Category Archives: Book Review

If You Follow Me, Would You Go?

Marina is adrift in her life. She runs from the numbness of her father’s suicide to Japan. She is in Shika, Japan for one year to be an English teacher. She thought she could escape her past, but in Japan her past found her.

In Malena Watrous’s If You Follow Me, she presents Marina, a young woman of 22 who follows her lover to Japan to teach English. In the book, the character references going to Japan because she wasn’t sure what else to do with her life. Marina is this raw, emotional character who leaps from the pages of the book and sucks in the reader.

Marina lives in Shika, an equivalence to rural Georgia, with Carolyn in a small disastrous flat that was occupied by American missionaries before them. The two inherit random junk from past inhabitants – including a monstrous refrigerator called an Amana that reeks of rotten beef. Among having to adjust to culture polar opposite to American culture, Marina receives almost daily letters from her supervisor Hiroshi Miyosh about their gomi, or trash. In Japan, there are very strict rules about the disposal of any type of trash. Only on certain days, certain parts of trash can be thrown away and must be placed in a special bin. Soon, Marina is convinced all of the neighbors watch her waiting for her to make a “gomi trash mistake”.

Soon, she begins teaching English at the local schools. She finds the students difficult to connect with because, at first, she only teaches the secretarial students. The students are all female, except for one male student Haruki, who locked himself in his room for four years. She tries creating worksheets to teach the students, but they are all disinterested. Frustrated, she tries to reach out to her Japanese colleagues to curb her loneliness, but she only feels isolation because of the language and culture gap.

Faced with more challenges, Marina begins teaching at the local elementary school that helps to find other people besides Carolyn. The art teacher allows her pupils to draw Marina while Marina gets to know the other students. Particularly, one Korean student who barely speaks Japanese attracts her attention because her inability to speak to the language. There is something about the girl Marina can’t shake – her loneliness, her connection to another foreigner or her inability to fit into Japanese society. Either way, Marina begins to really question why she went to Japan: Was it because of Carolyn? Was it her running from her dad’s suicide? Or was it something else?

At this point in the book, Marina really begins to ask herself what she is going to do with her future. After a shared kiss with her supervisor, she begins to doubt her relationship with Carolyn and the two begin drift apart. Marina flip-flops between teaching the elementary students and a class of teen-aged boys who work in the local power plant. They challenge her every day because no matter what lessons she presents in English the boys don’t care. They drove another female teacher from the school because they sexually harrassed her. After an interesting lesson about sexual education and a slip up with a banana, Marina realizes she must stop being timid and stand up for herself in a very loud way.

I skimmed a shelves of books looking for something new to read when this one leaped out. I looked at the back expecting to have another easy chick lit book to break up the endless science fiction novels I’ve been reading for a literature class. After getting 50 pages in, I couldn’t put the book down. There was something raw and clingy about Marina throughout the book. The “gomi trash” mistakes are a humorous part of the novel, but it was more about the themes of finding one’s self and the attraction of a foreign country. Marina is 22, and so am I. She turns 23 in the book and I am on the cusp of turning 23. Marina has an anxiety about the future and what she is going to do with the rest of her life, and so do I.

Watrous addresses the fear of being at a strange in between age that doesn’t seem to have much significance in American society. In one passage, Marina and Carolyn are talking about being 23. Carolyn begins, “At age 25 for some reason, lovers in Japan get together to eat sponge cake on Christmas Even. These sponge cakes go half off on December 25, when no one wants them anymore. At twenty-five, an unmarried woman is referred to as a Christmas cake.” Who wants to be known as a Christmas cake by the age of 25?!

I won’t ruin the ending for the readers, but it was refreshingly new and pleasant to read besides the umpteenth science fiction book.

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How Jane Austen Ruined My Life

Okay, so Jane Austen really didn’t ruin my life. I didn’t come across her novels until I was a freshman in college. I never had to study her works during my British Literature class in AP, or had seen any of the film adaptations. My exposure to Austen had been a half an hour with a dog parading as Mr. Darcy when I was nine.

Does this image look familiar? If not, it’s from the PBS show, “Wishbone.” It was about a dog that reenacted famous literary works like “Don Quixote”or “Ivanhoe” and simplified the book for kids. (“What’s the story, Wishbone?”)

