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New Perks/ARCs


The Painter of Shanghai didn’t get much noise here in the United States, but the book, based on a true story, has stayed with me. When I heard about Epstein’s new book I have kept my fingers cross for the release date. The novel is based on the actual life of Pan Yuliang, a former child prostitute turned celebrated painter, also happens to be one such writer. In The Painter From Shanghai, Epstein concentrates on Yuliang’s time in the brothel — chillingly named the Hall of Eternal Splendor — and her early years with the devoted Pan Zanhua when, as Epstein imagines, Yuliang’s understanding of herself as a (relatively) free woman and artist began to emerge. Anyway the new book, The Gods of Heavenly Punishment is set in Japan during the Second World War. It revolves around people and events leading up to the bombing of Tokyo. Narratives are told through the perspectives of a downed bomber pilot, an Occupation soldier, and a gifted architect who helped modernize the Tokyo skyline is now charged with destroying it.

The Why of Things by Elizabeth Hartley Winthrop takes on the hard subject of suicide. It’s a heavy subject—about how the mother contrives to keep her family from falling apart after her 17-year-old daughter committed suicide. It’s a glimpse into the life of a family who is on the path to recovery and of two daughters whose lives have been forever altered by the loss of their sister but who have managed to pull through. This one shall wait. Golden Boy by Abigail Tarttelin reminds me of Middlesex and Annabel. Max is an intersex teen who has always identified as a boy, but certain catastrophic events lead him to question who and what he is. To his peers he’s perfect: a talented soccer player, beautiful to look at, an excellent student. They have no idea the pain and confusion he’s going through, especially because he can’t talk to anyone about his secrets, not even his parents, and least of all, the girl he likes.

Reading Of Human Bondage & Some New Books

bondageAt 675 pages, I was somewhat hesitant to pick up another huge tome as Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham after the read-along. (By the way, I’m still making my way around to reading everyone’s thoughts on Gone with the Wind.) After reading two short works, my craving for a hearty Victorian novel is rekindled. I fingered my shelf and pulled off Maugham. It’s the story of a self-conscious orphan born with a club-foot who finds himself in desperate need of passion. The introduction contains a paragraph, in Maugham’s own words, on the how he avoided the novel as much as trying to take it all in:

The reason is that there are 648 pages of the story—300 pages too many for careful reading and candid review. But this much can be said: It opens with a funeral and ends with a wedding. As the author is one of the most successful of the younger dramatists . . . it may be taken for granted that his novel will repay the reading of it by those who have the time to do so.

Despite the daunting size, the book is very readable. The language is unfancy. I turned about a hundred pages in one sitting over coffee.

brooklynOn Monday morning, my friend A who works at an independent bookstore walks into coffee with a book that caught my attention as much as a glittering diamond mesmerized a woman. Colm Tóibín’, twice shortlisted for Booker Prize, author of The Blackwater Lightship and The Master, has a new book out in May 2009. I have been looking forward to his new novel like many of you have anticipated Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s. K came in with a totebag full of ARCs and Tóibín’s Brooklyn is one of them! Set in Brooklyn and Ireland in the 1950s, it’s about a young man torn between her family and her past in Ireland and the American who wins her heart in her new life in New York.

foreheadThe Writing on My Forehead by Nafisa Haji is a meditation on the meaning of family and tradition. From childhood, willful, intelligent Saira Qader broke the boundaries between her family’s traditions and her desire for independence. A free-spirited and rebellious Muslim-American of Indo-Pakistani descent, she rejected the constricting notions of family, duty, obligation, and fate, choosing instead to become a journalist, the world her home.

germanPremise of The German Woman by Paul Griner reminds me of The English Patient. An English widow of a German surgeon and an exiled American with German roots cross path in this new novel in which a love story has burgeoned and spanned over two world wars. That the author has quoted E.M. Forster is enough to sell me this book. “If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.”

What new books have caught your attention lately?

