The Leavers – Lisa Ko

30753987One day, Deming Guo’s mother doesn’t come home. Did she go to Florida, as she said she’d hoped to? Did she find a new boyfriend and marry him? Is she dead somewhere – like out of a CSI show – as her son wonders? Lisa Ko’s The Leavers takes its time solving the mystery of her disappearance, as we instead follow Deming’s journey from the Bronx to a suburban town upstate. There, Deming becomes Daniel Wilkinson – a new name that comes with two well-meaning but ignorant white foster parents.

Ko’s novel follows two generations attempting to broach borders, those between countries and those between people. Deming is irrevocably changed by the mystery of his mother’s absence. As an adult, he is feckless and unmoored, despite repeated attempts by his foster parents to mold him into the ideal professor’s son. As the novel progresses, we switch to the viewpoint of Deming’s fiercely independent and ambitious mother. Here is where Ko’s story really takes off. Her portrait of Deming’s mother, Polly Guo, is always engaging and never veers off into the trite. Determined to maintain agency over her own life, Polly manages to be thoughtful and fierce even when constrained by faceless bureaucracies and impossible circumstances.

As the novel progresses, we switch to the viewpoint of Deming’s fiercely independent and ambitious mother. Here is where Ko’s writing really shines. Her portrait of Deming’s mother, Polly Guo, is always engaging and never veers off into the trite – a potentially difficult task when telling the story of someone who came from such modest beginnings.  Determined to maintain agency over her own life, Polly remains thoughtful and fierce even when constrained by faceless bureaucracies and impossible circumstances.

If there’s one complaint to be made about The Leavers, it’s that I could have spent a few more chapters with Polly (and, perhaps, Polly’s father, who gets frustratingly little characterization, but who I remain curious about).

Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

Out – Natsuo Kirino

This one is not for the faint of heart. The novel introduces a constellation of characters at the start, and it is difficult to see how they are all going to fit toget25365her. But fit together they do, as each plays a role in the covering of a brutal murder.

Less mystery and more thriller, Out almost reads like a journalistic expose. I never got the sense that the author wanted to me to root for any particular character, and she wasn’t shy about introducing unflattering elements – a lot of the point-of-view characters are ones that most of us would be unwilling to call friends. In many ways, the hard-to-identify-with characters became the most interesting. [Author] does an excellent job teasing out motivations and painting a picture of an often bleak and depressing Tokyo.

Out’s Tokyo is less a futuristic and culinary wonderland, and more of a bleak automaton, chugging along only due to the efforts of struggling working class people. I really enjoyed Kirino’s strengths for creating atmosphere, and her willingness to embrace some pessimism rather than attempt to staple on happy endings for all the characters.

It is a relatively hefty book. (The copy I obtained from the library clocked in at about 500 pages.) That disclaimer aside, I poured through this one like water – it was gripping and I never lost momentum.

Cracking India – Bapsi Sidhwa

I did this one backward: I saw the movie first. Earth, the gorgeous interpretation by Deep Mehta, left a deep impression after I saw it in college. Thus, Bapsi Sidhwa’s novel has been on my list for many years, although the tragic subject matter caused me to procrastinate.

Unsurprisingly, I’m glad I finally picked it up. Sidhwa has a distinct writing style: frank and youthful. The setting is Lahore before the portion of India, and the narrator is an inquisitive and happy-go-lucky Parsee girl named Lenny. Because of her age, the reader often finds themselves trying to push back the curtain of Lenny’s naïveté to see what’s really going on with the adult characters that surround her. Ultimately, it is not Lenny who provides the dramatic tension in the story, but her ayah, a beautiful Hindu woman who has enchanted the men of the neighborhood.

1C0CFFFF-84B4-4E47-9CC5-55453B1D4582A love triangle unfolds as political and religious tensions start to boil over, leading to betrayal and tragedy. As with The Devotion of Suspect X, unrequited love is a major theme and you come to sympathize with the character who, in the hands of a less thoughtful writer, might be the “bad guy”.
However, the historical basis for Cracking India renders it more impactful, and a book worthy of a later rereading.
(I re-watched the film after finishing the book and am happy to say that it held up well.)

The Vegetarian – Han Kang


Gripping and memorable. Very happy that I picked up this slim, vividly colored novel.

The beginning of the end is when the protagonist’s husband walks in to find her hunched over the floor, surrounded by trash bags and Tupperware containers full of frozen meat. It’s a vivid image, and like many other scenes in the novel, I found myself having an almost visceral reaction to the struggles of the main character as she attempted to navigate her new revulsion in the face of meat.

This concyvonne-lee-harijanto-41745.jpgise novel is broken up into three parts: her husband, her brother-in-law, and her sister all narrate different sections. Crucially, we don’t receive narration from the titular character although we are given glimpses of her thoughts through brief italicized sections. She feels removed to us, which is pertinent when we consider how in real life we are often removed from those people who are acting in ways contrary to the norm. Raising our eyebrows and making meaningful eye contact with fellow bus passengers, we do our best to ignore those people whose behaviors make us shift with discomfort, or force us to confront the gaps in our society.

What does it mean to be alive? What separates human from animals? How can we retain autonomy over ourselves and our bodies when society asserts control over our physical and mental selves? This would be a great book club pick: there’s plenty of questions and themes for a meaty conversation. (Yes, pun intended.)

Bare in mind that despite the title, vegetarianism isn’t really a central theme. The author isn’t trying to coax you into reconsidering your cheeseburger lunch. That said, it wouldn’t hurt to plan on just a salad after reading.

Review from The Guardian here.
Review from The New York Times here.


The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down

I’ve passed this book before. It’s one of those intellectual best-sellers that sits on tables in the front of bookstores. I’ve picked it up, perused the pages, moved on. Somehow it really never held my attention. But after the enthusiastic recommendations of both a coworker and cousin, I finally picked it up. I’m so glad.

Anne Fadiman has a thoughtful tone that illustrates intense experiences without resorting to hyperbole and reviews historical events without devolving into a textbook. The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down focuses on the journey of the Lees, a Hmong family that is resettled in Merced as refugees. When one of their children is diagnosed with epilepsy, the miscommunication between them and their Western doctors leads to tragedy and heartache.

In between chapters about the Hmong’s struggle, Fadiman reviews the turbulent and often tragic history of the Hmong people. Fadiman does not spell out any overt conclusions; her tone remains nonjudgmental and descriptive instead of preaching.

Nonetheless, the historical context paints a picture of an independent people. Additionally, Fadiman demonstrates how the qualities that allowed the Hmong to thrive in hostile environments backfire when thrown into the context of the American medical system. On the other side, while the doctors operate with the best of intentions, their inability to communicate with the Lees cause much of their hard-work to be in vain.

The indisputable takeaway is that without mutual understanding, our best intentions may go to waste.

Anne Fadiman’s descriptive and well-wrought book was one of the highlights of my non-fiction reading. Definitely recommended. Thought-provoking and engaging.