The Best We Could Do – Thi Bui (2017)

Thi_Bui.jpg

Strolling around the shelves at the library (as one does), I saw this new graphic book title, and, having felt a drought on those lately, checked this out to read. It was a corker.

The Vulture’s Abraham Riesman has called this graphic memoir “one of the first great works of socially relevant comics art of the Trump era” and I agree. It’s a very timely topic.

Author Thi Bui had grown up in America (except for her early years) and was the child of parents who had been part of the original “Boat People” group who had fled South Vietnam during the 1970s. Struggling to understand her parents and the difficulties they faced as they started their new lives in America, this book explores their story.

When Bui becomes a mother for the first time, her views on her parents came more into focus and she found that she knew little about their old lives back in Vietnam during the U.S. war.

Her relationship with her parents had been strained as she grew up in the U.S., and her becoming a parent herself was the impetus for her to learn more about each of their own personal stories.

As Bui slowly reveals the pieces of their earlier lives, it fits together with her own life and allows her to see her parents through a new prism — as a daughter and as a mother herself.

It’s a circular narrative that winds through time and geography so it’s a read that you have to pay attention to. It’s not a daydreaming kind of book, but then neither is the immigrant story around which it revolves.

The plot is the fairly typical trope of “family starts in one place, has a tough journey to reach another place, and then struggles to fit in”, but Bui’s art adds a new level of detail to the story, refreshing the narrative arc through her simple but arresting illustrations.

By the end of the book, you (as the reader) can also feel empathy for her parents (including for Bui herself). It’s a really good read about one person’s family, and may well trigger thoughts about your own parents in the same vein.

It can be easy to forget that your mum and dad are people with their own lives and their own histories sometimes, but Bui’s efforts to trace her own family’s evolution is a timely reminder of both that and the immigration debate going on in the administration today.

Good one.

 

Advertisements

Empty Mansions – Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell Jr. (2013)

Empty_Mansions_paperback_cover_small

Subtitle: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune. 

An intriguing non-fiction about the Clark family who were a real rags-to-riches frontier family led by a ruthless businessman who traveled out to the hinterlands to find a better life through discovering and then selling copper and then growing his wealth even more through a series of savvy (and lucky) business deals. The patriarch, W. A. Clark, became nearly as wealthy as the Rockefellers and ended up being a controversial US Senator (with a bribery scandal to his name), a builder of railroads and the founder of Las Vegas.

But who was he really? Who was his French wife Anna, and what about his family?

With this background of privilege, the narrative traces the story of the Clark family from a log cabin in Pennsylvania to elegant Fifth Avenue in New York, from a one-room house to one of the largest houses in NYC with 121 different rooms for a family of four, and then in reverse when the only surviving member of the family chooses to seclude herself in an ordinary hospital room for twenty years.

WAClarkHugetteClark

(Above) – Huguette (in white) stands with her father and elder sister.

It’s a really strange story but it’s fascinating, mainly because there are so many questions that still remain and no one seems to know the truth. As the youngest daughter, Huguette lived a life of extreme privilege far removed from the typical American life that surrounded her.

She had little formal schooling, but became an expert on Japanese culture; she owned Degas and Renoir paintings but without a successful painting career; she bought and owned a never-played Stradivarius violin which she rarely looked at and grew a large collection of antique dolls worth millions of dollars and with houses of their own to store the collection.

But with so many people sworn to secrecy about Huguette’s life, this is an NF based on rumors and family lore more so than actual fact. It’s also heavily based on memories that surround a $300 million fortune to be inherited and so it’s very difficult to know the actual truth of these events. Everyone has a stake in their perspective and so who’s to know what really occurred.

When Huguette retired from outside life and entered her hospital room, rarely to leave again despite being healthy and able-bodied, why was that? When Huguette gave $30 million to her personal nurse towards the end of her life, was she being manipulated by the nursing staff and the greedy hospital hoping for a “generous donation”? Why did she pull herself away from everyone she knew to choose to watch The Smurfs in a darkened room? Was she mentally ill or was she being blackmailed? So many questions!

