GRACE NOTES - JANUARY 2021
Happy New Year! As we drag our weary souls out of the clustercuss that was 2020, there is much to look forward to. A vaccine (yes!), new leadership in the White House (cautious optimism), and, as always, new books. The cold winter months and the seemingly endless pandemic make hunkering down and reading an appealing and safe prospect.
This month, I’m focusing on the work of Asian and Asian-American writers. A sense of place and identity runs through these variegated voices, and whether your preferred focus is plot, character, atmosphere, or all of the above, there is something here to scratch that itch.
Our book club recently discussed Interior Chinatown by Charles Wu. The 2020 National Book Award could not have gone to a more deserving candidate. Hilarious, acerbic, and astute, the book is a wry, sideways look at the deleterious effects of racial stereotyping.
Willis Wu is a bit actor in a police procedural called Black and White, which is being shot in the Golden Palace restaurant. He and the other Asian actors in the show are relegated to providing a colorful backdrop to the action. Such is the wallpaper nature of their roles that they often are cast as different characters in different episodes. The stereotypes include Disgraced Son, Delivery Guy, Striving Immigrant, Asian Seductress, Restaurant Hostess, and Egg Roll Cook.
The book is written in the form of a screenplay, using Courier Type. Yu, a screenwriter himself, has a firm grasp on the snappy, quippy dialogue and character tropes of the typical cop show. The lead characters are two hot (of course) detectives, one black, one white (of course), whose repartee seethes with sexual tension (of course). A running joke is the constant sexy jaw-clinching and pec rippling of the male lead. Another is the not-so-veiled racism of the dialogue.
Wu is climbing the very short ladder of possible roles an Asian-American actor can expect to play. His goal is to be cast as Kung Fu Guy, but his mother, also a bit player, wants him to shoot higher.
The book has a hallucinatory feel to it, with blurred lines between script dialogue and actual dialogue. As Wu’s story progresses, with marriage, parenthood, and family drama, these lines get even more smudged.
Interspersed are sobering historical factoids about the ignominies that Asian immigrants to America have endured since the 19th century. Hilarious as the book is, the message that is driven home in the most eloquent of terms, is that racism in America is real, deeply ingrained, and insidious. Yu challenges us to do better.
Here are some more great books by Asian and Asian-American writers that you might want to check out -
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
A sprawling epic about a Korean family that emigrates to Japan. A National Book Award finalist.
Severance by Ling Ma
A timely read about surviving a plague. Heart-pounding and atmospheric.
IQ84 by Haruki Murakami
Murakami’s magnum opus of magical realism. A story of star-crossed lovers with some surprising plot twists.
World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments by Aimee Nezhukmatathil
A poetic collection of essays about nature as metaphor for everyday life.
The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa
Kafka meets Murakami meets Bradbury in this elegiac story of loss, yearning, and, yes, memory.
The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
A modern classic about twins struggling with family breakdown in India in 1969. Poetic in its narrative, it packs an emotional punch.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
Vuong is an elegant writer, narrating an often grueling story with breathtaking prose. It is a love letter to his mother and a paean to the complications of first love.
Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist by Sunil Yapa
A kaleidoscopic look at a political protest, told through the eyes of multiple narrators.
How Much of These Hills is Gold by C Pam Zhang
With luminous prose and a firm sense of place and character, C Pam Zhang has given us a glowing debut. A sense of longing for home and identity permeates every incandescent page.
Poems of the Month -
The narrow clearing down to the river
I walk alone, out of breath
my body catching on each branch.
Small children maneuver around me.
Often, I want to return to my old body
a body I also hated, but hate less
Sometimes my friends—my friends
who are always beautiful & heartbroken
look at me like they know
I will die before them.
I think the life I want
is the life I have, but how can I be sure?
There are days when I give up on my body
but not the world.
I am alive. I know this. Alive now
to see the world, to see the river
rupture everything with its light.
~ Hieu Minh Nguyen
Brooklyn’s too cold tonight
& all my friends are three years away.
My mother said I could be anything
I wanted—but I chose to live.
On the stoop of an old brownstone,
a cigarette flares, then fades.
I walk to it: a razor
sharpened with silence.
His jawline etched in smoke.
The mouth where I reenter
this city. Stranger, palpable
echo, here is my hand, filled with blood thin
as a widow’s tears. I am ready.
I am ready to be every animal
you leave behind.
~ Ocean Vuong
Coming January 12 -
A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life by George Saunders
Saunders takes us on a deep dive into a selection of short stories by Chekhov, Tolstoy, Turgenev, and Gogol. He picks the stories apart word by word, character by character in what is basically a master class in classic Russian literature. The book encourages us to use these analyses as springboards for critical reading at large and as models for aspiring writers. The three appendices include exercises suitable for any writer. If this all sounds dry, never fear - it’s George Saunders. His characteristic humor and empathy seep through every page. The closing chapter is one of the most human things I’ve ever read. A great read for those wanting to dip a toe into the Russians without having to commit to a 1200-page tome.
We're all getting a lot more takeout these days. It's a great way to support struggling local restaurants during the pandemic. One of my favorite authors, Bryan Washington, relates his year in takeout. Click here to read.
Mac's Backs Femme Book Club will discuss Octavia Butler's The Parable of the Sower on January 5th. Click here to read Butler's thoughts on creative drive from the second book in this series, The Parable of the Talents.