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review 2017-05-22 03:37
The Sacred Willow by Duong Van Mai Elliott
The Sacred Willow: Four Generations in the Life of a Vietnamese Family - Duong Van Mai Elliott

This book would make fantastic supplemental reading for a course on Vietnamese history. The author chronicles more than a hundred years of the country’s recent past, using her family’s experiences as a focal point. It begins in the mid 19th century, when several of her male ancestors served as mandarins in a society that revered educational attainments; moves on to French colonialism and Japanese occupation during WWII; then to the Viet Minh struggle for independence, which doesn’t seem to truly divide the family despite their winding up on all sides of the conflict – the author’s father serves as a high-ranking official under the French while her oldest sister and brother-in-law join the rebels in the mountains, and her uncle, a wealthy landowner, puts his resources at the Viet Minh’s disposal. Then it traces the American intervention and the dramatic days of the communists’ takeover of South Vietnam, before ending with Vietnam’s struggles as an independent country.

It’s a lot to pack into 475 pages, and the author balances the story of her family with a broader historical perspective. The history appears well-researched, and based on her bibliography, draws heavily on Vietnamese as well as English-language sources. It also seems balanced; at times, when family members’ paths during the war diverge sharply, we get separate chapters covering the same events from different perspectives, and the author doesn’t seem to be advocating for either one over the other. Though the author’s parents threw in their lot with the French and later South Vietnam, she – like many Vietnamese – seems to respect the communists’ commitment, and while the American intervention was a short-term boon for middle-class families like hers, she ultimately seems to conclude that the communist victory was both inevitable and not as awful as propaganda had led the South Vietnamese to expect.

The book’s biggest weakness is that it is rather dry, much more focused on facts than building a dramatic narrative. Though it is in part a memoir, we learn little about the author herself; she tends to relate the facts of a situation with perhaps a bald statement of her feelings, but without developing any of the emotional detail that might allow readers to experience the story along with her. There are exceptions, though; her account of the dramatic last days before the fall of Saigon (through the eyes of several family members) is downright gripping.

Overall, I’d recommend this book, but more for educational purposes than entertainment. It is a strong answer to the rest of English-language literature about Vietnam, which tends to be from an American perspective and focused exclusively on the war.

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review 2015-08-23 19:49
The Crossing by Luis Cardoso
The Crossing: A Story of East Timor - Luís Cardoso,Margaret Jull Costa,Jill Jolliffe

This book’s chief merit is that it is set in East Timor. If, like me, you are doing a world books challenge, or if you have a particular interest in that country, that is not inconsequential, because there are very few options. Unfortunately, there’s nothing about its content or style to recommend it.


Luis Cardoso grew up in East Timor under Portuguese rule, lived in various places around the country and attended various schools, until around the time the country became independent; he was off to study in Portugal on scholarship before the subsequent Indonesian invasion. This book purports to be his memoir, though we learn little about the author and his life; he spends much more time on random information about the lives of people whose connection to him is unclear (many of whom turned out to be political figures, apparently), and describing the political situation in ways that do little to elucidate for those not already familiar with East Timorese history.


Because the hallmarks of The Crossing are a lack of focus – jumping between seemingly unrelated ideas even within a single paragraph – and a lack of clarity, it’s often difficult to tell just what the author is trying to communicate. The attempts at figurative language only hinder that project. Take for instance: “He went back to reading the big dictionary to decipher the words heard over the crackling radio, as if they were coffee beans defecated by a palm civet.” What? What does a palm civet (whatever that is) defecating coffee beans (as they do?) have to do with looking up unfamiliar words in the dictionary, and/or the sound of the radio? Do palm civets make crackling sounds when they defecate? Is looking up unfamiliar words being compared to poking through scat to see what animals have been eating? Who knows? Figurative language is supposed to aid readers’ understanding, not distract us with bizarre and nonsensical comparisons.


If you do need to read a book set in East Timor, The Crossing does have one additional merit: it is short, at 152 pages with generous margins and spacing. That’s the best I can say for it.

