book review: Lanny by Max Porter

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LANNY by Max Porter
★★★☆☆
Graywolf Press, 2019

 

This pretty much did nothing for me, but I am inclined to give it the benefit of the doubt as I recognize that I’m in the minority here.  I think I may not quite ‘get’ Max Porter, because I felt similarly about Grief is the Thing with Feathers: I appreciated it from a technical standpoint, but I found it utterly devoid of emotionality, which seems a silly thing to say about a pair of books that are about such heavy topics, and which have touched so many other readers, but I just find his writing technically brilliant and at the same time, curiously unaffecting.

What I admired: Again – Porter’s writing is lyrical and assured.  I think his descriptive imagery is gorgeous and evocative, and his portrait of small town England was beautifully rendered.  And the part of Lanny that did really work for me was the second section, where Lanny goes missing and his search is narrated by a chorus of characters in the town – it’s frantic, tense, and kept me turning pages in a way that I didn’t get from the first or third sections.

What I didn’t: Dead Papa Toothwort dragged this down for me, as I knew he would.  I’ve said it so many times I know you all must be getting tired of it, but I don’t like magical realism; I just find that it obfuscates more often than it augments a text.  I ultimately just didn’t see the point of this book.  I think Porter ruminates on a lot of interesting themes while never really driving any of them home – instead opting for this sort of half-baked mythical angle.

There was a point toward the end where I thought this book was going to ultimately go in a much more sinister direction, which I would have found more thought-provoking and hard-hitting, but the cloyingly sentimental resolution unfortunately made this a rather forgettable read for me.  I didn’t hate it, and there were times I was gripped by it, but this was just not my kind of book. A solid 2.5.


You can pick up a copy of Lanny here on Book Depository.

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book review: Notes of a Crocodile by Qiu Miaojin

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NOTES OF A CROCODILE by Qiu Miaojin
translated from the Chinese by Bonnie Huie
★★★☆☆
NYRB Classics 2017
originally published in 1994

 

An occasional pitfall of reading literature from a country other than your own is that you aren’t approaching it with the necessary cultural framework to make it comprehensible. This isn’t always the case, of course; some stories are more universal than others, and some books do a better job of contextualizing the relevant sociopolitical elements. But in Notes of a Crocodile, a book about a group of queer students in Taiwan in the late 80s, I felt desperately out of my depth, and I felt like so many of my attempts to engage with this book were met with stony silence on Qiu Miaojin’s part. But I want to stress that this isn’t a fault of the book itself. I can imagine for the right reader that a book like this would be sensational. Personally I felt like I was missing references and subtleties that a Taiwanese reader (and especially a queer Taiwanese reader) would easily pick up on. I’m glad to have read this book and grappled with it as best I could, but this wasn’t the easiest or most comfortable reading experience for me.

Narrated by a nameless protagonist, nicknamed Lazi, Notes of a Crocodile chronicles the trials of a group of queer students living in late 1980s Taipei. It’s also punctuated by a series of interludes which imagine that the country have been invaded by humanlike crocodiles; a clear metaphor for a society that sees queerness as an epidemic. (The homophobic obsession of early 1990s Taiwanese media with homosexuality is explained in a little more detail in this LA Review of Books review by Ari Larissa Heinrich, who has translated Miaojin in the past.)

This book is light on plot, and whatever plot does happen usually happens off-page and is narrated to the reader much later; instead the focus is on the internal. To me Lazi felt more like an embodiment of what it means to be queer in Taiwan than an established character in her own right – while we learn almost nothing about her past or her personhood, pages and pages are devoted to philosophizing about what it means to be a woman who loves other women; what it means for your sexuality to be interpreted as a political statement. To me the philosophy ranged from stimulating to repetitive, occasionally too mired in intertextuality to drive any particular point home. This result is a rather rambling meditation that again, I tried to engage with – occasionally successfully, occasionally not.

My other main takeaway from this is is that I think I would have appreciated this book more if I’d read it in my early twenties; I hate to sound callous but the sheer amount of self-destruction in these pages did become tiresome after a while. This book never lets up from its relentless angst and self-absorption, and the whole thing is of course shadowed by the tragedy of Qiu Miaojin’s suicide at age 26. I ultimately think this is worth a read, but I think I find Qiu Miaojin herself more intriguing than this particular book.


You can pick up a copy of Notes of a Crocodile here on Book Depository.

book review: The Dragon Republic by R.F. Kuang

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THE DRAGON REPUBLIC by R.F. Kuang
(The Poppy War #2)
★★★☆☆
Harper Voyager, August 6, 2019

 

I was never going to love The Dragon Republic as much as The Poppy War, so let’s get that out of the way; The Poppy War is a book of two halves, and I preferred the first. However, it was still a 5 star read for me (review here), and with Kuang’s assertions on Twitter that The Dragon Republic was an objectively superior book, I was still cautiously optimistic about the sequel. And I didn’t hate it, but I’m disappointed.

