September 2019 | Books & Links

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Thursday 26th September 2019

September has been a frustrating month in books, but a good month in non-fiction articles. I’ve abandoned two novels and stubbornly completed two others even though I promised myself at the start of this year that I would freely abandon bad books. There are so many good books out there and not enough hours in a day to read them all, so I really shouldn’t be wasting my time on books I don’t love, but there we go. Old habits die hard.

Fiction

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous – Ocean Vuong

I don’t really know what to make of this one. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is written by Vietanamese-American poet Ocean Vuong and is his first novel. It takes the form of a letter between ‘Little Dog’, a protagonist whose lived experience closely, but perhaps not completely, mirrors that of the author, and his mother, who cannot read English.

Through beautiful prose, and there are moments where I wanted to stop and savour a sentence or paragraph for how perfectly it is written, Little Dog’s life and experience of being ‘other’ to mainstream American society (he is Vietnamese and gay) in the United States unfolds. Themes include domestic violence, PTSD and the Vietnam war, drug addiction (the discussion of OxyContin addiction feels particularly timely given this month’s proposed bankruptcy filing by Purdue Pharma), and the challenges faced by migrant communities in the United States.

My trouble with this book is that I felt like the poetic prose was a distraction and at times covers up a lack of story. Ocean loves the English language, and his poetry beginnings are apparent on every page of On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. There are moments where the novel is lyrical but flowing, for example at the beginning of sections 1 and 3 where the reader learns about the lives of his mother Rose, his grandmother Lan, his early childhood experiences and his teenage relationship with Trevor, but there are also big chunks of the book where wordplay takes over and I had no idea what was going on, or what Ocean was trying to say. The story breaks down at these points which is a shame because the glimpses I gathered of it were beautiful and left me wanting more. I hope that in future works he strikes a different balance between wordplay and plot, but I feel that this one leans too far towards the poetry end of the spectrum for me. It’s a little like works by Ali Smith in that sense; experimental, poetic and open to many different interpretations, but frustrating if you’re hoping for a narrative driven reading experience.

For people who can’t stand to read about animal abuse, be warned. There is a repeating motif of animal abuse in On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, and I almost put the book down when it first appeared like I did with Yanagihara’s People in the Trees earlier this year. I know it’s fiction and not real, but I can’t stand to read it. Only the knowledge that I had already abandoned two books this month and wanted to complete something made me persevere. I will keep an eye on future works by Ocean Vuong as I think he is a good writer. This book just didn’t do it for me as there wasn’t enough story to balance the prose.

Once Upon a River – Diane Setterfield

From a novel with lots of style but not much story, to one where story is, nominally, front and centre, I put down On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous and picked up Diane Setterfield’s Once Upon a River. I loved fantasty as a genre when I was a teenager and in my early twenties, but I’ve had an uneasy time with it lately. I often get frustrated by the gender stereotypes perpetuated by writers in the genre. Typically, men hold the power, women stay in the kitchen and raise the children, and the invariably historical setting doesn’t help matters as writers attempt to ‘stay true’ to historical gender norms and dynamics. These shortcomings of fantasy are all present in Once Upon a River, though to Setterfield’s credit she has written a novel with historically accurate sexism and racism without writing a sexist or racist story. Still, when so much of the plot breaks from reality and enters the fantastical, I do question why she felt the need to maintain historical accuracy in the first place.

I didn’t love this one. A few niggles aside (and I will come to those) the story is engaging enough to begin with, but by the middle of the book I was bored and it felt like a chore to keep turning the pages. I finished it because I’m stubborn, because I’ve had a bad month in books where I’ve started and abandoned two others and finished an overhyped but disappointing third, and because I wanted to know what the ending was although I didn’t care much for how the story arrived there. In the end I skim read the final 150 pages, which is something I reserve for books that I’ve sunk more time into than I would like before realising, or rather accepting, that they’re not for me.

