"review" · comics/graphic novels · recommend · sci-fi/fantasy · young adult lit

{comics} IRL

In Real Life by Cory Doctorow & Jen Wang

First Second (2014)

 Anda loves Coarsegold Online, the massively-multiplayer role-playing game where she spends most of her free time. It’s a place where she can be a leader, a fighter, a hero. It’s a place where she can meet people from all over the world, and make friends.

But things become a lot more complicated when Anda befriends a gold farmer–a poor Chinese kid whose avatar in the game illegally collects valuable objects and then sells them to players from developed countries with money to burn. This behavior is strictly against the rules in Coarsegold, but Anda soon comes to realize that questions of right and wrong are a lot less straightforward when a real person’s real livelihood is at stake.

In Real Life is a perceptive and high-stakes look at adolescence, gaming, poverty, and culture clash. –jacket copy

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You could pick this one up for the Introduction alone. Cory Doctorow lays the ground work for Anda’s finest impulse: to affect change in the face of a social injustice. “This is a book about games and economics,” Doctorow begins. And he closes with the reminder that it is “risk” to “change the world for the better,” but there are “principled people” (like Anda) who prove willing–and able. Like the novel itself, Doctorow’s Introduction educates and inspires with plain-speaking and zero condescension. A young Anda isn’t the only one who thinks that maybe she could try to make another’s circumstances better.

You could also pick this one up based on that cover. That Jen Wang is a talented artist is evident. But it is Anda’s real life-likeness that has me enamored and intrigued. Wang sets the visual tone as to what is real. She grounds Anda, but not in order to create a dramatic contrast with the fantasy of the on-line gaming world and the avatar there-in. Anda may strengthen her self-esteem via her gaming/community (love the red-hair dye), but her ferocity stems from a compassion and intellect. In Real Life draws two worlds that bleed into the other, not in a singular direction; note how little, if at all, the color palette shifts between worlds. Anda’s avatar is not a wholly separate entity formed completely as an other (despite the design options). And neither are the other players. Anda interacts with other gamers through a variety of avenues (classroom visit, voice, chat, skype, mediating avatars). In Real Life reminds us that life exists in/on multiple platforms.

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We need to see some of the real life implications of gaming–for the negative and positive–and In Real Life delivers. “Coarsegold Online” has upsides and downs. The upside is argued by Anda to her concerned mother. Not everyone is a perv and connecting globally broadens horizons. A downside that the novel focuses on is in the gold farming and the desire for some of the gamers to enjoy their time without a complication of ethics. Our heroine finds camaraderie in a space that also generates millions of dollars from abusive labor conditions—I’m referring to the online game-scape, but the same is said of her life back home (e.g. Anda’s school, media), as well as our very own real life comic and gaming cultures. The very spaces that can liberate can oppress, and vice versa; the comic panel and its composition… Wang’s verisimilitude in the rendering of Anda does not go unnoticed.

In Real Life is worth the complication of the female character. So Anda can look like a waif or no, go by Anda or no, and still essentially be her self. I dig how females can be both competitive and cooperative, blood-thirsty and compassionate, a leader and follower.

The online gaming world isn’t only this ‘other’ place where real people say they play pretend. Similarly, Anda’s avatar is just another visual representation of who she really is: a resourceful young woman capable of a complex range of emotion and action. Her only limitations in the imagined setting are rules or expectations imposed by her self or others. …Hmm, sounds like real life.

Anda finds success, but not without error and conflict. What sets her apart, where she finds connection on-line, is in knowing a person exists beyond the avatar/game. Liza is real to her. Raymond also becomes real. She is real. Her father evidences a connection to an event spoken about on television. Life is illustrated in the connections made between the differing realities of media.

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Like most good “serious” or “important” books, the creator knows how to tell a story first and foremost. First: the choice of form. Comics are a great medium for discussing gaming, and not just for the visual familiarity, but a cultural one. Girls in comics and gaming share a conversation. Comics and gaming share a counter culture and overlap in followers.

