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Review: Stinky Tofu

Recap: It’s the 80’s in Chicago and banker Sam Lowe is living his best life. He’s a man about town: making good money, always fit and well-dressed and dating around. He’s well-respected at work and happy living in Chicago. Until he’s not. Expecting a big bonus, he’s instead sent off on a new project. He finds himself at a conference that he’s completely dreading until one woman changes everything. Linda Liu. She’s so beautiful, he doesn’t even know quite where to begin.

But Sam’s sure-of-himself attitude takes over and soon the two are seriously dating. After months of long distance, he moves to New York to be with her and marry her. Sam is Jewish. Linda is Chinese. What Sam didn’t realize is that before they could marry, Linda would first need approval from her family in Taiwan. They make the trip and spend some good quality time with her family. They’re not too sure of him at first, and they don’t hesitate to put him through the ringer.

But once again, Sam miscalculates. The family not only approves of him. They now want to move to New York with Sam and Linda too. Suddenly Sam’s life is being controlled by his wife’s family, and he doesn’t seem to have much say in the matter.

Analysis: Here’s the thing. This semi-autobiographical novel is described and marketed as “a comedic novel.” But mostly it just feels racist and uncomfortable. Every bit of Asian culture Linda and her family bring into Sam’s life, he rejects and then ultimately succumbs to it.

I read the book because I identified with Sam. I’m Jewish and thought this would be like if I married someone Asian or even someone non-Jewish. The book is about the marriage of two cultures, and that’s something everyone can relate to in this day and age. But the lines meant to be funny read as offensive. The worst part is the author doesn’t even seem aware of how offensive his writing is. Lines like “I tried speaking to her in English, but it was as if she’d just stepped off the boat” is the least of it.

Set aside the racism, the writing feels juvenile and the characters are unlikable. Sam bends over and takes whatever Linda and her family throw his way. You could say he does it for love, but we never get a clear picture of just how in love he and Linda are. He comes across as weak, and Linda and her family are so selfish and demanding, they’re not likable either.

MVP: No one.

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Review: Mistress of the Ritz

Recap: The year is 1940. The place is Paris, France at the Ritz Hotel, one of the most beautiful, extravagant and famous hotels in the world. Claude and Blanche are at odds with each other and the world. Fear envelops both of them as the war takes its firm grip on more and more of Europe. For so long, they lived a life of luxury living at the Ritz with Claude as the hotel manager and Blanche, his wife, gossiping among the wildly famous authors and artists who stayed there. Their marriage was never as strong as the confidence they portrayed separately.

The Nazis are taking over the hotel. Claude no longer runs the place. He must bend to the ways of the Germans and bow before their boldness. Blanche is in fear everyday, wondering what comes next while simultaneously loathing her adulterous husband. So she spends time with her friends, people like Lily, who Claude has come to vehemently dislike over the years.

Out of fear and anger and a need to do something – anything – to fight for her future, Blanche takes her own steps toward battling back against the Nazis, not knowing that her husband is doing the something similar. The lies increase in number but they also stem from good intention and a desire to better their lives.

Analysis: After reading another Melanie Benjamin book so recently, I was thrilled to start Mistress of the Ritz. I had already become familiar with Benjamin’s style of rotating narrators, strong female characters, historical fiction and varying timelines. But when I started Mistress, I was surprised to find this one wasn’t so female-driven. One of the narrators was a man. Would I like this partially-male centric novel as much? Especially when Blanche and Claude were so at odds with each other, so unlikeable initially and so spiteful? It took a few chapters, but yes.

Once Benjamin outlines some of the backstory between Blanche and Claude – their whirlwind meet-cute and wedding, their crazy honeymoon shenanigans and the ongoing issues between them – we start to understand why they are the way they are. And when the story takes a turn, offering solace to both of them via fending off Nazis, the true beauty of their personalities and relationship come to life.

Once again, Melanie Benjamin finds an already incredible TRUE story (Blanche and Claude Auzello were, in fact, real people who used the Ritz to assist the resistance against the Nazis) and finds a way of making it modern and relatable through her depth of characters and their relationships with each other. This is a story that’s 80 years old and not well known, and with the sentiment of a strong women finding her voice in the midst of turmoil, it Mistress reads as 2019 as anything.

MVP: Blanche. Not the most likeable initially, she uses her innate skills, talent and personality to find power in the most troubling times. Her growth and character development are a thing of beauty.

