Home Remedies: Stories by Xuan Juliana Wang

 

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It’s what Taoyu wanted, to disappear from Hai’s life completely, to leave a wound that would ache. That was the only way they could be equals.

Home Remedies is a gorgeous collection of stories about Chinese immigration, family structure, love, sex and the privilege of choices. The future for each character is never certain, and splits open guiding them to places they never imagined they would be. Home, some make their way in American life with ease, abandoning their old skins and sometimes their family too. Others cling to the old ways of a country they will never return to. One thing is certain, each person will make their own story, even if it means becoming someone other than what’s expected.

In White Tiger of the West, the world is weary of Grandmasters, there no longer seems to be a place for spirituality but for one obedient little girl Grandmaster Tu could be the very thing that awakens a tiger, and gives her the flight of freedom. Home Remedies of the old involved tonics, tinctures, herbs… but in one story remedies are cleverly applied to survive say, a “bilingual heart” and “self-doubt”. Olympic divers are one in Vaulting the Sea, but what love is equal? Just how much can you meld yourself to another? I thought this was a beautifully painful tale of love and rejection, if any story is about identity it was this one. My favorite and most heart-breaking is Algorithmic Problem Solving for Father-Daughter Relationships. Logic as the meaning, the answer to all of lives obstacles simple application of algorithms “a theory that proves itself day after day” until a former professor, clueless father needs to solve the new problem of his daughter Wendy, who “I somehow managed to drive away from me.” My heart! By far the best story within!

In this collection time stands still or rushes past. Characters are emerging into a bright future or retiring from their dreams, wearing clothes of the dead, or slicing through water in perfect sync. Sometimes they are just suffering through an “unremarkable period” of their life. It is stories about the youth, but the old have their say too, it’s like they live in different worlds sometimes. Moving, strange, exciting, biting… fantastic.

Publication Date: May 14, 2019

Crown Publishing

Hogarth

 

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If I Had Two Lives by Abbigail Rosewood

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My mother had no daughter. It was her gift to me.

The novel begins in Vietnam as our young narrator is reunited with her mother, living under protection inside a military camp after she comes to the dangerous attention of the Prime Minister for her work as an energy consultant “bringing electricity to hundreds of districts in Vietnam”. Angering those corrupted by greed who would rather abuse the funds by “buying defunct equipment” keeping the wealth for themselves,her only option had been to seek refuge, leaving behind her daughter. Her lieutenant friend saves her, but she must remain loyal to the President. Cassette tapes were their means of communication during the separation but now she is living with her mother among other families under military protection as well. Lonely, she spends her time being cared for by ‘my soldier’, there to take care of her every need, emotional and otherwise, more nurturing than her distant mother. Her mother’s overload of information a jumbled mess to her child’s mind, “I wanted only to be held, to press my nose to her stomach,” she feels like a failure, a poor student, worse a bed wetter. To no longer be given away, she promises to be good, oblivious to her mother’s political games, not understanding that the only reason they are alive is because of her mother’s abandonment.

A child of loneliness her entire existence, everything changes when she meets ‘little girl’. The two sometimes merging into one, making up stories for each other, giving funerals for bugs, playing games and sharing in the disgusting shame of the adults. Little girl is destined for poverty and ignorance, and yet she is the deepest, earliest connection to love she will ever know. Their love is a sisterhood that will haunt her for years to come. The past becomes ash when her mother manages to help her escape to the United States to begin her second life leaving behind her best friend.

Part Two or second life to my thinking, she is now a grown adult recalling the punishing years of moving through different homes of friends, families, her mother’s connections in America, never fitting in. Longing for information about her mother “lost in her fiction”, trying to follow Vietnam’s politics, knowing she is alive only through second hand sources, sorting through gossip online, life is again solitary. She meets a woman named Lilah in Montauk, New York, echoing the immediate bond she once shared with ‘little girl’. Pulled into her escapades and ‘affairs’, passion grows between them until their lives merge. Lilah has wounds that fester but her eccentricities and boundless energy hide the sorrow. “I was drawn to her because people are drawn to uncertainty, the abyss.” When around husband Jon, Lilah is less free, diminished somehow. The two become three and she surrenders herself in their hands. This is where the story explores the meaning of friendship, love, all-consuming grief and the maniacal nature of fate. She is between two places always, until tragedy strikes and life comes full circle in Part Three. It is a strange and tragic tale. The defilement of both the narrator and her friend at the start of the novel had me gutted, the horrors always eat away at the children when it comes to politics, don’t they? Hard to read, but closing your eyes changes nothing. It’s a rupture in time, the things that transpire. As a grown woman I certainly don’t make light of how mind numbing it must be to make your way through the world without the nurturing and love of parents. Tragic doing so while moving between two countries, two identities with scars and severe trauma. That is shocking enough, a child hungry for love, connection so much so that she is willing to encompass her best friend’s pain as her own, later learning to be degraded, coming of age expecting nothing as not to feel disappointment. There is another vital character later, her neighbor, and I love how they both act as ghosts in a sense for each other, but come to mean so much more. The author’s take on loss and love hit me between the eyes.  Loss… loss as ‘a fuller experience than love’ opened the floodgates for me. Whoa!

