Debut novel The Leavers by Lisa Ko tackles the Chinese immigrant experience in America from the perspectives of Deming Guo and his undocumented mother Peilan/Polly.
When Polly disappears one day, leaving eleven-year-old Deming in New York without explanation, money, or hope, her friends are forced to put him up for adoption. He is adopted by two white academics and renamed Daniel. Deming/Daniel’s adopted parents are well-meaning but emotionally clueless and culturally ignorant, unwilling or unable to recognize Deming’s old life, his fragile emotional state, and the unresolved loss of his birth mother.
Most of the relationships in this book are borderline uncomfortable and fraught, the characters hold each other at arm’s length and are divided by miscommunications and unspoken assumptions; they are unable to truly connect. While I understand the way this emotional divide gives voice to the immigrant experience, shows a cultural identity and character arc in flux, and explores a “them” and “us” dynamic, I ultimately felt sadly indifferent about the characters, couldn’t fully comprehend their decisions, and was left feeling lackluster about the story by the end of the book.
My book club mostly reads contemporary fiction but this month we decided to read and discuss Sy Montgomery’s The Soul of an Octopus. Despite being a National Book Award finalist and receiving praise and accolades from multiple media outlets, we didn’t love the book.
Montgomery structures her narrative around visits to the New England Aquarium where she meets and interacts with a few different Octopuses and profiles the folks who care for them, and includes a basic overview of the body/brain of the octopus and some historical and cultural references. Overall the book is very repetitive (if I had to read one more paragraph about the author sticking her hand into the octopus tank I might gouge my eyes out) and I kept wishing Montgomery would focus less on her general awe of the octopus, and more on the octopus itself.
#50!! And just like that I’m halfway to my goal to read 100 books by the end of the year…
One of the things I appreciated about Berkeley-based Thi Bui’s gorgeously illustrated graphic memoir The Best We Could Do, is that she opens her book with an intense birth. She is in labor with her son, and, by way of her lovely illustrations, we are in the moment with her. I couldn’t help but find a parallel between the “birth” of the book, the creative impulse, and Bui’s labor, the creation of life; the book opens, she opens, the story unfolds, a life is brought forth.
The Best We Could Do is a story of life and survival, of family and identity. Bui tells the story of growing up between two cultures, the story of her parents – where they grew up in Vietnam, how they met, the dreams of their youths, the realities of adulthood. It is the story of a country and a people torn apart, by colonization, by the Vietnam War. It is the story of refugees. It is powerful and memorable, a fascinating and evocative read.
Dani Shapiro’s Hourglass is intimate and insightful and achingly beautiful and I loved it.
Hourglass is a stunner, a deftly braided memoir peppered with old journal entries, and rich with memories, observations, and realizations. In it Shapiro excavates the girl she was, examines the woman – mother and wife and writer – she is now, and speculates about the woman she is constantly becoming as her life inches closer, ever closer, towards death. Shapiro has packed so much into this slim book, the fast abandon of youth, the intense love and weight of years of marriage, the anxiety and joys of parenthood, the sweet sting of memory of aging.
“How do you suppose time works? A slippery succession of long hours adding up to ever-shorter days and years that disappear like falling dominoes? Near the end of her life Grace Paley once remarked that the decades between fifty and eighty feel not like minutes but seconds. I don’t know yet if this is the case, but I do know this: the decades that separate that young mother making her lists from the middle-aged woman discovering them feel like the membrane of a giant floating bubble. A pinprick and I’m back there. But is she here? How can I tell her that her lists will not protect her?”
Looking for a great Mother’s Day gift? Buy this.
Swedish author Fredrik Backman is a master storyteller. His novels, full of idiosyncratic characters and expertly-crafted dialogue, are heartwarming and entertaining, hypnotizing and transporting.
Where A Man Called Ove, which I read and loved back in January, centers on old cantankerous Ove and his fraught relationship with the world, the main character in My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry is Elsa, age 7. Her best and only friend is her quirky grandmother who weaves a world of fairy tales for Elsa, regularly stirs up trouble, and who dies suddenly leaving Elsa a task: to deliver apology letters to the folks she’s wronged and left behind. Backman’s characters leap off the page, they come to life fully flawed and perfectly odd, in a wonderful story that is funny and poignant, and rich with imagination. Another great read.
