Cover Image: How to Pronounce Knife

How to Pronounce Knife

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Member Reviews

An impressive volume of short stories that offer bright flashes of compassion, insight and experience.
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Thammavongsa's collect of short stories speaks to the Canadian experience from the perspective of the child of Laotian refugees. It's a story of the gap between parents and children trying to navigate a new country, language and culture; of the daily cruelties of being othered and the disappointment of lives made small by circumstance. 

While not every story in this collection packs the same punch as the title story, there are some gems and ultimately, Thammavongsa's writing is beautiful and transformative and sticky.
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This debut of short stories was easy to read and like most short story collection books I have read this year, some stories are better than others. The book as a whole focus on immigrant children learning to read English, hence "how to pronounce knife." Some of the stories were also more funny than others, and a few even missed the mark of being funny at all.

Still a worthy collection of stories to read, but not what I was expecting. Easy to read this in 2 sittings.

Thanks to Netgalley, Souvankham Thammavongsa, and Little Brown & Company for an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

Already Available: 4/21/20
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How to Pronounce Knife is a collection of spare short stories and vignettes. It focuses on Laotian Canadians and their adjustments to their new environments. I connected with a number of the stories and tidbits within (difficulties in pronunciation, forced anglicization of names, craving for connection and understanding) but found it more difficult to connect to others. In particular, I found the first half of the collection really drew me in and then the second half of the collection was more uneven. Overall, though, the collection is quite short and it is well worth a read.

Thanks to NetGalley, the author, and Little, Brown and Company for an opportunity to read an advance copy in exchange for an honest review.
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I’m judging a 2020 fiction contest. It’d be generous to call what I’m doing upon my first cursory glance—reading. I also don’t take this task lightly. As a fellow writer and lover of words and books, I took this position—in hopes of being a good literary citizen. My heart aches for all the writers who have a debut at this time. What I can share now is the thing that held my attention and got this book from the perspective pile into the read further pile. 


Often, I dream of seeing her face, still young like she was then, and although I can't remember the sound of my mother's voice, she is always trying to tell me something, her lips wrapped around shapes I can't hear. The dream might last only a few seconds, but that's all it takes, really, to undo the time that has passed and has been put between us. I wake from these dreams raw, a child still, though I am forty-five now, and grieve the loss of her again and again.
My father did not grieve. He had done all of this life's grieving when he became a refugee. To lose your love, to be abandoned by your wife was a thing of luxury even—it meant you were alive.

THE OTHER NIGHT, I saw an image of the Earth on the evening news.
I had seen it many times before, and although my mother was not there, I spoke to her anyway as if she was. "See? it really is round. Now we know for sure." I said it out loud again, and even though it disappeared, I knew what I said had become a sound in the world.-104

This passage gutted me. Such phenomenal writing. Thrilled to have discovered this author.
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Fourteen vignettes reflecting the lives of some Laotians displaced to a new country with a difficult language, new lifestyles, the things that they expected of themselves and the different ways which others expected of them that were new and different in every way to their pasts. It's kind of a reminder to any one of us who had family who were in similar circumstances years ago and how the social isolation and longing for the way things were in their particular homeland before whatever war drove them to this new land. Well written and sometimes raw. It comes across as reality, and who's to say that some of it isn't. Dr. Siri Paiboun would have been very proud of her.
I requested and received a free ebook copy from Hachette Book Group and Little, Brown and Company via NetGalley. Thank you!
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I enjoy short stories, so I was happy to try this author and this collection.  And it was fine.  Just fine.  That's not a bad thing - it just didn't wow me, but it was enjoyable and I would recommend others read it.
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A disappointing collection of stories. One thing I found about this was that it does not really do what the blurb claims, which is "focus on characters struggling to build lives in unfamiliar territory, or shuttling between idioms, cultures, and values."  The mentions of culture are limited to the odd mention of food and apart from that most of them could be set anywhere and be about anyone. They are also not interesting aside from that. Afraid I didn't get the hype with this one.
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Thank you to #NetGalley, the publisher and the author for providing me with a digital copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.  How to Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Thammavongsa is a collection of fourteen short stories about the lives of a Laotian immigrant family as they struggle to find their place in America.  The book is a thoughtful, eye-opening book about how difficult it is to assimilate a new country's customs into the way of life that you are used to.  In the title story a daughter is supposed to read a story at home and get help from her parents with words she does not understand.  The word that is giving her trouble is knife.  Her father is helping her but he does not know that in America the "k" in a word is sometimes silent so he gives her an incorrect pronunciation.  When the daughter returns to school the next day and mispronounces the word, it is embarrassing.  It seems like such a small, insignificant moment but it really is much bigger than that.  Something like this can have a profound effect on a child, making them shy away from speaking because they do not want to be embarrassed. This book is full of those small moments, sometimes funny and sometimes painful, that have unforgettable consequences.  This book is beautifully written and I hope the author will write another book of stories or, better yet, a novel.  I highly recommend this book.
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Review posted at BookBrowse: https://www.bookbrowse.com/mag/reviews/index.cfm/ref/pr262208


In her powerfully poignant debut collection of stories, Souvankham Thammavongsa illuminates the marginalized lives of Lao immigrants in Canada.
Many examples of immigrant fiction dedicate a portion of their storytelling to exploring details of homelands that their characters have abandoned—food, rituals, sights and sounds of countries sorely missed. It is striking how little time Thammavongsa has for such wistfulness. Throughout the 14 stories collected in How to Pronounce Knife, nearly all of which follow Lao immigrants and refugees building new lives in unnamed towns across Canada, not once do we encounter a character homesick with nostalgia.
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I once heard a children’s chapter book writer explain that writing a picture book was hard. Getting everything you want into 32 pages that included illustrations was difficult. It is the same for a short story author. Thammavongsa is a master in delivering her first short story collection. Her stories are thoughtful capturing of life in America as a refugee. Her first story in the collection “How to Pronounce Knife” should be in every teacher’s schoolbag. Its poignant in telling what so many teachers don’t know about immigrant home life, the language and cultural differences that make school difficult. In all her stories it’s the feeling of being invisible and alienated. t
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I found I couldn't really connect with this book but maybe that is just personal preference as I normally don't read short stories/essays. 

