Audiobooks, Fiction, What Shannon Read

Paper Wife

45171444._SX318_The protagonist of Laila Ibrahim’s novel Paper Wife is one bad bitch. I loved listening to the audio version of this book read by Nancy Wu.

Set in the early 1920s, the novel follows Mei Ling, a young Chinese girl who is married to a widower that lives in San Francisco. She goes in place of her older sister, who becomes too ill to travel the night before her wedding is to take place. So Mei Ling, working through a Chinese matchmaker, is compelled to pretend to be her sister. Once wed, she finds out that in order to get into the U.S., she must now pretend to be her new husband’s deceased wife. She is also now mother to his four-year-old son Bo.

Bo becomes Mei Ling’s constant companion throughout the long and harrowing journey to San Francisco. Because it’s 1923, they go by ship and men and women, including husbands and wives, are separated on the ships. Children go with their mothers and so Mei Ling travels alone with Bo. It takes two ships, one from China to Hong Kong, and another from Honk Kong to Angel Island off the shore of San Francisco.

Thus, Mei Ling is thrust into a new life in which she must immediately navigate being married to a stranger, pregnancy, mothering a young child, grueling travel, and nervewracking immigration interviews in both Hong Kong and the U.S. And she must do it all while pretending to be someone else entirely. This is where the book’s title is taken from. She’s her husband’s deceased wife “on paper” and her papers get Mei Ling into the U.S.

What makes Mei Ling such a badass in my mind is her strength. Through the many daunting challenges of immigrating, she draws strength from her family back home. The parting words of her beloved grandmother echo in her mind. And she also relies on her faith, praying to goddess Quan Yin for protection and strength through adversity.

On the second ship, Mei Ling also cares for a six-year-old girl, Siew, who was brought aboard by an uncle, but separated from him while on the ship. Over the months-long journey, Mei Ling, Bo, and Siew become a family. June, an older woman who has already lived in San Francisco, befriends Mei Ling and helps her prepare for her immigration interviews.

Once they arrive in San Francisco, both Siew and June remain a part of Mei Ling’s life, though Siew is separated from her new little family. Searching for her and rescuing her from a terrible future consumes Mei Ling, even as she struggles to adjust to life in a new country.

This is an immigration story. While I came to care about the characters, I also appreciated the many details Ibrahim includes about the process of immigrating from China to the U.S. in the early twentieth century.

Because Mei Ling doesn’t understand English, narrator Nancy Wu reads the English spoken in front of her with the correct tone but only emits gibberish sounds. I don’t know how it’s written in the book because I don’t have a hard copy, but I thought that a brilliant way to show how a forgein language sounds to someone unfamiliar with it.

On her first trip to the Chinatown post office, Mei Ling learns that mail isn’t picked up. It’s delivered right to her home instead. She doesn’t know how many stamps to buy for a letter and a kind postal worker speaks to her in Cantonese and helps her learn the ropes.

Experiences like these, along with the overt racism on the part of white people on the street, drives home the isolation an immigrant might live in when unable to speak the language of their new country or attempting to understand unfamiliar customs. If you want to read a book that lays bare the immigrant experience in the 1920s, I highly recommend this one.

You’ll find many other joys along the way. They include the growing love between Mei Ling and her new husband, the incredible scene in which Mei Ling gives birth, and her and her husband’s dreams for the future of their family.

All in all, it was a wonderful listening experience and I was disappointed when it ended.

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2020 When Are You Reading? Challenge, What Shannon Read

When Are You Reading? Challenge: The Secrets We Kept

This year, I’m participating in the When Are You Reading? Challenge hosted by Sam of Taking on a World of Words.

This book is my selection for the years 1940-1959.


40700317._SY475_I just finished The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott and, while I enjoyed the subject and characters, I found the writing to be kind of bland.

I’ve noticed that’s an issue for me with a lot of popular historical fiction. Anyone else?

It’s like if a book has a woman in a pretty dress on the cover, I know it will most likely be unremarkable. And yet, I am drawn to it.

That’s how I found The Secrets We Kept, cover out on the New Fiction shelf at the library, tempting me with that gorgeous green dress.

And despite the bland writing, I liked the subject matter. The book centers on CIA typists turned spies during the Cold War. They become involved in a mission to sneak into the USSR and bring back the unpublished novel Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak.

