Tag: Poetry

Review: Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhhai Lai


Oh, my daughter/ at times you have to fight,/ but preferably/ not with your fists

Beginning with the Vietnamese New Year (Têt), Inside Out and Back Again follows the life of Hà, ten year-old girl living with her mother and three brothers in the last days of Saigon, fleeing the city the day it fell. She lives on a ship, in a refugee camp, and then, finally, in Alabama, sponsored by a good-hearted man. She must navigate English and schoolyard politics. Told in free verse poetry, Inside Out and Back Again is simultaneously a story of many of the tiny cruelties and tiny joys that make up the life of a child and a beautiful story of resilience.

The Fall of Vietnam, as told by a Child
It is not difficult to see why Inside Out and Back Again won both Newberry Honors and the National Book Award when it was published. The poems balance the mundanity of daily life when you are ten with three older brothers—watching and waiting for her papaya to grow, juxtaposed with the chaos of the last days of Vietnam from the perspective of a child whose only understanding of the crisis are her mother’s brows twist[ing] like laundry being wrung dry. Her brother clings to a chick he hatched as Saigon fell, even when the process of fleeing causes its death. Hà mistakes her family’s sponsor—a tall Alabaman—with a cowboy, holding out hope he’ll take her on the horse he ultimately doesn’t have.

Thanhha Lai pulls the reader in, managing to present what is happening to Hà and Saigon in a way that is accessible to elementary and middle grade readers while still being remarkably moving to adult readers. I don’t have either an elementary or middle grade reader in my house, yet I’m looking for my own copy of this book. By writing in free- verse as well, the poetry is accessible, even though it’s…you know…poetry.

Novels in verse
I didn’t realize I enjoyed novels in verse until reading Inside Out and Back Again and Brown Girl Dreaming. I read Brown Girl Dreaming first and enjoyed it but Inside Out and Back Again pushed me over the top on this particular form. I loved this book, with its spare words—in merely thirty words on a page, Lai told me more about Hà and her life than a “regular” novel with one hundred words on a page and twice as many chapters. I haven’t yet dabbled with finding an adult book in verse yet, but Brown Girl Dreaming and Inside Out and Back Again have made me feel like it could be accessible and enjoyable.

My favorites in the collection were the first—the day of Têt—as well as the poems about learning English once she moves to Alabama. Interspersed in the short poems are lines like “Whoever invented/ English/ must have loved/ snakes” and “Would be simpler/ if English/ and life/ were logical.” (English is my first language and I still feel this one!) Lai writes phonetically as Hà learns English (“MiSSS SScott” is her teacher), a little addition that draws the reader fully into Hà’s world, full of this new, strange language.

History Class Failures
This book showed me I know embarrassingly little about the Vietnam War. We almost never reached it in history class in high school or only spent a day on it, moving on to Reagan and the entirety of the ‘80s the next day. I’ve never learned more because military history was never my thing and the bulk of what is out there always seemed to me to be military history. Shamefully, I had never stopped to think what this war must have been like for the people of Vietnam—that the history of this conflict was far more than its impact on the American military and the discontent at home. Inside Out and Back Again showed me that not only do I need to know more about this part of world history but also that I want to know more.

Reading with Kids
With that caveat that I don’t have kids and so don’t actually know what I’m talking about here…I also think this book could be a wonderful tool to talk about being different, bullying, and friendship with kids.   Hà doesn’t speak English and so seems to be slow to many of her classmates. She wears a nightgown to school one day, not realizing it is a nightgown and not a dress. This book could open a conversation with kids as to why people do things that sometimes seem strange to others. She eventually gains two friends who are also outsiders, though in a different way than Hà. She suffers under the cruelties of a bully (“the pink boy”) until eventually vanquishing him, leaving the reader cheering all the more for her.

I can see this being an excellent book to read in short bits (the poems are between one and three pages) and then talk about—what do you think Hà’s life was like? Why do you think the pink boy was so mean? What should you do if you see someone like Hà? Even though I could have read this quickly, I found the book lent itself to being read slowly, to being savored. I find that when I read poetry quickly, I don’t glean as much from it as when I limit my intake and take time to really sit with what I’ve read rather than consuming large quantities at once.

Given today’s climate, the influx of global refugees, and the growth of minority populations, this book could spark great conversations about what it means to be a neighbor, to be welcoming. The approach to the Vietnam war is also age-appropriate. With the exception of the fact that her father is missing, there is little else about the war that is directly mentioned, just the fact that it makes her move and leave as Saigon falls. There will likely be some background explanation necessary for a child reader, but even my vague, elementary understanding of the war was enough for me to understand (and to explain if necessary) what was happening to Hà as the story progressed.
Adult Readers
I step back/hating pity/ having learned/ from Mother that/ the pity giver/ feels better,/ never the pity receiver

For an adult reader, the book raises interesting questions about who we see as other and what we consider charity—how helpful or not it is and for whose benefit we are really acting. In hindsight, there are many things I’ve done or given that made me feel “better” disproportionate to their likely worth (…the orphans in Nicaragua probably really didn’t need all those T-shirts of mine in college). Having the narrator here be a child makes these lessons feel less condemning while still impactful. The same lessons that make this a wonderful book for children—why someone from another country might do something strange and why someone might appear to be slower when they don’t know English—apply equally for adults.

