Review: All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung

Title: All You Can Ever Know
Author: Nicole Chung
Rating: ★★★★
Summary: After being born severely premature, Nicole Chung was placed up for adoption by her birth parents and raised by a white family in a sheltered Oregon town, her adoption a comforting story of familial sacrifice and God’s will. But as she grew up—facing prejudice her adoptive family couldn’t see, finding her identity as an Asian American and as a writer, becoming ever more curious about where she came from—Chung wondered if the comforting adoption story she’d been told all her life was the whole truth. With warmth, candor, and startling insight, All You Can Ever Know is a profound, moving chronicle of surprising connections and the repercussions of unearthing painful family secrets.


When I was young, my family’s view of adoption as identity trump card—more powerful than blood, or appearance, or the bigotry I encountered—made it nearly impossible to imagine, let alone talk about, a future reunion with my birth family. I always understood that my parents didn’t want me to search. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say I understood that they didn’t want me to want to search. I was enough for them, and they wanted to be enough for me.

All You Can Ever Know is one of those books you see and think “why?” Why does this person think that their story is worth telling? And why should I care? Nicole Chung was not a name with which I was familiar before reading her debut memoir, but I’m happy to have stumbled onto her work. Her book is a beautifully written exploration of life as a Korean-American adoptee; as an only-child discovering her past, a young woman her future, and a soon-to-be mother her place.

Chung splits the book into four loose parts—childhood, pregnancy, post-partum, and after—but each weaves around and through the others, connecting in multiple spots and inching the story back toward itself. What Chung learns about her birth family answers as many questions as it poses, the information confirming and validating her adolescent self-doubt as much as it creates more “what ifs?” over which she obsesses.

Chung cannot speak to everyone who’s ever been adopted (nor should she), but her doubts and fears and emotional yearning are universal. Who hasn’t felt out of place among their peers? Hasn’t wished for a different family or a different life? There are no easy answers in this book, but I enjoyed the malleability of it all, the idea that even Chung herself didn’t write this to really solve anything. She may have started on a journey to find her birth parents, but that’s not where the book stops. All You Can Ever Know is a meditation on identity, on family, and on self. It’s powerful, vulnerable, and sad, but also funny and warm, too.

In the very last line of the book, Chung says, “Let’s start at the beginning.” Although it’s meant literally, I know the meaning is two-fold. Because endings always lead to other beginnings, and each new beginning always makes its way to an eventual end.

Video Review: Biographies!

In which I come back after two years (TWO YEARS) and review The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League by Jeff Hobbs and give it 4 stars because it was an “insightful and intimate portrait” of one man’s life and an all-around great read.

And then I review Choose Your Own Autobiography by Neil Patrick Harris and give it 3 stars because it was “interesting and clever” but not for everyone.

Check out my other videos at YouTube.

Buy Borrow Bypass: On Grief

Book Riot does this great feature called “Buy, Borrow, Bypass” and I like it, so I’m going to do that here.

A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy by Sue Klebold

Sue Klebold is best known as the mother of Columbine shooter Dylan Klebold – and she knows it. Although her memoir twists around April 20th, 1999 (both the Before and the After), it’s not really about Columbine or even Dylan. Instead, A Mother’s Reckoning is an open-ended exploration into all of the small and large decisions she made as Dylan’s parent and also all the ramifications of those decisions – both in 1999 and 2016. Each memory has the benefit of hindsight, but also Klebold’s many years working to prevent suicide and murder-suicides. I enjoyed the biographical sections and self-reflections more than the psychology and push for mental health awareness, and readers looking for a biography of either Dylan or Columbine should best look elsewhere.

Verdict: BORROW

Rosalie Lightning by Tom Hart

Honestly, I thought Rosalie Lightning was just okay. I wanted to like it, to come out of the  100ish pages that comprise Tom Hart’s graphic memoir after the death of his daughter Rosalie with some kind of reaction other than ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. Unfortunately, grief is too messy for that. It’s too abstract and it takes too many forms to be universally understood in any one medium. And perhaps I was looking at Rosalie Lightning as the tribute that it could have been, the celebration of a child’s brief life in color and abstract form. Instead, Hart uses drawing to climb out of the hole she left behind. And, in experiencing that grief with him, I felt that maybe I wasn’t supposed to be a part of the process at all.

Verdict: BYPASS

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

This posthumous memoir is a gut puncher. You know that its author, Paul Kalanithi, ultimately died at thirty-six from metastasized stage IV lung cancer before you start reading. It’s there: in the small blurb on the back cover, in Kalanithi’s author bio, in Abraham Verghese’s forward, in every piece of publicity the book acquired since it was published in January. Kalanithi’s death permeates the text, hanging over our reading experience as it must have for Kalanithi himself. Except that, I don’t think he would want us to dwell. For Kalanithi, death was just another facet of life – a question to be answered, yes, but not something to be feared or avoided. He explains for us (and possibly his daughter) how and why he became a doctor, and it is in that meditative reflection in exacting prose that we are forced to confront our own fears and anxieties about death and the unlived life. Just reading his memoir makes me hope that I can accomplish in my lifetime what Kalanithi did in his.

Verdict: BUY

Five Favorite: Memoirs

“Five Favorite” is a feature on thewasofshall where I lay out my five favorite “x”. Sometimes they’re relevant to a season or holiday, mostly they’re not. It’s an all-around fun excuse to give my 100% amazingly awesome opinion. To see previous (and future) topics, click here. To participate, scroll all the way down.

I never thought I liked reading non-fiction – let alone memoirs* – but most of my four- and five-star reviews are attached to the genre†. So, without further ado, here are my five favorite.

AnimalVegetableMiracleAnimal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver

BitterIsTheNewBlack Bitter Is the New Black: Confessions of a Condescending, Egomaniacal, Self-Centered Smartass, Or, Why You Should Never Carry a Prada Bag to the Unemployment Office by Jen Lancaster

JesusLand Jesus Land by Julia Scheeres

NotThatKindOfGirl Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s “Learned” by Lena Dunham

TheShortAndTragicLifeOfRobertPeace The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League by Jeff Hobbs.

* I always used to think that a memoir was just another word for autobiography – but alas! It can also mean biography.
† Is it a genre? Let’s call it a genre.

Have your own five favorite memoirs? Share them! Post them to your blog, link back to this post, and then comment letting me know!

Five Favorite: Memoirs by Women

“Five Favorite” is a feature on thewasofshall where I lay out my five favorite “x”. Sometimes they’re relevant to a season or holiday, mostly they’re not. It’s an all-around fun excuse to give my 100% amazingly awesome opinion. To see previous (and future) topics, click here. To participate, scroll all the way down.

For Women’s History Month, I’ve been spotlighting books by or about women. For this last week, I want to focus on memoirs written by females because, well, why the hell not? Whether they’re laugh-out-loud funny, honest, heartbreaking, so something totally different, here are my five favorite.

BitterIsTheNewBlackBitter Is the New Black: Confessions of a Condescending, Egomaniacal, Self-Centered Smartass, Or, Why You Should Never Carry a Prada Bag to the Unemployment Office by Jen Lancaster

NotThatKindOfGirlNot That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s “Learned” by Lena Dunham

Persepolis
Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood
by Marjane Satrapi

WhatIWasDoingWhileYouWereBreedingWhat I Was Doing While You Were Breeding by Kristin Newman

YesPleaseYes Please by Amy Poehler

Have your own five favorite memoirs by women? Share them! Post them to your blog, link back to this post, and then comment letting me know!