"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 · fiction · recommend · Tales

{comic} curiosities

amazing screw-on head

The Amazing Screw-On Head and Other Curious Objects

by Mike Mignola; Dark Horse Comics, 2010.

“The Amazing Screw-On Head” is the first short story of the collection wherein President Abraham Lincoln calls Screw-On Head to action. The Emperor Zombie who in life was Professor H.G. Manifold has gotten hold of a dangerous manuscript that no one has been able to translate until now; “It’s as you always say, sir. All really intelligent people should be cremated for the sake of national security.” Screw-On Head is just as his name implies, his head can screw onto any number of mechanical bodies when not hopping around on its own. Things only get more bizarre from here on out—exciting, isn’t it? In addition to the bizarre and slightly ridiculous (a radish?), Mignola’s sense of humor has excellent timing. This short won the 2003 Eisner Award for Best Humor Publication when released on its own in 2002.

asohaocint

{from “The Amazing Screw-On Head”}

Portraits of a werewolf, a cannibal, and a criminal lunatic only confirm suspicions about the figures from those Victorian era sittings in sepia.

The story “Abu Gung and the Beanstalk” confirm any growing suspicion that Mignola has something to do with Hellboy (if you didn’t know already). We met Gung in the previous story, and this provides an amusing glimpse into his origin-story, as well as a nice dark take on the Beanstalk story. (Redrawn and expanded from its inclusion in a 1998 Dark Horse anthology Scatterbrain)

amazingscrew10p1

Next is “The Magician and the Snake” co-authored w/ a 7 year old Katie Mignola. This is a strange and lovely story of the Magician who, with his friend snake, is determined to live out the rest of his life as happily as possible understanding that the end is inevitable. Even so, there is something to be said of a legacy of friendship and living a life loved by someone. This won the 2003 Eisner for Best Short Story.

In “The Witch and Her Soul” the devil comes to collect. The witches servants of wood become his own—and at her making. It holds a nice laugh-out-loud moment as the devil makes himself recognizable to the oafish little puppets (see below).

asohaoco devil

“The Prisoner of Mars” involves Victorian gentlemen in space—well, their spirits anyhow, one placed into a Martian body, another a Martian robot of similar (but indestructible form). Really, if you are going to have a figure come back as a ghost to smoke cigars with his friends at his club, why not squiggly diabolical aliens? Victorian gents can be the cause of hilarity all on their own, but throw in the aliens and inescapable executions and this is a lovely dark romp in the park.

The last is “In the Chapel of Curious Objects” a brief tour of a chapel wherein the statue of the Magician rests, a hidden panel opened, and…

There are story notes and sketches (w/ notes) at the end of the volume.

I picked this up while studying at the library, hoping for a nice vacation into the pleasantly bizarre and morbid, maybe a good laugh or two. A quick flip let me know I’d like the artwork and recognizing the name Mignola, I wasn’t worried about how the form would play out as story. I was not disappointed. This comic is an easy sell.

I will remind us of it around Carl’s R.I.P. challenge this fall, but it was a full-sun afternoon and the stories still came across delightfully.

{images are Mike Mignola’s and Dark Horse Comic’s}

"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.”

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

{book} you are not a stranger here

“You and all the inheritors of wealth who think life is a matter of perfected sentiment. You are wrong.” (“The Volunteer” 237)

You know those books you should have just gone ahead and read because people you trust swore by them? You Are Not a Stranger Here: Stories by Adam Haslett has been sitting on our shelves since I think 2003. It is Sean’s copy and he and our friend Kevin were the ones swearing.  In my own defense, each were wrecked by the read (in a good way) and sad was a word oft repeated in my presence. Haslett delves further than melancholy and shoots straight for deepening aches. I didn’t want to be sad then, nor did I particularly want to be sad the other day when I picked it up. But I am so glad I did.

