Category Archives: …Absolute Favorites

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

LowlandSTARRED REVIEW
Pulitzer Prize winner Jhumpa Lahiri‘s (The Interpreter of Maladies) unparalleled ability to transform the smallest moments into whole lives pinnacles in this extraordinary story of two brothers – so close that one is “the other side” of the other – coming of age in the political tumult of 1960s India. They are separated as adults, with Subhash, the elder, choosing an academic career in the United States and the more daring Udayan remaining in Calcutta, committed to correcting the inequities of his country. Udayan’s political participation will haunt four generations, from his parents, who renounce the future, to his wife and his brother, who attempt to protect it, to the daughter and granddaughter who will never know him.

Verdict: Lahiri is remarkable, achieving multi-layered meaning in an act as simple as “banging the edge of the lid three or four times with a spoon, to break the seal”; this, her second novel and fourth title, is deservedly one of this year’s most anticipated books. Banal words of praise simply won’t do justice – perhaps what is needed is a three-word directive: just read it.

Review: “Fiction,” Library Journal, August 15, 2013

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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The Favorite Daughter by Allen Say

Favorite DaughterWell, goodness … the back flap of Allen Say’s latest arrives on my desk with a quote from my own review about his last title, Drawing from Memory! Huh, how did I miss that until now? Okay, I have to admit I’m just tickled at my discovery. Oh, but I do digress … back to the book already!

Caldecott Medalist Allen Say again turns to the personal in a warm story both dedicated to and about his daughter. “Yuriko came to stay with her father on Thursday that week,” the book begins. Over dinner, her request for a baby picture for “a class album” results in a “perfect” photo which reveals a plump-cheeked, blond hapa toddler making Play-Doh mud pies in the “‘prettiest kimono [the father] could find in Tokyo.’”

Yuriko’s excitement over that “perfect” photo diminishes into disappointment by the time she returns from school the next day. Her classmates insist Japanese have black hair, her new art teacher has inadvertently dubbed her “Eureka,” and even her closest friends are mimicking the mistake. “‘I want an American name, Daddy,’” Yuriko announces. “‘Umm … feels like I’m getting a new daughter here,’” Daddy responds.

That evening, “Michelle” accompanies her father to their favorite Japanese restaurant, where father and daughter discuss sushi, school, mistakes, and chopstick manners. Yuriko frets over her newly assigned art project, but her father cajoles her into a “‘real quick trip’” to Japan – at Golden Gate Park. There she finds so much more than the souvenir trinket she hoped for, as well as the exact inspiration she needs to create “‘something different from everyone else in art.’”

You may have already guessed where the title originates – such a moment of amusing, heartfelt delight! – but just in case, no spoilers here. Allen Say writes with such humor and patience, providing just the right amount of guidance to gently enable his hapa daughter toward self-discovery and cultural appreciation. As always, his illustrations are visual gifts, enhancing the smallest details that make the story whole: the ubiquitously recognizable soy sauce bottle, the backpack larger than the small child, the multi-culti park crowd, Yuriko’s slouchingly socked feet. Also included are two precious photographs of real-life Yuriko – as a toddler (mentioned above) and as a young woman in full kimono clearly taken during father and daughter’s (real-life) trip to Japan.

Daughter is Daddy’s side, and you can find Yuriko’s voice here, written when she was 13. Their father/daughter bond is unmistakable, proof that every once in a while, ‘playing favorites’ can be “the most wonderful time together.”

Click here to check out more of Allen Say’s titles in BookDragon.

Readers: Children

Published: 2013

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Filed under ...Absolute Favorites, ..Children/Picture Books, .Fiction, .Memoir, Hapa, Japanese American

Snow Hunters by Paul Yoon

Snow HuntersSTARRED REVIEW
After surviving the Korean War, Yohan spends another year in a prisoner-of-war camp south of the new border that splits the country in two. Rather than return north, where no one awaits him, Yohan begins life anew in a faraway coastal Brazilian village as a Japanese tailor’s apprentice. As the years pass, “He wondered what choice there was in what was remembered; and what was forgotten.”

