From the Divine Pen fell the first drop of ink.
And from a drop, a river.”
Craig Thompson’s new graphic novel Habibi is like a gift from literary heaven. The two protagonists in this sprawling epic spend much of their time in hell, which makes the finale all the more precious.
It is a story that tells us cruelty knows no time. It is about a striving for the spiritual, even while we live in a crushing, corporeal world. It is about the sacrifices we make for our beloved (our habibi), or simply to survive. It is about the power and beauty of words. And it is about the ultimate triumph of love.
In an unnamed Arab country, Dodola is sold into marriage at the age of nine. Her husband is a scribe who teaches the young girl how to read and write.
When her husband is murdered by thieves, 12-year-old Dodola is abducted and sold into slavery. It is through this ordeal that she meets a three-year-old boy who she takes under her wing and renames Zam. The two escape and set-up home in an abandoned ship in the middle of the desert.
As Habibi unfolds, we see Dodola and Zam’s relationship evolve as they grow-up together, are torn apart, suffer alone, and are reunited. At different points in the narrative they serve different roles for each other: parent, child, companion, object of desire, inspiration, caregiver, savior, partner, lover. Whatever the fates deal these characters, they each have a constant in their heart—for Dodola it is Zam, for Zam it is Dodola.
Habibi is also stories within stories. Dodola tells Zam stories from the Quran, and it was fascinating for this westerner to see how the stories differ from their biblical counterparts. I don’t know if other readers come to the same conclusion, but I can see the story of these two innocents fitting easily into a book of holy scripture. Their story would teach about the power of love and loyalty, and the nature of evil and its place on the human plane.
Thompson’s artwork is masterful, his writing almost mythological. Together, word and picture make for a thrilling and important work of literature.
Thompson has received great acclaim for his latest, but not everyone agrees. There are complaints about the stereotypical depictions of Arabs, and criticism of gratuitous nudity. The many drawings of a nude Dodola may titillate at times, but they are also a commentary on the objectification of women:
When the world is on its last breath… the masses will need something to distract them from the destruction—and my body will still be a commodity. This is the world of men.”
Any perusal of the many reviews of this book—whether the critics adore the work or have issues with it— will only illustrate the depth that lies within Habibi.
It is the best book I’ve read this year.
As professional consumers, Americans know that few things are as advertised. Take the Rapture in Tom Perrotta’s new novel, The Leftovers. The people who populate Earth in Perrotta’s latest aren’t even sure if the sudden departure of millions of fellow human beings *is* the rapture. It appears to be more of a random harvest, taking both believer and non-believer, the secular and the spiritual. Meanwhile, many God-fearing believers who banked on being taken up find themselves left behind.
Better to call it a “rapture-like” event, or simply the “sudden departure.”
The unknown quality of the tragedy only adds to the author’s exploration of how people deal with loss. How many of us have cried “Why?!” to heaven in Job-like despair? It’s horrible, but there are no answers, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.
And so… we go on living, searching for something that will help us put all these pieces back into some comprehensible shape. And that is what The Leftovers is all about.
It’s the story of the Garvey family of Mapleton, Massachusetts. None of the Garveys have departed, but they must now survive in this strange, new world:
• Father Kevin is serving as the town’s new mayor, trying to speed the healing process in his community.
• Mother Laurie abandons her family to join a cult called the Guilty Remnant, whose members take a vow of silence, wear white robes, and follow people around and stare at them so as to be a constant reminder that the world is ending and we better be ready. (Oh, and they are required to always be smoking when they’re out in public, to emphasize the fact that the end is near, so, like, “why worry about lung cancer?”)
• Teenage daughter Jill, a witness to the disappearance of a friend, is reeling from the departure.
• Son Tom is following the prophet Holy Wayne, who apparently has the ability to absorb the pain of others for a brief time.
It’s also the story of Nora Durst, a woman who lost her entire family to the departure. Her pain and guilt are palpable.
As I followed these characters on their journey, I was treated to an inside look into the Guilty Remnant, the fall of Holy Wayne, the cruelty of fanaticism, the odd and surprising connections that operate around us, and—ultimately—the harvest of hope that I immediately recognized as grounded and true, for it’s the harvest that has kept mankind going since our beginnings. It’s the one that says, “Here. Look what I’ve found.” There is a reason to go on. There is a reason to live.
Perrotta has a way with words. Beyond the story of these lost souls, readers are treated to a dose of writing that rings as true as that final harvest.
