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Asian American Literature Fans – Megareview for March 23 2016

Asian American Literature Fans – Megareview for March 23 2016

AALF uses “maximal ideological inclusiveness” to define Asian American literature. Thus, we review any writers working in the English language of Asian descent. We also review titles related to Asian American contexts without regard to authorial descent. We also consider titles in translation pending their relationship to America, broadly defined. Our point is precisely to cast the widest net possible.

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 with any concerns you may have.

In this post, reviews of: Kendare Blake’s Ungodly (TorTeen, 2015); Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air (Random House, 2016); Anne Opotowsky (Author) and Aya Morton’s (Illustrator) His Dream of Skyland (Walled City Trilogy, Part 1) (Gestalt Publishing, 2011); Quan Barry’s She Weeps Each Time You’re Born (Pantheon 2015).

A Review of Kendare Blake’s Ungodly (TorTeen, 2015).

The final installment of Kendare Blake’s Goddess War series appears here with Ungodly. We’ll use B&N’s website as always for our synopsis: “As ancient immortals are left reeling, a modern Athena and Hermes search the world for answers in Ungodly, the final Goddess War novel by Kendare Blake, the acclaimed author of Anna Dressed in Blood. For the Goddess of Wisdom, what Athena didn't know could fill a book. That's what Ares said. So she was wrong about some things. So the assault on Olympus left them beaten and scattered and possibly dead. So they have to fight the Fates themselves, who, it turns out, are the source of the gods' illness. And sure, Athena is stuck in the underworld, holding the body of the only hero she has ever loved. But Hermes is still topside, trying to power up Andie and Henry before he runs out of time and dies, or the Fates arrive to eat their faces. And Cassandra is up there somewhere too. On a quest for death. With the god of death. Just because things haven't gone exactly according to plan, it doesn't mean they've lost. They've only mostly lost. And there's a big difference.” As followers of this series already know: gods and heroes are reincarnated time and time again in Blake’s version of the storyworld. Cassandra takes top billing, as she is tasked to be the destroyer of gods. By the third book, Cassandra is angry because her paramour, Apollo, is killed. She is able to kill Hera at the end of the second book (and spoilers are forthcoming) but other antagonists still survive, including Ares and Aphrodite. The third book sees some alliances shift and the parties scattered. Athena must team up with Ares and Aphrodite in the Underworld, especially when Ares is able to use some quick wits to save Athena’s mortal love Odysseus. Hermes is hanging out with Henry (Hector) and Andie (Adromache), while they figure out how to defeat Achilles, who is now teamed up with the book’s major big bad The Three Fates (the Moirae). Finally, Cassandra and Calypso want to find out where Hades is, but first they have to travel to Los Angeles to find Thanatos, who will be sure to have useful information. This final installment is no doubt the strongest of all three books because Blake knows that she has to bring the storylines together. The first two suffered from the inevitable peaks and troughs that come with stretching out a plot over three books, but here, all paths must inevitably converge and then be highlighted in a climactic battle. Will Cassandra be able to kill all the gods? Will Henry defeat Achilles? Will Athena and Odysseus be able to find love beyond the underworld? Such questions can only be answered by reading this decadent conclusion. There are lines that will be sure to cause some cringes in the audience, but Blake’s narrator is quite self-aware of some of the ridiculousness going on, especially with references to movies like Flatliners. I give major kudos to Blake for exploring a different version of narrative perspective that deviates from the first person storytelling offered in the Girl of Nightmares series. Fans of Blake’s YA work will be pleased to know she’s already got something cooking that will be coming out of HarperTeen later this year. Though I didn’t find this series as strong as Blake’s debut duology, there’s enough mischief and mayhem to keep readers of the paranormal romance/ YA genre quite pleased and looking forward to Three Dark Crowns (which seems to be moving Blake in the direction of witchcraft).

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A Review of Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air (Random House, 2016).

