I had intended to post sooner than this, thinking I’d be done with the book I started last weekend, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, but luckily a lot of research (=work) materials arrived in the mail. Hurrah! So I’ve been poring over those all week.  I’ll catch up on reading this weekend. But in the meantime I’ve really been enjoying the articles I have to read. I’m helping my professor gather unusual words, which is hilarious when you read some of it. Take for example, this passage:

“And I be consarn my skin if them men wan’t too plague-taked lazy to tote them canvas bags theirse’ves, but they actually hord a passle of little boys to foller around atter ’em and fetch them things fur ’em. Hit wouldn’t do fur me to ketch my little Jeems Henry a-chawk eye’n fur great big, stroppin’ men like that, and gittin’ hisse’f called a ‘Catty.’ I’d warm his jacket fur him, fur bein’ so low-lifed, and besides that, I’d giv’ them fellers a piece of my mind.”**

How do you choose the unusual word in this passage? Don’t you just love it? If you’re not from the south, and you realized they were talking about golf, you get a gold star for the day 😉  What’s even funnier about this is that I understand the whole story (it’s all written like this) but my husband is pretty clueless about it. I don’t know whether to be proud or embarrassed that where I’m originally from, I’ve met many people who speak a lot like that. It’s now a fairly endangered dialect, so I kind of feel like I’m in a secret club because I understand it.

By the way, the most interesting word I’ve come across in this group of articles is “circumvengemous,” which means “to do something in a roundabout way,” such as telling a story. I didn’t even know that one before reading these articles, but I love it! I’m going to make a point of using it and count how many funny looks I get. I love language.

**from Angeline Gits an Eyeful, by Cordia greer-Petrie, 1924

Recently I started reading Fruit of the Lemon, which looked interesting, has a nice cover, etc., but for some reason I just wasn’t really feeling it. Then last week, I ventured into the Big City (as opposed to the 20,ooo population town I’m staying in for the time being) that has not just a library, but a whole network of libraries. This isn’t a new concept to me, don’t worry! But I’ve only been back in the USA for less than a month and before that spent months in a country where English books are harder to find than hen’s teeth. So it felt fresh and..dare I say, novel to me all over again. (Don’t shoot me, please.)

Anyhow, at one of the City’s libraries, I spent a good two and a half hours wandering around and picking books that struck my fancy. The one that hooked me most was The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, which I’ve seen time and again on the bestseller table at B&N and other bookstores. I had picked it up before, but this time I guess it took. I promptly put down Fruit of the Lemon (with every intention of picking it up again someday) and started reading it in the library parking lot.

Now, as you can tell from most of my reviews, I am a pretty finicky reader. As a student of linguistics in grad school and of literature in undergrad, plus AP English lit in high school, I read with a pretty [overly] critical eye. But I also appreciate when writers step outside the box and dip into their creativity, which is exactly what the writers did here. The entire novel is told through a series of letters, mostly written by the main character, Juliet, and her publisher and new found friends on an island whose people she takes an interest in. I’m sure that many book bloggers have already read this one– I know I’m late on the uptake here, but I really loved this one! All of the characters are simultaneously quirky, three-dimensional, relatable, developed, and believable. Judging by the number of books I’ve read that lack characters who possess all these qualities, this is not an easy feat for a writer. I applaud the writers of this book for creating such a fun and realistic cast. The setting is equally intriguing: immediately after World War II. So many books are set within the time frame of the war or even the events leading up to it, but I’ve only found a few that address the confusion and grief that was left in its wake like this one does. The grim realities of the war and the subject of occupation are dealt with in a sensitive and very human way. This doesn’t mean that all horrific acts of the war are avoided, though– trust me, I flipped the page a couple of times because I couldn’t bear to read it. I suppose that’s my biggest downfall when reading: I have a soft heart and because of that I often miss bits of the plot because I can’t stand to read it.

I’m not going to spoil the story, but I practically cheered during the final pages. I wanted to give Juliet a high-five 🙂  And, given the events of the final pages, I thought it was fitting that the writers kept referencing Jane Austen. I also loved the humanity in the last third of the book. The characters dealt with very real emotions that exist even under the shade of war and rebuilding and recovering: jealousy, humor, compassion, all of them are there in the characters’ interactions despite the events that happened to all of them and that they are still struggling to deal with. It’s a wonderful representation of the human spirit and the resilience of people as a whole.

