Vietnamerica by G.B. Tran

Nonfiction – print. Villard, 2011. 288 pgs. Library copy.

As the only member of his family born in the United States, Tran grew up largely indifferent to the experience of his immigrant family in Vietnam and how they came to the United States following the fall of Saigon in April 1975. Tran decides to return to Vietnam in April 2008 with his parents after much prodding on the part of the his mother and a decisive edict from his stereotypically stern and distant father, and this comic documents the experiences of his parents, grandparents, and uncle during decades of colonial rule and civil war.

While it is not always easy to keep the names of each family member straight (Tran includes a great drawing of this problem), their stories touch on multiple aspects of Vietnamese history and document how war can tear a family apart over multiple generations: Tran’s paternal grandfather joined the Viet Cong in the northern portion of the country because he believed in their communist cause and loathed French colonial rule, his father’s first wife was a white, French national who abandoned her two children and husband when the French pulled out of the country; his maternal uncle was conscripted by the south Vietnam army at the behest of the American forces despite still being a teenager; and his paternal grandmother had an affair with a French solider in order to provide food and shelter for her children.

One of the things this book has going for it is both the reader and the author are in the unknown, both are exploring Tran’s family history and the larger history of Vietnam together for the first time. The intrigue and the wonderment are shared emotions, and there were multiple times where I, too, wanted to yell at Tran’s parents to stop being so evasive with explaining their life stories.

Yet, in some ways, this fact works against the narrative because Tran does not always provide a solid timeline for the events detailed in his book. One story will trigger a memory or a recollection and suddenly the narrative is thrown forward or backwards in time in order to cover that event.

As such, the book is not a great primer into the history of Vietnam – I have a general idea of who the major players on (the French, the Americans, the Viet Cong) but not a good understanding of their ideology or role in the conflict. Perhaps this is too much of a demand to place upon a family history, but I felt like the larger picture was often needed to explain the smaller one the reader is offered.

It took me nearly three weeks to read this book, which is usually long for me when it comes to comics and graphic novels. Part of the delay was due to the type of fonts Tran uses. Each character is assigned a particular font, although sometimes it appears they switch or share them, and the cursive font he uses for himself was incredibly difficult to read. But the delay was also due to the fact that Tran inserts so many hidden images into his drawings that you cannot take a single panel at face value.

In the panel at right, Tran details how trying to “be American” ran smack up against his parents attempt to start over in America while retaining aspects of their own culture and shared history. As a poor immigrant, Tran’s mother purchases clothing for her family at a thrift shop and neither she nor her teenaged stepson are aware that the Minnie Mouse t-shirt she purchased is perceived by his classmates as being for girls only. This is just one smaller story I could have easily missed if I flipped through the book at my usual pace.

The book might have worked better for me had it been more clearly arranged, included more background information or, at the very least, dropped the awful cursive font, but I’m still glad I picked it up off the library shelf. Tran’s comics exposed me to a region of the world and a portion of history I know very little about, and I enjoyed the opportunity to linger over a particular panel and marvel over how perfectly Tran managed to capture such a dramatic moment through his use of color, shadows, and imagery.

Little Lord Fauntleroy by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Fiction – audiobook. Read by Donada Peters. Tantor Media, 2008. Originally published 1877. 5 hours, 19 minutes. Library copy.

According to Peters’ introduction to the text, the lace collared suit worn by young Lord Fauntleroy in this children’s novel was so well-described by Burnett and then drawn in Reginald Birch’s accompanying pen and ink illustrations that the “Fauntleroy suit” became the height of fashion for young boys in the era.

This probably had less to do with Burnett’s description of the suit, although it was very easy to imagine even without the illustrations, and more to do with the characteristics of the main character, Cedric Errol, because who wouldn’t want a son who embodies gratitude and humility, charms strangers and crotchety old men alike, and longs to share their wealth with everyone they meet?

Following the death of his remaining son and heir, the Earl of Dorincourt sends for his only grandson, Cedric, to come to England from New York City and assume the title of Lord Fauntleroy. Having disinherited Cedric’s father over his marriage to an American, the Earl demands that he shall raise his heir alone at Dorincourt Castle while the boy’s mother, whom Cedric calls “Dearest” and considers his best friend, lives in a separate house at the edge of the estate. He makes allowances for little Lord Fauntleroy to see his mother, but the Earl refuses to even meet the woman and is determined to raise the boy to emulate him in his dealings with both his tenants and society at large.

Except Cedric’s goodness is too hard to crack, too hard to not be charmed by. His assumption that his grandfather was merely uninformed about the plight of his tenants and his mother’s insistence that the young boy never know that his grandfather hates his mother slowly causes his grandfather to change his ways just in time for another young boy and his mother to arrive claiming he is, in fact, the rightful heir to earldom.

I, too, fell under the sway of Cedric’s charm despite how unbelievable his perfect nature is. The novel is, after all, a children’s book meant to encourage children to emulate Cedric’s characterization and to remind them that charity and goodness can and does overcome greed and deceit.

