This book has just about all of my favorite things in a story: a strong, engaging central character; insight into a way of life and approach that is d...moreThis book has just about all of my favorite things in a story: a strong, engaging central character; insight into a way of life and approach that is different from my own; significant introspection and meaning-making; and the interplay of weighty concerns without weighty and academic language. It also happens to be a true memoir.
The author stands (like most of my favorite authors) at some significant intersections of history, culture, and identity. She tells her story honestly and bluntly - in the same manner that she engages with her ancestors, her peers, and her mentors & teachers. She has many important things to say about how to negotiate and preserve important cultural traditions without letting them overwhelm and erase her own individuality.
I have been talking about this book to anyone who will listen, and I hope it reaches more and more of an audience.(less)
This book starts off with an interesting mystery and travels through territories of African-American experiences of racism, class stratification, Afri...moreThis book starts off with an interesting mystery and travels through territories of African-American experiences of racism, class stratification, African politics, poverty, law enforcement policies and politics, and international aid industrial complexes. The book offers a slice of the internal workings of an African-American cop in Madison, WI (where the KKK is still active) and his ambivalence about going to Kenya to explore a mystery that his gut indicates is more complicated than the surface appears. Somewhere about midway through the book it turns into a more direct crime thriller with blazing guns, car chases, and surprises in the dark. This is compelling and an entertaining, cinematic read - but what I appreciated more was the beginning with the internal voice of the cop exploring the complex racial and class politics of the US and Africa.(less)
I liked the movie, and I was surprised at how different - how much more subtle - the book is. This is a wonderful memoir about the power and punishment...moreI liked the movie, and I was surprised at how different - how much more subtle - the book is. This is a wonderful memoir about the power and punishment of evangelical Christianity. In my circles, it's rare to read the positive truth of belonging and love and worthiness that comes with connection to a like-minded group of people - yet also to read about the struggles and ultimate damage that such belonging can do. In this quiet, lovely book, Carolyn Briggs tells us her life story, unflinchingly and honestly. She describes how the social circumstances of her childhood readied her for the beauty of her new faith, and she builds slowly through a series of moments of truth when her selfhood bumps up against the selfhood imposed from outside. It is painful to read about her marriage - when they were too young to understand what they had taken on - and I found a part of myself wanting to hold her back while I cheered her on toward going to college and discovering herself. The first 3/4 of the book, in which she grows up, joins the church, and begins to question, are rich and revealing. The final chapters, in which she allows herself to question and begin to move on, seem a bit rushed - as if she assumes that this is familiar territory for the reader. I imagine she is right, but I wish she treated her emergence from the church with the same emotional depth and richness as she describes what it felt like to pray in her prayer language, or to attend a healing service in the midst of a difficult pregnancy. There are glimpses - such as when she visits Ireland and tastes a new world of possibility - but it felt almost rushed to the end. I wish I could get more atheists and anti-church people to read this, because in the world I live in now, it is too easy to dismiss evangelical Christianity as primitive or simplistic. Instead, as Carolyn Briggs shows us, it is rich, deep, comforting, and even beautiful even as it can be crushing, punishing, vindictive, and deadening.(less)
Andrew Lam, one of my favorite writers, has often demonstrated his journalist's ability to see the broad themes in the most particular of situations....moreAndrew Lam, one of my favorite writers, has often demonstrated his journalist's ability to see the broad themes in the most particular of situations. He is one of the few writers I've read who can articulate the spaces that straddle cultures of all kinds, firmly planted in multiple and conflicting perspectives. This time, he turns to fiction, where he is able to create the people and worlds instead of reporting them to us.
I have said before that in a very small way, I relate to Mr. Lam's writing as a Midwestern transplant on the West coast with my own love-hate relationship with my rural culture of origin and my new urban California life. And I see Lam's themes written broadly in the experiences of my husband's family - political asylees from Kenya. That's the magic of his writing, given an extra dimension in this book by the array of characters he brings to life.
Andrew Lam's characters are most often those who cross lines, usually back and forth several times, and represent the complicated nature of identity, belonging, translation, and memory. His characters have vivid interior landscapes, and as a writer who clearly loves language, Lam's gift is to describe the movements of feelings that can't even be articulated with language. He describes this beautifully in a story about a 7th grader who finds an interior reserve of bravery and brilliance when he is assigned to befriend a recent immigrant who barely speaks English. And again, Lam describes it in the story of a successful, wealthy couple who may or may not have left behind the past when they happen upon an estate sale.
The role of grief and missed opportunities, what is said & unsaid, also threads significantly through the stories. Sometimes the results are expected - in several stories of childhood actions (often motivated by the desire to fit in) that lead to regret - and other times unexpected ways - when a restaurant owner's new customer is the man whom she saw kill her husband in Vietnam. And of course there is family, the complicated knot of expectations and belonging that shift significantly between countries, cultures, and generations. The children, mostly sons, who embarrass their fathers through public disagreement and private rebellion. The formerly wealthy elites of Vietnam who scrape by in their new, bewildering adopted country - or the formerly poor farmers who passed through refugee camps and become successful in their new, bewildering adopted country.
There are a few stories that seem to strike awkwardly against Lam's smooth, rich storytelling style - particularly when he adopts a teenage vernacular - yet there is something even in those stories where you can read between the lines of the awkward tone and see the themes of fitting in, striving for acceptance, and desperately trying to erase differences. Andrew Lam is at his absolute best when he juxtaposes and overlaps worlds in surprising ways: Hunger, The Palmist, and (my favorite) Love Leather.
I am pleased to see Andrew Lam branching out more fully into fiction, and I look forward to more of his writing. Even when he is writing about people who are very different in some ways, you will probably recognize yourself in at least a few of his stories - if you have ever tried to fit in but fell short; if you have ever moved far away from home but found that you couldn't completely loosen the moorings of family; if you have ever felt haunted by something or someone from your past.(less)