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#TuesdayBookBlog The School for Good Mothers: A Novel by Jessamine Chan (@jessaminechan) (@HutchHeinemann) Not an easy read, but one that will make you think about families and social control #TheSchoolforGoodMothers #NetGalley

Hi all:

I am not a mother, but recently I have read two books that shine a pretty special light on motherhood. You might remember my review for Chouette, and this one, although totally different, I think will also stay with me for a long time. And it has a fantastic title as well.

The School for Good Mothers: A Novel by Jessamine Chan

An Instant New York Times Bestseller

A Read with Jenna Today Show Book Club Pick

In this taut and explosive debut novel, one lapse in judgement lands a young mother in a government reform program where custody of her child hangs in the balance.

Frida Liu is struggling. She doesn’t have a career worthy of her Chinese immigrant parents’ sacrifices. She can’t persuade her husband, Gust, to give up his wellness-obsessed younger mistress. Only with Harriet, their cherubic daughter, does Frida finally attain the perfection expected of her. Harriet may be all she has, but she is just enough.

Until Frida has a very bad day.

The state has its eyes on mothers like Frida. The ones who check their phones, letting their children get injured on the playground; who let their children walk home alone. Because of one moment of poor judgment, a host of government officials will now determine if Frida is a candidate for a Big Brother-like institution that measures the success or failure of a mother’s devotion.

Faced with the possibility of losing Harriet, Frida must prove that a bad mother can be redeemed. That she can learn to be good.

A searing page-turner that is also a transgressive novel of ideas about the perils of “perfect” upper-middle class parenting; the violence enacted upon women by both the state and, at times, one another; the systems that separate families; and the boundlessness of love, The School for Good Mothers introduces, in Frida, an everywoman for the ages. Using dark wit to explore the pains and joys of the deepest ties that bind us, Chan has written a modern literary classic.

 https://www.amazon.com/School-Good-Mothers-Novel-ebook/dp/B093JHS53T/

https://www.amazon.co.uk/School-Good-Mothers-Handmaids-century-ebook/dp/B09FGD85XB/

https://www.amazon.es/School-Good-Mothers-Novel-English-ebook/dp/B093JHS53T/

Author Jessamine Chan

About the author:

Jessamine Chan’s short stories have appeared in Tin House and Epoch. A former reviews editor at Publishers Weekly, she holds an MFA from Columbia University and a BA from Brown University. Her work has received support from the Elizabeth George Foundation, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Wurlitzer Foundation, Jentel, the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center, the Anderson Center, VCCA, and Ragdale. She lives in Chicago with her husband and daughter.

https://www.amazon.com/Jessamine-Chan/e/B092BKD9NX/

My review:

I thank NetGalley and Random House UK, Cornerstone, Hutchinson Heinemann for providing me an ARC copy of this novel, which I freely chose to review.

I heard a lot of comments about this novel, was intrigued by its subject, and I can honestly say this is a book that won’t leave anybody indifferent.

The author is well-known for her short stories, but this is her first novel, and as she explains in the author’s acknowledgments at the end of the book, she had been working on it for many years before it saw the light. It seems that it started as a short story, but at the recommendation of a writing mentor at a workshop, Chan felt encouraged to develop the concept. Readers who are interested in the writing process will enjoy reading the author’s note, as it gives a good sense of what inspired her, which writers influenced her, includes a bibliography for those interested in her sources, and it also gives an account of how many people play a part in the final product, from the author and her family to the institutions providing support of all kinds.

The description of the novel gives a reasonable overview of the plot, although I am not sure everybody who has read it would agree on the way the book is characterized in the last paragraph.

We have all heard stories of neglectful parents, and/or parents doing things that seem unthinkable, like kidnapping their children, harming them, or even killing them. I have often thought that in this day and age when one can hardly do anything without having “training” and holding “a certificate” (at least in most Western societies), it is amazing that one of the most difficult things to do, raising a child, requires no qualification and there is no supervision or education provided to ensure that young people of a certain age know, at least, the very basics. As if the author had read my mind, in this book, the authorities create a School for parents (yes, for the bad mothers of the title, but there is also an equivalent school for bad fathers, although with fewer students and much more lenient), and “dystopic” doesn’t quite make it justice. The action takes place in a world that sounds exactly like ours and in the present (or at least not in a particularly distant future) in the USA, and that increases its impact, because it is not that difficult to imagine something like this happening (although perhaps some of the details are a bit fanciful and stretch credibility slightly, but only slightly).

Frida, the main protagonist, does something that is definitely bad (I am not a mother, so I cannot speak with any inside knowledge, but I think it is understandable although I cannot imagine anybody would condone it), although not, by far, the worst thing we hear about in the novel, and she is not the most sympathetic of characters. And that is, perhaps, what makes it a particularly effective but tough book to read. Because it is very easy to feel sorry for a character who is tender-hearted, kind, and nice, and feel outraged for the way s/he is treated, but here, we not only meet Frida (whose story is narrated in the third person but from her limited point of view), but also some of her peers, and none of them are people most of us would want as friends in normal circumstances, especially once we learn about what landed them at the school. But Frida gets to care for them and we do as well, and we also feel their frustration, their pain, and their desperation. Those of you who are parents, imagine if everything you did when you were with your children (and even when you were not with them) was recorded: every word, every move, every gesture, every look… and all that evidence was judged in comparison to some perfect standard impossible to achieve (and most of the time, impossible to explain by the teachers and impossible to understand by the students).

