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 firstname.lastname@example.org with any concerns you may have.
In this post, reviews of Claire Tham’s The Inlet (Ethos Books, 2013); The Sound of Sch: A Mental Breakdown, A Life Journey (Ethos Books, 2014); Dave Chua’s The Girl Under the Bed (illustrated by Xiao Yan) (Epigram Books, 2013); Cheah Sinann’s The Bicycle (Epigram Books, 2014); Marie Matsuki Mockett’s Where the Dead Pause and the Japanese Say Goodbye: A Journey (W.W. Norton, 2015); S. Li’s Transoceanic Lights (Harvard Square Editions, 2015); Ravi Mangla’s Understudies (Outpost 19, November 2013); Tess Gerritsen’s Die Again (Ballantine, 2014).
A Review of Claire Tham’s The Inlet (Ethos Books, 2013).
Highly recommended from a former student of mine and occasional reviewer to Asian American Literature Fans, I was extremely excited to begin reading Claire Tham’s The Inlet, which comes out of another wonderful Singaporean publisher, Ethos Books:
Tham’s The Inlet is something of a noir. Told in shifting third person perspective, the novel begins with the story of a young Chinese woman named Ling, who is stationed in an outlying Chinese city, which is beginning a rapid modernization process. This woman works in a science laboratory; she’s part of a dispossessed and growing middle class that realizes that there is little chance for any further upward mobility. She breaks off a relationship with her boyfriend, even though he seems to be a decent prospect, but it becomes apparent that Ling has much more on her mind: the desire to change her life radically, to find adventure, to do something different with her life than live on the meager paycheck of a mediocre job with little chance of advancement. A chance encounter with another woman allows her the opportunity to travel to Singapore to work as a kind of hostess for wealthy men. Having seen the tremendous affluence displayed by the urban elite, Ling, who is clearly both beautiful and intelligent, sees the offer as the potential route toward another life and she accepts. From there, the novel takes a much darker turn: a body is found, floating lifelessly in the pool on a property owned by a very prominent Singaporean business magnate (Willy Gan). The body is unfortunately IDed as Ling’s. The novel’s title refers to the very exclusive residential community known as The Inlet, a place reserved for the affluent and the privileged. The ASP (the assistant superintendent) Cheung Fai is assigned to the case and soon the list of possible suspects begins to be fleshed out, which include the young Indian immigrant teenager who finds the body (Sanjana), the woman who brought Ling over to Singapore (Ms. Fung), Willy Gan, and his favorite nephew, Jasper Gan, who was purportedly having a sexual liaison with Ling on the night before her body is found. Tham’s use of the shifting third person narrative perspective allows her the opportunity to present a kaleidoscopic view of Singapore, with individuals ranging from the uber-rich (such as Willy Gan) to others such as a poor Chinese cook who is found murdered, but whose death draws little publicity (in contrast to the salacious undertones to the Inlet drowning). Tham also provides important back stories to the main suspects through tracking the relationships of such characters through their wives or girlfriends. The main suspect seems to be a mystery man named Merrill Lynch, a man that Ling was dating prior to her death, but who no one else who had worked with her had ever actually met. The third person perspective allows us the opportunity to get to know Merrill Lynch, who is none other than Min Liang, a successful businessman, who courts and later falls in love with Ling. Min Liang is an interesting figure because he, along with Jasper Gan, represent individuals whose fortunes are essentially lost in the global economic downturn that occurred in 2007-2008. Tham uses these narratives as microcosms for a kind of nation-state critique levied on neoliberal economic policies that has turned Singapore into a wealthy country, but one necessarily plagued by the amorality of business cultures and the relentless pursuit of the bottom line. Ling, in some respects, with her laissez faire attitude comes off as a strange rebel figure, finding comfort in floating on the unexpected and unplanned currents of her life. Tham’s greatest strength in this narrative is the unsentimental depictions: characters’ flaws strike the reader with their rawness. The conclusion is sure to rankle those expecting a traditional mystery to solved, but readers should be forewarned that Tham is operating within the confines of the noir genre and in noir, there are no heroes and deaths can never be simply explained.
