Friday, December 26, 2014

Contemporary Fiction: Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood

After seeing it in the list of nominations for Best Fiction in the 2014 Goodreads Choice Awards, I decided to pick up Margaret Atwood's Stone Mattress from the university library. The only other novel I have ever read by Atwood is her well-known classic The Handmaid's Tale, which I was pretty ambivalent towards. With that being said, I wasn't really sure what to expect from Atwood's most recent publication.

Genre, Themes, History: Stone Mattress is a collection of nine short stories or tales, most of which can stand alone. As explained in the acknowledgments, some of the stories have been published previously, while others are tales about other tales. The first three, Alphinland, Revenant, and Dark Lady, are linked together and include characters that knew each other long ago and are being reunited through various events. And with the exception of Lusus Naturae, and perhaps also The Freeze-Dried Groom, each story includes characters that would be considered senior citizens, something I probably only noticed because of my tendency towards young adult fiction, or at least books that don't center around characters that are beyond retirement age. But the stories don't all deal with death and life and reflection as you might think they would. Many of the stories are slightly dark in humor, if they have any humor at all, and don't deal with kindly old grandmas and grandpas that are spending the rest of their years knitting and fishing. Many of them are writers, one is a gold-digging black widow, and most have some major character flaw that have placed them in the situation they're in. There were moments where I was ready to label this as a horror story collection because there are moments when things become incredibly scary (and Torching the Dusties is downright haunting). And there are other moments when things become unreal or part fantasy. But Atwood introduces these elements in such a way that makes it all seem almost natural, like it is what is supposed to happen.    

My Verdict: As with most short story collections, not every single one was a revelation. But the ones that are certainly make up for the ones that aren't. Simply put, Atwood knows how to tell a good story. Part of me was hoping that the ongoing storyline that reached across Alphinland, Revenant, and Dark Lady would continue throughout the other six stories in the book, but no such luck. However, it is just as well as most of the other six were still incredibly enjoyable and left me wanting more. And fortunately, the stories that didn't exactly leave me wanting more tended to be shorter and easier to breeze past. Even if you're like me and have a tendency to skip over short story collections, I recommend picking up this particular collection. It is just shy of 300 pages and won't take up too much of your time.

Must Read: My personal favorite would be the storyline that extends through Alphinland, Revenant, and Dark Lady. They are linked beautifully and each new reveal only made we want the story to continue on longer.

Okay to Miss: My least favorite was Lusus Naturae. Fortunately, it is also the shortest of the nine and an incredibly fast read.

Recommended Reading: It is only natural that I would recommend The Handmaid's Tale as it is the only other Atwood book I have read. However, I will also recommend The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton. Like Atwood, Walton manages to include elements of fantasy and makes them appear as a natural part of the story, as opposed to something out of the ordinary.  

Friday, December 19, 2014

Historical Fiction: Secret of a Thousand Beauties by Mingmei Yip

I was sent Secret of a Thousand Beauties by Mingmei Yip in exchange for a review, and what initially intrigued me about this book is its setting in 1930s China with a focus on a group of female embroiderers. I thought it would make a great follow-up to last week's post on Evan Osnos's Age of Ambition, which is about how China and its people got where they are today.

The Situation: Spring Swallow has escaped a life she never wanted to be a part of, a life that was chosen for her before she was even born. While her mother was still pregnant, Spring Swallow and her future husband, who also had not yet been born, were promised to each other and expected to be married when they got older. And even though her future husband would never make it out of the womb, Spring Swallow finds herself running away from her family after the wedding ceremony that was put together to bind her forever with her dead husband. After a young girl, Purple, takes pity on her and offers her food, clothes, and a roof to stay under, Spring Swallow finds herself living with a team of embroiderers, all studying under Aunt Peony, who used to sew for royalty. Fearing that her family may find her and drag her back into a miserable existence, Spring Swallow is determined to earn Aunt Peony's favor and become the best embroiderer she possibly can.

