Picture Us in the Light by Kelly Loy Gilbert

The recent representation of Asian-Americans in film and literature has been thundering the media. From the more obvious success of Crazy Rich Asians and Fresh Off the Boat to the smaller-rooted Netflix film “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” (and it’s soon-to-be sequel), the portrayal of Asian families has skyrocketed, building new stepping stones in which the small society of its own is rendered in society as a whole.

Kelly Loy Gilbert’s second novel, Picture Us in the Light, is a beautifully crafted story revolving around the Asian-American cultural hub in San Francisco. Picture Us in the Light follows eighteen-year-old Danny Cheng, as he struggles with his pursuit of artistic inspiration (post-college acceptance to an art and design school) and finding footholds in his graying, mysterious family life. Accompanied by long-time friends Harry and Regina, Danny unearths his family’s deep past piece by piece and discovering small realizations about himself and the relationships he has with those he loves most in his life.

As Danny jockeys with the slow, difficult reveal of his parents’ secrets and tries to find some balance over what he does and doesn’t know about his own identity, the audience is presented with the intense and haunting realities of global immigration. Every turn of the page brought a new feeling of suspense — each time we were given new information, the plot became more and more complex, heading a dozen different ways at once.

Being Asian-American myself, I found the story delightfully relatable in a small-scale way that it was powdered with concise “Asian insider” instances that I could relate to — the abundance of food, the hefty trips to Costco and Ranch 99, the intensive preparation for big exams.

The featured family in the novel, the Chengs, center the majority of their conflicts and victories over meals, which is extremely relatable to me in the way that family bonds over food. Just this seemingly insignificant instance opens up huge discussion for literary meaning (communion occurs over cuisine, perhaps?), but also exhibits how striking and intimately real the characters and situations Gilbert creates are.

Picture Us in the Light, published just over a year ago, is one of YA’s most down-to-earth and honest storylines thus far. Gilbert brings together shattering occurrences with the small moments of merriment, joining together two of our center emotions into a heart wrenching and, slowly, heartwarming book.

     So, as we are, picture us enchanted by Gilbert’s authentic and profound capability for storytelling.

—Keira D.

Picture Us in the Light by Kelly Loy Gilbert is available for checkout from the Mission Viejo Library

The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri

The novel begins off strong with a major accident in the country of India involving Ashoke Ganguli, one of the main characters, on October 20, 1961 between Calcutta and Jamshedpur. He survives his accident and fulfills his dream of becoming a professor while moving to Cambridge, Massachusetts with his wife, Ashima, six years later. As soon as they moved into their new home in the United States, Gogol Ganguli is born into the family.

Being an immigrant family that lacked knowledge of the entirety of American culture led the Ganguli family through their ups and downs as they settled down. One of the first problems faced within the first few chapters of the book is centered around Gogol. His parents had taught him that in Bengali culture, there were “good names”, which were to be used in public, and “pet names”, which were to be used by family and closed loved ones.

When Gogol first enters kindergarten, around the time of the birth of his little sister, he is confused when his parents ask the school principal to call him by Nikhil instead of his pet name, Gogol, that of which he was familiar with because his parents called him that. He refused to respond to Nikhil, so the young boy grew up to be known as Gogol, which would later turn on him. He was too young to understand that his parents were concerned that his name wouldn’t fit the American culture because it could not be turned into a nickname, like how Nikhil could’ve been turned into Nick.

As time passes, Gogol ages and as he ages, there is an evident sign of major influence of American culture upon him and his younger sister. He replies in English whilst his parents speak to him in Bengali, he lacks interest in Bengali music and finds himself becoming a hard-core fan of the Beatles. He slowly loses the Bengali culture that his parents migrated to America with and grows to be more of an independent individual instead of growing up group-oriented, like his parents.

Jhumpa Lahiri does a beautiful job with not only allowing the story to come alive in the reader’s mind, but also painting a detailed picture and giving the reader all of the character’s opinions based of actions and dialogue, feelings and thoughts. The summary above explains only a small, but would grow to be significant, problem in the Ganguli family, especially Gogol. As the novel continues, every detail given about any character is a development and is almost treated like a puzzle piece to a greater picture of how immigrant families struggle in a foreign country while trying to maintain their culture as they practiced American culture.

The Namesake is a cultural and emotional themed book that pulls the reader in for a need to read more. Personally, I found a connection to this book as I was reading it, allowing myself to easily be able to fully immerse into the story.

