Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Girl Who Played Go by Shan Sa - REAL Teenage Strife!

With the book market being flooded with novels about angsty, twinkly vampires and kids struggling with getting picked on, it's refreshing (though heartbreaking) to find a book like The Girl Who Played Go that makes modern day emo kids look like whiny babies that just need a nap!

Chinese author Shan Sa (real name Yan Ni)
Sa has spent much of her life in France, writing her novels in  French.
Adriana Hunter has done the English translations for a number of Sa's novels.

The Girl Who Played Go by Shan Sa is actually the combination of two stories being told simultaneously (the chapters alternate between the two telling their stories in first person) of a male Japanese soldier and a female Chinese student and "go" player in 1930s Manchuria. Their stories take place just before the start of World War 2 when Japanese forces invaded the Chinese territory of Manchuria. Neither reveal their names til the very end of the story, which I found to be an interesting little quirk in the novel. The back and forth story switches between chapters wasn't as hard to follow as I've found in other novels, and Sa's writing is so poetic I found myself not really minding keeping up with the two individually.

Japanese invasion of Manchuria 1

Japanese Invasion of Manchuria 2 
At the beginning of the story, the anonymous girl leads a pretty ordinary teenage life - she goes to school, finds her parents annoying and controlling, tells secrets to friends, crushes on boys, reads the 18th century Japanese poet Issa, and plays go (a game similar to chess or checkers) in the park. In playing go, she has her greatest outlet. She is unique in that she is the only female in her community that is part of the local professional go players group. She finds peace in the concentration required for the strategy-based game. It gives her a place where she doesn't have to think about war, her sister's unhappy marriage, her bland parents or what will come of her own life with the Japanese invasion. But as often happens in reality, you never know who life is going to throw your way when your world gets turned upside down. With the Japanese invasion comes Chinese rebellion and into go girl's life walk two boys,  Jing and Min, who are leaders in the rebellion. Of course girls are drawn to rebels so go girl develops "a thing" for Min while putting Jing in "the friend zone", which he gets pretty peeved about.

The game of Go

Go patterns can vary

My favorite quote in this novel :

"You see," she (Huong, best friend of go player) says, "a real man is different, not like the boys with mustaches who lurk outside our school. He can guess what you're thinking, anticipate what will make you happy. When you're with a man, you're no longer a girl but a goddess, a sage, an ancient soul who has lived in every era, a wonder that he contemplates with all the intense curiousity of a newborn baby." 

To which go girl's internal thought is:

"Even though Huong has become my best friend, I never quite understand what she is saying. Her convoluted soul is divided between light and darkness, she is both blatant and discreet, and her life is full of mysteries despite everything she confesses to me."

How many of us have known someone like that, right?!

While go girl is working out her conflicted teenage girl hormones, slightly older Japanese soldier boy is telling his story of being a survivor of the 1923 Kanto earthquake (one of the worst earthquakes in history) in which he lost a number of family and friends. 
Villages demolished by Kanto earthquake

Emperor Hirohito viewing the damage from the Kanto earthquake

He grows up to become a soldier, following the common soldier life of marching, practicing marksmanship and visiting "houses of ill repute". He does have a brief love interest with an apprentice geisha -- the geisha's mother approaches him to offer her daughter's mizuage to him. Mizuage is the "deflowering" process each virgin geisha apprentice or meiko must go through before they are deemed a full-fledged geisha or geiko. To be offered a mizuage is considered a great honor for men and traditionally a rich man would pay a hefty fee to be assured his right to the girl but soldier boy is offered it because the meiko's mother wanted to assure her daughter a relatively painless, gentle mizuage.

Speaking of geishas, there are ways (in the form of outfit) to tell the apprentices from the full-fledged geishas, which they discuss in this book. One way is to look at the sleeves of the kimono. Meikos (those still in training) wear wide sleeves and often more ornate collars, while geikos wear more narrow sleeves and more subtle print kimonos.



When not visiting geishas, soldier boy takes his business to local prostitutes. Contrary to popular belief, geisha is not synonymous with prostitute, though sex can be part of an evening with a paying gentleman. It's actually more of an opportunity to share company with a woman heavily educated in arts such as literature, music, painting, tea ceremonies - skills not taught to the common woman. Because of this education, geishas have a higher price than run of the mill prostitutes, thus not commonly affordable on basic soldier pay, but boys can save up I guess! The prostitutes of the 1930s typically wore fashions of the period instead of the traditional kimono. 

