Sarong Party Girls by Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan – Book

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When I checked out what books were being published this summer I came across this novel, Sarong Party Girls by Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan. I wasn’t sure if it would be worth reading or not but the description said that the author had written in Singlish, a dialect of English used in Singapore and that this was a dialect that in no way would affect my ability to read and understand this story. I am a language and word lover so that was all I needed to get me to give the book a try. I was afraid it would be some fluffy chick lit, but like the chick lit I have read, it contains deeper thoughts and redeeming qualities.

On the surface the narrator, Jazeline (Jazzy) and her friends, Imo, Fann and Sher seem quite superficial. They have been girls, like many girls in America, who go to work all week and then head out clubbing on the weekends. They are modern girls so they drink a lot, dance a lot, and they sleep around a bit. The dialect they speak in uses many references we think of as sexual and this fact alone means that this book will not suit all readers. In truth, there is no subtlety to be found in the Singapore bar scene that the Sarong Party Girls move in, which caters to every taste that men, if allowed, will indulge in, so I caution you again not to read this novel if you don’t want to learn about their world.

The story line reminds me, however, of an old American movie with the title How to Marry a Millionaire except these girls are already sexually active and they want to marry white guys (ang mohs). Still, like the women in the movie,  it is easy to like Jazeline, and to wish her well despite the rather materialistic project she is currently pursuing. Every once in a while Jazzy shows some real insight into certain realities about the treatment of women in modern Singapore (and elsewhere) by men, especially obvious if you go clubbing every weekend in a bar scene where wealthy men like to keep an entourage of young pretty women around them while they party.

The author, Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan, manages to stay in dialect, using the hip cadences of Singlish almost all of the time. The dialect thins out a bit when Jazzy/Cheryl shares with us her insights into things she is starting to be critical of in relation to the male-female dynamic as she begins to think about finding a partner for life, rather than just living to enjoy the weekends. She is getting too old for the clubs and she is feeling pressured to find her ang moh right now.

Here’s Jazzy/Cheryl in almost full Singlish mode:

“Aiyoh—mabuk already?” Charlie said, blinking at us one time while she pulled out her cigs from her handbag and threw them on the table. This woman was really damn action! Her eyes are quite big and pretty, so she knows that when she acts drama a bit with them, men confirm will steam when they see it. Some more she always outlines her eyes with thick thick black black pencil, so it makes them look bigger and darker, a bit like those chio Bollywood actresses. This type of move – yes is quite obvious drama, but that night, I thought to myself, Jazzy, better take notes. If you can pull this off well, it can be quite useful.”

Here’s Jazzy/Cheryl losing some Singlish as she makes a deeper point:

“The truth is, even if I felt like I could speak honestly, I didn’t know how to explain everything – or anything, really. How to tell him about a society where girls grow up watching their fathers have mistresses and second families on the side? Or one in which you find out one day that it is your mother who is the concubine and that you are the second family? A society that makes you say, when you are twelve or seventeen, ‘No matter what, when I grow up, I am never going to be the woman that tolerates that!’ But then you actually grow up and you look around, and the men who are all around you, the boys you grew up with, no matter how sweet or kind or promising they were, that somehow they have turned into men that all our fathers were and still are.”

I enjoyed this novel even more than I thought I would because it is even more like that old movie How to Marry a Millionaire than you might think. Movies of that classic film era generally contained a message, a practical moral message that passed on some wisdom from the elders in a form that was palatable to a younger generation. I did not really expect to find this in Sarong Party Girls, but it is there, along with a lot of shocking descriptions of what “fun” is like in Singapore, and it made the book worth more. It made it as Jazzy would say, quite shiok — and it is quite feminist also, without leaving men out.

The Woman Who Walked in Sunshine by Alexander McCall Smith – Book

 

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Alexander McCall Smith has been writing The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series of books for more than a decade and I love them all. These stores remind me that there is still sweetness in this chaotic and sometimes wicked world of ours. Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi Radiphuti rarely have dangerous crimes to untangle. They are often called upon to clear up domestic difficulties, misunderstandings, or familial treacheries. Mma Ramotswe and her cohort (although somewhat eccentric) generally solve these delicate situations and sometimes set other things straight along the way.