If that dress hadn’t compelled me to read the book, the synopsis certainly would have. What a plot. Imagine a book being so important—an unpublished book no less—that the CIA would conduct a full-on mission to sneak the manuscript out of the USSR. Quite a story.

But two things left me feeling kind of meh about this one. The first, of course, is the somewhat pedestrian writing, which I found plain with spurts of the melodramatic. I honestly almost quit reading when I read this:

“Three and a half years had passed since we shared a bed, and we didn’t waste time. His touch shocked me. It had been so long since I had been touched. We came together like crashing boulders that echoed across Moscow.”

Eww.

The second issue was the number of narrators.

The are:
The Typists – the CIA typing pool
Olga Ivinskaya, Boris Pasternak’s mistress
Irina Drozdov, the typist turned spy
Sally Forrester – spy

Sometimes the book switches between the three main narrators, but then a new chapter follows another character in a third-person omniscient voice, and you’ll be pulled out of one story and into another, however briefly.

Prescott did a good job of distinguishing the voices though. I thought she excelled at writing from the perspective of Olga Ivinskaya, Boris Pasternak’s mistress (and the inspiration for Dr. Zhivago), and Russian-American typist Irina. Those perspectives were the most interesting in the book to me and I wish the entire book had switched between just those two. In the beginning, Olga is sent to the Gulag and her experiences there are fascinating and frought with danger, which made for good reading. But, in general, I thought the constant alternating between narrators diluted the story, giving us only a surface look at the characters and historic events.

I kept reading it, so that says something. I wanted to find out how the story ended. And I think Prescott does a good job of keeping the reader immersed in the historical setting. But, while the plot is interesting and Prescott clearly researched her topic, the book came across as “history light” and I thought it was light on character development too.

OK, I just googled for reviews and there is so much fanfare out there about this one! So, take what I say with a grain of salt. I guess people generally love it.

WashPo loved it.

Lynn Neary of NPR seems to like it.

It did convince me that I need to read Dr. Zhivago, so there’s that. If you have read it, I would love to hear what you thought!

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Nonfiction, What Shannon Read

Sorry I’m Late, I Didn’t Want to Come

45459370._SX318_As an avowed introvert, I’m always interested in reading about other introverts. I like to see if their experiences match my own. So I especially enjoyed listening to the audiobook version of Jessica Pan’s Sorry I’m late, I Didn’t Want to Come: One Introvert’s Year of Saying Yes.

The book, which presents as a memoir, but includes interviews with experts, is a fun journey through Pan’s year of taking risks.

A self-described shy introvert or “shintrovert,” as she calls herself, Pan feels lonely living in London, England. She lives with her husband, but has no social life to speak of. Her friends are spread out across the globe and, like many introverts, she finds it difficult to make new friends.

Thus, she embarks on a yearlong project to develop a social life. She pushes herself to try a number of typically extroverted activities that range from talking to strangers on the train to the Bumble BFF app to improv and stand-up comedy. I really enjoyed the chapter on improv. When she tells other people she’s taking an improv class, they cringe, and that was my immediate reaction too.

But improv, along with most of her activities, ends up opening doors to friendship and confidence and Pan even signs up for another round of improv classes after her year is over.

1I liked the book because, as an introvert, I find making friends difficult too. I’m not naturally inclined toward chattiness and I find networking functions terrifyingly awkward (of course, that’s most people, I hear. Even some extroverts find those functions unbearable).

And I sympathized with Pan as she details the anxieties of pushing herself to be the center of attention or takes the risk of being the first one to talk to someone in a silent room.

I celebrated with her when she hosts her first dinner party at the end of the book and invites many of the new friends she’s made throughout the year. And I was a bit jealous. I will be following some of the tips given by experts in the book and feel encourage to take some risks myself.

In fact, the book led me to recognize something about my own socializing. Ben has always been comfortable going, to say, the local watering hole and having a drink and chatting with strangers. He’s an extrovert. He’d not a joiner and doesn’t like planned activities.

But, even though I’ve pushed myself to show up at a bar alone at times, I end up drinking too much out of sheer anxiety. It’s not pretty…That’s just one example, but you see my point. Inserting myself into a social situation and talking to people out of nowhere is not my bag, baby.

Thanks to Pan’s activities, most of which were structured in classroom or group settings, I realized that I need that kind of set-up to help me feel comfortable. I’ll probably be more successful at a planned activity, like a book club, an art class, or some other kind of actual thing you have to sign up for.

