[Book Talk] Vi by Kim Thuy

Book Details:

Format: eARC
Source: Publisher
Read: April 2018

Synopsis:

The youngest of four children and the only girl, Vi was given a name that meant “precious, tiny one,” destined to be cosseted and protected, the family’s little treasure.

Daughter of an enterprising mother and a wealthy and spoiled father who never had to grow up, the Vietnam war tears their family asunder. While Vi and many of her family members escape, her father stays behind, and her family must fend for themselves in Canada.

While her mother and brothers put down roots, life has different plans for Vi. As a young woman, she finds the world opening up to her. Taken under the wing of Ha, a worldly family friend and diplomat lover, Vi tests personal boundaries and crosses international ones, letting the winds of life buffet her.

From Saigon to Montreal, from Suzhou to Boston to the fall of the Berlin Wall, she is witness to the immensity of the world, the intricate fabric of humanity, the complexity of love, the infinite possibilities before her. Ever the quiet observer, somehow she must find a way to finally take her place in the world.

My Thoughts

Thank you to Penguin Random House Canada for sending me an eARC of this book for review!

I had heard of Kim Thuy’s writing a few years back when her book Ru won Canada Reads. I bought a copy of that book late last year and still hadn’t gotten to it, but couldn’t pass up requesting her latest when I saw it on NetGalley. I’m not sure if this is a companion book to her other books, but it wasn’t as great as I wanted it to be. Don’t get me wrong – it was a good book to read, and I read it in one day, but I feel like there wasn’t a connection for me as I was reading.

This is a story about Vi – we learn about her grandparents and then her parents and then we get her story, her journey through love and life, learning not only of her own traditions and culture, but trying to find a balance between the traditions her family has done for generations and the ones she wants to form living in a new country. It’s a refugee story of a family coming as boat people to Canada, as well as the trials and tribulations of a young woman trying to find her way.

I really loved Thuy’s writing and thought there were some beautiful passages. While I enjoyed Vi’s ups and downs with love, I think what I enjoyed most was the traveling through Canada to Vietnam. It was really interesting to get those cultural perspectives, and also explore a part of Canada that I’ve never traveled to. This is a very short book and only took me about 2.5 hours to read, so this is really easily accessible and would be the perfect companion for a rainy day.

My copy of Ru is gorgeous, so I think this one would probably look equally as nice on the bookshelf. Getting an eARC of the book had a few issues – the formatting was a little wonky, for example. There were chapter headings that cut in and out of the first paragraph of each chapter and it took a while to get used to. I’d really like to see the layout of this book in physical format and maybe even give it a reread to take it in better. I really can’t wait to read Ru now and experience more of Thuy’s writing.

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5 Translated Works I Recently Read (#2)

Since I’m hoping to read more translated fiction in 2018, I thought I would gather up reviews in a single post throughout the year. Hopefully you can find some titles that interest you! 

The White Book by Han Kang (Translated by Deborah White)

As I’m writing down my thoughts for Han Kang’s latest book, The White Book, I’m realizing that I don’t remember much about it. I do remember it starting out talking about things that are white, I remember it being about grief and suffering, life and death, and the human experience. I remember that there were beautiful photographs. I remember it being a very quick read, since there is a lot of white space in the book. I remember it being quite a bit different from the last work by Kang that I read, The Vegetarian, but it still having that feeling that it is a Han Kang book – her voice is definitely recognizable.

But in the end, I’m realizing that while this book was good, it might not be for everyone. It’s very much a concept book full of prose and poetry and photographs, and it does have a general theme throughout, but I feel like unless you’re a huge fan of Han Kang, this probably won’t be the most memorable book. I did feel a wave of grief come over me as I read the stories of Kang’s sister, who died at birth, but I also had a hard time connecting with a lot of the book. I found that the photographs, while beautiful, didn’t seem to have any connection to the content, and probably wouldn’t have been missed if they weren’t included. Ultimately, I would have to say that if you’re looking to just try out Han Kang’s writing, maybe you should try The Vegetarian or Human Acts first.

The Tinderbox by Hans Christian Andersen (translated by Tiina Nunnally)

Alright, so I of course have heard of Hans Christian Andersen (I have children who love Frozen so I don’t live under a rock), but I haven’t ever read anything by him – at least, not that I can remember. And I think I would remember because this collection of stories is really, really messed up. I recall Andersen being a children’s author, yes? HOW ARE THESE STORIES FOR CHILDREN?

The stories are definitely creative but man are they messed up. They don’t really have any messages for children, or other readers, like stories would nowadays, and some of his endings reminded me of the Brothers Grimm. I also both liked and disliked the writing style of the stories – they’re written in a very chatty way, like someone is sitting next to you telling you a story, but I think what I would’ve preferred is some more descriptions and less telling of everything. There were also endings that came after pretty much no tension and had me saying, “What? That’s the end?”

