The Week in Books #104

10/14 ✅

The week in books! I’m getting closer to the end of this stack, but have taken a detour for Asian Heritage Month (May). Like I did with Black History Month, I’ve put together a massive stack of books by Asian authors to get through. I’ve focused mostly on East and Southeast Asian authors as I have so many waiting in the queue, and will create a separate stack for West and South Asian authors as I have a lot of those too.

I’ve been working on a reorganization of my Goodreads shelves as well to tag books with more specific categories than just POC as that label is too broad and frankly going out of style. There are 1130 books to sort through so it might be a slow process but I’m liking the results so far.

There are SIX books to report on this week so I will be kind of brief. Here we go!

1. We, Jane by Aimee Wall. An interesting little novel about a woman who is recruited into a small community of rural women who perform “illegal” abortions (quotations added by me as there should be no such thing as an illegal abortion). The writing is a bit dry; the characters are not overly developed and there actually isn’t much detail provided regarding the movement to provide abortions in rural Newfoundland and Labrador but rather more emphasis it seems placed on Marthe returning to her home town and the emotions it brings up for her, as well as the relationships between the women in the Jane collective. Cool premise, maybe a bit of a dull execution.

A remarkable debut about intergenerational female relationships and resistance found in the unlikeliest of places, We, Jane explores the precarity of rural existence and the essential nature of abortion.

Searching for meaning in her Montreal life, Marthe begins an intense friendship with an older woman, also from Newfoundland, who tells her a story about purpose, about a duty to fulfill. It’s back home, and it goes by the name of Jane.

Marthe travels back to a small community on the island with the older woman to continue the work of an underground movement in 60s Chicago: abortion services performed by women, always referred to as Jane. She commits to learning how to continue this legacy and protect such essential knowledge. But the nobility of her task and the reality of small-town life compete, and personal fractures within their group begin to grow.

We, Jane probes the importance of care work by women for women, underscores the complexity of relationships in close circles, and beautifully captures the inevitable heartache of understanding home.

Book Hug Press

2. The Bees by Laline Paull. This book is super imaginative and engrossing. Flora is a worker bee born into a busy hive and the novel follows her journey through the inner workings of the community. I really enjoyed it!

Flora 717 is a worker bee born into the lowest caste of her totalitarian hive society. Though prepared to sacrifice everything for the Queen and work herself to death, she is a survivor who escapes internal massacres, religious purges, and can even successfully confront a huge marauding wasp. With each act of bravery her status grows, revealing both the enemies within, and the sinister secrets that rule the hive. But when Flora’s devotion to a life of service is overwhelmed by fierce and forbidden maternal love, she must break the most sacred law of all, and embark on a collision course with everything she holds most dear.

3. The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki. I absolutely love everything Ruth Ozeki writes and was very excited to get to this, her most recent release. It did not disappoint! I loved it. So much. Ozeki is so creative and thoughtful, crafting relatable and unique characters in sometimes bizarre but always engaging situations that I greatly enjoying absorbing. Benny is a thirteen year old boy who begins to hear voices in every day objects following the death of his father. His mother Annabelle has filled the house with junk and the voices are driving Benny insane… or are they? I loved that the narrator was both Benny and the book itself, I don’t think I have read a book where the narrator was the actual book, and especially where the book had conversations with the protagonist. Very unusual and beautifully executed. Always an A+ for Ruth Ozeki.

One year after the death of his beloved musician father, thirteen-year-old Benny Oh begins to hear voices. The voices belong to the things in his house—a sneaker, a broken Christmas ornament, a piece of wilted lettuce. Although Benny doesn’t understand what these things are saying, he can sense their emotional tone; some are pleasant, a gentle hum or coo, but others are snide, angry and full of pain. When his mother, Annabelle, develops a hoarding problem, the voices grow more clamorous.

At first, Benny tries to ignore them, but soon the voices follow him outside the house, onto the street and at school, driving him at last to seek refuge in the silence of a large public library, where objects are well-behaved and know to speak in whispers. There, Benny discovers a strange new world. He falls in love with a mesmerizing street artist with a smug pet ferret, who uses the library as her performance space. He meets a homeless philosopher-poet, who encourages him to ask important questions and find his own voice amongst the many.

