Friday, March 24, 2017

Graphic Novel Review: The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang & Sonny Liew

This may have been my first graphic novel in...well, ever. I don't remember reading many of them before. 

I read several web comics and have been known to read comics and comic books when I was younger, but for the most part I've avoided graphic novels and comics. This is because I used to be incredibly anxious about people reading over my shoulder or teasing me for whatever I was reading. The idea of a graphic novel, where anybody could just look over your shoulder and see what was happening, was horrifying to me. I think this sense has stayed with me as an adult. I still tend to stray away from graphic novels and choose books with less flashy cover art, and I still obsessively hide what I'm reading. 

Anyway, this is my review -- as a total graphic novel novice -- of The Shadow Hero. 

Cover of The Shadow Hero; text reads The Shadow Hero: Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew. From the New York Times bestselling author of American Born Chinese. Image: It's done in a retro comics style with bright yellow and green font. The image shows the Green Turtle, face masked and body covered by a cape with a turtle shell, mid-jump and looking directly out at the viewer. Behind him, the large shadow of the Turtle takes up most of the page.

First, some background

The Shadow Hero was created to give an origin story to The Green Turtle, a hero in a short-lived comic series during the Golden Age of comics. The Green Turtle fought Japanese troops in China and elsewhere, but never revealed his face, origin story, or true identity. He also had a strangely-shaped, cheekily smiling shadow which was never quite explained before the comic was cancelled. 

The theory of The Shadow Hero's creators is that The Green Turtle is the first Asian American superhero. As they explain in the back, the creator of the original comic, Chu Hing, was Chinese American. He wanted to make an Asian hero, but his publisher wouldn't let him. As Gene Yang and Sonny Liew point out, the original comic features a hero who never shows his face and whose skin is almost ludicrously pink -- as though Hing is sarcastically emphasizing just how white he's supposed to be. Additionally, The Green Turtle is always interrupted whenever he's about to explain his origins or backstory.

A black and white photo of Chu Hing shows him looking directly into the camera. He wears his hair short and is clad in a suit and tie with a pin.
Chu Hing, author of the original comics which inspired this adaptation.
You can read more about him and view his comics here.

The Shadow Hero is their answer to the question of the The Green Turtle's origin story. Drawing inspiration from the original comic, they created a new story for this old and obscure character. 

Plot: a normal kid in the time of superheros

Hank is a young man with ordinary aspirations: he wants to grow up to take over the family grocery from his father. His dad moved to the U.S. from China, quit drinking, and became a successful grocer. Hank's mother is also an immigrant, but she was largely disappointed in America and always felt like there must be more to life.

Then one day, she's abducted at gunpoint by a bank robber and rescued by a superhero. From then on, she's obsessed with superheros -- it becomes her mission to turn Hank into a superhero (whether he wants to be one or not). 

Shows a man from the waist up and shoulders down tearing open his suit jacket and shirt to reveal a Superman symbol.

Reluctantly, Hank dons the cape. Then, tragedy strikes when he gets on the wrong side of a notorious gangster. After the tragedy, Hank gains a mysterious helper: a spirit turtle which inhabits Hank's shadow in exchange for granting one wish. Hank wishes that he will never be shot, and embarks on a mission to take out the gangsters and become a real superhero.

The Turtle is the best thing ever

The turtle in Hank's shadow turns out to be one of the ancient spirits of China. He slipped out of China after an argument with the other spirits and inhabited Hank's father (fulfilling his wish never to drink again). The turtle helps Hank but often seems exasperated by who he's been paired with. For instance, he's always warning Hank about traps, lampshading the silly things Hank does, and generally lamenting that he, a centuries-old being with centuries of wisdom and experience, got stuck with a 19-year-old kid who never listens to him. 

However, he does help Hank and impart wisdom at appropriate moments. They're a bit like roommates mismatched by age. Their relationship is highly entertaining. (If you've seen Legends of Tomorrow or The Flash, it's a little like the interactions between the two guys who make up Firestorm -- the grumpy old professor and the young hothead.) Also, I loved the way the shadow turtle was drawn. 

Hank's parents and "The American dream"

Hank's dad is the everyman with the iconic "American dream": he moves to the U.S., quits drinking, starts his own business, becomes his own man, and starts a family. At first, it all seems very idyllic. 

However, the comic starts to crack apart the notion of the American dream with the introduction of Hank's mother. She was incredibly excited to move to the U.S., which she imagined as a big, colorful, exciting place of dreams. Instead, she was disappointed by the same old drab life there. She resigned herself to a boring life and, when her parents told her to, obediently married Hank's dad and had Hank. She knows her life is OK, but it's not the life she wanted. 

This provides the backstory for her superhero obsession. It also speaks to the theme of the book and the question the creators are answering in regards to the first Asian American superhero. Hank's parents are immigrants, but they move to a country which is still racist against them and which doesn't want to give them a legitimate place. The heroes of society -- superheros -- are all white. The cops don't care about murders and crime in Chinatown. We learn that even the dad's business has to pay a tithe to gangsters, and no one cares. Hank's mom is justifiably angry about this -- maybe all these dynamics factor into why she wants her son to be a superhero so badly.

However, Hank's dad has the counterpoint that resisting the messed-up order of things can make you a target by the people who enforce that order. Both viewpoints have merit, and Hank has to decide which one he wants to subscribe to. The comic seems to come down on the side of trying to make a difference (but it helps if you have superpowers). 

