After reading this graphic non-fiction, I finally figured out why I have such a morbid fascination with North Korea: all that enforced dedication to TAfter reading this graphic non-fiction, I finally figured out why I have such a morbid fascination with North Korea: all that enforced dedication to The Great Leader, mass delusion, and oppression of free thought mirrors the more subtle machinations of organized religion in my own slightly less absurd corner of the world.
The graphic novel format is a perfect vehicle for conveying the staggering absurdity of life in Pyongyang, seen here through the eyes of the author, who spent a couple of months living there working for a French animation company (apparently cheap animation production is something the regime uses to attract foreign money) doing production work on cartoons that the people of North Korea would never be allowed to watch. Though it's been a couple of years since I read it, this functioned as sort of companion piece to Adam Johnson's The Orphan Master's Son. This one doesn't go quite as deep into the horrors of tyranny as that novel does, but it does give a better glimpse into the life of foreigners and their assigned North Korean handlers in Pyongyang. It also poses the question of whether those handlers, many of whom have been abroad, really believe the absurdities they spout about their country and its regime or whether it's all a charade in the name of self-preservation.
A lot of the reviews of this book here take issue with the author's arrogance and what they see as racism behind his supposedly liberated Western values. I get that, but I actually thought that including that saltiness added a layer of complexity. There were times when his attitude bothered me (especially when I thought he was unnecessarily making his handlers uncomfortable or putting them in danger of running afoul of their superiors. It also struck me as something he could have edited out of his tale to make himself more palatable, but decided not to because it was a more honest and compelling, making the reader's sympathies fall into question.
I don't read a great deal of graphic novels or non-fiction, but this one is highly recommended....more
A writer friend once told me he was easily bored by literary realism because the real world is so absurd that it takes surrealism to accurately descriA writer friend once told me he was easily bored by literary realism because the real world is so absurd that it takes surrealism to accurately describe it. Salman Rushdie expresses a similar notion in an interview I often show my ENG 102 classes when he says (I'm paraphrasing) in defense of magic realism that stories don't have to be true in order to get at the truth. Perhaps that's why I had such a muted reaction to this collection, which peddles in impeccably written realism to portray the experiences of Chinese immigrants in America.
Ha Jin is, in many ways, a writer's writer, an editor's dream. He writes sentences so crystalline and flawless that reading him is like letting a gentle current wash you downstream. That effect made me read this book in just a few sittings, but there's something about the degree of polish that renders the effect more intellectual than emotional. I did learn a lot about the Chinese immigrant experience, and some of the stories here (most notably "The Beauty" and "A Composer and His Parakeet") are memorable. It's easy to see why Ha Jin is so rightfully celebrated as a writer, but I hope the next thing I read by him packs a little more visceral wallop....more
To write a review of one of the foundational documents of Western civilization would be hubris, so I'll just note here that I don't think I'd ever actTo write a review of one of the foundational documents of Western civilization would be hubris, so I'll just note here that I don't think I'd ever actually read it before. I was, of course, familiar with the story of the myth, and I have read most of the ancient Greek stuff like The Oddyssey and The Iliad, but I'm pretty sure this is my first time actually reading Oedipus Rex, just as I'm sure it's most of my ENG 102 students' first time reading the SparkNotes. ...more
When I first heard about the conceit of this novel, I was worried that it might merely be clever. It certainly is clever, but it's also one of the mosWhen I first heard about the conceit of this novel, I was worried that it might merely be clever. It certainly is clever, but it's also one of the most moving and most human books I've ever read, not to mention one of the best. Video review here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EztZ5......more
The most notable story here is the first one, which imagines Atlantis as an immense island in the middle of the Atlantic comprised of what is now muchThe most notable story here is the first one, which imagines Atlantis as an immense island in the middle of the Atlantic comprised of what is now much of the East coast of North America. John James Audubon visits Atlantis in search of species that are rapidly declining due to European and Terra Novan (what is now the U.S.) colonization. It's really a vehicle to document the destruction of isolated ecosystems when the scourge of humanity appears, bringing cats and rats and other invasive species with it. I'm a bit of a zoology geek, so that was pretty fascinating stuff. Otherwise I may not have made it through.
The ideas here are interesting, but the execution is lacking. The writing is plodding and rarely shines, but it's serviceable enough to keep some of the stories engaging, while others are nearly unreadable (or unlistenable, as it were, since I did this one on audiobook). Harry Turtledove is a widely-lauded writer of alternate history and speculative fiction, so I'll give him the benefit of the doubt; maybe the stories in this collection just aren't the best introduction to his work.
Many of the reviewers here on Goodreads have expressed frustration that the sci-fi element of Journal of a UFO Investigator is a construct, present onMany of the reviewers here on Goodreads have expressed frustration that the sci-fi element of Journal of a UFO Investigator is a construct, present only in the made up journal that young Danny Shapiro writes as an escape from real life. Though there are some issues with the execution, I think those reviewers largely missed the point. Stay tuned for a more in-depth review via my new Youtube review series coming soon.
