Thursday, May 20, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu

Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu is the winner of the 2020 National Book Award for Fiction. The book is a short, clever exposition on stereotypical media portrayals of Asian-Americans. It uses the narrative conceit of appearing to be a screenplay of a television show that features Willis Wu as a “Generic Asian Man” who is trying to be cast as the ultimate character for an Asian male: “Kung Fu Guy.” But generally Willis only gets roles like “Background Oriental Male" and “Delivery Guy.“ Willis lives in a SRO tenement with a number of other Asian-Americans which has a Chinese restaurant on the first floor named Golden Palace Restaurant.

One of the central bits of Interior Chinatown is the depiction of a television show called Black and White. This is a stereotypical cop show featuring a Black man (named Miles Turner) and a white woman (named Sarah Green) who are police partners who solve crimes. Miles is very muscular, handsome, but curiously bigoted towards Asians and is the “bad cop” while Green is also very attractive, statuesque and is the “good cop.” Yu uses the trope of the buddy cop show to highlight other familiar stereotypes (about cop shows, Black people, women cops and many more). Willis eventually gets a role on the show where he has to speak in a broken-English accent and do a bunch of kung fu before he gets shot and killed in the main dining room of the Golden Palace Restaurant. This then makes Willis subject to the rule that he can’t appear on TV for another 45 days.

Without the ability to appear on TV, Willis’ story switches focus to his private life. Here Interior Chinatown begins to lose its way by sticking to the screenplay format even though now we are following the "real" story of the actor Willis Wu who had appeared on the fiction show Black and White. The “show” the book/script is now following becomes a family drama as Willis dates a pretty biracial actress named Karen Lee whom he met on the set of Black and White (in the episode in which his character died). Karen and Willis get married and have a little girl named Phoebe. But they do not live happily ever after because Willis is obsessed with being cast as Kung Fu Guy and even when Karen gets the opportunity to be the lead of her own show instead of being happy for her, Willis is resentful. So then he finds himself playing the role of Part-time Dad to his daughter.

Eventually Willis does become Kung Fu Guy but he realizes it’s a role that he’s not suited for and storms off the set. Bizarrely, Turner and Green show up and arrest him for being responsible for his own disappearance. He’s put on trial and his lawyer is Older Brother, who makes an impassioned argument that Willis has an inferiority complex because of all the examples of anti-Asian policies and practices in American law and culture which have oppressed people who look like him. 

One of the central ideas of the book is that there are multiple levels of “fictionality” occurring in the story simultaneously. The story Interior Chinatown is telling is always in the form of a screenplay, even when the focus switches from the fictional cop show, to the "real" family drama of the actor Willis Wu to the courtroom drama of his disappearance. It is very clever writing and allows the author to communicate multiple messages simultaneously but instead of working on more than one level, for me the book ceases to be an enjoyable one. That being said, like a screenplay, it is a very quick read. There’s a lot of white space and it’s well under 250 pages. Despite being short, Interior Chinatown is definitely not a lightweight book, even though its format would tend to send that message. Although ultimately the book didn’t “work” for me, I am glad that I read it and I do agree that the topic of anti-Asian sentiment and stereotypical portrayal of racial and ethnic minorities in the media is an important topic that the book dramatized in effective fashion. I just think Yu tried to do to much at once, and thus blunted his own overall impact.

Title: Interior Chinatown.
Charles Yu.
Format: Kindle.
Length: 273 pages.
Publisher: Pantheon Books.
Date Published: January 28, 2020.
Date Read: April 23, 2021.

GOODREADS RATING: ★★☆☆  (3.0/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: B  (3.0/4.0).


Thursday, May 13, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: The Fires of Vengeance (Burning, #2) by Evan Winters

The Fires of Vengeance by Evan Winter is the sequel to the author’s debut novel The Rage of Dragons. These books are firmly in the category of epic fantasy: they are both chockfull of dragons, swords, metaphysical powers, gods and warfare. The books are set in something resembling a Bronze Era civilization, with a strict caste-based society that appears to modeled on an ancient African culture. Winter is one of the very few African-American writers working in this genre and he makes it very clear that the characters in his books are primarily what we could call “people of color” with skin tones of various hues from very light brown (tea with lots and lots of milk) to the darkest black (fire-scorched wood).