Get Mistress of the Ritz in paperback now for 17.38.

Or get it on your Kindle for $13.99.

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Review: Strangers

strangersRecap: In the epistolary novel that takes place in the late 1980’s, a man named Adrian and woman named Harri write to each other about a brief night of lovemaking they once had and how that affects them and doesn’t affect now 15 years later. For Adrian, it was a memorable night in the ocean with a beautiful woman. For Harri, it was a one-night-stand that served as nothing but a way to get back at her boyfriend with whom she was fighting. More than a decade has passed, but when they run into each other in the airport, it’s all Adrian needs to feel empowered to reach out to Harri and start a real relationship.

But what is this relationship? Are they friends? Lovers? The title may be Strangers, and once it begins, it may feel that way, but as time goes on, “strangers” doesn’t feel quite like the right word.

Their letters to each other are often aggressive — aggressively honest. They talk about their kids and stepkids, their spouses, what makes them happy and what doesn’t. They talk about their past and their future, their regrets and dreams, their childhood and death. Will they meet again? The story seems to build to that in several moments until major twists throw the story off course and take it in a new, dark direction.

Analysis: When I first started reading this story and realized that these pen pal letters stemmed from a chance run-in in the airport from a former one-night-stand, all I could think was who’s crazy enough to do this? And Adrian is a little nuts, but the way his relationship with Harri develops over the course of these months of writing letters is beautiful. They begin to form so much love between, even while there’s still so much angst. They are both wounded. Because misery loves company, those wounds bring them closer. After a while, is it fair to call them strangers? Maybe not. But in the end, everyone is a stranger who’s not him or herself.

I think this may have been the only epistolary novel I’ve ever read, and I wasn’t sure how it would work. But it was extremely compelling with so much depth in their stream of consciousness writing.

MVP: Harri. Though her letters were to Adrian were often mean, it was clear that she really did have feelings for him. More importantly, she was very self-assured and knew what she liked and didn’t like. She had been through a lot, and despite some serious anxiety and depression, she was strong.

Get Strangers on your Kindle for $7.99. 

Or get it in paperback for $22.99.

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Show vs. Book: Ragtime

America at the start of the 20th century was a crazy time that involved a fair amount of ragtime music, vaudeville and racism — lots and lots of racism. All that is portrayed in the story of Ragtime, which follows the collision of an upper class family from New Rochelle, a family of immigrants and a family of lower class African-Americans.

Side stories along the way detail the atrocities and everyday happenings the nation faced at the time, including the murder trial of Evelyn Nesbitt’s husband, the richness and oddities of JP Morgan and Henry Ford and the up-and-coming magic of Harry Houdini.

But the story truly takes off when Mother — the mother of the upper class family — finds an African American baby in her yard and takes it in. Soon, the child’s mother, Sarah, follows and stays in Mother’s home with her family until she can handle taking care of her baby. While staying with the family, Sarah’s ex-lover, Coalhouse, visits everyday in an attempt to win Sarah back and spend time with his son. Coalhouse is a well-known African-American, ragtime pianist whose car is then trashed and vandalized by the city’s firefighters. It’s enough for Coalhouse to completely erupt and damage the lives and relationships around him until his world spirals and crumbles, leaving all other nearby players to pick up the pieces.

There are too many characters and subplots in the book to detail here, but suffice to say the musical does a wonderful job of zeroing in on the most important and exciting parts of the story and bringing them to life. The novel’s beginning is bogged down by the story of Evelyn Nesbitt, which becomes irrelevant by the end. The novel also includes a lot of details about Morgan, Ford and Houdini. While interesting and helpful in setting the tone of the time, they also don’t do much to move the story along. The musical smartly cuts a lot of this and instead focuses on the Coalhouse storyline, which is the most heartbreaking and also the most socially-conscious.

Because of the visual aspect of the show — the sets, the silhouettes — the story’s symbolism also becomes much more apparent than in the book. The musical, for instance, makes a clear distinction between the immigrants, the upper class white people and the lower class black people. The silhouettes, which are only mentioned in the book as an art form, are used throughout the show and acknowledge the show’s theme: that color and race should not be the most important thing about a person.

Ragtime, the novel, was enjoyable, until I saw the show and saw how much more focused it was in its storytelling — and the incredible music didn’t hurt either.

