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I’m Kelly, an undergrad at Cal studying economics with a minor in digital journalism. I have a a deep love for books & media! I’m currently on a journey to learn & unlearn by focusing on diverse perspectives. Here you’ll find passionate reflections and lessons learned from books, articles covering entertainment/culture, or random pieces that pop up from the constant random thoughts in my head!

Reflection on These Violent Delights

This book wrecked me in the best of ways, ruthlessly violent yet like a tender lullaby. This is a book I’ve unknowingly been searching for my entire life. Chloe Gong says this book is her “love letter to Shanghai, to Shakespeare and to my younger self, who so desperately wanted to find an adventure on the shelves starring someone with a face like hers”, and I didn’t know it until I read this book, but I think all along I’ve been seeking that story too. And as the last page fluttered from my grasp, the last words screaming at me with all its fervor, I felt...serenity? And in some ways relief— utter relief to have found it in this one, to be able to see myself in a story that took my breath away, filled with elements of everything I never knew I needed so bad.

The first line starts with, “In glittering Shanghai, a monster awakens”, and what ensues is a story with palpitating momentum, each scene a careful buildup to the end, leaving a trail of heart-stopping destruction in its wake. From the very first line, I felt myself transported to 1920s bustling Shanghai. I felt myself stepping inside burlesque clubs, blinded by the lights. I felt my heart beating in the dark alleyways. Glamorous, lethally dangerous, and full of intrigue, decadently captured by Chloe’s riveting writing.

The plot goes like this. Juliette Cai and Roma Montagov, with a long-winded history of love and hate, are heirs from rival gangs with an intense blood feud. It’s 1926, and the political climate in Shanghai is tense as their city is being torn apart by foreigners. Shortly after flapper girl Juliette returns from her studies in America, madness spreads across the city, deaths stack up, and rumors of a monster spread. The heirs of the Scarlet Gang and The White Flowers have to put aside their blood feud to save their people.

This story couldn’t have blended more seamlessly—the setting, plot, time period, and themes all meshing perfectly. A setting simultaneously nostalgic yet long left behind in vintage Shanghai, existing for such a brief yet pulsating moment in time, that it’s so incredibly easy to imagine as the grounds beneath it begin to rumble and stir, volatile and vivacious, a monster awakening beneath. The flair of the 20s, deceivingly glamorous yet beneath that something much more sinister.

Let’s gush over characters shall we! First of all, the representation and inclusivity was done so well, with trans and queer characters who never felt like token characters, with queer relationships that just felt so organic. Even though Juliette was the character we followed most, there was enough depth to each character that you knew each of these characters could have been main characters in their own right.

Each of Juliette’s relationships was nuanced, the dynamics explored so well. Especially so was her relationship with her cousin Kathleen. Beloved Kathleen <3, with her earnest desire to just be herself, her hate of violence yet unwavering loyalty to Juliette because of her understanding of Juliette’s devotion to her people. Through all the characters there is also an exploration of moral complexity, of the violence they’re expected to take on as a form of loyalty to their people, yet their undeniable and consequential struggles with it. Mars and Ben are my favorite chaotic duo and I love them to pieces!

And then there is Juliette—a character I could go endlessly on about. Ruthless, cunning, calculated, ambitious, smart, and self-aware. Fiercely protective of her people, with whip-smart reactions to every situation. She’s consistent in the way she’s not humble, but only because she knows she has power and how to wield it, but always with the greatest loyalty to her people. She was an equally astonishing yet flawed character (which I freaking love!), but one that felt so real you can’t help but root for.

The romance was only a subplot, but I loved how understated it was, that the angst had room to build. The chemistry between Juliette and Roma was palpable and tantalizing—the longing, earnest hate, angst, tension all felt. Underneath it all, there was painful tenderness and understanding, and it was almost like they reflected off one another in their unique positions as the only two people who could understand each other’s shared struggles. It’s the best sort of I-love-you-and-I-hate-that-I-do.

But I think the power in this book lies in the way Chloe unapologetically explores various themes and weaves in social commentary through thoroughly researched historical context. Context is powerful, because how can we tell a story while ignoring the history of that time? We often romanticize the 20s, but this period was undeniably one of rampant colonialization, and I think this perspective was necessary and gave the book so much substance. The YA fantasy genre is often and rightfully criticized for the way it fails to tackle social issues, but this is a YA fantasy that really embodies the social awareness that most young adults would like to see reflected in the books they read. Chloe’s voice really shines bright here.

