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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.
What? I’m writing the Snazz on Thursday this week like I said I was going to? Wow. Unfortunately, I don’t have much new to report on my front, but maybe you guys have more to say.
I’m still working on The Blind Assassin and loving it–it’s taking me a bit longer than I expected because I got distracted by the science book I’m reading:
Einstein’s Telescope by Evalyn Gates- So far this has proved to be wonderfully accessible and interesting (and has made me jokingly gripe at gravity all week for screwing up everyone’s predictions and theories). Part of me wishes she’d go more into the mechanics of how lenses work because I’ve forgotten, but I understand that she’s trying to keep it simple, and I can’t blame her for that. Also, she’s speaking at Powell’s in April, so maybe I’ll get to hear her comments on her own work.
It’s just been a Regina Spektor kind of week.
The Importance of Being Earnest– Wilde’s plays are always good for a laugh, and Portland Center Stage’s production was rather nicely done. I think my favorite aspect of the staging/direction was the attention paid to class, from the way the city and the country servants behaved to the difference in mannerisms between Gwendolyn and Cecily. Granted, the only other production I’d seen of the play was entirely gender-focused: the play featured an all male cast, and was framed by a scene with Wilde drinking absinthe in Paris and hallucinating the handsome waiters into his own play.
Rebeca Rubin- American Girl Dolls have certainly changed a lot since I was little. Okay, so they were always overpriced and toys for the (semi-)wealthy, yes, I know, but I got hours of enjoyment just reading the catalogs, books and fantasizing. Okay, I had a Samantha doll. I admit it. Still drooled over the catalog. In any case, to my surprise, I found out that they’re retiring Samantha to make way for a new Victorian-era girl: Rebeca Rubin. Why is this even remotely interesting? She’s a Russian Jewish immigrant on New York’s Lower-East Side, that’s why! This is exciting for me because it always really did bother me as a young girl that none of the dolls reflected my family’s experiences. I know that there are plenty of histories that get left out of the American Girls, but when you’re little, you don’t consider that. All you know is that none of the dolls are like you, and you feel left out.
I’m intrigued by their decision to retire Samantha, whom I always thought was really popular because of her overall pink and frilliness. Perhaps her story, which is largely about a wealthy Victorian girl coming to terms with her own privilege, came off either as condescending (which seems to clear to me now, that I’m embarrassed for my younger self), or maybe it just wasn’t as exciting as the lives of the likes of Addy, an escaped slave forging a new life for her family and dealing with racism, or Felicity, who learned to stand up for her beliefs and had adventures in breeches. No matter. I’m excited that there finally is a Jewish doll. Now maybe they’ll diversify even more. The only doll they have to represent East-Asian Americans is in a side-kick role, which seems kind of unfair to me. And how about a South-east Asian? Blah blah blah time/money/concept design/is anyone going to still buy these dolls in the middle of a recession? But, hey, nifty nevertheless, right? (source, and no, I don’t usually look on doll collecting blogs. I found the link elsewhere.)
So what sort of snazz are you enjoying this week?
Sorry I’m late with the snazz; I ended up with a headache yesterday and didn’t get the chance to update again. In any case…
It’s just not March without daffodils, or, at least, that’s what I learned from going to school in MN. Fortunately, Portland agrees with me. The other interesting thing about having gone to school in MN is that apparently one of the contestants of “Make Me a Supermodel” is from my alma mater. Too bad the show is too painful to watch (definitely not snazz-worthy), or I’d root for him because I, too, can’t help but fall into the illogical logic of “he goes to my school; therefore he’s awesome.” Well, despite that not being snazz, the following things are:
The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood- I’m about 200 pages in and totally hooked. It’s an odd juxtaposition of a woman talking about her life, snippets from a strange novel by her sister, and random newspaper clippings. I don’t know where it’s heading yet, but Atwood writes with a dexterity that inspires confidence, and so I’m not worried. Also, I’m enjoying the unusual point of view–the main character is a woman in her 90’s, and the combination of her spirited kvetching and her unease over the way people treat an aging woman (as if she’s made of glass) make her a fresh, entertaining voice to hear.
Tales from Outer Suburbia by Shaun Tan- This book for “young adults” (hah! Says who?) is at once an illustrated collection of short stories and something of a graphic novel (in that the pictures tell an integral part of the stories), and so far is a treat to read. It’s really short, and so I’ve been rationing the stories–no more than one a night. So far it’s been a strange, thought-provoking journey into the realm of the bizarre, mixing the mundane with the extraordinary (and yet I don’t get a “randomly strange for the sake of strangeness” vibe from it, which I greatly appreciate.) Yum. I’m glad my library hold on this one came through so quickly.
My flatmate and I have both been on graphic novel kicks, which is great because it means we swap what we take out from the library. Twice the books AND a discussion partner in one. Now that is snazz:
The Best American Comics 2008 edited by Lynda Barry- I was nervous when Lynda Barry noted “Family Circus” as been her favorite comic of all time (and also disappointed because I like Lynda Barry!), but as soon I turned to the first story, “Burden” by Graham Annable, all my fears were allayed. I was hooked. Though I didn’t like every single comic in the book, it’s overall an outstanding collection and display of talent. Plus, if you’re interested in the art of narrative, like I am, seeing all sorts of different ways to tell a story through pictures is a huge treat!
