Surviving ‘Chemistry’

Weike Wang’s debut novel “Chemistry” begins with a boy and a girl. The boy asks the girl the same question over and over hoping to get a different answer. And the narrator can’t quite make up her mind.

chemistry

“Chemistry”
By Weike Wang.
Knopf. 211 pp. $24.95.
2017.

Both are intelligent. The boy has a Ph.D. and the girl is working toward one in chemistry at a Boston college. (That’s where they met and started dating).

And the decision should be easy. It’s the next logical step.

The boy Eric is smart and thoughtful, gentle and easygoing. He cooks. And cleans. And walks the dog. But —

But his self-esteem is still in tact. And he isn’t a Chinese American riddled with a bad case of anxiety and imposter’s syndrome.

He’s a ginger.

If Wang wasn’t a scientist (who graduated from undergrad with a chemistry degree from Harvard) or a writer (who’s penned an impressive first novel), she could probably be a comedian or a psychologist.

In many ways, “Chemistry” is like a prescription for what’s wrong with me. Too insecure. Too indecisive. Too anxious. Too nice. Too Asian. Not Asian enough. Not good enough. Not good.

Wang, a Chinese immigrant herself, acutely articulates things I’ve felt that I’ve never told anyone else. (Like how “I don’t remember ever seeing my parents hold hands, or hug, or kiss. I wonder if this is why when I hear affectionate words, I want to jump off tall buildings despite crippling fear of heights”; or how “It might be true that I was raising my hand at nine months. It has become so instinctual to always still be polite. Like now, at this bar, where I have raised my hand a dozen times to ask a question. Can I have another drink? Another drink? Another?”; and how “It is the Chinese way to not explain any of that, to keep your deepest feelings inside and then build a wall that can be seen from the moon.”)

She has a knack for making you simultaneously laugh and ugly cry into your pillow.

Just reading the staccato sentences in “Chemistry” makes you anxious — as if your phone notifications were blowing up with messages like: “Your biological clock is ticking” and “And you have X days to find someone to spend the rest of your life with.”

Then the alarms go off — blaring louder than the ones before. You can’t seem to put life back in “Snooze.” Instead, things blow up in “Chemistry” — both slow and sudden, leaving a gaping hole.

But as you and the nameless narrator girl learn: you can survive.

Looking for ‘The Opposite of Loneliness’

When I was 16-going-on-17, I did what Marina Keegan’s family and friends did — I put together a collection of my work until that point and printed it.

These 100-plus pages in total were edited (as much as they could be before deadline) and then stuffed into a Manila envelope and mailed to the Davidson Fellows Scholarship for Literature judges. I didn’t get the scholarship, but Marina Keegan’s posthumous collection of short stories and essays, “The Opposite of Loneliness,” reminds me of that body of work — how it was flawed but promising, hinting how I would still develop as a young writer.

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“The Opposite of Loneliness”
By Marina Keegan.
206 pp. Scribner. $15.
2014.

Keegan debut book, “The Opposite of Loneliness,” is full of hope, talent and potential, but you read it knowing that Keegan never told all the stories she could have. She died at 22 — five days after she graduated magna cum laude from Yale University.

The title of Keegan’s book is from Keegan’s essay of the same name, which was published in The Yale Daily News after her sudden and tragic death in 2012. After she died, her parents, teachers and friends compiled her fiction, non-fiction and journal entries into Keegan’s one and only book, “The Opposite of Loneliness.”

If I had died at 17 — five days after my high school graduation, I wouldn’t have wanted my friends and family to publish my work like this, mostly because I’m a perfectionist and I cringe when I re-read anything I’ve written before. The pages I had submitted in the scholarship application were filled with angsty poetry and undeveloped fiction. And while I love to see my name in print, I’m not sure if I would have wanted the world to remember me as imperfect.

Still, Keegan’s one and only book, “The Opposite of Loneliness,” is perfect in spite (or perhaps because) of its imperfections. Some of the stories and essays could have been more polished, but the fact that there are flaws makes the work that much more inspirational — like we, too, could achieve what Keegan did in her short, but full life.

There’s no denying Keegan’s gift. Her essays and short stories are full of life and human insight. In “Cold Pastoral,” she writes about the pain of knowing your partner was still in love with his ex-girlfriend; “Winter Break” is about falling in love as your parents’ relationship is falling apart; and “Hail, Full of Grace” is about encountering an ex years later and imagining what could have been. The most inspiring of these works is an essay which gives the book its namesake — the essay that tells us “how we’re young, so young, and how we have so much time to follow our dreams.”

