Book Review: How We Disappeared

Alternating between timelines in 1942 and 2000, How We Disappeared follows Wang-Di, who is taken from her Singaporean village during WWII and forced into sexual slavery as a “comfort woman” for Japanese soldiers. Nearly 60 years later, while Wang-Di is still reckoning with her trauma from the war, 12-year-old Kevin overhears a shocking confession from his grandmother’s deathbed, leading him to uncover secrets about what she lived through during WWII.

The book: How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee
Genre: Historical fiction
Rating: 4 stars out of 5

The prose in this novel is absolutely lovely. Lee tells her story in three distinct sections: young Wang Di when she is captured during WWII, old Wang Di trying to overcome the trauma that still haunts her in the year 2000, and Kevin investigating his grandmother’s history in 2000. All three sections are beautifully and convincingly written, with the historical scenes set during WWII especially immersive. There are some passages where Kevin uses language that seems too advanced for his age, but he sees the world in a very curious and childlike way, so he was still believable as a 12-year-old to me.

How We Disappeared isn’t just well-written; it is also written with immense compassion. The horrific details of Wang Di’s sexual slavery are never told more graphically than they need to be, so the book never enters trauma-porn territory. Lee does describe the horrors that the comfort women endured (rape, violence, near-starvation, and unsanitary living conditions, to name a few), but she spends just as much time focusing on the psychological effects and aftermath of sexual slavery. What broke my heart the most wasn’t the violence that the comfort women endured (although it was certainly harrowing), but the stigma and shame that followed them for the rest of their lives after the war.

I also enjoyed the way the various timelines eventually weaved together. Before the connection between Wang Di and Kevin’s stories became clear, the transitions between the two sometimes felt a bit disjointed, but I felt that the slightly discontinuous storytelling was worth it for the way the two stories eventually connected. Also – minor spoiler here, so skip to the next paragraph if you don’t want to read it! – I’m not sure how realistic it was for Kevin to figure out the connection between his story and Wang Di’s, but it was such a satisfying conclusion to the novel that I was happy to suspend my disbelief.

All in all, I really enjoyed How We Disappeared. Almost all of my WWII education was focused on Europe and the Holocaust, so it was very eye-opening to read this well-researched and beautifully written story about the Japanese occupation of Singapore. The novel was challenging and heartbreaking at times, but it was absolutely worth the read. I highly recommend this book!

Book Review: A Thousand Ships

“This was never the story of one woman, or two. It was the story of them all.” A Thousand Ships is an all-female retelling of the Trojan War, with each chapter told from the perspective of a different woman.

The book: A Thousand Ships by Natalie Hayes
Genre: Historical fiction
Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5

A Thousand Ships was an uneven reading experience for me: some sections were incredibly compelling, while others felt dry and repetitive. For example, the Penthesilea and Laodamia chapters were short, and the respective protagonists of those chapters barely reappeared in the novel, so those chapters didn’t add much to the story for me. On the other hand, the longer chapters (like the Clytemnestra chapter) and the characters that reappeared throughout the story (like Cassandra) were well-developed and compelling.

Even if not all the individual characters in A Thousand Ships were well-developed, the role of women as a whole in the Trojan War was well-explored. With great detail and compassion, Haynes demonstrated that the women of the Trojan War were more than just wives and daughters of the warriors who normally take the center stage in Trojan War stories: they were complex women who experienced loss, anger, grief, and devastation. I did wish at times that Haynes had been more subtle with this message, though: there were points when it felt like she was beating the reader over the head with the message that the Trojan War was also a woman’s war. The message is important, but it would have been effectively communicated without repeated statements like: “But no one sings of the courage required by those of us who were left behind” or “he needs to accept that the casualties of war aren’t just the ones who die” or “When a war ended, the men lost their lives. But the women lost everything else.”

Something that surprised me (in a good way) was the familiarity of some of the novel’s themes and characters’ behaviors. From overpopulation stressing the Earth’s resources, to egomaniac leaders who are power-hungry yet incompetent, to women attacking other women when their real issue is with the men who hold unfair amounts of power over them — I appreciated how Haynes presented an ancient story in a way that felt somewhat relatable.

