Kao Kalia Yang – The Latehomecomer | Understanding My Roots

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Title: The Latehomecomer

Author: Kao Kalia Yang

Author’s Country of Birth: Thailand

Ethnicity: Hmong

Genre: Historical Nonfiction/Memoir

Page Numbers: 277

Publish Year: 2008

Rating: ☆☆☆☆☆

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What Is It About?

After the Vietnam War ended, the Laotian Communist party and their Northern Vietnamese allies made it a mission to exterminate all Hmong supporters of the Americans.  During the war, the United States had opposed the Communist party and sought military support from the Hmong.  As a result, most Hmong men and boys died for the war–and afterwards, when the Americans withdrew from Laos, the Hmong were left behind.  Thousands of Hmong were slaughtered by the Pathet Lao and Northern Vietnamese soldiers.  The remaining survivors fled for the jungles and attempted to cross the Mekong River to Thailand’s refugee camps.  There, they were safe–but their trials and hardships didn’t stop there.

“The Latehomecomer” is a Hmong family memoir, being told from Kao Kalia Yang’s perspective as she tells the story of her family’s journey from the jungles, to her birth in the Ban Vinai Refugee Camp, the family’s transition to America, and their new life as Americans.  She shares her personal experiences as a young Hmong girl, struggling to re-adjust to a new life in Minnesota, United States as the Yang family faces prejudice, language barriers, economic obstacles, and tears.  For Kalia, starting over from complete scratch was already frustrating.  But when her grandmother, Youa Lee, is relocated to California, Kalia suddenly feels the growing division between her past…and the possible future in America.

Initial Thoughts…

Here I was, diving into another book about the Vietnam War.

Though I am Hmong and I have spent years–reading about the Vietnam War–and realizing, with bitter acceptance, that the Hmong were almost always excluded from history textbooks–I was mentally preparing myself for the gruesome truths before I actually got my hands on this memoir.  Personally, the fact that it is a book written by a Hmong person about the Vietnam War and aftermaths was refreshing, because I felt that not enough Hmong stories were being published for the country to read.

As a first-generation Hmong-American, I feel that it is important of us Hmong to support one another and root for each other’s success than tearing them down.

How to Describe the Overall Book?

To be honest, I felt guilty while reading the book–not only because I felt bad for asking insensitive questions about life before the Vietnam War when I was growing up, I didn’t know about the miserable hardships of my parents and their families when they were fleeing from the Communist soldiers.  I was so angry–I felt ignorant–and I just…couldn’t help but think of my parents as I continued reading.  I also felt deceived by United States history books–because not only were the Hmong invisible from most of them, there was no mention of heart-breaking sacrifices that the Hmong had to make when supporting American soldiers–and I probably wouldn’t have known if it weren’t for Yang.

Overall, “The Latehomecomer” was well-written and easy to understand for those who are not familiar with Hmong culture.  Yang didn’t spend too much time lingering on background information and was able to build up a strong, personal voice through first-person narrative.  Her attention to the dates were crucial to one knowing when the given event took place in the book as well as informing the audience how old she was around that specific time.  Other details I’ve noted included how Yang was able to incorporate flawless time skips that correlated to significant life events and painting vivid imageries.

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What’s My Favorite Part?

The emotional depths of the author’s personal experiences as a refugee and bilingual child was easily relatable and heart wrenching.  I loved how Yang described the difficulties of not only assimilating into American culture but also learning how to read, speak, and write in a different language while growing up–because there are still many people out there, who do not understand how hard this can be on a child alone.  There are still children, who are doing this all around the world–and speaking their native tongue, their first language, at home!  This takes hard work and dedication, extra hours of studying, and also, a major mental toll.

In addition, the way that Yang introduces the reader to how she had felt being divided between Hmong and an American is a common experience that most bilingual children go through, especially in traditional families of non-American origins.  I, for one, went through that several times throughout my life!  Traditional families may clash with American ideas from time to time, leading to large amounts of stress and conflicts between the child and parent(s).  Life events like Yang’s will usually cause the child to reflect heavily on their separate identities–much like staring into the faces of two mirror reflections.

