Do Not Say We Have Nothing, by Madeleine Thien

Do Not Say We Have Nothing

The Japanese proverb, “The nail that sticks out shall be hammered down,” kept popping into my head as I read Madeleine Thien’s brilliant novel, Do Not Say We Have Nothing*. The novel follows three generations of two Chinese families. Each generation includes extremely talented musicians, authors, and mathematicians, who had the misfortune of living in China during its most turbulent periods of the twentieth century. The oldest generation survives the Japanese invasion and the civil war after. The middle generation has to contend with the Cultural Revolution. The last generation comes of age during the student protests in Tiananmen Square and the Chinese diaspora. This book is beautifully written and structured; I marveled at Thien’s talent.

The novel opens in the early 1990s, when Marie Jiang’s father commits suicide in Hong Kong. His death baffles, angers, and saddens her. She never knew much about his life. He never talked much about what happened to him in China and why he left. After all, he had a fairly good life as a member of the Chinese Philharmonic Orchestra. Marie doesn’t make much headway in understanding her father until the daughter of her father’s lifelong friend, Ai-Ming, shows up in Canada after the Tiananmen Square protests. Ai-Ming knows some of the history of their linked families and, as she relates them to Marie, the younger girl slowly starts to understand her father and her heritage.

Ai-Ming’s stories pivot around two creative works by her great-uncle and her father. The Book of Records is a popular novel that is only passed on as samizdat, written by Wen the Dreamer. Ai-Ming’s father, Sparrow, wrote two and a half symphonies that were never performed during his life because they were politically unacceptable. Ai-Ming’s family use the novel and their music to code information to talk to each other as they are separated over and over by events or labor camp sentences. Because of their talents, some members of this family stick out like the proverbial nails and they are hammered down so hard that they never quite recover. Each generation learns how to survive their chaotic country and tries to pass on their lessons to their children, who usually don’t learn in time what is worth fighting for and what is not.

Over and over, characters in the novel make records, hide instruments and literature, and preserve the past for future generations—again, whether they appreciate it or not. It isn’t until Marie’s generation that the past becomes important, because she is so cut off from her extended Chinese family. Fortunately for her, there are characters like the Old Cat, who believes:

“The things you experience,” she continued, “are written on your cells as memories and patterns, which are reprinted again on the next generation. And even if you never lift a shovel or plant a cabbage, every day of your life something is written upon you. And when you die, the entirety of that written record returns to the earth. All we have on this earth, all we are, is a record. Maybe the only things that persist are not the evildoers and demons (though, admittedly, they do have a certain longevity) but copies of things. The original has long since passed away from this universe, but on and on we copy. I have devoted my minuscule life to the act of copying.” (235**)

The records in Marie and Ai-Ming’s family are literal documents, rather than more ephemeral memories. The symphonies and the Book of Records, along with letters, capture moments in the families’ histories that help explain why family members are the way they and why they did what they did.

I’m not sure if Marie ever gets the full story of why her father died (in terms of the chain of events from the older generation to the present). We do, because this book does deep dives into the critical months and years as the geniuses in the family try not to be hammered into the ground. I loved the way Thien built up the layers of this novel, building up themes of compromising values in order to survive turmoil, finding lines in the sand one will not cross, and understanding how the traumas of parents and grandparents shapes the next generations. It’s heartbreaking to watch the nails of each generation try to dodge the hammer or stubbornly refuse to dodge.

This is one of the most skillfully and beautifully written books I’ve read for a long time.

Notes for bibliotherapeutic use: Recommend to readers who don’t understand their parents.

* The title is translated from a lyric in the Chinese version of The Internationale.
** Quote is from the 2016 hardcover edition by W.W. Norton and Company.

Among the Survivors, by Ann Z. Leventhal

Among the Survivors

I don’t mind unlikeable characters. As long as I can understand their actions, I can keep reading. The characters who frustrate me are the ones who do the opposite of what I would have or who make what I consider stupid choices. This was my problem with Among the Survivors, by Ann Z. Leventhal. Karla Most, the protagonist, is a woman with extraordinary lucky but who is completely clueless about what she wants out of life and who she wants to be. What made Karla incomprehensible to me is her passivity, especially as it comes to taking care of herself.