As go girl works through her dramatic relationship with Min, soldier boy draws closer to her when he is asked to do a little espionage work, dressing as a Chinese man and playing go games with her in the park, in the hopes of garnering information to take to his superiors. This part confused me because I'm not sure what big secrets he thought he was going to find out from a random teenage girl that would help out the Japanese government ... and he later points this out himself. Through their games though, they develop a bond that is confusing but undeniable to both of them, and so the story develops into a tense, almost love story between people on opposing sides of the war. Amidst all the drama tearing their countries apart with newsmakers such as Chiang Kai-Shek and Emperor Pu Yi, they try to figure out what it is they feel, what draws them together, and how they can possibly make it work... with one HELL of a surprise ending... it's a resolution of sorts, but daaaammnnn lol.

Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial

Chiang Kai-Shek and wife May Soon Ling

Emperor Pu Yi and Empress Wan Rong

When soldier boy and his comrades aren't trying to work through their big boy hormones, there's a lot of talk about seppuku (also called harakiri) in the event that Japanese success in Manchuria doesn't come to full fruition. I am always amazed in the "all or nothing" attitude - there's so many areas of grey in life but some people still insist on the "if you're not 1st you're last" motto. Freakin' Ricky Bobbys of the world! :-P.

While Sa's writing skill is stunning, the story itself is not an easy one to read, but one I think needs to be read.  It feels sometimes as if in times of war we forget about the young kids that have to survive it. This gives an interesting perspective on such a situation and takes "coming of age story" to a whole new level! 

While I don't want to reveal the characters' names, as that is one of the powerful elements to the story's ending, I will give you a hint to the girl's name:

Have fun guessing! :-)

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

LT Meade's A Sweet Girl Graduate - A Classic Fish Out Of Water Story

Hope everyone took a look at the "Anabel Lee" Glogster link I posted previous to this entry. That link was in relation to this post's book, A Sweet Girl Graduate by prolific early 20th century writer, L.T. Meade, who has been featured here before (and will be a number of times again, I suspect, as I have a number of her books on my shelves). More on the Anabel Lee connection later....

L.T. Meade portrait

A Sweet Girl Graduate is a story that will take you by surprise once you start reading because it is not the cute, innocent "chick lit" that one might expect and was so prevalent during Victorian and Edwardian times. Nope, this one is actually more as if someone today might mash up the story lines of Pretty In Pink and Mean Girls, with a tinge of gothic pathos for good measure. :-P

 For those not familiar with these films, check out below:

Pretty In Pink

Mean Girls

In A Sweet Girl Graduate, teenage Prisicilla Peel  or "Prissie", is that all too familiar "girl from the wrong side of the tracks"; she's orphaned and living with her aunt and three younger sisters in a small community in Yorkshire, England. By some stroke of luck, her aunt and the local vicar manage to pool enough money together to send Priscilla to St. Benet's, an exclusive college for women in Devonshire for 3 years.  Priscilla goes, planning on focusing on nothing but her studies - which turns out to be mainly Latin with an emphasis on Greek literature (and nowadays people pile into Business Administration classes!). Priscilla soon runs into the dilemma most first year college students hit - the realization that it takes some SERIOUS willpower to do nothing but study! Making her already unfamiliar environment even more bizarre and stressful is Priscilla learning that her room was the room of the enigmatic Anabel Lee, strangely a girl everyone loves to idolize but not really give any specific details about... and why are they talking about her in the past tense, Priscilla wonders?? 

Eventually Priscilla just gets fed up with all the mysterious talk and basically says "either spit the story our or shut the hell up ". Turns out Anabel Lee was formerly the most popular girl at St. Benet's (a place where the girls call themselves "inmates") and also the best friend of Maggie Oliphant, the reigning popularity queen. Anabel was of course everything nice: the most beautiful, the most glamorous, the best taste in everything,  the kindest heart, the cheeriest personality.... and then she unfortunately dies of typhoid fever, leaving the entire school, and most particularly Maggie, who idolized her, devastated. In death, Anabel is put on a pedestal much like her Poe namesake. As Edgar Allan Poe famously said, "The death of a beautiful woman, is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world."

