Asian American Literature Fans – Megareview for May 10 2014

Asian American Literature Fans – Megareview for May 10 2014

In this post, reviews of Kathryn Ma’s The Year She Left Us (Harper, 2014); Wang Ping’s Ten Thousand Waves (WingsPress, 2014); Soman Chainani’s The School of Good and Evil: A World Without Princes (Harper Children’s Division, 2014); Gabrielle Zevin’s The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry (Algonquin Books, 2014); Tamai Kobayashi’s Prairie Ostrich (Goose Lane Editions, 2014).


As always, with apologies for factual inaccuracies, typographical errors, and grammar mistakes. If you should need to contact me, please send to: sohnlitcrit@gmail.com

A Review of Kathryn Ma’s The Year She Left Us (Harper, 2014).



I really enjoyed Kathryn Ma’s short story collection All that Work and Still No Boys, which I earlier reviewed here:

http://asianamlitfans.livejournal.com/70464.html

Naturally, I was stoked to find out Kathryn Ma was about to publish her first novel, which I am reviewing here. In The Year She Left Us, Ma employs three narrative perspectives (two first person and one third person) to construct a rather complicated and unsentimental intergenerational family saga. Our ostensible protagonist is Ari (Ariadne) Kong is adopted from a Chinese orphanage by Charlie (Charlotte) Kong, a social worker who hails from a Chinese American background. Charlie raises Ari as a single mother, but has support from her extended family, including her sister Les, and her mother, Gran. There is also a larger adoptee community that Charlie relies on in the Bay Area; Ari calls these adoptees the Whackadoodles. The novel starts off with Ari having been in China, a sort of trip that allows her to think more about her identity, but she supposedly severs a finger by accident and her mother comes visiting to make sure she is okay. This incident is just the beginning of a longer and difficult trajectory that the novel takes us on: Ari wants to stay in China, defer college, get a better sense of where she was born, what she might have been taken from. Charlie is anxious and perceives the growing distance between them, while Gran wants Ari to head off to Bryn Mawr. When Ari announces that she’s going back to China and deferring college, she realizes that she’s striking out on her own and must separate from her mother’s company. Ari attempts to save money for the plane flight while working for a store selling specialty pens and inks, but the novel stages a midway intervention when Ari tries to sell some trinkets she finds in her mother’s home (without her mother’s knowledge of course). While pilfering whatever she can, she manages to stumble upon a photo of a man who was holding her as a baby. She realizes that there may be more to her story on the American side than she realizes and she is determined to find out who his man is and what this man meant to her adoptive mother. This trail eventually leads her to Alaska; she ends up crashing with a good friend of the man (Aaron Streeter) who was in the photo. Aaron Streeter died in an accident while hiking in Alaska and Ari realizes that she can get to know more about him and his life by staying with Aaron’s friend Steve and his wife Peg. As Ari discovers, Aaron was also purportedly in a relationship with Charlie when the accident happened and was determined to help raise Ari when he was tragically killed. But, there are contradictions to the story, as it seems that Aaron might have wanted to get back with his wife and that his son Noah might have been a factor in that decision. Without giving the rest of the plot away, I will say that Ma’s novel does not operate with a deterministic trajectory. The narrative seems to create only more loose ends as the plot moves further and further into each character’s lives and backstories. Gran, for instance, harbors deep family secrets concerning a brother who seems to have been developmentally challenged. While this kind of unfurling might have completely unraveled the novel, Ma is able to construct a story that reads often much more like an unedited memoir, achieving a realism that is both poignant and impressive. The choice of narrative perspectives can sometimes be uneven. Gran, in particular, is such a strong personality that her first person viewpoints can often overpower the other perspectives. Ma also makes the interesting choice of narrating the sections related to Charlie in the third person; it would be interesting to hear why Ma chose this one character for that particular perspective over the first person, which is given to both Ari and Gran. Finally, this novel is one that could be taught alongside a number of other outstanding Asian American narratives/ memoirs concerning adoptees such as Jane Jeong Trenka’s Fugitive Visions and Monique Truong’s Bitter in the Mouth.


Buy the Book Here:

http://www.amazon.com/The-Year-She-Left-Us/dp/0062273345/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1399610751&sr=8-1&keywords=Kathryn+Ma

A Review of Wang Ping’s Ten Thousand Waves (WingsPress, 2014)




Wang Ping latest poetry collection, Ten Thousand Waves, explores many themes resonant across her growing body of work, including transnationalism, global capitalism, China’s modernization, political activism, art and cultural production, Tibetan independence, labor and sacrifice. “Dust Angels” provides a stanza that might be seen as a kind of overarching artistic impulse that unites these many poems:

they say we fake our sickness
have never worked in their factories
they hire lawyers to erase our names, ban our union
Marx and Mao are history, they claim
only freedom of market economy
the golden path toward democracy (7).