I think this book immediately found a nook in my heart to lodge itself in because I was reminded of my own experience of falling in love with an island. Now, I have never been through events as horrific as WWII (thank goodness), but I happened to discover a tiny island when I began researching endangered languages. Through my research, I contacted some people on the island and made many friends I still talk to. They opened their homes and hearts to me and graciously let me interview them. One older lady turned up unannounced at the guest house where I stayed during my visit last December, just to see if I wanted to go sight-seeing. Another let me stay in her home and, in addition to teaching me so much about the island and its language, told me to call her “mom.” This book brought those experiences back to me and made me remember that there are good people out there- the qualities these characters possess do not exist solely in these pages.

I look forward to reading more of the writers’ work. And to going back to my own island 🙂

Bottom line: Creative, engaging, entertaining, and it had special meaning to me. I loved it.

Last night, I finished The Butterflies of Grand Canyon, written by Margaret Erhart. I like butterflies (who doesn’t?) but I’m not an entomologist– not even close– so I think it’s strange that I’ve read two fiction books in the past few years about people obsessed with butterflies. The other was The Sound of Butterflies by Rachel King. Besides butterflies, the only thing the two seemed to have in common was that they were both very odd. I picked this one up at the library because it sounded like fun: the Grand Canyon in the 1950s, a decade-old murder mystery, and a cast of interesting characters. I’m not really a fan of mysteries, despite having read the entire Nancy Drew series as a kid (c’mon, didn’t everyone?). But lately I’ve been trying to expand my reading comfort zone and branch out a bit. Otherwise it’s going to be a long autumn and winter given the limited selection at the town library.

The story starts out interestingly enough, introducing the main characters and the murder that hangs over the small town. However, after a point, it feels like the story simply hangs in mid-air, with very little development or progression in either plot or character. It also felt like it jumped around quite a bit, with butterfly catching and long Latin names of species taking center stage for a good chunk of the time. The murder mystery, which I assumed would take center stage and bring the characters all together somehow, was really pushed to the background and not given the focus I thought it would.

Then, about halfway through, infidelity seems to be the name of the game. It seems that most of the characters are unfaithful either physically, emotionally, or both, and marriage doesn’t seem to be taken seriously. This wouldn’t be an issue for me except as the book nears its conclusion, it feels like more and more time is spent on discussing infidelity and why it’s OK and natural and people should let it happen. None of the characters in this book are particularly likable, and this attitude that they all take on this subject makes me dislike them further. Maybe I’m on my own here, and I’m not about to get in the pulpit and preach about fidelity and the sanctity of marriage, but I’ve been married for two and a half years and I believe I have a solid marriage. I believe that many marriages can last and the spouses in such marriages are not continuously thinking of cheating or still in love with a past flame. Sorry, Erhart. In fact, the final scene in the book has nothing to do with the murder mystery, but has everything to do with cheating on one’s spouse, which felt not only out of place, but ironically, unfaithful to the original premise of the story. The characters were not really tied together in some unbreakable way that I expected them to be, and as I read in another review of this book, the names of characters were a bit confusing: six of them have unusual names that begin with the letter E. Maybe I’m just a little slower than some readers, but I like characters’ names to be as distinctive as their personalities, unless similar naming is used as some sort of a device. Perhaps it is in this case and I missed it?

I admire Erhart’s attempt at switching the third-person perspective among characters with each (short) chapter, but this became a little muddling since she also jumped in time and skipped some events in the gap between perspectives. I think there are some interesting characters in this book- again, not likable, but interesting nonetheless. I’d like to see what sorts of things could be made of them in a more concise story.

The one thing that this book did well was to make me want to see the Grand Canyon. I’m a Southern girl at heart, and spent many years in Ohio as well, but I’ve never seen the southwestern states. After reading this, I think the Grand Canyon will be going on my “must-visit” list. Also after reading this, I think I want to try an honest-to-goodness mystery. There is one aisle of mystery novels at the town library, so if I expand my territory to that area, I’ll have that many more books to read. Right? 😉   So from now on I’m going to give the mystery section a fair shot, too, and not rush in and out when I’m picking up the next The Cat Who… book for my mom.

