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: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Time Is a Mother by Ocean Vuong

I will begin this review with a disclaimer that will hopefully fend off Vuong devotees: I do not read a lot of poetry. In fact, one could say that in my 25 years on this earth I’ve barely read any poetry. The last collection I read was by Sylvia Plath back in 2014 (very angsty of me, i know). All of this to say that I don’t feel particularly qualified to review poetry. If you are interested in reading Time is a Mother I recommend you check out either more positive reviews or reviews from readers who actually know something about poetry.

Bearing this in mind, here goes my inexpert review. Having read On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Vuong I was quite looking forward to dabbling in his poetry. Time is a Mother however proved to be hard to get into. Most of the poems in this collection made absolutely no sense to me, even if I read them twice. While there was the occasional striking line I found the imagery and language of these poems to be simultaneously too confusing and rather laboured. Many of the poems try too hard to be gritty, so we have lines about blood, pain, and other ‘edgy’ things. We then have a lot of lines that just struck me as tumblr poetry material. In all honesty, I just struggled to understand or make sense of these poems. Vuong’s style was (to my eyes of course) overwrought. Bar the occasional effective line, these poems did not resonate with me. His language was affected and ultimately lacking in actual depth and emotion.
I will say that my mounting frustration at my inability to understand or enjoy them did inspire me to read more poetry in general so that hopefully one day I will re-visit this collection and find a newfound appreciation for it.

my rating: ★★ ½

The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen

“My American adolescence was filled with tales of woe like this, all of them proof of what my mother said, that we did not belong here. In a country where possessions counted for everything, we had no belongings except our stories.”

The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen is a collection of short stories centring on the experiences of Vietnamese refugees & immigrants as well as Vietnamese-Americans. With one or two exceptions most of the stories in this collection take place in America, some soon after the Vietnam War. Through different voices, the author presents us with a nuanced depiction of the realities and difficulties faced by those who are either forced to or choose to leave their home country. In America they are confronted with prejudice and racism, treated as objects of fascination or pity, at times they are separated from their loved ones or find themselves growing apart from their families as well as the language and values of their early childhoods. I appreciated the author’s frank style, the humor that permeated much of his narratives, and his nonmoral approach to his characters, their struggles, fears, and desires. The stories that resonated the most with me happened to be the very first two in the collection: ‘Black-Eyed Women’, which is about a haunted ghostwriter, and ‘The Other Man’, which is set in San Francisco and follows Liem, a young refugee who staying with a gay couple. Many of these stories emphasize the linguistic and cultural barriers experienced by immigrants. Most of these stories, such as ‘I’d Love You To Want Me’, a story about an ageing couple, make for rather bittersweet reads.

Like many collections of short stories, The Refugees was a bit of a mixed bag. None of the stories was bad but a few stood out. Something that dampened my reading experience was the weird way the author would write about breasts: we have “doleful areolas”, breasts that “sway like anemones under shallow water”, and breasts that “undulate” like “the heads of eels”. Like, what gives Nguyen? Why be so weird about breasts? I guess they were meant to be humorous but I happen not to have the sense of humor of an 8-year-old boy so, they didn’t quite do it for me. Also, it would be fairer than to have weird metaphors about other body parts.
All in all, this was a fairly solid collection and I look forward to finally giving Nguyen’s Pulitzer-winning novel a go.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

“Sometimes you are erased before you are given the choice of stating who you are.”

Ocean Vuong’s strikingly lyrical debut novel is a work of transient beauty. Within On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous there are many arresting passages that are, quite frankly, beautiful. At times this beauty derives from Vuong’s subject matter, at times it is wholly due to his language. And, at first, when I came across these passages, well, I was in awe. The more I read, however, the more I found that however beautiful Vuong’s prose could be, many of these insights and descriptions failed to leave a long-lasting impression on me. I would forge onwards and find myself confronted with more beautiful words, often very reminiscent of his earlier ones. And once I became aware of this I found myself scrutinising Vuong’s poetical storytelling more closely, and, alas, I found it wanting. His writing occasionally seems affected, as if desperately striving to be beautiful. There were also many passages and phrases that seemed to veer into purple prose territory so that we have swollen metaphors and contrived adages that end up devaluing Vuong’s earlier unmannered yet exquisite uses of the English language.

