A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers

By Xiaolu Guo

chinese-english_dictionaryThis novel is described as “a novel of language and love that tells one young Chinese woman’s story of her journey to the West—and her attempts to understand the language, and the man, she adores.” I was expecting a love story, quite honestly, though one with a unique approach. It is, uh…not that.

The hook, for me, was that the book is written in Zhuang’s voice, and over the length of the book, the text itself becomes more mature as her English improves. According to the inside blurb, Guo used her own journals from when she first came to London as a reference, and the developing language is really interesting to follow.

The thing is, the relationship stuff is…rough. I spent the vast majority of the book stressed over this young woman in a foreign country with very little support, convinced that any minute, things were going to go dangerously wrong. I wasn’t completely wrong, either, but traumatic events are written in the same sort of wondering tone as everything else she experiences in the West, which lessened the stress a little, I guess.

Less of a story about love, Guo is talking about how our cultural expectations, and even our individual wants and needs, can interfere with relationships, even when people love each other. Our society often addresses sexual incompatibility in romantic relationships (so many letters to advice columns!), but Guo delves into something that is mostly overlooked: emotional intimacy incompatibility. Some people like a higher amount of connective-ness in their relationship than others, and if you are very mismatched, like the couple in this novel, it will be frustrating and exhausting for both sides.

The Tomato Thief by Ursula Vernon

The Tomato Thief
by Ursula Vernon
2016

Some time ago I bookmarked this short story, intending to read it later, and then mostly forgot about its existence until I was searching through some old bookmarks wondering why I had so many of them.

It’s really good! It’s sort of magical-realism, fairy-tale like, with a cranky old woman as the main character and is a delight.

It reminds me of Zen Cho’s short stories, including “Prudence and the Dragon” which Anna reviewed previously, and the stories in “Spirits Abroad” which apparently I never got around to reviewing here, but are also fabulous.

But you should go ahead and read The Tomato Thief here.

Amnesty for unfinished books

I think we all try to finish the books we start, more out of principle than anything else.*  However, we always have books that just defeat us (you can see the ones that haunt us in our bios). Here, on New Year’s Eve, we say goodbye to those books from 2018:

Confessions of the Fox

By Jody Rosenberg

Confessions_of_the_FoxThis was on all sorts of Best of lists and the description sounded amazing; this was the quote from the New York Times review: “A mind-bending romp through a gender-fluid, eighteenth century London . . . a joyous mash-up of literary genres shot through with queer theory and awash in sex, crime, and revolution.” I like all of these things! This should be awesome! But even after multiple tries, I never made it past the third chapter. It was written in some of Olde Englishe dialect that my brain just wouldn’t parse at all. I feel like if I could have gotten over the hump and into the story I would have liked it, but I guess I’ll never know.

—Kinsey

Fear: Trump in the White House

By Bob Woodward

FearOf course, everyone was reading this book. In DC, naturally, but I think there was a mad scramble for it nation-wide. I don’t really buy books anymore, and the library waitlist was over 900 people, so I figured I’d probably get around to reading it in a couple years once the next big exposé came out. However, at Thanksgiving my dad said that I could borrow his copy, as long as I return it at Christmas. A month! Plenty of time, right?

Whew! The first 50 pages summarize the campaigns, leading up to the election, and just brought back how horrifyingly shocking November 8 was to me. Once we got past that, though, I was actually finding the behind-the-scenes details pretty interesting, similar to Game Change. However, it was still a slow read, and I had just reached Lindsey Graham convincing Trump to hire General Mattis as Secretary of Defense, when the news broke that Mattis was resigning. That was pretty much the last straw for me, and I decided that I just couldn’t handle trying to make sense of everything while it continues to change so frequently. I’m going back to my escapist fiction until at least 2020.

—Anna

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven

By Sherman Alexie

lonerangerWith a title like that, how could I not want to read it? Also, the book is a 20th anniversary edition that was being highlighted at my local library as a recommendation from one of the librarians, and it’s about modern life on an Indian reservation. It’s a collection of 24 short stories, most of them only about 10-pages long.

