Staff Picks: Holiday Reads 2010

Last year, we asked our staff writers to recommend books that they’d read in the last year and thought were worth passing on.  This year, we’ve decided to continue with this tradition.  In light of that, here are our holiday staff picks for 2010 (poetry, prose and more—yes, we read more than poetry!)

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Race and the Avant-Garde: Experimental and Asian American Poetry Since 1965 | Timothy Yu | Stanford University Press (2009)

Recommended by Mia: “This is one of the key critical texts on my reading list for the holidays.  I’ve only skimmed the first few chapters, but thus far have found Yu’s argument compelling, his analysis rigorous, and his wide-ranging knowledge of Asian American and Language poetry in the United States to be informative to my own work—not to mention useful in historicizing these two movements/moments in contemporary poetry!

From the Tinfish Editors’ Blog: ‘Using a definition of the avant-garde that has less to do with aesthetics than with social groups composed of like-minded artists, Yu argues that Asian American poetry and Language writing formed parallel movements in the 1970s. […] Both presented themselves in opposition to the mainstream; both were marked by questions of form and racial identity. Both meant to create art out of social groups, and reconstitute the social through the reception of their art.'”

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Radiant Silhouette: New & Selected Work 1974-1988 | John Yau | Black Sparrow Press (1989)

Recommended by Mia: “Yau is one of the two major poets that Timothy Yu addresses in Race and the Avant-Garde (Theresa Hak Kyung Cha is the other), so I’ve been reading through his New & Selected Work for an introduction to the thematic and aesthetic scope of his early career.  He’s a fascinating figure in Asian American poetry and, as Yu points out, ‘might best be read as a restoration of the links between politics, form, and race that characterize the avant-garde Asian American poetry of the 1970s [… providing] the first opportunity for most readers to recognize […] the presence of that avant-garde back into the very origins of Asian American writing.'”

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Man on Extremely Small Island | Jason Koo | C&R Press (2009)

Recommended by Iris: “Jason Koo’s style is very different from my own, but this book (his first collection) managed to completely charm me with its quirkiness.  The voice of the book’s primary speaker manifests a world-weary exhaustion that is, on the surface, darkly melancholic and painfully self-deprecating.  He obsesses over his dirty apartment while eating a tuna sandwich, dreams about floundering clumsily through an encounter with Lucy Liu, envisions himself stranded on an island in the middle of an ocean, worrying about the size of his nose.  But beneath the speaker’s (at times endearingly hyperbolic) self-consciousness lies a striking vulnerability and a luminous ability to evoke the fantastic within the mundane: BBQ chip crumbs echo the ‘fine grains / of my slovenliness,’ becoming ‘barbecue pollen,’ and later, ‘orange microbes’ (9); Lucy Liu becomes a motherly goddess figure who guides him through a secret mission, ‘pulling you after her diving into the stage,’ which becomes the arena for an undersea showdown complete with battleships, lingerie models, and harpoons (22) , the island transforms into the kneecap of a giant woman who ‘has no nose. Just a space where mine / can fit’ (77). Part Frank O’Hara, part tragic hero of his own sardonic comic-book series, the speaker’s sense of humor, whimsy, and wonder, as transmitted by Koo’s craft, paint a picture of a world that reinvisions the now-archetypal image behind John Donne’s famous ‘No man is an island’ with simultaneous irreverence and tenderness. ”

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I Love Yous Are For White People
I Love Yous Are for White People: A Memoir by Lac Su | Harper Collins 2009 | $14.99

Let me begin with this disclaimer: I don’t usually read Asian immigrant memoirs. At least, not until very recently. This particular book came to my attention while I was randomly perusing some Asian American culture blogs, where it had received some attention, in part I’m assuming, because of its provocative title. The reason I wanted to put out this disclaimer up front is because, unlike a lot of other reviews for this book available on the web, this one is not written with an academic background in ethnic studies or extensive experience with the canon of the Asian American memoir. So, what can my review offer? Well, as the child of Asian immigrants who had never read Asian immigrant memoirs until very recently, I found the experience of reading this particular memoir and studying the blogosphere’s response to it to be interesting because of the questions it raised for me as an ethnic person in contemporary America who occasionally writes things for public consumption (Exhibit A: this blog post). So, in addition to sharing my thoughts on the book, I’m going to share some thoughts on the responses it has elicited, which I have found to be equally interesting.

First off, a quick rundown of the book and its author.  I Love Yous Are for White People is by Lac Su, a young Vietnamese immigrant who, as a child, escaped South Vietnam with his family in 1979 and immigrated to America. The memoir begins with a harrowing boat dock escape then explores Su’s experience of growing up in Los Angeles in a series of chapters that read like individual essays. As noted by many reviewers, the book touches upon themes of filial piety, identity negotiation, and the pains of cultural transition. Also noted by many reviewers: what carries the memoir is Su’s voice. Even though a lot of the anecdotes feel either far-fetched (at one point, he blows balloons out of discarded condoms found in the hallway of his family’s apartment building) or too familiar (there’s a scene in a restaurant where his father doesn’t understand how food stamps work), I remained engaged because Su narrated these moments with self-deprecation and earnestness. It is hard not to like a guy who constantly notes how his father calls him “Big Head”—evidently the translation of a Vietnamese “term of endearment.”

While there were a lot of interesting and amusing moments in the memoir, of particular interest to me was the prevalence of violence throughout. I got the impression that for Su and his family, violence was encoded in their family’s story from the get-go. From the boat-dock escape amidst machine gun fire at the beginning, to the brushes with street violence sprinkled throughout, Su’s family just couldn’t get a break. For me, the most riveting scene in the book was a scene of random violence in which street thugs attack Su’s father while he tries to bike to work; the ostensible leader of the gang pins Su’s father on the ground and attempts to shove a screwdriver into his throat (Su’s father avoids serious harm by turning his head to the side in the nick of time). In addition to depictions of random violence like this, there are countless scenes of domestic violence in which Su’s volatile and overbearing father punches, whips, slaps, or uppercuts everything and everyone in sight, including his wife and children. Then, in the latter half of the memoir, Su recounts incidents of gang violence in which he engages in hand-to-hand combat with other local street toughs.  Cumulatively, it comes across as one big olio of dominance rituals and tribalism.

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