Today is the day I am moving into a new place and starting a new (and I hope better) chapter of my life. I am still reading Asian American literature despite all the upheaval and still am finding much to laud about the publications that continue to emerge. After you’ve eaten a lot of leftover turkey, what better way to spend your time but read some books!
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 American and Asian Anglophone literatures. Please e-mail email@example.com with any concerns you may have.
In this (ladies centric) post, reviews of Sarah Jamila Stevenson’s Underneath (Flux Books, 2013); Sarah Jamila Stevenson’s The Truth Against the World (Flux, 2014); Suki Kim’s Without You There is No Us: My Time with the Son’s of North Korea’s Elite (Crown, 2014); Jenny Han and Siobhan Vivian’s Ashes for Ashes (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2016); Xiaolu Guo’s I am China (Nan A. Talese, 2014); Kim Sunée’s A Mouthful of Stars (Andrews McNeel Publishing, 2014); Melissa de la Cruz’s Vampires of Manhattan: The New Blue Bloods Coven (Hyperion, 2014); MariNaomi’s Dragon’s Breath and Other True Stories (Uncivilized Books, 2014).
A Review of Sarah Jamila Stevenson’s Underneath (Flux Books, 2013).
Sarah Jamila Stevenson’s second novel is Underneath (after The Latte Rebellion, which we have already reviewed here in Asian American Literature Fans). In Underneath, our protagonist and narrator is Sunny Pryce-Shah. The novel begins in the wake of the suicide of Sunny Pryce-Shah’s college-aged cousin Shiri, a seemingly popular and smart young woman who had what most perceive as very little reason to take her own life. In the tragic aftermath of her death, her family is of course grieving, especially her Aunt Mina (Shiri’s mother) and her husband (Uncle Randall). But Sunny’s sense of deep loss comes with it a special power, something she calls “underhearing,” which is the ability to hear other people’s thoughts. This power is not fully controllable and she is only able to tap into these thought patterns at seemingly random moments. Most acutely, these thoughts make her aware that her popular friends at school, especially a rival named Cassie, are not her friends at all, and she begins to transition to a new set of acquaintances. These acquaintances are none other than a group of misfits, who are nonetheless apparently cool enough to still hang out with, including a goth-hipster named Cody and the spirited and brash Mikaela. Stevenson quickly sets up romance triangles. Sunny has an obvious like of the darkly attired Cody, but can’t forget her old childhood friend who might be more than a friend (named Spike, who is also part of the popular crowd). At the same time, Sunny’s interest in Cody is one possibly contested by Mikaela, who seems to have an interest in Cody. Thus Sunny’s entrance into this new set of friends is already a tense one, and she struggles to fit in with this new crowd, one interested in the occult (wiccan) and new age practices (meditation). At the same time, things are heating up at home, Auntie Mina is undergoing a trial separation from her husband due in part to domestic abuse. Sunny’s abilities in underhearing allow her to understand how much is being kept from her by her parents, but her knowledge of the situation encourages her to be more courageous and ask difficult questions. In this sense, Stevenson’s novel is essentially a coming-of-age story and the conceit of underhearing is simply a tool to get at issues of high-school ostracization, mental illness, and domestic abuse, the three main conflicts and issues at play. The conceit of underhearing is an interesting one, but it seems to be a kind of red herring in this particular fictional world, and one wonders if it is even necessary at all, especially given how sensitive a character Sunny is already made out to be. In my opinion, Stevenson should have run away with the underhearing as a paranormal element if that was to be so central, but it ends up being too peripheral in my opinion to warrant as part of this already-packed novel. Stevenson’s most fundamental representational approach is perhaps her ability to weave in racial and ethnic signifiers in a very inconspicuous way. Sunny is half-Pakistani, for instance, a fact that is not necessarily a source of great discomfort, but yet still informs her identity as a high school student and an upper middle class subject. Mikaela, too, is not only marked in terms of a working class background, but clearly and also subtly through her ethnoracial background as a Chicana. The texture given to Stevenson’s fictional worlds is made that much more rich in clarifying the not-quite-postracial contexts of this high school based narrative, something that makes this work stand out in terms of its adherence to the protocols of realism (rather than escapism) and its associated political undercurrents. An uneven, but nevertheless intriguing venture into the YA fiction/ romance realm, with just a hint of the paranormal.
