The Valley of Amazement

The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan

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This book is Amy Tan being Amy Tan, tackling her pet subject: multiple generations of women traveling between America and China, having complex relationships, being exploited by men and bureaucracy and in-laws, and occasionally fighting back. I don’t say that in a disparaging way: she writes what she knows and is good at it. This book is different from previous books of Tan’s I’ve read in that it’s sexier. The main characters are courtesans, or very high-class prostitutes, in Shanghai circa 1910-1925. In addition to the deceptions and seductions of suitors, the drama here comes from a mother and her daughter both losing children to hostile in-laws from another culture, thanks to false or missing documentation. (Now that I’m a mom, reading about a parent losing all contact with a young child is even more heartrending to me than ever.) It’s a long book, offering the perspectives of the American mother, her half-Chinese daughter, and the daughter’s attendant.

Though she relies heavily on coincidence and other slightly unrealistic plot devices, Tan also interweaves historical events like the flu epidemic of 1918 into the narrative. The characters’ relationships and opportunities are greatly influenced by the qeopolitical climate and the relations between China and the US. This is a story that could only have taken place in a particular moment in history, when China was in the process of opening to the West, but still very tradition-bound, when customs like courtesan houses coexisted with typewriters and telegraphs, after the Open Door Notes, but before the invasion by Japan and the Cultural Revolution. Most action takes place in the International Settlement in Shanghai, a cosmopolitan place where foreigners were safe and respected. It’s interesting to learn this history from a perspective that we don’t often see as Americans.

A while ago I reviewed Rules for Virgins, not knowing that it was going to be part of  a longer novel. Though it stands up well on its own, that chapter also fits well in this book. Magic Gourd, its narrator, only narrates this one chapter of The Valley of Amazement, but she’s an important character, and a funny one.

Howl’s Moving Castle

Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

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This fantasy is so off-the-wall and fun: insanely imaginative and absolutely unpredictable. There’s a castle that’s in several places at once, seven-league boots, fire demons, menacing scarecrows, and more. The protagonist, Sophie, is unusual because she spends most of the book as an old woman, thanks to a spell that aged her about 50 years. She’s also a hard worker, more talented than she knows, an oldest child who’s convinced her birth order dooms her to an uninteresting life.

There is so much going on beneath the surface of this story. We only see Sophie’s point of view, but it’s clear that Howl and his family and Miss Angorian and the Witch have a history that she doesn’t know anything about, creating a sense of mystery. Sophie’s lack of awareness extends to herself: she does magic without intending to, and the repercussions of her little spells echo and grow until the end of the story. Hemingway’s ‘iceberg principle’ is definitely at work here. When Howl takes Sophie to visit his family in modern Whales, it sent me reeling, disoriented: rather than beginning in our world and traveling to another, these characters began in their world and visited ours, showing us our own reality from the point of view of an outsider who’s used to fire demons and traveling buildings, but is still terrified of cars. I always like a good literary reference, so I particularly enjoyed the use of Donne’s “Song” as a set of directions for a spell.

This book was adapted into a great anime movie by Miyazaki, and very early in the book I could see why that adaptation worked so well. There was something about this book’s sentence-level pacing, humor, strange images, and preoccupation with cleanliness that seemed to fit the anime sensibility perfectly.

In Other Worlds

In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination by Margaret Atwood

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In this short book of essays and reviews, Margaret Atwood discusses genre, superheroes, mad scientists, and imaginary places. She goes into great detail about how 1984 inspired The Handmaid’s Tale. She coins a new word, ustopia, a combination of utopia and dystopia, because she believes any utopia contains within it the potential for a dystopia, and dystopias are usually utopias gone wrong. She reviews some old Victorian books I’ve never heard of, as well as ones I’ve enjoyed, like Brave New World and Never Let Me Go. Throughout, she references an amazingly wide array of books, movies, comics, and poems, creating connections between many disparate cultural elements. Some of her insights weren’t new to me, like the idea of 1984 and Brave New World representing opposite directions for the future to take. A few of the ideas were ones I’d heard in person when she gave a lecture here in Nashville, like the fact that every atrocity committed in The Handmaid’s Tale is one that has really happened at some point in history. Nevertheless, it’s a fun, smart read, literary criticism for the masses. At the end there are even a few treats in the form of mini-stories about strange and fascinating speculative scenarios.