I’ve never met Keegan, but through her words, I feel like I know her because she reminds me of the girl I was, am and could be — that girl who contemplated an English degree before she settled into journalism, that girl who spent her senior year in high school writing autobiographical essays for college applications, that girl who grew up with Shakespeare and Harry Potter and listens to NPR, that girl whose a writer with all the time to write and edit and re-write.

Why ‘One Day We’ll All Be Dead And None Of This Will Matter’ matters

If the title of Scaachi Koul’s first book “One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter” sounds like the title of a new collection of David Sedaris essays, perhaps that’s because Sedaris is one of Koul’s biggest role models.

His essays inspired Koul to become a writer. (Now she’s a senior writer at Buzzfeed.)

“Every word he wrote crackled in my brain and he was a guy, sure, a white guy, but I knew he was different in a way that I felt different,” writes Koul. “It changes you, when you see someone similar to you, doing the thing you want to do yourself.”

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“One Day We’ll All Be Dead And None Of This Will Matter”By Scaachi Koul
241 pp. Picador. $25.
2017

But whereas Sedaris wrote about growing up gay in North Carolina, going to speech therapy for his lisp, working as a mall elf for Christmas, becoming a migrant worker for a summer and traveling all over the world with his boyfriend, Hugh, Koul writes about being cut out of a skirt she tried on at a department store, shaving the hair on her knuckles and being afraid of getting vein cancer.

Yes, embarrassing and traumatic experiences that are funnier in hindsight, sure, but Koul made me cry whereas Sedaris always made me laugh.

At the heart of many of Koul’s personal essays is the emotional throw up of what it’s like to grow up as brown girl in the white ‘burbs of Canada with a first name no one could pronounce without an instruction manual (Hint: The first “C” in “Scaachi” is silent).

“Fitting is a luxury rarely given to immigrants, or the children of immigrants,” writes Koul, an Indian Canadian writer based in Toronto. “We are stuck in emotional purgatory. Home, somehow, is always the last place you left, and never the place you’re in.”

Koul’s contemporary book, ironically titled “One Day We’ll All Be Dead And None Of This Will Matter,” matters because it does more than cover casual racism, online harassment, rape culture and the normalcy of alcoholism. Within the 10-essay collection in “One Day We’ll All Be Dead And None Of This Will Matter” is a reflection of marginalized communities often not talked about enough in mainstream books, television, film or Western culture.

While Koul has written about identity and online harassment publically in the past, “One Day We’ll All Be Dead And None Of This Will Matter” is a vulnerable and insightful portrait of youth, loneliness and alienation.

There are many passages that I’ve highlighted since Koul seemed to describe my own experience so perfectly — like the feeling that “before we’re taught anything, we’re taught to hide.”

As a first-generation Chinese American immigrant growing up in the suburbs of Western New York, I know what it’s like to not belong — to be asked where you’re from because of the color of your skin, to always feel crippling self doubt and to lose the language and culture of your ancestors but for it to somehow still define you. To read about these experiences shared by another human is empowering because it makes you feel less alone. And to read about these experiences from someone like you doing something you want to do? Well, it allows you to dream — to know that your goals are still tangible because someone else like you has done this before and so maybe you can too.

“One Day We’ll All Be Dead And None Of This Will Matter” matters because of girls like me and girls like Koul, who somehow survive even when the world wants them dead.

“One Day We’ll All Be Dead And None Of This Will Matter” is expected to be published in the United States on May 2, 2017.  

‘Marlena’: a coming-of-age retrospective wrapped in mystery and nostalgia

You know that scene in “Footloose” where the pastor’s daughter, Ariel, climbs through a window and straddles a moving sedan and pickup truck as they’re driving head-on toward a tractor trailer?

With age and perspective, you watch this scene with paralyzing fear — fearing that you’re about to watch a tragic car crash you can’t prevent. But when you’re young and living these moment, your friends cloak you with a coat of invincibility. As long as you’re with them, you feel like you can fly.

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“Marlena”
By Julie Buntin.
274 pp. Henry Holt and Company. $26.
2017.

Julie Buntin’s debut novel “Marlena” oscillates between youth and adulthood, wrapping mystery with nostalgia.

Ariel is how I imagine Marlena Joyner — the beautiful, wild and effervescent center of this novel.

Unlike Ariel though, Marlena doesn’t miraculously avoid collision. She dies tragically young before the novel even begins. Years later, Marlena’s ghost still haunts the thoughts of her best childhood friend, Cat.