Living in Texas where there is a constant influx of immigrants—just this weekend, coyotes left dozens in a hot truck in San Antonio, including children, resulting in several deaths—this book feels all the more timely. The conflicts are different, the reasons people come here are different, but how we treat people—with kindness, respect, and dignity for their humanity—should never change.

Published January 2, 2013 by HarperCollins (@harpercollinsus)
Author: Thanhha Lai
Date read: July 6, 2017
Rating: 5 Stars

Review: The Heart by Maylis de Kerangal


One day, she must find out what direction time flows in—whether it is linear or the quick circle of a hula hoop, whether it curls and loops or is coiled like the spiral of a snail’s shell, whether it can take the form of a tube wave, sucking up the sea, the entire universe in its flip side. Yes, she needs to understand what it is that makes up the passing of time.
One hour later, death clears its throat, knocks politely on the door, a moving stain, irregularly shaped, opacifying a clearer, larger shape: yes, there it is, that’s death.
-description of a CT scan

As Bill Gates noted, The Heart is “poetry disguised as a novel.” It is a 242-page love letter to words and language. De Kerangal’s sentences roll in your mouth like chocolates, melt as the eyes caress the sentences. I was enraptured with this book; however, it will not be everyone’s—or most people’s—cup of tea.

The entirety of the “action” in the book occurs in a twenty-four hour span of time as nineteen year-old Simon Limbres rises early to surf and unexpectedly meets his end returning from the waves with his two friends who survive the accident. His parents rage, whimper, and rage again until, quietly, they agree to donate his organs. To donate his heart. The book concludes as the heart is restarted in the chest of Claire, a translator with three children. This barebones action serves as the scaffolding around which de Kerangal wraps her words, conjuring the depths of grief juxtaposed with the clinical efficiency of a hospital preparing for an organ transplant. The book is driven primarily by language and character rather than plot/action.

Indeed, if The Heart is a story of something in particular, it is less the story of Simon, and more the story of the landscape of Grief. We do a disservice to Grief today. We look over it, feeling that to call attention to it would be ruder than to pretend nothing is wrong and to move on. We brush it under the rug, out of sight out of mind, but not out of feeling, out of pain. The Heart forces the reader to confront the raw grief of Simon’s parents and later, that of his first love, yet the cadence of the words soothe the jagged edges. The language is the balm on the wound. The first half of the book is best in this regard—it is most clearly the study of Grief as the reader follows Simon’s parents as they discover the new hole in their world and attempt to adjust to this new reality, despite Simon looking so very alive in the bed, still warm though no longer present. The second half of the book, while also gorgeously written, serves in some ways as an extended conclusion. If the first half is the removal of Simon’s heart, the removal of his parents’ core, then second half is the tying off and cauterizing of each vein, the preparing of the body now that life is gone. I do not say this to say that the book drags at the end, only to say that with Grief no longer center stage, the remainder of the action feels like a quiet resolution, the lone nurse preparing the body now emptied of its vital organs for burial.

It is without exaggeration that I say this is one of the most beautiful books I have ever read. I read, re-read, and re-re-read again, marveling both at de Kerangal’s skill as well as that of her translator, Sam Taylor. The Heart was originally written in French, yet even in English the cadence, the rise and fall of de Kerangal’s words is a marvel. The words flow so smoothly as to become almost hypnotic.

The Heart is for those who revel in poetry, who read and re-read sentences, deconstruct and diagram. For those who enjoy reading with a dictionary close by. The Heart is not a book to be read quickly or lightly. It is not a book for the beach or a pool. It is a book that lingers, the beat of the words slowly fading. This is not a book I recommend for everyone or, indeed, many. If you have never re-read a finely tuned sentence solely to appreciate the cadence, the way the words are chosen just so, this is not the book for you. This also isn’t your book if you are not in a place to bear a very raw representation of parental grief for a child lost far too young.

After reading (and disliking) My Name is Lucy Barton earlier this year, I assumed I was one of those people who has to have action. The Heart showed me this isn’t true—if there isn’t action I need language. The Heart has what I missed in Lucy Barton and is another book I will be purchasing for my own library.

Published February 14, 2017 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux (@fsgbooks)
Author: Maylis de Kerangal, Translator: Sam Taylor
Date read: June 26, 2017
Rating: 4 ½ Stars