Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Frida by Barbara Mujica

Mexican Firecracker (Art Week)

Frida by Bárbara Mujica is a fascinating historical novel about a fascinating woman. Frida Kahlo was a Mexican painter born in 1907.  She was firecracker of a woman who painted with gusto despite the fact that most of her life she was in great pain. At the age of six, she contracted polio which left one leg thinner than the other.  When she was a teenager, she was on a bus when a trolley collided with it and Frida was impaled by an iron handrail through her pelvis.  Throughout her life she had to endure numerous operations and spent a lot of time confined to her bed. Some of her paintings depict the gruesome pain she suffered.  Most famous are her self-portraits. Many times she would paint looking in a mirror from her bed.  Mujica explains, “Art kept her going. Creating beauty out of pain helped her make sense of things.” 

Frida married Diego Rivera, a famous Mexican muralist.  Their relationship was volatile as both their artistic temperaments collided. Frida was five-foot-two, but could hold her own against anyone. That included six foot tall, three-hundred pound Diego.  

Frida was one hot tamale with a unibrow and a spicy disposition who didn’t let anything slow her down.  Bedridden at the opening of her art exhibit she insisted on being taken there on a stretcher by ambulance. “The great Kahlo has done it again! She has made jaws drop and eyes pop.” Even if you’re not a fan of her art, Frida’s story is compelling. Her life was both tragic and triumphant. This was a good book written with captivating style.

“You have a little mustache. It’s adorable….And I like the way your eyebrows come together.  They look like the wings of a bird.”  The fuzz on her lip and her heavy eyebrows had once made Frida self-conscious, but she learned to love them, even to highlight them in her paintings.” 
Bárbara Mujica, Frida (New York: Penguin Putnam Inc., 2002), 147.

He kept leaning forward as if her spit were honey. “He looked like he wanted to lap it right out of her mouth,” according to Frida.”

Bárbara Mujica, Frida (New York: Penguin Putnam Inc., 2002), 81.

If you liked this book, you may also enjoy I Am Madame X by Gioia Diliberto, Luncheon of the Boating Party by Susan Vreeland, and The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan.

Happy Reading,

What did you think of this book? Post a comment or email:

Monday, February 25, 2013

Luncheon of the Boating Party by Susan Vreeland

Happy Birthday Renoir! (February 25, 1841-December 3, 1919)

Luncheon of the Boating Party by Susan Vreeland is a historical fiction telling about Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s life during the time he created the famous painting by the same name as the book.  Renoir wasn’t some stuffy old guy we see in art books. This book brought him to life as a lively and passionate forty-year old man. His friends and models became real. I was fascinated that his friend and artist, Caillebotte, sat patiently in what turned out to be a very uncomfortable pose. I discovered that the son and daughter of the restaurant owners are in the painting as well as a journalist, an actress, and even Renoir’s future wife. I was amazed at what a huge undertaking it really was to create this masterpiece. And I was intrigued at how quickly he painted it, how quickly he had to paint. I loved getting lost in the time and Paris, and I loved the descriptive writing in this book.


I found this book in the bargain bin at the library. Finding a great bargain can be so exciting.  Every once in awhile my mom will find some little treasure at a yard sale or thrift store and it’ll just make her day.  It doesn’t have to be a Matisse or some other undiscovered masterpiece that somehow slipped by the sellers.  It can be something small like a wine glass that matches her others at home. 

Well, I know just how she feels.

As long books are not dirty or smelly I’m up for reading used books, which is why I was looking over the 25-cent bin at the little library store when something caught my eye. Between some old and ratty books a flash of orange drew me in for a closer look. I pulled out The Luncheon of the Boating Party, a worn paperback by Susan Vreeland.  Immediately my heart skipped a beat as I saw the Renoir’s famous painting on the front cover—elegant groups of people seated outside a restaurant eating and socializing on a warm summer day. It’s one of those paintings that you could just get lost in.

Flipping the book open I saw that Ginny, the previous owner had written her name in the front cover. Nothing wrong with that. I’m not a book prude. I actually like reading inscriptions wishing people a Happy Birthday or Merry Christmas.  It’s a celebration not only of the special day, but a celebration of reading. What could be better than the gift of a book?

