kaberett: A drawing of a black woman holding her right hand, minus a ring finger, in front of her face. "Oh, that. I cut it  off." (molly - cut it off)
[personal profile] kaberett
This came into my possession via the latest Humble Ebook Bundle, and I am so glad it did. This is how glad I am: I am about two-thirds of the way through it and I can't wait to finish before I tell you all how good it is.

The protagonist, Hanna, is sixteen, manic depressive (and explicitly, canonically prefers that descriptor to "bipolar", Because Reasons), and Finnish-"island girl" (Hawaiian?), raised (for most of her life) in Dallas. She describes herself as biracial and bicultural, and she's bilingual in English and Finnish - and the codeswitching is genuinely plausibly represented.

The dude she ends up hanging around with a lot is the same age, Latino, and bilingual in Spanish and English - again, really nicely represented.

The story takes place in creepy smalltown Texas. It's sub/urban fantasy and abusive parents and a critique of the medical-industrial complex and teenagers having (complicated, not always happy) sex lives all tied up in tight, funny monster-killing brilliance. It's lovely.

Content notes. )
[identity profile] wordsofastory.livejournal.com
7. Jamaica Kincaid, Lucy

This very short novel (though apparently heavily based on Kincaid's real life) follows Lucy, a young woman who moves from the Caribbean to New York City to become a nanny for a wealthy white family. There's little plot, and instead the book reads like a series of vignettes about Lucy's life, interspersed with memories of her childhood. The mother Lucy works for treats her more like a friend than an employee, leading to difficulties; Lucy adjusts to life in a new country; Lucy makes friends and has relationships. Despite relatively little happening, this is a powerful book. I found Lucy to be an insightful, cynical character, and really enjoyed her voice.

I actually read this book back in January and just have been terribly lazy about getting around to posting this review, but one scene in particular has stuck with me all this time: in New York, one day Lucy sees daffodils for the first time. However, as a child, Lucy memorized a poem about daffodils to recite at a school assembly, despite never having seen the flowers and their not growing in her country. This metaphor for the insidious results of colonialism and the ways it affects people really hit home.
[identity profile] wordsofastory.livejournal.com
6. Paula Yoo, Good Enough

Patti is a Korean-American high school student who plays classical violin but has a secret obsession with boy band Jet Pack. Her parents expect her to study hard, go to her church youth group, and not date, but she's interested in new student Ben Wheeler, who teaches her about groups like the Clash and encourages her to apply to Julliard instead of HarvardYalePrinceton. I really enjoyed both Patti's problems and their resolution; it felt very true to me. Just as a personal note, I always love it when I find a well-written intelligent character, and Patti very much is. Many books will tell the reader that a character is smart, but it's rare for me to find one that can actually show it.

This isn't a deep book, but it's fun and engaging. It had some very funny parts, particularly the silly chapter titles (like "How to Make Your Korean Parents Happy") and spam recipes (which, uh, actually sounded really tasty, and I hate spam). A great read for when you want something light but enjoyable.
[identity profile] wordsofastory.livejournal.com
3. Dolen Perkins-Valdez, Wench

Whew, this is a depressing book. But well worth reading; the characters are all very believable and engaging, and the situation is compelling. It's a novel, but one based on a real-life situation: Tawawa House, a popular summer resort in the early and middle 1800s, located in Ohio but frequented by rich men from southern states. The story focuses on four black women, all slaves, and all brought by their owners to Tawawa House over repeated summers. Because, see, Tawawa House has a particular reason for being popular: it's a place where slave-owners can bring their black mistresses, leaving their wives behind.

This is a hard book to describe, because there's not much of a plot; most of what changes over the course of the novel is the slow shifts in Lizzy's (the main character) attitude toward her life and the other people in it. Wench is excellent at describing the tangled situation she and the other women find themselves in, their feelings about each other, other people back home on their plantations, and finding themselves in Ohio- a free state- while still being a slave. Each of the four women has differing attitudes towards their men, ranging from Lizzy (the main character), who really believes her owner loves her and her children, to Mawu, who would kill her owner given the chance. Lizzy's efforts to make a better life for her children shape her character and result in some of the most heart-breaking scenes in the book, while her time in Ohio tempts her to leave them behind and make an escape attempt.

