23 | Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) by Mindy Kaling

I remember reading this book as a teenager, my copy gifted by a relative. This time around, I actually laughed out loud at the line about this is the perfect gift for random aunts that need to buy something for their niece but have no idea what they actually might want. So true. In high school I loved watching Mindy on television– she’s so fresh, a true POC pioneer and a welcome refresher from all the mainstream comedians who didn’t usually deal with culturally specific themes like familial relations, immigrant parents, you get the gist.

I listened to the audiobook on a long road trip home, like I did Amy Poehler’s Yes Please. It’s light enough to zone out for a few minutes but interesting enough to make a monotonous drive go by that much faster. I’ll always be a fan of Mindy as a person, as Mindy on The Mindy Project and any other role she plays. In my mind, she’s a boss, deciding she wants to have a child on her own, that she don’t need no man, defying not only larger societal norms but also cultural norms. Don’t read if you’re looking for a memoir, but read (or better yet, listen) if you like Mindy and want to listen to her stream of consciousness.

22 | Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate

Now this is historical fiction! Before We Were Yours is a story crafted around a real criminal ringleader and her malicious business of kidnapping children from poor families in Tennessee and beyond and “adopting” them out to wealthy clients. Georgia Tann, the mastermind, never faced criminal charges, dying of cancer before she faced justice. Even more tragic, papers were only released to the public in the 1990s, long after the children were kidnapped illegally from their families during the Great Depression. Wingate does an incredible job of illuminating a period of American history most people have no idea existed, creating the world of Rill Foss and her siblings Camelia, Fern, Lark and baby Gabeon as Rill tries to keep them together in the Tennessee Children’s Home Society.

Wingate employs a literary style where she alternates between the stories of the Foss siblings, told from eldest sister Rill’s perspective and the voice of young woman Avery Stafford, from the present day as she pieces together a dark family history. The Foss siblings were born to Queenie and Briny, living their lives on a shanty boat floating down the Mississippi River during the 1930s. Like many other poor families, river people went were the current carried them, docking on the shores for rest in cases of emergency. After Briny rushes Queenie to the hospital as she begins labor, the children are left for the night, expecting their parents to return to the boat once the baby is born. Hours turn into days and soon policemen converge onto the boat, forcibly taking all five children Georgia Tann. One by one they are separated, but not before enduring suffering at the hands of Tann and the other “caregivers” as they are cruelly disciplined. Meanwhile, Avery, the daughter of prominent senator, stumbles across a number of concerning clues about her grandmother’s past. Concerned there’s a possible scandal that could ruin her father’s political career and family name, she pursues leads relentlessly, trying to find out behind the backs of her family members and ailing grandmother what dealings the family had with the Tennessee Children’s Home Society. Wingate does a great job going back and forth from Rill’s to Avery’s stories, converging their lives at the end of the novel with great emotion.

While the ending confused me a bit (as it seems to have confused other readers), the rest of the narrative is craftily executed. My only regret is that I didn’t pick up this book sooner. The unassuming cover art didn’t compel me to prioritize this book but I guess the saying’s true: don’t judge a book by it’s… (uninteresting looking) cover.