I honestly don’t know how Andersen is so popular because when I think about fairytales, I think of so many other beautiful fairytales that aren’t quite so morbid. So while I enjoyed this a little bit, it’s definitely not one I could see myself sharing with my children or anything – or even reading again.

Circe and the Cyclops by Homer (translated by Robert Faegles)

Even since I started watching Jean’s BookTube channel over at Jeans Bookishthoughts, I have been very very interested in antiquity. She talks with such passion of the Greek myths and Greek stories that you probably only hear about if you take a class in university. I did take one of these classes while in school and thought it was interesting, but I think Jean makes it sound even more interesting, and not only that — accessible.

Whenever I thought about stories by Homer or Dante or any of the ancient Greeks that are still read today, I always had this idea that the stories would be hard to read, hard to understand, not to mention dull and boring. BUT I decided to dive into this one one night and thought it was absolutely delightful! I loved this excerpt of Odysseus and his crew – and learning what a terrible person Odysseus was. I loved meeting Circe and going into the cave. This book was just so much fun! I read the whole thing out loud to myself and loved the flow of it and the way the whole story was constructed.

I may have had reservations before about reading The Odyssey, thinking it would be boring or unreadable, but reading this tiny little excerpt has made me very eager to try it out one of these days!

The Perfect Nanny by Leila Slimani (translated by Sam Taylor)

I was so excited to read this book after seeing it on so many reading lists for the winter! It had been released in the U.K. as Lullaby and The Perfect Nanny everywhere else (personally, I prefer the U.K. title, as usual) and it just sounded like the perfect thriller, though completely horrifying since it opens up with the narrator saying that the baby was dead and the other child was going to be dead soon. What a gripping way to start a book!!

However, in terms of this being a thriller, I think that the opening was probably the most thrilling part of the book. We do get into the mind of this nanny that the family hires and it was interesting to see how she could just go from 0 to 180 in terms of mood with the children. As a mother, it reinforced that all kids can press buttons but also horrified me in the way that this nanny wanted to react.

As I said, I was so excited to read this, but something was missing from this story. It was a very intriguing idea and I think it was just executed poorly. I finished this wanting a lot more, and there probably could have been more, since it was a fairly short book.

As a side note, I read in another review that this story was written based on an event that actually happened in France, which makes this story even more creepy. And really, if you look at this story as a book about the people we invite into our homes, it really asks the question of how well do we know people? Especially the people we get to watch our children?

Gooseberries by Anton Chekhov (translated by Robert Wilks)

This was a book that was included in my 80-set of Penguin Little Black Classics. I picked it up to read after seeing that Katie from Books and Things had reread it and said how much she loved Chekhov’s writing. I had never read any Chekhov, but the way I move through my classics tends to be based on what other people are reading or current read-alongs, so I picked it up.

This was a collection of three short stories and a really nice introduction to Chekhov’s writing. I loved the first story, The Kiss, and thought it was hilarious how this one soldier who has a brief encounter in a coat room with a mysterious person (who was obviously there for someone else) suddenly starts dreaming up this life with this person, nearly falling in love. This was my favourite story in the book, but Chekhov really has some interesting scenarios, some great characters, and he can really pack a punch in one short story. I look forward to not only rereading these in the future, but also trying out some more Chekhov.

Have you read any translated fiction lately? What are some of your favourite translated works? Have you read any of these authors? 

5 Translated Works I Recently Read

Since I’m hoping to read more translated fiction in 2018, I thought I would gather up reviews in a single post throughout the year. Hopefully you can find some titles that interest you! 

The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami (Translated by Ted Goossen)

I decided to read this book late last year when I was striving to read 30 books in 31 days. I never did reach my goal (just two books shy!) but when I was putting books away in my home library I came across this small volume and decided to just jump right in. I didn’t realize that it would be so quick to read (just took one evening) or that it would be so much fun to read.

Right off the bat, I loved this book. I loved the flaps I had to open to get to the story, the illustrations throughout the story, the typewriter font for the story. Not only that but it’s so meta, reading a book about books! I had been wanting to read Murakami for quite some time now and I was honestly surprised that this book wasn’t just fiction but almost fiction meets horror. It comes across as a children’s book, just from the look on the outside, but the content on the inside is so much scarier than that.

This story takes something so simple – just going to the library to return some books and check some new ones out – and turns it into this scary and macabre tale. I absolutely LOVED it and am already looking forward to revisiting it in the future. And I can’t wait to read more Murakami!

The Nose by Nikolai Gogol (translated by Ronald Wilks)

The first book I read this month was The Nose, by Nikolai Gogol. I had actually owned a copy of his book Dead Souls years ago, but then I donated it, along with many other classics, to the local prison, thinking I wouldn’t ever get to them. Current me, who’s getting back into reading the classics is definitely not happy with past me. But I digress. I didn’t actually realize that this book was in my collection. I had seen it in my copy of 1,001 Books To Read Before You Die, and then when my daughter decided to rearrange my library by pulling out all of my classics and throwing them into a pile, I came across this one and immediately snatched it up to dive in!

