Friday, August 2, 2019

BOOKS! (Everything I Never Told You + Letters to a Young Artist)

Promises, promises. Apparently I need to stop making them. Truth is I actually had the second book of this pair finished in time to write a review on the last day of July, but then things happened and suddenly now it's the second day of August. So I'm just going to stick to my goal of posting a new review once a month like I've been doing. This time I've got two used books that I bought for $6 each on separate occasions. First is a novel that I found at 2nd & Charles, and second is an advice book that I found at this year's Detroit Festival of Books.

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

I'd been aware of Celeste Ng for years and don't quite remember what brought her work back to my attention, but while browsing for cheap finds at 2nd & Charles earlier this summer, I looked for this novel and bought it (along with the most delightful set of magnetic Golden Girls bookmarks!). Everything I Never Told You opens in 1977 on the morning after Lydia Lee, the middle child and golden child of her Ohio family of five, has drowned in the neighborhood lake. A 16-year-old high-achieving student, she had grown up having her parents' expectations, hopes, and unfulfilled dreams projected onto her, so whether she wanted it or not, the Lee family revolves around her. As such, when Lydia is suddenly wrenched away from them, her family nearly falls apart. The grieving processes of each of her remaining family members not only reveal who they are as people, but also delineate the quiet and not so quiet dysfunctions that indirectly led to Lydia's death.

Her father James, an American history professor, relies on escapism to deal with the incident by beginning an affair with his teaching assistant. Her mother Marilyn, a would-be doctor who loved physics but gave up her dreams to be a wife and mom, reacts with fear and denial; she puts new locks on the door to keep the danger out and refuses to believe that Lydia's life may have been unhappy. Lydia's older brother Nath (short for Nathan) becomes obsessive and aggressive, stalking a neighbor and classmate with a promiscuous reputation who Nath thinks had a hand in Lydia's death. And Hannah, the youngest, used to being ignored by the rest of her family, tries to stay out of everyone's way and hesitates to share what she's heard and seen regarding her sister's behavior. The title of this novel is so apt because there's so much that the all of the Lees choose to leave unsaid to each other. Reasons range from innocuous ones such as trying to avoid inconvenience, to more heavy and deep-seeded issues like concealing fear, regret, or shame. I especially enjoyed reading the backstories of James and Marilyn's respective upbringings and the earlier years of their relationship. James, the son of Chinese immigrants, has trained himself to blend into his surroundings while Marilyn, a white Virginia native who was often the only young woman in her science classes, strove to stand out. These clashing inclinations, in addition to the interracial nature of their relationship (keep in mind that they got married in 1958), profoundly affect everything about the family that they create, especially Lydia.

A review quoted on the back cover of this novel claims that it "calls to mind The Lovely Bones", and while it's been a long time since I read that book, I can partially agree with that comparison. In both cases, a teenage girl goes missing and dies in the 1970s, and the full truth of what happened to her is revealed to the reader but never to the police or her loved ones. There are key differences though. Lydia is half-Asian, but the girl in The Lovely Bones is not. The girl in The Lovely Bones tries to communicate with people and influence events from the other side, whereas Lydia's family doesn't receive any sort of presence or signs from Lydia after her death. Once she's gone, she's gone. If you want to read more Asian-American literature, grew up as a high-achieving person under constant pressure (whether from yourself or from others), have family or friends that just don't talk about certain things, have ever grieved someone or something, or currently need to grieve someone or something, then read this book!

Favorite quotes:
"He feared the day the universe would notice he wasn't supposed to have her and take her away. Or that she might suddenly realize her mistake and disappear from his life as suddenly as she had entered. After a while, the fear became a habit, too" (45-46).

"It was not too late... Lydia made a new set of promises, this time to herself... From now on, she will do what she wants. Feet planted firmly on nothing, Lydiaso long enthralled by the dreams of otherscould not yet imagine what that might be, but suddenly the universe glittered with possibilities. She will change everything... If he can be brave, so sure of who he is and what he wants, perhaps she can, too" (274-275).

Letters to a Young Artist by Anna Deavere Smith

Sometimes not Google-ing a book or its author before you decide to buy it results in pleasant surprises. I spotted this one on Book Beat's table at the Detroit Bookfest, saw that it was written by a Black woman and had endorsements from Laurence Fishburne and Kerry Washington, and figured, Hey, why not? I could use her advice, from one artist to another. It seemed like a quick enough read, so this is the book that I chose to close out the month of July. As I started reading it and learning about Anna Deavere Smith's fascinating life as an actor, playwright, and professor, I decided to look her up and realized I actually knew who she was already! She's had a vast and multifaceted career, but I recognized her as Alicia, Rainbow's (Tracee Ellis Ross's) mom on the TV show 'Black-ish'. I knew she looked familiar! 

I don't typically read self-help books. (While this is moreso an examination of artistry based on Smith's own experience in the entertainment industry, similar to The Wind in the Reeds, Letters to a Young Artist is categorized as "self help/creativity" on the back cover.) But I skimmed through the preface and these lines sold me on it, "If you are an artist of any age, if you are learning the ropes of your art form... I am writing to you if you are thinking of taking your rightful position as an artist... I'm writing to you if you just plain like to sing... I am writing to you if you love the way the sunset looks wherever you live" (3, 5). Smith's voice here seemed like just the right mix of inviting and whimsical and no-nonsense and practical, which basically characterizes this book as a whole. The letters, written to a fictional high school student and painter whom Smith calls "BZ", are meant to be applicable to all artists. But understandably, acting and painting/visual art are referenced the most.

