Sunday, January 26, 2014

Level Up by Gene Luen Yang and Thien Pham

Level Up
by Gene Luen Yang, illustrated by Thien Pham
First Second, 2011
160 pages

I was so charmed by this graphic novel, though it occurs to me that "charming" is maybe not a word that fits, exactly. "Satisfied" is maybe closer, but doesn't quite fit, either, because it doesn't convey the warmth of the way I feel about this story. Perhaps we should just stick with "I'm very glad I read it."

My experience of this book was interesting, too. Usually I blow through graphic novels; really, there are few that have taken me more than a day to read, and those are usually long (the Cardcaptor Sakura omnibus editions, for example.) This one, due to various things (including, ahem, video games) I took several days to get through. But I think this was maybe a good thing. It allowed me to think about what I was reading, rather than just inhaling it.

Dennis loves video games. Perhaps a bit too much. He's just been kicked out of college (the gaming's not the only reason) and he's got no idea how to tell his widowed mother; he knows his father, who passed away just after Dennis finished high school, would be extremely disappointed. In fact, he keeps thinking he's seeing his father's disapproving face on every statue he passes... and then the angels show up. It turns out they've arrived, straight out of a greeting card and with his father's blessing, to help Dennis achieve his destiny: go to med school, and become a gastroenterologist.

It's a little hard to describe, but when you're actually reading the book, it's pretty straightforward. It's also not all that much about video games or about the angels. It's about Dennis wrestling with his internal demons, coming to terms with his father's death, trying to figure out what he wants to do, and what duty to family, friends, and self has to do with any of it. He's an incredibly smart kid, he knows how to work hard, and he loves video games. What's more, he's actually pretty good at them. (His gamer friend, Takeem, suggests that Dennis' brain was made by Nintendo.) But his father always viewed them as a total waste of time and money, and Dennis still feels the weight of his disapproval, and his hopes and expectations for Dennis, too.

If I had any complaints, it's that things do seem to come across as a bit too easy. Dennis is a stellar gamer, able to win tournaments regularly. When he's at school, he's got four angels hanging out and doing his laundry, his dishes, feeding him, and so on, so all he has to do is concentrate on his studies. That said, it is a graphic novel and he's got four angels doing his housework... so, no expectations of gritty realism here? And he does work hard, at whatever he chooses to do. There is also a bit of an either/or dichotomy happening with gaming/living a real life, but let's just say that someone like me probably has no place criticizing that. I know some people seem to be able to cultivate a healthy balance, but lord knows I'm not one of them. Perhaps that's why I liked this book as much as I did.

Overall, the tale is told with simple but lovely artwork, gentle (often very funny) humour, nostalgia for the great games (Bubble Bobble makes a brief appearance; Pac Man figures heavily) and huge sympathy and respect for Dennis' character and his challenges. Well worth a read, particularly for those interested in contemporary coming-of-age stories for teens and young adults.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon
by Grace Lin
Little, Brown and Company, 2009
278 pages

This is a beautiful book. I don't just mean beautiful as in the content, though that's lovely too. I mean the production quality on the actual item is beautiful: the paper is thick and smooth, the colouring of the illustrations is gorgeous (the illustrations themselves are perfect) and the typesetting is lovely, even if some of the font changes between main body and folktales and handwritten letters felt just the tiniest bit excessive. It weighs nicely in the hand. In short, this is an extremely attractive book.

I do so like it when a publisher takes that kind of time and makes that kind of effort. It feels like they were considering the entire experience they want the reader to have.

It matches the story inside, in this case: Where the Mountain Meets the Moon is careful, lovely, and colourful. Minli is the daughter of very poor farmers, who scrape a bare subsistence living from the ground near the muddy, turbulent Jade River and the aptly named Fruitless Mountain. The bright spot of her days are the stories her father tells Minli and her mother at night after dinner. Her favourites include the story of why nothing does grow on Fruitless Mountain, and a story of the Old Man of the Moon, the Immortal who knows everyone's fate, and controls their destined meetings. One day, after purchasing a goldfish on a whim, hoping to change her family's fortune, Minli decides that she must search out the Old Man of the Moon herself. Thus begins a long, sometimes strange, sometimes frightening, sometimes funny, and always interesting journey.

