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Language saves lives.

They were living through days that—for those who understood what was going on—were dangerous enough to make one’s hair stand on end.

LAST TRAIN TO ISTANBUL

The book:

We’re onto another book brought to you by my KindleUnlimited subscription. This time, while I was on my latest international trip, I got into a World War II historical fiction kind of mood. I was visiting Budapest at the time, and like most European cities, you can really feel the weight of history. Furthermore, I started Last Train to Istanbul (2002) while actually on a train from Budapest to Vienna. I thought it was rather fitting and I read through this book really quickly–it was just that compelling!

Unlike the Spanish of my last book, I do not have even a passing familiarity with the Turkish language. Yes, I’m still back-tracking making my way through Don Quixote, as I read this back in November of 2018.

Spoiler: The main family of this book (Sabiha, Macit, Selva and Rafo) are fictional, but the actions of the Turkish consulate were historically accurate. Ayşe Kulin even interviewed retired Turkish diplomats for her book’s research accuracy.

Amazon Books release cover of Last Train to Istanbul.
The colorful Amazon book cover (2013)

The author:

A native of Istanbul, Ayşe Kulin was listed as Turkey’s top-earning author in 2011. She is also known for the intensive research conducted for each of her novels. More than one of her books have been made into Turkish films. Kulin′s first book “Güneşe Dön Yüzünü” was published in 1984 and adapted into a film. She was awarded by the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism for this film in 1986. Last Train to Istanbul has been translated into 23 languages was is her second English publication.

Translation:

The language train has left the translation station y’all! Originally published in 2002, Nefes Nefese was translated into English in 2006 by John W. Baker. While the book makes complete sense and I was very touched at parts, it is overall a bit stilted and often comical in English. A few other bloggers have suggested reading the original Turkish (because it’s so easy) for more impressive storytelling.

Looking at the pages, it was as if he was listening to the voices of foxes in his mind, but he didn’t say anything.

The government was paying a high price in order to avoid this fire spreading throughout the world.

“Let’s go somewhere with different values that aren’t so extreme. Let’s run away from our families’ emotional blackmail.”

LAST TRAIN TO ISTANBUL

Fittingly, John W. Baker spent his formative years in Istanbul due to his father’s posting with the British government. He’s the first British writer to have written a play in Turkish, Ihitras (Passion) that was published in 2003.

Original Turkish cover from 2002.

What I loved:

The historical context. As I stated previously, the author conducted interviews with actual Turkish diplomats for this novel. In some ways, it was like reading a fascinating textbook with a play thrown in.

The Turkish army needed 11 million bullets and 6,500 machine guns. The British were only prepared to supply two million bullets and 200 machine guns.

LAST TRAIN TO ISTANBUL

Beyazid II’s statement at the time [1492] was: “It is said that Ferdinand is a wise king. However, the truth of the matter is that by getting rid of the Jews, he has made his country poorer and mine richer.”

LAST TRAIN TO ISTANBUL

The religious tolerance. I am an avowed agnostic, but I have a deep respect for those with religious conviction. Since it is nearly impossible to write a WWII novel without mentioning Judaism, I was expecting that focus. However, with the Turkish setting, we were able to gain an Islamic perspective. Selva and Rafo’s relationship shone a light on that separation.

Spoiler: At one point, Macit tries to convince her sister-in-law Selva to persuade her intended Rafo to convert to Islam. However, she states (correctly) that the Jewish religion is passed to children through the mother. But she later contradicts herself by stating that she wouldn’t convert—indeed she observes Ramadan during the novel. This argument is never resolved when it comes to the raising of their son, Fazil. The war probably got in the way…

The language connection. As a blogger covering translated books, I was particularly intrigued by the meta narrative based around learning languages. From the beginning, language acquisition had played a large role in Selva and Sabiha’s lives.

Leman Hanim: “Of course, suitable young men with good educations will be invited to those parties. They all speak several languages and behave impeccably.”

LAST TRAIN TO ISTANBUL

While unemployed in France, Selva taught English, though she longed for her native tongue.

