Tag Archives: Chinese Americans

Searching in Vain

Searching for Sylvie Lee: A Novel by Jean Kwok (William Morrow, $26,99, 336 pages)

Jean Kwok’s third novel, Searching for Sylvie Lee, felt like a missed opportunity to me. Why? Because the story involves an extended family – some of whose members immigrated to the United States from China, and others who wound up in the Netherlands (Holland). It seemed like a great opportunity for Kwok to take the reader into the specifics – and differences among, all three cultures – Chinese, American, and Dutch. Instead the multicultural surface is barely scratched.

At one point we learn that in Holland someone having a birthday is expected to invite individuals to her party and to pay for everyone who attends; the very opposite of what would happen in the U.S. And this is close to the total of what we learn about cultural differences in the novel. (To be fair, we are also informed that people in Holland like to keep their window shades open at almost all times.)

There are three basic characters and narrators. There’s “Ma,” the mother of Sylvie Lee and Amy Lee, who migrated to New York City with her husband from China. Because Ma is said to have limited English speaking skills, her voice is extremely limited. I imagine that some editors would have advised deleting the character; her role could have been detailed in a few basic paragraphs.

There’s Sylvie, the older daughter who has lived a virtually perfect life – perhaps based on the Harvard-educated author’s life – academically and professionally if not always personally, until it all too suddenly falls apart. Sylvia goes from riches to rags and defeat so quickly that it strains credulity. When Sylvie travels from NYC to Holland to be with her deathly ill grandmother, she unexpectedly vanishes.

Well, at least the reader is supposed to view this as an unexpected development. Based on the book’s title and the not too obtuse set-up, the reader can pretty much sense or guess the final outcome before arriving at the halfway point.

And then there’s Amy, the independent younger sister who worshiped her older sister and jets off to Holland on a mission to locate Sylvie. But, of course, Amy – who views herself as unattractive and less intelligent and worldly than Sylvie, seeks to make herself a hero by locating her sister in an area of the world she’s never previously visited. (Amy knows this is a highly unlikely outcome.)

One of the key issues I had with Searching is that while certain parts of the plot and storyline initially appear to be sensical, the mind revisits the logic of the telling at times when the book is put down. That’s when one considers portions of the story to be nonsensical. Let me give an example without the use of any spoilers. There’s a person that Sylvie is tied to emotionally until she breaks away from him – getting away from him being another likely reason she travels to Holland. However, he suddenly shows up in Holland upon her arrival, and departs after she goes missing. No, his presence is not a red herring – he had nothing to do with her disappearance, and Amy herself wonders why this man would show up in Holland and then depart. Its another instance in which an editor might have advised deleting an illogical aspect of the story.

Kwok writes in a calm, detailed and deliberate manner that engages the reader early on. But the energy of the story and of its multiple characters has pretty much dissipated by page 200. By this point, I had lost interest in continuing until the end – although I proceeded to do so, to learn whether my view of the ending would be prescient or not. (It was.)

Finally, like all too many family novels these days, the book is built around a supposedly dramatic “family secret.” The secret is not mind-blowing – some readers will no doubt have guessed it before the denouement, and it fails to justify the time invested in a story that goes on for too many pages. And so, this is a missed opportunity; a missed opportunity for both the writer and her readers.

Joseph Arellano

Searching for Sylvie Lee was published on June 4, 2019. A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Family Affair

family trustFamily Trust: A Novel by Kathy Wang (HarperLuxe, $26.99, 400 pages)

Family Trust is a debut novel from Kathy Wang.  Ms. Wang has an engaging, chatty writing style full of vivid details.  She grew up in northern California and holds an undergraduate degree from the University of California at Berkeley and a graduate degree from Harvard Business School.  The story she tells feels accurate.

While this reviewer is not Chinese, numerous family and friends were emigres from Lithuania.  Believe me when I say that many of the attitudes displayed in the book are cross-cultural!