The first half seems to promise a mother-son narrative, in which Vuong explores the way in which grief, generational differences, inherited trauma, cultural and language barriers, shape and affect the relationship between his narrator, nicknamed Little Dog, and his mother. The narrator often wonders about his mother’s own fraught identity (born in Vietnam to a Vietnamese mother and an unknown white American father) and their shared experiences due to this. While some of the childhood episodes he recounts feature his mother being abusive towards him—hitting him repeatedly, being verbally abusive, at times even kicking him out of the house—he doesn’t reduce her to the role of abuser. By revealing her own traumatic history he contextualises many of her angry outbursts towards him. This first half was probably my favourite. Little Dog is writing to his mother, even if he knows that she will not be able to read his words. His style has this almost intimate and confessional quality to it, one that seems to blur the lines between fiction and autobiography (autofiction perhaps?). Vuong’s exacting portrayal of Little Dog’s childhood is certainly poignant. He’s an exceptional observer who can convey poetically the depth and different shades of Little Dog’s loneliness, yearning, sorrow, and otherness.
The second half brought to mind Philippe Besson’s Lie With Me, as the narrative seems to switch gears so that no longer we are reading about a mother-son relationship but a Little Dog’s young & ‘doomed’ first love who he meets during the summer when he works in a tobacco field. Here the story seemed less focused, and we get quite a few sections that seem to have little relevance to Little Dog’s story. Here the language struck me as less effective, more hackneyed, especially when it came to love and sex. Vuong’s depiction of addiction seemed to me somewhat cinematic.

Ultimately, it seemed to me that much of the beauty to be found within these pages is, like the title itself suggests, ‘brief’. While Vuong’s prose could be incisive, emotionally resonant, and, quite frankly, dazzling, it could also be repetitive, sacrificing meaning to showy displays of language that try hard to impress their gorgeousness on us, and yet, more often than not, these beautiful and lyrical turn of phrases are of little substance.
The shifts in tone and subject matter were almost jarring and made me feel less engaged by Little Dog’s story. There are some forced comparisons, such as many unnecessary pages spent on Tiger Woods’ ‘complicated’ ancestry. But, despite the issues, I had with this novel I can’t deny that at its best, it truly is a work of beauty. Given this novel’s success, it is also safe to say that you should not let my mixed impression of it deter you from giving this a shot (if anything else, it’s very short). I will definitely read whatever Vuong writes next as he’s certainly talented.

my rating: ★★★¼

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Build Your House Around My Body by Violet Kupersmith

As per usual I was swayed by a pretty cover. I mean, just look at it!

Anyway, as much as I wanted to like Build Your House Around My Body, it left me feeling rather underwhelmed. The narrative seems very much intent—hellbent even—on nauseating its readers, at times adopting a playful tone to do so. Ultimately, the story’s relentless efforts to be as abject as possible succeeded only in making me feel nothing for the characters.

