This is a compelling memoir by an author who is able to pull readers right inside her head, she writes with such intensity and intimacy. It is about her childhood and teenage years and is ostensibly about growing up with childhood bipolar disorder, though it is just as much about growing up in a very dysfunctional family, to the point that I wondered how much the atmosphere contributed to her mental health issues. The parents are obsessed with keeping up appearances, their relationship is fractured at the best of times, each has a favorite child with whom they sometimes side against the other parent, and the author and her brother don’t seem to have a real relationship with each other at all.
Meanwhile the author has mental health issues from a young age, which she never discusses with anyone. Part of this book I think is a skillful portrayal of how childhood works for everyone – you live in a weird private world that you probably don’t talk about, and you lack the perspective and judgment to know what’s normal. In other ways it’s very specific to her family and the place where she was growing up (suburban southern California in the 1960s and 70s): as an adult she realizes that her youth was littered with warning signs, from frequent, prolonged absences from school to poetry about suicide that she wrote from a young age, which somehow never resulted in an intervention.
I found this to be a really interesting memoir, well-written and a fast, compelling read. The author perhaps sells it short by writing that it’s aimed at parents of bipolar kids; while it may provide insights for those parents, I am not one and still enjoyed it. It’s a good read for anyone who wants to know what life looks like through someone else’s eyes – and isn’t that one of the primary reasons we read?
This is an interesting memoir by a Hmong-American writer, about the experiences of a community that is opaque to many Americans. The Hmong are an ethnic minority who moved from China to Laos centuries ago; the Chinese outlawing their written language is apparently the reason they lack one even today. Many Hmong assisted the Americans in the Vietnam War, in which about a third of their population died; another third was killed in the persecution after the American army’s departure. The author’s parents and extended family, like many others, fled into the jungles of Laos and later to a refugee camp in Thailand, where they lived for several years before relocating to Minnesota.
Though a memoir, this book is more about the author’s family than about Kao Kalia Yang herself. It begins by detailing her family’s travails in Laos and Thailand before her birth in the refugee camp, and the bulk of the book focuses on the camp and the family’s immigration to America when she was seven. It goes on to describe the difficulties of their adjustment, for her (being too shy to speak English in school even once she learned it), but mostly for the family: part of the extended family winds up in another state; money is tight, and her parents are forced to take exhausting night shifts at a factory to support the family, while Yang and her older sister are responsible for caring for their younger siblings and sometimes serving as interpreters for their parents. There is little sense of the author’s life after elementary school, though; while she is a student at Carlton College by the end (and later went on to Columbia University), the later chapters focus exclusively on the last years of her grandmother’s life and the grandmother’s death and elaborate funeral. I would have liked to see more of the author’s life and how she has related to Americans and American culture – her educational choices indicate that she has her own stories to tell – but the focus of the book does make clear how extremely family-oriented both she and her community are.
It is an incredible story, and especially given that the Yangs’ experiences were evidently common among the Hmong after the Vietnam War, it’s an important one to tell for the sake of awareness. The writing is fairly good, though it doesn’t always flow in the clearest way. Here’s a sample:
“My mother and father told us not to look at the Americans. If we saw them, they would see us. For the first year and a half, we wanted to be invisible. Everywhere we went beyond the McDonough Housing Project, we were looked at, and we felt exposed. We were dealing with a widespread realization that all Hmong people must do one of two things to survive in America: grow up or grow old. In the case of the noticeably young, the decision was made for us. For those who were older, the case was also easy to figure. Those marred by the war, impaired by the years of fighting, social security and disability were options. [sic] For my mother and father, already adults who had waited on life long before it was their time, the government stepped in and told them: the welfare clock was ticking. She was twenty-five. He was twenty-eight. They knew they wanted a chance to work, but they did not know how to keep that chance safe, so on the streets, before the slanted brows of mostly white men, they held us close for security.”
The gist of the passage makes sense: the family feels insecure, they don’t want to attract attention, and the parents are under pressure to find work. But the notion that there is pressure on “all Hmong people” to “grow up or grow old,” and how this is meant to apply to the author’s parents, is unclear to me even after taking the time to re-read it carefully. And perhaps because of the author’s cultural and linguistic background, she has a distinct way of expressing ideas that may not make a lot of sense to American readers if read quickly or with less than full attention.