Ever since meeting a close Janeite  (a Jane Austen junkie) friend my freshman year of college and seeing “Pride and Prejudice” starring Keira Knightley, I’ve been hooked on all things Austen. Who can resist the terror, drama and suspense of rooting for a heroine of a  lower social ranking and a man of fortune becoming united in love while overcoming odds against them? (A bit of sarcasm there…)

While browsing through rows of books, I happened upon one called “Jane Austen Ruined my Life” by Beth Pattillo. That sounded like an interesting title and on the cover is a woman dressed in red, holding a letter and looking either utterly distressed or constipated. After reading the description on the back, I knew I had to read it.

This book follows the life of Emma Douglas. She was a professor of English literature with a specialty in all things Austen. She had her fairy tale happy ending with a world-famous John Milton expert and thought she had the life. Her fantasy life ended one day when she found her husband  spread-eagled on her kitchen table with her teacher’s assistant. She arrived at Gatwick Airport with two bags fleeing the dissolve of her marriage and allegations of plagiarism on behalf of the other woman.

Emma thought she would find refuge in Hampshire, England where her cousin lived. Upon entering the house she found her ex-best male friend standing half-naked in the foyer and her cousin gone off to Paris for a tête-à-tête. Her life became a literal roller coaster as she takes up the offer of a mysterious widow called Mrs. Parrot. Mrs. Parrot offered Emma a chance to see original long-lost letters from Jane Austen that divulged information about the hermit author that few had seen before.

Emma took off across England to Austen’s England from her home in Steventon to Bath to Lyme Regis to find out Austen’s secrets and uncover a few of her own.

It’s very much like Austen’s own novel “Emma”, the namesake of the main character. It’s a fast chicklit read, but one that demands the attention of anyone in need of a light read or something comical involving the famous Jane Austen.

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Book Review: Things We Couldn’t Say

Diet’s story is true. She had to keep a secret. Several secrets, actually. People depended upon her to keep her silence so that they could live.

While rifling through an enormous stack of books in my apartment two days ago, I rediscovered the book Things We Couldn’t Say by Diet Eman. I’ve had this book for years, but never bothered to read it because something else came along or I was too lazy to read it. Finally, I decided to read this book and see what it’s all about.

Diet Eman, a Dutch woman working against the Nazis during World War II, waited over 50 years to publish her account of the war and her experiences. She says in the preface she wanted to forget about the war and the Netherlands because of what happened there.

Diet Eman was a carefree woman who lived with her parents and worked in a bank in the Hague in the Netherlands. Her family took in another man by the name of Hein. At first, Diet was distressed by the invasion of privacy by a new person in her parent’s home because she liked how happy her family was. According to Diet, she sent clear signals to Hein to stay away from her and to not annoy her while he was living with her family. Instead, Hein fell for Diet head over heels. This sounds like a typical boy meets girl and gets the girl story, but it’s so much more. Hein joined the Dutch military. Not long after, Diet’s and Hein’s futures changed completely when the Nazis invaded the Netherlands on May 10, 1940.

Earlier that evening Hitler had promised Germany’s neighbors they would be save from invasion and respect the Dutch’s neutral status, as they had been during World War I. The Germans invaded without any declaration of war. The day before small groups of German soldiers entered the Netherlands wearing Dutch army uniforms or civilian clothes. They advanced while the ragtag Dutch army resisted. Within four days, the Dutch had the Germans until Hitler ordered the bombing of Rotterdam and every other Dutch city until they agreed to surrender.

This is a picture of Rotterdam before the bombings.

Rotterdam after the bombings.

After Rotterdam was annihilated by the Nazis, the Dutch surrendered and German occupation began. Hein, now Diet’s fiance, was moved around from town to town because of his enrollment in the army. He took on a false name and began to work for the underground resistance to save Dutch Jews by moving them, giving them false identification papers and adverting the German’s plans. Diet followed Hein’s example and worked too. She took on the false name of Willie and worked as a maid, while traveling throughout the Netherlands giving rationing cards and letters to Jews hidden throughout the country. She was arrested and imprisoned in Vught Concentration Camp for having false identification papers.

