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Monday, February 27, 2012

Sounds of the River

Da Chen returns in his second memoir Sounds of the River (#157) to his days spent as a student and a neophyte teacher at the Beijing Languages Institute during the 1980s.  We first met him as a child in the rural southern village of Yellow Stone, where his future looked dim indeed as the grandson of a "landlord" in   Colors of the Mountain (See my post of 1/30/12.).   It chronicles his remarkable story to his point of departure for the big city.  Sounds of the River picks up his story as he struggles to excel where he is still an outsider, not considered good enough for Communist Party membership.

Chen's determination to rise to the top is fueled by the goal of going abroad.  The friends and enemies he makes along the way, the professors who befriend him because of his work ethic, and the Party cadres who put obstacles in the way of his success all play a role in guiding Chen to the place he is meant to be.  Although he graduates first in his class as an English major and is given a plum work assignment at the Beijing Languages Institute, it is ultimately his own efforts through helping others that win him a fellowship at an American college. Politics, policies, faith in a higher power, and bribery in the proper quarters work in his favor as well as he tells his tale.

I enjoyed renewing my acquaintance with Da Chen in this memoir, but again I'm left at the end of the book wanting to know what happens to him next; he's set to depart for Lincoln, Nebraska to take up a fellowship at a small school there.  How will Lincoln react to Da, and what will he make of his opportunities there? 

I did read a review on the Good Reads blog by a college student who said that this book was required reading for his incoming freshman class.  He apparently didn't get much out of the book other than the fact that the Chinese plumbing for native students was primitive in the extreme, and that oysters as an aphrodisiac can make a useful bribe.  But I can also see that reading this book without reading Colors of the Mountain first doesn't give the reader a chance to appreciate what Da has already gone through to get there, or why he might react to things the way he does.  While I would highly recommend this book, do yourself a favor if you do read it, and be sure to read these two books in sequence.  In the meantime, I'll be waiting for Mr. Chen to continue his memoirs with an American volume.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Wedlock: The True Story of the Disastrous Marriage and Remarkable Divorce of Mary Eleanor Bowes, Countess of Strathmore

Wendy Moore certainly gets one thing right in the title of her non-fiction work Wedlock: The True Story of the Disastrous Marriage and Remarkable Divorce of Mary Eleanor Bowes, Countess of Strathmore (#156); it is a truly remarkable story.  It's amazing to me that Mary Eleanor Bowes survived not one, but two abusive marriages, and in the late eighteenth century, had the guts to file for a divorce in the British courts to regain her freedom, her fortune, and her children and the persistence to stay the course and win her suits.

Mary Eleanor had everything.  She was the indulged and highly educated only child of a doting father who died when she was eleven, leaving her the richest heiress in England, if not the European continent.  But without sensible adults to guide her choices of companions and pastimes, you might as well have painted a bullseye on her person since she immediately became the target of every fortune hunting male in the kingdom.  At age eighteen she marries the Count of Strathmore and begins eight years of married misery with his hostile family firmly in control of her money and ultimately her five children.  With the Count's death, Mary Eleanor had the freedom for the first time to enjoy spending her own fortune.  She was a merry widow indeed, until the fateful evening when one of her numerous admirers fights a duel for her honor, and begs her on his deathbed to let him die a happy man as her husband.  Thinking that she will be widowed in just a few days, Mary Eleanor consents, and the bridegroom is carried to the church on a makeshift cot.  When her new husband Andrew Robinson Stoney makes a miraculous recovery that same evening, Mary Eleanor realizes that she has made yet another marital mistake.

Beaten, starved and imprisoned for more than twelve years by the man who now has total legal control over her person and her finances, Mary Eleanor is in fear for her life when she meets a most unexpected ally who gives her the courage to escape from her husband.  With the aid of a sympathetic lawyer, she files suit against Andrew Bowes, as he has become.  With the knowledge that his fortune will be lost if Mary Eleanor wins her case, Bowes will literally stop at nothing to win.  Yet in successfully standing up for herself and her rights and her children, Mary Eleanor wins an opening round in the battle for equal legal rights of all married women that will not come to full fruition until the latter part of the Twentieth Century. 

Ms. Moore writes this harrowing tale of misery and abuse with suspense worthy of a novel.  Just when you think things can't possibly be worse, one of the principals in the case does something even more brutal or ill-advised.  The story leaves you wondering if there were any decent men at all in Mary Eleanor's Georgian social circles.  It certainly doesn't appear that she met many of them!  The press  had a field day with Mary Eleanor's reputation as the entire British world avidly followed the transcripts of the divorce trials.  It is every bit as interesting to read today as the juciest gossip, even though we know the eventual outcome.

