Teaser Tuesday: a question across the ages

teaser-tuesdaysTEASER TUESDAYS is hosted by MizB at Should be Reading; it asks you to:

  • Grab your current read.
  • Let the book fall open to a random page.
  • Share with us two (2) “teaser” sentences from that page, somewhere between lines 7 and 12.  You also need to share the title of the book that you’re getting your “teaser” from … that way people can have some great book recommendations if they like the teaser you’ve given!
  • My teaser for this week:

    Can a woman who has such an abundance of garments, who keeps her own carriage, who commands the use of rooms, not merely a room, of her own be anything but rich?  Perhaps not rich in landed, freehold property, such as befits the owner of Mansfield House, nor rich in the manner of Edgeworth, who has two estates and a house in town – but rich as an unmarried woman might be rich.  Rich in independence and voluntary solitude and self-will.  Rich in determination to discover what riches await me in the wondrous and mysterious adventure called work.

    This is from Laurie Viera Rigler’s Rude Awakenings of a Jane Austen Addict, which tells the story of Jane Mansfield, a woman from Regency England who wakes up one morning in the apartment (and body!) of Courtney Stone, a 21st-century Los Angeleno.  Rude Awakenings (available June 25, 2009), is the parallel story to Rigler’s Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict which chronicles the adventures that await Courtney when she wakes up in Jane’s bed and life.

    Yes, if you’re counting, I used four sentences not two … it was just too good to stop!

    What do you think of this teaser?  What are you reading this week?

    *The Wednesday Sisters* selected for book clubs by Borders and Target

    wednesday-sistersMeg Waite Clayton’s novel The Wednesday Sisters has been selected by Target as the Target Bookmarked Club pick for the summer, with special Bookmarked editions now available in Target stores nationwide.  Target chooses books that “stir discussion – and linger with you long after the reading is done.”

    The novel is also a Borders Book Club Selection.

    The Wednesday Sisters is now available in paperback … what are you waiting for?!?

    BEA Author Breakfasts and other culinary/literary delights

    Allow me to share a few more of the events that I experienced during BEA.  The first is this post, which rather loosely ties together several food-related events.

    continental_breakfast__cdr_There were “book & author” breakfasts on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday; luncheons on Saturday and Sunday, and an “audiobook & author” tea on Saturday.  These were special events for which tickets were purchased in advance.  I wanted to experience as much of BEA as possible, while still leaving lots of flexibility throughout my days, so I purchased tickets for the breakfasts on Friday and Saturday. 

    Two types of tickets were offered for the breakfasts: auditorium seating at $15 (or was it $20?), or seating at round tables of 8 with continental breakfast for $35.  I chose the round table option, not so much for the breakfast (OJ, coffee, and a bagel or muffin … that’s quite a breakfast premium, even for NY!), but for the networking opportunities.  One morning I had a lovely conversation with a former bookseller from Salt Lake City who now produces author events (my dream job, if anyone is interested!), the next morning I talked with a woman who works for a film production company turning books into television shows; they were both very interesting.

    So, on to the breakfasts!  Friday was the Children’s Book & Author Breakfast, emceed by … Julie Andrews (we’re constantly wishing for Mary Poppins around our house), and featuring Tomie dePaola (just like you’d imagine him – funny, personable, and all about the stories for kids), Meg Cabot (totally channeling her inner 14-year-old), and Amy Krouse Rosenthal (who showed a fantastic short film about a spontaneous meet-up in Chicago).  As a bonus, copies of a spiral planner (featuring verses from Andrews’ upcoming Collection of Poems, Songs and Lullabies), dePaola’s Strega Nona’s Harvest (a pop-up book from Penguin Young Readers Group), Cabot’s Allie Finkle’s Rules for Girls Book 4: Stage Fright (Scholastic, Inc.), and a lenticular pin featuring Rosenthal’s Duck! Rabbit! logo (Chronicle Books) were waiting on our chairs for us!

    Now, what did the speakers say?  This is one of those times when I didn’t take notes, thinking, “I’ll remember all this!  They’re funny and witty … these are great stories they’re sharing!”  You guessed it … brain fade!  This article at Shelf-Awareness fills in a lot of the gaps and tells the story more eloquently than I!

