Asian American Literature Fans – Megareview for November 1, 2014

Asian American Literature Fans – Megareview for November 1, 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 with any concerns you may have.

In this post reviews of: Raymond M. Wong’s I’m not Chinese: The Journey from Resentment to Reverence (Apprentice House, 2014); Gabrielle Zevin’s Elsewhere (Square Fish, paperback reprint, 2007); Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac (Square Fish, paperback reprint, 2009); All These Things I’ve Done (FSG Young Readers, 2011) and Because it is My Blood (FSG Young Readers, 2012); Gabrielle Zevin’s In the Age of Love and Chocolate (FSG for Young Readers, 2013); Kendare Blake’s Antigoddess (TorTeen, 2013); Kendare Blake’s Mortal Gods (TorTeen, 2014).

A Review of Raymond M. Wong’s I’m not Chinese: The Journey from Resentment to Reverence (Apprentice House, 2014).

Raymond M. Wong’s memoir I’m not Chinese: The Journey from Resentment to Reverence (not to be confused with Raymond K. Wong, author of the Pacific Between) explores a kind of coming-of-age for its author, as he comes to engage his tortured family background, racial identity, and transnational personal history. Wong grows up in a mixed household, with a stepfather named Roger who clearly prefers his biological son over him. Wong’s mother had remarried when she arrived in the states, after having lived an itinerant life. Over the course of the memoir, we discover that she had fled China in the wake of communist rule, subsisted in menial service positions, and then found some measure of economic independence in Hong Kong. She eventually marries the man who would be Wong’s father, but it is unclear why that marriage fails. All we know is that Wong’s mother realizes she must move to the United States when another man she knows threatens her life, and she feels as though she has no other options. The premise of the memoir is Wong’s visit to Hong Kong and then later to China; he is meeting some family relatives and in the process, gaining a better understanding of his place in a larger extended family. He also gets to meet his biological father in that process and as expected, these meetings are sometimes tense, filled with the sense of Wong’s place as a cultural outsider. Indeed, perhaps the most striking thing about this memoir is the fact of constant translation. His mother acts as a translator for him since his Chinese language skills are rudimentary. He must rely on her to translate all things as accurately as possible in order to engage in any of the conversations. Wong’s memoir is not only illuminating for the fact that he begins to reconcile why his family was structured and fractured in the way that it was, but also that he sees why he has come to find his Chinese identity so burdensome. Without this cultural and ethnic context, Wong did not understand some of his mother’s motivations and decisions. This visit to China helps bring him closer to his mother and allows him to give his mother more space in terms of the choices she made, even when they so negatively impacted him. This sort of decentering is of course the very fact of maturity, which is what Wong so effectively shows. As compelling as the memoir can be from that perspective, the memoir is also quite acute in representing China and Hong Kong and the variations of class that appear depending upon what part Wong and her mother are in. Wong has a wonderful eye for description and the travelogue aspect of this memoir is one of its strongest, a narrative conceit that will grab readers of any background. It also dovetails with many of the best memoirs I’ve read that show us the transnational contours of Asian American identity. I’m thinking here of Rahna Rizzuto’s Hiroshima in the Morning and David Mura’s Turning Japanese in which the central Asian American subject must come to negotiate aspects of identity alongside a diasporically-informed self. The title is of course somewhat ironic: Wong is showing us that even with his thorny upbringing and his occasionally willful casting off of his ethnic roots that he can claim a better sense of a transnational context for his life (and his mother’s) while at the same time understanding that he does not necessarily see himself as belonging to China. Indeed, there is a critical moment when Wong observes himself through the eyes of another person, seeing how that person perceives him not as a Chinese individual, but as an American. In this in-between space we know so well as Asian Americanists, Wong’s memoir mines the perilous but creatively fecund space of liminality.

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A Review of Gabrielle Zevin’s Elsewhere (Square Fish, paperback reprint, 2007); Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac (Square Fish, paperback reprint, 2009); All These Things I’ve Done (FSG Young Readers, 2011) and Because it is My Blood (FSG Young Readers, 2012); Gabrielle Zevin’s In the Age of Love and Chocolate (FSG for Young Readers, 2013).