I also liked Hank's mom because I felt much the same way when I came (back) to America. I pretty much hated it here and was disappointed in everything. In my experience, there is a tendency to paint America as this positive, welcoming place when that simply doesn't match reality. Especially in public school, we had to write oodles and oodles of essays on "The American Dream" and how great it was. Until I took advanced history classes in high school, we got an incredibly skewed-positive view of immigration and just American history in general.

An alternative perspective

I read The Shadow Hero at the same time as my friend, who IS experienced with graphic novels. They had the opposite reaction to Hank's mom, who they saw as too stereotypically nagging and pushy. Hank's mom pesters and pesters him to be a superhero and take fighting classes, and he keeps evading her. One day, his dad takes him aside and asks him to humor his mom because this is the first time he's ever seen her really excited and happy about something. Reluctantly, Hank agrees. 

Hank later goes on to make decisions for himself and be more of a superhero in his own right, but some readers might not like how he's pushed into it by his mom. I mean, I related to the story because I have pushy parents, and I feel like this could be a relatable dynamic for a lot of people. On the other hand, you might see his mom's behavior as extreme. She does change and grow, eventually realizing that she pressured her son and never appreciated her ordinary, peaceful family as it was. Still, she is super excited to see Hank fighting crime as a real superhero, a mantle he's taken up of his own accord. She realizes where she's gone wrong, but still keeps her love of superheros.

Part of my take on the mom and their relationship in general comes from how I read this graphic novel. It's a little hard for me to take slapstick or general physical humor and harm happening to cartoon people very seriously. To my inexperienced eyes, there's a definite tonal shift between the first part and the second half once he gets the companionship of the turtle. However, your take on certain moments could depend on how you read it as well as your experience with the medium. 

The art

The Shadow Hero keeps elements of that classic look without being too distant for modern readers (like me, comic book novice). I particularly enjoyed how the turtle was drawn, and the other characters are well-realized, too. 

The style is not hyper-realistic, which affected how I read the violence. Even when gangsters are shooting people, it's not graphic in a disturbing way. The art focuses on making significant violence emotionally/thematically important rather than sticking to realism. I thought this was a good choice.  

When the characters are speaking Mandarin, < their dialogue is marked like this > . English is unmarked text. Seeing where they switch between the two and how people react to different languages was neat. 

One of the gangster bad guys has an eye patch, which I originally thought was added to his character design to make him seem more other/bad/scary. There's a tendency to give villains physical disabilities or disfigurements to mark them as bad, because people associate disability with negative things. However, his eye patch is a plot point. The Main Bad Guy took his eye -- so the eye patch is a sign of how brutal the other bad guy is. It's a small thing, but I thought I would mention it because it shows some of the thought that went into the character designs.

An amusing part of the art is the moment when Hank's skin turns a weird shade of pink and starts to glow. This is the result of his mother's experiments to try and turn him into a superhero, from seances to radioactive spills. They don't do anything but make his skin turn pink and glow when wet -- the creators' explanation of the odd pink skin color of The Green Turtle in the original comics. 

Other stuff, Hank, and closing thoughts

I think this was a good graphic novel for someone who doesn't normally read these. It wasn't super long, and the art was generally light, bright, or pastel in color and open in style. If that makes ANY sense. I'm not sure it does. What I mean is, this was physically easy on the eyes to read and that was a HUGE help since I was reading it on a small Nook-for-phone screen. This book has also been awarded for several things and the creators are very well-known, so I feel a bit silly reviewing it as someone who virtually never reads in this format.

I think there is room for a sequel or spin-off here, but the creators also closed the story in a satisfying way that doesn't leave you needing a sequel. I read a lot of series, and I found this to be a satisfying and complete standalone. I also appreciated the creators' note in the back as well as the fact that it included the first issue of The Green Turtle comic for context. The original comic was also racist in its drawings and portrayals of Japanese people, and the creators discuss this in their note. They did a good job of addressing the potential reasons behind it without trying to excuse it. 

Cover for the original comics; text reads: Blazing comics. F.D.C. 10 cents. July no. 2. The image shows Green Turtle and his sidekick beating up Japanese soldiers. The Turtle's cloak flares up behind him, casting a black shadow of a turtle on the wall behind him.
Cover for an issue of The Green Turtle comics.

I ended up really liking Hank as a hero. He does some foolish things, of course, but is a good guy. The turning point of his hero's journey isn't getting superpowers, beating up bad guys, or learning how to fight. He becomes a "real" superhero when he has to choose between killing one of the gangsters who hurt his family vs. turning him in. He decides to turn him in, because being a hero is about character rather than powers. I thought this was a good message to send.

But, I did find myself wishing -- as I inevitably do with superheros -- that Hank would put on real pants.

I'd recommend this, especially if you're interested in superhero lore. 

Image result for five stars

Friday, March 17, 2017

Audiobook Review: Valentina Goldman's Immaculate Confusion by Marisol Murano

Oh, man. This book. 

I received Valentina Goldman's Immaculate Confusion in audiobook form for free to review from the publisher. I didn't finish the book before writing this review. I got over halfway into it -- and I plan to finish it, especially since I also received the second one to review -- but I reached a certain point and had listened to everything I needed in order to form an opinion. 