21 | The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

Set across France, The Nightingale is a story about the plight of two sisters during WWII and how they both face immeasurable trials to keep themselves and those they love alive. The younger sister’s name is Isabelle, an infuriatingly headstrong 19 year old who won’t take “no” for an answer. Since young, she’d been pushed away by their father and sent to a number of boarding schools to learn how to be a civilized young woman– but to no one’s surprise, she’s run away from all of them, instead seeking a cause to dedicate herself to. When the war breaks out, Isabelle is livid that the French government has, in her eyes, barely put up a fight, surrendering to the Nazis leaving millions of helpless French to become prisoners in their own homes. On her way to her sister’s she stumbles across Gaetan, a former prisoner who she falls deeply in love with. As a much older man, he chides her for ignorance and inability to really understand what war will bring and the consequences of the blatant fury she carries so openly. Later, unable to sit idly by, Isabelle is overcome with intense drive and is able to join a top-secret resistance group, becoming “the nightingale,” helping to smuggle out downed Allied airmen out of France through the Pyrenees. Meanwhile, Vianne, ten years Isabelle’s senior, is markedly different. To escape her father’s spite, she married, left Paris and moved to the sleepy village of Carriveau where she is a teacher and raising a young daughter Sophie. Her husband, Antione, is forcibly conscripted into the French army and sent to war, leaving her and Sophie behind in a village of women and children. Her will to live sharpens and she becomes completely focused on caring for her daughter and keeping her out of harms way. Eventually, a Nazi soldier moves into her home and she stays quiet, obeying his commands. When he asks her to write down all the names of the Jewish people, Communists and Freemasons she knows, she naively and willingly writes a list down, including the names of her best friend Rachel and Rachel’s two children. When Isabelle is sent from Paris to live with her, they clash, Isabelle furious that Vianne is so resigned and submissive to the enemy and Vianne upset that Isabelle would defy a Nazi in their home and put Sophie at risk. After Isabelle leaves to join the resistance without Vianne’s knowledge, Vianne is left to weather the storm and things turn for the worse when another Nazi moves in her home, preying upon Vianne and impregnating her.

I put this book on my priority list because of how well it’s rated on Goodreads. The book does get better after the beginning, when Isabelle’s honestly annoying, entitled, bratty self falls for Gaetan and is “heartbroken” when he leaves her at her sister’s house. I was afraid that this adolescent love story would mar the potential of the story. There aren’t too many books about WWII following the lives of young women, let alone stories that have multi-dimensional women rebelling in ways that don’t involve battlefields. Overall I did enjoy the book but I felt that Isabelle’s strikingly immature “love” as one of the first scenes the reader gets to know her, leaves a bitter taste among her other traits such as putting other people in serious danger due to her immaturity and failure to think things through. Vianne, on the other hand goes through a much more natural character evolution, one that was much better carried out I felt. Her struggle to survive becomes more than just a struggle to live, but a struggle to find dignity in her life, despite living destitute, being raped and taking in Rachel’s Jewish toddler and hiding him.

I, like many other readers, found parts of the narrative to be a little be contrived; someone wrote in a review that it seemed the author did some basic research about some of the more horrific crimes committed and then weaved them all into the story. I felt this to be somewhat true as seemingly ever worst case movie-like scenario took place, but the character got away, just in the nick of time. As a reader, I was never left guessing what would happen next because it became fairly predictable: Isabelle would start thinking before she opened her mouth, Vianne would grow a pair, their father would feel remorseful and make some big sacrifice, Gaetan would come back in some capacity, Sophie would survive but grow up scarred. I am by no means trying to spoil anything, but as a reader, if you trust your gut, the story will most likely turn out the way you suspect it will.

20 | My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

My Sister, the Serial Killer is Braithwaite’s debut novel about two sisters, Ayoola and Korede who live a privileged life in Lagos, Nigeria. Ayoola, the younger of the two, has killed three boyfriends and every time she kills, she calls her elder sister Korede panicking and claiming self-defense. Korede begins to have doubts about Ayoola telling the whole story, and when Ayoola starts dating the doctor from the hospital Korede works at and who Korede has a crush on, Korede begins to realize her sister won’t stop killing unless she turns her in. Her heart is split into two: protect her serial killer baby sister who she has always protected from their abusive father or save the doctor’s life and possibly other men in the future.

