Review: The Best We Could Do, Thi Bui

Thi Bui’s graphic memoir The Best We Could Do was just released last week. Bui was born in Vietnam in the waning days of the Vietnam War. She was only a few months old on April 30, 1975 when Saigon fell. She begins her narrative with the difficult birth of her son, then flashes back to her own mother’s difficult birth of her younger brother in a refugee camp in Malaysia. Bui’s family eventually settled in California, and with beautiful artwork on every page, Bui movingly details her family’s story, starting with her parents’ childhoods contrasted with her own. Unflinchingly honest, Bui’s memoir is a must-read.

I grew up hearing what Bui calls the “oversimplification and stereotypes in American versions of the Vietnam War.” My father was stationed at Cam Ranh Bay when I was born, but he was in the Air Force, and as far as I know (and I think he’d have told me), he didn’t engage in combat. It was some time before a body of literature about this war started to published, and I think most people are guilty of listening to and perhaps even believing what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls “the single story”—that incomplete story of a people based on few examples in literature.

Image from The Best We Could Do © Thi Bui, reproduced under fair use for critique

But at Bui says, we tend to forget—to our peril—that “[e]very casualty in war is someone’s grandmother, grandfather, mother, father, brother, sister, child, lover.” Many times in history, as we know too well, the voices of the casualties have been silenced. Their narrative has not been heard.

Image from The Best We Could Do © Thi Bui, reproduced under fair use for critique

And I think one big thing we forget is that the Vietnam War continued after America decided to stop fighting. America’s involvement was on the wane when my father served in 1971. America withdrew from the war in 1973, a full two years before the war ended.

Image from The Best We Could Do © Thi Bui, reproduced under fair use for critique

Bui is at her best in this memoir when she puzzles over contradictions and tries to make sense of her past and her family’s past, which is also how she explains why she needed to write this book.

Image from The Best We Could Do © Thi Bui, reproduced under fair use for critique

The Best We Could Do will surely draw comparisons to Maus and Persepolis. I also recently read Vietnamerica, and while GB Tran’s story is entirely different from Bui’s, reading both of them gave me more stories about what Vietnam and the Vietnam War were like through the eyes of a family who were just doing the best they could do. The arresting images coupled with the narrative make for a gut-wrenching read. The book is gorgeous, as well. The paper is high quality, and the dust cover is thick, heavy paper. I didn’t try to read the electronic version, but my gut tells me this book needs to be experienced in print to be enjoyed fully. A remarkable read.

Rating: ★★★★★

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Summer Reading: Greek and Roman Myth

ancient greece photo

I have been taking an online course in Greek and Roman Mythology offered by Penn State through Coursera. I have just two weeks left, and most of my reading this summer has been for this course. I have fallen a bit behind in documenting my reading as well, which is something I hope to fix. I thought, however, that I would share the texts we have read, along with my brief reviews.

First, we read Fagles’ translation of [amazon_link id=”0140268863″ target=”_blank” ]The Odyssey[/amazon_link]. As I had so recently listened to Ian McKellen read Fagles’ translation, I opted not to re-read it, and I seemed to do just fine with the coursework.

The next text was Hesiod’s [amazon_link id=”019953831X” target=”_blank” ]Theogony[/amazon_link]. I had never read the Theogony before, and I admit I found parts of it quite interesting, at least in terms of origins for some of the popular myths with which I was familiar, including the displacement of Cronus by Zeus. This particular translation renders Uranus and Gaia as Heaven and Earth, respectively, and I admit because of unfamiliarity with the myths, I had to look that up. I think I would have liked it had their names not been translated. I found it interesting to learn, through the lectures, that the translation of “Chaos,” rendered in this translation “Chasm,” is not disorder so much as a void, which seems much more in line with the concept of the Big Bang and a move increasing toward entropy rather than away from it. In all, however, Theogony reads a little more like the “begats” in the Bible, and is not nearly as interesting as the other texts we read, though I can see why we read it.

