Something Good in Goodreads

I came across a review of Love Love in Goodreads…and it’s very kind and thoughtful.  The writer is a guy named Larry who not only read my novel but was inspired enough to write something about it.  He’s got a blog and has reviewed many other books and movies (his review of Inside Out is so closely aligned with my own view that I almost feel like I wrote it!), so check it out.

Larry’s review in Goodreads | Blog

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Review of Love Love in KoreAm Journal, My First Piece for KoreAm, and a Major Bummer

The lovely folks at KoreAm Journal have reviewed Love Love, and it’s an incisive piece.  Thank you, KoreAm.

Below is the first essay I ever wrote for KoreAm Journal, dating all the way back to March 2008.  On the cover were Harold and Kumar, John Cho and Kal Penn, from their second movie.

I’m not mentioning this just for nostalgia’s sake — it’s because I just heard from the editor-in-chief that the magazine and the website has changed owners and is now facing an uncertain future.  As of now, August/September 2015 is the final issue.  I sure hope this is not the case — that they will find a way to keep going, but we all know how tough it is to run a magazine nowadays.  I wish the editors and writers the best of luck.  I’d like to especially thank Suevon Lee and Julie Ha, who polished my prose and shepherded my columns every step of the way.

The Virgins, by Pamela Erens

virgins

The Virgins, by Pamela Erens

I’m on a roll here, folks.  A week ago, I finished reading Wendy Lee’s Across a Green Ocean, the first published novel I read this year.  And now here I am, merely a week later, with another notch on my belt.  I’m almost two years too late, as Pamela Erens‘s The Virgins came out August 2013, but I’ll say it again: better late than never.  (I think that might be the phrase that goes on my tombstone.)

Firstly, let me say I know Pamela personally to a very slight degree; we have friends in common so we’ve met during family-related/neighborly celebrations.  And I was at one of her book parties when The Virgins came out.  “I can’t wait to read it!” I’m fairly certain I said (lied).  I’m sorry, Pamela — I’m just really, really slow.

Have I apologized enough?  Probably not.  But it’s time to move on.  It’s time to read this book, everyone.  This very sexy book, and I’m not just throwing that word around.  This novel is seriously, incredibly sexy.  Like you’ll blush as you read it.  I know I did, several times, and I don’t blush easily.  If you are squeamish about reading about people having sex, teenagers in particular, what the hell is wrong with you?  Sorry.  I meant to write, “then this book isn’t for you.”  (But seriously, what is wrong with you?)

A side (though I feel like this post has been just one big side so far): for those people who read trashy romance novels or whatever the hell it is that E.L. James writes (from the bits I’ve glanced, I wish I hadn’t), you should give The Virgins a shot, because then you wouldn’t feel so guilty about reading terribly written novels about sex.  Pamela composes gorgeous, sustained sentences that I guarantee will get you hot under the collar.  Her sentences will also make you feel.  Sometimes they’ll make you sad.  Sometimes they’ll make you laugh.  But you will very much feel (even against your will, sometimes) the tortured, elated, breathless, dangerous lives of these students at Auburn Academy, a boarding school that made me glad my parents were poor and could not have sent me to such an institution.

The Virgins is also a very well-crafted book with wholly unexpected twists and turns, but the best kind that make terrible tragic sense when all’s said and done.  It’s a fast read, and full of literary flair.  Just the very POV that Pamela chose is kind of remarkable (neither of the leads but an insider-wannabe outsider who voyeuristically and imaginatively narrates the novel).  If you enjoy The Virgins, then I’d very much recommend her first novel, The Understory, which also features a male narrator with some serious problems, one of which is unrequited love, a theme that I now declare has emerged in the Erens oeuvre (I feel very grown up now, having used that fancypants word).  I’ve read that one, too, and like The Virgins, it is equally devastating and disturbing.

