Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Book Review: Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi

Boy, Snow, Bird

Written by: Helen Oyeyemi

Published: 2014

Synopsis: In the winter of 1953, Boy Novak arrives by chance in a small town in Massachusetts, looking, she believes, for beauty—the opposite of the life she’s left behind in New York. She marries a local widower and becomes stepmother to his winsome daughter, Snow Whitman.

A wicked stepmother is a creature Boy never imagined she’d become, but elements of the familiar tale of aesthetic obsession begin to play themselves out when the birth of Boy’s daughter, Bird, who is dark-skinned, exposes the Whitmans as light-skinned African Americans passing for white. Among them, Boy, Snow, and Bird confront the tyranny of the mirror to ask how much power surfaces really hold.

“... it's not whiteness itself that sets Them against Us, but the worship of whiteness. Same goes if you swap whiteness out for other things-- fancy possessions for sure, pedigree, maybe youth too... we beat Them (and spare ourselves a lot of tedium and terror) by declining to worship.”

It isn't often that I go out and buy a book a blogger recommended and read it immediately. In most cases I add it to my never-ending list and then when I'm at the library I'll pull out my list and see what's available. But for some reason Emily's mini-review of Boy, Snow, Bird captured my attention and when I happened to see the book in a bookstore the next day I snapped it up and started reading it on my bus ride home.

Boy, Snow, Bird is a sensationally written book that deals with some extremely heavy subjects. Not only does it examine race in 1950's America, but it really digs into feminist issues of the time, marriage, abortion, gender roles in the workplace, gender identity and same-sex relationships. And while these issues could make it a seriously dense and depressing novel it's actually the complete opposite. Because all of these issues are tied up with the families and relationships in the narrative, it ends up a sombre story, sure, but it also has this sense of strength that stops it from being a depressing mind-swamp. Not to mention that it's almost entirely populated by female characters that are so full of life it's worthy of a god damn celebration! They're complicated and nuanced and they make shitty decisions based on the times and unfairly judge some people but oh my god, they are all wonderful. The men have important roles (especially Arturo, father, son, husband) but the story is ultimately about women, about matriarchs, about female rebellion and female sexuality. It's about women who don't fit into the time they were born and buck tradition and women who are strong but don't feel strong enough to stand up to a system that seems unbreakable and immoveable. I am 100% ready to bow down and worship at the alter of Helen Oyeyemi. Did I mention that she's still in her 20s? How do you even construct such a complicated and inspiring and effective story when you're that young? I am in awe, seriously.

There's a lot of talk about this book using Snow White as a jumping off point. If you look at some of the reviews on Goodreads it's clear a lot of readers were expecting a modern-day retelling of the fairytale, rather than a story which takes some thematic elements and weaves it into a new narrative. Yes there's a character called Snow, yes there's tension between her relationship with her step-mother, but it's nothing like the fairytale so make sure you leave that preconception aside when you pick up this book. One stark similarity though is the role of mirrors in both the fairytale and Boy, Snow, Bird. The mirror in Boy, Snow, Bird doesn't speak, but it reveals a great deal. It becomes analogous for the broader concepts of trustworthiness, deception and hiding in plain sight. The scenes with mirrors flit between reality and fantasy with a feel of Jeanette Winterson, and while on paper I'd say that it seems incongruous with the utterly (and at times heartbreakingly) realistic narrative, these small fantastic touches seem completely at home with Bird, Snow and Boy and the story of their relationships.

My only problem with the book is the ending. Not only is there a twist-type reveal that comes very suddenly (as in the last 4 pages) without any real sign-posting but it also feels incongruous with the thrust of the novel. I can't really discuss it without major spoilers, but I can't help but wonder what Oyeyemi wants us to take away from it. How does it fit with the rest of the book? Is it deliberately meant to feel separate or disparate? If you've read the book I'd love to discuss this with you in the comments. But while I don't think I was a fan of it as an ending, it also doesn't take anything away from the brilliance of the preceding pages.

