Monday, January 10, 2011

First Book Reviews of the Year

I am going to attempt to review most of the books I read this year.  So far, I’ve read 2, both of which I got at the library.  The first is The Mighty Queens of Freeville by Amy Dickinson.  This was a book club book and while I was at the library picking it up, they had Alan Brennert’s Honolulu on display at the circulation desk, so I snatched that one up too.

Amy Dickinson is best known for writing the Ask Amy column that took over when Ann Landers died.  She also is a commentator on NPR.  Her book was supposed to be about the town of Freeville NY and the women there who raised her and supported her and her daughter when Amy’s marriage to her husband (CBS reporter Anthony Mason) fell apart.

That is a book I would have loved to read.  Instead, while interesting enough and a good enough read, the book is about her coping with the divorce while making occasional trips back to her hometown.  The book is wildly out of sequence, as we discussed in book club (in one chapter, her cat Pumpkin dies, in the next chapter, Pumpkin is alive and well).  Dickinson herself is likeable, and I found myself cheering for her successes and marveling at how she got through her low points, but in fact, the part I liked most was probably the part she expected her readers to like the least:  the part in which she encounters her wayward dad, Buck, and goes on an adventure in the mud with him.  Buck abandoned Amy’s mother when the children were young, and has infrequent contact with his children thereafter.  Amy’s marriage suffers similarly in that her husband is a globetrotting reporter who is frequently absent.  (Although he turns out to be a good dad to young Emily despite his long travels around the world.)  Still, having grown up in the North Country, to which Amy alludes, I have known many such “Bucks” in my life, and they really are the kind of colorful characters that Amy may have inadvertently portrayed her father as, and they can be lovable in their own way.  But of course, I say that without Buck being my dad.

In the end, Amy packages everything with a nice neat bow, meeting a new love interest and scoring Ask Amy while Emily happily goes off to college.  Life is messy and a “happily ever after” ending to a memoir is rarely satisfying, as is true in this case.  Amy’s story has yet to be written, as has mine, and if I finished writing my memoirs with moving to Virginia, or adopting my daughter, or conquering even some of my personal demons, I would leave out some of the best parts and lead my readers to conclude that life can be tidily summed up in an endpoint, even if it goes on. 

That being said, I gave Mighty Queens 3 stars on Goodreads.  Worth a shot if you need a quick book to pass the time.  The girls in my book club all seemed to feel about the same about it.  Thanks for the pick, Lauren!

Now, if you have been reading my book reviews or my blogs for a while, you will know that last year I was forced to read Molokai for my book club.  This Alan Brennert book was a book I was convinced that I would hate, as a) my best friend Lesley LOVED it and b) I have no interest in the topics of leprosy or Pacific Island type stuff.  Strangely though, I was totally drawn into the story of Rachel and her life in a leper colony and can say without hesitation that it was one of the best books I read last year.

During the book club discussion, it came out that Brennert had written another book called Honolulu and some of the girls wondered if it would be as good.  I mentally resolved that I would not read it, because it is about a young woman from Korea moving to Hawaii as a picture bride and again, no interest in Pacific Island stories and even less in stories about Asia.  (Sorry, but there it is!)

However, when I went to pick up Mighty Queens from the library, there was Honolulu, almost mocking me, from a perch on the circulation desk.  Impulsively, I grabbed it and when I finished my first book, I started in on Honolulu.  And I found it as compulsively readable as Molokai.

Honolulu is a story about Regret, a young picture bride from Korea.  Stifling in her father’s home, she consults a matchmaker and is soon betrothed to a Mr. Noh in Hawaii, who presents himself as a wealthy plantation worker in the Hawaiian islands, painted by Koreans as being paved with golden streets and rife with opportunity.  Regret forces her father’s hand to allow her to go to Hawaii for the marriage, and soon discovers not the wealthy and kind man who will allow her to be education, but a gambling alcoholic who beats her and kills their unborn child.  Regret flees from Mr. Noh’s shack, renames herself Jin (Korean for “gem”), and embarks on carving out a new life for herself in the Hawaiian capital city.

The story is fairly intricate, and you easily find yourself immersed in the story of Jin’s life in Hawaii only to be reminded of the “little sister” she left behind (a 5 year old girl betrothed to Jin’s brother), only to be brought back to Mr. Noh only to go back to Jin’s friends and fellow picture brides and their families.  Each and every story line remains compelling till the end of the book when Brennert gets bogged down in some actual Hawaiian history, which he clearly wanted to include in the book, but which overtook the driving story line, that being the tale of The Massie Affair.  To be honest, while I am typically a true crime buff, I really just wanted to get back to Regret/Jin’s story and so I skimmed much of the 20 or so pages devoted to this whole thing so I could get back to what I considered the real meat and potatoes of the book.

I laughed and cried and cheered and hoped for Regret and her friends and their stories.  I loved how the book concluded, and how the characters struggled with issues bigger than themselves and lived very human lives at the same time.  Alan Brennert is fast rising to the top of my “must read authors” list.  I gave the book 4 stars on GoodReads just because it did get off track with the Massie stuff, otherwise it would have gotten 5.  Check this one out today!

1 pearl(s) of wisdom:

Reputation@Stake said...

I normally don't mind when a book is written out of sequence, as long as the author ties it up nicely at the end, like you said she did with the Mighty Queens book. Honolulu sounds interesting from just the main character's name. Thanks for the reviews.