If you haven’t read Perrotta before, you may be familiar with two movies adapted from his novels: Election, a dark and hilarious work about an ambitious and insufferable high school girl and the male teacher who tries to get in her way; and Little Children, a trip through suburbia accompanied by pedophilia, infidelity, and redemption.
It was just the facts, please, when it came to reading for my father. He loved non-fiction, particularly books and magazines on science and nature. He always questioned me and my sister about what attracted us to fiction. He enjoyed scripted television shows and movies, but he never liked reading short stories and novels. He equated “reading fiction” to “a waste of time.”
Published in book form now, In Praise of Reading and Fiction is Llosa’s tribute to fiction’s power to inspire individuals and whole societies, and to bridge the imaginary distances between different cultures:
Good literature erects bridges between different peoples, and by having us enjoy, suffer, or feel surprise, unites us beneath the languages, beliefs, habits, customs and prejudices that separate us. When the great white whale buries Captain Ahab in the sea, the hearts of readers take fright in exactly the same way in Tokyo, Lima, or Timbuctu. …the shudder is the same in the reader who worships Buddha, Confucius, Christ, Allah, or is an agnostic, wears a jacket and tie, a jalaba, a kimono, or bombachas.”
Just as importantly, the worlds writers and readers imagine in the realm of fiction speak to our aspirations for a better reality:
When we look in fiction for what is missing in life, we are saying, with no need to say it or even to know it, that life as it is does not satisfy our thirst for the absolute—the foundation of the human condition—and should be better.”
From the earliest tales our ancestors spun in firelit caves to the grand epics of literature, Llosa knows we and our world are better because of the stories we tell each other.
Well, we’re getting into the final days of summer, and hopefully the final days of triple digit temperatures. I’ve got to really step up my game to tell you what I’ve been reading before the season is long gone. Here’s the first of three posts on what I’ve been reading the past few weeks…
The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing
The Gist: Harriett and David Lovatt see themselves above the fray when it comes to the sexual revolution in 1960s England. They want a simpler, more traditional life surrounded by a large family. While there are problems pursuing their path—the expenses of a large home, multiple pregnancies, and the need for day-to-day help from Harriett’s increasingly resentful mother—they remain committed to their goals. When their fifth child Ben is born following a nightmare pregnancy, the Lovatts are visited by an unthinkable horror. Ben is alien, violent, almost inhuman in appearance, and inexplicable in his responses to normal human interactions. The family’s world begins to tear apart.
Status: This was my second read of Lessing’s modern day horror story. I came across it in a Texas bookstore with my sister earlier this summer and remembered how good it was. I bought her a copy and ended up reading it again over the weekend before leaving it with her.
Summer Escapism: The best! (A real “there but for the grace of God go I” kind of escapism.)
Strength of Writing: A (It’s Lessing. What do you expect?)
Stimulation of the Little Grey Cells: B
Social Relevance: B (Beyond the horror story, there are underlying themes of dreams broken and plans destroyed, maternal love vs. fraternal love, and the inability to control what life brings.)
General Reaction: I loved it the first time I read it 20 years ago, and I loved it when I read it again this summer. The Fifth Child works so well because the horror is not from the outside. Ben is not possessed by a demon. There are no supernatural reasons for why Ben is so alien and dangerous. Although Harriet believes Ben is a punishment visited on them for their “selfish” plans to live an idyllic life, both she and David begin to see this child as a throwback to a previous hominid form. This is nature at work. And it means the horror is in us.
Ben in the World by Doris Lessing
The Gist: In this sequel to The Fifth Child, we see how Ben perceives the world around him. He knows he is different, and he pines for a place where he is accepted and understood. As he makes his way across the globe, he is sometimes treated to kindness; but more often he is used and manipulated by the unscrupulous. The monster in The Fifth Child becomes the protagonist of a modern fable.
Summer Escapism: C (Not much, but that’s OK. While it is easy to relish a horror story, this fable was sometimes painful to get through. The reader is asked to sympathize with Ben, but his alien nature makes that a difficult process. That, in itself, could be considered either a flaw or an accomplishment, depending on what Lessing intended.)
Strength of Writing: A
Stimulation of the Little Grey Cells: C (I struggled through this book for the reason given above.)
Social Relevance: B (How do you apply the Golden Rule to a monster, even if the monster is part of us?)
General Reaction: A frustrating experience (and I wasn’t the only frustrated reader), but that may be because I harbored expectations based on the earlier novel. Here’s what’s ultimately interesting about this book: Ben’s monstrous behavior can be explained by his true nature; but what can we say about the monstrous behavior of the humans in the book? Is that our nature? The answer is not what we would prefer to hear, but we know it to be true too well.