Smith shares innumerable gems of insight which I think are worthwhile for readers to discover for themselves, so I won't elaborate on which sections or ideas are my favorite. What I will say is that I find refreshing how much Smith admires so many various artists and works of art, from both the acting world and other artistic disciplines. She is an admirer and observer of people in general, which makes sense since she argues that one of the duties of an artist is to understand and interpret all different aspects of human emotion and experience. It might read like a bunch of name-dropping or humble bragging at first; not only is she acquainted with an astonishing amount of famous and important people, but she's worked and traveled nearly everywhere around the world. But each person and location she mentions informs the story that she's telling, the lesson that she's trying to teach. It should also be noted that most of the letters date from 2000 to 2005, and this book was published in 2006, so the post-9/11 crises happening stateside and abroad factor prominently into what Smith believes the world needs at that time.

If you want to know more about the calling and the business of being an artist, enjoy people-watching, or want a small snapshot of current events in the early 2000s, then read this book!

Favorite quotes:
"There's nothing like those years when you don't yet have what you are working for. There's a lot of freedom because there's so much possibility. You need friends who are working for something too... You just need some dreams and something to fret about and someone to dream and fret with... Everything starts with an all-night conversation. Find a spiritual twin to walk the city streets with, to waken the dawn with, to construct a world with" (62).

"I am a fool in the classic sense. But I take my foolishness very seriously" (185).

"Are you becoming an artist because you want the world to see you? Or [because] you would like to use your ability to attract attentionand the ability to get people to look at your workin order to cause them to see themselves and the world differently through you?" (203). 

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

BOOKS! (If You Leave Me + The Fisher King)

I didn't post a review in June. But the good news is that I'm here now, and the even better news is that this time I can say with absolute certainty that I will be posting two reviews before July is over! Today's is the first of said two. Over the weekend, I entered a giveaway by Livre Cafe on Instagram (learned today that I didn't win), and as part of the giveaway I had to mention my favorite book that I've read so far in 2019. Since I have two IG accounts, I entered twice to increase my chances. And after thinking about it and scrolling through my Goodreads list, these were the two books I named as my favorites from this year. They're more like "surprise favorites", though. They're not my absolute favorite books ever (I rated them both 4 out of 5 stars), but I became more engrossed in them then I'd expected to be, and they each charmed me in their own way and left a lasting impression. The first is a novel that I found at Costco, and the second is a novel that I found at a gigantic used book sale at a mall.

If You Leave Me by Crystal Hana Kim

Waiting months after buying this book to finally crack it open actually worked in my favor. By the time I was ready to read it, I dug right in instead of reading its back cover or jacket again, and so instead of following this tragic historical love triangle story with dread, I maintained a sense of hope to the very end. This novel does not have a happy ending, and each character is basically doomed, cursed even, as a consequence of the Korean War, but I didn't realize it until the book closed with that harsh and unyielding truth staring me in the face.

Spanning from 1951 to 1967, If You Leave Me shifts between the perspectives of three people who start out as teenaged refugees living in Busan. Haemi and Kyunghwan, both 16 years old, are best friends who grew up in the same village on the eastern coast of Korea. Fearing the approach of North Korean soldiers, Haemi had fled the village with her widowed mother and sickly younger brother, while Kyunghwan fled with his alcoholic widower father. Kyunghwan's 18-year-old cousin Jisoo, who comes from a much wealthier family in Seoul, had been sent to Busan alone. Haemi is in love with Kyunghwan, and they routinely sneak out past curfew to go barhopping and talk about what their lives have become. However, Jisoo decides to pursue Haemi as well and even proposes marriage. Despite normally being quite strong-willed, when faced with pressure from her mother and her brother's worsening condition, Haemi agrees to marry Jisoo so that her family will have a more secure chance of surviving the war. Jisoo enlists in the ROK military immediately after the wedding, and Kyunghwan is pressured by his father to do the same, and so the trio are separated starting in 1951.

What follows are multiple reunions and separations, with misunderstandings and missed opportunities aplenty, as each character grows into an adult and learns to survive both during and after the war. With an injured arm, Jisoo returns to Haemi and her family back near her hometown in 1953, and he finds his footing as an exploitative landowner and businessman. Kyunghwan moves to Seoul after the war and works menial jobs until he eventually makes a decent living for himself in sales. Haemi, who had once dreamed of pursuing an education, is unhappy and struggling with the expectations of being a wife and mother at such a young age. She exhibits signs of PTSD and other mental illnesses that only worsen as time goes on; Jisoo is less than understanding and she has no friends to rely on. Outside of taking care of her children, Haemi has nothing to do but turn the past over and over in her mind. What went wrong, how things could have been different. If only she and Kyunghwan had had the chance to be together. If only the war hadn't distorted their youth. After an unexpected letter arrives for Kyunghwan in Seoul, he goes to visit Haemi and Jisoo (well, really just Haemi) and the trio are together in 1963 for the first time in 12 years.That's when the somewhat stable and cohesive facade of their adult lives begins to unravel.

