Friday, August 28, 2009
Twelve-year-old Gwenni Morgan bears witness as her family crumbles under the weight of its secrets in Strachan's lyrical debut. In a small Welsh village swirling with secrets and gossip, few are willing to tell the truth about who they are. Gwenni soars above the local intrigue in her dreams-each night as she drifts off to sleep she flies away from her family and over the nearby fields and farms-and hopes someday to fly during the day as well. Though most, including her mother, see Gwenni's unending curiosity as a nuisance, local schoolteacher Elin Evans nurtures Gwenni's dreams of a different life. When Elin's husband, Ifan, disappears, town tongues wag, and when his body is found, Gwenni's mother mourns him more than seems proper. Strachan ramps up the tension, as Gwenni is caught between loyalties and learns some damning family secrets. The author's light touch keeps the story unfamiliar and surprising, while Gwenni's über-precocious narration revels in a love for language and reveals an unspoiled innocence about the world. It's small, quiet and nicely done.
I adored Gwenni. She is so precocious, and imaginative, despite her bitch of a mother. Sorry, but it’s true. Mrs. Morgan is all about Mrs. Morgan. And she clearly plays favorites…Gwenni’s older sister Bethan can do no wrong, and Gwenni can do no right. However, Gwenni doesn’t let that get her down. I especially like how she is always imagining the Toby jugs on the shelf as little people looking down on her family.
Gwenni fancies herself a detective, and after the death of Ifan Evans, she is determined to find out who killed him. Gwenni’s efforts often embarrass her mother, who is all about appearances. Eventually, Gwenni abandons her search after family secrets emerge…both for the Evans family and the Morgans.
Chris at book-a-rama wrote a knock-out review of this one. And I’ll just leave you with her review, since if I keep typing I’ll probably just end up repeating what she said. And that wouldn’t be very cool.
Wednesday, August 26, 2009
This post unintentionally inspired a guessing game, because I chose a picture that was too small. For those of you who are still curious, the book was Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson. And the winner is Word Lily. Yay!!!!!
I started the book a couple of weeks ago. By page 18 I realized I didn’t have the patience to work my way through the dense (although lyrical) prose. So off it goes to a new reader.
Congrats to Word Lily…please send me your address?
A little more housekeeping (ha, ha)…
A belatedly huge thank you to whoever nominated me for BBAW awards. I received nominations for Best Community Builder (not really sure why, on that one), Most Humorous/Funny Blog, Best Literary Fiction Blog, and Most Eclectic Taste. Thank you, thank you, thank you…the nominations warmed the cockles of my heart. And made my day.
So as a way to say thanks and I love you too, I’m going to give away my copy of one of my favoritist books of the year. I raved about it yesterday, and would love for one of you to read it. All you have to do to get your name in the running is tell me what your favorite book (so far) of the year is.
Also. Have you seen this?!? And have I told you that I’m planning a trip to Croatia next May/June? Wah!!
Tuesday, August 25, 2009
The Calligrapher’s Daughter
375 pages of pure awesomeness
From the website:
In early-twentieth-century Korea, Najin Han, the privileged daughter of a calligrapher, longs to choose her own destiny. Smart and headstrong, she is encouraged by her mother—but her stern father is determined to maintain tradition, especially as the Japanese steadily gain control of his beloved country. When he seeks to marry Najin into an aristocratic family, her mother defies generations of obedient wives and instead sends her to serve in the king’s court as a companion to a young princess. But the king is soon assassinated, and the centuries-old dynastic culture comes to its end.
In the shadow of the dying monarchy, Najin begins a journey through increasing oppression that will forever change her world. As she desperately seeks to continue her education, will the unexpected love she finds along the way be enough to sustain her through the violence and subjugation her country continues to face? Spanning thirty years, The Calligrapher’s Daughter is a richly drawn novel in the tradition of Lisa See and Amy Tan about a country torn between ancient customs and modern possibilities, a family ultimately united by love, and a woman who never gives up her search for freedom.