I love when books I read lead to personal insights.

Getting back to the book, Pan is an adept writer. Her actual job is freelance editing, so the writing is solid. Sometimes she comes across a bit young though. For example, using a word like “great” to describe someone, rather than digging deeper to give us a sense of the person. But that’s a nitpick. She’s also compassionate, anxious, honest, and slightly Type A, and because I really appreciate authors who are just wholly themselves in their books, I like this. I feel like I got to know her.

I do recommend the audiobook version, but Pan reads it herself, so I’ll warn you that her style won’t be for everyone. Her reading is stilted and she tends to stop for commas like they’re periods, but I got through it fine.

Have you read this one? What did you think?

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2020 When Are You Reading? Challenge, What Shannon Read

When Are You Reading? Challenge: Stillwater

This year, I’m participating in the When Are You Reading? Challenge hosted by Sam of Taking on a World of Words.

This book is my selection for the years 1800-1899.


Stillwater by Nicole HelgetJust cruising right through this challenge! Apparently, it’s my jam right now. For my second book, I chose Stillwater by Nicole Helget.

The novel is set in the Civil War-era U.S., specifically in the wilds of Minnesota, still considered part of the U.S. western expansion at that point. The story centers on grown-up twins, Angel and Clement Piety, who were orphaned at birth.

It begins with a log jam in the St. Croix River, a murder, and an altercation between the twins. Then, we delve into the backstory of the family and it is not as boring as those words I just typed.

In fact, the writing was quite a palate cleanser after The Shadow King! It’s light in tone, quirky, and straightforward. But still beautiful in parts. One of the beginning chapters has one of the sweetest, most reassuring death scenes I’ve ever read.

The story also features the twins’ parents and their stories, Eliza, a woman who escapes from slavery with her child, and a priest and religious sister (not a nun, she clarifies) who care for the pioneers, orphans, and Native Americans who come to them for assistance.

We also get to know the people who take in the orphaned twins. They are Big Waters, the loving American Indian woman who cares for Clement and considers him hers, and the rich but dysfunctional family who takes in Angel. Both stories are heart-rending and we see the twins grow up as products of their environments, but with the undeniable connection they feel to one another playing the most significant role in their lives.

I don’t want to give away any plot points because I found them a joy to follow and if you read it, you may enjoy discovering these characters and following their lives for yourself.

Two things bothered me about the book. One is not really about it per se and is kind of odd. It’s to do with a blurb on the back. Fellow Minnesota author Peter Geye (who I’d never heard of) says, “Make room, Louise Erdrich, Minnesota has a new resident scribe…” It continues with more praise. But I read that and thought, first of all, Louise Erdrich is an incredibly talented and prolific author. She doesn’t have to make room for anyone, in my opinion. Also, she’s a treasured indigenous voice in the literary landscape, which, historically, has been very white in the U.S. I know I’m nitpicking a blurb here, but coming from a white guy, jauntily telling her to “move over” is tone deaf at best.

I’m sure he had the best of intentions and also wanted to acknowledge the great literary tradition of Minnesota, but I’m here to tell you it. didn’t. work.

Moving on, I also took note of the thoughts of Eliza, an enslaved woman who has taken her son Davis and run away from her owners. In a significant scene, Eliza is thinking about the risks she has taken. She remembers waffling about whether she should attempt to escape at all because, living with the Watsons, her owners, she knew she and her son always had a roof over their heads and three meals a day.

Now, is this a woman genuinely considering the consequences of running away with no family or means of her own? Or, is it a sentiment sneaking into the narrative of a well-intentioned white writer leftover from a time when white people promoted the narrative of the benevolent slaveholder? The slaveholder who cared for their slaves, who provided for them, in other words. I know that it’s natural for Eliza to weigh risks in a desperate situation and, to be fair, Helget doesn’t imply that Eliza was happy to be enslaved. In this story slaveholders are the villains and not the heroes. But I still wondered about it.

I’m always eager to see how white authors handle telling the stories of black or indigenous people. I don’t really feel like they have the right to. But when you’re writing historical fiction, I imagine you just have to handle it in the most sensitive way you can because history is history and it is, of course, important to include these stories.

But it’s risky as a white person’s perspective is naturally from the race of the historical oppressor. Helget is white. Can any other white author accurately imagine the thoughts and feelings of an enslaved black woman? Many authors would say it can be done. I’m always dubious and hyper-critical when they try.

