Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See

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Snow Flower and the Secret Fan
By Lisa See
Publisher: Random House, Inc
Kindle ASIN: B000FCK71U
Pages: 288
Genre: Historical Fiction/Culture

Synopsis:

In nineteenth-century China, in a remote Hunan county, a girl named Lily, at the tender age of seven, is paired with a laotong, “old same,” in an emotional match that will last a lifetime. The laotong, Snow Flower, introduces herself by sending Lily a silk fan on which she’s painted a poem in nu shu, a unique language that Chinese women created in order to communicate in secret, away from the influence of men.

As the years pass, Lily and Snow Flower send messages on fans, compose stories on handkerchiefs, reaching out of isolation to share their hopes, dreams, and accomplishments. Together, they endure the agony of foot-binding, and reflect upon their arranged marriages, shared loneliness, and the joys and tragedies of motherhood. The two find solace, developing a bond that keeps their spirits alive. But when a misunderstanding arises, their deep friendship suddenly threatens to tear apart.


my-thought

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan has been tucked within my reading list for several years now. I am ashamed of that fact, as I feel it deserves much more attention than I initially gave it.

“Seventy-five years have gone by, and I still remember the feel of the mud between my toes, the rush of water over my feet, the cold against my skin. Beautiful Moon and I were free in a way that we would never be again.”

Lily is a young girl being raised among poverty in 19th century China. When she is presented with the opportunity to be paired with a laotong (old same) she is excited at the prospect of a lifelong friend, Snow Flower. For years they will exchange fans containing secret letters written in Nu Shu, a language that has been developed by Chinese women to carry their messages safe from the eyes of men. These letters will become part of a story full of happiness, sadness, and all facets of life. But when a misunderstanding arises and mistakes are made, all that Lily loves becomes compromised. Will this friendship come to a tragic end or survive the test of time?

This is an exceptional title that it is difficult to review in full because it is sure to be a truly unique experience for the individual. Since this was a journey laden with complex feelings for myself, I am going focus only that aspect for purpose of this review. It is my goal to encourage you to explore this title and develop your own thoughts.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan was much more challenging than I could have ever predicted. This is a culturally saturated read that explores some facets that are hard to digest.  The practice of foot binding being one. I want to openly state right now that there were scenes in relation to the practice of binding that made my stomach turn and that is no easy feat. But I feel that the author’s ability to depict these moments so graphically is significant in regards to fostering a true understanding within the reader. This is a barbaric ritual that poses life threatening risks and left many women crippled. The intensity of See’s description solicits a very appropriate feeling that is necessary.

“They should be small, narrow, straight, pointed, and arched, yet still fragrant and soft in texture.”

Narrated with elegant prose, this is a story that effortlessly evokes emotions ranging from empathy to frustration and finally some semblance of understanding but not exactly acceptance. It is difficult to acknowledge just how trivialized women were within the Chinese cultural and society during the setting of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. The amount of emphasis placed directly on outward “beauty” is infuriating. The author has represents these aspects in such a manner that it is easy to understand why having a laotong would be invaluable for our narrator.

“She looked at me the way all mothers look at their daughters—as a temporary visitor who was another mouth to feed and a body to dress until I went to my husband’s home.”

See provides us with something remarkable that stands to be indisputable evidence of the amount of time and care that must have went into the research and composure of Lily’s story. Arresting and tragically haunting, this is a book to be devoured and savored slowly. Highest recommendation to all who seek memorable historical fiction that is deliciously rich in culture.

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Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork

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Marcelo in the Real World
By Francisco X. Stork
Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Books
ISBN13: 9780545054744
Pages: 312
Genre: Contemporary

Synopsis:

Marcelo Sandoval hears music no one else can hear–part of the autism-like impairment no doctor has been able to identify–and he’s always attended a special school where his differences have been protected. But the summer after his junior year, his father demands that Marcelo work in his law firm’s mailroom in order to experience “the real world.” There Marcelo meets Jasmine, his beautiful and surprising coworker, and Wendell, the son of another partner in the firm.

He learns about competition and jealousy, anger and desire. But it’s a picture he finds in a file — a picture of a girl with half a face — that truly connects him with the real world: its suffering, its injustice, and what he can do to fight.

Reminiscent of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” in the intensity and purity of its voice, this extraordinary novel is a love story, a legal drama, and a celebration of the music each of us hears inside.


my-thought

Lately I have been stretching my arms and exploring titles that might normally fall under my radar. Everyone once in a while a book enters your life that reminds you with intense ferocity why it is important to step outside of our comfort zones. Marcelo in the Real World is a shining example of such book.

Able to hear music that no one else can, Marcelo is 17 and believed to fall within the highly functioning end of the autism spectrum, but has never received a clear diagnosis. He has been attending a specialized school Patterson where he has plans to participate in a summer job with the horses and graduate with his close circle of peers. His father has another idea though. One that he is not fond of. Marcelo will come to work in the law firm’s mailroom and gain some “real world” experience. It is here where Marcelo will meet a new group of individuals that will challenge his emotions and encourage him to explore human nature.

Marcelo is rare protagonist who offers a stunning glimpse into the life of a truly unique individual. An intelligent and kind soul with a very keen perception of the events surrounding him, he is often aware of when he is being labeled or treated differently by others. There is a tangible authenticity to Marcelo that is hard to describe. While he faces his own set of individualized dilemmas, it is easy to empathize with him and understand his actions.

