Wednesday, August 30, 2017

The Pagoda Tree

Title:  The Pagoda Tree
Author:  Claire Scobie
Publication Information:  Unbound. 2017. 400 pages.
ISBN:  1783523719 / 978-1783523719

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Maya stopped when she saw the splashes of blood around the well."

Favorite Quote:  "There are some things that are not easily understood. Once you have a better grasp of our language, it will open the door to our customs. They are not based in ignorance, although you might think so ... You talk of your god, of Christ ... What is that? I do not cast it as idle superstition. I see it for what it is, a story of rebirth, an allegory of the continuation of live. Even after we have created our last, our spirit, our soul - whatever you wish to call it - continues to live on. There are many ways ... to tell the same story."

To understand the background of this book, you have to understand the history of devadasi in eighteenth century India. A devadasi was a young woman dedicated to the worship of a Hindu god. The girls were given to this service in a ceremony that resembles a wedding. In that sense, this concept was similar to young women joining a convent to one day become a bride of Christ.

Among many, it was considered an honor for the girl and the family to be selected to join this elite group. Girls as young as eight or nine were given to the gods; they then lived and trained in the temples to fulfill their role. Many girls often ended up with wealthy patrons, becoming influential in economic and political decisions. In that sense, this practice was similar to that of a courtesan or a geisha.

India's history as a set of city-states and even as a nation commingled with the history of devadasi. Under British rule, many of the wealthy kings and patrons of the small scattered pieces that made up India began to lose their power. As such, devadasis lost their patrons and were left without temple or support. Political machinations and violence entered the once sheltered lives of the devadasis, forcing them into alternate paths of survivals. Note that, in recent history, devadasis have all but disappeared as the practice was outlawed under Indian law in the 1980s. This piece of history is not directly relevant to this story but provides context of the change India has undergone. over the centuries.

The pagoda tree itself has significance. Called plumeria or frangipani in English, it is a tropical plant with beautiful fragrant flowers. It is also known as the temple tree, with its flowers being used as tribute to the Hindu gods and goddesses. The implication of course is both literal and metaphorical.

This cultural context is the heart of this book. This history and culture is brought to life through the eyes of young Maya, who begins the book as a child near a temple in Tanjore, India. She is chosen for the role of devadasi and gets a tastes of both the luxury and the constraints of that life. As the story progresses, Maya evolves into a woman whose quest for survival takes her down many paths and many roles.

Through Maya's story, Claire Scobie brings to life India at the time - the British rule, the infighting amongst the small kingdoms that make up India at the time, the trade, the poverty, and so much more. Maya's story becomes a vehicle to narrate the history rather than the history forming a background to Maya's story. The further the book progresses, the more this feeling permeates. The conclusion to the history is understandable, but the conclusion to Maya's story feels incomplete.

The historical detail is fascinating and includes much I did not know about devadasis or about British rule in India. Maya's character, particularly her introduction as an innocent child, is an engaging one. The strong woman Maya grows into is a sympathetic character. The history scatters the personal story a bit, but an engaging piece of historical fiction nevertheless.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017


Title:  Gone:  A Girl, A Violin, A Life Unstrung
Author:  Min Kym
Publication Information:  Crown. 2017. 240 pages.
ISBN:  0451496078 / 978-0451496072

Book Source:  I received this book through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "I've been dreaming about my violin."

Favorite Quote:  "There were voices all around me, but I was beginning to exist in a world without explanations, without sharing, a world of givens, without the fluid discourse of speech. More and more my violin alone spoke for me. Listen to the violin. Hear what the violin has to say ... As long as I had my violin, I had no fear. The violin would set me on the right track. The violin would lead me through."

Gone:  A Girl, a Violin, A Life Unstrung is a story of loss and grief. It is the story of a young woman coming to terms with the loss of what is almost assuredly the most important relationship in her life. Every individual's grief and their path through it is unique; there is no one single path through a trauma. What makes Min Kym's journey even more unique is that the loss is not that of a person in her life. The central relationship in this book is not one between two human beings. Min Kym is a virtuoso violinist, and her grief surrounds the theft of her Stradivarius violin.

