Postcards from Nam is an unusual book. It is a poem, it is a love letter, and it is a novel within the space of a novella. It is all these things and more. It tells the story of two Vietnamese children, Ma Chua (Mimi) and Nam. It speaks of how their lives intersect, of their unspoken friendship and love and reliance on one another. The story then details how these children are ripped apart by war, immigration and tragedy. It does it with a spare beauty of words lined with tension usually only seen in poetry. I read this book in a single afternoon – unable to put it down.
If you know nothing about the plight of those immigrants fleeing Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia or Burma, read this book. If ever you have any questions about the necessity for helping immigrants to leave the land of their birth, the land of their torture, read this book. It won’t take long. It might change a life. Maybe even your own.
Today’s post is brought to you on behalf of book review responsibilities. I’ve signed up to read several books for review and I’ve had one of them on my nightstand, reading a chapter a night for about a month. Or at least that’s what I shot for. Imagine my shock when I realized I was not even halfway through a comparatively short book! I’m afraid I find all sorts of reasons not to read it before I go to bed. It’s too late, I’m tired, I have to get up early in the morning and write my own stories. The real reason is, the book has endless chapters where nothing happens. This was brought home to me last week when I picked up a different review book to take with me while I’m on errands. This second book, “Hidden Voices,” (if you’re interested in music or Renaissance Italy, take a look at it. I will have a full review up within a week at Historical Novel Review, but not here because of the setting) is a joy to read. The characters are so well done and the author clearly knows Venice and music. So I’m faced with the juxtaposition of these books and I know why I dislike one and have devoured the other. But I enjoy other books for different reasons, which does lead to this week’s question:
What are must-have points for you in a good book? One of my best friends and I discussed this a while back. For one of us, setting was important, but another wanted stronger characterization. I wanted some sort of plot if either one of these weren’t a strong-point, but she didn’t care. For me to love a book, I need to identify with or admire the characters and be lifted up emotionally by them. So what draws you in?
Diane Lee Wilson’s “To Ride The God’s Own Stallion” is the story of two boys, a horse and the destiny the three weave together within the Assyrian Empire.
Soulai is a poor boy sold into slavery to Prince Habasle, a palace brat who fights to prove himself to his father and people. Both boys are drawn to the “parti-colored” stallion whose falcon-shaped birth mark displays his connection to the god, Ninurta.
The horse’s destiny leads to war and Habasle is eager to ride him into battle, but he must do so with Soulai trying to protect the horse and the King’s mad physician trying to sacrifice the animal.
Wilson has done a fine job of sketching the historical texture of the period while keeping the novel’s place moving. The characters developed in a believable and enjoyable fashion. It was especially nice that I never felt like they were boys written by a woman writing how she thought boys should behave. I will say, there were no surprises.
I did read a few oddities I had to gloss over to continue reading. There are three sections to the book and each section is begun in the perspective of an animal. This confused me and I did not believe them necessary to understand or believe the story’s events, so I’m surprised the author used the technique.
However, once past those passages, the novel has a smooth read broken only by my occasional recognition that there are three main characters. You care for each of them and they each have identical, linked growth patterns and carry equal weight, though not perspective.
I still wonder if that wide-spread equality is why I never felt as drawn to any of the main characters as much as I did when reading Wilson’s “I Rode A Horse of Milk White Jade.” Nonetheless, there were times it was difficult to put down “To Ride God’s Own Stallion.” It is an enjoyable read, especially for boys or those who love a great horse story in an unusual setting.
I know, I said I’d post reviews on Wednesday, but I’m still struggling to keep things going this month and Wednesday sped by way too fast this week. I wanted to remind folks that my One Hundred Followers Giveaway
will wrap up on February 13th, so be sure to comment and comment often. I’m also going to throw in a few extra giveaway goodies, so stay tuned, true believers.
Many thanks to Stephanie Barrows, one of two book winners last year who agreed to review the books they won. Today’s review is on “Saving Fish From Drowning” by Amy Tan.