In this current novel, The Woman Who Walked in Sunshine, Mma Makutsi forces Mma Ramotswe to take a vacation. When a case comes in and when it seems to have been placed in the lap of the perhaps-too-softhearted part-time pinch hitter Rra Polopetsi, Mma Ramotswe almost puts her friendship with Mma Makutsi in jeopardy. She proves that she is not good at vacationing. But her vacation gives her time to think some very good thoughts that remind her about her blessings:

“She gazed at her husband, Being loved and admired by a man like that – and she knew this man, this mechanic, this fixer of machines with their broken hearts, did indeed love and admire her – was like walking in sunshine; it gave the same feeling of warmth and pleasure to bask in the love of one who has promised it, publicly at a wedding ceremony, and who is constant in his promise that such love will be given for the rest of his days. What more could any woman ask? None of us, she thought, not one single one of us, could ask for anything more than that.”

Perhaps we don’t all agree with this sentiment and we might be inclined to want this and still want more, however, the emotion of this expression of marital love gives us hope that goodness will win out over evil and that we still inhabit a moral universe.

Even though this is the sixteenth novel in the series I don’t think I will ever tire of visiting my fictional friends in Gaborone, Botswana.

Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler – Book

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While it is fun to imagine writing a modern version of The Taming of the Shrew, there are some cultural differences between the 21st century and the 18th century that offer challenges to an author that may be insurmountable. Not the least is Shakespeare’s title. The actual word, shrew, must have been invented by men. Even Shakespeare’s female contemporaries when speaking among themselves most likely expressed anger at the term or, possibly a tolerant sort of humor (rolled eyeballs) provided the males in their lives were not actually abusive. In our times men in Western cultures who call women shrews had better be ready for some serious pushback.

We see the humor in the situation though – a woman with a sharp tongue is softened by love for a man who uses his wits to defuse her opposition and we believe he will offer her the respect and affection she needs to take off her armor. Since even someone who seems like a scold deserves love, a happy ending is satisfying and offers hope. Kate, however, is not quite enough of a scold in Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler to have the same impact as Shakespeare’s Kate.

Anne Tyler may have had the idea to do this modern novel based on Shakespeare’s play in the back of her mind for many years. It is not a bad read, but not, I think, as strong as most of Tyler’s other novels. It lacks detail and it is not as witty as the acid give and take of the original. The novel seems more like a writer’s outline than a fully fleshed out offering. In this case Vinegar Girl, although interesting conceptually is a bit lacking in the execution. Of course Shakespeare is formidable writer to take on. If you don’t make your expectations impossibly high, you will enjoy the story. Anne Tyler still has skills that have been polished by a long career as a bestselling author.

Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World by Adam Grant – Book

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How often have you wondered what traits and habits turn someone into “an original” – someone who succeeds in some way that makes them stand out, or even just someone who pursues their own interests without being concerned about what is considered as “normal”, or “cool”? How often have you wondered if you might be an “original” if you only did not have to work? This nonfiction offering, Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World by Adam Grant, attempts to study individuals or businesses that cultivate new ground either successfully or not. There is, quite logically, an attempt to create a matrix of characteristics which might help you analyze whether or not you might be an original, and traits which might explode some myths about people we respect as originals. He includes examples from current culture to back up his points.

Originals may not have the traits you would expect them to have. For example, the author tells us, originals are often procrastinators who put off delivering their final product until the last minute, which gives them time for late developments. They do not accept failure but they often fail many times before they find an idea that works. Grant tells about the ups and downs of the Warby-Parker site creators of the online eye glass site. People thought buying eyeglasses online would never fly but this site is now quite successful. The authors tells us that these originals and, in fact, most of these risk-takers often do not give up their day jobs. It seems that leaping in one aspect of your life while maintaining stability in others areas seems to be the rule rather than the exception.

The author goes through many studies that have been conducted by business experts trying to discover what makes businesses succeed or fail. The Segway and the Polaroid camera are both examples of business products that lost ground because the creators did not want dissenters and hired only admirers who could not break the “bubble” that would have allowed the business to respond flexibly to cultural trends or be aware of market trends that should have been heeded.