    I’ve got one thing Shelf-Awareness doesn’t have, a video clip from a surprise guest … Peter Yarrow of the folk music trio Peter, Paul and Mary.  Yarrow was at BEA to promote Day is Done, which will be published by Sterling Publishing on October 4, 2009.  He had the entire room singing Day is Done and Puff the Magic Dragon.  Listen carefully for his BEA and publishing-themed lyrics.  Apologies in advance if you need to take some Dramamine for motion sickness; my elbows didn’t make a suitable tripod, so this clip has a Blair Witch Project aura to it!

    Fast-forward to Saturday morning, at the Author Breakfast.  This event was MC’d by Craig Ferguson (American on Purpose: A Memoir from HarperCollins), and featured Tracy Kidder (Strength in What Remains from Random House), Jeannette Walls (Half Broke Horses: A True Life Novel) from Scribner, and Ben Mezrich (The Accidental Billionaires from Doubleday).  Again, I can’t give you any stellar quotes from the speakers (not that there weren’t any, I was just too intent on listening to take notes), but I can tell you that they each got me excited about their books based on the experiences they shared while I was gnawing at my bagel.

    img_0218What else did I eat during my time in New York?  Here’s a shot of some book bloggers in front of the Javits Center, eating gourmet hot dogs and pretzels.  We always call these “swampy dogs,” which may be regional – what term do you use?img_0233

    By the time Saturday night rolled around, I took off my BEA hat and put on a purely social chapeau.  A good friend had driven in from Connecticut to spend the evening with me.  We went to an AMAZING French restaurant in the West Village (Bouley at 163 Duane Street, if you want to check it out).  We ordered the 8-course tasting menu and sat for a 4-hour dinner, while the wait staff served plate after plate of mysterious delicacies and switched the flatware often enough to fill a dishwasher or two.  We started out with a good chuckle when our waiter offered us a choice of “sparkling, bottled flat, or eau de Bloomberg” … he didn’t crack a smile after that.  It seemed the other patrons were tres serious, but we chatted and laughed and sipped and supped.  Jeesh, people, lighten up and have some fun!

    Well, I’m home now, to much quicker dinners for six, and feeling like a short-order cook!  It’s three weeks past BEA and I still have stories to share.  After this delicious tidbit, the final post in the series will be about Firebrand’s in-booth book blogger signings and all the people who made that possible.  Go get yourself a snack and tune in next time …

    Spotlight on Bookstores: Rakestraw Books in Danville, California

    Today’s Spotlight on Bookstores is written by David Ebershoff, whose novel The 19th Wife has just been released in paperback.  You can read my review of The 19th Wife, an interview with David, and a blurb about his reading at one of my local bookstores.  He is an editor at Random House and author of The Danish Girl (which has been optioned for a film starring Nicole Kidman and Charlize Theron) and Pasadena.  Read on to learn about a special bookstore whose owner David Ebershoff has dubbed “Mr. Handseller of America”rakestraw-books and where, as in many independent bookstores, he feels at home.

    The first time I met Michael Barnard, the owner of Rakestraw Books in Danville, California, I messed up big time.  It was several years ago, not long after I published my first novel, The Danish Girl, and I was in San Francisco to talk to a group of indie booksellers about the books I was editing for Random House and my own writing.  I was seated next to Michael and immediately we found ourselves in a two-hour gab-fest about our mutual interests and experiences, including growing up in California, surviving bad dates, and, above all, books.  After dinner Michael asked if I would walk him back to his car to a sign a copy of The Danish Girl.  Of course!  Outside on the damp street I happily uncapped my pen and began to inscribe the book while Michael looked on.  For John, I wrote, while Michael’s face began to twist up.  It was so nice getting to know you.  That’s when Michael politely corrected me: My name’s not John.

    I told that story the first time I spoke in Michael’s store, a few years later, while on tour for my second novel, Pasadena.  Michael had packed the place with almost a hundred people, most of whom Michael knew personally.  And that’s what makes Michael and Rakestraw special.  He knows his customers (he’s much better with names than I am) and therefore he knows what books to put into their hands.  If there were an award for Mr. Handseller of America, Michael would have already won it.  Multiple times. 

