Tag Archives: Art/Architecture

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

I See the Sun in Russia by Dedie King, illustrated by Judith Inglese, translation by Irina Ossapova

I See the Sun in RussiaYoung Anton of Saint Petersburg, Russia begins and ends his day with music … he wakes remembering the notes of the ballet Swan Lake which he saw the night before, and drifts off to sleep that evening as his grandmother plays another Swan song at the family’s piano.

Music dominates Anton’s life, from the specialized music school he attends, to his violin lessons followed by his violin ensemble practice, to his mini-performance for his appreciative grandmother after dinner. In between, he visits the legendary Hermitage Museum with his class, helps his mother pick up a few groceries on the way home from school, plays soccer in the hall with a friend, and enjoys dinner with his family.

Anton’s story is somewhat of a departure from the other girls and boys who populate the expanding around-the-world, bilingual I See the Sun series from New England boutique press Satya House Publications: compared to his series’ counterparts, Anton is perhaps the most privileged. While “his parents work long days to provide for their family,” they have access to cultural luxuries that the series’ other children thus far have not, including visits to the ballet and opera, musical instruments at home, even a dacha – a “small country cabin … where they can relax on weekends and vacations in the summer.”

As with the series’ other titles, Russia concludes with a thorough contextual afterword; this one offers a cultural overview of Saint Petersburg, with an emphasis on the arts as a “powerful force.” When the going gets tough, especially in our Stateside schools, arts and music programs usually become the first victims of funding cuts. Anton’s life proves to be a subtle, cross-cultural reminder from the other side of the world to invest in making beautiful music together, with and for our children.

Readers: Children

Published: 2012

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Filed under ..Children/Picture Books, .Bilingual, .Fiction, Nonethnic-specific, Russian

pepita: Inoue meets Gaudí by Takehiko Inoue, translated by Emi Louie-Nishikawa

PepitaA biography, a travel memoir, and a piece of art landed on my desk … as a single book. Verdict? This latest translated-into-English title by mega-bestselling manga creator Takehiko Inoue (Vagabond, Real) is a gorgeous hybrid compilation of text, sketches, photographs, and memories.

Antoni Gaudí is perhaps best known as the architect of the still-unfinished La Sagrada Família, his iconic Roman Catholic church in Barcelona, Spain. Inoue’s first impression of the massive work-in-progess during a 1992 visit, he confesses, called to mind words such as “‘deformed,’” “‘strange,’” “‘extravagant.’” He admits, “At the time, my eyes were that of an ignorant and apathetic tourist.” Almost two decades later, Inoue returned to Spain in 2011, when he “retraced Gaudí’s footprints and visited several of his architectural works … and in Gaudí’s structures I experienced the true meaning of the word humility for the first time in my life.” Throughout discovering Gaudí’s works anew, Inoue searches for “‘the seed [the eponymous pepita] of creation,’” both the architect’s and his own.

Inoue’s travels take him from Gaudí’s childhood homes to a final stop at the Façana de la Glòria, one of three La Sagrada Família’s three façades, where Inoue will literally leave his mark. He explores Gaudí’s origins, his compromised health as a child, his family relationships, the effect of too many early deaths around him, and of course his development as an artist. Gaudí’s neverending wonder and respect for nature, his “joys of creation,” prove especially inspiring for Inoue: the ultimate result, “I learned more about myself.”

As appreciative as Inoue is of his “optimal” experiences in Spain, Inoue also realizes that travel to the other side of the world is not always necessary for ‘optimal’ creation: “There are teachers everywhere. The answer can come from anybody. Perhaps I just needed …to remove the lid over my eyes that was blocking my ability to see.” Heed this master: your inspiring pepita of creation just might be right in front of you …

Tidbit: For must-know-every-detail type readers, Viz Media’s meticulous English edition is especially thorough: the last two pages provides citations, experts’ names and titles, and even translations from Inoue’s annotations on his sketches!

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2011 (Japan), 2013 (United States)
© I.T. Planning, Inc. © Nikkei Business Publications, Inc.
Original Japanese edition published by Nikkei Business Publications, Inc.

