Friday, August 25, 2017

Historical Fiction: The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See

Since I am forever on the search for historical fiction that is not about World War II, I was thrilled to come across The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See. Not only is it not set during WWII, but it set during my lifetime, which initially made me hesitant to put it under the historical fiction label. But because of the story it tells, and the way it is told, that label seems both appropriate and fitting.

The Situation: Li-yan grew up in a remote Chinese mountain village among the Akha people. She did not grow up wealthy or well-connected, and her culture prized sons above daughters, sees the birth of twins as a tragedy that requires a thorough and severe cleansing ritual, and what little money they make during the year relies heavily on how much tea they can pick and process to be sold. As the only daughter in her family, Li-yan will inherit the private tea grove that has been passed down the female line in her family. It is so private that no man is allowed to enter it, for it is believed that if he does he will die. The tea made from the trees in this grove is thought to be the best in the world, and not just by Li-yan and her mother. If Li-yan follows her culture's traditions, as well as her mother's footsteps, she will grow up to be village's next mid-wife and healer. But Li-yan wants more for her life, especially as she learns that the world outside of her small village is changing rapidly.

The Problem: The trouble starts when Li-yan falls for a boy her parents do not approve of. San-pa is known to be lazy and a troublemaker, but Li-yan insists she loves him and wants to marry no one else. When San-pa leaves the small village to work hard so he can return and gain Li-yan's parents' approval, she finds that she is pregnant with his child. A child born out of wedlock is considered a human reject that must be killed immediately after birth, but instead of following the tradition she grew up with, Li-yan manages to have her baby dropped off at an orphanage, where the little girl is eventually adopted by an American couple. It is an action that will bring Li-yan much relief and sorrow, as she will spend much of her energy both grieving over the daughter she lost, as well looking for her in the face in every Chinese girl she sees. Both women must move forward with their lives, one wondering about the daughter she gave up, and another wondering about the mother who would give her away, and if there is any way to find her.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a historical fiction novel that is actually set in the not at all distant past. Starting in 1988 and going all the way to 2016, the story begins with Li-yan's childhood and continues until she is an adult living in California, far away from her small mountain village in China. She will come a long way from her incredibly humble beginnings as an apprentice mid-wife to her mother. Possibly the one thing that will always have a presence in every chapter of her life is tea. Her family picked it and sorted the leaves as their primary source of income. And after attending a trade school, she will then be accepted into programs that will help her build upon the knowledge she already has, allowing her to eventually open her own tea shop and join the modern world outside of her village. As Li-yan gains more education, and sees more of the outside world, it becomes increasingly difficult for her to reconcile the Akha beliefs and traditions she grew up with, and what she observes in the world outside of her village. The book also delves into China's history with communism, the one-child-policy, and of course, the tea trade. And while the majority of the book is told in first-person through Li-yan, there are small sections that include information about Haley, the daughter that Li-yan gave up. Whether through letters, school assignments, or group therapy transcripts, little bits of information about Haley's life are given to the reader, which show a young girl struggling with her identity as a Chinese girl with white adoptive parents.

My Verdict: This is an incredible story and a spectacular way to talk about the history of the tea trade and industry in China. Through Li-yan, the reader learns a great deal about tea: how and when it is picked, sorted, processed, packaged, sold, and even brewed, down to the best type of water to use when doing so. For the most part, the characters are fully developed and become real people dealing with issues most anyone can relate to, such as family expectations and obligations, and the desire to protect what is precious from those who wish to possess it for their own profit. My only issue with this book is its pacing. Sometimes the story moves at a steady pace, and at other times it moves quickly, even through settings or scenarios that would seem important to overall story development, but instead end up coming across as more of a means to an end, if that makes any sense. I also wish more time was spent learning about Haley and what her life is like with her adoptive parents in California. Otherwise, this is a great book that I still believe would be suitable for fans of historical fiction, despite it taking place during the late 20th/early 21st centuries.

Favorite Moment: When Li-yan finally realizes the truth about the man she married. 

Favorite Character: Li-yan's mother, or A-ma, is a proud and often stubborn woman, but she is also respected and has done much to earn that respect throughout her community. Like many mothers, she knows more than she lets on, causing Li-yan to have revelations later in her life about events that happened decades before. She may be committed to her culture's beliefs and traditions, but her commitment to her daughter will ultimately come first.

Recommended Reading: Lucky Boy by Shanthi Sekaran is a different kind of story that also deals with the adoption of an immigrant child by parents that do not share his ethnic background.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Contemporary Fiction: Into the Water by Paula Hawkins

At long last, I have finally come around to reading and posting about Paula Hawkins' second novel, Into the Water. Her first thriller, The Girl on the Train, delighted (and also troubled) many and was eventually made into a movie. I was already made aware that her follow-up, while not quite like the first one, was also a thrilling mystery that may keep the reader guessing.