So here's the review. Be advised that this is going to contain spoilers as well as discussion of racial and ableist slurs and language, and rape. I'd flag these things so you can skip to the next section if you want, but you'd literally have to skip this whole fucking review. Still, I've tried to be like "heads up slurs incoming."

Well, that made it sound like a super-heavy issue book. It's not. Well, not really. The genre is humorous fictional life story or maybe what you'd call women's fiction. It was pitched as edgy and shocking in voice -- with a frank narrator -- so I did expect that part of things. Just...well, I'll explain. 

Image result for valentina goldmans immaculate confusion
[Image description: Latina woman in a pink shirt gives
side-eye to something offscreen, one hand on her hip. Text
reads Valentina Goldman's Immaculate Confusion,
Marisol Murano, a novel.] 

Interesting Premise

This book is Valentina's first-person story of her life, as told to her stepdaughter Emily. Valentina was born in Venezuela before, as she puts it, moving to the U.S. and "marrying a series of losers." (Paraphrased. That's the trouble with audiobooks.) She has a pretty interesting life getting her degree, getting a divorce, dealing with family drama, tiptoeing around being undocumented and working after her divorce, meeting Emily's dad, and more. 

The amusing thing for me was that Valentina has -- and pretty much has always had -- an aversion to motherhood of any kind. She was even horrified to be named a godmother to someone else's kid. The narration was spurred by Emily calling Valentina "my stepmother" in public. Which, obviously, she is, but which also activated Valentina's insecurities around motherhood. So while she had thought of Emily as just a friend before -- a friend who already had a mother -- this incident triggered a crisis of "OH GOD RESPONSIBILITY." She wants to explain herself to Emily so that they understand each other better.

Emily isn't in the book at all beyond Valentina's occasional addresses. It's just her talking about her life. This narrative technique works really well; the stories and slices of her life are organized expertly and the structure is probably the best part of the book. It all flows very naturally. 

Image result for flows naturally river
Pretty, soothing picture of a "naturally flowing" river in sunset. (Source.)

The Main Character 

To be honest, Valentina annoyed the hell out of me. You are supposed to see her as obtuse about certain things -- especially when it comes to the whole "Maybe you should have thought about stepmotherhood before marrying someone with CHILDREN" thing. She's a good storyteller but she has a lot of prejudices which are a) more or less never challenged and b) make her hard to like. 

Speaking of Prejudices, Race In This Book Is...Idk, Interesting

The very first line of the book starts off with a racial slur: "Marriage is a g*p, marriage is a g*p!" This is something Valentina's sister says. A lot, apparently. So...when your opening line is a racial slur, that...sets a certain tone.

Yet, this is an #ownvoices novel in regards to race, and the author's work in general has received Original Voices awards, Amazon "Book of the Month" picks, and a "Latino Book of the Year Award." I'm also reviewing this as a white person, so you can assume a certain level of cluelessness on my part. I didn't want to immediately judge it. 

Still. Racial slur. First line. Still bears mentioning because a ton of people have no idea that g*p is a slur that comes from g*psy -- I didn't used to -- which enforces racist stereotypes about how Roma people are cheaters and swindlers, stereotypes that were used to justify literal extermination of said people.

It just makes a contrast with how the book deals with race later on. It definitely plays a part in the novel. For instance, Valentina bemoans the difference in how men treat her vs. her light-skinned sister. She says her white stepdaughter shouldn't be allowed to rap because it's cultural appropriation. She explains that when she first heard the slur "sp*c," as in when her racist coworker ranted about "n*****s and sp*cs," she thought it was from "spick and span" -- a compliment about being clean. (Though, for whatever reason, she doesn't comment on her racist coworker's use of the n-word; it also doesn't clue her in to the possibility that sp*c is a slur, too.) She has observations about accents, perception, and learning languages. She also laughs at white people who dance the "flamingo" (instead of "flamenco") and is pretty aware of how race and ethnicity affect people's everyday interactions.

But then there's the casual use of racial slurs in the opening line, as well as casual racism towards Middle Eastern people, as well as racism with some creepy sexual undertones when she's discussing which man of which ethnicity her sister should pick to lose her virginity to.

People are racist! And characters are racist, because books reflect life. People center their own worldviews; it makes sense that a Latina character would be more aware of prejudices towards herself and yet still throw around casual racial slurs and prejudices about other racial and ethnic groups. 

I suppose it adds irony to the book -- but I also dislike this character for a multitude of other reasons and this didn't help. She says some good shit about race but her bad shit is never challenged or acknowledged.

So This Book Is Ableist As Fuck

I don't want to sound like I'm throwing -isms around here? But. It really is. OK? I'm used to authors using loaded language like "crazy," etc. casually because it's so ingrained. That is not the kind of thing that makes me label a book as "ableist as fuck." I flagged some of that in Kiffe Kiffe Tomorrow but I still gave it five stars. I suppose that, like above, characters can be prejudiced without the book enforcing bad stereotypes about groups of people. Especially in novels with biased narrators or stories which invite the reader to critique the character. 

However, this book is ableist as fuck, and it's SUPER WEIRD to me because Valentina is supposed to have been a Psychology major. Whose mom was a psychiatrist. You'd feel like she should know better? But she 100% does not. 

