Where the Wind Leads by Vinh Chung

Mar 15, 2019

If I know you personally, chances are I've already recommended this book to you. For the rest of you, that's what this review is for.

Vinh Chung, the fifth child in a wealthy family, was born in Vietnam just months before America pulled out of the war and the country fell to the communists. In a matter of days, his family lost everything they had worked for years to build and accumulate--their home, their business, their savings. For three years, they eked out a living before deciding it was too dangerous and crippling to raise a family under such circumstances. They risked everything to leave Vietnam.

But in leaving, they traded one danger for another: they found themselves on a Malaysian beach where no one wanted them, then abandoned in the middle of the ocean, then very nearly capsized by pirates. Eventually, miraculously, they made it to America (Arkansas, to be exact) where Vinh's father took menial jobs to support his family. He ended up foregoing his own dreams so his children (who numbered eleven by the time it was all said and done) could have a chance. And they took that chance and ran with it.

I haven't read a story that inspired me this much in a long time.

I had three realizations while reading it:

First, I guess I knew almost nothing about the Vietnam War. And because this story largely takes place after the war, I still know almost nothing about it. But now I know that I don't know anything about it. And I can also see why it was such a controversial war.

Second, refugees must be in the top tier of brave, heroic, determined individuals. I mean, right? Vinh's family's situation was impossible. They couldn't stay in Vietnam, but they couldn't leave either. And when they finally did leave, they put themselves at the mercy of other individuals and governments and countries, and no one wanted them. At one point, Vinh said, "Once again we were powerless, unable to control our direction or destiny. The Malaysians had the big ship, and we were consigned to the tiny boats; we danced behind them like wooden puppets on strings. They could take us anywhere they wanted, at any speed they wanted, for as long as they wanted and we had no way to stop until they allowed us to." That must be such a terrifying feeling--to know that you have no control over your own life and yet realizing that the only way you can possibly make it to the other side is by giving it everything you have. And I'm not even talking about when they actually finally make it to America. That's a whole other endeavor--finding a job, supporting a family, learning a new language and culture and customs, missing family members who were left behind, encountering racial prejudices, and being relegated to the bottom of the social hierarchy.

Third, hard things are somewhat easier to handle when seen through the lens of a young child. Vinh was a very young child when all of this was happening (I think he was three years old when they left Vietnam). His memories of the hardships and tragedies they faced are very dim. He said, "I have no memory of Bac Lieu or Soc Trang or our little farm with its ducks and geese and pigs. My very first memory in life is the moment I was dropped into that warm ocean water on the beach in Malaysia." Of course, he fills in those details with memories from his parents and older siblings, but because of this emotional distance, some of the atrocities aren't as soul-sucking as they might be otherwise. And I wonder if he kept this innocent filter over the top on purpose so that the story sounded of hope rather than misery. (But still, no matter how you spin it, there are some things, like towing 293 people out into the middle of the ocean and then abandoning them with no supplies, that can't be given much of a silver lining.)

Beyond those things, the book surprised me in two ways.

First, Vinh Chung was quite funny. At first, I thought it was a little cheesy, but after just a few chapters, I found it completely endearing. Also, I was kind of amazed that he could find anything to joke about in such a dark, hopeless situation. Granted, this was written almost forty years after the fact, but still. Some might look at it and think that his humor was inappropriate given the gravity of the topic, but I think it helped ease some of the tension, and also, I think you can't overestimate the strength that having a sense of humor can give you both in the present moment and also after it's all over while you're still dealing with the repercussions. Here are a couple of examples to give you a little taste:"
"One night my mother dreamed she was in the marketplace in Soc Trang along with our entire family. Grandmother Chung wasn't there--it was a dream, not a nightmare--nor was my uncle or his family." (Grandmother Chung may have ruled the family with a bit of an iron fist.)
The humor was a mixture of slap-stick, dry, and sarcastic:
"My father couldn't wait to try out his brand-new rice cooker, but when he went to plug it in, he discovered that Singapore used a different voltage and his rice cooker would not work in America--a fact the merchants back in Singapore had somehow forgotten to mention. Oh well. At least he could listen to his boom box. Oops." 
And second, I was not expecting Vinh's story to have a deeply spiritual undertone. But it did. His whole family converted to Christianity after arriving in America as a result of some miracles they experienced on their journey, as well as a dream his mother received and also the community they found in the church they joined.

Vinh said, "There are times when an apparent coincidence is so incredible and so perfectly coordinated that it forces us to wonder whether there must have been purpose behind it." And it may have been this, more than his humor or innocence, that made this story feel so hopeful. Vinh's family was able to see God's hand in their lives, and they expressed their gratitude for it. They worked hard, they didn't complain about the unfairness of their lives, and they rose above it all in a beautiful, miraculous way.

I hope you'll give this book a try.

