Let me begin again.
Golly gosh, how to explain this? It’s a memoir, it’s a fever dream, it’s an obituary – maybe? And did I like all of it, any of it, only the parts that I read at night? It was, in a way, beautiful, though. A kind of experience hard to put into words.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is one of those titles that seem to be singing around in ‘Serious Reader’ circles for a while. It’s not loud enough to feel like it’s been hyped, nor is a celebrity book club attached, but there is the vibe of “Haven’t you read it yet?” around it. To me, anyway.
Ocean Vuong wrote poetry before, and it shows in his descriptions, his look on life, how it feels like he weighed every word before putting it down. It’s in juxtaposition with the subjects he writes down: the suffering of his grandmother and mother, the lack of family, being an immigrant child, being the only different one while growing up. All of it feels absolutely anchor-less.
Can you have an opinion about something that runs through your mind like sand through your hands? I’m sure you can, but I’m just going to stick with ‘an experience’ and a weird feeling of honour that Vuong allowed you in.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Ocean Vuong, Penguin Random House 2019
“Miss Wong, you’re seriously ill,” the neurologist in a midtown office said, preparing to offer me a sympathy tissue.
Has it been more since a month since my last use of ‘truth is stranger than fiction’? Because Lindsay Wong’s truth is far stranger than fiction. A Chinese-Canadian woman that grows up in a family that is rife with mental illnesses and superstition, but completely refuses to acknowledge the first one and follows the second one in (self)destructive ways.
It’s always interesting to have a look behind someone else’s door, and I always try to learn more about contemporary Asians (immigrant or not). In this case, I felt like I was just gaping a lot at the page, because is this how it goes? Or is this solely the impact of the denial about mental illnesses? And is it bad that I laughed (in disbelief) so often?
Because there’s drug dealing neighbours that pay their neighbour’s children to hang out with theirs, disgusting-sounding meals, insults viewed as different level of endearments and barely a plain, ordinary family member with an ordinary, healthy life around. Lindsay isn’t easy to love either, but gosh darn it, no-one should grow up in such an environment. And I don’t ask for it often, but: I’d definitely read a sequel.
The Woo-Woo, Lindsay Wong, Arsenal Pulp 2018
Why did Mindi want an arranged marriage?
And yes, the erotic stories are shared. Just because of the title, I expected comedy, some coming of age and Learning Life’s Lessons, but I got much more. It’s a credit to Jaswal’s writing that I wasn’t disappointed by that, sooner the opposite.
Yes, there’s definitely comedy, and main character Nikki (Mindi’s sister) needs to discover what she wants to do in live and how she’ll do that without hurting her Punjabi family (and surroundings, in a way). This is definitely a story about the two lives immigrants/children of immigrants live, but it’s never just that. Nikki thinks she’s going to teach the widows Creative Writing, the widows prefer to share their creativity in another way.
Alongside that is a plot line that at first might feel tacked on. Missing girls, bitter feuds, really? But then it all starts to connect and this isn’t just a comedy any more, this is an all too realistic calling card to look at misogyny. Suddenly the tempo is picked up and the reader has to juggle several plot lines colliding.
But as mentioned before, Balli Kaur Jaswal does it well. Making this novel all-round entertaining and informing.
Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows, Balli Kaur Jaswal, Harper Collins 2017
He’d never been asked to wear a suit to a job interview.
First of all, I’d like to mention that this is a book from Oprah’s Book Club. Mostly because the ebook file I had, would mention it in the most random ways.
Anyway, I discovered that my Ottawa library had another online service, which finally got me this one. Express, so I had to finish it in seven days. I finished it in two.
Behold the Dreamers is about the American dreamers, the immigrants who enter the country (kind of) legally and overstay their welcome in hope of a better life for themselves and their family. Jende and Neni are from Cameroon, escaping their town because of disapproval of their relationship and with dreams of more. For such a long time things go well (there is a job, education, money shared left and right) that the reader can almost get comfortable; maybe this family is the one that will slip through.
The story plays out during the start of the financial crisis. With Jende being the chauffeur of a high up Wall Street man, it’s clearly shown that suffering can always reach another level. The book is so full of (naive) hope that it gets tougher and tougher to swallow that the dream may just stay that: a dream.
Behold the Dreamers, Imbolo Mbue, Random House 2016
Afterward, he tried to reduce it to abstract terms, an accident in a world of accidents, the collision of opposing forces – the bumper of his car and the frail scrambling hunched-over form of a dark little man with a wild look in his eye – but he wasn’t very successful.
And the prize for Most Depressing Book read in January goes to.
