Category Archives: …And Awful Duds

Black Jack (vol. 1) by Osamu Tezuka, translated by Camellia Nieh

So it’s not officially the start of summer by calendar date, but when temperatures get this hot, my eyeballs turn to lighter reading to soothe the heat-addled brain. Given my later-in-life appreciation for manga, Osamu Tezuka always proves to be a reliable go-to choice. In the multi-volume Black Jack – which debuted in Japan in the 1970s to mega-success, and recently made available in full in English translation from the fabulous boutique press, Vertical, Inc. – the versatile, prolific, late ‘godfather of manga’ most certainly puts his medical degree (yes, that’s Dr. Tezuka!) to entertaining use.

Black Jack is a renegade doctor without a license, who eschews the controlling – too often corrupt – medical establishment. He charges (and receives) the most exorbitant fees to work medical miracles. With his heavily scarred face, his dramatic black cloak, his shock of black-and-white-unruly hair, he’s quite the distinctively menacing sight. But he’s also got a caring, suffering heart hidden deep within that he only shows bare glimpses of at the most unexpected moments.T

The good doctor will stop at nothing to save a life, regardless of the danger or risks (even to himself). He saves an innocent young man by giving him the face of an evil, wealthy tycoon heir. He tracks down a serial killer whose image haunts a young woman with a recent corneal transplant. He removes a talking cystoma from a young woman which proves to be her not-fully-developed twin sister; he remolds the unfinished, unwanted body pieces into an adorable little girl, who becomes his pouting, lisping, comical sidekick Pinoko.

He says a tearful goodbye to his savior and mentor – Dr. Honma who diligently saved Jack as a young boy after a horrendous accident – after learning yet another lesson in the protective powers of the human body. He reunites briefly with the love of his life, whom he was forced to save only to lose her forever. He ‘fixes’ an overzealous computer with destructive delusions of grandeur, helps a young boy with polio achieve his dream, and manages to gives new life to a talented pair of hands.

So far, Vertical has managed to publish 11 volumes (with more on the way!), each filled with about a dozen stories of Black Jack’s around-the-world, often other-worldly adventures. If you read them slowly (if you can manage a little self-control? … good luck with that!), you should be able to last out much of the summer … here’s hoping, anyway.

To check out other volumes of Black Jack on BookDragon, click here.

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2008 (United States)

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Filed under ...And Awful Duds, .Bilingual, .Biography, .Short Stories, .Translation, Japanese American

The Angel Maker by Stefan Brijs, translated by Hester Velmans

angel-maker1Belgian-born Stefan Brijs’ novel The Angel Maker seemingly has all the necessary elements to be a success with U.S. readers. It’s already an international bestseller, with 80,000 copies sold in Holland alone, according to the pre-publication press material. It deals with the sort of multi-layered, interwoven Big Topics that promise to keep readers engaged – from ethics to science to that ever-present battle of God versus man. And if that wasn’t enough, it throws in the latest contemporary issues like autism, infertility, cloning and, of course, the most dysfunctional of families to satisfy anyone’s sense of Schadenfreude.

But something gets lost in the translation, perhaps literally: As rendered in English, anyway, The Angel Maker proves to be clunky and heavy, with characters that never seem to expand beyond the flat page.

At the center of a sizable cast is Dr. Victor Hoppe, a once-famous embryologist who returns unannounced to his native village of Wolfheim, a rather zealous Catholic community just beyond the tri-country border of Belgium, Holland and Germany. He arrives with three motherless infant sons, whom he immediately whisks into the family home, hardly ever to emerge again. …[click here for more]

Review: San Francisco Chronicle, December 30, 2008

Readers: Adult

Published: 2008 (United States)

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Filed under ...And Awful Duds, ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Translation, Nonethnic-specific

Bombay Anna: The Real Story and Remarkable Adventures of the ‘King and I’ Governess by Susan Morgan


Immortalized by Deborah Kerr, Anna Leonowens – yes, that Anna, the one who taught the children of the King of Siam – was, without a doubt, a remarkable character. Unfortunately, her story remains buried in Susan Morgan’s overwritten Bombay Anna: The Real Story and Remarkable Adventures of the ‘King and I’ Governess.

