Category Archives: books and reading

Message from an unknown Chinese mother

“Aren’t you worried what might have happened to them?”
“What’s the point in worrying? If they’re very lucky, they’ll survive. If not…Girls are born to suffer. It’s too bad they’re not boys.”

Xinran is a Chinese journalist who has compilied the stories of Chinese women who have had to give up or abandon their daughters because of political, economic, or social and cultural reasons. The women’s stories may have varying circumstances but the overwhelming pain permeates each story. Due in part to the one-child policy, economic hardships, and the desire to have a male heir to carry on the family name and spiritual duties, many women are forced to abandon or kill their daughters. What I could appreciate most about these stories is that Xinran invites the reader to get a better understanding of the many forces at work behind these heartrenching decisions. Xinran at times marvels over her lack of understanding and naiveness of the many cultures and ideas that exist in the country where she grew up. We see that these mothers are not heartless and cruel but are operating under tense and mostly inflexible constructions. These women range from students to the richest and the poorest, they are educated, they are all of us. There are even families who try to evade the authorities by travelling constantly so that they can keep their girls. These “extra-birth guerilla troops” risk everything to keep their families together. The women Xinran writes about greive for their lost daughters but know that they must not bring shame to the family or disobey the policies. It’s very hard to do this book or an explanation of the culture any justice, but just know that reading it will bring about a new understanding that you would never get from Western media.

There is a scene in the one of the stories that remains with me. An orphanage worker remembers the babies that are brought to the steps of the building. Some of them have a small X on their pinky, some have their familiy history and stories or poems and words of love written on their clothes, some mothers have embroidered elaborate pictures on their clothing. It as if the mothers hope to be reunited one day or to at least have the baby know where they come from and and that hey were loved once they are old enough.

The collection of stories as told to Xinran by the women themselves, serves a few purposes. They are to help Chinese children who have been adopted to understand the circumstances their mothers may have faced in giving them up, they are to help adoptive families to obtain a bit of information about their children’s familial culture, they are to help Westerners and outside cultures to understand how social structures and economic and political climate influence the actions of a country. These stories also serve as a place of healing for the author herself, who was not adopted as a child but says she barely knew her parents (because of their involvement and circumstances related to the communist party at the time) and still feels the strains from what she sees as a lack of love and displays of affection. Xinran also recounts the story of fostering an abandoned baby girl, whom she had to give up to adhere to the one-child policy.

These stories were amazing on so many levels. I think I can safely say that all of us at bookclub have had our eyes and hearts opened, we’ve had our ideas and convictions changed a bit.

As we said good-bye, Mary said to me: Print what I said, please, so those little girls can read it and will never forget their Chinese mothers.”


Catching up…Persephone and Virago

The Mystery of Mrs Blencarrow – Mrs Oliphant

This binding includes two novellas, both quite good. The first novella is about Mrs Blencarrow who is believed to be concealing something. A particular neighbor just can not believe that she is so good as to have to blemishes on her social record, even after the death of husband. To hear the neighbor tell it Mrs Blencarrow is high and mighty and needs to be exposed. Of course Mrs Blencarrow does have something to hide. The second novella Queen Eleanor and Fair Rosamond is darker. Mrs Lycett-Landon has found out that her husband has married someone else and is living two lives.
Both stories written in the late 1800s are not all what you would expect of the times, in a good way.

The Enchanted April – Elizabeth von Arnim

This is a lovely and warm story about four women who do not know each but who rent an Italian villa together in the 1920s. They are each viewing the vacation in different ways and each woman has a different reason for going. Amid blooming flowers and the enchantment of their new surroundings each woman finds a bit of happiness that had previously escaped them. This does sound exceptionally mushy and idyllic, but that’s okay. There is also a film which I’ve seen and it is just as nice as the book. I’ll be coming back to this one, perhaps in April when classes are winding down and the entire summer is stretched out before me.

