So, here are approximately 50 books, but of course this list could change.  I've split it into categories vaguely by topic, though there's some overlap.   Of the fifty, more than half are from my owned and unread shelves, so that's one more reason to read them.  

The House at Sugar Beach by Helene Cooper
White Mischief by James Fox
The Flame Trees of Thika by Elspeth Huxley
The Bolter by Frances Osborne
When She Was White by Judith Stone

Biographies and Memoirs
My Dog Tulip by J. R. Ackerley
Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang
The Girls from Winnetka by Marcia Chellis
Birds, Beasts and Relatives by Gerald Durrell
The Duchess by Amanda Foreman
Wait for Me! by Deborah Mitford
Hons & Rebels by Jessica Mitford
Sword and Blossom by Peter Pagnamenta
Below Stairs by Margaret Powell
Franklin and Eleanor: An Extraordinary Marriage by Hazel Rowley
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
All the Dogs of My Life by Elizabeth von Arnim

British History
Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey by The Countess of Carnarvon
Singled Out by Virginia Nicholson
Round about a Pound a Week by Maud Pember Reeves
If Walls Could Talk by Lucy Worsley

As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto by Julia Child
The Art of Eating by MFK Fisher
From Hardtack to Home Fries by Frances Haber
Untangling My Chopsticks by Victoria Abbott Riccardi
Appetite for Life: The Biography of Julia Child by Noel Fitch Riley

Color: A Natural History of the Palette by Victoria Finlay
Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky
The Man Who Loved China by Simon Winchester

A Pound of Paper by John Baxter
A Truth Universally Acknowledged:  33 Authors on Why We Read Jane Austen by Susannah Carson
Jane Austen and Crime by Susannah Fullerton
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott
The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family by Mary S. Lovell
Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin
An Autobiography by Anthony Trollope

Pictures from Italy by Charles Dickens
A River's Tale: A Year on the Mekong by Edward Gargan
A Way to See the World: From Texas to Transylvania with a Maverick Traveler by Thomas Swick
Letters from Hawaii by Mark Twain
In Morocco by Edith Wharton

Victorian England
The Carlyles at Home by Thea Holme
Victoria's Daughters by Jerrold M. Packard
Dickens' Fur Coat and Charlotte's Unanswered Letters by Daniel Pool
Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages by Phyllis Rose

The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal
Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand
Few Eggs and No Oranges by Vere Hodgson
Nella Last's War by Nella Last
Operation Mincemeat  by Ben Macintyre

Any good choices, bloggers?  Any snoozefests I should put in the giveaway pile?

Monday, May 21, 2012

Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin

Please Look After Mom was the library book group selection for my evening group this past month.  I chose it because I'd heard a lot about it last fall when it was published in America.  I don't read that many books in translation, though I'd like to read more, and I'd never read a Korean book before, though I have read books set in Korea.  I thought this would be a good choice for the group to read during Asian-Pacific Heritage month.  It wasn't until later that I realized that we'd be discussing it the week before Mother's Day.

If you don't know anything about it, here's the setup:  told from different points of view, this is the story of a family's search for their missing mother.  The sixty-something parents are traveling by train to visit one of the adult children, and in the busy Seoul train station, the parents get separated in a crowd.  The father accidentally gets on the train without the mother, not realizing she's left behind.  She seems to have vanished without a trace, and the book is about the search for the the mother, and the impact of her absence on the family.  It's told in four sections, from four points of view. 

This book really resonated with me for a couple of reasons.  First, I lived in Japan for a couple of years, and though the two cultures are obviously different, there's enough similarity that I was able to picture a lot of the scenery, both in the countryside and in the cities.  I could absolutely believe the part about the parents getting separated -- I've been in the Tokyo JR (Japan Rail) train station during rush hour, and it's overwhelming.  I've seen how crowded the platforms are and how many people are trying to get on those trains.  Several times I was traveling with my children, who were quite small, and it was horrifying to imagine getting separated from them (though Japan is an extremely safe country for tourists; I'm not implying we were ever in danger.)

Secondly, my husband is Asian, and even though his mother has very little in common with the missing mother from the novel, I could absolutely relate to this mother's devotion towards her children.  For example, in one scene in the book, the mother is having dinner with her eldest grown son, and she keeps taking the best pieces of meat out of her own bowl and putting them in his -- my mother-in-law used to do this all the time.  And like the the woman in the story, my in-laws would do absolutely anything to help her children with their education.  She's not like the tiger mother that published that book last year, but there's definitely a lot of commitment to higher learning in Asian families.

