Title and Author(s): Katherine Howe’s The House of Velvet and Glass
Release Date: Apr 06, 2012
Publisher: Thorndike Press; Lrg edition
Source: Harris County Public Library
Reasons for Reading: Feel free to click onto this link TBRs – Katherine Howe’s The House of Velvet and Glass. Unfortunately, I was reading this book when my Nook went on the fritz. It was a huge relief to me when I found the large print version of this novel at the library branch. Thus, I was able to quickly finish this book.
Summary: It’s 1915, three years after losing her mother and sister (Helen and Eulah) on that fateful voyage of the HMS Titanic, Sibyl Allston suffers in near silence as she runs the Boston household of her laconic, shipping magnate Lan Allston. She seeks solace in her late mother’s medium. When her brother, Harlan, gets kicked out of Harvard and his involvement with an odd woman seems the cause, old flame Professor Benton Derby reaches out to Sibyl. With Benton, Sibyl embarks on an odd journey of discovery of Boston’s Chinatown and its opium dens. Sibyl’s 1915 point of view is mingled with those of Helen and Eulah’s 1912 and Lannie’s 1867. I won’t say anymore about Lannie.
One Thing I Learned from reading Katherine Howe’s The House of Velvet and Glass: I knew of the Widener Library at Harvard but I didn’t know the story behind it. For more info, visit History – Widener Library – Harvard College Library.
What I Liked: The characters were well conceived – particularly Sibyl, Eulah, and Lan. The settings appeared well-researched and recreated. Howe’s descriptive writing paints the picture without being gratuitous. I appreciated the integration of real-life people such as Harry Widener and Edwin Friend. By the end of the novel, I truly appreciated Lan’s love for and devotion to his family. Howe’s afterward was great and she made significant points in this section.
What I Disliked: Well, it wasn’t “Deliverance Dane.” The beginning didn’t pull me in as quickly as Howe’s first effort did. Once I put aside my “Deliverance Dane” measuring stick, I got more out of this book. Also, the presence of opium in this book made me extremely uncomfortable. Nonetheless, I DID like the resolution of the opium abuse. Lastly, I wanted to know more about Dovie, Harlan’s mysterious girlfriend.
You might also like:
- Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits
- Katherine Howe’s The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane
- Isabel Allende’s Daughter of Fortune
- E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View
Ford, J. (2009). Hotel on the corner of bitter and sweet: A novel. New York: Ballantine Books. 9780345505330
I glimpsed a favorable review of this book in one of those professional journals we’re expected to read at work. With my interest piqued, I requested Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet through HCPL.
The book alternates between two different time periods. In 1986, Henry Lee approaches the Panama Hotel in Seattle just as the new owner brings to light items which Japanese Americans stowed before their evacuation to the internment camps. As a recent widower, Henry’s reverie is jolted and he springs into action, baffling his grown son Marty.
The other time period is 1942, just after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Twelve-year old Henry lives under the thumb of his very Chinese father. His parents no longer permit him to communicate in their tongue, insisting he must speak English always. Henry is on scholarship at the white kid school and he works in the cafeteria. Here, he meets the lovely Japanese-American Keiko Okabe. Their bond transcends ethnicity as they enjoy jazz and folks that don’t look exactly like themselves.
I enjoyed this story for the most part. Ford brought Henry, Marty, and Keiko to life brilliantly. The Seattle Jazz scene also fascinated me. It’s also easy to see what motivates the characters, even Henry’s nationalist father.
My only snide remark regards Marty participating in an Internet support group in his grieving. . . in 1986! Say what? I realize Marty’s a smart guy but this is too much of a stretch.
Three Out of Five Pearls
Places : Seattle, Washington State, Idaho, New York City, China, Japan
For more on Jamie Ford’s Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, check out the following sites:
- Book Review: Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford | The Book Lady’s Blog
- Booking Mama: Review: Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet
- Musings of a Bookish Kitty: Review: Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford (& a Giveaway)
Allende, I. (2005). The house of the spirits. New York: Dial Press. 9780553383805
Allende, I. (1985). The house of the spirits. New York: A.A. Knopf. 9780394539072
Having enjoyed Allende’s writing in the past, I checked out The House of the Spirits from HCPL. Before I proceed, I must state that I’ve never read anything by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. From what I’ve seen online, this will color the reader’s opinion of The House of the Spirits.
