Book Report: A Hundred Suns

I gobbled up this novel, which I found via my usual method of discovering books, an interview on NPR (National Public Radio in the US). I figure anything Scott Simon likes, I’ll like. I encourage you to read or listen to the interview about A Hundred Suns, with the author, Karin Tanabe.

Nice font on that title, huh?

Tanabe is known for writing historical novels, and this one’s about Vietnam before it was Vietnam, in the 1930s when it was still French Indochina. It’s a period and place I’m interested in and wanted to learn more about, so why not learn history through a novel (it’s how I learned when I was young; those novels about Queen Elizabeth I sure were more interesting than history books, even if they weren’t 100% accurate; after all, neither are history books).

There is so much to like about the book, and I especially liked how each and every character in the book (French people, Americans, and Annamites (what Vietnamese people were called then)) had a fully developed personality. Like real people, each of them had admirable aspects and made plenty of mistakes. Each had prejudices but learned not to be so confident. You end up empathizing with each major character, even though they do some pretty icky things.

Ah, let us pause to enjoy some sedge seeds with curly tendrils. Also enjoy my lack of nails. I miss certain Vietnamese friends, who happen to also do my nails, a lot.

Tanabe, of course, weaves a lot of history into the narrative. You get to see the country from the eyes of the French colonists (ooh, la la, they were fancy), local people who tried to assimilate into French society, wealthy communist sympathizers, grass-roots communists, and of course, random mercenaries. I found it easier to understand the Vietnamese point of view on communism from this book than I did in books I read when I was younger, which all took the capitalist viewpoint exclusively (one character in the book was like me, neither colonial nor communist nor really capitalist…just wanting the best for everyone).

One thing I really liked about the book is how Tanabe portrays relationships between people of different cultures and races. As someone who’s enjoyed being close to Asians in the past and remembers how people STILL looked askance at it in the 1980s, I appreciated how the relationship between the characters Marcelle and Khoi in the 1930s was depicted. I’m so glad that people are much freer to love whoever they want to now.

I actually liked how she portrayed all relationships. She made arranged marriages make more sense, yet showed that both friendship and true love that can grow and change as people mature, as well. Here’s my favorite quote, from Khoi, the rich and handsome silk merchant, talking about two friends:

“We are not perfect people, you and I,” he said, “No one is. Even Anne-Marie and Sinh. I know we hold him up on a pedestal now, but he wasn’t perfect. We all have moments of weakness, of strength, of stupidity. But if we’re lucky, we’ll have even more moments of love.”

A Hundred Suns, page 340.

There were a couple of things that bugged me about the writing style of Tanabe. Sometimes she gets a little didactic and seems to be giving a history lesson rather than letting it come out through the characters. But, there IS a lot of historical context about rubber plantations and such to get through.

And she has a writing style that sometimes bothers me, where at the end of any utterance she inserts some bit of physical description of the character’s eyes, or skin, or something. I have no idea why that style annoys me, but it always seems like the author couldn’t find any other way to add these details, so they get stuck into the dialogue. And I always wonder if whether someone’s skin is tanned or not matters to the story (in this case, I’ll assume the main character’s deepening tan symbolizes her growing understanding of the Asian culture she finds herself immersed in).

Shoot, I’ve totally forgotten to say what the book’s plot has to do with. You see, there’s a nice social-climbing American woman named Jessie who gets her wealthy family sent to Indochine to escape her past. They are a part of the Michelin family, and the husband wanted to do more with tires and rubber and less with writing tour guides. Jessie meets up with locals, both French and Annamite, deals with her servants (fascinating in their own right), travels through the country, and gets drawn into intrigue as she begins to doubt her sanity. Mayhem ensues.

Wow, can I summarize a book, or what? Anyway, I’d say A Hundred Suns is worth getting a hold of. It will take your mind off the present, and you’ll get to meet a lot of fascinating people in an interesting historical context. You might as well learn something!

Book Report: Ragtime

I didn’t buy a hardback copy. But, it was a well-constructed paperback.

Proud of myself, I am, for finishing the latest book in the neighborhood book club series, especially since this is not something I would have picked out for myself. But, the assignment was Ragtime, by E.L. Doctorow, so I read it!

As someone interested in history, I did enjoy all the historical references and real people who came and went throughout the book, some of whom happened to be favorites of mine (like Emma Goldman, the anarchist). I think it helps to have some clue as to what was going on around the beginning of the twentieth century, though I guess you learn a lot even without any helpful background knowledge. This great review by the late John Brooks said it really well:

This mixture of fact and fiction may confuse or mislead the unwary or historically uninformed reader, and it suggests a projection onto the past of the suspect techniques of the New Journalism. I, for one, although no friend of that aberration, am willing to forgive any historical novelist who makes his flights from historical fact as funny and pertinent as Doctorow makes his. Like Houdini’s audiences, I am made to enjoy being fooled. As to the topical descriptions, they appear to be accurate enough to satisfy an exacting student of Americana. Certainly they are alive enough never to smell the research in old newspaper files that they must have required.

John Brooks: From the Archives: A review of E.L. Doctorow’s ‘Ragtime’, Chicago Tribune, March 05, 2015 (Suna’s birthday)

Now, as much as I enjoyed getting to know some fun details about historical figures, especially the imagined inner thoughts of Harry Houdini, the ground-breaking way the book was written seemed a little contrived and sometimes annoying. Here’s how John Brooks (a man of many more words than Suna) put it:

Continue reading “Book Report: Ragtime”

Book Report: Where the Crawdads Sing

Spoiler: Master Naturalists will LOVE it.

Suna Kendall

Here’s one of those quirky facts about me that I’m not sure where it came from: I strongly resist jumping on the bandwagon of the latest “popular item,” whether it’s music, types of cars, clothing fads (no one has ever seen my bare midriff in public) decorating styles (“a nice, bright white”), and most assuredly, books.

Oh no, everyone’s reading it. It has to be smarmy.

So, when I was first encouraged to read Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens, I resisted. I kept thinking it would be one of those motivational books like The Secret or Chicken Soup for the Soul or that book about the shed…oh, The Shack. I figured, if everyone was reading it, snobby intellectual elitest Suna had probably read all the original source material.

That’s a bit harsh. I admit to not being fond of most books with mass appeal. But, the person who recommended Where the Crawdads Sing to me is also an intellectual elitist, and it’s a novel, so how could I have already read the source material? Oh, I know, it’s probably all formulaic and full of poor attempts at regional accents, with too many big words where small ones will do. Yeah. And it’s in Reese Witherspoon’s book club. Ew…

Continue reading “Book Report: Where the Crawdads Sing”
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