The Sense of Wonder by Matthew Salesses is a novel about an Asian American basketball player, Won, his desire for fame, and the problems that arise through racism. Won gets on the Knicks where he is overshadowed by the star player, Powerball!, and yet when given the chance, for seven straight games, Won leads them to victory. However, between Won, Powerball!, and a Knicks reporter, Robert Sung, a contentious dynamic emerges. First, Robert is also Asian American and felt somewhat slighted by the NBA when he tried and failed to succeed on a team (he got injured and his career was over). Robert then takes his anger out on Won through slights of his reporting. Both Won and Robert look up to Powerball! as the player they want to be. Powerball! is also married to Robert’s crush, Brit, and it all comes to a head that Robert is cheating on his girlfriend with Brit.
All these relationships are framed within the context of a K-drama because Won’s girlfriend, Carrie, is a K-drama writer. Throughout the story there are subplots with Carrie’s sister getting cancer, Won proposing to Carrie, Carrie getting her own K-drama produced, and the way white people treat Won as the first Asian American in the NBA. Salesses structures his novel in POVs that switch between Won, Carrie, and descriptions of K-dramas. It was a great way to frame the basketball player’s relationships, following and rejecting the tropes it discusses. Near the end, the novel zooms out in time, summarizing what happens to each character as if they too have tragic and fairy tale endings.
I was very much affected by the scene where they stage Carrie’s sister’s funeral with her still alive and present. Knowing the context that Salesses’s own wife died of cancer was a beautiful way to defy his wife’s fate. I also really enjoyed the way the characters interacted with each other. Overall, I found the betrayals, relationships, loves, tragedies, and passions all work together in a fast-paced novel.
Final Rating: 4.5/5
Warda by Nardine Taleb is a poetry chapbook about being Arab American, Taleb’s relationship with God, and the Egyptian culture she grew up in. This collection, and specifically the poem ‘body of a whale’ confronts these identities head on with the lines, “It is hard/to see the world without america in my body.” There is tenderness, love, longing, and a need to understand everything in a world that contradicts itself.
Final Rating: 4/5
The Best American Short Stories 1993 is a collection of 20 stories selected by guest editor Louise Erdrich. This selection has big names such as John Updike, Mary Gaitskill, Alice Monro, and Mary Gordon. Many of these stories I enjoyed such as ‘Playing with Dynamite’ by John Updike which describes the marriage and infidelity of an old man, ‘The Girl on the Plane’ by Mary Gaitskill about a man who recalls being part of a gang rape after seeing a stranger on a plane, ‘The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore’ by Harlan Ellison about a man who is part of surreal moments in history and it takes up an interesting structure, ‘Poltergeists’ by Jane Shapiro about a mother trying to care for her teenagers who are always partying, ‘Red Moccasins’ by Susan Powers about a Native American family who lose a young child, ‘Pray Without Ceasing’ by Wendell Berry about a grandfather who is shot by his friend, and ‘Gold’ by Kim Edwards about a nugget of gold found in Malaysia.
This collection had some amazing pieces, and pieces that I’m not sure why they work. For example, the final story of the collection ‘The Important Houses’ by Mary Gordon begins and stays almost too long in describing the features and events that happened in the narrator’s grandmother’s house. There is a lot of backstory and discussions of relationships that seem fairly sprawled out, and it’s only in the last two pages where I felt there was reason to tell the story: the father died when the narrator was younger. It is unexpected but makes sense and many of the relationships/descriptions come back in the last moments to make the narrative work, though I’m still perplexed. The story, I think, also has one of the best lines in the collection, in which it preempts the reader with the father’s death. It goes, “There is a sound of disaster, and a quiet after it, when the universe becomes still with shock; the wind stops, the light is colorless, and humans have no words, because no words fit the enormity.” It’s a sprawling, intricate sentence that really made me realize how effortless it seems for Gordon to transition from the grandmother’s house and its happenings to something deeply entangled in the narrator.
Though there were other stories, such as ‘Terrific Mother’ by Lorrie Moore which had a twinge of Orientalism in moments such as this, “’Dishonored?’ So Japanese. Adrienne like the sound of it.”. Or “She sighed. ‘Then I shall sing to you. Mood music.’ She made up a romantic, Asian sounding tune and danced around the room with her cigarette, in a floating, wing-limbed way. ‘This is my Hopi dance,’ she said. ‘So full of hope.’” These are moments that made me question Moore’s intent. Because why would you take a very stereotypical aspect of Japanese culture and use it as a prop? Or still, the second quote feels even more icky in that not only does it otherize Asian cultures (let alone sticking them together and mentioning “Asian sounding”, what the heck does that even mean—there’s no monolithic “Asian sounding” music), but it displays it in a grotesque and characterized way. Why name it a “Hopi dance”? Why make something seem ‘exotic’? And while yes, the narrator is intentionally grating, these moments feel off.
However, overall, I found the collection to be a decent read.
Final Rating: 3.5/5
Maxwell Suzuki is a writer, poet, and photographer based in Los Angeles.