A lot of the people who Valentina dislikes get armchair-diagnosed because she doesn't like them -- so they must be "crazy." But she doesn't just describe annoying in-laws as "crazy" or "nuts," she gives them specific diagnoses of mental illnesses and/or personality disorders like narcissist, etc. It just further added to my impression of wow. You don't like your in-laws. You're clearly the first person EVER to not get along with your in-laws. Clearly they must have mental and personality disorders for not liking you. You must be SOOOO put-upon. 

It's pretty consistent with her character in terms of the language she uses throughout the book and her inexplicable diatribes about disability and mental illness. For instance, she randomly complains about how Ritalin use in the U.S. is evil and turning kids mindlessly obedient. She uses a relative who appears to be neurodivergent as another opening into a rant: Ritalin is evil and diagnosing things is BAD. 

There are probably some cultural differences going over my head in terms of how people in the U.S. vs. Venezuela perceive these things. Valentina even points out these differences in perception. Still, Ritalin has helped a number of people and I'm fucking sick and tired of seeing antagonism towards medication and towards disability in general (like being diagnosed with a disability = bad, because disability itself = bad) EVERYWHERE IN FICTION. STOP IT. OK? STOP IT. SOME OF YOUR READERS MIGHT BE ON THE DRUGS YOU ARE BASHING BECAUSE THEY NEED THEM. ALSO BASHING THESE THINGS MAKES IT HARDER TO GET MEDS YOU NEED BECAUSE THERE'S SUCH A HUGE STIGMA. SERIOUSLY. STOP STIGMATIZING DISABILITY AND MENTAL ILLNESS AND SHAMING PEOPLE WHO SEEK TREATMENT AND MEDS. WHAT DID THIS EVEN HAVE TO DO WITH THE PLOT OR CHARACTER? NOTHING. IT ADDS FUCKING NOTHING.

She is, if possible, even more antagonistic towards people who are diagnosed. Her sister, for instance, is anemic. This lands her in the ER several times. Valentina refuses to believe it's a really serious thing and thinks her sister is just a hypochrondriac.

I actually related to her resentment of her sister growing up. To Valentina, it seemed like every personality quirk or hobby of her sister's, every exception, was explained away by her being anemic. It seemed like she got "special treatment." I "got" this because my parents tended to treat my brother with kid gloves and let him get away with ALL the shit -- partly, as well, because he was younger and male. The younger sibling gets special treatment anyway, and to Valentina, it seemed compounded with how her parents treated her sister for being anemic. Looking back where I am now, I also realize that many of the things which seemed unfair to 8yo me made sense. 

Valentina, on the other hand, rattles off a list of things her sister was excused from or allowed to do -- which also include a ton of perfectly reasonable accommodations. So she's still pissy, 20+ years later, that her sister was given reasonable accommodations to protect her health and life as a child.  As an adult in her thirties, she still hasn't realized this and thinks everyone just spoiled her sister. The narrative does nothing to challenge this. The sister is portrayed as a spoiled, special sensitive snowflake who just wants all the attention all the time and who annoys Valentina. So even the character development of the sister supports Valentina's ableist opinions on what was and wasn't a reasonable way to treat a chronically ill child. 

Her first husband also develops clinical depression and cheats on her. Valentina blames the cheating on his depression. Actually, she says that the only thing to do with clinical depression is to have an affair. So, yeah, all depressed people cheat, apparently. How about that.

[Side note: I hate how she says it like we're supposed to agree with her. Like it's just a fact of life or her nasty attempt at humor. She's inviting well people to laugh at sick people and making it very clear who the audience for this book is.]

Also, her husband's first wife has a serious mental illness, which Valentina describes in pejorative terms. 

The sister also has a thieving maid who is hard of hearing. The maid ate the kid's snack, and didn't hear the admonition not to do that anymore. So, she kept eating the snacks and got fired. Later, Valentina's sister fires another maid because she has venereal disease. When they get a trustworthy maid, Valentina celebrates that she's an older woman, not like these "young, unstable women with STD's." Valentina also explains that you can't trust any poor maids because once they start working for people who are better off, they'll just realize they can steal from you and can't be trusted. So, she ends up concluding that the maid who was hard of hearing (who was fired because she literally didn't hear the warning about not eating the food) just stole because she was poor and untrustworthy. And basically all or most of the "help" you can get is untrustworthy. Or "unstable."

Pretty much everyone bad or annoying in this book is disabled -- the first husband, the ex-wife, the sister, the thieving maid -- even the neurodivergent uncle is very strongly implied to have molested Valentina's aunt Lupita. Lupita, who's just a few years older than Valentina, is asked why she hates him since he seems harmless. Lupita says, "The older the boy, the younger the toy" and "looks darkly" at him/the ceiling/the middle distance or some shit. We've also got a sometimes-not-all-there grandma who's described as being perfectly aware of the abuse by her son(s) and who refuses to do anything about it. People who aren't explicitly identified as disabled are slapped with a diagnosis by Valentina because she doesn't like them. 

All of this pissed me off, but after that faded, I was left wondering: why on earth did this character get a Psychology degree? She clearly holds a shitton of prejudices about mental illness, doesn't believe in medication, and doesn't seem interested in any accommodations or compassion even for her relatives. Did she get a Psych degree just because her mom was in that field? Did she get it so she could better armchair-diagnose people? What?  

