Asian American Literature Fans – Megareviews for June 15, 2014

Asian American Literature Fans – Megareviews for June 15, 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

In this post, reviews of: Susan York and Arthur Sze’s The Unfolding Center (Radius Books, 2013); Abby Spencer Goes to Bollywood (Albert & Whitman, 2014); Kyoko Mori’s Barn Cat (GemmaMedia, 2013); Sandra Tsing Loh’s The Madwoman in the Volvo: My Year of Raging Hormones (W.W. Norton, 2014); Violet Kupersmith’s The Frangipani Hotel (Spiegel and Grau, 2014).

A Review of Susan York and Arthur Sze’s The Unfolding Center (Radius Books, 2013).



Arthur Sze’s been working hard! He actually has two different publications in the past calendar year (the other is Compass Rose), so I figured it was high time we spent a little bit of time reviewing some of his new work. Sze is author of numerous other poetry collections, including but not limited to Dazzled, Quipu, The Redshifting Web. What is of course interesting about The Unfolding Center is that it is a collaboration with the artist Susan York. We might look back to this review of Timothy Liu’s work and collaboration with Greg Drasler:

http://asianamlitfans.livejournal.com/99123.html



In Sze’s co-authored work with Susan York, there are eleven drawings that go along with eleven poems. Those involved with the production and completion of this piece also saw fit to include drafts of early poems and sequences, a truly eye-catching look into the creative development process. An accompanying interview at the conclusion (conducted by John Yau no less) provides key insights into the inspirations and intent behind many of the collaborative portions. Indeed, I was not entirely sure what to make of the poems and the pictorial sequences that followed (though I did notice the symmetry in numbers) until I read a little bit into that interview. Each poem has two different drawings related to it. The motivation behind each drawing is a section of dark and a section of light: the dividing line between the two acts as a tension point. For instance, in unfolding center #4, one picture contains a dividing line a third of the way down the page, the other about three quarter of the way down the page. The one on the left corresponds Susan York’s consideration of the poems central tension and the one on the right corresponds to Arthur Sze’s consideration of the poem’s central tension. I reprint the poetic portion from unfolding center #4 below:

4. I slice oyster mushrooms off an aspen
then, in the next clearing, stumble
into beer cans and plastic bags.
We cannot elude ourselves; we jump
across state lines where four corners touch,
and nothing happens. A point is a period,
an intersection, spore, center of a circle,
or— “Where are my honeymoon panties?”
a woman mutters, rummaging in her purse—
the beginning of a vector in any direction.

If I’m understanding the interview within its basic context, York’s consideration of poetic tension appears in the upper third. With ten lines, my guess would be after the period completes on the third line, while Sze places the tension at the bottom one quarter, which would be roughly with the question mark. The interesting element here is to think about what tensions that each artist or poet was considering when creating the so-called “dividing line.” There is much talk about light and dark in the interview itself and how poems can be illuminated or cast in shadow. If we take York’s vision of the poem, the philosophical turning point of this piece appears to be after the third line, especially because the lyric perspective shifts into a collective, but I agreed with Sze’s vision because I was startled by the words that the woman mutters. There is a desert southwest and interior Midwest regional impulse to many of these unfolding center poems and Sze has an especially vivid way of describing landscapes, so the intrusion of the direct quotation appears as particularly jarring. But, perhaps the most fundamental thing about this collection is that you must read and re-read, considering the vision of the artist and poet and rethinking how poetry is as visual as it is textual and how art can be as poetic as it is imagistic. A fascinating work driven much by philosophical insights. The one drawback I do find in this collection is one that I’ve seen in other illustrated pieces: the lack of page numbers! If one were to assign this book in class, it could be a hindrance. Otherwise, this lushly produced collaboration is sure to invite numerous interpretations and “unfoldings.” Just as a general note, this work is completed in an especially beautiful board book style (the actual size of this book is probably four times the cover size page of a regular trade paperback to give you a sense of the dimensionality), which allows the poems to “unfurl” in an epic way and gives the artist’s abstracted drawings a panoramic gravitas. This is the kind of book that you could enjoy for its literary value, but also certainly give as a special gift for the poet or the art lover, someone with a sense of orientation toward the avant-garde, the experimental, the slightly off-kilter. Finally, as a lover of Russian Modern art, particularly Malevich and Kandinsky, I found Susan York’s drawings to be both absolutely minimalist but ultimately so expressively nuanced. A delight for any who enjoys “non-representational” arts.

