In this graphic memoir, which was originally published in French in 2012, Marcelino Truong writes about his family’s move to Saigon early in his childhood, during the earlier part of the Vietnam War: they lived there from 1961 to 1963. Truong was born in Manila, after which his family lived in the DC suburbs, which is where the book opens, in 1961: we see Truong (Marco, in the book) and his brother Domi playing with neighborhood kids as their sister Mireille plays with her Hula Hoop. Not that it’s all idyllic: the Truong brothers are always cast as the enemy when they’re playing war games (Indians in Cowboys and Indians, “the Commies” against the GIs in the Korean War). Truong’s father, who is Vietnamese, works at the Vietnamese Embassy, but then, in 1961, he gets word that he’s being called back to Saigon. His French wife is not happy about it, but there isn’t anything to be done. We see the family’s trip to Vietnam, with an initial journey by boat to Saint-Malo, France, where Truong and his siblings and their mom visit her parents before Truong’s dad joins them and they all fly from Paris to Saigon, and then we see their life in Saigon, where Truong’s father ends up working as President Diệm’s interpreter.

I like the art in this book, most of which is either red-toned or blue-toned, with some pages or spreads in more vivid/naturalistic color, including the opening page showing the Truong family in Washington DC, pink cherry blossoms blooming against the blue sky, and I like the story, too. Truong’s narrative mixes his family’s story and details from daily life with sections about the larger political/military context for what was happening: we get a recap of events in Vietnam from 1954 onwards leading up to where things stand in 1961, which I appreciated: I’m not sure how much about this period I ever really learned in school, and if I did learn about it, I apparently didn’t remember it that well. The balance of the personal and everything else worked for me: I liked reading about the Truong siblings listening to their parents argue and about Catholicism in Vietnam and about the 1962 attack on Saigon’s Presidential Palace and about Truong’s mom telling the Vietnamese teenager hired to help around the house that “You don’t put nuoc mam (fish sauce) in boeuf bourguignon” (62). Truong writes about the fear and anxiety of being in a place at war, but also about the everyday things, like how he and his brother caught crickets and kept them in boxes, or how Chu Ba, a Vietnamese man also hired to help around the house/with the kids, used to take them to the outdoor swimming pool at the Cercle Sportif de Saigon, or to the movies. Truong writes, too, about his mother’s bipolar disorder, which made things at home even more unpredictable than they already were. And Truong writes about leaving Saigon and moving to London in 1963, before the coup d’etat in which President Diệm was killed.

This is a really satisfying graphic memoir: I’m looking forward to the English translation of the sequel, which is about Truong’s life in London between 1963 and 1975.

I’ve been making my way through Gail Carriger’s Finishing School series over the past four years, picking one up when I found myself wanting something light and fun, and this fourth and final book was probably my favorite. As with the others, we’re in steampunk/paranormal alternate England in the 1850s; our heroine, Sophronia, is a student at Miss Geraldine’s Quality Finishing School for Young Ladies, where the students are actually getting a training in espionage as well as in manners. Throughout the series, Sophronia and her friends have been trying to foil the dastardly plans of an anti-paranormal group called the Picklemen, so it’s not surprising that the Picklemen feature heavily in this book. But the Picklemen and their plans were less interesting to me than Sophronia and her friends: I love how the book opens with a ball where the students have been told they have to be dressed as and in character as each other, with Sophronia assigned to be the more retiring Agatha, Agatha assigned to be their bubbly friend Dimity, Dimity assigned to be class Mean Girl Preshea, and Preshea assigned to be Sophronia herself. I like, too, the scenes we get of the girls in London over their Christmas holidays, and the bits of humor, like this: “Dimity had firm opinions on cucumber, which she felt was nothing more than slimy, embarrassingly shaped water and should never, under any circumstances, be presented at table” (131). And I like how in this book, Sophronia finally figures out/admits to herself who she wants to be with, romantically speaking. All those bits are more satisfying to me than the action-adventure portion of the plot, though the action is well-written and I found myself caught up in it, too.

