Book Review | The Lost History of Stars by Dave Boling

From a forgotten moment in history comes an inspiring novel about finding strength and courage in the most unimaginable places.

In turn-of-the-century South Africa, fourteen-year-old Lettie, her younger brother, and her mother are Dutch Afrikaner settlers who have been taken from their farm by British soldiers and are being held in a concentration camp. It is early in the Boer War, and Lettie’s father, grandfather, and brother are off fighting the British as thousands of Afrikaner women and children are detained. The camps are cramped and disease ridden; the threat of illness and starvation are ever present. Determined to dictate their own fate, Lettie and her family give each other strength and hope as they fight to survive amid increasingly dire conditions.

Brave and defiant, Lettie finds comfort in memories of stargazing with her grandfather, her plan to be a writer, and surprising new friendships that will both nourish and challenge her. A beautiful testament to love, family, and sheer force of will, The Lost History of Stars was inspired by Dave Boling’s grandfather’s own experience as a soldier during the Boer War. Lettie is a figure of abiding grace, and her story is richly drawn and impossible to forget.

Link to an Excerpt (pdf) of The Lost History of Stars

Link to Author’s essay (pdf) A Young Girl in a Forgotten War which reveals

  •  why he was drawn to the Boers War

One of the original impetuses for The Lost History of Stars was that my grandfather had been some manner of camp guard in the British Army during the Boer War. I realized after just a little bit of research that this war has been largely forgotten by most of the world, even though it was a blueprint for the warfare and cruelty to come later in the twentieth century.  With the Boer men and boys (ages eight to eighty) in commandos out on the veld, the British burned the Boer farms and forced the displaced women and children into hastily constructed concentration camps. In the face of terrible sanitation, overcrowding, and lack of food and medical services, twenty-seven thousand women and children died in the camps, a total nearly ten times greater than the number of deaths of soldiers in combat on both sides. It was, truly, a war against children.

  • the process that lead him to integrate fact-based research with Aletta’s personality to deftly narrate the novel in her voice, relating what she experienced and survived her imprisonment

At that point, I surrendered the narration of the book to the character who could breathe life into it: an adolescent girl named Aletta Venter. Over time, that’s left too few opportunities to celebrate the small, hard-won individual victories of brave characters like Aletta Venter.

  • how Aletta morphed into his heroine

Aging from twelve to fourteen in the book, Aletta has the audacity to believe she can carve out bits of normalcy while imprisoned in a British concentration camp in South Africa during the Anglo-Boer War (1899–1902). She grows, adapts, and takes joy in her small daily insurgencies. When facing a lack of paper for her journal, she steals every copy of the posted camp rules she can find. Because, as she reasons, among the many rules imposed by the Brits, none forbids the stealing of the rules. To Aletta, imprisonment is a state of mind, so she wages her tiny war against the British Empire with her only weapons: hope and imagination.

 The Lost History of Stars
Author: Dave Boling | Publisher: Algonquin Books | List Price: $25.95
Hardcover: ISBN 978-1-61620-417-4 | Sale Date 7 June 2017 | Pages 352
Purchase at  Amazon   IndieBound   Powell’s
Ebook: ISBN 978-1-61620-714-4 | Sale Date 11 July 2017
Purchase at  Amazon Kindle   Kobo

Meet the Author
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Born and raised in South Chicago, Dave Boling now lives and works as a sports columnist in the Seattle, Washington area. His first novel, Guernica, an extraordinary historical tale of love, family and war set in the Basque town of Guernica before, during, and after its destruction by the German Luftwaffe during the Spanish Civil War, became an international bestseller and has been translated into 13 languages. Prior to journalism, Boling played football at the University of Louisville and worked as an ironworker in Chicago, a logger in the Pacific Northwest, a bartender, a bouncer, and a laborer in a car factory and steel mills. Boling began writing fiction at age 53.


Algonquin Books |Books For A Well-Read Life

Brevity Is Bliss: The Best Short Story Collections to Read Now | SignatureReads.com

Featured

By May 11, 2017

Sometimes, the most impactful stories are the shortest ones — the ones that explore emotional highs and lows within the span of a only a few pages. Though these stories may be brief in length, they are vast in meaning, and are nothing short of breathtaking.

In honor of Short Story Month, Signature compiled a list of excellent short story collections that span a variety of topics and facets of life. The collections listed below are all newly released this year or forthcoming in the next few weeks. Each and every collection touches upon something we all know too well: the delicacy of humanity, and all of the love, tragedy, and recovery that comes with it.