Maggie is exposed to typhoid as well, but manages a recovery, though not fully as far as her spirit. Maggie, carries an immense amount of guilt around for being in love with Anabel's friend, Geoffrey, the most popular man in town (who, much to everyone's shock and disappointment, also develops a friendship with Priscilla, the "poor girl"). Maggie finds a second chance at a deeply meaningful friendship with Priscilla but it seems from every angle Priscilla is attacked for her lack of money and expensive luxuries in her dorm room. Everyone else has the best of furniture, linens, clothes... all paid for by indulgent parents,,, but no one seems to care too much about actual school attendance. Priscilla tries to do right by the people that worked so hard to give her a better shot in life but is blindsided by the vehement dislike of all these rich girls telling her she's not good enough to run in their circles. Maggie is cornered and questioned for her friendship with Priscilla.  Even Maggie's popularity was a mystery to me - though she was one of the richest girls in the school, throughout the story she constantly seemed to be having what she called "one of her bad half-hours" (only they were coming around like clockwork) where she would bite someone's head off for no reason one minute, call them names, ridicule them and then in the next instance profess her undying love and luck in friendship with them! It struck me as if maybe Maggie was a closet bipolar.

" Maggie's mood scarcely puzzled them. She was so erratic that no one expected anything from her but the unexpected..."

Not to say that bipolar people don't need love too, they do, it was just a mystery to me that Priscilla being poor was unforgivable but the abuse Maggie showed her friends was just considered something of a personality quirk! I saw this behavior a number of times myself when I was in school and it didn't make any more sense back then. Though being a girl myself, I just gotta get this out - women are freakin' weird sometimes!!

The saddest scenes are when Priscilla tries to put differences aside, help these girls out when they get in a bind and finds that she's been led into traps specifically set up to publicly humiliate her. To this day, I am still amazed at how catty women can get sometimes over the most petty things! Case in point, one of the girls, Polly, another slightly less popular but comes from a family with money kind of girl, gets into some money trouble spending too much in the local shops (she bought a bunch of stuff on credit and couldn't pay it back and knew her parents wouldn't give her the money). This poor girl has to auction off her stuff to raise money again so her father won't find out her spending addiction. Well, the girls go nuts, like tigers at dinnertime at the zoo, and start fighting over who gets what of her stuff - before she's even organized the auction! The school does not approve of the auction, but doesn't find out about it until it's over, getting a bunch of girls in trouble, including Priscilla, who didn't buy anything but merely attended because her friend Maggie was there. 

Much of the drama of the novel stems from this auction, where Maggie and Rosalind, a girl with a peculiarly strong hatred for Priscilla (which is intensified when Rosalind feels she's been replaced as Maggie's personal pet of a friend) get in a bidding war over Polly's sealskin coat and coral jewelry set. 
Coral Jewelry

Early 1900s sealskin coat

Maggie doesn't understand Rosalind's behavior and in fueled defense of her friend, Prissie, Maggie bids on the coat and wins it (though she has no interest in owning it). She also bids on the coral jewelry, mainly just to drive up the bid that Rosalind would have to pay. Rosalind gets caught up in the bid and ends up bidding five pounds higher than she can actually afford. It's like an episode of Storage Wars! :-P Thus starts the real drama to the story - what cheap levels Rosalind will stoop to, to gather that extra five pounds... eventually putting together a scheme that sheds a particularly bad, and undeserved light on Priscilla. But karma wins out in the end
;-) Big fan of that girl, Karma lol.

Priscilla reminded me a lot of me my first year of college, before I had a healthy dose of the real world lol. Many of the conversations she has with teachers and friends I remember having at times. One in particular, a scene where Priscilla visits the vicar that helped send her to school, struck me as a sort of a mix of myself then and now:

"So I have come to you," continued Priscilla, " to say that I must take steps at once to enable me to earn money...I must earn must as soon as it is possible for a girl to do so, and I must stop dreaming and thinking of nothing but books, for perhaps books and I will have little to say to each other in the future,"

"That would be sad," replied Mr. Hayes (the vicar), "for that would be taking a direct opposite direction to the path that Providence clearly intends you to walk in....when it comes to a woman earning her bread, let her turn to that path where promise lies...Here there is much." He touched her big forehead lightly with his hand. "You must not give up your books, my dear," he said, " for independently of the pleasure  they afford, they will also give you bread and butter."

