nicole chung, all you can ever know
catapult was kind to send me this ARC back in june, and i sat on it for a week or so before i started to read it. you only get to experience a book for the first once after all, and i knew i was going to love this because i love nicole’s writing — it’s so full of love and grace and heart.
all you can ever know is her memoir of being adopted by white parents and growing up in white oregon. her birth parents were first-generation korean immigrants, and she was born seriously premature, and, overwhelmed, her parents decided to give her up for adoption.
it wasn’t until she was pregnant with her first child that she decided to look for her birth family, and the memoir is as much about her “journey” (god, i hate that word) getting to know her birth sister and birth family as it is about the narratives we’re told, that we tell ourselves. these narratives matter because they’re how we situate ourselves in the world, and nicole isn’t one to skirt away from the uncomfortable topic of race, rather addressing it with her characteristic grace and thoughtfulness.
she’s a smart writer, and i don’t mean anything snooty or stuffy when i say that. she’s astute and observant, and she’s written a book that isn’t just about her story, her experience, because she has things to say, things about race and racism, about the complexities of families, whether we’re born into them or chosen to be a part of them, about being a parent, especially in this current political climate, especially to a daughter with special needs, about the things expected from adoptees, about love and how love wants to protect, to think itself an exception to ugliness and prejudice. all you can ever know is uniquely her story, her experience, yes, but she’s not telling it to bask in her own goodness.
it’s not to say that the memoir is full of moralizing or preaching because it isn’t; nicole’s writing carries no trace of condescension or moral superiority, just a quiet wisdom that says, hi, this is my experience as a woman of color who was adopted into a white family, and here is why it matters for you to hear my story.
emily m. danforth, the miseducation of cameron post
when i first got this book, i was a little holy shit because it’s not short and i have a well-documented aversion to long books because books don’t tend to get better the longer they drag on — they get tedious. i was afraid that that might be the case with cameron post, and i was more hesitant about it, too, because i wanted to love it.
luckily, i loved it.
the first half of the book focuses on cameron’s life before she’s sent to conversion therapy. her parents die in an accident, and her aunt comes to live with her and her grandmother, but cameron is largely left to navigate and process her grief alone.
she’s also left to process her guilt alone because, the night her parents die in an accident, she kisses her best friend in her barn. the best friend is soon sent off to boarding school because her family comes into a lot of money, and she goes for heteronormative, leaving cameron alone to parse her own feelings and desires and eventually landing in the arms of a popular girl. they become friends, then they become more than friends, but this girl has a boyfriend and she’s a good church-going girl, and, when they’re caught, she’s the victim while cameron is sent off to god’s promise.
the main reason i hurried to finish this book was that i wanted to see the film adaptation with chloe grace moretz. i was excited for the film as is, but, when i’d finished the book, i was really curious to see how they’d adapt it because there’s a lot of material in the book, a lot of story that’s crucial to cameron’s experience at god’s promise, the “school” she’s sent to after she’s outed. she has a roommate; the doors are never locked or closed all the way; and the students are all checked in on during the night. they study independently, go to group therapy, draw icebergs that represent their sin of homosexuality.
i love the way the film adapted the novel. the film focuses on cameron’s time at god’s promise, but it also gives us all the important moments that lead up to cameron’s forced enrollment — even while focusing on a small part of the novel, the film doesn’t lose the expansive sense of the book.
and neither does it lose its horrors.
there’s nothing sensational or dramatic about either the novel or the film, but that’s kind of the thing about conversion therapy — on the surface, it’s not necessarily very sensational, and it’s not necessarily outwardly horrific. in cameron post, the people who run god’s promise aren’t cruel, abusive people, not in the strictest sense of either word, and, if you believe what they believe in the way they believe, you’d think them kind and loving, committed to their children’s eternal souls.
but the thing is that conversion therapy does so much harm. it’s an insidious, dangerous practice. it’s banned in fourteen states + DC.
