Tuesday, February 11, 2020

100th BOOK REVIEW! (God Help the Child + Jazz)

Since this is my first blog post of 2020, let me take a moment to wish you all a Happy New Year and a Happy Black History month at the same time! Can't believe I haven't written on here since November, and now it's February. I took a hiatus from my podcast in mid-November, and I guess that unintentionally translated into me taking a break from this blog too, haha. I was just trying to enjoy my time, and enjoy reading instead of pushing myself to write about it. But now I'm back! And it feels good.

This is my 100th book review. 100th! I know, right? And practically as soon as I heard about Toni Morrison's passing on August 5th, 2019, I knew I wanted to use this personal milestone of mine to honor her. I hadn't realized until I cracked today's selections open that each one happened to be published during an important year of my life. God Help the Child, which I bought during my time as a bookstore employee, was published the same year that I graduated from college (2015). And Jazz, which I found at a local book sale at a mall last year, was published the same year that I was born (1992). Part of the reason why I didn't end up returning to my blog and writing this review until February is because I wanted to take my time reading these two books of Morrison's. Now that I've finished them, here goes:

God Help the Child by Toni Morrison

Lula Ann is born in the 1990s with extraordinarily dark skin, which her light-skinned parents react to with shock, shame, and disgust. Her skin color is so unacceptable to them that her father deserts the family, and her mother avoids touching her as much as possible while insisting that Lula Ann call her "Sweetness" instead of "Mother" or "Mama". It's no wonder that Lula Ann grows up feeling that there is something wrong with her, and that she has to follow a certain set of rules to not only earn her mother's approval, but also make it in a world that prioritizes whiteness. Now an adult, Lula Ann is estranged from Sweetness and is a successful cosmetics executive who goes by the name "Bride". She has learned to dress and carry herself in a way that frames her dark skin as a mesmerizing asset to her beauty, but to an extent this confidence is her way of overcompensating for insecurities that still linger.

Bride's relationships with men have all been unsuccessful until she meets Booker, the first man who makes her feel comfortable enough to discuss a traumatic event that she's kept secret for decades. He responds to her revelation with loving reassurance and encouragement, but later on, Booker suddenly walks out of her life. What follows is a series of painful setbacks for Bride. She falls into a post-breakup depression, she goes to visit a former elementary school teacher who beats her to a pulp, she's put on leave from her job, and her ill-advised quest to find Booker and make him answer for his disappearance results in her getting into a car accident. During these trials, she has no one to support her except her supposed best friend Brooklyn (a white woman with locs who fetishizes Black men and uses Bride's misfortune to swoop in and take Bride's job). Which is to say, Bride really has no support at all. While recovering from the car accident and living off the grid in the company of strangers, Bride's got nothing but time to reflect on what she's gone through and all the love that's been denied her by so many people throughout her life. Can Bride be happy again and finally be at peace with herself? Will she get the answers she seeks from Booker? I'll let y'all read the novel to find out.

Most of the novel is written from Bride's perspective, but Sweetness, Brooklyn, Bride's former teacher Sofia, Booker, and even a little white girl named Rain have their say about their own lives as well as their connections to Bride. Each of these characters has experienced abuse or neglect as children, or was heavily impacted by the mistreatment they witnessed other children endure. So the title God Help the Child applies to all of them in some way, because they know intimately the various ways that children can be harmed, rejected, and unprotected in this world. I didn't realize until the end that this novel is also a love story. I had an idea of where the book was going (especially with the issue of colorism that the book opens with and all the violence that Bride experiences), and that was not it. But the ending, as much as I hadn't anticipated it, is a happy and hopeful one. Overall, I enjoyed this novel for what it is. And as far as Toni Morrison books go, God Help the Child is relatively short and easy to get through. If you have any connection to child abuse and won't be too triggered reading about it, if you haven't had much luck in relationships, if you've struggled with not being accepted because of how you look, and if you've ever wondered what boss women might deal with behind the scenes, then read this book!