The main character in the series is Tau Solarin, who in The Rage of Dragons had a fairly familiar plot of the lowly outsider underdog who eventually becomes a celebrated champion after overcoming multiple trials and tribulations. In The Fires of Vengeance, Tau’s developing relationship with his Queen, Tsiora Omehia, becomes one of the primary threads of the complicated plot. In addition to this romantic intrigue plot line, the story in the second book also includes political intrigue between Tsiora and her sister Esi who has claimed she is the rightful claimant to the throne and the intercultural intrigue of the ongoing disintegration of the Omehi caste system. However, all of these other threads are overshadowed by the imminent battle between the Omehi people and the more populous indigenous inhabitants of the Xidda continent. And in addition to the struggles between different factions of the Omehi and the future struggle between the Omehi and Xiddans , there’s a non-negligible threat from the Cull, the near-omniscient murderous beings who drove the Omehi from their ancestral land of Osonte, decimating them in the process. It was that fabled escape from Osonte, dozens of generations before the events told in The Burning books that caused the Omehi to arrive to Xiddan and displace the indigenous folks on the peninsula, who unsurprisingly view them as colonizing marauders who should be exterminated.The Omehi feel like the Xiddan pensinsula is overrun by godless, murderous heathens who don't deserve to occupy the land their forefathers fought and died for so the stage is set for genocidal war.  Because its been so long, many Omehi don’t even think The Cull are real (which is a dead giveaway that at some point these Big Baddies are gonna show up at some point!)

A key feature of the books is the existence and prominence of Isihogo, the Underworld, where time runs faster than the real world and where the power of gods and demons manifest themselves. Generally, only priestesses with a rare ability and years of training are able to enter Isohogo but Tau has been using it as a means to hone his fighting skills to the point where he is the best fighter the Omehi have seen in generations, perhaps ever. (When you get killed by Demons in the spirit world it doesn’t physically harm you and you wake up back in the real world with the memory of what happened; many people can become susceptible to emotional and mental damage from the experience. Because Tau is fueled by a volcanic level of rage and vengeance he thinks that the costs, such as the hallucinations he regularly suffers, are worth the enhanced fighting prowess and imperviousness to pain he gains.)

As I mentioned, Omehi society is strictly caste-based, with two primary groups, Nobles and Lessers. The author is somewhat vague about whether the castes are actually biologically distinct, or whether, like race, the caste divisions in Omehi society are socially constructed identities reified by cultural norms and historical tradition. Nobles are generally larger, faster and stronger than Lessers, but a key point we learn in the first book is that the two groups can procreate with each other (although of course this is strongly discouraged). There are various strata in both of the two primary castes, with the absolute lowest being “Drudges” who are basically outcasts from Lesser society and the highest are the Royal Nobles, which includes Tsiora. In both books, one of the central fights Tau has to take on is the assumption that as a Lesser he has no chance of besting a Noble (of any level) in combat. This of course turns out to be spectacularly untrue and is the primary plot device of The Rage of Dragons. However, we do learn in The Fires of Vengeance that Nobles have stronger connections Isihogo which may account for their advantages (and also would tend to lend credence to the idea that the caste divisions are “real”). However, like race, just because one group of people who are racialized into a particular group tend to have more or less of a particular trait or tendency does not mean that race is not a fiction. The clever and conspicuous depiction and deployment of race is one of the most attractive features of the series for me, especially since any depiction of difference from a white heteronormative ideal is so rare in most fantasy and science fiction.

Although the two books share numerous similarities (depiction of multiple battles and one-on-one skirmishes, political and romantic intrigues, cultural/ethnic stereotyping and demons, dragons and disasters, oh my!) The Fires of Vengeance improves on The Rage of Dragons by de-centering Tau slightly and making it clear that two of the most important characters from the first book are both gay (and a couple!). Of course, Tau in his single-minded focus on getting revenge for the deprivations he suffered in the first book is one of the last to figure out the situation but he takes it completely in stride. As a gay reader of the books, the complete absence of homosexuality in the all-male military settings of the first book was a curious and problematic defect that I’m very happy was corrected in the second book.

I suppose one of the (slight) quibbles one could have with The Fires of Vengeance is that it doesn’t resolve most of the larger tensions in the plot and ends with the inclusion of a huge, paradigm-shifting twist. That said, there’s a lot that does happen in the second book of The Burning, with multiple significant characters dying and/or having life-altering consequences due to the action. Winter is not one to provide his characters with plot armor, which is a refreshing change.  Apparently the series may become a quartet instead of the expected trilogy, which is fine by me, because The Burning is fast becoming one of my favorite epic fantasy series. For people who like the work of Brent Weeks (Lightbringer series, Night Angel trilogy) and Peter Brett (Demon Cycle) I’m confident you will also enjoy these action-packed, engaging books by Evan Winter!