So those are two of the title I read recently. Your turn! What have you been reading lately?
While Kitty is getting through the heat by turning up the AC and losing herself in a cozy mystery, my reading habits have been all over the place since Memorial Day weekend. I’ve been to the Nursery Crimes police division in Reading, England (alternative universe England, that is), on an Aussie football field in Melbourne, and in a sick generational ship in outer space. (I told you I read weird stuff!) Here are some quick reviews of my latest reads…
The Big Over Easy by Jasper Fforde.
The Gist: Nursery Rhyme characters are real! (And so are Greek gods, and aliens.) Humpty Dumpty has a great fall and the Nursery Crimes Division, headed by DCI Jack Spratt and assisted by DI Mary Mary, is called in. Turns out Mr. Dumpty didn’t just fall. He was shot! It was murder!
Status: Read cover to cover.
Summer Escapism: A
Strength of Writing: B
Stimulation of the Little Grey Cells: B (It helps to have access to Mother Goose Rhymes as a reference. Fun!)
Social Relevance: Uh… er… OK! C+
General Reaction: You already know I love Jasper Fforde if you read my reviews of The Eyre Affair and Shades of Grey. While reading this first Nursery Crimes mystery, I often thought that Fforde was trying to hit the reader with too much weirdness. But weirdness is what Fforde is all about. The Greek gods and aliens don’t add anything to the main plot, but they do make for some great laugh-out-loud moments. Despite the gimmick-taken-to-extreme nature of the book, the mystery itself is solid, and just when you think it’s all solved, there’s the weirdest last reveal you could imagine. Priceless Fforde.
Tigers and Devils by Sean Kennedy
The Gist: Gay romance centering on the outing of a Australian Football player. Oh, and… boy meets boy, boy loses boy, boy gets boy back; the basic formula, except this time with rainbows.
Status: Read cover to cover.
Summer Escapism: B
Strength of Writing: C (You know there may be a problem when the writer has the football-crazy protagonist ask why an injured player has to travel with the team. For team support, doofus! Even I knew that.)
Stimulation of the Little Grey Cells: C (Well, it did inspire me to learn a bit about Aussie Football.)
Social Relevance: A (Lots of talk right now about gay athletes in pro sports, so, yeah, it was pretty relevant.)
General Reaction: I’ve read plenty of gay novels, but I had never read a gay romance. It’s interesting to see this variation of the classic romance formula. See if you recognize it: Protagonist is sarcastic and a loner, thinking he doesn’t need love, but he really does. Meets Mr. Wonderful. Mr. Wonderful pushes all the right buttons but seems too good to be true. Personalities clash during a crisis. Mr. Wonderful has faults! Love is slipping away. The idea of love lost puts the crisis in perspective. Love is reaffirmed. Fireworks. Happy ending.
Hull Zero Three by Greg Bear
The Gist: Mystery and terror on a generational space ship. Our narrator is awakened from a deep sleep to find himself naked and freezing inside a giant spaceship. He is having trouble recovering his memories, and some of the monstrous creatures around him want him dead.
Status: Three-quarters of the way through!
Summer Escapism: B
Strength of Writing: B (This book is turning out to be a fast read, but it takes a bit too long to really get started, despite the intriguing set-up.)
Stimulation of the Little Grey Cells: A
Social Relevance: B (Poses the intellectual, ethical and moral questions you expect from good Sci-Fi.)
General Reaction: I’ve never reviewed a Bear novel on Okie Reads, but his Blood Music is a favorite Sci-Fi classic of mine. Although I’m still reading Hull Zero Three, I can tell you that the revelations to the mystery thus far are as big, strong and provocative as you would expect from this master of the genre. Three-quarters of the way through, I’m very pleased with this book. I’ll certainly let you know if it falls apart for me in the end.
OK, that’s what I’ve been reading. What have you been reading during this late spring/early summer heat wave?
Why are things the way they are? Why are there stars? Why do alligators have scaly skin? Why do rabbits have those cute powder puff tails? Why do buzzards have bald heads? Native American mythology often employs the character of the trickster to explain the state of the world and its creatures.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines trickster as: a cunning or deceptive character appearing in various forms in the folklore of many cultures.
A trickster can be a god or spiritual being, or simply another human being or animal. The stories of the Native American tricksters (which are typically in animal form) have been oral tales told through the centuries, passed down from one generation to the next. The tales often incorporate a moral, imparting a lesson for young listeners.
