Foreign Bodies – Hwee Hwee Tan

Sometimes a book grabs you at the right moment in your life, and it just doesn’t let you go.

I first read Foreign Bodies when I was in grad school, right after Cori died, when my faith in God was something I had because I couldn’t think of a better option. If that seems horrific, I’m sorry.  Death and loss felt  forced on me by Someone I couldn’t just stop loving, but I felt abused and I carried a lot of anger and mistrust. I hid parts of this pretty well from a lot of people, but when it came right down to me and God, there wasn’t a lot of great emotion there.

Hwee Hwee Tan’s book is ostensibly about three young adults living in China. Mei has just become a lawyer, and her childhood friend Eugene’s university buddy Andy gets arrested for gambling. Written from all three perspectives, alternated, Tan seeks to uncover what leads us to the choices we make:

“All the problems that came up on this present Sunday, they all arose because of the foreign bodies within us  – things that happened in our childhood, some big, some small, but all significant; things that happened ten years ago, but still control our lives today; things from our yesterdays that will decide what we drink, dream and doubt, till the day we die. But you can’t see those things, because they’re not on the outside.”

It’s a well-written book, strong characters and good narration, but it’s the description of Christianity that led me to read and re-read this book during my grad school years. Mei’s Christianity is born out of fear at her grandfather’s funeral when she is just a child. She witnesses to an increasingly panicked Andy, an athiest skeptical of a faith he saw characterized in university as:

“…filled with posters of Bible verses, soft-focus rainbows and fluffy kittens.”

And yet, Andy comes to face Him:

“In the end, it was embarrassingly simple…I wished the answer wasn’t just ‘Jesus Christ’. I wished it was something that could only be expressed in French or German or Latin, or maybe even a combination of all three, something like ‘je ne lait achtung Spiritus Sanctus’ – something that sounds really profound…Life is complicated, why should the solution be so simple? If I were God, if I had my way, I’d make the answer so obscure, so incomprehensible that you could only grasp it after fasting under a tamarisk tree for a century or so.”

This is the part of the book that fed my sorrowing soul:

“Like a cold, black coal on the altar, I suddenly spurted to life. My soul caught fire, leapt like a spark, flew upwards towards the heavenly desire, towards the fountain flame. I changed. God created a new world in me. Bleeding like dawn on my soul, He touched and healed the cracks, and this deserted temple roared to life.”

And the end of the book:

“His love fills me – not the soft, cuddly, sentimental, Santa Claus, let’s-all-get-along, flower-power type, but God’s love, a love beyond reason, blind and obsessive, dangerous; a love that devours and destroys, a love that is lethal. I could never desert Him, because He put that love in my heart, the howl Solomon felt for his Bride – Love as strong as death, as cruel as the grave.

That’s how I felt about God at that time in my life, and it rings true even now. It reminds me of the part of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe  where Lucy asks Mr. and Mrs. Beaver if Aslan is safe and Mr. Beaver scoffs, “‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

I recommend this book. Whole-heartedly, without reservation. It is a realistic picture of Christianity not as we market it, soft and gentle and with clear-cut delineations, but gritty, and real, with grey areas and unutterable truth.

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the story of a girl.

The Girl Who Played with Fire (Millennium, #2)The Girl Who Played with Fire by Stieg Larsson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I don’t know. I think this book was nearly as good as the first one. In fact, I found it much easier to read than the first one because I already felt invested in Lisbeth and Mikael.

This book centers more around Lisbeth. A couple is murdered and her fingerprints are found on the weapon, which belongs to her twisted (and also murdered) guardian.

This book was intense. It pulled me along from the start, unlike Dragon Tattoo. Lisbeth’s past, hinted at in the beginning of the book (and in the first movie, if you’ve seen it)and we finally start the unravelling of her personal history, a tragic and confusing life.

I gave this 3 stars because Larsson still could have used a strong editor. There are seemingly endless descriptions of IKEA furniture (even a shopping trip to IKEA!) and people’s outfits. Also, the end of this book really wasn’t an ending. This doesn’t feel like a second book so much as a second part of a really long saga. We’ll see how book three ends up.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest (Millennium, #3)The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest by Stieg Larsson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This was SOOOOOOOOO SLOOOOOOOOOOW. It took over half of the book to get anywhere.

Lisbeth in hospital. Mikael finds a new obsession and eventually a new (muscly) lady love. Lisbeth still in hospital. We all get a long dose of Swedish constitutional law. Erika gets stood up a bit and ignored by Mikael and stalked by a creep. Also, she apparently has no idea where her husband is at any time. Lisbeth still in hospital, preparing for battle/court. We are introduced to a whole hornet’s nest of characters that we really have to struggle to keep track of.

When I got over halfway, Erika’s stalker gets more agressive, there’s an attempted murder, Lisbeth meets Teleborian meets court…and bang. We’re done. If the whole book had been more like the end of the book, it might have made four stars.

I guess in the end, I appreciated the clever, smart mysteries we were presented with, but I’m not entirely sure why these were the crazy hit they were. I read them in the course of what, two weeks? But they’re really heavy, weighty novels. You can’t just pick them up and drop them, you have to actually think, keep track, especially as Larsson just keeps adding character groups, without getting rid of any of them (although apparently dear older Vanger is no longer sleeping with journalist man-candy? Who knows.)

