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The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories by Ken Liu

I've had Ken Liu's "The Paper Menagerie" on my list for a while, but had a hard time finding a copy of it until he published it and fourteen other stories together in this collection. The stories were hit and miss for me. Some, like "The Perfect Match", about a a Google-esque company employing a personal AI a la "Her" motivated by it's highly lucrative recommendation engine for your life, was a bit over the top and obvious. "Simulacrum", too, about software used to simulate real individuals (with or without their consent) left me more uncomfortable than happy to've read it. Alternatively, stories like "The Waves" and "Mono No Aware" left me wanting to read more from a future that saw a major exodus of humans from Earth and the impact of immortality on humanity.

Three stories in particular stuck with me.

The Literomancer

(Trigger warnings for torture.)

"The Literomancer" follows Lilly Dyer, a recently uprooted Texas girl (where she had been the third-most popular girl in fourth grade) to Taiwan where her dad works on an American military base. Lilly has found herself the target of a group of racist American girls at school and finds solace with some neighbors - an old man, Mr. Kan, and his grandson, Teddy.

As Lilly spends more time with Mr. Kan and Teddy, she learns that Mr. Kan does magic - literomancer. Mr. Kan explains that the Chinese invented writing as a form of divination. From a word, he's able to break it down into its characters to show the root of their meaning and thereby an individuals past and future, worries and hopes. Mr. Kan teaches Lilly that words have power, she learns that an ugly slur used by her bullies gets its root from the Korean word for America.

Their visits carry on, Mr. Kan performing literomancy for her and telling the story of how he came to Taiwan and ended up caring for Teddy.

My favorite scene of literomancy is when Lilly asks Mr. Kan to write the character for China.

"This is the character hua, and it is the only word for China and for the Chinese that has nothing to do with any Emperor, any Dynasty, anything that demands slaughter and sacrifice. [...] Hua originally meant ‘flowery’ and ‘magnificent,’ and it is the shape of a bunch of wildflowers coming out of the ground. [...] The Chinese are like wildflowers, and they will survive and make joy wherever they go. A fire may burn away every living thing in a field, but after the rain the wildflowers will reappear as though by magic. Winter may come and kill everything with frost and snow, but when spring comes the wildflowers will blossom again, and they will be magnificent. For now, the red flames of revolution may be burning on the mainland, and the white frost of terror may have covered this island. But I know that a day will come when the steel wall of the Seventh Fleet will melt away, and the penshengjen and the waishengjen and all the other huajen back in my home will blossom together in magnificence."

"And I will be a huajen in America,” Teddy added.

Mr. Kan nodded. “Wildflowers can bloom anywhere."

The story leaves the reader with a sense of guilt for seeing Lilly ask seemingly innocent questions of her father about "228", something she heard in a story of how Mr. Kan came to be in Taiwan with Teddy. From there, we learn that Lilly's father is involved with an intelligence agency, who acts quickly on the scant information Lilly has mentioned at the dinner table.

The Literomancer plays a lot with the tug between Lilly's identity as a Chinese American - feeling abandoned by her American friends back in Texas, missing her life as a would-be cowgirl, feeling isolated in Taiwan by her American classmates, and wanting to not feel ashamed of her the Chinese aspects of her culture (mainly shown through the food she eats and her interactions with her mother).

Behind the Story

With the ending of World War II Japan lost its 50 year rule over Taiwan, who had viewed the Japanese rule favorable thanks to economic and social policies they'd put in place. The US on behalf of Allied Forces turned temporary control of Taiwan over to the Republic of China, who quickly lost trust from the population due to mismanagement, corruption, runaway inflation, and food shortages, due in part to China exporting major commodities like rice back to its civil war-torn mainland.

"228" in the story refers to the February 28 Incident, the anti-government uprising in Taiwan that began on February 27, 1947 when 10,000-30,000 people were killed. The White Terror period followed, the setting for our story, when communist infiltrators from mainland China were discovered. Thousands of dissenters in both Taiwan and mainland China were disappeared, imprisoned, tortured, and executed. It was taboo to mark or mention 228 for decades.

