January 01, 2017

#aznbooks2017 Issue 1: December 2016

Welcome to the inaugural issue of #aznbooks2017! I actually got an early start on this project in December, testing it out before giving a name (and a hashtag). Here are the books I read in December 2016: 

Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights, Kenji Yoshina  

"Covering" came highly recommended by writer Karin Tanabe (Hapa! Author of The Gilded Years). Yoshino is a poet and a lawyer, and both sides of his profession come out in his writing. His prose is beautiful and his arguments are rooted in American history and caselaw.

Speaking of his arguments: Yoshino's thesis here is that "covering" is the logical next step in the line of asking minorities to deny the "different" parts of themselves; the preceding steps include conversion and passing. Covering, Yoshino claims, holds that the mainstream can tolerate difference, as long as it isn't accentuated ("I don't have a problem with you being gay, just don't rub it in my face.") Yoshino offers tight analysis of court decisions over the last 100 years that institutionally reinforce his covering thesis, and that makes it hard to ignore. I've been thinking about the ways I cover -- and ask others to cover -- since finishing this book. 

The Vegetarian, Han Kang

The Vegetarian came recommended by my friend and former boss, Herman Wong, who left a brand new hardcover copy on my desk at work. I put off reading it for a little while, but decided to read it one night. Hoooooooooo boy. 

Fact number one: I read this slim novel in exactly one sitting. Two hours. 

Fact number two: I was deeply disturbed by this book and had dreams that my Korean grandmother's ghost was angry with me for not knowing her name. Trust, I got that name written down in Hangul as soon as I was awake. 

Onto my *actual* thoughts.

The premise of this story is that a man's wife suddenly decides to stop eating meat because of violent dreams she's been having. He's deeply disturbed, and she basically withers away into craziness. I think the fact that Yong He becomes a vegetarian is so much more disturbing if you understand the context of eating meat in Korea. In short, it is everything. Meat is crucial to the Korean diet. Read with that literacy, The Vegetarian is a story about subordination and rebellion, not just as woman-against-husband, but also individuals-versus-society.  

The dream descriptions were so brutally physically, so gory. I was deeply disturbed by the violence -- especially the sexual violence -- yet I kept reading it. Reading this felt like witnessing a dream, or maybe a nightmare, in all its transience and physicality. 

The Hostage's Daughter, Sulome Anderson 

Sulome Anderson met her father, Terry Anderson, when she was six. Up until then, he was held in captivity during the Lebanese Hostage Crisis. The Hostage's Daughter tells the haunting story of what happened after the Anderson family closed the doors on the TV cameras and news reporters. Sulome documents the PTSD, mental illness, drug abuse, broken families and rehab that followed her into young adulthood. What she also documents is her recovery, her entree into the journalism industry, and her journey of finding the men who kidnapped her father so many years ago. 

I first met Sulome when I attended her wedding in September and cried my damn eyes out. This story is so deeply affecting because how the hell can so many bad things happen to one person?!?! But what makes Anderson's story so beautiful is that you know it has a happy ending. This is a testament to how ruined a person can be, and how resilient also. 

The Wangs vs. The World, Jade Chang

This book was so much more complex than I was anticipating. It dealt with the nature of ambition, specifically an immigrant's ambition, in a way that felt so honest and real (the accented quotes about "dumb, fat, greedy Americans" sounded particularly familiar).

Each of the characters in this book battles their own ambitions and the demons that come with, and that ambition sounds remarkably similar, from the wealthy housewife to the amateur comic to the scorned artist. 

This was also very much a story about the disruption of the myths we tell ourselves about ourselves. Every twist in the plot knotted my expectations and my reading in a surprising way, and it was delicious.

A quote to end on: "The Indians were just a tribe of early Chinese people who took a long walk across the Bering Land Bridge and ended up in the New World. The true Americans were Chinese, it was too bad it had taken him so long to remember that." 

Still Life with Rice, Helie Lee

Ahh! So many feelings reading this. 

So, mechanics out of the way first. This book is the memoir of a Korean woman born in the early 20th century ("1912, year of the Rat," to be precise). It traces her life in Japanese-occupied Korea, then as a refugee in China, then in North Korea (immediately after the country was split), then as a refugee in South Korea, and ultimately as an ahjumma in the U.S. 

Here's the twist: It's actually written by her granddaughter. So the process of reading entwined Lee's discovery of her grandmother's life with my own discoveries. 

If you'll allow me to be indulgent for just a minute. Reading this book gave me the context for so many things I just accepted as truth about Koreans and about my own family. Suddenly, I understand my mom's (mostly joking???) disdain for Japan, along with stories of my grandfather fleeing North Korea as a boy, and the reason my mean Korean landlord suddenly turned tender when he realized that I actually was one of his kind. 

"Dry up your tears, you are among family. We are all your brothers and sisters, because we share the same history, the same blood." 

Closing thoughts 

My first few weeks into #aznbooks2017 have been mentally and emotionally exhausting, but also so rewarding. An unexpected side effect is my intense craving for Korean food, especially after finishing Still Life with Rice. For anyone in D.C. struggling with the dearth of Korean options, I highly recommend Triple B Fresh in Dupont -- you can get a dukbokki and kimbap combo for $14! Which is still way too expensive! But considering price AND taste, I'd say this is the best of our three whole options in D.C. proper. 

Books started:  Send me your book recommendations! And check out my Goodreads reading list if you want to join in! 

See ya Feb. 1.