Monday, September 23, 2013

Letters From the Jade Dragon Box, Gale Sears

This is a Historical Fiction-which is one of my favorite genres of all time! As anyone who has read my blog knows. There's just something about the combination of fact and fiction that makes fact come alive and become memorable in a way that fact alone cannot. It's probably the lack of personal details in fact that makes it more sterile.

This book is told by 15 year old Wen-Shan's voice and perspective. She was born in mainland China, Guilin but was smuggled out at the age of around 5 to live with her great uncle in Hong Kong when things got really bad under Mao Tse-tung's rule.

Like my friend who also reviewed (and recommended this book to me) this book, I feel like my history knowledge is grossly lacking! But I'm not sure exactly whose fault that is. I mean, there's only so much time in a day and you really don't get a real history class until high school. With the government in our country so bent on making sure that the English and Math skills are up, a lot of other subjects suffer. My mom who taught Kindergarten and is now teaching first grade had to cut Science and other activities due to requirements of MORE reading and MORE math. The school district I used to teach for cut most of the trained librarians-media specialists-the year I moved and I recently found out that PE was cut too. What's next? What's the next seemingly less important subject? History has been grossly pushed to the side at the expense of learning lessons we NEED to know. Teachers who are saints and probably magicians as well, have found ways to incorporate meaningful history lessons into other units of study (I know I did my best to do this in my band classes-since I never did manage to make the connection that Mozart lived during the same time as the Revolutionary War even though I KNEW the dates of both.....when I was younger), but still, the fact that time keeps marching forward and history is being created every second, how in the world can all of it possibly be taught? And who can really say what is the most important history to learn? I now think about the excruciating decision authors of Scripture must have had when trying to decide what to write and what to leave out-especially the scripture that was recorded on metal plating instead of paper and had only a finite amount of room.

Anyhow, I knew very little about the oppression of the Chinese citizens under the tyrannical-insanity driven ruler Mao Tse-tung. He was truly crazy. He insisted that 3X's the normal crop of rice be yielded. He ordered citizens to kill all the sparrows because they were pests who ate the grain. Then with a lack of them in the eco system, the following year, the insects destroyed the crops since they no longer had predators to keep the populations in check. He pounded it into their heads that he was doing everything for the people, yet people starved-even when producing enough-because it was sent to other countries to buy machinery. He wanted an ignorant society only able to read the book of his personal sayings. One of his philosophies was "Do unto others what you would not want done to yourself" which is 100% opposite of Confucius who states "Do not do to others what you would not want done to yourself." It was Marxism and Socialism and Communism to the T.

Anyhow, Wen-shan and her uncle receive a call on the same day as the announcement of the death of Mao Tse-tung, from someone saying they have something for them, and it turns out that Master Quan, her uncle and grandfather's teacher of art, has been smuggled out of China and with him, he has brought a great treasure he also smuggled, the Jade Dragon Box which contains letters to Wen-shan from her mother, and paintings from her grandfather which were penned and hidden at great dangers to them both. It is through these letters you find out what has been going on. And through the paintings you realize that beauty and perseverance cannot be taken from someone. That bamboo is both very hard, strong, but also bendable and flexible so that it does not break or snap when it faces storms.

The other beautiful thing is the change in relationship between Wen-shan and her uncle. As the story unfolds, they speak very little. Her uncle is a widower whose wife passed away not too long after Wen-shan came to live with him. So he has had much trouble of his own. Through the sharing of these very personal letters and paintings, they begin to open up to each other and soften their hearts to one another. In addition, the paintings seem to soften everyone's hearts. Everyone realizes that these incredible works of art were created amidst much more pain, sorrow and adversity than they in Hong Kong had ever known. If such beauty can exist there, then certainly in much brighter circumstances, we should be able to create beauty here. And not just visible works of art beauty, but beauty in how we treat others and how we view them.

There were small references to the LDS church and its early history in China and Hong Kong. Wen-shan's uncle joined the church not too long after arriving as a refugee in Hong Kong. There are a few interesting historical stories, but they play a minor role in the story.

There are chapter notes at the end of each chapter that denote fact and include further definitions of things mentioned in the chapters. I find this type of notes my favorite more so than footnotes so I feel like I'm getting a recap. They are brief and instructive.

I truly enjoyed this book and if you don't feel like reading this one, I would encourage you to seek out other books to teach you about the Mao Tse-tung rule. The more we educate ourselves, the more we can pass onto our children, since we see them so much more than their history teachers, we can relay the most expansive knowledge of any adult in their life!

Friday, September 13, 2013

Relic, Renee Collins

I am so privileged to write my review of this book, Relic by Renee Collins. It's a privilege because after a few months of moving to Fruita, I met Renee Collins. Well, I met her in passing before, but then, in my church, I was assigned to visit her in a program my church does called Visiting Teaching. The purpose of Visiting Teaching is for the women in a congregation to go in partners to a few other women in the congregation once a month to deliver a spiritually uplifting message and check on any temporal or spiritual needs she or her family may have so that we as a church community can help to ease burdens. It's really quite fun and I've made some of the BEST friends through participating in this voluntary program. Renee was on my route and I soon found out that she would be publishing a book! It's not her first completed novel, but it is her first published work.

