Tag Archives: family

All You Can Ever Know: A Memoir by Nicole Chung

All You Can Ever Know Title: All You Can Ever Know: A Memoir
Author: Nicole Chung
Publisher: Catapult
ISBN: 978-1936787975
Genre: Memoir, Women
Pages: 240
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

It is never easy to bare your soul and speak the truth. When a writer does that, or for that matter anyone who does that, you instantly connect. Not because you have faced the same, but because there is empathy that extends itself on a universal sphere – that of longing, loss, and love. Nicole Chung’s book is all of that and more.

Nicole was adopted by a white couple in Oregon when she was two months old. As a child, Chung’s adoptive parents always made it a point to let her know that she was adopted.  She rarely met any Asian people growing-up and often felt a sense of alienation – a sense of not belonging and made to feel that by children and adults. As she grew into an adult, this bothered her even more. More so, when she thinks of starting a family with her husband Dan, and sets out to find her birth parents. 

All You Can Ever Know is a memoir that cuts through the pretence. It is stark and doesn’t mince words. Of course the sense of family and its roots is very strong, but at no point does Chung’s writing make it seem like she needs validation. It is just an honest account told as though someone is writing a diary or confiding in an old friend. What she went through is extremely heartfelt and moves you to tears (at least did to me). There is also a lot of humour amidst family secrets, relationships, and the question of identity that Chung brings to the book. The complications of race are sensitively told, and ultimately it is all about love and what defines it in the long run. All You Can Ever Know is a must-read for all families – no matter what kind or shape.

 

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Home Remedies by Xuan Juliana Wang

Home Remedies by Xuan Juliana Wang Title: Home Remedies
Author: Xuan Juliana Wang
Publisher: Atlantic Books
ISBN: 978-1786497413
Genre: Short Stories
Pages: 240
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 stars

It is so tricky to start reading a short story collection. You think: Will I like all the stories? Will I like some stories at least? Will it be the same as reading a novel? What if I want some stories to last longer? That will not happen. Should I then read a short story collection at all? There will always be such thoughts, doubts, and apprehensions one might have before starting a short story collection and yet when you do and the reading is so rewarding, you want everyone else to read the book as well. And this is why I am recommending “Home Remedies” by Xuan Juliana Wang.

And yes, the stories might seem familiar, but trust me they are not. The twelve stories span across China and America, and speak of choices: of immigration, love, sex, and the family structure. The stories challenge the reader – you think hooting for one character and immediately the narrative changes. It also makes you see perspectives – one cannot take sides.

An immigrant family raising its first Americans to a father-daughter relationship involving logic, to a story about a woman becoming a fashion icon after taking a dead girl’s clothes, Wang’s stories are of family, belonging, and displacement. Mostly also unclassifiable, these stories are also quite dream-like. The characters with their unusual sex lives and technology that stunned me are thrown into an abyss, which only Wang knows the exit of. The writing looms large of Chinese cultural undertones, while the American way of life runs in parallel.

Home Remedies is built out of small observations and details. The stories are rendered perfectly, well-done and extremely rewarding. The stories do not have an end in themselves and that works – the unknowable, the speculation, and the way she is almost playing with the readers’ expectations. Home Remedies is a short read, with only twelve stories, and is full of heart and brilliant storytelling.

 

 

Small Days and Nights by Tishani Doshi

Small Days and Nights by Tishani Doshi Title: Small Days and Nights
Author: Tishani Doshi
Publisher: Bloomsbury India
ISBN: 978-9388912709
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 272
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

Small Days and Nights had me break into a sweat for most part. I fervently turned the pages, wanting to know what would happen next to Grace and Lucia, to their dogs, and Mallika. For most part, I was on the edge of the proverbial seat so to say, and for the other part, I was mulling, thinking, pondering, and submitting to Doshi’s writing and worldview.

