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04 November 2013 @ 09:34 am
Asian American Literature Fans – Megareview for November 4, 2013  
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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shadowy duck: pic#118449936pylduck on November 4th, 2013 05:57 pm (UTC)
So many new novels! Can't wait to read the new Yoon.
stephenhongsohn on November 4th, 2013 07:21 pm (UTC)
sadly, i am still behind on things i want to review; too much stuff is out

need to update review copies list