It’s been a minute. What happened? I graduated from grad school, finished writing my thesis (a whole BOOK!), and published my last issue with a literary journal that I love very much. Now, I’m taking a break to focus on my one true love (hint: it’s reading).
Below is another short roundup of books I read over the summer. Keep in mind that I just got off the grad school roller coaster, so my writing skills and ability to hold an intellectual thought are stretched quite thin right now. I need a vacation.
In the Country by Mia Alvar (Knopf, 2015)
What an incredible slow burn of a collection. It really immersed me in the Filipino diaspora and life during the Marcos dictatorship. America today (in the wake of a failed coup at the start of 2021 and a president who’s lost his tether yet has maintained a hateful and destructive following) could learn a thing or two from these stories.
In the Country manages to closely follow a range of perspectives in its stories, from a young girl and boy of different class backgrounds ostracized for their disabilities in the rural countryside; to a collective of OFW mothers in Saudi Arabia indulging in chismis; to the fictionalized versions of Corazon and Benigno Aquino Jr. and their brief respite in exile in Boston. The slow pace of these stories has made for all the more excitement when reading each one through to their ends, and has also made me a stronger writer exploring my own Filipino-American identity in turn.
Favorite stories: “The Virgin of Monte Ramon”, “Old Girl”, and “In the Country“
Know My Name by Chanel Miller (Viking, 2019)
Jane Doe from the 2015 People v. [Brock] Turner court case comes forward in this powerful personal analysis of everything about her life the legal system failed to acknowledge, adept and rich in the visceral emotional turmoil in the months and even years after her rape.
Like a fine-pointed pen on the page, Miller captures what it’s like to so much as leave the house as a female-presenting person, the never-ending performance we have to put ourselves through in order to navigate a world that has learned to privilege the perspectives of cis men. Some of us aren’t even fortunate to feel safe in our own homes. This book ripped apart the facade of trust I had in any sort of legal system that could support me if I ever needed help in this country, while also demanding that we recognize the ones battling in the trenches of the system itself to represent the survivors of rape, sexual violence, and abuse.
The Friend by Sigrid Nunez (Riverhead, 2018)
It’s a question that no doubt crosses many readers’ minds upon beginning this book: “The dog is a major character? Please say nothing bad happens to the dog.”
Nunez confronts grief by reliving conversations lost to memory, stories that now linger with even more significance in one’s absence, and ultimately removing her protagonist from reality itself in order to make some semblance of sense in the aftermath of her close friend’s death.
I feel like this is one of a handful of novels I’ve read in the past couple years that does something quite marvelous with manipulating form to address the human exercise of radical empathy, but I’ll save that particular roundup for another time (probably when my tears have finally dried up or I’ve run out of tissue paper to clean up this sobbing mess I’ve made).
Intimations by Zadie Smith (Penguin, 2020)
This slim book comprises of six essays Smith wrote in the first few months of the COVID-19 global pandemic. The essays split time between London and New York, two cosmopolitan epicenters of the disease. I read this when I visited New York City in May 2021, shortly after lockdown restrictions in New York and New England were lifted due to low cases, while the rest of the country experienced the aftershocks of the disease’s continuing spread in full force.
Sitting in Washington Square Park in 90-degree heat with this collection in my lap, scanning the open space to see a society that adopted a form of mutual understanding of shared space and distance, I felt the opposite of Smith’s abandonment of hope. I may not think that way anymore, but for a fleeting moment, it was wonderful to indulge in that dream, to ease myself into a world that allowed me to exist just as I am.
Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner (Knopf, 2021)
All I wrote on Goodreads after I swam through this book in the span of a month was: “Thank you, Michelle, for making me cry and feel a pitless hunger all at once.”
By navigating her grief through the Korean dishes she shared with her mother before her passing, and her persistence to recreate the dishes of her youth, Zauner creates a portrait of a mother-daughter relationship fraught with tension rooted in mixed-race identity, opposing personalities, and differing aspirations. I’m always wary of stories that approach cultural connection through food, but Zauner balances her story with the meaty substance of memory and the fragrance of Korean food simmering in the air.
Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah (Mariner Books, 2018)
When I found out that Adjei-Brenyah was a previous winner of the Breakwater Fiction Contest, I had to check his collection out. I started my MFA around the time this book came out, and seeing a writer of color explore themes of Blackness, police brutality, suppressed white supremacy, and retail hell through absurdism gave me the fuel and fire I needed to get through my first year in a writing workshop full of white faces. Adjei-Brenyah reminded me of why I wanted to write in the first place; not to mold my voice into that of the “literary canon,” but to embrace and share the voice inherent to my worldview as a mixed-race writer entering an institution of whitewashing and elitism.
Favorite stories: “Friday Black” (obvi, I relish any great critique of the retail hellscape), “Zimmer Land”, “In Retail”, and “Through the Flash”
All the Names They Used for God by Anjali Sachdeva (Spiegel & Grau, 2018)
Another story collection that explores genre and nontraditional racial identities. Sachdeva’s voice delves into the recent past or an adjacent reality entirely, from the points of view of two Nigerian girls who survived their kidnapping by Boko Haram; to a young woman exploring a maze of ice caves belowground in the Old West; to a powerful workman in Andrew Carnegie’s steel mills; to a heart-wrenching collective of genetically modified septuplets. The stories in All the Names strike a fine line between the reality of human emotion and the surreality of wondrous (and even frightening) new terrain.
Favorite stories: “The World By Night”, “Logging Lake”, “Robert Greenman and the Mermaid”, and “Pleiades”