The Problem: Simply living under Aunt Peony's roof along with Purple, Leilei, and Little Doll, while doing chores and learning embroidery is not as simple and easy as it sounds. Aunt Peony turns out to be a secretive, stern, and demanding woman. And while Purple is extremely helpful, Leilei is full of resentment and envy, while Little Doll carries on as a simple house girl. Plus, Aunt Peony has one rule that none of the girls are eager to follow: they must take a vow a celibacy. Never are they to be with a man or marry one if they are to learn and live with Aunt Peony. Spring Swallow may have run away from her ghost husband, but she is not sure she is willing to give up on one day having a real one and maybe even starting a family. Will she be able to keep the vow she reluctantly made to Aunt Peony? Or will she go back on her word and risk being cast back out onto the street? As Spring Swallow continues her embroidery lessons, she also learns more about the strange and enigmatic woman she is studying under, as well as the other girls in the house. And when life begins to become a little more chaotic, maintaining her vow of celibacy to Aunt Peony soon becomes the least of Spring Swallow's concerns.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a historical fiction novel set in 1930s China. A large part of the novel is set in the small city of Soochow, where Aunt Peony's house stands, but there are frequent trips to Beijing and the surrounding area. The first part of the novel does focus heavily on the embroidery and the amount of time, patience, and practice it takes to become as good as someone like Aunt Peony. It is a highly sought after skill even though there is no longer any royalty to sew for. Stores and companies still look for talented seamstresses who produce goods they can sell. As a former embroiderer for royalty, and one of the best, Aunt Peony is teaching Spring Swallow and the others all of her patterns and skills, while still holding back the full story of her past and even a few of her best patterns. Just as the relationship between Spring Swallow and Aunt Peony grows, it also grows between Spring Swallow and the rest of the girls, although she is naturally closer to some more than others. All four of Aunt Peony's tenants are girls of misfortune that she has decided to take mercy on, and although they are all grateful, they still someday hope to leave and begin a life of their own, except for maybe Little Doll. Eventually the story no longer focuses as much on embroidery as it does Spring Swallow's continuing adventure, and the fate of everyone else in the house, including Aunt Peony. There is love, loss, tragedy, betrayals, reunions, and survival, all before Spring Swallow reaches the age of twenty.

My Verdict: This is an overall good story with great characters and a fantastic setting. Having Spring Swallow flee her family and become an embroiderer in 1930s China gives the story the feeling of a fairy tale, while still having it be accessible since the events take place in the 20th century. However, while the beginning of the book has a nice, steady pace, especially when it comes to learning the actual embroidery, the last two thirds of the book seem to have one plot twist and reveal after another. Ultimately, the book seems to leave the sewing behind and becomes something else entirely. Eventually, there is so much going on that it becomes problematic to remember where some characters in Spring Swallow's life left off and which ones know what information. It makes for a great page turner, but the overall clarity and consistency of the story suffers. And as the book continues on towards the end, the believability begins to suffer as well.

Favorite Moment: When Spring Swallow sees Aunt Peony smile and laugh for the first time while talking about awkward English words and phrases.

Favorite Character: It is somewhat difficult to choose as they all go through so much and make many foolish mistakes, mostly when trusting the wrong people, but I will go ahead and choose Little Doll. She may be young, and Aunt Peony frequently calls her either "slow" and/or "stupid," but she is ultimately quite helpful and probably the most trustworthy person in the entire book.

Recommended Reading: Although it is nonfiction, I recommend Evan Osnos's Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China. It is the 2014 winner of the National Book Award for Nonfiction, and for me, an incredibly enlightening account of modern China.         

Friday, December 12, 2014

Nonfiction: Age of Ambition by Evan Osnos

The full title of the National Book Award winning work by Evan Osnos is Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China. As someone who would not describe themselves as an informed person, I anticipated that this book would be both informative and enlightening. I know of China's history in only the broadest sense, so anything Osnos put down in this book was almost certainly going to be new information for me. And while I expected to learn a good amount, I did not expect to also be so thoroughly entertained as well as fascinated. 

Genre, Themes, History: This is of course a nonfiction book that gives a detailed account of China: where it's been, where it is now, and in what direction the country seems to be heading. The book is split up into three sections, as its title indicates, that include fortune, truth, and finally, faith. Within each section, Osnos blends together stories from the lives of individuals that he has encountered due to his work, with the greater story of China as a nation. Some of the early accounts found in the book come from the writer's experience while working for the Chicago Tribune, but for the past six years, Osnos has found his home at The New Yorker

The first section on fortune includes the most discussion about China's history as a communist country and the rise of the individual. People are now working to make fortunes for themselves, and those that were born into the lower classes are doing their best to escape a fate that used to be considered unalterable. 

