1/18 First They Killed My Father

By Luong Ung

This was such an interesting read to start the year with. My boss gave it to my the first day of work – we had spoken about it and he said I could have it when he was done. It’s about a five year old Cambodian girl, one of seven children, whose father was a high ranking government official before the Khmer Rouge came into Phnom Penh. It then tracks her life, and occasionally her other family members’ as well, throughout the Pol Pot regime.

It’s an autobiography of a young girl in the middle of war, and the combination of the themes (communism, war, child soldiers) and the style of writing (without much finesse, in my opinion it was very easy to tell she isn’t an author so much as someone telling her story using written words) reminded me a lot of the book I read while I was in Vietnam. In both, the girls end up in the U.S., and they have grown up there. In both, they also show us their return to their home countries after a very long time. My problems with this book are very similar to my problems with that. In fact, it’s my problem (not even the right word, more like something that discomforts me while reading) is that you have characters telling their stories from very privileged positions, tucked into and happily American while writing. Makes sense they would Americanise – I probably would too if I was taking refuge in a foreign land after living through a war. Just makes me more likely to narrow down their experiences as just their lived experiences without any generalization. I mean, of course the voices we hear are the most privileged, it’s the way of the world and makes surviving easier too. In the book, even she acknowledges that her family was only able to survive as well as they ultimately did because they were very wealthy before everything happened.

That being said, what a thought provoking piece of work. I’ve been to Cambodia a long time ago, and I wish I had read this and known some of this history before going., and I am glad to know this before my visit in June. I hope to read more, too. Like I mentioned earlier, I don’t think the writing is very good. Parts were very bare and it really did read like a teenager’s writing in parts. You know, when it’s just “this happened. Then this happened.” So that’s not worth commenting on. I am however very impressed that she has remembered so much to put to paper – in the acknowledgements she thanks her elder brother for writing so much history down, so I expect she’s also extrapolating from other stories and putting things together. But nonetheless there’s almost nothing I remember before the age of 10 and this book starts when she’s just 5! There’s very precise, small pieces of things, little details, that really capture the sense of what she was going through.

Its also very painful, as expected. It was another book I read on the trains and buses (since my boo was visiting over this time so I didn’t want to take any more) and I had to put it down several times to catch my breath. And just not cry.

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1/18 First They Killed My Father

52/17 The Bluest Eye

By Toni Morrison

This is such a beautiful, lyrical book. I’ve wanted to read something by Toni Morrison for years, but I always thought I would start with Beloved. I’m glad I started with this instead. I read this over two days (a Friday and a Tuesday), both at work and separated only by the long Christmas weekend. Work in my office is so quiet, and the atmosphere so still, almost dull, just a few people clicking away at their computers. Rewarding this book in that setting made it so solemn. There are books that make you want to be loud and exuberant in explaining how you feel about them. But there’s something about the tone of The Bluest Eye and the beauty with which its been written that makes you want to calm yourself and absorb it differently, because it demands a different sort of respect from you.

The premise of the book is the sad hope of a young black girl, impregnated by her father, to have blue eyes. It really was so beautifully written but I have just one example here that gave me pause:

Along with the idea of romantic love, she was introduced to another – physical beauty. Probably the two most destructive ideas in the history of human thought. Both originated in envy, thrived in insecurity, and ended in disillusion. In equating physical beauty with virtue, she stripped her mind, bound it, and collected self-contempt by the heap.

But this excerpt also acts as an example of what frustrated me about the book sometimes. There was something very obviously reflective, even reflexive, of personal experiences throughout it; Morrison’s own thoughts about black lives and experiences, beauty and ugliness. But I’m a fan of these ideas coming out in their characters instead of feeling like an aside from the authors themselves, and the book’s failing, to me, was that these were a lot less subtle than I would have liked them to be. But even in telling me what she’s thinking so explicitly, she does it poignantly, elegantly, and the books reads like poetry.

Besides the writing, the story is just captivating. The idea of this little girl wanting something so desperately made my heart hurt, and the way she explored how her father, her mother, her friends, came to the places they had arrived to – she humanised everyone, without exception. I think you would like that about this, actually, how empathetic the book reads. Things you could cast off as despicable were given context, background, thought, some measure of understanding from author to character and thus reader to character as well. It was an impressive and thought provoking read, and I would highly recommend it. (Also my last book of the year, which is a strong note to end on.)

52/17 The Bluest Eye

50/17 Persepolis

By Marjane Satrapi

I’m really unsure how to rate this.

