Pearl's Picks for February
Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China - by Leslie T. Chang
For most of us, the subject of Leslie T. Chang's smoothly written Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China, will open our eyes to a new world. It certainly did for me. Chang, who spent a decade as the Beijing correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, decided to explore the lives of two of the approximately 130 million migrant workers in China. These young people (the majority are under 30, 70% are female, and many begin their working lives in their middle teens) leave their homes in small villages and travel to one of the industrial cities that have come into being to produce China's many exports (sneakers, clothing, accessories, electronics, etc.) to the West. Both Lu Qingmin and Wu Chunming, the two young women who shared their experiences with Chang over a period of three years, migrated to the city of Dongguan, located in China's Pearl River Delta, where they found work on the assembly lines in one of the many factories there. And what a strange and difficult life it was (and still is). Girls sleep 12 to a room; your cell phone is one of your most important possessions (if not the most important), and its loss is calamitous, since it's your only contact with friends. Because you must have an identification card to get work, migrant workers often borrow and sometimes steal the cards of others, with the result that nobody knows their real names. And the work is simply endless. You live 24 hours a day (14 or more of them on the assembly lines), 7 days a week, in a factory that is enormous compared to the village you came from (Min's consisted of 90 households), and, indeed, is set up like a city to provide all your needs, from entertainment (there are movie theaters), safety (there's a fire department), and health (it has its own hospital). There are some opportunities for advancement, so the most determined and ambitious workers take classes in English and computers. Some workers bounce back and forth between factories at dizzying speed, trying to make more money and better themselves. Alongside the stories of these young women and their friends, Chang weaves the history of her own extended family's life in China and the West. Her book succeeds brilliantly in putting a human face on global trade and industrialization. These days, whenever I look at a new electronic toy that makes our wired world so much fun, I think of Min and Chunming, and the millions other like them, living lives so different from my own.
Hip Hop Speaks to Children: A Celebration of Poetry with a Beat - edited by Nikki Giovanni
Parents, teachers, and librarians wanting to introduce children and teens to the enchantment, relevance, and joy of poetry can do no better than share Hip Hop Speaks to Children: A Celebration of Poetry with a Beat. This tip-top collection, edited by Nikki Giovanni, is an ideal way to connect the world of poetry with the world of contemporary hip hop and rap music. Among the poets included are some familiar names (Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, James Weldon Johnson) and others known less as poets than as rappers and musical artists, among them Queen Latifah, Mos Def, Lauryn Hill, and Young MC. (If these aren't household names to you, they're part of the contemporary music scene.) There's a wide variety of poems to be found here, too, everything from Langston Hughes' "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" and "Dream Boogie" to Gwendolyn Brooks' tragic 8-line, 24-word summation of sad and wasted lives that begins with "We Real Cool;" from Paul Lawrence Dunbar's "We Wear the Mask" to Tupac Shakur's "The Rose That Grew from Concrete," an excerpt from Kanye West's "Hey Mama, " Maya Angelou's "Harlem Hopscotch," and Eloise Greenfield's "Oh, Words." Many of these poems are included on the accompanying CD, some read by their authors. Five artists contributed the varied, vivid and color-infused pictures. I began this review by pointing out how teachers, librarians, and parents can use this book to introduce the children and teens in their lives to poetry. But it's also true that children and teens can use this book to introduce the adults in their lives to the (perhaps) mysterious world of rap and hip hop music, of which, of course, poetry is the heart.
Fall of Frost - by Brian Hall
When I interviewed Brain Hall, author of Fall of Frost, on my television show, Book Lust with Nancy Pearl (which you can watch by googling Brian Hall Seattle Channel; the show is also available as a free podcast from iTunes), I asked him about what drew him to writing biographical novels. (He is also the author of a novel about Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, I Should Be Extremely Happy in Your Company.) He told me that he liked to write novels about real people because the book's plot was already a given, and he could concentrate on really understanding his characters, and bringing them to life on the page for his readers. And what a grand job he's done of it in Fall of Frost. For everyone who knows Frost only as the avuncular, beloved author of "The Road Not Taken," "The Death of the Hired Hand," and various other familiar poems first encountered in high school English class, this novel will be a revelation. The novel is divided into 130 short chapters, and it's arranged not chronologically, but rather goes back and forth in time to explore different themes that reverberated throughout Frost's life. There is a series of chapters that describe his 1962 trip to Russia and his meeting with Nikita Khrushchev; there are also many sections that convey Frost's tragic and tangled relationships with his wife and children. Like Frost's own poetry, Hall's novel is written in deceptively simple prose, poetic but not fussy. I'm looking forward to Hall's next choice of subject.
