8Books Review: “Bury What We Cannot Take” by Kirstin Chen

Bury What We Cannot Take, the latest novel from author Kirstin Chen set in Mao’s China, is a doozy. After 12-year-old Ah Liam reports his grandmother to the Communist Party, the family must flee their little island off the mainland. His mother applies for temporary exit visas to go to Hong Kong where his father lives. But she is told that she can either take Ah Liam or her daughter San San, leaving one behind as proof that they will return.

The impossible decision shakes the family and its members to their core. The novel spins it’s way around this single moment. I had thought this might be the kind of book that spans decades, traversing all the way into some distant future. Instead, it stays rather compact, unraveling in minute details each character’s thoughts, decisions, actions, and internal conflicts. Mother, father, grandmother, son, daughter. One displaced family grappling with this harsh reality and the truth–often ugly, sometimes beautiful–that it reveals in all of them.

At the novel’s heart are questions about the meaning of family–what is real, what is artificial, is family fragile or unbreakable. Bury What We Cannot Take is compellingly written, a fast and entrancing read, but also definitely an emotional doozy.

8Books Review: Though I Get Home by YZ Chin

Though I Get Home by YZ Chin is an intricate series of short intertwined vignettes following a small host of characters tied to Malaysia. Isabella Sin’s time in a notorious prison. Grandfather’s stories about working for a white man when Malaysia was still Malaya. Howie Ho in Silicon Valley. Howie Ho in Malaysia looking for a wife. Isa at a protest. Bets predicting whether the monsoons will come. Ibrahim on patrol, on a mission.

Threads weave through the stories, often invisibly. Together, they offer a deft commentary on life in Malaysia, on individuals living within a globalizing world and a country on the precipice. Some stories occupy just a few pages, others stretch out. Each unfolds carefully into the nitty gritty of humanity. Chin does not shy away from exposing tensions within attitudes about race, democracy, class, family expectations, the state, and more.

I confess, I was often unsure where the book was headed, but found the ride intriguing. Here are ordinary people in all their oddities, trying to make sense of and make decisions in a world that is changing on many dimensions. They are not glamorous, the picture painted is not flattering, and in this there is something fresh and refreshing about Chin’s writing.

There he sat, and there he waited, to see if anything could truly happen to anyone.

8Books Review: “The Prince and the Dressmaker” by Jen Wang

The Prince and the Dressmaker is a delightful graphic novel about friendship and secrets and identity and love. Prince Sebastian is supposed to be looking for a bride. But at night, he secretly dons fashion forward dresses and emerges as the mysterious Lady Crystallia with the help of his friend and dressmaker, Frances.

Set in Paris, Jen Wang has created an extraordinary array of imaginative and beautifully drawn dresses and costumes that pepper a story full of heart and growth. What lengths will Frances go to to protect her friend’s secret? And at what cost to her own dreams? As Sebastian and Frances’ friendship evolves, so do the complexities of their choices. Though set in another time, in another place, the two are eminently relatable and lovable for their flaws and successes. Who do they want to be? Who will they be? Neither is perfect. Each encounters obstacles–the weight of expectations, the burdens of secrets, the freedoms of self-expression, the limitations of what looked like success. Together, and individually, they find a way through and the journey is truly charming.

The Prince and the Dressmaker is a book to get lost in for an afternoon. A curl up on the couch with a hot cup of tea and go from one cover to the other. One huge, satisfying whirlwind ride.

8Asians Book Review: The Repatriation of Henry Chin

The Repatriation of Henry Chin, written by Issac Ho and read by Anthony Lee on audiobook, is about a future where the United States has been in an escalating trade war with China which eventually leads to the roundup of all Chinese Americans into “internment” camps—a la, the Japanese Americans during World War II.

This book is a powerful reminder of what could happen to us—as Americans—when we let our fears get the best of us. It’s scary to imagine an assembly center in this day and age at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. Or just the idea that you can even lock up an entire group of people for no other crime than being the “wrong” race or ethnicity.

