Monthly Archives: January 2011

Message From An Unknown Chinese Mother, Xinran

Xinran is a woman on a mission, possessed by the need to uncover the sad fate of abandoned and forgotten Chinese girls, rendered inferior to their male counterparts. Xinran is a mother, a journalist and a humanitarian and this book traces her experiences as she tries to come to grips with the impact of China’s One Child Policy on both its mothers and daughters.

The book is constructed as a series of anecdotes or stories which each deal with a different aspect of the challenges facing Chinese mothers when they give birth to daughters. The women she discusses are mainly rural and traditional, although at times the inner city narrative intrudes to strike a greater paradox in this broader tale.

The overarching sense of this book is the despair that these mothers feel at having to surrender their daughters either to others or to do away with them. This “doing” babies is probably one of the most confronting aspect of this book – for Xinran, the author, and for readers. “These brutal folk customs left me speechless, yet I still wanted to know whether these mothers for whom it was common practice really smothered their daughters as casually as they ate a meal or threw away a piece of rotten fruit. Of course they did not. People might say that a woman who abandons her baby must have a heart of stone, but everything I saw and heard told me this was almost never the case.”  The author makes this very real by narrating an event which occurred when she visited a village house where a baby was being born. Xinran notices the silence after the birth and is surprised. The midwife leaves and the author happens to spy a baby’s foot floating in the slop pail – – “That’s a living child!” she protests … The response: “It’s not a child … If it was, we’d be looking after it … it’s a girl baby, and we can’t keep it… Around these parts, you can’t get by without a son.” [1989]

I could only sit there, dumbly watching over the slops pail and the tiny life in it, scarcely born and so quickly snuffed out. In such a hurry to depart, and so alone. Just because she was a girl! ‘The mother’s of girls are all heartsick!’The words have echoed in my ears down the years. And the memory of that small, twitching foot still often disturbs my dreams … Could I have saved her?

This book is filled with not only the painful descriptions above, but also with wonderful visual imagery encapsulating life in China –  “the lines that she saw while riding her bicycle to work – people queuing for rations, fuel, rice, oil and salt, no one reading a newspaper or book, quiet, no one chatting.” Mixed into these vivid snippets of Chinese existence, is the drama that Xinran sees everywhere she goes. On her way to work she discovers an abandoned baby girl, orphanages call out to her, she is perpetually plagued by the cry of these unwanted girls.  Xinran is honest in the purpose of her telling: “Chinese women down the ages have never had the right to tell their own stories.” This is Xinran’s attempt to provide them with that voice and that space. To do this, she literally swamps her book with their tales; letters, personal encounters, anecdotes,  all examples of the voices of women that she has met and their tales.

One  woman’s letter to her reads:

“Xinran, can you understand the feelings of that woman who had lost her daughter? Never to be happy again, condemned to live in silent agony – can you imagine that? Can you make the memories of her daughter fade as she goes through life? Waiter, the woman who waits, is me. That’s the name I gave myself after I lost my daughter … someone who waits for a future which will never come….”

Every night I call to her from my island: ‘How are you baby? Do you know that your mother, the woman who gave you life and has given you her life too, is thinking about you? You sucked from her breast not just milk, but your mother’s very soul. ..

I am two different people now. By day, I’m just like any other woman my age, working away like mad, wanting recognition for everything … But by night, I become the lonely woman I have grown into, weighed down by the guilt of having abandoned my daughter. The pain of missing her so much tears me apart, until sometimes I actually feel it’s giving me a real, physical heart attack.”

It is the voices of these women which make this book.

A ten out of ten. I cannot recommend this book enough. It is a must read, quite possibly my book of the year.

Perfect Match, Jodi Picoult

There are many reasons to enjoy Jodi Picoult – of course, the main one is that she writes a cracker of a story. Perfect Match is no exception. It’s a gripping story. Meet Nina Frost, a prosecutor who faces the most devastating crimes, deals with the most devastating of victims and tries her utmost to conduct herself according to the laws that bind her profession as well as the morals and ethics by which she lives.

