Ling Ma’s Severance was the Austin Feminist Sci-Fi Book Club’s pick for August, a meeting I was lucky enough to attend in person for once!
“Here’s a question for everyone,” I announced during an early lull in the conversation. “Describe this book as a mash up of two other works.”
My own answer was Station Eleven and My Year of Rest and Relaxation. Other names that came up included The Last of Us, Girls, The Road, Dawn of the Dead, and Sex and the City. A pattern emerges, but to spell it out more clearly:
Candace, our protagonist, is part of a group of zombie apocalypse survivors led run by a cult-guru-in-the-making named Bob escaping New York City to a shopping mall in Illinois. Why a shopping mall in Illinois? Through some weird happenstance, Bob happens to be part owner of the property. Don’t think about it too much.
The zombies, meanwhile, are not only slow zombies—they’re not even particularly hungry or aggressive ones. Spawned by a fungal infection that can sit dormant for ages until it’s triggered, these zombies are entirely docile and stuck in loops of activity until their bodies give out. We see a family in a dining room go through countless iterations sitting down to an imaginary dinner; another character keeps on trying clothes from her closet. Interspersed with the zombie apocalypse narrative, we get flashbacks to Candace’s life right up until the killer fungus: her family’s contentious move from China and lifelong strain it caused, her father’s unexpected death, her mother’s rapid decline into dementia, her lackluster relationships, her job in publishing various glitzy and gimmicky editions of the Bible.
That’s pretty much it. Some people get infected, some people die, and the narrative eventually just…peters out.
Everyone at the meeting agreed that a lot of the public health responses to the fictional virus (or well, fungus) in Severance felt very Covid-y despite the 2018 publication date; my hypothesis is that Ma drew from how epidemics like bird flu and swine flu were handled in Asia when it came time to write about how an actual pandemic would unfold. We were also all in agreement that the book felt very gimmicky with a lot of vague ideas that were only half explored and that at the same time felt like pretty heavy-handed critiques and observations of Our Current Society. Candace is passive to the point of frustration, making poor decision after poor decision, and none of the other characters really a particularly noteworthy personality (except Bob the cult leader). To me it read like a novel of the Chinese Immigrant Experience but then someone suggested to Ma that she examine it through the framework of a zombie story instead and…I don’t know. I’m not mad I read it, but it never really coalesced into something coherent.
Unless you went to high school with me, you probably don’t know that I played the violin in orchestra.
Well, now you do, I guess?
I was never particularly good, let me be clear. It would be fair to say I was a perfectly mediocre violinist. Nonetheless I enjoyed orchestra and continued throughout my entire high school career, concert orchestra as well as pit orchestra. I don’t really think about the violin very often—usually only when I listen to a particular symphonic piece we performed, where my memory of it is more deeply embodied than with other music. Who knows, maybe my brain is still sending phantom signals to my lefthand fingers and bow arm.
Light From Uncommon Stars, on the other hand, made me think about the violin a lot.
Our heroine is Katrina Nguyen, a trans teenager and gifted violinist. Legendary violin instructor Shizuka Satomi hears Katrina playing in a park and decides to take her on as a student so she can complete her Faustian bargain with the demon Tremon Philippe and deliver Katrina’s soul to Hell. Alien refugee and spaceship captain Lan Tran has fled to Earth with her family and fallen in love with Shizuka after she visits the donut shop Tran runs as a cover operation for constructing a stargate.
Catch all that?
There is a lot going on in Light From Uncommon Stars, and while it’s at times a fun and dizzying combination of science fiction and demons from Hell and classical music, sometimes it’s a bit too much. Memories and flashbacks appear out of nowhere without adding anything to the story or its characters. Shizuka’s grand declamations and philosophical reflections about the power of musical performance are at once too long and too shallow to really ring true for me. All of this crowds out more interesting material for me, like Katrina’s genuinely insightful and touching reflection on gender identity through the metaphor of Bartok’s Sonata for Solo Violin.