It is a simple story, told in very simple language, and things are relatively straightforward. The enjoyment is in the creativity of the plot itself, and the way the story is told. The characters are spare, but somehow still engaging; I am not sure exactly how Lin managed that without making them cardboard cutouts (aside from the villain, who was pretty two-dimensional.) It's also deceptively busy. It's a story in which an awful lot happens, but the pacing is incredibly well done. One never feels rushed, and even the ending, which could have felt like it happened too quickly, didn't. It felt just right.

Throughout the body of the story, which is split between spending most of our time with Minli and Dragon, and a bit of our time with Minli's parents, are sprinkled little folktales. They take their inspiration from Chinese folklore, but my understanding is that these tales are mostly Grace Lin originals, heavily influenced by traditional stories. These short little gems, told formally and separated from the main story by narrative style and differences in font, each have something to say to the main storyline as well. Minli loves stories. Ba tells them to her every night, and it is from these stories that she gets the original idea to go find the Old Man of the Moon. Minli's Ma, however, is a tired, embittered woman, who cannot understand why the other two bother with tales when nothing of material good comes out of it. The contrast and struggle, and the love, between Ma and Ba was one of the highlights of the novel for me.

Weight and consideration is given, without being heavy-handed, to the power of stories and the need for them; Lin also weaves in the importance of certain virtues, again without being too heavy-handed (mostly): gratitude, generosity, loyalty, initiative, patience, cleverness, kindness. Minli gets where she needs to because she has each of these characteristics in spades, except maybe patience. Even then, she can be patient when she needs to be, and Ma and Ba's tale is all about patience and loyalty.

I am absolutely looking forward to reading this with my parent-child book clubs at some point. I will, unfortunately, have to wait until next year, as this year's choices are already made. But it's a book that will read aloud wonderfully, and I think equally enjoyed by adults and children. Recommended for those looking for a gentle adventure. Also, the fact that this takes its inspiration from a culture very different from many Western books written in English doesn't hurt; I'm always on the lookout for middle-grade books that can expand kids' horizons.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Mummy Case by Elizabeth Peters

The Mummy Case (Amelia Peabody 3)
by Elizabeth Peters
Blackstone Audio, 2009
11 discs, unabridged

I was thinking that perhaps I view the Amelia Peabody mysteries as a "guilty pleasure" the other night, and then I realized that I don't actually feel terribly guilty about enjoying them so much. They are tremendously campy, silly, and grossly far-fetched, but what's wrong about enjoying them for that? Coming from someone whose reading motto resembles something like "never apologise" it seems odd that I should view reading anything as a guilty pleasure.

I get such a kick out of these books, and just that makes them worth reading. They are mysteries, sure, but it's not the mystery that's the draw. There's very little serious suspense, other than wondering exactly how the Emersons going to pull things off this time, and maybe sometimes a bit of wondering over the details of the cases. For whatever reason, what I would regard as unforgivable forebludgeoning in most other books gets a free pass here.

No, not for "whatever reason," actually. It's the characters, Amelia specifically, but the others as well. Amelia is the first-person narrator: the books are her journals. And Amelia is blessed with copious amounts of self-confidence and a finely honed sense of Victorian melodrama, leading to lots of "It did not occur to me to be concerned... at the time..." sorts of statements. Forebludgeoning, yes, but perfectly in character. And since I don't read (er, listen to) these books for the plots I don't particularly care about being heavily spoiled in advance.

Amelia Peabody is one of the great characters I have encountered, I think. She is somehow endearing in her brash sense of oblivious superiority (which is always played for laughs at Amelia's expense, except for one moment in this book, where Amelia's confidence in herself and her countryfolk is thrown back at her, and well-deserved, too) and her sharp intelligence. She would probably be less bearable except that she is often right. And not only that, she's willing, if extremely reluctant, to admit when she's wrong, too. Or at least lead the reader of her journals to draw that conclusion on their own, even if she won't explicitly say it. She is a well-defined, larger-than-life woman who both leaps off the page and feels real enough that I am willing to suspend any disbelief in following her around.