Overall then, I found this memoir worthwhile, mostly for the opportunity to learn more about a community that was unfamiliar to me. However, it’s not the first one I would recommend for literary reading.
Molly Gloss is an excellent writer, but this isn’t my favorite of her books. I loved Wild Life, and The Hearts of Horses is a lovely examination of a rural community. This one is a sequel of sorts to The Hearts of Horses, featuring Martha’s son Bud, who at age 19 takes off for Hollywood to become a stunt rider. Much of the book is about the difference between the real American West and the West as portrayed in cowboy movies, and about the dirty underbelly of Hollywood at the time: the frequent injuries and deaths of men and horses in stunts, the sexual harassment, the various tricks used to make everything in movies look more exciting than it really is.
And I think the best of this book is in its themes, in its examination of Hollywood and its contrast between the myth of a West full of heroes, villains and derring-do and the real world in which a hardscrabble ranching family does unromantic work and loses a child in a meaningless accident. It’s a very well-written book, and there’s a resonance to Gloss’s writing that more literary-oriented readers will enjoy. But I found the plot of this one a little lacking. It has a very long, slow start – half the book passes in Bud’s bus trip to Hollywood, initial attempts to find work and first job working for a stable that rents horses for the tamer scenes – which doesn’t leave much time for the meat of the story. Bud also interested me less than Gloss’s heroines; his friend Lily, a budding screenwriter whom he meets on the bus to Hollywood, is a more interesting and colorful character, but she isn’t the narrator and so we see less of her.
Overall, then, this book has a lot going for it, but my expectations for this author are very high. I liked it, but for most readers I’d recommend Wild Life or The Hearts of Horses first.
It’s hard for me to rate a book of folklore. Its primary purpose is to preserve stories and information about a culture, rather than to entertain, and perhaps the most important target audience here is people of Cherokee heritage who may not have much connection to traditional culture. Not being one of those people, I can’t claim that my review will reflect others’ experiences with the book.
The author, Christopher Teuton, is a professor of Cherokee descent who spends time on tribal lands in Oklahoma with four older men who jokingly call themselves the “Turtle Island Liars’ Club.” The four are involved in various ways in the preservation of traditional culture, and are all storytellers. The book is built of many short sections, interspersing stories which range from less than a page to a few pages in length with sections in which the group hangs out and discusses various aspects of Cherokee culture. The stories range from legends to accounts from the lives of the storytellers and their families, and while some read like traditional tales, others clearly have had modern updating: animals encounter steel traps or become roadkill, for instance. But there’s no pretense at telling an authoritative version of any of the tales; in discussing their art, the storytellers make clear that the stories are alive and changing, that different people tell different versions and they even tell different versions themselves to different audiences. And in fact I have encountered different versions of a couple of these stories elsewhere.
I found the stories to be interesting and enjoyable, but Teuton made an excellent decision in choosing to include more than that; the short topical sections in between provide grounding and context, and I generally found the factual information interesting. Most books of folklore seem to be compilations of stories without telling readers anything about the storytellers, their lives, or their wider culture, beyond what one might glean from the tales they tell. This one provides a much fuller picture of Cherokee life, at least as seen through the eyes of these four men.
The fact that a fairly small number of voices – of men from roughly the same generation with similar life experiences – make up the book is a drawback. Another, at least in my eyes, is the way the author renders speech: at times it is almost like reading a transcript, with the “ums,” the people interjecting with “yeah” or “mmhm,” the sentences that trail off without communicating anything. Journalists clean up speech to make it more concise and avoid making their subjects look dumb, and Teuton doesn’t explain why he chose not to, though he does discuss other decisions about how to shape the book. Fortunately though, he’s talking to people who are used to public speaking, and the storytellers’ voices along with the brevity of the sections mitigate the dryness of the author’s writing, which is quite evident in his introduction.
Overall, I found this book engaging, and readers with a particular interest in Cherokee culture or folklore will likely enjoy it. A general audience may become more impatient, though there is certainly wisdom about life in the book that applies regardless of culture. Also, four of the stories are transcribed in both Cherokee and English, which is fun.