    19th-wife-pbEarlier this year, Rakestraw moved locations, growing in square footage at a time when most businesses are cutting back.  Recently I made my first visit to Michael’s new store on Hartz Avenue while on tour for the paperback of my most recent novel, The 19th Wife.  Many stores are rectangles, with one of the short sides as the storefront.  Michael’s new store is a rectangle, but a long side faces the sidewalk, giving the store an unusually long wall of windows that fill the store with easy sunlight.  From the outside you can see much of the store, making it impossible to resist one of Michael’s many inventive displays.  (Once Michael created displays of books organized not by subject but by color: a table of royal blues and another piled up with orange jackets and spines.  Believe it or not, it worked.) 

    When I walked into the new store, Michael’s mom first greeted me, as she always does.  One of the great challenges for any bookseller is how to clone the owners’ (or managers’) knowledge and passion in their staff.  Michael figured that out awhile ago by hiring his Mom, Julie.  Not only does Julie know her customers as well as Michael does, she looks like him (or, more accurately, he looks like her).  Between the two of them, they will find a book you will love.

    The best booksellers are curators; they carefully select the books for their stores based on their own personal taste and that of their customers.  It’s a myth to think a bookstore’s role is to present all titles equally.  Even if a bookseller had the noble ambition to do so, it would be impossible.  Rather, the bookstores I fall in love with – bookstores like Three Lives in New York and Vroman’s in Pasadena and Towne Center in Pleasanton and Watermark in Wichita – have thoughtfully, almost magically anticipated the book I want to read next, even when I don’t know what I want to read next.  That’s why I walked out of Copperfield’sin Sonoma County a few weeks ago with John LeCarre’s A Perfect Spy, which in turn led to Nancy Olson at Raleigh’s Quail Ridge handing me William Boyd’s Restless from a display at her cash wrap last week.  This is how the best independent bookstores work.  It explains how the best have managed to hold their own against all the unsettling forces books are facing in 2009.  And it’s why whenever we step into a place like Rakestraw we should rejoice, for we are home.

    A conversation about Mark Levin’s *Liberty and Tyranny*


  • Liberty and Tyranny: A Conservative Manifesto by Mark R. Levin
  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Threshold Editions; First Edition, Tenth Printing edition (March 24, 2009)
  • ISBN-13: 978-1416562856
  • Back of the book blurbMark R. Levin delivers the book that characterizes both his devotion to his more than 5 million listeners and his love of our country and the legacy of our Founding Fathers: Liberty and Tyranny is Mark R. Levin’s clarion call to conservative America, a new manifesto for the conservative movement for the 21st century.

    In the face of the modern liberal assault on Constitution-based values, an attack that has steadily snowballed since President Roosevelt’s New Deal of the 1930s and resulted in a federal government that is a massive, unaccountable conglomerate, the time for re-enforcing the intellectual and practical case for conservatism is now. Conservative beliefs in individual freedoms do in the end stand for liberty for all Americans, while liberal dictates lead to the breakdown of civilized society — in short, tyranny. Looking back to look to the future, Levin writes “conservatism is the antidote to tyranny precisely because its principles are our founding principles.” And in a series of powerful essays, Levin lays out how conservatives can counter the liberal corrosion that has filtered into every timely issue affecting our daily lives, from the economy to health care, global warming, immigration, and more — and illustrates how change, as seen through the conservative lens, is always prudent, and always an enhancement to individual freedom.

    Thoughts from She is Too Fond of Books (and a special guest!):  J and I are living proof of the adage “opposites attract.”  Red Sox girl marries Yankees guy from a rival college, and they spend their days in a state of yin and yang, “complementary opposites within a greater whole.”

    Our political views are equally misaligned; both registered Independents, we tend to cancel out each other’s votes, nonetheless.  I want to cover my ears and sing “la la la” when J watches the “talking heads” on FOX-TV at night.  Recently J was watching as Mark Levin appeared as a guest on one of the programs; I jumped at the opportunity to read and review Levin’s Liberty and Tyranny with J.

    At this point J has read the book, but I have been avoiding it.  We were in the car for several hours this weekend, driving from Massachusetts (blue state) to Connecticut (blue state), and had the chance to talk about what he has read.  Follow along as J tries to convince me that Liberty and Tyranny is not just for red-staters:

    She is Too Fond of Books:  Can I call you moderately conservative, as opposed to me being moderately liberal?