Maybe I’m reaching here and my questions aren’t very clear. If so, I apologize. It’s a hard thing to write about.

On the whole, this novel was extraordinary and I loved the characters, the story, and the writing.

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2020 When Are You Reading? Challenge, What Shannon Read

When Are You Reading? Challenge: The Shadow King

This year, I’m participating in the When Are You Reading? Challenge hosted by Sam of Taking on a World of Words.

This book is my selection for the years 1920-1939.

FYI: There are more spoilers in this review than I might usually include. I found the details so fascinating that it was hard to stay general.


TheShadowKing

Did you know about Mussolini’s 1935 invasion of Ethiopia?

I think I was vaguely aware of it before coming upon Maaza Mengiste’s novel The Shadow King on the new fiction shelf at the library.

Normally, I refuse to read books about or related to World War II. I spent a good deal of my school years learning about WWII and, because I feel it was pounded into us in public school, I’ve grown weary of reading about it over the years.

I realize I’m missing out on some literature in this category but, trust me, I’ve already read quite a few of the classic books on WWII and I feel I have to qualify that I do not take any part of the war lightly. I just exhausted my ability to read about it before I even got to college.

However. Whe I came upon The Shadow King, I was immediately interested in the lesser known story of Mussolini’s campaign to colonize Ethiopia. I was further interested when I learned the story is told from the perspective of Hirut, a young maid in the household of Kidane, an officer in Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie’s army.

Finally a WWII story I hadn’t heard before. And, one that wasn’t just a, American wartime nostalgia piece (the library shelves are rife with those, as you may know). And one that was told from the perspective of black people in a colonized country. Plus, one told from the perspective of a “lowly” maid! That’s just my game.

The format of the novel is interesting. When I say “perspective,” what I really mean is that the narration is third-person omniscient and the focus switches from character to character. We get the thoughts and emotions of all the main characters, including Hirut, Kidane, and Kidane’s wife Aster, as well as other, more minor characters.

Interspersed with the regular chapters are interludes titled “Chorus.” They seem to serve exactly the purpose a “chorus” would serve in a pre-modern play or even a contemporary musical. The Chorus speaks about characters, about events, about situations, and speaks directly to the charachters at times. I quite liked that as a device.

There are also interludes to describe photos taken by Ettore Navarra, a Jewish photographer with an Italian military unit (also a character in the novel). And there are actual sections titled “Interlude” that focus on Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, who escapes into exile.

As Kidane leads his army toward war, “their” women follow. At their helm is Kidane’s wife Aster, who, hoping to take on the role of warrior herself, drills her women with the intent of fighting alongside the men. Kidane won’t allow this and relegates them to caring for the wounded and cooking the food.

Meanwhile, Kidane begins raping Hirut regularly, in addition to using her as his emotional confidant. These scenes are utterly heartbreaking. The hopelessness is palpable, even as the Chorus encourages Hirut to stand up to Kidane.

Kidane promises Hirut that, as payment, she’ll be released from his services after the war and will be given the hut where she lived with her parents before they died. Wife Aster, angry and domineering, blames Hirut for her husband’s infidelity (he’s a longtime adulterer in addition to being a rapist).

There is a rape scene midway through the novel in which Hirut has a small victory and begins to turn the tide against Kidane. It is hopeful and touching.

Meanwhile, Kidane’s army has suffered several losses and Kidane concocts a plan to turn the tide of the war. It involves promoting a peasant to pose as a “shadow king,” meaning he impersonates the exiled king and acts to motivate and inspire the people and control the narrative being presented to the Ethiopian people. Italy would have them believe their exiled emperor has run away and left them in the hands of the invaders.

Hirut becomes this shadow king’s attendant and she and Aster are posed as female guards in military uniform. This leads to a lot of action for both characters.

I’ll leave it there to avoid plot-related spoilers; though, of course, you can read about the history of the war online. I highly recommend this book. Mengiste is a lyrical writer with a knack for description. At times, I found some of the zoomed-in description a little tedious, but there’s no doubt that she’s talented in that regard. Here’s a good interview with her via BookPage.

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Fiction, What Shannon Read

Woman No. 17

36030995._SY475_.jpgI’m always impressed when an author can move successfully between two different voices and perspectives in the same novel. Woman No. 17 by Edan Lepucki is a good example of this. The story features two separate narrators. The first is Lady Daniels, fledgling writer and recently separated mother of two sons living in the privileged world of the Hollywood Hills. The other is Esther “S,” the young nanny Lady hires to look after her toddler, Devin.