In Gabrielle Zevin’s debut novel Elsewhere, she takes on the conceit of writing a novel from the third person perspective of someone who has died. Our protagonist is a young teenager named Liz, who at the beginning of the novel, has just succumbed to severe head trauma as a result of a bike accident. Her parents have taken her off life support, and she wakes up in a room of a mysterious boat. Next to her is a stranger named Thandi; the boat is taking them to a place called Elsewhere. As she comes to grips with the fact that she is dead and realizes that Elsewhere seems to be a version afterlife, Liz struggles with leaving behind her former life. In Elsewhere, time moves differently. Everyone in Elsewhere reverses in age from the year they died, until they are at the point of being newborns. They are then relegated to something called the “release,” which is a form of reincarnation. The cycle begins again and again. She spends much of her time in Elsewhere going to a place called Observation Decks, where, for the price of 5 enterims (the currency in Elsewhere; apparently, we’re still in some sort of capitalist system in after we have died), she can observe people she wants from her former life for a select few minutes at a time. Borrowing money from her grandmother, who has taken her in, she continues to view her friends and family, pining away at the thought that they are going on in their lives without her. Liz eventually realizes she must move on; this entails finding something call an avocation, a sort of job for people in the afterlife which involves the person actually doing something he or she likes (imagine that!). Liz becomes a sort of afterlife dog handler and since she finds out she speaks fluent canine, she can help settle newly dead dogs with Elsewhere inhabitants. We discover that dogs have the capacity to communicate in their own complex language systems that can be translated into rough English equivalents. Eventually, Zevin does introduce the romantic interest; a man by the name of Owen Welles, who has reversed in age to the point of being Liz’s contemporary, but who came to Elsewhere as a twenty something firefighter (who was killed in a workplace accident). When the love of Owen’s life eventually makes it to Elsewhere, Zevin introduces the requisite triangle, leaving us to question whether or not Owen and Liz will find a way to be together in the afterlife. Zevin does some interesting world building with Elsewhere, but it requires the reader to suspend a lot disbelief and to quit asking questions. For instance, how does the fact of Earthly population growth factor into Elsewhere’s understanding of the release? At one point, one of the characters discusses a miscarriage, which brings up thorny questions about what counts as life in Elsewhere. If you think too much about the logic of Elsewhere, you may balk at Zevin’s fictional world. In any case, the core conceit is intriguing enough for target readers, who should be willing to cede Elsewhere’s potential logic flaws for the core philosophical and romantic questions that Zevin’s novel engages.

In Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac, Gabrielle Zevin’s protagonist and first person narrator is Naomi Porter, who suffers from the titularly referenced retrograde amnesia. While retrieving a camera (due to her duties as a highschool yearbook staff co-editor), she falls and hits her head. She loses most memories from the last four years of her life, while retaining some other skills. For instance, though she can’t remember what has gone on with her parents (they have been divorced), she still can complete all the math and physics homework that she is given. The problem for Naomi is that the retrograde amnesia causes her to rethink her identity. She begins to disidentify from the Naomi of before. That is, she doesn’t understand exactly why she’s so interested in yearbook, why she’s dating the popular jock and tennis player, Ace Zuckerman, or why she’s romantically drawn to the former addict and marginalized classmate named James Larkin, and she seems to be distant with her apparently closest and best friend, William (Will) Landsman. Of course, the sympathies of the reader may be tested to a certain extent. Zevin has created the kind of protagonist that some like to hate: the high school student who has popularity, athletic skill, and intellectual acumen. Yes, Naomi can claim to be a part of multiple social groups and tiers and in the wake of her amnesia, decides to test the boundaries of her fluidity. At one point, she joins the production of the latest play, even though she knows it will eat into her time as the yearbook editor. Then, she decides to break up with Ace Zuckerman, even though it means that her popularity will be likely to take a plunge. To make matters more complicated, she decides to pursue a romance with James Larkin. Tensions in the parental arena add another texture to the novel. Even as Naomi is coming to the grips with the fact that her parents are divorced, she is asked to be the bridesmaid for her father’s upcoming nuptials with his girlfriend Rosa Rivera, a tango dancer who Naomi had never taken a liking to. Naomi also finds her mother’s affair with another man to be enough reason to try to cut off all ties with her. Zevin’s core concept has a nice hook: you’ll want to figure out how Naomi will come to deal with the changes in her identity. Will she be able to reconcile who she has become once her memory begins to return or will she go back to what is most familiar to her? Signs point to the fact that she’ll betray who she once was, and Zevin’s success rests in the very American fantasy that we can all reinvent ourselves to be the better person we’ve always thought we could be. The concluding arc sees a number of interesting romantic shifts that seem unforced and best of all, Zevin leaves us with a surprisingly understated conclusion, one that does not follow the more traditional courtship plots you see in these fictions.

