Saturday, October 29, 2011

Midnight at the Dragon Cafe: Chinese girl in small Ontario town

Midnight at the Dragon Cafe
by Judy Yong Bates

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

As a small child, Su-Jen arrives in a small town outside of Toronto to live with her father, whom she has never met. She and her mother have immigrated from Hong Kong, much to her mother's dismay. Su-Jen (or Annie, her Canadian name) feels completely caught between cultures as the only Chinese child in her small town in the 1960s (her parents run the one Chinese restaurant). She's constantly walking the fine line between being a good Chinese girl and growing up as a Canadian.

Bates based her story on her own life experience...she too came to Canada as a girl. As she drove through Canadian small towns, she couldn't help but wonder what life would be like as the only Chinese family in town.

When Su-Jen's brother comes to stay, the family's staid but settled life gets thrown into disarray. Her mother's deep unhappiness comes to light, in addition to her father's willingness (and the Chinese cultural approach) to overlook unpleasant things to maintain peace and face.

Bates beautifully describes the life of an immigrant child who is always caught in the middle, feeling as if she never fits in anywhere. She desperately wants to try out for the lead role in a school play until one of her friends tells her that a Chinese person would never get the lead role. She opts to be in the chorus instead of trying out.

Su-Jen's mother is a woman trapped by her beauty, bitterness, and lack of choices. A woman with a child in the 1960s--either Chinese or from another country--did not have many options beyond finding a man to take care of her. Stories about people feeling trapped in their lives, deeply unfilled and unhappy, make me sad.

Ultimately, the secrets fall out, as they always do. Su-Jen realizes that secrets can cause anguish and pain, but so can revealing them.

Friday, October 21, 2011

A Wild Ride Up the Cupboards: A family torn apart by loss

A Wild Ride Up the Cupboards, by Ann Bauer
My rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Goodreads doesn't allow half stars, but I can do whatever I want on my blog, right? I love the title of Bauer's debut novel. It is a term used to describe the protagonist's uncle and the way his older brother would play with him until he died suddenly of scarlet fever.

At the center of this book is Edward, a boy who begins to withdraw at age four. His mom, Rachel, and dad, Jack, try to figure out what is happening to seems like autism, but it isn't...and they resort to extreme lengths to try to help him.

Rachel also discovers that her uncle, Mickey, who died before she was born, had similarities to young Edward. Bauer alternates her chapters between Rachel's story and that of Mickey, whose life changed dramatically when his beloved older brother died.

Many readers have found it jarring to go back and forth between perspectives, and often I dislike that as well...but I didn't have a problem with it in this book. In fact, I liked the parts about Mickey.

My qualms about the book were that I found it difficult to relate to the parents and their choices...I found their anguish about their son's situation to be touching and tragic, but at the same time I felt that Bauer skimped on describing what drew them together and what they were like as human beings. This story is apparently based on Bauer's own life (one of her sons went through a similar type of withdrawal, and she too was scammed by the Israeli mafia!), and she writes of great fondness for the character Jack. However, I've never known anyone like Jack and I found it hard to understand how someone could be in love with such a person.

The end felt vaguely unsatisfying. Whatever became of Edward (and Bauer's own son)? Did they ever discover what was wrong with him? Did Rachel even care about her marriage? (For even though Bauer says Jack was her favorite character, I didn't sense that with Rachel.)

Bauer effectively describes the anxiety and feelings of loss for a parent who has a child with special needs. I could relate when Rachel became angry and envious at the easy success of "normal" children, or when her best friend's cat dies and the friend compares that to the loss of a child. This novel contained many moments of poignancy and effectiveness. I wish I had felt more fondness for the characters.

Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee

Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee
My Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

First of all, Charles J. Shields deserves kudos for tackling such an elusive subject. This is not an authorized biography of Nelle Harper Lee, because of course Lee would not respond to any of Shields' many requests for interviews or information.