The novel’s first few chapters were intriguing in a Neil Gaiman kind of way but with each chapter this reminded me more and more of Mariana Enríquez (not my cup of tea).
Build Your House Around My Body takes place in Vietnam, shifting between a cast of interconnected characters, and moving from the 1940s to the early 2010s. In 2011 a Vietnamese American woman named Winnie living in Saigon goes missing, less than a year after arriving in Vietnam. Over the course of the novel, we learn of what led her to Saigon and of her stint as an English teacher. A section of the narrative follows the Saigon Spirit Eradication Co. who are called to investigate some ‘spooky’ ongoings at a Vietnamese farm, another introduces us to a Vietnamese French boy sent to a boarding school during colonial rule, and then there are chapters focusing on three childhood friends, Binh, a supposedly feisty young girl and two brothers, Tan and Long, who share the same kind of bland personality.
The setting is vividly rendered, that’s for sure. We feel the oppressive heat and humidity experienced by the characters and the author has a knack for bringing to life the environments in which her characters are (be it a cemetery, a forest, or a dingy bathroom). The various storylines however don’t really flow that well together. The author wastes too much time poking fun at secondary characters that she loses sight of her novel’s central figures. Take Winnie. She remains a half-formed character, and while some of her vagueness may be intentional she could have still been fleshed out more. But her chapters often detail the silly routines of her colleagues or try really hard to gross you out through unpleasant descriptions of bodily fluids. Each storyline seems punctuated by slime, sweat, and shit. Which…yeah. The supposed revenge storyline doesn’t really come into play until the very end of the novel and by the end, it was glaringly obvious what had taken place in the past. The only section that made me feel somewhat amused was the one featuring the Fortune Teller’s First Assistant, but she was at beat a minor character (more of a cameo appearance really).
I had the distinct impression that this it the type of novel that is confusing for the sake of being confusing and I never much cared for these types of stories. Not only did the characters feel flat but I felt at a remove from them. The narrative spends so much time ridiculing them or comparing their facial features or appendages to foods/animals that I never saw them as ‘real’.
To be perfectly honest I don’t think I entirely understood what this book was going for. As I said already the novel’s raison d’être seems to be that of repulsing the readers. The issues the narrative attempts to touch upon—female agency? maybe? I don’t really have a clue—are lost in a murky melange of disparate storylines that don’t really come together that well nor do they succeed in bringing the characters or their struggles to life. While the setting was rendered in startlingly detail. the characters—their experiences and their relationships to one another—remain painfully vague.

my rating: ★★½

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Things We Lost to the Water by Eric Nguyen

“How unrecognizable America had made them, she was thinking, all of them.”

Subtle yet deeply evocative Things We Lost to the Water is a novel about belonging and displacement. In a similar fashion to Chloe Benjamin’s The Immortalists and Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth, Eric Nguyen’s novel does not adopt the traditional structure that characterises family sagas (which usually offer an all-encompassing view of a family), honing in instead on specific periods of her characters’ lives. These moments do not always reveal crucial aspects of their identities and or experiences but they do succeed in giving us a crystal-clear snapshot of a particular moment in their lives.

“How much could they remember? There must have been a limit, a moment of transition when they were more American than Vietnamese, and there was no going back.”

The narrative, which spans three decades, from 1978 to 2005, and alternates between Hương, a young woman who was forced to leave Vietnam, and her two sons, Tuấn, aged 6, and Bình, who was born at a refugee camp in Singapore and is just a baby by the time they relocate to New Orleans. Công, Hương’s husband and the children’s father is still in Vietnam with the plan that he will join them at a later date. In New Orleans, Hương not only has to adapt to a new culture and language, but she has to provide for her two sons.

“The world was cold and wild. A country could collapse. A father could disappear. She would have to protect her sons, she was thinking, protect them from all the cruelties of the world.”

Although Hương moves to a Vietnamese neighbourhood in New Orleans she feels deeply isolated. She attempts to keep loneliness at bay by sending tape recordings to Công. Soon these tapes become a lifeline, a connection to her husband and to Vietnam itself. As time passes however Hương is forced to confront the possibility that Công will not be joining her in New Orleans after all. Later on, and to her sons’ chagrin, she begins dating a car salesman, who is also Vietnamese.
Meanwhile at school Tuấn experiences racism, from being bullied for his accent to being treated as if he were ‘slower’ than his peers. Unlike his younger brother, Tuấn has memories of their father, he can speak Vietnamese, even if in time he loses his fluency, and during their early years in America he does seem to yearn to return ‘home’, that is Vietnam. He eventually begins dating a Vietnamese girl who soon pressures him into joining a gang.
Bình decides to go by Ben, a name more or less thrust upon him by his teachers/peers, and unlike his older brother and mother is quick to embrace American culture and values. His storyline, sadly, was the most predictable of the three as it seems a step-by-step queer coming of age/sexual awakening.
Over the years the three begin to drift apart as they embark on incrementally diverging paths. Yet, they are united in their longing for something (be it the roads not taken or Vietnam or Công or to feel like they belong).

