2017年2月21日 星期二

"Americanah" by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2013)

"Once, she asked Dike what he had done in school before summer, and he said, 'Circles.'  They would sit on the floor in a circle and share their favorite things.

"She was appalled.  'Can you do division?'

"He looked at her strangely.  'I'm only in first grade, Coz.'

"'When I was your age I could do simple division.'

"The conviction lodged in her head, that American children learned nothing in elementary school, and it hardened when he told her that his teacher sometimes gave out homework coupons; if you got a homework coupon, then you could skip one day of homework.  Circles, homework coupons, what foolishness would she next hear?"

Author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie divides her time between the US and her native Nigeria.  Americanah is her third and most recent novel.

Ifemelu and Obinze, students in Lagos, seek to realize personal goals by moving out of Nigeria.  Ifemelu moves to the United States, where after months of privation she finds success as a blogger.  Obinze moves to the U.K. and is eventually deported, but later begins a lucrative career in real estate after he moves back to his home country.  Ifemelu and Obinze's paths cross many times in the book, and Ifemelu's return to Nigeria and reentry into Obinze's life are described in the last few chapters.

I think this book has a lot to say about both culture and race, and also how the two inform our lives.  I say this as someone who's still very tired of the endless (American) dialogue on race and "atonement for past sins," and also as someone who was a bit skeptical of this novel from the beginning.  Americanah deftly balances race against class, rich against poor, and the Third World against the First.  The characters are believable, their choices make perfect sense, and the dilemmas in which they find themselves are both interesting and realistic.

My only complaint is the "blogger" portions.  I suppose that at the time it seemed like a very modern thing to do, but in retrospect Ifemelu's obsession with her blog seems a little silly.  The excerpts from this blog also take the reader right out of the story, and the content of these excerpts would have been better demonstrated through her interactions with other characters, rather than described long after the fact.

Despite this minor flaw, Americanah is a good book, and worth reading.  It also brought to mind many of my own experiences, living as a Western person in a non-Western country.

2017年2月11日 星期六

"The Narrow Road to the Deep North" by Richard Flanagan (2013)

"He thought of how the world organises its affairs so that civilisation every day commits crimes for which any individual would be imprisoned for life.  And how people accept this either by ignoring it and calling it current affairs or politics or wars, or by making a space that has nothing to do with civilisation and calling that space their private life.  And the more in that private live they break with civilisation, the more that private life becomes a secret life, the freer they feel.  But it is not so.  You are never free of the world; to share life is to share guilt."

Richard Flanagan is an Australian writer and director.  He has written six novels and five works of non-fiction.  He co-wrote Baz Luhrmann's 2008 movie Australia, and received the Man Booker Prize in 2014.

His 2013 novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North details the life and times of Dorrigo Evans, an Australian surgeon deeply scarred by his experiences in a Burmese prison camp under the Japanese.  The novel is roughly chronological, jumping from his earliest years in Tasmania, to his hellish years in Burma, to his rise to fame and fortune in post-WWII Australia.

And I must say that the the scenes in the concentration camp are among the best fiction I've read about the Second World War.  They are harrowing, and a few Google searches only proved that yes, things like this actually happened.

The only problem is that the book doesn't quite hang together as a whole, and some of the sections set outside Burma detract from the masterful sections set within it.  Structurally, I admire what Richard Flanagan was trying to do, but the "love triangle" elements set in Australia don't seem to belong alongside the brutal accounts of life inside a Japanese prison camp.  

Yes, setting the entire book inside the prison camp might have made it too similar to other novels, but most of the framing narrative set outside of the camp calls too much of the prisoners' suffering under the Japanese into question.  The chapters set in postwar Japan are excellent, but the remainder of the book feels like an inferior, unfinished novel, fused into what should have been a more straightforward book on the Australian experience during WWII.

This said, I think that where this book truly shines is in its depiction of East vs. West.  The Japanese characters in this novel are all given their due, and at times the ways in which their philosophy clashes with Western ideas of warfare makes for fascinating reading.

I wouldn't say that The Narrow Road to the Deep North is a flawless book, but it's definitely one of the best books I've read in a while.  Not as honed as The Orenda which preceded it, but a solid effort nevertheless.  I'll be looking out for more of Richard Flanagan's books in the future.

