SNOW FLOWER AND THE SECRET FAN by Lisa See
Random House, Inc.
Genre: Historical Fiction Memoir
ISBN: 1400060281, $11.56, 260 pp.
Quoting from the cover:
“In nineteenth-century China, when wives and daughters were foot-bound and lived in almost total seclusion, the women in one remote Hunan county developed their own secret code for communication: nu shu (‘women’s writing’). Some girls were paired with laotongs, ‘old sames,’ in emotional matches that lasted throughout their lives. They painted letters on fans, embroidered messages on handkerchiefs, and composed stories, thereby reaching out of their isolation to share their hopes, dreams, and accomplishments.
“With the arrival of a silk fan on which Snow Flower has composed for Lily a poem of introduction in nu shu, their friendship is sealed and they become ‘old sames’ at the tender age of seven. As the years pass, through famine and rebellion, they reflect upon their arranged marriages, loneliness, and the joys and tragedies of motherhood. The two find solace, developing a bond that keeps their spirits alive. But when a misunderstanding arises, their lifelong friendship suddenly threatens to tear apart.
“Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a brilliantly realistic journey back to an era of Chinese history that is as deeply moving as it is sorrowful. With the period detail and deep resonance of Memoirs of a Geisha, this lyrical and emotionally charged novel delves into one of the most mysterious of human relationships: female friendship.”
From reading past reviews and listening to others discuss this fictional memoir, I understand that most readers found Lily lacking in her compassion and love for Snow Flower. This is certainly understandable, as it is Lily herself who reproaches herself for her shortcomings.
As you read this fictional memoir, I would ask that you consider the following questions: What is a loving relationship? Can a friendship initiated and perpetuated on lies and deception be considered a loving relationship? Was this a true laotong (contracted loving relationship) or a one-sided effort at love?
Chapter 1, Sitting Quietly, opens with:
“For my entire life I longed for love. I knew it was not right for me–as a girl and later as a woman–to want or expect it, but I did, and this unjustified desire has been at the root of every problem I have experienced in my life.”
To me, this thought is the essence of the fictional memoir, and though Lily may not have felt she was loved during her lifetime, she did experience love through her giving and efforts, ignorant as they might have been, to love and help her laotong, Snow Flower.
Narrated in the first person by Lily we know only what she experienced, thought and did. She had been deceived from the very beginning by Snow Flower, Madame Wang and her mother. When Lily visited Snow Flower’s home for the first time and discovered the truth, after ten years of friendship, Snow Flower reacted with angry tears:
“Don’t pity me! I don’t want it!”
Lily’s reaction was:
“Pity had not entered my mind. I felt sick with confusion and sadness...
Maybe I should have been angry at Snow Flower for lying to me, but that’s not what I felt. I had believed I had been plucked for a special future, which made me too self-centered to see what was directly in front of me. Wasn’t it my lack as a friend–as a laotong–that had prevented me from asking Snow Flower the right questions about her past and her future...
“I was at a moment of supreme confusion, and I believe it set the stage for what happened later. I didn’t know my mind. I didn’t see or understand what was important. I was just a stupid girl who thought she knew something because she was married....”
Lily had no control over anything...her own life and future, nor Snow Flower’s social disgrace and marriage to a husband with a polluted occupation. And yet, I see her expression of love for Snow Flower through her actions: 1) When Lily realized the problem at Snow Flower’s home, she set about making the bad situation as nice as possible so Snow Flower would have a proper, traditional marriage; 2) When Lily’s mother-in-law and husband wanted her not to have any contact with Snow Flower, she continued to visit her secretly; 3) When they were in the mountains and it was evident that Snow Flower was not fond of her first son, Lily taught the boy what she knew from what her son had been taught. The girls learned from each other. Lily appreciated Snow Flower's talents--her delicate nu shu and embroidery, and Snow Flower learned how to clean a house and do chores.
It was Snow Flower who wrote the letter which caused so much pain and misunderstanding:
“I have too many troubles... I cannot be what you wish. You won’t have to listen to my complaints anymore. Three sworn sisters have promised to love me as I am. Write to me, not to console me as you have been doing, but to remember our happy girl-days together.”
Lily’s response to receiving the letter was:
“This pain was unlike anything I had felt before...I had always made allowances for Snow Flower out of love. But once I began to focus on her weaknesses, a pattern of deceit, deception, and betrayal began to emerge. I thought about all the times Snow Flower had lied to me–about her family, about her married life, even about her beatings. Not only had she not been a faithful laotong, she had not even been a very good friend. A Friend would have been honest and forthright. If all this were not enough, I let memories of the recent weeks wash over me. Snow Flower had taken advantage of my money and position to gain better clothes, better food, and a better situation for her daughter, while ignoring all my help and suggestions. I felt duped and immensely foolish.”