[190] Valeria’s Last Stand – Marc Fitten

valeria ‘You should be ashamed of yourselves. All of you. You’re old enough to be in retirement homes. This is craziness. You’re worse than adolescents. What did you do?’ [98]

The quoted line summarizes my feeling toward the novel. Not that older people have no right to love, but the extent with which they have gone is overboard. The essence of the story has a lot of promise and the opening really intrigues me. Set in Zivatar, a small town in Hungary, in what appears to be the 1990s, when forces of capitalism has just touched the last reserve of Communism, the book revolves around a senior citizen love triangle. The town’s beloved widower potter, the ideal of modesty, has not only taken up with Ibolya (58 years old), the libertine and venomous tavern owner, but also falls in love with the spinster Valeria (68 years old), who was once jilted and never allows herself to enjoy life.

“Over the years, Valeria had made herself unattractive. Villagers were accustomed to seeing her grimace, seeing her sneer, and then hearing her curse before being pelted with a handful of chestnuts or whatever else she could get her hands on.” [13]

Valeria’s routine carping and her finding fault with everything—even the vegetables, unfortunately are the last of the book that intrigues me. While I enjoy the flamed exchange between the tavernista and the spinster, who vie for the exclusive affections of the potter, my attitude toward the bizarre love triangle and the sexual details it ensues is indifferent. The arrival of a scheming, opportunistic chimney sweep, who is ready to retire and takes a wife, shifts my mild intrigue to dread. I’m aware that each of the three main characters represents a power during the time of radical change, as Zivatar teeters on the brinks of new possibilities yet is hesitant to move forward. The mayor, who drives a Mercedes, while the townfolks ride their bikes, goes on vacations aboard under the pretext of negotiating business deals for the town, is hilariously corrupted. He represents the system that Valeria finds faults with, that Ibolya helplessly hates, and that the potter dodges, for he is unaware of the troubles of the village.

My problem with Valeria’s Last Stand is that characters are too etched to be read as a fable and fairy tale, yet they are not convincing enough to be taken seriously. It’s not believable. There are many perspectives from which one can portray a period of political change in a small town. But least expected is one written in the context of a sexually charged drama that features old folks. The book, however, is worth a read for good laugh.

Oh? Don’t you know anything about it? How awful for you. It seems, you little filthy man, that the potter must have awakened some kind of fire in her, and you just happened to be the first piece of meat her famished body came across. It’s funny really. A switch, actually. You were convenient.[211]

ARC. Scheduled to release May 2009
259 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss]

[171] Cutting For Stone – Abraham Verghese

stone“The world turns on our every action, and our every omission, whether we know it or not.” [535]

Spanning over thirty years, the narrative of Cutting For Stone stretches four continents and illustrates that geography is destiny. The birth of identical twins, Marion and Shiva, is a legend. It’s more of a disaster: they were born connected, but rudely separated, to a disgraced Indian nun who died in childbirth, and a disappeared father who has born the guilt for decades to come. While their parents have quit parenthood, the brothers thrive on under the care of Hema and Ghosh, who are physicians at Missing Hospital in Addis Ababa.

Hema, whom the twins call Ma, left her own country to pursue her dream being a physician. India is no place for her, let alone earning the respect of a female Brahmin doctor. The tough and fearless woman directs her rage at all men who have taken her for granted and belittle her professional skills. Could this be the reason of her regarding Ghosh’s courtship a joke? But the orphaned twins and their ailments have tied their knot for life. The miracle of survival has taught the couple to never take anyone for granted. The babies’ calling entwine them for life.

