Category Archives: Snow Flower & the Secret Fan

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See

Summer Reading

As you have no doubt noticed, my reading pace has slowed down considerably now that it’s summer time.

For a lot of people, summer means finally some time to read.

For me, summer means warm sunny days, long walks, breathtaking hikes, kayaking, swimming, and playing tennis.

I read more frequently the days are shorter and the nights are cold.

For those of you looking for some summer reads, I’ll recommend three books.

Fiction
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See

I’ve written about this book quite a bit so I won’t bore you with a re-hash (click here for all my posts about this book).

It’s an easy read, beautifully written, and thoroughly enthralling. You’ll have trouble putting it down.

Click here to read an excerpt.

Non-Fiction
How to Read a French Fry: And Other Stories of Intriguing Kitchen Science by Russ Parsons

I love to eat and for me Summer is all about grilling and cook-outs.

How to Read a French Fry is one of my favorite books because it teaches readers all about the science of cooking in clear, concise, entertaining writing. And it’s got great recipes!

Check out this review from the Atlantic to learn more and to try some of Parsons’s recipes.

Bachelor Girl: 100 Years of Breaking the Rules–a Social History of Living Single by Betsy Israel.

As one reviewer on Amazon.com says:

Betsy Israel’s book takes a look at single women in the United States, specifically in New York City. I think because Israel isn’t single herself, she’s able to approach the subject with more objectivity. She begins at the end of the 19th century, with the “singly blessed,” (a great term, I think) and continues through the decades, with the Bowery Gals, shop girls, flappers, Gibson Girls, the Riveting Rosie of WWII (both of the latter being completely made up stereotypes), the career girl. It seems as though single women in America have never fit into one category, even though the rest of society tries to place her in one.

Click here to read an excerpt.

Happy reading!

Advertisements

Favorite Books

I’ve added a page of some of my favorite books.

I’ll keep that static updated so you’ll always know what my current favorites are, but here’s what’s on it as of today:

Children’s Books
Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
Number the Stars by Lois Lowry
Oh, the Places You’ll Go! by Dr. Seuss

Novellas
The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy
Shopgirl: a Novella by Steve Martin

Historical Fiction
Forever: A Novel by Pete Hamill
Moloka’i by Alan Brennert
The Red Tent by Anita Diamant
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See
Time and Again by Jack Finney

Short Stories
Bradbury Stories: 100 of His Most Celebrated Tales by Ray Bradbury

Other Fiction
Blindness by Jose Saramago
Ishmael by Daniel Quinn
The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
The Plot Against America by Phillip Roth
The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

Memoirs
Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen
Papillon by Henri Charriere

Business
The Economic Naturalist: In Search of Explanations for Everyday Enigmas by Robert H. Frank
Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t by Jim Collins
Small Giants: Companies that Choose to be Great Instead of Big by Bo Burlingham
The Trusted Advisor by David H. Maister, Charles H. Green and Robert M. Galford

Communication/Negotiation
Crucial Confrontations by Joseph Grenny, Kerry Patterson, David Maxfield, Ron McMillan & Al Switzler
Thank you for Arguing : What Aristotle, Lincoln, and Homer Simpson Can Teach Us About the Art of Persuasion by Jay Heinrichs
You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation by Deborah Tannen

History
The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge by David McCullough
Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand

Science
Awakenings by Oliver Sacks
The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph Ffom the Frontiers of Brain Science by Norman Doidge
How to Read a French Fry: And Other Stories of Intriguing Kitchen Science by Russ Parsons

Spirituality/Religion
Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths by Bruce Feiler
The Art of Possibility: Transforming Professional and Personal Life by Rosamund Stone Zander & Benjamin Zander
The Best Buddhist Writing 2005 by Melvin McLeod
God Against the Gods: The History of the War Between Monotheism and Polytheism by Jonathan Kirsch
The Monk & the Philosopher: Father & Son Discuss the Meaning of Life by Jean-Francois Revel & Matthieu Ricard

Women’s Studies
The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image by Leonard Shlain
Bachelor Girl: 100 Years of Breaking the Rules–a Social History of Living Single by Betsy Israel

What are some of your favorites?

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See

I stayed up late to finish reading Lisa See‘s Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, which I started on Sunday evening.

Wow, I was practically sobbing as I read the last few chapters; this book is that good.

First, See‘s writing is fantastic! Secondly, Chinese still take filial piety (孝順, xiàoshùn in pīnyīn) very seriously (so seriously that we even learned about it in Mandarin Chinese language class) and See‘s depictions of it hit home. And any woman can relate to the theme of female friendship and the great damage that simple misunderstandings can cause. And lastly, one of the characters in Snow Flower shares my Chinese name – Plum Blossom (婷梅)!

For those of you who haven’t read it yet, the story takes place in 19th-century rural Yongming County (永明縣, Yǒngmíng xiàn in pīnyīn) in Hunan province (湖南省, Húnán shěng in pīnyīn) in China (中國, Zhōngguó in pīnyīn). The narrator, Lily (Lady Lu) at age 80 writes her memoirs in nu shu (女書, nǚshū in pīnyīn) — women’s secret writing — to be burned at her funeral (along with money and other items to accompany her in the afterlife) so that her friends and ancestors will welcome her.

