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

 

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

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Read Diverse Books Year-Round

F is for Ferrante, Ferrante is Fabulous

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I read this book in three days. Mostly because it was due back at the library and I couldn’t renew it as some other Ferrante fan was waiting for it. Or at least someone had it on hold and I’m guessing that person is a Ferrante fan because this book is the second in the series.

And really there ought to be more Ferrante fans in the world.

Or at least in the bookish parts of the world.

Because Ferrante is…

Fabulous
Her series is set in a small town in Naples and tells of a friendship between two women, Lenu and Lila. The first book in the series, My Brilliant Friend (my thoughts), talks about their childhood. And in this second book, the story continues through their young adult years. She completely absorbs the reader in their lives, in their friendship, in their emotions and their world. It is engaging, compelling, and all those other ‘-ing’ words that publishers splatter on book covers to entice readers to pick up a book. She is quite simply fabulous.

Ferocious
Her characters are full of life. They run through a gamut of emotions as their relationships takes dramatic twists and turns. This is not a quiet book, despite its rather subdued cover. It is bursting with colour and vivacity, with the smells and tastes and sights of life in Naples.

Friendly
And by that I mean that her writing is easy to read. Nothing overwrought or overwritten. Of course I possibly mean that her translator’s translation is easy to read.

Finalist
Well, sort of, in that the third book in her Neapolitan series, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, has been shortlisted for the 2015 Tournament of Books

Fascinatingly Furtive
Elena Ferrante is not her real name. She’s never been photographed or interviewed in person and has apparently never made a public appearance. Who is she? No one seems to know. Or at least those who are in the know don’t seem to want to let the rest of us know.

She explains in an email interview with the New York Times:

“If I may, I didn’t choose anonymity; the books are signed. Instead, I chose absence. More than 20 years ago I felt the burden of exposing myself in public. I wanted to detach myself from the finished story. I wanted the books to assert themselves without my patronage.”

Well, whoever Ferrante really is, whatever her name really is, I’m all in! As the Boston Globe put it:

 “Everyone should read anything with Ferrante’s name on it.”

I second that!

 

 

Bibliography

L’amore molesto (1992; English translation: Troubling Love, 2006)
I giorni dell’abbandono (2002; English translation: The Days of Abandonment, 2005)
La frantumaglia (2003; English translation Fragments, 2013)[9]
La figlia oscura (2006; English translation: The Lost Daughter, 2008)
Ayaam Al-Hijraan (2007)
La spiaggia di notte (2007)
L’amica geniale (2011; English translation: My Brilliant Friend, 2012)
Storia del nuovo cognome, L’amica geniale volume 2 (2012; English translation: The Story of a New Name, 2013)
Storia di chi fugge e di chi resta, L’amica geniale volume 3 (2013; English translation: Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, 2014)
Storia della bambina perduta, L’amica geniale volume 4 (2014; English translation: The Story of the Lost Child, 2015)
(untitled), L’amica geniale volume 5 (2015)
2015 Translation

This is the second book I read for the Books in Translation Reading Challenge

#Diversiverse: A More Diverse Universe 2014

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Aarti at Booklust is hosting Diversiverse once again. I kept meaning to join last year! And then of course I didn’t. So I am going to try my very best to join this year. It’s not too difficult after all:

Read and review one book
Written by a person of color
During the last two weeks of September (September 14th – 27th)

I haven’t decided on my list of books just yet, but in case you’re looking for some reads by POC authors, here are some I’ve read and enjoyed recently:

Ten Little Indians by Sherman Alexie     
Ruby by Cynthia Bond     
The year she left us – Kathryn Ma
Ghost bride – Yangsze Choo (review to come)
I’ll be right there – Shin Kyung-Sook (review to come)
Everything I never told you – Celeste Ng
The Icarus Girl – Helen Oyeyemi
The pirate’s daughter – Margaret Cezair-Thompson

Also, check out my list of Southeast Asian books (books set in SEA or written by SEAsians) – although please note that not all of these books are by people of colour.
As Aarti emphasizes: You may have to change your book-finding habits to include POC authors in your reading rotation.  You absolutely do not need to change your book-reading habits. 

So why don’t you join in too?

 

The Lake

Chihiro, a painter of murals, tells the story of The Lake. Her late mother was the owner and ‘mama-san’ of a club and her father is of some prominence in their small rural town. The book opens with her mother’s hospitalisation and death, which leaves Chihiro feeling lost and distanced and eventually she moves to Tokyo, where she meets Nakajima, who lives in the building diagonally across. She finds herself attracted to him.

