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.

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.

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.

8Books Review: ‘Thank You Very Mochi’ by Paul Matsushima, Sophie Wang, and Craig Ishii

What’s the book about?

When Kimi and her family visit Grandma and Grandpa’s house for New Year’s mochitsuki, they discover the mochi-machine is broken. After initial fears that mochitsuki will be cancelled, Grandpa proposes an interesting, yet old-fashioned solution of making mochi the hand-pounded way.

What exactly is mochitsuki?

Mochitsuki, or pounding rice to make mochi (rice cakes), is an important traditional event in preparation for the New Year in Japan. (Source)

My Thoughts…

Raising an Asian American kid takes some thought. I want him to be proud of who he is and where his ancestors come from. But in the Japanese American community, that can be a bit tougher than some other ethnicities. During World War II, Japanese Americans were made to choose between being Japanese and being American. Most chose to be American. And the “lesson” the community learned from the experience was to blend in—not to speak Japanese, not to live in Japanese communities, etc. In other words, to be as “American” as possible. Because of that, there has in the past—less now—been a shunning of all things seen as too Japanese in the community.

This is why books like Thank You Very Mochi are important for Japanese American families like mine. It connects our culture and American heritages. It allows us to teach and celebrate who we are and our experiences. And it puts people who look like us in the center of the story… as opposed to one of the faces in a crowd. The first time my five-year-old read the book, he told  me, “they look like us.” (On a side note, this was an interesting comment since we’ve read children’s books before that featured Asian and Japanese Americans before).

In fact, my son was so proud of the book he wanted to bring it to his pre-school. It was during a unit where they were studying traditions. Even though, we as a family don’t have a mochitsuki tradition, he wanted to share it with his friends. His classmates enjoyed the story and even got to taste some yummy mochi from Fugetsudo. The part of the reading that warmed my heart the most though was when we got to the pages that had images from the Japanese American “camps” during World War II. Because my son and I ALWAYS talk about them, he kept wanting to tell his little friends about them too. However, since the kids were only four and five, I didn’t think it was appropriate topic for me to bring up; so I told my son that we shouldn’t discuss this then and there. (It should be noted that if you prefer not to talk about the “camps,” they are not mentioned explicitly. However,  if you do,  there are images that depict “camp” life and can lead to interesting conversations about them.)

I realized I wrote this entire review and haven’t mentioned what I thought of the actual contents. I love the writing and the pictures. And more importantly, my kid loves it too. Get a copy of it right away or as a Christmas present for the Asian/Japanese American kid in your life. 

One last thing, I would like to shout out the folks who put out the book: Kizuna. They are a Japanese American non-profit who are trying to connect culture with the next generation. I think they are an organization worth knowing about. To find out more, go to their website here.

Be sure to follow me on Twitter @ksakai1

8Books Review: The Discovery of Ramen

Instant ramen noodles have been one of my comfort foods since I was a kid.  I wrote about how I even ate them raw as a kid in a previous 8Asians post, and how I’m still searching for the elusive and probably relegated to history “Sun Lih Men” brand of instant ramen noodles.  When I was asked to review a new kid’s book, The Discovery of Ramen, I jumped on the chance, even though my daughter is probably a little too old (she’s twelve now) for the picture book format of this title.  The new book is from the same publisher and one of the authors and illustrators of the Chinese New Year kids books, Tales from the Chinese Zodiac including the most recent one, The Year of the Rooster, that I reviewed back in January of 2017.

While the book appeared to target a child younger than my daughter, I asked her if she’d be interested in reading it.  When she saw the title, she said yes, as ramen noodles are also her favorite (she takes after her dad in that respect!).  She sat and read the book completely engrossed in the contents.  After she finished I asked her what she thought of the book, and she agreed with my initial assessment that the title was better suited for a younger child (ages 2 to 10), but she did thoroughly enjoy reading about the history of ramen, and how it came to be a staple for many Japanese restaurants.

If ramen figures highly among your child’s favorite  foods, this will be a great addition to your reading library.  The new book will release on November 14, 2017.

Footnote: Unfortunately I never found a source for the elusive “Sun Lih Men”, but I know I’m not the only one looking.  It appears the factory that manufactured these instant noodles burned down, and none of the other brands seem to satisfy the taste buds of those who had the original “Sun Lih Men”.

8Books Review: “My First Book of Vietnamese Words”

My First Book of Vietnamese Words: An ABC Rhyming Book of Vietnamese Language and Culture, the latest addition to Tuttle’s My First Book of [fill in blank] Words series came out recently. It is written by Tran Thi Minh Phuoc, and artfully illustrated by Nguyen Thi Hop and Nguyen Dong. The book guides visitors through the English alphabet with short rhymes and some contextual information:

C is for Cu.

The owl flies at night,

but when he hoots our grandma says

that something isn’t right

A contextual note on the same page explains that an owl’s hoot in Vietnamese culture is bad luck or bad news.

With minimal existing knowledge of Vietnamese, I requested to also take a look at My First Book of Chinese Words to compare. Both are nicely illustrated and take readers through each letter of the alphabet explaining, for instance, that V is for violin, or xiaotiqin, because there is no “v” in Chinese (this being Mandarin Chinese of course).

My main critique of both was that though there is audio pronunciations available through the publisher’s website, the minimal explanation at the opening of each book does not adequately set anyone up to really pronounce these foreign words. Are the books for children whose parents speak the language? Perhaps, but I would guess this is not the main audience. The most useful aspect of these volumes is buried in the subtitle–an introduction to the cultures associated with these language, be it Chinese or Vietnamese. Superstitions and festivities, family relationships, and of course, food culture are liberally sprinkled throughout, and it is there that these books offer the most to their young readers.