Emotionally shanghai-ed by Shanghai Girls

I guess I can’t handle tragedy.

I just finished Lisa See’s Shanghai Girls, and frankly, I’m glad to have it over with. If I had to identify one sentence that pretty much summed up the central theme of the book, it would be this: “When we’re packing, Yen-yen says she’s tired. She sits down on the couch in the main room and dies.” Yup, she sits down and dies. Just like that.

Shanghai Girls is a fortunately/unfortunately story, except without any of the fortunately parts.

If you hadn’t already guessed, here’s the official spoiler warning. Ready?

In this story…

Families lose it all. Brides are sold. Rickshaws are stolen. Bombs drop. A head and not a few limbs are severed. People step over dead babies in the street (and that’s during the good times, before the bombs). Enemies invade. Women are attacked, killed. Refugees flee, drown. Immigrants are detained, and while detained one delivers a baby in a shower stall. One pregnancy is faked. Another ends in the death of a baby and the near death of her mother. The family store burns down not once but twice. The dull-witted guy in the story becomes a bed-ridden invalid to boot (diagnosed with “the soft-bone disease,” whatever that is). Neighbors betray neighbors. A sister betrays her sister, leading to the suicide of the only remotely well-grounded individual in the story. Then the sisters go through some serious and really unresolved victim-blaming. By the end of the book, one character has fled to communist China in search of a better life, and her passport-less mother flees after her, counting on deportation as her one way ticket there.

Geeez. In the words of Billy Crystal, why don’t you just give me a paper cut and pour lemon juice on it?

I don’t need feel-good stories, but this book was ridiculous. I know that life can be bad, and that life in war is surely worse. But this story is relentless. The only bright spot was the main character’s finding of the Christian faith, which you would have missed if you weren’t paying attention or would have questioned as half-hearted if you were paying attention.

I know that people love this book. I wish I was one of them.

I remember reading that the European title of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was Men Who Hate Women. Apt, right? The real title of Shanghai Girls should be How the Slow Boat from China Made Two Powerless Girls Hopeless As Well. I wish I hadn’t gone along with them.

Remind me–what did I read this summer?

OK, my book club meets next Friday at my place, and we’re supposed to report on what we read over the summer so that we can choose a book from that batch for our next selection. Trouble is, I can barely remember what I read over the summer. I read it, it’s done, I forget it. Worst of all, it was my bright idea that we report on what we read. Brilliant, right?

So I dug deep into the cobweb covered recesses of my so-called memory, and here’s what I came up with:

Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann
So tragic, but somehow I couldn’t put it down. This National Book Award Winner interweaves the stories (the sad, sad stories) of several fictional characters from 1970s New York City with the story of tightrope daredevil Philippe Petit, who actually walked a high wire between the Twin Towers in 1974. The fiction is gritty at times, but the backdrop of the high wire walk is astonishing, and the contrast is absolutely brilliant. Watch the documentary Man on Wire as dessert–not to give it all away, but it shows Petit alive and well after the walk. Just keep your finger on the button for a brief inappropriate scene. Darn that Petit–he documented everything.

Marley & Me by John Grogan
I know you’ve heard of it. I’ll bet you’ve already read it. But just humor me, here. I kind of avoid books that reek of sentimentality or that are featured on/endorsed by Oprah. But let me tell you, this book was wonderful. It documented all of the stages of a dog’s life, and reeked not of vain sentimentality but true love and commitment of a family to its dog. The cover says it’s the story of the World’s Worst Dog (the current title holder lives across the street from me, by the way), but the stories will be familiar to any pet owner. As my unkind, but wise cat-loving next door neighbor used to say, “Either you have pets, or you don’t.” If you do, read this book.

The Man from Beijing by Henning Mankell
Not The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo nor The Man from Ipanema, The Man from Beijing is a bit of a generational epic/mystery/thriller/Swedish-Chinese tour book. The book features a Swedish judge called Birgitta Roslin (referred to at least 75% of the time by both names) who stumbles on a sensational crime and follows it as therapy for her extraodinarily high blood pressure problem. Not the solution I would have chosen, but a good read, nonetheless. Speaking of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I’m wondering how it is that such bloody stuff goes down in Sweden, and whether American movies/TV/novels make them think the same of us.

The Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket
I know I’m late to the game on this one, but my 11-year-old daughter and I are reading this series, and I love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love it. It’s been a great adventure to read alongside each other (though I am now 2 books behind her). The vocabulary is wonderful, the definitions are so clever, the jokes are funny, and the story keeps chugging along. Who would have thought orphans could be so much fun to follow.

