Dec. 31st, 2018

[personal profile] sorayaz

A Review of Yoojin Grace Wuertz’s Everything Belongs to Us (Random House, 2017).
By Stephen Hong Sohn


I had a couple of false starts with Yoojin Grace Wuertz’s debut novel Everything Belongs to Us (Random House, 2017). I would get in about forty pages, then stop, then leave it down for about a month, then pick it up again, re-start, then stall at page fifty. Rinse. Repeat. This re-starting phenomenon has been happening more often for whatever reason. I blame social media and the internet, because the novel itself, once I actually buckled down and settled in, was quite a scrumptious debut, filled with complex characters and associated trajectories.

Let’s let B&N do some work for us: “Seoul, 1978. At South Korea’s top university, the nation’s best and brightest compete to join the professional elite of an authoritarian regime. Success could lead to a life of rarefied privilege and wealth; failure means being left irrevocably behind. For childhood friends Jisun and Namin, the stakes couldn’t be more different. Jisun, the daughter of a powerful business mogul, grew up on a mountainside estate with lush gardens and a dedicated chauffeur. Namin’s parents run a tented food cart from dawn to curfew; her sister works in a shoe factory. Now Jisun wants as little to do with her father’s world as possible, abandoning her schoolwork in favor of the underground activist movement, while Namin studies tirelessly in the service of one goal: to launch herself and her family out of poverty. But everything changes when Jisun and Namin meet an ambitious, charming student named Sunam, whose need to please his family has led him to a prestigious club: the Circle. Under the influence of his mentor, Juno, a manipulative social climber, Sunam becomes entangled with both women, as they all make choices that will change their lives forever. In this sweeping yet intimate debut, Yoojin Grace Wuertz details four intertwining lives that are rife with turmoil and desire, private anxieties and public betrayals, dashed hopes and broken dreams—while a nation moves toward prosperity at any cost.”

This description does set up the characters and the basic tension, in which Namin and Jisun exists as opposite sides of the same coin. It seems that Jisun idealizes the impoverished background that Namin comes from, the so-called “real world” authenticity that Namin boasts by virtue of coming from poverty. Namin, on the other hand, does not necessarily envy Jisun, but certainly wants to get out of that poverty, while bringing up her family members in the process. That they are such close friends is the biggest fiction that this novel deals with, as we begin to see how fraught that connection actually is. Sunam’s arrival is, of course, the straw that breaks the friendship’s back. As a relatively careless student with an upper middle class background, he doesn’t have a strong sense of the tensions swirling around him, the maelstrom to which he’s been drawn into, and how problematic his idealization of Namin really is.

In any case, one of the difficult aspects of the novel is the constant shifts in temporality. Wuertz has a master game plan in mind that makes everything fit together, but some readers may find themselves occasionally unmoored from the various shifts and analespses that she employs. The final arc will also split readers. A hasty epilogue traces about three decades worth of time, which can seem like a hasty send-off given the painstaking detail with which Wuertz carves out of a period of about ten or so years. I was all in until that moment, but the epilogue itself is a minor quibble given the textured portrait that Wuertz gives us, especially of a time period in Seoul that has not been given that much attention from Korean American (or Asian American) writers. While the novel is primarily set in Seoul, there are some obvious transnational dimensions, as some characters occasionally receive schooling in the United States or Europe.

In terms of other books I have read by KA writers, I think temporally it’s closest to the work of Samuel Park in This Burns My Heart, but the reading experience is quite different. What this novel leads us to again and again is a sense that a framework is needed that would move Korean society beyond its strongly Confucian ideologies and social relationships, so that alternative kinships and extra-familial relationships can find larger recognition. Also, the novel is a particularly searing account of class immobility in Korea and gives us a sense of the incredibly difficult odds one must combat to move upward in any sense of the word.

Buy the Book Here!

Review Author: Stephen Hong Soh
Review Editor: Gnei Soraya Zarook

If you have any questions or want us to consider your book for review, please don’t hesitate to contact us via email!
Prof. Stephen Hong Sohn at ssohnucr@gmail.com
Gnei Soraya Zarook, PhD Student in English, at gzaro001@ucr.edu

[personal profile] sorayaz

A Review of Rumaan Alam’s That Kind of Mother (Ecco, 2018).
By Stephen Hong Sohn


Rumaan Alam brings us another installment in the world of female friendships (and alternative kinships) with That Kind of Mother (Ecco, 2018). Alam is also author of Rich and Pretty, which was earlier reviewed here on AALF.

Let’s let B&N give us some context: “Like many first-time mothers, Rebecca Stone finds herself both deeply in love with her newborn son and deeply overwhelmed. Struggling to juggle the demands of motherhood with her own aspirations and feeling utterly alone in the process, she reaches out to the only person at the hospital who offers her any real help—Priscilla Johnson—and begs her to come home with them as her son’s nanny. Priscilla’s presence quickly does as much to shake up Rebecca’s perception of the world as it does to stabilize her life. Rebecca is white, and Priscilla is black, and through their relationship, Rebecca finds herself confronting, for the first time, the blind spots of her own privilege. She feels profoundly connected to the woman who essentially taught her what it means to be a mother. When Priscilla dies unexpectedly in childbirth, Rebecca steps forward to adopt the baby. But she is unprepared for what it means to be a white mother with a black son. As she soon learns, navigating motherhood for her is a matter of learning how to raise two children whom she loves with equal ferocity, but whom the world is determined to treat differently.”

