Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Guest Post: Author of The Partner Track, Helen Wan

A writing instructor of mine once assigned our fiction class this terrific exercise: “When you get stuck, put aside whatever you’re working on and try writing about your elementary school cafeteria. What did it look like, smell like, sound like? Where did you sit? And who with? Did you ever sit alone? And how did that make you feel? What about what you ate? Were you a lunch-bringer or a lunch-buyer? Were you self-conscious about what you were having for lunch?”

This, I think, is an incredibly helpful prompt to give to a roomful of aspiring fiction writers. What better microcosm than a school cafeteria to draw out so many long-forgotten memories, deeply rooted cultural traditions, raw insecurities and honest emotions? It gave me the opening to my debut novel, THE PARTNER TRACK, the story of a second-generation Chinese American woman about to become the first minority female partner at a prestigious white-shoe law firm, and how family and cultural context and “outsider” status affect her journey up the corporate ladder.

At the start of the novel, Ingrid Yung, my protagonist, has perfected the art of “passing” – that is, downplaying attributes of having been raised by first-generation Chinese immigrants – in order to seamlessly blend into the fabric of her white-shoe law firm. Secretly, though, like many other men and women with any sort of “outsider” status, Ingrid sometimes feels she must be a less “authentic” self in the workplace in order to be successful.

Although she is now a polished, seasoned M&A lawyer on the cusp of partnership at a top global law firm, Ingrid sits in the corporate cafeteria and reflects on being a shy kid awkwardly unwrapping the shrimp toast and scallion pancakes her Chinese-American mother would pack in her lunchbox, and how the other girls at the table would wrinkle up their noses and ask, “What’s that?” – their own tidy baloney-and-cheese sandwiches raised halfway to their mouths.

 A lot of people have asked me how much of my novel is autobiographical. Well, like Ingrid, I’m the child of first-generation Chinese immigrants, my grandparents fled China during the Communist Revolution and found refuge in Taiwan, my parents later immigrated to the United States, where I was born and raised, and my first job after graduating law school was in fact at a large corporate law firm.

When I began work on this book over a decade ago, I was dead set against writing a particular kind of so-called “ethnic novel” (a phrase that I find of questionable utility anyway. What were John Updike and John Cheever doing if not writing at least partly about their “ethnicity”?). It seemed to me there were a fair number of “immigrant stories” being published about Asian Americans, but they always seemed to follow an increasingly familiar formula: a flock of old-world relatives, a wedding banquet with large and detailed descriptions of the food, a soul-searching trip back to some “ancestral village” in Asia, at least one arranged marriage. By the way, note that I am not denigrating novels that include any of these elements; I myself enjoy many of them; I am simply saying that my goal was to write something that felt altogether different. I wanted to explore the question: What happens to these children of immigrants once they’ve actually arrived at the top (or at least have gotten very, very close)? What happens to these hyphenated Americans, these Minority Darlings, when they are finally within striking distance of The American Dream, the one their immigrant parents have been hoping to see them achieve all their lives?

 It is this aspect of the immigrant experience that I am most interested in: the cultural weight that any second generation carries around with them. When you’re the child of Chinese immigrants, especially ones who abandoned everything that was comfortable and familiar and had to start over from scratch twice (once to flee China, and once to immigrate from Taiwan to the States), when that is part of your family’s origin story, if you will, I think it really influences the personal choices that you make in life. And that is at the heart of THE PARTNER TRACK.

 Ingrid constantly has to ask herself the question, how important is it to achieve something, just because she is one of the very few who can? Because she can, does it follow that she must?

By the way, a number of friends who happen to be as white and male as they come, have told me they were surprised how well they could relate to Ingrid, and that this means that it doesn’t take immigrant or outsider status at all to appreciate the themes of this book – that is, the pressure we all sometimes feel to conform because we want so desperately to fit in. Again, I’m drawn back to the setting of the school cafeteria. To me, those childhood memories of the desire and necessity to fit in are so powerful, so ingrained, and so informative of later adult lives and choices, that they are incredibly useful to writers of fiction.

