Sunday, July 26, 2009

Short Girls

Short Girls, by Bich Minh Nguyen
Release: July 27, 2009
ISBN 978-0-670-02081-2

Van and Linny Luong are as different as it is possible for sisters to get – one, a plain Jane overachiever who seems to have found success in love and her career; the other - pretty , glamorous and directionless. Yet both have secrets – Van’s husband has abruptly ended their picture perfect marriage without explanation; Linny gets involved with a married man just as she has begun establishing a career. Even as both sisters struggle with heartbreak and humiliation, they meet again at their father’s house to help him celebrate his American citizenship. Surrounded by the people and memories of their past, and connected by their shared estrangement from their Vietnamese heritage, the sisters hesitantly reach out to each other. Over the course of a few weeks, they forge a new relationship that helps them resolve their own personal issues.

Bich Minh Nguyen’s (pronounced Bit Min Nwin) first book, Stealing Buddha’s Dinner, was a well received memoir of her childhood and teenage years as a first generation Vietnamese American . Much like that book, this one too is about the search for identity and a sense of belonging, and each character struggles with it in their own ways. If Van is suddenly forced to be her own person after years of living upto the expectations of others, Linny finds herself drawn to the very people and customs she has spent her adult life trying to escape. Both sisters in turn chafe against the filial ties that bind them to their cantankerous father, even as they consider the possibility that he may have been unfaithful to their deceased mother. Mr Luong, after a lifetime of disillusionment with his adopted country, accepts citizenship in a final bid for success as an inventor of gadgets for short people. His obsession with shortness could just as well be his reaction to his own feelings of alienation in America, his appliances a way of being seen, heard and acknowledged in a land he remains foreign to. There is even an interesting subplot involving Van’s work as an immigration lawyer, and the increasing difficulties faced by her clients in post 9/11 America.

Nguyen examines her characters with a keen eye and a gentle touch – there is a calm fluid quality to her prose that kept me riveted to the book. Parallels to Jhumpa Lahiri and Amy Tan are evident, not just in the common themes of inter-generational relationships among immigrants , but also in the attention to the tiny nuances of these complex, layered characters. And much like Tan and Lahiri have done in their work, Nguyen too alternates her focus between Van and Linny’s lives, revisiting their childhood through the lenses of their respective memories.

The plot does head for a rather conventional , crowd-pleasing end, which I felt a little disappointed by, especially where the resolution of Linny’s life is concerned. I was also a little baffled by the graphics of the book cover, which do very little for the very engaging story within.

A subdued yet compelling read, and a finely detailed study of the ties that bind us, confound us and make us who we are.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Raggedy Ann Heart, by Heather McPhaul

Raggedy Ann Heart, by Heather McPhaul
ISBN: 1-4196-8627-5
Released: 2008

Author Heather McPhaul has crafted a charming coming of age tale in her debut novel ‘Raggedy Ann Heart’, about a family struggling to get by in rural West Texas in the 70s.

Twelve year old Lindy Logan’s life is one long uphill struggle- she is a figure of ridicule at school, and greatly overshadowed at home by her pretty kid sister, Jo, who seems to have all their mother’s attention. Their penury is a source of constant embarrassment to her, and the reason she has to toil on her father’s farm. Meanwhile, puberty strikes and Lindy is horrified both at her changing body and the thoughts in her head that she is convinced make her a bad girl. Lindy’s charismatic Momma has watched her own dreams of stardom turn to dust, and struggles to adjust to a life of menial work and frugality. Her two daughters, as alike as chalk and cheese, constantly battle for her attention. Then tragedy strikes, and Momma and the girls are forced to re-examine their lives, and resolve their issues with each other.

The characters of this book are an interesting and complex lot – Lindy, with her fixation on TV sitcoms, and near obsessive hand washing; Jo, with her pretty face, her imaginary friends and her surprising reputation as a fierce fighter (Jo the Finisher) at school. Also Momma, a mercurial woman, struggling to reconcile her dreams with the life she is forced to lead. She is often shallow and thoughtless, and faces petty social prejudice from the women in the community, yet has the strength to offer support to one of them when they fall from grace. It takes the shadow of illness over her life for her to learn to value it.

