Brothers by Da Chen

Synopsis, courtesy of

Brothers by Da ChenAt the height of China’s Cultural Revolution a powerful general fathered two sons. Tan was born to the general’s wife and into a life of comfort and luxury. His half brother, Shento, was born to the general’s mistress, who threw herself off a cliff in the mountains of Balan only moments after delivering her child. Growing up, each remained ignorant of the other’s existence. In Beijing, Tan enjoyed the best schools, the finest clothes, and the prettiest girls. Shento was raised on the mountainside by an old healer and his wife until their deaths landed him in an orphanage, where he was always hungry, alone, and frightened. Though on divergent roads, each brother is driven by a passionate desire—one to glorify his father, the other to seek revenge against him.

Separated by distance and opportunity, Tan and Shento follow the paths that lie before them, while unknowingly falling in love with the same woman and moving toward the explosive moment when their fates finally merge.

Brothers, by bestselling memoirist Da Chen, is a sprawling, dynamic family saga, complete with assassinations, love affairs, narrowly missed opportunities, and the ineluctable fulfillment of destiny.

Brothers tells the old familiar story of rivalry and bitterness between brothers (or half-brothers, as it were). Tan and Shento are the sons of the General Ding Long, a member of the illustrious Long clan, which has political ties to Chairman Mao. Tan, being the legitimate son, is privy to a world of private schools, chauffeurs, and society parties; Shento, as the bAstard son, lives in the remote area of Balan with the old couple who adopted him. After a myriad of implausible events, Shento lands in an orphanage and Tan’s family goes into exile in the remote province the Longs came from.

Sumi Wo is the long-suffering, (stereotypically) saintly female protagonist who charms the pants off of both Shento and Tan. (What a coincidence, eh?) Shento gets dibs as he met Sumi first; they are both orphans with grand dreams of life beyond the orphanage. Tan meets sumi in his family’s ancestral village and is (of course) immediately enthralled by her beauty and intelligence.

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Once Were Warriors by Alan Duff

Synopsis from book flap, courtesy of

Once Were Warriors by Alan DuffOnce Were Warriors is Alan Duff’s harrowing vision of his country’s indigenous people two hundred years after the English conquest. In prose that is both raw and compelling, it tells the story of Beth Heke, a Maori woman struggling to keep her family from falling apart, despite the squalor and violence of the housing projects in which they live. Conveying both the rich textures of Maori tradition and the wounds left by its absence, Once Were Warriors is a masterpiece of unblinking realism, irresistible energy, and great sorrow.

Reading this book was such a colossal chore, which is why I didn’t finish it. Don’t quote me but I believe F. Scott Fitzgerald once dismissed Jack Kerouac’s novels as an example of “typing, not writing.” I believe the same sentiment applies here.

Once Were Warriors focuses on the Hekes, a Maori family living (if it can be called that) in the slum of Pine Block; the Hekes’ home is directly adjacent to the palatial mansion of the pakeha (meaning white, and therefore much loathed, apparently) Tramberts. Way to kick a brother when he’s down, right? Beth and Jake are both too drunk and disillusioned to care much for their kids: Nig, who has joined the local gang; Boogie, who was sentenced to a juvenile correctional facility (his parents were unable to attend the sentencing as they were both too hungover and Jake had beaten beth to a pulp the night before); and Grace, who is the fragile, sensitive girl and, in keeping with Alan Duff’s cliched characterizations, is doomed by her situation.

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QotD: Books From My Childhood

What books did you love as a child?
Submitted by hearts.

The Dark is Rising Sequence by Susan Cooper has been a favorite since the fourth grade. The books relate the story of the eternal battle between the Light and the Dark. These books should be right up there with The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, and Harry Potter, but they are woefully underrated and underappreciated.

The sequence is imbued with Celtic, Welsh, and English folklore, as it is set in Cornwall and Wales and has requisite appearances by Herne the Hunter and the Pendragon. There are five books in the sequence.