This description provides us with an excellent grounding of this novel. What is especially crucial to the novel’s momentum is the deep connection Rebecca makes with Priscilla, so when Priscilla unexpectedly passes away, it is Rebecca who feels an almost suffocating sense of responsibility. The word “privilege” is also key here precisely because Alam is mining that delicate terrain of upper class whiteness, which introduces many complications. Rebecca tries to raise her black child through her colorblind visions, which grates against Priscilla’s daughter Cheryl. But these two and their respective husbands (Rebecca to Christopher; Cheryl to Andrew) and children (Rebecca; Christopher with Jacob/ Andrew; Cheryl with Ivy) manage to forge a relatively strong alternative kinship, even as Rebecca’s marriage slowly crumbles. Rebecca’s husband Christopher, a foreign diplomat turned banker, finds himself drifting away from her and from Rebecca’s sense of propriety. This development is not surprising; Rebecca’s attentions always seem oriented elsewhere: to her mothering of her children Jacob and adoptive son Andrew or to the maintenance of the community she’s developed between her family and Cheryl’s. Rebecca’s career as a poet also begins to take off, after she wins the Yale Younger Poet’s prize. Rebecca’s seemingly quixotic interests in art and writing diverge from Christopher’s practical sensibilities and desire to keep the family afloat through higher paying jobs.

Alam’s eye is particularly acute because of the third person narrator’s willingness to mine the subtleties of the mother’s everyday life: the controlled chaos of raising two young children and the rewards that come with this kind of care. The major confrontation of the final arc did make me think that the narrator’s proximity to Rebecca’s perspective was not only calculated but exacerbates the reader’s ability to see past Rebecca’s privilege. Indeed, when Cheryl finally confronts Rebecca about her white privilege, the initial sting first feels catastrophic, but this revelation is of course entirely appropriate: we’re experiencing the shock as closely as Rebecca might and realizing all the way how much we too may have missed because of this myopic, if well-meaning protagonist’s lens.

Buy the Book Here!

Review Author: Stephen Hong Sohn
Review Editor: Gnei Soraya Zarook

If you have any questions or want us to consider your book for review, please don’t hesitate to contact us via email:
Prof. Stephen Hong Sohn at ssohnucr@gmail.com
Gnei Soraya Zarook, PhD Student in English, at gzaro001@ucr.edu

[personal profile] sorayaz

A Review of Tess Gerritsen’s Playing with Fire (Ballantine Books, 2015).
By Stephen Hong Sohn

So, once upon a time I did have a physical copy of this book, but I actually lost it. Within the last year, I was able to get a hold of an audiobook version, and I decided that it would be a great way to get “work” done, while on walks or in the car. I once tried to engage in this practice. Sometime, when I was still working up at Stanford, I decided to listen to White Tiger all the way down the 5, when I was sometimes traveling between Mountain View and Southern California. By the time I got home, I realized I had only really comprehended about 75% of what I had listened to and that I needed to read it again. Thus, you can imagine I was a little concerned that the same fate would befall me this time around.

Let’s let B&N give us some context: “In a shadowy antiques shop in Rome, violinist Julia Ansdell happens upon a curious piece of music—the Incendio waltz—and is immediately entranced by its unusual composition. Full of passion, torment, and chilling beauty, and seemingly unknown to the world, the waltz, its mournful minor key, its feverish arpeggios, appear to dance with a strange life of their own. Julia is determined to master the complex work and make its melody heard. Back home in Boston, from the moment Julia’s bow moves across the strings, drawing the waltz’s fiery notes into the air, something strange is stirred—and Julia’s world comes under threat. The music has a terrifying and inexplicable effect on her young daughter, who seems violently transformed. Convinced that the hypnotic strains of Incendio are weaving a malevolent spell, Julia sets out to discover the man and the meaning behind the score. Her quest beckons Julia to the ancient city of Venice, where she uncovers a dark, decades-old secret involving a dangerously powerful family that will stop at nothing to keep Julia from bringing the truth to light.”

What’s perhaps most interesting to me about this work is that Tess Gerritsen not only wrote this novel, but composed a piece that is meant to be Incendio. I didn’t realize it as I was listening to the audiobook, but the violin piece that I was hearing was likely the version that Gerritsen herself composed. I had no idea she was that multi-talented. For some reason, this time around I had no trouble getting immersed in this audiobook. I’m not really sure about the difference, but I do believe it has something to do with the fact that I wasn’t driving while listening to this narrative: I was mostly walking around with an earpiece.

In any case, what the description doesn’t tell you is there are, based upon my aural recall, two narrative discourses. Julia Ansdell gets a first person narrative voice and then there’s a third person narrative voice that shifts us into the past, back to pre-WWII Italy. In this period, Lorenzo Todesco is getting to know Laura Balboni, as both are talented musicians. But, you know we’re in troubled waters if we’re in pre-WWII Italy. Plus, we eventually discover that Lorenzo is Jewish, and you immediately get that sinking feeling that things will not end well. The narratives don’t really start colliding until Julia begins to feel like she is going crazy and that she must travel to Italy herself to figure out what the mystery is behind Incendio.

As she gets deeper into this mystery, Lorenzo’s narrative gets darker and darker, and ever more darker. I found the sections involving Lorenzo and Laura to be, in some ways, far more compelling than anything going on with Julia Ansdell’s life. If there is any critique to be made, I wanted a stronger connection between Ansdell and Lorenzo, more than the fact that both are musicians. The personal conflicts that mire Julia, especially the one involving the history of mental illness in her family, while exerting a kind of narrative weight, fall incredibly flat against the journey that Lorenzo must make. His arc, which does provocatively bolster the title of his violin composition, absolutely overshadows anything related to Julia. In any case, fans of Gerritsen should be pleased, as she gives them (and herself) a break from the Rizzoli & Isles series to spread her wings in other directions.

Buy the Book Here!