Buy the Book Here:

http://www.amazon.com/Susan-York-Arthur-Sze-Unfolding/dp/1934435694/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1399907407&sr=8-1&keywords=Susan+York


A Review of Varsha Bajaj’s Abby Spencer Goes to Bollywood (Albert & Whitman, 2014).



Varsha Bajaj’s Abby Spencer Goes to Bollywood is a rather frothy, but entertaining debut novel that follows that titular adventures of Abby Spencer. Abby’s a teenager, is raised by her single mother and extended family (mother’s side grandparents); she happens to be half-South Asian, but has no contact with her father. When Abby shows a major allergic reaction to something she has eaten—she surmises coconut—the doctor advises that the family look into her father’s medical history because the mother’s side shows no hereditary issues with the foods that Abby had eaten. Thus, the truth of Abby’s parentage comes out and Abby discovers that her father is none other than a famous Bollywood actor named Naveen Kumar. Prior to his stardom, Naveen (who at that time was known by a different name) had a short but loving relationship with Abby’s mother. Though they do not end up getting married Abby’s mother had hoped that Naveen would end up participating in some way in Abby’s life, even if he had gone back to India. But, when Abby’s mother sends him a letter when Abby is very young, it is never answered and Abby’s mother assumes that Naveen wants nothing to do with Abby. Abby’s potentially deadly medical condition pushes her family to look back into her paternal ancestry; they locate Naveen, who tells them that he never received the letter that he had a daughter, and he is very enthused to meet Abby. Thus, the title comes to fruition: “Abby Spences goes to Bollywood.” She meets her father, but the relationship is slightly tentative. Though Naveen is friendly and Naveen’s mother (Abby’s paternal side grandmother) is especially doting, the fact that Naveen is in the public eye makes this relationship complicated. Indeed, Abby is in a kind of “closet,” as Naveen waits for the perfect time to release the news that he has a daughter. Given his stature in Bollywood, such a revelation would no doubt cause a large ruckus.
Bajaj’s novel manages to weave in an entertaining plot with a major social issue: that of poverty and class disparity in India. Abby is often struck by the clapboard housing and clamoring children that assail her wherever she goes and she realizes that her life is one of privilege and security. Though Bajaj cannot obviously resolve a social ill within this kind of fictional world, her novel takes on a more textured foundation due to this kind of historical and sociocultural grounding. The other element to note is of course the issue of mixed race, an aspect that Bajaj takes head on, as Abby must confront her dual heritages and figure out how to address the possibility that she might have ties to both her mother’s lineage and her father’s. Bajaj knows her target audience and there is a requisite romance plot that emerges over the course of the novel. A novel sure to delight its intended readership.

Buy the Book Here:

http://www.amazon.com/Abby-Spencer-Bollywood-Varsha-Bajaj/dp/0807563633/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1398445168&sr=8-1&keywords=abby+spencer+goes+to+bollywood

A Review of Kyoko Mori’s Barn Cat (GemmaMedia, 2013).



Kyoko Mori’s Barn Cat is part of GemmaMedia’s open series, which offers established and exciting writers a chance for exposure to a wider audience through a very interesting book format: the novelette in mass market form. You’ll easily finish Barn Cat within about an hour, probably less. These are slim volumes with small sizing. Though the length, width, and height of these books are not that impressive, we should not discount their importance and their depth. Mori’s Barn Cat is a contoured exploration of an “alternative” family. Our narrator is Lily, recently estranged from her husband Sam, living in Boston, who finds out that her mother is missing. She must return home, which is to Denmark, a town in the Midwest where she reconnects with her stepsister Jill. Over the course of the narrative, many revelations are made concerning Lily’s mother, Kumiko, including the problematic relationship that she had with Lily’s stepfather. This novel thus exposes the communication gaps that appear in this family, ones that reverberate to the present day. Mori’s work is effortless; she uses succinct, pared down sentences to generate a poignant narrative that doesn’t rely on a cataclysmic paranormal plot or a central romance to generate tension. The “barn cat” of the title is a nod to the ways in which Lily finds comfort in the lives of animals, particularly of cats with whom she experiences a special bonding. The importance of animals to this book is evident in the ways that they become larger metaphors for alienation, community, and the chance for familial renaissance. A beautifuly, lyrically rendered novelette.

Buy the Book Here:

http://www.amazon.com/Barn-Open-Door-Kyoko-Mori/dp/1936846403/ref=sr_1_5?ie=UTF8&qid=1398466580&sr=8-5&keywords=Kyoko+Mori

A Review of Sandra Tsing Loh’s The Madwoman in the Volvo: My Year of Raging Hormones (W.W. Norton, 2014).



