ShadowHero-Cov-300rbg-550x850  I just read Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew’s The Shadow Hero, their imagining of the origin story of the Green Turtle, the 1940s Asian American comic book hero (invented by cartoonist Chu Hing). They locate the Green Turtle’s origins firmly in Asian American history, with Hank, our hero-to-be, the son of immigrants and growing up in 1930s Chinatown while working in his father’s grocery store. It’s also a classic superhero origin story, with primal scenes of violence and hurt that will shape the hero’s quest in later life, but with an Asian Americanist take – a wry awareness of racial formations and racist stereotypes. Basically, Shadow Hero is awesome and you should all run out and read it immediately.

An extra-special touch is the section at the end that provides the publication history of the original 1944 Green Turtle comic, including the publisher’s unwillingness to make the hero Asian American and cartoonist Hing’s subversion of that decision. Also included is a reproduction of the entire first Green Turtle adventure, from Blazing Comics #1, which is fascinating and complicated on a number of levels.

Gene Luen Yang is the much-acclaimed author of American Born Chinese (reviewed 2011-02-10), Level Up (reviewed 2011-11-26), Boxers and Saints (reviewed 2013-09-21), and other works. Sonny Liew is a comic artist based in Singapore who is known for Malinky Robot and My Faith in Frankie.

The Shadow Hero was originally published as monthly e-issues, with original cover art for each issue, and the full graphic novel was published earlier this month. There’s also a book trailer here (as well as links to buy the book):
Asian American Literature Fans – Megareview for July 21st, 2014

Questions/ concerns/ comments? Please e-mail me at . With apologies as always for factual inaccuracies, grammar and spelling mistakes, etc.

In this post, reviews of Alex Tizon’s Big Little Man: In Search of my Asian Self (Houghton Mifflin, 2014); Kalyan Ray’s No Country (Simon & Schuster, 2014); Kim Moritsugu’s The Oakdale Dinner Club (Dundurn, 2014); Franny Choi’s Floating, Brilliant, Gone (Write Bloody Publishing, 2014) with illustrations by Jess Chen; and Hieu M. Nguyen’s This Way to the Sugar (Write Bloody Publishing, 2014).

A Review of Alex Tizon’s Big Little Man: In Search of my Asian Self (Houghton Mifflin, 2014).

For those unaware of issues related to Asian American men and masculinityd, Alex Tizon’s Big Little Man will certainly be a revelation. In line with the searing memoirs of David Mura (Turning Japanese and Where the Body Meets Memory), Alex Tizon explores the challenges of growing up as an Asian American man, one who must contend with prevailing stereotypes concerning submissiveness, lack of desirability, nerdiness, and other such related issues. Tizon’s journalistic background emerges at the forefront of this book, especially as numerous facts and issues appear in relation to Asian American history and gender issues. At the same time, what really grounds this work is the personal story behind Tizon’s own upbringing, especially in the ways that his mother and father adjusted or did not adjust to living in America. Tizon’s foregrounds how his mother, as an Asian American woman, was able to deal with the acculturation process better due to the fact that her gender allotted her certain advantages. On the other hand, Tizon’s father finds himself lacking and begins to register this lack in his slow and undignified disintegration. Ultimately his parents end up getting divorced. Tizon brings up a controversial point concerning the bifurcation of racial formation for Asian American men and women. According to Tizon, Asian American women, who are ultimately hypersexualized, but yet still desirable, are able to negotiate the challenges of social marginality in ways that Asian American men, who register as nonsexual entities, cannot. The danger in Tizon’s position is that it does not fully engage the ways in which hypersexualization and supposed desirability of Asian American women still stands as oppressive, dangerous, and problematic in its construction (see Celine Shimizu’s The Hypersexuality of Race for more on this issue, for instance). Nevertheless, Tizon’s points concerning Asian American manhood are right on the mark; his knowledge of popular culture reveals that white supremacy remains embedded in the construction of the filmic and televisual imaginary. Given the four decades that have passed since Frank Chin and his fellow editors screamed Aiiieeeee, it’s amazing how little things seem to have changed for Asian American men and whether or not there will ever be a bona fide A-list Asian American actor to emerge on the Hollywood scene (certainly, there have been some successes such as Sessue Hayakawa, James Shigeta, Jason Scott Lee, and John Cho, but few would argue that these figures achieved true mainstream recognition).

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A Review of Kalyan Ray’s No Country (Simon & Schuster, 2014).

(best image I could find)

Kalyan Ray’s No Country (his second novel after Eastwords, which is only available through Penguin India… my long-standing gripe against publication rights and the limits it affords the transnationally-driven bookworm) is truly an epic novel, the kind of which you do not see quite often in this age of twitter, short facebook updates, and lightning fast news clips. Clocking in at over 500 pages, Ray is able to maintain momentum through key perspective shifts that together create a transnational tapestry of a dispersed set of families. The novel open with a mystery: a South Asian American woman’s parents have been found murdered. The novel then moves back into the 19th century to Ireland where we learn of the star-crossed love affair between Brigid and Padraig Aherne. The narration alternates in this section primarily among three characters: Padraig; Brendan McCarthaigh (Padraig’s best friend); then Padraig’s daughter with Brigid, Maeve). Early on in the novel, Padraig and Brigid are separated. Padraig’s investment in politics results in an accidental death and he is forced to assume the identity of someone else, someone bound for India. Back in Ireland, Brigid dies in childbirth; her daughter Maeve survives. While Padraig attempts to find a way to get eventually back to Ireland, Brendan narrates about the Irish potato famine and how he, along with a schoolteacher and Maeve, are ultimately forced to flee to find a better life and settle somewhere in the New World. The boat upon which Brendan travels strikes an iceberg and is lost at sea, though Brendan and Maeve do survive (the schoolteacher does not). Later, when Padraig investigates what happened to his lover Brigid, he discovers upon return to Ireland that Brigid is dead, that his mother died in the midst of financial distress, and that many that he knew perished during the famine or vacated the area. Padraig also discovers that the ship Brendan and Maeve were on was lost at sea and he assumes they perished. Thus begins the major bifurcated narratives: a family in India, where Padraig marries an Indian woman and a family in the United States, where Brendan becomes a surrogate father to Maeve who ends up marrying a Polish Jew and bears a daughter named Bibi. From here, the novel continually moves forward in time, jumping between continents and narrators. By the time the novel concludes, readers are feverish for some sort of reunification between the two families, but the twining together of these disparate family trees finally occurs in such a way that it might surprise readers. Others may find the resolution unfulfilling for the simple reason that there is so much holding these families apart, there is a desire for some sort of measured and sustained conclusion/ unification that never quite arrives. The novel is obviously rigorously researched, as evidenced by the detailed notes that conclude this work, but the emotional heart seems apparent to appear in the earliest sections; it is Padraig, Brendan, and Maeve who seem to get the most storytelling time and you’re thinking back to them always as you move forward. Ray’s work is most contextually compelling on the level of its reconsideration of race and kinship: it elucidates the transnational nature of the 19th century, especially through the movement of goods and labor in the era of colonialism. In this sense, the novel has much in line with Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies and even Toni Morrison’s A Mercy, which sees the boat and the experience of the passage in its varied forms as a rupture point in which new relationalities must emerge, however traumatic or unexpected in their constructions.

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A Review of Kim Moritsugu’s The Oakdale Dinner Club (Dundurn, 2014).

There’s something deliciously wicked about Kim Moritsugu’s The Oakdale Dinner Club, a kind of answer we might say to the pleasant, sentimentalized versions of other clubs and social formations started by women (such as the Jane Austen Dinner Club or the one depicted in Darien Gee’s Friendship Bread). Indeed, Moritsugu, an (Asian) Canadian writer, has mastered a kind of snarky internal narrative voice that generates dark comic moments throughout her newest publication (we’ve reviewed some of her titles here, such as The Restoration of Emily and The Glenwood Treasure). Set in an exclusive Canadian suburb called Oakdale, the novel follows the lives of a group of colorful characters. Most of the narrative attention is focused on Mary Ann, a woman who is undergoing something of a midlife crisis, as her husband Bob has a wandering eye, and she yearns to get even by having an affair of her own. She whittles down the candidates to three individuals: Drew, her IT coworker; Tom, her staid, but pleasantly handsome work associate; and Sam Orenstein, the husband of a popular and beautiful Oakdale socialite named Hallie. Mary Ann’s partner-in-crime is Alice Maeda, a mixed race Japanese Canadian who is a free spirit of sorts. An anthropologist by profession, Alice has moved back to Oakdale to raise her four-year-old daughter, Lavinia, the product of one of her numerous and ephemeral love affairs. Mary Ann hatches the idea of the Oakdale dinner club, inviting a set of participants that are more or less well-known for their abilities to cook or for their interest in things culinary. Of course, the Oakdale dinner club will also include the three men with whom Mary Ann is considering for her extramarital affair. Alice’s own storyline takes a romantic turn when she bumps into an old high school friend, Jake Stewart. Though Jake has aged—he has become bald—Alice realizes that she still harbors an interest in him and decides to pursue getting to know him better. Other important, but more minor characters in this novel include Sarah, Mary Ann’s mother, who at some point got divorced but never remarried and Danielle Pringle, a more working-class mother who feels out of place in the very upscale neighborhood of Oakdale. Moritsugu does a wonderful job of weaving the stories together. With its biting humor and sarcastic wit, Moritsugu’s work makes for a fast-paced, decadent, and entertaining read. Though I figured I would start reading the novel and finish it the next day, I stayed up to read it all in one sitting, wondering about how Mary Ann’s pursuit of extramarital interests would end up and how the Oakdale Dinner Club would turn out. The conclusion also sees a handful of recipes that make the novel more interactive than I would have guessed.

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A Review of Franny Choi’s Floating, Brilliant, Gone (Write Bloody Publishing, 2014) with illustrations by Jess Chen; A Review of Hieu M. Nguyen’s This Way to the Sugar (Write Bloody Publishing, 2014).

I’ve been reading a couple of titles out of the independent press out of Austin, Texas, with a witty name called Write Bloody Publishing (indeed, it almost seems a requirement these days for the indie press to have a funky, interesting name). More information about the press can be found here and I hope to get to review some others in time from that same press:

Franny Choi’s Floating, Brilliant, Gone is a collection that is part of an emergence of Asian American poetic writings which are directly influenced by previous Asian American cultural producers. By making this statement, I mean to say that Choi’s collection begins with an epigraph from one of my favorite novels ever: Alexander Chee’s Edinburgh. The quotation Choi picks is one directly related to loss, and it is one that will structure and influence the many poems that will appear afterword. Though Choi’s lyrics are particularly affecting, she’s got a clear knack for word play and doesn’t stray away from avant-garde impulses, especially with the layout of words on the page and different visual constructs. The illustrations provided by Jess Chen are a nice touch and create a gothic ambience to the darkly playful lyrics. I’ve focused on a couple below that I think are most illustrative of Choi’s ability to engage in lyric wordplay and politicism:

In “Kimchi,” Choi employs some ethnic food imagery as an extended metaphor to engage the problematic tension in one Korean American family:

My parents’ love for each other
was pickled in the brine of 1980,
spent two decades fermenting

in an air-tight promise.
Their occasional salt caught
a slow fever, began to taste like

a buried secret. They choked
in each other’s vinegar, dug for pockets
of fresh-cut love, once green and whole,

now a shrunken head, floating.
Every night, she pulls it, messy and
barehanded, out of the jar, slices it

into slivers, and we all swallow,
smiling through the acrid burden
kicking in our throats (26).

I love the melancholic sentiment here: the experience of loss and degradation found in a food, one that used to signify something else entirely. The idea of this marital union as undergoing a kind of pickling process is, I think, just a fun and sardonic way of approaching this issue. In “To the Man who Shouted ‘I like Pork Fried Rice’ at Me on the Street,” readers can see Choi’s gift for a kind of sonic coherence, the dynamics of flow from one line to another.

so call me
pork: curly-tailed obscenity
been playing in the mud. dirty meat.
worms in your stomach. give you
a fever. dead meat. butchered girl
chopped up & cradled in Styrofoam
for you – candid cannibal.
want me bite-sized
no eyes to clog your throat (38)

The repetition of the “c” generates an alliterativeeaffect, particularly a kind of piquant sound that generates more aggression in the tonality of this passage. I find the phrase “candid cannibal,” both poignant and caustic, this idea that the lyric speaker can be consumed as an ethnic Other, but that she is ultimately undigestible to this racist figure. In “Gentrifier,” Choi’s lyric speaker observes the changes going on in a neighborhood, not all of which can be commended:

the new grocery sells real cheese, edging out
the plastic bodega substitute, the new neighbors

know how to feed their children, treat themselves
to oysters sometimes, other times, to brunch, finally,

some good pastrami around these parts, new café
on broadway, new trees in the sidewalk, everyone

can breathe a little easier, neighborhood association
throws a block party, builds a dog park right

at the middle of the baseball field, crime watch listserv
snaps photos of suspicious natives, how’d all these ghosts

get into my yard? cop on speed dial, arrange flowers
as the radio croons orders, rubber on tar,

skin on steel, an army of macbook pros guarding
its French presses, revival pioneers, meanwhile,

white college grads curse their racist neighbors,
get drunk at olneyville warehouse punk shows,

ride their bikes on the right side of the road, say west end
like a badge, while folks on the other side of cranston street

shake their heads and laugh. interrogation lamps
burning down their stoops, banks gutting their houses (50).

The strength here is in the common images of gentrification that are refigured in unexpected ways: the personification of the Macbook pros, the class pretensions that appear in improved cuisine choices, how elegance and etiquette can be found in words and phrases. The interior monologue signaled by the italics is a nice touch, giving this poem an extra edge of acerbic humor. Choi’s Floating, Brilliant, Gone is anything but absent; it is a collection with a commanding presence, certainly full of buoyancy and luminosity.

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Hieu M. Nguyen’s poetry collection This Way to the Sugar seems to suggest a sort of culinary theme to the book, but it’s more of a false tell. There are certainly references to food and to sugar, but Nguyen’s lyrics are largely concerned with the bodily and the corporeal. The autobiographical tinge of these lyrics give it a kind of intimacy not unlike Franny Choi’s work in the previously reviewed Floating, Brilliant, Gone. Here, there are some issues with acculturation and assimilation that do come up, especially as the generational divide between Vietnamese immigrants and their children brings about certain tensions (in poems like “Tater Tot Hotdish” and “Buffet Etiquette”). In other poems, Nguyen’s lyric speakers will bravely and gamely take on feelings related to budding queer sexualities in a variety of ways: pretending to take on internet identities in one case (“A/S/L”), and meeting for anonymous sexual encounters at a hotel room in another (“Christmas Eve, 17”). In one of the most poignant poems, “Stubborn Inheritance,” the lyric speaker describes the aftermath of his coming out process to his mother:

It look my mother eight years

to accept me for being gay. For eight years I sat
and watched my house burn. I watched her save the baby

photos but leave the baby—I know I should be grateful
that she came around at all. That she forgave me.

I’ve been told that it’s not her fault. It is how she was
raised. I’ve been told that it’s our family’s old way

of thinking. I’ve been told to forgive this
stubborn inheritance, this thing that has lived

inside her, and her mother, and her mother’s father—
I’ve been told that once you’ve been stabbed, it is better to leave

the blade inside the body—removing the dagger will only open
the wound further. Forgiveness will bleed you think” (65-66).

The confessional quality of these lines is characteristic of Nguyen’s approach toward lyric construction. Never shying away from the messy, the mury, the surfeit that always comes with charged encounters, familial ruptures, sexual dalliances, This Way to the Sugar is irresistibly direct. Even in a case like “Stubborn Inheritance,” where it seems as if the rift between son and mother must be preserved, the collection ends with a wistful, melancholic sentiment in the poem, “Nostophobia”:

Grief like sugar
boiling on a tongue. I am terrified
of no longer being a son,
to have to attend a funeral
without her [71].

By this point, we understand that the way to the sugar is riven with loss and trauma and the always difficult process of maturation. In the more than capable lyrics hands of Hieu Nguyen, we will delight in the collection’s bittersweet flavors.

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Asian American Literature Fans – Megareview for July 10, 2014

As always, with apologies for factual inaccuracies, grammatical errors, and other such things. Feel free to contact me with any questions:

In this post, reviews of Livia Blackburne’s Midnight Thief (Disney-Hyperion, 2014); Leila Rasheed’s Diamonds and Deceit (Disney-Hyperion, 2014); Mariko and Jillian Tamaki’s This One Summer (First Second 2014); Jenny Han’s To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2014); and Elsie Chapman’s Divided (Random House Kid’s Division, 2014).

A Review of Livia Blackburne’s Midnight Thief (Disney-Hyperion, 2014).

This novel was one of the highly anticipated new releases of 2014 in the young adult/ fantasy romance genres. In Livia Blackburne’s debut Midnight Thief, she draws upon the long history of Anglo-Saxon mythology and fantasy to create a story about an orphan named Kyra, who moves from moonlighting as a thief to becoming a trained assassin. There are palaces and armed guards, talk of griffins, people who can speak to animals, antagonists called demon riders, all the things you would want in this kind of genre. Certainly, enthusiasts of role-playing games and Dungeons & Dragons will immediately embrace this novel with its familiar vocabulary, settings, and ethnic signifiers. Other readers will be drawn to Kyra as a romantic lead, coming of age in an environment where it is unclear what her prospects might be. Given a lack of noble heritage, her options for male romance seem limited to the assassin’s guild leader, James, who is considerably older than her. As Blackburne’s narrator (the story is told from the third person) points out a number of times, Kyra is lucky enough as it is to have room and board at a tavern called the Drunken Dog. She’s found her own patchwork family with a fellow former street urchin, Flick, and other strays who have managed to survive out on the streets and later, to make a living out of what skills they developed. Kyra’s got a knack for speed and sleight of hand, which makes her a target of the assassin’s guild, who want her abilities to gain a better sense of the Palace, its layouts and its structural weaknesses. Kyra, sensing the possibility of a steady paycheck in an economically turbulent time, decides she will take on this position, even at the consternation of Flick, her most trusted friend. The other narrative involves Tristam, a knight, who must endure the death of a very close ally, James, and vows to seek vengeance against the Demon Riders who killed him. The Demon Riders seem to have magical abilities related to large, vicious cats, and these barbarians have increased the number of raids and attacks in the area. Though these two narratives are unrelated in the first hundred or so pages, Blackburne is patient and eventually draws the two main characters together. Some of the later stage reveals are not at all surprising, but Blackburne is certainly aware of her target audience. Readers of YA/ fantasy romances will get all that they have wanted: a spirited female protagonist of humble origins who makes it in a world of magic, mischief, and misogynistic men and still manages to find the one guy—with appropriately chiseled abdominal muscles—who might actually have a sense of feminist empowerment. For scholars of race and ethnicity, Blackburne’s novel is of course part of the postracial fictional contingent, which is not really so post-racial after all. The Barbarians, and Demon Riders, come to signify as the racial Other; along the way, there is talk of miscegenation and the problems that come with it. As with many other works in this YA/ fantasy genre, racial difference tends to be allegorized or analogized. Where the novel eventually moves with this issue is more suggestive of an ethos toward uneasy cultural hybridity, but Blackburne’s debut leaves quite a bit of room for more exploration of the fictional world. There is no indication that this novel is part of a planned trilogy, so we’ll wait to see if we will have more adventures with Kyra. I can already imagine future titles in what could be the three-part arc: Midnight Assassin? Midnight Rogue? Midnight Scoundrel? LOL.

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A Review of Leila Rasheed’s Diamonds and Deceit (Disney-Hyperion, 2014).

Leila Rasheed returns with her follow up to the “At Somerton” series with Diamonds and Deceit (after Cinders & Sapphires). As with other YA fictional romances, this one looks to be the standard trilogy. In this installment, there are a number of different storylines that Rasheed will juggle. Ava, our ostensible protagonist from book 1, is getting married to a rich aristocrat named Laurence, even though she still harbors feelings for the Ravi, the Indian student with whom she engaged a brief romantic dalliance, but realized—especially given their different racial backgrounds—that such a match would be unthinkable and ill advisable given her own privileged status. Rose, who was once a handmaid, has now become a member of Ava’s family. The transition from handmaid to an elite is difficult, as Rose must entitle herself to the wealth that she once only viewed on the sidelines. Complicating matters is the rakish Duke of Huntleigh, who has come to town for the season and with an eye on Rose. Little does the Duke know of Rose’s humble origins. Charlotte Templeton is in her third season and is desperate to land the right marriage proposal. Unable to woo Laurence, Charlotte looks to disrupt other romances and has her sights set on the affluent Duke of Huntleigh. Meanwhile, in another romance plot, Sebastian Templeton desperately attempts to find a way to save his valet (and lover) Oliver from taking the fall for an accidental death which has been incorrectly determined to be a homicide that Oliver perpetrated. Finally, Michael Templeton is still in love with the domestic servant Priya, a match as ill-advised as the one that could have happened between Ravi and Ada (given the interracial/interclass issues). Michael seeks to find a way to be with Priya despite this difference in class and race, much to the ire of his aristocratic family. The publishers of this volume saw fit to include a very useful family tree at the novel’s beginning and which graces the binding pages of the hardcover edition, but noticeably absent from this tree are the many servants, housemaids and other employees that help run the various estates that appear in the novel. See the diagram here:

In this sense, the family tree fails to get at the complexity of Rasheed’s work, which indeed seems to “queer” every single romance that appears, either through an interclass, interracial, and/or same-sex paradigm. Rasheed establishes the aristocratic norm and from there explores illicit variations on that norm. This second installment, as they all seem to go in the trilogy format, is fairly dark and reveals that there are significant consequences, especially from those hailing from the lower classes, as they attempt to move up along society’s ladder. Further still, Rasheed is continually operating with a larger historical tapestry in mind, with references to World War I and colonial India always in the background. Rasheed’s work is no doubt entertaining, but one would be remiss not to mention the novel’s obvious and important social critiques.

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A Review of Jenny Han’s To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2014).

Jenny Han must have heard my prayers because she’s written a novel where an Asian American appears as the sole narrator and protagonist of the work. I think every single one of Han’s publications thus far has used first person narration in some form. Her co-authored work with Siobhan Vivian (the Burn for Burn series) boasts three different narrators, one of whom is Korean American. In To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, Lara Jean Song is our teenage Korean American narrator and protagonist. She has two sisters, an older one named Margot who has left for college in Europe and a younger sister named Kitty. Her father raises them on her own, since their mother passed away when they were much younger. The novel begins with Margot getting ready to leave for college; she has also recently broken up with her boyfriend Josh, an issue that is more largely a family dilemma since Josh has been sort of like an extended member of the family. The hijinks ensue when a set of letters that Lara Jean had written to the five boys that she has “loved” is mailed out to them. Not all of these letters reach their destinations, but they do reach enough of the “boys,” to make some romantic trouble. For instance, at one point when Lara Jean was years younger and before Margot was dating Josh, she had a crush on him. When she realizes that Josh is getting a little bit too close for comfort, she concocts a plot with Peter Kavinsky, another boy she had once “loved” to keep Josh from getting too close. Peter is already in a shaky relationship with a popular high school girl named Genevieve, so his aim is to make Genevieve a little bit jealous. Thus, they forge a pact to follow this “fake” relationship in the hopes that it will solve each of their problems. Genevieve will be jealous of Lara Jean and get back with Peter and Lara Jean will be free from Josh’s attempts to get her romantic attention. Of course, we know that such a plan will not operate as it is supposed to, especially in any young adult fiction where romance is on the horizon. It becomes readily apparent that Peter is growing quite fond of Lara Jean and with Josh not backing down, our proverbial love triangle is set. Who will Lara Jean choose? Will she give in to any lingering feelings with Josh, knowing that her older sister Margot might be upset with her when she finds out? Is Peter only being nice to her because he is a “fake” boyfriend? To find out, you’ll definitely have to sit down and read this novel.
On the racialized front, Han is quite subtle in ways that reveal just how insidious social difference can be. Though much of the novel is filled with seemingly first world plights like what types of cookies—fruitcake cookies anyone?—must be baked for Christmas, occasionally we’ll get a moment that takes the narrative a little bit deeper. For instance, Lara Jean laments the fact that she doesn’t have many choices for Halloween costumes because she’s half Asian. Indeed, anytime she dresses up as a particular character whose racial background does not match with hers, then she’s confused for an anime or manga figure. While this event might seem insignificant, Han’s reference to pedestrian moments like this one reveal the ways in which social difference continues to surface in the everyday. In my opinion, this work rises to the top of Han’s growing and popularly embraced oeuvre. And what luck: there is certain to be at least one more addition to the Lara Jean saga with P.S. I Still Love You.

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A Review of Elsie Chapman’s Divided (Random House Kid’s Division, 2014).

Divided is Elise Chapman’s sequel to Dualed (which was released last year). In the first installment in what is only a planned duology, West Grayer, our protagonist and our narrator, must kill her “alt” in order to complete. In the fictional world that Chapman has created, every individual has an alternate being living in a sort of mirror city. Eventually, an “idle” is made “active” and must be on the hunt to kill their alt. Only one survives. The cultural ethos behind this battle to the death is that the individual who completes the killing of their alternate is the only one worthy of survival. Because resources in this fictional world are limited, this kind of contest becomes a way to limit population growth and focus on the individuals with the will to help society continue onward. Given the fact that those in West Grayer’s world inhabit only a small section of a world butting up against a hostile placed called The Surround, the need for hardy individuals is paramount. In the sequel, West Grayer is called in by a member of the Board and requested to go on a secret mission to assassinate some alts. In exchange, West Grayer will have the guarantee that her future children will not have alts created. Further still, West will be able to get marks removed from her wrist that denote that she was once a striker, a sort of assassin for others who want to get rid of their alternates without having to complete the act on their own. West agrees to the terms offered by the Board, although this decision creates a wide gulf between her and her romantic partner Chord. She cannot tell him what is going on, but when it becomes apparent that these contracted killings are more than she bargained for, Chapman’s novel kicks into high gear. West Grayer is a protagonist haunted by the choices she had to make in book one; book two is all about dealing with the fallout of killing people she perceived were innocent. If West is hardened and traumatized by her survival, the second book offers her the chance for minor redemption. The pacing is razor fast and you’ll probably have to slow yourself down in order to catch all that is going on. Certainly, an entertaining read and a fitting ending to the Dualed duology. I have to say though I was disappointed to discover that there wouldn’t be a third installment because it’s quite clear that Chapman has more to explore in this world, especially with the area of The Surround, which remains a complete mystery.

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A Review of Mariko and Jillian Tamaki’s This One Summer (First Second 2014).

I’ve resisted the call of reading Mariko and Jillian Tamaki’s This One Summer, which was all of two days. I should at some point simply give up this idea that I will not write on graphic novels and just do it. Mariko and Jillian Tamaki’s This One Summer is the kind of understated, coming-of-age story that I sometimes do not expect to encounter in the graphic narrative form, but then again, this dynamic duo is also author of the superb graphic novel, Skim, which I have taught with much gusto in previous course iterations. The story follows Rose and her family, who always take a family vacation to Awago Beach. This year things are different. Rose’s mother is suffering from depression, the likes of which stem from a previous miscarriage. The strain on the family is obvious: there are squabbles and all-out fights that surface and we see how it affects Rose, as she also confronts her own adolescence. Rose’s (mis)adventures at Awago Beach emerge most forcefully through her close friendship with Windy, the adopted daughter of a lesbian couple who live in a nearby cottage. Rose and Windy talk about anything and everything, but mostly about their futures as women, their possible romances, and the local store employees and associated denizens, who are all teenagers and engaging in sexual activities of various sorts that results in the pregnancy of one of the young teen girls in the group. These twinned narratives function perfectly. Rose’s mother must deal with her depression among her family members, while Rose considers what it must mean for this young teen girl, Jenny, to be a mother and that her father does not acknowledge his paternity. All around Rose is the question of family formation, whether in the alternative kinship posed by Windy and her mothers, Jenny and her pregnancy, and her own relationship to her mother and father. There are no easy answers and the Tamakis are quite content with a very subtle resolution that will leave readers of all ages satisfied. The illustration as always is lush, though there is a less formal experimentation than there was in Skim. The Tamakis are also quite comfortable with allowing the images to carry parts of the discourse, where full sets of panels include little text. There is so much to interpret and soak in at this Awago Beach that I’m sure I will return again. Simply superb.

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02 July 2014 @ 08:00 pm
Asian American Literature Fans – Megareview for July 2, 2014

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In this post, reviews of Sofia M. Starnes’s Fully into Ashes (Wings Press, 2011) and Corpus Homini: A Poem for Single Flesh (Wings Press, 2010), May-lee Chai’s Tiger Girl (GemmaMedia, 2013), Ryka Aoki’s Seasonal Velocities (Trans-Genre Press, 2012), Samit Basu’s Resistance (Titan Books, 2014), Leonard Chang’s Triplines: An Autobiographical Novel (Black Heron Press, 2014).

A Review of Sofia M. Starnes’s Fully into Ashes (Wings Press, 2011) and Corpus Homini: A Poem for Single Flesh (Wings Press, 2010).

I earlier reviewed Wang Ping’s Ten Thousand Waves, which comes out of Wings Press, a unique independent publisher devoted to works with multicultural and political contours. For more on the press, go here!

Sofia M. Starnes’s Fully into Ashes is a kind of lyrical exploration into spirituality. The collection is roughly structured through three intercessions, which—if you aren’t always familiar with some religious terminology (like myself)—are forms of prayer that are dedicated to the struggles and lives of others. In this sense, there is certainly a mode of empathetic observation that comes across in many of these poems, the lyric speaker reaching out and attempting to move across places and times (place references abound throughout the collection: Mexico, Fredericksburg, Spain, Pensacola etc), with the hope of some greater power that can offer divine interventions. In “Fiction,” the lyric speaker considers the possibility of healing amongst those (perhaps veterans?) who wallow in their traumas: “Upon the stage, God’s people seemed consoled: their soldiers were no longer-flesh-and-bones, but extras from a dinky distant town; their scars were pastry, they were sharing crusts, a cherry picker’s loot in thin disguise” (9). “Fiction” introduces a general lyric approach that Starnes excels in, gesturing to material contexts, without ever directly referencing any one thing. In this respect, I’d be very interested in seeing Starnes at a reading in person; the poems tend to have an elliptical and abstracted quality that make them possess a dream-like ambience, but at the same time, there is a sense of masking that covers many lyrics and perhaps she’d be able to give some more backstory to some of them. For instance, amid a kind of pastoral filled with religious imagery in “Provinces,” there is a phrase concerning a “hung jury of a father in drapery robes” (24), but this legal reference is not brought up again in the poem; then, later, there is an interlingual register introduced in the conclusion, where the lyric speaker calls out “Hija” (24). In poems like this one, there is a sense of a rootedness that is butting up against other images that speak of bucolic vistas undermined with the sense of a coming judgment; thus “shepherds” and “pastures” mixed up with “tombs,” “psalms,” and “lambskins” (24-25). Because of this haziness, Starnes must resort occasionally to ordering notes that appear before or after poems. The concluding arc of the poems appears the most cohesive, as the elegies begin to emerge; the lyrics becoming mournful yet precise in their yearnings. My favorite sequence appears in this final arc, in the poem “The House that Bled,” and I reproduce a large portion here (but will lose the exact formatting, but perhaps that will encourage you to get the book!):

“We fear yet love our scars.
As artisans

We’re drawn to storied houses, to strip and
tell their stock of wood,

armlock of newer plaster.
We know that someone notched, nicked,

bliested their beams and mantles,
until the white gypsum hung.

Houses withstand their centuries,
double-rooms and double tales, luster

and bristle inside-out, wished-back
wounds hoisting their wishable omens.

The rough of heaven clings to them
and cannot flee, eliding” (74).

I adore the extended metaphor that the lyric speaker draws out here, the ways in which poets and artists seek out the depraved, the broken in search of a kind of reinvigoration, a rebirth that one might call, at least in the context of this poetry collection, a lyric-spiritual resurrection.

The spirituality that tracks through Fully into Ashes is on full display in Corpus Homini: A Poem for Single Flesh, which is a beautifully produced chapbook. As I’ve mentioned before, I find chapbooks to be an interesting form, especially because they are often so materially ephemeral. With limited print runs, often hand-bound, chapbooks are fairly hard to track down. Ephemerality, especially as it relates to the human body and how it perceives, its place in the world, the fact of its existence, seems to be the questions that root the lyrics in this chapbook. As with the full collection, Corpus Homini abounds not only with religious references, but intertextual registers, which give the chapbook a wonderful sense of thickness. It is clear, for instance, that Starnes has been influenced by Modernist poets; there was a moment where I simply said: oh, these lines directly invoke T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, and then, about five pages later, there is a quotation pulled out from a different work by Eliot. The conclusion to Corpus Homini sees a frail old man who seems to fall near his doorstep, which is then followed by a lyric section called “One Birth.” Starnes bring us back to the circularities of the body: “Let us suppose we all consume,/ will be consumed, and consummate our living with the heart pressed hard against the freeze” (33). As with Fully into Ashes, Starnes is masterful in her use of pastoral images imbued with a sense of impermanence, no doubt a nod to her interest in the Romantic era poets, the picturesque always giving way to the overwhelming and overpowering nature of the sublime.

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A Review of May-lee Chai’s Tiger Girl (GemmaMedia, 2013).

May-lee Chai’s Tiger Girl, a sequel to Dragon Chica, follows the protagonist (Nea Chhim), as she navigates life in the wake of knowing her family secret. Struggling in her university studies, Nea makes a drastic decision to leave school for a period and travel out to Southern California. She clearly seeks to find out more about her father, who she was raised to understand was her Uncle. Once there, Nea helps her father out at their business, a donut store, where she begins to understand more about the circumstances of his life and what may have lead to the decisions he has made about his family. Life and work at the donut shop is far from ideal; business is relatively stagnant. Her father employs two workers, Anita (who has some sort of close, but unexplained connection to her father) and Sitam, a good-natured employee. Hoping to find a way to help out, Nea realizes that she can put her energy and skills to good use. She helps to invigorate the business with a couple of key changes, including getting more publicity for the donut shop. A local news feature based upon Nea’s biological father has the unexpected ramifications of reuniting Nea’s father with his son (and Nea’s brother) Paul. The new addition to the family clearly causes strain, especially because Nea does not understand why Paul has come back into his life: is Paul looking for money? Does he have an ulterior motive?
As with Dragon Chica, Chai creates a narrative filled with politically engaged writing; this novel not only dramatizes the personal struggles of a character coming to terms with her expanding sense of family but deals with the larger atrocities of the Cambodian genocide. The stories of survival that filter throughout the novel are tastefully done and depict these immigrant families and networks as ones imbued with a sense of melancholy, but also continued hope for other trajectories and potentialities. Chai is never sentimental in her portrayals and Nea is a character that readers can certainly identify with, even despite some of her more impulsive actions. With representations of Cambodian Americans and Cambodian immigrants being still relatively nascent, Chai continues to draw upon a larger Asian American identity politic that is refreshing and aesthetically expansive and critically underrepresented.

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A Review of Ryka Aoki’s Seasonal Velocities (Trans-Genre Press, 2012).

It was pylduck who alerted me to this trailblazing title (by a trailblazing press) based upon his review here:

I believe this work may be one of the first, if not the first, sole-authored published work by an American of Asian descent who identifies as trans. On this level alone, Aoki shoulders such a heavy burden, fortunately for us, she realizes that the work must cater to a diverse audience and offers us a mixed-genre cultural production that moves across a variety of topics including childhood abuse, animal-human transformation, queer bashing of all sorts, and ethnic/racial otherness. As I’ve tarried longer and perhaps too long within Asian American cultures, I’ve sometimes had this nostalgic view of identity politics, specifically for its activist rhetoric (not so much of its masculinist ethos of course). Aoki understands the nexus between artistry and politicism, activism and aesthetics and mines this fertile terrain through which to highlight social justice issues and present them in such nuanced and often excruciatingly complex ways. I agree with Pylduck’s sentiment that we could have used some more fiction, but the element that I was missing was the corporeal aspect. It’s clear that many of these pieces are transfigured from performance pieces and other genre/media, so I wonder what might have been lost in translation. The title is of course evoked by the structural conceit of the collection, which takes us through the seasons, a metaphorical look at the cycles of change. Of course, given the many points at which Aoki brings up trans issues, the notion of the changing seasons is entirely contextualizable, especially since, as she brings up, the prefix trans is always suggestive of change and mutability: transformation, transition, etc. I often found the lyrics to carry the strongest affective pull in the collection; here’s a little teaser from a performance piece called “Deal with the Devil”: “And then, I tell myself it’s me./ As I take another pill, get another day older,/ and all I’ve managed is to live a little longer in a world/ I can’t find a place in:/ That I might be more than a pill or a syringe,/ or memories or scars./ That I was made in the image/ of someone who said her body is okay as it is,/ but stays up nights wondering/ what it would be like to carry a child” (108). Here, a lyric speaker who understands change, the shifts required of her, but who nevertheless deserves a moment of rest. A powerful and groundbreaking work.

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A Review of Samit Basu’s Resistance (Titan Books, 2014)

Taking place in the near future, Samit Basu’s Resistance is the sequel to his highly entertaining American debut Turbulence. Resistance takes place not too long after the concluding events of Turbulence; the superheroes that had banded together and even some of the supervillains from the first book find new life in this particular narrative as a new “big bad” comes into town by the name of Norio, a non-superpowered human who is intent on weeding out those individuals with skills and abilities that he deems to be destructive. You see: he is on a plan for revenge due to the fact that his own father was a casualty of a large scale battle between superpowered entities. He believes that superhumans must be stopped. The heroes of the first book have gone their separate ways. Uzma has joined an elite superhero force known as the Unit, which boasts an international group of individuals that hail from countries such as China, India, and the United States. The Unit must consider a number of possible quests, including the potential task of finding a woman (Romena) who is presumed to have a special blood property that causes those who are superpowered to lose their abilities. At this point, Aman is thought to be dead, but he is actually in hiding. Tia, or at least one of the Tias given her ability to multiple herself into seemingly endless copies, seeks to find out more information about a problematic omen portending the end of the world. She visits a young boy named Kalki who divines that he will be a part of this cataclysmic scenario. Once Norio begins his quest to round up any superpowered individual with the intent of depowering them, the novel really gains major traction. Individuals who had not been in contact with each other, begin to see each other in the hopes of finding a way to defeat Norio, on the one hand, and to prevent the end of the world, on the other. As always, Basu peppers the novel with popular culture references that make the reading experience so pleasurable and so geared toward fans of speculative fiction. The major inclusion of Japanese characters and contexts obviously stems from the grand tradition of anime and the novel benefits from this stylized cultural aesthetic. I can’t recommend this novel enough simply for the engaging plot, but Basu is obviously breaking new ground, especially for American audiences, in uniting international contexts, a diverse array of characters from multiple nations, and the genre of speculative fiction. This novel is certainly one to add to your reading list, or if you’re an instructor, your syllabus!

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A Review of Leonard Chang’s Triplines: An Autobiographical Novel (Black Heron Press, 2014).

Leonard Chang’s newest offering sees him explore the form of the autobiographical novel in Triplines. The tone and ambience produced by this novel is not entirely unlike Chang’s social realist fictions Crossings and Fruit ’N Food, his previous and his first publications respectively. In between those two novels, Chang penned detective fiction (Over the Shoulder, Underkill, Fade to Clear, which are all part of the Allen Choice series and the stand-alone Dispatches from the Cold). The autobiographical novel is always an interesting aesthetic choice because it immediately puts the reader on a kind of notice, especially as he or she attempts to discern what might be fabricated and what might be most authentic. In the acknowledgments that follow the novel, it is clear that Chang consulted some family members in order to corroborate accounts depicted. Chang also chooses an interesting discursive mode, as the entire novel is narrated from a kind of retrospective third person storyteller. In this sense, Chang promotes the divide between author and the fictional storyteller, as well as the author and protagonist. Lenny, our ostensible hero, is a young adolescent, with on older brother, Ed (about to graduate from high school) and a younger sister Mira. His mother Umee suffers harassment and domestic violence from their alcoholic father Yul. For the most part, Lenny, Mira, and Ed do not suffer the same kind of physical assaults, but nevertheless Yul stands as an ominous storm cloud constantly raining on their lives. Yul and Umee at first run a novelty-type store (called Sweet ’N Gifts, reminding us of his first novel’s title), but it eventually goes out of business. The failure of the business ultimately increases tension in the family; each child chooses to deal with the situation in their own ways. Ed maintains physical and emotional distance from the family, rarely staying at home. Mira remains introverted and artistic, constantly writing, reading, or playing music, while Lenny languishes in his own attempt to move toward what we might call Asian American manhood, trying to find his sense of self beyond his domineering father. Lenny, for instance, finds great interest in martial arts, which becomes a compelling outlet for the physical trials he suffers under Yul, who attempts to push him to become more hardened. Later, Lenny sees the opportunity of being a kind of gopher for a pot dealer as a quick means to achieve some financial capital. But, the clear talent that Lenny develops and the way that he survives is through his skills of observation, something that he will later put to excellent use as a writer. The character that perhaps undergoes the greatest change is Umee, who begins the novel as a battered housewife, but over the course of the plotting initiates a search into a new career and, by the conclusion, stands up to her husband and achieves independence from him. There is a poetic quality to this work, one reminiscent of the sparer writing style Chang employed in his first novel. What emerges from this portrait of a dysfunctional Asian American/ Korean immigrant family is a reminder of the fallacy of the model minority myth. Underlying this novel is an interesting kind of secular spirituality, which appears through the constant ways in which Mira and Lenny find refuge in a church across the street, which they break into after hours and find a sense of peace, a break from the constant fighting occurring between their parents. Without a false sense of sentimentality, Chang’s Triplines is a highly compelling read. The novel further resonates quite well with with the “dysfunctional” Asian American family plots that appear in works such as Akhil Sharma’s Family Life and Lan Samantha Chang’s Hunger.

