Saturday, June 20, 2009

First Love, Family Conflict and Neuroses...

Meh. I am one of those people who gushed about Weiner's first book, Good in Bed, raved about In Her Shoes and fell all over myself to run out and get Little Earthquakes the second it hit the shelves. But I have to say, much as it pains me, the last few books I've read by Weiner have been less than inspired. Which sucks, because when I start to feel attached to an author, like I "get" her and like she can do no wrong (hello, Barbara Kingsolver---write a new novel for me so I can bask in your Barbara Kingsovler-y goodness, pretty please), I am fairly distraught when I read something by them that is unimpresses. I hate to think or speak badly of a favorite writer because truth be told, they're doing a hell of a lot better than I could, so who am I to complain?

But this book just fell a bit flat for me. I loved the premise--the return of Cannie Shapiro, the protagonist of Good in Bed, and her relationship with the child she gives birth to at the end of that novel, Joy, who is now 13 and preparing for her Bat-Mitzvah. The plot focuses around Joy's utter mortification at finding Cannie's published novel, both because of the main character's (based on her own mother) promiscuity and because of the way in which the main character deals emotionally with the news that she is pregnant (with Joy). If teenager doesn't have enough to feel insecure and angst-ridden about normally, reading about how your mom thought her life was over when she found out she was pregnant with you will certainly give you something to talk about in therapy. The subplot is one between Cannie and her husband and their thoughts on expanding their family, a topic complicated by Cannie's lack of a uterus (which she lost upon giving birth to Joy). Sounds like it's going to be an awesome and complex look at family dynamic and the developing sense of self of a teenage girl.

Somewhere along the way, though, the story just got boring to me. I don't know if it was because Cannie, as a character, seemed a million miles away from who she was in the first book and I just didn't care about her as much. Or if it's because I really didn't like Joy (I'm generally not that fond of 13 year olds to begin with---no offense to any 13 year olds out there. It was a tough age for me and I project....). For whatever reason, I felt as though I was trudging through it and it was a big fat bummer to feel that way about a Jennifer Weiner book (although I really wanted to gouge my eyes out while I was reading Goodnight Nobody, so I guess I should just realize now that it's going to be hit or miss for me).

Patricia Marx's Him Her Him Again The End of Him was freaking hilarious. I had no idea it even existed until one of my best friends (who is on a bit of a book-buying jag & I love her for it) sent it to me. It is the story of a wayward graduate student, who isn't even quite sure what her thesis is on, falling in love with the most neurotic, self-obsessed cad this side of...well, anywhere. Marx is a former SNL-writer (which makes it utterly hilarious when her heroine--if you can call her that--takes a job as a writer for a show called Taped, but Proud), and her sense of humor and style of writing reminded me both of Steve Martin (who I adore in a very daddy-complex kind of way) and Woody Allen.

Totally off the wall and bizarre in parts, the story doesn't really invite you into the true hearts of the characters the way most fiction does. But it puts such a spotlight on the neuroses of this wacky people that you can't help but love them (or love to hate them, as is the case with the love interest, Eugene, who is an expert in Ego Studies and teaches a seminar called "Towards a Philosophy of the Number Two".

The utter inaneness (is that a word?) of these peoples' lives, even through career turmoil, lascivious affairs and what may or may not be murder, is what makes this story so hilarious.

Jaime Ford's debut novel will stick with me for a very long time. Set alternately in the mid-1980's and the early 1940's, it is the story of Henry Lee, an aging Chinese man in Seattle, looking back on his first real friendship and love, with a young girl, Keiko, who happened to be Japanese and living in Seattle after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

There is so much in this story--the bitter and heartbreaking conflict between 12 year old Henry and his father, who harbors a passionate hatred against all Japanese. The struggle of his mother to pacify both men in her life, seeming to have no will or beliefs of her own. The friendship, which grows to love, between two outcasts, Henry and Keiko, both sent to an Caucasian school by their parents to enforce the idea of their American identity, while at the same time their cultural backgrounds force them down paths away from each other that seem irreversible.

I often find that it's hardest for me to write about books that I really loved reading and found beautiful and touching. I fear I cannot possibly do it justice with my own meager ramblings. I feel that way about this book. There is such powerful emotion and sacrifice and generosity of spirit and bravery in the main characters of this book that trying to describe fully seems impossible.

The other truly difficult part of this book is, of course, as it is set in the early 1940's and one of it's main characters is Japanese, it deals with the Japanese interment camps set up after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Ford does an amazing job describing the way in which families were rounded up and robbed of their dignity as they are sent to live, first in oversized horse stalls, and then to the permanent camps that they built with their own toil and sweat. This is a part of American history that gets tucked away and ignored by so many educators. When we think about America's crimes against it's own people, we tend to think about the decimation of the Native Americans or the scourge of slavery prior to the Civil War (and even those we don't learn enough about). I don't think I ever heard one word about the Japanese interment when I learned about WWII in the 1980's. I'm glad to see that our country's literature is catching up to it's history and providing that education where our formal education system has fallen short.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Saving Fish From Drowning, Amy Tan

A pious man explained to his followers: "It is evil to take lives and noble to save them. Each day I pledge to save a hundred lives. I drop my net in the lake and scoop out a hundred fishes. I place the fishes on the bank, where they flop and twirl. 'Don't be scared,' I tell those fishes. 'I am saving you from drowning.' Soon enough, the fishes grow calm and lie still. Yet, sad to say, I am always too late. The fishes expire. And because it is evil to waste anything, I take those dead fishes to market and I sell them for a good price. With the money I receive, I buy more nets so I can save more fishes." - Anonymous

Thus starts Amy Tan's novel, Saving Fish From Drowning. Narrated by Bibi Chen (via a medium), who has recently been found dead, of mysterious causes, the story follows a tour group of her friends from the Himalayan mountains to the jungle of Burma. It is a trip she had intended to lead, sharing with her friends her vast knowledge of Chinese and Burmese history, culture and art.

The group decides to go on without her (primarily because they'd lose their deposits if they didn't), and fate twists and turns in all manner of barely believable ways to lead them to a quiet lake in Burma, on which they disappear, taken hostage by a paranoid, but kind-hearted and actually pretty funny, splinter group, hiding from the Burmese officials, the SLORC. Tan creates characters as she always does---sympathetic but so very flawed, and it is impossible to dislike any of them, even as they are grating on each other's (and your) nerves.

Most impressive is that Amy Tan weaves the theme of the introductory quote, the best of intentions leading to the worst of outcomes, into so many levels of her story, that even days after having finished it, I am finding myself saying, "ooooooh. wow."

It wasn't my favorite Tan book; that distinction, I think, will always go to The Joy Luck Club. Part of my the drawback of this book was the unfortunate timing of reading it while I was sick with a cold; so between cold medicine and general ickiness, I am fuzzy on a lot of the details (and some major events) in the book. But it was good and I'm glad I read it, but I'm sure I would have gotten more out of it had I read it when I wasn't hacking up a lung or nodding off between every paragraph.

I'm taking a little bit of a break from substantive reading---I'm going to indulge my Chick Lit craving for the next few weeks or a month, starting with Jennifer Weiner's Certain Girls.