Every month, I have the same reading goal: Four books, including one classic; one newish fiction title everyone is talking about; something from my unread shelf; and finally, one diverse read from the perspective of an author of color. I always look forward to May, Asian American and Pacific Islanders Heritage Month, when I try to read books all month written by Asian authors.
This May’s reading prospects are especially enthralling for me as my family and I gear up for a trip to South Korea in late June. Our beloved daughter, Phoebe Min-Ju Jayne, is Korean, and this will be her first trip to her homeland since we adopted her in 2005, when she was a baby. My reading by Asian authors will probably extend all the way through our trip, as I love to read books in their setting whenever possible, a rare delight.
For now, I have a couple of YA books on the docket, Sonny Song Will Never Be Famous, by Suzanne Park, and Tokyo Ever After, by Emiko Jean, which my daughter read for a YA class at her school. Sonny Song, about a Korean teenaged influencer whose parents send her to a digital detox” camp in Iowa, was good but not great for me. At first, the main character seems so vapid and annoying, it’s hard to put up with her, but by the end, the book had me questioning my own online life and social media usage. Apparently there were hidden depths.
I am in the middle of Tokyo Ever After, a huge bestseller and Reese Witherspoon YA book club pick. I am flipping the pages faster and faster as I read this fizzy Japanese retelling of The Princess Diaries. I can totally see why my daughter enjoyed it, and it’s so much fun to share a book with her. (Both books have some profanity and mild sexual innuendo.)
For my nonfiction reading, I am already loving Tell Me the Dream Again by Christian debut author Tasha Jun, and anticipating the much buzzed-about memoir Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner. In terms of a classic, I might reread The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan for the third time, because it’s just that good.
(In the midst of all of this AAPI reading, I am mixing it up with a new, feathery friend: Chicken Scratch: Lessons on Living Creatively from a Flock of Hens, by my friend—and Banner reviewer—Ann Byle. A book about chickens and creativity? Egg-cellent! Sorry, I had to. Watch for our review soon.)
Here are four titles that will elevate your reading life, open your hearts and minds to new perspectives, and teach you about Asian history, culture, food, and issues:
Classic: The Kitchen God’s Wife, by Amy Tan
I just reread this 31-year-old modern classic last May for my book club, and once again I was mesmerized by Winnie and Pearl’s world. “Give yourself over to the world Ms. Tan creates for you,” The New York Times raved. And I did and probably will again.
From the publisher:
“Winnie and Helen have kept each other’s worst secrets for more than 50 years. Now, because she believes she is dying, Helen wants to expose everything. And Winnie angrily determines that she must be the one to tell her daughter, Pearl, about the past—including the terrible truth even Helen does not know. And so begins Winnie’s story of her life on a small island outside Shanghai in the 1920s, and other places in China during World War II, and traces the happy and desperate events that led to Winnie’s coming to America in 1949. The Kitchen God’s Wife is “a beautiful book” (Los Angeles Times) from the author of bestselling novels like The Joy Luck Club and The Valley of Amazement and the memoir, Where the Past Begins.” (Penguin Books)
New, Buzzy Book: Before the Coffee Gets Cold, by Toshikazu Kawaguchi
This book also could be considered a modern classic; it has sold over a million copies since its release in 2015 and has the feel of a timeless fable. While it took me a little while to get into this odd little novel, I soon became entranced with this strange cafe and the time-traveling characters. It definitely made me think about who I would want to see and what I would want to say—before the coffee got cold.
From the publisher:
“If you could go back in time, who would you want to meet?
“In a small back alley of Tokyo, there is a café that has been serving carefully brewed coffee for more than 100 years. Local legend says that this shop offers something else besides coffee—the chance to travel back in time.
“Over the course of one summer, four customers visit the café in the hopes of making that journey. But time travel isn’t so simple, and there are rules that must be followed. Most important, the trip can last only as long as it takes for the coffee to get cold.
“Heartwarming, wistful, mysterious and delightfully quirky, Toshikazu Kawaguchi’s internationally bestselling novel explores the age-old question: What would you change if you could travel back in time?” (Hanover Square)
From my Unread Shelf: The Island of the Sea Women, by Lisa See
So many of my bookish friends, in real life and on #Bookstagram, have recommended this huge bestseller from 2019. I know I will love it as I adore historical fiction featuring multigenerational family sagas. I think I will save this one for the airplane ride to Korea, because 14 hours is a long time to kill, and it will be the perfect primer for our trip to the Land of the Morning Calm.
From the publisher
“Mi-ja and Young-sook, two girls living on the Korean island of Jeju, are best friends who come from very different backgrounds. When they are old enough, they begin working in the sea with their village’s all-female diving collective, led by Young-sook’s mother. As the girls take up their positions as baby divers, they know they are beginning a life of excitement and responsibility—but also danger.
“Despite their love for each other, Mi-ja and Young-sook find it impossible to ignore their differences. The Island of Sea Women takes place over many decades, beginning during a period of Japanese colonialism in the 1930s and 1940s, followed by World War II, the Korean War, through the era of cellphones and wet suits for the women divers. Throughout this time, the residents of Jeju find themselves caught between warring empires. Mi-ja is the daughter of a Japanese collaborator. Young-sook was born into a long line of haenyeo (female divers from Jeju Island) and will inherit her mother’s position leading the divers in their village. Little do the two friends know that forces outside their control will push their friendship to the breaking point.” (Scribner)
Inspirational Nonfiction: Tell Me the Dream Again, by Tasha Jun
I am about 60 pages into this gorgeously written book about identity and heritage, written by a biracial Korean American who grapples with what it means to belong. I knew I would learn more about what it is like for my daughter to be Asian in a white world, but I didn’t expect to be blown away by insights into the difference between fitting in and belonging, the dangers of assimilation, and how our family stories shape us as much as our DNA. Highly recommend, especially for Asian readers, Asian adoptees and their loved ones, and anyone who wants to understand more of the Asian American or Canadian experience.
From the publisher:
“Tasha Jun has always been caught between worlds: American and Korean, faith and doubt, family devotion and fierce independence. As a Korean American, she wandered between seemingly opposing worlds, struggling to find a voice to speak and a firm place for her feet to land.
“The world taught Tasha that her Korean normal was a barrier to belonging—that assimilation was the only way she would ever be truly accepted. But if that were true, did that mean God had made a mistake in knitting her together?
“Told with tender honesty and compelling prose, Tell Me the Dream Again is a memoir-in-essays exploring
- what it means to be biracial in America today
- the joy and healing that comes with embracing every part of who we are
- how our identity in Christ is tightly woven with the unique colors, scents, and culture he’s given us
“We are not outsiders to God. When we let all the details of ourselves unfold—when we embrace who we were divinely knit together to be—this is when we’ll fully experience his perfect love.” (Tyndale)