One aspect of the novel I really enjoyed was that though this was set in contemporary times with references to social media platforms like Instagram and Snapchat (which Ayoola uses to post RIP messages about “missing” boyfriends), Braithwaite integrates Nigerian culture through particular phrasing and descriptions. I don’t know much about Nigeria, let alone any cultural practices or how English in Nigeria sounds but the author did an excellent job of making the novel accessible to English-readers even though the novel is set in Lagos (I did listen to the audiobook version, narrated by Adepero Oduye). The plot is also unusual, as it centers around two young-adult sisters and their complex relationships to men living in a social-media world where deeply patriarchal societal views collide with the internet age of displaying femininity and the male gaze through the screen. Moreover, as typically men are serial killers, it’s interesting to learn how Ayoola and Korede believe in the case of Ayoola being caught, she would be able to leverage of feminity to dispel any accusations. How could a five foot two woman possibly kill a man?

19 | Yes Please by Amy Poehler

I would 1000% recommend listening to the audiobook as opposed to reading Yes Please; to hear Amy Poehler read her own words allowed was the perfect way to learn about her background, ambitions and trials. This isn’t a very polished or edited book– it reads more like a diary than anything, but she discusses everything from her college years, early career, working on Saturday Night Live, shooting Parks and Rec, her sons, her marriage, her divorce and her outlook on life. She’s a comic through and through, her positivity and relatability transcending every story she tells, making her extremely likable as a person, beyond the characters she plays in sketches, shows or movies.

I was a bit too young to watch SNL during Poehler’s heyday so I became aware of her through her acting on Parks and Rec, a The Office like one-shot style television comedy show on NBC. Poehler plays the main character, Leslie Knope, a extremely passionate and dedicated low-level civil servant working for the Department of Parks and Recreation in middle of nowhere Pawnee, Indiana. She’s relentless, taking every duty assigned to her seriously and without complaint, her sole goal to improve the people’s lives in town whom she serves. Poehler brings in Mike Schur on one of the later chapters (Part 3 Chapter 7) to discuss the development of the show from a producer’s point of view and specifically, how Leslie Knope evolved as Poehler played her. Because I’m such a fan of the show, the chapter was a neat look into how Leslie Knope was initially pitched to have a more professional and cautious relationship with the camera, as she had political ambitions and was aware that any unprofessional statement caught on camera could mar her plans. However, as the show went on, Leslie later evolved to have a much more authentic relationships with the camera as Schur recalls that instead, Leslie didn’t have anything to hide. She was she same character both on and off camera and there was no divide between her public and private life. There really is a whole creative team behind the scenes, debating on how each of the characters might present themselves. For example, Ben Wyatt, Leslie’s future husband played by Adam Scott has a different relationships to the camera, often giving it a look that says “see what I have to deal with” when something ridiculous goes on. Schur explains that Andy Dwyer, played by Chris Pratt view the camera as his best friend, sharing what he thinks are ingenious ideas, unfiltered excitement and genuine happiness. One of the most hilarious parts of the book was when Schur and Poehler read a list of names that Leslie Knope might have been. I’ll spoil one: Leslie Knuckle- Jensen. They are intoxicatingly funny and goes to show how clever and silly producers and writers are, which all contributes to the character building and arch.

I enjoyed learning about Poehler as a person, beyond her career. How she was a young ambitious comic straight out of college at one point and that everything that’s happened in her life is a result of being open-minded and not taking things too seriously. She’s honest and candid, talking about sex, childbirth, separation, lost friendships and more in her signature Poehler way. It’s the perfect audiobook for a road trip, a way to relax and decompress with a comedic friend.

18 | Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond

One of the best ethnographies (in book form) I’ve ever read, Evicted is about a number of Milwaukee families, both African American and Caucasian, who struggle to secure and stay in housing despite serious trials. It’s 2008; some are single mothers, some are drug addicts, some are both. Some are paralyzed and live on disability, others are unemployed, some by choice, some by circumstance. Each of the stories Desmond paints are infuriating in some way or another. There’s Arlene, a single mother with her two boys who has moved a number of times in just a few months. She’s just been evicted by the landlord from her apartment because her teenage son Jori had been throwing snowballs at passing cars and the man who’s car they hit got mad and broke down their apartment door. The landlord couldn’t deal with it, kicking the family to the curb. There’s Scott, who had worked hard to become nurse but eventually loosing his nursing license after being caught stealing patients’ opioids which he both sold and used himself. Unemployed and with a new drug addiction, he wanders between shelters, rehab centers and a trailer park. Desmond includes profiles of people who are black, white, young mothers, sixty year olds and people who came from middle class backgrounds. Evicted tells the painful story of what it’s like to find, secure, and loose housing and how the cycle repeats itself squandering any semblance of hope.

