Thursday, September 11, 2014

American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang

The school where I teach sent me a copy of American Born Chinese over the summer.  In October, I have to lead a conversation about the graphic novel with a group of kids as part of a schoolwide conversation about respect.   I'm an English teacher, that doesn't faze me, but I can see why others might be anxious over talking about the book with young kids; one of the three narratives contained within the book traffics in some pretty horrific stereotypes: Danny, an All-American kind of high school kid, is mortified when his cousin Chin-Kee, a cartoonish Chinese figure, comes for an extended visit:

Chin-Kee swaps his L's for R's and vice versa, eats dog, shows off in class, and generally makes Danny's life miserable.  There's a method in this, of course; Chin-Kee represents the kind of self-image that young Asian-American students fear carrying around with them, but I expect younger kids might not have the foresight to anticipate the way Yang expresses this idea late in the book.  The fact that Danny is white makes it even more difficult to figure out exactly what Yang is aiming for, at first.

Its significance is tied to the two other narratives in the book: The story of the Monkey King, who wants to be anything but a monkey, and the story of Jin, who is fearful of associating with a more recent Taiwanese immigrant to his class.  Jin's story especially shows clear parallels with the story of Danny and Chin-Kee, and together they become a larger narrative about the need to fit in and the pressure to abandon one's cultural heritage.  In the end, Yang ties these three stories in a way that is clever and tidy; in this way the book rewards patient readers who are willing to wait for the relevance of Chin-Kee to become clear.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Blade of the Samurai by Susan Spann

I pretty much never read straight-up mystery novels, but when I was contacted about Blade of the Samurai, I was intrigued by the setup: an undercover samurai, Hiro Hattori, solves mysteries with Father Mateo , the Catholic priest he's been commissioned to protect. Sounded like an interesting spin on the detective story, and I figured I'd at least enjoy the setting, so I picked it up.

The mystery this time is as follows: Saburo, a cousin of the shogun, has been stabbed to death in his quarters, and the apparent perpetrator is Kazu, a longtime friend of Hiro's. Because of their connection, he's called to investigate the case, which must--will--be closed before an important diplomatic attache arrives, even if it means executing a man who may not be guilty.

I'm happy to say that, on the samurai detective front, it delivered. Blade of the Samurai tells a pleasantly diverting little yarn with bursts of good humor and some fairly sharp characterization. I enjoyed the interactions between Hiro and Father Mateo, but moreso, I enjoyed the reactions of the Japanese with whom Father Mateo came into contact with. While many authors might have played the cultural differences for fish-out-of-water japery, Spann takes them seriously for the most part, culminating in a scene where Father Mateo is scolded and subsequently repentant for treating peasants the same way he treats the hoi-poi.

This scene encapsulates the other thing I wanted from the book and didn't quite get: a more thorough examination of the relationship between Father Mateo's faith and Hiro's ancestral religion. I'm a sucker for Catholic novels, but besides the fact that Father Mateo spends about 25% of the novel offscreen, Spann mostly doesn't focus too much on his inner life--and, to be fair, that's my own baggage coming into the book. Still, I would have liked a little more.

Overall, however, the mystery moved quickly, especially when supporting characters start biting it in the back half, and the killer wasn't obvious to me--I can't speak for more experienced mystery fans. It was fun, and if you like mysteries or find the setting of feudal Japan interesting, check it out.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Cinder by Marissa Meyer

"She wouldn't fit in at a formal ball anyway. Even if she did find dress gloves and slippers that could hide her metal monstrosities, her mousy hair would never hold a curl, and she didn't know the first thing about makeup. She would just end up sitting off the dance floor and making fun of the girls who swooned to get Prince Kai's attention, pretending she wasn't jealous. Pretending it didn't bother her."

This novel is exactly what the cover image and the quote suggests: Cinder is a cyborg teenager who experiences all the typical teenage drama (what teenage girl hasn't pretended to make fun of other girls when they were really just jealous? I am finally old enough to admit that my cattiness is really my jealousy) on top of cyborg sci-fi problems on top of Cinderella problems.

