Reading Resolution: “The Whale Rider” by Witi Ihimaera

7. A book written in Australia/Oceania
: The Whale Rider by Witi Ihimaera

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List Progress: 22/25

So let’s talk about Chosen One narratives. Characters who are destined to do incredible things and whose fates are written in the stars. A lot of times this trope can be a lazy shortcut to justify why a character has to be involved in a conflict; the writer doesn’t have to properly motivate them to fight the good fight, they just Have To. I don’t generally mind it as much as some critics do, but I can see where the argument comes from. But I also think books like Witi Ihimaera’s 1987 novel The Whale Rider show that it can be done well.

The Whale Rider tells the story of Kahu, a young girl who is the eldest great-grandchild of her Maori tribe’s chieftain, Koro Apirana, and if she had been born a boy, she would have been considered destined to be the tribal leader of her generation. The story is told by her uncle Rawiri, a young man seeing the Maori way of life change around him and his niece fight for the love of the great-grandfather that she adores. Kahu seems attuned from birth towards the traditional Maori ways of life, and may have inherited the ability from her namesake ancestor to speak to whales.

I saw the 2002 movie adaptation as a teenager and remember really enjoying it, though I can now see that the film shifted the perspective to make it more from Kahu’s point of view, whereas Rawiri feels like the more fleshed out and real character in the novel. He lives away from Kahu for years at a time and comments on how life differs in the big cities of Australia and Papua New Guinea from the small New Zealand village that he grew up in. Kahu seems so absolute in her beliefs and convictions that it is Rawiri who feels more human with his doubts and questions. Kahu feels larger than life, and I agree with Ihimaera’s decision to let the narrator marvel at her from the sidelines like the reader rather than position the book through her eyes. It makes the Chosen One trope of her life sit a lot more comfortably, if it does rob Kahu of some detail.

I know very little about Maori culture, but Ihimaera weaves it in very smoothly as a natural part of the plot, educating without info-dumping. The parts about Maori culinary culture in particular were really interesting and inspired some trips down the wiki rabbit hole. All in all, I’m really glad I read this one and I will be interested to go back and watch the movie sometime soon.

Would I Recommend It: Yes.

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Come see my 10-min play “The Most Just” at Monday Night PlayGround,Oct 15!

I am thrilled to announce that my ten-minute comedy, “The Most Just”, has been chosen for a staged reading as part of Monday Night PlayGround. Come see what happens when an “evil” king and a “noble” knight have philosophical disagreements about their “grand” “quests”.

playground justice

Tickets are available for $15 through Monday Night PlayGround. The performance will be at 8pm at Berkeley Rep. Come and see six great short plays written around this month’s theme: Justice.

Reading Resolution: “Sharp Objects” by Gillian Flynn

23. A 2017-2018 New York Times bestseller: Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn

List Progress: 21/25

Sharp Objects is entertaining. Its prose moves quickly, its very immersive into the lead character, and the imagery is very evocative. Sharp Objects is also very brutal towards female characters, obscene in its depiction of youthful sexuality, and depending on how you read it, quite sexist. It is a very entertaining book and I enjoyed reading it, and I am left wondering what that says about me.

Sharp Objects is the 2006 debut novel by Gillian Flynn, who made it big with Gone Girl in 2012. It was recently developed for a HBO mini-series starring Amy Adams, and any discussion of my reading the book has to be prefaced with the fact that I watched the entire series before picking up the novel. (I will try to keep this from being a “who did it better?” review.) Going in knowing all of the major events and twists, I had a slightly backwards approach to a mystery story, but I like to think it helped me analyze how the story itself holds up under scrutiny. Not that the plot is really the point (no pun intended).

The story follows Camille Preaker, a reporter who is sent from Chicago back to her small hometown in Missouri to cover a series of brutal murders of young girls. She has to sort out the facts of the case while dealing with her passive-aggressive Southern belle mother, her passive stepfather, and her hellion thirteen year old half-sister, as well as flirting with the big city cop sent down to work on the case. Camille’s backstory is a grab-bag of traumas and pretty much any trigger warning out there should be applied to this book. It is not for the faint of heart and earns the title “pulpy” in every sense of the word.

