2017 Reviews, Long Fiction

The Wangs vs the World

Cosmetic mogul Charles Wang looses his millions, his home, and his company in the 2008 economic crash. He gathers his distant family members  for a road-trip from LA to outstate New York to crash in his eldest daughter’s farmhouse in this family road trip/ wealth teardown/ immigrant story by Jade Chang.

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I’m not sure I’ve ever read a riches-to-rags story. Throughout WvtW, various Wang family members detail brand names, fancy friends, and prestigious institutions that they can no longer access because they are suddenly poor.  And it was impossible for me to care. Empathizing with a family of millionaires is hard enough, but most of the members of this family are conceited or blind to their privilege. What Chang handles brilliantly is the slow shift from wealthy people mourning over their wealth, to a relateable family taking stock of what is left when it all crashes down.

“She said the only true thing I’ve ever heard anyone say about their mom dying. . . We were trying to joke about it, because that’s what nobody else ever does, right? And then she looked up at me, and said, ‘That bitch just keeps on dying.’”

Charles’ self-confidence and determination shift from obnoxious to inspiring. His wife Barbara, who initially seems like a gold-digger, realizes she really does love Charles. The teen and adult children struggle to find their identity when they are no longer rich or famous. The Wangs, who loose everything and must start over, emphasize the struggle of early-generation immigrants even as they challenge common stereotypes. While their struggles are inextricable from the immigrant experience, the themes of identity, purpose, risk, and home are universal and really make this book stand out.

“As many Chinas as there were, there were that many Charleses as well. Every immigrant is the person he might have been and the person he is, and his homeland is at once the place it would have been to him from the inside and the place it must be to him from the outside.”

Wangs vs the World

2017 Reviews, Fiction, Long Fiction

The Quick and the Dead

Three very different teen girls, all motherless and strange, share one summer in the American desert. Full of vibrant supporting characters, poignant quips, and haunting imagery, The Quick and the Dead was a surprising and often uncomfortable read.

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Joy Williams’ three teen girls were an offputting mashup of spot-on depiction, and unbelievable diatribe megaphone. There were moments of pure familiar cringe for me as rebellious eco-terrorist Alice preached to disinterested adults (which definitely still happens to this near-30 year old adult). Likewise with the steely detachment of recently orphaned Corvus, and Annabell’s most annoying whining. I loved these moments; Williams can purely distill a previously ineffable feeling with just a quick phrase. She’s remarkably good at this throughout, exposing shivery truths using childish revelations.

There was something shameful about surviving sorrow. You were corrupted. She was corrupted. She was no good anymore. She was inauthentic, apocryphal. She wanted to be a seeker and to travel further and further. But after sorrow, such traveling is not a climbing but a sinking to a depth leached of light at which you are unfit to endure. And yet you endure there.

Despite the real joy of reading some of Williams’ passages, she’s also prone to going all Tom Robbins on me (at his best, brilliant. At his worst, ridiculous.) All the characters in The Quick and the Dead speak as if they are reading a speech written by a very creative mind. They speak over and above each other, in universal ideologies and proclamations, or deep into their own navels. The only narrating character who felt remotely real to me was Annabell’s widowed and coming-out father, and he spends the entire book haunted by the insufferable ghost of his dead wife. The main characters do much of this monologuing, but the worst are the supports.

I’ve seen what comes next. Vigils. Concern is the new consumerism. A person’s worth can be measured by the number and intensity of his concerns. Candles, lighting a candle, confers the kind of fulfillment that only empty ritual can bring. Empty ritual’s important. It’s coming back as a force in people’s lives. Its role is being acknowledged. It’s the keystone for tomorrow’s dealings in an annexed and exploited world. And holding a candle, cradling a little flame with others holding their candle, cradling their little flame gives people the opportunity to experience something bigger than themselves without surrendering themselves to it.

Ugh. Look how long that block of text is. I hate paragraphs like this, even when they are spoken by evangelists (which this one is). I hate it when authors rant. It is definitely a style many people enjoy, and power to them. But it makes me feel the same way as when I’m stuck talking to a drunk stranger at a dull house party.

The Quick and the Dead was equal parts brilliant and boorish. Williams is an astonishing writer; for those who like to see an author in every spoken line, in every desiccated coyote and nursing home scrubs color, I can see how Williams would be a fave. Not my fave, but undeniably brilliant.

2017 Reviews, Long Fiction

Umami

Umami, by Laia Jufresa, interweaves the private grief, resilience, and humor of five neighbors living  in contemporary Mexico City between 2000 and 2004. A teen whose little sister drowned, trying to foster hope in her depressed mother.  Her best friend, coming to terms with growing into a woman without her own estranged mother. An older neighbor, reminiscing with his wife’s ghost through a laptop. A neurotic artist, struggling through the quiet trauma of an abusive childhood. And a little girl, doomed from the start, playing near a lake. Through nonlinear vignettes, characters question their own identity, the truth of the people they love and loved, and how one small choice can haunt a life.

Umami is vivid, character-focused, and bittersweet. As I read, I fell in love with the widow’s wife, I raged against the absent mother, I navel-gazed with the artist. The chapters with the little girl we know will die were remarkably effective, adding layers of regret and humility to the other character arcs that left me completely breathless. The voice of each character remains a bit flat (I expect this is not an issue in the original Spanish), but otherwise each character immediately dragged me into their lives, their confusion, their regrets, and their hopes. This book is a quiet, gentle, and surprisingly happy read; simply beautiful. The more I read contemporary central and south american authors, the more I’m convinced that their culture provides a brilliant ability to blend death, sadness, life, and joy in a uniquely potent way. Jufresa tackles the subjects of melancholy and regret with humor, delicacy, and great respect for the beauty of heartbreak.

Umami