Next we read two [amazon_link id=”0872207250″ target=”_blank” ]Homeric Hymns[/amazon_link]: the Hymn to Demeter and the Hymn to Apollo. The Hymn to Demeter recounts the story of Hades and Persephone, and the Hymn to Apollo recounts both Apollo’s birth and establishment of his Oracle at Delphi. For some reason, I didn’t get the requested translation, and I think the translations I used were a bit flowery and probably not as good. I don’t remember finding them to be all that gripping. To be honest, I can’t remember what I read much at all, which is probably not a good sign.

Afterward, we moved into Greek tragedy and read Aeschylus’s [amazon_link id=”0226307905″ target=”_blank” ]Agamemnon[/amazon_link] and [amazon_link id=”0226307913″ target=”_blank” ]Eumenides[/amazon_link]. When I was in high school, I got my hands on a list—I think I found it in a book—of texts all high school students should read in order to prepare for college. I knew my high school reading was sorely lacking, partly because I had moved so much that I went to three different high schools, and partly because we just didn’t read much. I read a lot of the books you probably remember reading in high school on my own. At any rate, Agamemnon was on that list, and I tried to read it back then and gave up. Reading it now, I think I can see why. For a play in which some interesting stuff happens, we sure don’t get to see any of it. It’s mostly some back-and-forth between Clytemnestra and the Chorus. I liked Eumenides better, mainly because it was an interesting look at jurisprudence, which was also how the course’s professor approached the play in his lectures. Talk about being damned if you do and damned if you don’t! Orestes must avenge his father’s murder, but in so doing, he must kill his mother, invoking the wrath of the Furies.

After this point in the course, I fell behind. I was supposed to read [amazon_link id=”0226307905″ target=”_blank” ]Oedipus Rex[/amazon_link] (which I have actually already read and taught before) and [amazon_link id=”0226307913″ target=”_blank” ]The Bacchae[/amazon_link], but I haven’t finished either one yet. Reviews to come once I do. I has been a long time since I read Oedipus Rex, but I am enjoying it great deal more than I liked either of the Aeschylus plays. However, I have had to put these readings aside in order to try, as much as possible, to catch up because this week, I was supposed to have read Books 1-5 of [amazon_link id=”0679729526″ target=”_blank” ]The Aeneid[/amazon_link] translated by Robert Fitzgerald, and I have to read Book 6 for next week as well as Books 3, 12, and 13 of Ovid’s [amazon_link id=”014044789X” target=”_blank” ]Metamorphoses[/amazon_link].

I think the texts were well chosen in terms of a good introduction to Greek and Roman myth, and I have to say I have learned a great deal from the lectures. I do happen to think that the pace of the course is too fast and the demands are too high for a Coursera course. I think a lot of people take Coursera courses to dip in a learn a little bit, and honestly, this one is as demanding as a normal college course in terms of time. However, it is a great course, and no one is twisting your arm making you take the quizzes or write the essays—you only do that if you want a certificate. But you know me. I have to be Hermione Granger about it. As a result, I don’t think I’ve had a chance to really savor what I’m learning. In fact, I can’t keep up.

Photo by uzi yachin

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The Trouble with Amazon Reviews

Amazon reviews can be helpful. I find them particularly valuable when I’m buying an appliance I’m not too sure about, but I admit that there are some aspects of Amazon reviews—of all types—that I find problematic. I never rely on Amazon book reviews, for instance.

In order to present my case, I selected a book I read in the last few years, Jude Morgan’s [amazon_link id=”B004P5OPAW” target=”_blank” ]Charlotte and Emily: A Novel of the Brontës[/amazon_link]. You can read my review of this book here. For the record, I loved it.

Charlotte and Emily by Jude MorganForgive the apostrophe error in the title; it’s not mine. Note that the book is rated at 4.5 stars with only 12 reviews.

