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24th-Jun-2017 01:07 pm(no subject)
Kwan Yin
The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, by Lisa See. Sime & Schuster, 2017

Li-yan and Haley live very different lives. Although both are of the Akha people, they are a generation apart: Li-yan is Haley’s mother, although they have been separated since Haley was a few days old. Haley grows up in the Los Angeles area in an upper middle class home; Li-yan grew up without plumbing or electricity. All that connects them is a cake of pu-erh tea that Li-yan left with Haley at the orphanage, and has, miraculously, stayed with her.

Li-yan starts her life in the Akha people, a small group living in the mountains between Thailand and Laos and the Yunnan district of China. Even in 1995 their lives are almost Stone Age; they have no modern conveniences, still wear traditional dress, have their medical problems dealt with by a wise woman, and abide by traditional Akha laws and superstitions. Pretty much their only contact with the 20th century is when they sell the tea that they pick from their small allotments. Li-yan’s life seems to be set: as the daughter of the wise woman/midwife, she will step up to that job when her time comes.

Three things change Li-yan’s life forever. She is very good with languages and is sent on to college, where she first encounters a flush toilet. She has the misfortune of falling in love with the wrong man; she was born on a Pig Day, while San-pa is born on a Tiger Day. They are mismatched and cannot wed- but they secretly have a child together. And one day a jeep comes rattling into the village bearing a man who wants to buy their tea directly rather than going through the middleman. He knows they have special teas, from special, old trees, that will be worth a fortune on the open market. All these things combine to end up making Li-yan a woman of both China and America.

Lisa See has dealt with Chinese women coming to terms with being in America in ‘China Dolls’; in that book, it was WW 2. ‘Tea Girl’ deals with it in 1995 to the present day. The children adopted by white Americans (almost always girls) face different challenges growing up than the Chinese who arrived as adults in earlier years- easier in a lot of ways, but not knowing why they were given up and what kind of linage they might have.

The plotting is so complex in this book it can be hard to keep track of, but it all comes together in the end perfectly. The descriptions of life in the forest village bring the place to life. Li-yan is a very complex character and the others are pretty vivid, too, especially Li-yan’s mother. Five stars out of five- not surprising for a book by Lisa See!
21st-Jun-2017 01:16 pm(no subject)
lisa books
Fall Down 7 Times Get Up 8: A Young Man’s Voice From the Silence of Autism, by Naoki Higashida. Translated by KA Yoshida & David Mitchell. Random House, 2017

Higashida is on the spectrum; he was nonverbal for a long time and even today he struggles with expressing himself verbally; he has what he calls restricted speech. He finds it easier many times to use his computer or a spelling board to communicate. When he was thirteen he wrote his first book, ‘The Reason I Jump’ to try and explain some of his actions to neurotypical folks. His new book, written as a 24 year old, takes that further, telling us what it’s like to live in his world. It includes some of his ‘aha’ moments, when he figured out things that most of us take for granted. His is a life of anxiety and distractions coming from his own brain. He absolutely doesn’t feel sorry for himself, though; while he’s unhappy with parts of his life- like his inability to properly express to his mother how grateful he is to her- he is in general upbeat. I found it very interesting that he has obsessions that have to be dealt with to stay calm- as one with OCD myself, I could certainly those, as well as his sensory overload.

The book is written in short chapters; some only a couple of pages long. Many are posts from his blog, so this gives a bit of a disjointed feeling reading the book. The translators have a child on the spectrum themselves, and I suspect this gave them a special attachment to this project. I recommend this book to anyone with a family member or friend on the spectrum, especially if that person has trouble communicating. Five stars.
19th-Jun-2017 04:20 pm(no subject)
baby dragon
The Essex Serpent, by Sarah Perry. Custom House, 2016

When Cora Seaborne’s husband dies, no one in the household is sorry. He was a sadistic and abusive man, who leaves Cora with scars both physical and mental to remember him by. But he also leaves her with a bit of money, so she no longer has to stay in the mansion with the bad memories; she, her autistic son Francis, and her socialist companion Martha move to a village in Essex, where she hopes to find fossils like Mary Anning is doing. There she meets the Ransomes: William the vicar, his wife Stella, and their three children. Cora and Stella immediately take to each other as if they had grown up together; Cora and William find themselves in a different sort of friendship, arguing in a jovial way, frequently via letter. But all is not fun and games in Aldwinter; the legendary Essex sea monster (a real bit of Essex folklore) seems to be back, drowning young men, stealing goats, and generally scaring the people silly even though no one has seen it.