Bottom line: Not my favorite.

Where has ZZ Packer been all my life?

I picked up this book, like I do so many others, simply on a whim when I was roaming the limited shelves of the local library here. I’m a coffee fiend myself, so any book with the word “coffee” in the title draws me in. However, this is something of a departure for me because usually I’m not a huge fan of short story collections. There are exceptions- Ray Bradbury and Hemingway come to mind- but usually I’m more of a one-shot novel girl. I don’t even care much for series novels for the most part. But, as I mentioned before, the shelves at the local library are pretty limited in selection, so I knew I was going to have to branch out. And you know what? I’m really glad I did.

This collection was absolutely wonderful. This book has gotten some acclaim under categories like African American fiction and multicultural fiction and things like that, and does indeed deal with racism and civil rights issues and African Americans at different stages in their lives and at different points in the late 20th/early 21st centuries. Now, I am about as white as they come, but I understand racism very well, having lived in Asia twice. I understand the hate stares, the comments people make, the ignorant things they ask you or tell you, men having preconceived notions about your sexuality because of the color of your skin, and generally not being treated as a member of the same species. Those are the things that made me feel like I was drowning when I lived in Asia and why I will never live there again. I am thankful beyond words that I do not have to experience it on a daily basis anymore.

But the common thread that I found throughout the course of these stories was the feeling of alienation that so many of the characters experienced. Some of them felt it as a force that distanced them from their parents and families, some felt it separating them from classmates who were different in some way, and some felt it as a societal divider. Every story in this collection haunted me with that sense of alienation that I have felt many times in my own life, despite the fact that I am white and therefore privileged in my home culture. But the feelings of being different, a separateness from classmates for different beliefs or attitudes, struck me to the core because of how familiar it is in my own life. I also found the short story “Geese” particularly relevant since it features a main female character who goes to Tokyo to make some money and finds herself destitute and losing her sense of self. Luckily I wasn’t in as desperate a situation as that character, but I caught myself wide-eyed and nodding about some of the situations this character encountered in Japan.

These stories are beautifully written, the characters are three-dimensional and you feel as if you know them- even the ladies in the congregation of the Pentecostal church in “Every Tongue Shall Confess” seemed like ladies I knew, even though I’m not particularly religious and certainly don’t identify with the Pentecostals. Packer has a way of simultaneously drawing you in and shutting you out with the same separateness her characters experience.

Bottom line: absolutely wonderful. I look forward to reading anything else Packer decides to write.

It’s Friday! Are you excited? I am, but not because it’s Friday. I’m excited because yesterday, after swallowing my pride and putting my humility on a plate to be stabbed at will, I e-mailed the professor whom I worked for for two years and announced that I was back in the USA and I would be returning to grad school for spring semester. I wanted his advice on how to continue with my plan of study, which can take one of several different paths from this point. He offered to call me so we could talk about it and he could give me the lowdown about what’s currently going on in our field. And he also offered me my old job back! Before I went overseas late last spring, I had worked for him through a research assistantship funded by my university. As he has professor emeritus status and is a pretty big figure in our field, the university has been giving him a research assistant every year even though he’s been officially retired for over a decade. Retired from teaching, but he puts in more hours than a full-time job on his research and books and projects, and I suspect he will continue to do so until the end of his days. I hope I can be like that someday. Anyway, this year, the university has been forced to tighten its belt a notch further, and they’ve cut all assistantships in the department except for a handful of teaching spots for doctoral candidates, it seems. I thought the financial situation of universities was on the upswing, or should be, but evidently I was wrong. However, being fairly well-to-do and desperate to finish some projects I had been helping him with, he has offered me my old job back and will pay me out of his own pocket. He had mentioned this a few months ago as a possibility, but now it’s real and he’s allowing me to start even though I’m three states away, and he says I can keep it up indefinitely because of the volume of work he has. Needless to say, I am ecstatic! That was the best job I’ve ever had, I love the work, he’s fun to work for, and now I get to do it again. I feel like I’ve finally caught a bit of a break in an otherwise tumultuous year.  Also on the positive side of things, I have an interview later this afternoon for a tutoring position. I’ve let myself relax, if only a little, and start to search for places to live when I return to the South in December. What a relief.

