book beginnings on Friday: Water Tossing Boulders: How a Family of Chinese Immigrants Led the First Fight to Desegregate Schools in the Jim Crow South by Adrienne Berard

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

I am of course intrigued by what the back of this book calls a “vital, hidden chapter of America’s past.”

water tossing boulders

Water Tossing Boulders concerns a Chinese immigrant family in Mississippi, where the children were denied public education in 1924. It begins:

As with all rumors, the stories grew over time, in the long months between June and September, when the air is so thick that gossip is all that circulates. The new students wouldn’t bathe. They didn’t have money to buy books. They didn’t care about learning. They had so many brothers and sisters, their mothers didn’t even know their names.

I guess I’m fascinated to see how a tragic but familiar story of Southern segregation and separate-but-equal schooling applies to a community we don’t normally associate with that story. Stick around.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

Maximum Shelf author interview: Jade Chang

Following yesterday’s review of The Wangs vs. the World, here’s Jade Chang: Method Writer.


Jade Chang has covered arts and culture as a journalist and editor. She is the recipient of a Sundance Fellowship for Arts Journalism, the AIGA/Winterhouse Award for Design Criticism, and the James D. Houston Memorial scholarship from the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. She lives in Los Angeles. The Wangs vs. the World is her debut novel.

photo credit: Teresa Flowers

photo credit: Teresa Flowers


Your journalistic background covered some of the topics in the Wangs’ lives, but still: How different was writing a novel? And how hard?

I never got an MFA, but my college did have a good creative writing program, so I went through writing workshops there. And in workshop, we were always writing short stories. I guess I liked it okay, and when I graduated I continued trying to write short stories, but sometimes a thing is just not your form. And short stories were kind of hard for me. Simultaneously, I was working as a journalist. And I enjoyed writing articles–hated writing on deadline, but enjoyed writing articles. But once I started writing a novel it felt like, ahh!–this makes more sense. Having all this space, all this room, all this time, having a much broader canvas felt more exciting to me. I don’t know that being a journalist affected my experience enormously, except that I think it’s really good training because you learn to not be too precious about your words. I got used to being edited, to rewriting and all that stuff. And that’s good training for any writer.

Did the Wangs come to you fully formed, or did you have to work to build them? Are they based on anyone you know?

There’s definitely no character-by-character corollary for them in real life. I would say that Charles Wang, the father, came to me kind of fully formed. His bluster, his exuberance, his excitement about life, but also his kind-of-asshole side, all of those things felt like–well, like a view of America to me. And then also he just really felt like a lot of fun to do. The other characters definitely felt from the very beginning like real people to me. But I do a lot of character work–I ask myself questions about a character, and a lot of that stuff doesn’t go into the book at all, but it gives me a more well-rounded sense of who someone is and how they will react in a situation that does end up in the book.

Your characters are so rich, and span genders, ages, lifestyles and stages of life.

I knew I wanted to look at contemporary life from several different viewpoints. Growing up kind of between Gen X and Gen Y, I always found that definition of generations really interesting. So I really wanted to have siblings who were in different generations, who looked at the world in different ways. There are roughly 10 years in age between the sisters Saina and Grace, and that’s a huge difference in experience.

Then you have a father who is an immigrant, children born here, and a stepmother who comes from a world that’s actually very different from the father’s, even though to someone who knows nothing about them, you might think that they are from the exact same world. I wanted to show a lot of different viewpoints. And I was interested in getting into a lot of worlds in this book. So you have the father who thinks of himself as a consummate entrepreneur or businessman, who makes a fortune in makeup. And then you have the oldest daughter who is an artist, and so you get to go into the art world. And then you have the middle son who’s a standup comedian and the youngest daughter who is an aspiring style blogger. I really wanted to look at worlds where you have a balance between artifice and reality. It’s all tied to the outset of the financial collapse in 2008, and that particular financial collapse, as most of them are I think, was based on essentially a lie, or the big con–mortgages we couldn’t really afford, and all that. The financial world at that time was falling apart based on a beautiful lie. It made me very interested in other worlds that are based on that as well. I think makeup is definitely that. And then the art world–you know, I love it so much in many ways, but a piece can be worth nothing or millions of dollars, based on who says it is. That is so fascinating to me. I love the overlaps between these worlds, in how we ascribe values to things.

