In the continuing saga in my undying wish to become internet famous overnight, I started a book blog: L.Rugo Reads. For anyone who doesn’t know, my full-time day job is as an indie bookseller and my room is being slowly consumed by books. I figured it was in my best interest to put that to use, and start writing more book reviews. Continue reading
I’ve worked in an indie bookstore for the past year and nothing has radicalized me against Amazon more. It’s a lot of things: Jeff Bezos is the standard villainous CEO, their business model is undercutting prices for small businesses, and their shipping practices have pushed any other shipments aside (the holidays were FUN.) So my biggest thing against Amazon is of course, bare minimum, don’t buy your books there. There’s indies, Barnes and Noble, used bookstores… that’s really it. Just start there.
But what about e-books?
Perfect for fans of “Crazy Rich Asians” and not just because both books feature attractive young Asian people with too much money.
I know it’s unpopular to pitch new things––books, movies, TV shows, etc––relative to how it’s alike to other already popular things. It’s not fair to say that every new magical book series for kids is the “next Harry Potter” when really the only thing in common is some magic wands. I get that. However. Jenny Lee’s YA debut book, “Anna K” really is the next “Crazy Rich Asians” (but teenagers). Continue reading
About a year ago, journalist and author Vanessa Hua reached out and asked me to write a review of her two books, the short story collection Deceit and Other Possibilities and then-newly published novel A River of Stars. Now nearly twelve months later, her novel just came out in paperback, my review got turned down by a number of outlets, and here I am. But I enjoyed her books, and after hearing her at a reading in Boston I wanted to make sure some form of a review made it into the world somewhere. Continue reading
When I absolutely refuse to write anything, I go back to these words.
I’ve somehow managed to go beyond writer’s block and gone on to writer’s refusal. For various reasons, I just won’t put pen to paper or finger to keys. Over the last few months I’ve tried to do some writer soul searching to fix my problem by reading writing books, bothering people to give me advice, and complaining on my Instagram story. One of those three things works better than the others, and through them I’ve been able to gather a nice little inspirational quote book. Continue reading
I read a book by a white guy and I regret it.
For a while now I’ve made a conscious effort to read books not written by white men. But I’d seen enough reviews of Andy Weir’s sci-fi novel Artemis that when it came through my library holds I stopped what I was doing to check it out. And now I’m sad. It was exactly the kind of book I’d been avoiding: trying too hard to be edgy, featured a flat female lead, and with a diverse set of characters just to have them there. Continue reading
Sad news, but it’s not officially the end of This Bitch.
I love Medium. It’s a great content creation platform. It looks pretty, it’s easy to use, and you can find a lot of really thought-provoking stuff on here. It’s great for writers.
Not for publications. Medium was in the news recently for its most recent pivot that left a few of its publications in the dirt, and this is only the latest wave of publications and their issues with Medium. Recently The Awl and The Hairpin shut down completely, and a while back The Ringer left to join the Vox network. These are just two big-name media examples that come to mind for me, but even with my piddling attempt at blogging through a self-made publication, I had my own frustrations with Medium. Continue reading
Looking at Little Fires Everywhere, The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, and The Leavers.
I always thought I had an understanding about adoption. Never questioned much, just accepted everything I was grateful for. After reading Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng, The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See, and The Leavers by Lisa Ko, I’ve started thinking about it again.
It hasn’t been easy, or particularly fun (I should probably talk to a professional about this, but blogging will suffice in the meantime.) I set out with the goal to compare the three, and while reading them back-to-back-to-back started to weigh on me, it’s been enlightening too. Reading them together put into words a lot of the feelings I didn’t realize I even felt. By the end, finishing with Lisa Ko’s The Leavers, I had a new clarity on the topic. But I never felt like any one of them told a complete story of adoption. Here, let me explain each one a little better.
(Warning, spoilers ahead.)