I still struggle daily with finding my "bread and butter" path in life! And there have been times when I've said that I just need to pull my head out of my books, but in fact - those books are such a huge part of the person I've become today. They gave me a source of reason and teaching when nothing else was offered. They gave me peace in knowing that my feelings were not exclusive and I was not alone in days of suffering. As cheezy as it sounds, books also kept me believing in love and good people. If you don't have a source, any source, of hope and faith, what do you have??

Hope by Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones

There was one other experience of Priscilla's that struck a chord with me: the moment she goes back to her humble roots after attending college and seeing a bit of the world:

"Priscilla had seen elegance and beauty since she went away; she had entered into the life of the cultivated, the intellectually great. In spite of her deep affection for Aunt Raby, she came back to the ugliness and the sordid surroundings of home with a pang which she hated herself for feeling. She forgot Aunt Raby's sufferings for a moment in her uncouthness. She longed to shower riches, refinement, beauty on her."

I've felt this a number of times in my own life, anytime I've "gone back to my roots". Though still modest, the life I live now would seem nearly "well-off" to those who raised me, because we started so close to the bottom.  I struggle with mixed feelings of being embarrassed of that former life and at the same time wanting to take my family still there out of it and give them the life they've never known. 

That's one of the things that surprised and impressed me about this novel - the subtle mix of innocence, darkness, petty behavior, jealousies, conflicted emotions, guilt... it's all in here! 

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Annabel Lee

New post soon but had to share this - Annabel Lee by Edgar Allen Poe (which is mentioned in the next book I'm reviewing) - beautifully presented. Check it out - love this poem! :- )
Annabel Lee

Friday, June 10, 2011

The Mermaids Singing - Prime Example of "Do As I Say, Not As I Do"

The Mermaids Singing by Lisa Carey is a book that my mother recommended to me. Though my mother and I typically have different reading interests, I'm always willing to give new / different things a try : - ) To start things off, I just wanted to share the beautiful poem at the start of this book:

Girl Reading by Charles Edward Perugini

WHEN you are old and gray and full of sleep
  And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
  And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;
How many loved your moments of glad grace,         5
  And loved your beauty with love false or true;
  But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face.
And bending down beside the glowing bars,
  Murmur, a little sadly, how love fled  10
  And paced upon the mountains overhead,
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars

~William Butler Yeats

Is that not some amazing imagery?? Love that.  Now about the book. Not a bad read overall, pretty definitive chick-lit though, which is not typically my genre. I don't generally go for that whole "a group of ladies take a trip to the beach, bitch about their husbands and unruly, disrespectful children and 'find' themselves in the process" kind of book. Good thing this is not that - not totally anyway.  The Mermaids Singing  by Lisa Carey is the story of three generations of women and how the choices and mistakes of one woman can have the trickle effect on the rest of her family. 

Lisa Carey
It amazed me that no one seemed to learn anything from the experiences of those around them! In fact, each woman screws up her life in her own special way:

1) Irish-Catholic, unmarried Cliona (the 1st generation) as a young woman has one wild, frisky night and gets knocked up, essentially (in her mind anyway) destroying her chances to attend nursing school ( I believe this part of the story takes place in late 40s/early 50s).

2) Her daughter, Grace, grows up to really feel ... I'm not sure if it's hate or resentment she feels toward her mother.. but she's just all over unpleasant toward her mother and in spite starts fooling around with the son of her mother's boss and SURPRISE gets knocked up herself

3)Grainne (pronounced Gran-nya) - MINI-SPOILER ALERT:  ***baby #2 for Grace, the pregnancy from the boss's son ends in miscarriage*** - grows up to be a sad, quiet fifteen year old who has to watch her mother battle breast cancer (Grace's battle with cancer is what the book opens with) and is unfortunately left to figure out her teenage years and budding sexuality without the benefit of a mother OR a father to help explain it to her. She, thankfully, doesn't get knocked up but through grief does work her way into a bad case of anorexia. 

