Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Mambo in Chinatown by Jean Kwok

In Mambo in Chinatown, Jean Kwok writes about topics and situations that she knows well. Kwok was born in Hong Kong and immigrated to Brooklyn as a young girl. She graduated from Harvard and attended the Columbia MFA program. She also worked as a professional ballroom dancer.

Mambo in Chinatown is set in Manhattan's Chinatown and in a world outside Chinatown in a ballroom dance studio uptown in New York. Twenty-two year old Charlie Wong is the main character, an elder sister who lives with her father and her 11 year old sister, Lisa. Lisa is seen by the family as the pretty and talented sister. Charlie struggled in school and works as a dishwasher in the restaurant where their widowed father is a talented noodle cook. The family lives in a tiny apartment and life is not easy for them. Pa's elder brother, Uncle  helps them financially and in return, Lisa works in the office where Uncle practices Eastern medicine.

Gradually, changes develop for the family. Charlie takes a job as a receptionist at a ballroom dance studio. She becomes friends with some of the professional dancers and finds she has a talent for dance, similar to that of her mother who was a ballerina in Hong Kong. Lisa has an opportunity to test for the prestigious Hunter High School. But Lisa also develops a chronic illness. Pa dislikes any change and fears Western medicine and life outside Chinatown, so the family, full of love, is also full of secrets, as the characters struggle to find balance in their lives.

Mambo in Chinatown is well written and full of interesting characters. Details of the life of immigrants in Chinatown, their customs, practices, and foods are contrasted with details of the world of ballroom dance and dancers. Eastern medicine and witchcraft are contrasted with the world of Western medicine. Romance, love, and caring set the tone for this descriptive and sensitive book. 

Kwok's first novel, Girl in Translation, is another story of an immigrant family, a young girl and her mother moving from Hong Kong to New York's Chinatown, and struggling in poverty and through hard work and education to find a better life. I recommend reading Girl in Translation too.

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Friday, September 26, 2014

Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy

There are many books on the Civil War and the spies plied their trade during that war.  There are few books about women spies.  And there were many more woman spying than you would think for a time period when women were considered too frail and not smart enough to participate in war.  This book contains stories about 4 of these women - 2 Confederate sympathizers, 2 Union sympathizers.

The Confederate sympathizers were Bell Boyd and  Rose O'Neal Greenhow. Belle Boyd was a 17 year old with a bad reputation. Not a proper Southern lady at all. She was fierce, she shot to death a Union soldier who was attacking her mother in her home. She also seduced men on both sides to gain information and advantage.

Rose O'Neal Greenhow was a beautiful widow with a young daughter.  She had a reputation as a social climber and a loose woman.  She had numerous affairs with Union officers in order to gain information and she was not above using her young daughter to help her cause.  She once sent the young girl out alone with information to pass onto Rebel camps.

The two Union sympathizers were Emma Edmonds and Elizabeth Van Lew. Perhaps the most interesting of the group, Emma was very much a woman who had had a very unhappy childhood.  Her father had wanted a son so he alternately ignored or abused Emma. She was so unhappy she ran away from home and lived her life as a man, figuring that was the only way she could survive.  She enlisted in the Union Army as Frank Thompson. She never had to take a physical because the Army was so short of volunteers they were taking anyone who showed up. She was in some of the bloodiest battles of the war  moving between the 2 armies as a letter carrier for the Union.  She contracted malaria and that was the end of her undercover adventures.

Elizabeth Van Lew was a wealthy Richmond abolitionist. She pretended to be a proper southern lady as she amassed a large spy ring for the Union, including placing one of her former slaves in the Southern White house. And she did all this while having Rebel detectives following her every move.

The author  uses primary source materials: diaries, letters, war records and interviews with descendants to piece together these stories. The story line weaves from one of the women to another through some of the worst battles of the war: Manassas, Antietam and the siege of Richmond telling of the destruction these women wrecked on themselves and others.

Giving a different view of  Civil war history this biography of 4 very interesting women is just plain interesting.

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Mister Owita's Guide to Gardening by Carol Wall

"What do you do when the script you have planned for yourself doesn't work out? How do you graciously slip into Plan B?" These are the words Carol Wall uses to describe her diagnosis of breast cancer and her struggle to see the richness of  life.

Her memoir is also the story of a unique friendship - that between a Kenyan man (Giles Owita) and a high school English teacher in Roanoke, Virginia. During the course of two years, depicted by the changing seasons, Wall's property is transformed from a neglected and bleak plot of land into a beautiful garden full of color and life. In that time, the author is forced to confront her own conflicted feelings about her aging parents and come to terms with a past she has long buried.