I joked with my friend who recommended Kyung-Sook Shin's Please Look After Mom to me that If You Leave Me is considerably more devastating of a novel. And with its multi-perspective approach, multiple female narrators, and long-suffering matriarchs, there are some similarities between the two. But with its intimate examination of war and the detrimental impact that average Korean people faced, I'd say that If You Leave Me is actually more similar to Min Jin Lee's Pachinko. In fact, if someone wanted to learn about Korean political  and economic history from around 1910 to the late 1980s through novels, Pachinko, If You Leave Me, and Han Kang's Human Acts fit together quite well chronologically. (I'm sure there's a wide array of selections to choose from; I'm just basing this suggestion on books that I've read so far.) If you enjoy reading about love triangles, tragic love stories, the Korean War or Korean history in general, are interested in refugee experiences, have ever been called "crazy" when you really just lacked support, or have ever wondered about "the one that got away", then read this book! You might need a hug afterward, though.

Favorite quotes:
"I wished I were alonein the ditch, or on the hillside still looking for herbs. Even on the open sea. But I hadn't been allowed the space or time or means to truly be by myself in years, and we were far from home" (59).
 "I realized we were lurching toward a new world... where Americans would never leave us alone, where they didn't simply provide us with money, but with their ways of living as well. We weren't rebuilding. We were shaping ourselves into a different form. I felt duped by my own blindness. Like a man who doesn't know he's soaked until halfway through a creeping storm" (189-190).

The Fisher King by Paule Marshall

It is 1984. Hattie is a middle-aged Brooklyn native who's been living in Paris for decades after following her two best friends there. Said best friends are a jazz musician known as Sonny-Rett Payne and a beautiful would-be starlet named Cherisse, who both originate from the same block of Macon Street in Brooklyn that Hattie does. Though Sonny-Rett and Cherisse have both passed away, Hattie is still in Paris raising their grandson, named Sonny after his grandfather. One day, Hattie receives a letter from Sonny-Rett's brother Edgar, inviting both her and young Sonny back to Brooklyn to attend  a memorial concert in honor of the 15th anniversary of Sonny-Rett's passing. Plus, young Sonny hasn't met his American relatives yet. Resistant at first, Hattie accepts the invitation and takes Sonny to the States for the first time.

Eight-year-old Sonny spends much of his time becoming acquainted with his great grandmothers on both sides. Ulene, Sonny-Rett's mother, is a stubborn Caribbean woman with dementia who makes clear who she likes and who she doesn't. The person she dislikes the most (and the feeling is mutual)  is Florence Varina, Cherisse's mother and Sonny's other great-grandmother, a Brooklyn native with roots in Georgia via The Great Migration. As such, at least four different shades of the African diaspora are presented to readers at once. Hattie as the Black American expat in Paris, Sonny as the French-born Black boy, Florence Varina as the Black American one generation removed from the deep South, and Ulene as the Caribbean immigrant. Edgar serves as Hattie and Sonny's guide during their two-week stay leading up to the concert, but Hattie is extremely protective and rarely lets Sonny get too far away from her for too long.

In all honesty, not being dramatic at all, I feel like this is one of those books that I was always meant to read. I originally picked it at the mall book sale because it was written by a Black woman, the back cover told me that the story involved Black people and jazz, and Paris, France was in the mix somehow. And much like Black Girl in Paris, I saw so much of myself in this book. But even more so, because  Hattie and Sonny live just one arrondissement over from where I was when I stayed in Paris. They live in the 17th; I lived in the 8th (near the edge between the 8th and the 17th), and did an internship in the 17th. Hattie even mentions Avenue de Clichy, which is part of my old neighborhood (near Place de Clichy)! There are other Parisian sites mentioned that are a familiar to me, but when Avenue de Clichy came up, I knew that this book was meant for me. Or rather, as I said, I was meant to read it.

Additionally, I can't say enough about how masterfully Paule Marshall flips the script in the very last chapter, after the memorial concert has ended. While most of the novel until this point focuses on innocent, artistic, slightly judgemental Sonny being exposed to Brooklyn and his relatives, with recollections thrown in from both him and Hattie regarding their less-than-fabulous life in Paris, the last chapter is all about Edgar confronting Hattie with what his true motives are. I had been giving Hattie the benefit of the doubt as Sonny's caretaker and the one who reveals the most about her, Sonny-Rett, and Cherisse's past, so it wasn't until this chapter that I realized how unreliable her perspective actually is. Something had seemed a little off all along, and with the final chapter I was finally seeing all the characters with clear eyes, and then the book ended just like that. We're presented with what's really at stake, but then don't witness the full fallout. And while I might have been annoyed with seemingly-abrupt endings in the past (Beale Street comes to mind), with The Fisher King I really don't mind it at all. If you're interested in Brooklyn, Paris, jazz history, non-traditional relationships, the Black diaspora, Black family histories, or literature written by Black women, then read this book!

Favorite quotes:
"You got some of all of us in you, dontcha? What you gonna do with all that Colored from all over creation you got in you? Better be somethin' good" (36).

"her wonderfully complicated, inexplicable self, proving to him, as she did each time they were together, that even an ordinary, unremarkable body such as hers possessed a kind of music, its own rhythms, harmonies, tonalities, crescendosmore than one, and that, at times her special music had the power to leave him in tears afterward..." (195).

"If you love him for himself, more than for something or someone you might be trying to hold on to through him, you'll give him a chance" (219).

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

My First-Ever Feature on a Book Blog!