What’s My Least Favorite Part?

There was little room to complain actually, because the book was straight to the point and consistent with its theme.  As a Hmong person, I recognized many of the cultural customs mentioned in “The Latehomecomer” and specific time periods related to the Vietnam War and after.  After finishing the book, one can tell that Yang had taken great care in creating a deep, heart-warming story of survival and family love because of her amazing story-telling skills.

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A handmade pencil case made by my grandmother.  Embroideries were hand-sewn as well.

And So…

Though I have read books about the Vietnam War before, “The Latehomecomer” was certainly different and unique from all the others, because it is written by a Hmong refugee.  The history and background information about the Hmong and their culture proved to be certainly helpful and was written in a concise but easy to understand way for readers to grasp.  The importance of family is echoed throughout the novel and is of common but a most valuable thing in Hmong culture, because during war, one cannot help but hope to come out of it, alive with loved ones.

To be surrounded by those who loves you and who are still here with you is probably taken for granted by many of us.  Yang was able to shift my view in life back to my folks and made me remember how fortunate I was to have grown up in a family with two parents–and parents who survived an attempted genocide and war time.  Sometimes, we can get so caught up in life that we forget about those who had fought with blood and tears for our futures.  Sometimes, we get so lost in the small details that we overlook the bigger picture.

“The Latehomecomer” is definitely a must-read for people who are trying to expand their horizons about minority groups and forgotten histories.  It is created by the tears of a people who were forgotten and invisible to many throughout the world, the strength of survivors who banded together with their families–for life or for death, and written by a woman who wanted to share the story of her people, to make a mark on American literature.  It is a voice from the Secret War.

It is a voice that is no longer silent.

A voice that says, “We’re here.”

Anna-Marie McLemore – The Weight of Feathers | The Question of Free Will

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Title: The Weight of Feathers

Author: Anna-Marie McLemore

Author’s Country of Birth: USA

Ethnicity: Hispanic

Genre: Drama/Romance

Page Numbers: 308

Publish Year: 2015

Rating: ☆☆☆☆

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What Is It About?

The Name is forbidden.  Being touched by Them can certainly mean death.  If you see a feather–any feather–you have to burn whatever it has touched for what it has touched becomes tainted.  This is what means…to be a Paloma for Lace.

For years, the feud between the two rival families, the Palomas and the Corbeaus, have escalated into violence and even deaths.  Both families are competing circus performers, with the Palomas specializing in river mermaid shows–and the Corbeaus being tight-rope walkers, with feathered wings.  But when Cluck Corbeau rescues Lace Paloma, Lace is thrown into unfamiliar territories of love, hate, and family secrets that will make her question just about everything that made her a Paloma.

Initial Thoughts…

POC protagonists? Check.  Strong heroine? Check.  Interracial relationships? Check.

Because it was inspired by William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”–I was feeling a bit uneasy when I stumbled upon this re-telling, because I wasn’t sure if I could handle any more unhappy and tragic endings to star-crossed lovers.  However, being in an interracial relationship myself, I wanted to read a book that I can relate to and feature two people of different races.  The fact that “The Weight of Feathers” revolve around two traditional families of French and Spanish heritages–AND still speak the two languages?  That was what helped sold me into getting my hands on the book.

Well, then, there’s also the fact that the whole story takes place in the Central Valley–Central California–close to where I currently live.  Instead of a typical setting in Los Angeles, New York City, or major city in the States, I found that pretty refreshing.  All the bits that made this book? They were all unique, and I knew this was a hard find for me.

How To Describe the Overall Book?

