Tag Archives: immigrants

Searching in Vain

Searching for Sylvie Lee: A Novel by Jean Kwok (William Morrow, $26,99, 336 pages)

Jean Kwok’s third novel, Searching for Sylvie Lee, felt like a missed opportunity to me. Why? Because the story involves an extended family – some of whose members immigrated to the United States from China, and others who wound up in the Netherlands (Holland). It seemed like a great opportunity for Kwok to take the reader into the specifics – and differences among, all three cultures – Chinese, American, and Dutch. Instead the multicultural surface is barely scratched.

At one point we learn that in Holland someone having a birthday is expected to invite individuals to her party and to pay for everyone who attends; the very opposite of what would happen in the U.S. And this is close to the total of what we learn about cultural differences in the novel. (To be fair, we are also informed that people in Holland like to keep their window shades open at almost all times.)

There are three basic characters and narrators. There’s “Ma,” the mother of Sylvie Lee and Amy Lee, who migrated to New York City with her husband from China. Because Ma is said to have limited English speaking skills, her voice is extremely limited. I imagine that some editors would have advised deleting the character; her role could have been detailed in a few basic paragraphs.

There’s Sylvie, the older daughter who has lived a virtually perfect life – perhaps based on the Harvard-educated author’s life – academically and professionally if not always personally, until it all too suddenly falls apart. Sylvia goes from riches to rags and defeat so quickly that it strains credulity. When Sylvie travels from NYC to Holland to be with her deathly ill grandmother, she unexpectedly vanishes.

Well, at least the reader is supposed to view this as an unexpected development. Based on the book’s title and the not too obtuse set-up, the reader can pretty much sense or guess the final outcome before arriving at the halfway point.

And then there’s Amy, the independent younger sister who worshiped her older sister and jets off to Holland on a mission to locate Sylvie. But, of course, Amy – who views herself as unattractive and less intelligent and worldly than Sylvie, seeks to make herself a hero by locating her sister in an area of the world she’s never previously visited. (Amy knows this is a highly unlikely outcome.)

One of the key issues I had with Searching is that while certain parts of the plot and storyline initially appear to be sensical, the mind revisits the logic of the telling at times when the book is put down. That’s when one considers portions of the story to be nonsensical. Let me give an example without the use of any spoilers. There’s a person that Sylvie is tied to emotionally until she breaks away from him – getting away from him being another likely reason she travels to Holland. However, he suddenly shows up in Holland upon her arrival, and departs after she goes missing. No, his presence is not a red herring – he had nothing to do with her disappearance, and Amy herself wonders why this man would show up in Holland and then depart. Its another instance in which an editor might have advised deleting an illogical aspect of the story.

Kwok writes in a calm, detailed and deliberate manner that engages the reader early on. But the energy of the story and of its multiple characters has pretty much dissipated by page 200. By this point, I had lost interest in continuing until the end – although I proceeded to do so, to learn whether my view of the ending would be prescient or not. (It was.)

Finally, like all too many family novels these days, the book is built around a supposedly dramatic “family secret.” The secret is not mind-blowing – some readers will no doubt have guessed it before the denouement, and it fails to justify the time invested in a story that goes on for too many pages. And so, this is a missed opportunity; a missed opportunity for both the writer and her readers.

Joseph Arellano

Searching for Sylvie Lee was published on June 4, 2019. A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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China Boy

leavers

The Leavers: A Novel by Lisa Ko (Algonquin Books, $25.95, 352 pages)

“There’s no heavier burden than a great potential.”   Charles Schulz

Sometimes a writer can outthink herself.   I found this to be the case with The Leavers: A Novel.   The central character is a boy from China who is adopted by American parents.  Deming Gou’s mother, who is an undocumented immigrant in New York City, one day leaves home to go to work at a nail salon but never returns.   Subsequently Deming – who becomes Daniel Wilkinson, is adopted by white parents, both professors at a small private college in upstate New York.

Daniel suddenly becomes a stranger in a strange land.   Used to the hustle and bustle and diversity of the big city, he must learn to survive in a quiet community where he is The Other; being Chinese, he is known to his Anglo classmates as Special No. 2 (a selection from a Chinese menu).

For so long, he had thought that music was the one thing he could believe in: harmony and angular submelody and rolling drums, a world neither present nor past, a space inhabited by the length of a song.   For a song had a heart of its own, a song could jumpstart or provide solace; only music could numb him more thoroughly than weed or alcohol.  

Daniel is a screw-up but a fascinating character.   He plays electric guitar in a rock band, but keeps dropping out of the group even though success is on the horizon.  He has a problem with gambling (stereotypically) and loses thousands of dollars borrowed from friends.   He drops out of college and ruins multiple chances to go to school at the university where his adopted parents teach.   His story is interesting and linear, and it builds momentum, until…

One third of the way through the book, author Ko suddenly turns her attention to Polly Gou, Deming/Daniel’s birth mother, and transports us to China.   The telling now comes to a halt and the air seems to go out of the story.   Polly was deported from the U.S. and winds up with virtually nothing in her homeland, but somehow goes from rags to riches.   It seems improbable, and Ko spends too much time painting a melodramatic – over-the-top – account of Polly’s pre-deportation period spent in a detention camp in Texas.   The details are highly unpleasant.   Although it’s an attempt to get the reader to identify with, and side with, Gou, for me it had the reverse effect — making me want to put the book down.

