Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Teahouse Fire

The Teahouse Fire, by Ellis Avery

"A sweeping debut novel drawn from a history shrouded in secrets about two women-one American, one Japanese-whose fates become entwined in the rapidly changing world of late-nineteenth-century Japan."

Sounds promising, doesn't it? In spite of some lukewarm Goodreads reviews, I thought the book was worth a risk. It started off interesting, with French girl Aurelia arriving in New York with her single mother to live with her priest uncle. She ends up going to Japan with her uncle to convert a "heathen" Japan. Ultimately, she becomes adopted by a Japanese family who treats her as a servant girl, but all she's ever knowin in her life is service.

Yukako, the young woman who discovers Aurelia and takes her under her wing, is the daughter of a great tea ceremony master. Much of the book is about the ancient art of tea ceremony and how it evolves, particularly with the passing of the Shogun and the ushering in of the Meiji era modernizations.

Aurelia leads a sad life...she's not only lost her mother--the only person she ever loved--but she also is shunned and misunderstood as a foreigner living in Japan in this time. Yukako comes across as a strong, stubborn woman who uses her limited place in the family to bring reforms and save the tea dynasty. But she's not incredibly likable. It's fascinating to consider how little has changed in Japan since this novel's setting. Although women have more options now than they did then, Japanese culture is still strongly rooted in patriarchy.

The Teahouse Fire, obviously meticulously researched, gets bogged down in too many details and characters. I found it difficult to get into and was looking forward to its end. So ultimately, disappointing.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Shutter Island

Shutter Island, by Dennis Lehane

This is the type of book that totally screws with your mind. If you don't like such books, steer clear.

I didn't know much about it when I started it (except that it was a movie and by the author of Mystic River), so I was not aware that this would be the case.

I like Lehane's writing style and the book drew me in immediately.

When I finished the book, I wasn't absolutely positive what was true in the end. I suppose that's because I don't usually read these noir types of books and am not the sort of reader who tries to figure things out and look for clues along the way.

I'm intrigued enough by Lehane's writing and creativity to try another one of his. If you like psychological thrillers, you will probably like this one. Creepy and haunting!

This Beautiful Life

This Beautiful Life, by Helen Schulman

Not to be confused with Vicki Forman's wonderful memoir, This Lovely Life, This Beautiful Life contains characters who are difficult to like.

Jake Bergamot, 15, goes to an unchaperoned party where a 13-year-old, Daisy, flirts outrageously with him. He ends up becoming entangled with her that alcohol-soaked evening--he's flattered, they're both lonely--until his friends appear and mock him for robbing the cradle. He shrugs her off, telling her that she's too young for him.

Then the next day an ex-rated video Daisy had made arrives in his e-mail. Shocked and a bit flattered, Jake sends the video to his best friend, who forwards it to a few other friends, and then--you guessed it--it goes viral. Jake gets kicked out of school, and his family gets a lawyer.

Jake's parents, the highly educated but unfulfilled stay-at-home mom Liz and his workaholic, detached father Richard react to the situation in different ways. His younger sister, Coco, becomes neglected as their family dynamics spiral out of control.

This book explores the changing technology landscape for teenagers. Nowadays when teenagers make a mistake, if any of it is on the Internet, it never goes away. Adolescence is loaded with pitfalls.

As mom of a teenager, this book freaked me out a bit. Even though my son is not a partier and would not be likely to receive such a video, you just never know. It did give me an opener to share with him the plot of the book. He responded immediately that he would never forward such a video...but you know...teenage boys. They're prone to impulsiveness without thinking through a situation's consequences.

The story is set in an upper-class private school in New York City. The other thing I realized while reading this book is just how out of place and stifled I would feel in such an environment.

Jake's mom, Liz, sees him as the victim and Daisy as the evil girl who wrecked his life. I've heard similar tendencies in other moms of sons. She's annoying, as she is meant to be. She realizes, somehow, that she should be able to respond in a different way to what is going on, but she cannot.

Consequently, her son is left floundering on his own, without a real friend or comfort in the world. I would hope that it would be different if such a thing were to happen in my own family, but teenage boys can certainly be difficult to reach.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Miss New India

Miss New India, by Bharati Mukherjee

I picked this up at the library, intrigued by the premise and undeterred by the lukewarm (and sometimes outright negative) reviews on Goodreads. A novel about Bangalore, call centers, and the new Indian woman? Sure--sounds promising. I've read other Mukherjee novels and liked them, so I thought this was worth a try.

Sadly, this was not a winner. The main character, Anjali, is not likable and she's completely shallow...which I could live with, perhaps, if I cared anything about what happened to these characters. Once she made it to Bangalore, I lost track of some of the characters--they just were not drawn vividly enough--and then when the Bagehot House fell, I began skimming.

Why were all these people helping her? Anjali was ungrateful, not particularly talented, and lackadaisical, but everything seemed to go her way in the end, which seemed too good to be true.

Minnie, Anjali's obnoxiously snobby landlady, reminded me of a woman who ran a hostel in Jaipur, India. I believe she was Anglo-Indian as well. I remember that she "kindly" invited us to stay to dinner. The next morning when we were ready to leave, she presented us with an exorbitant bill for that dinner!

This book could have been so much better. I'm fascinated with the idea of the new India, but this was an uneven, shoddy attempt for a well-known and accomplished author. Disappointing.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Descendants

The Descendants, by Kaui Hart Hemmings

After seeing the movie before reading the book, I could not get George Clooney as Matt King out of my head. That's not a bad thing. :) I had dragged my dear hubby to see "The Descendants" when we stayed at the Sylvia Beach Hotel in March, and we cried through the movie. I didn't cry during the book...guess that is the difference between a book and a movie (except in the case of Wonder, which had me crying throughout).

This book, expanded from a short story, was beautifully written. Hemmings has a keen understanding of the way teenagers think and act (especially those who do not get enough affection or guidance from their parents!). The book is stronger than the movie in that we get to understand Matt's inner life and motivations. His transformation is a bit deeper and more understandable in the book for that reason.

It clearly is a novel of place. Hawaii is ever present, as is its culture, history, and tensions between native Hawaiians and white people. Hemmings also handles the concepts of death and grief in a sensitive, loving, and realistic way.

Most of the colorful characters are not particularly likable, but I liked this book anyway. Joanie is in a coma, but we get a sense of her (I would probably have liked her even less if she had been conscious). Matt grows from a man who is uncomfortable with affection into one who comes to appreciate his family and what he has...a man who can actually say "I love you" to daughters who are completely unaccustomed to hearing that from anyone.

Just had to throw in a few photos from the movie because. Well, George Clooney.