I'm slightly delayed in mentioning this, but my friend Rachel from Life of a Female Bibliophile recently invited me to do a Q&A interview for her blog! I met Rachel in the first two Japanese classes I ever took at a local university while I was still in high school (if I remember correctly, we were the only Black girls there), and we've stayed connected online since that time. Rachel published our interview on her site on July 3rd.

Life of a Female Bibliophile
As with most things when people invite me to participate in things or want to know more about me, my internal knee-jerk reaction was Huh? Why me? But there were quite a few unconventional things that I pushed myself to go for in May and June, and in that vein I accepted Rachel's offer. She initially told me that I could either do a guest post on any book-related topic I wanted to write about, or I could do a Q&A. I asked her for a week to think about it but then didn't have anything I felt strongly enough to want to write about, so I chose the latter option. And I'm glad I did, because I was so impressed by how thoughtful Rachel's questions were regarding myself as a reader, my podcast (Young, Gifted and Abroad), and my online-diary-turned-book-blog-of-sorts (DeelaSees). Looking through her questions, it was obvious to me that she'd taken time and care to inform herself about the work I've been doing, and then formulate fun and respectfully probing questions to draw even more info from me. I haven't done many interviews in my life, but Rachel's is definitely the most comprehensive so far.

If you want to learn more about my podcaster self, my bookworm self, and/or my traveler self, check out our blog interview here. Thanks, Rachel!

Friday, May 31, 2019

BOOKS! (Kinky Gazpacho + The Windfall)

I had every intention of writing two book reviews in May, but I guess that goal will just have to be shuffled to June. No worries. At least I've kept up with writing a review every month so far in 2019. Well, except for January, but you know... January is a transitional grace period, a practice month until the year starts for real in February. So as far as I'm concerned, I'm still on track. Anywho. Today, I've got a memoir that one of my podcast guests wrote (check out her feature in Young, Gifted and Abroad episode 34: "Kinky Gazpacho, Melting Pot"), and a novel that I found at Target along with Where'd You Go, Bernadette.

Kinky Gazpacho: Life, Love & Spain by Lori L. Tharps

Lori is an author, journalist, professor, and podcaster, and when I interviewed her for Young, Gifted and Abroad she told me stories about her life that I'm sure she's accustomed to telling. She grew up in Milwaukee and studied Spanish in school. In high school she did a summer-long foreign exchange in Casablanca, Morocco thinking that Spanish would be spoken there, and more importantly, that going to Africa would outdo her sister who'd done an exchange in France. She struggled to go with the flow at first but eventually had an amazing time there. She went to college and spent her junior year in Salamanca, Spain, where she unexpectedly found a boyfriend. Some years later her boyfriend moved to the States, they eventually got married and had three biracial/bicultural/bilingual kids, and now the family resides in Philly and Lori has continued her career as a multi-faceted storyteller. Case in point, her 2008 memoir Kinky Gazpacho. She mentioned this book and some of her other works during our interview, but she didn't try to sell me anything. I was simply intrigued by the book's title and enjoyed our conversation so much that I went online and ordered it. Kinky Gazpacho covers much of what we talked about, plus more details about her childhood, her ups and downs with love, and her evolving understanding of her own Blackness.

As detailed as this memoir is, it's also very succinct. Each chapter neatly contains a significant phase or event, the book's written in an honest and down-to-earth tone, and it's a relatively quick read if you want it to be. I felt like I got a decently thorough grasp of who Lori is as a person in just 207 pages. Granted, I probably had an advantage in that Lori's student years were so similar to mine. She grew up as a middle class Black girl in the Midwest (check). She became enamored with languages and latched onto Spanish when she was younger (for me it was French, plus Japanese later on). She was passionate about gaining cultural and linguistic fluency in all things Spanish, and dreamed that moving to Spain would transform her into her fullest and freest self, in the tradition of Josephine Baker (I can't lie, the expat or location-independent life is still my dream). She grew up being told that she "talked white" by other kids and tried but failed to develop a sisterhood of close Black friends in college (my sisterhood fizzled out post-graduation). And she finally got to be immersed in her target country once she got to college (check).

As Lori admits, time and more nuanced exposure to Spanish culture actually made her fall out of love with Spain. It will always be a part of her life, since her husband is Spanish, her in-laws are Spanish, and her kids are half Spanish. However, due to the anti-Black racism she's experienced there and the widely-held limited concept of who counts as "Spanish" and who doesn't, Lori no longer romanticizes the country like she used to. Sensing there was more beneath the surface, for a magazine story she spent a few weeks researching any possible evidence of Black people being part of Spain's history, and she made some amazing discoveries (namely that Black people were enslaved in Spain too, not just in overseas colonies, and a few churches have statues of Black saints and even a Black Jesus).  Learning this part of history that most Spanish people are unaware of helped her make peace with her disappointment; she could see herself there even when others did not. If you're interested in memoirs, love stories, coming-of-age stories about Black girls that aren't tragedy porn, learning another language, or what in the world "kinky gazpacho" means, then read this book!

Favorite quote:
"I realized that I'd always wanted to write and owed it to myself to pursue that dream. Like the Europeans in Spain who were there to pursue their love of a language. Not because it would advance their careers, but because they derived pleasure from rolling r's and lisping c's... I wanted to pursue writing not because it would look good on a résumé or make me rich and powerful. Writing made me happy. It was that simple. So I was determined to do whatever it took to make my happiness real. I wasn't afraid to sacrifice" (125-126).