cameron post doesn’t shy away from showing the harm wrought by conversion therapy. cameron herself is lucky to emerge relatively unscathed, at least in the sense that she retains a grasp of herself as who she is and doesn’t self-harm. others aren’t so lucky; there’s a girl who so wants to believe that she’s figured out the source of her homosexual urges and has them under control that i fear for what will happen when she has to confront all her repressed feelings later. there’s the boy with the violent rage. and there’s the boy who wants his father’s approval, who immerses himself in the bible and memorizes scripture and is trying so hard to be able to go back home, that when he continues to be rejected by his father, it breaks him.
i wasn’t thinking of including quotes in this post, but here’s a long one, four poignant, crucial pages from cameron post. i think it gets at why it can be difficult to explain why conversion therapy is so harmful and why people just might not understand, especially if they don’t want to to, if they subscribe to the belief that homosexuality is such a terrible, damning sin. in the scene, someone (cameron calls him mr. blah-blah because she doesn’t remember his name) has come from the child and family services department after a student at god’s promise mutilates himself, and he is interviewing different students.
“do you think you can tell me more specifically what you mean when you say that you can’t trust the staff here?”
that time he did sound like every other counselor who’d ever asked me to elaborate on my feelings. i was surprised at myself for having him to open up to. i was surprised even as i was doing it. maybe i picked him because i thought he would have to take me seriously, whatever i said, he seemed so fastidious and by the book, and he also seemed, precisely because of his position and that fastidiousness, a little nonjudgmental, i guess.
“i would say that rick and lydia and everybody else associated with promise think that they’re doing what’s best for us, like spiritually or whatever,” i said. “but just because you think something doesn’t make it true.”
“okaaaaay,” he said. “can you go on?”
“not really,” i said, but then tried to anyway. “i’m just saying that sometimes you can end up really messing somebody up because they’re you’re trying to supposedly help them is really messed up.”
“so are you saying that their method of treatment is abusive?” he asked me in a tone i didn’t like very much.
“look, nobody’s beating us. they’re not even yelling at us. it’s not like that.” i sighed and shook my head. “you asked me if i trust them, and like, i trust them to drive the vans safely on the highway, and i trust that they’ll buy food for us every week, but i don’t trust that they actually know what’s best for my soul, or how to make me the best person with a guaranteed slot in heaven or whatever.” i could tell i was losing him. or maybe i’d never had him to begin with, and i was mad at myself for being so inarticulate, for messing up what i felt like i owed to mark, even if he wouldn’t see it that way, which he probably wouldn’t.
“whatever,” i said. “it’s hard to explain. i just don’t trust that a place like promise is even necessary, or that i need to be here, or that any of us need to be here, and the whole point of being here is that we’re supposed to trust that what they’re doing is going to save us, so how could i answer yes to your question?”
“i guess you couldn't,” he said.
i thought maybe i had an in, so i said, “it’s just that i know you’re here because of what happened to mark.”
but before i could continue he said, “what mr. turner did to himself.”
“what?” i asked.
“you said what happened to him,” he said. “something didn’t just happen to him. he injured himself. severely.”
“yeah, while under the care of this facility,” i said.
“correct,” he said in another unreadable tone. “and that’s why i’m here: to investigate the care that is given by those who run this facility, but not to investigate the mission of the facility, unless that mission includes abuse or neglect.”
“but isn’t there like emotional abuse?” i asked.
“there is,” he said, completely noncommittal. “do you feel that you’ve been emotionally abused by the staff here?”
“oh my god,” i said, throwing my hands in the air, feeling every bit as dramatic as i was acting. “i just told you all about it — the whole fucking purpose of this place is to make us hate ourselves so that we change. we’re supposed to hate who we are, despise it.”
“i see,” he said, but i could tell that he didn’t at all. “is there anything else?”