Apart from motherhood (parenthood), issues such as identity, legacy, family expectations (grandparents, relatives…), cultural differences, prejudice, desire, temptation, mental illness, privacy, mono-parental households, single mothers, the difficult (almost impossible at times) balance between profession and personal life/ work and family life, and big questions like who gets to decide what is the best for a child, and how far can laws and society go to regulate certain aspects of our lives… This is a book of big ideas, and I am sure book clubs would find plenty to discuss here, although I suspect some readers will not feel comfortable reading it and might abandon it before the end.

I enjoyed the writing style, even though I am not a fan of the use of present tense (we follow Frida’s story, chronologically, for over a year, and this is narrated in the present, although there are memories and thoughts about the past or a possible future that also make an appearance), but it suited the tempo of the story, which follows the seasons and the school programme, and it progresses at a slow pace. (I am not sure “page-turner” is a good definition, at least not if it makes us think of non-stop action and a quick pace). One of the strong points of the novel is the way it describes the thoughts of the main protagonist, her doubts, her guilt, her second-guessing herself and others, and also the way it explores her feelings, her efforts to control herself, to be seen to be doing the right thing, however hard it might be (and still failing sometimes). Although the story is poignant and very hard, there are some lighter and witty (even bitchy) comments and moments that make us smile. Yes, I’m not ashamed to confess I cheered when Harriet, Frida’s daughter, bit the horrible social worker, and although I don’t think any fragment can do justice to the novel (and if you want to get a better idea of how well the book would fit your reading taste, I recommend checking a sample of it), I thought I’d share a few brief quotes:

Here, Frida is talking about Susanna, her husband’s new girlfriend:

The girl is on a mission to nice her to death. A war of attrition.

 Perhaps, instead of being monitored, a bad mother should be thrown into a ravine.

 Harriet is wearing a gray blouse and brown leggings, like a child of the apocalypse.

 What little she knows about the lives of saints comes back to her now and she thinks, this year, she might become holy.

 “A mother is a shark,” Ms. Russo says. “You’re always moving. Always learning. Always trying to better yourself.” (You’ve probably guessed that’s one of the members of staff at the school).

 The ending… I am not sure I’d say I liked it, but I think it fits the novel perfectly, and I cannot imagine any other ending that would work better. Readers seem very divided by it, and some felt it ruined the novel for them, while others loved it. It is open to interpretation, but I like to imagine that it shows Frida has learned a lot about herself and about being a mother in the school, but not perhaps the kind of lessons they had hoped to teach her.

 In sum, I enjoyed (although it is not the right descriptor, you know what I mean) this novel, and I am sure I’ll be thinking about it for a long time. I don’t think this is the kind of book to recommend to a young mother, or to somebody struggling with motherhood or thinking about it, but anybody interested in the subject of government control, education, parenthood, and keen on dystopic narrations should check it out. And I will be keeping an eye on the author’s career. I’d love to know what she writes next.

Thanks to the author, the publisher, and NetGalley for this book, thanks to all of you for your continued support, and remember to keep on reading, smiling, and safe (as safe as we can all be these days, at least). 

 Check what the publishers did in London to celebrate the publication of the book:

 

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Book review Book reviews

#Bookreview #EQUAL: A STORY OF WOMEN, PAY AND THE BBC by Carrie Gracie (@ViragoBooks) Do not wait. Read it. Now.

Hi all:

Today I bring you a non-fiction title. It’s a fantastic and worrying read at the same time. I kept thinking of people who’d “enjoy” reading it (I’m not sure enjoy is quite the right term, but…). Hi, Debby, this is the book! Teagan, reading this book made me think of you as well. And Pete, I think you’ll be interested in this one as well.

And well, without further ado…

Equal by Carrie Gracie
Equal by Carrie Gracie

Equal: A story of women, pay and the BBC by Carrie Gracie

Equal tells a personal story that changed the public debate’ Guardian

‘[An] absorbing account . . . she laces her tale with mordant humour’ Financial Times

‘A gripping personal story told with warmth and wit, combined with a ‘how to’ guide for anyone who wants to ensure women are paid as true equals’ Julia Gillard, former Australian Prime Minister

Equal pay has been the law for half a century. But women often get paid less than men, even when they’re doing equal work.

Mostly they don’t know because pay is secret. But what if a woman finds out? What should she do? What should her male colleague do? What should the boss do?

Equal is the inside story of how award-winning journalist Carrie Gracie challenged unequal pay at the BBC, alongside a wider investigation into why men and women are still paid unequally. It’s a book that will open your eyes, fix your resolve and give you the tools to act – and act now.