There's some really interesting stuff here, as the novel explores the singularity of human and machine, predicting the rise of a galactic consciousne There's some really interesting stuff here, as the novel explores the singularity of human and machine, predicting the rise of a galactic consciousness, and touches on what it means to be human and the way human civilizations develop. If the execution of the narrative was as impressive as those thematic ideas, this would be a truly great book, but, in the end it leaves a good bit to be desired. I have two major complaints here:
1) The narrative structure is way too clunky. Just as the novel starts humming, it breaks off into a series of vignettes showing the development of human culture thousands of years into our future. This might not be a problem if these sections were written better, but they're largely boring and derivative.
2) The main female character comes from hundreds of years in our future, and is one of the brightest minds of her time. She's also fawning and insufferable and about as strong a woman as one of Captain Kirk's galactic concubines. I don't think every book with a female character has to make some sort of feminist statement, but damn.
All in all, though, Genesis is good enough to support its exploration of ideas, even if it sometimes drops the ball. ...more
In a perfect world, self-publishing would be punk as fuck, a giant, artistically vibrant middle finger aimed at the publishing industry, where, to quoIn a perfect world, self-publishing would be punk as fuck, a giant, artistically vibrant middle finger aimed at the publishing industry, where, to quote from Barn Again, it's "almost impossible for anyone who didn't study under Joyce Carol Oates to get published." This world, though, is far from perfect. Most self-published novels are nigh unreadable, and the self-pub market is full of insufferable marketing majors who idolize James Patterson for selling millions of books and write as if they've never actually read a novel.
Barn Again: A Memoir is something entirely different: a self-published novel that's actually good. Really fucking good. And funny.
Barn Again aims its blistering satirical sights on the publishing industry, and it scores on nearly every shot, lampooning the publishing industry through the fake-memoir exploits of its protagonist, Jonathan Barnard Jr., a writer of some renown and an all-around fuckup. Along the way, it manages to satirize pretty much everything it touches, from memoir to politics to the adjunct-fueled university system. It also contains the best scene involving someone shitting on the windshield of a car ever committed to print, and if that's not enough for you, I just don't know....more
This is a collection by a group of writers from Camden, South Carolina. There is some fine poetry and a handful of recipes to be found here, but mostThis is a collection by a group of writers from Camden, South Carolina. There is some fine poetry and a handful of recipes to be found here, but most of the entries are personal essays that reflect on family relationships, lost loved ones, and the small things that make us who we are. Reading these reflections is a testament to the power of storytelling and writing to help us define and make sense of our lives, and this collection comes highly recommended. ...more
This anthology, which features the best of Southern food writing, is the only place you're likely to read about a racially controversial Youtube videoThis anthology, which features the best of Southern food writing, is the only place you're likely to read about a racially controversial Youtube video featuring a chicken-frying black drag queen, an underground North Carolina secret society dedicated to cooking and eating an outlawed fish, the real origin of collard greens, and the sleazy world of competitive barbecue all in the same place.
This year's editor, Brett Anderson, has done a good job of compiling the expected (hip new chefs devoted to reviving passing foodways, the Gulf Coast's seafood economy's slow recovery from the BP oil spill) and the unexpected (the aforementioned drag queen, a moving ode to mass-produced queso dip as superior to more artisanal varieties). All in all, most of the articles and essays here are pretty fascinating and well-done. ...more
This is a great collection of stories soaked in Japanese folklore and magic realism. The best stories here, most notably "Return to Monsterland," "GirThis is a great collection of stories soaked in Japanese folklore and magic realism. The best stories here, most notably "Return to Monsterland," "Girl Zero," "Rokurokurobi," and "Headwater, LLC" bring creatures from Japanese mythology into the modern world, using fantasy as a way to explore grief and the loss of innocence. Unlike a lot of their slipstream brethren, the stories here rarely feel contrived, and the overall effect is hypnotic. I put this on my to-read list after seeing a blurb about it right after seeing the film Kwaidan, which draws on similar folklore, and it just became one of my favorite contemporary collections. ...more
I love Flannery O'Connor. She belongs on the Mount Rushmore of Southern writers, and she's been as much an influence on my mind and my writing as anyoI love Flannery O'Connor. She belongs on the Mount Rushmore of Southern writers, and she's been as much an influence on my mind and my writing as anyone or anything, but there's something I just don't understand about her. Time and time again, we're told--both by critics and by O'Connor herself--that her work presents a worldview informed by her devout Catholic faith, one that's not so much soaked in fire and brimstone as it is replete with redemptive fire come to cleanse the world of all its sickness and spiritual malaise. I know that's how I'm supposed to read her and what I'm supposed to take away from her stories, but I think that often the world she presents is in fact the exact opposite of the one she intends to convey.
