Exit West

exitwestExit West by Mohsin Hamid is the third book I’ve read for this year’s Tournament of Books and my new favorite to win the Rooster. It’s the timely story of two lovers, Saeed and Nadia, who flee their war-torn country for a chance at a life somewhere else. But it’s a timeless story as well, the balance between adapting to new cultures and experiences while holding on to pieces of the past. And it’s a bit of speculative fiction, taking a possible peek at the future of mankind’s migration around planet Earth.

The author takes what feels like a theatrical trick, a trap-door under the stage, and turns it into a literary device to shortcut Saeed and Nadia’s journey, making the migration about where they are rather than their journey. I loved it, and I loved all the symbolism behind it.

The writing is beautiful, causing my to-read list to grow with the addition of Hamid’s earlier novels. It was emotionally restrained, somehow, yet powerfully precise. Here are four of my favorite lines:

“…but that is the way of things, for when we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind.”

“What she was doing, what she had just done, was for her not about frivolity, it was about the essential, about being human, living as a human being, reminding oneself of what one was, and so it mattered, and if necessary was worth a fight.”

“Perhaps they had grasped that the doors could not be closed, and new doors would continue to open, and they had understood that the denial of coexistence would have required one party to cease to exist, and the extinguishing party too would have been transformed in the process, and too many native parents would not after have been able to look their children in the eye, to speak with head held high of what their generation had done.”

“Every time a couple moves, they begin, if their attention is still drawn to one another, to see each other differently, for personalities are not a single immutable color, like white or blue, but rather illuminated screens, and the shades we reflect depend much on what is around us.”

In these for passages, I feel like Hamid captures essential truths of moving on, of human dignity, of acceptance, and of love.

In Pachinko, immigration is the focal point of a multi-generational family saga. In Exit West, a love story of two young adults is the focal point of a world-wide human migration saga. I love that both these books are included in the ToB.

Next up: The Animators.

Lincoln in the Bardo


lincolnI was surprised to learn that Lincoln in the Bardo is the first novel from George Saunders, an author who has lurked on my to-read list with his acclaimed short story collections. I vaguely knew what the book was about before I began, despite not actually knowing the meaning of the word “bardo.” Some friends just dove in and were feeling rather clueless until they at least looked up the definition.

The title actually conveys the entire plot of the novel: one evening in a cemetery, with souls caught in the bardo, and one very alive President who is mourning the death of his son.

I struggled early in this novel, I found the writing style utterly distracting. There are chapters of voices/dialog/thought where the “speaker” is identified at the end of the passage and chapters of cited historical observations, which may of may not have all been made up by the author. Not unlike a Ken Burns style documentary, but where most of the observations/opinions/information given are only a sentence long.

Then, suddenly, the distraction factor faded and I was swept away by the stories of all the souls, living and dead. This book requires a re-read, or at least a strong discussion with folks who picked up on different things than I did, I am sure I missed so much the first time through. There’s a little American history, a sprinkling of humor, and a lot of life/death philosophy.  What makes a life worth living, what makes us go on and what makes us give up?

Rounding out my philosophy lessons for the week, I also caught most of the movie Ghost – while the husband was flipping thru channels and I commanded him to stop (missed the pottery wheel seen, tho, darn it) – and Austin Kleon posted about checking in with death from time to time.

Book two from the Tournament of Books was another great read, tho I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone.

Inked Up

Those, my friends, are pictures of my left ankle.

Bucket list item achieved. You’re never too old. Just do it. Be yourself. Why not?

Last weekend I went to the Star of Texas Tattoo Art Revival in Austin with D#2 and her “aggressively supportive” girl gang. Attending a tattoo convention was NOT on my bucket list, but it was a really fun day. I felt much less out of place than I had expected. It was really a convention for the tattoo artists – almost 400 of them from around the country (and a few from other countries) – with contests and social get-togethers and entertainment, but it is open to the public to admire the work displayed in portfolios, to admire the work displayed on people, and/or to actually get tattooed.

It wasn’t unlike walking thru an art museum, quietly commenting about things I really like, silently raising eyebrows at or swiftly passing by those things that didn’t appeal to me. Snark was kept to a minimum because 1) the artists were right there and 2) it was such a non-judgmental atmosphere. No one looked askance at me even though I was clearly one of the older attendees, and observation, even gawking, was encouraged for the art that was being worn and being created. And let me make very clear that I have no hesitation in calling these people artists – their talent is truly noteworthy, whether or not it appeals to me personally.

The people watching and eavesdropping was A-plus. Some people carefully choose tattoos with special meaning. Some people choose tattoos like they would choose a painting for the wall of their home. Some people collect tattoos like souvenirs.

My tattoo? Oh yeah, carefully chosen with special meaning. Pretty much anything I do comes with a story, ofttimes much to the dismay of those near and dear to me. If I was a better story teller, they might not cringe so much when I feel a need to give a presentation with every present given or recount the backstory behind every purchase made.

Flash back to when D#2 was in high school and exclaimed that she wanted to get a tattoo. I counter-exclaimed, “me too, let’s get them together!” It wasn’t actually reverse psychology, I did sort of like the idea of a tattoo, but she went off to college and, very justifiably, didn’t wait on me.