And if you need an additional reason to read about this marriage in Georgian times, consider the fact that Queen Elizabeth II is a direct descendant of Mary Eleanor Bowes.  Would our world be a different place if things hadn't turned out as they did for the Countess of Strathmore?  You be the judge...

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven

I happened to be browsing in the China section of travel books at my local library when I came across Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven (#155) by Susan Jane Gilman.  It's a memoir, and for me it wasn't so much a travel book about China as it was a re-telling of the post graduation backpacking trip gone wrong back in 1986, just after China was first opened for tourism.  Susie has saved all through college by waitressing in order to be able to travel before settling down in the working world.  Her college friend Claire proposes that they take off for the newly opened China and see it all and Susie somewhat reluctantly agrees.  Since the book dealt heavily with the young women's relationship (eek!  and I thought I had problems on my college trip to Europe with three friends!!) I did not pass this book along to my husband, but I certainly could relate to a lot of the problems Susie encountered on her trip.

Of course when I traveled, I had the distinct advantage of being able to read the signs and guess at their meanings when I didn't speak the language.  And American tourists in Europe in the 70s were hardly a novelty.  Susie and her friend Claire stood out as curiousities in China at that time, attracting crowds who watched their every move, adding to the stress of travel in a foreign country.  Not for them the "tourist" hotels or restaurants.  So beyond the strange language and food, they were dealing with coackroaches and ants in their shared dormitories and bathrooms.  Susie wasn't nearly as intrepid as Claire, but ultimately it's Susie who manages to extract them from a very difficult and delicate situation.

As Susie says in her Afterword, life changed for both Claire and Susie during that trip to China.  Susie wouldn't be where she is today if Claire hadn't forced her to go to China.  Nor is the China that she and Claire visited the same today.  Many of the places that she visited on that first trip have roared into the twenty first century and are barely recognizable as the same places.

Although I think the title Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven is a bit sensational, the story of how this working class New York girl went off with her wealthy Brown University friend to conquer an unknown world, and learns thereby to stand on her own two feet is a satisfying read.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Trust No One

After hearing Gregg Hurwitz speak on a Thrillers and Chillers panel at our local library Bookmania! a few weeks ago, I picked up his Trust No One (#154) which came out in 2009.  It did not disappoint.

Nick Horrigan has been on the run for seventeen years, ever since the night his Secret Service stepfather was murdered.  His dying words to Nick were "Trust no one."  Nick thinks he's been living safely off the grid until the night a SWAT team breaks into his condo and he's hustled into a Black Hawk helicopter to meet with the terrorist who has threatened to bomb the San Onofre nuclear power plant on the LA coast.  It seems the terrorist has asked for him by name and will talk only to Nick.  When that encounter ends badly, Nick knows his past has finally caught up with him.  He now has two choices: he can run again, or he can stay put and try to find out what led to his stepfather's murder seventeen years ago. 

This book was a fast read, because I couldn't put it down.  If you haven't read any of Mr. Hurwitz's books, Trust No One is a good one to start with, and a particularly satisfying read in the midst of this messy presidential campaign.  To say more might be to give away too much, so I'll just say that this book easily beat out its entertainment competition on TV.  My husband and both agreed that we definitely want to read more of Gregg Hurwitz's thrillers!

Monday, February 13, 2012

Lost on Planet China

Although I found Lost on Planet China (#153) by J. Maarten Troost vastly entertaining, I'm not sure I'm glad I read it on the threshold of my own trip to China.  Mr. Troost is hardly your average traveler and in his wanderings around China over a period of several months, he includes all kinds of interesting facts, statistics and anecdotes that at the same time manage to be more than slightly alarming for anyone else contemplating a trip there. 

I have already concluded based on reading this book that I will never, ever wear open-toed shoes in China.  Granted, I'll be going there when the average daily high temperature will only be in the 50s, but still, I have no desire to be constantly watching for the puddles of phlegm and mucus expectorated by the adults, nor the rivers of pee and poop that apparently abound everywhere from hordes of uncurbed toddlers.  And I will definitely be packing my surgical masks to filter out at least some of the pollution.  I will also bear in mind what one of Mr. Troost's Chinese contacts told him when they went out to dine one evening:  that the Chinese eat anything with four legs except a table, and anything with two legs except a person.  Words to live by, indeed!  This is the kind of information that you just can't get from an ordinary travel guide with its sterile descriptions of climate and points of interest.

Every page of this book is a reminder that China is changing every day.  What was true four years ago may no longer be true today.  The one constant is that China is growing and so is her influence.  When was the last time you heard a newscast when China was not mentioned?  You may be fortunate enough to have the chance to see what is going on there yourself.  If not, this book is an excellent way to be a vicarious observer without the anxiety of just what that food might be on your plate!  If you're interested like me, Mr. Troost also includes a short list of books about modern China for further reading.  Kudos to him for making this armchair adventure possible.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Defensive Wounds

I first encountered Lisa Black several years ago at Bookmania! (an event sponsored by our local library system) as she was walking along the line of us waiting to get into the hall for the next panel discussion, passing out book marks featuring her newly-released first novel Takeover.  Needless to say, after hearing her speak, I had to read her book, and I've been hooked on her as an author ever since.  I don't think she needs to do that kind of self publicity anymore!  Defensive Wounds (#152) is her fourth book featuring Cleveland forensic investigator Theresa MacLean.  The cover subtitles this as "A Novel of Suspense", and I'm never sure quite how to classify these books myself.  There is a inevitably an element of murder mystery, but there's always something which involves Theresa more personally in pursuit of justice. This makes me think it's more of a thriller for me.  I suppose "suspense" does cover that neatly.

In Defensive Wounds, a body is discovered in the Presidential Suite of the Ritz Carlton during a Defense Attorneys' Convention.  (Who knew that they actually attended seminars on how to be even more obnoxious in court?)  Then a second and a third body are found, all killed in the same way.  But since all the victims are defense attorneys, the problem is narrowing the field of suspects down to a reasonable number to investigate.  And again, for Theresa, the case becomes very, very personal since her teenaged daughter Rachael is working at the Ritz Carlton reception desk during her summer break.  No one on the police force or the Medical Examiner's Office seems too broken up by the murders since they've all had some hostile encounters with both the victims and the suspects in their professional careers.  But will the killer confine the murders to lawyers, or could something else be in play here?  And is Theresa finally ready to take a plunge into a new romance after her fiance's murder four years ago in Takeover?

Although Lisa Black is now Florida-based, her love of her native Cleveland shines through in all her books.  Defensive Wounds showcases one of the city's tallest buildings, the Terminal Tower.  Her cousin Frank, the homicide detective, and her daughter Rachael both play key roles in the story, making Theresa's forensic discoveries crucial to the outcome of the story.  The ending leaves one death still unresolved, but I'm guessing that Theresa's determination will lead to this loose end being tied up in a future book.  I hope so!  If you're a Kathy Reichs or CSI fan, this book should appeal to you.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

All the Flowers in Shanghai

In the interests of reading background material for my upcoming trip to China, and also adding another book in my quest to be a Queen (or even possible Empress!) in the Good Reads 2012 Historical Fiction Challenge, I have just finished reading Duncan Jepson's newly released novel All the Flowers in Shanghai (#151).

The story is told in retrospect in a series of letters to her daughter from the viewpoint of a young woman in 1930s Shanghai.  Born for the sole purpose of caring for her parents as they age, every family resource has been poured into finding a rich husband for her older sister.  Only her grandfather takes the slightest notice of Feng.  The son of the seamstress who has come to sew her sister's elaborate wedding dress befriends Feng, but he soon returns to his home in the country.  When tragedy strikes the family, Feng is substituted at the last moment as the bride in her sister's place where her duty will be to produce an heir for the wealthy Sang family.  In her desire for revenge, Feng will commit an act that will haunt her for the rest of her life.

I cannot say that I liked this book.  In fact, I'm surprised I actually made it all the way through it.  Feng starts off as a character so ignorant of everything that it appears that she doesn't have two thoughts to bump together in her brain, and she can never find the words to express herself.  It's annoying, really.  After she is married off (Again, without anyone telling her anything the least bit useful; why is anyone surprised she cannot properly do her duty?!) Feng hates everybody; her mother, her father, her older sister, her grandfather.  Everyone has failed her.  And as for the family she has married into?  Her attitude towards them is even worse.  She becomes a royal pain to everyone around her.  When bad things happen to Feng, I had not the slightest sympathy.  The story skips over World War II to the rise of Chairman Mao in the late 50s.  Feng is angry again because her best friend comes to say good-bye before leaving for America, but Feng can't be bothered paying attention to what is going on around her.  When she is confronted by her past, instead of facing up to things, she deserts her family and runs away to a rural Chinese town where she becomes one of the "People".  Eventually one member of her family tracks her down, but Feng will never see any of them again and will end her days in the commune. 

What I took away from this book was that Feng and the people around her were not likeable or sympathetic.  I couldn't relate to her consistent whining and "poor me" attitude, and that her problems were all of someone else's making.  She couldn't see that she attempted to manipulate everyone around her in the very same way that she so bitterly resented.  For my money, I'd much rather read Lisa See any day!