The Gone-Away World - by Nick Harkaway
Some of the books that I include in Pearl's Picks are relatively easy to review: I tell a bit of the plot, describe a character or two, maybe compare it to another book, and voila! there you have it. But with Nick Harkaway's The Gone-Away World, I can't do any of those things, because I want readers (and I so hope there will be many, many of them) to discover all the joys of this outstanding first novel for themselves, without prejudice, as it were. I don't want to tell you any plot details because they're so cleverly laid out, though I will say that you'll probably find this post-apocalyptic novel in the science fiction section of the library or book store. I don't want to describe the characters in anything but the most general way, so I'll just say that they're mostly sympathetic and always three-dimensional. And I can tell you that there's a spectacularly stunning plot twist near the middle of the novel that totally changes the way you read the book. (As a result, you might well want to go back to the beginning and reread it, just as I did, looking for the clues that Harkaway helpfully planted, but that we didn't realize were clues at the time.) I can tell you that I found evidence in The Gone-Away World that seemed to indicate that the author had read and enjoyed these books and authors: the narratively complex fiction by his father, John Le Carré (although his book is definitely in a different genre); Neal Stephenson; a lot of military science fiction, including Joe Haldeman's The Forever War; Sylvia Nasaw's A Beautiful Mind (or perhaps the movie made from it); Robert Heinlein; Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass; and Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles. (I'm sure there were other influences I simply didn't catch.) Now, I've never met Nick Harkaway (though we are friends on Facebook), so I don't know if, in fact, he's read (or enjoyed) any of these, but as I was reading The Gone-Away World, echoes of these came to mind. What I can say is that if you're looking for an inventive, intelligent, rousing, and simply all-around terrific novel, just read Nick Harkaway's The Gone-Away World. And hope that its author is at the beginning of a long career.
The Cure for Grief: A Novel - by Nellie Hermann
If your book group chooses to discuss The Cure for Grief by Nellie Hermann (and it's a choice that I would highly recommend), kick off the meeting by asking what the title means, and whether, in fact, there is a "cure" for grief, and if so, what it might be. I've been thinking about those questions ever since I finished this finely observed coming-of-age first novel. The events of the novel are seen through the eyes of Ruby Bronstein, as we share her life from age 8 to 20. Ruby, the daughter of a Holocaust survivor and the woman who converted to Judaism to marry him, is the youngest of four children. She adores Nathan, Aaron, and Abe, her three older brothers, but never quite feels a part of the close cadre they form. This is how Hermann describes the relationship among them: "The boys came together as if they were not three stars but a planet, and when Ruby was with them, she was a satellite moving in their gravitational pull." Each chapter is centered on a specific event in the life of the family, including the time Ruby finds a gun on the beach in Maine, her trip with her parents to Terezin, the concentration camp in Czechoslovakia where her father was imprisoned, her junior prom, two deaths, and the psychotic breakdown of one of her brothers. Hermann is an extraordinarily gifted writer, able to capture the essence of characters and situations in just a few words. (One of the Bronstein's neighbors is "a tiny girl, her skin suctioned to her bones.") Her descriptions of Ruby's adolescent angst are spot on: all those confusing feelings, and that sense of having to figure out who you are and where you belong--all of which are, for Ruby, infinitely complicated by tragedies well beyond her control or understanding. Towards the end of the book, Hermann describes Ruby's state of mind as follows: "Outside her room, the world was unknown, bizarre things were happening, illness was afoot, the house was occupied by sadness and madness and death. Inside her room, she was a senior in high school." Although few of us have suffered the quick succession of sorrows that Ruby does, grief is a part of everyone's experience. And Ruby's hard-earned understanding of the nature of the cure for her own grief may provide readers with insights into their own.
