BTT ~ All Things Vietnamese

There are certain types of books that I more or less assume all readers read. (Novels, for example.)

But then there are books that only YOU read. Instructional manuals for fly-fishing. How-to books for spinning yarn. How to cook the perfect souffle. Rebuilding car engines in three easy steps. Dog training for dummies. Rewiring your house without electrocuting yourself. Tips on how to build a NASCAR course in your backyard. Stuff like that.

What niche books do YOU read?

As many of you may know, my youngest, Maggie, is half-Vietnamese.  Now, in my honest opinion, it should be her dad teaching her all things Vietnamese.  However, that’s not often the case.  And the distance between him and us also makes it a bit more difficult for him to impart his cultural wisdom to her.  So I read what I can, then pass it along.

Some of the Vietnam-related books I have are cookbooks, with stains on several pages… Pho Bo gets made a lot, as does Mung Bean soup.  I also have a Kinh Tanh (Vietnamese Bible), and an English-Vietnamese dictionatry.  I’ve read The Boat by Nam Le and also interviewed him.  And I’m always on the lookout for Vietnamese kids books and folklore books.

That’s our little niche, what’s yours?

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Edited to add this vid clip. I felt so incomplete leaving this post without any media. For the most part, the recipe in this video is how I make Pho Bo, except I don’t use meatballs, nor have I ever ate anyone else’s soup that did. What we always do is slice a nice cut of beef paper thin, put the raw beef strips on the top of the noodles and everthing else, and when you pour the hot broth over it, the beef cooks. Very nice that way. Interesting point, btw, I char the ginger on my electric stove’s coils… so ghetto, I know, but it’s the only way I can do it.

YUM!

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The Sunday Salon -Tan Lines and Lemonade Stands

The Sunday Salon.com

For some reason, I feel this week has been very unproductive. I’ve really only read one book this week, Tan Lines. I finished Sana Krasikov’s One More Year, and I’m about halfway through The Sleeping Doll by Jeffery Deavers.

I did receive a nomination for the Brilliante Weblog Premio 2008 award, finished my interview with Nam Le, author of The Boat. Technocrati set spiders loose, LT recommendations were discussed and favorite lines from books were shared.  But I still only read one book. 😦

Part of the reason for only reading one book is I can’t seem to keep away from the computer.  If I would just keep my happy butt off of it I could get some things done.  That problem will be remedied this week since Sammi, my 15-year-old, has come back from her dad’s and she’ll be taking over the ‘puter.  A second impediment to reading this week is people won’t leave me alone!  I no sooner than crack the spine and the phone rings or there’s a knock at the door.  Someone selling Amway products came by this week… Amway?!  I thought they were run out of the country back in the 80’s. 

Friday and Saturday I got nothing read… at all.  No, correct that, I got the same paragraph read… over and over… of Julius Caesar’s The Conquest of Gaul.  Mags had Vacation Bible School this week and Friday was the program for their families.  Then she was invited to go to Indiana Beach, so she had a Fresh Baked Cookies and Lemonade stand yesterday.

Okay, when did a child showing inititive and motivation become the equivelent to begging? My stinky-head neighbors (the ones I don’t like) treated her like a leper because she was hawking her wares. She gave up on the stand after an hour and took her products door to door (just on our block where I could see her). She made enough to go, but her friend never came and picked her up to go. What the heck happened to decency? If her mom had decided she couldn’t take a friend, or if she’d picked a different friend as her plus one, she could’ve called to let Mags know. People!

-)

Mags and Sam with their blue tongues 🙂

Then, of course, Sam came home and wanted to get her 3-weeks-attention last night. Mags missed her, as did their friend across the street, and they played until 10:30 to 11 o’clock last night.

So, here I am… nothing much in the way of bookish things to report. Last week was the fair, this week… not much excuse. Next week I’m gonna make it up and get three books done. I swear!! 😀

Oh, I almost forgot! My First Ever Giveaway!! has 691 entries. Prizes are now the $20 Borders gift card, plus two $10, and a $5 gift card. Another 9 entries, and I’m throwing in another $5, which makes the total prizes add up to $50. But, I’m thinking 700 entries is pretty monumental, so I’m giving the grand prize winner a mystery prize to boot. So don’t forget to enter!

An Interview With Nam Le

I’m so excited to announce my first author interview! A couple weeks back I read and reviewed The Boat by Nam Le, and was very impressed with his writing and the stories. Shortly after reading the first story, Love and Honour, I asked Le if he would be willing to do a Q & A interview with me, and he was gracious enough to agree.