This Section Is About the Rape Scene

I was disgusted by how the book handles this scene, but also felt it helped me understand Valentina a little better. In the beginning, she talks about how shocking it is that her sister is still a virgin in her twenties. She's a little obsessed with helping her sister lose her virginity. Her sister, being anemic, is afraid of an adverse reaction when she has sex. (Rightly so; she ends up in the hospital. But I digress.) 

In the beginning, I was annoyed by this because a) being fascinated by your sister's hymen seems creepy; b) it's perfectly acceptable to be a virgin in your 20's; c) what if her sister didn't even want dick? d) her sister preferred celibacy because she was afraid of an adverse reaction due to her anemia e) again, why is your sister's virginity a topic of such fascination? STOP MAKING IT WEIRD f) there's a lot of sex-shaming in the sense that Valentina makes being a virgin at X age seem like an unthinkable failure.

However, when I read later in the book about what happened to her, it made me understand this weird fixation on her sister's virginity a bit better. To explain: I'm going to go into detail about what's in the book, so this is your last chance to skip this part. 

When she was 18, Valentina's parents set her up to be raped. 

YEP. That happened. 

She had never had sex; she had never even used a tampon and her hymen was still intact. She was engaged to a guy her parents didn't like (the one who eventually cheated on her). They had bad feelings about the marriage and tried to discourage it. Valentina was so naive at this point that she didn't even know what her options for birth control were and had never been to a gynecologist; she was raised Catholic; the family didn't talk about these things; etc., etc.

So, her parents set her up an appointment with the gyno, and even go with her. She thinks it's just a routine appointment (but still has next to no clue what that means). When she lies back in the chair, the doctor pulls out a scalpel. This is her first clue something's wrong; she asks nervously about it, and he assures her she'll just feel a pinch. 

When he cuts her hymen off without anesthetic, she screams, and then faints, and then he finishes raping her while she's unconscious in order to insert an intra-uterine device. She limps around in severe pain for two weeks afterwards.

I just...this is so horrifying on so many levels. Not only did she go through medical rape, she was set up for it BY HER OWN PARENTS. Her own parents. Thought she should be raped. For her own good. Because they didn't like her fiance and didn't want her to have children with him and be stuck with the loser. So THEY decided to make her reproductive choice for her. 

I just want to emphasize: She did not in any way know what this procedure would entail. She didn't know she was having her hymen removed or a device implanted. She did not consent to a medical procedure. She was 18 and her parents just...set it up for her and LIED to her about the nature of the visit. 

To contrast: when I went to the gyno at age 18, she was like, "Well your hymen's pretty eroded, but if you want we can remove the rest surgically. Or you could use tampons; it will finish disappearing on its own eventually." And I was like, "Thanks, but I'm good." Because doctors are supposed to discuss medical procedures with you AND NOT RAPE PATIENTS. Or at least, STOP raping them when the patient is literally screaming in pain to the point of passing out.

I mean, what the fuck? They couldn't write her a prescription for the fucking pill? 

So, that was horrifying. But you know what? I'm not of the opinion that rape should never be written about. I'm of the opinion that it matters more how you handle it. 

This explanation actually helped me understand Valentina's issue with her sister's virginity. If she had her own virginity stolen at the age of 18 by a doctor's scalpel and a thin copper tube, I can see where she'd be resentful that her sister got to pick and choose the time, place, and penis to lose hers. She'd be resentful that her parents set her up for rape while her sister got to keep her hymen (she talks a lot about the hymen itself, not just virginity) well past 18 and into her mid-twenties. Having been set up herself, Valentina's a little fixated on helping set her sister up with a guy. She might even be vicariously living through the sister because she has some internalized baggage over this. 

In that way, it illuminated something about the character. In another way, I hated how it was handled. The book shows that this was a traumatic event for Valentina, but eventually concludes that Mother and Father knew best. YEP. Since the guy turned out to be a cheating ass, and Valentina turned out to hate motherhood, it's said it was all for the best and all justified. Yep. Setting your daughter up for ACTUAL MEDICAL RAPE, lying to her, and stealing her autonomy over her own body are all justified if you don't like her fiance. 

Jesus. Motherfucking. Christ.

The Rest, And Some Good Things Actually!

Ironically, most of the parts that I don't like about this book are the parts to do with Valentina -- Valentina's petty bullshit, anyway. The other characters, scenes, and episodes are engaging and interesting. The family drama draws you in. When Valentina's not being viciously ableist or casually racist, she makes you laugh. She has funny analyses of religious figures like Peter. She's sarcastic and funny and even makes insightful or touching observations about life in general. I still don't like her, but she occasionally entertains me as a narrator.

She does care about the stepdaughter -- especially considering that she's taking the time to go through this and make sure Emily and herself understand each other. At the same time, I'm amused in a bit of a schadenfreude way because several of her anecdotes relate how much she hates the very concept of motherhood. It's awkward since she's talking to her stepdaughter, but also kind of funny. There is something to like in a character who gives so few fucks as Valentina -- but I'm also unsure of whether she gives so few fucks because that's her life outlook or because she's just THAT self-centered and clueless about when she's bothering or hurting other people. (After all, this is a character who married a man with children without thinking of the fact that she'd have to be a stepmom with responsibilities.) 