Not a fun book, but an excellent one. I recommend it.
[identity profile] wordsofastory.livejournal.com
32. Geling Yan, The Lost Daughter of Happiness, translated by Cathy Silber

This novel is about a real historical figure, Fusang, a Chinese woman who was a prostitute in San Fransisco in the late 1800s. Although the narration focuses on Fusang and her relationship with others, particularly Chris- a young white boy from a German merchant family in love with Fusang- and Da Yong- a Chinese gangster who is influential in Fusang's life- Fusang herself ultimately remains a blank. She's never given motivations, inner dialogue, or even much emotion. And this is deliberate. The narrator- who, as a Chinese writer living in America in the modern day, may or may not be the voice of the author herself- often breaks into the story, explaining the impossibility of truly knowing another person, especially when that other person is a historical figure with only brief mentions in texts. At other times, the narrator speaks directly to Fusang, asking her to move a certain way or to reply to a question. I found this distancing effect to be really intriguing, but in other reviews people seem to have been annoyed by it, so your mileage may vary.

The language is beautiful and vivid; the plot is compelling. The novel explores racism, sexism, and violence, often explicitly linking events of the historical period depicted to the modern day. Highly recommended.
[identity profile] whereweather.livejournal.com
#29.  Same Difference and Other Stories, Derek Kirk Kim
2004, Top Shelf Productions (material originally self-published between 2000-2003)

I really, really like this story.  (Also, the edition I'm reading has an extraordinarily beautiful cover, which I wish would show up more readily on Google searches for the book.  I just love it a lot.)

This is a collection of short stories, but the book is clearly dominated by the title piece, which at 80 pages makes up more than half the book.  (The rest of the pieces are a grab bag of variable interest and quality, ranging from two to eight pages or so.)  "Same Difference," though, is a novella -- or a short graphic novel -- and I really dug it a lot.  The central characters are Simon Moore and his friend Nancy; both are Korean-American, both are recent college graduates, both are living and working in Oakland and working on finding their adult footing and way in the world.  An over-the-top prank played by Nancy, and her insistent desire to follow it up (Nancy has a very forceful personality, to the point of being domineering), leads to a day-trip-cum-road-trip down to Pacifica, the quiet, beautiful beachside suburb where Simon grew up.  The day brings encounters and surprises; it ends, as days do, with sunset, night falling, the stars.

It would make this a longer review than I have time for to go into detail about all the reasons I like this work, but I'll throw out a few.  I like Kim's aesthetic; by that I mean not just the technical execution of his artwork (which I also like very much), but also the way he chooses to depict things: his sense of pacing, of rhythm, of composition; his interest in quiet spaces and quiet passages, in the emotional value of light and natural and constructed-urban patterns in the environment.  (This stuff is not blatantly obvious while you're reading the story, which I think is also deliberate -- it has a cheerful, almost noisy flow -- but it's definitely there.)  Also, I like his character design, and I like his characters.  

I find myself thinking of this in comparison to other comics I've been reading lately.  Adrian Tomine's 2007 book Shortcomings throws up a similar dynamic: the protagonist's best friend Alice Kim is, well, actually almost identical to Simon's best friend Nancy.  (Huh.  The more I think about those details of character design and dynamic, the more I start to wonder about that.  Kim's came first... )  But I like Kim's characters, and story, better: I find the protagonists more realistic (although that's admittedly a complicated term) and more engaging and endearing.  Another comparison that comes to mind is Dan Clowes' Ghost World, for reasons which will probably be evident if you've read both books.  Once again, though, I find myself liking Same Difference better.

I think the reason might be... or boil down to... because I find Kim's view of his characters, and the world, ultimately much more compassionate and humane than is the case with either Tomine or Clowes?  And I like humane.  It is ultimately what makes great literature great to me; which is why I'm not really a fan of either Clowes or Tomine, despite the respect I can accord to some of their work. 

