Friday, July 24, 2009

Shanghai Girls by Lisa See

I'm starting to feel really guilty because I read Lisa See's Shanghai Girls and somehow never managed to review it. After a few weeks, I figured enough other folks had reviewed it that my review would just be redundant and unnecessary especially since I was well on my way to forgetting most of the finer details. Then, I thought, hey, not only am I punking out on Random House which so nicely sent me this ARC when I was truly dying to have it, but I'm also screwing myself by not writing a review of a book that would count for not one but two challenges. With that plus the fact that I quite enjoyed the book in mind, I will now attempt to call forth my scant memories to compose a nice half-baked review.

Shanghai Girls is the tale of two sisters, Pearl and May Chin, who work as beautiful girls in pre-war Shanghai. As beautiful girls, they pose for various paintings that become advertisements and calendars, and because of their career, they enjoy a good deal of prestige and freedom. Soon, though, their glory days come to an end as war begins to sweep through their beloved Shanghai at the same time as their father is forced to sell the girls as brides to the sons of a man to whom he owes a large gambling debt. Despite their wishes to remain independent, forces beyond their control demand that they flee Shanghai and embark on the dangerous trip to America to join their husbands who are virtual strangers to them. On arrival they will find both less and more than they could have expected and learn to live with their own secrets and heartbreaks in the process.

Despite owning several of See's much praised other novels, Shanghai Girls is the first of her works that I've actually read. I was not disappointed. See's Shanghai leaps off the page both in its glamour and modernity and its poverty and squalor. She captures its melting pot diversity that results from the many contries dividing the city amongst themsevles as well as the unfortunate underside of its rapid growth. At See's whim we can be either awed or disgusted by the city depending on what the situation demands.

Pearl and May are the most captivating of characters. Their sisterly relationship is excellently rendered in that sometimes they seem to actively dislike each other, but when the chips are down, they are utterly loving and loyal to each other. As they face the reality of life with their strict new in-laws and husbands who they've known for all of one day, it is their evident love for each other that strengthens them and keeps them afloat as they face the many challenges that rise up to meet them in Los Angeles.

See's writing is easy to read and has such an admirable flow that Shanghai Girls proves to be hard to put down. My only minor quibble would be with the ending. It was so abrupt and unexpected that I actually turned the last page totally ignorant that it was the last page. I was sure the story had plenty enough steam to go another few chapters at least and felt a bit left hanging by the unexpected ending. Other than that, however, I was really quite thrilled with Shanghai Girls and look forward to reading more of See's work.

Read other reviews at...

A Guy's Moleskine Notebook
S. Krishna's Books
Books and Cooks

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Booking Through Thursday - I prefer....

Ah, how I love it when BTT is easy. But I'm sure I'm going to write more than I'm supposed to...

Which do you prefer? (Quick answers–we’ll do more detail at some later date)

Reading something frivolous? Or something serious?
Serious. A couple of years ago, one of my friends asked me to recommend something to read that was just fun and enjoyable and I totally drew a blank. I've since remedied the problem somewhat.

Paperbacks? Or hardcovers? Paperbacks. But they have to be trade. None of this mass market madness. Blargh.

Fiction? Or Nonfiction? Fiction. Though I do like some good non-fiction on occasion, my bookshelf definitely leans heavily toward fiction.

Poetry? Or Prose? Prose. Poetry is way more likely to make my poor brain hurt.

Biographies? Or Autobiographies? Autobiographies.

History? Or Historical Fiction? Historical fiction.

Series? Or Stand-alones? Stand-alones mostly, but if a series is really good, I'm not opposed to jumping the bandwagon.

Classics? Or best-sellers? Both. Or maybe neither. How about some nice mid-list contemporary literary fiction? Where's that option? ;-)

Lurid, fruity prose? Or straight-forward, basic prose? Each in their own time.

Plots? Or Stream-of-Consciousness? I heart plots.

Long books? Or Short? Good books. Doesn't matter how long they are.

Illustrated? Or Non-illustrated? Non-illustrated.