I really enjoyed this. I read it during my train rides in the mornings and evenings for three days, and at least twice I had to put it down because I was tearing up and didn’t want to frighten the work crowd that was pushing in around me on the trains. It was such evocative, moving work, the sort I rarely get to read because I don’t pick up comics – even though the two you have introduced me to so far have had so much value and insight. This was also packed with information. I know that, at some point over the year, I’m going to have to just learn more about Iranian history and then re-read this book, now with some context. Although the infographics were very helpful, at points I really just felt like I need to know more to really understand the historical context of what’s going on. I do, nonetheless, intend to lend it to my cousins so that they can hopefully learn a thing or two in the meantime. Because it’s a fantastic read, and you can learn so much off the bat.

I suppose my problem with the book was the character – or the author, since it’s based off her life. Even within the context of Iran, she clearly led such a privileged life. I didn’t know anything about Marx growing up because my parents were not so educated, they would not and still do not know about these things. Her family owned a lot, and only at one or two points does she seem to reckon her privilege as a child or teenager (once, when she recognises that her maid’s child suffers worse in the war, and another when she sits in her fancy car and feels ashamed), but she goes to a fancy French school, and holidays in Europe, and is just very privileged. Even when she comes back from Europe, she has a moment where she thinks, “Oh, I had it easier,” but that’s short-lived.

But of course, when a book is based off a real life – well, you can’t really critique it, can you? It’s just their life. When she leaves for Europe for a few years, I was so frustrated with her behaviour, speaking out and squandering her money – maybe because I know that, even at 15, I would have never done those things. Me, and my siblings, would have had a lot more respect for a safe home and any amount of money. So I suppose, the source of my frustration wasn’t anything about the book, but the inevitable comparison I make between her behaviour and my, “What would I do?” You can’t make such a comparison, I suppose, because I never lived through a war. Maybe some people in my family did, two generations ago and half of them in a different country, but I’ve never. I don’t know how I would act. I like to think the author drew the way she did to characterise her selfishness and naiveté of herself in that time as exactly that: of that time; that she has grown since then, realised that for all her suffering, her family were all kept safe because they had the resources to.

I’m sure she does. And besides this critique, which is not so much critique as personal grievance, I really did enjoy this comic. I can only hope to find more like it, because they’re so easy to consume, and the visual material really does leave a starker impression – in the way words have to try a lot harder to.

 

50/17 Persepolis

47/17 When Heaven and Earth Changed Places

By Le Ly Hayslip

I have lied to you since November. I completely forgot to add this to my list of books over December – and have in fact hit the big 50. I only remembered when I went through my screenshots to find a quote from Refuge, and saw some from this book instead. A few days before I visited Vietnam, I wanted to find a book by a Vietnamese woman. Not necessarily about the War, but just by a woman from the country, preferably a Vietnamese to English book. Perhaps unsurprisingly, when you search “vietnamese women books” or the like, you find a lot of books about the war, and a lot more by men about women as they suffered in the war. The woman who wrote this book was Vietnamese and left for the U.S. in her early 20s, but I’ve put both down as country because the book focuses on her life in Vietnam. However, she’s very proud of being American, and I think her experiences made her grateful to Americans in Vietnam as well – this is a memoir, and so these are her experiences. Like I will say about Persepolis later, it’s hard to critique someone’s life. After all, it’s just what they lived. But I am equally critical of their biases as written into their books as I hope I would be if I were to meet and speak to them.

The book’s full title is When Heaven and Earth Change Places: A Vietnamese Woman’s Journey From War to Peace. It follows her childhood in a village in central Vietnam, which had presumed allegiance to the South (where the Americans were based) but in fact supported the North (where the Vietcong was mainly). She has a difficult time navigating the two sides, and the book details the hurt both sides caused. The book alternates between flashbacks to her childhood and the war, and present day, when she returns to Vietnam after many years living and raising her family in the U.S., with a final plea for Americans and Vietnamese people to make peace.

Given that I read this right before and during my trip, it was incredible to read about things in here (e.g., the tunnels that the Vietcong used to travel between places) and then visit them at the same time. Rarely do we get the experience to have such opportune synchronicity between the knowledge we learn on paper and that we learn in real life, so it was quite special for me. When she details the things she did, the way the Vietcong operated, their tricks and evasions, it was just very rich detail, the sort you can only get from lived experiences. In that vein, the pain she suffers, the brutality experienced by men and women, it is so clearly something she remembers viscerally, and she writes it that way too. There were a few moments I had to set it down because it was so absolutely disgusting. When I visited the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh, it was odd to see that some of this terrible reality was translated into facts and statistics up on boards too – they were both important in different ways.