Nor does Aoki flinch from at least gesturing at the more traumatic events of Katrina’s previous life, which don’t always blend well with the wacky feel-good sci-fi hijinks. There were moments where it hit something like anti-lagom (mogal?), exactly wrong instead of exactly right: what should be goofy space shit feels a bit out of place compared to what just happened in the last chapter; betrayal that would take a lot of time and therapy to work through in the real world is brushed aside almost immediately to get our wacky plot on the road.
But there are violins.
According to her author bio, Aoki is also a composer. This is hardly surprising given the countless musical references, including several to—of course—Paganini. (And yet, apparently Tartini’s “Devil’s Trill Sonata” was too on the nose for Aoki to use here? Missed opportunity, if you ask me.) I don’t know if Aoki is also a violinist, but whether it was lived experience or impeccable research, many of the violin-specific asides landed for me in an almost visceral way; the same embodied memory as when I hear a piece I performed in orchestra. “Does she need some tape on her fingerboard?” is one withering remark from the antagonist about Katrina’s inexpertise that made me cringe in shame: that controversial, or at least pedestrian, method was how I had been taught. Crappy rosin in plastic cases. Tuning forks. The way it feels to slide a wire mute over the bridge. Viola jokes. (Or, well, one viola joke. Which was mostly implied.) All of that was an absolute delight, to the point where I began to get a bit irritated when the book wasn’t talking about music. (Or food. Lots of food in this book. Her bio doesn’t mention it but I bet Aoki would call herself a foodie.)
Violins, however, are not enough. To put it bluntly, there was a lot in Light From Uncommon Stars that was simply not written for me. I don’t mean that because of the subject matter beyond my own lived experience (I’m not Asian, I’m not trans), but rather on a more “philosophy of reading” level.
Any conflict not immediately related to the relationships between Shizuka, Katrina, and Tran inevitably comes to a pat conclusion within a page or two. Minor villains are either destroyed immediately after their appearance (a racist storeowner drops dead of a heart attack half an hour after he disses Katrina’s violin; the emcee of a talent showcase who makes transphobic jokes at Katrina’s expense suffers a housefire), disappear entirely from the narrative (Katrina’s awful roommates), or are declared irredeemably toxic by Implied Word of God and summarily consigned by Katrina to the memory hole with no mourning or regret (Katrina’s parents). All of these had the potential to be the site of really thoughtful consideration and nuanced storytelling, but Aoki just sidesteps them, which then inspires the question of why include those conflicts or characters in the first place.
Everything neat and tidy, warm fuzzies and bear hugs for everybody.
I get why people want that in a book. I get in that mood sometimes, too. But I wasn’t in that mood when I picked up Light From Uncommon Stars so I had a hard time enjoying the book on those terms. Settling back into my violinist body, though? Even for just a couple of hours? That’s what I’m here for.
Right before the pandemic broke out, I stumbled my way into the neighborhood book club—loudly and awkwardly, because I’m an American and unable to stumble into anything except loudly and awkwardly. My original intent was to make sure I kept up with my Swedish reading, but more often than not any given selection will originally be in English. Their Swedish translations are of theoretical interest for me, even practical, and sometimes I read them (Dödsynden) and sometimes I don’t (The Fifth Season). This was one of the latter.
I was tempted to tag this as memoirs but chose not to, since the book is classified as fiction above all else—its (purported?) origins as a letter to Vuong’s mother notwithstanding. Since I don’t know Vuong personally and am hardly in a state to speak to the details of his personal life, taking it as fact feels presumptuous. Fiction it is.
This was an excellent book to follow The Crying Book, as their structures are rather similar. This might be another reason why I was tempted to tag On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous as memoirs; it nestled into my memory alongside The Crying Book almost immediately. Vuong and Christle both favor short, brief scenes that are not necessarily in chronological order and are instead connected more by theme. Nonetheless, they both manage to keep narrative tension sustained throughout the book, so you don’t feel like you’re reading a random jumble of unrelated events. Maybe Christle was inspired by Vuong, in the end, since On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous was published a few months before The Crying Book. Maybe they’re in some of the same writing groups. Maybe they’ve been inspired by the same writers. Maybe it’s an artifact of being poets. Maybe it’s just coincidence. Maybe, since both books also deal with similar subject matter, this sort of float-like-a-butterfly approach to tackling grief and too-young, too-tragic deaths.
