“In Canada in 1991, ten-year-old Marie and her mother invite a guest into their home: a young woman called Ai-Ming, who has fled China in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square protests.
Ai-Ming tells Marie the story of her family in Revolutionary China – from the crowded teahouses in the first days of Chairman Mao’s ascent to the Shanghai Conservatory in the 1960s and the events leading to the Beijing demonstrations of 1989. It is a story of revolutionary idealism, music, and silence, in which three musicians – the shy and brilliant composer Sparrow, the violin prodigy Zhuli, and the enigmatic pianist Kai – struggle during China’s relentless Cultural Revolution to remain loyal to one another and to the music they have devoted their lives to. Forced to re-imagine their artistic and private selves, their fates reverberate through the years, with deep and lasting consequences for Ai-Ming – and for Marie.”
Winner of the Giller Prize and Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction and nominated for the Man Booker, this is no doubt an important literary novel but I found it hard to get into and kept losing the thread. There are a lot of characters with multiple names and time shifting to add to the confusion. I soldiered on and found the second half better, but I know a lot of people who have given up on this novel before the first 100 pages were finished and that is a shame. Some editing of the first half might have helped and I think I would have benefited from a family tree chart and character list (which are actually available on Wikipedia). Parts of it were beautifully written, and there are interesting aspects, but even though I tried, I found it hard to connect to the characters. What did come through loud and clear in this book, was the controlling feature of Chinese government and politics in this time period. The author did powerfully use music as a passionate and poignant counterpoint to strict cultural and political ideologies. Telling Chinese history is tricky and often dangerous business. Thien courageously tackles this, but the book falls into the unfortunately common trap of being a noteworthy literary novel that is not readable enough for a wide audience.
For a more literary review of this book, please go the Globe and Mail or The Guardian. Both are excellent resources.
“I am a refugee. My family went to sleep in one world and woke up in another, and more than anyone in my family I was trapped between those worlds. I was born in Vietnam, but I was not Vietnamese; I was raised in America. I grew up Asian in character but American in culture, a citizen but always a refugee. I had no lessons from the past to guide me, no right way to do things in the present, and no path to follow to the future.”
This is the incredible personal account of a refugee who fled from certain death and found flourishing life. It is a real-life rescue story, a poignant family drama, and a telling of recent world history. Many North Americans will remember the “boat people” who became thankful recipients of resettlement to a new life in a new land through resilience, determination, and many helping hands along the way. But what was it like for a young boy in a large family, suddenly separated from all he’d ever known, thrust into a different culture? Why was his Dad, who used to be a wealthy manager, now working a menial job? How would he be affected by this survival and redemption? How does a refugee see himself differently from an immigrant who chooses to leave?
Vinh Chung, originally from China, was born in South Vietnam, just eight months after it fell to the communists in 1975. His family was wealthy, controlling a rice-milling empire worth millions; but within months of the communist takeover, the Chungs lost everything and were reduced to abject poverty and forced to leave. They had no choice but to take their chances in a boat on the pirate infested waters of the South China Sea.
Rescued by a World Vision mercy ship, Chung went on to become a Fulbright Scholar, Harvard graduate, successful surgeon, and philanthropist. Chung is now a WV US board member. The book includes some history of the early days of that organization under Stan Mooneyham and operation Seasweep. There’s a wonderful collection of photos included in the back of the book.
Rod Dreher is a columnist for The American Conservative, author of several books, and blogger about topics like religion, politics, film, and culture. He was brought to his knees by the death of his little sister Ruthie. When she was diagnosed at the age of forty with a hugely aggressive cancer, Rod returned to the small town where he grew up but had left behind in his youth. When he returned, he was surprised and humbled by the great love he witnessed in the community. His relationship with this town was fraught and his ties to family sometimes misunderstood and thin. Through a hard won lesson, Dreher learned that living in a small town did not mean living a small life. Rod wrote this memoir as a tribute to his sister, being brutally honest about loss and love, faith and family, struggle and sacrifice. He tells this true story well and honestly, discovering even things about himself along the way that he did not know. What he did know in the end, was that his sister’s death taught him how to live.
