The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr Review

Mary Karr

I LOVED this book. I am currently in the throes of writing a memoir/collection of personal essays. I know the best way to improve your writing is to read. As you travel the worlds of other authors, you begin to see the styles and lines you admire accumulate. They add to your cadre of mentors. I read a great deal of fiction, nonfiction, poetry etc., but I have been remiss in reading craft books. Enter Mary Karr. Her name kept popping up in discussions so I picked up her book, The Art of Memoir.

Karr affirmed for me the issue I have been suspecting in my own writing, presenting a false self. We all want to see ourselves a certain way, and when we write about ourselves, that ideal can take over. But as Karr asserts, “You’ll need both sides of yourself – the beautiful and the beastly – to hold a reader’s attention. Sadly, without a writer’s dark side on view – the pettiness and vanity and schemes – pages give off a whiff of bullshit.” I needed that shot of truth to start evaluating my own nostalgic vision of myself.

This slim volume is packed with advice for those seeking to write memoir or personal essay. There are beautiful passages from memoirists the author admires, such as Maya Angelou’s and Maxine Hong Kingston, with critique about what worked in the passage, and why it is important to your own forays into writing. Karr’s voice throughout is a comfort. She is self-deprecating, generous with her writing heroes, and pragmatic about things like “keeping your ass in the chair.” She also provides some lists for those that decide personal writing is their mission. I particularly liked her “Incomplete Checklist to Stave off Dread,” which includes “the self-discipline to work in scary blankness for some period of time…,” something I personally am still growing accustomed to.

As the pandemic widens, I know writers are seeking classes, webinars, and books to hone their WIPs. The Art of Memoir is a must-read, and annotate, pseudo-guide to personal writing. Plus, it is entertaining and judicious with the swear words 🙂

Eat A Peach by David Chang Book Review

Eat a Peach cover

I have had a small obsession with David Chang’s culinary creations since 2014 when I first set foot in Momofuku. The vibe is lively and hip. The tables are a rustic pine and run along the restaurant to allot for family-style dining. This appeals to me; I love turning to the stranger next to you and finding out they just flew in from London or just finished a tour in Afghanistan or were in town for a particular show. New York is filled with stories, and places like Momofuku bring them to the surface for everybody to share. The food told its own story of commingled cultures and paradoxical flavor profiles. I have been back every time I travel to NYC. I also own and cook from his  Momofuku cookbook, a present from my daughter to commemorate our shared love of Chang ramen. When his memoir, Eat a Peach was announced, it immediately went on my to-buy list. 

Chang weaves a narrative of a person always on the outside, never quite belonging. He was not the “typical” Asian American model student, but he points out not every Asian is good at school or any one thing. They are individuals as much as any other ethnicity. He brings to bear his own issues coming to terms with his heritage,

“While cooking has enabled me to fight battles and explore subjects I am too afraid to approach in real life, I couldn’t overcome the shame and anxiety I’d felt about Korean food since I was a kid.”

Majordomo was where Chang took the initial steps integrating Korean identity, it was Kawi where he really embraced Korean food. He makes a point throughout of addressing the cultural racism existent in the restaurant business. Many ethnic chefs stay in their lane and do not upset the stereotype of what a non-caucasian chef should be cooking. White chefs have been appropriating and reinventing for always.

“I think the reason why minority chefs in America find cultural appropriation so upsetting is that we feel obliged to uphold these arbitrary proscriptions, while white chefs do whatever they want. We’re following the rules and they’re not. Most of the time, they didn’t even bother to learn the rules. I decided rather than getting upset about it, I should just start playing the same game.” 

Momofuku almost went out of business early on because Chang was cooking what he thought people wanted out of a noodle bar instead of cooking what he wanted to eat. He came up with some tenets he lives by with his restaurants:

  • Gather from Everywhere- appropriate, but give credit for inspirations
  • The Dining Room is Your Classroom- watch your diners, learn from them, allow your food to evolve
  • Forget everything you think and embrace what you see- don’t rely on common wisdom, be open to every idea sometimes the best dishes happen from accidents
  • Merge- the most interesting ideas come from bringing together worlds that seem so different. Everything can be Korean, Italian, Japanese or Mexian and American food can be anything

A lot can be found about Chang’s journey to chef stardom, his restaurant secrets, and how he made it despite the odds within these pages, but a more sensitive and poignant narrative emerges from this memoir about depression, the stigma of mental illness in the culinary world, and addictions. Chang self-medicated for years by throwing himself headlong into work. 