The Situation: When Nel Abbott's body is found in the river, the reaction to the news is mixed. For some, the news comes as a relief, mixed in with a little joy if some are honest. For others it is distressing. And for still others, it is a little bit of both. Understandably, Nel's 15 year-old daughter Lena is distraught and finds reason to be angry with nearly everyone, including herself. A good amount of her wrath is focused on Jules, Nel's estranged sister, who is now being dragged back to the one place she never wanted to see again. Upon returning, she learns that her sister was not well-liked in the small community, mostly because of her work and research into what she called The Drowning Pool. It seems the river has a history of claiming the lives of "troublesome" women, with Nel being the most recent addition. Now Jules, as well as nearly everyone else in town, must once again confront their own history and what they are each capable of and responsible for.

The Problem: Dealing with a sister's death, even an estranged one, is difficult enough. But Jules finds herself having to deal with the death that occurred before Nel's as well. It seems a friend of Lena's also committed suicide at the river, something that Nel was blamed for by the girl's mother. While that investigation has been closed for some time, it seems that Nel's death has served to bring new evidence, as well as old emotions and old stories. Not everyone in town believes that Nel killed herself, or that the whole story was told concerning the other deaths at the river. There are even a few who believe the person responsible is still a threat, and the women in town are still in danger. But it seems everyone is hiding something, and almost anyone connected to the women who died feel some amount of pain or grief, whether they are actually guilty or not. 

Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novel set in present day in a small town in England. If there was one main character it would be Jules, the sister of the most recent woman to die at the river. But there is also the daughter, Lena, who is now grieving the loss of her mother, while also having not gotten over the death of her best friend, Katie. There are many other slightly less prominent characters, though still important, such as Sean Townsend, the lead investigator into Nel's death, as well as his wife, Helen, and father, Patrick. The local psychic, Nickie, claims to know things, and also commune with the dead, but mostly she gets on people's nerves as they do not believe her. And when it seems she does have something helpful to offer, she is cryptic and vague, causing most people to give up on her. The story switches between the points of view of nearly everyone involved, allowing the reader to get a glimpse into why people do what they do and say what they say, especially in times of tragedy. This town has a history it would rather ignore, and perhaps that is why it keeps repeating itself.

My Verdict: While this is a good story, it is not necessarily a good mystery. It is fairly easy to see in what direction this book is headed as soon as it is understood that Nel Abbott was not a well-liked person. And after reading at least one chapter from the point of view of each key player, it was easy to know what actually happened and who is responsible. The mystery part just was not there for me. And while the character development may have been on point, their relationships with each other were often hard to believe. In the end, there were more than a few loose ends that were not properly tied up, at least in my opinion, and the big reveal did not feel that big. There were many missed opportunities that would have made this book a bigger page turner than its predecessor, but something just was not there. Many details seemed tacked on, as if they were an afterthought. If anything, the one motivation the reader has to keep turning the page is to see if justice is brought to the right person, or at least to the characters that we do not like.

Favorite Moment: When Louise, Katie's mother, was forced to the realization that she did not really know her daughter.

Favorite Character: There was not one character in this book that did not aggravate me in some way, but in the end I will pick Jules for gathering the strength to return to this community and confront her own mistakes.

Recommended Reading: The Girl on the Train is much more suspenseful and certainly worth the anxiety that comes from reading such a disturbing story.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Nonfiction: The Radium Girls by Kate Moore

The full title of today's selection is The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America's Shining Women. In it, Kate Moore tells the true story of the women who worked as dial-painters in America during World War I. It was a somewhat prestigious, well-paying, and often fun job for young women in the early 1900s. The book is full of stories of the girls getting along well with each other as they sat at their stations and painted tray after tray of dials using a paint mixture made from radium. Of course, those of us living in the 21st century are well aware of the dangers that can come from being exposed to radium, even to a small amount for a short period time. But during WWI, radium was still being hailed as a miracle substance that was perfectly safe to be around, though there are some people who knew the truth.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a nonfiction book that gives detailed accounts of the lives of several women who worked as dial-painters in early 20th century America. These women went to work in one of two cities, either Orange, New Jersey or Ottawa, Illinois, in factories that specialized in the production of clock faces painted with the mysterious and glowing substance of radium. They had been told the substance was safe, so there were little to no safety precautions in place to protect the girls' health. In fact, they were told it was so safe that the technique of lip pointing was employed to make sure the brushes they used achieved the perfect fine-pointed tip. Basically, to keep the hairs of the brush from spreading, which would make them unable to achieve the fine lines necessary for dial-painting, the girls would put the brushes in their mouths before dipping them into the paint. And because radium often made the hairs on the brushes stiff and hard to work with, the girls would put them in their mouths several times throughout their shift. Although the regular exposure to the radium would be enough to cause problems, the fact that the girls were putting the radium covered brushes into their mouths led to serious health concerns that many of them would never recover from. Most often the substance attacked their mouths and jaws, often moving to bones and joints throughout their body. As more and more women fell sick, and people were finally realizing why, the women would not only fight for their lives, but also against the companies that helped put them in this terrible position. Cases that came out of both Orange and Ottawa would set precedents regarding worker's rights and holding companies accountable for occupational hazards. 

