Once revealed in context, this book’s title alone is an astonishing feat of encapsulated genius from the inimitable Chang-rae Lee. Control, individuality, nature, perfection, reality, society – all that and more fill this dystopic treatise about a not-so-futuristic, ruined America.
At the beginning, 16-year-old Fan simply walks out of her contained labor colony in search of her vanished lover; her epic quest takes her through the renegade “counties” and into a privileged “Charter” community and beyond. “New Chinese” descendants trade gated protection by providing halcyon Charter cities with their necessities; beyond the walls is a lawless free-for-all. Lee’s use of a never-named “we” as narrator proves to be a brilliant maneuver that allows him to be both observant bystander and discretionary judge and, at times, even admittedly unreliable.
Verdict: Versatility surely earned Lee a place on The New Yorker‘s “20 Writers for the 21st Century”-dais [June 21 & 28, 1999]; his literary voice has morphed constantly, debuting as a Korean American outsider (Native Speaker) and moving through a Japanese American doctor (A Gesture Life), an Italian American widower (Aloft), and Korean War survivors (The Surrendered). That versatility ensures Sea equal appreciation among readers who enjoy a heart-thumping adventure and doctoral students in search of a superlative dissertation text.
Review: “Fiction,” Library Journal, November 15, 2013
The latest biography of “the world’s most brilliant stand-up comedian” is the culmination of a project that took more than a decade (originally intended as a three-act screenplay) by screenwriter David Henry and his brother, musician Joe Henry. Born in 1940 in Peoria, IL, Richard Franklin Lennox Thomas Pryor III was raised by his grandmother, who ran a brothel in which his mother “also turned tricks.” Raped at five by a teenage bully (who, decades later, appeared with his son seeking Pryor’s autograph), Pryor found respite from his oppressive childhood by acting in local theater.
Leaving the first of six wives and his first two (of seven) children, Pryor arrived in New York City in 1963, embarking on a career that spanned clubs, television, and film, finding unparalleled success as a black performer in a racially stratified industry. Universally lauded as a genius, Pryor never overcame his drug addictions, spectacularly exemplified by his 1980 freebasing-induced self-immolation.
Verdict: More a compilation of assiduous research than a narrative – with irreverent profanity that echoes Pryor’s performances – this book should succeed in introducing a legend to new generations. Readers raised on dystopia will find Pryor’s life tragically epic.
Review: “Arts and Humanities,” Library Journal, September 1, 2013
A Japanese writer, also named Minae Mizumura, recalls her privileged expatriate New York childhood, then witnesses her family devolve in adulthood. A Tokyo-based editor takes a countryside vacation and meets an older woman who shares fantastical memories of some of the inhabitants. A village girl becomes an indispensable maid to two intertwined families and spends decades in their service.
These narratives converge to reveal the “real story” of enigmatic businessman Taro Azuma, who overcomes impoverished origins and achieves international wealth but remains forever desolate because societal pressures separate him from his only love. Sound familiar? Mizumura affirms some 150 pages in that Azuma’s story “recalled…a literary classic set on the wild Yorkshire moors and written…by the Englishwoman E.B.,” clearly Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights.
Verdict: Buried in almost 900 pages of unnecessarily convoluted layers is a sharper, worthier novel about class, gender, mixed-race issues, postwar Japan, generational metamorphoses, cultural influences and exchanges, the definitions and limits of fiction, and more. Though the book won the prestigious Yomiuri Literature Prize – Mizumura is considered one of Japan’s most important novelists – few readers will have the patience or stamina for this double-volume challenge.
Review: “Fiction,” Library Journal, September 1, 2013
Published: 2002, 2013 (United States)
* STARRED REVIEW
Pulitzer Prize winner Jhumpa Lahiri‘s (The Interpreter of Maladies) unparalleled ability to transform the smallest moments into whole lives pinnacles in this extraordinary story of two brothers – so close that one is “the other side” of the other – coming of age in the political tumult of 1960s India. They are separated as adults, with Subhash, the elder, choosing an academic career in the United States and the more daring Udayan remaining in Calcutta, committed to correcting the inequities of his country. Udayan’s political participation will haunt four generations, from his parents, who renounce the future, to his wife and his brother, who attempt to protect it, to the daughter and granddaughter who will never know him.
