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Merle

Merle

The Sacred Willow by Duong Van Mai Elliott

The Sacred Willow: Four Generations in the Life of a Vietnamese Family - Duong Van Mai Elliott

This book would make fantastic supplemental reading for a course on Vietnamese history. The author chronicles more than a hundred years of the country’s recent past, using her family’s experiences as a focal point. It begins in the mid 19th century, when several of her male ancestors served as mandarins in a society that revered educational attainments; moves on to French colonialism and Japanese occupation during WWII; then to the Viet Minh struggle for independence, which doesn’t seem to truly divide the family despite their winding up on all sides of the conflict – the author’s father serves as a high-ranking official under the French while her oldest sister and brother-in-law join the rebels in the mountains, and her uncle, a wealthy landowner, puts his resources at the Viet Minh’s disposal. Then it traces the American intervention and the dramatic days of the communists’ takeover of South Vietnam, before ending with Vietnam’s struggles as an independent country.

It’s a lot to pack into 475 pages, and the author balances the story of her family with a broader historical perspective. The history appears well-researched, and based on her bibliography, draws heavily on Vietnamese as well as English-language sources. It also seems balanced; at times, when family members’ paths during the war diverge sharply, we get separate chapters covering the same events from different perspectives, and the author doesn’t seem to be advocating for either one over the other. Though the author’s parents threw in their lot with the French and later South Vietnam, she – like many Vietnamese – seems to respect the communists’ commitment, and while the American intervention was a short-term boon for middle-class families like hers, she ultimately seems to conclude that the communist victory was both inevitable and not as awful as propaganda had led the South Vietnamese to expect.

The book’s biggest weakness is that it is rather dry, much more focused on facts than building a dramatic narrative. Though it is in part a memoir, we learn little about the author herself; she tends to relate the facts of a situation with perhaps a bald statement of her feelings, but without developing any of the emotional detail that might allow readers to experience the story along with her. There are exceptions, though; her account of the dramatic last days before the fall of Saigon (through the eyes of several family members) is downright gripping.

Overall, I’d recommend this book, but more for educational purposes than entertainment. It is a strong answer to the rest of English-language literature about Vietnam, which tends to be from an American perspective and focused exclusively on the war.

Nor Any Country by Garth St. Omer

Nor Any Country - Garth St Omer

This novella is only 96 pages long, plus a laudatory 20-page essay about the work by one Jeremy Poynting. (I was puzzled by how a work no one had a word to say about on Goodreads could have the sort of academic following implied by this essay, until a Google search revealed that Poynting is its publisher.) The book follows its protagonist, Peter, as he returns to his unnamed island home (presumed by the publisher to be St. Omer’s home country of St. Lucia) for a brief visit after many years of study abroad.

Unfortunately, where Mr. Poynting saw subtle brilliance, the novella seemed to me mostly a mundane catalogue of Peter’s wandering about the island conversing with various people; his role in the conversations consists largely of creating a sense of his own superiority by saying little and smiling often. While visiting, he must decide what to do about the wife with whom he had no communication during his years abroad, but the narrative does little to show us how he arrives at his choice. Mostly Peter, while traveling about the island, simply ruminates on his European ex-girlfriends. There’s precious little narrative momentum in any of this, and little to interest the reader in the protagonist. Some of the supporting characters seem more interesting, but have limited room to breathe in such a short work.

As for the writing itself, it is adequate but sometimes lacking in clarity; numerous times I had to re-read passages to figure out what the author was trying to say. Written in the 1960s, the book seems to assume cultural understanding that a modern, non-Caribbean reader is unlikely to have: while racial politics are quite important in this setting, readers are left to deduce the race of almost all of the characters on their own (and I’m still not sure about Daphne).

All that said, this is a very short book that will leave readers somewhat more informed about the issues facing a society in a particular time and place. While the lack of clarity sometimes slows down the reading, large amounts of dialogue should keep readers from getting too bogged down.

