Review | Family Trust, Kathy Wang

38359019Finally — a book to satisfy my post-Crazy Rich Asians cravings! (My review of China Rich Girlfriend and Rich People Problems.)

I absolutely loved Family Trust. Where Kevin Kwan’s trilogy was an affectionately hilarious take on the super rich Chinese families in Asia, Kathy Wang’s story is a biting yet heartfelt comedy on a wannabe rich Chinese American family in Silicon Valley. It’s a story that feels universal — any rich family can have a similar battle over inheritance. But it’s also specifically Silicon Valley, with the conversations around wealth and the tech innovation approaches to achieve wealth. And there are little touches that feel uniquely Chinese — and more accurately, Chinese-American and first+second generation immigrant. Things like the network of friends/rivals built amongst Chinese immigrants in America, the subtly ostentatious displays of wealth that signal the difference between rich and wannabe rich, the idea of the American dream and the lives in Asia people give up for their shot at it. Things I can’t quite quantify in words, but are woven through the text that makes it feel like an Asian-American story. It doesn’t have as many of the sly insider details as Kwan’s trilogy, but it’s still to me a big win for Asian American rep in contemporary fiction, and I think will appeal to fans of Crazy Rich Asians.

Family patriarch Stanley is dying and his family — ex-wife Linda, daughter Kate, son Fred and current wife Mary — are all angling for their inheritance. Linda has little faith in Stanley’s financial skills and urges her kids to basically get a dollar figure in writing from their father. She also decided to try online dating for a lark, and I just love how formidable and likeable this woman is. Michelle Yeoh may be a bit young to play her, but I’d love to see Michelle bring this character to life onscreen.

Kate is the family peacemaker / caregiver, a woman who is kicking ass career wise and has a great family, but discovers her husband (a supposed genius trying to start his own business) may be hiding something from her.

Fred reminds me of Eddie Cheng in Crazy Rich Asians — always angling for the next step up in the corporate ladder and wondering why he isn’t getting his due reward for his financial and business genius. A former classmate makes him an offer that may make his dreams of major wealth and entry into top-tier Silicon Valley C-suites come true, and the results are hilariously fitting.

I also loved Mary’s chapter — she knows who she is within the family dynamic and loves Stanley for the financial stability and relative comfort he brings to her life. She massages his feet and makes him feel like a king, and he gives her money and a house. It’s all very clear and straightforward and I like how Kathy Wang shows how she does have genuine affection for Stanley instead of painting her as totally avaricious. This holds true for the other characters — despite the discussions over inheritance and wealth, Wang keeps them all human and sympathetic.

Even Stanley — whom we learn has anger management issues and a history of obfuscating the truth to make himself feel more important — is portrayed with sympathy, and by the end appears almost like a King Lear tragic figure, a man who wanted to be larger than life but cannot escape the realities of age.

Finally, I love the feminist feel of this book. While the men in the Huang family are the ones most overtly grasping at wealth and corporate success — and most bombastic about their claims to such — it is the women who reveal themselves as the true successes, which they’ve achieved through much quieter means. I love that because the idea of the American Dream often rewards the extroverted and the ruthlessly ambitious. So I love this nod to the Susan Cain-esque quiet revolution, where you don’t have to be a Type A go-getter to achieve success.

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Thanks to Harper Collins Canada for an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Prisoners of Hope, Barbara Fradkin

36697410In Prisoners of Hope, Amanda Doucette is in Georgian Bay researching outdoor adventure options for her charity when a wealthy doctor is murdered at his summer estate and his family’s Filipina nanny goes missing. Amanda had encountered the nanny shortly before her disappearance, and, concerned about her welfare, decides to enlist the help of her RCMP officer boyfriend to find the nanny.

The mystery itself is compelling. Amanda is a sympathetic character, and I like how passionate she is about helping people she perceives to be in need. This is the first book I’ve read by Barbara Fradkin, and I look forward to checking out more of her titles.

But more importantly, I really like that Fradkin’s characters confront the difficult realities of how undocumented immigrants in Canada are forced to survive. The nanny, Danielle, came to Canada to build a good life for her family back in the Philippines, but was kept a virtual prisoner by the doctor’s family, who kept her passport hidden and basically prevented her from leaving them. Her husband Fernando gets duped by a fake immigration lawyer in Manila, and ends up having to go underground when he and his son arrive in Canada. I love how realistically Fradkin depicts their stories, and how sympathetic she is for why they wouldn’t trust institutions like the RCMP to be looking out for their best interests. Fradkin also clearly did her research into contemporary Philippine politics, and I love how the situation with current Philippine president Duterte is mentioned as a major impetus for Danielle and Fernando to need to escape the country.