    J:  Why would you want to put labels on us?

    SITFOB: OK, can I say you hold moderately conservative views, not that you are moderately conservative?

    J:  Maybe my views are libertarian.  I read recently that most of the people in the U.S. are “independents,” fiscally conservative and socially libertarian.  I think the breakdown was something like 11% liberal, 25% conservative, and the rest somewhere in the middle.

    SITFOB: Where did you read that, the Wall Street Journal?

    J:  Yeah, it must have been in the Journal; they’d never print numbers like that in the Times.  It’s not “fit to print.”

    SITFOB: So, what’s it all about, this being libertarian?

    J: It’s the idea of government stepping back, not telling us what to do.   Take mandatory seat belt laws.  Kids can’t protect themselves and need a seat belt law to stay safe.  Should the government apply those to adults?  Shouldn’t adults be allowed to decide for themselves whether or not they want to wear a seat belt, rather than spend our government’s time and resources making that choice and enforcing the law?

    SITFOB:  Was reading Liberty and Tyranny like watching Mark Levin on TV?

    J:  No, it was like listening to his radio show.  In face, the radio program these days is like listening to audio excerpts from the book.  He reads an introduction from a chapter, then applies those themes to the news of the day – whatever Congress and the Administration are doing wrong in a given day.

    SITFOB:  Can I put ‘wrong’ in quotes?

    J:  That makes it seem like it’s not actually wrong.

    SITFOB:  Does Mark Levin believe we’re living in a state of tyranny?

    J: Yes, he believes we’re living with exactly the type of government people came here to escape – the “statists” in which government tells people exactly how to live their lives.

    SITFOB:  “Statist” is a term from 200 years ago, is Mark Levin resurrecting it?

    J:  Yes, it’s the term he uses.

    SITFOB:  Who are the other big names with Levin in this movement?

    J: Rush Limbaugh.

    SITFOB:  Anyone who doesn’t make my blood boil?

    J:  You don’t even listen to them, how can you say that?  You’ve been conditioned to think they’re bad.  Let’s turn the tables, why do you think you’re a liberal?  What about that appeals to you?

    SITFOB:  You know my hot button is minority and women’s rights; freedom of choice, equality …

    J:  What is it you’re not allowed to do?  Pee standing up?  I would tell you that choice is a libertarian position.  The government is not telling you what you can and cannot do.

    SITFOB:  OK, back to the book … How is it organized?

    J:  By topic.  Chapters might cover the environmental movement, gun control, healthcare, tobacco regulation, etc.  He introduces an issue, then cites the relevant principles in the Constitution that our country was founded on, and contrasts it to what is actually going on today.

    SITFOB:  Is the style conversational or textbook?

    J:  It’s very readable, easy flowing.  Like a spoken monologue with bullet points.

    SITFOB:  It sounds like you’d recommend I read it, that I’m not going to slam it shut in angry response to what I’ve read, that I might find it more tolerable to read Mark Levin’s viewpoint than to have him blaring out of the television.

    J:  You should read the book.  I think you’ll find our political views are closer together than you realize.

    Well, Liberty and Tyranny has moved from J’s nightstand to mine.  I’ll read it, but it’s not at the top of the pile; I do promise to approach it with an open mind.

    Teaser Tuesdays: pop culture city!

    TEASER TUESDAYS is hosted by MizB at Should be Reading; it asks you to:

  • Grab your current read.
  • Let the book fall open to a random page.
  • Share with us two (2) “teaser” sentences from that page, somewhere between lines 7 and 12.You also need to share the title of the book that you’re getting your “teaser” from … that way people can have some great book recommendations if they like the teaser you’ve given!
  • My teaser for this week:

     They decided to go to Circus Circus to ride the roller coaster.  This was Tess’s idea, and since she was Cindy Brady, and since she never got to decide anything, that was what they did.

    The teaser is from Elin Hilderbrand’s Castaways, which will be published on July 7. 

    What are you reading today?   Care to share a few teaser sentences?

    Calling all fans of C.M. Mayo and *The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire*

    C. M. Mayo is holding an Author Chat at LibraryThing now thru June 28th.  Have you read The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire?  Is it on your TBR stack or wish list?  Stop by and join the conversation!

