Reading Diversely · stuff I read

All You Can Ever Know: A Memoir by Nicole Chung

untitledSummary from Goodreads:
What does it mean to lose your roots—within your culture, within your family—and what happens when you find them?

Nicole Chung was born severely premature, placed for adoption by her Korean parents, and raised by a white family in a sheltered Oregon town. From early childhood, she heard the story of her adoption as a comforting, prepackaged myth. She believed that her biological parents had made the ultimate sacrifice in the hopes of giving her a better life; that forever feeling slightly out of place was simply her fate as a transracial adoptee. But as she grew up—facing prejudice her adoptive family couldn’t see, finding her identity as an Asian American and a writer, becoming ever more curious about where she came from—she wondered if the story she’d been told was the whole truth.

With warmth, candor, and startling insight, Chung tells of her search for the people who gave her up, which coincided with the birth of her own child. All You Can Ever Know is a profound, moving chronicle of surprising connections and the repercussions of unearthing painful family secrets—vital reading for anyone who has ever struggled to figure out where they belong.

I’ve been following Nicole Chung’s work at The Toast (ah, The Toast, loved it) and other places for some time now. When her memoir deal was announced, I (rather) impatiently kept an eyeball on Catapult’s catalogs. When All You Can Ever Know was announced as a BN Discover Fall 2018 selection, I did a little wriggle. And I really savored the galley

Chung opens her memoir about life as an transracial adoptee by juxtaposing “the story of her adoption” with a meeting to talk to a couple in the process of adopting a child. Was she happy? (Well, yes, on the whole, but also it was incredibly lonely.) Was she OK as a Korean child adopted by white parents? (Again, yes, but there was no one else in her town who even looked like her and people can be cruel.) As the book moves forward, she writes about her birth family, her adoptive parents, her birth, and growing up in a small town in Oregon. She experiences overt and covert racism from both children and adults. Her decision to begin searching for her birth family was not an easy one and, to my surprise, weirdly very hard to accomplish (there was an intermediary, which kind of blows my mind). The “story of her adoption” develops layers upon layers as Chung meets each member of her biological family.

This is a beautiful memoir. What I found most poignant was Chung’s writing about learning to be a Korean-American as an adult. What makes one Korean? Knowing the language? The food? The traditions? One’s family? These sections reminded me very much of Tommy Orange’s debut novel, There There, which delves into questions of what connects a person to their Native roots. The questions become more complicated as Chung begins to raise her biracial children.

All You Can Ever Know is definitely one of my “best books” of the year. I loved every sentence. I highly recommend picking this up for basically everyone on the planet.

Incidentally, I started listening to Lisa Ko’s The Leavers on audiobook while reading Chung’s memoir. Sometimes the universe serves up unexpected connections. The two books had an amazing juxtaposition of adoption stories in their similarities and differences, one real story and one imagined.

All You Can Ever Know will be out October 2.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

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mini-review · stuff I read

The Incendiaries by R. O. Kwon

untitledSummary from Goodreads:
A powerful, darkly glittering novel of violence, love, faith, and loss, as a young woman at an elite American university is drawn into acts of domestic terrorism by a cult tied to North Korea.

Phoebe Lin and Will Kendall meet their first month at prestigious Edwards University. Phoebe is a glamorous girl who doesn’t tell anyone she blames herself for her mother’s recent death. Will is a misfit scholarship boy who transfers to Edwards from Bible college, waiting tables to get by. What he knows for sure is that he loves Phoebe.

Grieving and guilt-ridden, Phoebe is increasingly drawn into a religious group—a secretive extremist cult—founded by a charismatic former student, John Leal. He has an enigmatic past that involves North Korea and Phoebe’s Korean American family. Meanwhile, Will struggles to confront the fundamentalism he’s tried to escape, and the obsession consuming the one he loves. When the group bombs several buildings in the name of faith, killing five people, Phoebe disappears. Will devotes himself to finding her, tilting into obsession himself, seeking answers to what happened to Phoebe and if she could have been responsible for this violent act.

