mini-reviews: underground girls, thousand splendid suns

Catching up on posting book reviews from what I read last year has been a lot of fun so far! Next on my list was The Underground Girls of Kabul, which I realized is a great companion piece to a book I just recently finished, A Thousand Splendid Suns. I learned a lot from both of these excellent books.

I listened to Jenny Nordberg’s The Underground Girls of Kabul on audio about a year ago on a road trip and found it riveting. Like many Americans, I’m sure, I had no idea about the practice of bacha posh, disguising daughters as sons because boys are more valued, in Afghanistan. Honestly I didn’t know much about Afghanistan culture in general before encountering this book. Nordberg profiles a handful of bacha posh women and girls, and how it has shaped their lives both personally and professionally. It is a fascinating account of gender norms as they relate to culture and society, as well as perceptions of temperament and opportunities (or lack thereof) in Afghanistan. The book also examines the complexities of gender identity and its value in global and historical contexts. It was a really worthwhile read I wholly recommend. [Listened to audiobook in March 2016.]

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini had been on my TBR for about five years! Splendid Suns is the story of two women, Miriam and Laila, whose lives intertwine when they become married to the same man—Miriam first and Laila, fifteen years younger than Miriam, a couple decades later. Hosseini’s writing positively aches; I felt so deeply for these women and the hardships they endured throughout their lives. Much like Underground GirlsSplendid Suns bring readers inside daily lives of women living in Afghanistan with its political unrest and societal rules. I wish the characters had been more fully realized (three-dimensional), and some of the “history lessons” peppered throughout were somewhat clunky, but overall it’s a heartrending story that deserves its enduring popularity. [Listened to audiobook in April 2017.]

reading recap: september 2016

We’re almost through October all of a sudden! Time is a little weird for me here in Singapore, firstly because I’m on “temporary unlimited vacation” (code for job-free) right now, and secondly because the weather is such that it’s basically perpetually August. So I sort of feel like every day is an August Saturday, and it’s tough to make myself get on the computer these days when I have pretty much zero routine. But when I realized October is almost over, I figured I should put up my September books and try to get myself back on track! Here’s what I read in September:

sept-reading

  • My Life on the Road … Gloria Steinem
  • Station Eleven … Emily St. John Mandel
  • The Vegetarian … Han Kang
  • We Were Liars (audio) … E. Lockhart, read by Ariadne Meyers
  • Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (audio) … Dee Brown, read by Grover Gardner
  • The Underground Railroad (ebook) … Colson Whitehead
  • Yes, Chef (audio) … Marcus Samuelsson, read by author

My two best reads of the month were Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and Station Eleven. I’d been wanting to read Bury My Heart forever, maybe since high school, and it was just as devastating and infuriating as I knew it would be, but so important and one that every American should read. I bought Station Eleven almost right after it was first released, but kept putting it off—that whole thing where you’re worried a book won’t live up to the hype or expectations. But luckily it totally did live up to the hype (for me). I loved how it was a different look at society’s not only practical but also cultural needs after a collapse, and that the reader is shown the process of and reason for the collapse rather than just the aftermath (as in so many future-dystopia books I’ve read).

The Vegetarian was brief but interesting and strange, and I thought about it quite a long time after finishing. We Were Liars, also a brief read, was kind of predictable and reminded me (once AGAIN) that I should not pick up YA lit. But I do understand the appeal, no judgement here of those who love YA. I love a good food memoir, and Yes, Chef was enjoyable enough and he certainly has had a incredible life and career, even if I didn’t “click” with Samuelsson so much on a personal level like I did with other memiorists. Like I did with Gloria Steinem in My Life on the Road. I shamefully didn’t know much about her life before reading this book, and I really enjoyed “tagging along” on her travels and speaking engagements (so to speak). Her insight on the 2008 democratic race between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama was illuminating, especially at this moment eight years later.

And here’s my unpopular opinion of the month: Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad didn’t really do it for me. While the subject matter is extremely important and timely even today, the characters fell flat and the plot felt disjointed for me. I’m the odd one out it seems, looks like the majority of readers were blown away, so don’t let my feelings stop you from reading it if it’s on your list.

October recap coming next week (on time!)
monthly recap image

we need new names

Onward with my ebook challenge! Book no. 4 is We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo. Edited from Goodreads:

Darling is only ten years old, and yet she must navigate a fragile and violent world. In Zimbabwe, Darling and her friends steal guavas, try to get the baby out of young Chipo’s belly, and grasp at memories of Before. Before their homes were destroyed by paramilitary policemen, before the school closed, before the fathers left for dangerous jobs abroad. But Darling has a chance to escape: she has an aunt in America. She travels to this new land in search of America’s famous abundance only to find that her options as an immigrant are perilously few.

