Sunday, August 15, 2021

CBR13 #3: The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley

In March, Myanmar was descending into near-daily violence under a junta about a month in after the military ousted democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi from power in a lightning-quick coup. Sixteen-hour days were common for our newsroom in Bangkok as we tried to navigate safety concerns for our reporting staff in Yangon, while dealing with a really intense news cycle. Any time off I had, I just couldn't do anything "serious" -- I stopped watching dramas and switched to only 20-minute comedies. I re-downloaded a silly cat-collecting game because I knew my addiction to doom-scrolling on the news had to be channelled to another mind-numbing screen suck. And I also found that I could no longer read for fun. Any titles in my "to be read" pile was just. too. serious. 

So my colleague passed me A Flavia de Luce mystery, and it came at the perfect time for me to just clear my head of all the noise. 

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is the first book of a mystery series following 11-year-old Flavia, a chemistry enthusiast living with her father and two sisters in the English countryside. Her primary passion is concocting poisons to bedevil her older sisters, who she sees as vapid. But one day, a dead bird is found in their manor, with its beak pierced into a stamp. When her father -- who is quite distant -- sees the stamp, he turns white and takes the stamp away. 

I don't want to give away too much of the plot -- I myself went into knowing literally nothing about the book -- but there's murder, secrets buried in the past, and quite a bit of philately (which I had to look up while reading. It means postal history). Of course in true Nancy Drew fashion, Flavia decides to get answers in her own way, riding her bicycle around town in search of clues -- sometimes with the help of townspeople like the innkeeper's daughter and an elderly librarian (who hates her father). 

The book was an easy read, thanks to Flavia's curiosity. She is headstrong, resourceful, and unstoppable in the way that pre-teens feel they are when they haven't encountered too many obstacles in their very short life. We see most things from her point of view -- from her annoyance at her sisters, to her unconcealed disgust at the housekeeper's pies. She's also jealous that her sisters remember her mother, who the book says died when she was a baby, but her father's persistently forlorn nature seems to imply there might be more in future books about that. 

While Bradley had written her as rather precocious -- after all, she is a chemistry genius at 11 -- Flavia also has certain tendencies that indicate she may be on a spectrum. The detective tasked with solving the case says she's "remarkable", allowing her to answer his questions without interruption or belittling her. Perhaps that's the first clear sign that we're dealing with a fictional world; little girls in 1950s England likely did not get so much respect from grown men. 

Flavia's no-nonsense way of approaching problems is also a mindset I perhaps had when I was younger, but have forgotten as I've grown older and more cynical. Though... I gotta wonder, was I ever really like that? Maybe I've never been the type that thinks, "I have a question, so let's find the steps to get the answer." without a hint of doubt creeping in or imagining obstacles every step of the way.

There's something comforting about that simplicity, and this Flavia de Luce mystery was not a bad way to remember that sense of invincibility I used to project on myself when reading young adult and mystery novels.

Thursday, August 12, 2021

CBR13 #2: Minor Feelings By Cathy Park Hong

This will be a tough one to review. Cathy Park Hong's Minor Feelings wasn't just good – and it was unbelievably good. It was both recognizable – like a familiar friend who I just nodded along to as they spoke – and a revelation. She skillfully put into words a shade that has maybe always been super-imposed over my world view, feelings I never knew was nagging at me before. Her seven essays also covered so much ground that any review I write – and anything I've read by other outlets – will fall short what it felt like to just experience her writing.

I am what I'd call a biased reviewer. An unreliable narrator. My Asian-American-ness makes me someone already aligned with "identity politics", so how could I be counted on to give a full picture? 

It was hard for me to shake this feeling in the beginning as I started her first essay, "United". I kept thinking to myself, Do I identify with this because I'm Asian, or because it's so well-written? Both is the answer, but that nagging feeling could also be a way I was diminishing the value of my own perspective – something that Hong says Asians are well-acquainted with doing in the face of some classic American gas-lighting. 

And "United" is a doozy to start with. It covers a lot of ground, but it begins with a very frank assessment about her state of mind – her depression and how a Korean American therapist rejected taking her on as a patient. The therapist said they were not right for each other, and Hong flipped out. She essentially kept harassing her by phone, and attempted to leave her hateful reviews online.

There was a short prelude about a young Vietnamese teenager doing her nails, who kept clipping harder and harder on her toes despite her protests. She thought, "You should respect me like you're forced to respect those Iowan blond moms who come in here." By the end of the session, Hong was convinced that they were like "two negative ions repelling each other. He treated me badly because he hated himself. I treated him badly because I hated myself."

But what evidence do I have that he hated himself? Why did I think his shame skunked the salon? I am an unreliable narrator, hypervigilant to the point of being paranoid, imposing all my own insecurities on him... I was so privileged I was acquiring the most useless graduate degree imaginable. What did I know about being a Vietnamese teenage boy who spent all his free hours working at a nail salon? I knew nothing. 

I marvel at Hong’s honesty, her fearlessness at being seen as a terrible person. I don’t know how long it took to come to this point of self-awareness, where you’re willing to lay yourself out, filleted with all your ugly bits out, just so that you may be understood. 

Maybe part of that fearlessness comes from also no longer giving a fuck about how you’re perceived. Whether if readers think she was awful to that therapist or that Vietnamese teenager, the message it sent to me was this: Enough is enough. We are more than all the labels and things that saddle Asian Americans – a too-broad term but a rallying cry for unity nonetheless. And sometimes, what we are is just not pretty.

There's a lot of amazing literature about being Black in America, Hong said. But there really isn't that much self-examination by Asian Americans. Her seven essays, in short, attempts to tackle and parse out her feelings on being the model minority – or the minority that gets forgotten, the minority that "has it so good," the minority that's basically white-adjacent so they should be grateful.

