In general, I tend to enjoy graphic memoirs, so when I saw this on the New Books shelf at the library, I clearly had to check it out. Turning Japanese is about being young and adrift—between cities, between jobs, between cultures, and in various personal situations, family-wise and relationship-wise. It’s set in 1995, when MariNaomi was 22 and had recently broken up with her boyfriend of five years, quit her job, and moved from San Francisco to San Jose with her new boyfriend. He has a friend who works as a hostess in a bar for Japanese expats; she’s half-Japanese (her mom left Japan at 19 to be with her dad) and thinks maybe being a hostess will be a good way to learn the language and feel more connected to Japanese culture. This isn’t as easy or straightforward as she had thought it would be, and the experience of working as a hostess is not entirely positive, but she does save enough money and gain enough proficiency in the language to plan a 3-month trip to Japan with her boyfriend, the story of which makes up the second half of the book. In Japan, MariNaomi works as a hostess in Tokyo and she and her boyfriend, Giuseppe, do various touristy things, then head south to visit her grandparents in Fukuoka. We see the tensions in her relationship with Giuseppe, but also moments of sweetness, though ultimately a sense of separateness/aloneness prevails. Similar tensions/sweetness/separateness surface in regard to MariNaomi’s grandparents: this trip is the first time MariNaomi has been able to communicate with them without her mother between them to act as translator, and being able to communicate with them directly in some ways highlights the generation/culture/personality gaps between them.

Throughout the book there are various little vignettes—some about work, some about family, some about MariNaomi’s relationship with Giuseppe, some about travel. We get stories about co-workers and customers at the bars in San Jose and in Tokyo, stories about MariNaomi’s previous visits to Japan (and her relatives’ previous visits to the US to see her family), trips to the dog statue at Shibuya Station in Tokyo, and a trip to an ancient temple in the countryside, among other things. The black & white art is a pleasing mix of pages with 6 or 8 or 9 panels and pages with bigger segments, and I found the combination of the art and the story totally engrossing—I read a big chunk of this book on the subway between Queens and Brooklyn, and I was glad to have the big unmissable outdoor stretch over the Manhattan Bridge to remind me my stop was coming up soon—I was totally into the book/not particularly paying attention to where I was for most of the journey.

The 37 pieces in this book were written in the 1860s, published in a weekly magazine/journal that Dickens ran, and later collected and printed in book form. They range fairly widely in theme and tone, but as Daniel Tyler argues in his introduction to the edition I read, they can be seen to make up “a volume-length consideration of how far (and to whom) sympathy can be extended” (xix). (In one essay I liked a lot, Dickens visits a boat about to depart England with hundreds of emigrating Mormons on board: he clearly isn’t expecting to be particularly charmed by them, but clearly is.) Some pieces were moving, some interesting, some funny, others kind of a slog—I wonder if I might have liked this more if I’d taken breaks from it, but it was a library book, so I didn’t.

Which isn’t to say I didn’t find a lot to like anyway. Not surprisingly, I really liked the essays/parts of essays featuring descriptive passages about London, like this, from “Wapping Workhouse”:

Pleasantly wallowing in the abundant mud of that thoroughfare, and greatly enjoying the huge piles of building belonging to the sugar refiners, the little masts and vanes in small back gardens in back streets, the neighbouring canals and docks, the India-vans lumbering along their stone tramway, and the pawnbrokers’ shops where hard-up Mates had pawned so many sextants and quadrants, that I should have bought a few cheap if I had the least notion how to use them, I at last began to file off to the right, towards Wapping. (19)

Or this, from “City of London Churches”:

Whether I think of the church where the sails of the oyster-boats in the river almost flapped against the windows, or of the church where the railroad made the bells hum as the train rushed by above the roof, I recal a curious experience. (92)

Other high points included a really good outraged essay about the poor treatment of soldiers (“The Great Tasmania’s Cargo”), a piece about being very seasick crossing to Calais (“The Calais Night Mail”), a piece about stories remembered from childhood, including stories that were terrifying at the time (“Nurse’s Stories”), and a piece about walking in normally busy parts of London that become quiet on summer weekends (“The City of the Absent”).