My Verdict: There are other books and articles that talk about the dial-painters of America and what they went through as a result of the work they did, but what Moore wanted to do was write a book that told a story specifically from the women's point of view, and I think that is what makes this book so interesting and engaging. It does not simply list facts and figures, names and dates, court cases and cities. Instead, Moore goes into the women's daily responsibilities as dial-painters, who they married, how they lived, what their hometowns were like, and later, how each one suffered, what treatments they endured, how they found a lawyer (if they found one at all), and ultimately how they died. Though it is a true story, it does not read like one, and often felt more like political intrigue or a courtroom drama. But these were real people who endured real suffering, and had to fight real corporations who were more interested in making money than in keeping their workers safe. It is an interesting story that was often hard to read, but ultimately it was worth it to learn about a fascinating piece of American history.

Favorite Moment: When a high-profile lawyer from Chicago decides to take on the women's case for free.

Favorite Character: Grace Fryer was perhaps the most fierce of the group from Orange who decided to sue the United States Radium Corporation. She often led the charge when confronted with a new barrier and was never intimidated into backing down.

Recommended Reading: I recommend The Train to Crystal City by Jan Jarboe Russell, which tells the story of the only family internment camp in American during World War II.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Graphic Novel: Big Mushy Happy Lump by Sarah Andersen

I love reviewing comic collections, mostly because they are the easiest thing for me to read and review, but also because they are so much fun. After reading Sarah Andersen's Adulthood is a Myth earlier this year, I could not wait until the second collection, Big Mushy Happy Lump, hit the bookstores. 

Genre, Themes, History: Just like its predecessor, I placed this collection under the heading of graphic novel, though there is no one storyline to follow. However, unlike Adulthood is a Myth, near the end of the book, Andersen does include three short essays, providing illustration for them along the way. Once again, the book covers a variety of issues and scenarios that the introverted and creative among us would be able to relate to. My personal favorite from this category is "How to Become Good at Drawing," which is essentially a cycle of drawing, followed by self-loathing. I would say that oftentimes the same is true for becoming better at writing. Of course, the book also has many comics that deal with women's issues, such as being on vacation or traveling during that time of the month, and the ability (or inability rather) many men have of completing missing any and every social cue that lets them know a woman is completely, and utterly not interested in whatever they are offering. Andersen's rabbit sidekick friend does not make as many appearances in this one as he (she?) did in the previous one, but they are still there on occasion to make the snarky side comment or point out the obvious. And the three essays at the end deal with Andersen's inability to socialize, her adventures to becoming a cat lover, and her confession of being a sweater thief. None of them are terribly long, but they do give more insight into the woman behind the drawings.

My Verdict: Again, my one contention with this collection is that it is so short, though longer than the first one. I want to keep turning the pages, possibly for forever, and continue finding more comics to laugh at, laugh with, and generally relate to as a fellow introverted creative type. This is a fantastic follow-up to Adulthood is a Myth and continues the story, even without there being an actual narrative. Even if a comic touches on a topic Andersen has covered many times before, it is always done in a new way, from a new angle, or even with a different approach. If anything, it is a good collection to have for anyone who feels socially awkward, or tends to drown themselves in self-doubt or over thinking, as it is an excellent reminder that you are not alone, and there are many others like you.

Favorite Comic: "How I Spend Money" speaks to me on levels I am not entirely proud of, but are hilarious in comic form. It shows Andersen being quite frugal when it comes to groceries, clothes, and household items. But when it comes to buying books, she walks up to the counter in the bookstore wearing a fur coat and sunglasses, and proceeds to take the cash from her pockets and throw it in the air. Yep, accurate.

Recommended Reading: Naturally, you don't need to read Adulthood is a Myth before picking up Big Mushy Happy Lump, but why wouldn't you want to?