In this post reviews of Eugenia Leigh’s Blood, Sparrows, and Sparrows (2014, Four Way Books); Jenn P. Nguyen’s The Way to Game the Walk of Shame (Swoon Reads, 2016); Tarun Shanker and Kelly Zekas’s These Vicious Masks (Swoon Reads, 2016); Don Mee Choi’s Hardly War (Wave Books, 2016).
A Review of Eugenia Leigh’s Blood, Sparrows, and Sparrows (2014, Four Way Books)
So I’ve been catching up on the Asian American poets being published out of Four Way, slowly but surely, and Eugenia Leigh’s Blood, Sparrows, and Sparrows (2014, Four Way Books) was next up on my list. Based upon the title, I didn’t quite understand what I was getting myself into because this collection is obviously far more than about blood and birds. This kind of collection is one that leaves you a little bit out of breath because the lyrics are so utterly ferocious: you have a lyric speaker that is obviously working through a very traumatic past, one which includes domestic violence and parental abandonment. Issues related to the speaker’s ethnoracial background are also very subtly woven in, so that you can tell that there are Korean American and Korean transnational cultural contexts being invoked. If the title does key the reader into certain themes that the collection will engage, they are related to brutality—hence the reference to blood—and religion—as, sparrows are emblematic of the divine in some circles. For the lyric speaker, there is an obvious desire to make sense out of the turbulence of her childhood: what better way to reconstruct some semblance of order out of chaos than through poetry, she seems to suggest, especially since the project she sets out to complete is obviously so tortured. There is so much to patch together we begin to realize, so the lyrics begin to lose some coherence, yet accrue the proper sublimity and tonality for what is at stake here. An example of what I mean emerges perhaps best in “We Called it the Year of Birthing” (66), which begins with an ominous enough phrase: “God handed me a trash bag bloated with feathers” and proceeds to direct the lyric speaker to create a bird from the contents. This opening is later referenced elliptically through a later stanza: “When beaten hard enough, some people scamper into corners/ sordid with similar beaten people. Others of us—/the stubborn, unbreakable humans—weld our wounds/ to form tools. Then we spend our days mending bent humans or wiping the humans/ mired by all the wrong fingerprints” (66). To a certain extent, the bag of feathers given to the lyric speaker by God seems to suggest that He’ll be giving her a life in which she will have to make something out of broken parts, leftover things which are already starting to decay. The power of Leigh’s work is that she gives her lyric speaker the chance to find strength in remaking wounds into something new, perhaps even beautiful in these twisted reconfigurations. Is this approach not the best a confessional poet can do in the face of such great trauma? This collection is a perfect fit amongst the others I’ve read from Four Way Books; the editors and publishers of the press are well aware of the ways that confessional poets lyrically confront such deep wounds to remind us that the elegance is in how we choose to recover.
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A Review of Jenn P. Nguyen’s The Way to Game the Walk of Shame (Swoon Reads, 2016).