As Chang writes in the book, “work is the last socially acceptable addiction.” As a former restaurateur and educator this resonated with me. I always attribute it to the need to be busy. Society reinforces this idea of working hard as a sign of success, and it becomes almost a competition for who can work harder and longer. I still feel agitated if I do not have a full plate.  For Chang it was like heroin. Getting things done, fully immersing yourself in the work allows you to ignore what is going on inside yourself. “I found meaning in repetitive tasks, as long as I did them with intent and purpose. Many chefs opening restaurants talk about the rush. It’s not only a rush to me.” Towards the end of his stint at Cafe Boulud, Chang had his first full-blown depressive phase of bipolar disorder. He had used work as an outlet to keep his depression at bay, but the confluence of personal issues broke his fragile control of day-to-day routine.

Following this Chang sought out professional help, and found it in the form of Dr. Eliot. Through his sessions with him, Chang finally verbalized his struggle with fitting in and constant feelings of inadequacy. Eliot’s office was also the first place he admitted that the only thing that could make it better was to turn it off. Self-medication with drugs and alcohol are common for suicidal people, and Chang readily admits suicide was always on his mind. He says, “Nothing took the thoughts of suicide away. If anything, the drugs were a gasp of air between the waves crashing down on my head.”

Chang also talks emotionally about losing one of his mentees to a drug overdose. He does not go into gory details out of respect, but he does give us an intimate portrait of the guilt and failure he felt for not saving him, not being the one to recognize he had a problem. Drug abuse is one of those things that does not have an easy fix. As we see people we love struggling with addiction, we can confront them, offer them resources, but ultimately we cannot save them unless they want to be saved. Chang explores this notion of culpability with his therapist.

He also spends some time talking about his relationship with Anthony Bourdain whose death brought to light the issues with mental illness in the restaurant industry. “Tony never worked in  the upper echelon of restaurants. That gave many of us in the industry reason to thumb our noses at home, but it’s also exactly what made him remarkable. He was a lifelong line cook — the kind of guy who never aspires to climb the ladder of fancy restaurants. He represented the majority of cooks, and wrote about our world with extraordinary intelligence and empathy…He was the kind of guy you wanted to hang out with, because first and foremost, a fan of food and restaurants.” As a reader, you can feel the emotional toll Bourdain’s suicide took on Chang. 

He poured out everything to Eliot, and through their conversations Chang’s desire to move away from fine dining and move towards the idea that all people, regardless of economic class, could appreciate good food. He drew inspiration from his own experiences abroad. Momofuku was born out of this drive to democratize restaurants. Chang’s journey to restaurateur included stints at Craft and Cafe Boulud. He trained under great chefs, and worked hard. Keeping Momofuku and then his later restaurants alive was an exercise in constant refining and reinvention.

In some ways the endnotes of each chapter are the most entertaining. Chang fully gives himself over in these and provides a glimpse of his wit. One of my favorites was his note on what he ate growing up.  “We’re not talking about grass fed cows here. My family bought the cheap, chemically-enhanced stuff. When people ask me about my disproportionate size, I tell them I’m a product of Bovine Growth Hormone.” His self-deprecating tone is on full display in the endnotes.

As a reader and ardent fan of Lucky Peach, I was glad Chang spent some time on what happened to the publication. He provided a recounting of the inception and ultimate demise of the insane magazine. Chang wrote a great deal about how careful he was about investment opportunities and financial snags with his restaurants, but with Lucky Peach it was a passion project and it became so twisted up with Momofuku that it threatened both ventures. Chang beautifully writes about some of the people he lost through the Lucky Peach endeavor including his longtime collaborator, Peter Meehan. He also addresses the intense criticism he took from people about his perceived role in Lucky Peach’s failing. You can feel his remorse at its demise. He saw the magazine as an extension of the insurgency he tried to create with his restaurants. Momofuku means lucky peach. By giving the magazine the moniker of his first restaurant, a business he poured himself into, he showed his love. I miss the publication, as do many others, but I know what a tough time it is for any publication, print or otherwise.