These stories are being retold more and more in book form, and now comic book creator Matt Dembicki has brought together more than 40 storytellers and illustrators for TRICKSTER Native American Tales: A Graphic Collection.
This collection of 21 tales marks the first time such stories have been told in a graphic or cartoon format. Editor Dembicki explains how the book came about:
“As a comic book creator and someone who appreciates nature, I mulled over the appeal of producing Native American trickster stories in a sequential format. A little research revealed that such a book didn’t exist. For this book, I wanted to be authentic, meaning they would have to be written by Native American storytellers… The storytellers each selected an artist from a pool of contributing talents to render their stories. Additionally, the storytellers approved the storyboards. In terms of editing, text was changed only when panel space was an issue and only with the approval of the storyteller. The point wasn’t to westernize the stories for general consumption, but rather to provide an opportunity to experience authentic Native American stories…”
Four storytellers with Oklahoma roots have contributed their stories to the collection: Joyce Bear, Greg Rodgers, Michael Thompson and Tim Tingle; and Oklahoma artist Roy Boney Jr. illustrated one of the tales.
The book is a delight for readers of all ages, but it would be especially perfect for reading to children. I remember my mom reading Aesop’s Fables to me, and I can see young people experiencing that same kind of wonder by hearing and, in this case, seeing, the tales of the Trickster.
The late Octavia Butler’s speculative fiction explored race, religion, sexuality, family, community, and “the other.” Like the best speculative/sci-fi/fantasy fiction, her work is a reflection of modern day issues.
I read Butler’s Lilith’s Brood trilogy a couple of decades ago, when the trilogy was published under the title Xenogenesis. The trilogy’s theme of forced human/alien interbreeding is wildly disturbing, but the work is ultimately life affirming as it confronts the reader with what is really means to be family.
I’ve always wanted to read more of her, and finding a 25th anniversary edition of Kindred on a Phoenix bookstore’s sale table last summer was just the impetus I needed.
Kindred is the story of Dana Franklin, a twentieth century black woman who finds herself transported back to the pre-Civil War South to save a white ancestor and slave owner named Rufus. Over the course of a few days of twentieth century time—and two decades of nineteenth century time—Dana will find herself transported back on six different occasions to save Rufus’s life. Her first visit lasts only minutes, but some visits stretch into months, where Dana must suffer the cruel consequences of being black in a slave society.
The reward of the story is not in finding out how this time travel is happening. (We never know how Rufus’s life-threatening situations summon Dana to the past.) The reward is following a modern woman as she is thrust back into a barbaric chapter of American history—seeing the horror through her eyes.
Butler has thrust her protagonist into the role of a slave:
• Dana’s involuntary transportation and disorientation reflects the abduction and disorientation of Africans who were captured and loaded onto slave ships.
• Her affection for Rufus, who is a child during Dana’s first two visits, is slowly replaced by fear as he becomes an adult who is all-to-ready to wield his power.
• Her role as a house slave puts her in conflict with field slaves, and her education and command of English makes her suspect among both slave and slave-owner.
• She is beaten and whipped at the whim of a master, and threatened with death.
• Choice is taken from her: even as Rufus grows more cruel, Dana cannot let him die; for until a certain child is born, this would mean the “deaths” of herself and all of her ancestors who would never be born.
Reading about the past is one thing. Living it is transformative for the protagonist. There is a touching scene, where Dana considers attitudes about certain slave “classes.” She is observing the resourceful and respected (among slaves) cook Sarah, a woman who has suffered the loss of all but one of her children as they were placed on the auction block:
She was the kind of woman who would be held in contempt during the militant nineteen sixties. The house-nigger, the handkerchief-head, the female Uncle Tom—the frightened powerless woman who had already lost all she could stand to lose, and who knew as little about the freedom of the North as she knew about the hereafter.”
Butler allows Dana an act of retribution toward the end of the book, but it is bittersweet at best. It is an act that condemns the horrors of the past, even as it is performed with a familial sadness.
Kindred is terrifying as an adventure, masterful as social commentary, and heartbreaking as family history. There’s a reason this book is a classic.
The Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s tribute to the ground-breaking Butler following her death in 2006.
An Interview with Octavia Butler, from 2003′s “If all of Rochester Read the Same Book” program.
My friend Adrienne has introduced me to lots of great reading from the Young Adult side of the book world. Without her and the other youth librarians in the state (Cathie Sue, Emily, Karl), I might never have discovered the wonderful Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins, or found myself in the nail-biting world of Incarceron, Catherine Fisher’s extraordinary tale that stands up with some of the best of adult science fiction.
