The Animators and Goodbye, Vitamin

The young adult novel grows up. The coming of age story morphs into the finding myself story. A well-read friend of mine thought the ToB contained an unusually high percentage of these tales this year, a stat I won’t be able to comment on until I get further along with the list, but I did read two of them back-to-back.

animatorsThe Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker focuses on best friends and collaborators Mel and Sharon. Although they first meet at a fine arts program in college, most of the novel takes place roughly a decade later when they have successfully released their first feature-length animated movie. There were some story lines and a few plot twists, but it was much more of a character study. Sadly, I just couldn’t really care about any of the characters. It felt like a rehash of 60’s era “sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll,” only replace the musical talent with artistic talent. I wanted to hear more about a pair of female animators making it in a man’s world, not just that they worked like fiends and had ink-stained fingers. The premise sounded so original, but the execution felt more formulaic. The writing was solid, as to be expected with a ToB pick, I thought she did exceptionally well with a first-person narrative. I am looking forward to hearing what the ToB community liked and didn’t like about it.

vitaminIn contrast, Rachel Khong might have done too good a job with Goodbye, Vitamin. Ruth, 30 years old and still smarting after her long-time boyfriend walked out on her, returns to her childhood home to help care for father, a former college professor who is slipping into deeper dementia. While there, she can no longer run away from confronting the not always happy marriage of her parents. The book is written in a stream of consciousness, diary format. The format itself is actually important to the story, it works, but….here’s where Khong did her job too well. I didn’t really want to read the diary of an angsty 30-year old. It felt like something I could’ve written (especially back in my angsty earlier life) and that is not a compliment. It felt genuine, it was a sweet story, but it never grabbed me.

So. Two books with great, bright covers. Two well-written entries in the ToB. Two books that make me wonder if I am aging out of the target audience for current, popular fiction.

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.

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.