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Every year, Portland hosts Wordstock, a giant book convention celebrating writers, local small presses, and bibliophiles. Last year, going was something of an inspiration; I had an inkling that someday I wanted to be part of this group. I browsed the stalls with excitement, asked questions to the independent writer’s guild, and bought my first Chin Music Press book. I attended a panel on the future of book reviews feeling fired-up and ready to write.
This year was a little different. Having just applied to PSU’s really exciting publishing program (yes, exciting is an odd adjective, but, really, what else do you call a publishing school that lets you work at its press for credit,) I approached the stands with a little trepidation. The state of being in application limbo colored my mood; I wanted to be their peers, and though I don’t need a masters to do that, it feels like I do simply because I applied to the program. Somehow taking steps to accomplish my career goal made me feel more like I had something to prove, which was frustrating when I just wanted to enjoy myself. It probably didn’t help that there were less panels I was interested in/could make.
Nevertheless, I had a great time. I finally got to meet Bruce and Josh from Chin Music Press, which was great because, as I’ve said in previous posts, I really admire their ability to create artful books that are as focused on the text as the object. (*waves* hi guys!) I’m always floored by the sheer number of interesting publishing projects going on in the Pacific Northwest: Oni Press, which publishes Queen and Country (my current pleasure reading) is here in NE Portland, Fantagraphics in Seattle, Little Otsu, a clever graphic press out of San Francisco and Portland (and run by super nice people, btw,) a whole slew of literary journals, Portland’s Independent Publishing Resource Center, and Bitch Magazine, just to name a few. I hope someday to truly call these creative people my peers: their creativity, talent, and attitude really prove that paper publishing can still be relevant in the midst of today’s digital age (or some other such cliché name for it.)
I’m afraid I don’t have as many analytical things to say as last year because the panel I got to see was not on a particularly controversial topic. I went to see Karen Cushman’s panel on creating worlds in historical and fantasy fiction. She invited some of her peers of the young adult writing world: Susan Fletcher, Ellen Howards, Jodi Sensel, and Mary Jane Beaufrand. Strangely enough, I think this was the only all-female panel at Wordstock, though it’s difficult to know if this is because Karen Cushman knew more women who were well-suited to the panel or whether women writers find that they get more respect in the realm of YA literature because they don’t get dismissed as chic lit or niche lit. (I also sometimes get a sense that a lot of really good plot-based fiction gets published as YA because it’s not dismissed there either.). I’d like to do an entire post on this, but I don’t feel I know enough to write it. Maybe someday.
Now if I don’t suddenly get the plague again, and don’t die of “waiting to hear back from grad school” anxiety, you’ll hopefully get some more posts coming your way. I’ve got some thoughts about the depiction (graphically and textually) of Tara Chase in Queen and Country, some musings about writing about people who are different from you (Aka- I’ve just started reading David Mack’s Kabuki because I’m on a graphic novel kick, and for something that so far seems to be about a woman and her relationship to her identity and her face, I’m surprised that he does not list a single woman author or artist on his list of works that inspired the series. I can’t really make a judgment on the series yet as I’ve only read a few chapters, and I’m certainly not saying that this automatically dooms the work, but it’ll be interesting to see just how convincing he’ll be.) and, who knows, maybe some other stuff. Maybe I’ll do a giant rant about “The Big Bang Theory.” Who knows? I have the luxury of not having to post here uninspired, but I’ve been taking advantage of that too much lately. I’m still here, thinking, but life and work, for better or worse, have to take precedence.
Hope you’re all enjoying fall–it’s my favorite season. So gorgeous here in Portland today.
I was going to do a summer reading snazz, but being half-way through October, I’m a little late. Still, I’ve been wanting to
highlight a few of the awesome books I’ve read/been reading over the past couple of months:
Oh! A Novel of the Mono No Aware by Todd Shimoda- This is a perfect book for traveling though I can’t explain why. I don’t usually enjoy reading heavier things when I travel–well, while I’m in transit to be more precise–because I find the experience disorienting. Airplanes are the worst offenders. But there’s something about Oh! that works perfectly for traveling; perhaps it’s the way Shimoda captures his protagonist, Zack Hara’s, own sense of being out of sync with the world.
In Oh!, Hara, a technical writer from LA who is plagued by emotional numbness, goes to the part of Japan where his grandfather grew up in order to rediscover his ability to feel. Along this journey, he kindles a strange friendship with a psychology professor and embarks on a side quest (well, several, really, but they all are part of one thing): to understand the concept of mono no aware (literally: stuff of emotion or the emotional essence of objects.) To add to the story, Todd’s wife, Linda, created a series of gorgeous brush paintings inspired by the work that are interspersed through the text.
