Together in Spirit

An online reading group ('TIS a reading group!) to bring together friends, and friends of friends, who aren't able to be in a conventional reading group due to constraints of time or geography.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The Kitchen God's wife

"Whenever my mother talks to me, she beings the conversation as if we were already in the middle of an argument." This - classic - opening summarises much of what I enjoyed about the book: wit, sharp deliniation of relationships and especially their history, and a distinct atmosphere. I felt I was in the world of the book as I was reading it, immersed in a world I know very little about. I found Tan to be a compelling storyteller, even if there was rather more narrative sweep and rather less beautiful prose than I usually choose. But I enjoyed this as an overview of very different kinds of lives, with pressures that I've never encountered myself.

That said, much of the human relationship stuff seemed to me to be very true to life. The characters felt human, and very convincing in the nuances of their relationships. In particular, I enjoyed Winnie and Helen, with their rivalries and resentments and unwelcome or unacknowledged "favours" which, nevertheless, continue to colour their relationship decades on. Only Wen Fu and his family seemed without shades of grey, but that was of course part of the plot and didn't feel like lazy writing.

Having not read any Tan before, I was uneasy once Winnie's long monologue started, since I didn't know if Tan was playing it with a straight bat, or if this was going to be a postmodern novel where all that you've told turns out to be not true, or not told to the "hearer" Pearl at all, or some other such annoyance. Every time Winnie referred to Helen's inaccurate memory I wondered if this was softening me up for Winnie's memories being debunked. But thankfully it wasn't - seemed to be more of a verbal tic from Winnie and part of her loyal but scratchy relationship with Helen which, after all, is perfectly comprehensible once you know their history - and all ended conventionally. Phew.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Everything and Grownups

Sorry for the lateness of this post on Bryson but I was waiting until I’d finished it. Alas, I’m still only half way through but thought I’d go ahead anyway.

Like the rest of you I have really enjoyed the chapters I’ve read so far. It is engagingly written, lots of human interest and fascinating asides as well as staggering facts and figures. Like Emily, it has also lead to discussions with hubby (who is a Physicist) although ours tend to go along the lines of:
“Wow! Did you know…”
“Yes dear.”

My problem with the book is not anything to do with Bryson but just the fact that I am struggling to read non-fiction for relaxation at the moment (brain cells depleting rapidly due to pregnancy!). Settling into the bath last thing at night was not, for me, the time to be engaging with Particle Physics, fascinating though it was and engagingly written etc. Hence the time it has taken to get this far in the book. I needed more emotional engagement to give me the momentum to actually pick up the book again. Not to mention the fact that each time I did I had to re-read the last chapter in order to remember what had been said and to pick up where I left off. What I needed was a very long train journey or a couple of uninterrupted days on a sun lounger to really get to grips with it. When such a time comes (and it could be a while off for me!) then this is the book that will be first on my list to tackle.

That said, I did find the stories of the “wives” (maybe not surprisingly) interesting and felt that there was definitely stories that were just waiting to be told. What did happen between Hubble and his missus to lead to her denying him a funeral and hiding the body? What about Bohr’s poor fiancé and her postponed honeymoon?

My other grievance with this book was that by cataloguing these great discoveries in this way Bryson left the reader with the mistaken belief that research is a continual run of quick successes. In reality the majority of discoveries come as a result of many years of hard slog and mistakes. Either that or my husband hasn’t sat in enough railway stations scribbling on the back of envelopes!

Having abandoned Bryson for the time being, I was very pleased to get immersed in the Tyler. I enjoyed Back When We Were Grownups far more than The Accidental Tourist, which is the other one of hers that I have read. In the latter book I found her characters to be too pathetic and the underlying situation too tragic for me to consider the book "comic", which apparently many others thought it was. However, I agree with Emily that Grownups did work as a comedy of manners and I did think it was well written. I particularly liked the descriptions of Rebecca's struggle to dress herself for her various functions and escape her ridiculous 'hippy' look as a metaphor for her larger struggle to discover who she was. Ultimately abandoning herself to the Bedouin costume for Poppy's party and feeling majestic in it, having previously rejected it for a date with Will, signifies her acceptance of herself as a Davitch.

Ultimately however, I found the book unsatisfying. I felt Tyler was juggling too many ideas at the expense of the overall plot's coherence. I was extremely glad that Zeb did not turn out to be the love interest as he was such a weak character. I thought she needed to make a lot more of the relationship between Rebecca and Peter to justify him being the boy in her dream. I found myself completely unconvinced by the whole Will episode, which I felt should have ended a lot earlier than it did (was she really supposed to be considering sleeping with him? re. Wearing new black lace underwear for which "She had plans"?). I agree with Val about the ending. I did not feel that continuing as she was and just telling herself "she really had been having a wonderful time" was sufficient given her depth of feeling as outlined by the rest of the book.