College Prospects

From the New York Times, “College for the Masses,” more evidence of the benefits of an undergraduate degree (click on the excerpt to go to the full article):

Yet the new research is a reminder that the country also underinvests in enrolling students in four-year colleges — and making sure they graduate. Millions of people with the ability to earn a bachelor’s degree are not doing so, and many would benefit greatly from it.

The unemployment rate among college graduates ages 25 to 34 is just 2 percent, even with the many stories you hear about out-of-work college graduates. They’re not generally working in menial jobs, either. The pay gap between college graduates and everyone else is near a record high. It’s large enough, over a lifetime, to cover many times over the almost $20,000 in student debt that an average graduate has, notes the education researcher Sandy Baum. College graduates are also healthier, happier, more likely to remain married, more likely to be engaged parents and more likely to vote, research has found.

Fantastical Conmen: A Review of Scott Meyer’s Off to be the Wizard

The cover title for Scott Meyer's book "Off to be the Wizard".

The cover title for Scott Meyer’s book “Off to be the Wizard”.

             Review by: Curtis Cole   

                In the overcrowded science fiction and fantasy market, it takes a special show of talent to be noticed. This is doubly important for new authors. For people like Scott Meyer who, after beginning his career as a radio personality, eventually began penning his, still continuing, comic strip Basic Instructions this means risking much in a budding career, and highly finicky market, to make an impact in an virtual ocean of competition. Luckily for Meyer, however, his attempt to branch out seems to have paid off: with the success of the first book of his “Magic 2.0” project, he has managed to negotiate the poorly defined ground of the young adult niche; with, as of writing, two additional entries in the series published, Meyer is quickly becoming a name in the genre.

With a plethora of positive reviews, a work ethic to rival that of Stephen King (once we consider that Meyer has written three books in a single year), and the possibility to rise indefatigably higher into the pantheon of new writers to watch, Meyer’s first book (“Off to be the Wizard”) is a an apt demonstration of postmodern culture: the hip, geeky vibe of U.S popular culture combines with history, humor, and authorial musings to make a decisive entrance into the cut-throat young adult circlet.

Meet Martin Banks: he is the protagonist of “Off to be the Wizard”. He is a hacker, an aficionado of computers, technology, and popular culture in general. More to the point, however, he is a computer program; a facet of his being which, as the reader may be surprised to discover, is unremarkable: for when you discover that the entire world is nothing but an electronic simulation, much in the same way Martin discovered one night upon hacking into a cell phone manufacture’s website, everything else becomes superfluous.

This kind of irrelevancy is what the book is banking on, however, as from beginning to end the text is a borderline existential journey. The premise of the world as a computer program enables a number of questions, such as the purpose of life, the motions of history, and the praxis of interaction between the base and the superstructure. Martin’s actions post-discovery of this truth is indicative of such an idealist subjectivity.

Following his discovery of the all-determining computer program which runs the world, Martin quickly cashes in on his ability to automatically generate money, shifts the laws of gravity and time, and surmount the spatial limitations of navigation as such: but between eliminating the need to work for a living, paradox-free time travel, and instantaneous travel to anywhere on the planet capable of being rendered mathematically, the ‘natural’ law’s disintegration eventually attract attention. Enter the U.S government who, in attempt to capture Martin once and for all, raid his home.

The moment of this raid forces Martin’s hand. Although ever since discovering the program Martin had an idea of the care-free life he wanted to lead, the raid forces him into committing to an early living possibility. Enter medieval Europe. A place where due to (romanticized) superstitious faith and a lack of scientific knowledge, the populace is easy for any contemporary wiz-kid to manipulate.

Martin’s plan of posing as a wizard, in order to extract free food and lodging from the locale, though, takes a turn for the worse when he meets another wizard. Initially believing this locale wizard to merely an odd-ball espousing mystical trickery, Martin originally disregards this other wizard. However, this attitude is short lived as this other wizard demolishes Martin’s cobbled together ‘magical performance’ with a tremendous display of wizardry. Coming to, after losing consciousness, Martin is shocked to discover that this other wizard, Philip, the man who incidentally ends up training Martin throughout the course of the book, is none other than a time traveler like Martin himself; an individual who also wanted to live simply and without labor. In fact, Phillip is part of a self-policing collective of wizards, all of whom were once in the same position as Martin prior to their settlement.