Anyway, onward to the book of the day!

I tackled Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth this past week. This is one of the more modern classics I had been meaning to read for a while, but it wasn’t quite what I expected. Now, I had never read any Buck before, so I really didn’t know what I was getting into. I knew that Buck had been raised in China and spoke fluent Chinese, and I had heard her famous quote about, when told to write what she knew, she said she wrote about China because all she knew was China. I’ll say now, as I’ve said before, that I absolutely love historical fiction about China and other parts of Asia. But there are some striking differences between The Good Earth and other books I’ve read about China that take place around the same time period. If memory serves, I believe Lisa See has written a novel or two that take place around the time of the 1911 revolution or just after. Lisa See is a wonderful writer and her prose is so lyrical. I adore her books, even if some of them (Peony in Love) struck me as downright bizarre. I suppose I expected The Good Earth to have some of the same romanticism or even sentimentality that is often found in historical fiction. Maybe I expected this because Buck seemed to have such a close relationship with China in her youth, and nostalgia often comes forth shaded by romanticism. However, this book had a rather impersonal tone, with the events told very matter-of-factly. The main character, the farmer Wang, is, well, a wang. (Pardon the terrible juvenile pun, but really!) The modern girl in me read page after page in disgust at how he took on a second wife purely for sex, ignored his first wife, didn’t bother naming his children, was incredibly selfish, and did whatever the hell he felt like for most of the story. In contrast, the main female character O-lan must bend to his every whim and is presented several times as animalistic, with Wang comparing both her appearance and character to that of an ox. This isn’t terribly surprising given the time period and the culture of that time period: women were worthless and are still considered much lower on the social hierarchy in Confucian society (trust me, I just came back from Korea), and so it wasn’t shocking to see all women referred to as “slaves,” but as we say in the South, it stuck in my craw.

But back to the writing style. Even as much of a moron as Wang is, it felt like Buck had little sympathy or animosity towards him. Again, it was just very matter-of-fact. We sometimes get perspective into his thoughts, but only as a means to justify the actions he takes. The only section of the book that seemed to have any emotion attached to it was the part when O-lan dies. But even then, it is Wang’s guilty conscience, not sentimentality or anything else, that moves him.

I find it interesting that this is the novel that reportedly introduced Americans to China. I wonder what the reaction of the first Americans who read this book was? At that time, our country was post-WWI and in the throes of the Great Depression. Could they relate to Wang’s troubles? What did they think of the women in the novel? This subject is more intriguing to me than the novel itself. Another thing I’m wondering about is if Buck intended any symbolism in this book, or if it truly is as straightforward as I found it. I’d love to hear thoughts from anyone out there who has read this.

This book is the first in a trilogy, and I think I might try to tackle at least the second book eventually. Perhaps it will shed more light on some of the questions I have about the book. I’d like to see if the other two are written in the same impersonal style and if it continues into one long family saga.

Bottom line: I find this novel elusive on several levels. But I find China and its people and culture to be elusive as well.

I initially picked up Hot Springs by Geoffrey Becker because I thought it was going to be about the town of Hot Springs, North Carolina. Oops! Turns out there’s another Hot Springs, located much further west. Anyhow, even after I solved the mystery of why the characters weren’t greeting each other with “ya’ll,” I stuck with it.

This book has a kinda-sorta wishy-washy ending, and that’s kinda-sorta how I felt about the whole thing. I enjoyed that Becker was creative with the characters and tackled a main character who is mentally ill. I liked that the book feels something like a road book and the story happens along a physical journey. I think that road stories are automatically set up for wondrous events to happen and lots of character development along the way. I saw a little bit of character development in the main character, Bernice, and her sort-of boyfriend Landis, but many of the other characters felt flat and unrealistic. In particular, the adoptive mother of Emily, whose name is Tessa. If she really cares about Emily so much, why didn’t she call the police? Especially since she’s a bible-thumper, wouldn’t that seem like the “right” thing to do? I get that she’s abused and in an unhappy marriage– which was revealed at an odd point and too late in the plot in my opinion– but I would think that the urge to do the “right” thing would overpower anything else, especially where a child is concerned, and especially when she knows the birth mother isn’t all there. This made her character seem unbelievable, as did her behavior towards the conclusion.

