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Asian American Literature Fans – Megareview for December 8, 2013.

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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