May 2013 Book Review

June 8, 2013

 May was all about my feminist book club.  The first two were the books we picked out for our April meeting and they were connected in that they were both about mail order brides that came to the United States from Asia.  The last one I chose, because we had already read a book by Alice Hoffman, which I loved.   Unfortunately, I hated Practical Magic so much that I never finished it!
Shanghai Girls by Lisa See – I really liked this book, although I’m not sure if everyone else did.  It is about two women from Shanghai who are sold as brides when their father gets into trouble with his gambling.  They go from living a glamorous lifestyle to just trying to survive when war in China starts in the 1930s.  I will warn you that there is a graphic rape scene that was hard for me to read.  What I found the most interesting were the details of “Angel’s Island,” the so-called Ellis Island of the West.  America does not treat immigrants of color well today and did not then either.  It infuriates me to no end that immigration centers are set up like prisons!  I also found the ending very interesting too.  The book is told from the point of view of the oldest daughter (Pearl) who feels like she must protect her younger sister (May) at all costs, which often makes her feel like a victim.  At the end of the book, Pearl and May have a heated conversation, where May tells Pearl how she views the events in their lives and one comes to the realization that perhaps the youngest daughter didn’t need so much protecting after all. In fact, it comes out that the younger sister actually did quite a lot to protect Pearl without Pearl even realizing it.  It is a lot like life when sometimes we get so used to viewing things in one perspective that we never consider that there may be another way to approach and view life situations.  The book proved to be a very sobering reminder of the dangers in viewing life as a victim-I have learned that while there may be times when it is fair to say that one is being victimized, staying in that emotional victimizing place is incredibly damaging and destructive, because it takes away a person’s power.  In this life, where things are often very unfair, we still must always strive to find the ways in which we can be empowered and to claim and act on our own power, even if the only way to do that is to constantly remind ourselves that we are just as important and valuable as anybody else.  The book ends on a cliff hanger, which made me very unhappy, as I don’t like to wait to see how a story is resolved.  At least Lisa See wrote a follow-up book, called Dreams of Joy, which I will have to read sometime very soon.
The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka – This book was recommended by one of my group members and I’m glad she did!  It has won several awards and is very well written.  It’s a very interesting and creative book, because it is written in the plural-instead of saying, “She did this,” Otsuka writes, “We did this.”  This is not the story of one woman or even of a small group of women with a linear plot line; rather, it is the collective story of all the Japanese women who came to America as mail-order brides and the trials they experienced before and during World War II.  Some of them have fortunate stories and some of them have very tragic ones.  It’s interesting that even though they face a lot of extremely tough and sad situations that are mostly out of their control, for the most part, they are not presented as victims.  They chose to come to America as mail-order brides and despite their disappointments most of them chose to face their new situations with the resolve to work hard and to make the best of their lot in life.  This is perhaps what saves them.  I know it is what has saved me in my many trials with illnesses that often times seem out of my own control-I have been reflecting on that a lot more lately, because one of my dearest friends is struggling to make sense of her very severe illness, but I am afraid that she is viewing her struggle through the eyes of a helpless victim, which is only making the situation much, much worse for her.   The ending is exceptionally clever, as it changes perspective and is told through the viewpoint of the white townspeople whom are perplexed as to where the Japanese families are and feel a little sadness now that they are gone.  Of course, the Japanese families have been taken away to the internment camps during World War II.  It is a very sad and chilling ending, as the townspeople soon start to forget that the Japanese families were ever a part of their community at all.  The story of the Japanese internment camps during World War II in the United States is a very depressing one and I believe a shame to the country.  It makes me apprehensive to have it be a part of our history, because it set a precedent that could happen again.  I worry that it just might happen again fairly soon if the war on terrorism continues only this time it would affect families from the Middle East.  The book is very short and is a quick read.  It I exceptionally well written and it tells the experience of Japanese women before and during WWII so simply and powerfully that I think it should be required reading in college courses, if not in high school.  As a warning, there are some descriptions of rape and domestic violence, although writing it in the plural I think takes out some of the sting-I didn’t find them as hard to read as the rape scene in Shanghai Girls, even though the situation, because it was so obviously shared by many, seemed extra sad.  Still, while the book is indeed haunting, I did not find it overly depressing and I still heartily recommend it.     
Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman – My book club read The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman a few months ago and I absolutely loved it and typically when I love a work by an author, I then become totally obsessed and strive to read every book they’ve ever written.  Apparently, that’s not always a good idea.  Practical Magic is Hoffman’s most famous work and was even made into a movie, but for the life of me, I really don’t know why!  The writing for The Dovekeepers was exquisite with absolutely beautiful, almost poetic phrases and descriptions, but the writing for Practical Magic seems very amateurish and is both over the top and uninspired-quite a feat!  As one reviewer on GoodReads noted, the whole book just exudes an air of amorality and none of the characters are remotely likeable.  I just fail to see this book’s appeal and so many people like it!  Why?!  What I really hated the most was that this book absolutely gets love and lust mixed up.  The book spends pages and pages pathetically describing dysfunctional relationships where women become wildly desperate and practically grovel for the men they lust love for to “love” them back.  Physical attraction is not the same thing as love and neither is despairing infatuation and I find Hoffman’s portrayals of female approaches to “love” both disappointing and dangerous.  There was one review where the reviewer thought all of this mix-up was intentional and it was an artful way to point out the flaws in these types of relationships, but I have my doubts.  Maybe I take life way too seriously, but I seriously doubt it when my favorite book series is The Hitchhiker’s Guide tothe Galaxy by Douglas Adams.  

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