The Week in Books #106

12/19 ✅

The week in books! I missed last week but have apparently been reading like a maniac because I have SEVEN books to cover in this post! I continued with AAPI authors for Asian Heritage month and read books set in South Korea (Jeju Island), Taiwan, and Vietnam as well as about characters in America and Canada with Korean and Chinese heritage.

1. Two Trees Make a Forest by Jessica J. Lee. Jessica shares the discovery of her family history in Taiwan as well as a lot of detailed information about the environment and topology of the island and its history as a nation. Not gonna lie, a lot of this book is dryyyy. The family history is interesting, but a lot of the descriptions of landscape really dragged for me. Nonetheless it was good to learn a bit more about Taiwan, it sounds like a pretty magical place.

A chance discovery of letters written by her immigrant grandfather leads Jessica J. Lee to her ancestral homeland, Taiwan. There, she seeks his story while growing closer to the land he knew.

Lee hikes mountains home to Formosan flamecrests, birds found nowhere else on earth, and swims in a lake of drowned cedars. She bikes flatlands where spoonbills alight by fish farms, and learns about a tree whose fruit can float in the ocean for years, awaiting landfall.

Throughout, Lee unearths surprising parallels between the natural and human stories that have shaped her family and their beloved island. Joyously attentive to the natural world, Lee also turns a critical gaze upon colonialist explorers who mapped the land and named plants, relying on and often effacing the labor and knowledge of local communities.

Penguin Randomhouse

2. Vi by Kim Thuy. Kim Thuy is a fabulous writer, and her translator must also be incredible because this novel was pure poetry. Every single sentence was beautifully crafted and nothing was extraneous. It’s a short story that packs a punch.

The perfect complement to the exquisitely wrought novels Ru and Mãn, Canada Reads winner Kim Thúy returns with Vi, exploring the lives, loves and struggles of Vietnamese refugees as they reinvent themselves in new lands.

The daughter of an enterprising mother and a wealthy, spoiled father who never had to grow up, Vi was the youngest of their four children and the only girl. They gave her a name that meant “precious, tiny one,” destined to be cosseted and protected, the family’s little treasure.

But the Vietnam War destroys life as they’ve known it. Vi, along with her mother and brothers, manages to escape–but her father stays behind, leaving a painful void as the rest of the family must make a new life for themselves in Canada.

While her family puts down roots, life has different plans for Vi. Taken under the wing of Hà, a worldly family friend, and her diplomat lover, Vi tests personal boundaries and crosses international ones, letting the winds of life buffet her. From Saigon to Montreal, from Suzhou to Boston to the fall of the Berlin Wall, she is witness to the immensity of geography, the intricate fabric of humanity, the complexity of love, the infinite possibilities before her. Ever the quiet observer, somehow Vi must find a way to finally take her place in the world.

Penguin Randomhouse

3. The Last Story of Mina Lee by Nancy Jooyoun Kim. This novel is from the Reese book club list, which I have found to be a fairly consistent book club when it comes to picking diverse and accessible books that also carry big meaning. I enjoyed the way this story unfolded through alternating glimpses of Margot in the present and her mother Mina in the past. It was interesting to read about both the Korean immigrant experience and also the mysteries of the mother daughter relationship. I had a few minor issues, one being that Margot’s friend Miguel was a completely unnecessary character. He literally contributed nothing to the plot and we learned nothing about him as a person. He did not need to be there. The pace also began to drag a bit in the second half as Margot looks for the truth about her mother’s untimely death. I did enjoy that Korean food featured so heavily in the writing and found the style very easy to digest. A good book overall.

Margot Lee’s mother, Mina, isn’t returning her calls. It’s a mystery to twenty-six-year-old Margot, until she visits her childhood apartment in Koreatown, LA, and finds that her mother has suspiciously died. The discovery sends Margot digging through the past, unraveling the tenuous invisible strings that held together her single mother’s life as a Korean War orphan and an undocumented immigrant, only to realize how little she truly knew about her mother.

Interwoven with Margot’s present-day search is Mina’s story of her first year in Los Angeles as she navigates the promises and perils of the American myth of reinvention. While she’s barely earning a living by stocking shelves at a Korean grocery store, the last thing Mina ever expects is to fall in love. But that love story sets in motion a series of events that have consequences for years to come, leading up to the truth of what happened the night of her death.

Told through the intimate lens of a mother and daughter who have struggled all their lives to understand each other, The Last Story of Mina Lee is a powerful and exquisitely woven debut novel that explores identity, family, secrets, and what it truly means to belong.


4. The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See. Wow. This book was so much more devastating than I expected. This is a fictional account of two girls living through real life historical events on Jeju Island off the south coast of Korea. It was incredibly informative on the history of the island, which I knew nothing about, and also about the culture of women divers there. This book is exquisitely written but omg very intense. There are many deaths and descriptions of violence, not excluding against women and children which caught me off guard and I found especially upsetting. Overall a beautiful story of friendship and betrayal during war times. Very powerful.