Expecting Better

Expecting Better: Why the Conventional Pregnancy Wisdom Is Wrong–and What You Really Need to Know by Emily Oster

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I wish this book had been around when I was pregnant. Alas, it came out about a year after my conception date. I do remember reading Oster’s series of excerpts on Slate when I was on maternity leave, though. Her approach is exactly what I was looking for in a pregnancy book–facts and numbers delivered without judgment in an entertaining way. The book often reads like a memoir because Oster uses the story of her own pregnancy and the decisions she made for herself and her daughter to structure and add humor and personality to her presentation of facts and figures. She takes an economist’s approach to pregnancy, which means finding out exact statistics and carefully weighing costs and benefits. She emphasizes that different women in different circumstances may see these costs and benefits differently, and that’s fine. I think that’s a very healthy and inclusive approach to an issue that’s very individual and yet fraught with controversy and judgment.

I agreed with most of Oster’s conclusions, and made many of the same choices she did. She skipped the amniocentesis and epidural, and was willing to wait to go into labor naturally rather than to be induced. Most controversially, she approves of occasional light drinking and blows off lots of the most cumbersome diet restrictions. There were a few moments when I wanted to quibble with her tone or diction. In the chapter on prenatal testing, she says “healthy” when she means a child that doesn’t have Down Syndrome, though a child with this condition can be healthy. Often she stated things in a way that made it seem like the baby’s health is more important than the mother’s, that any sacrifice is worthwhile for a healthy baby, and the end of a healthy baby justifies any means taken to achieve it. As a mother myself, I understand these sentiments completely, but I also recognize that they can lead to a woman being seen as primarily an incubator, though I don’t think this was Oster’s intent.

One omission that bothered me was nitrous oxide. It’s understandable because at this point very few American women have the option to use nitrous oxide for pain relief during labor, but things will stay that way as long as no one advocates for it. Oster might have expanded her research to find that “laughing gas” is used widely in Europe during labor and has few, if any, side effects for either mother or baby. If she’d found out more about how amazing this drug is, she could have written about it and started a national conversation with this book. I was lucky enough to have my baby in one of two hospitals in the US that use nitrous oxide, and I loved it so much that I’m planning my entire life around making sure I’m able to use it for future deliveries–I’ve decided not to move away from Nashville until either another hospital offers it or I’ve had my last child.

At the end of the book, Oster says that after her daughter was born, she realized that the research and decisions were only beginning. I hope that means that she is planning another book in which she will research the choices parents make for babies and toddlers. I’d love to read about breastfeeding, cosleeping, screen time, day care, and sibling spacing.

Hollow City

Hollow City by Ransom Riggs

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Hollow City is the sequel to Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, a strange and fun YA fantasy involving time travel and kids with weird talents. In this book, the children travel through England to London on the run from “hollows,” bogeys trying to eat their peculiar souls. They’re also trying to restore Miss Peregrine, who has been frozen in her bird form, back to her human shape.

The book is illustrated by unsettling vintage photos that Riggs found and used as inspiration. Some of these fit better into the narrative than others. There are times when a description of one of the pictures seems wedged into the story with poor transitions. But the pictures do add atmosphere to the story and are really cool to look at. Another criticism is that the various adventures and obstacles on their road seem exaggerated somewhat, so that each one threatens dire failure to the mission, but they are all resolved neatly in their turn without causing as much real trouble as it seemed they must.

The ending gave me a surprise that made sense and yet dismayed me on behalf of the characters. There was a dire cliffhanger that made me wish the third book were already available. This series is a lot of fun for anyone who likes dark, chilling fantasy.