Society was ruled by rigid codes of conduct; women had to have their feet bound preferably to 7cm or less if she wanted to improve or keep her social standing, marry men through arranged marriages (matchmaking was done as early as age 6), and reside in upstairs women’s chambers. Women often died in childbirth and their children often did not live past the age of 4. To secure her status in her new household, a woman was expected to produce sons to continue the family line. Daughters were considered “dead branches” and were taught “When a girl, obey your father; when a wife, obey your husband; when a widow, obey your son.”

Lily was born to a lower-middle class family but still her family had enough resources to bind their daughter’s feet. When Lily’s mother took Lily to the local diviner, he saw in Lily and her feet something special and brought her to the attention of Madame Wang, the matchmaker (紅娘, hóngniáng in pīnyīn) in the prosperous neighboring village. If Lily’s foot binding created the perfect “golden lilies” (Madame Wang believed they could be the most beautiful feet in the county), Lily could marry into a wealthy family and her natal family could become more prosperous through the bride-price (gifts given by the groom’s family to the bride’s family). But this would bring long working hours for Baba (爸爸, bàbà in pīnyīn) and the other men in the family to raise money for gifts in the dowry and making extravagant gifts for Lily’s wealthy future husband and his family.

Lily was so special that Madame Wang even suggested that Lily be matched with a laotong or “old same” (老同, laǒtóng in pīnyīn) even though no woman in Lily’s family had such a relationship (though all had their own group of sworn sisters). Old sames were two young women whose lives matched eight qualities exactly, which included the girls’ birth month, day, and year, the date of their foot binding, the number of siblings, and a few other characteristics.

Thus, Lily and Snow Flower — both born in the year of the horse (馬, mǎ in pīnyīn) and thus destined to be headstrong — are matched at age 7 as laotongs or “old sames” (老同, laǒtóng in pīnyīn), an emotional match that would last a lifetime through the isolation and hardship of womanhood. They use the secret women’s writing of (女書, nǚshū in pīnyīn) to share their joys and heartaches on a fan that they pass back and forth over the years.

See tells a beautiful well researched story of love, female friendship, rebellion, and pride. If I say anything else about the story, I’d ruin the book for you.

Anyway, since I am reading this for a book club, thought I would share some discussion questions:

  • Lily endures excruciating pain in order to have her feet bound. What reasons are given for this dangerous practice?
  • Did See‘s descriptions of footbinding remind you of any Western traditions?
  • If some men in 19th-century China (中國, Zhōngguó in pīnyīn) knew about nu shu (女書, nǚshū in pīnyīn) and “old same” (老同, laǒtóng in pīnyīn) friendships, why do you think they allowed these traditions to persist?
  • Reflecting on her first few decades, Lily seems to think her friendship with Snow Flower brought her more good than harm. Do you agree?
  • Lily’s adherence to social customs can seem controversial to us today. Pick a scene where you would have acted differently. Why?
  • Lily defies the wishes of her son in order to pair her grandson with Peony. Does she fully justify her behavior?
  • Lily sometimes pulls us out of the present moment to reflect — as an old woman — on her youthful decisions. What does this device add to the story?
  • How would you film these moments of reflection?
  • If Lily is writing her story to Snow Flower in the afterworld, what do you think Snow Flower’s response would or should be?
  • Did you recognize any aspects of your own friendships in the bond between Lily and Snow Flower?
  • In your opinion, is Lily, who is the narrator, the heroine or the villain? What are her flaws and her strengths?
  • Do you think the concept of “old sames” (老同, laǒtóng in pīnyīn) exists today? Do you have an “old same” (老同, laǒtóng in pīnyīn), or are you part of a sworn sisterhood? In what ways are those relationships similar or different from the ones in nineteenth-century China (中國, Zhōngguó in pīnyīn)?
  • Some men in nineteenth-century China (中國, Zhōngguó in pīnyīn) apparently knew about nu shu (女書, nǚshū in pīnyīn), the secret women’s writing described in Snow Flower. Why do you think they tolerated such private communication?
  • Lily writes her story so that Snow Flower can read it in the afterworld. Do you think she tells her story in a convincing way so that Snow Flower can forgive and understand? Do you think Snow Flower would have told the story differently?
  • When Lily and Snow Flower are girls, they have one intimate — almost erotic — moment together. Do you think their relationship was sexual or, given the times, were they simply girls who saw this only as an innocent extension of their friendship?
  • Having a wife with bound feet was a status symbol for men, and, consequently, having bound feet increased a woman’s chances of marriage into a wealthier household. Women took great pride in their feet, which were considered not only beautiful but also their best and most important feature. As a child, would you have fought against having your feet bound, as Third Sister did, knowing you would be consigned to the life of a servant or a “little daughter-in-law”? As a mother, would you have chosen to bind your daughter’s feet?
  • The Chinese character for “mother love” (疼愛, téngaì in pīnyīn) consists of two parts: one meaning “pain,” the other meaning “love.” In your own experience, from the perspective of a mother or a daughter, is there an element of truth to this description of mother love?
  • The author sees Snow Flower and the Secret Fan as a novel about love and regret, but do you think there’s also an element of atonement in it as well?
  • In the story, we are told again and again that women are weak and worthless. But were they really? In what ways did Lily and Snow Flower show their strength and value?
  • Although the story takes place in the nineteenth century and seems very far removed from our lives — we don’t have our feet bound, we’re free and mobile — do you think we’re still bound up in other ways; for instance, by career, family obligations, conventions of feminine beauty, or events beyond our control such as war, the economy, and natural disasters?
  • Because of its phonetic nature, nu shu (女書, nǚshū in pīyīn) could easily be taken out of context and be misunderstood. Today, many of us communicate though e-mail or instant-messaging. Have you ever had an experience where one of your messages has been misunderstood because of lack of context, facial or body gestures, and tone of voice? Or have you ever been on the receiving end of a message that you misinterpreted and your feelings were hurt?
  • Madame Wang, the matchmaker (紅娘, hóngniáng in pīnyīn), is a foot-bound woman and yet she does business with men. How is she different from the other women in the story? Do you think she is considered a woman of status or is she merely a necessary evil?