So, I’ll admit: at first, I really wanted to hate Jenn P. Nguyen’s debut young adult fiction The Way to Game the Walk of Shame (Swoon Reads, 2016). This novel emerges out of a new era in publishing that is somewhat crowd-sourced in the sense that you can put manuscripts online and have people vote on them and provide feedback. Those manuscripts that receive the most readings, support, and votes in online contests have a chance to be published. Swoon Reads is one of the imprints devoted to this new model of publishing, and Nguyen’s debut emerged as one of the first titles to appear. So, why did I want to hate this novel? For starters, the protagonist and one of two narrators is a high school student named Taylor, who is absolutely convinced that she’s going to be a lawyer, that she’s going to Columbia, even though she got wait-listed, and that she’s far above the high school classmate she wakes up in bed with one morning after a night out partying. Taylor comes off as entitled and certainly not far from the “ice queen” moniker she’s been given, but when she comes up with the idea that she’s going to pretend that she’s actually in a relationship with the guy she ended up falling into bed with (a popular high school lothario named Evan), I didn’t know if I could take much more of this character. In any case, Taylor’s motive for pretending that she’s in a relationship with Evan is to repair her damaged reputation. The thing is: Taylor didn’t sleep with Evan, even though it seems as if she might have. But, the damage has already been done, so she thinks that if she’s actually seen to be in an actual relationship with Evan, then she might have a chance to change the minds of her judgmental peers. In fictional worlds, this kind of plan obviously will work, and of course, the formula for the young adult romance is set into motion. Sometimes formula can seem repetitive and thus boring, but Nguyen really manages to make it work, making Taylor much more likable over time, and even making Evan seem far more complex that he at first comes off. Of course, Nguyen builds in romance triangles into both sides of the “fake romance” equation. Taylor’s competition for Valedictorian is none other than the smart, but cute Brian, while Evan still maintains a connection to a former fling, the more sexually available Lauren. Each character also has a key bestie: Taylor’s is Carly, who is the one to encourage Taylor to get out of her shell, go to the party that ultimately gets her in trouble, and later suggests Taylor “game” the titular “walk of shame” by propositioning Evan with the fake contract. For his part, Evan’s “bro” is Aaron, a football player, who manages somehow to provide sage wisdom at precisely the right time. While Taylor and Evan seem to be polar opposites—she’s smart, he’s not; he’s popular, she’s not—we know Nguyen is setting us up to see that they’re actually “tailor” made for each other. Both come from non-traditional families, and each sees in the other something inspirational, something different, and something that will help him/ her to grow. I’ll admit: Evan’s evolution as a character was the most difficult to swallow, even as I cheered this kind of developmental trajectory onward, as you can’t help but want Taylor to find someone to balance her “type A” ways. If there are other issues to discuss, it’s that thorny question of race in a seemingly racially unmarked world. I don’t recall ever having a moment where it was clear that there was anyone at all racially marked at any point in any manner, except perhaps by surnames. Even in these cases, it wasn’t clear if these characters were racial minorities. Should racial representation matter at all, or does this kind of racial evacuation evince some sort of rhetoric of blindness that can occur through a specific narrative discourses? These questions always emerge at the forefront for me, as I read and consider whether or not I would teach a text like this one, especially from an author, who is, whether or not she identifies as so or not, Asian American. In any case, for fans of young adult fiction in general, this particular publication is sure to please readers, especially those in interested in teen courtship plots.
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A Review of Tarun Shanker and Kelly Zekas’s These Vicious Masks (Swoon Reads, 2016).
So, as I mentioned in another review, I’ve been reading a lot of young adult fiction and children’s literature to get my mind off the serious work that is revising cultural criticism (especially my own terribly bad writing). I basically compiled a stack of about 20 books or so that I’m working through at night when I need my brain to shut off. The next up on the list was Tarun Shanker and Kelly Zekas’s These Vicious Masks, which had a really intriguing title. I didn’t really understand the premise until about fifty pages in, and then, I thought, uh oh, here we have another superhero mash-up novel. In any case, we’ll let B&N provide us some important contextual details: “England, 1882. Evelyn is bored with society and its expectations. So when her beloved sister, Rose, mysteriously vanishes, she ignores her parents and travels to London to find her, accompanied by the dashing Mr. Kent. But they're not the only ones looking for Rose. The reclusive young gentleman Sebastian Braddock is also searching for her, claiming that both sisters have