I stayed up late last night, devouring every last page and that is saying a lot as I am recovering from invasive surgery, but I was at the end and it was actually my favorite part. The beginning reads a bit differently than when our narrator is an adult, because it is told through the mist of youth, but it flows.  Yes, read it!

Publication Date: April 19, 2019

Europa Editions

The Goose Fritz by Sergei Lebedev, Translated by Antonia W. Bouis

 

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Something happened with her that Kirill had never seen. It was as if ghosts of terrible unimaginable catastrophes, wars, fires, floods, were nipping at her heels.

Russian born Kirill is the last member of his family, descendant of Balthasar Schwerdt who came to Russia from Germany in the 1800’s. An author who collects other’s people’s life stories, fearfully avoiding his own. It is time to tell the story of his family, with papers, archives he will chase the ‘threads of memory’ and ‘preserving the misunderstood and the unseen.’  It is the only way  Kirill can flee the fate of the family. As a child he sees a stone book in the German cemetery where his family plot lies, chosen as he is to be his grandmother’s constant companion on these visits. Naturally the visits isn’t something any of them talk about outside the confines of home. The book, blank as if an omen of what he must one day fill, is always waiting there for him as he comes of age.

Why, he wondered, was his Russian great-grandmother buried in the German cemetery anyway? With the adults ‘omissions about the past’ he learned to create stories as explanation. It isn’t until his grandmother Lina reveals, speaking in German, the name of his great-great-great grandfather while at his headstone, that he knows the bold truth of their German ancestry. Vile German blood, much like the Goose Fritz symbolized to the villagers, strangled to death by the harmless old Seargant in his drunken rage on the anniversary in July when he was wounded in the Battle Kursk. The goose, in the old man’s war ravaged mind, a German soldier. German, the stuff his family is made of.

Why did they not carry the surname Schwerdt, what fate befell his ancestors, a ‘scattered people’ bones buried in soil far from their fatherland? It’s always been easier for him to dig into stranger’s families than disrupt the rest of his own, and what would revelations mean for his own blind future? Is he destined to walk a path forged by those who came before him? Why can’t he guide his own future, be no one’s son, grandson? A crack in the headstone of his beloved, deceased grandmother, separating surname from birth name, birth date from death date seems to beg from the beyond their stories be told.

Balthasar’s life took a strange turn from that of medical doctor, working as his father’s assistant, to that of practitioner of homeopathic medicine, a ‘heretic’s career’. Thwarting his father’s plan, trembling with his newfound passion, Balthasar left his fractured world for a larger one, with the knowledge of his ‘travels’, Kirill needs to understand the why of it all. Pieces in museums and visiting cities doesn’t always lend an emotional landscape to history, it’s hard for him to imagine being born in the cities of his ancestors. There were seven daughters, and a son- there were wars, assassins, disease, even an early feminist who ‘excited men’s strife.’ Worse the strangest fate of all will befall the brilliant boy when as a man he encounters cannibals.

Kirill is blind to his own future but revisionist of his family’s past, able to look upon it with a godlike eye, see the impending doom as well as lucky escapes that his ancestors couldn’t. With one family member a migrant to Russia, they cannot be native nor accepted as such, forced to hide their German blood as if a stain, as evident by Kirill not even realizing he wasn’t fully Russian, born under the hammer and sickel, loyal as the rest of his family to their country.

This novel is about political history as much as family history, how it affects us all. Are you allowed to be a nationalist when your ancestors were enemies? There are many stories about all of the characters but it is rich in history, perfect for historical fiction lovers. I adored the relationship between Kirill and his beloved grandmother Lina. It’s incredible to think about what our ancestors suffered through, how they could still cling to hope, love and laugh. Personal history too can give birth to strange fears and rituals. The deepest shame is having to hide our blood for fear of persecution. Yes, read it.

