Wonder by R.J.Palacio

Wonder by R.J.Palacio (Knopf, 2012) has over 5000 (mostly) 5-star reviews on Amazon; it’s apparently a phenomenon. 10-year-old August “Auggie” Pullman, born with severe craniofacial anomalies, enters fifth grade at public school after  having been homeschooled all his life. He makes a few friends, and a few enemies who decide that his appearance makes him fair game for bullying; the majority of the kids don’t take sides.

Wonder is, in essence, a book about the importance of taking sides, of actively choosing to be generous and acting upon that impulse. In the context of Auggie’s condition as a form of outsiderness subject to discrimination, I was reminded of Beverly Tatum’s quote about the conveyor belt of racism.

“I sometimes visualize the ongoing cycle of racism as a moving walkway at the airport. Active racist behavior is equivalent to walking fast on the conveyor belt… Passive racist behavior is equivalent to standing still on the walkway. No overt effort is being made, but the conveyor belt moves the bystanders along to the same destination as those who are actively walking. Some of the bystanders may feel the motion of the conveyor belt, see the active racists ahead of them, and choose to turn around…But unless they are walking actively in the opposite direction at a speed faster than the conveyor belt- unless they are actively antiracist- they will find themselves carried along with the others.” 

There is everything to like and admire about a book that demands positive action from those who would remain bystanders and consider neutrality a sufficient response in the face of injustice. The fifth-grade English teacher at Auggie’s school gives the class a precept every month; the first precept is: “If you have the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind.” As the novel progresses, we witness the precept put to the test, and it’s heart-rending to read about Auggie’s struggle to be treated like a “normal” person in the real world.

I lent this book to a wonderful warm-hearted 10-year-old friend who read it in one breath and loved it. I would probably love it too were I a middle schooler, but seeing as I’m a cynical old biddy, I confess to two reservations.  [SPOILERS] My main issue was that the kids were too nice to be realistic–there’s ONE truly rotten apple in the entire fifth grade class. It’s simply too hard to believe that so many kids would value kindness over popularity and be so nice to Auggie. What’s this school, Utopia Elementary over in Messier 82? Which brings me to my second reservation, about the book’s ending. [MAJOR SPOILER] At the close of the school year, Auggie gets a medal and finds, to his surprise, that he is popular.  Auggie’s essentially being rewarded for being himself, for living his life as a child with an anomaly, and I found that somewhat condescending. (For more about this issue, see, for example, this parent’s discomfort when her disabled daughter is called heroic.)  So I’m going to recommend this book whole-heartedly if you plan to buy it for a younger reader or if you look fondly upon your school years, and recommend it with slight reservations for the rest of the world.

Every Day is Malala Day by Rosemary McCarney

Every Day is Malala Day (Second Story Press, 2014) is a picture book detailing a (symbolic) letter written to Malala Yousafzai by girls from all over the world in response to her advocacy for girls’ education.  (The United Nations declared last year that July 12, Malala’s birthday, would be celebrated as Malala Day.) The book features photographs of young girls from around the world, with each page containing a single phrase or line of text from the letter, finishing off with excerpts from Malala’s 2013 speech at the UN.

It’s a beautiful book, with an inspiring message of solidarity and hope (“Girls everywhere are behind you. We are raising our hands with you…as you represent all of us.The world will see what girls can achieve-if only they let us.”)  The photographs are lovely–there are girls from all over the world, variously naughty, steely-jawed, defiant, blank-faced, wary and fearful. The author, Rosemary McCarney, heads the Canadian chapter of Plan International, a charity seeking to improve the lives of children, and proceeds from the sale of this book will go towards the Because I am a Girl Fund.

Note that Every day is Malala Day is the sort of kids’ book that must be read with an adult who will illuminate and comfort along the way. The suggested reading age is 5-8, but I’d lean towards 8-10. Although the narrative is structured in the manner of a picture book, the topics and vocabulary aren’t picture book-ish at all, and many concepts are stated in an abstract fashion that confounded my just-turned-seven child. “In many countries, bullets are not the only way to silence girls. Early marriage… poverty… discrimination… violence… all play a part.” My son didn’t understand a thing. But the subtlety and complexity of this work in no way lessens its value. Every Day is Malala Day is a tool that works best in adult hands–to build a story for children.