This book, in the most brilliant of ways, served as a total takedown of colonialism and imperialism. Coupled with the current domestic political turmoil with the rise of Communism, we also see what precedes this and how it unfolds, with regions like Shanghai suffering imperialist control. Thus the very pairing of Juliette and Roma marks itself as a thought-out choice, mapping out the stark difference between the Russians who fled to Shanghai after the Bolshevik Revolution, who made a place for themselves, contrasted with the colonists who, as Juliette puts it, “believed themselves the rulers of the world—on stolen land in America, on stolen land on Shanghai. Everywhere they went—entitlement.” This pairing makes sense in a historical context, as the Chinese and Russians are the ones fighting for control of the remaining parts of Shanghai, but especially so because as Chloe points out, “the geopolitical implications of a combined Chinese-Russian force is a threat to the West, so the implicit existence of this pairing combats the colonial and imperial powers that this book criticizes.”

In an interview, Chloe says her centering on colonialism was in part due to built up ancestral anger, at the disbelief of so many historical events (such as The Opium War, in which Western powers invaded China to legalize forced importation of British opium to expand colonial spheres of influence, followed by treaties and takeover of land that this book mentions) all of which left such lasting damage yet is often glossed or looked over. Her writing subtly reflects this anger, and I think when reflecting on the past, it can feel enraging to witness current-day policies and the continual cycles of injustice that continue to uphold imperial attitudes. Reading this book, I had to reconcile with my identity—the way I am shaped by the Western culture I am immersed in and have undeniably absorbed, yet also equally grappling with the understanding of the damage it has caused.

And the monster itself—what a genius way to use it as a metaphor for the cruelty and greed underneath Shanghai’s shiny, glittering exterior. The real question is revealed—who and what is the real monster?

As a child of diaspora, I connected with Juliette’s struggle with identity as well, especially this exploration of battling with the subject of West vs. East ideologies and identity, and this feeling of being stuck in-between. What is significant about Juliette’s clothing choice is that she chooses to wear beady flapper, Western dresses unlike the traditional qipao—a strategic choice by Chloe, reflecting the way people were made to feel inferior but also reflecting the way many of us still feel — as if we need to erase any part of our original culture in favor of assimilating into the majority. Juliette recounts segregation and racism she experienced in America, yet also not feeling Chinese enough in Shanghai, losing her Chinese name as others began to only know her as “Juliette”, so much so that she felt she had to keep up the image of the American girl with the flapper dress. What does it mean to feel as if you are a foreigner in your own home while actual foreigners make a home in a city that wasn’t meant to be theirs?

Eventually, Juliette gains a self-awareness that really adds to her character, because her clothing choice becomes a way for her to wield her power--she’s grappling with how she has lost so much of her identity, but on the reverse, she knows it can give her an advantage when dealing with foreigners.

Truthfully, I think I needed this book. It’s taken me years to embrace my heritage-- as a young girl I perceived my heritage and the way we are
portrayed as something shameful, inferior, and it’s hard not to feel that way when that is the narrative you see in the media. It’s hard to look back and realize that I spent so much of my childhood feeling ashamed, that it took me years to unlearn that I’m not the villain. Especially now in this moment in time, as anti-Asian hate crimes and anti-Asian sentiment has exponentially risen, reflecting on the past to understand the present is crucial. Because the truth is, the roots of this are connected not only to the pandemic and rhetoric that fueled anti-Asian sentiment but also recognizing the history and existing US foreign policy/imperialism in Asia, the history of violence towards Asian Americans domestically, and the political villainization of Asians and those in proximity to. Both Western conflict in Asia and the history of Asian experiences within Western societies is often overlooked, and though this book is still fictional and limited in scope especially so as one focused on only one city, I really appreciate that it was able to cover even a sliver of it.

For Chloe to have brought her own culture and background to a story that would have had a completely different narrative if told from a Western perspective is so crucial. I think her storytelling is powerful in that it truly feels authentic, not just in the nuance to her writing from her obvious research and understanding of Chinese culture and her ability to capture little details like the way conversations are held, but also the way she holds so much agency through Juliette’s character. Chloe talks about her anger at historical events, and I could sense how freeing it was to have the agency to express it all through Juliette’s character—for example, every unapologetic reply Juliette makes to every entitled white man she encounters. But also an agency to express inner struggles, as through Juliette, who is Chinese yet American-educated, Chloe is able to explore the nature of her dual identity while critiquing colonialism.

