Tuesday, March 30, 2010

19. The Hundred Secret Senses by Amy Tan

There was another Amy Tan book on the shelves of the library at my Spanish university, and as Tan is rapidly ascending to comfort food status in my view (joining the likes of Madeleine L'Engle, L.M.Montgomery, and Louisa May Alcott), I savored this morsel, since who knows when I'll find the next? I liked this book the best yet, so the trend continues, and part of the reason is because there is a significant deviation from previous books. Instead of an uncertain daughter who is alienated from a critical mother with a tragic past, this book is about the relationship between two sisters, told primarily from the point of view of the younger sister, Olivia.

Olvia, or Libby-ah, as her sister Kwan likes to call her, is half-Chinese, half-American, whose Chinese father dies when she is young, leaving his American wife with the revelation that he has another daughter in China, whom he would like her to bring to the States. Instead of exhibiting Chinese criticism and pessimism, Kwan, when she arrives, already 18 years old to Olivia's six, oozes love and affection, as well as stories about ghosts and past lives that frighten young Olivia. The book begins when the sisters are older, and Olivia resents the guilt and obligation that Kwan's kindness nets around her. The story also centers on Olivia's relationship with her estranged husband Simon, a Hawaiian-American who writes ad copy for Olivia's photographs in a public relations business they share.

The book is interspersed with the tales of Kwan's past life as a Hakka mountain girl who finds refuge with white Christian missionaries. The one-eyed girl Nunumu forms a friendship with the American Miss Banner, who isn't really Christian at all, but abandoned by her lover in China, she has nowhere else to go. The story takes place in the late nineteenth century, after China had been divided into spheres of influence and rebellions against foreigners and ethnic minorities were brewing. The story sets a good backdrop to the story in the present life, and within the story, Miss Banner tell stories to entertain people when she is supposed to be translating sermons into Chinese. The blur between reality and fiction occurs more strongly in this book than in any of Tan's others that I've read, but I don't think the reader is really supposed to sort that out, rather to accept it with Chinese resignation in a world that, after all, nobody really understands.

I strongly recommend The Hundred Secret Senses, especially to fans of magical realism and cross-cultural fiction.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

16. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

I wanted this book like a bag of candy. I'd seen it around bookstores in the States, but then I went to see the movie "Los Hombres Que No Amaban Las Mujeres" (Men That Don't Love Women) in Spain. The movie was made in Sweden, but I saw it dubbed in Spanish. I really liked it and was impressed that I was able to understand it fairly well,allowing for my mediocre level of Spanish. The author is Swedish and died, I believe, before his trilogy, beginning with this book, became internationally famous. Anyway, so the movie was good, even though the violent rape scenes are still haunting me. The book, I knew, had to be better. And I was right.

This is a mostly character-driven thriller, maybe a bit predictable in terms of plot, but since I already knew the ending, I couldn't analyze it for that. It also drives home a strong message about the prevalence of abuse of women and the problems of too much government in society and too much corruption in business. It's funny, but you (or I, at least) always think of Sweden as somehow being a happy, rich country above ugly problems like rape or fascism. Not that I really know much about Sweden, just that they're semi-Socialist and doing well financially. But Larsson's characters know a more dangerous, more morally bankrupt society. I'm not saying it presents the Swedish government as evil, I think it also shows the benefits of living in such a generally civilized place.

The "Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" is Lisbeth Salander, labeled a social misfit from childhood, she is saddled with a legal guardian, despite the fact that at age 24, she is a computer genius and earning plenty of money with her skills. Mikhail Blomkvist, a financial reporter, is the primary protagonist, and after falling for a scam that a big company sets up after he tries to investigate their operations,he leaves his magazine Millenium, and is offered a job by Henrik Vanger, head of another powerful corporation who is obsessed with finding the killer of his long-missing niece Harriet.

I've been recommending this book to all of my friends, as it's a fast-paced, enjoyable read, good for distraction, but still making you think a bit about serious issues and a different side of life.

17. La Familia de Pascual Duarte (The Family of Pascual Duarte) by Camilo Jose Cela

This has been my favorite of all my readings for my 20th Century Spanish Lit and Drama class. Jose Cela's novel is creepy and entertaining and simply well put-together. I love subterfuges of authorship and pieces of stories to put together (a la Don Quixote), so this "history" pleased me in that way. The bulk of the novel is written by Pascual Duarte himself, while he is serving a prison sentence for killing a man, which is the only crime of his not explained in the text. Pascual reminded me in some ways of Humbert Humbert though not nearly as despicable, charming or educated. In fact, Pascual, who is supposed to be a poor uneducated man, sounded a little too crafty at times, but I think that is part of the subterfuge of the novel. It has been edited by someone who "found" the manuscript, even though the person who first received it ordered it burned after his death.