At a later gathering, in front of other women, Snow Flower sang a Letter of Vituperation to tell about her sad life and to berate Lily.
”It seems I am cursed by fate. I must have done bad deeds in a former life. I am seen as less than others.
"...for 27 years...we always spoke true words. We were like long vines, reaching out to each other, forever entwined. But when I hold her of my sadness, she had no patience. When she saw how poor I was in spirit, she reminded me that men farm and women weave, that industriousness brings no hunger, believing I could change my destiny.... Why have your turned away from me? You and I are laotong–together in our souls even when we couldn’t be together in our daily lives. And why have you hurt my daughter?”
And Lily retaliated with the truth.
When Snow Flower was dying, the sworn sisters told Lily that Snow Flower had never loved them, only Lily. And once again, Lily was there for Snow Flower.
Throughout their contracted laotong, Snow Flower felt sorry for herself/her fate, deceived Lily, chose to interpret Lily’s love and help as pity, didn’t appreciate Lily’s efforts to stay in touch, and berated her in public. There is very little in this story, as demonstrated by Snow Flower's actions or behavior, that could be interpreted as love for Lily...or for anyone else. Just saying so, does not make it so.
In the end, as in the beginning, and after lengthy consideration, it is my feeling that Lily just wanted to be loved and through her strong desire experienced love by giving love.
Lisa See is a wonderful, gifted writer with an enchanting, delicate, lyrical style. Her research for this fictional memoir brings to life aspects of Chinese culture in the early 1800s such as Confucian thought, foot binding, nu shu writing and the economic/political hierarchy.
Kaye Trout - August 25, 2009
CHEAP CABERNET - A FRIENDSHIP by Cathie Beck
Café du Monde Publishing
ISBN: 9781439244395, $18.95, 390 pp.
Cheap Cabernet is a memoir about two bipolar women, Cathie and Denise, who considered themselves superior to everyone else. To some degree they both had a 'poor-me' complex—Denise because she had MS and Cathie for her life in general. They were either being outrageous–partying, lying, cheating, manipulating–or depressed.
I did not enjoy this memoir and about halfway through thought about not finishing the book, which is rare, and not doing a review. I had come to dislike these two self-centered women, as portrayed. I had grown to dislike them for their arrogance, superior and condescending attitudes towards other people, for their lack of compassion and consideration and for their lack of integrity.
The stealing of Denise’s husband’s money–a man they both liked and loved? and Denise’s sexual activities while John was hospitalized clearly demonstrated the essence of Denise’s character. As for Cathie, the essence of her character was made clear on page 6:
“I knew that I, and subsequently my children, were far superior to the other women and kids sitting on the orange plastic chairs.... I knew I was better than everyone else in that office because I was the smart girl, the clevah one. The one who read literature and studied film and knew to blend my foundation carefully around my chin, to check my teeth regularly for lipstick, and to go underwear-less under pantyhose to avoid panty lines.
“I was classy.”
And to the end, this was Cathie’s attitude. In truth, she was not there for her friend or Denise’s funeral. Possibly this memoir is about helping Cathie purge her guilt...and make some money.
I don’t agree with the promotional hype on the front or back cover: “Beyond wonderful–wickedly funny, poignant, and smart...utterly seductive, a page-turner, impossible to put down. Not since ‘Thelma & Louise’ have women and friendship been so beautifully and powerfully painted. This hilarious, heartbreaking memoir is a joyful and exhilarating ride for the reader.”
I guess some people find making fun of other people in a condescending manner hilarious. I don’t. Remember, this is not a novel, it’s a true memoir.
For the most part, the book is well edited. As for Cathie Beck’s writing style, she has a certain flair which leans toward raunchy with a tinge of aren’t-I-clevah. Who would have guessed?
Kaye Trout - August 22, 2009
ANAXIMANDER'S ANNEX by Edward Fotheringill
Rating: A ‘Masterpiece’
ISBN: 9781601458728, $15.95, pp 280
If you’ve read my past reviews, you’re aware not all the reviews were favorable...I’m not a book promoter. Sometimes I don’t have much to say about a book...no spark, but occasionally a book comes along that lights my fire, and Anaximander’s Annex is one such rare book...a true masterpiece!
Intriguing, thought provoking, simplistic yet convoluted, metaphysically and sociologically insightful, multi-layered, open-ended, and so tight Hemingway would be proud.
As always, I’ll begin by quoting from the back cover:
“Five scholars of international renown in the academia of Ancient Greek philosophy harbor a secret that could forever change the intellectual landscape of Western civilization. As they deliberate how best to share their discovery with the world, mysterious machinations of fate make them question the entire nature of truth and revelation.”