 Helen Wan is the author of the debut novel THE PARTNER TRACK, about a young Chinese-American woman’s experience in corporate America, just released by St. Martin’s Press. She is also Associate General Counsel at the Time Inc. division of Time Warner. Helen’s writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Daily Beast, The Huffington Post, and elsewhere. Her author website is www.helenwan.com.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Review: The Partner Track by Helen Wan

The Partner Track by Helen Wan: Ingrid Yung is a rising star at the Manhattan law firm of Parsons Valentine and Hunt LLP. She dedicates herself to meeting the many demands of the partners and after almost nine years of glowing reviews, she is firmly on the "partner track". As the daughter of Chinese immigrants, Ingrid feels a tremendous amount of responsibility to be successful in an effort to repay her parents for all their sacrifice. As the announcement of new partners nears, Helen is asked to take on an important deal and to close it in record time. She gladly takes on the challenge but is less enthused when she is asked to be a champion for the firm's diversity initiative. Can Ingrid bear the burden of her parent's expectations, be the firm's diversity darling and close this major deal on her way to partner?

Ingrid Yung attended Yale undergrad and then Columbia Law before arriving at Parsons Valentine. Working in NYC at a top law firm fulfilled a dream that had taken root at a young age. While visiting a friend of her parents in Manhattan as a young girl, Ingrid looked out the window of their exclusive apartment building and mused:
I could not stop looking and looking out that window, at the deep violet hue spreading across the sky. It felt as if the day's humiliations were draining from my body, and I was waking up fresh. I had never wanted to belong to anything more than to that shimmering landscape of office towers lit up against the dark New York sky. Each individual glittering box of light - like gems strung along a necklace - seemed to me to be a tiny, oblong window onto success, acceptance, respect, that is to say, a place in the world. 
Getting to NYC and into one of those glittering boxes of light has not been easy - Ingrid has succeeded against a lot of odds. All the women who started at Parsons Valentine with her eight years ago have now left the firm; some left to pursue careers with less challenging hours and expectations while some left to have families. Ingrid is surrounded by an "old boys club" where subtle, and often not subtle, gender discrimination abounds. Being a "two-fer", a woman and person of color, Ingrid has also faced thinly veiled racism. With single-minded focus, however, Ingrid has ignored these obstacles and succeeded by keeping the prize of partner squarely in her sights. With the advent of the diversity initiative, however, Ingrid is beginning to give more consideration to the sleights and inequities she has faced.

My Thoughts
This smartly written debut novel takes on big topics like the glass ceiling and racism but packaged in a story line that makes these bigger themes very accessible. Ingrid is an appealing heroine - she is smart, direct and just flawed enough to make a reader like her and most importantly, to relate to her. She has a touch of idealism but is not naive and although she is bothered by the lack of diversity at the firm and the lack of women at the top, she wants to make partner more than anything else. That raw ambition is impressive.

As a woman in corporate America, I saw much in this book to which I can relate. The subtle discrimination that takes place when men at the top of the ladder give opportunity and access to those that look a lot like them is very real and you ignore it at work at your own peril. I don't believe that is is deliberate but that it represents an unconscious bias and one we must all stay vigilant in order to ensure fair play for everyone.

Finally, I could relate to Ingrid's feelings as a first generation American. The quote above reflects thoughts not unlike my own about living and working in NYC. The theme of fitting in and being accepted as the daughter of immigrants is not a primary one in the novel but the author weaves it in expertly and it serves to further flesh out Ingrid's character. I definitely recommend this debut novel!

I received an ARC of this book for review from Wunderkind PR. 

Monday, September 16, 2013

The Husband's Secret by Liane Moriarty

In The Husband's Secret by Liane Moriarty, we meet three women who casually know each other but whose lives are actually quite entwined. We watch their lives collide as the story unfolds and see what each woman's limit is for forgiveness and how much they are willing to endure to keep their families intact.

Tess Curtis has recently learned that her husband and her cousin are in love and want to pursue their relationship. Tess considered her cousin her best friend and trusted her implicitly so she feels "had" by both of them and regrets not looking closer at their growing relationship. She takes their young son and returns to her mother's home in Sydney to gather herself after the shocking news. She is surprised to run into her ex-boyfriend, Conor Whitby, when she enrolls her young son at the local school.

