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Tag: multicultural

SuperWendy's TBR Challenge for January: Big Trouble in Old Shanghai by Jeannie Lin

Argh, I’m a day late. But the “short shorts” prompt for January is my friend. I meant to read all of Jeannie Lin’s newest release for this month but I ran out of time and only had time for the first story. Even this brief return was enough to remind me why I like Jeannie’s work so much.

“Big Trouble in Old Shanghai” is the first in a 3-story collection set in her Gunpowder Alchemy world, and the connection is made in the title of the collection: Tales From the Gunpowder Chronicles. I read the previous two novels and one of the short stories when they came out and really enjoyed them. They’re not straight romance, rather they are wuxia-inspired adventure tales with romantic elements, but they are written with the same careful attention to the historical context of all her stories.

I was halfway through the story before I realized that the title was a riff on Big Trouble in Little China, the 1986 adventure film directed by John Carpenter starring Kurt Russell as Jack Burton. Lin says in her author’s note that the American main character here, Dean Burton, is a tip of the hat more than a recreation of the movie Burton. The narrator and main protagonist is Ming-fen, a young woman who works in the Western concession zone of Shanghai. She has only her elder brother, Ren, after her parents were exiled as traitors by the Manchu Dynasty. Shanghai is roiling with rebels plotting to overthrow the Manchu, and Ren turns out to be smack in the middle of it. Ming-fen has no love for the Manchu rulers, but she doesn’t want to get caught up in rebellions that are bound to leave hundreds if not thousands of innocent people caught in the middle.

But when rebels stark attacking, she’s forced into running for her life. Ren has armed her with a red sash, which signals that she is sympathetic to them, and she is slowly trying to make her way back to her home and hopefully safety when she falls in with Dean Burton, an American businessman she knows from the Dragon’s Den bar where she works. She becomes embroiled in Dean’s furtive activities in ways I won’t detail because the story is best read without spoilers.

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Booker longlist review: An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obioma

This is the fifth longlist choice I’ve read and the second by a Nigerian author. I haven’t read Obioma’s debut, which was shortlisted for the Booker a few years ago. This novel has received generally positive reviews from book critics and more mixed reviews at GR, so I wasn’t sure how I’d do with it. And it did take me a little time to get into the rhythm, because it’s a more ornate style of writing than I generally read.

The protagonist of the novel is Chinonso, a poultry farmer in a smallish city. Chinonso’s parents have died and his sister married an older man, moved to Lagos, and became mostly estranged from her family. Chinonso’s closest relative is his uncle, who lives in a different city but visits occasionally. The narrator of the novel is Chinonso’s chi, or spirit, who inhabits his body and communicates with him but cannot direct his behavior. The novel’s beginning and major sections are bracketed by the chi’s appeals to the gods to have mercy on Chinonso in the afterlife because the bad deeds he committed need to be understood in the larger context of his life and its trials.

That life is fairly uneventful until Chinonso prevents a beautiful woman from throwing herself off a bridge. She drives away but he doesn’t forget her. In the meantime he meets other women and starts to think about life beyond the chicken coops and vegetable rows. When Ndali comes back into his life they begin a relationship that is fraught from the beginning: Chinonso is a modest chicken farmer who never went to college, while Ndali is the daughter of a Chief and is studying to become a pharmacist. When their relationship progresses, Ndali brings him home to meet the family, with predictable results. Chinonso is not ashamed of who he is, but he knows it’s not enough for her ambitious and haughty father and brother, so he resolves to turn himself into someone they will accept. Ndali worries about the ramifications of his choice, but she knows it will be nearly impossible for them as things currently stand.

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Booker Longlist Review: Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli

This is the fourth book I’ve read from the longlist. I had read Luiselli’s previous nonfiction work, Tell Me How It Ends, which describes her experiences as a translator for children apprehended at the border, and I thought it was excellent. This is a much longer and more complex work of fiction, with multiple storylines and themes. It may have too much going on, but its ambition should not be held against it.

This novel falls squarely within the current trend of autofiction and combines a road trip, a marriage that is ending, and twin stories of children becoming lost in the southern Arizona desert. As I said, there’s a lot going on. The characters in the main storyline comprise a blended family of four who are traveling from New York to southern Arizona on a long, fairly leisurely automobile journey. The husband and wife are documentary sound specialists, by which they mean scholars and artists who record all kinds of sounds that help them understand and illuminate the built and natural worlds in which we live. The father is embarking on a new project set in Apacheria, the part of the United States that was the home of the Apache nation before they were massacred by Americans (and previously Mexicans) and relocated to reservations. The mother is continuing a project that records the sounds of unaccompanied children and southern border migration. Their two children, a girl aged six and a boy aged ten, are with them on the trip.

The family road trip aspect of the novel is structured by the journey and their work, which is contained in seven bankers’ boxes in the back of the station wagon. They contain supplementary material, including archival resources, and also the children’s selections for the journey (toys, books, photos). Along the way the mother reads from a book, Elegies for Lost Children, which tells the story of seven unaccompanied children who are riding La Bestia, the train to the US border, and that journey serves as something of a parallel roadtrip. The two storylines are brought together in the last section of novel, which is told from the son’s point of view; all the preceding narrative has been from the mother’s perspective.

The mother’s narrative ranges far and wide, from mundane and not-so-mundane observations of people and places along the road, to recollections and quotes from scholarly and creative books she’s read, to internal monologues about her husband and marriage. The husband is present as the driver and fellow artist, but he’s almost entirely silent, except for a few times when he talks directly to the children and less often to her. Luiselli namechecks many writers and thinkers, which fit into the flow of the story for me because I knew who most of them were. But if you aren’t as familiar with this literature it could be distracting or annoying. Some readers found it self-conscious and pretentious. I enjoyed it.

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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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SuperWendy’s TBR Challenge for July: Below Deck by Dorien Kelly

This month’s prompt is “contemporary,” which offered me a vast range of choices. I went for this one because I still fondly remember a book Kelly wrote for the old Harlequin Flipside series called Do-Over. It was fun and funny and had an endearing romance. The book I just read is very different, though, and it didn’t work nearly as well for me. Rats.

Below Deck is part of the Harlequin series Mediterranean Nights, in which all the stories are set aboard a cruise ship called Alexandra’s Dream. I’m not a cruise ship person; the idea of being cooped up in a floating hotel with higher-than-average chances of catching communicable diseases has never appealed. (As an aside: I sailed on a couple of famous ocean liners as a child, but those were a whole different thing in a different era.) Nevertheless, it’s a great setting for a romance, since the protagonists are thrown together in a confined space, and they also get to get off the boat in beautiful locales.

Our two MCs are Mei Lin Wang, the ship’s massage therapist, and Gideon Dayan, head of security. Lin has taken the job to get away from the Chinese government, who want to question her about her late husband’s activist colleagues, and to protect her baby from personal and political threats. And of course the baby has to be kept a secret (although multiple other ship employees know about him and help her take care of him). And did I mention that Lin is still nursing baby Wei and has no breast pump, so she is constantly worrying about leaking milk and making sure he’s fed in a consistent way? Realistic and in some ways refreshing, but not really adding to the romantic aura of the story.

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