She's also reluctant to use the plural "we". She is aware that the experiences of Asians in America are so vast and varied that it would be difficult for everyone's lived reality to be the same.

But the term “minor feelings” – which she explains in the incredible second essay “Stand Up” (which is also largely about Richard Pryor) – is very likely to feel familiar to any ethnic minority. Minor feelings come on when “American optimism is enforced upon you, which contradicts your own racialized reality, thereby creating a static of cognitive dissonance.”

You are told, “Things are so much better” while you think, Things are the same. You are told, “Asian Americans are so successful,” while you feel like a failure. This optimism sets up false expectations that increase these feelings of dysphoria…. Minor feelings are also the emotions we are accused of having when we decided to be difficult – in other words, when we decide to be honest.

There’s so many infuriating encounters she has with white people, but I think the more poignant ones are when the good encounters go awry. Like when a white woman came up to her after a reading and said “I wish you’d read your poems… We need poems to heal.” Hong told her gently, "I'm not ready to heal."

I felt a tight knot in my chest when I read that. I think a lot about race issues – such an odd, throwaway term to use when I feel so much of my life, my place in the world and in journalism has been so shaped by this. My anger and disappointment is almost like a flame that grows with any small indignity I see around me, and ebbs as I get weary.

But it also warms me.

Forgive me for speaking abstractly, but I don’t know what "peace of mind" means when it comes to this. Reading Minor Feelings, I got the sense that this "peace” or “being healed” just does not exist. Maybe one "solution" is not to care so much, not to be “hypervigilant to the point of paranoid” – but then I don't know any other way to be, just as Hong has been shaped so much by her personal, family, and cultural history to be the type of writer that she is.

I have now written over a thousand words on this – most of them are hers. But there are two more things I would like to highlight. 

The first is one of my favorite essays of hers, “Education”, which was about her time in Oberlin. Her closest friends were Helen and Erin, both art geniuses who reveled in being better than all of their white classmates. The teachers loved them; their peers were terrified of them – it was a period of naked ambition and boundless creativity that was later stifled with the challenges of a Real World once they’ve left college. It’s also a really cutting examination on tumultuous female friendships, and about the necessary endings we sometimes need.

Her temperament was distinctly familial to me. She could be me, if I could unzip my skin and release all my fury. 

An amazing line – and they're everywhere throughout Minor Feelings, showcasing Hong's training as a poet. I look forward to seeing “Education” as a big-screen movie one day.

The second is her final essay "The Indebted", which serves as a reminder for why she's here to do what she's doing in case you got lost in some of the more academic writing. It deals with the idea of how “they’re everywhere now” – Asians sneaking into communities rich and poor, in political circles and in CEO boardrooms. Decades ago, Asian Americans soldiers were among those in Vietnam, confusing the Vietnamese who shared rice with them; and they were the ones held in internment camps after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.

Marrying history with the demand for “gratitude” often yelled by right-wing pundits – “If you don’t like it here, then go back to where you came from” – she highlights the absurdity that Americans fails to understand: the connection between “here” to “there.”

Or as activists used to say “I am here because you were there”… I am here because you vivisected my ancestral country in two… My ancestral country is just one small example of the millions of lives and resources you have sucked from the Philippines, Cambodia, Honduras, Mexico, Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, El Salvador and many, many other nations through your forever wars and transnational capitalism that have mostly enriched shareholders in the States. Don’t talk to me about gratitude. 

But make no mistake, Minor Feelings wasn’t just born so that Asian Americans can hear themselves reverberated and acknowledged – though that too exists, of course. Writing this must have taken an enormous amount of self-awareness and emotional labor by Hong. She left me with a sense of admonishment. How have we become so willing to be recruited to be the "junior partners in genocidal wars"? How have we allowed whiteness to conscript us to be anti-black and colorist? To prosper in a system that hates us and demands for our invisibility is not a win.

Conscription is every day and unconscious. It is the default way of life among those of us who live in relative comfort, unless we make an effort to choose otherwise.

So here I am, sitting in Bangkok, a Singaporean-American working as a foreign correspondent – a concept that is very much steeped in colonialistic ideals – bathed with both that rallying sense of indignation, and also feeling really called out. What have I done recently, in any meaningful sense, to further the cause of anti-racism? I used to say that my existence at the table is an act of revolution in and of itself. My presence can serve as a challenge, a rebuke to those who otherwise would say awful things outloud about Asians (and believe me, I’ve heard a lot, even among liberal circles).

I do still very much believe in that. But it also means that what Hong says is true – my temporary seat at that table is not really one of belonging. “If the Asian American consciousness must be emancipated, we must free ourselves of our conditional existence,” she says.

I don’t know what this will look like for me, but I’m grateful to have a writer as amazing and exact as Hong to grab me by the shoulders. I needed a good shaking, a rattling to my senses.

Monday, January 4, 2021

CBR13: A Good True Thai by Sunisa Manning

Last year came and went with the stillness of a thrashing fish out of water -- I certainly don't need to recap what an astoundingly not-normal year 2020 was. We were all just doing our best, gasping for air while picking up new hobbies to distract ourselves from the pandemic, racial injustice, the world ending, etc.

And this is where I let you non-Asia readers in on a secret: While the US and Europe played cat-and-mouse with the virus (seriously, does anyone really know what the words "lockdown" mean anymore?) life in Thailand was a different reality. From January to November, we had less than 4,000 total cases and roughly 60 deaths. By July, Bangkok was pretty much back to normal -- and that was when a pro-democracy movement kicked off.