The Windfall by Diksha Basu

As I mentioned when writing about Where'd You Go, Bernadette, I was in a book-buying mood at Target and was in the mood for something light and funny but also a little cerebral, and The Windfall was one of my selections that day. I'd actually never heard of this novel before. But I saw that it was a book about an Indian family in Delhi written by an Indian woman, that it had two references to Crazy Rich Asians on the back cover (including a quote of approval from CRA author Kevin Kwan), and that all the Target copies were signed by Diksha Basu herself. So I bought it. 


Starting in East Delhi in the 1990s, the novel opens with the Jha family preparing to move from the cramped apartment complex they've lived in for 30 years, to an area of town cultivated exclusively for the super-rich. Anil Jha (Mr. Jha) has recently earned 20 million USD from the sale of a website he developed, so he and his wife Bindu (Mrs. Jha) are moving on up... away from the eastside. Their son Rupak, who wants to be a filmmaker but is pursuing an MBA in America because he thinks it will please his parents, also reaps the benefits of his father's luck by making expensive purchases and not worrying about paying for school. Meanwhile, Mrs. Jha is weary of what it means to be "starting over" at her age. She confides in her supportive neighbor and friend Reema (Mrs. Ray), a relatively young 42-year-old widow whose new lease on life feels muted because she can't afford to escape her nosy and judgemental neighbors like the Jhas can. The novel follows the Jhas' transition out of middle class as they finally move into their new home and adjust to their new neighborhood.

I particularly enjoyed Reema as a character, because as a perceived transgressor who has opted not to devote the rest of her life to mourning her late husband, she questions the labels and expectations projected upon women more than anyone else does. Her hesitant but earnest determination to live for herself is incredibly endearing. Conversely, much of the book focuses on Mr. Jha's nouveau riche mentality and behavior, and I just didn't find him all that interesting. Once he and his wife relocate, Mr. Jha and his new neighbor Mr. Chopra become obsessed with one-upping each other, displaying their insecurities in the process. But during every passage I read with them in it, I was always wondering when the novel would switch focus back to the other characters. I also couldn't help but notice that Mr. Jha and Rupak idealize white women in an unnerving way. Rupak has a secret white girlfriend whom he loves more for what she represents than for who she is as a person. Meanwhile, unaware of Rupak's boo, Mr. Jha fantasizes about having a white American daughter-in-law to show off to his new neighbors like a trophy that screams, "I'm richer than you". I got the feeling that this is meant to comment on how some Indian people overvalue whiteness, but I would have liked the novel to dig deeper into this. Like if the women in their lives had thoroughly called them out on their Becky fixations, that would have been incredibly satisfying.

I can't say that The Windfall is a book that I'd be quick to re-read, but I am glad that it exists and I enjoyed the vast majority of it. If you're interested in Indian culture (in Delhi especially), middle class rags to riches stories, family drama, or what happens when you try to be someone you're not, then read this book!

Favorite quotes:
"I envy the people out there in a way. But I envy them in a strange way. It's not that I envy that they're in the water right now and I'm not. I have no desire to be. I envy the fact that they really want to be in the water and so they're in the water. Does that make sense?" (119).


"It was strangeit was like I knew exactly what had happened and I knew that it had to happen... I remember a calmness... I don't think you can share a home and a life with someone and not think about their death. But I had always assumed it would be somehow more violent. Not the death itself necessarily, but I assumed my reaction would be violent. I always imagined I'd throw up or scream or run out of the house shouting and lose my mind, but it was none of that. I don't know how to explain it." (182-183).

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

BOOKS! (Pao + Where'd You Go, Bernadette)

Today's the last day of April already! So here I am with another book review. I've been reading a lot and it was almost enough to post two reviews this month, but not quite (I like to write about books two at a time, and I only had three on deck that were finished by today). It's on for May, though! But for the next few hours it's still April, so let's focus on today's reads.

Pao by Kerry Young

I found a used copy of this book at my local 2nd & Charles while Christmas shopping (was there to get a copy of Michelle Obama's Becoming for my mom, but of course I couldn't resist browsing for myself). Pao was the only book that spoke to me that day, mostly because it's about Chinese Jamaicans, which is a population that I was vaguely aware of but actually knew very little about. It's a novel, written in the style of a memoir, narrated by a man named Pao who moves from Guangzhou to Kingston with his mother and older brother at the age of 14. Little did I know that this novel would also double as a political history of Jamaica (and to a lesser extent China), spanning from Pao's arrival in 1938 to the birth of his first grandchild around 1989.

Pao and his family are insanely lucky in that, after his father dies in the Chinese Civil War, they are summoned to Jamaica by Zhang, who was a close friend of Pao's father. Zhang also happens to be the "Uncle" of Chinatown, collecting a fee from local residents and businesses to protect the community and solve problems that arise, in addition to running a gambling spot. As a result, Pao and his family arrive in Jamaica with a ready-made compound to live in and wealth to inherit, as Zhang eventually chooses Pao to succeed him. Over time, Pao expands the family business to include boosting stolen/siphoned goods from British and American entities, keeping watch over the brothel that his first love Gloria manages, and running the wholesale and grocery business that his father-in-law bequeaths to him. (With money on his mind Pao marries Fay, the half-Black and half-Chinese daughter of a wealthy Chinese businessman, but keeps Gloria as his mistress for the next couple of decades.) As British, American, and other foreign forces encroach on Jamaica in new ways even after Jamaican independence, namely by monopolizing natural resources and the tourism industry, Pao also finds himself attempting to handle incidents that threaten to put his neighborhood in jeopardy.

