Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Egg and I - Betty MacDonald

"A beloved literary treasure for more than half a century, Betty MacDonald's The Egg and I is a heartwarming and uproarious account of adventure and survival on an American frontier. "

Betty MacDonald's autobiographical novel does a few quick pages on childhood and launches headlong into a painstaking account of her first few years of marriage on a chicken ranch in Washington state. MacDonald fills the stories with humor, self-deprecating humor, panic, loneliness, achievement and some more humor. I laughed constantly through this book.

I also learned a bit. Apparently early 1900's farm life is centered heavily around growing, preserving and eating your own food. MacDonald revels in the fare available and discusses in excruciating detail nearly every aspect of the planting, tending, harvesting, preserving and preparing fruits and veggies, and the birthing, raising, butchering, preserving and preparing meat. And that's before she even gets into the chickens.

I highly recommend this book, its a quick read from a very clever female writer with an early feminist voice. Oh, and did I mention that the old Ma & Pa Kettle movies are based on MacDonald's neighbors in this book? Yep, they are.

Friday, May 22, 2009

The Keeper by Sarah Langan

The Keeper is a pretty good horror novel. Sure the story's been done before (unspeakable evil destroys small Maine town), but Sarah Langan is a very talented writer. I actually started losing my shit when I thought bad things were about to happen to my favorite character (bad things did happen, but not what I thought). The characters and relationships are all handled very well, even the tertiary characters. Langan manages to bring depth to characters who only get maybe a few paragraphs. It's impressive, really, that by the end you feel like you know the people in Bedford, you're familiar with the different families. It's great because when you care so much about so many characters, it makes it really difficult to predict who is going to be killed off. In lesser novels you may only be really introduced to a few characters, and it's usually pretty easy to pick out which ones are being set up to die. Not so in The Keeper.

The story is actually pretty complicated to spell out here, but if you're interested AlabamaPink (RIP) did a wonderful review over at Pajiba. The Basics: Susan Marley, once a pretty, normal girl, has withered away, both physically and mentally. She wanders the town daily (and through the dreams of the townfolk), never speaking. People say she's a witch. Her former lover, Paul Martin, failed-husband, high school teacher, and town drunk, tries to help Susan and unwittingly sets in motion events that lead to horrifying evil being released upon Bedford. Susan's sister, Liz, is the protagonist of the story, but it's hard to say if she's the main character. Liz and her boyfriend Bobby (the son of Bedford's only doctor) have dreams of moving out of Bedford and never returning, but Susan has other plans for them.

Really there are so many secondary and tertiary characters that it's impossible to even begin to list. And I can't tell my favorite parts of the story without giving away some of the plot. It's not the best horror novel I've read (that title still belongs to King's 'Salem's Lot) but it's definitely worth a read.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Spook - Review 2

Miranda read this last year. 

Her synopsis is good. I really enjoyed this book, it took me less than a week to read, although it was a week in which I spent a good amount of time in airports. 

I found Roach funny and refreshing. As an engineer (with a scientifically inquiring mind) I question somewhat her devotion to science. She skips over a lot of conversation with scientists with the excuse that its scientific jibberish (which it likely is to anyone without a graduate degree in physics or chemistry or neurobiology) but it does sort of hurt her scientific credibility. I would have enjoyed a little more science, but I'm probably a minority. Its a perfect science book for non-scientists. Its really a read for optimistic skeptics.

The facts and fictions are surprising and amusing and they made me want to subscribe to the American Journal of Paranormal Sciences. That seems to be a longstanding page-turner with some stories.

So I recommend this book to anyone with an interest in the afterlife, in the bizarre corners of science, or in the history of humans search for the meaning of life. Really anyone could enjoy this book, and I fully intend to read Roach's other works as well.

Red Azalea - Anchee Min

A while ago I read Becoming Madame Mao by Min, which was a semi-fictional accounting of the life of Madame Mao. This is the nonfictional accounting of the life of Anchee Min during roughly the same time period. She grew up during the cultural revolution in China and her recounting of the time is really moving.

Min tells of her sort of typical childhood in Shanghai through a painfully personal lens. Unlike some biographies that are dryly factual trying not to over-value their own experiences or others that seem written to make the writer the victim, to justify their actions, Min tells her story with emotions bared, not qualifying or trying to make sense of the events. Perhaps the strange circumstances of time and place make it feel like a period piece. For me as a reader, it can only be a deeply personal account because I have no alternative telling against which to compare it.

Min's life is in fact atypical for a young woman of the cultural revolution. She spends years working on a communist 'model farm' as do thousands of youths, but is later brought back to the city to act in a film version of a new opera by Madame Mao. Instead of fame and status she's rebuffed and falls into a low position but befriends a man with a high position under Madame Mao and learns the true nature of Communist China's government.

Min begins as an enthusiastic communist, full of energy to dedicate to fulfilling all the propaganda promise of the new China, but as she rises she is pushed back by the ambition and pettiness of those around her. Her patriotic zest is further destroyed by love and friendship for which she forsakes her communist ideals and becomes a more complete person longing for acceptance and loyalty. 

The love story between Min and her friend Yan is particularly powerful, not just taboo as a relationship between two women, but creating a personal loyalty unacceptable on the farm. Later Min must suffer the relationship between Yan and a new boyfriend which nearly destroys Min and (I think) colors all of her self-destructive actions thereafter. 

The book is well-written and paints a really fascinating picture of a time and place that is difficult to know. Min is a natural protagonist and you feel for her throughout her struggle, even when you disagree with her actions. It is difficult to imagine being as friendless and alone as she is and still soldiering on. I highly recommend this book, I found it better than Becoming Madame Mao (particularly the style, which I found distracting in Becoming). 

And, yes. I love some books about China. It's my thing.