First off, I want to say that Nam Le is very personable, friendly, and down to earth. The emails back and forth was just like receiving email from a friend, even remembering my daughter’s name. His answers show he took time to consider his answers, and I was impressed that he treated the questions of a blogger with as much respect as an interviewer from a major newspaper.

And now, In the Shadow of Mt. TBR’s first author interview

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Q: I know you’ve been asked this several times in interviews, but this is the question that made me want to do my first Q & A with you. The narrator in the first story shares so much with you, same name, work history and Iowa Writer’s Workshop, how much of the first story is autobiographical?

A: It depends on your definition. Certainly the protagonist shares my name, and many of my circumstances, but of course it’s arguable that all fictional characters are, through their elements, frankensteined from ‘real life’. (I don’t mean that flippantly!) A lot of people assume that it’s easier cribbing from ‘life’ than from ‘imagination’ (a distinction that’s false on many fronts, not the least of which is because both are unavoidably mediated – and complicated – by consciousness (not to mention the vagaries of memory)), but in fact I reckon it’s much more difficult. Why? Because me being me – that is, me being supported by my own entire subjective infrastructure – I’ll almost always find my accounting of my own experience more compelling, more resonant, than readers who can only go by my words on the page. Writing from autobiography can tend to be a selfish enterprise that way. And as a writer, I feel it’s my responsibility to make the words on the page as charged and suggestive as possible – for a set of readers bigger than just myself!

Here’s another proof that the first story isn’t straight reportage from my life: ‘real life’ is hopelessly messy whereas my story is pretty ruthlessly determined. It deals, to an almost painful extent, with cliché, with hackneyed conventions: the blocked, alcoholic writer, the close-mouthed father, the story spewed out overnight in an inspired rush, its single (typewritten!) copy then burned (in a gasoline drum!), etc, etc. I contrived this story in this way to show up the contrivance – the artifice – of such stories – as well as the body of assumptions we readers bring to such stories – whilst attempting to nevertheless get some truth or feeling across. Art, after all, is – at its best – a lie that tells us the truth, and here I needed some of the truth from my own life to improve the lie.

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Q: The Boat as a book and you as a writer are receiving a lot of attention from critics and the media. How surprised are you by this, and how are you dealing with it?

A: I’m very surprised, and I’m dealing with it as best I can! That is, with gratefulness, as well as guilt – and some grog thrown in – for the chances my book’s received that other books haven’t. It’s got to be said, of course, that expectations are so low for short story collections in general – let alone debut collections – that any attention at all is gravy. I’ll be first to admit how lucky I’ve been – most of all for the incomparable team of folks that have supported me and the book. When it comes down to it, you write to put your hand up for a conversation – with other readers, writers, and books that have inspired you – so it’s a thrill to think that this book’s getting called on.

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Q: Some of the stories in The Boat seem to not have an official ending, the reader just seems to exit the scene before the end. Did you write these so as to leave it open-ended for the reader to interpret, or are they endings more of a resolution of the characters’ emotions?

A: I like that you used the word ‘official’ – part of my personality balks at anything official, and so I guess it goes with these stories. That’s the easy answer. The tough question highlights the fact that each of these stories has its own type of ending. When you say some of them ‘exit the scene before the end’ I think that’s telling: it posits an assumed or expected end (though of course it’s not the end – the end before the end is the end … are we clear yet?) There’s a tired (though not entirely legless) workshop axiom that endings should be ‘surprising but inevitable.’ Here’s how I see it. First, my stories are longer than the average so having laid down all the narrative threads it would stretch credulity to have them tied up at the same time. Second, there’s nothing like having a clear end in sight to make the intervening stuff feel like filler; I ideally strive to command the reader’s full attention at every moment in the story. Third – a clear endpoint enhances the power of a bait and switch. And isn’t it all bait and switch? I largely adhere to the idea that there are few clean resolutions in life; that even epiphanic moments come broken and bruised and bent out of shape. Why should fiction be any different?

Of course, as we’ve discussed, a story is a contraption, and as such its parts have to answer, to some degree, to each other. For me, an ideal ending sheds light on what’s come before; it speaks to its own concerns and it justifies the occasion of the story – while at the same time it gives its elements (character, place, situation) life outside its own body. Paradoxically, I know to leave a story just when I feel it coming alive in that more sustained sense.

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Q: Recently I had a conversation with my local bookstore manager about short story collections. She said that short stories don’t sell, except to people who buy books by particular authors. How do you feel about this statement, and why do you think readers don’t want short stories?

