"....few things leave a deeper mark on a reader than the first book that finds its way into [her] heart. Those first images, the echo of words we think we have left behind, accompany us throughout our lives and sculpt a palace in our memories to which, sooner or later - no matter how many books we read, how many worlds we discover or how much we learn or forget - we will return." -Carlos Ruiz Zafon, The Shadow of the Wind

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan: Foot binding, love and a secret language

I was prepared not to like Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. Call me crazy, but foot binding and the soul-deadening drudgery of women's lives in ancient China just didn't seem like something I wanted to know more about. I hate it when I'm wrong. I loved this story.

We are drawn into Lily's life when she is a young girl. The story takes us through her childhood, which does include foot binding as well as a long list of abuses to which women and girls are subjected. But, Lily's life also includes a surprising joy: her laotong, Snow Flower. The author describes the laotong or "old same" as akin to a female soul mate. Stronger than the bond of marriage, a laotong relationship lasts forever, continuing even after death. Another bright spot in the women's lives is nu shu. This was a secret, written language, unbeknownst to men, in which women subversively communicated. 

Lisa See, the author, conducted extensive research in rural China on the history, use and revival of nu shu. I was fascinated. Women who were completely disenfranchised and thought to be as worthless as animals raised for slaughter, found a way to love and support each other. Their nu shu communications gave them an iota of hope that there may be things that make life worth living.

The story goes beyond sharing the cultural and political context of women's lives in 19th century, rural China. It is also a personal story of love, misunderstanding, regret and redemption. By the conclusion, Lily is a very old woman and has learned that being a true friend requires one to let go of prescribed roles and go beyond what is taught as a proper response to a given situation. In other words, if love is true, it must be unconditional. It is left to the reader to decide whether Lily learns this lesson too late.

It took me a while to get into this book, but by the middle, I was looking forward to reading more, needing to know what would become of Lily and her laotong, Snow Flower. 

Have you read Snow Flower and the Secret Fan?  What did you think?

Photo credit: Lucius Beebe Memorial Library

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Tales that send shivers up and down my spine

I just started reading The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton. This book was on display at the library, presumably because Halloween is upon us. I chose it for two reasons: 1) Edith Wharton is one of my all-time favorite writers, House of Mirth being at the top of my list; and 2) I have had a few experiences with ghosts, so I like to compare my experiences with other people's tales of the supernatural.

When I pick up a new book, I'm usually eager to start reading and I get impatient with forewords, prologues and the like. Ms. Wharton's preface caught my attention, however, as she began with the question, "Do you believe in ghosts?" Since I do, I was interested to find out what she had to say on the topic. One tidbit she shared was, "Ghosts, to make themselves manifest, require two conditions abhorrent to the modern mind: silence and continuity." She goes on to say that the only true measure of worth of a ghost story is if it sends shivers up and down one's spine.

Those thoughts called to mind an experience I had with another great writer, Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Although the story I'm thinking of isn't a ghost story, it is a sort of thriller and has elements of the supernatural.

When I was in graduate school, once a week, I had to drive two hours to class and two more hours back home. My commute included some pretty desolate, out-there locales on the border between New York State and Pennsylvania. Late one night, as I drove home, I was listening to a short story on tape, The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. This is a seminal work of feminist fiction about the role of women in society, the medical establishment's misdiagnosis and (mis)treatment of women, what happens when a woman becomes a wife and a mother, etc., etc., you get the idea.

I don't mean to belittle the social and political import of the tale, but on that night, The Yellow Wallpaper was nothing more than a story that scared the BEJEEZUS out of me. I was alone, in the car, in a dark, creepy, and seemingly-abandoned land. The narrator conjured Ms. Perkins Gilman's images of what lived on the other side of the protagonist's wallpaper: women crawling around on all fours trying to get out of the prison that was the wallpaper. 

The author may have intended the wallpaper to serve as a metaphor for women being incarcerated by a sexist society, but the only message I was getting from the story was: get home as soon as possible before the women start coming after me!

It might not sound that scary now, but had you been in Lisle, NY at 11:30 on that Thursday night, it would have sent shivers up and down your spine, too. As the story reached its climax, I was terrified. I checked to make sure all the car doors were locked. Then I thought, HELLO, the terror is inside my car, inside the tape player. Or, perhaps it is more accurate to say it was inside my imagination. I got home about an hour later, but I don't think I fell into sleep easily.

If you are familiar with The Yellow Wallpaper, you know there is a lot more to be scared of than the supernatural elements. The point of the story is more about what a terrifyingly androcentric society we live in, not really so much about the scary women crawling around behind the wallpaper. I will save that aspect of the story for another day. On that night, I was just plain scared out of my mind!

What have you read that sends shivers up and down your spine?

Photo credit: Totally Severe

Friday, September 16, 2011

The DC Metro: A Cornucopia of reading material

Many Washingtonians love living in the nation's capital. This country mouse, however, has a long list of gripes with this city. Chief among them is my commute, which is over an hour, both ways. The thing that makes it bearable is the fact that twenty of those sixty minutes are spent on the Metro, DC's subway system. That gives me forty minutes each day to read. As the mother of a toddler who works full-time and manages a household, I can say with confidence that if I did not have those precious minutes on the Metro, my reading time would plummet to nil.

It's not only MY reading on the metro that I enjoy, however. Whoever says that no one reads anymore, has not experienced the morning commute. I love riding the Metro to get a glimpse (this is the polite way of saying I'm nosy) of what others are reading. It's a veritable treasure trove of authors, genres and titles.