This work is the saga of the Truebas, a family living in an unnamed South American country (presumably Chile). It follows the Trueba family for four generations against a backdrop of political definition, struggle, and upheaval of the twentieth century. There’s also a talk of The Politician (Salvador Allende) and his fall from power.
Allende tells the story through two different voices – a third person narrator and Esteban Trueba, the elderly patriarch. The latter was engaged to Rosa del Valle, also called Rosa la Bella. When Rosa dies from an accidental poisoning, Esteban throws himself into the reconstruction of his family’s hacienda, Las Tres Marias. Esteban takes out his rage on the peasants, raping many of the females.
The matriarch of the House of Trueba is Clara del Valle, who is introduced in the first line of the book. Clara possesses all sorts of ESP and she’s sister of Rosa the Beautiful. Inadvertantly, she predicts the death of Rosa. When this happens, Clara falls silent for years. She only communicates through writing while maintaining a family history.The next time Clara talks, she announces that she’ll marry Esteban Trueba.
When they do marry, they reside in the house on the corner. Soon, they have children (Blanca, twins Jaime and Nicolas) in this house. The house where many gather around Clara. This group includes both living and dead folks. Among the living are the Mora Sisters and the Poet (thought to be Pablo Neruda).
I was amazed by this work. As I’ve mentioned in reviewing Island Beneath the Sea, Allenda is a gifted storyteller. These characters are so real that I can almost see them. The magical elements almost offer the book the feel of fairy tale. For example, Rosa the Beautiful has green hair and yellow eyes. Esteban and Clara’s granddaughter, Alba, also has green hair. Yet, Allende gets down to business such as Pinochet’s coup on September 11, 1973. Of all of her works I’ve read, this one is the best.
Four Out of Five Pearls
Places: Chile, Peru, Europe, United States, Canada, China
Literary Ties: Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel, In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz, Roots: The Saga of an American Family by Alex Haley, Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell, Caramelo by Sandra Cisneros
For more reviews of Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits, please click on the following links:
When I searched online for a listing of “A Wicked History” Series, I discovered that the biography of Genghis Khan was one of the first. Disappointed that none of my local libraries had this one about Genghis Khan, I requested the item through interlibrary loan (ILL). Before reading this slim volume on the guy, I knew next to nothing about him – he was a scary man who still had the world talking, he left numerous descendants, and John Wayne, of all people, played Genghis Khan in a movie sans accent.
Genghis Khan was born Temujin in the twelfth century on the harsh Mongolian Steppe. Here, many tribes duked it out constantly – fighting for survival and turf. His parents were the tough Yesugei and his kidnapped bride Hoelun. This was all but a dog eat dog world where the Mongols and others nomads of the treeless plain lived in yurts and eeked out an existence. When Yesugei died from a poisoned dish, Temujin and his family were left to fend for themselves. Where most perished, Temujin was scrappy and ornery enough to survive.
Temujin grew strong and conquered his world. His warriors maded up the best army and, with them, Temujin terrorized cities, raped and pillaged, rendered people homeless. He punished his enemies mercilessly.
However, Temujin became Genghis Khan (thought to mean “universal ruler”), a man also known for his loyalty and providence. He unified the clans and the tribes of the Steppe. Genghis Khan was even called religiously tolerant and he established a sort of pony express and even a written language.
Not much is certain about Genghis Khan; he permitted no one to paint his portrait and his grave site is unknown. A copy of The Secret History of the Mongols turned up in China in the 1880s. This work depicts a son born in a bad situation, who pursued his own life ruthlessly.
Whether or not Genghis Khan was wicked seems to be an easy call for me. What do you think?
Three Out of Five Pearls
The leaders of the Mongols said to the young Genghis Khan: We will make you khan . . . . And if we disobey your command, separate us from our families, from our ladies and wives. Separates us, and throw down our heads upon the ground! If we disobey you, exile us and throw us out into the wilderness.
