Monday, July 27, 2015

Listen, Slowly by Thanhha Lai

Anyone that has braved the streets of Vietnam knows the thrill of linking arms and shuffling across the asphalt as cars swerve around bodies like rocks in the middle of a roaring stream. Honest. It is quite the experience. The author captures this unique cultural feature and so much more as Mai, a first generation American born girl, learns about her heritage on a vacation with her grandma to Hanoi, Vietnam. Not that twelve-year-old Mai is looking for any cultural roots. "OMG," she's looking for love "with HIM", while hanging at Laguna Beach with her best friend over summer vacation. Her plans and romantic ideas simmer in the hot sun until her parents douse her with reality making her travel with her Grandma Ba to Vietnam because Ba has new information regarding her husband who went missing during the "THE WAR." Mai's dad goes with on the trip, but he is a doctor whose first priority is to help children in Vietnam's remote areas in need of medical services. Mai's mom is a lawyer on a big case and both insist Mai escort Ba. The parents want Mai to know her heritage. Mai's  knowledge has some humungous gaps considering she refers mainly to what she learned from watching a PBS documentary on the Fall of Saigon. Mai says she is "unicultural"; but this trip changes Mai teaching her what it means to be bicultural, enriching her life in ways she never expected.

Mai matures in small increments. She's spoiled, privileged and has a snarky attitude that is hilarious and balanced by a kind heart. She will do something nice followed by a "I rock!" She loves her Ba completely and will do anything for her, "I'm now too tired to yawn but I still rock as her caretaker, asking if her throat is sore." In the beginning all Mai can think about is leaving Vietnam as fast as possible, but she starts to empathize with Ba and appreciate Vietnam. Ba is one of the few adults that Mai listens to: "My body loosens and expands, remembering how it used to make room for her words to wiggle deep into the tiny crevice alongside my bones, muscles, and joints. Becoming a part of me." Ba is the eloquent character in the group, a foil to Mai's egocentric voice. The title of the book comes from one of my favorite passages as Ba describes dealing with the loss of a loved one to Mai, "I tell you of loss, my child, so you will listen slowly, and know that in life every emotion is fated to rear itself within your being." In our fast-paced world, listen slowly, can take on many meanings.

Mai struggles with learning the language bemoaning, "...she [Ut] doesn't understand my non-Frenchy English. It's exhausting but so is my life." She calls her attempts to communicate, "Tarzanish Vietnamese." She's impatient and strong-willed making for a strong female character. When the detective shows up, she hates it when adults take forever to get to the point. "OMG, what are the chances of me meeting the second wordiest human on the planet?" Or she attributes all the building designs to one architect. "Now that I'm no longer shocked by the maneuvers of every moped I notice that just about every house is built in the stacked style like Co Hanh's. It's confirmed. One architect designed for the whole country." Mosquitoes love her sugary blood and she goes to war with them after being turned into their pincushion. Funny observations such as the "doll-sized" food portions and "How am I supposed to get beyond lanky in a land where ice cream is made of red beans instead of cream?" That's not exactly true but Mai likes to exaggerate for a laugh. And boy, did I laugh a lot. She also captures the overcrowded roads in Asia with comments like, "...let me enjoy my cloud of toxic fumes from thousands of lawless mopeds in peace." She pulls some shenanigans on the women regarding thongs and starts to make friends with Ut, having far more exciting adventures than she would have at Laguna Beach.

Mai thinks of nothing but going home as fast as possible. She tries to manipulate events and others to make it happen, but later starts to adjust to her new culture and cousins. Ut is a strong-willed, frog-obsessed cousin who shaved her head - her reason is funny because it is practical but mortifies her beauty-obsessed mom - and she stands up to Mai's snobbish ways changing Mai's outlook in the process. The two develop a friendship where they respect and don't try to change each other. When Ut argues over 40 cents bargaining for food, Mai silently bargains behind her back so Ut thinks she got a good deal and Mai gets the food she wants. Mai wonders why everyone knows English better than she knows Vietnamese. Ut helps Mai along with the serious translator, Ahn Min, whom Mai can't resist poking fun at all the time.

Mai loves drama. In a subplot she whines that her love triangle in California is being replicated in Vietnam. In California, Mai and her best friend are interested in the same guy. She can't say his name because she has such a crush and refers to the boy as "HIM." By the end Mai has matured enough to say his name and not be so dramatic about talking to him. Ahn Min, her translator in Vietnam, is interested in another girl but a different girl is interested in him and thwarts his effort to get her attention. I am not sure how this ties in with the overall theme of a girl finding her heritage, but it does show Mai growing up and processing her crush on a boy and that people are the same and have the same basic needs regardless of where they live in the world. Some funny and memorable episodes happen during this part.

