The Song Poet – Kao Kalia Yang

 

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I have so much love for this book that I don’t know how to write about it. Will you just bypass it because, it’s a book that you haven’t heard of? Or maybe you don’t read memoirs? Or non-fiction? Why am I being so negative? Maybe instead you are excited because it is a book you’ve not heard much of! Maybe it’s interesting because it is memoir! Non-fiction! Hurrah!

Amazingly, I won The Song Poet from a Library Thing giveaway. (I seriously have the worst of luck when it comes to book giveaways). And what is perhaps more amazing is that I picked up the book and read it, within a few weeks of receiving it. I am a bit of a hoarder when it comes to physical books. I buy them and then, save them for the end of the world or something.

Anyway, the book must have called out to me. It was meant to be. And it was one of the most beautiful things I have ever read. A book that sings and cries, a book that laughs and shudders. A book I brought along on a Bart ride to the city to pick up my passport from the Singapore consulate. It sat with me on the crowded train, it rocketed up many storeys up to the consulate building, then it basked in the sunlight at Ferry Building where I sipped a tiny and expensive mocha and watched the traffic on the Bay Bridge.

This may sound silly but I first learnt of the Hmong on the TV series Grey’s Anatomy. Grey’s Anatomy may be overdramatic and too many ridiculous things happen to one doctor at one hospital (she puts her hand in a body with a bomb, she steps in front of a gunman etc). But it was also one of the very very few popular primetime TV series to have a lead Asian character, and it wasn’t about Christina Yang being Korean. Or Asian. She was just a doctor. A friend. A crazy, intense, very intelligent person. But still. She was a person. But this episode has nothing to do with Yang. An episode in Season Two featured a patient, a young woman, who needed surgery but because she is Hmong, her father refuses. They decide to call in a shaman before surgery. I hadn’t the faintest idea if this was a good portrayal of the Hmong culture or not (the blog Petite Hmong Mommy found it kinda ridiculous) but it made me wonder about the Hmong culture. I later learnt more by reading Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, published in 1997, a work of non-fiction about a young Hmong girl living in Merced, California, who suffers from epilepsy. It is a moving, tragic book, in case you haven’t yet read it. But it is not by a Hmong so it’s still from the point of view of an outsider looking in.

The Song Poet seemed to me like your typical refugee in America kind of memoir at first. But the prologue opens with ‘Album Notes’, in which Yang writes about calling her father, Bee, a poet.

“I grew up hearing my father digging into words for images that will stretch the limits of life for my siblings and me. In my father’s mouth, bitter, rigid words become sweet and elastic like taffy candy. His poetry shields us from the poverty of our lives.”

His song poetry is hard to explain, and Yang describes it as such:

“The only way I know how to describe it as a form in English is to say: my father raps, jazzes, and sings the blues when he dwells in the landscape of traditional Hmong song poetry.”

It sounds fascinating.

The Song Poet is a story of struggle, of hardship, of determination, and quite simply of back-breaking, hardworking parents trying to make enough money to put a roof over their family’s heads, to put food in their kids’ mouths. This is a story that moves from Laos, to Thailand, to Minneapolis. And it is so very very difficult, to read of all the pain that other people put this family through, because they are different, because they are Hmong. They were driven from the Laos because of war and communism. In Thailand they lived in refugee camps, where the author was born. Then wanting to be more than just refugees, the family traveled to America. But in America, their lives are still difficult – Bee takes on backbreaking, dangerous work at a factory in order to make ends meet. His wife works the morning shift, he works the night shift. Just so that there is a parent around for their children.

Yang’s voice is just beautiful. My favourite part of the book is ‘Side A, Track 4: Love Song’, where she writes from her father’s perspective of his love for his wife Chue Moua, and all the many things that they have gone through, many miscarriages, across countries. I read and reread that chapter, trying to find something to quote here, but it is a chapter to be read as a whole. A few sentences, a paragraph, wouldn’t do justice to this emotional chapter.

Instead, I will leave you here with a quote from another part of the book. Equally unforgettable.

 

“In America, my voice is only powerful within our home. The moment I exit our front door and enter the paved roads, my deep voice loses its volume and its strength. When I speak English, I become like a leaf in the wind. I cannot control the direction my words will fly in the ear of the other person. I try to soften my landing in the language by leaving pauses between each word. I wrestle my accent until it is a line of breath in the tightness of my throat. I greet people. I ask for directions. I say thank you. I say goodbye. I only speak English at work when it is necessary. I don’t like the weakness of my voice in English, but what I struggle with most is the weakness of my words.”

 

You can read an excerpt of The Song Poet over at Literary Hub

 

diversity

I read this for Akilah’s Diversity on the Shelf challenge

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Read Diverse Books Year-Round

On rereading a childhood favourite

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This was the cover of the copy I had as a kid

 

There’s something both exciting and daunting about reading a childhood favourite after many many years.

It’s exciting to be brought back to one’s childhood again. To see this book with adult eyes.

And that’s exactly what makes it a bit daunting. What if it doesn’t live up to your glorified expectations? To that highest of high esteem that you have held it to all these years? And what, just what would happen, if you realize that this book that you’ve idolised, that you’ve been in love with all these years, is just not really the book that you thought it was.

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This is the latest version from MacMillan

So it was with great relief that I finished Rumer Godden’s Miss Happiness and Miss Flower. And it was every bit as wonderful as I remembered it to be.

Nona, 8, a quiet shy girl, has just moved from India to stay with her cousins in England. She’s sad and lonely and doesn’t know how to adapt to her new life with her far more boisterous cousins Anne, 14, Tom, 11, and Belinda,”a rough tough little girl of seven”.

One day a parcel arrives from America, from their Great Aunt Lucy Dickinson, and inside are two Japanese dolls, named Miss Happiness and Miss Flower. Nona feels for the dolls who also have travelled a great distance and are far from home. With the encouragement of her older cousins and her aunt and uncle, she decides to make them a house, a doll’s house, a proper Japanese doll’s house. And as her plans begin to take shape, Nona herself blossoms and emerges from her shell, and more importantly, begins to make a home for herself in England.

One thing that always stood out for me was the way books and reading were given great significance in this book. Like when Nona, who was “always reading”, discovered that books could also teach her about making things like a doll’s house.

 

“I didn’t know you could learn to carpenter out of books.’

‘You can learn anything out of books,’ said Tom.

‘A book like this?’

Tom nodded.

‘Oh!’, said Nona. She stood by him a moment longer and then said, ‘Thank you, Tom.’

And her first solo outing that she dares to brave is to the village bookshop, run by the gruff old Mr Twilfit, whom Anne calls “an absolute old dragon”, although Nona learns that he can be sweet and gentle, especially to girls who wash their hands before handling his books. She eventually tells him about the dolls and her plans to make a Japanese house. And he asks a wonderful question.

“Can you read?” he rapped out.

“Of course,” said Nona.

“Really read?”

That was one thing Nona was quite sure she could do, and she nodded.

 

Ah, the power and the magic of books. Nona begins to read and read and learn all about Japanese culture, Japanese houses, furniture, flowers, and more. She does need Tom’s help to build the house itself though, and Mr Twilfit plays a part in that.

I always wondered if Godden was inspired by Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, the story of the girl who returns to England from India. But I only recently realized that Godden herself lived in India for many years as a child, then returned to England for school, and was brought back again to India when the First World War broke out. Back again to England to finally finish school, then as an adult, back to India where she lived for some 20 years before moving back to England.

Rumer Godden’s daughter said her mother wrote children’s books between novels, “as she said it was a very good discipline as you must never write down to children or use too much description”.

And I think she hit the right notes with this book – and even provides some basic blueprints in case the reader wants to make her own doll house.

 

BackToTheClassics2016

I read this for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2016 and Read My Own Damn Books

 

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2016 Reading Challenges

Ah, a new year, a clean slate! And this year, with my number of books read set back to zero, I would like to begin again and join some challenges. More importantly, I will try my very best to maintain my enthusiasm for the challenges throughout the year!

 

BackToTheClassics2016

 

Karen at Books and Chocolate is once again hosting the Back to the Classics Challenge,  where we will be reading books written at least 50 years ago (by 1966) in 12 different categories. Or at least I hope to be able to read books in all 12 categories!

1. A 19th Century Classic – any book published between 1800 and 1899.

An Old-Fashioned Girl – Louisa May Alcott (published 1869)

2.  A 20th Century Classic – any book published between 1900 and 1966.

The Making of a Marchioness – Frances Hodgson Burnett (published 1901)

3.  A classic by a woman author.

Read: Miss Happiness and Miss Flower – Rumer Godden (published 1961)

The Time of Man – Elizabeth Madox Roberts (published 1935)

4.  A classic in translation.

Read: Alberto Moravia’s Conjugal Love (translated from Italian)
Journey to the End of the Night – Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Ralph Manheim (Translator) (published 1932)
Dom Casmurro – Machado de Assis (published in 1899)
The Makioka Sisters – Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, Edward G. Seidensticker (Translator) (published 1943)