Second: Wang is excellent in her craft. A random page-flip…6 & 7. On page 7, Liza, the game-recruiter is outside of a box (panel). Page 6: human hands direct/interact with what happens on the screen. Pages 70 & 71 wordlessly seats Anda in a classroom with maps, connecting bubbles of information on a projector, and a clock. We see her considering the time difference with China, both settings connected by a centrally located smart phone operated by thumbs. On 71, Anda begins to research gold farming, not relying on just one source of information (“Sarge”). She is curious and has/uses her resources (education, technology, peers, adults).

Just as Anda’s online persona informs her physical one, the interdependence formed and flawlessly expressed between the Writer (Cory Doctorow) and Artist (Jen Wang) of In Real Life demonstrates how the plural can inhabit a single narrative. As Anda is inspired by both physical and online situations equally, learning from both to aid her in either world, In Real Life is inspired textually and visually.

I swear that In Real Life is an accessible, entertaining graphic novel with beautiful art and an engaging story. It’s just that it is also really smart and unusual that it can’t help but be talked about in some depth. Anda digs deep. She takes risks and inspires others to do the same. She moves beyond the superficial, in perception of self and others. Maybe that is one of the things I like about Anda and In Real Life, both can be fun and serious. Both can be complicated in important and entertaining ways.

{images are Jen Wang’s}

"review" · comics/graphic novels · juvenile lit · recommend · sci-fi/fantasy · series · young adult lit

{comics} no sleeping beauty

The Rise of Aurora West By Paul Pope; J. T. Petty; David Rubín (Illustrator)

(First Second Books 2014) tradepaper.

Having read Paul Pope’s Battling Boy, naturally I was eager to seek out The Rise of Aurora West. We’d met Aurora West in Battling Boy as the recently orphaned (before our eyes) daughter of Arcopolis’ Science Hero Haggard West. The Rise takes us back to a time where Pope and Petty can flesh out a bit more of the mystery not only behind the up-and-coming hero of Aurora West, but the arrival and rise of the supernatural monsters terrorizing the city. You read with dread their development of a weapon to take down the elder West. The most compelling mystery for Aurora, of course, is the death of her mother and whether her imaginary friend was really all that imaginary–or harmless.

puzzling out the pieces

The ass-kicking adventures are tempered by familial implication and what a violent life-style costs. Haggard had to come to his own decisions about the monsters that haunt them, Aurora must as well. Haggard is driven by the desire to protect his daughter and avenge his wife. How might the ending of Rise and the events of Battling Boy affect the nature of Aurora’s own career as a hero of Arcopolis?

While the characterization in Battling was sound, it was good to learn more about Aurora’s background as well as become more familiar with her own Ms. Grately. Too, Rise sets up intriguing story lines for the next volume and the next issue of Battling Boy adventures. Rise functions successfully as a prequel, but it is a complex novel in its own right–one that would be a shame to miss.

Now for the art. I hadn’t thought nor expected a different illustrator. David Rubín is obviously talented, but I prefer Pope’s rendering of Aurora and company in Battling Boy. The smaller size to the novel was nice. It made me think Archie over epic fantasy superhero, but I was less taken with the aesthetic. The black and white befitting the size. And for a narrative told from Aurora’s POV, a shift in artwork suits the shift in mode.

Rise isn’t the current adventure, but a story of what was going on before Battling Boy arrived on the scene. In a genre that frequents artistic collaborations for design purposes or necessity, I should have better anticipated another hand. Rise sets itself apart from Battling in a good way, and an important way. You’ll want this volume (the first of two) for your collection–just adjust another expectation: that the volumes are not going to fit uniformly on the shelf. Not that Aurora could fit uniformly on a shelf somewhere. Watch out female comic book heroes.

{images belong to Paul Pope; J. T. Petty; David Rubín}

"review" · comics/graphic novels · concenter · recommend · young adult lit

{comic} this one summer

If the summer narrative isn’t your glass of lemonade, it isn’t mine either, but I had to see what all the raving was about and I was very pleasantly surprised. Make it your book club read. Make it the first comic you’ve decided to read if you have been harboring a mistaken belief that comics can’t be accessible, female-friendly, and/or literary.

This One Summer by Jillian Tamaki & Mariko Tamaki. First Second 2014. Hardcover, 319 pages.

