Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Wishing Trees:

The Wishing Trees, by John Shors

I'm a huge John Shors fan, having now read four out of the five novels he's published. I feel an affinity for Shors, since he got engaged to his wife while they were teaching in Japan (similar to my situation with Mike). I especially loved Beneath a Marble Sky and Beside a Burning Sea, and I've recommended those books to (and purchased them for) many friends.

When I began this book, I felt emotionally affected and a bit drained by it. Ian is an Australian businessman living in New York, and he has recently lost his beloved wife Kate to cancer. Like the author and like me, Kate and Ian met while teaching in Japan and traveled throughout Asia. Several months after Kate's death, Ian reads a letter Kate had written for his birthday, in which she urges him to take their 10-year-old daughter Mattie on a journey back to the countries where they had traveled together. It made me think about my own life and how blessed I am to have an intact, healthy family. Mike and I have always talked about returning to Japan and other Asian countries someday and hope to show our children some of our old haunts, so it felt more than a little bit eerie to read about someone who had died and never got to make the return trip with her child.

Ian and Mattie travel to Japan, Nepal, Thailand, India, Hong Kong, Vietnam, and Egypt, and open messages from Kate along the way. They meet local people, helping some along the way (such as a Thai sex worker and an Indian orphan in Varanasi). I enjoyed the descriptions of Japan, India, Hong Kong, and Thailand the most, as those were the countries we also visited. I remember visiting the picturesque, nearly abandoned island of Koh Samet and spending a few luxurious, idyllic days on a beach. (I'm sure it's changed dramatically since 1987!)

In a nutshell, here are my criticisms of the book: Ian and Mattie (and in fact, Kate) are far too perfect. They didn't seem like realistic people to me. They are absolutely soaked in grief, which I know is very real when you have lost a loved one...but at times it got excessive. Ian is furious at Kate for asking him to return to the places they'd traveled with Mattie, and he goes on and on about that. I would think he would want to honor his beloved wife's last dying wish. Also, Ian's Australian lingo was over the top. I am married to a Brit and I know a lot of Australians (including my sister-in-law), and they don't talk like this, saying "good onya," "bloody," "fancy," "ankle biter," and "walkabout" constantly. Ian's expressions got bloody annoying after awhile.

Shors is an excellent descriptive writer, and he evokes the senses as he describes each of these different countries. He also writes sensitively about profound grief, especially from a man's perspective (feeling like he took his wife for granted and spent too much time at the office). I enjoyed reading about the interactions Ian and Mattie have with the locals, such as a Japanese teacher and Peace Corps workers in Nepal. The story of Rupee (the Indian orphan) seemed a bit unresolved--why was the orphanage director not responding to Ian's e-mails?
The ending was patently predictable, so don't read this book if you like to be surprised at the end.

In conclusion, The Wishing Trees was not the best of Shors' books, but I'm glad I read it. It brought back wonderful memories of my own travel and it gave me a renewed appreciation for my own loved ones.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

How to start a great book group

Okay, so I guess that sounds pompous, since I helped start our book group...but it is great! Here's how we started our great book group:

A little over a year ago, my friend Kristin had the bright idea to start a book group and it didn't take too long to convince me. Mike and I were in a book group before we had children, and although I enjoyed it, I often felt that I had to shout to be heard. (It was a coed group.) Also, it seemed like the loudest people had their books chosen to be read.

So we each selected three female friends who were fun, vivacious readers and fully interested in engaging in lively conversation. We did not consider anyone who might hog the conversation or be pushy.

On the first evening we gathered, we discussed the following:
  • Personal introductions (name, hometown, family, occupation, hobbies, favorite types of books)
  • What each person hoped to get out of the group
  • Previous experiences with book groups, positive and negative
  • Frequency and time and place of meeting
  • Food and beverages
  • Book selection process
  • Book discussion (would we have someone lead the discussion or do reseach?)
  • Group size
  • Other items to consider (e.g., what to do if someone hasn't read the book, or should we have a name like my friend's group, the Wild Women's Literary Society?)
I know everyone made fun of me that first night, because I arrived with my list of questions for us to discuss. I like to approach such things in an organized way! (If you are wanting to start your own book group, you can e-mail me and I'll send you my detailed list of questions.) Last December we had our first holiday book exchange, and we did it Yankee Swap style.

We've been meeting for over a year now, and we've lost a few members along the way who were not able to make the commitment because of other things in their lives. We recently added three new members. Last night we had all of us here for the first time, perhaps ever, plus our three new members! We're all moms (of at least two kids), and one of us is a grandma. Two are married to Brits and one is a Brit. We are nursing professors,  lawyers, and marketing or publications professionals.

December's book was Bel Canto, which led to our best book discussion so far--first, because of the richness of the story and the writing, and second, because more people mean more perspectives. I had a much better appreciation for the book after hearing how others interpreted various plot elements. I love lively, illuminating conversation about books!

At the end of the evening, we exchanged our books. This year we drew names at Tina's suggestion, allowing us to tailor our choices to fit the recipient's taste. This proved trickier than initially thought because of our three new members. (The rest of us have gotten a pretty clear idea of each other's preferences.)

Caley opening her book

"I've never read this!"

The best part of our book exchange was that not one of us had read the book she received. Not one! And we are a prolific group of readers!
Here's what we received:
Tina: The Friday Night Knitting Club by Kate Jacobs (Kim didn't know if she'd read it or not, so she brought a backup: Breaking the Cycle of Low Self-Esteem!)
Nicola: The Closed Circle by Jonathan Coe
Michelle: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by JK Rowling (Caley took a calculated risk in choosing that one, but Michelle--whose first book group meeting was last night--was one of only three people in the group who have not read HP!)
Kim: The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
Kristin: Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett
Gitte: Room by Emma Donoghue
Jolie: Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn
Caley: All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriott
Me: The Tenth Muse: My Life in Food by Judith Jones (Kristin, who drew my name, very cleverly searched my blog to find out if I had read the book)
The Slipper Muses with our books
Until we come up with a better name...how about the Slipper Muses? The inspiration for that name--taking off on the Tenth Muse--is the fact that many of us bring our slippers to our meetings, making ourselves at home!

Friday, December 9, 2011

Bel Canto: Lyrical and poignant

Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett

Based on a real terrorism crisis in Peru in 1996 and 1997, Bel Canto takes place in an "unidentified South American country."

American opera diva Roxane Coss is invited to sing at the birthday party of a Japanese company president, Mr. Hosokawa. As the dignitaries are socializing after dinner, a group of terrorists storm in and take the guests hostage. Over the next few months, the terrorists relax their harsh grip and the hostages become complacent. Some of them actually begin to believe they could live together forever. Some fall in love across nationalities, and one romance takes place between terrorist and hostage.

Apparently Patchett knew nothing about opera before writing this book. I'm not necessarily an opera lover, so at times I found it a bit far-fetched that people would put aside all rational thought when they listening to a gifted opera singer. I also found it difficult to believe how two people who cannot communicate at all verbally would fall in love with each other. When I lived in Japan, I had one ill-fated date with a young Japanese surfer, and the language gap was impossible. Yes, with love we can conquer great things, but is it really possible to fall in love with another person if you are unable to use words at all? I found that difficult to swallow.

I found the book's other romance to be more thoughtful and inspiring...a bit of Stockholm Syndrome perhaps, but in this book some of the terrorists are presented as flawed, sensitive human beings, prone to wanting a little bit of love and affection.

Patchett handled the Japanese culture well...for example, Gen's difficulty in saying "I love you," even while just translating it for someone else. It's not done in Japan to proclaim one's love or show romantic feelings in public. Even though Gen was a cosmopolitan man, he was still Japanese at his core. In addition, Mr. Hosokawa's ending up in a loveless marriage...feeling like he was just going through the paces of his life without feeling anything. I believe that many Japanese businessmen feel this way.

Even though the house contained many hostages, we only get to know a few of them. That, perhaps, was a weakness of the novel. I wouldn't have wanted her to spend more time on individual stories, but it might have helped to have a greater sense of what others were experiencing during those several months of captivity.

The ending is...well, disappointing, especially if you're a true romantic. It's clear that the book is not going to end well but instead, it ends weirdly. I don't really understand why Patchett chose to end it the way she did.

Bel Canto is Ann Patchett's most famous and highly regarded book. It is a beautifully written novel, but at times I found my attention wandering a bit. All things being equal, I think I enjoyed State of Wonder more.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

You Believers: Inspired by true story

You Believers, by Jane Bradley
Chilling, but moving

I didn't realize that You Believers was based on true characters until after I'd finished the book. It's about people who are lost and people who seek: damaged souls who take revenge on other people for their own hurt...grieving ones who lose their loved ones...and generous, dedicated people who dedicate their lives to finding the lost ones.

Shelby Waters is a professional seeker--she runs a volunteer organization that finds people who are lost. Livy's daughter Katy Conner gets nabbed in a parking lot by two young punks who met in juvenile hall. Jessie is a psychopath, and he's recruited his less intelligent friend, Mike, to help him. Jane Bradley has an uncanny ability to give us a glimpse into the psychopath's twisted mind, and even give us a tiny bit of sympathy for him (that's until we realize what he's done).

The characters all have their flaws and are battling their own demons, including Katy, who was drawn to the bad boys and the wild side of life.

Warning: this book contains a disturbing rape scene, although it's handled in a way to show the strength of the victim.

After I finished reading this moving story of loss and redemption set in the south, I looked up Jane Bradley online and was fascinated to discover that she was compelled to write this book after she met the people who inspired the characters of Livy (the mom) and Shelby (the seeker). Livy was reeling after the abduction of Peggy Carr, who was abducted in broad daylight from a shopping mall parking lot in Wilmington, North Carolina. Monica Caison, a volunteer seeker, found Carr's body 7 months after she went missing.

Bradley was compelled to write Peggy Carr's story (and that of her mother and seeker), and her novel is a beautiful memorial in honor of all three of those women.