Feed on

Note:  This novel was the National Book Award WINNER for 2020.

“Ever since you were a boy, you’ve dreamt of being Kung Fu Guy.     You are not Kung Fu Guy.    You are currently Background Oriental Male, but you’ve been practicing.     Maybe tomorrow will be the day.”

cover Interior Chinatown

Young main character Willis Wu spends the most important parts of his life at the Golden Palace, a Chinese restaurant/film studio in an unnamed time period in an unnamed English-speaking city.  As Willis, whose parents were immigrants, lives his life there and in the broader enclave of Chinatown, his creator, author Charles Yu explores Willis’s reality,quickly constructing level upon level of different “realities”  and creating an experimental novel, often satiric, which includes the reader from the opening pages.  Visually, the “novel” appears to be a screenplay, its typeface resembling the pre-computer look of a typewritten script.  Willis, an actor in a film being made in off-hours at the Golden Palace, is being addressed by an unknown “director,” who may be his own inner self.  The “director” is realistic in evaluating Willis’s chances at improving his role from that of Background Oriental Male to his ideal role, that of Kung Fu Guy, the hero.  Willis’s family has been in the film business at the Golden Palace for a generation;  his father was once a major actor in the films shot there, though his role has now been reduced to that of Old Asian Man.  The roles of his mother and Older Brother are also explored in brief paragraphs of introduction, like the role descriptions of a script.  Quotations from the action of the film are indented and set off, and possible interpretations are emphasized by the unidentified author/director addressing the unknown reader –  “you.”


Many Chinese immigrants worked and participated in the making of films at a restaurant called the Golden Palace, which may have resembled this one.

Willis was born in the United States, but he and his Chinese family, like many other Asians, have always lived and worked in Chinatown.  Their limited opportunities and outlooks are part of the social fabric of the period, though no dates are provided.  Immigration policy in the US from 1921 on, was based on a “National Origins Formula,” allowing foreign-born people to become citizens but not allowing them to own property or businesses. In 1965, the Immigration and Nationality Act was passed by the 89th Congress and signed by President Lyndon Johnson, ending the quota-based National Origins Formula.  By then, however, many groups of immigrants had created their own lives in communities, like Chinatown, made up almost entirely of people of their own backgrounds.  As Willis and his family live their lives – and maintain memories of their past by participating in the shows and films made at the Golden Palace – the full picture of what is lost to society and to the immigrants who have come to the United States begins to become clearer.   Willis, a young man, wants to feel success, and the best way for that to happen, as far as he can see, is to stay where he is and progress through the various roles open to him as a film participant, hoping to move, in time,  from Delivery Guy, Silent Henchman, or Generic Asian Man to, eventually, King Fu Guy.

bruce lee king of king-fu

This biography of Bruce Lee gives his philosophy of life and the importance of Kung-Fu.

Being Kung Fu Guy is the highest “rank” possible for the films Willis is in, but Willis also “worships” Bruce Lee, considered the King of Kung Fu.  Not only did Lee create an entirely new fighting system and philosophical world view, but he was proof that “Not all Asian men were doomed to a life of being Generic.”  For Willis and many others, Lee was “Not a man so much as a personification, not a mortal so much as a deity on loan to you and your kind for a fixed period of time. A flame that burned for all yellow to understand, however briefly, what perfection was like.”  Willis’s older brother was also “an A-plus-plus” in Kung Fu, could “grab the rim” in basketball, excelled at karaoke, spoke Korean, and, best of all, was a National Merit Scholar with a 1570 on the SAT.  He was “the ideal mix of assimilated and authentic.”  And then, suddenly, it was over.  “The dream had ended,” and Older Brother disappeared from his life.  Before long, Willis himself has died in one of the episodes in which he has been acting, and that automatically requires him to stay out of film for 45 days of unpaid leave, a difficulty for him on all fronts.

Author Charles Yu

Author Charles Yu, celebrated for his novels and winner of the National Book Award for this one.

When Willis finally returns to acting, he meets Karen Lee, a young woman with one quarter Taiwanese heritage, with whom he falls in love. Eventually, however, Karen gets her own show and leaves Chinatown for the suburbs.  Willis is close to being Kung Fu Guy, and stays behind hoping to achieve success so that he can then join Karen.  Eventually, Willis sees how limited his outlook has been, and in a long-delayed epiphany, he heads to the suburbs to touch base again with Karen.  In the process he commits a crime for which he will face serious consequences.  The trial is a classic comedy sketch, built around the fact that his lawyer’s defense is based, in part, on the fact that the Chinese are “legally” Indians because both groups were descended from the same Asiatic ancestors, a case litigated in 1850.  Long-standing issues of race in America come to the fore, as Willis and others recognize that even if someone is Kung Fu Guy, he is still guilty of playing the role of a Generic Asian Man, someone who has not assimilated. The conclusion contains an unexpected twist.

