The Twenty-Six Malignant Gates

In this international bestseller, four Chinese mothers and their American-born daughters try to understand each other.
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definitions & notes only words
  1. malignant
    dangerous to health
    “It is in a book, The Twenty-Six Malignant Gates, all the bad things that can happen to you outside the protection of this house.
  2. elude
    be incomprehensible to
    It was said that he once cured a woman dying of an ancestral curse that had eluded the best of American doctors.
  3. relent
    give in, as to influence or pressure
    Vincent at first refused to let me play, but when I offered my Life Savers as replacements for the buttons that filled in for the missing pieces, he relented.
  4. adversary
    someone who offers opposition
    I learned about the middle game and why tactics between two adversaries are like clashing ideas; the one who plays better has the clearest plans for both attacking and getting out of traps.
  5. obscure
    make unclear or less visible
    I learned why it is essential in the endgame to have foresight, a mathematical understanding of all possible moves, and patience; all weaknesses and advantages become evident to a strong adversary and are obscured to a tiring opponent.
  6. humility
    a lack of arrogance or false pride
    She sat proudly on the bench, telling my admirers with proper Chinese humility, “Is luck.”
    In this sentence, the older Waverly mocks her mother's "proper Chinese humility"--because she starts off describing her mother's pride, the phrase "is luck" is shown as a false humility. Not exactly the model of humility as a child or adult, Waverly tells about her prodigy days and reveals her annoyance at her mother for taking so much pride in what she thinks should've been her own proud accomplishments.
  7. tout
    show off
    I was still some 429 points away from grand-master status, but I was touted as the Great American Hope, a child prodigy and a girl to boot.
    "Tout" also means "advertise in strongly positive terms"--this fits because not only was Waverly featured in Life magazine as the "Great American Hope" but she was also crowned "Chinatown Chess Champion" by a cake in a bakery window, which led to a flower shop, headstone engraver, and funeral parlor offering to sponsor her in national tournaments.
  8. malodorous
    having an unpleasant smell
    He wore a dark, malodorous suit.
  9. careen
    move sideways or in an unsteady way
    Oranges and tin cans careened down the sidewalk. As my mother stooped to help the old woman pick up the escaping food, I took off.
  10. successive
    following in order without gaps
    Her black men advanced across the plane, slowly marching to each successive level as a single unit.
    Although the use of "successive" is focused on the slow advancement of the black men across an imaginary chessboard, the choice of the adjective could connect to its inclusion of the word "success"--while her mother sees Waverly's success as part of her success, Waverly sees her mother's success as her defeat. To free herself from this conflict, she'd have to fly off the chessboard and not play the game.
  11. morbid
    suggesting the horror of death and decay
    Why do you Americans have only these morbid thoughts in your mind?” cried my mother in Chinese.
  12. devour
    destroy completely
    Because, even as a young child, I could sense the unspoken terrors that surrounded our house, the ones that chased my mother until she hid in a secret dark corner of her mind. And still they found her. I watched, over the years, as they devoured her, piece by piece, until she disappeared and became a ghost.
  13. unravel
    become undone
    And it became so mysterious that I spent all my energies unraveling this door, until the day I was finally able to pry it open with my small fingers, only to immediately fall headlong into the dark chasm.
    In the example sentence, five-year-old Lena is physically trying to unravel the many locks and chains on the basement door. But it could also refer to the older Lena trying to unravel ("disentangle") the mysterious reasons behind her mother's mental unraveling ("become undone by separating the fibers or threads of"--or in Lena's mother's case, the thoughts and memories of her different lives).
  14. peril
    a state of danger involving risk
    But the next night, the girl came back to life with more screams, more beating, her life once more in peril.
  15. jaunty
    having a cheerful, lively, and self-confident air
    I saw no traces of blood-stained clothes; she wore a crisp white blouse, a blue cardigan sweater, and a blue-green pleated skirt. In fact, as I watched her, she seemed quite happy, her two brown braids bouncing jauntily in rhythm to her walk.
  16. poise
    be motionless, in suspension
    Sometimes she would start to make dinner, but would stop halfway, the water running full steam in the sink, her knife poised in the air over half-chopped vegetables, silent, tears flowing.
    "Poise" also means "great coolness and composure under strain" and "a state of being balanced in a stable equilibrium"--neither of which would fit the nature of Ying-ying St. Clair, who would cry with a knife poised and the water running, who would look around everything at home with empty eyes, and who would spend most of the day lying in bed.
  17. stagnant
    not growing or changing; without force or vitality
    Maybe she had listened through the wall and heard nothing, the stagnant silence of our unhappy house.