Previous biographies have presented Leonowens as a genteel, upper-class British woman who faced tragic loss before she became the beloved governess to the children of the King of Siam. Leonowens herself held fast to those claims throughout her life.

But Anna’s “factual origins,” Morgan explains, were hardly genteel or even very British. She was born Anna Harriett Emma Edwards on November 26, 1831, in Ahmednuggar, India, to a British soldier and his teenaged Anglo-Indian orphan wife. Leonowens grew up in Army barracks amid a multicultural mix of many races and languages. … [click here for more]

Review: Christian Science Monitor, September 16, 2008

Readers: Adult

Published: 2008

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Filed under ...And Awful Duds, ..Adult Readers, .Biography, .Nonfiction, British, Hapa, Indian, South Asian, Thai

Princess Masako: Prisoner of the Chrysanthemum Throne: The Tragic True Story of Japan’s Crown Princess by Ben Hills

princess-masako1What’s wrong with this picture?: An independent, cosmopolitan young woman, educated at Harvard and Oxford, proficient in six languages, who is on the fast track to becoming a diplomat in spite of a male-dominated society, gives up her career, her freedom and even her identity to marry the crown prince of Japan and enter the sequestered halls of a 2,600-year-old monarchy.

Happy princesses are for fairy tales. In today’s reality, a royal wedding seems to mean anything but a happy ending – maybe just an ending, period. Case in point: The ever-popular Diana makes the perfect poster-princess for “happily never after.”

In the latest royal expose, Princess Masako, Ben Hills chronicles another princess’ public misery. Often referred to as the “Japanese Princess Di” –  more so now for the unfortunate parallels in their lives – Japan’s Princess Masako is indeed a trapped soul. Certainly royal watchers somewhere will care and want to know more, but this is not the book to read. … [click here for more]

Review: San Francisco Chronicle, January 30, 2007

Readers: Adult

Published: 2007

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Filed under ...And Awful Duds, ..Adult Readers, .Biography, Japanese

The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently … and Why by Richard Nisbett

geography-of-thoughtAccording to Richard Nisbett in The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently … and Why, the origins of East/West differences go back 2,500 years. His opening chapter explains that Greeks promoted personal agency, which valued individual identity, a sense of debate, and a curiosity about nature. The Chinese, meanwhile, espoused collective agency, which valued harmony and the Middle Way, avoided confrontation but lacked wonder in nature. “The lack of wonder among the Chinese is especially remarkable,” Nisbett adds, as if to excuse the Chinese, “in light of the fact that Chinese civilization far outdistanced Greek civilization technologically.”

The next chapter scans 2-1/2 centuries for explanations of the differences between East and West. In short, the original physical surroundings determined agricultural and therefore economic infrastructures, which resulted in the establishment of social structures, leading to different ways of thinking. And that brings us to those “remarkable” differences: …[click here for more]

Review: Christian Science Monitor, April 3, 2003

Readers: Adult

Published: 2003

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Filed under ...And Awful Duds, ..Adult Readers, .Nonfiction, Pan-Asian Pacific American

Lili: A Novel of Tiananmen by Annie Wang

lili1Let’s face it, the media is great at creating and perpetuating stereotypes. Take Asians: inscrutable and mysterious, sly and calculating, from the shuffling house boy to the prostitute with the heart of gold, from Ming the Merciless to Miss Saigon.

Just how pervasive those stereotypes can be is evidenced in Lili: A Novel of Tiananmen, the English-language debut of Chinese-born writer Annie Wang, who has previously published five works in Chinese. That a writer of Asian descent could perpetuate such portrayals is especially disturbing; clearly, the youthful Wang, who was born in 1972, cut her teeth on Hollywood’s demeaning versions of the inscrutable East.

With a subtitle like “A Novel of Tiananmen,” a reader might expect something on the serious side. But except for a brief mention of Mao’s looming statue in the infamous square, those events leading up to the tragic scene of terror when student revolutionaries demanded change from the stifling government, do not actually play a role in the book until it is almost over. …[click here for more]

Review: Christian Science Monitor, May 31, 2001

Readers: Adult

Published: 2001

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Filed under ...And Awful Duds, ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, Chinese, Chinese American

The Binding Chair: or, A Visit from the Foot Emancipation Society by Kathryn Harrison

Binding ChairMy initial reaction – and it does not fade through the course of the book – is utter annoyance at yet another non-Asian exoticizing, objectifying, making inscrutable the Asian culture and its people. But then Kathryn Harrison has made a literary career of writing about taboo subjects: witness her shocking memoir, The Kiss, about her adult, incestuous affair with her father, her first two novels, Thicker Than Water and Exposure, also about less-than-acceptable family bonds, and her historical novel, Poison, about a troubled woman’s lustful pairing with a priest during the dark days of the Spanish Inquisition.