Little Fires Everywhere, Celeste Ng
I love Celeste Ng. I was psyched when she announced her second novel and that a Chinese adoption would be a central storyline. But I don’t actually consider Little Fires Everywhere an “adoption story” specifically. It’s a central plot point for all of the characters, but it’s not the central focus of the story. The story, by the way, is about a small Ohio suburb in the late 90s and focuses on two families: the Richardsons, the epitome of suburban excellence, and the Warrens, the artsy-hippie mother and daughter who shake things up. That’s putting everything very broadly for the sake of brevity; you really need to read the book to understand all of the inner character nuances, family ties, and deep look at the human condition that makes LFE such a powerful book.
The adoption part comes in a little unconventionally. A Chinese woman, recently immigrated to the U.S., has a newborn girl and no support to help raise her. Struggling with finances, the stress of being a new mother alone, and postpartum depression, she leaves the baby on the steps of the fire house (I had no idea this was a real thing and not just a euphemism.)
A rich white couple in the town adopt the little girl after having trouble conceiving on their own. The birth mother hears about them and a custody battle begins on who the baby should stay with: adoptive parents or birth mother. During the custody battle a Chinese American lawyer argues for the birth mother, and really starts to question what it would mean for a Chinese American girl to be raised by a white couple in a very bland suburb. And while there’s no doubt that the adoptive parents would be great parents, there’s this quote:
“But would there be something — something — missing from her life if she were to grow up with them?”
When you’re adopted, of course there’s something missing. Especially when you’re a trans-racial adoptee. Your whole life is just one big question mark from day one. But this vague question put into concrete words that distant emptiness that’s always been there. No matter how many language classes I take, or history I learn, or clubs I join, or food I eat, there’s something that’s just missing. I’m never in on the joke. And there’s no way to fix it, it just is. I don’t think it’s something bad, or a “downside to adoption,” or something to be sad about, it’s a fact of my life.
And then there’s a page of inner dialogue from the adoptive mother that makes me choke up every time. The mother recalls the early days when they brought the baby home and all of the painstaking care — and love — it requies to be a new mom. From pureeing baby food, fighting a fever, feeding her medicine, and knowing her daughter “in pitch dark by one cry of her voice — no, one touch of her hand. No, one breath of her smell.”
Celeste Ng did the best job writing from both mother’s perspectives. I’ve heard too many different takes of adoptive parents being “saviors,” or “not real parents,” or some other such nonsense. In adoption stories, especially literary fiction, it’s easy to focus the story on the bio mom and write off everything afterwards (including the kid! You’ll see in a second.) I’m tired of stories that only look at it from the biological side, which, in my view is a cop out. Family is complicated, the struggles of parenthood I can only imagine, and every adoption is different. Celeste Ng is perhaps one of the best writers who understands what that actually means and can tell it in the best way.
(By the way — the custody battle rules in favor of the adoptive parents, and it’s bittersweet for all. Until the birth mom kidnaps the baby and flies back to China with her. What a twist, m’I’right?)
Little Fires Everywhere, Celeste Ng:
- Book as an overall read: 5/5
- I Want A Greater Understanding Of Adoption: 2/5
The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, Lisa See
This was my least favorite of the three. It’s written beautifully, sure, but plot-wise and As A Chinese Adoptee I couldn’t get behind it. I’m sure others will disagree, but by the middle of the book it felt like an obligation to see it through and hope, really hope, it didn’t end in the most predictable way possible. Spoiler alert: it ended in the most predictable way possible.
The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane centers on the life of a girl who grows up in the mountain village province Yunnan in Southern China. Li-Yan’s life revolves around Akha traditions and farming tea. It’s full of hardships. Like, Asian drama-level hardships. This book is an Asian drama. It’s incredibly well researched and full of beautiful detail on the people, culture, and scenery. I learned a lot about the Akha people and tea. Oh, my God. I learned so much about tea. Anyways, Li-Yan ends up having a baby and is unable to care for her in the village, so she takes her daughter to the nearest city and leaves her at the orphanage with only a packet of the family’s rarest tea (tea girl, you get it?) Then she returns home a changed person and plot ensues.
I won’t get into all of the plot Li-Yan faces over the years. I would focus on what happened to the daughter, Haley, and her life as an adoptee in Southern California (living on Hummingbird Lane), but Lisa See did not do that. We don’t see Haley again until almost a third of the way in. Most of the book focuses on Li-Yan and her life, and that’s fair. But oh wait. Aren’t we supposed to be reading about the life of The Girl Of Hummingbird Lane? Where did she go?