On one hand, there are the systemic issues. Racism, classism, poor infrastructure and unequal investment in low-income neighborhoods, the loss of thousands of manufacturing jobs, you name it and the issue is discussed in the book. These, and the profound legacies are undeniable. But I also feel that there is behavior that puts people in bad situations where they loose their job and become homeless. Conservatives have long blamed the “welfare queen” for the position she put herself in. Why does she have five children, each fathered by a different man who is absent? To be honest, I wonder that too. Arlene, for example has multiple children, with at least three men, one of whom is incarcerated because of aggravated assault. She can’t even afford to take care of herself, let alone one child… or five. I think of what most people’s thought process might be. If you can’t afford to have a child, then don’t. Either use protection, take birth control or perhaps if the situation is dire, one could have an abortion or put the child up for adoption. There’s absolutely the possibility that Arlene never had thorough sexual education in school, that she never finished high school, or had access to birth control options. But in the back of my mind I think: don’t condoms cost a few bucks and aren’t they easily available at corner stores? Most people make life decisions in accordance with their finances, bolstered by moral codes and familial or societal expectations. If I can’t afford a pair of new shoes or a fifty dollar meal, then I won’t fork over the money. If I can’t afford to have a baby, I will make sure I use protection and take other precautionary measures. But Arlene makes poor decisions on a number of occasions, buying a “fancy” meal one night of different meat cuts from the corner store and her kids new clothes and shoes when she was behind on the previous month’s rent. There are multiple occasions where people make objectively unwise financial decisions. I want to be compassionate towards people who are in need, especially when there are innocent children involved but there’s something wrong when you’re in the hole a couple hundred for rent and you put money towards a turkey dinner instead.

There’s also Vanetta, a single mother who can’t seem to find an apartment for her and her two young kids. Well, turns out she not only has prior eviction records which already makes it nearly impossible to find a landlord willing to overlook that fact, but she also has a criminal eviction, from the time when, along with her cousins and friends, she went to rob some random person on the street with a firearm to try and steal the woman’s purse. With a criminal conviction, it’s nearly impossible to rent, let alone find a job. Many homeless shelters turn her away because of her run-in with the law. I truly feel that it is Vanetta’s fault in many ways. You break the law, you deal with the consequences. It’s the same for me. I struggle to reconcile the fact that she has deepened the hole which she is in due to her own actions, but that her kids are involved and are exposed to violence, drugs, and other adverse childhood experiences because they do not have a stable home. That’s why this book is infuriating. People make their lives worse when they make bad decisions.

Moving beyond individual behaviors, the big alarm Desmond is trying to sound is the lived experience of being at the cusp of homelessness and squalid living conditions. The rental market in most American cities is already tight, with management companies buying up property, inflating property values, gentrification, continued white flight, the arrival of people from other areas and more. The minimum wage cannot support a stable life, let alone children, rent, food, a phone bill or utilities. Even if the poorest of the poor are working at a fast food joint with all the overtime hours they can possibly manage to work, they still, cannot support themselves. This is the “ideal” bind, that everyone’s working their hardest. But poverty begets poverty. Spirits are crushed, dreams eliminated. Hope lost. Desmond’s portraits show how tragic people’s lives become when they see no way out, when even serious drive or work ethic doesn’t help. If they are lucky to scrape enough cash together for a month’s rent, manipulative and extractive landlords will rent out places with serious code violations such as apartments where lead paint has been used, broken sewer lines, no running water, to name a few. Don’t even get started on how different the white and black experiences of poverty are and how big of a role racism plays in white people’s systems of rationalization. This book made me mad. Mad that so many children caught in the web will probably turn out like their parents, mad that urban governance has had very little success in designing systems and services to support vulnerable people and mad that people make poor decisions that contribute to their situation. The stories are conflicting and wrought with emotion, making me think long and hard about how most of these peoples are just political statistics, devoid of conscious and ambition.