A book by Margaret Sands Orchowski regarding the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965.

A book by Margaret Sands Orchowski regarding the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965.

A book that is in many ways unique, Interior Chinatown makes a clear case regarding inequality and the ways that members of minority groups may sometimes encourage it unwittingly – as in becoming a “generic” character.  These conclusions, however, are developed within a novel which has great humor, irony, and a sense of understanding for the victims and the lives they sometimes choose to live.  Reality here is multi-leveled – the “novel” is actually a fictional screenplay, the characters are often playing generic roles, “dead” people can sometimes return to life, and big change is not only possible but even encouraged.  At the end of the book, Willis encapsulates a new philosophy:  “You are not Kung Fu Guy….Take what you can get.  Try to build a life.  Sometimes, things happen.  Mostly they don’t.  Sometimes you get to talk.  Mostly you don’t.  Life at the margins, made from bit pieces.”

Photos.  Many Chinese immigrants worked and participated in the making of films at a restaurant called the Golden Palace, which may have resembled this one.  https://www.weekendnotes.com

The pictured biography of Bruce Lee gives his philosophy of life and the importance of Kung-Fu.  Willis Wu worshipped him and his achievements.  https://www.abebooks.com

The author photo is from https://www.nytimes.com

THE LAW THAT CHANGED THE FACE OF AMERICA, about the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 is written by Margaret Sands Orcowski.  https://www.amazon.com

REVIEW. PHOTOS. Coming-of-age, Experimental, Historical, Humor, Satire, Literary
Written by: Charles Yu
Published by: Vintage
Date Published: 11/17/2020
ISBN: 978-0307948472
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

cover-past-the-shallows3Note: Each year I enjoy looking at the statistics for this website to see which reviews here have garnered the most interest.  Reviews which have been on the site for several years have the advantage of popular recognition which newer books have yet to receive.  This year, in a big surprise, the first twenty books, in terms of reader interest, are evenly divided.  Ten books reviewed here are new to the site within the past five years, and ten books have had reviews on the site for six to ten years.  Here are the oldies-but-goodies that are still in the Top Twenty Reviews after six to ten years.  The Top Ten most popular new books have been posted separately.

cover-kartography1 Favel  Parrett Past the Shallows.  Posted August 1, 2014.  (Tasmania, Australia)  A special  note:  The review for this book is, and has been for several years, the most visited review on this site, with 50% more hits than any other review on the entire website.  (I don’t know why.)

2.  Donal Ryan–The Spinning Heart.   Posted Feb. 27, 2014.  (Ireland)

3.  Kamila Shamsie–Kartography.  Posted Jan. 15, 2011.   (Pakistan)

4.  Jo Nesbo–The Redeemer.  Posted Feb. 28, 2011.  (Norway)

cover-ru-197x3005.  Irmgard Keun–The Artificial Silk Girl.  Posted June 28, 2015.  (Germany, pre-Nazi)

6.  Kim Thuy–Ru.  Posted Nov. 19, 2012.  (Vietnam, Canada)

7.  Kate Atkinson–Started Early, Took My Dog.  Posted Mar. 26, 2011.  (England)

8.  Muriel Spark–Not to Disturb.  Posted Jan. 20, 2011.  (Scotland, Switzerland)

9. Roberto Bolano–The Insufferable Gaucho.  Posted January 23. 2011. (Chile)

10. Muriel Barbery–Gourmet Rhapsody.  Posted June 19, 2011.  (France)

cover-redhead-side-roadNote:  Each year I enjoy looking at the statistics for this website to see which reviews have garnered the most interest.  Reviews which have been on the site for several years have the advantage of popular recognition which newer books have yet to receive.  This year, in a big surprise, the first twenty books, in terms of reader interest, are evenly divided.  Ten books reviewed here are new to the site within the past five years, and ten books have had reviews on the site for six to ten years.

