Sunday, December 1, 2019

The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

I’m not sure why it took me so long to read this one, perhaps because it’s such a slim volume that seems to get swallowed up in the overabundance for my bookshelves.  

The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka is the beautiful, poetically rendered story of Japanese picture brides, lured to the American west coast in the early 20th century by promises of a new life and young husbands made wealthy in a nation where the “streets are made of gold.”  The reality of the life they find is much different, filled with grueling work, devious men, ignorance, and racism.

Otsuka tells their stories as a collective, using the first-person plural “we” throughout the book, and what could easily become an irritating conceit is instead wielded with power to tell the story of many in few words.  While there may not be a specific character to latch on to, Otsuka manages to beautifully capture the essence of a whole experience, nimbly passing from woman to woman, from the farm worker, to the laundress, to the maid until she has drawn out the breadth of their experience.  A powerful story, beautifully told.  Highly recommended.

Monday, July 29, 2019

The Chelsea Girls by Fiona Davis

I had such high hopes for this book at the start.  The Chelsea Girls gets off to a very fast-paced start as Hazel, a perennial Broadway understudy lands in Italy to join the USO Tour, and she is catapulted immediately onto the stage.  The action doesn't let up as Hazel and her new friend Maxine find themselves coming to the aid of a German boy suspected of being a spy.  Hazel and Maxine's days with the USO tour are rendered with the sort of alternating mystique and heartbreak that you might expect of adventures in a new place, but one that is broken by war.

However, when the war ends and the two return to the states - Maxine to a burgeoning career in Hollywood and Hazel to New York City and her mother's oppressive disappointment, the story seems to lose some of its spark.  The Chelsea Hotel and its denizens are well-wrought but Hazel's entrance onto the scene and her "inspired" career in writing and directing is too easily come by to the point of feeling contrived.

The two friends reunite to stage Hazel's Broadway debut, but there are forces at work that stand to rob Hazel of her fifteen minutes of fame.  The communist hunting House Un-American Activities Committee puts Hazel in a different kind of spotlight, and leading lady Maxine's behavior becomes more and more bizarre until everything comes to a head on opening night.  Unfortunately, both female main characters seem to grow more wooden instead of less as the story progresses.  Hazel's responses to her circumstances seem to be ill-placed, not occurring when would seem natural but being delayed and then awkwardly inserted for dramatic effect.

Despite its failings, though, The Chelsea Girls successfully tackles an era of history that is often glossed over.  Davis captures the paranoia running rampant in politics during the McCarthy era, the fear that an offhand remark could ruin a life, and the witch trial-esque interrogations where the only option seemed to be to name names or be taken to be a communist yourself.  Between that and a well timed twist that I definitely wasn't expecting, I'd still recommend this book.

(Review copy received from the publisher in exchange for review consideration.)

Monday, June 24, 2019

The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin

I read voraciously when I was a kid.  I miss younger me and how easy it was for me to get engrossed in a book and the admirable pace I could devour them.  The Westing Game was one of my very favorite books read, of the very many books I was capable of reading back then, and so when I happened across a copy, I wanted to see if the magic was still there.  Short answer, no, it appears I've aged and my reading tastes have changed a good deal since I was in middle school (shocking, I know!), but it was still fun to revisit one of my old favorites.

As The Westing Game begins, a large group of tenants is moving into their new home, upscale apartment building Sunset Towers. Little do these tenants know, as they come to inhabit their new abode, that their being brought together is anything but coincidental.  On a hill near Sunset Towers lives the mysterious Samuel Westing, paper magnate and the town's namesake.  Well, at least he did live there until his life was ended by some nefarious means.  From beyond the grave, however, Mr. Westing wants to play a game of inheritances, one that will reveal his murderer is too close for comfort.  The Sunset Towers tenants are his heirs, but one is also a murderer, and only one will win Mr. Westing's game and a staggering inheritance.

What ensues is a fast-paced mystery with a 16 murder suspects who each have their own secrets.  Younger me would have loved the many moving parts and the elaborate puzzle Raskin creates.  Even having at one point read the outcome, I couldn't guess at the truth.  Older me was a little baffled by the shear abundance of characters. In such a short book, it feels impossible to get a picture of any of them that is more than the briefest of caricatures.  Older me prefers character development over a briskly moving plot, apparently.

Nonetheless, The Westing Game is a classic of children's literature, and it's aged surprisingly well.  To read it, you'd hardly guess it was first published over 40 years ago.  The shin-kicking perennially neglected but good-hearted Turtle Wexler makes a great heroine for kids to root for.  As for the adult characters, it's funny to read this book as an adult and realize how recognizable some of these caricatures are from life - the self-important judge, the single-minded track star, the know-it-all intern, the bashful bride who wanted something more from her life, and the insecure person whose continuing efforts to get noticed by her peers make her that much more forgettable - they're all here.

