July 20th, 2016

Asian American Literature Fans – Megareview for July 20, 2016

Asian American Literature Fans – Megareview for July 20, 2016

In this post, reviews of: Melissa de la Cruz’s Return to the Isle of the Lost (Disney-Hyperion 2016); Minh Lê’s Let Me Finish (illustrated by Isabel Roxas)(Disney-Hyperion, 2016); Vasudev Murthy’s Sherlock Holmes, The Missing Years: Japan (Poisoned Pen Press, 2015); Lynne Kutsukake’s The Translation of Love (Knopf Doubleday, 2016); Jun Yun’s Shelter (Picador 2016); Ann Y.K. Choi’s Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety (Touchstone Canada, 2016); Eisha Marjara’s Faerie (Arsenal Pulp, 2016); Prajwal Parajuly’s Land Where I Flee (Quercus, 2015).

A Review of Melissa de la Cruz’s Return to the Isle of the Lost (Disney-Hyperion 2016).

So, I’ve definitely been on a young adult and children’s literature kick lately. I think the focus is attributable to the fact that I’m spending so much of my actual day on revising academic writing that I really need a good mental break. There’s nothing better than plot-driven narratives that typically involve streamlined perspectives. In any case, Melissa de al Cruz’s Return to the Isle of the Lost (Disney Hyperion 2016) is her follow-up to the wonderfully fun Isle of the Lost, which involved her reconsideration of the Disney world through the lens of the children of its villains. We’ll let B&N take up the summary for the sequel: “Mal's an expert at intimidating her enemies, but she's broken the habit since leaving her villainous roots behind. So when she and her friends Evie, Carlos, and Jay all receive threatening messages demanding they return home, Mal can't believe it. Sure, she's King Ben's girlfriend now, and she's usually nice to her classmates, but she still didn't think anyone would be silly enough to try to push her around. The thing is, it kind of worked. Especially since she and her friends have a sneaking suspicion that their villainous parents are behind the messages. And when Evie looks into her Magic Mirror, what she sees only confirms their fears. Maleficent's just a tiny lizard after her run-in with Mal at Ben's Coronation, but she's the worst villain in the land for a reason. Could she have found a way to escape? Whatever's going on, Mal, Evie, Carlos, and Jay know they have to sneak back to the Isle and get to the bottom of it. Without its infamous leader, the island's even worse than when they left it, but the comforts of home-even a home as gloomy as the Isle of the Lost-can be hard to resist for recently reformed villains. Will the kids be able to beat the evil bubbling at the Isle's wicked core, or will the plot to destroy Auradon succeed?” So, what this summary doesn’t detail is that Mal’s best friends are the children of other famous Disney villains, with Evie being the daughter of the Evil Queen; Carlos, the son of Cruella de Vil; and Jay, the son of Jafar. Once they travel back to the Isle of the Lost, they start to discover that someone may be using their identities to create an “anti-heroes” club. Their investigation leads them to find out the forces behind the club and why it is being created, which pushes the plot toward its resolution. de la Cruz is well aware of the formula she laid out in the first novel, which turns our expectations for villainy on its head. She uses this ethos as the guide for this particular work, which allows it to succeed on its own level. Indeed, just because someone is beautiful and fair-haired does not necessarily deem them to be a hero, nor does a dark, brooding individual with an introverted personality suggest that figure is supposed to be malevolent (or maleficent). Pitched at younger audiences, it is sure to be engaged with much relish. As with other works by de la Cruz, we don’t necessarily get a strong sense of external referentiality to this kind of work: the political can typically be found only in the ways that you have to reconsider fictional elements as metaphors for social difference. To be sure, one element that this family friendly novel does remind us is that we must move beyond any exterior countenance to find out what morals and values might be actually beneath. The target readers will have little to complain about, especially as this merry cast of young Disney characters still find a way to be good in a world filled with so many devilish temptations.

A nice article on the work:


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A Review of Minh Lê’s Let Me Finish (illustrated by Isabel Roxas)(Disney-Hyperion, 2016).

