August 2020 Books

Ah! I’m so far behind! Well, better late than never…here’s what I read in August.

Born a Crime, by Trevor Noah (2016)

I don’t read a lot of memoirs, but Trevor Noah’s stories of growing up in South Africa are gripping, humorous, poignant, horrifying.

Some of the experiences of racism sound similar to what I’ve heard and read about racism in America because while the culture is different, classifying people as “other” and “less than” is ugly everywhere. But other aspects are quite different–it is, after all, a different culture.

I listened to this as an audio book, and I’m so glad I did as Noah read the book himself. He’s a great performer and also it was helpful to hear the non-English words pronounced as they should be pronounced.

It’s also good to read about other cultures and their strengths and weaknesses. It gives a broader perspective and it’s helpful to remember that there are other cultures out there especially during a year in which many of us are at home, unable to experience travel in person. We need our vision broadened, our empathy increased.

★ ★ ★ ★

North & South, by Elizabeth Gaskell (1855)

As this is for my classics list, it gets its own fancy review here.

A Memory Called Empire, by Arkady Martine (2019)

Mahit Dzmare is the new ambassador from a small, independent space station (Lsel) to the sprawling byzantine Teixcalaanli Empire. She’s coming to replace her predecessor, whose fate she discovers immediately upon arrival: possibly murder, though the official report says asphyxiation due to an allergic reaction.

She has one advantage: she carries in her mind the memories of her predecessor, Yskander, albeit memories from 15 years ago. Unfortunately, her memory machine malfunctions on the first day, leaving her alone in a strange culture amount a court full of political opportunists and a dizzying array of rules. She doesn’t know what Yskander was up to (that presumably got him killed), and she has no idea who (if anyone) she can trust.

The plot is intricate and the story propels you through Mahit’s misadventures as she tries to unravel the mystery and stay on mission to protect her station from annexation by a hungry empire.

While the book is science fiction (she’s from a space station! she has weird biometric tech!) it’s really more of a court-political thriller. All the characters are human, and almost all the action takes place on one planet.

I requested this book from the library and the day I picked it up I discovered it won the Hugo award! So that was fun.  I’m impressed that this is Arkady’s debut novel, as I can see why it won awards. One of the strongest themes was Mahit’s obvious love for Teixcalaan and its culture, and the ways she longed to be a citizen to really belong while she still loved her own station and people. Her sense of wanting to but never quite forgetting she’s a barbarian was really well done. And the Teixcalaan naming system is great and hilarious. I won’t spoil it for you but I was quite entertained.

★ ★ ★ ★

Sex & Vanity, by Kevin Kwan (2020)

I didn’t go to the beach this year (2020 you’re the worst) but I did read a book I’d put squarely in the beach reads category. When I heard the author of the Crazy Rich Asians trilogy wrote A Room with a View but make it about Asians in the 21st century, I was sold.

If you know the plot of A Room with a View, then you know the plot of this novel–I was a little surprised at how well this book follows the beats of the Forster novel.

Lucie Churchill (half Chinese, half New York WASP) attends a friend’s over-the-top destination wedding in Capri, Italy where she meets George Zao and his flamboyant mother. George is attractive but he annoys Lucie because he’s so Chinese…until he doesn’t annoy her, but at the end of the week Lucie is whisked away by her protective cousin, Charlotte.

Five years later, George and the Capri adventure are firmly in Lucie’s past, and she’s moved on with someone who is new money but who will, she thinks, be good enough for the WASP side of her family.

This was a fun book, dipping slightly into issues of what it’s like to be half-Asian in an otherwise firmly Caucasian family, but mostly keeping the focus on haute couture, delicious food, and a few cameos from characters in previous Kwan books. There are also a few tongue-in-cheek references to the original novel and the (excellent) 1985 Merchant & Ivory adaptation.

Overall, I think the Crazy Rich Asians trilogy was stronger and while I appreciate a good modern retelling of a classic, nothing can quite live up to the original.

Content note: language & sex scenes

★ ★ ★

North & South Review

Author: Elizabeth Gaskell

Publication date: 1855

19th century British writing is one of my sweet spots, so obviously I enjoyed North and South.

I think I discovered Gaskell from the Modern Mrs. Darcy blog as “what to read when you’ve read all of Jane Austen.” While I think this is accurate, I also think Gaskell was interesting in using her novel to explore the plight of the workers in manufacturing towns who could barely feed their families. Though this story was not completely about this, it was certainly a prominent theme and discussed at length by various characters.

Margaret Hale, the protagonist, goes back to live with her parents in a Southern English parish after living in London with her aunt and cousin. Margaret’s father soon leaves the church as a dissenter, and moves his family to the Northern town of Milton.

There Margaret sees the contrast between her previous rural, out-of-doors life and her new life in a smoky, bustling, industrious town. She befriends a working-class family and clashes with her father’s pupil the manufacturer Mr. Thornton. Obviously repressed British emotion ensues!

There’s a lot of talk of putting on a brave face and bearing up under difficulty, and Margaret does experience tragedy. It cam be a bit melodramatic at times, but this is still a lovely story that I enjoyed.

I’ve heard North & South compared to Pride & Prejudice as “Lizzy and Darcy but in a manufacturing town!” and it is an opposites-attract story. While Pride & Prejudice is lighter with more witty/ ridiculous characters, North & South has more earnest discussion of strikes and working conditions and the struggle and occupation of life, but in both stories the main characters come to realize their first impressions might have been hastily formed and someone who they first dismissed might actually be someone who could help them grow and become happy.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Barchester Towers review

Barchester Towers, by Anthony Trollope

Published in 1857, this is book 2 of Trollope’s Barchester series, but I thought it stood alone pretty well. I’m sure I would have had a deeper appreciation for the characters if I’d read The Warden first, but here we are.

This is a book about local church politics in 19th century England. We open on the deathbed of the bishop of Barchester, attended by his son and his son’s father-in-law (both also clergymen).

The bishop’s son, Dr. Grantly, is not made bishop upon his father’s demise (he doesn’t know the right people in government at the time), so we meet Dr. Proudie, the new bishop, who arrives with his ambitious wife and extra-ambitious personal Chaplain Mr. Slope.

The new bishop, his wife, and Mr. Slope immediately stir the clerical pot at Barchester when there are clerical appointments with comfortable incomes to fill and numerous clergy about, all circling these positions.

There are political machinations, betrayals, misunderstandings, proposals, and comedy all at play in this book.

Trollope has a habit of spending a chapter introducing each new character or family, which is helpful on the one hand and delays the story on the other.

While there are characters to root for–and some who grew on me by the end–there are many characters who are either slimy (Mr. Slope is apparently literally so as several characters go out of their way to avoid touching his moist hand), over-ambitious (Mrs. Proudie rules the roost as behind-the-scenes bishopess), completely mercenary (the Stanhope family), or who are just barely on this side of likable (Mr. Grantly, who recruits actively against Mr. Slope and who misunderstands his sister-in-law Eleanor). Even the attractive widow, Eleanor Bold, whom the narrator obviously favors, is not completely without her faults, which I appreciated.

The church politics may be a bit confusing at times and the pacing a bit uneven, but the characters in this book are great fun and I enjoyed this foray into the fictional county of Barchester. Does one county require quite so many clergymen though?

Read for my 50 Classics project and the Classics Club Spin #24