Favorite quotes:
"I don't think many people appreciate silence or realize that it is as close to music as you can get. Quiet makes some folks fidget or feel too lonely. After fifteen years of noise I was hungry for silence more than food" (69). 

"What have you learned that is true (and how do you know)?" (112).

"Had he lived, grown up to have flaws, human failings like deception, foolishness and ignorance, would he be so easy to adore or be even worthy of adoration? What kind of love is it that requires an angel and only an angel for its commitment?" (160).

Jazz by Toni Morrison 

Jazz... my, my, my. I found this book to be quite challenging, but I will do my best to explain what it's about. Harlem, 1926: Violet Trace (a hairdresser) is dealing with the fallout of her husband Joe's affair. This affair with a teenaged girl named Dorcas has ended with Joe (a 50-year-old salesman) stalking and killing Dorcas, and with Violet attempting to stab Dorcas's body at the funeral. To sum Violet and her husband's relationship up, it's a mess. And while Joe is crying for months and months over what he did and no one holds him accountable for murdering that girl, Violet is left to pick up the pieces. She receives the brunt of her neighbors' judgment for acting out at the funeral and being mentally ill, and she's the one who has to decide how to move forward within her marriage and household. Trying to understand more about the kind of person Dorcas was, Violet begins visiting her neighbor Alice, the aunt and mother figure whom Dorcas lived with.

Set in the 1920s but reaching as far back as before the Civil War, Jazz traces the various historical and familial events that led so many Black people north, and to Harlem specifically, during the Great Migration. Violet's mother and grandmother were born enslaved, and both Violet and Joe only know country life and agricultural labor until they leave Virginia to move to "the City" in 1906. Dorcas is originally from Illinois, until the East St. Louis massacre of 1917 leaves her orphaned and has her living in New York with her aunt Alice. I've read about the Great Migration in other literature written by Black authors (August Wilson's Joe Turner's Come and Gone and The Piano Lesson come to mind, as do Paule Marshall's The Fisher King, James Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain, and Yaa Gyasi's Homegoing). But in Jazz, Toni Morrison emphasizes the vastness and complications of this phenomenon in a way that I hadn't considered before. And out of all possible destinations at the time, many Black people were attracted to Harlem as a place where they could be "free" to live as they wanted, where they could be surrounded by other Black people who were also "free", where Black people could be the face of establishments that they themselves owned. Morrison's description of Harlem and its importance reminded me so much of Touré's The Portable Promised Land, which nearly sings Harlem's praises.

Back to Violet and Joe. Now that I'm reflecting on it, not much happens in the "present" of Jazz. Violet and Joe drift apart, Joe seeks comfort in the arms of Dorcas (whom he initially meets by chance), Joe and Dorcas have an affair, and after Joe shoots Dorcas everyone in their apartment building and neighborhood tries to make sense of what happened. The lived experiences of the main characters, and what has lead them to their current reality, is what's given the most attention. If you want to get a nuanced and intimate feel for what the Great Migration was about, why Harlem mattered so much, and how certain Black people lived day-to-day from the 1800s to 1926, with references to how Black music and Black life inform each other, then this is the book for you. If you're looking for a story about a sexy love triangle and the fiery vengeance of a woman scorned (which I wasn't), you might be a little disappointed. The ending did leave me scratching my head a bit, and I'm still not certain who the omniscient and unnamed narrator is supposed to be. But as a whole I learned so much from Jazz, and believe that I'm better off for having read it. You probably will be too.

Favorite quotes:
"Advice too: 'Don't let this whip you, Rose. You got us, Rose Dear. Think of the young ones, Rose. He ain't give you nothing you can't bear, Rose.' But had He? Maybe this one time He had. Had misjudged and misunderstood her particular backbone. This one time. This here particular spine" (99).

"But what they felt was better. Not beaten, not lost. Better. They laughed too, even Rose Dear shook her head and smiled, and suddenly the world was right side up. Violet learned then what she had forgotten until this moment: that laughter is serious. More complicated, more serious than tears" (113).