A Little of This and That in February

Mar 7, 2019


February: it was sweet and blessedly short. And I actually didn't take very many photos. I need to remember to pull out the camera even when the light is not ideal. But anyway, here's a little of what we were up to . . .

Canceling . . . school. On the morning of February 6th, when the house was still dark and quiet, I received a phone call from the school district saying that school was canceled for the day. I was shocked. I mean, a ton of snow had fallen during the night and was still falling that morning, but the night before, the school district had sent an email reaffirming the district-wide policy to keep all schools open regardless of the weather. In the five years I've had school-aged children, that has always been the policy, and I have driven my kids in all kinds of inclement weather where I wished I had just kept them home. A "snow day" had become this mythical apparatus in my kids' eyes--something that was tantalizing but never a possibility. So can I just tell you how truly magical it was to have them each wake up, one by one, and stumble, bleary-eyed, into the kitchen where I shared the unbelievable news with them that we were getting an official snow day? They ran and jumped around with giddy, exuberant energy. Bradley had come upstairs fully dressed and ready for the day, and so his first official act was to change back into his athletic shorts. Mike slowly and painstakingly made his way to work (it took over an hour when it's usually less than twenty minutes), only to have them cancel work a few minutes after he arrived. So he turned around and came back home, and none of us complained. It's a day we'll all always remember because I don't anticipate it happening again.


Breaking . . . a lot of phone chargers. Random, right? A few weeks ago, one of our chargers stopped working. And then, a few days later, another one died. A day or so after that, we lost another one to whatever mysterious plague was infecting all of our chargers. We finally narrowed down the culprit to my phone. Somehow, when it was charging, it was pulling from the charger at full capacity until it couldn't take it anymore and bit the dust. I thought, This could get really expensive really fast. But Mike bought a charger that can handle more volts, and I have my fingers crossed that we've fixed the problem.

Baking . . . , eating, and watching the finale of The Great British Bake Off. As has become tradition, we watched the last episode of season 8 with James and Kathy. Although we watch most of the episodes on our own, we text back and forth during the season, sharing our reactions and cravings. We make a list of bakes we want to try, and then for the finale, we come together to eat several recipes from the season and watch the final episode. And when I say "we," I mean I eat the food and watch the contestants, but I don't really do any of the baking. I'm pretty sure I should be thrown out of the Great British Baking Club as an impostor, but thankfully the other three let me keep coming. And it was a good one this time: We had Sophie's butternut squash pie, Liam's hand-raised meat pie, Liam's million dollar bars, Kate's apple cake, and Steven's stuffed smoked paprika bread. And I was so happy with the baker who won this season.


Going . . . to parent-teacher conferences. This is one of my favorite nights of the year--there's just nothing like hearing someone else brag about and praise your child. (I say this realizing that parent-teacher conferences might not always be a pleasant, happy experience if there are real struggles or issues happening with learning or behavior. But right now, things are very good, so I'm going to celebrate it.) I especially loved visiting with Bradley's teacher, who also taught Aaron and Maxwell in first grade. Since I've sat in on a fair number of parent-teacher conferences with her now, I know how they usually go: she always compliments my kids and makes a point to shine a light on their achievements. But this time, she just gushed about Bradley in a way I've never seen her do before. She loves him, and even though he is only seven years old, she sees his potential and encourages it, and I love her for that.

Attending . . . my parents' ward to hear my little sister, Angela, give a talk before she left on her mission later in the month. She is perhaps the only soon-to-be missionary who literally wrote her talk six weeks in advance and practiced and edited it multiple times before giving it. We are already missing her something fierce.


Buying . . . a new chair for Ian's room. One of my goals for 2019 is to decorate Ian's bedroom, which is long overdue. I kicked off the process by trading out the old glider we had in that room for a lovely blue rocker/recliner. The old chair had been with us for a long time. I purchased it when I was pregnant with Aaron, and I remember that it felt like quite a splurge because it was $75 from Kid-to-Kid, but it was replacing a glider that I had literally paid only $15 for in the classifieds (and which wasn't worth a penny more). Anyway, I've rocked and nursed many babies in that chair, so it was a little nostalgic to replace it, but mostly I'm just so glad to have a new chair that is both cuter and roomier to accommodate a growing toddler who still likes to be rocked like a baby.

Reading . . . books. It finally happened! The switch finally flipped, and Ian no longer tries to yank books out of my hands but will now sit still and listen to book after book after book. I knew it would eventually happen, but it was hard to keep patiently trying while he was a wriggling, writhing mess. But now he has turned into a regular little bookworm. He has a couple dozen favorites (which I'll try to share soon), and has them all memorized but still likes to hear them again and again. (And to be a little more accurate, he started liking books back in December, but I just forgot to mention it until now.) Sometimes, he will even sit through one of Clark's longer picture books, and that just thrills me to no end.


