Thursday, April 17, 2014

Two sides of the same coin

Gene Luen Yang's companion graphic novels, Boxers and Saints, got a lot of attention a few months ago when they came out.  I finally got them in at the library and promptly read them in what I feel was probably the wrong order.  I read Saints first because it arrived first.  But after finishing both books and seeing the covers linked above, I understand why the series is called Boxers & Saints, rather than Saints & Boxers because there was a lot more alluding to Saints in Boxers than there was the other way around.

I feel like that paragraph was probably really difficult to understand if you haven't read the books.  So, moving on.

Boxers & Saints is a graphic novel set in China during the Boxer Rebellion.  The context of the story is that there are many Europeans who are flooding into China, bringing their foreign culture and ways and religions with them.  This wreaks havoc on the Chinese population, some of whom convert to Christianity and appreciate the foreign goods, and some of whom think the Europeans are ruining their way of life.  Yang's story tells the history from both points of view.  Little Bao suffers firsthand from the British invasion; his father is beaten and never quite recovers.  On the other hand, Four Girl never found a place for herself at home as she was considered bad luck.  So she escaped to the church and made a home for herself there.

I really like the idea behind these novels.  In history, there aren't many facts, just opinions that are voiced more loudly than others.  And even stark facts hide so much nuance and gray areas.  I love that Yang tackled this head-on by showing two people on opposite sides who were likable and easy to empathize with.  I also like that he showed the damage done by both sides.  There were a lot of things that led up to the Boxer Rebellion, but the outcome was a lot of pain and fear and loss on all sides.  Yang does not sugarcoat that reality at all.

I also think Yang did wonderfully with his use of color in the stories.  Four Girl's story was told in black and white, maybe with some sepia thrown in.  And Joan of Arc in bright yellow.  Little Bao's was a riot of color in contrast, with bold, vivid frames really bringing his story to life.  And the facial expressions that Yang can portray in his drawings are exquisite - you can definitely see exactly what each character is feeling!


I didn't love either of these books, though.  Overall, I enjoyed Boxers more than Saints, but I found both books a little lacking.  In Saints, for example, Four Girl didn't represent the Christian side well to me at all.  She basically just wanted cookies, so she started talking to a Christian.  And then her family kicked her out of the house, so she joined the church.  And then she didn't really believe in the Christian God or do anything that made herself stand out to me as someone worthy of a story.  She had visions of Joan of Arc, but I don't think there was much of a strong correlation between Joan and Four Girl.

In Boxers, Little Bao had a much stronger character.  His motivations in joining the Boxers were understandable, and I empathized with the difficulties he faced as a leader.  Overall, I found his story much better developed and interesting than Four Girl's.


I'm really glad I read these books because I have been interested in them since they came out.  What a fantastic and creative way to tell one story through different lenses.  I think we should all try to learn history this way - by reading accounts from different sides and learning what motivated and drove people to act as they did.  While I didn't love the stories themselves, I really applaud the effort and hope that Yang does more like this, or inspires other authors to do the same.  So many historical events that I would love to see put in context!  Such as:

  • The American Civil War
  • Partition in India/Pakistan
  • Arab Spring
What events would you like to see brought to life in this manner?

Monday, April 14, 2014

Review-itas: March Graphic Novels

The Eternal Smile by Gene Leun Yang
I realized in March that it had been a long while since I had last read a graphic novel!  So, I set off to fix that.  Quite a big Gene Luen Yang month, as I also got Boxers & Saints from the library, though will be reviewing those two in a separate post.

The Eternal Smile, by Gene Leun Yang and Derek Kirk Kim was very different than I expected.  Like, very bizarrely different.  In some ways, it reminded me of some of the short stories in Haruki Murakami's The Elephant Vanishes because the stories started off seeming pretty normal and then all took a surreal, magical realism turn.

There are three short stories in the book.  The first is about a prince who finds that heroic acts come a little too easily for him to be true; the second is about a frog who wants to make a lot of money; and the third is about a woman who donates money to a lost cause but becomes more self-confident.

Maybe it's because the other books I know by Yang, American Born Chinese and Boxers & Saints, are set in a very real world without a lot of surrealism, but this book just took me completely by surprise with its oddities.  So while reading the book, I don't know that I loved it.  However, the stories are beautifully illustrated, especially the last one with its fantastic use of color, and they do have a lot of heart.  At the center of each story is loneliness (why do so many short stories deal with loneliness?) and the many coping mechanisms that we have to make our days just a little bit easier and our lives just a tiny bit brighter, if only for a little while.  I appreciated that, and while the stories were certainly quirky, they did relay that fact in a very sympathetic and beautiful way.  My favorite was the last story, Urgent Request, because it was just so well-illustrated.


Thursday, April 10, 2014

Caution: Read this book while sitting in front of a happy lamp

Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance is quite possibly the most depressing book I have ever read.  Much like the other novel I've read by him, Family Matters, it is pretty sad the whole way through, but then you get to the epilogue and realize that the rest of the book was like an episode of Full House compared to what he has in store for you in the last several pages.  That's where he ensures that you lose all hope in the future of humanity.