The Virago Book of Christmas

From my Virago Secret Santa (rainpebble) two years ago, I read this last Christmas. I often chuckled to myself thinking that anyone who saw me reading this around Christmastime would think I was full of Christmas cheer and tinsel and lights. That is until they saw the hilarious cover, alas no one asked me about it. So I’ll tell about it now. These are short pieces, essays, poems, excerpts from various women about the Christmas season. Some are deeply moving about the miracle of Christ while others lament family gatherings and traditions. I read it over the entire season and there was always something new to discover. I get a kick out of the back cover description so I will copy it here

Christmas began with a good but harassed woman giving birth in difficult domestic circumstances. Somewhere between then and now, the circumstances have changed, but for women today, Christmas is still a time of joys garnered against the odds. We have moved on from stables and mangers to supermarkets and microwaves; palm fronds and shepherds have given way to a spangled conifer and a fat man in a red suit. In this anthology, reflecting the experiences of more than 50 women at Christmas, Ntozake Shange and Agatha Christie rub shoulders with Emily Dickinson and Virginia Woolf. Curl up with a tantalizing volume that gives full reign to the seditious humor, peculiar discomforts, and exquisite social tortures of the season.

Catching up…LT Early Reviewers

These are selections that I received as part of LibrayThing’s Early Reviewers Program.

Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self – Danielle Evans

The stories in this collection were great. They are mostly about adolescence and finding ones place and voice. Many of the stories are about young girls and range from family issues, making choices, to love and self-healing. I enjoyed the variety of topics covered and the characters. They are well thought out and very true to life. I hope Evans continues to write.

Fannie’s Last Supper: Re-creating One Amazing Meal from Fannie Farmer’s 1896 Cookbook – Christopher Kimball

Fannie’s Last Supper is part travelogue (especially if you’ve visited or plan to visit Boston), part epicurean history, and part cookery book. The descriptions of Fannie’s Boston and Victorian curiosity provide background for the modern meal Kimball is recreating. Many of Fannie’s original recipes are modified to pull off the meal.

Reading Women: How the Great Books of Feminism Changed My Life – Stephanie Staal

This is one woman’s experience in an intro to feminism course. Staal gives us just enough background on the texts and the main points for the reader to follow along. We follow her as she returns to her alma mater and enrolls in a feminist texts course. What is most interesting and the main idea of the book is the dynamic that she navigates. She discovers her dual selves-both mother and working woman. Her writing is accessible and I could really appreciate her experience. If you are looking for a more in depth reading of feminists texts I’d check elsewhere.

Other LT Selections I have waiting on my nightstand:
The Paris Wife – Paula McLain
Let’s Kill Uncle – Rohan O’Grady
Arms Wide Open: A Midwife’s Journey – Patricia Harman

Catching up..hodgepodge #2

The Hand That First Held Mine – Maggie O’Farrell

A wonderful book containing two stories that seem to be unrelated, but all along we somehow know that they have to be related. Lexie is just starting her career in the 60s in London. Elina has just had a baby but somehow can’t remember exactly having the baby. She and her husband Ted are coping with being new parents, but also Ted’s lack of memory about his childhood.

Village School – Miss Read

Set in the 1950s, through the eyes of the headmistress of the school, this is the first installment in the Miss Read series. I’d been wanting to get to know the characters in this English village for some time. Generally these are the daily happenings of the village and it’s people, a soothing read.

The Help – Kathryn Stockett

I don’t think there is much left to say about this blockbuster and I will spare anymore summarizing. When I read it a while ago it was wildly popular. I don’t remember talk of a movie but everyone seemed to love it. I did too! I still struggle with it though. On one hand the story is nicely written, the characters are rich and lovable both for their personalities and because of the amazing feat they take on. But I couldn’t help but think that it was too clean and too safe regarding social and racial tensions. I kept waiting for Stockett to take a leap into the horrors that so many experienced at this time. Even so, this book is accessible to a wide audience and that may have been the point. I’m planning on seeing the film as I love love love Viola Davis’ work. I think I even imagined her in this story…though I may be imagining that now!

Image from the The Help Official Movie Site

Catching up…Hodgepodge #1

The Island Beneath The Sea – Isabel Allende

I wish it hadn’t been so long since I read this. The details are fuzzy now though I remember really enjoying this story. I always find that Allende’s stories are sweeping and lushly descriptive. The Island Beneath the Sea tells the story of Zarite, a slave born on the island of Saint-Domingue which after the revolution became Haiti. Like many other slave narratives I have read, Zarite becomes a force and is instrumental in the survival of her master’s family.