From various angles, you could say Pao isn't necessarily a good person. He takes care of peopleusually for a fee or an exchangeand he keeps (most of) his promises and bargains, but he's not selfless or altruistic by any means. And every problem that comes Pao's way, he's able to solve or make disappear through money, his business connections, the cred he has because of Zhang, or his own shrewdness and force of will. Almost too easily. So at some point I was wondering, where is his comeuppance? When does he get caught up, or make that one irrevocable mistake? Does he at least get some sort of retribution for treating Gloria, Fay, and his eldest daughter like dirt? I didn't fully mind if this novel was going to go the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency or Baking Cakes in Kigali  route, where the designated fixer solves every problem the community presents to them and things get tied up in a neat little bow. But the way Pao is written, I had a feeling that Kerry Young had a different intention in mind for this main character; it was only a matter of when the other shoe would drop. And I was right. The shoe does drop for Pao in a painful way.

In addition to fleshing out his personal flaws, Young doesn't forget to point out how even though Pao is Jamaican and lives in what's considered a poor area, he doesn't share all of the plight of the average poor (especially Black) Jamaican person. Again, he arrived with a family, a home, a community, and a business to inherit, which is a lot more than some immigrants or even born-and-raised Jamaicans could say.  Sure white people looked down on him too, and Jamaica's economic problems hit his pockets to a certain extent, but he always had a solution or way out at hand. So to a certain extent, his and Zhang's frequent talk of "the masses" and "revolution" in Jamaica ring hollow. Pao's blindspot is a major reason why Gloria is my favorite character, because she's the only person who checks him on these issues.

Previously, I'd heard mention of Chinese Jamaicans and other communities of Asian immigrants in Caribbean and Latin countries like them (Japanese Brazilians, Indo-Trinidadians, etc.). But I didn't know much about how they ended up there or what their role in those societies has been. So on that note alone, Pao is very educational. I'd say it's an incredibly useful book if you don't know much about Jamaica's history at all, especially from the 1930s to 1980s, but aren't necessarily in the mood to read a full-on history book about it at the moment. If you enjoy fictional memoirs, are interested in Jamaica in any way, and are curious about Asian populations in the Caribbean, then read this book!

Favorite quotes:
"Except when I am with her and then it is like my feet are on the ground. Everything is sharp and focused and when I put my hand on the table like this, I can feel the wood under my fingers. And it feel like it matters. That it matters that I am sitting there with her. That it mean something. I feel happy just to watch her pour the tea and stir in the milk" (6-7). 

"'I thought he knew everything there was to know. I thought I was going to be cared for, protected, educated, groomed if you like. I thought he would make something of me... A grown man who came here and captured something young and innocent, something in its infancy, and he took what he wanted from it and when he was done he left us to fend for ourselves, John and me. Independent if you like.' [She] not just talking 'bout her and Meacham, she talking 'bout the British and Jamaica" (235-236).

"Maybe I could afford to take my foot off the gas, especially after I get a fright about how all of this could end, and manage to make it through OK. So I think it time for me to count my blessings and stop reaching after something that maybe was nothing more than a idea I had about myself. Maybe it time I just be who I am and settle for something that is real" (267).

Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

Focused on the sudden disappearance of a woman named Bernadette shortly before a scheduled family trip to Antarctica, this is one of those reads that was extremely popular among customers during my bookstore days, but that I had no interest in. It just seemed very... white. Very... self-entitled suburban mom. But that was years ago. When I went to the movies a couple months ago and saw a trailer for the film adaptation of Where'd You Go, Bernadette (out this summer), for some reason I was sold on the fact that Cate Blanchett is playing Bernadette. And then, during a rare trip to Target recently, I found the book on sale. I was in the mood for something light, and what greater deadline is there for finishing a book than its upcoming movie release date? So I bought it, and figured I'd make my way through it gradually. But when I actually started reading it, I couldn't stop.

I really didn't want to have sympathy for "Bern", as I referred to her in my notes written in the margins. Rich wife of one of the big names at Microsoft, has an unnecessarily large house for a family of three, exploits cheap Brown labor for someone to do everyday things that she could definitely do herself, is an elitist with no compassion for poor or homeless people, complains about everything having to do with Seattle (Canadians included), and is too good to talk to anyone who's not related to her. But then I got to know Bernadette. And to her credit, if I had no friends and was surrounded by dreadful PTA moms from my daughter's middle school who had nothing better to do than to plan inane activities and disparage me for not participating to their liking, I wouldn't talk to anyone either.  In fact, her disappearance is partly the result of a battle of pettiness with the head PTA mom that goes too far. Plus, Bern is explicitly described as agoraphobic on the back cover of this novel, and anxiety is definitely something I can relate to. Before moving to Seattle Bern was a successful architect, but after a handful of professional and personal disappointments she retreated to Seattle feeling like her glory days were over, like she could only mess things up instead of building works of art like she used to. And she could never predict what would happen when dealing with people, so most of them went out the window for her too.