-Anyssa P.

The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri is available for checkout from the Mission Viejo Library

Anything But Okay by Sarah Darer Littman

Anything But Okay by Sarah Darer Littman is about Stella Walker, a junior in high school. She is like most other teenage girls, but her whole life is shaken up once her older brother, Rob, returns from serving as a Marine. Her brother is suffering from PTSD, and a lack of resources from the VA means the family has to wait for counseling. Unfortunately, Rob gets agitated and punches a boy in the face at the mall after the boy was harassing a worker by saying “go back to your country.” In the politicized climate of the town mayor running from election, many say that Rob is a terrorist sympathizer. This extreme dialogue affects her best friend and family, who is Muslim.

Dealing with the turmoil of all this by running for class president, Stella must tell the right side of the story and be able to diffuse the tension. Anything But Okay is a powerful novel for teenagers to read because of the topics explored are a reflection of the ones in our community today. By telling the story in the point of view of Stella, the novel gives young adults someone  they can relate to and learn from.

This novel was different because of how relatable it is to society today. It gives a hypothetical, but startling, scenario, where lies fueled by speculation can spread like wildfire and do almost as much damage as one. I would recommend this book not only to teenagers, but adults as well to understand a fresh perspective about the political turmoil in the news.

-Anmol K.

Anything But Okay by Sarah Darer Littman is available for checkout from the Mission Viejo Library.

Chinese Cinderella by Adeline Yen Mah

Chinese Cinderella is the story of an unwanted daughter in China during World War II. Adeline Yen Mah was hated by most of her family. Her mom died while giving birth to her, so she is seen as bad luck. Adeline’s father then remarries a horrible stepmother called Niang. Niang always puts her two children above Adeline and her siblings. The people Adeline goes to for comfort are Ye Ye and Aunt Baba. It is apparent that Niang is now the matriarch of the family. Niang frequently gets angry at Adeline and accuses her of multiple things. Adeline is also constantly at war with her older sister. They constantly fight about who gets what room and who sleeps where. Eventually their relationship does get better. Then, on Adeline’s sisters’ wedding, Niang goes through her presents and keeps a jade pendant and keeps it for herself. As Adeline is going to tell her sister about the pendant, Niang tells her to go out to the balcony with her. Adeline then learns that Niang let her sister keep the pendant. Adeline does extremely well in school winning several prizes for writing, but that isn’t enough to please her hateful parents. She then goes on to go to college with her brother and continues writing. Adeline’s life improves very quickly through this and she becomes very happy.

Chinese Cinderella by Adeline Yen Mah is available for checkout from the Mission Viejo Library

American Street by Ibi Zoboi

In her new novel, American Street, Ibi Zoboi creates a different type of story which is both full of truth and meaning.  The first thing I noticed when I picked up the book, however, was the names.  And how much Zoboi was able to do with them.  Our protagonist, Fabiola Toussaint, shares an inspiring story through narrated as well as journalistic chapters, and I loved all of it.  Though not based on a true story, the author has taken the voice of each character and has written from their own fictitious hearts, almost as if she were interviewing them.  Blending the American lifestyle of today’s Detroit and a coming-of-age teenager’s story from Haiti made for a truly extraordinary read.

Fabiola:

According to my papers, I’m not even supposed to be here.  I’m not a citizen.  I’m a “resident alien.”  The borders don’t care if we’re all human and my heart pumps blood the same as everyone else’s.

Not only does this message strike home for my beliefs, but it is truly and utterly relevant.  Fabiola, conned ‘Fabulous’ by friends at school, was born in Haiti to a life supported by her American aunt. The story starts out as Fabiola leaves the airport without her mother, detained by the immigration officers.  This vulnerability reaches the reader on a deep level.  If this scene was cut from the novel, Fabiola would be treated as any other modern-day damsel in distress finding her way around twenty-first century Detroit.

What makes her story so special was the way it spoke to the reader.  It was unlike many other novels recently released, in that the reader felt something more than joy or sadness.  At some point in one’s life, they will experience being in a new and unfamiliar place.  Nothing seems to stop to allow one to catch up.  It is as if nobody else cares.  Zoboi captured this shared human feeling stunningly.

On a scale of ‘one’ to ‘amazing’, I would definitely rate American Street ‘amazing’.  Readers can also learn something new about cultures and their collision on the corner of American Street and Joy Road.

-Maya S.

American Street by Ibi Zoboi is available for checkout from the Mission Viejo Library