At the start of We Love You, Charlie Freeman, the Freemans (Laurel, Charles, and their daughters—Charlotte, who’s 14, and Callie, who’s 9) are in a shiny new car, driving from Dorchester to the Berkshires, where they’re going to be living at the Toneybee Institute and participating in a research experiment. The Toneybee Institute studies apes, and they’ll be living with a chimp named Charlie: they’re supposed to treat him like a family member and teach him sign language (which they know because Laurel learned it as an isolated/lonely kid in Maine). This storyline, which is set in 1990, alternates with a 1929 storyline that also involves the Toneybee, this time focusing on a woman named Nymphadora and the experiences she and her neighbors (who, like the Freemans, are black) have with the Institute. Spoiler alert: the Institute’s past is horrible and racist, and maybe its present is, too, but Laurel is still convinced that the experiment is going to be a great opportunity for her and her family.

The style and structure of this book really worked for me: sections of first-person narration by Charlotte and Nymphadora alternate with other sections, most but not all of which are third-person narration about Charlotte’s family members, and I liked the shifting focus. I also liked Charlotte’s voice, and the story of her freshman year of high school (including her sexual awakening) made for a satisfying through-line amidst all the darker things (which were also really satisfying and interesting, though differently). I took this book with me for a weekend away and found myself reading it pretty much nonstop on the train to and from Philadelphia, not wanting to put it down.

Hildafolk is a quick and sweet graphic novel for kids that made me want a backyard and a tent and a rainstorm. At the start, we see the little red cottage where Hilda lives with her mother: it looks very cozy, with yellow-lit windows and smoke coming out of a chimney, a spot of warmth in a rocky landscape. Inside, Hilda is listening to the weather report on the radio and reading a book about trolls. When she hears it’s going to rain, she asks her mom if she can sleep in the tent that night; her mom says she can.

But sleeping in the tent is only a little adventure: the next day, Hilda and Twig (her animal companion, who is like a small blue fox with antlers) go outside so Hilda can draw. She sees a rock that has a protrusion like a nose: she’s sure it’s really a troll, so she sketches it, but only after taking the precaution of tying a bell to the protrusion so she’ll hear it if the rock moves. Hilda and Twig fall asleep, then wake to the darkening sky and the sound of the bell—and things get more exciting from there.

I like Hilda’s boldness, and the whimsy of her world – the troll is not the only fantastical creature around. There’s also a sea-spirit (see picture below—depicted in a way that makes me think of Miyazaki, particularly Spirited Away), a wood man who comes into Hilda’s cottage when she leaves the door open (and brings firewood), a giant, and other creatures we only glimpse.

I found the art stronger than the writing—I love, for example, the panel showing rain falling on the outside of Hilda’s tent, with the KSSSHHH sound of the rain appearing as letters in the sky, or the panel showing Hilda’s bedroom in which you can see that she has a picture over her bed of a boat with the arms of a kraken reaching out of the water next to it. Not that the writing is bad—I thought some of it was quite funny—but the flow of the art was stronger, I thought. Still, I enjoyed this and will be reading the next one.

sea spirit

The Odd Woman and the City is a memoir in the form of a collection of vignettes, some of which are just a few sentences each, and others of which span several pages. Gornick writes about New York, about moving through the city alone or with friends, observing and overhearing, and she writes about books and writers, and she writes about herself, how she is and how she sees herself, and it’s all smart and interesting and satisfying. She writes about friendship, how she and her friend Leonard get along because “the self-image each of us projects to the other is the one we carry around in our heads: the one that makes us feel coherent” (5). She writes about identifying with Dickens, Johnson, and other “melancholy Brits,” about identifying with a vision of city-dwellers as “the eternal groundlings who wander these mean and marvelous streets in search of a self reflected back in the eye of the stranger” (9). She writes about moments of connection, about seeing a high school kid help an old woman in the grocery store, or about when she helped an older man on a treacherously icy day, or about watching street hawkers and their customers in upper Manhattan when she was in high school: “People who were strangers talking at one another, making one another laugh, cry out, crinkle up with pleasure, flash with anger […] people sparking witty, exuberant responses in one another, in themselves” (13). I love passages like this:

