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Archive for March, 2008

Review: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See

March 31, 2008 By: J.C. Montgomery Category: Reviews

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See (2005)
Historical Fiction, 253 pages
The Random House Publishing Group
Random House Trade Paperback Edition

Read for the 888 Challenge and the Historical Fiction Challenge

As I noted in another post, I was lucky to have grown up within a very diverse community and had the privilege of learning, and appreciating, the impact made on San Francisco, as well as California by other cultures.

But one cannot truly begin to understand a culture unless exposed to its past. And I am pleased to say that Snow Flower and the Secret Fan helps do just that. Even though this is a fictional novel about the relationship shared between two women, its tone and setting allow one to get a glimpse of the culture in which they lived.

The book is set in nineteenth century China, during a time in which gender roles were clearly defined and strictly adhered to:

We may love our daughters with all our hearts, but we must train them through pain. We love our sons most of all, but we can never be part of their world, the outer realm of men. We are expected to love our husbands from the day of Contracting a Kin, though we will not see their faces for another six years. We are told to love our in-laws, but we enter those families as strangers, as the lowest person in the household, just one step on the ladder above a servant.

Despite these constraints, and in part because of them, women located in a remote county of China developed a “secret code” called nu shu (women’s writing). In this way, isolated women were able to remain connected, for it was a woman’s fate to leave their ‘natal’ families to become part of their husband’s.

Against this backdrop, Lisa See tells the story of two young girl’s who become “old-sames”; bound together for life by a solemn promise:

…a joining of two hearts that cannot be torn apart by distance, disagreement, loneliness, better marriage position, or by letting other girls – and later women – come between you.

The story is told by one of these girls, who is now eighty years old and who wishes to tell her story – their story – as a way to free her conscious before she dies. We see a hint of what is to come when she tells us:

By the time I was forty, the rigidity of my footbinding had moved from my golden lilies to my heart, which held on to injustices and grievances so strongly that I could no longer forgive those I loved and who loved me…For me, love was such a precious possession that I couldn’t share it with anyone else, and it eventually cut me away from the one person who was my same.

These are very telling quotations, but they do not give away the deeper meaning to this story. As the author notes:

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a story about friendship and what it means to be a woman. Yes, our lives are completely different from those lived by the nu shu writers, but inside we are the same. We want people to hear our thoughts, appreciate our creativity, and feel empathy for our emotions.

Even though the dynamics of this relationship occur in a faraway place and in a culture few of us truly understand, it still touches the heart because deep down, we are not so different: we all want to be heard, understood, and appreciated.

I will leave it to you to read this story and discover what becomes of these two women. Along the way, I hope it not only teaches you about another culture you may or may not have already been aware of, but also that there are many more similarities between us than there are differences.

Apparently this book as received mixed reviews. I am not sure why. All I can say is that I thoroughly enjoyed it, and found myself a little bit emotional when reading the final page. It was one of those books that had me putting off a good night’s sleep because I did not want to wait until morning to read the ending. For this reason it is getting a 5 Star rating.

I highly recommend this book, and even though it is only 253 pages, I would advise beginning it earlier in the day – just in case.


Lisa See is the New York Times bestselling author of Peony In Love, Shanghai Girls, Flower Net (an Edgar Award nominee), The Interior, and Dragon Bones, as well as the critically acclaimed memoir On Gold Mountain.


Sunday Salon: Getting Started

March 30, 2008 By: J.C. Montgomery Category: Miscellaneous


Usually, I am not at a loss for words. But this being my first post as part of Sunday Salon has got me scratching my head. I guess the only way to do this is to just jump in with both feet and hope I haven’t gotten myself in over my head…

I recently finished Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and am currently formulating a review. Formulating? Why yes, as for me that is how I approach summarizing a book for others. “To express in precise form; state definitely or systematically” – or at least I try.

I don’t know why this part of the process is the hardest for me. Perhaps it is the fact that I am having to form an opinion and not only share, but explain it. I have never been one who is comfortable expressing myself in that capacity, unless I am dealing with a subject of which I am very knowledgeable. Otherwise, I feel as if I am some kind of ‘pretender’ who is just making it look like I have a clue as to what I’m doing.

All I know is that I love to read. And I love to talk to others about reading. So in essence, I may hem and haw and ‘formulate’ and stress over every review, however in the end, I will do what I have always done; pretend I am talking to a friend, and explain in my own way why I did or did not like this book.

