Asian American Literature Fans – Megareview for September 12, 2014

Asian American Literature Fans – Megareview for September 12, 2014

With apologies as always for any typographical, grammatical, or factual errors. My intent in these reviews is to illuminate the wide ranging and expansive terrain of Asian Anglophone literatures. Please e-mail ssohnucr@gmail.com with any concerns you may have.

In this post, reviews of Steph Cha’s Beware Beware (Minotaur Books, 2014); Lan Cao’s The Lotus and the Storm (Viking Adult, 2014); Tania Malik’s Three Bargains (WW Norton, 2014); Tom Cho’s Look Who’s Morphing (Arsenal Pulp, 2014); A Cut-Like Wound (Bitter Lemon Press, 2014).

A Review of Steph Cha’s Beware Beware (Minotaur Books, 2014).



Again, I failed to hold off on reading a book that I was saving for a rainy day. This time it was Steph Cha’s Beware Beware, which is the follow-up to Follow Her Home. In Follow her Home (reviewed earlier here), Cha created a wonderful noir-ish heroine with Juniper Song, who falls into an unofficial investigation, which ends up getting increasingly complicated, so much so that the body count includes one of her closest friends. In Beware Beware, Song has gone more official; she’s an intern now working with an actual investigatory team, which includes her boss Chaz and another supervisor Arturo. Song is finally put on her own case, which involves her scoping out a woman’s boyfriend to see if he is cheating on her, and if he is into dealing drugs. The woman, Daphne Freamon, a semi-famous painter who is African American, simply wants more information about what her boyfriend, Jamie Landon, does with all of his time, especially when he seems to disappear for days. As Song discovers, Jamie doesn’t do much but hang out with an aging, but still well-known Hollywood movie star named Joe Tilley. But when Joe Tilley is discovered by Jamie with his wrists slashed after a night of hard partying and Song is the first person to come upon the crime scene after being alerted to the goings-on by Daphne, the novel shifts into high gear. Did Jamie kill Joe, perhaps in a drug-fueled haze? If not Jamie, who would have the motive? Could it be Joe’s son from an earlier marriage? Could it be an ex-wife? Song is up for the challenge to investigate and indeed is hired by Daphne to look into the possibility that Jamie may have been set up. Cha adds a very important subplot early on involving the daughter of one of the murderer’s from her debut. Indeed, Song has moved in with Lori, the young Korean American woman who Song had “followed” home in the first part of the series. Lori’s life has turned around and she even has a promising new Korean boyfriend named Isaac, but her connection with her uncle Taejin creates more complications. Indeed, after visiting him at his auto shop, she bumps into a Korean thug Winfred, and Taejin cautions her to treat this man very nicely. Of course, Winfred becomes more menacing. As Lori maintains a fragile line between flirtation and friendship, thing soon things escalate. As the central plot involving the murder resolves, both Song and her boss Chaz realize the improbability of the scenario that eventually plays out, but even as the mystery plot seems both complicated and hardly feasible (with so much premeditation that your head may be swimming), Cha’s handle on the core genre element of detection is top-notch. Indeed, you are effectively pulled into this labyrinthine narrative precisely because of the desire to know. The threads all do resolve in one way or another and the noir-ish ending shows us how murky the line between heroes and villains can be. Cha continues to draw upon the rich Los Angeles noir tradition. Last time I mentioned Walter Mosley and I couldn’t help but think about the femme fatale in that plot, Daphne Monet, who seems to have certain parallels to Daphne Freamon in Cha’s novel. I also really enjoyed Cha’s movement more firmly into the Hollywood film industry here, which allows Cha to delve into some different spaces than the last novel, which focused more Korean ethnic subcultures. Another winning installment in the Juniper Song series, and we’ll hope for many more.


Buy the Book Here:

http://www.amazon.com/Beware-Juniper-Song-Mystery-Mysteries/dp/1250049016/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1408030966&sr=8-1&keywords=steph+cha

A Review of Lan Cao’s The Lotus and the Storm (Viking Adult, 2014).



