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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

Oh! by Todd Shimoda is a book you actually can judge by its cover!

Oh! by Todd Shimoda is a book you actually can judge by its cover!

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.

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Two of my friends took Marvel Romance Redux out of the library a few weeks ago, and we’ve been having a blast going through them. MRR is a collection of romance comics from the 50’s and 60’s that have had the dialogue replaced with a completely new story. Hilarity ensues. Now, while my inner cultural critic really wishes that the volume included the original (I mean, how cool would that be for gender critiques; you could look at what we laugh at, old vs. new romance norms,) some of the new text does a pretty good job of raising these questions itself. Check out this pic from “Too Smart to Date:”

Ignorance is Bliss

Most of the new dialogue in the book is fairly self-referential, mocking the comic that it’s in and how silly it is. There’s very much a tone of “look at these silly vintage comics!” throughout, which is all in good fun. What’s interesting to me about this particular one is that while I think, considering the context, it’s intending to mock the romance conventions of its day, the satire is still relevant. There are still women who feel that they have to worry about intimidating the men around them if they want romance. So while this picture makes me laugh every time I see it, I think it’s also important to let it make us think.

Thoughts?

nightmarefactorycover1I picked up this little graphic novel of horrors on a whim while browsing at the Hawthorne Powell’s. It was on sale for $8, and the cover had the look of an issue of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series–not to mention I’m always on the lookout for new graphic novels to read. This particular one is a collection of short stories adapted from the work of horror writer Thomas Ligotti, who is apparently well-known in certain circles. The collaboration sounded like an excellent idea, but even just as something atmospheric and spooky for fall, The Nightmare Factory feels somehow hollow and lacking.

Though he did not write the script adaptations, Ligotti himself introduces every story, an editorial choice that I’m still not sure was the best idea. While it is always fascinating to read an author comment on his/her own work, the first time I read a story, I like to experience it for myself. I like to hunt for details in the images and the text, let the story speak for itself.  Placing a really authoritative introduction not at the beginning of the collection but at the beginning of each story makes it difficult to allow yourself that first, exploratory reading. As I read the stories in Nightmare, I had Ligotti’s voice in my head, telling me exactly what to look for, what he believed was important. It completely oversimplified the works and sometimes even entirely gave away the plot twists which are supposed to create the sense of horror in the first place. He introduces the opening tale, “The Last Feast of the Harlequin,” by explaining how every element of the tale was inspired by H. P. Lovecraft. This made it impossible to read the story as anything but a Lovecraft imitation and cheapened a story that otherwise could have stood on its own (it’s one thing to wear your influences on your sleeve and another just to imitate them.).

On the whole, I did not find his commentary insightful enough to merit it coloring my first reading of the stories. In his introduction to “Dr. Locrian’s Asylum,” he waxes poetic on his decision to write a story about insanity. The choice to write a horror story about an asylum is hardly new, and the justification that the “insane” are somehow closer to the supernatural because of their shoddy grip on reality just doesn’t feel like a fresh take on a horror standard. The story itself is creepy and well-told enough not to feel cliche, but the introduction lends it a heavy, dated feeling.

Illustration by Ben Templesmith  from "Dream of the Mannikin"

Illustration by Ben Templesmith from "Dream of a Mannikin"

The artwork, on the other hand, is quite lovely and well-suited to the subject matter. In “Dream of a Mannikin,” Ben Templesmith creates collages of sketchy figures, lushly colored backgrounds, and text, evoking a dream-like world. It reminds me a little of Dave McKean’s Sandman work, which also  works to capture a world in which the fine line between fantasy and reality has been blurred. Michael Gaydos’ rich watercolor figures in “Teatro Grottesco” are suitably ominous, and have a strange coldness about them.

I don’t know if I would have appreciated this volume more if I were more familiar with Ligotti’s work. The stories clearly had to be edited to fit their new format, and images, not properly used, can have a difficult time replicating language’s ability to be delightfully ambiguous. Here I found a group of stories that felt conclusive without actually concluding anything. In other words, I think they intended to be more open-ended than they felt. I wanted to feel creeped out, but with Ligotti’s poor analysis of his own work whispering in my ears as I read and the brevity of every story, I just felt underwhelmed. Furthermore, though Ligotti understands that he is working in a great tradition, the tradition of Poe, Lovecraft, etc., I’m not sure he’s doing anything interesting with this tradition. Maybe reading the stories in their original form would reveal an entirely new depth, but it simply didn’t come through in these versions of the stories. Everything felt like standard horror fare: the world as a stage with a cruel director, people being turned into dolls, Gnostic cults. I was left wondering what made Ligotti a cult figure; how is he different from his predecessors his fans so proudly cite?

I did enjoy the collection of stories overall, but it was ultimately pretty forgettable. The art was atmospheric, but not groundbreaking, and the stories felt watered-down and flat, as if the editors had completely gutted them. If the publisher’s intent was to draw new readers into Ligotti’s work, I’m not sure this collection was the best way to do it. But then, as a fan of Gaiman’s work, I love seeing his short stories in graphic novel form, so perhaps Ligotti’s fans are the same.

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From the Cracked Mirror is a blog about culture, both high and low, including art, literature, film, food, and advertising from a progressive and feminist perspective. I’m here to critique, elucidate, wonder, and gush...

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