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and Here (for the anti-Amazonians):
A Review of Sarah Jamila Stevenson’s The Truth Against the World (Flux, 2014)
Sarah Jamila Stevenson’s third effort in the YA genre is The Truth Against the World, which takes an interesting approach to the storytelling by bifurcating the perspectives between a first person narrator a teen named Olwen Nia Evans (living in San Francisco) and third person omniscient narrator who is focalized through a teen named Gareth Lewis (living on the other side of the Atlantic). These two characters are somehow bound to each other, as becomes apparent very early on. Gareth spies a mysterious young girl named Olwen Nia Evans one day, and then later, happens upon a blog written by another person named Olwen Nia Evans. On impulse, he e-mails Olwen, which begins the start of a tentative online friendship. On her end of the Atlantic, Olwen is dealing with the impending death of her great grandmother Gee Gee, who has requested that she be flown back to Wales, the land of her origin, so that she can die peacefully there. Olwen has been having a number of strange dreams about her great grandmother and a young girl and can’t make sense of them. It becomes apparent that Olwen might be having visions that connect her to Gee Gee’s past, but her great grandmother is far from forthcoming about her life as a young woman. By the time that Olwen is in Wales, she realizes that she is being haunted by some sort of force that needs to be acknowledged. By this point, Gareth has decided to visit his great-grandfather in Wales, which gives him the chance to meet Olwen in person, and perhaps to find out why their connection is so strong. Their adventures are momentarily thrown into disarray when Gee Gee dies, but the visions and dreams related to the mysterious young girl that Gareth saw at a cromlech in the opening of the novel and that continue to plague Olwen’s nights encourage them to continue on their search to figure out why the girl’s spirit demands to be placated.
Readers may get impatient with Stevenson’s narrative storytelling as the romance and the central mystery are both telegraphed to the extent that most astute readers should be able to guess what happened far before the actual revelation. Thus, much of the narrative momentum begins to wane earlier than it should, but the political and social texture of the novel is far more intricate than the localized plots. Those interested in World War II in the European theater will find much of interest in this novel. References to Land Girls, evacuations, bombs, Welsh ethnic identity, as well as the growing tensions between the English and the Welsh all contribute to a historically expansive world that has made Stevenson’s work as a whole a refreshing addition to the YA genre, which often gets mired in the relatively apolitical heft of high school angst plots. From a psychoanalytic perspective, the novel is the perfect study in something called the “transgenerational phantom,” the term used by Abraham and Torok for traumas that are borne out on a successive generations when an injury or violent moment is kept secret. Gee Gee’s inability to divulge what happened to her manifest in some form in the obsessive desire that Olwen has to find her history. The “secret” is of course none other than the one embodied by the young girl’s ghost who haunts until the source of Gee Gee’s trauma can finally be unveiled. Certainly, a “spirited” addition to the YA paranormal romance genre.
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A Review of Suki Kim’s Without You There is No Us: My Time with the Son’s of North Korea’s Elite (Crown, 2014).
Suki Kim is part of what I called the “first novelist’s club,” which is my fond way of categorizing a writer whose debut I absolutely love and whose second book was nowhere to be seen. Kim’s debut novel Interpreter absolutely riveted me and was the subject of a portion of a dissertation chapter. I eagerly anticipated Kim’s next publication, which is this memoir and which follows a period of over a decade since her first novel’s release. The wait was obviously well worth it, as Kim pens a detailed, insightful, and frank memoir concerning North Korea that sheds light upon a notoriously secretive country and government. Kim’s interest in North Korea begins in part because of an identification with the culture and due to exposure to that country through various journalism assignments. As this interest grows into an obsession, Kim applies to teach there, under the guise of a Christian missionary instructor. Eventually she is admitted and so begins her tenure as an instructor of English at a Christian-oriented institution. While she is there, she begins to realize what a unique school it actually is. Her students seem to come from elite backgrounds, something that she begins to discern as she is given glimpses beyond the institution. The occasional field trip to a specific site such as an apple orchard and farm, occasionally allows her to see the extreme impoverishment in the local community. Throughout the memoir, Kim struggles in her position as an instructor. Though she immediately takes a strong liking to her earnest and seemingly innocent students, she realizes that she cannot simply spout out democratically-informed messages or rhetoric, nor can see expect her students to open their eyes to the incredible social inequality occurring just beyond the bounds of school. Kim realizes that she must play a dangerous game, figuring out how to teach without endangering herself or her students, while at the same time, gaining more information that may be valuable to a book project. Her time at the school while rewarding in some ways is also extremely draining, and Kim leaves her first period there wondering if she will return for another term. She eventually decides to return and upon arriving realizes that her students have missed her. Though the warm welcome she receives is of course gratifying, the monotony and the self-censorship the job requires continues to take its toll. The memoir ends around the time that Kim Jong-il has died, a fitting conclusion given the limited impact that Kim can hope to make on students who seem so desperately to want to express their deepest hidden feelings. The memoir includes an intriguing author’s note which details Kim’s understanding that the composition of this memoir is sure to anger those she worked with as well as the North Korean regime, but readers in the “free” West, as we might call it, have been given an invaluable entrance into a life and culture so rarely seen and understood. A highly recommended read.
