sumofparts: picture of books with text 'books are humanity in print' (books)
[personal profile] sumofparts
I finished my second set of 50, yay and started a new set. Below are some thoughts on the books.

Remainder of second set:
39. Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri
40. A Gesture Life by Chang-rae Lee
41. Orange Mint and Honey by Carleen Brice
42. Zone One by Colson Whitehead
43. The Vast Fields of Ordinary by Nick Burd
44. The Icarus Girl by Helen Oyeyemi
45. Funny Boy by Shyam Selvadurai
46. Snakes and Ladders by Gita Mehta
47. The End of East by Jen Sookfong Lee
48. Beijing Confidential by Jan Wong
49. Something Fierce by Carmen Aguirre
50. Brick Lane by Monica Ali
New set:
1. Decoded by Jay-Z

Cut for length )
[identity profile] atdelphi.livejournal.com
6. On the Eve of Uncertain Tomorrows by Neil Bissoondath (New York: Lester & Orpen Dennys, 1991)

I like my chocolate with caramel or nuts or maybe a nice crispy wafer. Bear with me, I have a point. On a similar note, I have a distinct preference for genre fiction. I love the slices of life and beautiful language and insights into human nature that make up good literary fic, but I enjoy those things even more with the added chew or crunch of speculative fiction or historicals or mysteries.

Neil Bissoondath's On the Eve of Uncertain Tomorrows is a strong collection of short stories that focus largely on the aftermath of political violence and the complications of Canadian multiculturalism. I enjoyed Bissoondath's style and his characters (although his female characters felt rather less genuine than his male ones), but ultimately I felt like I was biting into a piece of plain chocolate, thinking: "And...?"

If you're a regular fiction fan interested in tough, true-to-life tales that make the most of the short story medium, you'll probably enjoy this book. For me, it was a good way to pass a few evenings, but I'm not likely to seek out more of Bissoondath's work for casual reading.
[identity profile] puritybrown.livejournal.com
31: Chinese Whispers: the true story behind Britain's hidden army of labour by Hsiao-Hung Pai

This is the kind of book to make you both sad and angry: sad at the terrible suffering it depicts, and angry that the suffering is allowed to continue, even tacitly encouraged, by the people who are in a position to stop it. Hsiao-Hung Pai came to live in Britain in the early 1990s. Although she was in the country legally, she was aware of the large number of undocumented Chinese workers living in Britain illegally and working in dangerous conditions for meagre pay; but it was only after the discovery of 58 dead Chinese immigrants in a shipping container in Dover that this awareness became acute enough to make her want to investigate further. Over a number of years, she built up contacts, gathered stories, and several times even went undercover with the low-paid undocumented workers, living and working alongside them and witnessing at first-hand the apalling conditions they are forced to endure.

And they are apalling: fourteen-hour days, weeks without a single day off, minimal pay that's withheld at no notice and with no explanation; and the work itself is hard, physically stressful, unhealthy, and dangerous. The people whose stories Pai tells here worked in electronics factories (breathing in fumes that induce asthma and high blood pressure), farms (picking vegetables on cold days with no tools and no protective gear), restaurants (on their feet for fourteen hours, paid a "basic wage" of £5 a day plus tips), brothels (constantly at risk of attacks from clients, and kept indoors in a state of virtual imprisonment), and private homes (as housekeepers and nannies, subject to the whims of employers who know all too well that they can't risk calling the police).

It's depressing reading, especially when I consider how entrenched the anti-immigration stance is in the political discourse, not just in the UK but all across Europe. Chinese and other undocumented workers play a vital role in keeping the economies of Europe going, working incredibly hard for very little, and yet every time the exploitation of their vulnerability creates a large-scale tragedy, the media story is not "how are we allowing these people to live like this?" but "why are they here?" And the government response is not "how can we make sure that people in this position have their rights defended?" but "how can we make sure that people like this aren't allowed in the country at all?" It makes me so angry, and the stories in this book just intensifies that; the individuality and humanity of these people (who have made great sacrifices to come to Britain and only want the opportunity to work and earn a little money to send home) is so clear, so obvious, and so totally ignored by the police and the government.

Shocking, horrifying, eye-opening, enraging -- essential reading.

(tags: chinese, british-chinese, immigration)
[identity profile] wordsofastory.livejournal.com
32. Geling Yan, The Lost Daughter of Happiness, translated by Cathy Silber

This novel is about a real historical figure, Fusang, a Chinese woman who was a prostitute in San Fransisco in the late 1800s. Although the narration focuses on Fusang and her relationship with others, particularly Chris- a young white boy from a German merchant family in love with Fusang- and Da Yong- a Chinese gangster who is influential in Fusang's life- Fusang herself ultimately remains a blank. She's never given motivations, inner dialogue, or even much emotion. And this is deliberate. The narrator- who, as a Chinese writer living in America in the modern day, may or may not be the voice of the author herself- often breaks into the story, explaining the impossibility of truly knowing another person, especially when that other person is a historical figure with only brief mentions in texts. At other times, the narrator speaks directly to Fusang, asking her to move a certain way or to reply to a question. I found this distancing effect to be really intriguing, but in other reviews people seem to have been annoyed by it, so your mileage may vary.

