Tag Archives: Adoption

Bird by Crystal Chan

BirdIn the small town of Caledonia, Iowa, Jewel stands out: she’s “‘half-Jamaican, a quarter white, and a quarter Mexican.’” As if to provide a physical embodiment of Jewel’s hapa background, the audible producers cast Amandla Stenberg, who played the heartbreaking role of young Rue in the film version of The Hunger Games. No doubt, Stenberg’s nuanced narration is a literary gift.

While Jewel’s appearance marks her as different in Caledonia, her family’s tragedy is what most circumscribes her young life. On the day she was born, her 5-year-old brother John – called Bird for “the way he kept jumping off things” – plummeted off a nearby cliff as he “tried to fly.” With his death, Grandpa stopped talking. Birthdays, understandably, were the most difficult of all: “I’ve always had to share my special day with the silence behind Grandpa’s closed door and the silence at the cemetery and the silence that hangs thick between Mom and Dad’s words.”

On the night of her 12th birthday, Jewel finds a stranger in “her” tree: a boy named John who is as “dark as the night sky,” who introduces himself as a neighbor’s visiting nephew from Virginia. He bluntly explains his lack of family resemblance: “‘I’m adopted. Raised by white people. It’s not as bad as it sounds.’” As the two become fast friends, Grandpa becomes agitated to the point of violence; he’s convinced that John is a “duppy” – an evil spirit from Caribbean folklore that Grandpa and Jewel’s father believe caused Bird’s death. Yet John’s possible resemblance to a brother she never knew makes him that much more intriguing to Jewel. For the rest of her family, John’s presence is both threatening and comforting, and eventually forces the too-many secrets to break through their silent surface.

Debut author Crystal Chan clearly shares a Midwest, small-town, mixed-race background with her protagonist: in addition to her bio, her author website offers a fun FAQ page with the question “What mix are you?” Her answer, complete with two photographs as a child with each parent, is: “My dad is from Hong Kong, and my mom is from Wisconsin and is of Polish descent. So I grew up eating pierogies, along with stir fry.”

Chan writes deftly not only about being different surrounded by homogeneity, but the conflict within those differences for both Jewel and transracially adopted John. Bird proves to be an empathetic, resonating read, full of wisdom, grace, hope, and – of course – the greatest love.

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2014

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, African American, Carribbean American, Chinese American, Hapa, Latino/a

The Year of the Baby and The Year of the Fortune Cookie by Andrea Cheng, illustrated by Patrice Barton

Year of the Baby and Year of the Fortune Cookie

When I read Andrea Cheng‘s The Year of the Book almost two years ago, I had no clue it would turn out to be a series! Such staying power bodes well that later printings of Book have been fully corrected; click on The Year of the Book post for details. And although original illustrator Abigail Halpin is missing from these subsequent two titles, Patrice Barton‘s similar style is just as whimsically entrancing.

In the second of the series, The Year of the Baby (2013) – the paperback edition pubs today! – Anna Wang is a year older and in the fifth grade. Her best friends are still Laura and Camille. She continues with her Chinese school, but Laura is now taking classes, too, even though “[s]he’s the only one in the whole school who’s not at least half Chinese.”

The biggest change in Anna’s life is the eponymous ‘baby’: Kaylee is Anna’s new sister, recently adopted from China. As adorable as she is, Kaylee is also stubborn – and getting her to eat is especially difficult. Even the doctors are worried that she’s not thriving, so Grandma arrives from San Francisco to help. Anna “[s]eems to have the magic” and, with Camille’s help, she figures out how to combine science and song to get Kaylee to open wide.

Next hitting shelves – in May – is The Year of the Fortune Cookie, in which Anna starts middle school (already!) as a sixth-grader. Laura’s moved to a nearby private school, leaving Anna convinced that Camille is her “only friend.” While Anna adjusts to the new year, her fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Sylvester – who was so thrilled and inspired to meet Kaylee in Baby – calls to say that she and her husband have been approved to pick up their new daughter in China. Although Anna and her mother had initially planned to join the Sylvesters together, Mrs. Wang’s schedule and finances don’t allow for the trip; instead the Sylvesters arrange to take just Anna as their cultural and conversational helper.