  • The cover of the book Things We Lost in the Fire

    Things We Lost in the Fire
    by Mariana Enriquez

    Argentina provides the backdrop for this collection of sometimes disturbing and always provocative stories by Buenos Aires-based writer Mariana Enriquez. From an unlikely serial killer to a curious form of protest to a particularly strange instance of hikikomori, the stories in this collection will mesmerize you.

  • The cover of the book The World to Come

    The World to Come
    Stories by Jim Shepard

    Award-winning writer Jim Shepard is back with his fifth collection of stories, courtesy of The World to Come. The author takes us on adventures spanning geography and time in these ten stories, which touch on war, family, grief, disillusionment, and beyond.

  • The cover of the book Bit Rot

    Bit Rot
    stories + essays by Douglas Coupland

    In his 1991 novel, Generation X, Douglas Coupland debuted his straightforward, edgy, intelligent style of writing while popularizing the phrase we needed to define the post-Boom generation. He’s hardly slowed down since and now presents his new collection, Bit Rot. Ever one to find inspiration in the changing times, this collection of essays and stories focuses on new-millennium life.

  • The cover of the book Hot Little Hands

    Hot Little Hands
    Fiction by Abigail Ulman

    Australian writer Abigail Ulman’s fiction debut, Hot Little Hands, was met with ample praise from critics when it landed in May 2016. In nine stories, Ulman introduces us to young women who are in various states of coming of age – and all the while entirely relatable – while imparting the perfect amount of humor and poignancy simultaneously.

  • The cover of the book What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours

    What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours
    Stories by Helen Oyeyemi

    Award-winning British novelist Helen Oyeyemi had, until last year, stuck to novels and plays for her life in fiction. When her much-anticipated debut story collection, What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, landed in March 2016, it was everything we wanted it to be and more. And we’re not alone in thinking so; the book has landed on some of the most respected Best Of lists out there. With the theme of keys at its center, Oyeyemi’s first collection is as playful as it is thoughtful and will keep you captivated until the very last page.

  • The cover of the book Cockfosters

    Cockfosters
    Stories by Helen Simpson

    Helen Simpson continues her legacy of being one of the finest internationally acclaimed short story writers with the release of this cynical, yet tender collection. These nine stories revolve around the ever-perplexing concepts of time and aging, and take us from today’s London and Berlin to the wild west of the USA and the wilder shores of Mother Russia.

  • The cover of the book The Family Markowitz

    The Family Markowitz
    Fiction by Allegra Goodman

    These witty short stories are linked through three generations of Markowitzes: Rose, the irritable matriarch; Henry, her art-loving son living in London; Rose’s younger son Ed, a terrorism scholar at Georgetown; and Ed’s daughter Miriam, the medical student who, to her parents’ dismay, becomes an Orthodox Jew. Goodman follows the family’s everyday experiences in such a way that makes the whole family come alive between the pages.

  • The cover of the book These Heroic, Happy Dead

    These Heroic, Happy Dead
    Stories by Luke Mogelson

    Luke Mogelson’s debut collection provides a raw and intimate look at lives that have been transformed by war: soldiers, their families, government officials, and civilians. These ten stories showcase the unexpected cost of war, and the people who have paid the price.

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  • The cover of the book Homesick for Another World

    Homesick for Another World
    Stories by Ottessa Moshfegh

    Award-winning fiction writer Ottessa Moshfegh is known for her short stories for a reason. She has the unique ability to develop characters that represent the human condition in an unfiltered way—they’re lonely and dissatisfied, desperate for something more. These stories are for anyone that has ever felt a deep homesickness for a place they’ve never been before.

  • The cover of the book Signals

    Signals
    New and Selected Stories by Tim Gautreaux

    Widely celebrated novelist Tim Gautreaux proves that he is also a master of short stories with this timeless twelve-story collection about decision-making and morality. Gautreaux deviates from writing about history with this collection and instead focuses on the contemporary life of tight-knit, working class communities in Louisiana, North Carolina, and Minnesota.

  • The cover of the book Mexico

    Mexico
    Stories by Josh Barkan

    International Short Story Prize Winner Josh Barkan has, yet again, captured the essence of humanity by exploring the lives of different people striving for one common goal: peace. Cartel violence seems to make this goal impossible to achieve, with danger lurking around every corner. These stories are about overcoming fear and finding love in the midst of great loss.

  • The cover of the book Living in the Weather of the World

    Living in the Weather of the World
    Stories by Richard Bausch

    Award-winning novelist and universally acclaimed short story writer Richard Bausch showcases his talent in thirteen remarkable tales of human experience. He gives a voice to those that are suffering from troubles with family and marital woes, the tragedy of suicide, the divide between friends and lovers, and the delicate transience of love.

