"review" · chapter/series · Children's · comics/graphic novels · concenter · juvenile lit · recommend · sci-fi/fantasy · short story

{comic} BFFs

little robot cover

Little Robot by Ben Hatke

First Second, 2015.

Advanced Reader Copy (thank you First Second/Net Galley) in exchange for a fair review.

When a little girl finds an adorable robot in the woods, she presses a button and accidentally activates him for the first time. Now, she finally has a friend. But the big, bad robots are coming to collect the little guy for nefarious purposes, and it’s all up to a five-year-old armed only with a wrench and a fierce loyalty to her mechanical friend to save the day!–Publisher’s comments

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As observed of his Zita Spacegirl series “Hatke does really good robots—seriously, spaceships, gear, and really great robots.”* So when I heard First Second was publishing his Little Robot, I was super geeked.

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Little Robot is deceptively simple in presentation. Unlined panels, a lot of white space, silence for pages, uncluttered or uncomplicated compositions. The first text is “tap,” a sound effect on page 25. The first spoken text is on 27. The story is quiet yet brimming with expression. The reader is like the cat licking the robot, there is an initial zing, as well as a residual. We cannot remain unaffected.

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Like other Hatke heroines we’ve met, this little girl is beautifully determined and resourceful. She is alone and capable, lonely and courageous, and likes it that way. What is awesome about the story: its point is not whether the little girl will prove acceptable or not when human children arrive at the end of the book. When the human children do arrive, she runs off with her already true friend, the little robot she fought so hard to befriend/rescue. True, she needed a friend–and she’d found one.

Little Robot is very much a story of daring, of tenacity, of not letting a monster robot get in the way of a friendship you’ve invested in, one you’ve been waiting for.

The subject of life and death is hardly subtle, and in that way, it is accessible. The Little Robot is as animated and unnamed as the Little Human protagonist. They also seem to be subject to a greater machine at work, one that leaves her to her own devices, sneaking into the yards of others’ to play—an older white male watching her from the window. What is equally left unsaid is whether the man is malevolent. “ROM!” takes on a different affect at the end of the story after the mechanism is re-adjusted, can we infer the same of its human counterpart (if said man is, in fact, its counterpart?); Industry is.

I love the juxtaposition of Machine and Nature. I love the delightful experiences of those a forming friendship. I love that the last image brings to mind Castle in the Sky (Miyazaki, 1986)… Hatke is artful in his use of of panel, in the reaches across. He is judicious in breaking the reverie of the image with text. He’s playful. And he writes the best female characters and their adventures in such a way that it makes it difficult to understand just how rare their portrayals and their settings actually are.

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Ben Hatke’s work is worth the anticipation it builds, not just the robots, but the girls, their adventures, their courage, their heart. I can’t wait to meet his next adventure, but in the meantime, I’ll indulge a few re-reads.

——-

recommendations: emerging readers through grade-school, and adults. STEM kids, and artists. Those needing greater diversity in their library/repertoire. lovers of robot art.

*Legends of Zita Spacegirl review. Here is one for Zita Spacegirl.

{images belong to Ben Hatke}

"review" · concenter · juvenile lit · mystery · recommend · sci-fi/fantasy · series · short story · Tales · Uncategorized

{comics} lost islands & found creators

Explorer: The Lost Islands 

edited by Kazu Kibuishi

Amulet Books (Abrams) 2013.

tradepaper, 128 pages, incl “about the creators.” Library Loan

The highly anticipated second volume to the critically acclaimed Explorer series, “The Lost Islands “is a collection of seven all-new stories written and illustrated by an award-winning roster of comics artists, with each story centered around the theme of hidden places. Edited by the “New York Times “bestselling comics creator Kazu Kibuishi, this graphic anthology includes well-written, beautifully illustrated stories by Kazu (the Amulet series), Jason Caffoe (the Flight series), Raina Telgemeier (“Drama “and “Smile”), Dave Roman (the Astronaut Academy series), Jake Parker (the Missile Mouse series), Michel Gagne (“The Saga of Rex”), Katie and Steven Shanahan (the Flight series), and up-and-coming new artist Chrystin Garland. –publisher’s comments

Can I begin a post about a Kazu Kibuishi affiliated anything without confessing what a fan-girl I am of his work? No. It is a goal of mine to not only own a collection of his work, but be able to gift some away. His Amulet series is an easy recommendation for instilling that comic book addiction in your young. But like his Flight anthologies for the older crowd, Explorer curates excellent talent in which to introduce the young to potential fan-girl and -boy obsessions with various industry creators. See my review of Explorer: Mystery Boxes here and lets take a look at this installment’s theme “hidden places.” [click creator name for link to their website. *=a favorite]

*”Rabbit Island” by Jake Parker (Missile Mouse, illus The Astonishing Secret of Awesome Man) pp 4-19.

The rabbits have built a nice little utopia when one especially hard-working (and innovative) bunny salvages a robot and puts it to work alongside him.  Soon, it isn’t only the robot who becomes unrecognizable.

I really dig the color palette, it and the staining/wash and lettering bubbles reminds me of my worn out kids comics from well, ages ago when I was a kid. Not only does it work with the tale-quality of the comic, but it affords today’s youth the experience of their parent’s nostalgia with more contemporary sensibilities. In a way, it is like Will Eisner for kids, but with Jake Parker’s singular drawing arm. And may I say that I find the finish refreshingly absent of dramatic lighting–when I say ‘shiny!’ I want to employ the Whedon-esque meaning.

*”The Mask Dance” by Chrystin Garland pp 20-37 (d)

Nathaniel Hawthorne (minus the religious moral) meets one dancing princess in this mysterious and thrilling tale of a young lady’s night out.

The dark is just dark enough and the color dazzling into appropriately garish. The painterly quality helps animate and lend the light that artificial quality that tonally unsettles. An up-and-comer to watch.