Rachel Crowley's seventeen year old daughter was murdered twenty years ago and Rachel is still haunted by the fact that her murder was never solved. Hardened by her grief, Rachel continues to pursue her own theories of who killed her daughter. She firmly believes Conor Whitby killed her daughter and as she faces the fact that her son is taking her only joy, her grandson, all the way to New York City, Rachel's need to see Conor pay becomes fervent.

Cecilia Fitzpatrick is an uber-mother - she heads all PTA activities, runs a successful business selling Tupperware and never appears anywhere about town or at her children's school with even a hair out of place. Her polish is appealing if a bit intimidating. When she discovers a letter addressed to her by her husband instructing her to read it in the event of his death, she is perplexed. She becomes even more perplexed when she mentions her discovery to her husband and he reacts strangely. Cecilia can't resist the temptation and ultimately opens the letter; the letter is the catalyst for the collision of the women's lives and where they discover how they are connected.

  My Thoughts
The Husband's Secret is a wonderfully enjoyable read. We learn about each of the women and the crisis they are facing before we finally see the secret revealed - in fact, the secret is not revealed until well into the book. The story is alternately told from each of the woman's point of view and the reader gets to know to know them and understand what they face.

The author does an excellent job of walking the fine line of telling a serious story and creating a "light read".  There were many funny moments in the book but enough meat to make it a story you really want to settle in with for an afternoon. I will definitely be looking for other books by the author.

I received a copy of this book at BEA 2013. 

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

We Remember

Today I am remembering those we lost, praying for their families and counting my blessings.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Sunday Salon: September 8, 2013

The Sunday Salon.com

 I can hardly believe we are a full week into September already - we even had some crisp weather this weekend signaling that Fall will surely be here soon. I got a little taste of cooler weather during the week before Labor Day when I went on a cruise to Alaska. Alaska has been "on my list" of place to visit for some time and when my Mom revealed she also wanted to go, we planned a trip. We sailed from Seattle and spent a few days there before our cruise started. Although I had been to Seattle for work, I had never spent any significant time there and never any as a tourist. We had a fun few days touring the city; by far, my favorite sight was the Chihuly Garden and Glass. I missed the artist's exhibit in NY a few years ago so I knew I wanted to see it when I got to Seattle - and I wasn't disappointed. The beautiful pieces mixed into the gardens were stunning.

We also made the trip to the Public Market - despite the fact that it was super busy, I loved it!  Stall after stall of beautiful flowers, gorgeous fruits and vivid vegetables. It was the flowers that got me - the bouquets were beautifully arranged and so affordable! I wish they had bouquets like that here - I would have fresh flowers in my office and home every week.

We made 3 stops in Alaska - Ketchikan, Juneau and Skagway. By far, my favorite part was one we didn't stop in - Tracy Arm Fjord.  We cruised through the fjord early in the morning for about four hours and it was just stunning - well worth the 5 am wake up call!

All the all, the trip was excellent.  We had active excursions in each port - we hiked in Ketchikan and kayaked in Skagway.  In Juneau, we hiked down to Nugget Falls at the Mendenhall Glacier.  It was a great way to close out the summer!

What destination is on your list?

Friday, September 6, 2013

Audiobook Review: A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson (narrated by Rob McQuay; 9 hours 47 minutes) - Bill Bryson is a favorite travel writer of mine - I love his wry observations and dry wit. In A Walk in the Woods, Bryson takes on the Appalachian Trail. In addition to facts about the AT and a brief ecological survey, Bryson does what he does best - recounts his experiences on the trail with self-deprecating humor and keenly observes those around him.

Bryson decides to tackle the AT despite a relative lack of hiking experience or even stellar physical fitness.  Needing a partner, he recruits his college roommate, Steven Katz, to join him on the trail. Katz is even less well-prepared for the rigors of hiking hours each day and his inexperience and misunderstanding about what lies before them is evidenced by his hiking pack which is full of heavy canned food and Twinkies.  Bryson seems to take some pleasure in musing at Katz's ineptitude if only because it makes him the superior hiker. Katz certainly gives Bryson material to work with in his funny re-telling of their time on the trail but there are really no shortage of characters encountered by the two along the trail.