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Asian American Literature Fans – Megareviews for June 15, 2014

As always, with apologies for factual inaccuracies, typographical errors, and grammar mistakes. If you should need to contact me, please send to:

In this post, reviews of: Susan York and Arthur Sze’s The Unfolding Center (Radius Books, 2013); Abby Spencer Goes to Bollywood (Albert & Whitman, 2014); Kyoko Mori’s Barn Cat (GemmaMedia, 2013); Sandra Tsing Loh’s The Madwoman in the Volvo: My Year of Raging Hormones (W.W. Norton, 2014); Violet Kupersmith’s The Frangipani Hotel (Spiegel and Grau, 2014).

A Review of Susan York and Arthur Sze’s The Unfolding Center (Radius Books, 2013).

Arthur Sze’s been working hard! He actually has two different publications in the past calendar year (the other is Compass Rose), so I figured it was high time we spent a little bit of time reviewing some of his new work. Sze is author of numerous other poetry collections, including but not limited to Dazzled, Quipu, The Redshifting Web. What is of course interesting about The Unfolding Center is that it is a collaboration with the artist Susan York. We might look back to this review of Timothy Liu’s work and collaboration with Greg Drasler:

In Sze’s co-authored work with Susan York, there are eleven drawings that go along with eleven poems. Those involved with the production and completion of this piece also saw fit to include drafts of early poems and sequences, a truly eye-catching look into the creative development process. An accompanying interview at the conclusion (conducted by John Yau no less) provides key insights into the inspirations and intent behind many of the collaborative portions. Indeed, I was not entirely sure what to make of the poems and the pictorial sequences that followed (though I did notice the symmetry in numbers) until I read a little bit into that interview. Each poem has two different drawings related to it. The motivation behind each drawing is a section of dark and a section of light: the dividing line between the two acts as a tension point. For instance, in unfolding center #4, one picture contains a dividing line a third of the way down the page, the other about three quarter of the way down the page. The one on the left corresponds Susan York’s consideration of the poems central tension and the one on the right corresponds to Arthur Sze’s consideration of the poem’s central tension. I reprint the poetic portion from unfolding center #4 below:

4. I slice oyster mushrooms off an aspen
then, in the next clearing, stumble
into beer cans and plastic bags.
We cannot elude ourselves; we jump
across state lines where four corners touch,
and nothing happens. A point is a period,
an intersection, spore, center of a circle,
or— “Where are my honeymoon panties?”
a woman mutters, rummaging in her purse—
the beginning of a vector in any direction.

If I’m understanding the interview within its basic context, York’s consideration of poetic tension appears in the upper third. With ten lines, my guess would be after the period completes on the third line, while Sze places the tension at the bottom one quarter, which would be roughly with the question mark. The interesting element here is to think about what tensions that each artist or poet was considering when creating the so-called “dividing line.” There is much talk about light and dark in the interview itself and how poems can be illuminated or cast in shadow. If we take York’s vision of the poem, the philosophical turning point of this piece appears to be after the third line, especially because the lyric perspective shifts into a collective, but I agreed with Sze’s vision because I was startled by the words that the woman mutters. There is a desert southwest and interior Midwest regional impulse to many of these unfolding center poems and Sze has an especially vivid way of describing landscapes, so the intrusion of the direct quotation appears as particularly jarring. But, perhaps the most fundamental thing about this collection is that you must read and re-read, considering the vision of the artist and poet and rethinking how poetry is as visual as it is textual and how art can be as poetic as it is imagistic. A fascinating work driven much by philosophical insights. The one drawback I do find in this collection is one that I’ve seen in other illustrated pieces: the lack of page numbers! If one were to assign this book in class, it could be a hindrance. Otherwise, this lushly produced collaboration is sure to invite numerous interpretations and “unfoldings.” Just as a general note, this work is completed in an especially beautiful board book style (the actual size of this book is probably four times the cover size page of a regular trade paperback to give you a sense of the dimensionality), which allows the poems to “unfurl” in an epic way and gives the artist’s abstracted drawings a panoramic gravitas. This is the kind of book that you could enjoy for its literary value, but also certainly give as a special gift for the poet or the art lover, someone with a sense of orientation toward the avant-garde, the experimental, the slightly off-kilter. Finally, as a lover of Russian Modern art, particularly Malevich and Kandinsky, I found Susan York’s drawings to be both absolutely minimalist but ultimately so expressively nuanced. A delight for any who enjoys “non-representational” arts.

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A Review of Varsha Bajaj’s Abby Spencer Goes to Bollywood (Albert & Whitman, 2014).

Varsha Bajaj’s Abby Spencer Goes to Bollywood is a rather frothy, but entertaining debut novel that follows that titular adventures of Abby Spencer. Abby’s a teenager, is raised by her single mother and extended family (mother’s side grandparents); she happens to be half-South Asian, but has no contact with her father. When Abby shows a major allergic reaction to something she has eaten—she surmises coconut—the doctor advises that the family look into her father’s medical history because the mother’s side shows no hereditary issues with the foods that Abby had eaten. Thus, the truth of Abby’s parentage comes out and Abby discovers that her father is none other than a famous Bollywood actor named Naveen Kumar. Prior to his stardom, Naveen (who at that time was known by a different name) had a short but loving relationship with Abby’s mother. Though they do not end up getting married Abby’s mother had hoped that Naveen would end up participating in some way in Abby’s life, even if he had gone back to India. But, when Abby’s mother sends him a letter when Abby is very young, it is never answered and Abby’s mother assumes that Naveen wants nothing to do with Abby. Abby’s potentially deadly medical condition pushes her family to look back into her paternal ancestry; they locate Naveen, who tells them that he never received the letter that he had a daughter, and he is very enthused to meet Abby. Thus, the title comes to fruition: “Abby Spences goes to Bollywood.” She meets her father, but the relationship is slightly tentative. Though Naveen is friendly and Naveen’s mother (Abby’s paternal side grandmother) is especially doting, the fact that Naveen is in the public eye makes this relationship complicated. Indeed, Abby is in a kind of “closet,” as Naveen waits for the perfect time to release the news that he has a daughter. Given his stature in Bollywood, such a revelation would no doubt cause a large ruckus.
Bajaj’s novel manages to weave in an entertaining plot with a major social issue: that of poverty and class disparity in India. Abby is often struck by the clapboard housing and clamoring children that assail her wherever she goes and she realizes that her life is one of privilege and security. Though Bajaj cannot obviously resolve a social ill within this kind of fictional world, her novel takes on a more textured foundation due to this kind of historical and sociocultural grounding. The other element to note is of course the issue of mixed race, an aspect that Bajaj takes head on, as Abby must confront her dual heritages and figure out how to address the possibility that she might have ties to both her mother’s lineage and her father’s. Bajaj knows her target audience and there is a requisite romance plot that emerges over the course of the novel. A novel sure to delight its intended readership.

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A Review of Kyoko Mori’s Barn Cat (GemmaMedia, 2013).

Kyoko Mori’s Barn Cat is part of GemmaMedia’s open series, which offers established and exciting writers a chance for exposure to a wider audience through a very interesting book format: the novelette in mass market form. You’ll easily finish Barn Cat within about an hour, probably less. These are slim volumes with small sizing. Though the length, width, and height of these books are not that impressive, we should not discount their importance and their depth. Mori’s Barn Cat is a contoured exploration of an “alternative” family. Our narrator is Lily, recently estranged from her husband Sam, living in Boston, who finds out that her mother is missing. She must return home, which is to Denmark, a town in the Midwest where she reconnects with her stepsister Jill. Over the course of the narrative, many revelations are made concerning Lily’s mother, Kumiko, including the problematic relationship that she had with Lily’s stepfather. This novel thus exposes the communication gaps that appear in this family, ones that reverberate to the present day. Mori’s work is effortless; she uses succinct, pared down sentences to generate a poignant narrative that doesn’t rely on a cataclysmic paranormal plot or a central romance to generate tension. The “barn cat” of the title is a nod to the ways in which Lily finds comfort in the lives of animals, particularly of cats with whom she experiences a special bonding. The importance of animals to this book is evident in the ways that they become larger metaphors for alienation, community, and the chance for familial renaissance. A beautifuly, lyrically rendered novelette.

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A Review of Sandra Tsing Loh’s The Madwoman in the Volvo: My Year of Raging Hormones (W.W. Norton, 2014).

Sandra Tsing Loh is author of numerous other works (Mother on Fire, A Year in Van Nuys, Depth Takes a Holiday, etc) and is well-known for her performance shows; she returns to the publishing world with a lively, comic memoir about menopause, unruly teens, marital affairs, losing weight and perhaps most of all: finding happiness and fulfillment as she is about to turn fifty. Loh’s memoir is constructed in anecdotes, but is loosely organized by the cataclysmic event of an extramarital affair that ends in her divorce with Mr. X. She ends up living for a brief time with Mr. Y, with whom she had had the affair, only to have him move out momentarily—he tries to make things work in his own marriage—but then they move back in together. If this initial sequence sounds rather tumultuous, it is, and Loh makes clear that the issue exacerbating everything going on is her “raging hormones,” the fact of her experiencing menopause. How is one to deal with life-changing event, the common pedestrian trials of everyday life and everything in between? For Loh, to answer this question, she must ask for advice not only of psychotherapists, but also of her family, and her many girlfriends, who often offer her useful tips, some of which she chooses to implement and others that she exposes as particularly unfruitful in the context of her life. Loh’s tonality is a difficult one to ground a memoir in, because it requires the use of humor to propel a fragmented narrative forward; there are sure to be dips and lows in a memoir working in this way. At some point, Loh relies upon hyperbole to drive points home and that can detract against the very sobering reality of aging: the well of loneliness, the questions of fulfillment, the regrets about roads not taken, and the challenges of trying to find a more authentic path amid the cult of celebrity and image that is Los Angeles. Surely, a memoir also about an upper middle-class existence, some might find Loh’s navel-gazing to be narcissistic, overwrought, and evidence of a certifiable neurotic, but this “diagnosis” would be to miss the point: Loh is quite well-aware of the ridiculousness that can be the upper middle-class existence and attempts to shore what it is that she truly values. So take a chill pill and accept a ride with a madwoman in a Volvo.

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A Review of Violet Kupersmith’s The Frangipani Hotel (Spiegel and Grau, 2014).

Violet Kupersmith’s The Frangipani Hotel is a short story collection that takes on some supernatural registers. Each story begins with a relatively basic premise, but all are generally linked by Vietnamese and Vietnamese American contexts. In the first story, “Boat Story,” told entirely in dialogue, a girl asks her grandmother about her experiences as a refugee. Though the girl already has a sense of what might be said, the grandmother proceeds to tell her a different story entirely, one in which the dead can come alive, something that seems far from the harrowing narrative that the girl had been expecting. This kind of story becomes a template for the others. Of course, this first story is a kind of metaphor for Kupersmith’s reconsideration of what Vietnamese American literature can be, attempting to alter its boundaries and the expectations of those seeking perhaps some sort of authentic ethnic experience. In the title story, for instance, a worker at a dilapidated hotel (the titular hotel) comes upon a strange woman, listing in the bathroom of one of the rooms. She seems to have a strange thirst for water and the story takes another unexpected turn when she decides to accompany this hotel worker on a trip with a transnational businessman, who has requested the company of a beautiful Vietnamese woman. In “Skin and Bones,” two young sisters travel to Vietnam on a sort of heritage visit, remaining with their elderly grandmother. One of the sisters—who is overweight—is under pressure to get fit, but while in Vietnam, she succumbs to the temptations of a street vendor who provides her with delicious breads. As with the other stories, the ending also moves into a kind of surrealist register. Kupersmith tackles a variety of different characters and contexts as the collection moves on: folktale storytelling within a religious institution, a transnational relationship with a surprise and perhaps immaculate pregnancy, a driver who must deal with a mysterious passenger. The last story of the collection, “Descending Dragon,” finally and directly engages one of the more common tropes related to Vietnamese American literature: trauma in the wake of war. In this case, the main character is subsisting in a nursing home and is increasingly afflicted by visions of a tank. Her daughter has promised to come visit her soon, but says that she cannot visit for Tet, the Vietnamese holiday. The strength of this collection can also be its weakness: Kupersmith’s stories have been influenced by her study of folktales and myths and she is clearly and dynamically reworking many within these fictional worlds, but for those who are radically unfamiliar with these terrains may find the subtlety inherent to be a little bit too distancing.

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Asian American Literature Fans Megareview for May 28, 2014

In this post, reviews of Samit Basu’s Turbulence (Titan Books, 2013); Marisa de Los Santos and David Teague’s Saving Lucas Biggs (Harper Children’s Division, 2014); Melissa de la Cruz’s The Ring and the Crown (Disney Hyperion, 2014); and Jenny Han and Siobhan Vivian’s Fire for Fire (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2013).

As always, with apologies for factual inaccuracies, typographical errors, and grammar mistakes. If you should need to contact me, please send to:

A Review of Samit Basu’s Turbulence (Titan Books, 2013).

Samit Basu’s Turbulence is definitely one of the most fun reads I have had in a long time. Basu is already known for his cult series The Simoqin Prophecies, which was published out of Penguin India. This series is hard to get in the States, but it established Basu as a speculative writer of formidable talent; descriptions make clear that The Simoqin Prophecies brings together postcolonial Indian Anglophone fiction and the fantasy genre. Basu takes a similar turn with Turbulence in what I would consider to be postcolonial Indian Anglophone fiction meets X-Men meets Tim Kring’s Heroes (specifically in its evocation of a Sylar-like big baddie). Turbulence explores what happens to a group of Indians who all happened to take the same plane flight. All those who were on that plane apparently exhibit special powers. Aman Sen, one of those individuals, attempts to unite those who were on that plane and keep them safe from forces that seem to be looking to kill them. Enter Uzma: a woman who was on the plane and who enters Sen’s would-be refuge and meets the others who are specially powered. For his part, Sen is gifted with incredible talents related to the internet. Others include Tia, who can make multiple copies of herself; Bob, who can change the weather based upon what he eats; and Sundar, who has become proficient at creating new technology, with the power of invention. Uzma’s gift seems to be a little less impressive: anyone one who meets her immediately falls in love with her. In any case, the plot takes on greater urgency when it becomes clear that there is an evil force looking to exploit the specially powered plane flight passengers and use them to rule over the entire world: Jai, the leader, has his own group of cronies with special powers, including Mukesh, who can take the form of a snake; Amina, a young girl who has taken on persona of an anime character in a video game and can accordingly injure people with special moves; Sher, a man who can take the form of a tiger; among others. Sen’s band of merry mutants seems to be the only thing stopping Jai.
Basu’s novel is so engaging because there’s a wonderful mix of action and humor. Basu puts to effective use some of the unique powers, with Tia’s multiple copies perhaps being the most comedic. Indeed, Tia’s many versions of herself often argue with each other, while others go on their own missions without informing the larger mutant clan. Basu is well aware of the intertextual resonances of his novel and is sure to cite other popular culture documents featuring mutants and monsters. Readers will be overjoyed to note that Basu’s follow-up to Turbulence, Resistance, will soon see its release in 2014. Truly, a pyrotechnic feat of the superhero-oriented imagination.

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A Review of Marisa de Los Santos and David Teague’s Saving Lucas Biggs (Harper Children’s Division, 2014)

Marisa de Los Santos takes a break from her single-authored books to team up with her husband David Teague for their debut collaboration: Saving Lucas Biggs (Harper Children’s Division, 2014). Santos and Teague split storytelling duties up among three characters: Margaret O’Malley, her best friend Charlie, and Charlie’s grandfather Josh. Initially, readers are split into two different times frames, with alternating viewpoints from Margaret in 2014 and from Josh in 1938. In the present time, Margaret O’Malley’s father has just been convicted of murder based upon a fire that he reputedly had set, one linked to the very corporation that he had been trying to take down as a whistleblower for Victory Fuels, a large fossil fuel-related corporation. The circumstances are of course sketchy and Margaret makes it clear that her father was likely the victim of a framing. The novel then shifts to 1938 where Josh tells us the story of his parents’ move from Mississippi to Victory, Arizona, (in part due to his brother who seems to have some sort of respiratory ailment) a town that is just beginning its development of industries. In 1938, this industry is coal mining. These two time periods seem to be, for the most part, unrelated, except for the fact that Margaret and Charlie do happen to be best friends and that Margaret does know Josh in 2014, as an elderly man. But, about one-third of the way into the novel, we finally figure out what the strange maxim that Margaret lives by concerning “foreswearing,” which is related to the fact that everyone in the O’Malley line (seemingly passed down from Margaret’s paternal line) is able to do time travel. Whut, whut, you say?! Yes, time travel. So, this young adult fiction clearly moves into the realm of the paranormal from this point forward, though it obviously gestures to a social realist impulse based upon the issue of union organizing occurring in 1938 and the fight against big corporations destroying the environment in 2014. Margaret, after hearing a key story from Josh in 2014, realizes that if she travels back to 1938, she might be able to alter a set of events that would then result in a different set of happenings in 2014. Specifically, she looks to prevent another framing and murder that occurred in 1938; the father of Josh’s best friend, Aristotle Agrippa, is accused of murdering the then owner of the Victory company, Mr. Ratliff. The actual killer is none other than a man named Elijah Biggs, who will later go on to own the company and adopt Aristotle’s son (and who is Josh’s best friend) Luke. If this is all sort of confusing for you, you should read the novel and enjoy its many twists and turns. Santos and Teague certainly have created a stimulating and enthralling story, one easily read within a single night (especially for those like me with reading addiction). The twining of the sociopolitical with the family drama (and the paranormal no less) heightens the stakes of this particular novel and proves to make it quite relatable to current and past social contexts. As with many books aimed at younger audience, you can expect some sort of closed resolution. This formal conceit seems to one of the primary modes of distinguishing more adult-oriented narratives from the youth-oriented ones. The question I have is related to the impulse behind this approach: are we attempting to simplify the narrative of good over evil, re-introduce the viability of a proto-romance plot? Certainly, these works traffic in the ur-narratives of our time and exploit our desire to see the heroes triumph over perceived villains. If anything though, Santos and Teague’s narrative rises above strict binaries in its climactic reorientation of the central Big Bad.

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A Review of Melissa de la Cruz’s The Ring and the Crown (Disney Hyperion, 2014).

In what seems to be a stand-alone novel, The Ring and the Crown offers Melissa de la Cruz yet another golden opportunity to showcase her tried and true formula of romance and intrigue set in a paranormal fictional world. In this case, she’s created a kind of counterfactual history in which magicians and sorcerers live alongside British Royalty. The novel starts off a little bit slowly, as de la Cruz generates narrative perspectives from at least five different characters; the two most important characters are: Princess Marie-Victoria, who is set to be married to Prince Leopold VII, heir to the Prussian throne and Aelwyn Myrddn, a powerful mage, who is separated from Marie-Victoria at a very young age due to the potential destructive power of her abilities. A goodreads member actually created a relationship chart for this book which I thought was hilarious, but also quite on the money. de la Cruz creates so many different possible romantic combinations that you sort of want a chart somewhere in the book. By this point, de la Cruz has mastered a kind of shifting third person perspective with a focus on romance plots. Certainly, this approach has been successful for her, but I can’t help but hope that de la Cruz will branch out a little bit more narratologically, perhaps experiment with different storytelling approaches in the future.

For the relationship chart, go here:

The tension of the novel is that Marie-Victoria does not want to marry Prince Leopold; her sights are on another, a guard named Gill Cameron. The other major character is Prince Leopold’s younger brother Wolf, who ends up entertaining a possible romance with an American (named Ronan) who is on the lower fringes of the landed gentry. The Ronan figure is perhaps the one most connected to the traditional courtship and marriage plot; consider her a stand-in for a kind of Lizzie Bennet figure. She’s looking to secure the right match, especially in this case to help out the dire financial circumstances of her family. With so much of the focus on the relationships, de la Cruz’s novel loses its paranormal luster; the magical elements seem tacked on and only come into play—for the most part—in one sequence involving a switcheroo between Marie-Victoria and Aelwyn. Further still, readers may balk at the concluding pairing, which abruptly pairs two figures together that seemed one of the least likely couples. de la Cruz was certainly working with the hope that such a surprise might delight, but the gamble, at least in my opinion, does not work within the logic of that fictional world. de la Cruz, as always, is exceedingly steady in her publications, the coming months and years offer another installment in the Blue Bloods series (a take I think on an adult-oriented fictional approach to this series) and then of course the Witches of East End Series and the Heart of Dread series. It remains to be seen whether The Ring and the Crown is part of a larger sequence of books, but if so, let’s hope de la Cruz gives us more of the magical and the mystical to flesh out what will surely be another “game of thrones” type plot.

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A Review of Lauren Francis-Sharma’s ’Til The Well Runs Dry (Henry Holt, 2014).

Lauren Francis-Sharma’s debut novel ’Til The Well Runs Dry uses a polyvocal first person narrative to great effect in the complicated story of a mixed race family in the Caribbean. This particular novel mines the crucial interracial histories that have linked those of African and Asian descent in Trinidad. The three first person perspectives are given to Marcia Garcia, who begins the novel as a teenage seamstress who hails from an impoverished background; Farouk Karam, a police officer, Marcia’s lover and later father to her four children; and then Jacqueline Karam, one of Marcia and Farouk’s children. Because the novel is split into these perspectives, there are always at least three “diegetic” plots occurring. For her part, Marcia simply struggles to make a life for her and her four children (Patsy, Jacqueline, Yvonne and Wesley). Her life with Farouk is complicated because Farouk’s parents, who are of South Asian ancestry, do not welcome her as a potential marriage partner. Their relationship sours after this point and Marcia must also contend with a romantic rival in the form of the daughter of a woman who practices Obeah. Marcia and Farouk are separated, though Farouk does do what he can to help support the family. His life as a police officer keeps him busy, but his professional job takes a complicated turn when he starts laundering money and he must work with corrupt officials and organized criminals. Jacqueline Karam gives us the perspective of the potential of the next generation. Jacqueline is bookish and observant, realizes that her prospects in life are limited and considers education as a possible escape route from poverty and obviously desires a life different than the one that has mired her mother. Francis-Sharma’s ability to clarify the boundaries of these three very distinct narrative positions is one of the great strengths in this novel, which grants us a kaleidoscopic viewpoint of a family that always seems to be stuck in some sort of peril. These characters are complicated and flawed, and as I mentioned earlier, this work adds much to the representational terrain of Afro-Asian Caribbean literatures; it certainly could be taught alongside works such as Patricia Powell’s The Pagoda, Kerry Young’s Pao, and others.

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A Review of Jenny Han and Siobhan Vivian’s Fire for Fire (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2013).

(hmmm... I think Kat is in the middle and Mary is on the right?)

I was saving this read for a time when I needed to take a mental break from some research, knowing Jenny Han and Siobhan Vivian’s next installment was sure to be entertaining. In the follow up to Burn for Burn, revenge continues to get both sweeter and more complicated. The trio that began the first book are back for more retribution: there’s Lillia, the popular, pretty and smart Korean American; Kat, the gothic, punkish rebel; and Mary, the formerly overweight, bookish, slightly socially awkward wallflower who all come together to hatch a plan for revenge. In the first book, the intended target Reeve is now suffering from a devastating leg injury that jeopardizes his chances for a college football scholarship. Though the three seem to have gotten the revenge that they so desired, the injury has done little to change Reeve’s character. A chance encounter with Mary, who has long harbored feelings for Reeve but was unceremoniously dropped as a friend and ridiculed for being fat, reveals that Reeve is still in need of more character refinement, so the three teens hatch a plan to get back at Reeve yet again. This plan involves Lillia pretending to win Reeve’s heart, which will of course be all an act. Lillia will then proceed to break his heart in the way that he broke Mary’s. Of course, nothing ever goes as planned and we’re not surprised when Lillia starts becoming confused about whether or not Reeve is really as bad as everyone makes him out to be. Things also get complicated because Lillia’s bestie, Rennie, also has her sights set on Reeve. This rivalry generates enough tension to create the narrative momentum needed for the plot to move toward to its cataclysmic conclusion. If you thought the ending of the first book had some generally negative and catastrophic results, this installment raises the stakes in multiple ways. The first novel hinted at the possibilities of the paranormal and Han and Vivian finally take one of the characters in the direction that all the readers were probably expecting. Even with this expectation fulfilled, Han and Vivian do surprise us with where the novel ultimately goes with this particular character and leaves readers with an excruciating cliffhanger that will have all fans lining up to buy the third copy right away. Definitely an improvement over the first of the series.
As always, you can’t help but wonder what “reality” this novel is set in; Han and Vivian create a fictional island (not unlike the many we have seen in other novels reviewed in this community) that allows them to construct a kind of isolated laboratory where you can almost forget that there’s supposedly other stuff going on in the world. In this sense, the insularity that emerges in the lives of these teen characters seem potentially alarming, especially since Han and Vivian do choose to set the fictional world in a realist aesthetic frame (indeed characters do end up traveling to colleges in preparation for graduating high school, rooting this fictional world on one that is somewhat like our own). In any case, Han and Vivian do some interesting and subtle, but nonetheless compelling work with race in this novel that cannot be overlooked. Lillia is a character that is more fully fleshed out in this version and her viewpoint is definitely the one that carries the weight of this novel, especially given her pivotal role in the faux-romance plot.

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Asian American Literature Fans – Megareview for May 10 2014

In this post, reviews of Kathryn Ma’s The Year She Left Us (Harper, 2014); Wang Ping’s Ten Thousand Waves (WingsPress, 2014); Soman Chainani’s The School of Good and Evil: A World Without Princes (Harper Children’s Division, 2014); Gabrielle Zevin’s The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry (Algonquin Books, 2014); Tamai Kobayashi’s Prairie Ostrich (Goose Lane Editions, 2014).

As always, with apologies for factual inaccuracies, typographical errors, and grammar mistakes. If you should need to contact me, please send to:

A Review of Kathryn Ma’s The Year She Left Us (Harper, 2014).

I really enjoyed Kathryn Ma’s short story collection All that Work and Still No Boys, which I earlier reviewed here:

Naturally, I was stoked to find out Kathryn Ma was about to publish her first novel, which I am reviewing here. In The Year She Left Us, Ma employs three narrative perspectives (two first person and one third person) to construct a rather complicated and unsentimental intergenerational family saga. Our ostensible protagonist is Ari (Ariadne) Kong is adopted from a Chinese orphanage by Charlie (Charlotte) Kong, a social worker who hails from a Chinese American background. Charlie raises Ari as a single mother, but has support from her extended family, including her sister Les, and her mother, Gran. There is also a larger adoptee community that Charlie relies on in the Bay Area; Ari calls these adoptees the Whackadoodles. The novel starts off with Ari having been in China, a sort of trip that allows her to think more about her identity, but she supposedly severs a finger by accident and her mother comes visiting to make sure she is okay. This incident is just the beginning of a longer and difficult trajectory that the novel takes us on: Ari wants to stay in China, defer college, get a better sense of where she was born, what she might have been taken from. Charlie is anxious and perceives the growing distance between them, while Gran wants Ari to head off to Bryn Mawr. When Ari announces that she’s going back to China and deferring college, she realizes that she’s striking out on her own and must separate from her mother’s company. Ari attempts to save money for the plane flight while working for a store selling specialty pens and inks, but the novel stages a midway intervention when Ari tries to sell some trinkets she finds in her mother’s home (without her mother’s knowledge of course). While pilfering whatever she can, she manages to stumble upon a photo of a man who was holding her as a baby. She realizes that there may be more to her story on the American side than she realizes and she is determined to find out who his man is and what this man meant to her adoptive mother. This trail eventually leads her to Alaska; she ends up crashing with a good friend of the man (Aaron Streeter) who was in the photo. Aaron Streeter died in an accident while hiking in Alaska and Ari realizes that she can get to know more about him and his life by staying with Aaron’s friend Steve and his wife Peg. As Ari discovers, Aaron was also purportedly in a relationship with Charlie when the accident happened and was determined to help raise Ari when he was tragically killed. But, there are contradictions to the story, as it seems that Aaron might have wanted to get back with his wife and that his son Noah might have been a factor in that decision. Without giving the rest of the plot away, I will say that Ma’s novel does not operate with a deterministic trajectory. The narrative seems to create only more loose ends as the plot moves further and further into each character’s lives and backstories. Gran, for instance, harbors deep family secrets concerning a brother who seems to have been developmentally challenged. While this kind of unfurling might have completely unraveled the novel, Ma is able to construct a story that reads often much more like an unedited memoir, achieving a realism that is both poignant and impressive. The choice of narrative perspectives can sometimes be uneven. Gran, in particular, is such a strong personality that her first person viewpoints can often overpower the other perspectives. Ma also makes the interesting choice of narrating the sections related to Charlie in the third person; it would be interesting to hear why Ma chose this one character for that particular perspective over the first person, which is given to both Ari and Gran. Finally, this novel is one that could be taught alongside a number of other outstanding Asian American narratives/ memoirs concerning adoptees such as Jane Jeong Trenka’s Fugitive Visions and Monique Truong’s Bitter in the Mouth.

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A Review of Wang Ping’s Ten Thousand Waves (WingsPress, 2014)

Wang Ping latest poetry collection, Ten Thousand Waves, explores many themes resonant across her growing body of work, including transnationalism, global capitalism, China’s modernization, political activism, art and cultural production, Tibetan independence, labor and sacrifice. “Dust Angels” provides a stanza that might be seen as a kind of overarching artistic impulse that unites these many poems:

they say we fake our sickness
have never worked in their factories
they hire lawyers to erase our names, ban our union
Marx and Mao are history, they claim
only freedom of market economy
the golden path toward democracy (7).

Ping’s lyrics are most effective in the evocation of the dramatic monologue, as Ping is able to inhabit a lyric speaker so seamlessly. In this case, the “we” refers to the ghostly factory workers and laborers that move throughout the collection, as the unseen army motivating global capitalism. The intriguing “found” poem “The Price of a Finger” brings together rules and guidelines (that would be on posters and signs) located in factories and businesses to generate a critique of working conditions and the lack of rights given to laborers. The party line is generated in the hopes that working conditions seem tolerable: “Kin Ki and other big producers/ have come under the greater pressure to adhere to global labor codes. They open their doors to foreign inspectors to assuage concerns that products used to entertain children in rich countries are not made under oppressive conditions in poor ones” (53). Of course, even with improvements in these facilities, the “price of the finger” still reminds us of the bodily dangers for these workers, who routinely sever appendages, so much so that Ping includes a diagram of one of the pictures she found on a factory wall in the notes that accompany the poems at the conclusion of the collection. The other quality of Ping’s work that is so effectively used is the panoramic descriptions that give sweep and scope to locations that are at once touristic centers and capitalist hubs: “Drunken tourists and their nightingales/ Money is the moon on Lhasa’s holy streets,” then “Wind, breath, naked riverbeds/ At dusk, a boy on motorcycle/ Comes home with his last herd/ Nomad daughter from the Sacred Lake” (20). We are always in the richly textured poetic hands of Ping, traveling across the vast expanses that link nomads to revelers and mystics. Many voices ring out in the collection clamor for recognition, “Who will know me but ghosts?” (90), a question that Ping can only answer with her ability to memorialize the lost and the downtrodden in the painful beauty of lyric poetry.
For more on the indie publisher WingsPress, see:

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A Review of Soman Chainani’s The School of Good and Evil: A World Without Princes (Harper Children’s Division, 2014).

Agatha and Sophie are back at it again in Chainani’s sequel to The School of Good and Evil. Please see this link for the earlier review:

In The School of Good and Evil: A World Without Princes, Agatha and Sophie have returned to the “real” world and attempt to adjust to their so-called storybook ending. For those that don’t mind being spoiled, Agatha chooses Sophie over the romantic lead Tedros. Therein lies a kind of proto-feminist rhetoric coming out of the first novel where women must work together and avoid the “marriage” plot. When both Agatha and Sophie break a rule and wish for something impossible, both are set back into the fairy tale world. They soon discover that this world has entirely changed due to the ramifications of their earlier actions. Rather than schools for good and evil, now there are schools for boys and girls. Thus, the factions are based upon gender at this point with girls of both evil and good backgrounds mixing together. It becomes apparent that the friendship between Agatha and Sophie is showing signs of strain. On the one hand, Agatha seems to be having dreams of Tedros, the very man she spurned at the end of the first book. There seems to be some sort of latent desire that is driving her back to him. On the other, Sophie is trying to keep her friendship with Agatha solid and will do anything to keep her. Sophie realizes that Agatha is a pivotal reason why she has not succumbed to her evil tendencies. This particular installment is far darker than the previous one and the conclusion will leave some feeling especially bereft. At the same time, these kinds of cliffhangers are certain to push readers to go get the third book. It’s not clear whether or not the “School of Good and Evil” series is meant to be a trilogy, but this portion is full of action and the metafictional impulse that made the first so intriguing.

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A Review of Gabrielle Zevin’s The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry (Algonquin Books, 2014).

This book has probably been the most surprising read for me this year, especially in part because this author was entirely unknown to me, though she has already published a number of novels (including a YA trilogy called Birthright, which I am going to get started on as soon as I can carve out some time, two adult targeted novels, another YA fiction called Elsewhere and another called Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac). Gabrielle Zevin’s The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry (Algonquin Books, 2014) kept me up into the late hours of one night, as I looked for the right kind of book to transport me away to another place and time. The novel takes place on a fictional island called Alice in New England, somewhere off the shores of Rhode Island. The main character is A.J. Fikry, a recently widowed man of mixed-race background (he is part South Asian), who runs the Island bookstore. The opening of the novel sees a new sales representative from Knightley Books traveling to Alice island in order to showcase the upcoming publications. This meeting goes badly; Mr. Fikry is particularly cantankerous and the representative (named Amelia) leaves the island with a far from favorable impression of him. The third person narrative perspective then moves to Mr. Fikry, focusing on his life, which takes a drastic turn when a baby is left at the bookstore’s doorstep and Fikry decides to put in the paperwork to adopt this girl, a two-year-old named Maya. Maya quickly develops a love of literature, something that certainly warms the heart of Fikry. And Maya’s ability to thaw Fikry into a doting father has other effects as well: Fikry begins to see Amelia as a potential romantic partner. Thus, the novel shifts into the courtship phase between Fikry and Amelia; their love blossoms among their mutual love of books and comes to fruition at a special event: a reading held for an author that both adore. Though the reading goes far from perfectly, their relationship is well on its way to marriage. As the novel moves toward the conclusion, Zevin ingeniously intertwines narrative mysteries. For instance, the focus on the romance plot leaves us sometimes inattentive to the mystery behind Maya’s origins: who was her mother (Marian Wallace)? Why did she commit suicide? These aporias are somehow unfolding in the island community, one that extends to Fikry’s officer friend Chief Lambiase, Fikry’s sister-in-law Ismay (the sister of his deceased wife Nic), Ismay’s husband Daniel. Readers of romance novels will find much to adore about this novel, but high literary aesthetes will appreciate Zevin’s nods to a more hallowed and canonical literary lineage. Indeed, Fikry is a bit of a book snob and initially specializes his store’s offerings based upon what he considers to be the best exemplars of fine literature. As the novel moves forward though Fikry realizes that he must change not only his tastes but what he can offer for the Alice island community, especially as fatherhood and a second marriage push him to develop new ways to appreciate culture and other seemingly lowbrow literary forms. Thus, young adult fiction, children’s board books, and mysteries all find their places along references to Edgar Allan Poe, Mark Twain, and Kate Chopin. Zevin’s latest is certainly a novel that any contemporary English Major would greatly enjoy. The novel is not without its idiosyncrasies: the representation of race in this novel seems simultaneously important to the construction of characters’ identities, yet is never fully fleshed out. Indeed, Zevin introduces the fact of racial homogeneity in the Alice island community, especially with respect to the general feelings of alienation that Fikry experiences as a minority. Further still, the fact of Fikry’s complicated adoptive paternity and connection to Maya mark this particular family as one especially anomalous to the larger populace of the island. But, these issues eventually recede quite dramatically into the novel’s background, as the romance plots and mysteries take center stage.

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A Review of Tamai Kobayashi’s Prairie Ostrich (Goose Lane Editions, 2014).

Tamai Kobayashi’s first novel Prairie Ostrich (after a number of collections: Quixotic Erotic and Exile and the Heart) explores the ways a Japanese Canadian family copes and cannot cope with a tragedy. The narrative perspective tightly follows Imogene Murakami, nicknamed egg, with the novel being set in Bittercreek, Alberta sometime in the seventies. Through her viewpoint, we discover that her older brother was killed in a tragic accident. Egg’s mother deals with this trauma by turning to alcohol, while Egg’s father turns most of his attention to the ostriches that he raises. Egg’s closest relationship seems to be with her older sister, Kathy, a gifted athlete and who is likely queer. Kobayashi’s novel is immediately noteworthy in its lyricism. Despite the youthful narrative perspective, her life is rendered through a poeticism that exerts a dream-like quality over the fictional world. It is perhaps quite fitting given that Egg is herself quite immersed in culture, finding respite and refuge in stories. Though Egg is not often aware of what is going on around her, this kind of youthful unreliable narration gives this novel a gravitas that requires the reader to engage the various subtexts emerging. Egg, with her diminutive size, is picked on often at school and it is only through Kathy’s interventions that she is often able to avoid predation by bullies. Bittercreek is rendered through is austerity, something that registers most forcefully when it becomes clear that Kathy is seeking a way out of the small town. For Egg, this potential loss is one that keeps her on edge, as she has become so distanced from both her mother and her father. Many of the scenes that see her interacting with her parents are nuanced and heartbreaking. Kobayashi’s gift is in leaving scenes rather unadorned; so often using figural narration that lends itself to shorter sentences and staccato rhythms, everyday connections take on greater urgency, so when we see Egg’s father carefully and tenderly tending to the loss of a dead ostrich that has painfully broken its own neck as it panicked in the presence of the coyote, we immediately see how he cannot project his love back onto his own family. In this space of melancholy, the novel showcases the Japanese Canadian family’s slow disintegration. Fortunately, all is not completely lost, as Kobayashi grants us a potential opening into the possibilities of rebirth and reconnection.
This novel is quite interesting to think about in relation to the surge in YA fiction interests. Certainly, this novel could have been written in that vein, but the difference in approaches seems to be the stronger dissonance between a third person omniscient narrator and the youthful protagonist, a dissonance that produces the effect of irony, as we are constantly realizing what Egg is missing from what she is seeing and observing.

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Asian American Literature Fans – Megareview for May 5 2014.

As always, with apologies for factual inaccuracies, typographical errors, and grammar mistakes. If you should need to contact me, please send to:

In this post, reviews of Susan Kim and Laurence Klavan’s Wanderers (HarperTeen, 2014); Akhil Sharma’s An Obedient Father (W.W. Norton, reprint edition, 2014); Akhil Sharma’s Family Life (WW Norton, 2014); Leza Lowitz and Shogo Oketani’s Jet Black and Ninja Wind (Tuttle Publishing, 2013); Julian Go’s The Steady Running of the Hour (Simon Schuster, 2014).

A Review of Susan Kim and Laurence Klavan’s Wanderers (HarperTeen, 2014).

In Wanderers, Susan Kim and Laurence Klavan’s follow-up to Wasteland, our heroine Esther and her partner Caleb seek to find a better life beyond Prin. Big mistake. Spoilers forthcoming. For my earlier review of Wasteland, see:

The novel starts out with a catastrophic earthquake that kills off many of the townfolk. Caleb uses that event to encourage the remaining inhabitants to consider striking out for a land that would include a better source of water and more game to hunt. Once on the road, Esther, Caleb and their band of followers (with return appearances of Skar, the variant; Michal; Joseph; Kai; Rafe; Eli; Asha; Rhea and others) immediately encounter trouble. A trio of hoodlums lead by a particularly sociopathic figure named Lewt quickly demolishes solidarity among the former Prin-ers. Caleb is murdered causing the group is split, some deciding to return to Prin rather than to risk more harm. Esther, eventually recovering from her mourning, continues to seek potential refuge in a mythic place known only as Mundreel. The majority of the aforementioned returning characters decide to travel with her. Eventually, Esther is able to recruit a guide, though loses the respect of her companions when it is discovered that their guide is actually blind. From here on out, Kim and Klavan’s story turns increasingly bleak; one by one more characters are killed off and the question becomes: who will actually survive to make it to Mundreel? Further still, will Mundreel actually be the haven they hope it to be?
Kim and Klavan’s second book in the Wasteland trilogy relies upon the quest narrative to generate readerly motivation: we are wondering how Esther will be able to lead her people to a kind of promised land. Indeed, there is something inherently Biblical about this journey; these are a nomadic people seeking refuge in a place that might prove to be their salvation. As with the “big bad” of the first book, Kim and Klavan set up worthy menaces that mark this journey filled with death and injury. Interestingly enough, Kim and Klavan provide the most idiosyncratic social formation in a sort of cross-“racial,” queer relationship, suggesting the need for an alternative kinship to help establish the possibility of a future, however guarded or limited it may be.
A solid second act for the Wasteland trilogy and a must read for fans of the paranormal/ fantasy/ romance/ young adult fiction genres.