For years, until it stopped happening, my favorite thing to do on New Year’s Eve was to go to the Pratt campus here in Brooklyn, which has a steam-powered electricity-generating power plant. On New Year’s Eve, the chief engineer would rig up his collection of historic steam whistles outside: there was a steam calliope, and whistles from trains and boats, and at midnight they’d go off together with billows of steam, a variety of pitches. You can find videos online but they don’t capture how it felt to be there surrounded by the sound, not just hearing the whistles but feeling the vibrations from them in your body, especially the biggest and deepest one. I thought about that thrum when reading The Chimes, a dystopian novel which features a massive instrument called the Carillon, whose sounding brings the people of England to their knees on a daily basis, and whose vibrations mean loss: of written language, of birds, which died when Chimes started, and also, daily, of memory.

The Chimes is disorienting at first, and it’s meant to be, and it works: we’re with our narrator, Simon, as he makes his way to London from Essex: his mother, who recently died, has sent him to find a woman named Netty, and that’s about all he can remember about that: he has no idea who Netty might be or why he’s meant to find her. We learn about this future England in bits and pieces: there’s no written language; people communicate largely in music and in the hand-signals tied to the notes of solfege. Memory doesn’t work properly: people have their bodymemory, their muscle-memory of the work they do, and they are able to sort of/sometimes remember important things by storing the memories in objects, and music helps keep some memories, too, though mostly just place-memory, the route to take from point A to point B, communicated in song. Children all learn musical instruments, and every morning everyone sings Onestory, a song about how the Order (the group who built/compose for/play the Carillon) brought the country together after a cataclysmic event called Allbreaking, which seems to have turned much of London to rubble and sent the country back to a pre-Industrial-Revolution kind of existence.

In London, Simon finds Netty but doesn’t know what help she’s meant to give him, and she doesn’t seem too inclined to be helpful anyway, so he follows a sound/feeling he has to the Thames, which leads him to a hunk of palladium in the muck: palladium, we learn, is what the Carillon is made of, and packs/pacts of scavengers in the city collect it and sell it to the Order. Simon falls into one of these pacts, with a boy named Lucien and a few others. Lucien is blind, but leads the pact through the tunnels under London with his extra-sharp hearing; they have their daily routines and each other but not much else. But then another member of the pact, a girl named Clare, tells Simon she hears him and Lucien talking at night. Simon doesn’t remember this so doesn’t know what she’s talking about, but then, slowly, he figures it out, and the plot turns into an adventure/quest, with Simon and Lucien setting out from London together on a mission.

After reading a bunch of realistic fiction, this book was exactly what I was in the mood for. The writing is gorgeous and immersive, and it was a delight to be absorbed in the book’s world. I loved things like this description of Chimes, early in the book: “Chimes is like a fist. It unclutches, opens. Starts like a fist, but then bursts like a flowering. Who can say if it’s very slow or very fast? Chimes is always different, and even after the thousands of times, I couldn’t venture to say what it’s like” (12). The adventure/quest narrative plays out somewhat predictably, though there was a twist I totally didn’t see coming, and by that time I was invested enough in the story and characters that the predictability didn’t bother me. I mean, it’s OK for certain stories to fit certain shapes. I cried, multiple times, and when I wasn’t crying I was busy being pleased by the themes of the book, by its focus on memory and story and how narrative shapes things, and how narrative opens up possibilities. Simon is, basically, a writer, someone who observes and wonders and imagines and remembers as best he can, and I like how the book explores all of that. I did wonder (as I sometimes do when reading this particular kind of dystopia that’s set in our world but focuses on one geographical location, like The Hunger Games did), about the rest of the world: does the Order’s power stretch beyond England? Or is the rest of the world like, “Oh, London. Used to be a nice place, and then it was a war zone. Now it’s, like, medieval? *shrug*” But mostly I was willing to suspend disbelief and just go with it.

Also: I love this page on the author’s website: The World of The Chimes – A Non-Exhaustive Handbook.

Attachments is not my favorite Rainbow Rowell novel, but it was a quick read, and I was in the mood for something light, and it was fun enough that I was willing to overlook its flaws.