The author captures the frustration of learning a new language and how difficult it can be to communicate. Mai calls words she doesn't understand "ghost words." This imagery reminds me of Buddhism and how worshipers follow the "ghost" month where dead ancestors are allowed to spend a month visiting families, feasting, and finding victims among the living. Buddhism is the largest religion in Vietnam even though the government has periodically tried to extinguish it. When Mai goes to Saigon to locate the guard, she speaks sentences using Vietnamese mainly out of frustration and desperation. She's thrilled when this happens and the Vietnamese man understands her. Afterwards her usual cocky attitude comes back loud and clear, "I'm now officially bilingual and can rule the world!" It doesn't last long though. Pretty soon "The detective yells at us, using python sentences that strangle the air." What a great description of what it is like learning a language. 

Mai pokes fun at cultures and conventions in the United States and Vietnam.  They don't hug each other in Vietnam and Mai forgets many times hugging her relatives when she is happy. They seem to like it. Even Ut, although she swats her in response out of embarrassment. It is one of many instances where Mai shares her culture with her cousins or vice versa. This is the excitement of learning a new culture and sharing differences in a healthy way. Mai also diplomatically refers to the past fighting as "THE WAR." In Vietnam it is called, "The American War" and in America it is called, "The Vietnam War." Her neutral stance avoids the name controversy and shows the war for what it was, a bloody war between two countries. Mai jokes about food, sizes, architecture, and clothes. "I don't know anyone here to care what I wear, much less how often and what brand. It's freeing." She's also such a teen with an egocentric attitude. "I'm so bored, the kind where you bite off all your nails and wish they'd grow back instantly so you could bite them again." She's a hoot. Learning about heritage and other cultures has slowly changed my views of the world and exposed my biases and stereotypes I didn't know I had. I'm trying to listen slowly.  Don't miss this winner.

5 Smileys

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown

Joe Rantz is an unlikely hero in this nonfiction tale about nine boys that went to the 1936 Berlin Olympics. The son of a tinkerer who had many jobs, Joe was kicked out of his family home during the Depression because they were not able to feed him and his stepmom didn't want him around. He had to fend for himself as a ten-year-old and later as a teenager as hard times hit. This upbringing made the college-age Joe that went out for the rowing team, much different than a kid of growing up privileged. Rowing requires mental and physical toughness that tests athletes in extreme ways. Joe had the right makeup, but he also needed to learn to trust his fellow teammates. The author shows how Joe matures along with the other nine rowers in a way that make them stronger as one unit versus individually. This inspirational book was hard for me to put down.

Daniel James Brown learned about Joe's rowing career directly from him and other family members and it sure-as-heck shows in the plot. Brown's intimate details on Joe's feelings make it read like a narration, brimming with drama and suspense. The story is rounded out with historical details on the Depression and the war as German Nazi's rose to power. The details of foliage, trees, and animals from the Northwest create a strong setting and it is easy to get lost in the story as it unfolds.

The details of rowing do not bog down the plot as it is balanced by the emotional, human story of Joe Rantz's strange upbringing. Brown juggles the story elements well and uses tension in competition, The Depression, and Nazi Germany to ratchet the drama up several notches. The cheating that was done to try to win the race does paint the Germans as one-dimensional villains, but Brown also shows Germany's attempt to be equal with other world powers. The Ministry of Propaganda was a ruthless way to push a glorified image of Germany that hid its dark intolerant and superior side.

This tale reminded me of "Unbroken," because it is a story of triumph and survival in difficult times. Brown's research is impressive as he tackles the intricacies of rowing along with giving a historical overview of the tough times facing people in the 1930s. He dramatizes the slumps the rowers go through during different seasons and builds to an exciting climax. My husband and I just moved to Seattle and are going to trek to the University of Washington's Conibear Shellhouse to see the "Husky Clipper" rowboat that was used in the 1936 games. I can't wait. Don't miss this one.

5 Smileys

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Echo by Pam Muñoz Ryan

Fairy tales, magic, suffering, and music in four parts that swirl together at the end like an imaginary symphony. I am always swept up in Pam Munoz Ryan's stories. Her musical way with words and terrific character developments are full of tension and emotion hitting the right chords with me. The author takes risks with this story creating a complex blend of fairy tale and historical genre. Her ending tells and doesn't show. This removes the climax and results in sections ending on cliffhangers. However, the characters are not left dangling and they do have emotional resolutions. This is not the norm for narrative fiction so some might not like the style. I did. More importantly the story reminded me that in dark times there is beauty whether it is in music or reading or spending time with loved ones.