Cat is twice the age that Marlena ever got to be. But even as she nears 36, Cat vividly remembers how it felt like to be 15 and to befriend her next-door neighbor Marlena — “to the first time I heard Stevie Nicks, to watching the snow fall outside the window with a paperback folded open in my lap, to the moment before I tasted alcohol, to virginity and not really knowing that things die, back to believing that something great is still up ahead, back to before I made the choices that would hem me to the life I live now.”

Each chapter pivots between Cat’s current life in New York City and her former life in Silver Lake, Michigan, a small dead-end town mostly populated by tourists in the summer. Her memories takes her back to the year when Marlena was still alive, the year when her mom had just divorced her dad and moved Jimmy and her to a town in the middle of nowhere northern Michigan — the kind of place where “there aren’t words for the catastrophic dreariness.”

The only light was Marlena, who was both danger and exhilaration — dangling the keys of friendship and peer pressure in the form of booze, pills and cigarettes. Cat was addicted to how friendship made her feel while “pretending to be girls with minor secrets, listening to Joni Mitchell with the volume turned up.”

Written in first person, “Marlena” seems like a cautionary tale, but it’s not a book about not living. It’s a book about remembering — remembering how the people in your life shaped how you are today.

‘Pachinko’: When life pushes you around, you have to keep playing

My family doesn’t often tell me stories, but I’ve seen their wishes and dreams in their actions. How they moved over continents for their children. How they scrimped and saved to send us through school. How they worked 18-hour days with no vacations, seven days a week. How they always made sure that even if we didn’t have much, we always had full stomachs.

For this, they traded the ease of communication, learning a foreign language in a foreign country when they were well into their early thirties. It wasn’t easy, but as my mother tries to explain to me, a parent lives for their children.

Sometimes I wonder if my parents gave up more than they gained by immigrating to America. For years, they’ve lost touch with their family and friends, isolated in an area where they didn’t know the language or culture.

My mom vividly remembers the helplessness she felt when I was feverish and sick as a baby. She tried to take me to a pharmacist, but she didn’t know enough English to explain what was wrong with her child.

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“Pachinko”
By Min Jin Lee
490 pp. Grand Central Publishing. $27
2017.

Years later, we still have trouble communicating. Google Translate can be a bridge to understanding, but it’s never enough — which is why a book like Min Jin Lee’s “Pachinko” is such a treasure.

Lee, who is a first generation Korean American, writes about the immigrant’s journey with such incredible empathy that it almost feels like she held a magnifying glass on my family’s soul and started transcribing. Lee’s words express sentiments of love and loss — using the Japanese game of pachinko as a metaphor for life. (“Man, life’s going to keep pushing you around, but you have to keep playing.”)

This game almost spans an entire century — from 1910 when Japan occupied Korea to 1989 after Korea was split into North and South Korea following World War Two. The book follows four generations of a humble Korean family that immigrated from Korea to Japan.

The protagonist for much of the book is Sunja, the daughter of Yangjin and Hoonie, humble boarding house keepers on a small and coastal Korean village.

When she was 16, Sunja became pregnant with a married man’s child. Knowing that her son would become a bastard without a surname, Sunja takes a kind and sickly Korean pastor’s offer to marry.

The 26-year-old Korean pastor, Baek Isak, was a Christian missionary on his way to Osaka, where he had accepted a teaching position at a local church. He and his newly married wife, Sunja, were to meet his brother, Yoseb, and sister-in-law, Kyunghee, in Osaka.

While Yoseb and Kyunghee were thrilled to have more family close by, Japan didn’t welcome them. Koreans were seen as dirty, lazy and violent troublemakers who were quick to anger.

“Pachinko” beautifully and tragically chronicles how a woman raised her kids by peddling kimchi; how a man attracted to men was still expected to marry a woman; how Japanese kids cruelly sent death threats to their Korean peers; how a father couldn’t protect his son from racial prejudice and discrimination; how a Korean born in Japan could still be deported even if he spent his entire life there; how it feels like to pinball between two cultures and not belonging to either; and how try as you might, you can never escape your blood.

Listening to ‘The Name of the Wind’

The best way I can describe how it felt like when I read “The Name of the Wind,” the first book in Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicle series, is that scene in William Goldman’s “The Princess Bride” — the one where the sick boy urges his grandfather to keep on reading.

It’s been a while since I’ve found an adventure quite like this — a page turner so engrossing that it consumes me entirely.

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“The Name of the Wind”
By Patrick Rothfuss
661 pp. DAW. $17.85
2007.

It’s broken heart is Kvothe, an unassuming barkeeper with vivid red hair and ever-changing greenish-colored eyes.

Kvothe’s story is illustrated in two parts: the past and the present — nestled inside each other like Penrose steps.