Aside from the character, I love the setting. Victorian-era Egypt and archaeology are fascinating places to visit (I wouldn't have wanted to live there.) Peters always brings it alive. She knew her archaeology and her history, and she uses Amelia's enthusiasm and passion to share some of that with us. I will admit that if anyone gave me a test on any facts I should have picked up from this book I wouldn't fare so well. It turns out I'm not reading to learn about Ancient Egypt either, though I find it fascinating at the time.

I should warn: anyone who has not read the first two books will necessarily encounter spoilers for those first two in the following paragraphs.

In this book, Amelia and Radcliffe (hereafter referred to as "Emerson" since I can't think of him any differently) are heading back to Egypt, and have decided to take their terrifyingly precocious son Ramses with them. Emerson is determined that they shall dig at the pyramids at Dahshoor, but instead they are relegated to the "pyramids" at Mazghunah, a field of rubble that may in fact once have been pyramids, but now bears little resemblance to the structures Amelia is so taken with. Despite her disappointment, Amelia at least has a mystery to keep her occupied: a suspected ring of antiquities thieves are flooding the market with some very choice items that are thus lost to science forever, and she suspects the murder of an acquaintance - a not-quite-honest antiquities dealer in Cairo - is connected.

The fact that even though things get just completely, utterly ridiculous at the end I still ate this up, and happily, suggests the power that Amelia Peabody (and Elizabeth Peters) has over me. I believe I even shouted "Are you serious?!" at the CD player in the car at one point because Amelia, despite not being stupid, does some incredibly rash things and I could see, clear as day, that things were not going to go well. The fact that she's cheerfully upfront about this (dissecting the situation postmortem, as she is) goes some way toward mitigating my mildly appalled astonishment. The other thing is that Amelia doing incredibly rash things near the close of a book (and upfront too, really, if we're counting) is hardly out of character.

I suppose one could start at this book quite comfortably in the series. I do think that the relationship between Emerson and Amelia, and the relationship they have with their son, is portrayed strongly enough in this third book that one wouldn't need to have a background in it, though I do think that Crocodile on the Sandbank is the stronger of the three books and would certainly recommend starting there instead. This, however, is a perfectly adequate outing in this series, neither surprising nor disappointing, and as entertaining as I expected and hoped.

Earlier books in the Amelia Peabody series:
1. Crocodile on the Sandbank
2. Curse of the Pharaohs

Thursday, January 9, 2014

The Railway Children by E. Nesbit

The Railway Children
by E. Nesbit
Armada, 1988 (originally published in 1906)
207 pages

The ending of this classic story can still bring tears to my eyes - Bobbie's cry is perfectly heart-audible. It was one of my favourite books as a kid; I can't remember when my mother read it to us first, but I've read it a couple of times since and the story is entirely familiar to me. It's been quite a while, though, so I figured a full re-read was due before my parent-child book club discussed it next week.

If you are unfamiliar with the story - several of my group hadn't even heard of it, much less read it - The Railway Children follows three children, Roberta, Peter, and Phyllis, who are relatively well-off, living in London with Mother and Father. Mother stays at home and cares for the kids (along with several servants; this is set around 1900, after all) and Father works for the government. The children really don't know hardship at all, and are sweet, clever, and kind.

And yes, one might be forgiven for being concerned about whether or not we have a story yet, or whether the story we have might be unbearably boring.

(Frankly - if E. Nesbit wrote it, I'd probably read that story too. More on that in a moment.)

However, one day Father disappears without even a goodbye to the children after a late-night meeting with two strange men. He does not come back, and things get stranger and stranger. Servants are dismissed, Mother spends her days in important meetings and writing important letters, and then eventually the house is packed up and the family moves - without Father - to the country. But aside from missing their father, and being worried about their mother, the children are not unduly upset or put out, for their new house is very close to the railway. They have marvellous adventures, do good and even heroic deeds, and make friends of all the people they meet.

Really, it does sound like Bobbie, Peter, and Phyllis would be tremendously boring to read about, but they're not. They're sweet children, yes, and they are suspiciously good, mostly. But they are also funny, lively, mischievous, and very, very imaginative. The scrapes they get themselves into (yes, scrapes: it's an old-fashioned word from an old-fashioned book, but I like the word and have been known to use it in less old-fashioned contexts) are not always entirely believable, but they're always entertaining. The kids have a knack for being in the right place at the right time. Their chatter is funny, and believable - they never sound like mini-adults, unless they are specifically trying to, and even then it is commented on - and they bicker, even getting into one or two really big fights even though they are trying to be very good for Mother. (Who is, by the way, definitely too good to be true.)

Nesbit writes the children with a tremendous amount of empathy, and the small concerns of childhood as well as the larger concerns the children have to deal with when times become more difficult are handled with equal respect. And the book is funny, too. The children are funny, their enthusiasm is catching, the situations they get into are exciting. Their chatter and banter is amusing and so creative, but not unbelievably so. Nesbit has a way with description that can make even the most banal scenes come alive, and she leaves quite a lot to the reader's own imagination in just the right ways.

Yes, the children are slightly too good to be true, but they are not perfect. Nesbit gets right inside the head of a child, and explains their motives to the reader, often almost as if she is whispering conspiratorially in our ear. As the narrator of this book Nesbit is very chatty, regularly breaking out of the page to talk directly to us. It's part of what makes the book such a fantastic readaloud, and retains its charm for me as an adult.

There are a few other things that do not retain their charm, so be aware: the book does show its age in certain aspects, particularly and most glaringly around gender roles, but also around other issues as well (poverty, which plays a large role in the lives of the children after they leave London, is treated with a very light hand, and there are a few references to "foreigners" I could have done without.) I think this will be a point of discussion at the meeting, framed around the gender issue. It becomes most obvious right near the end, when the doctor in the book takes Peter aside to have a discussion about the differences in temperament between men and women. This is glaring. It's also, I hope, so ridiculous in this day and age that the kids reading won't give it any credence. And if they are tempted to, I expect the adult they are reading with will have a few words.

More problematic is the way boys are "supposed" to act, as evinced by a funny poem Mother writes for the childrens' friend Jim. Perhaps it was tongue in cheek, but the suggestion that a boy who is interested in reading and lessons over athletics and physical activities is somehow foolish and an appropriate target of ridicule by adults as well as children is unfortunate. And it comes across in all seriousness, and originates from Mother, who is a stable, wise, and clever character in the book.

As a reflection of the prevailing attitudes of the time, it's an interesting exercise to read those sections of the book. My concern is that the prevailing attitudes about appropriate behaviours for boys haven't changed enough for kids to twig to the inappropriateness of the poem. Or even adults, frankly. So I will be curious to see what the kids in my group think about those things, and what the adults have to say, too.

Overall, a highly entertaining little book, charming and fun, and not without its poignant moments, as I reference at the beginning. The characters are very distinct and very much themselves, and the plot rips right along at an impressive speed. Does make one long for that sort of countryside and the joyous, imaginative days of childhood, though the bits about gender at the end remind one not to get too nostalgic. Still, a recommended family read and a classic of children's literature for good reason.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King

The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America
by Thomas King
Anchor Canada, 2012
314 pages

I love Tom King's writing. It's magical. He is very funny, and very dark, and very lyrical. Poignant, clever, sharp, tender, furious, all that. Or at least, his fiction is. King writes beautiful, and beautifully necessary, fiction, and one gets the impression, while reading his fiction, that he loves to write it. This book is not fiction, and it's different. This reads like something that was burning King up inside, and not burning in a good way. This was a book Thomas King had to get off his chest.

So while this book was indeed funny, at points, and it was indeed furious, often, it wasn't quite what I'd hoped for, quite what I'd been lead to expect by the accolades it has received. It was a bit of a blunt instrument, where I was hoping for a sparkling scalpel. None of this is to say that I don't think this book is good. It's good. But I ran into a few things that I think diminished its impact on me.

King is very clear right off the top that this is not a history, in the formal sense of the word, in that he's not interested in footnotes and citations and so on; he's interested in stories. This is both a strength and a weakness. It's a strength because the book is a strangely fast read, a strangely simple read (I cannot say "easy," because it is not easy to read a lot of what King has to say.) One moves through this curious account very smoothly, because one is not hooked up on having to flip to the endnotes to see where that fact came from. It makes it easier to move through the book, less formal, and frankly has probably meant that The Inconvenient Indian has had a far wider audience than its more formal counterparts, the histories King is not claiming this book to be. Of course, for someone with a certain mindset, this is a weakness too. We have to take King at his word; we don't have his sources laid out for us. So it's not an academic read. This leads to problems when people disagree with the facts as presented. There is no way to go back to the exact source that King used, because we generally don't know what it is. This, in turn, makes it easier for those who wish to do so to dismiss each particular argument out of hand, and if they wish to do so, to throw out King's premise entirely.

