Sunday, 2 December 2012

Inside China

Well, I'm still here, and I need to apologize for my absence. I didn't realize my last post was October 23, yikes! It kept becoming one of those things I needed to get around to, and what with poor health, work, and bereavement in our household, it kept falling to the bottom of the list. Well, here I am, on yet another night shift, and still somewhat alert so I give you a long-awaited (by some) post.

While I devour fiction with a voracious appetite, nonfiction reading goes a bit slower for me. Most often I read books related to spiritual growth, Christianity, or Bible study books, but about a year ago an autobiography caught my eye. It's called Heart for Freedom, and it's written by Chai Ling, one of the student leaders at the center of the Tiannamen Square movement in 1980s China. While I had heard about the Tiannamen Square massacre (the picture of the tank bearing down on a lone protester is well known), its roots, causes, and aftermath were unknown to me. As I read the back of the book, it gave a quick summary of how Ling escaped China in spite of being on a "most wanted" list of dissidents, and how she came to America, and now seeks ways to free China's women from the one-child policy.

The book was a gift last Christmas, but I didn't get around to reading it until a couple of months ago. What I liked about the narrative was that it felt as if Ling was sitting with me telling her story. It didn't quite have a conversational feel, but it wasn't stuffy and formal as some autobiographies can be. Perhaps too, I was influenced by recently reading Lisa See's books about ancient and early 20th century China, which had piqued my interest in Chinese culture. Ling's description of growing up as the daughter of officers in the People's Army, struggling to please her father, and doubts about the Communist party are an interesting insight into how her childhood set the stage for her political and spiritual awakening.

As she left home for a place in the prestigious Peking University (where even her major was dictated, until she fought to transfer to the new psychology department), the reader gets a taste of how mind opening the new experiences were to the sheltered girl. In particular, I found it interesting that though China had very "puritanical" views on sexuality, there was no sex education or foundation for the young people thrown together in university to make informed sexual choices. Birth control was only available to married couples, and giving birth was only allowed with a birth permit, also only available to married couples. Ling experienced her first forced abortion after her first year at University.

The movement of China's students as the Cultural Revolution ended and more freedoms were introduced is mimicked in Ling's personal life. As her horizons broadened, the students she socialized with petitioned for greater accountability of the Communist government, asking only to be heard. All of this ended up leading to the protests that held the world's attention before ending in bloodshed. Ling's crushed hopes, and survivor's guilt are so palpable as you read this section that you feel true empathy for her. Her transition to living as an overseas Chinese, trying to continue being a leader in the Chinese freedom movement, and how this impacted her prospects in the U.S. is well chronicled.

The spiritual awakening of Ling, and how she's lead to form a non profit called All Girls Allowed is an interesting twist on how she felt she could impact China's future. From the broad political reforms she once championed, Ling now turned to a fundamental truth: a culture that does not value the lives of girls equally to boys, and would force a genocide of the unborn cannot be free before this is fully faced.

The only time I found this book dragged was when Ling goes into too much detail describing the workings of her internet business that she launched; it was too technical for me. The rest of the book is a fascinating glimpse into the journey toward freedom Ling took, and how she seeks to free others as well

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Her Fearful Symmetry

Sorry about my delay in posting, we've been sick with what appears to be the bubonic plague (or strep throat, whichever you prefer) at our house. Now we're all rehabilitating and mostly healthy, so time to get back on top of the blogging! This post will be a combined rumination/book review.

In the ruminating category, I've been thinking a lot about the phrase "chick lit" lately. Along with "chick flicks," this tag is given to books/movies supposedly written by and for women that will have minimal appeal to men. Now, there are certain books and films that I have no trouble categorizing this way, such as my beloved Shopaholic series, which fit the category of light and fluffy, with happy endings. However, there's an implication in the phrase "chick lit" that is somewhat patronizing. After all, the "chick" writing this blog does not only read books that are about love and relationships, and whether or not the heroine will end up with her man at the end. Are all books written by women only for women, or is there a universality of audience that male authors achieve? After all, there's no "guy lit" category that I'm aware of, aside from humour books such as " The Bro Code," etc.

My feeling is that there are some authors who write with women specifically in mind, and thus end up in the chick lit category. While I enjoy reading many of these books as light reads, I do notice that they tend to be predictable and generally center around the heroine's love life/relationships. Not many men I know (okay, not ANY!) would pick these books up on their own, just as they only go to chick flicks if dragged by the girl they're trying to please. That doesn't mean they're incapable of enjoying them (like my dad and Sleepless in Seattle or my husband and The Devil Wears Prada), but they are not the target audience.