Insurgency is a recurring theme in Chang’s life and professional pursuits. He always seems to be looking for a way to disrupt established stereotypes, cultural norms, and hierarchies. When planning Ko and Fuku, Chang set out to upend racism and classicism in restaurants. With Ko he strove for ultimate democratization of the restaurant experience. When talking about Ko’s reviews Chang said, “I’m not afraid to tell you I was proud about this one. Not the awards, necessarily, but the insurgency of it all. I loved that just when people had decided we were media darlings, we flipped the story to our advantage.” Ko did not take reservations, no special treatment, anybody could get a table if they were willing to wait. The policy put off the critics and dining literati, but Chang showed you don’t have to pander to the wealthy and influential, you just need a good product.

Chang in true insurrectionist fashion outlined his plan for FUKU, his statement restaurant poised to exploit the Asian American racism in the United States with a menu modeled after Chick-fil-a, a co-opter of Southern African American foodways. Nishi presented an opportunity to challenge the culturally constructed worth of a noodle. We expect pasta to be expensive while noodles have to be cheap, even if the noodle dish takes many more ingredients and preparation. Chang sought out to change our perception of what worth we assign to “ethnic” cuisine.

He found like-minded individuals along the way. Christina Tossi, amazing pastry chef and organizer extraordinaire, started Milk Bar in the back room of Ssam Bar. She rejected the notion that you had to be classically French trained to be a good pastry chef. Instead she took the places that shaped her, like Dairy Queen, and created desserts like the McDonald’s-inspired deep fried apple pie for Ko. When last I went, the desserts at Momofuku were products of Milk Bar and Tossi’s whimsical style.

His book ends with addressing the issue of sexism, and misogyny in the restaurant world. He acknowledges his own privilege in the time of #metoo as he references a photo of three men as “Gods of Food,” when it came out it didn’t occur to him to question why no women were featured. “It’s not about the glass ceiling or equal opportunity. It’s about people being threatened, undermined, abused, and ashamed in the workplace. It’s embarrassing to admit how long it took me to grasp that.” Chang spends some time giving voice to his own complicity.

“I’ve talked alot about failure as a learning tool, but it’s really a privilege to expect people to let us fail over and over again. There are too many dudes in my story in general, and you can still sense my bro-ish excitement when I tell old war stories. Almost all the writers and artists I mention are men, and most of the movies I reference can be found in the DVD library of any frat house in America. It’s my truth, which is why I am leaving them in here, but I wish some of it were different. I’m trying to be the person I want to be. I’m trying to build a company that is better than I am and an environment where the next generation will have better answers to the questions we’re facing.”

The book fittingly closes with David Chang’s 33 Rules for Becoming a Chef. I love this because he is dead on. It is not romantic. It is a lot of work, and a lot of menial work. A couple of my favorites are:

  • Being a chef is only partly about cooking- there is also dish washing, mopping floors, taking out the garbage etc. I worked every position in the restaurants I came up in. There is no glory in cleaning grease traps or any of the other unromantic tasks a chef does.
  • Make great family meal. I love his story about chef Akhtar Nawab making samosas for everybody at Craft. We always did a rotating Sunday Supper at my place. A different person prepared each week something they would eat at home, something simple, something comforting. It was about the fellowship and the family stories. It made all those ridiculous hours spent together a little easier.
  • Immerse yourself in all the awful, boring shit- learn the language of health departments, payroll, heating and air conditioning etc. This is absolute gold for people hoping to open their own place. You must speak the language of all those people who have to sign off on you actually opening and running successfully.
  • Save something for the swim back. “I gravitated towards the notion that is you worked like you had nothing else to live for, you could overcome whatever obstacles came your way…I have no doubt if I had given anything less than everything, Momfuku would not have made it…I’m so lucky this business did not kill me.” This is part of that addiction to work. If you pour all of yourself into the buildup, you will use yourself up before you can have a happy ending. This one is going on my wall as a reminder there is more than just the now.