The book features Cinder, an adopted cyborg, who lives in New Beijing as a part of the Eastern Commonwealth that was established after WWIV in the far future. Although Cinder is still a second class citizen in her home (evil stepmother/dead father are still a thing), she's also a second class citizen in her government: cyborgs aren't given full human rights. Although Cinder is still doing the work that her pampered step family is too lazy/bougie to do, she is a talented mechanic rather than a maid. There is no fairy godmother for Cinder; she creates her own Pumpkin and magic with her mechanical know-how. The future world of Cinder has hovercrafts, cyborg body parts, the equivalent of the iPhone27, a Lunar colony on the moon, and a Plague that is spreading.
"You see," said Dr. Erland, "Lunars are the original carrier hosts for letumosis. Their migration to the rural areas of Earth, mostly during the rein of Queen Channary, brough thte disease into contact wtih humans for the first time. Historically, it's a common situation. The rats that brought the bubonic plague to Europe, the conquistadors who brought smallpox to the Native Americans."
The Eastern Commonwealth of course has a Prince, and I found his banter with Cinder to be charming and swoon-worthy rather than the typical overwrought and eye-rolly conversations that most YA romances are filled with
"Now, I don't want to tell you how to run your business or anything," he said, "but have you considered actually charging people for your services?" 
"I don't want to tell you how to be a prince, but shouldn't you have bodyguards or something?"
It is remarkable how Meyer has taken a story that everyone knows and given it fresh twists.

  • We know that Cinder has to meet the Prince. We expect it will happen at the ball, but Meyer moves it to very early in the plot a week before the ball which leave us wondering: what is the conflict if not meeting the Prince? (this also gives them a chance to develop an actual relationship so there's not of that love-at-first-sight nonsense)
  • We know that Cinder is going to end up at the ball, but Meyer puts in place enough roadblocks that make it apparent that going to the ball would threaten Cinder's life, so we have to wonder: what is going to happen that is more important than our protagonist's life?
  • We know that Cinder is going to lose a shoe/foot, but the opening page has Cinder ditching her old cyborg foot for a new one, so we have to wonder: when and where is she going to lose her foot?
Cinder invokes the moral quandaries of what legal status cyborgs should have, whether it's worth it to sacrifice some for the betterment of many, how political alliances are built on shifting power structures, and whether people should marry for love or for practicality. 

It ends on a bit of a cliffhanger which is no surprise since the back cover clearly advertises the sequels (Scarlet and Cress which are already out and the forthcoming Fairest and Winter). I hope that Meyer is able to keep up the stamina of the first books and tell a complete story. More disappointing than a bad book is a bad sequel.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward

And in the end, I know little, some small facts: I love Joshua. He was here.  He lived.  Something vast and large took him, took all of my friends: Roger, Demond, C.J., and Ronald.  Once, they lived. We tried to outpace the thing that chased us, that said: You are nothing.  We tried to ignore it, but sometimes we caught ourselves repeating what history said, mumbling along, brainwashed: I am nothing.  We drank too much, smoked too much, were abusive to ourselves, to each other.  We were bewildered.  There is a great darkness bearing down on our lives, and no one acknowledges it.

As you can tell from the above excerpt, Men We Reaped is not a light or happy book.  However, it's an incredibly written and haunting book that I recommend to everyone.

Jesmyn Ward's memoir tells the story of her childhood in DeLisle, Mississippi, and the lives and deaths of five men close to her: three friends, a cousin, and most excruciatingly, her younger brother.  All died before they turned 30, and together Ward knits their deaths together as a shroud of what it's like to be a black man in the South.

There are books about poverty and its causes, racism and its manifestations, drugs and violence, but I can't imagine any paint as vivid a picture of how it feels to experience all of these not only individually, but systemically, knowing that you and the people you love are almost fated to experience them.  I knew this book would give me a perspective that I hadn't had before and I expected it to be heartbreaking, but I was also impressed at how beautifully written it is.  Ward's prose flows effortlessly and makes the reader feel what it's like to both desperately love and desperately hate a place, as she does about her home.