Though stories of people trying to find themselves in foreign countries or reconnect with their roots are everywhere, Shimoda really delivers something special in Oh!. I really enjoyed how so much in the novel was, well, displaced: emotions onto objects, one man’s search for his daughter onto another man’s search for himself. At first I found Zack’s inability to deal with the root of his problem, his depression (take that word however you wish,) frustrating. As I read on, it became fascinating, and I became impressed by Shimoda’s ability to blend literary aesthetic with human emotion and have it still feel authentic and real. That is, despite all the displacement going on in the novel, mono no aware never becomes an excuse or stand-in for the emotional core of the novel. The characters still feel real and not merely the means of enacting a metaphor or concept.
To top it off, Chin Music Press, which, as you all know, I greatly admire, published this book so it is, as you would expect: meticulously designed. What I really love about CMP is that when they publish a book you know the whole package has been thought out to the last detail: the design will never overshadow the content because they love what they publish, but it will work to enhance it. The only thing better than a good book is reading a book that has been designed in such a way that the text’s best elements have been enhanced to create a fantastic reading experience. Their work with Oh! is no exception.
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak- A Holocaust book narrated by Death? That description alone probably intrigues some of you, and some of you ready to skip to the next book on my list. Seriously, I find that Holocaust literature really divides people. I, for one, have a difficult time reading it because it depresses me (and I typically can enjoy depressing literature.) Still, The Book Thief is one of the very best things I’ve read recently. Death is actually quite an engaging narrator, giving away just enough to heighten tension and delivering appropriate bits of wisdom. The book itself tells the story of a girl named Liesl who discovers for her own the power of words to change people, as all around her in Nazi Germany, words are destroying life for many German citizens.
In addition to having engaging characters and lovely prose, the novel’s strongest point is that it really drove home that it was German citizens (well, if they weren’t Polish or French or…) dying in death camps. That they were also Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, the mentally and physically disabled, etc. was just another facet of this. I know many of you probably think that we don’t need another book explaining that we are all human and killing each other is bad, but, considering that people don’t listen, I guess we have to keep writing them. And if books this heart-wrenching, charming, and well-written come out of it, then by all means, continue writing.
The Arrival by Shaun Tan- Though technically a picture book–in fact, a wordless picture book–Shaun Tan’s little gem really takes the old “immigrant story” to a new level. With gorgeous, detailed illustrations, Tan has created “new world” full of technology, creatures, and foods as mysterious to us as it is to the man whose journey we follow. Despite the lack of words, the story is simple to follow. Tan’s artwork stands on its own, really, but what I do appreciate about his work here and in Tales from Outer Suburbia is the way he really makes issues surrounding multiculturalism, immigration, and empathy come alive so that they at once can make sense to children, and yet still feel fresh and relevant enough for an adult audience.
The Rabbi’s Cat (1 and 2) by Joann Sfar- A graphic novel about the life of a rabbi in 1930’s Algiers, as seen through the eyes of his subversive, opinionated cat. I checked out the first volume of this from the library on a whim, expecting it to be cute, but what I got instead was 100 times better. As a narrator, the cat is something between a snarky philosopher and a quintessential cat, by turns loyal and critical. His views on the world around him, from the sometimes shaky relations between the Algerian Jews and Muslims, to the difficulties of dealing with French rule are dealt with in a way that feels real while still mixed with a touch of humor.
One thing that this book really captures is the contradictions inherent in living every day. The rabbi at once is happy to see his daughter married, and yet saddened by what it means for his life: he is getting older; his daughter will no longer live with him. All of the Jewish characters struggle with their beliefs, the apparent realities of their situations, and their desires. The cat lies but sometimes understands the truth better than any of the other characters. The result is a fascinating glimpse at a group of people living a life that’s less dogmatic and more discovery.
Oh yes, and Volume 2 is worth reading for the Tintin cameo mockery alone. Because while I know those comics have their good points, Tintin is really kind of the quintessential Eurocentric character, and it’s funny to call our nostalgia out on that, even if it was a product of its time. Or, at least, I’m amused.
Sexing the Cherry by Jeanette Winterson- I find Winterson’s books difficult to do write-ups on, and I’m not sure why. Perhaps its just the plethora of imagery and myth she manages to interweave into one story. Maybe it’s the way her prose is so amazingly quote-able. Who knows? In any case, though not quite Lighthousekeeping, Sexing the Cherry is a beautiful book. As hinted, Winterson’s prose is gorgeous and lyrical in the best sense.
However, though I really enjoyed both Jordan and the Dog Woman as characters (particularly the Dog Woman,) what really stands out about this book to me is the strange cast of characters who populate their journeys. There is a city where words pollute the air, and cleaners must fly up in balloons to clean it. The 12 Dancing Princesses of fairy tale fame all live together in one house after escaping their husbands in various dark or amusing ways. I found myself not so concerned with where the books was going and simply enjoyed the ride.
That being said, I’m still not sure how I feel about where the book ended up, but I don’t want to give away any spoilers so I’ll leave that discussion to anyone who wishes to have it with me.
Of course, these are only a few of the books I’ve read recently, but these felt the most relevant to the blog. Plus, they’re all excellent and deserve your attention.