Night Tigers, Dreams, and More

The Night Tiger

By Yangsze Choo

Published 2019

Read May 2019

From Choo’s website: “Yangsze Choo is a fourth generation Malaysian of Chinese descent. Due to a childhood spent in various countries, she can eavesdrop (badly) in several languages. After graduating from Harvard University, she worked in various corporate jobs and had a briefcase before writing her first novel.  “

Choo has set this novel in 1931 Malaya, the British colony that eventually became Malaysia.  Eleven year old Ren is houseboy for Dr MacFarland who dies and commissioned Ren to find his finger, which was lost in the past, so it can be buried with him no more than 49 days after his death. Ren is sent to be a houseboy for Dr William Acton, a friend and colleague of his dead master, and somehow connected to the finger.  Ji Lin is a young woman apprenticed to a dress-maker although she had hoped to study medicine.  However her step-father suspended his support of her schooling while he is sending his son, her step-brother to study medicine. Ji Lin is trying to pay off her mother’s MahJong debts, before her step-father learns about them, by being a dance-hall girl in the evenings.  One of her clients accidentally drops a vial containing a finger and Ji Lin picks it up.  The reader eventually learns that the finger Ji Lin has is the one that Ren seeks. 

So we have knowledge about the finger than the characters don’t have.  But we, like they, don’t know so many other things.  Why are so many fingers missing from the surgical specimen archives? Why did Ji Lin’s client have the finger and why did he die?  Why was William’s liaison found dead in the jungle? Will his finance ever join him? What do the dreams Ren and Ji Lin mean?  Are they somehow linked together beyond the finger?  Is Ren’s dead master a weretiger and somehow causing the curious deaths? Will Ren be able to fulfill his master’s wishes? Will Ji Lin marry Robert just to get out of the house?  And others!

The reader gladly is pulled into Choo’s many layered story.  A narrator describes Ren’s story and reveals to the reader his thoughts; Ji Lin narrates her own story.  Choo gives us an interesting glimpse at the multi-cultural environment of 1931 Malaya—British ex-pats in Malaya separated from their families for various unstated and unrevealed reasons; an ambiance of supernatural phenomenon which no one fully believes nor disbelieves; multiple languages from the various immigrants to the region over time and the cultures they’ve brought; the need for young women to find suitable work while seeking husbands in suitable ways; the structured dance-hall on the fringe of a suitable way for men to interact with women in a suitable way.  As someone who remembers and thinks about dreams upon waking, this reader found the dream sequences and their impact on the characters quite interesting. 

Choo provides the reader with just sufficient resolution to some of the story while leaving other aspects nicely ambiguous.  This approach was very satisfying for this reader who wanted some specific answers but simultaneously didn’t want Choo to decide for the characters what would happen next in their lives.  This is a great relief as we’ve become attached to these characters as we’ve seen them grow and demonstrate and realize they are capable of moving beyond their current situations.   And as well we are nicely left wondering about the fate Dr MacFarland and his finger.

Prize Winning and Tough Read

Sing, Unburied, Sing

By Jesmyn Ward

Published 2017

Read March 2019

This is a very difficult book to read.  The family in this book suffers from poverty, racial prejudice, drug addition, loss of a son to a lynching, haunting memories from past that are also racially driven, and impeding death of a loved one to cancer.  It’s sometimes tough to stay with this dark text, but in the end,  well worth the effort.   

Jojo, a mixed-race thirteen year old boy living with his black grandparents in poor rural Mississippi who clearly loves and is loved by his grandfather, is a primary narrator.  His mother, Leonie, had Jojo when she was 17 and a daughter when she was 26, is a second narrator.  Richie, a boy Jojo’s grandfather knew when he was in Parchman (now Mississippi State Penitentiary) eventually joins as a third narrator.

Jojo’s voice starts us on our journey with this fractured family with “I like to think I know what death is.  I like to think that it’s something I could look at straight.”  He’s about to join his grandfather in butchering a goat that will become his 13th birthday dinner.  He desperately wants his grandfather, Pop, to “think I’ve earned these thirteen years” and that he’s ready to do the work that needs to be done.  We learn that he’s already doing a lot of work as the primary caregiver of his three year old sister, Kayla.  Jojo’s grandmother “Mam” is dying of cancer and is now confined to her bed and dealing with searing pain and the gradual loss of her body to her disease so she is no longer able to provide care to her daughter’s children.  Jojo’s mother, Leonie, is not around much and Jojo has learned to expect little or nothing from her when she is around. 

Through Leonie’s narration we learn of her enduring love for the father of her children, Michael, the son of a white family that has essentially disowned him for taking up with a black girl.  Michael is currently at Parchman for an unnamed offense.  They apparently lived together with their children in an apartment while he worked on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig.  After it blew up he lost his job, they lost the apartment when his severance ran out, and they moved in with her parents.  Leonie now works at a bar with Misty, a white girl who lives in a MEMA (Mississippi Emergency Management Agency) cottage, courtesy Katrina. Leonie and Misty are heavily into drugs, apparently selling as well as using. 

