Yihun Li is a master of gloomy. Kinder Than Solitude is considerably less gloomy than The Vagrants, but still manages to drag three young people for 300 pages of assorted sadness, guilt, and suspicion after one of their relatives is mysteriously poisoned, probably, but we will never know for sure, by one of them. The interest of the novel lies in the characters rather than the plot, of which there is not much despite the transatlantic moves of two of the main characters. I especially enjoyed the depiction of the young teenager sent to Beijing to live with distant relatives and finding herself quite cut off from warmth or love, but the rest of the story I found rather tedious, and the language that critics called sumptuous I thought verged on awkward at times, as if it were a translated work.
One of the reasons why I keep this blog is to have a record of what I have read, and in this instance I should have checked my reviews of the author’s past books. Having failed to appreciate The Senator’s Wife, Lost in the Forest, and The Lake Shore Limited would have been clues that picking up The Arsonist may not be a successful move. Indeed, this story set my teeth on edge, from the parochial, entitled group of rich people who “summer” in an unnamed New England village to the studied burned-out aid worker whose story seems to be taken straight from, well, books about aid workers in Africa, all cliches included. Add an aging patriarch with Alzheimer’s and a series of house fires and let the platitudes rip. I could not even muster the energy to wish the former aid-worker heroine good luck with her town romance.
Minding the Manor: The Memoir of a 1930s English Kitchen Maid is the true story of the six years the author spent as a scullery maid rapidly rising to cook, “downstairs”. Written by a near-centenarian in a plain, sometimes awkward style, it’s a delightful and insightful account of what it’s like to be 14, away from home for the first time, and working 14+ hours a day, or 20 and responsible for feeding scores of adults and children for three very complex meals, everyday. There’s lots of kindness for past employers and workmates (less for others!) and vivid memories of a score of characters.
An excellent personal view of the descriptions in Servants.
There are great moments in The Ice House, starting with the startling discovery of a corpse in the eponymous ice house, as well as more plot twists than should be allowed to fit in 300 pages, but it did not work for me. One reason was that the tone never seemed to decide firmly between outrageously campy and factual. The other is that the queer-bashing atmosphere of the village sounded ridiculous and incredible, perhaps a victim of different times (the book dates back to 1992). So the glimmers of Agatha Christie or P.D. James deftness were soon extinguished.
Two stars because I cannot deny that I wanted to know what happened, but under duress.
The Fruit Hunters: A Story of Nature, Adventure, Commerce, and Obsession is full of exotic, unknown fruit, and I mean unknown, not mere dragon fruit, rambutan, or durian, but goji, kalmon, and mohobo-hobo. Unfortunately, while the book displays pleasing botanical drawings of various fruit trees along each section head, there are no pictures of these rarities, even as the author bends over backward to describe their stunning taste.
And while the author knows how to meander around the world and a variety of topics, he can linger too long. Case in point: it may good to know about crazy frutarians, but after a while they just sound like any other obsessive types. I would also dispense with the standard lament of the food industry’s depriving consumers of good-tasting fruit. Surely if consumers demand something else than cardboard, the industry will deliver. I may live in paradise (I do live in California, which is surely close to paradise when it comes to fruit) but I see that my local fruit-and-vegetable shop is starting to promote apples and apricots grown by specific particular local growers (tomatoes, too, which are technically fruit as well) — and customers are responding. If we could educate everyone to look for taste and not just looks, we can change the way fruit is marketed.
To Rise Again at a Decent Hour is written as a highly sophisticated stream of consciousness story starring a workaholic dentist who dates his own staff (to save time, one imagines), and is suddenly ambushed by a mysterious man who creates a fake website for his business and slowly adds to his fake social presence, forcing him to confront the man and eventually get sucked into his (most improbable) story of a lost tribe. I thought the first third or half of the book was brilliant: the dentist with the messy personal life is just too entertaining (and who knows what our own dentists are thinking about while our mouths are open and dialog inexistent). Unfortunately, I found the unlikely denouement to be too far-fetched.
The premise of Queen Sugar is that a young African-American woman who lives in Los Angeles unexpectedly inherits a sugarcane plantation in Louisiana from her father. Upon moving there, the single mother, moving in with her elderly grandmother, discovers that the plantation is a mess and other planters not especially friendly. Add in a wayward half-brother and all the stereotypes of the South, dysfunctional families, and heroic rescues come together for the ball (and a hurricane, too!)