This One Summer has the cinematic quality of classic Summer films like Stand By Me, but it has the added bonus of escaping the sentimental or the nostalgic.

Rose returns to Lake Awago as she does every summer with her family. Her sisterly friend Windy returns as well. But unlike the seemingly carefree summers of earlier years, Rose’s parents are fighting and soon she and Windy are as well. Circling the adolescent turning point is a crush, pregnancy, and classic horror films–which makes sense.

this-one-summer-art-excerpt

The publisher describes the book as an “ultimately hopeful story about a girl on the cusp of her teen age—a story of renewal and revelation.” “Ultimately” is a key term. The novel left me on the brink of despair for the increasingly irritating protagonist. Why did she seem so familiar? She is a naïve preteen whose imagination is limited by any number of things. She ignores realities that stare her in the face, or accompany her every day in the form of a best friend. She’s pretty much everyone.

The Tamaki’s infuse their summer drama with plenty of humor and charmingly odd relatives. Windy is a spirited girl you hope will be spared from the typic behaviors the more seriously matured Rose begins to express.

I appreciated the pop culture references and the game playing of M.A.S.H–that took me back to my youth. That Rose’s mother wears a Bikini Kill t-shirt was unexpectedly characterizing. Rose’s mother isn’t apparently going through something quite deep and distracting until the last portion of the novel. Initially, she just comes off as unpleasant, especially in juxtaposition to the fun father figure. Yet there she is appearing to be a fan of a late grrrrl! punk band. There is a feminist appeal in This One Summer, but more: a definite female appeal to the complexities of the body and the body politic.

this one summerBeing a girl is complicated business, and while boys have their own things going on (which the book alludes to), there is a female-centricity that should be unsurprising and anticipated in a book by two female creators.

A lot of secrets are simmering in This One Summer. And it is a lovely aspect to the novel that not all secrets are revealed before the Summer (and thus the novel) concludes. Even so, Rose has to come to grips with their consequences, even if the consequences indirectly affect her. The novel questions whether we have to know the details to afford someone the grace they need. It questions why we tend to favor one person in a scenario over the other; why do we jump the conclusions we do, side with/defend the people we do. Windy’s confrontations with Rose are beautiful.

The strangeness of This One Summer is the kind of cultural discussions one can arrive at without the book directly engaging the reader in it. The narrator, Rose, introduces us to summer traditions and observable changes and the like, but really we are reading an indie film about a summer vacation at the lake. You can run with the symbolic nature of summer or of a body of water and the female body if you want. But the profound effect of the novel is in the culmination of both the mundane and the emotionally charged moments.

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The novel needn’t be too heavy to threaten an easy recommendation. This One Summer does not close with a lengthy voice-over by Rose, summarizing her journey in a deeply contemplative gesture, but a clever youthful quip, a ticking of a clock, and a series of images that close a chapter and leaves a pile of symbols on a summer cot once occupied by a young girl-on-the-cusp.

Between the artwork (love the hue of the ink, the dimensions, movements) and the content, This One Summer is one to buy for any adolescent-upwards female in your life.

{images belong to Jillian Tamaki & Mariko Tamaki}

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this read is a part of the “A More Diverse Universe” event.

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

{comics} 15 & Fated

cleo01_frontcoverCleopatra in Space: Target Practice by Mike Maihack

Graphix (Scholastic) 2014

Comics you should already have read (and hopefully own) before the middle-grade years hit: Jellaby (Kean Soo), Zita the Spacegirl (Ben Hatke), Amelia Rules! (Jimmy Gownley) and Kazu Kibuishi’s Explorer and Amulet series (still incomplete). I’m obviously only naming a few. And I am being quite specific because Mike Maihack’s Cleopatra in Space is nice addition to this bookshelf for late middle grade into early High School readers.

Space saga geeks and Indiana Jones adventure fans will dig the familiar rush Cleopatra will provide, but that does not mean Maihack makes this series a predictable one.

