Swing Time

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐.5
Author: Zadie Smith
Genres: Fiction
Pub date: Nov. 2016 (read Nov. 2018)

Okay, so despite it taking me literally months to read this book (super rare for me), I actually did really like it. This was my first Zadie Smith book and I can see why people tend to have a love/hate relationship with her. I don’t think this is one of her more well liked books, so I kind of wish I started with a different one, but oh well.

I actually really liked this story and style of writing, it’s just not a book you feel inclined to pick up again once you put it down. It wasn’t that I struggled to read it, there were several times I sat down and read 50 pages or more in one sitting, but whenever I would put it down, I would inevitably decide to start something else and this one always took the back-burner. It’s an interesting story, but at 450 pages, I just think it’s a bit too long for what was actually said.

But let’s get into it. Swing Time is the story of two black girls growing up in London. They both love to dance and have always been somewhat separated from their peers. They have a tumultuous childhood together. Tracee is bold and daring, thinking herself better than those around her, while the narrator struggles to really know who she is. They have a falling out after high school, but despite never really seeing each other again, their lives have a marked impact on each other.

Tracee goes on to become a dancer, while our narrator is hired to work as a personal assistant to a famous singer and dancer named Aimee. The narrator was a huge fan of Aimee’s as a child, but struggles with some of her decisions when becoming her PA. Aimee is very involved in international development and builds and supports a school in Africa, but she is blind to the privileges of her race and appropriates culture on more than one occasion. For Aimee, the world is all about her own indulgence and the narrator struggles with being a black woman in this environment,

There was so much going on in this book, and I can’t pretend like a lot of it wasn’t over my head. I was never really sure where Zadie Smith was going with the story and themes, but she includes some really thoughtful social criticisms in the book. I really enjoyed these thoughts and reading about them from the narrators experience, but they often just seemed disjointed. The whole format of the story is a bit odd. The timeline jumps around a lot, which wasn’t overly confusing, but I think it’s part of what made it a hard book to pick up again. There was never really much tension in the story. You wonder what happened with Tracee, but the story never seems to be working towards anything, so it was hard to have the motivation to pick it up again.

But the most interesting part of this book for me was the fact that the narrator doesn’t have a name! I’m not sure at what point I realized she didn’t have a name, but I kept thinking maybe I just missed it and it was driving me crazy not being able to remember what it was. But no, I’m not crazy, she does not have a name. Zadie Smith why doesn’t she have a name?!?! I feel like there’s some deep reason why she remains nameless throughout, but I do not know it and I want to know why! I wonder if it’s because her life was never really about her. The first half of her life was about Tracee and the second part of her life was about Aimee. Even when she moves on from both of these women, she is still caught up about Tracee. She seemed to have very little sense of self or character and her life totally revolved around those around her. We learn about her friends, family, and co-workers. but we never really learn that much about her and what makes her tick. She is very much an observer of the world around her and to an extent, an observer of her own life.

It’s an interesting relationship between the narrator and Tracee because I think that both are actually jealous of the other. In the end, neither girl is very successful, but I think the narrator has always been a little jealous of Tracee’s confidence and abilities, while I think Tracee is jealous of the narrator’s stable family life and parental relationships. Tracee is good at manipulating the world around her to get what she wants, and even though she is able to manipulate the narrator to an extent, it never really gets her what she wants. She is still a brown girl who has been abandoned by her father and faces substantial systemic oppression to success.

Like I said, this book includes a lot of social commentary on race and privilege, which was what I really like about it. I’ve worked overseas in international development and seen how disorganized development work can be. Everyone has their own agenda and for some reason people don’t think they need to converse with government agencies when working in poor countries. Everyone has an idea of what’s needed to “save Africa” or “eliminate poverty” and they’re all working to their own ends. Without coordinated efforts, systems break down and can actually be left in worse conditions than in which they started. So I understood a lot of the narrator’s frustrations with Aimee’s work and her development agency. Aimee very much embraced the white saviour narrative and it was f-ing annoying. Although, to be honest, almost everything about Aimee was annoying. She was so blind to her privilege. Tracee was annoying too, but at least she didn’t pretend to be anything but what she was.

Overall I would give this 3.5 stars. I quite liked it, but it was just too long and it lacked enough tension to keep me reading.

The Authentics

Rating: ⭐⭐
Author: Abdi Nazemian
Narrator: Kyla Garcia
Genres: Young Adult, Fiction
Pub Date: Aug. 2017 (Read Mar. 2018 as an Audiobook)

I am tearing it up with audiobooks this month! Granted this one was half the length of the audiobooks I usually listen to, but still.

I admit, after listening to I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, I totally did a search on the narrator Kyla Garcia and found that she’d narrated another book on my TBR, which is the main reason why I decided to read The Authentics. Garcia did a fantastic job narrating this book as well, but sadly this was not on the same level as I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter.

This is young adult literature that definitely reads like young adult. I usually don’t have any trouble reading YA because there are some really great YA authors out there who tells stories that have a lot of depth and themes that are applicable to everyone, not just teenagers. This book definitely still had themes that anyone could enjoy, but the story felt pretty juvenille. It actually has a pretty surprising twist early in the novel that I would have been completely pissed about if I was Daria, but in my opinion this book was missing the emotion. It lacked tension and grit and I feel like the author was afraid to go there and instead wrote more of a “feel-good” family novel. There’s nothing wrong with “feel-good”, but I thought this story had a lot of potential and it just lacked impact and execution.