A million free books waiting to be read

Openlibrary.org is the sort of thing that makes me believe in the future of humankind. It’s the ultimate public library, online. It was set up with Aaron Swartz as the original engineer baaaack in 2006, but I only discovered its existence earlier this year, and as none of my friends seem to have heard of it either, I thought I’d share it here. 

Open Library is a site that lets you read books online sans monthly fees or invasive information gathering, with no downloads or PDFs–you read on your browser. You check books out for 2 weeks at a time, upto a maximum of 5 books, and place holds on books you want which happen to be checked out. No late fees, ever–the books are automatically returned after 15 days.  You’ll find Neil Gaiman and Barbara Kingsolver and John Irving  and Amitav Ghosh’s The Calcutta Chromosome and Robin McKinley and Octavia Butler and A.S.Byatt and Alan Garner and Salman Rushdie and Georgette Heyer and tons of  mystery writers including Patricia Wentworth and Laurie R. King and Dorothy Sayers and Elizabeth Peters and M.C.Beaton and of course Christie, and you’ll even find kids books including Dr. Seuss and the current oligarchs of my son’s bookshelf, Roald Dahl and Geronimo Stilton. Pretty freaking awesome. I have no idea how it words re: copyright except that it’s all legal.

All you need to join  Open Library is an email id. And time! It’s a time sink like nothing I’ve experienced. Consider yourselves warned.

Two Graphic Novels: Good as Lily and Relish

I’ve been reading some great graphic novels lately, and here are two brief reviews.

Good as Lily by Derek Kirk Kim: After a run-in with a obdurate pig pinata on her eighteenth birthday, Grace Kwon is confronted by three avatars of herself as a kindergartener, a thirty-something adult, and a seventy-year-old woman respectively. Chaos ensues as Grace sneaks her other selves into her home while keeping her parents in the dark. The rambunctious selves refuse to stay quietly hidden  in Grace’s closet, but visit her at school, taking it upon themselves to interfere with Grace’s life. Despite what it seems, they haven’t visited just to drive Grace insane; rather, Grace comes to understand that the three selves represent watershed moments in her emotional life, offering her the chance to better understand issues that might keep her from realizing the best version of her future.

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This story would make such a great movie or play–it’s sort of like The Kid meets Freaky Friday meets Groundhog Day, but Korean-American, and without a hokey Disney ending. And if parts of the story are a bit over the top, and if some of the dialogue is obviously written for laughs, well, it adds to the cinematic feel (the book is divided into Acts rather than Chapters).  The only real issue I had with the book was Lily. As a plot point, Lily is  just not strong enough– she comes in too late and leaves too early, and I’m surprised Kim put her in the title given her skimpy presence.  But look past that glitch, and what you have is the rarest of reads–a light yet satisfying story. And a thousand bonus points to Kim for gracefully incorporating Korean culture sans stereotypes or explaining notes.

Here’s a better picture of the four Graces (image from Kim’s website). I think my favourite was the cranky halmoni (grandmother).

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***

Relish by Lucy Knisley:  Relish is a  graphic memoir of Knisley’s life so far (she’s in her late twenties) viewed primarily through the lens of food. Knisley, who seemingly leads an idyllic life steeped in the arts, grew up in a family of foodies, and for her, food is variously an emblem, a metaphor and a vehicle to gain understanding. Above all, it’s an immensely pleasurable end in itself. If you belong to the food-is-fuel camp, you should probably skip this review. If, on the other hand, if you enjoy mindfully preparing food and sharing it with your loved ones,  if you’ve long identified your own particular tea-soaked madeline episode,  if you take special pleasure in eating as an “an act of focussed giving and sharing”, you’ll love this book. Oh, and the illustrations are very Hergé-esque — clean and bold and filled with fascinating detail. I especially love the presentation of the recipes–look at this one for Huevos Rancheros.

