Friday, April 29, 2022

April 26 is my favorite release date of the year, part 3: Don Lee's The Partition

I read an old book by a author and the next thing I know it, their long-awaited next book is announced. There's a little magical thinking in that. It happens, but most of the time, it's the other way around. I read a new book by an author, like Jennifer Close, and that convinces me to go back and read one of their previous titles. 

That's what happened with Don Lee. I was suspecting that Lee's next book might not be at Norton, being that 2017's Lonesome Lies Before Us never went into paperback despite being proclaimed my #1 book of the year. Doesn't that count for something? I'm not kidding myself - it doesn't. Wrack and Ruin, my #1 book of 2008 (I don't even know why sometimes I name these titles and sometimes I don't) - is available in a print-on-demand paperback, but it's $23, and that's the case for Lee's first novel, Country of Origin, despite winning an Edgar Award for Best First Novel.

Hey the Edgars were last night - thrilled to see that Naomi Hirahara won the Mary Higgins Clark Prize for Clark and Division. The best novel went to Five Decembers, by James Kestrel, whose name is a pseudonym for a writer whose work has been categorized both as horror and thriller. We categorize him as the latter, but I bet we'd get more staff reads if the publisher positioned him as the former. 

Yellow, his first collection of stories (and now celebrating its 20th anniversary in paperback), sells well enough to be a traditionally printed paperback, still priced at $13.95, so I'm suspecting it hasn't been reprinted lately. The Collective is still officially available at $15.95. You'd think a new collection of stories, then, would be just what the doctor ordered, and maybe it is, only the new physician is Dr. Akashic.

Of all these books I'm crazy about, Don Lee's latest, The Partition, got interest from my fellow booksellers at Boswell. Both Chris and Tim wound up reading an enjoying the collection. And of course that means I'm going to reprint both staff recs.

From Tim McCarthy: "I like honesty, direct but gracefully written, especially when characters can't help telling the truth and then wonder if they're wrong. Lee's collection of stories has exactly that. The main characters are Asian Americans of many ethnicities and experiences. They talk about their lives (and the nasty treatment they face routinely) with a confidence and wry humor that grabbed my attention. I wasn't in tune with the places and foods and some of the jargon, but it didn't matter. Lee made me believe in the people. I trusted him with the film director, college professor, chef, restaurant owners, TV news crew, and the man we meet during three stages of his life, from Tokyo teenager to B movie semi-star to later-life tea shop chain owner. Lee brings suspense and sudden, quirky surprises to their days and makes them true. I'm grateful for these flesh and blood nuances of living that lay stereotypes to waste. I enjoyed every minute!"

From Chris Lee: "Don Lee writes about Asian American experiences with such individuality, depth, and razor-sharply defined details as to dash away any notion of a monolithic 'they.' The Partition is a collection of longer stories in which characters have room to reflect and remember, room to breathe. Lee patiently plots out not just moments but entire lives, then brings them to a breaking point. It’s a difficult story structure to work with, and he does so with insight and grace, finding for each character the place where the momentum and weight of their personal history meets and presses against the weight of the world’s expectations. These are grown up, heavy duty, seriously satisfying short stories."

Of course I loved the book as well. Here's the Daniel Goldin rec: "In the shockingly never-released-in-paperback Lonesome Lies Before Us (yes, this is clearly a thing with me), Don Lee wrote the anti-ethnic ethnic novel, where only a plate of food might hint at a character’s brownness. So in an about face, The Partition’s stories are packed with hapa haoles, gen 1.5s, and lots of where-are-you-from inquisitions. I loved the story 'Late in the Day' in which a filmmaker’s labor of love (itself an anti-ethnic ethnic film) is called out for using a biracial actor and instead takes a mercenary job as director of a short vanity film, only to see it picked up by PBS. Another of my favorites is 'UFOs,' where a television reporter takes two lovers, a married White guy and an earnest Korean American doctor who can spot her plastic surgery. Just about every story turns messy, and why should it be otherwise? The way these stories span decades and the tone of melancholy punctuated with humor make The Partition’s stories almost Alice Munro-esque. A worthy bookend to Lee’s first collection, Yellow, and here’s hoping it will be seen as similarly groundbreaking."

A note here about books with pub dates instead of on-sale dates. The ABA E-commerce websites made a change that inventory doesn't appear as available until on-sale date, it treats publishers with pub dates the same, even though that inventory might be in your store weeks earlier. In this case, The Partition somehow has a pub date of May 10 even though our event with Don Lee is May 3 and I was told for months that the pub date was April 26. The books were available about 2 weeks before that, so why was the pub date pushed back? So yes, you can order the book and still read it before our virtual event with Liam Callanan. It's available. But that effectively kills my thesis - Don Lee is now not officially published on April 26!

So to get back to my initial thought, after finishing The Partition, it started bothering me that I still hadn't read Lee's first novel, Country of Origin. I actually owned a copy for years and eventually gave it away. So now I had to buy another copy and I'm glad I did. It tuned out that the new collection connects back to the first novel, with at least one character reminding me enough of Tom Hurley, one of the protagonists of Country, to wonder if they were, in Lee's mind, the same person renamed.

I also loved the way Don Lee's newest work spoke to other books I read. One of the stories is about a Korean family that owns a Chinese family in the Midwest. I kept thinking about Lan Samantha Chang's The Family Chao, and how in the event, Chang-rae Lee talked about the importance of Chinese restaurants to earlier generations of Korean-American immigrants. 

And then there's this review in Medium from Zachary Houle. It's over-the-top ecstatic, just as it should be, but I particularly loved this line: "I found it interesting that every single one of these stories, in some way, features food, which would make for an interesting comparison with another book being released on the same day that looks at family dynamics in the restaurant biz: Jennifer Close’s Marrying the Ketchups."

One more quote for you from that Medium review: "I cannot be more effusive in my praise for The Partition: this is a special book that is pure magic on several levels." I should note that Houle and Medium list the pub date as April 26, not May 10. 

So you're thinking if I read all these books together - Marrying the Ketchups and Search and The Partition with greater meeting, and I assure you, I did not. And really, I had no reason to bring up Don Lee's connections to Laurie Colwin, as I did with Jennifer Close and Michelle Huneven. But come to think of it, there is a sort of self-reflection and character insight and humor that might be comporable. And a whole mess of passionate, but never quite right affairs. Hey, I might be able to make a case!

Register for our May 3 virtual event with Don Lee in conversation about The Partition with UWM Professor of English Liam Callanan, author of three novels, including Paris by the Book, and a collection of stories. His next novel is due in spring 2023!

Photo credit: Don Lee by Jane Delury

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