By the way, something else that was kinda-sorta disturbing — the lead male in this novel is a Korean-American kid named Seung.  That’s just one letter away from my own name!  And I’m Korean, too!  Though in this novel, his pronunciation is different (“the past tense to sing“), so no worries, totally different guy.  I’ve actually told people something similar when they ask how I say my name — “the past participle of the verb to sing.”  (I’ve since learned that some people don’t know the past participle tense, so I’ve retired this phrase…)

One last thing — James Salter is an author often mentioned in reference to The Virgins.  I presume Pamela also honors him by naming one of Auburn’s teachers Mr. Salter.  In case you haven’t heard, Salter passed away on June 19.  Here’s a beautiful obituary in Grantland by one of my favorite writers.

Pamela Erens
The Virgins

288pp
August 2013/Tin House Books

Across a Green Ocean, by Wendy Lee

Across a Green Ocean, by Wendy Lee

Across a Green Ocean, by Wendy Lee

As shameful as this is to admit, Wendy Lee’s Across a Green Ocean is the first published novel I’ve read this year.  Yes, it is almost the end June.  Yes, I am supposedly a writer of fiction.  So half of the year has come and gone and I’ve read a total of ONE book!

Well, better one than none, right?  At least that’s what I’m telling myself.  And I’m so glad the one book I have read is Wendy’s.  Wendy and I are NYU MFA compatriots, though I never actually knew her while she was attending the program.  But we’ve become friends since, and I’m happy to let readers know there’s a fine novel waiting for them.

Susan Choi wrote in her blurb for Across a Green Ocean that “the past is always present, and the present is never quite what it seems,” and this is really quite the apt descriptor for this novel.  The primary power of Across a Green Ocean is derived from remembrance, as the three main characters, mother (Ling), daughter (Emily), and son (Michael), delve deeply into their past through flashbacks to come to decisions and realizations about their intertwining lives after the passing of Han, the patriarch of the family.  The novel spans both time (decades in memory) and space (USA and China), and Wendy does a marvelous job of keeping this complicated narrative machine running smoothly.  There’s a lot of moving parts here plotwise, and varying POV techniques, too, as the Michael section is written in the present tense while the Ling and Emily sections are in the more traditional past tense.

I think this was a very ingenious move by Wendy, to put Michael’s sections in the present, because he is the one who has to carry the toughest load.  He spends the bulk of the novel in a remote part of China, so we as readers have the most difficult time being in his shoes.  By employing the present tense, we feel so much closer to the action.  Everything Michael is encountering is happening now, and the immediacy is very much felt.  Bravo!

I’m not going to spend much time discussing the plot, as a quick click to Amazon will give you all you need (and will also give you the great opportunity to buy the book!).  One thing I found very funny is that Across a Green Ocean and my forthcoming novel, Love Love, share some odd plot similarities:

  • a family story starring brother and sister
  • the brother goes somewhere else to find himself
  • a letter from the past is the driving factor for this search

Weird, right?  Not quite Twilight-Zone level weirdness, but weird nonetheless.  Oh, and these are both our second novels.  Must be something in the water.

Wendy Lee
Across a Green Ocean
288pp
February 2015/Kensington

J. Robert Lennon’s See You in Paradise

Ilogo don’t write book reviews often — in fact, I’m lucky to write one a year.  But there’s one author I’ve reviewed more than once, and that is J. Robert Lennon.  If you haven’t checked out his latest, please do.  You’ll be thoroughly entertained.

From the always wonderful Fiction Writers Review.

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See You in Paradise: Stories, by J. Robert Lennon

“Lennon not only balances the mundane with the fantastic, but makes the fantastic feel mundane in the context of this world”: Sung J. Woo on Robert J. Lennon’s new collection, See You in Paradise.

Maybe it’s strange for a reviewer of a collection of short stories to say that he is not a fan of short story collections, but I want you to know where I’m coming from. Don’t get me wrong—I love short stories. I love their intense focus, their fleeting brevity, an entire world contained and expressed in a few thousand words. What I don’t like is reading one after another by the same author, because I get tired of hearing the same voice over and over again. Also, reading another short story after having just finished one can feel like climbing a new mountain, because I have to get acquainted with another set of characters, and the setting is different, and so is the situation, and I miss those people from before…can’t they just come back and give me a break, please?

