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Asian American Literature Fans – Megareview for February 15 2013

In this post, reviews of Kevin Chong’s My Year of the Racehorse: Falling in Love with the Sport of Kings (Greystone Books, 2012); Aamer Hussein’s Insomnia (Telegram Books, 2007); Nury Vittachi’s The Shanghai Union of Industrial Mystics: Feng Shui Detective #3 (Felony & Mayhem, 2012); E.C. Myers’s Quantum Coin (Pyr, 2012); Darien Gee’s The Avalon Ladies Scrapbooking Society (Ballantine Books, 2013); Irfan Master’s A Beautiful Lie (Albert Whitman, 2012); Kendare Blake’s Sleepwalk Society (2010, PRA Publishing); Manil Suri’s City of Devi (W.W. Norton, 2012)

A Review of Kevin Chong’s My Year of the Racehorse: Falling in Love with the Sport of Kings (Greystone Books, 2012)

Kevin Chong has already gotten some reviewing attention on this blog; please see, for instance, pylduck’s review this-a-way for Beauty Plus Pity:

Chong tackles the memoir form with the very idiosyncratic My Year of the Racehorse, which follows the author’s misadventures as he takes up the mantle of being part-owner of a potentially prize-winning racehorse known as Blackie. It might be important to mention that at the conclusion of the memoir, there is a sort of disclaimer concerning the part-fictive nature of the narrative, that certain events and characters have been altered to protect their identities and in some cases to streamline the “plot.” These moments always break me out of the memoir as a kind of nonfictional form, reminding me that we must approach such works with a keen eye for a sense of construct and for artifice. If anything, Chong leans on a laidback humor that was evident already in a novel like Beauty Like Pity; it tracks throughout My Year of the Racehorse to give the memoir an emotionally resonant, but comic scaffolding. His characterizations of figures like the horse-trainer, Randi, and later an animal psychic are alternately poignant and offbeat. For me, the aspect that was perhaps the most illuminating was the semi-ethnographic sections that gives readers a perspective into racehorses and their history, the whole vocabulary behind the track culture, and the high stakes that can be involved in the process. Early on, too, Chong is entirely willing to admit to the readers that his adventures into the land of racehorses was, in part, motivated by the desire to write another book and to push him creatively. To be sure, it is this gamble that pays off the most, as readers are treated to an original and winning literary formula. We’ll bet on Chong to be back and to be bringing us another memoir on a topic we will not be able to predict: perhaps his adventures to be the first Canadian to land on Mars? wink

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A Review of Aamer Hussein’s Insomnia (Telegram Books, 2007).

Aamer Hussein’s Insomnia (Telegram Books, 2007) is a short story collection that explores the complications of transnational identifications, romance, and the connection between politics and aesthetics. There is a palimpsestic quality in this collection, precisely because it is filled with artists, writers, poets, students, lovers, political dissidents, and activists, who together combine to form a potent alchemy from which Hussein can explore a number of repeating themes and plotlines. The short story form is a particularly useful one for Hussein insofar as it showcases the tremendous lyricism of his writing. The stories are often broken up into smaller chapters that take on a kind of density that is more evocative of poetry or poetic prose. The standouts are the ones that still manage to achieve more narrative coherence. For instance, “The Crane Girl” follows a kind of love triangle that emerges among Murad, a Pakistani living in London and two Japanese transnationals: Tsuru, of the title, and then Shigeo. Though Murad is not aware at first, his friendship with Shigeo is in part brokered over their shared attraction to Tsuru and Hussein’s story reveals the multificated terrain of heartbreak and friendship that can find footing in the shadow of a triangle. “Hibiscus Days: A Story Found in a Drawer” was probably my favorite as it follows four characters, as they eventually grow apart from each other. Hussein employs this story as a way to explore how upper-middle class youth negotiate the perils and pitfalls of revolutionary sentiments and their own class privilege. The other major theme is of course Hussein’s orbiting around the experience of the immigrant and the sojourner of Pakistani descent living in London.

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A Review of Nury Vittachi’s The Shanghai Union of Industrial Mystics: Feng Shui Detective #3 (Felony & Mayhem, 2012).