In Spite of Everything by Susan Gregory Thomas
This is a memoir of how divorce and alcoholism may (or may not) have destroyed the author’s marriage–a marriage she thought would last forever. It’s a bit of a study on Generation X (people, like me, born between 1965 and 1980), whose parents are documented as being the “most divorcing” of all time (evidenced by the highest divorce rate in America occuring around 1979). The author’s childhood and marriage go through the meat grinder, maybe because of the destabilizing force of divorce, maybe because her dad was an alcoholic, and maybe because her mother was a clueless academic. It’s tragic but eye-opening, and, like some memoirs, it makes you wonder whether the author got her conclusions right. I’m hesitant to recommend it, but I want so much to know what other readers think about this one. A word of caution: parts of this book may lead to bad moods and temporary, unintended spousal conflict. Best when read alone.

A little light reading

In this busy week during which I have realized some new and exciting challenges in my life (all good, all good), I also found myself power reading my Book Club’s March selection, Little Women. Not surprisingly, the busy-ness of the week and the stupor in which I found myself after completing the eternally long biography, Edgar A. Poe: A Mournful and Neverending Remembrance (which I’d been reading since January), I miscalculated the number of pages per day I’d have to read of LW in order to have it completed for today’s meeting. Starting on Monday, and allowing four days for reading, I calculated that I’d need to read 170 pages per day to get through the book’s 775 pages. Whether or not you’re on the ball mathematically, the calculator in your head is probably exuding smoke and making strange pinging noises right about now, because, alas, 170 times 4 is only…680: 95 pages short of the end of the book.

It reminds me of the time I was reading Steinbeck’s mammoth East of Eden and realized somewhere in the 600’s that the book was 900 pages long, not 700 as I had thought. Like a blind man whose sense of hearing has taken over, so are the halves of my brain.

So, even though I’m shy of the finish line, and even though I have left my book at the home in which we met, still, I can say that I found Little Women thoroughly delightful and refreshing. Reading it as an adult, I’ve realized that it’s not a book for children or adults, but one for all ages. There are so many things about the March family that I hadn’t see back in 7th grade: Marmee confessed to a temper, Father was an army chaplain, Meg struggled to prioritize her husband, Jo was right to turn Laurie down, Beth made an incredible showing of accepting her terminal illness, and Amy didn’t exactly steal Laurie away. It’s funny—the characters are drawn in so much more relief for me now. I am reminded of my re-reading of Catcher in the Rye several years ago; as a married woman and mother, I realized that Holden Caulfield was kind of an irresponsible jerk and not exactly the relationship material that the teenage me had dreamed he might be.

In a reading year when I was practically knocked off my chair with the shockingly unsettling revelations in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I must say that it was a pleasure to have a truly rated G read. I’m wondering whether, if I lived there in my reading chair all the time, I would be a generally cheerier person. It’s hard to know, I think. Still, I’m thankful to have (almost) read Little Women, and I’m looking forward to finishing it…too bad it’s back on Jennifer’s coffee table. Oh well.

For those of you who may be interested, the next few months of Book Club selections stack up as follows:

April – The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet (a novel) by Jamie Ford
May – The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie (a mystery) by Alan Bradley
June – Waiter Rant (a memoir) by Steve Dublanica

More on “Just Say Yes”

“Yes” is the parenting topic of the week, inspired by (a) Sunday’s roller skating jaunt, (b) more snow, more inevitable messes, and (c) my recent viewing of The Boys are Back which stars chameleon-like, cool customer Clive Owen as a fictionalized version of memoirist Simon Carr. After the death of his wife, Carr found himself sole parent in a house with two boys and instead of bogging them down with piles of rules he took the path of least resistance; wherever possible, he eliminated the negative, embracing a “just say yes” approach to his semi-desperation parenting.

I’d recommend the movie (and this piece about the movie by Carr himself), my favorite part of which was Carr’s suggestion that if his son stood under the clothesline to dress and stood in the washing machine to undress that they’d have a perfect laundry system. And hey, who of us cannot relate?

I’m not sure whether I fall into the “just say yes” parenting camp (more on that later this week), but I have described my son as a “long leash” kind of kid. When he was smaller, I kept a pretty short leash on him (not literally—oh my!), correcting him pretty frequently, kind of breathing down his neck to stay put, keep quiet, get to sleep, stay clean (what was I thinking?), and generally avoid being run over, burned, injured around the head or neck, rushed to the emergency room, or placed on a poison control frequent customer poster. Then I realized that the frustration of my breathing down his neck wasn’t giving him the freedom to make the right choices, learn from his mistakes, or pretty much do what kids do because they’re kids and it’s perfectly all right for them to do it. I lengthened the leash, started closing my mouth (and sometimes my eyes), and with the frustration (his and mine) gone, we all got along a lot better.