I read through this quickly over a weekend, so it perhaps didn’t quite have the greatest impact on me?? The difficulties and suffering that do exist in this book just didn’t resonate with me as much as I would have expected. I had a little trouble with the vocabulary (neighborhoods in the Zimbabwe town called “Budapest” and “Paradise” tripped me up at first, stuff like that). It could be the short story vibe of this one—while not really a short story collection, many of the chapters could be stand-alone and overall it felt like several events linked together rather than one long narrative. That’s just me though, short stories aren’t exactly my thing. Still a good read, though, and I’m glad I finally got around to it.

Bulawayo’s characters feel very real, at least some of them do, and for sure Darling is a dynamic and interesting character. Darling, at just 10 years old, is opinionated and funny, with a toughness right off the bat that has you rooting for her all the way through the book, and you witness her growth in how her voice distinctively changes as a teenager in the States. The first half was raw and gritty and heartbreaking, but the second half, when Darling is older in America, really drives the points home of “different similarities” between coming of age in Africa vs. the United States. Despite the tragedy and horrors they faced in Zimbabwe as children, they are still hopeful and dream of better futures for themselves.

We Need New Names might have a few too many elements in it—immigration, culture shock, coming of age, world relations, poverty, etc.—but Bulawayo does tie them together in a meaningful, cohesive way, and creatively through the eyes of Darling.

We Need New Names is my fourth of twelve books read for my Ebook Challenge.

Read from June 19 to 22, 2015.

girl at war

Another great book from the library for me! Last week I read the newly released debut novel Girl at War by Sara Nović. From Goodreads:

Zagreb, summer of 1991. Ten-year-old Ana Jurić is a carefree tomboy who runs the streets of Croatia’s capital with her best friend, Luka, takes care of her baby sister, Rahela, and idolizes her father. But as civil war breaks out across Yugoslavia, soccer games and school lessons are supplanted by sniper fire and air raid drills. When tragedy suddenly strikes, Ana is lost to a world of guerilla warfare and child soldiers; a daring escape plan to America becomes her only chance for survival. Ten years later Ana is a college student in New York. She’s been hiding her past from her boyfriend, her friends, and most especially herself. Haunted by the events that forever changed her family, she returns alone to Croatia, where she must rediscover the place that was once her home and search for the ghosts of those she’s lost.

I found Girl at War to be enjoyable, but maybe not as powerful as I was expecting. The characters are all pretty much likable, and I really liked the sections of Ana’s childhood back in Zagreb—Nović’s descriptions of how the war effected the Croatian people (especially children) were interesting and kept me turning pages. Ana is about my same age, so several world events mentioned clicked with my memories (I remember there being news reports of war in Yugoslavia in the early 90s, but maybe didn’t understand them so much). The parts in New York (and even some of her return as an adult to Croatia) didn’t work for me quite as well… I could have done without the romance subplot. Nović’s prose has a certain stoicism about it, like Ana’s (and others’) emotions are held at arm’s length. While I did find this voice style purposeful to the story (many war veterans keep their feelings about their experiences at arm’s length), I would have liked a bit more depth and insight into what Ana was thinking and feeling at times.

Still, this is a stunning debut, and a quick read that didn’t feel too heavy despite its subject matter. Ana’s harrowing experience in her war-torn homeland will stay with me for a while. I definitely look forward to reading more by Sara Nović in the future. Recommend!

Read from June 1 to 6, 2015.

transatlantic

In March, I thought it would be fitting to get in (stay in?) the Irish spirit with TransAtlantic by Colum McCann, an Ireland native whose book focuses on several people and their dealings with the country. From Goodreads:

Newfoundland, 1919. Two aviators—Jack Alcock and Arthur Brown—set course for Ireland as they attempt the first nonstop flight across the Atlantic Ocean, placing their trust in a modified bomber to heal the wounds of the Great War. Dublin, 1845 and ’46: On an international lecture tour in support of his subversive autobiography, Frederick Douglass finds the Irish people sympathetic to the abolitionist cause—despite the fact that, as famine ravages the countryside, the poor suffer from hardships that are astonishing even to an American slave. New York, 1998: Leaving behind a young wife and newborn child, Senator George Mitchell departs for Belfast, where it has fallen to him, the son of an Irish-American father and a Lebanese mother, to shepherd Northern Ireland’s notoriously bitter and volatile peace talks to an uncertain conclusion.

