Thursday, December 13, 2018

#58 [2018/CBR10] "The Joy Luck Club" by Amy Tan

I think I remember reading The Joy Luck Club (1989) by Amy Tan when I was a kid. My mother must have bought it, and I picked it up because I would read anything and everything I could get my hands on--even when I was too young to really understand it. So when I saw it on my list of 50 Books Every Woman Should Read Before She Turns 40, I wasn't sure I needed to read it again. In the end, I figured it was worth the reread since I didn't remember anything about it.

The Joy Luck Club tells the story of four women who'd emigrated from China to the United States after WWII, and their relationship with their four American-born daughters. The book begins from the perspective of Jing-mei "June" Woo. Her mother has recently died and she has been invited to take the place of her mother at "The Joy Luck Club" mah jong table. The original Joy Luck Club began in China during the war when there was little joy or luck, but it was renewed when the four mothers all met and became friends at a church in the United States. June finds out at this gathering that her mother had left behind two children, two young girls in China that she had feared were dead. June has suddenly become a sister and now her mother's friends want her to go to China, meet her sisters, and tell them about their now-deceased mother.

The thing about The Joy Luck Club is that it does not follow a traditional narrative format. I was ready to read about June struggling to get her mind wrapped around having sisters and her journey to China to meet them. Instead the book jumps to another isolated story about another one of the Chinese mothers. One of the most challenging aspects of this structure was that I had a very hard time keeping everyone and their stories straight. The stories were always told in first person, so besides the beginning of the chapter, you almost never saw the woman's name while reading.

In addition, none of their stories had any obvious continuation from mother to daughter. I took notes on the basics and checked back regularly to keep everyone straight, but it was a challenge. It almost felt like reading a number of short stories and it was up to me to link them together. Most of the time, I did not see a connection between the mothers' stories and their attitudes towards their daughters. Instead, Tan did something more subtle and realistic, showing quiet tensions and misunderstandings that stemmed from their different perspectives.

This book was well written. I learned some things about living in China and then the continuing challenges of raising "American" daughters. Some of the stories were haunting. However, I often have a problem connecting with these kinds of books. I like details and I like to delve deeply into a small number of characters' lives. There were not enough details in any of the stories for me to get a clear picture of anyone's life, so my recollection--even though I just finished the book--remains murky. It was hard for me to feel connected to the book--except, perhaps, for the crab dinner at the end. It is no wonder that I don't remember anything from when I read it as a child.

In an attempt to remember some details of this book, I'm going to record the basics of each woman's story below. This is primarily for my own recollection and not really part of the review. Spoilers, though.

Suyan Woo - recently died. Her first husband in China was in the army, and when Suyan was fleeing, she had to leave her twin daughters on the side of the road
June Woo - learns that she has two sisters in China and she didn't know her mother at all
An-mei Hsu - her mother left her to become the fourth concubine of a rich man in a town far away; it turns out her mother was raped by the rich man and forced to join him. In the end, her mother kills herself to force the rich man to care for An-mei
Rose Hsu Jordan - her brother drowned in the ocean when she was a child; she is terrified of making any decisions; her husband, Ted, is in the process of getting a divorce and she doesn't know what she wants
Lindo Jong - promised to marry an asshole when she was two years old, but she is able to eventually finagle her way out of the marriage and get to the United States
Waverly Jong - was a champion chess player until she has a fight with her mother and stops playing; daughter Shoshana; Waverly is now engaged to marry her second husband, but is afraid her mother won't approve
Ying Ying St. Clair - fell off a boat, almost drowned, and got lost when she is only 4 years old; on the edge of mental illness after her son dies in childbirth
Lena St. Clair - architect with an odd relationship with her architect husband. Her mother doesn't understand why they share the bills and buy or make expensive things that are weak or won't last

Monday, December 10, 2018

#57 [2018/CBR10] "A Room of One's Own" by Virginia Woolf

A Room of One's Own (1929) by Virginia Woolf is a short, classic, feminist treatise, and it was on my list of 50 Books Every Woman Should Read Before She Turns 40. I know very little about Virginia Woolf. I vaguely remember having to read Mrs. Dalloway in school, but I think I was too young to really appreciate it. I never even saw The Hours with Nicole Kidman. So, I wasn't really sure what to expect when I began reading this book.