Anna arrives in Beijing with a “perfect” empty journal to fill from Camille, and 12 paper fortune cookies – to be opened each day she’s away from home – from her new buddy Andee. Between exploring Beijing with the Sylvesters, Anna makes a new Chinese friend and at visit’s end, miraculously visits the orphanage where Kaylee once lived. She also experiences defining moments in better understanding and appreciating her hybrid identity. Like the fortune cookie, she might be considered Chinese, but she’s actually an all-American multicultural creation.

Although all three Anna Wang titles thus far celebrate girl-powered fun, Fortune Cookie presents some challenges with basic plausibility: that the Sylvesters would choose an 11-year-old with limited Chinese proficiency to be their cultural emissary seems far-fetched (fluent Camille would have been the better choice); that Anna – herself a first-time visitor to China – seems to have so much freedom to roam the hotel, visit her brand-new, older friend’s family alone, not to mention to wander the streets without any supervision, feels fictional at best, downright irresponsible in reality. That Cheng’s younger readers might choose to emulate such adventures in any new city seems a reckless and dangerous possibility.

Potential overreactions aside, Anna has plenty of tween insight to share about friendships, siblings, school, and negotiating new experiences, both far away and closer to home. She – and the series – have plenty of room to grow. We’ll definitely keep watching … and reading!

Readers: Middle Grade

Published: 2013, 2014

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, .Drama/Theater, Chinese American

Fagin the Jew by Will Eisner, foreword by Brian Michael Bendis, afterword by Jeet Heer

Fagin the Jew“I am Fagin the Jew of Oliver Twist,” begins the ‘father of the graphic novel’-Will Eisner‘s 21st-century literary reclamation of the 19th-century classic. “This is my story, one that has remained untold and overlooked in the book by Charles Dickens,” a tattered old man insists. “Tarry a bit, Mister Dickens,” he speaks directly to his maker, “while ol’ Fagin here tells you, Sir, what I really was and how it all came to be!!”

The infant Moses Fagin arrived in London with his parents after surviving the pograms of Eastern Europe. While England was kinder to immigrant Jews, the more recent arrivals from Middle and Eastern Europe “were regarded as lower class.” Fagin paraphrases Dickens’ own A Tale of Two Cities-opening as he remembers his upbringing: “These were grim times, and yet the best of times for us newcomers.”

Moses learned early of life on the rough streets, but was given the chance of a promising future when he was hired as a houseboy to a wealthy Jewish merchant who soon enough came to treat him more like his own son. A single unthinking action sends Moses back to the streets, where he must use every means to survive. Again and again he’s mistreated and betrayed, unjustly accused and imprisoned. Somehow, he manages to keep some semblance of humanity and, in his later years, provides a haven-of-sorts for homeless boys, including the young Oliver Twist. The “Epilogue,” narrated by an adult Oliver – now a happily-married, well-established barrister – offers an apocryphal “turning point in Fagin’s life and his legacy” that is especially,  sigh inducing. Oh, if only!

As memorable as Fagin’s narrative is, the context in which it was written is perhaps the more enlightening story, especially as revealed in Eisner’s 2003 “Introduction to the First Edition.” In reimagining Fagin, the legendary Eisner – whose name is on the U.S. graphic industry’s highest awards – was, in essence, responding to his own stereotypical creations more than a half-century earlier. In 1940, Eisner introduced The Spirit, which featured an African American character named Ebony. By 1945, after surviving military service, Eisner became “more aware of the social implications of racial stereotypes, and [he] began to treat Ebony with greater insight.” More years passed until Eisner realized how Ebony was “feeding a racial prejudice with this stereotype image.” Eisner transferred that new awareness toward “produc[ing] graphic novels with themes of Jewish ethnicity and the prejudice Jews still face.” In the original editions of Oliver Twist, he “found unquestionable examples of visual defamation in classic literature … Combatting that became an obsessive pursuit …”

For this 10th anniversary issue, Fagin is bookended by an illuminating foreword and afterword that provides further insight in the story’s creation and aftermath. The levels of reclamation are especially intriguing – from Eisner’s distancing of his own stereotypical creations, to his rescue of Fagin from ignominy, to many-Eisner (of course!)-winning comics maker Brian Michael Bendis and culture journalist Jeet Heer‘s involvement in getting one of Eisner’s ‘minor’ titles to more and more readers.