On the other side of the equation, there are authors such as Tom Clancy whose books are seen as appealing mostly to men, with their heavy military terminology and technical passages. Yet many women (including myself) have read and enjoyed these books. I have run across male authors whose portrayal of female characters have left me raising my eyebrows or laughing, and I'm sure the same is true regarding some female authors. Yet, these books still have an appeal to both genders, and are not necessarily only FOR one gender or the other.

Looking at some classic authors, such as Jane Austen and others who pioneered the female author role, are they "chick lit" writers, since their inner world of women is the focus of their books? This is a difficult question to answer, given that their "classic" status seems to "elevate" their titles above the average girly book. I certainly wouldn't put the Brontes in this category, and my love of Austen resists this idea, yet many who read these works are women.

I guess I have ambiguous feelings about chick lit. There's so much humour and good old fuzzy feeling in these enjoyable books, yet I feel that all works by female authors need not fall in this category. This leads me to the book review I intended for this post (sorry, it's going to be a long one!). Audrey Niffenegger's Her Fearful Symmetry is a haunting and intriguing read that certainly can be recommended to readers of both genders. This is her second full length novel, with The Time Traveller's Wife as her debut novel. Having read Niffenegger's first novel, I wasn't too sure I would like this one. While interesting in how convoluted the timeline was, I didn't feel very connected to the story of The Time Traveller's Wife. Yet, when I picked up this novel to read the back cover, I felt enticed by the possibilities of the book.

It's hard to determine who the protagonist of the story is, but twin sisters Julia and Valentina are central to the plot. Their mother's twin sister Elspeth dies in England, and leaves her estate to the girls, including an apartment that they are required to live in for one year if they are to inherit. However, Edie, the twins' mother is forbidden from setting foot in the apartment. That, and the fact that Elspeth and Edie have not seen each other after a rift more than twenty years old divided them sets an interesting stage. The nature of sisterhood is explored, but also the extra closeness of being twins. The older twins have severed their relationship, while the younger twins are dangerously codependent. As they undertake this unusual journey to inheritance, Julia and Valentina reveal how different they are on the inside, and how too much togetherness can endanger even the closest of bonds.

Then there is the mystery of what happened  between Elspeth and Edie all those years ago, which is slowly revealed as the story progresses. In addition to the younger twins, Elspeth is central to the story since, although dead, she is not gone. Within a few chapters, this novel takes an interesting twist, and goes places I didn't imagine when I read it's cover. I don't want to give away more, you'll have to read it.

The flat is one of three in a building containing the supporting characters of the novel. Robert, Elspeth's much younger and grief-stricken lover, could be one of the novel's central characters, but I hesitate to classify him that way. Even though his role in the story is large, he seems so incidental. He is left to the twins' along with Elspeth's possessions, although before she dies she tells Robert she is leaving the twins to him. Robert progresses through different stages of his grief, but really just seems a part of the scenery Julia and Valentina encounter in England. He is studying and works in the nearby Highgate Cemetery, a place that is so present throughout the story that it almost becomes a character in its own right. Robert almost seems to be merely an extension of Highgate.

I found the twins' other neighbour Martin much more interesting. Martin lives in the flat above the girls and suffers from crippling OCD. Niffenegger's portrait of this illness is fascinating, with an excellent description of the difference between obsessions and compulsions, and how they are interrelated. This is so well woven into the chapter introducing Martin that the reader is given a mini psychology lesson without realizing it. Martin's story line operates almost entirely independent of the main story, only briefly intersecting at Elspeth's funeral, and in the friendship he develops with Julia. Martin's wife leaves him at the start of the novel, and his journey to win her back, ironically, provides some sanity to the novel. Between the codependence of the twins, the creepy (in my opinion) relationship Valentina and Robert form, and the way Elspeth influences the twins' lives in England, the rest of the story has a barely controlled chaos about it. The orderly outer lives of the characters mask inner chaos, while Martin's outer chaos covers a simple story. I think this is a clever juxtaposition on the part of Niffenegger.