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mind was full of razors

Mockingjay (Hunger Games, #3)Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Wow. What to say about this that doesn’t ruin anything but still adequately expresses my admiration.

This is a strong, believable, heart-wrenching conclusion to this trilogy. Collins does not pull any punches and she doesn’t leave herself room for another book to sneak in. But it is excellent.

What I admire about Collins is her ability to keep us engaged. Yes, we’re frustrated for all three books about Katniss’ inability to choose her man, but she never has to stoop to clever tricks (storming off to Italy, a la Twilight) to keep us on our toes about who we think she will end up with or who we think she should end up with. We just see two very different boys growing to two very different men who both love and admire and are frustrated by the same girl.

Also, I love Collins’ ability to take on difficult social and political issues without turning preachy and obvious. She makes us think about war and oppression and socialism and dictatorships without us thinking “Wow. All these big thoughts about war and oppression and socialism and dictators.”

And mercy. This book is about mercy and how mercy is not easy and it is not painless and it is not even always non-violent. But it is necessary and good and in some small way, healing.

When you’re finished with this book you will want to reread it. Immediately. But you will also feel sad, and thoughtful, and a little hopeful. This book, the war that ensues, is not a happy read. There are fewer smiles and warm moments. It is realistic, difficult, and an excellent read.

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P.S. I was listening to Brandi Carlyle today and I feel like Katniss would have related to My Song.

wasp, dragon, whatever.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Millennium, #1)The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I went back and forth between 3 and 4 stars for this book. In the end, I’m going with four because it is excellently constructed and some of the awkward parts in terms of style are most likely the result of translation.

I liked that Larsson had strong characters, with realistic flaws and strengths. The story (once you got into it, say 100 pages) was compelling and drew you along. The mystery was fairly mysterious, with lots of nooks and crannies, and not all of the resolution was obvious.

On the other hand, the s.x and violence was a little brutal, and the combination of the two was too much to handle at a few points. The story-telling faltered when it came to the overly materialistic descriptions of people’s computers and IKEA furniture. Also, we did not need to be bonked on the head with quotations about violence against women every step of the way. (Also, apparently women in Sweden don’t care how many women the man in their life is sleeping with, and husbands don’t even get a speaking role when there’s an out-of-shape middle-aged journalist piece of man-candy on the loose. (Note the sarcasm, folks.)) Lastly, parts of the end were fairly easy to guess early on, even if the actual denouement was a bit surprising.

All in all, if you like thrillers, and you can handle some tough stuff, this was well-written. I will probably read the others, but might wait on the last one until it’s in soft-cover.

Also, I’m off to read Mockingjay – be still my beating heart.

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loneliness unfold…

I spent this past week re-reading some old favorites, while waiting for Amazon to ship me my copy of Mockingjay which is out next week, Tuesday!

So…here’s a recap of the first two. (These are really just reprints of my initial reviews, nothing new here.)

The Hunger Games (Hunger Games, #1)The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Yes.

That is what I have to say about this. Just yes.

This is a teen book with a strong dystopian twist, relatable characters. When she is chosen to the annual Panem Hunger games, Katniss is forced to battle for her life – a horrible situation, where not trusting the people around her leads to just as dire of consequences as trusting them.

Catching Fire (Hunger Games, #2)Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I said yes to Hunger Games and I would give this sequel the same resounding affirmation.

It would be hard for any book to live in the shadow created by Hunger Games, at least for me. Like most trilogies, this is not as strong as the first, but it convinces me that Collins has a spectacular finish in her. Nonetheless, Catching Fire holds its own. The aftermath of the stunning, rebellious finish of the Games for Katniss and Peeta grabs hold and doesn’t disappoint. President Snow (a creepy villian if ever there was one) wastes no time letting Katniss know what he thinks of her charade with Peeta and leaves Katniss examining her options and her motivations while hurtling herself and her loved ones towards destruction.

It’s much more complex than that, naturally, and there is a bunch of stuff that I would love to discuss but I won’t, because I refuse to wreck it. Just know that when you finish it, you will be scouring interwebs for any prospective publication date for the third book.

*****

Then, just because it came up in a conversation on The Peanut Gallery, I re-read another favorite:

Never Let Me GoNever Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is beautiful, in the Greek “Beauty is harsh” vein. This book is simple, a story of growing up, but it is also complex, a story of a society and a world not that far removed from ours, where a new class of people has been created to serve the good of the whole. This is a story about growing up, of idealism shattered , and of love despite all odds. It is also an incredible commentary about where our ethical decisions might lead us.

I remember in high school having lunch with an old friend and we got onto the discussion of cloning. I don’t remember specifics about our opinions, but I do remember one of his questions “Do clones have souls? I don’t think they would.”

Ishiguro addresses this from the inside, as his characters struggle to survive within a world that doesn’t believe in their innate personhood. I thought this was a heart-breaking story.

