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Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Gangster We Are All Looking For

Okay you know how certain cities have a "let's everyone read the same book together so we can feel united" thing going on? I'm kind of into that but have never participated. Mainly because I don't tend to stay in cities long enough for the book club to start and be over. It's an interesting idea though, that you could go around a city and see thousands (millions?) of people flipping through the same book.

The first One City One Book was started in 1998, by Seattle, which is annually ranked as one of America's "most literate of big cities." Other top cities are Minneapolis, Washington DC, and Pittsburgh. Placing near the bottom of the list are El Paso, Texas; Corpus Christi, Texas; Bakersfield, California; and Stockton, California. Read about the methodology of the study here if you're so inclined. Basically if you have cold winters, chances are there's a lot of reading going on. If you live in the hot weather, you're more likely to zone out in front of the television watching Jersey Shore 2.

So what about my hometown of San Diego, dubbed "America's Finest City?" Over at Slant Eye for the Round Eye I saw that One Book One San Diego has chosen lê thi diem thúy's The Gangster We Are All Looking For. For those not in the know, lê thị diễm thúy is pronounced "lay tee yim twee" and she is a poet, an author, and a performer.

I actually read this book when it came out because the cover and title were so catchy. I quite enjoyed it even if I don't recall anything about the book in particular. I'm just bad with reading memory, but that means I get to experience the joy of fresh rereads quite frequently. And since I'm in San Diego now, I'm going to pull out my copy and read along. Feel free to move to SD for the summer and join me.

The Publishers Weekly blurb is below:
"Le's first novel is a bracing, unvarnished, elliptical account of a Vietnamese refugee family, in America but not yet of it, hobbled by an unfamiliar environment and their own troubled relationships. It's narrated by the family's young daughter, newly arrived in San Diego with her father after being sponsored by a well-meaning but condescending American family. Her mother soon joins them, and the family endures an itinerant existence of low-wage jobs and cheap rental apartments. Other Vietnamese wander namelessly through the book, sharing space with the family but providing little of the warmth of community. Nearly plotless, the novel is organized into vignettes that each feature one piercing image: a drunken parent, a shattered display cabinet, a drowned boy.

As the narrator makes her halting adjustment to America, she also tries to discover what the family has left behind in Vietnam. Her father's mysterious past caused him to be rejected by his in-laws; these grandparents are now known to the girl only through a worn photograph. Then there is her brother, whose fate is mentioned only in whispers. Le allows no sentimentality to creep into this work-indeed, she hints only subtly at the narrator's emotional state ("there is no trace of blood anywhere except here, in my throat, where I am telling you all of this"), as though any explicit show of feeling were too frivolous for the subject at hand. This is a stark and significant work that will challenge readers."


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