‘The BBC journalist’s important account of her struggle to win equal pay is full of sound advice for women’ Observer

‘Pragmatic and honest’ Mail on Sunday

‘Pulls no punches’ Sunday Times

‘A book that can read like a tortured love letter to an abusive partner . . . and shows that such casual slights and the unthinking bias behind them remain an organisational and societal scandal’ Financial Times

‘She tells the story of her struggle and eventual triumph as a way of encouraging us, of changing our society, of giving us all courage . . . Equal is a very important book’ Sandi Toksvig

Longlisted for the Financial Times Business Book of the Year Award 2019

https://www.amazon.com/Equal-Carrie-Gracie-ebook/dp/B07K7KRGR7/

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Equal-Carrie-Gracie-ebook/dp/B07K7KRGR7/

https://www.amazon.es/Equal-Carrie-Gracie-ebook/dp/B07K7KRGR7/

About the author:

Carrie Gracie is a Scottish journalist best-known as having been the China editor for BBC News. She resigned from this post at the beginning of January 2018, citing what she said was pay discrimination over gender for the BBC’s international editors. She returned to her former post in the BBC newsroom.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carrie_Gracie

My review:

I am grateful to NetGalley and Virago for providing me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review. What a book!

This is a fantastic read and an important book about a topic that, as the author notes, it feels strange to have to be still talking about in this day and age.

The author, a well-known and award-winning BBC journalist, chronicles her fight to get equal pay for her job as China editor for the corporation. The BBC is publicly funded, and after some pressures, in 2017 they published the salaries of the highest paid of their employees. All of them happened to be white males. Gracie, who was the China editor at the time, was surprised to see that the USA editor was earning almost double her salary, when one of the conditions she had asked for when she accepted the job (she was highly qualified for it, as she had studied Mandarin at university, had lived in China, married a Chinese, and had lived there and worked there on and off for long periods of time) was that her pay would be equal to that of male colleagues doing a similar job, and the comparison agreed was the USA editor. She was not the only female employee to take issue with the list of salaries and while Gracie chronicles her own fight (it was hard and arduous to put it mildly), she also emphasises the importance of the support of her colleagues and the encouragement she received from family, friends, and strangers who also told her their stories.

Although Gracie explains her story and how she felt, she is not a reporter for nothing, and she goes about the task of discussing equal pay for women (although she also acknowledges and talks about other types of discrimination: race, sexual, disabilities…) in a methodical manner, quoting facts and figures all over the world, talking about the law, the developments over time, the different cases that brought about new legislation, and intersperses this with a chronological account of the stages of her grievance with the BBC. Although her references to the law and the grievance process are specific to the UK (and to her organisation), the principles are applicable to many other cases, and the examples she uses are universal, unfortunately. She does recognise that she is privileged (she had access to free legal advice, she was able to resign from her job without being concerned about her financial situation, and she had another position to go back to), and she did not feel she was badly paid, but felt she had been treated unfairly, and she had to take a stand, not only for herself, but also for others.

The process she had to undergo was soul destroying, not only for the types of games and techniques used (she mentions Orwell in a number of occasions, but Kafka’s The Trial and Terry Gillian’s Brazil also come to mind), but also because she loves the BBC, believes what it stands for and felt terribly disappointed by the way they behaved. She tried to see things from their point of view and gave them the benefit of the doubt, but she was stretched almost to breaking point. This is not a fiction book, so there are no real spoilers, but I’ll leave you to read exactly how things settled in the end.

Apart from the interest of the story itself (and it is gripping), Gracie is a compelling writer, and she is evidently passionate about the topic, although that does not make her lose her objectivity. She does talk about her own battle, and she does mention the effect it had on her, how it made her feel, and the way it made her question her beliefs and, at times, even her own sanity, but she does not spend an excessive amount of time on that, and she focuses on providing useful advice and guidance for others. The back matter of the book includes a section of acknowledgements, an epilogue with cases and data that have come to light since the resolution of her complaint, also advice she provides to companies, men, and women, resources (including videos, books, information about a variety of organisations, links to important documents), and detailed notes for all the chapters, with references and links to all documents, studies, and cases she mentions.

Here a tiny sample from the book:

But when it comes to deep-rooted patterns of power and money, history shows time and again that justice for women does not come through patient persuasion. Instead women must find their power and use it. In January 2018, I went over my employer’s head to write directly to the public because I wanted an end to pay discrimination in my workplace and my bosses weren’t listening. The answering echo from women everywhere made me feel the BBC was a mirror of the society it served.

In sum, this is a fascinating book and one that is bound to make many readers’ blood boil. Why are things still like this in this day and age? This is an important book, well-written, full of valuable information and much food for thought, no matter what your gender, your position, or your status may be. Go and read it, and share it with others. The fight is not over.

Oh, I couldn’t help but share two videos Gracie mentions in the book. One that shows that Capuchin monkeys “get” equal pay, and a Norwegian study where kids demonstrate they also understand the concept of equal pay and are happy to apply it of their own accord. Priceless.

Capuchin monkeys reject unequal pay

Finansforbundet on Equal pay: What do these kids understand that your boss doesn’t? Mary just made me aware that the video does not play directly from here, but if you follow the link to YouTube, it does (at least for me!) Sorry about that. I guess the organisation doesn’t want the video shared on other sites.