He admits in his introduction that he had to rely heavily on the internet, library archives, and unorthodox methods (such as pretending to be one of Lee's college alums and obtaining a mailing list of her classmates). Consequently, I found myself pondering at some of his editorial choices and questioning why he included some of what he did. At times, it seemed like filler. As a result, as far as biographies go, I've read better.

Given the fact that we know so little about Lee's life and motivations, however, this book is a great addition to the Mockingbird canon. Shields, a former English teacher, writes extensively about Lee's friendship with Truman Capote and her childhood in Alabama. The only Capote work I've read is In Cold Blood, although I wasn't aware at the time that Lee assisted him so extensively in the research and writing (and did not receive any credit...apparently because he was envious of Lee's award of the Pulitzer prize).

Shields speculates about Lee's strained relationship with her mother and the fact that she never wrote another book. Again, he must rely on word of mouth, news articles and rare interviews, and guesswork. As a result, I found myself questioning the accuracy. I thought it was tacky and disrespectful that he revealed the name of the Monroeville, Alabama, restaurant where Lee and her sister Alice enjoy eating on a regular basis. We all know she is a woman who values her privacy.

In the end, this book is a fond remembrance of Lee--clearly, Shields has immense respect for his subject. She seemed exceedingly uncomfortable with the trappings of fame and the expectations of writers (to continue to produce). But Shields concludes that Lee has come to peace with her life. Soon after To Kill a Mockingbird was published, Lee wrote to friends, "People who have made peace with themselves are the people I admire most in the world." Shields, too, had to make peace with the lack of his personal insight about Lee, because of her reclusiveness.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

To Kill a Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

I believe I first read To Kill a Mockingbird in high school or college, and since that time the iconic images of the movie with Gregory Peck have replaced my memories of the book.

My book group chose Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee as its October book, and I thought my reading would be enriched by rereading the great classic that rocketed Harper Lee to fame...especially since last week was Banned Books Week (and To Kill a Mockingbird is always on those lists).

Now that I'm older and wiser, I have a greater understanding for how remarkable this book is. First of all, the fact that it was Harper Lee's first novel (and only one, as it turns out). Second, the fact that Lee grew up in a small, insular southern town and had such vision and empathy for the underprivileged. As most people know, many of the characters are based on her own life...she based Scout on herself, Dill on her best friend Truman Capote, and Atticus on her own father. Many of the minor characters, too, are based on people she knew in small-town Monroeville, Alabama.

After reading The Help so recently, I couldn't help but compare the two novels...both are Southern stories told from the white perspective, although Mockingbird was based in the 1930s rather than the 1960s. In spite of the 30-year time difference, the incidents and environment didn't seem all that different. A black man in Alabama wouldn't have gotten a fair trial in the 1960s either, as we know. Somehow, I found To Kill a Mockingbird so much richer and genuine than The Help...perhaps because Kathryn Stockett was trying to write a story in the viewpoint of a white person, yet came off as condescending and one-dimensional (certainly not her intention). As Lee writes in Scout's childish viewpoint, it's clear that she's naive and is learning the ways of the world.
The film Scout and Atticus
I love Scout's character, in particular because she was such a great feminist at such an unlikely age and place. She simply did not get why girls had to be all prissy and proper when it was more fun to climb trees, read books, and play outside. To Kill a Mockingbird is a great novel on so many levels: it's a loving portrait of the American South, in spite of its evil side. It's a story of deep childhood friendship and sibling relationships, and it's a tale of justice, wisdom, and acceptance of people who are different from ourselves.

One thing that stood out to me: early on, Scout describes the fact that she has no mother, and says "Our mother died when I was two, so I never felt her absence." Harper Lee had a strained relationship with her own mother, partly because she didn't fit the feminine archetype and partly because her mother suffered from what appeared to be mental illness (possibly bipolar). To cut the mother out of the story was a convenient choice, and to say that she never felt her absence because she died when Scout was two is an interesting (and unrealistic) thought. I'm not sure whether Lee honestly did not think that this kind of death would not have an impact on a child, or whether she was conveying Scout's ignorance. At any rate, this seemed off to me. Clearly, the family's African-American maid, Calipurnia, filled that motherhood hole for Scout and Jem, and fortunately they had a wise, loving, and attentive father.
Scout, Jem, and Boo (movie)
Knowing that Lee's mother suffered from mental illness, it makes me view the character of Boo Radley differently as well. Perhaps Lee was trying to portray mental illness in a sympathetic way because of what her own mother experienced?

I will most likely have more observations about this novel as I make my way through Mockingbird. I greatly enjoyed my rereading of this classic, and now I want to see the movie again!

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Mink River: Interesting piece of Northwest Prose

Mink River by Brian Doyle
My rating: 3 out of 5 stars
This was another one of those Multnomah County Library's books labeled "Lucky Day! Hot titles! Available now--2 at a time for 3 weeks." It's the second time in recent weeks I've been lured in like that (the other was the Pat Conroy novel, South of Broad). I guess I am suckered in by thinking I'm the fortunate timing that finds me at the library when these books happen to be available. Pretty funny, eh? I have heard of Brian Doyle--he's the editor of Portland Monthly and has even spoken as a guest speaker at our church--and I like reading literature by Northwest writers, so I thought I'd take a look. Goodreads reviewers give Mink River 4.33 stars, and my friend Jeannette gave it 4 stars. After I read endorsements on the front and back of the book by David James Duncan and Molly Gloss, I had to dive in.

Doyle is a gifted writer, and without his lyrical gifts and the fact that he's well known in Portland literary circles, this book might have had a difficult time finding a publisher. Mink River is a story of a coastal Oregon town, Neawanaka, and its quirky inhabitants. Think "Northern Exposure" in Oregon rather than Alaska (even though that priceless TV series was actually filmed in Washington).

The book begins with a grandfather oral storytelling into a tape recorder for his grandson, and that's the style throughout the book. We follow the richly detailed characters' loves, losses, and lives. Some are known only as "the doctor," "the nun," "the priest," and "the man who sold boxes." The Irish and Native American people's lives are woven carefully together, along with their traditions. Crows and bears speak.

At the beginning of the book, I reveled in the poetic writing and colorful descriptions of the people and the town. I found myself cheering for Worried Man, Cedar, Daniel, Owen, No Horses, and Maple Head. I thought that Mink River would be a suitable modern replacement for Sometimes a Great Notion as the great Oregon novel. But then I got to the middle...and I actually thought about giving up on the novel.

The middle sags with near-complete lack of plot. At best, the plot is secondary to the setting and the characters. But I need a plot in a novel, even a poetic one. Fortunately, he gets back into the loosely plotted story toward the end...just in time to deliver a satisfying ending to these characters' stories.

As the Oregonian put it, "Doyle's storytelling style is one a reader needs to accept, trust, and ride--he has a penchant for quick takes, long sentences, short chapters, and an interjecting narrator. Words are occasionally welded together to get toward something, like the 'bittersweetorangeyellowacidic' taste of a salmonberry. The strength of the novel lies in Doyle's ability to convey the delicious vibrancy of people and the quirky whorls that make life a complex tapestry. He is absolutely enchanted by stories, with the zeal and talent to enchant others."

A few pages from the end of the book, Doyle seems to acknowledge the eccentricity of his writing style...through the words of Moses, the talking crow: "Human people...think that stories have beginnings and middles and ends, but we crow people know that stories just wander on and on and change form and are reborn again and again...stories are not only words, you know. Words are just the clothes that people drape on stories."

Mink River is like a crow story--perhaps that is why Moses the crow is featured on the cover. It's an excellent addition to the Northwest canon, but truth be told, I'm ready to move on to a more traditionally written book!