Today a young, stylish woman sitting across from me was reading a Karen White novel. The less stylish, slightly frumpy woman next to me was reading The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga. A bookish-looking dude a few seats down was reading Uncle Tom's Cabin. If I could only see what people are looking at on their Kindles, I'd be set!

I often look up the books that others are reading. I was previously unacquainted with Karen White and Aravind Adiga. Although they may not suit my tastes, and I may never get to read them, learning about new authors and books always excites me. Once in a while I stumble upon a jem. When I look around the Metro and survey what my fellow riders are reading, I silently thank them. Not only for adding joy to my commute, but also for unwittingly introducing me to new books.

Where do you get ideas for new books to read?

Thursday, September 15, 2011

How I get my poetry

Much to my own consternation, I don't read poetry often. I really want to, I just don't know how. I mean, what do you do, check a book of poetry out of the library and plough through it?  And, most poetry I simply don't get.  What is it about? What is the poet trying to say? Is there symbolism that I'm not getting? Every once in a while though, I happen upon a poem that DOES it for me. It transfixes me, even transports me, in a way that usually only a novel can.

How does one happen upon a poem, you might wonder? In my case, it is usually a character in a book that points out a poem or a poet. In Alexander McCall Smith's Isabel Dalhousie series, Isabel loves W.H. Auden and is often reminded of his poems as she goes about her daily life as an Edinburgher, a mother, an editor of a philosophical journal, and a person who is well known for getting mixed up in other people's business. (For those, who like me, know precious little about poetry, you might remember W.H. Auden as the poet read during the funeral portion of the film Four Weddings and a Funeral. Think: He was my North, my South, my East and my West.)

I recently read A Trick of the Light by Louise Penny. Ms. Penny's Chief Inspector Gamache series includes a poet as a character. In addition to Ruth Zardo's poetry throughout the series, A Trick of the Light features a poem by Stevie Smith that was used to evoke the state of mind of one of the main characters in the story, Clara Morrow. I loved this poem, and as rarely happens, I also GOT it, so I thought I'd share:

Not Waving but Drowning

Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.

Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he's dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
They said.

Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.

What do you think of the poem? Can you remember poems from books that you loved? Please share!

Photo Credit: Alvaro GL

Monday, September 12, 2011

Michael Connelly: Fast paced and hard to put down

Another guest post by Bonnie Huff. She reads 'em faster than I can post 'em!

I just finished reading NINE DRAGONS by Michael Connelly. This is the 15th book in a crime series about Los Angeles homicide detective Harry Bosch. Harry's personal and professional lives collide as he is working a homicide in LA when his daughter, who lives with her mother in Hong Kong, turns up missing. Harry's character seems to become more human and caring in NINE DRAGONS. Connelly's books are good, easy, fast paced and it is hard to put them down. I started another Connelly book today, THE BRASS VERDICT.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Mama Huff reads stuff too!

I am honored to have a guest post from my mother, Bonnie Huff.  It appears that I got the reading gene from her, as well as the aforementioned obsessive tendencies.

With a husband, four kids, lots of dogs and cats, and working full-time for 40 years, I never had time to read much other than newspapers and magazines.  Since I retired five years ago, I've read 155 books. I know the exact number because I've kept a detailed log of each book that I've read. I think the book that impacted me the most was Frank McCourt's ANGELA'S ASHES. My great grandparents were from Ireland and it gave me a good insight as to why they immigrated to the US. 

I'm a real Law and Order fan so most of the books I read now are mystery novels. At the moment I'm reading Michael Connelly's THE VERDICT. Besides Connelly, my favorite authors are Lisa Gardner, Lisa Jackson, Harlan Coben and James Patterson. I'd like to have recommendations on other mystery writers.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

I might as well start with Easy

I have been keeping an old-fashioned card catalogue of the books I read since I was in high school, which was some twenty odd years ago. I keep it because a) I love keeping records; and b) I often can't remember the books I've read, so when I'm trying to think of a specific book, I consult my card catalogue and viola, I have my answer. I love it when my obsessive tendencies serve an actual purpose.

I don't need to conduct a count to know that Walter Mosley wins the award of most-read author in my catalogue. This says less about the number of books I've read than about Mr. Mosley's prolificness (Yes, it's a word.  I looked it up). I love ALL of his series (Easy Rawlins mysteries, Fearless Jones mysteries, Leonid McGill mysteries and Socrates Fortlow books), and MANY of his stand-alone novels.  Interestingly, there are SEVERAL of his books that I don't like and wish I hadn't read. Some even make me suspect he's off his rocker.

Of all his tales, the Easy Rawlins mysteries are my favorite. The first Easy Rawlins book I read was Black Betty. A teenager I worked with told me it was an incredible book and dared me to read it.   

I was deeply in love with Easy by page 3. 

Easy took me to Los Angeles in the 40's and 50's and engendered images of a time and place so real that I could feel the segregation, racism and hate, like steam rising up from the pages. From Easy I learned a history of the United States that was never even hinted at in school. There is much more to the Easy Rawlins mysteries than a vivid recounting of race relations in the United States, but as a white, middle-class woman living in the 21st century, that aspect of the story is what hits me the hardest.

It is also probably why the young man I worked with "dared" me to read it. He told me he didn't think I could handle it. In some ways, he was right. I think back about why I actually took his suggestion and read Black Betty. It was because I was surprised that he felt so passionate about a book. The surprise I felt was based on a stereotype I held of a young African-American man living in a group home, not  upon really knowing or understanding him. I wish I could tell him that his suggestion had a profound effect upon my understanding of the world. So, this post if for you, Patrick. Wherever you are.

Have you read a book that deeply affected your worldview? What was the book? In what way did it change how you view the world?