“Carapace” by Jason Caffoe (lead production assistant for Amulet series, contributor for FlightExplorer) pp 38-55

You could easily create a moral from surviving and being nurtured by observing nature and finding a spirit guide, but “Carapace” is a story of friendship, of (im)moveable shelters. It is a nice twist on a deserted island story when the boy isn’t left completely abandoned nor is the island deserted.

Caffoe’s work with color is a stock & trade, but he tells a good story. There is a lot of text and a lot of setting, but there is also an eye for detail that draws the reader in. The island becomes less terrifying and more exotically beautiful, mimicking the camaraderie between boy and crab-ghost-from-the-shell.

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*”Desert Island Playlist” by Dave Roman (Astronaut AcademyTeen Boat!) & Raina Telgemeier (SmileDrama), colors by Braden Lamb (Adventure Time) pp 56-73. (d)

Wow, this one was creative with the playlist theme. The baby-toy is a stroke of genius and helps with the time-travel puzzle. I also appreciate that they aren’t willing to underestimate the youth-audience’s ability to get the “memory” pieces in juxtaposition to text and tale. This is a smart and beautiful story, but then it is Roman and Telgemeier.

The creators are good with movement and use the text with economy. They are as explicit with translating important visuals as is necessary, but engage the reader in creating meaning. The art is accessible, full of movement and just enough cartoon to lighten the tone.

“Loah” by Michel Gagne (The Saga of RexZED: A Cosmic Tale) pp 74-91.

Loah is a special creature, but what is even more remarkable is her friendship. She sees a way out of her crumbling world and she dreams for all of the others, and swears that her friendship helps her to do so.

The movement, like the story is sweeping, but the story itself small and deceptively simple. I am enjoying this thread of neither inhabiting nor leaving these hidden places alone. I’ve been impressed with the vibrant colors up to this point, but Gange’s piece is as magical as the tale he tells. 

“Radio Adrift” by Katie Shanahan (Womanthology: Heroic) & Steven Shanahan (sibling co-creators of Silly Kingdom), colors by Eric Kim & Selena Dizazzo pp. 92-109

Alright, so this one is just stinking cute. Mage-in-training, Wiya needs for her pixie egg to hatch and has attempted every sound possible. And then Radio Adrift drifts in for a limited time engagement. The focus turns outward, especially when Wiya recognizes that she has to refocus the conversation.

The style of artwork is fun, and I enjoy the light shift for the storytelling portion of the story told. This will be effortless in its candy colors, spunky characters and magical turn.

*”The Fishermen” by Kazu Kibuishi, colors by Jason Caffoe pp 110-27. (d)

The captain may have lost it (mentally and physically?), to the greed of a catch of a (literal) lifetime. The story uncovers hidden things both base and incredible, and with an old fisherman and his granddaughter at the helm it is a delightful short story.

Kibuishi is marvelous with scale as well as story. The characters are expressive. And the action sequences are fun, the illustrations managing a great deal of movement between steadying frames.

{images belong to respective artists. be sure to check out their sites, and of course, the book to enjoy more of their work!} {d=diversity in lit}

"review" · comics/graphic novels · concenter · juvenile lit · poet-related · recommend · short story · Uncategorized

{book} open mic

Open Mic: Riffs on Life Between Cultures in Ten Voices

edited by Mitali Perkins

Candlewick, 2013. (ages 12 & up)

hardcover, 127pages w/ “About the Contributors.” Library loan.

As Mitali Perkins observes in her “Introduction,” “humor has the power to break down barriers and cross borders. Once you’ve shared a laugh with someone, it’s almost impossible to see them as ‘other'” (x). Open Mic wants to tap into this power, employing ten gifted humorists to talk about growing up between cultures. There are prose and poems (x2) and a comic by Gene Luen Yang (ABC Chinese, Boxers & Saints), and even the comedic stylings vary so Perkins does a great job preparing for a broad readership–in other words, you can hand this to any middle-grader and they should find at least one out of the ten that will entertain.

Perkins does set down some rules, understanding that race can be a “tension-filled arena” (xi). It is a really good guide and includes a paragraph each in explication (which I obviously chose not to include below):

1. Good humor pokes fun at the powerful–not the weak.

2. Good humor builds affection for the “other.”

3. Good humor is usually self-deprecatory (note: not self-defecatory, although it can feel like that). (xi-xii)

A last bit from the “Introduction” on a hot topic in literature:

While I usually don’t like edicts about who can write about whom, in a post-9/11 North America, where segregation, slavery and even genocide aren’t too far back in history, funny multicultural stories work best when the author shares the protagonist’s race or culture. Funny is powerful, and that’s why in this case it does matter who tells a story. Writing that explores issues of race and ethnicity with a touch of humor must stay closer to memoir than other kinds of fiction on the spectrum of storytelling. (xii)

That said, none of the authors are White. Of the ten stories (a temperate number that hopefully hints at a series) Perkins includes herself and a brilliant variation of cultures w/ authors coming directly  (born in) or indirectly (generational) from roots in Mexico, Thailand, Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea, Palestine, India; Hispanic, African-American, or as G.Neri describes himself: “I’m Creole, Filipino, and Mexican–or as I like to call it, Crefilican. On top of that, my daughter is also German” (124). Many of the authors are well-traveled since childhood, and Debbie Rigaud is currently living in Bermuda.

What follows are brief remarks on the contents w/ links to author sites. One of reasons I love anthologies (on young and older shelves) is the opportunity to meet new voices and discover new reads. Many of these authors write Young Adult and, er, Not-Just-Young-Adult literature, like David Yoo who begins the collection with a good humor-setting tone, accessibility (read familiarity for anyone, including those of my western European ancestry), and insight the anthology is going for. The collection ends with some especially strong story-telling. (*=favorites)

“Becoming Henry Lee” by David Yoo (Choke ArtistThe Detention Club prose (1-13). 

This Korean-American protagonist is neither White nor Asian enough to abide by those (un)comfortable and ill-fitted cultural stereotypes. Besides dealing with public personas and private crises of identity (think school & parental aspirations), Yoo touches on festishization of culture, a step beyond mere appropriation. Big kid words, I know, but Yoo balances what even a young reader will understand as serious beneath that palatable guise of good humor.