So, this was an interesting read, although I did have to run it through the filter that it was co-authored by her great-nephew who trod very carefully when it came to the honest truth (what little there was). (Sort of a “Don’t annoy grandma or you’ll get left out of the will” idea.) In the end, this book was a mix of fact and fiction and although it rather veered towards sycophancy towards the last third of the book, it was still an interesting read.

How much is true? How much is Memorex? Who is to know, but it was interesting to learn about this filthy rich but slightly strange family.

 

Lucy – Jamaica Kincaid (2002)

book414After reading some earlier work by Jamaica Kinkaid (see review of Annie John), I already knew that Kinkaid was a really good writer, and so when I happened upon this volume, I picked it up with little hesitation as I knew it wouldn’t disappoint me. And it didn’t. Hooray for good consistent writers!

This novella is rather a coming-of-age/bildungsroman recount of how a young woman from the unnamed “islands” (but clearly referring to the Caribbean area) takes her first job as an au pair for a rich white family in the States. Lucy, the titular character, is young and not very experienced, and is excited about this opportunity to travel. Happy to be elsewhere, Lucy strikes out for this new adventure with trepidation and anticipation, but also colored by her having just finished a rather difficult childhood with a complicated relationship with her mother. This mix of emotion is a constant thread throughout this short story, and colors every experience that Lucy has in this new world of au pair-ing.

Being an au pair is a tricky situation. Most families try to be welcoming and include you as “part of the family”, but there is always a reminder that you’re not actually equal to the other family members, and it’s difficult to set up boundaries for both the au pair and the family. When is an au pair really off the clock? How private can his or her time really be? It seems to be fraught with issues, and the situation with Lucy is no different than that.

So this title follows a year of employment for Lucy with her au pair employers, and it’s certainly a year of growing for everyone involved: the children, Lucy herself, the parents… Just like any development, this gradual maturation can be a situation filled with dissonance for all.

Lucy has grown up on a small Caribbean island with her mother and step-father. Her mother is educated and employed as a social worker, but as is quite common, her mum is very patient and understanding with her clients, but this doesn’t carry home for Lucy. It’s curious – her mother is big on her clients growing and learning new skills, but she is resentful of Lucy continuing her education and of spreading her wings. (Perhaps it’s jealousy…)

Stateside, her employer family are having complications of their own, and they can’t help but involve Lucy in these problems as well, since she is with them all the time. As the saying goes, you can never step in the same stream twice, and as the novella continues, the family and Lucy grow and change both as a group, but also an independent beings.

Lucy is a bundle of conflicting emotions: happy to be away from her claustrophobic country, a common vacation choice for the Americans who surround her, Lucy also deeply misses her island and her family. Given the difficult childhood that she’s had, Lucy is relieved to be away from her family, and yet she yearns to be understood as only a family member could do. She yearns to “belong,” but she also wants to be independent from everything that she’s known before, so although this is a short novella, there are a lot of contents to be unpacked when you go through this read.

Considered to be highly autobiographical for Kinkaid (who lived a similar experience in her younger days), it’s a challenge to enjoy Lucy due to her fractious ways, and yet at the same time, I felt sympathy for her at the same time. As an expat from England who also moved away from home to a foreign country at a similar age, it’s true that you do really have a lot of mixed emotions about the first year in your new home. So much is different that, at times, you yearn for it to be more familiar so everything is not a surprise or a puzzle. And yet, at the same time, I’d been wanting to live abroad since I was a young girl ready for a change, so it can be tough to balance those two conflicting views.

This was well-written, but I’m not sure that I enjoyed this particular read that much. 😦 Aah well. Can’t win them all.

Part of JOMP’s celebration of Black History Month.

AfAm_History_Month

Love Anthony – Lisa Genova (2012)

book415After having read a couple of rather heavy-duty fact-laden books lately, I wanted something that read a little smoother – a “hot-knife-through-butter” book. In perusing the TBR shelves (wooh me!), I pulled off Lisa Genova’s issues-based novel, Love Anthony, knowing from past experience of prior Genova books that it would probably be a good read.

Genova structures the novel around a chance intersection between two women who both happen to live in Nantucket, and who have both experienced a loss of some kind. What makes this book more interesting is that Genova, a Harvard-taught Ph.D. in neuroscience, includes a character on the autism spectrum as well, a depiction that, according to some superficial research on the net, seems to be pretty accurate for families who have been impacted by this.

Anthony is a non-verbal child with autism*, and although he doesn’t end up with a big talking role in this novel (obvs), he does play a sentinel role in the narrative and is the overlap between the two women with the accidental friendship.

So, lots of drama here along with the story: one marriage breaks up, another is struggling with a terrible loss, and the plot focuses upon how the two planes overlap. I have to admit that I kept getting lost in the first half of the book as there were so many characters, and I kept forgetting who was who and in which family. However, if you persevere with the book, there comes a point where the two narratives overlap and then coalesce, and then it’s all a lot less confusing. But sheesh. I was completely perplexed up until then.

It’s well written, it’s an involving plot (especially once it joins together), and the author seems to know of what she speaks, but it did cross over into schmaltzy sentimental chick-lit at times with the relationship of the two women, and the other-worldly aspect of the child with autism. However, kudos to Genova for at least trying to bring more of a focus on the world of autism, especially through the voice of one who is on the spectrum.

So, an ok read in the end for me. I appreciated the insight into life with autism (assuming it’s accurate), but thought the book couldn’t decide whether it was chick-lit or should be a more serious look at a complicated condition.

  • Is this the preferred term for referring to someone with autism? If not, pls let me know. I’m happy to rewrite it.

 

At the Broken Places: A Mother and Trans Son Pick Up the Pieces – Mary Collins and Donald Collins (2017)

book409

Saw this title somewhere out on-line, and thought it could be interesting so picked it up. It’s a dual-memoir from a mother and her transgender son (just as in the title) and this narrative (actually a series of essays) shows how they went through the journey of Donald choosing to be a male when he had been born a female. (When your outside gender doesn’t match the gender you feel is true to yourself, it’s called gender dissonance, I learned.) Anyway, with the Orangutan’s recent announcement about the military not allowing transgender people to serve any more (*smh*), this book seemed to be pretty timely.

Donald was born a female, but knew early on in his life that he felt more comfortable and authentic as a male. As he got older, these feelings turned into a serious need, so when he was in high school, he started steps to change into a female. He was honest and open with his mother about this plan, and from Donald’s perspective, he was doing everything he could to keep his mother in the loop.

His mother’s perspective, however, was that he was too young to know what he was doing, he might change in the future, and how could he do this to her so she was “losing her daughter”? This memoir is set up as a written dialogue between mother and son, each giving her or his view on how things progressed. The interesting (and rather appalling) detail is that Donald was perfectly fine aligning his outside gender with his inside gender, but his mother comes across as one of the most selfish people on the planet.

Every single one of the mother’s entries is concerned with how she is “losing a daughter” rather than gaining a son, regardless of how this may impact her child. She refuses to use the preferred pronoun for her son, and fights him every step of the way of his transition. It’s hard to believe that someone could be this callous to someone in their family (“it’s all about me”), especially when it’s something as fraught with challenges as changing your whole gender identity. (And that’s all it is, really. People are just aligning their outsides with their identity. It’s not hurting anyone else.)

During this read, I was getting so annoyed with the mother in this autobiographical recounting of events. Donald was well prepared in how he approached his transition, he looped his mum in the plans before, during and after, and yet her entries only recount her “losing a daughter” and not having control over her child any more (if she ever did).

She bemoans how there weren’t any support groups for her and other parents who, according to her, are “grieving their lost child”. There was no mention at all of how her child was brave enough to be true to himself at an early age – it was completely her needs that should have been addressed. Sod Donald and his needs, to be frank.

I am not a parent, nor am I a parent of a transgender child. I’m not LGBTQIA, but I am a strong LGBTQIA ally, and it really unnerved me just how unsupportive this mother was of her only child and his needs. No wonder she had such a hard time with her son transitioning – she refused to consider his perspective, and was very resistant to using correct terms with his new identity. (Not really “new”. He was being true to himself.)

If this book is fairly representative of how such transitions occur in lots of other families, it’s pretty distressing as the child is already going through enough, if you ask me. I would hope that, by now, more families are better educated on the issue, and that the child in question can now receive the vital support that they need at this time.

On the other hand, the trans son, Donald, handled his transition like an adult and like a champ. Perhaps it’s easier if you’re the one who is going on that journey as you have known your thoughts your whole life and probably have been thinking about this for a while, internally, so it’s not a “sudden” event when it’s announced.

Perhaps that what Donald and his mother didn’t have was an honest communication growing up. (How could they when she refused to honor his request for a new name and gender when he was a teenager? That can’t have been a big surprise for her. Who knows, though?…)

This was a provocative read, for the most part, and covered a world with which I was not that familiar. I don’t know anyone close to me who is transgender, but I am certain that if they were, they would have my 100% support in this endeavor. So long as everyone is of age and consenting, then go for it.

Perhaps that is the strength of this book: that it shows how one family traveled along that path and comes out in the end. I must admit that the mother must be braver than I to show herself, warts and all, in this light as she shows how she would not back down on her idea of “losing a daughter”.  For goodness’ sake, give your child the respect, support, and latitude to be who they are so that they can be happy. It’s not all about you all the time.

Kudos to Donald for writing about this experience. Kudos to the mother for being so honest, as well, I suppose, but I’m afraid I’m more in Donald’s corner on this issue.

An interesting read overall.

The Endless Steppe – Esther Hautzig (1968)

book392

In my last post, I had mentioned that I had fallen upon the Dewey 900s at the library. Such riches that I didn’t even knew existed! Without any more further gushing, let me now introduce you to the title “The Endless Steppe” by Esther Hautzig.

As a child, Hautzig and her family had the bad luck to be living in Poland (now Lithuania) just as WWII was starting up and Germany was invading places left, right, and center. She had come home from school one day, only to be faced with the news that she and her parents and grandparents were going to be sent away to Siberia that same day for being evil capitalists. They could only take one small bag with each of them, and there was very little time of to think of what to include in your luggage. How would you ever know what to pack quickly for an unexpected and unwanted trip-with-no-return to a forced labor camp in Siberia?

Hautzig does a great job of communicating the chaos and panic which would happen if your family were suddenly told one day to leave. Siberia is cold, but how cold? What would the living conditions be like as compared to their upper-middle class life in Poland? Looking back at this with twenty-first century eyes, it’s almost unbelievable that this all happened to millions of innocent families, but it did and this autobiography details the experience through the eyes of a young 11 year old girl.

esther-hautzig

The family spend weeks in an unheated cattle car on a train, never knowing where they were going or when they would get there. There were no bathroom facilities, the cars were very crowded with no seats, and no food or water (apart from that that they had brought themselves). None of the passengers were prepared for this (because – why would you be?) and as the train went east, the temperature dropped and the scenery became flat and treeless.

At first, it seems quite an adventure, but as conditions deteriorated, the seriousness of the situation becomes clear. What also becomes clear is that the family and their fellow passengers can do absolutely nothing about their unexpected journey, apart from try to be mentally strong. Her parents (and grandparents) had been of a professional class (her father was an engineer), but as the miles passed, they found out that whatever their professions may have been was to be of no importance in their Siberian future.

The family was separated (never to see each other again), and Esther and her parents eventually wound up at a gypsum mine where her father would be expected to drive a horse and cart, and her mother – who had never worked in her life – was going to be dynamiting the gypsum in the mine. Food was in short supply with watery cabbage soup being the most common meal, and although life is really very hard, Esther and her family survive through the extreme temperatures with few resources. Their privileged life in Lithuania was of little help to them now that they were reduced to survival mode.

This autobiography is an interesting read about a pretty typical middle class family who is suddenly thrown into an atypical situation and how they cope. It’s not easy, but by the time five years have passed, the war is over and the family are set to return. One would think that they would be very excited to get back home and to their former lives, but getting home would mean returning to nothing as their house and possessions would not be waiting. Additionally, Esther had spent five years growing up on the steppe, and to her, it was home much more so that Lithuania would be.