The first installment of Gabrielle Zevin’s All These Things I’ve Done (from the Birthright trilogy, with the most the final book having come out in 2013) follows the teen misadventures of Anya Balanchine, the daughter of a big Mafioso (now dead), who must take care of her mentally challenged older brother Leo and her rambunctious younger sister Natty. Anya’s mother was killed in a mob hit gone bad (a car crash), while her brother received permanent brain injuries in that same event. Anya’s grandmother is confined to her bed and on a respiratorm and Anya has become the de factor guardian of the family. The novel opens with the ending of Anya’s relationship to a fellow high school student named Gable Arsley. Gable pressures Anya into having sex, but she resolutely makes her stand against this act, and this friction ends up terminating their relationship. Anya is a devout Catholic and holds fast to the credo that she will have no sex before marriage. Zevin throws a speculative fiction element into the narrative’s equation by setting the text in a New York City in not too distant, counterfactual future. In Zevin’s version of New York City, chocolate and coffee are banned, crime continues to be a problem, while underground economies have sprung up everywhere to allow people to go on exploring their vices. Anya also happens to come from a family that once was one of the big makers of chocolate. Living in the shadow of this mob family, Anya attempts to encourage her family members to steer clear of any remaining mob ties. But once Anya’s former boyfriend is poisoned by a bar of contraband chocolate, and Anya is pinned for Gable’s health-fragile state, it becomes clear that something is amiss in the chocolate industry. Though Anya does not want any part of the underground economies her extended family still engages, she must consider whether or not to take up her birthright, especially since it was her father who once ran the family’s major businesses, including chocolate production. Zevin knows her genre and the other issue is the one of romance. Anya is falling in love with a fellow student Win Delacroix, whose father is an assistant DA. Win’s father doesn’t want Anya to have anything to do with Win, especially since Anya is the subject of much tabloid speculation and has connections to illegal activities. Fearing that Anya and Win’s relationship will pollute his chance for career advancement, Win’s father attempts to end that relationship. Fans of the paranormal romance/ young adult fiction might be a bit disappointed in Zevin’s counterfactual world. The banning of certain items such as chocolate and coffee, while intriguing on some levels, doesn’t necessarily bring much gravitas to this alternate reality. One wonders whether or not this element was necessarily required to create the story that Zevin seems most interested in: Anya’s attempt to deal with her family’s problematic professional history (rather than anything really all that imaginary or speculative in construct). Nevertheless, YA fans will still find some modes to engage this series, especially through the central romance plot and the expectation that the second installment might offer more of this not fully fleshed out alternate reality.

In Because it is My Blood, Zevin cranks up the body count and increases the danger factor as Anya gets further embroiled in the family business. The opening sees her leaving the Liberty Detention Facility, a youths-only program meant to be a version of “young adult” prison time. She has promised not to date Win Delacroix, but seeing him with another school classmate makes things difficult. The early part of the novel sees Anya trying to find a school willing to take her, given her rap sheet and her mob family connections. At the last minute, her former high school receives a sizable donation with the stipulation that they take her back. Anya eagerly agrees, but her return is short-lived: someone snaps a photo of her holding hands with Win Delacroix (it only happened for a second), but the damage is done, and they are perceived to be a couple. This kind of public relations issue is anathema to Win’s father, who is now running for District Attorney. To avoid bad PR, he finds a way to get Anya back into Liberty, effectively sending her back to youth prison. Anya knows she can’t stay there again, so using her family’s lawyers and associates (an aging Mr. Kipling who handles the family’s financial trust as well as his assistant Simon Green), she is able to make an escape and goes to Mexico, where she stays with a relative of an in-law named Sophie Bitter. The family in Mexico allows Anya the chance to appreciate cacao cultivation, while at the same time giving her a chance to lay low. She makes a quick friendship with a young man named Theo, but when she becomes the target of an assassination, she realizes that she must come back to the United States to deal with the continuing business problems plaguing her family. It becomes evident in this second book that Anya must make a choice about how to participate in her family’s chocolate business. Balanchine Chocolate still retains a large market share, but other companies are banging on the door, trying to find out a wave to carve out a larger part of the profits. Anya as well as her immediate family members are seen as a huge liability to many parties because she, her sister, and older brother Leo all retain symbolic power as children of the former business owner and CEO. I thought Zevin’s follow-up was far superior, especially in its exploration of the agricultural aspect of the business company, which gave this book a sense of realism that seemed absent in the previous one. Again, the conceit of banned chocolate (and other such sundries) comes off as a little bit hard to believe (especially since it seems as though chocolate is really an analogue for pot), but it fits well with the young adult target readership obviously, so it is appropriate in that regard. Obviously, this narrative is also far more embedded in issues of cultural and racial difference, especially when Anya must travel to Mexico. The largely deracinated world of the first book cannot be maintained in the second, as Anya’s travels make apparent the transnational nature of the chocolate trade and the way in which labor is extracted in other countries to round out corporate trajectories. I look forward to the third book!