To be clear: I don't. And I think the whole format actually makes an interesting point. History, as we are taught in school as kids and fed in the media as adults, is generally stories, with the same specious citation or lack thereof. How many of us looked at primary documents in elementary or high school? How many of us cite our source when stating a "known fact"? All King has done here is turn the class on its head, and presented the stories from a different perspective than the one we generally see. Was the American Indian Movement a violent terrorist organization, or a loosely (and in some cases poorly) organized group of individuals who were rightfully fed up with the garbage way their entire culture and society is treated? King argues, effectively, that we at least need to think about that question, among others.

King provides a litany, throughout the book, of the ways that Native people in North America have been cheated, abused, lied to, massacred, appropriated, rendered invisible, rendered impotent, ignored, misunderstood, and cheated and cheated again. Oh, there are so many ways. And while King's humour is present, it's not a funny book. Even the funny bits aren't really that funny. And he knows it. What it is, is an angry book. Thomas King is angry. Thomas King, one thinks, would like us to be angry too. And I think it would be a stone-cold person who wouldn't at least be a little angry, at some of the things King lists. But... lists.

And therein lies my first big issue.

This is a book of lists. There are lists of names and lists of grievances. It's a lot of lists. King even acknowledges that it's a lot of lists, and suggests that his partner Helen Hoy thought that listing isn't terribly effective. I agree with her. Lists do not an argument make. It is hard not to to feel swamped by the grievances rather than affected by them, even if King throws a bit of his sarcastic humour in there to liven things up.

My second big issue is another one King deals with by calling himself out and explaining his motives, but perfunctorily: everyone in the book who is a non-Native is White. And Whites get (justifiably) a fair bit of flack. Good enough, but the problem is, I don't see myself in that group. I don't see my own values, my own actions, or my personal history. So suddenly it's not my problem. I can be horrified by what Whites have done or haven't done without counting myself as part of that group, though King himself undoubtably would count me as part of that group. See, this is the problem with generalizing: I am no longer culpable, and there we have a big part of the problem. I don't like my government or its actions. I tend to be on the same page as King on Christianity and capitalism, which is rather a polar opposite from where our current federal government stands, but I didn't vote for them. Problem solved. I am now just another impotent cog in a wheel I didn't ask to be part of, and I don't think I am part of the problem that King's talking about. Not really.

Which is all part of the problem.

What this book does do well is make a person think. It makes one look at the issues of North American Native land, religion, culture, sovereignty, and so on, and realize it's not a single problem, but a complex of problems. Those lists are trying to articulate things that haven't necessarily been articulated to a wider audience before, or at least a wider audience that's willing to pay attention. This is an ugly situation. It's not hopeless, but it's not going away, and it's not easy. People on both sides are going to get hurt, and I might as well come right out and admit that I am of King's opinion that maybe North American Native peoples have done enough of the suffering. (Does this mean I am willing to suffer myself in order to correct those grievances - give up my family cottage on the shores of Georgian Bay, for example? Um... I probably won't surprise anyone if I suggest that I am relieved that question remains rhetorical, for now.)

What exactly can be done to stop it is a question King never answers, and that's because there is no answer; there's certainly not a singular answer. But it is clear that something has to be done, because such injustices, even (or especially) ones that have been around for so long, are not good for anyone.

Yes, probably everyone should read this book. It absolutely should be a component of high school curricula around North America. As I said, it's not a hard book to read, and it provides some badly needed perspective. It's pretty clear to me that not everyone's going to be reached by this book, though. I didn't have far to go to be convinced by King's arguments; I was already mostly there, and I read this book as an exercise in getting a better background on the issues. People who are not already somewhat interested in or sympathetic to the plight of Native North Americans are unlikely to be swayed at all by this particular book, because it's too easy for them to dismiss it as biased, angry rhetoric from someone with a vested interest. It would be a useful exercise for those people to investigate their own biases and vested interests, but this book isn't the sort of book to encourage them to do that. And that's a shame.