Tag Archives: Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual/Transgender

Look Who’s Morphing by Tom Cho

Look Who's MorphingEach of Tom Cho‘s 18 stories in his just-over 100-page-debut is a surprise waiting to happen to you. Already lauded and awarded in Cho’s native Australia, his Stateside arrival is sure to elicit gasps, guffaws, and more.

Welcome to half a century of pop culture icons – before you ask ‘how can pop culture be that old?’ allow me to point out that ‘the hills came alive’ 49 years ago on a screen near you back in 1965. That said, Cho’s Captain Von Trapp isn’t who you might expect. In fact, morphing proves to be the occupational hazard of choice throughout.

“Suitmation” has a different identity available to anyone and everyone, from Godzilla to Olivia Newton-John, while two siblings admit in “Dinner with My Brother” they might choose “Marlon Brando” and “Indiana Jones” over their own Chinese monikers, given the chance. “Dinner with Auntie Ling and Uncle Wang” becomes a computer adventure, and “Learning English” means hiring Bruce Willis to talk instead. Inner rage goes out of control in “Today on Dr. Phil,” while “The Bodyguard” chivalrously deals with a bionic stalker to save Whitney Houston. Mother and son get transformative makeovers in “I, Robot,” and the girlfriend dismisses a Muppets adventure in “Pinocchio.”

As the stories unfold in surreal glimpses, a blurred outline of the unnamed narrator emerges: a Chinese Australian young man with extended relatives on multiple continents, including parents and a brother Hank, who has a sometime girlfriend Tara among many, many lovers, who is driven by a fertile imagination without boundaries – not to mention quite the multi-platform command of TV, film, music, and games. In his many morphing guises, Cho explores a myriad of unexpected identities and impossible situations. This is fluid fiction, he seems to insist on every page: forget any expectations about culture, race, gender, sexuality, and more … embrace the pure, fantastical stories found here.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2009 (Australia), 2014 (United States)

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Short Stories, Australian

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

Wandering Son (vol. 6) by Shimura Takako, translated by Matt Thorn

Wandering Son 6Our daughter, now a senior at one of the most progressive of progressive schools where she’s been a ‘lifer,’ was recently trying to explain the specifics of what ‘gender-fluid’ means using a classmate’s evolving, changing behavior as descriptive examples. We old folks were still a bit baffled, but I think I understood enough to recognize a definitive example right here in the first pages of the latest volume of this delightful gender-bender series. In case this is all new to you, be sure to click here to catch up: for your own good, don’t jump ahead!

Nitori Shuichi – the boy who wants to be a girl – confesses with blushing difficulty to Takatsuki Yoshino – the girl who wants to be a boy: “I [boy Shuichi] want you [girl Yoshino]… to … to look at me as a girl! You see? Because … I look at you as a boy.” As they stammer along with matching flushed cheeks, the two lifelong best friends manage to repair their awkwardly estranged relationship that loomed over the last three volumes. That re-established (sigh-inducing) equilibrium, however, is especially difficult for their classmate Chiba Saori, who once encouraged and enabled their gender-bending experiments, but now looks on in anger and frustration as her desperate attachment to Shuichi grows and her envy toward Yoshino becomes blinding.

Meanwhile, the whole class is preparing to put on a surprising version – adapted by Shuichi and Saori (with ulterior motives) – of that centuries-old (originally) cross-dressing classic, Romeo and Juliet, for the upcoming culture festival. Special guests, including gender-defying adult friends (and sort-of mentors) Yuki-san and Shii-chan, have even been invited. The perfect casting would, of course, be Shuichi as Juliet and Yoshino as Romeo, but that’s not exactly how it plays out …

Gender-exploration is not limited to the starstruck duo, of course, as Saori’s wannabe boyfriend decides he’s “definitely cuter” than Shuichi in headband and towel-wrap, and adorably defiant Ariga Makoto can’t resist his mother’s bathing suit (“It’s that darned A-line! It’s too cute!”). In the flurry of everyday lives, adolescence waits for no one: Yoshino is determined to find a flattening bra while Shuichi worries about body hair and voice changes, not to mention what he’s going to tell his older sister about the “so cute” lingerie set he finds in her drawer.

With wide-eyed innocence, uncomfortable angst, and unexpected shocks, creator Shimura Takako provides her young protagonists ample room to explore and experiment. Given so many choices, can growing up get any more challenging? Read on …!

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2014 (United States)

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

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the UniverseWhat a year Benjamin Alire Sáenz has had: in the adult market, he made literary history last May as the first Latino writer to win the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction for his seven-story collection, Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club; his latest young adult title had equally spectacular success, winning the Stonewall Book Award’s “Mike Morgan and Larry Romans Children’s and Young Adult Literature Award,” the Pura Belpré Award, and named an Michael L. Printz Award Honor Book.

