Category Archives: Beth’s Reading Log

Beth’s online log of what she has read and what she thinks about the books.

New Page on the Blog!

Just a quick note to draw your attention to the newest page on the blog. I’ve added a page with my reading log on it, so you don’t have to trek all the way over to BookCrossing to see it – but please do! BookCrossing needs more crossers!!

I’ve included a Ratings Guide, as well as links to author websites. I’ve also tried to indicate if the book was nominated for, or won, an award, especially the children’s books.

Hope some of these entries will inspire your reading in the coming year!

The Jade Peony

Jade Peony

Chinese and Japanese culture has fascinated me for quite a while – I think ever since my brother first became interesed in the samurai’s intricate code of conduct – and when I can combine it with my love of reading, I’m a very happy person indeed. For example, I devoured Cloud of Sparrows as well as Across the Nightengale Floor and Grass for His Pillow not only for their incredible storylines, but also for their insight into medieval Japanese culture. I’m also a fan of Chinese martial arts films – I think Hero is one of the most stunning films I have ever seen – but I’m always excited to find Eastern culture mixed with Canadian insights – as is found in Wayson Choy’s book, The Jade Peony.

First, I have to say that there are some parts of Canadian history that, frankly, I’m ashamed of. We have built up a world-wide reputation for being fair and peacemakers (and for apologising endlessly, but I’m digressing – sorry! 🙂 ) but parts of our history show just how intolerant we can be. The Chinese have a long history in Canada – they practically built the Canadian Pacific Railway through the Rocky Mountains and across British Columbia to the Pacific. And they weren’t valued, either – they were made to pay a $50 head tax when they came into the country, and only men were allowed at first, as they were needed to work. Wives, children, relatives – they weren’t ‘necessary’ – they might encourage the ‘Chinks’ to stay – and were not allowed into the country until much later. Even into the 1940s and ’50s a Chinese person couldn’t immigrate to Canada unless they were sponsored by a relative. And on the railroad, the Chinese were given the most dangerous jobs – placing nitro glycerin for blasting through rock, etc. They say that one Chinese man died for every mile of track laid across British Columbia. When you look at how big Canada is – that’s a lot of wasted lives.

Canada’s track record didn’t improve in the 20th Century, either. After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour during the Second World War, Canada rounded up the rather large Japanese immigrant population (and even first- and second-generation Japanese Canadians) and put them into internment camps so they couldn’t pass information onto the ‘enemy’. Most of these people lived in British Columbia, which, remember, is just across the Pacific from Japan (cue heavily ironic tone), and they were moved inland and their homes and property sold. Their story is told in Snow Falling on Cedars – something that still is sitting on my ‘to be read’ shelf! Although this book is set in the US, the situation wasn’t much different for the Canadian Japanese. My own family experienced some of this discrimination from another cultural point of view – German immigrants weren’t especially popular either during the war, but at least they weren’t forcibly removed from their land and rounded up like cattle.

But, back to the book. The Jade Peony is the story of three younger children growing up in a Chinese Canadian household in Vancouver in the 1940s. Their father is a journalist and activist for Chinese rights, and the situation of the Chinese in the war against Japan. Their lives are dominated by Poh-Poh, or Grandmother, a formidable woman who believes strongly in the ways of Old China, where children no longer played from the age of six, but worked hard as servants, in the fields, or on their studies. She adheres to a strict code of hierarchy in their house. Father’s First Wife died in China before they came to Canada, but the mother of his two youngest children is always known as Stepmother at Poh-Poh’s insistence, even to her own children. This was to keep things simple. Poh-Poh said that girls were worthless, especially girls like Jook-Liang, whose fingers weren’t fast enough for tying silk-ribbon flowers. She coddled Sek-Lung, the youngest, because he was a boy and because he was a sickly child, and she showed a tough love toward Jung-Sum, Second Brother, who was adopted into the family after his father killed his mother and then committed suicide. These three children tell the story of growing up in a place where you didn’t belong, of a place where your enemy, the Japanese, lived down the street, where you had to reconcile the Old Ways and language (with its many, confusing dialects) with new, western ways of living in Canada.

What fascinated me about The Jade Peony was the attitude of the different cultural groups within Canada toward each other. I have always seen growing up in Canada as a positive experience, that the experience of growing up with different cultural groups – everyone in Canada, with the exception of the First Nations people, are or are descended from immigrants – helped to form my ideas about tolerance and living with one another peacefully. There are always people in any society who are intolerant of others; in Britain they are usually members of the BNP; in Canada they are colloquially known as ‘rednecks’. What was surprising to me was that members of one minority community could have so such hatred and ill-feeling toward members of another minority community. And yet, it makes sense – the Japanese had invaded China and were committing, by all accounts, horrendous atrocities against the Chinese, so why wouldn’t the Chinese community in Canada feel hostile towards the Japanese community? Despite their own persecution from the white population at large, the majority of the Chinese community felt that the Japanese deserved everything that was coming to them. And yet, the Canadian ideals of fairness and tolerance come out again in Choy’s writing through his portrayal of Lin Meiying, a beautiful young Chinese girl who falls in love in a Japanese boy. Through her tragic story we see the consequences of hatred and hostility between cultural groups. And perhaps this is Choy’s message throughout, as Meiying’s tale is the last in the book, to be told through the eyes of seven-year-old Sek-Lung, who himself is torn between the grand war-stories he makes up with his friends about fighting the Japanese and admiring the incredible baseball skills of Meiying’s Japanese lover, Kazuo.