The episodes from childhood are some of my favorite parts, and are a key reason why I'm interested in finishing this book. I also like the discussions of what it's like to move from Venezuela to the U.S., have families in both countries, visit back home, and live in dual cultures in that way. There's some tension between what Valentina considers home and what (and where) her family thinks home should be. 

The structure deserves another shout-out. The reader is put in the position of being Emily, the stepdaughter. But since we're not Emily, it often feels like Valentina's talking to a trusted confidante -- us. It certainly doesn't feel like she's editing or softening anything for her stepdaughter. Valentina is very frank and clearly doesn't believe in sheltering Emily.

Overall: 2 stars

Usually, 3 stars means that it wasn't for me, but it might be a good fit for someone else. I can't give that to a book which has so many flaws (cringey racial stuff! all the mentally ill and/or disabled characters are bad!) and handles rape in such a horribly clumsy fashion. 

Like. You can have a book with a frank, blunt narrator voice and a woman with baggage about being raped and STILL not have that book endorse the rape. I've read several books where rape features in a character's backstory or as a plot point and, while they might be reductive and cringey, they at least clear the VERY LOW BAR of saying "rape is not OK." I'm genuinely not sure if you're supposed to be disgusted here by what her parents and doctor did to her, and the book suggests that in the end it was OK because it all worked out, and just...

Image result for nope nope nope gif
[Image description: gif of octopus crawling rapidly across the sand. Text: Nope nope
nope nope]
Hella nope.

It has good qualities which make it better than 1 star, and even the bigotry in certain areas isn't quite as bad as something like this flaming-poop-wrapped-in-newspaper-on-someone's-porch of a book. (But again: being better than that book is a very low bar to clear.) I won't go around blasting it. But I wouldn't recommend it and, if a friend has issues related to certain things covered above, I would actively recommend against it. 

But I wanna know how it ends, so I'm finishing it. And then on to the sequel.

Audiobook Review: 5 stars!

Ginger Roll does a GREAT job narrating this audiobook! Everything was clear, understandable, and infused with expression -- which is essential for a first-person story. 

One thing which made me wonder about the directing/producing choices was when Valentina refers to her accented English, yet speaks with the "typical" East-Coast-ish American accent. She wasn't born in the U.S., but she does have a U.S. accent as read in this book; however, her Spanish-speaking family members are read with Latin American accents. I wasn't sure at first why the reader chose to do accents sometimes but not other times. The only thing I can figure is that accented English is meant to signify when a character is speaking Spanish, whereas unaccented English was used for Valentina's narration because she was speaking to Emily in English. I'm not sure quite what the differentiation was or why it was made, but it stood out to me when she was talking about her own accent, learning languages, and trying to understand Southern accents. (Different American regional accents are used, too.) 

Thursday, March 16, 2017

So Is This A Good Idea Or Not (Patreon)

Today's plan was to make a book review but...let's just say the book requires a full night's sleep and mental fortitude to write about in the way I want to cover it. 

I have been thinking lately about starting a Patreon. Patreon lets people who like your (free) content become patrons, or "patreons," of that content so that you can keep making it for everyone to enjoy. 

As with most shiny ideas, this one crops up in my brain sometime between midnight and 3 A.M. Alone, looking at a computer screen or a book, this seems like a really great idea.

In the light of day, I realize I wouldn't know the first thing about what I was doing. I've read very briefly about the process, some pros and cons, and how you set up an account. But I don't know the first thing about promoting, tiers (whatever the hell those are), what I would do to give patreons/patrons individual exclusive content as an incentive, or even where I would publish my content. Here? An entirely new WordPress or other blog/site? Would it be limited to just writing or could I do some music? What. 

The idea is shiny and attractive and because of that, I'm very wary of it. I had that same feeling about an Etsy shop years ago that never quite got off the ground. For a Patreon, I more or less know what content I would create. It would be poetry and essays on topics people have seemed to respond well to or have directly asked me about, including, for instance, disability, chronic conditions, and the "spoonie" life. 

I've also got some material that's, well, fairly personal. My friend Ty is publishing a series of essays called "Thoughts I Wrote Down Because I Hate Talking To People" and, in a way, some of what I've written has come from a similar sentiment. It's less a dislike of talking to people and more born from the frustration of, how on earth am I supposed to tell my friends things like this? I don't know. 

Poetry is also tricky because I'm worried any content for this purpose would be seen as basically an overgrown subtweet. People would see themselves depicted or commented on in these poems (or essays, where I would just come out and say it) and...well, I'm also worried that if people saw them, they would be offended about why I didn't just talk to them. For an answer, I would say that I didn't know how, that I wanted to reach other people too, that I tried to disguise my inspiration where I could, but also that basically everything in life is fodder for potential writing projects when you know a creative-type person. Even then, I wince at the idea.

My entry into poetry, for which I would go on to take classes and win prizes, was frustration: things I wanted to say which I couldn't say directly to a person because of absence, awkwardness, social norms, anger, embarrassment, or some other feeling or situation that prevented a conversation from being had. Sometimes the poems helped me work out what to say; sometimes they were more for me. 

When I went on to study it formally in high school and college, poetry still had that attraction of being a form which I could use to talk about ideas that seemed too incompatible with prose. Things that would feel silly if I tried to explain them became decent poems because poems were better at capturing what I wanted to get across. Poetry lets you say things in a certain way that, I don't know, erodes the discomfort of what you're saying by tossing out the "normal" form of prose. Maybe it's just me.

