A Hundred Secret Senses – Amy Tan

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I finished reading Amy Tan’s A Hundred Secret Senses. After 3 false starts – reading, getting to about page 10 or 15 and then life calling me to its umpteen undone things– I woke early yesterday, started before the house woke, stopped to cook, clean, digitally connect with my family and friends, and then stayed up through the night to finish the book and ruminate.

The story opens and immediately discloses the meaning of the title… “My sister Kwan believes she has yin eyes. She sees those who have died and now dwell in the World of Yin, ghosts who leave the mists just to visit her kitchen on Balboa Street in San Francisco”. Now, no reader has a doubt about which of the hundred secret senses this book speaks of or where the story is set. As an impatient person who likes to know the who, what, and where so I can connect the why and how when they come about, getting right to the point is helpful in engaging me in the action of the story.

The book is about past lives and soul ties, about rebirth and reincarnation (which are also senses), about loyalty, friendship, and sacrifice, and about maintaining dignity and decorum. Two half-sisters, Kwan and Olivia, have opposing cultures and personalities. Kwan is the part of the family that her father, Jack Lee, left in China, while Olivia and her brothers are Jack Lee’s family from a new chapter in his life after he immigrated to the U.S. Kwan embodies all the qualities that come with being a peasant from rural China (most Asian cultures): she is loud, food centered, steeped in tradition, superstition and beliefs that are mind-boggling to anyone living outside that cultural boundary. Olivia is a typical city girl–skeptical of anything that isn’t “modern” or rooted in science, cynical when it comes to the emotional aspects of life, and condescending of anything that doesn’t meet her standards of materialism.

Olivia’s family become aware of Kwan only in the dying moments of Jack Lee. Kwan was the wild card no one knew about. Olivia’s mother brings Kwan to the U.S. as part of her promise to her husband. Olivia describes this when she says, “Looking back, I can imagine how my mom must have felt when she first heard this. Another wife? A daughter in China? We were a modern American family. We spoke English. Sure, we ate Chinese food, but take-out, like everyone else…… According to Aunt Betty, at the funeral, my mother vowed never to remarry. She vowed to teach us children to do honour to the Yee family name. She vowed to find my father’s firstborn child, Kwan, and bring her back to the U.S. The last promise was the only one she kept”. Kwan, with her lack of understanding of the English Language and its nuances, her curiosity about everything that is part of city life, and her boundless capacity for optimism in the face of hurtful situations becomes a source of embarrassment for Olivia. But what Kwan lacks in lingua franca and other seeming frailty she makes up for with her astute understanding of human nature, her forgiving personality, and unwavering loyalty to family and friends. Kwan is endearing to me, I want to wrap her in the warmest clothing and hold her safe, ‘cause she is what I would want in an elder sister. She embodies that Safe Haven feeling that everyone should have in their lives.

The timeline weaves back and forth between the missionaries in Manchu China, with its Heavenly King and present day China and San Francisco. In between, Kwan narrates incidents in her own childhood and past life, as bedtime stories to Olivia. Olivia usually dismisses it as imaginative stories, having nothing to do with reality. But her perception changes when a job assignment brings Olivia, who is a photographer, Simon (Olivia’s estranged husband), who is a writer and Kwan, who becomes the interpreter, to China. And all the stories come alive. As Olivia’s perception about the other senses change, the reader becomes aware of the depth of the connections that she and the other characters in the story share. Along the way, we listen to some profound epiphanies that come out of the characters, as they move out of their comfort zones, grow, and learn.

Love – “Love is tricky. It is never mundane or daily. You can never get used to it. You have to walk with it, then let it walk with you. You can never balk. It moves you like the tide. It takes you out to sea, then lays you on the beach again. Today’s struggling pain is the foundation for a certain stride through the heavens. You can run from it but you can never say no. It includes everyone.”

Loyalty – “Libby-ah, do you know what loyalty is?” “What?” “Its like this. If you ask someone to cut off his hand to save you from flying off with the roof, he immediately cuts off both hands to show you he is more than glad to do so.”

Hate– “Then one of Kevin’s friends, a swaggering second-grader whom all the little girls had a crush on, said to me, “Is that dumb Chink your sister? Hey, Olivia, does that mean you’re a dumb Chink too?” I was so flustered I yelled, “She’s not my sister! I hate her! I wish she’d go back to China!” ……
My mother shook her head looking sad. “Olivia,” she said, “we don’t ever hate anyone. ‘Hate’ is a terrible word. It hurts you as much as it hurts others.” Of course, this only made me hate Kwan even more.

Hope – “Everyone must dream. We dream to give ourselves hope. To stop dreaming – well, that’s like saying you can never change your fate. Isn’t that true?”