2017年2月6日 星期一

"The Orenda" by Joseph Boyden (2013)

I'm on the train to Taipei.  Or am I?  I might be among the Huron, with the Iroquois in close pursuit.

"I awake.  A few minutes, maybe, of troubled sleep.  My teeth chatter so violently I can taste I've bitten my swollen tongue.  Spitting red into the snow, I try to rise but my body's seized.  The oldest Huron, their leader, who kept us walking all night around the big lake rather than across it because of some ridiculous dream, stands above me with a thorn club.  The weight these men give their dreams will be the end of them."

We take the MRT to the Shin Yi shopping district and walk a great deal.  I eat a crispy jalapeno burger at the Gordon Biersch restaurant near the 101.  I have a second beer at the Brass Monkey before we visit the Eslite Bookstore near the MRT stop on our way back to Keelung.  No snow, just a light mist.  No Iroquois in pursuit, and the only thing that hurries us is the need to meet my older daughter at the Taipei Train Station.

"Each day as we struggle against the current, I watch the men turn leaner, more focused, more silent.  From first light until night threatens we push up this wide, black river with birch and maple and poplar thick on the banks.  So many good places for my father's brothers to ambush these canoes.  I hope they've brought a hundred men, two hundred men."

We get off the train at Nan Gang Station.  We aren't familiar with this part of Taipei, so we get lost in our search for Global Mall, which lies somewhere above us.  I order the spicy beef soup with rice from a Korean restaurant in the Food Terrace.  The only people waiting to ambush us are saleswomen, who occasionally emerge from the nearest escalator with advertisements in their hands, urging us to visit a nearby store, or to sign up for the newest credit card.

"She slits the neck open and, using an awl, pulls until its long black tongue hangs out.  She then carefully works the awl into the head from below, scraping and cutting as she goes, until the tongue and the muscles that held it in place, and then the eyes and their tendons, and finally the yellow mush that was once the animal's brain lie in a small pile beside me."

I follow the road past Ba De Train Station down the rain-soaked hill, wondering how far Keelung Port is from my brother-in-law's apartment.  Twenty minutes?  An hour?  I enter a tunnel and emerge into sunlight again, glad that it's the first day of Chinese New Year, and that the traffic is light.  As I turn a corner into downtown Keelung I see a dog standing on an aluminum roof.  Is it trapped there?  Has it somehow climbed there from somewhere else?

"'I hate feasts!' I say.  'I hate people!'  They've killed my raccoon and now they expect me to join them in eating him to fulfill the dream of an old woman who clearly hates me."

After the town of Nuan Nuan the road climbs up a steep hill.  It's a lot farther to Ping Shi than I expected, but the view improves as I enter the Nuan Dong Valley.  Twenty or so minutes later I have to get off the bike and walk.  It's just too steep.  And then I am riding through a 6 kilometer-long tunnel, until I emerge into Ping Shi District on the other side.  It's a beautiful morning, and I'm glad I made the trip.

"Carries an Axe finally comes home with just a few hares and partridge to show for his days away.  He's a good hunter, but the world seems like it's turned against us.  I can feel the worry, even a slow burning fear, when I leave our longhouse on my walks.  Everyone knows what comes, and yet none of us, as hard as we try, can prevent it."

We pack our things carefully and get ready to leave my brother-in-law's apartment.  We say our goodbyes and walk into the hall to put our shoes back on, debating whether we should leave our bags in Song Shan or Taipei Train Stations before making a final excursion into Taipei City.  

As we do so, I think about the gruesome ways in which many of the characters in Joseph Boyden's "The Orenda" meet their end.  Plagues.  Tortures.  Arrows in the neck.  Yes, it's good to be alive, and to live in the modern world.

Taipei might not be as exciting as early colonial Canada, but I'm happy that this is the case.  I'll take the Eslite bookstore over Hurons bearing thorn clubs.  I'll take dogs on roofs over animal brains.  I'll even take credit card debt over starving in the winter cold - any day of the week.  The modern world has its imperfections, but I'll gladly take the flaws in the modern over the savageries of the antique.