The Piano Teacher - by Janice Y.K. Lee
Readers with a taste for exotic locales and compelling plots shouldn't miss Janice Y. K. Lee's The Piano Teacher. All the ingredients for an addictive soap opera are here: love, death, honor, betrayal, secrets and surprises, but Lee's assured writing takes this historical novel beyond its sudsy underpinnings. Six years after the end of World War II, just-married Claire Pendleton leaves her home in England to accompany her husband Martin as he starts a new job in Hong Kong. Although Claire enjoys the active social life offered by her fellow expatriates, she needs something more to fill her time, and gets a job teaching piano to Locket Chen, the only child of Victor and Melody Chen, fabulously wealthy Hong Kongers. Claire becomes intrigued with Victor's mysterious and enigmatic British chauffeur, Will Truesdale, and their relationship blossoms into a kind of love. She soon realizes that her lover's past is filled with secrets, and only gradually does she learn about his life during World War II, when the Japanese occupied the island. The novel moves back and forth between the 1940s and the 1950s, between war and peace, and we (along with Claire) gradually learn how the terrible events of the past have informed so much of the present. The scenes set at Stanley Prison, where the Japanese incarcerated Hong Kong's British citizens, are painful to read (as they should be), and Will's doomed love affair with Trudy Liang, a beautiful Eurasian woman, is satisfyingly tragic. What makes this first novel a keeper (in addition to its elegant Vogue-of-the-1940s cover) is how successfully (yet how subtly) Lee forces us to consider the moral ambiguities that face people trying to survive during wartime, to ask ourselves just how much we would compromise of our beliefs and our sense of right and wrong in order to live.
Things I've Been Silent About: Memories - by Azar Nafisi
My expectation upon opening a book by Tony Horwitz is that not only am I about to set off on a consistently entertaining and frequently humorous adventure, but that I'm also going to learn a lot--and virtually painlessly--to boot. In A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World, I happily got everything that I expected. Horwitz's history/travelogue investigates all the various claims about who really discovered America, and when, and how, and what happened next. He begins with one of our national myths: pilgrims debarking from the Mayflower on Plymouth Rock in 1620--and then roams, cheerfully for the most part, around the New World in the footsteps of the variously brave, foolish, evil, and/or misguided adventurers and explorers in the centuries before that mythical First Thanksgiving we pay homage to by overeating every year. He devotes chapters to a whole host of men, such as Leif Eriksson, Christopher Columbus, Amerigo Vespucci, Juan Ponce de León, Hernán Cortés, Francisco Vásquez de Coronado (who knew that he got as far inland as Kansas?), Herman de Soto (whose route covered what would become 10 of these United States), and Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca. Horwitz journeys from the coast of Labrador in Canada to Santo Domingo and Hispaniola in Central America, and on to New Mexico, the Plains states, Florida, up the Mississippi, Virginia (the lost colony of Roanoke and Jamestown) and back to Plymouth Rock. Along the way he takes part in a sweat lodge ceremony that nearly does him in, visits many small local museums, and participates in a historical reenactment of a battle between the Spanish conquistadors and the Seminole Indians, in which he (as a conquistador) is wearing 50 pounds of chain mail and is consequently almost unable to walk, let alone do battle. Depending on the quality of your history courses in high school and/or college, this book will either be a refresher or an eye-opener. My guess is that most readers, like me, will find that it's filled with events and people known only vaguely, if at all. In either event, it's a real treat to read.