What would our lives be without Mr. CF Wong, our enterprising feng shui expert and detective? Fortunately, we don’t have to ponder the question too long this year because Felony & Mayhem offers U.S. distribution to the third title in the series, otherwise known by its felicitous title: The Shanghai Union of Industrial Mystics (I believe it was originally published by Allen & Unwin in 2006). As earlier installments have revealed, Mr. CF Wong as the feng shui expert, is one of a larger cadre of professionals in the mystical arts; you have diviners and psychics, witch doctors and herbalists, all comprising a very motley and supernatural crew. Fortunately, along with Mr. CF Wong, his hilariously enterprising assistant, Joyce McQuinnie, is again along for the investigatory ride. In this novel, there are a couple of strange occurrences that immediately ramp up the plotting. First, a veterinary doctor (Lu Linyao) discovers that her daughter has been kidnapped, which immediately brings in Wong and McQuinnie into the equation to help out. As Wong and McQuinnie delve further into the motivations behind the kidnapping, they become enmeshed in a larger plot involving vegan terrorists. That’s right folks: vegan terrorists. It’s here that Vittachi has a great deal of comic fun at the expense of the politically leftist, but as the novel moves inexorably toward unmasking the true villains, we begin to see that there is a much more complicated ethnic issue at hand. Indeed, one of the vegan terrorists (spoilers forthcoming) is from the Uyghur ethnic minority and is operating to engage in subversive activities. At one point, there is a bomb that is implanted inside the body of an elephant. Vittachi drags out this plot development a little bit too long, but does wring a lot of laughs from various minor characters wondering if they have heard the phrase correctly: “there is a bomb in an elephant.” As with the previous two installments, you can tell Vittachi can juggle the complicated terrain of the political, the humorous, and the detective plot all at the same time. In this fantastic alchemy, this third installment is another must read in the Feng Shui detective series.

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A Review of E.C. Myers’s Quantum Coin (Pyr, 2012)

Fortunately fans of the Coin series didn’t have to wait very long for the sequel to Fair Coin, which was later published in the same year. More fortunately still, E.C. Myers captures the synergy he found between a dynamic plot and unique characters in his sequel, Quantum Coin, which sees our spunky hero, Ephraim Scott, return to battle a particularly catastrophic issue: the merging of the multiverse. Yes, readers, Ephraim’s own reality is merging with the many others that exist and he, alongside his girlfriend, Jena Kim, and his girlfriend’s analog, Zoe Kim, must work together with yet more analogs in yet another version of the multiverse (Nathan and Dr. Kim) to help stop this destructive process (by analog, I mean an individual’s “double” in another reality and if this description is confusing, it’s certainly meant to encourage you to go to read the first installment). For those that are uninitiated, the coin of the title speaks to the power that Ephraim has over a particular circular metallic item that can allow him to switch places in the multiverse with another version of himself. The first book explored what happened as Ephraim engaged in this process and had to fight an evil version of his friend in order for general order to be restored. The operation of the titular coin also involves other gadgets such as a controller, making the movement between one reality and another a more complicated, if not, potentially perilous process. Dr. Kim encourages them to use the coin and the controller to move back into the past of another reality in order to find Hugh Everett, a man of incredible genius and a world-renowned quantum physicist, who might have the intellectual capacity to come up with a plan to help stop the merging process. Members of this community will appreciate Myers’s intertwinement of the science fiction genre with racial formation. When Ephraim and Jena must travel to a version of 1950s America, Jena’s appearance provokes concern and racial epithets. Further still, when Ephraim encounters Jena’s grandfather, Grumps, during this period, Myers ingeniously inserts some McCarthy-ish moments that give this historical period some extra texture. Myers’s second installment is also more complicated because he explores the romantic instabilities that might arise as one character must tangle with love interests not only in one reality, but in many others as well. That’s right: what is Ephraim to do with the fact that his relationship with Jena Kim seems to be wobbling in the face of his suppressed emotions for Zoe? And what of Jena’s own flirtatious dalliance with one of the Hugh Everett analogs? With romance blooming amid the virtual destruction of all possible realities, you don’t need to flip a coin to wager whether or not you should read this book.