– Excerpt from The History of the Life of Genghis Khan: The Secret History of the Mongols
Word Bank: (from the glossary of this book)
- alliance – an agreement to work together
- ally – a person or country that gives support to another
- andas – in Mongol culture, friends who proved the closeness of their bond by drinking each other’s blood
- ballista – a weapon that worked like a giant crossbow; it shot arrows that could break through the walls of buildings
- Buddhist – a person who practices Buddhism, a religion based on the teachings of Buddha and practiced mainly in eastern and central Asia
- caravan – a group of people traveling together
- civilized – highly developed and organized
- clan – an extended family group
- descendant – a person’s child, grandchild, or other such relative on into the future
- empire – a group of countries or regions that have the same ruler
- exile – a situation in which one is forced to stay away from one’s homeland
- firelance – a spear-like weapon with a tube containing gunpowder
- Genghis Khan – Mongol words meaning “universal ruler”; Mongol leaders gave Temujin this title in 1206
- khan – a Mongol word meaning ruler or leader
- Muslim – someone who follows the religion of Islam, a religion based on the teachings of Muhammad
- nomadic – wandering from place to place
- ruthless – cruel and without pity
- sable – a small animal that looks like a weasel; its soft brown fur is very valuable
- sacred – holy, deserving great respect
- scribe – a person who copies documents by hand
- shaman – a person who communicates with the spirit world to help tell the future, control events, or cure the sick
- steppe – treeless plains found in Asia
- sultan – an emperor or ruler of some Muslim countries
- tribe – a group of people who share the same ancestors and customs
- Yasa – the code of law created by Genghis Khan
- yoke – a wooden frame placed around a person’s neck to hold him or her prisoner
- yurt – a circular tent made of felt stretched over a light, portable frame of branches
Places: Mongolia, China, Persia, Armenia, Turkey, Iraq, Afghanistan, Russia, Hungary, Poland, Ukraine, Georgia
For more on Genghis Khan, please check out the following sites:
Scanning HCPL’s catalog for books of “A Wicked History” Series, the only female I found was Catherine the Great. Looking beyond the scope of HCPL, I found two more females in this series – Mary Tudor and Cixi. (When selecting biographies, I seek out the females first due to my youth spent in Girl Scouts.) I knew next to nothing about Cixi, even the pronunciation of her name (it’s tsu shee, by the way). Thus, I requested her biography through interlibrary loan (ILL).
Cixi was born on 29 November 1835, more than likely in the Anhui province. Since she was a girl, she probably didn’t even have a first name. Later on, she was called Yehenara. Scholars believe she was born in the Anhui province of China. Her family was very poor but she was fortunate to be born into the Manchu clan, the ruling clan of China.
Being a Manchu enabled Yehenara’s family to register her as a concubine for the emperor. Additionally, Yehenara was pretty, crafty, and power hungry. Yehenara became a concubine of Xianfeng (shee-ahn-fung), Emperor of China, part of the Qing (ching) Dynasty. Yehenara secured her position in the dyanstic family by bearing Xianfeng a son. At Xianfeng’s early demise, Yehenara became Cixi, Empress Dowager of the West Palace.
From there, Cixi developed into a despotic puppetmaster, residing behind a silk curtain and directing her son, then her nephew in all matters. Many believed she poisoned those who opposed her conservative, then reactionary ideology. During her time as the woman behind the man, Cixi dealt with the hard blows of rebellion, invasion, natural disaster, and famine. She hindered more than helped, accused of driving her very own people to “chaos and starvation.”
I appreciated much that Price provided pronunciations of Chinese words and Price explained events well. Of all the biographies from the series I’ve read, I thought this one the most appropriate for juvenile audiences. As I previously stated, I knew very little about Cixi and can’t argue much with what Price has told me.
Was Cixi simply a product of her environment or was she evil?
Four Out of Five Pearls
I have often thought that I am the most clever woman who ever lived, and others cannot compare with me.