The books starts with an email exchange between two women who are best friends and work at a newspaper: it’s 1999 and the paper has only recently given email accounts to its employees, and Beth and Jennifer use theirs to have private/funny/fun conversations during their downtime. They know they’re not meant to be using their work email for personal chats like this, and they know everything they send is being monitored, but they’re not overly concerned about it. We then switch to Lincoln, who lives with his mom and works in the IT department at the same newspaper where Jennifer and Beth work. His job, in fact, is to monitor the company’s email: there’s a piece of software that flags messages containing certain words, or that exceed a certain size or frequency, and he’s supposed to review them and take the appropriate action, which is usually just giving the emailer(s) a warning. Beth and Jennifer’s messages keep getting flagged because they write to one another so much, but Lincoln is charmed by their friendship, and by the messages’ humor and kindness and heart, and he doesn’t send them a warning: instead, he finds himself looking forward to their exchanges being flagged so he can read them, so he can get a little window into their lives. He knows he should stop, but he can’t seem to make himself, and after a while he realizes he’s totally falling for Beth, despite the fact that she has a boyfriend (who isn’t reliably present for her in their relationship) and despite the fact that he’s never even seen her. Beth, meanwhile, has a chance to engage in some stalker-y behavior of her own as the story progresses, and does, which I guess is meant to balance things out? (It was funny to read this book relatively soon after reading Crosstalk by Connie Willis, which is also a book centered around co-workers and also features a basement-office-IT-guy who knows more than the female protagonist does/withholds information from her at some points. I was willing to not be bothered by it in that book, too.)

I like how we get to see Lincoln grow up over the course of this book: his mom is overbearing, and he dated someone in high school/early college who was way more assertive than he was and he’s never really gotten over that relationship even though he is now, like, 28, and he’s never really figured out who he is and what he wants. I like the depiction of the arrival of email and the Internet in a workplace that hasn’t had it before: as far as the company bosses are concerned, it’s suddenly “impossible to distinguish a roomful of people working diligently from a roomful of people taking the What-Kind-of-Dog-Am-I? online personality quiz,” and they’re dismayed about it (11). I was amused by the throwaway references to things like Zima and Orange Julius and appletinis—oh, 1999/2000. I also really like the beautiful descriptive writing about a crisp October day near the end of the book: big chunks of the book take place either in the newspaper offices or in people’s heads, and I appreciated the bits that were views of the outside world the characters are moving through.

Despite it coming highly recommended from a close friend, I found myself feeling sort of resistant to this book of 19 short stories at first. I think partly it was that I’d just read another collection of stories (Public Library and Other Stories by Ali Smith) and had very much enjoyed their mostly-first-person narratives, and the fact that this book is narrated in the third person initially felt flat, especially in the first story, where I found myself impatient with reading about what the characters looked like. Also, this book felt quite bleak: we see its characters in a whole lot of moments of self-hate and sadness and stasis, and I was feeling bleak enough myself before I started reading. But as I kept making my way through it, Core’s style grew on me. I can see why she has a back-cover blurb from Marie Calloway; these stories and the ones in Calloway’s what purpose did i serve in your life feel like they inhabit a similar sort of space populated by characters struggling with self-doubt and insecurity and want/need and the dynamics of dealing with other people. When I finished the book I read it again, and I liked it more on my second read—maybe because I knew what I was in for.

There is a lot in this book about being young and feeling stuck in your circumstances, and also a lot about being a writer and feeling stuck in your work, and also a lot about being human and feeling stuck in your self/in your desires, but there are also stories with a sense of possibility. In my favorite story, Historic Tree Nurseries, a queer couple consisting of a younger woman and an older woman drive to Ohio to adopt a dog: there is a lot of tension, but the ending is a moment of something like grace.

Even in the stories I liked less, there were a whole lot of good sentences/phrases: someone asks a character what it’s like being a teenager, and her response is that “Everyone wants what you have so they try to control you” (17). Another character is “addicted to her own charm” (29). Someone thinks about how she “hates the way people in her neighborhood seem to lecture each other on dates” (78). When two characters get on a plane after a series of stressful experiences, there’s this, which I like a whole lot:

And it was a surprising relief to enter the familiar capsule, to know that now nothing was expected of them. Even the lift-off was pleasant, easy to succumb to. They simply sat there, letting the rumbling machine have them, then the sky. (102-103)