I loved how much this book covered. Sure it served as a critique of imperialism, of racism, of misogyny, of greed, but at the heart of the story also is the theme of love and loyalty. To family, to self, to one’s city and home.

There is something special about books where you want to research the author’s intentions for specific choices, and the message and overarching themes come across so much more convincing and impactful. To me, words and books are personal, so maybe I subjectively loved this book, but I think there’s beauty in that.

This was honestly so all over the place, but I just needed somewhere to place all my unorganized, nonlinear thoughts in, so if you haven’t fallen asleep from boredom by now, thank you for listening <3. Much love to you.

Chloe Gong says this book is her love letter to Shanghai, Shakespeare, and her younger self. Well if so, then this is my (super long) love letter to the brilliance that is These Violent Delights.

Chloe Gong > Shakespear. Ok that’s all.

ON EARTH WE’RE BRIEFLY GORGEOUS REVIEW

I think the lines between fiction and non-fiction are often blurred, and particularly, the raw and honest way Ocean Vuong poetically weaves a story feels as if he’s capturing snippets of his life and turning them into words.

On Earth is about childhood memories revisited, the affects of war, and an immigrant story. It is written as a letter from the narrator “Little Dog” to his illiterate mother. His words are honest and vulnerable as they flow from his heart, perhaps due to the security and knowledge that she will never read it. Can words mend wounds? Because I felt my heart bleeding onto these pages before he single-handedly stitched it up.

He explores his own existence, forged from tragedy, trauma, and the violence perpetuated and passed down throughout generations. He recounts childhood abuse and bullying, full of anger and resentment. He details the repercussions of the Vietnam war: memories of his mother unable to bear noise because it reminds her of bombings.

“When does a war end? When can I say your name and have it mean only your name and not what you left behind?”

All in the same breath, there’s the love he shares with his mother and grandmother, this delicate tenderness that, being from an immigrant family myself, felt both distant yet familiar, in the capturing of these complex relationships and dual identities. He explores sexuality and America’s drug epidemic, recounting first love with farm boy Trevor, and then how the opioid crisis eventually shook his world. He questions language in America and the way it is used through the lexicon of violence, toxic masculinity built in a country whose identity and past is rooted in celebrating destruction and violence, a foundation built on wars and imperialism. These complex and sometimes harrowing themes lie at the heart of this story of a boy reclaiming agency in a country that at times felt more like a foreign land than a home.

I have to also mention a novel I read last year called Fun Home by Alison Bechdel, a graphic memoir, in which she delves deeply into her complex relationship with her father, recounting childhood memories with her closeted father and then reflecting upon them as she goes on her own journey of coming out. Both books are similar, in the way both feel like collections of personal essays that explores complicated relationships with a parent and navigating coming to terms with it.

Alison dramatizes the graphic novel through mentions of literary allusions (included because her dad loves classic literature and their literary curiosity is a way she connects to him), specific color choices (blue-gray) to set a particular, somber mood, and parallels between fictional literary allusions and real life tragedies in her life.

Vuong similarity uses the color blue to convey this perpetual sadness that clouds over the entire book. He reflects on memories through animal symbolism, poetic and metaphorical language to connect reoccurring themes. Vuong’s figurative and lyrical language peels back layers of nuanced insight. The passages are built through recurring sentences in non-chronological order. He moves back and forth from his childhood to before he was born, along with flashbacks to the war that reimagine the scenes his mother and grandmother experienced, perhaps also dramatizing it in ways. In particular, his exploration of language and syntax intrigued me. An example: how the space between sentences is just the the space between a hunter and its prey, not freedom.

I’ve always been interested in works that are both fiction and non-fiction, and I think On Earth falls in that category. This is a combination of Vuong’s memories, experiences, and imagination. Our experiences are multi-faceted, and sometimes we fill in the blanks with connections we discover later on. I think of the truth as shades of color, with a plethora of versions; sometimes we change the details to fit the story we want to tell. The line between truth and fiction blurs, and Vuong demonstrates this in such a raw, tender way.

It’s a text you could forever analyze and still discover something new. Vuong writes in such a fleetingly beautiful, moving way, that before you know it, you’ve read the last page of a chapter. It’s impossible to describe, only that it’s an experience both briefly gorgeous yet limitless.