Today, Taiwan holds up the 228 Incident as a major motivator for independence. Treaties signed after World War II were meant to give China temporary control over Taiwan with Taiwan eventually gaining sovereignty. People's Republic of China instead is aiming for unification and has threatened military action over the push for Taiwan independence, which would possibly lead to military action from the US and Japan.

The Regular

(Trigger warnings for violence against female sex workers, mutilation, murder, blood, gore, privacy violation.)

One of the longer stories in the book, "The Regular", takes us to a not-so-distant cyber punk future. Body medications are routine and include advanced cyborg-like limb prostheses, Regulator pumps which manage the chemical responses in the brain, and the not-FDA-approved retinal camera. The Regulator is required for law enforcement as a means of removing the lizard brain aspects of discriminatory reactions, like managing adrenaline in life or death situations. Ruth, the former police officer turned private detective still has her Regulator, which helps manage the PTSD effects of a traumatic event in her recent past. 

Ruth is hired by a grieving mother in Chinatown to find the killer of her daughter, a 28 year old high-end, independent escort. The police have written off the murder as the work of local gangs upset at the competition.

The Watcher is a recently released felon who preys on female sex workers that fit a narrow profile - educated women of color who are independent escorts with retinal camera implants. He makes his living posing as a man who seems like a safe Regular - an unassuming married man who'll be a source of regular income for the women he ends up murdering. 

Ruth is able to manipulate data collected by an Internet of Things device to help put together the puzzle, narrow down a list of potential targets for The Watcher, and set a trap for him.

The Paper Menagerie

TCover of Ken Liu's The Paper Menagerie and Other Storieshe titular story in the collection and the first work of fiction to win the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Awards, it reminded me of Charlie Holmberg's series "The Paper Magician".

Jack was born in the Year of the Tiger. He's the son of a Connecticut man and woman his father ordered from a catalog and his mother has a special gift - she's able to fold origami and breathe life into it.

A little paper tiger named Laohu, folded from recycled Christmas wrapping paper is his favorite - it paws at him, pounces, and roars. The rest of his menagerie includes sharks, water buffalo, a goat, and a deer - all full of life from his mother's breath.

As Jack grows older, the bullying of his classmates drives a wedge between him and his mother and he finds himself forgetting the magic she created for him.

This was a sweet, sad story. As someone who has a difficult relationship with both of her parents, I felt the pangs of guilt and anger that Jack felt, put myself in his mother's shoes and felt the isolation and sorrow. 

Nov
14
2016
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General FictionHistorical FictionIdentityScience Fiction
Research

Favorite Books of 2015

I read far fewer books this year than I did last because I had a ton going on in my life, but still came out with some clear favorites. If you weren't around for last year's list, I make a concerted effort to read books written by and about marginalized people. The books below are in no particular order.

If you're looking for good books to take with you on winter vacation or to give for the holidays, I'd recommend these ones.

1. The Fifth Season (The Broken Earth #1) by N.K. Jemisin [speculative fiction, fantasy]

“Tell them they can be great someday, like us. Tell them they belong among us, no matter how we treat them. Tell them they must earn the respect which everyone else receives by default. Tell them there is a standard for acceptance; that standard is simply perfection. Kill those who scoff at these contradictions, and tell the rest that the dead deserved annihilation for their weakness and doubt. Then they’ll break themselves trying for what they’ll never achieve.”

 

I read this on recommendation from a friend. Fantasy isn't usually my thing, but I feel this falls more squarely into the general speculative fiction category. I'm looking forward to reading more of her stuff.

 

2. Strikers [Strikers #1] by Ann Christy [YA fiction, dystopian science fiction]

“Life is entirely too short for fear to be a factor in how we live it.” 