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review 2015-06-04 17:51
An Assembly Such as This ...
Burmese Days - George Orwell


Though uttered in much more genteel circumstances than the setting of this book, Mr. Darcy's timeless put-down of Meryton society in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice can't fail to come to mind when referring to the characters populating George Orwell's first novel. Burmese Days is, down to the last man and woman, inhabited by a group of thoroughly disgusting characters: people who are, in the words of Darcy's famous epithet, indeed so "insupportable" that the reader can't help but conclude that they, each and everyone, richly deserve one another and everything that they are doing to one another. Reading Burmese Days feels much like watching a train wreck in the making and actually looking forward to the moment of the train wreck, without being able to muster the slightest bit of guilt about such a display of readerly Schadenfreude.


There is a truism to the effect that an author's first book often serves the purpose of getting their personal feelings and experience out of the way: a personal involvement so strong that it cannot but be overcome by publication – that authors, in other words, first need to get over themselves before they can move on to bigger and better things. This of course doesn't mean that a first novel can't be a masterpiece regardless (indeed, these days in particular it often feels like anything short of a monumental masterpiece will fail to make an author even register in the collective conscience of the literary community), but there are plenty of examples, too, of first novels that primarily serve this personal purpose of clearing the way for the author's true gift to emerge, and for that gift to be rid of any and all overriding encumbrances. Burmese Days clearly falls into the latter category: Stationed in Burma for five years as a British colonial officer himself, Orwell came to loathe the Raj, everything of which it consisted and everything that it stood for – and judging by the evil, almost cardboard caricatures that he created in lieu of well-rounded, three-dimensional characters (not least this novel's bumbling, weak main character, Flory, who is not exactly hard to unravel as an exercise in ruthless authorial self-flagellation), he obviously also carried a boatload of guilt about having himself been part of the very system that upheld the Raj. Orwell, thus, had a lot to get over before he could move on to bigger and better things.


Read more on my own website, ThemisAthena.info, and on Leafmarks.


Katha(r) (the novel's actual location, though to avoid a lawsuit for libel, Orwell had to come up with a fictional place name – the town is called Kyauktada in the book): the British Club, Irrawaddy River, and street near the river.


Source: www.themisathena.info/literature/orwell.html#BurmeseDays
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review 2014-07-24 00:04
The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng
The Garden of Evening Mists - Tan Twan Eng

Sigh. I read the first chapter of this book and it made me reflect on our community of reviewers, both online and professional, and not in a good way. Not only does this book seem to be universally lauded as "beautifully written," even by people who disliked it, but it was even long-listed for the Booker prize. So of course I was expecting a, well, beautifully written literary novel.


Let's take a look at this so-called beautiful writing, shall we? Examples all come from the first chapter (17 pages):


“And there was something else in the envelope. Turning it over, a thin wooden stick, about five inches long, fell out onto my desk.”


“Entering Tanah Rata, the sight of the former Royal Army Hospital standing on a steep rise filled me with a sense of familiar disquiet.”


“Walking over to the mound of leaves, I grabbed a few handfuls and scattered them randomly over the lawn. Brushing off the bits of leaves sticking to my hands, I stepped away from the grass.”


The scenery described may be beautiful, but this writing is not. The writing is inelegant when it isn't downright clunky. A Booker contender? Seriously?


Meanwhile the flat first-person voice completely failed to inspire my interest in the narrator, even though it's a character type I might be expected to enjoy. This is a good example of why authors shouldn't use the first person unless it's really necessary; when the voice isn't strong, when no discernible personality seeps through, it only distances readers from the character. Character interactions also seem clunky, with everybody wanting to know about the narrator's Tragic Past.


I am trying to stick to a policy of quitting any book that inspires lengthy criticism after the first chapter, so this one is headed back to the library. And, fellow reviewers: please don't be afraid to criticize an author's writing style just because everyone else is calling it beautiful. Just because people say it doesn't mean it's true.

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