Her fear of touching soil has deep, psychological roots and her general pessimism began when she was a mere child. She once had a sister with Down's Syndrome - a sister who died in childhood. Her mother never discussed the loss with her, yet the fear of losing another child left a deep imprint on both of them.

Likewise, Giles has a past - a past only fully revealed at the book's end. Both he and his wife, Bianca, came to the States fourteen years ago to pursue graduate degrees. They have doctorates from Virginia Tech - he in horticulture and Bianca in human nutrition. Giles' resume contains a list of academic honors and agricultural and horticultural research for the Kenyan government. Neither has been able to secure positions at local universities. Instead, Bianca is working as a nurse and Giles is bagging groceries, working at a plant nursery, and asking a mere $10 per hour from individuals for work in their gardens.

Giles' optimism is an inspiration to the author. Now facing her father's struggle with Alzheimer's and her mother's failing health, combined with her difficult cancer treatment, their friendship deepens and becomes more honest. The garden serves as a healing metaphor.  Walls reflects: "(Giles) traveled 7000 miles to teach me that the ground in winter which is gray and yellow and hard as a brick holds a thousand lovely secrets." https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=42mQKZIVaXk
As do we all.

Mister Owita's Guide to Gardening is a homage to a dear friendship and to the wonders that life holds.

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Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Man on the Run: Paul McCartney in the 1970s by Tom Doyle

Paul McCartney passed through town this summer on what seems like a never ending tour playing Beatles, Wings and solo hits. Despite some battles with ill health, the septuagenarian puts on an epic show, displaying no shortage of energy. Contrast this with after he left The Beatles in 1969 and locked himself and family in a cottage in Scotland, producing the quiet, low-key McCartney and Ram albums, the covers of which reflected his new rural lifestyle. Tom Doyle's new biography Man On the Run: Paul McCartney in the 1970s takes us from those quiet initial years of retrenchment to once again heading one of the world's biggest bands in Wings, and then eventually winding up where he began by putting out a quiet, quirky solo album.

McCartney seemed conflicted with the idea of being a bandleader who could make the majority of decisions in a musical group as opposed to being part of a more democratic environment. When he decided that he needed a group of musicians to support his vision he formed Wings with former Moody Blues guitarist/singer Denny Laine and other musicians who came and went following various personality conflicts. The consensus among musicians who served under McCartney is that while he may have paid lip service to having a variety of voices in the band, in reality they served as paid help for a demanding man who was impossible to know.

It's interesting to see the road that McCartney and Wings took from trying to launch impromptu gigs at college campuses to filling massive halls following the success of the Band on the Run album. Of course one of the tantalizing bits that runs through this book are the various potential Beatles reunions. My favorite anecdote is when McCartney and Lennon were hanging out at Lennon's New York City apartment when Saturday Night Live jokingly offered the Beatles $3000 to perform two songs. McCartney and Lennon considered rushing down to the SNL studios and taking them up on the offer before deciding not to bother. Can you imagine? While various Beatles seem to have been up for at least some one-off reunions during the 70s, the problem seemed to be getting all Beatles on board at the same time. Perhaps this was for the best as The Beatles never soiled their legacy by selling out or putting out product that didn't match their previous output.

The relationship between McCartney and Lennon is another interesting facet of this book. While the end of The Beatles was contentious and involved lawsuits, and Lennon went through some hard times with alcohol and drug abuse that made a friendship challenging, by the time Lennon was murdered they seem to have reconciled enough to hang out and reminisce. McCartney's love of marijuana is also well documented in this book, with his eventual bust in Japan (followed by a week-long jail stay and tour cancellation) serving as a particularly puzzling lapse in  judgment.

This book was a fairly breezy read, as the author chooses not to delve too deeply into analysis of particular albums (though some of the albums are so lightweight  that perhaps a deep analysis is impossible). He shares the stories, with occasional dirt (though not enough to make it sleazy) and an obvious affection for McCartney's musical output. My favorite anecdote from the book involves throwing a record release party that Dean Martin attends (though I won't ruin the punchline for you). McCartney's solo output has been reevaluated in the last few years with many approving voices singing out their love of some of McCartney's more neglected works while hits like Band on the Run, Live and Let Die and Silly Love Songs continue to get played on the radio. I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a well written music biography.

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Friday, September 19, 2014

Delicious! by Ruth Reichl

Delicious! is a delicious read. You may know Ruth Reichl as the author of several food memoirs and the editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine. In Delicious! she has combined her writing skills and knowledge of the world of food (cookbooks, magazines, food shops, restaurants, chefs, specialty foods).

The story in the novel is multifaceted.  Billie Breslin has quit college and moved from her home in California to New York city to take a job at Delicious!, a famous food magazine. Billie is a talented cook who has stopped cooking and will not tell anyone why. She is lonely, missing her family, especially her older sister, Genie. But, she is welcomed and befriended by the staff of the magazine, by New York chefs, and by proprietors of many of the New York food shops and restaurants. She takes a weekend job at Fontanari's, a famous Italian food shop where she is treated as if she were a member of the family. Just as Billie is beginning to feel at home, the magazine is shut down.

Billie is fortunate to have her weekend job and to be able to continue, alone in the large mansion where the magazine had been produced, to maintain the hotline for reader complaints. While exploring the mansion and the magazine's library, Billie finds letters written during World War II by twelve-year-old Lulu Swan to James Beard, who had worked for Delicious! at the beginning of his career. The letters are a multi-layered mystery, each one hidden individually in a filing system devised by a former librarian, who placed clues in the card catalog (yes, a card catalog!). The clues need to be found and then deciphered and then each letter has to be located.  After finding the letters, Billie wants to find the librarian who placed the clues and she wants to find Lulu, if she is still alive.

The layers of cooking lore and mystery are enhanced by interesting characters and by more than one delightful romance. There is a lot to be digested in this book, including a single recipe at the end of the volume. 

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Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Outsmarting of Criminals by Steven Rigolosi

This new mystery by Steven Rigolosi introduces the character Felicity Prim.  And she is a character. Prim has spent her adult life living and working in New York city. Pleasantly set in her ways, she likes things of a more formal mode. She is quite content with her life. Then she gets mugged. Her seemingly charmed life is not longer so charmed. Felicity decides a new attitude is needed, a self-defense class for starters. She arms herself with a LaserTaser3000, but it turns out these changes aren't enough.

Miss Prim decides that a career change will be just the thing. A voracious reader who just loves mysteries and thrillers, Felicity decides she will become an "outsmarter of criminals", which is more than a private investigator but not someone who relies on all the new technology. Along with this career change comes a change of residence. She moves to quiet, quaint Greenfield, Connecticut.

Her new house, Rose Cottage, is just perfect until she discovers a dead body in her basement. Miss Prim and her new guard dog, Bruno, set off to investigate with the help of the local police and her new neighbors.

This book is perhaps the epitome of a cozy mystery - set in a small rural village, a cast of quirky characters, local police who are themselves characters (but in this case not incompetent) and twists and turns galore! Miss Prim is not your mother's Miss Jane Marple. Quirky and fun this is a good light read.

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Friday, September 5, 2014

And the Dark Sacred Night by Julia Glass

The past is like the night: the dark yet sacred. It's the time when most of us sleep, so we think of the day as the time we really live, the only time that matters, because the stuff we do by day somehow makes us who we are....But there is no day without night, no wakefulness without sleep, no present without past. They are constantly somersaulting over each other. 

These lines come late in Julia Glass's new novel and form a central theme in the book. Its main character, Kit, has never known his biological father and seems adrift as a result. He is in a troubled marriage, has lost his tenure-track professorship because he couldn't finish his dissertation, and is obviously despondent. His wife encourages him to seek out the father he never knew. Thus begins a journey motif in which our hero finds his true identity. The journey, of course, is fraught with difficulties.

First, his mother has consistently refused to disclose the name of his father. The reader is aware of his identity by page 6 through a flashback to a summer arts camp. There, Daphne, a talented cellist, has fallen in love with another young musician at the camp. It is none other than a 17 year old Malachy--the boy who eventually becomes the acerbic art critic we discovered in Glass' first novel, The Three Junes. Similarly, the reader knows this will be a doomed love affair because Malachy is gay. Daphne becomes pregnant, thus dashing her hopes of becoming a concert cellist. But wounding her more deeply is the rejection she feels from Malachy, who wants nothing to do with her or the child.

As the now forty-something Kit searches for his father, he reconnects with the man Daphne marries when he is nine. Jasper is a larger-than-life outdoorsman who lives in Vermont. Kit remembers the cabin where he spent his formative years, suffering through his skiing lessons with his ski-instructor stepdad.  He stays loyal to Jasper when his mother leaves her husband to marry another and start a second family. It is not clear why, as an adult living in New Jersey, he has broken his ties with his stepfather--the man who adopted and raised him as his own.

In an attempt to help Kit, Jasper begins researching his biological family with the scant information Daphne once revealed.  And he strikes gold. 

To reveal more would ruin the surprise for readers. Suffice it to say that both Fenno McLeod (Malachy's bookseller friend, now in his late fifties) and Malachy's mother, Lucinda (in her eighties) become major characters in the book. We finally get the back story to Malachy's life before and during his battle with AIDS.

And the Dark Sacred Night is about roads not taken, the consequences of youthful mistakes, and ultimately, about forgiveness.