 

I've read a lot of YA over the past few years and like that many aren't nearly as graphic as their adult counterparts. This one was different than the Hunger Games-y niche that all dystopian YA seems to fall in these days. The author is working on book 2 in the series.

3. The Internet of Garbage by Sarah Jeong [technology/internet, culture, feminism]

“When we seek to build truly equal platforms and marketplaces of ideas fit for the 21st century, we are trying to create things that have never existed and cannot be constructed by mindlessly applying principles of the past.” 

 

Sarah Jeong is brilliant, funny, and her work is always insightful. This short book (literally took me ~2hrs to read) centers around the garbage that is created and builds up on the internet and why, culturally, we allow it to happen. Good read for people trying to understand the issues around harassment and abuse online and why no one is doing anything about it.

 

4. The Leaving of Things by Jay Antani [YA fiction, general fiction]

“We steadily endure our lives and ultimately we are alone in our endurance. In this aloneness, we find our strength.” 

 

The book centers on the life of a teenage Indian American boy whose family decides to leave their home of many years in Madison, WI to move back to India. I read this when I, too,was moving away from Madison so it had interesting parallels. Vikram's voice around loneliness, isolation, and unlearning American-centrism/exceptionalism is profound.

 

5. Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable [history, biography]

""Victims of racism are created in the image of the racists," Malcolm argued. "When the victims struggle vigoroulsy to protect themselves from the violence of others, they are made to appear in the image of criminals, as the criminal image is projected onto the victim." Liberation, he implied, was not simply political but cultural."

 

I tend to read at least one biography a year and like to choose figures I only know surface facts about. This is a long book, but well worth the read. It covers Malcolm's early life, through his Nation of Islam days, and beyond. Being able to see all of the moving pieces around his life (his family, the NoI, his politics and work) as well as to read his speeches is important to see the whole man - his power, his intelligence, his determination, as well as his issues.

 

6. The Gate to Women's Country by Sheri S Tepper [science fiction, fantasy, dystopian feminism?]

“(ghost of)ACHILLES: How can I force obedience on this? In other times I've used the fear of death to make a woman bow herself to me. If not the fear of her own death, then fear for someone else, a husband or a child. How can I bend this woman to my will?
(ghost of)POLYXENA: I think I will not bend.
IPHIGENIA: You see, it's as we've tried to tell you, Great Achilles. Women are no good to you dead.” 

 

The story centers around a matriarchal society and the world they maintain. Some of the story's themes are told through a recitation of a retelling of The Trojan Woman (like the quote above).

 

7. Split by Swati Avasthi [YA, fiction, abuse]

“But I’m not the one digging her grave; I didn’t open her hole in the earth when I drove away that night or when I couldn’t make her come with us. My dad dug it years ago; he forced her to lie down in it and kept her there by fear and beatings. And when she tried to get out, he stomped her back in. She has been lying there for twenty-five years. Her muscles have atrophied, her joints have stiffened, and she can’t see anything except him and the tight little space she calls home. I don’t know how she’ll get out; I can tug and pull and yank, but it won’t make any difference. She was right: she’s gotta solve it her own way.” 

 

This is the book I cried the most for in 2015. The story centers around a teenager escaping his abusive father, choosing to move in with his estranged brother. TW for abuse, stalking, harassment.

 

8. Parable of the Sower (Earthseed #1) by Octavia Butler [dystopian science fiction, post-apocalyptic]

"Every time I understand a little more, I wonder why it’s taken me so long—why there was ever a time when I didn’t understand a thing so obvious and real and true."

 

I'm so sad that it took me so long to finally read this book. I couldn't put it down! I loved the way religion was treated in the story - it's rare to see fiction that shows the community and solace that faith can create. The book follows a young woman whose life is torn apart as she crosses the country, trying to create the community and home she's always wanted.

 

9. Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love, & So Much More by Janet Mock [autobiography]

"The crux of our conflict lay in the fact that we each couldn't be who we wanted the other to be."

