Three stacked books. Slightly Foxed No. 65, Bestiary by K-Ming Chang, and Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong

February 2021 Book Reviews

I’m quite pleased to look back at my February reading list and see that I did a good job of working on my goal to read more Asian authors. This little project of mine has gotten me thinking about what it means to read Asian authors, what it means to read Asian authors who are writing in English, who their audiences are, and what we as readers expect from these authors as well as what’s visible.

These are questions we should be asking ourselves no matter what we read. Reading is a form of imbibing stories. We read to soothe ourselves, to escape, to explore, to learn, and to peek into other people’s lives. But which books are on offer? Which books are in the spotlight? Which authors are not in print? Why? What are we missing out on or failing to see?

Things for us to consider as we pick our next book, sponsor the next publishing company and author by purchasing their books or sharing them on social media.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

This book has been on my list for a long time, but I’ve been very intimidated by how long it is. Silly, right? I ended up checking it out from my local library on Kindle and not once did it feel like a “long” book. Kindle’s are actually great for helping readers ignore how long a book is before they pick it up. It’s how I got through A Little Life with no idea of the epic journey I was embarking on!

My first experience with the game pachinko was seeing pachinko shops in Taiwan when we first visited in the 1980s. They were small, bright, noisy places. The shops themselves were narrow, maybe 10 feet wide with machines lining the outside walls and a row of machines back to back in the middle as well. At each machine, someone sat with a plastic basket catching metal balls that tumbled out of the machine. The sound was of metal on metal and electronic dings. It was like being at the fairground.

Pachinko the novel isn’t much about the game, though, and I have to admit I was disappointed. There was a passing reference to one character adjusting the pins on the machine, but no explanation of the game, which I hoped for. Instead, The story is about Korean families who moved to Japan just before World War II and what it means to live life as immigrants in Japan. It’s not a spoiler to say things aren’t easy.

What Lee does well in this novel is take us deep into characters inner lives as they grow and face new adversities and few joys and as their life paths cross and re-cross through time. It was a very nice read that gave me insight into a time and place I hadn’t given much thought to before.

Bestiary by K-Ming Chang

Shawna Ryan Yang, author of Green Island (one of my life moment books) recommended Bestiary and I immediately added it to my book club’s list because I’m fanatic like that. There is no book description that could have properly prepared me for the experience of reading Bestiary. It is a singular book and frankly a bit of a marvel.

In large strokes, this book is about three generations of women in a family that immigrated to the United States from Taiwan and China (it’s both, not either in this case). Each chapter is told by either Grandmother, Mother, or Daughter. They are full of first person narration, folktales, magic, and confusion. We devoted almost our entire book club gathering to work on figuring out what happened in the book.

That said, I enjoyed it. This book took me on a journey that was beyond narrative and journeys. It was into realms of imagination and history and feelings. It was hard to read and hard to understand. But then, life and particularly the lives and realities of our mothers and grandmothers are hard to understand. This can be double and triple true if we come from immigrant families that struggle to both maintain the values and culture they come from while adapting enough to ensure the next generation’s success.

If you’re ready to have your ideas about what a reading experience can be expanded, give Bestiary your time. It’s quite the experience.

Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong

This is the first non-fiction book I’ve read that’s spoken to my experience as the child of an Asian immigrant. I read it with a group of friends and we’re working together on reading more Asian authors. My drive in this project was the realization that I’d done a better job of reading Black authors than Asian authors, which seemed appropriate and unfortunate, given my personal background. It was a huge relief to read a book that recalled parts of my experience.

Minor Feelings explores Hong’s experience as a second generation Korean immigrant in a combination of memoir and critical theory inflected reflection. She writes about her experiences and how she (usually later) came to understand them. Some of her observations hit very close to home. 

In this moment, I’m seriously regretting not having written notes immediately after writing it (which I’m getting much better at). Suffice to say, I enjoyed this book tremendously and would heartily recommend it to any child of an Asian immigrant.

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