While I sheepishly confess I haven’t read Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club (for shame!), I can wholeheartedly agree with every judge who deemed Aristotle and Dante so prizeworthy across various audiences. If you have the choice to go audible, take it: Lin-Manuel Miranda (yes, the composer-lyricist of Tony Award-winning, Pulitzer finalist, In the Heights) superbly captures the voice-breaking self-discovery of adolescent angst.

At 15, Aristotle, or “Ari,” is the much-younger youngest child of four, and the only still living at home with his fragile mother and distant father. His two older sisters have their own lives, and his older brother has been lost to the family since he went to jail. He’s the embodiment of the ‘angry young man’ – “bored,” “miserable,” and unwilling to accept how much he still needs others, including his parents. When Ari meets Dante – a “squeaky”-voiced fellow 15-year-old who offers to teach him how to swim – their tentative relationship grows to encompass not only each other, but their families, as well. From unsure companions to best friends, through misunderstandings and separations, these not-yet-mature teens learn to share their lives with honesty, warmth, and ultimately love.

“I had second thoughts about writing this book,” Sáenz admits in his opening “Acknowledgements.” “In fact, after I finished the first chapter or so, I had almost decided to abandon the project.” How grateful are we that he persevered to create such a thoughtful, compassionate,  authentic story. Through Aristotle and Dante’s revealing journey, Sáenz gives readers the opportunity to discover and explore their own secrets, and secure their personal place in the vast universe.

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2012

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

Blue Is the Warmest Color by Julie Maroh, translated by Ivanka Hahnenberger

Blue Is the Warmest ColorFrom the very first page, you’ll learn that one lover is dead, while the other survives: “My love, when you read these words I will have left this world.” Emma is in transit to Clementine’s childhood home to retrieve Emma’s diaries: “I asked my mother to leave you what is most precious to me on my desk: my diaries. I want you to be the one to keep them. All of my adolescent memories are in the blue one. … Blue has become the warmest color.”

By the fourth page, we’re back in 1994, when Clementine has just turned 15, and she begins her blue “Dear Diary,” a birthday gift from her grandmother. She’s a junior in high school, in the throes of adolescent discovery; she gets noticed by a charming boy, she dates, she goes out with friends, she tries to fit in. But at night, her dreams are something else, of a stranger she happened to pass in the middle of the street – a young woman with blue hair and just the hint of a smile that was enough to cause Clementine to look back and wonder. And so the slightly older Emma enters her life and their love story unfolds …

First published in 2010 in French by a Belgium publisher, Blue deservedly won various important awards in the international comic industry. Mostly presented in shades of grey, black, and white, creator Julie Maroh makes effective, intimate, haunting use of various degrees of the color blue. Her story about first (and last) love is wrenching – honest and open, revealing and extraordinary; I couldn’t recommend it more … but …

Yes, that but … So Blue arrived on my desk as a children’s book submission [technically, that category ranges from the most basic board books to lengthy novels aimed at savvy high school students]. In speaking with a few colleagues who are librarians, one commented that if Blue were a prose novel, she would have no problems placing it on the shelves in the high school library. But as it is a graphic novel, she knows the title will incite protests from adults – parents, administrators, or both; that said, she’s willing to take the risk.

If the title is at all familiar to you, that could be because the recent film adaptation won the coveted Palme d’Or at the 2013 Festival de Cannes. As of this week, Blue is up for a 2014 Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film, undoubtedly with many other important nominations to follow. The film is playing in theaters across the country right now. Out on celluloid, Blue is rated NC-17.

The bottom line, of course, is that parents will need to decide what they deem to be age-appropriate for their own children. But (that but, again!) just a final thought: while the word ‘graphic’ is especially fitting here in describing the love scenes, I must add, so too, the word ‘love’ deserves significant consideration, as well.

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2010, 2013 (United States)

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

Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison by Piper Kerman

Orange Is the New BlackMy older teenager tells me the series of the same name is what ‘everyone’ is watching: “It’s the new favorite show,” she insists. So when I found the book (“there’s a book?” the daughter asks with surprise; there’s almost always a book first!) available to stick in my ears, I hit ‘play.’ [Be warned: Cassandra Campbell narrates yet again and her regional accents are just as grating as her attempts-to-be-international din.]

Piper Kerman‘s book is a bestselling memoir. In comparison to what gets labeled ‘young adult’ by publishers these days, Orange tends more toward tame rather than outrageous: if the book were transferred to celluloid as is – in spite of the depictions of drugs and sex – the result would probably get a PG-13 rating. Not so with the popular series; according to Common Sense Media, the Netflix adaptation scores a minimum 17 age rating according to both parents and kids. But from what I’ve been told by the screen-savvy daughter, the original ‘true’ story has morphed considerably in Hollywood’s less-than-faithful adaptation.