Branching out from this introduction, the plot’s dissemination is slow and paced. In fact, most of the pages are spent with Martin orienting himself to his new life, training his ‘powers’, mastering his ‘macro commands’, and acclimating his disposition with that of his new wizard compatriots. Truly, the concept of an antagonist barely exists, being introduced only in the book’s final chapters. While part of this is done to effectively build the universe, it is also done to establish interpersonal dynamics: with the antagonist being a fellow wizard gone rouge, the reader needed to be fully induced to the cast as a whole without the villain being obvious. Personally, it is not one of my preferred modes of writing, but that is not where the bulk of my complaint lies.

Rather, the concern of my criticism lies with the premise’s legitimation of anti-proletarian practices. From beginning to end the entire concern of the characters is to mislead people, to circumvent the natural laws of historical materialism, and maintain through, trickery and fear, a mythologized puppet state based off of their childhood fancies. It is both a reactionary and immature. While the narrative presents these backward conceptualizations through that of a moralizing lens, of trivializing the trickery because it I all only a computer program, of de-valuing the labor practices needed in order to force a qualitative shift into the next, properly capitalist, epoch, and of maintaining the villain’s fiefdom out of economic concern, the truth cannot be hid: although seemingly nice guys, the wizards story here is one of a ‘revenge of the nerds’ scenario disguised as existential agency. Riddled with bourgeois ideology the narrative as such is, although unremarkable in the long run, denotes an antiquated political conception realized through an assemblage of pop culture simulacra.

Overall, the book depends on this mindset because of the target audience: young adults and teenagers. Written simplistically with straightforward plot points and developments, the story is only singularly layer; there is no “B” story to go along with the “A”. The reading level, while not overly juvenile, so as to appeal to the young adult readers, does not strive for exceptionality. Its self-referential nature, of its multitude of pop culture references, mixes with the counterrevolutionary sub-text because the machinations of bourgeois discourse are, for the majority of the massed hordes of youth, the only, as Fredric Jameson might have said, ‘political unconscious’ available to the disenfranchised.

In conclusion, while the first installment of Scott Meyer’s “Magic 2.0” project is an enjoyable romp in the world of young adult sci-fi/fantasy, as it takes many tropes from pop culture and the nerd-geek substratum, and the premise holds narrative promise if handled correctly, Off to be the Wizard, while never truly becoming memorable in its own right; the obscuring of the more disconcerting sub-textual elements, and its simplistic method of dissemination, although likely appealing to anyone with a hankering for an easy comedic read, its ultimate value will only ever be as a noteworthy first step in a new author’s literary career.

Off to be the Wizard

Scott Meyer

373 pages. Published by 47 North. $14.95

Review: Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep

Doctor Sleep is Stephen King’s long awaited sequel to his famous 1977 novel The Shining. Published 36 years after its predecessor, Doctor Sleep picks up on the story of Danny Torrance who, now an adult, remains psychologically traumatized by the events that took place during The Shining.
The return to Danny’s story is not only a return to one of King’s earlier works (the Shining being only his third book published) but a return to his earlier style of writing as well. Doctor Sleep sees King’s return to the horror genre after a five-year hiatus writing mystery and historical fiction novels. Sleep also finds Danny, now going by Dan, traveling to a small New England town, a location often written about by King early in his career. The combination of a return to the horror genre, the universe of The Shining, and to a New England setting lend a certain nostalgic effect to the novel throughout.
Taking place around September 11th, 2001, Dan finds himself wandering New England combating alcoholism which he has inherited from his father, Jack Torrence, of Shining fame. Eventually settling in the New Hampshire town of Frazier, Dan begins attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and working for a local hospice, with the intent to clean up his life and not wind up like his father. Dan’s psychic abilities begin to resurface as his sobriety grows stronger, and he begins a telepathic connection with a small girl, Abra, who also has the shining ability.
Of course, no New England set Stephen King novel would be complete without a group of villainous vampires à la Salem’s Lot. While Dan is developing his relationship with Abra, a gang of vampire-esque immortals, called the True Knot, are traveling the US feeding off “steam” – an energy produced by those with the shining ability. Eventually, Abra gets tangled up with the True Knot by accidentally psychically witnessing a murder by the group, and Dan is left with the task of defending Abra.

