Tag Archives: Tavia Gilbert

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

Leave a comment

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

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

Leave a comment

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

Little Century by Anna Keesey

Little CenturyOn this final day of 2012, this could easily be me (replacing ‘Esther’ with my name and ‘her journey’ with this year): “Though she would not have admitted to any fixed expectations, Esther is still confounded by what meets her at the end of her journey.” I wholeheartedly admit to being utterly discombobulated by what this year has brought and wrought!

But I digress (again), because the sentence above is actually the opening line to Anna Keesey‘s debut novel, one of those anointed titles that blessedly appears on multiple ‘best-of’ 2012 lists. That might be enough to send you to shopping, so feel free to start ordering now; if you’re hemming and hawing about choosing between ‘on-the-page’ and ‘stuck-in-the-ears,’ be assured that Tavia Gilbert vibrantly animates Century‘s memorably diverse characters.

At 18, Esther Chambers – a city girl from Chicago – becomes an orphan when her mother passes away. With nowhere else to go, she embarks on a four-day journey to the wild West of Century, Oregon, the home of her distant cousin Ferris Pickett. She sees in Ferris her last vestige of family as he is her only living relative; he recognizes in her a business opportunity when he asks her to “help out [her] old cousin,” by lying about her age in order to stake a claim on a nearby homestead. Ferris owns Two Forks, a cattle ranch next to what will become Esther’s new home – a small cabin on a lake called Half-a-Mind – which also happens to be “the only piece left with water on it east of the mountains.” Ranching, farming, frontier survival all depend on access to water …

Settling into her unfamiliar new life (which Esther records in bittersweetly undeliverable letters to her late mother) is eased by establishing relationships with her fellow residents: the feisty schoolteacher with a past Jane Fremont, the good Reverend Endicott, the nosy busybody Violet Fowler, the portly newspaper editor Mr. Cecil, the enigmatic worldly shopkeeper Joe Peaslee. Keesey’s characters are perhaps imbued with more symbolism than realism, but each has a story – some are local legends, some are just rumor, some are tall tales, and a few are actual truth.

As remote as the town might initially seem, the residents are hardly strangers to the ugly lure of greed and power. Even with the vast, open lands, the struggles for ownership and control are enough to incite regular violence – and worse. Esther begins to question her sense of familial duty, especially when she tentatively welcomes a friendship with an earnest young man from the wrong side of the cliff. All too soon, her Half-a-Mind adventures will need a whole lot of courageous integrity …

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2012

Leave a comment

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