It is set in an alternate re-imagined Western. Now, I have to admit when she said the word "Western" all that came to mind was all the cliche's that come with the genre. And I tend to be anti-cliche least in theory if not in execution. BUT it did intrigue me, and I read/watched numerous reviews that said the exact same thing. "I don't like Westerns, but I LOVED this book." And so this time, I join the throng of cliche's.

From the back cover:

After a raging fire consumes her town and kills her parents, Maggie Davis is on her own to protect her younger sister and survive best she can in the Colorado town of Burning Mesa. In Maggie's world, the bones of long-extinct magical creatures such as dragons and sirens are mined and traded for their residual magical elements, and harnessing these relic's powers allows the user to wield fire, turn invisible, or heal even the worst of injuries.

Working in a local saloon, Maggie befriends the spirited showgirl Adelaide and falls for the roughish cowboy Landon. But when she proves to have a particular skill at harnessing the relics' powers, Maggie is whisked away to the glamorous hacienda of Alvar Castilla, the wealthy young relic baron who runs Burning Mesa. Though his intentions aren't always clear, Alvar trains Maggie in the world of relic magic. But when the mysterious fires reappear in their neighboring towns, Maggie must discover who is channeling relic magic for evil before it's too late.

Relic is a thrilling adventure set in a wholly unique world, and a spell-binding story of love, trust, and the power of good.

Collins tried to incorporate all the stereo types of the old West-their are Native Americans, Chinese, Saloon fare, migrant workers, cowboys, the whole shebang, and she does it well. She creates strong emotional bonds so quickly I got teary-eyed in chapter 1.....the last time that happened was when Prim's name was called for the reaping.....(although Renee Collins is not directly related to Suzanne Collins, there's definitely some writing mojo in that surname!).

Maggie goes through a lot as a teenager who is suddenly the sole provider and protector of her younger sister Ella, who is 7. She has to consider what she IS and ISN'T willing to do to provide. One thing I liked a lot is that she never wants to resort to prostitution as a form of income. She was taught by her mother to be as upstanding and proper as possible and she does many things to ensure that she can provide for her sister without compromising her standards. It takes some creativity, but that is the case with all things worth while.

The pace is REALLY fast. Almost too fast for me. It seemed like every chapter ending was a cliff-hanger, which made it a page turner for sure, and I did like that. But it also seemed like the moments of peril were happening so fast it seemed less plausible. We all know bad things happen in 3s. They seem to happen to Maggie in multiples of 3 and I haven't decided yet exactly how I feel about it. In some ways I appreciate the pace-and there really ARE down times when you can delve into Maggie's character when she's NOT experiencing trauma and she can catch her breath. However, the pace also leaned toward the melodramatic-but that DOES fit with the Western genrea. I think what made it seem faster paced than other novels with characters in near-constant peril (Gregor, Percy Jackson) I think was that in several circumstances, each incident was short-lived and isolated from the other events even though they connected. For instance, with Gregor and Percy, the peril was all part of the same quest and it was very obvious. Here you're not always sure how the peril fits together; your puzzle pieces are not all the edges first and then the middle (which is the way I put a puzzle together personally, so maybe the issue here is ME). Many things are wrapped up nicely, but there is going to be a sequel and many things are left hanging. But it's not a horrible way to end a book, like some other series or trilogies where you are completely left hanging. So you can feel satisfied at the end and have things to look forward to. But you're not going to give yourself an aneurism trying to figure out District 13 or wondering who R.A.B. is for a year before the next book is put out. (PLEASE tell me you understand those references....PLEASE and if you don't, lie and say you do).

I really, REALLY enjoyed this book. I enjoyed the perspective of the teenage girl in the old West grappling with her identity, coming of age, unexpected responsibility, and living up to her personal moral standards. I love how she is able to learn from her mistakes quickly so she doesn't repeat them. I love how she is a good role model for young women of today that they don't have to lower themselves in order to provide a living, follow their dreams, or succeed in whatever world they live in. I loved also how it showed that in order to realize the full potential of the Relic, you had to ask "please" or at least that's how Maggie harnesses the power. I loved how she trusted her instinct about things and people. How when she realized her perceptions were wrong, she changed them. There's so much criticism for people who change their minds, being called flip floppers. But aren't we all supposed to make judgements based on our knowledge and then when we learn more we can adjust those judgments? It helped me to further my ability to see the other side and resolve to make fewer snap judgements in my day to day life.

Things I hope will be in the sequel without any spoilers: Further development of Ella, Moon John, and Yahn. Maggie's mother's back story. I would love to see Adelaide be able to stop being a show girl and getting to settle down and have a family-and I wouldn't mind more background history on her as well. I'm a sucker for background stories.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Unbroken, Laura Hillenbrand

Unbroken is the true story of WWII Japanese POW Louis Zameperini, also an Olympic medalist runner in the 1936 Olympics.