Publication Date: March 19, 2019

New Vessel Press

 

 

 

 

 

Sabrina & Corina: Stories by Kali Fajardo-Anstine

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She said people will find the loveliest part of you and try to make it ugly. “And they will do anything,” she always said, “to own that piece of you.”

In this fantastic collection of stories by Kali Fajardo- Anstine about the experiences of Latina women indigenous to the vast land of the American West, characters range in age and life situations. Beauty can’t save any of them from the violence of bad men, nor can it guarantee a better life , “they look at us like we’re nothing.”  In Sugar Babies, a restless mother leaves while her daughter cares for her own school ‘baby’. Sabrina & Corina is one of the saddest with a bad ending for a much admired Cordava cousin. The loss finds Corina using her make-up skills to tend to Sabrina’s body as she reminisces of her deep love  for “the family beauty”. Too, she shares the distance between them before everything went wrong, before her cousin’s ‘carelessness’ began to disgust her. This family of women  have lived with nothing but tragedies, how can anyone hope for a happy fate with so much evidence to the contrary?

In Sisters, Dotty has her sight stolen from her and thinks about a missing girl, about survival and thus begins the story of what happens when women say no and bruise a man’s ego, inciting his rage. This is the sort of story that makes me think of Margaret Atwood’s biting quote,  ‘Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women  are afraid that men will kill them.’ What happens to the women in each story can knock the wind out of you, and though fiction, it’s not one bit fantastical and that is frightening.

In Remedies, lice are the monster. I adore characters that understand natural medicine and for some, home remedies was the only cure. Too, a young girl struggles with a half-brother in her life, the father absent for both of them but why should she have to share her own mother? The writing is gorgeous throughout, I kept breaking my heart against each one. Just when I thought it couldn’t get sadder, I was gutted again. ‘Cora and I had been around sick and dying people our entire lives. People, we learned, weren’t permanent and neither were their illnesses.’ Characters are all struggling to keep things together through illnesses, death, grief, and the aftermath of prison. Some deal with their own shameful pasts, others with the inevitable trajectory of what’s to come. The Bob Dylan quote before the stories begin is spot on, these are certainly sad-eyed ladies. Yes, read it!!!

Publication Date: April 2, 2019

Random House

One World

The Cook: A Novel by Maylis de Kerangal, Sam Taylor (Translation)

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To be a chef, you have to be prepared to get hurt.

The Cook is a fictional novel about the making of Parisian chef Mauro told from his friend’s perspective. In the beginning he is remembering his University days, knowing he will not go back, and the summer he meets his first cook that ‘introduces him to another realm’, and Mauro ‘loves how she lives’ connected as she is to the earth, the seasons and the farm which he works with all the fresh vegetables. In a moment, later in an apartment he finds a book on cooking in his duffel bag, and everything shifts.

We travel back through the days of his youth when the young gastronome was a curious little fellow often hovering around in the kitchen, inhaling the smells of his mother and grandmother’s cooking. His first meals are made from simple, cheap foods but later he will travel to different countries, broadening his food education, creating recipes from different cultures, absorbing different sights and smells. He will perfect the alchemy of the kitchen, where at ten he will create cakes from recipes, as if it’s like a magical act. Later he will learn the brutality of the kitchen, suffer the tyranny of demanding chefs, work in kitchens of many cultures and burn himself out once he is running La Belle Saison, ‘until finally his life is reduced to the surface of a countertop.’ But it will not be the end of his cooking, he will return to his passion but only in places where it is for the love of cooking alone, far from ‘chain restaurants’ and overwhelming crowds. Mauro truly lives the life of a chef, with little free time as hones his skills. Too often friendships fall by the wayside, because there isn’t any time, his world truly is reduced to his career.

To escape the deadened feeling within him, his exhaustion, he later finds himself in Asia. He is done with frantic and wants peace, despite the offers that pour in. Some travel to see the wonderous sites, Mauro prefers to sink into the culture of the palate wherever he wanders. He never stays still for long, seeking other work in many kitchen until the tail end of the book where he has an idea for a place that caters to the diners, a ‘collective adventure’ that also pleases individual desires.