  • The cover of the book What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky

    What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky
    Stories by Lesley Nneka Arimah

    One of the most anticipated books of 2017, this debut collection explores the bonds between parents and children, husbands and wives, lovers and friends, and to the places they call home. Each character in this collection experiences something that changes their life forever, and must learn to cope with unexpected repercussions.

  • The cover of the book The Pier Falls

    The Pier Falls
    And Other Stories by Mark Haddon

    This collection from the beloved, bestselling author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time takes the reader on a journey from England to Mars, and from ancient Greece to deep in the Amazon. Largely based on history, myth, folklore, and modern life, The Pier Falls combines sci-fi and realism to form nine unforgettable stories.

  • The cover of the book Trajectory

    Trajectory
    Stories by Richard Russo

    Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Russo veers from his typical blue-collar profile of his characters in these four extensive stories. This time around, we look at the relationships between a professor and his plagiarizing student, a father and a son, two brothers, and a novelist and his sick wife. This collection reminds us that people are flawed, and inflict pain on those they love the most.

  • The cover of the book Wedding Stories

    Wedding Stories
    Edited by Diana Secker Tesdell

    A brilliant, romantic matrimony of a variety of works by famous writers from across the past two centuries. The stories collected here encompass the lives of all kinds of people– young and old, rich and poor, divorced and widowed, and single mothers and fathers– all seeking happiness and satisfaction in marriage, even when life doesn’t go as planned.

  • The cover of the book Men Without Women

    Men Without Women
    Stories by Haruki Murakami

    This collection of short stories centers on seven men dealing with emotional tragedy: be it a broken heart, a love triangle, or even death. All seven men seem to feel lost and alone, but soon become overwhelmed with passion as they cross paths with mysterious women.


 

Be sure to download Signature’s Compact Guide to Short Story Writing, get yourself a [collection] from this list, dive into [reading short stories], and take part in celebrating Short Story Month with us.

BOOKS @ signature-reads.com

BOOK REVIEW: Elegy for April by Benjamin Black

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Elegy for April
by Benjamin Black

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

April Lavery has vanished. A junior doctor at a local hospital, she is something of a trail-blazer in the deeply conservative and highly patriarchal society of 1950s Dublin. Though her family is one of the most respected in the city, she is known for being independent-minded; her taste in men, for instance, is decidedly unconventional, as evidenced by her current boyfriend, a handsome and charismatic medical student from Nigeria.

Then April disappears, and Phoebe Griffin, her best friend, immediately suspects the worst. Frantic, Phoebe seeks out Quirke, her brilliant but erratic father, and asks him for help. Sober again after intensive treatment for alcoholism, Quirke soon learns that his old sparring partner, Detective Inspector Hackett, has been assigned to the high-profile case. This time, Hackett welcomes Quirke’s help—the pathologist’s knowledge of the darker byways of the city may allow him to uncover crucial information about April’s whereabouts. And as Quirke becomes deeply involved in April’s murky story, he encounters complicated and ugly truths about race-hatred, Catholic ruthlessness, and family savagery.

Both an absorbing crime novel and a brilliant portrait of the difficult and relentless love between a father and his daughter, this is Benjamin Black at his sparkling best.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: All Joe Knight | Kevin Morris | Grove Atlantic Press

9780802125781- all joe knight-kevin morris
All Joe Knight by Kevin Morris
Grove Atlantic Press, December  2016
ISBN 978080212578, Fiction

I am Joe, sometimes Joey. Ordinary Joe. Average Joe. Joe Blow. Joseph Michael Knight, Jr. Joe Knight. All night long. All Knight Long. All Knight.

1961. Outside Philadelphia, a soon-to-be father runs into a telephone pole while driving drunk; nine months later, his widow dies in a smashed-up T-Bird. From the start, the orphaned Joe Knight is a blank slate. Taken in by a kindly aunt in a tough-skinned suburb, Joe finds his family in high school with the Fallcrest basketball team—the kind of team that comes around once in a lifetime. All these kids want is to make it to the Palestra, UPenn’s cathedral of college basketball.

Fast forward thirty years. Joe is newly divorced with one daughter and certain he is unfit for love. Ever since he sold the ad firm that he built from the ground up for millions of dollars, he spends his time at a local business school or going to strip clubs, the only place it seems he can quiet his mind. A former Fallcrest teammate, Chris Scully, who is now district attorney advises Joe of a Justice Department investigation into the deal that made Joe rich years ago. The deal that Joe brought all of his former Fallcrest basketball teammates in on, except for Scully. Details emerge about Joe’s alleged wrongdoing, forcing Joe to come to term with the secret that has tormented him for decades.