But then I flipped through the pages and found that Ginny had left her mark all over the place.  Ginny, with her shaky hand, had indiscriminately underlined sentences. She wasn’t neat either. It’s almost like she crossed through some lines. And she wasn’t done yet.  She also wrote notes and circled words and threw in a question mark and stars here and there. She violated the book!. Remember, this is a novel, not a workbook. Clearly there was no respect for this book. Obviously she considered it disposable, something to be used for her report or whatever she was doing, then tossed aside like a squeezed lemon. Her disregard urged me to give the book a new lease on life. I took it home and read it—and loved it!

If you liked this book, you may also enjoy Frida by Barbara Mujica, I Am Madame X by Gioia Diliberto, and The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan. 

Happy Reading,

What did you think of this book? Post a comment or email:

Friday, February 22, 2013

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

Oscar! Oscar! (Academy Awards Week)

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde is a classic about the timeless quest for youth and beauty. The desire to find a fountain of youth rings as true today as it did in 1890 when the story was first published. Dorian Gray is a young and dashingly handsome man. When he looks at a portrait that was painted of him it stirs up the regrettable fact that he’s at the top of his game now and will never look better.  He’s irritated that the portrait will continue to look the same and in a sense mock him as he ages in real life. What’s a man to do?  There was no such thing as plastic surgery back then, and Botox was unheard of. Dorian laments: “Oh, if it were only the other way! If the picture could change, and I could be always what I am now!” Boom. He gets his wish. That brings us to the old adage, be careful what you wish for. While he stayed crispy, fresh, and pure, his painting bore the devastatingly hideous marks of age and sin. Oh sure, being young and beautiful is wonderful—at first.  Many, many years later, it can get tiresome, at least for Dorian. Dorian doesn’t know what to do with all that time.  He studies many things and that part of the book got a tad tiresome for me.  But stick with it, things get better and a lot more interesting. He comes to hate the painting that bears the likeness of his true soul, and this does not make for a happy life. It haunts him and drives him on to self destruction. I truly enjoyed this story, and thought it was definitely worth reading. It’s a classic for a reason.

The book was made into a movie in 1945 starring Hurd Hatfield as Dorian Gray.  I’ve never seen the movie, and I’ve never heard of Hurd.  But I have heard of Angela Lansbury who played Sibyl Vane, Dorian’s love interest. She was up for best supporting actress in the 18th Academy Awards. Angela lost to Anne Revere in National Velvet, but Dorian Gray wasn’t left out in the cold.  The Picture of Dorian Gray did win for best black and white cinematography.  

Get ready for the 85th Academy Awards this Sunday, February 24, 2013 at 7:00pm Eastern time, 4:00pm Pacific time on ABC! 

Happy reading!


Have you read any books that have been turned into movies and won Oscars? Enter a comment or email me at and I will post your answer.

What did you think of this book? Post a comment or email:

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Bridges of Madison County by Robert James Waller

The Bridge to Forbidden Love (Academy Awards Week)

When The Bridges of Madison County by Robert James Waller came out in 1992, it was THE book to read.  Everyone was talking about it—with good reason.  It’s a good book, a short but satisfying read.  It’s a love story—an affair to remember, so to speak.  In the summer of 1965 Francesca Johnson was a farm wife who meets Robert Kincaid, a National Geographic photographer, passing through town.  He’s interested in photographing the covered bridges in the area and asks Francesca for directions. When she offers to show him, there’s an instant chemistry spark that slowly ignites into full-blown passionate fireworks.  Her family is out of town, which is quite convenient for them.  But this isn’t just a “wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am” relationship.  Robert and Francesca find true love. He heaps on the romantic mush she longs for and her husband is not built for. He tells her he loves her and cinches the deal by saying things like: “In a universe of ambiguity, this kind of certainty comes only once, and never again, no matter how many lifetimes you live.” Or how about: “I’m no longer sitting next to you here on the grass.  You have me inside of you as a willing prisoner.”  Great stuff for a lonely farm wife.

One of my friends didn’t like the fact that Francesca kept journals of their time together in a chest along with Robert’s magazine clippings, memories she clung to for the remainder of her life right under her unsuspecting husband’s nose.  The story actually opens with her grown children discovering these journals containing the incredible love story after their mother had passed away. I thought it revealed Francesca’s undying love. Call me a sap, but I was moved by the book.

