Book Review: Mambo in Chinatown by Jean Kwok

Earlier this year, I read Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok and absolutely adored it.  It has so far been one of my favorite books that I have read for this project, so when I saw that Jean Kwok was releasing a new novel, I was excited to get the chance to read it.  It took a while for the book to make its way to me through the library hold process, but Mambo in Chinatown was well worth the wait!

Mambo in Chinatown is a slightly more mature novel than Girl in Translation was in that it follows the worries and life of an adult narrator, but the skill with which Kwok captured the voice of the central character is beautifully similar.  Through the narrative voice of Charlie Wong, the reader is able to get a true glimpse inside the life of the child of immigrants coming to terms with herself in a difficult transition period in her life.

The balance that is most fascinating throughout the novel is represented through the difference between Charlie inside and outside Chinatown.  Her ability to separate and compartmentalize parts of herself is something that I think many readers would recognize, and the reasons behind it shed a lot of light into the experiences of a person or character in her position.

The novel is full of compelling, complex characters, and I very much enjoyed reading it.  I will avidly watch for new books from Jean Kwok in the future.  Both of her novels so far have impressed me a huge amount, and I cannot wait to see what she will come out with next.

Reading Level:  high school and up


Book Review: Bone by Fae Myenne Ng

It took me a few tries to get properly started on Bone by Fae Myenne Ng, partially because I have been busy with work, and partially because some of the descriptions of San Francisco were almost jarringly familiar.  This was actually one of my favorite elements of the novel once I got over the strangeness of being thrown back into a city I haven’t been in in years.  Ng captures San Francisco brilliantly, and as I read the novel I was in my mind walking and busing along the streets and routes that she tells about.  I don’t know if it would be as striking an experience for someone who isn’t extremely familiar with SF, but I was impressed with the way that she captured the city.

Bone doesn’t follow a chronological path, but it captures a fascinating look into the emotional process of grief and coming to terms with death.  The novel also shows an intense insider’s perspective of San Francisco’s Chinatown and life there during the protagonist’s childhood and early adulthood.

Ng’s characters are compelling and understandable, and I found myself drawn into the emotions and conflicts surrounding their family bonds.  Through those conflicts, bit by bit, the story of their world was shown.  While the novel is about a very personal set of conflicts, the very circumstances of those personal conflicts brings to light a lot of the generational tensions present in SF’s Chinatown and many other places.

There were elements of this novel that really reminded me of Julia Alvarez’s How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents.  Both novels follow a similar cultural narrative about how the children of immigrant families adapt and change to fit into their new country.  I think that the two novels would make a fascinating comparison, and I really liked both of them.

Reading Level:  High School and up

Pair With:  Julia Alvarez’s How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents 

Book Review: Cracking India by Bapsi Sidhwa

Bapsi Sidhwa’s novel Cracking India follows the political upheaval of the Indian independence movement and the division of India and Pakistan through the eyes of a child in Lahore, one of the contested regions.  The early life of the central character is a fascinatingly jumbled portrait of diversity and community that ignores boundaries potentially created by religion.  As she grows up, and the country becomes far more divided, her awareness mirrors the divisions and breaking of the country.


This is a fascinating piece of political fiction and personal fiction.  All the characters seemed intensely real, as though they were people remembered instead of invented, and the confusion over the divisions of countries and former friends and neighbors felt all the more real while reading because of it.


Most of the literature about this period that I have read in the past has been focused on adults and people who were higher in the political order.  This novel shows the perspectives of normal people, present in the moment of collapse and facing the consequences of political decisions that they had no sway over.  Overall, I would highly recommend Cracking India as part of a curriculum focused on the voices of the people during political turmoil.


Reading Level:  High school and up

Pair With:  Narratives of revolution and political upheaval from the voices of the people

Book Review: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou is another book that I first read in middle school.  In the years since, many of the details of Angelou’s remarkable memoir had slipped from my mind, but I remembered reading it as a formative experience.  With Maya Angelou’s recent passing, I revisited much of her poetry, and I checked her autobiography out of the library.  It took a while to get to me, considering many other people seemed to have the same idea, but a few weeks ago I got it at last.  Normally, I can read a book of the length of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in a matter of hours, and it is not uncommon for me to devour a long awaited book on the bus rides of the same day I retrieve it from the library.  Instead, Angelou’s memoir spent most of the time staring at me from the top of my book stack, somehow impossible to start.


This morning, I finally convinced myself to start my reread, and as I had remembered, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is an amazing piece of writing that drew me in from the beginning and brought me into a world that I can only experience though writing.  Angelou’s writing captures the feelings and history that she lived through and allows the readers of her memoir to find a greater understanding of the world and experiences that she came from.  She has an incredible capacity to draw out emotions with her writing.  As I spent the better part of the day pouring over the autobiography in chunks, I found myself connecting bits of the story of Angelou’s early life to other things that I had read, and being impressed not only with the writing and clarity of her story, but also with how well it fit into the greater narrative of an era.  


This is not a piece of work that I would want to make a class read quickly.  I think that instead, I would stretch the study of the memoir over a series of weeks, interspersed with other stories, novels, articles, and bits of history.  I would tie together the thoughts that I had while reading it this time, allowing the beautiful, touching, and personal words of an amazing poet link together the events of a few decades of history and literature.  I am still a bit at a loss at some of the feelings and reactions that I have to this book, and I think that they will sort themselves out with time, but I know that this is an extremely important book to read.