Review Author: Stephen Hong Sohn
Review Editor: Gnei Soraya Zarook


If you have any questions or want us to consider your book for review, please don’t hesitate to contact us via email!
Prof. Stephen Hong Sohn at ssohnucr@gmail.com
Gnei Soraya Zarook, PhD Student in English, at gzaro001@ucr.edu

[personal profile] sorayaz

A Review of Min Kym’s Gone: A Girl, a Violin, a Life Unstrung (Crown, 2017).
By Stephen Hong Sohn



So before I started writing this review, I looked up Min Kym and listed to some of her exquisite performances online. What’s so interesting about Min Kym’s memoir Gone: A Girl, a Violin, a Life Unstrung (Crown, 2017) is that it explores the incredible attachment that the author possesses in relation to her musical instrument, a rare and almost priceless Stradivarius.

Here is a summary from B&N: “Her first violin was tiny, harsh, factory-made; her first piece was ‘Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star.’ But from the very beginning, Min Kym knew that music was the element in which she could swim and dive and soar. At seven years old, she was a prodigy, the youngest ever student at the famed Purcell School. At eleven, she won her first international prize; at eighteen, violinist great Ruggiero Ricci called her ‘the most talented violinist I’ve ever taught.’ And at twenty-one, she found ‘the one,’ the violin she would play as a soloist: a rare 1696 Stradivarius. Her career took off. She recorded the Brahms concerto and a world tour was planned. Then, in a London café, her violin was stolen. She felt as though she had lost her soulmate, and with it her sense of who she was. Overnight she became unable to play or function, stunned into silence. In this lucid and transfixing memoir, Kym reckons with the space left by her violin’s absence. She sees with new eyes her past as a child prodigy, with its isolation and crushing expectations; her combustible relationships with teachers and with a domineering boyfriend; and her navigation of two very different worlds, her traditional Korean family and her music. And in the stark yet clarifying light of her loss, she rediscovers her voice and herself.”

For Min, her particular Stradivarius allows her to find her most original and daring “violin voice,” if we might call it that. Prior to financing the purchase of Kym’s Stradivarius, the author details her upbringing as a violin prodigy, learning from gifted but equally temperamental instructors. Once Kym is connected with her Strad, her violin life truly reaches an acme. But, the memoir is hurtling toward a darker moment. When Kym is traveling, her violin is stolen, her life becomes “unstrung” as she describes it in the memoir’s subtitle.

For Kym, losing the violin is losing a part of herself, so she naturally becomes mired in a kind of depression, desperately hoping that she will be reunited with the instrument and perhaps that lost part of herself. Over time, she realizes that the theft of her violin may not be resolved, so she attempts to carve out other potential pathways in her career and in her life. She even buys a different Stradivarius, though she ultimately knows that this replacement is not the right violin for her. Eventually, the violin is recovered, but because of a complicated set of circumstances involving insurance and her own lack of funds, she cannot purchase the violin back. She is forced to see her beloved “self” be sold at auction. Kym’s memoir is particularly affecting because we can see how much melancholy exists but at this difficult locus of loss; she manages to make clear the unique bond between musicians and their instruments. 

Buy the Book Here!

Review Author: Stephen Hong Sohn
Review Editor: Gnei Soraya Zarook


If you have any questions or want us to consider your book for review, please don’t hesitate to contact us via email!
Prof. Stephen Hong Sohn at ssohnucr@gmail.com
Gnei Soraya Zarook, PhD Student in English, at gzaro001@ucr.edu

[personal profile] sorayaz

A Review of Jade Chang’s The Wangs vs. The World (Houghton Mifflin, 2016).
By Stephen Hong Sohn



For some reason or another, I stalled a number of times while starting this novel. I would read it, get stuck about forty or fifty pages in, then I would put it down. By the time I would pick up the novel again, I would have forgotten enough of the basic plot that I would have to start over. Part of the issue is that the novel is, by design, disjointed. The narrative perspective consistently changes among the different Wang family members. At one point, the narrative perspective even shifts to the family car. Indeed, the main formal element to note is that we have a road novel, and the Wang patriarch, Charles, is catalyzed to go on this road trip (along with his second wife Barbra) in order to pick up his younger two children (Grace, who is at a boarding school) and Andrew (who is at a university in Arizona) to head over to the eldest’s home (Saina, who lives in New York). Charles has lost the family fortune and is trying to galvanize the family by consolidating them in one place and time.

Here is a summary from Goodreads: “A hilarious debut novel about a wealthy but fractured Chinese immigrant family that had it all, only to lose every last cent - and about the road trip they take across America that binds them back together. Charles Wang is mad at America. A brash, lovable immigrant businessman who built a cosmetics empire and made a fortune, he’s just been ruined by the financial crisis. Now all Charles wants is to get his kids safely stowed away so that he can go to China and attempt to reclaim his family’s ancestral lands—and his pride. Charles pulls Andrew, his aspiring comedian son, and Grace, his style-obsessed daughter, out of schools he can no longer afford. Together with their stepmother, Barbra, they embark on a cross-country road trip from their foreclosed Bel-Air home to the upstate New York hideout of the eldest daughter, disgraced art world it-girl Saina. But with his son waylaid by a temptress in New Orleans, his wife ready to defect for a set of 1,000-thread-count sheets, and an epic smash-up in North Carolina, Charles may have to choose between the old world and the new, between keeping his family intact and finally fulfilling his dream of starting anew in China. Outrageously funny and full of charm, The Wangs vs. the World is an entirely fresh look at what it means to belong in America—and how going from glorious riches to (still name-brand) rags brings one family together in a way money never could.”