I enjoyed this novel, and its poignant depiction of a troubled mother- daughter relationship. McPhaul narrates the exploits of this dysfunctional family with gentle humour and gives the reader a peek into the difficult, often terrifying, world of a twelve year old. Lindy reminded me in some ways of perhaps the most famous tortured teen in contemporary fiction– Adrian Mole. Much like him, Lindy is a shy introvert who unerringly lands herself in excruciatingly embarrassing situations, yet - through her sharp observations of her friends and relatives, in her disappointing encounter with the boy she fancies, in her final comprehension of her sister’s imaginary world- reveals a maturity far beyond her years.

Despite the humour, Lindy’s struggles to get her mother’s attention are still very touching, especially as her Momma’s own responses are far from kind, often echoing her own rejection by the women she has hoped to befriend. A photograph at the end of this book suggests that the author may have lived in West Texas herself as a girl, and the book may be part autobiographical. This would explain the detail with which she has captured life and people in the little community that this story is set in.

This is a story with strong female characters; by contrast, the men in the book are at best peripheral. Lindy’s father , for example, never draws the girls’ attention (or the readers') the way Momma does. He remains a character of contradictions, a man of literate interests who clearly is out of his element as a farmer, yet puts the family through hardship in his attempts at growing cotton. By the end, he seems to recede in the girls’ lives as a tragic figure , distanced emotionally and physically from them.

While the pace of the book is rather slow with an overly long first half, it builds up well to an end that is far from picture perfect, yet uplifting. A good read for teenagers and adults alike, about love, family and the tribulations of growing up.

'Raggedy Ann Heart' qualified as a finalist in Young Adult Fiction for the 2009 Next Generation Indie Book Awards and Indie Excellence Awards.

Thanks to Heather McPhaul for sending Bookblah a copy of the book to review.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Dead man talking

Talking to the Dead, by Bonnie Grove
Published by: David C Cook
Release: June 2009
ISBN : 978-1-4347-6641-0

Where “, mulls Kate Davis, the narrator and central character of this book, “did we get the idea that the best approach to facing death is to eat Bundt cake?” These words set the tone for Bonnie Grove's debut novel, by turns humorous and reflective, about self discovery and coming to terms with loss.

Young and newly widowed, Kate grieves for her beloved husband Kevin by withdrawing from her life and family. All of a sudden, she begins hearing Kevin’s voice speaking to her. Even as she wonders if she is losing her sanity, his presence becomes increasingly hostile. Her attempts to seek help from psychics, counselors and priests leave her steadily disillusioned, before she begins to look inward for the roots to her predicament . As she slowly unravels the bitter secrets of her marriage,she finds both betrayal among those closest to her, and allies in unlikely places. In her quest to find the strength and conviction to get past her sorrow and anger, she also moves from agnosticism to faith. Most of all, Kate realizes the need to forgive herself for the poor choices she has made in an effort to hold onto a relationship that was not as ideal as she believed.

Talking..’ charts Kate’s rocky path to emotional and spiritual recovery with empathy. The book paints a rather bleak picture of the mental health industry with its over-reliance on prescription drugs, and is also critical of over zealous evangelists and their harsh interpretation of the gospel. Grove mines familiar territory here; she is trained in Christian counseling, has authored a self help guide in the past, and is also married to a pastor.

The character of Kate is drawn well; despite the emotional blows she suffers, she emerges a survivor, and on her own terms. The plot involves finding both love and God, but these never overshadow Kate’s own quest for closure; rather, they emerge as natural consequences of her own passage from hurt towards healing. It is also open ended on the reasons Kate hears her husband’s voice; it chooses to stay focused on her journey towards life. However, in a narrative that is otherwise very believable, the religious experience she has towards the end feels both contrived and hurried - this story would have been just as strong without it, and just as much about finding faith. The book sags in the middle too, and could have benefited from tighter editing. Some characters appear rather stereotypical – the psychic and evangelist are cases in point, as also the tearful Blair, Kevin's best friend. But these are still minor issues in an otherwise interesting and readable book about one woman’s journey toward finding herself.

Thanks to Audra Jennings at The B&B Media group for sending us a copy of the book to review.