For some reason, I thought Gogol would be extremely hard to read and some part of me has this idea that the classics are all series and not at all funny. This book was definitely funny, but not so much in the laugh out loud way, but more in that ludicrous, “how can this even happen” kind of way. The story was charming in it’s own way, what with it being the story of someone actually losing their nose – as in, they just wake up and their face is flat where the nose should be. The story takes off from there and has hilarious and absurd turns, and it’s almost like Gogol is saying, “hey! we can be serious writers, but we can also write about this, too!” Not only that, but the more you think about it, the more you think about what it really means to have no nose and what you’d be missing out on. On top of that, the main character goes through a lot of superficiality, thinking that no one could dare see him the way he looks and is concerned only with what people will think of him, especially those high up in society. This story is written so well and I flew through it, almost wanting more.

There’s another short story in this book, The Carriage, and it was equally hilarious. The ending of that one just had me in tears laughing. The story is so short but goes into so much detail and is almost a lesson in how to write a short story effectively. The story also deals with the absurdity of men and how things that seem ALL-IMPORTANT certainly are not. I highly recommend this book if you’re looking for a quick and entertaining read. I am looking forward to reading more Gogol in the future!

Daphnis and Chloe by Longus (translated by Phiroze Vasunia)

As you might know, I received the box set of 80 Penguin Little Black Classics for Christmas which includes SO MANY great classic titles. This is also a Little Black Classic, but one of the new 46 that have been published. I got the recommendation for this one from Jean at Jean’s Bookish Thoughts on BookTube – she studies the classics, but the way way way back classics, and this was one of her recommendations of a first book to read from that time period.

It’s so interesting because I always felt like reading the classics meant that I would be reading texts that would be hard to really get into, stories that wouldn’t make sense, and, frankly, stories that would be boring. Fortunately, as I weave my way through more and more classics, I’m realizing that none of those are the case! This story is super accessible and I couldn’t believe that it was written between 200 and 300AD. It’s very much a romance story between Daphnis and Chloe and it was very sweet when read in the context that it was written way back in a different time. I kept forgetting how old Daphnis and Chloe were, but the story was really enjoyable and entertaining. I loved that parts of it still felt relatable, and yet there were Gods and pirates bounding about throughout the story.

Obviously this book doesn’t have the social norms that we’re used to these days, but it’s still fun to dive into something written in the 2nd century. This would be a great afternoon read if you’re looking to try something different!

Ways of Going Home by Alejandro Zambra (translated by Megan McDowell)

I got this book from the library and I was very much prepared to enjoy it. In fact, I liked the first part of the story, the story of a 9 year old boy who lives in Chile and meets Claudia during the 1985 earthquake. They have a connection with each other because of the narrator’s neighbour, Raul. Now, this story I liked. The whole book was broken up into 4 parts and while I enjoyed this first part, I felt like the whole story started to fall apart in the next three sections.

I’m not sure what this story was trying to be – maybe the whole thing went over my head but introducing a story, going into the future, but then having the writer of that story making the reader wonder where the truth lies in the whole thing was confusing. I feel like this was almost the kind of book one would have to read a few times to really get. From what I’ve read, this was to be Zambra’s breakout novel from his previous two novels, a step towards being more literary. I feel like it might have worked – and lots of people did love this book – but it didn’t quite work for me. Maybe it would work as a reread in the future but I think the writing was just too messy for anyone to dive into unless you were familiar with Zambra’s work.

Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto (translated by Megan Backus)

Kitchen is one of those books that has been on my radar for years. I am a big foodie and any book with the name of one of my favourite places in the house has to be good, right? I don’t know why I didn’t pick this up earlier because it really was a charming read and the perfect book to read over a couple of evenings. I loved Mikage’s character and how she found solace in the humming of the refrigerator. I loved her relationship with Yoichi and how they both help each other deal with grief and tragedy.

The last Japanese translation I had read was The Guest Cat and this book was very similar in its simplicity. There are two stories in the collection – Kitchen and Moonlight Shadow – and they were both beautiful and powerful and a wonderful introduction to Yoshimoto’s writing. Moonlight Shadow was really beautiful and also dealt with grief, in this case, Satsuki’s loss of her boyfriend, Hitoshi. I wasn’t expecting a relationship like Satsuki and Urara – the fantastical ending was unexpected and would probably be deemed as cheesy by anyone else, but written by Yoshimoto made it lovely. I really can’t wait to read more of her books – I think they would make great reads for a rainy afternoon with a cup of tea.

Have you read any translated fiction lately? What are some of your favourite translated works? Have you read any of these authors?