Borrowed? Or Owned? Owned. I can't hack time limits.

New? Or Used? Both as long as the used ones are in pretty good condition.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Brokeback Megan Talks Books or Whatever

Greetings loyal and oft unrewarded blog readers! I'd apologize for my absence, but we've all seen that song and dance before, haven't we? As is my custom, I have flown back to my blog as a result of physical distress, this time in the form of a twisted lower back. Per doctor's orders, I am not permitted to go to work until Thursday, which I deem to be a little excessive, but perhaps necessary. Given my marked improvement this afternoon, I'm curious as to whether my doctor's excuse also prohibits me from going to see the new Harry Potter movie which I have been eagerly awaiting. I mean, I wouldn't have to stand while watching it, or lift anything, or be tense and stressed out by my co-workers or lack thereof on those particularly short handed days. I really must recover, however, before the weekend. I forked over $125 to get a ticket to Wicked on Broadway and am determined to go even if my companion has to push me around in a wheelchair, though that wouldn't be very convenient and I haven't informed her of that possibility yet.

Anyhow, while I travel the road to recovery, I have found that I've already run out of decent stuff to watch on the idiot box. (May I recommend checking out Defiance on pay per view? Daniel Craig does a great Holocaust hero. Or, if you're feeling cheap and desirous of something with a total lack of intellectual stimulation, lots of Spongebob Squarepants episodes? Something about that guy just makes me happy). Unfortunately, it so happens that the two books I'm reading are both leaving me less than satisfied, so I figure rather than bore myself by reading them, I might be able to manage a few moments in my desk chair to bore you by talking about them. Ah, how I kind of wish I was reading something, how you say, more distracting from my boredom and indefinable discomfort pain and agony.

Anyhow, I'm reading this:

and also this:

and in a moment of desperation I was even driven back to this:

But what I really wish I was reading is this (which came in the mail on Saturday from a Bookcrosser who really knows how to tempt me to trade):

In the Beauty of the Lilies by John Updike is a selection for my church book club, the leader of which hadn't ever read it and now wishes he had. Much after the fact, I received a disclaimer in my e-mail box disclosing that there is rather some explicit s-x contained therein (sorry about the dashes, I'm just hoping not to get any hits on such a search term). Oopsy on the church book club book choosing. Nonetheless, I haven't gotten there yet, but I'm thinking maybe some explicit s-x might really give this book a boost because it is not exciting nor does it appear to be leading up to any sort of point. I wasn't terribly wowed by the other three chapters, but the forth and last chapter seems to be particularly dreadful. I should mention, also, it's got all of about 500 pages, and four chapters. There's nothing worse than reading a book that's not wowing you and having no normal sized chapters to make you feel like you're making progress through it. I find it's both easier and harder to put down because of this whole chapter thing. And the paragraphs are also freakishly long. Don't get me wrong, Updike certainly has a way with words, but all the formatting and the whole "it seems to have no point" thing just keep wrecking my enjoyment. How about you? Does something so frivolous as chapter/paragraph length put you off a book?

Don't Call Me a Crook! is a supposed memoir by a Scotsman by the name of Bob Moore. Now, reading this book is like listening to your crazy great uncle tell stories after he's had a few too many. For awhile it's really funny and you're having a good time, but then the fascination wears off and you're thinking, "Man, you're full of it. Are you done yet?" Every time I look at the cover of this book, it has me thinking that it should be a movie simply so Leo DiCaprio can play Bob Moore because the cover photo so reminds me of Leo. Actually, it really might make for a good movie, but it might be a little too reminiscent of Catch Me If You Can for Leo to star in it. *sigh*

Now, this In the Country of Brooklyn book has been languishing on my bedroom floor for untold months because it is huge, and despite being actually really interesting in parts, is also redundant and seems to have no theme. Now, when I was in college, all my professors told me that even when I was writing history papers they had to have a main point, I couldn't just tell a story. Golenbock obviously didn't study at the chalkboards and overhead projectors of my beloved (???) history professors because this book just kind of meanders down the path to nowhere. I'm in that rotten position where I've read so far into it (because, I told you, it really is interesting) that it seems a shame not to just buckle down and finish it, but all those other books are just crying out at me from the shelf for me to abandon it for them. I remain undecided about my course of action even now.