Karla was, perhaps, not destined for a life of self-actualization. Her mother dressed her in black from the very beginning, even to the point of dying her diapers black. After her mother dies—a mother who trained to always worry about the Gestapo breaking down her door—Karla is supported by her paternal grandparents. Still, she decides to work as a house cleaner while auditing courses at NYU. She’s on the job one day in the late 1970s, when she becomes transfixed by a Modigliani painting in a client’s bedroom. She is caught looking at the painting by the client, Sax, and the two immediately begin an affair that lasts more than a decade. (I’m really not kidding about the immediate part. They go to bed the very day they meet.)

Karla spends the next decade as Sax’s lover, supported by his largesse and basically continuing her aimless life. Later, she develops a yen to discover what really happened to her mother during the war after she re-discovers a picture of her mother as a young girl standing next to her swastika-wearing father. For me, the book got much more interesting at this point as Karla uncovers her mother’s lifelong secret.

I suppose what frustrates me most about Karla is that she never grows over the course of the novel. She ages from 21 to 37, but only takes a few steps towards finding a life path. Perhaps I didn’t understand her because there’s a lot more telling than showing in Among the Survivors. Perhaps I was annoyed because I kept fining other characters’ stories much more interesting than Karla’s. I’m not sure who I’d recommend this book to, to be honest.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGallery for review consideration. It will be released 22 August 2017.

This week on the bookish internet

  • Librarians at Denver Public will recommend you a book based on your tattoos. Warning: video autoplays. (9News)
  • Marah Gubar explains how it’s not enough to read diverse books and empathize. Books like The Hate U Give should also be a call to action. (Public Books)
  • Rachel Dunphy writes in praise of Mrs. Bennett. (LitHub)
  • If you can’t get enough of Jane Austen, Rebecca Hussey would like to recommend a few of her contemporaries. (Book Riot)
  • Robert Fernandez writes a scathing response to a Philadelphia man who objected to LGBTQ-friendly policies at the Philadelphia Free Library. (Intellectual Freedom Blog)
  • Jamie Canaves and Gail Carriger have thoughts about the importance of noms de plume and “reader betrayal.” (Book RiotJanice Hardy’s Fiction University)
  • When Tsarist Russia banned books written in Lithuanian in Latin letters, the knygnešiai started smuggling books into the country by the thousands. (Atlas Obscura)

The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, by Theodora Goss

The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter

Theodora Goss’ The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter is a delight for lovers of classic science fiction and fantasy. Goss has spun a story around the assorted daughters of men who dared to create life only to see their experiments turn into nightmares. Here, we see Mary Jekyll and Diana Hyde, Catherine Moreau, Justine Frankenstein, and Beatrice Rappaccini—with the assistance of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson—as they attempt to solve a series of murders that make it look like someone is carrying on their fathers’ work.

When the novel opens, Mary Jekyll is dismissing her servants and wondering what else she can sell (her father left she and her mother without any other income other than Mrs. Jekyll’s annuity). Then she receives a letter that lets her know of one other source of money: once hundred pounds that has been set aside for the care of Hyde. Mary, being a take charge sort, not only decides to recoup whatever was left of the money, but inquire of Mr. Holmes if the reward offered for information about Mr. Hyde is still available. From there, the book takes off with an ever deepening mystery involving a series of Ripper-like murders, a very old secret society, and a lot of classic stories colliding.

There are pauses in the mystery as Mary meets (and sometimes rescues) the daughters of ethically challenged scientists. Catherine Moreau, our scribe, introduces the pauses so that each daughter can explain her origin. She also includes many asides from the daughters, who cannot resist commenting on how Catherine is telling their story. The asides are hilarious—especially the ones by the hellion Diana Hyde.

There is a long denouement in The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter that makes it clear that there are more adventures in store. In fact, it dragged on so long that I wondered if the big climactic scene with the villains was a false ending. The more I read, however, the more it became clear that these stories are not just about having fun in the margins of famous stories. The first paragraph of the author’s note at the end clinched it. Goss wondered about the unnaturalness of men who dared to create life, then destroyed their creations. What if, this novel asks, these daughters had lived? Not only that—what if they lived long enough to pick up the pieces of those disastrous experiments?