And he meets his very own Book—a talking thing—who narrates Benny’s life and teaches him to listen to the things that truly matter.

Penguin Randomhouse

4. Ghost Forest by Pik-Shuen Fung. This is a quick, devastating little novel that reads a lot more like the memoir of a Chinese daughter growing up in Vancouver. Her father falls ill and she must face the sadness and grief of the situation within a family that doesn’t express emotion or talk to each other about love. Get your tissues, this one packs a punch.

How do you grieve, if your family doesn’t talk about feelings?

This is the question the unnamed protagonist of GhostForest considers after her father dies. One of the many Hong Kong “astronaut” fathers, he stays there to work, while the rest of the family immigrated to Canada before the 1997 Handover, when the British returned sovereignty over Hong Kong to China.

As she revisits memories of her father through the years, she struggles with unresolved questions and misunderstandings. Turning to her mother and grandmother for answers, she discovers her own life refracted brightly in theirs.

Buoyant and heartbreaking, Ghost Forest is a slim novel that envelops the reader in joy and sorrow. Fung writes with a poetic and haunting voice, layering detail and abstraction, weaving memory and oral history to paint a moving portrait of a Chinese-Canadian astronaut family.

Penguin Randomhouse

5. Dear Girls by Ali Wong. I bought this ONE YEAR AGO which I was rudely reminded of as the receipt fell out of the cover when I picked it up. This, like Ghost Forest, is a quick blast of a book (I read both of them in a single day), and is filled with hilarious jokes about motherhood and the world of comedy. Ali shares a lot about her husband (also named Justin) and their relationship so I thought I would look him up so I could picture his face, and when I did I discovered they just announced they are divorcing! What the heck, Ali! I look forward to your next collection filled with jokes about divorce and coparenting.

Ali Wong’s heartfelt and hilarious letters to her daughters (the two she put to work while they were still in utero), covering everything they need to know in life, like the unpleasant details of dating, how to be a working mom in a male-dominated profession, and how she trapped their dad.

In her hit Netflix comedy special Baby Cobra, an eight-month pregnant Ali Wong resonated so heavily that she became a popular Halloween costume. Wong told the world her remarkably unfiltered thoughts on marriage, sex, Asian culture, working women, and why you never see new mom comics on stage but you sure see plenty of new dads.

The sharp insights and humor are even more personal in this completely original collection. She shares the wisdom she’s learned from a life in comedy and reveals stories from her life off stage, including the brutal singles life in New York (i.e. the inevitable confrontation with erectile dysfunction), reconnecting with her roots (and drinking snake blood) in Vietnam, tales of being a wild child growing up in San Francisco, and parenting war stories. Though addressed to her daughters, Ali Wong’s letters are absurdly funny, surprisingly moving, and enlightening (and disgusting) for all.

6. A Separation by Katie Kitamura. This is an unusual novel about a woman who finds out her recently separated husband has gone missing. The language was strangely formal throughout which I almost found distracting at times (though maybe it was also the blaring tv and child chattering at me). Overall the story was a bit of a slow ride to nowhere. It annoys me when a resolution is not reached by the end of a novel. Does it need to be wrapped up in a neat little package? Not necessarily. But when the central event of the story doesn’t have any closure I find it frustrating. Not a lot actually happened, though the language was interesting.

A young woman has agreed with her faithless husband: it’s time for them to separate. For the moment it’s a private matter, a secret between the two of them. As she begins her new life, she gets word that Christopher has gone missing in a remote region in the rugged south of Greece; she reluctantly agrees to go look for him, still keeping their split to herself. In her heart, she’s not even sure if she wants to find him. As her search comes to a shocking breaking point, she discovers she understands less than she thought she did about her relationship and the man she used to love.

A searing, suspenseful story of intimacy and infidelity, A Separation lays bare the gulf that divides us from the inner lives of others. With exquisitely cool precision, Katie Kitamura propels us into the experience of a woman on edge, with a fiercely mesmerizing story to tell.
Books for Asian Heritage Month (May) 3/19

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