The capital saw near-daily protests from student activists demanding for the prime minister -- a former army chief who staged the last coup in 2014 -- to step down from power. By August, their demands shifted to more taboo topics; the students called for reforms to the kingdom's most powerful institution, the monarchy, demanding that it be held accountable, that its finances be transparent, and that a royal defamation law -- which has sent dozens (hundreds?) convicted of insulting or criticising the royals to prison -- be abolished.

(This video is now geo-blocked in Thailand. Nothing worse for an authoritarian-leaning government than a catchy earworm, honestly.)

It is in this environment that Sunisa Manning's book, "A Good True Thai", is published. How serendipitous that the Thai-American author's novel based on the student movement from 1973-1976 be thrust into the Thai public's eye right when the spectre of the massacre looms large in every activist's mind. It wasn't so long ago that the student massacre of October 6, 1976 -- one of the bloodiest stain in its country's continual agitation for democracy -- was whispered and talked obliquely about in public spaces. By August, student activists were referencing it on stage in protests that drew thousands. The fact that I couldn't find Manning's book anywhere in Bangkok because it was sold out by October should serve as a fair warning to any leaders flirting with authoritarianism: A hunger for the truth will persist even if a society attempts to paper over its problematic history.

The three protagonists of "A Good True Thai" however do not really tackle large, existential questions about Thailand's penchant for repeating history. Instead, the high school students -- Det, a high-born Thai who appears at ease in every room he walks in; Chang, his best friend who grew up in Bangkok's slums; and Lek, a brilliant and beautiful Thai-Chinese who grows enamoured with the writings of an intellectual considered persona non grata by the kingdom -- are more concerned with their personal place in the country's future.

The first half of the book follows the beginning of Det and Lek's romance, the events of 1973 as the students rouse a student-led democracy movement to successfully expel a hated general from power, and the shaky transition period in which all seems possible, especially for the idealistic youth hungering for change.

In reality, nothing is possible without the shadowy approval of the country's power pillars.

Det -- a descendant of King Chulalongkorn through his mother though his father is a commoner -- perhaps understood this best, repeatedly saying that the students' success in overthrowing the dictator was because the current king wished it so for the good of the people. This rankles the more radical students, including Lek and Chang who wish for true equality, whether or not it comes under the approval umbrella of a monarch.

As the trio espouse their ideals, it remains painfully clear how young they are. Never far from my mind are the student leaders today who fearlessly, and sometimes with great humor, demand for change. Me thinking them naive does not discount from their bravery -- do you know what has happened to dissidents in Thailand? I don't, not really or truly, because their disappearances aren't investigated.

I've been so steeped in writing, thinking, reporting on Thailand's past and current events these past few months that I wanted so dearly to like this book. The topic is compelling, especially as the plot barrels towards October 6, 1976. The details of Thais' strict adherence to hierarchy were interesting, especially as Det wrestles with his identity and his relationship with Lek -- it greatly enlightened some parts of Thai culture that I will never really fully get because I'm a foreigner, always outside of that social calculation.

But the writing leaves much to be desired. Manning's choice to use present tense throughout becomes clunkier as the protagonists relocate to the jungle in the book's second half, hindering the characters' clarity, their actions, and also the plot. The day of the massacre should have served an emotional wallop -- the images of naked students crawling on a university field, cowering from attacks from the army and ultra-royalists, of Thais bashing a student hanging from a tree still shock today. Instead it is muddied by some sparse writing -- a very different approach from the beginning, which felt a bit over-written --  so much so that I had to wonder if a newcomer to Thailand would even really understand what was happening.

It's unfortunate that the last book I reviewed for CBR was also a Thailand-related book by Thai author Pitchaya Sudbanthad, who also had characters shaped by the massacre. That review was a rave, but since then, one of my Thai friends has said she is having trouble with his novel, "Bangkok Wakes to Rain", because she thinks it's written with a Western audience in mind and it exoticizes certain aspects of the country.

How strange it is then for me to think about whether my likes and dislikes of a novel is because of the literary lens I've gotten used to, which has been fed to me by mostly white publishers choosing mostly white authors. To put it in an unkind, blunt manner: Does me liking "Bangkok Wakes to Rain" mean Sudbanthad is more successful at pandering to Western audiences? (And if your first rebuttal to this is "But you're not Western; you're Asian," then you can skedaddle and let the grown-ups talk.)

This question is important to me because as a journalist, I'm well aware of how our appetites for news has been reshaped due to the steady diet fed to readers -- whether if this menu is fuelled by dwindling budgets, encroaching conglomerates or a shift in priorities. The reason matters of course, but what we should be more concerned over is that a by-product of our media output is how we as a society read the news today, how it shapes the empathy we are willing to extend to the rest of the world.

And so here I am, wondering if my criticism of Manning's book and writing is because of how certain tropes or clich├ęs I'm used to seeing in modern fiction have shaped what I consider "good". Of course it has -- how can it not be? Coincidentally, she actually tweeted back in November something Ocean Vuong, a Vietnamese American author and poet, wrote that was somewhat about this -- "It is no surprise, then, that if you as a BIPOC artist, dare to come up with your own ideas, to say "no" to what they shove/have been shoving down your throat for so long, you will be infantilized, seen as foolish, moronic, stupid, disobedient, uneducated and untamed." (The full tweet is worth reading, and by the way, Ocean Vuong's "On Earth, We're Briefly Gorgeous" was one of the best things I read last year.)

It's an uncomfortable place then for me to examine myself in. I'm Singaporean-American, and my tastes -- and allegiances -- will always be tied to this identity, whether if its done by me or by others (I've been told that my reactions to certain news items is because I'm "too Asian" -- said in a matter-of-fact way in a perfunctorily liberal newsroom). Manning's Thai-American, and I was thrilled to see her book's publication and the praise for it the same way I was thrilled to see Sudbanthad's name in some of the "Best of 2019" book lists. We yearn for the narratives of our experiences to actually be written by us, not by white historians or authors, and for this work to be celebrated. "One of us! One of us!" is what I sometimes tribalistically chant in my head. But in being among the few, non-white creators also uncomfortably get relegated to the position of having to please all, to define all experiences, and to be judged as flawless.