Protagonist Amy has joined her parents on the starship Godspeed. She is frozen along with hundreds of others for a 300-year trip to a new planet. Other shipmates remain awake, living out their lives in space, their descendants keeping Godspeed functioning through the generations. When Amy is thawed too early, in what appears to be a murder attempt, the stage is set for the reader to discover this strange ship and its unusual history through her eyes. For things, of course, have gone awry during the journey, and they have much to say about the issues of our own world.
So far, so good. Amy is a strong character, and a good mouth piece for the values that have been corrupted on the ship. Elder, the young man who will soon assume the mantle of Eldest (leader of the ship), is also believable as a teenager struggling to understand his role, and as a love interest for Amy. There is mystery, suspense, and conspiracy—all typical elements in sci-fi thrillers.
It’s a good book. And yet… something was missing for me. It’s been a couple of weeks since I finished the book, and I’m posting now because I think I know what I found lacking: true, terrifying, danger. Is this because I was never really able to put myself in Amy’s shoes? Is it because I was expecting something as hair-raising as in The Hunger Games or Incarceron? I don’t know. I just know I was left a little disappointed.
I’d still give the book 2 1/2 stars out of 4, or 3 stars out of 5. Like I said, it’s a good book. And I expect some great work from this new author in the future. I will say it’s been hella busy at work, and maybe I wasn’t able to give my all to Across the Universe.
I need some help here. Have you read it? If so, what did you think?
Tour Godspeed and find out more about the book at the official site.
And how cool is this trailer!
The annual Scissortail Creative Writing Festival is back for its sixth year and bigger than ever with four featured authors, including Where The Heart Is author Billie Letts. In addition, more than 50 regional, published and emerging authors will make presentations during the three-day festival, March 31 – April 2, on the campus of East Central University in Ada, Oklahoma. All sessions are free and open to the public.
This is becoming a premiere literary event in our state, and now’s a great time to get in on the fun. Meet the authors who plan to attend, check out the readings that will be held during the three days, celebrate the winners of the Darryl Fisher Creative Writing Contest, explore more about the festival, and just plan on having a grand time!
Let me start by saying Larsson gives up any pretense of presenting a mystery in Hornet’s Nest. The first book, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, had a strong mystery plot, which also served to introduce us to the oddity that is protagonist Lisbeth Salander. The second work, The Girl Who Played With Fire, had a mystery that opened more doors to help the reader understand why Lisbeth is the way she is. With Hornet’s Nest, Larsson kicks those doors down.
While the book lacks a mystery, it’s still a thriller. Like the previous books, it takes a while for Larsson to set the pieces in motion; but once he does, you’re off on a wild ride. Larsson introduces the other players who have conspired to make Lisbeth’s life hell on earth. The thrill comes from seeing how Lisbeth and the advocates around her apply their ingenuity, determination, and bravery to see justice win over corruption. Those advocates also include, of course, star journalist Mikael Blomkvist (or as an angry Lisbeth refers to him, Mikael F***ing Blomkvist).
It’s a pleasure to see Lisbeth prevail, and a pleasure to see our strange girl patch up her relationship with Blomkvist. The stage seemed to be set for the next seven books in Larsson’s planned 10-part series: Lisbeth and Mikael forming an odd couple that would solve mysteries and bring down misogynist thugs and corrupt politicians and businessmen. Two misfits against the evil in the world.
Alas, we may never get to see another book, just when the doors have been kicked open. Swedish law may prevent anyone putting pen to paper to try to see Larsson’s grand work completed. We will also never meet Lisbeth’s twin. Nor will we delve more into the problem of violence against women, perhaps the true theme of these works. But we still have these three books which make a very satisfying package. (Or am I wrong about this being the end?)
What is it about Lisbeth? These books are monsters, breaking sales records all over the world. Yes, they start slow but they soon become can’t-put-’em-down books. Our heroine lacks any sense of social graces. She’s rude, vindictive and unable to relate to most of the world. Does she have Asperger’s Syndrome? Perhaps. Yet, we understand why Lisbeth could be the way she is, because she has lost all trust in the world due to the extraordinary abuse she suffered.
Tiny in stature, she is an intellectual giant with a photographic memory and superhuman computer skills. Readers are amazed at her ability to snatch victory from overwhelming defeat. We root for Lisbeth, because we believe every human being has the right to be in control of her life and to live free. Perhaps that’s the simple reason I love the Girl.
• And here’s what I had to say about the first book a year ago. (Has it really been that long ago?)
Have your read Larssen? What did you think of the books?
Why do you love the Girl?