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piiskoor

Another fine mess

Reader fan critic teacher reader fan.

Currently reading

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The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir - Kao Kalia Yang Calls or visits home often turn into strange, strangled conversations between me--booknerd, liberal, English prof, atheist, movie nut--and various family members--some Palindrones, a bedlam of evangelicals, quite a few People junkies, a couple of other teachers (primary special ed; secondary math and social studies), and one or two other stray booknerds. Before travel, I bone up on the Gosselins, tamp down my smartassholishness. Etc. I've only once--just once, in 43 years--said anything about language to any relative (and this to my mom, and I blame it less on being a know-it-all and more on being 14--or is that redundant?). But I've had about 5,000 conversations where some family member chuckles awkwardly that she's going to watch her grammar. And 'though there are just a few readers in the batch, I seem to always end up talking about inspiring stories they've read.

Some few years ago, most of these stories were about plucky real-life heroines. Mary Lou Retton still looms large in the pantheon, tumbling off the vaults and into our hearts, with a big smile, and a tiny fireplug body. But more recently-- perhaps a shift in publishing and the popstream, perhaps real effort on the part of my family to meet me partway--the plucky heroines & heroes are less apple-pie, more EXOTIC. A couple Christmases ago, it was all Kite Runner. (I almost preferred gymnastic come-from-behind miracles.) But the last two years, it's memoirs. I The Woman Warrior for a couple folks--I adore that ... memoir? novel? gorgeous Book. Some appreciations, but also a lot of apprehension. It was a bit weird.

All this is preparatory to saying that I actually look forward to conversations in the next few visits, 'cause many of my family members will love Kao Kalia Yang's memoir. And I liked it. Which is to say that it isn't quite Kingston, but it has a blend of pluck and real poetry; the sentimental allure of Exotic Pain somewhat too common in recent years is there but offset by a more stringent lyricism, and she's willing to veer off the beaten chronological path into stories, images, asides that resist neat aphorisms or lessons or conventional narrative arcs.

There are passages--particularly in the camps in Thailand--where her narration is impressionist perfection. And she captures the way history washes over a family and a people by focusing on the local: her family, her own experiences, but avoiding the cheap synecdoche where the narrator's I is Representative.

Still, there are stray moments of information dump, a confusion that is understandable--but lacks a sharper aesthetic focus--around the ambiguity of memory and not-remembering in a memoir of a family (much of which takes place prior to the narrator's fifth birthday).

This is a first work, by a very young writer, and it's pretty impressive. Maybe not all that I'd hope for, but more than I'd expected -- and I'm excited to pass on a book that might spark some real conversation at home.