Here are the newer reviews, with links.  The older reviews will be posted in a separate list:

1.  Michael Cunningham – A Wild Swan and Other Tales.  Posted Dec. 28,/2016.  (United States)cover-secrets-kept1

2.  Anne Tyler – Redhead by the Side of the Road.  Posted April 6, 2020. (United States)

3.  Richard Wagamese – Starlight.  Posted Sept. 6, 2018.   (Canada, Aboriginal Nations)

4.  Lara Prescott – The Secrets We Kept. Posted Sept. 23, 2019.  (Russia, US)

5.  Maryse Condé – The Wondrous and Tragic Life of Ivan and Ivana. Posted July 5, 2020. (Guadeloupe, Mali, France)

cover-night-boat-tangier6.  Ian McEwan – The Cockroach.   Posted October 14, 2019.  (England)

7.  William Boyd – Love is Blind.  Posted Oct. 24, 2018.  (England, Scotland, France, Russia)

8.  Valeria Luiselli – Lost Children Archive.  Posted Jan. 9. 2010.  (Mexico, US)

9.  Daniel Hornsby – Via Negativa.  Posted Aug. 15, 2020. (United States)

10. Kevin Barry – Night Boat to Tangier.  Posted Sept. 17, 2019. (Ireland, Spain)

“Maybe it’s not just the universe that expands and contracts,” [Leonard] said.  “Perhaps the same applies to us…I feel myself getting smaller.  I feel quieter and more…invisible.  There is this palpable sense of physics; that my life is being pulled inwards.  One thing has led to another and now I feel that if I don’t do something, I’ll just carry on some minor harmless existence.”

cover leonard hungry paulLeonard, now in his early thirties, has been a quiet person all his life.  Even when he was a young school child, his mother often had to “take his side against ornery teachers who complained that they found it impossible to get through to him.”  At parent-teacher meetings, his mother would explain that like his deceased father, Leonard “just lacked a Eureka face.”  As he grew up, his relationship with his mother became a sort of partnership, one in which he kept her company during her late years.  Her death left him virtually alone, the only child of two parents who themselves were only children.  Leonard works by himself writing children’s encyclopedias, and he is not really interested in meeting new people – “nothing made him feel lonelier these days than the thought of spending time in the company of extroverts.”  His only friend is an equally introverted young man, also in his early thirties, named Hungry Paul, considered his mother’s “sunfish,” a “large, lopsided, sideways swimming fish,” which she had seen at the aquarium and “adopted” because she knew nobody else would pick it as a favorite.  His father has always been uneasy with Hungry Paul, feeling that he himself “had barely enough maleness to get him through his own life, never mind imparting it to a son.”  Now an adult, Hungry Paul has no idea of what he might want to do with his life.  He spends a couple of mornings a week filling in as a substitute mail carrier for the post office and makes occasional volunteer trips to the hospital to chat with patients, or simply to hold their hands.

Irish author Rónán Hession

Irish author Rónán Hession

With two main characters who have little to suggest that their stories will become the charming, funny, insightful, and un-put-down-able chronicles that eventually evolve, Irish author Rónán Hession demonstrates his own creativity and his own ideas regarding communication and its importance or lack of it in our lives.  He ignores the generations-old traditions of boisterous Irish writing and non-stop action in favor of a quiet, kindly, and highly original analysis of his characters and their unpretentious and self-contained lives.  In this way, he draws in his readers and makes them identify, however impossible that may seem, with two young men whose enjoyment of the small moments makes them less needful of communicating, especially with more worldly, socially active, and often less thoughtful people.  For Leonard, the death of his mother leads him to begin an exploration of life; for Hungry Paul, the imminent marriage of his sister, with whom he has been close, inspires him to think about changing his own life.

"Sweet Roses" toffee

“Sweet Roses” toffee

Surprises in the lives of these developing characters are so important that I will not discuss much about the plot for fear of spoiling some of the fun, but a few minor examples of the characters’ thinking reveal much about who they are.  The author provides meaningful detail throughout, and the tempo of the action creates plenty of emotional drama and numerous “ah-ha” moments. On one occasion, Hungry Paul’s mother asks him to take a tin of Roses sweets to the nurses of the hospital on her behalf, and he takes off, so uninvolved in the task itself that he forgets the tin.  He returns home, grabs the tin, and heads back to the hospital.  On the way he discovers that the tin is a year out of date, and he is upset at the “injustice.”  He changes course, goes to the supermarket instead, and in his quest for satisfaction from various employees, he stimulates the curiosity of several other shoppers who have also had disappointing experiences there.   For the first time,  Hungry Paul has a sense of leading a “crowd” – and he feels good about it.  When the manager opens the tin to inspect the “out-of-date” toffees, however, everyone, including the interested shoppers, is shocked to discover that the tin has been reused, is not new, and contains something else entirely.  Laughter erupts from the crowd, and Hungry Paul is so visibly disappointed that the manager is particularly kind to him, giving him an Easter egg in sympathy – he could tell “he was dealing with a man beset by tragicomedy.”  Hungry Paul will have to wait a bit longer for another bright moment.