"...and don't bring me no whiteboy sass" (173).

"The way she said it. Not like the 'me' was some tough somebody, or somebody she had put together for show. But like, like somebody she favored and could count on. A secret somebody you didn't have to feel sorry for or have to fight for" (210).

Friday, November 22, 2019

(From August 15th)

(a would-be Facebook status that I decided to keep to myself in my "notes" app, and just now felt the impulse to post it here.)

Today I had my first therapy session in a long time. It took me 3 1/2 years to try again after an unfortunate therapy experience and certain life disappointments had me convinced that it wouldn't be worth it, it didn't matter anyway, no one can be trusted, etc. And today's session went well. I am hopeful.

Only sharing this to say that, whatever it is you're wanting to try, or to try again, it's okay if it takes you a little while to do it. You deserve to do right by yourself, and you'll know when it's time.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

BOOKS! (Chemistry + The Portable Promised Land)

Thanksgiving is one week from today, so obviously I missed my chance to write a review in October. However, given the kind of month that October was for me, I'm willing to give myself a little grace. We had relatives from out of town staying with us for a weekend. I was in pain and had limited mobility for nearly the entire month due to a sprained ankle. My friend's mom passed away. I was wrapping up things for my podcast (putting out the 50th episode and finishing all podcast-related activities for the rest of the year; I'm on hiatus from now until sometime in January 2020). But now I'm finally at a point where I can sit down and write. So here I am! Today's selections are a novel that I bought on a whim at B&N, and a story collection that I found at a book festival.

Chemistry by Weike Wang

I came across this novel during a random stroll of a Barnes & Noble fiction section some months ago, and I was so proud of myself for buying it without Googling it or looking up any reviews. Had never heard of the book before. Just a straightforward thought process of Hmm, this sounds interesting. I'm gonna buy it. And also, This story reminds me of someone I know. I wonder what she'll think after I tell her about it. (That "someone" is my friend Irene; if you remember me mentioning her in the past, then you know. If you don't, then just roll with me here.)

The narrator of the story (who remains unnamed) is a woman in Boston who's pursuing a PhD in chemistry. She is the daughter of Chinese immigrants who made their home in Michigan. In Boston, she lives with her white, redheaded boyfriend Eric (also a chemistry PhD student) and their dog. Being accepted into a science PhD program is an accomplishment in itself, as women scientists are still less likely to be given respect or taken seriously as automatically as men are. But the narrator isn't immune to the pressures and challenges that many grad students face: she's earning peanuts, her research isn't producing results like she'd hoped, she doesn't have as many papers published as her lab mate, and she's questioning more and more why she chose to pursue a PhD in the first place. After a moment of emotional distress that involves many broken beakers, the narrator is put on leave so that she can address her mental health.

So the narrator begins seeing a therapist. Even more than exploring her motivations behind pursuing a career in science, the narrator spends a significant amount of time and effort working through her unaddressed childhood trauma. The stress of adjusting to life in America made her parents' relationship fraught with intense fighting, and she tried to live up to their impossible expectations for her as best she could. Still, now she doesn't know what to do with her life, and the anger she was never able to express when she was younger (especially toward her hypercritical and sometimes unpredictable mom) is just now coming to the surface. And if all that wasn't enough, her relationship with Eric is strained because she can't give him a definite response to his recent marriage proposal, plus he's eyeing university jobs that might have him moving far away. Will she return to her PhD program? Will she be able to confront her parents? Will her and Eric's relationship make it?

