Arts & Culture

Book Reviews: January 2015

The latest from Gene Oishi, Martine Rothblatt, and Jess Row.

Fox Drum Bebop
Gene Oishi (Kaya Press)

For most Americans, the term “concentration camp” conjures images from Germany and Poland during World War II and refers to tragic events that happened far away across the Atlantic. But the term hits home for Gene Oishi, a former Sun foreign correspondent, who grew up in a concentration camp in Arizona. Oishi and his family, like most Japanese-Americans, were “evacuated” from their home and incarcerated in a desert camp soon after Pearl Harbor. A fictionalized account of that experience informs practically every page of this novel, as Oishi considers its effect on various family members—especially his protagonist, Hiroshi (or “Hiro”)—over four decades. The once tight-knit group splinters as various family members struggle with issues relating to self-determination and national identity. Ultimately, the hero here is Oishi, who memorably portrays and personalizes an aspect of American history that is too often neglected.

See our Q&A with author Gene Oishi.

Virtually Human
Martine Rothblatt (St. Martin’s Press)

A recent New York magazine profile referred to Rothblatt as “the trans-everything CEO.” The head of United Therapeutics, a Silver Spring-based biotech firm, Rothblatt is the highest-paid female CEO in the country, earning $38 million in 2013. And she used to be a man. Martine was Martin, until undergoing sex-reassignment surgery 20 years ago. This book, her sixth, goes beyond sex and gender to address issues relating to trans-humanism. Rothblatt, like the futurist Ray Kurzweil (who authored this book’s forward), believes that computers or robots with cyberconsciousness will soon be a reality. She sees “mindclones” transcending biology, blurring the line between man/woman and machine, and achieving a sort of virtual immortality. To her, artificial intelligence isn’t so artificial. Though I’m inclined to dismiss any book with jacket copy predicting it “will be the essential companion book to the future of mankind,” I’m also inclined to hold on to this one. Just in case.

Your Face in Mine
Jess Row (Riverhead Books)

This debut novel revolves around what sounds like a soon-to-be-real concept of “racial reassignment surgery,” as Row explores notions of identity, love, loss, and, by book’s end, our adaptability to all kinds of circumstances. Row’s narrator, Kelly Thorndike, runs into Martin, an old high-school friend, on a Baltimore street and is astonished to see that Martin has been transformed from white to African-American. Martin convinces a skeptical Kelly to write his life story, and the job takes him from Baltimore to Bangkok and beyond, both physically and mentally. In the hands of a lesser writer, the concept might prove laughable, but Row crafts a compelling, and utterly believable, narrative that reads like a peculiar case study infused with elements of science fiction. The notion of a transracial society is fraught with all sorts of ethical and moral dilemmas, and Row shies from none of them. To his credit, he’s written a slyly provocative book about race relations without being dogmatic or overly judgmental.