Ping’s lyrics are most effective in the evocation of the dramatic monologue, as Ping is able to inhabit a lyric speaker so seamlessly. In this case, the “we” refers to the ghostly factory workers and laborers that move throughout the collection, as the unseen army motivating global capitalism. The intriguing “found” poem “The Price of a Finger” brings together rules and guidelines (that would be on posters and signs) located in factories and businesses to generate a critique of working conditions and the lack of rights given to laborers. The party line is generated in the hopes that working conditions seem tolerable: “Kin Ki and other big producers/ have come under the greater pressure to adhere to global labor codes. They open their doors to foreign inspectors to assuage concerns that products used to entertain children in rich countries are not made under oppressive conditions in poor ones” (53). Of course, even with improvements in these facilities, the “price of the finger” still reminds us of the bodily dangers for these workers, who routinely sever appendages, so much so that Ping includes a diagram of one of the pictures she found on a factory wall in the notes that accompany the poems at the conclusion of the collection. The other quality of Ping’s work that is so effectively used is the panoramic descriptions that give sweep and scope to locations that are at once touristic centers and capitalist hubs: “Drunken tourists and their nightingales/ Money is the moon on Lhasa’s holy streets,” then “Wind, breath, naked riverbeds/ At dusk, a boy on motorcycle/ Comes home with his last herd/ Nomad daughter from the Sacred Lake” (20). We are always in the richly textured poetic hands of Ping, traveling across the vast expanses that link nomads to revelers and mystics. Many voices ring out in the collection clamor for recognition, “Who will know me but ghosts?” (90), a question that Ping can only answer with her ability to memorialize the lost and the downtrodden in the painful beauty of lyric poetry.
For more on the indie publisher WingsPress, see:

http://www.wingspress.com/wingspress.cfm


Buy the Book Here:

http://www.amazon.com/Ten-Thousand-Waves-Ping-Wang/dp/1609403509/ref=sr_1_7?ie=UTF8&qid=1396804428&sr=8-7&keywords=Wang+Ping

A Review of Soman Chainani’s The School of Good and Evil: A World Without Princes (Harper Children’s Division, 2014).



Agatha and Sophie are back at it again in Chainani’s sequel to The School of Good and Evil. Please see this link for the earlier review:

http://asianamlitfans.livejournal.com/160531.html

In The School of Good and Evil: A World Without Princes, Agatha and Sophie have returned to the “real” world and attempt to adjust to their so-called storybook ending. For those that don’t mind being spoiled, Agatha chooses Sophie over the romantic lead Tedros. Therein lies a kind of proto-feminist rhetoric coming out of the first novel where women must work together and avoid the “marriage” plot. When both Agatha and Sophie break a rule and wish for something impossible, both are set back into the fairy tale world. They soon discover that this world has entirely changed due to the ramifications of their earlier actions. Rather than schools for good and evil, now there are schools for boys and girls. Thus, the factions are based upon gender at this point with girls of both evil and good backgrounds mixing together. It becomes apparent that the friendship between Agatha and Sophie is showing signs of strain. On the one hand, Agatha seems to be having dreams of Tedros, the very man she spurned at the end of the first book. There seems to be some sort of latent desire that is driving her back to him. On the other, Sophie is trying to keep her friendship with Agatha solid and will do anything to keep her. Sophie realizes that Agatha is a pivotal reason why she has not succumbed to her evil tendencies. This particular installment is far darker than the previous one and the conclusion will leave some feeling especially bereft. At the same time, these kinds of cliffhangers are certain to push readers to go get the third book. It’s not clear whether or not the “School of Good and Evil” series is meant to be a trilogy, but this portion is full of action and the metafictional impulse that made the first so intriguing.

Buy the Book Here:

http://www.amazon.com/The-School-Good-Evil-without/dp/0062104926/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1396489358&sr=8-1&keywords=Soman+Chainani

A Review of Gabrielle Zevin’s The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry (Algonquin Books, 2014).