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 (Click the image to embiggen)

Of course, our culinary choices intimately mirror our politics (and are often political statements in themselves) but Knisley resolutely avoids taking a stand on any contentious food-related issues, focussing solely on her personal journey. In order to achieve the latter aim, she sometimes ducks/over-simplifies issues (“Say what you will…we wouldn’t be eating [junk food] if it didn’t taste good.” Is that really an answer?) But overall, this is a lovely book begging to be gifted, ideally to a novice or youthful chef starting a long-term affair with food. Knisley writes with infectious enthusiasm–she’s never pretentious and never tries to be profound, and consequently, Relish is hugely readable.  You come away from this book  yearning for a simple life with good food and great friends–some of whom just happen to be chefs. What’s not to relish?

(I heard about this book on Nupur’s delish food blog, One Hot Stove.)

 

Reading update: Tea Obreht, Marion Chesney, Anjali Banerjee, Geronimo Stilton

1. The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht:  I joined a book group shortly after moving to California, and this one was February’s pick. In an un-named post-war country in Eastern Europe, Doctor Natalia Stefanovi visits an orphanage to provide medical care, while simultaneously searching for clues to her grandfather’s death. As her narrative unfolds, she recounts the tales she’s heard from her grandfather over the years. Two fantastical stories run through her grandfather’s life– that of the tiger’s wife, a tale set in his childhood village about the relationship between a tiger and deaf-mute girl, and that of the “deathless man” Gavran Gailé, whom the grandfather meets in a variety of places and situations.

This is a book of ideas–about the power of folklore, about the intersection of  myth and history, about belonging and outsiderness, and much more.  The prose soars, especially in the sections about the tiger’s wife–Obreht is wonderful with tone, and invests the story with a mysticism that is utterly convincing. The Tiger’s Wife demands a very close reading–it features a large number of characters, nested stories that move away and outward from the first-person narrator, and the author is deliberately spare with grounding detail. I keep a book in my car so I can read for the ten minutes I wait to pick up my son from school, and this title was a terrible choice for this function–you can’t gain access to a work of such complexity  while reading  in dribs and dabs with an ear peeled for the school bell. So I took the book  home and gave it all the attention it deserved.

In sum: I’m in awe of Obreht’s (obvious) talent, but the book’s structure didn’t work for me. I felt that Natalia’s first-person present-day narrative failed as a framing device–it simply wasn’t strong enough to pull all the disparate stories (flashbacks, myths, history) together into a pleasing whole. And at times, I felt almost as though Obreht made the reader work hard on principle rather than as a function of the demands of her story, with the result that it’s difficult to gain entry into her fictional world. The Tiger’s Wife won the Orange Prize in 2011 and was a finalist for the National Book Award, so I’m in the minority here. Other members of the book group had other reactions, which of course makes for the most interesting meetings. And there was no wine, as the group meets in the library; our almost 2-hour discussion was powered by BOOK LOVE.

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2.  Haunting Jasmine by Anjali Banerjee: This one is pretty much a love letter to indie bookstores.  Jasmine Mistry, wounded by divorce and capitalism, takes a reluctant break from her investment banking career to manage her aunt’s quirky little bookstore in Puget Sound. At first, Jasmine browbeats customers and tries to persuade her aunt to makeover the store into a mini-Hallmark outlet.  Yes, I hated her too. But slowly, Jasmine discovers the truth– the store is haunted by ghosts of famous authors (Kipling, Poe, Emily Dickinson etc.) who dispense much-needed advice (and in one instance, a lot more than advice) to the world-weary Jasmine. 

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Such a charming plot! This book will appeal to anyone who loves books as objects of beauty, and who believes in their transformatory/healing power. I have my hand raised. 

