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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 1.1.2017
Book from: Borrowed from J.

For the diver Kino, finding a magnificent pearl means the promise of better life for his impoverished family. His dream blinds him to the greed and suspicions the pearl arouses in him and his neighbors, and even his loving wife cannot temper his obsession or stem the events leading to tragedy.

Spare, dreamlike, caressing, bitter. I kept having to stop reading every five pages to writhe in the dread and certainty that John Steinbeck was definitely, definitely going to do the Steinbeck thing: kill whatever symbolizes innocence. The graceful nature writing, all pricked with color and sensual detail – sometimes crisp, sometimes impressionistic – it’s just misdirection, dammit.

The Pearl centers on much the same moral territory as Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath – the moral quality of simple people, their vulnerability to the wealthy and cruel, their structural powerlessness – but explores the new dimensions of race and colonialism. Though Kino also traps himself with his inability to deviate from traditional, aggressive masculinity, Steinbeck targets above all else, with rage and sorrow, the systemic ignorance and poverty enforced by colonization of the Mexican natives. The scenes where the town doctor and the pearl buyers collude against Kino are stomach-turning.

Speaking on aesthetic grounds – this is the most unusually filmic, or even balletic, piece of prose that I’ve ever read, in that Steinbeck writes for the narrative an explicit musical “score,” which rises and falls very beautifully and convincingly with the action. The Song of the Family, the Song of the Pearl, the Song of Evil, and other motifs twine throughout, mingle and distort. (I read afterwards that The Pearl had indeed been solicited to be used as a film treatment by a Mexican film company, so the filmic quality’s not just a coincidence – and I do look forward to finding the movie sometime soon.) This deepens the elegiac and dreamlike, nonverbal quality of the narrative.

Now, Kino’s people had sung of everything that happened or existed. They had made songs to the fishes, to the sea in anger and to the sea in calm, to the light and the dark and the sun and the moon, and the songs were all in Kino and in his people- every song that had ever been made, even the ones forgotten. And as he filled his basket the song was in Kino, and the beat of the song was his pounding heart as it ate the oxygen from his held breath, and the melody of the song was the gray-green water and the little scuttling animals and the clouds of fish that flitted by and were gone. But in the song there was a secret little inner song, hardly perceptible, but always there, sweet and secret and clinging, almost hiding in the counter-melody, and this was the Song of the Pearl That Might Be, for every shell thrown in the basket might contain a pearl. Chance was against it, but luck and the gods might be for it.

The sixth and final chapter of the novella also stands out to me for its stark, towering beauty and darkness. I close with some of my favorite passages from early in that chapter:

The sun arose hotly. They were not near the Gulf now, and the air was dry and hot so that the brush cricked with heat and a good resinous smell came from it. …

Kino stirred in a dream, and he cried out in a guttural voice, and his hand moved in symbolic fighting. And then he moaned and sat up suddenly, his eyes wide and his nostrils flaring. He listened and heard only the cricking heat and the hiss of distance.

The “hiss of distance” is so perfectly evocative of immensity, solitude, oppression.

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Reviewer: Emera
Dates read: Various dates between November 2010 and spring 2011
Books from: Personal collection, or borrowed from Kakaner

Reviewed here be:

Chew, Volume 1: Taster’s Choice (2009)
Chew, Volume 2: International Flavor (2010)
Chew, Volume 3: Just Desserts (2010)

Chew is the story of Tony Chu, a humorless detective who has the unfortunate ability to gain psychic impressions from anything he eats (except beets). Recruited by the FDA – now the world’s most powerful law enforcement agency in the wake of an avian flu pandemic that took hundreds of millions of lives – for his singular talent, Tony finds himself taking bites of stranger and stranger substances as his casework, increasingly muddied by connections to shadowy criminal organizations and possibly extraterrestrial conspiracies, takes him from New York chicken speakeasies to Siberian research stations staffed by vampire ladies in ushankas to tropical dictator states. Add in a generously embarrassing family, an exhaustingly cheerful cyborg partner, and a hate-filled boss, and life just won’t let up on this by-the-rules cop.