2017年1月14日 星期六

Comic Book Interlude 9

1. "American Splendor" by Harvey Pekar, Robert Crumb, and Others (1976-1991)

Underground comic, largely autobiographical in nature.  Parts of it are good, but it's extremely repetitive, and at times crosses that line between art and masturbation.  The author, Harvey Pekar, writes about life in Cleveland, and people that he knew there.  Everything I said about "Ordinary Victories" could be applied to this one.

It was later adapted into a film starring Paul Giamatti.  The movie is probably much better than the comic book. 

2. "J. Michael Straczynski's Midnight Nation" by (of course) J. Michael Straczynski and Gary Frank (2002)

Super boring comic book about a policeman trapped in limbo.  The art is also too "superheroic" for the subject matter.

Dear Mr. Straczynski: If you're going to put your name above the title, you really ought to come up with something less derivative than this.  You've got a good ear for dialogue, but good dialogue doesn't make up for a lackluster story.

3. "Nailbiter" (Volume 1) by Joshua Williamson and Mike Henderson (2014-2015)

An "interrogation expert" investigates his friend's disappearance in a town full of serial killers.

The writing is ok, even if the concept of a town full of serial killers is a bit implausible.  The art veers between manga and Frank Miller.

If Nailbiter was adapted into a movie (stranger things have happened), it would be a campy affair, but under the right director it could work.  Writer Joshua Williamson doesn't have J. Michael Straczynski's ear for dialogue, but other than that this comic book is much better.

4. "New Avengers" 1-33 + Annual by Jonathan Hickman and Various Artists (2013-2015)

Secret Wars makes SO much more sense after you've read Hickman's New Avengers!  Now I know what those "other Earths in the sky" really are!  Now I know how Doctor Doom got involved in the first place!  Now I know how the Avengers first learned of the "Incursions!"

This, and it's also a good run of comics in its own right.  I think I might like Hickman's run on New Avengers even more than Secret Wars.  To be sure, Secret Wars is still vastly superior to DC's Convergence, but Secret Wars - despite a great beginning - was something of an unfulfilled promise.

Hickman's New Avengers issues build more gradually, and he maintains a nice sense of tension throughout.  Most of the art isn't that great, but the story more than makes up for the art.  I really liked the interplay between Namor and the Black Panther, and Black Swan is/was an interesting character.

5. "Preacher" 1-66 + 6 Specials + Saint of Killers by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon (1996-2000) 

I wouldn't blame you for finding a comic like Crossed off-putting.  It's violent, it's transgressive, and it's more than a little repetitive.

But Preacher?  Yes it's violent, but it's as cleverly written as any comic book out there, and the art - although far from flashy - tells a great story.  Preacher is iconoclastic in the way that all great art is iconoclastic - it says what it wants to say, and the devil take the the hindmost.

Preacher is excellent stuff, and if you have the patience I think you'll find it just as spellbinding is I did.

6. "Punisher MAX" by Garth Ennis and Various Artists (2007-2009)

Garth Ennis brings a bit more of the old ultraviolence to this series featuring Marvel's most famous psychopath.

It's not as riveting as Preacher, but it's easier on the digestion than Crossed.  I haven't read through all the issues yet - just the first two storylines, but I plan on returning to them when I have more time.

2017年1月13日 星期五

Comic Book Interlude 8

Time for another round of comic books.  I'd like to say that these are the newest, most up-to-date, most fashionable comics out there, but I can't.  What you see below is what I could get a hold of, and not necessarily my first choice(s).

1. "Black Science" 1-7 by Rick Remender and Matteo Scalera (2013-2014)

A group of "anarchist scientists" hop between parallel dimensions.  Reminded me a lot of the Fantastic Four, and their many adventures in the Negative Zone.  A strong family dynamic at the center of the narrative, though more dysfunctional than anything seen in the FF (outside perhaps the Ultimates).  Surprisingly good, though the writer is much better with dialogue and plotting than with exposition.

2. "Captain Atom" 1-13 by T.J. Krul and Freddie Williams II (2012)

The New 52 version of Steve Ditko's most famous (non-Marvel) creation.  This one is something of a mix between Captain Atom and Firestorm, which makes sense because those two heroes were always a bit too similar.