Alas, I must stop this post which has morphed into Brokeback Megan moans and complains about books and resume my place on the recliner and try to soldier through the rest of In the Beauty of the Lilies if only so I can finally *read something else.* Wish me luck!

Monday, July 6, 2009

Megan Vs. Short Story: Round 2

Speaking of rarely recurring features, it's time for the bi-yearly return of "Megan Vs. Short Story" the origins of which you can read about here. In a nutshell, it's me, the self-confessed non-lover of short stories, occasionally attempting to read and review short stories to see if I can "beat" them...AKA like them.

Needing a break from the densely packed parts of Updike's chunkster, In the Beauty of the Lilies and a break from the far-fetched ramblings of Bob Moore in Don't Call Me a Crook!, I picked up the New Yorker's fiction issue (June 8 & 15, of this year, no less), and delved into the first story I happened upon therein. The story is "The Tiger's Wife" by Tea Obreht, and I'm happy to report that I actually liked it. The story begins with a caged tiger near death during the chaos of a World War II bombing. Instead of dying however, the tiger is loosed upon the countryside of some unnamed Eastern European country (the former Yugoslavia, perhaps?) where he soon becomes an object of myth and superstition as well as some unfortunate realities among the local villagers.

Now, this, in my humble opinion was a good short story. Starting off with the thoughts of the tiger rendered starkly against the destroyed city as seen through his eyes, the story progresses to a village where the tiger serves as the centerpiece of a puzzle. In only a few pages, Obreht introduces a full cast of characters and gives us a tantalizing little taste of each one's nature. Obreht skillfully uses the tiger to reveal the heart of the village with its gossip and its social outcasts, with its superstitions, struggles, and dreams. The writing has a strikingly vivid quality, and Obreht skillfully weaves together several important themes.

Now, I was all set to award myself a point in the Megan vs. Short Story game, but my curiosity about this author who, I think, must have a promising future prompted me to seek out some further information about her. Imagine my excitement, mixed with disappointment when it comes to the game, to visit Tea Obreht's website to find that what I've read is but an excerpt of her debut novel of the same name, to be published in 2010. Methinks this may call into question my point considering this isn't quite a short story after all, but I'll give myself a 1/2 point because it could be and console myself with thoughts of this future novel which I am already looking forward to reading.

Oh, by the way, I did look to see if this was available among the New Yorker's many free online options, and it does not appear to be. Just so you don't think I'm holding out on you - I totally wish I could link it for all five of you loyal readers of my blog and further share my joy at having enjoyed short fiction for a change. ;-)

Short Stories: 1, Megan: .5

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Reading at Random: Lake News

In an age of ARCs, book tours, challenges, readings lists, and neverending prize-winner projects it seems we've lost something, or at least, I have lost something. Gone are the days when I could just wander up to my bookshelf and select a book totally at random and sit down and read it. This and a plethora of books that are leftover from days when I read different sorts of books than I do now, have prompted me to consider a new method of picking books to read, at least, on occasion. Of course, it can't be so simple as my simply walking up to a shelf and picking a book to read lest I do the obvious and pass by those books that I'm not sure I'm interested in anymore yet can't seem to get rid of on the offhand chance that I might still like them. Some mental block precludes me from simply casting them off without even putting them to the 50 page test. Obviously, at some point, I thought I would like each and every one of these books, else why would I have bought them to take up space in my house? Also, I might accidentally forget to randomly choose from those books stacked in boxes, tucked in cubby holes of the unused entertainment center or in a random nook of the desk.