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The Mysteries of Raymond Miller

coldI used to read a lot more genre fiction when I was younger.  In fact, that’s pretty much all I read: my mainstays were Stephen King for horror, Isaac Asimov for scifi, and Robert B. Parker for mysteries.  In college I was introduced to contemporary literary fiction, the likes of Raymond Carver and Denis Johnson, but I still read mysteries every so often.  I always found a great deal of comfort in how the authors wrote book after book using the same characters (Spenser) or a niche (like Dick Francis and horseracing).  If I ever considered writing as a profession, these folks seemed like the ones with steady jobs.

For the last year or so, I’ve been reading more mysteries than usual because that’s what I’m writing now (or, more accurately, attempting to).  And there’s one author I’ve really come to like, Raymond Miller.  His second book recently came out as an eBook , and it’s just as enticing as his first, A Scent of Blood.  Cold Trail Blues is the new one, and it continues the curious cases of Nathaniel Singer, private eye.  The heart of every work of noir is the voice of the narrator, and I can’t help but cheer for this guy.  He’s as tenacious as they come, but funny, too.  He’s got a gal named Kate, an MFA student, working for him as an assistant, and I can listen to their banter all day long.

The first novel dealt with a hit-and-run murder of a prominent doctor; Cold Trail Blues takes place in Waverly College, where a student has been accused of murdering his girlfriend.  The book is full of misdirection and action — even a pretty nifty car chase.  One of my favorite moments is when Kate talks to Singer about Paul Auster.

“I reread Paul Auster’s City of Glass trilogy over the weekend,” she said. “I felt as if I were preparing for a test.”

“I’m not familiar with it.”

“It’s a trilogy of postmodern detective novels.”

She explained the plot of one of them. A detective named Green is hired by a man named Brown to study the movements of a man named Black. Green takes a hotel room across the street from Black’s apartment and observes him through the window all day. But all Black does is write.

“What makes them postmodern?” I said. “Is it the plots? Or is the detective himself postmodern? Or is the bad guy postmodern?”

“I suppose you’d say it’s the plots themselves. They’re never resolved, and they never can be resolved.”

“Just sounds like bad detective work to me.”

I’m a big fan of City of Glass, but Singer’s response here is pitch perfect.  If Singer had been on the case, I bet he could’ve solved it.  By the way, Paul Auster wrote a fine regular mystery himself under the pseudonym of Paul Benjamin, Squeeze Play.  You can find it in his memoir Hand to Mouth.

Familiar, by J. Robert Lennon

It’s a little late for some spring cleaning, but that’s what I’m sort of doing right now.  This was a review of J. Robert Lennon’s Familiar that I wrote more than a year ago.  It was supposed to go somewhere else, but I blew the deadline and it didn’t make sense for them to post it, so it has basically languished on my hard drive for all this time.  Better late than never!

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Familiar, by J. Robert Lennon

Graywolf Press
205pp

I’m worried about Elisa Macalaster Brown, what she’s doing, where she is.  I’m worried because she’s not where she’s supposed to be, nor is she who she’s supposed to be.  How this happens is as quick and merciless as a car accident, and in a way, it sort of is one, because that’s where it occurs.  Elisa is driving east from Wisconsin, after visiting the gravesite of her dead teenage son.  Her Honda has a crack on its windshield that runs from the lower left hand corner to eye level – which, for reasons unknown, disappears.  Suddenly there’s mint gum in her mouth.  Elisa herself is slightly fatter, wearing stockings when she should be wearing cutoff jeans, and all I’ve described so far takes place in the first fourteen pages of this remarkably compressed, remarkably sad novel.

Part of what makes this speculative fiction work so well is Lennon’s use of the strong authorial voice.  The end of the first chapter ends with this sentence: “Everything’s going to change in a couple of minutes.”  That’s Lennon telling us how it’s going to be right from the beginning, that he is in complete control and everything that happens, no matter how improbable, will also be inevitable.  (Sherlock Holmes would be proud.)

