Sunday, July 24, 2011

China In American Fiction

This weekend I read a recently-released book by Lisa See called Dreams of Joy; she's also the author of several other China-themed books which I read but haven't really retained well.  The protagonist, Joy, flees her native Los Angeles in the 1950's after a series of events uncovers a family secret. Joy, a naive-to-the-point-of-stupidity college student, decides to go to Communist China to find her father, believing that she can be part of the glorious revolution that is making China so wonderful.  Boy, is she in for a surprise.  Her mother, Pearl, fully recognizing the danger Joy faces, returns to China to find her and bring her home, but of course it's not that simple.

See's descriptions of life during the Great Leap Forward remind me of the books of Betty Bao Lord; I loved her The Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson as a child and enjoyed Eighth Moon and Spring Moon as an adult.  The way life is portrayed during this time is almost too horrible to be believed, but if one reads the latest biography of Mao Zedong by Jung Chang it seems natural that such a man would create these terrible circumstances.

Amy Tan is another writer who seems to have defined the genre of the Chinese in America -- her Joy Luck Club is an excellent book, as well as The Kitchen God's Wife and others.  My favorite, and an exception to her usual genre, is Saving Fish from Drowning, which is set in Burma and features a group of tourists who get lost.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Fiction That Reads Like Nonfiction, and Vice-Versa

This week I got through several books that seemed to be one thing but were in fact another.  Every so often I'm fortunate enough to find a nonfiction book that is so well-written and interesting that it reads like fiction.  Chasing Aphrodite is one such book.  This book focuses on the Getty Museum's acquisitions of art and antiquities looted and sold by back-door methods all over Europe, and it reads like a thriller.  Forgery, vendettas, packing ancient statues in car trunks in the dead of night -- this book has it all.

On the other hand, I also came across a couple of novels that, sadly, read like nonfiction.  That's not to say that they were boring -- on the contrary, they were both interesting.  But when one is expecting a novel, it's disconcerting to read through what is essentially a memoir/history with a few made-up characters.

Farishta, by Patricia McArdle, is the story of Angela Morgan, a diplomat who finds herself in Afghanistan.  The plot is pretty bare bones; most of the story paints a compelling picture of a service life in a war zone and the particulars of life in Afghanistan.  By the time one is done reading, what happens to Angela seems parenthetical and the reader is left with a sense of wonder at the mysterious country that is the graveyard of empires.

The Girl in the Blue Beret is a complete waste of time as a novel -- it's the story of a retired pilot who returns to France to retrace his steps in World War II.  A downed aviator, he was aided by the French Resistance all the way over the Pyrenees to Spain, and he is returning to find the brave men and women who saved him and his crew.  Most of the book consists of narratives from each resistant as he meets them along his journey.  While these narratives are fascinating, the book's plot is barely necessary and is almost nonexistent.  It's worth reading simply to get an idea of the courage and determination of those French who would not stand by and tolerate the German Occupation.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Wild Ride, Indeed

It's not unusual to find overlap between different genres; a case in point would be historical fiction and mystery.  There are many good examples of books which represent the best of both types of writing.  More rare, however, is a book that is a fusion of, say, chick-lit and fantasy.  Wild Ride, by Jennifer Crusie and Bob Mayer, is just that type of book.

Crusie has published several entertaining chick-lit type books; I've never read anything by Mayer, but I'm assuming he brings the fantasy to the table.  Essentially, Wild Ride is a book about an amusement park that is inhabited by demons.  Called the Untouchables, these demons are enclosed in chalices to keep them from wreaking havoc; the longtime park employees make up a group called the Guardia and must endeavor to keep the world safe from the demons and their minions.  Add several young women, a few young men, family secrets, and a love interest, and, Ta-Da! chick-lit and fantasy meld quite entertainingly.

Another book I read this weekend got a song stuck in my head, playing in an endless loop.  Remember that Herman's Hermits song, Henry the eighth I am?  About the fellow who married the widow who'd been married seven times before?  Well, The Ninth Wife doesn't quite play out like that, but at its center is Rory, a man who narrates the stories of his eight marriages, interspersed with the story of Bess, who meets Rory and seems destined to be wife number nine.  The characters in this book are very likable and  don't necessarily develop the way the reader would expect. All in all, this is an engrossing and diverting book.