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The Valley Of Amazement by Amy Tan

The Valley Of Amazement

I love Amy Tan’s writing, and in particular, I’m attracted to books about life in old China.  The Valley of Amazement drew me in immediately.  It’s a saga about an American woman who falls in love with a Chinese artist in San Francisco, and follows him to Shanghai around the turn of the last century.

The story of women who suffer in China is an old one, and typically authors keep the characters at arm’s length, because getting too close to them would make it difficult for a reader to accept their fate.  I felt that Tan pulled the characters a little too close for comfort, because I had a very difficult time reading many parts of this book.

But that aside, the narrative was a real page-turner.  The story is not told entirely chronologically.  In the beginning Lucretia Minturn heads a first class courtesan house in Shanghai.  Slowly, hints of her background come out, but the main story surrounds what happens to her and her 14 year old daughter.  By the end of the novel, I was convinced that this could have been two books:  the first being the story of Lucretia Minturn and the second being the story of her daughter, Violet.  Since a good portion of this book takes place in a courtesan house (aka high class brothel), Tan spends a good portion exploring the sexual exploits of her characters.  In my opinion she went a little overboard on the “soft porn,” but it didn’t ruin the book for me.  Be warned, however, if you are sensitive to sexually explicit writing.

Despite these shortcomings, it was still a very entertaining work of historical fiction.

4 stars (out of 5)
Published in 2013
589 pages

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Border Songs by Jim Lynch

Border Songs

I fell in love with Jim Lynch’s writing upon reading The Highest Tide, and knew I would definitely read another of his books when given a chance.  While Border Songs doesn’t have the thrilling narrative of his earlier work (and seriously it would be hard to top it), it is still a fine work of fiction.

Lynch presents a border community in the Pacific Northwest, where a six foot eight inch tall young man, with autism and dyslexia, proves to he has a gift for spotting illicit activities as a Border Patrol agent.  I loved the story of Brandon Vanderkool, particularly how Lynch gets into his head so the reader sees with the particular acuity of his subject.  It is post 9/11 and in addition to illegal immigrants, the border is trafficked by drug runners and the threat of terrorism.  In the midst of these events, the local community is suffering economically, and it’s inhabitants are finding it difficult to resist the financial benefits that come with turning a blind eye to illegal border activities.

With today’s news reports filled with concerns about immigration, drugs and economic malaise, this book becomes even more poignant in an attempt to understand how these forces (and political ones) can affect a farming community.

4 stars (out of 5)
Published in 200
304 pages

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And the Good News Is by Dana Perino

And the Good News Is

And the Good News Is: Lessons and Advice from the Bright Side

This is a short book.. way too short. And it’s too long. Perino has tried to write three different books. The first third is a biography. Perino had an interesting childhood in Wyoming and Colorado, but she soon moves on to book #2, as Press Secretary to George W. Bush. This was very interesting, but again there wasn’t much detail, just some stories that paint President Bush in a strong positive light. That’s not surprising, as she does the same to President Obama and Vice-President Biden. If she took the subject of Bush 44 and the press and expanded it 10x she would have had a much better book. The last third, were self-help chapters full of advice. Okay but I’m not a fan of the topic.
And I get that she loves her husband and her dog, but leave that crap out, it’s all filler.
Perino comes across as honest, intelligent and classy, but not very deep. Her editor should have focused Perino’s attention to the important part of her life and cut away all the filler even if it took another year for the book(s) to come out.

277 pages

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Tender At The Bone by Ruth Reichl

Tender At The Bone

I can’t resist memoirs about foodies.  I don’t have to even know who they are –  if they write about their life with key moments charmed by cooking and good food, I want to read it.  Tender at the Bone is the memoir of New York Times food critic, Ruth Reichl.

I knew from the first few pages that I would love this book.  She immediately relates a highly improbable story told by her father about her childhood, with the message that a good story is far more important than a true story.  She confesses that she embellishes some of the stories in her book, and honestly, it’s so entertaining I don’t mind in the least.

You would think a food critic grew up either a) surrounded by great cooks or b) being served great dishes because their family was rich enough to care about food.  But Reichl’s case had neither.  She admits her mother was a terrible cook, always throwing dinner parties with “bargain” foods that were more likely to poison her guests than leave them wanting more.  But Reichl cared about food, and when any opportunity presented itself to learn about cooking, selecting or eating fine food, Ruth Reichl grabbed on with both hands.

Reichl has obviously lived a remarkable life (even sans embellishments), and that shines in this memoir.  I highly recommend Tender at the Bone!

5 stars (out of 5)
Published in 1999
304 pages

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The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck

The Good Earth

In this classic by Pearl S. Buck, the reader is transported to old world China, where the humble farmer Wang Lung takes as his wife a servant from a noble house nearby.  Through hard work, the couple prospers and are able to buy land.  Famine and war visit their community, but still Wang Lung understands the importance of the land in their survival.  As the farmer grows wealthy and his children grow up, will his sons follow in their father’s footsteps?

I loved this book.  Buck has a beautiful, if simplistic writing style.  Despite it’s sparseness, it still gives you a sense of time and place, and allows the reader for care for the characters. I very much enjoyed this saga of Wang Lung and hope to read the others in this series.

4 stars (out of 5)
Published in 1935
418 pages

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Circling The Sun by Paula McLain

Circling The Sun

Paula McLain takes on the story of Beryl Markham, a woman who challenges the molds of womanhood in early 20th century Kenya.  Markham was a trainer of race-horses, a pilot, and experimented in promiscuity.

Though Beryl Markham was a real person, McLain’s novel is fiction.  From the opening pages, I enjoyed the author’s portrayal of Africa and Markham’s early life.  But as the story progressed, (and Markham became an adult) something seemed missing.  For some reason, I never could feel an attachment to any of the characters.  Markham’s achievements, particularly her career as a professional horse trainer, should have been more developed.  Where were the attachments to certain horses or the thrill of a great win?

I don’t think there was ever a chance I was going to like the Beryl Markham as portrayed by Paula McLain, but I could have enjoyed the book more had McLain focused more on Markham’s career and less on her shallow circle of friends.

3 1/2 stars (out of 5)
Published in 2016
366 pages

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