The Fortunes, by Peter Ho Davies. Houghton Mifflin, 2016
“The Fortunes” is one novella and three short stories about Chinese-Americans and the problems they have- and still do- face.
“Gold” is set in Gold Rush era California, where young Ling has been sent by Big Uncle- the owner of a floating brothel in China who raised him after his Chinese mother died and his white father paid Uncle to take care of him- to labor in a laundry. From working as an opium boy in the brothel he’s picked up some English and other languages, so he has an advantage in America. He’s hired by Charles Crocker, founder of the Central Pacific Railroad which was the western portion of the Transcontinental Railroad, as a valet. Dressed in western clothing, his que cut off, and his hat slanted over his eyes he can pass as white in dim light. He’s moving up on the socio-economic ladder, and Crocker sees his gentility and submissiveness as evidence that the Chinese will make the ideal work force for the railroad, working for less money. This causes Ling to reexamine his identity and his loyalties.
“Silver” is about Anna Mae Wong, the first Asian Hollywood star, as she makes her only trip to China. The story is told in an odd format; short, choppy episodes. This should have been my favorite story, given my interest in old Hollywood, but I found the style off-putting. The story tells how she cannot get ahead; she can only get roles as a dragon lady villain or a young butterfly-like maiden. What should have been the role of her lifetime, the lead in “The Good Earth”, was given to a non-Asian actress. Miscegenation laws prevent her from having an onscreen kiss with any white actor. Her options are limited.
“Jade” is about the brutal murder of Vincent Chin; a hate crime perpetrated by auto workers laid off by the influx of Japanese imports thinking the Chinese-American Vincent was Japanese. The narrator is Vincent’s friend, thirty years later, the friend who was present at the killing but ran to safety. There is, of course, survivor guilt for him to deal with. Somehow, despite the horror of the killing, the intensity that you’d think would be there never makes it.
“Pearl” is about a Chinese-American man and his white wife going to China to adopt a baby girl. At home, he has always felt he stood out and didn’t fit in. Now, in China, he blends away into the crowds, but doesn’t feel Chinese enough.
All these stories are anchored by the question of Chinese-American identity, of having a foot in each culture. In these stories, even those born here have that quandary: to whom do I owe allegiance? There is also the continual problem of having to face prejudice.
In the end, my favorite story was “Gold” and I rather wished it had been made into a full novel. The characters are well developed and interesting, unlike those in the shorter tales. As a whole, the book is uneven. Four stars out of five.
Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee. Grand Central Publishing, 2017
Pachinko is a great big sprawling family saga set in Korea and Japan and spanning 70 years. Sunja is a teenaged girl living with her mother, who runs a boarding house in a fishing village in Korea. All Sunja knows is work, but she does not dislike this. It’s what her mother does, too. Then she meets a fish broker, a suave older man who seduces her, impregnates her, and then informs her he’s married. He says he’ll support her, but she wants nothing more to do with him. Her face is saved when a missionary staying at the boarding house says he will marry her and raise the child as his own. They move to Japan, where Koreans are looked down on. Thence starts a new round of endless working, something all the characters will know for all their lives, whether it’s physical toil or mental.
The tale follows Sunja and her family for four generations. I found the first half, which dealt mainly with Sunja and her sister-in-law who became her best friend, more engrossing than the latter half that was about her descendants. That section was interesting, but the stark contrast between Sunja, her mother, and sister-in-law and their husbands, and the younger generations was jolting. I just found the women more interesting than the men. They are so strong, mentally and physically. But their lives are very circumscribed compared to the men. The men are city people; the women rural in outlook even when living in the city.
As Koreans in Japan, they are considered visitors even when they were born there. There were jobs they could never have; it was illegal to rent to them. When a boy turns fourteen, he has to register, be fingerprinted and interviewed, and he has to ask for permission to remain in Japan, even though he was born there and has never been to Korea. This process will be repeated every three years. And this was in the 1970s, not the 1870s. Getting Japanese citizenship was extremely difficult. But Sunja’s family does get ahead, attaining a comfortable living.
This novel is both an absorbing tale of family dynamics and a fascinating look at another culture and time. It’s a big book, but I read it quickly, unable to put it down. The characters are so well developed that I really cared about them, especially Sunja and her sister-in-law. Sometimes I wanted to strangle one or another of the characters, because they are just totally realized humans. Excellent book.