Thanks to Carrie Gracie and to NetGalley for this book, thanks to all of you for reading, and remember to like, share, comment, click, review, and always keep fighting and supporting others’ fight for equality. 

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Book review Book reviews

#Bookreview THE LEAVERS by Lisa Ko (@iamlisako) A book about mothers, sons, emigrations, and how to survive when you’ve lost a part of yourself #TheLeavers #emigration

Hi all:

I don’t usually blog on Thursdays, but when I was invited to participate in this blog tour, I know you would not mind getting an extra post. And here it is:

Review of the Leaver by Lisa Ko
The Leavers by Lisa Ko

The Leavers: Winner of the PEN/Bellweather Prize for Fiction by Lisa Ko

‘A vivid fictional exploration of what it means to belong and what it feels like when you don’t’Oprah Magazine – Favourite Books of 2017

Finalist for the National Book Award 2017

Winner of the 2016 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Fiction

‘There was a time I would have called Lisa Ko’s novel beautifully written, ambitious, and moving, and all of that is true, but it’s more than that now: if you want to understand a forgotten and essential part of the world we live inThe Leavers is required reading’ – Ann Patchett

‘Ambitious . . . Lisa Ko has taken the headlines and has reminded us that beyond them lie messy, brave, extraordinary, ordinary lives’ New York Times Book Review

*****

Ko’s novel is a moving story of how a boy comes into his own when everything he loves is taken away, and how a mother learns to live with the mistakes of the past.

One morning, Deming Guo’s mother, Polly, an undocumented Chinese immigrant, goes to her job at a nail salon – and never comes home. No one can find any trace of her. With his mother gone, eleven-year-old Deming is left mystified and bereft. Eventually adopted by a pair of well-meaning white professors, Deming is moved from the Bronx to a small town upstate and renamed Daniel Wilkinson. But far from all he’s ever known, Daniel struggles to reconcile his adoptive parents’ desire that he assimilate with his memories of his mother and the community he left behind.

Set in New York and China, The Leavers is a vivid examination of borders and belonging. It’s a moving story of how a boy comes into his own when everything he loves is taken away, and how a mother learns to live with the mistakes of the past.

https://www.amazon.com/Leavers-Winner-Bellweather-Prize-Fiction-ebook/dp/B077MTG7T1/

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Leavers-Winner-Bellweather-Prize-Fiction-ebook/dp/B077MTG7T1/

Press Release

‘Imperative reading’ Oprah’s Book Club DIALOGUE BOOKS’ LAUNCH TITLE  WINNER OF THE 2016 PEN/BELLWETHER PRIZE FOR FICTION FINALIST FOR THE NATIONAL BOOK AWARDS 2017

One morning, Deming Guo’s mother, Polly, goes to her job at a nail salon – and never comes home. No one can find any trace of her.

With his mother gone, eleven-year-old Deming is left mystified and bereft. Eventually adopted by a pair of well-meaning white professors, Deming is moved from the Bronx to a small town upstate and renamed Daniel Wilkinson. But far from all he’s ever known, Daniel struggles to reconcile his adoptive parents’ desire that he assimilate, with his memories of his mother and the community he left behind.

Told from the perspective of both Daniel – as he grows into a directionless young man – and Polly, Ko’s novel gives us one of fiction’s most singular mothers. Loving and selfish, determined and frightened, Polly is forced to make one heart-wrenching choice after another.

Set in New York and China, The Leavers is a vivid examination of borders and belonging. Of identity. It’s a moving story of how a boy comes into his own, when everything he loves is taken away, and how a mother learns to live with the mistakes of the past.

Author Lisa Ko
Author Lisa Ko

About the Author:

Lisas Ko is the author of The Leavers, a novel which was a finalist for the 2017 National Book Award for Fiction and won the 2016 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction. Her writing has appeared in Best American Short Stories 2016, The New York Times, Brooklyn Review, and extensively elsewhere. Lisa has been awarded fellowships and residencies from the New York Foundation for the Arts, the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, the MacDowell Colony, the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation, Writers OMI at Ledig House, the Jerome Foundation, Blue Mountain Center, the Van Lier Foundation, Hawthornden Castle, the I-Park Foundation, the Anderson Center, the Constance Saltonstall Foundation, and the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center. Born in Queens and raised in Jersey, she lives in Brooklyn.

Visit Lisa on her site: lisa-ko.com or on Twitter: @iamlisako #TheLeavers

https://www.amazon.com/Lisa-Ko/e/B01I8ML74E/

 

Praise for The Leavers

‘There was a time I would have called Lisa Ko’s novel beautifully written, ambitious and moving, and all of that is true, but it’s more than that now: if you want to understand a forgotten and essential part of the world we live in, The Leavers is required reading’—ANN PATCHETT

‘[The Leavers] uses the voices of both [a] boy and his birth mother to tell a story that unfolds in graceful, realistic fashion and defies expectations. Though it won last year’s PEN/Bellwether Award for Socially Engaged Fiction, Ko’s book is more far-reaching than that’—THE NEW YORK TIMES

