Read: The Wangs vs. the world: a novel by Jade Chang

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I must confess, I had seen this book around recently and finally curiosity got the best of me and I just had to read it. I’m not sure what it was exactly, I don’t believe I had read any book reviews but there was just something about the title and the cover that intrigued me. What a great novel!

The Wangs vs. the world is about a Chinese American family who has lost almost everything due to their father’s bad investments and the 2008 financial crisis: their home, their money, their cars. With only the little money on hand and an old car that they had sold for cheap to their family friend/nanny, dejected Charles Wang, his second wife and his high school daughter set off on the necessary road trip across America to pick up his forced-to-be-a-college-dropout son and head to his oldest daughter’s farm house in upstate New York. Each family member deals with the loss and coming to terms with their new reality in their own way and Chang captures each character’s worries and struggles well.

Jade Chang’s writing is vivid and engaging, channeling lots of passion especially with Charles. The descriptions and dialogue are well-crafted, often packing a punch or digging deep into emotions that make the novel feel more true to life. To me, this type of writing makes reading very enjoyable and the pages nearly turn themselves.

One decision that some readers may dislike is the inclusion of the Chinese language used in dialogue in the novel. While there isn’t a translation provided, typically the content around it help to understand what was said without one. However, Chang uses the Romanized Chinese instead of the traditional Chinese characters so it is easy enough to look up the translation if desired. This didn’t bother me at all and in fact it added more authenticity to the story. Overall, it is a very very small portion of dialogue. If anything, there probably should have been more of it. Also, the chapters are numbered in Chinese, which is a simple touch as a constant reminder that they are Chinese Americans that stand out in the county.

While the novel rotates between the several characters with common themes of love and lust, worrying about the past and future, the main theme is family. With all of its complications, it is clear that each of the Wangs comes to realize that it is the most important part of life and sometimes it takes adversity to point it out.

Recommended?: Yes! Many readers will enjoy this novel, whether you are Chinese American or not. Family is family, no matter who you are so everyone can find something to connect with in the novel. The same can be said about the other main themes. Since this is her debut novel, I can hardly wait to see what else she writes!

The Wangs versus the world book cover

Read: The boat rocker: a novel by Ha Jin

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Having enjoyed Ha Jin’s Waiting, when I saw this book on my local public library’s shelves, I immediately checked it out. Jin is a Chinese author who writes realistic novels about everyday people and their difficulties and daily struggles in life. The boat rocker focuses on Chinese expatriate Feng Danlin who is a journalist in New York city, trying to eek out a living by exposing truth in a world in which people love flashy headlines and are less interested in details.

Jin’s writing is engrossing and fluid, making for a fairly quick read. In addition, the novel contains many poignant quotes about society, government, politics, and the media. Although it’s written about China, it could apply to any country including the US right now.

In such circumstances, a decent citizen should stand up to the government. History has taught us that no country is qualified for the moral high ground. An intellectual’s role is not to serve the state but to keep a close watch on it so that it may not turn abusive, oppressive, justice, freedom, and equality as universal values.

The story is mysterious and draws the reader in. Danlin’s ex-wife is promoting her first novel which will be translated into 30 languages right away and touting the fact that she already has a movie deal worth millions for it. He knows it’s a lie and that while there may be a book, there’s no way it’s good enough to warrant the praise she’s claiming, so he sets out to disprove her lies by exposing them in cutthroat articles interrogating the false claims. However, it’s unclear just what’s going on and who is controlling it, and just how high up the scheme goes.

The tone itself feels like a mystery novel in some ways but it is not a whodunit in the classic sense and there are no bodies or clues to examine. This ambiance adds to the charm of the novel and gives it more depth. It’s not just a story of a man jealous of his ex-wife’s success and trying to ruin her good fortune; she is conniving and exaggerating reality and those around her that are enabling also have much to gain in the US as well as China and they hope all over the world if her success is believed by everyone.

In the end, Danlin is let with not much as money and power prevail over the truth-seeking journalist who won’t quit. But he continues to fight, no matter what, for what is right. While not the happiest ending, it seems like the most fitting for not only this novel but in the present given all of the current events.