Pascual Duarte's life is a series of rages and anger and odd observations. His parents, whom he hates, fights constantly, and the only one with any power over them is his sister Rosario, who runs off to become a prostitute. He has some small happiness with his first wife Lola, but leaves her when he feels the need to kill his mother, whom they are living with. After a series of other misfortunes, he does eventually kill his mother, where the story ends.

I don't know exactly what this novel is supposed to mean, perhaps to illustrate the life of a poor Spanish man and explain or explore his violence, and what kind of environment produces this kind of behavior. I thought it was definitely very interesting, and I will perhaps return to it sometime down the road.

18. Beloved by Toni Morrison

I knew what Beloved was about before I read it, but I don't think I can sufficiently describe how evocative and brilliantly written this book is. Morrison brings slavery to life in a way I have never read it before. She focuses on how slavery affects families, your sense of self and ownership, but she shows the emotional scars in a way that feels very modern...

Beloved is not only the daughter Sethe sacrifices for love and freedom, but she is all the children sold from their mothers, dropped into the ocean, forgotten, because nobody knows their name. Morrison shows how slavery took away love, even mother-love, because it was just too painful.

As a white person, a book like this is a reminder of how ugly people can be to other people, and even though my ancestors immigrated to the US after slavery, I know they and I have benefited simply from the color of our skin, because where some people are still prejudiced against for their skin color, others have the advantage. Like with the Holocaust, I don't know what to do though, except remember and behave without racism and any small thing that comes in my way to do, I will do.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Valencia: Las Fallas

"Las Fallas" means fireworks in Spanish, and the people of Valencia take this annual weeklong celebration very seriously. Las Fallas culminates on March 19, the Day of San Jose or Dia del Padre. Beginning on March 15, the neighborhoods of Valencia bring out their Falleras, extensive elaborate displays made of cardboard and paper maiche, that will go up in flames the night of March 19. Firefighters are on standby with hoses, though generally they hose down people who look too hot! Firecrackers are everywhere, I went to Valencia on March 18, and very few minutes would go by without a firecracker going off, some too close for comfort though I avoided being singed. I also joined the crowds for "La Mascleta" a fifteen minute barrage of uninterrupted fireworks that turned the sky grey and covered the crowd, including me, in bits of debris. No such thing as a safety barrier for Spaniards! I also can't get over their love of parades, we watched each neighborhood bring an offering of flowers to the Virgin Mary and literally everyone in the neighborhood wore traditional Valencian dress and walked along with their baby carriages and you can be sure the babies were trussed up too. My friends and I got caught behind the parade route and feared we would miss our bus back, luckily it too was delayed due to crowds, and we made it. Here are my pictures of the lovely Falleras, the traditional bunuelos de calabaza of Valencia (fried pumpkin doughnuts), and the paraders in Valencian dress. I saw some of these same Falleras burning on the news this morning!

Monday, March 15, 2010

13. La Casa de Bernarda Alba (The House of Bernarda Alba) by Federico Garcia Lorca

Garcia Lorca, is one of Spain's best known poets and dramatists. He is also famous for his short and tragic life, he was shot by Franco's soldiers in 1936, at the age of 33, both for his political leanings and his sexual orientation. The House of Bernarda Alba is one of Lorca's most famous plays and the last to be written before his death. It wasn't actually performed for the first time until almost thirty years after it was written, and that in Argentina. The play depicts the life of one household of women in Andalucia, Lorca's native region and the subject of most of his plays and much of his poetry. Lorca also wrote poetry about the gypsy life in Spain, in the collection Romancero Gitano and about his depression during the two years he spent in New York, Poetas de Nueva York.

Bernarda Alba is the mother of five daughters, under whose tyrannical thumb she keeps daughters, servants, and her own aging mother. Bernarda's strict ideas of propriety and social class are the constraints against which the inhabitants of her house define themselves, either succumbing knowingly or unknowingly, or rebelling openly. The tension comes to a head when the youngest daughter Adela insists on loving the intended husband of the oldest daughter Angustias. The young man is marrying the older sister because she stands to inherit considerably more money. Although Adela has her way, she cannot escape the consequences of defying Bernarda.

The play became considerably more interesting to me when a fellow student suggested that it was meant as a portrait of the impending political situation in Spain. To me, it appeared more a portrait of the repression and self-repression of women of a certain class at that time in Spain, a worthy yet tired theme.

