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Wonderful Wizard of Oz (L. Frank Baum)

February 21, 2011

Mike and I went to Borders this weekend, since the two “local” Borders stores are closing (and we still had $30 in gift certificates to spend). So what did I find? I found a beautifully illustrated collection of comics published by Marvel in 2010 — a collection of comics based on the original L. Frank Baum story. Not only did I end up reading this thing in only a matter of hours, but I also fell in love with the illustrations. I’ve included a few here so you can see how beautiful they are. I especially love the Cowardly Lion, who is just so cute and well-drawn.

Having never read the original stories before, this was a very interesting experience. Glinda the Good Witch is hardly as prominent here as she is in the movie, the Tin Man has a really interesting back story explaining how he became made-of-tin, and there’s a land full of people and animals made of china (yes, you heard me: porcelain people). I think I’ll have to read the original work soon so I can see how true to the original this graphic novel is.

I’d highly recommend you give this a read-through if you enjoy beautiful illustrations. I’ll admit the Scarecrow reminds me vaguely of the villain in Batman Begins, but he’s cute enough that the creepy feeling doesn’t stick around. Some of my absolute favorites don’t get a whole lot of page time: Dorothy’s uncle, Toto, and the gatekeeper at the Emerald City. Of course, some of my film favorites didn’t make the cut: the color-changing horse, the full munchkin community, and Glinda the Good Witch in her beautiful sparkly splendor.

So here are some clips to tide you over until you can give it a whirl for yourself:

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Shortcomings (Adrian Tomine)

February 1, 2011

A couple of months ago, I picked this graphic novel up in a Barnes & Noble and read the first chapter right there on the floor between the shelves. I didn’t have the cash to purchase it, so I left it there. I thought about it numerous times after that, but either couldn’t afford to purchase it or couldn’t locate it. To keep a short story short, I ended up requesting it from the local library and just picked it up this afternoon. Turns out it’s a quick and addictive read. Even though Ben Tanaka is a thoroughly prickly and unlikeable protagonist, the issues Tomine tackles through Ben’s dating debacles — as well as those of his ex-girlfriend, Miko, and his gay friend, Alice — were really interesting to me on both a personal and a professional level.

As I watched Ben criticize Miko for becoming so political and getting so invested in her ethnicity, I couldn’t help but think of how the way I see the world is changing as I immerse myself in the scholarship of Ethnic Studies, and as I teach US Ethnic Literature to undergrads at OSU. Recently, I was chatting with a colleague about the field of Asian American Studies, and she was saying that she’s not really interested in pursuing those particular politics (she had a lot of reasons for this, but I’m not going to go into that right now) in her own scholarship. I found myself tempering my desire to articulate all the reasons I think those politics are important, and it made me think about how much I’ve invested myself in those very politics.

Okay, so I’m not talking about Tomine’s amazing graphic novel, but it’s all related. As I watched his characters grow and change (or possibly not do either, as may be the case with Ben), I felt compelled to examine how I have (or have not) grown with relation to the issues surrounding race that Tomine brings up throughout the novel. I’d really recommend this comic to anyone looking for a thought-provoking and entertaining read…plus, the illustrations are quite lovely, and the simple style really adds to the storyline. Give this one a chance if you haven’t already!

The Raw Shark Texts (Steven Hall)

January 5, 2011

My bother-in-law gave me this book for Christmas, and it was a completely unexpected and captivating read. I picked it up a couple of days ago and haven’t put it down since. You’ll probably notice I’ve tagged it as a magical realist novel. That’s something I debated about for a while. It’s magical realist in some ways (fish that feed on streams of human interaction, for example) and definitely sci-fi in other ways (a man who discovers a way to download his personality into other bodies to avoid death, for another example). But I felt like it was similar to Haruki Murakami’s novel Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World in its whole behind-the-scenes brand of “magic.”

Anyway, genre definitions aside, this was a really fun text to read. Hall does some very interesting things with the pages — like creating images out of letters and words, blurring things so they look as if the text is bleeding from getting wet, and more. Of course, I did some digging and found out that the original UK edition (which I just ordered, since I’m obsessed with stuff like this) has even more unusual and interesting formatting. Even still, this book has pages where sharks-made-of-words (like the one on the red cover pictured here) swim at you from the blank white space and remind this reader of books like Salvador Plascencia’s The People of Paper in the creative use of white space.

