The Kitchen God’s Wife

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I just finished Amy Tan’s The Kitchen God’s Wife. I picked it up at Pioneer Book, remembering how much I had liked The Joy Luck Club in high school, and I was not disappointed. This was quite a good book.

The basic idea of the book is that a Chinese mother and a Chinese-American daughter don’t get along. So when their relative threatens to spill all their secrets before she dies, they have to go tell each other their real life stories, before Aunt Helen tells them all wrong and makes a mess out of it.

The daughter has Multiple Sclerosis, and is afraid to tell her mother. The mother has an entire previous life and marriage in China that she’s kept hidden, ashamed of how abusive her ex-husband was, and the kind of garbage she went through. Most of the book is the mother’s story, telling how she escaped her horrible marriage, and how she slowly came to the realization that she couldn’t endure it any longer.

This book was exactly what I expected: a heartwarming, sometimes heart-wrenching story of women’s lives and strength. I would recommend it to nearly any grown woman. I would hesitate to recommend it to a man, however; it’s all about women. The men are either villains or side-characters, and nearly all of the conflict is emotional. I tried to describe the book to my husband, and he asked what the conflict was. “Well… this woman doesn’t get along with her mother.”

“And?”

“And that’s it so far. But it’s good.” So, men, if you’re looking for a good, solid, driven plot-line, this is not your book. But if you’re looking for character change, yes. It’s great. ♦

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To Kill a Mockingbird

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This is quite possibly the best book I’ve ever read. Ever. It’s definitely topping the charts for this year (sorry, Old Testament), and I can’t think of a more wholesome, refreshing, honest look at life. It’s simply fantastic.

Written at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee, is the story of a 9-year-old learning some harsh truths about the society she lives in. Scout lives in southern Alabama, during the Great Depression. Her new schoolteacher won’t let her read, because she’s not supposed to learn that until 3rd grade. Her classmates often go hungry. Her father is appointed defense attorney to a Black man accused of raping a White woman, a crime that can carry the death penalty, and Scout’s neighbor Boo Radley is rumored to be a madman who haunts the streets at night. Scout encounters all these with a childish candor that blasts through the layers of complication grown-ups add to everything. To Scout, there’s just one kind of folks: folks.

This is not only a beautiful depiction of childhood, it’s also a beautiful depiction of the fight for humanity. Scout’s father Atticus Finch spends much of the book defending Tom Robinson, a Black man, even though he knows the White jury will convict Tom. Atticus already knows the cause is lost, but does everything he can to change the minds of the jury, considering it at least a “baby-step” when a juryman considers acquitting. Atticus is one of the only people in the state, it seems, who considers all human beings worthy of respect. He doesn’t allow his children to disrespect anyone, or to grow up with prejudice – but he also doesn’t become bitter in the face of opposition. He allows that everyone has their faults, and gives everyone – Black, White, learned, or ignorant – the benefit of the doubt.

I would recommend this book to anyone mature enough to understand what rape is, and to recognize that there are racial slurs in the book for the purpose of pointing out their ignorance. The writing is beautiful and hits home, making decent human behavior look like the obvious course of action. ♦

The Old Testament

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Woof. The Bible is not easy reading. I don’t even remember when I started in Genesis – but I just finished the Old Testament, and I’m super proud of myself, and of course I’m counting it for this year’s book count.

Now, how does one go about summing up the entire Old Testament? It’s complicated. And not just “1200 pages” complicated (although it is). It’s that the book is actually a collection of much smaller books, written by various different prophets and historians, and many of them out of chronological order. So the best I can hope to do here is to find some kind of running theme.

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My dad knew someone who had read the whole Bible, looking for a thesis to the whole work. I think her conclusion was that the question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” was supposed to be answered, “Yes, you are – or at least, you’re supposed to be.” (In the words of Jeffrey R. Holland: “…although I may not be my brother’s keeper, I am my brother’s brother…”)

Anyways. I’m not going to spend an eternity here dissecting individual books of the OT – but I would say the most prominent (and relevant) theme I found to connect to my own life was the question, “Do you want a God or not?” Most of the prophets who contribute to this work ask, in one way or another, why the children of Israel keep contradicting themselves. When the Israelites aren’t following God’s commandments, they tell the prophets to leave them alone and find other “gods” who will condone the lifestyle they want. But when the Israelites are in trouble, suddenly they want a God of vengeance and justice, and they get mad that God isn’t being consistent. And the prophet’s like, “Well, do you want God to follow His own rules or not?”

Basically, everybody wants God to take their side – but they don’t want to have to take God’s side. They want a God who will back them up, no matter what they decide to do, with no demands in return. So… they just want to be God.

I thought this pretty accurately described our society today. I’m not saying it describes everybody – but let’s face it: most people just want to be accepted for who they are. Even if who they are is a total jerk. And while I think we should certainly be accepting of people, that doesn’t mean everybody  has the right to be a total jerk. It doesn’t mean everybody’s doing the right thing, just because they say they are. And it doesn’t mean we have to be okay with every decision people make. On the flip side of that, we should take a good, hard look at the way we’re living our own lives. Are we mad when the cops pull us over for speeding? And if we are, do we have any right to get mad at the other drivers on the road when they ignore the law? Basically, I feel like the Old Testament draws a connection: if you want protection, you have to follow the rules. If you want God to defend you, you have to pattern your life the way He asks. ♦

 

The Miserable Mill

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Lemony Snicket is at it again, with book 3 of the Series of Unfortunate Events. The Miserable Mill took me about two days to get through (a grand total of probably two or three hours, to be honest), and it made a fun read. Heavy literature? Hardly – but good for “snack food” reading.

The Miserable Mill includes hypnotism, chewing gum, coupons, and a horrible sawing machine. Also, a sword-fighting baby. It’s a fun read. ♦

Wonder

Monday was pretty rough. The day before, we came home from church early because I wasn’t feeling too hot, and I ended up awake until about two in the morning fighting heartburn that felt like a lizard was clawing its vengeful way up my esophagus. Also, the lizard was on fire. Needless to say, neither of us got a lot of sleep Sunday night, and Ethan woke up at five to get to his student teaching position the next day. Meanwhile, I tossed and turned on the couch and desperately clung to sleep. Then I woke up and discovered I had zero energy whatsoever.

I was craving Halloween candy, but decided it wasn’t worth it. I would have to put on pants to go shopping, and I just couldn’t face that reality. By the time Ethan got home around three PM, I still hadn’t put on pants, and I was still on the couch. He was also out of energy, and eventually we got enough energy to get to Panda Express for dinner (with pants).

Wonder

Long story short: I had a lot of reading time Sunday-Monday! I burned through Wonder, by R.J. Palacio, in a matter of days. (Most of the reading happened while Ethan was trying to sleep, and my heartburn wouldn’t let me lie down yet.) And I’m inclined to agree with my husband on this one – it’s a great book, but the author doesn’t write ten-year-olds very well.

Wonder does a really good job of pointing out the daily challenges of a child with an obvious birth defect, a facial abnormality (or deformation). Basically, August Pullman is a normal kid with a really messed-up face. And he’s starting the fifth grade, which he knows is brutal even for a “normal” kid. The book follows several perspectives, pulling in characterization beautifully, and teaching some wonderful lessons about dealing with challenges and basically facing life in general. The author points out the struggles we all face every day, and even August acknowledges that his struggles with his appearance don’t necessarily outrank his friends’ struggles with money, family, grades, or friends. He starts to recognize that his challenges are just a little more visible than most.

I also really liked the attitude his sister Via pointed out toward the middle of the book: August is ready to quit school after facing some serious drama, and Via comes to talk to him. He tells her how rotten everybody treats him, and asks if it’s always going to be like that. She admits it might be – but he won’t have the luxury of just going home and crying every time that happens when he’s an adult. His face is going to be with him for the rest of his life; he needs to figure out how to deal with it eventually.

This book would be an absolute 5-star rating, were it not for the ten-year-old voice. The book is told in first-person, and frankly, I had a really hard time believing it was a fifth-grader. August and his friends were talking about girls they wanted to ask out, the jocks and cheerleaders at their school, and their stuffed animals, all in the same breath. If the author had made them all thirteen or fourteen instead, it would have been a lot more believable, but when I was ten, the boys still thought we had cooties. With that exception, if you can pretend the kids are just a little older than stated, it’s a fantastic book. ♦

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Charlie and the chocolate factory

Well, this only took me about two days to read, and it’s pretty simple, so this should be short.

This book is great, because Roald Dahl is awesome. If you like the Gene Wilder movie, you’ll like the book. If you like the Johnny Depp movie, you’ll like the book. If you like any book by Roald Dahl, you’ll like this book. If you like chocolate, this book will give you cravings.

I give it a good 4 out of 5 stars. It’s not life-changing, but it’s a fantastic children’s classic, it’s a fast read, and it’s rather a good way to teach some basic childhood morals. I highly recommend reading it, but I more highly recommend reading it together with a kid. ♦

The Hound of the Baskervilles

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I was doing some family history the other day, and I stumbled across a few English ancestors from the 16th and 17th century with the last name of “Baskerville.”

Naturally, this led to about 140 pages of mystery reading.

Last Christmas was our first as a couple. And, as newlyweds and college students, we decided it was probably best not to spend a ridiculous amount of money on gifts. Read: any money. We pretty much decided not to spend anything. Fortunately, at the last minute, we found some extra money in the budget, and I remembered that I had about $40 worth of credit at a used paperback store in Bountiful, and we went on a book spree. Between the paperback shop and a trip to Barnes and Noble, we decided to just take each other shopping, pick out the books we wanted, put them under the tree, and then spend Christmas break reading.

This is how I ended up with the 2-volume, hardbound, complete stories of Sherlock Holmes. Oh, happy day.

So, back to my original story, this is how I immediately set my genealogy hobby aside for a few hundred pages to indulge my reading hobby. I’ve read the book before – but it’s been about 10 years or so, which meant that most of the time, I was just as confused as the first time I’d read it. I kept turning pages thinking, “Well, that’s weird… I thought… maybe not…” Boots were stolen, romances foiled, and servants caught sneaking around in the night to light candles in deserted rooms. It’s a pretty good mystery.

And, of course, there’s a hell-hound. Can’t forget that. A big, black, shiny, rabid, murderous hell-hound.

Interestingly, I noticed that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle set The Hound of the Baskervilles in October, nearing the end of the month. I don’t know whether he just wanted a good, autumnal feel to it, or whether it was his Halloween present to his readers, but I think it added a good sense of spook to the whole thing. (A few years ago, Ethan dressed up in furry attire and a mask and ran around the apartment complex on Halloween, growling and acting beastly. Shortly thereafter, his roommates came snooping around dressed as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, asking if anyone had seen the Hound of the Baskervilles.) Whether Sir Arthur meant the book to be a Halloween horror flick or simply a complicated mystery, I highly recommend it, and just in time for Halloween reading, too. ♦