Damaged by war, Yohan’s life before and after is circumscribed by quiet relationships – first with his widowed father and a childhood friend, then with the tailor Kiyoshi, the church groundskeeper, and two parentless children: “that in their silences there had been a form of love.” Having already lost family, friends, language, and country, Yohan slowly sheds his solitude when gentle Kiyoshi dies and opens up to the possibility of attachment and love.

Verdict: Yoon’s debut novel began as a 500-page draft pared down to about 200 pages that reveal the same shimmering, evocative spareness of his 2009 collection, Once the Shore. The result is that rare, precious gem, with every remaining word to be cherished for the many discarded to achieve perfection. One of this year’s best reads.

Review: “Fiction,” Library Journal, June 1, 2013

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ...Absolute Favorites, ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, Korean, Korean American, South American

On Sal Mal Lane by Ru Freeman

On Sal Mal LaneSTARRED REVIEW
As in Ru Freeman’s absorbing 2009 debut, A Disobedient Girl, the intricate lives of young children also take center stage in this latest work. In 1979, the titular Sal Mal Lane is a cul-de-sac on the outskirts of Sri Lanka’s largest city and former capital, Colombo. The Herath family’s arrival with four young children – Suren the musician, Rashmi the singer, Nihil the cricketer, and baby Devi the favored – reshuffles friendships and alliances along the lane.

Beyond the safety of this quiet enclave, the rest of the country is at an impasse: ethnic, religious, and political differences stir among a population long plagued by divisions and colonizations. War looms, and tragedy proves inevitable: “Everyone who lived on Sal Mal Lane was implicated in what happened … while this story is about small people, we must consider the fact that their history is long and accord them, too, a story equal to their past.”

Verdict: Dates and events ground the novel specifically in Sri Lanka, but the universal narrative of family remains borderless. As witness and storyteller, Freeman never falters, revealing “what happened” with clarity and resolve in prose both lingering and breathtaking. The result is simply stupendous.

Review: “Fiction,” Library Journal, June 1, 2013

Tidbit: To find out more about both book and author, check out my interview with Freeman in the May 2013 issue of Bookslut.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ...Absolute Favorites, ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, South Asian, South Asian American, Sri Lankan, Sri Lankan American

On Sal Mal Lane by Ru Freeman + Author Interview

On Sal Mal LaneAllow me to start with the simple end: Ru Freeman‘s On Sal Mal Lane is stupendous. I’ll even embellish that verdict and add that it is actually fan-huththa-tastic... the tmetic meaning of which should encourage you to go get your own copy and check the “glossary” at book’s end. You’ll surely find some choice vocabulary there to aptly describe your own reading experience.

As in Freeman’s absorbing 2009 debut, A Disobedient Girl, the intricate lives of young children take center stage in On Sal Mal Lane. In 1979, the titular Sal Mal Lane is a small cul-de-sac on the outskirts of Sri Lanka’s largest city and former capital, Colombo; in spite of the diverse households, the residents live in relative peace. If they are not exactly friendly, then they certainly live as tolerant neighbors one and all. The Herath family of two parents, four young children – Suren the musician, Rashmi the singer, Nihil the cricketer, and baby Devi the favored – and their servant move into the quiet enclave, reshuffling friendships and alliances throughout the lane.

The Heraths are educated and cultured, and their four children, whose ages range from 7-and-a-half-year-old Devi to 12-year-old Suren, “were different from all the others who had come and stayed for a while on Sal Mal Lane.” In addition to each being neat and clean, well-mannered and talented, their devotion to one another – “the way they stood together even when they were apart … every word uttered, every challenge made, every secret kept, together” – is a gift to behold.