o-DOCTOR-SLEEP-COVER-570
Overall, Doctor Sleep is a very strong novel from King after a lengthy break from the horror genre, with lots of twists, turns, and an atmosphere throughout the novel that will make you leave a night light on when you go to sleep. There are a few hiccups that detract from the story, including an unnecessary sub-plot where the True Knot contract measles. Not only that, but there are a few convoluted developments within the plot that reduce the value not only of Sleep but of the Shining as well, such as the wholly disposable moment where Dan learns that Abra’s mother is actually his half-sister via their father, Jack Torrence.
Despite these momentary lapses, Sleep features copious other references to Jack and Wendy Torrence,the Overlook Hotel, and other call-backs to the Shining that are very welcome after such a long time. Not only do they add to the brooding atmosphere over the novel, conjuring up uneasy feelings in those who have read the Shining before, but King uses the references to bring home wonderful characterization of the Torrence family and the ghosts that haunt Dan, Jack, and his father before him.
There are no cheap thrills in Sleep, Stephen King is in full force throughout, showing readers why he is considered a master of his craft page after page, a claustrophobic experience is delivered that will leave readers anxiously checking over their shoulders for the True Knot.  While certainly catering to those who have been waiting nearly forty years for a Shining sequel, Doctor Sleep stands very strongly on its own two feet and should not scare away first-time readers of King’s work. With all the horror trappings one would expect from King’s return to his iconic universe, the novel does not disappoint and will have readers turning every page with sweaty palms and trembling fingers. Sleep takes an established universe and adds in just the right amount of new and memorable characters, surreal locations and events, and old fashioned Stephen King-frights to create a masterpiece that stands among his best work.

Doctor Sleep

Stephen King

531 pages. Scribner. $13.60.

 

 

Review: Koko Be Good by Jen Wang

Koko Be Good is a graphic novel by Jen Wang published in 2010. This makes it a little old for reviewing, but I’m disregarding that fact because until I plucked it off the shelf at Mantor I had never heard of it. I’m talking about it because it needs to be talked about.

The story revolves around a cast of young characters in San Francisco—Jon, a recent college grad with Big Plans; Koko, a young woman tripping through life and leaving much chaos in her wake; and Faron, her quiet, unhappy young friend. Each one is facing the big question: What on earth am I going to do with my life? A surprising theft brings the three together, and the friendship between Jon and Koko inspires both of them to really consider their freedom and place in the world.

At the beginning, Jon thinks he has it figured out. His girlfriend, Emily, is Peruvian, and the two are planning a move to Ayacucho. There, she will work at the orphanage her mother came from, and he will do—something, probably. He’s working on that bit, along with his Spanish. Koko knows she doesn’t have it figured out—she always has ideas and projects, but she’s hanging in the listless, meaningless certainty that none of it is the Right Thing. Inspired by Jon and Emily’s Goodness, Koko decides that her new mission in life will be to be Good (Good is always capitalized in the book—Koko is the kind of person who uses Emphasis Capitalization).

Koko Be Good both praises and questions the idea and desire to be Good. For Emily, who is driven by purpose, Goodness is easy to achieve. Koko wants to be Good because being Good sounds better than what she’s been doing—she is constantly vigilant and receptive to ways in which she could make the world a little better, determined to be a hero to someone. She sponsors a child through the World Children’s Fund, joins in a rally for Mexican rights, and volunteers her time at soup kitchens and care facilities. She struggles, though, because none of it feels like pure goodness. She hates changing diapers and doing mountains of dishes. She causes trouble with the old folks. And she feels different when she’s around other do-gooders.

Aligned with the discussion of Goodness is the constant struggle with Selfishness. Koko wants to help the entire world, but is thwarted because this plan is, obviously, much too big and, frankly, not the right humanitarian project for her. Jon just wants to help Emily, but in doing so he is forced to put aside something which is very important to him, which is music. It is revealed gradually throughout the book that Jon is a talented musician; by moving to Peru, he is choosing to help Emily follow her dreams instead of following his own, a decision which may not sit as easily as it first appears.

The artwork is fantastic. Jen Wang uses a light, feathery stroke that complement her sepia watercolor style. The focus on hands is entrancing, the movement graceful, the faces and large eyes endearing. The artwork was what made me pluck it off that library shelf in the first place. Wang’s panels are the perfect platform on which to tell this story, which is at times funny, sad, incredible, and heartbreaking.