And there is something really satisfying about a lot of the dialogue, which feels very funny and true, like this conversation between a pair of best friends in “Another Breed”:

Cory could have smiled or sobbed but did neither. “Am I a needy person?”
“Am I the neediest person in your life?
“No. You’re just the most willing to express it.” (48)

When I finished reading Public Library and Other Stories by Ali Smith, I immediately went back to the beginning and started it again, which is something I’ve done before with books of poems but not so much with collections of short stories, but for some reason with this one I felt like I should, and I’m glad I did. I think partly I felt like I would enjoy this book more on a re-read, which is true: this may say more about my reading style and/or the kind of week I’d been having than about the book, which consists of 24 pieces, alternating between fiction (short stories) and nonfiction (brief pieces about the importance of public libraries, with input/personal stories from various writers and other people Smith knows). I liked some bits more than I liked others, and I feel like I would have appreciated this even more if I had a personal connection to any of the writers who serve as touchstones in some of the fictional pieces (DH Lawrence, Katherine Mansfield, Robert Herrick), but overall I really like Smith’s style, her allusiveness and wordplay and humor and smarts.

The fictional pieces in this book are themselves often about books, or about narrative, or about writers, or about memory, and are also often about possibility, about an ordinary day becoming something out of the ordinary in some way, and about the larger sense of opening or possibility that’s tied to memory and story and also to stepping outside normal routines. Highlights for me include the first story, “Last,” which starts with clichés about endings that turn literal and includes a whole bunch of wordplay and etymology,”The Definite Article,” which is about Regent’s Park and is full of really excellent details, and “The Human Claim,” which includes DH Lawrence and credit card fraud and Google Street View, and totally works. There are so many good phrases and descriptions and sentences and paragraphs in these and the rest of the stories in this book: a ride on a very crowded train, for example, is “an exercise in aloofness” (6). A mild winter day in London is “one of the days in January that spring sends ahead of itself” (157). And oh I love this sentence, about reading about Robert Herrick:

There wasn’t much known about this poet’s actual life, the book said, other than that his father killed himself by jumping out of a fourth-floor window, so the book was a lot about what it was like to be on the edge of poverty in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in the part of London called Cheapside, and about how the houses jutted out from themselves above their first floors, overhung themselves like mushrooms, or galleons, and how until 1661 the people in London had been duty-bound to see to the lighting of their own streets, required by law to hang out lit candles on dark nights. (174)

In the nonfiction bits, I loved Sophie Mayer’s description of the public library as “the best possible shared space, a community of consent — an anarcho-syndicalist collective where each person is pursuing their own aim (education, entertainment, affect, rest) with respect to others, through the best possible medium of the transmission of ideas, feelings, and knowledge: the book” (75-76). Also, this, from Emma Wilson, on going to the library as a child: “Choosing books each week was like laying out the dreams I could have” (124). I have had public library cards from the library wherever I’ve lived from childhood on; I got one in Cambridge, MA in college even though I was only there for a summer and I remember reading Philip Pullman and Walter Benjamin sprawled on the grass in the park; more recently, so many of the books I’ve read over the past decade-plus have been checked out from the Brooklyn Public Library, some that I’ve sought out specifically and others that I’ve just found by chance on the shelves. It’s preaching to the choir to tell me that public libraries expand horizons and provide important services for a huge range of people, but I did enjoy reading about other people’s library-moments and library-memories.

When I was about thirty pages into this book, I told my boyfriend I felt like it was going to be an unsubtle comedy, and I think it pretty much was, but that was totally what I was in the mood for. I wanted a fast-paced and plot-driven book that I was going to be totally engrossed in, and this book was exactly that: I regularly found myself completely absorbed in it on the subway or at lunchtime, and definitely stayed up past my bedtime reading it one night, only to decide to stop before the end so I’d have the pleasure of more of the book on my morning commute. This is Connie Willis in To Say Nothing of the Dog mode, more or less, and it’s a whole lot of fun.