That’s about the the only original thought I have about On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. It won an incredible amount of prestigious awards; I’m sure book reviewers and judges and all the rest have exhausted anything else there is to say. But that’s my thought and I’ve shared it.
One of my ongoing goals is to clear out my backlog of unread books. Burnt Shadows has been in my library since 2009 and might win the award for “gone longest without reading,” at least among the books I have left after numerous purges. The Wrath of Kon Mari.
Author: Kamila Shamsie
My GoodReads rating: 2 stars
Average GoodReads rating: 3.9 stars
Language scaling: B2+
Summary: The atom bomb brings together disparate families from Japan, India, England and Germany, leading to tragedy and betrayal in post-9/11 America.
Recommended audience: History buffs and international policy nerds who might want a narrative, fictional take on what they already know
In-depth thoughts: Is it bad manners to pan a book from your college writing workshop professor? I guess, but I’ll go ahead and bite the hand that fed me.
The current political atmosphere in the US, when the national paranoia stoked in the aftermath of September 11th, 2001 is once again on the rise, may have affected how I felt about everything. Maybe my own impatience with reading and wanting to get back on track with my book goals might have also forced me to rush and engage with Burnt Shadows differently than if I were just leisurely reading.
The story itself, about the thin threads of happenstance that connect people half a world apart, is intricate and fascinating and the multigenerational aspect of the story is handled really well, in that all of the parts that Shamsie includes in the story feel absolutely essential.
The sticking point for me was the characters. There are a lot, but it’s not their plenitude that I had an issue with. Actually, on a technical level, the multiple perspectives are handled masterfully. Usually switching perspectives within a scene is confusing and unnecessary, but in this case it works for Shamsie and brings essential information and development to the table.
But the reason that these perspective shifts work on a micro level might be why I was lukewarm about the book on a macro level. Maybe it’s easier to smooth the transition between “head hops” when all of the characters have the same inner narrative style: vaguely lyrical, poetic, refined. It’s not up there with the dialogue in John Green’s Kids With Cancer Falling in Love Makes For Rave Reviews Because Who Would Shit on a Story About Kids With Cancer*—each character’s language and thought process, in isolation, is completely believable; there’s nothing bombastic or ridiculous about any of it—but it does strain credulity a bit that everyone in Burnt Shadows looks at the world through similar metaphors and has essentially the same inner narrative voice. I was reminded a lot of A Death in the Family and why I rage quit that one years ago: characters were only surface-level different; they still all thought with the same voice and noticed and commented on the same sorts of things. That one was an atheist and another was religious had no real bearing on anything. They were all interchangeable.
There is also an element of melodrama in the writing that feels out of place for me. This is a story about really terrible things, like the atom bomb and Guantanamo Bay and Islamophobia and kids in military training camps—the extra layer of interpersonal melodrama feels unnecessary, and undercuts the gravity of the story.
I have two big shout-outs/thanks in this post. First, for Adam over at Memento Mori. As soon as he mentioned No-No Boy in one of his videos, I realized that I had never read anything about the Japanese internment camps. I think we had a copy of Baseball Saved Us somewhere in the house, but I want to say it was my brother’s (baseball fan that he is) and not mine. I might have never even read it and just remember the cover.
The second shout-out and thanks go to my friend Henny (of Dirt Nap Podcast fame), who was kind enough send me a huge dump of ebooks from my Goodreads “to-read” shelf, including . . . No-No Boy!
Author: John Okada
Aside: the story of John Okada, the author, is kind of tragic. No-No Boy is his only novel. It was published in 1957 to a lukewarm reception at best, and so he more or less left the writing world for the rest of his short life. He died in the early 70s of a heart attack, and while he was working on another novel at the time, the documents are lost to us so it’s hard to tell if he just had notes, or if he had a completed draft, or if he had something almost completely finished. Only a couple of years after his untimely death, No-No Boy was sort of rediscovered and quickly attained the recognition and praise it rightly deserved.
