My mother Li Min’s labor pains began the night that the widow was beaten in front of the Tian-ma Teahouse.
I’m a sucker for family epics, “spanning decades”. Honestly, you can just get my attention with those two words. Add a not-western background (because honestly, aren’t we familiar enough already with those?) and I’m in. So that’s how I ended up with Green Island.
You follow the main character from birth to seniority, over two continents and through so much political unrest that it’s sometimes boggling to realise that these are real life events. How much do you know about the history of Taiwan, after all?
Shawna Yang Ryan leads you through the casual horrors different governments exercise while juxtaposing it with (immigrant) domestic life, making some chapters almost surrealistic. The narrator is always chafing in her surroundings, sometimes making her annoying, but the story continuously enticing.
Green Island, Shawna Yang Ryan, Alfred A. Knopf, 2016
So much fun, so sparkly, so cute, so many beautiful people. What do you mean, you’re going to need more than that to go watch it? Or go read it? The Crazy Rich trilogy got a movie, and most of the first book has been used for this movie.
Anyway, this is a romantic comedy about a woman who discovers that her boyfriend is just about a couple of million times richer than she knew. And she discovers this because he invites her over to his family home.
This story line is literally and figuratively brightened up with a lot of beautiful mansions, houses, cars, outfits and colourful side characters. The majority of the cast is lovely to look at as well.
Is any of it groundbreaking? Possibly how the complete cast has an Asian background, but this movie will satisfy your romcom-need all the same. And if you can’t wait for the sequel: there’s the books.
Crazy Rich Asians, Warner Brothers 2018
History has failed us, but no matter.
Yes, a much better start for the new reading year than Acceptance. Much better than any recent books, and it’s January 24th. Anyway, Pachinko was lauded and I’m glad it didn’t disappoint me.
It’s a family epic of a Korean family, starting in 1910. Generation after generation takes you past living in poverty, living in a colonised country, war, prosperity and loss. There’s born family and created family and all the other connections that happen in society.
Sounds terribly vague? Simply because this is a book you should allow to overwhelm you, instead of going in with any expectations. “Meh”, you think, “a soap opera spread through time”, but that’s an insult. Pachinko is history, humanity, entertainment and mind boggling (the things I didn’t know as a white woman). Oh, and the descriptions of food might make you drool a little.
Pachinko is nominated for the American award ‘National Book Award for Fiction’. It has my vote.
Pachinko, Min Jin Lee, Hachette Book Group 2017
PROBLEM NO. 1
Your regular table at the fabulous restaurant on the exclusive island where you own a beach house is unavailable.
Follow up from Crazy Rich Asians and China Rich Girlfriend, now with even some issues that everyone that isn’t a billionaire or millionaire could relate to. Maybe.
Does one read books of these series for recognising situations from their own lives? Probably not. Bring in the details about the clothes, the planes, the houses, the spending.
Again, there’s so many characters that the genealogy in front of the book can be helpful. The author ramps up the amount of notes as well, this time using them (more often) to comment, instead of to explain. But in between all of that is a brightly coloured, very expensive (looking) story full of dramatics and diamonds. It’s silly, it’s superficial, it’s quite delicious (especially in between Year of Wonders and writing essays about The Catcher in the Rye).
Rich People Problems, Kevin Kwan, Doubleday 2017
Sometimes the best love stories are the ones involving friendship and self esteem. Although you could just call this a cute coming-of-age story as well and don’t worry about in your face Life Lessons and soppy scenes.
Main character Lily always wins, no matter what the battle is. She has her entire life planned out, but of course life – being what it is – doesn’t go with that. Her boyfriend breaks off with her, because of a pageant miss! One of those dumb, shallow creatures (it takes her some time to realise her misogynistic ideas)!
Of course this means that Lily is going to have to win a pageant to win her boyfriend back. Even though she knows it’s a superficial mess, pulls her best friend away from what she wants (to participate), and just doesn’t know yet that you can’t ‘win’ people.
Boyfriend is just the katalysator for things here anyway, and nary a man is found after the first few scenes. They’re all weaker than Lily and her friends and competition, whom are learning about their culture, their place in it and that there are lines you don’t cross to win.
That’s how we get Lily recognising that you can’t keep an iron clad grip on everything-/one, and that life is nicer with people around than medals.
Miss India America, Simhan and Kapoor 2015
In a single year, my father left us twice.
This was work. I don’t know how I managed to read two similarly build up novels (the other one being Disappearing Moon Cafe), but this one was the tougher of the two. Maybe because the comparison material was so recent. Both left me wondering how I’d like something contemporary written by an Asian actor.
