Friday, December 31, 2010

The Flower Drum Song

To the casual tourists, Grant Avenue is Chinatown, just another colorful street in San Francisco; to the overseas Chinese, Grant Avenue is their showcase, their livelihood; to the refugees from the mainland, Grant Avenue is Canton.

The blending of cultures is hard as it is, but when it has to be done within a family unit it borders on the impossible. In his 1957 novel, Chinese-American author C. Y. Lee addresses this issue, as well as many other issues faced by young Asian-American men growing up during that time period.

The Plot:

Wang Ta is just like any other young American guy, wanting nothing more out of life than a great career and a gorgeous girl to marry. But Wang Ta is a Chinese-American living with his father in San Francisco's Chinatown, and that complicates things quite a bit. Old Master Wang is still clinging to the old ways of mainland China and cannot understand how his two sons could desire to be a part of the "foreign" culture.

As Wang Ta goes to medical school (to put off having to pursue a career), he becomes involved with a number of young women. There's Linda Tung, the flashy showgirl; Helen Chao, the homely seamstress; and May Li, the sweet beauty just arrived from China. Will Wang Ta ever be able to satisfy his father and yet stay true to his own desires and dreams?

My Review (Caution-Spoilers):

I wanted to read this book because I am a huge fan of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. I knew very little about Chinese-American life or what it was like to live in Chinatown, and I found this book to be both eye-opening and interesting.

One thing you should know about before reading the novel is that immigration quotas and
anti-miscegenation laws of the late 19th and early 20th centuries wreaked havoc on immigrant populations (especially Asian). These laws lead to a disproportionate number of Asian males living in and around various Chinatowns. Because there were so few Chinese women and because most Chinese men were not allowed (either by the government or their families) to marry a non-Asian woman, young Chinese women literally had their pick when it came to marriage. Thus, Linda Tung's playing her lovers against each other for presents was a harsh reality. This also makes Helen Chao's story all the more sad, as she is unable to find love though as a Chinese-American woman she is a rarity.

One of the biggest themes found in Lee's story is that of old vs. new, East vs. West. Old Master Wang absolutely refuses to adapt to his new surroundings. He speaks only his native dialect, eats only his native dishes, wears traditional clothes, and refuses to keep his money in a bank. He refuses to let his sons adapt as well, drilling his younger son in Confucius rather than allowing him to play ball with the other kids. His sister-in-law (probably the best coolest character in the story), tries to persuade him to try new things, but he declares that he will always keep the old ways. Though Wang Ta wants to honor his father, he also wants to make a life for himself. In the end, Old Master Wang's refusal to even consider new ways of life leads to the breakdown of his family.

I really enjoyed this story. It has a great blend of humor, history, and modernness, and is a great intro to Chinese-American literature. I especially liked that Lee tells the story without falling into traditional stereotypes. These are real people facing real problems. A very interesting read that I am happy to recommend.

The Movie:

Rodgers and Hammerstein created a Broadway musical out of this story, then in 1961 a film version was made which starred an (almost) all-Asian cast including Nancy Kwan, James Shigeta, Jack Soo, and Miyoshi Umeki. Though the novel takes a few liberties with the story and falls back on some stereotypes, it is still a fun musical (probably the most upbeat of any R&H productions).

Picture Credit: Chinatown San Francisco ca. 1950 by Horace Page

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH

"They sat down outside the entrance to the house and beginning at the beginning, with her first visit to the rats, she told them all that she had seen and done, and all that Nicodemus had told her."

Knowledge is a useful and powerful thing. The pursuit of knowledge has driven mankind forward for thousands of years, each generation producing ways of life that are faster and more technological. But does this pursuit come at a price? Does gaining knowledge require us to be more responsible? This is a question wrapped up inside Robert C. O'Brien's Newbery Award winning novel Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. Though it was written for children, this story has many hidden themes that will resonate with old and young alike.

The Plot:

Mrs. Frisby has a problem. Recently widowed and left to care for her four children, she must prepare them for their annual move from the garden in order to avoid Mr. Fitzgibbon's plows. But her younger son, Timothy, is sick with pneumonia and cannot be moved for many weeks. Whether she stays or goes, Timothy is put in very grave danger. Mrs. Frisby has no choice but to ask for help from the most capable (and the most mysterious) animals on the farm: the rats. Before she knows it, Mrs. Frisby finds herself in a world that she's never known before, and discovers the truth behind her husband's past.