In any case, it’s definitely worth a read if you enjoy unusual books that blur the lines between theory, reality, and fiction. Another great pick from my brother-in-law!

Hector and the Search for Happiness (François Lelord)

November 8, 2010

This book was another random library find…and I’m really glad I found it! (For more on that and on my initial thoughts while beginning the novel, see my post about it on my personal blog.) It’s a cute little book, and Hector is a really fun character.

I’ll admit that I was surprised by its complexity, and by how happy this little volume made me. I think the phrase “deceptively simple” definitely applies here. I mean, when I read this book I was just following along thinking how cute it was and believing I was just enjoying the story…and then (dun-dun-daaaaaahn) I realized I was thinking about my own happiness as Hector explored other people’s happiness. This, of course, relates to Hector’s first lesson on happiness:

Lesson no. 1: Making comparisons can spoil your happiness.

However, since I tend to feel I come out on top with regards to such comparisons, it made me feel happier. Funny how that works, since I do have a lot less than many other people in this country of More we live in (I also love that part of the book…more on that soon!). But maybe that relates to one of Hector’s final lessons on happiness:

Lesson no. 20: Happiness is a certain way of seeing things.

I think this is an interesting point, and it gave me a lot to think of. Frankly, it reminds me of the idea that someone could need an “attitude adjustment” — an idea I find particularly interesting and entertaining. But also kind of true. There are those times that we see things differently and are able to “look on the sunny side” of the situation and (in a sense) decide to be happy when we could just as easily choose to be angry/upset/sad.

Okay, so about the country of More. When Hector meets Djamila on the airplane, Lelord uses the opportunity to sneak in a little commentary on America and its inhabitants:

They were both going to the big country where there were more psychiatrists than anywhere else in the world. Notice that we say ‘more psychiatrists than anywhere else in the world’ but we could just as well say more swimming pools, more Nobel prizewinners, more strategic bombers, more apple pies, more computers, more natural parks, more libraries, more cheerleaders, more serial killers, more newspapers, more racoons, more of many more things, because it was the country of More, and had been for a long time. No doubt because the people who lived there had left their own countries precisely because they wanted more, especially more freedom. (The only people who hadn’t got more freedom were the natives who already lived there, but, as previously mentioned, that was in the days when people who came from countries like Hector’s tended to think that everything belonged to them.) (107-8)

This passage absolutely tickled me. I just really loved the way the abstraction of the narration allowed Lelord to comment on America in a different way. It was a fresh approach, even though he’s leveling the same critique that many before and after him have done. But Lelord’s good at these kinds of passages. There’s another one that stands out to me, that just made me laugh, so I’m going to share it with you. It’s early in the novel, when Hector’s friend Édouard has taken him partying in a manner that doesn’t suit Hector’s personality:

Hector told himself that really Édouard was a bit like those friends who are excellent skiers. One day they take you to the top of a very steep ski slope and tell you you’ll have great fun if you just follow them. In fact they’ve only taken you up there because they are excellent skiers and love skiing down very steep slopes. And you don’t enjoy yourself at all trying to keep up with them, you’re scared, you fall over and you wish it would end, but you have to get down the slope anyway and you have a miserable time while those morons, your friends, fly over the moguls shrieking with joy. (34)

I don’t know quite why I love that one so much, except that I know the feeling of being on top of that slope (even if mine wasn’t nearly as steep as Hector’s appears to have been) and not enjoying the process of getting down, but knowing there’s no way around it now. So on that silly note, I’ll leave you with one last lesson Hector learned — a lesson that I intend to bear in mind the next time I move to a new place:

Lesson no. 19: The sun and the sea make everybody happy.

The People of Paper (Salvador Plascencia)

November 7, 2010

This is one of my favorite novels, and it’s also one that I’m definitely including in my dissertation. That being said, I still feel that I haven’t gleaned everything I can glean from it even now, after the 3rd reading. It’s an unusual novel to be sure, and very intriguing in its form.

When I read it this time, I was really interested by the mechanical tortoise and its actions regarding the US-Mexico border. I am curious about the way it compresses the land, literally shrinking the distance between LA and Tijuana. I’m thinking about this, mulling it over as I prepare to write the portion of my chapter dealing with this.

Another issue I was fascinated by was the parallel between metafiction and colonization that Plascencia makes throughout the novel, and which I intend to explore in greater detail in my chapter. I like the inclusion of Napoleon here, and the way Plascencia goes about building him into the novel in a way that isn’t immediately understandable, but eventually becomes apparent.