Although I normally don’t enjoy “uneven” reading experiences, A Thousand Ships was an overall enjoyable read for me. Even when the story got dull or repetitive, the prose was lovely. And certain chapters (like Clytemnestra’s chapter, which explores her emotions and motives in a beautifully written and moving way) were so powerful that they made it easy for me to overlook some of the novel’s shortcomings. I liked this all-female retelling of the Trojan War, and would certainly read more of Haynes’ work in the future (especially if she ever wrote an entire Cassandra or Clytemnestra book).

Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020: Shortlist Reaction

This year I decided to read my way through the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist. I’ve currently read 10 out of 16 of the longlisted titles, with plans to read four more. Today, the six books that advanced to the shortlist were announced; they are:

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo
My rating: 5 stars out of 5 [review]

This was my favorite read from the WP longlist, and I would have been furious if it didn’t advance to the shortlist. I found this book to be so fresh and ambitious. From the writing style, to the social commentary, to the complex characters, everything in this novel really worked for me. And of all the books on the longlist (that I’ve read so far), this one painted the most nuanced picture of womanhood. I would be very happy to see this win the Women’s Prize.

Weather by Jenny Offill
My rating: 4 stars out of 5 [review]

This was one of the more polarizing reads on the longlist, due to the novel’s inner-monologue writing-style and lack of plot. While I thought it was brilliantly compelling and intimate, other readers found it boring. Despite its mixed reception, this book was very skillfully written, and its focus on coping with uncertainty in a rapidly-changing world makes it an unsurprising choice for the shortlist. That said, I’m still not rooting for this one to win the prize because it wasn’t nearly as impactful as Girl, Woman, Other.

A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes
Currently reading
Current rating: 4 stars out of 5 (subject to change)

Another unsurprising shortlist choice, since the WP judges seem to have a soft spot for Greek mythology and Trojan War retellings (last year both Circe and The Silence of the Girls advanced to the shortlist). I do think A Thousand Ships deserves its place on the shortlist, though. While perhaps not the freshest novel, it is well-written and features well-balanced characters and nuanced takes on womanhood.

Dominicana by Angie Cruz
My rating: 2 stars out of 5 [review]

This was my least favorite read from the WP longlist. Dominicana had the potential to tell an immigration/American Dream story in a nuanced and historically interesting way…but instead it followed all of the tropes that you would expect. I won’t launch into my disappointment over this novel all over again (I already did that in my review), but I am surprised to see the WP judges shortlist a novel where the most well-developed character was the abusive husband.

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell
TBR

I’ve read nothing but positive reviews for this novel, so I’m excited to see it on the shortlist (and equally excited to read it soon).

The Mirror & The Light by Hilary Mantel.
TBR

I’m not surprised to see this on the shortlist. I’ve seen overwhelmingly positive reviews for this book, and the first two books in Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy received a lot of literary acclaim. I’m really looking forward to reading this, and seeing if it lives up to the hype! And since the winner announcement has been postponed until September, I actually feel confident that I’ll be able to read the entire Wolf Hall series by then!

With only one seriously objectionable book (Dominicana), this year’s shortlist doesn’t seem so bad if you look only at the individual books that comprise it. Given the number of longlisted books that were just fine, but not particularly inspiring, memorable, or insightful, the judges did a pretty good job in advancing only deserving contenders to the shortlist.

But looking at the shortlist as a whole, I wonder: are three historical fiction novels really necessary? And do all three of the shortlisted HF novels need to be Eurocentric? Specifically, I wonder why How We Disappeared or Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line weren’t shortlisted? Of all the books on the WP longlist, these were two of the most universally well-received by fellow WP bloggers. And with three historical fiction novels written by white authors on the shortlist, their exclusion feels especially weird.

Speaking of white authors, this shortlist is not very diverse in terms of authorship! One author is Dominican-American, one is British and black, one is a white American…and the remaining three authors are white women from the UK. The inclusion of How We Disappeared or Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line not only would have made the shortlist more interesting thematically, but also more diverse in terms of authorship.

So while (most of) the individual books comprising the Women’s Prize for Fiction Shortlist do seem to merit their spot there, the list as a whole feels redundant and somewhat lacking. I guess this shouldn’t come as a shock, since the longlist could also be described as redundant and lacking (that’s another post for another time, though). I will be rooting for Girl, Woman, Other to win, but I suspect that it won’t be chosen since it already won the Booker Prize. The book that I think will actually win is The Mirror & The Light.

