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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