Recommended?: Yes, to everyone especially those concerned with recent current events and the media in the United States. While not directly related, certainly the topics and issues brought up in the novel do have some parallels and are interesting to consider.
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Read: The dinner: a novel by Herman Koch

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Dutch novelist Herman Koch’s The dinner: a novel is an eerie read that becomes more horrific over the course of the meal. While it’s true that the characters have dinner at a fancy restaurant, The dinner has as much to do with food as Die hard has to do with Christmas. It’s the backdrop but has little to do with the plot.

Since the novel was translated into English, I will give the benefit of the doubt that the occasional clunkiness of the writing is due to the translation. So, I will set aside discussing the writing itself. 

As far as the story goes, it starts off slow and the reader is trying to figure out what exactly is going on along with the main character Paul. Paul and his wife are meeting his brother and his wife for dinner but with his brother’s political aspirations, dinner is as much about image as the purpose of that dinner if not more. The reader realizes as the night progresses, along with Paul, that the agenda is to discuss the poor decisions and bad behavior of their teenage kids and how to deal with it. But they have anything but a frank discussion and from Paul’s memories it is clear that he and his brother have a rocky relationship.

SPOILERS TO FOLLOW

The manner in which the truth of what the sons did unfolds is presented in a meandering way. Small, unclear pieces begin to fill in and then as more pieces are add, the shock value only continues to increase until it surpasses any additional meaning and the reader becomes numb to the facts as the parents try to resume their typical lives as if nothing happened. The sons, it’s revealed, murdered a homeless woman sleeping in an ATM machine that they wanted to use; the verbally and physically abused her before killing her and it was filmed by a grainy security camera, as well as a cell phone by the brother’s adopted son who was now blackmailing the boys for money. While their actions themselves are horrific, it’s almost more shocking the extent that Paul, his wife, and his brother’s wife go to scheme and protect the boys working against the brother who wants to come clean so he can be elected Prime Minister. This family certainly has issues and they are well conveyed.

The entire novel consists of one evening of the four parents having dinner at the fancy restaurant. All additional scenes are Paul’s memories as he contemplates how they got to this point and his strained relationship with his brother. It makes sense in a way for the setting to be such a public venue where they are on display but it is odd as it’s revealed what the true topic of discussion, although it’s clear that no one wants to actually talk about what their sons did.

At times, it felt too much but I felt compelled to read on, but it continues to get more and more awful. Paul is violent, even towards his brother, and his son is following in his footsteps. This makes him a difficult first-person narriator to read. However, in the end, he pulls back and shows maturity in knowing that he must have restraint despite what others expect from him.

Recommended: For anyone who can’t get enough of shocking dramas and escalating situations. There’s lots of violence and physical abuse as the novel progresses, with quite descriptive passages, which aren’t for everyone. Most readers probably won’t enjoy this novel but it’s a creative idea so I will look into Koch’s other books at some point.

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Read: The Night Stranger: a Novel by Chris Bohjalian

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The Night Strangers: a Novel by Chris Bohjalian is a mix of a pilot’s post-traumatic stress after a failed water landing and loss of most of passengers and crew and a New England small town scary story. Chip and Emily Linton move with their two twin 10-year-old girls from Philadelphia to a Bethel, NH for a new start and to keep Chip from the media’s critical eye. Haunted by ghosts of passengers in a creepy old house with its own torrid history and besieged by nefarious yet friendly rural townspeople, this family was doomed from the start.

Since the premise is so detailed, let’s start there. At first, choosing to include a failed water landing in Lake Champlain seems like a throw-away, attention-grabbing background for the main character Chip, Bohjalian truly makes it his own and uses all factors of such an event in his novel. The best use is his desciptions of the wet ghosts and how Chip can feel the water and see it soak into carpet and leave puddles on floors. That alone shows that he integrates that stark, bold fact (that could so easily be otherwise over-the-top and meaningless) so well into his story that it becomes a core part. Similarly, the herbalists (a.k.a. witches) could also have become a stock, stereotypical cult but once again Bohajalian makes them unique to his world and distinct in their own way. The use of greenhouses and the all-natural lifestyle help develop a new take on the classic witch and coven.