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A Review of Danielle Lim’s The Sound of Sch: A Mental Breakdown, A Life Journey (Ethos Books, 2014)
The second book I picked up from Ethos Books was Danielle Lim’s The Sound of Sch: A Mental Breakdown, A Life Journey, labeled as a creative nonfiction and which takes a rather direct look at the issue of mental illness as it affects one family. The official page provides a useful synopsis: “The Sound of Sch (pronounced S-C-H) is the true story of a journey with mental illness, beautifully told by Danielle Lim from a time when she grew up witnessing her uncle's untold struggle with a crippling mental and social disease, and her mother's difficult role as caregiver. The story takes place between 1961 and 1994, backdropped by a fast-globalising Singapore where stigmatisation of persons afflicted with mental illness nevertheless remains deep-seated. Unflinchingly raw and honest in its portrayal of living with schizophrenia, The Sound of Sch is a moving account of human resiliency and sacrifice in the face of brokenness.” Lim makes an interesting aesthetic move by choosing to use present tense narration, providing the story a sense of intimacy and access. Though set in the past, this narrative achieves a kind of poignancy and immediacy as we move through the years with the protagonist. The most deeply troubled character seems to be Lim’s mother, who is tasked with the burden of taking care of Lim’s uncle: to make sure he continues going to his job (sweeping and cleaning the local police station), to locate him anytime he goes missing, and to continue to help him on a path that allows him to live a semi-autonomous life. This constant vigilance takes its toll. As Lim notes, “Mum starts tearing as she goes on, Why must I suffer like this? My parents shouldn’t have had me, they were so old already when I was born and I’ve to look after my brother, 20 years already! 20 years! Why did my mother refuse treatment for him back then? Why? The doctors told her he could get well if treated but she won’t believe” (76). Lim’s mother medicates herself with painkillers, which seem to be her crutch and the method by which she deals with the constant stress. The situation becomes complicated toward the conclusion of the memoir when Lim’s grandmother becomes critically ill and attempts suicide. Through so much familial upheaval, Lim finds a way to see the humanity of her uncle: “I look at him sitting at the table, between the certificates on his left and ashes on his right, between the past on his let and the present on his right, between success on his left and brokenness on his right, between the hope of a bright future, on his left, and the courage to keep going, on his right. My uncle. An ordinary man. Some would say an unsuccessful man. Many would say, a mad man. But for me, I will remember him with his smile and the small, beautiful sounds he has echoed into my life” (153). For Lim, the importance of this work is in de-pathologization, that though some would consider her uncle a life wasted, she knows his value emerges far beyond the ominous shadow of expectations. In this reorientation, Lim teaches us much about familial bonds and the need to recognize the complex situations faced by all those touched by mental illness.
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A Review of Dave Chua’s The Girl Under the Bed (illustrated by Xiao Yan) (Epigram Books, 2013).
I continue on with my review series with Epigram Books, as I tackle more of their graphic novels! In this installment, I review Dave Chua’s The Girl Under the Bed (illustrated by Xiao Yan) (Epigram Books, 2013). For those familiar with the terrain of Chinese culture, you’re well aware of something called the Ghost Month (for some excellent novels set during this period, you MUST read Ed Lin’s Ghost Month and Alvin Lu’s The Hell Screens), which falls on the seventh month of the lunar calendar. During this month, the divisions between the realms of the living and the dead begin to disintegrate, allowing ghosts more mobility. To placate these ghosts, altars, sacrifices, and food and liquor offerings are left out, while others burn something called hell money for spirits to spend in the afterlife. It seems to be a big party for the ghosts, who can still wreak havoc on the lives of the living. In Chua and Yan’s graphic novel, this month is the perfect grounds to set a childhood tale of haunting. Our protagonists are the young Jingli and her friend Weizhong, who apparently is a spirit medium. Jingli discovers during ghost month that there is a girl under her bed (thus the title). Her name is Xiaomei (this name has been used so often in Asian American books that I know the name means little sister LOL) and she knows very little about her former life. Jingli, with the help of Weizhong, are determined to get to the bottom of the mystery of the girl and her former life; they even visit a kind of spiritual mystic located in a strange wooded area in Singapore. After the visit, which also involves surviving a potential goring by a wild boar, they return and discover the more sinister background of the ghost and that her history may involve a man who has revealed that the ghost may in fact be his daughter. From this point, the graphic novel moves very quickly to the finish. Though Chua doesn’t deviate much from the classic revenge tales accorded to ghosts, the story is still entertaining and filled with flourishes of originality. The friendship between Jingli and Weizhong is an excellent grounding apparatus for the story, and the graphic novel pulls off the appropriate pacing. Chua and Yan should be applauded for their storyboarding; they often use panels without any texts at all, leaving the reader much more room to interpret the events occurring. Yan’s illustrations have a manga-like quality that is sure to pull in readers who enjoy such cultural productions. Certainly, The Girl Under the Bed is a story that can be consumed by readers of all ages and is a thrilling addition to the world of Asian Anglophone graphic novels.
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A Review of Cheah Sinann’s The Bicycle (Epigram Books, 2014).