I’m very much looking forward to the ladies’ next adventure.

Reincarnation Blues, by Michael Poore

Reincarnation Blues

Milo has had many chances to get it right—almost 10,00 to be exact. One would think that he’d be able to get it right and achieve not just perfection, but Perfection. At least, that’s what his definitely not gods think. In Reincarnation Blues, by Michael Poore, we see Milo on his last chances to live a perfect life. The only problem is that Milo isn’t ready to move on. He’s in love with Death (who prefers to be called Suzie) and they get to be together after every incarnation. What’s the point of perfection if it means leaving the person he’s loved for millennia behind?

We meet Milo just before he’s eaten by a shark. It’s the end of one more life on earth, but it’s routine for an old soul like Milo. (His favorite death was the time he was catapulted over the walls of Vienna in 1683.) Every time he dies, Milo gets to spend time with Suzie, who he’s known almost since his first death. When he gets the itch, he picks a new life and head to earth for a while. It’s a surprisingly cozy existence for Milo—until he learns that he only gets 10,000 tries to live a Perfect life. If he doesn’t get it right, his soul is erased. No more Suzie. No more interesting lives. Nothing.

In Reincarnation Blues, we see Milo struggle to figure out how to get it right and still hang on to Suzie. These last chances play out in short episodes, with glimpses of his past lives. He lives in an asteroid prison colony, is a student of the Buddha, and more. As his clock winds down, Milo tries ever more desperately to show love to his fellow souls and make huge sacrifices to show his worthiness for just a little more existence.

This book has so many of the things I love: a non-linear view of history, a quirky love story, and plenty of reincarnation. On top of that, the tone and storyline remind me a lot of Christopher Moore’s Lamb, one of my absolute favorite books, with its irreverence and off-kilter cosmology. I truly enjoyed reading this book because it kept raising the stakes for Milo in terms of what a perfect life might be. It’s not just a matter of following rules or being kind. Rather, a soul has to make a difference in the world with its lives, so that the arc of history really does bend towards justice. The best thing, in Milo’s universe, is to improve as many lives as possible. No wonder souls have 10,000 chances at it.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 22 August 2017. 

No One is Coming to Save Us, by Stephanie Powell Watts

No One is Coming to Save Us

I’ve seen No One is Coming to Save Us, by Stephanie Powell Watts, described by reviewers as a Great Gatsby but with black characters. This is misleading. This book does not follow the plot of The Great Gatsbynor do Fitzgerald’s characters have one-to-one correspondents in Powell Watts’ novel. Because I’d read that comparison so often, I went into No One is Coming to Save Us with the wrong expectations. What I found when I read this book is a melancholy book about a family in North Carolina falling apart in a dying town. The fact that I didn’t find The Great Gatsby retold was a good thing for me because I loathe that book.

JJ Ferguson (who has some similarities to Jay Gatsby) has returned to the small town of Pinewood, North Carolina, to build his dream house and try to get his childhood sweetheart, Ava, to return his affection. Ava is married to a man who’s unfaithful to her but JJ and Ava’s relationships are about as close to Gatsby as No One is Coming to Save Us gets. Instead of telling a story about rich, unhappy people, this novel focuses on poor, unhappy people—mostly Ava and her mother, Sylvia. Ava is longing for a child and feels like she’s almost out of time to conceive. Sylvia still mourns the son she lost years ago. Though no one says it in so many words, they all long for how things used to be: before people died, before people cheated, before the good jobs left town. At times, No One is Coming to Save Us feels overlong because the plot seems as aimless as the characters at times.

This book might have been a completely miserable reading experience if it weren’t for the last quarter. Until Sylvia, Ava, and other characters have epiphanies about how to go on with their lives, they are all stuck in private miseries. Because I had Gatsby on the brain (trying to figure out where reviewers got the whole “recast Great Gatsby” thing from), I ended up with the last lines of that novel stuck in my head. Fitzgerald wrote, “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” For most of No One is Coming to Save Us, the characters are rowing their boats backwards as hard as they can. I would have been as frustrated with them as I was with the cast of Gatsby if they hadn’t found a way to start rowing into the future.