Saving Fish From Drowning was my first novel by Amy Tan. Admittedly, most of my literary brushes with Chinese-American culture have come through either movies (coming of age stories and martial arts fantasies) or historical novels (Snowflower and the Secret Fan).
This novel was an unexpected pleasure because it hosted two aspects I adore about Asian culture: the supernatural in everyday life and the immigration experience. An egocentric art-dealer-turned-murder-victim-then-ghost tells the story of a group of travelers who head to China and disappear.
Throughout the narrative, our guide shows us aspects of her personal story with characteristic eccentricity. When a newspaper reports her murder, she complains about the article and pictures used to display her body. Afterwards, our protagonist’s description of her own funeral and its attendees offered a humorous look into the art world and the personalities that inhabit it.
Saving Fish From Drowning also fed this writer’s appetite for psychological insights through internal dialogue and flashbacks. Ms. Tan’s use of graphic detail in describing the protagonist’s murder, for example, is done with a coroner’s eye and a feminine touch.
In the future, I highly recommend Ms. Tan keep writing novels of this nature. Not only are they entertaining, but their aftertaste of the supernatural mixed with the everyday are enough to bring even a finicky reader back to the literary table.
City of Tranquil Light is a novel based on the lives of the author’s maternal Aunt and Uncle. The fictional story of Will and Katherine Kiehn is so moving that I devoured the first 111 pages in a single sitting. After that, I continued to read, but many times with the greatest agony.
Not because the writing turned to a lesser quality, but because the characters’ little girl dies. As the couple work through their grief, there are questions raised with such honest poignancy that I could not read more than one paragraph at a time because I wept so hard. Anyone who has ever grieved deeply will feel the depth of Katherine’s despair in her talk with God:
“We buried our daughter yesterday, and I am brought up short by the harshness of Your ways. I have given my all for You and in return you have taken the gift I love most – my sweet child. But perhaps I loved her too much I am mistaken; perhaps I haven’t given my all, but have held something back. Did I love her more than You? I know you are a jealous God, but are You that jealous, that You would take the other object of my devotion? I feel broken, as though there is a great gash inside of me, and my only prayer is a question: ‘What have You done?’ I ask not from anger, but from confusion, for I truly do not understand.
Perhaps You are a flawed God, imperfect as we are. We are, after all, made in your image. Perhaps it was not Your intention to take Lily, but your inattention. Did You look away for a moment? Was your mind elsewhere? Many times a day I ask myself what else I could have done and search for some mistake I made. But perhaps You are at fault, not I. It seems there is so much You could have done.”
Who among us who has met with loss hasn’t asked these questions? It is the first of many tragedies they live through, but Mrs. Caldwell allows us to see the glory and wonder of how God can work. The man who stole the medicine that might have saved Lily’s life comes to Will Kiehn and demands – at gun point – that Will treat his son.
Will knows what this man’s banditry has cost him and I’m sure many of us might tell this bandit where he and his murderous son could go. Will doesn’t. He heals the son and the bandit’s men and earns their trust and gratitude before he’s allowed to return to his wife. Before he does so, he shares the Lord’s Good News with his captors both through the bible and through his actions, but Will’s forgiveness is a long way away.
Time continues and the bandit’s son goes on a murderous rampage, after which he is captured, tortured and executed. The bandit returns to Will and in an amazing scene filled with the bereft father’s sorrow and humiliation, the bandit chief turns himself in as justice for having raised a shameful son. He is beaten and awaiting trial when Will brings him food and medical treatment. Neither man expects the bandit to survive, but God’s ways are mysterious and wonderful.
Their lives intertwine throughout the novel, which is a must read for anyone interested in China, missional history or the mission field. If the tremendous losses and beauty in City of Tranquil Light kept me by my tissue box, the heroism, faith and selflessness displayed by Caldwell’s characters kept me reading.