Cleo in space
Newly-turned-15 and sucked through space and time, Cleopatra offers a lot of kick-ass action and snark. She also sulks. I mentioned she’s 15. As for Target Practice (book one), it is not as predictable as I’d anticipated plot-wise, which is nice. Really what Maihack is doing is developing consistent characters with a lot of potential for growth and adventure, which is excellent. I’m really looking forward to The Thief and the Sword (Book 2) due to be out in Spring 2015.

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The artwork is damn likable and easy to follow. The panels follow contemporary trends of being as mobile as the characters themselves. The panels participate in controlling the movement and the action, contributing to mood and energy. I’m not suggesting it is completely nonsensical, but I was troubled by all the white space on the page. Is it more incidental than artful? I began to question whether the visual story could have been tighter, but its target audience will appreciate the expenditures. Maihack allots the action room to give chase and Cleo is a marvelous action star. She can be appropriately dramatic. And Maihack is savvy with the comedic timing as well.

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Despite concerns on design-compositional scores, Cleopatra hits the targets of what makes for an entertaining comic: great artwork, characters, action, gadgets, humor, and story. Maihack is launching a series for this reluctant heroine that suggests the sinister and the exhilarating. He writes a satisfying start to a really promising new series. Be sure to check it out.

{images are Mike Maihack’s}

"review" · comics/graphic novels · concenter · recommend · sci-fi/fantasy · Uncategorized · young adult lit

{comic} Good as Grace

good as lily coverGood as Lily by Derek Kirk Kim (Same Difference, Tune, The Eternal Smile)

& artist Jesse Hamm (extensive resume)

Minx 2007

A strange mishap on her eighteenth birthday causes Grace Kwon to be confronted with herself at three different periods in her life–ages six, twenty-nine, and seventy–while she and her friends struggle to save a crumbling school play.–publisher’s comments

A typical story of the anxiety of major changes: 18th birthday aka “adulthood,” college acceptance letters, maturing relationships: takes on an atypical twist or three. I’m not referring to the presence of past and future selves; somehow that does not seem rare. I think it is that intriguing struggle between each of the Graces to control their fate.

Grace Kwon expresses significant anxieties in her different ages and situations. Kim’s resolution is not as simple as ‘there is one solution to save them all,’ nor are the Graces consciously working toward the same end (except maybe one). Each relational conflict the Graces experience address those different facets that affect a whole person: parents, friends, lovers, enemies, education/experiences. Resolving each Grace’s trouble creates a more reassured present-day Grace. Perhaps more simply put, the worry about a future where incidents from childhood and present failures/successes have an effect, is drawn into a story called Good as Lily.

Good as Lily only becomes more complicated as I think about it. Read, the story is easy. Kim and Hamm are entertaining as they carrying us through the awkward and the sweet with a deft hand. Even appreciation for the way the creators render the differently aged Grace’s as individual comes later. Each Grace is remarkably similar in look and personality, but different. That particular desires of each Grace have not changed centers their shared identity.

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The title was the only part that took its time being readily apparent. It took a while to meet Lily. Of course, the figure and the wording relay the standard by which Grace measures herself and her successes. However, it is not Lily who is actualized in order to haunt Grace–but Grace herself x3.

goodaslily03Grace is Korean-American, as are some of the other characters (see left), and Good as Lily denotes <dialog> translated from Korean and other times will asterisk a word for translation. Some great cultural readings can/will be made of this comic.* Derek Kirk Kim also writes convincing female characters. My notice is attached to an interview with author Danielle Evans that came to mind. Evans was asked if it was difficult writing a male character’s point-of-view: “His main issues weren’t really gendered, and his voice was pretty familiar, because it reminded me of some men I know.”

Jesse Hamm designs character, panel and page with appealing vitality. Some sequences are all his, yet he still manages the quantity of text with dexterity. The artwork is accessible, the play with form is hardly gratuitous/distracting. Savvy authors should have equally savvy artists and this is a team that proves itself. Hamm is amusing and sharp without drawing attention away from the story being told; even so, I could pause to appreciate moments his work delighted me with out breaking the stride of the book.

good as lily characters

 

Good as Lily provides all the drama and blushes of High School, threading the bow with that sweetest of story-lines: “I’ve been trying to giver her one of these [cards] every Valentine’s Day since 4th grade. Heh…It gets harder every year…”(Jeremy 99). There are some difficult moments in characters’ lives, but Kim/Hamm are excellent in generating the energy and humor to buoy the reader without being disingenuous.