Either way, certain events have convinced me that I want to write about this topic. But this topic (and others) is/are difficult. They take mental, emotional, and physical energy that I haven't expended here because it's hard. And I'm at the point where I've been paid for my writing for years, mostly content that's been written to spec or for others' projects. And if I'm going to do something that's that personally difficult for me then I need some incentive to deal with blistering insecurity and self-imposed misery as I write about some of the most difficult parts of my life in the hope of informing others. 

I also just don't have the time to devote to MORE writing things -- especially personal projects sans deadlines -- without some kind of compensation and the motivation of the kind of secured, invested audience which Patreon helps you develop.

And if I'm going to write these things, I want to write them as myself, on my own platform, with words that I own. I've written personal essays for sites anonymously -- and had them butchered by editors to make my tone more friendly, to remove the entire POINT of the essay, or to help the site itself save face. (I know, I know; I shouldn't be so outraged that they edited the "me" out of the personal essays. That's the point of anonymity.)

I also like this blog a lot and want to keep it is now. I review things here and sometimes post serious things like this but generally have a good time. There's no pressure. I enjoy it. I would not like for it to become the Serious Thing with the Serious Tone and Serious Pieces which I have to monitor via Patreon. 

To conclude this long, late-night-early-morning ramble, I'm interested to hear your opinions, people who read my blog! :) Have you had any experience with Patreon? Would you be interested in reading on the topic(s) or in the writing form(s) which I described? Any other thoughts? Is it awkward to publish pieces publicly that are directly inspired by people in your life who might read them (and recognize themselves)?

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Book Review: I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai

I got this book as part of my "nonfiction books that I've been meaning to read forever and am now going to sit my butt down and actually read them" New Year's Resolution. It's been reviewed and praised widely by people around the globe, and the writer has even won a Nobel Peace Prize. She continues to advocate for girls' education and the right to education of all children generally. So without further ado: 

Image result for five star graphic

I checked I Am Malala out from a county library, where I had to return it today. Otherwise, I think I might like to own this memoir. Even if I didn't read it cover to cover every time, there are sections, stories, and other pieces throughout the book that I would have loved to mark to come back to. 

Image result for i am malala book
[Image description: Malala wears a bright pink headscarf
and a slight smile on her face; blue background. Text
reads "I Am Malala: the girl who stood up for
education and was shot by the Taliban. Malala Yousafzai
and Christina Lamb.]

For instance, Malala's explanation of how a military dictator came to power in Pakistan is chilling. He was constantly covered by the press, swore to drain the swamp of political insiders and institutions, work for people in poor and rural areas, and...wait for it...release his tax returns. All of which, of course, he never did. Americans need to read this shit because they need to be more aware of what's going on in other parts of the world, and also because we need to be more aware of what's happening in our own backyard.

Malala and her family are awesome

I read this as I was listening to Born A Crime. It's always interesting how books you read at or close to the same time feed into each other. Both authors had incredibly influential parental figures.

Malala's father, as she describes him, was a local organizer in Swat. He grew up poor and started a school with his best friend, almost going broke a dozen times. The school grew and so did his profile as an activist. Malala grew up exposed to that at a young age, and her parents were supportive when she wanted to campaign for girls' education herself. 

Her mother supported these goals but always worried about their safety; she did not like that Malala had such a high profile at such a young age because it made her a target. Despite the high profile and threats that their family received, they never backed down. Malala was shot partly to silence her father. 

The shooting

The majority of the book is not about the shooting, but about the events of Malala's early life and her family's life before her; the area of Swat where she grew up; the history, culture, and politics of Pakistan, and basically everything that you need to understand who she is, who her family and country are, and why she was shot. You need to understand all of these things to put the shooting in context.

I knew about these events and heard about the shooting on the news, but my understanding of Pakistan and the Middle East in general comes from an American perspective -- world history, political science, gender issues, etc. as taught in schools. It's a very formal and, because of that, limited perspective. We get the broad sweep of history and the most important names and dates. 

So reading a first-hand account of what it was like to grow up in Swat, be forced to be a refugee in your own country, and experience the "War on Terror" and the capture of Osama bin Laden from inside Pakistan was illuminating. It's depressing to read about children growing up in the midst of violence -- and later becoming targets for violence themselves -- but it's important to read about because people need to be aware. 

The sections which describe violence are not graphic or stomach-churning. You may get a bit grossed out by some of the surgical details later in the book, but those are very mild on the gross-out scale and easily skimmable.

Life and times

Of course, not everything in the book is about violence. There are happy times and normal times. Americans have a perspective of the Middle East as pervasively violent and dangerous, which I Am Malala shows to be untrue. In her culture, neighbors are like family; they can drop in any time to chat, borrow food, or just hang out. This, she writes, was one of the biggest culture shocks of moving to Birmingham with its quiet streets, where people live behind fences and don't really talk to their neighbors. 

Malala also mentions that her classmates in Birmingham, England didn't quite see her as a normal girl yet, because she was internationally famous. She emphasizes that she is just an ordinary person, and didn't pursue activism for fame. She doesn't want her cause to be about her. She's an ordinary teenager who styles her hair, gossips with friends, reads, competes with classmates for top marks, and fights with her brothers.