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood - Marjane Satrapi, Mattias Ripa, Blake Ferris

A graphic-novel-style memoir about the author's childhood during the Iranian Revolution, this book seems written largely to educate Westerners about Iran. It is an episodic story focusing on how current events affected the author and her progressive family. This focus seems to have worked well for most of its readers, especially those who knew next to nothing about Iran beforehand. For some reason, though, I found it less gripping than others did, although all the right elements seem to be there: the stakes are high but the author keeps it personal, the characters are as well-defined as can be expected in a childhood memoir, the art is emotive. The plotting is a little off, with both individual chapter arcs and the novel as a whole either tapering off or ending abruptly. You should probably read it anyway though.

The Misfortunates by Dimitri Verhulst

The Misfortunates - Dimitri Verhulst, David Colmer

Based on the protagonist’s sharing the author’s full name, and the little information about Verhulst available in English, this short, episodic novel appears to be autobiographical. Somewhat more than half of it focuses on Dimitri’s boyhood, surrounded by the raging drunks that are his father and three uncles. In these chapters Dimitri himself almost disappears, but one gets the sense of a narrator struggling with the tension between his affection and nostalgia for these incorrigible relatives, and his ultimate rejection of their lifestyle after they fail him in ways that are largely left to the reader’s imagination. In later chapters Dimitri appears as a not-particularly-endearing adult, and the book becomes even more episodic – it’s almost more of a short story collection than a novel – as major events are referenced only in passing. It makes sense thematically but leaves a great deal untold.

The book is set in Belgium and originally written in Dutch, but the translation is skillful and flows well. Early on some of the descriptions wallow in the muck to a fairly repulsive degree (generally related to bodily fluids), but this is less a feature of the entire book than of the early chapters. And they do speak to an eye for detail. The individual characters are not especially distinguishable, but the culture of Dimitri’s family and his community come to life (the encounters between the men of the family and Dimitri’s refined, well-off aunt and cousin, and later a cultured immigrant family, throw their mostly well-intentioned boorishness into particularly sharp relief). There’s an adept balancing of entertainment value and the narrator’s darker view of the world, sprinkled with brief, pointed references to the meaninglessness of life.

There’s certainly something to this book, and some readers will connect strongly to this ode to a dysfunctional family. But the narrator’s emotional distance combined with his often poor treatment of others once reaching adulthood, the episodic nature of a story without any unifying plot, the gross-out factor, and the rather limited, child’s-eye view of the primary characters made it difficult for me to become engrossed in the story. We’ll call this one a neutral reference.

Tropical Fish by Doreen Baingana

Tropical Fish: Tales From Entebbe - Doreen Baingana

This is a collection of eight short stories about the lives of three sisters as girls and young women growing up in Uganda. It's not an "awareness novel" - the stories are about relationships and the characters' inner lives, not "Africa issues," though one does deal with AIDS through a very personal lens. This was the most remarkable story in the collection to me, with more intense emotions than are found in the others. Overall, the writing is adequate, but I did not find this collection particularly noteworthy or memorable.

The Far Pavilions by M.M. Kaye

The Far Pavilions - M.M. Kaye

Read through page 332, which is only about a third of the way through this extremely long book, and simply didn't feel any urge to continue - I got as far as I did due to reading it on an airplane, where you kind of want shitty page-turners. It's perhaps not quite trashy, but nor did the plot or characters pull me in.

On the Run by Alice Goffman

On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City - Alice Goffman

A very engaging ethnography - as a college student, the author moved to the inner city and spent her time hanging out with a group of young black men often on the run from the law. The book is a good look into how heavy policing affects all aspects of individual and community life. And the author is a good storyteller so it makes for engaging reading. Since she writes about one social network it's hard to tell how representative this is, and I think the criticism that the author herself got in too deep is probably valid. She also contradicts herself a few times. Still, it is worth reading.

The Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

The Palace of Illusions - Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

Fun, accessible retelling of an epic I'm not familiar with - it's given me a strong starting point; from what I've seen it appears she's quite faithful to the original, only reassessing character motivations. The narrator has a strong voice and the author does a good job making character decisions straight from mythology human and understandable. Rather full of fate and portents for my taste. I wonder what this author's writing is like when she creates her own characters.