The story is told from Marion’s perspective, some forty six years after his birth. Under the tutelage of Ghosh, and a childhood at Missing Hospital that imparts him lessons about fortitude and frailty of life, has developed a predilection of medicine. But the true call to being a surgeon arrives when a coup erupts in Ethiopia, awakening his feral intelligence. During the awful period with Ghosh in jail, Marion continues to immerse in the study of medicine. Fate and Genet, the girl for whom he has saved himself all the years, have conspired to render his life even more checkered: his brother Shiva has betrayed him with Genet, who later becomes a member of an anti-government guerilla force. Forced to leave Ethiopia to dodge the purge of military, Marion flees to America for find refuge in his work as an intern at an underfunded, overcrowded New York City hospital. He’s unreconciled, unconsoled, and unrequited.

“What human language captures the dislocation, the acute insufficiency of being in the presence of the superorganism, the sinking, and the shrinking of feeling at this display of modernism? It was as if nothing I’d ever done in my life prior to this counted. As if my past was revealed to be a waste…” [382]

Cutting For Stone is a family saga set in the field of medicine. It is a map of ineluctable destiny of people whose lives are entwined by chance. Once the connection is established, their paths overlap for life. Everything they do—every decision they make, every action they take, and every seed they sow (or not sow), becomes part of their destiny. Not only their actions, but also their omissions, contribute to the events that take place over the next thirty years. Marion must entrust his life to the two men he thought he trusted least in the world: the surgeon father who abandoned him and the brother who betrayed him. The novel illustrates that life is about fixing the wound that divides family. It might take a lifetime to suture and to heal. This is a riveting tale of love across generation and geography. Dr. Verghese has written an unforgettable story of love that is real, because true love is often unreasonable, irrational, but lasting like the characters have demonstrated in this novel. [Read/Skim/Toss]

Ethiopian Fiction – Doctor and Nun

vergheseLet me entice you with yet another book that I cannot put down despite the busy schedule toward the end of the semester. Cutting For Stone is the debut novel of Dr. Abraham Verghese, who is a Professor for the Theory and Practice of Medicine at Stanford University. Set in Addis Ababa, capital of Ethiopia, in 1954, Sister Mary Joseph Praise died in childbirth. She is survived by twin sons Marion and Shiva. Rumor has it that Dr. Thomas Stone for whom Sister has worked as an assistant in the surgery room is the father of the twins.

The novel is narrated by one of the twin brothers. The gripping read takes opens in a mission hospital in Ethiopia and travels on a boat out of India to Yemen, then an inner-city hospital in New York City, and finally back in Ethiopia to complete the epic story of the twin brothers who seek to unlock the life of their mother.

“We two unnamed babies, newly arrived, were without breath. If most newborns meet life outside the womb with a shrill, piercing wail, ours was the saddest of all songs: the stillborn’s song of silence…The legend of our birth is this: identical twins born of a nun who died in childbirth, father unknown, possibly yet inconceivably Thomas Stone. The legend grew, ripened with age, and, in the retelling, new details came to light. But looking back after fifty years, I see that there are still particulars missing.” [98]

The novel is scheduled to release by Knopf in February 2009. Dr. Verghese will kick off his 14-city book tour in our very own Palo Alto in the Bay Area.

[170] Little Bee: A Novel – Chris Cleave

lbee“This is the moment. Even for a girl like me, then, there comes a day when she can stop surviving and start living. To survive, you have to look good or talk good. But to end your story well—here is the truth—you have to talk yourself out of it.” [220]

Little Bee is exactly what Sarah Summers is not. Little Bee flees from Nigeria where an oil war annihilates her village and takes the life of her family. Sarah is a London editor who strives to maintain a balance between the glossy magazine job and suburbia parenting amidst a marriage awash in a storm. Little Bee suffers a wounded psyche while Sarah fights with her husband over building a glasshouse in the garden. Yet as the book (note I say book, not story) unfolds, when their narratives communicate, they have more in common than just the color of skin, the flag of the country, the Queen’s English they speak, and the station in life which they find themselves would them to believe.