I had a similar experience reading this book as I did the last Canadian novel I read, Monkey Beach – that of falling into a familiar world and not wanting to come out again – but such a different, and colourful one. But it has again left me with a sense of awe about the Chinese culture, almost as in a fairy tale where ghosts come to life and everything is dressed in bright colours and embroidery. And to have that Canadian tone of tolerance and acceptance thrown in gives me a sense of homecoming, but is important for everyone to hear.

This book won the Trillum Book Award

His name is Fforde – Jasper Fforde

Remember how I waxed lyrical over Gregory Maguire’s rewriting of ‘The Wizard of Oz’, ‘Cinderella’ and other well known fairy tales? I’ve found another author who does the same for nursery rhymes. And fairy tales. And any other literary reference he can cram into a sentence.

I ordered Jasper Fforde’s newest book, ‘The Big Over Easy’ because of its blurb – who wouldn’t want to read about the murder of Humpty Dumpty, I thought? Especially if the DI is named Jack Spratt, with a DS named Mary Mary? Sounds like fun. Little did Richard know that he would be subjected to a contant barrage of impromtu readings and ‘I can’t believe he did it AGAIN‘s on the plane to Canada this summer.

Fforde has created a world in which popular culture is literary – ever want to go see a full-audience-participation production of Richard III, a la Rocky Horror Picture Show? (‘When is the winter of our discontent?’ bellows the audience. ‘Now is the winter of our discontent’ answers the actor…) See more of what it’s like in ‘The Eyre Affair’. Ever wonder how many neuroses a large egg might have living in today’s society? Find out in ‘The Big Over Easy’. And I’m sure there will be many more interesting questions and answers when I’ve read the whole of Fforde’s output to date. Because I’m that hooked.

It’s not just that his sense of humour saturates his books – his website, and advertisements in the back of his novels are amazingly funny as well. Ever wonder how toast got to be such a popular breakfast food? Maybe it’s because of the work of the sterling people at the ‘Toast Marketing Board’. And wouldn’t it be neat to be able to own a pet that has been extinct for hundreds, or even millions of years? Leave it to Pete and Dave at ‘Pete and Dave’s Dodo Emporium’ – all dodos guaranteed non-feral!

All I can say is that I’ve always wanted to meet Mr. Rochester, and Thursday Next, the heroine of ‘The Eyre Affair’ gets to to this, and change the course of one of the best-loved books of all time. What avid reader wouldn’t want to be able to do that? Please, meet Jasper Fforde’s creations in person – they are well worth your time.

The Eyre Affair (Thursday Next) The Big Over Easy

The Dark Tower finishes – or does it?

First, two things.

One – I apologise for not appearing more often on the blog! Life has taken over any spare time that I once had…

Two – if you are reading Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, but haven’t finished yet, skip this post! I will be revealing all!!

So – The Dark Tower. As a long term fan of King’s work, I’ve been looking forward to the last book since my brother introduced me to the series when I was a teenager – but negelected to tell me that not all of the books had been written yet! I pounced on ‘Wizard and Glass’ when it came out. In fact, I took it with me on my first field trip as a teacher, and as a consequence remember nothing of the 4 hour coach trip to Edmonton… It was partly that it had been so many years since I had read ‘The Waste Lands’ and needed to re-introduce myself to the ka-tet, but also that the story of Roland’s first love was so powerful – I have rarely resented anything half as much as having to return to reality in the midst of the story when we arrived in Edmonton…

I had a similar reaction when ‘Wolves of the Calla’ was given to me as a Christmas present last year. I think Richard knows the look now – ‘if you bother me in the middle of this book I may do you some serious harm’ – and leaves me alone to inhale the story. ‘Inhale’ really isn’t the right word – ‘drinking in’ isn’t the right phrase, either – it’s almost like I suck it in through my pores. Anyway. So when I received ‘Song of Susannah’ and ‘The Dark Tower’ from my parents-in-law for Christmas this year, I knew that Richard was in for some long, chilly looks and a lot of silence from his wife in the next week or so… Fortunately, I’m an early riser (our furry alarm clock helps – she goes off at about 6.30, even on weekends and holidays…) and he’s not, so I tended to read for about three hours before I heard stirring upstairs, and finished both novels well before New Year. In fact, I was well into book 7 before I realised I was finished book 6 – just picked up the next one and kept reading. (Is that how chain-smokers feel??) Not having read them separately lead to an interesting discussion with a former student the first week back at school. He has only relatively recently discovered the series, and was determined to beat me to the post (I won, ha-ha!!) but we did have good discussion on the quality of ‘Song of Susannah’. Both of us felt that it was somewhat of a transitional story, and that the writing in of King as a main character could have been done differently, and somewhat better. Having said that, I do understand (I think – I wouldn’t dare to presume!!) what King was trying to do. He says himself that it wasn’t until well into his writing career that he realised that most, if not all, of his fiction was interrelated in some way. Some direct links are, of course, ‘Salem’s Lot with Pere Callahan in ‘Wolves of the Calla’, and, of course, the reference to Dolores Claiborne killing her husband in Jessie’s flashback to the ‘incident’ with her father during an eclipse in ‘Gerald’s Game’. But to write yourself into the main story itself… Smacks a bit too much of ‘deus ex machina’ to me, although King does treat it with humour and an acknowledgement of the way in which it might be viewed by fans…

