May 2021: How I read my entire Asian Readathon TBR but made little time for anything else (sorry, unnamed novel I need to edit)

What I Got:

  • Sigh, Gone: A Misfit’s Memoir of Great Books, Punk Rock, and the Fight to Fit In by Phuc Tran
  • Bird Uncaged: An Abolitionist’s Freedom Song (ARC) by Marlon Peterson
  • The Poppy War & The Dragon Republic by R.F. Kuang
  • Loveless (ARC) by Alice Oseman
  • Mister Impossible by Maggie Stiefvater
  • The Anthropocene Reviewed by John Green
  • The Vile Village & The Hostile Hospital by Lemony Snicket
  • Haunted Rock & Roll by Matthew L. Swayne
  • Inside the Dream Palace: The Life and Times of New York’s Legendary Chelsea Hotel by Sherill Tippins
  • Where the Rhythm Takes You (ARC) by Darah Dass
  • The Dating Playbook (ARC) by Farrah Rochon
  • CS Pascat’s Fence: Striking Distance (old ARC) by Sarah Rees Brennan

What I Read:

  • The Travelling Cat Chronicles by Hiro Arikawa & translated by Philip Gabriel
  • Banned Book Club by Kim Hyun Sook, Ko Hyung-Ju, & Ryan Estrada
  • Patron Saints of Nothing (old ARC) by Randy Ribay
  • Call Down the Hawk (re-read) by Maggie Stiefvater
  • The Way of the Househusband, Vol. 1-4 by Kousuke Oono
  • The Poppy War (re-read) by R.F. Kuang
  • Heartstopper, Vol. 3 by Alice Oseman
  • Sigh, Gone by Phuc Tran
  • One Million Tiny Fires (zine) by Ashley Robin Franklin
  • Welcome to My Panic (audible original, includes music) by Billie Joe Armstrong
  • Rice Boy by Evan Dahm

I made grand reading plans for this month, and I ended up exceeding them not because I was having fun (though it is fun to read) but because my anxiety was hard on me. My goals become expectations when my anxiety is bad, so no matter if I didn’t want to, I forced myself to read all month long. Very little of my free time was spent on non-reading activities, and even when I took a break by watching something, I would often read a little at the same time. I don’t know about you, but when I read while half-paying attention to a show, neither experience is great. (It’s a whole different story if I can tune out the show/video/music and make it background noise, though.)

Nonetheless, I did read some amazing books this month and I am glad that I got around to all of them!

Thanks to the Asian Readathon, I was able to focus on the diversity of my reading more this month than I normally do when my brain is working at 200% speed on unimportant tasks. One of the challenges of this readathon is to make sure every author is of a different Asian ethnicity, which made constructing a TBR even more fun. (The Asian Readathon Storygraph page has a long list of different Asian ethnicities and I’m now inspired to try to read a book by an author with each one.)

Instead of discussing every book I read, I’m only going to discuss the books I read for the Asian Readathon, except for a quick sentence here about The Way of the Househusband: This is a hilarious manga, and I recommend it if you want some humor and wholesomeness in your life.

A scary man trying his best to be nice

The first book I picked up for the Asian Readathon was part of my sister’s Travel Through Books Christmas Gift. So this month, I “went” to Japan! My vacation included touring popular cherry blossom tree locations and the Shukkeien Gardens, watching a couple Miyazaki films, reflecting over a cup of tea, and treating myself to some sushi (which I’m actually doing next month… oops). I’m loving the Google Maps tours my sister has sent me on and am bummed that this is the last “trip” she put together for me. She’s the best!

The book paired with this virtual vacation was the English translation of The Travelling Cat Chronicles by Japanese author Hiro Arikawa (readathon prompt: not U.S.-centric). This book reminded me why I haven’t read a Pet Book since The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein. I read this in junior high and it wrecked me so much that I’ve steered clear of Pet Books since then.

Just to clarify, I define a “Pet Book” as a book centered around the life shared by a pet and an owner, usually ending with the death of one of them.