(I'm well aware that in comparing this new "Thailand" book to last year's other "Thailand" book, I'm committing the same crime that so many have done. Their shared interest in the massacre is there, but "Good True Thai" and "Bangkok Wakes to Rain" really are so, so different in plot, tone and themes.)

I guess this is my very long-winded way of saying please read it. Please judge it for yourself. You may learn something about Thailand's history, about its people, and about how very present the past is for those who've lived long enough to see this spin-dry cycle of coups, protests and short-lived civilian governments.

But also (since it's clearly lodged in my craw) it's worth nothing that -- much like Manning's questioning of what makes a "true" citizen of Thailand -- our idea of what constitutes good writing is entirely contingent to our biases, our personal reading histories and our ability to keep our minds open for more. I can't say what "more" is but all I know is we still don't have enough.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

CBR11 #9: Bangkok Wakes to Rain by Pitchaya Sudbanthad

From the very first pages describing Bangkok's early evening crowd of school children, food vendors and no-shits-given receptionist that a character encounters as she walks into a condo building, I knew I was in for the real thing. Literally, Pitchaya Sudbanthad could have been describing my walk home after work.

It's even the details in the condo's lobby that he gets right, like the random coffee venture that pops up to please management or the "pre-fabricated panels of exposed brick" and the trendy Scandi-but-really-Thai-imitation furniture that comes with it. A glossy sheen of modernity -- really, more an idea of modernity than actual -- that envelopes me the minute I step off the streets.

Even the elevator bank had gotten a makeover, with footlights installed along the walls and the nicked beige doors refashioned with a few coats of auspicious firecracker red for the Chinese renters. 

Seriously. My office building just got a new shiny elevator, and I kid you not, it is this.

Look, as I get older, I understand that I need to be more open lest I get stuck in my own tiny world, and I read and choose the variety of books that I do to get a sense of different perceptions/different situations/different histories portrayed in an empathetic manner. But sometimes, I just want to read a book in which I recognize things -- the way I sometimes watch a really crap movie only because it's set in New York and I miss a particular street.

And Bangkok Wakes to Rain had so many recognizable real-life descriptions of the city and its people that I was just delighted the entire time I consumed its pages. It definitely helps that it was definitely not crap; it was really well-done.

Amazingly, Sudbanthad has managed to blend the history, pain and trauma that Bangkok has undergone together with its uncertain future as the clock races towards the uncomfortable knowledge that the city is literally sinking. I'm not even sure quite how to describe the plot, but it felt a little bit like a less fantastical version of David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas -- where all the characters are intertwined in some way, and the one consistent character is Bangkok, which is slowly being renovated and refabbed and redressed and relived.

If I must highlight a plotline, I think Nee's stuck in my mind the longest. She is introduced as a girlfriend to university student Siripohng, the two having met during the protests in 1973. Thailand watchers might be aware of what Sudbanthad is barreling towards -- three years later is the Thammasat University massacre.

Here is what we can officially say: On October 6, 1976, the military, paramilitary and police opened fire on pro-democracy protesters who've been camping out at the campus for weeks. Although students begged for a ceasefire, the government refused to let them out, and they dove into the Chao Phraya river to escape the gunfire. Students were also lynched on trees.

(Understand that I'm ruthlessly summarizing and if you're interested, it is worth a trawl through the Wiki page.)

The massacre is a blight on Thailand's history, and it remains a tough topic to discuss openly. It's one of those things that everyone knows about and no one knows anything for sure. The real death toll is still unclear, and activists who choose to hold events on October 6 are subjected to surveillance lest their activities be considered controversial.

But agitations in society still persist, as can be seen by this video done by a rap group call Rap Against Dictatorship that drew a lot of attention because it was put out after four years of Thailand being under a junta regime.

As a working journalist in Thailand, it can be frustrating sometimes to report here because interviews can be a strange affair once we approach taboo topics -- like hearing someone speak out from one side of their mouth and resurface with a vague platitude.

But here's how Sudbanthad handles the subject of the massacre: he doesn't really focus too much on the event itself -- though yes, it is shocking to read -- but more on the aftermath. On how Nee shuts herself off and focuses on the things she enjoys, like teaching swimming in a fancy condominium apartment. How she's aware that her powerful breast strokes were what saved her from getting pulled under on the strong currents of the Chao Phraya river, after she jumped into it to escape the gunfire.

Sudbanthad also tackles the trauma of complacency, and the costs of choosing not to care about politics. Nee's sister Nok had lived in Japan for years before the massacre, running a Thai restaurant and remained far removed from the political turmoil. But years after the fact, Nok realized that one of her loyal customers is the colonel responsible for training the paramilitaries that opened fire on the protesters.

Nee was alive though wasn't she? Was there any reason to be personally upset at Khun Chahtchai now? Yet Nok also knew that Nee had escaped a horrific fate only by luck, or destiny, or karmic currents like the one that eventually brought the colonel to savor meals in Japan at a restaurant owned by her sister, of all people, of all places. 

When Nee learns of this ("Do you think because you're over there I wouldn't find out?") she stops talking to her sister.

This exchange highlights two things that everyone in this region knows. The first is easy to understand -- that Thailand is a village and everyone will talk to their friends and their friends' friends, always, especially if it's something highly sensitive.

The second, which I've learned over my very brief time here, is that there are the same names churning over and over again when it comes to power, politics and big business. Two groups who claim to be deadly enemies will a year later come together for a military-backed political party... or a lucrative infrastructure deal. In the US, lots of these "strange bedfellows"-type alliance draw attention because it's rare; in Thailand, no one is very surprised.