The overall story and mood of the novel are reminiscent of the original Stepford Housewives movie, especially with the herbalists unrelenting desire to make the Lintons part of their group. However, the rest of the town knows better than to become friends with them so they are left to their own insular group. Emily was warned briefly when she first arrived to the town but everyone feared interfering once the herbalists began courting the new family with twins.

The book itself alternates between chapters written in third persons and second. The third mainly follows Emily Linton but sometimes focuses on the twin girls. The second person is solely for Chip Linton and meant to bring the reader in closer to him and his experiences with the tormenting ghosts. For me, though, second person forces me out of a story as it is so imperative and commanding (“You see…”, “You feel…”, etc.). I think too much instead of just following what the character is doing; it reminds me that I am sitting in my chair reading and so distracts me from the story, just enough to pull me out of the moment caught up in the book. Maybe for other readers it is different, but it’s not a literary device that I enjoy although I understand why Bohjalian uses it.

Overall, The Night Strangers is a strange, enchanting read. I started the book witha physical copy and then switched over to an audiobook which had a female part reading the third person and a male voice for the second person. This made the story more compelling since it alternates fairly often and kept my interest even more. The writing itself is also quite lovely, for the most part. These are part of what kept me reading despite this type of book not being something that I would normally pick up.

Recommended?: It depends. If you like an eerie read, one filled with ghosts, witches and warlocks–I mean herbalists, a haunted house, possession, murder, and some horror then this book is for you. Bohjalian also doesn’t shy away from describing injuries in detail so there is a bit of gore as well. Since he has so many other novels, there is a variety of his works to choose from if this particular one isn’t enticing. He’s more well known for some of his other works and his latest The Sleepwalker is due out in January 2017. I will certainly keep him in mind when I want a quicker read in the future, although he will be farther down the list than others since there are just too many books that I want to get through.

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Read: The other Wes Moore: one name, two fates by Wes Moore

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The other Wes Moore: one name, two fates is a fascinating that is part memoir and part biography about two men from Baltimore growing up at the same time with the same name. As the subtitle suggests, their lives diverge and are polar opposites despite their oddly similar beginnings.

The audiobook is read by the author himself, which makes the story even interesting. It is a great way to enjoy the book since Moore does a wonderful job of reading and has great dynamics and intonation. Listening as an audiobook also adds more emotion to the story since there are many difficult times and passages for both men.

Despite having eerily similar family situations and starting environments, each Wes Moore makes decisions early on that set them on different paths but it isn’t until middle/high school that their lives become set. The author could have ended up like the other Wes Moore if his mom hadn’t made drastic changes and stretched their financial resources to ensure that his life was better than hers. He was sent to military school that in fact straightened him out whereas the other Wes Moore didn’t have the same opportunities and his mom struggled to support their family so like his brother he began dealing drugs to make copious amounts of money and couldn’t quit it for good then ended up in prison after a robbery was interrupted. Clearly environment as well as nurture played important roles in shaping both of their lives, for better and worse.

This is another timely book even though it is several years old. In a way, it reminds me somewhat of Between the world and me by Ta-Nehisi Coates and is a good pair to it.

Recommended?: Yes, for anyone who enjoys a memoir and is interested in reading about two very different lives of black men from Baltimore. It is a serious book but there is a lot to learn from it and certainly worth a read.

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Read: Go set a watchman by Harper Lee

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Due to the controversy of whether or not this book should have been publisher and if it was despite Harper Lee’s previous wishes, I decided not to read it when it first came out. However, the copy at the public library recently intrigued me enough that I figured it was time. Another initial reason for not picking it up soon was the fact that it received mediocre to poor reviews as a novel. To be fair, while Go set a watchman is technically a sequel, it is no To kill a mockingbird which it seems many people expected.

First, there is some history that needs to be addressed for this novel. Go set a watchman was written before To kill a mockingbird, even though it is set after her famous novel. The story focuses on Jean Louise Finch (a.k.a. Scout) still but she is 26 and returning to Maycomb on her annual visit, having moved to New York. It is written in third person, unlike the famous first person of To kill a mockingbird. Also, most of the characters that we know and love are already present in this novel but some are very different, namely Atticus. As a person who dabbles in writing, I can tell you that characters change and grow (or morph) from the first writing to their final incarnation. So, since Lee wrote this novel in the 1950s and likely did little to no editing before it was published in 2015 means that it should surprise no one that it isn’t the same Maycomb nor the same exact characters. To me, this feels like a precursor exercise to her later written To kill a mockingbird that was never meant for publication. So it shouldn’t be described as a sequel; it’s a standalone work that happens to have somewhat the same setting and similar characters. It always breaks my heart when an unfinished or unintended work is published usually after the author dies but it is fairly common.