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A Review of Gabrielle Zevin’s In the Age of Love and Chocolate (FSG for Young Readers, 2013).

In the Age of Love and Chocolate is the conclusion to Gabrielle Zevin’s birthright trilogy, which has been following the (mis)adventures of Anya Balanchine, the daughter of chocolate contraband mafiosos, who now has started her own business: a set of clubs catering to cacao lovers. Cacao is not exactly chocolate, which is how Anya is able to get these clubs going in a legitimate fashion. With the help of Charles Delacroix, a lawyer and the father of Anya’s former flame, Anya is able to open these clubs to great success, while also employing many key family members and friends in that process (this long list includes her best friend, Scarlet, who is a new mother; her older brother Leo and Leo’s wife Noriko; her cacao supplier and later her live-in sort of boyfriend Theobrama). Though Anya clearly still carries a torch for Win, he’s moved on to a new girlfriend and is living in Boston. Even when a recent meeting at a club opening allows them to catch up, their conversation is best described as icy and tense. Natty, Anya’s younger sister, has increasingly been getting into trouble. Her most recent summer at “genius camp” has resulted in expulsion. She, although only fourteen, has been carrying on with a nineteen year old boy named Pierce and in order to protect her, Anya sends Natty off (much to her opposition of course) to a distant boarding school. Things seem to go well for a time, even with the tension that flares up when Theo proposes to Anya over Christmas vacay and Anya declines, stating that she doesn’t believe in marriage. Who could blame her, considering both her parents are dead? In any case, when Theo, Anya and Natty return to the States from their time in Mexico, Anya discovers that Fats, the de factor head of Balanchine Chocolates, has been murdered. Gasp What now? Anya’s eventual plan involves none other than Yuji Ono, the head of the Japanese branch of one of the top five chocolate bar producing companies. Yuji is dying, and he proposes marrying Anya as a bid to strengthening both empires and shutting out others who seem to be trying to horn in and to monopolize the chocolate bar market. Yuji’s ex, Sophia Bitter (head of the German branch of one of the top five chocolate producing companies), has poisoned Yuji in retaliation for a perceived betrayal that occurred in book two, so Yuji’s plan is a literal last gasp-attempt to cement some power before he goes the way of the dinosaur. This gambit proves to have lasting and catastrophic effects, the likes of which move the novel into its final sequence (called The Age of Love). This sequence I have to say—from my humble opinion—is probably the trilogy’s weakest. Yes, we know that the romance plot must have some sort of resolution, but the most obvious romantic combination is one that seems never in danger of ever being diverted (ultimately), so we can say that the novel ends with few surprises. Over the course of three novels, I have come to enjoy Anya’s increasingly snarky personality. She’s become a bit of a sarcastic, edgy and witty protagonist, and there were points in this novel that genuinely made me crack up laughing. This spunky aspect of her character was something that I missed in the initial edition of the series, but over the course of her many trials and tribulations, Anya has become hardened and with it a kind of steely comic exterior that makes for a fun reading experience. This change in her character is perhaps why I found the ending a little bit of a letdown, but the trilogy does get stronger as a whole over the arc. It’s far from a paranormal romance and the conceit of the futuristic world is perhaps the weakest structural element considering that the only thing that really makes it seem as if we’re anywhere in a different temporal moment is the banning of things like chocolate and coffee. Nevertheless, as I’ve intimated in previous reviews of earlier installments, fans of this young adult genre will find much to enjoy in the conclusion to the Birthright Trilogy.

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A Review of Kendare Blake’s Antigoddess (TorTeen, 2013).