In the post-Dr. Manhattan era, Nathaniel Adam is blessed/cursed with godlike powers following a scientific experiment that's never explained to anyone's satisfaction.  By the end of the run he fights his future self, with the whole world (possibly) hanging in the balance.

I really liked the art, and it gets satisfyingly trippy near the end.  The New 52 failed for many reasons, but 2012's Captain Atom wasn't one of them.

3. "Daytripper" 1-10 by Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba (2010)

An extended meditation on what life means in the presence of death.  A sometime author, sometime obituary writer in Brazil dies at several different points in his life.  If the last issue doesn't have you teary-eyed, you probably need to rethink your priorities.

4. "DC One Million" 1-4 by Grant Morrison and Val Semeiks (1998)

Like most comic book readers, I have a love-hate relationship with Grant Morrison.  I'll read things like the first half of Final Crisis, or All-Star Superman, and think that he's AWESOME, and that he should be even more famous, and that I should immediately track down all the other comics he's written that I haven't gotten around to yet.

But then I'll read things like the second half of Final Crisis, or Aztec: the Ultimate Man, and think that he's TERRIBLE, and that he's ridiculously overrated, and that I should avoid him in the future (at all costs).

Happily for me, DC One Million was one of the ones where he got it right, and I'm glad I finally got around to reading it.  Sure, the time travel scenario poses some issues with regard to causality, but who cares about causality when you've got so many interesting ideas flying around?

I could provide a synopsis of the story, but it would just give you (and me) a headache.  Instead, I suggest getting your head together as best you can, clearing out an afternoon, and finding a quiet place to read (and think about) DC One Million.

5. "The Earth X Trilogy" by Jim Krueger and Alex Ross (1999)

This has to be the most seriously overwrought of all the seriously overwrought comics ever.

It starts from an interesting premise: The Celestials are using the Earth to incubate one of their offspring, and all of the superhumans inhabiting the globe act as "antibodies" which protect the incubating Celestial.

But aside from that one cool idea it's really hard to care about any of the characters in Earth X, and the series is so rife with plot holes - and lame attempts to close these plot holes later on - that I really struggled to get through it.  

To be fair, it's not nearly as bad as the latter parts of the Ultimatum event, but it brings to mind a lot of other, better comic book series using similar plot devices; comics like Kingdom Come, or the still earlier Marvels.

6. "Ghost World" by Daniel Clowes (1997)

This comic book reminded me of why I sometimes hate people in Seattle - the hipsterishness, the use of irony as a defense mechanism, the disdain for sincerity, or for anyone who genuinely attempts to improve themselves - it's all there.

The two girls who feature in this comic book are, in a word, horrible, but it's a familiar kind of horrible, and not something I enjoy remembering about the city where I grew up.

And yet there are these moments where reality intrudes upon their little, self-obsessed worlds, and it is these moments that make this comic book truly great.  The girl with a facial tumor.  The lonely guy with a beard.  The astrologer hurt by the unkind phone message.  It's hard to see these people, but at the same time it's hard to look away.

I'd never heard of this comic book before two weeks ago, and of course I was unaware that it was later adapted into a movie, but having read the comic book, I'll probably see the movie soon.

2017年1月7日 星期六

"Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend" by Winsor McCay (1905)

1905?  A comic strip from 1905?  A comic strip about food poisoning from 1905?  A collection of comic strips about food poisoning from 1905?

Yes, my friend, this is a real thing.  Winsor McCay drew these comic strips for the New York Evening Telegram in 1905, and most of them have been lovingly reproduced in this volume.

The set-up is pretty simple: someone eats something called "rarebit," or "Welsh rarebit," gets sick, and has strange dreams.  Some of the dreams are about getting rich.  Other dreams are about getting fat.  And still other dreams are about furnaces coming to life, turning into devils, and chasing you over rooftops.

Definitely one of the oddest things I've seen in a while, but not by any means bad.  McCay was a good artist, and if the "dreams" that occupy each page of the collection are a bit repetitive, that's to be expected given the time period in which they were produced.

We are, after all, talking about a time before comic books even existed.