A: The conventional wisdom that short stories don’t sell is, like all conventional wisdom, pretty instructive until it’s not. There’s an element, of course, of self-fulfilling prophecy about it, as well as a somewhat institutionalised sense that short stories are merely training grounds for novels. Another strain of conventional wisdom proclaims itself baffled that short stories aren’t more popular in this age of sound bytes and fragmented attention spans; I don’t buy this at all – I reckon it’s fair to say that given half an hour, a complete short story usually requires more concerted, careful attention than a novel chapter – particularly if it’s not the first chapter. It’s people like you and your friend who are on the front lines of the effort to challenge this conventional way of thinking.

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Q: Hari Kunzru of The New York Times suggested the subject matter of the stories in The Boat was “calculated to tug at the heartstrings – and wallets – of liberal American readers…” How do you respond to this?

A: As I understand it, Hari Kunzru was referring not to the subject matter of the stories in The Boat in general but to what he called ‘war porn’ of the first story. After the quote you reference he actually goes on to ask: “Could the writer, just possibly, be lying? For money?” It’s unclear whether he’s referring to the character “Nam” in the first story, or to me as the author. Either way, I thought it an odd question – for many reasons – but particularly given that that first story, “Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice,” makes no secret of its calling out of ‘ethnic’ narrative exploitation. In fact, that’s maybe the primary point of the story (and one that I’ve received flak for). For example: at one stage in the story, the protagonist, trying to justify the appropriation of his father’s ‘ethnic story,’ muses “If I write a true story … I’ll have a better chance of selling it” – that is, he’s asking the very question Hari Kunzru accuses him/me of ignoring. So I’m not sure I understand Kunzru’s point. Nor, come to speak of it, do I understand his premise: if indeed I wanted to pluck and pick-pocket those sucker Western liberal heartstrings and wallets, wouldn’t I (per his reasoning) then stick to Viet war porn? Why would I digress into the globe-trotting hodge-podge that’s the rest of the book?

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Q: Finally, I’m a big fan of the shortlist. What books are on yours?

A: Okay, arbitrarily limiting myself to fiction (and with all the usual caveats): Melville’s Moby Dick, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, Nabokov’s Lolita, Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Arthur Koestler’s Darkness At Noon, Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet On The Western Front, Frank Conroy’s Stop-Time, Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road, Graham Greene’s The Power and The Glory and The Heart of the Matter, Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and The Road, Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, Don DeLillo’s Underworld, Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, Edward P. Jones’s The Known World, fiction by Kazuo Ishiguro, Robert Stone, Mary Gaitskill, Martin Amis, William Golding, Philip Roth, Virginia Woolf, Peter Carey, short fiction by John Cheever, Raymond Carver, Lorrie Moore, Andrew Dubus, Tim Winton, Charles D’Ambrosio, Isaac Babel, Leonard Michaels, and on and on.

One More Year by Sana Krasikov

Title:  One More Year
Autor: Sana Krasikov
Pages: 196
Publisher: Spiegel & Grau (a division of Random House, Inc.)
Publish Date: August 2008
ISBN: 9780385524391

She was tired, tired of waiting for some big event to happen in her life, while things only dragged on and on… Everything in her life was about waiting.

-Better Half, p 91

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One More Yearis a collection of eight short stories by Sana Krasikov. It is a lopsided effort. A couple of the stories are brilliant, one is a one of the worst things I’ve read lately, and the rest are, mneh.

Unfortunately, the first story in this book, Companion, is about a Russian divorcee named Ilona. She lives in an apartment with Earl Brauer and their relationship is never clear. Is she the live-in nurse? Is she just a friend and roommate? It is a confusing arrangement, and the only thing I am certain of is that Ilona is a self-centered twit who isn’t worth my time to read about. Earl isn’t much better, but at least I can understand a feel a slight twinge of sympathy. He’s lonely and she’s a user, but where he also loses me is that he’s manipulative. This story was so bad, I would have pitched the book had it not been an ARC to review. 0 stars for this one.

The two stories that I felt were brilliantly written and had great character development were Asal and The Repatriates. Asal is the story of Gulia, the unofficial wife of Rashid, who was previously married to a druggie wife-beater with an overbearing mother. She wants Rashid to divorce his legal wife so they can marry, just like he promised. When he won’t do this, she leaves for America to let him stew in his juices. When the call finally comes that he’s going through with it, Gulia’s joy is short lived. (4 out of 5 stars)

It wasn’t despair that had made Nasrin do it, she thought, it was simple vengeance. How did one compete with insanity, she wondered.

-Asal, page 65

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One thing that I liked about The Repatriates is that it shows the occasional immigrant who, upon coming to the US, believes their homeland is the best in the world. I’ve known several Vietnamese who talk this way, and have a Cuban friend who is always on about the marvelous things communism has done for his country. But they always do this with their feet planted firmly on the green grass of a free country, which always irks me.