‘Courageous, sensitive, and perfectly of this moment’—BARBARA KINGSOLVER

‘[A] dazzling debut… Filled with exquisite, heartrending details, Ko’s exploration of the often-brutal immigrant experience in America is a moving tale of family and belonging’—PEOPLE

‘A sweeping examination of family…. Ko’s stunning tale of love and loyalty—to family, to country— is a fresh and moving look at the immigrant experience in America, and is as timely as ever’  —PUBLISHERS WEEKLY (STARRED REVIEW)

‘What Ko seeks to do with The Leavers is illuminate the consequence of [deportation] facilities, and of the deportation machine as a whole, on individual lives. Ko’s book arrives at a time when it is most needed; its success will be measured in its ability to move its readership along the continuum between complacency and advocacy’ —THE LOS ANGELES REVIEW OF BOOKS

‘Ko’s unforgettable narrative voice is a credit to the moving stories of immigration, loss, recovery, and acceptance that feel particularly suited for our times’—NYLON

‘[E]ngaging and highly topical… Ko deftly segues between the intertwined stories of the separated mother and son and conveys both the struggles of those caught in the net of immigration authorities and the pain of dislocation’ —THE NATIONAL BOOK REVIEW

‘Skillfully written… Those who are interested in closely observed, character-driven fiction will want to leave room for The Leavers on their shelves’—BOOKLIST

‘[A]n impressive literary debut…. Ko does a wonderful job of crafting sympathetic characters. The Leavers is never sentimental or cloying’—SOUTH CHINA MORNING POST

‘This timely novel depicts the heart- and spirit-breaking difficulties faced by illegal immigrants with meticulous specificity’—KIRKUS REVIEWS

‘The Leavers is also about the very concept of ‘us’ versus ‘them’ — about belonging, and who we are when we lose the people who make us, well, ourselves. It’s about immigration and cultural barriers, the promise of the American dream and the less talked about way it can devolve into an American nightmare’—REFINERY29

‘The Leavers has already won the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction, an honor it surely deserves for its depiction of the tribulations of undocumented immigrants in the United States. Beyond that, and perhaps even more admirable, it is an exceptionally well written, fully realized work of art portraying the circumstances and inner worlds — the motives and emotional weather — of its two central characters. Ko is so psychologically penetrating, so acute in her passing observations and deft in the quick views she affords of her characters’ inner lives and surroundings, that her skill and empathy give real joy’ —KATHERINE POWERS, BARNES AND NOBLE REVIEW

‘Ko tells the heart-breaking story of a Chinese mother and her American-born son, who is adopted by a white couple after she disappears without warning and fails to return for several months. Ko is part of an active subgenre shining a light on an ugly truth about our country—that it is possible to come to America and be worse off as a result’ —THE LOS ANGELES TIMES

‘Vividly written and moving, The Leavers is an engrossing story of one young boy struggling to adjust to his new life without his mother and community’—BUZZFEED

‘One of 2017’s most anticipated fiction debuts… The Leavers feels as relevant as ever as the future of immigrants in America hangs in the balance’—TIME

‘A must-read’—MARIE CLAIRE US

‘Beautifully written and deeply affecting, combining the emotional insight of a great novel with the integrity of long-form journalism, The Leavers is a timely meditation on immigration, adoption, and the meaning of family’—THE VILLAGE VOICE

‘A dazzling international parade of the intrigue and dark shadows of motherhood, The Leavers will leave every reader craving more. This is one of the most ambitious novels of 2017, and it delivers’—REDBOOK

‘Touching upon themes such as identity, determination, addiction, and loyalty, the author clearly shows readers that she is an emerging writer to watch. Ko’s writing is strong, and her characters, whether major or minor, are skilfully developed’—LIBRARY JOURNAL (STARRED REVIEW)

‘A rich and sensitive portrait of lives lived across borders, cultures, and languages … One of the most engaging, deeply probing, and beautiful books I have read this year’ —LAILA LALAMI, AUTHOR OF THE MOOR’S ACCOUNT

‘The year’s powerful debut you won’t want to miss. The Leavers expertly weaves a tale of the conflicts between love and loyalty, personal identity and familial obligation, and the growing divide between freedom and social justice. An affecting novel that details the gut-wrenching realities facing illegal immigrants and their families in modern America’—BUSTLE

‘Heart-wrenching literary debut’—ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY

‘There is something incredibly timely about this book, and something invaluable in Ko’s ability to fully humanize people who are far too often relegated to the position of symbols and far too rarely seen as fully realized beings. The Leavers is more than just a gorgeously written and perfectly constructed novel; it’s a book that means something – maybe even more than its author intended’—PORTLAND BOOK REVIEW

My review:

Thanks to Little Brown UK for providing me an ARC copy of this book and for inviting me to participate in the blog tour on the occasion of the UK book’s launch.

The Leavers comes highly recommended (winner of the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction) and it feels particularly relevant to the historical times we live in. The plight of emigrants, issues of ethnic and national identity, transnational adoptions, alternative family structures and mother and son relationships. There is plenty of talk and official discourses about laws, building walls, and placing the blame on Others for the problems of a country these days, but this is nothing new. As I read the book, I could not help but think that the situation is a cyclical one, and perhaps the countries the immigrants come from, go to, or their circumstances change over time, but people keep moving. Sometimes they are met with open arms and others, not so much.

This novel is divided into four parts, and it is narrated by two characters. Peilan (Polly) is a young Chinese woman who initially leaves her fishing village for the city (to have access to better opportunities) and eventually takes on huge debt to move to America, already pregnant. She narrates her story in different time-frames (she recalls past events back in China, the difficult time when she had the baby and could not work in New York, her hard decision to send her child to live with her father in China, and the boy’s return after her father’s death), in the first person, first in America, and later, in present-day China. Deming (Daniel), her son, is born in America, shipped back to China, then back to America, and eventually ends up being adopted by a white American family. His story is told in the third person, and we follow him from age 11 (and some earlier memories) all the way to his early twenties. This is the story of two character’s growth, their struggle to discover (or rediscover) who they are and to make sense of their complex history.

The book is beautifully written, with enthralling descriptions of places, sounds, and emotions. If water and nature are particularly significant for Peilan, music makes life meaningful for Daniel and gives him an identity beyond nation and ethnic origin. Like our memories, the book is contemplative and meandering, and the thoughts of both characters reflect well how our minds work, as a smell, a sound, or a glimpsed figure can conjure up an image or a flood of emotions linked to a particular moment in time.

There is a mystery at the centre of the story. Polly leaves her son and nobody knows why. The alternating points of view put the readers in both roles and make us feel lost and abandoned on the one side, and on the other feel puzzled, as we clearly see that Polly loves her son, although she might have felt desperate and done extreme things at times. The explanation, when it eventually comes, is heart-wrenching and particularly poignant in view of some of the policies being enforced and implemented by some countries. Although it is not a traditional mystery novel, and it does not lose its power even if the readers get a clear idea of what had happened, I will try and avoid spoilers.

Both characters feel real, understandable and easy to empathise with, although not necessarily always likeable or immediately sympathetic. Deming is no star pupil, studious and well-behaved, and he makes many mistakes and has a talent for doing the wrong thing and upsetting almost everybody around him. Polly keeps her emotions under wraps; she works hard and puts up with incredibly hard situations until she suddenly does something that comes as a big surprise to everyone who knows her. They are not the perfect Norman Rockwell family by any stretch of the imagination, but that is what makes them more poignant and gives the novels its strength. It is easy to accept and sympathise with those we like and we feel are exceptional cases, but every case is unique and exceptional. The secondary characters are well-drawn and not simple fillers for the main story, their circumstances and personalities are interesting and believable, and the subject of the Deming’s adoption is afforded the nuance and complexity it deserves. The book deals with those issues from a personal perspective, but it is impossible to read it and not think about the effect that policies and politics have on the lives of so many people.

I highlighted many fragments of the book and it is difficult to select some that don’t reveal much of the plot, but I will try.

Instead of friends, Kay and Peter had books they read in bed at night. (Kay and Peter are Daniel’s adoptive parents).

He counted the heartbeats during that little catch between songs, savoring the delicious itch as the needle dropped and the melody snuck its toe out from behind a curtain.

A record was to be treasured, its circle scratches a mysterious language, a furtive tattoo.

“And that is it?” you said. “You forgot me?” “I didn’t forget. I just survived.”

Everyone had stories they told themselves to get through the days.

This novel reminded me of two of the books nominated for the Booker Prize I read last year, one of the finalists, Exist West by Mohsin Hamid (which explores emigration in a very novel way. You can check my review here), and the other one Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie (which also deals with identity and displacement, but it was the character of the brother and his descriptions of music that brought the book to my mind. You can read it here). I recommend it to readers who enjoyed those two books, and also readers interested in memory, identity, emigration, adoption (especially across ethnic and national boundaries) or anybody keen to discover a new writer who can paint images, emotions, and sounds with her words.

Thanks very much to NetGalley, to Grace Vincent from Little Brown UK, to all of you for reading and don’t forget to like, share, comment, click, REVIEW and keep smiling!

Categories
Book review Book reviews

#Bookreview The Kingdom of Women: Life, Love and Death in China’s Hidden Mountains by Choo Wai Hong An extraordinary adventure that can help us see the world in a different way.

Hi all:

Today another non-fiction book, and one very special. I was going to say that it might be more interesting for women but I don’t think that’s true…

The Kingdom of Women: Live, Love and Death in China's Hidden Mountains by Choo Wai Hong
The Kingdom of Women: Live, Love and Death in China’s Hidden Mountains by Choo Wai Hong

The Kingdom of Women: Life, Love and Death in China’s Hidden Mountains by Choo Wai Hong

In a mist-shrouded valley on China’s invisible border with Tibet is a place known as the “Kingdom of Women”, where a small tribe called the Mosuo lives in a cluster of villages that have changed little in centuries. This is one of the last matrilineal societies on earth, where power lies in the hands of women. All decisions and rights related to money, property, land and the children born to them rest with the Mosuo women, who live completely independently of husbands, fathers and brothers, with the grandmother as the head of each family. A unique practice is also enshrined in Mosuo tradition-that of “walking marriage”, where women choose their own lovers from men within the tribe but are beholden to none. Choo Waihong, a corporate lawyer who yearned for escape and ended up living with the Mosuo for seven years-the only non-Mosuo to have ever done so. She tells the remarkable story of her time in the remote mountains of China and gives a vibrant, compelling glimpse into a way of life that teeters on the knife-edge of extinction.

Editorial Reviews

Review

A crisp account by a high powered Singaporean lawyer of how she renounced her former life of fifteen hour working days in a male dominated corporate world to find her feminist soul in the last matriarchal ethnic group remaining in China. Full of insights and touching descriptions, this is one of the most accessible and concrete descriptions of the Mosuo, a group more analysed than understood, putting the humanity of this tribe at the forefront of their identity. (Kerry Brown, author of CEO China and The New Emperors 2017-01-06)

“A fascinating portrait of one of the world’s last matriarchal societies, a land without fathers or husbands, without marriage or divorce, written by an international corporate lawyer who ditched her hectic life to embrace this Shangri-la inside deepest China.”

(Jan Wong, author of Beijing Confidential 2017-02-02)

“A most engaging account of life among the matrilineal and matriarchal Mosuo tribe in China’s Yunnan province, but also a lament to a way of life now threatened by modernity and tourism. Full of detail and telling insights into gender roles, it will appeal to armchair travellers as well as to anthropologists and sociologists.”

(Jonathan Fryer, SOAS 2017-02-02)

A refreshing and authentic portrait of a hidden society in patriarchal China. A must read for anyone studying women and alternative societies.

(Hsiao-Hung Pai, author of Scattered Sand and Chinese Whispers 2017-02-02)

Author Choo Wai Hong

About the Author

Originally from Singapore, Choo Wai Hong was a corporate lawyer with top law firms in Singapore and California before she took early retirement in 2006 and began writing travel pieces for publications such as China Daily. She lived for six years with the Mosuo tribe and now spends half the year with them in Yunnan, China. The other half of the year, Wai Hong lives in Singapore.

Links:

https://www.amazon.com/Kingdom-Women-Chinas-Hidden-Mountains/dp/1784537241/

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Kingdom-Women-Chinas-Hidden-Mountains/dp/1784537241/

My review:

Thanks to NetGalley and I.B. Tauris for providing me with a copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

This book and its author, Choo Wai Hong, introduce us to a fascinating tribe, the Mosuo, from the province of Yunnan in China, in the region of the lakes, where a matrilineal society has survived in an almost untouched fashion for centuries. The author, a corporate lawyer working in a big law firm in Singapore, left her job and went searching for a different life. She toured China, first visiting the village where her father was born, and during her travels read an article about the Mosuo that aroused her curiosity and she decided to investigate personally.

The book narrates her adventures with the Mosuo, how she ended up becoming the godmother (personally, I think she became a fairy godmother, as she invested her own funds to help keep the Festival of the Mountain Goddess alive, and also sponsored a number of students, helping them carry on with their educations) of an entire village, and built a home there, where she spends 6 months a year.

The book is divided into twelve chapters (from ‘Arriving in the Kingdom of Women’ to ‘On the Knife-Edge of Extinction’) and it does not follow the author’s adventure chronologically (it is neither a memoir, nor an anthropological treatise) but rather discusses large topics, using first-hand observations of the author, her conversations with the inhabitants, and the insights the writer can offer when she compares this society to the one she had grown up and lived all her life in. She acknowledges she had always subscribed to feminist ideas, but nothing had prepared her for what she saw there, and the experience helped her redefine her feminism. She has difficulty fully understanding the social mores and the organisation and inner workings of Mosuo societies (the nuclear family is unknown there, the family relations are complex and difficult to understand for an outsider and they are becoming even more complicated when the population try to adapt them to a standard patriarchal model), she cannot get used to the concept of communal property (she likes the theory of people sharing farm work and living as a community, but not so much when her SUV is used by everybody for things not covered by her insurance when she is not there), she needs indoor toilet facilities (I couldn’t empathise more), and she is dismayed at the way modernity and tourism are encroaching on the traditional lifestyle. Of course, it is not the same to be able to come and go and feel empowered in a society so different to ours whilst still being able to access and/or return to our usual lifestyle than to be born into such circumstances without any other option.

The Kingdom of Women is a fascinating read. It gives us an idea about how other women-centric societies might have functioned and it introduces concepts completely alien but quite attractive and intriguing. I might hasten to say that although, as a woman, I could not help but smile at the thought of many of the practices and the different order of things, I am sure quite a few men would be more than happy with the lifestyle of the men of the tribe (no family ties as such, dedicated to cultivating their physical strength and good looks, invested on manly pursuits, like hunting, fishing … and not having to worry about endless courting or complex dating rules).

Choo Wai Hong is devoted to the tribe and their traditional way of life, and she has adopted it as much as they have adopted her (the relationships is mutually beneficial, as it becomes amply clear when we read the book). She explores and observes, but always trying to be respectful of tradition and social conventions, never being too curious or interfering unless she is invited in. Her love for the place and the people is clear, and she has little negative to say (she does mention STDs with its possible sequela of congenital defects and the issue of prostitution, which is not openly acknowledged or discussed), although when she talks about her attempts at keeping the Mountain Goddess Festival alive, it is clear hers is not the scientific model of observing without personally interfering (we are all familiar with the theory behind the observer effect but this is not what this book or the author’s experience is about ). The last chapter makes clear that things are quickly changing: most of the younger generation, who have had access to education, do not seem inclined to carry on upholding the same lifestyle. They are leaving the area to study and plan on getting married and starting a nuclear family rather than moving back to their grandmother’s house and having a walk-in marriage. Young men, that as she acknowledges do not have access to varied male role models, leave their studies to become waiters and dream of opening restaurants. Many of the older generation of Mosuo men and women are still illiterate but, they have mobile phones and take advantage of the touristic interest in the area, selling their lands and leaving the rural tradition behind. As the author notes, she was lucky to have access to the Mosuo people at a time of quick social change, but before the old way of life had disappeared completely. Others might not be so lucky.

This is a great book for people interested in alternative societal models and ethnological studies, written in a compelling way, a first person narration that brings to life the characters, the place and the narrator. It might not satisfy the requirements of somebody looking for a scientific study but it injects immediacy and vibrancy into the subject.

As a side note, I had access to an e-version of the book and therefore cannot comment on the pictures that I understand are included in the hardback copy. I would recommend obtaining that version if possible as I’m sure the pictures and the glossary would greatly enhance the reading experience.

Here I leave you links to a couple of articles about the book:

https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2017/apr/01/the-kingdom-of-women-the-tibetan-tribe-where-a-man-is-never-the-boss

http://www.straitstimes.com/lifestyle/arts/kingdom-where-women-call-the-shots

Thanks so much to NetGalley and I.B. Tauris for the book, thanks to all of you for reading, and remember to like, share, comment, CLICK and write reviews of the books you read!

Categories
book promo Marketing Traducciones/Translations

#Authors, should you be thinking about translating your book? #amwriting

Hi all:

The Manchester book fair. I'm sure I'll manage to fit in a post and some photos... soon
The Manchester book fair. I’m sure I’ll manage to fit in a post and some photos… soon

In the maelstrom of visits, book fairs, editing jobs, other jobs, reading and reviewing books, I was checking posts I’ve published elsewhere and was surprised to realise that I had forgotten to share here a post I published in Lit World Interviews about translations that had quite a few comments and I thought, in case you’d missed it, it was worth sharing here too. See what you think.

See what you think and I’ll keep you posted on everything.

Hi all:

As some of you may know, apart from blogging , mostly about books , I am a writer and I translate books from English to Spanish and from Spanish to English. A few months back and as part of a book fair I was asked to talk about translations and I prepared a few notes. Although the full speech is a bit lengthy for a single post, I thought that in preparation for further interviews with author translating their books (and by the way, any authors who’ve had their books translated to Spanish, I’d be more than happy to share them in my blog after the summer. Just get in touch)  I thought I’d share some of the thoughts I had on possible reasons to get one’s books translated.

Why would anybody want to have their books translated?

  • We all know how big a competition we face to try and sell books. Making it available to a wider audience is always a great idea. In the case of Spanish, it has 518 million speakers across the world, 427 as a native language. It is also one of the six official languages of the United Nations. It is also used as an official language by the European Union, the Organization of American States, and the Union of South American Nations, and by many other international organizations.
  • These new markets are also less crowded. Although the offer in Spanish is increasing, the number of e-books available in Spanish is much smaller than that in English. And of course there are retailers that will be more interested in Spanish books.
  • The same as is the case in English, there are blogs, Facebook pages, reviewers, reporters, critics, writers and readers looking for books in Spanish. I can say that with regards to other writers, I’ve found it easier to get in contact with writers who are best-selling authors, even across the whole of Amazon, in the Spanish language, than it is getting to know the big sellers in English. (Of course, some markets like Amazon Spain or Mexico are smaller, but still…)
  • One never knows when chance of pure luck might strike. I know a Spanish writer called Enrique Laso, whose books have been translated to many languages and who told me that although he has no idea why, his books translated to Greek have been great hits there. It’s impossible to know what might strike a chord with readers in a particular market.
  • I’ve read many posts by writers talking about how exciting it is to see your first book published and, in the case of paperback, have it in your hands. Well, I must confess seeing one of my books translated to Chinese made me feel equally excited. (Although you won’t be able to buy it in Amazon.Chn is also available in Amazon.com…) And I had to share it here.

    Twin Evils? Chinese cover. Of course it's also available in English and in Spanish as 'Gemela Maldad'
    Twin Evils? Chinese cover. Of course it’s also available in English and in Spanish as ‘Gemela Maldad’
  • I know of authors who are working on the idea of publishing their books in bilingual editions and indeed they might provide a good option for marketing as an aid to language learning.

Thanks to you all for reading, and if you’ve enjoyed the post, I might share some more bits of the full original, and please, share, like, comment and CLICK! 

Olga Núñez Miret

 

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