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Asian American Literature Fans – Megareview for August 18, 2012

Asian American Literature Fans – Megareview for August 18, 2012

In this post, reviews for: Moni Mohsin’s Duty Free (Broadway Books, 2011); Mohammed Hanif’s Our Lady of Alice Bhatti (Knopf, 2012); Laura Joh Rowland’s The Fire Kimono (2008, Minotaur Books); Kavita Daswani’s Lovetorn (HarperTeen 2012); Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya’s The Watch (Hogarth, 2012); Ed Lin’s One Red Bastard (Minotaur Books, 2012); Anita Nair’s The Lilac House (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2012); Sanjay Gupta’s Monday Mornings (Grand Central Publishing, 2012); and Sheela Chari’s Vanished (Hyperion Children’s 2011).

A Review of Moni Mohsin’s Duty Free (Broadway Books, 2011)

One of the first things you notice about Duty Free is its cover, which immediately brings to mind the multitudes of chicklit books that appeared in the wake of the success of books such as The Devil Wears Prada, The Nanny Diaries, and the HBO series, Sex and the City. Though Duty Free appears to follow in this popular genre, what you actually have in this narrative is a satirical take on a modern upper crust Pakistani woman’s existence. As a result, some might actually be disappointed in the narrative that follows. It does include a number of chicklist genre elements: the focus on fashion, romance, and the possibilities of women’s independence in a modernizing society, but Mohsin is poking quite a lot of fun at our heroine and narrator. Perhaps, the most delightful aspect of this novel is that Mohsin revels in the narrator’s misuse of the English language, something we might call malaprops. In this sense, Mohsin has so much in common with someone like R. Zamora Linmark, and we see how the use of English and its reconfiguration in the postcolonial context is very much about how language itself is evolving and taking on new meaning, how communication is already so perilous and tenuous. Mohsin also happens to include the contemporary social contexts that make Pakistan such a powder keg for political instability: references to the Taliban, the rise of tropical diseases and their exportation to other parts of the globe, as well as the international tensions that have embroiled the South Asian peninsula. The concluding arc sees a rather abrupt shift in the narrator’s goal to get her cousin Jonkers married, something that seems a little bit artificial, but we’ll go with it because our narrator is so incredibly flawed that we’ll want her to have this one triumph over her incredible superficiality. Mohsin has a lot of high powered supporters for this work with book blurbs from Daniyal Mueenuddin (author of one of my favorite collections: In Other Rooms, Other Wonders), Tash Aw (author of Map of the Invisible World and mentioned in Mohsin’s acknowledgments that follows the novel), and Kamila Shamie (author of Burnt Shadows) and we’ll hope that some of her other publications arrive on these American shores. As of this point, Duty Free is her American debut, though she has already published two other books.

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A Review of Mohammed Hanif’s Our Lady of Alice Bhatti (Knopf, 2012)

Our Lady of Alice Bhatti is Mohammed Hanif’s second novel after A Case of Exploding Mangoes. Hanif’s first has always been on my to-read list, so I intend to eventually read it (I hope). In Our Lady of Alice Bhatti, Hanif revels in the creation of the social satire, where the storyline seems less about realistic depictions than they are a commentary about the state of class, caste, religion, and gender relations in contemporary Pakistan. The protagonist, the ostensible Alice Bhatti, is somewhat of an anomalous figure. Raised in The French Colony of Islamabad, Alice Bhatti is part of the Christian-religious minority. She comes from a family of healers, so it’s perhaps not entirely surprising that she decides to try to become a nurse, despite her rather humble class background. A mishap in the operation room leaves Alice the “fallguy” and she serves a prison sentence. Upon her release, she is still able to secure a job, eventually marries a man named Teddy Butt who works as a police informant, but Teddy Butt is not entirely a logical person and his passions take him toward a darker path that leads him to reconsider his love for Alice. The novel’s strength comes from Hanif’s idiosyncratic descriptions and willingness to explore all the nooks and crannies that come with Pakistan’s modernizing society. There is corruption everywhere, tacticians abound, and to survive, morality and ethics seems to be disposable qualities. There are points at which you begin to be thinking that the most upstanding citizens are the ones who are stuck in the sanitarium: the half-crazed might be the most logical. The conclusion is particularly tragic for the simple fact that Hanif seems to be suggesting that healers are in such short supply that when their lives are cut short, it leaves an entire community bereft. At times darkly comic, Our Lady is Alice Bhatti is at core a sobering tragedy.

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A Review of Laura Joh Rowland’s The Fire Kimono (2008, Minotaur Books).

