Monday, January 31, 2011

199 (2011 #4). On Gold Mountain

by Lisa See

This was Lisa See's first book back in 1995, back when she'd been the West Coast correspondent for Publisher's Weekly for twelve years and wasn't known as the novelist she is today.

Subtitled "The One-Hundred-Year Odyssey of a Chinese-American Family," it's an account of the See family history, starting with her great-great-grandfather, Fong Dun Shung.  He left China for the Gold Mountain - the United States - in 1866, working on the transcontinental railroad as a herbalist, and returned to China five years later a rich man.  Meanwhile, his son Fong See comes to America looking for his dad, starts selling crotchless underwear to brothels, and ends up marrying a Caucasian woman.  Lisa's grandfather and father also married Caucasians, making Lisa only 1/8 Chinese, with red hair and freckles.

Fong See becomes a very successful merchant in Chinatown in Los Angeles, lives to around 100, and has four wives (some concurrently, three married to him in China and one of those brought back to America) and twelve children.  Lisa tells the stories of all of them, Fong See's brother and his three wives and twelve children, the family her great aunt marries into, and the families of her Caucasian ancestors as well.  The result is a warts-and-all saga of a family that is also representative of the entire Chinese-American immigrant experience.  It's especially interesting to read how they got around the various laws designed to discourage their immigration and living in the United States.

There is an extensive list of sources (including  interviews with nearly 100 relatives and others), broken down by chapter, but unfortunately no index.  There are also maps and a rough family tree at the beginning of the book.  I found myself referring to the latter often to figure out who was connected, and how. See has also included black-and-white photographs of many of the people and places discussed in her book.  Her five years of research are obvious, and it's understandable after reading this book why her historical fiction (Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Shanghai Girls, Peony in  Love) is so good.  I admire See for writing her family's history - I hope I can do the same some day.

© Amanda Pape - 2011

[This book was borrowed from and returned to my local public library.]

Sunday, January 30, 2011

198 (2011 #3). Turtle in Paradise

by Jennifer L. Holm,
read by Becca Battoe

This book was just named a 2011 Newbery Honor book.  Turtle is an eleven-year-old girl whose single mother Sadiebelle has just been hired as a live-in housekeeper by a woman who doesn't like children.  It's June 1935, in the midst of the Great Depression, and Turtle is sent from New Jersey to her mother's hometown on Key West, Florida, to live with her maternal aunt Minnie, uncle Vernon, and three boy cousins she's never met.

Turtle and the "Diaper Gang" - her cousins and their playmates, who run a babysittting service and have nicknames like Beans and Pork Chop - have a mostly typical Keys summer, catching sponges, and eating alligator pears (avocados) and ice cream with unusual flavors like sour sop.  There's also the excitement of pirate treasure and a hurricane

It's also a story of family-- not only Turtle's relationships with her aunt and cousins, but with the grandmother she didn't know she had, as well as her mother.  There's a fitting quote on page 17:
Folks have always told me that I look like Mama.  Our eyes are different, though.  I think the color of a person's eyes says a lot about them.  Mama has soft blue eyes and all she sees are kittens and roses.  My eyes are gray as soot, and I see things for what they are.
Indeed, Turtle's trusting mother is often taken advantage of by men.  Turtle's father is someone on the island who didn't marry her mother, and Turtle wonders during the summer just who that might be.