Chang’s third person narrator is a semi-distant one, in the sense that this figure is poking some fun at these characters along the way. The comic undertones of the novel make this particular work stand out amongst a number of other Asian American family novels. Chang’s work functions more in line with Gish Jen than Amy Tan, but the episodic and shifting narrative perspective occasionally creates some uneven-ness to the reading experience (at least from my position).

Saina’s backstory I found probably the most interesting, as she was an artist of some success and celebrity status, but then finds herself in a bit of a rut when the novel starts out. She’s also in a complicated love triangle. Andrew is another very interesting character: he’s interested in stand-up comedy, so there’s a meta-element at least in terms of the novel’s tonality. The relative privilege that these characters possess prior to Charles’s bankruptcy (once that coincides with the Great Recession) is also an aspect that can be polarizing: on the one hand, the lost family fortune certainly jumpstarts the plot, but on the other, you sometimes can’t help but sneer at some of the thoughts/ emotions/ and feelings provided for us through the focalizing perspective. Fortunately, Wang’s narrator is often times right there with us, making it clear that we’re sometimes meant to laugh alongside this storytelling entity.

Buy the Book
Here!

Review Author: Stephen Hong Sohn
Review Editor: Gnei Soraya Zarook


If you have any questions or want us to consider your book for review, please don’t hesitate to contact us via email!
Prof. Stephen Hong Sohn at ssohnucr@gmail.com
Gnei Soraya Zarook, PhD Student in English, at gzaro001@ucr.edu

[personal profile] sorayaz

A Review of Alex Wagner’s Futureface: A Family Mystery, an Epic Quest, and the Secret to Belonging (OneWorld, 2018).
By Stephen Hong Sohn


Lately, the only thing I ever turn on in my car is NPR. The radio station once held an interview with Alex Wagner, who was discussing her mixed genre publication Future Face: A Family Mystery, an Epic Quest, and the Secret to Belonging (OneWorld, 2018).

B&N gives us this description of the title: “Alex Wagner has always been fascinated by stories of exile and migration. Her father’s ancestors immigrated to the United States from Ireland and Luxembourg. Her mother fled Rangoon in the 1960s, escaping Burma’s military dictatorship. In her professional life, Wagner reported from the Arizona-Mexico border, where agents, drones, cameras, and military hardware guarded the line between two nations. She listened to debates about whether the United States should be a melting pot or a salad bowl. She knew that moving from one land to another—and the accompanying recombination of individual and tribal identities—was the story of America. And she was happy that her own mixed-race ancestry and late twentieth-century education had taught her that identity is mutable and meaningless, a thing we make rather than a thing we are. When a cousin’s offhand comment threw a mystery into her personal story–introducing the possibility of an exciting new twist in her already complex family history—Wagner was suddenly awakened to her own deep hunger to be something, to belong, to have an identity that mattered, a tribe of her own. Intoxicated by the possibility, she became determined to investigate her genealogy. So she set off on a quest to find the truth about her family history. The journey takes Wagner from Burma to Luxembourg, from ruined colonial capitals with records written on banana leaves to Mormon databases and high-tech genetic labs. As she gets closer to solving the mystery of her own ancestry, she begins to grapple with a deeper question: Does it matter? Is our enduring obsession with blood and land, race and identity, worth all the trouble it’s caused us? The answers can be found in this deeply personal account of her search for belonging, a meditation on the things that define us as insiders and outsiders and make us think in terms of “us” and “them.” In this time of conflict over who we are as a country, when so much emphasis is placed on ethnic, religious, and national divisions, Futureface constructs a narrative where we all belong.”

So, this description does a pretty comprehensive job of setting up the basic premise of the work. I call it mixed-genre because it’s a little bit of: auto/biography, historical/cultural studies, and certainly takes some inspiration in style from Wagner’s journalistic background. I’ll also introduce a spoiler warning here, as I think it’s quite critical to discuss the “mystery of” Wagner’s “own ancestry,” which revolves around family lore detailing the possibility of a hidden Jewish background. While proving this genealogical background serves to catalyze Wagner’s quest, her pursuit takes her in unexpected directions. Indeed, she discovers that one of her ancestors may have traveled to the United States under an assumed name and that his name is exactly the same as a person who turns out to be a non-biologically related father. Wagner is determined figure out why these two figures were so closely connected despite having no blood relation and uses many experts and resources at her disposal to find out what she can.

On either side of her family tree, Wagner does come to one major realization: that ancestry is the stuff of myth and legend. By uncovering the contexts around her genealogy, Wagner realizes that she must look past a hagiographic perspective to engage more fully the mysteries of one’s family roots. The concluding chapters take on an interesting subject matter, as Wagner seeks to establish some quantifiable data concerning her family tree. She takes a number of DNA tests that have now become popularized and enable an individual to get a basic percentage of certain backgrounds that one possesses. The problem, as Wagner discovers, is that these tests are not all the same and give different baseline results, which gives her pause to wonder whether or not they are all that accurate.

Another element that I found fascinating about this study is that Wagner’s investigations into the procedures used to determine basic DNA groupings ultimately relies upon some ossified notions of sample populations. But, what is perhaps most notable about this publication is that Wagner’s work adds to what I consider to be one of the smaller subsets of Asian American literature: Burmese American literature. At this time, I only know of a handful of writers (such as Wendy Law-Yone, Charmaine Craig) in this area, so any new publication from this particular ethnic group is a welcome one!

Buy the Book Here!

