This spotlight contains reviews of: Leslie Helm’s Yokohama Yankee, Todd and LJC Shimoda’s Why Ghosts Appear, and Todd and LJC Shimoda’s Subduction.
May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. As part of my acknowledgement of this month, I am attempting to amass 31 reviews, so my rate would come out on average to a review a day in the month of May. We’ll see if I’m able to complete this challenge, but as part of this initiative, I’m hoping that my efforts might be matched in some way by you: so if you’re a reader and lurker of AALF, I am encouraging you to make your own post or respond to one of the reviews. Would it be too much to ask for 31 comments and/or posts by readers and others? Probably, but the gauntlet has been thrown. LJ is open access, so you can create your own profile or you can post anonymously. I kindly encourage you to comment just to acknowledge your participation in AALF’s readership.
For more on APA Heritage Month, go here:
To start things off, I’m going to be conducting something I used to call a Small Press Spotlight. I aim to review a couple of offerings at an independent and/or small press in the hopes that we all consider the importance of occasionally expanding our readings beyond the big publishing houses (Random House, Penguin, Simon & Schuster etc.). I begin with Chin Music Press!
The catalogue for Chin Music Press and website can be found here:
For the uninitiated, Chin Music Press is probably best known for publishing the novels of Todd Shimoda and L.J.C. Shimoda. In our small press spotlight, we will cover two of Shimodas’ novels and Leslie Helm’s memoir Yokohama Yankee. The press itself would be of interest for readers of AALF because many of their publications have a focus on Asian cultural contexts, especially Japan. Consider supporting innovative small presses through course adoptions and individual book purchases.
Without further ado, some reviews:
A Review of Todd Shimoda’s Why Ghosts Appear (Chin Music Press, 2015)
So, I’ve been a little bit behind on Chin Music Press’s wonderful offerings, so I figured I’d do some catching up. I started off with Todd Shimoda’s latest novel Why Ghosts Appear (I still have to catch up on his earlier work Subduction). As with Oh!, Why Ghosts Appear is a mystery; our protagonist and narrator is an investigator. He is looking into the request made by a fortuneteller (Mizuno Rie) about her missing son (Mizuno Ren). But from here the plot thickens precipitously as Shimoda gleefully piles on strange coincidences and mysteries throughout the narrative. First off, there is a camera store owner (Obushi) that may or may not have a connection to Mizuno Ren, who is an artist. Obushi later disappears under enigmatic and perhaps deadly circumstances. A seductive woman (with a penchant for drinking beer) named Teruyo also happens to be hanging out over at Mizuno Ren’s place for no apparent reason other than to watch over Ren’s residence, even though it seems that she may have ulterior motives (here Shimoda is obviously working in the femme fatale trope). Then, there’s the strange Kuchi Clan, a group of fortunetellers that Mizuno Rie was connected to, but has since broken off from. Finally, there is an art director whose company had hired Mizuno Ren to complete some drawings for them. Somehow, the president of that company seems to be connected to all the strange goings-on. Along the way, the narrator enlists the help of a fraud clerk, who becomes a sort of sidekick. It becomes evident that Obushi and Mizuno Ren were connected in their work, but the narrator often becomes sidetracked because of another mystery that emerges. 20 years ago, the investigator was involved in a case in which a woman’s husband disappeared. The investigator was never able to solve that case, and it is intimated that the investigator was involved in some sort of affair with that woman. Flash forward 20 years later (to the present of this story) and the investigator discovers that the woman has been in an accident, a hit and run, and she’s in a coma. The investigator can’t help but want to figure out what happened and tries to look into the circumstances involving the accident. The title, Why Ghosts Appear, comes from a book that appears in the novel, which is a sort of typology of spirits, the most important being the obake and the yurei. As the investigator continues his search for clues and leads, it becomes evident that there is a spirit force at work. The novel gets increasingly murky, as the investigator wonders who is a spirit and who is not (this kind of plotting reminded me very much of Alvin Lu’s woefully understudied The Hell Screens). There are times that I felt the novel suffered from some momentum issues, as Shimoda grapples with an investigator whose perception of the world around him is constantly in question and thus, we too are seriously confused, but the conclusion becomes far more forceful, as the novel moves from Japan all the way to Mexico. This transnational current is necessitated by the fact of Obushi and Mizuno Ren’s connection, as the investigator is able to pin down that the two worked together on a catalog of sorts documenting the butterflies in the area. While in Mexico, the two had taken on side projects, some of which involved the growing sex industry in