Much like Jean Rhys gave Jane Eyre‘s ‘madwoman in the attic’ a voice in Wide Sargasso Sea, and Tom Stoppard offered Hamlet‘s schoolfriends a play of their own in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Eisner literally gives life to Fagin: “This book,” he rightfully insists, “… is not an adaptation of Oliver Twist! It is the story of Fagin the Jew.”

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2003, 2013 (10th anniversary edition)

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Graphic Novel/Manga/Manwha, British, European, Jewish

Hidden Girl: The True Story of a Modern-Day Child Slave by Shyima Hall with Lisa Wysocky

Hidden Girl Hall“If this book leads to even a single rescue, then my time in bondage was worth it,” Shyima Hall writes in the penultimate paragraph in the final chapter of her new memoir. That “time in bondage” she refers to is four long years during which she was a slave. This is not a long-ago story. This is a 20th-into-21st century nightmare: “when you are a slave, your life belongs to someone else. It is an unimaginable existence for most people, and I am glad of that. I hope that soon no one will ever have to feel the overwhelming sense of loss, frustration, exhaustion, hunger, demeaning words, and physical abuse that I did.”

In her native Egypt, Shyima El-Sayed Hassan was born in 1989 into a large family living in extreme poverty. She was the seventh of 11 children of an abusive, usually-absent father and a powerless, desperate mother. She knew little of her older siblings, although she remembers being sexually molested by older brothers. She helped care for the younger children, whose names she is no longer “100 percent sure about.” And yet she remembers those early childhood years with longing and love.

At 8, Shyima’s parents sold her to a wealthy family; her enslavement was the price for a theft committed by Shyima’s older sister when she was a servant in that home. At 10, the captor family moved to southern California, smuggling Shyima into the U.S. with a hired attendant (who traveled first class, while Shyima went solo in steerage). For two years, she lived in “a tiny windowless storage room in the three-car garage” of a luxurious home in an exclusive gated community. Shyima, who had been one among substantial staff in the five-floored mansion on the sprawling compound in Egypt, was now alone in serving her captor family of two parents and five children. Two years later, when she was finally rescued from her captors, her English vocabulary consisted of three words: hi, dolphin, stepsister.

In spite of being ‘free,’ Shyima knew virtually nothing of the world outside her captors’ home. What most children, most human beings, took for granted – school, friendships, hobbies – were all unknown experiences for Shyima. She would endure two foster homes, and an adoptive family that gave her an American last name but little else, until she was able to choose her own life as a young adult.

As wrenching as Shyima’s life story is, as literature, her memoir ultimately disappoints. Co-written with author Lisa Wysocky, whose previous titles are mostly equestrian-focused, Hidden Girl tends toward uneven, repetitive, pedestrian at best. How unfortunate that such an important story – more 17,000 new slaves are trafficked into the U.S. each year; a mere 2% are eventually rescued – gets mired in such a mediocre narrative. That said, perhaps content trumps style here, and aware readers can work together to make Shyima’s wish – to “put an end to the terrible custom of slavery” – come true: “I hope that it is sooner rather than later.”

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2014

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Memoir, .Nonfiction, Egyptian, Egyptian American

Yokohama Yankee: My Family’s Five Generations as Outsiders in Japan by Leslie Helm

Yokohama Yankee‘Sprawling’ barely begins to describe journalist/editor Leslie Helm‘s ambitious family history that spans nearly a century-and-a-half, three continents, and the titular five generations of a German Japanese American family with current branches spread throughout the rest of the world. Prompted by the death of his difficult father in 1991, and further spurred by the imminent adoption of two children soon thereafter, Leslie embarks on a personal quest to discover the complicated layers of his mixed-race heritage.

In 1868, Julius Helm, then 28, left his father’s 400-acre farm in Rosow, Germany, for a new American life only to find his options were limited to being a common laborer in Minnesota. One year later, the transcontinental railroad took him to San Francisco, where he narrowly missed his intended ship to China and landed instead in Yokohama in 1869.

Barely a decade earlier, Japan had been opened to foreign trade, and Yokohama was a primary entry point into the still-insular country. Julius’ arrival was fortuitously-timed: after moving from various minor jobs and apprenticeships, working for the German consul, and training Japanese soldiers, Julius eventually established himself – and his future generations – as an important merchant presence in Yokohama. Five of his nine siblings followed him to Japan. And his Japanese wife and their four hapa children insured the Helm family’s lasting Japanese ties.