Excerpt from ALL JOE KNIGHT by Kevin Morris:

Truth is I’ve made enough money and cut off enough strings that I don’t have to do anything and I like it. Coming up the way I did, from where I did, I am not burdened by a sense of sympathy or the guilt of a free pass. Truth is the math is simple: I don’t care enough about changing the general state of things to do anything. If you tuck enough away and are just carrying yourself, there is really not much anyone can do to you, especially if you are not pushing into anyone else’s world. That’s the great thing about America—the freedom to succeed and the freedom to be let alone once you do.

I think about kids once in a while, like who is the kid out there who is me, just forty years later. That passes unanswered. My own kid, she’ll be okay, I have her fixed up, and she doesn’t really want much from me anyway. Truth is there’s nothing about the status quo that on balance makes me want to do anything differently than live life in this nice-ass apartment, above what’s left of the greene country towne that will never be burnt, always wholesome. Truth is I have ridden a wave generated by a miracle wind-machine born in this brick city five lifetimes ago. All this freedom. Truth is I will probably die like this, another American man who got what he wanted.

Kevin  Morris is the author of the acclaimed story collection White Man’s Problems. He previously wrote for Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, and Filmmaker magazine, produced the well-regarded documentary Hands on a Hardbody and was co-producer of  The Book of Mormon, a Tony Award winning play.

Advanced Reader Book Review and Excerpt | Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Celeste Ng, whose 2014 debut novel, Everything I Never Told You, was a stunning success, will release her follow-up novel, Little Fires Everywhereon September 12, 2017.
Little Fires Everywhere, follows Elena Richardson, a tightly-wound rule follower, whose carefully planned world is shaken up when a mysterious, alluring single mother, Mia Warren, moves to Shaker Heights and rents a house from the Richardsons with Pearl her teenage daughter.  Elena is already suspicious of Mia, but when an attempted adoption of a Chinese-American baby divides the town in two — with Elena and Mia on opposite sides — she’s determined to figure out her tenant’s secrets once and for all, no matter the cost. 


EXCERPT from Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Everyone in Shaker Heights was talking about it that summer: how Isabelle, the last of the Richardson children, had finally gone around the bend and burned the house down. All spring the gossip had been about little Mirabelle McCullough—or, depending which side you were on, May Ling Chow—and now, at last, there was something new and sensational to discuss. A little after noon on that Saturday morning in May, the shoppers pushing their grocery carts in Heinen’s heard the fire engines wail to life and careen away, toward the duck pond. By a quarter after twelve there were four of them parked in a haphazard red line along Parkland Drive, where all six bedrooms of the Richardson house were ablaze, and everyone within a half mile could see the smoke rising over the trees like a dense black thundercloud. Later people would say that the signs had been there all along: that Izzy was a little lunatic, that there had always been something off about the Richardson family, that as soon as they heard the sirens that morning they knew something terrible had happened. By then, of course, Izzy would be long gone, leaving no one to defend her, and people could—and did—say whatever they liked. At the moment the fire trucks arrived, though, and for quite a while afterward, no one knew what was happening. Neighbors clustered as close to the makeshift barrier—a police cruiser, parked crosswise a few hundred yards away—as they could and watched the firemen unreel their hoses with the grim faces of men who recognized a hopeless cause. Across the street, the geese at the pond ducked their heads underwater for weeds, wholly unruffled by the commotion.

Mrs. Richardson stood on the tree lawn, clutching the neck of her pale-blue robe closed. Although it was already afternoon, she had still been asleep when the smoke detectors had sounded. She had gone to bed late, and had slept in on purpose, telling herself she deserved it after a rather difficult day. The night before, she had watched from an upstairs window as a car had finally pulled up in front of the house. The driveway was long and circular, a deep horseshoe arc bending from the curb to the front door and back—so the street was a good hundred feet away, too far for her to see clearly, and even in May, at eight o’clock it was almost dark, besides. But she had recognized the small tan Volkswagen of her tenant, Mia, its headlights shining. The passenger door opened and a slender figure emerged, leaving the door ajar: Mia’s teenage daughter, Pearl. The dome light lit the inside of the car like a shadow box, but the car was packed with bags nearly to the ceiling and Mrs. Richardson could only just make out the faint silhouette of Mia’s head, the messy topknot perched at the crown of her head. Pearl bent over the mailbox, and Mrs. Richardson imagined the faint squeak as the mailbox door opened, then shut. Then Pearl hopped back into the car and shut the door. The brake lights flared red, then winked out, and the car puttered off into the growing night. With a sense of relief, Mrs. Richardson had gone down to the mailbox and found a set of keys on a plain ring, with no note. She had planned to go over in the morning and check the rental house on Winslow Road, even though she already knew that they would be gone.