I’m now on my third renewal of the library check-out because I’ve just stalled after the first two and a half stories. There’s no particular reason for me to not like them, I just find myself asking why I’m trying to read these when I’m not getting anything from them and I could be reading something else instead. But I keep on renewing the check-out because the introduction was excellent! It was also written by the author, but 20 years after the rest of the book, which might be why it’s more centered and entertaining. So, I recommend the introduction, and maybe while you’re at it, try out the rest of the stories, but for the new year I’m going to let myself give up on this book and just return it to the library.

—Rebecca

*Though as I get older, I’m more inclined toward the idea that life is too short to waste time on a book you aren’t enjoying.

Jane Steele

By Lyndsay Faye

Adobe Photoshop PDFHave you ever thought Jane Eyre would be improved if the heroine had simply murdered all the villains who cross her? Well, have I got a book for you! The very first sentence sets the tone: “Of all my many murders, committed for love and for better reasons, the first was the most important.”

The whole thing is much improved, actually, and I say that as someone who enjoyed the original. Thornfield (Rochester)*, in particular, is a breath of fresh air, as a soldier returning from East India after having “gone native” in the English army’s estimation, rather than a surly recluse. I always had to suspend disbelief that anyone would fall in love with Jane Eyre’s Rochester; Jane Steele’s Thornfield, of the other hand, has the perfect mix of charm and cynicism.

Like Abdul-Jabbar’s Mycroft Holmes, Lyndsay Faye takes a quintessentially British story and livens it up with a focus on other cultures that were always there historically but tend to be whitewashed out. Thornfield’s ward is the half-Sikh daughter of a fellow soldier, he has staffed his estate entirely with Sikhs, and the Sikh culture is woven throughout. An additional small but significant point that allows this revision to avoid seeming gimmicky is that Jane Eyre (the novel) actually exists in this world, and Jane Steele (the character) is a fan.

A few years ago, I read Jane Slayre, which does some of this – turning Jane into a murderer of vampires, which definitely added interest, but other than the vampires, it stayed pretty close to the original plot and even original prose. Faye, on the other hand, has revitalized the entire plot. Jane Steele retains a very similar feeling to the original, but skillfully updates the plot and characters for more modern sensibilities. (Reading this Jane returning violence against her with extreme prejudice is a real salve to the soul in the midst of the continually unfolding news of sexual exploitation and abuse by powerful men.)

When discussing the book at work, a coworker commented that she never really liked Jane Eyre because it was just so unrelentingly sad, with such terrible things happening to Jane, and I realized that the addition of the murders contrarily brightens everything up. It has quite a bit of sly humor, which kept me amused well after reading it.

*I only later realized that Thornfield is the name of Rochester’s house in Jane Eyre, so a clever little turnaround there.

An Age of Barns by Eric Sloane

ageofbarnsAn Age of Barns
by Eric Sloane
1967

It probably says a lot about my general reading habits that my first thought about seeing this was that it was like a fantasy world guide except that what it describes and shows detailed pencil sketches of is all real. It starts with pictures of different tools and then moves on to show different types of boards and logs and different ways of making a wall and the different layouts for the structures and the different purposes for the different structures. (And I have now learned that there are cellars vs ground cellars and dry cellars vs wet cellars; not to mention that those crescent moon cut-outs on out-houses mark those as being women’s privies – they’d be sun cut-outs for men’s privies.)

My second reaction, after I’d actually started to read it, was really thinking about how smart and skilled those early farmers were. They would cut down and then carve these trees into interlinking logs. They really are like Lincoln Logs(TM) except more detailed, more individualistic, and a gazillion times more heavy. They knew how they wanted these logs to connect and then they carved them to slot together just so, all while using a medium that can’t be manipulated by one man on his own. It has to be a massive group project.