Personally, I felt that the book started out a bit slow in the beginning, but that was because McLemore had to fill the reader in about both family backgrounds and set the mood situation, regarding how they each feel about the other.  After that though, in between switching off from Lace’s to Cluck’s perspectives–both in third-person narrative–the story plot gradually progressed in an interesting way due to the constant build-up of details and chain of events that, of course, comes to play a huge role altogether later on.  “The Weight of Feathers” definitely surpassed my expectations by a MAJOR landslide–and I found that just because it was inspired by “Romeo and Juliet”, it was not cliche at all.  So, no sweet poetry or anything like that.

However, there was a love that felt so real and modern to me as a reader.  As a result, I was sucked furthermore into the story–and finished the entire book in 4 reading sessions.  Overall, the book itself was amazing!  It was original, the theme was consistent–all of my questions were answered–and honestly, I was pretty content.

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What’s My Favorite Part?

One of the major factors that I look for when reading a story–is good and strong character development whether that means a protagonist becoming a villain…or the protagonist becoming a better version of themselves and has overcome their obstacles.  Thoughout the story, Lace always remained as a strong female protagonist but she had her own naive moments and close-mindedness.  Despite this, her courage and boldness shone through, and she was the perfect foil to Cluck’s personality just as he was to her.  Then, there was Cluck.  I loved him so much, because I had empathy for him–and eventually, I too saw his character flaws, flaws that made him just as Human as anyone else–and weaknesses also.  Both main characters share these Human traits–and it gave them both more dimension.  Eventually, they went on to challenge these flaws and weaknesses of theirs.  Another thing I love–is that they build each other up.

So, I kept reading!  McLemore then strategically set up and arranged each major dramatic event, using the family hierarchies to her advantage–to launch the chain of events that kept popping in, producing ripple effects that could be felt throughout the rest of the story.  Ripple effects that helped both Lace and Cluck grow as people.

Not only was there strong character development and a well thought-out chain reaction that contributed greatly to the overall climax–and to the ending–there was also another significant component that held the story altogether: consistency.  The theme could be felt again and again in each event, especially when it revolved around family.  In addition, the symbolism was seen various times during the most critical moments between characters–causing one to be always curious and at the edge of their seat.

What’s My Least Favorite Part?

To be honest, at first, the feelings of both Cluck and Lace felt awkward and forced at times–leaving me feeling a bit irritated.  I knew that McLemore wanted these early events between the main characters to happen because they are both romantic interests–but I couldn’t quite pin-point why they felt so unnatural to me.  After some time though, the romance started to feel less rigid, and everything began falling into place.  “The Weight of Feathers” was McLemore’s first book, and so, I could understand why there were a few problem areas.

And So…

Unlike most books that I have read in the past, I was left feeling quite impressed by how well McLemore tied up all the loose ends and answered all of my questions about both families.  What was thought as a simple plot–actually thickened and was more complicated than I took it for.  With shocking secrets being revealed from whichever end–and then, the reader realizing that “The Weight of Feathers” was more than just a romance novel–one’s interpretation of the book can change again and again.  I, for one, closed the book–knowing what struck me the most.

And that was the weight of every feather.

Jean-Phillipe Blondel – The 6:41 to Paris | Facing The Ex

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Title: The 6:41 to Paris

Author: Jean-Phillipe Blondel

Translated by: Alison Anderson

Author’s Country of Birth: France

Genre: Drama

Page Numbers: 170 pages

Publish Year: 2013

Rating: ☆☆☆☆

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What is It About?

Imagine being trapped in a bustling train compartment on your back home…and the person sitting next to you is someone whom you hate the most.  The ride will last for over an hour, and it has been about 30 years since you have last seen this person, but the scab in your heart is still there.  What would you do?

47-year-old Cecil is a successful French businesswoman who’s at the growing peak of her career, along with bigger plans set in stone for her.  One day, on her way back from visiting her aging parents, Cecil decides to take the 6:41 am train back home to Paris.  During this train ride, an ex-flame, Phillips Leduc, ends up sitting next to her.  During the next hour and a half, they both begin to reminisce the memories of their short-lived romantic relationship, which was filled with hate, lust, and regrets.

