Fairest: A Memoir. By Meredith Talusan (Viking 2020)
Reviewed by P.A Huff
Autobiography is the most personal genre and the most generous. By definition it favors the up-close gaze. It is the fruit of self-absorption but also the turning of self-centeredness to purposes far beyond narcissism. Ancient writers, who rarely saw their reflection, spoke of the first-person narrative as a kind of mirror for the reader. For centuries, we have been entranced by the near magical link between someone else’s self-disclosure and our own self-empowerment. The Latin for looking glass, speculum, is related to a broad family of intriguing spin-offs such as speculation and introspection but also respect and, charmingly, even spice. Meredith Talusan’s memoir, well seasoned with sharp intelligence and rare powers of awareness, is a courageous gift of self that delivers keen insight into the mystery of visualizing who we are and who we long to be.
A River of Stars by Vanessa Hua (Ballantine Books 2019)
Reviewed by Amaya Hunsberger
Vanessa Hua’s debut novel, A River of Stars, follows the path of Scarlett, a pregnant Chinese woman while the child’s father, Boss Yeung, wishes to do business in America. She is sent to Perfume Bay in San Francisco where she and other pregnant Chinese women will deliver their children in secret in order to ensure American citizenship for their babies. The whole operation is run by Mama Fang, a lucrative entrepreneur. After finding out that her unborn child is a girl, she escapes the facility with a teenager named Daisy, and together they make their way to San Francisco’s Chinatown. There, they rely on the generosity of a new community and their own ingenuity in order to survive.
The Tenth Muse by Catherine Chung (Ecco Press)
Reviewed by Angela Gualtieri
Books can find their way to you at exactly the right moments. With many significant social issues demanding justice in the weeks preceding the 2020 election and the path ahead foggy at best, I was in need of strength and hope. Catherine Chung’s The Tenth Muse, and her heroine Katherine, appeared as an omen of power and resistance.
Shahr-e-Jaanaan: The City of the Beloved by Adeeba Shahid Talukder (Tupelo Press 2020)
Reviewed by Leonora Simonovis
Winner of the Kundiman Prize Honoring Exceptional Work by Asian American Poets, this collection is a multilayered imaginary where the author converses with Urdu poetic tradition and poets such as Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Mirza Ghalib, and Ibn-e-Insha, among others. Talukder is also a translator, which, as she explains in the preface, allows for transcreation “Based on the way the particular verses converse with the themes of my poems.” The interplay is not only between two languages, but also between two –or more– different ways of perception and experience.
Searching for Sylvie Lee by Jean Kwok (William Morrow & Company 2019)
Reviewed by Angela Gualtieri
In her latest novel, Searching for Sylvie Lee, author Jean Kwok draws on deep personal experience to find inspiration for her work. Searching for Sylvie Lee, begins with a heartfelt dedication to Kwok’s brother, who tragically passed away in an airplane crash after going missing for one week. Kwok channels her family’s pain, grief, and experience into the premise of her novel. After traveling from New York to the Netherlands to care for her dying grandmother, Sylvie Lee goes missing. Her younger sister, Amy, retraces Sylvie’s footsteps in hopes of finding the truth of what happened to her, discovering deep family secrets along the way. The novel examines significant themes like prejudice, immigration, secrets, and societal expectations, but the idea of family and familial love takes center stage.
The Magical Language of Others: A Memoir by E.J. Koh (Tin House Books 2020)
Reviewed by Summer A.H. Christiansen
Asian-American literature is finally having its moment in the United States. In the past four years, books such as Min Jin Lee’s, Pachinko and Ocean Vuong’s, On Earth We Are Briefly Beautiful have made their way to the New York Times Top Ten Book of the Year lists and have been nominated for a variety of prestigious awards.
As readers, Americans are hungry for new voices in Asian-American literature. While Amy Tan and Haruki Murakami have been the exception rather than the trend, there has been very little representation of voices in contemporary literature. However, authors like E.J. Koh are finally changing things.
THE UNWINDING OF THE MIRACLE BY JULIE YIP-WILLIAMS (Random House 2019)
Reviewed by Efsane Karayilanoglu Toka
“If you’re here, then I’m not.” (ix) This is how Julie Yip-Williams starts her book. She turns your emotions upside-down. Knowing that the person who wrote those lines is not alive anymore gives you a different perspective as you turn the pages. It’s raw, it’s honest, it’s true. It’s about starting a life and also ending one.
OBIT by Victoria Chang (Copper Canyon Press, 2020)
Reviewed by Rebecca Valley
I wrote my first and only obituary in 2018, for my uncle. His name was Thom. He died quite suddenly, at 48, after decade-old cancer cells appeared again in his colon, took over his liver, swallowed him up.
Which is to say that I am no expert in the articulation of existence. And anyway, how do you go about writing a single document that might convey the precious, imperfect, complicated, wonderful nuances of an entire life? For Victoria Chang, the obituary is not just a death notice, but a mode. In her latest collection, OBIT, she asks: What continues to live when someone we love dies? What dies with them?
“I used to think that a dead person’s words die with them. Now I know that they scatter, looking for meaning to attach to a scent” (18)
The Bride Test by Helen Hoang (Penguin Random House 2019)
Reviewed by Patricia Steckler
I have never encountered a person who is not fully human in 35 years of private practice as a clinical psychologist. Diagnoses, country-of-origin, race, religion, and financial status do not define people. Not at all. Why do we say that a person has cancer or has arthritis and, conversely, say that a person is autistic or is an immigrant as if those labels completely define them?
Assigning labels condemns people
to a marginalized purgatory. Perceived to be less than human, unable to love or
feel pain, they’re relegated to the sidelines of life and deemed to be odd,
bizarre, even dangerous.