Maya Angelou’s incredible talent with words and beautiful way of creating stories that draw out the emotions of her readers will be sorely missed.  I look forward to revisiting her poems and other works for many years to come.


Reading Level:  maybe late middle school, definitely high school and above

Pair With:  Depression and WWII era literature (especially about the South and CA)

Book Review: The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros

I read Sandra Cisneros’s novel The House on Mango Street for the first time when I was in middle school.  It was a class assignment for extra credit.  Most of my classmates didn’t read it, not wanting to spend extra time on even a short book when there was other stuff they could be doing.  I didn’t need the extra credit, but it was book I’d never seen before, which was always exciting for me because at this point, I had read everything in the elementary and middle school libraries, most of it twice, and the entire children’s and young adult section at the public library.  I was making pretty good headway on the adult section too.


At the time, I was struck by the beautiful words of The House on Mango Street, and I felt a certain kinship with the displaced feelings of the narrator.  She came from a different world, a different background than I did, but she seemed lost among the people around her a lot of the time, and that resonated with me.  Now, over a decade later, when I picked the book up again, I didn’t remember much of it, except a few lines here and there, scattered across the book.  I was happy as I found each one rereading the book.


As a more experienced reader, Cisneros’s novel is possibly even more impressive.  The small vignettes that she weaves together to form a story in The House on Mango Street leave the reader with a great scope to imagine what is going on.  Much is left unsaid, but there is so much there in the little details of the story.  The novel reads like oral literature, and as I read it again, I could hear it, and remembered the same sensation, echoing back from myself in middle school.  I always hear when I read, but this book is especially well suited to the way my brain processes the written word.  I hear it in the voice of an experienced, skillful storyteller, and it is captivating.


I wish that my middle school class that read this book had made it required for the entire class, so that maybe I could have talked about it with someone.  The teacher nodded and gave me a good grade on my essay for the book, and he never talked to me about it again.  I was the only one in the class who read it.


I will definitely be coming back to this novel again, and I’m definitely going to go in search of anything else from Cisneros.


Reading Level:  Middle school and up

Themes:  Coming of age narrative, experimental writing styles (vignettes, mosaic novel), personal identity

Book Review: Kinder Than Solitude by Yiyun Li

Yiyun Li’s most recent novel Kinder Than Solitude is another amazing piece of writing from an author who has quickly become one of my favorites.  While I had mixed feelings about her other novel, The Vagrants, I feel uniformly entranced by Kinder Than Solitude.


The novel covers the events of several decades in non-chronological order, following three childhood friends as they remember and deal with the aftereffects of the unfortunate illness and eventual death of someone who had been close to all three of them.  Like much of Li’s work, the novel deals with loneliness and lost connections.  All three central characters are at loose ends as adults, and they are broken and divided from their pasts.


Yiyun Li impressed me greatly in her earlier collections of short stories with how she portrayed feelings of loneliness, disconnectedness, and betrayal.  In her first novel, The Vagrants, it seemed that she wasn’t able to maintain such fascinating characters over the course of the length of a novel, but in Kinder Than Solitude, she impressed me with a novel length work that held up to the strength of my favorite novellas from Gold Boy Emerald Girl.


Reading Level:  late high school and up

Topics:  loneliness, disconnectedness, life in China

I think that it would be fascinating to pair this with Albert Camus’s novel L’Etranger (The Stranger) in a literature class.  I like this novel a lot better than Camus’s novel, but I think that there are some interesting parallels and literary relationships between the two books, and I would have to read them one after the other to figure out why I think that this would be a good idea.

In Memory of Maya Angelou

When Maya Angelou passed away at the end of May, the literary community experienced a great loss.  She penned amazing poetry that touched many people and helped open many doors of understanding.  When I heard about her passing, like many other people, I immediately put holds on my library’s copies of her poetry and the memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.  I’m still waiting on I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, but I finally got the poetry volumes: The Complete Collected Poems and Phenomenal Woman.  (While Phenomenal Woman consists of poems contained within The Complete Collected Poems, I checked it out separately because the poems contained in the volume are in my opinion among her most powerful.)


I hadn’t read anything by her in quite a long time, but I still remember the first time I ever picked up her poetry.  In middle school, one of my English teachers had a copy of Shaker, Why Don’t You Sing? on his shelf of free reading books.  Because I tended to be very far ahead in my work, I read pretty much everything on that shelf that year.  Interspersed between many “fun” novels, that were probably set there to seem like a reward when we got permission to read instead of having to do in class work, were some pieces of work that captivated my interest.  Shaker, Why Don’t You Sing? was one of those pieces of work.  Within the volume, the poem that most caught me, and that is still probably my favorite of Maya Angelou’s poems is “Caged Bird.”


I’ve enjoyed rereading her poetry, and I remembered correctly that I found the four poems contained in the short volume Phenomenal Woman very powerful (“Phenomenal Woman,” “Still I Rise,” “Weekend Glory,” and “Our Grandmothers”).  I feel like this is a very representative selection, and while none of the four poems are as close to my heart as “Caged Bird,” I wish that more people read them.


I don’t really have the words to say my thoughts about Maya Angelou’s work right now.  Maybe I’ll have more thoughts after I’ve read her memoir again, but she was a phenomenal poet and an amazing human being.  She will be missed!