Review Author: Stephen Hong Sohn
Review Editor: Gnei Soraya Zarook

If you have any questions or want us to consider your book for review, please don’t hesitate to contact us via email!
Prof. Stephen Hong Sohn at ssohnucr@gmail.com
Gnei Soraya Zarook, PhD Student in English, at gzaro001@ucr.edu

[personal profile] sorayaz

A Review of Rahul Mehta’s No Other World (Harper, 2017).
By Stephen Hong Sohn


This novel was definitely one of the most anticipated releases of 2017; Rahul Mehta’s first publication, a collection called Quarantine, is one that I’ve taught a number of times in my classes. Mehta’s debut novel No Other World is an impressive work, one that spans cultures and continents, while also conveying the complicated lives of South Asian migrants.

Let’s have B&N provide a summary: “From the author of the prize-winning collection Quarantine, an insightful, compelling debut novel set in rural America and India in the 1980s and ’90s, part coming-of-age story about a gay Indian American boy, part family saga about an immigrant family’s struggles to find a sense of belonging, identity, and hope. In a rural community in Western New York, twelve-year-old Kiran Shah, the American-born son of Indian immigrants, longingly observes his prototypically American neighbors, the Bells. He attends school with Kelly Bell, but he’s powerfully drawn—in a way he does not yet understand—to her charismatic father, Chris. Kiran’s yearnings echo his parents’ bewilderment as they try to adjust to a new world. His father, Nishit Shah, a successful doctor, is haunted by thoughts of the brother he left behind. His mother, Shanti, struggles to accept a life with a man she did not choose—her marriage to Nishit was arranged—and her growing attachment to an American man. Kiran is close to his older sister, Preeti—until an unexpected threat and an unfathomable betrayal drive a wedge between them that will reverberate through their lives. As he leaves childhood behind, Kiran finds himself perpetually on the outside—as an Indian American torn between two cultures and as a gay man in a homophobic society. In the wake of an emotional breakdown, he travels to India, where he forms an intense bond with a teenage hijra, a member of India’s ancient transgender community. With her help, Kiran begins to pull together the pieces of his broken past. Sweeping and emotionally complex, No Other World is a haunting meditation on love, belonging, and forgiveness that explores the line between our responsibilities to our families and to ourselves, the difficult choices we make, and the painful cost of claiming our true selves.”

Mehta chooses a shifting third person point-of-view, primarily following the married couple, Nishit and Shanti, and their two children, Kiran and Preeti. The opening of the novel sees Kiran obsessively watching his neighbor’s house. As we discover, Kiran is desperately seeking a glimpse of the father living in that house, an All-American type upstate New Yorker named Chris Bell. Mehta patiently unfurls the complicated narrative, revealing that Kiran’s desire to see Chris Bell is wrapped up in the complicated dynamics of his mother’s never-quite-consummated love affair with Chris Bell as well as his own growing pains. The first third of the novel tracks this particular South Asian family as it adjusts as well as it can to small town dynamics.

The second shifts perspectives slightly to Kiran’s cousin Bharat, who comes to the United States due to a prophetic warning offered by a seer. This particular section tracks Bharat’s disenchantment with the United States, especially as he develops a severe allergic reaction that seems to mirror his feelings for this alien landscape. For his part, Kiran does little to help Bharat acclimate and instead becomes mired in his own dilemmas.

The third section of the novel shifts to India. It is at this point that readers discover Kiran is queer and that he is suffering from a serious depression. His parents’ unconditional love drives them to encourage Kiran to travel to India, where he can further explore his roots. Kiran’s parents believe that such a trip will allow him to gain greater perspective on his family and perhaps offer him a mental salve that will help enable him to battle his depression. Mehta’s novel is most successful in its ability to weave in so many disparate points-of-view. The kaleidoscopic perspectives generated provide a multifaceted rendering of the South Asian immigrant experience. Perhaps, most importantly, the novel serves to show us a queer Asian American character, who is able to navigate his struggles and achieve a sense of equanimity by the novel’s conclusion.

Buy the Book Here!

Review Author: Stephen Hong Sohn
Review Editor: Gnei Soraya Zarook


If you have any questions or want us to consider your book for review, please don’t hesitate to contact us via email!
Prof. Stephen Hong Sohn at ssohnucr@gmail.com
Gnei Soraya Zarook, PhD Student in English, at gzaro001@ucr.edu

[personal profile] sorayaz

A Review of Jennifer Kwon Dobbs’s Interrogation Room (White Pine Press, 2018).
By Stephen Hong Sohn

 

Rejoice! Jennifer Kwon Dobbs has brought us another elegantly crafted and exquisitely arresting poetry collection: Interrogation Room (White Pine Press, 2018). A master at something I can best describe as an avant-garde, interlingual, confessional poetics, Kwon Dobbs traverses a wide geographical and historical swathe in this collection that shuttles us primarily between the tense relationship between the United States and Korea (both North and South, prior to and after the main years of the Korean Conflict).

We’ll let B&N give us some more background: “In Interrogation Room, Jennifer Kwon Dobbs’s second collection, poems that restore redacted speech and traverse forbidden borders suture together divided bodies, geographies, and kinships to confront the unending Korean War’s legacies of forced distances and militarized silences. Kwon Dobbs powerfully entwines uneasy, tentative reconciliations among South Korea’s relatives in the North, her birth family in the South, and the transnational diaspora to which she belongs to resist the war’s deprivations of language and imagination.”

I appreciated the phrase “restore redacted speech” precisely because so many of these poems riff off of existing cultural productions. There’s a poetic palimpsestic process at work, with Kwon Dobbs able to revise and transform existing discourses of militarization, trauma, and subjection. One of the best and most poignant examples is “Reading Keith Wilson’s ‘The Girl,”” which reuses snippets from the lines of the aforementioned Wilson poem in order to give a more prominent context and voice to the titular Korean girl. As Kwon Dobbs opens the poem, the lyric speaker tells us: “I’ve thought about tone/ how white space stages” (53) what will come to be understood as a violent period of time, “Korea 1953” (31). Immediately, the time and place remind us that we’re at war, so that the girl’s objectification is made evident as something produced out of tremendous duress.