Sandra Tsing Loh is author of numerous other works (Mother on Fire, A Year in Van Nuys, Depth Takes a Holiday, etc) and is well-known for her performance shows; she returns to the publishing world with a lively, comic memoir about menopause, unruly teens, marital affairs, losing weight and perhaps most of all: finding happiness and fulfillment as she is about to turn fifty. Loh’s memoir is constructed in anecdotes, but is loosely organized by the cataclysmic event of an extramarital affair that ends in her divorce with Mr. X. She ends up living for a brief time with Mr. Y, with whom she had had the affair, only to have him move out momentarily—he tries to make things work in his own marriage—but then they move back in together. If this initial sequence sounds rather tumultuous, it is, and Loh makes clear that the issue exacerbating everything going on is her “raging hormones,” the fact of her experiencing menopause. How is one to deal with life-changing event, the common pedestrian trials of everyday life and everything in between? For Loh, to answer this question, she must ask for advice not only of psychotherapists, but also of her family, and her many girlfriends, who often offer her useful tips, some of which she chooses to implement and others that she exposes as particularly unfruitful in the context of her life. Loh’s tonality is a difficult one to ground a memoir in, because it requires the use of humor to propel a fragmented narrative forward; there are sure to be dips and lows in a memoir working in this way. At some point, Loh relies upon hyperbole to drive points home and that can detract against the very sobering reality of aging: the well of loneliness, the questions of fulfillment, the regrets about roads not taken, and the challenges of trying to find a more authentic path amid the cult of celebrity and image that is Los Angeles. Surely, a memoir also about an upper middle-class existence, some might find Loh’s navel-gazing to be narcissistic, overwrought, and evidence of a certifiable neurotic, but this “diagnosis” would be to miss the point: Loh is quite well-aware of the ridiculousness that can be the upper middle-class existence and attempts to shore what it is that she truly values. So take a chill pill and accept a ride with a madwoman in a Volvo.

Buy the Book Here:

http://www.amazon.com/The-Madwoman-Volvo-Raging-Hormones/dp/0393088685/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1398960579&sr=8-1&keywords=Sandra+Tsing+Loh

A Review of Violet Kupersmith’s The Frangipani Hotel (Spiegel and Grau, 2014).



Violet Kupersmith’s The Frangipani Hotel is a short story collection that takes on some supernatural registers. Each story begins with a relatively basic premise, but all are generally linked by Vietnamese and Vietnamese American contexts. In the first story, “Boat Story,” told entirely in dialogue, a girl asks her grandmother about her experiences as a refugee. Though the girl already has a sense of what might be said, the grandmother proceeds to tell her a different story entirely, one in which the dead can come alive, something that seems far from the harrowing narrative that the girl had been expecting. This kind of story becomes a template for the others. Of course, this first story is a kind of metaphor for Kupersmith’s reconsideration of what Vietnamese American literature can be, attempting to alter its boundaries and the expectations of those seeking perhaps some sort of authentic ethnic experience. In the title story, for instance, a worker at a dilapidated hotel (the titular hotel) comes upon a strange woman, listing in the bathroom of one of the rooms. She seems to have a strange thirst for water and the story takes another unexpected turn when she decides to accompany this hotel worker on a trip with a transnational businessman, who has requested the company of a beautiful Vietnamese woman. In “Skin and Bones,” two young sisters travel to Vietnam on a sort of heritage visit, remaining with their elderly grandmother. One of the sisters—who is overweight—is under pressure to get fit, but while in Vietnam, she succumbs to the temptations of a street vendor who provides her with delicious breads. As with the other stories, the ending also moves into a kind of surrealist register. Kupersmith tackles a variety of different characters and contexts as the collection moves on: folktale storytelling within a religious institution, a transnational relationship with a surprise and perhaps immaculate pregnancy, a driver who must deal with a mysterious passenger. The last story of the collection, “Descending Dragon,” finally and directly engages one of the more common tropes related to Vietnamese American literature: trauma in the wake of war. In this case, the main character is subsisting in a nursing home and is increasingly afflicted by visions of a tank. Her daughter has promised to come visit her soon, but says that she cannot visit for Tet, the Vietnamese holiday. The strength of this collection can also be its weakness: Kupersmith’s stories have been influenced by her study of folktales and myths and she is clearly and dynamically reworking many within these fictional worlds, but for those who are radically unfamiliar with these terrains may find the subtlety inherent to be a little bit too distancing.

Buy the Book Here:

http://www.amazon.com/The-Frangipani-Hotel-Violet-Kupersmith/dp/0812993314/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1399752225&sr=8-1&keywords=Violet+Kupersmith