I also recommend this book because it is so relevant in America today.  Much has been written about the morality of our criminal justice system, the causes of poverty, the efficacy of police tactics, and the seemingly unceasing effects of racism, but I think it's important, especially for white people like me, to set aside the theoretical and statistical and to just listen to what it feels like to be black in America, what experiences come along with that.  I know I've been deficient in my posting this year, but I felt like I had to get back at it with this one.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Kleinzeit by Russell Hoban

Kleinzeit leaned on his fear, hobbled into the black sunlight with trembling legs, found an entrance to the Underground, descended.  Underground seemed the country of the dead, not enough trains, not enough people in the trains, not enough noise, too many empty spaces.  Life was like a television screen with the sound turned off.  His train zoomed up in perfect silence, he got in.  In the empty spaces his wife and children spoke, sang, laughed without sound, the tomcat shook his fist, Folger Bashan was smothered with a pillow, his father stood with him at the edge of a grave and watched the burial of trees and grass and blue, blue sky.  The train could take him to the places but not the times.  Kleinzeit didn't want to get out of the train, there was no time here, nothing had to be decided.  He dropped his mind like a bucket into the well of Sister.  There was a hole in the bucket, it came up empty.

Kleinzeit, middle-aged ex-advertising copywriter, is admitted to the hospital with pain in his hypotenuse, which spreads quickly to his diapason, asymptotes, and stretto.  That baffling sentence tells you a lot about the world of Kleinzeit, which is not quite our own.  For one thing, everything talks--anthropomorphism is the principle stylistic tool Hoban employs in Kleinzeit.  See for yourself:

Under the bed Death sat humming to itself while it cleaned its fingernails.  I never do get them really clean, it said.  It's a filthy job I've got but what's the use of complaining.  All the same I think I'd rather have been Youth or Spring or any number of things rather than what I am.  Not Youth, maybe.  That's a little wet and you'd hardly get to know people before they've moved on.  Spring's pretty much the same and it's a lady's job besides.  Action would be nice to be, I should think.

Elsewhere Action lay in his cell smoking and looking up at the ceiling.  What a career ,he said.  I've spent more time in the nick than anywhere else.  Why couldn't I have been Death or something like that.  Steady work, security.

When Kleinzeit is admitted to the hospital, he doesn't merely enter a building; he contacts a rapacious, sadistic anthropomorphic being who wants to devour him:

You understand things, said Hospital.  You're clever.

Ever so, said Kleinzeit, looking for a mousehole small enough for him.

Yes, said Hospital, and became one infinite black mouth.  Didn't even bother with teeth.  Just an infinite black mouth, fetid breath.  Kleinzeit backed into a mousehole.  If the hole is this big the mice must look like oxen here, he thought.

Everything is personified: Death, Action, Hospital, Memory, Underground, the bathroom mirror, the sheets of yellow paper that beckon for Kleinzeit to write on them (and may have some sinister connection to why Kleinzeit is in the hospital in the first place).  That sounds like it might get annoying, but it works because Kleinzeit is a story about a man facing the powers which are outside of his control, and threaten to destroy him.  Giving a voice to "Hospital" allows Hoban to revitalize the conflict between a person and his own bodily health.  Who, being in poor health, has not found the hospital itself to be ominous, even malicious?

While in Hospital, Kleinzeit and his attending nurse, called Sister, fall in love.  I'm not sure I can describe the rest of the plot without sounding a little ridiculous: Kleinzeit and Sister go busking in the London underground; Sister finds an ancient Greek helmet; Kleinzeit struggles to figure out the connection between the yellow paper to his illness and those of the others in his ward; Hospital tells Kleinzeit the true story of Oprheus and Eurydice; other minor characters with names like Flashpoint and Schwarzgang and Dr. Pink come and go.

Kleinzeit is so scatterbrained and strange it seems as if it ought to fall apart like Nathanael West's The Dream Life of Balso Snell or Mervyn Peake's Titus Alone, two books which are nearly unreadable.  But somehow, Hoban manages to unite all these disparate parts into a touching meditation on man's relationship with Death--a creature that turns out, in the end, to be not nearly as hostile as Hospital.

This is the third novel I've read by Hoban, after Riddley Walker, which I loved, and Pilgermann, which I did not.  Each one is weird in its own way, and accomplished in its own way, but none of the three is like the other--so much so that it's hard to believe that they were written by the same person.  If nothing else, Hoban has a range that few other authors can rival, perhaps none.