“Why I Won’t Be Watching the Last Airbender Movie” by Gene Luen Yang. comic (16-9). *

first: Derek Kirk Kim (Same Difference, The Eternal Smile, Good as Lily) makes an appearance. Of course, the two are friends and frequent collaborators, but they also share a similar stake in what the comic is about. White-washing happens in multiple forms, as does cultural ventriloquism. Speaking up against this is of import for multiple reasons, and Yang offers a unexpected point to the story’s ending. A point of contention offers an invitation to engage (if not instigate) a conversation; what if it offered an invitation in return?

“Talent Show” by Cherry Cheva (author; writer & exec. producer on Family Guy) prose (20-30). *

Two students, a Jewish male and Asian female, await their turn to audition for the school talent show. It is sweet and funny and I can’t say too much because it would just recalibrate expectations: which is some of what the piece is about.

“Voilà!” by Debbie Rigaud (Perfect Shot) prose (31-42).

“Yup–I’m fourteen now.” I nod, squeezing the last bit of polite from my reserves. “And yes–both my parents are from Haiti.” […] I shrug. People have assumed this before–that I’m only half Haitian. Or at least, those who can’t understand how a person with longer hair or lighter skin could come from Haiti” (32-33)

Above illustrates just one form of misidentification that Rigaud explores; language and other popular assumptions make appearances. Rigaud has fun with miscommunication up until the very end both lamenting and finding humor in people’s ignorance.

“Three Pointer” by Mitali Perkins (Bamboo People, Secret Keeper) prose (43-54).

Three Indian sisters, of whom the narrator is the youngest, play the “Guy Game,” yes, it has to do with dating–and no, their parents who were arranging marriages and degree programs were left unaware of their antics (44). The premise facilitates also sorts of topics on cultural and generational differences and similarities in ways that educate and certainly entertain.

“Like Me” by Varian Johnson (Saving Maddie, My Life as a Rhombus) prose (55-68). *

“With about thirty students per grade, Hobbs is the smallest boarding school in Vermont. Our demographics are just like the state’s. White, white, and white.

“I guess that’s not fair. Technically Rebecca is “one-eight German, three-eighths Sephardic-Jewish, and one-half Irish.” And Evan has enough Muskogee blood running through him to be a member of the Creek Nation. Still, I didn’t see anyone looking at them when we talked about the Holocaust or the Trail of Tears last year in World History. But let anyone mention Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. or Will Smith or even the slightly black-looking dude who trims Principal Greer’s prized rosebushes, and suddenly I’m the center of the attention.” (57)

Now twin girls have joined Hobbs and the questions of relationships begin to surface. Seeing and not seeing difference is handled deftly while calling out those awkward conversations on stereotype, in-group criticisms, the jokes people tell that aren’t all that funny.

“Confessions of a Black Geek” by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich (8th Grade Super Zero) prose (69-78).

I found the pop culture references amusing and was interested in where black geek and white geek might diverge or intersect. The seriousness, how personal, had a diminishing effect on earlier comedic tones at the close. Do not expect the stories to end on punch-lines, many have a heartening declaration like this one.

“Under Berlin” G. Neri (YummyGhetto Cowboy) long poem (79-99) **

My dad is black,/in a real southern way./But Mom is a light-skinned Hispanic/from Puerto Rico,/so I’m as black as Obama, I guess,/which is only half./My bro rolls his eyes. “Sorry./I meant ‘mixed American;” (83).

I am not awarding this one extra points for mention of currywurst, but the story of a family on the subway (in the literal underbelly) of Berlin is one of my favorites. It is rich with personality, like many of the others, but easy and playful, tender and smart, despite that “tension-filled arena.”

“Brotherly Love” by Francisco X. Stork (Marcelo and the Real World, Irises) prose (100-13). **

Touching on machismo and religion, sweetly and deftly, Stork is unsurprisingly pitch-perfect with this story about Luis talking to his sister. Sometimes that life between cultures is experience within a community and between generations and gender. This one is so well-done.

“Lexicon” by Naomi Shihab Nye (Habibi) long poem (114-21) **

“Half-baked, mix of East and West,/balancing flavors” the narrator speaks lovingly about her Arab father, about the power of words and perspective. There are some truly lovely images and lines: “words like parks to sit in.” “My father’s tongue had no bitch/hiding under it.” “But dying, this lover of life said sadly,/My dilemma is large. 

"review" · concenter · fiction · Lit · recommend · short story · wondermous · young adult lit

{book} the power & in just one body (of work)

Of note: my writing about an excellent short story collection equates to a long post. But I do give you a few paragraphs (up to the asterisks) before ~brief remarks on each of the stories.

The Thing Around Your Neck : a collection of short stories

by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Alfred A Knopf, 2009.

Hardcover, 12 stories. 218 pages. Library loan.

Adichie turns her penetrating eye on not only Nigeria but America, in twelve dazzling stories that explore the ties that bind men and women, parents and children, Africa and the United States. […] Searing and profound, suffused with beauty, sorrow, and longing, these stories map, with Adichie’s signature emotional wisdom, the collision of two cultures and the deeply human struggle to reconcile them. The Thing Around Your Neck is a resounding confirmation of the prodigious literary powers of one of our most essential writers.—publisher’s comments.

Even as a voluntary (and paying) student of literature, I find myself making the mental preparations for a Literary short-story collection. Occasionally, this will mean that I forgo the read at the time, believing I will be more exhausted than pleased by the exercise—because it so often is. The Thing Around Your Neck reads like I am sitting down with a storyteller who is merely intent on relating something about someone they know. I found myself disarmed. The subjects are not easy, but the reading is and its enjoyment is effortless.