The second deals with truth and the people's desire for honesty from their government. According to Osnos, finding out the truth from the Chinese government is not only incredibly difficult, but anyone making an overt attempt to discover it, and distribute it to others, is in danger of essentially disappearing at the hands of Chinese officials. One trend that seemed to be a reoccurring one was the hiding of numbers and names of those that die in horrible disasters. The government refuses to release information on the number of deaths after schools collapsed with children inside after an earthquake; after a train crashed into another train because of a system failure due to a lightening strike; and even how many miners have died in collapsed mines over the past few years. Situations like these have caused the people to distrust their government. And even trying to discuss events such as these via the media or Internet ends up being difficult as sites get shut down and journalists are silenced.

The third and final section talks about the search for faith in the new China, and not only in regards to religion. The five recognized religions are Buddhism, Catholicism, Protestantism, Islam, and Taoism (although many sources substitute out Catholicism for Confucianism). And while freedom of religion is a thing in China, the churches are regulated by the state, and proselytizing is forbidden. But the people are not only searching for faith in a higher power, but in their own government as well. And the section on truth can certainly point to the reasons why.

My Verdict: It comes as no surprise to me that this book won The National Book Award for Nonfiction. Not only was it informative and eye-opening, but I found it to be fascinating as well. It was a nonfiction book that I actually could not put down, without it having been written by a celebrity. Again, as I mentioned before, I do not consider myself to be an informed person, so maybe someone who actually follows foreign news events will not be so impressed. But it was not just the information presented on China that was interesting, but the personal stories Osnos has been able to collect as well, some of which are absolutely heart-breaking. If you want to have a glimpse at what is going on with the new China, then I highly recommend this book.

Favorite Moment: When Osnos addresses the problem of reporting on only the corruption and criminals of China when there are undoubtedly good things that happen there too. But he also cannot pretend to ignore the truth in a country that constantly seeks to hide it. 

Recommended Reading: This may be a bit on the nose, but specifically while reading the section on truth, I kept thinking about George Orwell's 1984. I could not help it. The Chinese government's attempts to save themselves and hide the facts really did seem like something out this dystopian classic.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Door Stop: Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

I blame Half Price Books and their low prices for this one. I have never even seen the movie, so what would compel me to pick up Margaret Mitchell's Civil War epic, Gone With the Wind, is beyond even me, and I am the one that did it! First off all, this book is long. Like Atlas Shrugged long. Second, the characters are all pretty hard to tolerate, even the "good" ones. Even so, I paid the insanely low price of $1.99 for it (I had a coupon), and went for it. 

The Situation: Scarlett O'Hara is the prize of the south. Everyone knows it. All of the young men know it, the neighbors know it, her parents know it, her sisters (begrudgingly) know it, and Scarlett knows it better than anyone. She can have any man she wants wrapped around her little finger, even if they are supposed to belong to someone else. In fact, she can hardly tolerate anyone being #1 is someone's heart if is not her. So imagine Scarlett's shock when she finds out that the man she actually loves and cares for, beyond than just seeing him trip over himself to be with her, as become engaged to someone else. Now Scarlett's world has been turned upside down, and the new appearance of Rhett Butler is not helping as he seems to have figured her out when he first laid eyes on her, and won't let her forget it. Add to this all of the gentlemen's talk of an impending war with the north, and Scarlett's simple life on a southern plantation has now become full of irritation and annoyance.

The Problem: When the war becomes a reality and men young and old begin signing up for the cause of the south, Scarlett's world goes from annoying to downright inconvenient. Not only has it taken her beloved Ashley away, a man she is convinced still loves her despite his being engaged to someone else, but soon it removes all of the small favors and benefits she has always known as a rich southern girl. And that is only the beginning. Throughout the novel, the selfish but stubborn Scarlett will have to endure war, rationing, life as a widow, loss, jealousy, hunger, greed, hard work, the Yankees, and almost worst of all, a man who won't bend to her will no matter how much she tries. As Scarlett attempts to navigate life in a south that no longer remembers the south she grew up in, readers are shown the effects of the Civil War on a small part of the United States that was nearly burned to ashes, and had to build itself back up into what it is today.

