Tag Archives: Library Journal

The Great White Way: Race and the Broadway Musical by Warren Hoffman

Great White WayTheater producer/critic/playwright Warren Hoffman (The Passing Game) insists that audiences have been “duped” into believing that the Broadway musical “is the most innocent of art forms when, in fact, it is one of America’s most powerful, influential, and even at times polemical arts precisely because it often seems to be about nothing at all.”

Filtering many of Broadway’s beloved spectacles through a race-sensitive lens, the author eschews complicit complacency: sing, dance, and clap along, he says, but open your eyes and see that Show Boat, for instance, “validate[s] and rationalize[s] the ‘inferiority’ of blacks and the ‘superiority’ of whites”; Oklahoma! erases the Native American experience in their own Indian Territory; and Annie Get Your Gun puts Native Americans center stage only in “stereotypical if not downright racist” characterizations. The multicultural A Chorus Line, the author says, ironically ends with the bittersweet elision of individuality into “One,” and 42nd Street is little more than revisionist “pure white fantasy.” While Hoffman’s ideas are important, his execution is rife with repetition, inflammatory rhetoric, and surprising lapses (e.g., Miss Saigon‘s yellowface casting controversy).

Verdict: While all culture aficionados should read this book – indeed, a condensed version of it should be inserted into every musical’s playbill – few may reach the final page.

Review: “Arts and Humanities,” Library Journal, March 1, 2014

Readers: Adult

Published: 2014

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Drama/Theater, .Nonfiction, African American, Chinese American, Jewish, Native American

I’ll Be Right There by Kyung-sook Shin, translated by Sora Kim-Russell

I'll Be Right There*STARRED REVIEW
“I do not specifically reveal the era or elucidate Korea’s political situation,” writes Kyung-sook Shin, recipient of the 2011 Man Asian Literary Prize for Please Look After Mom, in the ending of her latest spectacular novel in English translation. Ironically, those missing details make this story urgently universal: in Israel/Palestine, Afghanistan, Egypt, Syria, and too many other countries in tumult, young people will continue to form life-changing bonds and fall hopelessly in love.

While people vanish without a trace and others die senselessly, Jung Yoon matures into young adulthood as she loses her beloved mother, meets a once-in-a-lifetime mentor professor, forms and renews intimate friendships, and creates “forever” memories with her first love. Her self-preservation in the midst of brutal turmoil comes at an impossibly high price. Years later, in spite of what she survives (and others do not), the title becomes an anthem to hope: “‘I hope you never hesitate to say, I’ll be right there.’” Shin’s searing, immediate prose will remind readers of Nadeem Aslam’s The Blind Man’s Garden, Edwidge Danticat’s The Dew Breaker, and Aminatta Forna’s The Memory of Love, and their stories of ordinary lives trapped in extraordinary sociopolitical circumstances.

Verdict: The well-earned lauds for Shin’s two titles currently available in English translation should ensure that more of her thus far 17 novels will arrive Stateside.

Review: “Fiction,” Library Journal, March 1, 2014

Readers: Adult

Published: 2014 (United States)

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Translation, Korean

The Frangipani Hotel by Violet Kupersmith

Frangipani Hotel*STARRED REVIEW
What is most haunting in Kupersmith’s nine multi-layered pieces are not the specters, whose tales are revealed as stories within stories, but the lingering loss and disconnect endured by the still living. With an American father and a Vietnamese “former boat refugee” mother, the author channels her bicultural history to create contemporary, post-Vietnam War glimpses of reclamation and reinvention on both sides of East and West.

In “Skin and Bones,” two Houston sisters visit their Ho Chi Minh City grandmother “to rediscover their roots” but more realistically because “Vietnam Was Fat Camp.” In “Guests,” a pair of American expat lovers have diverging expectations. A dying youth tries to steal another’s body in “Little Brother,” and an insistent knock at the door demands retribution 40 years after the war in “One-Finger.” In “Reception,” set in the titular Frangipani Hotel, the clerk’s family’s past overlaps with the coming new brand of the ugly American.

Verdict: The wunderkind moniker will soon enough be attached to the 1989-born Kupersmith, who wrote most of these stories as a Mt. Holyoke undergraduate. Her mature-beyond-her-years debut deserves equal shelf space with other spare, provocative collections, such as Paul Yoon’s Once the Shore, Lauren Groff’s Delicate Edible Birds, and Yoko Ogawa’s Revenge.

Review: “Fiction,” Library Journal, January 1, 2014

Readers: Adult

Published: 2014

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Short Stories, Hapa, Southeast Asian, Southeast Asian American, Vietnamese, Vietnamese American

Kinder Than Solitude by Yiyun Li

Kinder Than Solitude*STARRED REVIEW
In her first title since she received a 2010 MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship, Yiyun Li again explores the far-reaching repercussions of a single person’s death. While her mesmerizing The Vagrants (2009) revolved around the execution of a young political victim, here, three childhood friends take the spotlight when a fourth dies after a protracted illness.

Ruyu, an orphan raised by elderly “grandaunts,” is sent to live with Aunt, Uncle, and their acerbic daughter, Shaoai, in Beijing. There, she meets Boyang and Moran, who live in the same residential compound. Just four months later, the three children are implicated in Shaoai’s mysterious collapse. Shaoai’s long-expected death after 20 years prompts Boyang – now a wealthy divorcé – to contact Moran, a Massachusetts pharmaceutical tester with a PhD determined to care for her ill Midwestern ex-husband, and Ruyu, who sells chocolates and keeps house for wealthy Californians.

Verdict: Li’s effortless ability to move fluidly in time and place – between minutes or decades and across continents – always with exacting details, gives this novel a shattering immediacy. Discerning readers who appreciated the well-traveled, multicultural virtuosity of Jhumpa Lahiri’s Lowland, Chang-rae Lee’s The Surrendered, and Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone will find rewarding satiety in Solitude.

Review: “Fiction,” Library Journal, January 1, 2014

Readers: Adult

Published: 2014

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, Chinese, Chinese American

On Such a Full Sea by Chang-rae Lee

On Such a Full Sea*STARRED REVIEW
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

Readers: Adult

Published: 2014

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, Korean American

Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him by David Henry and Joe Henry

Furious CoolThe 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

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Biography, .Nonfiction, African American

A True Novel by Minae Mizumura, translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter and Ann Sherif

True NovelA 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

Readers: Adult

Published: 2002, 2013 (United States)

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Translation, Japanese

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

LowlandSTARRED 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

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ...Absolute Favorites, ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, Indian, Indian American, South Asian, South Asian American

Snow Hunters by Paul Yoon

Snow HuntersSTARRED 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

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ...Absolute Favorites, ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, Korean, Korean American, South American

On Sal Mal Lane by Ru Freeman

On Sal Mal LaneSTARRED 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.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ...Absolute Favorites, ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, South Asian, South Asian American, Sri Lankan, Sri Lankan American