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Tag: literary fiction

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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2018: The reading year in numbers

For the last few years I’ve maintained a file of spreadsheets that track my reading challenges and overall reading for the year, categorizing books by obvious and maybe not so obvious characteristics.

Total books read: 120. This is the most I’ve read since … well, at least since I was mainlining Betty Neels, Mary Burchell, and other Harlequins quite a while ago.

Total books written by women: 60/120. Reading half women pleased me because I was afraid that reading more lit fic would mean reading far fewer women. Obviously it’s fewer than when I read primarily romance, but it’s still a good number. My non-romance TBR is probably skewed toward men, but my romance TBR is overwhelmingly by women, so this proportion shouldn’t change much in 2019.

Total books written by new-to-me authors: 74/120. This is more than I expected. It’s probably a consequence of reading awards longlists and also “it” books, since they’re often by authors I’ve heard of but not read. I’m glad to have found a lot of new authors, and my TBR has grown as a result (of course!).

Own voices authors: 30/120. This is OK but not great. I struggled with this category in terms of how to define it. Last year I used AOC, but I wanted to capture how many authors I read who were writing about their own cultures and experiences. I only had a handful of non-white authors writing about non-white cultures that were not their own, and I didn’t include those; it would have raised the number by a few but not significantly. I also had a handful (more than a handful, maybe?) of white authors writing POC, and breaking out own voices allowed me to get a better handle on that distinction.

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Review: Godsend by John Wray

This is a recent release in the US and will be published in January 2019 in the UK. It has received rave reviews from two critics I respect and frequently agree with, Dwight Garner at the New York Times and James Wood at The New Yorker. I wasn’t familiar with the author, but it is his fifth novel and he’s won various writing awards. I was intrigued by the book because I’ve been doing research and writing on why young women are attracted to Islamic extremist organizations like ISIS. I co-authored and presented a conference paper with an undergraduate student and we’re trying to figure out what direction to take it for revision and then submission to a journal. It’s a difficult topic to research because what systematic data exist are usually proprietary, and the topic combines psychology, sociology, and political science. I thought a novel could shed some interesting light on individual motivations and help me think about the project in a different way. Sometimes fiction can illuminate in ways social science can’t, and this seemed like one of those times. 

Godsend cover

Godsend is a relatively short book in terms of word and page count. The print version is 240 pages. The story is inspired by John Walker Lindh, the young American from California who converted to Islam, went to fight with the Taliban, and was captured, tried, and sentenced to prison in the years after 9/11. Wray was commissioned by Esquire to write a story about Lindh and went to Afghanistan in 2016 or thereabouts to find people who knew him. (This background should have been a red flag for me. As someone who does qualitative research, interviewing people 15 years after the time you’re interested in is not likely to get you factually accurate information, especially about a notorious individual.) While Wray was there, he heard a rumor about a girl who had also joined the insurgents. He was never able to pin down concrete information about her, even whether she really existed, and she was variously described as American, Dutch, or English (he doesn’t say she was white and/or non-Muslim, but that’s implied by the comparison to Lindh). He abandoned the feature story and decided to write a book about a girl using some of Lindh’s backstory.

The novel opens in late 2000 or early 2001 and introduces us to Aden Sawyer, an 18-year-old who lives in Santa Rosa, California. Aden is preparing to leave home and fly to Pakistan to study Islam at a madrassa. She is leaving behind a life she is completely alienated from: her parents are separated, her mother is an alcoholic, and she has no friends. Her father, an Islamic Studies professor, mentions that he can get her a deferment, presumably for her college admission, but she is determined to go. Aden is accompanied by her friend-with-benefits, Dexter Yousufzai, whose family is from Pakistan via Dubai and who has found the madrassa through his connections. 

You might be asking how a young woman can attend an all-male madrassa in rural northwest Pakistan, and you’d be right to do so. Aden has this all figured out: she has shaved her head, acquired native garb and will be binding her breasts with an Ace bandage. As a romance reader I felt right at home. Aden has also been studying Arabic since she found the local mosque and converted to Islam, but she doesn’t speak Urdu or Pashto. She’s also very recognizably Western, given her fair skin, cultural ignorance, basic Arabic, and non-exist vernacular skills.

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