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A Review of Jenny Han and Siobhan Vivian’s Ashes for Ashes (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2016). Hardcover. $17.99
I finished the final book—Ashes for Ashes—in Jenny Han and Siobhan Vivian’s Burn for Burn Trilogy on the very same night that it arrived on my doorstep. I used it as an award for working through some revisions, and it was that very decadent kind of reward, one that goes best with an equally sinful dessert. In the final installment, Han and Vivian can finally go full-on Carrie (and spoilers are now forthcoming, so do not read on at this point if you want to avoid knowing too much). Mary is dead, and she’s a ghost. One of our three primary narrators has always been a ghost, but now Mary knows she’s a ghost, and she’s aiming to continue her pursuit of revenge at all costs, especially now that Kat and Lillia seem less interested in revenge schemes. As always, Mary’s main target of vengeance is Reeve, the popular high school jock who had spurned her as a young girl and whose bullying ended up seriously contributing to her suicide. But, Lillia and Kat are now also seen as betrayers, so they too must be dealt with. As Mary finds out more about her status as a ghost, she realizes she has far more powers than she at first understood. She can invade people’s dreams and when focusing her anger, can even make things move. She also learns how to appear at will in front of people. Of course, it takes awhile before Lilia and Kat figure out what badness Mary is up to, and they have their hands full with various things. Kat’s still looking to see if she can get into college, while also juggling a budding friendship with Alex Lind, a teenage boy from the popular set, who respects Kat’s musical talents and tastes. For his part, Alex Lind is considering going to USC, though it would be located far from his unrequited paramour, who is none other than Lillia Cho. In the meantime, Lillia is still madly in love with Reeve; they go about dating surreptitiously until their romance is unceremoniously and inadvertently unveiled at school on Valentine’s Day. Mary, being able to observe things unnoticed, continues to see how life is moving on without her, and not surprisingly, her anger grows. Of course, Mary’s has plans to undo Lillia’s romance, Kat’s desire to go to college, and Reeve’s attempt to remake his life in the wake of an accident that left his college football career in doubt. While YA often gets pigeonholed as a lowbrow genre, what gets left behind is how entertaining the genre can be, despite its perceived shortcomings. Indeed, Han and Vivian’s collaborative work rises above so many others because they have an exceptional hold on the voices of their characters, which have only become increasingly refined and made more precise over the course of the trilogy. As these voices ring so authentically, the story, however implausible, still holds our attention, which makes Ashes for Ashes such a fitting conclusion to the series. To be sure, my early critiques of this series remain: Jar Island seems relatively insular; there is a very ahistorical sense of place and time. The one moment where I got a sense of when the story could be taking place was the moment that Lillia tells her father that Reeve had scored above 1200 on his SATs, a reference that would place the narrative before (2006) the redesign of the exam that makes it now scored out of 2400 (but will apparently revert back to 1600 in 2016). In any case, even with such criticisms in place, Han and Vivian’s novel is an engrossing one, especially for fans devoted to the paranormal/ romance plots that populate YA fictions so often these days. The use of three first person perspectives gives this work a texture and polyvocality that sparks off the page. Whereas Lillia’s romantic persona may be cloying to some, Kat’s no nonsense tough girl attitude will have others breaking out in laughter, and of course, most will be able to identify with the wounded heart at the center of Mary’s vengeful ghostliness as well as her desire to make her injuries palpable to the increasingly forgetful world around her.
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A Review of Xiaolu Guo’s I am China (Nan A. Talese, 2014).