In the book, we follow Henry Chin, who was an ex-military guy turned pharmacist. He’s been trying to live low and raise a hapa daughter after a traumatic war experience in Panama. However, when they start rounding up Chinese Americans, he refuses to comply. He takes his daughter and together they make a run for Canada through the Angeles Crest mountains—with the help of Henry’s army buddy.

My one problem with the story—and don’t get me wrong, this should not deter anyone from reading it—was how Japanese Americans were depicted. There was one part early on when the narrator states that Japanese Americans were wearing Japanese flags to make sure everyone knew they weren’t Chinese. I have a hard time imagining Japanese Americans doing this on many levels. First, we would never wear Japanese flags. And second, we would never sit idly by and allow the government to lock up a whole group of people again.

The concentration camps during World War II scarred the Japanese American community. We still talk about what happened today. It is not hyperbole to write that if a group of Japanese Americans get together, the word “camp” will come up—multiple times. Personally, I’ve dedicated much of my working life to teaching other people about it. We—as a community—have made it a point to make sure it never happens again to anyone ever. After 9/11, Japanese Americans were one of the first groups to come to the defense of Muslim/Arab Americans. So, the idea that Japanese Americans would sit by and do nothing is crazy.

Regardless, The Repatriation of Henry Chin is an important reading for all Americans. I tell people all the time: Today they might be coming after someone else. But if you don’t fight for their rights, tomorrow they could be coming after you. So go out and get this book on Audible or anywhere else audiobooks are sold.

Please note that I received this title for free in exchange for an unbiased review.

Be sure to follow me on Twitter @Ksakai1.

8Books Review: Go Home!

This is a review for Go Home! a new anthology out from Asian American Writers Workshop and Feminist Press, edited by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan, with a foreword by Viet Thanh Nguyen.

Ok that was for the SEO. Now let’s begin this not-really review. Why not really? Because

1. I’m mostly stealing from the pages in this book with roman numerals

and

2. I’m not going to tell you hardly anything about the book or whether you’ll like it or not. I’m just going to tell you to read it.

Foreword. Viet Thanh Nguyen:

The existence of Go Home! testifies to the power of language as a home open to all, albeit one that we must often fight for. Against the racist demand that we go back to where we came from, we say that we are already at home, not just in the United States, but in English.

Reading this collection, I visited all of these writers’ home and experienced their homelessness filtered through their stories and poems. All of their works were gifts to me, and I thought about how homes can be gifts too.

Editor’s Note. Rowan Hisayo Buchanan:

But this one book can’t contain all the vital voices. After you close the last page behind you, please open many more. Consider this book a doorway. The world presents ever-increasing ways in which we can be homed and unhomed. You may not see your own definition of home in theses pages, but we hope you find resonances and use them as a starting point for your own writing and thinking.

There. That’s the argument.

Read Alexander Chee and Karissa Chen. Read Mia Alvar and Chaya Babu. Read Marilyn Chin and Muna Gurung. Read the acknowledgements (always read the acknowledgements).

Go home, whatever, whoever, however, wherever that might be, and take this book with you.

8Books Review: Secrets We Kept by Krystal Sital

Krystal Sital’s debut memoir, Secrets We Kept: Three Women of Trinidad, is an intimate and powerful memoir about three generations of her family — their stories, their traumas, their secrets, and their relationship to the author’s grandfather. Eloquently written and deeply personal, Sital dives deep into her own history, the contradictions, and the troublesome relationships between men and women that powerfully shaped her grandmother and then her mother’s lives on the island they were all born on.

Trinidad is our fears and our loves. There we discovered our beings, we dug deep and planted our roots assuming we would never leave, sucking on the armored cascara with its silver-plaited shell, devouring the sweet flesh beneath, the only fish the legend says ties you to the land forevermore, smacking our lips when we were done. We never thought we would have to leave this place . . . But in the end we chose to flee.