A Room of One's Own is an extended essay based on two speeches that Woolf gave at women's colleges at the University of Cambridge. Her basic premise is that women must have money, independence, and a room of their own in order to be able to write fiction. It is smart, pithy, and still relatable. I did feel like I was reading an assignment for school, and I probably could have gotten a lot out of some extended class discussion, but I still found it easy to read. One surprise was that Woolf was a lot funnier than I was expecting. She has a dry wit, and some of her snide comments were immensely appealing.

The book begins with Woolf attending a luncheon at a men's college, enjoying the luxurious meal and furnishings. From there she is denied entrance to the library because she is a woman. When she travels back to the female quarters for dinner she notes how sparse the food and options are for the women compared to the men. But she is not surprised when she thinks of the last couple hundred years when men were seeking money and power and women were getting married and having babies. Since women could not even control their own wealth, they had very little interest in making any. So when it came to donations for the women's colleges, the women's colleges had much fewer resources than the men.

Woolf also explains why there have been no classic, famous women writers. She gives Shakespeare a fictional sister as an example, and gifts her with the same genius as her famous brother. Woolf explains how impossible it would be for Shakespeare's sister to get any kind of education or have any time to foster her talents. And she could not run off and join a theater company as her brother did because women were not allowed. Instead, Woolf prophesied darkly, Shakespeare's sister would end up pregnant, and desperate, and kill herself.

I imagined being a college student in 1928, and listening to Virginia Woolf deliver this lecture in person. What an experience. Would it have been shocking? An inspiration? I'm glad I read this book. I have a better understanding and appreciation of Virginia Woolf, and I'm now open to reading more of her in the future. I ended up highlighting a fair number of lines as I read, so I'm just going to include those now instead of trying to sum up Woolf with my own words.

"a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction." (2)

"If truth is not to be found on the shelves of the British Museum, where, I asked myself, picking up a  notebook and a pencil, is truth?" (27)

"men who have no apparent qualification save that they are not women." (28)

"One does not like to be told that one is naturally inferior of a little man." (34)

"With the exception of the fog he seemed to control everything." (36) [pointing out that when reading contemporary newspaper stories, men were obviously in control of the world.]

"Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size." (38)

"how impossible it is for her to say to them this book is bad, this picture is feeble, or whatever it may be, without giving far more pain and rousing far more anger than a man would do who gave the same criticism." (38)

"She pervades poetry from cover to cover; she is all but absent from history." (47)

"was in her case not indifference but hostility." (57) [Artists are challenged because they face an indifferent world, but Woolf states that women artists have a much harder time.]

"The history of men's opposition to women's emancipation is more interesting perhaps than the story of that emancipation itself." (60)

"the value that men set upon women's chastity and its effect upon their education." (69)

"This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room." (80)

"It was strange to think that all the great women of fiction were, until Jane Austen's day, not only seen by the other sex, but seen only in relation to the other sex." (90)

"unless indeed he chose to 'hate women,' which meant more often than not that he was unattractive to them." (91)

"that five hundred a year stands for the power to contemplate, that a lock on the door means the power to think for oneself." (117)

"Still, you may object, why do you attach so much importance to this writing of books by women when, according to you, it requires so much effort, leads perhaps to the murder of one's aunts, will make one almost certainly late for luncheon, and may bring one into very grave disputes with certain very good fellows?"
-"Lately my diet has become a trifle monotonous." (119)

Sunday, December 9, 2018

#56 [2018/CBR10] "The Kiss Quotient" by Helen Hoang

It was Amazon that recommended The Kiss Quotient (2018) by Helen Hoang to me. I'm a sucker for romance novels, but then I saw Roxanne Gay's blurb: "This is such a fun read and its also quite original and sexy and sensitive." I was sold. The long wait list at the library also showed how popular it was, so I read it almost as soon as it became available.

In many ways, The Kiss Quotient is a normal romance novel. The plot and story are all about the two main characters getting over their fears and inhibitions and finding true love at last. What makes this novel stand out (besides the fact that the main characters are Asian, which I think is still notable despite Crazy Rich Asians) is that Stella is high-functioning autistic and Michael is a prostitute. You might wonder how Hoang can make this story relatable, but she really does. This story was fun, sweet, interesting, and original. It's not perfect, but I enjoyed it and would recommend it to others.