This is a gripping first-person account of Diet’s experiences in the Netherlands as a 20 something woman trying to save her fellow countrymen. She tells her tale of her love of Hein and longing to see him as well as her account of not only her suffering, but those she helped. In this book, Diet is brutally honest and shows entries from her own diary and letters. This book easily draws the reader in. I really connected with this book because I have spent large amounts of times in the Netherlands and have seen these places. What really struck me was Diet’s unshakable faith and her dedication to a cause higher than herself.

 

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Book Review: Shanghai Girls

I first heard about the release of Shanghai Girls by Lisa See on the New York Times weekly book review podcast. I was fascinated by the subject matter because I spent a summer a China studying abroad. After saving up and several coupons later, I was able to buy this book and couldn’t put it down.

Shanghai Girls begins in the year 1937 centering around two sisters Pearl, the eldest, and May Chin. Both girls are on the cusps of their youth in Shanghai, China before Mao took over the country. Shanghai is called the Paris of the East. The city is dripping with glamor, high fashion, excellent society, beggars, gamblers and everything life has to offer. Pearl and May get everything they want because they are fashionable girls that must keep up their image as “beautiful girls.” They model for calendars, advertising campaigns and just for fun. The girls laugh at their parents foolish, traditional ways to live their carefree life, until everything changes.

Their father borrowed tons of money and was not able to return it. In exchange for his debt, his daughters become the collateral and they must be forced in marriages into men coming from Los Angeles in search for Chinese women to take as their brides.

When Japanese bombs fell on Shanghai, everything changed for the two girls – their lives were transformed into something their never thought possible. Through all the splendor and horror, one thing remains true – the sisters are inseparable.

This is one of my favorite books I’ve read lately. I already feel a strong bond to China since I spent a long time there, but this book really opened my eyes to issues in China the people wouldn’t talk about. There was always a strange animosity between the Chinese and Japanese people who I could never understand. No matter how many Chinese friends I asked, they would not talk about it. The estrangement between the two races stems back to World War II when Japan invaded China. The Japanese, at the time, were relentless taking, murdering and stealing everything in their path. This specific situation impacts May and Pearl quite directly.

I loved to see how the sisters changed from two very spoiled girls who cared nothing but fashion and modeling to see their struggles as they make their way to the United States with nothing. They were detained on Angel Island outside of San Francisco waiting to enter the United States. They went from  having everything to nothing.

My favorite aspect of the book was the promotion of such a strong bond between May and Pearl. May was always much more selfish looking after herself and trying to get everything she wanted. Pearl, being the older sister, always looked out for May and sacrificed her needs for her sister’s. I also really enjoyed the incorporation of Chinese rituals and beliefs like the Zodiac calendar and the thorough explanation of these rituals by See.

I strongly suggest for anyone to read this book. It has its sad moments, but it’s an incredible journey. I believe there may be a sequel going by the ending, but I’m not sure.

♥ – Erin

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Book Review: Angela’s Ashes

Angela’s Ashes was first printed in 1996 and received the Pulitzer Prize in 1997. The book is an autobiographical account of Frank (Francis) McCourt’s days growing up in New York City and Limerick, Ireland. He had a large family that struggled for every bit of money they had.

His father got paid once a week and drank all of it away at the local pubs. Angela McCourt, Frank’s mother, sent her children into the pubs in New York City along the streets they lived to find the father and stop him from wasting all of the money. Most of the time the father couldn’t be found, but could be heard singing patriotic songs of Ireland. One of his favorite singers was Kevin Barry.