It was because of this that she had allowed herself to sleep in, and now it was half past twelve and she was standing on the tree lawn in her robe and a pair of her son Trip’s tennis shoes, watching their house burn to the ground. When she had awoken to the shrill scream of the smoke detector, she ran from room to room looking for him, for Lexie, for Moody. It struck her that she had not looked for Izzy, as if she had known already that Izzy was to blame. Every bedroom was empty except for the smell of gasoline and a small crackling fire set directly in the middle of each bed, as if a demented Girl Scout had been camping there. By the time she checked the living room, the family room, the rec room, and the kitchen, the smoke had begun to spread, and she ran outside at last to hear the sirens, alerted by their home security system, already approaching. Out in the driveway, she saw that Trip’s Jeep was gone, as was Lexie’s Explorer, and Moody’s bike, and, of course, her husband’s sedan. He usually went into the office to play catch-up on Saturday mornings. Someone would have to call him at work. She remembered then that Lexie, thank god, had stayed over at Serena Wong’s house last night. She wondered where Izzy had gotten to. She wondered where her sons were, and how she would find them to tell them what had happened.

From Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng. Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © Celeste Ng, 2017.  

REFUGEES IN AMERICA by Joyce Carol Oates

The Pulitzer Prize-winning Viet Thanh Nguyen tells stories about people poised between their devastated homeland and their affluent adopted country

     Consider the distinctions between the words “expat,” “immigrant,” “refugee.” “Expat” suggests a cosmopolitan spirit and resources that allow mobility; to be an “immigrant” suggests some measure of need. A “refugee” is, by definition, desperate: he has been displaced from his home, has been rendered stateless, has few or no resources. The expat retains an identity as he retains his citizenship, his privileges; the refugee loses his identity amid the anonymity of many others like him. In the way that enslaved persons are truncated by the term “slaves,” defined by their condition, there’s a loss of identity in the category term “refugees.” It might seem to be more humane, and accurate, to give someone who is forced to seek refuge a more expansive designation: “displaced person.”

     Viet Thanh Nguyen, one of our great chroniclers of displacement, appears to value the term “refugee” precisely for the punitive violence it betrays. Born in 1971, he is, by self-description, the son of Vietnamese refugees, and he has been a refugee himself; he has married a refugee, a fellow-writer named Lan Duong. In the acknowledgments of The Refugees (Grove), his beautiful and heartrending new story collection, he speaks of his son, Ellison: “By the time this book is published, he will be nearly the age I was when I became a refugee.” 

     It is hardly surprising that the refugee is obsessed with identity, both personal and ethnic. He is likely to be highly sensitive to others’ interpretations of him and of his “minority” culture. And so his peripheral status confers certain advantages, for he is in a position to see what others do not. As Nguyen has recounted, in an afterword to his début novel, The Sympathizer (2015), “I watched ‘Apocalypse Now’ and saw American sailors massacre a sampan full of civilians and Martin Sheen shoot a wounded woman in cold blood. I watched ‘Platoon’ and heard the audience cheering and clapping when the Americans killed Vietnamese soldiers. These scenes . . . left me shaking with rage.”

     Thrilling in its virtuosity, as in its masterly exploitation of the espionage-thriller genre, The Sympathizer was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, and has come to be considered one of the greatest of Vietnam War novels. The book’s (unnamed) narrator speaks in an audaciously postmodernist voice, echoing not only Vladimir Nabokov and Ralph Ellison but the Dostoyevsky of Notes from the Underground:

I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds. I am not some misunderstood mutant from a comic book or a horror movie, although some have treated me as such. I am simply able to see any issue from both sides. Sometimes I flatter myself that this is a talent, and although it is admittedly one of the minor talents, it is perhaps also the sole talent I possess.

     The speaker is indeed a spy: he was, in the Republic of Vietnam, a Communist mole on the staff of a South Vietnamese general, before being evacuated from Saigon and taking refuge in America after the Vietnam War. 

     His confession is fraught with irony and his history is tragicomic; unlike the refugees of The Refugees, he regards himself with the distance of self-loathing, for he has participated in assassinations while following orders. Obsessed with “universal and timeless” questions, he is the epitome of twentieth-century man: “What does the revolutionary do when the revolution triumphs? Why do those who call for independence and freedom take away the independence and freedom of others? And is it sane or insane to believe, as so many around us apparently do, in nothing?”

     The stories in The Refugees, too, feature protagonists who are poised between the past of a devastated homeland, Vietnam, and an affluent, adopted country, the United States. The book takes one of its epigraphs from James Fenton’s A German Requiem:

It is not your memories which haunt you. It is not what you have written down. It is what you have forgotten, what you must forget. What you must go on forgetting all your life.