In the past few weeks since I finished this collection, I had occasion to read a few different conversations where female authors have said (to the effect): when I write my female characters into difficult situations, I am considering verisimilitude, but just as importantly, I have an aim to demonstrate an empowered female response. Oftentimes, this means changing the script written by popular cultural beliefs. Adichie writes women who are seen questioning and resisting. Many of her female characters do surprising things—not always the easiest in consequence but the unexpected (w/in the cultural responses dictated w/in the story). I am still lingering on “The American Embassy,” which trades in a familiar theme in the collection: human dignity and the cost/risk involved in having a voice.  More than a few stories depict the female desire of another. Read this how you will, but I was drawn to the notion of envy—the sort of appeal that drives the desire to have what another has to positive consequence. This takes us back to demonstrating non-traditional choice-making. If memory serves, the parts of the body, the spirit, the vocations that attract the protagonist are significant, especial to their experience of said desire. Adichie employs eroticism in an enviable way…I’m telling you, her work has a rich eloquence that is both medicinal and sweet.

The majority of the pieces are told by a first person female, but not all. There is a particularly lovely implementation of the female protagonist’s use of second person in two, and a fascinating first person male in another. Adichie situates exchanges of assumptions and generalizations the narrators themselves would find chaffing, but she provides more often than not that voice the reader can respond to with a ‘I know what you mean;’ ‘I am not alone.’ She is both foreign and achingly familiar.

The Thing Around Your Neck is not to be dismissed as “women’s fiction” as there is much to realize about social  & personal situations that go unobserved, let alone considered and discussed. Much of Adichie’s success in provoking such thinking is in how she works with characters, not caricature, sampling representatives or some such didactic alienating force.

___________________________________________

“Cell One” (pp 3-21) finally instills fear and selflessness into the brother of narrator Nnamabia who observes the complicity and enabling actions in the negative consequences of her culture.

We are introduced to structures of privilege and corruption, and of both son and gender preference.

“Imitation” (22-42) wherein resides one of my favorite lines in the book:

“One of the things she’d come to love about America, the abundance of unreasonable hope” (26).

Though pages in, it reflects the tone of the collection. In whom or what may Nkem place her hopes and her happiness. How does one define “happy” (40); the inhabitation of a role set down by whom? The conversation on the female body as a commodity not just prior to marriage but after is beautifully touched upon.

A gorgeous meditation on assimilation; the first, but not the last on this.

“A Private Experience” (43-56) moves in and out of time as two young women of potentially polarizing differences find commonality in a form of sisterhood whilst hemmed in by the violence that surrounds them.

The insight into the culture of Lagos and Nigeria continues; of varying outcomes…

“Ghosts” (57-73) introduces an old professor who runs into someone whom he believed dead. The appearance of a ghost does not alarm him for particular reasons and the meeting spurs further self-reflection.

This is the point where it really struck me that I was having tea with someone, not a paper preparation conference.

“On Monday of Last Week” (74-94) a young woman observes her new home (America) and its inhabitants to whom she is serving as nanny—particularly an affluent father of her helicoptered charge and the artist wife who appears, much to her distraction.

“She had come to understand that American parenting was a juggling of anxieties, and that it came with having too much food: a sated belly gave Americans time to worry that their child might have a rare disease that they had just read about, made them think they had the right to protect their child from disappointment and want and failure. A sated belly gave Americans the luxury of praising themselves for being good parents, as if caring for one’s child were the exception rather than the rule.” (82)

What Kamara comes to understand continues into more than a criticism but an observation of those tensions between maintaining an appearance and reality; of desire and repulsion. Appearances, the making them (e.g. the wife) and creating them (façade) is of enjoyable import in the story.

Different stories make me self-conscious in different ways; and sometimes one will contain all kinds of self-reflective appointments.

“Jumping Monkey Hill” (95-114) is the resort where Ujunwa is attending a writer’s retreat w/ other representatives of their African countries.

Here is one for writers, readers, and cultural studies with questions regarding type casts; authenticity; What is Africa; which Africa?; verisimilitude in fiction; who writes the narrative; the male gaze; the presence of the white foreigner; relevant issues like religious oppression, homosexuality, sexual harassment, oppression, independence. [such are the notes on my page.]

It is within Adichie’s artistry to bring so many voices and conversations together. And to maintain such a personal, individual focus on Ujunwa.

Adichie resists “type” because she knows the person tells the more effective story.

“The Thing Around Your Neck” (115-27) begins with:

“You thought everybody in America had a car and a gun; your uncles and aunts and cousins thought so, too. Right after you won the American visa lottery, they told you: In a month, you will have a big car. Soon, a big house. But don’t buy a gun like those Americans.”

How and where do you assimilate and yet maintain difference: who dictates those things? There is a lot of offers up for the taking, but at what cost? The second person speaking to herself negotiates the liminal spaces between where she was and where she is now, and her difference as individual and other—resisting cliché (normative scripts) and exoticization. The observations on poverty and privilege, the African female and the white male, and the ways some things are the same wherever you go. The struggle of give and take in the relationships written into the story are compelling, as is the courageous narrator. I will leave the title and its appearance in the story to you.

“The American Embassy” (128-41) places us in a detailed setting and the unraveling of the significance of Ugonna’s mother’s long wait in line alone.

This is one that moved me and is still sinking inward—in ways I can articulate and others I cannot. It is a provocative piece. Political causes and beliefs more often than not cost the lives of others, more than one’s own. And what does courage of conviction look like. And how do we grieve and move forward with the knowledge that risk has suddenly afforded us. The word “abandoned” comes to mind, and “home;” as does the notion of woman as cultural keeper of the hearth (tasked by whom?).

“The Shivering” (142-166) The ties that, well, introduce us at the very least. In an exchange of experiences: who is it all about? I’ll share two quotes that hardly work as summary, because as I began a summary, I realize I actually said nothing about it anyway and erased it.

“It wasn’t a crisis of faith. Church suddenly became like Father Christmas, something that you never question when you are a child but when you become an adult you realize that the man in the Father Christmas costume is actually your neighbor from down the street” (152-3).