In Mountjoy jail one Monday morning
High upon the gallows tree
Kevin Barry gave his young life
For the cause of liberty
But a lad of eighteen summers
Yet no one can deny
As he walked to death that morning
He proudly held his head on high

Just because he would not tell
The names of his brave companions
And other things they wished to know
“Turn informer or we’ll kill you”
Kevin Barry answered, “no”
Calmly standing to attention
While he bade his last farewell
To his broken hearted mother
Whose grief no one can tell
For the cause he proudly cherished
This sad parting had to be
Then to death walked softly smiling
That old Ireland might be free

Just before he faced the hangman
In his dreary prison cell
British soldiers tortured Barry

Another martyr for old Ireland
Another murder for the crown
Whose brutal laws may kill the Irish
But can’t keep their spirit down
Lads like Barry are no cowards
From the foe they will not fly
Lads like Barry will free Ireland
For her sake they’ll live and die

Their father was obsessed with going back to Ireland and made the boys promise to fight for Ireland no matter how horrid their situation became. Eventually the family returned to Ireland because they didn’t fare well in the United States because of the father’s drinking problem. Their situation became dire in Ireland because the family had to beg for food or depend upon the “dole”, a type of credit for food or clothing from a local church.

The living situation of the family was awful. In one home, the entire place was overrun with fleas and lice. The family lived in the upstairs floor, that they donned it Italy, because water would flood the first floor. It was intended to be a place of warmth, like Italy. They lived next to a lavatory which make the entire home reek.

These types of descriptions run rampant through Angela’s Ashes. The book continues through Frank’s life as a small boy until early adulthood. His goal was to return to America – even if he had to steal the money.

I found this book very difficult to read. I couldn’t really attach myself to any of the characters because our living conditions are so different. I never had to beg for food or live in horrid conditions – I’ve been very lucky. Frank would resort to stealing at times so his family could eat. There is a huge dependency upon the Catholic faith in this book and it shows how repressed the people are. For example, one of Frank’s co-workers swears his girlfriend, Rose, who stayed in England to save money, had cheated on him with an Englishman because she walked differently. She never cheated. The co-worker insisted she had, though. The book is filled with depressing accounts and sadness of the Irish. There are many details referring to the Irish history and how the English always treated them badly (for 800 years according to the book). I never have done an in depth study of Ireland, so I was unaware of many of the battle references and famines.  Even though I am part Irish, I felt very disconnected from this book. Part of it is because I grew up in the United States in a totally different time than Frank. Another part is that I haven’t studied the Irish history to have a full understanding.

Overall, I’m glad I read this book and got through it, but I probably won’t read it again. It was too difficult to read and at times, bored me.

One song that was used throughout the book was one called “The Road to Rasheen.” Frank wanted to learn this song by heart and understand the meaning. I tried to find the lyrics, but couldn’t find them.

♥ – Erin

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Book Review – The Six Wives of Henry VIII by Alison Weir

My mom first bought this book a few weeks ago after becoming obsessed with Tudor history because of the HBO series, The Tudors. I’ve been watching the show since it first aired. I’ve been bugging my mom to watch it, so this summer she started. We had a marathon over three days of the first season. The series was on Netflix, so my mom and I would sit in front of my computer and watch it diligently. When the Internet would slow or act up, we would curse it.

There is something ever so fascinating about Henry VIII’s life and all of his wives. Each one was very different and he always desired a new characteristic after being done with one wife, such as a more virtuous woman. After reading this novel, my mom thrust the book in my hands and said, “You HAVE to read this.” I finished the novel in three days and absolutely loved it. There are other books written by Alison Weir detailing Elizabeth I’s life and Henry VIII. The way Alison writes sucks one into the book and you feel as if you’re there in history witnessing the details before your eyes. She takes care to explain who each person is and how they are related either to Henry, one of his wives or one of his children. She is very specific about the type of gowns the queens wore and describes the gowns down to the cloth type. She tries to use primary resources in this historical biography. If she cites another source, she is careful to point out that it’s either credited or not based on specific criteria. The book is about 600 pages, but well worth the read. She gives as detailed history as possible about each wife and what caused their downfalls.

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About the book (taken from Borders) – Weir has tirelessly made her way through the entire labyrinth of Tudor history to tell the collective story of the six wives of Henry VIII–a vivid, full-blooded portrait of six very different women–in a work of sound and brilliant scholarship.