Daria is a 15 year old Iranian-American teenager. She was born in America and has never been to Iran, but she is very proud of her culture and her and her friends, who come from very diverse backgrounds, do their best to always “be authentic”. This all changes when their English teacher challenges them to do a presentation about their heritage and Daria learns something shocking about her family’s past. Daria begins to question everything she thought she knew about herself and her parents and finds it increasingly difficult to be authentic.

I don’t want to give anything more away about the story. There’s several different plots throughout the novel between Daria’s feud with her former best friend, her conflict with her family, and a new love interest, but I thought they were all mediocre and pretty surface level. Maybe I’m out of touch, but I like to give teenagers a bit more credit than I think the author does in this book. Everything about Daria’s fight with Heidi felt childish and the romantic relationship made me cringe. Teenagers have more depth than this and the whole thing just felt lacking.

That said, I really did enjoy the opportunity to read about Iranian culture and I do believe that diverse stories like this need to be told and are incredibly important. I just really wanted more from this. It may be unfair to keep comparing it to I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, but it’s hard not to when they deal with a lot of similar themes (the daughter that can’t live up to their immigrant mother’s expectations) and the latter was so much better written and had so much more depth.

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane

Rating: 
Author: Lisa See
Genres: Historical Fiction
Read: July 2017

 

Where do I start with The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane? There was so much going on in this book – the plot was so layered and there were so many interesting themes underlying the story, but somehow it all worked and was immensely compelling. (disclaimer: there may be a few spoilers in here, but I think most of what I talk about is covered in the synopsis, which is pretty detailed)

Goodreads has been selling this book to me hard all year with their advertising, but for some reason I wasn’t sure if I would enjoy it. I read Dragon Springs Road earlier this year, which I liked but didn’t love. It’s probably unfair to compare the two books, just because they happen in China, but I found the pacing slow in Dragon Springs Road and I expected The Tea Girl to have a similar pacing, but I found this one so much more compelling. I don’t know a whole lot about Chinese culture, so I appreciated both novels and learned a lot, but there was a lot more going on in See’s novel.

Starting with the narrator, I absolutely loved Li-yan. She had such ambition, despite the constant belittlement from her family and the refrain that she was unimportant because she was a girl. Li-yan was born into the Ahka culture, which like many cultures, values boys far beyond girls. The Akha are a very tight knit people and view the village more as a collective than group of individuals. They believe everything has a spirit and they have many customs to protect against bad spirits and encourage good spirits. They believe it is everyone’s job to bring more children into the community and everyone always hopes for the birth of healthy sons.

I appreciated See’s writing because in the beginning the Ahka seemed so backwards to me and some of their practices were extremely horrifying. But throughout the course of the novel See was able to make me really appreciate their way of life and they did progress to abandon some of their more troubling customs (namely the killing of “human rejects”).

But I loved Li-yan because despite being told she was worth nothing, she had such ambition to pursue a better life through education and a desire to be someone. She convinces the village and her father to allow her to pursue her education and becomes the first educated person in the village. She faces so many struggles, but she always persevered and made choices (some of which were very tough) on what she felt was best for herself. Some readers might condemn her for giving up her child, but I didn’t fault her. She really would have had no life if she had decided to keep Yan-yeh. In many cases she was forced into some of her decisions, but I especially loved her decision to leave San-pa. I fully expected her to stick things out no matter how toxic things became, but when she finally recognized what was going on, she made a decision for herself to leave, even though she risked being sold or killed if she was caught.

She made so many wrong choices and at times really disappointed me, but I could sympathize with her decisions and forgive her for them. I was sad when she got distracted from her studies and ignored the advice of her family about San-pa, but she was so young and blinded by love, which I think we’ve all been at the young age of 16. She punished herself for so long after her failed marriage though and I was glad to see her find the strength to love again. 

I thought her relationship with her mother was beautiful. In the beginning I didn’t like A-ma because she was so harsh with Li-Yan, but she really grew on me and it was wonderful to watch their relationship grow and to see the softness in A-ma after the birth of Yan-yeh. I really enjoyed all the mother/daughter relationships in this book and the relationships between all of the women.

I didn’t enjoy the format of Hayley’s story as much (I think I would have preferred 1st person POV), but I learned a lot from her experience as well. I’ve thought about the challenges immigrants face in moving to America/Canada, but I haven’t put much thought into what it must be like to have parents that don’t look like you and to have so many stereotypes forced upon you. You always expect that your parents would be people that you could relate to and take advice from, but when your lived experience is so different from theirs, it must be so difficult not to have that shared experience and reassurance from your parents.

It was also interesting to learn a little bit about the one-child policy. I can’t imagine what that must have been like for Chinese mothers and it’s upsetting to see girls so little valued in a culture. It was interesting to read about Li-yan’s experience giving up her daughter and I’d love to learn more from other perspectives of women who’ve had to make decisions to give up their daughters.

And of course there was the tea. I didn’t think I could find tea so fascinating! I had no idea there was so much history behind tea and I’d never heard of Pu’er tea, so it was interesting to learn about how tea production changed Yunnan province, world tea markets, and became such a phenomenon. What I really liked about this book is that it started in the 90’s. I couldn’t believe there were villages in China that were so remote and unconnected to the world within my lifetime. It was fascinating to see how they evolved and changed as the modern world came to them in search of tea. It gave me a whole new appreciation for tea!

There is so much going on in this novel, but it all worked and was immensely compelling. It was a beautiful novel about the struggles women face, the relationship between mothers and daughters, and the ways in which we change and adapt to the world around us. Would definitely recommend!