Pacing is an issue in both of these books; in The Poppy War, things happen too fast; it feels like two books crammed into one. But I really didn’t mind that – I read a lot of literary fiction, so when I venture into genre fiction it’s with entirely different expectations and needs to be met – I like a bit of nonstop action in my fantasy as long as it doesn’t get too overwhelming, which I don’t think it did. But with The Dragon Republic the issue is the exact opposite. Nothing – and I cannot stress this enough – happens for the first three quarters of this book. Where The Poppy War feels like two books for the price of one, The Dragon Republic feels like a novella stretched out thin across 500 pages. Things of course do happen, technically, but there is so much filler. Stakes feel low (a problem that The Poppy War certainly did not have), because for the major part of this book, it feels like you’re spinning your wheels and still waiting for the main players to enter the ring.

But let’s talk about what I did like: the characters and the setting are some of my favorites from any fantasy series that I have ever read. The returning characters are as complex, endearing, and frustrating as ever, and the new characters shine as well – Vaisra in particular is a brilliant creation. And if The Dragon Republic has one thing that’s superior to The Poppy War, it’s the world building and the magic system, which is infinitely more fleshed out here with some truly fascinating developments.

It took me three months to read this, but I want to stress that every time I did pick it up, I enjoyed it. The issue is that I just seldom reached for it. I really hope this is just second book syndrome, and I do think one thing that Kuang was able to achieve with this book was laying a really solid foundation for whatever is to come next (and with that ending, I can promise you that the third book is going to destroy me). But even though I would still recommend this series wholeheartedly, this just wasn’t as good as The Poppy War, much as it pains me to say it.

Thank you to Netgalley and Harper Voyager for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.


You can pick up a copy of The Poppy War here on Book Depository, and The Dragon Republic here.

book review: Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah

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FRIDAY BLACK by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah
★★★☆☆
Mariner Books, 2018

 

Like most short story collections, Friday Black has its highs and its lows, and on the whole I’d say it lands somewhere in the middle. But that’s not to dismiss Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s skill at dark, grotesque speculative fiction, which is on full display in a number of these stories, from the harrowing opener The Finkelstein 5 (a man brutally murders 5 black children with a chainsaw and claims self-defense) to the devastating Zimmer Land (a Westworld-style themepark where participants play out fantasies in which they defend their families by murdering intruders).

However, from an opening that promised thematic cohesion (at least where the first three stories were concerned – all playing with the tension between inward identity and outward emotion), it started to flounder a bit. The Hospital Where introduces huge ideas and never really follows through. Three stories make the exact same point about consumerism, begging the question of why they were all necessary to include. The final story, Through the Flash, drags on and on while getting less interesting the further it goes.

My average rating for these 12 stories is 3.25, so 3 stars it is, but I do want to stress that I did enjoy this collection. I think Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah is one of the most exciting, daring new voices I’ve read in fiction all year. This is a searing, unapologetic collection about violence and black identity and capitalism, and how inextricable those themes are. I’d ultimately recommend giving this collection a shot if it interests you, but if you’re just interested in reading one story from it, make it The Finkelstein 5.


You can pick up a copy of Friday Black here on Book Depository.

book review: The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See

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THE ISLAND OF SEA WOMEN by Lisa See
★★★☆
Scribner, March 2019

 

It took me over three months to finish this book, and it wasn’t for a lack of interest in the author; this was my seventh Lisa See novel and interestingly, not even my least favorite. I wouldn’t say there’s anything ostensibly wrong with this book, and it’s not exactly a radical departure from the rest of See’s historical fiction: it follows a friendship between two women against the backdrop of a turbulent period in East Asian history (though here the setting is the Korean Jeju Island instead of See’s usual China).

But despite the tried and true blueprint whose familiarity should have been comforting, I really struggled to get invested in The Island of Sea Women. I think my main issue was with the protagonist, Young-sook (whose name I just had to look up even though I finished this book only two days ago, so that’s never a good sign). Young-sook and her best friend Mi-ja are haenyeo – female divers – and See’s exploration of this culture is as thorough as ever. However, Young-sook herself makes no particular impression, and I think it’s mostly down to how anemically drawn her character is: she’s a model haenyeo, so she loves being a haenyeo; she’s meant to desire marriage and children, so she desires marriage and children; she’s meant to honor her family, so she honors her family. She’s a collection of cultural values rather than a distinct person – a pitfall that I think See gracefully avoids with the protagonists of each of her other novels that I’ve read. I don’t ordinarily feel that she needs to sacrifice character development to establish historical context, but sadly I did here.

About 60% through the book, during a scene of a horrifying and brutal massacre, See’s decision to tell this story through Young-sook’s eyes finally, finally made narrative sense to me, but up until that point, I had been wondering why the focus hadn’t been on Mi-ja – an infinitely more interesting character for the ways in which she didn’t fit as neatly into the society in which she was raised. Their friendship is competently portrayed, but it’s missing a spark for me that I felt in so many of her other books, notably Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and Shanghai Girls.

And I think that’s the word I keep coming back to when I think about this book: it’s competent. It’s a great crash course in Jeju history for those of us who weren’t already familiar with the island. It’s an occasionally heart-wrenching story about loss and the inability to forgive. It’s just not spectacular, and it never quite gains the momentum needed for the most brutal scene to make as much of an impact as it should have.