When the movie came out and I heard Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood were playing Francesca and Robert, I wasn’t so convinced.  They just somehow didn’t seem right for the part.  Even then I thought Clint was too old for the role.  But they turned out to be perfect.  I guess that’s why I’m not a casting director.  There’s one point where Francesca sees Robert one more time in town.  She’s riding in the truck with her husband who is now back. Upon seeing Robert, Francesca’s heart almost stops and she struggles not to jump out run after him. Inwardly she goes through a whirlwind of emotions while trying to keep it together outwardly. What a scene!  I get teary eyed just thinking about it. Meryl was good. She was so good that in 1996, she was nominated for best actress. For once she didn’t win. She lost to Susan Sarandon for her role in Dead Man Walking. I never saw that movie, but it doesn’t matter. In my opinion Meryl Streep’s performance was Oscar-worthy. 

Happy reading!


Have you read any books that have been turned into movies and won Oscars? Enter a comment or email me at and I will post your answer.

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Monday, February 18, 2013

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

The Oscars Are Coming! The Oscars are Coming! (Academy Awards,February 24, 2013)

I love to watch the Academy Awards. Now, I’m not one of those people who resurrects her old prom dress and dons a tiara or invites a load of girlfriends and makes a great party out of the event.  I don’t think that would fly very well in my house.  Usually, my husband will pretend to be totally enthralled in some show hoping I would forget about the Oscars. He particularly dislikes the preshows. He’d rather poke his eye out than watch another star on the red carpet telling us who designed their gown.  Frankly, I don’t care either.  It’s not like I’ll be buying any of those dresses soon.

I do want to watch the show, though. And I will print out a list of the nominees (, circle my choices, and root for my teams.  Last year I took it one step further in that I sent my husband downstairs to watch TV then set myself up with a nice glass of red wine and some dark orange chocolate to go with it. I felt I had a personal stake in the 2012, 84th Academy Awards since our book club had read The Help, which was up for Best Picture; Best Actress, Viola Davis (Aibileen); Best Supporting Actress, Jessica Chastain (Celia), AND Best Supporting Actress Octavia Spencer (Minny).

I was on the edge of my couch, quietly chanting Viola, Viola, Viola! She did such a good job of playing Aibileen, I just knew she would win. But wouldn’t you know it, Meryl Streep ripped that Oscar away from her.  I was very sad—angry really. Meryl has won so many times in the past, wasn’t it time for someone else to get a pat on the back?  Cheering for the actress in a supporting role was a little more difficult since both, Jessica Chastain (Celia) and Octavia Spencer (Minny) were both nominated.  When they announced Octavia’s name, I jumped up and whooped just like my husband so often does during football games—but this was my game. And my team just scored!  I was thrilled!  Sad for Jessica, but still thrilled that The Help had made a touchdown!  In the end The Artist beat The Help for Best Picture, but for me The Help was definitely number one and the book was even better.

The Help by Kathryn Stockett is another one of my all-time favorite books, ranking right up there with Water for Elephants. Set in volatile Jackson, Mississippi in the early sixties, this story revolves around Skeeter, a budding reporter, who clandestinely interviews the black hired help. She starts with Aibileen, her friend’s maid.  Aibileen is a soft-spoken, intelligent, caring woman who has raised countless white babies in her career.  Of course in such precarious times, she’s reluctant to say anything about her working conditions, but Skeeter eventually gets her to open up. 

Minny is a spunky, sassy maid who works for Miss Hilly, a slimy, controlling bigot.  When Hilly fires Minny, she seeks out her own revenge before she finally finds another job with Celia.  Celia is a clueless, sweet woman considered white trash thanks to Hilly. The book meanders through each of the women’s lives telling their own storylines which melt together like a delicious bowl of unadulterated chocolate.  

As a whole, our book club members really liked the book.  We cared about the characters and the story. Some thought it dragged on a bit at the end, but I don’t agree. I loved it from beginning to end, could you tell?  If you haven’t read it yet, I hope you will.

Happy reading!


Have you read any books that have been turned into movies and won Oscars? Enter a comment or email me at and I will post your answer.

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Friday, February 15, 2013

Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel

Magical Romance  (Love Week)

I hope you had a magical Valentine’s Day filled with all the love and romance you dreamed of. But if you didn’t find that in real life, no worries.  You can always find it in a book.

Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel is a magical novel about romance and forbidden love set in Mexico. In this novel, Tita, the youngest daughter of Mama Elena is doomed to live a life without love.  Her controlling widowed mother forces poor Tita to continue the tradition of the youngest daughter devoting her life to her mother.  She is forbidden to marry. This is a cruel fate for a girl who has found her soul mate, Pedro.  And it’s even worse when her mother arranges for her oldest daughter Rosaura to marry her beloved Pedro. He consents because he sees that it will be the only way he can still remain in Tita’s life.

When Tita was ordered to make the wedding cake for Pedro and Rosaura, she couldn’t help but weep into the batter. And then something magical happened. At the first bite of the cake, the guests were flooded with uncontrollable sorrow for lost loves. Everyone started weeping and wailing and ended up vomiting up all their pain. That was the first of many instances where the essence of Tita’s emotions was cooked into the meals. 

The chapters of the book are broken up into months of the year, each of which is accompanied by a recipe that Tita cooks. As she cooks her way through the year, we see Pedro’s and Tita’s love grow stronger and more complicated. We discover secrets and changes in Mama Elena and her sisters Gertrudis and Rosaura. 

I loved this novel. It was stuffed with fantasy, peppered with emotions, and deep fried in a hot and undying love.  It was totally original story, not a cookie-cutter romance.

What’s your definition of love? Enter a comment or email me at and I will post your answer.

Happy Reading,

What did you think of this book? Post a comment or email:

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Seasons of Beento Blackbird by Akosua Busia

Double Helping of Love  (Love Week)

Love means many things to me.  For me love is building one more project for her when he really doesn't want to.  Love is getting the stains out of his shirts when he doesn’t even notice them.  Love is wanting to spend time together doing the little things like running errands.  And for me, love is fidelity, being faithful and true to the one person you love.  I realize though, that’s not the case for everyone.

The Seasons of Beento Blackbird by Akosua Busia is about a man who gets a double helping of love. He has two wives, each of which he loves in a different way.  His first wife lives in the Caribbean, the second one lives in Ghana.  Solomon divides his time spending winters on a beautiful island with Miriam, his first and older wife, summers with the younger Ashia in Ghana, and the remaining time in New York where he works as a children’s book writer under the pseudonym Beento Blackbird. Both women are in agreement with the arrangement, though maybe not so wholeheartedly.  It's complicated.

This book sparked one of the livelier discussions at my book club.  The Seasons of Beento Blackbird got stronger mixed reviews than other books we have read.  I really, really liked it.  You could say I loved it. For me it was right up there with Water for Elephants and The Help.  I loved the exotic locales, the unique story, and I really liked that charming bigamist Solomon (though for the record, I’m not a fan of bigamy or cheating). I thought Solomon truly loved both Miriam and Ashia.  Others in the book club weren’t as easily captivated by Solomon.  They didn’t care for his philandering ways and the fact that his selfishness put everyone in a difficult position.  The book begs the question, can people truly give their hearts two different people at the same time?  Were we mean to be monogamous or is it that we just haven’t learned to “share”?

Moral questions aside, this book is written with an enchanting writing style that is definitely worthwhile. 

Other great love stories worth considering:
Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

What’s your definition of love? Enter a comment or email me at and I will post your answer.

Happy Reading,

What did you think of this book? Post a comment or email:

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Heart Pendant Giveaway!!

In honor of Valentine’s Day, I’d like to give away this “lovely” double-sided heart pendant. 
On one side there is an orange heart; flip it over and on the other side there is a purple heart. It’s like having two necklaces in one. Be the fourth person to email me at to win. Sorry, no international shipments. The pendant was handcrafted by Sassy Sisters in the U.S.A., and yes, I’m one of those sassy girls.  Visit our website at to see our jewelry collection.

Congratulations to Cheryl from Idaho who won the double-sided soldered heart pendant! Check back often for other giveaways!

Monday, February 11, 2013

Alphabet Weekends by Elizabeth Noble

Isn’t Love Lovely?  (Love Week)

Thursday is Valentine’s Day, so I thought this week I would concentrate on love.  I am lucky to have found a love that has lasted over two decades.  Sometimes love doesn’t come that easy. And I know sometimes it’s just the little things we do for each other that show how much we truly care.  For me love is moving to cold Northern Idaho when you’ve had enough Iowa winters to last you a lifetime.  Love is reading a book instead of complaining about too much football. Love is telling your wife she’s beautiful after twenty years. Love is thanking God every night for your spouse. 