– Cixi, Empress Dowager of China
Word Bank: (from the glossary of this book)
- ancestor – a relative who lived a long time ago
- barbarian – someone who is savage or uncivilized
- barricade – a barrier to stop people from getting past a certain point
- blaspheme – to say offensive things about a religion
- billet – a chunky piece of wood
- Buddhism – a religion based on the teachings of Buddha and practiced mainly in eastern and central Asia
- calligraphy – the art of beautiful handwriting
- civilization – an advanced stage of human organization, technology, and culture
- concubine – a woman who has been chosen to be one of a Chinese emperor’s official mates, but whose social status is below that of a wife
- Confucianism – a religion based on the teachings of Confucius, a Chinese philosopher who lived in ancient times
- conservative – someone who opposes change and likes things to stay as they are or used to be
- convert – a person who has changed his or her religion
- corrupt – to make someone bad or dishonest
- democracy – a country in which the people choose their leaders in elections
- diplomat – a person who represents his or her country’s government in a foreign country
- elite – a group of people who have special advantages and privileges
- embassy – the official place in a foreign country where an ambassador lives and works
- emperor – the male ruler of an empire
- empress dowager – the title given to the mother of a Chinese emperor
- eunuchs – men who could not have children and were servants to the Chinese imperial family
- famine – a life-threatening lack of food
- missionary – someone who is sent by a religious group to another place to teach that group’s faith
- opium – an addictive drug that comes from the sap of the opium poppy
- queue – a brad of hair, usually worn at the back of the head
- reform – a removal or correction of an abuse or wrong
- regent – a person selected to act as head of state because the ruler is too young to rule or is absent or ill
- seal – a design pressed into wax and made into a stamp; it may be used to make a document official
- sedan chair – a portable chair that is carried by two men
- shrine – a holy building that often contains sacred objects
- stupefied – astonished
- succession – the order in which one person after another takes over a title or throne
- Taoism – a Chinese religious tradition that emphasizes compassion, moderation, humility, and simplicity
- treachery – the act of turning against someone who trusted you
For more on Cixi, please see the following:
- The Palace Museum
- Secret World of the Forbidden City: Splendors from China’s Imperial Palace — Exhibitions — Oakland Museum of California
- Cixi: The Woman Behind the Throne | History & Archaeology | Smithsonian Magazine
- Summer Palace (Yiheyuan)
- Arsenic killed Chinese emperor, reports say – CNN.com
I noticed The Piano Teacher numerous times while flipping through Publisher’s Weekly while at work. However, I didn’t have enough interest in it until I saw the book on Amazon’s “People who bought this also bought. . .” for another book I recently read (see Marie Arana’s Lima Nights) . Sure enough, this book was on the shelf at the library where I work.
Lee tells at least two stories. Initially, she begins with young English wife Claire Pendleton in 1952. She and her husband, Martin, come to Hong Kong due to his job. With nothing else better to do, Claire seeks employment as a piano teacher. When she’s hired by the wealthy Chen family to teach their daughter Locket to play piano, Claire becomes infatuated with the Hong Kong expatriate scene as well as developing kleptomania. Through all of this, she becomes the paramour of Will Truesdale, an English expatriate with numerous skeletons in the closet.
The other story Lee tells begins in 1941 Hong Kong with the dashing newcomer Will Truesdale and his tempestuous affair with Trudy Liang, an exquisite daughter of a wealthy Chinese man and a Portuguese beauty. Will sinks into Trudy’s glib lifestyle – parties, dinners with her efeet cousin Dominick, parties with her cousin Melody Chen, going to the beach, etc. When there are nervous rumblings on the eve of World War II, Trudy appears ambivalent and Will plays along until Japan invades.
Lee alternates between these two story lines, ultimately showing us how the past transgressions color Claire’s present. Characters face all sorts of trials and decisions, costing them all in the end.
I found Lee’s writing quite colorful and even transcendent. I especially wanted to climb into my time machine and check out pre-World War II Hong Kong. While I didn’t like most of the characters, I found them very human and multidimensional.
I also liked how Lee confronts issues of race, class, and gender. Through Trudy, she presents us with the reality of being “not Asian”, “not Caucasian,” but simply both. Her wealthy Chinese father’s status opens doors for his daughter. I was impressed also by Claire’s awakening to this as well. Here we have 2008 values quelled in a novel about 1940s-1950s Hong Kong.
Still, I didn’t like the construction of the story much. I felt as though I was bounced around in the beginning, stuck in the middle, and rolled around like a pingpong ball in the end. I do recall that this is Lee’s first novel and I’m sure she’ll overcome this in future novels.
As a grammar geek, I must comment on my chagrin upon reading Trudy utter the non-word “anyways.”
Two out of Five Pearls
Places: Hong Kong, Macau, China, Japan, The United Kingdom, India
For more on Janice Y.K. Lee’s The Piano Teacher: