Summer Commute Sampler Reads

One of my cousins asked me earlier this summer, “How do you find the time to read so much?”

I respond, “When I’m commuting to and from work, I do one of these three things: read, write, or sleep.”

This past summer, I’ve been the marketing intern at a food delivery startup in San Francisco called Bento, and because of my free student bus pass, I prefer to take the bus over Bart. And pass the time by reading.

Because my semesters are so busy, summer is usually the one time of the year when I can have leisure reading binges. Hoarding books from the library every summer is a tradition I’ve kept since I was in elementary school, so here’s a sampler of some of the books I read in Summer 2015.

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, by Jamie Ford

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, by Jamie Ford

Why did it take me until now to read this? Anyway, I’m so happy I finally did. Reading up on World War II from Asian perspectives is one of my favorite historical topics. I hate sappiness, but the romance here is beautifully understated, sweet, and innocent. The details of the settings made me feel fully immersed in Seattle in World War II (I still need to visit Seattle one of these days), and I enjoyed following Henry through his childhood of being bullied (I was rooting and cheering on Henry during his epic wagon escape through the city streets!), dealing with his traditional and traumatized father, crushing on Keiko, and living through the years that the U.S. was in the war.

I could write a longer review, but I think this Twitter conversation with Jamie Ford sums it up. XD



Horror in the East: Japan and the Atrocities of World War II, by Laurence Rees

This was a difficult book to stomach. I still remember watching a clip from the BBC documentary that accompanies this book in my high school world history class, and sobbing after class was dismissed.

I’m most impressed with the research and the interviews conducted, with both victims and the Japanese war criminals, many of whom, to this day, have gone off on their merry way without being punished. Even when squirming while reading horrific first-hand encounters of what happened under Japanese brutality, it was fascinating to hear different voices from different people: the Chinese victims, the comfort women from different parts of Asia AND Europe, the European and American victims, and (what I found the most fascinating and esoteric), the Japanese veterans themselves and how they were raised to believe what they believed when they were fighting during the war. They believed that everything they did was in the name of the emperor, and when pressed with questions of why they committed the atrocities they did with such cold blood, their answers of, “It was for the Emperor” draws parallels to the Nazis declaring, “I was just following orders.”

Lust, Caution, by Eileen Chang

I haven’t seen the movie, so I thought I’d read the novella first. I’m not sure if it’s a problem with translation (I’m sure it’s much better in Chinese), but I couldn’t really feel engaged with the characters. You know how one of the biggest rules in writing is to “show, don’t tell”? Well, there was WAY too much telling here, and hardly any showing at all.

As enticing as the premise sounds, (a young student and former actress seduces a Japanese collaborator in an assassination plot), I was not once convinced of any emotions that occurred between any of the characters.

I know Eileen Chang is a very celebrated modern Chinese author, but I can’t help but to think that I need to improve my Chinese A LOT. To the point that I can actually read giant blocks of text (ahem, stories and novels) without the aid of a Chinese dictionary. Maybe then I can be more appreciative of her writings.

However, in my freshman year of college, I did enjoy the English translation of her short story, “Sealed Off.”

Valley of Amazement, by Amy Tan

Although I think it’s going to be difficult for Amy Tan to beat out her accomplishments with The Bonesetter’s Daughter, which is my personal favorite novel of hers, The Valley of Amazement comes very close. I was drawn into the lush, beautiful details of the Hidden Jade House, the courtesan house owned by the protagonist’s mother. The gorgeous details of the settings remind me of the beautiful descriptions of colonial Malaya in Yangsze Choo’s The Ghost Bride (one of my favorite books, which I read last summer), while the themes of sexual awakening and dynamics between the female characters remind me of the liveliness of Lisa See’s characters (I’m guessing Lisa See may have been an influence? In the foreword, it was noted that they had traveled together when Amy Tan was researching this book, and See had told Tan to use the name Moon Pond for the village in this book).

We follow Violet, the half-Chinese protagonist, from her childhood of growing up in her American mother’s courtesan house, where she questions her father’s absence and her mother’s seemingly neglectful behavior towards her. I was very upset when Violet became separated from her mother, and the series of unfortunate events that follow her through much of her life. It is sad, but she does find pockets of happiness in the end. The ending left me wanting much more, though.

My favorite character was Magic Gourd, a courtesan that Violet has known since childhood. Even with Magic Gourd’s tragic past, she’s plays the role of the comical sidekick, so that even when the novel twists and turns into horrible adversity, she’s faithfully present. As long as she’s there with her crude sense of humor, at least I, the reader, know that things will turn out okay.

China Dolls, by Lisa See

I’ve been reading Lisa See’s books since high school, and I think this is her best novel yet. I always love it when authors can immerse me in the setting of their stories, whether it’s a real place or fictional, and growing up in the Bay Area, attending Cal, and constantly commuting to San Francisco for work, I loved spotting little bits of recognizable pieces that See has written about.

Ruby, Helen, and Grace are three very different young women who all have aspirations to be showgirls in the Oriental nightclub, The Forbidden City. I’m very impressed that See is able to effortlessly juggle between the different point of views of all three girls, showcase traits that make us find them both endearing (I loved Helen’s goody-two-shoes persona and devotion to her family, Grace’s grit to run away from home and go after her dreams, and Ruby’s sassy and tell-it-like-it-is attitude) and flawed (Helen did something unforgivable that I won’t spoil, Grace was a white-washed country bumpkin who wouldn’t get over her love interest Joe, and Ruby was promiscuous). But even with such three different characters, the chemistry and enduring friendship between all of them was very convincing.

The one character I did not like was a Cal student named Joe. Mainly because he came across as this fratty white boy who wouldn’t stop breaking Grace’s heart. Then, she kept going back to him even after he hurt her not once, but twice. I kept thinking, “Girl, you can do so much better than this boy. Please dump him.”

The epilogue, in which there was a reunion with the three protagonists and their friends from their showbiz days, was very touching, and everything in the novel came to a full circle. All the research and interviews that Lisa See conducted with real Chinese-American showgirls who were stars back in their days really shone in this novel, making the read an even richer experience.

Finding Iris Chang, by Paula Kamen

Another book that caught me trapped on a vehicle (this time a bus, not a train. I seemed to have develop a habit of getting trapped in public transportation this summer, lol. When the bus arrived to my destination, everyone exited, including the bus driver, leaving me locked on the bus. I just sat in the bus until the driver came back, and people who were waiting at the bus stop told her that someone had been locked on the bus.).

Anyway, I FINALLY finished Rape of Nanking after starting to read it in high school, left the book alone for years, and then went back to finish it. Right after finishing it, I had to read this insight into Iris Chang’s life, written by her close friend, Paula Kamen. As a fellow Taiwanese-Chinese-American, I could identify with many traits in her background: protective parents, the desire to succeed in your career, growing up geeky, etc. What really impressed me was how focused Iris Chang was in her research and writing career, and how research and publications came so easily to her. For example, when she was able to locate the elusive scientist Qian Xuesen for an interview, a difficult feat that other writers and researchers had yet to successfully do, her publisher was so impressed that they signed her on to write her book, Thread of the Silkworm.

Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng

What a beautiful book of integrating all the different perspectives from everyone of the Lee family of 5: James the Chinese-American father, Marilyn the Caucasian mother, Lydia the eldest daughter, Nat the son and middle child, and Hannah the youngest daughter. The novel starts off announcing that Lydia is dead, and throughout the whole novel, I wondered about the true nature and cause behind Lydia’s untimely passing, and I have to say I appreciated the twist in the end.

There are a lot of themes that I’m sure fellow Asian-American will identify with: dealing with the pressures of academics and careers and living up to your parents’ dreams. Many other themes are present, such as the the desire to fit in, yearning for a different life, belonging to nowhere, and questioning what one wants in life. I would say that my favorite character ended up being Nat, the middle child, probably because his drive and interest in the sciences and engineering and the way he was protective toward his sisters remind me of my brother.

I’m also very happy to say that my friend, fellow author Meg Elison, and I got to attend Celeste’s reading when she came to the Bookshop West Portal in San Francisco. It was lovely to hear her read an excerpt in person and lead a discussion on the background of the book.

Meg and I at Celeste’s reading. She also signed my copy! 🙂

Upon compiling this sampler of my summer reading, I also realized I had a hearty list of books by authors of Chinese descent. Either that, or the focus was on Asia, such as Horror in the East. Anyway, I’m super-excited to learn a lot in my 20th-century Chinese history class this Fall! 🙂

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