Sunday, May 23, 2010

Review: Girl in Translation

The coming of age story of a young woman who emigrates from Hong Kong to New York City, this book follows Kimberly Chang as she tries to make her way in a foreign country. Upon arrival Kimberly and her mother find themselves adrift in a world of poverty and sweatshop labor. Kimberly's saving grace is her tremendous intelligence, which she quickly realizes is her only ticket out of the sweatshops. Following Kimberly from age eleven through high school, Kwok provides a stark portrait of the challenges faced by American immigrants: systemic poverty, intolerance, language barriers, exhaustive work schedules, and cultural traditions which allow respect to some of the worst offenders here, personified by Kwok in Kimberly's aunt, a slumlord who lords over the sweatshop where her niece and sister toil. All of this misery aside, this is a story about people, and Kimberly is an engaging character, who engages the reader in her efforts to make friends, navigate teenage love, and pursue a way out of the sweatshop through academic excellence. In some ways this is a classic story of American immigration, much like many others, but compelling characters and several intertwined plots make this fresh enough to be well worth reading.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Review: The Creation of Eve

A fictionalized account of the life of Renaissance painter Sofinisba Anguissola, this book chronicles the time Anguissola spent as a lady-in-waiting to Elisabeth de Valois, queen of Spain. At the Spanish court Sofi encounters an entirely different world. Learning to navigate court culture while dreaming about the relationship she left behind in Rome envelop Sofi's time. She becomes one of the queen's favorites, a position that offers little but complexity and danger. Cullen's historical presentation is believable, though I found the beginning of the book to be somewhat slow-going. In part, this is because the first portion of the book, set in Italy, has little bearing on the major thrust of the plot. I found the court setting of the book somewhat difficult to engage. I've read little of the voluminous historical fiction on the kings and queens of Europe, so I suspect that for others more deeply read in the genre, this will not be an issue. This is more my issue than Cullen's, I simply don't find the court setting inherently interesting. My preferences aside, I did get deeper into the story. Cullen's writing is good, though I did find the ending, and the consequences of one final dramatic action, to be wholly unbelievable.

Lynn Cullen, The Creation of Eve (Putnam, 2010) ISBN: 0399156100

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Review: A Desirable Residence

I had previously only read Wickham as Sophie Kinsella, and I've enjoyed most of those books. I've previously found Kinsella/Wickham to be humorous and capable of telling a fun and fast-moving story. I found those things to be true of this book. The story centers on a house in a suburban English town, rented by its owners to a glamorous London couple. It's very important to recognize what this book is, and what it is not. This is chick lit, a light and fun read. One should not expect deep layers of meaning, or transcendent messages about the nature of humanity. What this is is a fast read that will keep the reader in light entertainment for a few hours. I wouldn't want my reading list to consist entirely of books like this, but every now and then such books are a nice diversion.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Review: The Beth Book

This novel is really a manifesto, decrying the terrible injustices suffered by late-Victorian women. The book follows the life of Beth Caldwell, a woman of intelligence and literary talent, who is denied education and opportunity. All of the Caldwell family resources are invested in Beth's brother, Jim, and her life is full of injustice. After losing her father in childhood, Beth and her family move from Ireland to Yorkshire, where the family falls into poverty. Still, all resources are funneled into Beth's arrogant and feckless brother. There is little love in young Beth's life: her father is dead, her mother finds Beth aggravating. To escape Beth marries early, a man who turns out to be a lout. Beth's husband relishes using all of the privileges that law and custom afford him over women, and his despicable character is quickly uncovered. Originally published in 1897, this books is meant to be a fictionalized account of Grand's life, and she shares the Irish and Yorkshire origins of her heroine, as well as the unhappy marriage, and the limits of Victorian womanhood. The truly terrible strictures that bound late-nineteenth century women are evident throughout this book. Grand is certainly not the only one to write of these issues, and she is hardly the most subtle. Grand clearly writes from anger and exasperation, but her prose retains literary merit.

Sarah Grand, The Beth Book (Dial, 1981) ISBN: 0803705522, 528 pages

Monday, May 3, 2010

Review: Violet Clay

The story of a young artist's coming of age, Violet Clay explores a woman's efforts to come to terms with a life that has turned out quite differently from her expectations. Violet Clay, orphaned as a small child, shuffled through boarding schools, finds her adult self with only one family member to speak of, her uncle Ambrose, a troubled writer. Ambrose has never managed to finish his second book, and Violet has failed to become an artist of note. A move to New York brings Violet little success. Eight years after her move she finds herself stagnating at art, life, and love. When Ambrose commits suicide, Violet takes the opportunity to move to her uncle's remote upstate cabin to try and reinvent her life. Godwin does an excellent job of creating complex worlds around her characters, and Violet Clay is no exception. Violet's history and psyche are richly drawn, and Godwin deftly recreates Charleston, New York City, and upstate New York. I did find some of Violet's relationships to be somewhat tiresome. Indeed, Violet herself is tiresome, the poster child for a navel-gazing artist's personality. Still, this is an intriguing book: more interesting than the story of an artist trying to figure herself out might seem.

Gail Godwin, Violet Clay (Penguin, 1986) ISBN: 0140082204