It doesn’t matter what you think of ‘Emma in the Night’

No matter what you think of Wendy Walker’s newest psychological thriller “Emma in the Night,” that doesn’t matter.

“We believe what we want to believe,” writes Walker in the book’s opening lines, perhaps challenging those who dismiss it as a worser version of Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl” or as a book that makes so sense.

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“Emma in the Night” 
By Wendy Walker. 
305 pp. St. Martin’s Press. $26.99.
2017.

The theory in her case is two teenaged sisters went missing on the same night about three years ago. Three years later, Cass Tanner, now 18, returns on her mother’s doorstep. Her older sister, Emma, is still missing, but Cass says Emma’s held captive on an island off the coast of Portland, Maine.

Walker’s book alternates between the first person perspective of 18-year-old Cass and that of 32-year-old Dr. Abigail “Abby” Winter, an FBI forensic psychologist who’s been examining the case with her partner Agent Leo Strauss. (Weirdly enough, since the chapters are titled either “Cass” or “Dr. Winter,” Dr. Winter’s chapters are written in the omniscient third person where the narrator knows what Abby is thinking and feeling — a direct contrast to the “Cass” chapters, which are written in first person.)

These writing conventions make “Emma in the Night” a bit hard to follow, for perhaps both author and reader — especially when you’re reading points of “Dr. Winter” chapters when Cass is supposed to be talking, but speaks as if she’s writing; or when you’re reading Abby chapters where Abby knows exactly what Cass means with a bit of obscure dialogue.

It’s as if Walker is arguing about a pig who could fly with an elephant on its back in a submarine in outer space.

But that’s besides the point.

The point is that it doesn’t matter if you hate “Emma in the Night” because there will also be those who love it, its unreliable narrators and it’s plot twists. To borrow Walker’s words, “We believe what we want to believe” — which means it’s pointless to try to convince someone why they need or don’t need to read “Emma in the Night.”

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A love like ‘A Million Junes’

Normally I don’t start a book by reading it’s end, but “A Million Junes” ends with a love letter so beautiful that even if you didn’t read the rest of Emily Henry’s 391-page young adult novel, I’d encourage you to read just that.

It’s like that game parents and children play where each ask the other to guess how much they love them — the type of love you want every child to have and know.

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“A Million Junes”
By Emily Henry.
391 pp. Razorbill. $17.99.
2017.

These feelings are probably why “A Million Junes” feel like the warmest of hugs.

Henry’s book is a ballad about a love that defies death — how a child copes with the death of a beloved parent, whose body is cold even before the book begins.

Jack O’Donnell’s death is the emotional stimulus for much of his daughter’s writing, which one imagines as lyrical as Henry’s own. In it, June O’Donnell tells the tales her father passed down to her — how her great grandfather settled in the Five Fingers and started a cherry farm, how coywolves steal shoes from their backyard, and how their house is haunted by ghosts (which are mostly good).

Both are still playing that game and the child still can’t win. The child, high school student June O’Donnell, loves her dad from the moon and back while her dad, Jack, loves June from beyond.

Love has it’s own rules, of course. It can become boundaries like “if you love me, don’t.” And O’Donnell’s don’t. They don’t go to Five Fingers Falls. And they don’t hang out with their neighbors the Angerts because for generations (at least) whenever O’Donnells and Angerts meet, bad things happen. Bad things like her father’s death.

This becomes problematic when 20-year-old Saul Angert drops out of school and returns home to care for his sick father. June starts seeing Saul hanging around town and her high school. Worst of all, she starts liking him — which seems to defy her dead father’s wishes.

But as June learns, to love is to live — even if it hurts.

Disappear in ‘The Blinds’

If you want to disappear (from the latest sexual harassment scandal, Trump tweet, breaking news push alert, or _______ ) for six hours, pick up Adam Sternbergh’s sci-fi western mystery thriller “The Blinds.” It’s the type of book you get lost in and end up finishing in one sitting.

The name for the book comes from the nickname for Ceasura, Texas — a shoebox type of town in the middle of nowhere where nothing bad ever happens. That changes when someone’s shot dead in a trailer.

To realize how strange that is, there’s a few things you have to understand about Ceasura. First off: it’s in the middle of a desert.

Second off: no one has guns.

And lastly, The Blinds isn’t your normal town.

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“The Blinds”
By Adam Sternbergh.
382 pp. HarperCollins Publishers. $26.99.
2017.

The Blinds is the place where people go to disappear from the world when they have exhausted all their other options and have nowhere else to go. It’s a place where there’s no cell phones, no Internet, no guns (except the one the sheriff carries). A place where it’s rude to ask someone about their past.

Since The Blinds was built as a safe haven when a select few can start over without a past, anonymity is key. Everyone is given a new name in The Blinds — even the sheriff and his deputies. (The formula for creating new names is to mash-up first and last names from recognizable celebrities and forgettable vice presidents.)

With these new names and identities, the residents of The Blinds are told they can never have any visitors and they cannot contact or return to the outside world.

This arrangement goes relatively well for a while — until a homicide becomes the catalyst for the town’s unraveling.

Most of the 48 residents in The Blinds don’t remember their lives before The Blinds — even if you asked. A total or partial memory wipe which took away your worst memories was one of The Blinds’ entrance fees. The only people who know their past are Ceasura’s sheriff (whose not actually a sheriff even though everyone calls him one), Calvin Cooper (whom I imagine as Sheriff Hopper from “Stranger Things” — a generally good guy with a few skeletons in his past); and Cooper’s two deputies, Robinson and Dawes.

These three are in charge of figuring out who or what killed a man they don’t even really know.

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.

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