While I’m talking about things I had trouble believing, let’s talk about Bernice’s boyfriend Landis for a moment. I think he is one of the most believable characters in the book: he tries to go along with what his girlfriend wants, then has an epiphany and realizes she’s crazy and he could go to jail for it and bails, and subsequently feels guilt about it and wants her back so goes looking for her. I think that indecisiveness and weighing one’s conscience against other elements is very realistic. I liked his character, I really did. What I didn’t like was his dialogue. The way this guy spoke was so unrealistic, it drove me up the wall! Some of the things he said, if taken out of the context of situation and conversation, are virtually indistinguishable from things that Bernice would say. Characters need to have not only their own separate personalities, but also their own voices. That is my one major criticism of the book.

Some of the reviewers out there have issues with the ending of this book. True, it doesn’t have a solid conclusion that you can wrap your fingers around and set aside, but the characters in the book, as well as the plot, aren’t the type you can really wrap your brain around, either. So in that regard, I think the ending suits the book. I think it would be more difficult to swallow if the book had a “happily ever after” ending in which all of the characters somehow got exactly what they wanted and ended up satisfied. It just wouldn’t work in this book (or few places outside of a Disney movie).  All in all, not too bad.

Yesterday I finished the first book I’ve read since I’ve been back stateside, East of the Sun. This was quite a long book, and I enjoyed it for the most part. I love books about the late 1920s and early 1930s, especially in far-off places like Shanghai, Hong Kong, or, as in the case of this novel, India. Actually, I like novels set in India in pretty much any era. There’s something about fiction set in India that has always hooked me, maybe because its culture and people are so different from that of my own or any place I’ve ever been. I also enjoy books about East Asia and western Europe, both of which I’ve spent time in (in the case of East Asia, quite a bit of time!), but India is still somewhat elusive to me. Anyway, overall I enjoyed this book, but I have some qualms about it. First of all, I had trouble deciding what the overal conflict in the plot is- it’s there, but it’s like Gregson ignores it for a while despite it being fairly obvious. The story felt like it rambled on at points, becoming more of a soap opera than anything. I also didn’t like– and you can stop reading here if you hate even vague spoilers– the message at the end of the book that love conquers all and a good man will set your life straight. It felt too cliched to me even though in the last 200 pages I could see that was right where it was headed.

That being said, I thought that the descriptions of India were very well written, and I enjoyed the change in perspective among three women, although it wasn’t evenly spread out. I really enjoyed the main characters as well, and I thought the balance between their three different personalities was well done. I also like how Gregson had them view one another: what one character construed as one emotion or conversational tactic was interpreted in a completely different way by another character based on her own personality and desires, which felt very true to life. I also appreciated the size of the cast of characters: it wasn’t too large to handle, as books of this length sometimes present. I’m sure that’s not an issue for all readers, but I like to be able to really get my head around each and every character mentioned. Gregson also writes vividly about the respective memories of two characters in particular (with emphasis on one of them) and she did a fantastic job, again, of filtering the experiences through the personalities of those characters. I know it sounds pretty vague, but I don’t want to spoil everything here 🙂

All in all, this was a nice read and a great escape. I wouldn’t classify it as a classic or “Great Literature” with a capital G and L, but it’s fun nonetheless especially if you like books that transport you to another time and place. Perfect escapist reading. I would definitely read another of Gregson’s books. I’m not familiar with her at all, and I wonder if she has written others?  That will be something to look into.

I’m starting this blog as a means of keeping a log of the books I’m reading. I am in my mid-20s, currently unemployed after leaving a terrible job overseas, and am in a long-distance marriage as my husband is still working in Asia for several more months to come. I am one semester away from completing my Master’s, but I cannot start that semester until January when the funding comes in. I am in a limbo of waiting for my life to become mine again, and in the meantime finding things to occupy my time.  Now that the jet lag has worn off, reading is my way of escaping the negativity that tries to creep into my mind about my situation. I’m in a small town staying with my parents, but luckily the library isn’t totally barren. I’m taking advantage of this waiting time to catch up on my reading since I haven’t had much time in the past few years to really read the things I want.