The dystopian world in Anna Smaill’s The Chimes is set to music. In this indeterminate future London, where the written word is a lost code and metal is a precious commodity, Smaill’s characters walk lento and run presto, they sing directions, recognize strangers by their song, and they attune their ears daily to the Chimes, the beautiful music played across London that erases memories and keeps the inhabitants in line.
The novel follows young Simon, recently arrived in London after the death of his parents, with a bag of objectmemories and a message in the form of a song from his mother to a woman named Netty. As the days pass and the Chimes create gaps in his perception and fog his past, he must find a way to remember his purpose, deliver his message, and retain his memories if he is to survive the stifling by those in charge, a set of Oxford elites known as The Order.
After reading and loving V.E. Schwab’s Shades of Magic series over the last few months, I’ve been on the hunt for entertaining, well-written fantasy, which is why I picked up The Chimes. While I liked the novel, I wished for less musical prose and more world-building; there were sections where I couldn’t envision the scene fully because the musicality of the writing muddled the plot and overshadowed the visual elements of the setting.
Do you listen to The Moth? It’s one of my favorite weekly podcasts. The true stories amuse, delight, and move me to tears every single time I listen.
There were a number of pieces in the new collection from The Moth, All These Wonders: True Stories About Facing the Unknown, which I’d heard and loved before. Reading these felt like visiting old friends, the voices of the storytellers ringing through clear and memorable.
What a treat to discover stories I’d somehow missed. Some new favorites included comedian Tig Notaro’s “R2, Where Are You” about finding understanding and acceptance with her step father, Kate Tellers’ brave look at her mother’s death in “But Also Bring Cheese,” Ishmael Beah’s “Unusual Normality” about his trajectory from child soldier in Sierra Leone to to playing paintball at a party in upstate New York, Carl Pillitteri’s harrowing end-times experience inside the Fukushima Nuclear generating station during the 2011 earthquake in Japan in “Fog of Disbelief,” and Cathy Olkin’s “On Approach to Pluto” about her decade of work on NASA’s New Horizons Mission to Pluto, among others.
In addition to all the excellent stories and a foreword by Neil Gaiman, the book itself is beautiful, a hardback with a midnight blue matte cover and gold foil. This would be a perfect graduation gift.
Allison Amend’s Enchanted Islands is a fast, plot-driven novel with a quasi-interesting main character, Frances Conway. Frances, born in Minnesota, positioned as bookish and smart, is made to go to secretarial school by her immigrant parents instead of finishing high school, runs away to Chicago with her best friend Rosalie, moves to San Francisco, and eventually ends up in the Galapagos Islands in the lead-up to WWII married to a handsome and complicated spy.
As intriguing as that storyline sounds, I wasn’t charmed by Frances and this was a hard book to write about. On the one hand, I enjoyed aspects of this story; Amend is a strong writer who creates a real sense of place within her narrative. Most notable were the sections in which Frances lives rough on one of the Galapagos Islands. These sections were vivid and rich, a pleasure to read.
On the other hand the novel is disjointed and full of holes. As a reader I couldn’t reconcile that the author glazed over 30 years of the Frances’ life in a few paragraphs, taking her from just under 20 to 50 in one page with a literary not much happened in those years shrug. Really? Also, the female friendship aspect of the story, Frances’ friendship with Rosalie, felt forced and flat. Frances, for all her experiences, remains fairly naive and boring despite her early bookish years, and I couldn’t quite understand what glue held their friendship together for so long.
Poignant and gut-wrenching, Han Kang’s Human Acts excavates the moments leading up to and during, and the devastating aftermath of, the 1980 Gwangju (where Kang grew up) Uprising of students in South Korea from various narrative perspectives.
Human Acts opens with “The Boy, 1980,” told from the vantage of Dong-ho, a young boy looking for the body of his best friend whom he saw get shot in the street. “The Boy’s Friend, 1980” (my favorite perspective in the book) voices the experience of that friend, now dead, one soul among a jumbled heap of bodies left to rot for days in the forest. As in The Vegetarian, Kang doesn’t shy away from graphic depictions of the body, she pushes characters to the physical limits of life and beyond; in Human Acts, bodies endure torture, carry the scars of mutilation, are mercilessly shot and killed, bodies bloat and blacken with decomposition. In “The Boy’s Mother, 2010” Dong-ho’s mother speaks tenderly to her dead son, addressing “you” as she wonders if her inaction played a role in his death. Dong-ho, both alive and dead, makes appearances in all of the narratives, which, as a whole, create a breathtaking and acutely brutal portrait of human cruelty, frailty, and endurance.