Grainne is named after the Irish pirate-queen Granuaile, more commonly known in the U.S. by the name Grace O'Malley. Grainne is a truncated version of the name (click on name to read history of this bold woman!).

A stained glass work of Grace O'Malley

Grace O'Malley's tower on Achill Island, Ireland

Grainne in the beginning of the book is living in Boston, MA with her mother and has no memory of her father.  After losing her mother (again, described in opening chapters), Grainne is sent to live with Grandma Cliona in Ireland, who breaks it to her that Grainne's long-lost father lives on the same Inis Muruch (Island of the Mermaids) as Cliona. Grainne is told that she herself lived with her mother and father on the island until the age of three when her mother ran off with her to the U.S. Grainne replies, "I didn't even know my mother was Irish." REALLY?? As the reader, you're told that Grace was born and raised on this remote island in Ireland, generations of Irish family around her, so I'm guessing she had a nice, native accent going. She then marries a local boy, also heavily accented I'm assuming, and her own daughter was there until the age of 3... what happened to the accent? Did she just drop it for the rest of her life?? That seems like a good deal of unneccessary covering up.  Oh yeah, and the name Grainne?? Girl never wondered why her mother had such a pull toward a name nearly impossible to mispronounce everywhere except Ireland? This seemed like a flub in the plot to me, but then this was Carey's first published novel released in 1999.

Grace pretty much hunts down Seamus, nearly forcing herself on him. Lucky for her, he's a few years older than her and a real man in that he doesn't feel the need to rush or force anything even if he's feeling an attraction just as much as her. Imagine if he was the type to take an offer and run with it, take it too far to the point of being dangerously aggressive?? Sometimes, people just don't think!

When he feels the timing is more appropriate, Seamus succumbs and ... drumroll.... and gets Grace pregnant..  which she seems surprised by! Girl, he's IRISH, c'mon!! Grace reluctantly, VERY reluctantly, agrees to get married but after a few years of domesticity has an intense  moment of "I have wings and I need to fly" so she leaves for the U.S. assuming the man she married (who she was madly in love with btw) would follow. Over the years, I've noticed that guys typically don't like to chase - seems to be a pride thing - or at least a "enough with the head games!" thing lol. Grace's husband Seamus (LOVE that name!) was of this variety and left her in Boston which for some reason she got all ticked off about and decided to start telling her daughter dad left them.. .world's best mom material there... 

Sirens / Mermaids and the mythology and mystery around them play a large part in the story. In fact, Seamus, early in his marriage to Grace, often acts as if she is a mermaid and jokes about her slipping back to sea one day, but inwardly always knows it's only a matter of time before she leaves.

Once Grace's daughter, Grainne moves to Inis Muruch, she is also immersed in this environment full of a mix of fables, mysticism, and a healthy dose of hardcore Irish-Catholicism. Grainne begins to see herself as a form of Granuaile, the pirate queen, or the sirens that are said to take down the fishing boats (or more specifically, the men who work the boats).  

The Siren by John William Waterhouse

The Siren by Howard Pyle

The Fisherman And The Siren by Lord Leighton

According to legend, those naughty sirens are said to call to sailors and fishermen with haunting music and then drag them down to their undersea lair where the men are drowned in the process of being seduced!

"OOOhhhoooo here she comes... she's a maneata... WATCH OUT BOY, she'll chew ya up! "
   * lyrics courtesy of Hall & Oates :- ) *

Where are they hanging out that has chlorine in the ocean??

But ya know, while I was reading this, I couldn't help but be reminded of the movie Secret of Roan Inish, which is also based on the mysteries and legends of the mermaids - or more specifically, seal-ladies known as selkies (similar myths surrounding them). MUST SEE movie btw - gorgeous!!

In general, the book is a nice, easy read with enough mythology to keep the story interesting and the plot moving along. I wouldn't be surprised if this one gets turned into a movie sometime in the future, particularly since I read that several of Carey's stories have already been optioned for movie rights (though no mention if this was one of them). The moody, misty quality of this story would make a great rainy day read!

Siren by Jade Bengco

View more of Jade's work here!