Songs for the Missing- by Stewart O'Nan
Judging from his oeuvre, Stewart O'Nan is a people person. That is, he appears to be someone who enjoys meeting a variety of people and understanding how they tick--or at least inventing a variety of people and seeing how they respond to situations they find themselves in. I say this because from his very first novel (Snow Angels, published in 1994) to his most recent, Songs for the Missing, O'Nan has created three-dimensional characters who are both sympathetic and realistic. Whether it's a teenage boy trying to deal with his dysfunctional family and the murder of a beloved babysitter (in Snow Angels) or how a young man gets through the last ten hours before the restaurant he manages shuts down forever (Last Night at the Lobster, published in 2007), O'Nan puts readers into the hearts and minds of his characters. In Songs for the Missing, the Larsen family faces what surely is every family's worst nightmare: one afternoon, in the summer between high school and going away to college, pretty and popular Kim disappears on her way to work. O'Nan explores the different ways that her parents, her younger sister, and her friends respond to the crisis. Her father, Ed, unofficially follows up leads as to Kim's whereabouts, which takes him away from the family's small Ohio town for days and weeks at a time. Kim's mother, Fran, obsessively organizes fund-raisers to cover the cost of the search, while Lindsay just tries to be a normal kid again, one without a missing sister whose "Have You Seen Her?" picture is plastered on telephone poles and trees all over town. But this is clearly not intended to be a mystery, even though a mystery drives the plot. Ultimately, O'Nan is much less interested in what actually happened to Kim than in exploring the rippling effects of her disappearance on those left behind. He accomplishes this mainly by shifting points of view, so that we become intimately knowledgeable about each member of the Larsen family. O'Nan examines not only how Kim's disappearance alters the way her family and friends are living in the present, but also how it causes them to rethink the past: were there secrets that Kim was keeping from her family? Did she run away from home because of a fight with her boyfriend? Or with her mother? Were the Larsens not quite the regular family they seemed to be? In the end, these questions will be answered, and what most of us may regard as a tragic outcome ironically offers a measure of relief to the Larsen family. But nothing will ever be the same, either for them, or for us, who have shared their pain.
The Silver Linings Playbook - by Matthew Quick
Suggest this title for purchase.
Awww shucks. I know that's hardly a usual way to begin a book review, but it was my immediate response to finishing Matthew Quick's heart-warming, humorous, and soul-satisfying first novel, The Silver Linings Playbook. I also thought of starting off the review with a photo of me hugging the book and grinning like an idiot--I liked it that much. Thirty-year-old Pat Peoples, a former high school history teacher, finds himself being sprung from a Baltimore mental institution and taken home by his mother. He's convinced he was in the hospital for only a few months, and really has no idea why he was sent there in the first place. What he does know is that Nikki, his wife, wants some "apart time," as Pat calls it. But Pat is bound and determined to win her back, because he believes in happy endings and silver linings, despite the fact that his father won't even talk to him, there are huge gaps in his memory, and he's become addicted to working out. As Pat slowly begins to remember and come to terms with the painful realities of his past, he's aided by an eccentric (but effective) psychiatrist named Patel (who shares Pat's love for the Philadelphia Eagles football team) and Tiffany, the widowed sister-in-law of his best friend, Ronnie. I could go on for several paragraphs, telling you why I'm still smiling when I think about this book, but let me limit it (with difficulty) to two: first, I loved reading Pat's critiques of classic fiction like The Great Gatsby, The Scarlet Letter, The Bell Jar, and, especially, A Farewell to Arms, which he reads because he's trying to become the person he thinks Nikki (an English teacher) wanted him to be. Second, I never realized that the Philadelphia Eagles inspired such dedicated, intense, and, may I say, crazed-with-love, live-and-die-with-their-team fanatics. The scenes set around the football games are hilarious--indeed, the only way Pat and his father can seem to communicate is when the Eagles are on television. (As I write this, the Eagles are still in the thick of the NFL playoffs--I can only imagine what's going on in the minds of Dr. Patel, the Peoples family (all of whom seem very real to me), as well as the hundreds of thousands non-fictional Eagles loyalists.) I think it's too bad that critics (and judges of literary awards) tend to undervalue what's called "light fiction." Along with The Silver Linings Playbook, so-called light fiction, like James Collins' Beginner's Greek, Steve Kluger's Last Days of Summer, Stephen McCauley's The Easy Way Out, and Elinor Lipman's My Latest Grievance all offer us hours of reading pleasure. Which, in my opinion, is not something to be taken lightly.