I resisted the urge for quite a long time to read Laura Joh Rowland’s Sano Ichiro mystery series, but at some point, I realized that I will pretty much read any genre as a way to get at this unwieldy category of Asian American literature. I will admit that the covers of the first books in the series made me wonder whether or not these narratives would primarily be “oriented” toward those who might superficially fetishize the East, but the covers have moved away from the ukiyo-e type block prints that were used in the first hardcovers, so there has been some shift in the marketing and I’m not quite sure at what point this decision was made. In any case, The Fire Kimono is a late addition in the Sano Ichiro series all set during the late 17th century; at this point, there is yet another about to be published in September 2012, but the full listing of books (in reverse order) swiped from another site is here:

The Rōnin's Mistress
The Cloud Pavilion
The Fire Kimono
The Snow Empress
Red Chrysanthemum
The Assassin's Touch
The Perfumed Sleeve
The Dragon King's Palace
The Pillowbook of Lady Wisteria
Black Lotus
The Samurai's Wife
The Concubine's Tatoo
The Way of the Traitor

From here on out, suffice it to say that there will be some spoilers!

In The Fire Kimono, Sano Ichiro is under a considerable amount of stress due to the fact that assassins almost kill his wife at the opening of the novel. Apparently, they were dispatched by Lord Matsudaira; when Sano confronts him, he discovers that the Lord believes that he had been attacked by Sano instead. Sano believes that Matsudaira is lying and that there is a clear “game of thrones” scenario going on, as it seems that Matsudaira has eyes on the Shogun’s position. Problems get worse for Sano when a body is discovered in a tree; the remains are identified as a 14 year old boy named Tadatoshi who was thought to have died during a catastrophic fire that occurred 40 years prior. Unfortunately, the main suspect seems to be Sano Ichiro’s mother, Etsuko, who apparently has many secrets from her past. As Lord Matsudaira continually pressures the Shogun, Etsuko is imprisoned to be executed; Sano has three days to find the “real” killer of Tadatoshi and to prevent his mother’s execution. If he is unable to do so, it is very possible that Sano himself will be executed for having any connection to the murder itself. Of course, Lord Matsudaira seems to be doing whatever he can to point fingers at either Etsuko and Sano. Witnesses are pressured or persuaded into a particular account of the events during the Great Fire that occurred in the past and actors are even hired to play particular roles to hoodwink others. When one of the eyewitnesses, Egen, turns out to be a performer, and Sano finds his dead body, it becomes clear that there is far more to the story than Matsudaira’s involvement. As the novel moves forward, Rowland relishes in the palace intrigue and the political maneuvering that is going on. The plot does get quite complicated and it is very useful to have a basic understanding of the political and bureaucratic structure in order to see how characters must negotiate their own positions within a complex web of power relations that is the late 17th century Japan. The shogun in particular seems to have a slightly comedic representation in this text, which I definitely enjoyed. I’d recommend this book to any fan of the detective genre obviously and perhaps what’s best about this book is that it’s one of a long series so those most invested in the genre always have the next installment to look forward to.

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A Review of Kavita Daswani’s Lovetorn (HarperTeen 2012)

Pylduck earlier review Kavita Daswani’s Salaam, Paris here on Asian American literature fans:

In Lovetorn, Daswani focuses on the life of an immigrant teen, Shalini, of South Asian ancestry who moves to Los Angeles with her family. Her father has a promising job, but the move is especially traumatic for Shalini, who has strong ties to India. Indeed, her marriage has already been arranged to a young man named Vikram, a marriage that had been in place since she was three years old. Shalini’s mother takes the move even worse and suffers an extreme form of depression. Of the four family members, it is Shalini’s younger sister who seems to acclimate to the move the most easily and makes quick friends with others at her school. The title, “lovetorn” refers to the love triangle that develops when Shalini begins to develop serious feelings for a classmate named Toby, a talented flutist. Thus, Daswani explores the complicated nature of romance in a transnational immigrant context. Will Shalini adhere to a marriage that had been arranged for her since she was only three years old and marry the man that she had always thought she would or will Shalini engage a different path? Daswani is certainly a capable novelist and writer; the plot moves along swiftly and she possesses a clear mastery of her characters in relation to their motivations, but the narrative itself might seem derivative for some. Perhaps the most weighty aspect of Daswani’s novel is the representation of immigrant mental health. As Shalini’s father tries a number of different avenues to help address her mother’s depressed state, it becomes abundantly clear that there will be no quick fix. Her descent into social isolation clearly details the incredible mental strain upon those who must confront assimilation into a new nation, culture, and lifestyle.

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A Review of Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya’s The Watch (Hogarth, 2012).

