Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Chosen One

The Chosen OneThe Chosen One, by Carol Lynch Williams

As I'm recovering from another ear surgery, I decided to try out some young adult books in the hopes that they would retain my attention better. Pain meds combined with pain and fatigue after surgery tend to make it difficult for me to spend much time reading. I was very proud of myself that I finished the novel I was reading after my surgery!

I picked up The Chosen One by pulling it off the shelf at the library and reading the book jacket. It's the story of Kyra, who is the second-oldest daughter of her father, who has three wives. She is a member of The Chosen Ones, a fundamentalist Mormon, polygamist compound, which is tightly run by the dictator, "Prophet" Childs.

The prophet has decreed that Kyra, at age 13, will marry her Uncle Hyrum, older brother to her own father (in his 60s, with three wives), in four weeks. Although her father is against it, the family has no choice. He's too scared to resist. The prophet rules the compound with an iron, violent hand, forbidding anyone from reading or disobeying his orders. He threatens Kyra's father that he will take his entire family away from him if he cannot get Kyra to marry Uncle Hyrum. I couldn't help but think of the slimy, evil prophet in the polygamous compound in the TV show "Big Love."

Kyra has her own love interest: a boy her own age, named Joshua, who wants to marry Kyra. She also sneaks away to take books out from the bookmobile that goes past the compound each week. Kyra must decide if she will leave her own family forever to be free. Either choice has enormously heavy consequences, not just for her but for the people who help her.

Monday, July 15, 2013

The Street of a Thousand Blossoms

The Street of a Thousand Blossoms, by Gail Tsukiyama

In this WWII- and post-war-era story that takes place in Japan, two orphaned brothers were growing up with their grandparents. Tall, strong Hiroshi is drawn to the tradition of sumo, while younger, sensitive Kenji wants to be an artisan and create masks for the Noh theater. When the war hits, their plans are put on hold.

This sweeping saga covers 30 years and several parts of Kenji and Hiroshi's eventual families. Gail Tsukiyama, who is part Japanese and part Chinese, paints a clear picture of what it was like to live in Japan during the war. For example, I wasn't aware that Japan had a brutal military police similar to the Stazi, called the Kempeitai. During the bombing raids, all the Japanese had to protect themselves were hand-dug, flimsy bomb shelters in their yards, which were highly ineffective and exposed them to the constant bombings. At the same time that the Japanese military was carrying out horrific abuses and terror throughout Asia, the everyday Japanese people, many of whom did not support the war but could not say so publicly, were suffering as well.

Eventually after the war, Japan began to rebuild itself, and Kenji and Hiroshi were able to pursue their personal passions. They both got married, and Kenji rebuilds his relationship with his Noh mask sensei, who had escaped to the mountains during the war. Much of this book is very sad, as war-time stories often are. Because of my fondness for Japan, I enjoyed learning more about sumo and Noh theater, and perhaps might have a greater appreciation than other readers for the Japanese language and culture woven so artistically through this book.

It doesn't move particularly quickly, but it's beautifully told. It's more of an artistic story than a gripping tale. Kenji and Hiroshi's grandparents are fascinating characters, although I would have liked to have better understood Haru and Aki, daughters of Hiroshi's sumo master. Aki, in particular, was an enigma...both girls were traumatized by what they saw in the war, and Aki never really recovered from this trauma. I also would have liked to know modern, independent Mika (Kenji's wife) better...she was another mystery. She represented a new type of woman in Japan, but how did she come to be that way? We never find out.

For someone who usually writes such strong female characters (I greatly enjoyed Tsukiyama's Women of the Silk and The Language of Threads), I'm surprised that her female characters were lacking substance.

The Street of a Thousand Blossoms is about a changing Japan, and tells stories of how the Japanese were forced to adopt new ways of life and new forms of culture (such as western dress). In spite of modernization, Japan still clings to many forms of its traditional culture, more than most industrialized countries, in fact. For example, women are still not allowed to enter the sumo ring, for fear that the "unclean" women would pollute it with their presence.

I enjoyed this book, but it was not my favorite of Tsukiyama's. I learned a lot of new information about Japan, but I think richer information about the female characters would have made it so much stronger.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Cyndi Lauper: A Memoir

Cyndi Lauper: A Memoir, by Cyndi Lauper with Jancee Dunn

My first memory of Cyndi Lauper was when I was a junior in college, and "Money Changes Everything" was a big hit. In the video, Cyndi Lauper kicks a garbage can...and my roommate and I would blast the music and pretend to kick things. You know...the silly things one does in college!

Then when I was in Japan in the late 1980s, both Cyndi Lauper and Madonna were all the rage. I bought her "True Colors" cassette tape (yes, that's right--that's how old I am) and I loved her unique sense of style, which was appealing to this woman whose mom once told her, "Marie--you have a style all your own!" In that era I had short, spiky hair with a tail (wish I had a photo) and I've always been drawn to colorful clothing. Lauper was a true pioneer in the 1980s, inspiring many of today's edgy artists such as Lady Gaga, Nikki Minaj, and Pink.

Then a few summers ago we went to see Cyndi Lauper perform at the Oregon Zoo after she'd made her blues album, "Memphis Blues." She was a dynamic, compelling, and talented performer, who had essentially reinvented herself as a blues singer. She even had blues legend Charlie Musselwhite on tour with her. When she sang "True Colors," I cried along with most of the audience.

Cyndi Lauper's memoir is very much like her personality--all over the place. Writer Jancee Dunn manages to capture Lauper's voice and style in her writing. The narrative jumps around a bit, and she digresses, just as Lauper can practically hear her distinctive voice jumping off the page.

She seemed to have a reasonably happy childhood and she was loved by her mom and siblings, but she never really fit in. She ran away when she was in high school because of a lecherous stepfather.  What I admire the most about her is her crazy sense of self-confidence and self-assurance, even at a young age. She took herself off camping in Canada completely alone as a young woman--the only companion she had was her dog Sparkles. She has always been passionately committed to her ideals of justice, and she's also been committed to making great art--both musically and visually.

When she started to get successful and make records (after some awful experiences with some of her initial bands, including once when she was raped by her former bandmates), she was screwed over by record company executives, who wanted to make her into someone else--more marketable and less assertive.

At times, the book digressed into the details of each record production, and I began scanning...but I enjoyed reading about how she met her husband David and had her son, Declyn, after struggling with bad endiometriosis.

She has become a passionate advocate for LGBT justice, beginning with her friendship with Gregory, or "Boy Blue," who died of AIDS in the 1980s. Her beloved sister Elen also is a lesbian. I also learned that she has a strong connection to Japan, and she landed in Japan right after the big earthquake and tsunami and stayed there to give back to the Japanese people, who were mourning the devastation in their country.

I have a much bigger appreciation for Cyndi Lauper's music now...and I'm glad I read this book. Steer clear if you don't like salty language!