Early in the year, and again as each new season approaches, book lovers are regaled with articles previewing “the best books to read this (fill in season).” I enjoy those articles as much as the next reader, even though they only add to my wish list, which is already too long.
I used to publish similar pieces here. But since that subject is so well-covered by nearly every other newspaper, magazine, culture-oriented website, and book blog, I’ve opted for a different approach: highlighting overlooked books from past seasons. It’s impossible to keep up with all the books that are published, so even the most passionate and vigilant of readers will miss a ton of books they might wish to read.
So, in this latest installment of an occasional series, I’d like to tell you about three books that are definitely worth your time.
Deceit and Other Possibilities: Stories by Vanessa Hua (Willow Books, 2016)
Vanessa Hua received a lot of acclaim for her debut novel, A River of Stars, last year. But I discovered her when this collection received an Asian/Pacific American Award in Literature and was a finalist for a California Book Award a few years ago. Rave reviews by Gary Shteyngart and Laila Lalami convinced me that Hua was a writer worth knowing. And they were underselling these stories.
Deceit and Other Possibilities is the best short story collection I’ve read in the last couple years. These 10 stories concern characters struggling with their immigrant identity and resulting life choices: an elderly immigrant from Chinatown forced to return home after 50 years (“The Older the Ginger”); a Korean-American teen who finds an unusual way to become a student at Stanford in order to satisfy his ambitious parents (“Accepted”); a young Chinese-American celebrity from Hong Kong who returns to Oakland following a sex scandal (“Line, Please”); a Korean-American pastor doing missionary work in East Africa whose intentions are not as good as they seem (“The Deal”); and a Mexican immigrant boy whose parents are torn between the present and a possible future (“What We Have is What We Need”).
In the ostensible title story, “The Responsibility of Deceit,” Calvin and Peter escape San Francisco to enjoy a weekend in Napa. Calvin plans to visit his parents in the East Bay on the way home, as he does every Sunday. Will he drop Peter off at the nearby BART station to head home while Calvin has dinner with his family? Or is Calvin ready to introduce his boyfriend to his very traditional Chinese-American parents?
Hua is a masterful writer. Her stories feature a finely-honed sense of characterization, an ear for realistically quirky dialogue, and a direct, occasionally acerbic tone that doesn’t completely hide her sympathy for these very human characters.
Eve Out of Her Ruins by Ananda Devi (Deep Vellum Publishing, 2016)
Mauritius is one of the world’s great secrets, a tiny island in the Indian Ocean about 1,200 miles off the southeast coast of Africa. It’s considered the most stable democracy in the African region, has become a high-tech hub with a booming economy, and is home to a multicultural population that lives peacefully together. Sounds ideal, doesn’t it?
Ananda Devi, arguably the island’s greatest writer, takes us away from the stunning beaches, posh hotels, and overpriced shopping districts to the real Mauritius, where many residents struggle economically and socially. Eve Out of Her Ruins is the story of a charismatic 17-year-old girl for whom the island is not enough, and whose unwritten strictures are strangling her. Eve and three of her associates in the poverty-stricken Troumaron neighborhood of capital city Port Louis narrate this short, gritty, and potent look into the darkness at the heart of the shining island.
Beyond the brutal honesty of her writing, Devi is a writer of great lyric power. Eve Out of Her Ruins was originally published in France in 2006 and won the Prix des Cinq Continents de la Francophonie for the best novel of the year written in French. Fortunately, after a decade we finally have an English translation.
My Old Faithful: Stories by Yang Huang (University of Massachusetts Press, 2018)
With her latest collection, Yang Huang has carved out a niche in Chinese-American fiction. Her debut novel, Living Treasures (Harvard Square Editions, 2014), followed a young woman fleeing Beijing after the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 to the isolated countryside, where she befriends a pregnant woman. Their relationship and shared difficulties allowed Huang to explore a rapidly changing China. There was a charming simplicity at the heart of the novel that made me recommend it to mature teenage readers.
My Old Faithful is a set of 10 linked stories about a Chinese family. The stories move across time (30 years) and space (to the United States) and allow us to witness a family’s evolution. We hear from the parents, their son, and their two daughters. Once again, Huang writes with great charm and humanity about the people behind the headlines of China’s roaring economy and modernizing culture. The relationships of the family members and the individual challenges each faces cover the spectrum of experiences — some dark and dispiriting, others humorous and uplifting – giving readers an intimate look at the life of one middle class Chinese family.