Occasionally I read a book that I cannot finish. It does not happen very often, and when it does I try to identify why it happened so that I can recognize the signs later and choose to put a book down sooner as a way of reclaiming my time.
Sour Heart is a collection of short stories that convey the experience of being a Chinese immigrant and the struggles that accompany that experience. I made it through the first story, which was quite harrowing actually, her family waking up coated in roaches and moving every 2-5 months to conditions of varying quality, her struggles to deal with the various schools she was placed in, and her parents’ near constant search for multiple jobs to make ends meet. By the time I got a quarter of the way through the next story though, my brain was like “you need to put this book away, I’m bored.”
Her writing is almost all run-on sentences. I appreciate this more modern technique as a way to emphasize an event or point or struggle, but I think at one point I went a page and a half without a period. When I read works written like this I imagine having a small child standing in front of me describing their day, and instead of ending a sentence they say “and then!” in between each event, giving them time to breathe before launching into the next act. With a small child it’s difficult to detach. With this book I only needed to return to the home screen of my Kindle.
As a reader I am also growing tired of the “look how bad I had it!” foundation of memoir. I’m not sure what I would call it, maybe suffering porn? This idea that a person’s life is only worth reading about it if they truly suffered somehow. I’m burned out on it. I’ve written about this before: the idea that everyone is in a contest to see who can win “I had it the worst as a kid!” or the equally popular “I was the poorest!” award. I think people do this because our current conditions are so bad that simply writing a book about how you have a happy life seems patronizing or condescending when your intention may have been to be hopeful or inspirational. Sometimes inferences are made that if you didn’t suffer for your place in life then you must not have truly worked for it, someone must have handed it to you on a silver platter.
For example, have you heard a story about someone happily working their way through college, going to classes, doing okay, and now working a job and paying their bills because that’s just what’s next? No, you’re already asleep. We either want the surviving on Ramen stories, falling asleep in class because they worked a double the night before, eyes shining with tears as they grip their diploma at graduation because they made it or we want to be angry about the “daddy paid for my car and my tuition and my apartment and I have a credit card for gas and groceries and pizza and woooo!” because they didn’t really earn it.
I know that this book has stories inside that will resonate with people and they are important to hear and to read and to understand. Immigrant issues and conditions, particularly in America right now, are more important than ever to make visible and discuss. However, if you are informed, if you are well read, if you have your finger on the pulse of what is going on, you may well get 17% into this book as I did, heave a great sigh, and reluctantly put it away.