So, I recall reading a piece in the New York Times written by Paul Kalanithi, which explored issues of death and dying. Kalanithi, a neurosurgeon, was diagnosed with metastatic stage 4B lung cancer, meaning that his cancer was terminal. For Kalanithi, it was a matter of time. I’ve been interested in Kalanithi’s memoir because it strikes very close to home. My mother was diagnosed with metastatic endometrial cancer that was also in stage 4B. My mother has already had bouts in which she was close to death (at least on three separate occasions that I can recall); she also had a complete hysterectomy, sustained challenging chemotherapy treatments that left her drained of energy and stamina. So, when I heard Kalanithi’s memoir was being published, I immediately wanted to review it. The memoir was published posthumously, and the epilogue (written by Kalanithi’s wife Lucy) reminds us that an individual who is dying can never quite complete their work in any sense. There is just not enough time, and of course, we never know the circumstances of the death unless someone else writes about it. Perhaps, what is most crucial about Kalanithi’s memoir is the issue that he brings up with respect to philosophy and the meaning of life, which seems to come down to something related to striving. That is, even while dying, even in our states of disintegration (as we age, find our bodies failing us, diseases that confound us, our memories that get more spotty), we still strive for something, find meaning in something, and thus make our lives meaningful in some particular way. For Kalanithi, this aspect of striving functions as the underlying current of cohesion that appears throughout the memoir. He details the struggles with physical therapy to regain the energy and the stamina necessary to stand in the operating room for many hours. He and his wife still plan to have a baby despite the fact of his prognosis. He continues to connect with his patients, and his colleagues, while developing a strong bond with his cancer physician. Throughout his waning days, perhaps what is most remarkable is Kalanithi’s spirit of curiosity that never dissipates despite whatever is thrown at him. The epilogue provided by Kalanithi’s wife Lucy is particularly compelling precisely because it details the final days of Kalanithi’s life; she further attempts to insert her own perspective on Kalanithi’s personality. Indeed, on some level, she seems concerned that readers may miss how funny and how humorous Kalanithi was, that somehow a part of him could be stripped from the narrative. Lucy’s mission to rectify some tonality in Kalanithi’s narrative is perhaps a larger issue related to memoirs in general: all that is left is some sort of partial, edited trace, but what a profound trace this is.

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A Review of Anne Opotowsky (Author) and Aya Morton’s (Illustrator) His Dream of Skyland (Walled City Trilogy, Part 1) (Gestalt Publishing, 2011).

I haven’t been reading as many graphic narratives as much lately, so it was a real pleasure to dig into the high quality pages (and high production values) found in Anne Opotowsky (Author) and Aya Morton’s (Illustrator) His Dream of Skyland, which is part of a trilogy. The first two have been published, and I will eventually be getting to the second installment, but let’s get a plot summary going of this particular work. We’ll let the World Comic Book Review take it away from here: “In 2011, the creative team of Anne Opotowsky and Aya Morton produced a thick volume entitled “his dream of skyland”. Set in 1950s colonial Hong Kong, the story follows the meandering adventures of the hapless Chinese postal worker, Song. Hopelessly in love with a bemused prostitute and with his bumbling father in jail, Song decides to try to deliver dead letters – correspondence with no proper address, sometimes sitting around in the post office for years, but capable of delivery with some detective work and a glimmer of proactively. Delivering dead letters seems to be an eccentric but harmless preoccupation, but in doing so Song brings both joy and sadness to their various recipients, and comes to navigate the notorious and legendary Walled City of Kowloon. It is a place that recognises no authority and which in the hands of the creative team is imbued with a shadowy personality. The Walled City is like a tiger with a full belly: watchful, and idly dangerous. A helpful and beautifully rendered glossary at the end of the volume assists readers not familiar with Cantonese culture nor British colonialism. It’s an engaging and skilful endeavour, and ideal for readers with an interest in Hong Kong history.” One element that this description doesn’t mention is the close relationship that Song holds with his mother, who is a kind of diviner and occultist. Their connection provides him the stability he needs, as he tries to make a life in the shadow of his father’s absence. His job sorting letters further gives him some fulfillment, and he sees the delivery of the dead letters as a challenge and perhaps a metaphor for the desire to find more meaning in his life.  Perhaps what is most crucial (at least for me) in this review is the historical tapestry that Opotowsky  and Morton bring to life. Though I do know some facts about Asian American history and even some diasporic Asian contexts, I didn’t know much about the walled city, a place that has been in existence for over a century and was the recent target of urban gentrification, but during the period that Opotowsky and Morton focus on, the Walled City is a true potpourri of squatters, gamblers, scrabblers, and itinerant populations. So Song’s investment is delivering these dead letters to this area might at first seen strange, but the Walled City seems to operate with its own set of rules and creates the perfect milieu for Song to engage unexpected relationships and even friendships. But the Walled City is filled with questionable dealings, and the graphic novel invokes issues related to human trafficking and child exploitation. Amid Song’s quest to deliver dead letters, he also begins to discover the potential dangers in developing a strong attachment to this strange, but no less dynamic part of the colony. Perhaps, the most notable element that brings this graphic narrative to such vivid life is Morton’s sweeping visuals that take up space on large pages and provide the right form for this kind of story, one that involves many colorful characters who deserve their own full pictorial space. This graphic novel makes you wish that more were published on such panoramic pages, as this work is the kind you can return to again and again to find more hidden in the margins of a panel.

