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Herding Cats and book reviews

It's been a while. I can't believe it's 6 months into this year and a lot has changed. For one, I've only just starting seeing clients (as a psychologist in training) and the thought of it is downright scary. I also have been involved with research assistant work, bribing little kids with stickers to do language tests for me. Secondly, last Sunday (June 15) my boyfriend proposed and we're now engaged. So things have been frenetic over here!

The short winter break is here, so this means a bit more time for reading! (And perhaps posting some sketches and maybe writing.) My pick of books for the Herding Cats challenge has been dictated by what I could find in my local library or scrounged from friends, and here's what I ended up with:

1) Un Dun Lun, China Mieville. (Excited about this one; I loved Mieville's Perdido Street Station, The Scar, and Iron Council!)
2) Everything is Illuminated, Jonathan Safran Foer.
3) American Born Chinese, Gene Yang.
4) Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, Susanna Clark.
5) The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera.*
6) Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh.
7) Kafka on the Shore, Haruki Murakami.

*In the middle of reading this one!

Anyway, some reviews.

Everything is Illuminated, Jonathan Safran Foer.

Dear Jonathan,

I hanker for this letter to be good. Like you know, I am not first rate with English. In Russian my ideas are asserted abnormally well, but my second tongue is not so premium. I undertaked to input the things you counseled me to, and I fatigued the thesaurus you presented me, as you counseled me to, when my words appeared too petite, or not befitting. If you are not happy with what I have performed, I command you to return it back to me. I will persevere to toil on it until you are appeased.

The novel consists of Alex's personal correspondence with the author's namesake Jonathan Safran Foer (quoted above); Alex's chaptered account of Jonathan's journey to the Ukraine (with Alex as a translator and guide) to search for the woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis, written at Jonathan's behest; and chapters of Jonathan's own novel about the story of his ancestors. It's an interesting format for the novel and it works, especially when Alex's personal letters to Jonathan reflect on the stories themselves (i.e., Jonathan's story of his ancestors and Alex's account of more present events).

Call me superficial, call me easily entertained, but Alex's sections made reading this novel worthwhile. There were some hilarious laugh-out-loud sections, not only because of the turn of events but because of the way Alex tells it with the help of a thesaurus. Jonathan's sections contain beautiful prose and present a highly folklorish, colourful, and quaint take on his great-great-great-great-shouldtherebeanothergreat?-grandmother's life and trickling down to his grandfather's story. But it is just that folklorish quality that irritated me after a while because it just seemed to exoticise the past, playing up the "weird and wonderful" aspect. Perhaps this is due to my inability, while reading parts of this novel, to suspend my disbelief.

What was more interesting was Alex's reaction to and reflection on the stories themselves. One such reflection is the authorial power to change events that he has written, particularly the ability to give characters the happy ending they never had; in effect, recreating the past. Truth, folklorish fiction, and biased reporting intersect beautifully to highlight the fallability of Jonathan-the-character, of storytelling in general, and in turn got me wondering about Foer-the-author. How much of the story is his story? (A simple Google seach for some author interviews might tell me this, but I haven't gotten round to it.) Why cut the audience off from Jonathan-the-character by positioning the reader only to see Alex's view? Why the self-reflexivity? I enjoyed this book for the questions it raises and the reflection on the act of writing.

American Born Chinese, Gene Yang. (graphic novel)

This is a story that hits very close to home; now, why weren't there any books like this when I was growing up? The most interesting thing was that this wonderful graphic novel also highlighted the differences between Yang's generation and mine, and also growing up as an Australian Born Chinese as opposed to the American experience. A pleasing thing is that it showed that in some ways, we have come a little further with Australia's increasingly multicultural environment. It was saddening in that most of the stereotypes brought up in the novel are still prevalent: Chinese people eating dogs, that all Asian people are related, the insular view that cross-cultural relationships are somehow wrong.

It is hard to review this book without mentally referring to my personal experience; I think this is to Yang's credit. Through three intersecting storylines, ABC reflects on the experience of growing up with the added dimension of ethnicity. The simple and clean illustration style complements what is (as I see it) a universal and straight-forward story for young adults and matches the humour inherent throughout.

I particularly appreciated the fusion of The Monkey King legend with the story of Christ to emphasise the mix of cultures, and also because it made me reflect on my own experience of trying to reconcile what some of my extended family believes with my own Christian belief (Yang has something to say about this aspect as well as the creation of the book in his blog).

In short, loved it.

Shortcomings, Adrian Tomine (graphic novel)

This isn't a Herding Cats-related review but since I've read it recently (same day as ABC, in fact) and that it's related to the previous review, I thought to include it. If the race-related issues in American Botn Chinese interested you, I'd tentatively recommend this graphic novel as well.

Shortcomings follows the story of Ben and Miko and their relationship difficulties as Miko temporarily moves to New York to live and study. I think of it as the adult version of American Born Chinese in the sense that it is a witty and realistic look at relationships, identity, race and sexuality, and how these things intersect. It is also painful; Tomine excels in capturing people arguing, their faces scrunched, teary, and unattractively distorted with anger and sadness. And it's not just the visuals either, it's the hurtful dialogue that you get when you're having an argument or discussing the big issues. What I appreciated is that Tomine was not afraid of these and put them in there without feeling the need to prettify and sugarcoat.

I also found the main character Ben painful because he is the biggest jerk. Neurotic, constantly negative and sarcastic, good at finger-pointing and creating self-fulfilling prophecies. Things are seen mainly from his point of view, but other perspectives are subtly revealed through his interactions with other characters. He is also nicely balanced out with his lesbian friend, Alice, who is not afraid to call him on his pigheadedness and fishy generalisations or double standards (e.g., an Asian guy with a white girl is acceptable, a white guy with an Asian girl is not).

True to real life, there is little resolution to some of the complex issues raised such as the intersection of race and sexual preference. I don't see this as a shortcoming (haha) of the book, but rather an acknowledgement of the fact that it isn't easy to dissect or make sense out of. I'd recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a graphic novel that is true to life and appreciates the difficult dynamics of relationships.

(Also, I am dying to have some translations of the Korean and Japanese script dotted around in the book. Like all of life's problems, I think Google is the answer.)

Tags: books
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