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).

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