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A Review of Akhil Sharma’s An Obedient Father (W.W. Norton, reprint edition, 2014)

Akhil Sharma is due out with a new novel this year, the much anticipated Family Life. His first, An Obedient Father, has also received new life, as it has come out in a reprint edition; it had been listing for a number of years as an out-of-print title. Originally published in 2000 by Farrar Straus and Giroux, the novel received considerable critical acclaim. It won the PEN/ Hemingway Award for fiction. My own relationship to the text began far before I actually read it. Viet Thanh Nguyen engages a very short reading of the novel in his monograph Race and Resistance; the novel depicts a character very much in line with Nguyen’s general argument concerning the potential over-reading of resistance within so-called Asian American narratives. There are three narrative perspectives that appear in this novel; most of the novel is narrated from the perspective of Ram Karan, also called Pitaji, who is a corrupt official who collects bribes from local schools and who works under the supervision of a minor public servant, Mr. Gupta. The reason why Nguyen focuses on this character is that he is very easy to dislike: not only is he a corrupt official, he also very openly admits to his pederasty and incestual history. He repeatedly raped his 12 year old daughter Anita. Anita eventually comes to live with him in his flat; she has few choices, as her husband has died and she has no income. Once she observes Pitaji rubbing up against her young daughter Asha does the novel’s exploration of revenge and trauma begin in earnest. Anita is given two points in the novel as the first person perspective; these moments are important because they provide an unobstructed interiority and show us how little Pitaji can fully understand what it is he has done not only to her, but the family at large. The novel also does a fascinating job of interweaving political turmoil into the main plotting. When Rajiv Gandhi is assassinated, there is a shift in the power base and the two most prominent parties are pitted against each other: Bharatiya Janatas Party (BJP) and Congress. Mr. Gupta must consider where to place his loyalties, especially because he may be exposed as a corrupt official, taking his underlings down with him. Thus, Pitaji has much to worry about not only in the domestic space, where Anita’s rage grows over the course of the novel, but also in the occupational space, where he must find a way to avoid coming to financial ruin. Sharma’s debut was for me relentlessly depressing and hard to read for the simple fact of Pitaji’s characterization: there is a way that the novel presents him as a complex, flawed subject, even when we might come to find so much of his actions repugnant. Certainly, it is a multifaceted portrait of one family and its relationship to history and politics, but the eventual conclusion seems somehow still unfulfilling. Perhaps, that is the point: in this naturalistic narrative, there can be not developmental trajectory, no sense of transcendence for these characters that function almost as a variation on Sartre’s No Exit.

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A Review of Akhil Sharma’s Family Life (WW Norton, 2014)

Sometimes a book will keep me awake late into the night; this time it was Akhil Sharma’s Family Life. It’s a strange, sparely written novel narrated from the perspective of a boy named Ajay who immigrates with his family to America. He has one older brother, Birju, who is intellectually gifted, a father who embraces the capitalist spirit of America, and a doting mother. One day, Birju dives into the swimming pool and manages to land on his neck; he isn’t taken out of the water until three minutes have passed. He incurs brain damage and the rest of the novel is basically how that family survives in the midst of taking care of this bedridden, perpetually catatonic brother. It’s a tough novel: what does love look like in that situation? what is loyalty? The family is naturally torn apart at various points. Ajay’s father descends into alcoholism, while Ajay’s mother becomes a sort of spiritual guide that allows other Indian immigrant families into their home to receive blessings. For his part, Ajay finds his own way to excel in school and eventually is accepted into Princeton, thus achieving a trajectory that no doubt would have been similar his brother’s. The shadow of the brother’s life is always there: he must have almost round the clock care; he cannot speak, he cannot really move, and there is a question of how conscious he is of the things going on around him. There are difficult scenes that reveal the ambivalence that the narrator feels toward Birju in the post-accident period; as with Sharma’s debut novel, he never shies away from the prickly and darkest recesses of his character’s thoughts. The novel ends with the narrator feeling strangely happy and he thinks that he has a problem. That’s the gist of this character’s core issue: he has a problem because of happiness. I was thinking long and hard about this: hardship and pain had been so much of his life that he didn’t understand what to do with this feeling of love and contentment and happiness that enters. When happiness hits, it becomes this stranger, a riddle that cannot be solved: that was the life that this narrator leads. There is a metafictional impulse, too, this way that the narrator wrestles with the power of what writing can do, yet he ultimately becomes a rich investment banker.
The novel reminds me of the work of Jon Pineda, both in Apology and in Sleep in Me with respect to the care of a character who has endured a catastrophic injury. The developmental impulse of the novel is an odd one. On the one hand, Ajay seems to be the very epitome of the model minority subject; he attains a high level of intellectual and financial success, but at the same time, the family’s endurance and lives in America are far from ideal. By stripping away the layers behind supposed achievement, Sharma’s poetic novel provides its own corrective to narratives of Asian American uplift. Another highly recommended read!

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A Review of Leza Lowitz and Shogo Oketani’s Jet Black and Ninja Wind (Tuttle Publishing, 2013)

I’ve been devouring as much YA fiction as I can lately: I think it’s become my Asian American genre comfort food, which is not to say that all such works are frothy or insignificant of course. Indeed, the impact of this genre is quite large simply based upon the dedicated and wide readership; certainly, something we cannot thumb our noses at or castigate as a lowbrow genre unworthy of critical attention. But I digress. Leza Lowitz and Shogo Oketani’s meticulously crafted and thrilling Jet Black and Ninja Wind follows the adventures of a young teenager who must come to terms with her complicated inheritance. Indeed, our protagonist Jet is a ninja. The third person narration follows her perspective the most, but Lowitz and Oketani are quite aware of some of the genre impulses that ground the paranormal romance and do offer us an occasional shift to a figure, Takumi, who is simultaneously figured as villain and as a possible romantic lead. When Jet’s mother dies, Jet flies from New Mexico to Japan and meets up with her grandfather and her cousin, Hiro. But soon enough, Jet realizes that all of the training exercises that her mother mysteriously put her through while she was growing up must be employed in order to survive a threat that has emerged and that revolves around her very capacities as a fighter. Jet soon discovers that she comes from a long lineage of female ninjas (also called Kuroi), ones entrusted with a kind of treasure passed intergenerationally. Jet is unaware of what that treasure is, but there are shadowy underworld and corporate figures after her regardless; Ojisan and Hiro are of course her allies, but an early skirmish leaves her grandfather presumed dead, forcing her and her cousin to travel to Tokyo to get support from their Uncle Soji. While in the care of her uncle, Jet continues to get more information about her past and it becomes evident that she and Hiro must travel back to the United States in order to get to the bottom of the issue related to the treasure and how she may uncover its location and keep it from the nefarious forces that are after her (and her allies). Lowitz and Oketani pack a lot of history and ethnocgraphic information into this text that make it apparent that quite a lot of research went into this fictional representation. Interestingly enough, Lowitz and Oketani’s choice of New Mexico is no accident: they mean to connect the indigenous cultures of Japan—Ojisan and Hiro are part Ainu—with that of New Mexico—J-Bird (Jet’s mother’s partner) is Navajo. Thus, Lowitz and Oketani’s work continues to accrue intercultural and interracial texture as the plotting moves forward. I would be interested to hear more about the process of writing a young adult fiction in a collaborative mode, especially as there are more and more examples of this going on (e.g. Michael Johnston and Melissa De La Cruz’s Frozen and Marisa de Los Santos and David Teague’s Saving Lucas Biggs).

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A Review of Julian Go’s The Steady Running of the Hour (Simon Schuster, 2014).

For fans of detective fiction, historical fiction, and/or Downton Abbey, Julian Go’s sweeping debut, The Steady Running of the Hour, will be certain to be one of your favorite reads for this year. The novel starts out immediately with the central mystery: is the young, college age Yankee Tristan Campbell (our first person narrator and ostensible hero) the heir of a large fortune? He has assumed that his great grandmother Elinor—an individual he knew little about—may have in fact been the sister to his actual great grandmother (Imogen Soames-Andersson). The difference in ancestry is vital because Imogen once had a romantic liaison with a man known as Ashley Walsingham, an Englishman of high society and an avid climber. Upon Ashley Walsingham’s death—he dies in a tragic accident while attempting to climb Mount Everest—he bequeaths his fortunes to Imogen, who by that point has disappeared, or to any of her surviving descendant. If no one claims the inheritance within 80 years, the fortune will be released to various charities and organizations. When Tristan is contacted at the beginning of the novel and requested to come to London, he discovers that there is only two months left on the clock. If he is to have any claim on this fortune, he needs to work quickly in order to gain any concrete evidence that it was Imogen, not Elinor, that was his actual grandmother. One large problem immediately arises due to the fact that the archive is devastatingly bare. Elinor was a sculptress of minor renown but Imogen’s legacy is less obvious and Tristan’s unofficial investigation is hampered by this limitation. Further still, Tristan’s lack of monetary income—he is working off of his savings in his archival search—certainly slows his progress. Tristan begins to travel all over Europe in order to find other archives that the solicitors have missed. For instance, he manages to gain entry to the home in which Elinor (or Imogen, we’re still unsure at this point) might have given birth to a daughter, presumably Tristan’s grandmother. Later, Tristan attempts to locate some of Elinor’s paintings on a hunch that perhaps Imogen was one of Elinor’s studies. Intercut with Tristan’s quest, Go provides a third person narrator who follows the formative years in the relationship between Ashley and Imogen. We see their connection blossom in a short five days, a romance cut short when Ashley must go off to serve in The Great War. During Ashley’s tenure on the war front, his spirits are only kept buoyed by the possibility that he will be eventually reunited with Imogen. Go takes a lot of risks with this novel; the split narrative structure is always one that causes a division in the reader’s interests, but fortunately both plots are incredibly interesting. The expansive scale—both geographical and historical—of this novel could have been too much for any writer, but first time novelist Go wields it commandingly and further still, the intergenerational and Transatlantic sweep is the appropriate tapestry for a central mystery that gains rich contours the further we get into the plot. Fans of Merchant Ivory Productions will probably wonder when this novel will be made into a movie, but there will be those who will balk at the ending (certainly a love it or hate it conclusion), one that will surely cause discussion amongst the readers propelled so assuredly to that point.
From a scholarly perspective, the novel is quite fascinating because it delves so much into the guesswork that occurs in archival research. Tristan must follow hunches and unexpected leads in the hopes that a narrative will be brought together; in some sense, the novel achieves a kind of metanarrativistic contour: will research produce some sort of definitive ending? Does it ever produce a definitive ending? The other element that Go begins to introduce is a twinned narrative structure. Halfway through the plot, Tristan meets a Frenchwoman that blossoms into a potential romance. When Tristan must leave France for yet another European country (by the novel concludes, he is in Iceland), we recall Ashley’s departure to war. Indeed, Tristan has known the Frenchwoman for a short amount of time, yet there is a connection there that cannot be severed. The mystery concerning love and devotion is certainly at play for both narratives, though the gravity of the historical portion—with long sequences devoted to World War I trench warfare and the climbing of Mount Everest—certainly weighs most heavily. Finally, perhaps, the most brilliant technique that Go employs in this novel is irony: the reader always knows more than Tristan actually does and so we can’t help but root for the narrator to get to the place where we are. The point at which Tristan knows more than we do can seem like a betrayal, which is why the ending—at least for some—might seem like an aesthetically incorporated form of treason.

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Asian American Literature Fans Megareview for April 21st, 2014

As always, with apologies for factual inaccuracies, typographical errors, and grammar mistakes. If you should need to contact me, please send to:

In this post, reviews of N.H. Senzai’s Shooting Kabul (Simon & Schuster, Paula Wiseman Books 2010); Saving Kabul Corner (Simon & Schuster, Paula Wiseman Books, 2014); Gary Pak’s Brothers Under a Same Sky (University of Hawaii Press, 2013); Deborah Jiang Stein’s Prison Baby: A Memoir (Beacon Press, 2014); Ovidia Yu’s Aunty Lee’s Delights (William Morrow, 2013); Janie Chang’s Three Souls (William Morrow, 2014); Carrianne Leung’s The Wondrous Woo (Inanna Publications, 2013); A Review of Na Liu (author) and Andrés Vera Martínez’s (author, illustrator) Little White Duck: A Childhood in China (Graphic Universe, 2012).

A Review of N.H. Senzai’s Shooting Kabul (Simon & Schuster, Paula Wiseman Books 2010).

N.H. Senzai’s debut novel Shooting Kabul (a young adult fiction targeted at children who are in grades three to seven) follows the adventures of an 11 year-old-Afghani transnational Fadi who comes to the United States in the wake of turmoil in his home country. His father had originally returned to Afghanistan after having received a PhD in an agricultural field in order to help out with the country’s recovery process. With the emergence of different factions (including the Taliban), Afghanistan is embroiled in internal conflict. To protect his family, Fadi’s father Habib and his ailing wife Zafoona decide to evacuate. A big problem arises when the youngest child in the family, Mariam, is accidentally left behind: each family member believes that he or she was at fault. Fadi, being the one who had been physically closest to Mariam at the time of the accidental separation, seems to harbor the most guilt. The question of whether or not they will be reunited with Mariam becomes increasingly tense, especially when they become refugees and have to travel to the United States. Once in the states, Fadi begins to explore his artistic interests in school, especially developing his photographic skills. There is a photography contest that would give him a chance to win an all-expenses paid trip to India, a country he feels would get him close enough to Afghanistan and Pakistan and perhaps offer him the opportunity to redeem himself by finding his sister. Senzai’s young adult novel also weaves in the events of 9/11, a moment that causes Fadi much strife not only because he realizes it means more instability in Afghanistan, but also because he is targeted for his ethnic difference. Senzai has taken quite a serious topic and shifted the focalization through the eyes of a young boy. To pull off the complexity of the historical contexts, Senzai must employ a third person omniscient narrator, one whose voice and whose scope is broader and deeper than that of the young Fadi. As with most novels targeted at this age group, closure is emphasized, thus potentially obscuring the gravity of family rupture and racial prejudice in light of 9/11 and the ongoing conflicts and wars in the Middle East and Western Asia. Fans of children’s literature will be happy to see Senzai effectively weaving in an extended intertextual reference to The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, a favorite read of Fadi’s. Certainly an important addition to children’s literature through its attentive consideration of ethnic and social contexts not often seen in this younger readers’ arena.

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A Review of N.H. Senzai’s Saving Kabul Corner (Simon & Schuster, Paula Wiseman Books, 2014).

wish a higher res pic were available!

Loosely connected to her debut Shooting Kabul, N.H. Senzai’s sophomore effort explores the adventures of a 12 year old Afghan American named Ariana, who reluctantly must help her cousin, Laila, adjust to her recent migration to the United States. Ariana is part of a family that runs a grocery store—the titular Kabul Corner—which has had a tenuous existence as part of a strip mall in Fremont, California. Though their business has stabilized, Ariana’s family finds it troubling when another Afghan American family opens up a grocery store in the same strip mall. The owner of the strip mall property was pressured into leasing the land to that family due to the need for rental income. Further tensions arise when it is discovered that the competing store, Pamir Market, is siphoning off some of Kabul Corner’s regular customers. Indeed, at one point, the baker who was behind a bread product that was popular at Kabul Corner jumps ship and is hired by the Pamir Market. Complicating matters even further is the fact that the owners of Pamir Market are from an family whose roots are traced back to a feud that was supposedly settled with Ariana’s family sometime back in Afghanistan. Thus, Ariana’s family surmises that the Pamir Market’s emergence is perhaps traceable to the fact that the feud was never actually resolved. When fliers appear decrying the quality of Pamir Market’s groceries, it becomes evident that something fishy is going on. Is the family running Pamir Market trying to gain sympathy by suggesting that Ariana’s family had created those fliers? Or is someone connected to Ariana’s family secretly behind the problematic fliers? The problems between the two stores continue to escalate, as evidenced especially when Kabul Corner is burglarized. Determined to get to the bottom of things, Ariana, along with her cousin Laila, and her school friend Mariam—the very one who was left behind in Afghanistan in Senzai’s debut and who returns here as part of the same fictional universe—and Wali, with whom the three have generated a tentative alliance and who is the son of the Pamir Market’s owners, attempt to unravel the mystery behind the fliers and the burglary. Interspersed between the narrative concerning the competing grocery stores, Senzai generates a transnational subplot when Laila’s father, a translator for the US army, goes missing. How will all these various storylines be resolved? Senzai is certainly game to answer that question and the novel’s twinned detective-type plots push the reader along at a brisk pace. Along the way, Senzai no doubt operates to create a narrative that fleshes out the cultural contours of a diasporic community attempting to make American lives in the shadow of war and conflict. In this sense, as with many other young adult and children’s literature publications, the narrative not only serves as an entertaining story but also a kind of veiled ethnographic apparatus meant to give a partial glimpse into a community’s struggles as well as its triumphs.

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A Review of Gary Pak’s Brothers Under a Same Sky (University of Hawaii Press, 2013).

Gary Pak’s fifth publication (after The Watcher of Waipuna and Other Stories, A Ricepaper Airplane, The Language of the Geckos and Other Stories, and Children of a Fireland) is the story of two brothers, Nam Kun (Robert) Han and Nam Ki (Nammy) Han who end up becoming estranged after the Korean War. I’ve read all of Pak’s other work and I found this book to be the most disorienting stylistically of his oeuvre: Pak changes perspective quite often, moving from first to third and back again, often times covering similar ground from a different viewpoint; then the narrative itself is far from chronological. Roughly, the novel begins with a kind of frame narrative in which Nam Kun travels to Southern California. He is temporarily staying with his daughter Shelly (and her husband); Shelly and Nam Kun go to the local state hospital (Sweet Briar). Nam Kun finally finds out that his brother has been institutionalized. Nam Ki does not even remember who Nam Kun is and thus begins the story of estrangement. Nam Kun believes that part of the large distance between them occurred far prior to Nam Ki’s mental illnesses. Indeed, Nam Kun pressures Nam Ki into serving for the American military during the Korean Conflict, even though Nam Ki believes that he should not undergo this route due to his devout religious faith. Once in Korea, Nam Ki must endure the horrors of war, which include questionable orders by commanding officers, outright racism, and of course, grisly killings, some of which are conducted under dubious auspices. Nam Ki eventually comes to a crisis point during a particularly tense battle in which he is the sole survivor of his unit. These collective experiences are part and parcel of Nam Ki’s loss of faith in God and the eventual disintegration of his mental state. A late stage and potential romance with a Korean woman named Margaret ultimately only exacerbates his problems and thus readers come to understand why Nam Ki has come to be in a mental institution. There is a late stage reveal concerning Nam Kun’s own experiences in Korea that serve to catalyze a final arc, but there were some moments where I got confused about what happened to which brother, so be forewarned that there will be perspectival changes coming at you at a rapid rate. In terms of this book’s resonances with others, it obviously adds to the rather small body of work focused on the representational recovery of the Korean War from the perspective of Korean American writers (adding to Susan Choi’s The Foreign Student, Chang-rae Lee’s The Surrendered, Richard E. Kim’s The Martyred, among others). What is absolutely unique about this book is the prospect of a Korean American having to serve in Korea, a possibility that I had not thought could have occurred, but was no doubt possible. As always, Pak’s work is politically textured, making for a novel that will no doubt stimulate discussion.

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A Review of Deborah Jiang Stein’s Prison Baby: A Memoir (Beacon Press, 2014).

I read Deborah Jiang Stein’s Prison Baby: A Memoir on a flight to Southern California. At a briskly paced length (the memoir stands at under 200 pages), I devoured this incredible work that explores the narrator’s complicated adoption history as well as the development of her sense of equanimity over her life’s circumstances. Stein details her difficult and tumultuous childhood and early adulthood years, a time in which she acts out, delves into drugs and drug-running, at one point tries to commit suicide and at another, barely evades imprisonment. She also struggles with addiction for a number of years, including one stint in which she almost overdoses. This period of incredible exploration and rebellion is of course part and parcel of a longer history in which she attempts to carve out her own space for understanding her sense of family, belonging, and identity. At the tender age of 12, while snooping in her parents’ room, she ends up discovering that she was adopted from a mother who was serving time for an undisclosed offence. It will only be two decades later that she will begin to consider this origin point with her adoptive family, one which includes an older brother (also adopted), a father who is an academic (a Miltonist) and a very put-together, elegant stay-at home mother. Stein realizes she is different from a very young age, not only because of her multiracial features, but precisely because of her complicated sense of kinship. Once Stein fully engages in some investigation into her mother’s life does she find a sense of purpose that carries her through to the ending point of the memoir. There have been a number of astonishing and incisive adoptee memoirs/ creative publications that have appeared in the last decade and Stein’s work will certainly add its unique intervention in its social contextual representations. There are moments of incredible heartbreak and poignancy that come with Stein understanding the possibility of two mothers, rather than one. Her story calls attention to David L. Eng’s account of “poststructural kinship” from his latest book and reveals the tortuous path toward embracing the possibility and the emergence of alternative social formations. A must-read.

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A Review of Ovidia Yu’s Aunty Lee’s Delights (William Morrow, 2013).

Though well known in her home country of Singapore as well as in other former commonwealth countries, Ovidia Yu has not had her American debut until Aunty Lee’s Delights, a frothy murder mystery (intended as a series; the second will be published in 2014) that follows the titular Aunty Lee as she investigates the untimely deaths of two patrons and friends. The novel does not set up the murder mystery until well into the narrative, but we do know rather immediately that the news has reported a dead body found on the island resort of Sentosa. Aunty Lee is putting on a dinner partner with the help of her undocumented worker and friend Nina. Invited are Harry Sullivan, Lucy and Peter Cunningham, Selina and Mark Lim (who is the son from the first marriage of Aunty Lee’s now dead husband), Cherril Lim-Peters, and Carla Saito. One person who is invited but is supposedly not going to show up is Laura Kwee, but it later becomes apparent that the missing body is none other than this dinner guest. Further still, the aforementioned Carla Saito arrives without an official invitation, seeking the whereabouts of Marianne Peters, the daughter of a family that Aunty Lee knows well. Saito’s unexpected appearance only leads to more questions: where is Marianne Peters and how is it that Carla Saito knows about Laura Kwee. With Carla Saito, the novel initiates its first apparent and possible suspect. For her part, Aunty Lee has always been interested in the local news, but this particular case, given its connection to her own life, propels her into her own investigation. Certainly, there are actual officials on the case, but Aunty Lee is obviously the center of this plot and her keen intellectual acumen gives her an ability to generate more leads. Yu’s work is fun and funny, even given the dark topic; the earliest section in the novel concerning the dinner party is the liveliest in part because there are so many shifts in third person perspective that you get a sense of most of the colorful personalities of the invitees. There is also a touch of the Sherlockian investigatory structure, as Aunty Lee’s unofficial inquiry is strongly supported by her ever-loyal employee, Nina (who is of Filipina descent). Yu weaves in a multicultural tapestry, largely indicative of Singapore’s history as a nexus point of trade and capital: the Peters family is of Indian descent; Carla is Japanese American; Lucy, Peter, and Harry all of Anglo backgrounds. Once the mystery is solved, readers might balk at the identity of the killer as well as the killer’s motive, but the comic textures of this particular work are sure to keep you interested.

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A Review of Janie Chang’s Three Souls (William Morrow, 2014).

Janie Chang’s debut Three Souls is a historical fiction that has an immediate hook to its narrative perspective. The young narrator, Leiyin, is telling us the story from beyond the grave. Indeed, she is observing her own funeral. This event gives her the chance and her “three souls” to emerge, which accordingly provide her with a kind of commentary on her own life. From her funeral (which occurs in 1935), we travel back into the past and learn of the secure, but restricted life she leads as a young girl. She is the third daughter in a well-to-do family. She has two older brothers and two older sisters; her father is very stern and follows patriarchal traditions and uses strategy in marriage and matchmaking. Her oldest sister, for instance, is betrothed to a man known to be addicted to opium, a match that is made due to the fact that this individual is connected to a powerful family line. Leiyin’s path becomes complicated when she meets a poet (named Hanchin) who exudes a charismatic, romantic, and political influence over her. Leiyin begins to believe that her life is better served by following her dream of becoming a teacher to those in less fortunate positions. This occupational choice is not one supported by her father. With the help of her sister, she is able to get the funding she needs for tuition and makes a clandestine trip to another city in hopes of enrolling at a college. Her plans are found out and she is forced to return to her home; her father, in an attempt to reform her ideas about her career aspirations, ends up forcing her into a marriage. Though Leiyin is opposed to the marriage at first, she begins developing strong feelings for her husband Baizhen. She soon is pregnant with a child that later turns out to be a girl (Weilan). The novel takes a dramatic turn when Hanchin arrives in town looking for an ally to hide a communist manifesto. Given their almost-romance that occurred years before, he realizes that he might be able to recruit Leiyin into the effort. As the novel moves toward resolution, there are questions of betrayal and political influences that result. It becomes clear, too, why Leiyin has not been able to move beyond the grave and why it is she continues to watch over her family, especially her daughter. As a ghost, she still somehow has the power to influence the actions of those still living by entering their dreams. In this respect, Leiyin knows that she must act with what little time she has in her spiritual limbo in order to protect the ones she loves.
This novel reminded me a lot of Tan’s Saving Fish From Drowning, as both books are narrated from the perspective of a ghost figure. By this point, I’ve seen three novels by Chinese American authors who have used this conceit: Lan Samantha Chang in Hunger, Tan in Saving Fish From Drowning, and now Chang and it’s certainly an appropriate “ethnic form” if we might call it that, especially given that the female ghost figure seems more largely an emblem of lost feminist agency and the hope that something can still be rectified from beyond the grave. The challenge for Chang and others who write in this genre is the complicated nature between individual stories and the political climate and historical texture; for instance, Chang must work to interweave the growing Chinese governmental tensions/ problems with Japan with Leiyin’s desire for independence and romantic agency. It’s certainly why these novels tend to be on the longer side; there are really at least two narratives going on: one about a character and another about a nation (as its own character?). This storytelling approach is not allegory as Fredric James most infamously argued, but simply the desire to mark the individual and the structural alongside each other, a kind of “dialectic” that makes Asian American literature so rich and so challenging to execute. Chang’s heroine is crafty and that’s the biggest strength of this book: we want Leiyin to succeed in her various quests (both in life and in death) because we know so many cards are already stacked against her.

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A Review of Carrianne Leung’s The Wondrous Woo (Inanna Publications, 2013).

I’m going north of the border and reviewing Carrianne Leung’s debut novel The Wondrous Woo, which is told from the perspective of Miramar Woo, the oldest of three children (she has one younger sister, Sophia, and then a younger brother, Darwin), who resides in Scarborough, Canada with her family (her father is the one who convinces his family to immigrate). The novel immediately takes a dark turn when Miramar’s father is hit by a car and succumbs to his injuries. Soon after this moment, Miramar’s brother develops an amazing and prodigious talent in music, while Sophia becomes an incredibly brilliant mathematician. Both are whisked away to various areas: Darwin heads out on a European tour, accompanied by the Woo matriarch, while Sophia heads off to McGill University under the tutelage of a professor. Darwin is a big hit and Sophia is a revelation; both are utter spectacles, and the Woo family becomes known for the two children with The Gifts. Of course, Miramar does not seem to have any talent and this lack of a gift weighs upon her heavily. She attends Carleton College, where she engages in the requisite search for her identity. Much of her time there is spent having sex with her boyfriend Jerry, a cad of a man with obviously rakish intentions. We are not surprised when that relationship fails, but it becomes clear that this romance was sustaining any sense of stability in her life. At that point, she finds herself listing in one job position to the next, eventually deciding to make a rather radical break and moving away from her family without telling them where she is. Indeed, she begins to perceive her family is holding her back: her mother’s budding romantic relationship with another man certainly causes strain upon everyone, while Sophia and Darwin continue to garner accolades for their talents. While on her self-imposed exile, she develops a relationship with a strange Chinese Canadian man by the name of Mouse, who seems to have no real or discernible past. He does have an interest in Kung Fu movies (see the cover of this book for the obvious connection) and Miramar and Mouse begin collaborating on writing film and movie scripts. But Miramar eventually realizes she has avoided the importance of her family in her life and must make a decision about how she will continue to relate to or NOT to relate to her mother and her siblings.
Leung’s novel is particularly engaging because she masters a kind of tragicomic tonality that leads to a reading experience generously peppered with narrative poignancy and quirky humor. The slightly offbeat storyline occasionally verges on the surreal, which gives the plot the occasional jolt: besides the Gifts of her siblings, her mother also must confront the occasional psychotic break, which alludes to a larger theme of madness that runs through the novel. Coming out of Inanna publications, this novel is clearly originating from a publishing industry (and an independent publisher) that fosters experimentation and innovation, reminiscent of the work of other Asian Canadian writers such as the recently reviewed Corinna Chong (recall the mother who studies crop circles). Certainly, a novel that takes its own spin on the model minority narrative and immigrant development.

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A Review of Na Liu (author) and Andrés Vera Martínez’s (author, illustrator) Little White Duck: A Childhood in China (Graphic Universe, 2012).

Pylduck already reviewed Na Liu (author) and Andrés Vera Martínez’s (author, illustrator) Little White Duck: A Childhood in China (Graphic Universe, 2012) here:

Pylduck’s review does a very comprehensive job in reviewing this title and I can’t say that I can add too much. I was immediately struck by the lavish visuals, something that certainly makes this illustrated memoir a notable one. The memoir is narrated in vignettes and each shows Liu’s experiences as a young child. One of the most compelling vignettes occurs in relation to visiting her father’s home village. Liu ends up wearing one of her favorite coats even though her mother suggests that she wear something else. Once she gets to the village, Liu is faced with a clear class difference, which does not become apparent until she realizes that everyone she sees lives a far grittier and dirtier life. At one point, she goes outside to play with some of the children and has brought some books to share, only to find out that none of her peers can read. They also maul her when they see her jacket, transfixed with the “little white duck” monogrammed on the front. As they each touch the little white duck, it becomes smudged with dirt and soon looks black. Liu’s experiences serve to highlight the general life of privilege she has had. There is of course many references to Communism, Chairman Mao, and the ideological beliefs of her parents. Her mother, in particular, benefits from communistic healthcare when she is able to have surgeries that address issues that arise due to the complications from polio. In another vignette, Liu is confused about why everyone is crying, only to discover that Chairman Mao has died and there is an entire nation in mourning. I certainly agree with Pylduck’s stated sentiments here:

“One thing I found interesting was that Liu's memories of China and her childhood are sometimes deceptively simple (or politics-free), but there is a lot of information woven into the stories about the state of China at the time. For instance, in the story about how she planned with her sister how to catch rats for the country (school teachers assigned children the task of bringing her two rats' tails as part of the pest eradication program), the fact that schools were essentially conscripting children into a program to control the pest program suggests other issues. The memoir gives a quick note about how the sparrow, for instance, used to be on the list of pests that children were to help kill, but then when people did kill off sparrows in large numbers, they ended up upsetting the ecological balance, and the insect population skyrocketed and became a big problem (helping to cause the famine earlier in the century).”

As with many other immigrant literatures, the personal and the familial is always a gateway to the political and the social. In almost every single story, there is a larger social context being implicated in a single narrative. For instance, Liu comes from a family with two daughters, a feature that was relatively rare in that generation because of the one child rule. Liu’s mother became pregnant when that law was instituted, so she was able to have the second child without being taxed. This dynamic between the individual and the nation makes this memoir something applicable to all age groups. Children will delight in the spirited stories and beautiful images, while adults can engage with the nuanced representational facets of Liu’s memoir.

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Asian American Literature Fans – Megareview for April 9, 2014

In honor of the new Penguin/ Random House merger, a post with Random House/ Penguin titles!

Do recall that Penguin still has the academic service:

Through Penguin’s service, I have had the chance to consider many new course adoptions and it’s a wonderful, wonderful resource for educators of all levels. With the Random House merger, I’m not quite sure if the academic service will still be retained, but we can all hope! Now on to the reviews!

In this post, reviews of: Bich Minh Nguyen’s Pioneer Girl (Viking Adult, 2014); Chang-rae Lee’s On Such a Full Sea (Riverhead Books, 2014); Michelle Sagara’s Touch (Daw Books, 2014); Lydia Kang’s Control (Dial Press, 2013); Yiyun Li’s Kinder than Solitude (Random House, 2013).

A Review of Bich Minh Nguyen’s Pioneer Girl (Viking Adult, 2014).

Bich Minh Nguyen’s second novel and third publication (after Short Girls and Stealing Buddha’s Dinner) explores the life of a newly minted PhD, who is not surprisingly unemployed. We are further not surprised to find out that her degree is in English. Fortunately, the protagonist, Lee, completed a thesis on Edith Wharton, so we know that she might have some marketability, having focused in an area that has widespread institutional legibility and on an writer who most would consider as part of a “broader field” (but I digress). Jobs are good. Job security is of course even better, but Lee isn’t so lucky. She moves back home to suburban Chicago, where she helps out at her mother’s restaurant, the Lotus Leaf Café, and creates tension with her desire to help change the menu design and other such minor details. Lee’s father died when she was just a child and her family life is essentially comprised of her connection to her mother and her grandfather, Ong Hai (who also works at the Café). Lee’s brother Sam is estranged from the family at the start of the novel and it is his arrival that catalyzes the plot: he comes home to demand money. Apparently, Lee and Sam’s mother had been receiving money from years from Hieu, a family friend and a man who had been somehow indirectly involved with their father’s accidental death. Sam does not find any of that money, which he believes is rightfully owed to him and Lee precisely because they were the ones to “lose” their father. Before Sam vacates the area, he leaves behind a pin, one that has a rather legendary story in the family. Indeed, there was a Caucasian woman who used to frequent the café that Ong Hai had owned back in Vietnam, in the days of the war. Through some creative deduction, Lee begins to think that that woman may have been Rose Wilder, the daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder, the author of the Little House Books. Since she is essentially not doing anything related to her research, she sets out to discover whether or not Rose Wilder was also the one who ended up in Vietnam and had frequented Ong Hai’s café. For Lee, this quest is particularly important precisely because she had wrapped up so much of her American identity around the Little House books.
Nguyen’s book is essentially a kind of detective plot, so it reads very quickly. Of course, we can read into Lee’s rather obsessive desire as one that is elliptically confronting her second generational, child-to-immigrants identity: to find a narrative in which her Otherness can be ultimately and directly tied to a perceived American-ness. Nguyen’s knowledge of all things Laura Ingalls Wilder is put to effective use here and fans of that series will no doubt find much to celebrate in this inventive re-envisioning of the afterlife of the Little House books from the Vietnamese American perspective. Finally: there is a strange discourse about the “marketability” of ethnic literature in this particular novel that appears in relation to Lee’s job prospects, which I find troubling insofar as the thing so many forget is that ultimately and importantly: Bich Minh Nguyen’s Pioneer Girl is as “American” as Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence and should be understood as a novel that is taxonomically configured from multiple literary genealogies: Asian American and otherwise.

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A Review of Chang-rae Lee’s On Such a Full Sea (Riverhead Books, 2014).

spoilers forthcoming

First off: see pylduck’s review here:

It is late, I should be in bed, but instead I’m writing some quick thoughts on Chang-rae Lee’s fifth novel, On Such a Full Sea (after Native Speaker, A Gesture Life, The Surrendered, and Aloft). I’ve followed Lee’s work ever since Native Speaker and a new novel is always occasion for a celebration and carving out time to read the novel itself. This time around I had to wait a couple of weeks before I could sit down and finish the book; I read it in about five sittings, which isn’t typical for me as a novel reader in general. The novel is told from an interesting narrative perspective conceit: a kind of disembodied “we” voice, with a vaguely omniscient perspective. The “we” seems to be the common folk of B-Mor, a postapocalyptic town that takes place in what was once known as Baltimore. There were plagues and other such things and Baltimore becomes repopulated by Chinese settlers. It seems as though Lee is working from an alternative timeline that might be counterfactual rather than fully futuristic, as the story itself doesn’t pose super advanced or imaginary technologies that would tell us we’re centuries from the present moment. The “we” is focused on narrating the life of a character, Fan, who leaves B-Mor for the Open Counties, seeking to find her lover, Reg, who has been whisked away from B-Mor. She’s not aware of the reason Reg has been taken, though the “we” is convinced that Reg is part of the magical set of people who are “C” free. That is, he has some sort of genetic anomaly that allows him to avoid getting one of the diseases that still plagues the general population. Lee tiers three main “spaces” in the novel: the Charter “cities,” B-Mor (which seems to be a middle-class, working class suburbia), and then the Open Counties, which functions as the novel’s wide open, rural ghettos. The Open Counties are a kind of no-man’s land, with the absence of structured laws. In Lee’s novel the Open Counties are a place of polyamory, cannibalism, theft, and kidnapping. Fan somehow is able to survive there. In part, she is lucky, but she is also plucky and a tactical individual. She looks far younger than she actually is and uses her diminutive size to evade capture, to mask her pregnancy, and to perform in various roles that allow her to continue her quest to find Reg. Once in the Open Counties, she falls into a makeshift camp led by a man named Quig. Quig eventually sells Fan off to a husband and wife living in a Charter city; Fan is bartered for a drug treatment that will help with some of those living in Quig’s encampment. Of course, Lee makes this moment quite poignant precisely because Fan is sold only after she has saved Quig and Quig’s partner’s life from being eaten by cannibals (and here, I couldn’t help but think of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road). Once Fan is in the home of the Charter couple, she realizes that she not only might be able to find Reg, but she also might be reunited with her brother, Bo Liwei, who as a young child was one of the very few selected from B-Mor to live in a Charter city due to his intellectual gifts. At this point, the novel takes a relatively strange turn. Fan soon discovers that the couple she has become connected with have some dark secrets. Mister Leo seems to have an inclination toward adopting young Asian American women, while Miss Cathy stands idly by as these surrogate daughters become part of Mister Leo’s sadistic harem. Once Mister Leo suffers from a major medical condition, Miss Cathy is able to—however problematically—save these women, as they become part of a living collection of dolls that she harbors in secret. Thus, Fan has been added to this precious grouping. Fan, with the help of the housekeeper Mala, is able to engineer her escape, while also keeping Miss Cathy and her surrogate daughters together. She ultimately realizes that Miss Cathy is not the true enemy. From there, Fan is taken in by Vik, one of the doctors who tended to Miss Cathy’s surrogate daughters. With Vik, Fan attends a party thrown by the wealthy Cheungs (Oliver and Betty) and Oliver ultimately reveals himself as none other than Fan’s brother Bo Liwei. The final arc sees Oliver and Betty welcome Fan into their family and offer to help her find Reg, but these promises ultimately become hollow as Betty sells out Fan and the fact that she is pregnant with Reg’s child to a pharmaceutical company (Asimil). Fan’s child is obviously critically important because the child possesses the genetic heritage of someone who has been C-Free. Vik ends up saving Fan by commandeering one of the vehicles that would have taken her to the pharmaceutical company. The conclusion of the novel sees Fan on the run and still in search of Reg.
I had dinner with an author friend of mine over at a sushi place not long after I finished the novel and the thing I kept coming back to was an element of spirituality. In Lee’s alternate universe, religion and spirituality seem absent. The reverence with which the “we” tell Fan’s story is as if she is a kind of Christ-figure, one who must remain a fugitive because she bears the hope to deliver a new era for those in B-More and beyond. Fan is unlike so many she meets; she’s openly empathetic, she helps people even to her detriment, she’s giving, she’s caring, she loves deeply. In other words, she is someone to emulate. Thus, she moves into a kind of mythic position, giving B-Mor inhabitants the hope that there might be a way to move beyond the rigid class paradigms that constrain them, that there still might be a shred of benevolence left in individuals despite such rigid strata. The “we” seems to be a “we” seeking to believe in someone, something greater than the sum of their biopower-harnessed collective. In some ways, one might think of Lee’s work as a refraction of the current global economy, the growing disparity between rich and poor; perhaps, this is the greatest power of the speculative fiction: it tells us what already has become a kind of horror and that we still need someone to worthy enough to merit survival and then to give us hope.

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A Review of Yiyun Li’s Kinder than Solitude (Random House, 2013).

One of the most anticipated releases (at least for me) has been Yiyun Li’s Kinder than Solitude, her second novel (after the superbly dark novel The Vagrants) and her fourth publication (after A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and Gold Boy, Emerald Girl). I was torn upon completing the novel precisely because—as with The Vagrants—the narrative is particularly depressing. The premise is a kind of murder mystery. A young woman and political dissident (Shaoai) is deliberately poisoned and almost dies. She suffers severe brain damage and it takes twenty years before the effects of this poisoning result in her death. In that time, three main suspects seem to emerge: Ruyu, Boyang, and Moran, who are all high school aged and had visited a chemical laboratory (of Boyang’s mother) from which the poisoning agent was taken. When the novel opens, Shaoai has just died. Boyang is the only one of the three to have stayed in China and he writes both Ruyu and Moran an e-mail detailing Shaoai’s death. In this time, Ruyu has moved to America and along the way suffered the disintegration of two marriages. She finds herself employed in the Bay Area by a rich, upper class woman named Celia. Moran went on to receive a PhD, married and then divorced a man named Josef. Li toggles the narrative back and forth in time. We discover that Ruyu was an orphan, she was raised by her non-blood relatives who have sent her off to a school. Because that school is far away, she is boarded with an Aunt. She comes to develop a very sour relationship with the Aunt’s daughter who happens to be Shaoai. At school, Ruyu develops tentative connections with Moran and Boyang.

Boyang eventually develops romantic feelings for Ruyu, leaving Moran out in the cold. This love triangle is central to the climactic developments of the novel. About halfway through the narrative, Ruyu suffers a traumatic sexual assault at the hands of Shaoai no less; this experience proves to shatter Ruyu’s illusions about the possibility and promise of her own life. Her generally apathetic disposition turns far more pessimistic after this period and it will mark her character for the rest of her life. The novel’s murder plot is ultimately really secondary to Li’s devoted texturizing of the three main characters, but it is finally Ruyu who takes the real center stage. This prickly, challenging, unsentimental character is one that may generate significant discord among readers. There is a point at which I did wonder if Ruyu was borderline sociopathic in some of her tendencies.
At the core of this novel is a polemic about free speech. Shaoai was involved with the Tiananmen Square demonstrations and never renounces her position or her political views. This rebellious personality filters everything she does and how she treats her family members. At the same time, once Ruyu and Moran are bonded to each other in the secret that Ruyu had taken the poison from the laboratory, a series of presuppositions and conspiracy theories leave readers wondering whether or not Ruyu was suicidal or murderous. Moran’s decision to alert adults about Ruyu’s theft and possible participation in Shaoai’s poisoning leads to the destruction of their fragile friendships. Whether or not she did actively participate in Shaoai’s death, Ruyu seems to show little regret for what occurs to Shaoai, which makes the ending and her reunion—possibly romantic in its nature—with Boyan extremely unsettling. A novel not for the faint of heart.

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A Review of Michelle Sagara’s Touch (Daw Books, 2014).