What I liked most about No One is Coming to Save Us is its focus on female characters (too many dudes in Gatsby) and its strong sense of place. Sylvia and Ava are some of the most human characters I’ve read lately. We get deep inside their heads in this novel and see some deep truths and sorrows about motherhood and womanhood. The sense of place in No One is Coming to Save Us had me feeling the heat of a Carolina summer, the dusty feel of red dirt roads, and the sense of hopelessness in a town that has no future anymore.

I would recommend this to readers who like a cathartic, hopeful ending who are also willing to put up with a bit of a slog to get there, though I would recommend a light, fun follow-up for after.

I received a free copy of this book from Edelweiss for ALA’s Book Club Central. 

Jane and I

jane_austen_coloured_versionIt’s the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death and the bookish internet has exploded in a frenzy of Austeniana. (See Book Riot for an example.) It cheers me to see how many other readers love Jane and her books. Usually, I let bookish anniversaries pass because I don’t feel the need to mark them—except for taking potshots at James Joyce and Marcel Proust when their dates come up. But when Austen comes up, I special place in my bookish heart starts to glow.

Austen’s novels were the first classics (books published before 1900 that we still read—as I define it) that I genuinely loved and enjoyed reading. With other classics, I would have issues with the language or want to grab a red pencil to edit the book down (I’m looking at you, Charles Dickens). While Austen uses language that strikes us as a little antique, her writing is clear, lively, and funny even after two hundred years of slang and mass communication. The plots hum along at just the right pace. There are never any extraneous details that distract from the tangle of personalities and schemes.

It doesn’t matter that I’ve been reading her books over and over for twenty years; I still find joy in them. Aside from the snark, what I love most about Austen’s novels are the characters. They’re so full of personality and are so well drawn that they feel real from the first page. Their problems are so universal—especially for those of us who are shy and a bit awkward about our feelings—that I always get sucked into the plots and worry even though I know everything will turn out alright in the end.

I suspect that, in addition to the humor and great characters, Austen’s novels are so good is because she was writing for herself (especially with Persuasion). Other books that are held up as Great Literature so often come along with morals or tragedy or with some kind of message written all over the plots, characters, and settings. There are depths in Austen’s novels, but they’re the kind of depths that you explore after the initial reading. We get to have our dessert first, with Austen.

Here’s to another 200 years of reading joy, Jane!

Riverworld and Other Stories, by Philip Jose Farmer

Riverworld and Other Stories

Philip José Farmer was one of the leading lights of mid-twentieth century science fiction and his Riverworld series is considered some of his best writing. Unfortunately, mid-twentieth century science fiction has not aged well and this collection, Riverworld and Other Stories, contains only two Riverworld stories and a bunch of previously unpublished and unfinished standalone stories. I was disappointed in this collection.

I asked to read this book because it had Riverworld stories. I’ve been fascinated by the premise ever since I saw Syfy’s pilot episode/movie of Riverworld in 2010.  The Riverworld is a seemingly endless river valley where billions of humans have been resurrected. The world contains little metal or biodiversity, but everyone’s needs are taken care of through alien technology. No one knows why they’ve been resurrected or what they’re supposed to do now, which makes a great setting for philosophical stories about the meaning of life. While characters like Yeshua and Doctor Faustroll advocate personal reflection and improvement, most of the Riverworld is organized into kingdoms and empires run by violent warlords like Árpád the Hun or Kramer the Hammer, a German religious fanatic. This is what I wanted to read about. I got a little of it, but not enough.

The two Riverworld stories bookend a series of stories that I did not like. One of them contained a surprisingly pornographic scene in the middle of an interesting premise. I’ll admit to skimming them because I was disgusted or uninterested in the content. I only stuck around for the Riverworld stories. This collection is clearly not Farmer’s best work.

