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

★ ★ ★

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