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Tag: literary fiction

Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi

I bought this when it was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize but didn’t get around to reading it right away. And then it won! So I put it on my 20 Books of Summer reading list. A novel originally written in Arabic by a woman author from Oman, it features multiple female characters and tells the story of social change in a little-understood region of the world. All this ticks a lot of my boxes, and the professional and GR reviews were very respectful, if a little mixed.

I’m glad I read this novel, and I’m still thinking about it, but I can’t say it was a fully satisfying experience. The theme is the social change of the country and the people through the 20thC, with an emphasis on three generations of women in an extended family and kin network. The reviews tend to single out three sisters in one generation (and they appear to be on the cover), but their mothers, grandmothers, daughter, and servants (formerly slaves) play equally important roles. We also read about the lives of the men in this community, most notably Abdallah, who is the father of the sisters and who gets the most POV pages.

The women’s stories focus on feelings and events surrounding marriage, childbirth, and their relationships with their parents, spouses and children. Even London, the daughter/granddaughter who is the youngest of the group and who becomes a doctor, spends more on-page time agonizing over her love interest and potential husband than anything else. Some of the writing about weddings and childbirths is very compelling. There is a description of the bridal and wedding process for one sister that gave me flashbacks, and there is a startling and effective childbirth scene. We spend a fair amount of time with Mayya after she has given birth and gone back to her family home for her post-partum rituals. If you aren’t familiar with extended family and kin networks in religious societies, you’ll learn a lot and even if you are familiar the characters’ stories will draw you in.

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Mini-reviews of recent reads

I just finished two very different translated novels, one a literary novel by a highly acclaimed Chinese writer in exile, the other a police procedural by a bestselling Japanese author of mysteries. I needed the latter to give my brain a rest after the former. I also finished a highly praised novel that didn’t work at all for me. I felt as if I’d read a different book than everyone else.

China Dream by Ma Jian

Ma Jian has been writing novels and nonfiction about Chinese society since the 1980s, and his critical views have led to his books being banned in China and his life in exile in the UK. The title of this book is taken from a speech by the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, who used the term to herald an era of “national rejuvenation” which would lead to China becoming the world’s greatest superpower. Ma Jian explores the costs that this dream imposes on ordinary Chinese people, especially those who are left behind.

Ma Daode is a government official in a regional city who seeks to create a China Dream Device, which will be implanted in all citizens and replace their individual dreams with a collective one of Chinese hegemony. His daily life, however, involves carrying out government policies like the demolition of villages to make way for economic development. Ma Daode is an extreme parody of a corrupt official, one with so many mistresses he can barely keep track of them, who takes bribes from all comers, and who ignores the welfare of the people affected by his actions.

But Ma Daode, who was a young man at the time of the Cultural Revolution, is increasingly bedeviled by nightmares of the violence and destruction of that time, in which he was both victim and perpetrator. As the story progresses, the past and the present become fused together for him, and no amount of sex and alcohol can suppress his torment.

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Spring by Ali Smith

The previous novels in Ali Smith’s seasonal quarter have been highlights of my reading years, so I eagerly looked forward to this third installment. And it started off well: in the first part the reader is introduced to Richard Lease, a 60-something director of TV films who is mourning the death of his longtime scriptwriter, onetime lover, and all-around mentor and conscience, Paddy. He especially misses Paddy now because he is under contract to direct a film about a chance meeting between Katherine Mansfield and Rainer Maria Rilke, in Switzerland in 1922. Paddy gives him as much help on Mansfield and Rilke as she can before her death, but the script being written by the youngish and oh-so-hip Terp is an unmitigated disaster; departures from the historical record are the least of its problems.

Richard abandons his work responsibilities and heads way north to the Highlands of Scotland, where he serendipitously meets up with a young girl, Florence, and her companion, Brittany (Brit), who are also up from the south of England. Brit works at a refugee detainment center and Flora is somehow connected to the center and to other refugees, but she’s basically on her own. Their reasons for traveling north are revealed in the second part of the novel.

Richard resembles other Smith characters in being white, educated, affluent, and in distress over choices he has and hasn’t made in his life. His interactions with Paddy are a delight to read (I wanted Paddy to stick around for the whole novel but that was clearly not going to happen). Their dialogue sparkles and even when Paddy is reciting set pieces, they’re Ali Smith set pieces so they’re excellent.

