House of Sticks

This year, I’ll be reading a LOT more non-fiction than usual, and some ~memoirs~ so why not start the trend with this memoir, House of Sticks by Ly Tran. Ly immigrated from Vietnam after her father’s 10 year imprisonment, and in this memoir, told in shorter essays and chapters, we follow her as she adjusts to the severe poverty of an immigrant in NYC, needing glasses, struggling in schools, battling mental illness, and more.

What I appreciated most about this book was how contemporary it felt too me—Tran and I aren’t far apart in age, and therefore her references to time felt more relatable to me than say, if I was reading this book but set in the 70s. The early 2000s? Yeah, I was there.

I don’t want to “ruin” this book for anyone by giving “spoilers”—though is that really a thing for memoir? Part of me wanted to say “Okay, why write a memoir at 30? Are you special?” but I’d rather read a hundred memoirs of random, kind of mundane-ish people than see some famous figure get his 352nd biography written—and that one win every award, too. This memoir is small in the good ways–it’s about her life, her experience, her family. She doesn’t try to generalize the post-Vietnam War experience of her parents, her own mental health issues compared to her poverty, etc. She doesn’t probe too deeply into why she didn’t have a relationship college, or why her mother stayed with her father, etc. She just presents the facts of her life in mostly compelling short chapters.

This isn’t necessarily the “nail salon memoir” I think some of the publicity sells it to be–they don’t buy the salon til probably 45% into the book, and the last 20% Ly is in college, so while there are some really gripping chapters about the insane way people treat their nail technicians. She does have interesting stories throughout about adapting to the weirdness of American culture, growing up as an immigrant and poor, her issues with school, etc. This isn’t the “model minority” memoir we’ve seen before. It’s honest, it’s stark, and it’s not always rosy, but it’s laid there for you on the page to take in.

I was intrigued by this book, and Ly’s life, but I found the prose/writing pretty basic memoir. Nothing too outstanding. Not bad by any means, just not revolutionary. Not every memoir has to be the most prolifically written thing ever, I know. But I was just kind of overwhelmed by how “fine” this writing was.

I also wish that Tran had found the balance in explaining the really “high” points in her life–like her all girls robotics team–in juxtaposition with the other struggles. It almost felt like the successes in her life got shortchanged for the hardships, and I know that reality can feel like that sometimes, but clearly, Tran is on an upward trajectory.

Overall, I would give this 3.8 stars. Not mindblowing, but an interesting memoir and perspective. It would foster good discussions, especially among book club members in their 20s and 30s.

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