But besides the sad things about Bern that reminded me of myself, I connected with this book because it's genuinely funny! I frequently chuckled while reading, and I learned a lot too! Traveling to Antarctica as a tourist? Now I have a picture in my mind of what that's like. And I appreciated being reminded how important Seattle is in the world of technology. I hear about the Bay Area all the time what with Silicon Valley and my friends who've lived in proximity to it, but I forget that the Seattle metro area is home to the main HQ of both Microsoft and Amazon, tech giants that are taking over the world have changed the world and affect local Seattle employment, housing, and transportation patterns. There's a bit in there about the architecture industry too, once we delve into Bern's past. So in addition to being a humorous story about a missing person, Where'd You Go Bernadette is impressively informative.

The only criticisms I have are that, firstly, I think Bern's husband gets off way too easy given his indiscretions and the cruel way he speaks to Bern during their last conversation pre-disappearance. He couldn't have at least been cussed out one good time? And secondly, I would've liked to know more about Bern's future. The novel ends on a hopeful note, but for all that Bern goes through I wanted to see more of how life turns around for her. If you like playing detective, enjoy eavesdropping on petty drama, are an artist going through a slow period, hate your hometown, could use a few laughs, or are interested in the decisions and sacrifices that moms make for themselves and their families, then read this book!

Favorite quotes:
"I would have thought God was forsaking me when he made me walk three blocks in the pouring rain. But it turns out there was something on that third block that God intended me to see" (67).

"I can pinpoint that as the single happiest moment of my life, because I realized then that Mom would always have my back. It made me feel like a giant. I raced back down the concrete ramp, faster than I ever had before, so fast I should have fallen, but I didn't fall, because Mom was in the world" (266-267).

"There was something unspeakably noble about their age, their scale, their lack of consciousness, their right to exist. Every single iceberg filled me with feelings of sadness and wonder" (315).

Friday, April 5, 2019

Scripture & Lyrics

"Don't forget to go when you leave!" 
-Phylicia Rashad (in Drake's music video for "In My Feelings")

"But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me" 
-Philippians 3:13-14 (NIV)

Sunday, March 31, 2019

BOOKS! (The Autograph Man + No-No Boy)

It's the end of the month, time to write a new review! I found the first of these two books at a local library's used book sale. I remembered enjoying White Teeth and wanted something funny to read, plus was intrigued by the Chinese-Jewish titular character and the author's insights on fame. The other was a recommendation from a college friend that I bought (possibly around the same time I bought The Martyred?), and then let sit for a while until the timing felt right. I'd yet to read any books about the internment of Japanese Americans and how life was for them after World War II ended, and figured the novel would be a solid start.

The Autograph Man by Zadie Smith

Combine unresolved grief with a quarter-life crisis, chronic selfishness, low self-esteem, and a love for old Hollywood movie stars and their artifacts, and you've got what's bugging Alex-Li. His father passed away suddenly when he was 12 years old, and 15 years later he still hasn't come to terms with it. During this particular time in Alex-Li's life, his best friend Adam (a young Black Jewish man who's at once the most devout and the most eccentric of their friend group) insists that Alex-Li do a traditional Jewish memorial service for his dad. They argue about it every year, but this time Adam's not letting it go.

Despite having a Jewish mom and having lived his whole life in a London suburb with a significant Jewish population, Alex-Li is not particularly religious. And yet, for years he's been obsessively writing notes for a supposed book wherein he categorizes things, people, and aspects of life as "Jewish" or "goyish". Alex-Li also spends much of his time obsessively categorizing celebrities, because he's an "autograph man" who collects and trades items signed or written by famous people. Fame is always on his mind, not only as someone who desperately wants to feel significant in his own life, but even more so as someone whose bread and butter relies on the monetary value that fame confers on his wares. And his wares suddenly become exponentially more valuable when a bout of intoxicated stupor leads him to New York City, where he meets Kitty Alexander (his favorite actress of all time) and somehow gets unique access to some of her most personal possessions.

I'm curious about something. We spend a lot of time with Alex-Li and his friends, including the aforementioned Adam, Adam's sister (and Alex-Li's on-and-off girlfriend) Esther, gentle and nervous Joseph against whom Alex-Li has a grudge for some paranoid reason, and Rubenfine, the smart aleck who became a rabbi because his dad wanted him to. Plus there's his handful of friends who are also autograph men. And what I'm about to say isn't an issue with a book, this is simply me thinking about Alex-Li as a person. I'm just... not sure why any of these people are still his friends, or why Esther stays with him? He's not a cruel person, but he is incredibly careless. Astonishingly oblivious at best. And he's remarkably self-absorbed in both his endeavors and his despair, regardless of whether his actions inconvenience or hurt others, or whether his life is truly as bereft as he imagines it to be. There are some things he does (or doesn't do) that would run off even the best of people. Do his friends stick around because they've known each other all their lives? Do they still feel sorry for him and cut him slack because his dad died? Because they know Alex-Li is a sensitive person? But then, what does Alex-Li do for them, as a friend? What does he contribute to any of his relationships, other than amusement and/or sex? I'm not saying that Alex-Li doesn't deserve friendship because he's sad and has destructive habits. What I am saying is that, the fact that he doesn't lose a single friend (or girlfriend) during the course of his mess is nothing short of a miracle.

To put it plainly, The Autograph Man is an existential novel that's also clever and disarmingly funny. This is a perfect choice for when you just want to carry a book around with you for a while, one that takes you on a slow ride and makes you laugh and think in equal measure. If you are a Zadie Smith fan, are depressed, are a movie buff, have ever had a bad friend or been one, need a few laughs, have a penchant for winding tangents, have any interest in or knowledge of Judaism, or wonder what it'd be like to finally meet your idol in real life, then read this book!