BTW, I did like this book. Being a native San Franciscan, I thought I had a decent handle on the Chinese culture and their impact on not only the city; but all of California. I remember clearly the day I accompanied my son to Angel Island on a field trip: walking through the barracks and admiring the Chinese writing carved into the walls – it was a vivid reminder to what this culture suffered as a result of the Chinese Exclusion Act.

I consider myself very lucky to have been exposed to such diversity while growing up in the Bay Area. But one cannot truly begin to understand the current unless exposed to the past, whether when dealing with one’s own culture or another. I am pleased to say this novel has done just that.

I am still unsure when I’ll get this review done, but thanks to Sunday Salon, I think I am well on my way. Yippee!!!

If this is your first time hearing about Sunday Salon, please click here for more information.

Review: The Dead by James Joyce

March 23, 2008 By: J.C. Montgomery Category: Reviews

The Dead by James Joyce (1914)
(One of fifteen stories which makes up Dubliners)
Dover Publications, Inc.
Dover Thrift Editions, Unabridged

There is debate as to whether or not this work by Joyce is a Short Story or Novella. I thought doing a little research would help – it didn’t. However for my own sanity, and to justify choosing this for the Novella Challenge, I am going to go by the definition I found on Miriam-Webster Online: Novella – a work of fiction intermediate in length and complexity between a short story and novel.

Thus I made some tea, settled comfortably into the cushions, and began Joyce’s story. At first, I wondered how the title of the story reflected what I was reading. Not until the end did I see a connection. However, this is only my interpretation as every reader brings his or her own logic and understanding to a story.

“The Dead” speaks of that which has passed or is passing, and in this case, it represents not only people, but also customs and ideologies. The story is told through the eyes of Gabriel Conroy, a pretentious man feeling unconnected to his surroundings as well as his culture. Not only does he feel distanced from others socially and intellectually, he feels the pressure of a new generation that has a strong sense of nationalism. This becomes evident after a run in with a fellow guest who taunts him by accusing him of being a West Briton. Annoyed, he alters a speech he makes in order to express his indignation:

A new generation is growing up in our midst, a generation actuated by new ideas and new principles. It is serious and enthusiastic for these new ideas and its enthusiasm, even when it is misdirected, is, I believe, in the main sincere…sometimes I fear that this new generation, educated or hypereducated as it is, will lack those qualities of humanity, of hospitality, of kindly humor which belonged to an older day.

Later in the evening, Gabriel catches sight of a dark figure above him. It is his wife listening to song being played in another room:

There was grace and mystery in her attitude as if she were a symbol of something. He asked himself what is a woman standing on the stairs in the shadows, listening to distant music, a symbol of.

She is a symbol of the present called by the music of the past. As we find out later, the meoldy she hears reminds her of young man who loved her deeply, but died before they could build a life together. Through this revelation, Gabriel not only discovers something new about his wife, but about himself:
His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself, which these dead had one time reared and lived in, was dissolving and dwindling.

Gabriel learns he is capable of passion and that a part of him was dead, if not dying already. Time is passing. A new generation is evolving; the old moving slowly into memory. As he notes:

Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age.

I feel that if I re-read this story, I will discern more about what Joyce is trying to say as the symbolism of his story does not become apparent until nearly the end. For that reason I am giving this story 4 Stars.

This has been a great introduction to James Joyce and as such, I look forward to reading the remaining stories!

Review: Horseman by Richard Russo

March 20, 2008 By: J.C. Montgomery Category: Reviews


“Horseman” by Richard Russo
First published in The Atlantic Monthly, Fiction Issue 2006
Reprinted in The Best American Short Stories 2007

“Although to be driven back upon oneself is an uneasy affair at best, rather like trying to cross a border with borrowed credentials, it seems to me now the one condition necessary to the beginnings of real self-respect. Most of our platitudes notwithstanding, self-deception remains the most difficult deception. The tricks that work on others count for nothing in that very well-lit back alley where one keeps assignations with oneself…

… However long we postpone it, we eventually lie down alone in that notoriously uncomfortable bed, the one we make ourselves. Whether or not we sleep in it depends, of course, on whether or not we respect ourselves.” – Joan Didion, On Self-Respect

The above excerpt is from one of my favorite essays. I refer to it whenever faced with my inner demons. You know the ones: doubt, insecurity, fear of failure – as well as success.

I found that after reading Richard Russo’s short story “Horseman”, there are other demons I must learn deal with, such as:

How much person do I put into this ‘person’ality?

How much of me am I willing to share, in my life, in my career, and with myself?

If I hold back the truer part of me; who am I hurting – who am I cheating out of the happiness that is due me as a creative, caring, individual?