I’m beginning to shift over new links for these posts. I am either going to use direct publisher links, or sellers other than amazon for purchase. I’ve had requests from various readers that such a practice might be a better one, especially in light of what had occurred with Hatchette Book group (and the associated pricing war). In any case, now on to this review! Wow! What an uneven but brilliant, polyvocal novel. In Guo’s latest, I am China (after a number of novels), the narrative perspective primarily follows three character: Iona, who is a translator living in London, and then the subjects of her translations: Kublai Jian, a dissident musician who escapes China, only to subsist in the asylum system in Europe; and Mu, Kublai Jian’s lover. Iona is given a stack of Jian and Mu’s letters as well as portions of diaries and journals written by each character; she does not really know their story at the time, so her translation job is difficult. Indeed, much of the novel revolves around the challenges of translation, especially in light of how little one might know of the subjects. Iona struggles with how to interpret and reorder direct translations so as to capture the essence of what is being communicated, but Kublai Jian and Mu’s identities are shrouded in so much secrecy that Iona cannot finally find solid grounding. With some help from a former professor as well as the publisher who had originally sent her the packet of materials, Iona begins to make bigger headway. Kublai Jian’s story emerges in fits and starts, revealing his desire to change China through rock and punk music. Mu’s story intertwines with Jian’s in their love for each other. They eventually bear a son who dies while he is very young. Thus begins the rupture between the two characters. By the time that Jian has created a rock manifesto that requires him to escape China, the two characters have embarked on separate trajectories. For her part, Mu joins a transnational Chinese rock band touring the United States. The experience, while illuminating, is also traumatic. Mu is raped by the tour manager and ultimately is disillusioned by the Chinese diasporic population (especially as embodied by the Harvard students) who seem to support the current governmental regime. As Iona continues to translate the letters, journal entries, fragments, and diaries (the text is multigenre in that there are also photographs embedded, along with scans of identity cards), she discovers that Kublai Jian is very likely the son of a high ranking governmental official; his identity is only revealed after some research by the publisher Jonathan, who lets Iona know that Kublai Jian is the son of the current prime minister of China. But the story, at the end of the day, is really Iona’s. She’s drawn so deeply into the story because of her own life, which begins to feel empty in light of the poignant but star-crossed love between Jian and Mu. Her anonymous sexual encounters begin to weigh heavily on her, and she desires something more, a lasting connection that might move toward something greater than herself. As Iona’s translation project becomes more feverish and frantic, she also yearns for greater support from Jonathan, a complicated connection given that she knows that Jonathan is married. Guo’s work has so much going on that sometimes it’s hard to follow all of the different threads, but this novel is ambitious and operatic, and the multigenre and the multiperspectival form is exactly the right one for the extraordinarily political message that it conveys. The title is of course gesturing to the rise of the individual and free thinking in Chinese society, a very timely thematic especially given al that is going on in Hong Kong. We can imagine Kublai Jian, were he a living character, finding much in line with pro-democracy supports in that area of the world just about now. Definitely a recommended read.
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A Review of Kim Sunée’s A Mouthful of Stars (Andrews McNeel Publishing, 2014).
Kim Sunée follow-up to her memoir Trail of Crumbs is A Mouthful of Stars, which is primarily a cookbook, but also includes narrative excerptions that provide contexts and inspirations for various recipes. In Trail of Crumbs Kim occasionally included a recipe, and given all of the references to dinner parties that occurred, you knew that Kim had a real talent for cooking. Thus, A Mouthful of Stars is a natural place for Kim to go as her next publication. A unique and welcome element of this cookbook is Kim’s long introductory sequence, which gives the reader time to get settled into Kim’s personal history and how that has more largely informed who she is beyond her identity as a cook and as a writer. In this case, Kim tracks her experiences traveling to Korea and searching for her birth family, a quest that allows her to meet a number of other Korean adoptees (such as the poet Lee Herrick!) and puts her in touch with various people who may or may not be blood relatives. Naturally, this experience is a complicated one and brings up memories of the past, issues related to human trafficking, and of course, the meals that one must eat while traveling. The narrative sequence is long enough for some of the more traditional readers to yearn for another memoir all on its own, but soon the cookbook shifts into high gear with the first section devoted to Korean food recipes with Kim’s own personal spin on each dish. From there, the cookbook truly travels all over the world, reflecting in part Kim’s own itinerant and adventurous spirit, with sections devoted to cuisines inspired by her times in France, Scandinavia, Italy, and her years growing up in the American South. One of the dangers of reading this cookbook is of course that it will make you incredibly hungry. The photography is lush and panoramic, and it’s quite apparent that cookbooks are as much about being travelogues and artistic projects as they are about being handbooks for creating the next perfect meal. I read this cookbook before bedtime, and I had to struggle not to get up and make something to eat. Though I’m far from a cook myself, it’s clear that Kim has created a mostly accessible set of recipes that run the gamut from main courses to extravagant desserts. Cooks and enthusiasts of food will certainly find much to inspire them (and to make them hungry) in Kim’s A Mouthful of Stars.
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A Review of Melissa de la Cruz’s Vampires of Manhattan: The New Blue Bloods Coven (Hyperion, 2014).
