Something Borrowed…

books

There’s something special about reading a borrowed book. I don’t mean a library book, although that can be special too. I mean reading a book pressed into your hands by someone who can’t wait for you to read it, because they know you’ll love it. Someone you trust to know your tastes enough that you know you’ll enjoy the read and who wants to discuss it with you when you’re finished reading it.

Borrowed books feel better. Someone else has broken in the pages, unstiffened the spine. They have made the book friendlier than a brand new book.

When the friend has made notes in the book, ah, that’s bliss! Then you can have a conversation with them about the book even when they’re not there. “But how can you SAY that?” you ask when you don’t agree with their scribbles, or “Oh, I didn’t see that,” when you are suddenly enlightened by their notes. I’m a visual learner, so seeing things written down is so much better for me than hearing them, and being able to read someone’s notes is a gift.

It’s been awhile since someone’s told me I “must” read a book and handed it to me fresh from reading it.

When I was a child, a dear pastor friend accidently left his Bible behind while visiting our family. As I knew it was his favorite, I stayed up all evening copying down his notes out of it before giving it back to him the next day. Somehow I thought this would teach me everything he knew.

I’ve found interesting things in borrowed books. Candy wrappers. Photos. Postcards. Receipts. A hair once. I think that was the most startling, the hair, because it was so unexpectedly intimate.

Have you ever loved a book someone lent you so much that you just didn’t want to return it? Have you ever treasured the obvious love and affection someone has lavished upon a copy of a book so much that you don’t want to part with it, valuing it maybe even more than they do?

Maybe this explains why I often buy second-hand copies of books. For one thing, they’re not as intimidating. And they don’t come with those annoying slipcovers that I just take off anyway.

Borrowed books seem to be the ones whose stories stick with me the longest, and are the ones of which I have the fondest memories. Thick Dickens and other Victorian tomes. Worlds handed to me when my own was a bit bleak, a place to hide out until the storms passed, as they did.

What about you? What are your favorite books that were lent to you? Do you, too (shhh…), have a few you have just never returned and don’t think you could bear to? Leave your “confession” here.

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A Backrub Book Review: Amy Tan’s The Valley of Amazement

Valley of Amazement

I adore Amy Tan. There. I said it. Call me biased, but there isn’t a word she has written that I don’t just love. And in case you doubted her coolness ratio, she’s also in a rock band!

Her latest novel, The Valley of Amazement was a Christmas gift from my husband, Barry. We were lounging in bed when I finished reading it, so I rubbed his back and talked about the book. I giggled and said I had just given a “backrub book review.” Alas, Dear Reader, I have no backrubs to offer just now, but I will gladly tell you what I told him.

As always, Tan wraps her readers immediately in a nimbly crafted world. She is a story teller bar none. Her prose is dainty and well conceived, but also rather invisible, as it should be. Her threads are silken, fine. While a large part of Tan’s appeal is the exotic nature of her tales, happily she addresses the universal.

Set partially in Shanghai in the early 1900’s, the book was particularly charming to read because I will be visiting Shanghai (accompanying my business-traveling husband) this year.

The main character, Violet Minturn, is brought up in her mother’s high class courtesan house, until circumstances cause Violet to be separated from her mother and forced to become a courtesan herself. (I can’t say too much more about how they become separated.) Violet, half Chinese, learns to embrace that newly discovered side of herself in order to survive the horrors of her life.

In this story of tragedy, misplaced trust, and, finally, quiet hope, Tan gives Violet a substitute mother, Magic Gourd, a woman Violet’s mother kicked out. Violet ends up at the house where Magic Gourd has gone, and the woman takes her under her wing, making her a well-sought after courtesan.

The story is nicely paced, beginning with a first person section in which we hear from a young Violet. This shifts to a clever second-person POV chapter titled “Etiquette for Beauties of the Boudoir.” It gives us all of the background information we would like about courtesans and their ilk without info dumping or trying to artificially fit it into dialog.