Even as the Heraths’ lives intertwine with that of their neighbors, beyond the safety of their small street, the rest of the country is at an impasse. Ethnic, religious, and political differences among a population with a long history of divisions, colonizations, and suppressions foment through the years, leading up to a coming civil war that will break out in 1983 and last over a quarter-century. “Everyone who lived on Sal Mal Lane was implicated in what happened … the Tamil Catholics and Hindus, the Burgher Catholics, the Muslims, and the Sinhalese, both Catholic and Buddhist. Their lives were unfolding against a backdrop of conflict that would span decades … And while this story is about small people, we must consider the fact that their history is long and accord them, too, a story equal to their past.”

Freeman surely doesn’t disappoint. As she unwinds what happened – with prose both lingering and breathtaking – the children, even the lane’s bully who could have been different with just the occasional kindness, will charm you, tease you, play with you, and when they leave you, they’ll shatter your heart. “To tell a story about divergent lives, the storyteller must be everything and nothing,” Freeman’s prologue concludes. “If at times you detect some subtle preferences, an undeserved generosity toward someone, a boy child, perhaps, or an old man, forgive me. It is far easier to be everything and nothing than it is to conceal love.”

What possessed you to write this novel? How did it come about?
First, I had been a little down about a magazine piece that did not work out. [The article] had to do with the end of the war [the Sri Lankan Civil War – July 23, 1983, to May 18, 2009], and the editor wanted a very pared-down story with easily identifiable villains and saints. I wanted to write a more nuanced story. Second, I didn’t set out to write this novel, in particular. I was just dabbling with this and that, sketching out some anecdotal bits about growing up down a lane like this one. It was one of my brothers, Malinda, who nudged me down this road. He started chatting back with me – via Google Chat – reminiscing about that time and there it was – the novel I wanted to write. This story that was the one I had been trying to put into that magazine article, the one that was not easy but faceted and brittle and gentle and layered. [... click here for more]

Author interview: “Feature: An Interview with Ru Freeman,” Bookslut.com, May 2013

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ...Absolute Favorites, ...Author Interview/Profile, ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, South Asian, South Asian American, Sri Lankan, Sri Lankan American

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising AsiaI realize it’s only March, but I’m pretty convinced Mohsin Hamid‘s latest will be one of my top three favorites for 2013. True, such a pronouncement might seem rash in a year that will see new titles from Nadeem Aslam (The Blind Man’s Garden next month), Khaled Hosseini (And the Mountains Echoed in May), and Jumpha Lahiri (The Lowland in September). But life is short … so I judge instantly.

If Tash Aw’s latest Five Star Billionaire (his best novel thus far – my review’s been filed and will cross-post here soon-ish) was a savory, satisfying appetizer evoking a taste of accelerating economic power on the other side of the world, then Rich is a complex, rewarding dessert with the perfect blend of lightness and depth.

In another ‘gawww’-induced case of less-is-more (just read Rich already!), here’s a simple overview: the youngest child in a poor rural family moves to the city, becomes a wealthy magnate, and reveals in 12 seemingly simple steps the secrets of his vast success. Lest you think such a tale is all too familiar, I promise you this is a lasting original.

Hamid is a most clever trickster – masterfully sly like no other! – and in just 228 pages, he manages to create a literary tapestry comprised of an everlasting first-love story (“‘Do I look as old as you do?’”), a skewering parody (“The master at whose feet you metaphorically squat is a middle-aged man with the long fingers of an artist and the white-tufted ear hair of a primate resistant to lethal tympanic parasites”), a Midas-scale tragedy (“You take this news as well as possible, which is to say you do not die”), and ultimately, quite the treatise on reading and writing and the intricate relationship in between (“Readers don’t work for writers. They work for themselves. Therein, if you’ll excuse the admittedly biased tone, lies the richness of reading.”)

Presented in a playful, almost cajoling vernacular addressed to ‘you,’ Rich is too delightful to miss. As I said, life is short … read this instantly.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ...Absolute Favorites, ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, Pakistani

The Stamp Collector by Jennifer Lanthier, illustrated by François Thisdale

Stamp CollectorHere’s how this mesmerizing book begins … and ends:

“This is a story of not long ago and not far away.
It is the story of a boy who loves stamps and a boy who loves words.
This is the story of a life that is lost.
And found.”