The Westing Game is a clever, fun book that I wouldn't hesitate to recommend to a new generation.

Monday, June 17, 2019

Praise Song for the Butterflies by Bernice L. McFadden

Abeo Kata lives a charmed life in Port Masi, a city in the fictional country of Ukemby.  Her mother was a model and her father is a well-compensated employee of the government treasury.  After her grandfather dies and her father brings her widowed grandmother to live with the family in Port Masi, Abeo's perfect childhood begins to crumble.  Her father's job is in jeopardy as he stands accused of embezzling, her little brother's health is failing, the family car is broken down, and the house is springing leaks.  While Abeo remains sheltered, her father finds himself being crushed by the weight of this reversal of fortune such that when his mother suggests the old custom of giving Abeo as trokosi to appease the gods and save the rest of his family from ruin, he gives in to the pressure, and Abeo's new, tortured life as a slave of the gods begins.

McFadden's storytelling really shines at the beginning of the book when she is drawing out the idyll of Abeo's childhood.  Well loved and ignorant of the troubles beginning to brew among the adults in her life, Abeo is insulated in her perfect life.  The childlike joy Abeo feels on adventures with her visiting aunt Serafine makes it all the more potent when her perfect life is torn away and she is enslaved at the religious shrine.

After that, things get kind of strange.  McFadden's writing style is blunt and simple.  The book reads quickly moving from plot point to plot point with little embellishment.  In fact, McFadden's writing is so straightforward at times it seems nearly artless.  In the parts where Abeo is enduring torture at the ends of the "priests" at the shrine, this comes across as stark and affecting. However, in later parts of the book, it seems to gloss over the details of Abeo's recovery, oversimplifying the struggle of recovering from unspeakable trauma.

There are parts of this book that really shine.  It is a compelling, unputdownable read on the surface.  However, it doesn't seem to stand up to much reflection.  Under scrutiny, it doesn't seem to come together all that well as a whole and the unusual writing style doesn't seem altogether appropriate to the story being told.

(My copy provided by the publisher via LibraryThing's Early Reviewer program.)

Monday, February 18, 2019

The Legend of Colton H. Bryant by Alexandra Fuller

Alexandra Fuller, much more acclaimed for her memoirs of her childhood in Africa, penned this book after moving to Wyoming.  I recognized her name, loved the cover, and was actually in Wyoming, so I couldn't resist picking this up at a gift shop east of Yellowstone.  I started it on the plane ride home and couldn't put it down.  

I've driven across Wyoming twice in my life now, and there's something amazing about it.  It's still got a wild, untamed sort of feel that I've never experienced anywhere else.  Its sprawling miles of mountains and plains are staggeringly beautiful, but they do have that edge of danger about them too.  While passing through, I really wanted to know what it was like to live there, not just passing through on warm late spring day, but what it would feel like to live there year round.

The Legend of Colton H. Bryant gave me a taste of it, and not necessarily a sweet one.  Colton is the young son of an oil rig worker.  Never much good at school and always looking to follow in his father's footsteps, it was practically inevitable that Colton himself would one day end up working on the rigs.  Fuller paints a picture of a mostly happy go lucky, good hearted kid, growing up on the high plains of Wyoming, breaking horses, hunting, camping, going out on the rodeo circuit but ultimately heading to work for big oil.

In this lightly re-imagined telling of Colton's life, Fuller manages to bring out that spirit Wyoming seems to wear on its face, indescribable open spaces and mountain vistas that only thinly disguise a harder edge.  The people she introduces readers to are hard living, hard working, decent types carving a life out in a place that's not quite hospitable.  At the same time, Fuller is writing a scathing indictment of big oil, an industry that dominates Wyoming's economy, preying on a lack of other opportunity and an often undereducated workforce trying to eke out a living.

Fuller expertly draws out the lives of Colton and his family and friends, showing us a big hearted, loyal boy who grew into young family man trying to earn a living to support his wife and kids.  Fuller, just as skillfully, lets readers in on the issues with big oil in Wyoming - the hours, the undertraining, the under-penalized safety violations, and countless underhanded ways of sticking it to a labor pool that doesn't have much other opportunity.

The Legend of Colton H. Bryant is heavy with foreshadowing.  There isn't a moment in the book, even while Fuller amuses us with Colton's childhood antics, that doesn't carry the weight of looming tragedy.  This book is a true heartbreaker of a story and a powerful call to action against the sort of corporate greed that ruins both landscapes and lives.  Highly recommended.