Exit Wounds by Rutu Modan- I think I’m in the minority in this one, just taking a glance at the reviews, but I found Exit Wounds to be profoundly disappointing. Though I really enjoyed the artwork, Modan fell flat on the story telling by trying, almost self-consciously, to be subtle. The result is a graphic novel that just never felt finished to me. I was profoundly unconvinced by the relationships in the novel, and disappointed that a story that pretended to be revealing the complexities of relationships ended up just confirming the main character’s biases in the first place. The most interesting thing that the novel does is hint at potential differences in political opinion along class lines in Israel, but because the main characters were not only stereotypes, but polar-opposites, I didn’t find them compelling.
And I just started Epileptic by David B.
“Depression Era Cooking With Clara” (YouTube / Official Site)- This is really cool. A man named Christopher Cannucciari filmed a series of videos of his great grandmother Clara (age 93) cooking the type of food her family used to eat while she was growing up in New York during The Great Depression. As she cooks, she tells stories about her childhood and adds a personal context to the meals. It’s awesome to see these stories and recipes preserved and shared! Note- the creator himself uploaded the videos to YouTube, so you don’t have the feel like you’re cheating anyone out of their money or something by watching the episodes there. :)
My flatmate studies African literature and has been attending the Cascade African Film Festival here in Portland. This week is “Women’s Week” and so he invited me to join him for this weeks showing, two feminism-centric documentaries.
A Love During the War – This was not the best made documentary in the world, but the story it told was so important that I think that it’s worth having seen. Love blends the story of the forced separation of a journalist named Aziza from her husband during the civil wars in the Democratic Republic of the Congo with Aziza’s and other women’s work with the rape victims of the war. The stories didn’t mix well, but, frankly, I don’t care because if it makes people aware of what’s going on in the DRC, then good. I’d list details I picked up from the film, but, honestly, it’s enough to trigger anyone.
Awaiting for Men– This was the other documentary shown. It’s a film from Mauritania that showed three women who live in a strict Muslim community. The film makers asked them questions about their relationship with their husbands, the relationship between men and women, and sex. What was really great was that each woman had her own distinct views on the issue, which was extremely humanizing. However, I was really sensitive to the audience reaction, and I’m not quite sure they got it. One of my favorite parts was when, upon being asked who owns her body, one of the women turned right around and asked, “Who owns your body?” This got a few laughs from the audience, which saddens me because seriously, I think it’s a question all of us should think about. In our culture, who owns our bodies?
So tell me, what are you reading/watching/playing/seeing/enjoying?
It’s that day again, Thursday. Snazz day. The 7-year-old (I’m guessing) girl sitting next to me at this café is reading a Clique novel entitled Revenge of the Wannabes. It makes me sad, so let’s talk snazzy media instead:
Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie- I’m finally finished with it! Though Rushdie writes extremely well, he gave me sensory overload with this novel. I just wanted to edit it. (I’m keeping this short because I’ve been talking about it for the past two weeks)
Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon- A tasty snack of a novel, with an afterward that’s almost as rewarding to read as the novel itself. I couldn’t launch right into another huge novel after MC, so I took a slight detour here. Though Chabon’s more known for his literary work, I love the fact that he is unashamed to dabble in what essentially is genre fiction every once in awhile. Gentlemen tells the story of two Jewish vagabonds on the Silk Road during the 10th century with great wit and lovely prose (though some of his sentences were ridiculously long and easy to get lost in.) Also depicts a close male friendship without any sort of gay panic. But the best gender surprises would spoil too much of the plot.
Bitch: The Buzz Issue- I picked up a copy of the latest issue of Bitch at Jennifer Pozner’s lecture on Tuesday. So far I’ve thrilled to tales of subversive bug sex (and learned that one of my favorite books back in high school, Dr. Tatiana Gives Sex Advice to All Creation, has an accompanying miniseries, complete with musical numbers and cheesy costumes, that has been deemed too risqué for the US. Makes me sad– it’s a fascinating and enlightening book on evolution), read about masculinity in trouble (I feel so up on the trends!), and looked at a terrifying marketing campaign from Ecko Jeans.
Pornstitution: Sexual Capitalism in the 21st Century by Samantha Berg- A free lecture at In Other Words, the nation’s last non-profit feminist bookstore. I’m excited to see what’s promised to be a nuanced discussion of the sex industry that goes beyond the typical “porn is evil because sex is evil;” “all porn is by definition exploitative;” “porn is the best thing ever and completely harmless” responses, none of which are feel accurate.
Also, let me take this opportunity to plug my friend Buzzy’s new etsy shop, B.Bodkins. She makes wonderful plush toys: from the cutest ghosts you’ll ever meet, to (coming soon) angel and devil-shaped pocket warmers (you heat them up in the microwave and they’ll keep your hands toasty). You all know that I’m a big supporter of indie crafters on Etsy and the Etsy community in general, and, having been around while Buzz was making these lovelies, I can assure you that they are irresistibly huggable.