Another narrative technique Lennon employs in service for the suspension of disbelief is the present tense.  I don’t know about you, but when I think of novels written in the present tense, John Updike’s Rabbit books come to mind.  Here’s what Updike had to say about it in an interview (http://www.achievement.org/autodoc/page/upd0int-5):

 I loved writing in the present tense. It has become a bit of a cliché now among younger writers, but at the time it was a bit of a novelty, and certainly a novelty to me. There’s kind of a level, a speed, you can get going without the past tense[.]

I haven’t written much in the present tense, but every time I do, it startles me to see how much more force there is in the writing.  The present is explosive and immediate, and since Familiar is a novel of discovery, not that different than, say, Jason Bourne’s story (a man waking up and not knowing who he is), the present tense is the right choice here.  Instead of suffering from amnesia, Elisa has “displace-sia,” of being in a world that is not exactly hers.  So as she moves through her not-quite-new life, we are discovering all that has changed with her, and because of the immediacy of the tense, we get very much more caught up in Elisa’s predicament.  Even though this novel is packed with Elisa’s internal thoughts and metaphysical ruminations of her situation, it just feels fast.

One of the highest compliment one writer can pay another is that he wishes he’d written the book he’s reading.  I absolutely felt that at times as I laughed and groaned my way through Familiar.  There’s just so much juicy stuff here in this alternate world of Elisa’s: her son is not dead, an acquaintance is now her best friend, the guy at the frame shop is no longer her illicit lover.  The scenes where Elisa returns to work, to fake her way to her office, pretending to know what she’s doing in her job – these are scenes any writer would love to write.  They are all so full of possibility and drama, the lifeblood of all great novels.

Beware, though – this is not a happy-go-lucky book.  Elisa doesn’t quite end up in Tony-Soprano-limbo-land territory, but there are no easy answers for anything or anyone in this novel, much like life.  For a book that deals in the fantastic, it is terrifyingly ground in reality.  Elisa’s eldest son may have never died in this alternate timeline, but that doesn’t mean her broken family is any less broken.

Lennon, who’s shown brilliance in both longer works (Mailman, an intense character study) and tiny stories (Pieces for the Left Hand, a collection of one hundred short-shorts that are gemlike in both form and content), has written a deeply unsettling book in Familiar.  As always, I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.

For further reading:

When Bad Reviews Happen to Good Writers

An essay I wrote this morning, in reaction to a book review in this Sunday’s New York Times Book Review.

If you’ve never read Alix Ohlin, you should.  She’s one of the good ones out there, and she’s no slouch when it comes to publishing.  Two story collections and two novels in seven years – perhaps not an impressive haul for bionic typewriters like Stephen King or Joyce Carol Oates, but plenty impressive to me.  She may not have won a Pulitzer or a National Book Award yet, but Ohlin is someone I look up to, because she’s just a very solid writer.

So I was surprised when I read a review of her new novel (Inside) and collection (Signs and Wonders) on Friday in The New York Times Book Review (in print today).  Surprised because the review was scathingly negative.

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Signs and Wonders, by Alix Ohlin

Check out the reviewlet I wrote for the always wonderful and insightful Fiction Writers Review.

This might not seem like a compliment, but it is: Alix Ohlin is a literary torturer.

In her new collection, Signs and Wonders (Vintage), Ohlin (The Missing Person,Babylon and Other Stories) puts her poor people through the wringer, then takes a wrung-out person and puts him under a flattened-human-sized slide for an intense, revelatory microscopic examination. Then she peels off this pancaked person and twists him like toffee, extracting every last drop of his essence onto the page.

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Freedom and Ms. Hempel

My essay about two excellent novels at The Nervous Breakdown is now up:

More than a month has passed since I listened to the unabridged recording of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom and read the paperback of Sarah Shun-lien Bynum’s Ms. Hempel Chronicles.  To be frank, I’ve been avoiding writing about either of these novels, not because I didn’t like them, but because I feel inadequate even discussing them.  My words, no matter how carefully chosen or artfully rendered, cannot elevate these books any further.  They are two of the finest works of literature I’ve read in years.

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