Saturday, October 31, 2015

two books by Kim Thúy

Ru
by Kim Thúy, translated by Sheila Fischmann
Random House Canada, 2012 (originally published in French in 2009)
141 pages

Mãn
by Kim Thúy, translated by Sheila Fischmann
Random House Canada, 2014 (originally published in French in 2013)
139 pages

Here's a thing I don't do often: read a book, and then immediately go out and find whatever I can by the same author and read that too. I did it in this case. And the strange thing is that - I liked Ru. I respected Ru. I didn't think I'd loved it. But perhaps, in some way that my own brain didn't quite clue in to, I did? It helped, too, that Mãn had just come out very recently, and working in a library, I had it to hand immediately.

It's a little hard to hang on to either of these books in specifics, in that they don't have much in the way of characters or plot. But they do have imagery and tone, and somehow Kim Thúy has managed to make those the driving force of Ru, and to a lesser extent Mãn. The latter does have more plot, and significantly more character. This may or may not be a good thing; I liked them both, and originally thought of Mãn as being the stronger, and underrated. But it's Ru that has stuck with me more clearly. Both explore the life of a woman who has come from Vietnam, as a refugee (in Ru) or after the war (in Mãn). The war plays a large role in both these novels, as does the experience of coming to a new country - in this case, Canada - and making a life here.

One of the meanings for the word "ru" is lullaby - Thúy explains this at the beginning of the book. In many ways, Ru struck me as a series of images that might bubble up before sleep. Ru and Mãn don't even really have chapters; they have paragraphs, or sections. Sometimes a section is a line or two long. Sometimes it's three, maybe five pages. I'm not sure there were any sections longer than that. Each is a painstakingly crafted image, memory, or moment, from a first person perspective. The narrator can be a bit dry, or maybe a better way to describe her is "reserved," but one gets the impression that she is always trying to be honest. Some of the sections are connected. Some of them are not, other than they have the same narrator.

Both start fairly slowly, especially because (to me at least) the format can come as a bit of a shock. Because neither book is structured as a typical novel, and without the usual components like a solid, chronological plot or dialogue or conventional characterization to hang on to, one can feel a bit adrift for the first little while. I worried about this, when I started Ru, because it's not a long book. I needn't have worried.

The books - most especially Ru, but Mãn as well, to a lesser extent - unfold like a series of beautiful blossoms, each page or section a memory, hanging off each other like a delicate string of pearls. If you hold them lightly, something wonderful happens. The reader does a lot of the work, filling in blanks. Nothing is explicit. But gradually a picture begins to develop - of Vietnam, of the life of a "displaced" person, of how a person can break apart and slowly be put back together, but never again without scars. Mãn, with its more explicit plot, does a lot more of the work for the reader. Which means that though I think it's stronger in some ways - it gives one more to sink one's teeth into - it also imposes itself on the reader, where Ru almost feels like it comes from within.

Neither one of these books will take you very long to read. And both are worth it. But if you're going to read just one, read Ru. Be prepared to open yourself to it, no matter how slow or odd it seems at first, as a reading experience; you will be rewarded.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

I have this little thing, called a blog? And I used to write about books? And then one day I just stopped.

And then one day I just started again. So here we go. Bear with me, I'm incredibly rusty.

Fangirl
by Rainbow Rowell
St. Martin's Griffin, 2013
422 pages

Once upon a long time ago I read a book called Fangirl. It was one of the first books I read this year, in fact. And I loved it. The end.

No no, there's more - and I'm not going to do the book justice, of course, because I read it nearly a year ago, but here's the thing: I read this nearly a year ago, quite quickly, and I still think about it regularly and with a fair amount of clarity. The thing is, it's not just a nice book - and it is, a really nice book, where nice things happen and people are kind and awkward and lovely and maybe sometimes a bit mean but they aren't just awful for no reason. They all have reasons, and they are all sympathetic, even when they are not good reasons. There's no forced love triangle, there's no insta-love, there's no easy answers; there are just good people trying to work their way around being individuals and members of families and friends, which is not always easy and provides enough drama to make an engaging, charming, intelligent book.

More than just being a nice book, Rowell's writing makes the reading of it seem effortless. It's an easy read. It goes down smoothly. It's funny in the right parts, and tense in the right parts, and moving in the right parts. The pacing is absolutely dead on. I was worried that the excerpts from Cath's fanfic would stall things, or be uncomfortable to read (in the way that fiction-within-fiction can sometimes just be... weird) but those excerpts were delightful. I can see why people want to read more Simon Snow.

Me, I'll be reading more Rowell, regardless of whom she's writing about. Thoroughly enjoyed, highly recommended.