The story alternates between the two perspectives, both voices distinctive. I though Lepucki did an especially good job of making S sound young, though, for her youth, she probably displayed remarkable self-awareness. On the other hand, Lady doesn’t so much. And that’s part of her character.

Throughout the book, the women form a friendship. Lady has her first book deal and is struggling to write a memoir about herself and her older son, Seth, an 18-year-old who is mute. Seth is the son of Lady and an ex-boyfriend, Marco, who left the two when Seth was a baby. Now, lady is married to rich husband Karl and they have two-year-old Devin together.

S is a recent college graduate embarking on an art project that involves imitating the personality of her unreliable mother. She dresses, speaks, and drinks like her mom did in her youth, presenting a facade to Lady, while intensifying her “project” (aka, a lot of drinking) at night in the pool cottage where she lives. In the meantime, S and Seth form a relationship.

Mothers are a major theme in the novel as both Lady and S have fraught relationships with their mothers. Lady gives us background on her mother, also unreliable, but firmly in the past. And S’s feelings about her mother are revealed through current interactions throughout the book.

Social media plays a key role too. Lady is new to Twitter and her tweets are at turns funny and sad, but always revealing. Seth is on Twitter as well and it’s one of the ways he communicates.

Twitter helps bring things to a head when both Lady and her son Seth separately track down Marco on the platform, ending in a climactic scene the novel builds to steadily over the course of the book.

There are lots of fun details that add to the personalities of the characters and bring the setting, the Hollywood Hills, to life. For example, there’s Lady’s husband’s twin sister, Kit Daniels, a hugely successful photographer who plays the role of villainess in Lady mind.

Kit is a pretentious artist with money who dresses in “edgy” L.A. fashion, and capitalizes the nouns in her emails. You get a sense that Lepucki is poking fun at the L.A. art scene with her. Kit is an important character and gives the book its title as she took the photo of Lady that is titled Woman No. 17. Likewise, S tells the story of a college boyfriend, another pretentious artist who breaks up with her because art is “all I care about.”

Overall, the tone and feel of the book reminded me of kind of a mash-up of some of those super popular dark thrillers (Girl on the Train, etc.) with the malaise and quirkiness of a book like Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation. I enjoyed the atmosphere.

Have you read it? Tell me what you thought!

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2019 Classics Challenge, What Shannon Read

Slammin’ the Classics (A 2019 Wrap-up Post)

BTCC Berlin BooksTime to report in on my 2019 classics challenge! As you may know, I started 2018 with grand intentions, but ended up reading about 6 of 12 classics.

And I guess I’m going for incremental improvement because in 2019, I completed seven of Karen’s 12 categories (visit her initial post for a breakdown.)

Oh what a long, strange trip it’s been…

Here are the books I completed for each category of the challenge with links to my reviews.

2. 20th Century Classic: Theater by W. Somerset Maugham
3. Classic by a Woman Author: The King’s General by Daphne du Maurier 
4. Classic in Translation: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
5. Classic Comic Novel: Excellent Women by Barbara Pym
6. Classic Tragic Novel: Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
11. Classic From a Place You’ve Lived: A Girl of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton-Porter

Parting Thoughts

I like to make plans. But I don’t like to follow them. I will spend hours concocting all sorts of plans that sound great (heyyy every diet I’ve ever started), but inevitably, the execution is where I falter. I lack follow-through. So for me to say “I want to read more classics,” then sign up for a classics challenge is normal, something I would do in a heartbeat. Actually reading those classics then becomes a struggle against my own rebellious heart.

For this reason, I’m calling seven out of 12 a win. Up until 2018, I probably read about three classics a year, so anything more than that is broadening my reading horizons.

This year, I conquered two big ones on my TBR list: Anna Karenine and Madame Bovary. Also, I read authors I wouldn’t otherwise have read. That’s where the real sense of pleasure is found—in discovery. I most enjoyed new-to-me authors Barbara Pym, Henrik Ibsen, and W. Somerset Maugham.

So, seven classics and an overall feeling of victory going into 2020. I don’t see an announcement from Karen about whether she’ll be hosting a 2020 classics challenge, but if she does, I’m in!

 

 

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