“Let no one mistake us for the fruit of violence—but that violence, having passed through the fruit, failed to spoil it.”

The Gilded Wolves

I was absolutely captivated by Roshani Chokshi’s rich and lush writing. This is a luscious fantasy, but it’s equally the history of Paris in all its contradictory entirety, and Chokshi really did her research. Many 19th century era books set in Europe are romanticized, but Chokshi shows us the darker side we see less often, from the perspective of the colonized.

The plot itself was enough to captivate me, but what really moved me was the themes at the heart of this novel: the effects of colonization and the search for identity. The heist and treasure hunt, then, is not just finding objects but also to reclaim what belongs to them. After all, the hunt for these rare objects connect to the way artifacts are stolen from people who have cultural and meaningful ties to them (ahem museums). I also loved how she weaved in different cultures, mythology, codes and puzzles where readers are able to participate in solving, plus the diverse and multifaceted characters, with each character having a different kind of struggle based on their experience as marginalized peoples: Séverin being denied his rightful place as head of House Vanth because he is mixed-race, Enrique’s struggle being Filipino and Spanish and unaccepted by his fellow Filipino activists, Zofia being attacked for being Jewish.

It’s also interesting that the book explores so many different mythologies, yet it centers around the Bible. I think it reflects the way in which so much of the world is centered around the Western world and thus Christianity, because the entire concept of the Babel fragments is based on a biblical view of the world and thus excludes any other religion, which of course stems from colonization and the eradication of colonized people’s cultures that this book criticizes.

Also this book simultaneously convinced me that a tarantula would be a wonderful pet and that I would very much like a chaise lounge😅

Some memorable author‘s note quotes:

“When we revise the horror and sanitize the grotesque, we erase the paths that led us here.”

“History is a myth shaped by the tongues of conquerers. What appears good may eventually sour and curdle in our collective minds...I wanted to write this trilogy not to instruct or condemn, but to question… what is gold and what glitters.”

And question she did.

WE GON’ BE ALRIGHT REVIEW

Background: This was a book introduced to me by my English professor in my first semester at Berkeley, in a class titled Reading and Composition: (Im)personal Essays. We explored the relationships that people have with their writing/art as it relates to identity, class, gender, sexuality, etc. A personal essay within this book in particular was one that I related to on such a deep level and thus chose to research, analyze and experience with my academic writing for the class.

Onto the review.

As an Asian American, often I've battled with my place in American society. Asian Americans are considered minorities, but are also the most socially “accepted” by white Americans, due to the "model minority" myth that has preceded us (a myth because, despite us often being lumped together under the “AAPI” umbrella term, we have different experiences and there is a vast economic and social disparity within the community itself). I've seen fellow Asian Americans separate themselves in favor of obtaining a position closest to white privilege. I've seen Asian Americans take part in anti-blackness. Yet I've also seen fellow Asian Americans as victims of racism (of course, as a totally different experience). I've seen fellow Asian Americans as activists.

Jeff Chang, in his essay “The In-Betweens”, put to words the feelings I felt my entire life but couldn’t express. It hit me especially hard because I stand in a similar position as he had, as an Asian American attending the same college he attended, asking herself similar questions.

Chang’s personal essay in particular is plagued with feelings of confusion, and there is this sense of urgency and almost fury in his writing, sprawled by the injustices he sees happening all around, but also in his (and my) very own community. There were countless quotes that stuck out to me, but here is one that really struck me, his call to action: “What does it mean to be in-between? It means one can afford to stand on the fence, decide not to take a stand, to always reserve the privilege—while the battles rages all around—to disengage.”

In another essay, he talks about how diversity, especially performative diversity, is often used for white people to cool their conscience and avoid backlash, not from a place of genuinuity; exclusion continuing to exist all while putting on a face or illusion of diversity—citing examples such as the University of Wisconsin photoshopping a Black student onto the cover of their admission booklet, prompting the question—who exactly is diversity for? In some ways, diversity has been turned into a marketing technique for businesses, all while behind the scenes, racism and exclusion continues to exist.

He asks difficult questions—how have we gone from 65% of Americans supporting the Civil Rights Act to the current day resegregations happening?

