mini-review · stuff I read

Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning by Cathy Park Hong

52845775._SX318_SY475_Summary from Goodreads:
A ruthlessly honest, emotionally charged exploration of the psychological condition of being Asian American, by an award-winning poet and essayist

Asian Americans inhabit a purgatorial status: neither white enough nor black enough, unmentioned in most conversations about racial identity. In the popular imagination, Asian Americans are all high-achieving professionals. But in reality, this is the most economically divided group in the country, a tenuous alliance of people with roots from South Asia to East Asia to the Pacific Islands, from tech millionaires to service industry laborers. How do we speak honestly about the Asian American condition—if such a thing exists?

Poet and essayist Cathy Park Hong fearlessly and provocatively confronts this thorny subject, blending memoir, cultural criticism, and history to expose the truth of racialized consciousness in America. Binding these essays together is Hong’s theory of “minor feelings.” As the daughter of Korean immigrants, Cathy Park Hong grew up steeped in shame, suspicion, and melancholy. She would later understand that these “minor feelings” occur when American optimism contradicts your own reality—when you believe the lies you’re told about your own racial identity.

With sly humor and a poet’s searching mind, Hong uses her own story as a portal into a deeper examination of racial consciousness in America today. This intimate and devastating book traces her relationship to the English language, to shame and depression, to poetry and artmaking, and to family and female friendship. A radically honest work of art, Minor Feelings forms a portrait of one Asian American psyche—and of a writer’s search to both uncover and speak the truth.

I had Minor Feelings on my list of 2020 to-reads but when I saw Alexander Chee raving about it I bumped it up my reading queue. He’d never steer anyone wrong.

Hong’s book is a thought-provoking and provocative collection of essays concentrating on the lived experience of being Asian-American in America. Hong is a Korean-American poet, so much of her life experience centers around being a child of successful Korean immigrants in a majority-white neighborhood and education system (Hong attended Oberlin for her undergrad). Those experiences are her jumping off point to examine microaggressions, language, the pressures of being the “good” immigrants, expectations of gratitude, and a beautiful, haunting essay that walks the line of biography and true crime about artist Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, an author and artist who was murdered in the early 1980s.

A must-read for 2020.

 

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

mini-review · stuff I read

Children of the Land by Marcelo Hernandez Castillo

44890027Summary from Goodreads:
This unforgettable memoir from a prize-winning poet about growing up undocumented in the United States recounts the sorrows and joys of a family torn apart by draconian policies and chronicles one young man’s attempt to build a future in a nation that denies his existence.

“You were not a ghost even though an entire country was scared of you. No one in this story was a ghost. This was not a story.”

When Marcelo Hernandez Castillo was five years old and his family was preparing to cross the border between Mexico and the United States, he suffered temporary, stress-induced blindness. Castillo regained his vision, but quickly understood that he had to move into a threshold of invisibility before settling in California with his parents and siblings. Thus began a new life of hiding in plain sight and of paying extraordinarily careful attention at all times for fear of being truly seen. Before Castillo was one of the most celebrated poets of a generation, he was a boy who perfected his English in the hopes that he might never seem extraordinary.

With beauty, grace, and honesty, Castillo recounts his and his family’s encounters with a system that treats them as criminals for seeking safe, ordinary lives. He writes of the Sunday afternoon when he opened the door to an ICE officer who had one hand on his holster, of the hours he spent making a fake social security card so that he could work to support his family, of his father’s deportation and the decade that he spent waiting to return to his wife and children only to be denied reentry, and of his mother’s heartbreaking decision to leave her children and grandchildren so that she could be reunited with her estranged husband and retire from a life of hard labor.

Children of the Land distills the trauma of displacement, illuminates the human lives behind the headlines and serves as a stunning meditation on what it means to be a man and a citizen.

I was trying to read Children of the Land at the same time I was listening to The Devil’s Highway and had to pause because I was unfortunately mixing up the two books (they aren’t the same at all except for being the stories of migrants to the US, but my brain kept swapping details between them).

It is a very poetic memoir about a poet’s childhood in the US as an undocumented immigrant contrasted with the lives of his parents and grandparents who each crossed the US border several times. There were a few sections where I think the form Castillo used muddied the story he was trying to tell but overall it is a powerful story about a family looking for a better life, the experience of being undocumented (including the experience of graduate school) then given the chance to apply for a green card, and the terror of his mother’s experience in asking for asylum at the US border in 2016. A necessary book for 2020.

Content warning: there are some depictions of domestic violence on the page.

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

audiobooks · mini-review · Overdue Reads · Read My Own Damn Books · Reading Diversely · stuff I read

The Devil’s Highway: A True Story by Luis Alberto Urrea

13646449._SY475_Summary from Goodreads:
In this work of grave beauty and searing power – one of the most widely praised pieces of investigative reporting to appear in recent years – we follow twenty-six men who in May 2001 attempted to cross the Mexican border into the desert of southern Arizona, through the deadly region known as the Devil’s Highway, a desert so harsh and desolate that even the Border Patrol is afraid to travel through it, a place that for hundreds of years has stolen men’s souls and swallowed their blood. Only twelve men made it out.