“Wanting—what a strange feeling, what a queer idea to have toward another person! You could want food, you could want rest, you could want safety, and—it dawned on him—you could want a person, too.”

Each chapter presents us with a different period in these characters’ lives. At times these glimpses felt too brief or inclusive. We may witness an argument or some other conflict, and we never really see how those fights/disagreements are resolved. The next chapter will jump ahead in time and to a different character without providing us with an explanation/summary of what has happened since the last chapter. This gave their storylines a rather elusive and fragmented quality. We never truly gain a full picture of their lives or of who they are. Consequently, this made me feel at a remove from the characters. I wanted more from them but before I could get invested in what they were experiencing the narrative would march onwards, leaving so many things up in the air.

For the most part, I really liked the author’s prose. In its apparent simplicity, it brought to mind authors like Anne Tyler and Jhumpa Lahiri. I also appreciated the author’s focus on the quotidian; the snatches of conversations and or interactions we get are far from monumental but they provide us with an insight into the characters’ everyday realities.
The dialogues were a hit or miss sometimes. Some brought to mind Benjamin Alire Sáenz (a favourite of mine), so that we have characters echoing each other, or speaking about nothing in particular. I found these to be extremely effective in conjuring specific moments as they really rang true to life. But, when it comes to exchanges of a more argumentative nature, these came across as somewhat forced, their rhythm was slightly off.

Still, this novel has a lot to offer. There is some beautiful recurring water imagery (which seem to serve a similar function to the trains in The Namesake) and plenty of atmospheric descriptions of New Orleans and Vietnam (alas I found the author’s portrayal of France to be a bit too quaint: the wine, the bread, the man riding a bicycle). The novel is also characterised by an almost palpable sense of longing and offers a thought-provoking exploration of identity and family. Longer chapters would have probably made me feel more invested in the characters. By the time I began warming up to them or to gain a fuller impression of who they were the novel had come to a close.
As debuts go this is nevertheless a solid one and I look forward to reading more by this author.

my rating: ★★★¼

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The Magic Fish by Trung Le Nguyen

Once upon a time…
The Magic Fish is quite possibly one of the most beautiful, poignant, and awe-inspiring graphic novels I have ever read. The story takes places in 90s America and we follow Tiến, a young boy, who loves reading fairy tales with his parents. Tiến’s parents are refugees from Vietnam and cannot speak English as fluidly as he does. This language barrier makes it hard for Tiến to confide in them that he is queer.
The mother/son relationship in The Magic Fish is complex and moving. The bond between mother and son is rendered with empathy and sensitivity. The three fairy tales Tiến reads in the course of the narrative allow him to connect with his parents, in particular his mother.
Although each story is inspired by an existing fairy tale, Trung Le Nguyen presents us with three unique takes which perfectly complement Tiến and his mother’s stories. The first two tales are based on variants of ‘Cinderella’ (the German ‘Allerleirauh’ and the Vietnamese ‘Tấm Cám’) while the last one is a reworking of ‘The Little Mermaid’. I loved the different aesthetics of these tales: the first one has a Europeanesque setting, the second one seems to take place in 1950s Vietnam, and the last, this according to the author, juxtaposes the mermaid’s realm, which has elements from Hong Kong wuxia films, with the human one, 1980s San Francisco.
Trung Le Nguyen’s illustrations are stunning (they reminded me of Moto Hagio and Daisuke Igarashi). I loved the way in which each narrative had a distinctive colour palette.
Trung Le Nguyen set out to tell a specific story and he definitely succeeded in doing so. The Magic Fish is simply stunning and I will definitely pick up whatever Trung Le Nguyen writes/draws next.


my rating: ★★★★★

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The Travelers by Regina Porter