This is probably not a great way to introduce the book to you in a way that makes you want to read it.  And frankly, if I had known how depressing the book was before I picked it up, I am not sure I would have read it, either.  It is SUPER depressing.  It's depressing the way this winter has been depressing.  You think that you have seen enough and that someone will have mercy on you because things can't get much worse, and then you wake up and it's 20 degrees at the end of March and it's still snowing and you realize that you have worn the same eight sweaters approximately 50 times over the past six months because there are only so many clothes in your wardrobe that are warm enough to wear in sub-zero temperatures.  So you put one of those sweaters on again, and miserably go out to sweep the snow off your car so that you can drive two hours to work because ... well, what else can you do?

Rohinton Mistry is this winter.  He just does NOT give you a break.

A Fine Balance is a story that revolves around four people, mostly during the Emergency that Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared in the 1970s.  Dina is a widow who has trouble making ends meet. She takes in a boarder, Maneck, who is from the rural mountains and has suffered a great deal of bullying at college.  She also hires an uncle and nephew team of tailors to work for her, Ishvar and Omprakash.  These two men are escaping caste violence in their village.  The story moves forward and backward, sharing each character's backstory and then coming back to the present day, often with side stories about other people that have smaller parts in the main action of the novel but have quite telling stories about the state of India during the Emergency.  One of the key components of the Emergency, both in real life and in the novel, was the horrific mass-sterilization campaign, during which many poor people were forced to get operations so that they could no longer have children.

In some ways, this book was similar to Behind the Beautiful Forevers because it made clear just how much of a razor blade the poor live on.  Life can be going along fairly well, and then one setback can completely ruin everything that you have worked towards.  And then, even worse than that, there is the horror of police brutality, government corruption, and forced sterilization.

Obviously, with all of this as the setting, there is not much that could happen in A Fine Balance to make it a happy book.  While Mistry's writing is lovely and his characters are drawn so well and truly come to life, these only help to shatter you even further as a reader when things go badly (and, I kid you not, everything goes badly).

So while I'm glad that I read this one due to all the acclaim it has received and due to the amount of time it has sat unread on my shelf, I don't think I'll be picking Mistry up again any time soon.  I need some time to recover!

Monday, April 7, 2014

I fully admit that I do not understand why this book is called what it is

Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi
Taiye Selasi's Ghana Must Go was very popular last year, both with bloggers and with the professional reviewers.  It's a book that seems tailor-made to win literary awards.  It's by an African-British woman, telling a story through multiple points of view about a family that emigrated to America and then, through various means, ended up back in Nigeria after the family patriarch dies.  I LOVE books like this, that show just how much of a mash-up the world can be these days.  You can't put anyone in a box any more, and I just adore when authors use this to create beautiful stories like Ghana Must Go.  Even if I don't quite understand how the book got its title.  (It takes place in America and Nigeria - where does Ghana come into it?  I am confused.)

Ghana Must Go starts with a death.  Kweku Sai, an eminent surgeon who years ago suffered a professional failure, walks through the courtyard of his home and has a heart attack; each pang causes him to remember an episode of his life and how he got to where he is now.  After his death, we take up with his family and learn about how the consequences of Kweku's actions impacted his wife and children.

What I liked most about this book was that it was a story of immigrants, but it was not a typical immigrant story about people having trouble assimilating into a new culture and trying to balance the motherland and the new land.  It's more about people dealing with the consequences of trying to live up to a certain lifestyle or a expectation of what their lives will be and coming up short.  We continue to hear about the American Dream and what an inspiration it is to people who want to come to the US.  But as Ghana Must Go makes clear, this dream is hard to accomplish.  And it's even harder to keep the illusion alive when you feel like you've failed.

Ghana Must Go is about all of the screens and lighting effects and doctored, filtered selfies we set on our lives, trying to make them seem much more pristine and perfect and happy than they ever are.  But underneath all that, we are all insecure and feel like we are never quite good enough or smart enough or pretty enough or ambitious enough.  It's a coming-of-age story, five times over, told in such beautiful language it feels like poetry.

The only issue I had with this novel was how pat the ending seemed.  For so much of the book, there was SO MUCH BUILD-UP about what happened in people's lives to make them insecure or bitter or angry or whatever monster it was they were dealing with.  But then it seemed like Selasi neared the end of her story and wanted a happy ending for everyone, so she quickly wrapped everything up and made sure that at the end of the book, everyone felt happy and positive and ready to start fresh.  Considering the emotional upheaval that so many of the characters dealt with for so much of their lives, this felt like a serious cop-out to me, and I wish Selasi had given the "cure" as much attention and respect as she gave to the problem itself.

But the act of reading itself was a pleasure with this book, so I didn't mind the ending quite as much as I might have otherwise.  The language was so beautifully phrased, the cadence so lovely, that it was sad to near the ending.  Definitely an author that I will be watching in future; I hope she writes many more novels, and that each word of those novels is as perfectly chosen as the words in this one were.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

"Do not be frightened by my beard. I am a lover of America."