The first line of The Repatriates tells it all:

The last days of Grisha and Lera Arsenyev’s marriage might have been a story fashioned out of commonplace warnings.

It’s the story of religious fanaticism, delusions of grandeur and trickery, and what it’s like to wake up and realized you’ve been duped by someone who was supposed to love and honor you. (4 out of five stars)

The rest of the stories are mostly just okay. Some are better than others, but nothing I’d buy a book for.

Maia in Yonkers: Maia came to New York City to work for more money than she could make back in the Ukraine. She flies her teenage son to visit her, and he proves that Americans don’t have the corner market on surly teens. (2.5 stars)
Debt: Seems to be about my relatives… Lev and his wife receive an unexpected visit from his niece and her husband. But, like my relatives, she’s come to ask for money. AND like my relatives, if he tells her no, she’ll write him off as a selfish money-hoarder. (2 stars)
Better Half: After staying in America, Anya marries Ryan who turns out to be a pot-smoking dreamer who’s abusive and paranoid-jealous. He hides her paperwork she needs to get her permanent alien status, among other butthole things, and yet… ugh, I wanted to slap her. (3 stars, maybe 3.5)
The Alternate: A man seizes the opportunity to have dinner with the daughter of his old college sweetheart with the hope of an affair. Mneh… (1 star)
There Will Be No Fourth Rome: Another stupid woman putting her freedom on the line for her boyfriend. DUH! Nona says it best in this story, “Don’t you just wish you could kill people lie that with your thoughts?” You see, that’s why I choose to stay single.(3 stars)

This book could be renamed “Women Waiting Around for Their Boyfriends to Divorce Their Wives”. The title “One More Year” comes from the second story; Maia tells her son she’s staying in America for one more year, to which he reminds her she said that last year.

What this book does well is present a picture of Georgia and Moscow the west has not seen. A world of dower-faced, bitter people who are only after what they can graft and out-right steal from anyone, even their friends and family… especially their friends and family. I suppose, if this is a true portrait, it is a mentality born from so much poverty and oppression. Even after they leave the old country and set up in America, they bring the same mindsets with them. In this, Krasikov’s characters are real and imperfect, even if they are loathsome.

However, I think Krasikov tries to put too many characters in her stories, making it impossible to develop them properly. It’s possible they’d make better novels. Another problem I had with this book is I found several parts confusing; places I wasn’t sure who was saying what or what was even going on. There were several times I came jerking to a stop over punctuation, sometimes too much and others not enough. One of those times was a sentence with a comma that tore up the effectiveness of the thought. I read and reread it, trying to figure out what she had meant to say, finally saying, “I hate that sentence” before moving on. I think the fact that the first story was so bad the rest of the book was tainted by that.

For much of this book, I can’t help but think One More Year is the kind of commercialized book Nam Le wrote about in The Boat‘s first story: Ethnic lit for ethnic sake, not for the quality of the writing. “She’s from the Ukraine! Buy her book!” Oddly enough, like Nam Le, she’s a Iowa Workshop writer. Hmm… maybe the fellow student in “Love and Honor” wasn’t from China after all.

After totalling up all the stars and dividing by 8, One More Yearreceives an overall 2.5 stars. Mneh.

The Sunday Salon – I must be Noah, ‘cuz I’ve got the ARC!

The Sunday Salon.com

Okay, get me two zebras, two hippos, two lemurs, two unicorns… ‘Cuz I gotta load of ARCs!

I’ve had to pause the Jane-a-thon and get busy reading the ARCs and Reviewer books I’m committed ot reviewing. Since I just finished Nam Le’s The Boat this morning, review here, I have 13 more to go. I also have more coming in the mail. So this week is ARC week! Here is the list and order I have planned:

Dough: A Memoir by Mort Zachter This is for Harper Collins First Look. I’ve already read the first three chapters and like it so far. Zachter is Jewish, and I’ve always loved the Jewish writer’s voice. I haven’t read any for a while, so this is fun.

The White Mary by Kira Salak I got an email from the publisher this week reminding me to review it. I guess that means NOW! 😀

The Aviary Gate by Katie Hickman I’ve had this for a month and a half, and it’s release date was in June, so I need to get it read.

The Spirit of the Place by Samuel Shem Woo-hoo! Another Jewish author. 😀

I, robot by Howard S. Smith I’ve never read Asimov’s and I wanted to before reading this one, but I might not have the time.

Aberrations by Penelope Przekop Interesting premise and good reviews, also, Przekop has an interesting blog.

