The Hua Hsu Book

“Stay True”:

Part of me wants to tell you to read this book, and another wants to give a caveat.

If you’ve read my favorite book, “Anna Karenina,” you know it is peppered with political diatribes. Some people skip right over those. And if you do you miss little plot. “Stay True” is a bit different. It is peppered with philosophy and other highfalutin’ academic analysis that might fog your brain. But this philosophy does relate directly to the plot, and unlike “Anna Karenina,” “Stay True” is not much of a commitment, it’s only 198 pages.

And the reason I recommend “Stay True” is Hua Hsu is a music fan. He’s in his mid-forties, so his peak era was in the early to mid nineties. And he’s a perfect example of that era, the last in which rock ruled. Hsu reveres the bands, they inform his whole life. But he also embodies the rock and roll ethos, he does not want to be a member of the club. He’s the other. And he dresses accordingly. He’s not the life of the party, if he even goes to the party. And he hasn’t been laid. In other words, he’s hip but not mainstream. The music world has completely flipped in the twenty first century. Those who make it are extroverts, who might have been popular in high school. It’s all about conforming, as opposed to thinking for yourself. It’s about the group, not the individual.

But really, “Stay True” is not about today, but yesterday, so let’s set the scene.

Hua is the son of Taiwanese immigrants. They came to America for the opportunity, to better themselves. And interestingly, while they were over here, all the action turned out to be over there, and Hua’s father moves back to Taiwan, but Hua and his mother live in Cupertino, until the mother moves back to Taiwan too.

And a lot of the book is concerned with being Asian, being a minority, trying to fit in, wanting to be included. Hua’s born in America, but he feels he’s different. And for college, Hua goes to Berkeley, where 40% of the students are Asian. However some are more assimilated than others.

So besides the music, what makes “Stay True” great is the discussion of college. There are 8,000 students in Hua’s class, so there is anonymity, unlike where I went to college, where the class was 450. And…

This is what’s hard to square for me, the college experience. Hua talks about all this extracurricular reading, we didn’t have time for that at Middlebury, and I had no desire to go any deeper into academic theory. I remember this philosophy class I had the first semester, with Mr. Andrews, nearly dead, one of the most boring classes I’ve ever had. I did well, but I never took another philosophy class. They didn’t teach anything I was interested in at Middlebury College. And the only reason I went to college was because it was expected. And the reason I went to Middlebury is because it’s beautiful, coed, in Vermont and has its own ski area. The latter being the most important.

As the years wore on I switched from English to Art History, and I studied less and was less satisfied and ultimately graduated, but I’m not sure exactly what the difference is, the age, the institution…because on an academic level I cannot relate to Hua. He cares. I used to laugh at the people who took the subjects seriously. These were the people who were grinds, who were just replicating their high school experience because…because that’s what you did! Most of what I learned at Middlebury was outside the classroom, the people were very different from those I grew up with, 45% prep school graduates, few Jews, and all smart. The conversation was interesting and stimulating, that’s what I miss. And I learned how to analyze. When I think about Middlebury I remember the first week of school, when the anthropology teacher told us we were never going to discuss the reading in class, if we couldn’t understand the books we had bigger problems. And in law school all we talked about was the reading.

Now I’m too deep into my own experience, when I’m really talking about Hua’s.

Hua ended up an academic. He got his doctorate at Harvard. He’s a professor at Bard and he’s on staff at “The New Yorker,” America’s most esteemed journal which Tom Wolfe legendarily excoriated. Unfortunately, Wolfe was right. “The New Yorker” is a club, with a style, and even though I’ve subscribed for decades one thing I know is true, these are not my people. My people threw off the constraints. Bucked the system. Refused to be a cog in the machine. That’s why rock was so fascinating, they made it up as they went along. Groucho Marx said he didn’t want to be a member of any group that would have him. Elon Musk is a perfect example, he’s got rough edges, he couldn’t work for the company, he can only run the company, answering only to himself. Most of the legendary envelope-pushers are the same way. The most powerful people in the music industry couldn’t work anywhere else, they’d get fired. As for your heroes… If you ever got to meet them you’d be stunned. In many cases they’re narcissistic, and they can barely even engage socially.

Hua is a fan. And that’s one thing we can all relate to. Believing in rock stars and creating an identity similar, yet different. You want to stand out, but usually you’re not even noticed.

Now in truth “Stay True” is all about a specific event, which is delineated in each and every review of the book. I’m not going to detail it, I’ll let you be surprised, just like Hua was.

But what we’ve got in “Stay True” is the story of Hua’s college experience, his views on politics, love, academics… And he’s not easily swayed from his positions. And he has a zine… Hua’s college experience could not be replicated today. They talk about making a movie, but Hua says finding someone with a camera is a big hurdle. Today everybody has a camera!

So, “The New York Times” said “Stay True” was one of the ten best books of the year. And sans all the philosophy, I doubt they would have felt the same way. But truly it was the plot, the story, the experiences and what Hua felt about them that rang true for me. You won’t care about the academics and philosophy, you’ll care about the crushes, the friendships…

Hua writes in a very direct style. Except for the philosophy, it’s highly readable. And Hua is ultimately very much like you and me.

I’ll give you one quote…

“I found confident people suspicious.”

This rings a bell with me. How could these people be so self-assured? I certainly was not, and still am not.

For those guys who only read nonfiction… This is your book. It’s not giving any advice, but there’s tons of insight.

And I’m not saying women won’t like “Stay True”…

You’ll have a hard time putting it down. You won’t finish it and forget it.

But there will be some slow sections that you might find boring. Not extensive, but they’re there.

You’ve been forewarned.

But still, you’d be missing something if you didn’t read “Stay True.” Really, you should. This is so many of our stories’. We’re more similar than different.

Two thumbs up!

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