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Discoveries: 'The Lucky Ones' by Mae Ngai

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The Lucky Ones

One Family and the Extraordinary Invention of Chinese America

Mae Ngai

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: 288 pp., $26.

American history is a far bumpier ride than it used to be in the good old days. Mae Ngai is far more interested in the complications of history than the myths. The pathway to the American Dream was not linear, she writes, a neat journey from exclusion to inclusion. Hard work and perseverance were not all it took, much as we might like to believe it. And immigrants did not always pull each other up onto the golden mountain. In this fascinating book, Ngai tells the story of three generations of the Tape family, beginning with Joseph Tape (Jeu Dip) and his young wife, Mary (whose Chinese name was lost in the immigration and upbringing in a San Francisco orphanage). Jeu Dip came alone to the United States when he was 12. He became a successful immigration interpreter and broker. Mary insisted on not raising their children in Chinese-only neighborhoods and fought to have their 8-year-old daughter Mary study in a white public school. Joseph and Mary and the next two generations of Tapes survived by finding the "cracks in the edifice of exclusion." With meticulous research into the Tapes' daily lives, she sheds light on the choices certain family members made to secure a future for themselves and their children; staking a claim to a small piece of the American Dream.

Eels

An Exploration, from New Zealand to the Sargasso, of the World's Most Mysterious Fish

James Prosek

Harper: 287 pp., $25.99

James Prosek's first book, "Trout: An Illustrated History," full of Prosek's gorgeous watercolors, came out when he was a mere wunderkind of 26. He has since written six books on fishing and a little unforgettable book titled "The Day My Mother Left." Prosek has a talent for observation, for allowing his mind to wander across pages without leaving us behind (think of Peter Pan teaching Wendy and her siblings how to fly). He finds the beauty in things, the hook, the reason why they get to us, why they lodge in our subconscious. Did you know that Sigmund Freud's first book as a young graduate student was on the testes of eels? Or that they begin life in the ocean (a very specific ocean, the Sargasso Sea) and migrate to fresh water, only to return nearing death to the place where they were born? Did you know that the Maori of New Zealand venerate the eel and believe that certain eels act as guardians, appearing to people in times of danger? It's fun to travel armchair style alongside Prosek — to New Zealand, to the Sargasso Sea, and to an eel weir in the Catskills maintained by a wise old river man. Yes, it's a book about eels — but it's the stuff of dreams, and it's all true.

Baby, We Were Meant for Each Other

In Praise of Adoption

Scott Simon

Random House: 180 pp., $22

The more complicated the subject, the more delighted a reader feels to find a writer who meets it head-on, simply, clearly, with a little humor and a lot of joy. There are thousands of books about adoption out there, but Scott Simon's is unique — so humble, with such an utter lack of entitlement, and full of wonder that he and his wife Caroline were able to find their two daughters, Elise and Lina at all. "I am their spoiler-in-chief," he writes proudly, "we can't regard our daughters as rescued children. That would encourage us to treat our girls with pity." Simon tells their story — the first trip to Nanchang and the second three years later. Elise, or Feng Jia-Mei (Excellent Beautiful) cried for days at first: "Our daughter hated us," he writes. She had, he noticed immediately, a laugh like Jerry Lewis. Simon briefly describes the history of adoption in this country, the trans-racial hurdles, the bureaucratic stumbling. Simon has a natural buoyancy, a gratefulness. He "felt a love so huge," describing his relationship with his wife, "it had to be shared."

Salter Reynolds is a writer in Los Angeles.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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