Through the eyes of this damaged female protagonist, and written by a female author, the story could perhaps be considered a deconstruction of stories about violence against women, about how much our fiction and our news cycle love Pretty Dead Girls. But I’m not sure if it is or not. Camille undoubtedly has a great deal of internalized misogyny, and I can’t quite decide if that is an intentional trait written into the character or a trait that Flynn herself shares. To paraphrase a line from Slings & Arrows, it feels more like something that shows us brutality, rather than teaches us about brutality. But it also shows us the ripples of that brutality, so maybe it is worthwhile as a message? I don’t know if I can say.

The mini-series tones down a lot of the stories uglier traits, smoothes it into more of a police procedural mold, and is better at some aspects of the story but much worse at others. The book is grosser, but in a way that feels very (again, no pun intended) pointed. The book wants you to be disgusted by the factory hog farm, but the redneck teenagers, by the promiscuous thirteen year old. Even if just through the necessity of casting an older actress to play the half-sister, the show cleans up some of the grossness, and possibly in the process, normalizes it.

But I’d be lying if I didn’t say it was entertaining.

Would I Recommend It: Yes. Trigger warnings for murder, rape, self-harm, underage sex, torture.

Reading Resolution: “The Metamorphosis” by Franz Kafka

8. A book written in Europe/Russia: 
The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

List Progress: 20/25

Suddenly, through no fault of your own, everyone in your family finds you disgusting. You didn’t do anything to become disgusting, you just woke up this way and there’s no way to go back. You are not only a huge burden to them, but they can’t stand to be in the same room with you because of what you’ve become. Beneath the surreal imagery, this is what The Metamorphosis, the 1915 novella by Franz Kafka, is all about to me. It seems that academics have thrown up every interpretation in the world to explain this story, but at its core, The Metamorphosis is about what it is like to feel utterly, completely repulsive. It is not an easy novella to read, but that central concept sure hit home for me.

I have never read any Kafka before, but was familiar with the central conceit of the story: that a young man named Gregor Samsa wakes up one morning having been transformed into a giant bug. I don’t know if I was picturing some sort of adventure to turn him back, or a quest to figure out why this happened, or a journey to find a new life where he could fit as a giant bug. Whatever it was, I wasn’t picturing a slow, tragic meditation on how his loved ones saw him. Gregor’s central problem is not that he is a giant insect, but how his loved ones see that insect. They are afraid, disgusted, angered, frustrated, perversely intrigued, and annoyed by the new Gregor, but no reactions that would help Gregor to feel less alienated and alone. He has provided for his family for his entire adult life, but as soon as he is no longer useful, they lose all affection for him. His sister tries for a while, but in time not even she can find it in herself to love this bug.

The Metamorphosis reads as a very, very pessimistic view of what it is to live with a mental or physical disability, anything that would make the rest of the world look on you with disgust. As someone with my own history of mental illness, there were definitely uncomfortable moments reading this, as an absolute worst case scenario was laid out. If you can stomach that sort of journey, I would definitely recommend reading this, but it is not always going to be a fun ride. This was one of the most emotionally-stirring classics I’ve read in a long time, but I am definitely hoping to read a few fluffier things before I dive into more Kafka.

Would I Recommend It: Yes, if you are in a stable headspace at the time.

(Note: I always try to find the cover image from the edition of a book that I read, and in this case I am glad to have found a more subdued example at the local library. Kafka himself was apparently adamant that Gregor’s bug form not be depicted literally on any cover or promotional art, and I do like the quiet anxiety and grief of this cover as opposed to just slapping on a drawing of a cockroach.)