Favorite quotes:
"Groupies hate musicians. Moviegoers hate movie stars. Autograph Men hate celebrities. We love our gods. But we do not love our subjection" (288).

"There will never be that moment, don't you get it? When you've had all the different people you want, when you're done, when you settle for me. People don't settle for people. They resolve to be with them. It takes faith. You draw a circle in the sand and you agree to stand in it and believe in it. It's faith, you idiot" (291).

No-No Boy by John Okada

I'm thankful for the care and context that Ruth Ozeki and John Okada put into writing the foreword and preface (respectively) for this novel, so I could gain a nascent understanding of just how important it is. This story about a young man's return home after internment was published in 1957, and the general reaction was that it was too soon. World War II hadn't ended that long ago, and most Japanese Americans were trying to re-stabilize and get the rest of America's ire off their backs. Okada died before his novel was rediscovered and later re-issued 20 years later, when it finally started to make the impact it deserved to make.

Basically, after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and the U.S. government forced thousands of people of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast into internment camps, the government also made all eligible men answer two written questions about their willingness to be drafted and to swear allegiance to the United States, forsaking all other allegiances (especially to Japan). Many answered "yes" to both questions and were able to supposedly prove their loyalty to Uncle Sam by fighting for the U.S. in WW2, while those who answered "no" to both (you guessed it, the "no-no boys") were put in prison. Ichiro, the main character of this novel, wasn't particularly pro-Japan, but was influenced by his fiercely pro-Japanese mother and also resented being plucked from his life and treated like a pariah by the U.S. government, so he answered "no". Two years later, we meet Ichiro as he returns to his hometown of Seattle and tries to pick up the pieces of his life.

Being interned is devastating enough, but being a no-no boy also earns him the scorn of most fellow Japanese people, so when Ichiro first returns home he has no idea where he belongs. His parents were able to take over a small grocery store that a different Japanese family owned, so he has somewhere to stay, but little else. He doesn't know what to do with himself (he was an engineering student prior to internment), and he is full of confusion and rage, most of which he turns on his parents or himself. It was hard for me to keep reading at times because the self-blame that he carries is so heartbreakingly heavy. This is the late '40s, before Civil Rights and counterculture movements, and conformity is still highly valued and expected. Ichiro and men like him can't help but buy into the belief that rather than righteous, their resistance was a grave mistake, and that everything they've lost or are suffering through as a result is their own fault. Nevermind the fact that many non-Japanese people still harbor scorn or suspicion toward Japanese people anyway, regardless of who served in the U.S. military and who didn't.

Over time, Ichiro manages to find friends in other young Japanese Americans: an aimless fellow no-no boy named Freddie, a veteran named Kenji, and a woman named Emi who owns a farm. But even they have their own post-war struggles. Freddie's recklessness starts to catch up with him, Kenji has a progressive leg injury, and Emi's a lonely widow-adjacent who unwaveringly believes in the redeeming power of assimilating to American (white) cultural norms. Each of them is an example to Ichiro of what his life could have been or could be going forward, and he floats between Seattle and Portland desperately seeking a new start.

I have to applaud how brilliantly Okada demonstrates the way generational differences shape Ichiro's story. Many Issei (first generation Japanese Americans) saw moving from Japan to the States as temporary: they'd settle in, work really hard while raising their families, earn and save a ton of money, and then eventually return to live comfortable lives in Japan. Many of them didn't speak English or see themselves as part of America, unlike their American-born Nisei (second generation) children who grew up feeling very much both Japanese and American. Ichiro's parents are one such Issei couple, which makes it nearly impossible for them to fully understand how hard it is for Ichiro to make sense of what's happened and live a so-called normal life again. But Ichiro's got it even worse because his mom refuses to believe that Japan lost the war. She believes that the empire will send a ship to bring all overseas Japanese back to Japan, that the ones who fought for the U.S. aren't "real" Japanese people, and that Ichiro is worthy to be her son solely because he resisted the draft. Even when she and Ichiro butt heads, Ichiro's younger brother distances himself from them, her relatives in Japan send letters begging for food and supplies, and her normally passive and compliant husband blows up at her, she's adamant that Japan was victorious and she'll get to go home soon.

In a way, Ichiro's self-flagellation testifies to how detrimentally effective internment and imprisonment were as humiliation tactics. He returns to Seattle burdened with shame and regret, desperate for redemption, for a second chance, for any form of approval that would signify that there's still a place for him to belong in American society. I don't think it's any coincidence that the two people who suffer the most abrupt and yet unforgettably violent deaths in No-No Boy are the two people who represent what Ichiro most loathes about himself, past "mistakes" and present predicament included. If you want to learn about Japanese American internment, are interested in racial politics, or have ever blamed yourself for something that wasn't truly your fault, then read this book!

Favorite quotes:
"But I did not remember or I could not remember because, when one is born in America and learning to love it more and more every day without thinking it, it is not an easy thing to discover suddenly that being American is a terribly incomplete thing if one's face is not white and one's parents are Japanese of the country Japan which attacked America" (49). 

"Maybe the answer is that there is no in. Maybe the whole damned country is pushing and shoving and screaming to get into someplace that doesn't exist, because they don't know that the outside could be the inside if only they would stop all this pushing and shoving and screaming, and they haven't got enough sense to realize that" (143).