Japanese ancestors, Japanese spouses, Japanese births left most of the Helm generations conflicted over the next 140 years: ‘The Helm relatives I knew were people caught between cultures,” Leslie observes. “… Most had lived on three continents and spoke four languages, yet they never felt at home in any one country.” Caught between a belief of superiority over the Japanese and too often a shameful insecurity over mixed blood, each generation of Helms battled doubts about their identity. Four generations removed from Julius, Leslie is the first to explore, explicate, and accept his challenging relationship with the country of his birth. Ironically, the fifth and latest Helm generation returns the family (at least Leslie’s branch) to Japanese ethnic ‘purity’ as both Leslie and his older brother adopted Japanese children; the children’s American upbringing, however, guarantees the Helms’ cultural hybridity.

Working with unpublished memoirs and diaries (including Julius’ biography “[r]e-written from his personal notes, by his brother Karl”), aging photographs, letters, articles, public records and registries, interviews, and memories, Leslie admirably attempts to corral an unwieldy cast of characters into a single historical narrative. His presentation is not always smooth: sections lag, skip, overlap (Leslie’s father Don’s life story, interwoven throughout, is often jarring to the story’s flow), while certain repetitions are unrelenting (too many of the Helms’ self-loathing doubts and denials). That said, the pages continue turning and fascinating details keep the narrative moving; the book’s latter chapters about the rediscovery of a distant, elderly Japanese cousin and the newly established bond with extended Japanese relatives of Julius’ Japanese wife’s family are particularly memorable.

Whatever its narrative pitfalls, this memoir is an undeniable visual success, exquisitely designed with fascinating photographs, historic documents, maps, handwritten notes and passages, travel stamps, and family crests. The mementos add a vibrant intimacy that overshadows any literary missteps. The family that emerges from these pages, with deep roots in Japan yet constantly in flux between wars, migrations and returns, economic opportunities – not to mention languages and cultures – proves to be a resilient force of inspiration, tenacity, and discovery.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Memoir, .Nonfiction, European, Hapa, Japanese, Japanese American

Digging to America by Anne Tyler

Digging to AmericaA few months ago when I came upon this fascinating article, “The One Thing White Writers Get Away With, But Authors of Color Don’t” by PolicyMic‘s Gracie Jin, I started trolling around for authors venturing into unexpected ‘color’-ful fictional territory. I was fascinated to find two bestselling writers who each took on transracial adoption – with vastly disparate results.

I read Ann Hood’s The Red Thread first; it had an irresponsible glibness about it … a sense of ‘hey, it’s just fiction!’ Transracial adoption was presented with a disturbing tinge of entitlement and commodification. Thank goodness that in Digging to America (energetically read by the fabulous Blair Brown), transracial adoption becomes less a focal point than a plot detail used to bring three generations of two diverse families together.

On Friday, August 15, 1997, the Dickinson-Donaldson and Yazdan clans become inextricably joined when Jin-Ho and Sooki arrive on the same flight from Korea to join their respective waiting families. Jin-Ho Dickinson-Donaldson and Susan Yazdan are the reason their parents and grandparents become friends, neighbors, even lovers, as their stories intertwine over leaf-raking get-togethers, “Arrival” parties, new year celebrations, binky send-offs, and even illness.

Bitsy and Brad Donaldson are the quintessential politically correct, trying-to-be-culturally sensitive older couple with too-loud opinions and not enough nunchi. Their overwhelming exuberance provides welcome and warmth for the younger Iranian American couple, Sami and Ziba Yazdan, whose child-rearing practices couldn’t be more different, with their double careers, preschool enrollment at age 2, and plans for private education. Soon enough, the dual family ties become further entangled when Bitsy’s father Dave and Sami’s mother Maryam begin to (finally!) spend more time together … until they don’t. Quiet, restrained, ever the ‘outsider,’ Maryam nevertheless will eventually claim the protagonist role with transforming awareness.