Placing . . . aluminum foil under our bed. I never could have predicted that I would have a need to put "aluminum foil" and "bed" in the same sentence. You may or may not know that we have a cat. I don't talk about him much because I actually don't like cats, and so I merely tolerate his existence. He loves to hide under Mike's and my bed, and it drives me crazy because I don't like sharing my room with a cat. Granted, under the bed is better than on the bed, but still . . . Anyway, Mike had the brilliant idea to lay down a sheet of aluminum foil under our bed, and, it sounds crazy, but it worked. The cat no longer hangs out in our room, and that makes me happy.

Handing . . . over all responsibilities for Valentine boxes to my kids. Does anyone else agree with me that Valentine boxes are one of the worst traditions ever invented? This year, both Bradley and Maxwell's teachers said the kids could just decorate a bag in class, but they were allowed to bring a decorated box if they really wanted to. I was so relieved and grateful for those teachers until my kids said, "But we really still want to make one!" And so I said, "Then you're in charge of it." And I absolved myself of all guilt. They came up with their own ideas (Aaron: tank; Max: bug box; Bradley: TV), used copious amount of scotch tape and construction paper, and I've never seen them happier or more pleased with themselves. (And as our friend, James, succinctly put it: "Nothing says Valentine's like a wasp." Ha!)


Celebrating . . . Valentine's Day in lovely, low-key fashion. We had a special breakfast (orange rolls, courtesy of the grocery store), the boys all got new books, Ian walked around snitching candy off the table like it was his best day ever, and Mike wrote me a cute poem accompanied by some framed photos from various trips we've taken over the years. I gave Mike a raved-about lemon sour cream pie that had the most disappointing crust. (But that filling in one of Mike's crusts? Would have been a winner.) Aaron went to the fifth grade Valentine dance at school and told me that he didn't eat any treats the entire time because he was so busy dancing (I almost keeled over in shock!). That night, Mike and I went to Mike's sister's house for a cozy, not crowded Valentine's dinner, and it was the perfect way to end the day.


Brushing . . . up on my Shakespeare with an adaptation of Comedy of Errors at BYU. Actually, "brushing up" implies that there was something already there to brush up on, but sadly, my Shakespeare education is woefully lacking. So the play started, and I was so confused during the first five minutes that I scrambled to read the synopsis of it in the program, and then I enjoyed it so much that I wished I could see it a second time.

Finishing . . . and beginning a sweater. I am so happy with how my latest sweater turned out. It is comfortable and warm. I love the light pink lace yolk against the plain gray body. I also made some modifications (combining two sizes, adding a few extra rows in the back, using a special technique for the stripes) that made me feel like I'm getting to the point where I have enough techniques at my fingertips that I can interchange or add them as needed to make something that looks and fits just the way I want it to. Then, not even a week after finishing it, I purchased yarn for another sweater. I didn't exactly intend to. I told Mike I was going to the yarn store for "research purposes only," but then one of the employees told me that the colorway I had my eye on was being discontinued, and so I threw down my money on the spot. I'm not sorry.


Signing . . . up for junior high classes. Yes, junior high. Aaron is going to be in junior high in the fall. I can't wrap my brain around it. I feel like I'm reliving the months before he went to kindergarten all over again, including the part where I feel completely clueless about all of the deadlines and the requirements and the forms. I'm telling you, all parents need a mentor to help them get through each new phase as it comes along.There are just so many things you don't even know you should be thinking about until it's too late. Luckily for me, I have my sister-in-law, Sonja, who is about six years ahead of me parenting-wise and our kids happen to go to the same schools, so she has been able to keep me in the know about important details and information. Even so, there was still a lot of running back and worth to the junior high and elementary school for papers and signatures and questions, but I think it's all finally taken care of and I can relax again for a few more months (before I really start to freak out).

Narrating . . . all of our daily actions. Not only is Ian the biggest copycat on the planet, he has also taken to informing all of us about what we're doing at that exact moment in time: "Mommy's wearing a blue shirt. Daddy went to work. Aaron's eating cereal, etc." We love it. His little voice is a constant companion throughout the day, and we can't get enough of it.


Cracking . . . the reading code. Not only did Ian start enjoying listening to books, but Clark is reading, actually reading. We've been doing reading lessons for many months now, so he has been sounding out words for quite awhile, but something changed this month. I can always tell when we've broken through the reading barrier, so to speak, because all of a sudden, the new reader wants to read everything in sight . . . not just the comfortable, familiar-looking words in the reading manual. That happened with Clark this month. He checked out simple books from the library. He and I read some Elephant and Piggie books together (one of us reading Gerald's words, the other one reading Piggie's). He has been reading signs. He began reading his verse during family scripture study instead of repeating what Mike or I told him to say. This is the thrilling stage of learning to read where the world is opening up. I love it so much.