17 | The Vegetarian [채식주의자] by Han Kang

Winner of the Man Book International Prize in 2016, The Vegetarian is quite a horrifying novel to read as I often found myself clenching my teeth in agony as Yeong-hye, the protagonist, suffers. Narrated in three parts by Yeong-hye’s husband, Mr. Cheong, Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law, and Yeong-hye’s sister In-hye, the novella reveals how Yeong-hye’s spiral downwards into schizophrenia, anorexia and mania affect each of their lives. The plot begins from the perspective of Mr. Cheong, as he explains that Yeong-hye, after experiencing a violent dream, suddenly renounces meat, finding her throwing all of the meat in their kitchen in garbage bags. When pressed, she simply says: “I had a dream.” She rapidly looses weight as her mind unfurls, also refusing to wear clothes and abide by conventional social norms, alarming her husband and her nuclear family. One day, at a family dinner, Yeong-hye’s father announces he has had enough of his insolent daughter disrespecting her husband’s and his own demands for her to eat meat. To the horror of the other family members, he forcibly grabs her, attempting to shove meat down her throat. After writhing away, she grabs a knife and slits her wrists.

The second part of the novella, Mongolian Mark, is told by In-hye’s husband, who realizes he has a perverted sexual desire to be with her. He convinces himself that as an artist, he has the authority to ask her to pose nude for him, so he can paint flowers on her body. His ultimate goal is to film them having sex, under a fabricated guise of artistic creation. He is disgusting; having witnessed her slash her wrists himself, he knows she isn’t sane, yet pursues her relentlessly and incessantly, pushing his wife and young son aside. Eventually he does make the film of the two of them; Yeong-hye at first feels that the flowers painted on both of their bodies has freed her from her bloody nightmare, but she realizes somehow he is raping her as he ejaculates inside. While he is asleep, In-hye comes to check on her sister, only to discover the film of her husband raping her sister. Yeong-hye is admitted to a psychiatric hospital while In-hye separates from her husband, unable to stomach what she now knows.

In-hye narrates the third part as she cares for her sister in the hospital and the reality of being a single mother sets in on her. She witnesses Yeong-hye begin to refuse to eat as Yeong-hye tries to become a plant, claiming all she needs is sunshine. Yeong-hye’s mental state worsens as predictably, the doctors do nothing but medicate her, even tranquilizing her in order to insert a feeding tube. In-hye’s life looses vigor as she struggles to stay afloat, contemplating suicide herself, but feeling she needs to live for her young son who is she says is still a happy child. Perhaps Yeong-hye turned out like this because their father abused her, her husband failed to protect her and her brother-in-law used her. In any case, there is no resolution at the end as Yeong-hye presumably looses her life because she refuses to eat.

Han’s prose is stunning, even translated in English. I was astonished how horrendous each of the male characters were portrayed as mysoginistic and egoistic beings who punished women at the expense of their carnal desires. One of the most gut wrenching lines was when In-hye’s husband says of her nude body something along the lines of it being something any man would desire as it was stereotypically beautiful, yet the body itself had renounced all desire. It was distressing how Yeong-hye says that nobody understood or listened to her, that all the doctors, nurses and her sister were the same. I wanted to help Yeong-hye, but her will to become a plant was so strong I had to let her go. In the end, I can’t say I liked the novel, but I appreciated Han’s explorations of mental illness, abuse and guilt and what the manifestations might looks like in a patriarchal and normative Korea.