The tortilla curtain is the border between Mexico and the USA. The Tortilla Curtain is about the people on that thin line that just want to have a comfortable life, but are prevented from having it by paranoia, racism, and society. The one side is simply much more privileged than the other, but don’t let that fool you into thinking they could have an easier life (add a note of sarcasm here).
I had to read this one for school, because we’re doing a course called Aspects of the USA and well, racism definitely is one.
The book’s well written, luring into supporting one side until everybody just shows how ugly their thoughts and prejudices are. The one side is just allowed more, under the guise of honesty and worry. It’s over twenty years old, but the story can definitely be retold today.
The Tortilla Curtain, T.C. Boyle, Bloomsbury 1995
Hallelujah, another romcom. With some coming-of-age elements. And fish-out-of-water, because this romantic comedy largely involves an immigrant family in the USA. Which means there’s people of colour involved as well, score! I know this could be read as sarcastic, but I feel like romantic stories are even more often super white than other movie genres.
Kumail and Emily meet when he’s doing a standup show, both decide that this meet up is going to be an one time thing. Good thing we know there’s way too much chemistry between the two of them to believe that.
Romantic gestures, fights, breaks ups and make ups are (mostly) thrown aside for a much bigger game changer: Emily becomes seriously ill. How does a relationship work with/around that?
Kumail goes through some Life Lessons, while Emily is (more) fleshed out through the presence of her parents. It’s their chemistry that doesn’t make you ask too much questions, just look at the darn cute of them. The other characters are everything you need in a romantic comedy.
The Big Sick, FilmNation Entertainment 2017
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
She came by way of Archer, Bridgeport, Nanuet, worked off 95 in jeans and a denim jacket, carrying a plastic bag and shower shoes, a phone number, waiting beneath an underpass, the potato chips long gone.
It took me four days after finishing this before I felt like I could shape an opinion about this story. At first I was just hugely relieved that I was done.
This novel is closer to a news bulletin, a history story or a sociological essay. This isn’t entertainment or escape, it’s too brutal and slogging, the number of light and happy moments much too little.
So why would you? How many people pick a book that will darken their day considerably? As with non-fiction: to know. To remember that there is a world outside the familiar one. And in Zou’s path there can be find a little spark of motivation, while Skinner’s fall just shows the urgency of supporting veterans mentally. With my previous reads of De Gele Vogels and Terug naar normaal this month’s themes turn out to be mental health and war.
I agree with other reviews that the addition of a certain character is unnecessary, and his chapters could be skipped. They just add more violence, despair, and lack of reasons for existence.
Preparation for the Next Life, Atticus Lish, OneWorld 2014
I’ve always thought of memory as a distinct, individual thing.
For me it’s always tougher to argument why I didn’t like a book, especially when I felt like I should. I’m always up for more female, not-white, not heterosexual stories, and the lives of (first generation) immigrants interest me as well.
So what’s lacking with Memory Mambo? From the start it’s unclear who the main character is, what she does and why the reader has to root for her or dislike her. Juani is an extra in her own life, but is so incredibly passive that we don’t know if it’s willingly or because it’s the easiest.
And which story is the reader following: her lamenting her ex, or the happenings of her family? Why does it all fade into each other (okay, that’s daily life, always a challenge to make that look appealing) until A Real Big Thing less than twenty pages from the ending? Was it supposed to be a longer story but cut off for some reason?
Reading is someone’s effort, and this time it didn’t pay off.
Memory Mambo, Achy Obejas, Cleis Press 1996
It wasn’t too late to turn back.
I fell for it, hook, line, and sinker. A new book? From the Express Collection (meaning you have to read it in one week so everybody gets a chance)? A New York Times bestselling author? This would put me on the book of my read-better-books resolution, wouldn’t it? What a rookie mistake.
We Never Asked For Wings isn’t a horrible, bad, ugly book, it’s simply closer to the Happy Family trope of any Harlequin book than literature with a capital L. Which is fine, but what I had not set out for. With a plot about an absent mother having to returning to her children because her Mexican parents leave, the threat of poverty and deportation ever present elements in their lives, I was ready for some lessons I’d never experience in my privileged world. Sure, there was mention of a “She Will Have To Chose” plot line, but love doesn’t necessarily pulls down the quality of a novel.
The easy shocks and the quick solutions, the dramatic turns that are neatly tied up in the next chapter, the annoying, two-dimensional characters, do. It felt like I was reading a beginner’s steps into telenovela writing. Entertaining but flat.
This just shows you can’t even trust librarians these days. Maybe I should have gone for The Marriage of Opposites after all.
We Never Asked For Wings, Vanessa Diffenbaugh, Ballantine Books 2015