Overall, this a book well worth the read, and though written by a woman, Her Fearful Symmetry is definitely not in the "chick lit" category. It's well written, as well as having an interesting story line, and is a definite improvement over The Time Traveller's Wife.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

I've decided it's time to review a book on here, and I just finished re-reading Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See. Recently made into a movie, this book had initially caught my eye at Costco, but I didn't purchase it until a few months ago. My love for historical fiction inspired this pick, as well as the chance to peek at a culture with which I'm generally unfamiliar. The story is set in 19th century China, and is about two girls who are bound together as laotong, or "old sames." This prestigious joining into a life-long friendship raises the prospects of Lily, a second unwanted daughter from a "so-so" family, enabling her to raise in society. She and her friend Snow Flower, a girl from family in better circumstances, communicate through nu shu, the secret writing of women that men are not supposed to see or know about. These messages are passed along on their fan, and chronicle their journies through the difficult stages of their lives.

Immediately, the author lets us know through her first-person narration of the character Lily, that misfortune and misunderstanding will overtake Lily and Snow Flower. Born as girls into a culture that only values sons, these "useless branches" of the family tree endure footbinding, marriage, childbirth, political unrest, and changes in fortune. However, these obstacles are nothing to the unravelling of their cherished friendship that is based on misunderstanding. Knowing this will happen makes the earlier passages of the perfect soul match between the girls the more poignant to read.

Lisa See does a wonderful job detailing the lives of these girls, with each section of the book following the traditional life stages of Chinese girls. The chapter detailing footbinding was hard to read, but eye opening for me. Though I knew this practice was cruel, the way it was actually carried out was unknown to me. However, See not only faithfully depicts the agonizing process of footbinding, she shows us its significance in Snow Flower and Lily's society. The quality of a women's bound feet, as well as whether her feet are bound or not, said a lot about her character, her desirability, and her prospects in life. It is Lily's "perfect" feet that change her destiny, as well as that of her family.

One thing I enjoy about this book is that See doesn't superimpose 21st century beliefs on 19th century China. I find this is often a problem with historical fiction, where the characters act and think in a far more liberated manner than they would ever have done in that era. Although progressive thinking is not entirely missing from classic works of fiction, it's often glaringly obvious when an author's beliefs supercede that of a realistic character of that time period. See avoids this pitfall, and although Lily and Snow Flower long for some control over their lives, they accept their limitations, and try to work through them in a traditional manner, using their nu shu to give themselves voices.

The style of writing is easy to read, and at times almost feels poetic in its flow. Lily's voice, spoken as an 80 year old widow looking back on her life, is convincing, but provides enough suspense by being first-person. We don't know the motives of the other characters, or what Snow Flower is thinking, until Lily herself finds out.

I really enjoyed this book, and have since read everything else that Chapters carries by Lisa See. I recommend it as a good read that goes deeper than "chick lit" often does. Well worth picking up. How have you found it, if you've read this book? What are you reading now that you're really enjoying?

Saturday, 22 September 2012

Old Fashioned Gal

Christmas is only about 90 days away! I always have these great intentions of starting the buying early, so I don't have to roll pennies for gas money come December, but it often doesn't turn out that way. I have, however, begun making a list of gift ideas to try to get ahead of the game. For me, a book or two is definitely a part of my letter to Santa.

This year, I've been considering something new: an e-reader. I've hear from people who have these new fangled contraptions, and all are very happy with them, but I'm not totally convinced. I realize there are perks with the e-readers, such as quick access to books, as well as the ability to carry many reads with you at once. On slow shifts, having a variety of titles to choose from would be a bonus, since my reading mood is pretty touch and go. Not having to drag four books with me on a trip would be nice too. I've noticed that the screens make it look like you're reading off a real page, and there isn't the same eye fatigue as reading off a computer screen.

In fact, e-readers have done such a great job at duplicating the pages of the traditional book, that in this age of electronic everything it seems a no-brainer decision to buy one. But there are things an e-reader cannot provide that, for me, are a significant part of the reading experience.

Reading is definitely a sensual experience for me. Before you get creeped out, no, I'm not talking THAT kind of sensual! I mean the five senses (or perhaps four, I haven't started tasting my books). I really am into the aesthetics of my books. Cover choice can truly play into whether or not I pick up a book and flip through it. The plastic protective covers libraries apply to their books makes a certain sound that fills my mind with memories. I remember being a child and hearing that sound as the spine was cracked on books the librarian would read to us. There's also a feel to certain papers used for books, and the weight of the paper itself lends a different feel as you turn the pages. Some of you are now thinking I'm nuts, and should not blog on night shifts, but these things really do add to my reading experience.