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Biography, .Memoir, .Nonfiction, .Translation, Japanese

The House Girl by Tara Conklin

House GirlGive me a story with two narratives interwoven through nonlinear timelines and, usually, I’ll be one committed reader. The House Girl opens in 1852 rural Virginia with a teenage slave girl named Josephine, then fast forwards in the next chapter to Lina, an ambitious attorney in 2004 New York City. Josephine, the primary caretaker to her dying mistress, plots her escape. Lina, 150 years later, searches for a perfect plaintiff to represent a would-be landmark case seeking substantial reparations for descendants of American slaves. To decipher the (non-familial – nope, not that easy!) relationship between the two disparate characters requires almost 400 pages (or, if you go audible, nearly 15 hours) through a labyrinth of well-guarded secrets, lost identities, and unjust history.

Sounds promising, right? Alas, the dual stories often felt like dueling narratives, wavering between high-brow social treatise and soap opera-like antics (including even a dead mother who comes back to life!). Curiosity kept me reading, yes … but finishing got me thinking …

Split narratives aside, here’s my pressing dilemma: Because I chose to listen to Bahni Turpin whose narration is distinctly African American, I (wrongfully) assumed Lina was African American. In Google-ing author Tara Conklin‘s website to link here, I found an NPR interview that questions Conklin about “… whether she worried about writing a novel about slavery with mostly white characters,” which caused substantial surprise. That Conklin herself is seemingly white (based on her author photo), that “‘You’re not black enough’” is a pivotal line in the novel, that realizing only after reading a book about slavery that it has a single African American main character … well, I confess that context cannot be ignored.

The act of claiming someone else’s story – represented here by canvases of haunting portraits, both historical (Josephine’s) and contemporary (Lina’s father’s paintings of her absent mother) – looms large throughout these pages. How disturbingly ironic that the novel itself seems to echo that sense of appropriation: The House Girl is essentially a white author’s story of an African American slave girl told mostly through white characters. The novel’s details quickly pale as I find I myself challenged (again) to ponder – in our supposedly post-racial 21st-century society, just how much do historic ‘black’ and ‘white’ labels matter … literally?

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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

Brush of the Gods by Lenore Look, illustrated by Meilo So

Brush of the GodsSomehow, over the last millennium-plus, the life story of Wu Daozi (689-759), possibly China’s greatest painter, went mostly missing. Chinese American author Lenore Look (best known for her entertaining double series about growing up bicultural, Alvin Ho and Ruby Lu), together with British Asian illustrator Meilo So, whimsically reimagine the artist in this splendid new title that echoes Wu’s greatest accomplishment: “He introduced the concept of depicting movement in figures and their clothing,” Look explains in her “Author’s Note.” So’s flowing watercolored lines make sure that “[h]is figures’ scarves billowed, their robes swum, and their hair blew in the wind.”

What begins as calligraphy lessons quickly becomes much more for the precocious young boy: “Each day something new and surprising dripped out of Daozi’s brush.” His drawings move from paper to “walls everywhere,” amazing all passers-by. Admirers willingly pay him, feed him … gifts he shares excitedly with the poor.

As the years pass, his paintings become so powerful as to fly, flutter, gallop off his brush. The monks accuse him of boasting and his admirers vanish. Yet the children continue to marvel and believe until the crowds once again multiply to such numbers that even the emperor requests “a grand masterpiece” on an entire palace wall, giving Wu “the greatest honor [he] could imagine.”

“Legend has it that Wu Daozi never died – he merely walked into his final painting … and disappeared,” Look adds at title’s end. That work – along with some 300 frescoes – didn’t survive. Piecing together references to Wu from poems and essays written by his contemporaries, Look and So create their own legend here … providing lavish inspiration for a new generation of artists to imagine and dream.

Readers: Children

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Children/Picture Books, .Biography, .Fiction, British Asian, Chinese, Chinese American

Author Interview: Don Lee [in Bloom]

CollectiveWith his eyes and body still “bleary from post-windsurfing and traveling,” Don Lee nonetheless graciously agrees to be grilled yet again – we’re going on a decade-plus of various interviews through four books! He’s tired, he’s rambling, but he’s always entertaining … and once more he’s game to talk about all manner of things, from writing and ethnicity, to blooming late and Eeyore-style lamentations.

