In How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, Alexander Chee strings together a collection of essays detailing the way he understands himself, his trauma, and his writing. There is a vulnerability in the collection that pulled me into moments that were truly personal and inspirational. I read the essay, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, in my last semester of college, and only now, a year later, I have come back to read the rest. In reading it a second time, what I think gave me another layer of appreciation was the parallel feelings I have of doing the same (of writing a novel).
The moment that reverberated with me was in the essay, 100 Things about Writing a Novel. Where he writes, “You write the novel because you have to write it. You do it because it is easier to do than not do. You can’t write a novel you don’t have to write.” What I took from the essay, and the collection as a whole, was the urgency that he felt when creating.
He also tries to both contextualize, understand, and deal with the trauma that has lived with him since his childhood. He talks both about his therapy sessions, and the adjacent lives it had pulled from and affected. But he mentions that after therapy, after a book, and after time, he hints at the way it still is there. And I feel that it is also implied that those moments, whether brought on by flashback or faces, may stick with him even after writing this novel.
Final Rating: 4/5
Little Climates by L.A. Johnson is a chapbook detailing the eerie moments of nature and the echoes of a brother-in-law’s death. Many of the moments that Johnson creates are either tangentially or are directly tied to driving, deer, and weather. All these bits coalesce in ‘Vanish Point’ where the events of what led to the death are alluded to.
There are two poems I found myself reading over again, which were ‘Forecast’ and ‘Evaporation’. Each poem seems to bookend the narrative in a unique and compelling way. For me, in ‘Forecast’, I found the lines “I dreamt tonight of a glass-bottomed boat/floating through a pine forest, needles pierced/above and below my reflection in the lake surface.” to hold a powerful image that encapsulates the fragility of the speaker. And on the tail end, ‘Evaporation’ describes a collection of items that start off derelict, but soon build to the sadness of the metal tools.
Little Climates looks to process and find meaning in the deeply dissonant moments with a ping of bitterness that makes me want to come back for more.
Final Rating: 4/5
Minor Feelings, a collection of essays written by Cathy Park Hong, actively tries to pick apart and critically understand the systematic and cultural racism that exists in the US. She draws on her childhood in Los Angeles and college days to create a tapestry of examples, both internal and societal that make her question her lived experiences. She dissects the way her white colleagues manage to deflect and redirect pain back onto her. This book, as explained by its subtitle, tries to both explain and note the way Americans have treated its Asian citizens. But the book itself is not so much a piece of understanding the self, and more so a beginning to broader conversations of how Asian Americans fit in it.
In the essay, A Portrait of An Artist, a possible reference to James Joyce, she analyzes the life and work of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. Most notably, Hong focuses in on Cha’s novel Dictee in that it has two unique factors. The first being that it doesn’t look to explain the art within its pages, thus forcing the reader to search for the answers themselves. The work is then transferred to the reader which acts as a parallel to how Hong thinks Asian Americans don’t need to cater themselves to a white audience. And the second is that silence in both Cha’s work and life act as examples of how Asian Americans desire to not discuss tragic events. The idea that silence is good or bad is left for the reader to decide.
There are difficulties a white audience has to confront to be on the same pages that Asian American writers and artists like Hong are on. Though, it is in the use of her tempered silence and examples that push the reader to confront their own biases. The book is bigger than itself in that it challenges a conversation and is unabashed about it. The true question—the reckoning that Hong is asking—is: will the conversation of racism stay within the Asian American communities, or will her white audiences do the work needed to understand the Asian American experience?
Final Rating: 4/5
In John Green’s The Anthropocene Reviewed, Green reviews things from Teddy Bears to the song “Auld Lang Syne”. And I find it fitting that now, I am reviewing a book that contains only a life catalogued in a five-star system. When asked what the book is about, Green mentions that he’s never quite sure, that maybe it’s about growing up, maybe about the effect of time, and maybe as broad reaching as about the human condition. And to that end, it does mean all those things to him, and most likely more.
