Ru by Kim Thúy

I was born in the shadow of skies adorned with fireworks, decorated with garlands of light, shot through with rockets and missiles. The purpose of my birth was to replace lives that had been lost. My life’s duty was to prolong that of my mother.

Ru is a short read that blurs the line between fiction and autobiography (autofiction..i guess?) and is comprised of very short chapters, most of them consisting of a couple of short paragraphs. These chapters, which often barely last a page, capture an instant or impression experienced by our Vietnamese-Canadian narrator. The feelings, thoughts, images, and anecdotes, that appear on these pages have a snapshot quality, both because the author is able to capture these in a concise yet hauntingly evocative prose. The narrator is now married with two children, one of whom is neurodivergent. While we do gain an understanding of her life in the present, the narrative is mainly preoccupied with her past. The narrator’s recollections of her ‘disrupted’ childhood are unsparingly unsentimental. She remembers her experiences at a refugee camp in Malaysia, the difficulties of trying to assimilate into a culture that sees you as ‘other’, her early years in Vietnam, her beloved Uncle Two, while also reflecting on the limitations of language and of memory, on history and alternate histories, on trauma, and on cultural dissonance.

The vignettes her reminiscences present to us have a fragmented quality, so that much of the narrator’s personal life and past remains shrouded in ambiguity. There is also an aloofness to her narration that made much of what she was recounting feel remote, intentionally so I believe. By distancing herself from her past the narrator is able to approach it with, curiously enough, far more clarity. There is a neutrality to her inner monologue that could easily lead one to believe that she too is like us merely a ‘witness’ as opposed to the person to who these things have happened to. I liked the stark imagery, the narrator’s cool tone, and the ideas and issues weaving her ‘retrospective’.
If you like proses that are so sharp you are liable to cut yourself or have a preference for non-linear narratives composed of a character’s past and present impressions (be it autofiction such as All Men Want to Know and On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, or literary fiction like as Ghost Forest) you should definitely add Ru to your tbr pile.

While I understood that many of the things the narrator divulges to ‘us’ are meant to elicit feelings of discomfort and unease, the way she sees her son’s autism gave me pause (she is “waging war against autism, even if I know already that it’s invincible”). While I understand too well that many countries still have a negative view of autism here it struck me that the narrator was creating an unfortunate parallel between her son’s autism and the Vietnam war that rubbed me the wrong way. I’m sure other readers will not be as ‘bothered’ by this but to be perfectly honest this aspect of the narrative detracted from my overall reading experience. Nevertheless I will definitely read more by Thúy.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Heaven by Mieko Kawakami

A few weeks ago I read Mieko Kawakami’s acclaimed Breasts and Eggs and suffice to say that I was not a fan. While Heaven was clearly written by the same author of Breasts and Eggs (both novels implement similar imagery and even use the same metaphor comparing the legs of a young girl to poles) I was able to appreciate it a lot more.
In spite of its brevity Heaven is by no means an easy-going story, in fact, it often verges on being Misery Porn™: large chunks of the narrative depict in minute detail the bullying our fourteen-year-old protagonist is subjected to. The novel raises some interesting questions about bullying and nonconformity. Why do some become perpetrators while others are victims? Should our main character respond to the deluge of abuse he receives from his classmates? Why do the other boys in the class torment him? Is it because of his appearance?
While quite a few of the discussions between the teenage characters did not come across as all that convincing (they expressed themselves in a way that seemed far older or that suggested a worldliness that went at odds with their experiences so far) I still found myself engaged in the narrative.
There are a lot of scenes that verge on being gratuitous: we get painfully detailed descriptions of our MC being beaten, humiliated, and harassed. His friendship with Kojima, a classmate who is bullied by the female students, provided some welcome respite from the sections relating the bullying. The two bond quickly, and in spite of their attempts not to discuss school and the way they are treated by other students, they do eventually confined in one another. Kojima’s view of the whole bullying ‘thing’ while by no means healthy enables her to make ‘sense’ of her circumstances.
As with Breasts and Eggs we have characters giving seemingly endless monologues that last pages at the time. While I did not mind learning more about Kojima, her home life, and her peculiar philosophy, I did not care one bit about Momose’s spiel towards the end of the novel. The narrative seemed intent on making him seem mysterious and mature but I thought him shallow. He did not really come across as a credible fourteen-year-old, more like a parody of the worldly teen who already speaks so many truths about the world (puh-lease). Our main character does a lot of navel-gazing but unlike in Breasts and Eggs, here it seemed fitting. He is young and going through a lot so it seemed natural for him to try and make sense of what was happening to him.
The ending was slightly disappointing and I probably would have given this a higher rating if I hadn’t been for that predictable ‘show-down’. I would not necessarily recommend this to those who have a low threshold for narratives depicting bullying (extensively and graphicly). Thanks to a manga series by Keiko Suenobu called Life which kind of traumatised me when I first read it around the age of 12 I am somewhat inoculated against this kind of stuff. While Heaven was by no means a breezy or perfectly executed read I did find it to be poignant and for the most part realistic. If anything it has elevated Kawakami in my eyes.