Over Sea, Under Stone

Over Sea, Under Stone introduces the three Drew children – Simon, Jane, and Barney – as they holiday in Cornwall with their great-uncle Merriman Lyon. They find a map in the attic, which they take as a sign to pursue adventure. The children don’t realize that by finding the map, they have become part of a very real quest, and their great-uncle Merry is revealed to be someone of great importance. There are caves and beaches and sinister enemies and friends later revealed to be enemies and Arthurian legends and many other things that will stimulate the reader’s imagination. Great book, although it’s not quite as complex as the other books in the series.

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The Secret History by Donna Tartt

Synopsis from book flap, courtesy of

Storytelling in the grand manner, The Secret History is a debut remarkable for its hypnotic erudition and acute psychological suspense, and for the richness of its emotions, ideas, and language.

There are the confessions, years afterward, of a young man who found at a small college the life of privilege and intellect he’d long coveted – and rarely has the glorious experience of youth infatuated with knowledge and with itself been so achingly realized. Then, amazed, Richard Papen is drawn into the ultimate inner circle: five students, worldly and self-assured, selected by a charismatic classics professor to participate in the search for truth and beauty. Together they study the mysteries of ancient Greek culture and spend long weekends at an old country house, reading, boating, basking in an Indian summer that stretches late into autumn.

Mesmerized by his new comrades, Richard is unaware of the crime which they have committed in his dreamy, unwitting presence. But once taken into their confidence, he and the others slowly and inevitably begin to believe in the necessity of murdering the one classmate and friend who might betray their secret and their future.

Hugely ambitious and compulsively readable, this is a chronicle of deception and complicity, of Dionysian abandon, of innocence corrupted by self-love and moral arrogance; and, finally, it is a story of guilt and responsibility. An astonishing achievement by any standard, The Secret History immediately establishes Donna Tartt as a supremely gifted novelist.

Nothing will make a book more unpalatable or pretentious (and, in some cases, intimidating) than calling it a thinking person’s book. But this, essentially, is what The Secret History is, although it is also many other things as well: a comedy of manners, a tragedy, a psychological thriller, a romance (although not in the bodice-ripping sense); that’s not to say that it’s not pretentious because it is.

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A Changed Man by Francine Prose

Synopsis from book flap, courtesy of

On an unseasonably warm spring afternoon, a young neo-Nazi named Vincent Nolan walks into the office of World Brotherhood Watch, a human rights foundation headed by a charismatic Holocaust survivor, Meyer Maslow. Vincent announces that he wants to make a radical change in his life. But what is Maslow to make of this rough-looking stranger who claims to have read Maslow’s books, who has Waffen-SS tattoos under his shirtsleeves, and who says that his mission is to save guys like him from becoming guys like him?

As he gradually turns into the sort of person who might actually be able to do that, Vincent also transforms those around him: Maslow, who fears that heroism has become a desk job; Bonnie Kalen, the foundation’s fund-raiser, a divorced single mother and a devoted believer in Maslow’s crusade against intolerance and injustice; and Bonnie’s teenage son, Danny, whose take on the world around him is at once openhearted, sharp-eyed, and as fundamentally decent as his mother’s.

Masterfully plotted, darkly comic, A Changed Man illuminates the everyday transactions in our lives, exposing what remains invisible in plain sight in our drug-addled and media-driven culture. Remarkable for the author’s tender sympathy for her characters, A Changed Man poses the essential questions: What constitutes a life worth living? Is it possible to change? What does it mean to be a moral human being? The fearless intelligence, wit, and humanity that inform this novel make it Francine Prose’s most accomplished yet.

Francine Prose’s characterization skills are superb, although her style took a bit of getting used to. Her style is almost too conversational and informal, which isn’t so much a criticism as much as an observation. I suspect the previous statement is more reflective of my personal preference anyway, rather than an actual detriment to the novel as a whole, because, despite what I say, the book was compulsively readable.

The fact that Vincent Nolan, the Neo-Nazi, was the most sympathetic, likeable character says a lot about Francine Prose’s ability. To be honest, though, Vincent wasn’t much of a Nazi to begin with, having (mostly) manufactured his bigotry after a bout of bad luck and bad decisions (girlfriend left him, he dunked an old Jewish lady in a swimming pool) left him homeless. Because the only person who could help him out was his cousin Raymond (a bona fide redneck with a swastika tattoo on his hand), Vincent figured that the best thing to do would be to join (or at least pretend to join) the Aryan Resistance Movement. A particularly good batch of ecstasy was instrumental in leading Vincent to renounce his bigoted ways and seek out the World Brotherhood Watch, headed by the charismatic (and sometimes opportunistic) Holocaust survivor, Meyer Maslow.

