Lincoln in the Bardo and the impossible audiobook

audiobook_ilOn paper, it sounds like something magnificent: master short-story writer George Saunders’s very first novel! An examination of a moment in the life of America’s greatest president!

As Penguin Random House says:

George Saunders spins an unforgettable story of familial love and loss that breaks free of its realistic, historical framework into a supernatural realm both hilarious and terrifying. Willie Lincoln finds himself in a strange purgatory where ghosts mingle, gripe, commiserate, quarrel, and enact bizarre acts of penance. Within this transitional state—called, in the Tibetan tradition, the bardo—a monumental struggle erupts over young Willie’s soul.

And then there’s the audiobook: 166 characters! 166 voices!

“The first truly blockbuster audiobook? …  it’s going to be incredible”

Continue reading “Lincoln in the Bardo and the impossible audiobook”

New poem: ‘Benevolent Assimilation’ in re:asian magazine

Screen Shot 2017-05-30 at 10.14.29 PM

Thank you, re:asian magazine, for including me in the “firsts” issue!

The poem touches upon things I’ve been thinking about since grade school when I first read the phrase “benevolent assimilation” as a U.S. description of its colonial policy with the Philippines.

The magazine has also published a photo I took of the home my Lolo — grandfather — grew up in Cavite.

Here’s an excerpt from the poem:

Something like fear structured my feelings around the word
Philippines and whatever it was that connected me to it

Check out the full poem on the re:asian website here and let me know what you think — either here or on the re:asian site.

 

 

 

Thank you, World Haiku Review

Thank you, World Haiku Review, for publishing my work in the latest edition.

 

screen-shot-2017-01-28-at-9-32-21-am

Book review: Umberto Eco’s ‘The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana’

This review originally ran in May 2005 in the Albany Times Union.

78769-coverMemory, identity evaporate in ‘Queen Loana’

Among life’s great chores is the sorting through of old papers, books, records and magazines long ago left in the attic. Few events combine such tedium with unexpected moments of rich nostalgia, in which a single image can rise from junk and make the past profoundly present and vital.

This is the magic of the intriguing but ultimately disappointing new novel by Umberto Eco, “The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana” (Harcourt; 469 pages; $27; translated from the Italian by Geoffrey Brock).

In Milan, Italy, in late April 1991 (soon after the end of the Gulf war) our narrator has lost his memory. What happened isn’t clear, but all he can remember are things he’s read. The first few pages are filled with references to writers such as T.S. Eliot, Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle – and those are just the easy ones to spot for someone familiar with English literature.

When a doctor asks the narrator his name, he responds with the first line of a novel by Edgar Allen Poe: “My name is Arthur Gordon Pym.” When the doctor tells him that isn’t true, he tries with: “Call me … Ishmael?”

At once, Eco reveals his smarts and sly humor.

Soon, we learn that the narrator is in his 60s, is an antiquarian book dealer and goes by the nickname Yambo. Yambo is mischievous. Having forgotten his personal life, including his relationship with his wife, he calls himself a 60-year-old virgin, even though he is a father and grandfather. His character raises the expectation of a wonderful tale of memory and identity. Unfortunately, moments of wonder are all too rare.

Yambo returns to his family’s estate in the countryside in an attempt to regain his identity by going through the stuff in the attic. What he describes we see in reprinted lyrics and illustrations from posters, newspapers, comic books and magazines from the 1930s and ’40s.

The time period is fascinating: Italian fascism, war and giddy pop culture. Yambo calls the mix of messages from the media “schizophrenic.” He says, “Allied troops were landing in Sicily, and the radio (in the voice of Alida Valli!) was reminding us that love is not that way, love won’t turn to gray the way the gold fades in a woman’s hair.”

Yambo even finds an essay he wrote that praises fascism, but he doesn’t know if he was a true believer or if he had to play it safe at school. His predicament seems rich with possibility, as if Eco is suggesting that a new, multinational war (the Gulf war) is reminding Yambo’s generation how much of the past they had to forget in order to survive the horrors of war and fascism.

Some of the novel’s best writing occurs in the retelling of Yambo’s adventure with a group of partisans, but what Eco is trying to say about these themes of struggle and violence gets muddled in the abundance of pop culture. The title even refers to a comic book, and the riveting, wartime passages aren’t sustained with the same vitality as Philip Roth’s great reimagining of Newark, N.J., in “The Plot Against America” or even John Dower’s social histories of Japan in “War Without Mercy” and “Embracing Defeat.”

A 16-page section in the back of Eco’s book cites the sources for the illustrations, and a repeated phrase says that many of the images came from the “author’s collection.”

Suddenly, all the illustrations and references are indulgent. They disrupt the novel. The particulars of Yambo’s life don’t point to any general truth of the human condition, they point to Eco. As the novel progresses, this conflation of narrator and author makes one think Eco is no longer exhibiting his pleasure of language, culture and life through writing; instead, he is writing lists about things that brought him pleasure.

In the end, the “mysterious flame” that rises in Yambo’s (or is it Eco’s?) heart from seeing the pop culture of his youth has, unfortunately, left this reader feeling cold.

Perhaps it would have been more enjoyable to sort through my old books and papers.

Book review: ‘Ash’ by Holly Thompson

This review originally appeared in the March 2002 edition of Multicultural Review.

ashAsh

Thompson, Holly. Ash. Berkeley, Calif.: Stone Bridge Press, 2001. 292 pp. ISBN 1-880656-65-5, $16.95.

 

Thompson excels in her first novel at making Japan, from the volcanic-ash strewn streets of Kagoshima to the temples around Kyoto, accessible while conveying her protagonist’s “rootless expatriate world.”

Caitlin Ober, though, is unlike other foreigners. She is an American who returns to Japan 15 years after a traumatizing childhood experience in Kyoto, where her family lived while her father, a scholar, did research. She now teaches English in Kagoshima, but her real mission is to overcome the guilt, sadness and silence that surrounds events from when she was 8. This drama leads to some of the most affecting passages in the novel, especially when Caitlin is reunited in Kyoto with her “number-two family,” the family of her best friend from childhood. The novel is less effective, though, when the narrator, like Caitlin, withholds for many pages a clear explanation of what happened in the past.

Nonetheless, Thompson’s straightforward narrative allows her to map out many fascinating aspects of Japanese life, such as the problems faced by a 14-year-old girl with a Japanese mother and an American father. The teen is bullied at schools and must choose between taking Japanese or American citizenship when she turns 20.

Though the novel, at times, veers toward melodrama, and more could be said about the biracial’s teens problems, instead of having her resolution subsumed by Caitlin’s drama, “Ash” successfully shows a Japan through Western eyes that isn’t the exotic locale of samurai and geisha but a place where an American can have powerful, emotional connections.