Thursday, June 22, 2017

"I was fourteen and didn't want to be involved in any of this, but I was part of it as always, and as always, everyone kept asking me, What's wrong? Are you okay? Is something bothering you? At night I flung my pillow against my mattress and prayed to my fake jade statue of the Guanyin goddess to give me a different face so that people would stop looking at my current one and asking me what was the matter."
--> “You Fell Into The River and I Saved You!,” Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang
I read Sour Heart for a (forthcoming) review, and because of word count and sanity, I didn't get to cover all the things that the book brought up for me. On top of the often fucked-up circumstances of their lives, many of Zhang's characters are sad, feel like nothing, and are constantly battling big, bad emotions. In the background of several of the stories is childhood depression and the way the world treats sad and/or angry girls. I appreciated that Zhang explicitly included the pressure to be happy, which often degrades to the pressure to look happy,  in her stories about identity and family. Also included is the reaction to wish to be simply left alone, make the slide through life as easy as possible, already knowing that no one, even those that love you, are likely to help. That deceptively mild feeling of wanting to change because the world isn't going to and you are tired, even though you are a kid.

Sour Heart comes out on August 1.
ETA:  Here's the review!

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

Driftglass by Samuel R. Delany

I had a comically hard time finishing the ten stories that comprise Driftglass. Each is basically a dude using a lot of words to tell a story where very little happens. I took it as a challenge to read every story in the collection, enjoyed much vigorous eye-rolling, and got to think about some interesting things along the way.

I read Driftglass in bed and had trouble staying awake through more than a few pages a night. Most of the narrators have a world-weary voice that doesn't quite feel earned, possibly because Delany was in his twenties when these stories were published. Each has a huffing and puffing about them that maybe once read as energetic, but makes the characters incredibly hard to connect to. When they are not explicitly prisoners or thieves, the main characters are mostly workers of some kind, like a disabled utility worker, a grieving mechanic, or a cable-laying widower. These jobs give access to the underbelly of the future, full of fucked-up kids and hustlers. The plots often hinge on these characters--definitely a reflection on the fear and fascination with youth that happened around that time as well as a reaction to the idea that damaged, poor, or weird people are to be used and disposed of.

The stories of Driftglass are from the mid-to-late 60s which came through in many ways: newspapers being a thing, schizophrenia as metaphor, everybody is still basically straight but the family is mutating, bikers, drug-induced powers, name-checking the Moog, and even some silver jumpsuits. What's wild is that even in such superficially dated tales, Delany's made some accurate predictions of future developments like the internet, fake news, surveillance and "pics or it didn't happen" culture: "While Tri-D and radio and news-tapes disperse information all over the worlds, they also spread an alienation from first-hand experience. (How many people go to  sports events or a political rally with their little receivers plugged to their ears to let them know what they are seeing is really happening?)." ["Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones"] Each story ends with a date and a city, which feels like a slightly precious celebration of the stereotypical roving writer's life that added an additional patina of a past era.

I rarely continue with books that aren't doing it for me but I'm glad that I finished this one. The scenarios were fun to think about after I cut through all the purple. I am sorely under read in Delany's catalog and this was not a bad place to start.

Saturday, March 04, 2017

Canopy by Karine Bernadou

On a recent long night I decided that big eyes of the main character of Canopy had been staring out from my to-read pile for too long. A wordless comic is a tough sell to me, especially in these times of constant background anxiety, but Karine Bernadou's tale of the loneliness and violence within intimate relationships is a stellar example of the genre. The fact that this is a "translated" work only underlines the how powerfully Bernadou's images communicate--no words needed.

Have you ever searched family photos for clues about how it all went wrong? Canopy opens with a family portrait, a mother, a father and a darling stout red baby, putting us instantly on alert, pinging something that knows that portraits' posed unity rarely lasts. The next spread covers the red girl's childhood and adolescence, economically showing the ways a parent can fuck us up. From there we head out into a hostile world, where the possibility of change occasionally appears in the form of a sex partner and, well, we all know how that goes. There's a bit with sirens and a being looking to get lured away that I really liked; self-destructive partners are often their own siren song for the hurting. Each time the red woman seems to find a bit of peace, her desire to find/replace her absent father pulls her into another nasty situation. By the end of the book she's figured out a few things but the conclusion isn't sweet or even saccharine. If anything there's a melancholy to the character going on to her next adventure with wariness and more baggage than she started with.