The biggest issue I had with these stories was the depiction of women. There are no female leading characters. The few prominent women seemed to have been written in solely so that the male characters would have someone to have sex with. They either have highly charged libidos (and are scorned by male characters as sluts or Jezebels) or are “good” girls who are willing to have sex with the male leads. Only the male leads and secondary characters—with two exceptions—get any kind of character development. The two women who get some development are only seen through the eyes of males who either despise or disrespect them. There was barely enough interesting content to keep me going through this collection.

I doubt that I will give Farmer another chance, no matter how much the Riverworld interests me.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 8 August 2017.

City Folk and Country Folk, by Sofia Khvoshchinskaya

Country Folk and City Folk

The divide between country and city is a popular trope in Russian fiction (at least as far as I can tell with the handful of Russian novels I’ve read). City people believe themselves to be more cultured and intellectually sophisticated than their rustic countrymen. The country people are baffled by the affectations of the urbanites. I hadn’t seen any stories take on these assumptions until I read Sofia Khvoshchinskaya’s Country Folk and City Folk (translated by Nora Seligman Favorov). This comic novel—reminiscent of Jane Austen and flavored with the usual Russian philosophizing—takes place around 1860 in the provincial town of Snetki. A trio of Muscovite aristocrats descends on Nastasya Ivanova and her daughter, Olenka and try to manipulate the “bumpkins,” only to realize that these country folk have their share of common sense.

Nastasya Ivanova and Olenka are quite different from each other, though they are an affectionate pair. Nastasya is accommodating and frets if she thinks she’s failed as a hostess and gentlewoman. To Olenka, everything is a joke and she rarely shies from saying exactly what she thinks. They’re cheerful enough living on their estate until Anna Ilinishna, Erast Sergeyevich Ovcharov, and Katerina Petrovna Dolgoroskaya turn up in Snetki. Anna wants a free place to live while she waits for the princess she was living with to realize her mistake in turning Anna out. Anna is a “holy woman,” an exceedingly pious woman on the surface but a con artist underneath. Erast Sergeyevich, on the other hand, is a bit more honest. He also wants accommodation, having run through all his funds and learning that even the manor house was dismantled and sold off. Both Anna and Erast find a place to live. (Erast rents the newly built bathhouse.) Katerina Petrovna wants to marry Olenka to Semyon, Katerina’s lover, so that Semyon can have an income and a reason to stay in the country.

Olenka is wise to all of these schemes pretty much from the start, but it takes Nastasya a while to stop trying to see the best in these exasperating people. It also takes a while for the action in Country Folk and City Folk to get rolling. Erast is given many opportunities to embarrass himself at the beginning of the novel. To Russians, I suppose, Erast is a hilariously incoherent social philosopher but I was rolling my eyes hard along with Olenka. When the manipulations start in earnest, I saw a lot of similarities to Austen’s comedies of manners as characters schemed to win over opinions and maneuver people all over the place.

I requested Country Folk and City Folk from NetGalley because I’ve been keen to read another female Russian writer ever since I read Teffi’s Memories. I’ve really enjoyed reading another side of Russian literature: comical rather than depressing, lightly social rather than heavily philosophical. I’m very glad Columbia University Press published this novel, which was previously unavailable in English. It’s a wonderful read for its sarcastic honesty and the way it turns old stories inside out.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 15 August 2017.

This week on the bookish internet

  • Alexander Dickow writers about the extra challenges of translating science fiction. (Asymptote Journal)
  • A sure sign of readers’ love of a book is that librarians and teachers can’t keep it on the shelves because it keeps getting stolen. (Book Riot)
  • Natasha Pulley argues that fantasy has a place in historical fiction. (Waterstones)
  • S.W. Sondheimer has some serious questions about what to do when you read a book in a series you love and it just isn’t that good. (Book Riot)
  • Fans of Book Riot created some brilliant book spine poetry for #RiotGrams.
  • Angie Miller “confesses” that she does everything wrong as a school librarian, but all I see is a kind librarian helping her readers. (Knowledge Quest)
  • Susan Harlan contemplates the meaning of book stacks versus bookshelves, organization schemes, and why people get so uptight about other people’s libraries. (LitHub)