The Apothecary’s Curse, by Barbara Barnett. Pyr Books, 2016
In current day Chicago, Dr. Simon Bell is an author who writes Sherlock Holmes mysteries, and Gaelan Erceldoune is a dealer in antique books. They’ve known each other a long time- a very long time. They were acquainted during Victorian days, when Bell was a physician and Erceldoune an apothecary. They owe their longevity –immortality- to potions made from an ancient book of formulas that Erceldoune got from his father. Immortality was an accident; the remedies were meant merely to cure diseases. The book has been lost for decades, with them searching for it. Bell wants it so he can die and join his long dead wife; Erceldoune because it’s family property. But Erceldoune himself is being sought by a pharmaceutical company: they are aware of a man who could survive any sort of injury and heal quickly. They want his DNA to make a fortune with. But he’s warned by Anne Shawe, who works for the company- and is connected to Erceloune in a way neither of them expects.
The story has lots of twists and turns. There is a mad scientist (or at least a psychopathic one), a book that may predate even alchemy, a ghost, a couple of love stories, modern industrial evil, and more. It’s enough to keep the reader well engaged, and yet I didn’t get hooked into the story until almost halfway through for some reason. After that point, I was eager to keep reading, but found myself unhappy with the ending. I couldn’t tell if the book was the beginning of a series, or a stand-alone with a quirky ending. Near the end I found myself having to keep going back and re-reading sections to figure out what was happening- you can’t skim through the ending of this book! It was a worthwhile read and engaging read, but slow to start.
Peacock & Vine: on William Morris and Mariano Fortuny, by A.S. Byatt. Alfred A. Knopf, 2016
‘Peacock & Vine’ is a long essay in which the author compares and contrasts Morris and Fortuny and their art. Both men were polymaths who were designers and artists who worked in several media. Fortuny is best known today for his ingeniously permanently pleated dresses that were totally different from the fashions of his day; Morris is known as a pre-Raphaelite who set about to bring beauty to the homes of everyone with beautiful rugs, wallpaper, and fabrics. Both also painted and had amazing energy. The never interacted; they lived a generation apart and in different countries, but they shared a work ethic and love for beauty.
This work does not go deep enough to be a duel biography; it’s more about how the work of these men affected Byatt. She admits that their art made her think deeply about making an artistic mark upon the world.
This is a little jewel box of a book; the front of the dust jacket is a Morris tapestry (with peacock) in warm umbers and golds while the back is a painting of Fortuny’s studio. A huge number of photographs illuminate the text. And, as always, Byatt’s writing is lush and beautiful.
There is one odd spot; in the section “Pomegranate” (a motif used by both Morris and Fortuny quite a lot) she states that Morris’s first attempt at painting pomegranates didn’t turn out well; they look more like lemons. The piece in question actually *does* have pomegranates, in the upper right hand corner; below that are, indeed, lemons-you can tell not just by the shape & color but by the thorns on the branch; in the lower left are peaches, and in the upper left are oranges. I find it odd that the author didn’t catch that.
Autumn Princess, Dragon Child: The Tale of Shikanoko, Book 2, by Lian Hearn. Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2016
This is the second book in a four volume fantasy epic, and I think I made a big mistake by not reading the first one. I found this on the ‘new books’ shelf and went “Hmmm.. fantasy set in feudal Japan.. I’ll take that!” But the author jumps right into the story with no bringing us up to speed, which left me utterly baffled, even with the cast of characters in the front of the book. Who were these people and why were they doing these things to each other? Because of this, I never managed to care about the characters and the story bored me- even though there were magical. There is some cool stuff going on- half demon children born of one woman and five fathers, some very intelligent horses, magical swords, a lot of magic, and a child emperor hiding with a troop of performing monkeys (and probably having the best time of his life). I liked the writing and the style; I just couldn’t connect. So, I think this series is probably brilliant, but don’t even try to read this book without reading the first one beforehand!
A Million Years in a Day: A Curious History of Everyday Life from the Stone Age to the Phone Age, by Greg Jenner. Thomas Dunne Books, 2015
What were toilets like during the time of Imperial Rome? What kind of underwear was worn during the Tudor era? How did people keep in touch before the telephone was invented- before the post office, even? When did the fork develop, or the mattress? What about dentistry? This book can tell you all these things and more, in a witty, casual, conversational way. The author is both historical consultant and comedy writer, and he’s combined both skills well in this book.
This book does not tell us about kings or generals. It’s not about invasions or wars. It’s about daily life, the things that affected every single person, no matter how rich or poor. Like the toddler’s book says, everybody poops. Everybody also wears some kind of clothing and eats. This is the history of both royalty and the common person. And it’s a really fun book. They should give this book to pre-teens to get them sucked into how interesting history is.
A Green and Ancient Light, by Frederic S. Durbin. Saga Press, 2016
In an alternate Italy in World War 2, a nine year old boy has been sent to spend the summer with his grandmother in her rural home, safely away from the fighting and bombings. His father is in the army, and his mother is recovering from giving birth. He misses his family and friends, and is somewhat bored by country life. Then one day an enemy plane comes screaming over the village and crashes into the bay. This event turns everything upside down.