I once heard American writer Rhoda Janzen speak about memoir at a writer’s conference. She said memoir should be more than the story of a life, it should point to something beyond, some further resolve or purpose. She did this beautifully in Mennonite in a Little Black Dress as does Dreher in this book. The books are very different stories but come to very similar conclusions. Both authors, in an unsentimental and thought provoking manner, rediscover their roots and humbly realize the warmth and joy of coming home.
NPR Interview with the author:
A Grieving Brother Finds Solace in his Sister’s ‘Small Town’
Tom Brackett has not had the perfect childhood. His mother began acting strangely after the birth of his sister Beverly and his Dad is distant, although not uncaring. One day he is whisked away from his parents without warning or explanation and is sent to live with his grandmother. Eventually we learn that his mother has a serious mental illness and his father is alcohol addicted.
Now Tom has created the perfect world for himself, despite all odds; he has a good job, a supportive wife, two kids, a mini-van, and even a golden retriever. But then, one day, something overcomes him to commit a sudden and terrifying act of violence that changes everything.
This is a compassionate look at the life and mind of someone trying hard to control his own life while struggling with mental illness. It is beautifully rendered and unflinching. Mental illness is handled much better now-a-days than say 50 years ago, but still needs more honest exposure, understanding, and open conversation. This book delivers a glimpse into a personal journey (albeit fictional) that is brutal, but not without hope. In what is actually more of an extended short story, Colford provides one view into the complexities of mental health, and it is just that. He doesn’t give any advice or definitive answers or happy endings, and for that I applaud him.
In researching this Canadian author, on his blog, I ran across his idea of what a good read should look like, and I wholeheartedly agree:
“…an engaging story told with verve and imagination and a sensitivity to language. I want to be pulled into the lives of characters I care about. I want to turn the pages because I have to find out what happens next. But I don’t want to be comforted or coddled. I want to be surprised, maybe even shocked, and definitely thrown off balance. If the writer can challenge me by shattering my expectations while also bringing the story to a satisfying conclusion, so much the better.”
There’s a lot of things I liked about this book (the cover art is great!) but I wouldn’t highly recommend it. It’s ok, but it felt a bit like a waste of time in the end, to be honest. It’s a bit like The Girl on the Train meets Agatha Christie–a contemporary old style whodunit with an unreliable narrator, all of the characters contained in one place, and the killer hiding in plain sight–on a cruise ship.
Laura (Lo) Blacklock can’t believe her good fortune when she ends up with an assignment on a luxury liner, cruising the fjords in the North Sea. A journalist for a travel magazine, it’s the trip of a lifetime for Lo, except that she unwittingly gets caught up in a murderous plot that threatens to take her life. The cruise ship setting was intriguing, as was the premise, but it ended up being a bit slow and boring at times. I found some parts of the story confusing and illogical which I found annoying. I did want to find out what happened so I kept reading and finished it, but I don’t think it was worth it in the end. If you are marooned on a desert island when your boutique boat has sunk, and this is the only book available, by all means go for it, but there was nothing special about it from my perspective.
“It all sounds quite Gothic,” he said. “A huge old house, stuck on an island in bad weather, an unsolved murder, mysterious encounters with ghosts and rude townspeople, even the eerie old maid.”
Hallie James was raised by her father, being told, as a child, that her mother had died in a fire. Naturally, she’s shocked to receive a letter years later stating that her mother just died recently. Anxious to know what really happened, Hallie travels to a beautiful but remote island in the Great Lakes where her mother lived. Hallie isn’t exactly embraced warmly by the locals, and she realizes the secrets to her past are likely to be revealed on this mysterious and strange island.
A nice spine tingling romantic ghost story for a windy night curled up in front of the fire with a steaming cup of tea. But not so scary that you can’t let your husband go up to bed early, leaving you alone. I liked the creative premise and felt intrigued by the journey Hallie takes to find out who she really is. It reminded me of The Secrets Between Us by Louise Douglas, which I also really enjoyed. Although I believe in the spirit world, I’ve never encountered any ghosts, so that keeps me always looking for and preferring reasonable living explanations for the naughty souls long passed who keep doing weird things and just won’t go away!
A light contemporary spooky read that is also warm and fuzzy and kept my attention throughout! I think I have found a new author to return to for horror-lite!