5.  A classic by a non-white author.

Read: The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki

A Raisin in the Sun – Lorraine Hansberry (published 1959)
Go Tell it On the Mountain – James Baldwin (published 1953)
The Train to Pakistan – Khushwant Singh (published 1956)

6.  An adventure classic – can be fiction or non-fiction.

Read: Kon-Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl

Wind, Sand and Stars – Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Lewis Galantière (Translator) (published 1939)
Annapurna: The First Conquest of an 8,000-Meter Peak – Maurice Herzog (published 1951)

7.  A fantasy, science fiction, or dystopian classic.

The Man in the High Castle – Philip K Dick (published 1962)
When the Sleeper Wakes – HG Wells (published 1899)

8.  A classic detective novel.

The Crime at Black Dudley – Margery Allingham (published 1929)
And Then There Were None – Agatha Christie (published 1939)

9.  A classic which includes the name of a place in the title.

Howard End – EM Forster
Winesburg, Ohio – Sherwood Anderson

10. A classic which has been banned or censored. If possible, please mention why this book was banned or censored in your review.

A Separate Peace – John Knowles

according to the ALA: Challenged in Vernon-Verona-Sherill, NY School District (1980) as a “filthy, trashy sex novel.” Challenged at the Fannett-Metal High School in Shippensburg, Pa. (1985) because of its allegedly offensive language. Challenged as appropriate for high school reading lists in the Shelby County, Tenn. school system (1989) because the novel contained “offensive language.” Challenged at the McDowell County, N.C. schools (1996) because of “graphic language.” Source: Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom, May 1980, p. 62; Nov. 1985, p. 204; Jan, 1990, pp 11-12; Jan. 1997, p. 11.

11. Re-read a classic you read in school (high school or college). 

Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen
Gulliver’s Travels – Jonathan Swift (published 1726)

12. A volume of classic short stories. This must be one complete volume, at least 8 short stories.

Stories – Katherine Mansfield (published 1956)

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#ReadMyOwnDamnBooks over at Estellas Revenge

 

I’ve got a pile of books on my night stand, and another next to my Macbook. Both of which I hope to clear by the end of 2016.

 

  

 

diversity

Diversity on the Shelf 2016 over at The Englishist

I’ve taken part in Aarti’s Diversiverse for the past couple of years now, but I try to read as diversely as possible throughout the year too. I just need to post about these books already. Hopefully this challenge will encourage me to do more of that.

I’m going for 5th Shelf: Read 25+ books

BOOKS READ 

1. Delicious Foods – James Hannaham
2. Supermutant Magic Academy – Jillian Tamaki
3. Loyola Chin and the San Peligran Order – Gene Luen Yang
4. The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye – Sonny Liew
5. The Makioka Sisters – Junichiro Tanizaki
6. The Wrath and the Dawn – Renee Ahdieh
7. The Old Garden – Hwang Sok-yong
8. Nijigahara Holograph – Inio Asano
9. The Book of Memory – Petina Gappah
10. Fresh off the Boat – Eddie Huang
11. Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness – Jennifer Tseng
12. Modern Romance – Aziz Ansari
13. The Paper Menagerie and other stories – Ken Liu
14. Who Slashed Celanire’s throat? A Fantastical Novel – Maryse Conde
The Partner Track by Helen Wan
15. Half a Lifelong Romance by Eileen Chang

I’m not going to list all the books right now, instead, I’m noting some books already on the lists of my other challenges (see above)

In the Light of What we know – Zia Haider Rahman
Ten Things My Father Never Taught Me and other stories – Cyril Wong
The Makioka Sisters – Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, Edward G. Seidensticker (Translator)
A Raisin in the Sun – Lorraine Hansberry
Go Tell it On the Mountain – James Baldwin
The Train to Pakistan – Khushwant Singh

I’m also adding to that some books on my list for Diversiverse last year that I never got to
Skin Folk: stories by Nalo Hopkinson
Grace of Kings by Ken Liu
Spirits Abroad by Zen Cho

 

Nonfiction Reading Challenge hosted at The Introverted Reader
Non-fiction Reading Challenge – The Introverted Reader

Explorer–Read 6-10

What makes this book so great – Jo Walton
Why I read: the serious pleasure of books – Wendy Lesser
Fire shut up in my bones – Charles M Blow
Four seasons in Rome – Anthony Doerr
Population: 485 – Michael Perry
Between the World and Me: – Ta-Nehisi Coates
The Corpse Walker: Real Life Stories, China from the Bottom Up – Liao Yiwu, Wenguang Huang (Translator)
As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto

(and more to come)