ARC provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

my rating: ★★★½

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Mouthful of Birds by Samanta Schweblin

Like most collections of short stories Mouthful of Birds has some stories that are hits and ones that are misses. I think the collection definitely showcases Samanta Schweblin’s creativity and versatility. While most of the stories are permeated by the surreal they differ in tone and subject.

Schweblin makes the familiar feel unfamiliar. Many of the stories examine recognisable scenarios from an unexpected angle and it often takes a little time to catch up to what is going on.
One of my favourite stories, ‘Toward Happy Civilisation’, had some very strong Kafkaesque vibes and the creepy yet bizarre atmosphere I would except in a story by Shirley Jackson. Another favourite of mine was ‘The Merman’, an unapologetically offbeat tale involving, you guessed it, a merman and that reminded me of Kevin Wilson.

As much as I appreciated Schweblin’s dark humour and the weirdness of her stories, there were a few unmemorable ones. The title story was a bit of a letdown (I didn’t find it all that ‘shocking’ or subversive) and the really short ones were rather, if not completely, forgettable. I also did not care for that story that relied on animal cruelty. Not only did I not find it to be ‘horrific’ but it just came across as gratuitous and voyeuristic (gore and violence are cheap ways to ‘inspire’ fear).
Nevertheless I would probably pick up more of Schweblin work as this collection did show some promise.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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Tunneling to the Center of the Earth: Stories by Kevin Wilson

A very Wilsonesque collection of stories: dysfunctional families, spontaneous human combustion, surreal scenarios, and plenty of eccentric characters. Each story in this collection held my attention, and while they share similarities, they also showcase Wilson’s range: from lighthearted tales (such as “Grand Stand-In” and “Tunneling to the Center of the Earth”) to more bittersweet stories (such as “Birds in the House”) and even ones that I can best describe as heartbreaking (“Mortal Kombat”).
Regardless of their tone, each story is permeated by surrealism. At times the surreal elements are overt (such as with the first story in this collection), while in other times they are more covert. Ordinary moments or exchanges are injected with a dose of the bizarre, and this weirdness was a delight to read. Wilson vividly renders his characters and their experiences (however unreal they were), and his mumblecore dialogues always rang true to life (even when the discussions veered in seemingly absurd territories).
This was a wonderful collection of short stories. They were extremely amusing and always surprising. Each story had a certain focus, and didn’t meander in other directions, seeming committed to expanding on specific feelings or ideas. My favourite ones were “Mortal Kombat” (as sad as it was), “Birds in the House”, and “The Museum of Whatnot”.
Funny, original, and tender, Tunneling to the Center of the Earth is a marvellous collection of stories, one that I would thoroughly recommend it to readers who enjoyed other works by Wilson, such as Nothing to See Here.

MY RATING: 4 ½ stars

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Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel — book review

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To simply define Wolf Hall as being a historical narrative seems unfair. The word ‘historical’ conjures a sense of events that happened a long time ago. Wolf Hall, unlike most historical fiction, struck me for the immediacy and urgency of its narrative. While the events Hilary Mantel writes have occurred nearly half a millennium ago, the world she writes of feels far from stale or antiquated. Readers are made to feel as if Mantel had just plucked us from the 21st century and transported us into the political and religious unrest of the Tudor era.

Mantel breathes new life into the drama that unfounded so many centuries ago.
The novel’s present-tense narrative undoubtedly contributed in making me feel as if the events Mantel was writing of were happening right now. The narrative is not an omniscient one, there is no foreshadowing of what is to come. Throughout the course of this novel we are made to feel alongside Thomas Cromwell and his contemporaries that their future is not yet fixed.