Like Autumn and Winter, Spring explores the political and cultural environment of the current moment through art, artists, and politics. This story ramps up the role of political bureaucracy with a vengeance, as the annoying but manageable institutions like the passport office are replaced by a prison-equivalent refugee detention centre, run by the previously mysterious agency SA4A. We see the centre through Brit’s eyes; she acknowledges the misery and injustice inherent in its operation, but she accepts it as the job she has.

The debates over Brexit and family squabbles that animated Winter are absent here, though; while Brit is part of the institutional structure, her perspective is that of a coopted observer rather than an active ideologue. This is interesting to me because it seems to let her off the hook a bit. Yes, she accompanies Flora to Scotland, but she’s not about to help her out of her precarious situation. She’s a company person to her core.

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Mini-Reviews of recent reads

I’ve read a couple of shorts, DNF’d a new release, and am still mulling over a novel I had many many feelings about. In other words I don’t have lots to say about any of them at the moment, so here’s a brief roundup.

If At First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again by Zen Cho

Nominated for a Hugo in the novelette category this year. I have Cho’s new full-length novel sitting on my ereader but I’m not quite reader to dive into that yet. I hadn’t heard of this story until I saw the Hugo list, and it is free to read at the B&N blog site. It’s more of a short story in length, in my opinion (the Hugo people obviously disagree), but there’s plenty here to sink your teeth into.

This is a lovely little story about Byam, an imugi who cannot seem to become a dragon no matter how hard it tries. And it has been trying for hundreds of years. In order to ascent to heaven as a dragon, an imugi has to be recognized as a dragon by a human. Byam comes close but never makes it. It gives up and unexpectedly finds itself in a loving and rewarding relationship with Leslie, a human. But imugi live much, much longer than humans, so what happens after Leslie?

Cho writes little jewels of stories in which there is always a deeper theme but one that meshes beautifully with the characters and plot that are front and center. The voice that I love from her other short stories and novelettes permeates this story, and it is funny, wise, heartwarming, and sniffle-inducing all at once. Go read it.


The Bewitching Hour by Vivi Anna (Harlequin TBR #510)

A short in the Nocturne Bites series that delivers a bit of story and a bit of romance. Part of a longer series set in the same world. I picked this up to read because it met the “something different” requirement for Wendy’s TBR Challenge category for March, but 40 pages seemed like a bit of a copout. Still, I’m glad I read it.

This short is set at a wedding where our two main characters meet. Fiona has paranormal powers that she can’t control very well, so she’s your basic adorable, cute, but clumsy heroine. Hector is a human in this paranormal world and works in the paranormal CSI unit with other regulars from the series. Since it’s a novella (maybe even a novelette) and they haven’t met before, they have to have lust at first sight, which they do, but it’s nicely done and competently written. I enjoyed it.

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At Dusk by Hwang Sok-yong

[Content warning: Off-page suicide]

This is another installment in my Man Booker International longlist reading project. At Dusk is by Hwang Sok-yong, a renowned Korean writer of whom I was of course ignorant. He is both an author and a political activist and was imprisoned in the 1990s for having gone to North Korea. The novel is translated by Sora Kim-Russell.

This is a short but densely packed novel. Park Minwoo is a successful architect in his late middle age. Park was one of the only two children in his slum neighborhood who went to high school and he went on to attend the most prestigious university in South Korea. He is married and has a daughter, but his daughter settled in the US after her medical training and his wife went to stay with her and never returned. So while he’s materially and professionally successful, Park’s personal life is much less rewarding.

Alternating with Park’s story is that of Jung Woohee, a 29-year-old woman who directs plays in a small fringe theater and works in a convenience store at night to support herself. She has a mother and sister who live in another, smaller city whom she rarely sees. Woohee is committed to being an artist but wonders if she’ll ever escape her marginal existence. She lives in a mildewed bedsit and has one friend, the slightly older Kim Minwoo, who is also barely making it, working in contract construction jobs until recently when he was laid off. They’re not romantically involved, perhaps because they don’t see how they can make a joint life together, but they are close. They’re disaffected and frustrated but they both keep going.

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