Proximity is a thing when it comes to what to read. Books arrive at the same time. They're in a pile. They compete for space and priority status. There are podcast considerations. And then there is the the more intangible intensity of desire to consume said books, a combination of author love, topic, buzz, genre, loyalty - to author, press or publicist - and size, and apologies for that, any, all, of which can make one book seem more important than another. Terrible I know. Beyond reading, there is also the riffing on the books themselves, my quasi, rarely objective ruminations on what I'm reading, captured here under the banner of This Book Will Change Your Life, and the what, when, how will I write about them. And maybe it's all the same thing, what to read is what to review, but some times, I want to write about two books at once because they feel like they hang together in some fashion. The authors are hitting a similar genre, they're peers of one another or mine, they have the same publisher or publicist. Or there is the case of the books I'm ruminating on today, No Good Very Bad Asian by the Leland Cheuk and Besotted by the Melissa Duclos. These books represent some or all of the above criteria, but more than that, one is the latest book by an author I love, the Leland Cheuk, and the other is the latest book, Besotted, from his press, 7.13 Books, which I also love (and yes, I now love Duclos as well and more on that shortly). The books arrived here at the office at the same time, and that makes them a pair to me, even if I'm self-conscious (and yes, I am a white, middle-age, snowflake), that both have Asian themes and that might appear to be the reason I'm writing about both at once. I'm not. For real. It really is about timing and sensibility, okay, good, any questions? Pause. Great, on to the books. Because it is always about books. And so, while I'm not the Cheuk completist I need to be, I have also read Cheuk's novel The Misadventures of Sulliver Pong, and from one novel to another it's clear that Cheuk is seeking to deconstruct, illustrate and play with all of our culture's, white culture certainly, (mis)perceptions about Asian American culture - the focus on family, staying close, caring for parents; education, all-in, all the time; success, at all costs, and the honor that comes with that; striving, for the betterment of one's children especially; and work, always work, always that - but doing so through a combination of trenchant satire, or is it parody, and which is better in this case anyway, and humor. Because there is always humor. Which is never more obvious than it is with No Good Very Bad Asian, whose protagonist Hor Luk Lee, stage name Sirius Lee, is a stand-up comic and filters his successes, failures, frustrations, disappointments, fears and rare moments of joy though humor and self-deprecation. It is too much, if not obscene, to ask any one author, or person, to represent all which the culture they've emerged from has to say about itself. But Cheuk is taking on the challenge to a certain extent and while the writing is top-notch, and as I've written previously, propulsive, and truly page-turning, it is also a reminder to me, that as a white American, I have an obligation to move beyond the friends and writers I love, and seek out authors of all colors and cultures, staying focused on learning, being curious, digging, and when and where possible, promoting these authors, when there's so much to know about the various cultures and immigrant experiences of our neighbors, co-workers, lovers and family. It may also be too much to add, that such efforts have never been more important than they are now, but that's how it feels and that is that.
All of which makes for an interesting, necessary, exultory transition to Besotted, a novel I fucking love so much, none of which I want to give away, but wow, escapist, American ex-pats in Shanghai falling in love and...And what? Read it. It's lovingly crafted and again, apologies, propulsive, but also reads like a tightly, constructed puzzle and even if one knows where it's all going, it doesn't matter. Every step is a twisty, sad, passionate, cringe-worthy delight that forced me to rethink my youth and what I did and did not do in terms of sex and lust and loss and whatever passes for a deep dive into something deeper, less safe and outside oneself. Which is also to say, that hurrah to Cheuk, who not only finds new voices and debut authors of all persuasions at 7.13 Books (and not I'm not wholly a completist here either, but I have read Glamshack, Not Everyone Is Special, The Place You're Supposed To Laugh, Like A Champion and now Besotted), but continues to find authors who write like their lives depended on not wasting a word or thought. What he's sharing feels like a gift, and whether or not the work will change your life may even be beside the point, branding be damned. It's all so fresh and obsessive, and like Duclos' characters, so escapist, at worst you will be given the opportunity to step away from your own life, and as a love of reading and books, I can't imagine much that is better than that.