The book is set in the near future and centers around characters working at Commspan, a smartphone manufacturer that’s trying to build the next big thing to try to compete with Apple. Briddey’s boyfriend, Trent, has just asked her to get an EED (empathy-enhancing device? the abbreviation isn’t spelled out anywhere that I noticed) with him: it’s a surgical procedure that will supposedly let the two of them sense each other’s feelings. He says he wants to propose to her, but wants to be connected via the EED first, so she’ll know how much he loves her. But, um, they’ve been dating for six weeks, and I decided on page 6, when it’s mentioned that Trent drives a Porsche, that he’s clearly going to be a jerk with ulterior motives. Briddey’s female co-workers are all telling her how excited they are for her, but another co-worker, C.B, a genius tech guy who works by himself in a lab in the company’s basement, keeps trying to tell her that maybe elective brain surgery is not such a great idea, for a whole lot of reasons. But Briddey and Trent get the surgery anyway, and it’s no surprise to C.B., or to the reader, that there are unintended consequences, which Briddey then has to deal with.

I had a few issues with Crosstalk, like the fact that by the end of the book I still had no idea what Briddey’s job actually was, despite that she’s apparently important enough to have an assistant. (Trent, meanwhile, has a secretary, which was a difference in terminology that felt gendered and weird.) And C.B. is apparently the only tech guy in the company? Or are there other tech people but he just works on his own? Also, this book is really straight: we hear about a bunch of other couples who have gotten the EED, and all of them seem to be male/female, which was a minor annoyance for me: it would have been easy to have the Commspan co-worker who tells Briddey how transformative the EED has been in her relationship to have been in a relationship with a woman rather than a man, or for any of the celebrities name-dropped to have been in a same-sex partnership. And some of the surgery’s unintended consequences and the explanations around them felt a bit thrown together or problematic, in ways it’s hard to talk about without being spoiler-y. But overall, I was so swept along by the plot that I didn’t really care.

The Bone People is another book that was recommended to me as pre-New-Zealand reading, and I spent the past week finding it pretty hard to put down, to the point (well, actually, this isn’t so unusual for me) where I was reading it while walking down the hallway between the elevator and the door to the office at work (prompting a maintenance/construction worker to grin at me and say, “wow, that must be a really good book”). It is a complicated book: poetic and twisty, with language that is sometimes fun/playful, sometimes gorgeous, and a plot that goes from unsettling to dark and then veers into magic in a way that totally works, in some ways, but also is hard to reconcile with what came before. I don’t think I can talk about this book without some spoilers, so if you don’t want to know some significant plot details, maybe stop reading now.

The book starts with disorientation, with a section called “The End at the Beginning,” in which the reader doesn’t have much idea what’s going on, but in which there’s this, which Sam Jordison in the Guardian books blog holds up as an example of bad writing, but which I rather like, both for the sentiment it offers and for how it ultimately fits into the story:

They were nothing more than people, by themselves. Even paired, any pairing, they would have been nothing more than people by themselves. But all together, they have become the heart and muscles and mind of something perilous and new, something strange and growing and great.
Together, all together, they are the instruments of change. (4)

So, OK, the story. We meet Kerewin, who is a wealthy and isolated artist who finds herself unable to create new work. She lives in a lovely and idiosyncratic tower she’s had built on the coast; her family is part Maori and part European (though she says at one point she feels “all Maori”); she’s estranged from her relatives (76). One day she comes home to find a child in her tower: this is Simon, who’s around seven years old and mute; he’s not Maori, but his foster father, Joe, (mostly) is. Simon, we learn, was the sole survivor of a shipwreck a few years back; Joe and his family took him in, but then Joe’s wife and biological son both died, leaving Joe to raise Simon on his own. Joe drinks rather a lot (as does Kerewin) and regularly beats Simon, who often skips school and has a habit of stealing. Joe and Simon enter Kerewin’s life, breaking her solitude: “I am in limbo,” she thinks to herself at one point earlier in the book, “and in limbo there are no races, no prizes, no changes, no chances”: well, now there is change (34). But then there is a crisis, or a few crises: Joe beats Simon so badly that he ends up in a coma; Kerewin partly blames herself, and oh, she also seems to have stomach cancer, and nearly dies. Simon does end up recovering somewhat, though his hearing has been damaged, and he just wants to reunite with Joe and Kerewin. And here’s where the magic comes in: Joe, after serving his jail sentence, meets a Maori elder who has apparently been waiting for his arrival: the elder guards a sacred stone and Joe is to be its new guardian. Kerewin, in self-imposed exile awaiting death, has an encounter with a strange being, after which she is cured. Kerewin and Simon and Joe are all reunited, and Kerewin is reconciled with her family for good measure. This is the part I have trouble with. If we take care of the spirit of the land, the end of the book seems to be saying, the spirit of the land may take care of us. And also: if we work at building a community, that community can be there for us. Both of which are heartening and hopeful ideas, but at the same time, a story that ends with the reunion of an abused child and the person who abused him (and others who failed to stop the abuse, despite knowing about it) makes me feel pretty uncomfortable, as does the way the book doesn’t really present any better alternatives. Read more allegorically and less literally, with Joe representing Maori culture, Simon representing European culture, and Kerewin representing a mix of them, maybe the ending works better/differently: the three can come together with others to build something that is a mix of all their perspectives and that has a strength that’s tied to the land itself. But that allegorical reading feels like a stretch to me, after the realistic brutality and violence of the earlier sections of the book.