Selva: “What’s wrong with teaching English, Rafo? Is it forbidden to teach?”

Rafo: “No, but it is frobidden to be Jewish.”

LAST TRAIN TO ISTANBUL

Selva: Apart from the few occasions when she spoke to her mother or sister, and of course Rafo, she had no opportunity to speak Turkish to anyone. She hadn’t admitted, even to herself, that she missed using her mother tongue.

LAST TRAIN TO ISTANBUL

With the Turkish consulate’s daring plan to rescue even tangentially Turkish citizens, she now had to teach Turkish to would-be refugees. Though unbeknownst to the consular officers at the start, Selva is going to attempt to smuggle a friend’s grandchildren onto the train by giving them Turkish names and teaching them useful phrases to cover their French origin.

Selva: “Now, I want you to write down these Turkish words together with their meanings, and I expect you to learn them by heart. Ekmek—bread; peynir—cheese; çay—tea; kahve—coffee; gece—night; abla—older sister; abi—older brother; tuvalet—toilet; mutfak—kitchen; oda—room.”

LAST TRAIN TO ISTANBUL

The flashbacks. In order to layout a compelling story, Kulin constructed the familial conflict through a series of flashbacks. We learn about Macit and Sabiha’s courtship, as well as the role it played in allowed Selva and Rafo to fall in love. Beyond the main family’s history, we are given flashbacks into the lives of multiple Jewish families scattered throughout France during the rule of the Vichy regime.

Google maps plot of 2,803 km journey from Paris to Istanbul by car and plane.
Even by modern means, the book’s journey is incredibly long.

What I liked:

The Turkish names. Many times, for English (and especially American) readers, characters names are Anglicized from their native tongue. In this book, the translator kept all of the original and very Turkish names. Some are more easily pronounced by this language-challenged reader than others.

Sabiha, Selva, Macit, Leman Hanim, Hülya, Fazil Reşat Paşa, Tarik and Muhlis. And the two most Turkish names of all: foreign minister Numan Menemencioğlu and President Inŏnü. The more complicated the better!

David Russo’s story. More than halfway through the book, we are introduced to a young man of Jewish and Turkish heritage living a student’s carefree life in Paris. He is summarily arrested and whisked away to a concentration camp because he’s Jewish and he never renewed his Turkish passport. If you’ve seen Schindler’s List you can begin to understand the brutal and harsh efficiency the Nazis deployed during the Holocaust.

What I could do without:

The drama. If you notice the category tags at the top of my blogs, you’ll see “romance” listed today. On Kulin’s Turkish Culture page, Last Train to Istanbul is listed as a romance because of a variety of factors: the flashbacks for Selva and Rafo, Sabiha’s marriage struggles and Tarik’s rocky relationship with Margot. However, despite my previous Goodreads activity in the romance genre, I was less than enchanted with these storylines. They just distracted from the more serious drama of Jews escaping the Nazis.

The recommendation:

I was delighted to find such a simple and yet compelling book to read on my own (much less harrowing) recent train ride. Like my mother before me, I have always been fascinated with the World War II area of history. So much happened in so many places, all in the span of less than a decade (depending on the country you’re following, of course). While Turkey has had more than a few struggles in recent memory, it is still a land of ancient history and culture that I long to visit. I stand by my 4* rating for this book.

Also, let me know in the comments what you think of this Turkish angle on WWII history—did you need the romance and family drama?

Tree of Life Holocaust Memorial visited in Budapest, November 2018.
Tree of Life Holocaust memorial in the Dohány Synagogue, Europe’s largest Synagogue in Budapest, visited in 2018.
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Let’s talk it out.

That’s one of therapy’s cruel aspects: the therapist is unique to you, but not the other way around.

TEN WOMEN

The book:

Four books in and we’re finally on a truly translated book! Thank you for sticking by me through this long journey, I know it’s been hard on us all. Which is why we’re all diving into some group therapy down in Chile. Should be a barrel of laughs, y’all. Deemed “psychological fiction”, this story is spread out over ten [long] chapters of each woman telling her story. I’ve never been to group therapy, but this setup was impactful and revealing to me as a bystander. However, I did need almost two full months to finish this book. I didn’t start to enjoy the stories until halfway through, I’m not sure if that’s because they built on each other or I finally sank into the concept.