Bog Body, located in the National Museum of Ireland.

Bog Body, 2000 years old,  located in the National Museum of Ireland

Leonard’s life as a writer of children’s encyclopedias also takes a turn during the novel.  He falls for a young woman, the fire warden at the place where he works.  They have a couple of innocent chats, and Leonard suggests that they have a lunch date – and a visit to the museum to see the “bog bodies” on display there.  His date indicates that she is not sure if these “leathery old bodies in bits and pieces” have very much “romantic potential,”  and, as she has several other issues on her mind, she decides to leave.  “Leonard drifted into the exhibition, where he sat alone in a dimly lit room.  Alongside him, a two thousand-year-old bog man lay prostrate in a display case, preserved in the pose he held at the very moment his life changed.”  Later that evening, Leonard goes to visit Hungry Paul at his family’s house to play the popular Game of Life. “For Leonard the game had a new and special resonance,” as he had recently embarked on a new career direction, “had met and probably lost, the most special girl” he’d ever known, and now misses his mother.  He shares his thoughts with Hungry Paul, and when Leonard mentions that his “date” had gone home before they had a chance to visit the bog bodies, Hungry Paul’s naively ironic reaction, as one might expect from him, is “That’s a pity – some of them still have hair, you know.”

Milton Bradley's The Game of Life

Milton Bradley’s The Game of Life

Both characters continue to develop and mature, and the reader begins to understand them and identify with them – or at least Leonard – as the novel continues. With Hungry Paul, it is more likely that one will empathize with him, hope for his success, and feel happy if he finds a way to lead an independent life that satisfies him.  The author sensitively creates these characters and makes the reader understand them by showing them living their lives and sharing their thoughts honestly.  His characters take on lives of their own in ways rare to see these days, and I cannot remember when I have read a book which so thoroughly and honestly touched my heart.  This debut novel makes me anxious already for Rónán Hession’s next novel.   His writing is intelligent, memorable, real, and very funny.

Hungry Paul enjoys holding the hand of hospitalized Mrs. Hawthorne, like Larkin's poem, "An Arundel Tomb."

Hungry Paul enjoys holding the hand of hospitalized Mrs. Hawthorne, “like Larkin’s poem, ‘An Arundel Tomb.’ “

Photos.  The author photo appears on https://bookgig.com

The Sweet Roses toffee tin may be found on https://www.pinterest.com

A bog body from the National Museum of Ireland is featured here:  https://www.pinterest.com

Milton Bradley’s The Game of Life is from http://www.toy-tma.com

The Arundel tomb photo appears on https://soulloveforever.com

REVIEW. PHOTOS. Book Club Suggestions, Humor, Satire, Absurdity, Ireland and Northern Ireland, Literary, Psychological study
Written by: Rónán Hession
Published by: Melville House (reprint ed.)
Date Published: 08/11/2020
ISBN: 978-1612198484
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

“[My mother] thought anyone who was educated was unnecessarily difficult.  An idler, a know-it-all, a hair-splitter.  But I believed that the greatest knowledge lay in words…facts, stories, fantasies…What mattered was being hungry for [words] and keeping them close for times when life got complicated or bleak.  I believed that words could save me.” – Trina

cover bolzano I'm staying hereSet in tiny Curon in Italy’s South Tyrol, Marco Balzano’s latest novel brilliantly dissects the effects of words on individual lives, communities, and ultimately countries, and does so without even a trace of affectation or pretension.  Here the author tells a dazzling history, and he does so by keeping things simple, letting the action tell most of the story, and keeping his characters and their problems very real.  In 1923, Curon, situated near the head of the Adige River, about ten kilometers from the meeting point of Switzerland, Austria, and Italy, is part of an autonomous Italian province in the northern mountains.  The hardworking farmers and herders of Curon do not speak Italian, however – they have always been German speakers.  When Mussolini becomes prime minister in Italy in 1922, Italian suddenly becomes the required language for the entire area, and the requirement is rigidly enforced.  Curon changes from being a German-speaking village in Italy, to a very reluctant Italian-speaking village under the control of the fascists.  Years later, when Mussolini ultimately loses power and Hitler and his Nazis intrude, however, the village returns, once again, to speaking German.  Language here becomes a primary weapon used by both the residents and the fascists in their attempts to control Curon, its geography, and its people, over the years, and by the time the novel ends, in 1950, all aspects of society have changed.