Jo Walton wrote about this book on back in 2009; I like her post a lot, though she feels differently about the ending.

Library book stack

February 5th, 2017

Library books

I went to the library yesterday to return one book, and ended up checking out four more – oops/yay! From top to bottom: 1) The Bone People by Keri Hulme – I already had this checked out, just took it out of my bag for the picture. This one’s another pre-New-Zealand-trip reading recommendation. I started it last night and it’s really satisfying so far, with lots of satisfyingly-rendered quirky inner monologue. 2) Attachments by Rainbow Rowell, because I’ve been meaning to read this for ages but haven’t yet. 3) Public Library by Ali Smith, because I generally love her playfulness/smarts/inventiveness. 4) The Chimes by Anna Smaill, because I’ve been vaguely meaning to check it out since this 2015 post by Teresa over at Shelf Love. 5) Crosstalk by Connie Willis, because I want to get lost in a story and in the past I’ve found her work really good for that.

Two things that are relevant to my reading of this book:
1) I’m going on vacation to New Zealand at the start of April! I’m very excited. One of my favorite people has lived in Auckland for several years now and has kept telling me I should come visit and I finally am going to. She gave me some NZ-centric book and movie recommendations and this comic, by NZ artist Dylan Horrocks, was one of them.
2) In general, I like graphic memoirs more than I like graphic novels or other kinds of comics. It’s hard for me to articulate why that is, but something about a personal narrative in words + pictures is really appealing to me. As such, possibly my favorite part of this book was the introduction to this new (2010) edition, in which Horrocks talks about his own childhood connections to comics, Tintin especially, and his subsequent work as an artist creating them. The drawings of Tintin panels are great, and so is the rest of the introduction – I especially like a bit where we see Horrocks looking out a window at a view of sea and sky and mountains, his own frowning reflection looking back at him.

Not that I didn’t like the book itself, too, which is about a journalist, Leonard Batts, who travels to Hicksville, a (fictional) tiny town in New Zealand, to learn more about his comic-book-writing hero, Dick Burger, who is from there. When he arrives, he finds that everyone in town really loves comics, and no one particularly seems to like Dick Burger: part of the story is Leonard (and us) finding out why. The book is full of comics quotes and references and in-jokes, and also full of comics itself—we get a mysterious strip about Captain Cook and the Māori leader Hōne Heke and the surveyor Charles Heaphy, plus a character’s weekly strip for a humor magazine, plus a character’s autobiographical mini-comic, and more. We also get the Māori story of how the North Island (Te Ika-a-Māui) came to be, and digressions on maps and map-making and navigating and art-making/storytelling, and a fair bit of tea, which Leonard, unfortunately, does not enjoy at all. Even outside of the comics within the book, the story jumps in location and time: we see one character, Grace, in the present/returning to Hicksville after time away; we also see some of her time away. There’s a lot going on, is I guess what I am trying to say, and it mostly works, though some of the comics references were lost on me (there is a helpful glossary at the back, which I wish I’d known about sooner)! I like both the writing and the art, which is good at both big wordless pages full of water and sky and light and at detailed panels that show things like, for example, one character having a copy of If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino.