Before 2013 comes to a close, I wanted to catch up on book reviews, so I'm leaving you with my impressions of three books that have nothing in common except that I read them recently:
→ BLOOD, MARRIAGE, WINE AND GLITTER is S. Bear Bergman's third collection of personal essays, and like the first two, it offers a look at what's currently occupying his life and mind. These days, as the father of a preschooler, Bergman is thinking a lot about family, and the beautiful essays in this book tell all kinds of stories that celebrate all kinds of families. Bergman's perspective on family life is shaped by his experience with being trans, Jewish, an activist, and a hopeless romantic, but the essays address the universal experience of being a part of, and creating, a family.
These essays felt even more personal to me because Bear is a dear friend who I've known since I was 14 years old. I even had the odd and delightful experience of finding an appearance by my own family in the book, specifically the dogs of my childhood. The writing is tender and funny and brought tears to my eyes multiple times, and I think any reader will have the same moving experience.
→ SNOW FLOWER AND THE SECRET FAN by Lisa See portrays what it was like to be a woman in nineteenth century China, and what it was like was not especially pleasant. The narrator, Lily, looks back at her life from an advanced age and recounts her story, a series of mostly painful events starting from her footbinding, an even more horrifying process than you probably imagined. This tradition is described with graphic thoroughness, and all the customs of life in that time and place are presented in careful detail. As with much historical fiction, quite a bit of time is spent explaining day-to-day life, but it's engrossing because it's so unfamiliar.
Lily grows up, is placed in an arranged marriage, and spends most of her life confined to upstairs women's rooms, all according to custom. What sets Lily apart from many other girls -- and what brings her great joy for much of her life -- is that she is selected to be matched with a laotong or "old same", a girl of the same age who is slated to become her lifelong best friend through a tradition not unlike marriage. Lily's relationship with her laotong, Snow Flower, is the focus of the story, and we learn right from the start that this too will end in pain.
I found all the period details fascinating, and the story was absorbing, though often troubling to read. Toward the end, the plot fell somewhat flat for me, but I still recommend this book to any interested reader.
→ In PALIMPSEST by Catherynne M. Valente, four strangers from our world meet in a fantastical city that first appears to them as a dream. Upon waking, the characters find their bodies marked with tattoo-like maps that depict a portion of the city, and they each have a longing to return. Gradually, the protagonists learn that the way back to Palimpsest is through having sex with others who share the mark. The novel follows the characters on their separate, often brutal, journeys in both worlds until eventually their paths converge.
The premise of a a world that requires sex as the gateway is an intriguing one, and the story does a pretty good job of exploring the problems this creates. The four main characters are well developed, each with a distinct motivation and set of obstacles that colors their attitude toward Palimpsest. They also each have a passion -- bookbinding, beekeeping, locksmithing, and trains -- and I enjoyed the discussions of these topics. I wasn't completely satisfied with the plot or the style of the novel, but overall it was an entertaining read.
Good Stuff Out There:
→ Moira Redmond at the Guardian Books Blog has a roundup of undergarments in literature: "There's never much mention of male underwear in literature, although the hideous Lady Montdore in Nancy Mitford's Love in a Cold Climate tells a young engaged woman: 'don't go wasting your money on underclothes ... I always borrow [her husband] Montdore's myself'."