With all that literary editing, mentoring, teaching, how come you didn’t publish until you were 41?
Oh, I could give you all kinds of excuses: that I was busy with Ploughshares (true), that each short story took me a long time to write (very true), that I never really planned or wanted to publish a book (sort of true), that I was happy writing stories once a year or so and getting them into journals (almost true), but frankly, the real reason was that I was scared shitless. I think unconsciously I didn’t want to lay it all out on the line and try to publish a book and then fail. It was easier not to try.

But then I turned 38, and I decided I’d really like to have a book, one book, before I turned 40. I didn’t want to end up thinking for the rest of my life about what could have been, and become bitter. So I wrote two new stories, revised a bunch of old stories to form a collection, and set about finding an agent to represent me, all of which took over a year and a half. Whereas the goal originally (and unrealistically) had been to publish a book by the time I turned 40, the new goal became to sell the book by then, and I did: W. W. Norton offered me a book contract the week I turned 40, and Yellow was published the following year [in 2001].

Okay, so what prompted you to write that first story? And how did that first story eventually morph into the determination to become a writer for real?
Unlike many authors, I didn’t know I wanted to be a writer at 7 years old or whatnot. I didn’t know what I’d do with my life. I was, however, a tinkerer as a kid. I would take apart things, make things. My bedroom was scattered with detritus – tools, wires, glue, balsa wood, batteries, a soldering iron, capacitors, motors, model cars and planes. When it came time to go to college, my quixotic plan was to get my mechanical engineering degree and then a Ph.D. in physical oceanography and build and pilot underwater submersibles (I watched a lot of Jacques Cousteau as a kid). I was a dreamer. I didn’t write a short story until my sophomore year at UCLA, after a comp teacher told me I had a flair for words and might enjoy taking a creative writing class.

And now four books—and oh so many awards!!—later, are you still scared shitless? Or are you finally resting a bit on your laurels?
Naw, I’m still a tortured soul who never allows himself to feel good about his accomplishments, who doesn’t really believe he’s accomplished anything. And yes, each time I start another book, I am petrified that I won’t be able to pull it off and finish it, and if I can, that I won’t be able to sell it, and if I can, that no one will like it. Why do I keep doing it, then? Because it’s a challenge, and I’m compelled to do it, and I love being inside the process of writing a novel, of thinking about it all the time and figuring out structure and motifs and themes and connections. In a way, I’m still a tinkerer, building things with words. [... click here for more]

Author interview: “Q&A with Don Lee,” Bloom, May 29, 2013

Readers: Adult

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Filed under ...Author Interview/Profile, ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, Korean American

Author Profile: Don Lee

CollectiveWhen Don Lee’s first book debuted in April 2001, he probably didn’t know that he was the forerunner of a colorful trend – literally. His collection, Yellow, had the shortest of subtitles, simply Stories. Three months later, in July, another yellow-tinted cover appeared: Yell-Oh Girls!: Emerging Voices Explore Culture, Identity, and Growing Up Asian American edited by Vickie Nam, in which young Asian American girls from all over the country shared poems, essays, and stories that spoke of their bicultural roots. And then 9/11 hit … moment of silence … and the end of that fateful year seemed to be just the right time for the publication of law professor Frank H. Wu’s Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White.

Among those various shades of yellow, Don Lee’s is my personal favorite. The quirky collection of short stories is populated by the inhabitants of a fictional California seaside town, not unlike the real-life Half Moon Bay along Northern California’s coastal Highway 1. Lee’s memorable characters are convincing; as a onetime Golden State resident, I swear I’ve run into some of them!

“Late … according to whom?” indeed! Lee was 41 when his Yellow hit the shelves. After almost two decades of encouraging, editing, publishing other people’s writing for Ploughshares, at 38, hoping to avoid middle-age ‘coulda-woulda-shoulda’-reget, Lee decided to produce a book of his own by the time he hit 40. His timing was a bit optimistic, so he revised the plan to sell that first book by the big 4-0; remarkably, his birth week arrived complete with a book contract. Clearly, I wasn’t the only one playing colorful favorites: that 40th birthday sale won Lee the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, as well as the Members Choice Award from the Asian American Writers’ Workshop.