14. Daisy Miller by Henry James

I'd wanted to read this novella for a while, ever since it was discussed in Reading Lolita in Tehran, and when I finally spotted it on the library shelf in the "Literatura Norteamericana" section, I decided to go for it. It was a quick read in an excellent style, leaving me with plenty to think about.

I really enjoy Henry James' novellas, but I can't seem to get through any of his novels. I've tried The Bostonians and The Ambassadors and had to stop reading both because I was just too bored and had to spend too much time dissecting the language. Normally, I like that kind of thing, but I think Henry James is just a bit over my head for now. This gave me hope that I can try again in the future.

Daisy Miller is about a young man, an American raised in Switzerland and his encounter with the young lady of the title, a young American lady improperly fond of the company of men, among displays of other social vulgarities. He is drawn to her, but also judges her constantly. There are several themes at work; the different social standards for men and women, social differences between Americans and Europeans, and also a sort of high school-ish feel of cliques and exclusivity that Daisy threatens and one feels is the real reason she is thought to be improper. In the end, the reader can be the one to judge the narrator and I, for one, was not kind in my thoughts! However, I definitely recommend the novella as thoroughly enjoyable.

15. The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger by Stephen King

I had never read Stephen King before. At one point, I had some sort of idea he was intimidating, another time that he was beneath my notice, and finally, that I would get around to him, but I had better things to read in the meantime. Well, I got around to him and don't regret it. I think I would even continue reading the Dark Tower series.

In some ways, it's very standard fantasy, but it's well-focused with just a few characters and settings and pointed symbolisms to work out. This is definitely escapist, in that it addresses all the hardest things to face about life in an environment where it seems appropriate to face them first. The Gunslinger is a mysterious character, whose past we learn about while he is chasing a Man in Black, who presumably has some answers, across the desert. The character is interesting. He's sympathetic, but ultimately everything falls to his one goal and ambition, to find the Dark Tower.

King writes in an afterword that when he wrote the book, he was unsure of many things he alluded to or hinted at. I look forward to seeing what he comes up with.

Monday, March 8, 2010

11. Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather

I love Willa Cather. My Antonia is one of my favorite books. Unfortunately, I think it is her best as I did not like this one quite as much, and I liked Oh Pioneers! less. So, my relationship with Cather's work is the inverse of my relationship to Amy Tan's work, I suppose. Still, I enjoyed Death Comes for the Archbishop as I believe it was meant to be, the stories of some persons of interest in a place of interest. Cather doesn't dress this novel up, it is simple and honest human experience, with no other plot. And this, she achieved in complete sentences! I wish some of the experimentalist modernists and stream-of-consciousness whatnots had read Cather or paid attention to her if they did.

As I was reading, I felt that she had just the right combination of detail, neither too sparse nor too florid, and she related stories of the characters as they would occur or be contemplated upon in real life. The Archbishop of the title is Father Latour, a relatively young French priest who is assigned the "new" archdiocese of New Mexico when it becomes part of the United States. These parts had already been Catholicized long before, but the old institutions were out of repair and most of the people had not received religious instruction in a generation or two. Father Latour, and his friend, Father Joseph Vaillant, who accompanies him, were real historical figures whom Cather found interesting. She evokes an intriguing Mexican and Indian culture and landscape for them to encounter, and she seems to be as familiar with this territory as her own Midwestern lands, where she grew up and her other novels are set. One can imagine Cather learning and falling in love with the land in order to write this book.

I've read some criticism suggesting that the relationship between Latour and Vaillant is meant to be homoerotic. I wouldn't discount that notion, there are hints that Latour, at least, feels more strongly about Joseph than he should, but I also believe that their relationship could be a portrayal of what a true friendship could be like. Father Latour exemplifies the isolation that I think everyone feels without their closest friends, but Father Vaillant is the sort of person who at least appears to make friends everywhere. I think people like that might secretly feel just as lonely as everyone else, but I guess Cather didn't.

I think I might have gotten more out of this book in a class, but as it is, I'm glad I finally read it.

12. Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

Where to start? I really enjoyed this, I'm into dystopias and scifi and not only does Atwood combine the two (a frequent combination, but still), but she has plenty of amusing mutants and genetic products etc. that sound almost possible to the bio geek side of me. I really appreciate a science fiction author who knows her stuff, and she at least knows her history of evolution extremely well and is quite good at faux-genetic technobabble, shall we say.

Snowman is the last human on Earth. At least, so far as he knows. However, there are a strange mutant people, whom he calls the Children of Crake, with many helpful genetic modifications. The book flashes between Snowman's present and his life leading up to the present, focusing particularly on his friend Crake and lover Oryx. I'd heard it said that Jimmy (Snowman's real name) is annoying and Oryx and Crake are more interesting, but on the contrary, I found him an apt and charming narrator, whose character I liked and related to. I couldn't imagine anyone else telling the story.