The writing in the initial part of the book is fairly edgy. “My ex-husband, Rob, used his charm like a weapon, and ultimately he didn’t care whose heart he broke– or whose life he ruined. Neither did he care whose bed he woke up in. My mother would say, Well, Jasmine, that’s an American penis for you. You should’ve married a Bengali.” The book, however, loses most of its edge as Jasmine mellows, and by the end, the whole thing feels a trifle lightweight. Nothing wrong with that, but I couldn’t help but wish that Banerjee hadn’t held herself back  from taking this wonderful plot over to the dark side. Haunting Jasmine is an enjoyable read, yes, but Banerjee’s MG novel Maya Running, which I read and praised back in 2011, has stayed longer with me than this one.

3. Marion Chesney’s Daughters of Mannerling series. When Sir William Beverley gambles away the family home Mannerling, the six haughty Beverley daughters, all obsessed with status and position, decide to regain their house at all costs. As this is the Regency period, there’s only one path open to them–marriage. The six volumes have each daughter in turn deciding whether to sacrifice true love for a chance to restore the family fortunes.

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I zoomed through The Banishment (#1) , where the beautiful Isabella must choose between the new owner of Mannerling or an Irish lord, and then went to the last volume one, The Homecoming (#6), because I wanted to see if Chesney would have the family regain Mannerling, before getting a hold of the rest of the series. So, um, all six books have the same plot. As always, I read Chesney for her brisk, energetic writing–the heroine moves from hate to love back to hate in the first paragraph, gets engaged or attacked in the next, overhears a secret (but not the *really* vital bit, because she scurries off in distress mid-way) in the third, runs away in the fourth etc. etc. Chesney packs her books with emotion and action, and on every page, you sense that she knows it’s all fun–she never takes the characters or story very seriously, unlike, say, some Georgette Heyers I can think of. You get zero moral ambiguity and a guaranteed happy ending. This stuff is great in small doses.  

4. Each time I visit the library, I return with a carefully curated set of kids books for my son. Last week’s pickings included The Wolves are Back by Jean Craighead George (thanks for heads up about this writer, Buried in Print!), The Abominables by Eva Ibbotson, and The House with a Clock in its Walls by John Bellairs.  I returned them all unread yesterday, because the only books my son reads now are the Geronimo Stilton books. Aargh!

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Geronimo Stilton is a mouse who lives in New Mouse City on Mouse Island and is the editor of The Rodent’s Gazette. He’s timorous and risk-averse, but is willy-nilly dragged into adventures in exotic places (titles include The Curse of the Cheese Pyramid and Valley of the Giant Skeletons). The books are filled with terrible rodent-centric puns (detective Hercule Poirat, groan) and my son loves them. There are 56 Geronimo Stilton books (on average, four new volumes are published every year) plus numerous spin-offs including a series featuring Geronimo’s sister Thea and another with his caveman ancestor  Geronimo Stiltonoot.  There’s no respite in sight. 

Ms. Marvel #1 by G. Willow Wilson

On Wednesday, I entered a comics shop for the first time in my life. I’d had plenty of opportunities hitherto but had never quite summoned the nerve to visit, figuring that entry required a secret handshake, a working knowledge of Klingon, and ownership of those box things which let you play games on your television. But the call of Ms. Marvel–Kamala Khan, Pakistani-American teen superhero from New Jersey–would not be denied, and so I went to my local comics store, where I hovered pointlessly near Mad Magazines and Captain Underpants before seeking help. Would the salesperson out my graphic ignorance even as teenagers around me sniggered at my puffy jacket? No, he was very helpful, but I was too intimidated to stay and chat–I left immediately after making my purchase, and then I began to read.

So, a few disclaimers about the upcoming review. I have no Marvel Universe context for my reading–I’ve never read/seen any of the previous Ms. Marvels or Captain Marvels, and so I missed all the insider references in this work. Actually, this is the first comics issue I’ve read in about 25 years. I sought out Ms. marvel because I loved Wilson’s prior work and because a PoC Muslim female teen superhero is an incredibly important and timely creation in the reading world, one I wanted to support with my $3.26. I do own graphic novels such as The Sandman series and Watchmen, but those are pretty chunky; I haven’t bought one of these lightweight, insta-crumple 25 page affairs since I hoarded my childhood paise for Archie Andrews and Hostess Twinkie ads.