The language is beautiful and vivid; the plot is compelling. The novel explores racism, sexism, and violence, often explicitly linking events of the historical period depicted to the modern day. Highly recommended.
[identity profile] sairaali.livejournal.com
I'm awful at doing writeups, so this list has just been sitting on my desktop for ages making me feel guilty for not doing writeups.

Soo, I will just put the list up with brief one-liners on whether I liked it or not, and I'd be happy to discuss more in comments.

5) Silver Pheonix by Cindy Pon
Fantasy, adventure, romance, dragons, goddesses, intrigue! What's not to love?

6) Bodies in Motion by Maryanne Mohanraj
This is more of a series of interrelated short stories than a novel. The stories follow three generations of two families who immigrate from Sri Lanka to the US. It portrays a mix of different immigrant experiences, although nearly all of the characters are solidly middle or upper-middle class. The style is very ethereal and dreamy.

7) The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
This has been reviewed here a million times. I enjoyed it, but found the casual sexism a bit grating.

8) My Life as a Rhombus by Varian Johnson
If I thought Oscar Wao had a few problematic scenes wrt to gender, holy wow, it was nothing compared to this. Neither the narrator nor any of the characters question the basic assumption that a woman needs a man to love her and that only a domineering man could possibly handle loving a strong independent woman. The story itself was well crafted and tightly written, but I couldn't get past the sexism.

9) Shadow Speaker by Nnedi Okorafor
Love! A young girl with the ability to speak to shadows struggles with her community's distrust and fear of female Shadow Speakers, a result of her estranged father's dictatorial and regressive policies. When her father is publicly beheaded, her world is turned inside out, and she embarks on a quest of self-discovery that takes her far away from home, during which she discovers a major military plot against her home.

Girls with cat eyes! Talking camels! Magic plants that grow into houses! A girl meets a strange orphan boy with his own powers and secrets on her quest without a queasy romance subplot being introduced! Again, what's not to love?

10)And the World Changed: Contemporary Stories by Pakistani Women Ed: Muneez Shamshie
Definitely would recommend this. Like any anthology, some of the stories are so-so, some are fantastic.


And I know this comm is focused on books by POC, but I know there are a bunch of SFF fans here and I'd like to make some anti-recs. I found the following books at the $1 ARC sale at Wiscon, and I suggest giving them all a miss for skeevy race issues.
Stone Voice Rising by C Lee Tocci - pseudo-Natives with magic powers just for being Native, and also misappropriational mishmash of at least six different tribes' religious beliefs, that I could recognize. Kokopelli become Popokelli, a demented fae creature who betrays his species and sells out to the (literal) Devil.
Kop and Ex-Kop by Warren Hammond - Locals on a backwater economically depressed planet are being murdered by a serial killer from the orbiting space station, which has technology centuries advanced of what is available planetside. Oh and incidentally, all the space dwellers have perfect milky white skin and the planet dwellers are all dark. Bleck.
[identity profile] whereweather.livejournal.com
21. !Ask a Mexican!, Gustavo Arellano
2007, Scribner

I actually finished this book months ago, but I couldn't figure out what to say about it.  I guess I still can't, really.  There are some things I really like about this book, and some things I find very disappointing, so I guess I'll just talk about that.

The book is centrally made up of a collection of columns by Arellano, who writes a kind-of-advice column for the OC [Orange County, CA] Weekly, whose putative mission is to answer questions from clueless gabachos (white people) about Mexican culture and mores.  That's a part of the country where many Mexican immigrants and their Mexican-American descendants live side-by-side with white (and other) Americans, and where there seems to be a virulent ongoing culture clash, fueled in part by arguments about immigration policy and illegal immigration, and in part by the stuff that fuels any culture clash (confusion, fear, tribalism, bigotry, language barriers, racism, and all the rest of that awesome stuff).   So tensions can run high there, and if one can judge by the tone of the questions The Mexican gets asked -- if even one-third of them are actual questions written in by actual white Californians -- there are lots of people who are happy to let their racism just hang out.

Given that background, I admire Arellano's "straight-talk" approach, which deals candidly with insults, epithets, stereotypes and racist language, in order to talk about them.  Wab and gabacho (insulting words for "Mexican" and "white person" respectively) are frequent in the column.  Questions like "Why do Mexicans have so many fucking kids?", "Why do ghetto-poor people spend money on their trucks instead of their families?," "Why do your women insist on wearing low-riding jeans with their fat bellies spilling out?," or "Why don't you illegal immigrants have enough respect for the United States to learn English?" -- these questions get serious answers.  Arellano doesn't spend a lot of time berating anyone for intolerance or racism; the premise seems to be that the racism is obviously there, that's the ground-zero starting point, so let's talk about the actual questions.  He maintains his dignity by addressing his interlocutors in the same tone -- which is not particularly polite -- but the answers often have a lot of actual content: Arellano talks about cultural, social, and historical issues and themes in Mexican culture, and frequently quotes sociological studies and government demographic data (Arellano has an MA in sociology).  That's presumably the aspect of his approach that merited the cover blurb from the L.A. Times, "A sassy mix of Lenny Bruce rant and civil rights manual."  For my part, it reminds me of the early days of Dan Savage's "Savage Love" sex-advice column, when he invited -- nay, demanded -- that his interlocutors address him as "Hey, Faggot!"  The theory again being: we both know you have private opinions about me, so let's get it all out there up front so that it won't become the subtext to the rest of our conversation.