Fans of Michelle Sagara’s work in this “necromancer” based supernatural series may be disappointed by the relative lack of action in the follow-up to Silence, but Sagara’s goal is clearly in setting up what will be showdown between the protagonist of the series, Emma Hall, and her main rival for supremacy of those who have died, the so-called Queen of the Dead. In this work, Emma and her ragtag group of friends—the headstrong Allison, the offbeat Michael, the charismatic Amy, the no-nonsense Eric, and the driven Chase—dodge the malevolent forces of the Queen of the Dead, many of whom are necromancers intent on killing Emma and/or her various allies. The novel begins to gain some plotting steam once Emma comes upon a young dead boy, Mark, who is found alone in a ravine and who seeks help going home. Emma must figure out what to do with this boy: should he return him to his family, especially given the possibility that Mark’s mother may have intentionally left him in that ravine? While Emma figures out what to do, another plot concerning a reanimated necromancer from Silence surfaces: Merrick Longland has been sent to connect with Emma, though his intentions and actual motivations are unclear. Sagara adds an extra level of tension through the ghostly presence of Nathan, Emma’s boyfriend who had died previously and who has found his way back to her. There is some telegraphing to this plot and it seems evident that Sagara is moving toward a showdown between Emma and the Queen of the Dead. I’m not quite sure if this book is intended to be a part of a trilogy, but Emma is being set up to be a different kind of necromancer, one that does not draw power willfully from those who have died. Indeed, her approach exists in contrast to the traditional necromancers who bind those who have died and forcibly draw power from those who are essentially enslaved to them. The novel concludes with Emma and her allies realizing that they must break with their families in order to keep them safe. As I mentioned in my opening, this book is not as action-oriented as the first and the plot takes a lot of time to get off the ground.

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A Review of Lydia Kang’s Control (Dial Press, 2013).

I’ve still been consuming young adult fiction at an alarming rate. This novel was one of the most highly anticipated ones from my “to read” pile. I didn’t get my flu shot this year and was appropriately rewarded by a nasty sickness. During the time convalescing, I was able to tackle Kang’s debut novel, which weaves together science, a speculative future, and gene mutations alongside the requisite romance plot. Zelia Benten is our first person narrator and protagonist and the opening sees her in a “magpod crash” that takes the live of her father. She and her sister (Dyl) are soon set to be put into foster care, but Zel does not realize that she will be separated from Dyl and taken by separate foster families. These foster families are far from “normal.” Zel soon discovers that she’ll be living with a group of mutants with a particular “trait” attached to them. Some of these teenage mutants have incredible healing powers, others have multiple body parts, and the matriarch, Marka, has a keen ability to smell basically anything (including emotions). For her part, Zel does not have a “trait,” except for the fact that she cannot breathe on her own all the time, meaning that she has to remember consciously to push air into her lungs (an actual physical issue called Ondine’s Curse). As Zel comes to learn more and more about the “off the grid” location in which she now resides (the Carus House), she begins to realize that Dyl has been taken by a group (the Aureus House) that seeks to harvest her genetic potential. The problem is that they do not know what powers Dyl may or may not have. Thus, Zel aims to free Dyl by any means possible, even if that means endangering herself.

spoilers forthcoming

For fans of the X-Men, this particular novel will be of major interest. The one issue I had was that—at least in my opinion—the whole “trait” issue with Dyl was a little bit too telegraphed and it was easy to see what was being set up. Kang also has an obviously extensively knowledge of science, which lends itself to a certain level of realism that this plot really requires. The major conflict at the novel’s center certainly propels the reader forward and Kang’s work dovetails with the continuing issues that are revolving around genetic engineering and the ethics behind gene selection. Devotees of young adult trilogies and other such ongoing serial forms will be happy to know that Kang’s work will have a follow-up!

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07 April 2014 @ 06:50 pm
Hey Paul, Stephen, et. al.

Do you know of any Asian American texts out there, particularly memoir or fiction (as opposed to academic essays or studies) that deal with emotional abuse in Asian American families? I couldn't think of any off the top of my head that weren't about physical abuse or Korean adoptee nonfiction, and I have a friend interested in knowing if there's a niche of writing out there on this topic. Any ideas you have would be really helpful!


P.S. Sorry I haven't been around in a long time! I haven't been reading much that isn't psychological theory since I moved to California!!! Yikes...
Asian American Literature Fans – Megareview for March 14, 2014.

(with apologies as always for errors in grammar/ spelling/ formatting etc)

In this post, reviews of: Derek Kirk Kim’s Tune: Still Life (illustrated by Les McClaine) (First Second, 2013); Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced (Back Bay Books, 2013); Yvonne Woon’s Love Reborn (Disney Hyperion, 2014); Andrew Lam’s Birds of Paradise Lost (Red Hen Press, 2013); Paula Young Lee’s Deer Hunting in Paris: A Memoir of God, Guns, and Game Meat (Solas House, 2013); Kim Fu’s For Today I Am A Boy (Houghton Mifflin, 2014); Mariko Nagai’s Dust of Eden (Albert & Whitman, 2014); and Crystal Chan’s Bird (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2014).

A Review of Derek Kirk Kim’s Tune: Still Life (illustrated by Les McClaine) (First Second, 2013)

Derek Kirk Kim returns the saga started in Tune and Les McClaine is along for the ride to help with the illustrating. Spoilers forthcoming. If you’ve read the first volume, you know that Andy Go is stuck in some sort of exhibit in space, where aliens can view him in his natural habitat (which is a replica of his parents’ home). He does not realize that the contract he has signed makes it so that he must stay there for the duration of his life. Andy makes friends with the exhibit’s caretaker, but the race of aliens he comes into contact with begin to trouble him. Indeed, they do not have a sense of art at all and his caretaker is astonished when she can see that he has created images with the use of a pencil. Thus, Andy begins a friendship with this extraterrestrial being, in part to try to gain his freedom, and also to allow him to bring another individual into the exhibit. Of course, we recall that in the first volume he has developed serious feelings for one of his fellow students at the art institute, a lively young girl named Yumi Kwon. As an exchange for teaching her how to draw, the caretaker takes it upon herself to add Yumi Kwon to the exhibit. The problem arises when it is discovered that the Yumi Kwon that has been added to the exhibit comes actually from a ringer dimension, which is a kind of alternate university that is very similar to the one that Andy inhabits. The problem is that the ringer dimension creates some obvious deviations in the timeline: this version of Yumi has already dated Andy and further still that the other version of Andy in ringer Yumi’s dimension has cheated on her three times. Additionally, the ringer Yumi is a journalist rather than a fellow artist. Thus, the fact that they are in the exhibit together is a problem insofar as the ringer Yumi is not happy about being stuck in that location with Andy (who she at first does not realize is from another dimension). The hijinks of this volume are well illustrated and Kim’s comic plot elements are certain to keep readers interested. The conclusion leaves us wondering whether or not Andy has found a potential ally that will allow him to escape. Will he or won’t he? It seems as we will have to find out in another volume, as Tune: Still Life ends with a cliffhanger.

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A Review of Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced (Back Bay Books, 2013).

I rarely have been reading plays these days, but Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced (also the writer of American Dervish, which was already reviewed on Asian American literature fans) was recently awarded the Pulitzer Prize in drama, so it seemed to be a good time to pick a play up; correct me if I’m wrong but he may also be the first American writer of Asian descent to have won a Pulitzer Prize for drama? In any case, Disgraced centers on an interracial relationship between a Muslim-Pakistani American lawyer named Amir and his Caucasian wife and artist Emily. The play opens with Emily painting Amir, part of her interest in portraying ethnic cultural contexts within her artistic work. The crux point of the play occurs over an explosive dinner conversation in which Amir and Emily are eating with Amir’s African American colleague, Jory, and her Jewish husband, Isaac. Thus, Akhtar immediately places an eclectic and diverse group together. In the post 9/11 milieu, Amir is especially attuned to racial issues and the dinner conversation often steers toward tricky subject matter, especially as these four debate and explore the meaning of various statements or views that can be found in the Quran. The intensity of the dinner party amplifies over the course of the drama and you are not surprised by its catastrophic conclusion; there is a naturalistic impulse in this play that seems to suggest that we can become the monsters that our societies most fear. Akhtar’s play is so riveting because the drama, though so short, embraces the flaws and the unique textures of its characters and the contours of its crackling dialogue.

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A Review of Yvonne Woon’s Love Reborn (Disney Hyperion, 2014)

Apparently the Dead Beautiful series comes to an end in Love Reborn, perhaps the most action packed of all three novels and certainly the one that fans have been waiting for: will Renee and Dante BOTH be able to survive? This question is the one that provides the cornerstone for this novel, especially as Dante’s time on earth seems to be coming to an end. Fortunately, they believe they have a solution: they must be able to travel to the Netherworld and in the process restore Dante’s soul. Unfortunately, traveling to the Netherworld endangers humans, as humans must sacrifice parts of their senses in order to gain access to the area. Only when they have lost ALL of their senses will humans or undead be able to purify their souls and be fully healed. The location of the Netherworld is the other problem. Renee and Dante must team up with Anya—from a previous book—and Theo, a talented but wily former monitor in order to follow the clues that will help them gain access to the Netherworld. Along the way, they are aided by a mysterious individual who keeps sending them notes only signed with the name “Monsieur.” It is together that the four will best be able to defeat the hordes of the Undead that are following them (the Liberum) as well as escape the clutches of the Monitors who are seeking to find Dante and end his life.

Woon ramps up the tension in this novel by rooting us within a narrative perspective that is itself troubled by the ways in which characters might be double-dealing. Indeed, Renee realizes that many characters have their secrets and at multiple points, we wonder (along with Renee) whether or not Dante, Anya, or Theo might all eventually turn on her. Further still, it becomes apparent that the Monitors may not all be as virtuous as she once thought them to be. Woon has to accomplish so much in this novel that there’s bound to be a letdown in some sense and the conclusion feels a bit rushed, but devotees of the young adult paranormal fantasy will not be disappointed by this climactic conclusion to the Dead Beautiful trilogy.

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A Review of Andrew Lam’s Birds of Paradise Lost (Red Hen Press, 2013).

Red Hen Press always publishes books slightly off the beaten path, ones that are formally experimental and/or contextually odd or unique. Lam contributes to this indie press identity with his first foray into fiction, the loosely connected story collection Birds of Paradise Lost. I recently taught a course which focused primarily or arguably on story cycles and I suppose you could place this collection within that realm only insofar as Lam unites the collection with the themes of Vietnamese American displacements and traumas (mostly set in the San Francisco Bay area), but goes beyond some of the ur-tropes associated with writings of this ethnic group by positioning complicated characters within respective fictional worlds. These oddballs and pariahs include queers, figures with disabilities like Tourette’s syndrome, cannibals (in one grotesque and traumatic case), a woman who seeks revenge, often in tandem with more common figures such as refugees and migrants. Stylistically, Lam avoids sentimentality and overwrought pathos and instead focuses on a kind of rawness that characterizes the lives of those struggling to get by; one of the most compelling stories is actually written from the perspective of the classmate of a newly arrived Vietnamese boy and typifies Lam’s ability to draw out what might be a more mundane story by refiguring it from another’s viewpoint. Lam’s collection is more in line with the work of Linh Dinh (see Fake House: Stories or Blood and Soap: Stories) than something like Nam Le’s the Boat or Angie Chau’s Quiet as They Come. A quirky and provocative work!

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A Review of Paula Young Lee’s Deer Hunting in Paris: A Memoir of God, Guns, and Game Meat (Solas House, 2013).

So, this book randomly jives with a lot of research I completed just before the summer ended. I was writing a paper on a novel that had a lot of depictions of game hunting, specifically of deer hunting, so reading Paula Young Lee’s Deer Hunting in Paris: A Memoir of God, Guns, and Game Meat was right up my research alley. Lee is author of a number of other books, but this one takes a much more personal look at her experiences in romance and in relation to the fact that her partner is one avid hunter. Lee—being quite the adventurous soul—is ever willing to embrace the lifestyle of the hunter, but before we get to that part, we’ll back to back up a few steps. The beginning of the memoir is much about Lee’s life growing up as the Korean American daughter of a by the books Christian immigrant pastor. She spends a number of years in her early adulthood living in Paris, France, only to begin a long distance relationship with a man from Maine. Of course, what makes this relationship nominally perfect is that she ends up living in a part of Maine called Paris, so we see her move from Paris, France to Paris, Maine. This man—in some ways, the polar opposite of our memoirist—is the person she falls in love with and thus, she gamely (see what I did there) takes up sport hunting and meat preparation as part of a kind of relational development. Lee’s background in academia breaks through her humorous writerly voice, as we get chapters on moose hunting, deer hunting, rabbit hunting, among others. The ethnographic nature of these chapters serves to reveal the rituals and cultures of Maine hunters, which are distinct from other local communities, as readers discover over the course of the episodic chapters. Lee is also willing to describe scenes of butchery and meat preparation without softening her prose: there are blood, guts, entrails, and organs, and also a desire to make sure the meat and any associated body parts are properly preserved and used. For those who have no interest in these subjects, the memoir might grow tiresome, but regardless of where you stand in relation to predator-prey type relationships, the last three chapters bring an emotional intensity back into the memoir that serves as a nice balance to the more light-hearted sequences that appear in earlier sections. Lee also peppers the memoir with the occasional recipe for those who are more interested in the culinary aspects of game meats. An interesting stylistic choice is the occasional use of hangul without necessarily translating the characters, a detail I very much enjoyed.

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A Review of Kim Fu’s For Today I Am A Boy (Houghton Mifflin, 2014).

Kim Fu’s debut novel For Today I Am A Boy is probably one of the most sustained explorations of a Asian North American transgender character that I’ve read since Shani Mootoo’s Cereus Blooms at Night. It is probably no surprise that Fu hails from Canada, as this particular national canon has had what I consider to be far more dynamic and provocative explorations of queer issues (with writers such as Lydia Kwa, Larissa Lai, Shyam Selvadurai, among others) in recent years. The novel is an episodically plotted bildungsroman for our narrator, Peter, who is one of four children in a fairly dysfunctional immigrant family living in Canada. He has two older sisters, Adele and Helen, and then one younger sister, Bonnie. His father looks to Peter as the son who will continue the family line and expects him to act appropriately, which also means that he must perform his masculinity. His mother gambles and does not seem to be very happy in her marriage. The novel quickly shows the dispersal of the children. Adele escapes to Europe; Helen gets an education and leaves for Los Angeles; Bonnie becomes a stripper and lives in an itinerant lifestyle, while Peter seeks to establish a career as a cook. Along the way, Peter struggles to confront the nature of his transgender subjectivity. It isn’t until the final arc of the book that Fu allows Peter some actual closure to this issue. Interestingly enough, it isn’t until Peter’s father unexpectedly dies that the family can begin to heal. His mother finds herself freed from her feelings of powerlessness, while the sisters have had enough time apart to consider their assorted estrangements. And finally: Peter is able to consider the possibility that he can be the fourth sister he has always wanted to be. Fu’s novel is uneven, but its unsentimental depiction gives it great gravitas and it’s a novel I will be sure to incorporate into future classes.

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A Review of Mariko Nagai’s Dust of Eden (Albert & Whitman, 2014).

Mariko Nagai’s Dust of Eden is her debut in the young adult fiction category, though she takes a rather original approach in the representation of a Japanese American girl who is interned at Minidoka by predominantly using the lyric form. The protagonist—if we can call her that—is Mina “Masako” Tagawa and her perspective provides us with a poetic entry into the traumas associated with the Japanese American internment. She is part of a family unit that includes an older brother (Nick), her mother, and her father (who is taken prisoner and questioned by the FBI), as well as her grandfather. Her father eventually joins them in Minidoka, but the reunion is strained. Nick, in particular, sees his father as a traitor. Mina finds a way to pass her time by writing letters to her best friend back in Seattle. Mina’s mother finds a job in the mess hall that requires considerable physical labor. When Nick turns 18, he eventually joins the army and goes against the wishes of his father. The lyric novel takes a much more darker turn in the concluding sections: Mina’s grandfather passes away, Nick writes letters about his experiences as a soldier engaged in combat (one poem concerns his perspective on the German extermination camps), and then of course, the atomic bombings. With such a broad historical tapestry, this novel would require some scaffolding if taught in the classroom. Nagai’s poetic approach of course is both accessible on the one hand (for younger audiences) and also employs a dynamic method to bring to life the internment experience. Nagai’s work easily resonates alongside other poetic works such as Mitsuye Yamada’s Camp Notes and Other Writings and Lawson Inada’s Legends from Camp. The sections I found most complicated appeared when Nagai explored conceptions of what it means to be American. For Mina, she is interpolated by an educational system that attempts to extract patriotism from her, while also denying her her citizenship: a paradox that she certainly comes to understand. For Nick, he spends the ending of the book in Japan, helping out with the American occupation. Once in Japan, he gets of sense of how he is not embraced as a Japanese citizen and in this sense, his identity as an American feels somehow more certain, what he calls “simply American.” These last words ring ironic and perhaps tragically hollow, given all that has occurred to Mina and Nick, their families, and all Japanese American internees.

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A Review of Crystal Chan’s Bird (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2014).

Crystal Chan’s debut YA novel, Bird, takes on a particularly dark topic: the aftermath for one family in the wake of a young boy’s suicide. That boy, John—nicknamed Bird—jumped off a cliff when he was just 5 years old. On that same day, Bird’s little sister Jewel is born. Fast forward to about a decade in the future and Jewel, as the narrator, gives us the present circumstances of her family, one that is trying to make a life in Iowa. Jewel is a mixed race child—of Jamaican, Mexican, and Caucasian backgrounds. One summer, she makes fast friends with a boy named John; John is African American, adopted, and is visiting Iowa for the summer and living with his Uncle. Jewel and John develop a fast friendship. John comes to discover Jewel’s hopes of becoming a geologist and learns of the special ring of stones she has erected near the site where her brother jumped off the cliff. Indeed, she often returns to that location, a kind of spiritual place that fills her with a sense of stability and center. John has his own hideout in a tree nicknamed the Event Horizon. Not surprisingly, his aim is to become an astronaut. For Jewel, things at home are far from perfect. Her mom still suffers from bouts of depression and her paternal grandfather was rendered mute in the wake of Bird’s suicide. Strangely enough, when Jewel brings John home for the first time, the grandfather becomes agitated and physically violent. It becomes clear that the grandfather might be trying to protect her from John because he perceives that John may be a “duppy,” which is another word for a spirit (a Jamaican cultural reference). The introduction of Jamaican spiritualism is key to establishing the continued issues that surface in the shadow of Bird’s suicide. Jewel’s father actually forbids her to go to the cliff, fearing that she may be somehow influenced negatively by duppies, which he thinks are rampant in that location. His beliefs also put major strain on his marriage, as Jewel’s mother does not believe in duppies.

Chan’s debut is especially impressive in its exploration of melancholia, depression, and coming-of-age. Jewel is very spirited character and we can see immediately that her persistence and resilience are integral in establishing a possible future for this fractured family. Another element that I really appreciated was the complicated, but organic friendship that develops between Jewel and John, both benefitting from the struggles that the other must face. This novel is certainly one I would recommend to readers of all ages.

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Always with apologies for formatting/ grammatical/ typographical/ spelling errors).

A Review of Peter Tieryas Liu’s Watering Heaven (Signal 8 Press, 2012).

Another book on my to-read list: Peter Tieryas Liu’s quirky and impressionistic debut Watering Heaven: A Collection of Short Stories. Though these stories are disparate in their contexts and characterizations, Liu’s collection generally coheres around the unpredictable nature of (romantic) relationships, especially as they unfold during an era of increased transnational mobility. Liu is especially keyed into the hypermodernization of China, with wonderful passages concerning the density of cities such as Beijing. In this regard, he is part of a new generation of Asian Anglophone writers who have been considering China’s shifts in the recent decades (see for instance, Tash Aw’s Five Star Billionaire). Watering Heaven is also a work that could easily be taught/ read alongside short story collections such as Wena Poon’s Lions in Winter, Xu Xi’s Access, Wang Ping’s The Last Communist Virgin, and Ha Jin’s A Good Fall. Many of the characters live highly transnational lives, moving between China and the United States with such plasticity that we are always recalling Aihwa Ong’s now already classic work on the flexible citizen (see also Xu Xi’s Habit of a Foreign Sky for a great novel that dramatizes the flexible citizen). The first story “Chronology of an Egg” is quite illustrative in this regard: the narrator Ethan Zhou meets Sarah Chao at a gaming conference in China. She promises to keep in touch and she eventually contacts Ethan when she visits Los Angeles. Formalistically dynamic, the story is told through specific times in the night, therefore giving us the “chronology” of their Southern California misadventures. The “egg” portion of the title involves the fact that Sarah Chao says she lays an egg anytime she has sex. As readers, we’re in a similar position as Ethan: we simply disregard Sarah’s comment as something spouted out of a free-spirited young woman’s mouth. Later, after Ethan and Sarah do have sex, Sarah does in fact lay an egg. What are we to make of this moment? At once comic and speculative, this strange conclusion pushes the entire collection onto a different plane and we’re meant to read the following stories through a slightly refracted eye: what kind of stories are going to emerge from this off-kilter shell we wonder? We are accordingly not surprised to see oddballs all throughout this collection: those who are disabled, psychically traumatized, others who are socially marginalized. References to diseases, technology, engineering and scientific discourses are threaded throughout generating another level of narrative unity that continually pushes the reader to consider the poles of healthfulness and pathology, normativity and idiosyncrasy, the human and the nonhuman. These stories tend to be impressionistic with a kind of poetic intertextuality because Liu effectively employs primarily first person narrators who have a wonderfully keen eye for observation and detail. The best stories, in my opinion, are the ones that move slightly away from a purely realist registers, such as the opening story, and others including a strange woman who falls in love with specific parts of the body and a documenter of urban legends. In these planes of the almost-surreal, Liu’s stories find move into a generative level of creative experimentation, directly evoking the whimsical title. For those craving more from Liu in this whimsical way, see his upcoming publication Bald New World (Perfect Edge): a book which riffs off of Aldous Huxley, we won’t be able to read soon enough!

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On Bald New World:

A Review of Ellen Oh’s Warrior (HarperTeen, 2013).

By the end of Ellen Oh’s Warrior (the second book in the Dragon King Chronicles), you’ll immediately realize that there’s a third installment on the way, revealing that the Dragon King Chronicles are taking the format of the tried-and-true trilogy that seems to be dominating the YA fiction market right. Warrior avoids the sophomore slump by doing what it did best: creating a feminist updating of a fantasy kingdom based upon ancient Korea and supercharging it with action sequences, including a colorful monster menagerie and some romantic intrigue for good measure. Our heroine and the titular warrior Kira returns with the intent of fulfilling the prophecy as outlined in the first book (see my earlier review here):

The beginning of Warrior sees the kingdom of Hansong thrown into chaos after some untimely assassinations. The bulk of this plot involves Kira and her comrades embarking on a long journey that requires them to go to Mount Baekdu, the site wherein Kira might be able to locate a famed dagger. Kira and her allies (the young Taejo, her brother Kwan, her possible romantic foil Jaewon, Taejo’s companion dog Jindo, among others) must confront and defeat a horde of new villains and monsters, including half-breeds, evil cavern maidens, a fox-demon, a dragon, amongst others in order to find one of two key treasures that will allow Kira to bring peace back to Hansong. By the conclusion, you’re already ready and willing to read the third installment. Though you know you’re rooting for Kira to complete the quest, it is the journey—of course—that will prove to be the reader’s most tantalizing treasure.
For the purposes of my own scholarly interests, I’ve actually been revising an article that explores depictions of kitsune, or fox-demon/trickster figures. It was with much interest that I read Oh’s Warrior, which includes a very prominent portrayal of the Korean version, also known as the kumiho. Oh is intent in revising this myth to a certain extent, providing the kumiho with qualities that many traditional folklorists would say deviates from source materials. Of course, this revision is exactly the kind that Oh is already mapping with her dynamic construction of the feudal Korean superheroine we have in Kira, the enterprising demonslayer. The pairing of the kumiho and Kira proves to be one of the most compelling aspects of this novel.

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A Review of Amy Sueyoshi’s Queer Compulsions: Race, Nation, and Sexuality in the Affairs of Yone Noguchi (University of Hawaii Press, 2012).

(fantastic cover!)

I’ve been really behind on my reading and I finally was able to get around to Amy Sueyoshi’s Queer Compulsions: Race, Nation, and Sexuality in the Affairs of Yone Noguchi utterly fantastic scholarly monograph. It’s quite clear that an incredible amount of research went into this fascinating biography, which focuses on the complicated ways that Noguchi negotiated his social difference. The fluidity with which Noguchi treated his national background, racial difference, and queerness is evidence of a kind of tactician intent on making the most of his time in America: “While Yone cringed from the abuses and exclusions that markers of racial difference brought, he maximized what benefits he could reap from Japanese stereotypes to cushion him from the hardships of living as an Asian immigrant in the United States” (76). Such contextual considerations make Sueyoshi’s monograph nuanced, powerful, and absolutely indispensable in overturning blanket categorizations of Asian immigrant artists as potential sell-outs or at worst neoconservative traitors. Sueyoshi’s work is incredibly instructive in revealing how much immigrants had to work around ossified notions of the foreign and the exotic in order to gain any measure of social legibility or legitimacy. Sueyoshi’s excavation reveals a figure also quite carried away in various love affairs and friendships, including a same sex intimacy with the writer Charles Stoddard. As Sueyoshi explains the larger stakes in this book project, “Among histories of sexuality as well, Queer Compulsions more aggressively suggests the presence of Asians particularly in the United States who engaged in same-sex affairs. Studies on late Victorian American center largely on white and to some extent African Americans of marginalized sexualities who carved out vibrant communities. In cities where Noguchi resides such as San Francisco and New York, subcultures appeared to offer numerous venues that tolerated varied sexualities and intimacies” (4). In this respect, Sueyoshi does much to reorder the terrain of queer American histories and cultural studies in the in-depth examination of one particular life, a testament to the importance of a continuing eye toward addressing scholarly lacunae. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Sueyoshi’s book reads almost as a kind of creative work itself, written with a grasp of sequencing and plotting that makes this scholarship both rigorous AND readable: a devastatingly rare combination.

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A Review of Min Hyoung Song’s The Children of 1965 (Duke University Press, 2013).

Min Hyoung Song’s The Children of 1965: On Writing, and Not Writing, as an Asian American provides an important, timely, and exciting intervention in the fields of cultural criticism, American literature, and race/ ethnic studies, especially in its evocation of the complicated positionality of the minority writer. Perhaps the most crucial and dynamic aspect of this monograph is the socioanthropological methodology that Song deploys by interviewing a score of Asian American writers and directly delving into the importance of authorial intentionality and identity politics. Song thus deftly mines the fertile and complex divide between cultural producers (professional authors) and cultural critics (professional readers) and in so doing relates the myriad formal and political impulses behind the construction and reception of so-called Asian American literature. On another note, Song’s style is especially refreshing; often times, he eschews critical distance from the writing process for a more approachable tone. In the conclusion to the book, he argues that “Namely, what I am coming around to as an important project for literary studies is the need for us to get over our hang-ups about making aesthetic judgments. It seems to me now, after much self-debate, that we need to be assertive about making our preferences for some literary works over others more explicit and to be able to articulate what guides these preferences” (222). Given the diversity of formal and contextual issues at hand in Asian American writing and literature, Song’s clarion call is of paramount concern. With an area that is expanding so rapidly that it is simply impossible to keep up with the sheer volume of output from American writers of Asian descent, Song is dutifully marking out what cultural critics have to do as part of their work: place some sort of value—however it may be defined—in what it is we decide to study. A must-read for any scholar or reader of cultural, literary, race/ethnic, Asian American studies.

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09 March 2014 @ 04:25 pm
In the collection of poems, stories, and essays, Seasonal Velocities (Trans-Genre Press, 2012), Ryka Aoki offers an impassioned exploration of transgender identity, politics, and activism, with a strong focus on the importance of writing and creative expression for trans folks.


The essays in the collection, many of which were originally presentations, performance pieces, and keynote addresses at various venues (particularly the Day of Remembrance gatherings and other transgender rights conferences), were the most powerful pieces for me. In these essays, Aoki articulates her sense of activism for the trans community and transgender individuals, focusing often on the idea of a full humanity and reminding others in queer communities not to further oppress trans individuals. Aoki offers some thoughtful comments about the differences between trans politics and other queer politics which might be more entrenched in the idea and practice of sex and sexuality. Trans identity, linked more to non-normative gender identity than non-normative sexual identity, can seem illegible to queer folks who are otherwise cis-gendered (meaning those who identify with normative definitions of gender or at least with queer versions of gender identity such as butch lesbianism).

Aoki draws heavily on her own experiences, including abuse from her father (and negligence on the part of her mother) while she was a child, and her narration of these situations is raw and startling. This aspect of the writing--particularly in the essays and some of the poems--importantly entrenches more theoretical discussions of trans politics to her own lived experiences.

I would've liked to have read more (fictional) short stories in the collection. In these stories, Aoki creates characters who are vulnerable yet often still full of hope. A story at the end of the collection centers on a man who has worked at a pig slaughterhouse all his life, mixing with the muck of the pigs' waste, blood, and other refuse of the industry. He develops an illness from working in that environment, coughing up blood, and is let go by the company as a result. Furthermore, he is often shunned by people in town because he smells of pig shit despite constant cleaning. Despite all of this, he remains open to people and willing to see that their dismissal of him or even outright mistreatment of him likely stems from their own difficult lives (as migrant workers, for instance, or put-upon librarians in un-air conditioned libraries). In one encounter, he comes across an older Chinese woman in the hospital who, though at first startled by his appearance, gives him a golden paper crane that she had been folding. This gesture resonates for him profoundly and leads to the powerful ending scene of the story.

Seasonal Velocities is published by Trans-Genre Press, a publisher dedicated to promoting the work of trans artists. I'm not sure if they have other publications out yet, but I'd be interested in reading more of their list!
Current Mood: indescribableindescribable
Na Liu and Andrés Vera Martínez's Little White Duck: A Childhood in China (Graphic Universe, 2012) is a memoir in graphic narrative form about Na Liu's childhood in Wuhan in Hubei Province in China in the late 1970s. The illustrator is Liu's husband.


As Liu puts it, her childhood coincided with a particular moment in China's modern history, when the closed world of Mao's China, with its revolutionary politics and intent to erase class hierarchies as well as various traditions, began to transform with increased connections with other parts of the world and global changes in political, economic, social, and technological systems. Her parents lived through the sweeping changes of Mao's regime and a country-wide famine. In contrast, Liu and her sister grew up in a rapidly urbanizing area and lived in more comfort than her cousins who were still in rural areas.

The memoir unfolds in a series of short vignettes from her childhood, from the day Liu learns about Chairman Mao's death to her creative plans to catch rats with her sister (for the country's goals of ridding areas of pests like rats, cockroaches, flies, and mosquitoes). In one vignette, she goes with her father to visit his mother (her grandmother) in the rural village where he grew up. She turns out to be a very mean-spirited old lady, and Liu spends the day outside with her cousins and other village children. She learns in that experience that people in China are still living in great poverty when the children are fascinated by her clean and well-made new coat on which her other grandmother had sewn a little white duck made of velvet.

The illustrations are quite beautiful, and Martínez has captured the look of a young girl's exuberance as well as some of the bleaker scenes about China's difficulties. This mix of the author's fairly pleasant memories about China and some historical details about more difficult moments like her father's hunger during the famine which drove him to eat leaves from that he could not identify is well done. (Some reviews I glanced at online by readers suggested that this mix, however, may make the graphic memoir not quite appropriate for young children, even though the publisher pitches it as a book for elementary school aged children.)

One thing I found interesting was that Liu's memories of China and her childhood are sometimes deceptively simple (or politics-free), but there is a lot of information woven into the stories about the state of China at the time. For instance, in the story about how she planned with her sister how to catch rats for the country (school teachers assigned children the task of bringing her two rats' tails as part of the pest eradication program), the fact that schools were essentially conscripting children into a program to control the pest program suggests other issues. The memoir gives a quick note about how the sparrow, for instance, used to be on the list of pests that children were to help kill, but then when people did kill off sparrows in large numbers, they ended up upsetting the ecological balance, and the insect population skyrocketed and became a big problem (helping to cause the famine earlier in the century).

It was also nice that the memoir did not end as many immigrant stories do with a triumphant arrival in the United States, with a kind of sense of salvation simply because she escaped a horrible past. In fact, she seems very much to cherish her childhood. For Liu, the choice not to end with her arrival in the United States may simply have been because she did not immigrate to the United States until she was an adult to work as a research scientist, and she wanted in this memoir to focus just on her childhood in China. However, she does end the memoir with a comment that her parents survived through much adversity in order to make a better life for her and her sister, and in much the same way, she hoped to create an even better life for her daughter.
Current Mood: workingworking
06 February 2014 @ 10:13 pm
Chang-rae Lee's foray into speculative fiction takes the form of a dystopian novel: On Such a Full Sea (Penguin Books, 2014).


Taking its title from Brutus's lines in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar (On such a full sea are we now afloat;
/ And we must take the current when it serves, / Or lose our ventures.), which also serve as one of two epigraphs, the novel circles around the idea of people's fortune and fate. The most immediate and overarching detail of the novel is the narration in the collective first person point of view--the "we" of B-Mor, a production colony in a future America. This world is highly stratified, with the rich and powerful living in Charter villages, the somewhat well-off in production/labor colonies like B-Mor, and the rest of people in the open counties where there is no governing body except in an ad hoc way. This setup crystallizes something that is becoming increasingly clear in today's America--where class distinctions and discussions of the 1% who hold most of the wealth in the country are commonplace--the idea that the country is not egalitarian nor meritocratic except in the thinnest of veneers.

One detail that is particularly interesting is that the people of B-Mor and the Charters are largely refugees from China, a place that somehow became uninhabitable through some kind of environmental disaster or degradation. Many of the characters in the novel are Chinese with Chinese names. As the largest population of people in this future America, they have displaced "natives" who are described as of European descent.

Another significant detail, and one that is equally left somewhat unexplained, is that everyone in this new world suffers from C-illness. There is no cure, but it is a disease that can be managed or treated, at ever greater cost the longer a person suffers. The enigma of this disease is one of the driving forces of the narrative, as the main character Fan goes in search of her boyfriend Reg who reputedly was tested as being C-free before disappearing (possibly to a research laboratory for testing).

The narrative focuses on the collective we explaining about Fan, a young woman of B-Mor, a fish tank cleaner, who leaves the colony in search of Reg, at least in the collective people's understanding. The book is a picaresque in a sense, following the adventures of Fan as she leaves B-Mor, gets hit by a car, falls in with a group of people in the open counties in the Smokies, ends up in a very strange Charter household, and eventually finds her way to another Charter household that promises a resolution to her quest.

What I found most interesting about the novel was the understated way that the narrative creates this future world, one where Chinese refugees have repopulated the East Coast of America and where wealth, riches, education, and comfortable living are clearly limited to the elite Charters while the working class people in B-Mor and other production colonies provide the food and other resources necessary for survival. The collective first person perspective is, I think, a brilliant way to narrate this world, where the voice projects the assumptions and understandings of the working class people while offering conjectures about the thoughts and feelings of Fan, who ultimately remains elusive as a figure.

Here is a selection of some of the many reviews of the novel:
Current Mood: pensivepensive
31 January 2014 @ 09:04 pm
David Henry Hwang's recent play Chinglish (Theatre Communications Group, 2012) follows in the footsteps of many of his early plays that examine contrasts between Western and Chinese worldviews.

chinglish book cover

The context of Chinglish is contemporary China and involves a white American businessman, Daniel Cavanaugh, in the sign-making business who tries to drum up business with the local government with the consulting help of a British expatriate who has in many ways "gone native." Daniel meets with a local official, Minister Cai Guoliang, and his assistant Xi Yan, about brokering a deal to produce bilingual signs. As you might be able to guess from this set up, the play is very much about exploring translation and cross-cultural communication. The play is a comedy, playing up the humorous side of mistranslation and misinterpretation (rather than the more tragic side such as in Hwang's earlier M. Butterfly). As with his earlier plays, too, Hwang brings to Chinglish a very insightful and cheeky exploration of how sexual politics intertwine with racial politics. There's a fair amount of good old fashioned cultural misunderstanding and language issues as well as outright deception by some characters, all of which raise questions about our (American) willingness to perceive Chinese in certain ways.

I would be very interested to see this play performed because much of the dialogue is in Chinese, and everything (according to the published stage directions) is captioned in both English and Chinese. The ideal audience for this play would be someone who is fluent in both languages as well as in the particular critical perspective of an Asian American who sees the humor in both Chinese cultural self-presentation as well as American/Western perceptions of Chinese people. In many ways, I love this very specific perspective but also feel like it is probably not really understood by most audiences (something I felt particularly to be true of Hwang's previous play, Yellowface, especially in the context of watching a performance in Minneapolis, MN, with a predominantly white, Midwestern audience).
Current Mood: pensivepensive
Eugene Gloria's poetry collection Drivers at the Short-Time Motel (Penguin Books, 2000) is part of the National Poetry Series of books.


Gloria's poems were selected by Yusef Komunyakaa as one of the 1999 winners of the national poetry competition. These poems are suffused with a sense of the sacred (with Catholic/Christian imagery) while addressing family relationships memories of the past, and the poet's relationship to some key figures or moments in Asian American history like Carlos Bulosan and the Vietnam War.

The poems are mostly short, lyrical verses of a page or two in length, focused on a single character or idea. At times, foreign Filipino words pop up in italics, as when the speaker of the opening poem, "In Language," teaches his lover his grandmother's words. In terms of the landscape of the poems, the most present locations seem to be places in the Philippines, viewed at times through the memories of the speaker's relatives (rather than direct experience), and some locations are in the United States though these places are less fully realized on the page.
Current Mood: awakeawake
28 January 2014 @ 03:41 pm
Ranbir Singh Sidhu's Good Indian Girls (Soft Skull Press, 2013) offers fascinating and quirky short stories with a touch of surrealism and a solid dose of insightful critique of people in the Indian diaspora.

The biographical info about Sidhu in the book notes that he was born in London and grew up in California but also that, as a trained archaeologist, he has been all over Europe, the Middle East, and the Indian subcontinent. This worldliness is evident in Sidhu's stories, where the characters often are recent Indian transplants to the United States from other locations in the diaspora (and hence not direct immigrants from India, a difference that the stories often address).

The stories demonstrate an interesting breadth of characters and narrative perspectives (young, old, male, female) as well as some quite disturbing situations as with a woman confronting a serial killer ("Good Indian Girls"), a diplomat's wife's erotic relationship with their pet python ("The Consul's Wife"), and a dead man's ruminations on collecting his scattered corpse in the ocean after an airplane bombing ("Neanderthal Tongues").

Some of the stories, like the one narrated after the narrator's death, take on a surreal quality that points at mental breakdowns with provocative implications about the world in which we live. In "The Discovery," for instance, a man begins to realize that words around him are referencing nonexistent places and things, such as notIndia. What starts as a kind of refusal to acknowledge how countries and objects are defined by people (the political nature of what exists) quickly devolves into mental insanity.

What I really liked about this collection was the startling way that Sidhu created slightly-askew worldviews in his narrators and other characters' perspectives. This skewedness allows for thinking about the usual types of Indian American characters and immigrant stories, foregrounding the ability of people who might be demographically identifiable to remain elusive in their full human complexity. The narrator in "Solzhenitsyn in Vermont," is a prime example--the story wraps the college-educated Indian American man in the sensibilities of Russian giants of literature like Solzhenitsyn and Dostoyevsky, whispers of political critique and existential crisis, even as his life unfolds in an almost stereotypical narrative of the suburban man who cheats on his wife and watches his life fall apart.
Current Mood: touchedtouched
Asian American Literature Fans – Megareview for December 8, 2013.

In this post, reviews of Jane Mai’s Sunday in the Park with Boys (Koyama Press, 2012); Sita Brahmachari’s Mira in the Present Tense (Albert & Whitman, 2013); Nikita Lalwani’s The Village (Random House, 2013); Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians (Doubleday, 2013); Cynthia Kadohata’s The Thing about Luck (illustrated by Julia Kuo) (Atheneum, 2013); M. Evelina Galang’s Angel de La Luna and the Fifth Glorious Mystery (Coffee House Press, 2013); Andrew Fukuda’s The Trap (St. Martin’s, 2013); Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day (Vintage Reprint Paperback, 1993, originally published in 1989).

A Review of Jane Mai’s Sunday in the Park with Boys (Koyama Press, 2012)

I’m not sure what to call Jane Mai’s Sunday in the Park with Boys: a serialized comic in bound form? A graphic novel? For the first time I read a graphic novel in e-reader form (PDF) and I definitely will not do this again; there is something about physically turning a page that I enjoy, then also the reading experience felt different. I felt hurried for whatever reason. In any case, fortunately: Mai’s work is exceptionally illustrated (thus distracting me often from the fact of e-readerness) and is a particularly complex look at depression. The main character is subsisting in an unfulfilled post-undergraduate life, working an office job that is at once desultory and imprisoning. There is a sense that she is descending into mental illness and depression, but there is no one there to really offer her much support. Further still, she begins to actively isolate herself from others, thereby exacerbating her existential despair. Mai makes frequent use of metaphor and appropriate images for depression: drowning becomes a common motif, as does dark circles and panels that sweep across the page. There is a black whole from which the protagonist cannot seem to claw here wave out of and there is a tidal wave of melancholy. It’s unclear exactly how the main character exits depression, but there is a bifurcated self that emerges late in the comic serials that suggests that the main character is more willing to look introspectively in order to diagnose the problem. Therein lies the terrain of possibility and potential for a tomorrow worth waking up for.

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A Review of Sita Brahmachari’s Mira in the Present Tense (Albert & Whitman, 2013).

