January 12, 2009
Last night Catherine and I went to our mother-daughter book club meeting at Show-Ling and Jaeda’s house. We had all read Ireland, by Frank Delaney. At 560 pages it weighed in (literally) as more than the books we usually read, but we’ve been knowing our book choice since early November so we had a bit of time to read it.
Show-Ling made cabbage soup and baked potatoes with toppings as an Irish-themed-sort of dinner. Then we had yummy homemade apple pie for dessert. We all had so much to catch up on since we hadn’t seen each other for nearly two months that it was hard to break away and talk about the book.
Jaeda had a list of questions she wanted us all to answer during the discussion, and we went around in a circle talking about the two story lines that appear in Ireland: that of the storyteller’s tales of Irish history, and that of Ronan’s own story.
Most of us liked learning more about the history of Ireland. And I think a lot of us would love to be able to hear those tales as told through a storyteller like the one in the book. Listening to Ireland as an audiobook might enhance its enjoyment.
While many of were enchanted with Ronan’s story, we were less forgiving of how the novel progressed along those lines. We did discuss how Ronan makes a somewhat classical heroe’s journey throughout the novel, moving from childhood to adulthood along the way. But we didn’t like the secrecy that surrounded so much of his life and circumstances. I won’t spoil the plot with more details, as the readers know all along that something mysterious is happening in the background as Ronan searches for the storyteller through so many years.
All in all I would rate Ireland a good novel for readers in high school and older, but I don’t recommend it for a mother-daughter book club. While clubs can tackle longer choices, they don’t work in most situations, when clubs are meeting monthly or even every six weeks.
January 8, 2009
The Painter from Shanghai by Jennifer Cody Epstein is a historical fiction novel based on the life of Pan Yuliang, a Chinese artist born in 1899.
Sold into a brothel by her opium-addicted uncle when she’s 14, Yuliang learns to cope with the help of her friend and top girl at the house, Jinling. Then Jinling’s violent death emphasizes that life in a brothel is always tenuous and under someone else’s control. When a local official, Pan Zanhua, becomes attracted to her for her mind and not her body, he buys her freedom from the house and makes her his second wife, or concubine. But the match is clearly one of love, and Zanhua wants Yuliang to develop her mind by learning to read.
Soon Yuliang discovers another passion: painting. Defying convention of the times, she is admitted to the local art school, which has created scandal by bringing in nude models to paint. Yuliang wins a scholarship that takes her first to France, then to Rome to study western painting, and she returns home with new ideas about art that don’t sit well with many in Chinese society at the time.
Epstein tells Yuliang’s tale in this epic of a book about a woman who learns to gain control over her own fate. The Painter of Shanghai is filled with rich details of China from the early days of the 20th century into the very beginnings of the rise of communism, revealing the country’s ambivalence between moving into a modern world or cleaving to the old ways. Yuliang is a strong woman who never compromises what she believes to be right, even at great cost to herself and her husband. I recommend it for mother-daughter book clubs with girls aged 16 and up. Readers should be aware of detailed scenes of life in a brothel and other sexual encounters.