Stella Lane is thirty years old and under pressure from her demanding mother for grandchildren. The problem is that Stella has issues with intimacy stemming from her autism. She is very successful at her job as an econometrician, which fits her personality to a T, but interpersonal skills have always been much harder for her. The few times that she's slept with men have proven disastrous. An offhand comment by a coworker has Stella thinking that--like with her other interpersonal skills--what she needs is more practice. And the perfect way to get practice is to hire a professional.

Enter, Michael Phan, a reluctant male prostitute with the requisite heart of gold. His patience and sexiness help a lot with getting past Stella's defenses. She wants to learn more from him, and so they begin a "pretend dating" relationship for Stella to learn how to act in a relationship. Of course the two start to love each other, but Stella doesn't want to push Michael for more than their deal and Michael has his own self-esteem problems.

I was surprised at how well Hoang was able to make a romance work between these characters and under these circumstances, but she really did. ***SPOILER*** For the most part, I rolled my eyes when the stalkerish ex-customer of Michael's turns out to be Stella's co-worker's mother. That whole banquet didn't really work for me. I was also a little uncomfortable with their PDA, some of it very close to his family, but the rest of the story makes up for those minor issues. ***END SPOILER***

Also, I realized that I know very little about autism. It turns out that the author discovered as an adult that she was high-functioning autistic, and it explained a lot for her. She said autism varies a lot, but that Stella was so easy to write because Stella reacted as she would have. As I was reading, I could so relate to Stella that I started wondering about myself. Just like Stella, I don't like loud music, crowds, strong smells, or interacting with strangers. But I don't fit in other ways, so I think I'm just your typical introvert.

Friday, December 7, 2018

#55 [2018/CBR10] "The Second Shift" by Arlie Hochschild and Anne Machung

It's another day and here's yet another book I wouldn't have read if not for my list of 50 Books Every Woman Should Read Before She Turns 40. Not only had I never heard of The Second Shift: Working Families and the Revolution at Home (1989, updated 2012) by Arlie Hochschild and Anne Machung, but I couldn't even find it at my local library. I had to use Prospector to get a copy. The title pretty much tells you what the book is about: As more women have joined the workforce, they often still do the majority of the work at home. Hochschild focused on married women with young children. She found that women, on average, worked one full-time month per year more on domestic chores than their husbands. I found Second Shift interesting, clearly written, and certainly still relevant despite the recent paucity of copies on library shelves.

This book was first written in 1989, almost thirty years ago, but it does not feel out of date. Hochschild approaches the issue of the division of labor at home from a very scientific and sociological point of view. She uses statistics, formal interviews, and clear definitions to give a pretty clear framework for her investigation. The book begins with the case studies of ten different couples--all of whom she'd spent significant time interviewing as well as observing in their home. Not only do we read stories about real and interesting people and their struggles, but they serve as examples of what is going on in countless other homes. She uses a relatively good mix of racial and economic diversity in choosing her published case study couples. Although she mentions same-sex couples and the nannies and babysitters who support the families with two working parents, the book does not focus on them. In addition, Hochschild does not forget that it was primarily poor, minority women who'd been working out of their homes before it was ever an issue for the average middle-class woman.

Much of this book is what you would expect: women still carry the majority of the load when it comes to domestic chores at home. And even though the numbers have evened out slightly, this still holds true for the most recent numbers added to the book in 2012. One aspect that I found interesting was that Hochschild dove into the upbringing and political leanings of her subjects. She could then compare what her subjects thought about men helping out at home to what actually happened in their homes. Surprisingly, ideas and reality often did not match. One more conservative couple had a woman who desperately wanted to be a traditional housewife, but it was impossible financially. And her husband helped her out at home--much more than another couple that professed more progressive views on working women and equality.

One other fascinating aspect was that men clearly had the upper hand when it came to negotiations about chores inside the home. Men have years of culture and society on their sides. Women would say they were lucky to have a husband who did any work at all. One man stated that his wife was lucky that he tolerated her making more than him. Many women wanted their husbands to do more but were legitimately afraid to push them too far. Statistically women are worse off after divorce than men: they are less likely to remarry and more likely to fall into poverty. A number of women in the study were very unhappy but chose not to fight that battle because they were afraid of the alternative.