Flash back not quite that far to when a friend got her first tattoo. She is a children’s librarian and her tattoo has a children’s book theme, perfect for her. It got me thinking more seriously about what the perfect tattoo for me would be…

Flash back to when I was in high school. The summer after graduation I read John Steinbeck’s East of Eden which remains my favorite book of all time. A key component of the book is the story of Cain and Abel, both literally and figuratively, and if evil is pure, inherent, and inescapable, or if it is something that can be overcome. “Timshel” is a Hebrew word that has been biblically translated with subtle differences, but at its most hopeful (at least for Cain) means “you may.” It is also the final word of East of Eden and has remained with me for 40 years.

Flash back not quite so far to when the daughters were regulars at summer camp. Each year they would bring me back a friendship string made from embroidery floss that they tied/braided for me and which I would dutifully tie around my ankle. But here’s the thing…I loved those anklets. They were bright and they stayed with me, I would wear them until they frayed thru and fell off. They reminded me of the daughters and for a woman who shuns cosmetics and just plain forgets to wear jewelry, they were a simple adornment that made me feel special. Ever since, anklets have been my favorite adornment, though it has not always been easy to find ones that I can just leave on all the time.

I was finally able to put the whole story together. The tattoo I wanted was an anklet, in the shape of a vine to express my love of nature, and somehow incorporating the word “timshel.” It took D#2 to actually make it happen, to invite me to the convention and encourage me to find an artist to make my simple vision a reality. And a pact made when she was in high school was finally fulfilled when she got her own version of a timshel tattoo at the convention.

My tattoo is just another story, just another part of who I am.

Pachinko, still

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee is centered in 20th century Japan, but aspects of it feel timeless and universal.

Immigration, nationalization, citizenship, belonging, identity, culture, home, HOME….

(Assuming the author wrote accurately about this in her fiction book…) Koreans must register as aliens in Japan every three years. Even though Korea was at one time annexed by Japan and Koreans immigrated there legally. Even if you and your parents were born in Japan, you are still considered Korean. The hyphenated term Korean-Japanese was not even used in the book until an American-born Korean character was introduced late in the book. What came to my mind was DACA and the Dreamers who were brought to America as children, were promised a safety blanket of sorts if they “registered” and who now may be facing deportation thanks to Trump policies.

What about refugees around the world? Thousands of children have never known life outside of a refugee camp. Where is their home, what is their home country? I think of Syrians and Rohingyas and so many others with no place to (safely) go.

Why are labels so important to some, yet so hated? My nieces, born to a mother from America and a father from Ivory Coast, growing up in Ivory Coast, Pakistan, and India, who attended college in the US and South Africa, loathe the term “African-American.” They are truly children (now adults) of the world. I also think of the people who look “different” and who are rightly angered when the question, “Where are you from?” implies “What nationality are you (and your parents)?”, not “Where do you live?” Perhaps I should start replying “Western Europe” instead of “Houston, originally Chicagoland.”

Technology has made the world so much smaller, but there seems to be more focus on our differences than our similarities. I’ve been hearing a lot about Dan Rather’s book What Unites Us. His feelings about nationalism and patriotism (from a Texas Monthly article about the book) really resonate:

Rather argues that people unwittingly use the terms interchangeably, but it’s important to distinguish their meanings. Patriotism, he says, requires revering your country but also being open-minded about its imperfections and, in turn, striving to correct them. Nationalism, meanwhile, tends to shut down dialogue because it stakes a claim to moral and cultural superiority. 

Citizens of the World. It seems like a concept that mankind should be racing towards, yet it feels like we are moving farther away. Yes, Lee’s novel is still rattling around in my brain, much like a ball bearing bouncing off the pins in a pachinko machine.


Pachinko by Min Jin Lee is the first book I’ve read for the 2018 Tournament of Books. I feel like I’ve gotten off to a slow start, but it has been an excellent start.

At its heart, Pachinko is a family saga, following four generations of a Korean family from 1910-1989. It’s a great family story containing plenty of loyalty, secrets, rebellion, struggles, triumphs, and of course, love. If ‘family saga’ were an official sub-genre of fiction, it would clearly be one of my favorites.

In its soul, Pachinko is the story of immigrants, trying to make a new home and trying to find themselves and their place in a new land. As the locale of the novel shifts from Korea to Japan, the characters struggle to hold onto their national identity while also struggling to shed their past in order to survive. Lee does an amazing job making the story of one family a story of the whole world, a timeless tale of oppressors and the oppressed, the haves and have-nots, immigration and nationalism.

As for its bones, Pachinko reads like well-crafted historical fiction. Beginning with the Japanese occupation/annexation of Korea and continuing thru WWII and into the late twentieth century, world events are ever-present in background of this novel, sweeping the characters along in ways they don’t understand and can’t anticipate.

I loved pretty much everything about this novel. It does feel like it was written for a western audience, where it has been much acclaimed. I wonder how it was received in Korea and Japan.

There are 18 books vying for the Rooster this year. Last year I read 9 contenders, this year I flagged 5 of them as must-reads and another 9 as hope-to-reads, though my lists alter dramatically as books move on in or out of the competition. I’ll be rooting for Pachinko when the judging begins in March.