Anne Tyler’s own long marriage to an Iranian (who died in 1997) and their two hapa Iranian American daughters (daughter Mitra Modarressi is a children’s book author and illustrator; mother and daughter collaborated on two kiddie titles) surely gives her intimate access to ‘the other’ – her own experiences as both an outsider daughter-in-law, and as the wife to an outsider immigrant. That said, experience doesn’t always guarantee an effective transfer to the novel; Ann Hood became the mother of a Chinese-born daughter years before she wrote Red Thread.

For Tyler, her literary strength is surely in the details. Into what might initially seem to be inconsequential, sometimes even comical, small moments in her story, Tyler manages to weave in life-altering history such as 9/11 and its effects, as well as small personal changes signaled by the purchase of a new bicycle helmet. Again and again, Tyler reveals her Pulitzer Prize-winning mastery, a magical metamorphosis of the tiny into something tremendous.

Tidbit: In a rare interview (she eluded the media for 35 years!), Tyler claims she’s working on what will be her ‘final’ novel (say it ain’t so!); the title, she reveals, will be A Spool of Blue Thread. Staying tuned …

Readers: Adult

Published: 2006

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Iranian American, Korean American, Nonethnic-specific

One Step at a Time : A Vietnamese Child Finds Her Way by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch

One Step at a TimeIntroduced to U.S. readers by award-winning Canadian author Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch in last year’s Last Airlift: A Vietnamese Orphan’s Rescue from War, Son Thi Ahn Tuyet’s story continues – literally one step at a time. Now that Tuyet has a real home with her own real family – Dad, Mom, sisters Beth and Lara, and baby brother Aaron – she’s learning to finally feel safe. Nighttime still remains a bit scary when memories of war and tragedy return to haunt her dreams; no matter how nice her own room is, for now, Tuyet prefers to sleep safely “burrowed into her nest of pillows and covers on the throw rug between Beth and Lara’s beds.”

In addition to adapting to her new family and struggling to understand a culture so different from the one she left in a language she hasn’t yet learned, Tuyet prepares for some of the greatest physical challenges of her young life. The beautiful new red shoe and soft red slipper Mom bought for her polio-damaged feet and legs have already filled Tuyet’s heart with joyful smiles. Now Tuyet faces the first of multiple operations that will someday allow her to walk. In the 1970s, hospital rules did not allow for constant parental interaction as is today’s accepted norm; remarkably, Tuyet endured her surgeries virtually alone.

Thankfully, recovery proved to a full family affair: the whole Morris family not only made Tuyet physically comfortable, but each ensured that she was emotionally buoyed as well. From learning to blow out birthday “fire” and realizing that the beautiful wrapping paper is meant to be torn, to not grabbing her baby brother and seeking shelter at the sound of an airplane, to being able to balance well enough on her own two legs to kick a soccer ball, Tuyet takes her new life – and her steadily recovering legs – one glorious, triumphant step at a time.

“Thank you, Tuyet,” Skrypuch writes in her ending “Author’s Note,” “for allowing me to share your story.” Readers, too – especially younger readers who might be facing any sort of adversity – will surely appreciate Tuyet’s inspiring experiences. Step by step, Skrypuch shows with forthright clarity how Tuyet becomes her own very best hero.

Tidbit: Here’s an update (with pictures!) from Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch herself!

Last year, Last Airlift won the Red Cedar award in British Columbia and was a [2013] Red Maple Honour Book in Ontario. These awards are readers’ choice awards, where kids do the voting. For the Red Maple award, the Ontario Library Association hosts a huge event at Harbourfront in Toronto, with thousands of kids bussed in. I arranged for Tuyet to stand on the stage with me, and for her daughter to hold the sign and her son to introduce the book. We had long snaking line-ups for autographs, and many of the kids wanted Bria and Luke to sign their books in addition to me and Tuyet signing them. I’ve got some photos on my website. Check it out here:
♦   Last Airlift signing with Tuyet and her kids
♦   Red Maple Day at Harbourfront
♦   Tuyet and Red Maple Day

Readers: Middle Grade

Published: 2013 (United States)

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, .Biography, .Nonfiction, Canadian, Canadian Asian Pacific American, Southeast Asian, Southeast Asian American, Vietnamese American

The Red Thread by Ann Hood

Red Thread HoodAlthough I can’t recommend this book, I sure would like to find some readers who might want to discuss it. As it’s apparently a “national bestseller” – so touts the cover of the paperback edition – perhaps a few of you who have already read it might want to chat …?