In the present, Kvothe is a haunted man, quietly trading stories to a traveling writer while hiding from the inevitable hellhounds.

But even as Kvothe tries to escape his past, it sweeps him up and defines him.

In the past, Kvothe was a myth more than a man — a thief who survived the cruelest of conditions, escaping caves of cyclopes beneath the bellies of sheep. Kvothe was a candle burning from both ends — a child prodigy who’s lived lifetimes within days.

Now within days, Kvothe narrates the stories of his lifetime: The stories he’s heard, stored and made.

“The Name of the Wind” is a minstrel’s song like Homer’s “Iliad or “Odyssey” — a clever and epic tale promising magic, fighting, torture, poison, true love, revenge, joy, sorrow, songs, heroes, villains, bullies, monsters, women, bandits, knights, patrons, kings, singers, tinkers, princesses, mercenaries, demons, fairies, pain, poetry, poverty, shipwreck, debt, lies, truths, passions, and miracles.

This story more delivers on its promises.

 

Why we’re ‘Homesick for Another World’

Ottessa Moshfegh’s “Homesick for Another World” is a book about pimples and obesity. It’s a book about women who wear too much makeup and men who wear women’s blazers.

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“Homesick for Another World”
By Ottessa Moshfegh
294 pp. Penguin Press. $26.
2017.

Each of the characters within this collection of 14 short stories perform little sins that show their inner ugliness. Sometimes it’s changing the answers to all their students’ state tests so that the students could pass their exams (“Bettering Myself”). At other times, it’s not calling their mothers (“Nothing Ever Happens Here”), staying with absent and paranoid boyfriends (“The Weirdos”), lusting after the young girl next door (“An Honest Woman”), not calling an ambulance when a pregnant woman starts bleeding inside their homes (“Slumming”), or going to a remote family cabin to smoke weed and escape an almost-due pregnant wife (“A Dark and Winding Road”).

Written in first person, these uncomfortable vignettes portray the minds of sinners shrouded within protective bubbles of arrogance and self-entitlement. A man with unemployment benefits collects cash from an old and dying uncle (“Malibu”). A recent widow tries to vengefully cheat on his dead wife after almost 30 years of marriage (“The Beach Boy”).

These stories are about loneliness and the search for human connection; however, more often than not, this quest leads us to lazy eyes and clumps of white deodorant under armpits. Moshfegh’s characters reek of humanity: the moist, stank of original sin. It’s a stench we’re painfully familiar with and why we’re homesick for another world.

‘The Grownup’: Gillian Flynn’s Rubin vase

You know that optical illusion where you swear you see a vase but your friend keenly sees two faces. That’s the kind of story Gillian Flynn’s “The Grownup” is.

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“The Grownup”
By Gillian Flynn
62 pp. Crown Publishers. $9.99 US.
2014.

Originally published as part of George R. R. Martin’s “Rogues” anthology under the name “What Do You Do?,” “The Grownup” is like the Rubin vase exercise, holding two images in the same frame.

The main character is an wannabe writer who is a voracious reader. She catalogs great lines for her memoir and begins with this one: “I didn’t stop giving hand jobs because I wasn’t good at it. I stopped giving hand jobs because I was the best at it.”

Written in first person, “The Grownup” is a classic story about an unreliable narrator. We don’t ever find out her name, but if we believe the narrator, she grew up conning people out of their money, telling them stories that they wanted to hear. Now she’s a fake aura reader who also gives hand jobs for money at this joint called Spiritual Palms.

This becomes problematic when she meets Susan Burke, a wealthy client whose family moves into Carterhook Manor, an 1893 Victorian mansion. Susan thinks the house is haunted and our heroine would love the extra cash; the latter, however, isn’t as easy as it seems.

At 62 pages, “The Grownup” is a slim novella. Yet within those 62 pages, Gillian Flynn (author of book-turned-movie “Gone Girl”) skillfully maneuvers the twists and turns she’s so well known for.

While “The Grownup” is a quick read, it’ll have your second guessing what you believe.

Unraveling ‘The Library at Mount Char’

At the center of everything is a story. The story of how God created the universe in seven days. The story of how the body of a mountain giant eventually became the earth, sea and clouds. The story of how a fearful god swallowed his children because they were destined to usurp him.

Scott Hawkins understands the importance of stories. His 388-page debut novel, “The Library at Mount Char,” is essentially a story about stories.

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“The Library at Mount Char”
By Scott Hawkins
388 pp. Broadway Books. $16.00 US.
2015.

Its protagonist, Carolyn Sopaski, is a thirty-two-year-old librarian at Garrison Oaks. She’s one of twelve Pelapi, which roughly translate to “pupil” or “librarian.”