Genre, Themes, History: This is considered a historical romance novel, as Mitchell wrote about Georgia during the Civil War while writing in the 1930s. Also, many ultimately consider the novel to be a love story between Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler, even though they spend most of the novel hating each other, or at least putting up the pretense that they do. The timeline of the novel is about 12 years, starting just before the Civil War began, and ending after Atlanta and the rest of Georgia was beginning to get back on its feet. In those 12 years, Scarlett goes from rich, to literally dirt poor, and back to rich again. In most stories, hard-hearted people who have everything taken away from them usually change in some way and gain some perspective on how they have lived their lives. The only thing that changes about Scarlett is that she becomes even more hard-headed and determined to have what she wants, not caring at all for what it does to those she loves, or what people think about her as she goes about doing it. It is often said of her, by various characters throughout the book, that she can stand anything, and she does. She may be selfish and insufferable, but her story is one of survival. But of course, there is also love, loss, and the long-standing effects of war. And while Gone With the Wind is one of the most beloved stories of all time, many take issue not only with its use of the "n" word, but with its general view of southern life at this time in history. Everything is so romanticized, and other historical points are just plain wrong. However, it is supposed to be fiction after all, so perhaps holding the events in the book up against the actual events of history may not be fair.

My Verdict: This book is an ordeal. A good ordeal, but still an ordeal. For one, Scarlett is one of the most selfish, stubborn, and just contemptible characters in all of literature. And the love story between her and Rhett often reminded me of Heathcliff and Catherine in Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, another troubled couple in literature. Second, if Scarlett wasn't hard enough to deal with, the rest of the characters aren't a picnic to deal with either. Even the sweet and ever gracious Melanie can ride on a reader's nerves as she can endlessly find the good in anyone, but holds firm in her hatred of the Yankees while holding fast to her belief that the slaves should not be freed. Mitchell's characters all long for the south before the Civil War, even many of the slaves, and that is always difficult to reconcile. Overall, it is a great story, and I'll admit that it is fun watching Scarlett be disappointed and hurt time and time again throughout the novel. Any time it seems like she may redeem herself or do something not out of selfish regard, she grabs onto something else she wants and shows her true colors again. Honestly, her constant hardship and hurt feelings may be what kept me reading for 1000 pages.

Favorite Moment: Any time (and there are a lot of them) that Melanie shows absolute grace and kindness to Scarlett, even though she deserves it least out of everybody. The moments were even better when Scarlett resented that kindness, mostly because it only increased her own guilt.

Favorite Character: Try as I might, I can't pick one. Not even Melanie. I don't know if it was Mitchell's intention or not, but this book is just full of terrible people. 

Recommended Reading: I've already mentioned it, but I do think Wuthering Heights would be a great follow-up to this book. It's shorter, and it is written in a different place and in a different context. Even so, the relationship is just as caustic between Heathcliff and Catherine as it is between Rhett and Scarlett, maybe even more so.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Winners of the 2014 Goodreads Choice Awards

The results are in and the people on Goodreads have decided on the winners for the 2014 Goodreads Choice Awards. Let's see if any Door Stop Novels favorites made it all the way through to the end.

I am very pleased to announce the Rainbow Rowell's Landline beat out some extremely stiff competition to be named Best Fiction of 2014. Haruki Murakami's Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage made a strong showing, but failed to make it into the top five.

I knew Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See would be a tough one to beat for Best Historical Fiction, and it turns out I was right as it took the top spot away from Sue Monk Kidd's The Invention of Wings, which came in second.

Not at all surprising is Amy Poehler's Yes Please taking home the award for Best Humor. I mean really, was there any doubt in anyone's mind that this would be so?

And the third Door Stop novel to take home a top prize is This Star Won't Go Out: The Life and Words of Esther Grace Earl for Best Memoir & Autobiography. This is another one that doesn't really surprise me; nonetheless, I am still incredibly pleased that this story has touched so many and was deemed worthy to be considered as the best of the best for 2014.

And for my final category, and personal favorite, I am absolutely giddy with joy that We Were Liars by E. Lockhart took the top spot for Best Young Adult Fiction.

So out of the many books read and covered for this blog that were published during 2014, four of them came out as the best in their category. Now, the fun starts all over again as I begin researching which books will be covered in 2015.