Sharp Teeth – Toby Barlow

This was an interesting one. Barlow tells the story of various packs of wolves living in LA.They are able to transform from human to wolf depending on their needs at the time. The groups are fighting, the story is intense, gritty, and written in verse. Yes, that’s right, verse. But there is no rhyming. It’s amazing how much detail Barlow is able to get in such few words. There were a lot of different wolves/people to keep up with. There is also a lot of social commentary.

The Personal History of Rachel DuPree

I lit a kerosene lamp and got the book of fairy tales from the parlor. I admired the feel of the book. The cover on this one was worn…I opened the book and held it to each girl’s nose. I always believed that smelling the pages of a book took a person into the story.

When we meet Rachel she is a mother, a wife, a pioneer. She recounts the events that have led her and her husband to the Badlands, an area in South Dakota where families are staking claim and farming the land. She has struck a deal with Isaac DuPree, a man who has returned from military service. She will marry him for one year in return for her claim of 160 acres of land (Homestead Act of 1862) as a way to double Issac’s claim. One year turns into 14 and 8 births.

The whole idea behind the story is of a black pioneering family trying to make their way in the early 1900s. They will have to fight the land, stand in the face of racism, and manage the turmoil of unsettled territory and the baggage of history past and historical events to come. The idea itself seemed great initially, but the idea never really played out as thoroughly as I’d hoped. There were struggles both with the land, between the couple, and within Rachel herself. There are times when thirst and the possibility of running out of food and hope nearly overwhelm Rachel. There are times when the Badlands are not what Rachel or Isaac bargained for. There are times when Rachel just wants a taste of sweetness for her children. But Rachel and Issac both just seemed too quiet. It was like they were both following scripts of what someone might have said they did and might have said they thought. I could never exactly feel what it meant to be planted in the middle of hundreds of acres of land, the nearest neighbor 90 miles away. Loneliness and isolation are major themes here. Rachel often wishes for another woman to talk with, to invite over for tea. She wishes for playmates for her young children.

I expected to book to show me what it would have been like for a black couple during this time as I haven’t read about black pioneers much less black pioneering women. This was a story about any woman. The racial tension was uneasy but not really tense. There were no major run-ins, the biggest confrontation is when a group of white men deliver a stove. They are surprised but generally pleasant. Rachel and Isaac sometimes mention being black in their narratives but it seemed thin. It was like they were just reminding you of their race.

There is a moment in Rachel’s recollection of her previous life as a cook in a boarding house in which Ida B. Wells-Barnett has been invited to speak to a black women’s reading group. The women are beyond excited in anticipation of this event but when Mrs. Wells-Barnett arrives in less than tea time finery and wants to talk only about lynchings and action for the future, the women are appaled. Rachel greatly admires Mrs. Wells-Barnett and often remembers to think of how she would advise her to go on, holding up her head, hopeful.

On the porch, I looked north once again where the White River still had a trickle of water. I scanned the sky. It felt like a storm-the air was thick as if it held rain. I lifted my arms a little, my sides sticky. It might have felt like a storm, but that didn’t mean anything. The weather liked to tease. I remembered times when big splinters of lightening split open the sky, making the ground shake and roll from the thunder, sending the children crying to me. Curtains of rain would surround the ranch, and yet not a drop would come our way. Other times it would rain for days on end, making me and Isaac fret about the crops and root rot. Then from out of nowhere, right in the middle of a downpour, the sun would show itself, lifting our spirits, making us think that the crops might just be all right after all. But it would keep on raining, us worrying about root rot, the sky bright with a rainbow. All the same, the orange-tinted clouds off to the west raised my hopes.

Catching up… bookclub reading

Posts this week and next will be devoted to some of the things I missed discussing during my blog absence.

These are selections that our bookclub has read over the last half-year or so.