Before I started this blog, Ten Women (2014) was one of a handful of books I downloaded with my KindleUnlimited subscription as an uncoordinated attempt to read non-American authors. Here’s a secret: I read this book nearly a year ago in April of 2018. While I’m still riding through the older translation that is Don Quixote, I thought I’d review one of the original instigators for this blog.

Spoiler: In case you weren’t keeping track, there are nine women in the therapy session, yet there are ten chapters (like the book title). The final chapter is devoted to the story of Natasha, the therapist that brought them all together.

Simple and elegant

The author:

The daughter of writers, Marcela Serrano is known as one of the most accomplished authors in South America—her debut novel We Loved So Much won Santiago’s Literary Prize in 1994. Most of her stories reflect her own feminism and leftist political leanings. While not all of her novels are set in Chile, one even starred an American protagonist, it wasn’t until this novel was translated that she was exposed to English readers.

Translation:

That’s right, I said translated, people! Originally published in 2011 Diez mujeres was translated into English in 2014 by Beth Fowler. I’ll dig more into the book’s contents here soon, but the translation was impeccable. Growing up in Texas, I know a decent amount of Spanish but this book was entirely in English. There were even some parts I chuckled at, and humor is the most difficult part of speaking another language. (Or so I hear.)

Originally from Inverness, Scotland, Beth Fowler earned her degree in Hispanic Studies from the University of Glasgow, including a year teaching English in Santiago, Chile. A perfect fit for this Chilean powerhouse’s first English translation.

What I loved:

The cynical humor. As a novel entirely set in a group therapy session of downtrodden women, there were many moments of self-reflection and absurdity that sometimes came out as one-liners. Sometimes you’ve got to laugh to keep from crying, eh?

The madwomen, here come the madwomen, the workers on the grounds will be saying, spying on them from behind the trees.

TEN WOMEN

Mané: “Old age is measured by the percentage of the body that bears scrutiny. When you want to cover up yourself completely, you’re screwed.”

TEN WOMEN

Juana: “Susy is submissive like she’s been bitten by a vampire.”

TEN WOMEN

The brutal honesty. In order for therapy to be truly effective, the patients must be fully honest with not only themselves but also their therapist. In the case of Ten Women, that honesty carries a greater weight when exposed to a group of strangers.

The female perspective. Similar to many Latin and South American countries, Chile has a history of machismo culture. Marcela Serrano has a tradition of showcasing strong women and her own feminist ideals in her work. These ten women have all had struggles and setbacks, yet they all managed some small triumphs along the way, in the face of it all.

Long and narrow is Chile

What I liked:

The wide variety. As a feminist, I’d like to think that equality for all really means that: all. Ten Women covers the young and old, rich and poor, well-educated and illiterate. Feminism isn’t socialism, but rather providing everyone opportunities and support to make their own way. At least, that’s what I think.

Mané: “Because despite everything, I was always insecure, like all women.”

TEN WOMEN

What I could do without:

The pace. As I mentioned at the start, this book took me over two months to finish. Unlike a tv version of group therapy (Go On anyone?) these chapters are unbroken by interruption or deviation. It’s simply one woman telling her life story and what led her to therapy. I really shouldn’t have been surprised, but I really thought there would be more drama or hijinks involved.

The lack of dialogue. Similar to my first reviewed book, Chemistry, there are no quotation marks for dialogue in Ten Women. Unfortunately, this style choice makes this already detailed book plod on even slower as you have to pay very close attention.

The length. Each woman’s chapter was over 20 pages, the longest came in at 30 pages. With no dialogue and only the very occasional poem or song, that’s a long time to stay on one person’s life story. Part of that distance may have come from the international differences, as well as some of their ages, but I still persevered.