To end on a more positive note…one of the best parts of reading the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist has been reading the posts of fellow book bloggers who are also following the award. I probably would have burnt out on the longlist weeks ago were it not for daily engagement with fellow bloggers. If you’re not following them already, definitely check out Gilana, Callum, Naty, Emily, Rachel, Hannah, Beth, and Corey‘s book blogs!

Book Review: Red at the Bone

My latest read from the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist was Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson. Told in vignettes, the novel opens at sixteen-year-old Melody’s coming-of-age ceremony at her grandparent’s house in New York, where she is surrounded by friends and family. As the book moves through various family members’ perspectives and memories, Woodson illustrates an intricate family history.

The book: Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson
Genre: Fiction
Rating: 4 stars out of 5

This novel was surprisingly deep and delightful! Despite its short page count, Red at the Bone is powerful and almost instantly immersive. Woodson writes from the perspectives of five characters (Melody, her mother Iris, her father Aubrey, and her grandparents Sabe and Po’Boy) in an intimate and compelling way. While some characters are explored with more depth and nuance than others, I never felt like the novel suffered from lack of character development – an impressive feat for a novel that fits five distinct voices into just 200 pages.

Red at the Bone also compassionately explores topics including intergenerational trauma, sexuality, ambition, class and privilege, and parenthood. I thought that Woodson’s exploration of parenthood – largely done through the character of Iris, who became pregnant with Melody when she was 15, but still had ambitions for herself beyond motherhood – was especially skillful. I loved the way that Woodson flipped the script on some of the common tropes around teenage moms, and instead portrayed a mother who wanted to provide what she could for her child, but ultimately had the ambition and agency to realize that she wanted more from life. This portrayal worked well for me not only because it was different, but also because it was so compassionate: Woodson never insinuates that Iris is a bad person for choosing ambition over motherhood, nor does she suggest that Melody is inherently damaged from not having a close relationship with her mother.

I also liked how Woodson acknowledged some of the clichés and potential criticisms of her novel through the voices of her characters. In the vignette where Po’Boy describes falling in love with Sabe, he says “some people don’t believe that you can meet a person and know that’s the person for you for the rest of your life. I’m not going to try to argue with them on that.” Not only does this sentence convey Po’Boy’s love for Sabe, but it also acknowledges the cliché of the “love at first sight” trope. Woodson demonstrates this same self-awareness when Melody is recalling one of her earliest memories: “They say you don’t remember the early stuff, that you’re suddenly six and having your first memories. But that’s not true. I can go back to five and four and three.” That being said, I’m not sure that this kind of meta self-acknowledgement was sufficient to justify the “characters remembering their own birth” trope.

Overall, I really liked this book. While there were a couple things that didn’t quite work for me, and a couple topics that could have been explored more deeply (Iris and Melody’s mother-daughter relationship, for one), I found Red at the Bone to be a powerful and compelling read. The fact that Woodson managed to develop the novel’s characters and their intricate dynamic in under 200 pages makes it even more impressive. While I’m not actively rooting for this one to make the WP shortlist, I certainly wouldn’t be upset if it did. Based on my experience with this novel, I’d like to check out some of Woodson’s other works in the future.

Book Review: The Most Fun We Ever Had

Alright, I’m back at it with the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist! The Most Fun We’ve Ever Had follows the close-knit Sorenson family through a tumultuous year of family secrets and tensions. A secret son reenters his mother’s life fifteen years after he was put up for adoption, causing old tensions to resurface between the two sisters who concealed his existence many years before; another daughter is left by her boyfriend shortly after she becomes pregnant with his child, although she won’t tell her family why he left her; and the youngest daughter, physically isolated in Oregon from the rest of her family in Illinois, tells a white lie that spins into a massive web of lies from which she can’t extricate herself.

The book: The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo
Genre: Fiction
Rating: 3 stars out of 5

I have such mixed opinions on this book, but one of the things that generally worked for me was the writing style. I especially liked the author’s use of trailing and stammering sentences in characters’ conversations around challenging subjects; I thought it made the dialogue more realistic. At the same time, though, there were several dramatic scenes and dialogues where the emotional impact just wasn’t there for me, so I suppose the dialogue wasn’t entirely believable. Also, this may be petty, but there were a few instances of the author using science terminology in a way that didn’t quite make sense – e.g. “the building was shaped like a genome” – and it really irked me.