Man, this series. I had no idea what I was in for when Kakaner eagerly gifted me the first two volumes, but it proved to be a delicious combination of hyperkinetic art and zany-bordering-on-surreal world-building. Layman and Guillory are an inimitably weird team: to match Layman’s tireless inventiveness (one of the best parts of reading is trying to predict what absurd food-related superpower will next come into play), Guillory’s art is full of odd angles and wildly energetic gestures and the most! excellent! facial expressions, thanks to his characters’ crinkly, mobile features. His backgrounds, too, are stuffed to bursting with silly details (inexplicable graffiti, stray notes and photographs, etc. etc.), and as is only appropriate for an obsessively food-themed series, the distinctive color palette always reminds me of citrus popsicles:

(Even when Tony is getting a barf facial, apparently.)

The plot is obviously going somewhere, but frankly I’ve been so distracted and entertained and perplexed by the moment-to-moment madness of each volume that I haven’t been working all that hard to piece the bits together – though the gathering momentum was obvious by the end of volume 3, and left me hoping for some interesting developments IN SPACE.

I also have to single out Chew‘s creators for the fact that even though they make merry with pulp/genre stereotypes (well hello, melon-breasted Asian lady assassin, nice to roll my eyes at you again) and just-plain stereotypes (the female assassin is exaggerated to clearly satirical proportions; I’m far less comfortable with the fact that the only recurring black character in the series is, straighforwardly, a cowardly criminal), having gone for the Chew/Chu pun, Layman and Guillory obviously committed thereafter to representation of a varied cast of Asian characters. In other words, they didn’t let Tony’s ethnicity stay a one-off joke and then pat themselves on the back for being inclusive by way of one nonwhite protagonist. Which, frankly, I think plenty of other writers, especially in comics, would have done.

I give them heaping points, of course, for having a cool, competent male Asian protagonist in the first place; discounting of Asian men in pop culture as comical, emasculated etc. (if they’re not ninja/samurai) is a major pet peeve of mine. (I did a count once of the number of female Asian superheroes [ooo, so exotic!!] vs. male once, and the ratio was pretty dismal.) But from there, numerous members of Tony’s family, immediate and extended, have also gotten plenty of pagetime, including his cheerfully self-aggrandizing chef brother and adorable, NASA-employee twin sister.

Though character development takes second seat to conceptual and narrative whimsy in Chew, most of the characters are amply buoyed by the series’ manic energy and humor. It’s refreshing and gratifying to see a broad cast of Asian characters getting the same treatment, and adds immeasurably to my enjoyment of a series that already leaves me grinning at every turn.

Go to:

John Layman: bio and works reviewed 

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 6.8.11
Book from: Personal collection

An ironic title: Carter’s take on “waywardness” and “wickedness” is far more subtle, of course. The women in this anthology – all written by women – are canny, worldly, self-directed. They are leery of others’ plans for them, and quietly attentive to their own desires – which is not to say that they are selfish, necessarily*, though they run the gamut when it comes to moral fiber. The mother in Elizabeth Jolley’s “The Last Crop” cheerfully cons a kindly doctor when she decides that she’d really rather keep and cultivate her inherited land after all. The women and girls in Jane Bowles’ “A Guatemalan Idyll” are capable of disturbingly calculated callousness – the youngest, Lilina, “[chooses] her toys according to the amount of power or responsibility she thought they would give her in the eyes of others.” The particular toy she considers in this story, a pet snake, ends up beheaded due to her (deliberate?) carelessness; Lilina’s only comment is, “Look how small her head is. She must have been a very small snake.”

(In a wonderfully horrible play with point of view, Bowles half-distracts us from the impending violence in this scene by shifting the perspective to another character just long enough for the snake’s death to occur in the interim. [The other character, a boy, is meanwhile observing that he dislikes Lilina “probably because he suspected intuitively that she was a person who could fall over and over again into the same pile of broken glass and scream just as loudly the last time as the first.”] The aggregation of such effects in this story left me strangely unsettled, and, like the visiting traveler who eventually “escapes” from the Guatemalan women, feeling like I’d awoken from a fever dream.)

I’ve gotten way off track – there’s so much to talk about in each story. Carter’s own point about the morality of these women, questionable or otherwise, is that the range represented is a normal one. The women here are well-characterized individuals, flawed and proud individuals of varying ages and desires and backgrounds, rather than one-note femmes fatales or whores or shrews. They frequently “act out” simply by resisting, by hunkering down and continuing to dig out their own paths. The protagonist of Ama Ata Aidoo’s “The Plums,” a Ghanaian student named Sissie who is touring in Europe, looks askance at the advances of a lonely German housewife, and in the end sloughs her off and keeps traveling. Throughout the story, she registers an ironic combination of pity and quiet contempt for the German woman and for whiteness in general, reflecting that “it must be a pretty dangerous matter, being white. It made you awfully exposed, rendered you terribly vulnerable. Like being born without your skin or something.” (The German woman’s son and husband are both named Adolf, it’s worth noting.) By contrast, Sissie goes through the story shielded, observing and untouched, sometimes even cruel, behind her armor of self-respect.