I've started to notice this book popping up on more and more blogs so it probably doesn't really need my endorsement to gain well-deserved attention, but I'm going to endorse away anyway. It's really rather brilliant, literary and intelligent but grounded enough to appeal to any reader, distant enough to discuss lofty or troubling topics objectively while also feeling completely accurate and emotionally hard-hitting. I finished it feeling like I'd read a call to arms. A call to arms for what exactly I'm still not sure. Family bonds? The Sisterhood?  The dissolution of bigotry in our lifetime? Recognition as full and complete people regardless of how we identify? Perhaps that'll depend on the reader, or perhaps it's a little bit of all of the above. Either way, it's a stunning book and a must-read.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Graphic Novel mini-reviews #20

Annihilation (Volume 1)

Written by: Keith Giffen, Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning; Illustrated by: Mitch Breitweiser, Scott Kolins, Ariel Olivetti, Kev Walker

Published: 2007

My Thoughts: Annihilation was my follow up after reading Guardians of the Galaxy: Legacy. Rather than deal with the entire group this focuses on Drax The Destroyer, the big green murderous man who has everyone shaking in their boots. I found this a little harder to get into because there were 2 or 3 characters who looked very similar to Drax, and without a solid understanding of the Drax character I didn't feel like I could always spot which was Drax and which was a villainous alien prison escapee. The plotting was a little unsteady, but I enjoyed the sassy young girl who gets involved and becomes both a comfort and a thorn in Drax's side. I don't know if I'll keep on with this particular comic though, maybe I'll see how I go with the film when it comes out and go from there.

Hawkeye: Little Hits (Volume #2)

Written by: Matt Fraction; Illustrated by: David Aja, Francesco Francavilla, Steve Lieber, Jesse Hamm.

Published: 2013

My Thoughts: I was a Hawkeye convert when I read the first volume but this was wasn't quite as brilliant as the first. The humour, sharp writing and gorgeous illustrations were still there but I found the story (which flips back and forward between different stories and timelines) to be a little confusing and hard to keep track of. It should probably be said that according to the Goodreads synopsis this confusion seems to be intended, but it pulled me out of the fun and I really had no idea what was going on, what was a flashback and what was made-up. Not a deal breaker though, I'm still looking forward to reading Fraction's take on this character. Also of particular interest was a breakdown post-comic about the colouring choices in Hawkeye - really fascinating look behind the comic.

Captain Marvel: In Pursuit of Flight (Volume #1)

Written by: Kelly Sue Deconnick; Illustrated by: Dexter Soy, Emma Rios

Published: 2013

My Thoughts: LADIES! This comic is for the ladies, by the ladies and about the ladies, and it's brilliant. Not only is it funny, smart and well written/drawn, but the interactions between the male and female characters are refreshingly realistic. It's a feminist superhero story without being overtly feminist in nature. It's a glimpse at what all comics should be like, where super women are held on par with super men. Captain Marvel is an interesting first volume, CM deals with taking over from two mentors, a time-travel plot (that everyone hates but just has to get through) and life-threatening illness of a close friend. it's a perfect mix of superhero and regular shmoe and I can't wait to read more of what Kelly Sue Deconnick serves up.

Monday, May 12, 2014

(Audio) Book Review: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

The Goldfinch

Written by:  Donna Tartt

Audiobook read by: David Pittu

Published: 2013

Synopsis: It begins with a boy. Theo Decker, a thirteen-year-old New Yorker, miraculously survives an accident that kills his mother. Abandoned by his father, Theo is taken in by the family of a wealthy friend. Bewildered by his strange new home on Park Avenue, disturbed by schoolmates who don't know how to talk to him, and tormented above all by his unbearable longing for his mother, he clings to one thing that reminds him of her: a small, mysteriously captivating painting that ultimately draws Theo into the underworld of art.

As an adult, Theo moves silkily between the drawing rooms of the rich and the dusty labyrinth of an antiques store where he works. He is alienated and in love-and at the center of a narrowing, ever more dangerous circle.