The story is framed by a fairy tale that sets the tone for a magical instrument that makes it way through the real lives of Friedrich, Mike, and Ivy. The instrument symbolizes hope, for when the current owner plays it, he or she feels strong and optimistic about the future regardless of his or her bad circumstances. The beauty of literature is that readers can make connections between the plot and their lives; thus finding meanings that help in the pursuit of understanding life. I happened to be reading this when my mom died and was comforted by the symbolism of music in this story. Music in the fairy tale prologue helped the sisters in the drudgery of their lives. When the witch cursed them, their souls were tied to a woodwind instrument or a harmonica. It is not a flashy instrument and is often overlooked or considered inferior. This rich symbolism and imagery can be applied to humans too. My mom preferred to not be in the limelight and I kept thinking she was like a harmonica in our family.

In the fairy tale, the three sisters want to go home but the jealous witch wants them for herself and curses them. They can only leave if they save a soul from "death's dark door." Their story, read aloud by the character, Otto, was unfinished and they had the choice of how to write their own ending. Their future was not determined by Fate. However, their fate did rely on a messenger bringing them out of the woods and them helping someone on the brink of death. This is the setup for the next three parts where the harmonica travels through different peoples lives and saves them. The parts end on a cliffhanger and there is no climax. Instead the author ties the stories together in an unusual way using leitmotifs found in the beginning prophecy.

Strong themes on death, tolerance, and loyalties fill the pages. Death can manifest in physical, mental, and spiritual ways for people. Friedrich lives in Germany as the Nazi's come to power and changes are made in his community that marginalize Jews, outspoken citizens, disabled people, or anyone outside the norm established by the Reich. Twelve-year-old Friedrich has a large birthmark on his cheek and likes to swing his hands in the air conducting an imaginary symphony. He is bullied at school to the point where his arm is broken. His father is an honest, good man that does not like the changes in his country where friends turn against friends and neighbors turn against neighbors out of fear. He does not have much self-preservation nor foresight for he suffers a bit from denial. He cannot believe how people will only look at the outward appearances rather than internal character in each other. When his daughter joins the Nazi Youth he is crushed and afraid for the first time. But nothing is as it seems and the author catches the complexity of humans and how people get trapped by the promises of a government that become more and more extreme in its persecution. Again, music rises above all prejudices and draws no lines in the sand. The end of the story refers to the fairy tale in the beginning by making Friedrich the new messenger (versus Otto) who must save a soul.

The second part involves eleven-year-old, Mike, and his seven-year-old brother, Frankie that live in an orphanage. Mike is a gifted pianist. When Mrs. Sturbridge takes the two boys in, Mike and Frankie have gone from poor to wealthy. It seems too good to be true and sure enough Mike discovers Mrs. Sturbridge only wants to keep Frankie. He makes a deal with her that he will leave by earning an internship with a harmonica band. In a subplot the boys are mistreated at a department store because they are dressed shabby. Again, people are wrongly accused based on appearances and not what is inside of them. In part one entire races are deemed worthless based on what is on the outside; whereas, here appearances and intolerance are examined on an individual basis.

There is foreshadowing that a soul needs to be saved from death. This is one leitmotif that is carried from the fairy tale beginning. The prophecy in the prologue talks about fate not sealed, stars shining in the darkest night, and bells chiming to signal a path for a person to choose. Before the reader knows Mike's fate he thinks, "Above him, the dark, gnarled branches of the elm reached toward the heavens like a witch's crooked fingers. And yet, even in this strange limbo, Mike saw stars above him, tiny dots of light bobbing in and out from behind the fluttering leaves." And added to that "...the wind blew a chord through the harmonic clutched in his hand." The prophecy contains leitmotifs (death, stars, bells, messengers) and recurring themes that can be found throughout the entire book connecting the stories. This original and unique plot layout was interesting for me, but I can see others that might not like it. I'll be curious what the students think at my school.

Part three covers Ivy, a flute prodigy, and first generation Mexican-American living in the 1940s. She plays in a harmonica band at school before having to move. Her father got a job watching the Japanese-American Yamamoto's family farm who was forced to move to a U.S. internment camp. Ivy must adjust to losing a friend and being forced to go to an inferior school in Orange County, Los Angeles. Her father fights the discriminatory laws that affect his daughter's education but change is slow. Meanwhile, Ivy makes friends with a white girl but they must meet in secret because the girl's father will disapprove. He has been buying up local farms owned by Japanese families forced to sell by the U.S. government and has his eye on the Yamamoto's farm. He has lost his sons in the war and is full of anger and grief. Again, music is woven into the story with parents that don't appreciate Ivy's talent and a Japanese farming family that loves music. Again, appearances are not everything and I was reminded of Jacob Grimm's "The Bremen Town Musicians."

"Echo" shows how bleak the world was for the characters during this time in history, and how music lifted them up to a beautiful place. The music also showed not only the physical but the emotional state of the characters and how it helped them understand what was going on around them and inside of themselves. Reading stories is like that too. The inner state of the reader can be illuminated by the plot or character development. At least for me and I found an emotional resonance in Munoz's words. You'll have to see what chord it plays inside you.

5 Smileys