Category Archives: .Audio

We Are Water by Wally Lamb

We Are WaterOver the past couple weeks, I’ve been a bit of an ethnic voyeur, picking up bestselling ‘mainstream’ titles in search of their APAness. I confess I picked up Wally Lamb‘s latest purely because I somehow learned the protagonist is named Annie Oh – Oh usually being a Korean last name. ‘Oh’ turns out to be Annie’s moniker only by (first) marriage, that Annie was born Anna O’Day. Her husband Orion is the official Oh, an Italian Chinese hapa whose only inheritance from his Chinese American father is his last name.

At almost 600 pages or over 23 hours stuck in the ears (the eight-member cast is superb, and includes Lamb himself reading Orion’s chapters), Water is not a light commitment. Here’s the skeletal overview: Annie’s second marriage is imminent, this time to a woman. To get to the wedding on time, over half a century of exposition must be revealed; Water then concludes with what happens three years after the blessed event.

The novel is sprawling, with complicated overlapping narratives that revolve around (essentially) little orphan Annie who survives a horrific past, is rescued by Orion, raises three children together, discovers her violently angry artist soul, falls in love with her gallery owner, and must finally face her demons on her wedding day. Intertwined stories include an African American artist who is murdered by a KKK member, the aging artist who first discovered Annie’s work whose son then gives Annie’s youngest daughter her major break, a monstrously abusive cousin who was both victim and victimizer, a manipulative student who ruins her professor’s career, and so much more – all compounded with issues of class, gender, politics, religion, and race, oh my.

While the novel occasionally felt overly detailed and therefore long (did I really need to know that the pantry had grape jelly to put on the muffins?), I admit that actively connecting the APA dots throughout proved to be a fascinating process. From the “effeminate Korean cashier” who is also the “hostile Korean boy” at the corner grocery where Annie gets her cigarettes, to the fact that the 1882 Exclusion Act can be so casually mentioned, to wondering if I’ve read the Chinese American history texts Orion orders from Amazon, added quite a different layer to my usual ‘let-it-just-sink-in-and-then-react’ usual intended approach.

By book’s end, this experimental literary engagement proved so engrossing, I’m in the middle of doing it again: stay tuned for the Moonies and an HIV-positive Japanese American lawyer in Meg Wolitzer’s much-lauded The Interestings.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Hapa, Nonethnic-specific

Flight by Sherman Alexie

FlightI spent my last birthday with Sherman Alexie … and a few hundred others, too. He happened to be in residence for a week at our son’s new school (!), and son came home announcing that Alexie thought son’s name made him sound like a superhero!

That night, Alexie made a community-wide appearance following a screening of his and Chris Eyre‘s iconic film, Smoke Signals. As Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian had just hit the #2 spot of the latest “Top Ten Challenged Books” and Banned Books Week 2013 was about to commence, Alexie had a few choice words to share about freedom of speech and more. His enlightening hysterics made quite the memorable birthday gift.

So all this is related! Because Smoke Signals star Adam Beach pitch-perfectly narrates Flight, 10 years after his celluloid performance. “Call me Zits,” Alexie’s genre-defying slim novel opens. Beach’s delivery is as deadpan as Alexie’s’ storytelling as his 15-year-old protagonist time travels from his troubled young life through multiple decades and bodies.

Zits lost his Indian father – “more in love with beer and vodka than with my mother and me” – almost at birth. At 6, his Irish mother passed away: “I sometimes wish she’d died when I was younger so I wouldn’t remember her at all.” He moved in with an aunt whose boyfriend abused him, and then through 20 foster homes and 22 schools. Angry, alone, and lost, Zits is a pixellated hapa adolescent who’s “been partially raised by too many people.”

He meets a boy named Justice who convinces Zits to take part in a bank shoot-out. Zits should have died, but instead, he wakes to find himself in the 1970s, in the body of a white FBI agent who witnesses the murder of “two famous Indian guys.” His adventure is just beginning, as he lands in Little Bighorn as a young Indian boy without a voice, as the “best Indian tracker in the entire U.S. Army,” as a pilot and flight instructor who still misses his favorite student, and then, shockingly, as his own missing father.

Zits’ impossible journey is filled with lessons in broad perspective … and, because Alexie is writing the nuanced story, mixed in with the racism, violence, and tragedy, humor is also never far. Alexie deftly balances between surreal fantasy and brutal reality, as he guides young Zits toward an identity – and a “real name”! – with possibility and promise.

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2007

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Native American

Schroder by Amity Gaige

SchroederThis is an immigration story. But not the sort of immigration I’ve become accustomed to … only a select few could make the sort of metamorphosis that being white and male affords Erik Schroder who, at 14, reinvents himself at a summer camp as Eric Kennedy. While an immigrant from, say, Asia or Africa, could make a similar change in nomenclature, he would be hard-pressed to carry off the new identity without at least a raised eyebrow. When Erik dons his storied moniker, just by virtue of his being an attractive white male, assumptions are made and eagerly accepted; he never denies those too ready to imbue him with Kennedy connections.

And yet Erik Schröder was born in East Germany. He lost his mother during his flight with his father across their divided homeland from East to West, then both father and son misplaced the umlauted-ö upon arrival in the new country. The pair eventually settled not too far from Boston, and given his youth, Erik was willfully able to shed his foreign accent. His carefully chosen moniker was inspired by that mythic American Berliner himself, a reference to JFK’s famed 1963 “Ich bin ein Berliner”-speech (while grammatically accurate, the “I’m a jelly donut”-translation in this context is urban legend).

[Allow me a momentary logistical rant: if you're casting for a reader for a book about a German immigrant, wouldn't you find a narrator who might speak a little German?! Although Will Collyer is more than adequate as long as he reads in English, his German, alas, barely improves over the seven hours stuck in the ears.]

By the time Eric Kennedy has graduated high school, then college, married, and become a father to his own child, he’s grown accustomed to his self-annointed American identity. But a life built on lies is fragile at best: what was once a happy, nuclear family begins to implode. Suddenly, Eric is living alone, and relying on lawyers to get him access to his beloved 6-year-old daughter Meadow. In a fit of frustrated desperation, Eric takes Meadow too far – literally.

And so Amity Gaige‘s latest novel begins. Held in custody, Eric refuses to speak; instead he writes page after page, explaining how he ended up a wanted felon. It’s a love letter to his estranged wife, a tome of devotion to their daughter, a plea for sympathy of his jailers, and a desperate treatise attempting to confirm his own sanity. As readers, we get to play judge: to believe or not believe … that will be the ultimate question.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, European, Nonethnic-specific

The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo

Ghost BrideHauntings, posthumous marriage proposals, addictions, not-quite-human heroes, in-between spirits growing old, burnt offerings that are actually real in another world. Interest piqued? Get ready for this absolutely ingenious debut novel!

And (there’s more!), as an exponentially satisfying bonus, the crisply-voiced author herself – Yangsze Choo, a fourth-generation Malaysian of Chinese descent now California-domiciled – refreshingly voices the audible incarnation. Yes, without having to grit your way through errant pronunciations, Choo’s rendition is just about music to your ears!

The concept of ‘hungry ghosts‘ is centuries-old in China and other parts of Asia, but Choo goes far beyond lost and desperate spectres to create original, unexpected parallel world she calls “the Plains of the Dead” filled with the uniquely undead. Li Lan, a young woman in 1890s Malaya who is quickly bypassing socially-deemed marriageable age, receives an eerie offer. No longer an illustrious family, Li Lan’s father is financially diminished enough to present the unusual proposition to his daughter: to marry Lim Tian Ching, the wealthy heir to a privileged family … never mind that he’s … well … dead. His mother worries that her precious son will be lonely in his afterlife, and requests Li Lan as his bride.

Just in case Li Lan had other thoughts, Tian Ching quickly begins to lay claim from beyond on his intended. Li Lan, of course, is no obedient wallflower; in fact, her heart flutters for Tian Ching’s cousin, Tian Bai, who she initially mistakes as a servant. Her future, alas, is not her own if she can’t get herself unhaunted. Somehow, somewhere, she’ll have to chase down the undead Tian Ching and expose him for the less-than-honorable spirit he is …

Li Lan’s epic journey toward death in order to live is filled with unexpected meetings, devious servants, a trusty horse that never eats or tires, an arrogant yet irresistible guardian spirit, and plenty of corrupt officials (surprise, surprise – even in the netherworld!). Lest you worry about your own soul, Choo inserts a clever nod to tolerance: Keep an eye out for the centuries-old Dutchman who cannot help Li Lan on her deathly quest because “Those are not my beliefs … That is not my afterworld.”