I really enjoyed your shifting perspectives–even the car gets a voice. Was that hard to write?

It was a challenge, and it was a really fun challenge. I definitely knew I wanted to do that. I was joking with a friend that, just like a method actor, I’m a method writer. I just really need to completely be in someone’s head and looking through their eyes in order to fully embody a character. And I liked the challenge of it, honestly. I wanted to see if I could write from five or six viewpoints.

You chose to leave some untranslated Chinese dialogue for the (non-Chinese-reading) reader to decipher from context clues. Why?

A lot of the books that we read in America today are from the point of view of white people in America. Or they’re written for what has been the majority audience, which is white people in America. And I feel like on the one hand obviously this book is for everybody, as every book is, but I wanted a different world of people to get to be the insiders. So people who speak Chinese and can understand the Chinese, they get to be the insiders in this book. But I didn’t want to write it in Chinese characters, because I wanted any reader to be able to kind of sound it out and get that experience of what it feels like to eavesdrop in a language that you don’t understand.

But you’re not actually missing out on anything. There might be something a little bit jokey, or a colloquialism that’s in the Chinese that doesn’t come out in the English, but essentially, it’s all there.

Do you have a favorite character?

I feel a lot of sympathy for Andrew. He is the middle brother, he is really trying hard to find his way in the world, he’s so good-hearted, he really just wants the best for everybody. But he’s also a young guy, and so he makes a lot of dumb missteps. And I just love stand-up comedy. I think it’s so fascinating and so fun. You have to be so smart to do it well, and also so emotionally reckless. I feel a lot of sympathy for stand-up comics in general, and so writing him and writing those scenes where he gets up and does stand-up sets, that really made me love him a lot.

But whichever character I was working on emotionally, working on their emotional arc, I felt a lot of love for that character at that point.

What are you working on next?

I am working on another novel. We’ll see what happens.


This interview originally ran on September 7, 2016 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Maximum Shelf: The Wangs vs. the World by Jade Chang

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on September 7, 2016.


wangs vs the world

Jade Chang’s first novel, The Wangs vs. the World, is an accomplishment: sparkling characters, family dynamics, humor and despair set against global historic and economic forces, rendering the title entirely apt.

Charles Wang is a proud patriarch. He has three beautiful, talented children (though his son hasn’t slept with quite so many women yet as he should have, and his older daughter lives too far away), and has built a major financial empire in makeup manufacturing. He has the house in Bel-Air, the factories, the cars; his second wife has all the designer clothing, jewelry and handbags she ever wanted. He has a “sexy little cigarette speedboat painted with twenty-seven gallons of Suicide Blonde, his best-selling nail polish color–a perfect blue-toned red that set off the mahogany trim and bright white leather seats.”

Until he doesn’t.

In 2008, the Wang fortune evaporates, like so many others, due nearly as much to Charles’s hubris as to the economic climate of the time. In the face of this calamity (frequently referred to in his inner monologue as “the Failure”), Charles turns to an old legend: his family’s land in China, stolen by the Communists. This fable of luxury and excess was his birthright, and with the U.S.-based version collapsed, he determines to take his family back to the old country and reclaim what is rightfully theirs. And so a road trip ensues, with the patched-together family forming and reforming in various configurations cross-country.

Charles and his second wife, Barbra, depart the California home they no longer own in a powder-blue Mercedes station wagon nearly 30 years old, which luckily had been transferred into the nanny’s name, so it wasn’t repossessed with the other cars. They pick up stunned younger daughter Grace from her boarding school in Santa Barbara, then son Andrew from Phoenix, Ariz., where he’d been enrolled in college (working harder on his stand-up comedy routine than on his studies). The Wangs aim for the home of elder daughter Saina in the Catskills, where she struggles to regroup from her own personal trauma–and from there, for China. But on a southern detour, Andrew leaves the group for an older woman he meets at a New Orleans wedding.