The religious aspect of the story is one of the parts that I know I could use a deeper understanding of. I have some ideas about it, but the way it crops up in the form of monks and nuns and saints and papal decrees is just…well, it permeates the texts and I know it’s important, but I haven’t yet developed my ideas regarding this enough to form coherent thoughts.

I’m still enamored with the characters Little Merced and Merced de Papel, mostly because of Little Merced’s unusual addiction to limes, and Merced de Papel’s status as a person of paper. These characters are fascinating, and there’s something about these two women (perhaps the only two women Saturn does not condemn for their sexual exploits) that predisposes me to be sympathetic to their plights. As for the third (and original) Merced, she’s not quite so sympathetic given her abandonment of Little Merced and Federico de la Fe.

The playfulness of Plascencia’s novel and the blurring of lines between fiction and reality, our world and theirs, the US and Mexico…there’s so much going on here that’s complex and understated, and I think that there’s a lot of room for exploration. In any case, it you’re looking for an unconventional read, this is a great book to check out. You can thank McSweeney’s for publishing the first edition (and Harcourt for picking it up after that).

The Good Fairies of New York (Martin Millar)

November 3, 2010

I picked up this book at random while browsing the shelves at the library. I saw that Neil Gaiman had recommended it, and that coupled with the title and back cover was enough to convince me that I should read it.

I took a while to really get into this novel, starting and stopping it several times over a period of weeks, but finally one night I got caught up in it and couldn’t put it down. It was a really interesting, goofy read…and ambitious at that. Millar works really hard to take up a huge variety of different issues ranging from racism and homophobia to poverty and homelessness. Because of the assortment of issues he tries to take up, I’m not certain he really does any justice to any of them.

For instance (plot spoiler!!), Dinnie’s misanthropic, misogynistic, and homophobic beliefs (and they are beliefs, not just hollow words spoken without true understanding) lead to what I think is supposed to be a huge life change. But that change is actually just brought on by his infatuation with Kerry. The only reason given for his change is his overwhelming concern for Kerry’s health, but there’s no indication that he has actually become a better person; instead, he has just fallen for someone who is a better person, and is behaving accordingly. And the result? He’s rewarded with the affection of a young woman who is more intelligent, compassionate, and generous than himself — a young woman who he doesn’t really deserve.

It’s a strange complaint to level against a book I greatly enjoyed, but there it is. I guess that’s how it is with this blog…in attempting to articulate my thoughts for a broader audience, I end up being forced to grapple with issues that nagged at me before, but had deeper roots than simple irritation. So there it is. I’d still recommend this novel to anyone who enjoys interesting, unusual fiction and quirky characters (and a little bit of magic).

The Piano Lesson (August Wilson)

November 1, 2010

After several conversations with different colleagues about magical realism in African American literature, I was pointed to this particular play by more than one person. I finally found the time to read it. I have to say that I was disappointed that it wasn’t more unusual (I guess that’s just me — I love stuff like Tropic of Orange and The Heirs of Columbus for the unusual style and tone that such works exhibit), but I enjoyed it very much.

The piano itself is an interesting and key element in the drama, so I’ll start there. The carvings representing the family’s ancestors are interesting in the way they blur the lines between art and life — since they sometimes appear to be the actual people they were carved to represent, there’s an interesting phenomenon at work here. At the same time, there is so much happening in this play that makes the reader question what’s really happening and what’s not that I sometimes couldn’t tell what was there and what was in the minds of the characters.

Then there’s Sutter’s ghost. I think it’s really interesting that it is the ghost of the former slave-owner who appears to this family instead of someone…hm…someone less hostile? More friendly? I wasn’t quite sure how to take his repeated appearance and the playing of the piano that it ultimately necessitated. Is this to say that the former slave-owner is still looking out for this family and has their best interests in heart, therefore the playing of the piano is a good thing? I hardly think that can be the intended message. Is it that in order to rid the family of the former slave-owner, who continues to haunt them even in freedom, they must go on with their lives as they would have as if slavery never existed? This also seems implausible. So I think some of these ideas are relevant, while others are most likely not.

I guess what I really have to say is that this drama was interesting and left me with a lot to think about. It’s the first drama I’ve read that could really be considered magical realist, and I am curious about what else I might discover if I explore magical realist drama further.