Using only red for color, Canopy still manages to evoke a lush, if hostile, world, a forest place filled with biting animals and sentient plants. Bernadou's cute characterizations add a disquieting edge to the surreal and bloody situations she finds herself in, as do the prevalence of human features where one wouldn't expect to find them. I liked how the book played with time, especially through dream sequences. Each is like a mini battle for the main character and she usually doesn't win. Bernadou's pacing creating the sense of a long story being told in a short book and definitely rewards rereading.

Monday, February 13, 2017

CHOICES: A Pro-Choice Benefit Comic

A recent visit to Philly to wade through dead people's stuff unearthed a book that I've written about before as a memory: CHOICES: A Pro-Choice Benefit Comic. From the sticker on the front, this book was processed in 1996 and I picked it up soon after. I was in high school, doing my recently-mandated 50 hours of community service at Philly Thrift for AIDS, working on my favorite job. At the time, the store was in a huge space on South Street with a large dark basement where they kept the donated books and magazines on unruly shelves. I was down there doing my thing and something about this book grabbed my attention.

The first things that struck me were the number of male artists in the book and seeing names I had read in the Sunday funnies (Garry Trudeau and Cathy Guiswite). I remember especially Michael Jay Goldberg's tender and matter-of-fact "One Cold Night in December," an autobio piece about his friend's abortion. Howard Cruse also has a piece in the book, "Some Words From the Guys in Charge," that places the reader prone, looking up into white, male faces that represent those of absurd and punitive lawmaker. From Alison Bechdel and Leslie Ewing come lesbian perspectives on supporting abortion rights despite some perceived conflicts which feel politically outdated in some ways, but extremely relevant in others--especially balancing personal needs (i.e. "self care") with the larger fight for rights. In retrospect the book is glaringly white on both the creator and character sides; how racism plays into the abortion "debate"is only addressed as a sideline in a couple of pieces.

Diane Noomin's story of her abortion and subsequent infertility also stuck with me. "Looking back, I'm grateful to that 22 year-old for her strength. I owe my life to her choice." I couldn't imagine that future life at the time, but reading this book again in my mid-30s, with several reproductive choices in my history, I understand that reckoning with the past in a way I couldn't at 15. Noomin's comic points out how just because a choice is painful or difficult, doesn't mean a person needs to be saved from it, especially not by the government or any other big Daddy.

White supremacism, economic injustice, incest, suicide, and religious persecution all make appearances in CHOICES. Re-reading this book has been an unpleasantly surreal experience. 27 years have gone by since its publication and women are still fighting to be seen as human beings. It's frightening to see how fragile the gains made are.  As a personal touchstone, the book reminds me of the special power of comics to convey complicated stories in an accessible way. As an artifact, CHOICES is a stark reminder to take nothing for granted.

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

LA reading or not reading

Los Angeles has the best bookstores. They are big and rolling and usually have cafes. On my December trip, I only went to Stories and, feeling very used up, picked up a copy of I Am Not Ashamed, the ghostwritten Barbara Payton autobiography. I haven't cracked it yet, as the abuses heaped on Payton for being a woman are too close to the bone right now and pulp verve is not the energy I'm looking for these days.

I read Slade House on the airplane, using its quiet British horror to push away the sights and smells of the trip, but also to stall the inevitable end of After Atlas.

Los Angeles was warm-ish but cloudy and darker than expected--good for sleeping and reading, not great for pretending that you are in another life. I finished After Atlas in the vacated house of B's colleague, other peoples' things all around and citrus blossoms on the breeze. The ending felt rushed, and the book felt like it needs a sequel, unlike Newman's previous book in this world, Planetfall. But the heart of the novel, a locked room mystery, definitely held a whiff of the Britishness of Slade House, which was an unexpected connection I enjoyed.

We hit the road and went to Joshua Tree. The National Park (where these pictures were taken) was much more conducive to enjoyment than recording, though I did some drawing of the rocks in the evening, in a quiet cabin recommended by friends. Now the current government is attempting to take away these public spaces, to pretend that selling them, drilling them, sucking them dry is both sane and patriotic and December is very, very far away.

The ride home had me reading Mickey by Chelsea Martin. Though the book had many incisive lines, it didn't build to anything memorable, like the titular boyfriend so hated and desired by Mickey's protagonist. The protagonist--a young, artistic, white lady with (boring) bad behavior--interests me not at all. I get enough of that in my life and definitely don't need it in my increasingly rare reading time. In some ways it was perhaps a perfect book to read on the way back, a reminder that there are other things to do.