    Author Chat is open to anyone with a LibraryThing account.  If you’re not yet a member, visit the LibraryThing home page for a free membership.

    If you’re participating in my 2009 LibraryThing Author Challenge, you might like to add The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire to your reading list!

    Product review: *A Life Well Read* reading journal and organization system

    alwr_box_image_on_whiteA few weeks ago I was given the opportunity to use and review a clever product for book lovers.  My initial thoughts when I received A Life Well Read were:  How pretty!  Hey, I can customize it!  I may never lose a loaned book again! and Wow, I wish I had thought of this!

    Allow me to elaborate on all those exclamations …

    A Life Well Read is a housed in a sturdy (double-thick and oh-so-pretty) box that fits right on the bookshelf; it’s about the size and shape of a hard-cover book.  Inside are:alwr_photo_image_no_price_2dec2008

    • 5 labelled dividers (to track books in my library, favorites, books on loan, gift ideas, and wish list)
    • 7 blank dividers (I’m using 2 to record notes for the two book groups I attend)
    • 50 book sheets to note the basics (title, author, rating) as well as my notes and impressions
    • book plates and gift labels
    • a “classic” ballpoint pen (to me this means “classy” – heavier weighted and twist to extend and retract)

    So, you’re thinking, “But, Dawn, 50 book sheets is not going to get you far in your library.”  You’re right, I don’t intend to log every book in my library, only those I consider ”5 Star” books and those read in our book discussion groups.  The company that created A Life Well Read is A Life Unplugged.  I’m using this customizable journal in my “unplugged” time.  Here’s how I’ve used it in the past two weeks:

    • I brought three books to recommend at our last book group meeting.  I filled out a book note for each,  giving 3-4 sentences about what grabbed me (why I was recommending it to the group), and page numbers and the initial words of the quotes I used in my blog review.  After I gave my “elevator pitch” to the group we passed the books around during our chit-chat time and members leafed thru the books and read my notes at their leisure.
    • I recently read The Painter from Shanghai and thought my friend Sharon would really like it.  When she was over I told her about the book and offered to loan it to her:   ”Oh, and you’ve got to see my new lending library system”.  I had already filled out the book notes to share with my book group, so I simply filled out a bookplate (I don’t typically put book plates in all my books), jotted Sharon’s name in the Lending History section of the book note, and filed it under the “Books on Loan” tab.
    • I’ve added two ideas for gift-giving on the “Give the Gift of Books” cards.  Our family likes to create book combinations: a felt craft book with a few dozen sheets of felt from the craft store, the children’s book Pete’s a Pizza with a gift certificate for a couple slices.  I figure it’s not too early in the year to jot down areas of interest when I hear them from various family members!

    alwr_fanned_cards_image_whiteEven though I won’t be journaling all the books I read with A Life Well Read, I’ve adapted the system to fill a need in my personal library … maybe I’ll be compelled to slow down and improve my penmanship when I fill out the book notes!

    A Life Well Read will make a nice gift for any reader (yes, including yourself!).  Do you remember that feeling before school started in the fall, when you were all excited with your new notebooks, fresh school supplies, and sharp pencils?  That’s how I felt when I logged my first few 5-star books in my A Life Well Read book notes.  I think the system will be especially attractive to someone who

    • needs a better system for keeping track of loaned books
    • wants to track book ideas for a discussion group
    • has no access to a computerized database
    • likes the idea of slowing down

    Does this sound like something you or a friend would benefit from?  A Life Well Read sells for $29.95 plus $5 priority shipping.  A Life Unplugged is offering a 25% discount to readers of She is Too Fond of Books!

    Are you intrigued but not ready to purchase?  Visit A Life Unplugged to sign up for their monthly newsletter; you’ll be entered into a drawing for A Life Well Read.