When describing this story, and its inception, Russo wondered, “How is it, then, that so many smart people use the study of literature to erect sturdy barriers between themselves and their lives, to become strangers to their truest desires, their best selves?” He also noted that he’d “never quite figured out exactly how such self-deception worked”.

In order to find an answer, he had his protagonist Janet Moore begin her journey of self-revelation by having to deal with a student who was caught plagiarizing. It not only triggers a deep rooted anger toward those who cheat, but a memory which begins to haunt her, ‘driving’ her ‘back upon herself’, forcing her to discover her own self-deception, one that has brought her to the unhappy reality of her life.

She learns that plagiarism is not simply “taking someone’s words or ideas as if they were your own,” it is using them to create a barrier between you and the fear of revelation and rejection. Janet herself thinks, “Then again, what if he was saying was true? Hadn’t she sometimes worried, in the aftermath of extravagant praise, that something was missing? Hadn’t she sometimes had the distinct feeling that what she’d really succeeded in doing was fooling them again?”

This is an excellent story in the lessons it can teach; the most important being to never hold back, not from others, but especially not from yourself. Russo’s story beautifully illustrates how one should “find that…elusive thing, a self worth being, worth becoming, and, finally, worth revealing” and one should never have to “wake up some day to the terrible realization that you’ve somehow managed to ignore the simple thing you wanted most in life and know it’s now too late.”

After reading this story, as well as re-reading Didion’s essay, I am beginning to realize that self-deception is directly related to self-respect. And if I am to gain the latter, I must never succumb to the former, for it really is true; the only person you hurt by cheating is your ‘self’.

I am giving this story a 5 Star rating and a strong recommendation. This is a story that will have you thinking, and hopefully – discovering.

Review: The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

March 17, 2008 By: J.C. Montgomery Category: Reviews

The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett (1989)
Historical Fiction, 973 pages
New American Library a division of Penguin (USA), Inc.
New American Library Deluxe Edition


To read more about how my thoughts on banned books click here.

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From the jacket:

A spellbinding epic tale of ambition, anarchy, and absolute power set against the sprawling medieval canvas of twelfth-century England


I hate to restrict myself to a particular genre, but I do like a good historical novel. I am particularly drawn to ones set in England because I lived there one summer while attending classes. Although I spent much of my time in Cambridge, I made it a point to venture out every chance I got to visit historic sites, one of which was Westminster Abbey. To this day, I will always remember being in complete awe at the magnitude and beauty of such a structure, especially considering its present construction began in 1245. (The site had been used by Benedictine monks since the tenth century)

I was absolutely dumbstruck upon realizing that I literally walking through history, and a very old history at that. Perhaps to some this may seem a bit much, but remember I am an American, and structures such as these do not exist in our country. During that same trip I also had the opportunity to visit Notre Dame de Paris and again, I was awed.

It was not until reading this book that I began to look at each building with a new understanding. These churches were not built with your typical construction materials. They were constructed using the blood, sweat, and tears of entire communities. Ken Follett brings to life, albeit through fiction, the issues these people had to face on a day-to-day basis, not the least of which was simply to survive. In the midst of this we have the characters of Philip the prior of Kingsbridge and Tom Builder; both obsessed with building a magnificent cathedral.

As Follett states in the preface:

The building of medieval cathedrals is an astonishing phenomenon. The builders had no power tools, they did not understand the mathematics of structural engineering, and they were poor…Yet they put up the most beautiful buildings that have ever existed, and they built them so well that they are still here, hundreds of years later, for us to study and marvel at.

Follett became fascinated about these churches, and after my experiences at Westminster and Notre Dame, I can understand why. From there he began to form his thoughts and create a story to integrate not only what he had learned about these churches and their builders, but the times in which they lived and how it affected every aspect of their lives. Thus along the path to the completion of Kingsbridge Cathedral, Tom and prior Philip must contend with civil war, famine, and the consequences of blind ambition.

As historical novels go, this is one of the best I have read in a long time. I cannot believe it was published in 1989 and I have only discovered it just now. (Of course I became a single parent that year, so it may be understandable to some when I say I may have been a bit distracted)

Another possibility comes from Follett himself as he notes:

This [is] a word-of-mouth book. It’s a truism of the book business that the best advertising is the kind you can’t buy: the personal recommendation of one reader to another.

And of course, he is right. That is how I discovered this book. And, if you have made it this far into my review, perhaps I can continue this trend. I am giving this book 4 Stars and a strong recommendation that you give it read. Yes, 973 pages is quite a commitment. But it is worth it.

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