The Girl who Wrote in Silk by Kelli Estes

girl who wrote in silk

In the late 1880’s, Washington territory, Mei Lien’s whole world revolved around her father and grandmother, both of whom she revered and loved with all her heart.  But with one unthinkable strike, both of them were torn from her and her entire life trajectory changed.

Fast forward to current day, and we find Inara, whose favorite aunt has died, with a wish that Inara take her estate and turn it into an island inn.  In her exploration of the estate, Inara stumbles upon the sleeve of a robe, embroidered with an elaborate scene that appears to be communicating an urgent message from long ago.

What is the connection?  And what will that connection mean for Inara’s family?  What did it mean, more importantly, for Mei Lien?

I feel this book, while powerful in its message and matter, just missed its mark in the telling.  The idea of the story is a brilliant one, based in a historical reality that needs to be told – and one that I, for one, was beforehand, ignorant of.  In the late 1800’s and well into the 1900’s, the Chinese who immigrated to the US and Canada were treated abominably, often with prejudice at best and with violence at worst.  This story brings that racism to a very personal level, highlighting the loneliness, despair, and abject terror that racism induces.

On the more literary side, the resolution of the story that is told is just too extreme to be believable.  The family connections are too improbable.  The way Inara finds a chef for her kitchen for her inn is too coincidental.  And the ending just slides into home plate for that grand slam in a way that almost trivializes the story.  I am not saying that the ending is not what anyone reading the story would have wanted, but I think it was too neat and tidy.  It’s not real life.

But maybe that is why it’s called fiction.

I am still glad I read this book and would recommend it to others as well.  If not for the literary sparkle, for the historical perspective it provides.

 

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The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

handmaid's tale

After years of answering no to people asking me, “YOU haven’t read The Handmaid’s Tale???” I can now, finally answer YES!  And now that it’s been both a movie and a Hulu original series, I can crawl out from under the proverbial rock I’ve apparently been living under and show my face.

Offred, who never reveals her true name but who is now called this, is a Handmaid.  Her role in the current social structure in the Republic of Gilead is to become pregnant and give birth to a baby in order to repopulate the Republic.  Gilead has taken over what was the United States and has established a religious order, under which women have the sole purpose of reproducing and watching over the household and men essentially have complete authority over them.  It’s a dystopia that actually heeds backwards and justifies itself in claims of protection of the woman and eliminating the need for competition among women for men’s attention.

What is horrifying is the timeliness of this dystopian novel.  So many comments from the “Aunts” or teachers who indoctrinate the Handmaids in the book sound frighteningly similar to conservative republican comments, with their anti-abortion rhetoric which ignores the woman and focuses on the gathering of cells that happen to be inside her.  Or the hypocrisy, when the Commander (quite like our Commander-in-Chief!) who has his status because of his piety then shows his true colors by taking the Handmaid to a good, old fashioned brothel. Worst, anyone who is different, dissents, or can’t be broken to follow the new order is tortured and killed – and publicly so.

I know this book is fiction.  I know the difference between fiction and reality.  But as our current president chips away at our constitution and all that we’ve accomplished over the years since the 1960’s, I fear the difference between this dystopia and our reality will become smaller and smaller.

 

And I apologize that this book blog so frequently becomes political – but in the current day, it cannot be helped.  Please bear with me!

The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer

female persuasion

This new, very popular novel centers around Greer Kadetsky, who begins as a young freshman at what she considers a mediocre college in western Massachusetts.  If her disappointing parents had filled out the financial aid forms appropriately, she would have been at Yale, where she was really meant to be.  But then she wouldn’t have met her best friend, Zee, who then wouldn’t have dragged her along to hear Faith Frank, the feminist, speak.  And then she wouldn’t have had that moment with Faith Frank that sparked, really, the trajectory for the rest of her life.

This novel encompasses two stories in one.  On one level, it tells the story of Greer, a smart, ambitious young woman who is seeking love and approval from others because she doesn’t feel  it from her nebulous parents.  She has it from her boyfriend, Cory, who is steadfast, but has his own life and stressors, and she has it from her friend, Zee, but she seeks it from an adult, in the form of Faith Frank.  And as she goes through her journey, she learns that no one is perfect, even those who appear to be.