The Travelling Cat Chronicles follows Nana, a street cat who gets taken in by Satoru after a serious injury. The impetus of the story is that Satoru starts driving Nana to old friends’ and acquaintances’ homes, asking them to take him in. Nana, of course, sabotages these attempts in order to stay with Satoru. Nana is a hilarious narrator with just the right amount of sass and sarcasm I would expect a cat to have. But he also shows how perceptive and loving and loyal he is in many small ways.

I started hardcore crying during the last 50 pages of this book. It absolutely wrecked me (as predicted) because I love Satoru and his kindness and the deep connection he has with Nana. Not to mention that it was easy to picture my own cat (who funnily enough, also gets mistaken for a female cat because of his name, though I’ve never gotten why people care so much being that animals don’t really have a concept of gender, but I digress…) in Nana’s place were something to happen to me.

Onto the graphic novel of undetermined genre, Banned Book Club (readathon prompt: by an Asian author, Korean authors), about a secret book club that reads material that had been outlawed by South Korea’s Fifth Republic. I had a hard time finding out if this was nonfiction or fiction and concluded that it’s a mixture. From what I understand, it’s basically a conglomeration of many stories shoved into the narrative of Hyun Sook’s discovery of an underground book club and political activism.

This book makes you see how important literature is and can be during times of extreme censorship. The art fits perfectly with the story, too. The thing I like most about this book, however, is that there’s two sides to everything; nothing is black and white. No one is just good or just bad. Every decision has nuanced and varied consequences. Not everyone who tells a (for all intents and purposes) true story shows the humanity of the opposing group, and I admire that a lot. 

Next up: The Patron Saints of Nothing (readathon prompt: in your favorite genre, Filipino-American author). It was at this point that I realized how lucky I’d been with books this month, which I take as the universe giving me a silver lining during my relentless reading rampage. This is a fantastic book about loss and identity and family and belonging, told through the story of Filipino-American teen Jay going to the Philippines to investigate his cousin’s death, which his father refuses to talk about.

Randy Ribay is the king of beautiful metaphors and complicated characters. There were often moments during which Ribay describes something that I understood subconsciously and brings it out with a perfect metaphor.

I loved that Jay would admit when he was wrong or didn’t understand something, even if it took someone else to call him out on it. He eventually would notice these things himself. (Though it sometimes took a lot of examples.) Jay’s simple view of his cousin as only one-dimensionally good is challenged in a way that doesn’t erase the good, only adds to the many-sidedness of Jun as a human. 

My main issue was that a lot of things were repeated and reversed several times. I do think this adds to the story in some ways but it also takes a little bit away for me. The reversal of major plot points generally annoys me (which is odd because I love Marvel, the franchise in which everyone dies more than once), and though I probably could have let it slide, it just happened too many times.

But in the end, this book is a beautiful exploration of hope, the many layers of grief, and how we can become closer to others when a mutual loved one dies. 

The Poppy War (readathon prompt: features an Asian protagonist, Chinese-English author) by R.F. Kuang was the book my sister and I chose to read together this month. It was a re-read for me, but it’s been a while since I first read it. Re-reading a book that I don’t remember well is not like reading it for the first time again. It’s more like remembering something I thought I’d forgotten. Even having read it before, it took a lot of emotional and intellectual labor to get through.

Before reading, my sister and I read this amazing blog post about the true history that this series is based on. The context adds another layer to the story, though I don’t think it was less impactful when I read it without the context. Nonetheless, I highly recommend reading up on the context, because it’s just important history to be aware of. I also encourage you to look up content warnings before you pick this up, just to be prepared.

My sister visited me and this is what came of it.

This is not the type of book I would normally pick up as I’m not a fan of war stories, but this one is so well-written and well-researched that it doesn’t feel like any other war story I’ve encountered. Kuang does not shy away from the realities of fighting a war face to face with other humans. War is incredibly equalizing to those who are fighting. Status, money, and political power mean nothing on the battlefield. You will fight and suffer and die the same, whether you are filthy rich or the poorest of the poor.