Priority – “You know, they’re sort of lucky.” “What do you mean?” “You know, the small community, family histories linked for generations, focused on the basics. You need a house, you get your friends to help you slap a few bricks together, no bullshit about qualifying for a loan. Birth and death, love and kids, food and sleep, a home with a view – I mean, what more to you need?” (Simon tells Olivia when he senses her wince at hardship of the village life, on their walk across the Changmian Village)

As I ruminated before sleeping, I thought of how I grew up, straddling two different worlds at all times. One side was very comfortable with the idea of an unseen, all-feeling world, where our ancestors watched over us, where the spirits of the forests, waters, and plants help us; where the air, water, fire, dirt, and smells are messengers between the seen and unseen. The other side knew I would be mocked if I spoke of such things at school or work, or amongst people who weren’t familiar with the region, place, and people I came from. Yet, I was thankful for the culture I grew up in, the unexplainable and intangible was accepted as “the hope for life”, even as we embraced the science and the explanations it offered in understanding the tangible world. I felt humbled by my circumstance of life. I realize why I found Kwan lovable.

I understood and felt sorry for Olivia. Her relationship with her mother seemed to become an underlying principle for all of her relationships, giving it a sense of unfulfillment, a neediness, a sadness, a blocked off path. I feel like the author was playing around with different views of Karma and Reincarnation, making me wonder about my beliefs on the subject. Could it be that all of the familiarity, the joys and hurts that I experience with the people around me, is part of a past life account? Do we ever live our lives in Present-ness I wonder, if we are constantly paying out for our past lives? Do we really undo the kinks in our previous life, if all of this is true? What if it isnt true? Is the sole purpose of the ideas of reincarnation or rebirth, just to stymie our fear of death?

Overall I give this book a 4/5. It is well written…Although I felt like the author, like Paulo Coelho, has a constant theme in her stories (I watched The Joy Luck Club)–A strained relationship with a Mother figure that spills into relationships in other spheres.

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Review : I am The Messenger – Markus Zusak

iammessenger I picked this up because of the Author. I enjoyed his Book Thief immensely, so I wanted a repeat performance with a different story.

The story starts with a stick up in a bank, where four 19 year old friends happened to be – Ed Kennedy, Marv, Ritchie(Dave Sanchez) and Audrey. Ed ends up being a Hero at the end of this event as he ends up capturing the bank robber in a twist of events when the thief drops his gun and Ed takes charge of it. This event is the turning point of his aimless life. Soon after he gets a game card – The ace of diamonds with three addresses to deliver a message, or else. That was the start of his job as a Messenger. As he finishes the delivering the messages in each card, he gets another. A total of 12 messages to deliver and the gradual change that manifests in Ed as he delivers the messages is nice to watch. It felt like watching a child grow up, stand up for itself, move through life trusting itself more, being more of itself, gaining an insight that helps the child live a satisfying life. All within 360 odd pages of a book. That is a good deal.

Ed is the narrator of the story. He is an underachiever par excellence. He has a brother who does everything right and two sisters who have their own lives. All of them left the place they were born for better prospects except for Ed. He is in love with Audrey, who has friend zoned him. His friends Ritchie and Marv are very loyal and good to have as friends but there isn’t much growth between them or for themselves in their apathetic choice of lifestyles. Ritchie, is the typical, mask wearing person we all get to meet in our lives- the always jovial, nothing phases them, nothing bothers them, laid back outer vibe that hides a deep sense of loneliness and dissatisfaction with life. Marv, is the 9-5 kind of guy or at least that is what he shows himself to be- the go to work, save money, thrifty bordering on miserly, in love with his car. Ed and Audrey work as cab drivers for a taxi company with Ed having lied about his age to get the job. Ed’s father has passed and the only legacy that was left to Ed was his father’s old and stinky dog, The Doorman. His mother was a lady(not sure if I should call her that) with a foul mouth, who couldn’t finish any conversation with Ed, without punctuating it with profanity. She was deeply disappointed in Ed as he resembled his father and she felt he could do more. She was verbally very abusive to Ed, yet Ed had unfinished business with her. Or maybe the fact that she is his mother made it difficult for him to find his way out of that relationship.

Each of the messages that Ed is compelled to deliver changes the life of the receiver of the message, and the giver. Each of the messages helps Ed see that life is more about Love, about giving, about helping, doing what you can under the circumstances. Each time he delivers the message, he becomes less timid, more purposeful with his life, more thoughtful of what he is doing.

I was specially touched the way he handles each of the messages, even when the results weren’t as he wanted. There is Milla, the old lady who is still waiting for her beau. There is a beauty in the way he pretends to be Her long lost Love. Sophie, the young barefooted athlete, specially touching was the gift he gave her. The Family of Tatupu and Carusso, their gifts were so simple, yet so loving. As he delivers the messages, he gathers courage enough to confront his own demons.  His perception of his mother and the relationship he has with her, changes.

The story gives a message of hope to the reader, that if a person like Ed could Get Up when he was down, do the things that he did, that are way beyond what he could ever imagine, then maybe anyone could. You don’t have to be a special someone, a famous someone or a wealthy someone to connect with people, to reach out, do the needful, be there, send a message of love and of care, of understanding the human need to touch and be touched in our hearts.