The lengths a girl has to go through to escape unwanted attention reaches new heights – or should I say depths? – in this intriguing, wholly inventive, thoroughly entertaining debut title.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Chinese, Malay American, Malaysian, Southeast Asian

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis

Twelve Tribes of HattieWhen Oprah reinvented her book club in 2012, she elevated Cheryl Strayed’s Wild to near mythic status (I found Wild so tedious, I didn’t have the energy to write a post). Oprah’s 2013 choice was a first novel that hasn’t found quite that Wild level of ubiquitous success, but mega-bestselling annointment is definitely the next best way to launch a literary career. Besides, Ayana Mathis‘ Twelve Tribes resonates much more with Oprah’s usual-suspects: long-suffering protagonists (especially women) who must fight not only social oppression – usually with racial or classist overtones – but degradation caused by so-called loved ones, as well.

Hattie Shepherd, the novel’s matriarch, is still a teenager when she moves from Georgia to Philadelphia in the 1920s. By 17, she’s a married woman with twins. Her babies fall victim to pneumonia at seven months and die; Hattie never quite recovers in the more than half century she births, raises, and lets go of nine more children. Hattie is crippled by her bitterness towards her philandering husband, her impatience with trying to control her needy offspring, her disappointment over their lives as adults. Her difficulties render her incapable of ever openly showing love and affection to those she cares about most.

Over 10 chapters that read like interlinked short stories, Hattie’s maturity from teenaged mother to weathered grandmother is revealed via dovetailing glimpses of her children’s lives, mirroring the restrictive, challenging, not-changing-fast-enough African American experience of the 20th century. Floyd womanizes to cover his homosexuality, Six’s violent temper leads him to become a man of God, both Ruthie and Ella will always be someone else’s daughters, Alice pops pills convinced her life purpose is to take care of brother Billy whom she couldn’t protect as a child, Franklin gambles away his family, Bell gives up, Cassie succumbs to voices, and … in the final chapter, only Sala seems to look at her future with any hope.

No, this isn’t a feel-good story by any stretch of the imagination [Oprah chose it, ahem!]. That Hattie survives with her back straight and her head held high is perhaps the title’s greatest achievement. For those who want to go beyond the page, a cast of veteran narrators adeptly imbue the characters with urgent immediacy. Here’s to resilience – Hattie’s and committed readers both!

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Dark Places by Gillian Flynn

Dark PlacesIf Gillian Flynn isn’t already a household name, she will be sure enough. The film version of her mega-bestselling 2012 novel Gone Girl is due to hit screens in October with Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike starring as the troubled couple. Since Flynn herself wrote the screenplay, any grumbling about Hollywood’s cinematic makeover might be unwarranted, although apparently Flynn has changed the ending …?! Huh? Guess we’ll have to check out the results come fall.

Oh, but I’ve digressed. Maybe because I’m avoiding the horror factor here. While Gone Girl and Flynn’s first novel, Sharp Objects, seemed to be more psychological brutality, Dark Places – her novel in between – is the most viscerally violent of all.

At age 7, Libby Day survived when her mother and two older sisters were slaughtered in the family farmhouse. She managed to escape into the frigid cold, and hid in the bushes for so long that she lost three toes and half a ring finger to frostbite. Her 15-year-old brother was eventually convicted of the multiple murders.

Almost a quarter century later, Libby is broke, desperate, and no longer able to live off the kindness of strangers. She hasn’t seen her brother in all that time, her deadbeat Dad is floating out there as useless as ever, and she’s estranged herself from the one relative – her maternal aunt – who stood by her in spite of all of Libby’s betrayals (including murdering her aunt’s dog). When the horrendously-named Kill Club offers her money for her time – and her memories – she’s desperate enough to play along. They’re convinced her brother is innocent … which would mean that Libby’s eyewitness testimony couldn’t possibly be true.

To find out what really happened that night – I had NO idea! – readers will wade through satanic rituals, spousal abuse, pedophilia, bovine sacrifices, teenage hormonal rages, entitled wealth, and so much more. Yes, you’ve got almost 400 pages of humanity at its worst; if you choose to go audible, a full cast of notable narrators read with just the right blend of blasé observation and urgent shock. Horrible, gruesome, unbelievable, yes … but like the best train wrecks, you won’t be able to turn away.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2009

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The Little Hut of Leaping Fishes by Chiew-Siah Tei

Little Hut of Leaping FishesFor all the power and wealth of the Chai clan, discontent and tragedy haunts its three generations. With the challenges facing China at the turn of the 20th century as the last imperial dynasty crumbles and western colonialism looms, patriarch Master Chai’s once ironclad rule over his household begins to falter.