It’s been awhile since I’ve read a children’s picture book. One of my nieces is definitely getting to the age where she’s getting interested in pictures and even the words on the page, so I’ve been thinking more and more about the genre here. I just had a chance to read and to see Minh Lê’s Let Me Finish (illustrated by Isabel Roxas)(Disney-Hyperion, 2016). The folks over at B&N provide a nice pithy summary as per usual: “When our young hero settles in to read, the last thing he wants is for some noisy animals to ruin the ending of the story. But ruin it they do. And as it turns out, the boy is quickly approaching a surprise ending of his own! Maybe he should have listened to the animals after all. . . . This silly, timeless picturebook with a clever meta twist introduces debut author Minh L 's witty text and Isabel Roxas's eye-catching illustrations.” I didn’t really get the “meta twist” that is referred to here, but I really appreciated how Lê’s story keys into childhood impatience over the process of reading. Thus, this narrative plays out reminding us that there is some measure of satisfaction in waiting upon the big reveal. Roxas’s pictures are also a great pairing with Lê’s story. Again, I have seen different approaches to children’s book in terms of style, and here, Roxas employs a more sketch-like cartoon style that I think is most appropriate for this kind of speculative work. Definitely, one I will want to read to my young nieces and nephews!

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A Review of Vasudev Murthy’s Sherlock Holmes, The Missing Years: Japan (Poisoned Pen Press, 2015).

Vasudev Murthy’s Sherlock Holmes, The Missing Years: Japan is a novel that I found out about doing one of my insomnia fueled late night Internet troving trips. The rabbit hole is very deep my friends; there’s always some new novel or writer that I am completely in the dark about. In this case, it was Vasudev Murthy and his Sherlock Holmes series. As per our standards, we’ll let B&N take things away for our recap: “It’s 1893. King Kamehameha III of Hawaii declares Sovereignty Restoration Day ... Tension grows between China and Japan over Korea ... The Bengal Famine worsens ... A brilliant scientist in Calcutta challenges the system … The senior priest at Kyoto’s Kinkaku-ji temple is found dead in mysterious circumstances. Dr John H. Watson receives a strange letter from Yokohama. Then the quiet, distinguished Mr. Hashimoto is murdered inside a closed room on a voyage from Liverpool to Bombay. In the opium dens of Shanghai and in the back alleys of Tokyo, sinister men hatch evil plots. Professor Moriarty stalks the world, drawing up a map for worldwide dominion. Only one man can outwit the diabolical Professor Moriarty. Only one man can save the world. Has Sherlock Holmes survived the Reichenbach Falls? In a seriocomic novel that radically ups the ante, Sherlock Holmes and Watson find their match in more than one man (or indeed, woman) as a clock inexorably ticks. History, mystery, romance, conspiracies, knife-edge tension; a train in Russia, roadside crime in Alexandria, an upset stomach in Bombay, careening through Cambodia, nasty people in China, monks in Japan–here’s a thrilling global chase that will leave you breathless (occasionally with laughter) as the Sherlock Holmes: The Missing Years series begins.” The novel opens with a key fact: apparently Sherlock Holmes is dead, so why is Dr. Watson on board the North Star on his way to Japan? Apparently, Sherlock Holmes is not really dead, and Dr. Watson receives a mysterious note that could have only been written by the famous detective himself. Thus, the plot begins in this intriguing and primarily first-person narrative in which Dr. Watson leads us down the path of a complicated and intricate mystery involving the Yakuza, opium, and the fate of the European nations. The opening of the book is perhaps the strongest because we’re wondering about what happened to Sherlock, how he will appear in the book, and what the hell is going on aboard the North Star. The tension ramps up when someone on board is murdered; Holmes and two others, Shamser Singh and a man named Fletcher, team up to consider who the likely murderer might be. From here, I will leave a lot of the spoilers out because part of the fun is Murthy’s ingenious reveals. Though Watson is our primary narrator, Murthy employs a mix of documentation forms (such as letters and correspondences) to give us viewpoints from other key characters. If there is one critique to be made of this occasional shift in perspective, it’s that Murthy chose occasionally to break with the conventions of shifting first to include a strange third person perspective that includes Moriarty. Given the realist conventions of the novel for the most part and the desire to give credence to the fact that this is a “factual” account even to the extent that Dr. Watson is annoyed by editorial suggestions provided by a Poisoned Press Editor (and these asides were absolutely hilarious). The success of this book comes from Murthy’s hilarious use of the first person: Dr. Watson’s voice comes off as the appropriate storyteller for this convoluted and outrageous, but no less entertaining detective plot in which the fate of Europe and other countries seems to hang in the balance. I definitely recommend this one to fans of the genre.