Good as Lily is a nice addition to that Derek Kirk Kim collection of yours. Any-reader friendly, it is a nice Spring afternoon read. For fans of creators like Gene Luen Yang, Hope Larson, Faith Erin Hicks, Bryan O’Malley Raina Teglemeier, Vera Brosgol…even Buffy.

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*I skimmed a couple of reviews that seemed to rate the success of the book on whether it proved “important” or not; as if “important” trumped good craftsmanship; as if good craftsmanship isn’t important; as if “important” aka culturally relevant statement-making as compared to ? is where the pleasure of the art is derived, and, for them, evidently it is. I mean, I know it isn’t the best read ever! A range of emotions proceeded: fatigue, nausea, indignant, sadness. Is there an unfair burdening of certain works/creators…of readers? I wonder if we would all become misanthropes if we only read “important” reads.

a note: if you could explain the pig piñata? thanks.

{images belong to Derek Kirk Kim & Jesse Hamm}

 

 

"review" · cinema · sci-fi/fantasy · young adult lit

{film} running time 101 minutes

how i live ronan

An American girl, sent to the English countryside to stay with relatives, finds love and purpose while fighting for her survival as war envelops the world around her.—IMDb.

I was not aware Kevin Macdonald’s How I Live Now (2013) was adapted from a 2004 YA novel by Meg Rosoff until just prior to cueing it up on Netflix. I have not heard anything bad about Rosoff’s novel(s) and I am aware of the difficulties in adapting novels to screen, so what follows is purely in response to the film. Even so,  this would be a good film for playing bingo with popular YA-fiction tropes.

We saw the trailer some months ago and the film stayed on our radar. We like actress Saoirse Ronan and the premise of the film sounded promising: after being separated, two young lovers try to get back home to one another. I do like romance stories, really. And while Ronan was not a letdown, the premise, I am sad to say, was.

how-i-live-now-saoirse-ronan-george-mckay{Saoirse Ronan as Daisy w/ George MacKay as Eddie}

The primary difficulty with the narrative is that it is told along chronological lines. Elizabeth, now Daisy, gets off the plane and is met by her young cousin Isaac (Tom Holland). They go to his country house where she meets her older cousin Eddie (George MacKay). Everything slows when they interact so we catch the intensity of their response to one another. Over the next few days, she has to will herself out of her comfort zone and she finds herself in love with Eddie, so much so that she couldn’t possibly think of leaving him after some official hunts her down to give her a plane ticket home after London has been possibly nuked, but certainly bombed the hell out of. I would have preferred a series of flashbacks to an idyllic time and place, like those precious and sexy moments Daisy will come to dream about anyway. It would move her love outside of time, maybe to weeks instead of days. It would eliminate, too, the noticeable absences of kind adults, an odd appearance of the American official, and the aggression of the military presence vacating the homestead. Every ingredient at the opening is so ridiculously amped up and intense.

Why the “I hate my father who has a new baby and could care less about me now” trope? To explain her attitude, introduce daddy issues, and possibly compare him with Eddie, I suppose, but it comes across as just too much for the film. And what is with the mystery of the mother having gone to this home when she was a child, too? A nod to Rosoff’s readership, I hope; just as those scars on Eddie’s back. I also missed somewhere just how people are related exactly, outside of cousins. As I’ve been reading 18th-to-early 20th century literature of late, that Eddie and Daisy are cousins was not startling, but it was still odd. I think they were supposed to struggle with the notion themselves, but the pace of the movie and our understanding that theirs is the great romance removed that quandary pretty quickly—just about as quickly as they lost their clothing.

If the opening is to create an investment in the characters and their edenic situation, the success is tepid at best. And this is not the only part Natalya—our resident teenager—declared boring.

how i live still

{George MacKay as Eddie being evacuated and/or pressed into service}

A militarized state is imposed during the ensuing national crisis. A violent military presence arrives at this idyllic home and, acting as if the children are combatants, roughly separates the youth by gender and carts them away. We don’t know about the boys, but the girls—Ronan and a child Piper (Harley Bird)—end up in the home of a military official and his wife, just the two of them. They work sorting edible vegetables from heaps. Daisy begins to plan an escape, having not only sex dreams of Eddie, but ones where he is summoning her home. She is sure the boys have already made a break for it.