Kuang explores the necessity for soldiers to dehumanize the opposing side in order to feel better about mass atrocities, or even just killing other human beings that look like you. She also dives into trauma and its different effects on different people. Especially its effects as said trauma is still actively being experienced.

When your mind has been so twisted by propaganda and trauma and loss, it is easy to become someone you don’t recognize anymore. This happens with Kitay (my favorite character), who is a generally optimistic and cheery person before the war. When Rin (the main character) and Kitay reconnect during the way, he seems broken to Rin because he can no longer tap into that optimism. The light she remembers seeing inside him has dimmed, but in Kitay’s case, it’s not all the way gone. The same happens later on when Rin commits a horrible act that changes what she thought she was possible of doing and being okay with. And Kitay cannot overlook this change in his friend.

If none of that makes sense, it’s because I’m not sure how to analyze this book without reading the rest of the trilogy. After Pride Month, I plan to pick up the next book in the trilogy so I can hopefully discuss it more eloquently.

Last but not least, Sigh, Gone (readathon prompt: nonfiction, Vietnamese author) by Phuc Tran. (This is an anglicized version of his name and is on the book’s cover.) A story about a person whose identity partially revolves around punk culture and reading sounded right up my alley. And it was.

Phuc immigrated to the U.S. from Vietnam as a toddler to a smallish town in which they are the only Vietnamese family. He struggles to connect with his parents as he gets more entrenched in American culture and deals with being an obvious outsider by aligning himself with the other outsiders—the punks.

Phuc’s comparison of segments of his life to classic novels was a really effective way of tying different memories and stories together. It adds so much to the reflective tone of the whole novel. However, though the metaphors and language are all great, there were some details that were a bit jarring. It is easy to tell that some stories were cut when a person’s name or a fact about Phuc’s life is briefly mentioned in a different story with the what feels like the assumption that the reader knows about it.

Something that I look for in a story involving punk rock is a nuanced discussion of its practical limits. Phuc didn’t only discuss these limits, he lived them. As he pushes against these limits and sees others push them, Phuc begins to realize that the only thing that is punk is being yourself. His friend group holds onto their cynicism and disenfranchisement but also cheer each other on as each friend grows up and out of the simplistic punk-not punk dichotomy.  

This is one of those slow-paced books that needs to be that way, even though it took me a while to get into. It’s incredibly honest and vulnerable while also being funny and well-written. His story has very little in common with mine, but the way he tells it made me feel what he’s feeling in that moment. He proves his point over and over again that literature can connect people. 

Connection is something that I (and many others, I’m sure) am worried about in these coming months. No, I think I will bump that up to “anxious” status. In many places, mask mandates have become like a ghost with unfinished business. They have officially died, but the shadow of them still sticks around in “masks encouraged” signs and residual pandemic anxiety. I don’t believe their purpose has quite been completed. I don’t think everyone should relax just yet, especially with many kids (and adults, honestly) still unvaccinated. Not to mention that those who aren’t wearing masks are often those who won’t get vaccinated. I’m both scared and relieved to be able to do some “normal” things, like sit in the library and read for more than an hour or go to the farmers market without fear of getting sick or infecting someone else.

Reading Phuc’s book reminded me that this connection is a good thing, even if it’s scary and hard to reach right now. I miss being in physical spaces with my friends and just spending idle time in public areas. I miss feeling like a part of the human masses going about their lives in so many different but ultimately intertwining directions. I like being alone, but I miss not being lonely. (And I have to admit, I miss concerts a lot. There’s nothing like being uncomfortably close with other music enthusiasts and shouting along to the lyrics I only half know without being able to hear how off key I am.)

Good luck getting back out there, if you can. If you can’t, I hope that the time comes for you soon.  

An oldie but a goodie. Good luck out there, my friends.
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