On Goodreads, the same book:

Charlotte and Emily by Jude Morgan The rating is 3.76 stars with 120 reviews and 471 ratings.

To be fair, this book’s title in the UK is The Taste of Sorrow (much better title, but the publisher likely thought Americans wouldn’t get it), and Goodreads compiles reviews for both titles. Amazon does not, so I searched for that book and found only 5 more reviews (all 5-stars). Amazon UK’s site has 58 reviews for The Taste of Sorrow averaging 4 stars.

The first issue I see is that literary fiction, especially from authors who are not as well known (especially in the US), don’t receive a lot of reviews on Amazon. Compare the number of ratings for each book. The novel was rated only 12 times by Amazon reviews, but it received 471 total ratings, 120 of which also had written reviews, on Goodreads. As a result, one review, either direction, makes a big difference. With books that receive a large number of Amazon reviews, the ratings tend to even out to numbers that resemble those on Goodreads more closely, but for niche books that don’t have a wide audience, Amazon isn’t often that helpful for readers trying to decide whether or not to read a book.

Amazon requires written reviews; readers cannot simply rate a book on a star system without writing an explanation of their rating. While I find that requirement helpful, as often understanding the reason for the review helps me more than a simple star-rating, I can understand why some people might not want to bother.

On the other hand, I find Amazon reviews often focus on the packaging or some other insignificant detail of the book when what I want to know is whether it’s a good book or not. I find it maddening that so many Amazon reviewers still do not understand this concept: the review is for the product itself, not for the service, the packaging, or any other element. I don’t care if it was packaged well and arrived promptly.

One recent trend I’ve noticed on Amazon is for reviewers to write amusing, over-the-top reviews for products that it’s clear they haven’t used, but that they find funny. A case in point is the product page for Sugar Free Gummi Bears, which has pretty much devolved into TMI toilet humor. It’s so bad that the same kind of reviews are being written on the product pages for regular Gummi Bears, which, to my knowledge, do not seem to have the same purported laxative effect as the sugar-free ones. Amazon doesn’t do anything to prevent these kinds of reviews. I don’t want to be a downer, as I actually do think these kinds of reviews can be fun (maybe not the Gummi Bears in particular, but you have to admit the reviews for the Mountain’s Three Wolf Moon tee-shirt are classic). I like amusing reviews. I just want to know that people who are reviewing a product are familiar with it and not just writing reviews to be funny. There is a way to write funny reviews that are also helpful.

A final issue I have with Amazon reviews is that you can rate reviews as either helpful or not. A lot of people use this function exactly as it’s supposed to be used: to upvote reviews that are particularly helpful and downvote reviews that are not helpful. However, a significant number of Amazon users use this feature to downvote reviews with which they disagree, especially if you didn’t like a book they loved or if you loved a book they hated. Or perhaps because they’re capricious and/or ignorant. Who knows?

One of the reasons I started a book blog many years ago is that I didn’t like reviewing my books on Amazon, for all the reasons I’ve shared here. Had Goodreads existed back when I started this blog, the blog might not exist, as I still find Goodreads very helpful and probably would have decided to write books reviews there. Barnes and Noble, with its focus on books and more literary bent, is also helpful, though it suffers from the same issues with literary fiction as Amazon: Charlotte and Emily has only 7 reviews on their site.

I very rarely write Amazon reviews, but at this stage, I think I’m giving up on writing them completely. Any authors who share books with me with the hopes of seeing them reviewed on Amazon have a right to know so that they can decide whether they want to share books if they will be reviewed only on my blog, Goodreads, and Shelfari. I think Amazon’s review system is broken, and I believe sharing my reviews in these other venues is ultimately more helpful, even if fewer people will read them.

None of my concerns about Amazon reviews prevent me from purchasing products from the site, but they prevent the site from being as useful as it might be.

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Book Trailer: Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

Via Carl at Stainless Steel Droppings.