I’ve had a copy of The Devil’s Highway for years, ever since I heard Luis Alberto Urrea speak at his award reception for the Paul Engle Prize at the Iowa City Book Festival in 2014. I slipped out at the end of his speech to buy a copy and have him sign it. But I just never got around to reading it. But I was recently goaded to re-evaluate my reading about border stories, border policy, and Latinx/non-white Hispanic authors because American Dirt was selected for all sorts of stuff this spring, including the Barnes and Noble Book Club (I’ll get into this in a later post since I can’t get out of reading that book, which rankles because I had decided that I didn’t want to read it but I can’t just fob the group off on someone else so will have to suck it up, grrr). When I checked to see what audiobooks were currently available in the ICPL Libby/Overdrive service, I got incredibly lucky to see that The Devil’s Highway was available to download immediately.

The Devil’s Highway is a poetic recounting of the tragedy that occurred in 2001 when 26 men attempted to cross into the United States via the Devil’s Highway near Yuma, Arizona – only 12 survived. This a book that falls very much in the vein of In Cold Blood in the ways that Urrea sets a scene and keeps the narrative thread of the book moving (particularly in the last sections) but unlike Capote deals very much in facts and only reconstructs what he was unable to verify such as “Mike F.” (the Border Patrol officer who found the walkers who was unable to be interviewed at the time) and some of the thoughts and actions of the walkers who died in the Devil’s Highway. This is a very haunting and heartbreaking tale. There are no easy answers and no easy solutions.

In addition, Urrea narrates this audiobook. It is such a treat. He is an excellent storyteller and speaker. I highly recommend the audiobook if that’s available to you.

Dear FTC: I have a signed paperback copy and borrowed the audiobook from the library’s Libby/Overdrive service.

mini-review · stuff I read

Retablos: Stories from a Life Lived Along the Border by Octavio Solis

39027983Summary from Goodreads:
Seminal moments, rites of passage, crystalline vignettes–a memoir about growing up brown at the U.S./Mexico border.

The tradition of retablo painting dates back to the Spanish Conquest in both Mexico and the U.S. Southwest. Humble ex-votos, retablos are usually painted on repurposed metal, and in one small tableau they tell the story of a crisis, and offer thanks for its successful resolution.

In this uniquely framed memoir, playwright Octavio Solis channels his youth in El Paso, Texas. Like traditional retablos, the rituals of childhood and rites of passage are remembered as singular, dramatic events, self-contained episodes with life-changing reverberations.

Living in a home just a mile from the Rio Grande, Octavio is a skinny brown kid on the border, growing up among those who live there, and those passing through on their way North. From the first terrible self-awareness of racism to inspired afternoons playing air trumpet with Herb Alpert, from an innocent game of hide-and-seek to the discovery of a Mexican girl hiding in the cotton fields, Solis reflects on the moments of trauma and transformation that shaped him into a man.

Retablos recreates a childhood growing up in a border town through short stories and micro fiction drawn from playwright Octavio Solis’s childhood. Each piece uses the idea of the retablo (a small votive painting created to thank a sacred person for their intercession in a crisis) to illustrate moments of awareness as a brown kid with immigrant parents: the first recognition of racism, a painful relationship with a sibling, a first job, interactions with Border Patrol, helping undocumented migrants, beginning to date.

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

mini-review · stuff I read

The Golden State by Lydia Kiesling

untitledSummary from Goodreads:
A gorgeous, raw debut novel about a young woman braving the ups and downs of motherhood in a fractured America

In Lydia Kiesling’s razor-sharp debut novel, The Golden State, we accompany Daphne, a young mother on the edge of a breakdown, as she flees her sensible but strained life in San Francisco for the high desert of Altavista with her toddler, Honey. Bucking under the weight of being a single parent–her Turkish husband is unable to return to the United States because of a “processing error”–Daphne takes refuge in a mobile home left to her by her grandparents in hopes that the quiet will bring clarity.

But clarity proves elusive. Over the next ten days Daphne is anxious, she behaves a little erratically, she drinks too much. She wanders the town looking for anyone and anything to punctuate the long hours alone with the baby. Among others, she meets Cindy, a neighbor who is active in a secessionist movement, and befriends the elderly Alice, who has traveled to Altavista as she approaches the end of her life. When her relationships with these women culminate in a dangerous standoff, Daphne must reconcile her inner narrative with the reality of a deeply divided world.

Keenly observed, bristling with humor, and set against the beauty of a little-known part of California, The Golden State is about class and cultural breakdowns, and desperate attempts to bridge old and new worlds. But more than anything, it is about motherhood: its voracious worry, frequent tedium, and enthralling, wondrous love.

The Golden State is a really spare but intimate novel about a woman grieving for circumstances that are beyond her control: her husband has been deported back to Turkey due to shady federal immigration officers, a young woman in her academic program died in an accident on a sponsored trip, and she’s a single mom with a toddler and no family to help her. She’s treading water and floundering at the same time. Mixed into this almost plotless story is a secessionist movement in Northern California spearheaded by her grandparents’ neighbor and a friendship (of a sort) with an elderly woman she meets in the local diner. Kiesling does an interesting thing with language, avoiding commas at certain times which makes the words a rushing river of internal monologue.

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