Ah, you know you can expect some narrational inventiveness from Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya whose third novel (after The Gabriel Club and The Storyteller of Marrakesh) continually pushes us around one central event: a Pashtun woman who seeks to claim the body of her brother who was killed by American coalition forces in Kandahar province in Afghanistan. She wants to complete proper funeral rites for him. If this basic plotline and opening sounds familiar to you, it’s probably because you’re a big fan of theater and are thinking of Antigone (which is a direct intertext continually referenced throughout the novel). As an aside, I still have to read The Gabriel Club, but it’s also still not readily available in the United States (boo!). In The Storyteller of Marrakesh, Roy-Bhattacharya reveled in the postmodern aspects of storytelling by shifting perspective among a large number of characters concerning a central mystery about a traveling couple. The truth is more than difficult to pin down. There is a kind of mystery at the center of The Watch, which also features shifting storytellers, but it’s of a different kind and the “truth” is of a different nature. The woman who opens the story, Niraz, is an amputee; her family has been killed, collateral damage in the long-standing war against terror. As the novel moves on and the narrative moves into the minds of various American soldiers, it is clear that Niraz’s identity is far more murkier for the coalition forces: is she a suicide bomber? What is her intent? Is she even a man? The hysteria over her identity gives us a glimpse into the incredibly addled psychic lives of veterans who are fighting to contain their combat traumas in the face of guerrilla warfare. Roy-Bhattacharya really revels in the texture of these American military forces, so much so that I think he sometimes gets carried away with pulling off the dialogue. There were points where I simply thought: am I reading a drama (because of the constant barrage of dialogue) or a novel? I suppose the murkiness is apropos considering his riffing off Antigone, but I digress somewhat. I often cite the work of Viet Thanh Nguyen and Katherine Kinney when I am reading a work about war and conflict. So often the perspectives lead us to identify with and even to sympthathize with veterans. Bhattarcharya’s novel clearly accomplishes this task, even despite some of the more unsavory aspects of American militarism. At the same time, the clear emotional center appears in the opening sequence with Nazim, so much so that her viewpoint, her character stays with you even as we never receive her direct narrational perspective again. The tragedy of the novel appears not only in Nazim’s story, but also in the narrative inequality which continually comes back to us as readers, plagues as critics of social injustice: how does one render what seems to be ultimately unrepresentable? This novel will admittedly leave you in a million depressions, but the naturalistic conclusion is simply inevitable.

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A Review of Ed Lin’s One Red Bastard (Minotaur Books, 2012)

Genre fiction is the ultimate guilty pleasure is it not? Here, we have another slapstick-y, wisecracking installment of Lin’s Robert Chow detective series entitled One Red Bastard (after Snakes Can’t Run and This is a Bust). Robert Chow is moving on up in the world, keeping old friends (like Vandyne and the politically incorrect midget-toy store owner), and generally patrolling the streets of Chinatown. Far more than a poster boy for the post-Asian American Studies period, Chow knows he has a job to do and won’t take no for an answer. In this novel, when an important Chinatown figure, Mr. Chen, is killed amongst the growing tensions between KMT-led Taiwan and Communist China, Chow’s girlfriend Lonnie is placed squarely in the midst of the investigation. You see, Lonnie was the last person to see Mr. Chen alive, so she is being tailed by some investigators. Lonnie, for her part, was interviewing Mr. Chen for a big story concerning the political tensions that have embroiled both local and transnational sectors. So, Chow has got his hands full trying to find out who might have perpetrated Mr. Chen’s murder. Indeed, could it be a KMT-backed organization seeking to place the blame on communist-led China by offing a known exile like Mr. Chen or had a communist-linked organization taken out Mr. Chen for his supposed betrayal to the true homeland? Along with this central mystery, Chow is out trying to keep Chinatown safe with respect to the smuggling of guns in the local area. He also keeps an eye out for Lonnie’s younger brother, Paul, who seems to be the hope for upward mobility, as he has just gotten a job working at Columbia University. As with Lin’s previous entries in the Chow detective series, the dialogue is always crackling and Chow’s narration has that comedic edge that keeps the plot continually moving forward even in those moments that turn out be red herrings. The impressiveness of this mystery is of course also in its historical texture; Lin must be able to consider the milieu of the period in which these detective fictions are set in order to successfully bring this story alive.

