Friday, February 27, 2009

Co-review: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, by Lisa See, is a quiet, contemplative tale of two friends raised in 19th century China. Their friendship is their great joy in life, providing solace during the many miseries they suffer as oppressed females in a society that views them as worthless. They communicate through nu shu, a secret writing system created and used solely by women, and the story is rich with details of this strange culture and its many beauties and horrors.

The story is told from the perspective of Lily. She is the daughter of a poor farmer, but is blessed with feet that have the potential to be the most beautifully bound in the county. (Beauty is definitely in the eye of the beholder in this instance, however, because the descriptions of footbinding are about enough to make the reader ill.) These special feet give her the opportunity to form a special friendship with Snow Flower, a girl of much higher standing. Over the years Snow Flower teaches Lily to be more refined in anticipation of marriage to an important man, and Lily teaches Snow Flower the daily household tasks she's never needed to know in her life of privilege.

When Lily marries, however, she learns that she's been deceived about the true nature of Snow Flower's position. Snow Flower's family was once respectable, but had fallen into misfortune and poverty and she faces marriage to a lowly butcher. Lily's prospects continue to improve (she eventually becomes the most respected woman in the county), but Snow Flower faces poverty, abuse, and a lifetime of loss and despair. As we see their friendship change through the years, we also get an intimate look at the misogynistic culture and the multitude of dysfunctional relationships it perpetuates.

Caren: I thought this was a very sad story. There were so many things disturbing about it, but at the same time (as is often the case with tragedy) it was hard to pull myself away. Take the footbinding, for example. It was grotesque and horrifying, but I was completely riveted because it was so shocking!

Even more disturbing than that barbarism was the lack of meaningful relationships in these women's lives. All their relationships were abusive to one degree or another. Mothers withholding affection from their daughters. Fathers who threatened and despised them. Husbands who used them like animals. Mothers-in-law who abused them. Sisters and sisters-in-law who competed and conspired against one another. No wonder they all died so young! The most one could hope for was a husband who wouldn't beat her and that she might have enough sons to qualify to be the leader of the house when her mother-in-law died. What a miserable existence!

Jenny: No kidding. I kept thinking that the only thing these women had for their own pleasure and happiness was nu shu, the secret writing. Their children, their friendships, their marriages were all picked based on advancing in position. Securing their futures, but not really having any control over whatever the men in their lives decided for them. It killed me every time women were referred to as worthless branches of the family tree because they are only good for bearing sons. At the same time, when Beautiful Moon dies, you can tell that she meant more to her father than just property to marry off.

This book is really about suffering. Suffering through foot-binding, suffering through abusive families, suffering through marriage and childbirth, and suffering through society's treatment of women. Yet, in spite of all, Lily and Snow Flower loved each other and their friendship was a source of happiness despite all the suffering. The little ray of sunshine amidst all the dreary clouds. That lasts all the way up until they go into the mountains to escape the rebels attacking the countryside. Things unravel from there.

Caren: As I read about Lily and Snow Flower's falling out (and thought of how we sometimes hurt most the ones we love most), I thought about how insecurity and jealousy can ruin even the deepest of friendships. But the more I had some distance from the book, the more I came to the conclusion that the real tragedy was that their friendship wasn't as deep as Lily believed it was. You know the saying, "in love with being in love"? I think they were so desperate to find a meaningful relationship in their lives that their friendship existed more as an idea than a real living thing. Maybe with the restrictions of their culture this was the closest they could ever hope to get to someone. Or maybe it was just Lily's own self-centeredness and ambitions that made her incapable of the empathy necessary to truly bond with another person. In any case, I couldn't help but think that the sworn sisters at the end were better friends to Snow Flower than Lily ever was. They were at least genuine with her, accepting her and comforting her instead of trying to change her into something that fit their prescribed ideal.

Don't get me wrong, I liked Lily well enough. I was sympathetic to her situation and happy for her successes. But it pained me that for all her fancy words about love and friendship, she really didn't experience either one.

Jenny: I think part of the blame could be placed on Snow Flower. She kept holding things back and lying about her situation. Lily thought she knew her friend, but she kept getting the rug yanked out from under her. Neither of these girls understood what a true friendship was because if they had, Snow Flower wouldn't have lied over and over again and Lily would have been more compassionate. They certainly would never have reached the point where they are publicly humiliating each other.