Adam Haslett explores lives that appear shuttered by loss and discovers entire worlds hidden inside them. An aging inventor, burning with manic creativity, tries to reconcile with his estranged gay son. An orphaned boy draws a thuggish classmate into a relationship of escalating guilt and violence. A genteel middle-aged woman, a long-time resident of a rest home, becomes the confidante of a lovelorn teenaged volunteer. With Chekovian restraint and compassion, conveying both the sorrow of life and the courage with which people rise to meet it, You Are Not a Stranger Here is a triumph. —back cover.

The title is perfect even before one encounters the quote in the 5th story, “War’s End,” when Mrs. McLaggen tells Paul, “You’re not a stranger here. […] I recognized you somehow, not like I’d met you or such, but nonetheless” (106). If you escape without recognizing the characters in these stories somehow, then lucky you? To be fair, I do believe Haslett has the rare gift to make you care for his characters, even in their most raw states, even when you want to look away or ignore their existence. The reasons why a Reader might want to look away may be out of loathing, or painful recollection, or fear of what a character’s vulnerability exposes. The critical thing is how Haslett compels the Reader to remain transfixed, to see a story through—I’m not entirely sure how he does it, and so consistently.

I think Haslett tapped some desperate optimism in me. I wanted to see some sort of hopeful ending. Foolish Reader. And then there were, in other cases, naked fascination with his depictions of mental illness and the culturally tormented. Haslett employs the senses, slips in and out of memory, internal and external, lulling the Reader into a riveting pacing.

There are a lot of similar themes explored throughout but they exist in varying concoctions. So while there may be a pervasive sense of fear, alienation, and sorrow throughout the book, each story is its own. I know people approach short story collections differently, but I would strongly recommend at least beginning with the first and saving the last for last.

What follows are remarks upon each of the stories. I tried to keep it brief. (I used the goodreads star-rating system.)

1]—“Notes to My Biographer” (1-23). >5 stars< This first-person narrative follows the fractured mind and estranged life of an aging inventor who would reconcile with the only child of his three who would see him. “He has a good mind, my son, always has, and somewhere the temerity to use it, to spear mediocrity in the eye, but in a world that encourages nothing of the sort, the curious boy becomes the anxious man. He must suffer his people’s regard for appearances. Sad” (9). Apart from sexual preferences, we learn that father and son have a lot in common, but the two have different strategies for getting along; coming from different perspectives and ages.

Reconciliation is only for a father and son, but to witness a man reconciling his own beliefs and actions. We see this in how Franklin makes mental notes to his Biographer so as to get particular details correct and in his explanations for his manic behavior.  Franklin’s inner landscape is fascinating; but at what cost does he pay to maintain it? The externalized consequences give us some clue.

2]—“The Good Doctor” (24-47) >3 ½ stars< (3rd person). Having always been strongly affected by the hurting, Frank turns it into a vocation. Fresh out of school, he practices psychiatric medicine for the underserved feeling this is where he can be freer to engage in patients’ lives and therapies. He encounters a young educated mother who challenges his “goodness.” Is he more dependent upon them, then they upon him? When he medicates, that rare moment when we meet him, what is he medicating against? How does this compare to what the woman has and is suffering? What is escapable, and what is not? [expectations: for self/other, sex/gender, roots] External forces and failures and our means of coping; and what empathy truly means.

3}—“The Beginnings of Grief” (48-64) >5 stars< (1st person). This one was hard after the last, but even alone, it would have been difficult. It was the most difficult of all the stories because of the violence the unnamed protagonist draws upon himself. Just where is his sexual attraction to Gramm, his “thuggish classmate,” founded. It is good to have the early stages of grief in mind while reading about this orphaned teenaged male. The language is raw and holy hell but I hurt for the unnamed boy—and even Gramm.

4]—“Devotion” (65-88) >5 stars< “Being replaced. That was the fear” (85). Devotion is the story of aging siblings who have sort of ended up remaining in the house together. The story is aptly named as the two share mutual affections and come to grips with the sacrifices such devotion takes. There is melancholy, but there is something other and quite beautiful; it is found in the absence of abandonment; those that remain when other ties are severed.