So, while I may not let my children dive into motel bathtubs like Carr did, I do let them empty out the pantry and mix up whatever concoction they’d like. I don’t let them walk on our semi-frozen lake, but I do let them run in the snow in their bare feet. And while I don’t let them climb out the window and onto the roof, I really don’t have to—because their Dad has already let them do that. And, boy, do we love him for that.

In love with “Peony”? Not so much

Back in the 90’s I saw a movie called Truly Madly Deeply, which starred a pre-Professor Snape Alan Rickman as the main female character’s boyfriend. The bad news: the boyfriend died. The good news: the boyfriend returned! The really bad news: the dead boyfriend brought along all of his sad, cold, bored, dead buddies, who just wanted to hang out in the girlfriend’s apartment watching videos.

Except in soap operas and perhaps on Lost, when it comes to dead characters, even if they return as ghosts, you know that they’re pretty much still dead and, slacker ghost buddies or not, that they are not good candidates for long term relationships. Lisa See’s book Peony in Love covers the subject of ghost love against the backdrop of seventeenth century China, and, let me tell you, when it comes to life or death in the environment See portrays, I’m thinking that, given a choice, life and death come out in a (pardon me here) dead heat.

I’ll try not to spoil the story too much, but on the side of life, you’ve got women’s not-so-nice lot, in the form of foot binding, restriction of movement, segregation from men, arranged marriage, the overvaluing of male children and devaluing of female, rampant anorexia, ridiculously oppressive superstition about absolutely everything, and even the expectation that suicide beats the soiling and shame associated with rape. On the death side, you’ve got eternal wandering, eternal hunger, dependence on the neglectful living for a proper place in the afterlife, continuing competition and jealousies with the rest of the dead, and the very romantic practice of ghost marriage with a straw dummy as the stand-in for the already dead bride (lovely!).

In the book, See is giving us a picture of a culture otherwise unfamiliar to us Westerners. I get that. What I don’t get is why See, in an otherwise incredibly inventive story, continually returns to the themes of female infighting, oppression against women perpetrated by other women, and romantic love as so over-arching and women so prone to lovesickness, that being in love could be a lifetime obsession or a deadly proposition. She throws some bones to women, but they’re not enough to make us readers feel like she wants us to do more than just contextualize the practices she’s described and, in doing so, dismiss our repulsion of them.

In an interview about the novel, she says, “My point here is that other countries and cultures have different belief systems. One isn’t right and the other wrong…” Institutionalized sexism and racism are still wrong, no matter what a culture’s beliefs may be. The character of Peony in Peony In Love grew in a lot of ways over the course of the novel, but, for me, she fell somewhat short of that realization.

The Angel’s Game – huh?


Never did I think I would be a fan of Spanish Gothic (-ish) fiction, but I just finished The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, and I think I’m hooked. Cobweb covered tower houses, graffiti coated mausoleums, bullet stopping books, mysterious locked rooms–this book has it all.

Still, I’m a little confused. Not to give it all away (and please stop reading if you don’t want me to spoil it for you), but I was pretty sure all along that the narrator had unwittingly made a deal with the devil (to riff on Ghostbusters, if someone asks you to write them a new religion, say “no.”). Then it came out that the former resident of the narrator’s Munsters-esque home had apparently also made a deal with the devil. Then, all of the sudden, any visit from the narrator became a kiss of death for whomever he’d just seen, as if, somehow, he was an angel of death working for the devil (or the Spanish version of Corleone family hit man of choice Luca Brasi–plus at least one character ends up sleeping with the fishes, if you know what I mean, so there you go). There’s sacrifice of the pure of heart, admiring views from high places, and even a line like this–“I started working on the seventh day.” With all of those allusions, could I be wrong?

Still, I’m not sure. So again, what is probably obvious to the rest of the reading world is something that I’m trying to work out on my own–not unlike English class back in high school, when the teacher would ask something like, “What is the theme of this novel?” and I’d grope in the silence looking for something earth-shattering insight that was inevitably bankrupt and laughable, or at least didn’t at all resemble what the teacher had written down on her handy mental answer card.

Boy, did I hate high school English. It ruined me for college where I took not one single English class. So there.

Back to Zafon. The jacket of the book says that it’s a prequel to Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind–a book which I read a couple of years ago. I wanted to double-check the connections (and nab some reading material for the Thanksgiving weekend) so I went down to the library’s fiction section. I looked under “ZAF.” No book. I looked under “RUI.” No book. I asked the librarian, who, for some bizarro reason, looked under neither “Z” nor “R” but under “S” (?!?!!). No book. So now, I have The Shadow of the Wind on hold and have no hope of receiving it in time for the Thanksgiving weekend.

Ironically, both Zafon books feature a fictional place called The Cemetery of Forgotten Books. Has the librarian looked there, I wonder? Fat chance.

I say all this to say, I’m looking for a book to read this weekend. Any suggestions?

It’s how it is about it

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“I don’t hate my brother. If anything, I may pity him. He’s a complete idiot, and he’s the one who hates me.”

“He hates you?”

“Precisely. I think that’s why he came back here. So that he could spend his last years hating me at close quarters.”

I reflected at last month’s book club meeting that maybe one of the reasons I stopped reading (and essentially couldn’t stand) Pillars of the Earth was because of the violence against women that it portrayed.

Let me now retract that.

Consider movie critic Roger Ebert’s take on the content of film: “It’s not what a movie is about. It’s how it is about it.”

Reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I’m struck that violence against women (which this book has, in buckets—not literal buckets, but close) can be handled as engaging rather than unilaterally offensive, placed into context, and used for developing respectable characterizations and not just as a device for hurtling along the plot. I can’t say that I’m in love with the lifestyles of Larsson’s various characters (whose respective theme songs—trust me on this one—could be “Love the one you’re with,” “You give love a bad name,” and “Love stinks.”). But I have to admit that after a while—even with the story’s (spoiler warning!) crazed creeps and the women they’ve trapped—I couldn’t put the book down…and didn’t feel like I needed to take a shower when I finally did.

The original Swedish edition of Dragon Tattoo bore the title Men who Hate Women, which, while accurate (in spades), is not exactly the kind of thing that will keep Americans in suspense. I’m not making a feminist commentary here; it’s just that I think Americans may like a little mystery in their mysteries. With the less direct title, I, for one, was surprised at the extent to which one limited group of men in the book could hate women…and how those women (or one in particular) chose so creatively to respond.

Yes, I enjoyed reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Would I recommend it? Well, yeah, but with a strong graphic content warning.

Another point of interest for me was that this is one of those rare books I could imagine a man reading. Let’s face it—so much of today’s fiction is written for a women’s audience. But I could see a man reading and enjoying this combination mystery, family epic, detective novel, crime story, corporate morality tale, and miniature computer catalog (I swear, I’ve never seen the word “iBook” in print so many times in one place). I do have qualms about the sinister ground it covers, but, hey, I can’t police the conscience of the entire reading universe.

On now to The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society. That one can’t be so edgy. Not, I guess, unless the original title was UK Women Who Stabbed Their Men With Dull Potato Peelers while Reading Collections of Charles Lamb in their Blood-Soaked Nighties. I’ll let you know on that one, one way or the other.

Wiper Madness

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My father-in-law’s name is Carl. He says that he rarely sees a TV or film character named Carl, and, when he does see one, it’s usually the butler.

My husband has made a similar observation about his own name. Whenever you see a Craig character, he is usually (a) nerdy (b) fairly annoying or (c) a back-stabbing preppy jerk.

Watching the movie Flash of Genius, a movie based on the true story of Bob Kearns, the Michigan engineering professor who spent years of his life alleging that the automobile industry stole his original design for the intermittent wiper, I wondered whether one can say something similar about film portrayals of scientists and engineers: the stereotype seems to be that sure, they’re clever and all, but there’s a point at which one’s techno IQ climbs just a little too high for social acceptability.

In the movie, Kearns, played by Greg Kinnear, comes off as cute, then compulsive, then kind of cuckoo as he experiences the highs of discovery and invention, then the lows of betrayal and disillusionment with an industry who capitalizes without compensation on the industriousness of the little guy. It’s hard to believe that someone went through all Kearns experienced, and even harder to believe that Kearns himself may have been a more intense individual than Kinnear’s portrayal suggests.

Watching the film, I had several questions. First, why isn’t Greg Kinnear in every movie? Second, was the circuit design for the original intermittent wiper so complicated that it really stumped the entire car industry? Third, where else besides the film Real Genius is a scientist or engineer portrayed as remotely cool (maybe in October Sky, Apollo 13, or much of space cinema?) and not crazy (as in A Beautiful Mind)? Related to that, what other example of onscreen soldering can you think of? Finally, if my brother-in-law right, that wiper speed directly correlates with driver stress, how stressed out would Americans be without good old intermittent wipers?

Whether or not you’re a scientist (or a scientist-lover), you’ll probably find the movie’s “at what price” questions compelling. Is financial compensation worth more than credit for one’s idea? Is it better to have one’s day in court than to have a good relationship with one’s family? Is a one-man fight against corporate greed so hopeless and overwhelming that it may not be worth fighting?