The structure of the novel worked for me at first, but eventually became frustrating. The chapters alternate between past and present, with the past-focused chapters moving chronologically closer to the present, and each chapter featuring multiple characters’ perspectives in that moment in time. This worked at first, because it helped to establish the main characters and their complex relationships with each other; and some of the backstory provided in the past-focused chapters clearly provided valuable insights into the complicated family dynamic. Over time, though, the constant perspective and time shifts became jarring: a scene would start to become compelling and intriguing, only for the plot to be interrupted by a past-focused chapter that didn’t add much nuance to the story.

Thematically, The Most Fun We Ever Had did a great job demonstrating that things that look perfect on the outside rarely are. By providing inside looks into the Sorenson parents’ picture-perfect marriage, as well as the lives of the seemingly successful Sorenson children, Lombardo highlights the characters’ desires to appear that they are doing well, when in fact they are all lost in their own ways. Lombardo also depicts how some characters feel less anxious after owning up to their mistakes. This seems to be an endorsement for living honestly and authentically rather than pretending to have it all together, and it’s a message that I really appreciated, especially in a social-media-driven world where there is pressure to only share the most appealing parts of your life and your self.

Beyond that, though, I wasn’t sure what messages to take away from the novel. So many of the problems laid out in the book were specific to this one wealthy, enmeshed, and seriously complicated family. And some of the family’s problems were resolved in unsatisfying ways – like a years-long sibling tension being “resolved” because one of the siblings in the relationship apologized for her part in a fight, letting the other sibling off the hook; or an adult giving her child a shallow apology that focuses more on how much she is struggling, rather than acknowledging and validating her kid’s emotions. I suppose the takeaway in these unsatisfying “resolutions” might be that family dynamics are complicated, and that sometimes complex family conflicts aren’t resolved in a satisfying way. But still, these underwhelming resolutions – and really, the book as a whole – left me wanting more conclusiveness.

Also, as other reviewers have mentioned, there were too many main characters in this novel. There were 7 different perspectives being followed throughout the story: the Sorenson parents, their four daughters, and a daughter’s once-secret son. While I appreciated seeing the intricate family dynamic from so many different angles, I also thought that some of the character development suffered from the author trying to do too much. Specifically, the two youngest daughters of the family, Liza and Grace, and the no-longer-secret son, Jonah, all seemed underdeveloped to me. It was especially disappointing that Jonah was an underdeveloped character, because as an outsider to the Sorenson family in many ways, he is able to provide a fresh perspective on their strange dynamic, as well as their wealth and privilege. In my opinion, the entire story could have been told from the perspective of three or four main characters – with one of those perspectives being Jonah’s – and nothing substantial would have been lost.

This review is actually turning out to be more negative than I had intended. Overall, I thought The Most Fun We Ever Had was an enjoyable and entertaining read. But given the book’s length and scope, I expected more from it! And speaking of the book’s length, I didn’t explicitly address this yet, but the book could have been at least 120 pages shorter. Anyway, I recommend this book for a fun read, but I don’t quite see it as a contender for the Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist.

Side notes:

  1. Minor spoiler alert, but this book had WAY too many scenes where characters get caught/watched having sex (or foreplay that is going to lead to sex). And, yes, there was more than one scene like that!
  2. I’m surprised by how many of the WP longlist books feature “rich people problems” – this is the third book I’ve read from the longlist to do so.

Month in review: March 2020

So…March was…strange (as I’m sure you can all relate to). My husband and I are now on day 20 of quarantine, and I have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, I worry about things like finding a new job and being able to go to my friend’s wedding this summer. I also miss hanging out with friends and going to my favorite community spots, and I feel general anxiety over the state of the world. But in the grand scheme of things, I am only moderately inconvenienced by the quarantine, and (although I feel spoiled saying this) some positive things have come out of the extended time off – like realizing that it actually isn’t too complicated to work remotely, and having more time than usual for yoga and reading.

Books read:

Books in progress/April reading goals:

I’m currently reading Actress by Anne Enright. So far, I am loving the author’s writing style; the plot has not compelled me as much as the writing, but I’m not very far into the book so things can still change. I also plan to read Red at the Bone, The Most Fun We Ever Had, and A Thousand Ships this month.

Posts that stuck with me:

I also want to shout out the bloggers who are reading through the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist! It has been wonderful to read their takes on the novels, and to feel a sense of bookish community. You can find some great WP longlist coverage on Rachel, Callum, Gilana, Naty, Hannah, and Corey‘s blogs.

Cat photos!!!