My main problem and disappointment (I struggled very hard not to be disappointed with this, but I haven’t succeeded…) with Susannah is, in fact, the way she goes out of the series in ‘The Dark Tower’. I know the girl has had a really rough life, but to have her end up in a world with both another Jake an another Eddie and the have them perfect, not strung out, not hell bent on gunsliging, and for them to be brothers? Even for someone who gave birth (even vicariously) to a monster and to whom is due some happiness as a reward for all her pain, this seems to be a cheat of a life. She knows it’s not her Eddie or her Jake when she goes through the door, and she goes anyway. I know that options for her survival were limited if she stayed with Roland, and I know that she felt Roland was responsible for Eddie’s and Jake’s deaths and all that, but it felt like cheating somehow, to have her alive and kicking and with her heart’s desire when Roland has to start all over… I just feel that it didn’t end well for her. Roland having to do it all again – I get that. That seems right, for someone so driven to have to do it again and again until he gets it right, but Susannah’s finish doesn’t feel right to me.

Having said that, I was intensely curious as to what Roland would find at the top of the tower. (Well, who wouldn’t be – it’s only been plugged since the beginning of the series…) And to be perfectly frank, I’m not sure any other ending would have fit. Other than, of course, not letting us know, and finishing with Roland entering the tower and the door slamming shut. I do think that it’s fitting that, having written seven books (or more, depending on how you view the body of King’s work) about the journey, that it would finish with a continuation of that journey. And what difference would having the Horn of Eld with him make on this journey? Would it help him to remember the face of his father more clearly? Would it prevent the birth of Mordred? Would it alleviate the need for the Drawing of the Three? And what kind of story would it be without these characters?

I do think that that King’s accident has had an effect on these closing novels – it’s given him a way to kill off Jake, for one – and I’m not sure that it’s been a positive effect. Having said that, would any conclusion to a series with twenty years of cult followers have a satisfactory ending? In some ways, it’s all in its perception by the reader. And what piece of fiction doesn’t have that burden? I look forward to rereading these in the years to come and seeing if my delights and disappointments continue. I do feel that Roland and his ka-tet will be good friends for a long time to come.

Song of Susannah (The Dark Tower) The Dark Tower VII: The Dark Tower

Canadiana – The Vinyl Cafe stories

It must be the proximity to Canada Day, but I feel rather nostalgic for all things Canadian at the moment. Flipping through my reading journal, I came across an entry for a rather good collection of stories by a broadcaster on the CBC called Stuart McLean. He has a radio show called Vinyl Cafe, and one of the weekly features is a new tale about a regular family to which sometimes irregular things happen. These people, Dave, Morley, Stephanie, Sam, Galway the cat and Arthur the dog, have become neighbours and friends to those who listen to McLean’s weekend radio show. And it’s not just that these stories will make you howl with laughter (listening to Dave Cooks the Turkey almost made me drive off the road one Christmas holiday), they also make you think about how much you value your own family, because they love each other so very much, imperfections and all.

I think what makes them so funny, and so touching, is the closeness of the observations of their daily lives. It makes you look at your own life, and think, ‘Do I really do anything quite so ridiculous as that?’, to which the answer is, ‘Of course I do. I just didn’t look at it that way before.’ For example, Dave has perfectly good reasons for wanting to toilet train the cat (as anyone who has experienced letting a cat in and out of the house in the dead of night during a Canadian winter will know), but observed by McLean, his efforts are incredible at times, but also endearing because they are, well, quite logical when you think about it. And although Morley is, in many ways, a long-suffering wife she also has some quirks. What mother can’t identify with the envy she feels when faced with someone else’s ‘perfect’ children? And what mother does not then feel the urge to make her own offspring perfect? The paper plates and glued-down corners of bedsheets which result are her own fault…

One of the things that amazes me about McLean’s writing is his ability to pick up on a deatil of someone’s life and then change the course of the story so that the detail is just the start of a much larger adventure for the main characters. The story which starts with Dave toilet training the cat is actually about Brenda, Dave’s cousin, and not really about Dave’s struggle with Galway at all. It does not surprise me at all that McLean now teaches writing at a university in Toronto.

Unfortunately, I only own one of the collections of these wonderful stories, but there are now four. All of them are available in Canada, of course, but I could only find two on Amazon.co.uk. Please read them – they are warmhearted stories that are sure to leave you feeling better after a hard day.

Home from the Vinyl Cafe: A Year of Stories ( Stuart McLean)

Stories from the Vinyl Cafe (Stuart McLean)