Wednesday, November 27, 2019

More Jasmine Guillory

Earlier in the year, I read Jasmine Guillory's The Wedding Proposal as part of a reading challenge that called for a Romance by a Person of Color.  I don't read much romance in general, but I found Guillory's writing fun, and I enjoyed getting to know her characters.  Then I found out she's from the area where I live, and it seemed only right to keep supporting her novels.  So, I picked up The Proposal.  In the sequel to The Wedding Date, Nik finds herself in a rebound relationship with Carlos - neither of whom are looking for anything serious.  So, you know where this is going - lots of late-night meet-ups and casual dates that eventually lead to someone falling in love, but no one wanting to admit it.  In many ways these types of books are so frustrating - if people would just say what they're thinking and stop being idiots, a lot less time would be wasted.  But, then there wouldn't be a book.  So, every time I found myself aggravated and wanting to throw the book against the wall, I just told myself to breathe and enjoy it.  And I did.  The Proposal is also fun - nothing earth-shattering here - except maybe an appreciation that people of color can be desirable and human and full of flaws but also loved and beautiful and worthy.  And that's definitely a message worth picking up.
And so, I picked up the third in the trilogy - The Wedding Party - with Alexa (from The Wedding Date) planning her wedding in the background, her best friends Maddie and Theo find their mutual hatred of each other developing into a *surprise* full-fledged romance.  But, of course, it starts out as a casual fling for both of them, and as they're hiding their meet-ups from Alexa, they're hiding their true feelings for each other from themselves.  Same basic formula successfully used as a vehicle for romance.  It was fun to see this story line through, but I still wouldn't say that I'm sold on romance as a genre.  Again, I haven't read many, and my guess is that Guillory probably does it better than most.  I'm a fan and will keep reading her books as the come out (I know Royal Holiday is waiting for me at the library at this moment).

Diversity Book Club: African-American Authors/Experiences

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones: This beautiful book has been on display at so many bookstores I've visited over the past year, and I finally made time to read it.  Newlyweds Celestial and Roy believe they have it all - a home, jobs, love...but when Roy is imprisoned for a crime he did not commit, their loyalties and strength are tested in ways they never imagined.  As the years pass, the nature of the love between Celestial and Roy necessarily changes - what he needs in terms of support and belief exist separate and apart from what Celestial needs on the outside for her life.  This book is clearly about racism, but also highlights the heartbreaking realities of mass incarceration - and what separation does to families.  I read this book close in time to Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow which is a non-fiction education on how the United States' current system of criminal justice is the functional equivalent of modern-day racism, and how systemic and institutional racism have fundamentally decimated African-American communities.  An American Marriage also reminded me in many ways of Jesmyn Ward's haunting novel Sing, Unburied, Sing in which a young boy is raised by his black grandparents. His white father is in prison and his black mother is so consumed by her love for him, and unable to function in a world without him, that she remains ill-equipped to take care of her own child.  All of these books together really painted for me this painful world in which our ideas of retribution are so tangled up in our racism and blindness toward the next generations.  They books aren't full of much hope - though they are a testament to what families endure, and perhaps an illustration of the huge price we pay when we turn a blind eye to our so-called justice system.

Fiction: Jean Kwok

I kept seeing Jean Kwok's novel Searching for Sylvie Lee on recommended book lists, but alas the queue at the library was quite long, so I decided to try out her previous novel, Girl in Translation first. I'm glad I did - this is the type of Asian-American fiction that is squarely in my comfort zone - young Asian girl - recent immigrant or child of too-hard-working to be around much immigrants, succeeds in school, but never quite fits in, finds herself and her passion, but at the expense of love or the approval of her parents.  While Girl in Translation follows this formula, it is in no way rote or unimaginative.  There's a reason this story line is so popular - who doesn't love the struggle of a beautiful girl caught between two cultures, with so much promise, and so much obligation?  The writing and storytelling are easy to follow in a "beach read" way, but certainly not mindless.  This book left me wanting to read more by Jean Kwok, so I was quite happy to find Searching for Sylvie Lee waiting for me at the library.

When I was in college, I took a poetry class that was not my favorite.  I found I always wanted some background on the poet - what was s/he going through when they wrote the poem?  What was going on in the world they were living in at the time they wrote the poem?  What was the poem in response to?  What was the poet trying to say?  But every time I wondered these things, my professor - or other more sophisticated students - would inform me that a poem had to stand on its own, and it wasn't about what the poet intended, but what we took from the poem, without all of that background information.  I understood the point, but it didn't make me enjoy or understand the poems any better.  And so it often it when I read novels.  I wonder if the "fiction" is really "fiction."  Why did the author write THIS book about THESE characters?  People say "write what you know," and what is it that the author knew about the characters and places in this particular book?  And so it is with Searching for Sylvie Lee - about the perfect wife and sister who suddenly goes missing.  Her not-as-perfect sister, travels internationally not just to find her, but to find out more about the real life no one ever understood her sister was living.  After thoroughly enjoying Girl in Translation, there were parts of this book that just didn't seem right to me.  I couldn't quite connect to the characters, and felt uncomfortable about some of their relationships with each other - at the risk of including a spoiler, I won't go into it more, but I just could not relate.  But, it was because of this that I just did some brief internet research about the book - to see how it had been received, and it was there that I learned more about Kwok's background, and that she had suffered the disappearance of a sibling.  That she would then write this book is incredibly brave to me - I know it means that the book no longer stood on its own for me - but I don't care.  It made it fascinating and real, and so much more incredibly painful.  I cared more about what happened to Sylvie Lee, and what would become of her sister.  On its own, I don't think I would have appreciated this book as much as I did Girl in Translation, and maybe I didn't read it the way I was supposed to - with a little background - but that did help me connect better, and I do hope the process of writing the novel brought Kwok some much needed peace.