This book was really well-written and the story really captured me, but I did have a little trouble getting used to it because it's written in the second person.  It's not a writing technique I encounter much, and it's really not my favorite.  The different narrators always used "you" and it took me awhile to figure out who they were talking about.  

I liked how this book slowly revealed different layers of the characters, especially the mother.  The author really showed how little we know about our own family members and what made them they way they are, especially the mother.  However, I wasn't really thrilled with the ending.  Some of it seemed very unresolved and even though I can sort of assume what happened, a lot of it seemed unexplained.  Overall I did really like it and would definitely recommend it to anyone who wants to read Asian literature in translation.  It was a really good book selection for a discussion group so I'd highly recommend it for those also, as long as you can get enough copies which is always a problem in my library system.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

I Like Big Books

Well, I have gotten myself into trouble again, reading-wise.  It's ridiculous, but I am simultaneously reading two books which are more than 800 pages, and I have two books scheduled for my June discussion groups that are more than 500 pages each -- one is 600 pages!  Here's what I'm reading right now:

About 800 pages
Over 1000 pages (includes appendices)

(Disclosure:  I am mostly listening to Our Mutual Friend on audio, in the car.  It will take weeks since it's 28 discs and I'm not usually in the car more than 30 or 40 minutes a day.  I'm currently on disc 12. )

And here's what's up in June for my book groups: 

541 pages
615 pages

And I have absolutely no excuse for these selections, since I chose both of them!  Of Human Bondage is for the Classics discussion group, and though I didn't schedule it for June, I did nominate it last year, and I knew it was on the schedule.  I did choose Cutting for Stone for my library book group, and I've heard great things about it and I've been wanting to read it for a couple of years now.  I just wasn't thinking about the other group when I put it on the schedule, and it's been published in the library newsletter so it's too late to back out now.   Hopefully the group members won't revolt when they see how many pages it is -- the group meets this week and it will be nice to get those books passed out since they're taking up an awful lot of space on the shelves at work.

If nothing else, these books should make a nice dent in my pile of books for the 2012 Chunkster Challenge. (I am not counting Our Mutual Friend, since the rules of the challenge specify no audio books or e-books).  After I finish these, I'll only need one more chunky book with a length between 551-750 pages.  I'll probably read East of Eden by John Steinbeck, since it's also on my TBR Challenge List.  Most of the other chunky books on the TBR shelves are either too long or too short for the challenge, though I think some of the Trollopes might count.

I'm still plugging away at A Dance with Dragons, which will probably be the longest book I'll read this year.  It lists as more than 1000 pages but a lot of that is appendices, e.g., lists of all the characters (don't get me started).  The story itself is about 950 pages.  It's taking me a long time because I have so many other books to read, and frankly, the size of it is really unwieldy.  I've read some long books before, including both War and Peace and Gone with the Wind, but both of those were in paperback.  DWD is too big to read in bed and too heavy to carry back and forth to work to read on my breaks, and the waiting list at the library is too long to get a second copy to leave there!  I guess I could wait until the paperback comes out, but I really don't see the point of buying two copies.  

I had the same problem last year when I read The Three Musketeers -- it was a beautiful hardcover edition, but just too darn heavy to lug around.  This is why I never read omnibus editions of books, they are just too awkward.  What about you bloggers?  Do you lug big fat books around or just read them at home?  And what's the longest single book you've ever read? (Mine has to be War and Peace.) And do you attempt to read them on e-books or listen on audio?   Anyone completed the Chunkster Challenge yet?  What did you read?

And does anyone else ever get sucked into reading multiple chunky books at the same time? 

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Top Ten Literary Moms

Last year, in honor of Father's Day, I put together my list of Top Ten Literary Dads.  Now it's time to honor all the great moms in literature -- and great aunts, stepmothers, and all around mother-figures.   Moms come in all incarnations; in fact, there are so many orphans in my favorite books, I've had to include quite a few surrogate mothers in order to come up with a list of ten.

In no particular order:

1.  Mrs. Weasley in the Harry Potter series.  She and her husband take Harry under their wings and show him what it's like to be part of a loving family, albeit a slightly wacky one.

2.  Lily Potter in the Harry Potter series.  Makes the ultimate sacrifice for her baby son.  Enough said.

3.  Marmee from Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.  I haven't read this book in years, but I do remember her holding down the fort with grace while her husband is off fighting the Civil War.  Not too shabby if you consider she had four daughters!  I only have two daughters, and I know I couldn't have done it as well.  I think it's time for a re-read.

4.  Mrs. Hamley in Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell. She loves her two sons unconditionally, and takes motherless Molly Gibson into her home.  Good thing too, as Molly's about to have the silliest stepmother in rural England.  (Note that the second Mrs. Gibson is not included in this list.)

