Sunday, January 31, 2010

Page 11: The Concubine's Daughter

China has been in the news recently for many reasons.  It is the holder of much of our debt, most of our products are manufactured in China, the Chinese Government (according to many in the tech industry) recently "hacked" into Google files looking for information on dissidents, and is in the process of becoming the economic engine of the Far East.  Anyone who has studied the history of China will not be surprised by any of this.

China was one of the earliest civilizations in the world co-existing with Egypt and Babylon.  The Chinese referred to themselves as the "Middle Kingdom" which confirmed their world centrist view.  They were ethnocentric and thought of themselves as the most civilized people on the face of the earth.  For many hundreds and thousands of years they were probably right.  When Marco Polo made his journeys to China in the 13th Century from Venice, he found an extraordinary civilization.  This was the beginning of the spice trade, importing of silk, and many other items never seen before in Europe.  When Portuguese sailors tried to find a water route to the Far East, this eventually led to the discovery of the Americas by Columbus and others.  Many subsequent explorers found their way to China by water.  In fact, the "China Trade" made many New England families very wealthy.  The Chinese viewed all of them as barbarians.

This Chinese government's foreign policy has not changed that much in spite of the years of Empire and Communism.  Yes, they are eager to trade with the West, but are still centrist in their world view.  In The Concubine's Daughter, Pai Kit Fai gives us a story that begins in the early part of the 20th Century and ends on the eve of the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong in 1941.  The main characters of the book are three generations of Chinese women (grandmother, daughter, granddaughter) whose interactions with their own people and foreigners is presented against a backdrop of Chinese culture. If you are unfamiliar with Chinese culture or want to learn more than you currently know, this is an excellent book.  The bonus is the story itself.

The three women in the story, Pai-Ling, Li-Xia, and Siu-Sing all face the historical reality of the treatment of women in China.  Fathers wanted only sons.  Of course, if there were no daughters, there would be no sons.  Daughters were considered so unwanted they were ofter killed immediately after birth.  Those that did survive were treated like slaves.  They were the personal property of their father or husband and could be beaten, mistreated, and sold like slaves.

Pai-Ling, Li-Xia, and Siu-Sing all try to break the centuries old traditions and practices regarding women in China.  This book is about their courage in fighting the system, managing to survive setbacks, and using their intelligence to become more than any woman could ever hope for in China.  The terrible prejudice and hatred they suffer from their own people is a large part of this story.

The author uses water as a major theme.  The Pearl River Delta, Macao, Hong Kong, Kowloon, and Shanghai are all included as locations.  In addition, the interior of China plays an important role as well.  These rural and urban landscapes provide colorful and rich background for this book.

If you have any interest in the lives of women living in the male-dominated, centuries old culture of China in the early 20th Century, you should read this book.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Page 10: The Lovely Bones

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold, the best selling novel of 2002, has been made into a movie.  I don't know what I was doing in 2002, but I somehow missed this book.  My wife recently suggested I should read The Lovely Bones.  She reads more books that I, and often suggests I need to read such and such a book.   

This is an unusual story that grabs you from the first few pages and does not let go until you finish.  The basic story is about fourteen year old Susie Salmon who was raped and murdered in a corn field while taking a shortcut home from school.  Yes, the book begins with a terrible tragedy, but the story of the aftermath is the true essence of this novel.  The effect on her family, friends, neighbors, and community is beyond sorrow and grief.

Susie goes to a part of heaven that appears to be made especially for her, and continues to watch events on Earth as they unfold in the aftermath of her murder.  This is not a religious novel in the sense that God is the main character in heaven, although it is certainly implied.  Susies's heaven is magical, comfortable, and fluid.  It keeps changing as she comes to terms with her death, and people she knew (those who died of course) find her there.