The subtexts eventually conveys the truth that both women are refugees who desperately seek a different kind of shelter: Little Bee a place in the world where she can undress her protective guise and live like a human being. Sarah a second chance to amend her marriage that her affair has marauded. The circuitous circumstances that lead to their fateful meeting at the African beach can’t better demonstrate that human beings, stripped of the socioeconomic nutshell, are just helpless creatures as the mercy of mother nature, deprived of any great effort upon the vast warm wind of events that are greater than them.

But the book doesn’t begin with the horrific scene, which is really the heart of the matter. Instead Chris Cleave plunges into the aftermaths that afford the complicated terrains of these women’s emotions and trickle their way back to the central event. The result is a style, almost like synecdoche, of a dramatic caliber befitting the nature of this special story. Maybe it is indeed a synecdoche, since the book is released in the British Commonwealths under the title The Other Hand. The hand and finger play a crucial role in the story. Who wouldn’t be drawn into the story of a sixteen-year-old Nigerian girl whose two-year custody at the immigration detention center exemplifies political cruelty of the West? The mandates to survive—conforming to the dress code and speech—paradoxically dehumanizes her. Is it dignity for liberty? For Sarah, the dream vacation that was to save her marriage freeloads her life to a disaster. For years after the beach incident memories swirl in her mind—inchoate, senseless and miserable. Faith stymied, she escapes to something that disquiets her conscience. Little does she know that the Nigerian refugee is the keeper of a truth that will ease her scruple.

Little Bee is a novel that reminds us of humanity, humanity at its best and most invincible, in the face of horror and sorrow. The manner with which their disparate lives intersect is serendipitous, and how this story unfolds is magic. The book is both heartwarming and heartbreaking, nudging the terrains of delicate emotions. The voice of the Nigerian girl is sardonic and vulnerable, reminiscing the sarcastic tone of the narrator in The White Tiger. [Read/Skim/Toss]

Reading Little Bee

Last call for the Books Giveaway to win the book of your choice by December 1.

The Sunday Salon.com

lbee“I was realizing, right there, that it was one thing to learn the Queen’s English from books and newspapers in my detention cell, and quite another thing to actually speak the language with the English.” [4]

The back of the ARC reads: “It is a truly special story and we don’t want to spoil it. Nevertheless, you need to know something, so we will just say this: It is extremely funny, but the African beach is horrific…Once you have read it, you’ll want to tell everyone about it. When you do, please don’t tell them what happens either. The magic is in how it unfolds.”

This book rocks. Innovative, tantalizing, and addictive. No sooner had I opened to the first page was I completely taken into the world of Little Bee, the Nigerian refugee girl who spent two years in a detention center in Essex. But there is more to her story that the book will only unfold it at its own pace at the right time. She was one of the few surviving victims of a three-way oil war that annihilated her village.

“Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:32) As for Little Bee (and some of us), it’s far better not to know the truth, to have that painful ruminations of what happened on the Nigerian beach deleted from her brain for good. It’s better to not be in the know unless you’re fully prepared to cope with it.It’s like a wife who finds out about her husband’s affair and she is not angry at the adultery but the cover story. More to come later, I have to sop up this book before the weekend is over.

ARC Teaser: Cutting For Stone

cuttingsAdvanced Reader’s Copy
Publication: February 2009
Knopf, 560 pp.

Marion and Shiva Stone are twin brothers born of a secret union between a beautiful Indian nun and a brash British surgeon at a mission hospital in Addis Ababa. Orphaned by their mother’s death in childbirth and their father’s disappearance, bound together by a preternatural connection and a shared fascination with medicine, the twins come of age as Ethiopia hovers on the brink of revolution. Yet it will be love, not politics—their passion for the same woman—that will tear them apart and force Marion, fresh out of medical school, to flee his homeland. He makes his way to America, finding refuge in his work as an intern at an underfunded, overcrowded New York City hospital. When the past catches up to him—nearly destroying him—Marion must entrust his life to the two men he thought he trusted least in the world: the surgeon father who abandoned him and the brother who betrayed him.