Even to a casual music listener as myself, the name Stradivarius conjures up an image of prestige, elegance and history. These violins were made be members of the Italian Stradivari family during the 17th and 18th centuries. Translate that to mean rare, expensive, and each with its own unique provenance. To play a Stradivarius violin is to play the very best there is. For a Stradivarius to be played by a virtuoso is an experience like no other. Interestingly, this memoir has an accompanying album that, in Ms. Kym's words, is "as much a memoir told in music as the book is in words." As I write this review, Ms. Kym's performances with the Stradivarius play in the background. Hearing that combination is a moving experience, perhaps more so than the book itself.

The written memoir begins well before Ms. Kym meets "her" Stradivarius. It traces her Korean immigrant roots, family expectations, her start in music at age six, and the lightning quick progression and recognition of her gift. She does not meet "her" violin until age twenty-one. Its theft becomes her undoing, unmooring her career and her life. The practical resolution of the theft has a rather prosaic ending involving issues such as insurance and economics. The emotional resolution is still a work in progress, and this book is part of that journey.

The single minded focus of a child prodigy and a virtuoso is both the strength and weakness of this book for that focus embeds in the writing style. Written as a first person narrative, this story has a single focus - the music. Everything else in her life - family, school, heritage, friendships, relationships - is evaluated in its relationship to or its impact on her pursuit of music.

Insight into a passion such as that is fascinating but challenging to read for an entire book. I gain an appreciation for the lifestyle and dedication that goes into such a pursuit. However, the intensity of Ms. Kym's relationship with music and her violin comes across quickly. After a while, to keep reading, the conversation or the story needs to develop. Otherwise, perhaps, it is more suited to a shorter format rather than a novel-length memoir. However, I am so glad to be introduced to Ms. Kym's performances, and her music will remain part of the music of my life.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Monday, August 28, 2017

The Last Neanderthal

Title:  The Last Neanderthal
Author:  Claire Cameron
Publication Information:  Little Brown & Company. 2017. 288 pages.
ISBN:  031631448X / 978-0316314480

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "They didn't think as much about what was different."

Favorite Quote:  "A mother makes a child from her own blood and bones. They are attached in the first part of life, and although the connection lessons, it never goes away."

A few disclaimers to begin with. I have not researched the science of this book. So, no ideas or commentary on whether this book represents the current understanding of neanderthals. Then again, I read this book not for the science but for the story, expecting one like a James Michener or a Jean Auel book. I also read the book admittedly based on the cover which is intriguing and draws me into the world of this book. Also admittedly, it took a few times and the story itself before I saw the silhouettes in the cover.

So, enough disclaimers. Now, on to an issue. The book includes an image of two skeletons in the book, presumably reflecting the characters of the story which is set about 40,000 years ago in the area that is now France. The image, however, looks an awful like the Lovers of Valdaro, a pair of human skeletons dated to about 6,000 years ago in the area that is now Mantua, Italy. Coincidence or artistic liberty? Either way, unnecessary and misleading. This book is not at all based in history. It is a pure fiction. The skeletal discovery in this book does not exist.

Now finally, the story. Like many books, this is a story set in two time periods - current day and 40,000 years ago. Like many books about such old history, the current time period is about an archaeological dig, and the past is the history that occurred among the remains and artifacts found at the site. This book extends a bit further by following time lines and situations in the current day that mirror those of the past.

The current day heroine is Rosamund, an archeologist who espouses theories about the Neanderthals that counter current beliefs. She is passionate in her work and believes that her work at this site will give proof to her theories. Obstacles and politics abound. Rosamund's personal life also enters the picture for she is pregnant with her first child. Emotions and relationships loom large.

The heroine of the past is Girl, the last neanderthal. The story of the past is a story about family, love, loss, and survival. Emotions and relationships also loom large in this time. Strongest of all though is the struggle for survival.

As often with books set in two time periods, the stories progress in tandem, giving further credence to Rosamund's theory and the basis for the book that the Neanderthals were more like current humans than we perhaps think. For that, the alternating time lines work.

However, As often with books set in two time periods, one story and one set of characters appeal to me more such that the other story becomes a distraction. In this book, the story of the past and the character of Girl is the more compelling one. That is unfortunately also the story that comes to an abrupt end at the close of the book. It leaves me wondering if a sequel is planned. Overall, the book is an enjoyable reading experience but not as compelling as I had hoped.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Reading With Patrick

Title:  Reading with Patrick: A Teacher, a Student, and a Life-Changing Friendship
Author:  Michelle Kuo
Publication Information:  Random House. 2017. 320 pages.
ISBN:  081299731X / 978-0812997316

Book Source:  I received this book through the Penguin First to Read program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "I went to the Mississippi Delta with a specific project:  to teach American history through black literature."