Let me give you a couple of examples of praise for this book.
     "Savagely beautiful....A strange and compelling novel." (San Francisco Chronicle)

     "Mesmerizing....The Lovely Bones takes the stuff of neighborhood tragedy and turns it into literature."     (New York times Book Review)

     "Don't start The Lovely Bones unless you can finish it.  The book begins with more horror than you could imagine, but closes with more beauty than you could hope for." (Christian Science Monitor)

In summary, I thought this was a wonderful book.  Alice Sebold has given us a rare gift.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Page 9: Under the Dome by Stephen King

I finally finished Under the Dome by Stephen King.  I read it on my Kindle so I wouldn't have to hold a heavy hardcover book.  This is a very long book in the tradition of The Stand, and well worth reading.  It has a large cast of characters, and explores the depths of evil in a small town in Maine.

The plot--this is the short version--centers on a small community in Maine that finds itself suddenly encased in a huge dome.  Several people discover the dome in a most unfortunate way.  Some crash into it in their vehicles.  A pilot and his student fly into the dome in their small plane and are killed.  Hundreds of birds die when they fly into the dome.  The dome (the edges are invisible at first) turns out to extend more than 100 feet below ground and as high as about 40,000 feet.

The main 'bad guy' in the book is the town's second selectman who has been building a power base for years, and sees the dome as an opportunity to consolidate his power without any influence from the outside.  He is opposed by the owner of the local paper, a cook (an Iraq veteran) at the only restaurant in town, a physician's assistant at the local hospital, and a few other good people.

The second selectman appears to have modeled himself after such notable historical figures as Hitler and Stalin.  He is dumb like a fox, and hides behind his fundamentalist religious beliefs.  He continues a long trend in human history that finds individuals and groups using God to justify greed, murder and lust for power. 

The terror instigated by the second selectman escalates throughout the book.  It begins with adding more police (thugs), starting a riot at the local food market, murdering several individuals who get in his way, and burning down the local newspaper.  This guy is a real piece of work.  Throw in the government trying to get rid of the dome, offshore bank accounts, a huge meth lab, a church with way too much money, and you have a mix that takes you on a roller coaster ride to an amazing finish. 

Steven King is very good at showing us the dark side of human nature, and this book is no exception.  In fact, I think it is one of his best in this genre.  The ending is typical Stephen King with a light at the end of the tunnel.  I won't say any more.  Read the book to find out what happens to the people in the town trapped under the dome.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Page 8: Water for Elephants

Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen, is one of those books that makes it to the New York Times Bestseller List because it deserves to be there, but you may not pick up and read unless one of your friends recommends it, or you become curious enough to read it after finding it in a bookstore.  This book was first published in 2006, and, I must admit, I missed it.  Boy, am I glad I found it!

The main character, Jacob Jankowski, is in his early nineties and living in a nursing home as the book begins.  The story unfolds as a circus comes to town and sets up near the nursing home.  The patients are all excited about attending, but they must have a relative or close friend be their chaperone in order to be allowed to go.  Jacob has children, but none of them will be there to take him.

The story then flashes back to the time Jacob was at Cornell studying Veterinary Medicine.  It continues with his leaving the university just before graduation due to a family emergency.  Soon after he ends up joining the circus.  The plot moves quickly from that point on.  You soon discover things about a circus you always suspected as well as others you would never have imagined. 

The circus people are portrayed as they were during the era of the 1930's.  The bosses, roustabouts, performers, clowns, animals and all the rest are there; the good and the bad.  This is a wonderful story that will amaze you, have you crying, laughing, and doing your best to determine the outcome without success.  You will never view elephants, or the circus, again as most of us have our entire lives.

Praise for Water for Elephants from the Chicago Tribune is as follows: "So compelling, so detailed and vivid, that I couldn't bear to be torn away from it for a single minute."

Praise from The Washington Post: "You'll get lost in the tatty glamour of Gruen's meticulously researched world, from spangled equestrian pageantry and the sleazy side show to an ill-fated night at a Chicago speak-easy."

Hopefully, this will encourage you to try this book.  If you do, let me know how you liked it.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Page 7: Stephen King,

I have read a number of Stephen King's novels and stories, not all of them, but many of them.  He has produced a huge body of work from his first commercial success, Carrie, until his latest, Under the Dome.  Stephen King has a lot of fans, but there are also those who don't care for him.  I think he is probably one of the most prolific and successful writers in the last 35 years.  I don't plan to talk about all of his books, that would take more time than I want to spend on one writer.  That being said,  I will mention some of his novels I have read, and talk a little about why I think he is underrated by many critics. 