[166] My Abandonment – Peter Rock

001Advanced Reader’s Copy
Publication: March 12, 2009 (revised)
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

“Don’t forget this. Don’t forget that thinking can get in the way. Forget the forgetting. We seek to forget ourselves, to be surprised and to do something without knowing how or why. The way of life is wonderful. It is by abandonment.” [200]

Thirteen-year-old Caroline is a bright kid who has outsmarted the peers of her age. Her father is a veteran who home-schools her with encyclopedias and books from the library while also imbuing in her a rigid code of behavior that schools, or the society as a whole, fails to teach in an age of moral decadence. The anonymous Father (for security purpose) and daughter have lived in Forest Park, a 5400-acres urban park in Portland, Oregon, taking shelter in a house like a cave dug out with roof made of branches, wire and metal with tarp and plastic on top.

“The latrine, a trench with a bag of lime hidden in the bushes, is further away and we dig a new one every two weeks.” [11]

Granted they have settled down in the dark and lived like aborigines, they are expertise in not drawing any attention by eradicating all vestiges. They dress in camouflage and move from time to time. They are constantly in alert of helicopter and wear a flashlight overhead. They never consider themselves homeless because the live in the wood by choice, escaping the wilderness of the city. Father has a bank account into which he deposits his veteran pension check and holds a P.O. box at the post office. This distinction is salient and is often reinforced:

“The bus station is the saddest place to see. Homeless people are asking for change outside and I wait out there while Father goes in. When he comes out he turns so no one can see and he has bills of money folded thick in his hand.” [140]

As much as Father believes Caroline is growing up to be a healthy young woman and that she outsmarts the other kids, she is not a well-rounded kid. Paranoia at times exerts a grip on her. And the Father is a fool who fails to perceive how out-of-sync he is, and how it affects his daughter. Maybe his pride and stubbornness are what drain my sympathy for them as they drift from place to place, despite the tenderness in their relationship. His flaw, which dooms him later, is the naiveté, the ignorance as a result of his being isolated from the society and failing to recognize evil in his face. The issue is no longer about conforming to the society’s rules and expectations, nor is about morality. It’s plain survival, which he fails. His refusal to conform has deprived of common sense altogether. His good intentions and love have seriously gone wrong.

My Abandonment is based on a true story of people who choose to renounce societal tie, and who find themselves at home amidst wilderness, who dream in the direction in which keeping sweetness of one’s solitude has a miserable impact on the quality of life. Despite the tenderness and poignancy with which it is written, the book has a flaw in establishing connection between events before and after the flight from city to wilderness. The mention of some foster family is vague and confusing. The tantalizing story that opening has promised never delivers. This novel doesn’t rank high in priority if one is looking for a gripping storyline. It’s bland like a cup of lukewarm water.

Some New Crushes

The Sunday Salon.com

Advance Reader’s Copy
Publication: March 1, 2009
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Told with great tenderness, My Abandonment is the story of 13-year-old Caroline and her father who have lived for four years on the outskirts of Portland, Oregon, in a forested park. To avoid attention, which might risk their being discovered by the police, they have moved thrice and wear camouflage clothing. It’s a strange novel (based on a true story) that reads like an allegory.

“Our house is like a cave dug out with the roof made of branches and wire and metal with tarp and plastic on top of that and then the earth where everything is growing. Only Father and I see it’s a home.” [12]

Tuesday in Silhouette has posted a very thoughtful review of A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth, a what she calls a very Austenian book that reflects on the cold brutality of relationship in life. So can love and happiness really go together? Or what if your love for someone can’t translate into a lifelong bondage? Another one that catches my attention is Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier. This National Book Award-winning novel, set in final days of the Civil War, tells two parallel stories: that of Inman, a wounded soldier who is engaged in a Homeric journey to get back to his love Ada; and that of Ada, who is struggling to maintain her farm. The strength of this novel is Frazier’s prose, which recreates a time, place, and mood like few other novels set in the past.