     To survive, for the refugee, is to be buffeted between the grief-suffused admonition to remember the losses of the homeland and the self-protective counter-admonition to “forget,” the effort of which will be enormous and lifelong.

     Ordinary existence, to the death-haunted, is populated by ghosts. These are not ideas of ghosts, or poetic metaphors. These are ghosts who leave behind damp carpets and the brine-soaked clothing in which, twenty-five years before, they drowned while escaping a war-torn homeland. They are family ghosts: a fifteen-year-old boy, for instance, who had traded his life to save a sister threatened with kidnapping and rape by pirates. “These fishermen resembled our fathers and brothers, sinewy and brown, except that they wielded machetes and machine guns,” we read in the almost unbearably moving opening story, “Black-Eyed Women.” 

     Compulsive and unflinching introspection—another symptom of “refugee” consciousness—may lead survivors to realize harsh truths about themselves, as with an eighteen-year-old refugee who, in “The Other Man,” has been taken into an affluent San Francisco household:

He tried to forget the people who had clutched at the air as they fell into the river, some knocked down in the scramble, others shot in the back by desperate soldiers clearing a way for their own escape. He tried to forget what he’d discovered, how little other lives mattered to him when his own was at stake.

     Truths about others are no more comforting. At any time, the refugee is likely to be confronted—confounded—by the myopia of non-Vietnamese. In “The Transplant,” Arthur, the beneficiary of a liver from a Vietnamese donor, has “trouble distinguishing one nationality of Asian names from another,” and is “also afflicted with a related, and very common, astigmatism wherein all Asians appeared the same.” In “Fatherland,” a Vietnamese girl working in an upscale Saigon restaurant overhears tourists speaking of “delicate and tiny” Vietnamese women, whose “dresses look stitched onto them.” A Vietnamese tourist guide entertains his credulous American customers for whom “act was fact”—“we’re all the same to them . . . small, charming, and forgettable.” As the sharp-eyed narrator of The Sympathizer tells us, the “all-American characteristic” is not sympathy or generosity but racial paranoia: “In America, it was all or nothing when it came to race. You were either white or you weren’t.”

     Which you were, of course, could be a matter of context. In “Fatherland,” a young Vietnamese-American woman, Vivien, goes to Saigon to visit the children of her father and his second wife, her half siblings. (Vivien’s mother had fled to America with her kids after the war.) Her visit is a grand occasion for the family. She gives them expensive gifts and treats them generously, taking them to the sort of restaurants that native residents can’t afford. In particular, Vivien’s half sister, seven years younger than she, is in awe of Vivien’s glamour, and has fantasized about coming to the United States to live with her, and to emulate what she believes to be Vivien’s success as a doctor in Chicago. Disillusion comes when she discovers that Vivien isn’t a doctor but, rather, an unemployed receptionist with prospects as limited as her own. After the American half sister leaves, the Vietnamese half sister burns photographs of the two together: “Vivien’s features melting before her own, their faces vanishing in flame.” It is the final image in The Refugees, ashes blown into the sky above Saigon.

     Although only now published together in book form, the earnest, straightforward, relatively conventional stories of The Refugees would appear to have been written before the more stylized and experimental The Sympathizer. But all Nguyen’s fiction is pervaded by a shared intensity of vision, by stinging perceptions that drift like windblown ashes. By the end of The Sympathizer, we have doubled back to its thematic beginning, as the narrator, now a survivor of torture in a Communist reëducation camp, becomes a refugee again amid anonymous “boat people”—a name, the narrator notes, that “smacks of anthropological condescension, evoking some forgotten branch of the human family.” Nguyen leaves us with a harrowing vision of the sprawling tragedies of wartime, and of the moral duplicities of which we are capable. And yet, The Sympathizer ends with a proclamation that would work as well for the displaced Vietnamese of The Refugees: “We will live! ” ♦

Joyce Carol Oates, a visiting professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley, is the author of, most recently, “A Book of American Martyrs.” More

This article appears in other versions of the February 13 & 20, 2017, issue, with the headline “Not All There. 

Book Review: EXIT WEST by Mohsin Hamid 

A Refugee Crisis in a World of Open Doors – NYTimes.com

EXIT WEST
By Mohsin Hamid
231 pp. Riverhead Books. $26.

You own a house or rent an apartment. You live with your family or by yourself. You wake in the morning and drink your coffee or tea. You drive a car or a motorbike, or perhaps you take the bus. You go to work and turn on your computer. You go out at night and flirt and date. You live in a small town or big city, although maybe you are in the countryside. You have hopes, dreams and expectations. You take your humanity for granted. You keep believing you are human even when the catastrophe arrives and renders you homeless. Your town or city or countryside is in ruins. You try to make it to the border. Only then, hoping to leave, or making it across the border, do you understand that those who live on the other side do not see you as human at all.