The primary issue is that the straight ahead story of Daniel Wilkinson becomes lost and diluted by the long and winding, twisty, road that’s Polly Gou’s story.   It’s as if Ko attempted to meld two different half-novels together.   It didn’t work. The initial story – the fascinating tale of an adoptee attempting to find himself – was dumped for an adjunct creation.   (Basically, Gou’s story subsumes Wilkinson’s.)

Of course, once the final third of the book arrives, Ko has found a means of bringing Daniel Wilkinson and Polly Gou together again after many years.   It’s too clever, and by then I didn’t care.

The Leavers had great potential which sadly goes unfulfilled.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

The Leavers, a debut novel, will be released on May 2, 2017.

 

 

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“Brooklyn” – New World versus Old

Brooklyn-Movie-Poster-Saoirse-Ronan

“Brooklyn,” which was nominated for a 2016 Academy Award for best picture in a list of much more intensely themed dramas, is an easy movie to fall in love with. A classic boy-meets-girl coming-of-age film, set in the early 50s and reminiscent of movies of that era. Two young immigrants meet in Brooklyn and fall in love, yet the young woman still yearns for the country and home she left behind. Based on Colm Toibin’s novel of the same title (screenplay by Nick Hornby), “Brooklyn” conveys a specific historical time and worldview but the wounds and dilemmas are universal.

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Saoirse Ronan plays Ellis, a young Irish woman who has few options back home in the Green Isle. Adventurous but devoted to her widowed mother and sister, she feels unanchored, desperate to find a more welcoming environment in which to navigate her adulthood. Tenderhearted, gentle, and hesitant in speech, Ellis soon falls in love with a young Italian immigrant whose culture is every bit as new to her as living in Brooklyn.

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The film “Brooklyn” is much more than a simple coming-of-age tale, however. It is a story of choosing between the family one grows up in and the one created as an adult. Brooklyn – the location – symbolizes new frontiers of freedom and opportunity with little regard for the economic decisions Ellis must make. Ellis must find her own identity while choosing between two value systems and two futures.

Ronan, who was nominated for Best Actress (and cast in “Attonement,” “Lovely Bones,” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel”), gives a stunning performance as the innocence-lost maiden who has to understand what truly is the nature of home. Her moral choices are somewhat predictable but the dilemma is a universal one – choosing another’s happiness over one’s own, deciding on one’s own future first, or trying to have both. This young twenty-two year old actress is a pleasure to watch as she gains confidence one small victory at a time.

The overarching theme is one of possibility (which can be frightening) and independence (which can be depressing and isolating) versus the tradition and comfort of family. The known versus the unknown. Many have to make the decision of which path to take in life. These aren’t the life-and-death stakes we typically see in the movies but they’re the decisions that often dictate or determine fates.

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“Brooklyn” is classic! Highly recommended.

Diana Y. Paul

To see more reviews and articles by Diana Paul, go to:

http://unhealedwound.com/

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The Roundup

The Roundup – Some Quick Looks at Books

Wife 22: A Novel by Melanie Gideon (Ballantine Books)  –  Gideon’s creative novel is an all-too-much-fun story of a mid-life crisis wife who elects to take part in a marriage survey, and then decides that she might have fallen in love with the researcher assigned to work with her.   “Soon I’ll have to make a decision – one that will affect my family, my marriage, my whole life.”   Will Wife 22 sacrifice everything for a man she’s never seen or spoken to (and only exchanged e-mail messages with)?   This is a story with an ending that the reader will never see coming – unless that reader just happens to remember a certain quite clever hit song from the year 1980.

“…when did the real world become so empty?   When everybody abandoned it for the Internet?”   Wife 22 is a novel about current times, in which human beings communicate by each and every means except true personal, face-to-face communication.

Highly recommended.

Jack 1939: A Novel by Francine Mathews (Riverhead Books)  –  Mathews came up with a great premise in this fictional account of a young John F. Kennedy.   President Franklin D. Roosevelt secretly recruits JFK to be his spy in Europe during the period preceding the outbreak of World War II.   The engaging, charismatic personality of JFK is here, but the intelligence of the future world leader is missing in action.

Fairy Tale Interrupted: A Memoir of Life, Love and Loss by Rosemarie Terenzo (Gallery Books)  –  John F. Kennedy, Jr.’s former executive assistant tells us about what it was like to have the “dream job” of working for America’s Prince.   It’s a fascinating account told by Terenzo, a young blue-collar Italian-American girl from the Bronx who became John’s scheduler and gatekeeper.   The problem is that it feels like half a memoir; the deaths of John and his wife Carolyn Bessette in July of 1999 tragically interrupted the charged personal lives chronicled here.   (Terenzo recalls that her final conversation with John was sadly  banal.)