My Review (Caution-Spoilers):

This was definitely one of the more interesting children's books I've read in a long time. It is a fairly complex story and the characters are well-drawn and engaging. You almost have to read this book from two points of view: that of a child and that of an adult.

If you are reading this as a child, I would imagine that the atmosphere and characters of the book would be what would grip you. O'Brien takes an ordinary farmyard and turns it into a place that is both dangerous and beautiful. Life and death occur daily here, and Mrs. Frisby's courage, and willingness to lay her life on the line for her family make her a truly endearing character. What is so great about this novel, is that O'Brien doesn't sugar-coat anything. Young readers are forced to face the world as it really is, a place where joy and grief, triumph and tragedy intermingle. Because of this, I would definitely recommend this book only for upper elementary and above.

Reading this as an adult, it was the rats that really interested me. Not just their civilization and the amazing story behind their intelligence, but also the point of "The Plan" itself. Nicodemus and the other rats want to move to Thorn Valley in order to live without stealing. Before they gained so much intelligence, the rats stole because that was the only way of life they knew. But as they learned more and more, something inside them changed and made them realize that stealing is wrong. O'Brien really seems to put forth the point that the more you know, the more you are responsible for your actions. In other words, knowledge awakens morality. The Bible often speaks about accountability, and being held responsible once you know right from wrong, and seeing these themes played out so deftly (almost imperceptibly) in a children's book was great. It really leaves you with some interesting ideas to reflect on.

All in all, it is a fun read. I definitely recommend reading this one to your kids if for no other reason than it will allow some great conversations to take place. It is someone dark and scary at times, and the ending is somewhat sad (if ambiguous), but I think that both you and your kids will enjoy it.

The Movie:

In 1982 animator Don Bluth released an animated version of the book called The Secret of NIMH. The film follows the basic plot pretty well, but they choose to add a mystical plot device versus dwelling on the rats' story, which weakens the overall effect in my opinion. The film is also much more dark and scary than even the book, so probably isn't a great bet for very small children.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Literary Moments: Asheville, NC

Earlier this month, I spent about a week in the beautiful mountain city of Asheville, NC. It is such a lovely place devoted to art, history, food, and...literature! Every time I turned around I ran into a different place that was wrapped up in literary history and tradition. Here's a glimpse of some of the adventures I had:

  • Burial Place of O. Henry: American short story writer O. Henry (William Sidney Porter) was buried at Riverside Cemetery after dying in New York City. After some hunting and directions from a kind gentleman, my sister and I were able to locate the grave and leave a token of our respect (a penny) for this amazing author.
  • Area Bookstores: Asheville's downtown area has a number of bookstores, but two stand out in particular. The first is Malaprop's, Asheville's most famous bookstore. It is locally owned and operated and has a wide selection of books from classics, to poetry, to local authors. A must visit for all readers. The other is the Battery Park Book Exchange and Champagne Bar which sells hundreds of used books and also has a wine/champagne bar for those who enjoy a glass with their novel. It is also a nice place to just crash and lose yourself in a book.
  • Grove Park Inn and Resort: This beautiful resort has been a part of Asheville's landscape since 1913, and has hosted many distinguished guests including famed American author F. Scott Fitzgerald who stayed at the inn while visiting his wife in a local mental hospital. Even if you can't afford to stay there (I sure couldn't), it's a neat place to visit.
  • Biltmore Estate: Though this place alone is worth a trip to Asheville, there is one part in particular that will thrill book lovers. The library holds about 10,000 volumes of Geroge Vanderbilt's 23,000 collection and Napoleon's chess set. George even had a secret door that led directly from his room to the library. I really like that guy!
  • Thomas Wolfe Memorial: Of course, no trip to Asheville is complete without a visit to the Thomas Wolfe Memorial Home. This Asheville native is considered by many to be on par with such great writers as F. Scott Sitzgerald and William Faulkner. Today, you can visit the Old Kentucky Home Inn that plays a large role in his semi-autobiographical novel "Look Homeward Angel". After the tour, I picked up my own copy of this American classic and have added it to my "to read" list. You can also visit his grave at Riverside Cemetery.
So, if you are looking for a unique place to visit, I can't recommend Asheville highly enough. With it's beautiful landscape, delicious restaurants, stunning art galleries, and literary touches, there is truly something for everyone here.