So, Cheah Sinann’s The Bicycle is another wonderful graphic novel that has come out of Epigram Books, one of two Singaporean publishers that I’ve been interested in and thus working through as much of their catalogue as I can. The website provides a useful synopsis here (much better than I could probably render in any case): “In one of the last remaining jungles in Singapore, an old bicycle is unearthed in an archaeological dig. Its discovery brings the elderly Lim Ah Cheng back to a time when he rode with his life on the line… Meticulously researched by the creator of Singapore’s first daily comic strip The House of Lim, cartoonist Cheah Sinann, The Bicycle tells the tale of Toshiro Iwakura, an aristocratic, battle-hardened private haunted by his desire to cycle in the Olympics, and five-year-old street urchin Ah Cheng, who dreams of nothing more than learning how to ride a bike. Their paths cross during the Japanese Occupation, when a unique bond formed over two wheels is quickly put to a life-or-death test.” The protagonist is none other than Lim Ah Cheng and the old bicycle is the impetus for the graphic novel’s use of analepsis. Indeed, much of the graphic narrative is told in flashback, as the owner of the bicycle makes a case for why it is such an important historical object. On a purely functionalist level, the bicycle was vital in the Japanese colonial campaign, as soldiers used them to get from one place to another, especially in the absence of cars or trains. During the Japanese occupation period, Ah Cheng is orphaned and when he sees a caravan of Japanese soldiers riding through the town, he is naturally interested in their masculinity and their paternal characteristics. He bonds quickly with Toshiro Iwakura, who promises him to teach him how to ride a bicycle. In another flashback, we discover that Iwakura himself lost the love of his life before joining the military. His belief in this kind of love pushes him to treat women differently than say some of his military counterparts, who follow along with the rape and pillage philosophy. Iwakura is the quintessential anti-hero in this sense. Given the common narrative of Japanese occupation of Southeast Asia as a particularly brutal story meted out on the lives and bodies of millions of civilians, Iwakura’s portrayal is in some ways a daring and nuanced one. Iwakura eventually comes to see Ah Cheng beyond his status as a street urchin, a fact that can only be rationalized through Sinann’s appropriate use of analepsis. We know Iwakura finds himself unmoored in Singapore; the attentions of a brothel madam is in part what helps him survive (later, this madam will also be instrumental in Ah Cheng’s survival). The conclusion is particularly harrowing, but reveals a more textured portrayal of a Japanese serviceman in the course of violent empire, something reminiscent of the depictions offered by Sabina Murray in her equally harrowing (but no less brilliant) short story collection The Caprices. The visuals are quite effective, but the one quibble I have is actually the use of what looks to be computer generated dialogue text. While my guess is that the use of computer programs to create the fonts and the choices for text style in dialogue and caption bubbles has been common for some time, there is an artificiality to the font style that detracts from the overall presentation. But don’t like this minor critique stop you from enjoying this wonderful graphic novel, which looks to Singapore’s not too distant past and the still reverberating effects of the colonial occupation period.
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A Review of Marie Matsuki Mockett’s Where the Dead Pause and the Japanese Say Goodbye: A Journey (W.W. Norton, 2015).
I was excited to see that Marie Matsuki Mockett had published the follow-up to her promising first novel, Picking Bones from Ash. In Where the Dead Pause and the Japanese Say Goodbye: A Journey (W.W. Norton, 2015) Mockett ventures into the creative nonfiction genre. This work is part biography, part memoir, part ethnography, and part history in its exploration of Mockett’s ancestral lineage and its connection to an area near Fukushima prefecture, the location that would be most affected by the 2008 tsunami that hit Japan and critically damaged nuclear reactors, while also killing thousands of residents in the coastal areas. Mockett’s extended family is connected to the area because they own a Buddhist temple there. Just two years prior, Mockett’s father had died, leaving her to ponder her familial background. Additionally, she is raising a young child and thus finds herself wondering about what he will come to know of this longer family history related to Buddhism. Thus, Mockett embarks on a longer project, one that involves traveling to Japan, writing a book and participating in a documentary focused on the religious and spiritual rituals, especially connected with Buddhism and the rites of the dead. The creative nonfiction is largely nonlinear. Though Mockett’s visits to Japan and her time participating in the documentary, as well as her explorations of Buddhist temples, sects, and cultures commands the great bulk of the narrative, she also spends time grounding the reader in the historical roots of Buddhism in Japan. She further functions as a kind of an unofficial documentarian related to the aftereffects of the tsunami. Mockett often accompanies Buddhist monks, as they acts as healers to devastated communities, listening the to traumatic stories of those individuals who were killed in the tsunami. Mockett comes to realize that pivotal place of Buddhism, even in a society long known for its modernization and its focus on technology and the future. Even amid the great death and destruction, Mockett comes to observe the vivid and vibrant lives in the areas hardest hit by the tsunami and the nuclear reactor damage. There are some extraordinarily beautiful passages grounded by Mockett’s intensely introspective authorial voice: we know that her experiences in Japan are highly spiritual, existential inquiries into the afterlife, so every moment seems to have a poetic gravitas that can be breathtaking. An intricately wrought, patiently crafted creative nonfiction from Mockett.