As the son of a second-generation Korean American and his Korean-born wife, Lee is technically classified as a third-generation Korean American, although he was born in Tokyo where his career diplomat father was working at the U.S. State Department. From Japan, the family moved to Korea when Lee was four, where he had his first identity crisis: “Japanese was my first language,” he said to me in a 2004 interview for AsianWeek. “But here I was in Korea, speaking only Japanese. I was a little confused to say the least. I thought I was a Japanese kid, but now I was a Korean kid?” To add to his bewilderment, the Lee family lived on a U.S. Army base in Seoul. “Now I was an American, Korean, and Japanese,” he says. “And that’s all you need to know why I’m so hung up on identity,” he laughs.

Identity is at the crux of Lee’s first novel, Country of Origin, which came out in 2004. Not one of his characters is who he or she appears to be … not Tom Hurley, the half-Korean foreign service officer stationed in Japan, nor his photographer lover, nor her CIA husband. And then there’s Kenzo Ota, the Japanese policeman assigned to investigate the aptly named Lisa Countryman, an African-American hapa whose disappearance brings all the characters together. Country of Origin earned Lee an American Book Award and a Mixed Media Watch Image Award for Outstanding Fiction. He also won the Edgar Award for Best First Novel – the Edgar being the top literary prize for mysteries – although he’ll be the first to tell you that he never intended to write that sort of mystery: “I intended to write a sort of Graham Greene political novel, but it strongly appealed to mystery readers, for which I was extremely grateful. Mystery readers buy a lot of books. It also ended up to be my most translated book, and for unknown reasons especially struck a chord with German readers.” [... click here for more]

Author profile: “Don Lee’s Pure Stories,” Bloom, May 27, 2013

Readers: Adult

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Thermae Romae II by Mari Yamazaki, translated by Stephen Paul

Thermae Romae 2To get to know our time-traveling bather, start with Volume I. When in Thermae Romae, you need to do as this Roman does and find out how he journeys back and forth between far-spanning centuries and cultures with one thing in common – an obsession with the bath.

If the cover looks familiar, Osamu Tezuka Cultural Prize-winning creator Mari Yamazaki explains how she risked marital peace to parody “one of the greatest works of ancient Roman sculpture,” Laocoön and His Sons. In spite of her husband’s angry reaction, she insists that her version of Laocoön “wearing a shampoo hat to keep the shampoo out of his eyes” is not such a far stretch: “I’m sure Laocoön washed his fair from time to time, and if he did massage his scalp, he certainly must have struck poses like the one on the cover.” You’ll find that sort of goofy humor on almost every page, all the while learning quite a bit about ancient Roman history, and modern Japanese bathing culture. Yamazaki will entertainingly convince you how such two seemingly disparate topics are actually quite related.

As Volume II begins, Lucius is a favorite of Emperor Hadrian, renowned as the innovative bath architect. In an act of potentially fatal jealousy, Senate members plot to get Lucius out of Rome with a ruse about a creating a new thermae in an area overrun by violent bandits. What happens instead is a bit of brilliant marketing, inspired by Lucius’ timely visit to a Japanese hot spring town where he wins big at a game booth, discovers kitschy souvenirs, and tastes his first bowl of steaming ramen and juicy gyoza. With further unpredictable forays into the land of the “flat-faces” (the phrase still bugs me, but not quite as much this second time around), Lucius learns to build a wooden barrel single bath shippable to the hinterlands, and how to balance the most gaudiest demands with just enough elegantly-tempered details.

Then half-way through the volume, Hadrian’s adopted heir (profligately portrayed by Yamazaki with apologies later – artistic license, right?) dies. With Hadrian’s own health less than robust, Lucius becomes determined to create something soothingly rejuvenating for his Imperator. His search magically sends him to meet “such a beautiful flat-face” as he’s never seen before … who just happens to be an ancient Roman scholar who speaks perfect Latin! Talk about back to the future … in centur-ion leaps!

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2013 (United States)

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Middle Grade Readers, .Fiction, .Graphic Novel/Manga/Manwha, .Translation, European, Japanese

Thermae Romae I by Mari Yamazaki, translated by Stephen Paul

Thermae RomaeRome, 128 AD. Even back then architects had a hard time finding work. Poor, poor Lucius – in spite of his fancy Athens training, his designs are considered “half-baked,” and he finds himself “blacklisted out of the industry.” Instead of sulking, an old friend convinces him to go soaking … in a public bath, the ancient Roman answer to all problems.