The hilarity of filial antics on this road trip, “a troupe of Chinese Okies fleeing a New Age Dust Bowl,” forms a central part of this story. But the larger narrative involves Charles’s perception of the injustices done to the Wangs by history: Japan’s invasion of China, immigration through Taiwan, investment patterns in the U.S. The next generation of Wangs has taken an artistic turn: Saina is a fallen darling of the New York art world; Andrew aspires to be a comic, but relies perhaps too heavily on Asian jokes; and Grace surprises her elders with her fashion sense (and a promising blog on the topic). The Wangs vs. the World is about generational and cultural challenges, and not just that of the Chinese immigrant to the United States. It is more about family than money.

This is a stylish novel, fun to read. The Wangs sometime speak in a mashup of English and Chinese that Chang leaves untranslated, though adequately understandable in context. Charles has his own prejudices, including a bias against “the tropical joke of Taiwan” and “the poor, illiterate, ball-scratching half men from Canton and Fujian.” Each chapter shifts perspective, beginning with Charles the patriarch and cycling through outsider stepmother Barbra (whose further crime is to be not even Chinese, but Taiwanese), the three privileged but loving children, even the 1980 Mercedes.

Chang crafts her characters expertly, with nuance and precise details. In Charles’s mind, makeup “was artifice, and it was honesty. It was science and it was psychology and it was fashion; but more than that, it was about feeling wealthy. Not money–wealth. The brilliant Aegean blues and slick wet reds and luscious blacks, the weighty packaging, with its satisfying smooth hinges and sound closures.” In packing to leave his dorm, Andrew prioritizes “his top five pairs of sneakers–original issue Infrared Air Max 90s, Maison Martin Margiela Replica 22s, Common Projects Achilles Mid, beat-up checkboard Vans, and a pair of never worn Air Jordan 4 Undefeateds.” Saina’s social life in the Catskills is populated by few but absorbing characters–including an old artist boyfriend and a new one who’s a farmer–who are among Chang’s finest sketches. Andrew’s economics professor offers an impassioned in-class explanation for the crash: “Every one of you ought to be furious because you are the unfortunate generation who will be graduating and trying to obtain jobs in a busted economy that we might well pack up and sell to the Chinese.” These details, and perfectly formed dialogue, make an already engrossing story positively glitter.

As a novel with momentum and magnetism, reaching across generations from China and Taiwan to high-society California and New York to New Orleans and the Catskills, with stops along the way, The Wangs vs. the World undertakes an ambitious range of material. Chang manages both this sweeping plot and backdrop, as well as the finer points of characterization and relationships, with ease. The result is hilarious and heartfelt, witty and wise, and a prodigious achievement for a first-time novelist.


Rating: 8 of dad’s old paisley Herm├Ęs bow ties from the eighties.

Come back tomorrow for my interview with Chang.

Teaser Tuesdays: Gone ‘Til November by Lil Wayne

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Books and a Beat.

Teaser

gone til november

That’s right, the rapper. Gone ‘Til November is his long-awaited book-form release of his diary from a prison term served in 2010. What can I say, I like the unexpected, and Lil Wayne certainly has a perspective to offer.

Today’s teaser comes from page 1, and makes a true and poignant point:

Isn’t it bugged out how only time will tell?

Yes, sir, it is that.

Stick around for my review to come.


This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

Love from Boy: Roald Dahl’s Letters to His Mother ed. by Donald Sturrock

Forty years of letters from a beloved children’s author to his mother offer an intriguing, entertaining perspective on both the man and the world.

love from boy

Roald Dahl, renowned for both children’s classics and eerie adult short stories, wrote his first letter home from boarding school in 1925, when he was nine years old; Donald Sturrock (Storyteller: The Authorized Biography of Roald Dahl) edits this collection of previously unpublished letters from Dahl to his mother. In Love from Boy, Sturrock’s minimal narrative appears alongside the epistolary bulk of the text, accompanied by a small selection of Dahl’s photographs and drawings.