To group therapy, apparently. Haley struggles a lot in school, and her parents find a counseling group for Chinese adoptees to talk and share experiences. Ah, finally, the adoption stuff I’ve been waiting for. Oh, it’s only a few pages long. Okay.
I’m probably being a little harsh on the book, but when I kept seeing it touted over and over again as the literary fiction book on Chinese adoption, I was hyped. Then I was disappointed. Adoption is a major plot point, not the plot. To me, See didn’t spend nearly enough time on Haley’s life and perspective. The group counseling scenes said some memorable stuff that I resonated with — Haley mentioned something about being grateful but angry, which is me af — but it also felt like quotes from a Chinese adoptee focus group. I wish Lisa See would have spent half the time explaining the life of an adoptee as she did the nuances of tea.
Also, I hated the ending. As the final climax in the ending chapters got more and more inevitable, I just felt rising dread. It all fell into a pattern, like when you see the final pieces of a puzzle and just plug them in where they’re supposed to go, mystery gone. Like I said earlier, I think focusing on the bio mom is a cop out and too-perfectly-coincidental reunions between mother and child just enrage me (in fiction. In real life it’s amazing.) That might say more about my own underlying insecurities with adoption, but I’m just going to keep saying it’s a cop out. It’s a cliché and frankly, completely unrealistic.
The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, Lisa See
- Book as an overall read: 3/5
- I Want A Greater Understanding Of Adoption: 1/5
The Leavers, Lisa Ko
I read this one last, and it ended up being the toughest one to get through. Maybe because it was the third, but in a lot of ways it was the heaviest of the three. A dual perspective story between the bio mom and adoptive son, it’s also one of the most original adoption stories I’ve heard. The mom, Polly, is a Chinese immigrant to New York City, and shortly after arriving she gives birth to her son Deming. Then, one day, Polly doesn’t come home and Deming is adopted by a suburban white couple who take him upstate New York and rename him Daniel Wilkinson. The book is split into different parts as the lives of both sides are told and revealed.
It was the only book out of the three to really focus on both lives involved in this story. It felt like I finally understood what a complex birth mother could look like. Instead of the romanticized tragic figure, she was a woman who made an incredibly tough choice. Well, in this specific story, kind of. In The Leavers, the mom was technically deported so it wasn’t so much a choice for her. But the same sense of abandonment and guilt kinda applies. Anyways.
It was the last part of the book when it suddenly got harder to keep reading. The mother’s perspective, finally saying why she left and never returned, got too real. The way she described how much she loved Deming, always thought of him, was always haunted by him, got to me a little bit.
“I want you to know that you were wanted.”
However, I think Lisa Ko was a little too harsh on the adoptive parents. They weren’t villains — they were really good parents to Daniel and he loved them as his family — but they definitely had the aura of “benevolent savior” around them. I’m sure for some families that’s true, and it’s a fascinating approach to adoption, but in this book I just read it as more pro-bio mom bias. There was a lot about how Daniel acted, reacted, and felt towards the Wilkinsons that I think should have been explored a bit more.
I really felt like I connected with Daniel/ Deming. He’s 21, directionless, lost in a big city, and constantly trying to figure out why he never feels fulfilled. Even though I don’t identify with all aspects of his story, he’s an adoptee and that feeling of constant searching for something is also a part of me. He keeps thinking that some other thing out there will give him the answers or the definite sense of Place Where I Belong, but in the end he realizes that he’ll always be somewhere in the in between.
(And can I just say how I’m so cynically entertained that Lisa Ko managed to write an adoptee story and a child-of-immigrants story. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat in conversations or heard stories about what it’s like to be the child of immigrants and just felt so utterly out of place. I get that’s the usual background for a majority of the AAPI community, who I love and fight for every day, but damn. Talk imposter syndrome. And Lisa Ko managed to do both in one book? Wow. Anyways.)
Overall, I enjoyed The Leavers. I don’t know what I was looking for in it, but I found something to hold onto. I think I’m in the same place as Daniel in a lot of ways: I too went back to China, connected with my roots, better understood my family, and am now living contently with where I am in life — at least for now.