The San Francisco Bay Area, more specifically the South Bay and Silicon Valley are where the Huang family comes to grips with the eventual mortality of Stanley Huang, father of Fred and Kate, ex husband of Linda Liang, and husband of second wife Mary Zhu.  Each of these characters is featured in the developments that follow Stanley’s diagnosis of terminal cancer.

Ms. Wang goes above and beyond her obligation as a writer to inform her readers of the details surrounding the lives of each of her characters.  The one slow-down I felt was when she went into the aspects of careers in Silicon Valley.  The technology and finance language were sometimes a bit too much, even for the mom of a former Sand Hill Road venture capital employee.

Seventy-two-year-old Stanley and his much younger (28 years younger) wife of ten years, Mary, live in the house where he and his former wife, Linda, lived for many of their 34 years of marriage.  Son Fred is divorced and his sister Kate is supporting her stay-at-home “writer” husband and two children.  Kate is more successful than her brother.  Their mom, Linda, worked hard securing financial security for herself and her family.  She now wants to explore the possibility of love after 70.

Each of these characters interacts with the others through thoroughly believable, easy to visualize situations with amazing dialogue.  The fly in the mix is Fred’s egocentric manner and his hints at the fortune he will leave behind.  The mystery, even though this novel is not tagged a mystery, is how much is Fred worth and who will inherit?

The book starts out relatively slowly.  At first the pace seemed too slow.  As the background and history of each character unfolded, Ms. Wang’s pacing increased until the story became somewhat of a page-turner.  Nope, no spoiler alert is needed in this review.

Family Trust is an excellent novel and well worth the read.  Let’s hope Kathy Wang is busy writing another one for her readers.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.  This book will be released on October 30, 2018.

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How Can I Tell You

Everything I Never Told You (nook book)

Everything I Never Told You Ng

Everything I Never Told You: A Novel by Celeste Ng (The Penguin Press, $26.95, 292 pages)

“James is all too familiar with this kind of forgetting. From Lloyd Academy to Harvard to Middlewood, he has felt it every day – that short-lived lull, then the sharp edge to the ribs that reminded you that you didn’t belong.”

Celeste Ng’s novel is about a Chinese-American family in the truest sense of the words; James Lee is a Chinese-American professor married to an Anglo woman. Although born in the U.S., “(James) had never felt he belonged here….” James has consistently experienced discrimination as a minority resident of Ohio – an experience his wife Marilyn has largely been exempted from, and his sense of bitterness has been building up. Matters come to a head when his fifteen-year-old daughter Lydia goes missing, and is eventually found dead.

The loss of Lydia threatens to destroy the Lees’ marriage as Lydia was the favorite of their three children, a daughter in whom their hopes for a perfect future had been placed. This family novel is also a mystery as the circumstances of Lydia’s death are largely unknown. Marilyn Lee makes it her mission to “figure out what happened… She will find out who is responsible. She will find out what went wrong.”

Everything Ng

Ng’s thought-provoking tale informs us that a sudden tragedy can either destroy individuals or give them the chance to start anew. And this unique, engaging novel reminds us that “the great American melting pot” operates haphazardly and imperfectly.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Doctor Wu

Red Jade: A Detective Jack Yu Investigation by Henry Chang (Soho Crime; $25.00; 256 pages)

“Killing two bad guys, taking a cold-blooded murderer home.   Not bad for a few days in Seattle, huh?”

Reading Red Jade by Henry Chang is like being on a diet of tasteless fiber before enjoying a fine helping of spicy Mongolian Beef.   The vivid cinematic ending is literally preceded by a couple of hundred pages written in a dull and plodding style.   In fact, make that plodding, plodding, plodding.

The reader will need to take a suspension-of-reality pill before accepting the story that’s told here.   New York Police Detective Jack Wu is an Asian quasi super-hero who can solve multiple crimes while spending a weekend in Seattle, Washington.   It’s so hard to believe that Yu can solve a murder that took place in New York City’s Chinatown while in Seattle that the author himself asks of Jack, “How much destiny could he take?”   Wherever Detective Yu goes, the evil people he needs to find just happen to be in the neighborhood.

