Book Review: A River of Stars

river of starsA River of Stars
by Vanessa Hua
Contemporary Fiction
292 pages
Published August 2018

I’ve said many times I don’t tend to like contemporary fiction, but for all that, I’ve been reading a decent amount of it. And liking some of it. In trying to read inclusively, I’ve come across books like this one and Number One Chinese Restaurant. Both books were on my summer TBR/beach read list, but having read them, I’m not sure I’d classify them as such. They are both quite good, though!

Scarlett falls in love and gets pregnant by her boss, the owner of the factory she works in, and he sends her to the US to give birth so their son will have citizenship. Which is a little shady, but I can totally believe it’s done among wealthier families. She’s one of only two unwed mothers at the secret maternity home in LA – the rest are wealthy wives there to get the same benefits for their children. When one woman goes into labor unexpectedly, Scarlett turns out to be one of the few people in the home that know how to drive, and is charged with driving the laboring mother to the hospital. After dropping her and the head of the house off, she simply drives away in the van.

Her first stop is McDonald’s, which is quite believable, from what I understand. (I’ve never been pregnant myself, but I’ve seen the cravings of my friends!) On her way back to the van from the restaurant, she finds Daisy, the other unwed mom-to-be, getting out of the van. The two women make peace with each other and wind up heading for San Francisco, where they get an apartment in Chinatown.

In Chinatown, they dodge private investigators, scratch together rent money for the tiny room they share, and take care of each other through delivery and raising their newborns. Daisy was born in the US, but Scarlett lives in fear of being deported.

The book is a fascinating look at the perils immigrants face, and especially immigrant women, who don’t always move of their own free will but then have to make the most of their situations while taking care of children and loved ones.

The ending seemed a little too…neat. I actually liked the way things were going before the last couple of chapters, even if the way it ends is a happier ending for the two women. I still enjoyed it, but I think it would have been more interesting to end the book in a slightly different way. That’s about all I can say without spoiling things!

From the cover of A River of Stars:

Holed up with other mothers-to-be in a secret maternity home in Los Angeles, Scarlett Chen is far from her native China, where she worked in a factory and fell in love with the owner, Boss Yeung. Now she’s carrying his baby. Already married with three daughters, Boss Yeung is overjoyed because the doctors have confirmed that he will finally have the son he always wanted. To ensure that his child has every advantage, Boss Yeung has shipped Scarlett off to give birth on American soil. U.S. citizenship will open doors for their little prince.

As Scarlett awaits the baby’s arrival, she chokes down bitter medicinal stews and spars with her imperious housemates. The only one who fits in even less is Daisy, a spirited teenager and fellow unwed mother who is being kept apart from her American boyfriend.

Then a new sonogram of Scarlett’s baby reveals the unexpected. Panicked, she escapes by hijacking a van – only to discover that she has a stowaway: Daisy, who intends to track down the father of her child. The two flee to San Francisco’s bustling Chinatown, where Scarlett will join countless immigrants desperately trying to seize their piece of the American dream. What Scarlett doesn’t know is that her baby’s father is not far behind her.

A River of Stars is an entertaining, wildly unpredictable adventure, told with empathy and wit by an author the San Francisco Chronicle says “has a deep understanding of the pressure of submerged emotions and polite, face-saving deceptions.” It’s a vivid examination of home and belonging, and a moving portrayal of a woman determined to build her own future.

Advertisements

International Holocaust Remembrance Day

mausMaus
Art Spiegelman
Graphic Novel
295 pages
Published 1996

Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day, a day set aside to remember the six million Jews that died in the genocide of World War 2. This is an especially important day given the things that have been taking place in America over the past year. I partially read Hitlerland a few months ago, about Americans living in Germany when the war broke out, and how they reacted to the events happening around them, and was horrified at how closely the early events mirrored what is happening now with Trump. I also read the Diary of Anne Frank in high school, as so many other students did.

What I read this year was the Complete Maus. Maus is a graphic novel about the author’s father’s experience in the concentration camps. In the novel Jews are mice, Poles are pigs, and Germans are cats. (Humans are dogs and French are frogs.) The art is stark, but it fits the subject matter. It’s almost entirely black and white, with the exception of a few cover pages. The time period jumps back and forth a little. Most of it is set during the war, with the father, Vladek, narrating what’s going on. The rest of it is in modern time, sometimes with the author interviewing his father, sometimes just the author dealing with his elderly father’s eccentricities. maus-swastika

While the graphic novel doesn’t shy away from the violence and sheer number of people dying, it’s not graphic about it. There’s no gore. I feel like this would be a good first book for learning about the Holocaust, though depending on age, kids might need help with the vocabulary.