Lan Cao leaves the first novelist’s club (the ones remaining that I keep wondering about are Brian Ascalon Roley and le thi diem thuy, both writers that I hope have something still cooking) with The Lotus and the Storm, a war epic in line with the work of Tan Twan Eng and Roma Tearne, especially with respect to its sweep, scope, and pathos. Given the ever-growing body of literature devoted to representations of the Vietnam War, Cao continues to delve into the psychic aftermath for those who still continue to suffer in the wake of a country’s long history with foreign rulers, invasions, and occupations. The story is primarily told between two alternating narrators: there is Mai, who in 1963, is just a young girl, who is growing up in the very long shadow of war and foreign occupation; and then there is Minh, Mai’s father, who is a colonel in the South Vietnamese army. The French have left the country with their tails behind them, while the Americans are rolling in and increasing their presence. The president, Ngo Dinh Diem, has just been overthrown by a military coup, which has not been supported by Minh. Minh is able to escape from the fallout of his dissension with the support of a close friend, Phong, but the realization that his country is moving in a direction that portends its eventual downfall leaves Minh with a bitter sense of what the future will bring. Their lives are completely thrown into disarray when Mai’s sister Khanh is killed by a stray bullet. Mai goes mute, while Minh and his wife Quy eventually grow apart. The situation in the country continues to deteriorate, while Cao puts to effective use the tense period of the Tet Offensive to show how badly things are going for the South Vietnamese and the American military. The story of Mai and Minh during the war appears to alternate to the present moment in which Minh lives in Virginia and is being taking care of by Mrs. An, a woman who has come to be a part of Minh’s extended family. Mrs. An and Minh are part of a hui, a rotating money club, which has come to some disagreement over the ways that funds are being used and handled. Mrs. An in particular is having trouble with her monthly payments, which becomes a source of contention between Minh and Mai, who is a grown adult, but still suffering from what might be called psychotic breaks linked backed to the war. Perhaps, the most effective and original element of Cao’s novel is a kind of surprise narrative move (something that reminded me of Truong’s Bitter in the Mouth) about halfway through the novel that discursively shows us exactly what kind of state Mai is still in as an adult and how there are still so many things that these narrators are not telling us. The withholding by these narrators does create some momentum issues, especially because it takes quite a bit of time before we start to see what is going on underneath these characters and how unstable the psychic landscape has been for them both. Cao’s novel is impressive in its panoramic descriptive force, but the novel will ultimately require patience, especially in the first 100 pages. There are numerous late-stage revelations that make the reading experience quite an emotional rollercoaster and by the time you make it to page 300, you’ll be reading the final hundred or so pages at a lightning speed, trying to figure out how the novel will resolve its many loose ends. To be sure, Cao doesn’t wrap everything up too neatly, but a surprise appearance in the final forty pages is an interesting and perhaps debatable choice, especially with how that particular plot plays out. As the narrative accrues its many textures, the eventual result is a novel with an outstanding representational intervention in the links between the individual and the social, trauma and its aftermath, Vietnam and America. A must-read for fans of American and Asian American literature, war epics, and those interested in representations of psychic instability!

With apologies in my original version for the incorrect President name. GEEZ! Yikes =). In my defense, most of the reviews are written in the wee hours of the morning when I have finished the novel LOL.

Buy the Book Here:

http://www.amazon.com/The-Lotus-Storm-A-Novel/dp/0670016926/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1408118982&sr=8-1&keywords=the+lotus+and+the+storm

A Review of Tania Malik’s Three Bargains (WW Norton, 2014).