A recurring topic that came up was Twilight, which Malala and her friends read. They would pretend to be vampires, and once, Malala remarks that it seemed easier to be a Twilight vampire than a girl from Swat. That cracked me up because most of the people I know who read Twilight wanted to be Bella, but these girls all wanted to be vampires. (Which, let's face it, would be way better than being Bella.) 


Malala's love for the valley where she was born shines through, and her homesickness shines through just as keenly. I think I picked up on that more because, though I was never forced from my home, I've experienced the same feelings of homesickness. I'd thought I'd shelved those feelings on my Feelings Shelf for good, but reading someone else's experiences made me realize I related to that more than I would have liked.

The River Swat. (picture by Designer 429; source)
[Image description: a clear blue-green river winds away through mountain peaks, passing rocky banks and
evergreen forests. Bridges and white-and-brick buildings line the banks amid green fields.]

Malala writes lovingly of mountains, streams, trees, mangoes, the old Buddha statues in the valley, describes playing in the snow, and renders the hustle and bustle of the city in careful detail. You can tell she misses it with every line. Throughout the book and in the interview at the back, she repeats her desire to return home eventually. 

I hope that one day she gets her wish.

Friday, February 17, 2017

New Year's Goal Check: Is This Thing On?

*pokes blog* Hello? *clears throat, speaks into mic* Is this thing on?

I've been absent for most of February because life events took over and grabbed all my attention. There's a GoFundMe widget on the sidebar now, which you can click to learn a bit more about my situation. If you give $10 or more, I'll contact you and ask if you would like to be mailed a used book from my personal shelf as a thank-you. (Or Kindle/Nook-gifted a book, for international readers.) 

Anyway, what have I been up to? Besides running around like a chicken with my head cut off?

My New Year's Resolutions

This New Year, I decided I wanted to read more nonfiction. And finish the nonfiction I started but never completed. Here's my lineup:

Image result for born a crime cover
[Image Description: Book cover of Born a Crime:
Stories FromA South African Childhood by Trevor Noah.
Noah is depicted laughing on a mural in the background
while a woman looks on in the foreground.]
I finished this one! I listened to it on audiobook, which probably helped. Trevor Noah is a comedian and currently hosts the Daily Show in the U.S. This book tells the story of his childhood in South Africa, specifically being the child of a black and a white parent during Apartheid. His narrative voice is engaging; since he's a performer himself, it was a natural choice for him to perform his own audiobook. If you can listen to the audiobook version, I HIGHLY recommend it. The book is both funny and serious. Also, it was a good book for me to be listening to right now, because so much of the story is him jumping from crisis to crisis and getting into situations where you wonder, "How will they ever get out of this??" And I was listening like, "Well, I might have wrecked my car, but at least I've never accidentally burned down a house." 

Image result for I am malala
[Image Description: book cover for I Am Malala:
The Girl Who Stood Up For Education And Was
Shot By the Taliban by Malala Yousafzai. Malala wears
a bright pink head covering with gold trim and looks out
at the reader with a small smile.]
I'm still working my way through this; I'm about halfway finished. This is one of those books which is both inspirational and also makes me wonder what I've done with my life so far. This is Malala Yousafzai's autobiography of her childhood in Swat, the attack by the Taliban, her mission to promote girls' education across the world, and her hope that she'll be able to return to her homeland one day. 

I think I'm spoiled by Born A Crime because now, I want to just listen to people narrate their own memoirs. This is a great book and I mean to finish it before it's due back to the library.

Image result for in the body of the world eve ensler
[Image description: book cover of In the Body of
the World: A Memoir by Eve Ensler, author of
The Vagina Monologues. The cover is plain with only
the title/author text and a large gold V.]
In college, I read The Vagina Monologues by Eve Ensler, as well as the accompanying book about how the play was constructed. I picked up this memoir by the author because these issues seemed pertinent to our time and our political climate, and I was interested to know more about the author. I haven't started this one yet. The summary for In the Body of the World describes it as a memoir about how she had to adjust her perspective on her own body when dealing with childhood sexual abuse, cancer of the reproductive organs, and working with women who were raped during wartime. 

Image result for the history of tea claire hopley
[Image description: book cover for The History
of Tea by Claire Hopley. There's a cup of tea on
a saucer.]
This was given to me as a gift YEARS ago and I still haven't finished it. I had to move in the middle of beginning to read it, and never picked it back up. I need to get back to that. It's a history of how tea drinking and growing and whatnot originated and was spread across the world. 

Image result for homer's odyssey cat
[Image description: book cover for Homer's Odyssey:
A Fearless Feline Tale, or How I Learned About
Love and Life with a Blind Wonder Cat by
Gwen Cooper. A black cat without eyes
sits on a gold plush chair.]
This was also a gift -- a Christmas gift, to be precise. I haven't started it yet. I'm interested to read this book because black cats are already difficult to get adopted due to superstitious prejudice, and special needs cats are more difficult to adopt out still. Hopefully Homer's story will convince someone out there to discard their prejudices about animals and care more about animal welfare. I am assuming that this book has a happy story? (Seriously, I cannot handle books where the pet dies in the end.) I will probably need to read it as a pick-me-up halfway through this depressing year.

Well, what about you? Have you read any nonfiction recently?