This ambiguity, perhaps best displayed in her searing literature anthology staple short story "A Good Man is Hard to Find," is also obvious here in her second and final novel, The Violent Bear it Away. This novel, one of her later works, sometimes comes off as a bit of O'Connor-by-the-numbers. Our protagonist, Tarwater, a teenager kidnapped by his lunatic great uncle and raised to be a prophet of the Lord, is cut from the familiar cloth of religious fanaticism and recalcitrance. Like Hazel Motes, the central character of the sharper Wise Blood before him, he spends most of the novel trying to both run away from and fulfill his calling. After his great uncle dies, he comes to live with his uncle Rayber, who was also briefly kidnapped by the same lunatic relation as a child and who has spent his entire life trying to deny the call, cultivating a life as schoolteacher and a thoroughly modern man mired in austere rationalism.
You can see where this is going, right? Tarwater's religious angst vis-a-vis his uncle's atheism is the central conflict here. O'Connor succeeds in her ostensible goal of presenting Rayber's defiant humanism as a dogma of its own, and certainly it is less than appealing. However, if her goal was to present religious fanaticism or even the possibility of Christian redemption as a viable alternative--well, I'd have to say she failed miserably because this faith seems to make sense only as lunacy, and, ultimately, is even less appealing or feasible than Rayber's lack thereof. Like so many of her other works, The Violent Bear it Away seemingly tries to present a stark Catholic vision of the world in which hard-won redemption awaits but ends up making that very notion seem ridiculous. This, for me, is the O'Connor paradox, and this novel, the last of her major works I hadn't read until now, only deepens the enigma rather than offering a solution.
Thematic confusion aside, this is still a wonderful little novel. It has some issues--clunky, way-too-obvious religious symbolism, a few point-of-view miscues, a labyrinthine structure that sometimes gets tedious, and a real head-scratcher of a scene near the end (seriously, somebody tell what we're supposed to make of the penultimate chapter and the vampiric pedophile who pops up out of nowhere). But it's still Flannery O'Connor, which means that it's written so well, so clearly, so beautifully, that's its almost maddening. As a sentence writer, the woman has no equal, and that craftsmanship is on full display here, even if the thematic subject matter sometimes gets away from her. ...more
**spoiler alert** I've been thinking a lot lately about memory. I've been tinkering off and on with a non-fiction essay about my earliest musical memo**spoiler alert** I've been thinking a lot lately about memory. I've been tinkering off and on with a non-fiction essay about my earliest musical memories, and it's set me to wondering how reliable those memories are and to what degree they've been corrupted or even fictionalized by everything that's happened in the ensuing forty years. This has also made me think about the value of reading. Though some books are notable exceptions, my recollection of the plot and the mechanics of a book--even one I love--slips into the fog of memory after a few years, sometimes even sooner. What I'm left with, though, the thing that lasts, is a sense of what the book meant to me or what I learned from reading it. Sometimes this is an emotional imprint, and sometimes it's more of an intellectual one. Either way, I think this is the real value of a book, the lasting impression it makes on my mind after the names and details fade.
The Sympathizer is a book that I think will leave a rich imprint. First of all, I learned a lot about the Vietnam War and its legacy of Vietnamese immigrants in America, things I knew about in a general sense, the way our multiple-choice history classes teach us to remember history, but didn't have a good understanding of on a human level. We get these history lessons second-hand here, from the point-of-view of one of the more unreliable narrators you'll ever encounter. The bulk of the narrative turns out to be the written confession produced by the nameless narrator in a re-education camp following his return to Vietnam with a ragtag band of counterrevolutionaries. It recounts his life as a conflicted, dual-souled double agent, entrenched with an American-backed General but working behind the scenes as a Communist revolutionary. The tale follows him to America, where he lives his double life among the Vietnamese refugees and ultimately back to Vietnam, where he embarks on an ill-fated mission to fight against the very regime he helped to put in power solely to protect his friend Bon, who has no no idea of his blood-brother's Communist sympathies.
If all that sounds a bit complicated, it is. The conflicting details of the narrator's life reflect the convoluted nature of the war and the tangle of ideologies and sympathies that spawned it. The lasting legacy of The Sympathizer for me is the way it illustrates how easily ideology becomes strangling dogma and how inconceivably tangled and baffling the real world is despite our desire to turn render it in the simple black-and-white terms of good vs. evil and right vs. wrong. This is where the novel finds its soul, and it is the one thing I think I'll take away from this book. ...more
It's S-L-O-W getting there, but once we find out what the Dark Tower (supposedly) is, it's worth the payoff. I haven't read an epic fantasy series sinIt's S-L-O-W getting there, but once we find out what the Dark Tower (supposedly) is, it's worth the payoff. I haven't read an epic fantasy series since I read Tad Williams' The Dragonbone Chair nearly three decades ago, so this is out of my normal range. I did volume 1 as an audiobook, and it was pretty damn good. ...more