Saturday, September 22, 2012

Under the Hawthorn Tree by Ai Mi

I think the back story behind this book is more interesting than the book itself.  It first appeared on the author's website in 2007 when it became an immediate sensation in China.  The media attention increased with the release of a film version by one of China's premier directors in 2010.  The story is set during the Cultural Revolution and has sold millions of copies which is particularly surprising given that the author, who writes under a pseudonym, makes it available for free on her blog.

The story is that of Jingqiu, a naive young woman from a poor and politically questionable family in the city.  She is chosen as one of a small group of students to be sent to the countryside to work on a textbook about the local peasants in an effort to further the Cultural Revolution.  There she fall is love with the son of an army general.  The story revolves around her fear of being found out - though she is so naive she's not even sure what she's supposed to be avoiding.  Eventually she realizes she has done nothing wrong but at that point it's too late for their relationship to develop.

There are other scenes of the difficult temporary work she must endure to help her family make ends meet, her interaction with other boys in her life, and her relationship with her mother as well as a caring doctor who she admires.  Though the language is lyrical, the action moves too slowly and it was only in the last 15 or 20 pages when I really felt hooked.  That being said, this book does give unusual insight into what occurred during China's Cultural Revolution.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Tell the Wolves I'm Home

This novel by Carol Rifka Blunt is fascinating on many levels.  It did take a while to get into but it was well worth the effort.  The entire book is written from the perspective of the 14 year old protagonist, June.  At first I thought she sounded too young and immature for 14, but as the story progressed I realized that one of its best features was watching June mature from a childlike 14 year old to a more jaded but wiser teenager.  The book takes place in the late 80s, when everyone is still trying to figure out what AIDS is all about.  June is very close with her uncle and godfather, a renowned painter, Finn, who is dying of AIDS.  In fact, June considers him her best friend and, after his death, when she's approached by his lover, Toby, she learns there were many complexities in his life that he hid from her including his relationship with Toby and how he really contracted AIDS.  Everyone in her family blames Toby, calling him a murderer and refusing to see him but she's drawn to him and in secret meetings over many months learns the truth about him.  The relationships between June and Finn, June and Toby, and her perception of the relationship between Finn and Toby are also beautifully described and fascinating to watch.  Another interesting theme is the relationship between siblings - June and her sister Greta, and June's mother and brother, Finn.  Finn and June's mother were very close as children and have grown apart due in large part to her reaction to Toby and her fear of AIDS.  Finn sees June and Greta growing apart as they mature and has them sit for a portrait which is his final painting in an effort to immortalize their closeness and thus hoping to preserve it.  There are some funny aspects to the story - like when Toby, June,  their mother and Finn all deface the portrait before learning it might be worth a lot of money.

This is a great book for insights into the maturing of a young girl and interpersonal relationships.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Escape from Camp 14: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West

This book, which read like an in-depth newspaper or magazine article, is written by former Washington Post reporter Blaine Harden.  It is based on extensive interviews with Shin Dong-Hyuk who, as far as the author knows, is the only person to have been born and raised in a North Korean prison camp who successfully escaped to first China then South Korea.  The book is very well researched and includes supporting details from other scholarly works about North Korea and even links to google earth images which illustrate the camp which Shin escaped but which, together with other brutal prisons, are denied by the North Korean regime.  Shin's parents were placed in this prison for alleged crimes of their families.  Shin's father had two older brothers who defected; he never learned what his mother's "crimes" were.  His parents were matched up by the prison administration and permitted to breed - leading to Shin and an older brother being born in the camp and raised as prison labourers.  He never understood the concepts of love, family, honesty, freedom and, primary to him at a young age, having enough to eat.  We hear the story of Shin's childhood including his betrayal of his mother and brother, his torture in an underground prison within the prison, his near death from starvation and bullying after his return to school and his rare glimpses at human kindness from a fellow prisoner who nursed the wounds of his torture, a teacher who fed him extra food, and a new prisoner in the camp who had seen the outside world (including China) and gave him the information he needed to dream of escape.  We then follow his difficult escape, his travels from the camp through the North Korean countryside and his crossing into China as well as the troubles he has adjusting to China, South Korea and eventually the US.  The only good the author seems to find in his being raised in this way is that he was not brainwashed like other North Korean youth as these prisoners were not even thought worthy of this sort of education.  A very fascinating and powerful glimpse at a part of the world that is too often ignored.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Everything Was Good-Bye

This novel by Gurjinder Basran is about the fifth I've read this summer about Indo-Americans.  The difference is this one is by a Canadian and set in Vancouver.  It is similar in that it explores the difficulties young women have caught between the traditional values of their parents and the independence of their peers.

Meena is 18 when the novel starts, the sixth daughter of a mother who was widowed more than 10 years earlier but is still deep in mourning.  The three oldest sisters entered into arranged marriages and stick with them despite evidence of abuse in one of them.  One sister disappeared in her late teens to escape the restrictive lifestyle and has been disowned by her mother but Meena is always curious about her fate.  Both Meena and the last sister enter into arranged marriages before the book's end.

Meena is a smart girl who dreams of becoming a writer and falls for a "white trash" boy in her class.  He leaves after high school and begs her to come with but she can't break free of her family obligations.  Instead she earns a degree, gets a communications job with a PR firm and meets the various men her family deems suitable, eventually marrying one who she doesn't love and admits he doesn't love her.  She gets absorbed into his overbearing family (though does genuinely like her gentle and educated father in law).  When her husband and in-laws leave for a summer in India she unexpectedly meets her high school sweetheart.  This meeting leads to both happy and heartbreaking consequences for Meena but the most positive result is she manages to assert herself without permanently damaging her relationship with her mother.