Sunday, August 26, 2012

The Hundred Secret Senses - Amy Tan

Amy Tan is one of those writers who books I always seem to enjoy when I read them, but I haven't read too many - and luckily for me, she has a lot of them.  In The Hundred Secret Senses, half-Chinese-American Olivia is pestered constantly by her full-Chinese born half-sister, Kwan Li.  Olivia just wants to live a normal existence, but finds this difficult with her sister constantly interferring with advice - particularl advice from the ghosts that she is in contact with on a regular basis.  When Olivia's marriage fall apart, she agrees to travel to China - with Kwan Li and her ex-husband.  The book switches between the present day - and Kwan's storytelling of her previous life in China.  As with many of Tan's books, it is a story of past lives and family history, and establishing identity in the face of tremendous expectation.  While the characters were at times infuriating - Olivia is so stubborn (and downright mean at times) and Kwan is so overbearing - Tan writes them as real people - just like one's own family who you can't help but love and protect despite their never-ending annoyances.  

Friday, August 24, 2012

Flux - Peggy Orenstein

I first read this book after I had just graduated from law school.  I was single and fairly certain that I never wanted to have children.  As the book looks at professional women and their choices involving raising families, I felt like it reinforced my belief that it is impossible to have it all, and that having children would only derail what I hoped would be a focused and successful legal career.  Years later, the book was still on my shelves.  But, this time around, I'd been praticing law for almost 12 years, I had a young son, and plans for more children in the future.  I have a husband who supports my career- but who definitely has one of his own.  And so, the majority of the child-care falls to me.  In many ways, I feel like I am the disappointment that Orenstein predicted in women with professional potential who choose to take time to have children.  Re-reading this book while in a completely different place in my life was very interesting.  I found it frustrating and almost hopeless - sad to realize that I'd stepped off the competitive career track that I always saw myself on - or maybe sad to realize that I'm the stereotype of the woman who decided that a high-powered legal career wasn't giving me the satisfaction I thought I deserved. While having a family certainly isn't the be-all-end-all, I enjoy it.  And I enjoy having a job that I love as opposed to one that other people think that I am supposed to have.  I do wonder if it's possible to "have it all" and still get sleep at night.  I feel like I've made the right choices for me that have led to more happiness in my career and personal life than I thought I'd ever have, but still feel like it came at the sacrifice of being a trail blazer or making things any easier for the women who come after me - that feeling still gnaws at me often.  Other women I've spoken to about this book found it comforting - to know that there are other women who struggle with the same doubts as they do.  I found it frustrating - wishing that more people could find a way to have pieces of everything they want, or to be happy in what they have.  Mostly, I wish that we could all find a way to feel comfortable in our decisions, and support others who make ones that are not the same as ours - and for those of us that have choices, to appreciate that reality.  This is a conversation I think will be going on for decades to come, as women wrestle with what we want and what we are willing to give up to achieve it.  This is a great book for sparking debate and serious thought about the life one wants to lead - but getting through it was definitely (for me) no walk in the park.

The Great Railway Bazaar - Paul Theroux

I've been itching for some good travel lately, but unfortunately, circumstances have kept me definitely time for some armchair travel.  I've never traveled by train, but romanticize about it, and Paul Theroux seems to be the master of this type of travel.  The Great Railway Bazaar was written over 30 years ago and chronicles Theroux's escapes on the rail through Asia.  He is very matter of fact in his writing, and it reminded me a great deal of Kerouac's On the Road - just detailing day-to-day life, sight seen, strange people met, and general observations.  But, unlike many travel diaries/memoirs written today, there isn't a lot that felt personal about the writing.  While I'm sure Theroux learned a lot about himself on the trip, he didn't delve into his past or make any psychological evaluations of his experience.  Rather, this is more of a straight-forward travel diary - it made for a less salacious read than I'm used to, but still quite educational and inspiring.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The Mercy Room - Giles Rozier

I'm not great with books with unknown or vague narrators - I know, perhaps, that they let the reader's imagination work a little harder, or they stretch one's perceptions and assumptions. But, I think I just need a more concrete story sometimes. I do, however, tend to like books that take place around World War II, as this one does. The basic story is that the narrator is a German teacher living in occupied France during the war. The Nazis recuit this person(whose gender is never identified)to translate documents for them. As the person watches as known acquaintances are marched to their certain death, s/he makes the dangerous decision to hide a Jewish soldier in her home. An illicit love-affair ensues. While the teacher is quite the intellectual, often losing her/himself in the beauty of great literature, s/he is not, as one would expect, very reflective when it comes to the circumstances of her life and those around her. In many ways I found the narrator too dismissive of surrounding horrors - but perhaps this was a survivial mechanism. The gender ambiguity also lends an interesting angle to this novel, which can be read in vastly different ways depending on if the narrator is seen as a woman or a man. I did feel more compelled to see the narrator as a woman given a description of his/her first marriage early in the book, but perhaps this is just a result of sterotypes in my head. Whatever the case, this is an interesting and different little read - not a bad way to pass the afternoon

Chasing Cezanne - Peter Mayle

I tried reading this book years ago and just couldn't get into it - this surprised me because I am a big fan of Peter Mayle's non-fiction writing about his life in France, and in general I like a good art heist story. So, I decided to try again. I had a little more luck this second time around, but still found that the story failed to really hold my attention. The basic story line is that a magazine photographer who takes pictures of the homes and art of the rich and famous, finds himself photographing what he believes to be the theft of a Cezanne. As he reveals his find to the home owner and his connections in the magazine art world, he finds that they are not as eager as he to get to the bottom of the problem. His interest takes him sleuthing throughout France as he uncovers a web of art forgery and deception. The writing in terms of the quirky characters reminded me a lot of Alexander McCall Smith - a fun little mystery - and a nice escape to France. Perfect for reading with my latte and chocolate croissant on a Satuday morning.