Sunday, June 3, 2007


"Snow Flower and the Secret Fan"
Lisa See

This book - which was my book club book this month - is about Lily and Snow Flower, Chinese women who become "laotongs" or "old sames", in the old Chinese tradition of pairing two women to become lifelong, extremely close friends. These emotional pairings were so important they were arranged by marriage brokers.

If you think being a woman is difficult sometimes, you should read "Snow Flower" to put things in perspective. It tells in vivid detail how women's feet were bound in excruciating fashion to create the tiny, desirable golden lilies. A member of our club searched the Internet for pictures of golden lilies, and the pictures were more gruesome than one could imagine.

A girl born in 19th Century China was considered to be very nearly worthless. Her only hope was in making a good marriage. After she was married, she moved into her husband's home, where she held the lowest position in the household, working slavishly for an ill-tempered mother in law. She might regain honor if she bore sons, but not worthless daughters.

Laotongs would engage in "nu shu," secret women's writing, sending each other letters written on the folds of silken fans, as well as small gifts like embroidered handkerchiefs, "thereby reaching out of their isolation to share their hopes, dreams and accomplishments.
"Her Father's Daughter"
Gene Stratton Porter

I picked this book up at the antique mall last Saturday, having read Porter's "Girl of the Limberlost" and "Freckles." I enjoyed these books, as old fashioned and sentimental as they are today, because the heroes and heroines are always so plucky in the face of adversity and because Porter's descriptions of our natural world are so beautiful.

"Her Father's Daughter", published in 1921, features another plucky heroine - an intelligent, independent, forthright girl. I loved the descriptions of the edible plants the girl sketched and painted after trips to the deserts and canyons near Los Angeles. It would have been glorious to see the paradise that was California before it was overpopulated and overdeveloped. Just the descriptions of the lush orchards and groves would have been worth the price of the book. What I did not like about this book, however, was its horrid anti-Oriental sentiments, with Japanese people characterized as "the yellow peril".

"Isolde: Queen of the Western Isles"
Rosalind Miles

I want to thank Lila from Indigo Pears for recommending this book to me. I have read a lot of books set in Scotland, but had never read much about the Irish (except, of course, for Leon Uris' "Trinity"). I have been wanting to learn more about the stories and myths of Ireland since I found out about my Irish heritage. This book filled the bill very well. It follows, to some extent, the story of the legendary lovers Tristan and Isolde as set out in the movie "Tristan and Isolde," starring Sophia Myles and James Franco. I loved the movie, and I love this book. I had never read Rosalind Miles before, but I have already ordered the second and third books in the series.

"How Reading Proust Can Change Your Life"
(Not a Novel)
Alain De Botton

De Botton posits that by closely examining the writings of Marcel Proust, you can improve your life. Chapter titles include How to Read for Yourself, How to Express Your Emotions, How to be a Good Friend, How to Open Your Eyes and How to be Happy in Love.

I have previously professed a dislike for self-help books, but this is one I really enjoyed. The chapter on how to open your eyes teaches you to learn to appreciate your surrounding by studying works of the painter Jean-Baptiste Chardin. Proust gives an example of a young man gazing dejectedly around his mother's kitchen, a bourgeois and mundane scene of great contrast to his taste for beautiful and costly things which he cannot afford.

But, Proust would say, look at how Chardin takes objects of an ordinary nature and turns them into extraordinarily evocative and beguiling paintings: "A peach to him was as pink and chubby as a cherubim. " These paintings were windows onto a world at once recognizably our own, yet uncommonly, wonderfully tempting."

"The Dance"
Oriah Mountain Dreamer

Yet another self-help book - two in one month! This book has been around quite some time, so it is probably familiar to a lot of people. I did find it useful, judging from the number of pages I earmarked. Basically, she finds hundreds of different ways to say the same thing that is on the book jacket: "What if the question is not why am I so infrequently the person I really want to be, but why do I so infrequently want to be the person I really am?"

"Summer of Glorious Madness"
Christy Yorke
This story of a female psychiatrist who falls in love with her manic-depressive patient for one "deliriously liberating summer" is definitely beach read material. It was highly enjoyable though highly unbelievable. But it's set in San Francisco and the patient is a gardener, so it was thoroughly entertaining for me. At the end of the summer, life goes back to normal (but improved and enhanced) for the psychiatrist, and at the end of summer I will go back to more weighty literature, but for now, no apologies from me for reading lightweight material!


Anonymous said...

Julie Marie,

I read Snow Flower and the Secret Fan two years ago and it is a book I have not forgotten. I was deeply affected by it. There is a line in a review of this book, written by Victoria A. Brownworth, that described how Lily felt about her relationship with Snow Flower, "her desperate desire to be touched at that place we call "soul," to exorcise the alienation she feels through one passionate connection with another person." Those words have always stayed with me.


Sheila said...

Thank you for visiting me and leaving a comment..!
I have noted these books and will look for them.

Lila Rostenberg said...

You are the gal to seek out for book recommendations! Thanks for sharing what you have read!
I had considered reading "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan" but haven't yet.
I'm slowly reading "The Red Tent" which I am enjoying!
I could recommend some even lighter Mary Kay Andrews...set in the South. (A real escape from North Dakota for you!)

Daisy Lupin said...

I have never heard of these books by Rosalind Miles, I have added them to my 'to read' list, well if I am truthful it is my 'to read' notebook. Glad to see you mention Gene Stratton Porter, I still have my Girl from the Limberlost I had as a child, I am still trying to track down Freckles, and have never heard of the title you mention. I am afraid that some of these books written years ago to have a rather nasty way of dealing with other races and cultures, I try to excuse them by saying they knew no better and that the world has changed since the book was written.