Reading Resolution: “Don’t Call Us Dead” by Danez Smith

13. A collection of poetry: Don’t Call Us Dead by Danez Smith

List Progress: 19/25

My preferences for poetry tend to be on two extremes: either very stylized, full rhyming couplets and romantic imagery, or very direct and contemporary, free verse and clear topics and viewpoints. Don’t Call Us Dead, a 2017 poetry collection by Danez Smith, is very much in the latter category, and very, very good at what it does. Lovely imagery, lovely but uncomplicated language, and very direct imagery. The whole collection is about Smith’s relationships to his identity as a gay man, a black man, and an HIV positive man, as well as the connections between all three and how he and other gay black men exist in America. It’s very strong stuff and I definitely recommend it. And not just because Smith is from Minnesota like me.

For a slim book, I spent at least a couple weeks reading through Don’t Call Us Dead, as I didn’t want to read more than a few poems at a time. Smith has a fairly distinctive writing voice and I wouldn’t want the individual poems to run together. That being said, I do recommend reading Smith’s poems in this collection form, so one piece informs the other informs the whole. It’s a collection to be savored and lingered over. You need a certain degree of comfort with uncomfortable topics, with how explicitly Smith described gay sex and his relationship with his body after his HIV diagnosis, but these are not poems designed to make you comfortable. Not a breezy read, but one that I would highly recommend, even if you’re not much of a poetry person.

Would I Recommend It: Yes.

Reading Resolution: “Bitch Planet: Volume One” by Kelly Sue DeConnick, illustrated by Valentine De Landro

15. A graphic novel: Bitch Planet: Volume One by Kelly Sue DeConnick, illustrated by Valentine De Landro

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List Progress: 18/25

As you could perhaps guess from a comic with this title, Bitch Planet is not subtle. Started by writer Kelly Sue DeConnick and illustrator Valentine De Landro in 2014, the ongoing series takes place on the Auxiliary Compliance Outpost, a prison planet for “non-compliant” women nicknamed Bitch Planet. Bitch Planet: Volume One- Extraordinary Machine collects the first five issues, introduces lead prisoner character Kamau Kogo and sets up a plot of a team of prisoners being volunteered for a popular bloodsport back on a Earth, but most of this volume is spent showing the dystopia they all live in and how much (or little) a woman’s place in the world has changed. It’s very heavy-handed, but being a bit broad doesn’t make it any less fun.

The setting of Bitch Planet is a very active and thrilling dystopic world, reminding me of a sci-fi version of Mad Max: Fury Road melted into V for Vendetta’s political intrigue and authoritarian government. Women are policed at every turn for being too aggressive, loud, bold, defiant, manipulative, and basically anything other than accommodating and kind. (And to the series’ credit, they do address the racial connotations of the set-up as well, how this system is just one more in a long line of systems implicitly designed to cage women of color.) Some components like the CGI female figures they have giving announcements and working as news anchors cross slightly into cartoony, but in a way that’s not too incongruous with the drama. While I don’t care too much about any individual character yet (save Penny, the one character given a full backstory issue so far), I am intrigued by the world and want to go along for the ride.

On an organizational nitpick, it’s frustrating how the panels will occasionally shift to two-page spreads with no rhyme or reason, not just on splash pages, and a moment when dialogue was swallowed in the center crease makes me think that no one considered how these panels would look in trade paperbacks that can’t be opened as flat as individual comics. I hope that will be corrected going into the second volume, but that is to say that I’m thinking about reading said second volume. I’m not racing out to get it, and some characters needs to get me hooked for me to read any past that, but for the moment I’m on board.

Would I Recommend It: Yes.

Thank you so much to everyone who pre-ordered “The Traveling Triple-C Incorporeal Circus”

And with that, the Kickstarter for Atthis Arts has closed. We finished at $5,016, and a good portion of that was from people pre-ordering my debut novel, The Traveling Triple-C Incorporeal Circus. It means a lot to see people interested in this book, and I hope that when it hits shelves in May 2019, that you will all enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

There will be plenty more opportunities in the future to get your hands on my book, as well as all the other great titles from Atthis Arts, but thank you so much to everyone who pre-ordered and helped an indie publisher keep the lights on while producing great work.