A story of diaspora and migration, it is also about family and obligations and culture and tradition. Their flaws and freedoms. Shiva Singh, the author’s grandfather and a wealthy Hindu landowner, is the circle around which much of the book revolves. As he lies in a hospital in New Jersey, Sital watches her mother and grandmother cope with the decisions of his care. It leads to a slow unraveling of her mother’s story, of her childhood, her relationship with the man lying prone in a hospital bed undergoing weeks of surgery. A brutal past full of trauma, beatings, and terror.

Continue reading “8Books Review: Secrets We Kept by Krystal Sital”

8Books Review: “The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore” by Kim Fu

Kim Fu’s latest novel The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore is a gripping tale about a group of teenage girls at summer camp who set off for a fateful kayaking trip. Opening at Camp Forevermore, the novel then jumps through time and perspective, following the girls into their futures, but always returning to camp and that trip. Slowly, Fu offers more and more details about the moment that acts as the gravitational center of the novel. What exactly happened that summer?

Every chapter reveals something intriguing about human nature, closely following each of the five girls. What happens to a group of girls left alone in the woods? When everything is stripped away and survival is at stake who will they become? And as adults, how will this one moment, one night at summer camp, affect the rest of their lives? How will they handle the experience and the darkness of their choices? Some will be happy, others will be tortured. In each, Fu weaves a masterful story about rebuilding, redefining, yet being built and defined by this singular moment and the choices made during it. Small pieces of the camp story are told. Then we fast forward to one girl’s future. For Nita, Fu unravels a tale of motherhood. For Isabel, of marriage and loss. With The Lost Girls, you don’t always know where you’re going, but you know you want to go wherever Fu is taking you.

“Don’t worry. She’ll be okay. You would be surprised what children can forget.” Nita stirred. In defiance, she wanted to hold on to this memory. The plastic chairs, the strangers’ voices. But she felt it slipping away form her even as it happened, becoming clouded with sleep and doubt.

8Books: “Not Your Villain” by CB Lee

Not Your Villain is the page turning sequel to CB Lee’s delightful Not Your SidekickVillain picks up probably midstream with Sidekick, eventually merging plot lines. It follows shapeshifter Bells Broussard, best friends with Sidekick‘s Jess Tran, on his official, but secret, journey to becoming a HERO! But along the way, he and his friends realize that things may not be as they seem. Unearthing a massive cover-up turns Bells into the country’s most wanted villain…

A heartwarming bunch of friends, a fast-paced plot, this is the kind of book you open to page 1 and come up for air only when you’ve reached the end. And then Google when the third book in the trilogy is coming out. Bells (who is trans) and his other best friend Emma are charming additions to the Sidekick world. Are the heroes really heroes? Are the villains really villains? Do parents really know what’s best? Not Your Villain is packed with adventure, plot twists, and races towards its semi-cliff-hanging ending. But it’s clear this is the second book in a series, there’s a good deal of set-up, a lot of explanation…all waiting for Not Your Backup to come up.

8Books Review: “An Excess Male” by Maggie Shen King

Maggie Shen King’s debut novel An Excess Male is a thrilling ride through a dystopia future where there is many more than one excess male. Some time in the not so distant future, China has so many men, that families include multiple husbands–husbands who must compete in an ultra-competitive, dowry-driven market to ever get married at all.

The novel follows four main characters, shifting perspectives with each chapter. The first is Wei-guo, a bachelor who has finally saved up enough to wed, but only as a third husband. The other three are the family of Hann, his brother XX, and their wife May-Ling. All four are caught up in the regulations governing society: the Willfully Sterile (registered homosexuals who are forbidden from marriage and other relationships), the Lost Boys (men with developmental disabilities who are also forbidden from marriage), detailed marriage contracts, a system where families pay doctors under the table to have girls so they can make money–a particular breed of social engineering that feels within the realm of possibility. The novel slowly unfolds the facets of this uneasy society as tensions mount and each of the four must make life-changing decisions about their futures, either together or apart. An Excess Male provokes questions of morality and rights, liberty and love, family and loyalty, but in a fast-paced drama. It’s quick, enjoyable read that dives into a smartly-conceived and imaginative future where all is not as it seems.