The plot is straightforward in the sense that we have a father who wants his young son to learn to properly function within society, yet Marcelo does not want to leave the familiar. A common scenario with many parents and their children. We slowly nudge them out into the real world to help prepare them for the future the best that we can. While I did find myself frustrated with his father’s actions at times, I still appreciated the motivation behind them.

Perhaps the most beautiful aspect of Marcelo in the Real World was Marcelo’s actual journey of self discovery. Through a series of events and interactions with his new co-workers, we witness a young man navigate the challenges of life ranging from acceptance and love to moral obligations and right and wrong. While not without hurdles, Marcelo’s story is one that truly opens the eyes to human nature and life. Soliciting a wide range of emotions from frustration to adoration, the reading experience feels complete and memorable.

With a pragmatic approach, the writing style compliments Marcelo’s story in an effective and engaging manner. The author has achieved a voice in Marcelo that feels real. There is something to be said about this simplistic and honest tone that invites the reader into Marcelo’s life with very open arms.

Marcelo in the Real World is worth more than its weight in terms of protagonist alone. Enter with an open mind and leave with a satisfying experience. This a feel good read that will play on all of the best emotions and offer a different but refreshing outlook on life and its obstacles.

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The Girls by Emma Cline

thegirlsthe-book
The Girls
By Emma Cline
Publisher: Random House
ISBN13: 9780812998603
Pages: 355
Genre: Fiction (Adult)

Synopsis:

Northern California, during the violent end of the 1960s. At the start of summer, a lonely and thoughtful teenager, Evie Boyd, sees a group of girls in the park, and is immediately caught by their freedom, their careless dress, their dangerous aura of abandon. Soon, Evie is in thrall to Suzanne, a mesmerizing older girl, and is drawn into the circle of a soon-to-be infamous cult and the man who is its charismatic leader. Hidden in the hills, their sprawling ranch is eerie and run down, but to Evie, it is exotic, thrilling, charged—a place where she feels desperate to be accepted. As she spends more time away from her mother and the rhythms of her daily life, and as her obsession with Suzanne intensifies, Evie does not realize she is coming closer and closer to unthinkable violence, and to that moment in a girl’s life when everything can go horribly wrong.


my-thoughtThe Girls is undoubtedly a challenging read. Based on the Manson murders, make no mistake, there is a hefty amount of uncomfortable content centering around drug use and sexual encounters (some of which I would clearly label as assault). The fact that the main protagonist Evie is a mere 14 years old, makes it one tough pill to swallow.

Based on several reviews, I was anticipating a dark read full of teenage angst that played on a graphic core in order to up the “wow” factor. I could not have been more wrong. Nor have I ever been happier to be so wrong. The Girls is a shining example of how to utilize first person narration in the most successful ways.

It is the end of the 60’s in Northern California. It is summer, and Evie Boyd feels isolated and out-of-place. Like many teenage girls she just wants to belong. Enter Suzanne. She is care-free and captivating. Immediately drawn to this young stranger, she slowly begins distancing herself from her family and only real friend to spend more time with Suzanne and her friends on the ranch led by the amorous Russell. Evie feels like she has finally found her place in life. But once the initial luster wears off, she realizes she may be involved in something sinister and dangerous.

“My eyes were already habituated to the texture of decay, so I thought that I had passed back into the circle of light.”

Evie Boyd is so bitterly realistic and raw as a protagonist that there is a part of her I found uncomfortably familiar. As a young impressionable girl desperately seeking an acceptance that most of us can remember feeling was out of reach during some point in our young lives, she is undeniably relatable to at least a small degree. It is this painfully honest approach to her character that gives her and The Girls true life and credibility. The part of me that would normally question her frighteningly bad decisions and actions was easily replaced with an equal amount of sadness and understanding. I didn’t like that I was juggling this new-found sympathy for a character who was making harrowing choices, but I couldn’t help but admire the author’s ability to solicit this from me. Full immersion into Evie’s life had occurred.

“You wanted things and you couldn’t help it, because there was only your life, only yourself to wake up with, and how could you ever tell yourself what you wanted was wrong?”

Cline spares zero expense or feelings in effort to establish this dark world that is a cult. She brazenly exposes the reader to the loss of Evie’s innocence, gross sexual encounters and the repetitive drug use that fuels this disturbing journey into one young girl’s psych and time on the ranch. The very facets that make The Girls so disturbing also make it so triumphant. This no holds barred approach succeeds in setting the stage and making the unfathomable feel horribly possible. It is through this bold technique that the reader can begin to process how our young protagonist has come to find herself on the ranch. This is a terrifyingly sincere representation of cult life and culture. It is not meant to be pleasant or easy.

Cline’s writing is almost poetic yet pragmatic. She effortlessly supplies a fluid narration that leaps from Evie’s past to present. I have noted some reader’s struggled with the change in tone at times, but I personally found this to play perfectly into her transitions, conveying our narrator’s current state of mind more effectively.  The ending did not offer an overly satisfying conclusion, but I couldn’t really ask that from The Girls.

So here is the hard part, I loved this novel. But I am hesitant to recommend it. This will be too much for many and rightfully so. This is a brutal coming of age story during a very dark time. It has burrowed deep into the core of my mind and is sure to remain for some time. If you find yourself truly fascinated with cult culture and the human psych and can stomach the harsh reality of what it entails, then consider adding this to your list.

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