The boy who loves stamps lives in the city, “in the shadow of a grey prison.” His philatelism originates with “a scrap of paper on the street,” which his grandfather deems ”not rare or precious’” upon inspecting the emerald-green stamp, “‘[b]ut it is beautiful.’” In a nearby village lives the boy who loves words, who “devours every poem and fable” and yet “hungers [f]or stories.” Lost in his own world, he “finds stories all around him. He learns to capture them. He writes.”

Both boys grow up. One puts his dreams of far-away away, and becomes a prison guard. The other buries his stories within and finds a factory job. When his soul is near bursting, the village boy writes a story that brings “joy and hope to the villagers. But it brings fear to others.” His “dangerous” words land him in the guard’s prison.

Years pass, and the guard and the writer tentatively attempt a silent friendship. It begins with a single stamp passed through the bars: “[e]very stamp tells a story without words. The writer knows he is not alone now. Not forgotten.” When stamps are not enough, the guard secretly delivers letters from all over the word that the writer was never supposed to see, each asking for “one more story.” The writer weakly whispers, the guard bravely listens … and just how much both are willing to risk for that final tale is a bittersweet triumph to behold.

Captured in remarkable, atmospheric art by François Thisdale, who fills the pages with such exquisite, breathtaking details that will make you pause with every turn, The Stamp Collector is both illuminating storytelling as well as an act of sheer defiance. Author Jennifer Lanthier reveals in her closing essay, “Freedom to Write, Freedom to Read”: “This story was inspired by two writers: Nurmuhemmet Yasin and Jiang Weiping.” The latter, a journalist, lives free in Canada after surviving six years in a Chinese prison for exposing government corruption. The former, a writer, has already lost 10 years in jail for writing “The Wild Pigeon,” a short, allegorical fable that represents the indigenous Uyghur experience under Chinese rule. In 2009, the International PEN Uyghur Center‘s website tragically “… reports from credible sources that Nurmuhemmet Yasin may have been tortured to death in prison.”

“Countless writers” remain trapped throughout the world, Lanthier reminds, “because of something they wrote.” Organizations like PEN International are advocating on behalf of these writers, and also corresponding directly with the prisoners and their families “… to reassure them that they are not forgotten.” In solidarity and support, partial proceeds from Stamp are being directed to PEN Canada, which helped orchestrate Jiang Weiping’s release and immigration. That’s irrefutable testimony to the power of words: while words can tragically bind you, words are also the very tools that can – and will – set you free.

Readers: All

Published: 2012

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Filed under ...Absolute Favorites, ..Adult Readers, ..Children/Picture Books, ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, Canadian, Chinese

Hikikomori and the Rental Sister by Jeff Backhaus

Hikkomori and the Rental SisterI’m facing a bit of a conundrum with this book: just how little can I tell you and still entice you to check out this astonishing debut novel by emerging-fully-formed-like-Athena, new author Jeff Backhaus?

Hmm … might this work? Drop everything and read this book NOW.

Still not convinced? Okay, let’s try examining the title. Unless you know something about contemporary Japanese subculture, you probably aren’t familiar with the social phenomenon of hikikomori, or reclusive shut-ins. The book’s back cover explains, “literally pulling inward; refers to those who withdraw from society.” Then we have “the rental sister” – she’s a counselor hired by the hikikomori’s family to try to draw him (most are male) back into the world.

Backhaus’s dual narrative is subtly, hauntingly constructed like musical counterpoint, harmonious and independent both. His two protagonists, promised in the title, cannot ignore an important third whose presence continuously looms just beyond. And then there are the spectres …

Thomas Tessler has lived alone in his New York City room for three years. “‘I have never heard of an American hikikomori,’” his potential ‘rental sister’ remarks when she is asked to visit him by her downtown boutique employer, who in turn has been sought out by Thomas’ desperate, waiting, still-hopeful wife Silke. Megumi, a recent immigrant from Japan, is much more than a ‘rental’; her real-life experience with her own hikikomori brother makes her almost an expert.