Why I loved this book:
For me, this is historical fiction at its best. The Calligrapher’s Daughter is full of historical and cultural details, and the author does a fantastic job of bringing both Korea and her characters to life. This is a passage from late in the book, during WWII. It shows both the effects of the war, and offers a brief glimpse of traditional ways:
”I wrapped my skirt in sand-colored apron and squatted, tilling with a bamboo hand-hoe. When the home inspectors began collecting metal goods, garden tools were among the first items to go. I was grateful for the childhood years spent outside with Byungjo, watching his able hands fashion tools from bamboo, sticks and hemp rope, Mother and I planted cabbage, cucumber and squash. The warm wind smelled green and soft, but the earth was still frozen in places where the winter clouds had lingered. I broke up those clumps as if beating them into submitting to spring.” - page 335
Admittedly, this may not have been the best excerpt, but there was just something about the detail of the bamboo hoe that struck me. It’s that attention to detail that makes this such an exceptional book.
Another reason I love this book is for the characters, especially Najin. Kim created a strong protagonist in Najin, who we follow from childhood into adulthood. Throughout the story, Najin is often torn between duty and desire. Duty includes her role as the traditional, subservient daughter who is supposed to serve the men in the family. Her desires include education, work and choosing her own husband. As Najin struggles between duty and desire we learn about both traditional Korean culture and the changes the country (and the culture) undergoes in the early 1900s. Kim shows us Korea…its beauty, its struggles and its people.
Last night on Twitter I asked if anyone had any questions about the book. Ali asked, “Calligrapher doesn't seem like a high profile job. Is calligraphy important to the plot?”
This is an excellent question. It’s important to both the plot, and the meaning in the title. Najin’s father is a calligrapher, and was well-known for the scrolls and screens he created. Calligraphy was more than just fancy writing…the brush strokes were considered an art form and calligraphers were held in very high regard. In the book, Najin’s father’s screens are displayed in royal palaces. Furthermore, the Joseon Dynasty of Korea and Confucianism emphasized the ideal of the scholar gentleman, and Najin’s father epitomizes this ideal through both his actions and his calligraphy. He is a member of the privileged yangban class…he does not work, rather he studies and creates. He is also resistant to change, mostly because it is being forced upon him by the Japanese invaders. So the calligraphy in the title is representative of the old ways, and also the social class that the family belonged to. And Najin’s little brother also becomes a calligrapher, so calligraphy reappears later in the story and again has some importance to the plot.
To continue on about the title, in Korean culture it was rude to call someone by their given name. You could be the daughter of the woman from Nah-jing, or the calligrapher’s daughter, but not just Najin. Actually, Najin wasn’t even her real name:
“I learned I had no name on the same day I learned fear.” - first sentence
Najin, with her ambitions, represents, to some extent, the changes Korea faces. Her lack of a name plays into this throughout the novel. However, Najin also has a keen understanding of tradition. She may rail against it at times, but she still strives to be a dutiful daughter, the calligrapher’s daughter. As you can see, this is a deceptively simple title. And as you read the book, you realize that there are many meanings and layers to both the title and the person.
I’m really hoping people fall in love with this book like I have. It’s a great story, and creates an incredible sense of place. It’s also the perfect example of what historical fiction can be…a story so good you don’t realize you’re reading about history. :-) So even if you’re resistant to the genre of historical fiction I’d urge you to try this one.