Tania Malik’s debut Three Bargains was a novel that I had highly anticipated; it received a very early listing on amazon. As with many other works set in India, this novel deals with both class and caste and follows a character of humble origins as he must engage his perilous subjective and social positioning. Our ostensible protagonist (told in the third person) is Madan, a young boy, with one sister (Swati). His father, a sort of bodyguard and thug, and his mother, a maidservant are both employed by a man of great means and power, Aavtar Singh. Aavtar, for whatever reason, takes a very early liking to Madan, especially because in an early meeting between Aavtar and Madan’s father, Aavtar realizes that Madan can read some English (ah, the colonial influence at all social levels). Madan is to be enrolled in a local school, The Gorapur Academy, which will be funded by Aavtar himself. This turn of events is certainly fortuitous, as Madan’s mother seems to think, but from here, things begin to go downhill. Madan’s father increasingly becomes unreliable at work to the extent that Aavtar gives him an ultimatum to improve his performance or suffer serious consequences. Both Madan’s mother and Madan realize what a dire predicament they are in; if Madan’s father cannot be relied upon, then they all may be booted out into the street. When Madan’s father ends up selling off Swati in a sort of child marriage in order to cover some debts, Madan makes a desperate plea to Aavtar to do anything to get Swati back, even if it means an irreparable action against Madan’s father. Swati is found in a tragic condition, having been raped and sexually assaulted; and Madan’s father is assumed to have been killed off as part of what we might call one of the “bargains” of the title. From this point forward, it becomes evident that Madan is a kind of surrogate son figure. He comes to learn much about the finances of Aavtar’s estate and increasingly acts as in a footman’s capacity to the elites that populate the area. Madan soon becomes infatuated by a young woman named Neha, who is of the elite background; their affair is no doubt illicit given their class and caste differences, and when they are found out (with Neha being pregnant no less), Madan is forced to leave Gorapur behind him, with many assuming he has been killed off by Singh’s henchman. Instead, he’s subsisting in New Delhi, until he makes a fortuitous connection with an aspiring businessman. Together, they forge a great business empire, so huge that they have the ability to create modern megacities, one of which will be taking over the Gorapur area. Yes, Madan’s ultimate aim is to undermine the power that Aavtar Singh possesses over his own ancestral homeland, a kind of revenge we might say for Madan’s expulsion from Gorapur and the fact that he had to leave behind his family, a possible wife (Neha), and the child she bore, which was taken away by a Singh’s religious advisor. This section is the part that stretches the most credulity, only insofar as the time span is compressed, and we wonder how Madan and his business partner actually did manage to succeed in so many different business ventures (hotels, apparel, construction, etc). Nevertheless, the final sequence brings many threads together and reminds me very much of Cao’s The Lotus and the Storm, precisely because the novel requires some patience: the late stage revelations are poignant and the lessons (for Madan) hard-earned. There’s an interesting meta-discursive moment when Madan actually tells someone else the story of his own life, something that then contrasts against the third person narration that Malik has used up until that point, and we begin to see how a character might have seen his own trajectory, independent of this omniscient entity who follows him. Malik grants a very antagonistic character a much more contoured concluding depiction, but I predict some readers may balk at the rapprochement that is ultimately staged. Of course, the novel does dovetail with the serious issues still plaguing India in its move to modernization. Indeed, even as Madan ascends to an incredibly high social position given his successful business ventures, it is apparent that the incredible wealth disparities between the rich and the poor remain. One wonders about what good Madan could do with all of his affluence for those who might have started off in the same position as he did as a young child. Malik’s debut is poignant and multitextured.

Buy the Book Here:

http://www.amazon.com/Three-Bargains-Novel-Tania-Malik/dp/0393063402/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=undefined&sr=8-1&keywords=T

A Review of Tom Cho’s Look Who’s Morphing (Arsenal Pulp, 2014)



Tom Cho’s debut, Look Who’s Morphing, is a loosely linked story/ vignette collection that is perhaps the most funky, weird, psychedelic read of 2014 (or perhaps of the new millennium, at least for me). The title is a gesture to the ways that characters in these stories are constantly taking on costumes (literal or metaphorical or allegorical) and assuming different identities and subjective positions. While in and of itself, this conceit might not seem so strange or different, Cho will occasionally drop in the random cultural reference or action that will not necessarily make all that much sense, but contributes to a sense of comedy in the narratives. For instance, in “The Exorcist,” the main character and his aunt are thrown together in a confrontation with evil when the aunt happens upon an apron to which fake breasts are attached. There’s something wrong with this apron—not only fashion-wise obviously—but because it causes the aunt to be demonically possessed. Yes, my friends, the aunt ultimately channels some Linda Blair, but fortunately, the main character has some help and is able to discern that the aunt needs to get the apron off in order to be “cured.” This story is just one of many in which a popular cultural reference becomes the grounds of a funky narrative, but of course, Cho is also working more metaphorically: the aunt’s desire to be someone else is, we might say, another way of exploring the obsessions that a given person might have to be someone else. If there is a culmination of weirdness, an acme of the truly queer, it occurs during the last two stories, which are fortunately longer than most of the others. Were you expecting the protagonist to morph into Godzilla, to ravage his hometown, to eat a vegetable garden, and then get a bad gastrointestinal experience? Well, probably not. Oh, and then, there’s the sequence where the protagonist becomes a sort of “rock cock god,” and makes a name for himself in Tokyo. As a giant-sized rock cock star, he has his set of female groupies. In an ingenious riffing off of Gulliver’s Travels, he is at one point tied down, only to be subjected to sexual acts by these diminutive groupies, who are of course insatiable. The one thing that Cho keeps coming back to in all of these stories seems to be one underlying theme: you are what you perform and that what you desire says as much about you as the way you actually look. While this message certainly contains gravitas as it is represented in this collection, the social contexts that ground so many of these stories are rooted in social difference, and we also understand the desire to be something else can be influenced by the desire to be nearer to something normative, to be closer to a center of power, and so we understand that desire is itself the issue: why is it that I desire to be that thing? My one critique of this collection is that many of the stories do not gain narrative force because they are simply too short and because the characters and events that do appear are so compelling, the readers simply want more. Look Who’s Morphing comes off as a prose poetry work because you’re spending time trying to figure out the metaphorical resonances of each plot twist or turn: why did the character morph into this particular figure? why must the story be set in Tokyo? Such questions encourage you to revisit the work again to try to make sense of what seems nonsensical, to have some fun with such a whimsical story collection. Biographies state that the Asian Australian writer Cho is working a novel (YAY!) and we can be sure to expect the unexpected.

