TBR Challenge – Books Read in 2022 7. The Kitchen God’s Wife – Amy Tan

Genre: Historical fiction, Chinese fiction

Narrative Style: First person from two different points of view.

Rating: 4/5

Format: Paperback

Published: 1991

Synopsis: Winnie and Helen have kept each other’s secrets for years, since they first came to America in fact. Helen believes she is dying so she wants to tell all of Winnie’s secrets. Winnie decides to tell her daughter, Pearl, everything herself. Pearl also has secrets that she is frightened to tell her mother.

Book Challenges: TBR Pile Challenge

Time on shelf: About eight years. I inherited it from my husband’s aunt. I might have read it sooner but was put off by a more recent Tan novel, The Valley of Amazement, that I really did not enjoy.

The Kitchen God’s Wife starts with the first person story of Pearl, Winnie’s daughter. Pearl’s relationship with her mother is fractious. Winnie seems like a stereotypical Chinese mother, irritable, full of wise sayings and seeming not to have fitted into American life. Pearl is so removed from her, she hasn’t told her she has multiple sclerosis – a secret she has kept for seven years. Little does Pearl realise but her mother also has many secrets. When ‘Aunt’ Helen says she is dying and feels she needs to tell all secrets, both mother and daughter realise they need to talk to each other. Winnie invites her daughter to visit and proceeds to tell her the story of her life. This takes up the bulk of the novel.

Winnie – or Weiwei as she is known – is abandoned by her mother at age 6 for reasons unknown and her life of privilege ends. She is sent to live in the countryside with her Uncle’s family where life is tougher for her. Stories fly around about her mother but she never finds out the truth about the disappearance. This is the start of Weiwei’s sorrows and pains. Her Uncle’s family aren’t unkind but she feels she is less loved than her cousin, Peanut.

Tan doesn’t let up after that. Weiwei marries Wen Fu. He had previously courted Peanut but changes to Weiwei when he realises she is richer. This greed will be a theme of the novel with Wen Fu doing terrible things to try and hold on to Weiwei’s money. He rapes Weiwei and is violent towards her. He sleeps with other women, sometimes bringing them into the family home. He lies about his war record, claiming to be a hero when in fact, he used to fly away from the Japanese fighter planes. Weiwei’s life with him is miserable and difficult. She also loses three children.

Weiwei suffers terribly during the war and after when she ends up in prison when Wen Fu accuses her of stealing away their son and letting him die. (He died in an epidemic.) By now, she has met Jimmy (Pearl’s father) who presents a clear contrast to Wen Fu. He represents hope for the future as does the move to America.

Weiwei’s story takes up the majority of the novel with Pearl’s narrative framing it. We return to Pearl at the end so she can share her secret. I would have liked to hear a little more of Pearl’s voice but really this is Weiwei’s story which mirrors the story of China during the second world war. An interesting, emotional read.

TBR Challenge – Books Read in 2022 – 6. Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell

Genre: Non fiction, Psychology, Cultural comment

Narrative Style: Informal academic

Rating: 5/5

Published: 2008

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: Gladwell discusses the most successful, the brightest and best in various fields and how they got to the top.

Book Challenge: TBR Challenge

Time on shelf: About eighteen months. I didn’t think that this would be the next book I finished. I started to read this after The Kitchen God’s Wife and I was only reading it on my commute but it took my fancy so I finished it quite quickly.

This was a very enjoyable read. Gladwell isn’t particularly saying anything profound but his style is easy to follow and the illustrations he uses to support his ideas are interesting. I couldn’t put it down.

The premise of Gladwell’s book is that there are some people that stand out from everyone else – be it in intelligence, musical prowess, computing, sport – and he calls them outliers. He suggests that the usual reasons people give for their success are false – innate talent, for example, personality traits or habits such as getting up early in the morning. There is no such thing as a self made man and maybe we didn’t really believe that myth anyway but even so, the way that Gladwell goes about debunking it is compelling.

In some ways, there isn’t much variety to this book. Gladwell is making the same point all the way through but I lost count of the times I was surprised or intrigued by the examples he explored. The chapters are all structured in much the same way as well. He begins anecdotally, usually detailing someone’s life story or an event and then moves to research that relates to the life story and then finally back to the original story to show how we ought to be thinking about it. Again, I didn’t mind this as it helped me understand the points that Gladwell was making in a clear and simple way.

Gladwell begins by talking about Canadian hockey leagues and how the cut off for children to go into the highest leagues allows only the oldest children to get through every year (because they are just that bit bigger and older). Then due to the extra help they get, they become the most gifted that they were assumed to be in the first place. I see this sort of self fulfilling prophecy in education all the time. Those kids assumed to be gifted and talented are given extra lessons and opportunities so that the gap between them and their classmates widens. If we gave all pupils those opportunities we might see something different happen.

The first half of the book looks at individuals such as Bill Gates and Bill Joy and tries to alter how we normally view these narratives. Gladwell suggested that 10000 hours of practising is needed in order to master anything – a musical instrument, programming a computer – and then discusses the other advantages (e.g. his school had one of the only computers at the time to allow time sharing so he got to do real time programming in 1968) that people such as Gates had. He suggested that the Beatles got to be so big so quickly because of all the hours they spend in Hamburg playing set after set after set.

The second half looks at the way our culture affects our behaviour. Gladwell suggests that we inherit cultural information in much the same way that we inherit genetic information. He asks whether we should be taking cultural legacies more seriously than we do. The most interesting example Gladwell uses is that of a series of serious plane crashes involving Korean Air planes. So serious were these crashes that the Federal Aviation Authority were considering revoking Korean Air’s overflight and landing privileges in some areas of the world. Something had to be done. The problem was all to do with the way the pilots were talking to each other and to air traffic control. It transpired that the co-pilots were using mitigated speech because of the Power Distance Index which measures how a particular culture relates to authority. In these cases, the co-pilots were hampered by the power distance between themselves and the pilot – that is they were unable to tell the pilot they were making a mistake. Not only that, unlike in Western cultures, the onus is on the listener to work out what is being said, rather than the speaker to make themselves understood. This let to obvious difficulties in the cockpit. Once this was realised, Korean pilots were trained in a different way and the crashes stopped.

Overall, I enjoyed this very much. It’s not really all that radical but it did make me think about things I hadn’t considered and I will probably read more of Gladwell’s books.

TBR Challenge: Books Read in 2022 4. The Lost Language of Cranes – David Leavitt

Genre: LGBT, Literary Fiction

Narrative Style: Third person from a number of view points. Largely chronological

Rating: 5/5

Published: 1986

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: Rose and Owen have been married for a long time. Their relationship first comes under pressure when they are told they have to buy their apartment or move out. They are unsure whether they can afford it and put off making a decision. Their son, Phillip, is in love for the first time so decides the time has come to come out to his parents. This causes problems for Owen who is struggling with his sexuality – he spends his Sunday afternoons in a gay porn theatre – and makes Rose realise some of the issues in her marriage.

Time on shelf: I’ve had a physical copy of this book for about two years but it has been on my reading list since I did my MA in the 90s.

Reading challenge: TBR Challenge 2022

I first came across this book when I took a module for my MA on Narrative and the Deviant Body. The Lost Language of Cranes wasn’t on the reading list but I came across it in my reading and added it to my very long TBR list. I can’t believe it took my this long to read it. Especially as it was a very good read.

At the beginning of the novel, Owen and Rose are a long married couple in a rented apartment in New York that they have lived in for years. They have to either buy up – which may cause them financial difficulties – or move out of the family home. Both ignore this as far as they can probably because if they start to examine things too closely, they will see the issues within their marriage. Owen spends every Sunday afternoon in a gay porn theatre while Rose carefully doesn’t ask where he was been. They willfully refuse to see each other clearly. Early in the novel, Rose meets Owen in the street on one of these Sundays and they are like two strangers. While she starts to question where he has been, she still doesn’t ask.

Their only son, Phillip, is in love for the first time. Elliot, the object of Phillip’s affections doesn’t want to be in a committed relationship. Phillip is insecure and, as a result, comes across as needy. He is unable to relax and appreciate his relationship without analysing it and worrying about the end of it. Like Owen, he is not entirely comfortable with his emotions although he is more comfortable with his sexuality. His parents don’t know he is gay, at the beginning but as he is now in a relationship, he wishes them to know. When he does tell them, it rocks their marriage even further.

Leavitt’s prose is a joy to read. It is elegant and exact. Owen, Rose and Phillip are all well drawn and it is possible to feel empathy for all three of them even when they are opposed to each other. Even though Rose doesn’t react well to Phillip’s coming out, Leavitt allows the reader to understand her position. I wanted the best for all three characters even though this is clearly impossible. For Owen to be happy, Rose and their marriage will be destroyed. Owen’s situation is heart breaking – in a particularly poignant moment, he phones a sex line and then starts to weep down the phone – as he is torn between his desires and how much he would hurt his family. When Owen eventually does leave, it doesn’t feel particularly triumphant – he seems as broken as Rose – but at least there is hope for the future.

At the end of the novel, Phillip is starting a relationship that is more equal and more real than his relationship with Elliot. Brad has been his close friend for a long time and they have the trust in each other than was missing in Phillip’s relationship with Elliot. They kiss passionately for the first time before Phillip has to go to his father who has just left home. This could be seen as representing a more open and accepting future for gay men.

This is the best book I have read so far this year and I’m going to say, it will be hard to better. It was moving and compelling. I couldn’t put it down. I will certainly be investing in more of Leavitt’s books.



Books Read in 2022 1. Bleeding Hearts – Ian Rankin

Genre: Thriller

Narrative Style: Alternates between first person and third person.

Published: 1994 (Under the name Jack Harvey)

Rating: 3/5

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: Michael Weston is a sniper and paid assassin. He asks no questions and just gets on with the job. However, this time someone has tipped off the police and he is nearly caught. Michael needs to investigate who gave him the job while also evading the police and a private detective named Hoffer who works on the behalf of the family of a previous victim.

Reading Challenges: TBR Challenge hosted by Roof Beam Reader

Time on shelf: About ten years. I remember buying it in a charity shop because I was interested in reading a Rankin novel that wasn’t a Rebus story. However, as I was working my way through the Rebus books at the time, they always took precedence.

This started well. The story starts right in the middle of the action. Weston is in position, waiting for his victim who is about to appear from the hotel across the road. He makes the hit and the police arrive far too quickly. Weston then has to escape – something he does by hitting himself in the head with a rock and then phoning an ambulance which comes extremely quickly once they realise he is a haemophiliac. That was an unusual angle and made the story exciting from the first.

Weston’s sections are written in first person and I liked that we were being made to side with a character who was ostensibly the bad guy. I was keen to know who had set him up and how all the pieces fitted together. For all he assassinates people for money, he isn’t a nasty character. He tends to keep his distance from people or at least he tries to.

The main foil to Weston’s character is the private detective, Hoffer. He is supposed to be the good guy but it is impossible to like him. He is sexist and obnoxious. In fact, I think Rankin may have overdone it with his lack of redeeming features as he became something of a caricature. I found myself more and more irritated with him. He is never far behind Weston and his unpleasantness made it easier to root for the assassin.

There is love interest for Weston in the form of Belle, the daughter of his arms dealer. She was clearly supposed to show that women can be interested in guns and can be tough and sexy. She is in love with Weston and they fall into a relationship. I found this a bit unnecessary. Weston keeps trying to leave her behind. She refuses to be left. It gets a bit tedious after a while.

The plot is intriguing. Weston discovers that the hit is linked to a cult called Disciples of Love who have links to some US government agencies. As he investigates further, the group become more and more sinister. As with the Rebus books, Rankin’s plotting is tight. This was the most successful aspect of the book. Very satisfying.

Unfortunately not everything was so successful. Hoffer has the opportunity to kill Weston but suddenly has a fit of conscience which didn’t ring true. I wasn’t really convinced by some of the smaller characters – Spike, Weston’s friend in the States, for example. The dynamic between Michael and Belle was annoying. Ultimately this was an okay read but nowhere near as good as the Rebus books.

TBR Challenge 2022

After a year free of book challenges, I’ve decided to do the TBR challenge hosted by Adam at Roof Beam Reader. I really like this challenge because it doesn’t require me to buy any books or to read genres I wouldn’t normally go anywhere near. It’s a straightforward read the books you have challenge. As such, here is my list.

  1. Have You Eaten Grandma – Gyles Brandreth
  2. The Long Call – Anne Cleeves
  3. Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoevsky
  4. Ananci Boys – Neil Gaiman
  5. Outliers – Malcolm Gladwell
  6. Live By Night – Dennis Lehane
  7. The Lost Language of Cranes – David Leavitt
  8. More Tales of the City – Armistead Maupin
  9. Homage to Catalonia – George Orwell
  10. Bleeding Hearts – Ian Rankin
  11. The Kitchen God’s Wife – Amy Tan
  12. The Two Towers – J R R Tolkien

Alternates:

  1. Americanah – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  2. The Princess Bride – William Goldman