All said, I liked this book but I didn’t love it, but I undoubtedly should have pushed myself through the rocky beginning rather than dragging this reading experience out for three months; and everyone else seems to adore it, so I’d encourage you to give it a shot if it interests you. But if you’re looking for somewhere to start with Lisa See, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and Shanghai Girls remain my go-to recommendations.

Thank you to Netgalley and Scribner for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.


You can pick up a copy of The Island of Sea Women here on Book Depository.

mini reviews #6: nonfiction and theatre of the absurd

You can see all my previous mini reviews here, and feel free to add me on Goodreads to see all of my reviews as soon as I post them.

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BAD BLOOD by John Carreyrou
★★★★☆
date read: February 26, 2019
Knopf, 2018

Wow. This was every bit as wild as everyone has been saying. Bad Blood is probably the best embodiment of ‘truth is stranger than fiction’ that I have ever read. Trust me, you do not need to be interested in Silicon Valley or business or medicine in the slightest to be riveted by this incredible piece of investigative journalism.  You can pick up a copy of Bad Blood here on Book Depository.

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WAITING FOR GODOT by Samuel Beckett
★★★★☆
date read: April 7, 2019
Faber & Faber, 2006
originally published 1952

This is famously ‘the play where nothing happens,’ so I certainly didn’t expect this to be the surreal, madcap romp that it is. I’m going to have to think about this one for a while.  You can pick up a copy of Waiting for Godot here on Book Depository.

 

1035312SPY PRINCESS by Shrabani Basu
★★★☆☆
date read: May 22, 2019
Sutton, 2006

This is a competent biography of a really remarkable woman. I thoroughly enjoyed learning more about Noor Khan, an SOE agent and the first woman to be sent into occupied France, who was executed at Dachau after being imprisoned for a year and not revealing anything under extensive interrogation. But while Spy Princess certainly has value in filling in the gaps left by other biographers, it does occasionally beatify Noor at the expense of other women (what does Shrabani Basu have against Mata Hari, my god) and fall victim to making very generic statements about Noor’s life when there isn’t documented information (i.e., a page-long description of the global advancement of WWII followed by a lazy statement like ‘Noor was worried about this’). Still, Basu does an impressive job at chronicling Noor’s life and contextualizing her legacy.  You can pick up a copy of Spy Princess here on Book Depository.

13944THE SECRET LIFE OF HOUDINI by William Kalush and Larry Sloman
★★★☆☆
date read: May 28, 2019
Atria Books, 2006

In this book’s introduction the authors state that although they did an extensive amount of research, they made a decision at times to spin fact into imagined dialogue. That should set your expectations for this biography: wildly entertaining, often sensationalized, but decently informative nonetheless.  You can pick up a copy of The Secret Life of Houdini here on Book Depository.


Have you guys read any of these, and what did you think? Feel free to comment if you’d like to discuss anything in more detail.

book review: Bottled Goods by Sophie van Llewyn

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BOTTLED GOODS by Sophie van Llewyn
★★★☆☆
Fairlight Books, 2018

 

I think Bottled Goods is an interesting, impressive book in a number of ways, but I can’t help but to feel a bit underwhelmed by it. It tells the story of Alina, a young woman living in 1970s communist Romania, whose family comes under surveillance when her brother-in-law defects to the west. Blending a quotidian story with elements of Romanian folklore, this book is a unique, magical creation that I think will satisfy a lot of readers despite its brevity.

But while I was particularly intrigued by its ‘novella-in-flash’ premise, it turned out that the whole flash thing kind of ruined it for me. Each of these chapters is brief – some are a few sentences, some are two or three pages – and each jumps the narrative ahead several weeks or months with no preamble. I hadn’t realized just how much I appreciate a consistent pace and flow in storytelling, but I guess it makes sense, because I’ve noticed over the years that my reading speed gradually increases the further into a book I get; at the very beginning, before I’ve been pulled into the narrative, my mind wanders easily and I find myself rereading the same passages over and over. That’s what kept happening to me with this book – it’s only 190 pages, and rather tiny pages at that, but it took me probably six or seven sittings to get through it, because the jolting pace made it particularly difficult for me to care about any of it.

But anyway, all of that has more to do with me as a reader than what this book does or does not offer. I think it offers a lot: it’s a perceptive commentary about a young woman living under an oppressive governmental regime, an interesting counterpart to Milkman on the Women’s Prize longlist (though I think Milkman is the stronger novel in just about every conceivable way). And I did find its unique style both paradoxically stimulating and distracting; hopefully it will fall more toward the stimulating end of the spectrum for a lot of readers. Finally, I know that everyone who knows me was worried about my reception to this book as soon as the words ‘magical realism’ entered the summary, but I actually didn’t mind that element – I’m not sure it added anything that couldn’t have been achieved with more literal storytelling, but it was an interesting way to comment on the lengths one goes to in order to escape an oppressive government. So on the whole, not really the book for me, but a solid book nonetheless.


You can pick up a copy of Bottled Goods here on Book Depository.