I enjoyed the Randy Travis story the most but felt the ending very sudden, a common theme in the book. That being said, the stories cover some important themes so I would encourage others to read it and see what they think - I think the enjoyment of this book is very subjective.
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I'm new to short story collections, but I adored this one! In the past, I've been hesitant to pick up short story collections because I often feel the time with the characters is too short. I normally love long, multi-generational family sagas (and lots of other types of stories too!), but those give you a chance to really get to know the characters. However, in this collection, that wasn't a concern at all. Souvankham Thammavongsa writes stories that have so much snap to them. What I mean by that is she sets the stage for the story brilliantly right from the start. In just a few pages, I grew attached to the characters and felt that I could see the perspective they brought to their experiences. Then there would be a pivotal moment that gives the story its meaning and then it would wrap up but also be left open-ended. My favorite story was Mani Pedi. Her writing is beautiful, and I found it to be so powerful. If you enjoy short story collections or are looking for one to try for the first time, I would highly recommend this one!
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This is a collection of short stories about Laotian Americans. They are written in a very straight forward, unembellished manner. Some are quite short and none of them has any real resolution. They are just glimpses of a situation. I liked all of the stories, but I particularly liked: “How to Pronounce Knife”  in which a young girl accepts that her father isn’t perfect; “Randy Travis” in which a mother becomes obsessed with the singer; “Chick-A-Chee” about a novel trick or treating technique and “Picking Worms” about loyalty. Since I am not that big a fan of short stories, I hope the author writes a novel next. I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.
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In this collection of short stories, Souvankham Thammavongsa discusses the idea of coming to a new country with such precision and emotion. Each story called upon a different feeling whether it was disillusionment, loneliness, envy, sadness, etc. I was left wanting more, but realized that abrupt endings are often how real life plays out. 

One of the quotes that stuck with me was the following: "They'd had to begin all over again, as if the life they led before didn't count." As a child of an immigrant, I heavily identified with this. In addition, the child in one of the stories who understands that she is different from her classmates, was super relatable. Having to navigate that difference, which could sometimes mean her experience was more challenging than her classmates is important to note. For example, she wants to believe in her father, but recognizes that he only knows what he knows. She comes to the realization that it is up to her to figure out the things that her father believes he "knows" on her own. Building upon this idea is the fact that often children have to use this acquired knowledge to educate their parents.
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I love fiction when it’s written by poets, and Souvankham Thammavongsa‘s debut short story collection is no different. I’ll keep this in mind when teaching any unit on poetry-to-prose, such as Lauren Groff or Ocean Vuong. I find the content of the stories less captivating than the prose, which I will return to; I look forward to reading Thammavongsa‘s future work.
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My review at the Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/in-how-to-pronounce-knife-stories-of-lao-immigrants-reveal-everyday-moments-of-racism-classism-power-and-privilege/2020/04/23/ec81e8be-8582-11ea-a3eb-e9fc93160703_story.html
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Thank you
Little, Brown and Company and Bibliolifestyle for a chance to read this book. 

This book is a collection of short stories that shows the true story of immigrants on a new land. Like any other stories, it shows many kinds of emotions; happiness, sadness, dissatisfaction, disappointment and strength. It is a good idea to make this book a variety of short stories because it was easy to follow and likable.
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A collection of short stories, intricately woven together, with a novel idea.
For those of us who are thriller fans this was like going for Crossfit (High Intensity) to Yoga (mindful but slower paced).
I believe the author's message was wrapped up in the tolls of family heartbreaks and the relationship between immigrants especially Laotian and Americans and the struggles involved.
It was more a mental challenge than a super fast speed driven Ferrari.
I couldn't honestly find my place in this one even with Randy Travis (huge country gal born and raised) but even that didn't make the top of the list for me.
If short collection of stories bouncing from one idea to the next is your thing than pick this one up as you might enjoy.
Thank you to Souvankham, the pub, NetGalley, and Kindle for this ARC in exchange for this honest review.
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I can already tell that this is going to be a polarizing short story collection, not because any of the pieces themselves are particularly controversial, but because of the opposite: These stories and their prose are stripped away to their barest parts, and there's not much more to them.

I always love talking to people about their favorite short story and essay collections, because there's a lot you can learn about someone from how they take them on and what they end up liking. What I struggled with when it came to How to Pronounce Knife, as I often do with many similar books, is that everything felt unfinished and abrupt. I'm a person who loves to find takeaways I can chew on for a long time afterward, and these stories don't exactly lend themselves to that in the typical sense.

I'd say if you want to get the most out of this collection, the best thing to do is not necessarily think of them as stories with a traditional structure but as extended observations. Each tale is selling a pretty straightforward point with incredibly simple writing, and there's nothing wrong with that if you know what to expect. There are still a lot of important moments to absorb.
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