But what does this short-term memory/long-term trauma do for entire generations? I don't know if Sudbanthad was trying to answer this question, but I found myself coming back to it over and over again as I got closer to the end -- the idea that a city or moment persists in one's memory with such pristine clarity, even after in reality it's been stripped bare of its old character and citizens.

A corner in the Ari neighborhood has a new trendy restaurant opening every eight months; my friends living there call it the "Ari life cycle", but how do we fully grasp a city's "essence" (sorry for the hokey word) if it's constantly undergoing change? And that's not even counting a government/establishment that appears so willing to play god, drafting and passing new laws to present a mirage of stability. 

Thailand has had 20 charters, yet last week, the entire country got a day off for Constitution Day. Which one? many joked on Twitter, but seriously... which one should the civil workers getting their day out of a stuffy office be thankful for?

I don't think I've done faith to Bangkok Wakes to Rain in my review -- there's barely a plot synopsis! -- but please understand that it's definitely a book worth getting your hands on. Even if you've never been to Thailand, it could give you a peek, beyond the usual headlines, into this country that has undergone more than a dozen coups since 1932.

I must add one more thing that made my heart so full. Maybe there is more diversity in the book world, but all I know is that when I read a "Most anticipated books of 2019" list in the beginning of the year, Pitchaya Sudbanthad's name jumped out at me.

The thrill I got from recognizing a fellow Southeast Asian name on an American/Anglo-centric English language fiction book list shows how much further we've gotta go in making sure diverse names, cultures and faces are highlighted in pop culture.

Monday, December 16, 2019

CBR11 #6-8: Saga Volumes 2 to 4 by Brian K Vaughan and Fiona Staples

Let me be clear -- I read these ages ago. And I'm writing a review for them months after the fact. So this will not be the best/clearest/most coherent reviews for a truly awesome series, but I'll do the best I can.

Sage Volume Two introduces Marko's parents, who drop into the fleeing couple's ship unannounced. Marko and his mother immediately take off to a different planet to retrieve their "babysitter", the ghoul Isabel, while Alana is left with his dad -- her now-father-in-law.

It also introduces Gwendolyn, Marko's ex-fiance who gifted him with the translation engagement rings that Marko and Alana use to communicate. She drops in on The Will, a freelance bounty hunter/contract killer who is despondent now that his ex was killed by the Prince. She is eager for him to finish the job he started -- hunting down Marko and Alana, but first The Will insists on rescuing Slave Girl, a young child he saw on a sex planet.

There are many things to love about Saga -- the art, the humor, the absurdity of some of the space creatures -- but the plotting is really amazing. Weaved in between the present narrative is how Marko's parents raised him, and how he and Alana met and fell in love. The authors use an omniscient voice -- Hazel, the daughter -- to set the stage, and her wry voice is used to set the tone. It is also ominous at times, piquing our worries on what's to befall our heroes and their accidental family.

There are also great moments of reality snuck in. Like how The Will wants to return Slave Girl to her planet after she's rescued, but Gwendolyn hits back at him with some common sense. "Home? To the same people that handed her over to those assholes?"

"Then to a shelter or something," he says lamely.

"Those are just recruitment centers for the other side's cannon fodder," she says, before urging him to think about counseling for Slave Girl's abuse.

That's what I like -- a world where not everything is definitely good or definitely bad, and where the supposed heroes are as befuddled as we are about what steps we should take next. All we can hope for is to do the "best" thing, and that completely depends on whose point of views we're aligned with.

And whooooo boy, things really fucking take off in Volume Three. 

The fugitive couple arrive in Quietus, the home of the author Oswald who wrote a subversive book that enabled them to fall in love.

There's honestly so much to love about this issue -- the introduction of the writer and the wink-wink-nudge-nudge meta content about creatives, the hiatus the runaway family gets before Prince IV drops in on the planet, and the introduction of journalists chasing down the truth of the story.

But I think perhaps the single best page in the entire issue is when Slave Girl -- now renamed by The Will as Sophie -- chats with Lying Cat (who is one of my favorites).

She also calls him "Honest Cat" which is just perfect.

The journalists -- who are like teal-coloured water creatures -- are getting closer to the truth that Marko and Alana might have fallen in love, but the Power that Be don't want this coming out, so a contract is put out to kill them. But the freelancer sent after them is The Brand, The Will's sister it turns out, and she decides not to kill the journalists because she felt they were "pretty fair to the union during our last strike".

Instead, she poisons them with a spell that kills them if they tell a single soul about the story.

"That makes no sense," said one of them "We've covered way worse crap done by both sides."

"Exactly," she says. "It's the stories with no sides that worry them."

This volume ends in tragedy -- and it's quietly foretold in the deepening relationship between Oswald and Klara, Marko's mother. Why can't these people ever have anything nice?

Side note: I wish I could pull of Gwendolyn's all-white tube top/shorts/blazer look in real life. I mean, look at it.

Volume Four drops us in Gardenia, a planet where the family has decided to stay for a while so that Alana can join the Circuit, which is a little bit like an acting troupe that everyone in the galaxy can plug into. This might have been one of my least favorite issues, probably because there are less interactions between Marko and Alana, who's slowly getting warped by the long hours of her job.

She also starts taking drugs to get by, and it's sort of strangely the most "normal" part about the series so far. Woman has shitty job she needs to keep, woman takes uppers to make it bearable.

It also shows Hazel becoming a super cute toddler, and Marko being a full-time stay-at-home dad who's slowly getting enamoured by a fellow parent.

See what I mean about "normal"? Spouse misses partner, spouse decides to emotionally cheat.