Whatever your answers, next time you use those intermittent wipers, remember: you have Robert Kearns, however tech-headed, hyper-focused, and flawed an individual he may have been, to thank.

Project Journalism

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Watching the movie Julie & Julia over the weekend, I was reminded of one of my favorite literary genres: the project book. Choose a task (like making all the recipes in Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child, et al), give yourself a year to do it, write about all your experiences related to it, and voila! you’ve got yourself a book.

It’s almost certainly not as easy as it sounds. I mean, one must certainly clear the schedule, make some serious (and pricey) reservations, and, oh mercy, pack thoughtfully for something like a three week trip around the world (see Nicholas Sparks’ project book/memoir Three Weeks with my Brother). And there’s some serious research to be done before embarking on a year of eating only things grown locally or, better yet, in one’s own backyard (see Barbara Kingsolver’s family’s food diary, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle).

It may all be worth it, though. Think of the years (months? seconds?) that a plunge in Siberia’s icy Lake Baikal might add to your life (perhaps enough to balance the years’ lost from the vodka Peter Thomson had to drink riding the Trans-Siberian railway for his book Sacred Sea). Imagine the hoot your children will have someday over Dad’s ridiculous but Torah-mandated beard (see AJ Jacobs’ facial hair progress in The Year of Living Biblically). And think how much fun you’ll be at parties when you tell people that you travelled cross country with Einstein’s brain (yes, it’s true—see Michael Paterniti’s Driving Mr. Albert: A Trip Across America with Einstein’s Brain).

If I were to write a project book, I wonder, what task would I undertake? Certainly I could remove something from my life: TV, automobiles, electricity, frozen food, purchases of anything new, my hair, hand sanitizer, cardboard. I could add something to my life: a part-time job…training animals…at the circus. I could go somewhere: does the laundramat count?

So I guess I’ll just throw it out there. Ideas, anyone?

Why I stopped reading “Pillars of the Earth”

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Delighted was I when I found Pillars of the Earth, my book club’s next selection, at a church yard sale.

If only the church ladies had read it—honestly, I would have appreciated some well-intentioned censoring on this one.

Yesterday, I stopped reading Pillars of the Earth; I was on page three fifty something, in the middle of the scene where (spoiler alert!!!) the former earl’s daughter is unwittingly applying for a position as a prostitute. She does this because she’s anxious to earn the one penny that the jailer demands as a bribe for her to see her father, who is in prison after his plot to overthrow the dubiously appointed king is discovered by an otherwise lovely priest (one of the book’s few bright spots) and foiled by the girl’s very bitter, violent, and misogynistic former suitor.

The earl’s home is brought to ruins, and the girl hides out in the ruins until she is raped by not one, but two men. After she escapes from them, and then escapes one more time from some thug in the forest, she finally finds the jail where her dad is imprisoned and sadly is turned away, but not before she finds out that he’s dying.

Oh, and did I mention the other sunny plotlines about the abandoned newborn, his mother’s death in childbirth, the pig stealing, child clubbing, rampant unemployment, and the woman so ugly that she looks like someone in a painting about the tortures of hell?

If I wanted all that, I would have re-watched Pulp Fiction—at least it’s got some dancing.

What also needled me about Pillars of the Earth was all the profanity. Believe me, I’m under no illusion about the moral standards of the 12th century. Besides the raping, pillaging, drinking, and general thievery and deception, I’m sure there was plenty of bad language. But was it the same bad language that people use today? Was it the kind of the thing that you’d hear streaming out of Joe Pesci‘s mouth in Goodfellas? I haven’t done extensive research on this, but I’ll tell you, there’s nothing that will shake me back to the 21st century faster than the careless placement of an overused modern-sounding expletive. And if the profanity in the book was authentic to the period, then all I can say is shame on you 12th century-ers: your mouths need a good washing out.

I closed the book for all of those reasons, and, thinking about it now, I abandoned the story because it was so very hopeless. In this book, you don’t just lose your job. You lose your home, your pig, your wife, your baby, your forest-acquired lover, your clothes, your dignity, and all your tools besides. If you score two horses, then you’d better know that they’ll be stolen away by the next chapter. It was like a fortunately/unfortunately record that skipped eternally on the unfortunately part, until it was so lopsided that it was downright demoralizing.

Part of me wants to finish the book because I want to be able to discuss it at my book club meeting next month. Part of me wants to burn it because I don’t want anyone else to consider prescription medication to chase away her intense reading-induced blues. With 600 pages to go, I guess somebody might suggest that I just hang in there.

Um, no.

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