“no, i think the hate yourself part about covers it.”
he looked at me, unsure, searching for what to say, and then he took a breath and said, “okay. i want you to know that i’ve written down what you’ve said and it will go in the official file. ‘ll also share it with my committee.” he had jotted something down as i was talking, but i definitely didn’t trust that he’d really written down what i had said, not really, at least not the way that i’d said it.
“right,” i said. “well, i’m sure that will be an effective method for change.” now i hated this guy, and myself a little too — for hoping that i could make something happen just by answering a few questions honestly. for once.
“i’m not sure i understand,” he aid.
and i believe that he really didn’t understand what i was trying to say; i do. but i also believe that he didn’t really want to, because he probably wasn’t so nonjudgmental after all, and maybe he eve believed that people like me, like mark, absolutely did belong at promise. or somewhere worse. and though i knew that i couldn’t explain all of that to him, make what i was feeling fit neatly into words, i tried, more for me and for mark than for this guy’s understanding.
“my whole point,” i said, “is that what they teach here, what they believe, if you don’t trust it, if you doubt it at all, then you’re told that you’re going to hell, that no only everyone you know is ashamed of you, but that jesus himself has given up on your soul. and you’re like mark, and you do believe all of this, you really do — you have faith in jesus and this stupid promise system, and even still, even with those things, you still can’t make yourself good enough, because what you’re trying to change isn’t changeable, it’s like your height or the shape of your ears, whatever,then it’s like this place does make things happen to you, or at least it’s supposed to convince you that you’re always gonna be a dirty sinner and that it’s completely your fault because you’re not trying hard enough to change yourself. it convinced mark.”
“are you saying that you think the staff should have anticipated that mark would do something like this?” he asked, jotting again. “were there warning signs?”
at that i just gave up completely. (398-401)
and here’s one last short passage to think about.
“you’re right,” jane said. “it’s completely fucked. but his dad doesn’t see it that way. he absolutely believes with everything in him that what he’s doing in the only way to save his son from eternal damnation. the fiery pits of hell. he believes that completely.”
adam kept sneering, near a shout now. “yeah, well what about saving him from right now? what about the hell of thinking it’s best just to fucking chop your balls off than to have your body somehow betray your stupid fucking belief system?”
“that’s never what it’s about to those people,” jane said, still calm. “all that’s the price we’re supposed to pay for salvation. we’re supposed to be glad to pay it.” (389)
fuck conversion therapy.
malinda lo, a line in the dark
malinda lo’s ash is one of my favorite YA books, so i was interested to read a line in the dark because, heeeeey, queer YA! by a queer asian writer! i am all over that!
i liked a line in the dark enough. it went quickly. the ending was fairly predictable, but i appreciated the telling of the story and loved the portrayal of young people.
that’s kind of it — and talking about YA is kind of weird to me because i’m not drawn to it, typically find myself feeling more eh about it than not, and my instinct is to get defensive about that, to explain that, no, it’s not snobbishness or condescension — i just am not honestly drawn to YA and have never been.
and then i feel kind of dumb about getting defensive because what’s to get defensive about? not all kinds of books are for everyone, and it’s okay to have preferences. it’s okay not to read everything. it’s okay not to want to read everything.
naomi alderman, disobedience
i saw the film adaptation to disobedience before i read the book, and, to be honest, the main reason i picked up the book is that i was so uhhhh whaaaat??? over the film — and not in the good way.
the cast was stellar (rachel weisz! rachel mcadams!), but the film was choppy and oddly resolved, if you could say it was resolved at all. it was like all the characters finally reached a point of understanding, the climax of the film you could say … but then that was it. they get to the climax of the film, then wake up the next morning, and then one character leaves, and that’s that — there’s no denouement, no follow-through, no indication that anything has changed or will change, just … the ending credits rolling.
there also isn’t much context provided, so, as someone who has very little knowledge of orthodox jewish customs, i was massively confused and kind of put out in one particular scene because i was unaware that it was tradition, what one of the characters does. (a friend of mine explained later, and it made so much more sense.) this is not a criticism, though, because the film did make me realize how little i know of orthodox jewish culture, and it’s on me to follow through on that and try to learn more on my own.
that’s not why i read the book, though — i read the book because i wanted to know how different it was from the film, because, after i saw the film, i started googling reviews and read how the book is more insular, has more sass. i read that we got more from esti and her relationship with faith. i wanted to know if the ending were just as infuriating.
i found the book thoughtful enough; i read both a line in the dark and disobedience on my flight back to LA from new york; and the pages turned quickly. it’s been over a month since i read it, though, so that means my impressions of it have become fuzzier, and, sometimes, i wonder if i should be reviewing these books right away, so i remember more things clearly.
i often like giving books the test of time, though, to see if they have what i call staying power. it’s not a criticism of a book if it fades quickly from memory because not all books can stay with you (and neither should all books have to have that power) — i do believe in the importance of the reading experience first and foremost; it’s why i refuse to shame people for reading whatever they read and why i dislike the term “guilty pleasure.”
that said, disobedience has largely faded from my memory, and the thing i remember most about it is that i wish naomi alderman had gotten less lost in philosophical wanderings about religion and faith and shown us more about how her characters actually live with religion and faith. i wanted more from esti, a lesbian in an orthodox jewish community, about why she might not want to leave her community even if it is grossly homophobic and heteronormative, because that conflict is so, so relatable and so worth exploring. i wanted more of dovid’s conflicts as a default prominent member of the community. i wanted more about all these messy intersections of the secular and the religious, and i wanted more of it as they actually play out in people’s lives, not just in their philosophical ramblings and thinkings because, yeah, theory is great, but, in the end, for it to have value, it needs to be pulled down to the ground and given tangible form in lived human life.
thea lim, an ocean of minutes
touchstone sent me an ocean of minutes early this summer, and i didn’t get to it until last month because i’m such a mood reader. would i call this dystopian fiction? i don’t know, but it’s set in an america where an outbreak has spread rapidly, essentially quarantining parts of the country. a company has developed the ability to time travel, and [healthy] people are able to time travel into the future, exchanging labor for a cure to be administered to infected loved ones, which is what the main character, polly, does, except, instead of being sent 12 years into the future, she’s sent 17 years into the future.
this was another fast read. i could have done without the last ten pages or so, though. they felt like thea lim was too preoccupied with tying things up in a neat bow-tied ending when she could have just left the characters where they were.
bina shah, before she sleeps
i wanted to love before she sleeps but did not, and i don’t know if my disappointment is simply that my expectations were too high. the summary made the novel sound like a dystopia in the lines of the handmaid’s tale but set in the middle east, in an imaginary city where women (or girls, really) are married off to multiple men and made to have child after child after child because there’s a fertility crisis.
before she sleeps has a ton of potential, but, ultimately, the world just isn’t fleshed out enough. there’s a small group of women underground who provide companionship to wealthy, powerful men — not sex, but physical, sex-less intimacy because, in this world, that kind of emotional comfort is rare and desired — and we follow a few of these women and learn their stories. there are also a few men in there because, of course, the safety of these underground women is dependent upon them, and there’s a surprise pregnancy, the fear of discovery, exposure, etcetera.
it could have been so good.
i actually have the same criticism of before she sleeps as i did adam johnson’s the orphan master’s son (it’s still beyond me, how that won the pulitzer) — that the novel relies too much on the nature of its setting to provide conflict and tension, by which i mean that the writer knows that a setting like north korea or a repressive, paternalistic regime like the one in before she sleeps is intrinsically dangerous, that the setting alone automatically means that readers will enter the book already with a sense of unease, and the writer fails, thus, to build out the world fully. it’s not that there isn’t conflict in before she sleeps, but it’s all fairly predictable — of course, something happens that means the women underground are exposed; of course, they have to go on the run; of course, the book ends the way it does.
which is fine! i don’t necessarily look for books to be new as far as plots go because there’s little in any art form that’s truly original, but i do look for emotional truth. i want characters who are fully human, and i want them to exist in a real, living, breathing world. i want active writing that introduces tension and creates momentum, whether that momentum is plot-based or character-based or whatever-based. and, unfortunately, before she sleeps simply doesn’t deliver in any of those ways.
miriam toews, women talking
there was a copy error about halfway through women talking; one of the women leaves the scene, has dialogue on the next page, returns back to the scene a few pages later. i had to read it several times to make sure i was reading correctly, to verify that she had indeed left the scene, and the poop thing about this is that now that’s the clearest thing i remember from this slim, interesting novel.
i read women talking the weekend that kavanaugh was confirmed and sworn into the SCOTUS seat left empty by kennedy (that asshole), and, god, what a weekend to read women talking. toews based this on actual happenings in mennonite communities in the early 2000s — women (and girls!) were waking up in the morning, bruised and sore and bleeding. they were told, by their male elders, that they were making it up, that the devil was visiting them, that it was a plague from god or some other, and, without any clear answers and no other alternatives, they accepted it, and nothing was done.
until two men were caught trying to break into someone’s house.
it turned out that a group of men in the community had been drugging women and girls and raping them for years. one victim was as young as three years old. there’s a great vice article about the aftermath here.
women talking is an imagined scenario following the exposure of these serial rapes. the book is set up as the minutes of these meetings in which women in this fictional mennonite community debate whether they should stay or leave. the minutes are taken by a man because women in mennonite communities are illiterate — girls are not educated — and the man, too, is an outsider, someone who was once a part of the community when he was young before his parents were exiled.
it’s an interesting novel, and it’s one i still don’t quite know how to talk about. toews deftly captures the complexities of these women, shows why it’s not such a simple thing just to leave people (or a community) who have been abusing you, explores the complexities of being a woman (or a girl) with a body. toews also shows how women are different — there is no one singular response to having been abused or raped or assaulted. there is no “correct” response. everyone, every woman, carries her trauma in her own way.
we don’t see much of the men in women talking, and i’m glad for that. a husband makes an appearance at one point because he returns to the community to take animals to be traded so the rapists (who have been taken to the city jail) can be bailed out. there’s the narrator, who’s a man, who’s taking the minutes because the women are illiterate. there are teenage boys from another town. there’s the senile old man who owns the barn in which the women are meeting.
and it’s great. turns out, stories that center women are really damn interesting and compelling, too, even stories in which they do nothing else but sit in a barn and debate whether they should leave or stay or fight.. and, as my reading these last few months shows, it’s really damn easy to read women writers. i did not intentionally set out to read only women and didn’t realize i had until i sat down to write this post.
becky chambers, record of a spaceborn few
I LOVE BECKY CHAMBERS’ WAYFARER SERIES, and i hate series. (again, i have an aversion for long books. that includes series.)
i first learned of these books a few years ago when a long way to a small, angry planet started making its rounds on instagram. the cover is beautiful, and i bought it without knowing what it was about because, hey, i’m not ashamed of that — i judge books by their covers sometimes; hell, i’ve judged books by their type and margins sometimes.
(like, my main reason for picking up and putting down rachel cusk’s outline numerous times? the damn book is set in a sans serif font.) (han kang’s the vegetarian is, too, but it’s in a more subtle sans serif.)
i read a long way in a day, though, plowed my way through it because, holy shit, the world-building is SO well done. chambers built planets and languages and species, and the most impressive part of that is that she built species that aren’t based on the human model — alien species aren’t just alien species because they’re blue or green or have different animalistic features while still walking on two legs and having two arms and hands and a head and a torso and etcetera etcetera etcetera. they’re alien, and they’re different, and, as chambers tells the stories of these characters, she explores what it means to be different and to exist peacefully with those differences.
because one of the key things in this huge, expansive world is that humans are the Other. humans have taken to space because they’ve destroyed earth. they’ve had to come into other galaxies on their giant ships, and they’ve had to learn to depend on other species with more advanced technology, more territorial rights, more power and knowledge and influence. they’ve had to learn other languages. they’ve had to defer.
what chambers shows through her books is that acknowledging difference, that respecting differences and coexisting are possible — it’s actually kind of easy. yes, it requires work, and, yes, it requires effort, but it’s not difficult. it’s certainly not impossible. and the world, the whole freaking universe is so much better off when people, aliens, whatever can learn to exist together with all their unique traits, the depth and beauty of their individual cultures appreciated and respected instead of made to change to fit one supposed ideal.
in other words, screw westernization.
one of the things i’ve been loving about this series thus far is that each book focuses on a different group. the first, a long way to a small, angry planet, is more general, placing us mostly on a ship staffed by members of different species. the second, a closed and common circuit, centers around an AI character. the third and most recent, record of a starborn few, follows a handful of humans — or exodans, as they’re now called.
at first, i was kind of ehhh about record — i thought the pieces were too fragmented, the characters lives too disconnected and separate from each other, that i was almost disappointed. i’d read the first two books with such obsessive glee, fascination, and interest, but i wasn’t having that same intense fervor with the third — at first.
i kept reading because i knew to trust chambers; she hadn’t let me down with the first two books, had already demonstrated her ability to weave together stories and bring all the pieces into one cohesive puzzle; and i felt that, yes, okay, maybe i wasn’t so crazy in love with book number three, but that was okay, too. it’s unrealistic to expect authors to write only brilliant, amazing books, anyway, and it’s unrealistic to expect that you’ll like everything an author writes with the same intensity.
but then, things started coming together. all these separate threads began to be woven together, not in cliched, boring ways where suddenly all their worlds are colliding and they’re all dramatically involved in each other’s lives — chambers weaves her narrative threads together with more nuance than that, exploring how an event, how one person’s life, can reverberate in strangers’ lives and affect them.
and it’s really wonderfully done.
jenny han, to all the boys i’ve loved before
i read to all the boys i’ve loved before on a tired sunday afternoon, and it was a fast read. i can’t say i either liked or disliked it, though — the pages turned quickly enough to pass the time, and it was quite pleasant to read with two puppies snoozing next to me, one getting up every minute to flop over into another position.
i enjoyed the film adaptation well enough as well, despite being constantly thrown off by how the sisters didn’t look at all like sisters and only kitty looked biracial. i’m also still working through vague peeves of why lara jean had to be biracial to begin with, though vague peeves of books written by asian-american authors about biracial characters, and i say i’m working through those peeves because i wonder where they’re coming from, if they’re some kind of latent, internalized asianness that makes me roll my eyes and think, of course, of course, there’s this kind of appeasement because there has to be some pandering to a white readership.
does that make me cynical? or does that make me one of those asians? though i’m no purist by any means and don’t give two shits about asian women dating or marrying men or other races and i think any kind of racial purity bullshit is just that — bullshit.
and yet i admit that i am bothered by how many books by asian american writers go for biracial, go for some kind of whiteness, and i am kind of bothered by the fact that i am bothered. i think i’m bothered because it implies that asian stories about asian people can’t be told unless there is whiteness present to make these narratives relatable and/or familiar and/or interesting, and i think i’m bothered because it’s a common enough thing that i can rattle off a list of books by asian american women with biracial main characters.
again, though, i’m all for interracial relationships, so why does this bother me so much to see it so often in fiction? especially when it does reflect the common occurrence of interracial relationships? like, many of these asian american women writers are themselves in interracial relationships and get so much ridiculous shit about it from insecure asian men, shit that pisses me off whenever i see it?