Monday, April 12, 2010

Library Day

I've got quite a few books this time around, so I'll try to keep the reviewlets a little shorter. In fact, I'll start with two books that I didn't even manage to finish.

Map of the Invisible World by Tash Aw

This disappointed me--in fact, I should renew it at the library and try to push on through. The Guardian reviewed it and said, "Reminiscent of Graham Greene...powerful and mesmerizing, haunting and memorable." It was the "reminiscent of Graham Greene" that had me at hello since I have one entire bookshelf filled with his books and basically adore almost everything he's written. And it's not that I didn't like this book; I just wish it moved faster. It's about a teenager in Indonesia named Adam who was separated from his parents and then his brother at an early age. He has almost no memory of them. He was adopted by a Dutch man named Karl who is arrested early on by militia. Adam contacts an old friend of Karl's named Margaret to help him find her. That's kind of as far as I got. I just kept putting it down and then finding something else more interesting to read. So, like I said, I should finish it. Or maybe I should just go reread a Graham Greene novel.

Sailing to Capri by Elizabeth Adler

This was so dumb I couldn't finish it. I got it because it sounded like a mystery/travel novel, when really it was just a lame romance in disguise. It had phrases like, "manly arms." I can't read books that talk about manly arms. And, good to know now, I'll never pick up another of her books again.

The Postmistress by Sarah Blake

I was on a waiting list at the library for sweet forever for this one, and I wish I had liked it more. I loved the premise: it was set during WWII and basically asked the question, "what would happen if someone withheld letters that contained vital pieces of information?" Would it alter the course of fate? There were some very powerful moments in this book, but somehow the characters didn't really work their way into my heart. However, I wouldn't not recommend it. Try it for yourself if it sounds interesting because lots of people seem to love it.

The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag by Alan Bradley

This is the second book in the Flavia de Luce series, and I loved it. In fact, I loved it even more than the first one. Spunky Flavia is back to solve another murder--this time of a traveling puppeteer. I thought this mystery was plotted much better than Mr. Bradley's first one. And if sometimes Flavia doesn't sound as much like an 11-year-old girl as a 70-year-old man, well, she's still funny and entertaining, nevertheless, with quotes such as, "'You are unreliable, Flavia,' Father said. 'Utterly unreliable.' Of course I was! It was one of the things I loved most about myself."

The next two are part of a series that I reread various pieces of each year. It's the Starbridge series by Susan Howatch--three books set in the '30s and '40s and the remaining three set in the '60s--taking place in the small city of Starbridge (modelled on Salisbury) and set against the backdrop of the Church of England. Now maybe they don't sound that exciting from that little description, but they are some of the most absorbing books I've ever read. It's why I keep rereading them. First:

Ultimate Prizes

The protagonist here is Archdeacon Neville Aysgarth. He's a Liberal Protestant, a hopeless optimist in the face of world war. But boredom and deprivation on the homefront quickly plunge him into catastrophe in his personal life. One defining feature of Howatch's books is her way with words. Here's a scene when Aysgarth takes his prep school sons out to lunch to tell them of his impending second marriage: "'You may be quite surprised that I wish to remarry. Nothing, of course, will ever alter the fact that your mother and I enjoyed sixteen years of the most perfect married life. She was the most wonderful woman in the world, and that explains why I now feel I must marry someone quite different. I know I can rely on you boys to act like gentlemen and try hard to make Dido feel at home in our family.' 'Of course, Father,' said Christian. He turned to Norman and said, 'What are we waiting for? We must behave like gentlemen and offer Father our best wishes; as he was saying that Mother is quite irreplaceable but he's made the decision to replace her. We wish you well, Father, and we're quite willing to be friends with Miss Tallent. But just don't expect us to treat her as a substitute for Mother. Mothers, unlike wives, are quite irreplaceable.'"

Absolute Truths

This is the final installment in the series, taking place in 1965 and narrated by Charles Ashworth, bishop of Starbridge (Aysgarth is his arch-nemesis). After an extremely successful career, he sustains a serious crisis in both his family life and his faith. I actually don't have words to describe how good this book is and how it has affected my own life. I wouldn't read it first--I'd work through the other ones and save it for last (though frankly, you can skip the fifth book--it's not very good). Here's a little snippet: "I said: 'Of course we must love people no matter what they've done, but we mustn't forget that love should include justice for those who have been wronged by the sins of others--you can't just pretend that sin doesn't matter! Sin hurts people, sin destroys lives--haven't you yourself ever suffered as the result of the wrong acts of others?' Bishop Sunderland carefully finished drying his hands on the towel. Then he turned to face me and said: 'Yes. But I've forgiven them.' 'Well, never mind,' he went on, casting aside his moment of extreme sobriety and becoming cheery again. 'someone on the bishops' bench has to worry about sex, I suppose, but thank goodness it isn't me because I'd rather worry about the Bomb and South Africa and the starving millions in India. So, no hard feelings--God bless!' And he pattered off in his cheap slip-on shoes in order to be radically liberal elsewhere."

Lastly is a book I picked up on vacation when I had finished everything else I had brought along. I bought it basically based on its cover, which shows a woman sitting on a bench obviously in Asia, hidden by a beautiful red Chinese umbrella.

Kitchen Chinese by Ann Mah

This was kind of like Bridget Jones' Diary in Beijing; however, I really enjoyed it (hey, I enjoyed the original BJD too). Isabelle, who is Chinese American, leaves New York after career and love disappointment to start a whole new life with her sister Claire who is a lawyer in Beijing. She becomes a food writer for an ex-pat magazine. The book is pretty much a fictionalized memoir, since Ann Mah herself left the U.S. and lived in Beijing for four years. You get a great flavor of what life is like there, plus many great descriptions of food (Mah herself was awarded a James Beard Culinary Scholarship). The book is lively and funny, though there were editorial glitches, such as having a character named "Marcie," then spelling it "Marcy," halfway through the book, or using the word "aesthetic," when she clearly meant "ascetic." The only thing I didn't like much was all the time spent on Isabelle's dating life, which kind of detracted from the good parts, for me anyway. I promise, I'm not a heartless person against all romance. But...after you've read enough Charlotte Bronte and Jane Austen, the modern stuff just doesn't seem to measure up. After The Letter in Persuasion, it's hard to come to terms with people texting each other.

So, there's the wrap-up! Let me know if you try any of these and enjoy (or not)!

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