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I’ve Moved!

April 26, 2011

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In the Time of the Butterflies (Julia Alvarez)

March 21, 2011

I’ve been hearing good things about In the Time of the Butterflies for a few years now, but until recently I haven’t had the chance to read it. I finally got around to it last week, and I couldn’t put it down. Having read Junot Díaz’s novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, I was already somewhat familiar with the Trujillo era in the Dominican Republic’s history. However, Alvarez’s novel presented a very personal view of what it meant to be a woman during that time. While Díaz’s novel is told by a hypermasculine character-narrator who focuses on all things sex-related, Alvarez’s novel revolves around the lives of the famous Mirabal sisters, telling their stories through four unique and individual voices (all female).

Gender aside, this novel offers thoughtful and hypothetical insights into the lives of the ill-fated Mirabal sisters from their individual childhoods to their separate-but-connected adulthoods. It’s a moving story about four strong women who, in different ways and varying degrees, become enmeshed in a political movement intent on eliminating Trujillo. Alvarez has imagined their personal thoughts and emotions in a way that is at once plausible and incredibly poignant. In an undertaking such as this one, any author would run the risk of over-valorizing the characters to the point of flatness, but I think Alvarez has written characters who are complex — embodying heroic qualities right alongside their very human qualities (such as jealousy and regret) — and who feel incredibly real. ¡Viva Las Mariposas!

Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down (Ishmael Reed)

March 10, 2011

Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down has been sitting on my bookshelf for just about a year now. I picked it up in a used bookstore in Austin, Texas, last March and haven’t had the chance to read it…until last night. In a bout of insomnia, I started the book around 10pm and finished it around 1am. The only other novel I’ve read that was penned by Ishmael Reed is Mumbo Jumbo, and I absolutely loved it. I didn’t exactly know what to expect with this slightly earlier work, but I sure enjoyed it!

This novel is Reed’s own unique spin on the good ol’ fashioned American western…and it’s got all the bite and hoodoo of Reed’s other works thrown into the mix. Between the apparently undead greedy rancher, Drag Gibson; the heroic and tricky cowboy hero, the Loop Garoo Kid; and the beaten down and defeated Pope himself, Reed’s was immensely entertaining. It was also just as scathing in its critique on American culture, and offered up a nice historical counter-narrative that effectively illustrates how all of Western religion and culture was stolen from Africa.

Have I mentioned how much I love Reed? Like Gerald Vizenor (Native American [Anishinaabe] author of The Heirs of Columbus and Griever: An American Monkey King in China, to name just two of his works), Ishmael Reed presents a new take on an old (and really quite flawed) vision of the Wild West. While the novel is a little hard to read at first, it doesn’t take long to get right into it, and once that happens, don’t expect to put the book down until you’ve turned its last page.

Tree of Codes (Jonathan Safran Foer)

March 8, 2011

Like so many of my favorite novels, I found this book accidentally. I was looking for books that experimented with form, and boy did I ever find a book that experiments with form! This book is so experimental that it was deemed unprintable until Visual Editions decided to take a stab at it. With the help of an ambitious Belgian company called die Keure, Foer’s book has come to fruition.

So the book is basically a story created by taking its text from another story — Bruno Schulz’s novel The Street of Crocodiles. It is from this novel that Foer performs what he refers to as an exhumation, and Tree of Codes is the result. It’s a beautiful and haunting novel, although I’ll admit to being so fascinated by the construction of the physical book itself that I think I’ll have to reread the novel.

If you love the materiality of books, you have to watch this video (taken from Visual Editions’ website) showing how they made this strange little novel.

I can’t really do justice to this book through words (ironically), so here are some pictures of it which were also taken from Visual Editions’ website to help you understand what I’m talking about.

This book is an amazing testament to the aesthetic potential of writing’s material side, and is a reminder of the way a work of literature can become a work of visual art as well. If you ever get the chance to hold this book in your hand and sift through its die cut pages, you won’t want to put it back on the shelf. If you can manage to secure a copy of Tree of Codes for yourself, I’d recommend you do it! There’s a good chance I won’t want to let you borrow mine….