Alphabet Weekends by Elizabeth Noble is about love, actually the many stages of love.  It’s about the love of a couple married forty years facing health issues. It’s about the exhausting love of a newborn baby in the family. It’s about another couple in the throes of unlovely complications.  And finally, there’s the pursuit of love. The main storyline revolves around Tom and Natalie.  They have known each other since they were kids. Tom has always liked Natalie but she considers him more like a brother than boyfriend material.  After Simon, her self-absorbed boyfriend of six years, dumps Natalie, the thirty-five-year-old is suddenly loveless.  That’s when Tom steps in to see if he can change all that.  He proposes a game of sorts where they would spend twenty-six weekends going through an alphabet of activities designed to see if they could find happiness together.  She’s skeptical; he’s enthusiastic. We start with “A is for Abseiling,” which translated from British to American, means rappelling.  Not all of the letters are thrill-seekers. Some are quite ordinary like “E is for Equine Eating” and “D is for Do It Yourself.”  Frankly, he had me at “I is for IKEA,” but there are even better ones. I was familiar with “V is for ….” Well, you’ll have to read it.  But trust me, it was a good choice! “P” was even more exciting. 

I liked the writing, too. And as you’d expect in proper English there were rhetorical questions scattered throughout, weren’t there? I liked all those unfamiliar British words and expressions which made me smile.  Phrases like “you nutter”; “he fancied her rotten”; and “he’s knackered” were amusing.  So was a scene at IKEA. “In the Bathrooms, a couple were arguing about towel colours. Apparently he was a stupid colour-blind git while his wife, allegedly ‘wouldn’t know good taste if it smacked [her] in the arse’."
Elizabeth Noble, Alphabet Weekends (New York: HarperCollins, 2005), 171.

Gotta love it.

In honor of Valentine’s Day, I’d like to give away this “lovely” double-sided heart pendant.  On one side there is an orange heart; flip it over and on the other side is a purple heart. It’s like having two necklaces in one. Be the fourth person to email me at to win. Sorry, no international shipments. The pendant was handcrafted by Sassy Sisters in the U.S.A., and yes, I’m one of those sassy girls.  Visit our website at to see our jewelry collection.  

Congratulations to Cheryl from Idaho who won the pendant.  Check back for other giveaways!

What’s your definition of love? Enter a comment or email me at and I will post your answer.

Happy Reading,

What did you think of this book? Post a comment or email:

Friday, February 8, 2013

The Hundred Secret Senses by Amy Tan

Ghosts of the Past: (Chinese Week)

The Hundred Secret Senses by Amy Tan is as captivating as any of Amy Tan’s works including The Kitchen God’s Wife and The Bonesetter’s Daughter

Kwan enters Olivia’s life in an unexpected way when Olivia’s father dies and his daughter from his first marriage comes to live with them in America. Five-year-old Olivia would have preferred a new turtle or a doll; instead she got an older half-sister. Seeing Kwan at the airport Olivia thought she looked like a chubby old lady with braids dressed in pajamas bellowing a loud “Hall-ooo!”  Kwan is a built-in embarrassment. She’s awkwardly unfamiliar with American culture. She’s tactless, loud, talkative, and annoyingly upbeat. She’s the crazy relative you don’t want anyone to know about. But she’s also very tolerant and kind with the more self-absorbed Olivia. In her endless prattle, Kwan tells Olivia about Chinese superstitions and ghost stories.  She explains to Libby (Kwan can’t pronounce her name right, so calls her Libby-ah) that she has “yin eyes” and can see ghosts.   

As an adult, Olivia has listened to Kwan’s tales all her life and she’s tired of them.  She has very little patience for Kwan and acknowledges that she never does anything with Kwan unless it’s out of guilt. Besides, she has her own worries with her marriage unraveling. But Kwan is ever eager to help in her own way. In an effort to bring the two back together, Kwan plans a trip for the three of them to China.  There the “ghost stories” come to life in tales that alternate between past and present.