The Leavers, Lisa Ko
- Book as an overall read: 5/5
- I Want A Greater Understanding Of Adoption: 4/5
Phew, ok, thanks for sticking with me in that three-part saga.
I liked all three books and they each shed new light and perspective on adoption. Through telling different sides of the topic, I could piece together one whole understanding of it. All three hit on the big issues — abandonment, loss of self, unanswerable questions, family and parenthood — and gave neatly packaged answers. But that’s what bothered me the most about them: they had answers and happy endings. When in reality, adoption is so much emptier than that. At the end of this journey, I’m glad it got me thinking more about my own story, and ways I can finally explore it.
Because now I have a newfound understanding of how important it is for adoptees to start telling our own stories. In books, like the one from Nicole Chung I am anxiously waiting for, through music like Dan aka Dan, or in movies like Sam Futerman’s Twinsters. These are all people whose work I love, but also, they’re all Korean adoptees. So if 2017 was the year of Chinese adoptee books, let’s see if 2018 is the year of Chinese adoptees doing our own stuff.
“The college-aged counselors, also adoptees, talked with such bare emotion that he felt embarrassed for them.” — Daniel/ Deming from The Leavers talking about an adoptee camp he went to, while also personally attacking me.
A presentation on the upcoming movie, and the intense pressure around it.
A while back, my friend asked me to give a presentation on anything, as long as it had something to do with books. I had 0 ideas, but got inspired by the special Entertainment Weekly edition of Crazy Rich Asians, so I decided to talk about every reader’s favorite topic: book to movie adaptations.
It went pretty well, and I ended up having a lot of fun making my slides. So for fun, and because I have a lot of thoughts about the upcoming movie, I’ll share them and my speaking notes here.
(I should note that the event was hosted by one of my school’s publishing clubs, hence the literary event references.)
It all comes down to representation. You can read a book and know in your head that this whole cast looks like you, reflects your family and culture. But it’s a completely different experience when you see it, especially in a mainstream format like a Hollywood movie. I’ll let the professionals explain it better:
Plus, all the other major movies with Asian American casts came from books: The Joy Luck Club premiered in 1993. Memoirs of a Geisha premiered in 2005, and it only made the list because it’s one of the few mainstream American movies with an entirely Asian and Asian American cast. The book was written by a white man and there’s a number of conversations about the validity of Memoirs. Not going to lie, it’s pretty problematic, but the movie soundtrack was really good. Fresh Off the Boat aired in 2015, and even though it’s not a movie it was a big deal in recent pop culture. After the second season it split off from Eddie Huang’s life story, and I think it’s become a better show for it. Would not recommend the book, to be honest.
And finally, the one we’ve all been waiting for: Crazy Rich Asians. Release date: August 17, 2018. As the third major movie, and following “Fresh Off the Boat,” CRA has to be a verifiable box office success. Because if it “fails,” studios will use it as an example to affirm all the old stereotypes and misconceptions about casting Asians in movies and telling their own stories.
And if this fails, publishers might not pick up as many books by Asian authors because clearly if Crazy Rich did poorly, there’s no mass market for our stories.
…To be honest, the book wasn’t that good. It switches points of view between a lot of characters, Kwan uses footnotes as personal asides which can take you out of the world he’s writing about, and a lot of the drama is so rich it feels a little unrelatable.
So I’m scared that this movie will be bad — and it can’t afford to be.
I believe that if CRA does well, then that gives the first nudge for others to follow. And there are so many others that can follow. Including 2 more books in the Crazy Rich Asians series! Movies, mini series, TV shows, Netflix originals — we’re at peak media right now, and of course that comes from books leading the way. And no matter what movie comes out, the book is always better, so more movies will lead to more book sales — right? That’s how that works?
And look at this cast! Don’t you want to support this cast?
Jessica Hopper’s book, “The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic” goes beyond the simple story of a review or profile.
