What LC Read: Vol. 16

Friday, June 28, 2019 San Francisco, CA, USA


Gingerbread | Helen Oyeyemi 
Notes: One of those "picked for the tantalizing cover books" that let me down. I'm not one to particularly enjoy the fantasy/magical realism genre to begin with, so I think this just wasn't a very good fit.
Synopsis: Influenced by the mysterious place gingerbread holds in classic children's stories--equal parts wholesome and uncanny, from the tantalizing witch's house in "Hansel and Gretel" to the man-shaped confection who one day decides to run as fast as he can--beloved novelist Helen Oyeyemi invites readers into a delightful tale of a surprising family legacy, in which the inheritance is a recipe.
Perdita Lee may appear to be your average British schoolgirl; Harriet Lee may seem just a working mother trying to penetrate the school social hierarchy; but there are signs that they might not be as normal as they think they are. For one thing, they share a gold-painted, seventh-floor walk-up apartment with some surprisingly verbal vegetation. And then there's the gingerbread they make. Londoners may find themselves able to take or leave it, but it's very popular in Druhástrana, the far-away (and, according to Wikipedia, non-existent) land of Harriet Lee's early youth. In fact, the world's truest lover of the Lee family gingerbread is Harriet's charismatic childhood friend, Gretel Kercheval--a figure who seems to have had a hand in everything (good or bad) that has happened to Harriet since they met.

*R E C O M M E N D E D*
What You Have Heard Is True: A Memoir of Witness and ResistanceCarolyn Forché
Notes: Carolyn Forché's "The Country Between Us" (poetry) was one of the most formative books I read during college. One of the only publishable (according to my professor) poems I wrote during my senior year was after "What You Have Heard Is True," a piece in that collection that I guess evolved into a fuller-fledged memoir. Related, memoirs and fiction written by poets tend to be wildly evocative and extraordinary. Highly, highly recommend this one. 
Synopsis: What You Have Heard is True is a devastating, lyrical, and visionary memoir about a young woman's brave choice to engage with horror in order to help others. Written by one of the most gifted poets of her generation, this is the story of a woman's radical act of empathy, and her fateful encounter with an intriguing man who changes the course of her life.
Carolyn Forché is twenty-seven when the mysterious stranger appears on her doorstep. The relative of a friend, he is a charming polymath with a mind as seemingly disordered as it is brilliant. She's heard rumors from her friend about who he might be: a lone wolf, a communist, a CIA operative, a sharpshooter, a revolutionary, a small coffee farmer, but according to her, no one seemed to know for certain. He has driven from El Salvador to invite Forché to visit and learn about his country. Captivated for reasons she doesn't fully understand, she accepts and becomes enmeshed in something beyond her comprehension.
Together they meet with high-ranking military officers, impoverished farm workers, and clergy desperately trying to assist the poor and keep the peace. These encounters are a part of his plan to educate her, but also to learn for himself just how close the country is to war. As priests and farm-workers are murdered and protest marches attacked, he is determined to save his country, and Forché is swept up in his work and in the lives of his friends. Pursued by death squads and sheltering in safe houses, the two forge a rich friendship, as she attempts to make sense of what she's experiencing and establish a moral foothold amidst profound suffering. This is the powerful story of a poet's experience in a country on the verge of war, and a journey toward social conscience in a perilous time.

Andy Warhol: A Biography | Wayne Koestenbaum
Notes: Picked this up for context before I visited the Andy Warhol exhibit at SF MOMA this weekend. Some fun facts about Andy Warhol (Andrew Warhola):
1. Though speculated to be asexual and celibate, Warhol was also diagnosed with an STI and described as a generous lover by alleged lovers
2. His mother originally refused to marry his father; she changed her mind when he bribed her with candy
3. On his first day of school at age four, a girl hit Andy; he was so traumatized, he refused to return to school for two years
4. His original ambition was to be a tap dancer
The book is full of speculation, overreaching at times. Biographies, intimate as they might be, still imply several degrees of separation and these feel overwhelmingly present in this book. Still, this one is lovely, endearingly obsessive, and evocative. Recommended reading if you'll be popping into the exhibit.
Synopsis: A man who created portraits of the rich and powerful, Andy Warhol was one of the most incendiary figures in American culture, a celebrity whose star shone as brightly as those of the Marilyns and Jackies whose likenesses brought him renown. Images of his silvery wig and glasses are as famous as his renderings of soup cans and Brillo boxes--controversial works that elevated commerce to high art. Warhol was an enigma: a partygoer who lived with his mother, an inarticulate man who was a great aphorist, an artist whose body of work sizzles with sexuality but who considered his own body to be a source of shame.
In critic and poet Wayne Koestenbaum's dazzling look at Warhol's life, the author inspects the roots of Warhol's aesthetic vision, including the pain that informs his greatness, and reveals the hidden sublimity of Warhol's provocative films. By looking at many facets of the artist's oeuvre--films, paintings, books, "Happenings"--Koestenbaum delivers a thought-provoking picture of pop art's greatest icon.

New People: A NovelDanzy Senna
Notes: This one came highly recommended by a trusted source, so I think it's a case of "it's not you, it's me" that despite multiple attempts, I couldn't get into New People.
Synopsis: From the bestselling author of Caucasia, a subversive and engrossing novel of race, class and manners in contemporary America.
As the twentieth century draws to a close, Maria is at the start of a life she never thought possible. She and Khalil, her college sweetheart, are planning their wedding. They are the perfect couple, "King and Queen of the Racially Nebulous Prom." Their skin is the same shade of beige. They live together in a black bohemian enclave in Brooklyn, where Khalil is riding the wave of the first dot-com boom and Maria is plugging away at her dissertation, on the Jonestown massacre. They've even landed a starring role in a documentary about "new people" like them, who are blurring the old boundaries as a brave new era dawns. Everything Maria knows she should want lies before her--yet she can't stop daydreaming about another man, a poet she barely knows. As fantasy escalates to fixation, it dredges up secrets from the past and threatens to unravel not only Maria's perfect new life but her very persona.
Heartbreaking and darkly comic, New People is a bold and unfettered page-turner that challenges our every assumption about how we define one another, and ourselves.

Number One Chinese Restaurant | Lillian Li 
Notes: This book popped onto my radar several times, but I resisted reading it for reasons I can't remember anymore. Not particularly memorable, to be honest.
Synopsis: The popular Beijing Duck House in Rockville, Maryland has been serving devoted regulars for decades, but behind the staff's professional smiles simmer tensions, heartaches and grudges from decades of bustling restaurant life.
Owner Jimmy Han has ambitions for a new high-end fusion place, hoping to eclipse his late father's homely establishment. Jimmy's older brother, Johnny, is more concerned with restoring the dignity of the family name than his faltering relationship with his own teenage daughter, Annie. Nan and Ah-Jack, longtime Duck House employees, yearn to turn their thirty-year friendship into something more, while Nan's son, Pat, struggles to stay out of trouble. When disaster strikes and Pat and Annie find themselves in a dangerous game that means tragedy for the Duck House, their families must finally confront the conflicts and loyalties simmering beneath the red and gold lanterns.

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The Scent of the Gods | Fiona Cheong
Notes: Recommended reading for fans of Crazy Rich Asians and Sarong Party Girls -- not because they're similar in tone (far from it, in fact) but because they lend essential context to the ethnic communities laying claim to Singaporean identity. A fascinating, gripping read.
Synopsis: The Scent of the Gods tells the enchanting, haunting story of a young girl's coming of age in Singapore during the tumultuous years of its formation as a nation. Eleven-year-old Su Yen bears witness to the secretive lives of "grown-ups" in her diasporic Chinese family and to the veiled threats in Southeast Asia during the Cold War years. From a child's limited perspective, the novel depicts the emerging awareness of sexuality in both its beauty and its consequences, especially for women. In the context of postcolonial politics, Fiona Cheong skillfully parallels the uncertainties of adolescence with the growing paranoia of a population kept on alert to communist infiltration. In luminous prose, the novel raises timely questions about safety, protection, and democracy--and what one has to give up to achieve them.

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Eating Chinese Food Naked | Mei Ng
Notes: SO good. Haunting, achy, tender in that very specific way of good Chinese American literature. Highly recommend to Asian American girls raised in the Confucian tradition. The plot isn't all that interesting, but I think Ng's ability to meditate on underrepresented experiences -- interracial relationships, mother-daughter dynamics, filial duty, class aspirations -- makes this an absolutely worthwhile read.
Synopsis: This poignant debut novel of Ng explores complexity of a mother-daughter relationship in two generations of an immigrant family and Ruby, the daughter's not-so-easy awakening as the young, gifted, female, sexually confused and hyphenated as Asian descent in the urban set of NYC and its suburb, Queens. Ruby's self-realization goes amiss when she reluctantly comes back to the tiny room above her immigrant parents' laundry business after finishing her fancy degree in women's studies from Ivy League, just an hour away by train, which now feels like a lifetime ago.
The journey Ruby sets out for is to find answers to all questions nobody helps to resolve-- loving yet powerless mother, domineering and good old misogynist father, unambitious and volatile brother, locally settled and church going sister or her non-committal and callous Caucasian boyfriend-- but herself, whether above her parents' laundromat, in her boyfriend's apartment or in a temping job until she finds her own room someday.

A Cruelty Special to Our Species | Emily Jungmin Yoon
Synopsis: In her arresting collection, urgently relevant for our times, poet Emily Jungmin Yoon confronts the histories of sexual violence against women, focusing in particular on Korean so-called “comfort women,” women who were forced into sexual labor in Japanese-occupied territories during World War II.
In wrenching language, A Cruelty Special to Our Species unforgettably describes the brutalities of war and the fear and sorrow of those whose lives and bodies were swept up by a colonizing power, bringing powerful voice to an oppressed group of people whose histories have often been erased and overlooked. “What is a body in a stolen country,” Yoon asks. “What is right in war.”
Moving readers through time, space, and different cultures, and bringing vivid life to the testimonies and confessions of the victims,Yoon takes possession of a painful and shameful history even while unearthing moments of rare beauty in acts of resistance and resilience, and in the instinct to survive and bear witness.

*R E C O M M E N D E D*
Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City | Matthew Desmond
Synopsis: Even in the most desolate areas of American cities, evictions used to be rare. But today, most poor renting families are spending more than half of their income on housing, and eviction has become ordinary, especially for single mothers. In vivid, intimate prose, Desmond provides a ground-level view of one of the most urgent issues facing America today. As we see families forced  into shelters, squalid apartments, or more dangerous neighborhoods, we bear witness to the human cost of America’s vast inequality—and to people’s determination and intelligence in the face of hardship.
Based on years of embedded fieldwork and painstakingly gathered data, this masterful book transforms our understanding of extreme poverty and economic exploitation while providing fresh ideas for solving a devastating, uniquely American problem. Its unforgettable scenes of hope and loss remind us of the centrality of home, without which nothing else is possible.

Wade in the Water: Poems | Tracy K. Smith
Synopsis: In Wade in the Water, Tracy K. Smith boldly ties America’s contemporary moment both to our nation’s fraught founding history and to a sense of the spirit, the everlasting. These are poems of sliding scale: some capture a flicker of song or memory; some collage an array of documents and voices; and some push past the known world into the haunted, the holy. Smith’s signature voice—inquisitive, lyrical, and wry—turns over what it means to be a citizen, a mother, and an artist in a culture arbitrated by wealth, men, and violence. Here, private utterance becomes part of a larger choral arrangement as the collection widens to include erasures of The Declaration of Independence and the correspondence between slave owners, a found poem comprised of evidence of corporate pollution and accounts of near-death experiences, a sequence of letters written by African Americans enlisted in the Civil War, and the survivors’ reports of recent immigrants and refugees. Wade in the Water is a potent and luminous book by one of America’s essential poets.

Of Rain and Nettles Wove | Gillian Parish
Notes: Gillian was the college professor that completely changed my life. She made me believe in (documentary) poetry as a political force, as a form of resistance, as a way to resolve epigenetic heartache. She also gave permission to and helped form my own Book of Cord; the title, in fact, was hers. I've never met someone who could teach the synesthetic properties of language, who could make me feel the gravities and alchemy of words the way I do now.  So delighted to have her book as a reminder of what poetry can do, what the right teacher in your life can do: save you.
Synopsis: Poetry. OF RAIN AND NETTLES WOVE is Gillian Parrish's first full-length book of poetry; it is; however, as Gillian Conoley notes, "a mature work, so wise in its playfulness and sudden depths. Haunted by the American West and Midwest (one thinks of Niedecker, Oppen, Eigner) and the Far East (Basho, the I-Ching)--though with a sure-footed, sprightly music all their own--come these painterly, filmic, gorgeously sounded lyrics of sturdy ground and flight." As Michael Heller contends, "the boldness of the book, its spiritual hunger, its stops and starts, its erasures and ongoings has the immediacy of the first transformative brush stroke on a canvas."

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The Collected Schizophrenias: Essays | Esmé Weijun Wang
Notes: One of my most anticipated non-fiction reads of the year, and I was not at all disappointed. Courageous, urgent, compassionate writing. (Wang is also Taiwanese American!)
Synopsis: An intimate, moving book written with the immediacy and directness of one who still struggles with the effects of mental and chronic illness, The Collected Schizophrenias cuts right to the core. Schizophrenia is not a single unifying diagnosis, and Esmé Weijun Wang writes not just to her fellow members of the "collected schizophrenias" but to those who wish to understand it as well. Opening with the journey toward her diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder, Wang discusses the medical community's own disagreement about labels and procedures for diagnosing those with mental illness, and then follows an arc that examines the manifestations of schizophrenia in her life. In essays that range from using fashion to present as high-functioning to the depths of a rare form of psychosis, and from the failures of the higher education system and the dangers of institutionalization to the complexity of compounding factors such as PTSD and Lyme disease, Wang's analytical eye, honed as a former lab researcher at Stanford, allows her to balance research with personal narrative. An essay collection of undeniable power, The Collected Schizophrenias dispels misconceptions and provides insight into a condition long misunderstood.

Indecency | Justin Phillip Reed
Synopsis: Indecency is boldly and carefully executed and perfectly ragged. In these poems, Justin Phillip Reed experiments with language to explore inequity and injustice and to critique and lament the culture of white supremacy and the dominant social order. Political and personal, tender, daring, and insightful―the author unpacks his intimacies, weaponizing poetry to take on masculinity, sexuality, exploitation, and the prison industrial complex and unmask all the failures of the structures into which society sorts us.

*H I G H L Y  R E C O M M E N D E D*
All That Work And Still No Boys | Kathryn Ma
Notes: This book put me in my feelings. The lifelong chip on my shoulder (more like staggering, crippling wound) is that I was not born a son to a family that absolutely reveres them. I don't typically enjoy short stories (or casual dating, or anything else that doesn't require much commitment) -- but this collection was incredible -- so much so that I've made my mom read it. Please, please, please read this -- the first short story, if nothing else (where a mother insists on sacrificing one of her daughters, rather than her only son, who by all measures was the better choice).
Synopsis: How do we survive our family, stay bound to our community, and keep from losing ourselves? In "All That Work and Still No Boys", Kathryn Ma exposes the deepest fears and longings that we mask in family life and observes the long shadows cast by history and displacement. Here are ten stories that wound and satisfy in equal measure. Ma probes the immigrant experience, most particularly among northern California's Chinese Americans, illuminating for us the confounding nature of duty, transformation, and loss. A boy exposed to racial hatred finds out the true difference between his mother and his father. Two old rivals briefly lay down their weapons, but loneliness and despair won't let them forget the past. A young Beijing tour guide with a terrible family secret must take an adopted Chinese girl and her American family to visit an orphanage. And in the prize-winning title story, a mother refuses to let her son save her life, insisting instead on a sacrifice by her daughter. Intimate in detail and universal in theme, these stories give us the compelling voice of an exciting new author whose intelligence, insight, and wit impart a sense of grace to the bitter resentments and enduring ties that comprise family love. Even through the tensions Ma creates so deftly, the peace and security that come from building and belonging to one's own community shine forth.

*H I G H L Y  R E C O M M E N D E D*
The Source of Self Regard: Essays | Toni Morrison
Notes: Needs absolutely no endorsement from me to be immediately recognized and lauded as one of the most important and well-written books you'll ever read. I mean, it's Morrison. Can you imagine having to speak after her? I'd die of fundamental and inescapable humiliation.
Synopsis: The Source of Self-Regard is brimming with all the elegance of mind and style, the literary prowess and moral compass that are Toni Morrison's inimitable hallmark. It is divided into three parts: the first is introduced by a powerful prayer for the dead of 9/11; the second by a searching meditation on Martin Luther King Jr., and the last by a heart-wrenching eulogy for James Baldwin. In the writings and speeches included here, Morrison takes on contested social issues: the foreigner, female empowerment, the press, money, "black matter(s)," and human rights. She looks at enduring matters of culture: the role of the artist in society, the literary imagination, the Afro-American presence in American literature, and in her Nobel lecture, the power of language itself. And here too is piercing commentary on her own work (including The Bluest Eye, Sula, Tar Baby, Jazz, Beloved, and Paradise) and that of others, among them, painter and collagist Romare Bearden, author Toni Cade Bambara, and theater director Peter Sellars. In all, The Source of Self-Regard is a luminous and essential addition to Toni Morrison's oeuvre.

Orphan of Asia | Wu Zhuoliu 
Notes: Part of my slow attempt to read through the translated Taiwanese canon. My mom and I read this together (her, in its original version) and I think she got much more out of it than I did.
Synopsis: First published in 1945 & now available in English for the first time, 'Orphan of Asia' describes the plight of a young Chinese man working for the Japanese colonial regime in 1930s Taiwan. Trapped between two cultures, the hero embarks on a journey in search of self-realization.

And finally, a poem I have to share because it captures so succinctly how I want to live my life. From US poet laureate Joy Harjo: The Creation Story

"I'm not afraid of love/ or its consequence of light"

With love always,
LC



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