the area; their representations of the dispossessed women forced into prostitution serves as the first real thread that the investigator can follow. Shimoda’s plot sometimes leaves too much to coincidence but the final arc proves to be a compelling and fitting one for a novel so comfortable with straddling the boundary between the spiritual and physical worlds. Further still, Shimoda makes intriguing parallels by twining together the national cultural festivities that revolve around death and dying: in this case, Dia de Los Muertos becomes the vehicle to resituate the obake and the yurei. Perhaps, the most crucial quality to punctuate is the high aesthetic production values of this book, which follow the Shimodas’ previous collaborative efforts. The novel includes high quality color images (designed, drawn etc by LJC Shimoda) that are supposed to be excerpts perhaps from Mizuno Ren’s sketchbook; these add an element of intrigue and visual texture to the plot. Certainly, this book stands alongside Oh! in terms of its genre impulses, and I do hope that this work sees adoption in many courses, such as our standard Asian American literature classes as well as mystery / detective/ noir novels. In terms of the “coffee table” quality of this book, there is something to be said about a course that might explore these types of multigenre books, thus perhaps putting together something like Dao Strom’s We Were Meant to be a Gentle People, Janice Lee’s Daughter, Karen Tei Yamashita’s Anime Wong, and Shimodas’ Why Ghosts Appear (or any of the Shimoda collaborations).
For more in the Chin Music Press catalogue:
Buy the Book Here:
A Review of Todd Shimoda’s Subduction (Chin Music Press, 2012).
So, I read Why Ghosts Appear before I finished Subduction, so I went backwards in terms of the publication chronology. We’ll let Publishers Weekly handle the summary duties this time around (this excerpt was snagged from B&N): “In Shimoda's eerie thriller (after Oh! A Mystery of Mono No Aware), a young Japanese doctor, Endo, is banished to Marui-jima, ‘a dust mote of an island,’ after he takes the blame for a patient's death. Although the government ordered the island's evacuation after a decade-long ‘earthquake swarm,’ its elderly inhabitants refuse to leave their home. On Marui-jima, Endo meets Aki, a seismologist who left his family in Tokyo to study the island's earthquakes and subduction zones, and Mari, a beautiful documentary filmmaker ‘dealing with demons.’ From Mari and Aki, Endo uncovers Marui-jima's past: a history of resentment between the local fishermen and the wealthy Furuta who bought them out to form his powerful fleet, an illicit ‘exchange’ between Furuta and a fisherman's wife, and two deaths that remain unexplained 40 years later. As Endo and Mari grow closer, she shares with him the islanders' stories—as well as Aki's and her own. Shimoda skillfully weaves these tales into the narrative, revealing how past events ‘continue to affect the island, like aftershocks.’ Earthquakes are an apt metaphor for the social disruptions on the island, and Shimoda links modern earthquake science, ancient Japanese myths on the origin of earthquakes, and an unforgettable cast of characters to create a suspenseful, richly illustrated novel.” This synopsis is pretty damn great: the main event is really the love triangle that emerges between Jun Endo, the disgraced doctor, Aki, the seismologist, and Mari, the documentarian. As is the case with Shimoda’s novel, he twines his interest in philosophy with genre fiction. Here, subduction and earthquake production really do act as the “apt metaphor” for the rumblings of the Marui-jima community, so we know that we’re eventually in for a rough tumbler. In terms of plotting, even Endo is targeted, as he is pushed off a pier and forced to swim back to land. The unexplained death of Aki late into the novel—and I suppose I should have provided an earlier spoiler warning—kicks the novel into high gear for its concluding arc. Endo must figure out how Aki died, and then begins to piece together Aki’s data in order to figure out what was going on. The illustrations by L.J.C Shimoda are exquisite as they always are, but have less to do with the narrative this time around than in the other two novels that came out from Chin Music Press. Nevertheless, they are always welcome additions and consistently make the reading experience that much more pleasurable and fun. This novel also happens to be the most ethnographic of Shimoda’s work (that I’ve read) because he uses the documentarian as a way to detail the lives of the Marui-jima islanders. Shimoda’s choice to shift narrative styles using font color variation was questionable though, as the lighter printing ends up being a little bit tough on the eyes. I wondered whether or not it would have been more compelling to leave those sections in what might be called the “diegetic” present and narrated through direct dialogue (offered by Mari). The analeptic sequences are always quite rich, especially as we get to know all the characters from stories in their murky pasts. Of course, Shimoda leaves the best flashbacks for the end, and we suddenly know why the cast of characters have been assembled in such a remote island which is destined to crumble into the turbulent Pacific Waters.