Well, I may have to put a moratorium on reviewing novels by Melissa de la Cruz. At this point, I feel as though I may have to review ten of her novels every year just to be able to keep up. In any case, Melissa de la Cruz’s latest offering is Vampires of Manhattan: The New Blue Bloods Coven, which seems to be a re-vamp (see what I did there) the original Blue Bloods series. The characters are all ten years older, but conveniently don’t look like they have aged a day. Perhaps, the vampire is thus the best literary tool for capitalist marketability and consumption: they never age, so as characters, you get to tell a billion stories with them in it. In this case, the returning cast is made up of Oliver Hazard-Perry, who has now become Regent of the Coven; and Mimi Martin (nee Force), who has returned from the Underworld and is on a trial separation from her Fallen Angel hubbie Kingsley Martin. Oliver Hazard-Perry’s human familiar Finn is planning the 400 Year Ball, but there is also a serial killer loose threatening to ruin the festivities. Yes, a young teenaged girl has been found murdered, with the requisite bite marks that suggest that a vampire is behind the killing. Then, yet another teenager is found dead with the same m.o. On the case are two venators, otherwise known as otherworldly vampire cops, Ara Scott and her reluctant partner in crime, Edon Marrok, who is some sort of hellwolf humanoid. Their search turns up few leads until they realize that Kingsley Martin might be involved somehow in the crimes. Indeed, Kingsley, who had supposedly been staying in hell, eventually decides to leave and reunites with his overjoyed but nevertheless still smarting wife, Mimi. As with previous efforts, de la Cruz toggles a third person perspective among the major characters. At this point, de la Cruz has mastered this kind of writing style, so I keep hoping that she will break out of it and do some experimentation, which hasn’t quite happened yet. The novel contains what lovers of romance and paranormal genres will love, but much of this novel feels a bit hollowed out. Indeed, halfway through, de la Cruz moves the narrative five weeks into the past and the revelations by going in this direction do not really warrant this kind of anachronic sequencing and left much of the novel flagging in its momentum. The late stage reveal of the murderer was definitely unexpected, but I would suggest that only diehard fans of the vampire novel and de la Cruz’s previous works should pick this one up.
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A Review of MariNaomi’s Dragon’s Breath and Other True Stories (Uncivilized Books, 2014).
MariNaomi’s follow-up to Kiss and Tell is Dragon’s Breath and Other True Stories, a set of compiled comics that is not unlike her first effort, with an emphasis of dysfunctional relationships, coming-of-age narratives, and questions of identity. The collection is more or less told in a roughly chronological order. The early comics portray the author’s life as a young child and the common issues that might arise during that period. In one of the best sequences, the author conveys how her love for her grandfather was destabilized when she later discovered how her grandfather actively and violently disapproved of the author’s father, who had married a woman of Japanese descent. This story sets the tone for the rest of the comics, as we come to understand that MariNaomi is trying to convey past experiences from a retrospective viewpoint, as time shifts how we relate to our memories and what people have meant to us. Even the most tragic and painful ruptures come to be resignified by MariNaomi’s drawings and narratives. Much of the collection is elegiac in the sense that there are people that MariNaomi knew that vanish out of her life; some die and others simply fall away so that she does not know where they are or if they are even still alive. Since at many points, she subsisted as a kind of vagabond, without a stable home or shelter, the people she meets during this period are very difficult to track down. One such individual she later discovers succumbs to his mental illness and throw himself in front of a BART train. But, as mournful as many of these stories are, MariNaomi also knows how to weave in a sense of the comic, so that moments of deep despair are always balanced with some levity and even mirth. One such sequence involves the author’s love for the band Duran Duran and how she and a bunch of her girlfriends get to attend a party with that very same band. What ensues is perhaps expected: the band fails to live up fully to their expectations and even when their discussion in the car ride home turns a little bit melancholic, MariNaomi reminds them that she was able to steal the underwear of one of the band members and takes it out. Though rendered in comic and sketch-form up until that point, MariNaomi cleverly organizes a section of photographs at the conclusion, which include underwear being held up next to MariNaomi’s mischievously smiling face. The artwork is rendered in MariNaomi’s signature sketch-like style, which function as the perfect vehicle for the themes and contexts of the memoir. MariNaomi’s memoir also includes very minimalist full page panels that are quite refreshing and provide a nice abstracted space from which to imagine full episodes, our minds doing the work of filling out what the rest of the page whites out. A highly recommended read from a new and exciting independent publisher (see link below)!
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