[thursday recs] can't we make the world a bigger place?

i came from méxico, but there’s a lot of people here who, when they hear that, they think i crawled out of hell. they hear “méxico,” and they think: bad, devil, i don’t know. they got some crazy ideas. any of them ever been to méxico? and if they say, yeah, i went to acapulco back in the day or i been to cancún, papi, then that shit don’t count. you went to a resort? congratulations. but you didn’t go to méxico. and that’s the problem, you know? (236)

hi! ok, so, we’re a week into this presidency, and our cheeto president is already doing some truly heinous, insidious shit, continuing on his track of xenophobia and racism, of lying and fear-mongering, of thin-skinned egomaniacal tweeting.

i’m sure i’m not the only one waking up to nausea, dealing with anxiety and fear on a daily (or, dare i say, hourly) basis, and, like i said last week on instagram, i’ve been thinking a lot about the different forms of activism and resistance take as well as what it is i can do. i can’t march; i’m not someone who feels comfortable putting myself out there; and i struggle with suicidal depression that often saps me of everything. in many ways, i feel like i am not “qualified” to be an activist, that i do not check off the “right” boxes, even though i know that’s bullshit. there are many ways to resist.

what i do have are books — books and words and stories — so here’s a little something: every thursday, i will post a book by an author who is an immigrant and/or a POC and/or LGBTQ and/or a woman. sometimes, it will be a book by a non-american author, someone who’s been translated who writes about another culture, another people. sometimes, it might be a book by someone else who falls into completely different categories altogether. the point is simply that i will share a book that hopefully opens up the world a little more and reminds us that humanity is a universal thing, and there is no need to fear and discriminate against entire swaths of people simply because they appear different from us.

maybe i’m preaching to the choir here, but i think most of us, myself included, can stand to challenge ourselves more. for example, for myself, i know i’d like to start reading outside asian-americans, outside east asians more. and i hope this will produce a good archive that’s easily sharable with anyone who might be curious, who might want to read more diverse books but feel unsure about where to start. i’ve been there before, and i know it’s sometimes intimidating to try to find what’s worthwhile amidst all the books out there.

ultimately, i do believe in books. i believe in stories. and i believe in the greater importance for stories over the next four years — and i’m going to repeat myself here (from instagram) — we are going to need stories that affirm and reaffirm and reaffirm again and again and again the difference faces of humanity, that say/shout/scream to a hostile administration that we are here, we are alive, we will outlast you, and you will not silence us.

so let’s get started.

these people are listening to the media, and the media, let me tell you, has some fucked-up ideas about us. about all the brown-skinned people, but especially about the mexicans. you listen to the media, you’ll learn that we’re all gangbangers, we’re all drug dealers, we’re tossing bodies in vats of acid, we want to destroy america, we still think texas belongs to us, we all have swine flu, we carry machine guns under our coats, we don’t pay any taxes, we’re lazy, we’re stupid, we’re all wetbacks who crossed the border illegally. i swear to god, i’m so tired of being called a spic, a nethead, a cholo, all this stuff. happens to me all the time. i walk into a store and the employees either ignore me or they’re hovering over every move i make because they think i’m going to steal something. i understand i might not look like much. i work as a photographer, so i’m not in a business suit or nothing, but i have enough money to be in a store and even if i didn’t, i have the right to be in any store. i feel like telling them sometimes, you don’t know me, man. i’m a citizen here! but i shouldn’t have to tell anyone that. i want to be given the benefit of the doubt. when i walk down the street, i don’t want people to look at me and see a criminal or someone that they can spit on or beat up. i want them to see a guy who has just as much right to be here as they do, or a guy who works hard, or a guy who loves his family, or a guy who’s just trying to do the right thing. (236-7)

maybe cristina henríquez’s the book of unknown americans (knopf, 2014) is the obvious first choice, but i really couldn’t recommend this book more, especially given this week with trump’s ordering of the border wall and the muslim travel ban. 

in an interview with the LA review of books, henríquez summarizes her book thusly:

it’s really a story about two parents, devastated after their only daughter suffers a brain injury. they bring her to the united states [from mexico] so that she can attend that specialized school to help her recover. they end up in delaware, in an apartment building with residents from all over latin america, neighbors that become something like a family. and while they’re there, one of those neighbors — this 16-year-old boy from panama — improbably falls in love with their daughter. it’s a story about tragedy and guilt, but also about hope and about what it means to belong somewhere, to find a place to call your home.

the book of unknown americans is told in multiple narrators, each telling his/her story. henríquez deftly handles each voice, giving each its own character and distinctness, and it’s a testament to her writing that the voices don’t become muddled, carry their own individual strengths instead.

i won’t go into each character here, but, overall, henríquez doesn’t obviously try to speak against the stereotypes that latin americans face, that they’re rapists, criminals, drug dealers, here to terrorize our women and corrupt our societies and steal our jobs. she simply lets them tell their own stories, and, by doing so, she allows them their humanity in all their three-dimensional ways. it’s not that she ignores the political or the social; she recognizes that everything is political, that even having the last name she has is political; but she isn’t bashing anyone on the head with her novel or slamming her fist on the table and shouting, “you’re racist; you’re horrible.”