Living, Loving and Lying Awake at Night – Sindiwe Magona
This is a cluster of short stories that explore women’s lives in South Africa. The first part is a series of interconnected stories that center around a group of black South African maids who work in the homes of whites. They keep their share of gossip and the to-dos of the families they work for. The stories are written in first person and the narrator is usually talking directly to another woman. It’s like you are sitting at the kitchen table with them, tongues wagging.
The second part takes place during Apartheid in South Africa. These stories were heavier than the stories of the maids. The story that I can still remember is of a young girl who discusses all the magic of Fridays including the end of school and trips to the market. The other that still lingers is of a mother who leaves her village and children behind with the idea that it is the only way she can be a good mother, a good provider.

I’ll Fly Away: Further Testimonies from the Women of York Prison – Editor, Wally Lamb
This is a collection of pieces written by women who take part in a writing workshop at York Prison in Connecticut lead by author Wally Lamb. It is the follow-up to Couldn’t Keep It to Myself: Wally Lamb and the Women of York Correctional Institution (Testimonies from our Imprisoned), which I have but have yet to read. The essays written by the women themselves tell various stories about their lives and families before and after entering prison, the turns their lives took that ended in prison, as well as efforts at recovery and finding purpose in life. I didn’t know what to expect before reading these and literally read them cover to cover. I think these essays truly speak to the healing power of writing and sharing stories both for the reader and the storyteller.

Impatient With Desire – Gabrielle Burton
Gabrielle Burton has researched the expedition of the Donner Party. Impatient With Desire is the imagined journal of Tamsen Donner, a woman who decides to pack up her family and move with her husband across the US to California. They travel with others by wagon train. After trying a new route called the Hastings Cutoff, the group becomes stranded in the mountains during winter loosing cattle, wagons, and running short on provisions.

Truth & Beauty: A Friendship – Ann Patchet
Ann writes about her friendship with Lucy Grealy, a woman who has lost much of her face and jaw to childhood cancer. Ann writes about her supportive role as Lucy’s friend, the ups and downs of their relationship, and Lucy’s amazing ability to appear strong even though she is very fragile. What I am not sure if others have picked up on is Ann’s almost disappearance in this memoir. She is at times as Lucy’s doormat, enabler, and fiercest supporter.

Girls Like Us: Fighting for a World Where Girls Are Not for Sale, an Activist Finds Her Calling and Heals Herself – Rachel LLoyd
Lloyd uses Girls Like Us as a place to expose the commercial sex trade of young girls in the US. At times she intertwines the stories of the girls she’s met in her work with GEMS with her own story of abuse and sex work. What I think most people will find eye opening is that these are very young girls who either have been kidnapped or seduced into sex work and that there is limited help for them. Lloyd chronicles the struggles her organization has had with getting law passed to view these girls as victims instead of prosecuting them as prostitutes.

High Wages by Dorothy Whipple

A Whipple so we know it has to be good…

Jane lands a job as an assistant in a draper’s shop. A very poor girl, she has an extravagant imagination and even better taste. She is always innovative and on top of, really ahead of the latest fashion trends. She is willing to take chances in suggesting fabrics and items to clients, dressing windows, and soon works up a reputation with customers in the shop. Soon she is negotiating her way to more accounts and more wages, but when she finds there is a ceiling she makes a way around. Of course there is a love component and a bit of a twist.

Esperanza Rising

Esperanza is a 13 year old girl living in Mexico when her father is suddenly killed during a civil uprising. When his brother takes over the estate and steals their fortune, the remaining family is forced to flee to the United States. The members of the once well off family are now working as laborers on a farm in California. Confronting racisim and poverty Esperanza must find humility and hope. Excellent for young readers and adults as well.

I Capture The Castle by Dodie Smith

Another that I read in between classes last August to escape for just a moment. It is the 30s and Cassandra writes about her adventures and her family and all that happens in their giant but run down estate on the English countryside. Her notebook only has a few pages but her story is expansive and lushly detailed. Her father, now a widower, once wrote a successful novel but has produced nothing more and the family must survive on hardly anything. He has remarried a remarkably beautiful model of sorts from London named Topaz who sort of floats through the house. She can not manage to get him to write either. Most of the furniture has been sold but the home still has great character and somehow they manage. Cassandra’s sister Rose dreams of new dresses and suitors. Cassandra thinks this is all a waste of time, of course until a pair of strangers arrive at the door. The story is sweet and entertaining, filled with the eccentric characters of course but also first loves and the pain of love not returned.