I don’t know how exhaustive our knowledge of “originals” is as a result of what this author shares with us. Any attempt to quantify complex and many-faceted intangibles; to produce a list of causes that will produce a desired effect in order to bring about such a non-concrete outcome, is bound to be oversimplified. Adam Grant does not actually give us a list of methodologies to become originals, rather he attempts to explode the myths we already have about what conditions it takes to be such an inventor, creator, prime mover. However there is plenty of encouragement In Grant’s book for people who think that all Originals are uniformly productive and consistently confident. It is also interesting to see what areas are the focus of those who study businesses.

You can find my reviews at Nancy Brisson at http://goodreads.com/

 

The Excellent Lombards by Jane Hamilton – Book

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In The Excellent Lombards Jane Hamilton is doing a Jane Smiley-style farm family story for us. Jane Smiley hasn’t always write about the same farm but she usually writes about a similar era, the era when family farms are no longer profitable, or the children don’t want to continue being farmers, or the suburbs crowd out the farms as developers convince farmer after farmer to sell off parcels of land for housing developments or malls or a Walmart Superstore, a Seven-Eleven. There are always a few farmers who are not ready to sell, who cannot imagine any other way of life or who have a child (in this case, a daughter, Francie) who is in love with the family land and the family business. Jane Hamilton gives us such a tale in her new novel.

There are two brothers, the Lombard brothers, who live on the family land with its 3 houses, 3 barns, four hundred acres of forest, sheep pastures and the prize, the apple orchard. This orchard and the surrounding land has been in the family for four generations. In this generation Sherwood and Dolly Lombard occupy the main house with their two children, Adam and Amanda. Mary Hill, an adopted cousin lives upstairs in the big old farmhouse. Sherwood is not a true farmer, he invents things. Adam and Amanda are being groomed for college. They do not like the outdoors and are unlikely to want to run an orchard.

On the other side of the road Francie lives with her Mom and Dad, Jim and Nellie Lombard and Francie’s brother William. Francie is the narrator. We hear her voice through several years as she changes from child to teenager but the book is not childish. In this generation Francie is the Lombard who loves the farm, cannot imagine any other life and is thrown for a loop whenever she glimpses what the probable fate of the orchard and the estate and the lifestyle will be. Does it still matter in modern times that Francie is a girl? You will have to see for yourself what you think about this.

What I always loved about Jane Smiley was the way she immersed us in a farm family, and we experienced the tortuous inheritance decisions, the romance of a life lived close to nature on owned land, the anxieties of the economics of farm families, so dependent on uncontrollable variables like weather and world events and markets. Jane Hamilton brings to life these same elements that have eventually led to fewer and fewer family farms in America. We have all watched farms disappear from the near hinterlands around our cities. We all see the poor Canada geese trying to conduct their natural lives on tiny manicured wetlands near car dealerships. We have watched them cross eight lane highways with their ducklings – well at least I have. Every day I ride on a road that ran through farmland and now runs through senior housing.

Francis never says this but we can see that she worries. As much as she loves the farm she sees that she would have to learn the things that May Hill knows and she does not want to become May Hill. May Hill is a genius when it comes to fixing farm equipment but she is also a rather scary recluse. Francie says this about May Hill, “She did not like anyone – she did not want to see you on the path.”

Jane Hamilton and The Excellent Lombards made me long to inherit an orchard, at least before the realities began to outweigh the romanticism, but she, like Jane Smiley, made me wish that family farms had never become too culturally irrelevant to survive, or too labor-intensive for modern sensibilities and too lacking in economic stability to be attractive. I fall for this sort of farm tale every time. It is always the same, like a familiar litany, but different enough to captivate me, like an old photograph that gives me such enjoyable nostalgia that I don’t mind seeing it again and again. It would be sad if this way of life did not leave a trace, but as long as people read the books about farming written by these two women, it will live on.

June-July, 2016 Book List

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I usually publish my book lists around the 15th of each month, but my site was under construction and it scattered my wits and interrupted my schedule, so here is the list for both June and July and there are treasures in here and there is plenty of politics, mostly of the Conservative variety. I did not have the usual bulletins from Publishers Weekly, but the New York Times Book Review started arriving like clockwork. Is this like that saying that when one door closes another one opens? Of course, these lists produce both anticipation and anxiety. Which book/s will I love this time? How will I ever, ever get to all of these books? That’s life, full of the paradoxes.