5.  The second Mrs. Dombey in Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens. When Florence Dombey is four years old, her mother dies in childbirth while bringing her brother Paul, the heir apparent, into the world.  (According to her sister-in-law, Mrs. Dombey dies because she has no backbone.  Riiight.)  Later, the cold and heartless Mr. Dombey marries the glamorous Edith, who's the best stepmother and one of the best mother figures in all of Dickens' works.  Despite her miserable marriage, Edith refuses to abandon poor Florence, who desperately needs someone to love her.  Now that's a good mother figure.

6.  Mrs. Rouncewell in Bleak House by Charles Dickens.  Her son runs away and doesn't come back for years, breaking her heart.  Then, when he's accused of murder, she sees him for the first time in years in a prison cell, to convince him not to give up hope.

7.  Mammy in Gone with the Wind.  Mammy is the moral center and the voice of reason in that entire book.  She's the heart and soul of Tara, and Scarlett couldn't survive without her.

8.   Topaz in I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith.  Another great stepmother.  She's artistic and flighty, but she genuinely loves her stepdaughters and tries to keep the family together.

9.  Lady Catelyn Stark in A Game of Thrones.  She bravely travels through a war-torn country to try and broker peace, and takes desperate measures to save her daughters who are held hostage in the capital.

10.  Charlotte in Charlotte's Web by E. B. White.  This book always makes me cry. Charlotte is motherly to both Wilber the pig and all her tiny eggs.  Best animal mom in juvenile literature, hands down.

I'm sure I've missed some.  Bloggers, which literary moms are your favorites?

And a happy Mother's Day to my own mom, who always encouraged my love of reading. Love you!

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Delta Wedding by Eudora Welty

I finished this last night, just in time for the discussion today at my classics book group.  I liked it, yet I am having a hard time describing this book.  It's sort of a book about nothing, if that makes any sense.

Essentially, it is a book about a quirky extended family in the Deep South in the 1920s, as spend a week together for a wedding.  Well, that's not true.  Other than the family getting ready for this wedding, there is not much plot to speak of.  The wedding serves as a plot device to get the entire family together, and showcase their various quirks and foibles.  There isn't a whole lot of character development.  It begins with the arrival of young Laura, the nine-year-old cousin of the Fairchilds, an old Southern family living in the Mississippi Delta (which is technically not a Delta, but that's really a geography lesson, and this is not school).  Laura's mother was a Fairchild, but she died in the past year, and Laura can't stand up in the wedding and be a flower girl, to her disappointment.

You'd think that the story would some how revolve around Laura, or at least would unfold from her point of view, but it does not.  The focus of the story, and point of view, change from character to character throughout the novel, and I'm not even sure what the story is supposed to be about, other than giving the reader a real sense of what large Southern upper-class families were like in this time period.  There are maiden aunts, and baby cousins, and hot-tempered sisters-in-law; there is a cousin who was dropped on her head as a child; a seventeen-year-old bride who's marrying the plantation overseer twice her age; and the mother of the bride is currently pregnant for the tenth time.  See what I mean?  A whole cast of quirky characters.  A lot of characters -- in fact, I actually started writing a family tree at one point, to try and keep them all straight and figure out who belonged to who.  I've only done that once or twice in all my years of reading.  If ever there was a book that needed a family tree in the appendix, this is it.

All these characters gave quirky names as well -- Battle and Rebel and India and Bluet and women with men's names and people who have the same name, like little Battle and Little Uncle.  And there's a character named Lady Clare, but she's a child and not an aristocrat to my knowledge.  And then there's all the servant's names, but that's another whole list.

I liked this book a lot, but I'm not sure I can explain it to anyone.  The writing was really good, but sometimes the metaphors just confused me.  I'm not sure if Welty was just kind of rambling, or if it was supposed to be stream-of-consciousness, but it did remind me a bit of Faulkner.  After awhile I tried to stop making sense of some of the writing and just went with the flow of it.  Parts of it were a little like poetry, if that makes any sense.  I think the characters were trying to explain their feelings, and sometimes you can't express them exactly in words.

And now I'm the one who's rambling.  Anyway, the book group was today.  Some people liked it and others thought it was sort of a waste of time.  If you're looking for something plot driven, this is not the book for you.  If you like great atmosphere, descriptions, and charming quirky characters, you might enjoy this book.

This is book #5 for the TBR Dare, and book 4/75 for my Classics Club Challenge.  