Thomas and Megumi’s relationship begins with a letter, delivered by Silke under his door. When conversation doesn’t initially work through the locked barrier, Megumi tries pushing through an origami penguin which Thomas admires then pushes back out. But even in the exchange of offering and rejection, the tiniest promise of communication emerges … and inevitably grows.

To tell you anything more about missing children, a lost sibling, Japanese violence against Koreans, not to mention the wrenching disconnect (and reconnect) of our contemporary lives, would surely be giving away too much.

Some secrets must remain within these pages … and their discovery needs to be on your own. Go, already, go!

Tidbit: After – let me say that again – AFTER you finish this breathtaking novel, check out the 2006 New York Times article, “Shutting Themselves In,” for further fascinating, illuminating, investigative reading.

Tidbit2: On February 15, Jeff Backhaus (really! in the “twitterflesh,” as he describes it – he’s @jeff_backhaus, FYI) sent this: “@SIBookDragon Check out my new short story, about an American immigrant in Korea, either on tumblr or on an e-reader. http://bit.ly/WutTGB.” Since I’m such a Luddite, when asked, he sent these directions: “@SIBookDragon If you want to read them in order start from the bottom left. Then just keep clicking ‘PREV POST.’ Or just skip around.” As for his next novel, he reveals this: “The next novel is still a pile of notebooks, but I’m working hard.” Amazing what can happen on Twitter! Gawwww.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ...Absolute Favorites, ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, Japanese, Nonethnic-specific

The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe

End of Your Life Book ClubThe Japanese word, kokoro, means ‘heart’ … seeing the single word used as a chapter title in Will Schwalbe‘s The End of Your Life Book Club made mine go aflutter because this is a book about books, which meant the chapter must be a reference to the Japanese classic of the same name. And then the name “Edwin McClellan” appears – Schwalbe first read the “remarkable novel” Kokoro by Natsume Sōseki, in a college course taught by the book’s translator. And in the midst of what proves to be an extraordinary mother/son journey of fully, gratefully, mindfully living while dying, my heart bursts more than a little for the late Edwin McClellan, my beloved PhD advisor, who years later, I still mourn (and celebrate) in the most unexpected moments. For that memory and so much more, Book Club turns out to be a magnificent gift.

Schwalbe’s mother is dying of pancreatic cancer. Mary Anne has lived a remarkable life – more than half a century ago, she listened well to the words of her high school headmistress who “always said, ‘Girls, you can have a husband and a family and a career – you can do it all.”’ And when she went back years later to tell her headmistress she “‘had, indeed, managed to have it all … but that [she] was tired all the time,’” her headmistress replied with “‘Oh, dear – did I forget to mention that you can, indeed, have it all, but you need a lot of help!’” A story she told often, Mary Anne would always also add that “help could come in many forms” – family, spouse, friends, community.

Mary Anne’s ‘all’ included graduating from Radcliffe, where she eventually became the Director of Admissions at Harvard and Radcliffe, and the first woman president of the Harvard Faculty Club. She returned to New York where she became the founding director of the Women’s Refugee Commission and an advisor to the International Rescue Committee, traveling the world to difficult, decimated regions: “I couldn’t get Mom to admit that she’d ever been courageous,” her son writes, “The people she thought were brave were the people she sought to help and serve.” Throughout her illness, she never stopped helping and serving: her final project was to build a library in Afghanistan.

Books, Mary Anne knows, are integral to life: “‘When I think back on all the refugee camps I visited, all over the world, the people always asked for the same thing: books. Sometime even before medicine or shelter – they wanted books for their children.’” Books prove integral to her relationship with Schwalbe:  “Mom had spent so much time in war zones, she said, that she was drawn to books that dealt with dark themes, as they helped her understand the world as it is, not as we wish it would be.” Their book club, which begins officially over mocha during one of Mary Anne’s chemo treatments at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, will sustain them both in the time that is left: “Reading is not the opposite of doing; it’s the opposite of dying.” In spite of the death you know from the title is inevitable, Book Club is perhaps one of most uplifting books you’ll ever read. It’s an open-hearted love letter from a child to his mother, a profound thank-you missive from an outstanding human being for a life exceptionally well-lived, an erudite appreciation for all kinds of literature, and perhaps a bit of unintended reminder of how to cherish and “practice gratitude” in our own daily lives.