Sixteen-year-old Kamala Khan, who lives in Jersey City with her parents and brother, spends her time hanging out with friends and doing homework and writing Avengers fan fiction. She’s likeable and sweet and has her share of teen angst–the latter considerably magnified (rather than caused) by her outsiderness as a Pakistani-American/Muslim, wherein the family’s cultural script clashes with the American school system’s prescription for having fun. When her father refuses to let her go to a party (the sort with boys and alcohol), Kamala works herself upto rebellion. “Everybody else gets to be normal. Why can’t I.”, she grouses, and steals away to the party.

But wait a second! The party sucks–some folks think it’s cool to trick Kamala into drinking vodka, while another “friend” Zoe says she smells like curry. Kamala stalks away in rage and frustration to a deserted alley and then…

(SPOILERS AHEAD)

…mysterious teal-colored stupor-inducing clouds appear, and out step Captain America, Iron Man and Captain Marvel! Captain America asks Kamala what she’s trying to achieve by disobeying her parents and culture. She replies that she doesn’t know what she’s supposed to do, or to be–Pakistani/Muslim or mainstream American. If she could choose, she’d be “beautiful, awesome, butt-kicking and less complicated.” Oh, and a superhero.

And when Kamala comes to herself, she’s a superhero, and you know her life just got a lot more complicated…

(SPOILERS END)

And the comic ends there. Freaking hell! I know this format is characterized by brevity and by cliffhanger endings, but still, damn. If you routinely consume 350-page novels the way others read magazines, you’ll find these aspects distressing and likely intolerable.  So consider yourselves warned, fellow superhero-comic-reading newbies: these are horribly short reads.

But you should still buy this comic,  and somehow withstand the dire wait for #2-#5, for the reasons listed below.

1.  The cultural clash (done to death in my reading past) isn’t clichéd at all,  because the writing is heartfelt and rings with truth, and because Wilson’s take on the topic is satisfying nuanced. For instance, Kamala recognizes that “because I snuck out [to the party], [Zoe] thought it was okay for her to make fun of my family. Like, Kamala’s finally seen the light and kicked the dumb inferior brown people and their rules to the curb. But that’s not why I snuck out! It’s not that I think Ammi and Abu are dumb… “

It’s interesting that while all superheroes must learn to negotiate dual identities, Kamala already has years of experience with the latter. I wonder if she’ll cope with her secret superhero identity easier than we think?

2. There are little subtle touches towards inclusion and diversity embedded all over this work. I love that it’s Captain America, starred and striped, who asks Kamala why exactly she’s disobeying her culture. I love that the superheroes enter the scene singing, and that they speak of flowering buds and twittering birds.

3. Plenty of non-subtle answers for stereotypes that some readers might harbor. One character wearing a headscarf explains that she wasn’t pressured into it; in fact her father wants her to take it off, because he thinks it’s a phase.  The superheroes understand Urdu, because they “speak all languages of beauty and hardship.” Kamala’s overtly religious brother gets told off by his dad for praying all the time. “When you spend all day praying, it starts to look like you’re avoiding something. Like a  job, for example,” says the disgruntled father.

4. The richness of the story–Ms. Marvel packs a lot in 25 pages.  Kamala’s cute-and-sweet-and smart potential love interest! A Turkish American BFF! The faux-nice “friend” who’s actually mean! Then there’s a character called Chatty Bob, who I think is a nod to (Jay and) Silent Bob? And there’s tons of satisfying detail in the illustrations. In one scene, Kamala’s father is reading a newspaper, and if you squint, you can see it’s called “Jersey Akhbar”, the headline is “Shocking Cricket Doping Scandal”, and there’s an ad for tea and a recipe for Chicken Salan.

5. The illustration. I bought this one for the writing and the character, but I must mention that I enjoyed the art and color very much. I love the way Kamala’s done–she looks like an ordinary South Asian girl with really good wavy hair. The illustrations have a lovely sepia wash to them–I went in expecting a lot of primary colors, but this one is very subdued, except when it isn’t. In general, I’m blown away by the subtlety and nuance of the whole thing.