Then there's the new book smell. I think we can all relate to this phenomenon, that perfume arising from the book whose spine you have freshly cracked. That sound and that smell MEAN something to my mind. They tell me that I'm embarking on a journey, an adventure, just me and this book. In that moment, no matter what the truth of the matter is, I am the FIRST person to read this story, the person discovering this place, this time, these people. And as I enter this sacred place of imagination and escape, I feel a sense of anticipation and possibility, seasoned with a touch of trepidation. After all, this author may disappoint my expectations. And it is all set in motion by the touch, the feel, the smell of the book.

So for now, no e-reader for me. Someday I may be seduced by their flashy claims, but for now this old fashioned gal will curl up with an inconvenient book, and let her senses take her to another place.

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

In the beginning . . .

Well folks, thank you for the encouragement sent my way thus far. I'm not sure how frequently I will be posting, but my goal is in the two or three times a week range. Sometimes more, sometimes less, we'll see how it goes. For a type A personality, I'm surprising noncommittal about these things. I've thought up quite a few topics for posts, so that should keep things going for some time yet, and after that, well we'll just have to see. Some advice regarding blogging has been really helpful, but as of now I'm not entirely sure what my goals are with this blog. I somewhat feel that I've taken a bit of a blind step, with vague ideas as to where this road goes, and what my purpose is.


The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.

The Fellowship of the Ring, by JRR Tolkein, chapter 1.

So my friends, I'll pursue my vague outline, which means that in this post I will tell you about the birth of my love of reading. My parents are both avid readers, as is my Grandma Lyman. My earliest memories of books are tied to memories of my mom, snuggled with her as she read to us Are You My Mother, Hooper Humperdink, and a large variety of Dr Seuss gems. In fact, I believe my parents had signed up for one of those children's book clubs that send a book every so often, and these books are still in their basement for their grandchildren's delight. One book in particular, Oh the Thinks You Can Think is worn and taped up, but my mom can still recite the first 10 or so pages from memory, that's how often I asked for it to be read! I remember the rhythm to the rhyming words, the colourful ideas on the pages, the strange words that I found out were made up (many) years later. One page in particular sent chills up my spine: "And what would you do, if you met a jiboo?" The picture is of a child running across the fictional jiboo on a darkened street, the jiboo having a slight bird-like look to him. I don't know if it's the bird-like part, but I always found that scary.

When I learned to read on my own, I could often be found curled up in some contorted position perusing a book. Both my parents often lost themselves in books, and I think this example encouraged me to continue reading. I was, and still am lucky enough to be able to read in the car, so that often was my occupation of choice on longer drives. The next type of book that makes an impression on my memory was The Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I read Little House on the Prairie, and my love for historical fiction was born. It's still my favourite genre, though I've mentioned before that I like a wide variety of books. Not only did the stories of the Ingalls family interest me, it was the details that held my fascination. I loved reading about how this family went about their day, their chores, how they made maple syrup, built cabins, wore corsets, and wrote on slates. Looking back at those books, especially the earlier ones in the series, the plot is not very eventful, but you are transported to the pioneer life. My baba always said she only read The Long Winter in the summer time, so she could cool off!

I read some other series growing up, the contemporary Sweet Valley series, and The Babysitters' Club. In sixth or seventh grade I went through a horse phase like many girls that age, and read The Black Stallion. Again, it wasn't so much the plot that held my interest, it was the details of caring for, riding, and racing horses that I enjoyed. I think this was when the power of books to take me to another place or life really took root in my psyche. I could imagine myself in these stories, doing what the characters were doing. I don't think it's a coincidence that this was when my interest in drama appeared in my life, for acting is merely the ability to take that imaginary picture in your mind and portray it for other people.

The next formative series I read was Anne of Green Gables by LM Montgomery. I believe I was twelve when my family visited Uncle Howard in Calgary, a family friend. His girlfriend at the time, Norma, had found out I had never read about Anne, and said that no Canadian girl should grow up without reading about her. I started the book while there, and for Christmas my parents gave me the box set. I could revel in Anne's imagination, and although mine has not got me into as much trouble as hers, I could relate to how she was often carried away!

In high school I was introduced to classic literature. Grade 9 English brought me A Tale of Two Cities, and that was the start of my obsession with Charles Dickens. He remains one of my favourite writers, mostly for the dry wit of his humorous sections. The man is the king of sarcasm. Romeo and Juliet taught me to enjoy Shakespeare, but it was The Taming of the Shrew that my grade 9 drama class saw performed live that sent me searching for the play, and reading more of his comedies. Languages have come fairly easily to me over the years, and reading Shakespeare feels like translating a secret code. Can I make a confession? I read it alone because I usually read it out loud. I love the feel of the words rolling off my tongue, the cadence of them, even when they're not poetic. This is generally frowned upon in public. My horizons have been expanded by Jane Austen and the Brontes in my late teens and early twenties.