Zoe’s Tale by John Scalzi another ARC I’ve had for a while. I need to get to it fast.

Red Letters by Tom Davis Tom Davis is one of the duo of Travel the Road, a missionary-adventure series. It’s a really cool show to watch, and I kinda need some inspiring.

The Art of Listening Prayer by Seth Barnes The second of the Travel the Road duo.

The Good Thief by Hannah Tinti I’ve heard good reviews of this, and it seems to have a bit of an Oliver Twist quality to it from the summary. Plus, the author(ess)’s name is a palindrome! 😀

One More Year by Sana Krasikov I honestly don’t remember requesting this one, but, since it came in the mail, I must have. It’ll be interesting to read it completely blind… to the plot I mean, not physically blind… I’m illiterate in Braille.

The Power Makers by Maury Klein a tome-ish book about the history of the men behind the industrial movement.

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale I’m excited to read this one. I like Poirot, Sherlock Holmes, and other detective stories.

So that’s my ARC stack. I’m afraid I’ll have to send my library stack back unattacked. Six lovely Jonathan Carrolls.. *sniff* I guess I can recheck them when Mt. TBR recedes some. I’ve joined Fyrefly in a Mt. TBR Challenge. No more than one book in for each three that go out. And it’s not like the Carrolls are just going to disappear, right? There just 6 blocks away on a library shelf, right??

This week I started My First Ever Giveaway!! I’m giving away a $20 Borders gift card, details and entry here. Just to update and give news, so far I’ve receive 294 entries. I will add a $10 gift card at 400, and $5 at 500. If I get more than that I’ll probably add another prize.

I was totally shocked and unprepared for the response! The first day of the contest I had almost 400 views. I’m sure to hit 2000 views before the day’s over, and my blog is 26 days old. Thanks for the encouragement! To put this into perspective: I’ve gotten 3067 views on my 16 month od MySpace blog. That’s a big difference!!

Booking Through Thursday -Holidays

Booking Through Thursday

It’s a holiday weekend here in the U.S., so let’s keep today’s question simple–What are you reading? Anything special? Any particularly juicy summer reading?

Oh good golly! I have been busy with the Jane-a-thon, and have finished Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Mansfield Park. I’m just about cross-eyed from Austen. I had forgotten how different the language is! Austen English and American modern English are at times so different it’s almost like a foreign language. I cannot tell you how many times a character has commented about another by saying, “You look fagged!” meaning “you look tired”, and Lady Bertram’s proclamation, “I am so very stupid!” wasn’t a self-deprecating comment (could that even be possible? She never wanted for self-esteem.), she was just commenting on feeling sleepy. Anyway, I think I’ll take in a few modern reads before returning to Austen-land (I’ve got that book on Mt. TBR, too.) and reading Emma.

I’ve already been cheating on Jane anyway. I’ve been reading Nam Le’s The Boat. I really love it. It’s compelling and sucks you in. Remember the Tom Riddle’s Diary in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets? The boat pulls you into the lives and events in the pages like Riddle’s diary. The Boat is a book of vignette-like short stories about characters from different parts of the world. The first story has enough reality and truth that I wonder if it is a recounting of a real occurrence between Nam and his Ba (father in Vietnamese). I’m dying to throw Jane over so I can dedicate myself to Nam. Yes, he's that good!

I also picked up a book at Waldenbooks Tuesday called Why You Shouldn’t Eat Your Boogers by Fancesca Gould. It’s GROSS. It’s TRIVIA. It’s GROSS TRIVIA! It’s chalk full of nasty facts like various uses for human flesh, ie book covers, furniture and suits (I ate his liver with some favre beans and a nice Chianti *slff-fff-fff-fff*) I’m going back tomorrow and get a second copy to giveaway with the review. It’s a really fun book to have and read to people Bwaa-haa-haa

Yesterday, like several other bloggers, I received an email saying my review for The White Mary by Kira Salak is wanted. So that ARC is top o’ the Mount. I read the introduction today and it sounds really intense. So I’ll be hopping to on that one.

Other books to be read very soon are: Chuck Palahniuk’s Rant and Khaled Housseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns. I will also be reading Dick Gibson’s Rob Grant Trilogy, then offering the set as a giveaway.

Other things worth mentioning: I have added a couple pages and sidebar boxes. Be sure to check out the Giveaways and Contests page, there are a lot of free books to be had! I’ve also posted my inventory of Mt. TBR… feel free to suggest what I should read next. And check out the authors box on to the right. I haven’t got many yet, but check back from time to time as I add more.

Last but not least, don’t forget to enter to win a $20 Borders gift card in My First Ever Giveaway!