Completing . . . a pair of socks! I bought a "How to knit socks" online class a year ago and have been working on the socks off and on ever since. They were a great on-the-go, in-between-other-projects project, and slowly but surely, I made progress on them until I finally finished them this month! Even though I have made dozens of other items (some of them quite a bit more complex than these socks), there's something about knitting a pair of socks that actually fit me that makes me feel like a real knitter. Step aside, Caroline Ingalls! I've got this.


Losing . . . a tooth. One of Max's top front teeth was loose for most of the month, but he wouldn't pull it out until the very last day of February. He had carefully calculated the loss of this tooth so that it coincided with his birthday eve, figuring that maybe, just maybe, the tooth fairy would give him extra money if it happened to be his birthday when she visited him. Even though it was just hanging on by a single root, he still needed his theme song ("Whatever It Takes") and a new issue of Ranger Rick to distract him while Mike pulled it out with a pair of tweezers. And his plan worked . . . the tooth fairy left him double the usual amount.



That's a wrap! What did you spend your February doing? Please share!




An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

Mar 1, 2019

33590210
If I had to choose one word to describe this book, it would be wrenching.


Gut wrenching. Emotionally wrenching. Heart wrenching.

Roy and Celestial have only been married a year-and-a-half when their lives change suddenly and drastically one night. They went to Roy's hometown to visit his parents, and their motel room door was forced open in the middle of the night and they were dragged from their bed. A woman a few doors down claimed that Roy broke into her room and raped her.

But Roy is innocent. He knows it, and, more importantly, his wife knows it. She hadn't even fallen asleep yet when their door burst open.

But the trial proceeds quickly. Unfortunately, Roy is a black man being accused by a white woman, and the timing and the circumstances are not in his favor. Roy is convicted without proper evidence. He is sentenced to prison for twelve years. (Side note: it never explicitly says that Roy's accuser is white. I assumed she was because her word was given more credibility than Celestial's testimony, but some of the women in my book club assumed she was black, so it was somewhat ambiguous. Regardless, Roy was convicted.)

At first, Celestial and Roy are unfailingly loyal to one another, pledging their devotion until either Roy serves out his sentence or his attorney (Celestial's Uncle Banks) gets him acquitted. But as time marches on, Celestial goes on living, and other things (and people) move into take Roy's place. After three years, she writes that she is done with their marriage; she has to move on; she wants to get a divorce. Except . . .months pass, and she never files for a divorce.

When Roy is finally released after five years, he doesn't know what he'll find and if it's even possible for a marriage that was still just in its infancy to be able to survive such a tragedy.

The story is told from three perspectives: Roy's, Celestial's, and Andre's (oh, I didn't mention him? He and Celestial have been friends ever since they were children. I'm sure you can guess why he's in the story . . .). Their voices are distinct, raw, and vivid. I loved the writing so much, and listening to the narration by Sean Crisden and Eisa Davis only enhanced it.

I won't pretend to know what it takes for a novel to move from best-seller to classic, or if the two are even related. But with the words still fresh enough to be ringing in my ears, this feels like the type that might last. I could see it being studied in literature classes decades from now. It just seems to have all of the right pieces to make something that's deep and mulit-layered and will keep giving each time you read it.

That said, I didn't love the ending. And not because it wasn't a happily ever after kind of ending. Celestial and Roy both move forward with their lives. Celestial's seemed natural and expected (probably because a big chunk of the book had been pointing that way), but Roy's seemed unlikely and maybe even fantastical. I'm not going to give it away here, but I'd be interested to know what you thought about it if you've read it. (As another aside, discussing this with the other ladies in my book club actually helped me resolve some of the issues I had with the ending, and I'm not as skeptical as I was when I first finished it.)

This was my book club's pick for February. We always try to select a book for this month that will have something to do with love and relationships. We've had some misses over the years, but this one was spot on perfect. Although there are some underlying themes of racism and equality, the heart of the book is about relationships and what happens to those relationships when life throws its punches.

At one point, Celestial says: "Marriage is like grafting a limb onto a tree trunk. You have the limb, freshly sliced, dripping sap, and smelling of springtime. And then you have the mother tree stripped of her protective bark, gouged and ready to receive this new addition." Part of the problem for Celestial and Roy was that their limb and trunk hadn't been together for long enough before the graft was put under extreme stress.

But back to my original word: wrenching. I became so deeply invested in the characters, and it was painful to watch all of the choices and circumstances play out and just wonder, "What if . . . ?" What if Roy hadn't been convicted? What if he had gotten out sooner? What if he and Celestial had been married longer first? What if? What if? What if?

It was those plaguing questions that kept me listening, and the unsatisfactory answers that kept me thinking long after I finished.

Content note: This is a heavy story. There is some language, including the F-word. There is also infidelity, including one descriptive scene that I chose to skip over.
Proudly designed by Mlekoshi playground