Days of Distraction by Alexandra Chang

“Who knows. I could change my mind. It is changing all the time.”

Days of Distraction should have been right up my street. Alas, it turned out not to be the ‘wry’, ‘tender’, and ‘offbeat coming-of-adulthood tale’ its blurb promised it’d be. Our quasi-unnamed narrator is a Chinese American woman in her early twenties who works at a tech publication. Her boyfriend is this generic white guy, who’s aptly enough referred to by just the one letter, J. The prose is plain & dry, the characters are as flat and thin as paper, the storyline is slow and repetitive. The narrator decides to follow J to Ithaca, an upstate New York town, where he will be completing his degree. She works a bit from home but soon finds herself growing bored by her new life. She invests most of her time delving into American history and interracial relationships. Great chunks of text read as if belonging to a textbook, and in fact, I’d go as far as to say that the author should have either committed to writing a work of fiction or gone for an essay on this subject matter.
The narrative does highlight the sexism and racism our protagonist encounters at work and during her everyday life. In her old job, her managers are unwilling to give her a raise, confuse her with the other Asian American employee, or say inappropriate/racist/sexist things. Our protagonist doesn’t have a personality as such. She’s very much a generic millennial who expresses the typical woes and worries that are bound to arise during a person’s twenties. Her quarter-mid life crisis is a very subdued one. Nothing much happens. She has some awkward encounters or conversations, her boyfriend seems to minimise her experiences with racism (implying that she’s taken something ‘the wrong way’ or that that person ‘meant well’ and other yike-ey stuff like this). She eventually goes to visit her father who lives in China and here the story finally felt a bit more engaging, but sadly this section is rather short and that epilogue killed what little enthusiasm I had for this novel.
The dynamic between her and J was so boring and flat. They are together for reasons beyond me. Our narrator is not particularly likeable, which, if you know my book tastes, is not a problem. However, I do want some sort of personality. And this gal had none. I found her unfunny, uninteresting, and unpleasant. Is she entirely unsympathetic? No. However, she never struck me as a fully-realised person. J is even worse. He’s a white male straight American. That’s more or less his whole character. He was painfully bland. I did not care for him in the least nor was I at any point convinced by his relationship with our mc. I guess they were both boring?
This novel had potential but it very much lacked zing. The author’s sparse prose combined with her insipid character results in a rather underwhelming affair. Add to that those large portions of text that read as if straight from a textbook and there you have it, a snoozefest. The one aspect I did enjoy was our mc’s phone calls to her parents. I ended up rather liking her parents and I found myself wishing that they would play a bigger role in the narrative (the mc also has siblings but they have 0 impact on the story and her character). There were paragraphs or lines now and again that sort of struck a chord with me but they did not make up for the mc’s waffling and self-pitying outweighed those few insightful moments.
While I won’t be dissuading anyone from reading this I do feel the need to recommend Edge Case as an alternative. While not perfect it did delve a bit more deeply into the realities of being a woc working in the tech industry. And if you are looking for more books following alienated women in their 20s I have made a list over here.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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Swimming Back to Trout River by Linda Rui Feng

“After all, wasn’t it true that to love someone is to figure out how to tell yourself their story?”

With understated lyricism, Feng charts the experiences of a family divided by physical and emotional borders that are nevertheless united in their pursuit of a more ‘promising’ future, for themselves and each other. The narrative intertwines the trajectories of various characters: Momo and Cassia, a married couple whose relocation to America results in their estrangement, their daughter Junie, born with a congenital amputation, who is in China and being raised in a small village in the countryside by her beloved grandparents, and Dawn, a talented violinist who knew Momo in their college days. Moving from the 1960s to the 1980s, from Communist China to San Francisco, Feng spins a tale of grief and resilience. Throughout their adulthood Momo, Cassia, and Dawn experience loss, heartbreak, and time and again are forced to reconcile their own personal desires with the ones of others.

“The incandescent cocoon of music was pure rapture, and it said to him; Stay. It was a powerful beckoning, to be held in thrall, to be consumed, annihilated even.”

Classical music plays a crucial role in Dawn and Momo’s narratives and Feng beautifully articulates their relationship to it. When writing about music Feng’s writing acquires an almost luminous quality, one that—if you excuse my unintentional pun—is assured to strike a chord with her readers. I particularly liked the discussions surrounding the way other countries tend to stereotype musicians from East Asian countries (conflating attributes they associate with those countries—’conformity’, ‘rigidity’—with the music they produce).

“We learn so much more about things when they are broken or unmade, he thought.”

There is a particular episode early on in the narrative when something happens to a violin and well, I was almost in tears. In spite of these moments of tension and of Feng’s candid portrayal of the Red Guards, the narrative retains a quiet atmosphere, one that is pervaded by a sense of longing.

“He was impatient for time to pass, so that in his life, there would be less yearning and more having, less becoming and more being.”

While Feng’s writing is indisputably beautiful (I have dozens of highlights that will attest as much) I did find myself at a remove from her characters. That is not to say that I failed to sympathise with them. Their interactions—especially the ones between Junie and her grandad—could certainly be affecting. However, there was a veil between me and the characters that I was unable to penetrate. While this ‘distance’ did bring to mind the work Jhumpa Lahiri (a favourite of mine), here the slightness of the novel (just over 200 pages) meant that years of their lives would be condensed in a few pages, giving me little time to adapt to their new environments and circumstances. At times their personalities were too inscrutable so that I found myself confusing characters (especially the secondary ones that prop up in the America section of the novel). I also wanted more of Junie. She is very much sidelined for much of the narrative and I would have loved to read more about her childhood.

“In order for Junie to exist, two people had to come together during the Cultural Revolution under circumstances that one of them would later describe as inevitable, and the other, as coincidental.”

Feng’s exquisite prose and her meditation on art, culture, love, grief, exceptionalism, and dislocation result in a poignant and thought-provoking read. If you are a fan of authors such as Lahiri you should definitely not pass this up.

my rating: ★★★½

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Soy Sauce for Beginners by Kirstin Chen

 

In Soy Sauce for Beginners Kirstin Chen explores the dichotomy between tradition and modernity. When her marriage collapses our narrator and protagonist, Gretchen Lin, leaves San Francisco behind and returns to her family home in Singapore. Gretchen begins working at her family’s artisanal soy sauce business—hence the title—which was recently embroiled in a food-poising scandal thanks to her cousin’s shortcuts. Her father clearly wants Gretchen to take her cousin’s place as the future head of the company but Gretchen plans on returning to San Francisco, hoping that she can still salvage her crumbling marriage. Soon her mind is occupied by her mother’s health, in particular, her excessive drinking.
Chen’s writing flows easily and the drama between the various characters makes for some entertaining reading material. Without resorting to long descriptions Chen manages to render Singapore, from its customs to its nightlife, so that this setting becomes the most vibrant aspect of her story. What lets the story down somewhat is its narrator. Gretchen spends most of the novel angsting over her husband—who is a dick—and making jabs about the young woman he involved himself with. She is not particularly involved in her job at her family’s company, avoids spending time with her friends, and hangs out with a boring guy she does not particularly care for. I also really hated the whole subplot involving her American friend who is no longer ‘dumpy’ but has transformed into a ‘babe’ everyone loves. She actually works hard, she is respected in a way that Gretchen isn’t, and she ‘steals’ her friends away. And, instead of showing that Gretchen was being jealous over nothing, the story makes this friend into kind of a ‘snake’. Gretchen gave me some strong judgy vibes, especially when it comes to the women around her (I am tired of reading about women ‘bitching’ about each other…we can do better than that).
I wish the narrative had focused less on Gretchen moping about her husband and life, and more time on her interacting with her family and friends. Still, the food descriptions were mouth-watering and I liked the glitzy lifestyle Gretchen and those around her enjoy.

Throughout the course of the story, Gretchen has to reconcile her desires with her father and mother’s expectations of her. An easy read that ultimately manages to have a satisfying ending and that does not surprisingly focus on romance.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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The Son of Good Fortune by Lysley Tenorio

“One of the perks of being born neither in America or the Philippines. The only history he needed to know was his own.”

A few weeks ago I read Lysley Tenorio’s collection of short stories, which had some real gems such as ‘Monstress’, and I was looking forward to reading his first novel. The Son of Good Fortune follows nineteen-year old Excel who is forced to move back in his mother’s apartment after his girlfriend tells him that she needs a break. Excel finds himself falling into the same life he’d left behind, working at The Pie Who Loved Me, and trying to save money. His relationship with his mother, Maxima, is tense. He lied about his motives for moving out and avoided contacting her while he was with Sab in Hello City (a community of artists and hippies).

On Excel’s tenth birthday Maxima told him that they were ‘tago ng tago’ (TNT) a Tagalog phrase meaning ‘hiding and hiding’ that is used for undocumented Filipinos. Since then Excel has tried to keep his head down. Being undocumented means that he has very few job prospects and his forced to work at a dodgy pizzeria for a bullying and tyrannical boss who frequently threatens his staff with deportation. Maxima instead makes money online, manipulating gullible men who are seeking Filipino women (who of course have to be beautiful, Christian, and simultaneously pious and sexy).

Tenorio renders the anxiety of being TNT (not being able to go to the hospital, worrying that at any moment you might be found out). While Maxima grew up in the Philippines, and still has strong ties to it, its culture, and its language, Excel’s unusual birth place lands him in a limbo of sorts, not ‘quite’ American or Filipino, a citizen of nowhere.

I liked Tenorio’s compassionate yet humorous account of Excel and Maxima’s lives. He depicts the everyday reality of being undocumented in America, of having to constantly ‘hide’, of being unable to define your identity, of not feeling safe and of feeling like you don’t belong.
Maxima easily stole the show. She was an explosive character. She’s acted in some somewhat dated Filipino action films, she’s a pro at martial arts (she even has a signature move called the ‘Maximattack’), and she clearly loves and wants to protect Excel. She’s not be perfect, and Tenorio isn’t afraid to question her actions, especially the way she exploits men online. And yet, I was rooting for the succeed since Maxima is just trying to survive. We get to know her mentor, Joker, only through flashbacks, which is a pity since he seemed like a really interesting—if eccentric—character.
Excel was far less compelling that his mother. While we are shown that he’s unsure of who he is or where he belongs, I never really had a grasp of his character. While I could understand his passivity in certain situations, I found myself wishing he had more of a personality.
Sab, his girlfriend, appears in very few scenes. After their one meeting they seem to be an item, but their relationship seemed closer to that between a brother and sister than boyfriend and girlfriend. In the chapters set in Hello City she seems to play a minor role, as most scenes focus on the Excel’s odd-jobs with an artist called Red. She’s little other than a ‘I’m not like other girls’ girl (she wears DocMartens and has blue stripes in her hair).
While I did appreciate the empathy Tenorio demonstrated in exploring themes of identity, displacement, immigration, family history, and human connection, I was left wanting more out of his main character. If this had been Maxima’s story, I would have undoubtedly loved it.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin

There are so many new releases that are focused on a particular family’s history, and there is a trend for storylines that follow members of a family through the decades (e.g. The Good Children, Commonwealth). The Immortalists might revolve around four siblings, but there was little – if any –interaction between them. This novel focused on each of the Golds individually rather then showing them as being part of a whole. At times, I could almost forget that they were part of the same family, and that is perhaps one of my biggest problems with this novel. Also, that and the fact that there was none of the magical realism promised by its premise, so I found the lack of fantastical elements to be disappointing.

Chloe Benjamin’s novel provides little respite: bad shit happens, time and again. Small issues and arguments are enlarged so much so that each of the Gold sibling – as well as the other characters –seem to be over-reacting almost all of the time.
There is a sense of dread embedded in each of the four narratives, and this unease felt – to me – unneeded. Things that should seem every-day – ‘manageable’ – actions become sources of humongous distress. And the characters act-out, they are so inconsistent, so bloody ambiguous, that I felt little for them. That each of the Gold is confronted by a certain character – a friend or a lover – became predictable: this one character will them that they are selfish, self-absorbed, that they should not think themselves as having faced any tragedies, that they should not use their Jewish heritage as a source of pity. Really?
Here are a few other things that I found annoying (possible mild spoilers ahead):
Simon’s storyline. Now, there is a character who is gay, and he will be rather young during the 70s…we know he will die young…can you guess? Yes. His narrative was also the only narrative to contain multiple explicit sexual scenes…so because he is gay, he has to be sex-crazed? The author tries to make it seem as if it was the knowledge of dying young that pushes Simon to lead an unsafe and pleasure-seeking lifestyle…but to me, his story and the way his story is told was just banal and came across as rather distasteful. Simon never seemed fully-fleshed out. He makes lots of (bad) choices, but doesn’t do a lot of thinking…
➜we see little of the strong bond between Klara and Simon. We only see her missing him, but the few scenes between them did not reflect the affectionate and deep bond that Klara claims they had…
➜Daniel…what the actual heck? His narrative sets him up as being this one type of person and ends by having him do completely out of character…
➜Varya’s story was so deeply uncomfortable. Grotesque…and, dare I say, unbelievable? There is this one scene in which she takes off her socks (after having fallen asleep in her car) and they are drenched with sweat. After one night in a car? Come on!

Moralistic side-characters, ludicrous descriptions, senseless dialogues, sudden lewd observations…what was meant to be edgy seemed plain gross. Unlikable characters are okay, heck I loved Emma Bovary in spite of her many flaws, but the Golds were scarcely credible, so I found it hard to feel much beyond confusion in their regards.

Simon and Klara’s stories were supposed to show how two people, convinced of knowing when they will die, decide to live life at its fullest: they purse what they want, they focus on themselves. Both of their stories unfolded in a predictable way: Simon’s section is focused on his sexuality, the dangers of not being allowed to feel comfortable and accepted by others, while Klara’s journey takes her down a more puzzling path, her own mental health affects large chunks of her narrative. David and Varya’s stories were – not so subtly – meant to contrast with the ones of their younger siblings . While the ‘death date’ pressures Simon and Klara into pleasure-seeking lifestyles (their decision to put aside family duties) David and Varya seem not as convinced by their own death days. They both have chips on their shoulders, and because of that bitterness they have little to do with one another and think little of their younger siblings. Through their careers the author attempts to question the ethics of their practices: David is allowing people to go to war, while Varya’s lab is studying and imposing a restrictive lifestyle on some monkeys. Their narratives focus on a short fraction of their lives: their job is key and at one point or another they are both challenged by that one convenient character….

It wasn’t terrible, there were instances were I actually liked it, but by the end, I felt somewhat cheated. After all of that, all of those embarrassing and sorrowful scenes, those inanely stupid decision and those awkward arguments, after all of that…and then what? What is the message of this novel supposed to be?

My rating: 2.5 stars

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