Verdict: Lahiri is remarkable, achieving multi-layered meaning in an act as simple as “banging the edge of the lid three or four times with a spoon, to break the seal”; this, her second novel and fourth title, is deservedly one of this year’s most anticipated books. Banal words of praise simply won’t do justice – perhaps what is needed is a three-word directive: just read it.
Review: “Fiction,” Library Journal, August 15, 2013
* STARRED REVIEW
After surviving the Korean War, Yohan spends another year in a prisoner-of-war camp south of the new border that splits the country in two. Rather than return north, where no one awaits him, Yohan begins life anew in a faraway coastal Brazilian village as a Japanese tailor’s apprentice. As the years pass, “He wondered what choice there was in what was remembered; and what was forgotten.”
Damaged by war, Yohan’s life before and after is circumscribed by quiet relationships – first with his widowed father and a childhood friend, then with the tailor Kiyoshi, the church groundskeeper, and two parentless children: “that in their silences there had been a form of love.” Having already lost family, friends, language, and country, Yohan slowly sheds his solitude when gentle Kiyoshi dies and opens up to the possibility of attachment and love.
Verdict: Yoon’s debut novel began as a 500-page draft pared down to about 200 pages that reveal the same shimmering, evocative spareness of his 2009 collection, Once the Shore. The result is that rare, precious gem, with every remaining word to be cherished for the many discarded to achieve perfection. One of this year’s best reads.
Review: “Fiction,” Library Journal, June 1, 2013
* STARRED REVIEW
As in Ru Freeman’s absorbing 2009 debut, A Disobedient Girl, the intricate lives of young children also take center stage in this latest work. In 1979, the titular Sal Mal Lane is a cul-de-sac on the outskirts of Sri Lanka’s largest city and former capital, Colombo. The Herath family’s arrival with four young children – Suren the musician, Rashmi the singer, Nihil the cricketer, and baby Devi the favored – reshuffles friendships and alliances along the lane.
Beyond the safety of this quiet enclave, the rest of the country is at an impasse: ethnic, religious, and political differences stir among a population long plagued by divisions and colonizations. War looms, and tragedy proves inevitable: “Everyone who lived on Sal Mal Lane was implicated in what happened … while this story is about small people, we must consider the fact that their history is long and accord them, too, a story equal to their past.”
Verdict: Dates and events ground the novel specifically in Sri Lanka, but the universal narrative of family remains borderless. As witness and storyteller, Freeman never falters, revealing “what happened” with clarity and resolve in prose both lingering and breathtaking. The result is simply stupendous.
Review: “Fiction,” Library Journal, June 1, 2013
Tidbit: To find out more about both book and author, check out my interview with Freeman in the May 2013 issue of Bookslut.
Award-winning Japanese crime fiction writer Natsuo Kirino (Out; Grotesque) contributes to the latest installment of the “The Myths” series, originally published by Britain’s Canongate, in which contemporary writers retell myths. Previous volumes have included Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus and David Grossman’s Lion’s Honey: The Myth of Sampson.
Kirino here retells the eighth-century creation myth of Izanami and Izanaki – the original female and male gods whose union produced the Japanese islands – in a novel framing two sisters, one fated to become the next Oracle to serve the “realm of light,” the other who will serve the “realm of darkness.” Unwilling to accept her fate, Namima attempts an escape that damns her to Izanami’s Realm of the Dead. Readers will find echoes of Orpheus and Eurydice as well as Persephone and Demeter.