Though Sita Brahmachari’s Mira in the Present Tense is targeted at readers nine to thirteen years of age, its main narrative is a particularly complicated one related to death and mourning. Our main character and narrator is Mira Levenson, a mixed race British youth who is of Jewish and South Asian backgrounds. Her grandmother, Nana Josie, is suffering from metastatic breast cancer and the bulk of the narrative revolves around Mira and her family’s (there are her parents, her younger brother Krish, and her infant sister Laila) preparation for Nana Josie’s impending death. For her part, Nana Josie, an artist and painter, has a rather direct response to her condition: she buys her own casket and enlists Mira to help her paint it. The rather matter-of-fact nature of Nana Josie’s inevitable death is tackled head on and readers will see Nana Josie’s eventual progression from living at home, to moving to a hospice, and finally to the dying room. The other subplot involves Mira’s development as a writer under the tutelage of Pat Print, who holds a kind of creative writing workshop for young teens. It is in this group that Mira finds herself attracted to Jide, her classmate and a victim of the violence that occurred in Rwanda and who is later adopted by a British family. As the title implies, the novel proceeds in the present tense and this conceit works very well in this case precisely because there is a sense of urgency that slowly emerges as it is clear that Nana Josie will not have much time. Brahmachari’s narrator is one who must mature quite quickly and it is no accident that Mira also experiences the challenges of menstruation at the beginning of the novel, the signal then that she is—however ambivalently—growing up. I appreciate Brahmachari’s deft depiction of these difficult topics, especially as they are focalized through the eyes of an adolescent.

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A Review of Nikita Lalwani’s The Village (Random House, 2013).

Nikita Lalwani’s follow-up to Gifted is a dark, social critique concerning the documentary representation of wayward communities. Told in the third person perspective, the novel mainly follows the misadventures of Ray Bhullar, a documentary filmmaker affiliated with the British media company BBC who travels to a prison community to depict life there and to create the “real life” story. The prison community, Ashwer, is located in India and it is well-known for its rather lax security: the prisoners can move about on the compound and can even occasionally leave its confines, knowing full well that they can never be free of that location until they have served out their sentence. This rather utopian approach to detention serves as the canvas that Ray hopes to employ for documentary inspiration. She is aided by two others: Serena, a veteran of the television and film industry but who exists in a rather caustic relationship with Ray, and then Nathan, a bawdy cameraman and general associate of the production. Ray realizes that much is at stake in this production and looks to some of the prisoners as the opportunity to tell compelling stories and generate narratives that can be routed into the documentary. In particular, she develops a strong relationship with Nandini, one of the female prisoners, who offers her support to other inmates. Nandini’s personal story becomes a narrative that Ray attempts to mold, so too, does Serena and Nathan encourage Ray to exploit another set of inmates (in which the husband is soon to be diagnosed as HIV positive; they are looking to capture the moment on camera). Thus, Lalwani employs this narrative to explore how media and production teams can negatively impact the very communities whose authenticity they had hoped to depict. At stake of course is the artifice underlying such authentic narratives; Ray, Serena, and Nathan are especially flawed characters that Lalwani painstakingly draws out, but the plot itself does not generate much momentum. In this case, Lalwani’s social critique is far more impactful than the development of this particular story.

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A Review of Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians (Doubleday, 2013)

For something a little bit on the lighter side, you might try out Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians, which follows the (mis)adventures of one “crazy rich” Asian /American extended family that hails from the Malaysian-Singaporean region of the world. There are a multitude of characters in Kwan’s novel, but the central romance plot is really concerning Nicholas Young, the heir apparent to the Young family fortune. He is not yet married and there is concern from most in his family about what kind of girl he will eventually settle with. Enter Rachel Chu, assistant professor of economics at NYU and a colleague of Young’s (who is also an assistant professor at NYU); Rachel is friendly, charming, and most of all, entirely unaware of Nick’s fortune. At the beginning of the novel, they have been dating about two years and Nick convinces Rachel to travel to Asia for the wedding of Colin Khoo, a close friend. Of course, Nick also plans to unveil Rachel to his family. Though Rachel is certainly educated enough and hails from a reasonable background (her mother is a successful realtor), she is nothing like the billionaire socialites that populate Nick’s extended family’s lives. Fortunately, Rachel is very grounded, has an amazing friend (Peik Lin), and does not cower easily in the face of the Singaporean elite class version of the “game of thrones.” Thus, the novel stages a kind of satirical take on Rachel’s experiences while in Singapore, Malaysia and other countries (such as Indonesia, where Colin Khoo’s bride-to-be stages her bachelorette party on a secluded island). Nick’s mother Eleanor is entirely against the marriage and hires a private investigator to dig up dirt on Rachel’s past. At first, there seems nothing of note, but the investigator does discover a family secret which will become an issue in the novel’s concluding arc. The other major romance plot is given to Nick’s cousin Astrid Leong, who is dealing with a potential crisis in her marriage to Michael Teo. It seems as though he might be engaging in an affair and thus Astrid continues to do her own unofficial investigation into Michael’s dalliances and later confronts him for his alleged infidelities. Kwan’s comedic novel shines most when he pokes fun at his characters. For those involved in transnational studies, Kwan’s novel certainly calls attention to the elites that Aihwa Ong has called the “flexible citizen.” Characters like Astrid can take yearly trips to Paris to catch up on the latest fashions, while others are horrified to learn that Rachel Chu has no “blood” connection to the larger Chu dynasty that own a successful plastics company in Taiwan. With such focus on money and upward mobility, can there be a genuine romance? Nick’s no Darcy (though there are references here to Jane Austen), but you’ll still be rooting for Rachel by the novel’s conclusion, the one character that actually seems to see through the ridiculousness of the transnational Asian “crazy rich” elite.

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A Review of Cynthia Kadohata’s The Thing about Luck (illustrated by Julia Kuo) (Atheneum, 2013).

Cynthia Kadohata’s The Thing About Luck was recently awarded the National Book Award for children’s literature. The novel is told from the first person perspective of a 12 year-old Japanese American girl named Summer, who grows up in Kansas. The year has turned out pretty bad for her: her parents have traveled to Japan to take care of ailing relatives; she still suffers from bad memories of her bout with malaria. As the harvest season approaches, Summer and the rest of her family members work with the Parkers, as part of their combine driving team. Summer helps Obaachan (her grandmother) with the cooking, while her grandfather Jiichan drives one of the combines that will help harvest wheat. Summer’s little brother, Jaz, who also happens to be dealing with some sort of disorder (OCD seems likely), accompanies them. They must travel through various Midwestern states and work around storms and other weather phenomena in order to make sure they are able to make the most of the farmers’ harvests. Things start to get tricky when Jiichan gets sick and the Parkers realize that Summer’s family may not be holding up their end of the labor bargain. Thus, Summer must consider stepping up to the plate. Kadohata is always so wonderfully in tune with her youthful narrators: here, there is the sense that there may be some retrospective storytelling going on. There are particularly important moments where Kadohata must use Summer as a kind of figural mouthpiece to discuss the more technical aspects of harvesting; thus, the novel does serve a didactic purpose. As with many of her previous works, Kadohata places a dog figure as an important element in the narrative, as Summer has a very close relationship to her canine, Thunder. On a personal note, I have always had an interest in regionalist literatures and The Thing about Luck is especially beautifully rendered on the level of Midwestern imagery. Finally, there is a fledgling friendship that develops between Summer and an adult laborer named Mick that is especially poignant and entirely unsentimental.

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A Review of M. Evelina Galang’s Angel de La Luna and the Fifth Glorious Mystery (Coffee House Press, 2013).

With YA fiction titles being so strongly tilted toward the paranormal and the speculative, M. Evelina Galang’s Angel de La Luna and the Fifth Glorious Mystery (after Her Wild American Self and One Tribe) provides a refreshing change of pace in the field with its focus on its young, rebellious, and spirited titular protagonist. The novel begins with a mystery: Angel’s father cannot be located; her family spends much time trying to find him, and eventually it is discovered that he has been killed in a tragic road accident, his body only being recovered in a remote area in the Philippines. Soon after Angel’s mother identifies his body, she goes into a period of melancholic depression. In this time, Angel must fend for herself and her family members; she begins to develop a strong progressive impulse that comes primarily from her desire to root out social inequalities (especially as connected to the World War II atrocities perpetrated by the Japanese on Filipino women who were sexually conscripted as comfort women). Angel’s family happens to hail from a modest background, and Angel’s mother soon immigrates to the United States, with the intent of securing some financial stability for her children. Once she is able to settle down with a new husband in the U.S., she sends for Angel, who comes to the United States without fully understanding the reason. She especially feels betrayed that her mother has remarried and finds her home situation to be less than optimal. She attempts to assert some control in her life by developing some artistic hobbies and continuing with her activist interests, but much of her exploits grate against her parents and she must find a happy medium if she is to be able to build a new life in the United States. Though targeted at the young adult reading audience, Galang’s novel is certainly one that is not necessarily tied to that specific group. Indeed, as the novel draws closer to its conclusion, we see not only how much trauma that Angel has suffered personally, but that the family members and people she cares so much about have their own scars and historical injuries to address. In this sense, Galang’s novel complicates the ethnoracial bildungsroman, revealing the tortuous trajectory of young and older migrants and the hauntings that come with transnational movements.

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A Review of Andrew Fukuda’s The Trap (St. Martin’s, 2013).

spoilers in this review

Andrew Fukuda’s conclusion to The Hunt series is The Trap, which is—to put it mildly—a brutalizing read. The first two in the series were already fairly dark, but the third, in my mind, is relentlessly violent, so much so that my reaction to this novel is highly polarized. On the one hand, I completed the book in one sitting, tensely turning one page after another. On the other hand, I wondered about the nature of death as it is configured in horror fictions (such as this one) and how we are to regard to such a high body count. Within the first fifty pages, an untold number of young women are slaughtered, as Gene, Sissy, Epap, David, and Cassie are the only ones who are able to exit the train and enter a facility where they are being housed as a kind of human cattle, waiting to be chosen as the next meal. From here, the novel gets into high conspiracy mode, as it becomes evident that everything is not as it as it seems. Gene and Sissy, in particular, being two halves of the Origin, presumably hold the key to reversing the effects of vampire-turning. Thus, their blood might be used to secure the survival of humanity. These plans go awry when Gene and Sissy are summoned by the Ruler, who is looking to use Gene as a pawn to kill an upstart vampire living in the faraway metropolis. Indeed, this upstart vampire is none other than Ashley June, Gene’s once paramour-turned-fanged monster. Ashley June holds information about the presence of hepers at the facility Gene and Sissy are in and her information, when disseminated in the metropolis, could lead to all-out pandemonium. Gene is forced by the ruler to try to assassinate Ashley June; he is allowed to take one captive with him and he chooses Sissy, believing that he might be able to sacrifice Sissy in order to turn Ashley June back into a human. By this point, Epap has already been dispatched to try to off Ashley June, but when the Ruler cannot establish contact, it is assumed Epap has failed and thus they send Gene (and Sissy). David remains as a food source for the Ruler and his survival is dependent upon their collective success. From here, Gene and Sissy are about to engage their assassination plot, when Epap is able to contact them and lets them know that they are have walked into a trap. Thus, begins the quest to survive as humans in the metropolis, to try to find Epap, and then to make their way out of the city and somehow to find David. If all of these various activities sound close to impossible, it is because it is and as the novel turns closer and closer to its final pages, there is something of a naturalistic impulse that emerges, making you wonder if there is no other choice but for Gene and Sissy to give up and to kill themselves AND/OR become vampire fodder. On the level of tension and high anxiety, Fukuda no doubt succeeds and the surprise conclusion is sure to be of great interest to reading audiences (recalling the narrative of works like I am Legend). At the same time, there was a point where I did find the terror emanating from every chapter to be almost overwhelming and suffocating, so this book is certainly not for the faint of heart, nor would I necessarily recommend it to any teens I know!

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A Review of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day (Vintage Reprint Paperback, 1993, originally published in 1989).

Most have heard of The Remains of the Day; it is probably Kazuo Ishiguro’s most critically acclaimed novel and was also adapted into a Merchant Ivory film (garnering 8 Academy Award nominations, but winning none). I’m thinking of adding an Ishiguro work to my Narrative and Narrative Theory course and it has been about ten years since I last read this novel. I didn’t remember much, but it’s interesting how a work becomes so different after you have aged and have had different life experiences. The narrative is rather meditative, told from the viewpoint of Mr. Stevens, a butler who has worked for many years at Darlington Hall. At the start of the novel, he is traveling to see an old co-worker, once known as Miss Kenton. He aims to request that Miss Kenton return to her work at Darlington Hall, especially as it seems evident that her marriage is over. From there, the novel proceeds through various flashbacks, which are then intercut by Mr. Stevens’s travels closer and closer to his destination. The novel stages not only the complications of memory and narration, but also the nature of functionality and politics. Mr. Stevens upholds a particular philosophy as a butler, one that precludes workplace romance or opinions on political goings-on in the world at large. He remains supremely dedicated to his service. Yet, the novel also begins to question this die-hard philosophy, as it becomes increasingly evident that much romantic tension exists between Miss Kenton and Mr. Stevens, while both were working at Darlington Hall. Mr. Stevens thus travels not only with the intent to visit an old friend, but to see whatever there may be of this once complicated connection. The other major backdrop is the pre-WWII period, which sees Darlington Hall transformed into an important political nexus point, where debates concerning British involvement in European diplomacy is debated. Lord Darlington, as we come to discover, casts his support with the rising German political party, thus in part leading to his eventual downfall. Mr. Stevens, with his unflagging loyalty to his job and to his employer, thus must question his occupational
faith.” When leveraged against the love he never actively pursued, his faith seems more questionable, but the novel ends with the possibility of a kind of tentative rebirth even in his older age. Ishiguro always does wonders with first person narration and this book strikes me as particularly deft nuanced in its depiction of character, which commands our attention over and above any plot details.

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Kristiana Kahakauwila's debut short story collection This Is Paradise: Stories (Hogarth, 2013) contains six stories all set in Hawai'i and featuring a multiethnic cast of characters as well as both local and mainland figures.

I think this collection would lend itself well to studies in critical multiculturalism. Kahakauwila's sensibility is very much about looking beyond the narrative of celebratory multiculturalism to understand the dynamics of Native Hawaiian communities and their diasporas within the context of the United States. I'll touch on just a few of the stories in this review....

The opening story, "This Is Paradise," reminded me of Julie Otsuka's latest novel, The Buddha in the Attic, with its collective first person point of view. The "we" of the story traces the perspectives of a few groups of Native Hawaiian women across class divides, occupations, and experiences living on and off the islands. The plot charts these women's encounters over the course of a day with a haole woman from the mainland, who while seemingly friendly and in some ways more sympathetic to the working lives of Native women than other tourists, ultimately still romanticizes the islands and people to her own detriment. Although this tension between haole and Native is at the heart of the story, the exploration of Native women with different class and educational backgrounds is perhaps the most interesting and complex aspect of the story. The women's different jobs, such as maids in tourist hotels, police on the island, or lawyers with degrees from mainland universities, mark their different mobility and economic opportunities. The resultant collective "we" is thus both remarkably refracted as well as unified in seeing the paradise of the island as Native Hawaiian women.

The second story, "Wanle," centers on the title character, a woman whose father named her "Wanle," meaning "It is gone" in Chinese. The story centers on the underground culture of cockfighting, with Wanle's father as a central figure in that culture prior to this death and Wanle's narrative trajectory focused on obtaining some kind of revenge for his untimely death. Interestingly, the story also concerns Wanle's relationship with "the Indian," a man from a South Dakota reservation (from which he fled to escape a certain kind of violence, never quite fully explained in the story) who embodies a different perspective on cockfighting, aggressiveness, and trust in relationships.

The last story, "The Old Paniolo Way," concerns Pili, a gay man returning to the islands and his father's horse farm as his father is on his deathbed. The story considers Pili's closeted life on the islands in contrast to how he lives his sexuality openly in California. The story is thoughtfully not just about the silence of homosexuality, though, but very much about Pili's relationship with his sister Maile, who has remained on the islands and has worked on the farm with their father in the last few years. Into this trio of father, son, and daughter comes the presence of a hospice nurse, Albert, whose care for the father spurs both Pili and Maile to reconsider how they relate to one another and others.

I don't know if we've reviewed any Native Hawaiian writers on this community yet though Pacific Islander writers are often studied alongside or in tension with Asian American writers (especially Asian Hawaiian writers). I've been reading around more standard Asian American texts lately, so I'll be posting more brief reviews of a few of these books in the coming weeks. For more reviews of Hawaiian writing, see stephenhongsohn's omnibus reviews of books from three Hawaiian publishers, Hawaii Calling, Part 1 and Hawaii Calling, Part 2. For a brief review of other Pacific Islander writing (Guamanian), see my review of Chamorro writer Craig Santos Perez's from unincorporated territory.
Current Mood: thoughtfulthoughtful
Asian American Literature Fans – Megareview for November 4, 2013

In this post, reviews of Eri Hotta’s Japan 1941: Countdown to Infamy (Knopf, 2013); Helen Wan’s The Partner Track (St. Martin’s Press, 2013); Paul Yoon’s Snow Hunters (Simon & Schuster, 2013); Sujata Massey’s The Sleeping Dictionary (Gallery Books, 2013); Tash Aw’s Five Star Billionaire (Spiegel and Grau, 2013); Yangsze Choo’s The Ghost Bride (William Morrow, 2013); Maurene Goo’s Since You Asked (Scholastic Press, 2013); Kat Zhang’s Once We Were (HarperTeen, 2013).

As always, apologies for any egregious typographical or grammatical errors!

A Review of Eri Hotta’s Japan 1941: Countdown to Infamy (Knopf, 2013).

I rarely review historical studies, but Eri Hotta’s Japan: 1941 peaked my interest, as I am teaching a book set during WW II this quarter (Sabina Murray’s darkly brilliant story cycle The Caprices). Hotta’s study takes an idiosyncratic and dynamic approach to a period that has seen a multitude of publications devoted to it. Hotta focuses on the ideological position of Japanese superiors, high level government and military personnel, and other important figures in the lead-up to the War. She argues that Japan was quite aware that it would likely lose, but a complicated matrix of decisions went into the decision to pursue violent conflict. One of the most important aspects of Japan’s seemingly aggressive stance is, as Hotta indicates, the fact that Japan’s leaders actually perceived the country to be under sustained threat from outside forces. In other words, they took a pre-emptive approach to war. Hotta’s study is finely nuanced, showing the incredible ambivalence of those involved in warmongering and she employs a diverse archive to make her case. She forcefully reframes how we should consider the Japanese with respect to their positions as emerging world powers in a highly contentious era of international turmoil. I would certainly encourage any interested in this historical period, and specifically the Pacific Theater of World War II, to read this work.

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A Review of Helen Wan’s The Partner Track (St. Martin’s Press, 2013).

Helen Wan’s debut novel, The Partner Track, takes an incisive look at the glass ceiling barring the advancement of Asian American professional women. The protagonist and first person narrator—Ingrid Yung—is an up and coming associate for Parsons Valentine, a corporate law firm with big name clients. We are not perhaps entirely surprised to learn that Ingrid faces casual sexism and racism in the workplace and is one of the few minorities and women still working there as an associate. Yung is on the titular “partner track” and only a handful of others are really seen as true competitors to her eventual and seemingly assured promotion to partner. Of course, one of these competitors—Murphy—also happens to be someone that Yung finds attractive and thus, Wan adds an important workplace romance into the narrative. From the very beginning of the novel, Wan is intent on making clear that Yung is struggling to understand her place in a corporate culture in which her racial and gender identity become paradoxical markers. On the one hand, she is perceived to receive special treatment as a twofer, someone who makes the company look more diverse since she is Asian American AND a woman. On the other, Yung struggles to be valued for her intellectual and legal acumen and yet understands that the old boys network that still runs the company will prove to be a barrier to her advancement. Thus, Wan stages the glass ceiling that Yung must somehow break through. Along the way, Yung begins to realize that her dream of becoming a partner may have resulted in her having to forgo particular political aspirations that she once held as a law student. The success of this novel appears in Wan’s commitment to Yung’s spirited characterization and understanding of the vicissitudes of corporate culture. Yung must confront whether or not she has ultimately become a sellout in pursuit of her increasingly nightmarish dream to become a (deracinated) partner. A choice intertextual reference to Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior further clarifies the literary lineage at stake here.

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A Review of Paul Yoon’s Snow Hunters (Simon & Schuster, 2013)

Paul Yoon’s debut collection, Once the Shore, is one of my favorite short story collections. I have taught it a number of times for a course I teach on Transnational Asia/Pacific. It was with HIGHEST anticipation that I saw Yoon’s debut novel, Snow Hunters, was set to be released this year and it does not disappoint. The stylistics of this short novel, perhaps a novella, are not unlike the stories found in Once the Shore. Yoon chooses short, sparse prose with a lyrical edge, something most reminiscent of the work of le thi diem thuy in The Gangster we Are All Looking For. The story follows Yohan, a former North Korean POW, who travels to Brazil to make a new life. Though he begins to achieve a measure of stability as an apprentice to a tailor named Kiyoshi, there are obvious indications that he suffers from some traumas sustained during the war. Yohan goes about making some community ties, but when Kiyoshi dies, it becomes evident that Yohan’s life is lacking and his existing connections seem fragile. The conclusion sees him take a chance at something perhaps more lasting, a fitting ending for a novel filled with silences and unspoken desire. One of the most poignant elements about this novel is how patient Yoon is in attending to the ways that people cannot ultimately seem to ask for the things that they want and need, how people flee each other rather than face the people that they come to love, and then finally: how in the ruins of war, perhaps the only family one can make is the one that is electively constructed. An exquisite novelistic debut.

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A Review of Sujata Massey’s The Sleeping Dictionary (Gallery Books, 2013).

Sujata Massey takes a break from her popular Rei Shimura mystery series to write a sprawling, Victorian era inspired novel The Sleeping Dictionary. The title refers to the slang term given to prostitutes of British men who traveled to India during the colonial period. These local women were called “sleeping dictionaries” for their skills as translators, on the one hand, and then for their sex work duties, on the other. Massey weaves together many intertextual references throughout this novel, which starts out rather castrophically for our narrator who attains various names over the course of the narrative (Pom, Sarah, Pamela, etc). Pom, as she is first called, survives a tidal wave that kills off her family members. She then is shipped off to a Christian boarding school and christened Sarah. There she develops a friendship with a higher caste girl named Bidushi who eventually dies of Malaria. A misunderstanding and false accusation leads to Sarah’s expulsion from the school and she makes her way to the city, hoping to find a job. Of course, a young teen woman going to the city by herself is a recipe for potential disaster and ruin and this period sees Sarah fall into the clutches of a brothel. She is renamed Pamela at this point and endures a period of time where she is a sex worker. Finally able to escape the brothel, but also sacrificing a child (Kabita) in the process, Pamela is able to get a job with a British man working in his library and helping to organize it for him. At this point, Pom/ Sarah/ Pamela changes her name yet again and becomes Kamala Mukherjee. This period sees Kamala navigate her new job, while coming into contact with a young man—Pankaj—someone she knew from her childhood friendship with Bidushi. Pankaj has become part of the local political movement for an independent India; his fervor and the potential romance here is enough for Kamala to consider her place in the modernizing country and she begins to help him through various subversive activities. (spoiler alert) From here, Kamala discovers that the man she is working for (Simon) may be spying on the locals to get more information concerning any insurrectional conduct. Thus, Kamala must consider where to place her loyalties: in her growing affection for her employer or the possible political revolutionary figure who comes from her past. Massey peppers in references to Jane Eyre, Pamela, Mrs. Dalloway, and other such works to place this novel firmly within the British tradition; its length (almost 500 pages) as well as its focus ultimately on the romance plot reveals a strong Victorian influence. At the same time, there is also a picaresque quality to this work—somehow Pom/ Sarah/ Pamela/ Kamala always survives from one situation to nexts. Fans of British literature should be engrossed by this epic postcolonial romance.

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A Review of Tash Aw’s Five Star Billionaire (Spiegel and Grau, 2013).

Tash Aw’s Five Star Billionaire—his third novel after The Harmony Silk Factory and The Map of the Invisible World—is a sprawling account of a new global city, Shanghai, and four individuals who look to find their place there. There is Justin Lim, the son of a hugely successful family, who looks to escape the expectation that he retain the wealth and influence of his predecessors; Yinghui, a self-made businesswoman who is looking for the perfect opportunity to shift her business interests; Phoebe, a working class migrant from Malaysia, who is looking to find some sort of upper crust boyfriend; and Gary, a hugely successful pop star, who suffers from a loss of reputation and travels to Shanghai in order to re-launch his career. These four characters are quite disparate in their class backgrounds and that is Aw’s point: despite their differences, they all still find (sometimes subtle) ways into each other’s lives. For instance, Lim harbors an unrequited love for Yinghui. Phoebe will engage in an internet dating service that will put her in contact with Gary, who does not reveal his identity until late into the novel, at which point Phoebe cannot believe who he actually is. Phoebe, for her part, also ends up an employee at one of Yinghui’s businesses. And Justin ends up becoming friends with Phoebe’s roommate Yanyan, though Phoebe does not realize this connection. These four characters are all in some way connected to Walter Chao, whose first person perspective figures as the intercuts that will cohere the novel diffusely together. Chao is the titular billionaire of the novel, though his motivations and his various projects are not entirely clear. Aw’s works is an ambitious one that occasionally suffers from its multifaceted use of narrative perspective; our attentions are distributed among five very different characters and so there is that inevitable difficulty that arises when one particular arc seems more interesting than the others. Aw doesn’t force these lives together, and at the end of the narrative, we begin to see that their alienation and their isolations can be quite profoundly connected, despite their incredibly different backgrounds.

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A Review of Yangsze Choo’s The Ghost Bride (William Morrow, 2013).

Yangsze Choo’s debut novel The Ghost Bride is a whimsical, entertaining, and magical realist story that delves into the spiritual realms of Malaysia, as envisioned through the eyes of a young woman. Our narrator, heroine, and protagonist is none other than Li Lan; the novel opens with a half-joke offered up by her father about her entering into something called a ghost marriage. While the ghost marriage might itself seem like something imaginary, this practice actually did occasionally occur, as Choo reveals in the note accompanying the novel. In this particular case, Li Lan’s father is only half-joking because he had once promised to marry Li Lan off to and into a family—the powerful Lims—and coincidentally, the particular groom she would have been married to dies a tragic death. From there, the novel opens up the central romance triangle. Li Lan finds herself drawn to another one of the Lims, a young man by the name Tian Bai. At the same time, her dreams are plagued with visitations by none other than the dead man who she could have been married to, but these are not merely dreams as we begin to discover. There are larger and perhaps more sinister plans to draw Li Lan into an extensive spirit world which will ultimately unite her with this spectral groom. Choo obviously has a fun time creating this alternative spirit realm in which ox-headed demons, dragon guides, and hungry ghosts exist. If there is one element that remains relatively untapped in the novel, it is the weaving together of the longer colonial and postcolonial history that Choo gestures to so effectively at the novel’s opening. Here, that particular texture eventually becomes secondary to the plotting, especially as we are concerned with whether or not Li Lan will ultimately survive her journey into the spirit world and return firmly to the land of the living.

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A Review of Maurene Goo’s Since You Asked (Scholastic Press, 2013).

At first, I really hated the protagonist of Maurene Goo’s Since You Asked. Our mischievous narrator is none other than Holly Kim, who is forced into becoming the columnist of her school newspaper as a kind of punishment for a re-editing a piece written by another student (which created an inflammatory, but still humorous look at high school social morphologies). Holly is an agent provocateur, a little bit bored, and looking to generate some fun in her otherwise B+ grade social life. Of course, she eventually grows to understand more of the intricacies of the writing process and ostensibly of the social circles she runs in, navigating the perils of interviewing high school jocks and covering the lives of the high school queen bees. For the most part, Goo’s novel is episodic, structured in chapter narratives in which Holly must deal with one problem or another; a late stage romance plot brings more focus to the plot. Goo also makes sure to weave in elements of Holly’s Korean American background, but nothing is too forced and the relationship she has with her parents also undergoes an important change, as they must navigate Holly’s growing sense of social responsibility. Goo’s rather logical ending makes this novel ultimately a winning one, sure to be an excellent addition to the young adult genre that is all the rage these days.

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A Review of Kat Zhang’s Once We Were (HarperTeen, 2013).

I’ve been trying to catch up on YA fiction in preparation for what is probably going to be a “horrific” paper at the MLA on the undead. I’ve generally been reading anything with the “paranormal” as part of the plot. In this regard, you have to give Kat Zhang some kudos for the simple fact of the difficulty posed by her narrative conceit, which requires her to switch consistently between first person and first person plural perspectives. In Once we Were, the second installment of the Hybrid Chronicles, the adventures of Addie and Eva continue. You might recall that Addie and Eva are part of one body and are considered to be a kind of genetic abomination because there are two souls housed in one physical shell. Eva was to be the recessive soul, the one that would eventually wither away over time, but somehow, Eva never went away and they, along with a select number of other hybrids, still exist in the world, living out their adolescence as these biological anomalies. In the sequel, Addie and Eva are living in the big city, residing in secret alongside a number of other “fugitive” hybrids. Their situation becomes perilous when it is discovered that one of the leading figures (Jenson) that had once imprisoned them in book 1 is going to be a bigger presence in their city. Further still, the opening of an institute meant to find a cure for the hybrid “condition,” means that more hybrid souls would be in danger, potentially and unfairly expunged by individuals like Jenson. On the more personal side, Addie and Eva are experimenting with sharing the individual body without the presence of the other soul. By this statement, I mean to say that there is a way for one of the souls to become semi-dormant, while the other takes full control of consciousness. Thus, Addie and Eva do not have to share every physical or sensual experience. Developing this skill also allows Addie and Eva to pursue individual romances with a modicum of privacy. Zhang’s sequel finds its largest political import in the development of subversive activities. Indeed, Addie and Eva reluctantly take part in a plan to bomb the institute when it is empty. Not surprisingly, the plans begin to take on other insidious characteristics that begin to make Addie and Eva question the ideological underpinnings of their activities. Zhang must take time to develop the everyday world of Addie and Eva in the city and the plot initially flags from this sort of exposition, but the briskly paced conclusion does pack an entertaining punch. Fans of young adult fiction should be pleased with Zhang’s latest effort.

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A Review of Najaf Mazari and Robert Hillman’s The Honey Thief (Viking Adult, 2013). The first thing I thought about after finishing The Honey Thief was about its marketing: it is labeled as fiction. These stories, clearly passed down orally, have found new form in this co-written collection. Many have a historical and ethnographic edge to them and thus move this work into the realm of nonfiction. Certainly, the last story, “Thoughts on Growing and Eating,” offers up a more autobiographical account (from Mazari’s perspective) of the culture and the cuisine of those from his tribal background (the Hazara). The Hazara call the Afghan highlands their home; they have long suffered from factionalism and conflict among the tribes, as well as the extended wars and incursions incited by foreign powers (such as Russia and now the United States). The collection ends with a series of recipes. I’m not sure if this “recipe appendix” was necessary, even with the dynamic autobiographical perspective offered beforehand. Mazari and Hillman already have a wealth of stories and folktales to draw from, the most compelling of which is the extended story arc of the titular honey chief. In that story, a beekeeper by the name of Ahmad Hussein seeks a new apprentice and finds it in a young man by the name of Abbas. Abbas himself comes to learn the importance not only of beekeeping but also of storytelling. Abbas receives the lengthiest attention in the collection, as he returns at later points, especially in some of the most affecting pieces such as “The Richest Man in Afghanistan” and “The Russian.” Connecting most of the collection is the importance of understanding the Other, however that might be defined. In a land riven by war and violence, Mazari and Hillman’s message can certainly be rationalized not only through the searing impact of these lyrical stories, but also by the richness of a culture threatened with disappearance. My favorite story of the entire collection, “The Snow Leopard,” explores the unexpected friendship that arises between a Jewish man from English named Abraham—some sort of academic photographer—and Mohammed Hussein, a man from the Hazara tribe who takes on the duty of accompanying Abraham (called Dobara in Dari) while he seeks the famed snow leopard that can be found in the region. The entire story explores the futile efforts of these two over the course of many years. Abraham will occasionally return to England and then come back to the Hazarajat region only to fail to find the Snow Leopard. The whole point is of course the many relationships that Abraham will make over his quest and the surprise ending is especially fitting, given the fact that Abraham has come to understand the larger import of his travels. Other stories, such as the tragically sequenced “The Life of Abdul Khaliq” and “The Death of Abdul Khaliq” help dramatize the tribal warfare that takes the lives not of martyrs and family members associated with anyone deemed to be an insurgent. The Honey Thief helps bring up the question of the Western borderlands of Asian American literature and the place of writers like Mazari and Khaled Hosseini. Buy the Book Here:
I've been wondering about the presence of Asian American characters in children's and young adult fiction, particularly books not written by Asian American authors. Are any of you regular readers of children's and young adult fiction? There's so much of it out there, so I'm by no means widely read, but the selected books I've read for various reasons unrelated to my interests in writing by Asian Americans have at times surprised me with Asian American characters. Despite the fact that the world of children's and young adult literature remains largely centered on white characters (see my friend's edited collection of essays, Diversity in Youth Literature, for some discussions of multicultural representation in the literature), it also seems that there is a concerted effort by some authors to write characters of various racial and ethnic backgrounds into their stories. Although this kind of writing might be superficially multicultural (in the way Bennetton advertisements have been analyzed as simply plopping people of different races onto the page or screen), it is also striking in the way that there are more Asian American characters than I would've expected, especially more complex characters than typical in lots of mainstream television shows and movies.

Here are just a few examples from books I've read recently:
  • Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell flips back and forth between the perspectives of the two title characters. Park is a mixed-race Korean American teen. This book came on my radar because teachers and librarians at a local suburban school district chose it as a summer reading book, and some conservative parents reacted badly against it and had it pulled and the author disinvited from visiting. However, St. Paul Public Library has organized some events around the book and a visit from the author, and they have also chosen the book as their Read Brave book for 2014 (a single book about difficult issues teens face that the library chooses to encourage teens and adults to read and discuss over the course of the year).
  • Everlost by Neal Shusterman is the first book in the Skin Jackers trilogy about children who end up in limbo after sudden deaths. Again, of two main characters, Nick is a mixed-race Japanese American teen. Like in Park, Nick notes how important his Asian features and background are in the way people treat him. Both Rowell and Shusterman make a number of mentions of these characters' different eye shape (sometimes the mentions make me cringe), for example, but there is also a careful way that the authors work hard to show these teens as complex and fully-realized characters with an inner subjectivity.
  • Every Day by David Levithan considers the perspectives of a few teens in the aftermath of 9/11. One of the characters is a Korean American boy who slept through the horrific events of that morning and feels disconnected in many ways from the terror that others in the city felt who were awake and worried throughout that day.
  • The Geography Club by Brent Hartinger is one of the canonical books in LGBT YA fiction (David Levithan's work, especially Boy Meets Boy, is also part of that canon). Although the main character is a white, gay teenage boy, his good friend Min is a Chinese American, bisexual girl.
From these examples and a handful of others, I could generalize to say that there is some attention to populating supporting characters in YA fiction with non-white characters and even foregrounding one if there are two main characters. Some of the first books I read for YA readers were LGBT fiction, and I noticed the presence of Asian American secondary characters (best friends) in that subgenre, wondering if Asian American characters presented a particular purpose in that vein. Anyways, I'm just wondering if others have noticed these minor Asian American characters in other youth fiction.....
Current Mood: okayokay
I had the most powerful deja vu while reading Lan Samantha Chang's All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost (W. W. Norton, 2010)... the sense that I had read it before though I only "remembered" a few passages spread throughout the novel. One particular passage from the second part of the novel especially stood out: In it, two of the characters walk to the parking garage after a dinner. I either heard the author read from the book at some point or read an essay that analyzed it (maybe something by sa_am?). I'm pretty sure I didn't actually read the novel before because it wasn't in my Goodreads account.... My memory is so bad, though, so I might very well have read it and just not updated my list.

This novel, as stephenhongsohn noted in an earlier post, deviates from Chang's earlier work that focused on Chinese American characters. The central characters in this novel are all ostensibly white or at least racially unmarked in ways that racial minority characters seldom are. (One of few and most distinct physical features described is a character's blue eyes.) The central figure is Roman, who at the beginning of the novel is a graduate creative writing student and poet. The novel unfolds in the three sections--the first takes place in the second and final year of graduate school for Roman; the second jumps ahead a decade or so when Roman has gone on to publish books poetry, win prestigious awards, marry and have a son, and gain tenure at a school in the Midwest where he has taught since his first book; and the third takes place yet another five or ten years later. The novel, then, traces Roman's poetic and personal life as it develops, flourishes, and recedes.

The novel is also very much about poetry, the poetic life, and the teaching of craft (creative writing). I remember when the novel came out a few years ago that there was a slew of articles about how the novel questions the workshop model of creative writing (and the proliferation of MFA programs in the last few decades). Chang is the director of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, one of the most prestigious programs in the country, and it makes a lot of sense that she would explore the idea of whether or not creative and poetic art can be taught.

The characters interestingly seem to sketch out a range of types of writers, with Roman being the one most objectively successful (books published, awards won, tenure gained, etc.) in a particular vein of the professional writer while his graduate school friend Bernard is a foil to his character, a more idealized, old-fashioned type of writer who abjures other work and lives in poverty, secretly working on his long poem but not publishing. Roman's wife, Lucy, was also a graduate school friend, and she mostly leaves behind her creative arts to raise their son. Perhaps the most compelling figure in the novel is the teacher in the first part, the poet Miranda, who is aloof and enigmatic, often devastating in her critiques of students' work in the workshop seminars. One of the moments I loved the most in the novel was when Roman, after having taught creative writing himself for over a decade, reflects on the different expectations students had when he was a student versus his own students. While he and his friends saw their professors as geniuses and all-powerful people (in the novel, he describes the relationship as one of humans to gods, where the students had to sacrifice things to the teachers to gain their whimsical favor), his own students feel entitled to praise of their work and felt that everyone should be published and gain accolades, regardless of any talent, genius, or insight in their work.

I'm curious how much people in the MFA world might still talk about this novel (if they did at all). It might make an interesting novel to read and discuss with creative writing students, who I assume have fairly romanticized ideas about themselves as writers.
Asian American Literature Fans Megapost for October 15, 2013

In this post reviews of: Gary Kamiya’s Cool Gray City of Love: 49 Views of San Francisco (Bloomsbury USA, 2013) and Amit Chaudhuri’s Calcutta: Two Years in the City (Knopf, 2013); Ji-Li Jiang’s Red Kite, Blue Kite (illustrated by Greg Ruth) (Disney Hyperion, 2013); Leila Rasheed’s Cinders & Sapphires (Disney Hyperion, 2013); Jaspreet Singh’s Helium (Bloomsbury USA, 2013); Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland (Knopf, 2013); Nancy Yi Fan’s Swordbird (HarperCollins Children’s Division, 2007); Sherry Thomas’s The Burning Sky (Balzer & Bray, 2013); Malinda Lo’s Inheritance (Little Brown for Young Readers, 2013).

A Review of Gary Kamiya’s Cool Gray City of Love: 49 Views of San Francisco (Bloomsbury USA, 2013) and Amit Chaudhuri’s Calcutta: Two Years in the City (Knopf, 2013)

At first, I was disappointed by the fact that Gary Kamiya’s part-memoir, part-history, part-cultural study—titled Cool Gray City of Love: 49 Views of San Francisco—did not contain any photographs. I was sort of expecting it to, for whatever reason, and the only visuals that Kamiya’s creative nonfiction relies upon appear as sketches in the headings for each of the 49 chapters. But, I was soon won over by Kamiya’s relentlessly engaged narrative voice and how it comes to look into every nook and cranny to bring to life the City’s many textures and facets. Kamiya doesn’t stray from San Francisco’s long history and includes many citations from noted urban studies scholars and academics; when he discusses the mission system, for instance, it is with the heavy knowledge that the city is undoubtedly linked to the annihilation of American Indian populations. Other chapters are more whimsical in their topics; one focuses on the stairs located in Bernal Heights, another on the counterculture fervor that could be found at Baker Beach. The title is a fitting description of Kamiya’s ardor for the foggy City as rendered through 49 eclectic views.

Amit Chaudhuri’s Calcutta: Two Years in the City is certainly less tightly structured that Gary Kamiya’s work, but also stands as a kind of love letter to a city, rendered in part-memoir, part-history, part-cultural study that also does not contain any photographs. Here, I was less expectant of any pictures simply because the title did not seem to evoke that possibility. At the same time, for those who are expecting a more straightforward exploration of a man’s experiences living in one modernizing city, you will not exactly find that here. Chaudhuri is content with a more meditative style and you’ll find him ambling through the city, while providing detailed commentaries on the urbanscape’s historical and ethnographic backdrops. Whereas Kamiya’s creative nonfiction is more syncopated and kinetic, Chauduri’s depiction of Calcutta is more lush and descriptive. The occasionally meandering narrative is perfectly paralleled by the flaneur-esque quality of Chaudhuri’s urban movements. Chapters explore varied topics, including Calcutta’s colonial past, its cuisine (particularly its Chinese and Italian fare), its residents (a spirited chapter on a slightly eccentric upper crust couple known as the Mukherjees). At the heart of this tale is Chaudhuri’s understanding of the political radicalism that portended great things for the cities in its sixties and seventies, a youthful viewpoint that must evolve as Calcutta endures inevitable ebbs and flows.

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A Review of Ji-Li Jiang’s Red Kite, Blue Kite (illustrated by Greg Ruth) (Disney Hyperion, 2013).