Monday, August 24, 2009
Publisher Comments:In her exquisite first novel, Waters explores the complex relationships among three generations of women bound by a painful family history and a culture in which custom dictates behavior. Fourteen-year-old Sarah Rexford, half-Japanese and half-American, feels like an outsider when she visits her family in Japan. She quickly learns that in traditional Kyoto, personal boundaries are firmly drawn and actions are not always what they appear. Sarah learns of a family secret — an interfamily adoption arranged in the throes of World War II. Her grandmother gave up one of her daughters to the matriarch of the family, and the two families have coexisted quietly, living on the same lane. While this arrangement is never discussed, it looms over the two households. In this carefully articulated world, where every gesture and look has meaning, Sarah must learn the rules by which her mother, aunts, and grandmother live. Delicately balancing drama and restraint, Waters captures these women — their deep passions and tumultuous histories — in this tender and moving novel about the power and beauty of mother-daughter relationships.
The story is actually told in three parts. The first part is when Sarah returns to Japan when she is 14. On that initial visit, Sarah learns that her grandmother’s sister-in-law adopted her grandmother’s second daughter when she was a baby. Because they live across the lane, the families see each other on a daily basis. But her grandmother and her aunt rarely talk to each other, for fear of hurting or disrespecting her aunt’s adoptive mother. The second part of the story takes place four years later, when Sarah again returns to Japan. And the final part is Sarah’s third visit, after she finishes college. In all three parts of the story, the focus is on the women, and the complex relationship between the two families…things that can and can’t be said and/or done, for fear of stepping over some never stated but definitely there boundary. There are some complex family dynamics happening in this book.
Despite the intimate look into a family’s secrets and past, this book could be very formal at times. Which is why I initially struggled with it. I know this is indicative of Japanese culture, and I’ll confess I’ve always struggled with an interest in that, too. Throughout the book, there is an emphasis on tone and voice. Also, all of the adult women are referred to by their married names, although not in conversation. Here is an example of what I’m trying to explain:
”Granny-san,” said Mrs. Rexford, returning to a tone of affectionate familiarity that her daughter nonetheless suspected was an “outside” voice, “sit down here on my cushion. Ne, please.” She smoothed the cotton fabric in a deferential gesture of invitation. Mrs. Asaki accepted, ducking her head in a pleased quarter-bow, and Mrs. Rexford went away to help her mother with tea. “Sarah,” she called back over her shoulder, switching once again to a disciplinary tone, “clear those dirty dishes off the table. Quickly.” –page 26-27
In the end, I’m glad I stuck with this one. It provides an intriguing glimpse of Japanese culture, as well as a look at how an intra-family adoption played out.
Sunday, August 23, 2009
This week’s Geeky question is:
I think just about every reader has a least one book that they've been meaning to read for awhile (months or even years) but, for one reason or another, they just haven't gotten around to it. Maybe it's a book a friend recommended last year, or a title you've flirted with in a bookstore on more than one occasion, or maybe it's a book that's sitting right there on your bookshelf, patiently waiting for you to pick it up -- but the thought is always there, in the back of your mind: Why haven't I read this yet?
This week, tell us about a book (or books) you have been meaning to read. What is it? How long have you wanted to read it? And, why haven't you read it yet?
My bookshelves are filled with books I’ve been meaning to read. But for this question, I think I’ll focus on three well-known classics that I’ve managed to put off for awhile now.
These three novels are all sitting on my bookshelf. Anna Karenina has been sitting there the longest, a gift from a co-worker that I’ve always felt like I should read. I’ve even started it. It’s just so daunting.
Lolita has only been a resident of the bookshelf for the past few months. It’s one of those books that is referred to so often that I almost feel like I’ve already read it. Same goes for Dracula. I bought both books because I wanted to experience the full story, rather than just guess at the rest of the story every time I see mention of either of the books.
I do plan to read Lolita next month, in honor of Banned Books Week. And Dracula seems appropriate for October. But who knows when I’ll get around to finishing Anna Karenina.
Anyone up for a read-along?
Saturday, August 22, 2009
Me: Single novel, looking for one interested reader. Published in 2004, 224 pages. Interested in trains, wordy prose, and not a lot of dialogue. Some people call me a modern classic.
You: Interested in reading me. Leave a comment and maybe you’ll get lucky.