 

I was lucky to have seen Janet Mock speak last year where she read an excerpt of her book. Her story is heartbreaking and heroic.

 

10. Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work by Melissa Gira Grant [non-fiction]

"To truly confront this type of violence would require us to admit that we permit some violence against women to be committed in order to protect the social and sexual value of other women."

 

This year I wanted to learn more about the politics around sex work and I got tons of recommendations for this book. The book is an easy read - lots of history of sex work and anti-sex work legislation, understanding the rhetoric around sex trafficking, as well as the social justice movement to recognize sex work as work and the workers as people.

11. The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus (The Myths) by Margaret Atwood [mythology, fantasy, feminism]

“Water does not resist. Water flows. When you plunge your hand into it, all you feel is a caress. Water is not a solid wall, it will not stop you. But water always goes where it wants to go, and nothing in the end can stand against it. Water is patient. Dripping water wears away a stone. Remember that, my child. Remember you are half water. If you can't go through an obstacle, go around it. Water does.”

 

The Penelopiad is a re-telling of The Odyssey from the viewpoint of Penelope, wife of Odysseus. Penelope and her murdered maids tell the story of how they survived during Odysseus' journey and how he punished them for their survival upon his return.

12. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates [memoir]

“But all our phrasing—race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy—serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.” 

 

Coates writing is haunting and poetic and powerful. It's written as a letter to his teenage son about the world they live in and how best they can actually live in that world. You feel Coates pain and anger and hope for the future of his son in every paragraph.

 

Dec
17
2015
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Favorite Books of 2014

This year I made a concerted effort to read books almost exclusively by marginalized people. Below are my top 12 of 2014, in no particular order.

With a list this short, you could read just one book a month and make it through the year happy with the quality of books you've read :)

1. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie [general fiction, feminism]

"In America, racism exists but racists are all gone. Racists belong to the past. Racists are the thin-lipped mean white people in the movies about the civil rights era. Here’s the thing: the manifestation of racism has changed but the language has not. So if you haven’t lynched somebody then you can’t be called a racist. If you’re not a bloodsucking monster, then you can’t be called a racist. Somebody has to be able to say that racists are not monsters. They are people with loving families, regular folk who pay taxes. Somebody needs to get the job of deciding who is racist and who isn’t. Or maybe it’s time to just scrap the word “racist.” Find something new. Like Racial Disorder Syndrome. And we could have different categories for sufferers of this syndrome: mild, medium, and acute."

 

The story of a Nigerian-born woman coming to terms with what it means to be Black in America. Throughout the book, she writes a series of blog posts about how confusing it all is, often funny and poignant.

 

2. The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood [science fiction, and I would argue for Horror]

"We were revisionists; what we revised was ourselves."

 

One of the more horrifying science fiction stories I've ever read, the story follows a young woman living in a monotheocratic dystopian society. 

 

3. Colonize This! Young Women of Color on Today's Feminism edited by Daisy Hernandez and Bushra Rehman [feminism, anthology]

"I took my B+ -- feminism can be graded, after all -- and abandoned feminist activities at Stanford."

 

This year we read a number of anthologies in the intersectional feminism book club this year, and this was my favorite. In it are discussions of identity, religion, abortion, class, femininity and machismo, being adopted into a transracial and transcultural family, and being an Arab in a country with prejudices and misconceptions about the Arab world.

 

4. How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu [science fiction]

"I have traveled, chronogrammatically, out of the ordinary tense axes and into this place, into the subjunctive mode."

 

This book is very much in the vain of Douglas Adams-style cleverness and I immediately fell in love with it. This is a time travel story that uses grammar tenses to discuss points in time. My new favorite time travel book!

 

5. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot [non-fiction, science, investigative journalism]

“Henrietta’s were different: they reproduced an entire generation every twenty-four hours, and they never stopped. They became the first immortal human cells ever grown in a laboratory.” 

