I love reading, but finding English-language books can be something of a challenge for an expat. Yes, I miss my library. And then a couple of months ago my Kindle broke (sad day!), leaving me high and dry when it comes to reading material. I wrote quite a bit of poetry in the interim, and got some other equally practical stuff done. But I’ve been in serious literary withdrawal.
Enter Jo Ann, who in addition to being a fabulous artist, spearheading the clean beach campaign, and giving us dog care advice, loaned me some books! I must confess that I shamelessly gobbled them, mostly simultaneously. And I liked them all. So in honor of finally getting to feed the inner book monster, I’ve decided to do my very first on-blog reviews.
Keeping Faith, by Jodi Picoult. It may be just where I am in life right now, but I really savored this book. Mariah White is unlike me in that her 7-year-old gets visits from God, but I relate very much to her persistent feeling of not quite measuring up as a mother. What was affirming for her was affirming for me. I don’t usually go in for legal fiction, but most of the courtroom drama in this book was really more psychological analysis (and non-criminal), which is lots more interesting to me.
However, what I really enjoyed about this book was its portrayal of God (through the eyes of the little girl) as female, and the discussion of the divine feminine from various religious points of view, including Jewish, Catholic, and Atheist. Although it doesn’t tend to get talked about much, my religion teaches that we have both a Heavenly Father and a Heavenly Mother, which is an idea I find powerful. This book gave me a rare opportunity to really visualize the nurturing, mothering side of God.
Falling Leaves by Adeline Yen Mah. Honestly, I had a hard time getting into this one. The thing I kept thinking was, “I guess I just don’t understand Chinese people.” Confucian filial piety in the face of horrendous emotional abuse was the overriding theme.
I feel bad saying this about someone’s anguished memoir, but this book suffered from being more a book by someone who had something to say than a book by someone who knew how to write. Several parts felt like they’d been scribbled out in one wrenching brainstorming session and then never revised. The narrative was choppy in places. Although the author attempts to explain feelings and decisions, I felt like I was constantly surprised by her actions, which often seemed to come out of nowhere.
Still, I did enjoy the parts of the book that described the historical setting. It was like a crash course in 20th century Chinese history. The personal accounts of how people close to the author were affected by events like the Japanese invasion, the 1939 Tianjin flood, the Cultural Revolution, and the lead-up to the transfer of Hong Kong were riveting. I guess I can say I now understand Chinese people at least a little better.
A Thousand Splendid Suns, by Khaled Hosseini. What a moving and beautiful book. I had read that Afghanistan was the worst place in the world to be a woman, and now I know why. The two female protagonists, whose lives weave together in unexpected and heart-breaking ways, demonstrate extraordinary courage against a backdrop of personal and national tragedy. This is a story of growing up and losing innocence, but it is also a story of holding on to humanity and love.
I found myself weeping more than once as the quiet strength of these women shows through in the grace with which they face such insurmountable challenges and disappointments. I will say that the last parts of the book come off a little improbably brightly. I know most real stories in this unhappy country have darker endings. Still, I couldn’t really mind the bit of optimism. I read it as a gesture of hope for the future.
Hosseini’s aching love for his homeland comes through in every page of this extraordinary book. It’s sometimes hard to picture these far-off war zones as places that someone would actually want to go home to. But Splendid Suns made Kabul a real place for me. And I feel almost as if I too have climbed and then mourned the two lost Buddhas of Bamiyan.
The Other Side of the Mountain: The True Story of Jill Kinmont Boothe by E.C. Valens. Jo Ann told me that Jill, who was paralyzed in a skiing accident, is an acquaintance of hers. The book is a memoir that chronicles her youth as an olympic skiing hopeful, her tragic accident during a race, and how she rebuilds her life afterward. For me, the beginning was pretty slow. Several chapters were spent describing various ski events, all of which sounded the same to me (non-skier that I am).
Once the accident happens, though, the book focuses more on the emotional and physical challenges, and less on skiing technique. It’s one of those books where you picture yourself in the same situation and wonder if you could respond anywhere near as positively. I especially enjoyed reading about Jill’s joy in small successes, like being able to undo a button, or type 26 wpm even though her fingers are paralyzed.
The memoir was later made into a movie, which I haven’t seen, but my picture is actually of the movie, since I couldn’t find one of the book.