“He used to make me feel that nothing I said was witty enough or sarcastic enough or smart enough. He was always struggling to be different, even when it didn’t matter. It was as if he was performing his life instead of living his life” (153 emphasis mine).

Adichie proves to be masterful with the titling of her work. And continues to prove diverse enough to write characters who are familiar not because they are always likable or easy.

“The Arrangers of Marriage” are many, from relatives to cultural tradition to pragmatism. Our first person female narrator arrives at her new home in America to begin a new chapter of her life with the husband arranged for her. This is another one of those stories you wish Adichie wasn’t so good with similes and metaphors when describing people. I’m trying to recall if it was this one or an earlier piece with the man whose teeth are likened to mildew. I had to stop then and share with the daughter who looked at me in awe.

I love this story in particular because while there are circumstances beyond the woman’s control, there will be an opportunity when it is not, and then it is she who will make the arrangements.

There is a lot of empowerment in community. A lot of terrible circumstances are brought about via men and women both, but so is wisdom, advice, and a helping hand out.

“Tomorrow is Too Far” (187-197) is the translation of a snake’s name: the echi eteka, who plays a role in the story, but really, tomorrow is too far for the child female protagonist. Both her mother (whom she lives with in the States) and her grandmother (whom she is visiting in Nigeria), prefer/privilege her elder brother. The tension for this “you” narrator is the weight of that cost of waiting (or not) for your turn.

The setting in the climate (literal and figurative) is oppressive. And but for the brother and the male cousin (who is not hierarchically good enough either due to birth placement), the cast is female and this emphasizes women’s complicity in patriarchical oppression—an oppression that does not only hold consequence for the female child.

This one is a must. It is provoking, engaging, and entertaining.

“The Headstrong Historian” (198-218) relays the importance of history, of legacy and heritage, of honoring yet rebelling. There is both a desire and a goodness in keeping record of history and leaving legacies, but some more are best left in memory-story-form. Some histories need not come with us, their performances unhealthy in their repetition.

The story echoes traditional storytelling form, demonstrating the pleasure of certain traditions being handed down and continued in the voices of the younger. The generational inheritances and shifts, the struggle with modernity, the timeless quality of it all; and the desire to preserve and the desire to change centers around the story of Nwamgba until it changes hands with a granddaughter.

It is a great punctuating piece to this powerful and empowering collection.

"review" · fiction · Lit · recommend · short story · wondermous

{book} speaking of paradise

birds of a lesser paradise coverBirds of a Lesser Paradise: Stories by Megan Mayhew Bergman

Scribner (Simon&Schuster) 2012.

hardcover, 224 pages.

purchased at a Library sale some time back with a vague memory of reading a positive review from a trusted source.

Please:  If you are not a reader of short stories as a general rule, bear with me on this one. And if, like me, you whiff anything that could be classified as “women’s fiction” and you reflexively re-shelve, consider making this one an exception. While Bergman’s work is hardly simple, it is not elusive. It may be challenging.

From a prizewinning young writer whose stories have been anthologized in The Best American Short Stories and  New Stories from the South comes a heartwarming and hugely appealing debut collection that explores the way our choices and relationships are shaped by the menace and beauty of the natural world. […] As intelligent as they are moving, the stories in Birds of a Lesser Paradise are alive with emotion, wit, and insight into the impressive power that nature has over all of us. –publisher’s comments

“As intelligent as they are moving” is an aspect quickly noted as we follow one female protagonist after another in an exploration of what is natural and unnatural in their settings and relationships. I tend to expect that in a collection of 12 stories there will easily be one or three I could do without; not so with Birds of a Lesser Paradise. I found myself more deeply impressed as I continued reading–even as I began to anticipate character types, themes, and narrative structure; even as a sense of loneliness and its odd accompaniment of contentment settled in with each quietly punctuated concluding sentence. The stories are as lovingly complicated as the females who inhabit them, and I found myself trying to preserve line and after line to share with you.

The book’s epigraph: “We will now discuss in a little more detail the Struggle for Existence.” Charles Darwin, On Origin of the Species.

[1] “Housewifely Arts” (1-25) With her 7 year-old child in tow, a woman is in search of the bird whose voice has captured the mother she lost the previous Spring; really she has the need to reconcile the motherhood of past, present, and future. The observation of time and the generation is especially lovely here; though the narrator was sometimes hard for me.

“The things my body has done to him, I think. Cancer genes, hay fever, high blood pressure, perhaps a fear of math—these are my gifts. I have to pee, he says. I release him, let him skip into the fluorescent, germ-infested cave, a room slick with mistakes and full of the type of men I hope he’ll never become.” (5-6).

The disintegrating spaces and relationships and the longing to hold on to some part if not all, begins in the first story and continues with a beautiful aching throughout the collection.

[2] “The Cow that Milked Herself” (27-35). A nameless “I” is expecting her first child. Preoccupied with the anxieties of anticipated indignities and competing for the attention of her dedicated Veterinarian husband, she comes to find warmth and confidence in being a part of nature.

You begin to really understand how good the author is with using science in metaphor, to say nothing of just delivering it so eloquently. And you’ll start to note the number of Vets, biologists, and outdoorsy characters from this point onward. I adore this story in particular for the way in which it relates the vulnerability of needing another person’s love and understanding; she revisits this time and again.

[3] “Birds of a Lesser Paradise” (37-59). “I was a thirty-six-year-old single woman living in a poor man’s theme park, running birding trips into the swamp. […] For the Most part, I was happy” (41). The “poor man” is her father whom she adores. As for her life and happiness: changing landscapes in response to economics or age or the indefinable lives of others intersecting are matters of contemplation and affect the landscapes of one’s dreams. Autonomy does not come without desire for companionship of one sort or another; nor does it come without strings, familial or otherwise.

The first lines of the first story is not the first declaration of independence in the collection. And many of the stories find women preferring, if not content with, maintaining a “single” status.

