Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan

"Was the painting meant to depict a feeling of hope or was it hopelessness?...The painting reminded me of those illusions that changed as you turned them upside down or sideways."

If you enjoy books that transport you into another time, place and culture then I think you will enjoy Amy Tan's most recent novel, The Valley of Amazement. However, if you're anything like me, you might think the title sounds a little too 'fantastic' at first. I actually avoided reading the book for that reason, when it was first published, even though I have enjoyed three of Amy Tan's earlier novels (The Joy Luck Club, The Kitchen God's Wife, and The Bonesetter's Daughter). Trust me, the title really is essential to the plot..

Amy Tan is a master storyteller- her language and prose are simply beautiful- and her novels always contains plenty of historically accurate details and context. I enjoy books that fill in the gaps of my knowledge and this one certainly did. I learned so much about the inner workings of finest courtesan houses of old Shanghai as well as, the political and cultural upheaval that enveloped China as the country transitioned from an imperial dynasty to a Republic.

The major themes here deal with the complex nature of mother-daughter relationships, love, betrayal, family secrets and the search for identity. I found the characters to be well-developed, credible and memorable. I should caution you, however, that there's a fair amount of explicit sexual content within these pages. And while it is appropriate within the context of the story, some readers might find it offensive; others might think it's tantalizing.

The story begins in 1912 in Shanghai and ends forty years later. The narrator, Violet is the half Chinese daughter of an American woman who also happens to be the madam of one of the finest courtesan houses in Shanghai. In the opening paragraph,Violet says, "When I was seven I knew exactly who I was: a thoroughly American girl by race, manners and speech, whose mother, LuLu Mintern, was the only white woman who owned a first-class courtesan house in Shanghai." Such certainty was soon disrupted when Violet is abruptly separated from her mother and her whole world is turned upside down. And so begins Violet's heartbreaking journey of self-discovery, survival and reconciliation. If you like stories about strong, resourceful and clever women you will love the women in this book. 

At 600 pages this book is not a light read, nor is it quick, but I thoroughly enjoyed it and think it's one of Amy Tan's best so far.

Saturday, November 08, 2014

The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Stedman

     The Light Between Oceans is about a man, Tom, who served in World War I and returns to Australia broken by the horrors of war. He feels guilt because he is alive while so many others aren't, and remorse for the things he had to do to survive the battlefield. He gets a job as a lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock, off the western coast, and meets a young woman who becomes his bride while on shore leave.
     Unfortunately, his wife Isabel, suffers a series of miscarriages that casts a dark shadow over their lives. It's on the heels of her third lost pregnancy that a boat washes ashore. There is a live baby and a dead man aboard. Out of desperation and grief, Isabel convinces Tom that they should keep the baby, a "gift from God." The rest of the story follows their lives and how their secret unfolds, casting it's net over friends, family, and strangers alike.
     This is a debut novel and it's very well done. I enjoyed descriptions of life on the lighthouse. Steadman deftly conveys the complications and contradictions of the human heart and leaves the reader wondering what they would have done in Isabel or Tom's place. I'll need to sit a while with this one, because there was a lot of meaning woven into each character's history and backstory.
     Overall, I'd recommend this one. It's an interesting treatise on lost people and how we can be found by others, how we can start anew. Also, if you don't feel up to reading but the story sounds interesting, just wait a bit. It's in production at Dreamworks Studio, starring Michael Fassbender and Rachel Weisz, to drop a few names...ahem.

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Bunker Hill by Nathaniel Philbrick

Some of our understanding of history may be similar to Bluto Blutarski's rant in "Animal House" about who attacked Pearl Harbor.  When it comes to the battle of Bunker Hill most of us know it began at the beginning of the American Revolution and that's about it.  If you want the politics, social pressures and sometimes a day by day account of the time from just before to a bit after that fateful battle, this book is for you.

If you are not familiar with Philbrick, a number of his books have focused on New England, from the Pilgrim's colonization of the area to the whaling ship that was the basis for the story of Moby Dick.  He tends to give about as much detail as he can find on the event in a reasonably good narrative that can sometimes be a little much but at other times is quite compelling.  This book is no different.

He presents a theory that neither the Boston Massacre nor Lexington and Concord should be considered the beginning of the revolution, but the battle called Bunker Hill, even though most of the battle itself was on an adjacent rise called Breed's Hill.  Since he gives a good account of the events leading up to the massacre and then each major event thereafter, you can make your own conclusion. I think he makes his case and gives a very good understanding of why each event occurred,  its degree of importance at the time, and the longer term effect it had on the colonies and their slow merging into a nation.

When we learn of these type of things in school, the events seem to plod along with a certain inevitability and are conducted by individuals painted only in black and white.  In Philbrick's telling, the British just want the colonists of New England to dial it back a bit and did so by treating the North Americans with much more leniency and understanding than was the case with their other colonies.  In turn, the colonists who pushed the matter into revolution were not purely idealists but individuals for whom almost any degree of control or outside government was too much.  The revolution's success was not a foregone conclusion, but the events at the very beginning of the revolution set the country up for possible success.  It's a worthwhile read.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Complications A Surgeon's Notes on an Imperfect Science by Atul Gawande

Dr. Gawande presents an unvarnished account of doctors learning and practicing medicine in this relatively short book ( 252 pages in paperback). He hits on many topics but arranges them into three broad categories; fallibility, mystery, and uncertainty.  We all want our surgeons to be infallible, understand everything they are dealing with and certain of their diagnosis and technique. In chapter after lucid and compelling chapter, we understand how doctors learn yet can never fully understand the workings of the body and how they decline with age or condition. Each chapter is a true story of a medical situation and some of them, especially the ones about what we don't understand about how the body works, go beyond interesting to fascinating. 
Given our society's litigious culture when it comes to poor outcomes in medicine, this is a most unexpected book from any medical doctor, let alone a practicing surgeon.  We know medical procedures can be less than perfect and yet it is seldom discussed in other than adversarial language. All of us interact with doctors over time and should view them rationally, yet part of the doctor's ability to heal rests with our faith in expecting a positive outcome from whatever it is they do.  I'm in a book club of retirees, and some have had serious health issues over the years.  I thought I'd recommend this book as one of our monthly selections, then changed my mind.  Not because it's not very good (it is quite good) but because it may be a little too good when discussing a topic most of us would just as soon not think about too much.  Having said that, I'd still recommend it to everyone.  You will still trust your doctor, you'll just do it with eyes more open.