Escape to the House of Woe
The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan
First Line: “When I was seven, I knew exactly who I was: a thoroughly American girl in race, manners, and speech, whose mother, Lulu Minturn, was the only white woman who owned a first-class courtesan house in Shanghai.”
I’ve been meaning to read Amy Tan for awhile now, so her new bestseller seemed like a good place to start. The Valley of Amazement definitely maintains the mother-daughter theme that Tan is known for, but I finished this novel with the hunch that her other works must be better.
Yes, the reader is transported. The courtesan-culture of Shanghai is explored in extreme detail. Even the minor characters are memorable. We are given a sweeping history of, not one, but multiple female characters. We have two narrators to inform us of the family’s genealogy, and, surprisingly, I found the alternating voices to be rather refreshing. The dual-narrator device can get tricky at times, but in this read, the pacing worked for me. Instead of merely switching between mother and daughter each chapter, we spend an extended amount of time with Violet before launching into a flashback of her mother, Lulu.
Naturally, Tan finds many opportunities to highlight the interconnectedness of her characters. Everyone seems to run in a small social-circle, which inevitably plays into the reccuring theme of identity and Tan’s classic mother-daughter drama.
I appreciate a long read, but in the end, I found this one depressing. Lots of hardship and not much redemption make for a “particular mood” book that I probably won’t re-read.
Bottom Line: Although I’m not buying this book, I’m still interested in reading Tan’s earlier novels.
I Am Become Overwhelmed
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
First Line: The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call “out there.”
I don’t frequently turn to this genre, which I suppose is why I picked up the title that started it all. I mean, In Cold Blood is the epitome of true crime, right?
Then again, this is more than a true crime read. It’s a psychological study of violence in America, a historical novel, a horror story that gets under your skin in a twisted, emotional way. Our sympathies are naturally inclined toward the Clutter family, then to investigator Alvin Adams Dewey. But as we delve deeper with Capote’s narrative, allegiance becomes blurred. I leave this book with a complicated sense of pity for the murderers. It’s a disgusting tragedy through-and-through, but the writing sure is done well.
I feel compelled to recommend this book because it challenges the reader. Like Lolita, it’s confusing…we try to create answers for why these characters choose this, or do that, but there is no true, concrete explanation.
The ending only emphasizes this sense of loss. The histories of the death row inmates lodging next-door to Dick and Perry are a strong parallels to the boys’ own downward spiral leading to the Clutter family murders. Since mental health is a highlighted theme here, everyone affiliated with these various crimes becomes a victim in some form or other. Quite unsettling.
Bottom Line: Read it because it’s classic and difficult–then follow it with something light.
All Naughty Ain’t Nice
Three One-Act Plays by Woody Allen
First Line: Curtain rises on a gray day in New York.
Maybe it’s just me, but I’m a little put out by all the infidelity in literature. So imagine my delight when, after having just purchased this collection, I decide to actually read the book jacket summary. Lo and behold, these one-acts are heralded as “humorous, insightful, and unusually readable plays about infidelity.”
“Oh goodie!” says me. “I bought exactly what I try to avoid!”
This, my friends, is why we must research our reads. I’ve done the work for you on this one…and, I hate to say it, but this collection is underwhelming.
For one thing, the dialogue takes dozens–yes, dozens–of pages to warm up. The openings drag and the conversations seem to go in circles, killing time for much longer than what’s necessary to “build suspense.” The one-liner jokes also struck me as a little forced for believable conversations.
I suppose “Old Saybrook” is the best of the three acts. The introduction of the “author” character Max half-way through the play offers some interesting comments on the writing process, but even this metatheatrical device feels underdeveloped.
Of course, we’re talking about the stage, here. Maybe if I’d seen live performances of these acts, I wouldn’t have been so bored. The situational humor could have come off stronger, and the plot twists might have head more flair when seen in-person.
Overall, though, the plays feel recycled. We’ve read about infidelity before, and these plots don’t add much to the conversation.