Meanwhile on the Robot planet, there's turmoil afoot. So far, we've only encountered the royalty robots, but there is also a "commoner" class, and one of them is itching for a revolution. His young son who cannot be treated because he has no insurance dies from diarrhea, so he kidnaps the son of the Prince Robot IV, kills the wife, and makes off with the baby TV screen. His aim is to broadcast a message of the plight of the commoner to all the galaxies, so he heads to Gardenia to jump on the Circuit's broadcast.

Sophie and Gwendolyn are still trying to track down a cure for The Will, and they run into his sister, The Brand, who's intrigued by their "quest".

And there you have it! Three reviews in one! I can't wait to read the rest of Saga -- just gotta get my hands on the issues.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

CBR11 #5: Saga Volume 1 by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples

CBR11bingo: And So It Begins

It was a time of war.
Isn't it always. 

Volume 1 of Saga kicks off with Alana giving birth to a baby as Marko talks her through it. The two are lovers from two different worlds which have been warring for as long as anyone can remember -- but politics is not at the forefront of the couple's minds. They are more keenly aware of their newborn's traits, like how she has Alana's wings and Marko's horns, but her eye colour is a mixture of both parents' greens and browns.

And then all hell breaks lose. The Landfallians, Alana's race, bust into their birthing hideout and threatens to kill them. Minutes later, Marko's comrades come through with magic sparking through their fingertips, also threatening their lives. The couple miraculously escape, but the next week is spent dodging ghosts, soldiers, and freelance assassins sent by their respective sides as they navigate their way through a magical planet trying to figure a way out of it.

It's a pretty rapid, fast-paced introduction into the world of Saga, and the incredible artwork makes it all the more easier to wade through some of the stranger fantasy aspects. You understand immediately that it's an epic adventure that's Star Wars-like in its creation -- Marko's moon, Wreath, has been fighting Landfall for independence (I assume) for as long as forever, but it's on the losing end. And war is a profitable machine that needs to be sustained, even if it eats up the population in the neighbouring moons and planets.

But Alana and Marko's immediate need for safe haven makes it a much more intimate look at how a family struggles to keep up with having a new life wholly dependent on them. The parents -- who are exquisitely rendered by Staples -- seem young, inexperienced in raising a new life, and they want different things.

Marko seems more idealistic, spouting off about never picking up a sword again, but being incredibly formidable when forced to protect his family. Alana, on the other hand, is more nails-to-the-wall about survival, but also entertains a romantic notion of wanting "to show our girl the universe".

But how is that possible when both their worlds are trying to get them killed? The very idea of a wings and horns (or "moony", which is derogatorily flung out by the royals, who have TV screens showcasing their thoughts for heads) procreating makes everyone super disgusted... but it's clear that their copulation is also a political problem. If the two sides are seen as not only getting along, but having a baby, then that could cast doubts on the need for an ongoing, never-ending -- and highly profitable -- war.

Saga came highly recommended by Pajibans (you know who you are!), and I could see why immediately, even if I struggled at first to "get" the world at first. But what makes it easier is the narration of Hazel, the daughter, who gives hints of what's to come by.

Even in the printed words, the attention to detail by the creators is astounding. Like the placement of the Hazel's words and the use of punctuation evokes an image of longing while introducing the beginning and drawing out the details so that readers can be immersed fully in that world. If anyone is hesitant about starting an epic graphic novel because it seems too insider-y, don't be. The themes within Saga will be universally understood right from the very first page.

One thing not great about graphic novels though: Oh, how I wish they were longer!

Monday, July 8, 2019

CBR11 #4: Sidewalks by Valeria Luiselli

CBR11bingo: The Collection

My first experience with Mexican writer Valeria Luiselli was her evocative, heart-wrenching run-down of a questionnaire she had to translate when interviewing children seeking asylum in the US for the New York court system. I still think of Tell Me How It Ends frequently, which is what pushed me to seek out more of her writing.

Sidewalks is a collection of her essays (heyo, first Bingo square!!), translated from Spanish by Christina MacSweeney. Much of Luiselli's writing feels very nostalgic, almost like she's constantly looking back at a different time period, a late author who inspired her, a past make-out of a city that she loves. In my head, I see her as almost a painstakingly thoughtful individual who would always be ruminating on what an impact of a slight change in the map would mean -- maybe annoying and exasperating in person, but in essay-form she gives you an "ah ha! I do that too!" moment, which always feels comforting.

It is for this reason that I liked the essay "Relingos: The cartography of empty spaces" the best. Basically, a relingo -- far as I can tell -- is a patch of small space all over major cities that happen when urban spaces are built around it. "Nowadays these residual spaces on and around certain corners of Reforma...are abandoned to the perpetual comings and goings of ambulant street vendors, tourists, delivery men, petty thieves, the homeless, people taking strolls, dust and debris." You know what these spaces, and so do I, even if I don't quite know what English word we would use for it.

But she somehow transposed this concept of "empty spaces" into something greater, as a sort of a freedom for our minds to wander into. "A relingo... is a sort of depository for possibilities.... Cities need those vacant lots, those silent gaps where the mind can wander freely."

Also in this essay, Luiselli pins down how I feel when writing, that itchy feeling I get when I'm searching for a way to say something and coming up empty. And then repeating something that feels familiar... and it being actually completely wrong and unoriginal and bad, because I'm really unintentionally plagiarizing myself or some idea previously read.

I know that the times I feel most excited about what I'm writing are when I should be most suspicious, because more often than not I'm repeating something I either said or read elsewhere, something that has been lingering in my mind... 

In contrast, the worst moment to stop writing is when I no longer feel like going on. On those occasions, it's always better to keep rapping thoughts into the keyboard, like drilling holes in the ground, until the exact word emerges. 