The Hidden Icon

The Hidden Icon by Jillian Kuhlmann

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I met Jillian in grad school, where her stories in workshop were remarkable for their long, lush, atmospheric sentences. I haven’t seen her in person since then, but we’ve occasionally commiserated online about the trials of young motherhood and reconciling it with writerly ambition. When I congratulated her on her novel and told her how much I was looking forward to reading it, she told me that it was different from the things she’d written back in school. When I finally was able to read her book, though, it felt very similar to what I remembered of her writing from years ago. When I say that I certainly don’t mean that she hasn’t grown and evolved, because I see skill here that seems beyond what I remember her doing 6 years ago, especially in pacing and plotting. What I mean is that I recognized Jillian’s style and sensibility. I promised her I would read not with my mind on evaluating and critiquing, but would simply enjoy getting lost in a story, and I did! Her protagonist Eiren, is princess of a country that has just lost a war, and she’s been separated from her family and taken hostage by the enemy. She finds out that she’s the icon or human incarnation of Theba, the goddess of destruction. As she travels though hostile territory with her former enemies, she learns more about what it means to be an icon. As with all fantasy, the best advice for a reader is, “Just go with it.”

In reading this book I realized that Jillian’s style is one that seems best presented in longer works, and thus she might have been poorly served by the workshop format, where students typically submit a short story or a chapter of a longer work two or three times a term. Because Jillian’s voice is so unique, a reader may need time to get used to it, to learn to read it, to give up the foolish impulse to resist its idiosyncracies and let it build a world and a feeling around her. Without a long text and a long time to devote to reading it, it would be easy for a reader not to realize what a great writer Jillian is. Jillian’s sentences are as luxurious as I remembered, perfect for the detailed descriptions necessary to create a strange new fantasy world.

My favorite passages were the stories-within-a-story told by Eiren and her companions. This structure reminded me of another book that depended heavily on fantasy and story-telling, The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht, and I loved that book. The fairy tales Eiren tells are strange and surprising, sometimes sweet and sometimes dark. I also enjoyed the hint of romance in The Hidden Icon. Jillian is one of those rare writers whose characters communicate with a brush of hands what people in bodice rippers need pages of purple prose to say. The ending brought the house down, revealing mysteries in Eiren’s world and within her character, and surpassing my expectations. There’s going to be a sequel, and I wish Jillian the best in its creation!

Bumped

Bumped by Megan McCafferty

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In this YA dystopia, a virus has led to widespread infertility among adults–but teenagers can still become parents. This leads upwardly mobile girls like Melody to “pregg for profit” by becoming a “Surrogette.” Her economist parents encouraged her to sign a contract promising a child to a rich couple. In this world there are no artificial inseminations, which increases the drama considerably. The twist is that Melody has a twin sister, Harmony, who was raised in a strict Christian community where the norm is early marriage rather than surrogacy/adoption agreements. When Harmony turns up at Melody’s door, she threatens to unsettle her sister’s contract, and her social life. Boys always complicate things as well, and there are three complications here: Zen, Melody’s best friend, Ram, Harmony’s fiancé, and Johndoe, the sperm donor who’s been chosen to “pregg” Melody.

This book’s inspiration from The Handmaid’s Tale is obvious. It is somewhat more lighthearted though. McCafferty imagines a world in which teen pregnancy is cool and patriotic, giving rise to a whole set of slang phrases. The silly linguistic fun of reading invented words and dirty jokes made serious is a large part of the book’s appeal. These pun-tastic jokes are used to make fun of the whole idea of teenagers using their sexuality in this unfeeling, mercenary way. The obvious sexual themes drive most of the action, and I agreed with what the book said about sex, relationships, and young women. I always like a YA book that talks frankly about sex and shows teenagers enjoying it without being utterly destroyed by it. (Maybe this isn’t as rare as I thought it was? Or this is changing as we speak, and I’m still used to the norms of the YA books I read 10-20 years ago?)

At about a fourth of the way through the book, I made a prediction, and I was surprised by the ending anyway. I liked the way Melody’s relationships with Harmony and Zen had grown by the end of the book and thought the set-up for the next book was intriguing. The sequel, Thumped, is on my to-read list.