Somehow he gets himself pulled into a mysterious drain … and pops up in modern Japan, of course in a traditional bath. Understandably bewildered, Lucius has enough wits to make mental notes, so when he miraculous time-travels back home, his next bathhouse design is a local sensation – complete with ‘out-of-the-world’ improvements including calming wall murals, weekly announcement boards, clothing baskets for customers, and refreshing milk drinks (Yakult, anyone?).

Volume I includes 10 such time-traveling ‘research trips’ for Lucius, whose growing reputation eventually gets him noticed by Emperor Hadrian. And, of course, the aging leader must have a unique bath of his own! Lucius continues to entice the public with his latest designs – from outdoor hot springs to water slides (!) – based on what he learns from the modern, bath-obsessed Japanese. Each chapter is yet another bubbly adventure.

For award-winning creator Mari Yamazaki, “Rome & Baths” are the loves of her life: “Perhaps shared nakedness in the presence of hot water is a basic principle of peace,” she muses. If only world leaders could be so easily convinced, ahem!

At the end of each chapter, Yamazaki offers an entertaining mixture of Roman history, cultural insight, and personal experiences, all about baths and bathing from around over the world. As delightful as this inaugural volume is, my one cringe-inducing complaint might be Yamazaki’s reference to “those flat-faces,” complete with occasional caricatured, stereotypical representations whenever Lucius gets sucked out of his universe. I’d like to think that since Yamazaki herself is Japanese-born, with peripatetic stopovers in the Middle East, Italy, and Portugal, and being currently Chicago-domiciled, hers is such a broad, international outlook that my discontent is merely a sign of my own oversensitive training. That’s what I’m telling myself for now, because I utterly admit I’m certainly looking forward to sharing more of Lucius’ hothouse innovations. Volume 2 debuts in May …

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2012 (United States)

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Graphic Novel/Manga/Manwha, .Translation, European, Japanese

Irises by Francisco X. Stork

IrisesFirst things first: choose the page, not the headset. Carrington MacDuffie’s voice is just too old to narrate the inner lives of two teenage sisters – no lilting resonance, no youthful lightness. Might I suggest that the better options for aurally appreciating the extraordinary Francisco X. Stork would be Marcelo in the Real World and The Last Summer of the Death WarriorsThe ears don’t lie.

Kate is 18, determined and independent, with secret dreams of going to Stanford – instead of the expected, local University of Texas at El Paso – and becoming a doctor one day. Mary is 16, sensitive and thoughtful, an artist gifted beyond her years, with an other-world ability to recognize light in the subjects she paints. Their beloved mother never leaves her bed  … trapped in a vegetative state, kept alive only because of a feeding tube. One afternoon, their father lies down for a rest and never wakes again. Life suddenly shifts to fast-forward …

Mama needs her expensive medical care, the girls must finish school. Kate, as the elder, is faced with serious financial challenges. Aunt Julia arrives from California, but she isn’t exactly the helpful adult the sisters need, too busy criticizing their late father, avoiding her silent sister, and insisting to Kate that marrying her boyfriend Simon now is the sisters’ only secure choice for a future. Then the deacons of the church where Papa ministered for 20 years of his life announce that the family has two months to find a new home to make room for their father’s fiery young successor – who has inappropriate plans of his own.

While Papa was a loving provider, he was also a severe disciplinarian: “The only decision [the sisters] needed to make when he was alive was whether to obey willingly or unwillingly.” Without his restrictions, both girls grow in new ways: Mary finds a comforting new friendship; Kate reexamines many of hers. Both manage to find the strength to make impossible decisions with surprising wisdom – and always love.

Although Stork has a penchant for creating narratives populated by characters facing difficult challenges, he never resorts to easy feel-good answers or deus ex machina-solutions. His can’t-turn-the-page-fast-enough stories are ultimately reminders of the resilience of our youth, with a ringing endorsement that whatever they face, they can – and will – do so with tenacity and courage.

Readers: Young Adult

Published: 2012

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Filed under ..Young Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Latino/a