Bottom Line: For the better trip down Infidelity Lane, opt instead for the wicked character development and dramatic action of Woody Allen’s film Match Point.
Monkey See, Monkey Think?
Animal Wise by Virginia Morell
First Line: “Animals have minds.”
What a fun nonfiction read! It was never really a stretch for me to appreciate elephants and dolphins and dogs as being “smart.” But birds and ants? I never thought they had much going on emotionally or intellectually. That is, until I read this book.
When their home is destroyed, ant societies have meticulous house-hunting methods. They include special scouts who find the property and then return home to bring others to the site one-by-one, in a sort of follow-the-leader/teacher-and-student approach. When faced with a set of objects, a parrot can understand the question, “What’s different?” and answer correctly. They not only know how to make judgements—they can articulate their thoughts, too!
The studies with the larger mammals are no less impressive. The two chapters devoted to dolphins left me in awe. Evidently we humans are not the only creatures with the ability to be creative. One pair of dolphins was able to devise a synchronized water trick on their own…
The scientists conducting these studies have documented some truly amazing animal behaviors. The question, “Are they thinking?” now shifts to, “What are they thinking?”
Bottom Line: Animal-lover or not, this read forces you to take another long look at the world around us.
No Honeymoon-Stage Here
The Newlyweds by Nell Freudenberger
First Line: “She hadn’t heard the mailman, but Amina decided to go out and check.”
This book caught my eye when it first came out because I’d read Freudenberger’s story collection Lucky Girls a couple years back. Her short stories impressed me. This latest work…did not.
It’s somehow easier to explain why a piece of writing hooks us, instead of how it falls short. For me, at least, the dialogue in The Newlyweds is too stark, too dry. Perhaps this was a deliberate style choice for Freudenberger. I just remember her stories’ characters having more natural conversations, and more dimension.
Also, the pace was a little too slow. I appreciate the day-to-day details included about the couple, but I didn’t quite understand why I should care about them. I mean, Amina is nice and and all, but she doesn’t have that special, emotional spark I expect from protagonists.
I abandoned this book around page 80, when I realized I was experiencing the narrative as some ill-conceived, drawn-out, independent film. The kind where the ambiance is all gray and the actors aren’t convincing because their dialogue is disgracefully overly dramatic.
Maybe in a different mood I could have enjoyed it. But not today.
Bottom Line: Skip this, read Lucky Girls, and patiently wait for Freudenberger’s next release.
Magical Adventure Grown-Up
A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan
First Line: “Not a day goes by that the post does not bring me at least one letter from a young person (or sometimes one not so young) who wishes to follow in my footsteps and become a dragon naturalist.”
At the start, this novel seems to take us back to fantastical, childhood make-believe. But continue, and it quickly becomes clear that so much more is at work. It’s about dragons, yes; but it reads like a grown-up novel!
In fact, there are multiple genres taking stage in A Natural History of Dragons. Part I introduces our narrator: the young, strong-willed Isabella. Her tomboy nature reminds me of Little House on the Prairie and those early chapters act as a concentrated coming-of-age story. We’re given the essentials of her childhood infatuation with biology and dragons in particular, then it’s a fast-forward to her teen years. The mandatory frustrations in finding a marriage partner (and the inevitable triumph!) in those chapters call up Jane Austen’s sophisticated sense of romance.
The following three-quarters of this book are equal parts travel memoir, adventure novel, and page-turner mystery. Isabella joins her husband and a few other fellows on an expedition in pursuit of–you guessed it!–dragons. To study the “rock-wyrms,” they take cover in the peasant town Drustanev. Adventure ensues in way of smugglers and kid-nappings, dragon attacks, cursed ruins, and Isabella’s persistent objection to gender norms.
A sequel, The Tropic of Serpents is due out in 2014.
Bottom Line: If you aren’t quite up for the hard-core science-fiction shelves, but you’ve out-grown adolescent fantasy, this novel is your niche.