It’s a fairly fast read for an adult. I think the animals were a really well done metaphor – Vladek, a mouse, often has a pig mask on as he masquerades as a Polish non-Jew. I get most of the animal metaphors – Germans as cats while the Jews are mice, French are frogs, and Americans are friendly dogs. I had to ask Google why Poles were pigs – apparently they were represented as pigs in Nazi propaganda. There’s also an element of Poles being non-kosher, and, also, a certain amount of racism. Whether that racism is Art’s or Vladek’s is unclear, but ultimately Art chose to represent them with pigs, so. That problematic factor aside, this was a really good piece of art.

From the cover of Maus:

Maus is a haunting tale within a tale. Vladek’s harrowing story of survival is woven into the author’s account of his tortured relationship with his aging father. Against the backdrop of guilt brought by survival, they stage a normal life of small arguments and unhappy visits. This astonishing retelling of our century’s grisliest news is a story of survival, not only of Vladek but of the children who survive even the survivors. Maus studies the bloody pawprints of history and tracks its meaning for all of us.

Book Review: An American Family

americanfamilyAn American Family: A Memoir of Hope and Sacrifice
by Khizr Khan
Memoir
271 pages
Published 2017

Like many people, I was inspired by the Khizr Khan’s speech at the Democratic Convention last year, and appalled by Trump’s reaction. As a Marine wife, the family members left behind when a service member dies get my utmost sympathy and compassion. That was my biggest fear while my husband was in the Marines, and it’s still a very emotional memory to look back on. So when I heard that Khan was writing a book, I knew I HAD to read it. I put a hold request in at the library before the book was published, and I’m glad I did. The book is definitely one of my favorites of 2017. (One of my next posts will be a round up of my favorites from this year.)

An American Family follows the Khans’ journey from Pakistan, to Dubai, to Texas, Maryland, and finally Virginia. And it’s fascinating. He says in the beginning of the book that he wrote it to answer the question he’s constantly asked: why do you love America? Why are you a Patriot? He couldn’t answer it in a few short sentences. This book is his answer, and what an answer it is. It’s impossible to summarize this book – it must be read.

It’s a very easy read – it flows beautifully, and Khan tells a story well. It’s easy, at least, until you get to the point where their son dies in action. Perhaps it wouldn’t have such an emotional effect on someone else, but that, and its aftermath, was pretty hard for me to read about. The event is important, however. Its repercussions ripple out through the Khans’ lives and affect everything they touch.

I can’t recommend this book highly enough. Especially if you’re American, and no matter where on the political spectrum you fall, this book is important. It might give you a different view on immigrants.

From the cover of An American Family:

“I am an American patriot not because I was born here but because I was not. I embraced American freedoms, raised my children to cherish and revere them, and lost a son who swore an oath to defend them, because I come from a place where they do not exist.”

In fewer than three hundred words, Muslim American Gold Star father Khizr Khan electrified viewers around the world when he took the stage at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. And when he offered to lend Donald Trump his own much-read and dog-eared pocket Constitution, his gesture perfectly encapsulated the feelings of millions. But who was that man, standing beside his wife, extolling the promises and virtues of the U.S. Constitution?

In this urgent and timeless immigrant story, we learn that Khizr Khan has been many things. He was the oldest of ten children born to farmers in Pakistan, and a curious and thoughtful boy who listened rapt as his grandfather recited Rumi beneath the moonlight. He was a university student who read the Declaration of Independence and was awestruck by what might be possible in life. He was a hopeful suitor, awkwardly but earnestly trying to win the heart of a woman far out of his league. He was a brilliant and diligent young family man who worked tow jobs to save enough money to put himself through Harvard Law School. He was a loving father who, having instilled in his children the ideals that brought him and his wife to America – the sense of shared dignity and mutual responsibility – tragically lost his son, an Army captain killed while protecting his base camp in Iraq. He was and is a patriot, and a fierce advocate for the rights, dignities, and values enshrined in the American system.

An American Family shows us who Khizr Khan and millions of other American immigrants are, and why – especially in these tumultuous times – we must not be afraid to step forward for what we believe in when it matters most.