Eat a Peach is not a light read. There are moments of personal darkness and cultural criticism that spare no detail. Chang talks intimately about the stigma against mental illness and therapy redolent in the restaurant industry- a world celebrated for long hours, high stress, verbal abuse, and addiction. His humility in discussing these issues, as well as his personal journey with racism opens the door for some important conversations that have needed to happen, especially in the culinary world, for a long time. 

I leave you with one last thought. This memoir will come out as we are fully in the throws of a pandemic. Even in the small space of time since Chang finished writing it, the restaurant world has been turned upside down. He has given a few interviews about the prospects for the industry where he has become a cornerstone. His decision to fully close two of his restaurants, and fold another two into each other rocked the culinary world and sounded the call for what could be coming.

All restaurants operate on razor-thin margins, but some are thinner than others. In the case of Nishi and CCDC, the margins were particularly challenging,” Mariscal writes in an open letter to the company posted on Momofuku’s website. “Nishi and CCDC underwent many iterations—renovations, menu overhauls, service changes—on the path to profitability. But as we looked at new realities, neither restaurant had enough cushion to sustain the shock of this crisis. We investigated every scenario to make the math work—negotiating with our landlords, changing the service model, and more—but with increased investments in health and safety, huge reopening expenses, and the lack of rent relief, the financial picture of these wholly-owned restaurants no longer made sense.”

I am certain David Chang and his team are exploring every avenue to weather this in some fashion, but I worry for all those small mom and pop places with only one location operating on that razor-thin budget. What will survive Covid-19, and how will the landscape of dining out shift? Like the cover art on this book, we will be facing a sisyphean task as we try to climb out from the current devastation.

A Tiger in the Kitchen: A Memoir of Food and Family by Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan Book Review

Tiger in the Kitchen cover

In her food memoir, A Tiger in the Kitchen, Cheryl Tan reconnects with her Singaporean family and culture after a devastating job loss. Tan spends the next year visiting her aunties to learn the ins and outs of family recipes and lore. As a child, Tan was kept out of the kitchen. As a first-born, tiger child, she was put on the path of education and financial success — she was encouraged to leave behind traditional female domestic responsibilities, but as a result lost pieces of her heritage that were tied to the kitchen.

“Because of recent generations of women just like me who were intent on avoiding cooking, some of these recipes are slowly fading from the culinary awareness.”

I can relate to Tan in this way. Most of the family and food lore resided in my great-grandmother, Nanny, who never wrote anything down. I only spent fleeting weeks with her over the summer. I soaked up as much as I could, but there are some recipes and family stories that are lost to me now that she is gone. In the recipes section Tan points out, “Quantities aren’t exact. My aunts don’t use a recipe, and they laughed at me the first ten times I asked them for this one.” I try to be better for my kids so they will not lose out on my food knowledge, but for somebody who cooks by taste, it is difficult to record exacting quantities. Sometimes it is just about the look, the feel, the smell in my kitchen.

On the pineapple tarts…”I’d enjoyed them while eating them, sure, but I’d never considered making them, having dismissed knowing how to cook as one of those things that weakened you as  female. And yet there my grandmother had been, cooking with a ferocity that I should be so lucky to have.”

Tan’s memoir is very approachable in language and experience. It is the story of a person of two cultures, two food stories, but it is also a story of generational knowledge. She takes the reader along as she fumbles through learning her family’s ways in the kitchen. She also recognizes how food is a conduit for so many other aspects of our lives. “These dishes had long ceased to be just food, having been wrapped up for years in the tangled mysticism of my family, of its history.”

I also appreciated Cheryl Tan’s attention to history. Each chapter includes some nuggets of Singapore’s rich culture. She often provides these details alongside her personal experience like in her chapter that discusses the Festival of Hungry Ghosts, or Moon Festival where moon cakes were staples. Tan describes her penchant for just buying the moon cakes in a store and her hesitancy to try the family recipe with yam, but then realizes what she had been missing by not engaging in the family practice of preparing the food for these festivals. 

As her year of food exploration comes to a close, Tan realizes, “Each time I went back to New York…I was returning with more and more of my true home. Bits of my family, dishes that I now knew how to make.” What could have been a devastating time after her job loss turned into an excavation of her own true self, and a kindling of familial relationships far more valuable than a salary.

Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen by Laurie Colwin

Home Cooking cover

“No one who cooks cooks alone. Even at her most solitary, a cook in the kitchen is surrounded by generations of cooks past, the advice and menus of cooks present, the wisdom of cookbook writers.”

Laurie Colwin is an approachable cook and writer. This books was funny, honest, and relatable.

As a home cook, writer and introvert, I felt kinship when she said, “For the socially timid, the kitche is the place to be. At least, it is a place to start.” I still struggle being in crowds and at parties you will find me circling the throngs or hiding in the kitchen trying to lend a hand. There is not the pressure to make conversation when you are busy cooking or prepping. Colwin gains confidence as she journeys from kitchens of her youth making pb & j for college activists to small dinner parties after college to full-blown catering events later on. She finds her rhythm in cooking what she likes to eat.

A couple of other lines from the book really resonated with me.

“We live in a decade that worships speed: fast food, one-minute managers, sixty minute gourmets, three minute miles. We lace up our running shoes and dash off to get on the fast track.”

When my kids were still at home and we were shuffling between sports, homework, enrichment activities and jobs, I always lamented how sped up everything felt. Like we were on this constant wheel of making sure we budgeted our time so we could fit everything in. Even though Colwin published this in 1988, it still feels relevant. Coronavirus has forced a slow down and more time at home, but our trajectory as a society is still fast-paced. We are more of an instant gratification society than we were even in the 80s and 90s. I hope that this time of sheltering in place teaches us something about appreciation of slowing down and connecting with those we love, but I think the jury is still out.

One thing that has solidified for me in all this time at home is the need for comfort. Colwin writes poetically about the perfection of a simple bowl of lentil soup when you are feeling sad, sick, or just lonely. Comforting simple food has been out of vogue for a while as chefs play with techniques and ingredients, but I think there is something nourishing for the soul about a recipe that does not take hours or crazy shopping at specialty stores. Colwin writes about what we want when we are exhausted by life, and it is not complicated food.

“When life is hard and the day has been long, the ideal dinner is not the perfect four course,…but rather something comforting and savory…something that makes one feel, if even for only a minute, that one is safe.” Safe sounds good.

I think the appeal of this book for me is its honest reality. Colwin talks openly about her fears, failures, weird food obsessions, and the needs of an aging body. I probably will never make any of the recipes in this slim volume, but I loved traveling along with Colwin as she told the story of her journey with food and writing.

 

World Travel: An Irreverent Guide by Anthony Bourdain Review

Bourdain cover

The cover (which depicts Bourdain outside a Paris café) was illustrated by Tony Millionaire, who also drew illustrations for each chapter.

“All of us, when we travel, look at the places we go, the things we see, through different eyes. And how we see them is shaped by our previous lives, the books we’ve read, the films we’ve seen, the baggage we carry.” Anthony Bourdain

A little over two years after his death, Anthony Bourdain is still teaching us about tasting and traveling with an open mind and fervent curiosity. As the month of his birth and death, June is considered a month to honor Bourdain and his legacy. My social media feeds have been filled with tributes to him by fellow chefs, journalists, and friends. His legacy is long-reaching in its impact on how we eat, how we travel, and what we value. His last book project will be hitting the shelves in October. It is billed as a travel guide, but for me, it read more like a love letter from Bourdain to all the places that changed him as an eater and person throughout his life. Written with his longtime assistant Laurie Woolever, the writer who also co-authored his last cookbook Appetites, it’s called World Travel: An Irreverent Guide. 

“Maybe the world could use another travel guide, full of Tony’s acid wit and thoughtful observations and a few sly revelations of the mysterious contours of his battered heart, stitched together from all the brilliant and hilarious things he’d said and written about the world as he saw it.” Laurie Woolever

Do not buy this book to use as a travel guide. Buy this book to, just for a moment, immerse yourself once again in Bourdain’s gorgeously unapologetic prose. If you are familiar with his shows, you have heard this material before. That does not make it less impactful. Bourdain’s casual use of expletives and reverence for place and ingredients jump off the page. The best part for me though, was the inclusion of personal essays that give insight into Bourdain and his life. These interruptions to the narrative reveal the impact Bourdain had on the people in his life.