Having said that, could they really have achieved that level of friendship? Every single relationship in their lives is based on advancing their own positions, including their friendship. Having a laotong, or life-time friend, made you more marriageable. Snow Flower had to keep it a secret how bad off they were so she could be entered into a laotong with Lily. When all the truth comes gushing forth later on how bad Snow Flower's situation was with her husband, the only things Lily thought she could say were how she needed to perform her duties. These ladies were doomed from the beginning.

Caren: Yeah, it's true. Definitely add this to my list of "books that make me glad to live when and where I do!" I do have to say, one of the things I loved about the story was the descriptions of the silks and embroidery and textile arts that were so important in their culture. I have a weakness for Chinese art and reading this book made me hungry for a good Zhang Yimou film! In fact, I might just have to go out and rent Raise the Red Lantern to get it out of my system!

Jenny: Wow, I haven't even heard of that movie. You've got me interested now. I think that Asian cultures are so fascinating simply because they are completely different from our Anglo-Saxon based culture. Though the plight of women through history seems to be a universal theme.

So, is it just me or is there not much else to discuss about the book? Lily is a bad friend: check. Women are treated badly: check. Foot-binding makes me feel queasy: check. Let me tell you, my gigantic size 10 feet would have forced me into a serf-like existence back then for sure.

Caren: I think that about sums it up! Interesting read, especially if you are curious about the culture of that time. But I'm not sure I could slog through the misery again! I look forward to March's read being a bit more entertaining. We could stand to read something more light-hearted!

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

My Sister's Keeper

Jodi Picoult's My Sister's Keeper is a good example of what a lazy reader I am. I've heard it recommended probably dozens of times, but it wasn't until someone chose it for book club that I finally buckled down and read it. This is also a good example of why I love my book club, because through it I cross more books off my to-read list than I ever would on my own!

My Sister's Keeper is an easy read in the sense that the story is pretty straightforward, the characters are interesting but not too complicated, and there is enough building tension to keep the pages turning. But it is not an easy read in the sense that it deals with some very heartbreaking issues and moral dilemmas. It's one that will make you ask questions you might never have thought of before, and then think about the answers for days afterward.

The central figure in the story is Anna -- a thirteen-year-old girl who was conceived solely for the purpose of providing life-saving cord blood for her older sister Kate who is suffering with a rare form of leukemia. Over the years, Anna undergoes countless procedures and surgeries in order to help keep her sister alive. But when she's thirteen and sixteen-year-old Kate is suffering from kidney failure, Anna refuses to provide a kidney and hires a lawyer to fight for the right to make her own medical decisions.

It is an emotionally charged story that shifts perspectives between all the major players. We see the bond between Anna and Kate, but also the insecurity Anna feels from believing her parents don't love her. We see the struggles of her older brother, Jesse, who turns to increasingly self-destructive behavior as he acts out against years of neglect. We see the mother being consumed by Kate's illness and fighting to save her life at all costs. And we see the father who is torn between Kate's need to live and Anna's need to be free. This invites the reader to contemplate many difficult questions about reconciling life and death, how far our moral obligation extends to help one we love, and the devastating effects of terminal illness on marriage and family life.

There are brief flashes of happiness, but overall it's a very sad story that gets more troubling as the reader is forced to accept that there is no way that everyone can get a happy ending. There are a few happy endings to go around, though, and the story is compelling enough to make it worth the sadness. Picoult throws in a couple of surprises at the end, including a major plot twist in the last few pages that caught my attention just as I was drifting off to sleep at midnight and shocked me awake enough to finish it and then lie awake in bed sorting out how I felt about it.

And this is what I decided. I didn't like it. The ending, that is. I love a great surprise ending when the author has laid the groundwork for it all throughout the book. But this one seemed to come out of nowhere and felt more like Picoult smugly saying, "Ha ha ha! Tricked you!" It made for a more ironic and tragic ending than the story really deserved, I thought. So it ended up feeling false and, while it gave me a lot to think about, mostly I was thinking, "Why did Picoult do that? That was a bit much."

Overall, I liked the story. And I liked the things it made me examine about myself. I didn't like the bad language and all the sexual imagery, and I wasn't a big fan of the ending. So I can't decide if I'll try any more by this author or not. Maybe if I wait long enough, my book club will pick another one of her books...