Your mileage, of course, might vary. This is why the world is full of books! :)

[Tags I would add if I could: california, disability, twentysomething, coming of age, culture shock]

PS: Oh yeah -- the rest of the stories are interesting, too, at least some of them.  (A number of the tags I've used apply to them, not to the title story.)  I couldn't really get into most of them, though; a lot of this work seems to be Kim complaining about how girls don't like him.  They are fairly superior examples of the type, but there's not much depth there.  This is, I'm coming to think, just material that many artists have to work through before they can get to plumbing their memories and emotions for richer and more mature work, and Kim has worked his way through it and gotten beyond.  (Unlike some other cartoonists I could mention, like Chester Brown, or Ivan Brunetti, or Adrian Tomine, or Dan Clowes.  (Oh, excuse me!  Did I say that out loud? ;))
[identity profile] whereweather.livejournal.com
#25. This Bridge Called My Back, ed. Cherríe Moraga & Gloria Anzaldúa
1981/'83, Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press

This is another book that is so full of... ideas and thinking and newness, and that has so many visions and so much emotion in it, and that contains both so much I can identify with and so much that seems deeply foreign -- I don't mean only the experiences and attitudes of the women who wrote it, but also, which is harder for me to assimilate, the lens through which they view the world: the moment of history, cultural and political, in which thy formulated these ideas and these manifestoes -- that I feel overwhelmed when I try to think about posting a review of it.

But I also feel kind of like a coward for backing out of reviewing it. What to do? I think I will let it simmer for a while. I may also read the much more recent companion book to it (this bridge we call home, used, I see, as an icon for this group ;), and see if that helps me understand, and bridge the thirty years of historical difference between these women and me.

[tags I would add if I could: assimilation, sociology, spirituality [or: religion/spirituality], puerto rican, a: morales rosario, a: rushin donna kate, a: wong nellie, a: lee mary hope, a: littlebear naomi, a: lim genny, a: yamada mitsuye, a: valerio anita, a: cameron barbara, a: levins morales anita, a: carillo jo, a: daniels gabrielle, a: moschkovich judit, a: davenport doris, a: gossett hattie, a: smith barbara, a: smith beverly, a: clarke cheryl, a: noda barbara, a: woo merle, a: quintanales mirtha, a: anzaldua gloria, a: alarcon norma, a: combahee river collective, a: canaan andrea, a: parker pat] 

(Also, apropos of nothing: Whoo! Halfway through! This book feels like an appropriate one for that milestone.)

[identity profile] whereweather.livejournal.com
[Note: Tags I would like to add, when it eventually becomes possible: a: hernandez lea, i: hernandez lea, steampunk.]

#20.  Cathedral Child, Lea Hernandez
Cyberosia Publishing, 2002 (?)

Cathedral Child
is a very curious graphic novel of somewhat confusing provenance.  It is also, I think, unfinished.  I gather that it was meant to be the first volume of a series that Hernandez called "Texas Steampunk Trilogy," but there were a long series of delays in publishing the book and I don't think the second and third volumes were ever produced.

Which is a pity, because Cathedral Child is full of interesting ideas, and has a unique sensibility and a lot of heart.  The ending is very confusing to me, but I don't know how much of that comes from its being supposed to continue on later, or perhaps from the artist having been obliged to cram some extra plot points in where they hadn't been planned.  (Babylon 5 season four, anyone?)

So anyway, I can fault this book on several counts of clarity and pacing. On the other hand, conceptually it is fantastic.  It is set in nineteenth-century West Texas, where a white engineer, Nikola (I see what you did there!), and his investor/partner, Stuart, have set up shop to build an "analytical engine," which in this setting seems to mean an AI. 

They are building their AI inside a mission-style Spanish church, which is referred to as Cathedral, and the "machinists" and "tutors" -- who do the work of teaching and training the young artificial intelligence --  come from among the ranks of the so-called natives, who seem to be Hispanicized Indians.  (This is not entirely clear to me, but on the other hand I am not entirely clear on the distinction between "Hispanicized Indians" and the people we now call Mexicans, so maybe that means I have to do some more research myself.)   In any case, they are brown people, with Spanish names.  And there are really not nearly enough representations of brown people with Spanish names in steampunk at all, much less drawn in a manga-influenced American style, so even if it were just for this I applaud Lea Hernandez a lot.

I won't summarize the whole story here -- I guess I should just recommend reading it yourself, if it seems interesting to you.  I do admit I find the book somewhat confusing.  Some of the story concepts aren't as clearly brought through as they should have been, and I think that unclearness resides both in the storytelling and in the artwork.  On the other hand, I like many of the characters, and some of the ideas are just sublime.  It's really too bad the trilogy seems never to have been finished.