One of our complaints is the inability to measure time after the separation. Daisy’s roots kept changing length. I think a time stamp would not have been amiss.

Cue neighbor boy’s reappearance so we can reconnect with him emotionally before he dies rather horribly. Cue also a string of events that show just how imperiled the heroine is without actually imperiling her. She doesn’t even have blisters from all the walking, the little girl suffers them. She does get to find the heap of inexplicably bagged bodies at the farm where the boys were to have been sent.

how-i-live-now (1){Harley Bird as Piper w/ Ronan (Daisy)}

There is a sense of dread that Eddie might not be waiting. Call me morbid, but I was also a bit excited by the prospect, if only to subvert that inevitable reuniting—which is the only thing the film does not make easy. Yes, never fear, there is a happy ending…as happy as the film can afford Daisy understanding what Eddie has been through.

As frustrated as the narrative leaves me, Ronan did not disappoint me, and I enjoyed MacKay’s acting as well. Piper makes the journey sufferable. That Ronan’s character was so abrasive at first was a bit off-putting, but we were sure that it was important to the character’s development. She is going to be changed by her experience from a distracted, cold and angry young woman to a kinder, gentler, selfless young woman; which is what happens–however inelegantly. That angry shock of hair gets swept up in domestication. Her insecurities and their attempts to please popular culture are energies refocused into pleasing her man—a man not taken up with popular culture himself. No, Eddie is handsome, quiet, sensitive to nature, family-oriented, and possibly telepathic? He’s the swoon-worthy boy of contemporary romance literature.

Daisy:  Before the war I used my willpower for stupid stuff, like not eating chocolate. I think I thought if I could control myself, then maybe the world around me would start to make sense. I guess I was pretty naive back then.

We like the flawed protagonist, we do. Only sometimes she was just so focused as to be dangerous. The consistency is laudable, and the shift of it being a negative attribute to a positive one is equally so. I find that the shift accompanies a recalibrated selflessness of greatest interest. Her love of Eddie is selfish to some degree. She wants to give up on all life without him. He is always before her. She cannot leave him behind, and she will sacrifice the little sister for him. She needs him (in order to be domestic) and he, we come to know, needs her determination and focus. His PTSD requires her attention and patience. Even the musical compositions still and soften. Daisy is not that hero of primary importance to be recovered by the end–voice over trope not withstanding–it is Eddie. So maybe the happy ending is more tentative than I first proposed.

how i live now

As for sound and cinematography: The sound is well-enough and the cinematography was pretty, too—except this one hideous quick zoom to her face as she makes a realization. She has this supernatural connection to Eddie, you see, and she suddenly knows something and the camera must close the space between a medium shot and a close-up. The zoom would have struck a sour note if the film hadn’t already turned.

If the expectation is low and the mood light-weight or drunk like it, the premise may romance you enough to satisfy. Otherwise, the How I Live Now is lackluster at best.

 

how-i-live-nowHow I Live Now (2013). Directed by Kevin Macdonald; written by Jeremy Brock Tony Grisoni & Penelope Skinner; based on novel by Meg Rosoff; music by Jon Hopkins; Cinematography by Franz Lustig; Editing by Jinx Godfrey; produced by John Battsek, Alasdair Flind, Andrew Ruhemann & Charles Steel. Studios Cowboy Films, Film 4. Distributed by Magnolia Pictures, Momentum Pictures, Madman Entertainment. Starring: Saoirse Ronan (Daisy), George MacKay (Eddie), Tom Holland (Isaac), Harley Bird (Piper) & Anna Chancellor (Aunt Penn).

Running Time: 101 minutes.  Rated R for violence, disturbing images, language and some sexuality. So the majority of its best bet as far as audiences go was rated out of seeing it in theaters…

To pair w/ the new Red Dawn…

 

 

"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.