16 | Human Acts [소년이 온다] by Han Kang

Human Acts is one of the more difficult books I’ve ever read. The descriptions of such overt violence and the suffering of the characters is hard to bear, knowing you are powerless in this story. I had never heard of the 1980 Gwangju Uprising or the Korean dictators Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan. I could not believe this book was historical fiction, that the Gwangju Uprising isn’t known or even remembered in most of the world. There are only estimates of how many people were killed, 600, almost all students or young adults, the youngest of victims still in middle school. The story follows six main characters: Dong-ho, a fifteen year old boy who is looking for his best friend, his best friend who unbeknownst to Dong-ho has already been killed, an editor struggling against censorship, a prisoner being tortured for his involvement in the demonstrations, a factory worker being pestered by an author to share her story, and the best friend’s grieving mother as each recalls their involvement, their torture and their nightmarish trauma.

Originally written in Korean, I wondered what had been lost or muddled in the translation. Given the massacre was in 1980, most Koreans are probably aware of what happened and have knowledge regarding the political climate of the time. I, however, was completely unaware of these events, and found myself a little lost because of the absence of context. Context isn’t necessary to read the book and understand what happened, but knowing why would certainly enhance the reading process. As Korea was plagued by political instability following the assassination of Park Chung-hee, Chun Doo-hwan, Park’s protégé assumed power through a coup d’état and implemented martial law, believing North Korea was going to attack the South. Chun ordered universities and political activities to shut down and sent the military to occupy all urban areas to police citizens. However, due to the handover in political power, the democratization movement was gaining momentum, having been previously suppressed by Park. On the 18th of May, protesting the closure of their university, some 200 students gathered and military troops clamped down, killing an unknown number by clubbing, using bayonets and firing into the crowd. Two days later, the number of protestors swelled to over 10,000, and Chun ordered an all-out suppression by killing anyone involved. On May 27th, civilian militias had been defeated the Korean military.

In the epilogue, Kang writes about her recollections of the Gwangju Uprising at age nine. Her family had just moved from Gwangju where her father had been a teacher at a local school. She recalls her father and aunt speaking in low voices in the kitchen about a young student named Dong-ho who was killed during the massacre. The novel centers around Dong-ho, a boy who goes looking for his best friend, Jeong-dae who has disappeared during the uprising. Jeong-dae and his older sister lived in Dong-ho’s family home on the top floor and they had been as close as brothers. Dong-ho doesn’t know if Jeong-dae was killed or was injured, so he goes to where the bodies have been sent and is roped into helping cover the newly arrived corpses as family members come looking for their lost loved ones. Completely overwhelmed, Dong-ho goes to the center of the action looking for his friend and is murdered. He is fifteen.

Each chapter weaves through each character’s past and present, as even the deceased characters recall the time of their deaths, their aspirations and the trauma inflicted on their bodies. The prisoner recalls the routine torture and what happened after finally being released. He’s haunted by the years in prison, by the pen used to inflict pain, by the face of the prisoner he was forced to split meals with. He’s haunted by the suicide of acquaintances, the visceral dreams he experiences and the drone of life he struggles to live. Kang makes clear how each of the characters suffer in profound ways even after they are released from prison and are no longer being physically tortured. Drowning in grief and anger, confusion and hysteria, no two characters suffer in the same way, yet they are bound to constantly reliving traumatic memories both while awake and asleep.

After reading Human Acts I find myself questioning why all this violence is possible in so many permutations. Is violence a cycle? A default? A norm? I would think that the Japanese Occupation in Korea, World War II, the Korean War, these events would drive all Koreans to put peace above all, but it seems ego triumphs no matter what. The Gwangju Uprising, where thousands of students tried to incite political change peacefully ended up being one of the most violent demonstrations in modern history. I feel grateful that Kang and those she spoke to were able to find it in themselves to speak about the events that occurred just decades ago so that readers like myself might stumble across the book and try to understand why things like this happen. Grief and terror are such universal emotions, and Kang’s novel transmits these feelings tenfold to the reader, leaving you stunned and longing for peace.