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A Review of Lynne Kutsukake’s The Translation of Love (Knopf Doubleday, 2016).

Admittedly, I was put off by the cover of this book, one that includes a parasol. The orientalist imagery is nevertheless somewhat appropriate given the fact that the novel is set for the most part in Japan. We’ll let the folks over at B&N provide us with our requisite plot summary, which in this case is much longer than usual: “After spending the war years in a Canadian internment camp, thirteen-year-old Aya Shimamura and her father are faced with a gut-wrenching choice: Move east of the Rocky Mountains or go ‘back’ to Japan. Barred from returning home to the west coast and bitterly grieving the loss of Aya’s mother during internment, Aya’s father signs a form that enables the government to deport them. But war-devastated Tokyo is not much better. Aya’s father struggles to find work, compromising his morals and toiling long hours. Meanwhile Aya, born and raised in Vancouver, is something of a pariah at her school, bullied for being foreign and paralyzed when asked to communicate in Japanese. Aya’s alienation is eventually mitigated by one of her principal tormenters, a willful girl named Fumi Tanaka, whose older sister has mysteriously disappeared. When a rumor surfaces that General MacArthur, who is overseeing the Occupation, might help citizens in need, Fumi enlists Aya to compose a letter asking him to find her beloved sister. The letter is delivered into the reluctant hands of Corporal Matt Matsumoto, a Japanese American serving with the Occupation forces, whose endless job is translating the thousands of letters MacArthur receives each week. Matt feels an affinity toward Fumi but is largely powerless, and the girls decide to take matters into their own hands, venturing into the dark and dangerous underside of Tokyo’s Ginza district.” The summary does a decent job of pulling together the major strands of a very complicated book. Narrative perspective continually shifts among five or so major characters. The summary does not mention Fumi’s sister Sumiko and her life as a bargirl in the Ginza district. Sumiko left in order to provide more money for her family, especially for her mother who was ailing at the time. Fumi desperately misses her sister and part of the title certainly evokes the letter that she writes to MacArthur, one borne out of her sisterly melancholia. It is this relationship that catalyzes all the major plot points and allows the various characters to wind their eventual ways to each other. One of Fumi’s and Aya’s schoolteachers named Kondo also appears as an important character, who also happens to possess translating skills. The latter arc of the book presents a considerable challenge for debut writer Kutsukake, who must find a way to make these disparate elements cohere. Unfortunately, the connection between Matt and Fumi, though certainly rendered in a realistic way, comes off as somewhat diffuse. The fragile relationship between these characters and their respective worlds leaves the novel strongly bifurcated and rendering their stories ultimately too distinct for my taste. Otherwise, Kutsukake does provide us with an intriguing reconsideration of the internment narrative from both Japanese Canadian and Japanese American perspectives. Here, the novel explores the complications of repatriation for many Japanese transnationals, who found themselves stranded once the war ended, and they could not find their way back to the countries that they considered home. Certainly, Kutsukake’s novel must be hailed for its lyrical prose, which makes the reading experience all the more enjoyable.

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A Review of Jun Yun’s Shelter (Picador 2016).