“Lyon brought out Tony’s softness. Lyon likes to see itself as “the gastronomical capital of the world,” and, whether justified or not, there is no question that the city takes its food very seriously. This is what humbled Tony, the city’s reverence for the meal.” Bill Buford on Lyon with Tony

“We got the food bug, the travel bug, and the understanding that you could hang out with people from foreign countries, and learn things, and take pleasure in coming to understand them. This is where it all started.” Christopher Bourdain on their first trip to France

“Through my work, I’m developing creative content that’s centered on Korean culture. Everything I do is through that lens now. Tony was the person who unlocked that for me. He helped me realize what I want to do as a creative person, and as a person, period. He fundamentally changed me. Thank you, Tony.” Nari Kye

These are some words from a few of the essays, but a picture of Anthony Bourdain begins to emerge from these snippets. He was generous. He was respectful of traditions. He was adventurous from an early age. He also recognized his position as teller of the stories of the places he traveled to and acknowledged his privilege and responsibility to get it right. The book reveals the tremendous research Bourdain did before each location. It is filled with bits of history and politics of places such as Kenya where he outlines the nascent days of hunter-gatherers, to the oppressive British Colonialism, finally to the burgeoning middle class and multilingual professional sector. Each country and city highlighted has this backstory information, but also offers advice on where to stay, where to eat, and what to do while there. The book does cover places Bourdain went for his shows, but also contains updated information on all of the restaurants, hotels, and off-the-beaten-path places.

I bookmarked some of these stops for my own future travels. Like his insight on hotels in France…

  • “Me, I always stay at L’Hotel in the Saint-Germain-des-Prés. A very discreet joint known for being a love shack to the tragically hip for ages. Even more important, it has the necessary distinction of having had famous people die there. In 1900, the author Oscar Wilde kicked the bucket in room 16. . . . This was his last base of operations for a legendary three-year bender that ended badly.” With that description how can you not check in here?

Or this nugget on how to get around in London…

  • “Something you should know—never take a minicab, only black cabs. Black cabs have a meter. You know how much you’re paying. Plus, not only do they know where they’re going, but they know alternate ways to get there. Minicabs, they pretty much charge whatever the hell they like, and the likelihood that they know where they’re going is remote in the extreme.” 

And to seal the deal on his greatness, he has bookstore recommendations. My bookish heart is full, and can’t wait to check this spot out.

  • “It’s not all beef, muscle cars, and classic cocktails in LA. There’s a particular pleasure to be found at Book Soup…Their every shelf is personally curated by the well-read staff. They have an amazing and esoteric collection of unsurpassed LA-related weirdness. A great and rare pocket of wonderful and strange and beautiful. And they’re a major stopover for all the heavy-hitting authors to read.” 

Then he hit me with a spot in Georgia close to my heart, The Clermont Lounge. It is seedy. It is dark. It is a stripclub. It is  must-do when in Atlanta. Bourdain thought so too…

  • “The best, the finest, the most uniquely weird and wonderful beloved Atlanta institution, is the Clermont Lounge. This place should be a national landmark. The most beloved institution in the entire city, a place of Renaissance-era beauty and erotic and sophisticated nightlife, where the shots flow out in tiny, plastic cups. It’s not like other strip clubs. It’s operating on a whole other level.” 

As fun as this guide is, there is a greater message to Bourdain’s words and life. He knew he was the voice for the cultures he visited and he took his role as their storyteller seriously. He recognized he may be the only voice these stories may have. He acknowledged this perhaps best in an interview with CNN about the Kenya episode of Parts Unknown, “Who gets to tell the stories? This is a question asked often. The answer, in this case, for better or for worse, is, ‘I do.’ At least this time out. I do my best. I look. I listen. But in the end, I know: it’s my story, not Kamau’s, not Kenya’s, or Kenyans’. Those stories are yet to be heard.”

Anthony Bourdain offered us a view into places and people many of us will never see up close. He allowed us into his private world of exploration. He irrevocably changed the way we tell stories about food and travel.