It’s not simply a book about working your way into becoming a chef, it’s about the emotional journey, the shaping of a chef’s life. Mauro isn’t your usual cook either, he is looking for meaning on a spiritual level in a sense, which you don’t usually get when reading about chefs. I think from the beginning when he opens his eyes to the farm, nature to the table, the sense of community means he could never be content to waste his days in a popular place that bustles. It’s a fast read, I wonder if I would have been engaged more if Mauro himself told his story and I could be in his head rather than feeling more like a fly on the wall, a second hand witness of sorts as his friend does all the talking. It was a decent read, a different perspective on a chef’s life, which truly is much more exhausting than I ever imagined. I cook often and it’s tiring but that’s solely for my family. It is certainly a physical endeavor, for Mauro it is all-consuming. I certainly don’t have to take anyone pushing me around or knocking me in the face with a spoon if I screw up. All that waits for me is sour faces pushing their plate away and refusing to eat. There is a love story within too but that doesn’t last because his first love is food, and it demands all of him. He is lost at times, burned out, but he always wanders the world chasing the next place, trying to fill his culinary knowledge. The Cook is an original little novel. I would like more connection to Mauro, yet it is still worth the read.

Publication Date: March 26, 2019

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

The Farm: A Novel by Joanne Ramos

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Ate also understood that for parents such as these, who had everything and more, being unavailable made her more desirable.

When you want a healthy, beautiful baby and you’re successful and far too busy to give birth yourself, the place to go to is Golden Oaks. Here, clients can rest assured that they have total control, a guarantee that the surrogate mother will not do anything to harm the unborn child. Only the healthiest young women are chosen to be inseminated and carry babies for the ‘richest, most important clients in the world’, and Mae (Ms. Yu) oversees it all. The Hosts are paid well once they deliver, where else can they make money this good? Certainly not as nannies, a thankless job! At Golden Oaks they go to classes to learn the ‘best-practices in pregnancy‘, their health is strictly monitored, they exercise and it is an absolute that the host must not be stressed out, ever! Jane Reyes has run out of choices to support her child after losing her job as a nanny. To leave her own baby (Amalia) with her cousin Ate, the very person who encouraged her to apply to be a host, isn’t ideal but it’s the only thing left to do. Amalia couldn’t be in better care, after all Ate is a baby nurse. As a Filipina woman, there is a class divide, when she isn’t watching (mothering) the children of wealthy white women, she is serving as a Host. She meets other Hosts while living at Golden Oaks, each with their own reasons for choosing to be surrogates.

The healthy food, the surroundings all seem wonderful at first, but then being so far away from Amalia begins to eat at her, especially when Ate starts ignoring her calls after a fight and the outside world is as distant as the moon. Strange that she is protecting this fetus like the most precious cargo on earth yet isn’t able to mother her own baby girl! Jane starts to fear things, suspect Ate of keeping her child from her,  the other hosts aren’t helping any with their own thoughts about the place. Reagan is exactly what the most important clients want white, young, beautiful and a cum laude graduate of Duke University, the perfect host until something goes wrong that begs the question, just how much do the surrogate mothers and their health matter? Then there is Lisa, who ‘mocks the process’ and sees Golden Oaks ‘The Farm” for what it is, a place that uses the women as a means to an end. Young women who are nothing more than cows. But surely, you can’t be used if it was your choice, if you are being paid and lavishly cared for! Right?

Ms. Yu runs a tight ship, in many ways she relates to the Hosts but that doesn’t mean she will let anyone ruin the business. Clients call the shots, and often in direct conflict to the needs of their hosts, as happens with Jane. What happens when she is pressed to make a choice that goes against the rules? This novel is about the limitations of class, it is a different type of slavery that happens in this story. The ending made me mad but it’s exactly what would happen. People in power manipulate because they can, those without money, without power and desperate to care for their own family do what they must, because there aren’t any other choices. It is so hard for those who have everything to comprehend what it means to not have good choices, only bad and worse to pick from. It feels like a set up, because in so many ways it is! It’s all about sacrifice. Jane isn’t the only woman who learns about sacrifice, no one has suffered more than Ate herself. Ate has told Jane, always have a backup plan because nothing is guaranteed! Things go wrong, plans dissolve.

You get both sides of the coin at the end, what it feels like to rely so much on a ‘helper’ a ‘surrogate’ and what it means to be at the mercy of your clients charity. Who needs the other more? I feel far more sympathy for Jane. It’s a fast read, motherhood is often fraught with choices made out of fear and necessity, particularly for single mothers, more so for immigrants raising children alone. All mothers can relate though, even those of privilege.