My personal favorite essay, as I’m sure with the other 100,000 people who have watched the video essay on Youtube, is that of “Auld Lang Syne”. There is an honest earnestness in the way Green weaves his own life experiences with the convoluted and sometimes melancholy history of the song. And I’ve noticed, as mentioned in the bits of his introduction, that without the personal flourishes of each review, they would feel detached and nearly sterile. Because of this, the reviews that have strong personal connections are the essays that stand out.
Though, there are moments where it seems Green only has a loose personal connection to the topic, and thus the narrative relies on history rather than a deeply intricate understanding of him, as an individual. And while I understand that yes, it is a book of reviews, so what else is it supposed to be about other than the exact thing being reviewed. Though, the detached essay of “Yips” contrasts so heavily with the essay following it “Auld Lang Syne” that I feel as though its significance is nearly lost.
I’ve learned that the reviews say more about the reviewer than the things they are reviewing. Such as: what things does the person value, or what things did they not include, or how is the thing personally relevant.
Final Rating: 4/5
(As a side note, there are 44 reviews (45 if you include the half-title page review) with three 1 star, two 1 ½ stars, five 2 stars, three 2 ½ stars, three 3 stars, four 3 ½ stars, eleven 4 stars, six 4 ½ stars, and eight 5 stars. This is plotted below.)
When the Emperor was Divine by Julie Otsuka is a historical fiction novel that follows a Japanese-American family during World War 2 as they are displaced from their home in Berkley, CA to an internment camp in Topaz, Utah. There are three distinct stages that the novel follows: travel to Topaz, life at the internment camp, and the reverberating effect afterward.
The novel begins by following the mother, keeping the story grounded and practical as she must deal with the logistical problems of being uprooted. These activities range from burning items that tie them to Japan, packing or discarding their stuff, and killing their dog. Otsuka provides the characters distance from their own actions by supplying the narrative in third person while keeping the family members nameless. In effect, Otsuka is implying that it could be anyone that takes the place of these characters. Though that doesn’t mean that the characters are dimensionless. The son at first pass has an optimistic attitude towards the whole ordeal, but Otsuka may have used this as a thin veil to describe his obliviousness. This is because the son is young, while his sister is old enough to understand what is going on. She is more reactionary, which the mother interprets as rebellion throughout the train ride and their subsequent life in the camp.
Otsuka’s characters are painfully asked to wait: at an old horse race track, on a train to Topaz, at Topaz for the war to end, and for their father to come back. It is in these moments of waiting where Otsuka fleshes out the characters into whole beings with hope of their return, anxiety of the state of their home, and contempt for their living state. Otsuka forces the reader to realize how the immediate pause—or in some cases total destruction—of American lives should not have been justified by the government. But even so, these characters and those actually interned at the camps had to find a way to continue living. The mother in one scene after trying to be the stable foundation for her children breaks down by refusing to eat. While the sister separates herself from the family by being with other friends in the camp, and the son tries to act as the stable earth.
When the family is allowed to go back home, the experience then switches to the point of view of the son. And in this way, it reaffirms the idea that the characters tried to separate and distance themselves from their own experiences.
The backbone of the novel is the relationship between the family and the father. Otsuka provides flashbacks, letters, and stories of the father to build this idea of a strong, loving, and caring person. And throughout most of the novel, the father is experienced indirectly through memories of a rosier time. And without that hope to meet again, the characters would’ve broken down with no motivation to continue. Otsuka builds the father as one thing, but once reunited, the reader experiences the massive disconnect between reality and the idea of the father. This disconnect is also felt through the rejection of their friends, neighbors, and society as a whole when the mother tries getting a job.
The novel finishes with the payoff that Otsuka builds up to. The father, who had been taken in by the US government to be questioned about his allegiance and suspected of being a spy, is the focus of the final chapter. In the point of view of the father, who is innocent of all accusations, instead admits responsibility of the accused actions. And while the reader knows that he has done nothing of what he admits, the father’s willingness to take the fault shows his deep loyalty to America. It is a noble act to say sorry for something that one has never done, and Otsuka knows that making this the final sticking point makes an explicit comparison to the actions of the US government.
Final Rating: 4/5
Maxwell Suzuki is a writer, poet, and photographer based in Los Angeles.