Organized in seven chapters by phases of Dahl’s life, the correspondence tracks the growth of a beloved imagination and literary career. Over 40 years, Dahl evolves from funny prankster to crafty storyteller to a more serious and cynical mind, particularly following World War II. Dahl had a thoroughly interesting life even before he began writing in earnest: from English boarding schools to travel and corporate work in colonial Africa, hours logged as a Royal Air Force pilot, diplomatic work in the United States and collaboration with Walt Disney in Hollywood. But Love from Boy also provides a personal perspective on his eye for detail and the absurd, his predilection for pranks, his knack for characterization–“He’s a short man with a face like a field elderberry, and a moustache which closely resembles the African jungle. A voice like a frog…”–and his quirky preoccupation with personal hygiene, especially dental care. Love from Boy is both an endearing glimpse of a much-loved author and a sober view of mid-20th-century world events.


This review originally ran in the September 6, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 7 tubes of Euthymol.

book beginnings on Friday: A Very English Scandal by John Preston

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

very english

The title of this book alone tickles me.

So begins A Very English Scandal: Sex, Lies and a Murder Plot in the Houses of Parliament:

One evening in February 1965, a man with a fondness for mohair suits, an unusually wrinkled face and a faint resemblance to Humphrey Bogart walked into the Members’ Dining Room at the House of Commons.

I smiled when I read this line, which so tidily sets a scene with those odd descriptive details that bring a character to life. I think this is a great starting sentence, and I’m looking forward to more! Stick around.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

Klee Wyck by Emily Carr

klee wyckKlee Wyck is a collection of short stories–fragments, really, many of them–begun in Emily Carr’s youth and then polished and published in her old age. I’ve written a little about some of these fragments here and here.

First and most importantly, I need to emphasize the story revealed in Kathryn Bridge’s fine introduction. If you are at all interested in this book, it is imperative that you get this edition of it. Here’s why.

Emily Carr is best-known as one of Canada’s finest painters. She was passionate about depicting her home environment of west coast British Columbia, which as she explored it in her teens and twenties in the late 1800s was still mostly unspoiled big forests; but perhaps she was most passionate about the lives, traditions and plight of the Indian or First Nation people she knew there. Their totem poles were among the central themes of her work. She also wrote extraordinarily well, and her writing was concerned with the same issues. The collection Klee Wyck serves largely as an indictment of the white settlers, especially the missionaries, who worked so hard to destroy native cultures. After a first edition by Oxford University Press, publishers Clarke, Irwin and Company purchased the rights to Klee Wyck, and put out an educational version thereof that thoroughly whitewashed Carr’s words and intentions. Bridge details the tragically extensive cuts and edits. And that’s the version of Klee Wyck that was available to so many for so long.

As it stands now, the restored & complete collection I’ve read is lovely, understated but firm. As I said in the teaser posted earlier this week, Carr had a keen eye for clean, tight prose, rather like Hemingway I’d venture. Her sentences are clear and direct, but often glittering with word choice and turns of phrase.

The grating of our canoe on the pebbles warned the silence that we were come to break it.

The sockets had no eye-balls, but were empty holes, filled with stare.

The tent full of sleep greyed itself into the shadow under the willow tree.

(She also has a knack for anthimeria, or the usage of one part of speech for another.)

The tips of the fresh young pines made circles of pale green from the wide base of each tree to the top. They looked like multitudes of little ladies in crinolines trooping down the bank.

The story “D’Sonoqua” about a character in the Indians’ mythology, and the striking, horrifying, awesome totems she inspires, is as striking as the totems Carr describes. In other words, I read her skill with language as parallel to the skill of the carver when she writes

The power that I felt was not in the thing itself, but in some tremendous force behind it, that the carver had believed in.

That clean transfer of force from the thing itself to the receiver is Carr’s gift, too.

And then in contrast is the story “Wash Mary,” a scarcely 2-page sketch of a woman Carr knew when she–Carr–was very small. Its simplicity is its accomplishment; I love that everything we see is everything the child Carr saw, nothing more, and with no added translation of meaning. It’s powerful nonetheless, perhaps because it shows how much a child can see without understanding.

Klee Wyck does address nature and the visual arts, the subjects for which Carr is known. But this book is firmly about people, not trees or totem poles. It’s about a human tragedy, for example the Indian children taken from their parents and villages to Indian residential schools (as I read about in Wawahte). This is why it’s so important to get this edition. Also: gorgeous, clean, precise writing. Emily Carr was a master of several forms. Do check it out.


Rating: 8 strong thoughts.
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