Get Ragtime in paperback for $10.

Or on your Kindle for $11.99.

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Review: A Letter To My Mom

Recap: From those who brought you A Letter To My Cat and A Letter To My Dog now comes A Letter To My Mom. I have not read Cat or Dog, but I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that the latest in the series, A Letter To My Mom, is probably the best. Just in time for Mother’s Day, the book is a compilation of letters written by men and women — both young and old, famous and not — to their mothers.

Some letters are funny, like the one penned by singer Josh Groban. Some are sentimental, particularly the few letters written to deceased mothers, in which the children say all the things they never got to say when their mothers were still alive. Others tell stories, and a few just give thanks. But they are all full of feels. This compilation made me want to do nothing more than a write a letter to my own mother, thanking her for being so wonderful and telling her how much I respect and appreciate her, even when it seems like I don’t. There were several letters like that, too — ones that were more apologies than anything else.

Some of the letters told hard-to-believe stories of courage — like the mother who saved her children from her abusive husband by moving out in the middle of the night or the mother who threw herself in front of a car to save her children’s life, and wound up paralyzing herself. There are some sweet stories too, like the story of the mother who started a cupcake shop with her daughter. All of them great, all of them meaningful, all of them interesting to read.

Analysis: You don’t always think about the impact your mother has had on your life. On birthdays and Mother’s Day, yes, but other than that, it doesn’t come up much. Reading this book had me thinking about my mother constantly, all that she’s done for me, how much she cares, how strong she is. A good book forces you to reflect on your own life and think about its deeper meanings. This book does exactly that.

And I loved that the letters came from all people of all different walks of life. In the back were short biographies of each letter’s writer, a who’s who of talented celebrities and non-celebrities. Many of them were excellent writers, which surprised me until I realized most of them are writers, bloggers, or freelancers for a living. At first, I thought it was biased to select mostly writers’ letters in this book. But I then decided it was wise. It takes a good writer to put what their feeling into words and a great writer to go as deeply personal as one must do when writing about mothers. This is the perfect gift for any mother, and a must-read for everyone else.

Get A Letter to My Mom in hardcover for $16.19.

Or on your Kindle for $9.99.

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Review: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

Recap: As a less than fortunate 7-year-old living in 19th century China, all Lily wants is to become close to a group of “sworn sisters” — or best friends — and marry well. Seven is not typically the time when you think of marrying, but it is for Lily and her family, who live in a remote Hunan county. But everything changes when a matchmaker tells her family that Lily’s feet — the truest sign of beauty, luck, and wealth — can not only lead to a marriage into a rich family, but a “laotong,” or “just same.” A “laotong” is a best friend with whom one forms a much deeper relationship than she ever could with a group of “sworn sisters.”

That’s when Lily meets Snow Flower. The two vow to be best friends in the form of a contract written on a secret fan. Over several decades, Lily and Snow Flower grow to be as close as two people can get. They share secret notes and letters on that same fan throughout the years. They marry. They have children. But Lily produces a number of sons and marries well, while Snow Flower produces stillborns, weak sons, and daughters. She marries a butcher — the lowest of the low, and does not fair well.

With a friendship as long and deep as theirs, it seems unfathomable that anything could break it, but the secrets run deeper than Lily knows. And in the end, the novel — written in first person — becomes an apology note.

Analysis: Though it’s set in China in the 1800’s and devotes a portion of the novel to the Taiping Rebellion, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a story about a real female friendship. In Lily, we see the friend who tries to care, tries not to judge, but in the end, shows selfishness. In Snow Flower, we see the friend who tries to hide her secrets out of shame and holds onto that passivity throughout her life.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a testament to the ways a relationship between two women can change over the years. Little girls, little problems; big girls, big problems, and those problems can have a devastating effect on a friendship. Lisa See’s themes here are similar to those she writes about in Shanghai Girls, but they run just as deep. The end is heartbreaking, but as a woman, it’s completely relatable, making See’s first bestseller an excruciating, but exhilarating tale.

MVP: Lily. Both Lily and Snow Flower demonstrate flaw after flaw throughout the novel. But Lily finally comes to terms with what’s happened between them. She apologizes and makes up for it as best as she can. It takes a lot of strength to persevere through what Lily has, but she does it with elegance.

You can get Snow Flower and the Secret Fan in paperback for $10.20.

Or on your Kindle for $10.99.

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