The Plot Against America - by Philip Roth
Philip Roth's masterpiece, The Plot Against America, seemed to me to be somewhat of a departure for the prolific author of Goodbye, Columbus, Portnoy's Complaint, The Human Stain, and (my two favorites, prior to this one) My Life As a Man and Letting Go. His newest novel is humane, understated, disturbing and sad. It's a piece of alternate history--history as it never was, but might have been. What if Charles Lindbergh (who was, in fact, vocally anti-Jewish and an admirer of Hitler) had been elected the 33rd President of the United States in 1940--soundly beating Franklin Roosevelt in his run for a third term--on a platform of keeping the U.S. out of a war with Germany that he argued would benefit only the Jews of America? Roth describes the chilling effects of Lindbergh's presidency through the eyes of seven-year-old (fictional) Philip Roth, who lives in Newark, New Jersey with his father Herman, his mother Bess, and his older brother Sandy (all with the same names as Roth's real family). Young Philip witnesses the various responses to Lindbergh's ascendancy to power: the Jews who emigrate to Canada, the Jews, like his parents, who bravely resist the new President's plans, and the Jews who, mistakenly believing they can attain safety through passivity and blinded by Lindbergh's heroism and charisma, go along with the new administration's program of separating Jewish children from their families in order to more quickly build a Christian society. I could only bear to read a little of this novel at any one time, because a palpable sense of dread emanates from every page, and various sorts of questions arose (all good for book discussion groups). Could this sort of thing ever really have happened here? Could it still happen? Since The Plot Against America was originally published in 2004, was Roth commenting on the way some Muslim-Americans were treated in the post 9/11 world? Roth shows what a slippery slope the acquiescence to political demagoguery can be, and he does so magnificently.
Firmin: A Tale of Exile, Unrequited Love, and the Redemptive Power of Literature - by Sam Savage
Suggest this title for purchase.
Firmin, the title character of Sam Savage's novel, is a real rat. I mean a real rat--the sort with four legs, a long tail, and a, presumably (the illustrations are in black and white), pinkish nose. What sets Firmin apart from others of his clan is that Firmin is a Reader. He devours books, both figuratively and literally. Born in the basement of a bookshop in Boston's Scollay Square in the 1960s, Firmin (the runt of the litter) discovers his passion early on when he is nourished not by his mother's milk (too many siblings jostling about ahead of him) but by the books he both gnaws on and reads. Beginning with a diet of Moby Dick and Don Quixote, Firmin naturally worries about finding his Destiny. A quick look in the mirror tells him that he'll never be as dapper and debonair as his hero Fred Astaire, and he'll never search for an elusive white whale or tilt at windmills, but surely, he thinks, there's something more to life than scrounging for food in a dilapidated movie theater:
"Could it be that I, despite my unlikely appearance, have a Destiny? And by that I meant the sort of thing people have in stories, where the events of a life, no matter how they churn and swirl, are swirled and churned in the end into a kind of pattern. Lives in stories have direction and meaning. Even stupid and meaningless lives, like Lenny's in Of Mice and Men, acquire through their place in a story at least the dignity and meaning of being Stupid Meaningless Lives, the consolation of being exemplars of something. In real life you do not get even that."
This darkly comic homage to the power of imagination, the lure of books, and the desire to live a life that means something speaks to all of us, rats or no.
Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us) - by Tom Vanderbilt
Going by my own experience, I suspect that you won't be able to read Tom Vanderbilt's engaging Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us) quickly. That's because on nearly every page Vanderbilt includes some unusual anecdote or a really interesting account of an insightful little known study on human behavior that just begged to be read aloud to whomever I was with at the time (usually my husband.) Vanderbilt has packed a Ph. D.'s worth of information between the covers of his book, (which is relatively short--416 pages--compared to the length of many nonfiction books these days). He covers virtually everything you could ever have wondered about the hows and whys of traffic and driving. For example, the controversy over whether it's best to merge earlier rather than later when two lanes become one, and what that choice says about the driver in each case; how changing lanes frequently seldom gets us to where we're going significantly faster (and why we're convinced that it will); how driving is one of the most difficult psychomotor activities we partake in (it's unusually complex for one thing, and involves a high degree of multi-tasking); the best ways to drive in a traffic jam; the differences between drivers and driving in the U.S. and various other countries (besides the fact that in some cases you're literally driving on the wrong side of the street), why men are more likely than women to be involved in a fatal crash; and a totally fascinating chapter on the dangers of relying on our own senses while driving, called "How Our Eyes and Minds Betray Us on the Road." After reading Vanderbilt's book, you'll never set off on your daily commute, or a quick trip to the grocery store, in quite the same way again.