There’s a tenacity in him that’s beyond all that. The intensity of a person unafraid of death, at the end of his rope.

Maybe that’s how I knew we would get along.

Yes there is an actual lake in this book.

“The water was so still you almost felt like it would absorb any sounds that reached it. The surface might have been a mirror. Then a wind blew up and sent small waves drifting across it. The only sound was the chirping of birds that whirled around us, high and low.”

Nakajima and Chihiro travel several hours to get to it, to a little shack by the lake that Nakajima and his mother used to live in, and which is now the home of Mino and Chii, siblings who make their living as clairvoyants. That is, Mino voices what the bedridden Chii ‘sees’. Mino also makes the most delicious tea, from spring water.

“The tea, made from leaves with a subtly smoky aroma, was so good I could feel my senses sharpening. It had a sweetness to it, and at the end of each sip I’d catch a whiff of fruit.”

And this is that kind of book that is to be read with a pot of steaming tea (lapsang souchong perhaps?) next to you  – and I suppose if you have a view of a lake, that would be helpful. Because this is story that gradually awakens.

I made the mistake of glancing at an interview with Banana Yoshimoto about The Lake which revealed more than I cared to know (at the point of my reading progress). The Goodreads description also reveals just a little too much about the story. So hopefully I’ve managed not to, and if you are interested in reading this book, just jump right in and read it, without reading too much about it! Because Yoshimoto (and her translator) has written a book that seems, at first glance, simple, direct. But there is so much more beneath.

“But sometimes we encounter people like Nakajima who compel us to remember it all. He doesn’t have to say or do anything in particular; just looking at him, you find yourself face-to-face with the enormousness of the world as a whole. Because he doesn’t try to live in just a part of it. Because he doesn’t avert his gaze.

He makes me feel like I’ve suddenly awakened, and I want to go on watching him forever. That, I think, is what it is. I’m awed by his terrible depths.”

Title: The Lake
Author: Banana Yoshimoto
Translated by: Michael Emmerich
Originally published in 2005

Please Look After Mom

“Before you lost sight of your wife on the Seoul Station subway platform, she was merely your children’s mother to you. She was like a steadfast tree, until you found yourself in a situation where you might not ever see her again – a tree that wouldn’t go away unless it was chopped down or pulled out. After your children’s mother went missing, you realized that it was your wife who was missing. Your wife, whom you’d forgotten about for fifty years, was present in your heart. Only after she disappeared did she come to you tangibly, as if you could reach out and touch her.”

I’m in a reviewing sort of mood. Perhaps because of the holiday season, my work has slowed and I find myself with time on my hands for a change. That is, when wee reader is napping and the chores are somewhat done (chores are never really ever done, are they?). And I’m reading but I’m sometimes also thinking about the books I’ve just finished. Like this one.

Please Look After Mom is one book that had stuck in my head. Maybe it’s because I’ve read very few books set in Korea, much less by a Korean author. Maybe it’s because of the very disorientating second-person narrative, and the different points of view the author takes on, switching from character to character with each chapter. It really is very jarring, this use of ‘you’. I glanced through a review that mentioned those choose-your-adventure books I loved as a kid. And it is a little like that. You. You. And you. Your mom (mother? – ‘mom seems too American, and rather out of place in this very Korean book). It is very strange and quite hard to get used to.

So Mom (your mom) disappears in Seoul. She and Father are at the subway station, Father steps into the train. The doors close. Mom is still on the platform. Father gets off at the next stop and backtracks but she’s gone.

This much you know from the publicity, the book description, when the story opens with the family is desperate and determined to find Mom. Their idea? Flyers. And that job falls on ‘you’, or Chi-hon, the writer and daughter, for words that are apt, for words that will bring Mom back home.

“Hyong-chol designates you to write up the flyer, since you write for a living. You blush, as if you were caught doing something you shouldn’t. You aren’t sure how helpful your words will be in finding Mom.”

And as Chi-hon goes about her search, she can’t help but think of Mom, remember Mom, wonder what she was doing when Mom disappeared.

The first chapter has a rather instructive, perhaps even chiding tone. One of the sections begins with: “either a mother and daughter know each other very well, or they are strangers”. Another informs that: “Most things in the world are not unexpected if one thinks carefully about them.” And that put me off. I felt like I was in some kind of moral education class. But I wondered if that was a cultural thing. If that was something more Korean, more Asian (ok so I am Asian myself, but a more ‘westernised’ Asian, speaking, reading, writing English far better than my ‘mother tongue’ of Chinese. I have never – and am incapable of – reading literature in Chinese, other than what the texts that I was forced to read in school). So I stuck it out. And things do get a little better.