The Goldfinch is a novel of shocking narrative energy and power. It combines unforgettably vivid characters, mesmerizing language, and breathtaking suspense, while plumbing with a philosopher's calm the deepest mysteries of love, identity, and art. It is a beautiful, stay-up-all-night and tell-all-your-friends triumph, an old-fashioned story of loss and obsession, survival and self-invention, and the ruthless machinations of fate.

What is this? Kayleigh writing a review? Can you believe such a shocking and unheard of thing? It has been awhile since I last typed out a review (March 25! WHAT!) and while I definitely missed it I'm kinda happy that the first book I finished (and actually wanted to review) during my absence was this huge hunk of words and emotions.

When everyone's glowing reviews of The Goldfinch* started trickling out I knew it was a book I wanted to read but also, I was in no big hurry. I mean, this book is ginormous. It's gargantuan. It is everything that terrifies me in a book when I know I can't read as often as I want. Plus big books are always such a pain to read in bed, you can never get comfy. So since I had gotten acquainted with audiobooks on my US holiday I decided it made sense to listen to this one instead of lug that 10,000,000 page dead weight with me everywhere. This was both the best and worst idea I've ever had. Best, because I now didn't have to carry the aforementioned giant book. Worst, because big page count equals big hour count, which I hadn't planned for. The Goldfinch comes in at a little over 32 hours as an audiobook, almost double NOS4R2 which was previously the longest book I'd attempted to listen to. And while I wish I could happily listen to audiobooks while I'm on the bus or reading emails or laying in bed before falling asleep, I really can't. I basically only had my drive to my non-uni job to listen (a measly 2 hours of travel each week), which was why I was barely at halfway in my "I'm Alive" post a couple of weeks ago even though I'd started the book back in February. Luckily I started restoring some furniture which turns out to be the perfect head space for audiobooks, and late last week I finally managed to tick "read the never ending, but lovely, The Goldfinch" off my bucket list. But you guys haven't waited two months to read about how long it takes me to read an audiobook. Move onto the actual book shall we?

For some reason I went into The Goldfinch thinking it was going to be about art thieves. Either I disregarded 90% of the synopsis or I skim read a review somewhere, but The Goldfinch isn't really about art thieves, or the underworld of art, or even really about art at all. It's first and foremost a beautifully crafted bildungsroman, an emotionally charged examination into the life of Theo Decker, a young boy who has his mother ripped from his life far too soon and in the most devastating way possible. The book progresses with Theo as he perseveres with all of the minor and major events that befall a 13 year old who loses his mother to a terrorist attack. The hunt for the father who ran off a year earlier, the temporary placement into another family, the fear of foster care, the endless wandering looking for something to fill a gaping hole, the return of the father, the move to Las Vegas, the discovery of a friend and drugs and old black and white movies to mask, if not fill, the gap a desperately needed mother leaves.

In Meg's review she said she thinks just about everyone could come away from this book with a different theme or a different perspective on the story. I think that your takeaway with this book may very well depend on your personal life experiences but I also agree with Meg that this is a book about pain, it's a book about loss and grief and trauma. But it's also a book about the ways we try to persevere through the pain and the trauma. We all have different ways of processing the events in our life, some people are proactive and predisposed to looking for the bright side while others, dare I say most of us, turn to potentially destructive means to keep our heads above the water. How Theo deals with his mother's death is not the same way another child in his exact situation would deal with it, and I think that's where this book excels. Even the most minor of characters have these myriad experiences that have shaped them and turned them into the people they are, making the decisions they make. From the outside we may see that they're making destructive or silly or ill-reasoned choices, but when you factor in their pasts you get it. You understand why they do the things they do, and you don't hold it against them**. Which isn't to say everyone in this book is a criminal or drug addict making awful life decisions and blaming it on the events in their pasts. There are some characters who have taken traumatic or painful experiences and learned from them, built businesses and families and lives. But there are also characters who deny themselves certain pleasures and certain parts of life because they're afraid of repeating the past or they think something they did 10 years earlier somehow denies them certain pathways.

