Note: Olivia and I have adopted the title “2¢ on…” to refer to any book reviews we post on m&g. We might expand this to other topics on which we decide to write an opinion piece!
You’re never too old for summer reading.
Hold the phone: I’m not about to pose thumbs-up on a READ poster just yet. “You’re never too old for summer reading” is actually my program director literally letting us know we have a summer reading list. OK, fine, but I’m still going to watch Jersey Shore.
The first book I dove into was The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadimon, which chronicles the epileptic illness of a young Hmong girl named Lia Lee. The novel highlights the collision between Hmong culture and Western medicine as Lia’s immigrant family struggles to understand and appease American doctors while upholding their own traditions and medical ceremonies. At the heart of the clash is the simple fact that illness is not a uniformed concept. What the doctors refer to as epilepsy, the Lees attribute to “soul loss” – and, on one side of the world, the cure is medication, on the other, it’s animal sacrifice and a host of other rituals. But since they’re on the Western half of things, the novel depicts a both frustrating and heart-warming tale of caring for a patient and daughter who is loved so greatly, yet caught in the cross-fire.
Before The Spirit Catches You, I had zero familiarity with the Hmong, an Asian ethnic group from the mountainous regions of China, Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand (kudos, Wikipedia). The book taught me that the Hmong have always been “fighters” in a sense that, while seemingly always kicked out of their homelands by expanding nations, the Hmong have fought to stay unified and in-line with their own culture, even if forced to continually re-locate. Thousands of Hmong were admitted refuge into the US after assisting in the “Secret War” in Laos, a part of the Vietnam War.
This book also made that funny thing happen where – you know – you learn about something you’ve never heard about before, then, all of a sudden, that thing is everywhere. Since reading about the Hmong in The Spirit Catches You, I caught a part of the Clint Eastwood flim, Gran Torino, on TV, which centers on Hmong living in the US. Later this summer I read The Lost Girls by Jennifer Baggett, Holly Corbett and Amanda Pressner. The authors chronicle their year-long roam of the world and frequently describe meeting Hmong villagers or using Hmong tour guides in East Asia. I even stumbled upon a Hmong blog after doing some post Spirit research.
As for the take-away message: well, I’m certainly more informed about a culture I had previously been blind to. The book not only provided cultural insight, but also accorded a level of confidence, a sense of cultural understanding and the acumen to relate to a different people. Additionally, the book served as a reminder of cultural rifts and the essentiality to negotiate between worlds, rather than remaining stubbornly steadfast to “Western education” – counseling, education, diagnosis, care…they all need to be approached with a sense of relativity and compassion. Always investigate first how a person views his or her own illness.
OK, real talk: But how was the actual book? In all truthfulness, a tad drawn out and a tad too journalistic for my taste. I learned a lot but was not absorbed completely. The story itself had a lot to offer, but it was hidden beneath one too many pages of historical references, cut and dry interviews, and choppy plot-jumping. It was a good book, but no great book. I’d rather watch Jersey Shore (now there’s some cultural insight!).