The recommendation:

Read an excerpt and the reviews of someone that loved this book before reading. It is a bit of a commitment, but many people enjoy simple stories of daily life. However, I use books as an escape and prefer stories that really stand out for the characters, situation or setting. I originally gave this book a 4/5, but I’m leaning more toward 3 now. Many of the money and political challenges of Chile (as well as living in a large city like Santiago) mystified me and didn’t allow me to connect with the women like I should have to enjoy the story.

Also, let me know in the comments if this book would make you want to travel to Chile or not!

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Book before movie. Always.

“You’re the only Chinese mother I know who’s actually encouraging her daughter to shack up with a guy.”

“I’m the only Chinese mother with an unmarried daughter who’s almost thirty!”

CRAZY RICH ASIANS

The book:

Readers, I committed an error against book lovers: I watched the movie before reading the book. To be fair, I was trying to support diverse movie casts and heard the movie was excellent (it was). Oh, and I was waiting to receive the book for Christmas (I did)…which somehow prevented me from also checking it out from the library.

Moving past my shame, Crazy Rich Asians (2013) lived up to all of the hype and then some! If all debut novels were this good then the whole world would have as many authors as Iceland. While I’m deep in the slow Spanish past with Don Quixote, I breezed through the modern rom com of high fashion and luxury that is Singapore. However, at 527 pages, this is the longest book I’ve read for this blog (starting strong!) and the first one in a series. Maybe I’ll cover the whole series…maybe I won’t. Stick around!

Cover of Crazy Rich Asians
Non-movie covers are best.

The author:

As I mentioned above, this is Kevin Kwan’s first novel, and it is NOT autobiographical! I promised in my last post that all my books would not be such, and here I am already following through. For while Kwan was born and raised in Singapore (and have an affinity for fine jewelry), the comparison to his characters ends there. He earned a degree in creative writing and then moved into a successful design career.

No illustrious and fabulously wealthy family dynasty or tragic love affairs for Mr. Kwan. That we know of….

Translation:

No. This time for a good reason: one of the four official languages of Singapore is English! However, Kevin Kwan liberally flavored his novel with naturally used non-English. One of the most delightful parts of reading this book was the extra humor from the footnotes.

Throughout the novel characters use phrases such as Malay (Alamak=oh dear or oh my god!), Hokkien (sah kah=rude hand gesture), and Cantonese (hei mai=isn’t that right?) among other slang and region-specific words. This really helped me feel like I was getting an authentic experience, as well as learning on the go.

What I loved:

The alternating perspectives. It’s very easy to write a “forbidden romance” from simply the lovebirds’ angle, broadly painting the parents as villains. Kwan went deeper into the parents’ (okay, Eleanor’s) psyche and showing their everyday lives and the pressures inherent to their status. While I am a sucker for love (as an unmarried woman nearing thirty), I also understand family obligation and career aspirations. Practicality can lead to happiness.

Rachel: “This surprise invitation, however, sparked some vestigial instinct within her. The long-dormant romantic in her was awakening…”

CRAZY RICH ASIANS

Eleanor “This girl is obviously a cunning, deceitful GOLD DIGGER! You know as well as I do that your son can never marry someone like that.”

CRAZY RICH ASIANS

The family tree. This may seem simple, but I’ve always been a huge fan of reader tools. If you create a new fantasy world, give me a map. If you create your own language, give me a guide (or footnotes). If your novel is based on a convoluted, multi-generational and multinational family, then give me a family tree. Similar to his footnotes, Kwan’s family tree addendums made me chuckle. I flipped back to this chart for reference (and giggles) at least twice every time I sat down to read.

The colorful characters. Kwan intended his novel to be a satire of the extravagant lifestyles and deep-seated prejudices of the families that left China to prosper in Southeast Asia. Peik Lin’s extravagant generosity, the dual psalm and stock trading Bible Study, Radio One Asia (see “family tree”), and even Astrid’s shopping trips. Rachel and Nick could pale by comparison, but Kwan sets them up to be refreshingly simple and original.

Spoiler: After being married in Asia’s wedding of the century, I laughed at Araminta’s incredible pettiness to be annoyed by Astrid’s inadequate fashion choice.

Take a minute. Revel in the Lion City’s glory.