Once Upon a River is structured as a traditional folk tale relayed by an omniscient narrator. I found this irritating, as for me the narration didn’t really add much to the story other than a padded word count and a slightly twee feel. The writing is simple, but drawn out and repetitive with plenty of moments that made me roll my eyes. For example, within the first 100 pages of the book the narrator recounts the experiences of several different characters in the day before the four year old child who is at the centre of the story is pulled from the river. Each chapter and section ends with the narrator claiming that the character in question had a sense that ‘something is going to happen’. This just felt trite and lazy. Better writing would have had the characters explore their sense of foreboding letting the reader get a sense of what was coming as well as develop an affinity for the character in question. A subtle approach, rather than the clumsy sledgehammer device Setterfield has chosen. Once Upon a River is not a short book, coming in at 416 pages, but the clunky narration takes the place of character development, which is my other main issue with this book. Although the story itself should have been compelling – a dead child is pulled from a river in the middle of winter before coming to life again, nobody knows who she is, but several different parties claim her to be theirs – I found that I just didn’t care. There are too many hollow characters, and the plot meanders as much as the river does but it doesn’t really go anywhere of interest.

I’m unsure how this book can have received so many rave reviews. Others have described it as compelling, immersive, spellbinding, but for me it just fell flat.

Articles & Links

A fascinating long read all about a Dutch gallerist who made thousands of forged paintings, passing them off to art buyers and auctions as genuine before being caught.

Published in 2011, this beautiful piece tells the true story of Hiromitsu Shinkawa who survived the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami that hit north-east Japan. After the tsunami smashed into his home he survived for three days on the roof of his house, borne by a wave nine miles out at sea.

An article about pitch, timbre and how recording and broadcast technology has a gender bias. Women’s voices are typically higher pitched than men’s as a result of our physiology, so the design of recording and broadcast technology to correspond to a typical man’s vocal range exacerbates the situation wherby women can sound ‘shrill’ or ‘piercing’ over the airwaves. I’m now curious to find out what frequency or pitch my regular speaking voice is.

A Polish-American’s thoughts on and experience of the ongoing protests in Hong Kong after attending some of the marches in August.

It’s really rare these days for me to hear a song by a band I’ve never heard before and stop in my tracks, first listen. Sorority Noise did that to me this month with their song ‘No Halo’ which came out in 2017. I used to get this feeling all the time when I was a teenager and in my early twenties but as I get older and become more settled in myself I find it harder to connect with the lyrics of bands who are often a decade or more younger than me. I guess it’s an inevitable part of ageing. I’m glad to see I can still be moved by new post-hardcore and emo songs though.

Abandoned

Purge – Sofi Oksanen

I gave up on Purge after 60 pages. I didn’t hate it, I just didn’t love it enough to want to pick it up each night and found myself reading articles on my phone instead. Usually that’s a good sign for me that it’s time to move on to something else, and so I did. I still struggle with giving up on books. I feel guilty for not seeing something through, but I also know that reading out of guilt or a sense of duty or obligation (because a book is a ‘must read’ or has good reviews, or sounds like it should be something I’d love) leads to long periods of time where I don’t read anything at all.

Free Food for Millionaires – Min Jin Lee

I have had this book on my reservations list at the library since I read Pachinko back in May. It finally came through and, knowing that I likely wouldn’t be able to renew it as there’s a long list of holds on it, I gave up reading Purge so that I could move Free Food up my reading queue and on to my bedside table. I had high hopes for Free Food as I really enjoyed Pachinko, but sadly it just didn’t live up to my expectations.

Like Pachinko, Free Food for Millionaires is another epic cross-generational family saga, this time telling the story of a Korean-American woman who graduates from a top college and searches around trying to find a job and a place in society. The trouble is, both the writing and the storyline fall flat. The writing doesn’t flow all that well, the perspective is all over the place shuffling from one character’s thoughts to another in the same paragraph, characters are introduced in such a way that it becomes obvious what will happen in their lives, and the descriptions are lazy and forced. The book is also far too long, with long periods of time where nothing really happens.

My main issue with the book though is the characters. I just didn’t care enough about Casey or Ella to keep on reading and I couldn’t stand Sabine. They’re vapid, shallow characters and I never really warmed to any of them. I kept reading to page 229, partly because I expected the book to improve as Pachinko was so good, partly because I didn’t want to have yet another ‘abandon’ on my list. Ultimately though, I gave up. I knew that if I wasted another couple of nights on finishing the next 300 pages it would be to finish the book and move on to something else rather than because of a genuine interest in or enjoyment of the novel.

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