When Leonie receives word that Michael will be released from Parchman, she decides to take the kids with her to pick him up so they can again be a family.  Pop and Mam are not excited about this road trip and she eventually decides to have Misty come along too.  Much of the alternating narration between Jojo, and Leonie, and eventually Richie, is focused on the road trip which includes some drug dealing, an interaction with the police, essentially no care or feeding of the children, and vivid descriptions of Kayla’s puking all over everything repeatedly which certainly heightens the stress in this heavily loaded car (five people and hidden drugs) driving the back roads of hot and humid Mississippi.  (Why does so much of modern TV, film, and literature involve throwing up—starting in the first chapter of this book after the goat is slaughtered?)

Through a supernatural vein, Ward brings forward the horrors of Parchman, the death of Leonie’s brother, Given, by the hands of Michael’s cousin, and countless other atrocities committed against black men and women through the history of the country.  Jojo, Leoine, and Kayla are blessed with (?) and burdened by their abilities to interact with those that have met violent deaths. Richie is desperately seeking the land across the water where everything is peaceful and beautiful.  It’s not clear to this reader that this approach for highlighting Ward’s theme of continued racial hatred and its consequences in this country is the most engaging.  Certainly we hope Richie and future children don’t have to find peaceful and beautiful places to live only after they die and leave this planet.  However, Ward lost my attention a bit when Richie’s vision described” yurts and adobe dwellings and teepees and longhouses and villas.”  This language wasn’t quite compatible, to this reader’s ears, with the story of the twelve-year-old sent to Parchman for stealing food for his starving siblings.

Fortunately there are some positive moments in the book, although they carry a heavy undertone as well.  The descriptions of Kayla clinging to Jojo shows how deeply committed Jojo is to her care and well-being, but this is in stark contrast to Leonie’s inability to care for either child herself.  Similarly, Jojo’s relationship with his Pop is beautifully drawn, but the story Pop slowly reels out to Jojo about Richie is a very dark one. 

This book was selected as the winner of the 2017 National Book Award for fiction over two other books this reader has recently read:  Pachinko by Min Jin Lee and The Leavers by Lisa Ko.    It’s interesting they all discuss challenges to family that are at least partially driven by the society in which the family lives because each is part of “the other” = “not us”.  The Leavers and this book both use first person narratives of a son and motherIn The Leavers, the son and mother do push through a challenge to their relationship by correcting a misunderstanding about why the mother has left the son, although in the nicely ambiguous ending they continue their separate paths.  In Sing, Unburied, Sing, there is no reconciliation between mother and son, partially driven by the son’s age and substantially because the mother isn’t ready to return in any way to her son.   All of these books require the reader to face many realities past and present of members of our society which we would otherwise not know.  I can only speculate that Sing, Unburied, Sing won over The Leavers partly because Ward’s language is more like that of another revered Mississippi writer, Faulkner, to whom she has been compared, and partly because the racial issues in Ward’s book remain unresolved and violent.  The issues raised in The Leavers may seem more modern but have certainly been present throughout the country’s history, just less devastating for earlier immigrants than the racial issues present in Ward’s book.  At any rate, all these books deserve reading as each will provoke a reader’s thinking about how we treat “other” and the impact of that treatment.  I do remain curious whether any of these books will become “classic” according to this reader’s personal definition— the book is still read 50 years after its publication.  The glorious flood of serious literature annually makes this a large challenge but one that this reader hopes can be met. 

Classic Speculative Fiction

The Handmaid’s Tale

By Margaret Atwood

Published 1985

Read in 1986 and March 2019

I first read The Handmaid’s Tale shortly after its publication because I had read her previous four novels and looked forward to more.  It was sufficiently considered “science fiction” to be considered for the Nebula Award and to win the first Arthur C. Clarke award .  However, her “science fiction” has nothing to do with space or aliens.  Rather she terms her work “speculative fiction” which is a great description—what could the fairly near future be like if society continues some of its current paths…  This particular book, published in 1985, does not specify the specific timing

What I remember most distinctly from reading of the book thirty-three years ago (aside from what the Handmaid was…) is the overnight suspension of Compubank cards for all women.   My reaction was so swift and severe that I nearly called a friend, who had cheerfully indicated she paid for her groceries with an ATM card, to warn her of the dangers of relying on such devices.  While we haven’t had ATM cards shut off for all women since the book’s publication, some of the lines in the book remain remarkably relevant:

“It was after the catastrophe, when they shot the president and machine-gunned the Congress and the army declared a state of emergency.  They blamed it on the Islamic fanatics, at the time. ….. That was when they suspended the Constitution.  They said it would be temporary.  There wasn’t even any rioting in the streets.  People stayed home at night, watching television, looking for some direction.  There wasn’t even an enemy you could put your finger on. … Things continued in that state of suspended animation for weeks, although some things did happen.  Newspapers were censored and some were closed down, for security reasons they said.  The roadblocks began to appear, and Identipasses.  Everyone approved of that, since it was obvious you couldn’t be too careful.”