A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar

A Stranger in Olondria - Sofia Samatar

Beautiful, slow-paced, sad. Linear storytelling makes it a more accessible starting point than The Winged Histories.

Into the Wilderness by Sara Donati

Into the Wilderness - Sara Donati

Fun historical romance/adventure. This is about as close to a romance novel as I get and I enjoyed that aspect of it (though the sex scenes began to get a little repetitive). For some reason, though it is a really long book, I expected it to mostly consist of a huge drawn out will-they-or-won't-they and was pleasantly surprised when that issue was resolved fairly early and the plot moved on to other adventures. However, I am uncomfortable with the author's appropriating the protagonists from The Last of the Mohicans (even though I've never read/watched it) as major characters for her novel; a cameo is one thing, but taking over the life of a character you didn't create feels skeevy. And nobody feels like products of their time, but hey, this is pure escapism.

And it works well as comfort reading. It's adorably PC, and the author clearly loves her creations too much to have any sympathetic characters seriously at odds with one another. Sometimes you just want to read about big, warm, weird families who adopt everybody who wanders in. I'm seriously considering reading the sequel.

Emma's War by Deborah Scroggins

Emma's War - Deborah Scroggins

Interesting book - uses the biography of a young British woman who travels to South Sudan as a aid worker and then marries a warlord as a lens for the history of Sudan in the 1980s and 90s. While the choice of protagonist is cynical, or at least western-centric, the author's research and interviews are clearly extensive; the book digs into Sudanese politics and personalities, who aren't just there as a backdrop for western adventures. Because much of the history is complicated, the chapters focused on Emma's life, or the author's experiences as a reporter in Sudan, come as a relief. This is denser than most journalistic accounts I've read, and so took longer than I expected, but it isn't inaccessible, just not simplified. Well worth the read.

Enrique's Journey by Sonia Nazario

Enrique's Journey - Sonia Nazario

This would be a great book club choice. It's gripping, it's a very quick read despite being nonfiction (large font and generous margins make it feel shorter than its 260 pages), and of course it's about a hot topic: illegal immigration to the U.S. from Latin America. The protagonist, Enrique, sets off from Honduras for the U.S. at age 17, searching for his mother, who immigrated twelve years before. The book primarily dramatizes Enrique's dangerous journey through Mexico - jumping on and off of moving trains and evading corrupt and often violent authorities, who seek to deport Central American migrants to Guatemala, as well as the gangs who prey on migrants. All this makes for compelling reading, and is eye-opening; in the U.S. we have little sense of what people have to risk and endure to enter the country illegally. Nazario also writes about the circumstances in Honduras that compel so many to immigrate - for many mothers, it's a matter of not being able to feed their children - and about Enrique's family's lives in the U.S. And she interviews quite a few people who work with or encounter migrants, adding depth to the story.

So I probably should urge all Americans to read this. But. The writing style is a bit simplistic. The present tense is an awkward choice for nonfiction, and the author has the tendency to remind us of simple facts several times over. A bit more context would have helped too. In introducing her project, Nazario explains she wanted to write about a Central American boy who came by train. But the book doesn't give much sense of how many migrants use the trains vs. other routes, and the focus on the train journeys of Central American migrants leaves little sense of what immigration might look like for the Mexicans who make up the majority of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. Finally, while perhaps the story can speak for itself, I felt a stronger policy argument at the end would have been appropriate. Instead the author basically says, "okay, now here are some good things and some bad things about immigration," and then it ends.

I still think people should read this, because if you're going to have a strong opinion about something you should be informed about it. But if you can recommend a better book along the same lines, please let me know.