Title: The Fires of Vengeance (The Burning, #2).
Evan Winter.
Format: Kindle.
Length: 528 pages.
Publisher: Orbit Books.
Date Published: November 10, 2020.
Date Read: May 2, 2021.

GOODREADS RATING: ★★  (4.0/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A- (3.67/4.0).


Thursday, May 06, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous is a famous book that has received substantial acclaim and recognition, especially for the beauty and emotional resonance of its prose. The book is written primarily in the first person as a letter to the author's mother, from an openly gay man who has been nicknamed Little Dog. The two have a complicated relationship, and the book documents the difficult life the two spent together as well as the how the war-torn country of Vietnam has impacted the author's mother as well as her mother (Little Dog's grandmother). 

I finally read this book because it was under consideration to be selected as a community read. Very early in the book it becomes clear that the themes of the book are very adult and that it includes scenes and depictions of events that might be triggering to some readers who have experienced various kinds of trauma. For example, the son describes multiple times that he is physically assaulted by his mother, and punished in multiple ways that seem disproportionate for the infraction he may have committed. Little Dog also describes racist incidents that happen to him and his family members in Hartford, Connecticut where they live when he was young. It becomes clear that the traumas that his mother (Rose) and grandmother (Lan) have had a deleterious effect on their mental health.

One key plot thread of the book involves Little Dog's relationship with a local white kid named Trevor. When Little Dog is 15 and Trevor is 17 they meet working on a tobacco farm in rural Connecticut. They are the two youngest employees and thus they start hanging out together. Eventually they both realize that there's an attraction to each other, and though Trevor never articulates being gay, but the two boys have intimate sexual contact multiple times for the next several years. This section of the book was one of the highlights for me, but this is primarily because it depicts a realistic and rarely-viewed slice of gay life. Soon after they meet it becomes clear that Trevor is a fan of using various drugs, from alcohol, pot, cocaine and eventually heroin. Drug use was not a stranger to Little Dog, as several of his neighbors in his rough Hartford neighborhood had died of overdoses. So after Little Dog leaves Hartford and goes to New York for college it's sad but not surprising that we learn that Trevor has died as well.

Overall, On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous is an engaging, troubling and memorable book. It's true that the writing is incredibly evocative (this is Vuong's first  book of fiction after becoming celebrated as a poet). The intersection(s) between the identities of Little Dog and of Ocean Vuong make it seem like the book is thinly-veiled biography, and this gives the work an extra frisson as well. In the end, though, I can't say I particularly enjoyed the book, although I am glad that I did read it.

Title: On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous.
Ocean Vuong.
Format: Kindle.
Format: 256 pages.
Publisher: Penguin Press.
Date Published: June 4, 2019.
Date Read: April 20, 2021.

GOODREADS RATING: ½☆  (3.5/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A (4.0/4.0).


Saturday, May 01, 2021

2021 OSCARS: The Winners

Here are the winners of the 2021 Oscars (93rd annual Academy Awards). I correctly predicted 5 of the Top 8 categories. Like everyone else, I was completely blindsided by Frances McDormand's Best Actress win. I actually thought that Anthony Hopkins should win for Best Actor but like everyone else, expected Chadwick Boseman to do so. Similarly, I thought The Father should win for Adapted Screenplay but expected Nomadland to do so. It was great to see a woman win Best Director (for only the second time ever!) and now two Asians have won this award in consecutive years.

Best Picture

Best Actor
Anthony Hopkins, The Father

Best Actress
Frances McDormand, Nomadland

Best Director
Chloé Zhao, Nomadland

Best Supporting Actress
Yuh-Jung Youn, Minari

Best Supporting Actor
Daniel Kaluuya, Judas and the Black Messiah

Best International Feature
Another Round

Best Animated Feature 

Best Documentary Feature
My Octopus Teacher

Best Original Score

Best Original Song
“Fight for You,” Judas and the Black Messiah

Best Original Screenplay
Promising Young Woman

Best Adapted Screenplay
The Father

Best Cinematography

Best Makeup and Hairstyling
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Best Costume Design
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Best Film Editing
Sound of Metal

Best Sound
Sound of Metal

Best Live-Action Short
Two Distant Strangers

Best Animated Short
If Anything Happens I Love You

Best Documentary Short

Best Visual Effects

Best Production Design


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