This Week’s Reading: Not a Bust

Let’s not talk about how little grading I got done. The rest of this week’s reading/listening was highly satisfactory.

I got well and truly hooked by Sonali Dev’s A Bollywood Affair and stayed up too late finishing the last third. It’s been ages since I got engrossed in a romance like that, and I’m grateful to Dev for that pleasure. Samir reminded me of heroes from lighter-hearted Harlequin Presents like Sarah Morgan’s, or the movie star from Leah Ashton’s RITA-winning KISS book Why Resist a Rebel?. All of the alpha, none (or little) of the asshole, plenty of sweetness and charm. I liked Mili, too: she had elements of the naive/innocent doormat-ingenue of category romance, but the grounding in her cultural background made those elements more plausible, and she had strength and persistence, too. In retrospect, this book had some tropes I dislike (I feel like everyone had read this so I’m going to say some spoilerish things in the paragraph below the fold).

For instance, Mili knowing best what Samir needs and arranging a reunion with his birth mother, and Samir being devoted to his mother and the kind of guy, according to her, who “grabs onto love when he finds it,” but also somehow a womanizer who doesn’t respect the women he sleeps with (this seems like such a logic fail to me–but I suppose there are people who compartmentalize that way). But the fairytale feel of the story and genuine emotions made me read right past those things in the moment.

I zipped right through the audiobook of Daniel Brook’s History of Future Cities, which draws connections between St. Petersburg, Shanghai, Mumbai, and Dubai–all cities that in some ways imitate the West, and that both resist and enable modernity and change. Or, as the blurb puts it:

The cultural and historical threads that connect these cities and their conflicted embrace of modernity are brought into relief in Daniel Brook’s captivating mix of history and reportage – a story of architects and authoritarians, artists and revolutionaries who take these facsimiles of the West and turn them into crucibles of non-Western modernism. A History of Future Cities is both a crucial reminder of globalisation’s long march and an inspiring look into the possibilities of our Asian Century.

I didn’t love the narrator, but I did really enjoy the book, whose exploration of urban history and possibilities is a favorite topic of mine. Inevitably, a book that covers so much territory and pushes a big argument about similarities is lacking some depth and nuance and eliding differences, but Brook’s argument is provocative and I learned a lot about cities I knew little about.

I also loved Ed Lin’s This Is a Busta mystery set in New York’s Chinatown and featuring a young Chinese-American cop, Robert Chow. At the start I was afraid it would be too much a parody of hard-boiled classics. Here’s how the first chapter ends, for instance:

My name is Robert Chow. I had grown up in Chinatown before it became my beat. And it was the last place in the goddamned world I wanted to be.

I can just hear that as a world-weary voiceover. But as I read on, Robert emerged as a full, distinct character, not a parody. Like Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins books, This Is a Bust is descended from Raymond Chandler, but builds on that hard-boiled foundation to explore a different America. Chandler’s Marlowe is a WWI veteran and an isolated (semi-) honorable man in a corrupt Los Angeles. Mosley updates Chandler: Easy is a WWII vet and has come to LA as part of the Great Migration of African Americans from the south to the industrial north and west.

Lin’s Robert Chow is, like his detective forbears, a vet: in his case, of Vietnam. And like Easy, he’s part of a community in a way that Marlowe is not. I think both Mosley and Lin tell the story of a racial/ethnic community as much as the story of an individual. But Robert is also apart from his community, caught between the conflicting demands of the police department and Chinatown, unsure of how to navigate his way between them. The police department wants to use him as a figurehead, trotting him out for photo ops to show that they’re in touch with the Chinatown community (itself divided into ethnic and political factions in a way the cops don’t understand), but they won’t let him participate in investigations where his knowledge of Cantonese and understanding of cultural context would be useful.

Lin’s exploration of conflicting and conflicted identities was fascinating and often heartbreaking. Robert is deeply affected by his time in Vietnam; he drinks too much, has violent rages, and suffers flashbacks. His difficulty in finding a place where he really belongs now that he’s “returned to the world” doesn’t help. His character emerges slowly in this dialogue-heavy novel, but it becomes clear he’s a decent guy, messed up as he is. I was rooting for him, if not for a lot of his actions. This Is a Bust is a really good book, but often painful to read. I wasn’t sure I was up to continuing the series, but the ending is hopeful and I want to know what happens to Robert next. I highly recommend this if you like hard-boiled mysteries and are looking for something out of the ordinary.