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

A Victorian Celebration

I'm really looking forward to the Victorian Celebration hosted in June and July by Allie of A Literary Odyssey.  I'm a huge fan of Victorian novels -- I'm currently reading/listening to Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens; when I've finished it, I'll have read TEN of his major works!  That also counts as the fifth of the six books for my Victorian Challenge.

But what to read in June and July?  I've perused my TBR bookshelves, and counted thirty Victorian novels or books about Victorians that would qualify for the readalong -- plenty from which to choose:

First, a small pile of unread works by Charles Dickens:

And a slightly larger pile of works by Anthony Trollope:

And a view other Victorian authors yet unread:

As you can see, there are a lot of Penguin classics, and big piles of Trollope, with some Dickens, Hardy, Gaskell, and a few less-famous Victorians mixed in.  I'd love to read three Victorians each month but who knows what will happen?

Of course, so many Victorians wrote 800-page doorstoppers (*cough cough* Anthony Trollope *cough*) that there's no way I can read that many in only two months.  Instead, I'm thinking about choosing from my pile of less-lengthy Victorians.  Here are some of the Victorians that I consider short:

Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte
The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens
Under the Greenwood Tree by Thomas Hardy
Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell
The Odd Women by George Gissing
Diary of a Pilgrimage by Jerome K. Jerome
The Mystery of Mrs. Blencarrow by Margaret Oliphant

And I have some Victorian children's novels in my bookshelves, which might be fun:

The Water-Babies by Charles Kingsley
At the Back of the North Wind by George MacDonald

I'm also hoping to read one nonfiction book about the Victorian era.  I have several on the TBR list:

Pictures from Italy by Charles Dickens
The Carlyles at Home by Thea Holme
Victoria's Daughters by Jerrold M. Packard
Dickens' Fur Coat and Charlotte's Unanswered Letters by Daniel Pool
Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages by Phyllis Rose

And according to the sign-up post, writers from other countries who wrote during this period will count as well (though not for all the giveaways).  Might be a good opportunity to read another Zola!  I still have a stack of his works to read as well:

L'Assommoir (The Drinking Den)
The Ladies' Paradise
The Masterpiece
La Terre (The Earth)

So, bloggers, any favorites?  Which are must-reads and which ones can wait?  What are you reading for the Victorian Celebrations?  If you haven't joined already, you can sign up here.  I'm really looking forward to it.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan

I'm currently in the midst of reading two enormously fat books, Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens (801 pages, including endnotes and appendices); and A Dance with Dragons by George R. R. Martin (1021 pages, which includes an enormous appendix at the end with character listings).  It's probably a really bad idea to be simultaneously reading two doorstoppers at the same time, but that's what I'm into at the moment.

And so, when this book arrived on the library's hold shelf, how could I resist a quick contemporary read?  Only 275 pages, and the page size is small and the type is not.  Last Friday was a city holiday in San Antonio, so I read half at lunchtime and the rest before bed, a very quick read, and I found it very interesting and thought-provoking -- excellent for a book group.

In the prologue, we learn that Grace Winter is on trial for murder, but at first we don't know who she may have killed, or what happened.   During the trial, her attorneys advise her to write a diary, since they're considering a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity.  The book that follows is her diary as she remembers the events.

According to the diary,  in the year 1914, Grace was 22 and had eloped to England with her wealthy husband Henry  After the Great War breaks out, Grace and Henry book passage on a luxury liner called the Empress Alexandria; midway across the Atlantic, an explosion sinks the ship.  Grace is the last passenger to get on her lifeboat, which holds 38 other people.  The diary recalls the events that led up to the shipwreck, and how they manage to survive the terrible time that follows.

I found this book really interesting, and I liked how the author interwove the story of what happened day by day in the lifeboat with the background of the characters.  Of course it's all from Grace's point of view.  What really struck me is how the different personalities began to interact in such a stressful situation; how people react when under such terrible duress.  It reminded me both of the TV show Survivor, and Lord of the Flies.   I'm beginning to suspect this book's publication date was deliberately planned to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the Titanic sinking.

And oddly enough, I read four books in a row which involved boats and ships -- after this one, I started a young adult book called Ship Breaker for the teen book group; plus both Our Mutual Friend and A Dance with Dragons have characters who are going on ships.  So I've been inundated lately with sailing vocabulary.  I don't know if I planned it this way subconsciously, or it's some kind of sign that I'm about to go on a boat trip somewhere -- or maybe it's some kind of warning, since an awful lot of situations in these four books don't end well!  I'm pretty much landlocked in south Texas, and I haven't booked any cruises lately.  I'm beginning to think this is a good thing.