Chinese New Year is this Sunday, February 10, 2013 and marks the lunar new year.  The actual New Year celebrations last for fifteen days in China.  If you are interested in learning more about Chinese New Year, this link will bring you to an excellent site for a brief presentation on the history of Chinese New Year.  Be sure to click “Next Slide” to see all pages:

Each Chinese year is represented by an animal which repeats in a twelve-year cycle. This is the year of the snake.  Find out what Chinese Zodiac Animal You Are:

Gung Hay Fat Choy!
(Best wishes and congratulations. Have a prosperous and good year.)

What about you?  What’s a good book with a setting in China that you have enjoyed? Enter a comment or email me at and I will post your answer

What did you think of this book? Post a comment or email:

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie

The Privilege of Books: (Chinese Week)

In continuation of Chinese week and Mao Tse Tung’s (aka Mao Zedong) tyrannical rule, I would like to recommend a short and poignant book that follows the Great Chinese Famine of 1958-1961 which Lisa See brought to light in Dreams of Joy.

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie relates the story of two boys during Mao Tse Tung’s Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).  In this political/social revolution, intellectuals including scientists, writers, engineers, physicians, and other educated people posed a threat to the government. They, along with anyone in opposition to the government, were persecuted, publicly humiliated, harassed, imprisoned, and even tortured.  Schools were closed, books were banned, and youth were exiled to the peasant mountainous regions to be “re-educated.”

In this book two boys, who are working in the mountains, discover that one of the workers in another village has a secret suitcase full of books. They set about on a quest to obtain the banned books. Once they have them, the world opens up to them again with the writings of Balzac’s Père Goriot, The Count of Monte Cristo by Dumas, and other classics.  One of the boys begins reading the stories to a little seamstress. Both boys are attracted to her, but Luo soon wins her heart.

Though the circumstances the boys live in are oppressive, the book is not. This book is a quick read with gentle humor and compelling storyline will keep you turning pages.  As I have mentioned before, historical fictions often teach me more than a history class. Cultural Revolution?  Re-education?  Before this book, I don't remember any of that from school.  My ignorance knows no bounds. Thank goodness for historical fictions; they revive the brain cells just a little bit. This book was eye-opening lesson where I realize how lucky we are in many ways, one of them the privilege and access to books.

What about you?  What’s a good book with a setting in China that you have enjoyed? Enter a comment or email me at and I will post your answer.

What did you think of this book? Post a comment or email:

Monday, February 4, 2013

Shanghai Girls AND Dreams of Joy by Lisa See

Two Sisters, Two Countries, Two Books: (Chinese Week)

Chinese New Year is almost here. I thought it would be a perfect week to look at books relating to China.

Shanghai Girls by Lisa See got thumbs up from our book club. Growing up in Shanghai, May and Pearl Chin are both models for Z.G. Li, a painter and photographer, whom they both fall in love with.  As “beautiful girls” the sisters live a life of parties and glamour until their father loses the family fortune and sells the girls to prospective husbands.  The girls refuse and during the Japanese invasion of Shanghai in 1937, they attempt to cross the countryside to make their escape.  Along the way they have a horrific encounter with Japanese soldiers. Brace yourself. It’s a disturbing scene that’s not for the faint of heart. 

Eventually they make it to America and are interned at Angel Island for a long time. In order to stay in America, the sisters marry the Louie brothers who are strangers to them. In Los Angeles Chinatown, under one roof they find that life is very challenging with racial and financial struggles. Slowly they assimilate to their new family and carve out very different lives.  Pearl is the responsible one.  She and her husband raise baby Joy while still meeting the familial obligations to Louie’s parents.  May’s new husband is mentally impaired, very childlike, and she seeks out a more self-centered lifestyle.

The book is fast paced enough, but at the very end, hang on for a ride, because it goes at warp speed.  There’s a lot going on with when now grown-up daughter Joy discovers past cover-ups and lies, false family ties, and the identity of her real parents. It ends with Joy running off to communist China.  At that point our book club smelled a sequel, and sure enough a couple years later Dreams of Joy was published.

Dreams of Joy by Lisa See is the sequel to Shanghai Girls.   It picks up when nineteen-year-old Joy, daughter of Pearl and Sam Louie, runs off to communist China to aid in the communist cause.  There she finds her birth father and quickly realizes her disillusion in the utopian society of communism. She lives in a farming village and soon develops a relationship with a young man.  All the while Pearl is frantic and gives up her life in Los Angeles to search for her missing daughter.  Times in China are tough and they get even tougher as Mao Tse Tung launches his Great Leap Forward.

