By Samantha Pak
Northwest Asian Weekly
Here are these month’s top book recommendations. The theme of these books is new beginnings.
Written by Roseanne Greenfield Thong, Illustrated by Meilo So
Orchard Books, 2014
Each year, on the emperor’s birthday, everyone in Mei’s village prepares something special in their leader’s honor.
For Mei and Grandpa Tu, that means making enough long-life noodles to feed everyone at the celebration. But these noodles aren’t just any noodles. Grandpa Tu’s noodles are magical. In addition to eating the noodles, they can be used to string kites, as jump ropes, and to catch clouds.
Usually, it is Grandpa Tu who makes the noodles, but this year, he has handed the task over to Mei. With her grandfather’s ability being the stuff of legends — impressing even the Moon Goddess — Mei is understandably terrified with what awaits her.
Despite her own doubts, Grandpa Tu shows his full confidence in his granddaughter. This was one of the things I enjoyed the most about “Noodle Magic.” As a child — or at any age, for that matter — trying something new is never easy. And trying to follow in someone’s footsteps can be intimidating. Grandpa Tu’s faith in Mei and her abilities show readers of all ages how believing in someone can affect them and their confidence. Seeing Mei become more sure of herself and her ability to find the magic inside her to make the noodles can inspire youngsters to try something new, even if they are scared.
Although there is no specific country or village named in the book, Thong’s story is told in a style similar to Chinese folk stories, invoking elements of family and community and even including a bit of mythology.
So’s colorful illustrations bring the tale to life. From depictions of various villagers and the Moon Goddess, to the images of Mei and Grandpa Tu in action as they make the noodles and utilize the noodles, the illustrations are lively and fun. Readers young and old will appreciate So’s attention to detail.
The Lotus and the Storm
By Lan Cao
During wartime Vietnam, two sisters named Mai and Khanh live a somewhat sheltered life away from the fighting and violence, as their father Minh goes off to work every day as an army commander. Their mother Quy spends her days conducting the family’s business with the Chinese merchants throughout the streets of Cholon.
But as is the way with war, the family’s life is disrupted and changed in a way that will never leave them the same again. And 40 years later, Mai and Minh are living in a close-knit community among fellow Vietnamese refugees, many of whom are still suffering the after-effects from the war, just as they are.
While “Lotus” is a story about the Vietnam War, it is essentially the story about a family. Primarily told from the points of view of Mai and Minh, readers see how sometimes love is all you need, but also how sometimes it is not enough. The story shows how war can bring a family together, but also how it can tear them apart — whether through death or through members fighting on opposing sides.
At the heart of the story is the relationship between Minh and Mai. The father-daughter duo may not have the easiest of times, but it is clear that they love each other and many of the things they do are for each other.
In my experience, most books featuring families focus on parent-child relationships between the father and son or the mother and daughter. I don’t come across many stories featuring cross-gender parent-child relationships, so reading about Minh and Mai was refreshing. They reminded me of me and my father. Our family is not very demonstrative when it comes to our emotions, but that does not mean the love is not there. Minh and Mai are the same way. The two love and care for each other deeply, but rather than telling each other that, they choose to show it through their actions.
The Valley of Amazement
By Amy Tan
HarperCollins Publishers, 2013
In 1912 in Shanghai, Violet Minturn is the privileged daughter of the American madam of one of the city’s most exclusive courtesan houses. Half American, half Chinese, Violet is not sure where she fits in, growing up in China. Her confusion increases when the Ching dynasty is overturned and it is no longer safe for foreigners to be in the country. Separated from her mother, Violet is forced to become a “virgin courtesan” to survive.
Meanwhile in 1897, in San Francisco, her mother Lucia, at 16, falls for a Chinese painter and leaves with him to Shanghai. Once they arrive, she is shocked to learn how traditional her lover is and how she is unable to change him.
“Valley” is told from the points of view of both women at various stages in their lives, showing their strength and resilience as they have to learn to survive during times and circumstances that were not too accommodating to independent women.
Honestly, I was not too impressed with either of the women at the beginning of the story. Violet was a bit of a spoiled brat — overly needy when it came to her mother’s affections and attention. And Lucia, or Lulu, did not seem like a good parent, often ignoring her daughter in favor of her lovers and business. But as the story progressed, both characters redeemed themselves, as we see more of their struggles and how they overcome them to become the women they’re supposed to be.
This is not an easy task for a writer — to have initially unlikeable characters win over the reader. But Tan does this effortlessly and readers find themselves rooting for Violet and Lulu before they know it happens.
Another thing that Tan does well — and has always done well — is show the complexities of the mother-daughter relationship. It is a relationship in which each person feels they are not understood, but in reality, they are more similar than they realize. ■
Samantha Pak can be reached at email@example.com.