A THREAD OF SKY by Deanna Fei

Please note: My “Reading Reflections” are not reviews. They are simply my thoughts in response to certain passages.

Reminder: Today is the LAST DAY to enter the May giveaway. Last week I shared my “Reading Reflections” on one of the books, and today I’m sharing on the other.

Being Asian — or Asian American, or Chinese, or Chinese American? — meant something, even if she wasn’t fresh off the boat or an activist like Kay. It meant saving, it meant over-compensating. Having to be smarter, tougher, more practical. The fear of good things running out. It mean never being completely at ease. It meant constant guilt toward your parents. It meant feeling vaguely ashamed, even if you didn’t know why, even if your family was no means poor or unaccomplished or spectacularly dysfunctional. (24-25)

Well, I’m certainly not ashamed of myself or my family. But I do feel some of these things. And I’m sure other Asian Americans do as well. Others don’t.

That’s the thing. It’s hard to encapsulate the experience of an entire group of people. Because groups are made up of individuals, and individuals are all so different. We’re not all going to agree. There are Tiger Moms, Paper Tigers, or Not a Tiger At Alls.

But to find where we stand, it’s often helpful to see where everyone else is. So it’s worth talking about, even if we disagree. It’s worth understanding others in order to understand ourselves.

One of the things I liked about this book was that each of the 6 main characters had a unique view point about themselves and their heritage. I could see bits of myself in all of them.

It occurred to Irene that Americans these days hungered to write tell-all memoirs, chart family trees, even trace their DNA — not to illuminate the future, but to revel in the past. Everyone wanted to find and display their link to some shameful history, some buried tragedy, thinking somehow it made them special, when really, what could be more ordinary? She supposed in this young, rich country, people felt too light and free. They wanted weight; wanted to feel themselves tethered more solidly. (95)

Beautifully put, and (I think) fairly true. I’m not saying every memoirist is an exhibitionist — not even close — but I’m thinking more about the online culture. Blogging, Twitter, Facebook. We put our lives on display. We think it makes us special. But really, if everyone’s doing it…

Ironic, coming from me, no? Well, the flip side is that, just like in real life, on the internet you make a group of friends, and you get to know them, and then you do care about what they’re saying, and you do think they’re special.

As for memoirs, what I think is worse than everyone wanting to air out their dirty laundry for 15 minutes of fame and fortune is that the public is so willing to buy it.

(Again, I am NOT saying this is true of every memoirist. I’m mostly thinking of celebrities who sensationalize their pasts in order to make a quick buck. Judgmental of me? Yup. Sorry, I guess that’s my inner cynic showing through.)

In Chinese, there were only good or bad kids, no good or bad mothers. (83)

Enough said.

No one had the right to do whatever they wanted. No one should. Progress didn’t mean having it all. Everything in life was a trade-off. Nothing was spared from this, not children, not anything. (208)


My generation in particular has such an entitlement problem. We were told we could do and have anything we wanted — but we conveniently forgot the part about having to work really freaking hard to get it. There’s a big difference between being privileged and being spoiled. I do my best to stay on the right side of that line.

Also, as a feminist, this quote reminds me that feminism isn’t about getting everything. It’s about getting choices. And sometimes those choices are hard.

I don’t have accompanying thoughts for these last few lines. I just thought they were lovely and true.

Enough of drawing lines between strength and weakness, great and ordinary, themselves and other women. They’d drawn lines until they’d drawn themselves into cages. (267)

“You think you know China, but you don’t know the first thing about being Chinese. It’s about family. Jia” — Irene slashed the air with it — “family, house, home. In Chinese, it’s all one word.” (276)

Once one set of needs is satisfied, the next starts to clamor. (276)


Please note: My “Reading Reflections” are not reviews. They are simply my thoughts in response to certain passages.

To give you a better sense of the May giveaway books, I’m going to share my “Reading Reflections” on them.