This is the dread experience of becoming a refugee, of joining the 65 million unwanted and stateless people in the world today. It is also the experience that Mohsin Hamid elicits quietly and affectingly in his new novel, “Exit West,” which begins “in a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war.” The city and the country are unnamed, unlike the two characters at the story’s center: Saeed and Nadia, a young man and woman whose courtship begins in this moment of impending crisis. They are cosmopolitan city dwellers who meet in “an evening class on corporate identity and product branding,” and whose first date is at a Chinese restaurant.

Hamid’s enticing strategy is to foreground the humanity of these young people, whose urbanity, romantic inclinations, upwardly mobile aspirations and connectedness through social media and smartphones mark them as “normal” relative to the novel’s likely readers. At the same time, he insists on their “difference” from readers who may be Western. Their city is besieged by militants who commit terrible atrocities, evoking scenes from Mosul or Aleppo. As for Nadia, she was “always clad from the tips of her toes to the bottom of her jugular notch in a flowing black robe.” But while this robe seems to be a form of conservative Islamic dress, one of the starkest signs of difference between Nadia and non-Islamic readers, she is more daring than Saeed. She is the one who offers him marijuana and psychedelic mushrooms, and she is the one who initiates sex. The robe, it turns out, is camouflage to allow Nadia to be an independent woman.

The backdrop for “Exit West” is both the plight of refugees from places like Syria and the specter of Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism. Hamid takes full advantage of our familiarity with these scenes to turn “Exit West” into an urgent account of war, love and refugees. Politics also matters as it does in his other novels, which likewise dealt with pressing issues: the troubles of contemporary Pakistan (“Moth Smoke”); 9/11 and the tensions between being Pakistani and American (“The Reluctant Fundamentalist”); and naked capitalism and ambition in an unnamed country (“How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia”). Throughout his oeuvre, Hamid envisions an interconnected world in which East and West inevitably meet as a consequence of complicated histories of colonization and globalization. The dramas and love stories of individuals like Saeed and Nadia cannot be separated from these histories, even if, in their own lives, those histories are not necessarily preoccupations. Until, that is, those histories erupt.

When they do, people die. They do so often, unexpectedly and in violent circumstances. Hamid offers a few incidents like this, and in their spare detail they are enough, as when Nadia’s cousin is “blown by a truck bomb to bits, literally to bits, the largest of which, in Nadia’s cousin’s case, were a head and two-thirds of an arm.” Refusing to dwell on the morbidity of such a scene, Hamid declines to turn the destruction of the city and its people into a spectacle, the way they would normally be visible to those outside the country, watching its doom from a digital distance. Examining the destruction at a slight remove, Hamid discourages readers from pitying the city’s residents. Instead, focusing on Saeed and Nadia, and removing the particularities of the city, the country and its customs, Hamid aims to increase the depth of a reader’s empathy for characters who can be, or should be, just like the reader. The reader, of course, must think about what would happen if her own normal life was suddenly, unexpectedly upended by war.

Most likely, the reader, like Saeed and Nadia, would flee. They do so through the sudden, unexplained doors that appear throughout the city and that are portals to other places. While the city is unnamed, these sites of refuge are named — Greece, London, the United States. In their concreteness, versus the deliberate vagueness of Saeed and Nadia’s city, they call for identification from readers of the novel who live in these kinds of desirable places that the refugees want to go. The novel implicitly asks these readers why doors should be closed to refugees, when those readers might become refugees one day? How these doors work is not Hamid’s concern. The doors can be manifestations of magic realism, fantasy or science fiction, or all three, but they simply stand in for the reality that refugees will try every door they can to get out.

What happens once Saeed and Nadia arrive at these promised lands makes up the second half of the novel, in which it seems that “the whole planet was on the move, much of the global South headed to the global North, but also Southerners moving to other Southern places and Northerners moving to other Northern places.” Here Hamid’s novel reveals itself to be a story not only of the present but of the future, where migration will be the norm. Depending on one’s point of view, this is either terrifying or hopeful. When everyone is moving, then mobility becomes normal rather than disturbing. While these movements cause unrest on the part of the “natives” — what Hamid, in a postcolonial reverse, calls the inhabitants of the host countries — the vision that he ultimately offers is peaceful. After the natives get over their initial fear of strangers, both the natives and the strangers discover they are just as likely to get along as not. From this measured, cautious recognition of a mutual humanity, the natives and strangers attempt to forge a new society.