I haven’t reviewed picture books in awhile, but the genre is always fun for me even as an adult reader for the simple fact of visually stunning drawings that always come with a textual narrative. It is, in some sense, a kind of comic book for me. Ji-Li Jiang is also author of a YA book entitled Red Scarf Girl: A Memoir of the Cultural Revolution. Like that memoir, Red Kite, Blue Kite takes its inspiration from the social context of the cultural revolution as well, but unlike the memoir-form, Jiang’s inspiration for this story is one based upon something told to her by a friend. As with other picture books that employ a strongly historical backdrop, Jiang provides a useful explanatory author’s note that engages some of her inspirations for the story. In this case, the story revolves around the family connection between a Chinese man, who is forced into hard labor during the cultural revolution, and his young son. Prior to the cultural revolution, they bond over flying kites; because they live in a crowded city, they must fly kites from rooftops. Later, when the young boy’s father is sent into hard labor, the kite becomes an emblem of their connection, which lasts until they are finally reunited. As with other picture books, closure is emphasized, but this particular story does not shy away from the darker undertones of the cultural revolution. The kites, given their colors (red and blue), seem to suggest a unification between east (communist) and west (capitalism). Young children may not fully understand the social contexts being invoked, but the larger themes will obviously resonate. Ruth has a nice semi-realistic style that works well with the narrative itself.

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A Review of Leila Rasheed’s Cinders & Sapphires (Disney Hyperion, 2013).

I started reading Leila Rasheed’s Cinders & Sapphires during a particularly grueling time for me personally. It was just what I needed to get my mind out of a melancholic space. This novel is debut of the “At Somerton” series (with another slated for release in 2014) and focuses on an aristocratic family (the Averleys) who are suffering from financial woes during the early 20th century. For younger fans of Downton Abbey, this series is going to be the perfect venue to explore another variation on the mixture and the class between the elites and the domestics. The central perspective is given to Ava Averley, perhaps a slightly more modern-take on the Elizabeth Bennett-type; she believes in women’s suffrage, wants to study at Oxford and falls in love with a buddying young scholar named Ravi Sundaresan. Ravi, being of Indian ancestry, is of course not the ideal match for Ava, so she must keep this romantic intrigue a secret, but there are many other relationship complications to attend to. For instance, Ava’s father has remarried a woman by the name of Fiona, who hails from another upper crust family line (the Templetons). Ava has a new stepsister (the cruel Charlotte) and two stepbrothers (the queer William and the domestic-help loving Michael). Ava and her older sister Georgianna must deal with the new family dynamics, as they prepare to enter London society! Rasheed’s novel is a fun frolic and especially attuned to the political problematics of the period, with discussions concerning women’s liberation and postcolonial independence movements in India. For those who have enjoyed Y.S. Lee’s The Agency series out of Candlewick, this novel would be a natural and fitting reading choice.

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A Review of Jaspreet Singh’s Helium (Bloomsbury USA, 2013).

Jaspreet Singh’s third publication Helium (after Chef and Seventeen Tomatoes: Tales from Kashmir) is all about narrative un/reliability that surrounds a particularly traumatic event. The story is narrated by an individual named Raj who is a professor at Cornell and who returns to India in order to deal with his past. He visits a woman named Nelly, a library archivist, who was once married to Raj’s former professor who was killed in 1984 during a mob protest conceived under retaliatory attacks against Sikhs after the assassination of Indira Gandhi (perpetrated apparently by her Sikh body guards). Raj was present during the attacks and there is the suggestion that he might have done more to protect his professor and perhaps to save his life. In the period following Indira Gandhi’s assassination, the government was necessarily imbricated and implicated in organized mobs against Sikhs; thus, Singh’s novel turns to this painful moment in time and one specific incident in order to explore the tangled nature of complicity and blame. Nelly’s own story is rife with tragedy: the death and disappearance of her own children, and then, the loss of her husband. Thus, Raj’s reunion with Nelly, even though Raj himself was a star student under that professor, is still a painful reminder of the past. Over the course of the novel, Singh makes sure to elaborate upon Raj’s flawed and multifaceted character, exploring Raj’s estranged relationship with his own family, and then the possibility that his own father may have been involved in the pogroms targeting Sikhs. Singh really makes wonderful use of first person narration, reveling in its impressionistic qualities. Interestingly enough, the novel is sort of constructed as a kind of collage, as there are photographs that appear periodically throughout the narrative. I’m not quite sure why they had to be included, but it does give off the sense that the narrative is a kind of fictionalized memoir or scrapbook and gives this work a unique texture. The use of this kind of reflective narrative voice is reminiscent of Kazuo Ishiguro and Chang-rae Lee.

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A Review of Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland (Knopf, 2013).

Well, I absolutely adored Unaccustomed Earth and so my expectations for Lahiri’s fourth effort, The Lowland, were perhaps unfairly high. Nevertheless, this novel is one of the best reads, at least in my opinion of 2013. After reading Amit Chaudhuri’s Calcutta, I had already learned a little bit about the Naxalites and the development of that particular political arena in Calcutta; the rise of the Naxalites appears in tandem with the rise of Communism as a larger global political platform, of course. Lahiri’s novel starts out with two boys, Subhash and Udayan, who grow up and take very different paths in life. Subhash decides to move to the United States to pursue a secondary degree, while Udayan gets caught up in the Naxalite fervor sweeping Calcutta. Udayan will eventually marry a woman named Gauri; she is pregnant with his child when he is killed for being involved in subversive activities. In the wake of Udayan’s death, Subhash returns to Calcutta; he decides that the best course of action is to marry Gauri, take her to the United States, and raise Gauri and Udayan’s child as his own. Gauri, perceiving this route as the only way to any sort of future, assents. By 100 pages in, Lahiri has already set in motion a number of different and complicated familial dynamics. Udayan’s death reverberates through the entire family of course; Subhash’s parents are destroyed by that event and when Subhash and Gauri leave India, there is nothing left for their parents. They slowly disintegrate. While Subhash vainly believes that Gauri will eventually love him, Gauri herself realizes that her love for Udayan was not enough, that Udayan’s political gamesmanship was as much of their relationship as anything else. Subhash will come to love the child, Bela, that he raises as though he were the actual father. Gauri, for her part, wants little to do with motherhood, and begins taking classes in philosophy at the local college. This latter arc leads to the fissures that will later define their American lives. Lahiri’s novel is carefully paced; even the most cataclysmic moments are weaved in with a kind of finesse that makes the reading experience unfold effortlessly. Soon, you’re well into the narrative and you’ll drift into these lives, enraptured by Lahiri’s ability to bring these characters to life.

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A Review of Nancy Yi Fan’s Swordbird (HarperCollins Children’s Division, 2007).

Nancy Yi Fan’s Swordbird is part of a trilogy that also includes Sword Quest and Sword Mountain. I was interested in reading this title for the backstory. Apparently, the author was only ten when she began writing Swordbird and it was published when she was 14 years old. The novel was inspired by the events of 9/11 and the author’s intention to create a message promoting peace over violent conflict. The story revolves around the growing tensions among groups of woodland birds. The cardinals and the blue jays are involved in a misunderstanding that is leading to conflict between them. They do not realize that a third party is involved: Turnatt, who seekins to construct a malevolent fortress with the labor extracted from slavebirds, is the entity behind the madness and mischief. It is exceedingly impressive that a writer so young was able to create this story; Fan should be especially lauded for her creative use of names and the general structural framework of the story itself, which also includes excerpts from mystical and heretical texts. It is a speculative fiction in which birds can speak and the titular Swordbird may appear to enact swift justice in a method akin to a kind of Christ-figure. The narrative’s rhetoric concerning pacifism may come off a little bit too tidy for older readers, but I have no doubts the novel would engage its target audience (8-12 years old).

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A Review of Sherry Thomas’s The Burning Sky (Balzer & Bray, 2013).

Sherry Thomas’s debut in the paranormal/ fantasy/ urban/ romance/ young adult fiction is The Burning Sky, which follows two main characters: Prince Titus and Iolanthe Seabourne. Thomas is also the author of a number of critically acclaimed romance novels that I have not read (Private Arrangements, Delicious etc). The Burning Sky is part of intended trilogy, apparently the chosen serial form for these kinds of works (and an academic paper probably waiting to happen: why must it be the trilogy besides the fact of making more money?). In the first installment, Iolanthe Seaborne ignores the grave warnings offered to her by her mentor, Master Haywood, an aging man who seems to have lost the support of his local community. Iolanthe decides to repair a light elixir that Haywood destroys in the hopes that she will still get to be a part of a marriage ceremony, but the only way to restore the elixir is to use lightning. Iolanthe being an elemental mage of the third order, common but not rare, is able to call forth lightning, but ends up producing a lightning bolt that almost kills her. This event also ends up calling the attentions of Prince Titus, a major figure in the kingdom of Atlantis, as well as the Inquisitor, a fearsome woman who is a sort of supernatural detective, seeking to root out any possible subversive influences that may be brewing in the region. Cast above the opening fray is someone called Bane, a malevolent mage who holds dominion over all. The production of lighting marks Iolanthe as a mage far more powerful than her third order; indeed we come to discover that Haywood knew all along that Iolanthe held such talents and that her talents would mark her for a perilous maturation. Once Prince Titus gets involved, he is able to whisk her away to another land: that of London, where she cross-dresses and passes as a young schoolmate (alias: Archer Fairfax) of Prince Titus. Indeed, there is but the slightest barrier between these worlds, but it is clear that no one on the human side really has much or any knowledge of this other more fantastical realm. Once the Inquisitor is in pursuit of Iolanthe, the novel moves to a narrative of pursuit. Thus, Prince Titus and Iolanthe must train in order to fend off the coming battle. Iolanthe eventually makes a blood oath (that she at first regrets) with the Prince so that she may eventually free Haywood, who is imprisoned, and part of the oath requires her to try to take down the aforementioned Bane, even if it might mean death for both of them. For his part, the Prince is driven to this quest by the visions of her mother, a powerful seer, who foretells his eventual downfall and early demise. Will the Prince be able to avoid this tragic fate? Will Iolanthe and the Prince come to work as allies rather than enemies? Thomas’s novel answers most questions and sets up some others by the thrilling conclusion. She weaves together some historical elements (set in India’s colonial period, thus not entirely abstracting real world contexts) with the fantasy genre (wyverns and dragons appear) to create a lush fictional world sure to captivate, especially for those looking for something on the more whimsical side.

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A Review of Malinda Lo’s Inheritance (Little Brown for Young Readers, 2013).

Malinda Lo’s Inheritance completes the two book series (following Adaptation) involving Reese Holloway and David Li, as they must contend with the truth of their biological makeup (Lo is also author of Ash and Huntress). For those of you who are not yet spoiled and would like to remain unspoiled, do not read further from this point.

My earlier review of Adaptation did not reveal the major plot point involving the fact that our protagonists were brought back from the brink of death due to the intervention of an alien species known as the Imria. Fusing human DNA with alien DNA, the Imria were able to also introduce new capabilities within Reese and David that ultimately presented the possibility of new evolutionary pathways. In any case, this novel treads similar ground in relation to many of the alien invasion storylines in other works: are the aliens friends or foe? Lo’s unique intervention appears to be in exploring how alien-ness becomes a useful trope to play off against racial and sexual difference. As we come to discover, Reese is not entirely over her feelings for Amber, the Imrian who seemed to betrayed her at the first novel’s conclusion. At the same time, Reese is dating David, so her emotions for Amber present her with a romantic conundrum. Who should Reese date? Complicating matters is the fact that Reese and David have both developed super-powers related to a kind of communal telepathic and empathic consciousness: that is, they are able to discern the feelings of one another in a way that seems akin to the Vulcan mind meld. Thus, David intimately understands that Reese is conflicted, a fact which creates considerable romantic tension and sustains the central romance triange. Lo’s world-building requires her to give much background to the Imrians, who do have many unique characteristics. For instance, they fully embrace various forms of polyamory and further still, offer much more gender fluidity in their culture. Lo’s point here is obviously related to the possibilities that alien species provide her as an imaginary community that scripts more inclusive social formations. The novel seems occasionally weighed down by the need to draw out the romantic tension, but a very action-packed finish brings Inheritance back on track. The Imrians as a species are fascinating enough that you can’t help but have hoped for a third novel that explored alien terrains and human-Imrian diplomatic relationships. Let’s hope that Lo eventually returns to this storyline in order to make it into the trilogy is already so prevalent as the chosen serial form of young adult fictions.

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28 September 2013 @ 02:14 pm
Accidentally posed this to my personal journal instead of here....

I finally got around to reading Jon Pineda's debut collection of poems Birthmark (Crab Orchard Review & Southern Illinois University Press, 2004) after reading his second collection The Translator's Diary, his memoir Sleep in Me, and a young adult novel Apology. Birthmark was published as part of the Crab Orchard Poetry Series.

Thematically, the poems in this collection focus often on the father–son relationship, examining childhood memories in light of a later estrangement. A few poems mention the sister injured and forever changed in a car accident, and other poems touch on experiences of being a new father to an infant. One thing I found interesting in this collection was that some poems are in the third person point of view though seemingly still working with the poet's direct experience. This estrangement seems necessary and important, contrasting with other poems in the first person point of view. For example, a section of the poem, "Memory in the Shape of a Swimming Lesson," begins:
The boy understands the word mestizo. It means "half-breed,"
not full Filipino. It is a word they use at parties
& touch his hair. They speak to him in Tagalog. He knows

it is the language his father speaks on the phone, or under his breath
when he is angry. . . .
The poem continues a couple of lines later,
It will mark his life. Years later, when the father leaves the family,
the boy forgets these words. They become, like the edge of the pool,
something he struggles to reach.
The distancing of the speaker of the poem in time and in point of view suggests both an inability to address certain issues directly and the possibility of seeing individual experience as something belonging to others as well.
21 September 2013 @ 07:40 am
This week, the National Book Foundation announced that Gene Luen Yang's two-volume graphic novel Boxers & Saints (First Second Books, 2013) has made their National Book Awards longlist for Young People's Literature.

Obligatory side-by-side picture of the two volumes.

We've reviewed a handful of Yang's graphic novels and collaborations here at asianamlitfans (see our review catalog for a list of links), and I'm excited to say that these latest books are as funny, touching, thoughtful, and informative as some of his earlier work. I'd been eagerly awaiting a new graphic novel that is both written and illustrated by Yang since he'd worked with a few illustrators for his last few publications. (I seem to recall hearing him say at somewhere that it takes him a very long time to do his own illustrations, so he happily collaborates with others on that aspect of his creative work.) I really love his illustrations in their simplicity yet precise details.

The first volume, Boxers, is the more substantial one, and it takes the perspective of Little Bao, a boy who loves Chinese opera and grows up to lead the Society of the Righteous and Harmonious Fist, a group of Chinese people who fight against imperialist and missionary forces in China. Boxers is historical fiction, an imaginative (even magical realist) telling of the Boxer Rebellion, which involved groups of Chinese people who fought against foreign influences in a particularly bloody chapter of modern Chinese history. In Boxers, Little Bao grows up and sees how Christian missionaries with their Chinese converts trample on villagers, taking food and lives with impunity. He learns kung fu from a man, Red Lantern, who passes through his town. When Red Lantern goes off with a small group of men to fight foreigners, Little Bao tries to follow but is instead sent by Red Lantern to learn more from Master Big Belly, including how to channel a god in his fighting. He passes this skill on to his brothers and others in his village.

The story takes Little Bao through the countryside and some Christian strongholds all the way to Peking where the Chinese Empress holds little real power against the foreign diplomats. There is a romance plot for Little Bao along the way, and Yang raises some interesting questions about the corruption of Christian missionaries and the Chinese Christians as well as the pernicious influence of power-hungry European dignitaries. Yang does not hold back in painting foreigners in a very negative light, sticking with Little Bao's perspective closely throughout the volume. One thing that is interesting is how frequently Yang uses epithets for white men (foreign devils, hairy ones, etc.) as well as for Chinese Christians (secondary devils).

The second volume, Saints, turns to the perspective of a secondary character, Vibiana, who shows up briefly a couple of times in Boxers. Vibiana is the self-chosen name of a girl who grew up the only surviving child in a family, and the grief of her grandfather and parents over the loss of their previous children lead them to treat her poorly. Indeed, they don't even give her a name but simply call her Four-Girl in reference to the fact that she is the fourth child and to the Chinese superstition that the number four is a bad luck number because the word is a homonym for death. Four-Girl finds escape in the house of an acupuncturist who turns out to be Chinese Christian. She starts visiting him to listen to his Bible stories, first just to escape her errands and the abuse she suffered at home as well as to eat his wife's cookies. But eventually, she sees that Christianity offers her a chance to be reborn and to live with different values. The magical realist part of her story comes with her visions of Joan of Arc, and they both share a sense of being called by God to fight for Christianity as women in patriarchal worlds.

These volumes are amazing, and I hope Yang wins the National Book Award for them! The narratives in these books are multilayered, connecting historical events to individual lives, romance, coming of age stories, Chinese myths, and a healthy dose of humor. I'm sure people will have plenty to say about these books in the coming years, and these texts will provide much content for classrooms to explore, from the historical events to the Chinese myths. While the books do not really have any content set in the United States, they are the perspective of an Asian American on Chinese history. In particular, I find it interesting that Yang, who is Catholic, has turned to this particular historical moment to explore the tensions of Chinese and Christian identities.
Current Mood: impressedimpressed
The Hmong American Writers' Circle, a group based in Fresno, California, pulled together some wonderful poems, short stories, creative nonfiction, and visual art for How Do I Begin? A Hmong American Literary Anthology (Heyday Books, 2011). The book features work by Hmong American writers as well as by a couple of other writers whose experiences have intertwined their lives with those of Hmong communities in the United States. There are a few writers whose work also appeared in the anthology Bamboo Among the Oaks: Contemporary Writing by Hmong Americans (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2002).

The book has a stunning cover image adapted from a painting by Seexeng Lee titled "Hmong Woman Sewing a Paj Ntaub," and a full-color insert in the middle of the book includes a couple more images by the artist as well as a selection of paintings and photographs by Boon Ma Yang and Mary Yang.

Before each writer's work, there appears a short autobiographical statement and a photograph of the author. The statement provides the author's perspective on how being Hmong American impacts his or her writing. The responses the authors provides ranges from comments about ethnic identity being mostly incidental to ethnic identity infusing everything. Taken as a whole, the collection of statements provides some interesting material for considering the perennial question of what it means to be an ethnic writer while also addressing the specificity of Hmong American identity. One of the most thoughtful statements, in my mind, is May Lee-Yang's paragraph in which she notes that she writes for "Hmong Americans who are bilingual" rather than a general audience because: "This shift from creating a world where I exist to re-contextualizing my world for non-Hmong people is, I think, indicative of an underlying attempt to shift the paradigm of power."

In an introduction to the volume, Burlee Vang, founder of the Hmong American Writers' Circle, chronicles his own journey as a writer as well as the origins of the Hmong American Writers' Circle in Fresno. He explains how important it was for him and other Hmong American writers to find each other and to establish their presence in the community.

Some of the poems and stories touch on the history of Hmong refugees fleeing Southeast Asia to arrive in the United States. Many of the writings are more from a younger generation, though--not the perspective of refugees themselves but rather their children who either were born in the United States or were too young to remember much of the refugee camps or life in Southeast Asia (primarily Laos or Thailand). A number of the pieces in the collection seem to deal with gender roles in Hmong families, with both men and women writing about the expectations placed upon women--mothers, daughters, and daughters-in-law--to act and serve men in particular ways. There is, however, throughout the writings a strong sense of the importance of family and relationships. The piece that stands out for me is a short nonfiction essay by Ying Thao, whose autobiographical statement is the only one that identifies a Hmong GLBT perspective. Thao's essay explores the silences and difficulties of a relationship with an older brother who explicitly rejected him when he came out to his family.

Incidentally, I really love this anthology's publisher, Heyday Books, which is a small press based in Berkeley that specializes in books about California. I have in mind a collection of essays about multiethnic, transnational histories at the nexus of Contra Costa County (where I grew up) that, if I ever write them, I may send to them in the future for possible publication.
Current Mood: indescribableindescribable
Asian American Literature Fans – Megareview for September 10, 2013

Apologies for my lack of posting: my summer was a difficult one and I was kept away from reading as much as I’d like. As I have come to learn, there are never enough hours in the day to fit in all the reading I would like to do. But I digress: in this post, reviews of Hanya Yanigahara’s The People in the Trees (Doubleday, 2013); Anchee Min’s The Cooked Seed: A Memoir (Bloomsbury USA, 2013); A.X. Ahmad’s The Caretaker (St. Martin’s Minotaur, 2013); Soman Chainani’s The School for Good and Evil (HarperCollins Children’s Division, 2013); Yoon Ha Lee’s A Conversation of Shadows (Prime Books, 2013); Rebecca Lim’s Exile (Disney-Hyperion, 2013); Corinna Chong’s Belinda’s Rings (NeWest Press, 2013).

A Review of Hanya Yanigahara’s The People in the Trees (Doubleday, 2013)

I read Hanya Yanigahara’s The People in the Trees over a period of a couple weeks. I’m used to digesting narratives rather quickly, but this novel presents itself as a rather unique amalgam of fiction and memoir and required me to move at a much slower pacer. Publishers Weekly’s review calls the narrator “brilliantly detestable” and that’s probably the way I would describe the central character: a medical anthropologist/ ethnographer named Norton Perina. Most of the novel is a kind of memoir from Norton’s perspective and unfolds as a kind of defense of his reputation, which has suffered in the light of allegations of child molestation charges. The novel really begins to take off once Yanagihara takes us to a fictional archipelago in the South Pacific, where Norton, as a young professional, alongside other academic figures (Paul Tallent and Esme), conduct research on the tribal peoples in that area. One tribal group in particular seems to have discovered a method to secure immortality, but as Norton, Tallent and Esme’s research venture continues, they discover that everlasting life comes with a huge price. Yanagihara is absolutely committed to this controversial narrator, which is what makes this novel ultimately prove to be a fascinating. You’ll get lost in all of the footnotes occasionally and then remember that there is a main thread that is supposed to be pulling you through, but again, the biggest question is how one approaches a kind of narrator that you may end up strongly hating. While I have never been an advocate of valuing narratives simply because I like or don’t like the main character, this narrator proves to be a contentious figure, the kind which makes you wonder whether or not his viewpoint is even at all worthy to follow with such detail. If anything, Yanagihara’s novel proves to be a rather caustic critique not only of anthropology, but the ways in which capitalism attempts to harness the production of (academic) knowledge for the pursuit of financial gain. You may not love this work, but it will definitely challenge you.

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A Review of Anchee Min’s The Cooked Seed: A Memoir (Bloomsbury USA, 2013).

Anchee Min’s The Cooked Seed offers a particularly searing account of one writer’s rise from a perilous immigrant existence to successful international best-selling author. Arriving in the United States without the proper credentials, Min is immediately fearful of deportation and struggles to earn a living. The early sections of the memoir are not surprisingly filled with Min’s claustrophobic anxieties and the rare moments of friendship that pull her through the dark times (and there are many). To a certain extent, Min’s rise as an author seems more than improbable, but a bit of context remains probably unremarked. Min’s first manuscript Red Azalea comes to the attention of the same agent (Sandra Dijkstra) who represents Amy Tan and Min was certainly a indirect beneficiary of the success of Tan’s The Joy Luck Club. In some sense, Min’s talent is scouted at exactly the right moment, but her rise as an author still has many bumps in the road. A love affair with a painter by the name of Qigu that eventually disintegrates leaves her with a daughter—named Lauryann (to whom the book is dedicated)—to raise on her own. By the memoir’s conclusion, Min goes on to join a dating service and marries a fellow writer (and teacher) named Lloyd Lofthouse. Min spends the last chapters quickly detailing some of the more literary elements of her life as a successful writer, but these were the sections that I actually wanted far more of: more exploration and consideration of her various publications from her own perspective. Nevertheless, this memoir is invaluable for the ways that it unmasks the uplift narrative that might be associated with an Asian American writer who has garnered so much fame and such a widespread readership.

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A Review of A.X. Ahmad’s The Caretaker (St. Martin’s Minotaur, 2013).

There is a lovely noir-ish quality to A.X. Ahmad’s The Caretaker, a debut novel that is told from the perspective of Ranjit Singh, an undocumented immigrant who starts out the narrative working as the titular caretaker of a home in Martha’s Vineyard. The owners of that home are none other than political heavyweights, the Neals. The husband, in particular, is a Senator, a Korean War hero, and has recently negotiated the release of an individual accused of being a spy in North Korea. The media attention following this deal allows the Senator a wonderful platform to consider a higher office. Amid this milieu, Ranjit takes care of the home during the resort-town’s off-season. He is married and has one daughter; when his living situation gets complicated, he moves in his family temporarily to the Neals’ home, though the Neals do not know he has taken this action. Ahmad begins to ramp up the tension by revealing that there have been break-ins throughout the area, and one night, low and behold, the Neals’s house is targeted for intrusion. Are they the local robbers or do they bring with them the portent of more dangerous dealings? The novel is also interspersed with snippets from Ranjit’s past as a military officer in the Indian army; here, we get a sense of the post-traumatic stress that Ranjit has suffered while operating in covert missions based on a boundary skirmish that is centered on a remote glacier between Pakistan and India. This particular past gives Ahmad the opportunity to imbue Ranjit with the know-how to deal with the baddies that do emerge over the course of the novel. From the point of the intrusion, all hell breaks loose plot wise. Ranjit realizes that he has fallen into some incredible trouble when the doll that his daughter taken as her own is also the secret hiding place of some incredibly important object that the Senator wants and that Ranjit now has. As the Senator tries to gain leverage and make Ranjit return the doll, Ranjit’s family is targeted and his wife and daughter are taken by INS officials to be deported. Further complicating matters, the Senator seems to have hired a couple of henchmen to track Ranjit down and find out the whereabouts of that doll and what exactly might be hidden inside it. Ranjit realizes that his only chance to get his family back is to find out what is inside that doll, so that he will possess important information and could use his knowledge to negotiate the release of his wife and daughter. I read this novel in a couple of sittings; it does take some time to get off the ground, but once the plot starts moving, there are a lot of surprises and some major twists. It’s a fun summer read; the conclusion does leave us wondering about whether or not this book may be the start of a longer series.

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A Review of Soman Chainani’s The School for Good and Evil (HarperCollins Children’s Division, 2013).

Soman Chainani’s The School for Good and Evil is an absolutely winning read, full of smart conceits and metafictional cool. It’s a novel really for all ages. For those on the geriatric end like myself, Chainani’s narrative is certainly interesting from the perspective of genre conceits. The story concerns two young girls, Agatha and Sophie. Agatha is dour and gloomy and could care less about the way she looks; Sophie is beautiful, but conceited and is convinced that she will one day marry a prince. Sophie looks forward to the day when two young children are “kidnapped” and taken to a magical landscape, where they will eventually enter into fairy tales. One of those children will enroll in the School for Good, while the other will be trained in the School for Evil. Chainani’s quickly reverses expectations by having Agatha, the anti-social one, be chosen for the School for Good, reminding us that the best qualities might be found on the basis of one’s character, rather than one’s exterior. Sophie, with all of her conceit and privilege, is a decidedly evil character. From there, Chainani gives us much to consider: will these two find a way to escape the binary that pits good against evil or must they succumb to the fairy-tale binary that will ultimately see them as enemies? Apparently already a New York Times Bestseller, Chainani’s novel is a real treat and it’s not surprising to see it have so much success. And we can look forward to the sequel, which already has an amazon listing!

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A Review of Yoon Ha Lee’s A Conversation of Shadows (Prime Books, 2013).

For big fans of speculative fiction, the name Yoon Ha Lee will already be familiar, but A Conservation of Shadows is Lee’s first full-length debut and is filled with stories sure to delight and amaze in their inventiveness. Lee is firmly committed to the world-building necessary for what we might call radically and cognitively estranging speculative fictions, many of which involve war-kites, magicians, necromancers, dragons, and other such figures and creatures. I focus on a couple of standout stories in this collection. In “The Bones of Giants,” Lee employs the short narrative to explore the nature and desire for everlasting life. The ability to bring back creatures from the dead, otherwise known as necromancy, becomes a larger metaphor for the ethics that revolve around reanimation. What limits and rules should there be to reconstruction and resurrection of dead things, this story provocatively asks. In “Effigy Nights,” Lee’s story calls attention to the imperialist foundations of many speculative and fantasy fictions. In this work, a daring military officer begins to question the destructive policy behind hostile takeovers and decides to take a look at the documents and the archives that are being annihilated. Here, Lee seems intent on exploring how colonialism and war does not only involve the destruction of bodies, but also of cultures and of the arts. My favorite story, “Iseul’s Lexicon,” also takes on questions of cultural destruction but specifically through the linguistic realm and how that ends up meshing with a fictional world filled with magicians and charms. Questions of word origin match up with power struggles and here, Lee’s story seems to implicate the nature of communication and language in the potential destruction and racialization of peoples. This story is one of the longest in the collection and I know that I found it one of the most compelling simply because we are given enough time to get more invested in this representational terrain. This story was the one that made me wish that some of the others had had longer narrative arcs and makes me hopeful that Lee is working on a novel-length work. From what I can recall, most, if it not all, of the collection is told in third person perspective and you can tell that this approach gives Lee the opportunity to invoke a kind of ethnographic and historical storyteller who has a distant, but complete command over these cognitively estranging cultures. A fascinating work and one that I hope sees some critical attention. Finally, this book is also very much reminiscent of another collection that came out of Prime Books called Of Tales and Enigmas.

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A Review of Rebecca Lim’s Exile (Disney-Hyperion, 2013).

I’ve been in a motivational sink lately, so naturally I am turning to books that are perhaps lighter on the politically-engaged side, which is not to say Rebecca Lim’s Exile is somehow a fluffy novel. Indeed, with fallen angels, workplace tensions, a robbery, dying mothers, and existential ennui to ground us, Lim’s second installment in the Mercy series will be sure to satiate fans of the young adult paranormal urban romance fantasy genre. In this sequel, Mercy finds herself in the body of yet another individual. The process of soul-jacking typically leaves Mercy quite disoriented, but for some reason, she is able to control this new body with more fluidity and more power. Further still, she is able to recall basic memories from her previous soul-jacking experience. Mercy is inhabiting the body of a young woman named Lela Neill; her mother is dying. She must balance her workplace stress with the demands of caring for this mother-figure. At the same time, she is trying to find her way back to Luc, one of her fellow angelic beings as well as Ryan, the individual who Luc has told her will hold some sort of key to her identity and her life. Ryan, as you might recall, appeared as Mercy’s primary love interest from Book 1 when she existed in the form of Carmen Zappacosta. Ryan’s sister, Lauren, had been abducted and it is only with Mercy-as-Carmen’s help that Lauren is eventually saved. This book seems primarily intent upon Mercy trying to figure out the nature of her identity and her reason for having been put on the earth to soul-jack unsuspecting individuals. Once of the most interesting elements in this book appears in the guise of another entity she meets that has had a horrible experience as a fallen-angel figure, feeling trapped by the fact of having to move from one soul to another, without purpose or direction. Thus, at the end of the day, Lim’s novels seem entirely relevant to the larger question concerning the nature and meaning of our daily lives and unquestionably fascinating to its target audience as they look to future careers, majors, and possible life trajectories.

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A Review of Corinna Chong’s Belinda’s Rings (NeWest Press, 2013).

Corinna Chong’s Belinda’s Rings (NeWest Press, 2013) is a debut novel that is lively, unpredictable, and most of all, tragicomic. By tragicomic, I mean to say, there are explorations of marine mammals throughout, serious investigations into crop circles, meditations on the struggles of the adolescent life, marital squabbles, and a biracial issues all thrown into this eclectic narrative pot. Chong also takes a dynamic narrative approach, as one chapter alternatives from the first person perspective of a young teen, Grace, and then the next will move to a third person perspective primarily following the viewpoint of the titular Belinda, a Canadian of English background who travels back to her homeland to study crop circles. She leaves behind two children—Grace, our first narrator, and then her older sister Jess—the older from a first husband (Da) of Chinese descent. With her second husband Wiley, she has another child, affectionately nicknamed Squid. The brilliance of Chong’s work is that marital troubles register through the “unreliable” eyes of Grace, and we begin to see as the novel explores just what problems exist in Belinda’s and Wiley’s relationship, as well as Belinda’s relationships with her various children. Belinda’s trip back to England is also an opportunity for Chong to investigate a different form of the heritage narrative in the sense that Belinda has, for the most part, cleaved off her family from her current life. The absence of this maternal genealogy is evident to her children; Grace at various points remarks on this fact and wonders about her mother’s extended family. For her part, Grace struggles with her biracial identity, an element that Chong makes the most of in a school sequence regarding Grace’s overlap with another student with a similar name and background. Chong’s style is certainly original and the novel never flags; a fine addition to the (Asian) Canadian/ mixed race canon of literature.

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Jamie Ford's debut novel Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet (Ballantine Books, 2009) is historical fiction in a romantic, even melodramatic, vein. The central story focuses on the childhood love of Henry, a Chinese American boy, and Keiko, a Japanese American girl, in 1940s Seattle during WWII.

As stephenhongsohn noted back in 2009, there is a deliberate attempt by the author to frame the novel as a love story more than as a politicized narrative about the internment, something that I think is ultimately detrimental to the possibility of the novel and that undermines what is most interesting about the narrative. As much as the love story is the hook, the thing that might be most accessible to a broad audience and that brings people to the text, it is hardly something that makes the novel stand out and is in fact a bit on the cliched side with predictable bumps and turns. Henry falls for Keiko even though his father is a staunch Chinese nationalist who has distrusted Japanese and Japanese Americans his whole life. Keiko's family, by contrast, is thoroughly Americanized and more open-minded about friends that Keiko might make, regardless of race. As these two descriptions suggest, the novel staunchly supports a narrative of multicultural enlightenment endemic to Americanization (even if there are occasional stumbling blocks).

What I found most interesting about the story was the focal perspective of Henry as a Chinese American during WWII. I'm not aware of many (any?) other stories about internment from a Chinese American character's point of view, and it certainly provides some interesting things to consider with respect to interethnic tensions and the difficulties of an Asian coalitional politics, especially during WWII. Ford wonderfully plays up the historical struggles between China and Japan in Asia that characterized much of the interethnic tension in Seattle, and I appreciated some of the details that he provided regarding the history of Chinese nationalists in fighting Japanese colonial forces.
Current Mood: indescribableindescribable
As many of you know, I’m a huge, huge fan of Penguin Books for the simple fact that their tremendous exam copy policy allows qualified instructors some free copies each year to consider new course offerings.

Here is the link with associated information:

Through this program, I’ve had the chance to read numerous books relevant to this community and occasionally adopt them into my course curriculum. I wanted to report on some new publications offered by Penguin in this megapost and encourage you to get signed up for this program!

A Review of Susan Choi’s My Education (Viking Adult, 2013).

I promised to try to read this book in installments, but I failed miserably. I stayed up and finished this book over two nights. I’ve read all four of Choi’s novels and I can say that My Education is unequivocally my favorite just based on the entertainment value. I’ve been waiting for Susan Choi (author of three previous novels, including A Person of Interest, The Foreign Student, and American Woman) to delve fully into the use of first person narration. I can’t recall that if she really has used this conceit before (someone can correct me if I’m wrong), but she uses that storytelling mode to great use in My Education, a sort of nod to the college coming-of-age novel that others have explored (an analogue might be Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys). Our enterprising storyteller is Regina Gottlieb, who is biracial (Asian-Caucasian), and has just entered graduate school. She’s got her keen eyes set on a famously rakish professor by the name of Nicholas Brodeur, but not soon after she gets enmeshed into the graduate school life, she finds herself falling madly in love (instead) with Brodeur’s wife, Martha Hallett. There are lots of complications here: Nicholas and Martha have one child (named Joachim). There’s also a whole string of friends and housemates to deal with; the most important being Dutra, a sort of fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants guy with whom Regina/ Ginny engages in a brief fling at the novel’s inception. There’s also a spirited nanny named Lucia that adds more wrinkles into the affair equation. Where Choi shines especially is in the representation of love and its many illogical and passionate manifestations. Regina is head-over-heels for Martha, but they are significantly mismatched in age and career trajectories. Martha is an academic and 34 years old, with a sense of a future to hold on to, while Regina is 21 and willing to risk everything for the chance to try to make it work with Martha. Choi’s most masterful stroke, though, appears in the last fifty pages or so, where the novel flash forwards to the present (the novel is retrospectively told). Here, we begin to see that the catastrophic fallout from Regina’s graduate school days are still having some after-effects; by this point, Regina realizes that there may be second chapters to explore. By the last page, we see how fully Regina has matured and that her understanding of love moves her to make her own form of reconciliation with a past that sets up a tremendously moving, yet not overly maudlin conclusion. As a note: Choi’s signature long paragraphs are still there, but it’s the voice of this particular work that lifts it up and over—at least for me—her previous efforts, all which were also outstanding for different reasons.

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A Review of Kazuo Ishiguro’s An Artist of the Floating World (2013 reprint, Penguin Drop Caps edition); Chang-rae Lee’s Native Speaker (2013 reprint, Penguin Drop Caps edition).

Penguin Books has officially released a set of books called the “Drop Caps Editions” which takes a letter from the alphabet and uses the last name of a particularly well-known author for that edition. The letters “I” and L” are given to Kazuo Ishiguro and Chang-rae Lee. The first half of this set was published in 2013, with the rest to be unveiled in 2014. I am curious to see what authors will be given for the “Q” and “Z” editions.

The most important element to note about these editions is that they focus on the material quality of the book. That is, these books are meant to be bought and displayed as a set, as the colors definitely transition over the course of the alphabet. The individual product quality is also, of course, very high, as each book comes in a study hardcover. The ornamental nature of these books is obvious; the page binding is colored alongside the cover. For those that do enjoy the physical tangibility of a book (vs. the obvious portability of the e-reader), these editions cannot be denied.

As for the re-issues of Ishiguro and Lee themselves; these books would make an interesting alternative to standard editions in the classroom for the basic fact of marking the materiality of text and the production of books as consumer objects and ornamental artifacts. The drop caps editions were all designed by Jessica Hische and she’s done an amazing job.

I had not read The Artist of the Floating World, so the Drop Caps publications gave me extra motivation to plow through this narrative. Ishiguro is one of my favorite writers of the “first person narrative perspective,” as his narrators are always biased, flawed observers of the world around them. Masuji Ono, the once-great artist who has now fallen out of favor, attempts to confront the status of his downfall, only to retreat back into his fantasy world. This sort of narrator has become more largely a technical characteristic of Ishiguro’s, with similar narrators found in The Remains of the Day, A Pale View of Hills (still my personal favorite of the novels I have read), and Never Let me Go. Set in the post-war period amid the fall-out of the Imperial regime, the novel is a particularly incisive look at the nature of ideology and politics as it collides with aesthetic invention.

As for Native Speaker, I think it would be very interesting to see a course taught using the Drop Caps edition again for the fact that it could be used as a way to device a lecture based upon paratextual materials. What is the importance of design and marketing to the understanding of a book? What does it mean for books like Native Speaker and The Artist of the Floating World to be adopted and set alongside other authors such as Flaubert and Dickens?

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A Review of Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being (Viking 2013)

Though we have already had a couple reviews of Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being and I do no want to take the wind out of the sails of any upcoming reviews, I just wanted to add some brief thoughts about it and chime in to say that I absolutely adored this book, for the simple fact of Ozeki’s playful use of storytelling. As I’ve stated in other contexts and commented in other forums, the use of two distinct strands within one fictional trajectory is always a dicey choice. There are two storytelling viewpoints and continual rupture points that occur as the reader moves from one perspective to another. In Ozeki’s case, she chooses to move from the first person storytelling of Nao Yasutani—in the form of her spirited diary—to the metafictional apparatus of a woman named Ruth, who comes upon Nao’s diary as it washes ashore in Canada. This is Ozeki’s third novel and she’s no journeyman: she fully understands the perils in this bifurcated structure and gives equal weight to both storytelling perspectives. Readers are immediately pulled in by Nao’s hilarious and comedic monologic personality and then the detective narrative on the other side immediately cues the audience to desire to find out the identity of this individual as well. Indeed, Ruth is trying to find out the full identity of the diarist. For those who teach in the quarter system, the novel’s length might prove to be a barrier, but A Tale for the Time Being shows an Ozeki at a creative acme and I definitely encourage all to go out and read it.

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08 August 2013 @ 11:43 pm
Julie Wu's debut novel The Third Son (Algonquin Books, 2013) traces the life of a Taiwanese boy through WWII bombings, the Nationalist takeover of the island, and an eventual move to the United States for graduate education.

The first person narrator is Saburo, which is the Japanese name that he used throughout the first part of his childhood until the end of WWII when Japan lost control of Taiwan (which it held as a colony from 1895 to 1945). While he continues to use his Japanese name with his family, once the Nationalists take over the island, he publicly uses his Chinese name Chia-lin instead. This novel is interesting in many ways for how it deals with the complicated history of colonialism and language in Taiwan.

Saburo is the third son in his family, and his parents treat him rather poorly, always heaping praise, food, and attention on the eldest son Kazuo instead. Further alienating him in his parents' eyes, at least in his own understanding, is that his younger brother died when they were both little boys who ran around together outside late into the evening. Saburo always felt that he was being punished for letting his brother die (though his brother died of pneumonia, not something Saburo was really responsible for).

Surrounded by an uncaring family, Saburo makes his way through his childhood and young adulthood with the help of a cousin, Toru, who not only helps him with malnourishment and physical weakness by treating him with intravenous nutrients but also encourages him to think and study, ignoring expectations of others like his parents and eldest brother that he amount to nothing in life.

(Spoiler alert.... the following paragraphs summarize broad narrative arcs in the novel...)

The novel begins with a bombing scene when Saburo is in school. The American planes are bombing the island, and the Japanese planes are fighting them off. Saburo runs away from the bombs with Yoshiko, a girl he finds again when he is older and whom he eventually marries. The novel is very much about this idealized relationship that not only spans gaps of time but also in the second half of the novel a transnational distance when Saburo leaves Yoshiko in Taiwan with their newborn son to study engineering in the United States.