“Is it true that human beings are fundamentally cruel? Is the experience of cruelty the only thing we share as a species? Is the dignity that we cling to nothing but self-delusion, masking from ourselves this single truth: that each one of us us capable of being reduced to an insect, a ravening beast, a lump of meat? To be degraded, damaged, slaughtered– is this the essential fate of humankind, one that history has confirmed as inevitable?”

15 | The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon by David Grann

I became interested in reading The Lost City of Z after reading David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon; I really enjoyed his journalistic style: investigative but also critical of how justice played out in the case of the Osage. This book was published eight years prior to Killers and I would have to say it’s quite different. It is a blend of biography, self-reflection and clear speculation as Grann chronicles the story of Percy Fawcett, a British man with an insatiable appetite for exploration and an obsession with finding the lost city of Z, an El Dorado-like untouched paradise, deep in the Amazon rainforest. There is also much more meandering throughout the book, as Grann discusses the stories of various other explorers including Fawcett’s main competitors, Fawcett’s companions and the drama on certain expeditions (every expedition has a Judas, apparently) and parts of Fawcett’s life that are a bit too tangential for my liking including his early days in Sri Lanka where as a young officer he met his wife and heard folklore about a treasure trove in a cave (he did not find it). But Grann does go to considerable lengths to piece Fawcett’s story together: traveling to England’s Royal Geographical Society where Fawcett was trained and his expeditions funded and to the Amazon itself, retracing Fawcett’s last known location. He also conducted extensive archival research, interviewed Fawcett’s surviving relatives who provided him with access to Fawcett’s journals, papers and private correspondences with his wife and sought help from anthropologists who studied both ancient and contemporary Amazon tribes. Grann paints a grim picture of what an obsession with the Amazon did to one man and his party.

Incredibly, Fawcett didn’t just explore the Amazon once, he went multiple times, each time exploring a different route. He, along with his eldest son Jack and his son’s best friend Raleigh, disappeared in 1925 on what would be his fifth Amazon expedition. No one has found their remains or knows what happened although many con-men have claimed to know what happened. Attacked by a violent tribe? Contraction of disease? Infection? Jaguar attack? Poison dart frog? Piranha? Starvation? The list goes on and on of the terrible things that could have happened to Fawcett and his party, all of which are plausible, but none confirmed. In the end, Grann doesn’t find out what happened to the missing group or if Z was real. Instead, the reader gets a glimpse into what kind of a culture facilitated this mission and infatuation with a mystical civilization.

When thinking about what I learned from this book, one word kept repeating itself in my mind, over and over again. Ego. Ego drives people to do the most extreme things, to the most extreme places, to submit oneself to the most extreme of circumstances. For name, recognition, reward, who knows what exactly what was going through Fawcett’s mind, but this explorer’s ego wasn’t uncommon in 20th century England, or 19th, or 18th or 17th. The idea of discovering, conquering and subjugating the foreign is rife in European (and American) history. Domesticate the savage, excavate his riches and profitting, was surely the mantra of colonizers who not only sought to exploit people and their labor, but also the land for agriculture and resources. Not only was the Royal Geographical Society, mostly focused on drawing accurate maps and developing the tools to do so, in on the idea of discovery, so were institutions like the Royal Botanic Gardens and the Crown. All these ideas of superiority in race, language and cultural values were used to justify European conquests of parts unknown and to educate and Christianize savages they encountered. It was violent: disease decimated those with no immunity, many were enslaved or murdered by rubber barons and miners, not to mention those who lost ancestral lands to burning, logging and damming. I think Grann should have highlighted this more, just how embedded this mindset of superiority, stemming from European cultural institutions was in explorers of Fawcett’s day.