Anyway, time moves every way but chronologically in Do Not Say We Have Nothing. Keep your head with you, because there’s a lot of characters going through a lot of things. The most brutal one, probably Mao’s ‘Cultural Revolution’ and the horrors of Tiananmen Square.
These aren’t light, bright stories. There seems to be no end to what a family can be put through, and the small, mythology-like side steps only make the difference starker. How did anyone come out alive?
It’s a novel to take in in small doses, to learn and see through another set of goggles.
Do Not Say We Have Nothing, Madeleine Thien, Granta 2016
He remembered that by then he was worn out from fighting the wind.
Sometimes you are simply (already) invested in a novel because you struggled to get it. Or like ‘struggle’; it’s not like I had to climb trees and survive the Sahara to get to it. It was just a tough-to-acquire eBook with a picky view of in which app to work. Anyway.
This was an experience, opposed to just another novel. Maybe I’m simply not used to Asian actors and their certain style yet, maybe it was simply because the jumps through time got me bewildered a few times.
There’s over a century of stories within the family, from second(/third/fourth?) cousins to daughters-in-law, first sons and grumpy (great-)grandmothers. A Chinese family in Canada, Chinese-Canadians and the Chinese family members left behind in the other country.
It’s a family tree book with immigration, racism and sexism mixed in. The not-western point of view doesn’t alienate, because everything that happens is simply too familiar. Everyone’s got a family, some roots just grow further and wither slower.
Disappearing Moon Cafe, Sky Lee, Douglas & McIntyre Ltd. 1990
On the cold, black night of March 31, 2007, my mother and I scrambled down the steep, rocky back of the frozen Yalu River that divides North Korea and China.
Autobiografieën boeten vaak in op stijl over waarheid. Het voelt dan oppervlakkig om commentaar te leveren op de warboel van het geschreven materiaal, wanneer het geschreven materiaal zo extreem, eng, bizar, enzovoorts is. Maakt het echt uit hoe mooi/lelijk het verhaal is opgeschreven, als het verhaal aantoont hoe gruwelijk het leven in Noord-Korea is?
Auteur Yeonmi Park is er opgegroeid, ontsnapt het voor andere horror in China en Mongolië, om vervolgens in Zuid-Korea aan te komen en beschouwd te worden als tweederangs burger. Noord-Koreanen zijn tenslotte achterlijke, gehersenspoelde arbeiders. Hoe dat komt, laat Yeonmi ook niet achterwege. Als het idee dat Noord-Korea een achterlijk doch aandoenlijk land is nog bestond, kan dat nu definitief vernietigd worden. Het is een kamp waarin de overgrote meerderheid langzaam afsterft om er voor te zorgen dat de rijke, machtige meerderheid een bordkartonnen idee van succes en geluk overeind kan houden. Men is gehersenspoeld, maar hoe kom je daar achter tot je omgeving verandert?
Het maakt het geen makkelijk, opbeurend, leesbaar verhaal, maar om je wereldbeeld te verbreden, wel essentieel. De vermakelijke, spetterend geschreven roman kan een andere keer wel weer.
In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom, Yeonmi Park, Penguin Press 2015
I wanted to read this for a very long time and I’m so pleased that it was completely to my satisfaction. It was beautiful, exciting, educational. And with about 700 pages, really not ‘just a quick comic’.
But what is it about? Where to start. It’s about two people that society has rejected, about the creation of the Quran and the science that came with it, about being on the fray while living in dreams and myths.
From time to time, especially during the darker, more confusing moments, it reminded me of the Sandman Chronicles. In those, there’s beauty in darkness as well, situations that leave you feeling a little bit unhinged.
If you are looking for a beautifully drawn book that will affect you and tickle your mind, this is for you.
Habibi, Craig Thompson, Pantheon 2011
Amid the ten thousand noises and the jade-and-gold and the whirling dust of Xinan, he had often stayed awake all night among friends, drinking spiced wine in the North District with the courtesans.
By now I should add another category of books I put back several times before trying them. This was one of them. It was a bit of a mistake to give it a try. This wasn’t really a novel with a plot, it was like a panorama: a beautiful world created, but that’s it. If you want a story, scrap some characters together and bring them from A to B.
What I think was going on is that main character Shen Tai gets a large gift from the emperor which puts a prize on his head. A trip to the royal city follows, with assassinations and politics. There’s a smaller, more interesting plot line around his sister whom has (falsely) been married off as a princess. It gives a better look of the mythology used in this created world with Asian influences, without going for the Mystic Asian trope.
I know I show plenty of appreciation of world building, but I also need a story line in that world, else I’m looking at a painting. With over 500 pages, I’m sure this isn’t a painting. Maybe next ‘okay let’s try this one’ will be more fulfilling.
Under Heaven, Guy Gavriel Kay, HarperVoyager 2010