The Incendiaries is a fractured love story and a brilliant examination of the minds of extremist terrorists, and of what can happen to people who lose what they love most. who lose what they love most.

When I downloaded the galley for The Incendiaries I wasn’t quite sure if I was ready for an intense literary novel about religious faith and cults. (I mean, look around at the garbage fire of the news.) But I was intrigued after reading a bit of Kwon’s interviews where she talked about growing up with an intense religious faith, then losing that faith, so I decided to go for it.

The Incendiaries is a hallucinatory, violent debut that grapples with the line between faith and fanaticism. I have never been a particularly religious person, especially as an adult (although I was raised Lutheran and I am the child of a church organist, which is just one-off from being the pastor’s kid), and the way Kwon constructed the circuitous religious logic displayed by Phoebe and John Leal was particularly fascinating. I’m not sure I’m completely on board with the structure of the novel as the narrative jumped between Will, Phoebe (reconstructed by Will), and John Leal but I couldn’t put it down. I do wonder what the Phoebe sections would have looked like had they actually been in her voice, but Kwon’s choice does give a very illusory, unsettled feel to the character.

TW: rape. It does occur on the page later in the book. The scene does not feel gratuitous, but it could definitely be triggering.

The Incendiaries is out now.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

mini-review · stuff I read · YA all the way

A Thousand Beginnings and Endings edited by Ellen Oh and Elsie Chapman

36301029Summary from Goodreads:
Star-crossed lovers, meddling immortals, feigned identities, battles of wits, and dire warnings: these are the stuff of fairy tale, myth, and folklore that have drawn us in for centuries.

Fifteen bestselling and acclaimed authors reimagine the folklore and mythology of East and South Asia in short stories that are by turns enchanting, heartbreaking, romantic, and passionate.

Compiled by We Need Diverse Books’s Ellen Oh and Elsie Chapman, the authors included in this exquisite collection are: Renée Ahdieh, Sona Charaipotra, Preeti Chhibber, Roshani Chokshi, Aliette de Bodard, Melissa de la Cruz, Julie Kagawa, Rahul Kanakia, Lori M. Lee, E. C. Myers, Cindy Pon, Aisha Saeed, Shveta Thakrar, and Alyssa Wong.

A mountain loses her heart. Two sisters transform into birds to escape captivity. A young man learns the true meaning of sacrifice. A young woman takes up her mother’s mantle and leads the dead to their final resting place.

From fantasy to science fiction to contemporary, from romance to tales of revenge, these stories will beguile readers from start to finish. For fans of Neil Gaiman’s Unnatural Creatures and Ameriie’s New York Times–bestselling Because You Love to Hate Me.

Do you like fantasy, mythology, and retellings? Do you like strong characters in your YA stories? You need A Thousand Beginnings and Endings! Such a great collection of Asian-mythology-inspired short stories from all different cultures written by YA fantasy writers at the top of their game. Out today! So much fun!

(Full disclosure: my friend Preeti has a story set at garba during Navratri, “Girls Who Twirl and Other Dangers,” in this collection and ngl, it’s my favorite ❤️)

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

mini-review · stuff I read

The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang (The Poppy War #1)

poppySummary from Goodreads:

When Rin aced the Keju, the Empire-wide test to find the most talented youth to learn at the Academies, it was a shock to everyone: to the test officials, who couldn’t believe a war orphan from Rooster Province could pass without cheating; to Rin’s guardians, who believed they’d finally be able to marry her off and further their criminal enterprise; and to Rin herself, who realized she was finally free of the servitude and despair that had made up her daily existence. That she got into Sinegard, the most elite military school in Nikan, was even more surprising.

But surprises aren’t always good.

Because being a dark-skinned peasant girl from the south is not an easy thing at Sinegard. Targeted from the outset by rival classmates for her color, poverty, and gender, Rin discovers she possesses a lethal, unearthly power—an aptitude for the nearly-mythical art of shamanism. Exploring the depths of her gift with the help of a seemingly insane teacher and psychoactive substances, Rin learns that gods long thought dead are very much alive—and that mastering control over those powers could mean more than just surviving school.