So, with the help of my Library Thing library which, I heartily believe and hope is an accurate representation of all of the books in my actual library compiled in one place and the ever-useful, I have devised a way to make myself read my books. It's all very simple, really. Just sorted my library by rating so I knew how many pages of books I had that I hadn't read and a few randomly generated integers (one to choose the page of 50 books, another to choose the one of 50 on the chosen page) later, I had a book. The only caveat, then, was that regardless of the book it chose, I had to unearth it from the stacks and give it at least 50 pages to hook me. If it didn't, I could be free of it. If it did, well, then I finish it! It's a little fun, a little scary, and a lot unpredictable. And I think it might just work as a means to help me work through my stacks of unloved TBR books.

Thus was born another totally erratic, possibly never recurring (though I hope it will) feature and a creative way of justifying reviewing sorts of books that I almost never seem to read anymore. This one, however, has a pretty picture. See? Pretty, no? We'll say it's even random because you can't see the titles of the, uh, random books, if you will. And the words go funky directions! Don't laugh - you can't imagine the untold hours it took me to make that. I'm good with words, not pictures, okay?

Alas, the system did just what I hoped and didn't hope it would do. It picked for me a book that's been on my shelves for as long as I can remember that I was pretty sure I could knock out with the old 50 page test, Lake News by Barbara Delinsky. A little romance. A little intrigue. A little more "commercial" than my average read as my mother so insightfully pointed out when I took it with me on vacation. So with some trepidation, some cynicism about my past reading tastes, and not a little distaste (I have all these great books and I'm reading this?) I started in on my 50 pages and found that I read past the 50 page mark in no time at all. That's right, I read it to the bitter end and proved myself right in my total unwillingness to cast off the untried book. Okay, so maybe it's not a marvel of literary art, but I was engaged, I did like the characters, and what woman can't go for a little romance once in a while, even if it's just in a book? (Especially if it's just in a book?)

Lake News is the story of Lily Blake whose passion is for music and for performing. She has a comfortable, if not extravagant, life in Boston where she teaches music at a private school and moonlights as a singer in a posh dinner club. All that changes when an off-the-record conversation with a reporter about her friend, a newly promoted Cardinal in the Catholic church, is twisted into a libelous front page story of her supposed affair with the Cardinal. Suddenly, Lily's life is crumbling around her as countless reporters hound her and dismantle the reputation she has worked so hard to build for herself in Boston. Before long the negative publicity drives both her bosses to fire her, and she becomes a virtual prisoner in her apartment where even her neighbors are in a fury at the hoards of reporters laying siege to her building. Soon, Lily knows she has no choice but to return to the small hometown she wanted nothing more than to escape. But what will she find on the shores of Lake Henry? Will the denizens of her old town protect her or turn on her? Will she be able to patch up longstanding problems with her mother? And why does John Kipling, editor of the town's weekly Lake News, keep turning up? Is he looking for a story? Or is it something more?

This is not the sort of book that it takes rocket science to figure out. As a matter of fact, I'm sure you can guess just about all the answers to my questions. That said, though, I actually quite liked this book. Both Lily and John are fully fleshed out characters struggling with scars from the past and hurts from the present, each looking to somehow prove their worth to themselves and to their still difficult parents. It's easy (or perhaps I mean difficult?) to feel Lily's pain as her life is stolen out from under her based solely on lies and easy to know her uncertainty about how to go about remedying the situation. Lake Henry and its citizens are good-hearted, close-mouthed when it counts, and refreshingly quaint in that small town way. Delinsky's story has a great flow, unloading bits of intrigue and leaving a trail of romantic encounters between John and Lily that carries readers along to its satisfying conclusion. No, it's no literary masterwork of the sort that I usually read (LOL!), but it is a refreshingly good story that leaves you feeling fulfilled in a way that those literary fiction types with frustratingly ambiguous endings can't do.


So, there you have it. My first experience with reading randomly, and an oddly rewarding one at that. Are you searching for an escape from your regimented reading schedule? Feel free to join me in reading at random. Perhaps you'll find it as refreshing as I have. It's not your method of random choosing that matters so much - I've obviously taken my randomness to the limit (though I do recommend this method which is so very...random) - as long as you're reading a book that you are in no way obligated to read whether that obligation is to yourself and some insane book list you've made or to authors, publishers, challenges, or even friends. Here's to making reading a little more random again!