So here’s how the book goes. After graduating from Smith College, Kerman becomes recklessly involved with a woman whose glamorous lifestyle is dependent on international drug-running. Ten years later, Kerman is living in New York City, working in non-profit communications, engaged to a near-saintly fiancé (now husband) … and about to ‘voluntarily surrender’ herself to 15 months in a federal women’s prison in Danbury, Connecticut after pleading guilty to money-laundering. Her imprisonment is a life-altering experience (how could it not be?): she develops nurturing, supportive relationships with fellow inmates; she quickly learns the prison’s social and power structures; she has her big ‘aha’-moment of how her illegal actions actually ruined real people’s lives; she joins the chorus over the bad food, arbitrary rules, and lack of freedom; she runs countless miles on quarter-mile track; and she comes to the great realization that she has so many options when she gets out because she’s white, educated, and privileged (“‘What is the All-American Girl doing in a place like this?’” she hears with regularity).

As literature, Orange‘s shock factor makes it more of a page-turner than the actual writing; one more edit to further cull repeats and whining would have certainly made it a stronger book. But far more disturbing than any narrative shortcoming is the fact that because blonde, blue-eyed, self-described WASP Kerman was such a prison anomaly, she has, in effect, parlayed her illegal experiences into highly visible, critically lauded, certainly lucrative tender. Fame has taken her far from behind bars: all over print and virtual media, on the airwaves, live on countless stages, and of course to Hollywood. And given the huge success of her celluloid incarnation, Kerman’s spotlight isn’t fading anytime soon. To Netflix or not … that is the current question …

Readers: Adult

Published: 2010


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

Wandering Son (vol. 5) by Shimura Takako, translated by Matt Thorn

Wandering Son 5If you don’t like spoilers, might I suggest you click here to catch up. This series is so uniquely delightful, you really shouldn’t miss a volume; trust me, they do need to be read in order. This latest installment officially hits shelves tomorrow.

Welcome to junior high school with new classroom assignments and classmates. Once best buddies, Nitori Shuichi – the boy who wants to be a girl – and Takatsuki Yoshino – the girl who wants to be a boy – are “still … yeah,” as in more estranged than not. The contemplatively quiet Shuichi finds himself spending most of his time with the ever-chatty Ariga Makoto who also encourages and shares Shuichi’s cross-dressing adventures.

On the first day of school, Sarashina Chizuru makes her series debut by grabbing everyone’s attention when she shows up in a boy’s uniform: “… because I felt like it,” she tells her sidekick Shirai Momoko (anther series newbie). Chizuru is definitely a girl who knows her own mind … including choosing Yoshino as a new friend, while somehow managing to seriously irk aloof beauty queen Chiba Saori.

Shuichi and Yoshino share the same Class Three, led by “first-year teacher” Saisho who can’t quite get to class on time, but immediately notices that adorable Shuichi looks too much like his first childhood love. The two friends’ lives overlap very little during the new year as they each face new feelings, relationships, and challenges. The prospect of working together on a new school play – another gender-bender in the making – just might throw them back together.

Sweet and gentle, with just enough angst and worry over changing bodies and emotional alliances, creator Shimura Takako continues to share an enlightening journey toward maturity in a fluid new world that defies easy labels. Go ahead, the weekend’s almost here: settle in for a bit of youthful revelation.

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2013 (United States)

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

If You Could Be Mine by Sara Farizan

If You Could Be MineLet me know if you’ve heard this one before … because I’m convinced this is one of the most unusual narratives I’ve come across in years! Here’s first love with quite the surprising contemporary socio-political twist!

As the daughters of two best friends, Sahar and Nasrin were destined to spend their young lives together. At 8, Sahar announced that she intended to marry Nasrin. Now at 17, Sahar’s mother has been dead for five years, her father never quite recovered – sometimes, he seems to be as much a missing parent as his beloved late wife. Always a serious student, Sahar dreams she will go to Tehran University and become a surgeon. She never imagined that her regular “study sessions” with Nasrin – filled more with stolen kisses than books – would come to such an abrupt end: beautiful, spoiled, pampered Nasrin is fulfilling her parent’s wishes and getting married in just a few months.

Shocked and desperate, Sahar is willing to do anything to claim Nasrin. When she meets Parveen, a friend of her older (wilder) cousin Ali, she’s inspired to change her entire being for the chance to stop Nasrin’s wedding. Parveen is a transsexual; in a country where homosexuality is punishable by death, gender reassignment is not only legal, but the financial costs of changing sex are even covered by the government. After Thailand, Iran has the second highest number of sex change operations in the world! Now Sahar must quickly decide whether first love is worth giving up her identity … 

In an essay on her publisher’s websiteSara Farizan talks about writing the book her “inner teenager … wished for years earlier.” Farizan is the daughter of Iranian immigrants who was “deeply closeted until college”; as she thought of her own struggles with her sexuality, she considered “what it would mean for someone like me to grow up in Iran, having the same feelings I had but being unable to express them as openly as I can in the United States.” And so begins Farizan’s intriguing, engrossing, unique debut novel.