This is a book you climb into and live in with the characters. The descriptions of nature, of people, and especially of Stella are the literary equivalent of pre-Raphaelite paintings; exquisitely detailed and saturated with life. There is a great cast of characters, and intellectual and social issues are explored. I loved this novel; there is a lot of depth to it. Five stars.
14th-Jun-2017 12:27 pm(no subject)
peeking cat
The Girl Who Knew Too Much, by Amanda Quick. Berkley, 2017

I don’t often read mysteries, so I had never encountered Amanda Quick/Jayne Castle/Jayne Anne Krentz before. But the book is set in early 1930s Hollywood and southern California, so I went for it.

The story hits the ground running; Anna Harris comes home to find her employer murdered. The dead woman has used her own blood to write a warning “Run” on the wall. Anna takes her at her word, but when she grabs her own hidden savings, she finds extra money with it, a small notebook, and a letter from her employer, advising her to run as far as she could and become someone else on the way. A trip across the country on Route 66 and Anna turns into Irene, a reporter for a Hollywood tell-all paper. Then, when called to a clandestine meeting at the Burning Cove Hotel where she will supposedly be told a good story, she finds the informant dead. Thus begins another mystery for Irene, who feels she can trust no one. A serial killer is on the loose, one who may be after Irene.

The two murder storylines run at the same time. A budding movie star who is a prime suspect, the owner/manager of the Burning Cove who was formerly a stage magician who was shot during his last act, the movie star’s gal Friday, an inventor/engineer, a sociopathic ‘fixer’ for his father’s firm; all interesting characters. As another reviewer has pointed out, Irene and the former magician make a sort of Nick and Nora couple who should be good for a series. This is not set in Hollywood but on the fringes of Hollywood life. The author is good at describing the clothing, the cars, and the settings of the early 30s.

I give this book four stars out of five; I enjoyed it a lot, but the characters could have been more fleshed out. I’m hoping that this will turn into a series and that we’ll get to know the people better. While the local murder mysteries were tied up neatly, the murder of Irene’s former employer has left an opening for further intrigue that should be interesting.
9th-Jun-2017 04:36 pm(no subject)
lisa books
Born Both: An Intersex Life, by Hida Viloria. Hachette Books, 2017

When Hida Viloria was born, the doctor took he/r father (also a doctor) aside and they had a quiet conversation. Whatever the doctor told he/r father, he rejected, and Hida was presented to he/r mother as a baby girl, and that is how s/he was raised. Hida had a rough life; he/r father was abusive, s/he was drugged and raped at a bar, s/he was a budding lesbian in a culture that doesn’t take well to that. Along with that, s/he struggled with he/r gender identity: was s/he really the girl s/he was raised to be, was s/he male instead, or was s/he somewhere in between?

The answer turned out to be ‘in between’. It took Hida years to figure that out; s/he’d didn’t hear the word ‘intersex’ until 1995. After that, things started falling into place. S/he also learned about female genital mutilation and the common practice in the US of surgically altering intersex babies so their genitals ‘look like’ girls- depriving them of a source of sexual pleasure. S/he has become a writer and an activist for the intersex community, trying to educate the world on gender fluidity and letting babies grow up as they are born.

I found the first part of the book very interesting, as Hida told about he/r journey of discovery. The latter part I found less interesting; it was all about he/r activism and it was very rushed. While I agree he/r activism is incredibly important, it’s just not as interesting to read about. Warning to the sensitive: there are graphic descriptions of sex and violence, as well as liberal use of The Big Swear Word.