[4] “Saving Face” (61-76). Lila is a Veternarian who values her independence and her pride, needing to be beautiful, not pitied. The scars are not the most heart-breaking results of Lila’s accident, but the confrontation with beauty, culture, and self-perception. “Now that her face was altered, she felt she was walking through life relying on a different set of tools” (66). This one is a sad one, somewhat despairing, and reliant upon what few romantic tendencies I own. Not to be missed.

[5] “Yesterday’s Whales” (77-100). First lines:

“I’ve been told self-righteous people always have it coming, that  when you profess to understand the universe, the universe conspires against you. It gathers and strengthens and thunders down upon you like a biblical storm. It buries your face in humble pie and licks the cream from your nose because when the universe hates you, it really hates you” (77)

Finding out you’re pregnant as a believer in and lover of the founder of a nonprofit interested in returning the planet to nature by freeing it from the human parasite illicits the sort of reaction with which our narrator begins the story. There are so many lines from this one…and my notes…“I wanted to become what I most admired, what now seemed most real to me. I wanted to be that exalted, complicated presence in someone’s life, the familiar body, the source of another’s existence” (91). The image of a whale, the use of the biological, was absolutely wonderful. Activism meets traditional values in the lives of intelligent women who have always sought a balance with nature. This story is a thought-provoking one.

Legacy, the human ego, hope and life in the face of an unknown; nature’s persistence and our belonging in relationship with nature.

[6] “Another Story She Won’t Believe” (101-116). First lines are particularly noteworthy in this collection, and this story is an exemplar. Just the same, I will skip to page 105, “it occurs to me that sometimes we make homes where we do not belong.” Our narrator, a recovering alcoholic and an estranged mother, is only one of the displaced we find in the story. When the narrator thinks about her daughter, ‘what will she do when she finds the world is still spinning’ (114), that life does continue on, you know the story is wondering this very thing of its narrator as well. I’m still wondering over this question, the author recommending our own exercise of imagination, leaving us as she does. I suppose the story would be depressing if not for its matter-of-fact telling, its oddities, and those fantastic references to old cinema film stars.

so, you’ll have noticed a trend in excellent titles, first lines, and closings. And you’ll notice a tension in realities and the stories we tell ourselves—and how the embracing of each my have a place.

[7] “The Urban Coop” (117-132). The narrator is not getting any younger, nor is her much older partner, and she’s thinking she might like to express maternal-love to more than their dog and the homeless “boys and girls” who work the urban coop she and her partner founded. There is guilt, a worry that she is capable even while we see that she is. There is also a generational component, not only between a young woman starting out in the world and one who has been at it a while, but between the idealist-intention/ethic of their generations.

This isn’t what I expected, Sam [the young woman] said.

I lied. It will be if you give it time, I said. Hard work can turn any old dump into a fertile paradise. (123)

This section appears in the middle-ish of the story, but it illuminates major conflicts in the story: expectations, hard work’s ability to transform, fertility…

The breadth of age, experience, and lifestyles of the women in the collection is lovely, and that we can begin to establish shared anxieties between them all.

[8] “The Right Company” (133-148). She is looking for a place to be happy, to belong, feeling a bit of an oddity and not just because she is new to this little coastal village. She has been estranged from her husband for months and has made a male friend who is just that, a friend. What is the place of nostalgia, of kept distances, and what does independence looks like when interdependence has always been the way of it? Who is responsible for what actions? What does rescue come in the form of?

“In towns like these, I thought, there are no perfect rescues. You go down with your own ship” (148).

Who rescues whom, and when is it a community sport or up to the individual…is the latter possible?

[9] “Night Hunting” (149-164). This is a mother and daughter story and their encounters with the wild, deadly, unknown, the rare, the hunter and the all too soon. Nature and motherhood is brutal. It is chilling and good luck at that attempt for some sort of straightforward allegorical read.

[10] “Every Vein a Tooth” (165-183). Gray leaves her to her Victorian house full of decrepit pets aka animals she’s rescued. He can’t take it anymore and the story doesn’t blame him, kind of. It reads a bit married-with-children (not the television show). It is said that pets give love unconditionally, but are they really without demands? And we get a comparison between urban naturalists that is ever interesting. I adore her treatments of the subject of activists and survivalists. The narrator has to decide how strongly she feels about her cause.

“A friend once told me there were 2 kinds of urban naturalists. The McDonald’s-eating semi-hoarder animal activist, and the armchair conservationist with bloodlust” (172).

Those motherhood themes throughout the collection, of self-sacrifice, of legacy and purpose, are front and center here. As well is that sense of our place in nature, as animal, as nurturer…

[11] “The Artificial Heart” (185-204). A story set in 2050, “I” is caring for an aging parent with her partner and no children of their own in a world where they live with the carnage of a stripped and mutilated landscape. We get the relevancy of the aged, bodies that have been mined, too. Love and knowledge amidst survival are key conversations that carry us back to the now, to live deliberately, with a mind on the future and those resources that we will come to depend on—including our children, blood or adopted.

The notions are rarely if ever preached. What is lost in the balancing action hardly comes off as so cleanly heroic; it is framed too personally for that—usually; depends on how you feel about the decisions made, where your own values lay.

[12] “The Two-Thousand-Dollar Sock” (205-221). “Give up the illusion of control” (217). “I “ is a wife, mother, dog-owner, experiencing difficult decisions, much of them to do with finances. Survival looks different here, much more domestic and familiar to those readers who rarely camp in tents, let alone live rurally. The narrator observes in sections the significant changes that have been visited upon all the landscapes a woman experiences: her own body, her lover’s, her child’s, pet’s, home…

How is one to be fearless and yet live with very real responsibility?—we’ve gotten this throughout the collection, but as the attachments to the narrator varied, so did the replies. Priorities lead to some painful outcomes, yet for others it is a liberating motion. Regardless, all live with fears, with frailties, and yet all express determination, courage; it is seen in our reflection of  and relationship to Nature.

