Viet Thanh Nguyen: The Refugees

With the coruscating gaze that informed The Sympathizer, in The Refugees Viet Thanh Nguyen gives voice to lives led between two worlds, the adopted homeland and the country of birth. From a young Vietnamese refugee who suffers profound culture shock when he comes to live with two gay men in San Francisco, to a woman whose husband is suffering from dementia and starts to confuse her for a former lover, to a girl living in Ho Chi Minh City whose older half-sister comes back from America having seemingly accomplished everything she never will, the stories are a captivating testament to the dreams and hardships of immigration.

This second piece of fiction by a major new voice in American letters, The Refugees is a beautifully written and sharply observed book about the aspirations of those who leave one country for another, and the relationships and desires for self-fulfillment that define our lives.

You know how I mentioned before that I took five books with me on the cruise? Wouldn’t you know it that I finished Dune at the airport with a 4 hour wait before our flight…and 3 hours left to go…and PACKED THE REST OF MY BOOKS IN MY CHECKED LUGGAGE!

Of course I did. Oops.

This is why airport planner people add bookstores. Because no matter how fancy our cellphones get–we still need books in airports. Luckily for me, The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen was 40% off! I’ve heard nothing but excellent things about this gorgeous cerulean new release, so it was no hard decision on what to grab from the shelf.

The Refugees is a collection of short stories, in the style of James Joyce or Colm Toibin–short snippets of life without a lot of context before or after. (Take that Joyce comparison with a grain of salt…I hate Joyce, but loved this. Style comparison, not author comparison.) Nguyen explores refugees of both country and soul. Every story features a Vietnamese character–while some characters have left Vietnam, others are returning–and all are experiencing some major upheaval in their life. It seems as if Nguyen doesn’t just mean “refugee” in the strict traveling sense, but also that the person is literally leaving one life for another.

Because this is a collection of short stories, know that there is no transition or connection between them besides the common refugee theme. They are written in first-person narrative, and to read them all back to back can sometimes be jarring to someone who doesn’t normally read this style. I am used to flowing right through chapters, so I probably should have read one story a day instead of doing this book all at once, to give myself a chance to separate each from the story before. That isn’t so much a flaw with the book, however, as with myself.

Regardless, I am thrilled with The Refugees, and if I could go back and choose a book from MCO, I’d still choose this one.

DiversityBingo2017:  Immigrant or Refugee MC


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Thirteen Ways of Looking

Ever since reading James Joyce Dubliners & A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, books set in and about Dublin immediately have a bit of a handicap. They are all Joyce until proven otherwise. And not just Dublin, really. It’s the problem I have with Colm Toibin–I couldn’t remove his Empty Family collection from Dubliners, because the style was so similar. The short stories just go nowhere, I cannot connect to them with either author.


Today I am presented with Colum McCann. I have heard of his work, but have not had an opportunity to read him previously. He has a new collection coming out today, Thirteen Ways of Looking, a novella and three shorts. There are two common threads among them all:  1. They all have some connection to Dublin; and 2. They are all based around a very real attack that Colum experienced on his own person.

As usual, I went into this somewhat blind. I didn’t know the above information until most of the way through the book–when I finally looked up the summary to see what was going on. Sometimes, blind reading isn’t ALWAYS a benefit, and in this case, it was probably my failing here. I mostly liked the novella–the main character is a snarky old man and his narration his hilarious. Most people will have a grandfather or some other old fox in their life that they can relate him to. For me, he’s a deadringer for my Grandaddy. But, the perspective kept changing to the detectives, and that part didn’t always make sense. Did he have previous threats? Why were there cameras in his living room that they were watching?

The novella ended so abruptly that I was very confused when the first short story started. In fact, I didn’t realize that these were completely new characters in a completely new setting. Why was the format so different? Only when I got to the second story did I realize this wouldn’t link back to the novella, and that’s when I looked up the author and found out about his attack.

The writing is well done–better than Joyce, that’s for sure. And I did connect to the novella’s characters, for the brief time we had together. But the shorts were just too, well, short. It’s why I never prefer this style of book–give me a full novel, or give me a collection of short stories, so at least I know what I’m getting into from the beginning.


I’m giving this 2 Book Dragons. However, this is mostly due to personal style preference, and less of the author’s failings. I just don’t care for this kind of book.


Netgalley provided this ARC for an unbiased review. Releases October 13.


The Empty Family

Of course, I read an amazing, wonderful book…and I have to follow it up with a terrible one. It never fails, does it?


I’ve had The Empty Family on my shelf for awhile–it was one I picked up from the $1 shelf at Half-Price. I had liked Brooklyn, so I thought I’d pick something else up from Toibin. I didn’t realize until I got it home that it was a collection of short stories.

Which, ok, short stories do not always doom a book. But, I just have such a hard time with them. There’s never enough time to get into anything. Some authors are great at this. Most just don’t cut it for me.

If you’ve been around for awhile, you know how much I HATE JAMES JOYCE. Nothing EVER happens in his stories. These were a lot like modern day Joyce. There is a main person, usually a gay male, has a very vague problem to solve. There’s some tragic backstory that we get very little of, but it really is super important to the whole underlying issue. It’s all very dark and sad and it’s supposed to be beautifully depressing, but mostly it just comes off limp.

Next please!

Dubliners & The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Well, I’ve finally done it. I can finally FINALLY say I have read James Joyce.

Or…at least skimmed James Joyce.

Good God Almighty how I HATE James Joyce.


I know, I KNOW. That’s somewhat of an unpopular opinion in the literary field, but I just really really hate James Joyce. I’ve had this book forever. And I’ve tried to read it at least half a dozen times. This is the first time I’ve gotten through the whole thing to completion. And it’ll probably be the last. I might burn it. Honestly.

It was that bad. (No…I’m not REALLY going to burn it. Put down your axes.)

First–Dubliners. I don’t have much to say about this section of Joyce’s work. A bunch of short stories where nothing ever happens in any of them. Meh. Some people like that sort of thing. I don’t. It’s why I find short stories to be dull most of the time. Every once in awhile I’ll find a really brilliant one, but they just aren’t for me usually. *shrug*

The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is a whole other ball game of loathing. As I swore to myself I would–I read a chapter a day once I got to this section. Every day I fought against the urge to give up.

There are two major notations I had while reading this, make of them what you will. I couldn’t make heads nor tales of the actual story. I know it’s about an Irish coming of age story in a boarding school. That’s about all I’ve got.

1. Joyce is an author trying to write YA fiction, but he doesn’t understand teenagers at all. The voice sounds more like a kindergartner than a middle or high schooler, so I can’t figure out how old the boy is, except for the title I would think he were a toddler. (This note was written in the earlier chapters, I did figure out later he was in his later teens based on some of the sexual references and his desire to become a priest. I still found Joyce’s writing method very patronizing.)

2. While I find Catholic history/lore intriguing, I do not so much love to read lectures–and maybe that’s why I find Joyce so utterly impossible read. His writing is just one long sermon. When I read a book I do not want to be preached at.

My last thought about Joyce before I stop my rant is how much I hated his formatting. I think that is the #1 thing that made this book so hard for me to read. My brain could absolutely not comprehend that I was reading dialogue, when all of his paragraphs were cut up into dashes at the beginning of his indentations. Nope nope nope. My brain reads those as bullet points and lists, not speech, and what do I do with lists? I scan!

Ok, I’m done here. Moving on!


Fulfills Boxall #76

Fulfills PopSugar #20:  A book at the bottom of your to-read list