Books of the Month, March 2018

The Song Poet, by Kao Kalia Yang.

IMG_9345Everything that Kao Kalia Yang writes I read slowly and usually twice, not because there is anything confusing about her sentence structures but because her words and stories fill my heart with emotion. Sorrow, love, longing, rage and redemption – page by page, they all swim through. This is the second memoir by Yang. Her first, The Latehomecomer, was published some years ago and is (to my knowledge) the first Hmong American memoir, about her family’s long and arduous journey from the mountains of Laos to the refugee camps of Thailand to the grueling new world of Minnesota. In The Song Poet, which is primarily about her father Bee Yang, she adopts the voice of her father along with her own in order to tell his personal story and the family’s continuing saga. I treasure this book. It belongs on bookshelves everywhere, not only because of its beautiful portrayal of the painful triumph of a family beset by a new world, but also because it’s a reminder of just how hard it is to build a new life in a distant land. A profoundly moving book.


Saga, by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples.

IMG_9347I’m late to the Saga party, but WOW. What a fabulous beginning to a graphic epic of one small family in a universe at war. Volume One and I spent the whole day together curled up on the couch, because I couldn’t put this book down. Fierce Alana, tender Marko, and baby Hazel –who is one of the narrators of the book, from an unnamed perspective many years hence– are impossible to resist. Artwork by Fiona Staples perfectly complements Brian K. Vaughan’s narrative, which leaps into action with the first sentence and Does Not Let Up. I’m swept away. Volume Two of many is up next. Highly recommend.


IMG_9349Future Home of the Living God, by Louise Erdrich. 

Louise Erdrich’s latest is her first novel set in a future dystopia. Although scratch that – the future dystopia she describes in Future Home of the Living God feels pretty damn familiar. The flow of this novel is both waterfall and still pool and I read it with mounting unease and fear, the same way I remember feeling when I read The Handmaid’s Tale many years ago. In fact, Future Home of the Living God might best be read as a later edition, a companion piece to Atwood’s novel: an uneasy pairing, both harbingers of doom, both battle cries for the resistance. Highly recommend.


Turtles All the Way Down, by John Green.

Years ago, when I read TIMG_9348he Fault in Our Stars, I remember thinking, damn, this guy is captivating. I passed that book on to both my daughters and we all held it to our hearts and still quote lines from it to each other. Turtles All the Way Down is another book I’ll hold in my heart. John Green has an uncanny way with snappy dialogue, the profundity of best-friendship, setting (this one is set in his native Indianapolis, and after reading it I feel as if I could draw a map of the neighborhood), and his books are both deeply sorrowful and funny as hell. The man doesn’t shy away from the harshness of life, in this case the loss of a parent and the main character’s ongoing struggle with debilitating OCD and other mental health issues. Nor does he shy away from how beautiful life can be. What I most love about Green’s writing is how his characters slice through the external layers and speak to each other directly from the heart. It’s as if instead of turning away from the fact that they –and we–are all mortal, they fully know themselves to be exactly that, and they cut away the bullshit and get straight to the heart of the matter. Wonderful novel.


IMG_9418Landscape with Invisible Hand, by M.T. Anderson. 

Argh! Why does everything this man writes destroy me! But also leave me weirdly gratified despite my deep disturbation! I swear, M.T. Anderson cannot not write an incredible book. This one reads like a return to the world of Feed, which was written fifteen years ago and which has haunted me ever since. In the brief, hilarious, and devastating Landscape with Invisible Hand, the hapless inhabitants of planet Earth have traded their soul permanent colonization by the alien Vuuvs in exchange for advanced technology and cures for all diseases. But now there are no jobs, no money, and more illness than ever, because no one can pay for the Vuuv cures. Like Future Home of the Living God, this novel reads like a near-future/present-day dystopia. Help. I kind of hate to recommend because this one hits so close to home, but I have to recommend anyway. Hugely. It’s brilliant.


WPA Guide to 1930s New York City, by the WPA writers.


This was a very cool and unexpectedly moving read for me. The Federal Writers Project was sponsored by the fabulous post-Great Depression Works Progress Administration (God, I wish we had something like that these days). My mother lent this book to me, urging me to read the Lower East Side section because my Jewish grandfather and his family settled in the tenements there after escaping the pogroms in Russia at the turn of the previous century. (My family’s story is a familiar one: they worked in the sweatshops, suffered from grinding poverty and poor health and unending work, and my great-uncle eventually died of suicide rather than put his family through the pain and expense of watching him die of tuberculosis. But I digress.) To read the descriptions of an area I know well, through the eyes of a 1930’s observer, is to experience the era in a particular and specific way – instead of a movie creating an era and scene, it’s words on a page. Fascinating glimpse into our country’s history.


The New Yorker, by a whole bunch of very talented writers.

IMG_9346Yes, I’m adding a bunch of latest New Yorkers to this list, because let’s face it, people: A single New Yorker is the equivalent of a book. Which means that if you make it through an entire New Yorker every week, you’re reading a book a week. I used to panic when the New Yorkers would start piling up – I felt guilty and ashamed and like a loser. Then I said the hell with it and gave myself permission to read whatever I happened to read that week, or any week, or even years later. I have loved this magazine my entire adult life, and not once have I let my subscription lapse. The writers are so damn good, and they take their time, and I take my time, and that’s a beautiful thing in a world paced the way this one is paced. Some of my favorite writers ever began and/or still write for The New Yorker, people like Atul Gawande and John McPhee and Jelani Cobb and Jia Tolentino and Jerome Groopman. My secret pleasure: Reading the tiny reviews of restaurants I’ll never go to, just because I love the way a room and tables and plates of food on those tables come to life in my mind. 





Poem-like Prose of the Week, by Kao Kalia Yang

img_3440A long time ago, I floated down a tunnel toward a light far away. The floating was slow and the sensation around me was warm and soft. I was conscious the entire time, not thinking but feeling, and the feeling was Here we go again. At a certain point, soft bits of metal touched the top and sides of my head. Nothing hurt. Everything was inevitable. What would happen, would happen. This is my memory of being born. (The soft bits of metal part had always confused me, until one day my mother told me I had been a forceps baby, pulled out at the end with metal tongs.) The below excerpt from Kao Kalia Yang’s beautiful, haunting memoir The Latehomecomer makes me remember it all over again, in a different way. From the sky, I would come again.


Prologue to The Latehomecomer, by Kao Kalia Yang

Before babies are born they live in the sky where they fly among the clouds. The sky is a happy place and calling babies down to earth is not an easy thing to do. From the sky, babies can see the course of human lives.

This is what the Hmong children of my generation are told by our mothers and fathers, by our grandmothers and grandfathers.

They teach us that we have chosen our lives. That the people who we would become we had inside of us from the beginning, and the people whose worlds we share, whose memories we hold strong inside of us, we have always known.

From the sky, I would come again.


For more information about Kao Kalia Yang, please click here.