Wednesday, June 4, 2014

What Have You Read for me Lately?

Once again, I'm searching for a great big book to get lost in. While I wait on the Calvert library's holds list for this summer's "it" book, All The Light You Cannot See, I've been catching up with the plethora of nook books that I've acquired through Net Galley and Edelweiss. These books will not remain on the nook forever, they are limited in cyberspace, generally to three months. And, the deal one makes with the publisher for getting an early peek at their major offerings, is an honest appraisal of the galley. This is where I run into trouble. If I can't praise it, I just hate to say anything at all.

An example is Ann Hood's An Italian Wife, due out in September. Great cover, great title, but not, in my opinion, up to Ms. Hood's standards. This is a multi-generational story about Josephine, a fifteen-year-old girl whose parents arrange her marriage to a much older business man with prospects. I'd love to tell you that they move to America, become wealthy, happy, and successful, but alas, that is not to be. Josephine gives birth practically every year, and by the time her husband dies unexpectedly, she feels little grief and some relief.


We follow Josephine's progeny for several generations, reliving the '40's, '50's, and '60's through the sexual awakening of the young women in the family. But more important, we learn about the stigma of being an immigrant in America, how some families' only desire to is to leave their past behind, while others embrace their heritage, blending the best of the old world with the new.

The highlight of this book came when Ms. Hood added the element that she has used in her previous novels, The Obituary Writer and The Red Thread. You see, Josephine has a brief, passionate fling, giving birth to a baby that the Catholic Church readily moves to adopt out to a family with money. Josephine's longing for her missing child, no matter how many others she's delivered, is in my mind, at the heart and soul of this novel. I wish that the author had thought to make it so.

In keeping with my love of espionage, and after having read the very creditable fiction novel The Cairo Affair by Olen Steinhauer, I decided to delve into Pulitzer Prize winner Kai Bird's ( true account of a very real spook, The Good Spy, The Life and Death of Robert Ames. Mr. Kai will be speaking at this summer's National Book Festival in DC and I hope to have the book finished before I go to hear him.

Considered one of America's most influential links between the middle east and the west, a true lover of the Arab culture, and an exemplary example of what the CIA can be at its best, Mr. Ames was killed in a car bomb explosion in Beirut, Lebanon, back in 1983. His story, and that of the inner workings of the CIA before Homeland became the most popular show on HBO, should prove to be a fascinating read that I can continue to pick up in between my escape fiction.

The most linguistically stunning novel I've read so far this summer is The Garden of Evening Mists by Malaysian writer Tan Twan Eng. Don and I were reading it simultaneously, he on the ipad and me in print, and it was a joyful experience to keep interrupting each other with exclamations at the beauty or aptness of certain metaphors. 

Read for instance, "The hollow of the valley reminds me of the open palms of a monk, cupped to receive the day's blessing." How does a writer do that?

This gorgeous novel revolves around Yun Ling, who at 17-years-old was held by the Japanese in a prisoner of war camp in the hills of Malaysia, victim of a lesser-known aspect of the Chinese people during World War II. Her only sister died there and Yun Ling was disfigured.

Eng begins his tale in the present as Yun Ling, now Judge Teoh, faces an early retirement from the bench where she has made her reputation prosecuting war criminals. She is afflicted with a memory disorder and hopes to record her life's story before time and genetic happenstance steal her past from her.

When Yun Ling was initially released from prison back in 1951, the only survivor of the camp, she sought comfort with friends at their tea plantation in the Cameron Highlands north of Kuala Lumpur. Though still nurturing her hatred of the Japanese, Yun Ling becomes the apprentice of Aritomo, former gardener to the Japanese emperor, Hirohito.

 Aritomo's nearby hillside home, Yugiri, will become Yun Ling's refuge, the ultimate source of remembrance and forgiveness. Here, under Aritomo's tutelage, Yun Ling will begin the task of creating a garden befitting the memory of her sister, and here in Aritomo's arms, Yun Ling will embark upon the process of becoming fully human once again.

This is a beautifully wrought tale of war and its aftermath, of moral uncertainties, of physical and emotional pain, and of the need to learn from the past but refuse to live in it.


bibliosis said...

After reading about that particular Japanese garden, I just had to visit one in Portland, Oregon, to see if my senses could detect the same feelings Yun Ling had after living in the tropics where lushness is all. The answer was yes.


Sallyb said...

Hi Marcella, Lovely to hear from you. Did you read Eng's first novel as well? I very much see you in a Japanese garden. You are understated elegance personified.