Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Book review: Yellow by Don Lee


The bold and simple title and cover of Don Lee’s book of short stories, Yellow, made it immediately stand out to me.  Visually, it conveyed the message that this was a book about Asian-Americans that was going to stick with its reader, and the stories themselves were rich with detail and provided a realistic and emotional insight into the lives of various Asian-American characters in a fictional town in Southern California.

The Price of Eggs in China
A better title to this short story would’ve been “The Two Oriental Hair Poets” because this story focuses on a furniture maker, Dean, whose relationship suffers when his Asian-American poet girlfriend’s long lost professional rival comes into town.  Dean’s girlfriend Caroline was a published poet, whose work emerged on the scene during the same time as Marcella, and the two women were pitted against one another and dubbed the Oriental Hair Poets. Caroline’s work was unsuccessful while Marcella’s was praised, and the aftermath of the rivalry caused Caroline to retreat to a small town and work as a waitress, never to write again. This story was an interesting examination of the psyche of an artist and what rivalries can do to both harm and inspire creativity.

Voir Dire
In “Voir Dire,” we meet Hank, a public defender whose latest case makes him question his life’s purpose. He is assigned to defend a drug addict who killed a baby because he supposedly hallucinated that the child was a pit of snakes. While working the case, he learns that his girlfriend is pregnant, but he’s reluctant to start a family knowing that there is so much evil in the world and that evil often goes unpunished.

Widowers
The heart of “Widowers” is the relationship between 40-something widower Alan and his 25-year-old lover Emily. They begin their fling knowing that Emily is going to eventually leave for Los Angeles, and the lack of commitment allows them to be vulnerable. I enjoyed this story because of its realistic and somewhat sad portrayal of a May-December relationship, and the author does a great job of detailing how Alan’s past has broken him from finding love again. Never once did I romanticize what was happening between the two characters. I didn’t want them to find their happily ever after with one another, but I enjoyed the brief time that they spent together as much as they did.

The Lone Night Cantina
Annie Yung is a confused woman who decides to rebrand herself a country music maven. She dyes her Asian hair blonde, adopts a twang, and tries to immerse herself in cowboy culture. Her new persona is challenged when she goes home with a sexy stranger, who forces her to confront why she felt the need to reinvent herself instead of facing her real problems head on.

Casual Water
This short story was about the family of an unsuccessful professional golf player. While chasing his career, golfer Davis Fenny neglects his two sons and wife, and his selfishness results in his wife abandoning the family and one of his sons being put into the foster care system. This story is an interesting examination of when is it right to give up on your dreams and the consequences on children when adults put their own needs in front of the needs of their loved ones.

The Possible Husband
This was probably my least favorite story of the collection. Although it was well-written, I was never emotionally invested in the story’s protagonist, an older, womanizing surfer who opens a restaurant when he begins to realize that his surfing days are close to being over.

Domo Arigato
In “The Possible Husband” Korean-American Eugene Kim recalls a trip to Japan that he took with his white girlfriend and her family when he was a young man. Despite being of Asian descent, he stands out more in Japan than his white counterparts, and while on the trip, he realizes how little he fits into his girlfriend’s family. Even though the family love Japanese culture, they do not fully accept the idea of an Asian man joining their family, and by the end of the trip, Eugene realizes that sometimes love is not completely colorblind.

Yellow

This title novella was a finalist for the National Magazine Award, and it’s definitely worth reading. It covers twenty years of a man who is never fully comfortable within his own skin, and even after he achieves life accomplishments such as marriage and children, he is never truly happy. Author Don Lee paints a very vivid account of the protagonist’s life, and one of the biggest strengths in this story and throughout the book Yellow is that he always digs deep and explores the truth about his characters. His writing is never false or melodramatic, and overall, this was an enjoyable book that immersed me into the lives of very unique and memorable characters.

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