Book Review – Man by Kim Thuy

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What strikes you first when you begin to read Mãn (Random House, 2014) is its unique format. Each chapter of this slim novel reads like a long poem. The headings are unobtrusively displayed in English and Vietnamese. Most of the chapters are less than a page. They are vignettes, moments. Given their brevity, they are rich with description. Full of tastes and textures and carefully chosen words to show you a character. This is a book that will make you hungry.

Not just for the Vietnamese food that Mãn (the protagonist as well as the book’s title) cooks when she arrives in Canada, but Thúy’s words might stir in you a hunger for home, for comfort, for whatever is familiar to you. Even if that isn’t Vietnam or Montreal. Thúy evokes a longing for home and familiarity that is recognizable to anyone who’s lived and loved in more than one place.

When attempting to describe the plot of Mãn to someone recently, I faltered. This is not a plot-driven novel and what plot there is is mostly revealed on the back cover of the book. Mãn (whose name means “perfect fulfillment”) is an orphan, adopted by a Vietnamese mother amidst the upheaval of their country. She married a Vietnamese-Canadian and moves to Montreal. There she works in his restaurant and discovers her own passion for cooking, growing the business and expanding the food served. She gains a reputation as a skilled cook. She travels to France. She meets a man.

It sounds simple and it is. Yet much of the story lies in what Thúy doesn’t tell us. We never learn the names of Mãn’s husband or children. We never see a conversation or an intimate between her and her husband. We never learn her mother’s whole story or what their relationship was like after she arrived in Canada to live with Mãn and her husband. Thúy leaves much unsaid about the history of Vietnam and its people. Instead, tragedies are hinted at. The moment in which Mãn’s mother sees her father for the last time and doesn’t speak to him in order to protect him. A French man named Luc and his unremembered childhood in a Vietnamese orphanage and his mother’s refusal to speak of those years.

As a reader, you’re left feeling respected. Thúy isn’t here to give a history lesson but to offer one view. One slender window into one life and what can be.

 

*Because reading this in the original French would have taken me a year, I read the English translation by Sheila Fischman.

Four

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Today marks four years since the bright, sunny day on which Peter and I got married.

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While four years is not a monumental anniversary, it is one that deserves to be celebrated. Because I think our marriage deserves to be celebrated. It has been four good years. Four years of getting to know each other better. Four years of laughter, adventure, frustration, tears (happy and sad ones). Four years of shared life. Shared bed. Shared food. He is my partner in every sense of the word and I’m thankful every single day (even the frustrating and maddening ones!) that I get to share this life with him.

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He’s my favourite.

This year has held some lovely highs and some deep lows. There were valleys that I don’t know I could have walked through without Peter. Sometimes it is in those dark times that you realize how strong a relationship is and you come out better, together, on the other side.

Now greater adventures await us.

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We still haven’t quite mastered our selfies.

Celebrating the Written Arts

This weekend, I got a full on literary experience, compliments of the Sunshine Coast Festival of the Written Arts. This is the longest running Canadian Festival of its kind (this weekend marked 32 years) and features a wonderful line-up of Canadian authors. It’s always a delightful mixture of big name writers and up and coming writers and writers you’ve never heard of. (Check out the full line-up here.) Some highlights for me included Bill Gaston, Steven Galloway, Miriam Toews, and Heather O’Neill. Who knew Steven Galloway was so funny? Or what a delightful surprise it would be to hear Heather O’Neill read from an upcoming short story collection?

I’ve attended events at the Writer’s Fest once before but this year, due to work, I got thrown in full board for the whole weekend. From Terry Fallis on Thursday night to a spoken word poetry slam on Sunday evening. It made for long days and so much fun.

Frankly, it’s kind of amazing that a festival of this calibre takes place in our little town. It makes me proud and happy to live where I do.

One of my summer goals (more on those later) was to read as many of the Festival authors as I could. I managed close to half (still working on a couple) and added more to my list by the end of the weekend.

If you’re ever out west on an August weekend, I highly recommend taking in this literary event.

Book Review – The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

I was about halfway through The Bluest Eye (Plume, 1994) when a friend asked me what I was currently reading.

“It’s pretty heavy, right?” she asked.

I glanced at her little girl, munching apple slices next to me at the kitchen counter.

“Yeah. It is.”

Racial tensions, domestic abuse, poverty, incest. Yeah, pretty dark.

While the story is narrated by Frieda, the story is really Pecola Breedloves. Pecola is eleven years old. She lives in poverty with her mother, her mother, and her brother. Her parents are at constant, violent odds.

In a community split by black and white skin, there are further tiers. Frieda and Claudia, who live with both their mother and father in their own home, know that they rank higher than Pecola, who lives in a single room with her family. Pecola, who is so isolated even within her own family that she refers to her own mother as only “Mrs. Breedlove”.

In a particular heartbreaking scene, Pecola and Frieda, along with her sister Claudia, go to visit Mrs. Breedlove at her place of employment, where she works as cook and housekeeper and nanny for a wealthy white family. When they upset the white family’s little girl, Mrs. Breedlove angrily ushers them out while devoting herself to comforting the white child. (A child who is allowed to call Mrs. Breedlove “Polly”.)  She cares for this other household and family and has nothing left over to give to her own family.