instead, she simply asks that you sit down and consider these stories, these people.

she asks that you see them as who they are: human.

i wish just one of those people, just one, would actually talk to me, talk to my friends, man. and yes, you can talk to us in english. i know english better than you, i bet. but none them even want to try. we’re the unknown americans, the ones no one even wants to know, because they’ve been told they’re supposed to be scared of us and because maybe if they did take the time to get to know us, they might realize that we’re not that bad, maybe even that we’re a lot like them. and who would they hate then? (237)

i think this is the thing with fear: we fear what is unknown, but, most of the time, when we actually encounter our fears, we learn that they are not what we expected — they are not actually that unknown. we learn that our fears say more about us than about the people, the decision, the place we’ve been fearing, and, sometimes, that’s what makes it so hard for us to “conquer” our fears because then we’d have to give ourselves a long, hard look in the mirror, and a lot of us would not like what we see.

and the thing with people is this, that no one is unknowable, that all it takes is to sit down and listen to someone’s story to realize that, hey, s/he’s not that different from me. s/he isn’t someone for me to fear and hate.

this is why i believe in stories, because stories show us that, at heart, we are not all that unique. regardless of the color of our skin, our sexual orientation, the god we worship, the condition of our bodies, we all essentially want the same things. we want to love and be loved. we want to be safe. we want to have families and raise them in open, loving communities. we want to live good, meaningful lives.

and the unfortunate truth is that, sometimes, some of us have to leave our countries to find safety and opportunity elsewhere. some of us have to flee because of unrest, instability, and/or war. some of us have to leave home in the hopes that our children will lead better lives, receive better educations, live without fear.

and that doesn’t make them people to be hated, to be feared. that simply makes them people, people who have suffered, people who have gone through all kinds of hell and survived, people who have lost their homes and loved ones and countries. they are people who don’t come here empty-handed either, bringing with them their skills, their cultures, their stories, and, if this administration thinks that those are things to be feared and not welcomed, then all i can say is this: do not forget how this country was founded. do not forget that this is land you came in and took, land you built on the backs of slaves, land you developed with the contributions of immigrants. do not forget what makes this country great.

about narratives. (take heart.)


most of us were from the south, most of us from some part of the bible belt. most of our stories sounded remarkably similar. we had all met with ultimatums that didn’t exist for many other people, conditions often absent from the love between parents and children. at some point, a “change this or else” had come to each of us: otherwise we would be homeless, penniless, excommunicated, exiled. we had all been too afraid to fall through the cracks; all of us had been told cautionary tales of drug addicts, of sex addicts, of people who ended up dying in the throes of AIDS in some urban west coast gutter. the story always went this way. and we believed the story. for the most part, the media we consumed corroborated it. you could hardly find a movie in small-town theaters that spoke openly of homosexuality, and when you did, it almost always ended with someone dying of AIDS. (conley, boy erased, 21)

i have this irrational dislike of ground meat — like, i have no problems eating food made with ground meat, but i hate — hate — cooking with it. i hate how it smells; i hate how it looks; and i hate how it feels. there’s no logical explanation for this, either, because i know the reason i hate it is that my mother hated it, and she didn’t have a logical explanation for it.  (also, korean people don’t usually cook with ground meat?)

when i was thinking of making these turkey ricotta meatballs from julia turshen’s small victories (chronicle, 2016), i went back and forth about the meat. should i just go for the ground turkey the recipe specified? or should i go for one of the variations suggested and buy some sausages and remove them from their casings? or should i just go my usual route and buy meat and grind it myself?

in the end, i went with the ground meat. it seemed like a good week to get over something that made no sense.

‘all you can do, rosemary — all any of us can do — is work to be something positive instead. that is a choice that every sapient must make every day of their life. the universe is what we make of it. it’s up to you to decide what part you will play. and what i see in you is a woman who has a clear idea of what she wants to be.’

rosemary gave a short laugh. ‘most days i wake up and have no idea what the hell i’m doing.’

he [dr. chef] puffed his cheeks. ‘i don’t mean the practical details. nobody ever figures those out. i mean the important thing. the thing i had to do, too.’ he made a clucking sound. he knew she would not understand it, but it came naturally. the sort of sound a mother made over a child learning to stand. ‘you’re trying to be someone good.’ (chambers, the long way to a small angry planet, 213)

it’s been a dark week for america and a particularly dark year for the whole damn world, what with brexit in the UK, the passage of HB2 in north carolina, the political shit being uncovered in korea*, etcetera. i spent election night weeping for my country, partly because of the living cheeto and his monster of a VP-elect headed for the white house but mostly because of what this has exposed about our country.

if you’re a person of color, a woman, someone who identifies as LGBTQ, the results of this election aren’t entirely surprising. we’ve known that the “post-racial society” white people liked to claim existed was a big fat lie; we’ve known that racism is still alive and well; and we’ve known that sexual violence against women was already something that’s somehow been normalized. we just hoped this country would show itself to be better than it clearly is.

i’m not here to rage about politics, though.

pre-apocalypse, i started thinking a lot about narratives, whether they’re narratives we tell ourselves about ourselves, about other people, about other cultures. i’ve been thinking about how these narratives shape how we expect people to behave, the lives we think they should live, the ways we think they should act and speak and want, and how these narratives can do one of two things:  close in on themselves and reinforce these same narratives or open up the whole world and the billions of people within it.

because the truth is that narratives matter. words matter. the things we say, the words we use form the narratives we tell ourselves, and these narratives say a lot more about us than we might want to think. they tell us about our worldviews, how we see and parse the world around us, and what is important to us. they tell us about our values; they tell us about our priorities.

they tell us how we think of and regard the people around us.