Mi-ja and Young-sook, two girls living on the Korean island of Jeju, are best friends who come from very different backgrounds. When they are old enough, they begin working in the sea with their village’s all-female diving collective, led by Young-sook’s mother. As the girls take up their positions as baby divers, they know they are beginning a life of excitement and responsibility—but also danger.

Despite their love for each other, Mi-ja and Young-sook find it impossible to ignore their differences. The Island of Sea Women takes place over many decades, beginning during a period of Japanese colonialism in the 1930s and 1940s, followed by World War II, the Korean War, through the era of cell phones and wet suits for the women divers. Throughout this time, the residents of Jeju find themselves caught between warring empires. Mi-ja is the daughter of a Japanese collaborator. Young-sook was born into a long line of haenyeo and will inherit her mother’s position leading the divers in their village. Little do the two friends know that forces outside their control will push their friendship to the breaking point.

Simon and Schuster

5. Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lillian Li. This is a family dramady (drama/comedy) about the Hans and their Maryland restaurant, Beijing Duck House. There’s a large and variously interconnected cast of characters that you get thrown into, but a family tree is on the inside cover to help you out. I love when these are included, I find them really helpful in visualizing the relationships between characters. This book was funny and easy to breeze through, and I enjoyed the way the story unfolded. It has a pretty mediocre rating on goodreads which is a tad unfair, I think. It was entertaining, the characters were unique and it held my attention to the end. If you like reading about family drama in the restaurant industry you’ll probably like this one haha.

The Beijing Duck House in Rockville, Maryland, is not only a beloved go-to setting for hunger pangs and celebrations; it is its own world, inhabited by waiters and kitchen staff who have been fighting, loving, and aging within its walls for decades. When disaster strikes, this working family’s controlled chaos is set loose, forcing each character to confront the conflicts that fast-paced restaurant life has kept at bay.

Generous in spirit, unaffected in its intelligence, multi-voiced, poignant, and darkly funny, Number One Chinese Restaurant looks beyond red tablecloths and silkscreen murals to share an unforgettable story about youth and aging, parents and children, and all the ways that our families destroy us while also keeping us grounded and alive.

6. Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong. I picked this up in a LFL while in Victoria last weekend and was looking forward to squeezing it into the stack for Asian Heritage month. It’s a super fast read and I loved it. Ruth has broken off her engagement and moves home to take care of her father who is suffering the early stages of dementia. It is told through journal entries which allows for thoughts and feelings to be expressed through little vignettes that I found amusing and also at times sad. I really enjoyed the humour and relatability of Khongs style, there were many moments where I could see myself in the writing and a number of passages that were quite clever. I especially liked the notes her father wrote about her as a child, they included cute conversations between father and daughter that made me smile. A very good book.

Freshly disengaged from her fiancé and feeling that life has not turned out quite the way she planned, thirty-year-old Ruth quits her job, leaves town and arrives at her parents’ home to find that situation more complicated than she’d realized. Her father, a prominent history professor, is losing his memory and is only erratically lucid. Ruth’s mother, meanwhile, is lucidly erratic. But as Ruth’s father’s condition intensifies, the comedy in her situation takes hold, gently transforming her in all her grief.

Told in captivating glimpses and drawn from a deep well of insight, humor, and unexpected tenderness, Goodbye, Vitamin pilots through the loss, love, and absurdity of finding one’s footing in this life.

Macmillan Publishers

7. The Jade Peony by Wayson Choy. This is one of those books that I have seen everywhere but never made the time to read. I was a little underwhelmed by this story of three siblings growing up together in Vancouver, though parts of it I did enjoy. Laing’s friendship with the Monkey Man, Jung’s crush on an older boy at the fighting club, and Sekky’s ghost sightings of his dead Poh Poh (grandma) were all very memorable. Apart from these snippets, however, nothing really happens. I noticed that Wayson mentioned The Winters hotel in Gastown several times, which caught my eye because it just burned down a few weeks ago which is a real shame as it has obviously been a landmark for many decades. I always enjoy reading novels set in Vancouver but I hoped for more from this one.

Chinatown, Vancouver, in the late 1930s and ï??40s provides the setting for this poignant first novel, told through the vivid and intense reminiscences of the three younger children of an immigrant family. They each experience a very different childhood, depending on age and sex, as they encounter the complexities of birth and death, love and hate, kinship and otherness. Mingling with the realities of Canada and the horror of war are the magic, ghosts, paper uncles and family secrets of Poh-Poh, or Grandmother, who is the heart and pillar of the family.
10/14 ✅

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