I had tried to read this book a couple years ago but had book ADD at the time and had to turn it back in after only 2 weeks because someone else had a hold on it. When someone chose it for my current book club, I was determined to read it. However, it is not a quick read, although some parts were page turners. I found the audio book and since I had to return this book after 3 weeks due to another hold being on it, I uploaded the audio and listened to probably the last 2/3 of it.

It's funny how at this point literature is starting to intertwine for me. Reading this book has also opened a new perspective for me from the previous book I read "The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet" where a Japanese girl and her family are put in a camp here in America just because they are Japanese-even though they are all born American. However, because of the horrors that the Japanese did to their POW's-37% of Japanese POW's died compared to the 1% of Nazi POWs-WOW- I can totally understand now why people in America would be so afraid of anyone Japanese that they would feel it absolutely necessary to put them in camps. Again, does that mean I agree? No. But it DOES make it easy to understand the time and the circumstances MUCH MUCH better. The Japanese did many things similar to the Nazi's. Medical "experiments", procedures without anesthesia, starvation, work camps, beatings, and the worst of them all, de-humanization.

Louis went through some remarkable circumstances. When his plane initially went down, he was in a raft with 2 other men, his friend Phil and another they didn't know as well. They were adrift 47 days. 47 days!!! Drinking water when it fell from the sky, beating off sharks, eating birds or fish or whatever they could-raw-for sustenance. Then when they were finally found-they were captured. And the 47 days in the ocean with sharks suddenly seems like a much more friendly place to be. As with the Nazi's, learning more about the Japanese side of the war, I am appalled and disgusted with the amount of pain and humiliation that humans can do to one another. But I am buoyed up by the stories of Japanese soldiers who, like some of the Nazi soldiers, risked everything in order to be humane, even kind to their captives. Not subscribing to the philosophy that they were superior. And then the human spirit that in some people cannot be broken. Amazing.

It's also interesting how much was left out of my education on WWII. I have been well versed in the European front, but realized how little I knew about Japan. Did you know, for instance, that prior to the bombing of Hiroshima and other cities, our bombers flew all over Japan and dropped leaflets that stated the cities being targeted for bombings and urging citizens to evacuate? Hello, what? When does that happen in war? Why didn't anyone tell me, WE TRIED TO WARN THEM. We are not ruthless bad guys policing the world. We did not WANT innocent lives to be lost! The Japanese government confiscated those leaflets and punished people who had them. Now who's the bad guys not caring about citizens?

One of the most amazing things was the general attitude all the POWs had at the end of the war. Immediately the Japanese soldiers were afraid of retaliation, but from the accounts to write this book, most of the men instantaneously forgave their captors. They shared any food with the citizens in the area and their captors.

The book also talks about post war life and PTSD and other things. It touches on the American history we no longer teach-because it became apparent that we needed the Japanese as allies more than we needed retribution against the guards who treated other human beings so badly. It told of a small town which wished to erect a memorial to the war prisoners held there, because they felt bad. They even raised 85% of the funds themselves! One of the citizens had been a POW held by the US and had been treated so kindly he referred to his time as "lucky prison" or something similar. Now, since I don't know much about it, I don't know that we DIDN'T have brutality in some prison camps in the US, but it makes me feel good to know that for at least 1 man's experience (and probably the others at the same location) they were treated civilly and in accordance with the Geneva Convention.

War is a complicated situation and sometimes people view it as an excuse to be more brutal than necessary. But on another hand, sometimes people see no other way of extracting intelligence that would protect us. I hate that there doesn't seem to be a clear black and white, but a theory I've held fast to for the past year or so that is that very rarely is there a blanket statement that tells the exact right way for every single person to do in every situation and achieve the same results. What is right in one situation would not be right in another. What would normally be intolerable could be absolutely necessary in another. And we just have to make the best judgements we can based on the knowledge we have, and then we have to allow ourselves to be open to new or additional information as it comes along. As much as I don't care for Dr. Phil anymore, he's had a saying that I've really liked that says "You do what you know and when you know better, you do better." Sometimes we make snap judgements without knowing, but if once we know we refuse to take it into account, then we pass from sins of ignorance to sins of disobedience, which is worse.

Louis got to run the Olympic torch through the place he'd been held captive. Full of forgiveness even for the most brutal and inhumane of all guards who personally had it out for him. He wrote a letter detailing his experiences and explaining his post war trauma and symptoms and how he found, though Billy Graham, God and forgiveness and had it delivered to this particular guard. It truly is incredible.

And it's a slap to the face. For me, or anyone who hasn't faced the horrors of being a POW, how on Earth can we justify holding a grudge and withholding forgiveness when chances are VERY good that whatever the offense was pale in comparison to the way those men were treated in Japan? This book teaches how hate can consume you and drive you to ruins, but forgiveness-whether you do so for religious reasons or not, will give you peace. Forgiveness is NOT easy for anyone. But if Louis Zamperini could do it. Then I sure as heck have no business not attempting it in my life.