I was surprised by how much I chuckled while reading Chemistry. Even the science facts that are thrown in are fun! An Oprah Magazine quote on the front cover refers to this book's humor as "deadpan", and I think that's a perfect description. Blunt, concise, and frequently unassuming—quite often the narrator's way of expressing her thoughts is funny without trying to be. In addition to the humor, something I noticed right away is that except when talking about her parents, the narrator never calls the living beings around her "my" or "mine". Her best friend is simply "the best friend", her dog is simply "the dog", her boyfriend is simply "Eric". I don't know if this was a purposeful decision on Wang's part to demonstrate how emotionally detached the narrator has been conditioned to be, or if it's just a writing style that Wang felt suited her, but I thought it was so interesting! If you have friends in grad school, are interested in what grad student life is like, care about women in science, have endured a personal crisis in your 20's or 30's, have a difficult relationship with your parents (especially your mom), or are interested in immigrant/first-gen narratives, then read this book!

Favorite quotes:
"When I say this to the shrink, she says, Stand in front of a mirror. Your reflection is a way to deal with episodes of anger.
But I'm not angry.
Oh yes, you are" (46).

"I did. I did say I would follow him to space and that offer still stands. But I did not say Ohio" (102).

"Once the psychologists behind the equation reached that conclusion, they stopped and put forth a caveat: No one should lead a life of low expectations. Emotions such as disappointment are also important to experience" (145).

The Portable Promised Land: Stories by Touré

This is the third of three books (the others being Letters to a Young Artist and The Gun), that I found at the Detroit Bookfest this summer. The Portable Promised Land is actually the first book I bought that day, and somehow I wound up finishing it last and writing about it last. To be honest, I decided to buy it mainly because I saw that there was a story in it called "A Hot Time at the Church of Kentucky Fried Souls" (I've shortened the title of the story here for brevity's sake). While most Kentuckians I know don't actually enjoy KFC that much, I was charmed by such a clear and strange reference to my mom's home state. The fact that this collection of stories looks older than it actually is also appealed to me. The front and back covers are designed to look both vibrant and somewhat aged, so even though I'd given it a good once-over, I assumed the book had been published in the 1970s or something. Joke's on me! This novel was actually published in 2002.

Many of these stories are set in a place called Soul City, Touré's vision of Harlem which is both futuristic and retro at the same time. One of my favorite stories set in Soul City is, as I mentioned, "A Hot Time at the Church of Kentucky Fried Souls", where a pastor known for spreading his "love" around to various women in the congregation learns the hard way that neither cutting corners nor manipulating women are worth it in the end. Another favorite is "The Sad, Sweet Story of Sugar Lips Shinehot, the Man with the Portable Promised Land" which is where the title of the book comes from. I won't divulge what all happens in it, but basically the story frames the "promised land", or the very essence of true freedom for Black people, as the ability to no longer see or hear white people. You feel free no matter where you go (portable promised land), because as far as you're concerned, there are no white people to make you feel like you don't belong or like you have to adjust to make them comfortable.

It's clear that Touré understands Black people on an intimate and analytical level; nearly every story references the uniqueness of Black culture, with particular emphasis on the language we use and how we move and adorn our bodies. A couple chapters are literally just celebratory lists of various facets of the Black (especially Black American) experience. And while there's no way that Touré's perspective can be all-encompassing, I would be surprised if any Black person were to read this book and not find at least one thing that is strikingly familiar to them. With that said, there are a few stories in The Portable Promised Land that seem to focus on white people; it's either explicitly mentioned that the characters are white, or it's unclear because Touré doesn't seem to include obvious signifiers of Blackness like he does in other stories. I'm still pondering what he aimed to do by making those choices. In fact, in my opinion the book could have ended at "Once an Oreo, Always an Oreo: The Black Widow Finale", because most of the remaining stories that follow don't seem to have a very strong thematic connection to the previous ones. I also didn't care for the snark of "Attack of the Love Dogma", which felt a lot like condescension. (Like, alright, I get it! You want Black men to be able to date white women without being supposedly "attacked" for abandoning the race or being a self-hating coon. But would you put this much energy into arguing for Black women's right to date outside of their race as well? It doesn't seem so.)