Favorite Quote:  "The idea that you can change somebody's life for the better is powerful. It looms, in particular, over the debate about teachers. Are they good or bad, cheats or saints, unfairly demonized or blindly exalted? Underpinning these opposed portraits is the debate over the nature of the student. One side of the argument claims the student is an impressionable blank slate, a tabula rasa onto which teachers - if they're good enough, smart enough, and they care enough - can effectively imprint their passions and knowledge. The other side argues that the student is already permanently formed by his conditions - by violence, by neglect, by poverty. No teacher can change his life. Neither side can be completely true. "

Here is the story summarized. Michelle Kuo, the daughter of first generation Taiwanese immigrants, grows up in relative security and prosperity. The family focuses on education and solid careers. Ms. Kuo graduates from Harvard and is unsure of the path she wants to take. While figuring things out, she joins the Teach for America program and is sent to a school in Helena, Arkansas. There, she encounters one of poorest communities in the country. It is a community that is ridden with poverty, crime, and racial divides. She teaches for two years and then leaves to pursue law school and her own life forward. Knowledge that one of her students stands accused of killing someone brings her back to Arkansas while he awaits trial. That is the time spent "reading with Patrick."

What I appreciate about this book is that it talks about what is so often not talked about in the United States - the poverty, the racial divide, and the inequity in the justice system. These are the issues so thoughtfully and poignantly dealt with in books such as Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward and Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. This book most reminds me of An Invisible Thread, which is also a story of an unlikely connection between people and the impact it can have.

I began this book prepared to love it and prepared to be moved by it. Unfortunately, for several reasons, this book was not for me. Reading with Patrick has very little about reading or about Patrick. This book is very much Michelle Kuo's story. It speaks to her immigrant background, family concerns, and cultural expectations. Those all come into play as many who surround her do not understand her choice to teach.

This book is about a young woman finding herself independent of family; her journey happens to intersect with this community and this young man. She comes as and remains an outsider to the community in Helena, Arkansas. It speaks about the poverty, crime, and racial divides in Helena, Arkansas but as it touches her life and not as a social commentary. Then, the page turns, and her journey continues without them. Michelle Kuo's journey is an interesting one as it mirrors the path of many young people, but just not the one I was expecting.

The subtitle of this book also uses the term life-changing friendship, but from reading the book, friendship is not what comes across. Pity perhaps. Guilt at a secure, prosperous life perhaps. A momentary connection but not friendship. This thought is reinforced by a little research on the background of this book. Very little is found about Patrick, but much can be read about Michelle Kuo. In fact, the base of this book can be found in a 2009 article in the New York Times Sunday Magazine. The book acknowledges that the initial article was written without permission from Patrick and even without his knowledge. I leave this book wondering what was Patrick's story and what happened to Patrick and how Patrick's life changed because Michelle Kuo was a part of it for a time.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

The Wildling Sisters

Title:  The Wildling Sisters
Author:  Eve Chase
Publication Information:  G.P. Putnam's Sons. 2017. 336 pages.
ISBN:  0399174133 / 978-0399174131

Book Source:  I received this book through the Penguin First to Read program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "None of us can bear to touch his belt, so horrifyingly intimate."

Favorite Quote:  "It does feel like we have as many lies, forced to adjust our manners and allegiances according to the different worlds we inhabit, learning to say the right thing or not reveal too much."

The English countryside. An old house. Two time periods. A group of women. Mothers and daughters. Sisters. A mystery. This book has the perfect fixings for an enjoyable summer beach read.

Flora, Pam, Dot and the narrator Margot are the Wildling sisters. They are being raised by their eccentric and rather high maintenance mother. She packs them off to their aunt and uncle's house, Applecote Manor, in the country so she can go off and pursue other opportunities in Morocco! This moves comes with challenges and opportunities all its own for the girls. The home, though lovely, is a somber one because the daughter of the house Audrey vanished one day. She was never found, and her disappearance was never resolved. Her mother still holds out hope that her daughter will return; meanwhile, a house and a life becomes a living shrine. The neighboring estate on the other hand is home to handsome young men, who present a world of opportunities for the Wildling sisters who are on the brink of seeking relationships. What happened to Audrey and what happens to these young women during this summer is the story of the past.