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A Review of S. Li’s Transoceanic Lights (Harvard Square Editions, 2015).
S. Li’s debut novel Transoceanic Lights (Harvard Square Editions, 2015) is told from the first person perspective of an unnamed narrator (for the most part), who is part of three different nuclear families who are immigrating to the United States. Each family has been sponsored by a rich relation, and their journey to the United States is naturally fraught with the challenges that come with a drastic move to a radical and alien new culture. Early on in the novel, the three families must share a small apartment, thus revealing the impoverishment of these immigrants. Soon, the families attend to getting jobs, enrolling their children in schools, and not surprisingly, the fractures begin to emerge. The unnamed narrator’s parents, for instance, bicker incessantly. The father spends much time at work struggling to make a living wage, while the mother finds herself increasingly disillusioned by their desultory life in the United States. Having believed that their move would somehow offer more opportunities, the mother-character comes to see how idealistic this dream has been; she spends much of her time in an escapist realm of music. The narrator finds himself adrift in the Chinatown school system, attempting to find his place among an often unruly set of students. Of course, not surprisingly, as the new kid, he eventually gains the unwanted attention of a bully, while suffering other complications when he is involved in a car accident in which a classmate is run over by a car (but fortunately survives). Such events are all part of the growing pains that Li depicts at all levels: the father, the mother, and the son all face particular obstacles which make their American acculturation far from easy. The added addition of a new family member, a girl, offers some hope in the guise of the reproductive future. But when the narrator’s father is in a car accident and breaks his arm, thus making insecure the one stable source of income, things look particularly bleak. Additionally, the mother’s father (called Old Man in the novel) appears to be dying, and her desire to go back to China to visit him before he passes becomes yet another source of marital acrimony. Though things seem to be quite dim for the family’s future, tensions and conflicts still somehow manage to get resolved. Here, Li gestures to the importance of extended kinship systems—riddled as they are with issues related to jealousy and favoritism—to help support immigrants in times of trouble. Li’s writing is often poetic, but the novel’s pacing and structure is quite uneven. There are times when it’s unclear who is narrating, whether or not certain moments are internal monologue or being spoken out loud, thus marring an otherwise compelling debut.
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A Review of Ravi Mangla’s Understudies (Outpost 19, November 2013).
Ravi Mangla’s Understudies comes out from yet another cool indie press. More information about the press can be found here (note the tagline: “innovative and provocative reading to get a sense of their catalog):
After I initially completed the novel, I first considered Mangla’s Understudies in relation to other cultural productions: think Pamela Lu’s Pamela, Geraldine Kim’s Povel, and Tao Lin’s general oeuvre and you have a strong sense of Mangla’s disjointed narrative styling, too diffuse to call standard postmodern writing, but certainly inspired by some of its dominant features (including the sense of existential ennui that pervades the narrator). Told in the first person perspective, the website chooses to describe the novel like so: “A high school teacher begins to question the course of his life after a famous young actress moves into town. In the starlet's shadow, his girlfriend, his mother, his neighbor, and his students take on strange new dimensions. Told in a series of snapshots, UNDERSTUDIES presents a sharp, funny, and heartbreaking study of beauty, celebrity, and everyday needs.” The reference to the starlet is an interesting one because it is part of what Mangla’s work an actual novel rather than some asynchronous, experimental text (or completely random prose “snapshops”). The narrator often employs the starlet’s various adventures both in real life and on screen as a riffing apparatus to consider the mundane and not-so-mundane things going on his life. He’s constantly wondering about the relationship between reality and representation, a kind of philosophical thought process that bleeds over into his own romance to Missy. This relationship seems to be stagnating. The draw of the starlet is her dynamic mode of existence: she appears as a social activist, in different acting roles; she is the object of fantasies (not only from the narrator, but also from a semi-creepy stalkerish neighbor). The narrator’s life with Missy seems to be the exact opposite: generic, lacking political complexity or texture, and utterly pedestrian. The narrator is a kind of counterculture throwback high school teacher, who joins a band made up of students. Not surprisingly he achieves high evaluation scores even with what some would call unexpected pedagogical practices and approaches. The narrator’s mother runs a web-based advice column that becomes an important element to the novel’s conclusion. The apotheosis of the states of disconnection appears when the narrator creates a faux e-mail account to get advice from his own mother about what to do with his life, which has become a sort of hollow construct. The answer, which I found to be surprisingly conservative and perhaps even verging on the trite, places Mangla’s work back into the orbit of the comedy-romance, thus articulating the centrality not so much of the starlet but actually of his relationship to Missy. How does one make something old become new again, Mangla seems to be asking. Both form and context seem grounded by the question; though Understudies does not seek to answer that question, it certainly meditates upon it in an unexpected, stream-of-consciousness narrative sure to entertain by the sheer quirkiness of its execution.
