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.

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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.