On the second level, it is also a story of the women’s movement.  In the telling of the story of Faith Frank, the author essentially recounts the story of the fractions of women and the various perspectives, both forward and backward (at least in my opinion) as it is going these days, particularly with regard to availability of women’s choice and control over our bodies.  Faith Frank, in her early days, helps a friend through a life-threatening, almost-botched illegal abortion and it drives her friend in a totally opposite direction from Faith (which is very hard to believe, but I imagine is true of some women).  Faith is empowered by this experience to push hard for women’s access to safe, legal abortion.  In this, I think the author opens up the debate where we stand very precariously now – where women are arguing over the rights over our bodies.  (As an aside, I have to say that I believe that no woman likes the idea of abortion.  On the other hand, I believe that the majority of women in our country do believe that this should be a matter decided by the woman herself and perhaps her doctor, as it is a physical and medical and emotional decision for a woman – NOT a decision to be made by mostly MEN in a back room somewhere having nothing to do with the woman herself.  THIS is what “choice” means.)  And this depressing backlash that we are experiencing here in our country is discussed in the book and lamented.  It’s hard to see it in a book and not just in the news – it gives it so much more permanence, in a way.

What is somewhat disappointing about this book is how it sort of fizzles at the end.  Most of the book is engaging and there are a few twists and major events that turn the plot around on its head.  Most of it grabbed me.  But as it wound down, it really wound down and sort of fell.  Maybe even fell flat.

Otherwise, I think this is an interesting story of a woman’s struggle with finding her place and meaning in the world through the lens of the women’s movement.  An interesting read…

The Weight of Ink by Rachel Kadish

weight of ink

Aaron Levy cannot believe he will have to abide the sullen nature of his new mentor, just to be able to have a peek at the rabbinical documents and letters found under the stairs of an historic home outside London.  Helen Watts, this new professor he’s been asked to assist, seems not to have smiling nor social graces in her repertoire.   In truth, he realizes as time passes, that they both have issues to work out as they work together to uncover the secrets that have been buried under these stairs for centuries…  And centuries ago, in the 16oo’s, after taking 2 orphans to London with him as he fled the Spanish Inquisition, Rabbi HaCoen Mendes, blind, but trying to teach a few students, has compromised and allowed one of these orphans to be his scribe.  Ester, the bookish adolescent who dreams of nothing but to study and learn as much as she can as any boy might, has taken her seat at the writing table and begun to scribe the rabbi’s letters for him.  But as she grows older and reaches the age of marriage, this becomes more and more controversial and Ester devises a plan almost in spite of herself.

This is a magnificently crafted work of historical fiction.  The author weaves the plot by gracefully swinging back and forth between the modern day historians and the original characters, layering each of the characters’ stories on each others’ in order to build the connections — and the suspense as well.  And as the story builds, the characters deepen, and they each become much more sympathetic in their own ways.  As the scribe Ester becomes more and more real to the two historians, both Aaron and Helen become more and more human themselves and discover that each of them has used history as a way to escape their own humanness.

The writing in this book is brilliant.  It is beautiful, rich, and full.  The characters are complicated and imperfect and human and they are hard to leave when you finish the book.

You will also learn a lot of history from this book.  The time is the 1600’s, when there were many who had just fled the Inquisition.  People were terrified to speak their minds, fearing that if they said anything against any church, they’d be tortured and killed.  Women had one role in society and that was to marry and raise a family – and if they did not marry, their lot was to struggle and do housework for someone who was married and it was a hard life if you chose that route.  And then came the plague in London, which devastated much of the population.  It was a gruesome time.

But in spite of the ugliness of the time, the beauty lies in the resilience of the people living through it – and that is what is captured here in this story.

I loved this book – I am confident you will too!

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

the alchemist

I finally had the opportunity to read what so many high school juniors have been reading for decades now.  Unfortunately, I did not have the benefit of what must be wonderful philosophical discussions about it with young, curious minds.

This story is about a boy, a shepherd, who meets a king who inspires him to follow omens and signs that will direct him to a treasure.  The king gives him 2 stones that indicate yes or no and are to be used to guide him through his journey.  Almost immediately the boy encounters failure.  Rather than becoming despondent, though, he picks himself up and begins to work to compensate for his initial failure and as he does, he learns that failure can teach lessons and that the journey is part of what enables him to achieve his Personal Legend.  Because he is mindful and attentive during each moment of his journey, crossing rivers and desserts, he inherits wisdom from each person he encounters, no matter how simple or how obtuse they may be.

It is clear why this book has been translated into so many languages and has been read by literally millions of people.  It can be understood on so many levels and its meaning broadened to so much significance.  So much so, that I will not begin to pontificate on that here in this blog.

Suffice it to say, that as I go on my personal journey in life, I will consider the message of the boy for me to be that we must be mindful of each step – good or bad – all the while taking into account and appreciating what we have already.

If you’re inclined to the philosophical, this book is for you!

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

eleanor oliphant

The best perk of writing a book blog is that I’ve gotten some fantastic recommendations from fellow book lovers.  This may be one of my favorites — thank you, Larry and Jim!

Eleanor Oliphant starts out in this story actually believing herself to be completely fine.  She is very much self-sufficient – she has a job, she has keeps herself clean and nourished and has her very practical routine which gets her through each week.  When she suddenly sees the man of her dreams at a party, a rock singer who is very handsome and would likely satisfy her Mummy’s vision of who would be sophisticated enough for her, she decides to go on a mission to spruce herself up a bit so that when she actually meets this man, she’ll convince him that they are meant for each other.  In the course of her doing this, a sudden incident with a co-worker, becomes a distracting adventure that opens up Eleanor’s world and enables her to see how she can truly heal toward becoming completely “fine.”

The writing in this book is magical.  The author writes of pain with humor and raw honesty all at the same time.  There is no over-dramatization, there is no explosiveness.  It’s quiet and understated and because it is subtle, even awkward because it is from Eleanor’s voice, it sneaks straight into your heart.  It made me laugh out loud but it also revealed darkness and sadness that almost choked me.  Few authors can do this with such grace and tenderness.

Eleanor develops her first real friendship with a coworker, Raymond, whom she finds initially almost irritating, with his smoking, his unkempt scruffiness, and his difficulty with being punctual.  But she learns that what really matters is that he is also kind and generous, and loyal – and that he is there for her when she really needs someone to be there for her.  That this is actually what friends do.  She’s just never had this before.

This is a beautiful book from beginning to end – the kind that you don’t want to put down but that you don’t want to end either.  I am reluctant to start the next book because I just want to live with these characters for a bit.

You will too – I promise!

This is truly a MUST READ!

 

 

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

pachinko

At the opening of this novel, we meet Sunja, a young girl who toils away, helping her mother run a small boardinghouse on a small island in Korea.  When a young, handsome minister comes to stay with them and falls ill, he seems to be the answer to their predicament, as he is willing to marry her, even though she is pregnant with another man’s child.  As he carries her off to Japan, her life takes many unexpected twists and turns, and this poignant story follows her through the next generations.

Through the telling of Sunja’s life and the life of her mother and sons, the reader also learns of the experience of Koreans at the hands of the Japanese through much of the twentieth century.  Although many of Korean descent were born in Japan, they were not allowed to be Japanese citizens and were treated as foreigners in their own country, forced to obtain a Korean passport at the age of 14 and having to recertify this every 3 years, with the constant threat of deportation.  They were denied many educational and employment opportunities and often the only way to earn money was in businesses such as the “pachinko” halls, pachinko being a form of pinball or slot machine.  At the same time, anyone involved in these businesses were looked down upon and considered gangsters, whether or not they actually were.

What is apparent throughout the story is that this oppression casts a heavy shadow on each and every member of Sunja’s family and each comes to bear the burden in his or her own way.  There is some success and much heartbreak in the course of Sunja’s life as a consequence of this and it ranges from very outright to more subtle.

The more I think about this story and sit with it, the more I realize how much is here to think about and appreciate.

I think you will too.