It may or may not be worth mentioning that the book starts with the bloody murder of a young man and a young woman in New York’s Chinatown.   This precedes Jack’s traveling to Seattle with his sometime girlfriend (she’s there attending a legal conference), where he not only solves the case in chief, but another big one while he’s at it.   Yes, the world is just a stage for Detective Yu.

One might be tempted to think that there’s going to be some interesting scenery covered in a tale set in Seattle.   Instead, except for a few walks on very mean streets, the majority of the tale involves Jack’s stay at the Marriott Courtyard near Sea-Tac, while his girlfriend beds at the far more impressive Westin downtown.   Jack has an entire extended weekend to work his magic, which sometimes involves beating up two foes at once using his very impressive kung-fu style skills.   Sometimes, though, Jack falls back on simply shooting the bad guys when he’s not getting the best of things.   Yippee Ki-yay!, as Bruce Willis might say.

Still, credit has to be given to Chang for fashioning a surprisingly energetic and involving ending.   It’s a shame it takes one such effort to get to it.   This reader felt worn down by the telling, as if the reading took away more energy from me than it could ever hope to repay.   Chang writes in small bits and bites (some chapters covering only a single page), which makes me think his skills might be better applied to very short crime stories.   Let’s just hope that he comes up with protagonists that are more reality-based than Detective Jack Yu.  

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Said Publishers Weekly of Red Jade:  “What started as a promising series has devolved into something quite run-of-the-mill…”

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Free Food for Millionaires

free-food

Free Food for Millionaires: A Novel by Min Jin Lee (Grand Central Publishing, $9.99, 592 pages)

This is a fascinating novel by Min Jin Lee, but then it would have to be to pull a reader through its 560 pages.   The telling of the story, though, has its faults which helps to explain the divergent reviews upon its initial release.   One reviewer found it to be “extraordinary,” another found it to be the “best novel” he’d read in a long time, and another said it was “a pleasure” to read.   But Kirkus Reviews decided that it was “fitfully entertaining but not extraordinary.”   Well, perhaps this is a story that the reader simply loves or can do without…

Millionaires is set within the multi-generational Korean-American community that inhabits the Bronx and Manhattan boroughs of New York City.   This is primarily the story of one Casey Han who graduates from Princeton and may serve as the alter ego of the author, a Yale and Georgetown Law graduate.   Casey finds that her Ivy League degree fails to open the doors of success for her, and she knows and believes that she’s seen as a failure by her parents.   She’s also unlucky in love which calls forth one of the issues with this initial novel from author Lee.   There’s far more soap opera than needed, and it seems that every adult who occupies the story cheats on a loved one (spouse or partner) and then feels compelled to confess his/her infidelity.   This seems just a bit over the top.

To her credit, Lee inhabits the tale with numerous fascinating characters, about equally divided between Korean-Americans and non-Koreans.   The main character, Casey, works on Wall Street – underemployed for her level of education – and comes into contact with Type A Caucasians and super-ambitious Korean-Americans.   One would think, however, that in the real business world some of the Asians in the city would happen to be Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, etc.

Then there’s the conflict and tension that the author seems to feel about her own people.   There are many – probably too many – negative statements made about Koreans; some stereotypes, some quite troubling.   Here’s a sampling:

“Everything with Koreans, Casey thought, was about avoiding shame…”

“Korean people like her mother and father didn’t talk about love, about feelings…”

“… Casey was an American, too – she had a strong desire to be happy and to have love, and she’d never considered such wishes to be Korean ones.”

“… she came from a culture where good intentions and clear talk wouldn’t cover all wounds.”

“This is why I never work with Koreans.   They are so goddam stuck.   You must choose yourself over the group.”