* seriously. google park geun-hye.

the first thing i ever cooked for my wife, grace, were these meatballs. i made the mixture at my apartment, then packed it up with a box of pasta, ingredients for sauce, and a pot (she told me she had only a skillet) and took it all to her apartment … which soon became my aparment, too. (turshen, small victories, 168)

i get this secret thrill whenever julia turshen refers to her wife in small victories, and it makes me thrill with how normal it is, how being gay is really just another human way to be and love and exist with each other. a few weeks ago, a friend on instagram sent me a link to an article about patricia highsmith’s the price of salt, which was sort of revolutionary because it’s a story about lesbians who don’t meet a gruesome end. that’s really what kicked off all this thinking about narratives, and i know that nothing i’m saying here is new or groundbreaking, but, after a week like this, it feels worth saying anyway.

about a month ago, i read garrard conley’s boy erased, a memoir about his time in conversion therapy, which is the practice of trying to “convert” a gay person to being straight (and something the VP-elect believes in). the memoir plus the article combined made me think that here is why the [white] heteronormative narrative is so dangerous in its prevalence. when you don’t see stories of other possibilities, you can’t empathize with the Other, and we can’t break down the barriers that create and enforce the Other. beyond that, though, when we don’t see stories of other possibilities, we learn to see ourselves as the Other, to hide in shame, to be afraid of the things that make us different, that put targets on our backs as we go on with our everyday lives.

we learn to try to hide the things that make us different, and the majority learns to pounce on these weaknesses, these fears, to use narrative as a means to enforce shame so we try to repress parts of who we are and become “normal,” aka acceptable and “good,” capable of living “healthy,” “regular” lives (aka the goal of conversion therapy). we learn to fear who we are because of these supposed consequences of how we’ll “end up,” of the things and people we’ll lose, of the ugly ends we will meet.

and so narratives, again, aren’t only stories we tell ourselves. they’re weapons, tools with which to suppress and excise “sin,” and they’re prisons and cages. they’re ways to create fear because, sometimes, they’re not so far from the truth because it can actually cost us everything to be out, to be black, to be muslim. they can be used to instill shame and guilt, to stoke that monster until it consumes us and drives us into corners, into darkness, to suicide. 

at the same time, though, there’s the other side: narratives are hope, too; they’re the means through which we can heal. by offering our narratives, we offer others the ability to understand us, to empathize with us, to recognize themselves and realize they aren’t alone.

and, sometimes, i think, as creative people, we forget what we can do with our work. it’s easy to think of art as simply art, but we forget that a book is not just a book, a meal is not just a meal, that creating, too, is a way of fighting back, not only of finding hope again within ourselves but also of putting that hope back into the world. a story is a way of saying, here is one way of seeing the world, and all the great stories in the world come together with one message: be kind. be kind to yourselves, and be kind to each other. there is a multitude of us out here, and we are unique individuals to be valued equally, regardless of the color of our skin, the source of our faith, or the gender of the person we love.



we’re the unknown americans, the ones no one even wants to know, because they’ve been told they’re supposed to be scared of us and because maybe if they did take the time to get to know us, they might realize that we’re not that bad, maybe even that we’re a lot like them. and who would they hate then? (henríquez, the book of unknown americans, 237)

i flash froze most of my meatballs because i’m just one person and it’s nice to have things on-hand in your freezer. (i also keep biscuits and chicken stock and parmesan stock in my freezer.) (apparently, i always want to have the possibility for soup.) i ate the rest with homemade tomato sauce (which i also made according to the recipe) (this is weird; i modify everything), and i must say, these meatballs are SO good. they’re super flavorful, and they’re not dry, and they hold together very well — and they don’t use breadcrumbs, which i was very happy about.

and here, in the light of what is to come in the next four years, i leave you with some recommended reading:

  1. garrard conley, boy erased (riverhead, 2016)
  2. becky chambers, a long way to a small angry planet (hoddard & stoughton, 2015)
  3. cristina henriquez, the book of unknown americans (knopf, 2014)

july + august + september reads!

apparently, three months is the charm.


thirty-eight.  margaret atwood, the handmaid's tale (HMH, 1986) (via oyster books).

she did not believe he was a monster.  he was not a monster, to her.  probably he had some endearing trait:  he whistled, offkey, in the shower, he had a yen for truffles, he called his dog liebchen and made it sit up for little pieces of raw steak.  how easy it is to invent a humanity, for anyone at all.  what an available temptation. (ch. 24)

creepy, creepy, creepy — margaret atwood’s dystopia made me think of something edan lepucki said at a recent event for the paperback of california, that, when she was coming up with the dystopia in california, she thought of all the things that were going wrong in our world today and simply imagined up how the world might look years from now if we continued on this same trajectory.  atwood’s dystopia creeps me out for the same reason — the world featured in the handmaid’s tale is not a wholly unimaginable or inconceivable one.

not only that, but offred also isn’t a character who was born into that society — she was there for the change, the transition, and she remembers life from before she lost her job, had her account frozen, was put in a red robe and tasked with sleeping with a married man for the sake of conception.  god, it makes me shudder just thinking about that, though the real terrifying part of this is that there are societies out there women are thusly repressed (women aren’t allowed to read in gilead) and valued solely/principally for their ability to spawn and meet the needs/demands of men.

that said, i must confess that i really was not keen on the ending, that last bit that’s meant to be an academic study.  i felt it was unnecessary and a little jarring, actually.


thirty-nine.  michael cunningham, the hours (FSG, 1998).

yes, clarissa thinks, it’s time for the day to be over.  we throw our parties; we abandon our families to live alone in canada; we struggle to write books that do not change the world, despite our gifts and our unstinting efforts, our most extravagant hopes.  we live our lives, do whatever we do, and then we sleep — it’s as simple and ordinary as that.  a few jump out of windows or drown themselves or take pills; more die by accident; and most of us, the vast majority, are slowly devoured by some disease or, if we’re very fortunate, by time itself.  there’s just this for consolation:  an hour here or there when our lives seem, against all odds and expectations, to burst open and give us everything we’ve ever imagined, though everyone but children (and perhaps even they) knows these hours will inevitably be followed by others, far darker and more difficult.  still, we cherish the city, the morning:  we hope, more than anything, for more.  (225)

cunningham writes with so much heart and so much love.  there’s a lovely quiet to the hours, a steadiness that gets disturbed as you get deeper into the book, into the lives of these three women’s lives.  on the surface, they each want such simple things, but nothing is quite so simple — it makes me think of what cunningham said at his lecture at columbia earlier this year, that there’s no such thing as plot, just characters trying to get something they want with some kind of force preventing them from getting it.

it’s been a while since i read the hours, so i admit to being fuzzy on specifics — the hours left in its wake a lovely, hazy feeling, though, and i remember it fondly, something i find to be common amongst books i’ve loved but have only read once.  my book club is reading the hours for our october read, though, so i do plan on reading it again next month!

one distinct thing, though, that i remember disliking:  there were two of three parts i found jarring because we’re removed from the POV of the three main women.  i loved the narrow focus on the women, and i felt myself shaken from the novel in those moments we’re taken away from them — because it only happens a few times, it’s quite startling.


forty.  margaret atwood, the heart goes last (nan a. talese, 2015).

then he’s unconscious.  then he stops breathing.  the heart goes last.  (70)

again, one of the disadvantages of waiting three months to write reviews is that, well, it’s been three months.

after i finished the heart goes last, i instagrammed, “trust margaret atwood to deliver your regular dose of what-the-fucks with smart social commentary, dry humor, and a dystopia that could be right around the corner.”  i didn’t love it effusively, but i enjoyed it — devoured it in twenty-four hours, actually.  i love the title, though.  and can’t wait to hear her read/speak in a week!


forty-one.  jeffrey eugenides, the virgin suicides (picador, 1993).

we couldn’t imagine the emptiness of a creature who put a razor to her wrists and opened her veins, the emptiness and the calm.  (243)

two things:

(one)  this is a case where rereading produces an unfavorable change in opinion.  i loved this a whole lot when i first read it a few years ago (It was also one those rare instances of liking the movie as much, too), but i had a lot of problems with it this time around.  for one, i felt like i was floating over the narrative the whole time (a similar problem i had with middlesex), and, for another, it lacked introspection, but, most of all, i was creeped out by the lack of self-awareness that would have mitigated the stalking and voyeurism.

i’m not saying that literature shouldn’t creep us out.  literature should disturb us, take us into depths we wouldn’t normally descend, but we’re supposed to be getting the virigin suicides in the past.  the narrative we is grown-up now; they’re middle-aged, looking back on their youth; but they haven’t grown up — there’s frankly no depth, and the romanticizing of their creepy behavior did not sit nicely with me at all.

i also was never convinced of the narrative “we” and its “reportage” — for the former, the “we” would fade into an omniscient third-person from time-to-time, giving us stories that were either imagined or being recalled and narrated for the reader, neither of which i was convinced was the case.  (inconsistent narrative voice is, apparently, a thing that bothers me a lot.)  as for the latter, i simply wasn’t convinced that they could get the access they could.

(two)  only a man could have written this book.  i’m not saying that’s inherently good or bad, simply that it is.


forty-two.  helen macdonald, h is for hawk (grove/atlantic, 2015) (via oyster books).

gos was still out there in the forest, the dark forest to which all things lost must go.  i’d wanted to slip across the borders of this world into that wood and bring back the hawk white lost.  some part of me that was very small and old had known this, some part of me that didn’t work according to the everyday rules of the world but with the logic of myths and dreams.  and that part of me had hoped, too, that somewhere in that other world was my father.  his death had been so sudden.  there had been no time to prepare for it, no sense in it happening at all.  he could only be lost.  he was out there, still, somewhere out there in that tangled wood with all the rest of the lost and dead.  i know now what those dreams in spring had meant, the ones of a hawk slipping through a rent in the air into another world.  i’d wanted to fly with the hawk to find my father; find him and bring him home.  (ch. 23)

i LOVED this.

the premise of the book is simple:  after the sudden death of her father, macdonald learns to fly a goshawk.  it’s a beautiful book about grief, full of heart and mourning and love, whether for her father, for her hawk, mabel, or for the greater world around her and the history that came before.  macdonald’s writing is sparse and raw and honest, and i simply loved this book.  it’s one of those loves that leaves me coming up empty when trying to write about it, but i loved it and highly, highly recommend it.

(i did think there was a bit too much about t.h. white, but, overall, i liked how she wove his story into her own.)

here’s another passage just because:

of all the lessons i’ve learned in my months with mabel this is the greatest of all:  that there is a world of things out there — rocks and trees and stones and grass and all the things that crawl and run and fly.  they are all things in themselves, but we make them sensible to us by giving them meanings that shore up our own views of the world.  in my time with mabel i’ve learned how you feel more human once you have known, even in your imagination, what it is like to be not.  and i have learned, too, the danger that comes in mistaking the wildness we give a thing for the wildness that animates it.  goshawks are things of death and blood and gore, but they are not excuses for atrocities.  their inhumanity is to be treasured because what they do has nothing to do with us at all.  (ch. 29)


forty-three.  richard lloyd parry, people who eat darkness (FSG, 2012) (via oyster books).

i thought a lot of things while devouring people who eat darkness, but i still have no idea how to articulate any of it.  i had a lot of rage, a lot of anger at this patriarchal world and its double standards of women, that much i can say.

here are three long-ish passages instead.

anne allison writes, “there is something dirty about [the hostess], the sexuality she evokes, and the world of the mizu shōbai she represents.  all of this sexual dirtiness, in turn, makes the woman who works in this world ineligible for respectable marriage, ineligible therefore to become a respectable mother with legitimate children … in a culture where motherhood is considered ‘natural’ for women, the mizu shōbai woman is constructed as a female who transgresses her nature.  for this she is degraded; for this, however, she is also enjoyed.”  (ch. 6)


surrounded by powerful and aggressive neighbors, korea had been a battlefield throughout its history.  as far back as the sixteenth century, samurai armies had plundered the peninsula, returning across the narrow strait of tsushima with treasures, slaves, and the severed ears of slaughtered korean warriors.  japan began to dominate korea once again at the end of the nineteenth century; in 1910, the country was formally annexed into the emerging japanese empire.  the colonizers built roads, ports, railways, mines, and factories, introduced modern agricultural methods, and sent the children of the korean elite to be educated in tokyo.  but whatever good japanese power brought in the form of economic development was eclipsed by the racism, coercion, and violence of the imperial occupation.

the policies of the japanese administration shifted over time.  but by the late 1930s, its goal was not merely to control koreans and exploit their resources but also to dissolve their culture and colonize their minds.  the japanese language was made compulsory in schools; students were required to worship at shinto shrines, and koreans were encouraged to take japanese names.  infrequent uprisings were quelled with arrests, torture, and killings.  and a vast and unequal human exchange took place, as japanese bureaucrats and settlers were shipped over to govern and farm the new lands, and poor koreans sailed in the opposite direction to find work in the industrial cities of tokyo, osaka, and fukuoka.

at first, this migration was voluntary, but as the pacific war turned against japan, its colonial subjects were forcibly conscripted, both by the imperial army and civilian industry.  by 1945, hundreds of thousands of koreans were scattered across asia with the japanese forces, as soldiers, orderlies, camp guards, and military sex slaves (the “comfort women” whose existence was officially denied for almost fifty years).  in japan itself there were two million zainichi, most of them concentrated in ghettos close to the the mines and factories where they were set to work.  as much as anything, it was the sudden presence of so many foreigners in the motherland that showed up the hypocrisy of japanese colonialism.  (ch. 14)


the most serious failure of the police was in not identifying and bringing obara to justice years before.  katie vickers, for one, had reported him in 1997; she was ignored.  how many others, who have never told their stories publicly, experienced similar treatment?  the greatest disgrace had been another five years before that, when the police dismissed the suspicions of carita ridgway’s family about “nishida,” the man who brought their dying daughter to hospital.  the failure was one of imagination, an institutional inability to think other than in clichés.  people were types, and types were to be relied upon.  the young hostess who went to a customer’s place and then claimed rape must be trying it on; the respectable chap who talked of a bad oyster and food poisoning was to be believed. (ch. 24)

forty-four.  lois lowry, the giver (HMH, 1993) (via oyster books).

