January Round-Up

Probably a bit of February too, because I’m late.

I haven’t had great success so far with my TBR-only reading goal. I had library books to finish and library holds come in, so I’ve only read two TBR books this year. And right now I’m reading two more library books! This week I paused several of my existing holds–library books shouldn’t feel like homework. As part of my personal TBR challenge, I’m not allowed to place any new hold, but my library wishlist is growing at a frightening pace.

January books I’ve already written about:

Other things I read,or partly read: 

I returned Mary Balogh’s Longing to the library after reading about 100 pages. I did not feel like reading a book where the working-class labor activist guy loses out to the aristocrat in love or anything else. I’m not sure why, because I have a high tolerance for the “slow paternalistic change is better than radical change” plot in actual 19th-century novels. It just made me sad to read, especially when I skipped ahead and found out the fate of the working-class non-hero. Perhaps it’s not good election-season reading.

I’ve listened to a lot of podcasts and a little of Trollope’s The Duke’s Children. I think I had a Palliser overdose. I’ll get back to finish the series eventually.

More successfully, I read the second book in Esmahan Aykol’s Istanbul-set mystery series, BaksheeshI enjoyed this one more than the first, partly because I went into it expecting the rambling, gossipy style of the narrative so I was more patient with it. The plot revolves around city politics and real estate, which is right up my alley. I also like reading about a German woman living in Turkey written by a Turkish woman who lives part time in Germany. This point of view allows Aykol to explore culture and stereotypes (Kati holds some about both Turks and Germans) from both sides without exoticizing her setting. Divorce Turkish Style is in my TBR and I look forward to it.

The review by Chris Abani, which puts the novel in–or against–the context of American immigrant stories, sold me on Vu Tran’s Dragonfish:

Contrary to all protestations, America is a nation not of immigrants but of refugees. Trauma, displacement and fanatical hope have marked all new Americans from the occupants of the Mayflower through every subsequent group who came to these shores (or who were brought here by force). This is the unspoken and sometimes unacknowledged fear and fact of being American: These unkind ghosts of our pasts, these specters of previous selves and previous nations that will not be dismissed so easily, always attend our daily negotiations around identity. They cause a torment that can turn us violent, hateful and self-destructive, and the uneasy grace we win is in itself a remarkable thing. The longer our stay in the United States, the fainter the ghosts get, until they are not much more than a vague unsettled feeling that itself causes even more confusion. Novels by recently arrived Americans have tried to negotiate the struggle to fit into a new home that doesn’t always want them, and the nostalgia for all that has been lost. In this way new immigrant literature mimics its antecedents.

“Dragonfish,” by Vu Tran, represents a new departure, a renegotiation of terms in which the past is not a place of nostalgia but one that carries all the trauma of war, and the present is not enough to mitigate that.

Dragonfish tells the story of an Oakland cop, Robert, who is forced into searching for his ex-wife, Suzy, by Suzy’s new husband Sonny, a gambler and smuggler. Suzy and Sonny are both Vietnamese refugees, a past that haunts them (quite literally, in Suzy’s case) and bonds them in a way Robert can’t understand.

I’m not a huge fan of terms like “literary thriller,” but Dragonfish does use a noir thriller form to explore themes that are more typically the province of literary fiction. Or are they? Mysteries have always dealt with themes like loss and identity and the way the past marks and shapes the present. Books like this reveal the limits of genre distinctions.

I was especially interested in Tran’s choice to tell the bulk of the story from Robert’s point of view (there are some first-person sections in Suzy’s, which reveal her past). This keeps Suzy an enigma–is that how Americans view newcomers? Am I wrong in reading these characters as partly allegorical? A lot of the story is set in Vegas, glittery, soulless, rundown, a place of endless possibility and broken dreams (it’s less clichéd than I made that sound). I did think Vegas was a kind of allegory for what America as a whole both offers and refuses immigrants.

Robert, as a husband, is somewhat similar to Vegas–I wanted to say empty at the core, but that’s not quite right. He and Suzy both feel lonely and empty in a way another person can’t fill. They do best at marriage when they are renovating and decorating their house together, but they can’t make it a shared home. They remain closed off from each other. They want to love each other, and in some ways do, but that isn’t enough to fix things or to keep them together. I think that for Suzy, attempts to build a new life just remind her of the one she lost. I wouldn’t say that Robert wants to make her over into a “proper” American wife–though at the start of their relationship he renames her after his first high school girlfriend in a breathtakingly casual way–but he is baffled by her strangeness, her inability to settle in with him. While the gangsterish Sonny seems to have done better than Suzy at making a place for himself in the US, and in some ways to be a more successful American than Robert, he’s far less in control than he first appears to be. (This felt like a classic noir move–there’s always someone further back in the shadows pulling strings, and it’s not who I expected).

Dragonfish moves fast but it’s not exactly an easy read, especially if you want a character to like or admire. Tran got me to sympathize with all of them, though. And while the noir form may be an unusual way to tell an immigrant story, it worked really well. Everyone in the book is lost and confused, and the ending isn’t fully resolved. That seems about right.

Finally, I managed one more book from my TBR: Carol van Natta’s Overload Fluxwhich starts as romantic suspense in space and turns into more of a space-opera adventure. I can enjoy both of those genres, but the first half of this book worked better for me than the second. I think that was partly due to pacing–I found it easy to put down and forget about in the second half–and partly because the action scenes are more telling than showing. (For instance, we are told the heroine is afraid of going underwater but I didn’t feel her fear in this scene, which is quickly over. So what?) I did like the main characters, both of whom have special abilities and histories that make them wary of trusting others, and their slow-burn romance. I needed a fun, light read in a fairly serious month, and this fit the bill.

Reading now:

  • Raghu Karnad, Farthest Field: An Indian Story of the Second World War–so far, a lovely, thoughtful blend of family and national history
  • Deanna Raybourn, A Curious Beginning–about 1/4 in, and it’s not really working for me; this has as much to do with where I am as a reader than with the book, but for one thing I’m really tired of fiction aimed at women where the heroine is specialer than all other women, who are stereotypes. Why the hell would I want to see my gender in that light?
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4 Responses to January Round-Up

  1. Here’s a Q&A with Vu Tran that you might enjoy: http://bloom-site.com/2015/08/05/qa-with-vu-tran/

    And you definitely have me intrigued about those Istanbul mysteries!

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      That was great, thank you! I especially liked hearing about why he chose Robert’s POV.

      I find Aykol’s series really interesting. They seem like “cozy” mysteries on paper–the heroine owns a mystery bookstore in Istabul–but their tone/style isn’t like American or British cozies, exactly. The setting is really well drawn (I mean, I have no idea if it’s accurate, though I assume so, but it feels deep and real).

  2. Sunita says:

    Both DRAGONFISH and the Istanbul series sound really interesting. And I’m glad you’re enjoying the Raghu Karnad book; I’m very curious about it. WW2 was a tough war for Indians, because after being disappointed by the lack of reciprocity from Britain after their participation in WW1 (it had been implied that they would get more political liberalization than they did), a lot of activist Indians refused to join up, and some of them supported people like Subash Chandra Bose, whom the British considered a traitor. Bose was an extreme case, but pretty much anyone who was more interested in independence than the war effort was considered traitorous by a lot of the imperial overseers.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Karnad definitely has things to say about divided loyalties and what led people to sign up or not. He focuses on three men in his family: his grandmother’s husband, brother, and brother in law. His grandmother’s family were Parsis, and they had no military tradition. She and her sister both married outsiders. It’s a fascinating story and I am learning a lot (it’s also not a very long book and doesn’t aim to be an exhaustive history of India in the War by any means).

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