This book has probably been the most surprising read for me this year, especially in part because this author was entirely unknown to me, though she has already published a number of novels (including a YA trilogy called Birthright, which I am going to get started on as soon as I can carve out some time, two adult targeted novels, another YA fiction called Elsewhere and another called Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac). Gabrielle Zevin’s The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry (Algonquin Books, 2014) kept me up into the late hours of one night, as I looked for the right kind of book to transport me away to another place and time. The novel takes place on a fictional island called Alice in New England, somewhere off the shores of Rhode Island. The main character is A.J. Fikry, a recently widowed man of mixed-race background (he is part South Asian), who runs the Island bookstore. The opening of the novel sees a new sales representative from Knightley Books traveling to Alice island in order to showcase the upcoming publications. This meeting goes badly; Mr. Fikry is particularly cantankerous and the representative (named Amelia) leaves the island with a far from favorable impression of him. The third person narrative perspective then moves to Mr. Fikry, focusing on his life, which takes a drastic turn when a baby is left at the bookstore’s doorstep and Fikry decides to put in the paperwork to adopt this girl, a two-year-old named Maya. Maya quickly develops a love of literature, something that certainly warms the heart of Fikry. And Maya’s ability to thaw Fikry into a doting father has other effects as well: Fikry begins to see Amelia as a potential romantic partner. Thus, the novel shifts into the courtship phase between Fikry and Amelia; their love blossoms among their mutual love of books and comes to fruition at a special event: a reading held for an author that both adore. Though the reading goes far from perfectly, their relationship is well on its way to marriage. As the novel moves toward the conclusion, Zevin ingeniously intertwines narrative mysteries. For instance, the focus on the romance plot leaves us sometimes inattentive to the mystery behind Maya’s origins: who was her mother (Marian Wallace)? Why did she commit suicide? These aporias are somehow unfolding in the island community, one that extends to Fikry’s officer friend Chief Lambiase, Fikry’s sister-in-law Ismay (the sister of his deceased wife Nic), Ismay’s husband Daniel. Readers of romance novels will find much to adore about this novel, but high literary aesthetes will appreciate Zevin’s nods to a more hallowed and canonical literary lineage. Indeed, Fikry is a bit of a book snob and initially specializes his store’s offerings based upon what he considers to be the best exemplars of fine literature. As the novel moves forward though Fikry realizes that he must change not only his tastes but what he can offer for the Alice island community, especially as fatherhood and a second marriage push him to develop new ways to appreciate culture and other seemingly lowbrow literary forms. Thus, young adult fiction, children’s board books, and mysteries all find their places along references to Edgar Allan Poe, Mark Twain, and Kate Chopin. Zevin’s latest is certainly a novel that any contemporary English Major would greatly enjoy. The novel is not without its idiosyncrasies: the representation of race in this novel seems simultaneously important to the construction of characters’ identities, yet is never fully fleshed out. Indeed, Zevin introduces the fact of racial homogeneity in the Alice island community, especially with respect to the general feelings of alienation that Fikry experiences as a minority. Further still, the fact of Fikry’s complicated adoptive paternity and connection to Maya mark this particular family as one especially anomalous to the larger populace of the island. But, these issues eventually recede quite dramatically into the novel’s background, as the romance plots and mysteries take center stage.

Buy the Book Here:

http://www.amazon.com/The-Storied-Life-A-Fikry/dp/1616203218/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1397370409&sr=8-1&keywords=Gabrielle+Zevin

A Review of Tamai Kobayashi’s Prairie Ostrich (Goose Lane Editions, 2014).



Tamai Kobayashi’s first novel Prairie Ostrich (after a number of collections: Quixotic Erotic and Exile and the Heart) explores the ways a Japanese Canadian family copes and cannot cope with a tragedy. The narrative perspective tightly follows Imogene Murakami, nicknamed egg, with the novel being set in Bittercreek, Alberta sometime in the seventies. Through her viewpoint, we discover that her older brother was killed in a tragic accident. Egg’s mother deals with this trauma by turning to alcohol, while Egg’s father turns most of his attention to the ostriches that he raises. Egg’s closest relationship seems to be with her older sister, Kathy, a gifted athlete and who is likely queer. Kobayashi’s novel is immediately noteworthy in its lyricism. Despite the youthful narrative perspective, her life is rendered through a poeticism that exerts a dream-like quality over the fictional world. It is perhaps quite fitting given that Egg is herself quite immersed in culture, finding respite and refuge in stories. Though Egg is not often aware of what is going on around her, this kind of youthful unreliable narration gives this novel a gravitas that requires the reader to engage the various subtexts emerging. Egg, with her diminutive size, is picked on often at school and it is only through Kathy’s interventions that she is often able to avoid predation by bullies. Bittercreek is rendered through is austerity, something that registers most forcefully when it becomes clear that Kathy is seeking a way out of the small town. For Egg, this potential loss is one that keeps her on edge, as she has become so distanced from both her mother and her father. Many of the scenes that see her interacting with her parents are nuanced and heartbreaking. Kobayashi’s gift is in leaving scenes rather unadorned; so often using figural narration that lends itself to shorter sentences and staccato rhythms, everyday connections take on greater urgency, so when we see Egg’s father carefully and tenderly tending to the loss of a dead ostrich that has painfully broken its own neck as it panicked in the presence of the coyote, we immediately see how he cannot project his love back onto his own family. In this space of melancholy, the novel showcases the Japanese Canadian family’s slow disintegration. Fortunately, all is not completely lost, as Kobayashi grants us a potential opening into the possibilities of rebirth and reconnection.
This novel is quite interesting to think about in relation to the surge in YA fiction interests. Certainly, this novel could have been written in that vein, but the difference in approaches seems to be the stronger dissonance between a third person omniscient narrator and the youthful protagonist, a dissonance that produces the effect of irony, as we are constantly realizing what Egg is missing from what she is seeing and observing.

Buy the Book Here:

http://www.amazon.com/Prairie-Ostrich-Tamai-Kobayashi/dp/0864926804/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1397533894&sr=8-1&keywords=tamai+kobayashi