That’s extremely complex, don’t you think?...questioning “the entire nature of truth and revelation.” which, indeed, they do. But, there is also a simpler level and here Anaximander’s Annex is about aliens, werewolves, murders, death, sex, alcohol, cigars, indifference, redemption, and the color yellow.
For those of us who missed Ancient Greek Philosophy 101 (myself included), Anaximander (610 BC - 546 BC) was a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher who lived in Miletus, Ionia. He was one of the earliest Greek thinkers at the start of the Axial Age, the period from approximately 700 BC to 200 BC, during which similarly revolutionary thinking appeared in China, India, Iran, the Near East, and Ancient Greece. He was a proponent of science claiming that nature is ruled by laws. In physics, he postulated that the indefinite (or apeiron) was the source of all things.
Anaximader’s Annex contains 94 succinct chapters and a cast of enigmatic characters: the 5 scholars–Harry Foxworth, Roger Stone, Arthur DeMonet, Justin Campbell and Brigitte Pernod; Patrick Foxworth, Harry’s twin brother; 3 homicide detectives; 2 forensic pathologists; 3 prostitutes; a mad housewife; a French werewolf; a suicide in progress; a professor of abnormal psychology; a nameless ex-professor in a Baltimore alley; a one-armed hag in a London slum; a blind, abandoned mother who had no daughter and no fear; and other minor players.
Alan Watts once said, “An essential element of creativity is the mysterious.” And, that rings true in Anaximander’s Annex. The most perplexing and provocative aspects of this novel are the elements that are not there–full disclosure and anticipated reactions. There is no clear protagonist, but circuitously, alcoholic homicide detective Al Wherle gets my vote.
Fotheringill’s writing style is unique yet not affectatious; his metaphors are dramatic yet not contrived; his extensive vocabulary enriches the patterns he weaves; there are messages here and yet he says nothing. Each chapter may answer a question and partially define a character but at the same time creates a new mystery and leaves something unexplained. He spins a metaphysical web while he entertains, educates and then leaves us hanging. Here is an excerpt from page 169 to possibly tempt you.
“Al closed his tired eyes and opened them again. ‘The way I see it, words don’t do much to reveal the truth. They’re a cheap substitute. Language always falls short. Always. Silence has no boundaries. It’s infinite enough to make room for the truth.’ Al stared at the ceiling, his mind settling and resting in nothingness. ‘Look up there, at the ceiling. It’s a tabula rasa. It is what it is. The shadows of the candle dance on the surface of the ceiling but don’t affect it. The ceiling is the truth, the shadows are words that try to capture the truth.’ Al wondered whether or not to continue. ‘You can tell who among us can endure the truth. And you can tell those who can’t. Those that talk incessantly and have opinions about everything and are enamored with their own opinions cannot endure the truth.’
“‘Why do you say that?’
“‘Because an encounter with truth makes you silent. Only silence gives room for the truth. Silence is the space where truth can breathe.’”
Edward Fotheringill teaches philosophy at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, Maryland. His other novels include Lanterns in the Mist, Darkness Withdrawn OR The Eclipse of Nietzsche’s Shadow and Halfmoon Confidential. All good, but this is his best yet.
Kaye Trout - August 11, 2009
SOUTHCROP FOREST by Lorne Rothman
Bloomington, IN 47403
Genre: Factual Fantasy
ISBN: 9780595495887, $13.95, 175 pp.
Quoting from the back cover:
“The trees of Southcrop have made a striking discovery–one that could change the world for all their kind. But they are trapped in a forest fragment and face destruction from human sprawl. They cannot spread their new-found gift across the land.
“The Auja, a young oak, finds little Fur amongst her branches. Fur is a legendary creature not seen for a thousand years, a single intelligent being emerged from a colony of caterpillars. Fur is small and meek and slow, but can travel through the forest and talk with trees. Auja persuades the reluctant Fur to help.
“Fur embarks on a desperate quest to find the source of all tree power–the mysterious Riverside Farm. Here he must gather the trees’ great treasure and carry it across Oak River to the forest of Deep Sky.
“Fur’s long trek is fraught with peril as he races to reach Riverside Farm before it is destroyed. Ghoulish enemies hunt him while machines wreak their deadly havoc. Yet Fur’s journey is one of enlightenment as he learns about the ecology of his world, the threat of the human species, and finally, the secret of his existence.”
Lorne Rothman is a good writer and has created a fantasy tale around the subject of ecology. He holds a PhD in zoology and has studied ecology at several universities. The story is set in current times in a real forest, and prior to writing his story, Rothman studied all the flora, fauna and history of the area. If you enjoy fantasy adventures with a realistic twist, you might consider giving Southcrop Forest a try.
Kaye Trout - August 1, 2009