This novel does lack the magical elements infused in Burnett’s two most famous novels but, honestly, I did not miss that particular element. I suppose I’m far too much like Cedric’s New York friends, Mr. Hobbs the grocer and Dick the shoeshine, and thus suspicious of Cedric’s change in circumstances yet eager to learn more about Cedric’s new world. And there is no other way to describe this book other than to call it “sweet” and to remark on how such an adjective is perfectly captured by the adorable voice Peters provides for Cedric in her narration.

Suspended Sentences by Patrick Modiano

Fiction – print. Translated from the French by Mark Polizzotti. Yale University Press, 2014. 213 pgs. Library copy.

Like many who read solely in English, the announcement that Modiano won the 2014 Nobel Prize for Literature left me a bit confounded. I have never heard of the author and never, to my recollection, seen a review for his work on one of the many book blogs I religiously read.

Journalists and bloggers alike blamed the lack of awareness for his work in English-speaking markets on the lack of translators employed by the publishing industry and the apathy on the part of American readers, in particular, towards translated works. (Assertions that could be addressed in a separate post with a lively discussion, I’m sure.)

Only twelve of Modiano’s works have been translated into English, and this collection of three short novellas is one of only three books written by him available at my public library in English. (The foreign language section has nineteen in French and twelve in Italian, surprisingly.) I am hoping more will follow now that he has won the Nobel given that I stayed up into the wee hours of the night reading this collection, which includes “Afterimages”, “Suspended Sentences”, and “Flowers of Ruin”.

In “Afterimages”, the narrator recounts his time in Paris working as a pseudo-archivist for a mysterious photographer who goes by the name of Jensen and has tasked himself with the job of photographing a city in flux. In “Suspended Sentences”, the narrator recalls his life as a young boy raised by a group of women – particularly a young nanny renamed Snow White – while his mother tours as an actress and the stigma attached to such a situation by his teachers and the principal of his private school. Finally, in “Flowers of Ruin”, the narrator returns to the site of a mysterious double suicide trigging memories from his childhood and igniting a desire, primarily on the part of the reader, to solve the crime.

As I read this collection, I kept flipping to spine of this book to view the call number attached by the library in order to assure myself that this collection is, in fact, fiction. Modiano, whose body of work includes both fiction and nonfiction titles, writes in such a manner that I was never entirely sure where this book lies on that particular divide.

Each story features an unnamed, male narrator possessing the same voice as the previous story; each story concerns itself with how uncertain our memories can be. And as I moved from story to story, I felt as though the narrator was shedding his skin or donning a costume and asking me to decide on which version of his life is true. Which is probably why I stayed up so late reading this and why I’m thankful these three previously published novellas were compiled into a single volume. (If I had to rank the novellas, I would say their order of publication matches my ranking in terms of enjoyment.)

The Nazi occupation of France is more of a central theme in “Afterimages”, but the event is mentioned at least in passing in all three novellas and clearly influences Modiano’s understanding of memory and recollection. These stories and the vision of Paris they present are haunted by this looming, dark ghost, and I was very pleased to find the writing style I saw heavily praised by the Nobel committee is sustained in translation.

Recent Acquisitions

It’s my birthday and I’ll buy books if I want to! And, lucky for me, the public library’s used book sale coincided nicely with my birthday so I was able to spend the morning of perusing the tables of books and seeing what I could find that caught my fancy. For fifteen dollars, I came away with eleven books — three hardbacks and eight paperbacks — including three books selected by my book club for the upcoming months.

I was most surprised to find A Dance with Dragons by George R.R. Martin considering the popularity of the series. I’ve already read the book and, admittedly, did not love it, but Martin swears he will finish the next one in the series by 2016 and the television show is going to start diverting from the books in the next series so I’d like to have a copy on hand to help me brush up on what happened.

I was also thrilled to find a copy of Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings given the wait list at my library still numbers in the hundreds for the book. My book club selected Kidd’s novel this past December for our meeting, and I wasn’t able to get my hands on a copy before then. Other book club selections I was able to find at this sale include Portrait in Sepia by Isabel Allende, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford, and South of the Border, West of the Sun by Haruki Murakami.

The three books published by Persephone were birthday presents from my parents and all were written by Dorothy Whipple. I started Because of the Lockwoods on Saturday and am already entranced by Whipple’s writing once more.  (I’ve previously read her novel Someone at a Distance back in November.) I’m looking forward to tucking into The Priory and Whipple’s short story collection, The Closed Door and Other Stories, soon.

 

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling

Fiction – audiobook. Read by Jim Dale. Random House Audio, 2001. 20 hours, 30 minutes. Library copy.

Beginning like the previous three novels towards the end of summer vacation, this novel finds Harry Potter in slightly better conditions than the previous three summers because the Dursleys are terrified he will report them to his godfather, an escaped mass murderer named Sirius Black. Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia aren’t exactly hospitable to Harry forcing the skinny boy into abiding by his obese cousin’s diet and refusing to allow him to complete his homework in preparation for his fourth year at Hogwarts or contact with his friends from the wizarding school.