Buy the Book Here:

http://www.amazon.com/Look-Whos-Morphing-Tom-Cho/dp/1551525380

A Review of Anita Nair’s A Cut-Like Wound (Bitter Lemon Press, 2014).



In a world of strange coincidences, I read Anita Nair’s A Cut-like Wound just after finishing a television series about a serial killer (the outstanding and incredibly dark True Detective). Nair’s newest publication is also about a serial killer, but in this case, it would seem to be a transgender woman named Bhuvana who finds unsuspecting men, hits them over the head with a blunt object, then strangles and slices their necks using a ligature. On the case is a washed up investigator named Gowda and his newly hired underling, Santosh. Though the two have a less than stellar connection, they realize that they must find some sort of synergy if they are to find out the identity of this killer. Nair uses a relatively interesting mode of ironic storytelling: the readers know immediately more information concerning the serial killer than Gowda and Santosh do, so we are propelled by our desire for Gowda and Santosh to come to the conclusions that have already been made apparent to us, but Nair also uses an effective doubling technique within the novel which makes it unclear as to the final and actual identity of Bhuvana. Indeed, because there are a number of genderqueer and queer individuals who occupy the novel and because we’re not sure who may be performing as one gender or another, our suspicions are also motivating us to race to the finish. Nair rounds out the story with the human interest and romance plot angles: Gowda, for instance, is a family man, trying somehow to be a good influence on his son, while also trying to navigate the re-emergence of a former flame, Urmila, who presents herself as available even though she, too, is married. The most intriguing discourse (at least from my perspective) that Nair conjures up in this fascinating novel is of course the question of queer representation, especially in Indian context. Bhuvana is made out to be something different than her hijra counterparts, but Nair is clearly attempting to navigate a complicated line: on the one hand, depicting a marginalized community with a full-fledged understanding of their complicated social positioning, but also, employing that same community as the location from which a serial killer originates. Given the long association of queers with social deviance, this relationship is particularly thorny and Nair’s backstory for our serial killer gestures to nature of social inequality as it appears through the paradigm of caste, class, and sexuality. Another interesting element in relation to the narrative is the use of the word “eunuchs” to demarcate the presence of hijras. Here, eunuchs take on a connotative significance in Indian context that is different from here in the West. Whereas there is tendency to think of the eunuch as someone who has been physically castrated, Nair clearly uses the term in reference to individuals who identify as “third sex” in India, men who are not necessarily castrated, but who are more likened to a positionality of genderqueerness. Additionally, the structure of the police system in India was a little bit difficult for me to wrap my head around, but Nair has obviously done her homework here, as we discover that there is a chain of command through which Gowda must operate, even if it means he must occasionally hold back on hunches and leads. Gowda is represented as a figure who is sort of in a mid-life crisis and the case of the serial killer provides him with a sense of purpose and calling that clarifies what is most important to him. Finally, as a genre based work, Nair is firmly in control of the detective plot, so fans of the murder mystery will be highly compelled to pick up this work.

Buy the Book Here:

http://www.amazon.com/A-Cut-Like-Wound-Anita-Nair/dp/1908524367/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1409792838&sr=8-1&keywords=anita+nair

For more on Bitter Lemon Press:

http://www.bitterlemonpress.com/