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A Review of Darien Gee’s The Avalon Ladies Scrapbooking Society (Ballantine Books, 2013).

In The Avalon Ladies Scrapbooking Society, Darien Gee’s follow-up to Friendship Bread, the self-explanatory title refers to the community building that occurs amongst a group of women all invested in this DIY hobby. I completed this novel during a rather long stay at an airport and then on the ensuing flight down to southern California. I picked it because I knew that it would not necessarily be the kind of plot that would generate much anxiety or horror in me and fortunately, it did not disappoint. Some figures that appeared in the core cast of characters from the first book return in different capacities and energize Gee’s idyllic representation of what seems to be a semi-suburban community. This novel more specifically hones in on: Yvonne, a beautiful young woman who also happens to be trying to make a living as a plumber; Frances, a married woman who along with her husband Reed, are deciding upon whether to adopt a special needs child from China (named Mei Ling); Bettie, the aged but spirited president of the titular scrapbooking society; Connie, a just-out-of-the foster system figure, who comes upon a lost goat and develops a touching bond with her furry four-legged friend; Ava, a young single mother who is looking to support her son; and Isabel, who is selling her home in the aftermath of her husband’s infidelity and then his tragic death he had been having an affair with Ava). As with Gee’s previous effort, each character is involved their own conflict, but are united together in their scrapbooking interests. The plot thread that weights most heavily for the novel occurs when Bettie, the scrapbooking president, is discovered to be suffering from vascular dementia. In this respect, the novel does present us with the quietly devastating effects of a medical condition that is often overlooked, as Bettie needs more care and attention and fails to remember even those closest to her. The kaleidoscopic approach to the construction of this Avalon community does have its risks: Gee must take her time to draw out each character and to round them in their intricacies; the plotting takes awhile to generate steam. As with Friendship Bread, Gee’s work is not about postapocalyptic landscapes filled with zombies or cannibals, nuclear fallout or disease-infested corpses; instead, she focuses on the subtle tensions that undergird one local community. The novel’s general topic matter—that of scrapbooking—should appeal to one of the target reading bases and the hardcover print edition does include some interesting recipes and scrapbooking tips in its conclusion. This novel is undoubtedly to be embraced by book clubs and DIY groups at large.

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A Review of Irfan Master’s A Beautiful Lie (Albert Whitman, 2012).

A Beautiful Lie is a middle-school directed fiction concerning the Indian Partition of 1947. Irfan Master’s debut novel takes on a very difficult historical context, one that I could imagine would be its own challenge to move into a representational terrain directed at younger audiences. The protagonist and first person narrator of the novel is Bilal and the “beautiful lie” of the title comes from his decision to keep his father in the dark concerning the political and religious turmoil surrounding them. You see, Bilal’s father is already dying, and Bilal’s deception is motivated from his desire to protect his father in his compromised physical state. Given the historical restrictions within which Master must work, we all ultimately know where the narrative will lead and the events prior to the Partition sequence are of course filled with the growing factionalism appearing between Muslims and Hindus. At one point, Bilal travels with his mentor Doctorji to help a remote village with healthcare when they are detained for potentially being spies. Bilal’s background as a Muslim puts him at odds with a number of Hindu communities in the lead-up to the country’s violent schism and even the most basic of pastimes, such as cricket, become the terrain upon which religious differences are posed. Master’s fictional project is a delicate one, insofar as he must work to render the experience authentically through the eyes of a boy. The author’s note accompanying the text, while delving into some of the circumstances surrounding the Partition is useful, perhaps would be aided by an instructional component Indeed, many of these historically grounded youth-oriented fictions seem best engaged with in a classroom setting where they can be contextualized in depth.