Perhaps their funniest encounter, however, was with a bear while camping one evening. Bryson so perfectly describes the scene, including his absolute terror, that I found myself laughing out loud while listening.  Prior to the scene, there had been much commentary from Bryson about bears and his fear of them which made the scene all the funnier.

“Black bears rarely attack. But here's the thing. Sometimes they do. All bears are agile, cunning and immensely strong, and they are always hungry. If they want to kill you and eat you, they can, and pretty much whenever they want. That doesn't happen often, but - and here is the absolutely salient point - once would be enough.” 
Bryson also tosses in some commentary on  people's general lack of respect for nature
and inability to peacefully coexist with it - you are either immersed in nature doing a trek like the AT or completely divorced from it living in a land of concrete with little natural influence.  Over time, nature has become less interwoven into people's daily lives. His other favorite commentary, despite his own admitted less than stellar fitness level, is about our lack of movement.
“I know a man who drives 600 yards to work. I know a woman who gets in her car to go a quarter of a mile to a college gymnasium to walk on a treadmill, then complains passionately about the difficulty of finding a parking space. When I asked her once why she didn't walk to the gym and do five minutes less on the treadmill, she looked at me as if I were being willfully provocative. 'Because I have a program for the treadmill,' she explained. 'It records my distance and speed, and I can adjust it for degree of difficulty.' It hadn't occurred to me how thoughtlessly deficient nature is in this regard.” 
 My Thoughts
This is another winner from Bryson for me. I was a little disappointed to see he doesn't read the unabridged version of the book (only abridged) and it took be some time to get used to the the narrator's voice - likely because I had been looking forward to Bryson's dry delivery. Over time, I got used to his narration and felt he did a good job telling Bryson's story but would have preferred to listen to Bryson.

While I enjoy day hikes, I have no grand designs to hike the AT and this book did not inspire me to do that. Rather, it allowed me to get the AT experience and learn about the trail without actually having to hike it myself. I had a lot of laughs along the way an enjoyed seeing how the experience changed Bryson and Katz. Whether or not you are a hiker, you will find a lot to like in A Walk in the Woods.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Review: In the Land of the Living by Austin Ratner

In the Land of the Living by Austin Ratner is about fathers,sons and brothers and their complicated relationships. The Auberon men are particularly complicated and there is a darkness to their relationships with each other. The patriarch, Isidore, loses his mother at a young age and suffers at the hand of his demanding, grieving father. He vows to escape his unhappy childhood and to be successful - he makes good on that vow when he attends Harvard and completes medical school. When he has his own two sons, Leo and Mack, Isidore hopes to give them all he never got from his own father. But he is a product of his own upbringing and has limitations which can be seen as his sons grow into young men. Leo and Mack's relationship with each other is also damaged and they try to repair it on a cross country trip. Can the youngest generation break the cycle of dysfunction inherent in this family?

 This story is told in three sections. First is Isidore's story including his difficult upbringing with a distant, difficult father and his ultimate triumph with graduation from medical school after much hard work and perseverance. There is a hopefulness to this section as we see Isidore overcome a difficult childhood and make his dreams become a reality. The second section focuses on Isidore's own family when he marries and has two sons of his own - Leo and Mack. Leo idolizes his father and respects all he had to overcome to give them the lives they have.  Unfortunately, this becomes a set-up for Leo as he hero-worships his father and can never live up to his example or standards. Leo suffers from depression and has difficulty relating to people - even his own brother, Mack. The brothers' relationship is damaged and complicated by losses they have experienced. In the third part of the story, the brothers take a road trip in a last ditch effort to repair their relationship.

My Thoughts
This dark novel is intelligently written and I often found myself reviewing passages and being impressed by the way the words had been put together. The characters, however, are not always likable and that created a distance for me as I read the book. I did cheer for Isidore and felt hopeful seeing him overcome his difficult childhood; I also felt pathos for Leo as I watched him become trapped in a dysfunctional cycle that had been imposed on him by his family. At the same time, however, Leo is a difficult character to like. This is a brilliant design by the author - he is able to make the reader feel discomfort with Leo in the same way that those around Leo in the novel feel about him. All in all, I enjoyed the excellent writing and admired how the author laid out complex family relationships and showed how dysfunction extends through the generations and can be difficult to escape.

For more reviews, please check out others on the TLC Tour .