But the reason this book really resonated with me is that I especially love how Danielle wasn’t fully a victim nor an innocent saint. Too often, I’ve read stories where the main character — often Caucasian — has to rescue the Filipino character from a horrible situation, and the Filipino character is depicted as a figure of tragedy. There’s certainly a lot of tragedy and injustice in Danielle’s situation, but she’s also definitely a fighter. She makes some dubiously moral choices to survive and keep her family safe, and while her actions are understandable, not all of them are legally or even morally justifiable, and in one case, an innocent ends up dying because of her decisions. And while Danielle is uncomfortable with violence, she also acts in a way that leaves no doubt that she would hurt people if she had to, for her family to have a good life. All this to me makes her feel real, and I absolutely love that even though she’s offstage for most of the book, she’s still such a complex, multifaceted character.

I really enjoyed this book, and highly recommend it to mystery fans.

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Thank you to Dundurn Press for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

 

 

Review | The Personality Brokers: The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing, Merve Emre

39721925I love personality quizzes. I love finding out if I’m a Hufflepuff or a Slytherin, or if I’m a golden retriever or a chihuahua, or some other classification based on the thousands of online quizzes out there. The Myers-Briggs test, however, always seemed to me to be the gold standard. I can be a Hufflepuff at one quiz and a Slytherin at another, but no matter what, I knew I could count on myself to always be an ENFP. And when there are times I act in a way that doesn’t quite fit within that spectrum, I figure it was just a temporary glitch and, at heart, the Myers-Briggs result still holds true.

This is why The Personality Brokers was such an eye-opener for me. Merve Emre is skeptical of the science behind personality testing, and as I read more about the history behind its development, I found myself becoming more skeptical as well. Emre admits at the beginning that there were points in her research where she wanted to cheer the creators on — Katherine Briggs and her daughter Isabel Briggs Myers were amateur behaviourists (no scientific or psychological training) who were women fighting to make a mark in a male-dominated industry and also working to make behavioural science accessible to laypeople. I didn’t know that the Myers-Briggs test was created by women, nor did I ever imagine it was created by non-scientists. (I had to confront my own unconscious bias, because for some reason, I was certain Myers and Briggs were a pair of old white male psychologists.) So, like Emre, I too began by cheering them on, and wanting to celebrate in their long-lasting success. And to some extent, I still do — both women created a very useful tool that can provide some insight into your psyche at a point in time.

But then I learned that the Myers-Briggs test actually began with a super religious and moralistic stance, Katherine Briggs trying to figure out how to develop a morally upright child and using her daughter as a test subject. Emre also reveals how reductionist and, in a way, stereotype-y the test evolves into, with companies actually using the test to determine if a candidate was a good match for a job or not, and militaries using the test to decide on whom they should hire for particular jobs like espionage.

I also learned of the racist and sexist attitudes of the creators, that have likely made it into the structure of the test. For example, Katherine (or was it Isabel?) often said that women were more naturally nurturing than men, and therefore better suited for a caregiving role. Isabel also wrote a detective novel where generations of a family committed suicide because of a mistaken belief in African heritage, and Emre wonders how uncritically Isabel addresses such beliefs. Granted, both women were products of their time, and cannot be judged by today’s standards, but a lot of the present-day test was created by Isabel based on her mother’s work. Their beliefs therefore raise the question of how much the test is shaped by a particular point of view, and how much it was tailored for a particular audience (i.e. white, middle class people of their time).

Reading the book has made me question how unthinkingly I’ve taken the test results as immutable fact, when that isn’t really the case. Emre raises a good argument that the test assumes personality is fixed and can never be changed, but studies show that people taking the Myers-Briggs test more than once can get different results. On a personal level, I may feel like the ENFP classification fits me now, but I can also easily think of times in my life when I would’ve thought of myself as fitting elsewhere on the spectrum. Perhaps it’s the mutability of Harry Potter-type Buzzfeed quizzes that’s more telling than a personality set in stone from birth.

As I said, I love personality quizzes, and I still think the Myers-Briggs test is good for understanding oneself at particular points in one’s life. But after reading The Personality Brokers, I realize how important it is to take these results — as with any personality test — with a grain of salt, and not rely on it too much to shape your life. Emre gives some examples of people who’ve changed their career paths because of their Myers-Briggs results, and while we don’t learn how it turns out for them, it’s also worth considering if a single test should be the basis of such big decisions.

The Personality Brokers is a fascinating book. I don’t read a lot of nonfiction, but Emre has a compelling writing style that kept me hooked throughout. I learned a lot about the history of personality testing, and the fascinating lives of the women who created this test with such an enduring legacy.

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Thank you to Penguin Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.