I read something in the paper this morning that I’ve been pondering all day, and I’m going to tag it onto my discussion of Lin’s book, because it’s related. The investigators in Chow’s precinct take polaroids of neighborhood kids they suspect of being criminals because witness descriptions are useless (“young, short, slight build, black hair, Chinese”–white victims can’t tell the Chinese-American kids apart). When Chow is given a camera, he takes pictures of his feet, because he knows lots of innocent kids get their photos in the mug books and can be misidentified as criminals, derailing their lives. At the end, a colleague persuades him that he’s needed on the force precisely because he can look at the kids on the street and tell who’s on the way to Chinese school or sweatshop work, and who might be a lookout for an illegal gambling den. He isn’t engaged in racial profiling. This is part of what makes the ending hopeful, but it seemed a little too hopeful, not just for 1976 but for today. Racial profiling–and the inability to tell one Other from Another–is all too much with us.

I read a column by Doug Saunders today in which he argues that we’re in the last, hardest mile of achieving equal rights: “The intolerant may have fallen to a slim minority. But those last holdouts are the hard cases.” Saunders cites a lot of evidence that most people in America today support racial and sexual equality. But I think he misses something important. There’s another hard “last mile,” and that’s the fact that many, many people who say they believe in equality, who do believe in equality, still have a mile or so to go in their minds and hearts. (Forgive the cliché). They aren’t wearing hoods, and they may vote for Obama or Hillary Clinton, but they aren’t immune from bias, either.

You can think of this as our “bystander problem.” We (by which I don’t mean everyone, but a really big chunk of society) condemn Michael Brown’s shooting and Darren Wilson’s exculpation (and so many other examples) but tolerate racial profiling by our police forces. We believe in equal rights for women but don’t want to call ourselves feminists–and suggest that our roommate shouldn’t report her gang rape because it would hurt our beloved university. We tell watermelon jokes when our African-American friend wins the National Book Award. Or we sit in the audience and laugh, and throw up our hands about the whiteness of our industry. So, yeah. It’s not just the slim minority of hard cases that we have to worry about, but the hard kernel of bias so many of us still harbor, often unconsciously. In a way, most of us are hard cases. It’s the problem of “racism without racists” (h/t to Jill Sorenson for that excellent CNN summation), a systemic problem more than a personal one, a problem of effect as much as intent. It’s a problem Ed Lin’s mystery novel brought alive for me.

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6 Responses to This Week’s Reading: Not a Bust

  1. sonomalass says:

    Yes on the racism problem, which is also true sexism, ableism, and still in many places, religious bias. It’s why we need to root out institutional/systemic bias, and the flaws in our system that allow it to flourish. It’s also why we need to listen to, and really hear, the voices and life experiences of people of color, women, and people with disabilities. A recent study showed that many white people have all-white social networks, so we have to actively seek out those voices. Otherwise we won’t see the problem or understand what needs to be done to fix it.

  2. lawless says:

    I’m always looking for more mysteries/procedurals to read — a genre that’s a more natural fit for me than romance –, especially those with a less-often used setting or characters who aren’t white. Most hard-boiled novels like Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins books and others don’t work for me, though, while those that are more noir (Dashiell Hammett and Laurence Block) do. Maybe I should see if the library has This is a Bust to minimize the risk if I don’t like it.

    Ingrained, unexamined attitudes and stereotypes are more the problem than conscious, blatant racism, although there’s still enough of that to go around too. The assumption that no one alive now was responsible for slavery and therefore they’re not responsible for racism either, that we’re in a post-racial society and nothing more needs be done, and that African-Americans are complainers who are seeking an advantage over whites and need to suck it up contribute to it as well.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I got it from my library. I will say that it is pretty nominally a mystery. I mean, there is a death, and it does get explained and the culprit identified, but that’s a pretty small part of the overall novel. I get the sense that the later books in the series are more genre-focused (or marketed that way, in any case).

      • lawless says:

        I have mostly romance in my TBR pile, and anything about Asian culture and the 70s (which I lived through and remember) is of interest.

  3. Rohan says:

    This Is A Bust definitely sounds work checking out: your comparison to Mosley is especially interesting. As you know, I’m always looking for alternate titles for my mystery course — this might be a possibility.

  4. kaetrin says:

    I agree with your description of Samir as “logic fail” because he was such a nice guy in *all other respects* except for his womanising ways until he meets Mili. That didn’t quite make sense to me. That aspect of his character just didn’t sit well (for me) with the rest of him. It’s almost like he has to be a douchebag because that’s the trope, not because he actually is. Or something.

    I liked A Bollywood Affair very much but there were aspects of it that I questioned – I’m not *quite* an outlier because I liked it but I didn’t like it as much as a lot of my other friends either. (Does that make me an outlier from the outliers?? :D)

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