I must admit there was one spot where I stopped and shook my head a few times and asked Barry if he thought it was fair of Tan to reintroduce Violet’s mother after page 400 and tell us her backstory. For a few pages I fought it, but soon I was immersed in her story, and was rather sad to leave it to return to Violet.

I was also concerned that with only about two hundred pages left, Tan wouldn’t be able to satisfy her reader if she wandered away from Violet, but she did. I should never have doubted her.

Although he appears to be a shadow of a character in this book, I am more than a little interested in the artist Lu Shing. So forgive me if I shift now from a traditional review that you could get anywhere into a meditation on Lu Shing.

Violet’s father (a man Violet knows virtually nothing of), Lu Shing, is a second-rate artist who basically copies the work of masters and adds a detail or two, often at his customer’s request. Violet, having come into possession of two of his paintings, doesn’t like his work, but Magic Gourd keeps rescuing the paintings.

He figures into the story when Violet’s mother, Lucia, at the age of 16, falls in love with him in the United States, seduces him, and follows him back to China, while he protests continually that though he loves her, he will never be able to marry her or be with her.

Here’s the thing: Tan’s women are strong. They survive the grossest indignities, but they are their own worst enemies when it comes to loving men. They love unreservedly and ill-advisedly. In fact, their greatest passion in life seems centered around men, and it always causes them and those they love immeasurable pain.

In fact, these women often fall in love much more so of the idea of these men than the men themselves. That’s the case with Lucia and Lu Shing. We know before Lu Shing ever tells Lucia that his passion is for art, and that his passion even for that is pale.

The book’s title comes from one of Lu Shing’s paintings. The painting makes Violet feel uneasy when she finds it: “I felt certain now that the painting meant you were walking into the valley, not leaving it.” What she doesn’t know is that Lu Shing paints this same scene again and again, altering it at the whim of customers. She also doesn’t know that while the painting is a copy of an old master, the place is real, and it is a place she will visit and will have to escape.

Lu Shing seems muted, even when he paints. The women in the book ultimately take on this same muted quality when they are older. True, they survive. But they do so at the cost of vibrant feeling.

When Lu Shing is still in the United States he is asked “How do we capture the emotion in art?” His answer is telling: “The moment is altered as soon as I try to capture it, so for me, it’s impossible.” It’s also telling that he comes to the States as a young man to study with a landscape artist. There’s a stark, uninvolved, observer quality at work here that is, nevertheless, not without its own beauty.

There is no easy, happy ending to this book. Reunions happen, but not rosy, tearful ones. The strong women remain adamantine, and because of that, emotion is not something that they can afford to spare.

Just as Lu Shing has only walks through a life of shame at his weakness, so the women survive, but their connections seem both strong and tenuous. They are fiercely independent and yet devoted to the idea of one another. While we believe they stay in touch, the infrequent nature of their contact makes us believe they would survive just as well without one another. And yet this is a novel well worthy of a second read. What better message than that while we are connected, we are also strong enough to survive on our own?

Did you happen to catch the short story “The Frog Prince” by Robert Coover in last week’s New Yorker? What he writes toward the end of the story is true of this novel: “…and they found a certain contentment, living more or less happily ever after, which is what ‘now’ is while one’s in it.” I couldn’t sum it — or life — up better myself.

There is so much more to this book. I wholeheartedly recommend it. In fact, perhaps it’s time I read it again. Have you read it yet? Do you intend to read it? What else of Tan’s have you read?

P.S. I anticipate revisiting this book once I am back from China, so look for an update then.

Julie Brickman’s Two Deserts

Julie Brickman’s Two Deserts draws us into exotic worlds — both foreign and domestic —  that slowly reveal to us the unacknowledged and unknown layers of life in and around us all.

Brickman’s well-crafted stories expand exponentially with their deft movement, bittersweet insights, and unexpected humor. The book’s titles are often darkly humorous and always intriguing:”The Cop, the Hooker, and the Ridealong,” “Supermax,” and “The Dying Husbands Dinner Club” all live up to their titles.

One of the bravest stories is “Gear of a Marriage,” which consists of five pages of nothing but lists, starting with “Hiking boots, 2 pair,” and ending with, well, I won’t say what, but illness is involved. It’s the single most devastating story in the collection, its spare prose and unique form perfectly wringing from us an intense emotional reaction using matter-of-fact language.