The relationship struggles. I’ve been in a relationship for over five years now and I still remember the near-panic attack I had when my boyfriend casually suggested I meet his parents (over Thanksgiving I might add). I even baked two different types of brownies to put my best foot forward. Rachel and Nick both take many opportunities to discuss their trials with friends, family and eventually each other. Neither is perfect, but both care.

Spoiler: Nothing Rachel did was enough for Nick’s relatives (except probably Astrid and his father), and he was bluntly told not to marry her.

What I liked:

The brand names. I’ll readily admit that I had to Google many of the luxury brand names sprinkled liberally throughout Crazy Rich Asians. However, the variety showed a good depth of research and I appreciated that attention to detail.

Spoiler: During Astrid’s most interesting flashback, it was a nice twist that her boyfriend introduced her to haute couture and living the high life. Way to break stereotypes, Kwan!

What I could do without:

Nothing. Honestly, I enjoyed every bit of this book and can’t think of anything I would change! It’s an international bestseller that made $238 million in the US alone while maintaining a 91% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Kevin Kwan gave the movie studios an incredible foundational product.

Spoiler: I’m very glad this book ended without a solid resolution of Nick & Rachel’s relationship. The pain was still too raw for Rachel and it would’ve been jarring and unrealistic for her to fully forgive him so soon. The food argument was much better.

The recommendation:

Read the book and then re-watch the movie. This is a very enjoyable read that presents a simple premise against a backdrop of magnificent excess. Meeting the parents is an ordeal that every couple has to undergo, some people just get to travel on private jets and attend man-made island receptions. Life isn’t fair, I know.

Also, let me know in the comments what you think of the differences between the book and movie!

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Never stop running.

“I laughed. Partly at the joke, partly at how Afghan humor never changed. Wars were raged, the Internet was invented, and a robot had rolled on the surface of Mars, and in Afghanistan we were still telling Mullah Nasruddin jokes.”

The Kite Runner

The book:

My first book review was of one I had previously read, by an author with the heritage of a country I had visited, and visited recently. This was my first time reading The Kite Runner (2003), and sadly, I will probably never visit Afghanistan. While many events have changed the status quo in Khaled Hosseini’s homeland in the 16 years since his first novel was published, not enough has changed in the region for casual tourism.

2005 paperback cover of The Kite Runner book.
The 2005 version I was given, with a Readers Guide at the end.

As an internationally bestselling novel, even casual readers have heard of The Kite Runner and its heart-wrenching story of a boy’s journey throughout and away from Afghanistan. Due to its notoriety, I’m going to be more free with spoilers than before. This was not an easy book to read, but I’m very glad this blog project compelled me to read it, finally.

The author:

From what I’ve read, Khaled Hosseini will spend the rest of his life denying claims that his debut novel is in any way autobiographical. Yes, he did grow up in Kabul—even in the Wazir Akbar Khan neighborhood from the book. His family was able to leave Afghanistan before the Soviet and Taliban regimes decimated it, and he settled in California at 15. Both of his parents immigrated with him and he has two children, all characteristics that differ from the protagonist, Amir.

I promise this blog will not solely concentrate on falsely-autobiographical books. Though, you have to admit, these authors each paint vivid stories in their own way when given creative license to…improvise.

Translation:

No. Khaled Hosseini wrote The Kite Runner in English, but he did not speak the language himself until he was 15. However, I was delightedly frustrated by the many Farsi words sprinkled throughout the book. From family titles (Baba=Father) to greetings (Salaam alaykum=Peace be unto you) the language of Afghanistan was sometimes explained but often left untranslated. In a small way, that solidified the story for me.

As well, I will readily admit that I had not known that Farsi (or Dari) was the national language of Afghanistan. Like many, I assumed it was Arabic. This misunderstanding brings an even greater contrast to the later religious domination of the country.

What I loved:

The adult perspective. From the very beginning, the reader is told that this is a story of remembrance, redemption, and regret. Every childhood moment is framed with adult hindsight and a little history. For too many Americans (myself included), Afghanistan is a country overrun by the Taliban, shackled to strict religious doctrine with a harsh climate. The author—and his narrator—gave the perspective of both a comfortable native and a tourist returning to a changed home.