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A Review of Anita Nair’s The Lilac House (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2012)

Anita Nair’s The Lilac House is really a novel about second chances. Nair is also the author of a number of other novels that I haven’t yet had a chance to read (The Better Man, Ladies Coupe, etc). The two characters at its center: Meera, a recent divorcee and mother of two and Jak, also recently divorced and a professor who studies the weather, are looking to jumpstart new chapters in their lives. The beginning of the novel sets up how their respective marriages fall apart; the majority of the novel is set in contemporary India. Meera’s husband Giri does not want to stay in the titular lilac house and wants to sell it, but Meera never told him that her family does not actually own the home they are residing. For his part, Giri seems stifled by the fact that Meera still lives with her mother Saro and grandmother Lily. The other plotline involves Jak’s move to India following a tragic accident involving his daughter Srmiti; she was severely injured and appears close to a vegetative state. Srmiti’s accident is the wedge that drives Jak and his wife apart. Jak and Meera are eventually thrown together because Meera needs a job to help pay the bills and Jak needs a research assistant. Meera’s background as a writer of a popular book (on the topic of being a corporate wife) gives Jak enough reason to hire her. Eventually, they come to increasingly rely upon each other and Meera helps Jak out when he seeks to find out in the hours just before Srmiti’s accident. The conclusion is particularly devastating and reveals the strong political impulse at the heart of this novel, concerning the state of women in India as the country continues to modernize. Meera’s blooming friendship with a woman named Vinnie is also exemplary of the fact that Nair is keenly interested in this topic and brings to mind the work of many other contemporary South Asian Anglophone and South Asian American writers such as Bharati Mukheree, Meera Syal, Mitali Perkins, among many others who explore this issue in their fictions. What further elevates this novel above a romance plot appears in the guise of Nair’s interesting use of narration, which often shifts between first, second, and third person perspectives. This approach gives the novel a quality most likened to stream-of-consciousness and reminded me a little bit of Virginia Woolf’s fiction stylistically. There is a full tapestry of minor characters who I cannot expound upon in this review, but Nair’s novel is a rich microcosm of individuals, many of whom seem to be grappling with lives that are not quite what they imagined and only some that have the courage to go after what it is that they most want.

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A Review of Sanjay Gupta’s Monday Mornings (Grand Central Publishing, 2012).

Many of you are already familiar with Sanjay Gupta’s name for the simple fact that he’s a well-known medical professional affiliated with CNN. He has written a couple of nonfictional titles, but Monday Mornings is I believe his first foray into fiction. Gupta uses his medical knowledge to his advantage to create the realistic background to the drama that surrounds a bevy of surgeons who populate Chelsea General. There is George Villanueva, the former football player and larger than life doctor; Ty Wilson, the talented up-and-coming surgeon who finds himself unmoored after accidentally killing a young boy on the operation table; Park, the Korean immigrant doctor who seeks to advance up the hospital hierarchy until a brain tumor changes his perspective on life; Sydney Saxena, the no-nonsense doctor who wants to move past the gender dynamics that restricts the respect she receives from her colleagues; and Tina Ridgeway, a doctor who works at a free clinic in her spare time and who is floundering in a loveless marriage. Gupta clearly is a fan of the medical drama, as his narrative seems inspired by the form that gave birth to such televisions shows as St. Elsewhere, ER, Chicago Hope, Grey’s Anatomy, House, among numerous others. Not surprisingly, there is word that Gupta’s novel is the basis of a new medical drama that will be premiering in the 2012 season. There is something deliberate in Gupta’s writing style that leaves the individual character narratives somewhat unsurprising or unbelievable, yet the novel does occasionally find bright spots especially in Gupta’s ability to bring his professional expertise into the texturization of the novel’s linguistic terrain, one that revels in the perhaps unfortunate and myriad ways that the human body can fail us.

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A Review of Sheela Chari’s Vanished (Hyperion Children’s 2011).

(see the Veena case, but is it a guru original?

In this spirited debut, targeted at young readers but certainly of interest to audiences of all ages, Sheela Chari’s Vanished explores the adventures of a South Asian American young girl named Neela as she attempts to find out what happened to her musical instrument, one called the veena. If anything, the novel does provide a useful introduction to this stringed instrument and also engages an interesting mystery plot. There are a number of possible suspects that Neela engages along the search to recovery her veena. The primary suspect is a strange man named Hal that she meets while traveling home in a rainstorm. He provides her shelter in a local church but he soon disappears around the same time she discovers that her musical instrument is gone. There is also her classmate Lynne who seems to have too much interest in her veena. But Neela also has her supporters: her classmate Mike seems to be her partner in crime and the novel begins to delve into the complicated history of this particular object. Specifically, there is a curse attached to the veena in that it will always vanish from its temporary owner. Then there is the question of the veena’s value. It is possible that it is an original edition created by a famous veena-maker known as Guru. Finally still, there is the question of the veena’s connection to a musician known as Veronica Wyvern, who apparently died in a train accident while researching the veena’s history during her travels in India. Given force of the accident, it is already suspicious that the veena had survived that devastating event. Chari’s a patient author and all plot strands are tidied up by the conclusion. She also manages to narrate a child’s growing interest in her ethnic background, while entertaining readers at the same time.

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