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Cold Comfort Farm

My ambitious stack of books was ignored this week in order to read a book on a whim. Twice in one day was Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons raved about on various and sundry blogs that I read. I took that as a sign and decided to read it. I had seen the quirky movie based on the book and loved it. The Third Law of Book Physics states that "The book will always be better than the movie." The Second Law is "You can never own too many books unless you would have to start eating them in order to leave your house." and The Fourth Law is "If a book's title is in much smaller print than the author's name, the author has a gigantic ego and you shouldn't give him more money."

Back to the quirky British goodness that is Cold Comfort Farm. I've been making a mental list of all the people I know who would love to read this book; that is, people who love all things British and all thing quirky. It's a long list. Does this mean I have weird friends? I sure hope so! They are much more interesting. Flora Poste, our heroine, having been expensively educated and fluent in all proper social behaviors, is orphaned at the age of 20 and finds herself with nearly nothing as an inheritance. Instead of going to work, she decides to pick a relative to live with, based on the criteria that they must be interesting, dysfunctional and in need of her special expertise in making things tidy. The book was originally published in 1932, so there are quite a few allusions that I didn't catch, but the characters were timeless. By that I mean kooky.

Flora picks the Starkadders as her project and informs them that she will be moving in shortly. They accept her since, apparently, a wrong was committed to her father and she is owed her rights. This is intriguing enough for her to move out into the country into a delapitated farm house on an unsuccessful farm. The house is filled with an assortment of crazy relatives, the matriarch being Flora's Aunt Ada Doom, who is a few tacos short of a combination platter. She shouts, "I saw something nasty in the woodshed!" all throughout the book, but nobody knows what it is she saw. She's a tyrant that rules with an iron fist from the bedroom she only leaves twice a year.

The characters make the book. From Judith, Flora's cousin, who pines away in her room and adores her son, Seth, who is a ruggedly handsome misogynist and lover of movies. Judith's other son, Reuben, takes care of everything on the farm and hates his father, Amos, for never letting him take charge. Amos is a preacher who only preaches hellfire and damnation and vows to never let Reuben take over the farm. Then there's Elfine who roams the woods and fields, Meriam the ever-pregnant hired girl, Adam the ninety-year-old hired hand, Mr. Mybug who thinks he's in love with Flora and the list goes on. If you're curious about how all the characters fit together, there's a genealogical chart in wikipedia. Very informative.

Once Flora meets everyone and diagnoses all their various eccentricities and ailments, she sets about correcting all that is wrong at Cold Comfort Farm. Elfine gets a make-over, Adam gets a scrubbing mop, Seth gets an introduction to a movie producer, Amos gets an idea planted in his brain, Judith gets some psychoanalysis and Aunt Ada Doom gets the best treatment of them all. I'll leave that for you to discover. Stella Gibbons leaves some secrets unrevealed and I found myself satisfied with not knowing. Flora gets herself a happy ending as well and she rides off into the sunset having saved Cold Comfort Farm and it's inhabitants.

So thoroughly did I enjoy this book that I'm going to watch the movie again. I know The Third Law of Book Physics states that it won't be the same, but even if it's close enough, it'll be a fun ride.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009


I wish that the post title was the actual title of a book I read, but alas, it is not. It is my state of being in the book department after my latest trip to the library. I had requested a bunch of books, but had no idea I was going to be carting out weeks worth of reading. Check it out. You don't want to know how many tries it took to get this picture with my four-year-old standing on a chair, holding the measuring tape and yelling, "Cheese!" I wanted to show that I had almost 12 inches of literature here. Two of them are books on CD, which take even longer to listen to than to just read the books, but they are read by Tim Curry. His audiobook recordings are exceptionally awesome, if you ever get a chance to try them out.

Being realistic, I'm probably not going to read the huge non-fiction book. If it had been a 200 page book, I would have given it a shot. That monster is not even going to make the cut. The home decorating book will be leafed through and returned. I might grow bored with one or two of the fiction books and in all, I'll have only read 3 or 4 inches. It's almost like I have to get 12 inches of books from the library to get 3 inches worth reading. Or maybe I could check the page count of each book and weigh that against the level of interest I have for the book. Meh, that's too much work. I'll just get buff and muscled from hauling heavy books around.