As someone who is single and childless, this book made me appreciate how difficult it is to juggle children, a husband, and a career. One of the happier homes in the book was one where both the mom and dad had put their career ambitions on the back burner in order to focus on their children. But they faced pressure for not putting their careers first and still had to make sacrifices. The United States has abysmal parental leave policies. I've seen friends and co-workers' desperate struggle just to spend some time at home after giving birth--and that doesn't take into account all the parenting years that follow. I wish this country were more family oriented, and this book, written thirty years ago, underscores the need for changes.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

#54 [2018/CBR10] "Little Women" by Louisa May Alcott

Little Women (1869) by Louisa May Alcott is another one of those books that I'm not sure how I missed reading in my childhood. I read so much, and Little Women is such a classic that I'm surprised I did not get around to it at some point. So, I finally picked it up for the first time because it was on my list of 50 Books Every Woman Should Read Before She Turns 40.

Now, before reading the novel, all of my knowledge of this story came from the 1994 movie adaptation with Winona Ryder, Susan Sarandon, and Christian Bale. I remember being shocked and disappointed that Jo did not end up with Laurie, although she seemed happy enough at the end of the movie. I also liked the sisters and the general story, so I was looking forward to finally reading the book. (In searching online, I just discovered a new PBS version of Little Women available on Amazon, which I will have to watch soon.)

I'm assuming that most everyone is familiar with this story. Four sisters: Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy come of age during the Civil War. Their father is initially absent because of the war, and they are raised by their wise, saintly mother. The sisters all have distinct personalities and struggle with missing their father, growing up poor, and sisterly squabbles. Their rich neighbor's grandson, Laurie, befriends them and becomes almost part of their family. Jo, the spirited tomboy of the family equals Laurie for energy and spirit, and the two are best friends. Beth is sweet and sickly, and Amy is artistic and accomplished (once she grows out of her bratty phase). Meg is the eldest child. She marries first and some of her adult life is captured in the book.

Little Women is a classic for a reason. The interactions--and especially the fighting--between the sisters feels very real and relatable. The characters are memorable and likable, although far from faultless. The girls are also good role models, all striving to become better people and live their best lives. Their mother is the picture of love and patience as she cares greatly for her family and teaches them life's lessons with a gentle hand. In addition, Jo is a tomboy and not particularly beautiful. She runs and writes and does not conform to society's expectations. I just recently saw J.K. Rowling in an interview where she said that Jo March was a character who helped her through her nerdy, awkward adolescence. It's simply amazing how much influence this book has had, and it made me cry at least once.

On the other hand, when I read this book, I already knew all of the major plot points from the movie. So the only part of the book that was new to me was what seemed like a large amount of preachiness. Every scene had some kind of life lesson spelled out in detail. And little religious lessons popped up left and right as I read. I think I would have suffered through the preaching more easily, if I had not already known the plot, but I often found it tedious.

Louisa May Alcott was known as an abolitionist and feminist. She apparently did not want to marry Jo off initially but caved to popular demand. However, much of her writing still rubbed me the wrong way. I guess it is not surprising that a feminist in 1869 and a feminist in 2018 would not necessarily be the same. A lot of the descriptions of "womanly," "feminine," and "innocent" rubbed me the wrong way and felt stifling. In addition, her descriptions of the Irish and the Jews were sometimes troubling. Nevertheless, there is a long speech where her mother states that she just wants her children to be happy and marriage should not be their end goal--which was probably pretty progressive at the time.

Now that I've had some time to rest from the preaching, I can really appreciate the timeless story of four sisters growing up with some hardship and lots of love. I'm looking forward to watching the PBS version.

#53 [2018/CBR10] "The House on Mango Street" by Sandra Cisneros

Another book from my list of 50 Books Every Woman Should Read Before She Turns 40 was The House on Mango Street (1984) by Sandra Cisneros. I did not realize this until I had actually finished Mango Street, but I'd already read Caramelo by Cisneros years ago and enjoyed it. I like repeating authors when I appreciate their writing, and I was again impressed by Cisneros's writing and perspective with this book. However, I was always looking for more detail, and I often felt left behind and looking for more. 