But Kwon Dobbs is suspicious of this lyrical sympathy as it is one that not simply brings this girl into representational being, but also silences her. A moment in Wilson’s original Korean War poem relates how the girl writes some Korean words, which are not understood. For Kwon Dobbs, this moment exists as a violent mode of erasure, something the lyric speaker denotes as a process in which “he scratched out/ the foreign words/ coaxed from the men’s creased hems” (32). The lyric speaker’s final utterance: “It had to be a girl” is an invocation of the ways in which representation elides the material violence faced by females during wartime. Sympathy only does so much, the lyric speaker reminds us, so the “tone” must take us elsewhere, to a sense of anger and to this revision which casts a dark gaze over the military personnel who partake of the imperiled lives of women in war zones.

Another excellent example of the riffing process that Kwon Dobbs engages in occurs in “A Forest in Jeju, South Korea,” which is a poem written for Jane Jin Kaisen. Kaisen ends up directing a documentary based upon the 1948 Cheju (Jeju) island massacre; this film is the inspiration for Kwon Dobbs’s lyrics, which transform the jeopardy of islanders into textual form: “He hides under brown/ improvised/ from neighbors’ corpses,/ conceals/ his baby sister inside/ a cow’s gutted stomach” (20). The grotesque imagery here focuses on the layers of subterfuge at work in this moment. While this figure is forced into hiding for his very survival, that moment is of course also further encrypted by US military forces and their accounts of the massacre itself.

Thus, Kwon Dobbs’s lyrics are always exposing us to a wider, more textured understanding of the violent encounters produced by war. The urgency in these lyrics is always made ever more palpable by the clipped quality of Kwon Dobbs’s lines: never maudlin or overwrought, Kwon Dobbs keys us squarely into the quietly miraculous nature by which so many have managed to endure under the catastrophic designs of empire.

Buy the Book Here!

Review Author: Stephen Hong Sohn
Review Editor: Gnei Soraya Zarook


If you have any questions or want us to consider your book for review, please don’t hesitate to contact us via email!
Prof. Stephen Hong Sohn at ssohnucr@gmail.com
Gnei Soraya Zarook, PhD Student in English, at gzaro001@ucr.edu

[personal profile] sorayaz

A Review of Jenny Han’s Always and Forever, Lara Jean (Simon and Schuster for Young Readers, 2017).
By Stephen Hong Sohn


I’m reviewing Jenny Han’s Always and Forever, Lara Jean (Simon and Schuster for Young Readers, 2017), which is the final installment from the series that began with To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and continued with P.S. I Still Love You.

B&N provides us, as always, with a pithy description: “Lara Jean’s letter-writing days aren’t over in this surprise follow-up to the New York Times bestselling To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and P.S. I Still Love You. Lara Jean is having the best senior year a girl could ever hope for. She is head over heels in love with her boyfriend, Peter; her dad’s finally getting remarried to their next door neighbor, Ms. Rothschild; and Margot’s coming home for the summer just in time for the wedding. But change is looming on the horizon. And while Lara Jean is having fun and keeping busy helping plan her father’s wedding, she can’t ignore the big life decisions she has to make. Most pressingly, where she wants to go to college and what that means for her relationship with Peter. She watched her sister Margot go through these growing pains. Now Lara Jean's the one who'll be graduating high school and leaving for college and leaving her family—and possibly the boy she loves—behind. When your heart and your head are saying two different things, which one should you listen to?”

A simultaneous strength and weakness of this particular work is that it diverges from the formula of previous installments: Lara Jean isn’t fighting to figure out which guy is the right one for her. Romantic tension and the triangle are effectively absent in this particular work. Instead, romantic issues derive out of whether or not Lara Jean and Peter are going to stay together because of their divergent college decisions. Peter gets into University of Virginia on an athletic scholarship for lacrosse. Lara Jean does not get in, effectively eliminating their plans to continue dating, while they are enrolled at the same school.

Fortunately, Lara Jean gets into the College of William & Mary. Though it’s not exactly next door, the distance is prohibitively far, and things get messy once Lara Jean gets accepted into University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill (off the waitlist). Ranked higher than the College of William & Mary, an impromptu trip to the university (with her bestie Chris) convinces her that the school is the right choice for her. At the same time, this college choice would move her further away from Peter, leading to yet more problems between them. The other major plotline is given to Lara Jean’s father, who has fallen in love with the neighbor across the street, Ms. Rothschild (aka Trina). They’re getting married, which is perfectly wonderful according to Lara Jean’s perspective (and her little sister Kitty’s), but their older sister (Margot), who is still across the Atlantic in Europe and now dating a new guy, isn’t so taken with Ms. Rothschild. So, there’s another issue about family unity in the face of a considerable change.

The problem of this work is that the issues do not always generate enough narrative momentum. Yes, Lara Jean might worry about how to perfect a cookie recipe or whether or not she’s going to lose her virginity with Peter at Beachweek, but nothing ever seems really in peril or at stake. Even the general spats between Peter and Lara Jean continually resolve through texting, as one character or another is quick to apologize and declare undying love the very next day. There is an interesting moment when Lara Jean, referring to something that Peter says, realizes that Peter’s unflagging devotion is only something that a teenage boy could say: it made me wonder, just for a sliver of a second, whether this book seemed to be a retrospective.