The brutal honesty. While Hosseini was in the midst of writing his novel, planes struck the Twin Towers on 9/11. Suddenly the world’s attention was fixed on Afghanistan and Islam. He could have chosen to take the easy route and painted his homeland in a glowing light of ancient tradition and misguided morals. Instead, he presented a land of contradictions:

“‘We Afghans are prone to a considerable degree of exaggeration…'”

The Kite Runner

“‘We’re a melancholic people, we Afghans, aren’t we?'”

The Kite Runner

As I mentioned at the start of this review, The Kite Runner is not an easy book to read as rape and murder feature strongly. I believe that is entirely necessary: Afghanistan was not an easy country to live in, especially in Amir’s situation. Privileged he may have been, but his life was based on a lie. Amir’s Pashtun ethnicity forever set him above Hassan’s Hazara ancestry, though they were secretly half-brothers. Would knowing the truth have improved how Amir treated his closest companion? Honestly, I think he would have pitied him, and that would have lead to spite. Amir was not an easy character to like, making his redemption all the more important.

The weight of history. As an American, I was often taught that we are the oldest democracy (debatable), even though we have less than 300 years of history to our name. In contrast, the history of Kabul can be traced to the 7th century, and even modern Afghanistan predates the USA. Hosseini skillfully wove in ethnic, political, religious and gender struggles throughout an inherently simple story of brotherly competition.

Map showing Kabul and Afghanistan surrounded by other Asian nations.
Map of Kabul’s location within the larger Asian region.

What I liked:

The cast of characters. With Amir as the first-person narrator, we are mostly confined to his POV. However, since he originates from a narrative-based culture, he is told many stories throughout his childhood. Stories of his father, his half-brother Hassan, his country and his mother all feed into his eventual career as a writer. I particularly enjoyed the father’s story arc from distant patriarch to fellow immigrant and finally familial confidant. The revelation of his so-called sin and subsequent guilt defined nearly every other character, not just Amir.

The kites. Personally, I’ve never been a big fan of metaphors. But I do think the kites were an allegory for the antagonistic nature of Afghanistan, while also serving as a bridge between the brothers. Hosseini did a nice job of framing the novel with kite running, while also resisting the urge to beat us over the head with the imagery.

The pacing. Amir’s reminiscence begins as a child in 1960s Kabul and we follow him until after his return from Afghanistan in 2002, post-9/11. Hosseini does a good job of focusing on important details to build his theme, while employing backtracking to fill in transitory holes later.

What I could do without:

Hassan’s passive characterization. I understand that this is Amir’s story, but even when Hassan is given a voice in Part III, he is saintly. He blindly supports Amir his entire life, maintains there is good in everyone and never defends himself. Even Amir’s wife Soraya, one of the neglected classes of Afghanistan, is given more dimension in her more brief scenes.

The recommendation:

Consume this book. Though not an in-depth history of Afghanistan or its conflicts, The Kite Runner does a splendid job of bringing humanity and depth to this often forgotten or derided nation. Hopefully, like myself, reading this book will drive you to do more independent research on Afghanistan. Too many people fear what they do not understand, here’s a chance to rise above that fear. Comment your perceptions of or questions about this book below!

Oh, did I mention there’s a movie, too?

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10 years ago…

Now that we’re more than a week into 2019, it struck me that it has now been a decade since I first traveled overseas to Europe.

A decade.

I know it’s hard to believe looking at my author photo, but I’m just 27. When I fully remember events that happened over a decade ago, it still stuns me.

Another aspect of this memory that astounds me, besides this picture below, is the abundant curiosity that my high-school-graduate self showed during her first overseas excursion: I took 256 pictures during a 3 day trip to England alone.

Chelsea smiling in front of Windsor Castle wearing a gray polo.
In full 2009 Windsor Tourist Mode.

Just two months ago I visited three countries and took 100 fewer pictures in three times the length of time. Maturity, y’all.