“the worst part of holding the memories is not the pain.  it’s the loneliness of it.  memories need to be shared.”  (the giver, ch. 20)

the giver was one of my favorite childhood books, but i was much less enthralled by it this time.  i still love the premise of it, this dystopian world where everything is controlled and tightly managed, but i think i wanted more — more conflict, more tension, more ending.

also, i watched the trailer for the film adaptation after i finished rereading it, and what the fuck?  good job taking all the layers of the giver and reducing it to your generic dystopian YA flick, cold tones, stupid romance, and all?


forty-five.  stephen chbosky, the perks of being a wallflower (mtv books, 1999) (via oyster books).

i had an amazing feeling when i finally held the tape in my hand.  i just thought to myself that in the palm of my hand, there was this one tape that had all of these memories and feelings and great joy and sadness.  right there in the palm of my hand.  and i thought about how many people have loved those songs.  and how many people got through a lot of bad times because of those songs.  and how many people enjoyed good times with those songs.  and how much those songs really mean.  (december 7, 1991)

i couldn’t sleep one night, so i finally read this.  i liked it more than i thought i would, but the most surprising thing to me was how the film captured the exact tone and mood of the book.  i’ve seen the film several times (idk, i liked the film, awkward american accent by emma watson and all), and its’s one of those instances where the film didn’t ruin the reading experience — like, i actually didn’t mind have the actors’ faces in my head.  it kind of made the reading experience more enjoyable in a way.  (i felt the same about the virgin suicides.)  i guess it shouldn’t be much surprising given that chbosky wrote and directed the film adaptation, but, regardless, crossing mediums isn’t something that’s always done so seamlessly, so props!


forty-six.  laline paull, the bees (harpercollins, 2014) (via oyster books).

“then kindly remember that variation is not the same as deformity.” (sister sage, ch. 3)

i wondered about my tendency to read books about animals as allegories (not that i read many books about animals), so, when i started reading the bees, i deliberately, intentionally refused to read it as such, and what a delight it was!

(if the author meant it to be allegorical, i apologize.)

the bees was one of the weirder, more engrossing reading experiences i’ve had — like, i-missed-my-subway-stop level of engrossing.  we follow a worker bee through the ranks of bees — first as a nurse, as a forager, and so on — and it’s a fascinating world, the hive.  it’s hierarchical, with the bees divided into their different roles, and there’s also a cult-ish feel to it, the way the queen is so revered.

i feel like there could be a greater social commentary present, but i admit that i took the dumb reader route to this because i was resisting an allegorical reading and because it’s also that engrossing.  i randomly came across this on oyster, and i’m glad i read it!


forty-seven.  lauren groff, fates and furies (riverhead, 2015).

because it’s true:  more than the highlights, the bright events, it was in the small and the daily where she’d found life.  the hundreds of times she’d dug in the soil of her garden, each time the satisfying chew of spade through soil, so often that this action, the pressure and release and rich dirt smell, delineated the warmth she’d found in that house in the cherry orchard.  or this:  every day they woke in the same place, her husband waking her up with a cup of coffee, the cream still swirling into the black.  almost unremarked upon, this kindness.  he would kiss her on the crown of her head before leaving, and she’d feel something in her rising through her body to meet him.  these silent intimacies made their marriage, not the ceremonies or parties or opening nights or occasions or spectacular fucks.  (389)

groff’s prose is exquisite, and one of my favorite things about this book was its structure.  it’s broken into two parts, the first (“fates”) being strictly linear and the second (“furies”) jumping around in time and poking holes in everything we’d learned (or thought we’d learned) in “fates.”

“furies” was awesome.  i loved mathilde; nothing about her life was as expected; and i loved the ways she’s a survivor.  

i wasn’t as fond of “fates,” which is why i wasn’t as effusive about the novel as i thought i might be.  “fates” felt a little too long, trapped by the strict linearity, like we had to flip through these pages to get to the interesting part — in that way, it did feel like “fates” was clearly foundation-building to give us the necessary backdrop for “furies” to start puncturing.  one example of this is the section in “fates” that follows lotte and mathilde in their first new york city apartment.  it’s built of short segments of gatherings that are meant to show us the passage of time, and it’s written beautifully, yes, but, after a while, it started to feel a little too convenient, a little tedious.

also, frankly, lotte wasn’t that interesting, and i had no sympathy for or connection with him.  he’s kind of pathetic, and not in any endearing way, and then he acted pathetically to mathilde near the end of “fates,” and i would’ve been fine if we got less of him and more of mathilde.

because “furies.”  “furies” makes “fates” worth it.


forty-eight.  cristina henriquez, the book of unknown americans (knopf, 2014).

when i walk down the street, i don’t want people to look at me and see a criminal or someone that they can spit on or beat up.  i want them to see a guy who has just as much right to be here as they do, or a guy who works hard, or a guy who loves his family, or a guy who’s just trying to do the right things.  i wish just one of those people, just one, would actually talk to me, talk to my friends, man.  and yes, you can talk to us in english.  i know english better than you, i bet.  but none of them even want to try.  we’re the unknown americans, the ones no one even wants to know, because they’ve been told they’re supposed to be scared of us and because maybe if they did take the time to get to know us, they might realize that we’re not that bad, maybe even that we’re a lot like them.  and who would they hate then?

it’s fucked up.  the whole thing is very, very complicated.  i mean, does anyone ever talk about why people are crossing?  i can promise you it’s not with some grand ambition to come here and ruin everything for the gringo chingaos.  people are desperate, man.  we’re talking about people who can’t even get a toilet that works, and the government is so corrupt that when they have money, instead of sharing it, instead of using of using it in ways that would help their own citizens, they hold on to it and encourage people to go north instead.  what choice do people have in the face of that?  like they really want to be tied to the underside of a car or stuff dingo a trunk like a rug or walking in nothing but some sorry-ass sandals through the burning sand for days, a bottle of hot water in their hands?  half of them ending up dead, or burned up so bad that when someone finds them, their skin is black and their lips are cracked open?  another half of them drowning in rivers.  and half after that picked up by la migra and sent back to where they came from, or beaten, or arrested.  the women raped in the ass.  and for what?  to come here and make beds in a hotel along the highway?  to be separated from their families?  (237-8)

this might be the expected reaction, but my main thought as i was reading the book of unknown americans was, god, see, this is why we need diverse books.

this is a beautifully written book.  it’s in multiple POVs, though, narratively, we principally follow a family that’s come from mexico to delaware so the daughter can attend a school for kids with special needs, and there’s a whole lot of heart in these pages.  one of my favorite things about it is that henriquez doesn’t try to soften the reality but, more importantly, doesn’t lose the novel to it.  she talks openly about immigrants and the discrimination they face, but the story isn’t lost to a political agenda or a social “purpose” — and i greatly appreciated that, given how easy it would have been to go the other way.

i highly recommend this.


forty-nine.  jonathan franzen, purity (FSG, 2015).

around scotts valley, the dear fog appeared, and suddenly the season was different, the hour less determinate.  most weekends in june, a great paw of pacific fog reached into santa cruz, over the wooden roller coaster, along the stagnant san lorenzo, up through the wide streets where surfers lived, and into the redwoods on the hills.  by morning the ocean’s outward breath condensed in dew so heavy that it ran in gutters.  and this was one santa cruz, this ghostly gray late-rising place.  when the ocean inhaled again, midmorning, it left behind the other santa cruz, the optimistic one, the sunny one; but the great paw lurked offshore all day.  toward sunset, like a depression following euphoria, it rolled back in and muted human sound, closed down vistas, made everything very local, and seemed to amplify the barking of the sea lions on the underpinnings of the pier.  you could hear them from miles away, their arp, arp, arp a homing call to family members still out diving in the fog.  (66-7)

(god, franzen’s passages about california made my face go all :SLKJ:LSJDFSDF.)

truth be told, there are few authors who deliver books of sheer enjoyment and joy like franzen does.  it’s not news that i’m a huge fan of franzen or that i was looking forward to purity since it was announced last november, and i had to stamp down a lot of my anticipation, so i could go into purity without that baggage.  i also actively avoided any and all reviews and most interviews (which is usually the case with most books), and i still haven’t read many of them (reviews) because i admit to being fatigued by the same old noise around franzen.  everyone knows what opinion to have of him, so little of interest or depth is said anymore, which is unfortunate but unsurprising.

it’s also a little funny because purity made me think that here is a man who loves and cares for people and the world.  he thinks deeply about it, and he writes affectionately and thoughtfully of it.  sure, he puts his characters in unsavory and/or extreme situations, and he doesn’t write kindly of mothers, and his women aren’t always “likable” or “nice,” but, you know, i tend to like his women most of his characters, and that was no different in purity.

it took me a bit to get fully into purity because it really is tonally different from the corrections and freedom.  (i lean more towards the side that reads a book within the context of the author’s backlist.)  there was a sort of dissonance in my head, especially during the first two parts of purity, and it wasn’t until i got to “too much information” that i found myself relaxing into the book because there was franzen as i knew and recognized him, which is neither good nor bad and maybe sounds a little bizarre, but one reason i think we love the authors we do is that there is some core that resonates with us, some thing that makes their work knowable and familiar.

although i must also add that the second part, “the republic of bad taste,” was an odd initial read because it had been excerpted in the new yorker (i am vehemently not a fan or supporter of novel excerpts being published in the new yorker) — i actually resented that it had been excerpted because the excerpt was obviously chopped up and cobbled together of parts, and it reads differently (and better) in its whole.

so there was that.

altogether, i loved it.  i got annoyed with all the references to beauty (especially in regards to annagret), and there was a very questionable word choice that took me out of the narrative because i had to be five years old and laugh (if you’ve read it, you know what i’m talking about), but, overall, purity is a more relaxed, happy franzen, one i can get behind, even if it means the anger is gone.  purity is fun — i had a hell of a time reading it, and i liked that it was plot-heavy, while retaining the idealogical and thematic explorations franzen loves, so here’s a big thumbs up from me!

(franzen said in an interview with esquire uk that, “[after] this last novel [purity], i’d been planning not to write a novel again for at least a decade,” to which i say, NO, PLEASE DON’T, i can’t wait another ten years.  T_T)


fifty.  jonathan franzen, the corrections (picador, 2001).

it was the same problem enid had with chip and even gary:  her children didn’t match.  they didn’t want the things that she and all her friends and all her friends’ children wanted.  her children wanted radically, shamefully other things.  (121)

the corrections is still my favorite of franzen’s novels, and i was sad after i finished purity because i had no more franzen to read, so i decided to reread the corrections.