Fast forward several decades. Applecote Manor sits empty and is sold to a couple looking to make a complete change in lifestyle. Jesse falls in love with the house and falls in love with the idea of her own home without the shadow of her husband's first wife lingering in every corner. She comes with her husband, her biological young daughter, and her teenage stepdaughter Bella. Bella is fifteen and still engulfed in the grief of her mother's death. The relationships between husband and wife and between stepmother and stepdaughter are fraught with conflicting emotions.

The mystery surrounding the house - that of Audrey's disappearance and that of the summer of the Wildling sisters - adds a counterpoint. For Jesse and her stepdaughter, it both adds to the fear in their relationship and conversely provides a way to connect that is not tied directly into the emotions of their own relationsihp.

The book starts off with a bang with a description of a body being dragged. It then slows considerably as the Gothic setting is described and the backstory of the past and the present is set up. It then picks up speed towards the middle and the end with some unexpected twists and turns.

Jesse and Bella's story is the stereotypical one of a rebellious, hurt teen and an adult working to get through and make a connection. Both characters act true to type, and the story resolves as you would expect. It is meant to be a current story, but reads as though they are also of a time in the past.

The story of the past and of the Wildling sisters themselves takes a much more unexpected path, making this the more intriguing of the two time periods. The Gothic impression of the house and the Gothic overtones to the story add an enjoyable atmosphere to this book about strong women in difficult situations making the tough choices.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Before Everything

Title:  Before Everything
Author:  Victoria Redel
Publication Information:  Viking. 2017. 288 pages.
ISBN:  0735222576 / 978-0735222571

Book Source:  I received this book through the Penguin First to Read program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "On a late March day when you could taste springs muddy tang, Anna was given results from the latest scans."

Favorite Quote:  "You couldn't get away with anything. Which was, of course, horrible and the very best things about having been friends forever."

The description of this book checks so many boxes of a sweet, nostalgic summer read. It is a story about women and about friendships that have lasted a lifetime. It is a story about family. It is a story about strong emotions as one woman enters hospice care, and the friends and family who surround her deal with that reality and try to make the most of the time left.

Anna is dying. Her friends, particularly best friends and "The Old Friends" Helen, Caroline, Molly, and Ming, gather around for grief, for comfort, and for support. Anna's family, particularly her estranged husband Reuben is also part of Anna's caregivers. The book weaves between the present of everyone waiting for Anna's impending death and of everyone's journey through the memories of their friendship with Anna and of their own life.

This should have been a powerful book. Sadly, for me, it misses the mark for several reasons.

First is the character of Anna herself. Sadly, Anna is not a very likable character, making it challenging to invest in her story. Her terrible diagnosis and the fact that she is in hospice care is sad and devastating, but nothing else in the book binds the reader to her. One of the chapters in the book describes her own shortcomings:

  • She'd preferred attractive people. A lot more. When she'd made friends with a woman who wasn't beautiful, she felt embarrassed to be out with her. But also a a little proud of herself. As if that showed largess.
  • She hadn't read enough books for someone who considered herself cultured. There were years she didn't read at all. She wasn't interested in difficult narratives.
  • She saw everyday situations hierarchically. Whose kids were smarter? Whose kids struggled more socially? Who were the athletes, the artists?

This is a book centered around Anna's sad situation, but Anna's story becomes one I am not interested in. I feel sadness and pity for her situation, but I don't find any emotional attachment to the character.

Second is the fact that the book is not just about Anna's story. Each of her friends brings her own perspective, her own baggage, and her own story. The result is a scattered focus, jumping between all these lives that are jumbled together. That is indeed how friendships in real life are - messy and mixed up, but, in a book, sometimes less is more

Third is the writing style. The book is written in short, choppy sections with some only a few sentences long. Perspectives shift, and narrators shift, creating a discordant and hurried note through story that is really a quiet journey towards an ending. The writing style adds to the feeling of too many things mixed together in the book. Yet, at the same point, the pace seems rather slow because the entire book is somewhat about waiting for a person to die.

Sadly, my reaction to the book matches the reaction of Reuben to the situation in the book. "Reuben wanted it over. Not Anna dead. Jesus, he wasn't a complete asshole. but he wanted this dying to end."

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.