The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid
Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist was a great companion novel to Amy Waldman's The Submission.  In The Submission, the architect Mohammed Khan starts the story American and proud, but increasingly begins to feel like America does not want him, and becomes alienated in his own country.  The narrator of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Changez, grows up in Pakistan and then works to make himself as American as possible, getting a highly sought-after position at a financial firm, chasing after a blue-blood, beautiful woman named Erika, and generally living the good life.  Then 9/11 happens, and he begins to think that maybe America isn't all that great.

This short novel is narrated through Changez's monologue.  He spends the whole book chatting with an American - we can't be sure, but the American seems to be someone operating undercover from a few hints.  Changez tells the American his life story as they sit and enjoy tea, a meal, and then a walk back to the American's hotel.

There was a lot of heavy symbolism in this book.  Changez = Change, Erika = America, Fundamentalism = America's self-absorption, and many more that I'm sure I missed.  I think the symbolism was a bit too heavy-handed for my liking, though clearly Hamid wanted to make a point and to hit readers over the head with it.

What I appreciated about this book was the way it turned fundamentalism on its head and showed people just how differently America can be viewed by people who have a different perspective.  Much like Mohammed Khan in The Submission, Changez wanted to be American, but Americans did not want to see him as American.  When Changez goes back to Pakistan, he becomes an anti-American activist, speaking out against American policies.  Does this make him a terrorist?  Would we assume that Europeans who speak out against American policies are terrorists and enemies of the state?

In many ways, The Reluctant Fundamentalist felt like a rehash of the racial and political debate that many Middle Easterners and South Asians already feel very close to.  In that way, it didn't break a ton of new ground for me, but I am aware that my experience can be quite different than other people's, and I'm glad that there are more and more books being published now that attempt to shed life on other perspectives.  Whether Changez is ultimately a terrorist or not is a question readers are left wondering at the end of the book, but the power of the story is that we could understand Changez going either way.

This is a short novel that packs a lot of debate and points to ponder in its few pages.  I listened to it on audiobook and enjoyed the narration.  Definitely recommend this novel if you want to see a different perspective on the after-effects of 9/11 and how other people might view America.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Beautiful memorial or martyr's paradise?

Amy Waldman's The Submission
I have had Amy Waldman's book, The Submission, on my radar since it first hit the shelves a few years ago.  But I somehow always veered away from actually reading it.  Maybe because 9/11 will always seem too close and raw for many of us.  I didn't lose anyone in the attacks, but I remember the event and its aftermath - and we all continue to feel its effect - vividly, and I just never wanted to re-immerse myself in that time again.

But the premise of The Submission is so fascinating, and finally, I buckled down and read it.  The book takes place a few years after the 9/11 attacks happened.  A group of people - artists, civic leaders, and one woman who was widowed by the attack - are choosing the winning submission in a contest to design the 9/11 memorial.  The entrants are anonymous, and when one design - a walled garden - wins, and the name is announced, everyone is shocked.  The winner is a man named Mohammed Khan.

What follows is a thoughtful, empathetic novel that encompasses so many points of view as a nation reels, reacts, stumbles, and tries to right itself in the wake of this news.

There is the garden itself, its personality morphing as the book continues.  First, it is a beautiful memorial garden, with reflecting canals and trees, and paths for contemplation.  Then, as Khan's name makes the news, it becomes a "martyr's paradise."  It fits the description of gardens described in the Qu'ran.  Does that mean that Khan designed it as a way to commemorate the terrorists?  And would anyone assume this was the case if Khan had not, in fact, been Khan, but had the name John Smith?

Thursday, March 27, 2014

An ideal wife should have Meekness, Patience, Sincerity, Prudence, Zeal ...

Good Wives by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich
I fell in love with Lauren Thatcher Ulrich a couple of years ago when I read her Pulitzer Prize-winning book about a colonial midwife, A Midwife's Tale.  Immediately, I purchased Good Wives:  Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England 1650-1750.  I just finished Good Wives last night and let me tell you, it is just as fascinating as A Midwife's Tale.

Good Wives has a subtitle that is quite descriptive but still only hints at its details and depths.  In the introduction to this book, Ulrich mentions a gravestone that says a woman was "Eminent for Holiness, Prayerfulness, Watchfulness, Zeal, Prudence, Sincerity, Humility, Meekness, Patience, Weanedness from ye World, Self-denial, Publik-Spiritedness, Diligence, Faithfulness and Charity."

Nowadays, we would think this woman was either a) not real or b) really boring.  But Ulrich points out that in the 17th and 18th centuries, people did not try to be individuals, but to conform and be ideal.  "A good wife earned the dignity of anonymity," Ulrich says, and then she sets out in her book to show readers exactly what a "good wife" was - a loving mother, an obedient wife, and a kind neighbor.  And she also shows us what happens when women strayed from those norms, for good and bad reasons, and what the consequences were.  It is a fascinating study about a population that did not leave much behind to describe their lives to us.

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