Book reports #3 and 4 (2022)

Fallout, by Lesley MM Blume. Pub 2020

I read the “Hiroshima” issue of The New Yorker a few years ago, and like most people over the decades – from 1946 to now – I was spellbound by the issue and article. I was therefore intrigued to read Fallout to learn, as advertised, about the cover-up behind it and the inside scoop of how he got that story. Sadly, the book is quite boring.

The machinations required to access the story’s materials and subjects, the secret development of the magazine issue, and the revelation that the government – shock! – was less than forthcoming with the truth – none of these revelations were either surprising or very interesting. The best parts of this book are the rehashings of the original stories presented in 1946, and those are done in a very slap-dash way, making these very compelling stories less interesting. The book is also plagued with editorial errors and typos and so much repetition as to be frustrating and often boring. Also frustrating is the absence of annotation; the book includes nearly 60 pages of numbered footnotes, but none of these are referenced in the book text so there is no way to know when and where the footnotes belong.

Overall, it was a disappointing read, with the only outcome being that I’ll likely seek out and read the original material again. While not exactly drivel, this is certainly not going to be a recommendation, and it’s also a good reminder that a book being on a list (in this case, the NYT 100 Notable Books of 2020) does not always align with a book being good (in this case, it was just popular).

Fate: charity shop/little book library.

8 – a book with a female author

13 – a book set somewhere I’ve never been (the main location for the events is Japan)

20 – a book with a one-word title

25 – a new author to me

31 – a book about history/politics

How to Pronounce Knife, by Souvankham Thammavongsa. Pub 2020

I selected this book (as a Christmas present) for a few reasons: I liked the title; it is a prize winner; there was positive “buzz” about it. Lessons learned – those are terrible reasons to read a book.

All of these stories are about the Laotian immigrant experience in Canada. According to these stories, all of those experiences are terrible and miserable, with the only humour or quasi-happiness occurring through mispronunciations (“Chick-a-chee” instead of trick-or-treat is cute but also a bit painful). While that misery is a place to start a tale, and stories are a good way to get to the reader’s understanding, these stories are so uniform in their expression and circumstances of misery and otherness that it’s not at all clear that anything is learned or reparable in these circumstances. At the same time, the stories and characters are so quirky as to be unbelievable as approximating any kind of real experiences of immigrants. Children and parents are afraid, everyone is poor, many are abused. But there are also no actions by anyone to make the situations different or better. Think A Fine Balance without any forward movement or attempt by anyone to make things better or even different.

Even with the title story: we learn that the father of the family mispronounces “knife” but rather than there be any resolution of that, everyone just shrugs it off, accepting that they will go on being made fun of for their poor English, even when they know it is poor and know how to correct it. It could have become one of those funny family legends or stories, like a nickname or an anecdote, but it just remains unresolved.

And all of the stories are like that. There is a real art to short stories, to create situations and characters that are believable and that can be described and resolved in a few pages. This author misses the mark over and over again, trying to include unusual characteristics with little depth and situations and stories of little interest that are either unresolved or predictably concluded. While the stories are/may be accurate reflections of the immigrant experience, the lack of forward movement and predictable misery (and honestly the dull language and vocabulary) in any of the stories make them boring and unmoving.

Fate: charity shop/little book library.

8 – a book with a female author

18 – a book of short stories

25 – a new author to me

33 – a book with a Canadian author

34 – a book that has won a prize (2020 Giller)

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