If you like sort of a quiet, meandering drum of nostalgia, I would highly recommend this slim collection of essays. There were times when I felt like it was just a bit too much navel-gazing -- for example, there is immense privilege in being able to travel to Venice just to search for the tombstone of her favorite author like she did in the first essay "Joseph Brodsky's Room and a Half" -- but it more than made up for it with little passages that felt so intimately recognizable.

Oh, and by the way, Cannonballers would probably love her whole bit on the agony of arranging books on a bookshelf in "Return Ticket". It begins with the simple sentence, "I've spent weeks putting off the inevitable ordering of my bookshelves", before going into how she describes every single book found in a home.

The book on the bed is a generous and undemanding lover; that other one, on the bedside table, an infallible oracle I consult from time to time, or a talisman against midnight crises; the one on the couch, a pillow for long, dreamless naps. Some books get forgotten for months. They're left in the bathroom or on top of the fridge in the kitchen for a while and are replaced by others when our indifference eventually wears them away. The few we really do read are places we always return to. 

It's like she got a peek at my home! And just for fun, here is how I arrange my home bookshelf, after having moved several times and having to constantly cull my collection:

Top level (which is visible for everyone) -- my favorite books, my to-be-read pile that I am excited about.
Second level (which is not visible) -- my occasional favorites, like when I'm itching to reread a familiar sentence. And a to-be-read pile that I am NOT excited about but feel a duty to keep because these are books I should read.
Third level (not visible also) -- Travel guides, history books, books I was gifted but know I'll very likely never, ever read.

All fiction, nonfiction, poetry, graphic novels are mixed together; I don't order them alphabetically, more like by feel. Like, "East of Eden must go next to Black Swan Green."

If anyone has read down this far, how do you guys organize your shelves?

Sunday, June 30, 2019

CBR11 #2-3: Year One and Of Blood and Bone by Nora Roberts

CBR11 #2: Year One by Nora Roberts

My first Nora Roberts! The two books were a gift from my friend who's a huge Nora Roberts fan, and she thought Year One could be a good entry point because I'm a real sucker for dystopia fiction.

It starts out with a family vacation in Scotland, when a peasant is shot and falls right in the middle of a stone circle, and its blood seeps into the frosted ground. What appears to be a regular hunting expedition turns deadly days later when the shooter is afflicted by an incurable disease that spreads like wildfire across the globe. It wipes out the majority of the population, but it also sparks an awakening in folks with magic in their blood -- strengthening their powers, which will either help them survive or make them targets.

My favourite parts were in the beginning, when the world was going to shit and people were getting rushed to the hospital. I find being able to picture the boring logistics of trying to get people to emergency rooms, doctors struggling to cope with the onslaught of sick people and their desperate families to be somewhat comforting. This is what we will see when an epidemic happens.

Year One moves fairly quickly, jumping from various important characters to the next, and that was kind of my biggest issue with it. I felt like more time could have been spent in exploring the group dynamics of the people hiding out in the forest, or in how the town of New Hope was actually set up. Like I said, I want to know the boring logistics of how to get a small town functioning again, or how to break up arguments between longtime friends under constant stress... and I wanted to know how all these various important characters were able to establish trust and friendship with each other.

I understand that shared experiences under stressful circumstances can build relationships quickly, but I felt like Roberts really skimmed a lot of that. And honestly, by the end of the first book, my biggest complaint was that I was expecting *some* sexual tension from the Queen of Romance, and Year One really did not deliver on that.

Still, I kept on reading, which brings me to the next review...

CBR11 #3: Of Blood and Bone by Nora Roberts

In book two, we are focusing more on The Chosen One. Her name is Fallon, and she is the daughter of the now-deceased Max and Lana. Raised by Lana and Simon -- who is such a steady, trustworthy character that he might as well have "THIS IS A GOOD MAN" stamped on his forehead -- Fallon's grown up knowing she was essentially born to save the world from its current darkness.

And boy is there a lot of it: There are truckloads of really terrible scavengers roving the streets, picking off people they think are magical or just weak; there is the dark magic contingent, who sort of work with these anti-magic people to kill the good magic people; and then there are pockets of people just trying to fend off those who take advantage of the chaos, trying to live their lives.

Fallon and her family are in the third camp, except her parents have been trying to teach her and her brothers how to be good, how to learn from right and wrong, how to farm, and how to use her powers in a responsible manner. But when she turns 13, she has to go off with her Merrick (OG BtVS, anyone? Anyone?) who then basically puts her through Hogwarts, except his school is a cottage in a forest where elves live nearby.

I was quite a fan of the training montage section of the book -- it's what comes after that annoys me a bit, and this came up in the first book as well. Roberts is very good at setting up premises, yea? Like, she gets you somewhat invested in the characters in the beginning and shows you their growth -- and then bam! It's years later, and that character has grown up so much they are basically unrecognisable, but it's hard to get the connecting tendrils to understand how they've changed so drastically. We are able to infer from what's happening in the book that, "She grew up. Fast." but it can be quite jarring if it's not expanded upon.

I mean, Fallon went from a sulky teenage girl, wondering if she should take the mantle of destiny... to straight up commanding a whole host of seasoned fighters, and not feeling any sort of nervousness about it. She no longer questioned whether she can save the world -- instead now, she's thinking of how she can save the world. At the end of the day, Fallon is a 16-year-old, and we all know we were notoriously inclined to self-doubt and angst when we are 16.

I don't know if I'll seek out the third book when it's out. I guess if my friend gifts it to me, I'll read it, because I do find it to be a relaxing read, overall.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

CBR11 #1: No Good Men Among the Living by Anand Gopal

Man, I've been terrible at this reviewing thing, hey? No better way to get back into it than to just jump in.