While Grann is no anthropologist or scholar, there were some fascinating tidbits about the Amazon’s cultures and ecology. While there are hundreds of tribes all throughout the Amazon, many are insulated by the jungle and do not have any contact with government authorities. Some are violent and will kill any trespasser on site. On the other hand, there are many other tribes who do have councils of their own and lobby on the national scale for various Indian rights. There are Indians who have integrated into Brazilian and Bolivian societies (though Grann does not write about the challenges they face). There is amazing diversity in cultural practice, language and custom in the region, the landscape acting as an impermeable barrier to keep egoistic white men out and natives safe. I would be open to reading more literature on South America both fiction and non-fiction as there is just so much to learn.

14 | The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen

I wanted to read more literature this year by authors of color, especially Asian and Asian-American ones as I feel so much is overlooked by mainstream lists. The Refugees was my first deliberate attempt of picking a Vietnamese-American author’s work; I hadn’t heard of him before, but Viet Thanh Nguyen has written a number of fiction and non-fiction works on Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American culture and identity. This was my first foray into a collection of short stories and it was rewarding because I was able to connect with most of the main characters in each of the eight stories and not feel frustrated at the end of the few pages that it was only just beginning.

Admittedly, the beginning was a bit steep for me. Black-Eyed Women was the first story featured, about a young Vietnamese-American woman and her mother who narrowly escaped the violence from the Vietnam War, but experienced several traumatic events during their escape on an overcrowded fishing boat. It’s clear the woman was just a young girl, barely pubescent when they escaped Vietnamese land for the open sea; her brother, only older by a few years tried to protect her from pirates who raided the boat, taking all the girls to presumably be sex slaves. Before the pirates arrive, he rubs motor oil on his sister’s face, binds her barely existent breasts and chops her hair. To distract the pirates from his sister, he stabs one of them with a small knife he had concealed and is subsequently killed in front of her. The young woman tries to forget this part of herself. In the story, the young woman’s mother says that a ghost has visited the house, the ghost of her brother who has swam from the fishing boat to their Southern California house. Her mother welcomes the ghost who she says is dripping wet with ocean water and chastises her daughter for not being receptive and for not attending to her mother’s needs as well as a son would. The mother tells stories about ghosts, while the young woman tries to write them down. Ironically, she’s a ghost writer, writing about other people’s stories and in this chaos, her own ghost has come to haunt her.

The other seven stories were a lot more digestable for me, all dealing with Vietnamese, Vietnamese-American or American culture both in Vietnam and Southern California, where many Vietnamese had immigrated. Though I thoroughly enjoyed five of the eight stories (three were a little more difficult for me to really feel), The Americans was one of the most poignant. It dealt with the story of a 68 year old American Vietnam War veteran who after much prodding by his Japanese wife ten year his junior, agrees to go to visit their daughter who is working as a teacher in a rural Vietnamese town. He does not like her boyfriend, a Vietnamese-American who is working on a DoD funded project to design robots to disable land mines. Carver, the hardened father is gruff, confronting his daughter about her choices and telling her she shouldn’t be in Vietnam, insinuating it was just as he remembered: a crap hole of some sort. After dealing with all his jabs at her boyfriend and her career choices, she breaks down, angrily confront him that she was there because she wanted to undo all the bad things he had done in the war, bombing innocent people in his B-52. The fight is never resolved, as Carver wanders off, getting caught in a monsoon storm. He gets pneumonia, waking up three days later to his daughter sleeping on the floor of the hospital ward. He is overwhelmed and remembers her when she was young and breaks down.

Viet Thanh Nguyen’s writing is easy to grasp and his style is fluid. Although the material he deals with is extremely emotional and raw, I don’t think readers should shy away from the melancholy many of the stories evoke. When I get a chance, I would definitely read his Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Sympathizer published a year prior to this collection.