(Also: this book, and its writer, raise a "Who's P.O.C.?" question for me.  Is Lea Hernandez a writer/artist of color?  I am assuming, from her name, her place of origin, and -- here's where it gets really tricky -- from the content of her work, that she is Hispanic, and probably Mexican American.  But does that mean she's necessarily a person of color?  I don't know.  All the (smallish) photos of her I've been able to find online show her with blonde hair.  But I don't know if that means anything; many Mexicans have blonde hair... So here I am, including her, but without really knowing.  For all I know, I could be wrongly assuming.  And we all know what assuming does.  I could be making a ming out of my ass.)
[identity profile] whereweather.livejournal.com
#11.  Shortcomings, Adrian Tomine
2007, Drawn & Quarterly

I keep trying to like Adrian Tomine, and he kind of just keeps leaving me cold.  Cool, anyway.  I'm not really sure what else to say about it. 

I read Shortcomings in the space of about an hour; and thought about it; and then I reread it, trying to be sure to catch whatever I might have missed.  Tomine's work is  much more technically accomplished now than it used to be, and sometime he even gets daring or lyrical in his framing.  But his characters are kind of... they leave me untouched.  What can I say?  I know plenty of people who love his work.  But I keep comparing his spare, skillful black-and-white comics about humans in relationships to the spare, skillful black-and-white comics about humans in relationships of Jaime Hernandez, and I'm like, "Man.  One of these artists I keep going back to and his characters live in my imagination.  And the other one... I close the book and they're gone."

Which is probably just as well, because they were assholes anyway.  Nobody in Shortcomings is very likable, including the protagonist -- which is, I suppose, one of the strengths of the book.  Ben, who (like Tomine) is Japanese-American, is having a rocky time in his relationship with his girlfriend Miko.  Miko, also Japanese, suspects that Ben has a wandering eye for white women (by which both she and he appear to mean "blonde and blue-eyed," which apparently describes all the eligible Caucasian females in California).  Ben denies it... and then concedes that maybe, yeah, he's been culturally conditioned to find that sexy, but it that his fault?  Ben is intensely defensive, and never seems to give a moment's thought to Miko's well-being.  Which is why, when the relationship gets rocky, it comes as no surprise...

An interesting book about interesting issues, and certainly a protagonist and perspective we don't see much -- or enough -- of.  I just wish... I wish I could find an emotional heart in Tomine's work.  It's so cool and cynical, it stands so far away while it dissects, that it's hard for me to care.  A story about emotions that refuses to become emotionally engaged is... it's not something that can really become meaningful for me.

[identity profile] whereweather.livejournal.com
#10.  Kindred, Octavia Butler.

Okay, I am about the fiftieth person to read this book in this community, and the sixth or seventh to post about it TODAY.  Which makes me feel as if an in-depth review would be... unnecessary?  Redundant?  I will, nonetheless, try to write briefly about what I myself took away from it. 

A brief summary: Dana, who is black, is a feminist and a writer.  It is 1976, and she has just moved with her husband of not-very-long, Kevin (who is white), to a their first house together in Los Angeles.  By mechanisms unknown to her, she finds herself unwillingly pulled back into the past, for the presumable purpose --  she quickly figures out -- of saving Rufus, a young white boy who will become the master of his father's Maryland plantation, and keeping him alive long enough to father the child who will become Dana's ancestor.  But that means Dana has to live -- and  try to keep her body, integrity, and sense of self intact, in a society in which blacks are property, women are treated like children, and she has no legal or personal rights at all.

Butler calls this book a "grim fantasy," which seems correct, in that it's certainly not science fiction.  The mechanism of time travel is not really important here; what matters are its consequences.  I find Butler's writing very immediate, and although she is not a particularly lyrical or elegant stylist, her calm, tough, clear prose works very well to keep the story moving, to illuminate character and to draw the reader into the questions she is most interested in addressing: those of assumptions; of ambiguous ethical questions; of painful choices which genuinely -- unlike in most fiction -- have no obvious right answer.

A couple of interesting, and illuminating, quotes from the book's Wikipedia page:

"I was trying to get people to feel slavery," Butler said in a 2004 interview. "I was trying to get across the kind of emotional and psychological stones that slavery threw at people." In another interview, she said, "I think people really need to think what it's like to have all of society arrayed against you."

The book is set on Maryland's Eastern Shore. Butler said she chose the setting "because I wanted my character to have a legitimate hope of escape," and because two famous African-Americans, Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, had been enslaved there.


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Writers of Color 50 Books Challenge

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