Okay, so I have a really bifurcated reaction to Jun Yung’s beautiful written, relentlessly depressing first novel, Shelter. On the one hand, I absolutely was compelled to read it start to finish at a breathless pace. On the other, this elegance of the prose stood in severe contrast to the suffocating space of the fictional world. There was often no break from the dysfunctionality and unhappiness experienced by these characters, especially from the self-loathing protagonist Kyung Cho. Let us let B&N do some plot summary work for us: “Kyung Cho is a young father burdened by a house he can’t afford. For years, he and his wife, Gillian, have lived beyond their means. Now their debts and bad decisions are catching up with them, and Kyung is anxious for his family’s future. A few miles away, his parents, Jin and Mae, live in the town’s most exclusive neighborhood, surrounded by the material comforts that Kyung desires for his wife and son. Growing up, they gave him every possible advantage—private tutors, expensive hobbies—but they never showed him kindness. Kyung can hardly bear to see them now, much less ask for their help. Yet when an act of violence leaves Jin and Mae unable to live on their own, the dynamic suddenly changes, and he’s compelled to take them in. For the first time in years, the Chos find themselves living under the same roof. Tensions quickly mount as Kyung’s proximity to his parents forces old feelings of guilt and anger to the surface, along with a terrible and persistent question: how can he ever be a good husband, father, and son when he never knew affection as a child? As Shelter veers swiftly toward its startling conclusion, Jung Yun leads us through dark and violent territory, where, unexpectedly, the Chos discover hope. Shelter is a masterfully crafted debut novel that asks what it means to provide for one's family and, in answer, delivers a story as riveting as it is profound.” Yun is especially meticulous in her ability to provide insight into Kyung’s incredibly flawed character. He’s a mess, but we get why: his upbringing was a true carnival of “child of Korean immigrant” horrors: he’s beaten by his mother, while his father beats his wife. The story’s main event is a harrowing sequence involving home invasion, and I suppose it’s important to provide a trigger warning here for anyone who might have trouble getting through a scene of considerable violence of many kinds. Once Kyung and his parents are faced with the prospect of a daunting recovery due to the home invasion and associated traumas, all sorts of conflicts and issues arise. One of the main issues is that Kyung and Gillian are broke, so they have to negotiate how they might ask for financial help. Kyung, being a Korean son of immigrants, realizes that he’s going to lose face if he shows too much vulnerability, and does everything in how power to remain independent of his parents, while still showing a modicum of support for them in the wake of all that has happened. Kyung and Gillian’s relationship is placed on rocky ground, especially because it becomes apparent that there is a large cultural divide between them. Despite Yun’s careful attention to Kyung’s problematic childhood, it may be hard to find an emotional center and empathy point for the reader, especially as Kyung finds one way after another to self-implode. His disintegration is especially painful to watch, given the fact that it seems that he so desperately wants things to be better but cannot find a way to claim the kind of agency he so obviously desires. The so-called “hope” referred to in the B&N description really appears in a scant page or so of text, and readers will be divided on whether or not that kind of conclusion will be enough for this tortuous journey of family dysfunction, however effulgent in its narrative development. Despite what I expect will be a polarizing narrative, Yun is obviously an immense talent, and we’ll hope we’re graced with a long, illustrious career of print publications that come sooner rather than later.

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A Review of Ann Y.K. Choi’s Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety (Touchstone Canada, 2016).

I recall having marked this novel’s appearance on my amazon page a year before its publication. Ann Y.K. Choi’s Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety was originally titled Paper Swan, which makes sense given the references to origami contained therein, but the actual title is perhaps more apt precisely because it refers to the convenience store that the protagonist’s family owns. The story and protagonist is named Mary; she’s Korean Canadian and lives in Toronto. Choi’s debut certainly shows flashes of brilliance, as we get an episodic look at Mary’s complicated and uneven life. She must help out at the family store, even as she attempts to navigate fledgling romances, her own education, and familial events (such as the death of a grandmother and the arrival of a cousin from Korea, who is in Canada to study at a university). The novel is tightly structured through chapter vignettes, as each details a particular issue or conflict in Mary’s life. Perhaps, the most central threads involve Mary’s conflicted Korean/ Canadian identity: she finds her family’s cultural value systems to clash quite heavily with her day-to-day experience as a child of immigrants. With few social contacts that are Korean/ Canadian, she naturally must make friends from a mixed assortment of female peers, but all who are not surprisingly outsiders in one way or another. The romantic relationships that Mary develops are another cause for anxiety, as she develops serious feelings for her cousin Joon-Ho, while also simultaneously pursuing her former high school English teacher, who has aspirations to become a creative writer. It is the romantic subplots that eventually become the most catastrophic and here I give you the requisite plot spoilers because the last half of the book includes some pretty serious events. Joon-Ho eventually gets accused of plagiarism and is expelled from his university. At the same time, Mary repels any romantic advances from him. Joon-Ho, feeling spurned, sabotages an electrical system at the store, which results in an explosion. This event ultimately kills Mary’s mother, while injuring her father. Though at first the police do not know who was at fault for the wiring issue, Mary immediately suspects Joon-Ho, but by the time he is tracked down, he has committed suicide. Not surprisingly, the final chapters deal with issues of mourning and bereavement. Additionally, Mary’s romance with the former high school English teacher (named Will) goes south. The conclusion sees Mary exploring her own artistic impulses further. Choi’s debut is a form of the kuntslerroman, a narrative involving the development of the artist’s life. Most compelling in this work is Mary’s exploration of the complicated lives of immigrants and their children. At times, the plotting and characterizations did seem rushed, but overall, a solid outing by this debut writer.

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A Review of Eisha Marjara’s Faerie (Arsenal Pulp, 2016).

After I finished reading Eisha Marjara’s debut novel Faerie, I was surprised to discover it being marketed as a young adult fiction. Our first person protagonist is Lila, a teenager who is struggling with anorexia nervosa. The seriousness of the topic matter and its depiction thus surprised me in terms of the marketing of the work. We’ll let B&N take it from here to provide us with some basics: “Just days before her eighteenth birthday, Lila has resolved to end her life. The horror of becoming an adult, and leaving her childhood behind, has broken her heart. Faerie, a novel for young people, is the fierce yet gently unfolding story of a hyper- imaginative girl who is on a collision course to womanhood. She likens herself to a half-human fairy creature who does not belong in the earthly world; but in the cold light of day she is a psychiatric patient at a hospital, where she is being treated for anorexia - her sickness driven by the irrational need to undo nature and thwart the passage of time. Lila tells the story of how she ended up on the Four East wing: we flash back to her childhood in the eighties, growing up in a small town as the overweight brown kid of Punjabi immigrant parents: her father, a literary scholar whom she idolizes, and her mother, a housewife – ‘the most female of all females who found comfort in cooking.’ Faerie weaves these passages with Lila's downward spiral into life-threatening illness, her budding sexuality, and her complicated recovery in hospital that comes with a price. Written with candor and heartbreaking lyricism, Faerie is a plaintive yet ultimately life-affirming love letter to the bold, flawed splendor that is childhood.” This summary is an interesting one and encourages me to reconsider the novel in light of its psychoanalytic storyline. Is there a kind of melancholia at work in our title character, who seems to suffer under the weight of her racialized and ethnic difference? Is her eating disorder a manifestation of the loss she has turned inward: her inability to become the normative (racialized and ethnic) body that has surrounded her? These questions certainly come up, as we follow Lila’s story. But the titular faerie is an interesting reconsideration of anorexia through the lens of a fairytale figuration. As followers of this figure know, the faerie is not necessarily a magical creature with the best intentions in mind. It often is a trickster, who sets people on wayward paths using equivocation and riddles. In some sense, Lila operates in a similar fashion, as she pushes the people she loves away from her, deliberately hides unconsumed food from the orderlies and medical staff who are trained to help heal her, while delicately avoiding any intimate relationships with peers and other patients. But the novel eventually stages a kind of breakthrough once Lila is able to make a tentative friendship with another girl and fellow patient named Alyssa: what we begin to see is the incredible wall that Lila has fortified against everyone else. No one can really know her internal struggles, her desire for conformity and control, even if they seem to be well aware of that possibility. Once Lila begins to see that there are others who truly understand and empathize with the kind of struggles she faces, the narrative begins to turn, offering the possibility that she might stage another kind of metamorphosis. If there is one minor quibble to be made of this admirable young adult fiction, it appears in the very consolidated concluding arc. The recovery period involving Lila’s leavetaking from the medical facility is incredibly succinct, so much so that her survival seems almost miraculous given the tremendous care that Marjara takes in detailing the lengthy struggle with anorexia up to that point.

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A Review of Prajwal Parajuly’s Land Where I Flee (Quercus, 2015)

(not the us cover, but can't find that image at the best res).

So, this novel was one I had been waiting to read at the right time. I have already had a chance to read some of Parajuly’s work, as I earlier reviewed his short story collection here on AALF. I was interested to see how Parajuly would deal with the form of the longer novel. His debut in this form, Land Where I Flee (Quercus, 2015), is an impressive, polyvocal, and complex depiction of a dysfunctional, transnational, diasporically dispersed family that hails from Nepal. We’ll let B&N take over some basic summary duties here: “Three Westernized siblings return to their Himalayan hometown to pay respects to their grandmother on her 84th birthday and confront buried family tensions. Now in his debut novel, Land Where I Flee, Parajuly has created a moving family drama about returning home. To celebrate Chitralekha Nepauney's Chaurasi on her eighty-fourth birthday, three of Chitralekha's grandchildren are travelling to Gangtok, Sikkim, to pay their respect, all with the same goal: to emerge from the celebrations with their formidable grandmother's blessing and their nerves intact: a goal that will become increasingly impossible thanks to a mischievous maid and a fourth uninvited guest.” These three “Westernized siblings” have not been seen together in something like two decades due to the fact that Bhagwati (one of the siblings) had run off with an untouchable and thus married beneath caste (though the reason behind her elopement is of course far more complicated than it at first seems). Bhagwati’s rift with her grandmother is one of the larger issues that the novel grapples with, but every child comes with their unique set of baggage. Bhagwati’s sister Manasa, for instance, marries a suitable, elite Brahmin (a man named Himal) but does not realize how much of her life would be devoted to the caretaking of her elderly father-in-law, a duty that has worn her down. Manasa also has a rather tendentious and combative relationship with Chikralekha, especially due to her scorn for Chikralekha’s servant, a hijra by the name of Prasanti. Finally, Agastaya, the elder grandson, is in the closet and travels to Nepal, realizing that his relationship with his boyfriend, Nicky, is coming to a head. The fourth “uninvited guest” is actually the fourth sibling, Ruthwa, who is also marked by a level of infamy due to the fact that he had written a novel that revealed intimate details of his grandmother’s life. His second work was marred by scandal, as it was revealed that some passages were lifted from a V.S. Naipaul publication. His arrival at his grandmother’s birthday is not simply a measure of filiality: Ruthwa is looking to jumpstart his career by focusing on a new publication in a new form. He wishes to write a sort of ethnographic depiction of hijras, focusing much of this new work on Prasanti. Parajuly makes the bold choice to switch among a different narrative discourses. At first, the novel moves forward in shifting third person, alternating from one sibling’s life to the next. But, when Ruthwa enters the picture, he is given a jarring and quite sophomoric first person voice, one that threatens the equanimity of the novel simply based upon the fact that he’s so easy to dislike. What makes this novel particularly compelling, though, is how understated the narrative trajectory becomes: there are no incredibly climactic family showdowns and no easy resolutions. Each sibling undergoes a realistic developmental arc, while readers are denied a tidy conclusion. Perhaps, more fundamental than Parajuly’s domestic plot is the importance of this family in relation to Nepali social contexts. We understand that this particular familial dysfunction is more largely in dialogue with a country under considerable evolution and change, especially as it attempts to modernize. The grandchildren’s diasporic trajectories seem to reflect this move toward a more cosmopolitan future, one that threatens the kind of life that the grandmother so painstakingly attempts to protect. A multitextured and insightful work.

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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 ssohnucr@gmail.com with any concerns you may have.

AALF is maintained by a number of professional academics and scholars, including Paul Lai (pylduck@gmail.com
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