Born the first grandson, Mingzhi’s life is not necessarily his own to control as the family’s eventual heir. Obedient, hard-working, and honest, Mingzhi realizes early that his family’s extensive involvement in opium production is not an enterprise he supports nor wants to inherit. His path to redemption, as well as escape, is in education as he tenaciously works toward becoming a government official far from the family’s reach. Away from the Chai mansion, he finds reprieve and enlightenment in his eponymous “little hut of leaping fishes.”

In spite of an expansive cast of characters, author Chiew-Siah Tei tends toward simplified archetypes rather than multidimensional individuals. Mingzhi, for example, is the ‘good’ grandson with his laudable successes while his younger half-brother is the ‘bad’ counterpart – deceptive, lazy, and vengeful. Of Master Chai’s sons, one is a debauched opium addict with two wives, while the other is a filial, irreproachable, unmarried nurturer. Of the household’s two wives who belong to Mingzhi’s father, one remains a devoted mother and long-suffering silent wife; the other proves to be a scheming adulterous runaway.

Predictable as many of the characters might be, Tei manages plenty of unexpected plot twists and turns, from brutal rivalries to unexpected friendships to unrequited love. Her deft machinations earned her a 2007 Man Asian Literary Prize longlist nod – no small feat for the Malaysian Chinese, Scottish-domiciled author writing her first novel in English (she’s won multiple prizes for her earlier titles in Chinese). If, by chance, you choose to go audible, the elaborate family saga is engagingly read with breathless animation by Malaysian Australian actor Keith Brockett, whose androgynous voice works especially well here.

Mingzhi reaches manhood in spite of abandonment, repeated betrayals, and even unexpected death – who needs enemies when you have your own family too ready to watch you suffer and fail? Such survival merits Mingzhi another life, as his story continues a vast ocean away in last year’s sequel, The Mouse Deer Kingdom. Further adventures ho! Stay tuned.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2008

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, British Asian, Chinese, Malaysian, Southeast Asian

The Map of Lost Memories by Kim Fay

Map of Lost MemoriesThis has been my go-to article of late: “The One Thing White Writers Get Away With, But Authors of Color Don’t” by Gracie Jin. In the few blurbs I’ve briefly perused online about Lost Memories, I haven’t seen any mention of author Kim Fay‘s ethnic background (by photograph, she does not appear to be of Asian heritage), although I have come across a few commendations about her familiarity with Southeast Asia. The reviews seem mostly full of praise, and it garnered an Edgar Award nomination for Best First Novel in 2013.

But of course, I have to be the contrary one (think of this is as a public service announcement?), because Lost was surely a prime example of exoticized literary colonization. Irene Blum, not yet 30, doesn’t get the museum curator position she insists she deserves, mainly because she’s a woman in 1925. Her angry devastation proves brief, however, when her wealthy, dying mentor gives her the opportunity to discover a legendary temple in Cambodia which allegedly holds the secrets of the lost Khmer civilization.

Irene leaves Seattle for Shanghai where she convinces Simone Merlin, a Cambodian-born Frenchwoman with a reputation as temple raider and Communist sympathizer, to join her quest. After the two ambitious adventurers not-quite-on-purpose kill Simone’s abusive husband, they land in Saigon on their way to Cambodia. Both women pick up a lover – Simone’s old, Irene’s new – and eventually the foursome trek into the jungle, each with quite the contrasting agenda.

Irene’s motivation is purely personal gain: she plans to steal her Cambodian treasure to present to the American museum of her choice, cementing her career as a formidable curator. Hundreds of tedious pages later, she does indeed have some sort of too-late revelation (surprise!) about her self-absorbed greed and seemingly repent. In between, many – many – subplots meander and distract: lost parents, abandoned children, murder and other unsolved mysteries, secret pasts, orphan scribes of hidden libraries, and most prevalent of all, enough white privilege to keep the cringe-factor relentlessly zinging. Too much of Asia is but an exotic landscape to be manipulated, robbed, and colonized by the powerful, entitled white elite.

Hopeful that my tenacity (almost 13 hours stuck in the ears; narrator Karyn O’Bryant gallantly bears the weight of the faulty text) might somehow be rewarded with at least one character’s redemption, I grudgingly lasted through to the final track. Talk about misguided – lesson learned yet again: in the new year, literatus interruptus is a viable option that must be liberally exercised!

Readers: Adult

Published: 2012

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I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban by Malala Yousafzai with Christina Lamb

I Am Malala“‘Who is Malala?’” the gunman demanded on that fateful day, October 9, 2012, before he shot three bullets into a bus carrying teenage girls to school. Unable to answer then, Malala answers now in her new memoir for all the world to read: “I am Malala and this is my story.”