Four and a half stars out of five.
6th-Jun-2017 07:00 pm(no subject)
lisa books
The Tincture of Time: A Memoir of (Medical) Uncertainty, by Elizabeth L. Silver. Penguin Press, 2017

A ‘tincture of time’ is what is necessary for many, if not most, ailments to resolve one way or another. You give a patient antibiotics, and wait to for them to act. You cut a person open, and wait for them to knit back together. Or you wait, and the patient dies. Some ailments take longer to resolve than others. When Elizabeth Silver’s six week old daughter Abby starts having seizures, despite hundreds of ultrasounds, MRIs, and blood panels, in the end only time gives them an answer as to what will happen- a lot of time. Years.

While the book is based around little Abby’s medical problems, it’s about a lot more than that. It includes the history of how fever has been interpreted and treated since the ancient Greeks, Silver’s husband’s scare of an arachnoid cyst (a thing in his brain that’s harmless but looks terrible on a scan), how her sister-in-law organized 40 women to bake challah and chant prayers to have Abby cured, and much more. It’s also about how Silver is surrounded by doctors (her father, her sister, her husband) and so is right at home with medical stuff- her father, lacking a baby sitter one day when called in to do an emergency appendectomy, took 10 year old Silver to the hospital with him and then, since the nurses couldn’t provide child care, scrubbed her up and took her into the operating room with him- and how her faith in medical science is eroded by its inability to do something to help her daughter. It’s about how three different social workers came in and questioned them mercilessly as to whether one of them had abused, hit, or dropped Abby. It’s about how the fear that a medical problem- especially one that no one ever found out the reason for, and that had no ‘cure’ other than time- never really goes away. She likens, for a while, the mystery and the waiting of Abby’s disease to the disappearance of the Malaysian jet liner that had just vanished over the ocean; she feels like one of the loved ones, waiting on the ground for news, any news.

It’s an interesting story, but I felt the author wandered too much. I think perhaps the author was doing it to show how her mind wandered during the endless waiting, but it doesn’t help the narrative. The bit about fever was, perhaps, useful in the section when Abby runs a fever. The bit about the Wild Boy of Avignon less so, as is stuff about Shakespeare and quantum physics. The Malaysian jetliner is a great metaphor. I know the book originally started as an essay and an editor talked the author into expanding it into a book; I think perhaps it should have stayed a long essay. Four stars out of five.
27th-May-2017 06:10 pm(no subject)
Change Here Now: Permaculture Solutions for Personal and Community Transformation, by Adam Brock. North Atlantic Books, 2017

I have a deep interest in permaculture in the agricultural sense, found “A Pattern Language” (an architecture and town planning book from 1970 that pointed out the living patterns that people use) fascinating, and am very interested in how to change the world into a better place, so the description of this book sounded like it would be something I would love. Instead, I found large parts of the book rather tedious.

Not that I think they would be tedious to everyone. The main focus of the book is on working with people: getting the best from people, getting groups to work together efficiently (which changes depending on the size of the group and what it’s trying to do), getting people to express themselves but also to listen, etc. I’ve met a lot of that in presentations I’ve been sucked into in various volunteer groups I’ve been part of, and if I’m lucky I’ll never have to go to another one. I’m a loner; tell me what to do and let me go do it. But if you need to start a group to get something done, the author presents ways of making it more efficient- and at the same time, more people oriented. And some of the things are as simple as rearranging the chairs.

The book is easy to read in some ways; the chapters are very, very short- sometimes only two pages- so you have natural places to stop and think about what you just read. The author uses some vocabulary that most people won’t have, but he gives the definitions (like, what is ‘sankofa’? I didn’t know). The rest is everyday language.

