I’m still on a push to make reading a part of my every day activities – living with Billiam is a good motivation – and I’ve noticed that my lulls in turning pages aren’t always caused by my own laziness. Sometimes, I’m just not into the book, so I don’t feel compelled to read again. I had to recognize this as a toxic situation that will ultimately curb my literary efforts, and just like toxic people (Holler if you’ve got an emotional vampire in your life.), I need to cut out uninteresting books. As much as I loved Typical American, I had to put down Mona in the Promised Land with one half of the novel yet to go because I was taking long to read it. Meaning I wasn’t invested in the story. Still like the author Gish Jen, but I had to move on.
When I packed for Hong Kong, I went through my pile of goodies from the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library annual Big Book Sale, and I wasn’t quite sure where to start. I ended up going with the book that was atop of the pile, Free Food for Millionaires by Min Jin Lee. Though going through the stacks and stacks at the BBS means you’re in for a hit-or-miss situation in satisfaction, I recalled that the cashier had told me how much she enjoyed Free Food and how she was waiting for the author’s next work. Seemed like a good sign.
I started Free Food on the plane ride over, and within the first twenty pages I was rolling my eyes and contorting my face with frustration. In just the first chapter, a young Korean American woman gets into a row with and is slapped by her father. In the next chapter, the woman goes to her White boyfriend’s apartment – obviously kicked out by her father – and finds her boyfriend in a threesome with two sorority girls. I was so disgusted – not by the domestic violence or adultery, but by the book.
For the same reasons that I no longer watch Entourage and am having an increasingly difficult time stomaching Mad Men, I felt disgusted by Free Food. Too much sensationalism, even for a girl like me who can call up an episode of Sex and the City for most noteworthy life occurrences. Everybody’s cheating on everybody. American literature has gone by the way of tabloids, causing a ruckus and preying on people’s most asshole-like tendencies. From the onset, I wanted to hate the book.
Notably, though, I could not put it down. Not wanting to admit guilt in enjoying such soap opera plots, I chalked it up as a good vacation read. Very surface-level and not badly written. After days full of shopping and stuffing our faces, at least I was doing something somewhat intellectual in picking up a book. Even though I was still skeptical of the relatively sensational first two chapters, I could still relate to protagonist Casey Han and her sometimes lavish behaviors. Champagne lifestyle on a root beer budget. I recognized very early that Lee did a great job making me feel invested in her characters’ lives, and I liked the way she peppered her prose with one-liners. I picked up my pen multiple times on individual pages to note standout strings of words. She is a master at showing and not telling.
Against my better senses, I was completely falling for this book and its many interweaving characters and stories. A lot can be said about a vacation book, too, after all. It can’t be complete crap if it draws you back to the hotel room when you’re surrounded by a foreign city. As it turns out, Free Food is not “surface-level.” Rather, my quickness to judge and dismiss the novel was. In wanting to further my own intellect by some arbitrarily set standards, I was in denial that a good work could be as full of petty drama as Free Food is. Because in reality, that’s what people are like, and that doesn’t necessarily make the real world bad. I chatted Billiam’s ear off with every significant change in events, failing every time at trying to summarize the backstory within thirty seconds or less. I so desperately needed a reading group for this one.*
The more I read, the more I could not deny that I felt like Casey was a girl I knew, and Ella, and Tina, and Ted and Unu, too. They were flawed heroes, and a couple of them were your innocent friends who were almost annoyingly naive. Some of them had cheated on their significant others and yet you continued to talk to them. Or you cut them out. And couldn’t stop wondering how they were doing. Forget ubermensch, the new “super human” is one who is supremely realistic.
They were very real. They came in and out of the book in the same way people come in and out of your life. I found it a fantastically natural, perfectly flowing balance of foreshadowing and happenstance. And as opposed to culture being paraded around as the sole focus of every turn and plot point, culture was an added dimension to these characters’ lives. That was, of course, a big selling point for me. There were nuances to Korean culture that I had never learned from my Korean American friends, and many grievances toward being a specific type of minority that only Asian Americans can share. It’s simply redeeming to know that someone out there who hears the same slurs you hear can get her book published in America. Lee’s end matter on her Asian American perspective is a fantastic read on a culture and experience generally overlooked in American literature.
Free Food for Millionaires was the perfectly disguised distraction from all my other side projects going on at the moment: establishing SCU’s API alumni chapter, getting things done for The Pursuit, reviving Khamai, blogging for MADE. I am honestly sad that I don’t have something more to read about Casey in New York. I am anxiously awaiting Lee’s release of her next work, Pachinko.
*Lee eventually started following me on Twitter, but I thought it would be really annoying if I sent her multiple 140-character messages of my latest reactions to the story. I didn’t write a positive review here to butter her up. I wrote it because I think you should read it. I haven’t set aside a weekend to wrap up a book like this since holing myself up in Mendocino for Shadow of the Wind. Make the time, it’s worth it. (If you’re keeping tabs on my light reading, Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s second novel, The Angel’s Game, didn’t get good until the last third. So I didn’t write about it.)