Frost is a likable and indeed a noble character. Readers will easily empathise with her and her life and her mission to defend and support these victims.

However, Frost’s world crumbles when she and her husband discover that their five year old son has been sexually assaulted. Suddenly, Frost is confronted with the reality of the nightmare that she sees her clients battling and she is seemingly powerless to deal with it.

This book is about people and the lengths to which they will go when trying to defend those that they love. It is about the battle professional and personal values, and, above all, it is about the mistakes that we make and how those mistakes can effect our lives and those of the people around us.

This one is a fantastic holiday read with some great fodder for discussion thrown in to the mix.

Ghostwritten, David Mitchell

Sorry, review is coming. It’s just taking me a while to digest this overwhelming book. (It doesn’t help that I am reading 3 other books at the same time – remind me never to do that again!)

The First Big Question for 2011:

Do I give up on THE KINDLY ONES or do I persevere?

Portnoy’s Complaint, Philip Roth

I read this book because one of my neighbours recommended the author. I’ve read some of his other books and quite enjoyed them. This book was probably a bit too explicit for me, filled with far too many things which I really did not need to know. I won’t spoil the book by explaining myself further, I will simply include the chapter titles as a clue: The Most Unforgettable Character I’ve met, Whacking Off, The Jewish Blues, Cunt Crazy, The Most prevalent Form of Degradation in Erotic Life, and In Exile.

Despite the moments of extreme discomfort involved in reading this book, I quite enjoyed parts of the novel, particularly some of the humour. This is a book filled to the brim with a wonderful sense of familial awareness, of guilt brought on by parental expectations and of the anxiety that comes with any coming of age story. Alexander Portnoy is the protagonist and the book is narrated as an unburdening to his therapist. As a consequence, the story unfolds in a colloquial, chatty style with constant references to the Doctor who is supposedly listening.

But the book is actually more about ‘not listening’ than it is about ‘listening’ and/or hearing. It describes Portnoy’s desire to be anyone other than himself, to absolve himself of what he sees as his overbearing mother (“She was so deeply imbedded in my consciousness that for the first year of school I seem to have believed that each of my teachers was my mother in disguise.”), his embarrassing family and the antiquated rituals which he thinks smother his ability to express himself. His family are clearly all incapable to actually communicating with each other in any sort of meaningful way, and Portnoy has successfully deluded himself into thinking that he can find meaning by focusing solely on his penis and its performance (or lack their of).

Portnoy’s relationship with his mother is, on the surface, the one constant in this text. He is her only son, one of two children, the light of her life and the bearer of all her dreams and expectations:

“My own mother, let me remind you, when I returned this past summer from adventure in Europe, greets me over the phone with the following salutation: ‘Well, how’s my lover?’Her lover she calls me, while her husband is listening on the other extension! And it never occurs to her, if I’m her lover, who is he, the schmegeggy she lives with? No, you don’t have to go digging where these people are concerned – they wear the old unconscious on their sleeves!”

Portnoy’s father, on the other hand, is a downtrodden man whose head aches all the time and who suffers from constant constipation. This is ironically explained in stark juxtaposition to Portnoy’s own ability to constantly (and I mean CONSTANTLY and UBIQUITOUSLY) “express” himself penilely.

Portnoy describes his father as intellectually inferior, stuck in the rut of his life, and incapable of expressing himself:

“Where he had been imprisoned, I would fly: that was his dream. Mine was its corollary: in my liberation would be his – from ignorance, from exploitation, from anonymity. To this day our destinies remain scrambled together in my imagination, and there are still too many times when, upon reading in some book a passage that impresses me with its logic or its wisdom, instantly, involuntarily, I think, ‘If only he could read this. Yes! Read, and understand -!’”

He shares with the readers, in quiet confidences, his disappointments about his father:

“My father, you must understand – as doubtless you do: blackmailers account for a substantial part of the human community, and, I would imagine, of your clientele – my father has been ‘going’ for this tumor test for nearly as long as I can remember. Why his head aches him all the time is, of course, because he is constipated all the time – why he is constipated all the time is because ownership of his intestinal tract is in the hands of the form of Worry, Fear & Frustration.”