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A Review of Tess Gerritsen’s Die Again (Ballantine, 2014).
For all the critique that can be levied at popular genres like the detective/ mystery, one would be hard-pressed to find a way to undercut authors who clearly excel at the finding the appropriate alchemy of pacing, plotting, and tension to produce a compelling and “unputdownable” story. Tess Gerritsen manages to complete this task with every installment of the Rizzoli & Isles series, and it’s not a surprise that this series has found a successful life on television as well. Our two protagonists: Jane Rizzoli and Maura Isles have disparate personalities and come from very different backgrounds, but these opposites attract in the best way possible when it comes to solving crimes, particularly involving gruesome killers. Gerritsen makes consistent use of an intercut narrative aesthetic in her mysteries. She brings that back here as the novel opens in Africa. Our narrator, Millie Jacobson, is on a backcountry safari and hunting group with her mystery novel writing husband Richard Renwick. Their marriage is going down the tubes, and this vacation is perhaps the last gasp in a dying union. Millie finds herself drawn to the leader of the hunting expedition, a serious man by the name of Joseph Posthumus, while her husband flirts with two young blondes on the trip: Vivian and Sylvia. There is also Mr. and Mrs. Matsunaga; another young man by the name of Elliott (who had met with Vivian and Sylvia at a bar previous to booking the trip); Clarence, a back woods hunting guide and assistant to Joseph. All of those who came to the trip had booked it through a website called Lost in Botswana, but the trip takes a turn for the grisly when one morning Clarence is found dead, with only a few body parts left from what the hyenas had scavenged. When Joseph suggests that the group return early to the site that picked them up, the group is actually more adamant about continuing on the trip, but they end up being stranded anyway when the car does not start. So begins a gruesome sequence of events in which Millie Jacobson seems to be the sole survivor. The other narrative involves Jane and Maura investigating a series of ritualized murders that may or may not be connected. A taxidermist, Leon Gott, is found trussed up to the ceiling, hung as if on display. Medical examiner Maura is quick to note three markings on Gott’s bones that suggest a ritualized form of murder that might link his death with a Jane Doe, a young woman found skeletonized in a grave. The young woman’s death does not have many of the other characteristics of Gott’s killing, but the three markings might suggest a link. A third murder that occurs around the same time of Gott’s death also seems to be a possible link, but the connections are so diffuse at first that Detective Jane is skeptical, leaving Detective Jane and M.E. Maura at odds with each other. Adding to the brutality of the storyline (if there can be more death, since counting Millie’s expedition there are at least ten different named characters who are probably the victim of homicide), a zookeeper is killed by a leopard. The manner of her death and the way in which the wild cat attempts to quarantine and to protect the vanquished seems to suggest that the murderer is in some ways acting just like a leopard. Of course, the brilliance of the mystery is that Gerritsen knows the reader is trying to construct links not only between the murders and deaths in the present-day but also between these murders and deaths with Millie’s experiences in South Africa. Eventually Gerritsen patiently threads both storylines together. As with most mysteries, some suspension of disbelief is required. After all, a serial killer with a penchant for killing like a leopard who takes the time to truss up victims, eviscerate them, while making sure to mark their bones in a specific way, may sound too farfetched (thankfully) for some, but Gerritsen is always all-in for these murder mysteries, so sit back and enjoy the homicidal ride. I can say without worry about spoilers that one expects Jane Rizzoli and ME Maura Isles to be back for another installment sometime next year. Gerritsen does remind us that Rizzoli and Isles do have personal and professional lives beyond their crime-solving. Maura is considering leaving for California and also continues to deal with a manipulative, homicidal mother who is apparently dying of pancreatic cancer and is still incarcerated. At the same time, Jane is still attempting to navigate the dark waters of her parents’ possible divorce. One thinks that Gerritsen is already laying the groundwork for future mysteries in one form or another, and we’ll be excited to see (and to read) these newest installments.
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