My GoodReads rating: 5 stars
Average GoodReads rating: 3.73 stars
Language scaling: B2+
Plot summary:No-No Boy is the story of Ichiro Yamada, a no-no boy who comes back to his life in Seattle after his prison sentence. His mother is proud of him for being a no-no boy; she thinks Japan actually won the war, and that soon she and other loyal Japanese will get to go back. Others are, unsurprisingly, furious with Ichiro, white and Nisei alike. Eventually Ichiro runs into Kenji, a fellow Nisei and a veteran who lost his leg in the European theater and who is only getting more and more ill. Kenji seems to understand Ichiro, at least better than anyone else does, and the two spend a lot of time together as Ichiro tries to figure out his new place in the world.
Content warning: Okada writes about the racial tensions going in post-WWII America, so dialogue can include terms that have since fallen out of favor (or flat-out racial slurs).
Recommended audience: Those interested in post-WWII American history or teaching/studying it in school; those interested in Asian-American authors; those who enjoyed George Takei’s stage show Allegiance.
In-depth thoughts: The title No-No Boy refers to the loyalty questionnaire Nisei Americans (American-born Japanese) were required to answer, as a de facto test of patriotism/”Americanness.” The last two were real humdingers:
Question 27: Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty, wherever ordered?
Question 28: Will you swear unqualified allegiances to the United States of America and faithfully defend the United States from any and all attack by foreign or domestic forces, and forswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese emperor, or other foreign government, power or organization?
Thousands of people answered “no” to both questions for a variety of reasons: misunderstanding the terminology, resentment at being asked to swear loyalty and serve in the armed forces of a nation that had ripped them out of their homes and sent them to detention centers, fears that they would be deported to Japan regardless and that a “yes” would come back to haunt them, etc. They became known as “no-nos” or “no-no boys” and served time in prison for their answers. Okada was not one of them, but the protagonist of his novel is.
There are a handful of books I review here that I really hope people will go out and read (if they haven’t already). Usually it’s because they’re really good, but this is one I think we should read because it’s important. Well, and it’s also really good and worth reading regardless—Okada takes the stream of consciousness style that really came to a head with the Beats and makes it his own. Here’s a quote from early on the in the novel, when Ichiro decides to pay a visit to the university where he was studying before the internment camps and then prison:
Not until the bus had traversed the business district and pointed itself toward the northeast did he realize that he was on the same bus which he used to take every morning as a university student. There had been such a time and he vividly brought to mind, with a hunger that he would never lose, the weighty volumes which he had carried against his side that the cloth of his pants became thin and frayed, and the sandwiches in a brown grocery bag and the slide rule with the leather case which hung from his belt like the sword of learning which it was, for he was going to become an engineer and it had not mattered that Japan would soon be at war with America. To be a student in America was a wonderful thing. To be a student in America studying engineering was a beautiful life. That, in itself, was worth defending from anyone and anything which dared to threaten it with change or extinction. Where was the slide rule, he asked himself, where was the shaft of exacting and thrilling discovery when I need it most? If only I had pictured it and felt it in my hands, I might well have made the right decision, for the seeing and feeling of it would have pushed out the bitterness with the greenness of the grass on the campus and the hardness of the chairs in the airy classrooms with the blackboards stretched wall-to-wall behind the professor, and the books and the sandwiches and the bus rides coming and going. I would have gone into the army for that and I would have shot and killed, and shot and killed some more, because I was happy when I was a student with the finely calculated white sword at my side. But I did not remember or I could not remember because, when one is born in America and learning to love it more and more every day without thinking it, it is not an easy thing to discover suddenly that being American is a terribly incomplete thing if one’s face is not white and one’s parents are Japanese of the country Japan which attacked America. It is like being pulled asunder by a whirling tornado and one does not think of a slide rule though that may be the thing which will save one.
Where (for me) novels like On the Road became self-indulgent and navel-gazey, No-No Boy balances these deep dives with action and spreads them among multiple characters. We get to know Ichiro quite well, but we also spend time in the heads of the people around him, who have different perspectives, experiences, and opinions.
I hope that whet your appetite! If you’ve read No-No Boy, I’m curious about what you think. If not (or even if you have, I guess), what are some other under-read and underappreciated classics that you think should be more famous? Why?