Books. Opinions. Good times.

Posts tagged ‘fiction’

Mambo in Chinatown

mambo in chinatown

by: Jean Kwok

Mambo in Chinatown is a book I picked up at the library when I was browsing after replacing my lost card.  I do a bit of Latin dancing off and on (more off recently) so both the shoes and the name caught my attention.  Then I read the blurb and it said it was about a first generation Chinese American woman who grew up in Chinatown, NYC, and ended up working for a ballroom dance studio. I knew I had to read it.

Charlie Wong, daughter of a Beijing Ballet prima ballerina, feels ungraceful and works as a dishwasher in a noodle shop where her father makes money.  She spends her time supporting her family and trying to help her beautiful, intelligent younger sister, whom Charlie hopes to help to bigger and brighter things.  One day, Charlie, who has always longed to feel beautiful, applies for a job as a receptionist as a ballroom dance studio and gets it.  Working at the studio begins to slowly transform her life, but she worries about her sister, Lisa, who is struggling with an unknown illness that seems to worsen as Charlie’s life improves.

I greatly enjoyed this novel.  It was definitely written for a Western audience and Kwok takes plenty of time to explain Chinese beliefs, attitudes, and traditions for a non-Chinese audience.  She always manages to make it feel very natural to the story, partly because it’s written in first person, so it’s always presented as Charlie musing on what she’s looking at. It’s fairly obvious but never overdone and sprinkled evenly throughout the novel.  I genuinely appreciated it – some things I knew and some things I didn’t, but overall the holistic integration of all the components Charlie talked about make me gain an appreciation for her worldview that I think can be challenging to convey in a novel. Kwok also does a good job of letting the bigger cultural notions speak through the actions of the characters – Charlie’s desire to show proper respect for her father is never dissected but is clearly and understandably demonstrated through her actions and concerns.

Charlie herself is a really wonderful character.  She’s kind and tries her best, but struggles with finding herself and self-esteem issues, making her believably flawed but likable.  Of course, part of her struggle is balancing the Chinese and American cultures she exists in, which Kwok does an excellent job with.  I also appreciate that Kwok includes many other Chinese American women, all of whom are finding their own balance in Chinatown.

I loved her descriptions of dancing – she really manages to capture the essence of twirling across the dance floor.  And the book definitely touched on magical realism as shows Lisa’s illness, with her father trusting traditional Chinese medicine and Charlie wanting to try Western.  I will say, if Kwok writes a magical realism novel, I will definitely read it.

The biggest downside to this book is that the plot line is incredibly predictable.  Now, in a book like this, which I’m reading for escapism and for enjoyment of the characters, that’s not a fatal flaw at all.  But I was able to predict every plot twist and turn that happens straight from the beginning of the novel.  The pacing is good and I really wanted to know what happened next, I just already knew what was going to happen next.

Overall, it was a lovely and introspective light read and if you’re looking for something uplifting, a little different, and kind, this is definitely the book for you.  If you’re looking for an unexpected turn, or don’t want your escapism novels to deal with the big evils of the world (there’s one in here, though done well), then, sadly, this may not be the book for you.

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Corpus Christi

corpus christi

by: Bret Anthony Johnston

Corpus Christi: Stories is a collection of short stories, which I’m going to be upfront about and say – not my favorite form of literature.  While I enjoyed this book and have a mostly positive review, and Johnston is certainly an amazing writer, I do think some of my less favorable remarks are influenced by the fact that I don’t particularly care for short stories.

And on the note of full disclosure, Corpus Christi is set in the Texan city it is named after, which is about an hour from where I grew up.  It was the nearest big city and I spent a lot of time there, shopping, going to orthodontist appointments, checking out the sights and the beach – it’s a pretty cool place. The Texas State Aquarium is amazing; go if you have the chance.  And, with the caveat that Johnston did grow up actually in Corpus, I felt a little odd about how he chose to incorporate the setting into the story.

Certainly, the setting felt like it was a real place, but – his Corpus was not my Corpus.  It appears from his biography that he hasn’t lived in Corpus for a while, and there were certain parts of the dialect and the stories that just jarred slightly.  (I’ve never heard anyone from back home say “sunblock,” for instance; I’ve always heard it referred to as “sunscreen.”)  The reference to the Nutcracker coming to town being a big deal – there’s now a ballet in Corpus that performs that every year; I feel like that sentence should have been started with “Back then” or something.

But there were certainly parts that felt authentic, and it’s only the second book I’ve read set in Corpus, and the third set in South Texas/the Coastal Bend in general, so there’s that.  I also think I would care less about whether or not it aligned with my experience of Corpus if there were more books or media or any sort set there.

One of the big things that jumped out at me, though, was how predominately white the stories were. According to Wikipedia, Corpus is more than 50% Hispanic/Latino and I think one of the most jarring things about the stories was how whitewashed they seemed.  That may have just been Johnston’s experience, depending on what neighborhood he grew up in, but it was probably the biggest thing that stuck out to me as not feeling like Corpus.