Verdict: Although inventive, the double narrative of sisters and gods – the former freeing, the latter bound to centuries-old history – never quite meshes, often feeling clumsily forced. Still, bestselling Kirino’s many devotees will likely provide a ready audience
Review: “Fiction,” Library Journal, May 1, 2013
Published: 2013 (United States)
* STARRED REVIEW
Think of Tash Aw‘s third novel as an ingenious game called “How To Be a Billionaire.” A how-to guide is interspersed with 30 rules that also serve as chapters, e.g., “Move to Where the Money Is,” “Always Rebound After Each Failure,” “Strive To Understand the Big Picture.” The playing board is Shanghai, that 21st-century city of limitless possibility; the power broker is the eponymous Five Star Billionaire. A quartet of players – all Malaysian immigrants – are revealed one by one: country girl Phoebe, real estate heir Justin, pop superstar Gary, and businesswoman Yinghui, who is about to multiply her success. Aw moves fluidly between past and present, creating a multilayered narrative about chasing, catching, and sometimes losing elusive opportunities.
Verdict: London-based Aw, who spent a year in Shanghai on a writing fellowship, has honed his experiences into a literary victory. Admirers of Aw’s The Harmony Silk Factory, which won a Whitbread Book Award (renamed the Costa Book Awards in 2006) and a Commonwealth Prize and was long-listed for the Man Booker, and Map of the Invisible World will clamor to read this, his best thus far. Fiction aficionados with international tastes will surely fall in line as well.
Review: “Fiction,” Library Journal, April 15, 2013
This recent novel-in-translation by the 2012 Nobel Laureate Mo Yan, originally published in China in 2004, embodies a labyrinthine web of changing alliances and terrifying vengeance. Set during the Boxer Rebellion, the turn-of-the-20th-century Chinese uprising against Western imperialism, it features pivotal figure Sun Meiniang, who reveals in the first sentence that she will kill her father-in-law in seven days.
Meiniang’s husband is the town butcher whose executioner father is ordered to devise the most diabolical death (the titular sandalwood death) for Meiniang’s own father – an opera singer-turned-rebel-leader – who has been coerced into surrender by Meiniang’s magistrate lover. Alternately voiced by Meiniang and her four men, the narrative dovetails with passages from an opera of the same name, quickly gaining momentum toward an epic crescendo.
Verdict: In the wake of Mo’s Nobel win, his upcoming titles will garner greater attention. However, demand for Death might prove higher than actual readership, not because of a lack of quality writing but for its power to conjure the most heinous scenes of torturous death. Mo’s “Author’s Note” warns at book’s end, “This novel of mine will likely not be a favorite of readers of western literature, especially in highbrow circles […] my novel will be appreciated only by readers who have an affinity with the common man.” Diligent readers will also need to detach themselves from the gruesome machinations of Mo’s “common man” to reach the final pages.
Review: “Fiction,” Library Journal, March 1, 2013
Published: 2012 (United States)
Yan Lianke’s latest (Dream of Ding Village, Serve the People!) arrives superbly translated by Duke professor Carlos Rojas and auspiciously stamped with China’s Lao She Literary Award.
Welcome to Liven, a mountainous haven populated by the disabled who enjoy bountiful lives, so remote as to have avoided governmental controls since its legendary Ming dynasty founding. Liven – from a local word meaning “enjoyment, happiness, and passion” – joins the “new society” after an injured Mao Zhi, the Red Army’s youngest female soldier, settles there and becomes the de facto village leader. Half a century later, Liven’s citizens play a pivotal role in a county official’s ludicrous scheme to buy Lenin’s embalmed remains from Russia, and reentomb them in a tourist-destination mausoleum of magnificent proportions.
Reading this work requires physical participation of turning sections back and forth (e-reader not recommended) as Yan presents his nonlinear, multi-layered narrative in books, chapters, and essential endnotes – using only odd numbers. Notes Rojas: “[T]he work’s discontinuous numbering expresses the tragic sentiment of the novel as a whole (since in China odd numbers are considered inauspicious).”
Verdict: Sprawling, comical, and calamitous, Kisses is not for the faint-hearted (humanity rarely fares well in Yan’s fiction) or the impatient. Diligent readers will be richly rewarded.
Review: “Fiction,” Library Journal, October 1, 2012
Published: 2012 (United States)