In an author's note at the end of the book, Holm explains that the book was inspired by her great-grandmother "who emigrated with her family from the Bahamas to Key West in the late 1800s."  (Holm's other Newbery Honor books, Our Only May Amelia and Penny from Heaven, were similarly inspired by her great aunt and by her Italian-American family respectively.)  This results in a real slice-of-life novel that accurately portrays some of the unique aspects of being a "Conch" (pronounced "konk"), a native or resident of the Florida Keys.  An example is cut-ups, a sort-of BYO-fruit salad, described on page 85 as follows:
After we finish swimming, we have a cut-up. A cut-up is something these Conch kids do every chance they get. Each kid brings whatever they can find lying around or hanging on a tree–sugar apple, banana, mango, pineapple, alligator pear, guava, cooed potatoes, and even raw onions. They cut it all up and season it with Old Sour which is made from key lime juice, salt and hot peppers. Then they pass it around with a fork, and everyone takes a bite. It’s the strangest fruit salad I’ve ever had, but it’s tasty.
Holm includes relevant photos in the author's note, which is followed by a list of resources and web sites.

On the audiobook, actress Becca Battoe's youthful voice is perfect for Turtle, who tells her own story.  While I think the cover of the book and audiobook is very pretty, it might be off-putting to boys--which would be a shame, since Turtle is quite the tomboy and not at all a typical girl (she hates babies and can't stand Shirley Temple, but loves comic strips like Terry and the Pirates).  I think this book would appeal to kids around Turtle's age (11).

© Amanda Pape - 2011

[The audiobook was borrowed from and returned to my university library.  A hardbound copy for reference was borrowed from and returned to my local public library.]

Saturday, January 29, 2011

197 (2011 #2). Stranger Here Below

by Joyce Hinnefeld

Stranger Here Below is an unusual book that centers on five women:  Amazing Grace "Maze" Jansen and Mary Elizabeth "M. E." Cox, roommates at Berea College in Kentucky in the early 1960s; their mothers Visitor "Vista" Combs Jansen and Sarah Henry Cox, and Shaker Sister Georgia, Georginea Fenley Ward, a former professor at Berea, now living at nearby Pleasant Hill.

Hinnefeld's narrative moves from character to character, back in forth in time (spanning 1872 to 1968) and location (mostly Kentucky but some in Chicago and New York and even Paris).  It can be a little hard to follow at times, but the table of contents helps.  Racial issues of the eras (M.E. and Sarah are black, as was Georginea's boyfriend) and resistance to the Vietnam War play a part in the story.  Music is important, too:  the classics M. E. plays on the piano, the dances Maze attends, the old hymns both girls sing together and with Georgia.  The book's title comes from an old hymn, "The Pilgrim's Song," in The Southern Harmony by William Walker.

Mostly, though, it's the story of the interrelationships of these five women.  Maze and M. E. in particular are very well developed.  Hinnefeld's writing is descriptive and evocative.

© Amanda Pape - 2011

[I won a hardbound copy of this book from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program, with the expectation that I would write a review which is also published on their site. The book will be donated to the library.]

Sunday, January 23, 2011

196 (2011 #1). Corporation Sole

by Edward R. Kantowicz

From the title, this sounds like it might be a legal treatise, but it's not.  The subtitle is "Cardinal Mundelein and Chicago Catholicism," and it's really a biography of the former and history of the latter during the years George Mundelein served as archbishop of that archdiocese (February 1916 - October 1939).

I borrowed this book in the midst of research I was doing on a great-grandfather, because he is mentioned on two pages.  I ended up reading the entire book, because it was so interesting and easy to read.  Of particular note was a chapter called "Ethnic Tangle," describing the fascinating mix of typical "territorial" parishes organized on a geographic basis, and the existence at that time of numerous "national" parishes for non-English-speaking ethnic groups.  For example, in one Chicago South Side neighborhood "roughly two miles long by a mile and a half wide, four territorial parishes staked out the corners of the neighborhood and served the English-speaking (largely Irish) Catholics.  But this compact neighborhood also contained three Polish, two Italian, one Lithuanian, one Croatian, one Bohemian, and one German church as well."

I was especially grateful for the author's 47 pages of endnotes (after 241 pages of text), which led me to additional resources about my great-grandfather.  There's also a seven-page index, a number of tables and maps, and a chronology.

© Amanda Pape - 2011

[This book was borrowed through interlibrary loan and has been returned.]