    Happy baby asked to leave bookstore?!

    toddler-readingEmma, a friend of my niece, recently recounted the following story on her personal blog.  I was saddened by her experience, both as a mother and a lover of books.  I’ve excerpted the pertinent points here, changing the names of people and places.  All bold-faced highlights are mine (photo credit Raising Children Network):

    Charlie has entered a phase where he loves to be read to, for hours over the course of a day.  He has favorite books that are quickly becoming memorized due to their seemingly endless repetition.  Now, while I complain occasionally due to the over reading of certain favorites (i.e., Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What do you see?), I am absolutely head over heels ecstatic that he seems to love reading.  A love of reading will hopefully lead to a love of learning and school and it’s a passion that will carry you countless places in life.  Long story short, we needed to add some variety to the current library so I wouldn’t grow homicidal of the poor Brown Bear!  Enter our intended walk to … a local independent bookstore in the area that has gotten wonderful reviews, is rumored to have a great kid’s selection, and was in walking distance of our place to boot!  We had high hopes for this place.

    Charlie was strapped quietly in his stroller when we entered the store.  We didn’t realize that there was an author speaking that evening, but figured we would just check out the kid’s books, find some keepers fairly quickly, and be on our way.  Within 2 minutes of reaching the kid’s section, we were asked by an employee to put Charlie’s quiet musical toy away.  I was a bit put out by the way the employee asked, but understood that people were interested in listening to the author …

    … Where I draw the line is when a customer …  came up to us and asked us to pick our books and move on.  The speaker was apparently a friend of [the author] and the wee man’s very quiet babbling was disturbing her listening experience.  She danced around the bush and attempted to save face when I came out and asked her point blank if she wanted us to leave?  She didn’t come out and say it, but was clearly quite satisfied when we decided that [we] … didn’t feel welcome enough to spend any money. … [and] to bring a quiet, contained, and very well-behaved toddler into a book store….IN THE KID’S SECTION to pick out some new books????  …   At first I was embarrassed that we had somehow caused a scene, but then upon reflection, I realized that we hadn’t actually done anything wrong at all!  …   In the process of making us feel 2 inches tall for daring to bring a child into a bookstore that is open to the public, she ensured that we would never be shopping there again.  Instead we’ll walk …  further down the road to a CHILDREN’S ONLY bookstore … .  Lesson learned, never again will I back down or apologize when someone tells me to take my well-behaved child else where!

    Emma and her family will continue to read with Charlie, but will visit other bookstores to add to their at-home library.  They feel offended by the way they were spoken to, as if their value as customers was not as high as that of the people who were in the store primarily for the author event.  It sounds like she wishes she had stood her ground and continued shopping, since Charlie was content and the person who asked her to leave was another customer, not a representative of the bookstore.

    No, we don’t have both sides of the story, but I tend to take Emma’s word that Charlie was behaving as a happy toddler might when surrounded by exciting new books; contented babbles are nothing to ‘shush’ at.  We don’t know if the bookstore employees were aware of the customer who basically asked the family to leave, and if the booksellers would support this action. 

    Our local bookstore typically holds readings on Sunday afternoons at 3; prime time for families and tourists shopping in the area.  There’s always quiet conversation taking place, the ring of the cash register, and, yes, occasionally the squeal of an excited child.  Perhaps the bookstore where Emma had this experience is smaller and conversation is not contained as well.  I wonder if they’ve considered holding readings after hours, if a silent adult audience is the goal.

    Most probably this was a misunderstanding, where the customer overstepped her boundaries, not fully grasping that the store was still open for business to customers of all ages.  It’s a shame that the bookstore has lost Emma and her family as customers, I’m hoping that she has followed up with a even-toned letter or phone call to the store manager to air her grievances and to give them an opportunity to clarify the store’s policy on “quiet time” during author events.

    What would you have done in Emma’s shoes?  If you were the bookseller?  A customer attending the reading?

    Book Review: *Unpolished Gem* by Alice Pung

  • unpolished-gemUnpolished Gem: My Mother, My Grandmother, and Me by Alice Pung
  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Plume (January 27, 2009)
  • ISBN-13: 978-0452290006
  • Back of the book blurbAfter Alice Pung’s family fled to Australia from the killing fields of Cambodia, her father chose Alice as her name because he thought their new country was a Wonderland.  In this … debut memoir … Alice grows up straddling two worlds, East and West, her insular family and the Australia outside.  … she writes of the trials of assimilation and cultural misunderstanding, and of the tender but fraught relationships between three generations of women trying to live the Australian dream without losing themselves.