The Great Leap Forward promoted “collectivism,” where people worked collectively for the good of China.  Farmers were no longer allowed to grow what they wanted and in the manner they were accustomed.  Mao Tse Tung strictly enforced planting crops extremely close together in an effort for greater production.  However, this crowded out the plants and caused many crop failures.  Although other factors may have contributed, a devastating famine resulted and millions of people died during the late 1950s and early 60s.  Like everyone else, Joy struggled with hunger and shocking conditions.  A few extremely disturbing instances in the way they dealt with hunger made all the eyebrows in our book club rise “collectively.”  I’m sure you’ll know just what I’m talking about when you read it.

I am not a history buff and barely remember this chapter in history being taught in school.  Oh sure, I can vividly picture Mrs. Merckel with her blond curls and those oversized black rimmed glasses in my eighth-grade Social Studies class mention Mao Tse Tung (or Mao Zedong as he’s now known). But after saying his name, things seem to go black.  My brain flatlined. I do not recall any of the atrocities, the persecution, or even the cannibalism. 

That’s what I enjoy about historical fiction. As a kid history was not my favorite subject.  I glazed over most history classes in school. Mainly I just remember having to memorize dates of significant wars which I quickly released from my mind.  Historical fictions, however, bring the human aspects to life.  The people become real, not just statistics. Historical fictions and memoirs push emotional buttons that a sterile history class just can’t do. I'm not sure if technically this book is a historical fiction since the story itself is not based on fact, but the circumstance surrounding the famine are. 

Although this book was a sequel, occurrences in the first book were woven into the story, so the book can stand alone.  I would recommend reading both, Shanghai Girls, then Dreams of Joy. Both are excellent. Both got thumbs up from my book club.

Click to read news article about current-day famine which sounds eerily familiar to Dreams of Joy. 

What about you?  What’s a good book with a setting in China that you have enjoyed? Enter a comment or email me at and I will post your answer

What did you think of these books? Post a comment or email:

Friday, February 1, 2013

The Crystal Palace: The Diary of Lily Hicks, London 1850-1851 by Frances Mary Hendry

Noteworthy Exhibition, Noteworthy Book (Girls Week)

In continuation of “Girls Week” I want to recommend The Crystal Palace by Frances Mary Hendry. When I first learned about the “Crystal Palace” in one of my gardening books, I was fascinated.  The Crystal Palace was a huge glass structure held together with cast iron, built for The Great Exhibition of 1851.  This World’s Fair exhibition hall was a temporary building. It had 293,000 panes of glass and took 2,000 men eight months to complete. It was a conservatory on steroids! Over 6,000,000 people visited it! And what’s even more mind-blowing is the fact that this grand glass structure was only on display for six months before it was disassembled and relocated at the end of the fair, only to burn to the ground in later years.

I was intrigued and I wanted to know more. I looked for books about it, but one of the few books I could find that didn’t seem daunting was this Scholastic kids’ book, The Crystal Palace: The Diary of Lily Hicks, London 1850-1851.  Well I bought it and what I got was a “two-fer”—two for the price of one. This book chronicled not only the building of The Crystal Palace, but also the life of a fourteen-year-old housemaid in mid-nineteenth century London.  I found it charming and revealing.  In this novel, Lily becomes a housemaid in the home of Joseph Paxton, the man who designed The Crystal Palace.  Lily learns the great building was fabricated to present the newest products of the capitalist economy, accompanied by exotic displays, fauna and flora.  When Lily later gets to see it inside, she compares it to being inside a diamond or a fairy palace. 

As Lily tracks the progress of the magnificent building, she also deals with the social hierarchy of London society and her role and responsibilities as a member of the household staff.  We learn about her other reality, her own poor family living in the slums. On the one hand this book gives a glimpse into the opulent world of the well-to-do, and then flips and shows us the restricted and sometimes tragic world of the lower class.  Naturally, since it’s geared toward the younger crowd, it’s a quick and easy read. But it’s also surprisingly enjoyable and informative.  Don’t pass it up.

Fun Fact: Souvenirs of The Great Exhibition included pictures of Prince Albert and The Crystal Palace. Visitors could buy gloves with maps printed on them so they could wear them and find their way around the exhibition.  There were also mugs with pictures, tin candy containers, soap boxes, and more.

Happy reading,

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