Putting all of that aside, let’s focus on just Go set a watchman as a single novel. The topic itself is oddly quite timely in America right now. Jean Louise returns home to be shocked by the level of racism in her hometown and is upset that her good friend and presumed sweetheart Henry along with her father Atticus aren’t opposing it more. She disagrees with their approach to toe the line just enough so that they can stay aware of what heinous acts active racists might do so that they can stop or prosecute them. After a black man accidentally runs over a drunk white man and kills him, Atticus gets into a fight with Jean Louise and it’s at that point that she realizes he views blacks as less-than-human who need to slowly be integrated into white society so that they don’t fail and so she throughly disagrees with him. Part of his reasoning is that it is just his generation as well as trying to live civilly in small, racist community without being alienated. With the current racial violence plaguing the country and such a divisive presidential election recently, the topic itself surely struck a chord with me while reading it. Also the n-word is used about 10-15 at least, especially towards the end, which only further emphasizes the tension and hated of that Maycomb. As Jean Louise references the case that her father tried when she was little, the main focus in To kill a mockingbird, she believes that the town and her father have drastically changed on her but as she comes to realize that perhaps she just never saw it before and now it’s just coming to the forefront which is what truly bothers her.

While the topic is racism is addressed, the novel is truly about Jean Louise and her reckoning with the fact that she sees her father for the first time as a flawed person with whom she utterly disagrees with when it comes to blacks and their treatment. For the first two-thirds, the story describes Jean Louise’s homecoming interspersed with memories from her childhood, especially of Jem her brother. Not long into the novel, it’s revealed that Jem died young and suddenly due to a heart attack–like their mother. While there are many reasons for this plot decision, it mainly adds another emotional struggle for her returning home and makes it even more difficult for her to have her idyllic image of her father smashed. Jean Louise is a strong, opinionated woman yet falls back into the childhood mindset and attitude. Due to this, the overall plot is slower-paced as we mainly follow her around Maycomb and interacting with family, friends, and townspeople of the past. The last third picks up with the struggle of her dealing with the town’s and her family’s varying degrees of racist views. In the end, she comes to some semblance of terms with it, due to her uncle ‘s harsh reasoning with her. However, it is unclear whether she will move back and marry Henry or return to New York and only continue to visit annually.

Recommended?: It depends. If you are hoping for a direct sequel of To kill a mockingbird, then you will likely be disappointed. If you can think of this work as separate from it and are curious about the original characters and backstory then you may appreciate this novel. Overall, I didn’t find it compelling and since I disagree with it being published since it seems unfinished, it wasn’t as enjoyable for me. For anyone who has read it, I’d like to know what you think.

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Shelved: Outlander: a novel by Diana Gabaldon

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Outlander: a novel by Diana Gabaldon inspired the now famous tv show that the author has a personal hand in creating. Being a fan of the show, I figured that the books would offer me more insight into the world and characters while waiting for the next season. Claire has just been reunited with her husband Frank after WWII in which he was stationed as a soldier in a different place than she was as a nurse. They are on vacation in Scotland to rekindle their marital romance and start a family but Claire is transported almost 200 years into the past at a mysterious prehistoric stone structure. She is found by highlanders who are battling the English for rights with the Jacobite rebellion looming ever closer. She tries to get back to the ruins to try and return home but it’s difficult to do especially while pretending to be an English lady from that era to explain herself.

Read 206 pages (22%–Goodreads) before shelving it.

Reason: Unfortunately, Gabaldon has done such a great job making the show so similar to the books that I feel like I am reading the script. While reading, the corresponding scenes play in my mind as if I am watching tv instead of reading a book. It’s really odd and not in a good way.

Finish in the future?: No. There’s no need since the show is a great version of it.