Years before she became “the girl who stood up for education and was shot by the Taliban,” readers may be surprised to learn that Malala was already an international ambassador-in-the-making. Even if the bullet that “went through [her] left eye socket and out under [her] left shoulder” was what put her in the glaring spotlights, her determination to get an education – not only for herself, but for all girls in her village, her country, and beyond – was nurtured early: at 11, she wrote about her life under Taliban control  for BBC Urdu under an assumed name for her safety; at 12, she was featured with her father in a documentary, “Class Dismissed: The Death of Female Education,” by Adam B. Ellick and Irfan Ashraf for The New York Times website; at 14, Archbishop Desmond Tutu nominated her for KidsRights‘ 2011 International Peace Prize (which she subsequently won in 2013), and Pakistan awarded her the country’s first ever National Peace Prize. On her 16th birthday, following her hard-won recovery, she addressed the United Nations in New York; she became the youngest person to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Co-written with Christina Lamb, one of the world’s most lauded journalists, I Am Malala is a page-turning revelation. That said, for the most effective experience, choose to go audible. Malala herself reads the “Prologue,” which chronicles that fateful last day in her native Pakistan: “… I left my home for school and never returned.” The British actress, Archie Panjabi, seamlessly takes over as narrator and never falters.

That a 16-year-old’s life can fill a 300-plus page book with so much history, family saga, tragedy, joy, and inspiration, is a remarkable feat. To become such a renowned public figure so young will surely prove to be both a blessing and a challenge. “By giving me this height to reach people, [my Allah] has also given me great responsibilities,” she writes with earnest purpose. “Peace in every home, every street, every village, every country – this is my dream. Education for every boy and every girl in the world. To sit down on a chair and read my books with all my friends at school is my right. To see each and every human being with a smile of happiness is my wish.”

For all that she’s accomplished thus far, what she might/can/will do as a mature adult should include dreams achieved, rights guaranteed, and wishes fulfilled. Here’s to the next spectacular volume of multiple memoirs to come.

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Audio, .Memoir, .Nonfiction, Pakistani

Back When We Were Grownups by Anne Tyler

Back When We Were Grownups“Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person,” Anne Tyler’s oldie-but-goodie begins, especially enhanced with the inimitable Blair Brown as welcome, familiar narrator. “How on earth did I get like this? How? How did I ever become this person who’s not really me?” the first chapter ends. At my age, that proves to be an irresistible opening!

[In an attempt to catch up with the backlogged to-be-added titles (how do I manage to fall so behind so regularly?), I'm going through some of Tyler's bestselling 20 novels I've missed through the decades. While Breathing Lessons might be her most lauded (1989 Pulitzer), and The Accidental Tourist her best known (thanks to the Oscar-nominated William Hurt/Geena Davis 1988 film), some of her not-quite-household-name books might be among her best. Digging to America, I admit, is my favorite thus far. Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant stuck in the ears was a caricatured disaster as read by Arthur Morey; interestingly enough, it's been re-recorded twice more by Kerry Shale in 2009 and Suzanne Toren in 2010 – hope they finally got it right! More recently, both Noah's Compass and The Amateur Marriage felt rather cranky and surprisingly dark. But, of course, I'll keep reading.]

Oh, but I have digressed … Back to Rebecca Davitch, who is constantly surrounded by people. She inherited her mix-and-not-so-matched family when she abandoned college at age 20 to marry her older divorced husband with three young daughters. When he died suddenly just six years later in a car accident, she had four children to raise and still others to care for, including her husband’s late father’s widowed twin brother who came to visit and never left. To support the family, Rebecca took over the family business – opening the Open Arms, the family’s “ornate but crumbling nineteenth-century Baltimore row house,” for parties: “All of Life’s Occasions from the Cradle to the Grave, as their ad in the Yellow Pages put it.” Decades and decades later, she put on a welcoming face and took care of people – from relatives to relative strangers – with barely a second thought. Until … at the engagement party of one of her stepdaughters, she realizes “she had turned into the wrong person”; at 53, she’s about to discover who she really is, and who she wants to be …

The Talking Heads classic, “Once in a Lifetime,” pops up regularly on my life’s soundtrack: Like Rebecca, I regularly question, “How did I get here?”?!! As Rebecca explores her past to see where she might have made the wrong choice, chosen the wrong way, taken the opposite path, she realizes (not without difficulties, not without heartbreak) that she is right where she needs to be, being the person she always was, the wife/mother/grandmother/friend – the real Rebecca – she was meant to be.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2001

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Nonethnic-specific