Like Carl, I haven’t paid much attention to book trailers. Well, to be more precise, Carl says that he “poo-poo[ed] the concept.” I didn’t poo-poo the concept, but I often forget about their existence altogether, and some of them are pretty good vehicles for generating interest in a book. Like the one above. I know after reading Carl’s glowing review of the book and viewing that trailer, I decided to read it.

Social media is great for sharing reading. I decided to read this book soon based on a blog post and YouTube video. I have my Goodreads account publish books I add to my to-read pile on my Facebook profile. My mother-in-law bought Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children after seeing my post on Facebook that I intended to read it.

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2010: A Reading Year in Review

More old books...

This year has been a good reading year for me. Some reading stats for completed books:

  • Total number of books read: 40.
  • Fiction books: 33.
  • Nonfiction: 7.
  • Audio books: 4.
  • Kindle books: 16.
  • DailyLit books: 2.
  • Books re-read: 5.

My favorite books of the year in no particular order were

The books I liked least:

I completed several reading challenges. For the Everything Austen Challenge, I read/viewed the following:

Of these books, I enjoyed Persuasion the most, but truthfully, this challenge was one of the most enjoyable for me because I liked all of the books I read and the movie I watched.

I completed Carl’s R.I.P. Challenge for the first time. I read the following books:

I always enjoy this challenge, and I enjoyed all the books I completed for this challenge, especially Dracula, My Love.

I also participated in Carl’s earlier Once Upon a Time Challenge with a read of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.

I read a lot of fiction about the Brontës this year and completed the All About the Brontës Challenge:

The Bibliophilic Books Challenge was a fun way to read books about authors or reading. I read the following:

The Typically British Challenge was a snap for me; as an anglophile, most of the books I read were British, but I counted the following for the challenge:

Last year I read 29 books and didn’t finish any challenges. Look for my reading goals for 2011 in a post tomorrow.

photo credit: guldfisken

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BBAW: Unexpected Treasures

Today’s topic for Book Blogger Appreciation Week is to share whether or not I’ve tried a new book or genre because of the influence of a blogger. In a roundabout way, yes, I have. I follow a lot of readers on Twitter, although they don’t necessarily all have blogs. I picked up Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy because of all the tweets and reviews of Mockingjay. More than bloggers, however, Valerie Jackson’s show Between the Lines has convinced me to read a book, including John Burnham Schwartz’s The Commoner, which turned out to be a great book, The Three Weissmanns of Westport, which was pretty good, and American Music, which I didn’t like as much (and didn’t finish). I have also purchased books Ms. Jackson discusses, but haven’t necessarily finished yet.

Carl’s R.I.P. Challenge has encouraged me to use the excuse of creepy fall reading to read some authors I had been meaning to get around to anyway, such as Neil Gaiman and Daphne DuMaurier.

I don’t think I’d have picked up Georgette Heyer’s Charity Girl if Laurel Ann hadn’t asked me to be a part of the Heyer birthday celebration at Austenprose. I also picked up The Annotated Pride and Prejudice after first seeing it mentioned on a Jane Austen blog.

What about you? Has a book blogger ever convinced you to pick up a book?

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BBAW: New Discoveries

The first day of Book Blogger Appreciation Week invites last year’s participants to discuss book blogs they’ve discovered since last year’s BBAW. Some of my favorites “new to me” book blogs:

  • Bookish Nose: Jordan often reviews books I’ve never heard of. He was one of the folks who made me want to check out The Hunger Games trilogy.
  • DeRaps Reads: Hattie is a fellow English teacher and frequent commenter on my other blog. I like to keep up with what she’s reading, too! I love learning about new YA books.
  • Find Your Next Book Here: I actually just discovered this blog through BBAW. Jenners and I seem to circulate in the same areas of the book blogosphere, so it’s strange I hadn’t bumped into her before. I really like her posts for Show Me 5 Saturday.
  • Following Jane: David’s experiment is to read all of Jane Austen’s novels and share the experience with his readers.
  • Forever Young Adult: I love the humor in this blog. Plus they squeed over Mockingjay and allowed the rest of us to participate and enjoy.
  • Jenny’s Books: Jenny’s reviews are often funny and always helpful. I need to check out Diana Wynne Jones. Jenny’s the second person I’ve heard recommend Jones’s books.
  • Reviews by Lola: I love the way her blog looks. Everything is so organized. Plus, fellow Hunger Games fan and great reviews.
  • Stephanie’s Written Word: Stephanie just celebrated four years of book blogging. She hosts the Everything Austen Challenge, and I just love her reviews and tweets.

So who have you discovered since BBAW last year?

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Google and Book Reviews

If you have ever Googled a book and had trouble finding book reviews, you might Alex Iskold’s article at ReadWriteWeb interesting.

My main source for reviews is other book blogs, Amazon reviews, and Audible reviews. How do you find books?

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Between the Lines

Valerie JacksonValerie Jackson, whose husband Maynard Jackson was mayor of Atlanta, hosts a radio show on the local NPR affiliate, WABE, called Between the Lines. The show’s focus is books and their authors. I listen to the show on a regular basis through my podcast subscription (iTunes link). If you are looking for a good book podcast, you really need to try this one out. Ms. Jackson is an excellent interviewer. She has a way of asking just the right questions and drawing her subject out. I invariably find I want to read the book that her subject is discussing. In fact, I am not a mystery reader, but her recent interview of Sue Grafton made me want to pick up her books.

The most recent podcast I listened to was Chris Bohjalian discussing his new novel Secrets of Eden. I have never read any of his books, but his description of this particular novel was fascinating.

Here is Bohjalian’s introduction to his novel. It looks interesting—possible candidate for my TBR pile.

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Reading Year in Review

Mr. FezLast year, I reflected on my year in reading, and I felt it appropriate to do so this year as well. If I were feeling really ambitious, I would reflect on the decade, but I’m frankly not feeling that ambitious—well, other than to say my favorite reads of the decade are J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series.

This year I read or listened to 29 books (six more than last year), the first of which was The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde, my favorite new author discovery of the year. I read the following books (my reviews are linked if I wrote one; if not, the link will take you to the Amazon page for the book):

Not that plowing through books in order to increase your book count is the most important thing about reading, but I have discovered three new ways to pack more reading in: 1) audio books in the car (I may be the last person on earth to figure this out); 2) reading two or three books at at time, which is weird, but does help me read more than I would if I did one at a time (must be the way my reading habits work); and 3) books on the iPhone (Stanza, Classics, Kindle, or the like). When the lights have to go out at night or when I’m stuck somewhere, I have my phone with me (my iPhone has an alarm clock on it, and I set it to wake me up—works even if the power goes off, so yes, I guess I’m paranoid), so I can get some reading done. The iPhone book reader apps are backlit, which means I can read even in the dark without disturbing my husband.

Some thoughts:

  • Jim Dale is an excellent reader of J.K. Rowling’s books. I haven’t listened to too many audio books. As I said, they’re a new discovery, but he is excellent.
  • Possibly my favorite book in this bunch (that I read for the first time) is The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane.
  • Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire was an exceptionally good biography and the best nonfiction I read this year.
  • I read five classics this year (and one book that is becoming a classic—Grendel). Not too bad as getting through some of the classics is a goal of mine.
  • Six Jasper Fforde books and seven J.K. Rowling audio books make series fantasy the dominant genre this year.
  • Best villain: Count Fosco in The Woman in White. Much more likable and well-developed than Voldemort, not as heinous and over-the-top as Black Jack Randall.
  • Best protagonist: Thursday Next in the Thursday Next series by Jasper Fforde.
  • I didn’t finish any book challenges this year. Let’s hope I do better next year. 😉

photo credit: quinn.anya

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