Carolyn and her siblings are all part of the Pelapi tribe, each devoting their entire lives to studying a single catalog from their Father’s library. Carolyn’s in charge of learning all the earth’s spoken languages and she becomes the mediator between the world Hawkins built and the world we think we know.

Hawkins’ story is predicated upon the idea of “regression completeness,” a phrase he made up that means “no matter how many mysteries you solve, there’s always a deeper mystery behind it.” This is how he structures “The Library at Mount Char” — which is not exactly a horror mystery or fantasy/sci-fi thriller, but keeps you glued to its pages nonetheless.

“The Library of Mount Char” reads as if you were suddenly transported within a game of Improv, an episode of “Doctor Who” or the script of “The Hangover” movie starring Bradley Cooper, Zach Galifianakis and Ed Helms (yes, the movie featuring Mike Tyson and a tiger).

Hawkins writes with an absurdist humor, filling the pages with a gigantic man willingly wearing a tutu, lions saving a man from a pack of dogs, a woman wearing a bathrobe and cowboy hat to the bank, and a former army sergeant who goes by Erwin. The novel’s almost dreamlike — as if you were submerging within Christopher Nolan’s “Inception” — playing like a movie in your mind.

You’re going to remember this story.

‘Prozac Nation’: one woman’s lifelong battle with depression

“Prozac Nation: Young and Depressed in America” isn’t an easy book to get through. It’s author, journalist-turned-lawyer Elizabeth Wurtzel, would be the first to admit this.

“I know how taxing it is to do something even as small and brief as having a meal with a depressive,” she writes. “We are such irritating people, can see the dark side of everything, and our perpetual malcontentedness kind of ruins it for everybody.”

“Prozac Nation: Young and Depressed in America.” By Elizabeth Wurtzel. 368pp. Riverhead Books. $12.00 U.S. 1994.

“Prozac Nation: Young and Depressed in America.”
By Elizabeth Wurtzel.
368pp. Riverhead Books.
$12.00 U.S.
1994.

Which is why it’s nearly impossible to get through Wurtzel’s 368-page memoir. She’s a Debbie Downer, who overanalyzes and complains — capitalizing on her unhappiness with a book-turned-movie deal.

A Harvard grad growing up in a single-parent, Jewish home in New York City during the ’70s and ’80s, Wurtzel traces her depression to her childhood. Her parents divorced when she was young. Her father often babysat her under the influence of Valium before he disappeared from her life. And her mother didn’t understand her depression, sending her to summer camp and therapy like ordering broken taillights to be fixed.

Depression, however, “is more like a cancer,” than a broken car. “Slowly, over the years, the data will accumulate in your heart and mind, a computer program for total negativity will build into your stem, making life feel more and more unbearable,” she writes. “But you won’t even notice it coming on, thinking that is somehow normal, something about getting older, about turning eight or turning twelve or turning fifteen, and then one day you realize that your entire life is just awful, not worth living, a horror and a black dot on the white terrain of human existence.”

Wurtzel writes like an angsty high school girl — sometimes poetic and insightful, but also with a self-absorbed arrogance. It’s hard to feel sorry for her when she describes sleeping with her friend’s boyfriend, standing up her own birthday party, missing her grandparents visit to her college, or embellishing stories to her colleagues at the Dallas Morning News. Rather than take advantage of her immense opportunities, Wurtzel runs from her problems — going to London to stay with a stranger who only puts up with her as a favor to his ex-girlfriend.

“I can’t stand listening to you,” a former book critic for New York Magazine tells her. “When I was your age, I saved up money, I waitressed for months so I could take myself over to Europe…. But all you seem to be able to do is complain that you miss your ex-boyfriend and you can’t plug anything in! This is ridiculous!”

But as ridiculous as Wurtzel’s stories are, Wurtzel’s morose and self-absorbed account shouldn’t be dismissed. Depression is still a dark and insidious disease that could strike anyone. More middle-aged white people are dying from overdoses, addictions and depression, The New York Times reported earlier this month. Meanwhile, we’ve heard of the string of suicides at high schools and colleges.

Wurtzel blames her depression for most of her ridiculous behavior — the reason she cried for no reason or self-medicated with prescription drugs, hard liquor, pot, cocaine, Ecstasy and boys. Depression, not drugs, is her problem, she says: “I was loading myself with whatever available medication I could find, doing whatever I could to get my head to shut off for a while.” But unfortunately, depression doesn’t have a quick fix.

Although Wurtzel chronicles her childhood and college years, she still battles depression with a psychiatrist-approved drug cocktail. Prozac may be her shield, but any shield can crack.