Discretion: A Novel by Allison Leotta (Touchstone)  –  Some readers will no doubt find this to be an exciting political-thriller about a young woman killed while visiting a U.S. Congressman’s hideaway office in the U.S. Capitol Building.   But I was never able to suspend my disbelief in the main characters, especially the female protagonist, Assistant U.S. Attorney Anna Curtis.   Curtis’s criminal investigation extends into the most sordid sexual aspects of the District of Columbia.   It just seemed unnecessarily overblown.

The Distance Between Us: A Memoir by Reyna Grande (Atria Books)  –  This is a sad, yet moving and life affirming true story of three impoverished children in Mexico whose parents abandon them in order to escape to “El Otro Lado” (The Other Side, the United States).   Overcoming many obstacles, the two sisters and their brother eventually find their way to Los Angeles, where they discover that their parents are living apart from each other.   Despite such a horrendous upbringing, the siblings survive and Reyna goes on to both forgive her dying father and to graduate from the University of California at Santa Cruz (UCSC).

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

Review copies were provided by the publishers.

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Everybody Knows This is Nowhere

Mrs. Somebody Somebody: Fiction by Tracy Winn (Random House; $14.00)

“Lucy Mattsen was nobody – like all the women I worked with – until the day the baby fell out the window.”

With that near-perfect opening sentence, Tracy Winn delivers a collection of short stories that promises more than they deliver.   This is not a bad collection, it’s just that the stories are uneven in tone although they – in theory – are joined by being the tales of a group of individuals who lived in a dying mill town in the Northeastern region of the United States.   These are stories about people in different walks of life:  rich by inheritance and work versus the poor; old bloods versus immigrant arrivals; foppish people of privilege who live in dated but glorious mansions versus the people who live down in the boondocks in the abandoned mills.

What these individuals have in common is that of all the places to live in the world, in this country, they have chosen (or had chosen for them) to live in a place whose time has come and gone.   There’s a sense that they are ghosts in the town where one mill operates in the place of the six that once made it a place of prosperity.   And even that one remaining mill closes.

It is left to the reader to determine the time frame, the date, of each story.   Generally the only clue provided by Winn is a mention of the make and model of an automobile (Chevy Bel Air, Chevette, Dodge Aspen).   Other than this, there’s a sense of disorientation that occasionally may remind the reader of Audrey Niffenegger’s (Her Fearful Symmetry) prose.

Winn can write:  “He imagined her taking long strides under the sprawling shade trees, past the trim hedges of sunny Fairmont Avenue…  the lithe lines of her, the symmetry of her lean face, her pulse beating in the tender skin below her ear.   She’d swing her bare arms, the hot sun on her face, her skirt swishing declaratively.   She walked the way she thought, in a straight clear path.   She sliced through life, clean-edged.”

The issue is that while Winn can build interest in her characters, to this reader they never felt like real persons, true human beings; the stories  often have the feel of writing exercises, of something written for an academic assignment.   Thus, we never come to feel at one with these individuals; these quasi-ghosts remain just that.   (They are not persons we wish to spend much time with.)

The best stories in this group come at the end, as if Winn was beginning to warm up, to find her voice, the closer she came to completing the work.   Tracy Winn surely shows her potential here, although the potential is largely unrealized.   If you’re currently in the market for a collection of short stories, a preferable choice would be Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It by Maile Meloy (reviewed on this site on June 21, 2010, “Having It All”).   But be warned that Meloy does not open her set with a near-perfect first sentence.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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For the Cause

The Union of Their Dreams: Power, Hope and Struggle in Cesar Chavez’s Farm Worker Movement by Miriam Pawel

The Union of Their Dreams by Miriam Pawel is a unique if troubling look at the rise and fall of the United Farm Workers (UFW) union under the direct leadership of the late Cesar Chavez.   It is troubling because it is a tale told from the perspective of “disaffected former staff”, to use Chavez’s own words.   In addition to detailing the history of the UFW, the book focuses on the purges of early members/followers from the UFW, prior to Chavez’s death in 1993.

Perhaps this is the first attempt to demythologize a man correctly described in the book as “a world-famous icon.”   If so, the reader should keep in mind that this is but one version of the events that occurred.   A farm worker states in the book, “…we (need to) also listen to another interpretation of events.”   We hear little from two key UFW figures in the book, Delores Huerta of Stockton – a woman who appeared on stage with Robert F. Kennedy in Los Angeles on the night he was assassinated – and Gilbert Padilla; although Padilla is finally forced to leave the UFW.

Pawel has clearly advanced the record on the UFW’s achievements and failings.   But it will likely be decades before a balanced and comprehensive view of Chavez’s life, legend and leadership is told.

Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.

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