DAYS OF DISTRACTION book review
On the surface, the protagonist of Alexandra Chang’s debut novel should be enthusiastic about her life and hopeful regarding her personal and professional future. She is a young millennial who is a smart, talented freelance tech journalist working for an online publication in San Francisco. Instead, she is dissatisfied with her job of which she continuously gets overlooked for raises and promotions contrary to her male counterparts. She is painfully aware that she is one of the few women in the industry overall and specifically at her job, a situation that brings its own brand of challenges and discomforts. Furthermore, as an Asian-American, she is one of only a a handful of minorities in the office.
After her latest attempt to secure full time status, and/or a raise, falls short of her expectations, she decides to quit and move with her grad student boyfriend, J, across the country to Upstate New York. There, she has a whole new set of challenges and adjustments. Not least of which is the constant inner questioning of being part of an interracial relationship, and the core of her identity as an Asian in a racist society. Throughout, she communicates with her mom of whom she is close, and runs away for a bit to visit her estranged father in China. The familia aspects of her story lend a soothing grace and humanity to an otherwise very angst-ridden character.
While “Days of Distraction” will have its strongest appeal with millennials, and the second half of the book is more engaging than the first half, there is an undeniable wit and bite to Chang’s style. It’s as quirky and self aware as it is self assured. Her observations of racial micro aggressions are refreshingly thoughtful, though provoking and not often seen in literary fiction
At the crowded coffee shop, a white woman who looks to be in her mid thirties asks if I mind sharing a table. I nod. … She is an extrovert, clearly, which brings it out in me. … When I mention what I’m doing, she lets out a yelp of recognition, as though we are two friends bumping into each other at a party of strangers. She’s a professor in the journalism department at the liberal arts college in town. … She says she’s found meaning in teaching. She asks if I have any interest in teaching. …
The the woman leans in toward mea and asks, “How do you like Ithica?” I want to be positive, so I say that overall it has been pretty nice. She leans further in, and looks like she’s about to tell me a secret. “How do you feel about the lack of Asians in town, though? The last time I visited California, I noticed there were so many Asians everywhere. I was like, wow! It was almost felt like traveling to a different country.” A significant shaking and bumping take place inside my brain and body. I can’t say I’m having thoughts, exactly, only reactions and feelings. Disgust. The sense of having been tricked. Distrust. A strong desire to escape.
In these days while we’re looking for some distraction, “Days of Distraction” is an entertaining option, with a message about race, family and identity.
You can get this book online at a local, independent bookstore - Buy Indie, Support Local! Below are a couple of retail suggestions:
Litarati Books (Ann Arbor, MI) - https://www.literatibookstore.com/
Books Are Magic (Brooklyn, NY) - https://www.booksaremagic.net/
On the surface, Ann Napolitano’s third recently released novel, “Dear Edward,” about a 12-year-old boy’s life after losing his entire family in a plane crash of which he was the sole survivor, could seem to be intense and depressing. Surprisingly and wonderfully it is anything but. The story is not about disaster and death, but rather about lives prior to death, and restoring hope and rebuilding a life in the face of insurmountable loss. Writing this is not a spoiler. The crash takes place at the onset of the novel and is referenced to on the book’s jacket. It isn’t a twist mid-way or story’s conclusion. It is the catalyst for a graceful and heartfelt story, with an endearing and memorable character. One morning, Edward, his brother and parents and 183 other passengers board a plane from New York to California. Before safely landing in LAX for their new life there, their plane crashes just outside of Denver, claiming the lives of everyone except young Edward. His survival story mystifies the nation as well as it does him.
While he and his aunt and uncle try to keep him out of the public eye, he tries navigate and justify his life without his family. The novel primarily focuses on Edward’s now seemingly simple suburban life in New Jersey with his “new family,” it reveals the complexity of grief and the role that a community, no matter how big or small, can help put the pieces together. Napolitano also gingerly weaves in the stories of some of the individual passengers through flashback chapters. With it, we see that there weren’t just victims onboard, but humans with lives leading up to that fateful excursion. The book covers six years, post-crash, straddling between Edward’s story - his internalized struggles, his relationships, his eventual contact with family members of the crash victims, his growth - and the passengers in lead up to the eventual disaster. The result is a richly layered story that is as sweetly sorrowful as it is hopeful and delightful.
"Dear Edward" was January 2020 selection for the prestigious Book Passage (Corte Madera, CA) First Edition Club (FEC), which includes over 300 members. I recently had the opportunity give the author introduction at the related FEC book event in honor of Ms. Napolitano and “Dear Edward.” Just prior to the event, I sat down with her to discuss her literary achievement.
PF: Although “Dear Edward” is a work of fiction, it was inspired by a similar true story. Can you explain more about this inspiration?
AN: I became obsessed with a story that was in the news in 2010. There was a flight that was from South Africa bound for London and it crashed in Lybia. It was a full commercial flight made up mostly of Dutch citizens. There was only one survivor of the crash, a nine-year-old Dutch boy. Everyone, including his brother and parents had died instantly. I couldn’t read enough about it and him and had a hard time imagining how he could go forward and live. In setting out to write the novel, it was a matter of creating a set of circumstances in which that little boy could be okay in world that was kind enough to allow that rebuilding to happen.
PF: Beyond that particular real life tragedy, what sort of research did you do for the novel?
AN: I am a nervous flyer and I never thought I’d ever write about a plane crash. It’s really because I became obsessed with this story, and felt like it was one I had to tell. I didn’t know anything so I spoke to a career pilot and read numerous National Transportation Safety Board reports and black box recordings. I wanted to make sure that aspect of the novel was not sensationalized, but accurate and true. For Edward’s healing in the hospital, I did research recovery from that kind of trauma.
PF: Despite your attraction to the story and character, was there any hesitancy to broach a subject that included a plane crash? Was there a concern that readers might make assumptions and judgements before event reading?
AN: No, because I always assume no one is going to read what I write any way, it’s not going to sell. Given that, I could just write the story I wanted to tell, without thinking about the endgame or reader’s reactions. I wouldn’t want to read a book about a plane crash, so it had to not be about a plane crash in order for me to live in that world for eight years. Because everybody goes through challenging situations or sadness that feels impossible to overcome, so in that the themes are universal.
PN: What was the eight year writing journey for you like?
AN: I was immersed in it the whole time and it actually was the most joyful writing experience of my life even though I was in a place of trauma and sadness. I believe it’s because the people who step forward for Edward were so kind. That created a world of best intentions. Plus, writing is something I have to do any way. If I don’t write I get depressed. It’s sort of a mental health practice for me, so a long time ago I learned how to detach the results from the process. Those eight years with this book, I was doing what I have to do any way.
PN: What’s on your nightstand, what are you reading?
AN: Recent books I love include Kevin Wilson’s “Nothing to See Here,” and “The Dutch House” by Ann Patchett.
PN: Who are the writers that influenced you, past or present?
AN: When I was younger it was Henry James and Raymond Carver’s short stories, and “The Song of Solomon” by Toni Morrison.
PN: Do you ever re-read books? If so, who do you go back to?
AN: I don’t do a lot of re-reading, but recently I re-read “Crossing Safety” by Wallace Stegner, which is an amazing love story. I’ve read “Jane Eyer” many times, but that’s an exception.
“Dear Edward” is published by The Dial Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House. Napolitano’s other novels are “A Good Hard Look” and “Within Arms Reach.” She is also the associate editor of “One Story” literary magazine. She received an MFA from New York University and has taught fiction writing at Brooklyn College. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two sons.