I am adding Snow Flower and the Secret Fan to my list of favorites and will have to read See‘s latest, Peony in Love, to my list of books to read! I wish I had attended Lisa See‘s Rockville, MD book signing event tonight!

Now, on to The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers!

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See

Over the weekend, I finished A New Earth: awakening to your life’s purpose by Eckhart Tolle and started reading Lisa See critically-acclaimed novel Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.

I’m reading it for a book club and so far I LOVE it. I love historical fiction and love reading books by Asian American authors so I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised.

I’ve only read the first few chapters and have already found See‘s writing to be beautiful and emotionally moving. The theme of female friendship and and See‘s detailed description of 19th century China make for a mesmerizing read!

I’d never heard of nu shu (女書, nǚ shū in pīn yīn) — secret writing used by women in China to communicate with their female friends — and am fascinated that this was See‘s inspiration for this book. Will have to do some research and see what I can learn about it.

A New Earth: awakening to your life’s purpose by Eckhart Tolle

Yesterday I finished reading Eckhart Tolle‘s A New Earth and overall I’d say I liked it and recommend it.

While most of the concepts were familiar to me as Buddhist ideas, it was nice to be reminded of them. I did not like his use of his own terminology, though I suppose it makes the concepts less intimidating to non-Buddhists.

To summarize, the book is about letting go of your ego, be aware of your emotional baggage and learn to let go of it, avoid putting “good” or “bad” labels on things, and become enlightened.

Now I’m on to Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See! As a Chinese-American, I’m very much looking forward to reading it!

The Secret History of the War on Cancer by Devra Davis

I’ve just finished reading The Secret History of the War on Cancer by Dr. Devra Lee Davis.

Wow…this book almost makes you afraid of everything. Who knows, your shampoo and lipstick, the paint in your house, the pesticides used on the food you eat, the chemicals in processed meats, the air in your town, the water that you drink…they could all contain chemicals that cause cancer.

Fortunately, I’m not the paranoid type. From now on, I’ll carefully read the list of ingredients on product labels, cut down my intake of processed meats (despite my love of pastrami and bacon), more or less quit drinking, purchase organic fruits and vegetables when the price difference is within reason, and just hope for the best.

I would definitely recommend this book to those who are surprised to hear that so many cancer causing agents were already identified by the early 1900s.

I’ve started A New Earth: awakening to your life’s purpose by Eckhart Tolle, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers, and Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See. Will write more as I get further into each book.

Why blog?

I love to read. Since I was a child, I’ve always enjoyed spending my money on books and my time devouring them. I also enjoy writing (even though it was always my worst subject in school) and in my current job I don’t get to write much of anything.

I intend to use this blog to keep a journal of the books I read. I read all sorts of books and am a member of several book clubs.

After a spell of business books, I’ve been reading novels. Also, I want to learn more about positive psychology and nutrition and have added several relevant books to my soon-to-read short-list.

Currently, I’m reading:
The Secret History of the War on Cancer by Devra Davis
A New Earth: awakening to your life’s purpose by Eckhart Tolle
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See
The Forbes Book of Great Business Letters: Memos, Missives, Pitches, Proposals and E-Mails by Erik Bruun (editor)

And on my list to read shortly are:
Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment by Martin E. P. Seligman
The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom by Jonathan Haidt
How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want by Sonja Lyubomirsky
The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less by Barry Schwartz
The Cure Within: A History of Mind-Body Medicine by Anne Harrington
The Omnivore’s Dilemma: a natural history of four meals by Michael Pollan
In Defense of Food: an eater’s manifesto by Michael Pollan
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle : a year of food life by Barbara Kingsolver
Strategy and the Fat Smoker: doing what’s obvious but not easy by David H Maister