Indeed, that moment made me think that the gravity of this work might have been heftier had it been told in this fashion, with a slightly older and warier Lara Jean, looking wistfully back at a past that had gone into myth, because that's what this novel reads mostly like: a period of almost-perfect potentiality when all seems possible; nothing seems out of reach. Without the realistic tinge that this more reflective retrospective voice provides us, the novel, even with its occasional dilemmas, seems just a little too crystalline: we’re waiting for that anvil to drop. Given Lara Jean’s bubbly perspective, I have no doubts that whatever mess that she might have found herself in had this novel gone the distance, she would have clawed her way out, baking her way to a fresh, perhaps more nuanced perspective about life, love, and post-teenage devotion.

Buy the Book Here!

Review Author: Stephen Hong Sohn
Review Editor: Gnei Soraya Zarook


If you have any questions or want us to consider your book for review, please don’t hesitate to contact us via email!
Prof. Stephen Hong Sohn at ssohnucr@gmail.com
Gnei Soraya Zarook, PhD Student in English, at gzaro001@ucr.edu

[personal profile] sorayaz

A Review of Peter Ho Davies’s The Fortunes (Houghton Mifflin, 2016).
By Stephen Hong Sohn


This publication was one of my biggest anticipated reads for 2016, as Peter Ho Davies’s third work, The Welsh Girl, was one of my faves. Davies is also author of two wonderful short story collections (The Ugliest House in the World and Equal Love). Here is a short summary from B&N: “Sly, funny, intelligent, and artfully structured, The Fortunes recasts American history through the lives of Chinese Americans and reimagines the multigenerational novel through the fractures of immigrant family experience. Inhabiting four lives—a railroad baron’s valet who unwittingly ignites an explosion in Chinese labor; Hollywood’s first Chinese movie star; a hate-crime victim whose death mobilizes the Asian American community; and a biracial writer visiting China for an adoption—this novel captures and capsizes over a century of our history, showing that even as family bonds are denied and broken, a community can survive—as much through love as blood. Building fact into fiction, spinning fiction around fact, Davies uses each of these stories—three inspired by real historical characters—to examine the process of becoming not only Chinese American, but American.”

As I relayed my reading experience to my sisters, they both told me that I was probably the one person that this publication was NOT written for, precisely because Davies uses Asian American figures for the basis of four different narrative sections, which makes up this polyvocal work. The first section is devoted to a Chinese railroad laborer, the second to Anna May Wong, the third to a friend of Vincent Chin, and finally, the last based upon the writer—Asian American, biracial, father to an adoptee, or otherwise—himself.

Though modeled on “real” people, this work is largely a philosophical meditation on what it means to be Asian American at different points in history and how these moments are telescoped through varying challenges related to success and upward mobility. As a trained Asian Americanist in literature and culture, this novel treads a lot of similar ground concerning what I teach in the classroom, so there was a kind of ennui I did feel, which is why my sisters pointed out that I probably was the most “un” ideal reader for this work. At the same time, I completely understand the value of Davies’s approach, especially when the author treads meta-representational ground in the fourth section: what is the burden of identity when it comes to telling stories? In this sense, we can say that Davies has made his intervention with respect to what it means to be an Asian American writer, which is perhaps more complicated for the author who can also be defined as the mixed race writer.

It’s not an accident, too, that this publication comes on the heels of The Welsh Girl, which explored vastly different cultural, ethnic, and racial contexts, and was a novel that I considered when writing my first book. Not surprisingly, I don’t see much (or any) criticism on The Welsh Girl from Asian Americanist critics, though its exploration of labor, class, and ethnic difference certainly dovetail with thematic preoccupations of the field. What makes a writer legible, what makes his work a success, how does one achieve “fortune” as an Asian American more broadly and as an artist?

If there is a section that I unequivocally recommend, it is definitely the first of the four. It is there that Davies gets a chance to showcase his regionalist eye, one that I saw on full display in The Welsh Girl, and reveals a writer attuned to epic descriptions of the landscape. You get a sense of the awe and the immensity of the “frontier,” as the protagonist from that section travels by train to a labor camp. This opening section is perhaps also the most deliberately plotted in a more realist sense and the reportage that follows in the Anna May Wong portion feels much less hefty. To a certain degree, this change in approach is necessitated by Davies’s point: Wong’s life and career are always a little bit skewed by media and by the publicity machine. The writer himself is of course inculcated in this distortion, which is certainly a reason for relaying a punctuated and fragmented narrative in this second arc.

The section from the perspective of Vincent Chin’s friend was also a welcome shift in terms of viewpoint that allowed Davies a chance to reconsider this traumatic moment. The final section I appreciated simply for the ways that Davies could play with his own background in the construction of a character. As the work moves back to China, The Fortunes comes full circle, establishing a fitting close to an ambitious, if admittedly uneven, fourth publication.

Buy the Book Here!

Review Author: Stephen Hong Sohn
Review Editor: Gnei Soraya Zarook


If you have any questions or want us to consider your book for review, please don’t hesitate to contact us via email!
Prof. Stephen Hong Sohn at ssohnucr@gmail.com
Gnei Soraya Zarook, PhD Student in English, at gzaro001@ucr.edu

[personal profile] sorayaz

A Review of Sunjeeva Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways (Knopf, 2016).
By Stephen Hong Sohn


Short-listed for the Man Booker Prize, Sunjeeva Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways is his first stateside publication, though he is also author of Ours are the Streets, which I promptly looked for as a used copy in the hopes that I can get a copy of this work. The Year of the Runaways is a perfectly apt title for a book that focuses on four South Asians who come to England, all under very different circumstances, but all in ways that suggest they are “runaways.”

