Thursday, January 30, 2014

What I've Been Reading, January 2014

I cannot tell a lie:  my 2014 challenge (to read 100 books in the course of the calendar year) is off to a bit of a rocky start.  Sometimes, even the most voracious readers take a break or hit a lull.  In my case, I've been having a hard time finding books that really call to me to sit and read for long, uninterrupted stretches.  What has fit that bill?  Let's see, shall we?

The Valley of Amazement, by Amy Tan.  Told by three very different women, this is a story of what it means to be family, of the people in our lives who shape us, and how we find our place in the world.  Violet Minturn is barely a teenager when she is separated from her mother, an American madam of a Shanghai courtesan house, and finds herself abandoned and sold to a different courtesan house. Violet is half Chinese and half American, and finds it a challenge to determine who she can now trust.  Magic Gourd is a retired courtesan who has known Violet since she was a child, and manages to remain as her guardian and attendant after her abandonment.  Finally, there is the story of Violet's mother, Lucia, who reflects on her own life and the men who shaped her destiny.  I found this both powerful and bittersweet, haunting and richly detailed. 

Dead to Me, by Cath Staincliffe.  I have to say that I really hope that Staincliffe continues this series, because this first entry is absolutely stellar.  Think of the Odd Couple as female detectives in Manchester England.  Bizarre, right?  But you have to admit, you're intrigued.  Detective Constable Janet Scott has seen it all, and has no interest in a move up in the ranks--she loves her own job too much to consider more paperwork and less detective-work.  She is methodical and plays by the book, so when her boss teams her up with new addition Rachel Bailey, it is not a match made in heaven--Rachel is impulsive, ambitious, easily frustrated and incredibly tenacious.  And yet when a young woman is found murdered in her North Manchester estate flat, this team will see justice done.  Surprising, exhilarating, and exquisitely plotted. 

An American Bride in Kabul, by Phyllis Chesler.  Sometimes, I plan ahead what I'm going to read next.  Sometimes, a book just about jumps right off the shelf at me, demanding to be read.  This was just one such, and it was a bit like falling down the rabbit hole--I read quickly, in huge chunks, fascinated by Chesler's story and her insight.  In 1961, Chesler goes from being a Jewish American good girl to the wife of an Afghan man she met while they studied at the same university.  He is bright, charming, intelligent and they marry for love.  It is only after they return to Afghanistan that Chesler realizes how much she does not know about her husband, his family or his culture.  She lost her American passport upon arrival, and would never see it again.  She is initially puzzled by the way the family approaches her father-in-law (a wealthy man of influence and power) with such cringing deference, only later realizing that maintaining his favor would prove crucial for each individual's standing in the family hierarchy.  Chesler does come back to American, years later, only to maintain complex relationships with her family, especially after 9/11.  I was deeply moved by her story.

And I'm afraid that's it.  My total of books read for January, and for 2014, is 3 books.

Looks like this challenge is going to be challenging!

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