Publication Date: May 7, 2019

Random House

Mother Winter: A Memoir by Sophia Shalmiyev

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Hall of Fame. Hall of Shame. That’s Motherhood…

This is a memoir of longing and love for one’s absent mother, as if when Sophia Shalmiyev left her native Russia in the 1980’s for America a decade later, in her  Azerbaijani father’s care whom she called a ‘benevolent dictator’, she too was forced to divorce her mother. “It was too risky to ask for her and be denied so I didn’t say her name much.” Yet for so long, she had ‘no body’ without her mother. Who grounds us in our bodies more? While Sophia was still in her homeland, her mother was already failing at motherhood, certainly in the Hall of Shame category more than Hall of Fame. Women are forgiven nothing, especially in the 1980’s Soviet Union she spent her childhood, where her alcoholic mother was ‘pickled in the brain’, is judged far more inferior to any man who struggles with alcoholism. Of course her father gets to keep her. A father, who tries to ‘heal’ his little girl when she comes home from boarding school on weekends, who has an inconsolable need for her absent mother, the body hungry for her loving touch and nurturing.  Stuck at that school so that she’ll be safe from the threat of that very mother showing up, she deals with bullying, unkempt as she is standing out like an outcast and many ailments. Her body as undernourished as her hungry heart. Sophia ruminates over the state of motherlessness, and explores feminism through time, reminding us of how the blame always falls to the mother, even if she does everything ‘right’ by societal standards.  That women, even those we admire for their boundless talent are still caving into men, letting their bodies betray their intelligence. How she was unable to fill the space her mother’s absence occupied until she herself was a mother and could give them all that love she never got to feel. Yet her mother’s blood courses through her still, that urge to flee and trickles into her own babies, just like eye-color and height.

For Shalmiyev, she chases her mother through time, a woman who may be dead, how would she even know? A mother who one time demanded to know her young daughter’s  whereabouts but was denied because another man, her ex husband’s brother, decided she be ‘kept in the dark’ because she was in a bad place, wasn’t sober, judged and found wanting. Men, making decisions for women without one thought for their own wants and needs. A mother that has been smudged, remnants of her appearing only in the mirror as Sophia grows up, looking at her reflection.

“I would like to wear an equivalent of a medical alert bracelet: I lost my mother and I cannot find her- née Danilova.

This is poignant, “why can’t it be both ways? Why do mothers have to be forgotten or brave like soldiers?” Her mother is erased, for being a drunken mess, a failed mother and in that erasure a life is shaped, a motherless future for Sophia. The days in Russia are vastly different from her next life, coming of age in America where standing out and being ‘special’ is praised, not like in the Soviet Union where everyone is meant to be the same, where choices are limited. But before that, as a preteen refugee in Italy she loses so much of  her innocence.  Her father fails her too.

In America there is Luda, a stand-in mother of sorts, one of her father’s Ukranian girlfriend’s that comes to join them from Russia. Only 12 years older she is in between being a mother and a sister for Sophia. There is love and rivalry between them, another person who doesn’t want to hear tell of Sophia’s mother, whom in Luda’s eyes is nothing but trash, whorish. Of course as her sole female role model, she wants to be the only mother in Sophia’s heart, jealous even of the longing she feels.

Later there will be work at a peep show in her twenties,  hanging out in the music and art scene in Seattle, as hostility settles over her, gifted at leaving her body when she needs to and being present when she chooses, something she mastered far sooner than anyone should. She is in danger of becoming her mother for a while, until she finds a life in New York and a career.

Jumping time lines do not always work but when they’re done intelligently it flows and isn’t a disruption. I think it’s just right here! The flashbacks in time feed into the future and situations trigger memories of the past. I like that it’s not just a sad memoir about wishing for one’s mother, that Shalmiyev confronts the world women and young girls live in. The flashbacks of her childhood in the Soviet Union are eye-opening, I find myself devouring stories about that world, so foreign to my own childhood. Against her father’s wishes she eventually goes back to Russia to find her mother.

There are tales of abuse in here, and it’s gut-wrenching not just for the act itself but for the simplicity of such a life-altering transgression. Abuses on women and children are so casual in our world, aren’t they? Sometimes when you re-evaluate the past, things that you never questioned with your child’s mind send alarm bells all throughout your adult soul. Certainly what happened to her during her short time in Italy is haunting. This was an engaging memoir. Dislocation isn’t always about the physical body, it can be the soul and in Sophia Shalmiyev’s case it’s both. Her mother is her phantom limb that causes a constant ache. How do you make peace trying to understand mother as an archetype and compare you own, so deeply flawed, a crumbling cold statue on the pedestal of your memory? How is a woman meant to define herself, carve a self out of the discarded parts of her own mother when she was off limits to her? In the end, do we ever have closure, solid answers when chasing a ghost?

Publication Date: February 12, 2019

Simon & Schuster