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The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood

Synopsis from book flap, courtesy of

The Robber Bride

Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride is inspired by “The Robber Bridegroom,” a wonderfully grisly tale from the Brothers Grimm in which an evil groom lures three maidens into his lair and devours them, one by one. But in her version, Atwood brilliantly recasts the monster as Zenia, a villainess of demonic proportions, and sets her loose in the lives of three friends, Tony, Charis, and Roz. All three “have lost men, spirit, money, and time to their old college acquaintance, Zenia. At various times, and in various emotional disguises, Zenia has insinuated her way into their lives and practically demolished them.

To Tony, who almost lost her husband and jeopardized her academic career, Zenia is ‘a lurking enemy commando.’ To Roz, who did lose her husband and almost her magazine, Zenia is ‘a cold and treacherous bitch.’ To Charis, who lost a boyfriend, quarts of vegetable juice and some pet chickens, Zenia is a kind of zombie, maybe ‘soulless'” (Lorrie Moore, New York Times Book Review). In love and war, illusion and deceit, Zenia’s subterranean malevolence takes us deep into her enemies’ pasts.

The Robber Bride tells the story of three accidental friends – Tony, Charis, and Roz – brought together by the destructive machinations of the beautiful and elusive Zenia. after Zenia dies, these three women continue to maintain a friendship fostered by their shared humiliation. So it was quite surprising for them when, five years after her supposed death, Zenia turned up while they were having lunch. Zenia, who is clearly very much not dead, and her sudden reappearance force Tony, Charis, and Roz to reexamine the role Zenia played in their lives.

Margaret Atwood is always readable, always smart, sometimes caustic but always witty. So why is it that I don’t have more to say about this book?

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Oracle Bones by Peter Hessler

Synopsis from book flap, courtesy of

From the acclaimed author of River Town comes a rare portrait, both intimate and epic, of twenty-first-century China as it opens its doors to the outside world.

A century ago, outsiders saw China as a place where nothing ever changes. Today the country has become one of the most dynamic regions on earth. That sense of time—the contrast between past and present, and the rhythms that emerge in a vast, ever-evolving country—is brilliantly illuminated by Peter Hessler in Oracle Bones, a book that explores the human side of China’s transformation.

Hessler tells the story of modern-day China and its growing links to the Western world as seen through the lives of a handful of ordinary people. In addition to the author, an American writer living in Beijing, the narrative follows Polat, a member of a forgotten ethnic minority, who moves to the United States in searchof freedom; William Jefferson Foster, who grew up in an illiterate family and becomes a teacher; Emily,a migrant factory worker in a city without a past; and Chen Mengjia, a scholar of oracle-bone inscriptions, the earliest known writing in East Asia, and a man whose tragic story has been lost since the Cultural Revolution. All are migrants, emigrants, or wanderers who find themselves far from home, their lives dramatically changed by historical forces they are struggling to understand.

Peter Hessler excavates the past and puts a remarkable human face on the history he uncovers. In a narrative that gracefully moves between the ancient and the present, the East and the West, Hessler captures the soul of a country that is undergoing a momentous change before our eyes.

This was a random pick from the public library. (With hardcover book prices ranging from $20 – $35, I really don’t have the luxury of picking up just any new thing that comes out. I have to make damn sure that I like it to buy it.) I hadn’t read River Town, which, from my understanding, lays the groundwork for Peter Hessler’s writings about China.

Peter Hessler is a journalist and teacher living in China. This book encapsulates the fish-out-of-water experience that Westerners go through upon trying to immerse themselves in a wholly different culture. Having lived in China for several years at the writing of this book, Mr. Hessler is no longer a neophyte, but he still experiences challenges trying to navigate Chinese culture.

Oracle Bones is not written in a straight narrative; rather, it is comprised of seemingly random vignettes without much to connect them to each other. Therein lies the weakness of the book.

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