Brickman explores various points of view as well: first, third, and the underrepresented second.  She’s not afraid to explore those vast deserts.

That Brickman has also been a psychologist benefits the reader as she zooms in and out of minds and psyches, of hearts and emotions. This is a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure collection for adults, although a more apt name might be “What Would You Do?” Constantly putting her characters into impossibly difficult situations, Brickman keeps us curious, longing, wondering. No matter in which desert we find ourselves, we find an oasis in this collection.

Nowhere is this better represented than in “The Cop, the Hooker, and the Ridealong,” where a psychiatrist muses “The end of subjectivity was the end of the only kind of truth that could steer a life, truth rooted in self-discovery, the stark naked truth generated by the guts.” This beautiful, deep sentence sums up this tender collection.

Smart, brave and true collections such as this one don’t come along often enough, and they certainly don’t get the attention they deserve sometimes because they are smart, brave, and true.  These stories certainly are.

“Swift” Speaking by The President of Ireland

michael d higgins

When our daughter was young, Barry would often read aloud to her. He once read an excerpt from “Gulliver’s Travels” and she giggled incessantly upon realizing what “making water” meant, bright child that she was. The next few hours found her laughing and repeating the phrase. I’m not entirely sure that’s what we wanted her to most remember (Or repeat. In front of her grandparents!), but she has never forgotten it.

While in Ireland recently, we were offered the opportunity to attend the Swift Satire Festival in Trim. It was a pleasure made doubly so by the President of Ireland who is not only a leader, but a scholar, giving the festival’s inaugural address.

The president spoke eloquently and with fervor about Swift, a man who had also been the dean of a local church in Trim, a town more recently distinguished for having the castle used in the movie Braveheart. (Pictures to come.)

Higgins ended his speech with a word to writers, one I shared today with my students, and one I take to heart:

“Without the engagement and passion of people, without the raised voice of the intellectual and the poet, without the willingness to engage in public discourse at the price of personal risk, without the willingness of the powerful and the well connected to feel such a thorn or scruple as will impel them to disturb the composure of their class and peers and go on to champion the cause of the marginalised and the excluded, we will not have a society which is worthy of the support and allegiance of all of the citizens.”

At the conclusion of his speech he shook hands with a few of his listeners. My husband and I were happily among those. Sad to say, our hands were too occupied to use our camera to record the event. But what’s the chance we’ll ever forget it, anyway?

I Want to Launch a Little Free Library!

Do you know about Little Free Libraries?  I first read about them in Writer’s Digest, and then again at a conference I went to last Friday.  I was lying in bed reading WD and was so charmed by them that accidentally woke my husband by exclaiming over them.  Now I want to put one up!

When I was a child, I did not have access to a library. My parents had books, scads of them, but they were just occasionally obtained odd box lots.  I lusted after books.  Sadly, the few books on the shelves at my grammar school were uninspiring and we were not encouraged to take them home anyway.

When I was in high school the state started a library that loaned books through the mail, and I was delighted!  They printed a catalog and you sent in your card to request the books you wanted.  I was always delighted to come home and find out what books had come in the mail for me.

So, what is a Little Free Library?  It’s this:

(Image from http://www.littlefreelibrary.org/little-free-library-originals.html .)

Yes, you erect a little box not much bigger than a birdhouse in your yard to encourage people to take a book and return it when they are finished reading it.

The irony about my wanting one is that we live less than a block from the library.  But I want so badly to go back in time and give my child self books.  Perhaps I could partner with a friend of mine who is working diligently to fix up my hometown.  They still don’t have a library there, at least not in the rural area where I lived.

In the meantime, I still want to put one up, because I know that some of my students have children who cannot check out books due to fines or lost materials.   Perhaps if we put up a library, the gaggle of children who gather a block down to wait for the school bus  (or their parents) would stop by for a book.  I’d like to think so.

We’ll see if I do or not.  What about you, would you consider doing this?