"review" · comics/graphic novels · concenter · Illustrator · juvenile lit · recommend · sci-fi/fantasy · short story · young adult lit

{comics} womanthology: kids & teens

womanthologyWe’ve met Team Suzannah,Team Bonnie and Team Mariah (1 & 2). Continuing a reading of Womanthology: Heroic I am skipping on over to “Kids & Teens,” pages 266-321. This section features “the Art of the Next Generation of Comics.” Womanthology has contributors from over 11 countries, and they range in ages from under 10 to over 70 (p 10). It is fun to see what the youngest of these contributors have to share. I’ll mark the ones I especially liked w/ (!!), but this is particularly worthwhile section overall.

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“Grace Miner’s Paula Pansy” (266) by writer & illustrator Grace Miner (under 10).

Paula Pansy, rendered in 3 different mediums, acts out the story bottom right. Paula “grows up tall and stomps around” when necessary, but otherwise she is happy to be small. You think it would be tempting to say “aw! how cute!” in that cooing voice, but it is completely unnecessary with Miner’s comic. It’s more “Hey, that’s some good work.”

{note on page shown, the tip is different.} Wired‘s “Geek Mom” Rebecca Angel’s interview w/ Grace.

“Heroic!” (267) by cartoonist Morgan Denham

Denham draws a girl in an open landscape out-of-doors, a question mark on her tee shirt. Above she poetically explores what “Heroic is/feels/can be…” It ends with the exclamation “Heroic can be anything or anyone, even you!” Denham has great thoughts on heroism. I like the color, the girl’s hair, and that fab expression on her face. That face and her hand up and open seems to be saying: “hey! Just a moment here, I define me, I define heroic.”

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!! “Super Teen Slumber Party” (268-9) by pencillers: Eleni Ladd (older teen and the letterer), Kalyssa Ladd, Kelsie Ladd and Samara Ladd. adults: writer: Gail Simone and colors by Mary Bellamy.

5 teen super-heroines need a break after the “Infinite Crossover War” and want to hang out before parting ways. The comic follows their play throughout the night, and the structure allows for the incorporation of the different artists, but even still the end result is pretty impressive. There is some serious talent in this family. It’s a good story, funny and light-hearted.

Wired‘s “Geek Mom’s” Rebecca Angel interviewed the siblings re: Womanthology: Eleni, Kelsie, Kalyssa & Samara

!! “untitled” (270) by painter Kelsey Lee (teen).

a figure of energy and light.

“untitled” (271) by penciller Moira Feener-Jarrett (11)

The text talks about role-playing games and playing the villain and the hero, explaining how the goblin in the image could be re-imagined as heroic. Not just creative in the visual expression but in thinking about the theme. Moira has drawn a fantastic goblin!

“untitled” (272-3) writer Brittany Battles, artist Nicole Pannebaker (teens)

a fan of a particular music artist is rescued by her said singer; actually pulled back from a speeding car on the street. You can read the message of how music saves. Maybe even how you may like a musician for good reason (thinking how they can be good role models, etc). I am intrigued by how similar the fan and the celebrity are drawn to look—a point to mimicry or similitude?

!! “Joan of Arc” (274) by artist Summer Hemingray (grade-school?).

Tells the story of Joan of Arc through to a very amusing end in 6 frames. Miss Hemingray makes many look long-winded in their art…and she also rightfully questions the sanity of some heroes, to say nothing of considering the costs.

Wired‘s “Geek Mom” Rebecca Angel’s interview w/ Miss Hemingray.

“untitled” (275) by penciller, colorist, inker Shayla Simons.

The renderings of 3 super hero girls show off color, shading and great hair. I like that the trio, just waiting for action, have different physical features, too. adore the freckles.

“untilted” (276) by penciller, inker Ceili Conway (teen) [see image here]

A girl in armor kneels to help a wounded dragon while war rages behind them, beyond the large stones affording them this quiet moment. I like the movement from the dominant figure of the young woman down and left where her eyes meet the backward leaning dragon. Her outstretched arm drawing the eye to the arrow. The movement is a bit uncomfortable directionally which adds a lovely bit of drama to the moment.

Rebbecca Angel interviews Ceili for Wired “Geek Mom”

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sprinkled throughout Womanthology: Heroic there are “Pro-Tips.” This section boasts “tips on how to build a career as a professional artist!” I was tempted to transcribe the “Tips for Kids,” but I’d rather you have this book in hand and enjoy them in situ. If you really must know sooner, ask me. Otherwise, in brief:

(266) “Practice” from Nicole Falk; “artists work hard, drawing and practicing everyday.”

(267) “Little Things” from Renae De Liz; “Pay attention to the little things now.

(270) “Too Young” from Jessica Hickman; you are “never too young to start creating books…”

(271) “Everyday” from Suzannah Rowntree; offers a great tip on what to draw everyday.

(273) “Ask Yourself” from Laura Morley; offers questions that could help create a full-blown story from an inkling.

(274) “Library Comics” from Jessica Hickman. make use of your resources.

(275) “Don’t Give up!” from Laura Morley; “perseverance is the most important skill you’ll need.”

(276) “Challenge Yourself” from Renae De Liz; “Flex your artistic muscles.”

"review" · comics/graphic novels · concenter · fiction · recommend · short story · Tales

{comic} the eternal smile

The Eternal Smile : Three Stories by by Gene Luen Yang & Derek Kirk Kim

First Second Books, 2009.

Gene Luen Yang and Derek Kirk Kim are authors and artists who’ve teamed up in this collection of three short stories, or three individual comics. The three pieces find commonality in their use of cultural influences, like fairytales, products, childhood media, virtual reality, and technological communication. They play with cultural references in art and story as they explore what is real, healthy, manufactured, isolating, and malleable. They move from the psychological to the technological, finding natural cause to frequently blur the two, ultimately binding the three under an umbrella of escapist fantasy. And their sophistication regarding social commentary progresses with each story. The Eternal Smile is an excellent choice for Teen and Young Adult, but not to the exclusion of us who are older.*

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Duncan’s Kingdom. Duncan is not the most adept suitor to call on the Princess (“Your eyes glisten like wet marbles”), but with a magic sword from the monk who found him as a babe, how can he not win her hand by slaying the Frog King? Or will a haunting dream and an obsession with Snappy Cola ruin everything?