That aside, Johnston is an amazing writer.  His stories mostly examined relationship between adult children and their parents, though not exclusively.  It’s not a relationship I tend to focus a lot of my reading on, but I really enjoyed the way Johnston explored them.  They were complicated and imperfect, and many of the characters existed within a dysfunctional family.

Johnston does an absolutely fantastic job of creating this complex relationships between these extremely well-developed characters, very simply and in an incredibly short amount of space.  His writing is beautiful and the stories have – emotional resonance? They weren’t quite bittersweet but they managed to strike the perfect balance between evoking pain and evoking hope. There are three connected short stories that form the backbone of this collection, focusing on the relationship between a mother and her son, and I absolutely loved them.  They were brilliant and honest and heartbreaking.  His use of the scenery was subtle, but it fit well into the story and I think the title is completely appropriate.  I am definitely going to be reading more of his works.

If you like elegant, yet heartbreaking short stories, or if you love a well-written story, you should absolutely read Corpus Christi.  If you’re into happy endings, or something more than a hope for a better future, you should probably give this one a pass.

If you’re from Corpus or if you’ve ever lived there, I’d love your take on this book! Please leave a comment!

Miss Buncle’s Book

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by: D.E. Stevenson

I can’t believe I’ve gotten this far in life without having heard of D.E. Stevenson or Miss Buncle’s Book. It’s a travesty.

Miss Buncle’s Book is the kind of funny, delightful, and genuinely sweet book that I just adore.  It follows the adventures of Miss Buncle, a frumpy spinster resident of the charming British village of Silverstream.  Finding herself financially embarrassed, Miss Buncle resolves to make a dollar or two by writing and publishing a book.  Rather fortunately, Miss Buncle is only able to write about what she knows, and the only thing Miss Buncle knows is her own small village.  Unfortunately, despite her clever name-changing, the residents of Silverstream soon recognize themselves in the pages of the much-lauded novel, Disturber of the Peace.   Hijinks, as you can imagine, soon ensue.

This book is absolutely adorable.  At the core of it are people finding themselves, breaking out from the roles they have so diligently learned to play and redefining themselves long after they thought it was possible to do so.  It reminded me strongly of “Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day” which is one of my favorite movies ever.   

The characters are well-developed and likeable and just good fun.  The mean ones are mean enough to be disliked but not mean enough to concern the reader – it’s one of those books that leave you smiling.  There are developing friendships and developing relationships and established relationships.  All of them are sweet and heartwarming.

The only thing I had a strong distaste for was one of the relationships in the book.  It developed quite wonderfully but it ended on the dynamic of the strong man leading the shy, retiring woman into wedded bliss.  I know it’s somewhat reflective of the times but still… ew.  It felt a bit overly pushy – from his end – just at the very end of the novel; the only dark spot on an otherwise wonderful story.  Especially since that female character had done quite a bit of exploring and growing on her end.

On the plus side, there was (very definitely, by my accounting) a barely disguised lesbian couple in there that reminded me of my grandmothers.  So cute!  And – this is kinda spoiler-y – they get their very own happy ending.  It was very unexpected to find in a book first published in 1936.  But very excellent and it makes me happy about the state of mankind. (Again, how did I just find out about this book?!)

I loved watching the characters bumbling through their journeys of self-discovery. Nothing big happens in the novel; there’s no dramatic tales of treachery or star-crossed lovers.  Just a bunch of delightful people doing more or less everyday things.

If you’re into fun romps and quaint British stories in which nothing truly bad can happen, written about people you’re quite sure you recognize, you might want to give this one a go.  If you’re looking for more meaty novels  with grand themes or tragic characters or if you like a touch of adventure and danger, than perhaps this isn’t the book for you.

Holocaust literature

Ug, sorry guys.  I haven’t been reading much lately; the sun’s come out so I’ve been out and about as much as possible – my energy levels increase dramatically as the amount of sunshine I get increase.   Also, I’ve been spending way too much time finishing series on Netflix instead of reading.  Oops.

This isn’t a book review.  It’s a rant/ask for suggestions.

One of my friends made a Holocaust joke last week. I hate Holocaust jokes.  They’re never okay and I seriously doubt they’ll ever be okay. I don’t know how one can think of the Holocaust without being at least tinged by horror and a peculiar sort of grief. Nobody laughed, I told her it was too soon (it will always be too soon), and she called us all overly sensitive. Except when 5 people (one of them Jewish, now that I think about it) don’t laugh…usually it’s just not that funny.  Okay, done ranting.

But I am fascinated by Holocaust literature.  Something about the horrors of it fascinates me.  That it could happen, that people actively worked to make it happen, boggles my mind. The depth and breadth of emotions evoked when trying to conceptualize genocide are worth exploring, if only to find the courage to stand up for injustice when you see it.

With all that said, I’m starting The Business of Genocide, a book looking at the middle managers of Hitler’s regime.  The paper pushers, accountants, and other seemingly ordinary white-collar workers who made the logistics of committing genocide possible.  I also have Schindler’s List, which I may read next if I can take it.

Any favorite Holocaust literature out? Fiction or nonfiction, what books do you find particularly compelling and why? What do I absolutely have to read in order to get a better understanding? Leave a comment below!