 

Amazon

 

Literature and Fiction

Here Comes the Sun: A Novel by Nicole Dennis-Benn

Pond by Claire Louise Bennett

Invincible Summer by Alice Adams

The Heavenly Table: A Novel by Donald Ray Pollock

Pierced by the Sun by Laura Esquivel

As Good As Gone: A Novel by Larry Watson

Siracusa by Delia Ephron

Ninety-Nine Stories of God by Joy Williams

Night of the Animals: A Novel by Bill Broun

Sarong Party Girls: A Novel by Cheryl Lu-lien Tan

The Singles Game by Lauren Weisberger

 

Hot New Releases

Crisis of Character: A White House Service Office Discloses His Firsthand Experience with Hillary, Bill, and How They Operate by Gary J. Byrne

Wake up America: the Nine Virtues that Made Our Nation Great – and Why We Need Them More Than Ever by Eric Bolling

The Girls: A Novel by Emma Cline

The Black Widow by Daniel Silva

Gravity Falls: Journal 5 by Alex Hirsch, Rob Renzetti

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family by J. D. Vance

White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg

If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty by Eric Metaxas

The Intimidation Game: How the Left is Silencing Free Speech by Kimberly Strassel

Here’s to Us by Elin Hilderbrand

The Gilded Years: A Novel by Karin Tanabe

 

Mystery, Thriller, Suspense

I Am No One: A Novel by Patrick Flanery

All is Not Forgotten: A Novel by Wendy Walker

The Castle of Kings by Oliver Potzch

Wolf Lake: A Novel by John Verdon

How to Set a Fire and Why: A Novel by Jesse Ball

The Heavenly Table: A Novel by Donald Ray Pollock

The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware

The Last One: A Novel by Alexandra Olivia

The Black Widow by Daniel Silva

Dark Matter: A Novel by Blake Crouch

 

Independent Booksellers

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

The Rocks by Peter Nichols

The Girls by Emma Cline

Before the Fall by Noah Hawley

Barkskins by Annie Proulx

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

Modern Lovers by Emma Straub

Here’s to Us by Elin Hilderbrand

Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur

Under the Harrow by Flynn Berry

Lily and the Octopus by Steven Rowley

The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes

The Course of Love by Alain de Botton

Murder on the Quai by Cara Black

Charcoal Joe by Walter Mosley

Britt-Marie Was Here by Fredrik Backman

The After Party by Anton Di Sclafini

Smoke by Dan Vyleta

 

New York Times Book Review

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

Smoke by Dan Vyleta

The Book of Esther by Emily Barton (YA)

The Sport of Kings by C. E. Morgan

Elizabeth: The Forgotten Years by John Guy (NF)

The New Arab Wars by Marc Lynch (NF)

Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner? By Katrin Marçal (NF)

The Money Cult by Chris Lehmann  (NF)

A Million Windows by James McNamara

Barkskins by Annie Proulx

The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism

by Yuval Leven (NF)

White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide by Carol Anderson (NF)

Spiral: Trapped in the Forever War by Mark Danner (NF)

Jackson, 1964: And Other Dispatches from Fifty Years of Reporting on Race in America by Calvin Trillin (NF)

White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg (NF)

Money Changes Everything: How Finance Made Civilization Possible by William N. Goetzmann (NF)

Native Believer by Ali Eteraz

 

1st novels

The Atomic Weight of Love by Elizabeth Church (don’t know if this is a great book, but it is a great title)

Happy Family by Tracy Barone

The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt by Tracy Farr

Stork Mountain by Miroslav Penkov

 

Crime Fiction

Charcoal Joe by Walter Mosley

Willnot by James Sallis

Murder on the Quai by Cara Black

Burn What Will Burn by C B McKenzie

The Sudden Appearance of Hope by Claire North

Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter

The Extra by A B Yehoshua

The Drowned Detective by Neil Jordon

Born on Tuesday by Elnathan John

I Almost Forgot About You by Terry McMillian

The Sun in Your Eyes by Deborah Shapiro+