So what sort of media are you reading/watching/seeing/playing/listening to this week?
Welcome to The Snazz! For those of you who weren’t here last week (or just didn’t read about The Snazz,) The Snazz is my new Thursday tradition (it’s lasted for two whole weeks now. That makes it a tradition) where we gush/complain/etc. about the media we’ve been interacting with all week. There’s too much bad media out there, so let’s chat about what’s good, or what’s bad and you wouldn’t recommend anyone touching with a thrity-nine-and-a-half-foot pole. Print or digital, new or ancient–it’s all good.
Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie- Still. I’m finding Rushdie to be a very slow read, partially because I just can’t connect with his intensely-symbolic characters.
I’m debating what novel/non-fiction book to read next: Norah Vincent’s Self Made Man, Margret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, or something entirely different, like the biography of Percy Shelley I’ve got lying around. hmmm…
If the my library hold had come through this week, I’d be reading Rose, which is the prequal to the graphic novel, Bone. I love Bone, it’s pure imagination with a sense of humor. Plus, Rose is the back story of Grandma Ben, one of my favorite characters in the series. She’s an old woman who races cows (as in, she runs with them.) and kicks ass.
Candy Matson, Yukon 28209 (downloadable here)- Back in the late 40’s and early 50’s, San Francisco had its own female hardboiled PI, Candy Matson, and it’s super fun to listen to. Yes, it’s very much a product of its time (She’s only a PI so that she can afford a penthouse appartment, is a former model, and relies on her male friends for help), but Candy herself is pretty smart most of the time. Her friend (who is implied to be gay), Rembrant, is a little more obnoxious of a stereotype though.
M.I.A.- Arular (careful, her website might cause seizures/give headaches)- I finally borrowed my friend’s copy of M.I.A.’s first album, and I’m dancing all over the kitchen to it.
Also, for those of you who’ve seen Coraline, any thoughts? What do you think of the addition of Wyborn? It’s been too long since I’ve read the book to compare, but I must admit that I was a little miffed by the old “let’s give a boy a larger role to make sure this movie will appeal to boys too (because we can’t have boys identifying with girls)” and I don’t remember Coraline’s mother being quite so obnoxious/fun-killing/lame. But maybe that’s just my memory.
So, what are your media crushes this week?
So, remember that little section I used to have called “The Snazz?” It was a place where I used to post the snazzy media that I was reading/watching/listening to/ seeing/etc.. In any case, you might notice that it’s gone. Vanished, for good and for better. I decided that the format just wasn’t working–the page wasn’t serving any purpose whatsoever. But, because a cultural critic should be steeped in media, and blogs are meant for sharing, I’m revising The Snazz.
So here we have the new and improved Snazz: Every Thursday I will do a post about the media that I’m indulging in this week, and you can share your
recommendations, rants, comments, concerns, musings, etc. Links may include anything: blogs, comics, games, YouTube videos, magazines, etc. Because with so much frustrating media out there, we need some snazzy stuff. (All book links go to the Powell’s website because I’m a snob like that.)
- Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie- I’m very torn about this one so far. Rushdie gets a little too symbolic for his own good. Also, New York Times, it’s very problematic of you to label a single novel as “A continent finding its voice.” Just saying.
- Watchmen by Alan Moore- This book does insane things with genre, and I love it for it. Also, the ending makes me profoundly uncomfortable, in a very good thought-provoking way. I’ll stop there to save space.
- The Feb/March issue of Bust (my subscription finally arrived!)- Still delving in.
- Zaïna @ The Cascade African Film Festival– A Moroccan film about a very awesome 11-year-old girl! Includes nomadic life, horse racing, and the impersonation of ghost queens.
- Coraline (tonight or tomorrow! So excited!)- Yes, I’m a Gaiman fan like everyone else. This Bitch blog post makes me a little bit sad about the production though. I’m still going to see it and probably love it. I hope the puppet-sculpting crew members end up getting A) jobs and B) the respect they deserve.
- the “X-Files” (though there’s nothing really new and exciting about that)-because I find watching Scully in all her geeky genius to be a very cathartic activity.
Also, I’m going to try and make it to the Portland International Film Fest at some point, if I can. I’m thinking of adding “Mad Men” to my tv watching line-up. Anyone seen it?
- Wir Sind Helden– Die Reklamation- Totally danceable German rock. (Link goes to their official page, which is in German. Don’t feel bad–I can’t read it either. For all I know, their songs could about killing puppies, but my flatmate assures me otherwise.)
Mandy Greer Dare alla Luce @ The Museum of Contemporary Craft – (okay, so I saw this last week. I’m stretching my rules.) An incredible installation of textile art at my favorite free museum in Portland. It’s mind-blowingly beautiful (and about a Roman myth in which breast milk created the Milky Way). Snazz indeed.
So, everyone, what are you reading/watching/listening to?