Here’s the basic set up (warning: eye-rolling spoilers ahead) … Maya Lange runs the Red Thread Adoption Agency, connecting prospective American parents with abandoned Chinese girls. “In China, Maya wrote in her first brochure, there is a belief that people who are destined to be together are connected by an invisible red thread. Who is at the end of your thread?” Maya has facilitated magical matches for hundreds of Chinese girls, and she’s working with her latest group of waiting parents: her close friend Emily who has suffered too many miscarriages, save-the-world Sophie whose cheating husband left the love of his life when she became inconveniently pregnant, entitled Nell with her John Adams-by-marriage pedigree who’s desperate to get the one thing she can’t have, mournful Susannah with her Fragile X-syndromed daughter, and determined Brooke with her overbearingly loving husband. Svengali-like Maya, who controls their immediate future, has secrets of her own – she creates happy families because she can’t have one of her own.

In between the complications of the overprivileged – Emily who’s less mature than her resentful, anorexic (but, of course!) stepdaughter, Nell who attempts to pay for priority matching, Theo who teaches American businessmen how to buy women in Thai – Hood offers brief glimpses of the Chinese mothers and daughters and their impending separations. As predictable as those faraway stories are – evil in-laws, a baby before marriage, an unlucky weaker twin – they seem far more sincere than the overwrought tribulations of the American parents-to-be.

Hood’s novel has an irresponsible glibness about it … a sense of ‘hey, it’s just fiction!’ And yet, the premise of transracial adoption is very real, and here it’s presented with entitlement and commodification. Whether intended or not, too many of Hood’s characters are failed parents frantic for redemption via replacement: a mother who resents her mentally and emotionally damaged daughter, another who blames herself for her baby daughter’s death, another who competes with her unpleasant stepdaughter, a father who abandons his daughter before she’s even born. Whether birthed or adopted, privileged or deprived, cherished or abandoned, all over the world the daughters suffer most of all.

Soap opera antics aside, Hood spins a fairy tale of unrealistic happy endings that are downright disturbing. With no disrespect intended at Hillary Huber’s fine narration, after surviving over 8.5 hours – disastrously rubbernecking-style – the story I would much rather read is that of Blossom, Jordan, Ella, Beatrice, and Honor Maile (that middle name belonging to a dead daughter – ‘honor the dead’? – oh good gawd!) in 10, 15, 20 years. Here’s hoping the daughters someday, somehow find their own true voices …

Readers: Adult

Published: 2010

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Chinese, Nonethnic-specific

Never Fall Down by Patricia McCormick

Never Fall DownI admit I had a few false starts before I finally settled into Patricia McCormick‘s latest, which was a 2012 National Book Award finalist for Young People’s Literature. Based on the horrifying experiences of Cambodian activist/humanitarian Arn Chorn-Pond‘s childhood survival during the brutal Khmer Rouge control of his native country, McCormick “wrote his story as a novel.” She explains in her ending “Author’s Note,” “Like all trauma survivors, Arn can recall certain experiences in chilling detail; others he can tell only in vague generalities. … So I added to his recollections with my own research – and my own imagination – to fill in the missing pieces. The truth, I believe, is right there between the lines.”

With such careful creation, why did I need three attempts to finally finish? On the page, the sentences read jarringly in broken English; in the ears, the effect is even more pronounced as Ramon de Ocampo narrates in an initially grating, undefinable, pseudo-Asian accent. Might I (highly) recommend skipping forward to that ending “Author’s Note”: McCormick clarifies, “Trying to capture [Arn's] voice was like trying to bottle a lightning bug. Every time I imposed the rules of grammar or syntax on it, the lights went out. And so, in telling Arn’s story I chose to use his own distinct and beautiful voice.” That explanation sent me searching for that voice … and I found this video of writer and subject together. Their interaction convinced me I absolutely needed to finish the book: all frustration and hesitation disappeared by the final page.

In a devastating world tragedy that took the lives of almost a quarter of a country’s entire population, Arn witnesses the most heinous crimes and tragedies; he is just 11 when the Khmer Rouge begins the devastation of Cambodia. He loses most of his family, his friends, his hopes, his beliefs. He’s forced to commit indescribable acts as a child soldier, numbing his heart and mind in order to live to the next day. Miraculously, he reclaims his own humanity to become an outspoken champion of the world.