5]—“War’s End” (89-117) >4 stars< Paul is depressed and dealing with the effects of his condition and medication on his wife and their marriage. Finding lucidity on a trip abroad (made for both their sakes), he contemplates a “weighing of needs” (105). He knows he is a burden to the woman he loves, but he is also afraid of what the medication and depression is doing to him, “the idea that so much of him was a pure and blinded waste” (94). This is a fear pervasive in the story. There is the slow decay, a wearing away and wearing down of selves, relationships, lives…  There are so many courageous individuals in this story, and incredible love and devotion. It is both very moving and very sad.

6]—“Reunion” (118-137) >3 ½ stars< James moves from order into chaos; from an image of normalcy into the ravages of his illness; and ever in pursuit of his father to whom he writes letters. The third person narrative holds the focus and cleanly frames the story. James and his relationships are touched upon, inferred, take place in dark parks, in memories, in routine, and are reflected in his and Patrick’s unfulfilled flirtation. James has his reasons for withdrawal, but the loneliness and disintegration are heart-breaking. He is focused and determined, and in a way I can’t help view as self-flagellating. He would look different from how he actually he is. He lives among the shamed, the used, in the margins. And he seems surrounded, as if the margins are quite crowded actually. It is remarkable how Haslett keeps a pitiable character from being so. How he gifts James some dignity.

7]—“Divination” (138-164) >5 stars< “You’re a perfectly normal boy” (157), his father insists rather violently. There is a fear of the abnormal and its various implications. And there is a reason to fear as the implications of Samuel’s newly discovered “gift” comes to haunt. The dread and portent are so deftly rendered in this one. I was trembling with it as I read of Samuel’s resignation that he would now live in “the quiet place, beyond the walls of the crowded dwelling” (164). The paralleling of him and his father, what they gain and lose in their respective acknowledgement and denial, is a familiar something I think we all consider more than a few times in our own parent/child relationships.

8]—“My Father’s Business” (165-193) >3 ½ stars< Daniel is bipolar. He is also a young man interested in Philosophy, like his father who has a PhD. Daniel looks back at his medical file with correspondence between different treating doctors as well as the transcripts of tapes he recorded while conducting his research: “Anecdotal Sociology of the Philosophical Urge in Young Men.” Haslett captures Daniel’s mental health condition in the swinging moods illustrated in the interactions recorded in various interviews. He also captures so much more in the interviews asking after where the urge toward philosophy began. For Daniel, he finds his origins for so many of his present-day conditions in his father. There are notable similarities between this story and the first one, “Notes to My Biographer.” And yet they do differ and it is nice to find this one late in the book for some distance. Its late placement allows for some revelation about You Are Not a Stranger Here as a whole as well.

People whose best hope for a connection to other human beings lay in elaborating for themselves an elegiac mode of relatedness, as if everyone’s life were already over. […] This idea of living your life as an elegy, inoculating yourself against the present. So much easier if you can see people though they were just characters from a book. You can still spend time with them. But you have nothing to do with their fate. It’s all been decided. The present doesn’t really matter, it’s just the time you happen to be reading about them. Which makes everything easier. Other people’s pain for instance.” (184-5)

The father suggests that Philosophers contribute to “keeping things at a remove” (185). And it is telling what Daniel does after his journey, once he gets off the train. It is significant that he sees the man with his young sons getting off the train before him. There is a lot of weight, but some humor in this one as well, and a really nice ending.

9]—“The Volunteer” (194-237) >5 stars< Elizabeth had always been fragile mentally, but she experienced a major break at one point and was institutionalized in a Home. When off her meds, she is visited by a 17th century ancestress, Hester. She is also visited by a volunteer from a local High School, Ted. She becomes, in a way, a strange surrogate (grand)mother to the boy whose lost his and could really use a woman’s advice–He has a raging infatuation for a girl at school. The echoes among the women, young, middle-aged, old, and ancient are of interest, but so is Ted who is thrown in the middle of it all, a male image that is on the brink of his predecessors (the males that pair with the women). While generalizations can be made in critique, the story is as intimate as all the others.  There are conversations about façade versus the raw underneath. There are the ideas of particular moments, their scenarios that come into conflict with an actuality, the pain and the mess and the potential disappointment. “You and all the inheritors of wealth who think life is a matter of perfected sentiment. You are wrong” (237).