I was disappointed, though, by some aspects of Arellano's answers.  For one thing, he doesn't always address the actual question asked: sometimes you can see him quickly veering the discussion around to fit in with something he apparently really wants to quote or write about that day.  That's not great advice-columnist manners, I think: dude, it's not all about you.  Also, some issues that questioners bring up he just kind of fails to deal with.  The ones that were of most interest to me -- where I happened to notice him falling down or just evading, over and over again -- were the ones that had to do with ingrained gender inequality in Mexican culture, and the ones relating to homosexual behavior and attitudes toward it.  He just kind of evades, man, over and over again -- and every now and then he says something that's just concretely insulting.  "As for the Mexican women being sultry and spicy -- that's all documentary, baby."  "Any man who breaks the shackles of propriety and... grabs his crotch is the kind of immigrant we want... Wolf-whistling Mexican men are our modern pioneers, and gabachas are their new frontier, their virgin soil."  "As for our young men's current fascination with pansy-ass K-Swiss sneakers and the color pink... blame metrosexuality, the biggest threat to machismo since the two-income household."  You know what, man, fuck you, too.

That said, I did learn a lot from this book.  One of the most interesting parts are the longer "investigation" pieces Arellano wrote for the book, and includes at the end of each chapter.  A lot of them include discussions with currently living-illegal Mexican immigrants about issues like living on a tiny budget or doing jornalero work (manual day labor).  The most amazing one, for me, is undoubtedly the ten-page essay on the huge Mexican and Mexican-American fan base of Morrissey.  (Yes, Morrissey, the fey, depressive Englishman, who remains sexually ambiguous decades after it's stopped being cool.  THAT GUY.  Morrissey and Mexicans?  I would never, in a thousand years, have guessed that one.)

So anyway.  As you can see, this book gave me quite a lot to think about. 

Below is a short sampling from it, to give an idea of Arellano's style:

Q: "Why are Mexicans known as greasers?  Is it because they spread rancid lard from their dirty kitchens all over themselves after bathing instead of baby oil or cologne the way clean, civilized Anglos do?"

Dear Gabacho: Mira, güey [Look, man], the only grease we put on ourselves is the Three Flowers brilliantine Mexican men use to lacquer up their hair to a shine so intense astronomers frequently mistake the reflection off our heads for the Andromeda Galaxy.  That puts us in brotherhood with the 1950s gabacho rebels whom mainstream society also denigrated as greasers.  But the reason greaser maintains such staying power as an epithet against Mexicans -- etymologists date its origins to the 1830s -- is because it refers to, as you correctly imply, our diet. Sociologist Irving Lewis Allen devotes a chapter in his 1990 compendium of linguistic essays... [Etc.]
[identity profile] whereweather.livejournal.com
18. Breath, Eyes, Memory, Edwidge Danticat
Vintage, 1994

Another writer who's long been on my to-read list.  Breath, Eyes, Memory is Danticat's first novel; it chronicles part of a girlhood in Haiti, the experience of moving to New York to rejoin her mother, and, later, as an adult and young mother, returning to Haiti to see her aunt and grandmother again.

As a novel, the book is very loosely plotted; it has a number of characteristic first-novel traits, including a certain uncertainty about its direction and themes, and some clumsiness in construction.  But Danticat is a good writer -- not yet skilled, here, but good -- and the kind of writer I like: the uncertainty usually doesn't lead to contrivedness, but lends an honest ear to mystery; it is seeking rather than trying to make things clean.

I found the book's heavy use of (snippets of) Haitian Creole very interesting -- I know French well, so parsing the meaning and looking up words and phrases was very cool -- and was moved and troubled by the book's exploration of the "virgnity cult" with which the generations of Haitian women in the book are so obsessed, trying to preserve their daughters' 'purity' in ways that seem shocking and violent to a reader like me.  Also -- and I don't know whether or not this was deliberate -- I find the evocations of daily life in Haiti extraordinarily illuminating, not so much for the descriptions of weather, customs, flora and food (although those are there) but for the differences between its material culture and my own.  Haiti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere (a fact I looked up, not a point underlined in the book), and the ordinary people in this book do not have things surrounding them in the way that Americans do.  They live in houses with one room and one bed, they have outhouses and outdoor firepits, they cook their food in banana leaves, they sleep on the same mat they use to pile their beans to sell at market.  They walk miles in the dark to save fare on the collective taxis.  I don't think they have electricity; they light lanterns after dark.  All these things are normal to the narrator, and, I guess, to the people as well, but they are amazing, collectively, to a reader like me, at least when paying attention.

Summary: I like Danticat, and her lyricism; I like the odd, bold, lyrical, very unusual title of this book.  Any recommendations for other, later works of hers?

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