At the heart of this novel, though, is how Saburo fights against the way his family always puts him down and the way he was never encouraged to succeed or ever treated lovingly. His resolve to succeed in school is all the more important because his parents, especially his mother, only ever expected the oldest son Kazuo to succeed and funneled all the resources (food, tutor, etc.) to him alone. Saburo, through determination, intelligence, and quite a bit of resolve to fight against the way people including his own family put him down, tests into the best middle school. But his headstrong belief in independence gets him expelled, and he then decides not to pursue the usual educational path of going to only the top schools, enrolling in a junior college instead to learn how to fix radios. Despite this "failure" (his brother does go to the top school, Taiwan University), Saburo then takes the examination to obtain a visa to go study abroad in America and passes. His brother never even attempts to the exam out of fear of failure. The second half of the novel follows Saburo in his time at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology and the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. Again through extraordinary determination, despite not having obtained a bachelor's degree in Taiwan, he finishes a master's degree in a year and then pursues coursework for a doctorate while teaching.

I found the novel fascinating for its tracing of a crucial span of Taiwan's history, from WWII until the 1960s. Wu does a wonderful job of weaving in the political situation, including a recounting of the events of February 28, 1947 when Nationalists and Taiwanese faced off, resulting in weeks of protests and many deaths. She characterizes the difficult dynamics of living under Japanese as well as Nationalist rule, especially in the figure of Saburo's father who as a politician had to learn to play the game under different regimes of power. Underneath the political narrative, Wu offers a harrowing narrative of family dynamics and how favoritism and underhanded dealings with family members create rifts and hurt.
Current Mood: thoughtfulthoughtful
01 August 2013 @ 09:34 pm
Indira Ganesan's first novel The Journey (Beacon, 2001), originally published in 1990, was subsequently reissued as part of the wonderful Bluestreak paperback series of innovative literary writing by women of all colors.

This novel introduces the fictional island of Pi that is also the setting for her other novels Inheritance (see my earlier review) and As Sweet as Honey (see stephenhongsohn's review) and includes many fascinating passages describing it. The name comes from "Prospero's island," a reference to Shakespeare's The Tempest. The Journey, in fact, begins with an epigraph from that play: When I wak'd, I cried to dream again (III, ii). These lines by Caliban speak of the wrenching feeling of waking from a wondrous dream. Ganesan's Pi has a dreamlike and magical quality, and the sense of being unmoored from time as well as inextricably bound to colonial forces (as Shakespeare's Prospero took over the island) is significant for the characters and their lives.

The Journey focuses on 19-year-old Renu, who returns to Pi with her sister and mother after they have been living abroad in the United States for a decade (her father passed away in the states). The occasion for their return is the tragic death of Renu's "twin," a cousin who was conceived and born on the same day as she was. The twin Rajesh haunts the narrative throughout as Renu grapples with this sudden loss and what it means to go through her life alone. The first paragraph describes Rajesh's death in a train accident, and I found it this line curious since Jhumpa Lahiri's later novel The Namesake revolves around the titular character's naming stemming from the same author and a near death experience with a train wreck: "Her cousin, the Gogol diving from his pocket, his ugly slippers crushed, must have spun like a Catherine wheel in the air, tumbling, his glasses flying as the train fell."

As in Inheritance, this novel also centers on the possibilities and limitations for women in the traditions of Pi and India. While Renu is a fairly obedient daughter, her younger sister Manx (a self-ascribed nickname) is much more rebellious and Americanized. While the sisters spend time in Pi at their grandfather's house, named Nirmila Nivasam after an ancestor, their different ways of dealing with the death of their cousin and the relatives around them reveal this difference in their temperaments. Manx begins hanging out with Freddie, an older white American man who hangs around town just to catch glimpses of a woman he calls the Light of the World. Like the white American male characters in Inheritance, Freddie comes across as an Orientalist, obsessed with Eastern philosophies and ways of life, while also appearing more sympathetically as yet another wayward soul in search of meaning. He eventually joins Renu, Manx, and another character Kish on a journey around the island to visit a holy statue.

Kish is a young man the same age as Renu who was left at the doorstep of Highway Amir, a man known as a leader in the Free Island Party on Pi who became the Number One Enemy of Pi when he orchestrated and perpetrated some attacks against the newly established Indian government following the British withdrawal from colonial rule on the subcontinent. Amir is an interesting figure, helping demarcate a rift between Pi and India in political and cultural terms. The novel also mentions that the original inhabitants of Pi were the Banacs, a nomadic, tribal people who were pushed into the interior of the island by successive waves of colonization and eventually killed off in a campaign that painted them as cannibals and thus unworthy of existence in a modern world.

The Journey definitely has a more wandering narrative than Inheritance, with Renu taking literal journeys as well as metaphorical ones as she navigates the loss of her twin cousin and considers what it means for her to grow up and become a woman.
Current Mood: satisfiedsatisfied
28 July 2013 @ 03:31 pm
Thien Pham's first solo graphic novel Sumo (First Second, 2012) traces the story of Scott, a former American football player who moves to Japan to train as a sumo wrestler. (Also see stephenhongsohn's earlier review.)

The narrative is sparse on text, and the illustrations are mainly black-and-white ink drawings with monochromatic color overlays that designate three different times in Scott's life--as he is training to move up in the sumo ranks (orange), as he is about to leave the United States for Japan (blue), and as he befriends a Japanese girl Asami (green). The interwoven storylines are not presented chronologically, but the sequencing of the sections helps to highlight resonances in Scott's sense of himself as an athlete (both in the past and the present), how he relates to a possible romantic interest, and what he hopes for his future.

The book is definitely centered on a kind of young adult male anxiety about succeeding in the world. The women in the story (his new love interest Asami and his ex-girlfriend Gwen) come across as somewhat enigmatic creatures, offering or withdrawing their love in elliptical ways. There's something in the story about being or becoming a man and how that involves heterosexual romance and demonstrating physical prowess (as an athlete and even as a man who can catch fish).
Current Mood: mellowmellow
28 July 2013 @ 02:53 pm
Lynn Xu's first collection of poetry, Debts & Lessons (Omnidawn Publishing, 2013), includes seven poem sequences and exhibits a cosmopolitan sensibility immersed in an international world of poetry.

The biographical note at the end of the volume reveals that Xu is a scholar of comparative literature, which she demonstrates in her own verse through references to poets from different language traditions as well as her own incorporation of stray French and Spanish words in some poems and a section of bilingual Chinese and English poetry.

The poem sequence that most caught my eye was LULLABIES, which consists of brief poems all prefaced with a dedication. I recognized the first few names--anglophone poets (American and British)--but did not recognize most of the later names though I assume they are also poets and artists. Each poem has a different lyrical weight and form, and it is easy to think of this section as a series of mimicry or homage poems in the style of the dedicated poet.

Anis Shivani has a wonderful interview with Xu at Huffington Post
Current Mood: quixoticquixotic
26 July 2013 @ 09:05 am
Cara Chow's young adult novel, Bitter Melon (Egmont, 2011; Brilliance Audio, 2011), tells the story of Frances Ching, only daughter of a single mother in San Francisco's Richmond district. I listened to the audiobook version of this novel, narrated by Nancy Wu. (I'll be posting reviews in the near future of more audiobooks I've been listening to the last half year.)

Bitter Melon is a harrowing story of how Frances is kept under the thumb of her bat-shit crazy mother, who takes tiger mothering beyond the relentless driving of her daughter to academic excellence into the realm of outright paranoiac fantasy. The mother expects Frances to go to UC Berkeley and then to med school to become a doctor and take care of her physically and financially in the future. She does everything possible to curtail her daughter's independence (socially, financially, academically, etc.), micromanaging everything about her life.

The story, of course, is about how Frances fights to find her own true self. Instead of taking AP Calculus in her senior year as her mother expects (because Calculus will help her get into Berkeley), she ends up in speech by accident but then decides not to change her schedule and not to tell her mother. This one decision, spurred by the charisma of her speech teacher Ms. Taylor, leads her down the path of rebellion and lies.

While the novel clearly carves out the usual narrative of teenage rebellion and coming to a sense of independence about the self, it does so in the specific context of Chinese American life in San Francisco in an immigrant family. Like the tiger mother narrative more broadly, I find Bitter Melon to be a little too reliant on reductive notions of culture (it's all because of Confucianism, according to Frances in the speech she writes and gives at competitions throughout the year).

I tend to prefer mother-daughter, immigrant family narratives that explore the complex ways that immigration (often as a result of war) is a kind of trauma that leads to strange figurations of family and society (Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior is a classic example, of course, but another excellent example is Lan Cao's Monkey Bridge). Ultimately, Bitter Melon settles on a weird kind of apologia for the tiger mother mentality and upbringing, reconciling it with a triumphalist narrative of American independence. In this instance, there is also a romance narrative with Frances falling for a tall blond boy who drives a luxury car his parents bought for him on his 16th birthday, and his name apparently has a not just a Jr. suffix but a III in a nod to his establishment family of lawyers who all went to Harvard. That story is in itself troubling for many different reasons.

The audiobook version of this novel was solid, with Nancy Wu doing an accented voice for the mother. The novel also has many, many terms in Chinese (which Frances defines for the reader in the narrative), which is something that an audiobook version can provide a different experience of for non-Chinese speaking readers.
Current Mood: boredbored
25 July 2013 @ 10:42 am
Zubair Ahmed's debut poetry collection City of Rivers (McSweeney's Poetry Series, 2012) offers a series lyrical poems rich with natural imagery and reflections on family and home.

Ahmed's poems focus on private reflections and often turns on somewhat enigmatic imagery. As usual, I will comment on a poem that involves a dog, "A Dog in Bangladesh":
My tired body
Under the white sun.

A child half-buried in the ground.

Bermuda grass grows in the corners of my room--
An invasion of Bangladesh by grass!
The pictures of my wall expire like dying birds.

A dog is drowning in the drains of Rayarbazaar.
Should I save it?
Its legs are broken
Like the chair I sleep in.
The figure of the dog is often pitiful in Ahmed's poems, as in this example. Dogs are injured are broken, and they seem to echo a general permeation of brokenness in cities. In "It's Raining Again," "A dog in the corner drinks the overflow." And in a more explicit and disturbing passage in "The Crow's Ghost Watches,"
So I count the number of times
The dog looks up at me.
When the rains begin
The taxi with the sweaty driver,
Whose pregnant wife has left him,
Will crush the dog's head.
A few lines later, the smell of the dog's cadaver evokes memories of the war of 1971, the Bangladeshi war of independence from Pakistan. While most of the poems center on more intimate moments, a few echo this larger, defining event in Bangladesh's history.
Current Mood: thoughtfulthoughtful
Kim Wong Keltner's first nonfiction book, Tiger Babies Strike Back: How I Was Raised by a Tiger Mom but Could Not Be Turned to the Dark Side (William Morrow, 2013), is a playful but heartfelt and critical response to Amy Chua's Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, a book excerpted in the Wall Street Journal ("Why Chinese Mothers are Superior") that elicited heated discussion last year with its claim that Chinese mothers do it better (see reviews by pylduck and stephenhongsohn). And yes, there are references to The Empire Strikes Back and the Star Wars universe.

The memoir consists of 39 brief, anecdotal chapters reflecting on motherhood and Chinese American identity. As the title suggests, Keltner provides a response to Chua's claim that tiger mothers' tough love is an appropriate way to raise highly successful children. In contrast, Keltner insists on openly loving, praising, and caring for her daughter and cherishes qualities like emotional availability. The first few chapters are the most focused on criticizing the tiger mother mentality and her own mother's tough love. I thought these chapters were the least interesting, though, and the chapters that follow meander more thoughtfully through different aspects of her life as a creative person (going against the grain of tiger mother's expectations to be a highly successful doctor/lawyer/other sanctioned professional or at least staying home to take care of the parents). The one discussion of the effects of the tiger mother mentality that I found most provocative in later chapters was Keltner's suggestion that the suicides of Asian American (often women) are a result of being pushed too hard by parents and not loved enough.

Among the other topics Keltner addresses are how she got started writing by scribbling down reminiscences of her grandma Lucy during lunch break at work and between chores at home (she shares a few passage from her first novel, The Dim Sum of All Things, that were what these brief writings became); her decision, along with her husband Rolf, to leave San Francisco that had been her home for her entire life because of the pressures of city living; how she mothers her daughter Lucy; and what she finds valuable in her friends who are also mothers. Throughout, she also incorporates historical discussions of the Chinese in San Francisco (her own family on both sides has a long history in the city) and in Nevada City, California, the small mountain town where she relocates with her husband and daughter to escape the City. Nevada City was a booming gold rush town, and there were sizable numbers of Chinese men who lived and died in the town and region back in the 1800s and early 1900s though the contemporary population is mostly white.

I liked Keltner's discussion of her writing experiences and her engagements with Chinese American history. She relies a little to heavily on cultural claims throughout, though, like Chua does in tracing her tiger mothering approach to ancient Chinese tradition. While Keltner essentially opposes Chua's perspective, she nevertheless tends to explain Chinese immigrant and Chinese American habits and experiences through the amorphous idea of cultural traditions, even as she advocates for breaking from them. It would be nice to read a response to Chua's argument that is rooted more strongly in critiques of the history of the racialization of Chinese in America and in socioeconomic conditions that created Chinatowns and other sorts of geographically-bracketed spaces for Chinese Americans. All in all, I enjoyed the book and Keltner's humor. There are moments where her experiences as a Chinese American woman lend themselves to more extensive discussion of race, such as when she relates the story of how the lactation specialist came into her hospital room after the delivery of her daughter, unceremoniously pulled down her gown to expose her breasts, and said that she has "African American boobies."
Current Mood: accomplishedaccomplished
Asian American Literature Fans Megareview for July 11 2013

In this post, reviews for: Saira Shah’s The Mouse-Proof Kitchen (Atria, Emily Bestler Books, 2013), Bill Cheng’s Southern Cross the Dog (Ecco, 2013), Michelle de Kretser’s Questions of Travel (Little, Brown, and Company, 2013), Lenore Look’s Brush of the Gods (illustrated by Meilo So) (Schwarz & Wade, 2013) and Lenore Look’s Alvin Ho: Allergic to Babies, Burglars, and Other Bumps in the Night (illustrated by LeUyen Pham) (Schwarz & Wade, 2013).

A Review of Saira Shah’s The Mouse-Proof Kitchen (Atria, Emily Bestler Books, 2013)

Saira Shah’s debut novel The Mouse-Proof Kitchen (who has also published a previous memoir) is at its core a narrative concerning the peculiar challenges of motherhood. Our narrator is Anna, who has just given birth in the first pages to a child suffering from a physical and mental condition in which the baby’s quality of life will be a constant question mark. She will potentially suffer from physical and mental degradation over time, may stop breathing, and may have significant cognitive impairments. Anna, along with her husband Tobias, debate the possibility of giving up the child, but in the end, decide to raise it. Their life is one of upheaval, as they decide to move to a run-down, but beautiful house in France, one filled with rats and mice (hence the title). While Tobias works to make ends meet as a composer, Anna takes her time adjusting to her status as mother to this child, Freya, who she will come to love fiercely. But Anna is continually undone by the fragile state of her existence. The house, being what it is, becomes a metaphor for the marriage and the state of their lives, always slightly in disrepair. Shah includes a nice comic touch to an otherwise dramatic narrative by including a colorful cast of neighbors and locals who become important figures in their lives. Shah’s novel is exceedingly fast-paced and her narrator is a wonderfully self-reflective figure, full of flaws and interesting observations concerning the world around her. The novel also imparts a rather interesting exploration of the variance in medical care systems to be found based upon one’s country of residence and more fully explores the difficult complications of raising a child who must constantly negotiate these healthcare institutions.

Buy the Book Here:

A Review of Bill Cheng’s Southern Cross the Dog (Ecco, 2013).

So, after I finished Bill Cheng’s Southern Cross the Dog, I immediately went ahead and read some reviews about it. The novel has generated quite a bit of press already for the simple fact that Cheng is Chinese American, Southern Cross the Dog is his debut novel, and he purportedly did not travel to the area in which the novel is primarily set (Mississippi). Further still, the main characters are all African American. Though primarily told in third person perspective, Cheng does intriguingly and occasionally venture into using the first person perspective. The novel begins with what seems to be rather innocent childhood games among Robert Lee Chatham (the protagonist) and his friends Dora and G.D. They will soon be separated for most of their lives due to a number of events, but first and primarily the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. From there, Robert will come-of-age working in a hotel/brothel; there will be an interlude concerning a piano player named Eli Cutter and a man, Augustus Duke who will attempt to make money off Eli’s talents. Then, the novel shifts to a section devoted to Dora and her happenstance, but not necessarily felicitous reunion with G.D. The novel will then move forward to 1941. Robert gets a job clearing swampland, but due to an accident, ends up in the hands of a small group of irate white fur trappers, who realize that their livelihoods are being undermined by the attempt to modernize and dam up the river. Robert ends up enduring torture and confinement with this group, but eventually escapes. The reviews of this novel have varied widely with some questioning Cheng’s authenticity, his ability to imagine this place and time. There’s no uncertainty that Cheng has been influenced by great regional writers, many of whom (such as Faulkner and Morrison) seem to be imprinted on these pages. The style and the voices conjured are provocative and there are brilliant sequences that leave one breathless. Though the pacing and the plotting can sometimes be uneven, Cheng’s spirited stylistic (and clear love of the English language) constantly generates its own motive force amid this historically textured and ambitious debut novel.

Buy the Book Here:

A Review of Michelle de Kretser’s Questions of Travel (Little, Brown, and Company, 2013).

Beware the water.

Michelle de Kretser, a Sri Lankan Australian writer, was someone I found during one of my late night insomnia bouts, which lead me to trove for upcoming titles. I admit I have not read her earlier novels (The Hamilton Case, The Lost Dog, and The Rose Grower), so I was excited to see that she had a new novel coming out and that I would have a chance to begin reading her work. In Questions of Travel, de Kretser is interested in exploring the nature of interpersonal connections in a truly global economy. She splits the third person narrative perspective between two major characters, with chapters that often move between them. These characters—Laura Fraser, an Australian who works for a travel guide company, and Ravi Mendis, a Sri Lankan who ends up seeking asylum in Australia due to the tragic death of her wife and son (the wife is a political activist, and she and her son are murdered)—do not even meet each other until well into three hundred pages into the novel. This aesthetic choice is a big gamble on the part of de Kretser and she’s betting that you’ll be compelled to follow each character’s life trajectory until their worlds begin to collide. In my opinion, this gamble does not fully pay off, only because I found myself far more interested in one character’s life story than the other. I did appreciate though that de Kretser was not telegraphing a romance plot and there are absolutely breathtaking sequences of writing throughout the novel that compelled me to complete this rather sprawling work (at 480 pages). Of course, once the characters do begin to interact, I did find myself far more unified in my interest in the novel and these characters are particularly well-rounded and nuanced. The conclusion completely surprised me, but for those who are historically attuned, you may be ready for that last page. I was not and it made me want to hurl the book out of the window, not because I hated it, but because de Kretser spends so much time painstakingly creating the lives of these characters and so you do you have these investments. That’s all I’m going to say about that =).

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A Review of Lenore Look’s Brush of the Gods (illustrated by Meilo So) (Schwarz & Wade, 2013) and Lenore Look’s Alvin Ho: Allergic to Babies, Burglars, and Other Bumps in the Night (illustrated by LeUyen Pham) (Schwarz & Wade, 2013).

I have not had a chance to read much of Lenore Look’s work, so I figured I would start with one of her recent picture books, Brush of the Gods (which is lavishly illustrated by Meilo So). At this point, I’ve read enough of these picture books to see some basic genres: the narrative of ethnic pride and trying to get the reading audience attuned to basic cultural elements; the historical biography; family vignettes; among others. Look’s work follows most closely with the historical biography, as she takes the opportunity to use the picture book form to depict a brief rendering of Wu Daozi’s life. Daozi was an artist renowned for murals that often focused on natural landscapes and animals. So’s cartoon renderings make for a highly dynamic experience alongside Look’s brief textual snippets.

I also finally had the chance to break open Lenore Look’s Alvin Ho series; Look is already up to her fifth title, which revolves around the titular Alvin Ho, who as we discover finds many things to be anxiety-inducing. The titles of the previous four in the series are illustrative:

Alvin Ho: Allergic to Girls, School, and Other Scary Things (Alvin Ho, #1)

Alvin Ho: Allergic to Camping, Hiking, and Other Natural Disasters (Alvin Ho, #2)

lvin Ho: Allergic to Birthday Parties, Science Projects, and Other Man-made Catastrophes (Alvin Ho, #3)

Alvin Ho: Allergic to Dead Bodies, Funerals, and Other Fatal Circumstances (Alvin Ho, #4)

I’m only reviewing installment #5, which focuses on Alvin’s misadventures, as his mother is about to give birth to another child. The Alvin Ho series seems aimed at elementary school students and offers us an account of a Chinese American child who is trying to get confront various fears. In this case, he does not exactly know how to react to the fact of his mother’s pregnancy. In the course of the narrative, he comes to latch onto the notion that he himself may be pregnant. The short novel also engages the hijinks that occur due to the PDK, the aconym which comes to mean a number of different things including personal disaster kit, personal donation kit (in light of the Haiti earthquake), pregnancy disaster kit (for his mother). To complicate matters, a burglar is prowling through the neighborhood. Most pages are illustrated with basic cartoons by LeUyen Pham, which provide a dynamic visual element to the narrative. The Alvin Ho series is definitely better suited to family audiences; the emphasis on closure and its lighthearted narrative will certainly delight parents and their children alike.

Buy the Book Here:
08 July 2013 @ 10:55 am
Jon Pineda's first novel, Apology (Milkweed Editions, 2013), explores the lives of two families affected by an accident that leaves a young girl brain damaged.

I was excited to see that Pineda has a new book out, having greatly enjoyed two of his previous books (see previous reviews of his stunning memoir Sleep in Me by stephenhongsohn and me as well as of his poetry collection The Translator's Diary). This novel has flashes of the deeply poetic language that Pineda's earlier work exhibited but is definitely more narratively driven. The story unfolds in many brief scenes (just a page to a few pages in length), bouncing back and forth between the perspectives and histories of a few characters.

At the heart of the story is Teagan (called Sissy by her family), the twin sister of Tom, who in a careless and irrevocable moment of childhood play cuts her head open on a shovel in a construction site hole after a boy hits her with a ball while she is jumping over the hole. While she survives the accident, she remains child-like for the rest of her life and must be taken care of by her parents even into her adulthood. After a brief focus on her perspective in the beginning of the novel, though, the narrative ultimately leaves her aside to examine the fallout of the accident, especially for the boy Mario who was involved and Mario's uncle Exequiel (nicknamed Shoe by the construction company who hired him as a day laborer) who found the girl the following day.

The story is really quite heartwrenching, and the characters all fumble through a sense of guilt about what happened and how to carry on with their lives. Exequiel's sacrifice for his nephew, taking the blame for what happened to Teagan, leads to his imprisonment for over a dozen years. Interestingly, Pineda sketches out a backstory for Exequiel in his home country somewhere in Latin America, where he had a horrific encounter with guerillas that left him with shoulder and foot injuries. A recurring description of him as the man who drags his foot is evocative throughout the novel (that feature is partially what leads to his arrest as a witness remembers seeing his awkward gait at the construction site with a shovel that morning). Exequiel is perhaps the most sympathetic character in the novel, being the most guiltless but the most punished of all. His imprisonment allows Mario to study hard in school and eventually to become a pediatric heart surgeon--the achievement of immigrant success at the expense of much familial sacrifice.

The central question that the novel floats is how much Teagan's family--her twin brother Tom and her parents--know about what really happened that evening of her accident and what it means for Mario or Exequiel to apologize for what happened. Something else that haunts the novel is the immigrant experience of the parents. Exequiel and his brother Paul come from an unidentified Latin American country, and Teagan's parents come from the Philippines. Exequiel's actions at the accident site (to call it in anonymously and to hide the football he found in the hole with his nephew's name on it) stem from his difficult experiences in his home country as well as the life of itinerant labor he led as an adult. Teagan's father was in the navy, and his experiences point to the military entanglements of the U.S. and the Philippines as well as note his obsession with mestizas.

Here is the publisher's book trailer, which takes as its voice over narration the last of a few letters that Mario writes to the prison parole board in favor of his uncle's release.

Interestingly, one of the blurbs in the trailer is from Darin Strauss, whose memoir Half a Life I thought of while reading this novel. Strauss's memoir is about his life spent dealing with the guilt of an accident he was in as a teenager that led to another teen's death. There are similar explorations of guilt and innocence and of the questioning sense of how to move on in life after a senseless tragedy. Of course, the novel also seems to take as a starting point Pineda's own family's experience. As his memoir elaborates and his poems also explore, his own older sister was injured in a car accident while she was a teenager, leaving her mind and body broken. (Another note on connections--a few young adult novels I've listened to recently in audiobook format have also dealt with the figure of the lost twin, and I'm fascinated by the interest in twins, especially when one is lost through death or injury. Paolo Giordano's The Solitude of Prime Numbers features a Mattia as a boy who leaves his developmentally-disabled sister in the park on his way to a birthday party. She disappears, presumed drowned in the river. The novel riffs on the idea of twin primes, numbers separated only by one integer and thus, in the novel's description, deprived of true intimate connection while being in close proximity. A couple of other novels by Kenneth Oppel, This Dark Endeavor and Such Wicked Intent, reimagines Victor Frankenstein's youth and the loss of his twin brother Konrad as the apprenticeship of the infamous monster-creating figure.)
Current Mood: pleasedpleased
06 July 2013 @ 03:31 pm
Indira Ganesan's second novel, Inheritance (Knopf, 1998), is set on the fictional island Pi off the coast of India ("a tiny eye, to the teardrop that was Sri Lanka").

The narrator of the story is Sonil, a young girl raised by her aunts in Madras but visiting her grandmother in Pi during a long vacation. Sonil is surrounded by female relations (men are largely absent in her family, and even her great-uncle who lives with her grandmother in the house on Pi disappears for days at a time on opium binges). The story centers on Sonil's coming of age and trying to make sense of her mother, an enigmatic figure who is present in the grandmother's house but nevertheless refuses to talk with Sonil or otherwise engage in motherly behaviors.

Sonil's mother, Lakshmi, has three daughters, each by different men. She first married an older Indian man and had her first daughter with him before he passed away. She then had an affair with a playboy from Bombay and later with the white American who is Sonil's father.

Sonil's cousin Jani also visits for a spell, and the grandmother sets about trying to arrange a marriage for Jani, who remains resolutely passive about the endeavor. Much of the novel, thus, explores Sonil's growing understanding of women's roles in society and the way gossip and reputation work against women who do not conform to usual gender expectations.

One of the fascinating aspects of the novel is the presence of many foreigners such as Americans in Sonil's life, including her (absent) American father whom she has never met. Another American man, Richard, plays a significant role in the novel as Sonil learns about the lure of Pi and India for Westerns--with their spiritual traditions and different pace of life.

The island setting allows for an intimacy of family and community that belies its thoroughly transnationalized and even cosmopolitan traffic. In addition to the Americans, Sonil's two aunts both married foreigners (one from a Russo-Indian immigrant family and the other a Scottish expatriate, both of whom live most of the year in Abu Dhabi where they work as oil investors and engineers).

I find it interesting to think about this novel in light of another novel published in the 1990s, Shani Mootoo's Cereus Blooms at Night (Grove Press, 1996) because both are set on fictional islands (I think Pi is fictional.....) and both have captivating first-person narrative voices. In Mootoo's novel, the island is Lantanacamara in the Caribbean, and the exploration of colonialism and race (especially the idea of self-hatred among the colonized) is especially strong. In Ganesan's novel, British colonialism is not as clearly of thematic concern, but the late twentieth century world of a global traffic and the influence of the West on Indian culture and politics is nevertheless apparent.
Current Mood: okayokay
03 July 2013 @ 02:26 pm
Ing Grish (Saturnalia Books, 2005) is a book of poems by John Yau and artwork by Thomas Nozkowski. Yau's characteristic breadth of poetic experimentation and a self-referential and metacritical awareness of language and meaning are as usual present in the poems of this collection. The pairing of this poetry with Nozkowski's art is curious; it is definitely not the relationship of text-to-illustration but is a particular kind of juxtaposition that only barely puts the words and the visual art in conversation.

In the introduction to the book, Barry Schwabsky suggests that putting the work of this poet and visual artist together is in some ways simply an echo of how Yau builds an artistic community around himself, where people working in different media and with various perspectives on art come to associate with him and each other. But Schwabsky also suggests that both Yau and Nozkowski have an ability to exceed or frustrate expectations in their work. Furthermore, he writes that Nozkowski has a "fascination with the (possible arbitrary and contingent) associations that attach themselves to and modify any perception or memory," which points to an interest in the open-ended and constantly changing meanings of artworks. Schwabsky ultimately concludes, "What's at stake is a refusal of premature definition," and he notes that both Yau and Nozkowski share this intent on pushing for the disruption of too-easy-meaning.

Small illustrations by Nozkowski, almost like cellular parts afloat in a cell, appear on some of the pages of Yau's poetry. The shapes are abstract but suggestive, sometimes absurdist in their connections (or lack of connection) to Yau's words. The beginning of "Two Baboons on a Beach" depicted above shows a shape composed of a square squished against a circle. The list of objects observed at the beginning of the poem seem similarly to be a smooshing together of dissimilar things.

It depends upon your pronunciations
It depends on whether the emphasis
Is on phlegm or ish
As in
do you speak Flemish

At other points, full-color art by Nozkowski are the only things on the page.

In "Diaspora," the speaker of the poem reminisces:
Upside down, the wok looked like a flying saucer, so I carefully surrounded it with rows of plastic Indians and Cuban gueriillas dressed like American marines. The only problem was that none of them had beards. It was the Fifties but already I was on the wrong side.
I like the oblique reference to the Cold War, sci-fi alien stories, and nationalism.

The final poem in the book is the title poem, "Ing Grish," full of insightful comments about corrupting language and cultural critique.
I do not know Ing Grish, but I will study it down to its
black and broken bones.
The claims the speaker makes about not knowing language unfurl into commentary about cultural misunderstanding and judgements about people based on the languages they do or do not speak and the ways they speak languages (with accents or in pidgin forms).
Because I do not know Chinese I have been told that means
I am not Chinese by a man who translates from the Spanish.
To speak a language or not to speak a language because a claim for and against cultural identity, to be authentic or not.

Both the poems by Yau and the art by Nozkowski are thoughtfully enigmatic at times.
Current Mood: deviousdevious
Bino A. Realuyo's The Gods We Worship Live Next Door (University of Utah Press, 2006) is a historically-oriented collection of poems, considering the layers of colonialism that have structured Filipino lives in the archipelago and the diaspora.

Realuyo's work echoes other Filipino American poets' thoughtful engagements with language, history, transnational movements, and identity. Many of Realuyo's poems in this collection include prefatory notes about the historical situation addressed. For example, "Consummatum Est (It is finished)" includes a headnote that reads, "U.S. military bases in the Philippines were officially closed in 1992. Departing American servicemen left behind more than 30,000 unacknowledged children born to Filipino girlfriends and bar girls." And the poem ends with a footnote that the title comes from the "alleged last words of Jose P. Rizal, a national hero of the Philippines before he was shot by a firing squad in 1896, two years before Spain surrendered to the U.S. to end the Spanish-American war." These notes are helpful for framing the poems themselves and offer important starting points for readers to understand the enfolding of historical events into poetic exploration.

The Gods We Worship Live Next Door contains six sections of poems. The first focuses on diaspora, the second on the Spanish colonial era (1565–1898), the third on the U.S. colonial era (1898–1946), the fourth on the Japanese colonial era during World War II (1942–1946, overlapping with U.S. rule), the fifth on witnessing, and the sixth on a long poem titled "The Gods We Worship Live Next Door," which is a phrase borrowed from a poem by Filipino American writer Bienvenido Santos.

The first poem in the collection, "Filipineza," begins with the note, "In the modern Greek dictionary, the word 'Filipiniza' means 'maid.'" The poem imagines the position of Filipino maids in the diaspora:
If I became the brown woman mistaken
for a shadow, please tell your people I'm a tree.
The speaker of the poem is a Filipina maid who has left family and home like millions of other Filipinos (mainly women) who work all over the world in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East to remit money to their families in the Philippines.
The better to work here in a house full of faces I don't recognize.
Shame is less a burden if spoken in the language of soap and stain.
My whole country cleans houses for food
The poem turns on the figure of Elena, another Filipina maid who disappeared while she was working as an overseas maid. Elena is a cautionary figure for other Filipinas, as the speaker's mother warns her, and the speaker imagines that she had a child by her married employer and then went off into the foreign world to live a secret life, becoming "part myth, part mortal, part soap."

While the poems in the first four sections focus on diasporic and historical realities for Filipinos, the poems in the fifth section imagine the subjectivity of people in the contemporary Philippines, especially the interiority of people referenced in news stories (often sensational ones). "The Pepper-Eater," for instance, takes as a starting point a news item about the Guinness Book of World Record holder for most hot peppers eaten. The speaker of the poem is a champion pepper eater, where the act of eating hot peppers becomes a metaphor for a fiery engagement with life.
Oh, this flavor, this life! If sweetness reveals the fruit,
our character hangs on the burning flesh of bulbous peppers.
The intensity of peppers' heat resonates with the speaker's town's heat, with its "hot-tempered men, / exposed torsos all day, hungry for a night of peppery-itch."

The long poem, "The Gods We Worship Live Next Door," takes an interesting approach to considering religious conflict and political strife in the Philippines, focusing on Islamist separatist groups engaging in guerrilla warfare in the Mindanao region and struggles with Communist forces. The poem seems brings Catholic imagery, especially of mother and child (Mary and Jesus), to bear on questions of war, neighborliness, religious difference, and nationalism. In particular, the poem considers the sexual violence men bring to bear on women during war and the effects of such oppressive acts and conditions on children as well. This poem bears witness to the horrible situation of war and the question of how God or gods allow such suffering.
Current Mood: workingworking
01 July 2013 @ 11:27 am
Fresh off the presses today is Shin Yu Pai's latest poetry collection AUX ARCS (La Alameda Press, 2013).

The book takes its name from the Ozarks, a distinctive geological region in the American South, and a central theme throughout is the landscape, both geographical and social, of the South. Interestingly, the origins of the name Ozarks are uncertain. The term aux arcs serves as folk (faux) etymology, suggesting linguistic corruption of French and the messy intertwining of language, cultures, histories, and peoples that makes up the Americas. Pai's use of AUX ARCS as the title of the collection participates in this sort of genealogical excavation of naming and knowing.

Enchanted Rock, Llano Uplift, TX, digital photo, 2010.

AUX ARCS is both a textual and visual poetic collection, with photographs by the author dispersed throughout. Even before the first poem, just after the copyright page, is an image of broad land from the high vantage point of Enchanted Rock in Texas. The image is open and inviting. In the book, the photographs are not labeled, encouraging contemplation of what is in the image and how the image might connect with the ideas and words of the textual poems. A list at the back of the book provides the captions with location and other image information.

Skull & air conditioning unit, Lake Tawakoni, TX, mobile phone photo, 2006.

After the dedication page and before the first poem is a second photograph, one that signifies Texas with the skull of a Texas Longhorn steer mounted on the outside of a wooden structure next to the protruding backside of an air conditioning unit. The iconic image of the skull, reminiscent of a Wild West ethos and nostalgia, intriguingly sits jarringly next to an image of modernity and the fending off of excessive summer heat.

"Inner Space," the first poem of the collection, follows this image, bringing the speaker of the poem to "the cavern where / my Texan mate takes me to find / relief from heat." The relief of the cool interior space belies the speaker's thoughts of
                the Permian
floodwater maze that claimed

the lives of Ice Age species, mammoth

armadillo and sabre-toothed cat,
swamped in quicksand
The references to a geologically distant past and extinct species that once roamed the region, coupled with the idea of the inner space as a retreat from the outside heat, echo the skull and air conditioner image. The past and the modern collide in both the poem and the image, and the apparition of death (in the Longhorn skull and in the memory of extinct creatures, knowable to modern scientists only in their excavated skeletons) lingers in the presence of the present.

A number of the poems deal explicitly with Asian American presences in the American South and with the jarring experience of racial bias in a region still thought of generally as one divided into (simply) black and white. "Main Street" witnesses white teenage boys who spit at the speaker of the poem as she exits the post office in town, caught in her thoughts of an academic world supposedly more distanced from everyday gestures of racism. "Black and White and Red All Over" takes the image of "the boy with a scarlet dyed / mohawk" and his siblings/friends wearing "the red & white jerseys / emblazoned w/ wrathful ridge-/ backed peccaries" (a reference to the Arkansas Razorbacks), framing these boys as threatening with a reference to "their shaved heads" (possible skinheads?) and their clustering behavior. The poem ends with images of animals and the observation, "aware more than ever I am / scared witless by wildlife." It is not so much the dogs and cats and hantavirus she mentions that seem to truly terrify her, though, but the mentality of college sports fans.

A more playful poem, "Peabody Ducks," spreads words across the page in meandering fashion, exploring the famous ducks of The Peabody hotel in Memphis. The poem, however, also points to the somewhat unsavory history of ducks in the hotel. The first ducks there were live decoys (restrained or maimed to prevent their flight) used by duck hunters, who placed them in the hotel's fountain for fun. Pai's poem suggests that despite the domestication of ducks in this hotel space, they "hold true to their avian traits" and keep "one orb always open, / against predators."

Many of the poems also take food and the changing cultures of food as topics. "Hybrid Land," for instance, catalogs food products in a list:
recall Country Crock

recall Ocean Mist

recall Frontera

recall Nestle
The injunction to recall the products suggests both meanings of the word--either to remember these brands or to call it back due to defects. The next page of the poem turns on memories of more organic food practices:
I remember my mother peeling waxed skins from store-bought fruits.

I remember apples we grew — their skins dull, form misshapen.

I remember holes pecked by bird beaks scarring unripe peaches.

I remember the sweet stink of guavas rotting on the earth.

I remember pulling chives from the garden with my father.
The poem contrasts the sterility of packaged products on the shelf and the messiness of growing fruits and vegetables.

Other poems in the collection relate aspects of Asian American history and culture, such as a poem about the "Iron Chink," a fish-cleaning machine made to displace Asian immigrant and Indigenous workers in the Pacific Northwest canneries. "On Seeing Roger Shimomura's Crossing the Delaware" offers a reflection on Shimomura's well-known revisionist painting and the cultural politics of morality, education, and history in U.S. schools.

Agora, Chicago, IL, digital photo, 2012.

There are many other wonderful poems in this collection. They range widely in geography, across the Americas and Asia. They touch on different topics, often examining the histories of things and places to shed light on contemporary circumstances and social relations. One section of poems focuses on animals, especially the control of them such as putting dogs down in shelters to control population ("Cull") or arranging them in museums as objects of knowledge ("Natural History").

Adapations, Iowa City, IA, digital photo, 2010.

I'd be remiss as a crazy dog person not to end with a few lines from "Working Dog, Do Not Pet," a thoughtful poem about the balance of domestication and wildness in dogs:
the cattle dog
has no intimates
her duty is
to guard

to reach a hand
beyond the electric
safety fence might be

to have it bitten off
This collection of poems is expansive in its reach and its observations. While most of the poems are short, lyric verses of just a page, they each and collectively sketch out perspectives of the world that are insightful, scratching below surface understandings and connecting complicated, hidden histories to physical, observable presences.

Order a copy from the wonderful Small Press Distribution.
Current Mood: awakeawake
Asian American Literature Fans – Megapost for June 25, 2013

In this post, reviews of Nadeem Aslam’s The Blind Man’s Garden (Knopf, 2013), Oonya Kempadoo’s All Decent Animals (FSG, 2013), Alison Singh Gee’s Where the Peacocks Sing (St. Martin’s Press, 2003), Farhana Zia’s The Garden of my Imaan (Peachtree Publishers, 2013), Tao Lin’s Shoplifting from American Apparel (Melville House, 2009), Anis Shivani’s The Fifth Lash and Other Stories (C&R Press, 2012), Brenda Lin’s Wealth Ribbon: Taiwan Bound, America Bound (University of Indianapolis Press, 2004), Lavanya Sankaran’s The Hope Factory (The Dial Press, 2013).

A Review of Nadeem Aslam’s The Blind Man’s Garden (Knopf, 2013).

The Blind Man’s Garden is the kind of novel that makes you immediately wonder about the status of the creative writer as a researcher, historian, and ethnographer. The novel is set in Pakistan and Afghanistan and follows the lives of two sibling figures (Jeo and Mikal). Jeo is recently married, but decides to engage a humanitarian mission, offering his services as a medical doctor to those in war-torn Afghanistan. Jeo and Mikal are able to sneak into Afghanistan, but they are soon ambushed and separated. Jeo is killed, but Mikal’s fate is unknown. Back in Pakistan, Jeo’s wife, Naheed, is grieving, but it soon becomes apparent that she harbors a secret. Under pressure from her mother to remarry, Naheed actually remains steadfast in her belief that Mikal might still be alive. Indeed, Naheed had had a romance with him prior to marrying Jeo. Thus, in some ways, the novel turns into a love story amid a conflict-ridden and devastated landscape. In this sense, The Blind Man’s Garden evokes some of my favorite works to appear in the last couple of years, which include Tan Twan Eng’s The Garden of Evening Mists and Roma Tearne’s Mosquito. This novel is an incredibly ambitious work in that Aslam must balance different plot strands alongside providing readers—many of whom will not necessarily be familiar with the history and the culture of the Afghanistan and Pakistan—a sense of the social contexts in which all the characters are mired. Further still, the novel spotlights Aslam’s keen ability to pause a scene and dwell in the richness of description. In this sense, Aslam reveals that even the darkest fictional worlds possess some measure of beauty and hope. The novel is in some ways connected to the world of Aslam’s previous effort, The Wasted Vigil, as one character, David Town, returns. In this case, he is the interrogator assigned to extract information from Mikal. Though the novel occasionally flags as Aslam weaves must weave together the complexity offered by various historical, cultural, and aesthetic strands, The Blind Man’s Garden is an incredibly important work simply for its political considerations, gesturing to the continued and problematic nature of empire-building as it continues in the borderlands of the Middle East and South Asia. Certainly, this novel can be paired with a number of others recently published and reviewed here at Asian American Literature Fans such as Jamil Ahmad’s The Wandering Falcon and Kamila Shamsie’s Burnt Shadows.