Thanks to NetGalley for an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

 

Stealing Buddha’s Dinner by Bich Minh Nguyen

Stealing Buddha's Dinner cover

“We are people without a country…Until we walk out of that gate…And then we are American.”

I want to write like Bich Minh Nguyen. Her memoir, Stealing Buddha’s Dinner is gorgeous in its detail, but economical in its language. Nguyen addresses the push and pull of the immigrant experience. Many refugees come to these shores escaping horrific conditions in their home environment. Nguyen is no different – she escapes Vietnam with her father, sister, and grandmother as it fell to the Communists in 1975.

In her journey to find belonging she uses food as a metaphor for identity, “Real people ate hamburgers and casseroles and brownies. And I wanted to be a real person, or at least make others believe I was one.” Nguyen struggles to fit in as she watches her older sisters welcomed into popular circles. She blames her short stature, large glasses, and unattractive hair as she seeks solace in books. She finds friends in characters from her favorites and often cannot even haul all the books she wants from the public library.

One of the most poignant lines for me as an introverted bookish-type growing up was, “I read to be alone. I read so as not to be alone.” It made me remember all those times I would climb the tree in my backyard with my latest book and lose myself in that world. I found friends in Bilbo Baggins and Jo march. I found peace in their lives away from my own.

I picked this book up for two reasons. First, I was writing an essay for Write or Die Tribe about the Intersections of Food Writing & Race. You can check the article out here. Second, I was accepted to the Key West Literary Seminar & Workshops, and specifically to Nguyen’s memoir workshop. I wanted to read her work before we started working on mine.

I really loved this book. Even though it is a memoir about a Vietnamese refugee trying to find her place in America, it felt personal. Every awkward little girl is looking for belonging, and can find a kindred soul in Bich.

Celebrate Caribbean Heritage Month with Books

Caribbean stack

I have a not-so-secret obsession with everything Edwidge Danticat has ever put on a page. Her words are powerful, lyrical, and envelop you in the world of Haitian Diaspora. Danticat, and other writers I love, use their writing to shed light on life in the Caribbean from foods, to culture, to colonialism, to being caught between the world of the United States and the world of the Islands, not fitting neatly into either. Below are three of my favorites from my stack.

Feast of the Goat

The Feast of the Goat by Mario Vargas Llosa

Brutal, raw, revealing, hauntingly beautiful…I read this book cover-to-cover in one 5 hour sitting. It unapologetically reveals the terror that Trujillo inflicted on the citizens of the Dominican Republic. The alternating narrators from chapter to chapter leant power to the testimony of Trujillo’s victims. Urania’s story was touching in its attention to detail as we followed her loss of innocence at Trujillo and her own father’s (a trujillista)hands. It was horrific but I couldn’t stop reading every word that Llosa carefully chose to portray her naivite, her shame and her resolve. I cheered alongside De Maza as he and his fellow conspirators plotted and carried out the Trujillo assassination. I was equally grieved as Trujillo’s son captured and tortured the men in brutal fashion for months- they only survived through injections ordered by Ramfis to keep them alive so he could continue his sadism. I even relished the chapters narrated by Trujillo himself. Llosa humanized him through his depiction of shortcomings and fears. Trujillo was not just the dictator who never sweated and showed no remorse. Llosa gives the reader all of Trujillo from his growing up to his battle with prostate cancer, but though it made him believable, his evil permeated and was inescapable.

Farming of the Bones

 

The Farming of the Bones by Edwidge Danticat

Danticat’s voice is haunting in this tale from a turbulent time between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. The raw passion between Sebastian and Amabelle as they find solace in each other amidst the struggles of the cane fields and plantation work is palpable. I am still churning over the unfinished ending to the poignant story.