During my recent reading of the novel, I was again impressed with Atwood’s ability to engage you in the protagonist’s (Offfred) present day-to-day life while slowly reeling out both her personal past and the state of society as she could was aware of it given her new role.  Then Atwood then propels Offred into a new situation that is both destabilizing for and providing some potential hope for Offred and the reader. 

The abrupt and wonderfully ambiguous ending is followed by “Historical Notes” that are brilliantly written.  Atwood provides “a partial transcript of the proceedings of the Twelfth Symposium on Gileadean Studies in June, 2195.”  Professor Maryann Crescent Moon, Department of Caucasian Anthropology, University of Denay, Nunavit introduces Professor James Darcy Pieixoto, Director, Twentieth- and Twenty-First Century Archives, Cambridge University, England and the notes then record his talk.   The edition I read most recently was published by Penguin Random House as part of their Everyman’s Library of Contemporary Classics.  I first encountered Everyman’s Library when I read Cranford.  Interestingly, both books are about a woman’s world in a time when women’s place in society was in transition—Cranford about a society that was slowly dying out; Handmaid’s Tale about a society that could never have been imagined by the ladies of Cranford, nor, we hope, us.

Fruit of the Druken Tree

Fruit of the Drunken Tree

By Ingrid Rojas Contreras

Published 2018

Read April 2019

This is a vivid and engaging book set in Columbia in the time of the notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar and narrated by two major characters, Chula and Petrona.   

The book opens with a brief description by 15 year old Chula of a letter she has just received from Petrona, her family’s former housekeeper in Columbia, which includes a photograph of Petrona holding a newborn.  The photograph’s date stamp was 9 months after Chula’s family fled Columbia and arrived in Los Angeles when Chula was about 7.  Thus we learn that Chula’s family fled Columbia and we become aware that Petrona didn’t. 

The book then shifts back to the when Petrona first started working for Chula’s family.  The story progresses by alternating narration between Chula and Petrona.  Chula (7) and her sister Cassandra (9) live in a well-heeled gated community in Bogota with their mother and father.  The father is usually not at home as he works at a distant oil field. Petrona (15) lives with her family in an invasione (land owned by the government on which poor and displaced people have settled) outside Bogota.  Chula’s mother prefers to hire girls in this situation for her housekeeper since she grew up in a similar invasione but since had climbed out of poverty.

Through both narrators we hear about the happenings in the two households and get as well bits and pieces of the political and societal turmoil that is the backdrop to the lives of the narrators.  The author does a very credible job on the perspectives of each narrator.  Chula is somewhat aware of what’s going on through newscasts but is more interested, as expected for any seven year old, in playing Barbies with her sister and spying on the neighbors with her sister and friends.  She is also fascinated by the new and very quiet housekeeper, Petrona.   Petrona is living a difficult life as her brothers are being seduced into working with the guerillas and/or taking drugs to escape their reality.  At the same time, however, she is experiencing the universal trials and tribulations of attraction to a boy she probably should be avoiding.  Chula’s mother is intent on helping Petrona rise above her circumstances and even enrolls her in a First Communion class and throws her a First Communion party after the ceremony.

As the story progresses, the family and Petrona are buffeted by increasingly unstable situations.  Chula’s family leaves the city briefly and stays with Chula’s maternal grandmother who has improved the original shack in the invasione substantially over the years. Unfortunately they don’t completely escape the fighting between the government, paramilitary, and guerillas (the definition of each not told by Chula or Petrona).  While the family is away, Petrona and her boyfriend take up residence in Chula’s house and Chula becomes aware of this but keeps this secret to herself.  Petrona’s love interest involves her in a dangerous plot against her employer which turns out very badly for Petrona.  In parallel, Chula’s father joins the ever expanding ranks of the kidnapped.  A recording of his kidnappers on the phone becomes an essential ingredient to Chula’s family’s successful “Credible Fear Interview” as they enter the US and are accepted as refugees. 

Chula’s entries describing the family’s integration into the US is especially riveting.  Chula’s remarks in the opening section become more poignant.  “US was the land that saved us; Columbia was the land that saw us emerge.”  “We understood how little we were worth, how small our claim in the world.”  We learn the family gains US citizenship when Chula turns 15.  Meanwhile Petrona’s final entry describes her dream to leave someday with her son (to where is not clear) and that she think often of Chula.

The author introduces the reader to a number of aspects of Columbia as experienced by both girls. Among them:  Chula’s mother is insistent Petrona take her First Communion but is equally devoted to various supernatural practices.  Petrona’s family is of nearly pure Spanish blood and Chula’s mother is Indian.  Petrona’s mother’ prejudice based on bloodline makes her especially angry as Chula’s family is wealthy while Petrona’s family essentially has been thrown to the ashes. 

The credibility of the vivid descriptions about what things were like during this period and about Columbian culture is due, in part, to the author’s own experiences as she herself grew up in Columbia during the Pablo Escobar period and came to the US as a refugee.   

This reader very much appreciates that the author writes without any clear political stand on any of the situations she describes.  Rather she tells a story that provides a believable picture of how people try to live in a country with an unstable and generally corrupt government while a drug lord reigns economically through terror and violence.  It was impossible for this reader not to reflect on the current “immigration crisis” and wonder what influences our views of it.