Initial Thoughts…

Though I did read mixed reviews (with no spoilers) online, it didn’t stop me from getting my hands on the book and reading it myself.  I’m not one to sway from a path once I have my sight on it anymore–unless one can provide substantial evidence why I should and the reasons should be full of legitimate negative consequences…like horrible plot surprises.  But 47-year-old Cecil didn’t come face to face with a “bad plot surprise.”  Instead, though she did end up having her ex-boyfriend, Phillipe, sitting next to her, she is forced to deal with the hurt and humiliation she herself tried to run away from in the past 30 years.  For some people in the real world, this could be too much, depending on how bad of a relationship break-up it was.  For me, well, this was courage.

How to Describe the Overall Book?

Curiosity was strong within this one for I could hardly put the book down at all during my 2 days of reading through it!  Each chapter is told from Cecil or Phillipe’s point of view as they each either make efforts to ease the awkwardness, debate whether or not to run away, or remember why their past actions have led up to this moment, 30 years later after their break-up.  Though I did have trouble with figuring out who was telling the story at first–it didn’t take me long to see the pattern and for the confusion to stop.  It was pretty frustrating; however, I loved how each chapter was leading up to the ultimate plot question: What happened?

And then, there was another question: What is going to happen?

I have never wanted to thank a translator so, so much for translating a book because–well, I had never read a translated novel before–I could clearly hear Blondel’s voice from word to word.  His use of language was still beautiful, and thanks to Anderson’s hard work, they all still rang true to the original.  Blondel’s use of switching character’s perspectives and first-person narrative was very effective and efficient in letting the reader believe that they are there in the train compartment.

Having a perspective being told in first-person narrative further helps put the reader in Cecil’s position and also feel empathy for the character.  When the perspective is switched to Phillipe, you too feel empathy for him as well and see into the changing depths of his maturity over the past 30 years while he reflects back on his naive bachelorhood days.  In the end, I cannot help but feel like a mutual friend, who is listening to both Cecil and Phillipe on their love story.  One is told both sides of the story and may have come up with a solution that can solve the problem, but it is up for the former couple to take the first steps.

What’s My Favorite Part?

My favorite aspect of “The 6:41 to Paris” has to be the character development of both Cecil and Phillipe.  In the beginning of the novel, it seems like the two are overwhelmed with hate or fear, which gradually gives away to acceptance and then, hope.  They have been dragging around this heavy burden for many years and never got around to resolve or confront their problems with each other.  They weren’t good at communicating then, and even now, in the train compartment, the reader can see that they are still struggling with that same issue.  Fear has them in its grip, and they need to build up the courage to let it out.

What’s My Least Favorite Part?

However, I barely felt the pain from the break-up.  While the overall story plot was well thought out, I was a tad disappointed that Blondel didn’t go in depth about both Cecil and Phillipe’s emotional sides.  Much of it went into anger and humiliation or guilt and regrets–but I thought that sadness could have been incorporated.  It seemed to me that Blondel just simply skimmed through and dived right into anger and resentment or embarrassment and shame.

A Word of Advice…

Personally though, I don’t recommend this book to those who are seeking action–as the main characters are both stuck in a tightly packed train compartment and are forced to think about everything that’s happened in the past 30 years.  With me, this was no problem, because I tend to find stories revolving around mental processes and flashbacks fascinating!  While some people may say that they would’ve acted faster than Cecil and Phillipe and started up the conversation sooner, the rest of us probably wouldn’t and would have taken our time to think things through like they did.  People are complex, and well…reactions from person to person will often have multiple outcomes: angry shouting, crying, silence, and so on forth.

And So…

Nevertheless, I found the story to be quite captivating.  I would recommend this book to anyone who is currently recovering from unstable relationships, are in the midst of either forgiving, or trying to move on with their life.  Blondel’s “The 6:41 to Paris” is indeed a tale of bittersweet karma and how the times of youth can follow you far into your later life.  It is a reminder to us all that life is only what you make of the choices given to you and how you treat others.