 

A.D. New Orleans After the Deluge (Josh Neufeld)

March 1, 2011

Apparently I’m on a graphic novel kick. I was in a bookstore browsing the comics section when I stumbled across A.D. I actually picked it up with a friend of mine in mind (she’s writing her dissertation on Hurrican Katrina narratives), and after texting her and finding out she’s already planning a chapter on the book, I realized I wanted to read it myself.

Even though I was an adult when Hurricane Katrina hit, I’ll admit to being embarrassingly unaware of the events that transpired after the initial disaster. Since I was in California at the time and didn’t have any connections to people even remotely near New Orleans, I think I probably swallowed more of the media’s bs about the aftermath than I’m comfortably admitting. While I’ve tried to be more thorough in my understanding of the situation in recent years, I think this comic is a really great place for anyone to start.

Since the characters in it are not fictional, it’s quite enlightening. It’s also heartwrenching for the same reason — I don’t want you to mistake me and think I’m saying it’s a great thing to analyze without considering the very real lives that are represented by these images and words. Like I said, I think it’s a great place to start if you’re looking to get a more diverse perspective on the events that transpired (and continue to transpire…or not to, as the case may be with the cleanup and revival of the city — and the people who are still left without so many things).

Since it’s a graphic novel, I feel I should also say something about the images themselves. The colors change in each section, which I think is a really interesting technique (especially when you get to the more glaring colors…like the fuscia that dominates the pages at the end) and which I’m sure I could say something intelligent (or at least mildly interesting) about if I studied the text for long enough. In any case, you should give this one a whirl if you have a chance. I’ll be returning my copy to the library soon, even though I just picked it up a couple of hours ago….

The Arrival (Shaun Tan)

March 1, 2011

This book found me by sheer coincidence. I went to the library to pick up another book, and lo and behold, there was this shelf of graphic novels on display. The cover of this book attracted me (I just love me some sepia tones!) so I picked it up. Turns out it’s a graphic novel — one without a single word in it…at least, not any words in the languages spoken on this planet. Well, that makes it sound a lot more sci-fi than it really is.

As the cover and title suggest, it’s an immigrant tale of a man’s journey to a new land. He leaves his family behind and ends up in this entirely new place that seems, for all intents and purposes, rather utopic (despite the factory scenes). And what is waiting for him in this new land? Well, a whole lotta nothing at first, but a super cute little…um…creature of sorts. Yes, indeed, that would be the cute little guy on the cover with him. You’ll understand now why I didn’t know what to call him. But he’s cute, and so is the story.

See, unlike many immigration stories today, this one is not at all tragic. In fact, it’s rather hopeful. While he is clearly in a new and very unfamiliar place (an unfamiliarity that is transferred to the reader, with what I’ll admit felt mildly discomforting, through the undecipherable symbols that make up the made-up language in Tan’s text), he meets kind and generous people — each with a story of his or her own. These people share their stories with the protagonist, and they invite him into their homes. Friendships are born, and relationships are forged. It’s quite a beautiful story, and there’s something inviting and ambitious about the “silence” of a graphic novel without text. Overall, a fantastic way to spend half an hour of your time!

The Principles of Uncertainty (Maira Kalman)

February 23, 2011

Maira Kalman’s book The Principles of Uncertainty found me in a bookstore this weekend. It is a beautiful book, full of beautiful paintings and photographs, and beautiful writing. I didn’t know how to classify it, as it’s not really a memoir but not really short stories…it’s more like an art journal than anything. It’s lovely.

Her pictures and musings make me want to pause over the beauty in everyday life. She has a whole chapter filled with photographs of people walking down the street in front of her. Their backs. What it looks like to walk on a city sidewalk. And I thought, I walk behind people everyday. And they are interesting and lovely. And perhaps I should think about them more as I walk behind them. And ponder the meaning of life while I do so.

This book is lovely. It’s whimsical and fun and light hearted despite the serious subjects (human extinction…i.e. death) it deals with amongst the whimsy. It makes me think of people in my life who might like a book like this for their birthdays. Or just because.

I think you should read it. I think everyone should read it. Maybe women more so than men. No, that’s not right. Aesthetes more so than businesspeople. Of course, those two are not polar opposites. And there might be something valuable here for those without art or beauty in their lives on a daily basis. So I revert to my original sentiment. I think you should read it, whoever you are. Everyone should read this book. It is beautiful.