To discuss their trajectories, one necessarily has to spoil some of the information, but before we get to this work, let us allow B&N to do give us all some editorial context: “Three young men, and one unforgettable woman, come together in a journey from India to England, where they hope to begin something new—to support their families; to build their futures; to show their worth; to escape the past. They have almost no idea what awaits them. In a dilapidated shared house in Sheffield, Tarlochan, a former rickshaw driver, will say nothing about his life in Bihar. Avtar and Randeep are middle-class boys whose families are slowly sinking into financial ruin, bound together by Avtar’s secret. Randeep, in turn, has a visa wife across town, whose cupboards are full of her husband’s clothes in case the immigration agents surprise her with a visit. She is Narinder, and her story is the most surprising of them all. The Year of the Runaways unfolds over the course of one shattering year in which the destinies of these four characters become irreversibly entwined, a year in which they are forced to rely on one another in ways they never could have foreseen, and in which their hopes of breaking free of the past are decimated by the punishing realities of immigrant life. A novel of extraordinary ambition and authority, about what it means and what it costs to make a new life—about the capaciousness of the human spirit, and the resurrection of tenderness and humanity in the face of unspeakable suffering.”

Shattering is a pretty good description for that year; all characters are pretty tragic in their own ways, and I found parts of this novel fairly depressing. There’s quite a bit of cultural knowledge that one may unfortunately lack before reading this work. I found myself struggling with certain terminologies. For instance, I didn’t know that the term chamar was used to describe the caste that has been more familiarly known as the “untouchables.” During one of India’s many religious riots, Tarlochan and his family are brutally and horrifically targeted. Tarlochan, aka Tochi, leaves for India in the wake of this tragedy. For his part, Avtar wants to be able to provide for his family, while also properly courting a wife. His romantic object is none other than the sister of Randeep, who himself is struggling because his father is suffering from a mental illness that has destabilized their financial situation. For Avtar to get the funds to travel to England, he sells his kidney on the black market, while Randeep is able to negotiate his way to England via a sham VISA marriage.

Narinder’s story concerns guilt that stems from the death that might have been avoided had she agreed to help a friend. The novel ultimately hinges on Narinder’s presence: she is the glue that ends up bringing all four characters, however disparate in their interests, together. Her depiction is in part what really lifts Sahota’s story to a different register, but it is Narinder’s philosophical and spiritual beliefs that are put to the test in the course of this difficult, but luminous novel. While some of the narrative threads no doubt dovetail with common immigrant tropes, Sahota’s depictions and sure-footed focus on the existential and material reasons behind transnational movements make this novel rise above so many similar ones. Readers are motivated to consider Narinder’s motives as both naïve, yet touching, and Sahota’s epilogue, though rushed, serves to show us that her purpose and quest, however flawed, somehow still manages to succeed. Sahota thus provides a measure of closure without settling it in a maudlin, unrealistic way. Characters survive and perhaps even succeed, but often at great cost.

Buy the Book Here!

Review Author: Stephen Hong Sohn
Review Editor: Gnei Soraya Zarook


If you have any questions or want us to consider your book for review, please don’t hesitate to contact us via email!
Prof. Stephen Hong Sohn at ssohnucr@gmail.com
Gnei Soraya Zarook, PhD Student in English, at gzaro001@ucr.edu

[personal profile] sorayaz

A Review of Karen Tei Yamashita’s Letters to Memory (Coffee House Press, 2017).
By Stephen Hong Sohn


While I was still living in the Bay Area, I would occasionally have the wonderful luck of hanging out with Karen Tei Yamashita. I had been hearing tidbits of Yamashita’s newest project and had been excited to hear about its progress, and here we are! In any case, what a treat to be reading this particular work, which is Yamashita’s most recent foray in creative nonfiction.

The official page over at the ever-groovy Coffee House Press gives us this pithy overview: “Letters to Memory is an excursion through the Japanese internment using archival materials from the Yamashita family as well as a series of epistolary conversations with composite characters representing a range of academic specialties. Historians, anthropologists, classicists—their disciplines, and Yamashita’s engagement with them, are a way for her to explore various aspects of the internment and to expand its meaning beyond her family, and our borders, to ideas of debt, forgiveness, civil rights, orientalism, and community.”

It’s been awhile since she’s really engaged in this kind of writing, and I’ve forgotten how playful Yamashita can be when blurring the lines between what is imagined and what actually happened. What Yamashita works with is the problem of the archive: things are always missing, because a basement will get flooded destroying valuable documents, letters will be lost, memories get fuzzy, and official files will get redacted. Yamashita is well aware of this predicament and constantly employs conditionals throughout Letters, saying things like, “it could have” or “might be” or “would have been” in order to offer possible motivations, possible outcomes and possible consequences. At the same time, Yamashita has some obvious firm grounding under her, employing anchor points and events in her family’s history and how that history intertwines with larger national and transnational forces occurring throughout the 20th century.

Notably, Yamashita’s Letters adds to the sansei internment corpus, elaborating upon the ways her family became impacted by that event. One of the more intriguing particularities of this addition is its exploration of religious and spiritual discourses that kept the Yamashita family together. Out of this strain of representational inquiry, Yamashita paints a rich picture of her father, who pursues his spiritual projects with a fervor that certainly inspires and illuminates. The production level of Letters is wonderful, with appropriately placed visuals, documents, and photographs appearing throughout. But what always stamps the narrative stylings of a Yamashita publication is that witty narrative discourse, one that reminds us that we’re moving through a whimsical landscape full of texture and nuance. An absolutely effulgent journey into the always contested past of the (extended) family.

Buy the Book Here!

Review Author: Stephen Hong Sohn
Review Editor: Gnei Soraya Zarook


If you have any questions or want us to consider your book for review, please don’t hesitate to contact us via email!
Prof. Stephen Hong Sohn at ssohnucr@gmail.com
Gnei Soraya Zarook, PhD Student in English, at gzaro001@ucr.edu

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