G. Willow Wilson + Adrian Alphona have created something really special here–if I rave, it’s entirely due to the excellence of this production rather than the fervor of the newly converted. I’ll be heading back to the comics store–this time with confidence–for #2.

Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson

G. Willow Wilson is a boundary and border crosser of the rarest variety–a sophisticated political thinker who is also a cracking storyteller. In Alif the Unseen, she gives us a novel whose thriller elements are in perfect equipoise with a deep understanding of the current socio-political ferment in the Middle East.

In an unnamed state at the time of the Arab Spring, Alif, an Arab-Indian hacktivist, manages to stay a step ahead of the state’s increasingly efficacious attempts to capture him. But Alif, whose clients include Islamists, feminists, anarchists, secularists and pornographers (anyone whose online activities might run afoul of the state), is finally undone when his upper-class girlfriend dumps him for the state’s head of security, a shadowy figure known as the “Hand of God”. Alif might feature on the World’s Best Coders list, but when facing a corporeal enemy, his shortcomings are revealed to be as varied as they are plentiful—he lacks resourcefulness and can’t think on his feet, he antagonizes those who could help, and he’s supremely whiny. “I committed a sin by waking up this morning. That is the only way this day could have gone so terribly wrong,” he moans. And he’s a keen proponent of the theory of masculine superiority, noting with surprise at one point that his female companion is “as smart as man.” You don’t want him to be caught be the Hand, but there’s no doubt he deserves a good smackdown.  

Fortunately for Alif, his travelling companion Dina (who’s been roped unwilling into his travails) is calm and sensible enough for them to have a fighting chance. Together, they search for a mysterious underworld figure known as Vikram the Vampire, who might be their only hope to escape the Hand.

But Vikram doesn’t appear quite human. Could he be…is he…a jinn? And that parting gift from Alif’s ex-girlfriend, an old manuscript hand lettered in gold ink–might the book be the Alf Yeom, the jinn’s secret book of knowledge?

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Spirituality meets science, fantasy meets reality, and East meets West in this wonderfully layered novel that repudiates each one of the above-mentioned binaries. For instance, the jinn’s book is written in a strange language, but then, HTML is pretty opaque too–and the distance between them is revealed to be far less than you might assume. In essence, Alif the Unseen examines how we encode and decode information, acknowledging all the while that we live in a liminal space; each page is charged with Wilson’s awareness of the manifold intersections and dissonances of our modern lives. In particular, Wilson writes about the Middle East with insight, sympathy, and huge panache. There’s a lovely bit of subversion in an episode where Alif first rendezvous with his (to-be) girlfriend at a shop and realizes that “…he envied her the enfolding anonymity of her veil… She had the upper hand. She could observe him, make up her mind about whether he was handsome, assess hid tendency to wear all black and decide whether this offended her or not.” To border-crosser and storyteller, add stereotype-shatterer.

In another wryly self-aware passage, a (white American) convert to Islam questions why eastern writers are able to write great western literature, while the reverse doesn’t hold. Unless Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet might qualify as eastern literature?

There’s a very simple test, replies Vikram the Vampire.““Is [the book] about bored, tired people having sex?”

“Yes,” said the convert, surprised.

“Then it’s western.””

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(Author photo from http://gwillowwilson.com/)

Alif the Unseen doesn’t feature a single bored, tired person having sex. Nope. The characters are all ferociously alive, and it’s terrific fun to watch Alif gradually gain common sense and courage while he’s hunted by the Hand. The fast-paced, full-blooded plot bursts with car chases and secret escapes and surprise identities, making for an unputdownable read. Upon finishing this tale, I’d have parted with my money for a grocery list penned by this author, but fortunately, Wilson has a juicy project out soon—she’s the series writer for the new Ms. Marvel superhero comic series featuring a Pakistani-American shapeshifter protagonist, Kamala Khan. Out on Feb. 5, people!

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(Kamala Khan the polymorph, standing next to a… hedgehog with Hulk hands?)

This review originally appeared in Montreal Serai magazine.