Author Marco Bolzano

Author Marco Balzano

In straightforward language, speaker Trina describes her life in Curon, beginning in 1939, when she is almost forty, and flashing back to the 1920s, composing a vivid letter to a missing daughter about life in Curon from the spring of 1923 forward.  It was in that year that the fascists marched on Bolzano, the biggest city in the South Tyrol, burning public buildings, beating residents, renaming buildings and streets, Italianizing people’s names, and even changing inscriptions on tombstones.  Trina and her friends have just graduated from high school in Curon, and have no idea of what they will do for jobs.  The fascists have occupied the schools, town halls, post offices and courts throughout the area, and “nothing is ours anymore.”  Most importantly, the Italians under Mussolini now plan “to get the [Curon] dam project going again,” taking advantage of the river’s current to produce energy.  Originally proposed in 1911, the dam, as planned, will drown their farms, churches, workshops, and pastures, but it will allow the fascists to turn Bolzano and Merano, the two largest cities in the province, farther along the river, into industrial centers.

Cellar/catacmb: “We piled up the wooden barrels...and sat on heaps of straw…to listen for sounds from outside.”

Cellar/catacomb: “We piled up the wooden barrels…and sat on heaps of straw…to listen for sounds from outside.”

In the meantime, the residents try to survive their immediate issues, and when a local priest suggests that new graduate Trina consider teaching young children, Trina is happy to do this – primarily to impress Erich, an orphan who works for her father.  Her teaching is done in secret, at night, and in German, and classes are held in a cellar-catacomb, hidden from their fascist rulers.  After Erich is severely beaten and disfigured with knives, she and Erich decide to marry quickly.  Time becomes compressed, and over the next few years (and pages), Trina has two children, daughter Marica, and son Michael.  Many friends escape Mussolini’s threats and punishments by resettling in Germany, and when Germany annexes Austria, Erich’s sister and brother-in-law come from Innsbruck to visit to try to persuade them that they should all join in escaping to Germany.  Erich and Trina, however, plan to stay at their almost desolate farm, and are publicly ridiculed and mocked.

Work on the dam at the lake continues.

Work on the dam at the lake continues.

Part II dramatically incorporates the war years, a time in which the plans for the dam on the lake and river expand and become priorities for the fascists.  When war is declared, Erich, like other men his age, is drafted and sent to Albania, then Greece, leaving the flocks in Curon to be tended by the elderly, as Trina and Michael do the best they can to keep the farm alive.  Still teaching informally, Trina notes that even language has changed.  Where once the valley might have become a crossroads for people who tried to understand each other, now, “Italian and German were walls that grew higher and higher.  By now, the languages had become racial markers.  The dictators had turned them into weapons and declarations of war.”  An injury leads to Erich’s return to Curon from war, and eventually he and the family go up into the mountains to avoid the German soldiers, finding refuge with several other families who are also escapees.

Even a meeting with Pope XII does not end the plans for the dam.

Even a meeting with Pope Pius XII does not end the plans for the dam.

Part III concerns the return of Trina and family to Curon after the war is over.  By this time, nothing remains the same, and words do not help.  Worst of all the changes is the dramatic forward progress made in the building of the dam, and the specific plans involving their farm.  The site manager, “the man with the hat,” answers their questions, and the Curon Town Hall does hire a lawyer to help them.  They also consult the priest and get a meeting with Pope XII.  In all these cases, too, words do not help them, and actions of sabotage do not succeed.  As the water rises higher, Trina realizes that her only alternative now is to accept the inevitable.  “It took almost a year for the water to cover everything,” she notes.  “Slowly, inexorably, it rose halfway up the bell tower, which from then on looked out over the rippled surface of the water like the torso of a castaway.”  In simple, clear language, author Marco Balzano has created a gem of a novel which deals with essential themes related to power and compromise and choices and the ways people address the future – with words or with actions, or both.  Words between individuals were not enough to solve the complex problems of Curon and authoritarianism, but they are preferable to war and bloodshed, and the bell tower of Curon, emerging from the water of Lake Resia, is a permanent visual reminder – at least for now – that times change, people change, and the power of words must always be in the forefront if society is to be “civilized.”

D246_55_653_1200Photos.  The author’s photo appears on https://1.brf.be

The cellar/catacomb similar to where Trina taught children in German is found  on https://alchetron.com

A rare photo of the construction of the dam at Lake Resia and the Adige River:   https://wikimapia.org

Pope XII, who met with Erich and some anti-dam residents:  https://en.wikipedia.org

The bell tower, dating from 1357, remains as a symbol of what was lost when the dam was built.  https://dissolve.com


REVIEW. PHOTOS. Book Club Suggestions, Historical, Italy, Literary, Psychological study, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Marco Bolzano
Published by: Other Press
Date Published: 12/01/2020
ISBN: 978-1635420371
Available in: Paperback

Older Posts »