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A Review of Oonya Kempadoo’s All Decent Animals (FSG, 2013).

I’m been trying to break some bad habits and pick up some novels of writers who have been on my to-read list for much too long. Oonya Kempadoo’s first two novels have unfortunately been languishing on my bookshelves still (Tide Running and Buxton Spice), but her new novel gave me some extra motivation and I read it in a couple of sittings. Kempadoo, of mixed-background and who has lived in many areas of the world, creates a third novel that is at its core a kuntslerroman, a narrative concerning the development of the artist-figure. Our protagonist is Ata (short for Atalanta), an apt name insofar as Ata is a fiercely independent spirit, who follows her artistic beliefs far enough to the point where she attempts to make a career of it, especially as her work is connected to the festival of Carnival. The novel teems with a spatial register that is imbued with the vitality of a specific geographical setting—that of Trinidad. Ata is a graphic design and costume maker, who will later come to realize that her interests in creative production actually are far wider in scope. She engages in a love affair with man who is working for the French branch of the United Nations, a man by the name of Pierre, but as the narrative moves on, her close friend Fraser is diagnosed with end-stage AIDS. Thus, the novel shifts to the consideration of her life in the shadow of this man’s inevitable death. Kempadoo texturizes the narrative through temporal jumps and occasionally shifts the perspective to other characters and she employs a stream-of-consciousness technique that continually and dynamically refocuses the narrative. Kempadoo’s novel ultimately provides a fascinating lens into the lives of a core group of characters, especially as they collide with and are enmeshed in the social contexts of an island society attempting to keep pace with a global economy. The class stratification, the racial division and segregation, as well as artistic freedom, are all issues that strongly undergird the character trajectories and give weight and heft to Kempadoo’s third novel. Though the narrative does not always completely gel, Kempadoo’s artistic writing style makes the reading experience a luxurious one.

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A Review of Alison Singh Gee’s Where the Peacocks Sing (St. Martin’s Press, 2003).

I was probably not in the right frame of mind to read Alison Singh Gee’s Where the Peacocks Sing, a memoir about the author’s exploration of her identity as well as her romantic relationship with an South Asian man named Ajay. The memoir begins with Gee’s consideration of her early career in journalism, where she is stationed in Hong Kong. This job gives her the opportunity to meet globally recognizable movie stars such as Jackie Chan and Gong Li and enables her to go out practically every night of the week. As a kind of celebrity nexus point, Gee is swept up in the social fervor and lives the high life, dating an affluent man, while rocking all the latest red carpet looks. But, there was something missing in Gee’s life, an aspect that did not become readily apparent until she began a correspondence with another journalist by the name of Ajay. As their relationship becomes more serious, Gee essentially shifts her life priorities, willing to give up her fast-paced life and consider what it would mean to be fully engaged in a romance with a South Asian man who attaches significant importance to his family roots. These family roots include a Palace located in India, which is in some state of disrepair. Gee gamely embarks on a quest to fully embrace the ethnic and provincial roots of her soon-to-be husband, which includes a trip to Mokimpur, but all is not immediately well. Gee struggles to fit in and to find a sense of kinship among Ajay’s closest relatives. Over time, though, Gee begins to acclimate to Ajay’s understanding of both India and his family and by the memoir’s conclusion, she sees that his family has become really an extended part of her own. When I started out the review by stating that I was probably not in the right frame of mind, I mean to say that reviews are necessarily influenced by our own personal states and I was sort of in a bad mood. Fortunately, Gee has an enterprising spirit and this style is fortunately infectious. Where the Peacocks Sing is written to imbue the reader with a sense of rebirth and hope and by the conclusion, I did indeed feel better. In terms of this community, Gee, who hails from a Chinese American background does reveal to us the difference between an ethnoracial U.S-based identity and a South Asian transnational one (through Ajay) and I believe that this memoir would make quite an interesting textual selection in terms of thinking about panethnicity as a paradigm for understanding Asian American racial formation. Undoubtedly, the text also speaks to the growing thematic of multiracial and multiethnic families in American literature.

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A Review of Farhana Zia’s The Garden of my Imaan (Peachtree Publishers, 2013).

So I’ve been in a bit of a work funk lately and have been escaping into books here and there. Farhana Zia’s The Garden of my Imaan has been sitting on my “to read” bookshelf, so I finally picked it up! Zia’s debut novel is told from the first person perspective of a fifth grader named Aliya, who happens to be Muslim and South Asian American (of Indian ancestry). The novel is targeted toward advanced elementary and middle-school aged children and its focus is to articulate the challenges of growing up as a religious minority. Indeed, Aliya struggles to balance the universal issues of schooling such as belonging and popularity with particular cultural values such as religious dress and customs. As part of a school project, she starts to write to Allah, as a way to convey conundrums that surface during her daily life. For instance, she finds it difficult to maintain her fasting during Ramadan. Further still, she seeks gain the kind of courage she sees in a new classmate from Morocco named Marwa who is absolutely unapologetic and fearless about her Muslim faith. Fortunately, Aliya has some good friends and reliable family members who keep her grounded and more confident. As with some of the youth-oriented fictions I’ve read, Zia’s aim is undoubtedly to shed like on cultural and religious traditions and communities that have been targeted in light of the heightened animosity that emerged after 9/11. Though the narrative itself is not necessarily the most dynamic or original, Zia’s political rhetoric is unequivocally admirable.

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A Review of Tao Lin’s Shoplifting from American Apparel (Melville House, 2009).

It’s been awhile since I’ve read anything by Tao Lin. There’s a certain style that Lin has mastered that borders on the absurd and you can never quite figure out where a particular narrative will go. In Lin’s Shoplifting from American Apparel, a novella of sorts, our protagonist is Sam, a young Taiwanese American writer who moves through a series of relationships and is repeatedly arrested for shoplifting (hence the title). It would be hard to describe a specific plot beyond this statement, except to say that Lin’s novella also operates to document the ubiquity of social media, brand names, and other such ephemera in the contemporary moment (references to youtube, gchat, flickr, photobucket, myspace, Odwalla juice and Moby abound). Though Sam might seem to be a peculiar character, his ennui is mirrored by the many characters who crop up in his life, and the meandering narrative is more largely reflective of the meandering psychic space that is being represented. A representative passage perhaps can be found here: “A few days later he and Sheila were on a train to New York City. They drank from a large plastic bottle containing organic soymilk, energy drink, and green tea extract and wrote sex stories to sell to for $500. Sheila’s sex story had chainsaws and Sam’s sex story had Ha Jin doing things in a bathroom at Emory University. Sheila said she felt excited to be in New York City soon. They talked about making their own energy drink company. They got off the train and stood [end of 12] waiting for another train. They climbed a wall and sat in sunlight facing the train tracks” (13). I obviously enjoy this passage for Lin’s irreverent nod to Asian American culture in his reference to Ha Jin, but if we want to take this work seriously for a moment, we can place it perhaps in the mode of the twentysomething-identity quest to be found in a time where humanistic inquiry and the creative life can seem to be superfluous. What meaning can such endeavors hold amongst the preponderance and speed of the internet culture, so while we think on this issue, we might as well pilfer a thing or two.

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A Review of Anis Shivani’s The Fifth Lash and Other Stories (C&R Press, 2012)

When I saw that Anis Shivani had put out another collection, I was curious to see how it would stack up against Anatolia and Other Stories, which was one of the most surprising reads for me in the last five years. The Fifth Lash and Other Stories is far more thematically unified in terms of an explicit connecting arc, as Shivani’s various stories involve characters typically of South Asian and/or Muslim backgrounds. But from there, Shivani showcases his storytelling versatility through narrative perspective, historical and geographical context and tonality. I’ll briefly focus on a handful to illustrate. The title story takes the narrative perspective of a close and former political advisor to Bhutto and the regime changes that occur in the Pakistani political realm. Here, Shivani’s story takes flight amid the behind-the-scenes drama as well as the shifting alliances that have made Pakistani politics one of the most turbulent in the recent decades. Both “Growing up Blind, in a Hotly Contested State” and “The House on Bahadur Shah Zafar Road” take on the topic of extramarital problematics. In the former story, a U.S.-based academic focused on Middle Eastern politics must come to the realization that his very low-key relationship with his wife is not the result of some common understanding, but a deliberate distancing on her part so that she can engage in an affair. The latter explores the “open secret” of a household servant named Zainab, who is fired due to the fact of indecorous state as an unmarried, pregnant woman. But her dismissal covers up the central issue: her pregnancy is likely the result of a long going affair with one of the family members. In “Alienation, Jihad, Burqa, Apostasy,” the transnational narrator comes full circle, first completely detaching himself from his Pakistani origin and later taking a prominent role in campus politics and reclaiming the importance of his heritage, only to question this shift in his priorities by the story’s end. And my favorite story, “Censor,” takes a fragmented and satirical look at the ways in which laws of propriety—even as outdated and outmoded as they can be—remain central to the regulation of South Asian culture. An eclectic collection full of darkly comic circumstances and complicated narrative perspectives.

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A Review of Brenda Lin’s Wealth Ribbon: Taiwan Bound, America Bound (University of Indianapolis Press, 2004).

I am reviewing Wealth Ribbon: Taiwan Bound, America Bound, which was already reviewed here by pylduck sometime ago.

I was encouraged to pick up this title because I’ve actually become part of an impromptu reading group concerning Taiwanese/ American culture and representation. It’s part of an ongoing effort related to the fact that a member of my family wants to get to know more about her heritage, so I’ve been involved in picking out the books and coming up with some questions for each meeting. One of our first book picks is Wealth Ribbon, which is a wonderful creative non-fiction concerning the complications of identity in a very transnational age. Lin would be the quintessential “flexible citizen,” defined by Aihwa Ong in her already classic book, as Lin grows up both in the United States and Taiwan. Her parents are part of a generation that was unsure whether or not Taiwan would survive and so they casted multiple nets of national affiliations, raising Lin as a young child in the U.S. Even when Lin later moves to Taiwan, she is enrolled in an American school, thereby ensuring a continued bilingual upbringing. She will later return to the United States, embark in an interracial relationship with a man named Billy, and then later return to Taiwan with Billy, with all the complications that come with traveling as an as-yet unmarried young woman. This memoir is particularly noteworthy for Lin’s ability to deftly weave together historical elements with a personal account of her family. There is a very strong matrilineal impulse to Lin’s work that makes this memoir one that could be easily paired alongside something like Kingston’s The Woman Warrior, Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, or Ng’s Bone.

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A Review of Lavanya Sankaran’s The Hope Factory (The Dial Press, 2013)

Lavanya Sankaran’s debut novel The Hope Factory (The Dial Press, 2013) follows in the tradition of other South Asian writers seeking to explore the complicated nature of national modernization, especially as it relates to class collisions; the novel is reminiscent of Bharati Mukherjee’s Miss New India and Aravind Adiga’s Last Man in Tower in this regard. Sankaran is also author of the short story collection, The Red Carpet, which pylduck earlier reviewed here:

As with The Red Carpet, the majority of this story is set in Bangalore and mainly follows the perspective of two major characters: Anand and Kamala. Anand comes from the upper class, is a factory magnate, and is looking to expand his business. This process requires him to ask favors of various folks, who might be able to get him the land he needs. Anand is “married with children” and seems to be the picture of modern Indian success, but of course, Sankaran wants to complicate this characterization and we begin to see that there are cracks in his marriage and his kinship relationships that will challenge his own vision for economic growth. Then, there is Kamala, who exists on the other side of the class equation. Fortunately hired to work in Ananda’s house, Kamala is a fiercely independent woman who is seeking to keep her life in balance and especially looking to finance a better education for her gifted, but troubled young son Narayan. Sankaran’s novel exposes the incredibly wide gulf between the classes and the perilous challenges that they must face. When Sankaran finally places the two major characters in a more coherent plot trajectory, we begin to see how one life can be leveraged against another. Sankaran’s work appears most luminous in its critique of global capitalism, which reduces land and the lives who reside there to mere parcels of space to be reconfigured for profit.

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14 June 2013 @ 02:06 pm
Malinda Lo is running a fun promotional giveaway of three advance reading copies of her forthcoming novel Inheritance (sequel to Adaptation, reviewed on this site last fall by stephenhongsohn).
Current Mood: workingworking
09 June 2013 @ 10:03 am
400000000000000102312_s4my_year_of_meatsI'm a little late to the game, but Ruth Ozeki is now one of my very favorite writers. If you haven't read her first two novels, My Year of Meats (Penguin 1998) and All Over Creation (Penguin 2003), run out right now & get them! I’m in the middle of her latest, A Tale for the Time Being (Viking 2013), which is also excellent. All three novels are quite different yet share thematic threads and concerns – food, the environment, and how we’re messing them and ourselves up very badly; fecundity and procreation; Buddhism and peace; and relations between people, particularly how geographical and physical proximity don’t necessary equal intimacy and identification, and vice versa. In other words, sometimes the people nearest to us are strangers, and sometimes we identify and connect with strangers half a world away.

My Year of Meats follows the lives of Jane Takagi-Little, a mixed-race documentary filmmaker in the U.S., and Akiko Ueno, an abused housewife in Japan. Jane is shooting a documentary series titled My American Wife!, sponsored by the American “Beef Export and Trade Syndicate, or, simply, BEEF-EX” (9). The purpose of the show is to bring the “heartland of America into the homes of Japan,” and in the process sell beef to the Japanese; i.e. “Meat is the Message.” In the process, Jane clashes with her Japanese boss, Joichi “John” Ueno, who objects to her featuring families with adopted children, African Americans, working-class people, and – horror of horrors – a lesbian, vegetarian couple. And Jane learns about the horrific effects of synthetic hormones and other chemicals, which affect both animals and humans very badly for generations, as well as the inhumane conditions of producing meat (suffice it to say that I’m off meat for a while). Meanwhile, Akiko cannot get pregnant or keep food down (the two being related), but does appreciate the better of Jane’s shows. Things go extremely downhill for both Jane and Akiko, but I won't spoil it; this intro synopsis doesn’t do justice to the subtlety, complexity, and surprisingness of the novel.

All Over Creation is set in Idaho, potato country, and it’s all about generation, both in sense of families as well as of creation. Yumi Fuller returns with her three children (different fathers) to Liberty Falls, where her Japanese mother is suffering from dementia and her white father is dying of cancer. It’s the first time she’s returned since she was 15, when she ran away after an affair with a teacher (not good). Her neighbor and former best friend, Cass Quinn, is now married and a potato farmer, and she has been trying unsuccessfully to conceive. Amidst the awkward family reunion, the Seeds of Resistance, a group of environmental activists protesting genetic engineering in crops, show up. Trust me, it’s not as crazy as it sounds; Ozeki is always subtle, fair, gentle, believable. And she makes potatoes and the politics of genetic modification fascinating.

Despite their topics, neither novel is ever preachy or didactic. A large part of this, I think, comes from Ozeki’s sure touch with characters – everyone is as complex and as part-good/part-bad as real people are. Not that realism is a requisite for good writing, but Ozeki is just really good at capturing how well meaning yet messed up most of us are.

A Tale for the Time Being is more formally experimental than the previous two novels, but they also tie together characters from far corners and explore how our degradation of the environment also degrades us. It was previously reviewed by obongo on March 12, 2013.

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Asian American Literature Fans Megapost for May 31 2013

In this post, reviews of: Gish Jen’s Tiger Writing: Art, Culture, and The Interdependent Self (Harvard University Press, 2013); Yoon Sun Lee’s Modern Minority: Asian American Literature and Everyday Life (Oxford University Press, 2013); A Review of Rocío G. Davis’s Relative Histories: Mediating History in Asian American Family Memoirs (University of Hawaii Press, 2011); Tosca Lee’s Demon: A Memoir (B&H Books, 2010); Andrew Fukuda’s The Prey (St. Martin’s Press, 2013); Susan Kim and Laurence Klavan’s Wasteland (HarperTeen 2013); Eddie Huang’s Fresh off the Boat: A Memoir (Spiegel and Grau, 2013); Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s Oleander Girl (Simon & Schuster, 2013).

A Review of Gish Jen’s Tiger Writing: Art, Culture, and The Interdependent Self (Harvard University Press, 2013).

Gish Jen was selected to be guest lecturer of the distinguished Massey lectures in 2012; the product of this lectureship is Tiger Writing: Art, Culture, and The Interdependent Self. This lecture series once also invited Maxine Hong Kingston and her work, To be the Poet (2000), resulted from that period. It is always a treat to read about a writer’s level of thinking that goes into the creative process. Of course, Jen and her marketers wisely chose a controversial title, bringing to mind the already infamous book, The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, by Amy Chua. Frankly, Jen’s lectures have actually very little to do with Asian parenting per se, but more closely track a rough differentiation in Eastern and Western modes of thinking and of creative production. Jen distinguishes between an independent—more Western—thinking and an interdependent—more Eastern—thinking; I use the word “more” quite deliberately, as Jen herself acknowledges the murkiness and the essentialization she must engage in order to conceive of this general binary. The point of Jen’s lectures seems to be an articulation of a kind of hybridity that she herself explores in her cultural productions; certainly there is the importance of the figure, or the character, but equally so is the context or the great frame of social relations in which the character finds herself enmeshed and often entangled. Jen is not out to say one mode is better or more enlightened than the other, but this sort of meditation is also an opportunity to get a better sense of her own trajectory as a writer, how she relates to her parents, and how even her parents might relate to their ancestors. The first lecture spends a great deal of time exploring Jen’s father’s life and his way of speaking about himself, which is ultimately a way of speaking around himself. By the last of the three lectures, Jen firmly roots her exploration of independence and interdependence from interpretations of her own fiction. It is an absolute treat to see this kind of exploration here and it makes me crave more of these kinds of publications—where writers are given an opportunity to explain some of the intentionality in their work and to engage in cultural analysis.

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A Review of Yoon Sun Lee’s Modern Minority: Asian American Literature and Everyday Life (Oxford University Press, 2013); A Review of Rocío G. Davis’s Relative Histories: Mediating History in Asian American Family Memoirs (University of Hawaii Press, 2011)

There is certainly a risk in writing a book on the everyday, given its potential association with the banal, and yet Yoon Sun Lee’s Modern Minority focuses on that very subject in her enterprising study of Asian American literature in relation what we might call “all things quotidian.” For those engaged in Asian American cultural studies, Lee’s archive is certainly not new or novel. In this respect, we might even call her selections part of the “everyday” of Asian Americanist critique, with chapters focused on Carlos Bulosan and Younghill Kang (chapter 1), Mine Okubo and Hisaye Yamamoto (chapter 2), Jade Snow Wong and Maxine Hong Kingston (chapter 3), Joy Kogawa, Nora Okja Keller, Ha Jin, and Lan Samantha Chang (chapter 4), Chang-rae Lee (chapter 5), and Frank Chin and Lois-Ann Yamanaka (chapter 6). At the same time, Lee’s approach shows the dynamic nature of common practices, familial object and experiences, revealing how Asian Americans have a necessarily vexed relationship to the everyday, in part mediated by the complicated nature and contours of racial formation. In this way, Lee helps us to rethink these canonical works and provides innovative readings in the process. Readings of the everyday within Asian American literature consequently makes for a lush and transformative scholarly study. My personal favorite chapter is the second, which focuses on the “uncanny” nature of the Japanese American internment experience in relation to the ways that internees attempted to reconstruct familiar environments even within the confines of what was a form of a prison. Thus, the familiar becomes slightly off-kilter, out of focus, and finally uncanny, as it becomes increasingly evident that the everyday cannot seamlessly be replicated in such inhospitable environments as the ones depicted in the aforementioned Okubo and Yamamoto. If there is a limit to Lee’s work, it is one common to most monographs: there simply is not enough time or space to cover all the possible works one might or possibly could. Indeed, her very short reading of Lahiri’s fiction in the conclusion makes us thirst for more.

The “racial formalism” phase of Asian American cultural critique continues with Rocío G. Davis’s Relative Histories: Mediating History in Asian American Family Memoirs, which forms a sort of second volume and companion to her earlier book, Begin Here: Reading Asian North American Autobiographies of Childhood. The shift from autobiography to memoir is deliberate precisely because, as Davis reveals, the memoirs she reads employ a collective standpoint (rather than the autobiographical self) of the family to deploy the narrative involved in life-writing. Of course, as with so many texts rooted in Asian ethnic contexts, these family stories are consistently a way to convey a larger tapestry. Davis contends: “The relational model of auto/biographical identity, I argue, functions on two levels in family memoirs: first, within the tet itself, as the author draws upon the stories of family members to complete her own, and, second, because these texts very consciously interpellate an audience. Asian American family memoirs manifestly present the individual author’s self as discursively constituted, as issues of literary traditions, immigrant history, identity politics, and cultural contingencies participate in the construction of the text” (11). As with Begin Here and Davis’s other book on the short story cycle, her knowledge of a given subfield is far-reading and visionary. She is one of the literary critics I can always go to get recommendations on books I have not even heard of and to expand the archive known more broadly as Asian American literature and culture. Indeed, most of the works she explores have not been reviewed here on Asian American literature fans and further still, most have not received much critical or literary attention elsewhere; these primary texts include: Jael Silliman’s Jewish Portraits, Indian Frames, Bruce Edward Hall’s Tea that Burns, and Mira Kamdar’s Motiba’s Tattoos. As with many other books in cultural criticism, Davis’s monograph remains in the hardcover form, but that should not deter anyone from requesting the title be added to a local university library.

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A Review of Tosca Lee’s Demon: A Memoir (B&H Books, 2010).

I’ve been dealing with an apocalyptic respiratory illness for the last three days; my primary ailment is a brutal sore throat that is making it difficult to sleep at night. Nevertheless, the byproduct of staying in bed more often is that you get to read more books, as sickness-induced insomnia becomes your frequent bed partner. Tosca Lee’s Demon: A Memoir was a book that called out to me for the simple fact of its title. The story is a clever metafiction that seeks to explore the motivations behind why demons would want to torture humans so much. Our narrator is a man named Clay, who also happens to be an editor and who is still reeling from his divorce. One day he happens to bump into Lucian, a demon, who pushes him to tell Lucian’s tale about the Fall. Clay, at first completely horrified by his association with a demon, later comes to realize that this demonic story might actually serve to be a marketable narrative, one that could be consumed a reading public hungry for the spiritual and the supernatural. Lucian is drawn to be an obvious trickster figure; he assumes the guises of a number of different people and Clay is continually caught off guard when he appears. Once he does appear, Lucian provides Clay with another bit of the story of Lucifer’s fall from God’s grace and God’s shift in attention from these fallen angels to humans, who are continually referred to by Lucian as the “clay people.” As Lucian eventually details his story, readers also realize that Clay is revealing more and more about himself: the fallout from his divorce from Audrey, his connections to his coworkers, and his desire to find a sense of personal fulfillment. Tosca Lee provides some extra source material at the book’s conclusion which helps fill in some of the gaps left in by philosophically unclosed ending, but I tended to read this narrative far more metaphorically in relation to the process of writing itself and the demon being a kind of symbol of writing difficulties and blockages. Further still, there is an entire section devoted to Lee’s reconsideration of Biblical passages in her reconstruction of Lucian’s story. Certainly, Lee is able to effectively render the jealousy and the astonishment of the fallen angels over the many ways that the clay people are embraced and redeemed by God. At the same time, Lucian’s appearance as a kind of character who holds the reigns over Clay’s ability to write a manuscript seems to be more largely suggestive of that Higher Power, which plagues writers everywhere as they attempt to find a resolution to their stories and to their research projects.

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A Review of Andrew Fukuda’s The Prey (St. Martin’s Press, 2013).

So, this was the second book I finished during a stint while I was sick. This novel got me through a particularly bad part of my illness and part of it is simply attributable to the fact that Andrew Fukuda’s novel, The Prey, has such a smart concept built into it that even when the plotting might stall or our suspension of disbelief might waver, we still want to know how the various mysteries will be revealed. In Fukuda’s debut, The Hunt, he set up the basic guidelines to a world in which humans are called hepers and have been basically wiped out. The few that remain are in hiding, passing among the vampire-like beings who suspect that more hepers may indeed be out there. The second novel sees Fukuda opening up the story so that we get a better sense of the vampire-like beings and the possibility that more hepers have survived. With that in mind, I issue my “spoiler” warning here and continue.

In The Prey, Gene, along with the humans who had been housed in the dome from book 1 (Sissy, Epap, David, Jacob, and Ben), are still attempting to flee from the vampire-like beings, who are tracking them. Using a boat, they are able to escape by crossing over a waterfall; after some days traveling, they come upon a cabin and are soon spotted by a young girl, who happens to be human. This girl Claire asks them if they have the Origin; they are confused, but later Claire takes them to a small village community filled with humans—a place called the Mission—where they believe they might have been saved. Of course, we are not surprised when all is not as it seems. There is a strict division in gender roles and women are not often allowed to mingle with the men; the elders and Krugman—the so-called leaders—reek of conspiracy and it is not long before Sissy and Gene team up to find out about the secrets that are hidden in the Mission’s history. Fukuda uses this novel to link this fantastical narrative to a realist referents and there is some sense that Sissy and Gene have come to a place that is a post-apocalyptic version of our own world, now having been repopulated and having survived the accidental creation of the duskers, otherwise known as super soldiers and the term for our vampire-like beings. But, even as Sissy and Gene are set to move from the rural outpost to a place called Civilization, they realize that there are still unanswered questions and their pursuit of these questions allows Fukuda to stage a rather bloody ending in which some of our favorite human characters may not survive. As with many other supernatural trilogies being published, we come to discover that our seemingly normal protagonist, Gene, is more of a hero than we ever realized. Fukuda concludes with a cliffhanger ending that will make you immediately wish book 3 was already published. Fortunately, we won’t have to wait too long as it has a November 2013 listing.

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A Review of Susan Kim and Laurence Klavan’s Wasteland (HarperTeen 2013).

So, this book was the third one I read during what I am calling my 2013 plague period. Susan Kim and Laurence Klavan have already collaborated together on a set of graphic novels and this novel is their debut for the young adult paranormal urban fantasy romance fiction genre. Not surprisingly, Wasteland is planned as a trilogy. The novel is set in some postapocalyptic future in a landscape reminiscent of MadMax or Cherry2000. By this, I mean to say, water and food are scarce. The sun beats down mercilessly, and there are roving bands of baddies. People die by the time they are 19. Esther is 15. You do the math. If you thought it was rough being in the Logan’s Run world, well, Kim and Klavan have taken that up by 11 annual notches. Early on, our hero, Esther, is going about playing in the “wasteland” that is Prin, the town in which she and a few hardy others have decided to settled. She has a little friend named Skar, who is actually a creature called a Variant, beings who are born hermaphroditic, are roughly humanoid, and are generally hated and distrusted by humans. The feelings are mutual from the Variant side, so Esther and Skar’s friendship is already a kind of transgressive relationship. Because there are so few resources, townspeople are forced to work in groups to engage in various acts such as gleaning and harvesting. These acts are getting more difficult because the Variants, for whatever reason, have been staging more attacks against humans. Prin’s leader is a feckless man by the name of Rafe; he bows at the heels of another figure, Levi, who is the actual figurehead (and despot) of the entire region. Levi lives in a compound known as the Source, plays by his own rules, and apparently possesses a cache of goods that he exchanges with Prin’s townsfolk at exorbitant rates. Esther has one sister named Sarah, who reads and is generally a do-gooder. Finally, Esther has one friend in Joseph who lives in another remote part of town by himself with ten cats; he’s an eccentric, so his contact with anyone is pretty much limited to Esther. The novel starts moving toward its ending arc when Caleb comes into town, looking for vengeance. His wife was murdered and his child abducted by a group of variants; he believes that by tracking down the person who sold the variants a type of accelerant that he will be able to enact his own retribution. Of course, we soon discover that Levi is wrapped up in all of this chaos. He’s been pitting the Variants and the Humans against each other, to direct attention away from his true goal: finding a source of water beneath Prin. Kim and Klavan’s first book in the series is quite bleak, though they do manage to provide a conclusion that gives some of its major characters a reprieve. Yet, when Esther leaves readers with the sentiments that she is unsure how much longer anyone can stay in Prin, we realize that the sequel is already in the works.

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A Review of Eddie Huang’s Fresh off the Boat: A Memoir (Spiegel and Grau, 2013)

Eddie Huang’s Fresh off the Boat: A Memoir was the fourth book I read during what I am calling my 2013 plague period. I wasn’t entirely prepared for the “narrative” voice in this work, which is sort of a mix of slang and Huang’s comedic take at his own upbringing and his movement into the world of restaurant cuisine. He is the proprietor of a restaurant called Baohaus (a fun punning of those lovely Bao bun type dishes):

Take a gander at that menu and you can see that Huang streamlines in order to focus on the essentials. In any case, Fresh off the Boat: A Memoir does provide us with a unique comic narrative of acculturation. Eddie begins his tale with an obvious love of food and draws himself out to be a kind of anti-model minority figure, invested in African American popular culture and football. Eddie grows up primarily in a Southern state, Florida, where his father tries his luck at an American-type restaurant. He is raised alongside his two brothers, Emery and Evan, with the spirit of his mother’s desire for them to achieve economic stability. Indeed, it is his mother’s desire for financial success that is a looming presence in Eddie’s life. As the memoir continues, Eddie comes of age, which involves, among other things: taking English classes in college, selling weed, getting busted for selling weed, traveling to Taiwan on a language and culture program, attending school in Pittsburgh, getting a law degree, selling more weed for awhile, going on a reality television cooking competition, and then finally deciding to open up a restaurant. Though Huang’s memoir is humorous, the underlying impulse about what it means to be an ethnic minority in America is clear, especially as focused through his desire to find personal and professional fulfillment. This memoir is certainly one that could be paired well with a more traditional memoir, such as Jade Snow Wong’s Fifth Chinese Daughter. And I am certainly going to add this book to my teachable texts list.

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A Review of Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s Oleander Girl (Simon & Schuster, 2013).

Of the Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni works I’ve had the chance to read, Oleander Girl, her latest, is definitely my favorite. Divakaruni is the author of numerous publications, including but not limited to Arranged Marriage: Stories (1995); The Mistress of Spices (1997), Sister of my Heart (1999). For me, Oleander Girl rises to the top based upon the surprise reveal given about two thirds of the way through. But, I am getting ahead of myself. Oleander Girl is the story of Korobi Roy, who is raised by her grandparents, Sarojini and Bimal. She is engaged to be married to a young man of affluent background name Rajat Bose. Though Korobi is herself of a more modest, upper middle-class background, Rajat falls madly in love with her and makes it clear that Korobi is the woman for him. As the date for the wedding draws close, Korobi and her grandfather get in a verbal spat over what she is wearing. Before Korobi is able to reconcile with him, he dies from an acute heart attack. Grief stricken and wracked with guilt, Korobi finds herself completely unmoored and seeking direction. It is during this period that Korobi discovers the true story behind her parentage. Her mother Anu Roy traveled to the United States to attend college and had fallen in love with an American, someone out of caste and out of class. This marriage obviously was not supported by Anu’s parents (Korobi’s grandparents) and resulted in considerable strain among the family members at large. When Anu falls pregnant, a momentary rapprochement occurs and she is allowed to visit her parents; during that period, there is a tragic accident and Anu is killed. Because she was so late into the pregnancy, doctors are able to save Korobi. Bimal—who is a lawyer—is able to stage it to make it seem as if Korobi has died, thus effectively cutting of Korobi’s father from claiming her. After Korobi learns of the truth behind what happened to her mother and her father, she realizes she cannot yet marry Rajat and embarks on a hasty trip to America, with the goal of finding her biological father. Enlisting help from new found friends—Desai and Vic—Korobi is relentless in her quest, even as her relationship to Rajat suffers under the strain of their physical separation. Rajat begins to wonder whether or not he is truly in love with Korobi and begins to entertain and to welcome the attentions of an old flame named Sonia. Complicating matters is that the Rajat’s family is facing financial crises within their business dealings. Sarojini, too, must consider what to do with the family’s limited finances and whether or not she must sell the home. There are many plot strands to cover in this novel and Divakaruni is always game to engage them and to tidy them up in the end. The novel is told from alternating first (in Korobi’s perspective) and third person perspectives (following a number of different characters, including Rajat, Mrs. Bose, Sarojini, among others). There is a Victorian courtship impulse to this novel and it ends exactly as you might expect, but Divakuni’s late stage surprise is what raises this novel to another level. Oleander Girl is as much about race relations in America as it is about the modern Indian woman who is struggling to find her independence. A truly transnational fictional work.

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Asian American Literature Megapost for May 1 2013

In this MYSTERY THEMED post reviews of: Steph Cha’s Follow Her Home (Minotaur Books, 2013); Tess Gerritsen’s Last to Die (Ballantine Books, 2012); .S. Lee’s, The Agency 1: A Spy in the House (Candlewick Press, 2010); The Agency 2: The Body at the Tower (Candlewick Press, 2010); The Agency 3: The Traitor in the Tunnel (Candlewick Press, 2012).

A Review of Steph Cha’s Follow Her Home (Minotaur Books, 2013).

Steph Cha’s debut novel Follow Her Home reveals a writer keenly aware and inspired by the subgenre of American noir fiction. With repeated references to Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep, we know we are moving into a seedy underworld that is best set in a city like Los Angeles. Cha’s narrator is the indefatigable Juniper Song, a twenty-something who in her spare time can apparently moonlight as an unofficial investigator. A request from a close friend named Luke—who hails from a very upper crust background—requires Song to follow a young Korean American woman named Lori Lim, who may or may not be involved in an affair with Luke’s father, the business magnate known as William Cook. We are not surprised when we begin to discover that the mystery surrounding Lori is bigger and messier than Song could ever realize. Indeed, Song will soon be intimidated into keeping silent regarding everything she might have seen regarding Lori; a dead body found in the trunk of her car also alerts her to the fact that the shadowy figures involved in Lori’s life are not to be trifled with. Of course, Song is not about to back down; she enlists the friend of a former flame turned legal expert, Diego, and begins to find out what she can about Lori, in the hopes that she can protect herself and her family. Cha uses a very effective doubled narrative here that moves Song back into the past; we begin to see that Song’s interest in Lori is not merely related to this mystery. Indeed, Lori in some ways reminds Song of her connection to her younger sister, Iris. In that particular subplot, Song realizes that she does not know as much about her sister as she had thought and her efforts to find out more about Iris’s romantic history leads to a very climactic reveal late in the narrative that provides the main story arc more texture. As with any noir, motivations and first impressions are never directly transparent and many of the characters introduced know much more than they are willing at first to admit. As the body count begins to pile up, Song realizes that the stakes of this investigation have moved into a register where she knows she must see this mystery to its end, else she herself may be the next one to be found dead. Cha’s debut novel would fit very well into any American detective fiction course and would especially pair well with Walter Mosley, in her exploration of race, ethnicity, and the urban metropolis known as Los Angeles. The novel would also serve as a kind of effective contrast with another novel I love, Suk Kim’s Interpreter, in the exploration of the Korean American woman turned unofficial detective.

For another glowing review of this title please do see this link:,0,3256154.story

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A Review of Tess Gerritsen’s Last to Die (Ballantine Books, 2012).

I was saving this book to read for a point where I needed something a little bit more plot-driven to consume my time and on a trip to visit some family, it provided some much needed frivolity. Last to Die is the latest installment in Tess Gerritsen’s long running and very popular Rizzoli & Isles series, which has been adapted into a television serial. The premise is spooky enough. It seems as though there are children being targeted repeatedly, so much so that any family they are connected with—first biological, then later adoptive—are killed off. Thus, the three main children in this novel have all suffered family massacres not once, but twice. Gerritsen adds yet another interesting element into the equation by uniting these three characters at a special school, The Evensong Boarding School, for children who have been subjected to major traumas. The school, located in Maine, and away from the Boston locale that grounds the series itself, is the perfect venue for this mystery plot to begin taking on other interesting textures. For those who are knowledgeable about the series, the fact that the Evensong Boarding School is run by the Mephisto Society is already potential cause for concern. Further still, once the school psychologist is found dead, having jumped from a high building and under suspicious circumstances, it becomes clear that that all is not well at the school. Gerritsen also uses enigmatic intercuts that ramp up the tension in the plotting—a narrative device I recall from Silent Girl, the last novel in the series. Readers are pushed to make sense of that narrative against the main plotting and the connections don’t become clear until late into the mystery. Gerritsen also manages to balance the detective plot against the personal trials of its two female protagonists, who are struggling still to rebuild their friendship due to past events. Rizzoli’s parents in particular are the subject of considerable romantic complications, so that subplot gives readers much needed space to breathe, especially because the body count begins to pile up. Even animals are sacrificed in ritualistic killings. Fans of the series and of the mystery genre should be more than happy with this offering.

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A Review of Y.S. Lee’s, The Agency 1: A Spy in the House (Candlewick Press, 2010); The Agency 2: The Body at the Tower (Candlewick Press, 2010); The Agency 3: The Traitor in the Tunnel (Candlewick Press, 2012).

In Y.S. Lee’s deliciously fun The Agency series, our heroine is Mary Quinn, a young girl of a questionable background who is saved at the beginning of the novel by the mysterious Agency, who is sort of devoted to the recovery and reformulation of a women’s lives. The Agency is set in the Victorian era and the writer, Y.S. Lee, is no stranger to this period. As our faithful amazon webpage tells us: “Y. S. Lee has a PhD in Victorian literature and culture and says her research inspired her to write A SPY IN THE HOUSE, ‘a totally unrealistic, completely fictitious antidote to the fate that would otherwise swallow a girl like Mary Quinn.’ Y. S. Lee lives in Ontario, Canada.” In this respect, the “agency” enables girls like Mary Quinn a second chance because she lives on the margins of society as a petty thief. The Agency allows Mary to develop other skills, but there’s still limited options: should be become a wife, a governess, or servant; the other unsavory options being bandied about include becoming a prostitute or mistress. So, Lee creates an alternative job trajectory for Mary in this counterfactual, “totally unrealistic,” but nevertheless super fun speculative fiction wherein Mary can become a spy and report upon a particular household as a companion to the daughter of the prime suspect: a one Mr. Thorold, who may or may not be involved with the theft of priceless Indian subcontinent artifacts. At this point, it’s important to pause to say that one of the Lee’s great strengths in the strongly transnational and postcolonial tinge to her collection. Goods and services are being shipped all over the world in the novel, linking the Victorian era London to different nodal points for colonial capitalistic investments. Lee, of course, wants to make sure that even if there isn’t a tried and true marriage plot or courtship plot afloat, that there could be an alternative romance plot as Mary must deal with James Easton, a man who is researching the Thorold’s business dealings to find out whether or not they are as upstanding as they purport to be. James is a worthy counterpart to Mary insofar as he immediately notices how different she is. Her difference is, of course, another aspect that Lee plays with in one of the big surprises mid-way through the novel, which I will refuse to spoil for you. Suffice it to say that Lee’s first book in the Agency is that rare young adult work with a historical texture, a fantasy register, a detective fiction, and a courtship/romance all rolled into one.

In the second book in the series, we found our heroine Mary Quinn, going under very deep cover, but this time as a young boy (renamed as Mark Quinn), working at a building site. She’s been dispatched to discover more details concerning the suspicious circumstances of a worker who was found dead, having fallen from the titular tower. Though Mary is game for this job, her overseers at the Agency are wary that such a duty might have psychological ramifications. You see: before Mary was saved and reformed by the Agency, she lived on the streets as a petty thief and hoodlum; she was able to survive in part, often relying upon disguises and passing as a man. Her elders wonder if such a job might trigger unsavory past experiences that could compromise her surveillance activities. Despite this warning, Mary decides that she can do the job, even requesting that she take residence at a working class type facility wherein she would not have the comforts or even the advantages of decent food. Mary’s work is at first not too difficult; she is able to get a job through Harkness, the site engineer, and begins working for the various people below him, which include the imposing and rather spiteful, Keenan, as well as his colleague, Reid. Of course, this series would not be complete with its central romance and fortunately, Lee sees fit to have James Easton, from book 1, return from his travels in India. He’s hired by Harkness to begin an independent assessment of the building site that would be conducted in order to clear him or any of his employees from wrongdoing in the death of Wick. When Mary—as Mark—accidentally bumps into him, James is one of the few to see so easily through the disguise, but he chooses not to break her cover. Indeed, this sequel sees James Easton willing to engage yet another partnership with Mary, presumably of course because of his strong feelings for her. There are of course the occasional issues related to Mary’s complicated identity background, which adds yet another wrinkle to the many dilemmas that arise in the course of the plotting. Lee’s narrative here occasionally flags as it attempts to retain tension throughout, but overall, the book is a spirited, if counterfactual look at an undercover women’s agency during the Victorian era.

In the latest installment, The Traitor in the Tunnel, Mary Quinn is actually undercover in Buckingham Palace! She is dispatched by the Agency in order to find out about a thief that may be pilfering precious items from the royal household. Of course, Lee is never intent to keep the first mystery the only one and soon other issues arise. Most importantly, the Prince of Wales is caught up in a murder scandal in which a close friend might have been killed in an opium den. Interestingly enough, the accused murdered actually may have ties to Mary herself, which ends up complicating and stretching out Mary’s own investments in her sleuthing. I am deliberately being cagey about the potential connection between Mary and the murderer precisely because I’ve attempted to keep a major plot point unspoiled that is revealed from the first book. Finally, Mary’s romance-nemesis, James Easton, returns yet again, as he is contracted to help with the building of a sewer system below London. As Mary soon discovers, the sewer and its connection to Buckingham Palace is a matter of national security. Fans of mystery and of YA historical will again be delighted by this title. Lee clearly has fun with her characters in this spirited third in the series. Fortunately, there are apparently plans for a fourth to appear sometime soon!

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