Besides those aspects, I thoroughly enjoyed this collection. Touré has a ridiculous sense of humor, and I was impressed by the variety of  perspectives (characters vary in age, time period, and socioeconomic status) and themes that he explored in each story. Reading this reminded me so much of Friday Black, one of my favorite reads of 2018, which is a darker but similarly sarcastic and Afrofuturistic collection of stories with twist endings à la 'The Twilight Zone' or 'Black Mirror'. In comparison, The Portable Promised Land has a lot more jokes, and reads more like someone's sitting you down to tell you a story face-to-face. If you're interested in Harlem, visions of Black people in the future, the intricacies of how Black people live and move and have our being, or what the heck a "chronic crashee" is, then read this book!

Favorite quotes:
"Every time I sit up in the window at home and watch him strut out the door, from the way he do Blackmanwalkin I jus know he Somebody. So, I know I am, too. Watchin him I'm a young-ass, know-I'm-somebody Somebody... there's no rush to get there cuz wherever you is you already is somewhere jus cuz you there" (61-62).

"If you want to mirror reality, get a camera. If you want to make someone understand reality, then you have to lie a little. You have to distort things, to exaggerate in a way that reveals the way you see things. Do you understand? ...You must give your paintings your way of seeing. Don't tell it as it is. Tell it as it is for you and you alone" (108).

"Everyone needs some sort of family. Even if you never use that safety net, as long as you know someone's there you can go out and walk the highest tightrope" (173).

Monday, September 30, 2019

BOOKS! (The Gun + Queenie)

It's the last day of September, which means it's time to write this month's book review! Today I've got a Detroit Bookfest find (in additon to Letters to a Young Artist), and an audiobook-turned-physical-purchase. Both novels are about twenty-somethings in crisis.

The Gun by Fuminori Nakamura
(translated by Allison Markin Powell)

I bought this book when I saw it at the Detroit Bookfest because I hadn't read a Japanese novel in a while and was intrigued by the logo design with Nakamura's name on the front cover. Plus, the husband and wife couple selling it only charged $10 for it, compared to the original $25.95.  I had never heard of Nakamura or his work before, and apparently The Gun was his award-winning debut novel when it was published in Japan in 2002. But its English translation wasn't published until 2015, years after his subsequent books had already been translated.

Before randomly finding a gun while on a night walk, Nishikawa is a college student who's pretty consistently apathetic about life and doesn't expend too much energy contemplating the morality of anything, including his own actions. Walking along a river one night, he stumbles upon the body of a man who is freshly dead from a gunshot wound to the head, and when Nishikawa leaves the scene he takes the gun with him. The gun swiftly becomes his secret prized possession, which he also starts to feel possessed by. (Although, waxing poetic about the gun's influence is largely a convenient substitute that Nishikawa uses to avoid confronting his conscience.)

Nishikawa gradually becomes bolder and more intentional, going from polishing the gun in the privacy of his apartment to carrying it on his person while in public. From not caring about school and barely tolerating the presence of his classmates, to becoming more engaged socially and juggling two new girlfriends at once. And before long, just polishing the gun and carrying it around aren't enough; in order for the gun to be true to its purpose, Nishikawa wants to try shooting it. Who will be his target? Animals on the street? People he dislikes? When will enough be enough for Nishikawa, now armed with a weapon that no one knows about?

This novel is definitely a slow burn... but those last three pages? Those last three pages?! Such a shocking and intense ending, which I believe fully makes the preceding slowness worth it. And by slow, I don't mean boring. Besides reading Nishikawa's thoughts and feelings about the gun and witnessing those thoughts and feelings evolve, we also learn about his unfortunate family background, which greatly influences his detachment from others and his choice of target practice later on. And as the police start investigating the circumstances behind that dead body by the river and the "missing" gun, Nishikawa's impulsiveness almost does him in. So there's actually a lot going on in this novel, even though it doesn't seem like it at first. If you enjoy reading about quarter-life crises, how obsession evolves, and how people can become murderers, or you just want to read something from a Japanese author you may not have heard of before, then read this book!