Having found critical acclaim in the historical novel genre, Harrison tries again, this time turning to the East, or should I say, the Orient, in The Binding Chair: or, A Visit from the Foot Emancipation Society, to weave a tale of erotic, exotic lust and betrayal with no redemption in sight (unless you count unexpected death).

The long tale opens in the elaborate Cote d’Azur home of Mrs. Arthur Cohen who is interviewing candidates for a private swimming instructor. Not all is as it seems, as the candidates soon find out. Mrs. Arthur Cohen is anything but French, or Jewish. She’s a tiny, elegant Chinese woman with bound feet. Her binding sessions in the chair started at the tender age of 5. And, as it is too-oft repeated, she never cried out.

As the story unfolds, Mrs. Cohen turns out to be May-li, a high-priced prostitute who refused to ever service Chinese men, who was also once Chao-Tsing, the abused 14-year-old fourth wife of an odious silk merchant. Oh, but she’s really a lesbian.

Back in Shanghai, the nervous virgin Arthur Cohen, unable to live without her, much less the mysteries of her crescent moons, marries May and installs her in the lavish home of his overzealously hygienic sister, her husband, and their two daughters. May develops a life-long special bond with the younger child, Alice, who idolizes her exotic aunt. Eventually, Alice’s father makes it bigger than big, her mother burns down the big house, and the family relocates to Nice where May takes in creative charity cases. And yet she can never get over the loss of her own children – a daughter she gave away during her brothel days, and the daughter she and Arthur lost. And even though Alice was supposedly “hers,” well, Alice was never really hers. So she goes for a swim and never comes back. Yet another Asian woman sacrificed.

I gave up dogearing the pages that made me want to throw the book out the window, most especially a scene in which May is arrested in fancy Fortnum & Mason for creating a ruckus as a “furrener” being carried around by two “furren” boys in furs – and she speaks no less! Of course, I might have missed the point entirely. Maybe it was all the Caucasians and their misplaced sense of utter superiority that Harrison was trying to expose. But then again, maybe not.

As I forced myself to plod along, from a Russian officer with a dead daughter, to a lisping math teacher without family, to a French translator traveling with a frozen dead brother wrapped in a valuable rug, to a lost daughter who spits on their mother as her only response, to a desperate husband demanding to drink the washing water of his wife’s rotting (bound) feet, I found myself rather numbed to the sensationalism of it all. And, in the end, I chocked it up to an exercise in utter patience.

ReviewaOnline website, August 16, 2000

Readers: Adult

Published: 2000

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Filed under ...And Awful Duds, ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, Chinese, European

The Five Chinese Brothers by Claire Huchet Bishop, illustrated by Kurt Wiese

Five Chinese BrothersFive Chinese brothers look exactly alike, but each has an extraordinary talent. When First Chinese Brother is unfairly sentenced to death, the other brothers each call on their special talents to save their brother and prove his innocence.

Published in 1938, this was one of the earliest children’s books to feature at least seemingly Asian-looking characters. Never mind the cringe here and there. In spite of the welcome multitudes of new titles that are, if nothing nothing else, more accurate both graphically and culturally of the Asian and Asian American experience, this title somehow remains a children’s classic more than half a century later. Go figure … exotica still sells.

The 1990 Mahy/Tseng book, The Seven Chinese Brothers, is another, somewhat different variation of the same alleged Chinese folktale. Kathy Tucker and Grace Lin’s 2003 The Seven Chinese Sisters reclaim the sibling story to much greater success. Girl power all the way!

Review: “Asian American Titles,” What Do I Read Next? Multicultural Literature, Gale Research, 1997

Readers: Children

Published: 1938

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Filed under ...And Awful Duds, ..Children/Picture Books, Chinese, Nonethnic-specific