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.

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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.

*shrug*

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.

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

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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?

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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!

The Metamorphosis

Every once in a while I will read something that leaves me blinking. “What the fuck did I just read?!”

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Metamorphosis is one of those stories. I wasn’t prepared for it, either. Kafka’s “masterpiece” was smack dab in the middle of the short story collection I’m working through, and I got to it right before vacation.

If you haven’t read Kafka’s Metamorphosis yet–be prepared for wacky. I’m not sure if he was dreaming, or just stoned out of his ever loving mind. The main character is a guy that wakes up as a dung beetle.

Yes. You read that correctly.

A dung beetle.

His family basically closets him away, takes on boarders to cover the salary he made, and goes on feeding and caring for him. Um, hello? You have a giant cockroach living in your house, and you just go on assuming it is your brother. Okkkkkkkk……

 

As you can guess, I wasn’t a fan of this one. Yuck.

 

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Short Story

I just read the most interesting short story, and one that took me completely by surprise.

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John Cheever’s “The Swimmer” starts off with a suburban man who, instead of driving or walking home, decides to swim home. Ok, not that abnormal…until you realize he’s going to frog hop through his neighbors’ pools!

Now, in modern day society, this would be absolutely crazy, right? We hardly know our next-door neighbors’ names anymore, let alone feel comfortable enough with them to just show up uninvited to swim. But, in the country club society that Neddy Merrill lived in, no one seemed to think this odd. They offered him drink after drink at their afternoon garden parties, hugged him, toasted to him, even acted offended as he hopped off to the next pool!

At least at first.

The farther across the county Neddy got, and the closer he got to home, the stranger things became. As long as he was distanced from his home, things were just dandy, joyous, fun. But life really started to circle the drain, so to speak, as he closed in on his own back yard.

This is one of those rare short stories that really reached out and grabbed me. It doesn’t happen often, but I wanted more. I want to know where his family is, I want to know what happened at the party the night before. So many questions!

If you get a chance, go read this story. I found it in Short Fiction:  Classic and Contemporary Sixth Edition by Charles Bohner and Lyman Grant.

 

For a real treat, you can even listen to Cheever’s read the work himself here. Thanks Catherine, for sharing this with me!

Short but Sweet

I’ve been reading a short story every afternoon. Most…I could do without. I’m not a huge fan of short stories, they are just too, well, short, to have enough of a plot to intrigue me.

But, every once in awhile I will hit a gem that is really beautiful, or important, or meaningful.

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The most recent of these is “Cathedral” by Raymond Carver. He writes from the perspective of a husband whose wife invites an old friend of hers to come and stay with them–a blind man that she used to read to. The husband is NOT pleased about this. How is he supposed to interact with this person? Ugh. But, that interaction, as you would expect, turns out to be completely lovely, if a little awkward at first.

I’m finding these stories in a big textbook collection–Short Fiction:  Classic and Contemporary Sixth Edition by Charles Bohner and Lyman Grant