This month, I’ll take a different tack. Usually, two novels and one nonfiction title comprise my reading list. For now, I will review two memoirs and one story collection. I start off with Julie Wang’s Beautiful Country. I’ve had my eye on this for months and reading it was a pleasure. I followed up with Murakami’s The Elephant Vanishes. Seventeen stories, of varying length, provide a glimpse into yuppie culture and generation x. This was a chance to learn from the master. Finally, Will Smith’s autobiography rounds out the trio. One of Hollywood’s most powerful men, Will – like Julie – lived the American dream. He has the unique distinction of reaching the pinnacle on three platforms – music, television, and film. The book was written with the help of bestselling author, Mark Manson. As a side note, the Will review seems more pertinent now. The slapping incident at this year’s Oscars, coupled with Smith’s Best Actor nod, has given the work more notoriety.
Beautiful Country (Julie Wang). The title derives from the Chinese name of America (Mei Guo). Wang was born in Shijiazhuang, China, the daughter of professors. All of her family were there and they were a close knit clan. Her father left for the US when she was five. He vowed to bring them there. Two years later, they joined him. They led a very impoverished life in Brooklyn, New York.
Her mother has to do menial jobs for peanuts while her dad struggled to provide for the family. Her earliest landlord was a hunchback who hid in a kitchen closet. One time, Wang imitated her and promptly fell asleep. When she entered school, she had to teach herself English. Defying the odds, she would soon best the classmates who oppressed her. She was also fortunate to have a caring mentor, who expedited her learning. At the same, time, there were others who challenged her. Early on, she had dreamed of studying law at Harvard. Their disbelief only cemented her resolve.
Due to their illegal status, her father told her to avoid asking questions and to be inconspicuous. They lived in fear of being outed. Even when she could converse in English, she felt like a foreigner. Her tummy often rumbled and she stared at items that she couldn’t have. Her experiences were reminiscent of Lion by Saroo Brierley. Weekends were at McDonalds, where she could not comprehend ‘Maw Chi Ton.’ During this time, they would also collect discarded items. These deficiencies made other Americans suspicious, as though she were feigning ignorance on purpose. However, she was able to make friends, including a stray cat.
Julie rode the subway every school day, where she contended with unsavoury types. She chose the name Julie as a nod to the puppet from The Puzzle Place. She met ‘Auntie’, her mum’s co-worker, who died weeks later. Her mum too was rushed to hospital due to a tumour. The operation revealed that it was not cancer. After the op, her mother wasn’t the same again. At this time, she stayed with family friends. She found out that the struggling ones treated her better. Throughout the book, there’s lots of humour. For instance, Julie writes, ‘We would be deported now, as soon as someone cares to investigate why I didn’t have enough to eat.’ Anyhow, she sometimes overuses steamed bun and dumpling metaphors, which turn corny. In case you’re wondering, Julie graduated from Yale University and is now a managing partner at a law firm. The writing was easy to grasp and the story was quite compelling. I devoured most of it in four days.
Will (Will Smith). The long-awaited memoir from the media-hopping titan is finally here. Bestselling self-help author, Mark Manson, helped Smith with writing the biography. The 400-page trade paperback brings us back to Smith’s Philadelphia childhood and his overbearing father. He is the second of four childen and the oldest son. His dad owned a big ice packing company, where he worked. When his so-called daddio hurt his mum, his inaction made him feel like a coward. His father though was a good provider and he studied in a private school. As a result of attending an all-white school, he often felt caught between two worlds. Since his lyrics and language were squeaky-clean, some dudes would say that he was not ‘black enough.’
Even though he was accepted to attend college, he chose to try his luck in the entertainment business. With his Philly crew, he achieved instant stardom. Their first album went platinum and won them the inaugural Grammy for rap. At the time, the hip hop scene was just fledgling and Smith would go a long way in making it go mainstream. He also talks about his love life, where he wants to shower one girl with all his affections. Eventually, his inexperience and ‘play hard’ lifestyle would make him teeter on the brink of bankruptcy. By turning up to the Arsenio Hall Show, he was able to score an audition with a Quincy Jones, a Hollywood producer. He became the star of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, which ran for six seasons.
Having conquered music and TV, Will set his sights to be the world’s biggest movie star. Along the way, he met his wife – Jada Pinkett. They have two children together. Owing to his work ethic and desire for perfection, Smith made one blockbuster after another. They were not all critics’s darlings but were massive commercial successes. Smith’s sustained excellence shattered box office records. At one point, he was the highest grossing film actor ever. Will’s diligence ultimately became his downfall. His thirst for flawlessness and his humongous ego caused his relationships to crumble. In the book’s latter chapters, Smith tries to battle his demons. He sees the beauty of silence and rest. He becomes a voracious reader. He goes to Peru to be healed. He essays an ascetic life. Finally, he tries to bungee jump from a chopper above the Grand Canyon. The book contains twenty-one long chapters. I must admit that this was a more challenging read than Beautiful. However, the effort required was well worth it.
‘Life is learning…the whole point of venturing into uncertainty is to bring light to the darkenss of our ingnorance.’
The Elephant Vanishes (Murakami). This marks my second foray into Murakami, after Norwegian Wood. I picked up this story collection off the library shelf. Published in 1993, this one is an older book. One would immediately notice the earlier technology, from landlines to radios, televisions to handwritten letters. Seventeen varied tales fill this omnibus. There are recurrent themes among the stories. First off are those in Japanese settings. There are also a few pets/animals. Most of the protagonists are younger, irreverent males. A couple of times, some magical realism is utilised. Elephant is a telling portrait into 90s yuppie culture.
‘Barn Burning’ is perhaps the most renowned of this title. When I read the story, it looked very familiar. I deduced that this was the inspiration of the Korean movie, Burning, starring Steven Yeun (The Walking Dead). Another tale was expanded into a three-part novel that was released the following year. The book has a bit of everything: a detective story, love stories, humour, and magical realism. They range in length from six to thirty-eight pages. For the most part, the writing is pretty accessible and is a good introduction into his fiction. There was only one story that I skipped, titled ‘The Kangaroo Communique’.
Murakami ponders the ordinary and weaves narratives out of the commoner. The issue with this book is the profusion of rather unremarkable people. Murakami’s heroes are husbands and wives. They are students and in advertising. They eat McDonald’s and cook spaghetti. They lose a girl’s number, a brain cramp, but also dance their way into her heart. His heroes despise their future in-laws and Sunday afternoons. They mow lawns and look for a decent hamburger. They write and neglect writing letters. They order TVs and have vivid dreams. They drive and they take the train. It still took me longer than usual to finish this book. I had to divide my reading time between Elephant and Will. Fiction is meant to transport you to a different place and time. This one does that well.