This gentle optimism, this refusal to descend into dystopia, is what is most surprising about Hamid’s imaginative, inventive novel. A graceful writer who does not shy away from contentious politics and urgent, worldly matters — and we need so many more of these writers — Hamid exploits fiction’s capacity to elicit empathy and identification to imagine a better world. It is also a possible world. “Exit West” does not lead to utopia, but to a near future and the dim shapes of strangers that we can see through a distant doorway. All we have to do is step through it and meet them.


Viet Thanh Nguyen’s debut novel, “The Sympathizer,” won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. He is also the author of “Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War” and, most recently, the story collection “The Refugees.”

Link to original review on NYTimes.com

Book Review of Before the Fall by Noah Hawley

Before the FallBefore the Fall by Noah Hawley

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

 

From ReadItForward.com:
A gripping thriller that also goes into the deep pit of survivor’s guilt, Before the Fall is both intelligent and emotional. A plane full of important and wealthy passengers crashes, and the only survivors are the heir to a vast fortune and the only seemingly unimportant person on board – a painter named Scott Burroughs. The novel moves back and forth between the aftermath of the crash, where Scott is a hero for saving the four-year-old heir, and the sixteen minutes before the crash happened, where we’re given glimpses into the backstories of the various passengers during their final moments. As Scott is hounded by the media, we begin to wonder – was the crash a setup? Is there a conspiracy afoot to kill these powerful people? Or is it just a mysterious coincidence?

My thoughts on Before the Fall:
I absolutely fell unromantically in love with Scott Burroughs. I know his heart and understand how far removed his life path feels to him because I, too, experienced a profound loss of a person early in my life. A loss that has affected me in a multitude of ways, known and unknown, admitted and unacknowledged. Scott’s resistance to interaction with today’s on-demand world of non fact-based gossip and opinion pieces that are promoted, ingested and revered as “news” is our common struggle.

Several other characters in Before The Fall elicited similar feelings of familiarity and understanding in me. I was interested and invested in learning how they got to this place in their lives and why they made the decisions and took the actions that lead them to these moments and watching them navigate the new reality of life after the fall.

I received an ARC of Before The Fall from the publisher through NetGalley and listened to the audiobook version from my public library through OverDrive.

View all my reviews

Diverse Book Recommendations for Children

Featured

I am pleased and grateful to have the opportunity to promote We’re The People – a blog devoted to diversity in children’s and young adult reading material and Full Circle Literary – “a literary agency, representing children’s books from toddler to teen, and more!” Both We’re The People and Full Circle Literary are stupendous finds that I proudly recommend to you.

We’re The People is an amazing blog that I randomly happened upon and have returned to several times to find new recommendations for books to purchase and read to my 2-1/2 year-old niece. I am at a loss for words to properly describe all the feels that came over me when I first encountered We’re The People – sheer joy, yes, but also an ache in my heart that actually hurt and brought tears to my eyes. With today’s plethora of blogs concentrating on book reviews and recommendations, the lack of diversity in the books that children are exposed to and offered in bookstores, libraries and their schools is a glaringly obvious truth. I am astonished that book publishers and my fellow #wordnerds do not more frequently, loudly, and publicly acknowledge and/or address this issue.  We are failing all of our children and must work to do better.

The world we live in it anything but white or colorless – it is a smorgasbord of colors, in every imaginable hue, spanning the entire intensity and saturation gamut visible to the human eye. It is in the diversity of humans that our greatest strength and beauty lies. And yet, we provide no such written word color-wheel to our children. Not only does this greatly and negatively affect the self-image of millions of non-white children who do not see themselves as possible characters in the stories, it also reduces the ability of white children to envision the non-white children in such stories. Neither set of children grow up appreciating the beauty and wonder of the other, and, in fact, seeds of discomfort, fear, and uncertainty of the “other” are deeply planted into their hearts and minds.

I still live close to the uniquely diverse neighborhood in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania where I was born and raised.  I was a Catholic, white girl from a middle-class, single father home who spent the greater part of my first 10 years in and around the home of my babysitter, a Baptist, African-American grandmother.  On any given day, Ms. Bessie nurtured, disciplined and loved a group of kids of both races and religions.  She, and by default, we, never shied away from noting our differences – they were acknowledged, praised and accepted as just one of the many parts that made each of us who we were.  All of us were given a true gift and we grew up not only tolerating, but sincerely loving, the “other.” Most of us remain close in our adult lives and our children know and care about one another as well.  We were raised together and saw our futures together.

2016 Summer Reading List — We’re The People

Please note that most of the book covers and illustrations found herein were taken from the Full Circle Literary blog.  

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to ‘What Happened to Sophie Wilder’: 10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others

Source: A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to ‘What Happened to Sophie Wilder’: 10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others

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