The next chapter swings us around to Chi-hon’s brother Hyong-chol, who looks for Mom in all his old neighborhoods, after receiving tips about her location. Like his sister, he thinks of Mom, wonders what he had been up to when she went missing.

Then their father. A man who hasn’t seen his wife for who she really is, not for many years, perhaps not ever.

I’ve been wondering if my new-ish status as a mother (nearly nine months now, where did the time go?) – and a stay-at-home one at that – has affected the way I perceive things. And in this book, the way I’ve been reading the children’s perception of their mother. The way she has been taken for granted by her family. So there is all this sadness. Of the consciousness of love only after a loss.

The sentiment is there. The translation is a little wanting and the initial tone off-putting. So I am hesitant to recommend this book.

Library Loot (September 9, 2011)

Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Marg from The Adventures of an Intrepid Reader that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library.

So with RIP-ing in mind, I picked up a couple of suitable books (as well as one on hold – and more to come as they are in transit..!) and of course grabbed myself some more.

Terror – Dan Simmons

I’ve been wanting to read this since Richard Flanagan’s Wanting (they both feature Sir John Franklin). Definitely an RIP read. Wasn’t expecting it to be that huge though.

The men on board HMS Terror have every expectation of finding the Northwest Passage. When the expedition’s leader, Sir John Franklin, meets a terrible death, Captain Francis Crozier takes command and leads his surviving crewmen on a last, desperate attempt to flee south across the ice. But as another winter approaches, as scurvy and starvation grow more terrible, and as the Terror on the ice stalks them southward, Crozier and his men begin to fear there is no escape. A haunting, gripping story based on actual historical events, The Terror will chill you to your core.

A Red Herring Without Mustard: A Flavia de Luce Novel – Alan Bradley
Hello Flavia! Can’t wait!
Also an RIP VI read.

Award-winning author Alan Bradley returns with another beguiling novel starring the insidiously clever and unflappable eleven-year-old sleuth Flavia de Luce. The precocious chemist with a passion for poisons uncovers a fresh slew of misdeeds in the hamlet of Bishop’s Lacey—mysteries involving a missing tot, a fortune-teller, and a corpse in Flavia’s own backyard.

Flavia had asked the old Gypsy woman to tell her fortune, but never expected to stumble across the poor soul, bludgeoned in the wee hours in her own caravan. Was this an act of retribution by those convinced that the soothsayer had abducted a local child years ago? Certainly Flavia understands the bliss of settling scores; revenge is a delightful pastime when one has two odious older sisters. But how could this crime be connected to the missing baby? Had it something to do with the weird sect who met at the river to practice their secret rites? While still pondering the possibilities, Flavia stumbles upon another corpse—that of a notorious layabout who had been caught prowling about the de Luce’s drawing room.

Pedaling Gladys, her faithful bicycle, across the countryside in search of clues to both crimes, Flavia uncovers some odd new twists. Most intriguing is her introduction to an elegant artist with a very special object in her possession—a portrait that sheds light on the biggest mystery of all: Who is Flavia?

How to Read the Air – Dinaw Mengetsu
The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears was checked out. So we’ll see how this one goes then.

Dinaw Mengestu’s first novel, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, earned the young writer comparisons to Bellow, Fitzgerald, and Naipaul, and garnered ecstatic critical praise and awards around the world for its haunting depiction of the immigrant experience. Now Mengestu enriches the themes that defined his debut with a heartbreaking literary masterwork about love, family, and the power of imagination, which confirms his reputation as one of the brightest talents of his generation.

One early September afternoon, Yosef and Mariam, young Ethiopian immigrants who have spent all but their first year of marriage apart, set off on a road trip from their new home in Peoria, Illinois, to Nashville, Tennessee, in search of a new identity as an American couple. Soon, their son, Jonas, will be born in Illinois. Thirty years later, Yosef has died, and Jonas needs to make sense of the volatile generational and cultural ties that have forged him. How can he envision his future without knowing what has come before? Leaving behind his marriage and job in New York, Jonas sets out to retrace his mother and father’s trip and weave together a family history that will take him from the war-torn Ethiopia of his parents’ youth to his life in the America of today, a story-real or invented- that holds the possibility of reconciliation and redemption.