Gather Together in My Name by Maya Angelou

Gather Together in My Name - Maya Angelou

I enjoyed this more than Angelou's first memoir, which won't be a surprise to anyone who knows my tastes, because in this book she's a teenager/young adult while in the first she was a child. Adults make for active protagonists, while children are passive. So I enjoyed the content more and therefore appreciated the writing more. It's a short, quick read and kept me engaged, though, as in the first book, events sometimes seem disconnected from each other, and Angelou's tone can be so wry and detached that it's hard to tell how the events of her life affected her; when she does write about her feelings, there's often a sense of amusement behind it. I wanted a little more, especially since some of the events are so outlandish they're hard to believe (a naive teenager stumbles into opening a brothel and pressuring a couple of part-time hookers into staffing it? Whaaaaat?). Clearly creative license is being taken - hence all that dialogue that moves the story along so quickly - and I wonder just how much. But regardless, this is an enjoyable book with a strong voice and a fresh perspective.

The Murder of Halland by Pia Juul

The Murder of Halland - Pia Juul, Martin Aitken

Huh. This is a weird novella, from the perspective of a woman whose longtime partner is murdered. I hesitate to call it a mystery novel, since the mystery isn't really solved. The writing is fine and there's some decent characterization here, but in the end neither the events nor the characters nor their relationships made a lot of sense to me, and I wasn't quite sure why it ended where it did. I suppose that's a bit like life. This book didn't do much for me, but it's short enough to read in a sitting if you're interested.

The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois

The Souls of Black Folk - W.E.B. Du Bois, Terri Hume Oliver, Henry Louis Gates  Jr.

Note: this is "no rating," not "zero stars."

 

This is actually quite a short essay collection, clocking in at 164 pages in my edition; those hundreds of additional pages are all made up of supplemental materials and literary criticism. I would consider myself someone who loves to read about writing - hence spending time on book sites - but I don't set out to spend more time reading about a text than reading the text itself. And the pomposity of academic criticism makes it difficult to get through, so in the end, I just read Du Bois's text and skimmed a couple of the other pieces.

But that total page count (374 in my edition) is more representative of how long this book will take you, because the writing is dense. They just don't write like this anymore. If Du Bois was alive today, the only way he could get this type of work published would be blogging. But this book was apparently a great success when published, despite not being nearly so easily digestible as we expect today. And it is still quite influential; I finally had to read it because I kept seeing it quoted around in other works. As it turns out, Du Bois's description of the psychological effects of belonging to a scorned minority group apply to quite a lot of people in addition to African-Americans.

There's a lot to recommend this book, from a historical perspective and for its insight into people in general and into race relations in the U.S. It's an interesting work to read more than 100 years after its publication, because on one page you'll think, "Wow, seriously? At least we solved thatproblem," and on the next, "Hmm, that hasn't really changed much at all."

I have a bias for narratives, so my favorite piece was the one short story, "Of the Coming of John." My least favorite pieces were the ones that chronicled the author's observations after spending a short amount of time in some rural place, or that expound at length at an issue that seems obvious today (arguing that black students should be able to attend either liberal arts colleges or trade schools depending on aptitude, vs. Booker T. Washington's campaign to build only trade schools). It's all educational, but some pieces are certainly more interesting than others. I do recommend it - despite being a classic it is still timely - but you'll need some patience. I'm sorry not to have read this in school, since the classroom seems like the ideal setting for it.

Potiki by Patricia Grace

Potiki - Patricia Grace

I enjoyed this book more than I expected. When other people claim a book is a great adventure story I find it too academic, and when others claim it's too academic, apparently I find it to be a warm, enjoyable family story. The first half of this novella develops the life of a family and their small community, before getting heavily into Maori land politics in the second half. That's a wise choice, keeping the story grounded in the characters rather than turning them into props for an op-ed piece.

Granted, this isn't the most accessible book for Western readers, but it clearly isn't supposed to be. The importance of storytelling in defining a community, and the characters' not seeing themselves reflected in the mainstream canon, is referenced several times; this book seems intended in part to remedy that lack. So there are some untranslated Maori phrases here, and there's a certain vagueness around some of the book's events, particularly at the end. But there's also a strong voice, and a certain rhythm to the language to which the reader quickly gets accustomed, which give the book a feeling of authenticity. While I wouldn't recommend it to the casual reader, this would be an excellent choice for anyone interested in the subject.