 

The Dew Breaker

The Dew Breaker by Edwidge Danticat

The vignette, “The Water Child” especially spoke to me. One of the most telling motifs in the chapter is the lack of voice. First we have the reference Ms. Hinds makes about the basenji. Ms. Hinds explains that it is “A dog that doesn’t bark… [it just] exists.” Later in the chapter, as Ms. Hinds is getting ready to be released, lack of voice is brought up again through Nadine’s internal monologue as she discusses the struggles Ms. Hinds will face, “…the dread of being voiceless…,when she would awake from dreams in which she’d spoken to find that she had no voice, or when she would see something alarming and realize that she couldn’t scream for help, or even when she would realize that she herself was slowly forgetting,…what her own voice used to sound like.” Though Nadine is describing the experience she thinks Ms. Hinds will experience having physically lost her voice, I think this is also a representation of how Danticat sees Haitian emigrants. The Haitian Diaspora have become like the pebble floating in the water on Nadine’s shrine to her aborted baby. They are different from their surroundings and fighting to maintain their original shape as the surrounding water slowly erodes them until they become, “…the unrecognizable woman staring back at [them] from the closed elevator doors.” Each of the chapters has something to offer about the Haitian Diaspora experience but “The Water Child” is the most powerful to me and could stand on its own as a short story. Amazing book when you understand the context of Danticat’s background as a Haitian Emigrant.

 

Book Reviews in honor of Juneteenth

If you are looking to do some reading by authors of color, here are few reviews of some I have loved.

Just Mercy cover Heartbreaking. That was the feeling reading Just Mercy. Yes, there was discussion of the power of hope and the EJL won some historic cases, but the pervasive legacy of racism, racial profiling and discrimination was there on every page. It makes me sad that this is still a reality so many incarcerated deal with, and frustrated that after everything the narrative of oppression and corruption is still spinning in so many communities and their supposed justice systems.

Counting Descent

So glad I chose this collection to share with my students. A beautiful narrative of identity, power, and home weaves through each piece. I especially loved the line from “Meteor Shower,” ‘we bring a part of where we are from/ to every place we go.’” The power of “How to Fight” will resonate long after I put this down as well…”Spelling bees were a battleground/ where teachers trained me/ to wield language as a/ tool & fist & weapon & warning/ to those who would rather/ make an outline of me.” So relevant in these turbulent times as voices of protest keep rising and looking for spaces to be heard

Queenie book cover

This book did not grab me right off, but once it did, I could not put it down. Queenie is such a relatable character- she is imperfect, self-deprecating and fully immersed in problems that just keep building. Many of us suffer from depression, anxiety, low self esteem and Queenie’s journey allows a front row seat to how that all plays out while trying to maintain a job, relationships and just every day living. It is not shy in talking about sex and race so be ready if you pick it up.

American Spy

Loved. This. Book. I have never been a spy novel type, but this book took all of the great things about spy novels- intrigue, suspense, unexpected turns, and brought racial tension and gender politics of the 60s and 70s to the table. I could not stop reading!

The Sellout book cover

Wow. Just Wow. Biting. Hilarious. Honest. Brutal. Relevant. Wow. The Sellout is a satirical masterpiece, but it’s so much more — it’s one of the most incisive, and truthful portrayals of race and identity in America. “That’s the problem with history, we like to think it’s a book — that we can turn the page and move on…But history isn’t the paper it’s printed on. It’s memory, and memory is time, emotions, and song. History is the things that stay with you.” Beatty is not shy with exploring charged topics. His narrator is a black man who owns a slave and the novel opens with him smoking marijuana on the steps of the Supreme Court after being charged with segregating public land and education, and slavery.  Beatty confronts head-on issues of racism, police violence, gangs, political machination, and does so with biting humor. It is a work of fiction, but unfortunately, we are still grappling with our historical amnesia in the United States

While you are at it, order those titles from a black-owned bookstore!

Black-Owned Bookstores by State click here

Or order them to be shipped from these Black-Owned Bookstores, click here

Aphrodite: A Memoir of the Senses by Isabele Allende

Aphrodite

Hot. That is the only word I can think of to describe this novel. It definitely has the Allende flavor of magical realism and picturesque description. I picked it up thinking it was a food memoir, but it is more of an exploration of the connection between food, sex and love. The recipes are her grandmothers’and you can feel the familial connection in the pages. The chapter describing the advice to her stepson on dating was downright funny, and quite erotic. I liked the book, but it is not my favorite Allende novel. It moves a little slow in parts. It is provocative and entertaining for a fun read, it just takes a little while to get through