The Week in Books #48

The week in books! This week I read about two major cities; Beijing and New York. Two books with very different tones; one a moving historical novel about family living under communism, and the other a fast-paced sci-fi about BIPOC defeating an alien invasion in NYC. Woo!

1. Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien. THIS is an epic, multi-generational story I can get behind. DNSWHN is about two intertwined families during the communist China era under Mao, culminating in the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989. It is about democracy, freedom, and revolution. It provides details of the struggle to live under the control of the People’s Republic of China from 1949-1978, including the Great Leap Forward where 20-40 million people died of famine and overwork, and also the post-Mao era. Very readable, if a little slow at times, great character development and certainly deserving of its Giller Prize win in 2016.

Madeleine Thien’s new novel is breathtaking in scope and ambition. With the ease and skill of a master storyteller, Thien takes us inside an extended family in China, showing us the lives of two successive generations–those who lived through Mao’s Cultural Revolution in the mid-twentieth century; and the children of the survivors, who became the students protesting in Tiananmen Square in 1989, in one of the most important political moments of the past century.

At the centre of this epic tale are enigmatic Sparrow, a genius composer who wishes desperately to create music yet can find truth only in silence; his mother and aunt, Big Mother Knife and Swirl, survivors with captivating singing voices and an unbreakable bond; Sparrow’s ethereal cousin Zhuli, daughter of Swirl and storyteller Wen the Dreamer, who as a child witnesses the denunciation of her parents and as a young woman becomes the target of denunciations herself; and headstrong, talented Kai, best friend of Sparrow and Zhuli, and a determinedly successful musician who is a virtuoso at masking his true self until the day he can hide no longer. Here, too, is Kai’s daughter, the ever-questioning mathematician Marie, who pieces together the tale of her fractured family in present-day Vancouver, seeking a fragile meaning in the layers of their collective story.

Penguin Randomhouse
“It’s not a competition, Soph.” I was reminded of this scene from Peep Show where Sophie tries to make Mark buy a shirt with Mao on it.

2. The City We Became by N. K. Jemisin. I was so into this I didn’t want to put it down, but with toddler interruptions every 3 pages it took me all day to get through. Not mad about it though! This is a speedy science fiction that was really enjoyable to read. It reminded me a lot of the Futurama movie Beast with a Billion Backs where an alien planet attempts to take over New York by invading it with tentacles and finding host bodies… which is essentially what was happening here but also the city of New York has avatars representing the 5 boroughs to fight back. There is a lot of good representation in the characters; Indigenous lesbian elder artist, female Indian mathematics student, Black woman former-MC-turned-politician, mixed-race man with amnesia, skinny unhoused Black man, and numerous others including a trans man who appears initially but sort of disappears, which was unfortunate. Jemisin definitely tried to cover all the bases, almost to the point where it was excessive. A good read.

Every great city has a soul. Some are as ancient as myths, and others are as new and destructive as children. New York City? She’s got six.

But every city also has a dark side. A roiling, ancient evil stirs in the halls of power, threatening to destroy the city and her six newborn avatars unless they can come together and stop it once and for all.
Futurama’s Beast with a Billion Backs

No big book hauls this week, I think I’m pretty stocked up for the next little while lol. I did, however, buy a copy of After Dark by Haruki Murakami from Canadian used book seller Shed Books in Calgary. I found out about the shed from this CBC article. It’s a used book store in a man’s shed! I jumped on the IG account and saw that Keven posted about having a few Murakami titles, which are hard to find used. I asked him to ship me one title I didn’t have yet which he was glad to do 🙏🏼 Definitely check out the IG if you want to support a cute little Albertan book shop.

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