Stephen King writes for the masses.  He is not a literary snob who writes for his fellow literary snobs.  He has the unique ability of grabbing your attention in the first chapter and keeping it for the rest of the story.  He just plain writes damn good stories.  True, they includes a lot of violence (blood and guts), and supernatural plots, but they are intrinsic to his stories.  I think one of his greatest abilities as a writer to to present you with the world as we know it, and then twist it into something macabre and sinister.  Many of his novels are set in modern-day Maine, and his characters are real flesh and blood people like the rest of us.  What might make some people uncomfortable is that they may see a reflection of themselves in some of the characters.

All right, enough of this.  Some of the early novels (1974 to 1988) I have read are Salem's Lot, The Shining, The Stand, The Dead Zone, Firestarter, Cujo, Christine, Pet Sematary, It, and The Tommyknockers.  The last novel mentioned is not one of his best.  Many of these have been made into movies.  These novels alone probably made him enough money for his retirement fund.  My favorite of this group is The Stand.  This is an apocalyptic novel about the survivors of an epidemic and how they cope with their own survival and that of others.  The classic struggle between good and evil is woven into the plot as King does with most of his novels.  This was made into a pretty good TV series and is worth watching even if you read the book.

King continued his run of best selling novels and collections of stories in the 1990s.  Some of these include: Four Past Midnight (stories), Needful Things, Gerald's Game, Dolores Claiborne, Nightmares and Dreamscapes (stories), Insomnia, Rose Madder, The Green Mile, Bag of Bones, Storm of the Century, and Hearts in Atlantis.  A lot of these are good reads, but my best two picks would be The Green Mile and Hearts in Atlantis.  Both of these have been made into movies.  In fact, Tom Hanks stars in The Green Mile and Sir Anthony Hopkins in Hearts in Atlantis..

While he was writing all these novels and stories Stephen King continued to work on a great series, The Dark Tower.  I would guess that every Stephen King fan has read this series.  The books in the series are as follows: The Dark Tower I: The Gunslinger, The Dark Tower II: The Drawing of the Three, The Dark Tower III: The Waste Lands, The Dark Tower IV: Wizard and Glass, The Dark Tower V: Wolves of the Calla, The Dark Tower VI: Song of Susannah, and The Dark Tower VII: The Dark Tower.  King drove many of his hardcore fans crazy by leaving large gaps between publications of some of the books.  For example, the first book was published in 1982, the second in 1987, and the third in 1991.  He finished them off in 1997, 2003 and 2004.  It made it difficult to keep a sense of continuity that most people need when reading a series as long as this one.  Check these out in your local bookstore, or at the major bookstores on the web such as Amazon, Barnes&Noble, and Audible.  If you have not read this series, I encourage you to put them on your list for 2010. 

I don't know how he writes so many books and keeps the 'clunkers' to a minimum.  There are still more books between 2000 and now.  The ones I have read are: Cell, Duma Key, Just After Sunset, and UR.  Interestingly enough, UR is a novella available only on's Kindle.  And, I am sure it is no coincidence, the book is about a college professor who is sent the wrong Kindle.  Just think Stephen King and what he could do with that premise.

Stephen King's latest book is Under the Dome.  I am currently reading it on my Kindle and it is very good.  This is a long novel.  I saw the hardcover version the other day and it is thick.  I'll do a separate post on this book after I finish.

Let me sum up this post on Stephen King by saying he is one of my favorite writers, even though I have not liked ever single thing he has written.  When his novels are good, they draw you in and keep you reading long after you should have gone to sleep.  When they are not so good, you should probably not finish them.  However, I keep reading hoping it will get better.  If you have not read any of Stephen King's books, which I find difficult to believe, try one.  Start with some of his recent novels and then work your way back to his earlier writing.  He writes well, keeps your interest, and scares the hell out of you in his better novels.