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).

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