On a whim one day, I borrowed a book from my dad's bookshelf. I had seen an old dramatized version of the story several times as a kid, but never with a real impression of the plot. That book was The Fellowship of the Ring, the first book of JRR Tolkein's Lord of the Rings. This accidental pick was the beginning of an obsession lasting many years. Indeed, I'm not entirely sure I'm cured of it. You see, fantasy was a genre I had read a few books in here or there, but they were short reads, good for a brief distraction. I never felt any attachment to the genre, and usually skipped over it while browsing at the bookstore. But Frodo and Sam immediately dashed any preconceived notions I had of what would be waiting for me between those covers. Maybe because I had recently left home at the age of 19, and was even more sensitive to new experiences, or maybe the story touched a vague memory of the film version (which was really not that good, sorry Dad!). Maybe Middle Earth called to me, as it seems to call to all who feel kinship with its citizens. Whatever the reason, my geekometer went off the charts, and at the end of the book, I was desperate for more. After reading The Two Towers, and The Return of the King, I experienced my first end-of-series-depression. Once you finish a series, you realize you can never read it again for the first time. Some of you may be thinking "um, no kidding," but others will know what I mean.

Anyway, Tolkein is so fabulous that I think I'll have to save a separate blog post for him. This post ended up being much longer than I expected, so if you've made it to this sentence, congratulations! Thank you for your patience as I've tried to trace my journey to where I am today. What has formed your love for books? What are some of the life-changing stories you've read?

Friday, 14 September 2012

Here am I: Anyone listening?

Today in my daily facebook trolling, the subject of books came up, and which book had changed your life. After sharing mine, I found myself with my mind on books, reading, literature, etc. Not that books are ever far from my mind, but rather the idea of reading and what it has meant to me over the years was percolating in my mind. Then, in my shower (the mother of my invention, generally!) I was hit with the idea: Book Blog! I've been wanting to blog for a while, and even tried it years ago, but was worried about finding ideas for posts. When it was simply a general "this is my life" diary style blog, I definitely did not keep up with it. However, to blog with a general topic in mind has potential, and reading is a never-ending subject with me!

So, here am I. Here to share what I'm currently reading, have read, thoughts on the written word, genres, likes and dislikes, formats, etc. I am a true bibliophile, the smell of a new book as intoxicating to me as many a stronger substance, the written word being life to me. If I do not have a book at hand to fill an empty moment, the moment feels just that way: empty. I also realize that reading in community is more fulfilling than simply devouring the material on my own. Book clubs intrigue me, but I don't have the time to commit to one, and my own husband (though I love him dearly) is not a reader. Gasp! Yes, it hurts to say that, but reading for pleasure is not something he enjoys. Therefore, when wanting to share my thoughts on what I read, home is not an option. It's not even that I want to analyze as in an English class. Sometimes I just want to simply revel in a well written book, a scene that thrills me, or a story that inspires me.

Enter some of my friends that I've met over the years with similar literary tastes. Among them is a fellow pastor's wife with a passion for Tolkein and JK Rowling, a fellow mom whose book club I live vicariously through by creeping on their selections through her, and a young lady study the Romantic era of Austen and Bronte. While not actively discussing the books, their recommendations have led me down other literary avenues I might otherwise have left alone. As I thought of these, and others, who have inspired my reading list, I wondered if there was a more informal way to share my love of the written word than an actual club. Enter blogging!

I do like to write, not stories, since dialogue is not my forte, but I have enjoyed scribbling down a few poems that will most likely never see the light of day. If I get brave, I may eventually share them here (don't hold your breath). Journal-type entries, and newsletter type articles come more naturally to me, and sarcastic wit is often an asset here. So, I am hoping that this blog will help me vent some of my book-love, but I also desire an interactive experience. Please share your own thoughts, stories, and love here! Let's geek out on books together!

One final note: I am very new to how blogging works. If you're one of my blogging friends, PLEASE offer hints and tips for how to make this better! I hope I can make this relatively painless, but if I mess up in any formatting, etc. I apologize. Please bear with me!

Next post: how I became a reader, what types of books I love, and what I'm currently reading.