Monday, June 21, 2010

Up Late

Last night I stayed up very late reading a novel, Kitchen Chinese by Ann Mah. Light, funny, full of detail about life in today's Beijing for an American-Chinese expat journalist. Exotic stuff to me, different from Amy Tan and Ming Dao, and I stayed with it well past midnight, willing to read all night, but finally giving in to sleep. Looking at the author's note, I see lots of parallels between the life and the novel, but it's a fine story well written. Isabelle, a young woman from the US moves to Beijing to redesign her life, to escape the smothering matchmaking of her family and to reunite with her only sister, a successful lawyer of impeccable education and wardrobe. Isabelle struggles with her poor Mandarin--hence the title, which refers to the language she learned as a child in her mother's kitchen, struggles with her self-image, as in Chinese or American? Struggles with her historically unsuccessful attempt at maintaining a relationship. Hmmm, all girl stuff, plus the exotic. I'm hooked.

The last time I raved here over a book it was John Irving's The Last Night in Twisted River, a sprawling novel set in New England, spanning a whole life time for the protagonist. I've put it aside to read Wah's book and I'm intrigued by my defection. I've lost my connection to Irving's characters, who were compelling at first. But because his canvas is so large, we get salient points back filled by a third person narrator, a distancing effect not felt in Wah's first person narrative, wherein the back story develops as dialogue between the sisters. And the whole time frame of the current action is much more compact. It also helps me, as a persnickety reader, that no one dies in Beijing, violently or otherwise. I can relax into the story. It helps that the relationships drive the plot. I'm a sucker for peeking into someone else's head and snooping around in their motivation.

With Irving, actions--often reactions--drive the story along. Fate! Whereas Isabelle is constantly making decisions for which she must, and does, take responsibility. I could go on and on about the contrasts in these books, but I won't. It's just helpful to me as a reader to say why I'm willing to read for hours at a stretch in one book and will likely return the other to the library unfinished.  

Sunday, June 13, 2010

John Irving and the Cook, the Writer, and the Woodcutter

In his twelfth novel, John Irving has me captured--almost. The Last Night in Twisted River takes place in my native New England, features an Italian cook, his novelist son, and a crude but wise woodsman. These men are circled and loved and hated and rescued by a cast of women who never quite achieve full characterization. That sort of works, because this book is about the three men and their failings and attachments to each other. People die because of them. Not always the right people.

What keeps me reading is the embedded lessons on novel writing--a talent which I still lack despite repeated tries. The story line shifts frequently in time, in point of view, and in subject matter. In one sitting, I can see how foreshadowing works, how flashback works, how the motivations of the key characters look from differing perspectives. Hints and details matter. For example, a woman with a notable head of long, dark hair is first seen as unique and attractive in a heavy-set way. When said woman is mistaken by a boy for a bear, she dies from a blow with his iron skillet, and I think aha! that  hair was not a casual trait. It sets the stage for a key event. This killing propels the cook and his then young son into an unsettled life of risk and suspense.  I'm a bit more than half way through the book, wishing it moved a little faster, but willing to see what Irving pulls out from under his hat next. Stay tuned.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Amazing! Appalling.

It's back! For a month I was unable to sign in and now I can! Whee! The mysteries of cyberlife, huh? For those who might occasionally check in here, I've just come back from a week in New Orleans with very mixed feelings. Of course, the overarching concern is the death of so much life and livelihood in the Gulf. Despite that shadow hanging over them, the people in the city keep going, as they have before in the face of disaster. The French Quarter, you'll remember, and the Garden District were spared the worst of Katrina and tourists go about their shopping, drinking, beignet eating as usual. By the time I left on Thursday, May 27th, however, I was seeing signboards outside of seafood restaurants listing specials that features fresh water fish. I had eaten oysters the first day I was there, but by the end of the week, I was relying on barbecue for the flavor of NOLA. The spill is so wide reaching in its impact that we will see changes in everything--the cost of shipping in shrimp and crab, the fishing families out of work or working on the recovery efforts, future generations having to break a long tradition on the water, and the gut wrenching effects on the waterfowl, the fish, the ocean which is the basis of our lives, whether we live along its edge or not. We must speak out and speak up. Keep the event in focus and press for real solutions. Above all, we must hold responsible those who failed to plan ahead and allowed eleven people to die and an environmental catastrophe of unimaginable proportions.