“She never wavered in her conviction that books are the most powerful tool in the human arsenal, that reading all kinds of books, in whatever format you choose – electronic (even though that wasn’t for her) or printed, or audio – is the grandest entertainment, and also is how you take part in the human conversation. Mom taught me that you can make a difference in the world and that books really do matter: they’re how we know what we need to do in life, and how we tell others. Mom also showed me, over the course of two years, and dozens of books, and hundreds of hours in hospitals, that books can be how we get closer to each other, and stay close, even in the case of a mother and son who were very close to each other to begin with, and even after one of them has died.”

If books equal power, then books with kokoro will save the world. Something tells me that somehow, somewhere, Mary Anne and McClellan are working on that …

Tidbit: If you choose to stick Book in your ears, Jeff Harding makes for a heartfelt narrator overall, although some of his affected accents are … well, affected. Ironically, Schwalbe mentions that he “loathe[s]” most public readings because of “the phony, singsong reading voice that most writers adopt, a kind of spooky incantatory tone that implies they are reading a holy text in a language you don’t understand.” Well, Harding does a little of that – especially when quoting from Daily Strength for Daily Needs, which indeed includes holy text! – so be warned. If you choose on the page (as Mary Anne would have), the final pages list every book and author mentioned in the first 329 pages, in case you want to join the discussion. One tiny error that shook me a bit that no one else will probably even notice … Professor McClellan’s name, previously spelled correctly, is missing a letter on the penultimate page. He was not one to suffer mistakes (he threw me out of seminar once for starting to doze off), but he never held on to annoyance or anger for long (he filled me in when I slunk back into class, noted he had opened a window during my absence, and brusquely asked if I was okay, before continuing on). Another memorable lesson in kokoro …

Readers: Adult

Published: 2012

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Filed under ...Absolute Favorites, ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Memoir, .Nonfiction, Nonethnic-specific

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

Perhaps you might label me odd (true) or contrary (no way!) or even disrespectful (dohhh!) to post about cancer and death today of all days, but let me just assure you that this really does make sense. Books like this are the best reminders to be aware, to dream … and to be very, very grateful in so many, many ways.

Here’s a minimal peek between the covers (to reveal any more would be utter injustice). Hazel Grace Lancaster is 16. In spite of being diagnosed with Stage IV thyroid cancer three years ago, her “Cancer Miracle” keeps her alive. At Support Group, she meets Augustus Waters, 17, a survivor of osteosarcoma. He fears oblivion. She suggests he ignore it. He insists she needs to see V is for Vendetta “now.” She responds, “I hardly know you, Augustus Waters. You could be an ax murderer,” but goes home to watch the movie with him anyway. End of chapter one. That’s all you need to know … except that you’ll giggle, laugh, sigh, wonder, appreciate all the way through.

If you choose the audible route (the version inspiringly, wrenchingly narrated by Kate Rudd – small warning: hard to run and cry at the same time), you’ll get a bonus interview with John Green at story’s end. He’ll tell you straight out that he doesn’t have any plans to ever write for us old folks, although he appreciates that so many of us do read his books. I confess I’m gluttonously enjoying a John Green-binge currently and have only his first left to go (posts coming). He’ll also mention that he doesn’t think he has quite the right voice for a 16-year-old girl (he does a surprisingly funny growl to prove his point), but you can listen to him (and see him in humorously awkward action!) here.

Book in the hand, stuck in your ears, glued to your screen … doesn’t matter how. Just do. You’ll thank me. Really.

For the rest of the John Green oeuvre on BookDragon, click here.

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2012

8 Comments

Filed under ...Absolute Favorites, ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Nonethnic-specific