There is no doubt this book is big. But even though I'm sure some of the length could have been lopped off I'm not really sure where you'd take it from. There are so many threads joining every character and event that it feels almost precarious, as though it'd all tumble into ruin if you removed even the most minor of plot lines***. It's a dense and complex story, weaving philosophical and academic perspectives into the very personal narrative. The titular Goldfinch is returned to time and again, a persistent anchor to the past and the tragic events that befell Theo while also symbolising persistence and a potential for a future not as fraught with horror as the past. David Pittu, the reader of the Audible copy I listened to, was magnificent. Not only was he beyond competent at every accent he attempted (his Boris is especially delightful) but his voice absolutely drips with emotion. You feel the longing and guilt Theo feels for his mother in every line, the contempt he has for his father, his confusion about his love life in the last part of the book, Pittu breathes life into every character and even if the book was only mediocre in terms of prose (which it isn't) I think his performance would still raise it to the dizzying heights its experienced since release.

So whether you decide to give your forearms a work-out with the 800 page physical copy or plan an epic road trip so you can devour the 32 hours of audiobook you should absolutely plan to get to this book sooner rather than later. It's rather brilliant.

*Might I recommend the reviews of the ever so lovely and intelligent Laura (Devouring Texts) and Meg (The Terrible Desire)? 

**Or at least you understand it, even if you don't like it.

***Actually I lied. I would take out the final chapter/final 15 minutes of the audiobook. It wasn't badly written or completely extreneous but I also don't feel like it actually needed to be there.

Holiday Photo Diary: Tokyo The Second (week 3)

Considering how many posts I had of photos for America/Canada I didn't want to bombard everyone with my Japan photos too quickly, but maybe I went a little bit too far in the other direction. Whoops.

This one is actually going to be pretty short* because I was mostly plodding through my uni work and missing any real photo opportunities but I did manage to have two spectacular days in particular**. I got to head back to Disneyland and this time check out DisneySea (which is exclusive to Japan) which was brilliant fun, of course. I didn't get there early enough to get the fast-passes so I spent much of my day in lines (the worst) but it was a beautiful day, the rides were exhilarating (and cold!) the food was scrumptious and I couldn't resist a souvenir or two.

 Even more awesomely I got to meet Yurie, who has been my pen-pal for the past 15 years! We were matched up when I was in year 4 in Adelaide and taking Japanese for the first time. We wrote to each other (in English, which is probably why her English is flawless and my Japanese sucks) for years until high school got in the way and our letters dropped off. I used to love getting letters from Yurie, other than her being a super awesome chickadee with similar hobbies, she also had the best stationary and her presents at my birthday were brilliantly different from what I was used to (I've had a love for Japanese whimsy for years thanks to Yurie). Anyway, late in high school we got back in touch via email and then lost touch again, rekindled the friendship on facebook but were unable to organise a meeting on my first Japanese trip and finally, finally, got to meet this time around. It was a really great day and a half. We got to visit the gorgeous Studio Ghibli museum (if you don't watch Studio Ghibli/Miyazaki films then STEP ON IT), went shopping for anime and movie toys and merchandise, had a 7 course traditional Japanese meal and wandered around the Asakusa shopping streets and Sensoji temple. A massive, amazing wonderful couple of full-on days!

My lone DisneySea picture (the rest I lost, see below)

I can't actually remember what this building was for, but it had an art showcase down to the left.

Studio Ghibli, sadly you coupldn't take photos inside but trust me, it was pure magic

Studio Ghibli

Sensoji temple, Asakusa

Sensoji temple, Asakusa

Ueno Park shrine

*Partly for the reason I give above and partly because I just bought a new phone and when I moved all my photos off my old phone I apparently missed a whole chunk of pictures...pictures of the Japanese holiday variety. Womp womp. 

**That I can share with you. They were all pretty spectacular compared with regular life for me!


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