“After all these years, you’re still naive. Why are you amazed at evil? You think like a child. You think that the good people should be smiling and jolly and the bad ones have ugly faces with thick, matted eyebrows. Life’s a lot more complicated than that. There’s evil in the best of people and in those closest to us.” (109)

Those are the visual shortcuts we’re taught. Pretty and smiling = good. Ugly or frowning = bad. But life isn’t a Disney movie. (Fortunately or unfortunately?) The world isn’t black and white; it’s all shades of gray.

One of the hardest parts of growing up, at least for me, was learning to see where the people I loved fell on that scale. Childhood is like looking at the red and blue doubles of everything — it’s all blurry but kind of fun. Then you mature, you get the special glasses, and suddenly everything’s in 3D. On the one hand, it’s all clearer, which is good. You know exactly what you’re looking at. But sometimes you wish you hadn’t seen. It’s harder to sort out your feelings about a good friend who drives drunk, or a bully whose parents abuse them.

Ironically, it’s the grayscale that I love most about fiction. The complexities of character. Maybe because they help me work out my thoughts and emotions in a safe, no-consequence mindscape. I can’t hurt or be hurt by something that isn’t real.

“There are lots of things I should have done with my life that I didn’t.”
“I don’t know. When I was your age, I used to think that I could do whatever I wanted. I used to make plans for my life and I was sure about everything. When I got older, I discovered that man controls almost nothing. Everything is fate.” (137)

“Everything’s fate and destiny.”
“That backward stuff again? You can make your destiny in this world on your own. If there were any justice in this country, someone like you would get educated at state expense. Education, medical treatment, and work are the natural rights of every citizen in the world…” (184)

I love the contradiction. Everything is fate — but you make your own destiny. I have always believed in both.

I do also dream of a world where everyone has their most basic rights and needs fulfilled. Things still wouldn’t be perfect — because people are not perfect, and some would choose to squander their opportunities. But it just kills me to look around now and see how many people don’t even have opportunities to begin with.

“That’s big talk. I dream in my own size. I want to live comfortably and have a family. A husband who loves me, children to raise, and a lovely, comfy little home instead of living on the roof. I’d like to go to a decent country, where there’s no dirt, no poverty, and no injustice.” (200)

What’s wrong with dreaming “small”? Why isn’t enough to have a job or a family and a roof over your head? When did the American dream start requiring a vacation home, a Porsche, a name that’s recognized around the world?

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with those things. Heck, I want some of them. But I hate how people are often looked down upon for not wanting enough. Like if you’re not rich and famous, you’re not anything. That’s so… dumb. And not true.

We should all dream in our own size.

“I don’t want you to live in the past. Everything that happened to you is a page that’s been turned and is done with. Think of the future. We have each other now and I’ll never leave you.” (200)

No real thoughts on this one except that it’s sweet. I don’t believe the past should be forgotten, but I don’t think dwelling on it is a good idea either. Move forward, be happy. Maybe life can be that simple.

May giveaway

Since Facebook supposedly changed their rules and won’t allow contest/giveaways anymore, it looks like we’ll just have to do this the old-fashioned way. Please leave a comment below and let me know which of these 2 books you’re interested in. (If you’re interested in both, that’s fine.) You have until the end of this month to enter, and then I’ll draw names at random and announce the winners on Friday, June 3rd. (Must have US mailing address — sorry, international friends!)

By Alaa Al Aswany

This controversial bestselling novel in the Arab world reveals the political corruption, sexual repression, religious extremism, and modern hopes of Egypt today.

All manner of flawed and fragile humanity reside in the Yacoubian Building, a once-elegant temple of Art Deco splendor now slowly decaying in the smog and bustle of downtown Cairo: a fading aristocrat and self-proclaimed “scientist of women”; a sultry, voluptuous siren; a devout young student, feeling the irresistible pull toward fundamentalism; a newspaper editor helplessly in love with a policeman; a corrupt and corpulent politician, twisting the Koran to justify his desires.