His constant and ongoing frustrations with his family:

“Christ, in the face of my defiance – if my father had only been my mother! And my mother my father! But what a mix-up of the sexes in our house! Who should by rights be advancing on me, retreating – and who should be retreating, advancing! Who should be scolding, collapsing in helplessness, enfeebled totally by a tender heart! And who should be collapsing, instead scolding, correcting, reproving, criticizing, faultfinding without end! Filling the patriarchal vacuum!”

And it is this patriarchal vacuum that brings readers to understand part of the sad crux of this tale: Portnoy perceives himself as “a boy without a father“. On so many different levels, Portnoy desires to “be the one”, to have some defined role which he can embrace and to sink into the security that that knowledge brings with it. Ultimately, it is this that drives this novel, the protagonist’s overwhelming desires to bring meaning to his life and to ‘find himself’ in a way that he has in the past been unable.

“How have I come to be such an enemy and flayer of myself? And so alone! Oh, so alone! Nothing but self! Locked up in me! Yes, I have to ask myself (as the airplane carries me – I believe – away from my tormentor), what has become of my purposes, those decent and worthwhile goals? Home? I have none. Family? No! Things I could own just by snapping my fingers … so why not snap them then, and get on with my life? No, instead of tucking in my children and lying down beside a loyal wife (to whom I am loyal too), I have, on two different evenings, taken to bed with me – coinstantaneously, as they say in the whorehouses – a fat little Italian whore and an illiterate, unbalanced American mannequin.”

There is no doubt in my mind that Roth is a superb writer, a craftsman indeed. And there are so many aspects of this tome that I appreciated. But this book is not everyone’s cup of tea (it is certainly not everyone’s piece of liver, that’s for sure), but if you are not faint-hearted and enjoy a bit of a literary jostle, then go ahead and have a read. Let me know what you think!

Best read of 2011 … already?

Is it possible? Could it be that on January 11, 2011 I am reading my best book of the year? Unheard of!

Watch this space!!

The Year of Reading Dangerously (via 1streading's Blog)

I thought you might enjoy this wonderful overview of the art of reading from 1streading’s blog.

In his essay ‘Mr Difficult’, Jonathan Franzen outlines two contrasting models for fiction. The first he calls the Status model where: “…the best novels are great works of art, the people who manage to write them deserve extraordinary credit, and if the average reader rejects the work it’s because the average reader is a philistine; the value of any novel, even a mediocre one, exists independent of whether people are able to enjoy it.” The second … Read More

via 1streading's Blog


It never occurred to me to review my year of reading until I realised that this seems to be the way things are done in the book blogging world. My reading seems to go in phases … I stumble upon a few stunning texts and then fall into a lull where I can’t read anything of consequence and indulge effortlessly in endless thrillers which require little brain power or application. They are easy to put down and come back to, they don’t consume me and they are forgotten as I read the last page.

So, upon reviewing the year of my reading, I am not surprised to see this trend play itself out and to find myself wondering whether it correlates to anything specific in my life – school holidays for example are prime time for thriller consumption.

I will start at the bottom. For those who’ve been reading with me, it is clear that the book that I hated the most this year was The Finkler Question. With that setting the bar, it is difficult for me to allocate any other books in this category.

The bulk of my reading was good but not brilliant.

My top books, in no specific order are as follows:

Cutting for Stone

Let the Great World Spin

A Lesson Before Dying

Le Bal

I enjoyed Solar, The Imperfectionists, Freedom, Room and The Help, but I don’t think that they would rate on a ‘Top Reads’ list. ‘ I think that Nick Cave’s book The Death of Bunny Munro deserves a mention because it was such a shocking read and has really stayed with me for so many reasons.

To think about the year in a slightly different way, I would like to name my favourite authors: Virginia Woolf, Irene Nemirovsky and Colum McCann. These are writers to whom I will constantly return, in awe of their talent and the breadth of their ability to weave a tale and captivate readers.

I am looking forward to some more reading productivity in the coming year, and am waiting, specifically, for the new one from Marcus Zusak!