McCormick has built her lauded literary reputation on giving voice to young people facing the most challenging circumstances – from addiction to slavery to war to genocide (her first National Book Award finalistSold, is revelatory). McCormick’s next title – her first co-writing credit – is due out in August 2014, and is already making headlines: I Am Malala: How One Girl Stood Up for Education and Changed the WorldSight unseen, I’m already practicing chants of ‘NBA, all the way.’

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2012

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, .Memoir, Cambodian, Cambodian American, Nonethnic-specific, Southeast Asian, Southeast Asian American

And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini

And the Mountains EchoedBefore this novel, Khaled Hosseini‘s third, even hit shelves on May 21, the world had already made it a bestseller; many months – more likely years – will pass before it fades from the international spotlight. Although I had the galley for months before, I kept it tightly closed, glancing at it occasionally to savor its potential. But when I found the audible version has Hosseini himself narrating (he alternates chapters and characters with Iranian American actors Navid Negahban and Shohreh Aghdashlo), resistance disappeared. Having met Hosseini once before – the emphasis is on before, as in before he became a sensational phenomenon (you can read that story here) – hearing him voice his own words lulled me into finishing all too quickly.

Although more than a few weeks have passed, I delayed writing this post, silently paralyzed by the heavy burden of waiting for his next book. Four years elapsed between The Kite Runner (2003) and A Thousand Splendid Suns (2007; still my favorite of his three), then another six until Mountains appeared. If that progression holds, then we’re looking at eight long years, 2021 (!), for his next. Guess I’ll have to make sure my aging eyeballs and ringing ears are still functioning into the next decade!

Mountains is surely Hosseini’s most expansive story thus far. From a remote village in Afghanistan, his characters disperse around the world, to a comparatively cosmopolitan 1950s Kabul, to the literary lights of Paris, to the Greek island of Tinos, to the contemporary immigrant communities of Northern California. At the center of multiple generations of scattered family and related others are a brother and sister whose father decides that “‘the best’” for both children will be to live separate lives.

Abdullah “believed, the reason God had made him, [was] so he would be there to take care of Pari when He took away their mother.” Over the next half-century and more, he remains tightly bound to the memories of his lost sibling even as he ends up on the other side of the world. Pari, whose original family ties never had the chance to solidify, continues to search her heart for the elusive, unnamed presence that was once Abdullah. Around and between and overlapping these two unjustly separated souls, Hosseini creates an intimate landscape populated by an uncle with a dying wish, village sisters whose love for the same sweetheart traps one and saves the other, neighborhood boys who escape their war-torn homeland and their prodigal return, a talented surgeon who once longed to be a photographer and the single image seared into his heart, and so many more.

Readers and critics alike have lauded, cheered, extolled, and marveled over Mountains. I gladly confess to my own groupie admiration for Hosseini’s work: his writing has matured profoundly through this three novels, surely enriched in no small part by his experiences as a Goodwill Envoy to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) since 2006, which inspired him to establish his The Khaled Hosseini Foundation.

And yet … oh, that yet. From Kite to Suns to Mountains, I can’t seem to let go of a tiny seed of concern over what we might expect when his next title debuts (hopefully not too) far in the future. I wonder if that maturity might have come with an unexpected price. Mountains, for all its epic sweep, glows with a surprising sheen that wasn’t found in either Kite or Suns. The emotions that felt earnest and pure in Hosseini’s first two novels, seem to glow with a calculated (dare I say perfect?) patina in his latest – absent mothers and their replacements, lost lovers and their substitutes, damaged children and their substantial metamophoses. Regardless, I’m committed to whatever will come next bearing his name … until then, I remain devotedly resigned to wait (and wait and wait).

Tidbit: One of my most insightful BookDragon followers messaged me recently with “Has Hosseini become a savvy sentimentalist?” – that ‘savvy’ resonated with my own ‘sheen.’ He continued, “I also wondered if [Hosseini] had become the ‘Amy Tan’ of Afghan Americans.” In order not to bias that observation with any further personal elaboration, I invite (hope, plead, beg?) others to join in and comment.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Afghan, Afghan American