The cast of characters and locations at the start of Regina Porter’s The Travelers is a tiny bit daunting as they promise to cover a far wider scope than your usual family saga. The Travelers explores the lives of characters who are either related, sometimes distantly, or connected in less obvious ways. Porter’s switches between perspectives and modes of writing, always maintaining authority over her prose and subjects. The Traveler provides its readers with a captivating look into Americans lives, chronicling the discrimination black Americans were subjected during the Jim Crow era, the experiences of black soldiers and female operators in the Vietnam war, the civil rights protests in the 1960s, and America under Obama. Porter combines the nation’s history with the personal history of her characters, who we see at different times in their lives. Sometimes we read directly of their experiences, at times they are related through the eyes of their parents, their children, or their lovers. Rather than presenting us with a neat and linear version of her characters’ lives, Porter gives us glimpses into specific moments of their lives. At times what she recounts has clearly shaped a character’s life (such as with an early scene featuring two white policemen), at times she provides details that may seem insignificant, but these still contribute to the larger picture.
Porter provides insights into racial inequality, discrimination, domestic abuse, parental neglect, PTSD, and many other subjects. Although she never succumbs to a saccharine tone, she’s always empathetic, even in her portrayal of characters who are not extremely ‘likeable’ in a conventional way. Sprinkles of humour balance out the more somber scenes, and her dialogues crackle with energy and realism. The settings too were rendered in vivid detail, regardless of when or where a chapter was taking place.
Porter’s sprawling narrative achieves many things. While it certainly is not ‘plot’ oriented, I was definitely invested in her characters. Within moments of her introducing use to a new character I found myself drawn to them and I cared to read more of them. Part of me wishes that the novel could have been even longer, so that it could provide us with even more perspectives. I appreciated how Porter brings seemingly periphery characters into the foreground, giving a voice to those who would usually be sidelined.
Her sharp commentary (on race, class, gender) and observations (on love, freedom, dignity) were a pleasure to read. I loved the way in which in spite of the many tragedies and injustices she chronicles in her narrative moments that emphasise human connection or show compassion appear time and again.
An intelligent and ambitious novel, one that at times brought to mind authors such as Ann Patchett (in particular, Commonwealth) and one I would definitely recommend to my fellow readers.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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The Lover by Marguerite Duras — book review

The-Lover.jpg

The Lover strikes me as little more than an exercise in literary masturbation. This novella is overwrought, self-indulgent, and ultimately insubstantial.
Fooled by the promise of its first pages, I soon found myself irked by the narrator’s linguistic burps. With the exception of two or three characters, everyone else is nameless. Alienation is de rigueur.
The narrator revisits her past, engaging herself in a sort of mental seesaw, where she jumps from thought to thought, from image to image. Her fragmented and remote narrative failed to arouse my interest, if anything it merely struck me as disingenuous, a feeble attempt self-fashioning.
One moment she’s old in France, the next line she’s going on about how she looked as a fifteen-year girl, on the cusps of a sexual awakening, predictably burdened by the ‘unstable’ mother, the mean older brothers and the slightly-less-nasty younger brother. They are poor and unhappy. The narrator wears a man’s hat (how riveting). She has sex with an older Chinese man. He loves her, or at least he thinks he does. They have some more sex, he treats her like a doll (putting makeup on her), our protagonist goes with it. Why? I don’t know. He’s portrayed as ‘weak’ and a ‘coward’…great representation (not).

This cast of unnamed characters wallow in their misery. Here and there the story is swept away by a stream of consciousness. Duras tries to be sensual—“The balance between her figure and the way the body bears the breasts, outside itself, as if they were separate. Nothing could be more extraordinary than the outer roundness of these breasts proffered to the hands, this outwardness held out toward them.”—but her purple prose veers into the ridiculous.
There were also these childish attempts at introspection:
“Suddenly I see myself as another, as another would be seen, outside myself, available to all, available to all eyes, in circulation for cities, journeys, desire. I take the hat, and am never parted from it.”
Which seemed a mere echo of Arthur Rimbaud’s “Je est un autre” (I is another).

The gists of my review is this: I disliked The Lover. A lot. And to compare this to Lolita is an insult to Nabokov.

My rating: 1 star

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