Although my mother was totally unlike this author’s, I found this memoir irresistible. Burns’s mother, Dotty, was a stunningly beautiful, buxom redhead who dressed to the nines with glittery baubles, went out on the town several nights a week, and made sure everyone in the family revolved around her own wishes. As her only child, the author grew up loving her mother and trying constantly to please her, shocked again and again by her Sicilian father’s kidnapping, her mother’s secret affair, and revelations of hidden identity. No novelist could make this up!
What made the book worthwhile, though, is how this daughter grew out of her mother’s shadow and into her own identity and learned, later in life, how to make emotional sense of her unusual childhood. She finds a much healthier balance of motherhood and fulfilling work and later seeks out inspiration in women who managed to skirt the rules and reinvent their lives. That took persistence and strength of character I admire.
As a diversion from the current ills of the world, I highly recommend reading Remembering Shanghai: A Memoir of Socialites, Scholars and Scoundrels, by the mother-daughter combo of Isabel Sun Chao and Claire Chao, published in 2018.
Reading this book during this time of panic and pandemic gave me a wonderful break. Each night after an overload of dreadful news, it was a relief to let this book sweep me away on a journey into an idyllic past—that of Isabel Sun Chao’s childhood in 1930s Shanghai.
As the daughter of a wealthy, privileged Chinese family, Isabel grew up in a legendary era of dance clubs, movie stars, priceless artwork, and elegant qipao dresses—leavened with salacious tales of underworld bosses, scheming sons, and multiple mistresses. The Japanese occupation and subsequent bloody civil war barely affected Isabel. But in 1949, the Communist takeover prompted her father to send her off to the safety of Hong Kong, unaware she would never return to her pampered life in Shanghai.
Aside from its deliberately upbeat tone (for the most part), this book also stands out for the remarkable cooperative effort of mother and daughter as co-creators. Isabel’s daughter, Princeton-educated Claire Chao, worked with her mother to tell this first-person story and also added her own perspective to fill in historical context. Adding to its delight, the book is lavishly illustrated with lovely portraits, historical scenes, and whimsical drawings that bring the past to life.
Tears of sadness and joy overflowed my eyes many times as I read Among the Maasai by Juliet Cutler. Her writing is so vivid and absorbing that, as a reader, I related to her every step of the way, as she told the story of her two years as a young teacher in Tanzania at the Maasai Secondary School...
I’m fascinated with intrepid women—from history and from today—especially those who wrote about their lives. Why? Because I consider myself to be an intrepid woman—one who is/was fearless about traveling the world, willing to venture far outside my comfort zone, and take on challenges that no one...
Shanghai Free Taxi is the best book I’ve read that shows how ordinary Chinese think and live. Author Frank Langfitt, who worked as Shanghai correspondent for National Public Radio (NPR) from 2011-2016, discovered a delightfully innovative way to gain insights into ordinary Chinese minds: he...
Under a warm white sky, Tiananmen Square bustles with the joy of anarchy. Nearly a million citizens of China, overcoming their fears, have gushed forth from their tiny flats into this open space at the center of Beijing. On this May day in 1989, an eager yet uneasy sense of amazement draws me to this familiar public space, now teaming with peaceful protestors. Televised images of this scene have been sparking imaginations all over the world this week; what will I find, in person?