Like I said, I do think her positive experiences with American troops and then with the country itself lent itself to a different perspective than many other Vietnamese people might have had, and still have. I think her final call that people should just come to peace – that everyone suffered – well, I’ll never think that’s completely fair. Of course both sides suffered. But one side was in their country, trying to defend their land and lives, and the other side came in from a completely foreign place for their own agendas. People did suffer on both sides (and she captures the different cruelties both sides inflicted so well) but I just don’t think it’s fair to equate it, which is what I think she was doing by the end.

Nonetheless, it was a great book for that trip and that time in my life. Having had this experience, I’ll definitely try to align what I’m reading (because I read on every trip – buses, evenings, etc.) to the place I’m in. So maybe when you visit next year, we can find a book about Singapore, and learn more together as we go around!

47/17 When Heaven and Earth Changed Places

37/17 A Little Life

By Hanya Yanagihara

The book is an absolute goliath. Goliath as in,

1: It’s a massive book. It took me more than two days to finish reading, and this was given that, well, it’s me, and I was reading non-stop.

2: It’s a monster. This isn’t a light read.  This is an intense, once you start, you might need to take breaks and have mugs of hot chocolate to feel a bit warm again sort of reading. I’ve put it down as a Must Read. But I do not know if this applies to you. Hell, I’m not even sure if that applies to me.

I really don’t know how to review this book or where to start. I found it because I was chatting to some people at the airport, and some man recommended this, and I just looked it up and started (abandoning said man for his book). As the tags would’ve informed, it’s a giant mess of triggers and heartache. It’s phenomenal. It’s disgusting. I’ll start with a note, specific to us and the warnings at the start, this is not a book that features someone who gets better. Mental health does not always get better. How we treat ourselves, no matter how much medication or therapy or outside love we get, does not always change us. This book exemplifies that. It’s hard for me to review, because as much as I want to recognise the importance of this book, the fact that it exists and that so many people are reading it, I am also aware of how unhelpful it can be for people in their own self-growth and journeys.

A Little Life is about four friends in New York City after they finish college: Jude, a lawyer with a dark past and “ambiguous ethnicity” (pet peeve, did not understand the need for this phrase); Malcolm, an architect from a rich, biracial family; JB, a somewhat spoiled black painter; and Willem, a white aspiring actor. Willem and Jude are particularly close, because both are poor and share a flat, but also because both are orphans. Despite their long friendship, nobody knows much about Jude’s past. The book is divided into second parts, and follows chronologically with several flashbacks. Over the first third or half of the novel, it uses the third person to show one of the men’s thoughts. But over the course of the book, it focuses on Jude; his own thought processes and how others interact with him.

Jude is troubled. His past is dark and his present is tainted by that to the core. If you’ve ever asked yourself, “Will my being raped at 16 have an effect on the absolute rest of my life?” then this book says, “Yes.” Trauma does not leave; it affects your mental, emotional, and physical health, and changes the way you navigate the world. Jude, of course, is a lot more troubled than just that (if it really was just that one incident than, damn, we screwed). It’s very welcoming to have this perspective in fiction, that you neither need nor are expected to be better; that when you are hurt so dearly, it is not unusual to fall into cycles of such abuse over the course of your life and it’s not your fault (because, even if Jude doesn’t believe it, the book is very careful to have all the other characters surrounding him absolute in their belief and love in him). It’s just maybe not very inspiring – to me – to read it.

However, the book doesn’t just tackle these heavy intangible issues. Jude suffers from chronic pain and a physical disability. I’ve never seen any book explain with such detail the every-day effects of having such a condition – the way Jude’s own desire to be independent are thwarted by his body as it grows weaker, and how his life is almost entirely structured around pain management; how, thus, his friends’ lives are too. We’ve had conversations about ableism, but this book really opened my eyes to the limits of my understanding, and the need for more to be done.

But, like I said, all the supporting characters are very literally there to support Jude. Their unwavering love, commitment, kindness, well – it reminds of you, honestly. And my other friends and family. But it also astounds me. Can anyone really have so much kindness around them and not believe it? Not think it’s real? I’m so grateful never to wonder this, and was filled with so much pain that he did. Mind you, I also read this in 2 airports and a plane ride, and I could not stop weeping.

You know, this book’s been lauded as “the long-awaited gay novel”, and I can understand why. It is such an important book, I’m so glad it exists. But I don’t think it should be our gay novel. LGBT media, both novels and movies, have had a long-standing trope of trauma. Their loves never last because the characters don’t, and I would like the ultimate gay novel to break that trope – be more The Notebook than The Titanic. We deserve that much. So, like I said, and I haven’t said enough but I don’t want to say more either – this book is hugely important and heart-breaking. I’d just make sure I was in a good place before picking it up.