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Sorry for no new reviews. I read Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now today, but I wish to anti-recommend it. It could have been good, but the cousin-cest ruined the whole thing. Now I’m in the middle of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, enjoying it more than the first 80 pages and two false starts suggested. And in just a few days, Mockingjay will be here. And my sister. From Memphis. With my nephew baby.

blind me with distraction..

Half-Life, Shelley Jackson – I’m not entirely sure what I thought of this book. A book about a Siamese twin (nuclear fallout, naturally) who wants to murder her twin, whom she hates. I enjoyed the beginning, was puzzled in the middle and was thoroughly confused/disturbed by the solution. This is a book about identity and it has a well-crafted unreliable narrator, unfortunately, the whole narration is fragmented and crazy. I found it hard to follow, and while I understand that was a part of the construction of the character, I didn’t enjoy it as much as I might have if I had been able to follow the story better.

Through The Heart, Kate Morgenroth – This woman has a talented eye for a story. She writes a strong mystery, with good clues while still being hard to predict. I find them to be little chick-litty, and not always in a good way. I found it hard to root for the main love connection, when it was so obvious that one of them was a sweetheart and the other was a jerk. I also felt that Morgenroth seems to believe that every relationship involves cheating. Either she’s had some BAD relationships, or she really just hates monogamy. A quick, enjoyable read, but not one I’ll reread.

Little Bee, Chris Cleave- Well written, has a little shock value, but not always a female voice that strikes true. I was a little miffed with the whole secrecy ploy in the blurb on the back of the book – it’s not that startling of a plot line.  This book is about women supporting women, across generations, across cultures and against expectation. I do think that it plays a little too heavily (in the case of Sarah) on a woman’s dependence, mostly emotional, on men. Feeling betrayed by men, feeling not fulfilled by men, these are the themes that run Sarah’s existence. Little Bee, on the other hand, her theme plays more on the actual physical brutality, cruelty of men. Men are the source of all that is evil in Little Bee’s existence. It is not insignificant that Sarah and Little Bee become each other’s saviours in the course of the tale. I felt that this book, written by a man, was more angry feminist than some of Atwood’s novels. I enjoyed it and it’s well written, but I’m not sure I identify with the themes.

Far North, Marcel Theroux – I’ll admit, I was surprised in the third chapter when I realized that the first person voice I had started to get the swing of was not what I thought. I thought this book was excellently written. It was compelling. Living in Siberia, the protagonist lives a lonely existence which is turned upside-down by one chance accident and following act of kindness.  A brutal world, an empty landscape, and yet the hope of human connection, of companionable love. In a way, this book was a nice counterpoint to Little Bee, about the strong love and friendship between women redeeming the unredeemable.

Ender’s Game and Ender’s Shadow, by Orson Scott Card- These were a comfort reread. These books make me think of my brother, they remind me of the human face of war.  They are well-written, compelling, and unlike Card’s later books in both series, are not too preachy.

Sarah’s Key, Tatiana de Rosnay –  This book was a split for me. The story of Sarah and her brother was heart-wrenching and really touching.  I loved learning the history of the French round up of Jews, since the majority of my understanding of WWII is focused on the Netherlands (and Britain, I guess.) Julia’s more modern day story – the cheating French husband who doesn’t want a long sought pregnancy, not so much. I thought that if I had cared more about Julia, about her story, this book would have been one of my favorites for the year.

helpless victim of a spider’s web

If you’ve already read these reviews on my Goodreads, I’m sorry, but I thought I should put them here as well.

I haven’t read David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas in several years, since just after it was given to me when I first started grad school. I vaguely remember enjoying it. I listened to Black Swan Green on CD when teaching at a college an hour away, and I enjoyed it, although it was VERY different from CA.

Ghostwritten hooked me in the first story. While I liked the concept, each story sharing something with the preceding, I felt the waters got muddy around Clear Island, when I was hoping that the story would tie with all the previous but then instead it only seemed to tie with a few. The last two stories seemed far more preachy than the rest of the book, and I thought that some of the stories were much stronger than others, which can throw the pace off.

All in all, not a bad read, but probably not Mitchell’s best.

******

Kate Morton’s The Forgotten Garden was a book that left me conflicted. I didn’t like the beginning, but I read the whole thing.

The characters are more caricatures than full-fledged people, with the Dickens-onian evil landlady and the mute twin brother. Then, of course, the fairy tale that isn’t even a thinly veiled parallel to Nell’s sacrifice for her granddaughter. The clincher, for me, was Eliza’s stumbling into a rich family whose (tell me if this sounds familiar) rustic maid caretakes her when she’s not in the garden, and while she’s there she discovers there’s a sickly child whom no one can heal who never goes outside anymore. (Seriously, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s family should sue.) I think that the ending of this book made the whole thing more palatable, although I think she shied away from the relationship with the uncle more than she should have (none of that was satisfactorily explained) and I thought that the fairy-tales-that-tell-the-future was just corny. It was okay, but I’m not jumping to read another of hers.

I should give it props for readability, but perhaps Morton should attempt something with fewer characters next time, and see if she can imbue them with personality and believability.

(Also, worst quote ever: “Disappointment sat like a wedge of lemon in her throat.” Say what?)