The Piano Teacher – Janice Y.K. Lee

Been wondering about this book for a while.

In the sweeping tradition of The English Patient, Janice Y.K. Lee’s debut novel is a tale of love and betrayal set in war-torn Hong Kong. In 1942, Englishman Will Truesdale falls headlong into a passionate relationship with Trudy Liang, a beautiful Eurasian socialite. But their affair is soon threatened by the invasion of the Japanese as World War II overwhelms their part of the world. Ten years later, Claire Pendleton comes to Hong Kong to work as a piano teacher and also begins a fateful affair. As the threads of this spellbinding novel intertwine, impossible choices emerge-between love and safety, courage and survival, the present, and above all, the past.

The Cellist of Sarajevo – Steven Galloway
Another one that’s been on my list, and spotted it while browsing the shelves (wee reader was dozing in his stroller and I took the advantage to do more browsing didn’t want to wake him).

In a city under siege, four people whose lives have been upended are ultimately reminded of what it is to be human. From his window, a musician sees twenty-two of his friends and neighbors waiting in a breadline. Then, in a flash, they are killed by a mortar attack. In an act of defiance, the man picks up his cello and decides to play at the site of the shelling for twenty-two days, honoring their memory. Elsewhere, a young man leaves home to collect drinking water for his family and, in the face of danger, must weigh the value of generosity against selfish survivalism. A third man, older, sets off in search of bread and distraction and instead runs into a long-ago friend who reminds him of the city he thought he had lost, and the man he once was. As both men are drawn into the orbit of cello music, a fourth character—a young woman, a sniper—holds the fate of the cellist in her hands. As she protects him with her life, her own army prepares to challenge the kind of person she has become.

A novel of great intensity and power, and inspired by a true story, The Cellist of Sarajevo poignantly explores how war can change one’s definition of humanity, the effect of music on our emotional endurance, and how a romance with the rituals of daily life can itself be a form of resistance.

A Conspiracy of Kings (Thief of Eddis) – Megan Whalen Turner

I haven’t read this. I think?

Sophos, heir to the throne of Sounis, has disappeared without a trace. Eugenides, the new and unlikely king of Attolia, has never stopped wondering what happened to his friend. Nor has the Queen of Eddis, who once offered Sophos her hand. They send spies. They pay informants. They appeal to the gods. But as time goes by, it becomes less and less certain that they will ever see their friend alive again.

Battles are fought, bribes are offered, and conspiracies are set in motion. Across the sea, a ruthless empire watches for even the slightest weakness. And Sophos, anonymous and alone, bides his time. Until, drawing on his memories of Gen, Pol, the magus—and Eddis—Sophos sets out on an adventure that will change all of their lives forever.

For wee reader:


Mister Seahorse– Eric Carle

Socksquatch – Frank Dormer

Orange Pear Apple Bear – Emily Gravett

Adorable!

Have you read any of these books? What did you think of them?
See more Library Loot here

The Slap

Ah it’s so tempting to throw in some slap-worthy puns when writing about Christos Tsiolkas’  The Slap. Oops yeah, that one slipped right by me!

This winner of the 2009 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize opens with a party at Hector and Aisha’s, which ends rather abruptly when Hector’s cousin Harry slaps a rather bratty four-year-old, the son of Aisha’s friend, Rosie. Rosie and Harry decide to press charges, and all of this kind of spirals out of control for a bit. The reader gets propelled through the book, through the story by different voices, including that of Harry, teenager Connie who works at Aisha’s office, Aisha’s other friend Anouk, Hector’s dad Manolis.

It’s a bit hard to properly describe The Slap, except that perhaps it is a look into the lives of contemporary Australians. And these are flawed, ordinary, everyday people, trying to go about their lives as best as they can. They are also really quite angry people. As a result, there is:

– prejudice and stereotypes
– some violence
– a lot of drinking
– drug use by teenagers
– quite a bit of sex (and some of it is rather ugly)
– and even more swearing

It is quite an unpleasant read, but I managed to make it through the end, despite some rather cringey bits and only ok writing. Not all books have to be pleasant and lovely, sometimes a bit of ugly is required, and The Slap is a lot of ugly. It is quite a bit to take in but it is also quite a book, with its portrayal of modern, suburban families in Australia.

Christos Tsiolkas’  works:

* Loaded (1995)
* Jump Cuts (with Sasha Soldatow, 1996)
* The Jesus Man (1999)
* The Devil’s Playground (2002)
* Dead Europe (2005)
* The Slap (2008)