Buy the Book Here:
A Review of Leslie Helm’s Yokohama Yankee (Chin Music Press, 2013).
So I currently am in touch with a graduate student who is working on multiracial literatures, and I was immediately in that zone when I started reading Leslie Helm’s wonderful memoir Yokohama Yankee. We’ll let the official description over at Chin Music Press do some of the basic work for us: “Leslie Helm’s decision to adopt Japanese children launches him on a personal journey through his family’s 140 years in Japan, beginning with his German great grandfather, who worked as a military adviser in 1870 and defied custom to marry his Japanese mistress. The family’s poignant experiences of love and war help Helm learn to embrace his Japanese and American heritage. Yokohama Yankee is the first book to look at Japan across five generations with perspective that is both from the inside and through foreign eyes. Helm draws on his great grandfather’s unpublished memoir and a wealth of primary source material to bring his family history to life. Leslie Helm was born and raised in Yokohama, Japan, where his family has lived since 1869. Leslie graduated from the University of California, Berkeley with a B.A. in political science and an M.A. in Asian studies. He attended the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism on a U.S. Japan Friendship Commission fellowship. He has worked as Tokyo correspondent for Business Week and the Los Angeles Times. Helm is currently editor of Seattle Business magazine.” The memoir opens with a basic sense of Helm’s ambivalence to his biracial identity, especially in light of his status as someone who is always pegged to be a gaijin. Though he’s fluent in the language, his mixed ancestry does not always register with the other Japanese individuals he meets. As a journalist who has lived in Japan for many years, Helm finds this outsider-ness to be a key feature of a kind of insularity which has remained part of the culture for centuries (even with the infamous Commodore Perry event). As the memoir moves on, Helm takes the time to explain the form of this work: he’s researching into his family’s past, starting with his great grandfather and then moving to the lives of other key descendants. Obviously painstakingly researched, Helm’s memoir can’t cover everything. It’s always interesting to read Helm’s conditional word usage: “perhaps” a particular figure “thought” something or “maybe” this family member was feeling this “thing.” In other words, part of Helm’s memoir must in some sense be speculative, and this kind of acknowledgment makes Yokohama Yankee all the more compelling precisely because it reveals both the productivity and the limits of ancestral excavations. But, overpowering this quest for the past is Helm’s very complicated present: the construction of his own mixed family is absolutely riveting and is interspersed with these familial forays into the past. I felt sometimes impatient to find out how Helm and his wife was dealing with raising adopted children. The substance of these challenges only become most clear in the final pages, revealing the possibility that Helm may yet have to write at least one more memoir. Helm is painfully aware of his limits as an adoptive father: a claim made explicit when he divulges the insecurity apparent within him when his daughter Mari admits that she wants to find her birth mother. Helm’s response is certainly insensitive, and he tells us as much in the messy aftermath. But, Helm’s attraction to adoption as a route of creating another kinship is perhaps not surprising given the many challenges his own family has faced over a century because of its hybrid constitution. Perhaps, then, Helm’s move to adopt two children was a natural extension of the kind of belonging he has always understood: to embrace parts of himself and others that seem different, and in doing so come to a greater understanding of what home, community, and identity can mean. The production values of this memoir are naturally first rate. Again, I have to applaud Chin Music Press for its attention to these kinds of elements; it makes the reading experience so rich. Maps, color photographs and drawings are plastered throughout the pages giving the memoir an occasional scrapbook-ish feel. An epic, introspective memoir, certainly another to be considered for critical consideration and course adoptions, and reminiscent of the kind of arc of Dao Strom’s recently reviewed We Were Meant to be a Gentle People.
Buy the Book Here:
Other books of interest from Chin Music Press for blog readers:
Todd Shimoda’s Oh!
For more on Shimodas’ collaborative efforts:
Jay Rubin’s The Sun Gods
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 firstname.lastname@example.org with any concerns you may have.