Thursday, July 23, 2009

Review: The Embers

Some dysfunctional families draw readers in, and make them engaged in the story. Then there are the literary dysfunctional families who are simply annoying. The Aschers, the focus of Bass's novel, are decidedly in the latter category. Throughout the book I was struck by what a bunch of miserable, negative, self-absorbed people the Aschers seemed to be. Basically, this is a book about self-centered, neurotic people who experience tragedy, which in turn makes them more self-centered and miserable. A big part of the problem is that this book is longer than it needs to be. One simply gets sick of the Aschers' navel-gazing. The book seemed repetitive, with the same sentiments repeated. If the book had been cut down by a third, it would likely have been stronger. This is not a book based upon plot, rather, it is meant to be an investigation of the interior life of a family. The problem is, it's very difficult to pull that off with characters such as these, and in the absence of plot, the reader is left with little else.

Hyatt Bass, The Embers (Henry Holt, 2009) ISBN: 0805089942

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Review: Lucky Girl

Mei-Ling Hopgood was adopted from Taiwan as a baby- this is her memoir of reconnecting with her birth family two decades later. Unlike many adoptees Hopgood never really wanted to know more about her birth family. She happily embraced the culture of the American Midwest, her adoptive parents, and her two brothers. As a young adult Hopgood discovered that her Chinese family had been looking for her. Unsure of what she was getting into, Hopgood dug deeper, and discovered she had a large family in Taiwan- birth parents, sisters, nieces, nephews, and a brother. And so she met her birth family. After an exciting honeymoon period, Hopgood was confronted with a whole host of uncomfortable questions she had never anticipated. Her birth mother's submissiveness, her birth father's clear preference for sons over daughters. Coming to terms with these things is the substance of Hopgood's memoir. A written record of nearly ten years spent working out the complicated relationship with her Chinese family, Hopgood has written an engaging tale. There are many good memoirs concerning adoption and immigration issues. I'm not certain that Hopgood's offers much above and beyond the others, but is certainly a strong choice for those who wish to read such a memoir. Both well-written and compelling.

Mei-Ling Hopgood, Lucky Girl (Algonquin, 2009) ISBN: 1565126009

Victorian Challenge Wrap-Up

It's official! I completed the Victorian Challenge! I read four books, two written during the Victorian period, one during the Edwardian period, and one in the 1940s. My final list was:

Charlotte Yonge, The Clever Woman of the Family
Flora Thompson, Lark Rise to Candleford
Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist
Vita Sackville-West, All Passion Spent

It was important to me that at least some of the book I read were actually written in the 19th century. Victorian literature has always daunted me, so tackling some of it at the source was a significant reason why I undertook this challenge. My favorite book of the challenge was Oliver Twist. I didn't find any of these books unpalatable, but my least favorite was likely Lark Rise to Candleford. Looking at my choices, it's perhaps a bit unfair of me to pick favorites. Oliver Twist is by most critics' assessments a work of great literature, and Lark Rise to Candleford makes no pretences to literary greatness. It's a very descriptive book, in modern parlance we might call it 'cozy.' The greatest surprise of the challenge was how easy I found it to engage Dickens. I had always been daunted by his works. This is the first I read seriously as an adult, and I found it a very rewarding experience. I will likely dig deeper into his canon. The least Victorian of these selections was All Passion Spent. I selected it based on the back cover synopsis, which suggested that the book was entirely about the Victorian period. As it turns out, it's about half and half. Overall, this has been a very rewarding challenge experience. If it happens again next year I will surely participate, and my goal will be to select and read only books written during Victoria's reign.