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What’s that, you say? It’s Friday? Indeed it is, and for once I have something to show for it. Although it’s only sorta a Bad Book Cover Friday, as this June 1983 Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction cover isn’t astoundingly bad.

I mean, it’s bad, but it’s bad simply in that there’s nothing good about it. The mediocrity/absurdity/ignorance of color theory and anything else that would contribute to an aesthetic and/or compelling cover are so generally apparent that I have nothing specific to say about them.

The contents of the magazine’s advertisements, on the other hand…

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Date read: 1.10.11
Book from: University library
Reviewer: Emera

Snow White meets haunted-house melodrama meets quasi-vampire story with a decided hint of “Carmilla,” by the author of The Icarus Girl? Count me in. White is for Witching is the story of a family, and a house, distorted by the loss of a mother and a hidden history of trauma, xenophobia, and insanity. Miranda Silver blames herself for her mother’s death, and struggles with pica, a disorder that compels her to eat chalk and plastic. (I thought it might well be a pun on the “consumptive” heroine, in addition to hinting at Miri’s eventual realization of even worse appetites, and reflecting the novel’s motifs of misdirected desire and destruction from the inside out.) Her twin brother Eliot and bottled-up father Luc are too paralyzed by their own obsessions and griefs to do more than watch Miri on her slow course to destruction. In short, every character is an emotional closed circuit, furiously retracing the same neuroses without outlet or resolution. This includes, of course, the possessive and apparently sentient house, which has born witness to several generations of tortured Silver women.

For the first half of the book, I read with mostly detached fascination. Everyone is so icily clever and dysfunctional that I couldn’t really care about them, and as in The Icarus Girl, Oyeyemi’s prose sometimes verges on mannered. Paragraphs drift into prose-poetic fragments, and overlapping phrases signal transitions between narrating characters; I found the latter a particularly heavy-handed stylistic device. Similarly, many of the haunted-house tableaux – Miri’s waking dreams of streets lined with “pale people,” for example – are presented with an arranged, glassy nightmarishness, an alienating hyper-aestheticization. What saved the book for me from feeling (if you’ll forgive the pun) too lifeless was Oyeyemi’s dense layering of Gothic and folkloric tropes.

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Date Read: 7.9?.09

 

Book From: Personal collection

 

Reviewer: Emera

Jessamy Harrison is eight years old, the British-born daughter of a Nigerian mother and a white British father. Extraordinarily precocious and sensitive, she spends hours by herself and often falls into inexplicable screaming fits and fevers. One summer, her mother brings her to visit her grandfather in Nigeria. Even among her cousins there, Jess feels unwanted and out of place, until she meets Titiola – “TillyTilly,” as Jess calls her – an odd, mischievous girl living in an abandoned building on the family compound. TillyTilly is soon Jess’ first and best friend, and delights Jess with her waywardness and strange tricks. However, as their pranks become increasingly vicious, Jess begins to realize that TillyTilly is becoming an uncontrollably destructive force in her life.

Helen Oyeyemi famously wrote The Icarus Girl at the ripe age of 18, while studying for her college entrance exams. (She ended up at Cambridge.) When I tell friends this, they tend  to raise an eyebrow and ask if it reads like it was written by an 18-year-old. Amazingly, it doesn’t. Oyeyemi’s writing is elegant and meticulously stylized, only occasionally venturing into the overwrought. Her portrayal of Jess is astoundingly compelling. The reader immediately and intimately enters her perspective and begins to understand how tormented and frighteningly fragile she is, despite being (or because she is) so young. Much of the impetus to read onwards, in my experience, came from the desire to see Jess safe and healed from her fears. I was increasingly terrified for Jess as the novel went on, and some of the scenes in the book reach truly nightmarish pitches of horror. The half-articulated, hallucinatory style of the darker, mythical elements actually reminded me of Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Read the rest of this entry »

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