at this point, it’s more interesting, to me, to think about what was different in this most recent read.  this was my third time reading the corrections, and i was filled with guilt when i finished reading it this time because, at the moment, i was in a complicated place with my own parents and their wants for me.  as i’ve gotten older, i’ve been thinking more about how parents and children conflict, specifically as we get older and start to become cognizant of our parents as being full human beings, independent of us, while we also try to assert ourselves as full human beings, independent of them.

and i think that’s one reason i love the corrections so.  you can argue that nothing really happens, that there isn’t much of a plot (ha, remember what cunningham said, though?), but i love how it explores the complicated dynamics of family, of parents and children.  parents undoubtedly have expectations for their children; they try to raise them well, provide them with everything they need, open up as many opportunities as they can; but, at one point, sometimes, it all falls apart.  children have minds and wants and desires of their own, and i enjoy how the corrections explores what happens as children grow up and try to be their own people and make shitty decisions and get themselves into absurd situations and fall away from their parents and from each other — but how, in the end, they’re able to come together because they’re family.

i think the korean in me loves this.

i try to be concise when talking about franzen, but that never works.  i don’t know what it is about his books (minus the twenty-seventh city) that i love so — part of it truthfully might be that i will never write the kinds of books he does, and i say this as a good thing (i quite like the kinds of books i write/will write, thank you very much).  there’s something kind of awe-inducing about how full his world is; one review recently talked about how franzen probably knows every little tiny detail about his characters; and i agree and find that impressive in its own way.

and i like that he makes it a priority to give his readers a good time.  i’m not a fan of art for art’s sake, and i disdain that kind of pretension in literature — i want [extremely] well-written, thoughtful, nuanced books, and i’m not here for authors getting lost in their own language or their own selves.

going back to the corrections, though:  i still hate caroline.  and gary.  but i love everyone else, especially denise and alfred, even enid.  and i’m still bummed the HBO adaptation didn’t happen because, god, if there were ever a perfect cast, that was it.

wow, i could talk about franzen for ages.  don’t ever get me started.


fifty-one.  nell zink, mislaid (ecco, 2015) (via oyster books).

because people never grow accustomed to lies.  they either believe them or they don’t.  and a big lie is never forgiven.  the person who told the lie stops existing, and in his place stands a paradox:  the truthful liar.  the person you know for sure would lie to you, because he’s done it before and confessed.  you never, ever believe that person again.  (ch. 4)

halfway into mislaid, i stopped to write myself a note on my iPhone:  i think the thing that puts me off mislaid is that it’s lacking audacity.  it’s too glib, too smooth, that it reads dangerously toes the line of superficiality and flippancy, never mind that zink really is making astute observations about race (and privilege) in america without being weighed down by the fact that she’s white.

and then i finished it, and … i don’t know.  i’m so torn about it, but i don’t know how i’m torn about it.  i didn’t love it, but i didn’t hate it, but neither am i totally indifferent to it?  and i don’t think i liked it, but i also didn’t dislike it — we can do this forever.  i could see the merits in it, but, even when i’d finished the book, i still think that it’s lacking in audacity and risk.  i also further think that it just didn’t go anywhere.  no one learns anything.  no one really changes.  nothing really changes.  nothing really happens.

and yet …?

idk i like nell zink.  i mean, she writes a line like:

she would be the brontë of warm, malarial moors, the dramatist of the great dismal swamp.  (ch. 3)

and she generally seems not to give a fuck (in all the good ways), so there’s that.


fifty-two.  jang eun-jin, no one writes back (dalkey archive press, 2013, published in korea in 2009)

i do, however, like to write when i travel.  written words are less extravagant than photographs and souvenirs, and they are serious and contemplative.  words penned while traveling do not lie; they’re not for showing off, but for making you reflect on, and take care of, yourself.  i dare say that in life, it is when we travel that our minds and hearts are the most open.  it’s a time when we think more than at any other time in our lives.  we may even think of something that we would never have thought of in all our lives.  and so, it would be the loss or the mistake of a lifetime not to write down in words those thoughts which may never have occurred to us.  you can always go back and take pictures, and buy as many souvenirs as you want.  but the thoughts that come to you while you travel will not come back.  when you go back, the feelings and sensations you have will no longer be the ones you had before.  (8)

what a great book to end september on.

it’s been a very heavily white reading year, and i find myself growing exhausted with it.  i’ve been saying for years now that i want to read more from contemporary korean literature, but i’ve admittedly been so lazy about it, falling back on the excuse that a lot of it isn’t translated, which also doesn’t actually work as an excuse because i can read korean.  and, as i learned last year when i read 3/4 of kim young-ha’s most recent novel, i can read fiction in korea better than i thought i could.

when i saw no one writes back at mcnally jackson (one reason i love mcnally jackson is that they actually have a section labelled “korean literature;” it’s not very big; but it’s there!), i had to buy it.  i’d read about it earlier, and i intrigued — the narrator is a 30-something who’s on a journey with his dog, staying in motels and writing letters to people he meets while in transit.  he tells himself he’ll go home when someone writes him back, and, every morning, he calls an old friend to see if he’s received any mail.

it’s a lovely, thoughtful book, and i can’t help but wonder how much better it would read in korean, given how lyrically and hauntingly the korean language captures melancholy.  (the korean language is fucking beautiful.)  i just finished this an hour or so ago, so i’m still processing it, still kind of stunned by it.