This was an interesting read. I think it’s classified as a YA but the story is so well written that it really sucked me in. Interestingly, the story only came to light when the author Esther Hautzig wrote a letter to a journalist who had written another article about this whole thing, and the reporter suggested to Esther that she write her story down. Hautzig didn’t do any more autobiographical work after that, and in fact, kept well away from it publishing a few titles to do with frugal sewing on a budget.

Despite the YA label, this was an excellently written book about a harrowing experience.

Tangles – Sarah Leavitt (2012)

Tangles - Sarah LeavittA movingly portrayed description of how the author’s mother, a smart woman who “loved ferociously”, succumbed to Alzheimer’s disease and how her family coped with it. Done in sequential art, each segment of the graphic novel is carefully drawn and is really a very effective means of allowing the reader to experience some of the family’s thoughts and feelings as the disease progresses in their mother.

This is a poignant book and not very easy to read at times, especially if you yourself have a vibrant active mother, as it’s difficult to watch her go downhill as the disease progresses. Despite this, it completely sucked me in and I read it in one afternoon. It was so sad to watch as Alzehimer’s removed the original character of her mother, and replaced it with an unpredictable stranger who looked just like their mom (for most of the time).

The title “Tangles” refers to several things really:  her mother was an avid gardener, but as Alzheimer’s progressed further, the mother would pull out weeds and her flowers at the same time, and gradually, her prized garden became full of weeds and overgrown brambles. This was also imagery used for the state of her mother’s brain, which was really effective. Additionally, her mother’s personal hygiene went downhill (due to the severity of the disease) and as her hair was not brushed regularly (without help), that also became tangled. This was especially poignant as her mother had been scrupulous with her cleanliness before she became sick.

It’s sad, but it handles an awful situation with grace and class without giving the impression of a perfect family. They had problems (as any other family would), and the story is very realistically told. I really feel for families who have to care for someone with this disease …

This was a poignant and powerful read.

Skylark – Dezco Kostolanyi (1910)

Browsing various book blogs on the interwebs is great way to come across books that are way off the best seller lists, and Skylark was one of those finds. It’s a short novel set in 1899 in a small provincial town in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Skylark is the childhood name of the spinster daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Vajkay, all of whom live a very quiet life in this quiet town. Skylark really rules the roost in this story, with both of her parents trying really hard to help her be happy as she was obviously not going to get married at any point soon, and thus, the parents’ lives revolve around her. (At this point, she is in her late twenties/early thirties, perhaps.) She is very plain to look at and suitors are not banging on the door for her.

So – Skylark is invited to go and stay with some relatives for a short holiday – it’s a holiday for Skylark and her elderly parents are very concerned that she should take it. However, having lived their lives around her for the previous years, both adults are somewhat at a loss when Skylark leaves – how would they live without her? What would they do? Would she be ok?

However, as the week without Skylark slowly progresses, her parents gradually re-introduce themselves back into the town social life: they eat at a restaurant (reluctantly at first, but then they enjoy it). They go to performances at the theater, and rejoin old acquaintances. All activities that they had stopped due to Skylark. (I am not even sure that Skylark expected her parents to withdraw from society. I think perhaps they did for her without seeing if it was even necessary. I think it was due to the fact that she had few friends and little social life, so they followed suite as well.)

After a wild night out with his old friends, the father comes home slightly worse for the wear and out come his real feelings about Skylark… But once these thoughts have been expressed, things can never be the same. Skylark returns, but to what?

The novel doesn’t actually come to a real final end – there is no clear cut conclusion to the story so the reader is left to fill in the blanks – do Skylark’s parents tell her what they were thinking? Does their new entry into society continue? How does life change? These are questions that remain unanswered.

A lovely and very quiet little book packed with details of incidental life in a small town of people who live small lives where every detail counts.  This could have been a depressing read, but the author maintains a slight twinkle of humor throughout the story… This was a good read.

(Book was translated from Hungarian by Richard Aczel.)