    She is Too Fond of Books’ review:  You may know, from reading other posts and reviews on this blog, that personal memoir is one of my favorite genres.  Not autobiographies of celebrities, personal memoirs are attractive to me because they tell the stories of “real” people; sometimes people I can identify with in some way, sometime people I can learn from.  Alice Pung’s memoir, Unpolished Gem, gave me a peek at her life – being raised in a family that had escaped the killing fields of Cambodia and settled in a new country.

    Pung’s memoir begins in a suburb of Melbourne, Australia; she was born one month after her parents migrated there, accompanied by Pung’s grandmother, aunt, and one nearly empty suitcase.  She was born one month later; the family eventually settled in Footscray, which to this day remains a melting pot for recent immigrants from war-torn nations.  The Cambodian and Vietnamese refugees of the early 1980s have now been outnumbered by those from Sudan and Ethiopia.

    There were many sections of the book that I found thoroughly engrossing – the struggle of her mother to learn English (or not; she is torn about whether she wants/needs to learn the language, never mind the difficulty of the mechanics of learning to speak it); the role of her mother in this new land; changing expectations as the family began to prosper; Alice’s hesitation about dating outside the invisible barriers of her extended “family” of immigrants.

    Other parts were both entertaining and illuminating.  Consider this passage, which describes Pung’s parents’ encounter with a pedestrian crossing light – Pung compares the Red Man on the traffic light with the oppressive Mao Ze Dong, and the Green Man with the supportive Australian government:

    My father stands in front of the yellow pole and presses the little rubber button again. “Even Mother can do it!  Watch me do it again!  But try not to gawk like Guangzhou peasants, please.”  My grandmother ignores the comment and looks up at the lights.  “We wait for Mao Ze Dong man to disappear before we move,” she instructs.  “He stops everything.”  She is getting the hang of this.  As the little Red Man disappears and the little Green Man reappears, the crew hobble to the other side in beat with the ticking traffic light.

    … The little Green Man was an eternal symbol of government existing to serve and protect.  And any country that could have a little green flashing man was benign and wealthy beyond imagining.

    As much as I enjoyed the parts that dove deeper into the family’s relationships and growth in this new world, there were several times I felt Pung put the brakes on the story and could have gone deeper.  I thought that perhaps these were areas which are too personal for her to evaluate, so they remain “unpolished gems.”  In reading “A Conversation with Alice Pung,” I learned that the cultural element of saving face may have played into the way it was written.  Pung feels she pushed the envelope by revealing more than a Cambodian typically would, where I (the ugly American?) was hungry for more … an interesting contrast of our ethnic heritages.

    She refers many times to the tension between her mother and grandmother, and cites examples of being used as a pawn between them.  I would have liked to have more about this – was this in-law relationship typical?  When did Pung realize she was being used like this?  Did her reluctance to contine a romantic relationship stem from fear of being “second best” to a suitor’s mother?  Similarly, Pung touches on emotional stress and near nervous breakdowns suffered in her family, but doesn’t fully explore why this happens or how it has changed the course of her life.

    Despite my unanswered questions, overall I enjoyed Unpolished Gem and the stories Alice Pung shares in it.  The personal narratives are lined with realistic dialogue and details that give a fair look at the family dynamic.  A discussion group would find much to talk about – the immigrant culture and assimilation; Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge, and the Vietnam War; familial relationships, and more.  A reader’s guide for Unpolished Gem is available online.

    This is Pung’s first book, and I’ll look forward to reading more from her; I imagine a fully-developed novel (in which she might be freer to explore personal themes) would be marvelous.  She is a writer and lawyer living near Melbourne.

    Clarification (added 6/15/09):  It’s clear from the first few comments on this post that because of the way I structured my review, with the positive analysis bookending (and perhaps overshadowing) the areas I felt were lacking, it is being read as a ringing endorsement.  I found Pung’s writing to be strongest when narrating a scene – complete with dialogue and visual details, she drew me in as if a fly on the wall.  However, the memoir didn’t deliver on its implicit promise of exploring “my mother, my grandmother, and me,” which I attributed to cultural differences.  The author let us get only so close to the intricacies of the familial relationships, then abruptly backed away.  For this reason, I believe that Pung’s writing would really shine as fiction, where she could let go of the personal connection to her themes and explore them fully.