Score: 96/100 (9.6 out of 10)
Ninety-Nine Fire Hoops, a multicultural memoir by Allison Hong Merrill, is quite simply one of the best book we've read this year! It's up there with Holocaust Memoirs and Wild Colts Make the Best Horses. This is an easy 9.6 out of 10 (our highest ever score), and it goes without saying that score is very well-deserved and well-earned.
Allison, perhaps working with a team of editors and writers to refine this, somehow turned up a beautifully written and masterfully edited work of literature that's powerful and true to life.
The story of Allison's chaotic, tragic, yet inspiring life may not be entirely fresh or different for experienced readers of autobiographies and memoirs like ourselves, but the presentation is fresh. The story, as Allison tells it, takes up a wholly unique life of its own. That's a mouthful, but there's not really a better way to say it. Allison's story lives, breaths, and bleeds. You really cheer for her and wish her the best throughout all the difficult, trying, and challenging things she goes through.
It filled our hearts with anxiety, anger, compassion, worry, fear, hope, and intrigue. It really made us feel in a way that few other books, aside from maybe Holocaust Memoirs and When to Run: Born Scared, made us feel. What more could you ask for in anything put to paper than for it to make you feel powerful feelings and emotions?
Allison is an outstanding real-life protagonist who has us fully invested in her as if she's a hometown sports hero. Some things that stand out about her are her vulnerability, her optimism, her faith (in God), and her hope. There are so many times when she could've just given up (and she almost does), but she always finds the strength inside to live and fight on.
Meanwhile, Cameron--her Bruce Willis-looking, abusive ex-husband--is a terrifying, menacing, and diabolical real-life villain who we want to see get his comeuppance. At the same time, what's kinda frightening is that Cameron is still somewhat human and we saw a bit of ourselves in him. With Cameron, we learned how not to be and what red flags to look out for in a partner. You could say that God puts terrible people like Cameron in our lives to teach us something.
What's extra fascinating is that Allison has such a big heart and is so thoughtful that she still considers the feelings and reasoning behind the villainous Cameron rather than jumping to the conclusion that he's a total monster.
For instance, Allison dives into one particular argument between Cameron and his father that was very telling, highlighting Cameron's own traumatic upbringing and his history of rejection and abuse that are made to mirror her own. You start to see a bit of a Stockholm syndrome developing as Allison begins to make excuses for Cameron's inexcusable actions and her to desire to save and change him—a desire to make him into the husband she always dreamed of and to restore his faith in the Christian God. Even we as the readers kinda wonder if someone as terrible as Cameron might actually be redeemable. That's the kind of emotion, feeling, and hope that Allison evokes in us.
Although the tense and uncomfortable relationship between Allison and Cameron is central to the narrative, it's not the only major story thread going through this book. This book is surprisingly dense and actually quite long—over a hundred chapters in fact! But don't fret, they are lovely chapters. Woven in here are several stories including Allison's upbringing by her abusive, neglectful, and hateful father (and, to a lesser extent, her mother). While her father seems mostly irredeemable, similar to Cameron, her mother shows flashes of light. There are at least one or two heartbreaking moments including her mother, a woman struggling with a life-threatening form of diabetes that makes it impossible for her body to rid itself of waste, flooding her limbs with fluid. Her mother, who is essentially a victim of the same abusive and neglectful household, does not clean up or organize the home she flees to, leading to it being a virtual health hazard that Allison becomes ashamed of. Allison often discusses her mom as being just another adult woman in the home since for the longest time they don't share an emotional connection. Obviously, things like that tend to change closer to the end of someone's life.
Another interesting aspect of this story is culture and religion. Allison grew up in Taiwan, heavily influenced by Chinese culture. We see that in her family's veneration of ancestors and the “snake lady” creation myth.
When the LDS missionaries visit their family and show Allison another way of life and new beliefs, Allison begins a new journey—a spiritual journey—to find God and do God's will. That is perhaps why Allison is so forgiving and why she tries to see the good in even the worst people and situations. She even reasons that the bad things that happened to her in the past are what brought her to Utah to meet the love of her life, something which our editor can ironically relate to.
Some of us are immigrants and some of us have struggled to transition to the United States with limited English. We understand how frustrating that can all be. We also understand the fear and anxiety that comes with an expiring student visa or jumping through the fiery hoops of becoming an American citizen.
This book is simply amazing. We know it looks suspicious that there have been three consecutive 9.6/10 books, but they all earned it. They're all great in their own ways. This one, however, connected with us on a deeply emotional level—another level.
Check it out on Amazon!
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