These disparate lives careen toward an explosive conclusion in Alaa Al Aswany’s remarkable international bestseller. Teeming with frank sexuality and heartfelt compassion, this book is an important window on to the experience of loss and love in the Arab world.

A Thread of SkyTHREAD OF SKY
By Deanna Fei

When her husband of thirty years is killed in a devastating accident, Irene Shen and her three daughters are set adrift. Nora, the eldest, retreats into her high-powered New York job and a troubled relationship. Kay, the headstrong middle child, escapes to China to learn the language and heritage of her parents. Sophie, the sensitive and artistic youngest, is trapped at home until college, increasingly estranged from her family-and herself. Terrified of being left alone with her grief, Irene plans a tour of mainland China’s must sees, reuniting three generations of women-her three daughters, her distant poet sister, and her formidable eighty-year-old mother-in a desperate attempt to heal her fractured family.

If only it was so easy. Each woman arrives bearing secrets big and small, and as they travel-visiting untouched sections of the Great Wall and the seedy bars of Shanghai, the beautiful ancient temples and cold, modern shopping emporiums-they begin to wonder if they will ever find the China they seek, the one their family fled long ago.

Over days and miles they slowly find their way toward a new understanding of themselves, of one another, and of the vast complexity of their homeland, only to have their new bonds tested as never before when the darkest, most carefully guarded secret of all tumbles to the surface and threatens to tear their family apart forever. A Thread of Sky is a beautifully written and deeply haunting story about love and sacrifice, history and memory, sisterhood and motherhood, and the connections that endure.

(Images and descriptions courtesy of GoodReads and Amazon)

What I’ve been up to

This is going to sound stupid, but I kind of hate my deer header. (The banner at the top of the page that I change every month? It’s a picture of two deer that I spotted the other day.) While I LOVE seeing animals in my yard, it doesn’t have quite the same magic on a blog. (Unfortunately.) I honestly think it’s making me want to blog less, as well as to redesign my entire site. Ridiculous, but true.

Also, I’ve been writing. A lot. (Well, a lot for me.) For now I’ve set aside the Dragon and started using a Bluetooth keyboard (regular, not ergonomic), and just being able to adjust the height of my keyboard and monitor separately has been HUGE in reducing typing strain. Then I invested (a whole $3) in a mesh lumbar support thingie that clips on to my mediocre IKEA desk chair. As long as I force myself remember to sit properly, my back doesn’t hurt either.

Most importantly, I’ve been killing the internet. As in, using Freedom for Mac to work in 2-hour blocks every morning and afternoon. That, combined with Scrivener’s full-screen mode, has been a huge boon to my productivity. (Boon, hehe. I love that word.)

So anyway. Major productivity combined with some travel (Houston this weekend, Rochester next weekend) has me feeling a bit distanced (in a good way) from the web. I wrote a cheeky little breakup letter to the Internet, but I’m not really breaking up with it, so I saved the letter and wrote this post instead.

Linky Monday

I want to thank all of you (and the folks that commented on Facebook too) for your thoughts on the value of books. It’s been so, so interesting and helpful to learn more about what people want out of their reading experiences.

In addition to her comment here, T.S. gave me a lot to think about when she blogged about her experience as an indie artist. It’s a wonderful breakdown of the lessons she learned while she ran an Etsy shop, and the learnings definitely apply to being a writer or professional creative of any kind.

Screenwriter John August also has some good advice: “Write the way you speak.”

When you’re writing, you end up hearing your own voice a lot. I think that’s why so many people struggle with it. We don’t like to be alone with our thoughts. They scare us. But in the same way people don’t stutter when talking to a dog, it helps to envision a friendly reader at the far side. Let writing be talking with someone you like.

And for a bit of humor on this cold, rainy Monday (at least it is here), check out Adam Rex’s “Open Letter to Everyone Who Thinks it Must be Easy, Writing Kid’s Books.” Funny and true.