Tidbit: DC-area folks! Take note – Sara Farizan is coming to Politics and Prose tonight at 7:00. Click here for more information.

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, .Fiction, Iranian, Iranian American

My Education by Susan Choi

My EducationSo I’ve been mulling over this book for a month-plus, and still remain rather conflicted. The one solid conclusion I can offer is this – if I were to rank Susan Choi‘s titles, my list would read thusly: American Woman, based loosely on the Patty Hearst kidnapping; The Foreign Student, Choi’s debut novel which draws partially on her Korean American father’s early immigrant experience; A Person of Interest, which was inspired by the controversial Wen Ho Lee case; and then this, her latest, My Education. But – always that ‘but’ – although Education may rank last in personal preference, it’s also the Choi novel to which I’ve had the most visceral, lasting reaction.

The story is not particularly complex, although the characters certainly are. Hapa Filipino American Regina Gottlieb is a 21-year-old graduate student at a prestigious upstate New York university. The school’s “notorious person” by reputation is an English professor to whom Regina becomes a teaching assistant. Despite his erudite charm, Regina’s object of obsession is not the campus “predator,” but his mercurial wife who has recently had their first child. Their volatile relationship is unavoidable. While Regina suspends her formal education by dropping out of school, her emotional edification proves to be a far more formative experience.

Education seems to be a considerable shift for Choi; above all else, the emotional potency here easily eclipses that of her previous novels. In between the various partner-swapping permutations, characters seem to be keening for an elusive stability even as they repeatedly upend their lives. So self-absorbedly excessive are the main characters, however, none are particularly likable, except perhaps brash Dutra, one of Regina’s early sexual cast-offs who eventually settles into being her best-enough friend.

The unrelenting emotional pitch of the first two-thirds of the novel is utterly exhausting; yet, in contrast, the final third which fast forwards 15 years with a mere turn of a page, presents a lulled, routine married life for Regina that verges on tedious after her impassioned youth. Her ‘aha’-moment by book’s end about Dutra and her need to suddenly orchestrate his happy ending (which conveniently allows her the opportunity to indulge in a final fling in spite of her enormously pregnant state) is a clumsy narrative twist that feels like quite the unnecessary final turn.

Perhaps sticking this novel in my ears was the erroneous initial decision. Narrator Tavia Gilbert, who has certainly voiced other novels (Little Century, for recent example) with resonating success, was a misguided choice for Education; her version of Regina is all grating, tantrum-prone whine. That said, even after aural abandonment, Regina’s mewling insistently followed onto the page – ironically, even as the narrative degraded, Choi’s crisp, imagistic writing (not to mention some of the most athletic sex scenes I’ve encountered in years) rarely faltered and those pages kept turning quickly of their own accord.

Would I recommend the title? With caution, perhaps. Would I read it again? Probably not. Will I read Choi’s next? That, at least, I can answer with a most definitive yes.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Hapa, Korean American, Southeast Asian American

Wandering Son (vol. 4) by Shimura Takako, translated by Matt Thorn

Wandering Son 4First things first: click here to catch up. You’ll be well-rewarded for sure!

This latest volume opens with an intriguing graphic of characters captured in a two-page spread of bubbles and dots, labelled “The Wandering Son Board Game”: “Don’t be so fresh. 1 space back,” a sample bubble intones.

‘Fresh’ is exactly the right word to describe this gentle gender-bender series. The spotlight here belongs to “girly-boy” Shuichi, with whom everyone seems to fall in love – from his older sister Maho’s new model friends to the boy she has a crush on, to the class beauty queen whom other boys can’t help but fight over. Not quite aware of his charm, Shuichi is experiencing his own amorous agony, suddenly awed by his powerful new feelings for Yoshino, his girl-who-wants-to-be-a-boy-best buddy.

Amidst the emotional turbulence that is adolescence, Shuichi and Yoshino have an especially difficult time trying to understand their transforming, burgeoning identities, unprepared for their unpredictable moods and reactions. All rules of ‘shoulda-woulda-coulda’ are off as children morph into young adults, dealing with an onslaught of physical and emotional challenges. ‘It’s complicated,’ as my teens regularly quip.

Creator Shimura Takako is a compassionate, empathetic storyteller without judgment or guile. Her young characters face their inescapable maturity as best as they can in a brave new world of ‘gender-fluid’ (my kids taught me that from their last ‘free to be me’-annual assembly). Adulthood looms … and ready or not, here it comes!

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2012 (United States)

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