Sunday, September 24, 2017

BOOKS! (Green Island + Free Food for Millionaires)

Both of these books took longer for me to read than usual, and so they ended up being my second-to-last and last reading selections for the summer. The first was recommended to me by a friend. The other is the first novel written by an author whose most recent novel I read earlier this year.

Green Island  by Shawna Yang Ryan

Spanning from 1947 to 2003, this story is told by an unnamed narrator whose family is directly affected by pivotal events in Taiwanese history. She is the youngest of four children, born on the February night in 1947 when a cigarette-selling widow is violently accosted by law enforcement. This event sparks the 228 Massacre, in which government forces violently put down an uprising among Taiwanese people who protest the widow's treatment along with other grievances, including corruption and economic mismanagement.

Green Island showed me that I knew even less than I thought I knew about Taiwan, but here's the context that I gleaned from the novel, which helped me understand its plot. After Japanese  colonial rule over Taiwan ceased at the end of WW2, Nationalists retreated from mainland China to Taiwan and used it as their base from which to continue their campaign to defeat the Communists and re-take all of China, aiming to unite both the mainland and the island of Taiwan under the Kuomintang (Nationalist) government. The KMT was fiercely devoted to itself and its mission, and was also incredibly insecure to the point of paranoia, constantly trying to root out enemies from within Taiwan (whether real or imaginary). It took a brutal authoritarian approach to ruling the people, so that anyone who spoke publicly in favor of democracy (the US had a military presence there at the time), who openly criticized or organized action against the government, who was denounced by their fellows in forced confessions, who was associated with the wrong people, or who was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, was liable to "disappear". The 228 Massacre set off this purge, as well as an era of martial law in Taiwan that didn't end until 1987.

The narrator's father is one of those people who "disappeared" for expressing his ideas, spending 11 years of torture and hard labor at a brutal penal colony called "Green Island". Soldiers forced the narrator's family out of their home in Taipei, but they relocated to Taichung where she spent her formative years. The narrator's personal life is a canvas on which decades of tumult are displayed: the forced forgetting of 228, her father's release from prison and continued surveillance by authorities, the completion of Taiwan's virtual loss of political existence after the US formalized relations with mainland China in 1979, the narrator's first-hand experience with KMT spies in both the US and Taiwan due to her professor husband's involvement in the resistance, and the swine flu pandemic.

Even with all its gruesome details, Green Island is a thoroughly enjoyable reading experience. I got a crash course on Taiwanese history and got to bug my friend with questions along the way, since her parents and especially her grandparents lived through the events of the book. There were times where I thought the book ran too long, as I sometimes got bored reading about the narrator's relationship with her husband, Wei (he's an insufferable man in his own special way). But I suppose that the mundane was needed to balance out the drama, and it helped build up to the novel's final act. If you want to learn about Taiwan, read this book!

Favorite quotes:
"When I got older, I still thought I could write life. I didn't understand, as my mother had just realized that evening, that it is the other way around. And yet, here I am, still trying" (90).

"Wei had told me a gentler era was encroaching upon Taiwan. Brutality belonged to the previous decade. Does brutality ever get old? I wondered. Each generation brings a new group of men who have not yet learned the guilt of the last. They need to feel bones breaking under their very own fingers to know for sure how they feel about it" (333).

"We are curious creatures, we Taiwanese. Orphans. Eventually, orphans must choose their own names and write their own stories. The beauty of orphanhood is the blank slate... 'The country is broken, but the mountains and rivers remain'... We are the mountains and rivers, no matter what the country is called" (372). 

Free Food for Millionaires by Min Jin Lee

Casey Han is the eldest daughter of Korean immigrants who are devout Presbyterians and run a laundry for a living. In the 1990s, despite being a Princeton economics grad, she is jobless and still lives with her parents in Queens (Mercy from The Expatriates vibes, anyone?). The book opens with an argument between her and her father about her future, which ends with him hitting her and kicking her out of the family home. She goes to stay with her college boyfriend whom she already lives with part-time, only to catch him in the middle of a threesome. Now jobless and homeless, Casey's worst night ever is also the beginning of  her journey to finding her footing as a 20-something on her own for the first time in New York City.

Being a Princeton grad and knowing a handful wealthy and well-connected people, she's never completely at a loss. There's Sabine, who runs her own department store and married rich, and thus is a Korean immigrant who's "made it", so to speak. She employs Casey on the sales floor and also acts as a surrogate mother or cool auntie of sorts, dispensing advice but also disapproving of most of her choices and not-so-subtly attempting to groom Casey into her successor. There's also Ella, a rich doctor's daughter who grew up in the same church that Casey did and always wanted to be her friend, but whom Casey ignored for years because she couldn't stand being around this girl who seems to have everything. A chance meeting between them leads to Casey living with Ella, which allows her time to get back on her feet and even leads her to getting a job on Wall Street (thanks to Ella's alpha male fiancé Ted, another man who's insufferable in his own special way).

Ella also introduces Casey to Ella's cousin Unu, a young divorcee who also works on Wall Street. They eventually start a friends-with-benefits thing, which evolves into cohabitation, which evolves into a relationship, but it's not without its problems. Money is always on Casey's mind, as she grew up poor and never seems to have enough of it to sustain herself and also pay off her mounting shopping debts and student loans. From Princeton to Wall Street, she is adept at navigating social strata in which money is no object for people, but she can never live with the sense of carefree security that they do. In contrast, Unu comes from a wealthy family and has never had to worry about money, but he has a gambling problem which, coupled with his denial and being too proud to accept Casey's help with household expenses, lands him in a deeper and deeper hole.

Min Jin Lee has this gift for taking an omniscient stance with her characters, writing from multiple points of view concurrently and getting the reader invested in the intricate details of a handful of interconnected lives, and then managing to tie up the story without leaving anyone out (see Pachinko). So there are a number of other people and incidents that influence Casey's progression from "confounded by this thing called life" to "wisened, but still confounded by this thing called life", but I'll leave them for you to discover. If you're having a quarter-life crisis or any similar crisis of existence, and if you like reading about plucky women who are their own people, read this book!

Favorite quotes:
"'The funny thing is that if you were a millionaire like some of these managing directors shaking down seven figures a year, you'd have known to push your way ahead and fill up your plate. Rich people can't get enough of free stuff... So, this is the game, Casey. You have to take what's offered'... She'd pretended to be otherwise to be ladylike and had moved away from the table to be agreeable, and now she'd continue to be hungry" (91-92).

"No explanation was necessary. They were collecting Mr. Jun's departing gift... Even if one Korean was nothing in this strange land, a church full of Koreans meant something to each other, and they intended to care for their own" (322).

"You can be grateful and angry. Such feelings can coexist" (494).