The gods are dying and so begins the premise of Kendare Blake’s fourth novel Antigoddess, the start of a new series (after the ghoulishly entertaining ghost hunter duology of Girl of Nightmares and Anna Dressed in Blood and Sleepwalk Society). Not only are the gods dying, but they realize that there may be a chance to halt the process, but this may involve battling each other in order to find the key to retaining their once-hallowed immortality. In Blake’s version of events, the Greek Gods and other associated heroic entities (like Cassandra and Odysseus) have merely found other bodies and other lives to inhabit in what is not unlike our own present day. They regularly use words like any other teenager or young adult, while also proclaiming their once revered status as mighty beings who could command armies and destroy civilizations. Once battles lines are effectively drawn, the novel starts to gain a little bit more traction. Here, we see that Athena and Hermes will be fighting against Hera, Aphrodite, and Poseidon. Early on in the novel, Athena and Hermes get a little bit of help from Demeter, who sends them on to find Cassandra, the ill-fated phrophetess, who may hold the key to their divine salvation. They enlist the spiritual powers of the descendants of Circe, a group of witches, who in the present day have become—what else—but a high society escort company. Once Hera gets wind of the fact that these witches have sided with Athena and Hermes, all hell breaks loose and most of the witches are killed. It is clear then not everyone will survive. The narrative is bifurcated in the first half with a slower plot concerning Cassandra, in her present-day manifestation, and her friendships with a group of high-school students, including a teenager named Aidan. Aidan is actually Apollo and has, for the most part, eschewed his divine background to masquerade in what is more or less a normal teenager’s life, which is defined in this novel as parties, girls, and high school. Cassandra’s brother is Henry, who doesn’t realize he is Hector, while Cassandra’s friend is Andie, who doesn’t realize she’s Andromache (Hector’s wife). While the premise of Blake’s new series is highly intriguing, this novel is largely a set up for what is going to follow. There is one climactic battle sequence at the end, but the momentum shifts to get this point make this initial installment uneven. The mixture of the present-day tweenspeak with Greek god mythology can come off unintentionally funny (at least from my perspective). Though I may be coming off as curmudgeonly, the thing to remember is that Blake obviously knows her young adult paranormal romance genre: we have an ordinary heroine who is really not so ordinary (Cassandra), who engages in a romance plot with a man who probably isn’t really right for her (Aidan), while realizing that she must defeat some big bad, great evil, or force that is going to end up in the ruin of practically all of humanity (Hera and others). In this respect, Blake does not disappoint and we’ll look to the next installment to see how the battle lines continue to be drawn.

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A Review of Kendare Blake’s Mortal Gods (TorTeen 2014).

Kendare Blake follows up Antigoddess with Mortal Gods. In this uneven, fitful second installment, Cassandra continues to learn more about her powers, while Athena continues to plan for the all out battle that will occur between the gods, demigods, and mythic heroes of ancient Greece now reincarnated in the present day. Athena is looking to find Artemis as well as the other legendary “weapon” that can be used to destroy other gods. This first weapon, as we know from the first installment, is none other than Cassandra herself, with the ability to somehow channel energy that destroys gods. Achilles is the second weapon, and Odysseus finally fesses up that he knows where Achilles is hiding out, somewhere in the Australian outback. So, there are two retrieval quests, one for Artemis and the other for Achilles. Hermes’s and Odysseus’s trip to find Artemis (in the jungles of Malaysia) is all for naught, as Artemis has already been killed. Athena’s quest to find Achilles is more fruitful, as he is located in the Australian wilds. Meanwhile, Ares is being recruited by Aphrodite and Hera to work against Athena and her allies. Hera, who had seemingly been turned to stone at the end of book 1, is partially healed by the mythic three fates, who themselves are also dying. Ares occasionally dispatches four wolves to track down and to trouble the lives of Athena and her acolytes, so much so that Andie is almost mortally wounded. Fortunately for her, Calypso, Odysseus’s former lover comes to the rescue, lulling the wolves to sleep with her vocal powers. Thus, the battle lines are drawn. Athena, Hermes, Cassandra, Henry (Hector), Andie (Andromache), Achilles and Calypso against Hera, Aphrodite, and Ares. Though it seems as if the cards are stacked in favor of Athena, the support of the Three Fates is indeed suggestive of the doom that may befall Athena and her ragged band of heroes. I wanted to really like this novel, but I had trouble getting through it. Part of the problem I think stems from the fact that there is so much plot left to the bickering between characters about what to do and how to go about doing it. Also, much of the novel seems to be a set-up for the third act, and though the final battle of book two is definitely appreciated, the payoff may not be enough for readers who endured through the prior narrative trajectory. Blake also struggles to toggle from one narrative perspective to the next, which makes me yearn for the first person perspective she used so effectively in the Girl of Nightmares series. To be sure, the conceit of this trilogy—one based upon a resurrection and reappearance of the Greek gods in modern times is an innovative one—and fans of the young adult genre will of course still find something of interest in this installment.

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