There’s also an instance where Casey thinks about Korean weddings and the “five hundred uninvited guests” who show up at them.   Ah, well, maybe Lee felt the need to include some material to get the novel some attention.   In this respect, it probably worked.

The story is actually much more about the conflict between the “old country” family members, and the younger “new country” and “American” relatives who view the world very differently.   In this respect, it could have been set among any multi-generational ethnic group.   In the end, both love and forgiveness – massive doses of each – are required to get past the intra-family differences that exist.

The author is talented and I look forward to her next work, which hopefully will be less narrow in scope.   Free Food for Millionaires…   flawed…   recommended…  but just barely.

Joseph Arellano

This book was purchased by the reviewer.

Note:   Thank you to Daniel D. Holt, co-author of Korean At A Glance: Second Edition, for providing technical assistance on this review.free food 3

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We’re extending a contest…

Hotel on the corner audioAs we announced on October 16, 2009, we have an autographed trade paperback copy of the novel Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet to give away.   This story by Jamie Ford, set in Seattle, is rated 4 stars out of 5 by Google Books which means it’s well worth adding to your collection!   We’re extending the entry deadline until midnight PDT on Tuesday, October 27, 2009.   The giveaway rules are quite simple…   Just send your name and e-mail address to: josephsreviews@gmail.com.   This will constitute one entry.   To be entered a second time just complete this sentence: “Seattle is famous for_______________.”  

If you want or need additional details on this contest, just scroll down to re-examine the original posting of October 16th.   Thanks and good reading!

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A Bittersweet Story

hotel kindle

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford (Ballantine Books, $15.00, 301 pages)

“Sometimes you just have to go for it.   Try for what’s hardest to accomplish.”

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is a charming tale about what’s hardest to accomplish – accepting the choices one has made in life.   The story is about Henry Lee, a Chinese-American boy who attends a white school in Seattle during World War II.   There he meets Keiko Okabe, a Japanese-American girl (born in the U.S.A.) who becomes the love of his life before she’s taken away to an internment camp.   Henry vows to wait forever for Keiko’s return only to marry another – the mother of his son – while thinking each day about what’s happened to the beautiful Keiko.

Life goes on until 1986 when the long-closed Panama hotel – a place where Japanese-Americans lived in the 1940’s – is scheduled for renovation.   Then things are found…  things which belonged to the families that were forced to leave with only a single bag per family member.   These events prompt Henry to re-examine his life and his choices and to commit himself to finally finding Keiko.

The author Jamie Ford is himself Chinese-American (his great grandfather was Min Chung, a miner who came to the U.S. in 1865) and well describes the tenets of Chinese and Japanese culture.   His writing is often inspiring and philosophical:   “Henry understood.   Honestly he did.   He knew what it was like to leave something behind.   To move on and live the future and not relive the past.”   But this well-publicized first novel would have benefited from a better job of editing.   At one point, the adult Henry’s wife is quite ill and their son wants Henry to place her in a hospice.   Henry refuses and elects to take care of her at home and with the assistance of in-home (visiting) hospice workers.   But then we read that the dying Ethel wants to “leave this place” and go home.   Clearly there’s confusion here and in a few other places in the book.   (The son supposedly reads about his  mother’s death on the internet while he’s in college in 1986.)

Nonetheless, this is a quite worthwhile read.   Like The Commoner by John Burnham Schwartz, it takes us away from the standard American family we typically read about and places us among those with different values and belief systems.   Having grown up among Japanese and Chinese-Americans, I know that so much of what Ford has written here rings absolutely true.

I generally attempt to avoid quoting the remarks of others about a particular book but author Garth Stein (The Art of Racing in the Rain) said of Hotel, “(This is) a tender and satisfying novel set in a time and place lost forever.”   True, and this novel is a satisfying celebration of life and living.   It reminds us that “beautiful endings (can) still be found at the end of cold, dreary days.”

Recommended.

Joseph Arellano

Note:   This book was purchased by the reviewer.

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