Where it might be easy to resent and hate Mrs. Breedlove on Pecola’s behalf, Morrison gives us a more nuanced view. She offers a view of Pauline Breedlove’s childhood. How she ended up married to Cholly and trapped in poverty and abuse. Morrison offers a similar view into Cholly’s childhood. While it’s similarly heartbreaking, I definitely found it harder to sympathize with Cholly in the novel’s present day. I don’t think there’s anything that excuses child rape.

Then again, I don’t believe Morrison’s intention was to excuse any of her characters’ behaviour. Instead, she takes the role of shining a stark light on the true lives of fictional people. Without judgement, she shows us where people start and where they can end up. It’s hard to read, especially when we focus on children, and the hardest part is that these stories really exist.

My friend and I got into a conversation about how worthwhile it is to read dark novels like these. They don’t leave you feeling uplifted or good and although they can be beautifully written, they don’t leave you feeling beautiful.

Yet at the same time, should we shy away from things simply because they’re dark and scary? Because they’re things that don’t affect us? I’m a white, middle-class Canadian girl who’s never been in any more physical altercation than a wrestling match with my brother. It would be easy for me to hide from the truth of racial tension, of racism, of abuse, of the sexualisation of children because those aren’t things that affect me in my daily life. Because in my blue eyes, I have the one thing that Pecola Breedlove wanted more than anything in the world.

Sometimes we have to look at terrible things so that we know they exist. So that we can do something to change them. Sometimes the role of artists is to direct our gaze straight into the darkness.

Backyard Harvest

With a very warm July and early August, our backyard is bursting with fruit. Yesterday was the first cooler day with a little bit of rain and so I decided to devote myself to dealing with some of this.

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Those are yellow plums, figs, and apples from our yard and a zucchini from our neighbours’. Last year, the apples were ready until the end of August/beginning of September. This year they’re already falling from the branches and piling up in our grass. Aside from hating to see food go to waste, it attracts animals. Like bears. And Canadian Geese who then poop all over our driveway.

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This is half of our harvest from blackberry picking nearby on Sunday afternoon.

Half of the zucchini went into a Double Chocolate Zucchini loaf. A quarter got shredded up into the freezer and the rest was Zucchini Sticks before dinner.

The figs posed a larger problem. Last summer, we were overseas when they ripened so this was my first time ever dealing with fresh figs. The most common recommendation I heard was fig jam but I had neither the supplies nor the heartfelt desire to spend my day making jam.

Italian Fig Cookies were my answer.

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They were better than I hoped – the figs made them light and moist and a dash of cloves made them taste like Christmas.

A bowlful of apples and the best $3 I ever spent at a thrift store.

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Once the apples were cored, peeled, and diced, they could go in the freezer. That is, the ones that didn’t make it into an Apple-Blackberry Crumble.

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I’ll probably be able to pick another bowl of apples next week.

The plums are excellent on their own but there are SO many of them! I’m not sure about how well plums freeze so we’ve been trying to eat them/give them away. Again, a common suggestion was jam and again, I’m only so domestic. My first foray with the plums was a German-style Plum Cake. Yesterday, I used them to make an Asian-style Plum Sauce. A little sour but a decent supplement to last night’s dumplings for dinner.

There’s still a lot of fruit out there but it was extremely satisfying to make use of a lot of it.

And, in unrelated news:

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Peter and I woke early one morning a couple of weeks ago and watched this guy at the shore in front of our house, digging for his breakfast. There’s food everywhere.

Hello August

Last weekend, Peter and I took a long weekend trip south of the border – down Seattle way!

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We headed over Friday evening after work and made it through the Peace Arch by sunset.

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We were in Seattle together at this same time three years ago so we knew some of the places we wanted to visit and we found some new spots too. I didn’t take a ton of pictures – preferring instead to just enjoy our time and the moment. But here’s a few I did take:

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Just as we did three years ago, we managed to hit Seattle during Fleet Week. Lots of naval officers walking around, including a few Canadians. I can tell I’m getting older because I didn’t get hit on by any Marines this time.

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Can you visit Seattle and not view the Space Needle?

Related question: Can you view the monorail and not sing the sing from that episode of The Simpsons? MONORAIL!

(I have to confess, growing up in Vancouver where we have the SkyTrain, I have never been motivated to ride the monorail in Seattle.)

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Triffids. Or art?

Either way, they started to play music when you walked by them.

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Of course there has to be a visit to Pike Place Market! I don’t know if this is a terribly touristy confession but it’s probably my favourite spot in Seattle.

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Mostly because I love food.

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When we were there three years ago, I had the macaroni & cheese at Beecher‘s and when people asked what I was going to do for the weekend in Seattle this time, I responded, “Eat macaroni and cheese.”

And I did. Two days in a row. And it was glorious. Probably the best I’ve ever had and this is my favourite food so I know mac & cheese.

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On Saturday morning we passed a truck setting up that advertised Free T-Shirts. Because we love free things, we stopped to chat. Turns out, they were travelling around a few major U.S. cities to promote Texas. Yep, they were handing out free t-shirts to convince people to visit the state of Texas. “People don’t realize there can be lots of things to do in Texas,” they told us. “There’s art and culture.”

So now we’re two Canadians, advertising Texas with our free t-shirts.

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Sunset in Seattle.

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On our way home, we took one of our favourite drives along Chuckanut Drive (from Mt. Vernon to Bellingham. Lovely, lovely.

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And then we came home. And that was great too.