I might be grasping at straws here by compiling all these books under the same theme but I think it works. All of these are relatively short books, no more than 304 pages and quick reads. They were all informative about some specific historical event and culture and by writing about violence, war, and family, the authors were able to see how these affect a person’s identity and sense of self. Enjoy! =) Let me know if you’ve read any of these, your thoughts or if you’re planning on reading them.
Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong
Goodreads | 89 pages | Poetry
Thank you to Copper Canyon Press for sending me a review copy. All opinions are my own.
Poetry is not my forte and still isn’t but I still like it and I think through this collection, I’ve discovered 2 really important secrets to help me appreciate it more and I think they actually just might help those who just can’t seem to get into poetry too. So,
- Read the poetry aloud.
I realize this is really weird and will probably make you seem crazy. But just think of it like spoken poetry. I think orating it out loud just emphasizes each word and makes you see how each word fits together in the whole scheme of the poem. All strangeness aside, it’s actually quite cathartic.
2. Don’t try to understand it (at first).
The first time you go through this collection, don’t try to find meaning underneath each statement. In fact, I think poetry is less about meaning sometimes than the overall structure and phrasing of the words and the word choice in general. It won’t make sense but at the same time it’s really fascinating how the poet constructs the piece. How he can relate two such unrelated things and have it somehow work.
With those in mind, you’ll have a really good time with this poetry collection. This collection is all about how family shapes your identity, how your identity is an extension of your mother’s and your father’s. About finding your identity through culture, through sexuality, and ultimately through self.
Now here is your father inside
He also touches on the Vietnam War and Vietnam written with a fusion of Vietnamese and English in some of them such as in “Aubade with Burning City”, a piece that follows the evacuation of refugees from Vietnam while a Christmas song is playing on the radio. Others are more about love bordering on the erotic; in fact he writes an “Ode to Masturbation” at one point and it was quite poignant (lol).The great thing about Ocean’s poetry is that he doesn’t technically have a defining structure like Emily Dickinson and her dashes. He will try out many different structures. One of the poems is written entirely in footnote, others more prose poetry. And hidden in these poems are gems of poignancy that are really beautiful. It almost feels as though this poetry collection is helping him find himself. It’s particularly displayed in one of my favorite pieces of this collection, “Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong”, which sounds like a piece written to himself. And maybe it is.
I’m so excited to have finally read an Ocean Vuong work and I’m definitely going to check out his future works.
Born A Crime by Trevor Noah
Goodreads | 85 pages | Nonfiction, Memoir
If you’re going to read this memoir, I highly recommend the audiobook. Trevor Noah himself narrates it and his humorous and conversational voice really shines through.I honestly think this is one of the best, if not the best, entertainment celebrity memoirs I have ever read. This is true because first and foremost, Trevor Noah can actually write without sacrificing his humorous witticisms. Sometimes the conversational voices that celebrities use in their books sort of undermine the writing process in general because it is clear that the story was not meant to be a book, more better for a video or a podcast. But Trevor Noah’s story just works so well as a book. The opening of every chapter is followed with a little history lesson or framing device about South Africa which sets up his story in a relevant way. But the memoir, for the most part, revolves around his childhood in South Africa where he was quite literally “born a crime”. Born
to a Swiss father and an African mother during the time of apartheid Trevor was obviously illegal and he talks about how he spent a lot of his childhood hiding, sometimes when he and his mother were walking down the street, and police were roaming the street, she would push him away and pretend not to know him for safety’s sake. It’s very clear throughout how much his mother means to him. How his deeply religious mother, a force of nature who eschewed tradition and propriety, shaped his open perspective of the world. In spite of the poor community he lived and the fact that he grew up very poor (his mother would park at red traffic lights to save gas), Trevor reminisces that he never felt trapped or limited to the ghetto because his mother always reminded him that the community he lived in was not all that the world had to offer him. He knows he was one of the lucky ones however.
People love to say, “Give a man a fish, and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he’ll eat for a lifetime.” What they don’t say is, “And it would be nice if you gave him a fishing rod.” That’s the part of the analogy that’s missing.
You really feel as though you knew his mother and by extension, Trevor as so much of his personality is shaped by her. Noah also discusses his struggle to belong in a certain community because of his race. He didn’t quite belong with the “whites”, not quite the “blacks”, and not even the “mixed” raced kids because they would think he would act like either a black or a white. The discussion of race was effortlessly integrated probably he has had to live by these race rules his entire life. But putting those aside, Trevor gets into some crazy shit mostly because he admits to being a troublemaker as a child.
All of this is told with the usual Trevor Noah humor very on par with his humor as host of the Daily Show. But he never tries too hard to cater to a certain audience or sounds too self-deprecating as sometimes celebrity memoirs will do and most importantly, he never writes as though he is wondering why he is even writing a book. Trevor Noah lets the audience know that this story is important to him and is important in general. Informative, sincere, and humorous, I highly, highly recommend.
Human Acts by Han Kang
Goodreads | 218 pages | Contemporary, Korean lit
I think I liked Human Acts even more than The Vegetarian and I think readers who didn’t like the Vegetarian should still give this a shot because it is definitely not as bizarre or surreal as The Vegetarian. It definitely leans more towards the gritty and brutal
tone. Written by several different perspectives within a 3 decade span, Human Acts tells a fictionalized story behind the very true student uprisings in Korea in 1980. Han Kang really delves into the concept of the body, how you can be separated from your body. How after torture, you can even be disgusted by your body. Is the body separate from the person’s soul? To answer she eve writes one chapter from the perspective of a corpse which honestly I wouldn’t want any other author to write.
When they threw a straw sack over the body of the man at the very top, the tower of bodies was transformed into the corpse of some enormous, fantastical beast, its dozens of legs splayed out beneath it.
It works because there is something about Han Kang’s writing that is so visceral, that requires an equally visceral and immediate reaction. Her writing is so penetratingly vivid and poetic. I usually hate describing writing as poetic because it is overused now but it’s definitely true for Han Kang because I looked at the back flap and what do you know, she started her writing career as a poet so hence poetic writing which really helps the imagery of this book. Because of this, however, it can also become confusing because there is a lot of section breaks and it was sometimes difficult to discern how the subsequent perspectives were related to the previous ones but that’s a minor quibble. She also touches on the concept of nationality, the feeling of belonging to a nation but at the same time in disbelief at how your nation can ultimately betray you. This is explored by following these characters through the aftermath of the uprisings and how these acts of violence have scarring effects on a person and their memory. This book would definitely benefit from a reread to see how everything ties together. But, in all, such a brilliant book and one that already cements Han Kang as an exceptionally accomplished writer.