(Or, in case this clarifies where this book is emotionally for me, I would speak to you and my boo about it. I would hesitate with anyone else.)

37/17 A Little Life

36/17 Penance

By Kanae Minato

This as well as The Between are books I must have found together on some random Internet site, but Lord knows if I remember what it was. This is another one I’m glad to have picked up though.

Much like The Between, this book was a thriller written by a Japanese woman. She wasn’t writing about women of colour, she wasn’t writing about oppression or racism or sexism or any –ism, she was writing about a few people, you know? There was no big, overarching Japanese history or culture or anything vaguely macro – in fact, it was the opposite. It was micro. Even the women in the story, we see micro-snippets of what we can also presume were micro-lives, that didn’t matter much in the grand scheme of things and never pretended to. There’s a lot to love about how unassuming a story like this is.

Penance is about five children: Sae, Maki, Akiko, Yuko, and Emily, who grow up in a small town together. One day, they’re tricked into separating from their friend Emily by a stranger. Emily is found dead hours later. However, all four kids aren’t able to identify the stranger to the police – and Emily’s mother curses the girls, that they will pay for her daughter’s murder.

Now, the book is written from an adult perspective of each girl, years after the murder. One after the other, and the mother as well. Even from this onset, it’s such a sick book – instead of having your traditional third person narratives, or even the first, you have a range. You have a letter, or someone exclusively talking to someone, or an interview. Minato plays with mediums like nobody else (in fact, the closest story I can think of that just plays around with mediums so well is fanfiction of the Avengers) and she pulls it off. The thriller was just cool too. I didn’t see it coming. Any of it. Not even the first chapter. And you have these five characters, four just children when the murder happens, and it does such a good job of going into how they were feeling and what they were thinking then, but also how everything you are comes from everything you were. The book is the perfect example of the butterfly effect – they did things, said things, that nobody could have thought would have an impact, but did eventually. Just, haha, I just really didn’t see anything coming in this one. Got to read more Japanese thrillers cause they’re clearly kings of the genre.

36/17 Penance

32/17 Lucky Boy

By Shathi Sekaran

Lucky Boy is about Soli, an 18-year-old Mexican girl from rural Oaxaca who wants to go to the U.S. to live with her cousin there – and lands there weeks later, pregnant. Kavya Reddy is a chef a Berkeley sorority house who wants a child, but can’t conceive one. Kavya and her husband, Rishi, choose to foster a child, and end up with Soli’s infant son after she’s detained.

I don’t want to give too many details. See, this book is very difficult for me to even write about, because it’s an incredibly frustrating book. You spend a good portion of the book thinking, “Author, you have to do this right, stop this,” and eventually she does stop it, and she does do it right. Nonetheless, a very vexing read. It has several elements which I enjoyed: Soli’s life in Oaxaca is one that was so poignantly described. And she’s this naive teenager who just wants to enjoy freedom, and thinks she’ll get it North of the border, and that innocence is charming instead of annoying; she learns quickly, she’s sharp, and you feel throughout like you want to be on her side. Then you have Kavya, whom I also quickly empathised with, because she was old (ok, over 30, old for brown families) and didn’t have a child yet, constantly compared with better young women her parents knew, she was a chef instead of a doctor, she had a constant sarcastic, almost bitter, tone; you also felt for her, but never quite as sympathetic.

Then you’ve got this backstory of immigration across this horrific border – of what children have to go through, what their parents are willing to risk, what entire communities are willing to sacrifice to have one person do better and get better. You’ve got this corrupt system that’s abusing these people and separating families and tearing apart good lives. You’ve got people who could probably do more, but choose to look away, and people who do more even though it puts themselves at risk. It’s such great backstory, and I haven’t read anything like it this year.

That’s why this will be the only Must Read on this list that’s only a Good. Because it’s not like the writing is excellent, and the plot is almost straightforward (except for a few points). But it’s interesting, and it keeps you on the edge – because of that frustration, because you want the best for these women (even though one is so much more privileged than the other – but can a woman be a woman if she can’t even bear a child?) and it seems impossible to get there. I really do think Lucky Boy, even though it has a few moments of Rishi at the end that are so heart-tugging, is about women helping other women; pulling up other women; tearing down other women; all the complex and myriad ways women interact with other women. It has this really great layered intersectionality that’s subtler than with most books I’ve read – it feels like it has different people from different places because that’s what the story demands, not just because the author is forcing it that way. It’s good, solid writing. It’s also really great everything else.

32/17 Lucky Boy