The title page has the appearance of a classic fairytale cover of a heroic adventure. It fairly blares a herald’s bugling. And with the turn of a page all is silent but for night sounds and someone snoring from a room in the castle. While European medieval comes to mind initially and is illustrated throughout in a fitting fashion, the Asian influence saturates the story in lovely ways—particularly in color. I would love to say more on that influence, but there’s my ignorance. The amalgam is a delight, and works from its fantastical start: a Frog Clan? There is little that is atypical in the tale actually, until Duncan dreams. The discovery of Snappy Cola takes the story for a truly bizarre turn.

The story has a really good and challenging moral for its young (and perhaps not so young) adult audience.

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Elias McFadden’s Gran’pa Greenbax and The Eternal Smile. Gran’pa Greenbax strives to create a pool of money into which he dive into without busting his nose on the bottom. With the latest venture not producing enough depth to his pool, Gran’pa and his two granddaughters (Polly and Molly) demand another inspired business opportunity from his bullied, under-paid employee. Filbert has run out of ideas and hopes the sighting in the sky will be enough to soothe the savage beast of a boss. What it does is lead them on a path none of them could have anticipated—no not the decision to exploit the masses with religion, the other thing, the thing that has to do with that Eternal Smile.

“Gran’pa Greenbax” sports a title page reminiscent of Disney’s Duck Tales w/ Scrooge McDuck comics replete with volume number and publisher block in the corner and “Elias McFadden’s” in Disney-font. Referencing childhood television, its merchants and its merchandise is no coincidence as Duck Tales meets aTruman Show twist in an indictment of exploitation, whether the institutional interests are media-, corporate- or religion-driven. What would happen if you met your creator, finding echoes in the “outside” mirrored in your own life, and the realization of an influence most unnatural? Would you find relief knowing that you were made the way you are by someone or –thing other than you? What about those recurring (hardwired) desires that had to be manipulated or worked around.

There is a drastic move, and while the violence throughout comes across as startling (eventually), it makes more than a Fight Club sort of sense. Whether internal or external something painfully disruptive might lead to the kind of return to self a character needed. There are a lot of inner- and interpersonal dynamics at play in this cartoon-rendered tale.

“Gran’pa Greenbax” also includes a nice cameo from “Duncan’s Kingdom.” That hope-filled image comes at a key point in the story.

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Urgent Request. Where the other two brought more mainstream cultural images instantly to mind the third drew an indie vibe for me (Tomine meets Sunday comics section). The panels appear like screen captures, the dingy black and white apt. Beginning to read, Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan came to mind, and I hoped “Urgent Request” would not reach that level of depressing. It seemed well on its way.

Janet has worked her CommTech cubicle job for 7 years, and a scheduled performance review with an vein and inconsiderate boss doesn’t look to change things. She lives alone and has no social life at or away from work. Eavesdropping on a conversation, a co-worker (the receptionist) describes her as “Awkward? Shy? Frumpy?…insignificant.” This is a pivotal moment as she decides to seize her chance to save a Nigerian Prince who has just started e-mailing her asking for monetary aid.

Janet would be difficult to deal with if the world around her did not seem as equally despairing. The opening panel is dark and rainy. The boss clings to a triumph years before and , the receptionist comes across as pandering to the boss at anyone else’s expense. And what about this Nigerian Prince? Of all the tables Gene Luen Yang and Derek Kirk Kim turn in their earlier stories, this one is the most surprising. I was delighted even as I was initially baffled by the revelation. But then one has to get over the idea that Janet is so singular and other from the likely tech-savvy, tech-world-built readership of the comic. She is painfully familiar and very typical, except for the fact that she recognizes her life for what it has become and boldly claims her choices.

What appears to be rather unfortunate investment calls become complicated as Janet appears to be investing in herself at the same time. The sun breaks through, Janet begins to decorate her cubicle, becomes more animated and more musical when she moves, we get color. And what to do with that ending? “Urgent Request” transforms its central character into someone who is not awkward, shy, frumpy, or insignificant. The getting there is odd and complicated and did I say odd? I guess it really isn’t all so very odd, just watching someone open up in the face of incredible personal risk requires a massive lung capacity for all that held breath. You genuinely hope it pays off—in some form. And “Urgent Request” does calculate the expenses. Humor manages to find a way in, but the idea that a world has been robbed of passion either in their neutered avatars, or their ergonomic work closets is a delightful indictment in this piece. Janet decides to demand more.

A moment on the format with this one. I really enjoyed the speech bubbles and text (other than sound effects) were placed outside of the panels. The frames keep their (older) on-screen quality. And when they take up white space it makes all that white on the page more comfortable. The placement of the frames require more conscious attention, as their effect is disruptive in obvious ways; the composition had me wondering if there was more to it than the distancing, the emptiness (isolation), and “out of place”/ “out of sync” visual perception–not that that wasn’t enough.

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*Curious after reading Same Difference and noting Kim’s pop cultural references, I checked birth dates. Derek Kirk Kim was born in 1974, and Yang in 1973.

{images belong to Derek Kirk Kim and Gene Luen Yang}

Check out this 2009 interview I found when looking for images. Yang and Kim speak with Alex Deuben for Comic Book Resources, wherein Yang says,

“Geek culture has heavily influenced mainstream American culture. Escapist culture is all around us, and it’s big business. I think it’s easy, especially for teachers like me, to just look at the ways it interferes with real-world relationships, goals, and personal growth. But many of the roots of modern escapist fantasy – myths, fables, and even the more modern Tolkien novels – weren’t really about escaping reality. They were about illuminating it. I think fantasy videogames, movies, and comic books can do the same, if crafted well.”