The title of this novel conveys the dangerous atmosphere of Henry’s court. Suspicions run high, everyone seems intent on outwitting and outmanoeuvring his or her opponents, there is a great deal of plotting, quite a few betrayals, and a perpetual sense of unease hangs in the air. We read of a divided nation, a divided court, and of the self-division that occurs within every single character. As the characters wage overt and indirect wars for power and position, readers are presented with a panorama of human vices and follies.

Yet, while the world Mantel writes of is certainly a treacherous one, Wolf Hall contains so much beauty. I was moved by the glimpses of genuine love and vulnerability between certain characters. Thomas Cromwell in particular seems to possess plenty of admirable qualities. It is through his eyes that we often see his surroundings and he always seems to pay attention to all the beautiful textures that enrich his world. From the fabrics of people’s clothings to their appearances and expression. His perceptive eye seems often to pick up on other’s true intents and desires. In spite of the tension between the different ‘players’, there are also surprising moments of empathy and understanding.

It is incredibly just how engaging Mantel’s dialogues were. While I sometimes struggled to keep up with what was being said, or left unsaid, I still found myself captivated by the nuances of the characters’ language. While some are observe rules of civility, others let their passion or greed shape what the say. Each sparring of words is fraught with tension. There are so many clever uses of the English language, so many elegantly veiled threats and well-crafted sentiments. Regardless of their role or position, not one character seems to utter a word in vein.

What perhaps took me time to adjust to was the ‘he’ pronoun. The third point of view narrative does not refer to Thomas Cromwell by his name but by ‘he’. When this happened when Cromwell was speaking to other male characters I found it difficult to follow. My non-British education also proved to be a hindrance (it took me quite some time to figure out who was who).

This is a dense novel that demands its readers full attention. There is much to be admired in Wolf Hall. Mantel’s research, her grasp of the English language, her nuanced, and frequently immoral, characters…yet, reading her novel proved to be a laborious experience. There was so much that went over my head, and while I can see that this is due to my lack of knowledge, I also think that some of her stylistic choices (such as the constant use of ‘he’) lessened my enjoyment of her narrative.

Wolf Hall is a well written and exquisitely intelligent novel in which Mantel presents us with a beautifully intricate tapestry of shifting allegiances.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 3.5 stars (rounded up to 4)

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HIS MAJESTY’S DRAGON: BOOK REVIEW

His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik
★★★✰✰ 2.5 stars of 5 stars

You would think that dragons + the Napoleonic Wars = entertaining story . . . yet His Majesty’s Dragon managed to be consistently boring.
I was expecting something in the vein of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell and Sorcerer to the Crown but I soon realised that His Majesty’s Dragon lacks the spark that animates those novels. 
Novik is a good writer but she seemed to be restricting herself to the same two or three scenarios throughout the course of her novel. It seemed that Novik was focused more on making the dialogue and Laurence’s reactions believable (as to be consistent with the time the story is set in) than to write an actual story. If I were to replace the dragons with any other animal, eg. horses, very little would change. These dragons lacked the fantastic or alluring aura that dragons should have. I understand that within this universe dragons are ‘normal’ but the story could still make them interesting. Novik’s dragons are basically giant winged cats.
The story, if I can call it that, revolves around this Laurence guy, a good old 17th century man (so he is obviously both righteous and conservative) who ends up having to give up his life at sea so he can become an aviator…his new ride is Temeraire a relatively cute dragon who talks in a contrived manner…but hey. Laurence washes his dragon, he rides his dragon, he has some minor quibbles with other aviators…and that’s that.
The plot was mainly concerned with ‘theory’ and not practice. The characters discuss strategy and tactics, they have a few fights, but all of these scenes lacked the sense of urgency and or suspense that they should have .
This concept would have worked better in a novella rather than a full length novel. The story is boring, the dialogues are monotonous, and the characters are just as bland as the dragons. There are a few scenes that I could consider ‘cute’ but they didn’t really make up for the rest of the novel.
Lastly, in spite of the seeming accuracy of the time (dialogues & customs) I don’t think Novik evoked the 17th century really well. Her depiction of this period is flat and the story lacks a sense of place. And, what about the actual war? Laurence – or any other character for that matter – has very little to say about it…
If the author wanted to take a lighter approach to the Napoleonic Wars then perhaps a bit of humour could have salvaged her story. Jane Austen, for one, knew that wit could go a long way…

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