Atwood offers a convincing portrait of a Malthusian future where population growth and supply demand have finally outrun even the best of human ingenuity, with sickening video games and web sites, false empirical utopias within a greater devastation (the elevation of the elite at the expense of the masses), and finally a twisted mastermind, Crake, who destroys it all and creates his own DNA-encoded utopia. But what occurs to me about Crake's method is the gist of a quote I once heard somewhere, I can't remember where, it could have been Richard Dawkins or something else, but that to be truly viable, the genome needs to be able to err, to make mistakes. A human intelligence would create perfect beings if it could, but perfection cannot adapt. The Children of Crake are built to survive in a certain kind of world, but one disaster, the same disaster repeated enough times, could wipe them all out, because they could not learn from their mistakes. Fortunately, we can and that's a fact dystopias like Atwood's strive to remind us of before it's too late.

Thursday, March 4, 2010


Barcelona, I hardly met ye. After my weekend in Barcelona, I feel, well, not really much, about the city. I saw some promised Modernist architecture, learned about the origins of the city and of Catalonia in general, and that St. George is the patron saint of Catalonia as well as of England. My pictures came out awful as always, but my favorite sight was Gaudi's mash-up in a building of the legend of St. George and the dragon. The edifice is composed of skull-shaped windows, and strategically placed scales and claws, and on top the piercing lance of the sainted George.

Menus all over the city contained English and Catalan. I had a delicious and large dish of Thai food my first night, and ate at a Catalan restaurant, Origens, my second night. The stuffed aubergines were fantastic, and hopefully I can recreate them. I didn't manage to get pictures of these, but I snapped a shot of my Patatas Braves tapa that I ate right before we left.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

9. Dune by Frank Herbert

This time, I opted for a re-read on my long bus trip to Barcelona. Dune, in my opinion, is to science fiction as Lord of the Rings is to fantasy. Frank Herbert created a world that can stand entirely on its own, possibly even more so than Middle Earth, and achieves the great feat where so many authors falter: a book with rich characters that do not suffer at the expense of the plot, and vise versa.

Paul Atreides comes from a long line of honorable, loyal Atreides Dukes on his father's side and a mysterious and powerful female organization, the Bene Gesserit, on his mother's side. When their family is given the planet Arrakis, or Dune, to hold for the Empire, the only planet where the universe's most powerful commodity, the spice melange is harvested, they know it is a ploy on the part of their ancient enemies the Harkonnens, particularly the current head of the family, the diabolical Baron Vladimir Harkonnen. When inevitable tragedy strikes, Paul and his mother, Lady Jessica, are forced to brave the desert and the curious desert people, the Fremen.

On this reading, I focused on how and why Paul fulfills the legends of the Bene Gesserit and the Fremen, and how he accepts and rejects the role. I paid more attention to figuring out the fictitious origins of religions and how they are related. I also could now look at a lot of the characters with more of their histories in mind, after reading Dune: House Atreides, by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson. Of course, Dune was the original book, so I also think those two interpreted some of them wrong.

I'm glad Dune was still gripping to read and I could still respect the writing content and style. I think I must have been twelve the last time I read it, and it would have been a shame to lose my fond memories. Now, the only problem is I want to read the entire series again!

10. The Kitchen God's Wife by Amy Tan

I just like each Amy Tan book I read better than the last. Even though this book reminded me strongly of the other two books of hers I have read, The Joy Luck Club and The Bonesetter's Daughter, all three concern Chinese mothers and daughters and the mother's secret shameful history of oppression, this book tied together better and held some very keen observations about life and people.

The passage that made me want to yell, "So true! So true!" was this one:

"I saw that my husband did this laughing-scaring game not just with me, but with his friends. And I also began to see that what he did was wrong, cruel, but no one else seemed to see this.

...He accused and tormented, shouted and threatened. And just at that point when you did not know which way to move, he took the danger away, became kind and forgiving, laughing and happy. Back and forth, this way and that. Of course, we were confused, fooled into thinking we always wanted to please him (223)."

Maybe it's not good, but I read Amy Tan and find her oddly comforting for moments like that, when someone else seems to understand the subtle, nasty things people can do to you with or without realizing it. Things that you feel and find difficult to acknowledge. Things that make you feel guilty, even if you don't know why. When Tan says it aloud, it's like she's releasing it for you.

I also liked the legend of the Kitchen God's wife and how this mother and daughter actually do get closer at the end.