So, if you need to get people working together, invest in this book along with your Robert’s Rules of Order. Just don’t get it thinking it’ll help you create sustainability in your yard!
21st-May-2017 12:57 pm(no subject)
tracks through time
Rebellion, by Molly Patterson. Harper, 2017

Four women in four eras are at the center of this book. A Christian missionary, Addie, in China in the years leading up to the Boxer Rebellion; Louisa, Addie’s sister who left a middle class family to homestead in the middle of nowhere; Hazel, Louisa’s granddaughter who is suddenly left a widow with a farm to run; and Juanlan, a young Chinese woman who as just graduated college but has to return home to help care for her father. Each of these women steps outside the life that is expected of them, and of course has to live with the consequences of those quiet rebellions.

The book moves at a pretty slow pace. The minutia of daily life is related- when the rebellions are quiet, one has to look at the ordinary to see it contrast with the extraordinary. The descriptions are brilliant; they bring the scenes to life. But… pretty slow. It rather reminds me of a novel from the late 18th century, actually, with its pacing and long descriptions. Which is fine; just be forewarned.

What I didn’t like was that I figured the four strands of narrative would come together in the end. It was obvious what the relationships between Addie, Louisa, and Hazel were, but the relationship that Juanlan has with the three of them is quite nebulous- only that she lives in roughly the same area of China that Addie lived in. I expected that at some point some long hidden letters would appear or something that meshed them all. No such luck. The ended was quite a letdown.
13th-May-2017 02:06 pm(no subject)
cat and jack o'lantern
But Then I Came Back, by Estelle Laure. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017

Feeling out of sorts with her twin brother and her best friend, Eden starts to walk away, but slips on the ice, hits her head on a rock, and plunges into a frigid river. She is rescued, but doesn’t regain consciousness for over three weeks. When she comes to, she has a hard road back to recover, physically and emotionally. Brother Digby and friend Lucille are a couple. She can barely walk, much less dance the ballet that was her life. She even has to relearn how to eat and drink. Will she be able to fulfill her plans of college and a dance career? Can she even manage to catch up and graduate with her class?

In the time that she spends recovering in the hospital, she starts spending time looking in at another coma patient, Jaz. Despite knowing nothing about her, she feels a definite connection with Jaz. Then she meets the only other person who visits Jaz: Joe, who has been best friends with Jaz since elementary school. Together, they hope she will wake up.

Eden has a really big coming of age in this story. Not only does she have the usual teenage situations to deal with, but in some ways she’s been sent back to childhood. Add a romance in- her first one- and some supernatural things, and it’s an intense story. I found myself really involved with her struggle and cared about it. The other characters, while I liked them all, were not very deep, but it’s told in first person so that’s understandable. I found out this is a sequel, and that some of the other characters were the focus of the first book. This book stands well on its own, though.
10th-May-2017 03:42 pm(no subject)
cats and books

The Garden of Small Beginnings, by Abbi Waxman. Berkley, 2017

I’m not usually a fan of Chick Lit; I requested this book because of the hook of it centering on a gardening class and the people in it. The narrator, Lilian Girvan, is a young widow with two daughters. Her husband died, right in front of their house, almost four years ago. She had a breakdown and was hospitalized for a couple of months when that happened; she is still grieving, although coming out of it. Her life centers on work (she’s an illustrator for a textbook publisher), her daughters, and her sister, Rachel. There’s not anything she does just for herself.

When her employer gets a contract for a book about vegetable gardening, they have an unusual request from the authors of the book: that the illustrator take the gardening class one of their number will be putting on at the L.A. Botanical Gardens. This brings her in contact with the rest of the cast of characters: the instructor, and the other students. The class meets on Saturday mornings for six weeks. Over this span of time relationships form and change. These people meet not just at the vegetable garden, but in each other’s yards, too. Lil’s daughters and Rachel are also involved.

It’s interesting, but the characters are a little too perfect to really feel involved with. In fact, it wouldn’t have really held my interest except for one thing: the narrator is hilarious. So is much of the dialog. It’s snarky but not mean. The author is very good at describing the little details of everyday life in a way that I found myself going “Oh, yes, I know that well!” A light, funny, mostly upbeat read.
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