Close to a decade ago, when I was agitating to start a "real career" in journalism I was semi-obsessed with reading books about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. I was more concerned about the writers' inner lives, and yearned to understand how they handled these stressful situations -- against the backdrop of devastating American-backed wars.

And now, I have little patience for such naval-gazing (Jeffrey Gettleman's saccharine-titled "Love, Africa" comes to mind), likely due to a niggling sense of discomfort when reading about accounts where the humanness of locals are flattened, rendered two-dimensional, to prop up the rich, layered experiences of roving journalists -- many of whom have moved on to plump positions.

Anand Gopal does not do this with his book, "No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban and the War Through Afghan Eyes". It's actually quite amazing how little he's been able to insert himself in, choosing only to show up when talking about traveling around the country to interview former Taliban members.

He attempts to piece through the omnishambolic mess left by American forces in Afghanistan, a ever-changing country made murkier by the criss-crossing loyalties of ethnic groups and political factions. Looking back at the pages I marked in preparation for this review, I realised I had dog-eared all the books in which he just made a line-by-line detailing of how the US government completely fucked up trying to stamp out the Taliban, choosing to listen to power brokers who made use of rumours to eliminate their political competition or sort out private grievances.

This could all have made for confusing reading, but Gopal does a great job of navigating through the morass by choosing to focus on three main characters --  politician-turned-strongman Jan Muhammad; Mullah Cable, a reluctant former Taliban commander whose switching alliances show how tenuous loyalties can be post-war Afghanistan; and Heela, a schoolteacher turned intrepid renegade -- arguably the heart of the book.

Watching Kabul -- her hometown where she was university-educated before meeting and marrying her husband -- devolve under Taliban rule, it is easy to feel Heela's fear and horror when her husband handed her a burqa for the first time so that they may escape to his home province Uruzgan.

Musqinyar handed Heela the bag and she opened it and stared. She could not believe it had come to this. Folded inside was something she'd never handled in her life: a soft, sky-blue burqa.
She held up the embroidered garment and inspected it. The head-to-toe wrapping had no openings except a thick mesh-like covering for the eyes. As she put it on, the rock dire road, the brilliant mountain peaks, the rumbling motor were all snuffed out. Heela's world went black. 
Heela's story is seriously incredible, just the sheer will to exercise her desire to be a productive person, and it seriously just keeps evolving. Once she got to Uruzgan, she was determined to keep working despite living in a cloistered village where spies could literally get her killed, especially since Heela was engaging in subterfuges with her husband to try and corral Afghan women to vote in the country's first ever elections.

The title is taken from an Afghan proverb -- "There is no good men among the living and no bad ones among the dead." -- and it is reflected in Gopal's decision to portray no true villains or true heroes in his story.

By the book's finale, Heela may stand out with her "happy hero's ending" painted by Gopal -- but it's important to keep in mind that her story is not yet over. She will continue to evolve, as will the rest of the country as they pick up the pieces and I hope writers like Gopal will continue to chronicle it.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

CBR10 #1: Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi

I've been excited to read Akwaeke Emezi's debut novel Freshwater months before I finally held it in my hands. I thought I could wait for it to be published in paperback before I bought it, but its appearance in several of "best of" year's list gave me the final push to just. buy. it.

And I really, really enjoyed it. I was worried that having high expectations might ruin some of the shine of it for me, but I was just so delighted to be surprised by the subject matter, by the way of exploring it, by the telling of it. I can't even say it surpassed my expectations of it because I felt like it kind of smashed any preconceptions I had of it wide open, dismantling my ideas how such a story could be told.

Freshwater follows a young Nigerian girl, Ada, who was born with twin spirits in her known as "ogbanje" in Igbo culture, an ethnic group in the southern part of the country. The ogbanje, as Emezi explains, is a vengeful spirit/s that is born and reborn in a human in several different personalities. As life comes at Ada, the ogbanje is reborn, adding multiple personalities in Ada's mind to help her cope with the rushes and troubles of her world.

It is really hard to describe exactly what was so exhilarating about reading Freshwater. In the beginning, it was the idea of the two spirits who helped to crystallize parts of Ada's anger that made me so happy. That just really appealed to me because I liked how anger and rage can actually be a part of you that should be acknowledged and embraced, not stifled and shamed as a bad thing.

Every review I've read about Freshwater will also talk about how Emezi is trying to talk about being trans without using those words, but I think what's more revolutionary is that she's taking our understanding of mental health and putting it under a very specific cultural lens that is *not* defined by Western medicine.

I've done a bit of reporting on mental health issues in Asia, and it's always been fascinating to me how other cultures talk about trauma and other issues. Earlier this year, I wrote an article about how Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh have started seeking help from traditional healers and religious leaders in the camps, forgoing the Western specialists provided by NGOs and development agencies, because the context and understanding that these community people have to healing is more emotionally/spiritually effective for the refugees than, say, going to talk to a therapist.

That being said, the way Ada and the obangje within her is presented isn't really something that needs to be healed, so much as just accepted by Ada. It is a delight to see Ada's voice represented in the book, so that it doesn't seem like she's some passive vessel hosting the spirits. At the end there is a reconciliation of all these spirits and Ada, an acknowledgment that every part of your self is valid and should be heard.

"Ah, we have always claimed to rule the Ada, but here is the truth: she was easier to control when she thought she was weak. Here is another truth: she is not ours, we are hers."

What a beautiful statement to behold. In our world of binaries, it's really soul-sparking to see that we can be multiple and complicated and full -- and that every parts of ourselves, even the tumultuous, not-so-nice bits, should be embraced and acknowledged. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who's ever felt any thrashing in their heart. Instead of advocating to quell the tumult, Freshwater pushes us to see the unrest as a part of our whole.