Monday, December 27, 2010


In eternity this world will be Troy, I believe, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets. Because I don’t imagine any reality putting this one in the shade entirely, and I think piety forbids me to try.

Beauty and pain, life and death, duty and treachery, piety and sin, joy and heartache, love and hate. All of it is found in Marilynne Robinson's acclaimed 2004 novel Gilead. This deeply intimate novel has won praise from many literary places. It won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and is even listed by President Barack Obama as one of his favorite books. And yet, this story is not what you would expect from such a critically acclaimed novel. In fact, it is full of delightful surprises.

The Plot:

It's 1956 and Rev. John Ames is dying. Though he accepts death and looks forward to Heaven, he doesn't really want to go now. He wants more time. More time to spend with his (much younger) wife, Lila, and their seven year old son. But death cannot be put off, and so Rev. Ames decides to sit down and write a journal for his son, who will have very few memories of him. His journal sets out to tell the story of his family. Of his radical abolitionist grandfather who served as a chaplain in the Civil War. Of his father who recoiled from his father's faith only to watch his older son turn from his. Of himself, who spent many years as a lonely man of God only to find love and fatherhood in the autumn of his life. The journal also serves as a place for his theological musings and personal struggles.

The journal also touches on the story of his namesake, John Ames (Jack) Boughton, the wayward son of Ames' childhood friend. Rev. Ames just can't bring himself to forgive Boughton, not only for past wrongs, but also for his current treatment of those who love him most. As the journal ( and Ames' life) draws to a close, he is able to find peace and reconciliation in the life and home that he loves.

My Review (Caution-Spoilers):

I can't remember how I heard about this novel. I'm sure it was on some random blog somewhere, whose name has faded from my memory. No matter how it came to my attention, I am so glad it did. This is by far the most beautiful book that I have read this year (maybe ever). Nothing I've read can compare to it.

First, I have to commend Robinson's writing. It is so poetic, so forcefully calm. At first, the shortness of the novel along with the early paragraphs will trick you into believing that this is a story that you can fly through. Nothing could be further from the truth. Robinson's words must be savored, thought over, and read again and again. It took me much longer to read than I had anticipated because I took my own sweet time over every sentence. It was all so beautiful that I almost didn't want it to end.

And it is Robinson's writing that makes Rev. John Ames such a remarkable narrator. He recognizes his own failings, and so never leaves us doubting his word. He is not a caricature of the clergy as is so often found in literature, but rather a man who finds beauty, joy, and mercy in his life's calling. I especially loved the parts where he discusses his love for Lila and their son. In many ways, it is an ordinary marriage, and yet at the same time it is stunningly beautiful. His thankfulness at finding love after years of loneliness is enough to bring tears to anyone's eyes. I especially loved the part where Lila asks John to dance in the kitchen. It's moments like that that make this novel touch you so deeply.

Though Robinson touches on many relationships throughout the book, it is the relationship between a father and son that she focuses' on the most. The image of the prodigal son pops up again and again. So many times, a character breaks with his father (for one reason or another) only to return years later in search of reconciliation. John's father breaks with his grandfather over his role in the Civil War only to go on a journey years later in search of the old man's grave. John's brother Edward turns from the faith, yet manages to regain his relationship with their father. And Jack Boughton returns home many years after his mistakes forced him to leave. Throughout the book, John has a hard time wrapping his mind around it all. He is the good son who stayed and followed his calling, and cannot understand the joy that Old Boughton feels at the return of a son who caused (and will cause) so much pain. After many musings, many revelations, and much reflection, John begins to realize that the grace and mercy given by Old Boughton is just a drop in the bucket compared to the grace and mercy shown us by our heavenly Father. That it is those who have sinned the greatest who will feel the greatest joy in heaven.
"Augustine says the Lord loves each of us as an only child, and that has to be true: 'He will wipe the tears from all faces.' It takes nothing from the loveliness of the verse to say that is exactly what will be required."

I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Robinson's deeply devotional novel is poignant, heartbreaking, touching, and beautiful. No matter what your religious persuasion, I am sure that you will find pleasure in reading this book. Just soaking yourself in Robinson's prose makes the time spent reading this story is time well spent. An absolute must read.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Agnes Grey

All true histories contain instruction; though, in some, the treasure may be hard to find, and when found, so trivial in quantity, that the dry, shriveled kernel scarcely compensates for the trouble of cracking the nut.

A Bronte novel for fall has become a bit of a tradition for me over the past few years. There is nothing like curling up on a crisp autumn day with a delicious Bronte story. This year, I read the first novel of the lesser known sister, Anne. Though there are many similarities with the works of Charlotte, Anne's writing has a unique strength that gives her an equal voice in what might be literature's greatest sisterhood.

The Plot:

Agnes Grey is the young daughter of a country parson. After her family falls into financial hardship, Agnes is determined to earn her own keep. She decides to join the only respectable profession there is for a young woman in her time: being a governess. She sets off with stars in her eyes and dreams of the precious children who's minds she will help shape and grow.

Reality sets in quickly when she arrives at her first position. The children are wild, the parents are uncooperative, and Agnes finds herself in a terrible limbo, neither a member of the family nor a servant. As Agnes becomes more involved with the children of the upper class, she catches a glimpse of a world that both fascinates and repels her, and meets a man whose simplicity and earnestness captures her heart.

My Review (Caution-Spoilers):

I love the Brontes, but that is old news. Though Charlotte is my favorite, I can't help but like Anne's works as well. I really enjoyed The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and Agnes Grey is an equally inviting read.

If you are familiar with Charlotte's works, you will notice many recurring themes between them and Agnes Grey. There is, of course, the plight of governesses that permeates most Bronte works. This novel is a pretty accurate description of what life was like for Victorian governesses. They were considered beneath their employers and were often subjected to cruel and embarrassing treatment. Agnes experiences many painful moments in both homes she works in, and is often forced to stand up against the cruel treatment dished out by the upper-class. The other similarity is found in the relationship between Agnes and Ms. Murray, which mirrors that of Lucy Snowe and Ms. Fanshawe in Charlotte's Villette. like Lucy Snowe, Agnes becomes a bit of a confidant (if not a true friend) of the flighty and coquettish young charge who is determined to secure the heart of the local landowner, and break a few hearts in the process.

But though there are many similarities between Agnes Grey and other Bronte works, it is still a gem of a story in it's own right. Anne's writing has a certain strength of character that shines through in both of her novels. Her stories are written to teach lessons, and unlike her sisters, she puts hers out there in plain sight. Anne is determined to teach people how to empathize with others, how to show kindness, and not cruelty, to those beneath them, and how to appreciate intellectual and moral beauty over physical attractions. This tone is evident in both this novel and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Though she can sound somewhat preachy at times (she is a preacher's daughter after all), her lessons are admirable and necessary.

So, how does this novel stack up to the other Brontes? Well, it has its good points and not so good points. It is shorter than any other Bronte novel I've read, and the prose is strong, yet flowing. Plus, it has the most unambiguous happy ending of any other Bronte novel I've read. That being said, Anne's lessons tend to trip up her characters and her story. Since Agnes is the moral compass of the story, she is never really allowed to grow and mature. She starts out good and she ends up good, end of story. Plus, Mr. Weston (her love interest) is probably one of the most boring Bronte guys out there. No passion like Mr. Rochester, no evil like Heathcliffe, heck even Gilbert Markham is more interesting. Sweet guy? Yes, but very plain.

Though it lacks the maturity of her second novel and the subtlety of her sister's, there is no doubt that Anne deserves to be recognized as a wonderful Victorian writer. In many ways, this novel reminds me quite a bit of Jane Austen (esp. Mansfield Park). A must read, and a great intro to the Bronte novels.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas was close at hand, in all his bluff and hearty honesty; it was the season of hospitality, merriment, and open-heartedness; the old year was preparing, like an ancient philosopher, to call his friends around him, and amidst the sound of feasting and revelry to pass gently and calmly away.

-from The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens

May you and yours be richly blessed this Christmas season.
Merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 18, 2010

My Cousin Rachel

They used to hang men at Four Turnings in the old days. Not any more, though.

In 1951, thirteen years after the publication of her smash hit Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier began another novel also set on the coast of Cornwall. A story with an air of romance and mystery, a young and unreliable narrator, and a glittering and unknown woman named Rachel.

The Plot:

The story is narrated by Philip Ashley, an young man growing up in the care of his cousin, Ambrose, on a large Cornish estate. Philip worships Ambrose, and their life is happy, if isolated. Being two bachelors, they rarely entertain females and even the house staff is all male. After Philip finishes school, Ambrose becomes ill and is sent to Italy to recover his health. While there, Ambrose suddenly marries the young and vivacious Rachel, a distant cousin and penniless widow of an Italian count. Philip is shocked by this news, but even more shocked when he receives another letter from Ambrose indicating that Rachel might be trying to harm him. Philip sets off for Italy, only to learn upon arrival of Ambrose's death and Rachel's sudden departure.

Philip returns to England convinced that Rachel has murdered his beloved cousin. When she arrives in England, he invites her to the estate with the intent of charging her with murder. Instead, he is instantly smitten with the older and more cultured woman. His infatuation leads him to reckless behavior, even as the suspicions surrounding Ambrose's death continue to mount. Philip is torn: is Rachel innocent and worthy of his home and love, or is she really a murderess only interested in him for his wealth?

My Review (Caution-Spoilers):

I fell head over heels for Daphne du Maurier's work after reading what is perhaps her most famous novel, Rebecca. The story gripped me from the beginning and found it's way into my top books of 2009. I knew that I had to read more of her books, so when I read the basic plot of My Cousin Rachel, I knew that it would be my next one.

There are a lot of similarities between this novel and Rebecca. Both are narrated by naive young people who suddenly find themselves in incredible situations. Both take place at a grand estate on the Cornish coast. And both hinge on a mysterious woman who's name begins with "R".

Perhaps the biggest similarity is in it's portrayal of that basic human emotion: jealousy. Just as the 2nd Mrs. DeWinter's whole world is wrapped up in Maxim, so is Philip Ashley's world made up of nothing beyond his cousin Ambrose. In fact, Philip has an almost a dog-like loyalty and love for Ambrose. When his beloved cousin suddenly marries, it is obvious that Philip is overcome with jealousy. The rest of the novel is a picture of how that jealousy consumes him and affects his relationships with his neighbors, his workers, and Rachel herself.

But though the novel centers on the jealousy that love brings, nothing consumes it like Rachel herself. She is charming, witty, and full of contradictions. Because we see everything through Philip's eyes, we never get a full grasp of who she really is. Is she a compassionate woman who's life has been one hardship after another? Or is she a gold-digger who will stop at nothing (not even murder) to achieve her aim? We'll never know. Philip is an unreliable narrator, so we can't really trust his judgment. And Rachel's death at the end of the novel prevents him (and us) from discovering the truth. Even du Maurier was never sure exactly what kind of woman Rachel was. It is this question that has kept readers guessing for many years.

All in all, I found My Cousin Rachel to be an interesting read. It didn't grip me like Rebecca did (no Maxim, maybe?), but it is still an intriguing story with characters that keep you guessing, and an ending that will linger with you long after the book is closed. If you like Gothic style mystery/romances, or just plain good story-telling, I can't recommend Daphne du Maurier too highly.

The Movie:

There are two versions of this novel that have hit both the silver and the small screen. In 1983, a mini-series of the novel was made starring Geraldine Chaplin and Christopher Guard. I have not seen this version.

The more popular version is the 1952 film version starring Olivia de Havilland and Richard Burton. This is a decent adaptation, and Richard Burton was great as Philip. I wasn't as excited about Olivia de Havilland's portrayal of Rachel, but it wasn't horrible. Again, not as great as Hitchcock's Rebecca, but an enjoyable film nevertheless.

Trivia: Franz Waxman, who composed the original score for the 1952 version, also composed the original score for Hitchcock's Rebecca. If you pay attention, you can kind of hear similar musical themes in both films.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Happy Birthday To:

Jane Austen

December 16, 1775

"'My idea of good company, Mr Elliot, is the company of clever, well-informed people, who have a great deal of conversation; that is what I call good company."

-from Persuasion

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Holiday Swap Results

This year's Book Blogger Holiday Swap was a great success for me! My Secret Santee was Beverly Archer of Booklady's Booknotes. It was so much fun assembling her package and she left a sweet thank you post on her blog. So glad you enjoyed it Beverly!

My package was waiting for me when I returned home from my vacation in Asheville, NC. It was from Janicu of Janicu's Book Blog. She included four books in the package: The Bronze Horesman by Paullina Simons, One Day by David Nicholls, Little Bee by Chris Cleave, and The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri. There was also a $20 Amazon gift card and book light. I'm looking forward to discovering new favorites. Thank you so much Janicu!

If you are a book blogger and did not sign up this year, be sure to do so next year. It is sooo much fun!