It’s the voices I can’t do without. In most cities of the world the populace is planted in centuries of cobblestoned alleys, ruined churches, architectural relics, none of which are ever dug up, only piled one on top of another. If you’ve grown up in New York, your life is an archaeology not of structures but of voices, also piled one on top of another, also not really replacing one another: (173-174)

Also great is this piece about Joseph Chaikin, which appears in the book in slightly modified form. I love the descriptions of the differing moods of Westbeth/views from Westbeth, and the central part of Joe’s performance of Beckett in two voices, his post-stroke older voice and his recorded younger voice playing off one another—it makes me wish I could have been there.

Library Books

June 29th, 2016

Library books, Thai basil

It’s been a while since I had a proper stack of library books checked out. I went today to return a book/pick up a hold, but ended up browsing the new books section too, and this is the result. And this is with me showing restraint/not checking out a few of the books I was pondering.

From top to bottom:
Hildafolk by Luke Pearson: I read this post on the New Yorker’s website about this series of graphic novels for kids and was intrigued.

The Odd Woman and the City by Vivian Gornick: I heard about this book from a few people on Goodreads, and saw the author speak at McNally Jackson Books (which is very worth a visit if you are ever in NYC) back in October. This is a memoir that involves walking in NYC so clearly I am interested in it.

The Uncommercial Traveller by Charles Dickens: Rebecca Solnit mentioned this in Wanderlust, and the title stuck in my mind. Like the above, it’s at least partly about city-walking, so yeah.

We Love You, Charlie Freeman by Kaitlyn Greenidge: There was a free copy of this in the kitchen at work earlier this year, and I almost grabbed it but didn’t, and then regretted not having grabbed it after reading about it at Reading the End and elsewhere.

Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick: I first heard about this via the New Yorker ages ago, but was reminded of it when a dear friend recently read it/recommended it to me via Goodreads.

Do you have anything good checked out from the library right now?

In the prologue of Lagoon, we see a swordfish swimming through the waters off Lagos, where something extraordinary is happening. The fish hears the loudest sound she’s ever heard, and then looks down and sees “something large and glowing” in the water: it’s a giant spaceship (5). “When a golden blob ascends to meet her, she doesn’t move to meet it. But she doesn’t flee either” (6). And then there’s this: “When it communicates with her, asking question after question, she hesitates. It doesn’t take long for her apprehension to shift to delight. What good questions it asks. She tells it exactly what she wants” (ibid.). It’s a great start to a great book: it’s pleasing to read a first-contact story where the aliens are interested in everything around them, not just people.

Of course, the aliens do make contact with people shortly thereafter. A marine biologist named Adaora, a soldier named Agu, and a Ghanaian rapper named Anthony all find themselves on Bar Beach, right where the ship is, the night the aliens appear. Adaora’s been fighting with her husband, Agu fought with his commander to try to stop the commander from raping a woman, and Anthony just needed some fresh air after his show. Or that’s why they would say they ended up where they did, but it becomes clear that the aliens brought them together, and that they want help making a nonviolent entry into human/Lagosian/Nigerian society. When Adaora and Agu and Anthony leave the beach, they’re not alone: one of the aliens, who’s taken the form of a Nigerian-looking woman and says they can call her Ayodele, is with them. “We are change,” Ayodele explains: the aliens can change their own forms, but they change what’s around them, too (39).