These three iconic crossings are connected by a series of remarkable women whose personal stories are caught up in the swells of history. Beginning with Irish housemaid Lily Duggan, who crosses paths with Frederick Douglass, the novel follows her daughter and granddaughter, Emily and Lottie, and culminates in the present-day story of Hannah Carson, in whom all the hopes and failures of previous generations live on. From the loughs of Ireland to the flatlands of Missouri and the windswept coast of Newfoundland, their journeys mirror the progress and shape of history. They each learn that even the most unassuming moments of grace have a way of rippling through time, space, and memory.

I found TransAtlantic to be a quiet read, with my interest ebbing and flowing a bit, I think because it’s laid out like a short story collection with one family as the underlying unifier. I was absolutely enthralled by the opening two parts, focusing on Alcock and Brown and their historic 1919 flight across the Atlantic ocean (the first ever), and Frederick Douglass’s visit to Ireland in the 1840s. The middle waned for me, especially the Sen. George Mitchell section, but picked up steam again for the last third. I thought McCann’s writing was soft and lovely, and I was on the edge of my seat for that opening chapter flying across the Atlantic—the urgency of the action was intense.

Though I enjoyed the book as a whole immensely, I do wish that the characters could have been more fully realized. I would have read a stand-alone book on Alcock and Brock or Douglass’s Ireland trip. Especially Douglass—McCann takes this piece of history and paints a vivid picture, but I wonder what Douglass, a former slave, thought of the dire conditions and abject poverty he surely encountered in 1845 Ireland? Although probably wisely, McCann doesn’t venture to imagine what Douglass may have been thinking on that subject (perhaps he didn’t document those thoughts in a diary or letters). I appreciate the level of research McCann must have put into TransAtlantic for the three main “crossings,” but the family stuff kind of fell a little flat for me in places. Although I did like Lily’s story best. I think the time-jumping was just a bit confusing, I had to keep reminding myself who was whom’s mother.

I’m so glad I finally got around to reading TransAtlantic. It reminded me of Almost Famous Women (my review) and Burial Rites (my review), in writing style and being fact-based historical fiction. Lovely book.

TransAtlantic is my third of twelve books read for the 2015 TBR Pile Challenge.

Read from March 15 to 31, 2015.

almost famous women

I couldn’t believe it when Megan Mayhew Bergman’s Almost Famous Women came through at the library for me, it’s so new! I lucked out this time; it’s a great little collection. From Goodreads:

The fascinating lives of the characters in Almost Famous Women have mostly been forgotten, but their stories are burning to be told. Now Megan Mayhew Bergman, author of Birds of a Lesser Paradise, resurrects these women, lets them live in the reader’s imagination, so we can explore their difficult choices. Nearly every story in this dazzling collection is based on a woman who attained some celebrity—she raced speed boats or was a conjoined twin in show business; a reclusive painter of renown; a member of the first all-female, integrated swing band. We see Lord Byron’s illegitimate daughter, Allegra; Oscar Wilde’s troubled niece, Dolly; West With the Night author Beryl Markham; Edna St. Vincent Millay’s sister, Norma. These extraordinary stories travel the world, explore the past (and delve into the future), and portray fiercely independent women defined by their acts of bravery, creative impulses, and sometimes reckless decisions.

Unfortunately I don’t have the titles (had to return to the library), but a few chapters especially stood out to me: those about the conjoined Hilton twins, Joe Carstairs, Dolly Wilde, and Romaine Brooks. These four felt the meatiest and most engaging—Bergman could expand each of these to its own full-length book and I’d read them. Her prose is at once delicate and lovely but also straightforward. I found it wonderfully different to experience slices of the women’s lives through the eyes of others in proximity to them, rather than being inside their heads (with a few exceptions).

The shortest chapters were about 2–5 pages, and only one left an impression on me—the one about the women liberated from the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Two stories I really enjoyed but perhaps didn’t quite fit with the collection were about Allegra Byron, illegitimate daughter of Lord Byron, and the updated take on The Lottery by Shirley Jackson. They just didn’t exactly fit, I felt, because Allegra was a child and the Lottery update was pure fiction instead of historical fiction. But they were excellently written and honestly two of my favorites in the collection.

I have struggled with short stories in the past, and still had to try a bit with this (due to external circumstances, I’ve been distracted while reading lately), but Almost Famous Women was one of the more compelling and page-turning collections I’ve read. I think one reason I became so intrigued is because these real-life women were intriguing—I found myself doing a little internet sleuthing on Bergman’s subjects and was fascinated. I don’t think I would have ever randomly discovered these women and their stories on my own without Bergman’s book.

Read from March 1 to 12, 2015.