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A Review of Quan Barry’s She Weeps Each Time You’re Born (Pantheon 2015).

So, to be quite honest: I had trouble getting the momentum when reading this novel. To be sure, this problem is mostly related to my own reading habits, as I’ve gotten older and more distracted, and probably too used to the prose found in YA novels (no dig on YA novelists of course). Quan Barry’s debut novel She Weeps Each Time You’re Born stands tall alongside her four other poetry collections (some which have been reviewed here) and offers a rather luminous addition to the ever growing body of Vietnamese American literatures. Barry must have been channeling Faulkner and Ondaatje (or someone of a similar writing aesthetic), as there are many narrative perspective shifts, temporal shifts, poetic sequences, and longish sentences. The novel provides a very useful diagram to open that helps to remind us of the relational connections among the characters, some of whom are not biologically related to each other. Barry’s work is historically textured and set across Vietnam’s long colonial and postcolonial history. A grandmother (Thuan), her son (Tu), the son’s wife (Little Mother), and their child (Rabbit) are the main family, but their lives are torn apart by multiple wars.  During  fire bombing, Little Mother is killed, while Thuan suffers significant wounds, but Little Mother is still able to give birth (somehow if I read this section right) during this period. Thuan later succumbs to her injuries. It is during the period of refugee flight that this family hooks up with another: a grandmother (Huyen) and her granddaughter (Qui) are also on the move and attempting to survive. Qui is somehow able to nurse Rabbit, which provides Rabbit with the nutrition to survive. The second half of the novel involves a slight time jump: Rabbit is a young child; she is friends with another boy around her age named Son. They spend their times training cormorants, so that they can be sold to local fisherman to aid them in their work. This sequence is one of the most beautiful in the novel and continues to the slightly surrealistic elements, especially as Rabbit seems to have a special ability to speak to these water birds. But Rabbit and Son’s friendship ends prematurely after their families endure incredible hardships at sea. The novel is reminiscent on the plotting level of Hoa Pham’s The Other Shore because Rabbit eventually develops supernatural powers concerning the ability to see and to communicate with the dead in some way. This ability is cultivated by military forces who seek to use her skills to find mass graves; in this sense, the novel’s surrealistic quality is put to use to explore the legacy of war. As the novel moves toward the conclusion, Rabbit finds herself in a romantic relationship with a Russian soldier; here, Barry unveils one of the most compelling portions of the narrative, as Barry uses this relationship to revisit an earlier trauma of the narrative. To read the event from two different perspectives demonstrates how trauma actually functions on the level of a narrative aesthetic, as Rabbit comes to understand the gravity of the events at sea only from a latent perspective. If there is one major critique to be made of the novel, it remains on the level of its episodic nature, which occasionally undercuts the power of the incredible images and lyrical prose that so strongly supports the characters and their fictional world. A highly recommended read, and given the challenge of the prose itself, a work you’d want to revisit anyway.

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