Not surprisingly, when word gets out that aliens have landed in Lagos, things get a bit crazy. Adaora’s husband’s priest sees the chance to convert an extraterrestrial to Christianity as a great publicity opportunity; the LGBTQ group at the university sees a chance to gain greater acceptance; others see the chance to maybe get rich. Others are afraid, and just want the aliens dead or gone, even though Ayodele assures them that her people come with good intentions: “We are guests who wish to become citizens…here” she says, and later explains that her people have an environmental message/mission, too (110).

I like how much there is going on in this book, how it’s a fast-paced adventure that also takes detours into side plots and explorations of figures/beliefs from Nigerian myth and folklore, how it tells snippets of many stories—the story of someone in an Internet café when the aliens arrive, the story of a bat, the story of a road. It’s smart and funny and moving and exactly what I was in the mood for, and I will definitely be reading more by Nnedi Okorafor.

I kind of enjoyed The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry despite feeling somewhat resistant to it, and I don’t really know what to say about a book that I found overly sentimental at times, but that also totally made me teary-eyed on the subway one day.

OK, so, the premise: Harold Fry is 65, recently retired, and unhappily married. He gets a letter from Queenie Hennessy, a woman he used to work with but whom he hasn’t seen or heard from in twenty years. She has terminal cancer and is writing to say goodbye; Harold writes her a letter in reply, but then feels like it’s horribly inadequate. He decides that he’ll walk from where he lives (which is in the very south of England) to the hospice (which in the very north of England) and also decides that if he does so, she’ll stay alive.

I wonder how I would feel about this novel if I hadn’t already read and really liked Werner Herzog’s Of Walking In Ice, which is his true account of his 1974 walk from Munich to Paris, which he undertook because his friend Lotte Eisner had cancer and he felt that by walking, he would keep her alive. Herzog’s journey is like the misanthropic version of Harold’s: he tells one guy he meets that he likes the guy’s dog better than he likes the guy himself; he breaks into summer cottages to sleep in them and says that in one of them, he peed in a rubber boot. Herzog writes a lot about the physical pain of his walk, and about the loneliness he experiences. Harold’s walk has some of that, too, and is not without its other conflicts, but overall it’s a lot more twee: Harold gains confidence through walking, and learns life lessons along the way. He learns to trust himself and others, and not to make assumptions about other people’s lives/sadnesses/secrets/hopes/loves. His wife Maureen, meanwhile, also learns things in his absence, including how much she still loves him. I was mostly OK with all of this, while also rolling my eyes a little at some pieces and being legitimately moved by some of it, and then I was deeply annoyed by a scene near the book’s end that just tipped the sentimentality meter way too far for me, leaving me a bit grumpy.

I do still like some of the descriptive passages, though, like this, from when Harold’s walk becomes a slog:

His clothes no longer dried. The leather of his shoes was so bloated with water, they lost their shape. Whitnage. Westleigh. Whiteball. So many places beginning with W. Trees. Hedgerow. Telegraph poles. Houses. Recycling bins. (120)

Or this, from a more satisfying portion of the journey:

The evening shadows lay long beneath the trees, like a separate forest that was made of darkness. He walked against an early-morning mist and smiled at the pylons poking their heads through the milk-white smoke. The hills softened and flattened, and opened before him, green and gentle. He passed through the Somerset wetlands, where waterways flashed like silver needles. (156)

As I was reading this book (which was originally published in 1908, but is set during the Napoleonic Wars), I kept thinking about Hamilton, probably not surprisingly. Specifically, I kept thinking about the part of The Ten Duel Commandments that goes like this:

Can we agree that duels are dumb and immature?
But your man has to answer for his words, Burr
With his life? We both know that’s absurd, sir
Hang on, how many men died because Lee was inexperienced and ruinous?
Okay, so we’re doin’ this

So, right: at the start of this book, D’Hubert and Feraud are both young lieutenants in Napoleon’s army, stationed in Strasbourg, and Feraud has just had a duel with a civilian. D’Hubert seeks Feraud out to deliver a message from the general: the general is not pleased with Feraud’s dueling, and wants him to go to his quarters and stay there. Feraud is incensed. “I can’t call the general to account for his behaviour, but you are going to answer to me for yours,” he tells D’Hubert, who asks what he means exactly (14). To which Feraud’s answer is this: “”I mean,” screamed suddenly Liet. Feraud, “to cut off your ears to teach you to disturb me with the general’s orders when I am talking to a lady!” (ibid.). D’Hubert thinks this is nuts, but he can’t just not fight Feraud at this point. But the fight, once started, won’t end: Feraud is wounded but sends a message to D’Hubert saying it’s not over, and they proceed to have rematch duels over a period of years, as they both rise through the ranks of the army. Their duel (which Conrad apparently based on a true story) becomes the stuff of legend: no one knows what started it, they won’t talk about what started it, and so everyone assumes it must be some huge/deep thing. D’Hubert, meanwhile, is caught up in the momentum of it: even as he despairs over “the imbecility of the impending fight” at one point, he can’t just stop (51). Or even if he stops, it’s just temporary: at one point, a superior imposes a 12-month truce on the pair, and they also don’t fight each other when they’re retreating from Moscow together, since they’re too busy nearly dying of cold and starvation and also too busy fighting off Russians (the retreat from Moscow is probably my favorite part of the book, or maybe is tied with the pair’s final duel as being my favorite part).

There are five different books called The Duel in Melville House’s Art of the Novella series, and this is the third I’ve read and maybe my favorite so far, but that may not be saying much: I may just not be a fan of books about duels? We’ll see how I feel if I eventually read the other two in this set.

The key things to know about this book, which was originally published in Irish in 1949, are explained by Alan Titley in his Translator’s Introduction. First: “In The Dirty Dust everyone is dead” (vii). And next: “It is a novel that is a listening-in to gossip and to backbiting and rumours and bitching and carping and moaning and obsessing about the most important, but more often the most trivial, matters of life, which are often the same thing. It is as if, in an afterlife beneath the sods, the same old life would go on, only nothing could be done about it, apart from talk” (ibid.).

So, right: it’s set in a cemetery, under the ground, and opens with a newly-buried woman, Caitriona Paudeen, wondering whether she’s been put in one of the expensive plots or one of the cheaper ones. “Say the same things here as you said at home,” says a woman in a neighboring plot, and Caitriona does (and so does everyone else) (6). Caitriona is bitter about having died before her sister Nell, and isn’t at all pleased about being buried near Nora Johnny, her son’s wife’s mother (she clearly sees her son as having married down). Other people go on about the things they’ve always gone on about; everyone is at the center of his or her own world. There’s a French pilot whose plane crashed; he doesn’t speak Irish and mutters in French. There’s the schoolmaster, who tells Nora Johnny stories from romance novels, and is enraged when he hears that his younger wife has gotten remarried. There’s a guy who’s convinced that his favorite team won the All-Ireland football match the year he died, and someone else who died later who keeps trying to tell him that they didn’t. People go on about how they died—the guy who was stabbed, the guy who fell from something, the guy whose heart gave out. The book is nearly all dialogue, snippets of conversation, and there are parts where everyone’s talking about the same thing, communal fixations rather than individual ones—thievery/things that got stolen, or how the postmistress steamed open everyone’s letters, or competitive banter about whose death notice/wake/funeral was more impressive, or what they would have done if they’d “lived a bit longer” (281). The graveyard has elections, and there’s talk of starting a Rotary (with a hilarious proposed list of talks, with each speaker going on about his/her personal fixation), but mostly it’s a free-for-all of conversation and argument.

While I was reading this, I kept interrupting my boyfriend to tell him about various funny bits, and at one point he said the book sounded interesting but that he doubted he would read it. I’m not really surprised: in general, he cares more about plot than I do, and this book is definitely not plot-driven. As a character-driven/atmospheric read, though, it’s a lot of fun.