Are we gon’ be alright—the ultimate question. I could attempt to explain, but I think I’m better off showing you a snippet of the ending of this book. “The horizon toward which we move always recedes us. The revolution is never complete. What we see now as solid and eternal may be disintegrating inward from our blind spots. All that signified progress may in time be turned against us. But redemption is out there for us if we are always in the process of finding love and grace.”

I think Jeff Chang is a genius, his brilliance shining bright in the impact his words invoke. He is incredibly smart and articulate with the ability to truly make you think, and he accomplishes this with language so easy to follow yet equally compelling and almost lyrical that it truly left me thinking for days. This is a book of broad scope littered with gems and eye-opening quotes almost every page. We Gon’ Be Alright is definitely a book I think everyone needs to read.

BEACH READ REVIEW

Beach Read was a delightful read that surpassed my expectations going in. The characters had more depth and were more developed than the premise suggested. Despite moments of hilarity and witty banter, there were deeper messages to take away from the novel, touching upon grief, death of a parent, life struggles, and self-discovery.

I am a sucker for fiction novels with main characters as writers, so the premise of their bet—January, a women’s fiction writer and August, a literary fiction writer, challenged to swap genres literally made my fictional dreams come true. I especially liked the way they delved into the writing process, with the inclusion of technical writer terms like “meet cute”, which we readers are all too familiar with, and the hours of fun research outings they put in, each as a step of development in their relationship.

January was a character I could connect to, and her pain from her father’s death and the revelation of his secret life felt very raw. The slow process in which she came to realize his faults didn’t have to erase his merits felt like a genuine way of reflecting the stages and process of grief.

Interestingly enough, at the time I read this novel, a topic we explored in my Media Studies course was taste hierarchies and “illegitimate” pleasures, or in other words guilty pleasures, which felt relevant to my experience reading this book. The media holds certain genres in lower regards, often in a way that is elitist and gendered— think closely and you’ll realize that stories told by and for men are often highly evaluated by critics than those by and for women. Think about the difference between the the way the genres sci-fi and romcom are seen: one taken seriously and one not. To denigrate a TV drama is to call it a soap opera, and to denigrate a movie is to call it a chick-flick.

For a long time, I’ve considered the romance genre an “illegitimate” pleasure, the kind of book I’d mindlessly read for a fun time. How wrong I was— a mindless read is the complete opposite of what I would describe this book as! This book changed the way I perceive genres and what it means to embrace a genre belittled by a taste hierarchy set by a dominant norm and hegemony (in which the powerful maintains institutional power in order to have their interest be the general interests of society). To embrace this guilty pleasure is a form of empowerment and a challenge to the status quo and the set “norm”. Who are the ones that get to claim what media/genre is good or bad, and who are the ones whose tastes are marginalized? I think these are questions we must ask before we go in with pre-conceived notions.

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

The power of Just Mercy is that it invokes all these emotions in you—it’s heartbreaking, sad, disturbing even, and yet Bryan Stevenson writes it with such simplicity. His straightforwardness makes a point, in that these examples he speaks of happen daily, and yet how often do we think about our criminal justice system?

Just Mercy revolves around the case of Walter McMillan, an innocent Black man framed by the Sheriff for murder of a dry cleaner worker. The trial was based on one person’s so obviously faulty testimony, combined with prejudice from the county, jury, court that he was placed on death row for six years. It’s sickening to see such an outlandish claim as this unchallenged, because of unfair exclusions from the jury pool, but also because the system is prejudiced and corrupt. How many other Walter McMillans are out there?

Race is a large focus of this book, but so is poverty, mental illness, and children. Prenatal care is a privilege. Women who can’t afford it can be sentenced to death if it can’t be proven their child delivered stillborn. The foster care system is linked to our criminal justice system because it fails so many of our children.

America has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, some states with no minimum age to prosecute children as adults. Over 50% of jail inmates have a diagnosed mental illness. We spend $80 billion on prisons versus $6.9 in 1980, and private prisons have spent millions to persuade state/local governments to create new crimes/harsher sentences. But numbers and statistics don’t mean anything when we don’t hear the stories of people subjected by these figures and destroyed by this system.

How are some victims more protected/valued than others, based on race or wealth? How have prisons become a warehouse for those with mental illnesses, and deinstitutionalization combined with the spread of mass imprisonment policies become a way for states to deal with a health crisis created by drug use? Crimes require states to hold people accountable, but to disregard disabilities in evaluating extent of culpability? How has our country’s past lead to the current system we have in place?

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