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A Review of Kendare Blake’s Sleepwalk Society (2010, PRA Publishing)

Kendare Blake’s debut novel Sleepwalk Society is billed as a young adult novel written in the post-9/11 context. It is, to a certain extent, reminiscent of the haze filled, postmodern ennui that characterized Pamela Lu’s debut novel, Pamela. Whereas Lu revels in the empty center at the core of that meandering narrative, Blake’s central characters still seek to hold on to something real—however that might be defined—in a moment of transition. That is, the three main characters, Violet, Terran, and Joey are all in their beginning stages of college and trying to figure out what it is they want to do with their lives. They live upper middle class existences with all the trappings of privilege that ultimately make such life choices seem on some level filled with false uncertainty. Blake’s poetic writing style lifts this narrative above something maudlin and Violet is fortunately quite a perceptive and lyrical focalizer. There will be moments in the reading where something will lift off the page and ring out in its clarity. The scenes with Violet and her father are often the best and most brutal in the novel. At the same time, Sleepwalk Society can suffer from a kind of listlessness that perhaps is evoked in the title itself. The main characters sometimes come off as bored of their own lives. In this state, the plotting will not always get off the ground and Blake must work diligently to continue the narrative moving forward around college parties and the perils of the hook-up culture. I was quite surprised at the novel’s conclusion and will be interested to see what other readers might expect from Violet by the ending. Blake also happens to be the author of two novels that were recently published from Tor, which are part of the young adult urban romance fantasy fiction genre (Anna Dressed in Blood and Girl of Nightmares; she has a forthcoming novel called Antigoddess). As a quick note, I wanted to encourage you to browse the offerings at the PRA Publishing website to see what else they have brewing:

It’s always a treat to find out about new independent publishers =).

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A Review of Manil Suri’s City of Devi (W.W. Norton, 2012)

So, Manil Suri is another one of those writers whose novels I say I will eventually get to, but then somehow manage to squander away the hours, but no more: I have read his semi-post-apocalyptic speculative realist novel City of Devi (after Age of Shiva and The Death of Vishnu). The third novel was originally intended to refer to Brahma, but Suri shifted his focus to Devi and hence this third novel. Suri clearly takes the post-9/11 milieu as the inspiration for this work and the religious factionalism that continues to plague Indian-Pakistani politics; more specifically he gestures to the 2008 and 2011 Mumbai bombings. The titular city is that of Mumbai, which in the wake of the mega-blockbuster movie, Superdevi, has become full of religious fervor. When Mumbai becomes subject to a set of coordinated nuclear bombings, the novel imagines two main characters as they both attempt to navigate the ruins in order to find someone very dear to them. The first character is Sarita, an educated woman, who opens the novel looking to buy a pomegranate. The symbolic importance of this fruit is not revealed until later on, but her obsession with this fruit is involved with her search for her husband, a man by the name of Karun, a talented mathematician. Karun disappeared just prior to the attacks, so Sarita’s quest to be reunited with her husband is one already filled with mystery and uncertainty. The second character is Jaz, a queer man of Muslim background, who, as we come to discover, had been in a rather long-term relationship with Karun. When that relationship goes south in the midst of Jaz’s infidelity, Karun ends up marrying Sarita. In the period following the attacks, disguised as a man of Hindu background, Jaz joins forces with Sarita in order to find Karun. Of course, Sarita has little idea of Jaz’s true intentions, though she is suspicious, and as the novel moves forward, both characters must constantly perform different identities in order to survive and to bring less attention to their specific religious backgrounds. The larger question that Suri seems to be pushing at us is how to reconcile the triangulated love story amid the larger post-apocalyptic storyline. Fredric Jameson might, of course, suggest we read that relationship allegorically, but what is to be made of these two characters, searching so fervently for a man they each love in their own ways? To answer this question, you’ll of course have to read the book. Suri’s narrative is tremendously engaging. The one issue that does arise is that the swapping of first person narrators inevitably places one storytelling voice in comparison to the other and in many ways, Jaz is the far more dynamic and mischievous character, leading us sometimes to wish for more of his perspective. On the social context level, Suri provides us with a brilliant depiction of a contemporary city brimming with religious convictions that ultimately possess far more shaky foundations. What does faith offer in the midst of violence and global conflict, the novel finally poses, especially with such catastrophic manifestations.

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