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You Are Not a Stranger Here: Stories by Adam Haslett

Anchor Books, 2002; 237 pages, tradepaper [own]

9 short stories; National Book Award Finalist; Pultizer Prize Finalist.

"review" · fiction · Illustrator · juvenile lit · mystery · recommend · series · short story

Guys Read : Thriller

Ten stories guaranteed to thrill, chill, and have you so far on the edge of your seat that you’re actually on someone else’s, from the following notorious authors: M.T. Anderson, Patrick Carman, Gennifer Choldenko, Matt de la Pena, Margaret Peterson Haddix, Bruce hale, Jarrett J. Krosoczka, Anthony Horowitz, Walter Dean Myers, James Patterson; with Illustrations by Brett Helquist. ~jacket copy

Volume 2—Guys Read : Thriller edited (and intro) by Jon Scieszka

Walden Pond Press, 2011. Hardcover, 272 pages. Ages 8-12.

The second installment of Guys Read’s Library is Thriller, a collection of short stories that delivers “the wildest mix of detectives, spooks, cryptids, snakes, pirates, smugglers, a body on the tracks, and one terribly powerful serving of fried pudding” (Jon Scieszka, “Before We Begin…). Yep, sounds like a guys read to me. And it begins with the cover.

Brett Helquist as Illustrator would not only do his part to provide an image for each story, but he has a mystery to share as well. Sciezska begins his Introduction by drawing attention to the cover. “Why is that shady-looking character lurking in the dark alley? What’s he doing with that crowbar? Is that something in his other hand? What is he doing? What has he done?” Sciezska continues to speculate and draw definitions of ‘mystery’ and ‘thriller’ from his contemplation and leaves the story of the cover art up to capable hands, the readers’. “You will have to work out the rest of the story yourself, because that’s all we’ve got from Brett Helquist’s cover. And Brett is suddenly not talking anymore. Smart guy.”

The stories vary in subject matter and in approach, there is even a comic. Three or four at the very least should capture the reader via style/voice. I am guessing the target audience will likely find more. I found humor in every story in Funny Business, but with Thriller I was beginning to think any review I wrote would ultimately surrender to “Jon Scieszka and these authors/illustrators know their audience, they know what they are doing.” It may yet. But as it was I was a bit underwhelmed. And then I found my three or four: (in no order of preference) Pirate by Walter Dean Myers, Thad, the Ghost, and Me by Margaret Peterson Haddix, Nate Macavoy, Monster Hunter by Bruce Hale, and Ghost Vision Glasses by Patrick Carman. Okay, The Old, Dead Nuisance by M.T. Anderson was a good way to start the anthology. And undoubtedly Patrick Carman’s Ghost Vision Glasses was the perfect last story of the collection. While I don’t think one should have to read such a book of stories in order (I like to pick out my favorite authors/titles first), Carman’s story does leave the right level of excitement that makes you think the whole book was a winner.

And Guys Read: Thriller is a winner. This Library of books Scieszka is curating, editing, is a brilliant idea, and it is meeting its promise. These books and stories will entertain the most reluctant middle-grade reader, and said reader will likely find at least one author to pursue. Many of these stories would provide great writing prompts, let alone inspire a reader to write or illustrate their own Thriller. Jon Scieszka and these authors/illustrators know their audience, they know what they are doing. I can’t recommend this Library enough.

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Because it is Halloween-time and I am thinking about Neil Gaiman’s All Hallows’ Read, wouldn’t it be brilliant if we could get ahold of these Thriller stories in bite sizes, each printed in slim volumes of singular stories, to purchase and place in school libraries, English classrooms, and trick-or-treat pillowcases? Well, at least for your favorite young people in your life, Guys Read: Thriller en masse is available in time for the season.

Guys Read: Thriller also makes for a good Readers Imbibing Peril (RIP) for the younger (and younger at heart) participants in Carl V./”Stainless Steel Droppings” Challenge.