I recall going through the same feeling of angst, hopelessness, and some hope while devouring The Pleasure Seekers in 2010. It has been eight years now and Doshi’s writing is just as evocative, raw, and with a passion that will perhaps burn the reader.

The world Tishani Doshi builds in Small Days and Nights is a small one. Often uncomplicated even, often without layers, and is all about the day to day living of two sisters – who have discovered each other late in life. Grace stumbled upon the existence of Lucia (who is living the Down Syndrome), as she returns to Pondicherry, where her dead mother awaits cremation. Lucia has been living in a residential facility their mother helped build. Grace moves Lucia with her to a tiny coastal village in Tamil Nadu – Paramankeni, a place that is at least three hours away from most human contact. And not to forget, the year is 2010. Grace and Lucia live quiet (or so it seems) lives with Mallika, a village woman who lives on their property as a cook and a guard, also looking after the many adopted dogs.

This novel is deceptive in the sense that while it seems to be calm on the surface, a lot is taking place beneath the surface – Lost relationships that refuse to be found, parental bonds (their Italian father is in Venice, who was estranged from their mother many years ago and is acousticphobic as well) that are not quite there, a family that isn’t your typical family (but what is a typical family anyway?), and women who are cocooned in a world of their own, where men will not let them be. That theme runs throughout the novel – incidents happen on their property, men look creepily, and the sea rages in the distance.

Doshi creates a world that has its moments of grace, of kindness, of empathy beyond recognition and yet there are times through her writing where darkness makes itself known. Her characters love and also fall short of love. Her writing is razor-like and also quite a balm at most times – it soothes and cuts sharp. It seethes with anger and knows when to smile. The descriptions linger long after, the taste of the sea remains, the sound of the dogs barking, and the restlessness strike home.

Grace and her parents are aware of their failings and that’s what makes them so real and at the same time quite unforgiving. You don’t feel for Grace – it is hard to, but as a reader you understand loneliness, and the right to claim life in whatever capacity. Women’s experience in public and personal places, of caring for someone with special needs, forgiveness, and the need to understand that all of us are perhaps sailing in the same boat is the heart of Small Days and Nights, and yet there is the awareness that it can all be undone quite easily.

The Weight of a Piano by Chris Cander

The Weight of a Piano by Chris Cander Title: The Weight of a Piano
Author: Chris Cander
Publisher: Knopf
ISBN: 978-0525654674
Genre: Fiction
Pages: 336
Source: Publisher
Rating: 3.5/5

The book caught my eye when I read some people comparing it to Bel Canto by Ann Patchett. I think the similarity ends with music being the focal theme of both books. The Weight of a Piano is a very different book, that I thoroughly enjoyed. It is a book about how a piano made in Romania, intersects lives – one that of a woman in Russia with that of a woman in the United States of America.

The Weight of a Piano is about relationships in the modern world, and also in the world gone by. The core though remains the same: what will you do if your one passion is taken away from you? What lengths will you go to perhaps even destroy yourself in the pursuit of the passion? How does then life be lived, with all its complexities and hurdles thrown in the way, every single day?

One story starts in 1962, when eight-year-old Katya is bequeathed a Blüthner piano, that will become the love of her life. She gets married in about eight years or so and moves to America with her family, only to lose the piano in the process.

It is 2012. Bakersfield, California, twenty-six-year old Clara Lundy not only loses a boyfriend, but also has to move to another apartment. With her she just must take the Blüthner, which she has never learned to play. It came down to her by parents who died in a fire accident. She was raised by her aunt and uncle. Her uncle had a car-repair shop and she is trained to become a mechanic.

While the piano is being moved to her new apartment, her hand gets broken – emotions run wild and she decides to sell the piano. Who is the buyer? What happens thereafter is the what makes the rest of the story of The Weight of a Piano.

This is a mystery somewhat, but mostly predictable. However, don’t go by that. The real meat of the story lies in the writing. Many metaphors and parallels run through the story, only enriching it. Of course, the title is also a metaphor for the weight of the characters’ lives and how sometime or the other, the burden needs to be dropped. What I loved the most were the musical references. Piano music is superb and to listen to those pieces while reading the book is another matter of joy.

Cander’s characters could be related to because they are rooted in reality. It is an unusual story in the sense of the piano, that is almost the central character. At the same time, I also thought it was a little too long and could’ve done with some editing. Having said that, the descriptions of both Russia and the American barren landscape are spot-on. The book also had me Googling for these places, just so I could understand the places I am reading about.

The Weight of a Piano is rich in description, and speaks of the true love between the artist and passion, and how people are connected one way or the other – sometimes through the music and sometimes just by what has happened in their lives, and very rarely both.

Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli

Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli Title: Lost Children Archive
Author: Valeria Luiselli
Publisher: Knopf
ISBN: 978-0525520610
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 400
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

Lost Children Archive is a book that should be read by everyone. I think more so because it is so relevant for the times we live in, and also because it is written with such grace, delicacy, and at the same time rawness that is unfathomable. It is one of those rare books that once you start you don’t want it to end. It is like an experience that is immersive and yet so heartbreaking. You don’t want to read it, and yet you do. The wanting to read is obviously far greater, so you do – you read it, if you are me you also constantly mark, highlight, and annotate. Lines resonate, words linger, emotions are so deep-rooted that even if you haven’t experienced any of them, you feel for the characters, though they are nameless.

In 2017, Mexican-born novelist Valeria Luiselli, published a book called “Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in 40 Questions”. This book was a result of her volunteering as a court interpreter for children – the “illegal aliens” (as they are called), helping them with intake questionnaires that might establish a case for asylum for them. The book is about her experience of also applying for a green card as she fights for the children.

Lost Children Archive, her much-anticipated new novel (and the first one written in English) is about these refugee children and their lives, it is about a family at the core of it – their lives, and ultimately about ties that bind us and the ones that don’t. Luiselli touches on a topic that is so relevant, so utterly terrifyingly heartbreaking that sometimes as a reader, it took me time to digest, assimilate, and then process my thoughts and emotions.

What I must not forget and mention here is that Lost Children Archive is a “road novel” as well. It is a journey undertaken at the start of the novel by a family – a father, a mother, a son, and a daughter. A family that came together when the father and the mother, two single parents fell in love while recording the sounds of New York City. Their marriage is drifting. They are losing grip on who they used to be. The husband plans a new project to travel to the ancestral homeland of the Apaches in Arizona, she decides to go along with her daughter and his son. She plans to document sounds of refugees at the border, and also wants to find two missing, undocumented daughters of her immigrant friend.

Furthermore, there are boxes of the family that travel with them – boxes that are filled and some that aren’t. Boxes that mean something, that are heavy with meaning and emotion, of work documented by the husband and the wife and what remains of their union. Luiselli captures the voices of the children beautifully. The 10-year old son (from the husband) and the 5-year old daughter (from the wife) are seamlessly integrated into the narrative of adults – asking, wondering, sometimes taking pictures (you will learn of this as you read along), and questioning their identity and family as a unit.

Luiselli breaks the mould so many times as she tells the story – over and over again. With the contents of the boxes, the small chapters that integrate, the characters’ voices that seamlessly integrate and also stand-out most often, but above all the last twenty pages of the book are something else – a long sentence that reaches its ending with so much to already chew and mull over, leaving a void in your mind and heart.

Lost Children Archive is most certainly the novel of our times (and sadly as well). It is so many things and yet it is up to the reader what they want to take from it. The story of the refugee children is constantly told from various points of view and done so strangely and beautifully most of the time. Not to forget the character that is the US of A. Home, perhaps. The roads, the motels, the diners, the billboards, and the borders we create are covered with such eye for detail that you wonder if she wrote the book as she travelled. Maybe she did. Maybe she didn’t. It is about family – the breaking of one and where do other families fit in, the ones that have been broken through displacement, still seeking refuge?