My third reaction, after having gone to see a barn that I’d previously seen several times, was that once I started to have an understanding of how a barn was put together, I started to see things that I had completely overlooked before because it didn’t previously hold any meaning for me. Before I had thought, huh, that log has an odd wavy texture to it; now I look at it and go: that was hand hewn using a broad ax. Before I hadn’t even noticed some notches on a banister, and now I look at it and go: that is repurposed wood from a different section because the notches on it were intended for something different.

And a final thought: this was written well-before Wikipedia existed but it is still this deep-dive into an esoteric research rabbit hole and it’s amazing. I love getting to see someone else’s passion about something that wouldn’t have otherwise occurred to me as a thing to even really think about.

Anyway, the whole book is only about 90 pages, most of it images and diagrams, and it’s not really intended to be read through the way I did, but it’s still fascinating and I liked it.

A Study in Scarlet Women

scarletBefore I started writing this review I searched through our past blog entries several times, because this seemed like such an “us” book that I couldn’t believe one of us hadn’t already written about it. It’s a lady Sherlock Holmes! A Study in Scarlet Women is the first in a series of (currently) three books by Sherry Thomas about Charlotte Holmes, a brilliant woman who throws off the constraints of her conservative Victorian family and starts solving mysteries.

Overall this is a quick, enjoyable genre read but there were a couple of things I really appreciated about it.

  • Friend of the blog Jo originally made this observation, but there is not a one to one character match. There are plenty of parallels with the original Holmes stories, but Thomas constructs a world around Charlotte that makes sense and doesn’t try to wedge everything into exact characters and relationships when another arrangement offers more insight into her characters. So you get the fun of seeing the connections, but it doesn’t feel the author has just renamed characters from the original work.
  • Charlotte is portrayed as exceptionally smart and deductive, but not superhuman. As a woman raised in a sheltered environment, she has to learn lots of things and, as the story moves along, all of the different characters in her orbit contribute to her detective work. Sherlock Holmes is traditionally this lone genius who is completely self-sufficient when it comes to solving mysteries. I liked the slightly more realistic idea that even a genius isn’t going to know everything right out of the gate and might gladly rely on friends and family for help.
  • Thomas is known for her romance novels, and there is a bit of that sensibility here, just in that the relationships in the book are treated with a lot of respect and are central elements to the story. Love is as important here as figuring out who committed the murders.

Kinsey’s Three-ish Word Review:  Fun, feminist mystery

You might also like:  The Deanne Raybourne mystery books–I particularly like the series that starts with Silent in the Grave. And they’ve got a slightly different feeling, but I also enjoyed the Ruth Galloway books by Elly Griffiths, starting with The Crossing Places.

Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

spinningsilverSpinning Silver
by Naomi Novik
2018

I spent an afternoon and two evenings gasping “oh no!” in between bouts of giggling, and stayed up way too late both nights and had a very difficult time putting it down for a night and a work-day in the middle. I love Novik’s writing and her characters are a delight, and she keeps her plotting fast and dense, and just so much happened and I loved it all!

The story is clearly inspired by Rumpelstiltskin, but makes a lot of changes, and really focuses around the theme of trading value for value, as it tells the interlinked stories of a young jewish money lender, a poor servant girl, the daughter of a duke, a tsar, and the king of the winter elves.

The world-building is also amazing as Novik introduces a whole magical realm in parallel to a more historical Russia, and then leaves both the reader and the main characters to piece together the rules of magic and society that permeate that alternate world.

It also made me realize that while, like any fairytale, it’s something of a morality tale, the morals quite difference from the standard. Many fairytales have the moral that if you remain kind even in abusive situations, then you’ll eventually get out and go on to have a good life. Which is an important lesson and is touched on, but isn’t the main one here. And this one is equally valuable: be ruthless in your demands for fair treatment and harden your heart against those who would emotionally manipulate you to avoid the consequences of their actions.

So, to sum up, this was amazing and I highly recommend it. It also kind of reminded me of not only Novik’s previous book Uprooted, but also Bujold’s Sharking Knife series, and Mckinley’s Sunshine, all of which I also really liked and recommend.