8Books Review: “Stolen Oranges” by Max Yeh

Stolen Oranges, a new novel by Max Yeh, is a whirlwind of a historical tale, recounting a series of letters written between Miguel Cervantes (of Don Quixote fame) and a Ming emperor as told by their discoverer–a Chinese American historian. I was first drawn to this novel by the back cover description: “this dazzling meditation on the intricacies of memory, language, and time.” And when it showed up at my doorstep, by the small size of the book itself, about the size of my hand.

I hadn’t even opened the book yet. Yeh’s story begins with the Chinese American historian, who is writing a historical book (which is to say that it reads like non-fiction, though it is fiction), introducing the circumstances that led him to discover and then translate a series of letters between Cervantes and Emperor Wanli. It is, in a particular style of history writing, a bit dense at times, but worth meandering through even if one, such as I, lack understanding of nearly all references to Don Quixote. But I found the gems to be in these letters that go back and forth. Both the Emperor and Cervantes’ letters offer ruminations on the promised topics of memory, language, and time in manner that is deeply philosophical, somewhat long-winded, yet mostly accessible.

Take this passage on words and language as an example:

Words are an empty palace we are born into, the halls and corridors to which, nooks and crannies, windows and doorways, were long ago constructed by innumerable and unknown builders and planners and workmen whose unknown and unknowable intentions and meanings are set in stone and wood and whose spaces form our whole lives, while we live so conformed under the illusion that we are ever building the palace the way we want it.

Perhaps out of context it is slightly less legible, but peppered throughout these fictional letters are intriguing nuggets about humanity. Though technically a novel, it is much more akin to a philosophy book, even more so than a history book. This is not what I would call an easy or fast read, but Stolen Oranges is rewarding for those interested in a well-executed deep dive into ideas and theories about language and being.

8Asians Exclusive: Interview with Dr. Ravi Chandra, author of ‘Facebuddha’

Recently, I interviewed my friend Dr. Ravi Chandra, who recently published his book, Facebuddha: Transcendence in the Age of Social Networks:

Facebuddha is a rich memoir of relationships, online and off, and an exploration of the psychology of social networks through a Buddhist lens.

In the brief interview, Dr. Chandra discusses his observations, thoughts and experiences regarding the use of social media. I also asked him about his thoughts on President Trump and his use of social media, primarily Twitter.

Specific to Dr. Chandra‘s professional background, he’s a San Francisco-based psychiatrist and a Distinguished Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association and blogs regularly for Psychology Today (The Pacific Heart).

Dr. Chandra also discusses his book and thoughts in front of the “thumbs up” sign at Facebook’s headquarters in Menlo Park, California:

“On 10/31/17, the 500th anniversary of Luther’s nailing of his 95 Theses to the Wittenberg Castle Church door, psychiatrist Ravi Chandra “nailed” his new book about the psychology of social networks through a Buddhist lens to the door of our social media church at Facebook HQ, to protest what social media is doing to our minds and hearts, and calling for a return to relationship, community and compassion.”

You can learn more about the book also from the book trailer (which I noticed recently, is a thing now …)

If you’re interest in the book,  you cab buy Facebuddha here:

Amazon Kindle ebook and Hardcover
iBooks
Nook
Kobo
Barnes and Noble Hardcover
IndieBound

Also available at your local independent bookstore.

8Books Review: “Pashmina” by Nidhi Chanani

Pashmina by Nidhi Chanani is a delightful graphic novel about a young girl looking for herself, navigating two worlds and two cultures. Priyanka is your average Indian American teenager until she finds a magic pashmina in her mother’s closet. Her mother won’t ask questions about the India she left behind or about Priyanka’s father, but the pashmina opens a new window.

The story follows Priyanka’s eventual journey to India and back again, all along insightfully considering questions about the choices we make, about family and growth, about when to hold on and when to let go. Priyanka is imperfect in the way all teenagers are, but I was charmed throughout by her audacity and spunk and her journey of self-discovery. Beautifully illustrated, Pashmina is a quick and enjoyable read.