When an overly stamped letter arrives from Molly Weasley asking if Harry’s aunt and uncle will allow him to attend the Quidditch World Cup with Molly’s husband and sons, including Harry’s best friend Ron, Uncle Vernon begrudgingly agrees that Harry may go. And Harry’s summer begins to look up as he travels by portkey to the match, experiences how badly the Wizarding World blends in with the muggles Harry has spent most of his life living alongside, and sees the infamous seeker Viktor Krum playing for Bulgaria take on the Irish national team.

YEt the celebrations over Harry’s chosen team winning end abruptly when someone sends the Dark Mark – the symbol of Lord Voldemort, or He Who Must Not Be Named – into the sky. Those attending the match beat feet into the forest to hide as ministry officials, including Arthur Weasley, and aurors spring into action. In the pandemonium, Harry loses his wand forcing him, Ron, and Hermione Granger to return to the open field where the Weasleys were staying in order to find it. The wand is eventually located in the possession of Winky, a house elf belonging to Barty Crouch who works as the Head of International Magical Cooperation and Percy Weasley’s boss, and determined to be the source of the Dark Mark.

Winky and Harry both fall under suspicion with the former being sacked by Mr. Crouch and the latter being protected from punishment by Arthur Weasley, and both will eventually make their way to Hogwarts with a miserable Winky being employed by the school and Harry embarking on his fourth year at the school. Once there, Harry and his friends learn that Hogwarts will have the distinction of hosting the Triwizard Tournament – the first in three hundred years – with one student aged seventeen or older representing each of the three schools: Hogwarts, the Beauxbatons Academy of Magic, and the Durmstrang Institute.

Anyone wishing to represent their school in the tournament is invited to drop their name into the Goblet of Fire, which is surrounded by a magical charm to prevent underage students from applying and bewitched to select one student from each school during the Halloween feast. Yet after all three names have been read – Viktor Krum from Durmstrang, Fleur Delacour of Beauxbatons, and Cedric Diggory of Hogwarts – the goblet unexpectedly selects a fourth name – Harry Potter of Hogwarts.

Many of Hogwarts students and those visiting from Durmstrang and Beauxbatons turn on Harry insisting he must have cheated in order to get his name into the competition, but those in charge of the competition insist the goblet’s indicts must be followed despite the fact that Harry is only fourteen at the time. As the fourth champion, Harry is charged with completing three tasks – the last of which will change the wizarding world forever.

When I decided to reread this series, I worried I would find the books did not hold up to the fond recollections I have of them. The first two books were exactly as I remembered them, and the third was, surprisingly, better than I remembered. Unfortunately, I had the opposite experience with this one.

There is so much that happens in this book that it is difficult to summarize and to point out exactly what I did not enjoy. Maybe because it feels like three separate stories? Maybe because there are so many new characters whose stories are barely skimmed? Maybe because Harry appears apathetic towards the competition and is, surprisingly, much more focused on girls? Maybe because the mystery surrounding Mr. Crouch and the resolution, particularly concerning the new Defense of the Dark Arts teacher, are murky and rushed? Maybe because the death in this book is less impactful now that I’ve read the final book in the series?

That said, there were some events and overarching themes that I think I missed out on reading this book for the first time when I was ten or eleven. The introduction of the students from Durmstrang and Beauxbatons allow the reader to see how prejudices within the wizarding world extend beyond the pureblood versus muggle-born conflict. Students from Durmstrang and their headmaster are immediately suspected of being followers of Lord Voldemort simply because they are form the eastern European nation of Bulgaria while students from Hogwarts seem singularly focused on the beauty of the French Beauxbatons students.

I also liked the insight into the larger wizarding world the introduction of these two wizarding schools provides the readers. Even Percy’s ramblings on about regulating cauldron thickness point to how important international cooperation is and how evil does not end at the borders of an individual nation.

There are two things I know that would have occurred had I attended Hogwarts: one, I would have been in Ravenclaw and, two, I would have been an avid member of Hermione’s S.P.E.W. organization with the problematic “white savior complex” that entails. And, with that mind, it was very interesting to read Rowling’s critique on pushing your own beliefs on people through Hermione’s insistence on saving the house elves. I can remember loathing Ron during this book because of how much he bought the idea the house elves are happy being slaves, and while I still didn’t warm to him, I can appreciate how he is willing to listen to the house elves and see how misguided and hurtful Hermione’s crusade is.

Most importantly, though adults can be misguided and just like children can refuse to see the truth in front of them. It much easier to pretend evil does not exist, to try to appease it rather than confront it, and to ignore facts in favor of fiction. This is particularly true of adults in power who do not want to lose their positions as we see with the Minister of Magic Cornelius Fudge at the end of this novel (and a whole host of American politicians today).