  18. chagrin
    cause to feel shame
    Seventeen years ago she was chagrined when I started dating Ted. My older sisters had dated only Chinese boys from church before getting married.
  19. brash
    offensively bold
    I have to admit that what I initially found attractive in Ted were precisely the things that made him different from my brothers and the Chinese boys I had dated: his brashness; the assuredness in which he asked for things and expected to get them; his opinionated manner; his angular face and lanky body; the thickness of his arms; the fact that his parents immigrated from Tarrytown, New York, not Tientsin, China.
  20. verbatim
    in precisely the same words used by a writer or speaker
    When Ted drove me home that day, I told him I couldn’t see him anymore. When he asked me why, I shrugged. When he pressed me, I told him what his mother had said, verbatim, without comment.
  21. exhilarating
    making lively and joyful
    It was exhilarating and draining. The emotional effect of saving and being saved was addicting to both of us.
  22. chasm
    a deep opening in the earth's surface
    This was such a big leap in logic, between what I said and what he said, that I thought we were like two people standing apart on separate mountain peaks, recklessly leaning forward to throw stones at one another, unaware of the dangerous chasm that separated us.
  23. benevolent
    showing or motivated by sympathy and understanding
    It had given them the confidence to believe their luck would never run out, that God was on their side, that the house gods had only benevolent things to report and our ancestors were pleased, that lifetime warranties meant our lucky streak would never break, that all the elements were in balance, the right amount of wind and water.
  24. predisposed
    made susceptible
    My mother had a superstition, in fact, that children were predisposed to certain dangers on certain days, all depending on their Chinese birthdate.
  25. tentative
    hesitant or lacking confidence; unsettled in mind or opinion
    He put one foot tentatively on the reef, and I warned him, “Bing.”
  26. sentinel
    a person employed to keep watch for some anticipated event
    And she would stand straight as a sentinel, until three times her eyesight failed her and Bing turned into a dark spot of churning seaweed.
  27. wrath
    intense anger
    She would use a water treatment to soothe the wrath of Chu Jung, the three-eyed god of fire.
  28. covet
    wish, long, or crave for
    This ring, she told me, drew coveting stares from women and made them inattentive to the children they guarded so jealously.
  29. indignity
    an affront to one's self-esteem
    I was like the Christ child lifted out of the straw manger, crying with holy indignity.
    Although the younger Jing-mei actually pictured herself as a prodigy in different ways (including as a dainty ballerina and Cinderella), the older Jing-mei is mocking herself. Far from being like the baby Christ crying with holy indignity at being disturbed from his comfortable bed, Jing-mei actually brought indignity to her family with her poor piano performance that disturbed the ears of the audience.
  30. reproach
    a mild rebuke or criticism
    In all of my imaginings, I was filled with a sense that I would soon become perfect. My mother and father would adore me. I would be beyond reproach.
  31. listless
    marked by low spirits; showing no enthusiasm
    So now on nights when my mother presented her tests, I performed listlessly, my head propped on one arm.
  32. discordant
    lacking in harmony
    But I was so determined not to try, not to be anybody different that I learned to play only the most ear-splitting preludes, the most discordant hymns.
  33. squabble
    argue over petty things
    We had grown up together and shared all the closeness of two sisters squabbling over crayons and dolls.
  34. stricken
    grievously affected especially by disease
    But then I saw my mother’s face, her stricken face.
  35. devastate
    overwhelm or overpower
    But my mother’s expression was what devastated me: a quiet, blank look that said she had lost everything.
  36. fiasco
    a complete failure or collapse
    I assumed my talent-show fiasco meant I never had to play the piano again.
  37. nonchalantly
    in a composed and unconcerned manner
    “I’m not going to play anymore,” I said nonchalantly.
  38. brittle
    having little elasticity
    Alakazam!—and her face went blank, her mouth closed, her arms went slack, and she backed out of the room, stunned, as if she were blowing away like a small brown leaf, thin, brittle, lifeless.
    "Brittle" also means "lacking warmth and generosity of spirit"--both definitions fit the situation. Suyuan seems physically brittle as she leaves the room, after her daughter Jing-mei shouted, "I wish I were dead! Like them." "Brittle" could also describe Suyuan's emotional state and her position that only an obedient daughter can live in her house.
  39. assert
    insist on having one's opinions and rights recognized
    In the years that followed, I failed her so many times, each time asserting my own will, my right to fall short of expectations.
  40. inevitable
    incapable of being avoided or prevented
    So I never found a way to ask her why she had hoped for something so large that failure was inevitable.
Created on June 17, 2013 (updated July 16, 2018)

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