I have to say, that I wouldn’t put this book in the hands of anyone who is younger than 16 years old. Maybe that is a little prudish of me but I really don’t think someone younger than that age really understands the nuances and implications involved in Adult relationships – sex, rape and foul language.

The premise of 19-20 year olds, wandering aimlessly in life is believable but the plot of how to get them to have a purpose in life was unbelievable. I liked the message he was trying to deliver though I felt the ending was a bit abrupt. Like as if, he was forced to end the book due to a deadline. It is light reading. Nothing too deep, A simple message with a beautiful story.

Overall I give a 4/5.

Review : Girl In Translation – Jean Kwok

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A week ago I was done with Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok. I picked up the book on a whim.  I did the usual drill.  I pick up the book and read bits and pieces in between before taking it home. If nothing catches my interest I leave it alone.

The blurb read “When Kimberly Chang and her mother emigrate from Hong Kong to Brooklyn squalor, she quickly begins a secret double life: exceptional schoolgirl during the day, Chinatown sweatshop worker in the evenings. Disguising the more difficult truths of her life-like the staggering degree of her poverty, the weight of her family’s future resting on her shoulders, or her secret love for a factory boy who shares none of her talent or ambition-Kimberly learns to constantly translate not just her language but herself back and forth between the worlds she straddles.” The back and forth straddling two worlds is what I recognize very well, since I am a fence sitter on most things.

I turn to a random page and I read “There’s a Chinese saying that the fates are winds that blow through our lives from every angle, urging us along the paths of time.  Those who are strong-willed may fight the storm and possibly choose their own road, while the weak must go where they are blown.  I say I have not been so much pushed by winds as pulled forward by the force of my decisions.”  Gets me thinking, how much of that was true in my own life.  I believed in Fate and Destiny like most every Indian kid. That writing on our foreheads that never can be changed. I still do to a degree but the older I get, my memory of what the choices I made that got me to where I am today is undeniable.

Now for some thoughts on the book –

1. The story is about a young girl, Ah-Kim AKA Kimberly, just entering her teens moving to the US from Hong Kong with her Mother. Told from the Girl’s perspective as she grows. An immigrants experience always makes me empathetic, cause I am in those shoes partly. Though I have been curious about immigrants from other countries and their experiences, my own inhibition when it comes to falling over myself to make conversations makes it impossible to know another the way I want to. The fear of being labeled nosy or disrespecting a person’s privacy makes me very wary of crossing certain boundaries.

2. Throughout the story, there is a theme of “so many skirts worth” when ever they buy something.  I couldnt help but laugh in complete knowing what that meant.  When we came to the US, we didnt have much money although it was definitely more than what we had in our home country. So we became such experts at the 33 and 34 times tables. A Dollar was worth about 33  Rupees at the time. And every dollar we spent would be converted to rupees in such habit that it never seemed like we lived in America, we lived in a  “so many rupees worth of dollars spent” world.

3. As the girl grows in a place unfamiliar to her, you see the obstacles of clashing culture with her own rich inner life. The experience is very poignant, cause some of those very emotions are the emotions I think any girl growing anywhere in conservative Asian societies goes through. Its that “not being heard but seen” rule that girls in Asian societies are afflicted with and the inner worlds we build because of what cant be voiced freely and the freedom we find in voicing it when an opportunity knocks, compelling us to grab it.

4. It is story of strength of women, the stuff we go through and still keep our humanity in tact. It is about love, love of family, love of mother, of lovers. I love a good love story and this has that typical in the teens love that has an innocence mixed with ambition for the future.

5. The premise that a woman can make it, no matter what obstacles, with her single mindedness and need to keep it together, it’s a trait that I watch in a lot of women. I am not saying that Men don’t have it, but that it is more appealing in a woman cause she rarely gets credit for it. Society rarely awards women for their strength, the quiet strength that is used every day of their lives. Its that strength that helps those around them breathe and move free, cause they yoke themselves in one place being the sun in others lives. I am yet to see someone give a woman “The Best Housewife award”. And I think I am biased, I like the underdog better than the hero.

6. There are a few instances where the girl Ah-Kim uses different pronunciations for words in English that she couldn’t understand in the beginning of her stay in the US. She isnt well versed in English, though she studied the language in Hong Kong. It felt funny as I read it, cause it reminded me of my faux pas. I have been in situations where I didn’t understand the US English word for certain things and had misunderstandings in spite of knowing the British Version of the Language. Nuances, Redneck Jokes, The Southern Drawl, the dropping of consonants from certain words in the East Coast, the laid back words of the NW, References to Books and stuff that wasnt part of my growing up(like baseball, Roots, different genres of music, art etc.) were things I had to learn over time. In a way I am glad I learned and that I have a lot more to learn(Hey, I am not dead yet Right?). I am aware that certain others of my ilk never make the effort, and I make it a point to explain if I am around, just so they will enjoy their stay here better.

7. Overall I give it a 3.5/5. I shaved the points for the fact it isnt a book that will appeal to anyone anywhere.