I’m writing about this first trip to Europe to demonstrate one of the main goals of my blog: diving deep into cultural differences and similarities. The first country we visited was England. The saying goes that the US and England are two countries divided by a common language. However, the disparity that struck me the most was the weight of history that the English contend with on a daily basis.

In the US, we consider anything over 100 years as quite, quite old. The British would just consider it quite seasoned. (More on those common language divisions here!) While walking around London I was just as likely to see the remains of a bombed-out WW11 church as I was a 16th-century theater—architectural culture shock.

Literature is one of the ways in which people dissect current events through historical and fantastical framing. Even though some of the books I’ll review will be in English, the cultural setting of the story and author necessitate their own form of translation.

Just as my teenage self was open-minded about every single aspect of traveling 4, 837 miles away from home to visit a country that abuses the letter “u”, so will this blog be acceptant of viewpoints and experiences from globally diverse perspectives.

Ferry water trail through the English Channel on a clear day.
The world is our oyster and the horizon is endless…

Do you have any stories of your first trip abroad, or first experience of culture shock? Share in the comments below!

This isn’t a textbook

“I realize what a hypocrite I’m being, to make him wait for an answer while dwelling on a twenty-five minute line.”

Chemistry

I have a secret for you, dear readers, this is not the first time I’ve read Chemistry (2017) by Weike Wang. It was the first time I’d read it in one night, which I took as a very, very good sign. While I promise that this is most definitely not a BuzzFeed-sponsored blog, I do have the site’s Books Newsletter to thank for introducing me to what is becoming one of my favorite books.

Chemistry book cover
This cover doesn’t not look like a textbook.

Narrated by an unnamed woman (strangely, I never named her), Chemistry follows along as this woman falls into the middle of multiple crossroads. Should she continue her chemistry PhD? Should she marry her incredibly patient live-in boyfriend, Eric? Will she ever stop drinking wine?

The writer: Since this is a blog about reading books by non-American authors, here’s a little background on Weike Wang. Her family moved to the US from China when she was 5 and she later attended Harvard. While these characteristics are very similar to our narrator, Wang has made it clear that this is not an autobiography, but rather contemporary fiction.

The strained, often stereotypical, relationship the narrator has with her immigrant Chinese parents was drawn from multiple instances, as well as her own.

Translation: No. Weike Wang wrote Chemistry in English, but many aspects of being Chinese, such as navigating many dialects and the immigrant experience, are threaded throughout this book.

What I loved: The short bursts of thought and activity that the narrator conveys. Both times I’ve read Chemistry I was surprised how easily and deeply I connected with this narrator, despite her seemingly shallow communication style.

The ability to make mistakes. Too many protagonists always know what to say and how to win the day—our narrator is barely in the room! I loved that she made jokes at inappropriate times, wasted entire days watching TV for no reason and didn’t stick to a path just because it was laid out. Bravery.

China! I discovered this book barely a month after I returned from traveling to China. This was my first trip to Asia and I was fascinated by the vibrantly ancient culture. The narrator mentions Shanghai and I just so happen to have a related picture.

Chelsea on a ferry in Shanghai, China in 2017
The most amazing part of this picture is the lack of people pushing near me.

What I liked: The dog. On my second reading, I had my new puppy lying across my lap. I was now tickled reading about the misadventures of the narrator and her dog as her world is otherwise in upheaval.

The scientific facts. My last science class was nearly 7 years ago—though Life 1002 barely merits that descriptor. However, I have always loved learning and the author did a good job of inserting these bits of trivia throughout the story.

What I could do without: The undergraduate. I understand building conflict, but this is my review and I make the calls. Eric was such a strong force in the narrator’s journey, that this new entrant should barely make a dent. No matter what the best friend wants to happen.

This book is only 244 pages and is broken up into easily digested chunks for the ADD age. I promise not to judge you if it takes you longer than a night to finish. Also, if you happen to know more about the subject of chemistry than how to spell it, I would particularly enjoy your opinion on this book, so comment below!

Thank you for starting this journey with me, where in the world will we visit next?