What the critics think (taken from Borders)  – The tempestuous, bloody, and splendid reign of Henry VIII of England (1509-1547) is one of the most fascinating in all history, not least for his marriage to six extraordinary women. In this accessible work of brilliant scholarship, Alison Weir draws on early biographies, letters, memoirs, account books, and diplomatic reports to bring these women to life. Catherine of Aragon emerges as a staunch though misguided woman of principle; Anne Boleyn, an ambitious adventuress with a penchant for vengeance; Jane Seymour, a strong-minded matriarch in the making; Anne of Cleves, a good-natured and innocent woman naively unaware of the court intrigues that determined her fate; Catherine Howard, an empty-headed wanton; and Catherine Parr, a warm-blooded bluestocking who survived King Henry to marry a fourth time.

Go out and get the book!

Currently listening – “Don’t Frighten the Crane” – Huun Huur Tu

Current location – Columbia, Missouri

♥ – Erin

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Book Review: Sarah’s Key by Tatiana De Rosnay

I will confess that the first time I picked up this book, I did not want to read it. My name is Sarah, I have a little brother, and I’m jewish. I was afraid it would hit a little too close to home, but I am so glad I ended up reading it. When I did read it on a recommendation from my Mother, I found out I had more to relate to the book than I had imagined. I’m a journalism student with an itch to travel and live abroad, and one of the main characters is an American journalist.

Synopsis from Publisher’s Weekly:
“From Publishers Weekly
De Rosnay’s U.S. debut fictionalizes the 1942 Paris roundups and deportations, in which thousands of Jewish families were arrested, held at the Vélodrome d’Hiver outside the city, then transported to Auschwitz. Forty-five-year-old Julia Jarmond, American by birth, moved to Paris when she was 20 and is married to the arrogant, unfaithful Bertrand Tézac, with whom she has an 11-year-old daughter. Julia writes for an American magazine and her editor assigns her to cover the 60th anniversary of the Vél’ d’Hiv’ roundups. Julia soon learns that the apartment she and Bertrand plan to move into was acquired by Bertrand’s family when its Jewish occupants were dispossessed and deported 60 years before. She resolves to find out what happened to the former occupants: Wladyslaw and Rywka Starzynski, parents of 10-year-old Sarah and four-year-old Michel. The more Julia discovers—especially about Sarah, the only member of the Starzynski family to survive—the more she uncovers about Bertrand’s family, about France and, finally, herself. Already translated into 15 languages, the novel is De Rosnay’s 10th (but her first written in English, her first language). It beautifully conveys Julia’s conflicting loyalties, and makes Sarah’s trials so riveting, her innocence so absorbing, that the book is hard to put down.”

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The novel alternates between two stories, that of Sarah Starzynksi, and Julia Jarmound, an American journalist living in Paris with her husband. Julia, and the reader, learn what happened in 1942 to the Jews living in Paris. And what happened, to the Jews, and to Sarah’s brother is not easy to stomach.

I knew that the authorities in France collaborated with the Nazi’s, but I did not know the extent of it. From reading this novel, I learned that ordinary policemen rounded up their Jewish neighbors, and I saw my emotions of shock and horror at this revelation shared by Julia. By giving a modern perspective on this tragedy, De Rosnay is also able to explore modern guilt about the Holocaust, or in some cases, the lack of it.

I thought the alternating perspectives of the American Journalist living in Paris and learning about Sarah, and Sarah’s story itself worked seamlessly. I wanted to know what happened to Sarah as badly as Julia did by the end of the novel.

Julia learns about how those in France reacted to the Holocaust, and she learns of collaborators, of righteous Gentiles who acted justly despite the enormous risk, and of those who were indifferent and sat idly by. I was reminded of the famous Elie Wiesel quote, “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.”

I think the main strength of this novel is its honesty. I’m a journalist, I value the truth, and I think this book, while it is a work of fiction, is emotionally honest. Sarah and Julia are real, fleshed out characters who act like flawed human beings and not like tropes of victims or journalists. The ending of is not tied up neatly in a little bow, and I appreciated that about the story. The author lets her characters be complex, and at no point talks down to the reader or preaches, which I think can be a problem on occasion with Holocaust narratives not written by survivors.

This book is haunting, and stayed with me long after I read it. It is the best book that I have read in the last year, and I highly recommend it, especially to fans of historical fiction.

The author of this book is @Yansor on twitter, and her website can be found Here.

–Sarah
Currently listening to: “Make a Deal with the City”–East River Pipe

Word of the Day: Empathy: the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.

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