The House on Mango Street is a relatively short novel made up of a number of brief, poetic vignettes about a teenage Latina girl growing up in a small house in a Chicana and Puerto Rican neighborhood in Chicago. The girl, Esperanza Cordero, often felt like a placeholder for the author, but it is unclear how much fact and fiction mix in this story.

The stories focused on Esperanza, her friends, and her neighbors. The neighborhood is poor, and the house is something of a disappointment to Esperanza when they first move in. Esperanza wants to grow up and get out of her neighborhood. One chapter tells how her first boss forced a kiss on her while another details a sexual assault at a carnival. One of the more memorable characters, Sally, and Esperanza's classmate, is a tragic mix of beauty and desperation.

If you haven't yet figured out by my short and muddled description above, I'm having a hard time gathering my thoughts in a meaningful way. I often have problems connecting with characters in short stories. I like to get into people's heads, really understand where they come from, and what their lives are like. But the little snapshots that Cisneros gave me were not enough. I wanted more detail about the characters' lives, what they were thinking, and how they lived. I wanted to know what happened to Sally and what was going on with the woman locked in her house by her husband. I kept seeing fascinating little glimpses, but not enough to be truly meaningful or memorable for me. So when it comes to writing the review, my mind is mostly blank. I guess an overarching narrative helps me retain and sort my thoughts.

The House on Mango Street is a classic and has won tons of awards. The writing is often perceptive and beautiful. It is possible that what kept me from loving this book would be what other readers find most impressive.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

#52 [2018/CBR10] "Mr. Impossible" by Loretta Chase

It was another Cannonball review that had me putting Mr. Impossible (2005) by Loretta Chase on hold at the library. I was sold at the description of the hero as a brunette Chris Hemsworth, and I love adventurous romances, so I figured it was right up my alley. Unfortunately, I didn't like it quite as much as I was hoping. There were definitely good parts, but I never really got into it.

Daphne Pembroke and her brother Miles are researching the ancient tombs and languages in 1821 in Egypt. Daphne is the genius brains of the family. She uses her brother to publish her findings because it would be inappropriate for a woman to show so much intelligence and interest in learning. Daphne was recently widowed when her much older husband finally died, leaving her plenty of money for comfort and luxury. One day, Miles does not return from a short trip. A badly beaten servant makes it to Daphne's house to say that he saw her brother kidnapped. Daphne is desperate to find her brother and goes to English authorities for help. The English assume that Miles is having some fun in a brothel, but in order to assuage her concern, they offer up Rupert Carsington.

Before Rupert Carsington can help Daphne, she has to bail him out of jail. Carsington got into some trouble with the local authorities, but he's thrilled to go on an adventure with the mysterious, beautiful woman who showed up outside his cell. He plays the dumb brute and is more than happy to provide the muscle in order to help find Daphne's brother.

Daphne and Rupert set off on a ship with a number of servants as they begin their search for her brother. There is a rather complicated and deadly rivalry with the English Lord Noxley and a brutal Frenchman--both of whom want the power, discoveries, and control of antiquities that are available in Egypt.

Daphne and Rupert are immediately attracted to each other. The major hangup in their relationship is that Daphne was taught by her ex-husband to be ashamed of her intelligence and passion, so she is unwilling to give in to her desires. Rupert is a very good influence on her in this respect, and they eventually fall in love.

The book has a lot of adventure and excitement with thieves, murderers, and sandstorms. The two main characters are also very likable, and I was glad that they got together. There was a lot of good stuff in this book, but I kept getting pulled out of the action. Rupert had strength, confidence, and agility that was so overpowering, he was almost cartoonish. I never had to worry about any kind of jam they ran into because I knew he could superhero his way out of it. In addition, there was a lot of cruelty and violence, most of it directed towards the Egyptian servants who worked for the rich Englishman and Frenchman. The extreme violence took me out of the romance and lessened my enjoyment. Finally, I did not like that Rupert kept accidentally/on purpose grabbing Daphne's breasts. It was not romantic at all, especially in life and death situations. I would have forgiven it once, but he did it at least three times. I like more consensual beginnings.