Favorite quotes:
"there were times when, inexplicably, I felt as though the gun hated me... I had the feeling that perhaps I had discovered the sadness that one felt when, out of jealousy or despite your love for someone, the object of your desire turns their back on you. At times, I yearned for the gun to find favor with me, regardless of what might happen" (159-160).

"Losing the gun would turn me into an empty shell of myself, and the prospect of carrying around that lifeless husk for the remaining years of my life seemed like endless torture... humans lived to achieve what they chose to do, and I believed that. Putting one's soul to the flame, in order to experience such fullness, was essential for humans, and I had no reason to think that I was an exception" (162).

Queenie by Candice-Carty Williams
(narrated by Shvorne Marks)

I rarely read the same book twice. Because I read so much, I usually haven't had the time or interest to re-read them unless it was for class, or some years had passed and I was suddenly hit with a pang of nostalgia. A Lesson Before Dying, La vie devant soi, and Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry are the only repeats that come to mind, though there may be a few others. All of this to say that, I read Queenie twice, and that is significant for me as a reader.

I originally experienced this novel as an audiobook, thanks to an acquaintance who gifted me a free trial of Audible back in August. Set in London in 2018, Queenie was already on my "books to buy" list, and it seemed like it'd be a promising choice in audio form. And maybe it was because I found the title character so relatable (a Black woman who is the same age as me, has hit an unexpected low point, doesn't know where her life is headed, and deals with depression and anxiety). Maybe it was because actress Shvorne Marks was just that good at making the story and all its characters come to life aurally. I don't know. But after listening through the book over a number of days, I got to the final chapter and decided I would buy and read the hard cover, finish that, and then finish the audiobook. (I was charmed enough to want to write about Queenie, but I can't properly write about a book if I can't read it physically and make notes in it as I go along, so to the bookstore I went.) So as a whole, it took me significantly longer to finish this novel than if I'd listened to it only, but I didn't mind.

Young writer Queenie Jenkins's troubles start when she and her boyfriend Tom "take a break", with the flimsy agreement to check back in with each other later floating between them. Tom wasn't much of an ally and failed to defend Queenie from his family's racism on multiple equations (Queenie is Black and comes from a Jamaican family; Tom is white). However, Tom was also the first man to show Queenie what genuine love and care are like, so she spends the next year hanging onto the day when Tom might finally say he wants her back. In the meantime, she has a miscarriage, has self-destructive trysts with casual partners, starts messing up at work, has nightmares and sleep paralysis stoked by her childhood trauma, one of her longest friendships falls apart, and she starts having panic attacks. Suffice it to say that our Queenie is going through it. A final work-related blow ultimately has her retreating to her Jamaican grandparents' house when it all becomes too much. Amidst therapy sessions, abiding by her grandparents' rules and particularities, and interacting with her estranged mother, Queenie gradually tries to put her life back together again.

This wasn't a novel that I absolutely loved; like on a Goodreads scale of 1 to 5 starts, I gave it a solid 4 ("really liked it"). But I was willing to go over this story twice in such quick succession because I saw so much of myself in Queenie. I'm sure that was part of Candice Carty-Williams's aim in writing it. At times it's dark, sometimes it gets awkward, a lot of the time it's disarmingly funny, and all of the time it is vulnerable and honest. If you are a Black women, love and care about Black women, have ever passed by a Black woman on the street, or don't know any Black women at all, then read this book!  If you have ever dealt with mental health issues, have a difficult relationship with your parents, have immigrant elders, don't like hugs or intimacy, or are confused about this thing called life, then read this book!

Favorite quotes:
"I smiled at the ground, fiddling with the corner of my book. He was the first man I'd met who seemed not to want to immediately push any weirdness out of me" (31).

"Maybe if all ah we had learned to talk about our troubles, we wouldn't carry so much on our shoulders all the way to the grave... Maybe we haffi learn from this new generation, Veronica" (240).

"I am proud of you every day. Even on the days that you think are bad" (273).

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 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 than 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!