That night, a quiet knock comes on the grandmother’s back door. It’s an old friend of hers, needing help. The boy gets multiple shocks that night; the enemy pilot is alive, his grandmother is capable of sewing up people, the old friend is a faun, and there is an overgrown garden of stone monsters in the woods where the other villagers never go.
As the days go by with the pilot healing, the boy explores both the stone monsters and his grandmother’s past. It’s a magical time for him, but reality intrudes constantly; a major arrives with a unit of men, bent of locating the missing enemy pilot. They make the boy’s explorations difficult to say the least. Between keeping the pilot hidden and trying to figure out what the inscriptions of the stone monsters mean, he and his grandmother have their hands full. And it will turn out that both those endeavors have a common answer.
The prose is so stunningly beautiful that it took my breath away. I’d be willing to say that this book will be a new classic; it’s up there with Ray Bradbury, C.S. Lewis, J.M. Barrie, and Charles de Lint. The story unfolds slowly but steadily. It’s as much an adventure of the mind as of the body. Told by the narrator in adulthood but with the eyes of a nine year old, it’s an enchanted tale, suitable for kids to adults.
The Invisible Life of Ivan Isaenko, by Scott Stambach. St. Martin’s Press, 2016
Seventeen year old Ivan is cynical, closed off, and a bit of an asshole. He has good reason to be; he’s spent his entire life in the Mazyr Hospital for Gravely Ill Children. He’s a Chernobyl baby, born with no legs and only a left arm, with a hand with two fingers and, thankfully, a thumb. He was left at the hospital as a baby, a mysterious orphan. His facial muscles don’t work right, and he finds speech difficult. His intellect is keen, though, and he reads copiously. His days are all the same; he reads, pretends to be comatose so he can eavesdrop, watches TV, and masturbates. A lot. The only ray of light in his situation is Natalya, one of the nurses, the only one who treats him like a human being. She brings him his beloved books.
Then one day a lovely teen girl, Polina, comes to the hospital for treatment for leukemia. At first they studiously ignore each other. Then they begin communicating by leaving notes around. Slowly they begin to trust each other, and a relationship blooms as her disease gets worse. She breaks through Ivan’s shell that he’s built up and makes him see that his life actually does have possibilities.
It’s a heartbreaking story laced heavily with black humor. While the reader knows part of what will happen, it does have surprises. I thought I had figured out who Ivan’s mother was, but it turned out I was very wrong. Why is he in a hospital for gravely ill children? He has birth defects, but is perfectly healthy And the final ending was unexpected. Despite the grimness, this was a book I couldn’t put down.
The Looking Glass War
was John le Carré’s fourth novel and also the fourth to feature his most famous character, British spy George Smiley. John le Carré had scored a major bestseller with The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
in 1963. This was certainly not the first spy novel to feature an unglamorous hero nor was it the first to introduce a tone of gritty realism combined with cynicism and defeat. Eric Ambler had been writing dark cynical spy novels (like Epitaph for a Spy
) for years as had Graham Greene (in books like Stamboul Train
). It was however The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
that really put despair and moral nihilism at centre stage in the world of spy fiction.( read moreCollapse )
Never a Dull Moment: 1971 The Year That Rock Exploded. David Hepworth. Henry Holt & Co., 2016
David Hepworth’s theses is that 1971 was the most important year in the history of rock/pop music. It was the year of innovations in how albums were made. It was a year of great albums made that still endure today, like ‘Tapestry’, ‘Led Zeppelin IV’, ‘Every Picture Tells a Story’, ‘Sticky Fingers’, ‘Blue’, ‘Pearl’, ‘Madman Across the Water’, ‘Harvest’, and, of course, ‘American Pie’. It was, actually, the year that albums became more important than 45 rpm singles. It was the year the Beatles were no more. The technology of making music and recording it changed. Arena rock started, as opposed to playing in clubs and halls.
Each chapter is one month in the year 1971. He doesn’t just tell us what was released by who; he goes deeper into the rock scene, covering things like Mick Jagger’s wedding, various rock stars battles with drugs and alcohol, and what producers and managers were doing. Some of the people he covers really never went anywhere. Being British, it’s seen through a British lens, but there is plenty about the American scene.
Was 1971 the most important year in rock history? I don’t know. I was surprised to find that ‘Blue’ and ‘Tapestry’ came out in ’71; they were such a seminal part of my teens (I could sing every word of both those albums) that I would have sworn they came out earlier. Likewise, I would have sworn Elton John, Rod Stewart, and Van Morrison became really big before that point. But he’s got the dates correct; that music was just so important to me that it colors my memories of the era.
It’s an interesting book- I read it in two evenings- but oddly unstirring. Hepworth is a reporter, not an ad man, and he gives us just the facts, ma’am. But the facts showed me what was below the surface of the music I came of age to.