After years of music criticism, Jessica Hopper assembled her best work to plant a flag in pop culture criticism with her second book, The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic. Her dry humor and honest reviews make this First Collection an enjoyable read, but Hopper’s refreshing point of view on female musicians and fans really make these essays cultural criticism. She took each artist, body of work, and the overall culture to contextualize it within her own perspective.
The earliest essay dates from 2003, the latest in 2014, and in that decade of music criticism Hopper chronicles all the ways music stays the same or its lack of cultural change. For every new rapper who speaks to his community, a stereotyped rock star tries to work beyond her debut image, and a band from the past desperately wants to stay relevant. Hopper opens the book by setting the ultimate art critic scene: “Dancing in pitch-dark rooms, room illuminated exclusively by the tiny light on the turntable, is an activity which fits very well with my ideas of ‘rock-critic behavior’ (which is like normal music-fan behavior, but substantially more pitiful and indulgent).” This beginning piece and pseudo-introduction, “I Have A Strange Relationship With Music” kicks off the tone and attitude for the rest of her First Collection.
She breaks up the book with different themes like “Chicago,” “Faith,” and “Nostalgia,” and the book breezes by pretty quickly. Her longer, in-depth pieces like “Conversation with Jim Derogatis Regarding R. Kelly” and “You Will Ache Like I Ache: The Oral History of Hole’s Live Through This” carry readers through to the end not only for the content, but also because of the gravitas and nuance she uses to tell such heavier stories. This living female rock critic has a deep understanding of the different cultures and backstories that create the pop/ punk/ rock/ etc culture that we, the mainstream, adore and consume.
Hopper has the best understanding of music and the performers behind it, what they mean as artists and how they fit into the culture. In the piece recalling the time she spent reporting from a “concert” in a Chicago club that featured women’s mud wrestling and little to no music, Hopper wrote she must, “consume with appetite infinite — never satiable. My humanity stiffens — reporting this, writing this out means I have to process it, I have to take it all in, and it feels like a burden.” Her book reflects this service (it doesn’t always seem like burden), when she details out the commercialization of the Vans Warped Tour, the legendary Coachella, the rise and fall of SuicideGirls.com, and what faith means for the now agnostic singer David Bazan. Hopper observes everything from her immediate surroundings, cultural trends and shifts, the individual styles of every performer, and turns it all into an acute critique of the moment as she sees it.
And as the only living female author of the first collection of criticism, Hopper’s best insights come when she talks about tropes and expectations female artists and their fans deal with merely for existing. From her first essay in “Chicago,” Hopper calls out the total lack of representation in the punk-emo genre, except for the eerie idealization of girls within song topics. She ends the essay with, “Us girls deserve more than one song. We deserve more than one pledge of solidarity. We deserve better songs than any boy will ever write about us.” It comes as a surprise to no one that female musicians get discounted or put in boxes too often by the mainstream and critics. Now for female performers to stake their claim in the music scene they must upset expectations or through do it sheer force of will. Reading her essays, I gained a better understanding of the ideas and ways female pop stars present themselves as an “image” and — sometimes versus — “artist.” Both valid views and ambitions for artists, and Hopper really digs into the double standard women face in music holding up that duality.
She spends just as much time addressing, even writing to, the female fans of music and the reputation “fangirls” earn. In a 2012 article for the Village Voice, she calls out how fangirls get discounted because of inherent sexist bias: “When it comes to music, image is believed to be the teen girls’ area of fascination and special expertise; young women’s arduous fandom is often taken as the very proof of a performer’s artlessness. The perception being that girls are so rapt with an artist’s surface image that it supersedes any sort of real connection with or understanding of the music itself.” Female stars and fans get held to unfair double standards, stereotypes, and expectations, but manage to thrive despite it. As a result of that work and loyalty, the rest of mainstream pop culture gets lucky too.
The three chapters I liked the most — “Real/Fake,” “Females,” and “Strictly Business,” — specifically addressed the ways female artists struggle with their “validity” in the mainstream, what pop music means beyond simple escapism, and how changing times means musicians need to do what they must to make a living. Hopper made each essay her own with her voice and observations, adding to the conversation instead of repeating what most others already said. The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic firmly stakes Jessica Hopper’s place in the canon of rock criticism, living or dead.