Reading: Halfway through the 2017 challenge (Part 2)

Back in December, a friend asked me to sign up to do a book challenge with her. I wasn’t psyched at first - a part of me chafed against being told what to do or what to read (haha) - but the notion somehow got stuck in my craw and one random day, mid-January, I did a complete 180.

Anyway, now halfway through the year, I'm also halfway through the books. And this is the second half of the half of the books I've read so far. You can see the first part here.

Book Recommended by a... Sibling

My little sister recommended two Lisa See books to me, so I grabbed the one I could find off her shelf. China Dolls tells the story of Chinese nightclub stars in San Francisco during the 1940s and beyond, following the lives of three girls: one second-generation Chinese-American, one who emigrated over from Nanjing during the Japanese Invasion of China, and one Japanese-Hawaiian trying to keep her racial identity a secret as the war goes on.

The history of both daily life in the United States and nightclubs/entertainers for the Asian population during that time was very fascinating to me. While I had some idea about how Japanese-Americans had survived during the internment period, it never had clicked with me that some would try to by pretending to be Chinese. And without any prior knowledge of the existence of Chinese nightclubs, it was interesting to see how Chinese-Americans turned the Exotic Orientalist lens upon ourselves to gain a coveted spot in the entertainment industry.

But while the facts were riveting, I wasn’t particularly captured by the writing style. Some of the 1940s slang incorporated felt awkward and out-of-place, even if it probably was well-researched. Near the end of the book, a lot of the perspective of Helen (the China refugee from a rich family) was missing, in part to build tension for a reveal that I felt wasn’t worth it. As this is my first Lisa See book, I’m not sure if that’s par for the course with her. It's just enough to make me probably put off some of the other stuff she’s written (Snow Flower & The Secret Fan, Shanghai Girls) on the back burner unless someone tells me differently.

Book from Before You Were Born

Ever had a homework assignment that felt like torture to get through, even though you knew it wouldn't actually take that long to do it?

I'm sorry to say that Wise Blood was that to me. I read it because it was only about 200 pages, but boy did I feel the weight of each page. And it makes me sad because I know Flannery O'Connor is a national treasure and this book is in the annals of history as a deep and insightful look at a sliver of Americana.

I don't know if it's just that I don't care about religious hucksterism and single-minded protagonists, or if I'm not smart enough to get any these themes, but this story was such. a. drag. It reminded me a lot of another book I also had the urge to *roll eye jerk off motion* to: Catcher in the Rye.

Both are mid-Century anti-heroes who have decided they know about people. Both meander on as loners who live in a lonely world, with all the connections around them amounting to some shallow nothingness that's supposed to reflect the nothingness of real life. Both are obsessed with the idea of phonies. And both make me want to (spoiler alert) pour lye into my eyes.

Book You've Already Read

A Wrinkle in Time (Time Quintet)
By Madeleine L'Engle

Okay, sorry about the negativity of this second half. I probably should've rethought how I was going to present these articles.

But not to fret! The third book I liked!

Back in January, we were just hearing that Ava Duvernay would be directing a new live action movie version of A Wrinkle in Time. And so it felt like it’d be fun to revisit it.

I read all the series back in elementary school, and a lot of the imagery stayed with me even if I didn’t quite remember the plot. Every kid thumping their ball to the beat. The attempts by Meg to march not-in-time to that thump. Hers and Charlies’ inabilities to fit in to school. The sensation of traveling across galaxies and dimensions... it was pretty powerful imagery that I was glad to return to.

One of the things I didn't remember was the religious undertones. Mrs. Who mentioning Jesus as a fighter of darkness, reading the Book of Genesis to Charlie - was religion so much a part of my life at that time that I took the references for granted?

Besides the mild "oh hello Christianity!" surprise though, the themes of kids finding their own bravery and pushing against forced mechanisation are still relevant, and possibly even more so today as we find our world consistently more mechanised.

Some people have read Camazotz and IT as a critique of communism, and I guess considering the period this was written (1982, height of the Cold War), that's certainly a possibility. But I think it can also be read as a criticism of conformity in general, in the vein of Revolutionary Road, and how buying into the system for safety wouldn't bring you true happiness. You didn't have to go to Russia to see people trying to fit themselves into tight boxes, just like Meg didn't have to goto Camazotz to be told she was weird. The 60s was, after all, also the beatniks, the hippies and the birth of counterculture. 

In short, I liked it! And whenever I get past another book on my reading list, I may pick up the rest of the Quintet to enjoy again.