 

This is one of the better books I've read in the past few years. It's written by a woman who ended up becoming close with the family of Henrietta Lacks, a woman whose genetic material was taken without her permission and has been in use in science and medical labs across the world since 1951. She was immediately erased and forgotten -- her genetic material being referred to only as HeLa. The story follows the heartbreaking reality of Henrietta Lacks and her family.

 

6. China Mountain Zhang by Maureen McHugh [science fiction, general fiction]

"All of that work to make a little more money. But I will still be Zhang. I carry myself wherever I go, and it is myself I want to escape from. I hate myself. I hate this place. And I find it is very tiring to carry hate all the time. So I sit and listen to the night on the Arctic tundra, defeated before I start. And sick to death of all of it."

 

China Mountain Zhang reads much more like a general fiction novel set in a science fiction universe. The story follows Zhang, a man who was genetically altered to appear Han Chinese in a world where China is the super power and has control over what once was the United States. A lot of neat tech and beautiful story-telling. (Note: this book has quite a few problematic aspects. Trigger warnings for suicide, rape, and homophobia.)

 

7. The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood by Ta-Nehisi Coates [non-fiction, auto-biographical, race, American culture, narrative]

"Who among us would integrate into a burning house?"

 

I picked up this book after devouring a bunch of Coates' writing in the Atlantic. The Beautiful Struggle is the story of his childhood and life as a young adult growing up in Baltimore with a father who worked with the Black Panthers and ran a publishing company from his basement to promote and disseminate the work of African writers and visionaries.

 

8. How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America by Kiese Laymon [non-fiction, auto-biographical, race, American culture, narrative]

“Not so deep down, we all know that safety is an illusion, that only character melds us together. That’s why most of us do everything we can (healthy and unhealthy) to ward off that real feeling of standing alone so close to the edge of the world.” 

 

I came across Laymon's work through a blog post he published on his site and quickly fell in love with his writing. The book is a collection of letters to loved ones, self-reflection, and cultural critique. It's heartwrenching, eye-opening, and funny.

 

9. Nevada by Imogen Binnie [fiction, trans-feminism]

"She mumbles a no and turns away, still smiling because what else are you going to do, explain patriarchy to this fucking rando?"

 

Nevada follows the life of a trans* woman who watches as everything in her life crumbles. It's amazingly written; I don't think I've ever felt I was reading myself so much in a character. Highly recommend.

 

10. Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity by Julia Serano [feminism, trans-feminism, narrative]

"The constant threat of being ostracized, which is directed toward people who show even the slightest interest in marginalized cultures and perspectives, creates within the center an enforced ignorance regarding those at the margins."

 

Another one I read in the feminism book club. I've had friends champion this book and at the same time point out a list of problems with it. For the most part, I really enjoyed and learned a lot from this book. I loved the time spent on examining masculinity, which I wasn't expecting.

 

11. The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell [non-fiction, humor, history]

"Of course, this America does exist.

It's called Canada."

 

As someone who grew up in New England and had much of the history of colonial America through the Revolutionary War drilled into her, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I learned from her writing. Her style is casual, funny, and super informative. If you're into history, definitely pick up her stuff. (Sidenote: if you like comedic retellings of history, Viva la Revolution, which is about the French Revolution, may be up your alley.)

 

12. How to Be Black by Baratunde Thurston [humor, American culture, race]

“As I've reflected back on both, I realize that my neighborhood was just like The Wire. We had the drug dealing, the police brutality, the murders. Well, it was /almost/ a perfect match. We had everything The Wire had except for universal critical acclaim and the undying love of white people who saw it.” 

 

This book was hilarious, sharp, and informative; so much so that I finished it over the course of one domestic flight and immediately passed it to a friend of mine to read so we could gush about it together. (Sidenote: I got a recommendation to read Some of My Best Friends Are Black from this book, which is problematic, but has great discussions of things like redlining, bussing, and social segregation.)

 

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2014
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