special healing powers. Evelyn is convinced that Sebastian must be mad, until she discovers that his strange tales of extraordinary people are true—and that her sister is in graver danger than she feared. Jane Austen meets X-Men in These Vicious Masks, the thrilling Victorian adventure from debut authors Tarun Shanker and Kelly Zekas!” I really appreciated the fact that the description completely owned up to the fact that the novel is definitely inspired by something like the X-Men series, which I have mentioned in the past (and in lectures) is a comic that I grew up reading, never quite understanding the impact of it until much later on. The real draw for readers will be the mash-up of the detective story with superhero elements: many of our central characters have a special power, but sometimes are unaware of it, just like our heroine Evelyn Wyndham. Though the first half of the plot is very intriguing—indeed, we’re driven as readers to figure out the importance of the superpowers especially in relation to Rose’s disappearance—the detective aspect begins to wear thin. The novel spends hundreds of pages involved in a singular quest: Evelyn’s desire to find her sister Rose. Though Shanker and Zekas are deft in their abilities to pepper in the appropriate romantic tension between Evelyn and Braddock, the quest plot did begin to feel burdensome for me, as I desired to figure out if she would ever be reunited with Rose and whether or not we would ever really figure out why she’d been kidnapped. We eventually discover that there’s a mad scientist (named Dr. Beck), who’s been conducting experiments with individuals who have begun to express their superpowers. He believes that these genetic developments are something called “saltation,” which is his fancy way of suggesting that humans are evolving into “leaner, meaner, fighting machines.” Evelyn and Rose, being sisters, have the same powers of healing, while Braddock, we discover, is someone who can cause other people in his vicinity to fall to sickness. Other “mutants” inhabiting this fictional world include a goon-like giant with super strength, a villain with the ability to teleport, and perhaps the most important in terms of the novel’s title is someone who is able to master the ability to disguise herself. To be sure, Shanker and Zekas will still have time to establish more of the potential inherent in this world, so even as I found myself disappointed by some of the pacing, I’m definitely eager to see where the writers will move in the next installment. A promising, if uneven, YA debut. The sequel is tentatively titled These Ruthless Deeds!
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A Review of Don Mee Choi’s Hardly War (Wave Books, 2016).
Well, I’ll admit I don’t know what to make yet of this collection, through I’m determined to teach this collection alongside another this fall in my trauma theory course precisely because it presents so many questions about war and the ways that it can be depicted, especially through lyric. Don Mee Choi’s Hardly War (after her debut The Morning News is Exciting). Perhaps Choi’s most obvious lyric trademarks here are her use of wordplay—especially the use of adverbs—her interest in interlingual poetics, as well as a desire to confound simplistic understandings of war. The one thing I keep coming back to is the use of the adverb “hardly” as it reverberates throughout the collection. Why use a word like that to describe war, especially the wars that are engaged: the Korean and the Vietnam wars? Indeed, Choi embeds the photographs taken by her father of those war periods as the scaffolding upon which prose poems are built or at least patched together. But, upon a little bit more reflection, it becomes clear that the collection is titled “hardly” war because there is no way to engage this kind of experience in any streamlined, direct way. Choi is aware that her work as a poet and as an archivist can only scratch the surface of loss, brutality, and violence that occurred during these wars. The lyrics related to these wars are thus “hardly” able to do what Choi might consider a representational justice to what occurred. The illogic of war is made apparent through what seems to be nonsensical stanzas and lines that continually pop up, but undergirding this playful language is Choi’s point: the sinister undercurrent is that war is hardly justifiable, hardly transparent, hardly understood. One of the best (and chilling I might add) poems in the collection is the unrelenting “Suicide Parade,” which I reproduce part of here:
Let’s take a closer look at the most feared weapon used by the U.S. in the
Korean War, a gelling powder composed of naphthalene and palmitate
65% oleic acid + 30% coconut fatty acid + 5% naphthenic acid
necessitates most arguably necessary clinging burning
necessitates gasoline and stirring (hence gasstir)
which is to say South Korean laborers funnel napalm powder into gasoline tanks
Together, the lines eventually accrue a kind of lyric frenzy that might leave the reader exhausted and assaulted, but that is perhaps the “cruelly optimistic” point. The avant-garde and interlingual character of this collection will no doubt be of interest to Asian American poets and scholars, who have reveled in the work of Myung Mi Kim and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha.
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