For while the Nikara Empire is at peace, the Federation of Mugen still lurks across a narrow sea. The militarily advanced Federation occupied Nikan for decades after the First Poppy War, and only barely lost the continent in the Second. And while most of the people are complacent to go about their lives, a few are aware that a Third Poppy War is just a spark away . . .

Rin’s shamanic powers may be the only way to save her people. But as she finds out more about the god that has chosen her, the vengeful Phoenix, she fears that winning the war may cost her humanity . . . and that it may already be too late.

In looking over the Spring Discover selections for BN, R.F. Kuang’s debut, The Poppy War, just stood straight out. A fantasy novel on the epic scale of Game of Thrones, with perhaps a bit of The Once and Future King or Harry Potter thrown in, but based in Chinese history and storytelling. Oh, yes please.

Let me tell you – this book is bananas. BANANAS. We have the smart orphan at boarding school plot and then it takes a LEFT TURN into a major military offensive and then about halfway through I realized I couldn’t quite figure out where Kuang was taking the plot. I could see myriad ways Rin could go, like the many different moves of a chess game, but I couldn’t predict the path (I had sort-of guessed part of the end, but definitely wasn’t prepared for it). This is a fantasy novel grounded in the shamanism and politics of the Asian continent. The world-building is astounding. And the reader is left on a bit of a cliff-hanger at the end.  Well-played, Ms. Kuang.

But fair warning: reading this book is rough. So rough. There are events in the book inspired by the atrocities committed during the invasion of Nanking during World War II. There are scenes that very clearly are reminiscent of ethnic cleansing. Trigger warning for extreme wartime violence (think Khmer Rouge plus Nazis, just as a warning) and rape.

The Poppy War is out today!

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

mini-review · stuff I read

Futureface: A Family Mystery, an Epic Quest, and the Secret to Belonging by Alex Wagner

33931748Summary from Goodreads:
Alex Wagner has always been fascinated by stories of exile and migration. Her father’s ancestors immigrated to the United States from Ireland and Luxembourg. Her mother fled Rangoon in the 1960s, escaping Burma’s military dictatorship. In her professional life, Wagner reported from the Arizona-Mexico border, where agents, drones, cameras, and military hardware guarded the line between two nations. She listened to debates about whether the United States should be a melting pot or a salad bowl. She knew that moving from one land to another–and the accompanying recombination of individual and tribal identities–was the story of America. And she was happy that her own mixed-race ancestry and late twentieth-century education had taught her that identity is mutable and meaningless, a thing we make rather than a thing we are.

When a cousin’s offhand comment threw a mystery into her personal story-introducing the possibility of an exciting new twist in her already complex family history–Wagner was suddenly awakened to her own deep hunger to be something, to belong, to have an identity that mattered, a tribe of her own. Intoxicated by the possibility, she became determined to investigate her genealogy. So she set off on a quest to find the truth about her family history.

The journey takes Wagner from Burma to Luxembourg, from ruined colonial capitals with records written on banana leaves to Mormon databases and high-tech genetic labs. As she gets closer to solving the mystery of her own ancestry, she begins to grapple with a deeper question: Does it matter? Is our enduring obsession with blood and land, race and identity, worth all the trouble it’s caused us?

The answers can be found in this deeply personal account of her search for belonging, a meditation on the things that define us as insiders and outsiders and make us think in terms of “us” and “them.” In this time of conflict over who we are as a country, when so much emphasis is placed on ethnic, religious, and national divisions, Futureface constructs a narrative where we all belong.

I had a little trouble getting into Futureface. I’m not sure if it was the structure or the writing style. When Wagner digs into subjects like the history of Burma/Myanmar and her family’s role in it’s history or the underlying data structure of the 23andMe, etc. genetic ancestry companies the book is really interesting.  But for me, a lot of times it was….just fine, not necessarily compelling. Her dad was originally from Iowa (Allamakee County, specifically) so that was an unexpected connection.

Dear FTC: I read most of this as a digital galley from the publisher via Edelweiss, but it expired with about 30 pages to go so I had to round up a paper copy to borrow.