Wednesday, November 30, 2005

The Distant Land of My Father (Bo Caldwell)

I picked The Distant Land of My Father off the library shelf because I loved the cover. There's a black and white photograph of a busy Shanghai street with large square billowing flags painted with Chinese characters hanging above shops and a crowd of people on the sidewalk. In the front are two men, their backs mostly to the camera, running across the street, their long coats rising behind them. It's a beautiful photo capturing a far away land, but the motion of those two men make it feel as if it's still alive.

When I read the author bio on the back, I realized Bo Caldwell was the wife of Ron Hansen, who was Jim's professor in college. Then I started to get uneasy. The last book I picked off the shelf without knowing what it was about was The Seven Sisters. Since I didn't know Margaret Drabble, it was easy to write how I really felt about that book. Even though I hadn't met Caldwell, the association was close enough to count for something. What would I do if I didn't like this book?

It turns out I didn't need to worry. Caldwell had me right from the start with her rich descriptions of 1930s Shanghai and the story of a young girl, Anna, Shanghai-born from American parents, and her millionaire father and sophisticated mother. The story begins with Shanghai from seven-year-old's Anna's eyes and moves through the many struggles the family faced there as the Japanese Invasion begins and their own personal lives start to break apart.

I generally shy away from most books that are dramatic and sad, especially any books that have to do with war. I figure there's enough of that in real life to deal with, and I like to read to escape. If I had known what this book was about (with some passages detailing the horrors of everyday life in a war zone and those of the life of prisoners of war), I admit I wouldn't have read it. But I'm really glad I did. Not only is Caldwell's writing superb, the story is majestic in its scope while being relatable and human. I think the proof of how moving the story was is that I was completely engrossed in it and never felt as if there were any conventions or author tricks going on. The whole time I was lost in the story. Which is probably why it made me cry at various times. This book is very sad, but very, very good, and it will remind you how much you love your parents and all those close to you in your life.

Other good books: Judith Mitchell's The Last Day of the War: Judy was also one of Jim's professors, but this time in graduate school, and this is her first novel. It's set during World War I but does not fit the criteria of a typical war book, and it's a great vivid read. Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible: I love this book. It took me forever before I finally read it because I thought I wouldn't like it because of all the Oprah Book Club hype. Kingsolver's description of 1950s Africa is amazing, as is the story of the young American missionary family who attempts to make that unfamiliar land home.

Next book up: Banishing Verona by Margot Livesey

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