Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #20: The Bonesetter’s Daughter by Amy Tan

A beautifully rendered book in the style of The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan’s fourth novel The Bonesetter’s Daughter takes us forward and backward in time, skipping between modern-day California and pre-Revolution China. It excels at what Tan is best known for, her exploration of relationships between mothers, daughters, and sisters.  She also sensitively deals with the issue of immigrant families which split between generations over the old ways vs. the new ways, and she presents us with an intimate portrayal of life in China during the upheaval of war and revolution. And, finally, she weaves the theme of communication—oral, written, pictorial, familial—throughout her novel as a way of letting her readers know that a good way of getting to know ourselves is through getting to know others.

Chinese-American Ruth Young is a ghost-writer of self-help books, living in California with her partner Art with whom she has an increasingly strained relationship. Juggling her personal life, her professional life and her own growing self-isolation, Ruth is also trying to cope with Liu-Ling, her 77-year-old mother who is succumbing to the ravages of Alzheimers.  Ruth was raised by Liu-Ling as an only child, and her relationship to her mother has been warped by the fears, superstitions and depression to which Liu-Ling has always been subject. Believing her life is cursed, Liu-Ling’s emotional life is scarred by her past, but it is a past Ruth begins to unravel in the form of a journal her mother has written in Chinese and given to Ruth to “learn the truth.”  In the course of that unraveling of her mother’s memories, Ruth is able to reconnect with the mother she has long disdained—and, most importantly, with her own family history.

Through the journal , Ruth learns that her mother had been raised by her family’s horribly scarred and mute nursemaid, the daughter of a famous bonesetter in rural China who treated people’s ills with a secret cache of revered “dragon bones” and “oracle bones.” The nursemaid is horribly mistreated by everyone, and eventually rejected by Liu-Ling herself, who only later—after the woman’s terrible death–learns that the nursemaid was actually her long-suffering mother. Liu-Ling is sent to an orphanage, where she grows up to become a teacher, falls in love with a young anthropologist who is part of a team unearthing “Peking Man,” and learns that the famous “dragon bones” her mother knew the location of through her bonesetter father, were actually part of the world-famous archaeological discovery.  Liu-Ling’s husband is killed by the invading Japanese, and Liu-Ling eventually manages to escape to America, where Ruth is born and where Liu-Ling remains haunted  by memory of her mother until she is finally able to share her story with her daughter.

Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #10: The Hunger Games trilogy, by Suzanne Collins

As a general rule, I avoid young adult books turned into hit movies, but after my daughter—a high school English teacher whose tastes I respect—taught The Hunger Games to her class, I decided to give the series a try. One long weekend later, in which I devoured the popular Collin’s trilogy borrowed from a neighbor’s 14-year-old daughter, I can unreservedly say that the books are a worthy contribution to the young adult genre, with a wealth of social and political commentary about war, totalitarianism, political leadership and personal responsibility all woven into the fabric of a compelling adventure story.

Since most people have either read the book, seen the movie (based on the first of the series), or read a review, I won’t bother going into plot details, except to observe that author Collins very clearly modeled her high-tech dystopic society on a very old one—ancient Rome, to be exact—where the decadent capital survives solely based on the exploitation of outlying districts whose slave labor services the needs of the Roman populace under the watchful eyes of the centurions.  At one point, it is explained to the heroine Katniss that the name of this dystopia—Panem—actually comes from the Latin expression panem et circenses, or “bread and circuses,” a metaphor used by the Roman poet Juvenal to decry the deliberate erosion of a citizenry by providing diversions to gratify the population’s most shallow needs in exchange for abdication of responsibility.  This is clearly the case in Panem’s Capitol, where shallowness and excess—in fashion, in food, in entertainment (the Hunger games, for example), in thought itself—is the norm, and stands in sharp contrast to the poverty, the desperation, the struggle to survive in the Districts. And just as Rome fell, so too must Panem.

[A relevant aside here, if I may. It didn’t seem to me to be much of a stretch to read between the lines of Collin’s descriptions of Panem, and see today’s ubiquitous advertisements hyping prestige, youth, sex, and beauty. Our children and teens are already plugged into their “circuses”– iPod, iPads, and video games–while their parents watch endless hours of reality television, Superbowl extravaganzas, fantasy, and gore.  Bread and circuses, American-style.]

Panem’s annual Hunger Games were highly creative, horribly bloody, and grotesquely fascinating, and to me they resembled nothing so much as an elaborately-designed video game, complete with disasters, monsters and enemies hiding around every corner.  Indeed, Hunger Games video games are reportedly in development right now, and are sure to be in the hands of our children soon, a fact which raises some pressing questions about the corrosive effects of these killings games on those who participate in them. Collin’s chose adolescents to serve as the “tributes” in the Hunger Games, and then places us—her readers– inside the Games through the minds of Katniss and Peeta, where we get to experience not only their horror, terror, and grief inside the Arena, but as importantly, the mental and emotional deterioration that they and all the “victors” experience in the aftermath of the Games.  I found the lengthy, almost clinical, descriptions of disassociation, addiction, suicidal thoughts, and post-traumatic shock that afflicted the Game victors—many for decades—the most affecting parts of Collins’ story.

Obviously, this trilogy speaks to youth on many different levels. But Collins chose to write not a fairy tale, but a story which offers some dark truths about the world. And for that, she is to be commended.