This book will appeal to anyone with an internal struggle between Goodness and Selfishness, doing what is right or what is fun and easy. I believe it is particularly relevant for people in their twenties, because at this age the future is big, looming, and full of possibilities. Like Koko, we will all have to decide how we want to exist in the world, and this story offers a comforting array of ideas.

 

Koko Be Good

Jen Wang

300 pages. First Second. $18.99.

Racism and the Power of Language: A Review of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen

Citizen is Jamaican poet and playwright, Claudia Rankine’s fifth volume of poetry. Published in 2014, Citizen was a a finalist for the National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle awards, where it was nominated in two categories, poetry and criticism, the first time since the awards were created forty years ago that a single book has been nominated in more than one category. It is the winner of Poets and Writers’ Jackson Poetry Prize and an Amazon #1 bestseller. Online magazine The Millions called it one of the most anticipated books of the year [1].

A shocking compilation of racism, Rankine’s poems deliver the cutting reality of what it is to be black in America through her own personal tales of prejudice, as well as through tennis star Serena Williams, Trayvon Martin, and other black figures. Rankine constructs each poem with a vivid scene and wraps it up with a poignant last sentence that will hit the reader with its telling subtlety even if he or she has never experienced racism before.Citizen

With many of the poems written in the second person ‘you’ form, the reader is able to share the humiliation of the true story behind it. Citizen begins with a twelve year old black girl who is asked by her white classmate to move her body to the side of her desk during exams, so the white girl can copy her answers. Meanwhile, the implication that Sister Evelyn does not notice the similarity in their exams, is that the copying only works one way. Or the black girl takes too little space in Sister Evelyn’s mind to even notice her presence. The poems that follow are similarly humiliating—You taking the window seat on an airplane after a year of traveling. When a mother and daughter approach the same row, the daughter is initially surprised, followed by disappointment at the seating arrangements, apparently not expecting a black person in the same row as them. The mother promptly takes the middle seat. In another, an individual makes an appointment with a trauma therapist over the phone and comes to the door at the back that the therapist uses for all patients. The therapist cannot imagine a black person is here for an appointment and treats the individual like a criminal. She can only repeat sorry several times over after the poem’s protagonist says softly that she is here for an appointment.

Though prose like, there is much carefully written syntax and underlying musicality that add to the powerful delivery of these pieces. Rankine does a beautiful job of packing everything into the last sentence. The surprising importance of the last lines in the poems reveal the humiliating prejudice that the reader cannot fully understand until the end. One example of this is when an individual meets with a manager she has only spoken to on the phone. When they meet in person, the manager blurts out that he did not know she was black. A dialogue between the two follows, “I didn’t mean to say that, he then says / Aloud, you say / What? He asks. / You didn’t mean to say that aloud.” The poem ends with the line, “The transaction goes swiftly after that” [2].

Citizen does many things to take the reader off guard. One way is Rankine’s choice to not name the poems. After finishing reading through the first few, this technique I initially found disconcerting, became preferable. The content was able to speak for itself rather than a distracting set of words up top to say ‘this is what this poem is about’. In turn, the poems flow without interruption into the next poem, helping to build to a powerful climax at the end. To return to the earlier idea of this book as a series of essays, the way the pieces are separated only by Roman numeral sections make it feel like a large essay. A large amount of the poems are held together by the poems that proceed and follow them, meaning that on their own they may not make the same amount of sense that they do functioning together in a book. This does not negate the power of any of the pieces but to say that the way in which they read like short essays is them building off of one another.

Unconventional, not only in the prosaic like way in which they are written, but also in the way the essay like nature helps the book function. Some of the poems are no longer than a page, while others, such as the Serena Williams piece and the sequence from the 2006 World Cup are several pages. Both of these pieces are written like articles, long spins where Rankine’s voice and quirks are present, but the the pieces do not necessarily feel like poetry. The author gets away with calling this poetry, because it is in a collection of poems. Though it is not necessary to debate which literary genre Citizen should fall under; it is however, interesting to note the flexibility of these pieces and how they function in their unusual forms.

Citizen will leave a sting long after finishing it. It is a book for everyone who has had racism done to them and for anyone else who has not. It is not pretty; it is storytelling with a literal kick at society, exposing racism and racial profiling through real life instances. A quote on an intro page in the book, from French film director Chris Marker, sums the story of Citizen up well; “If they don’t see happiness in the picture, at least they’ll see the black”.

Citizen: An American Lyric

Claudia Rankine

169 pages. Published by Graywolf Press

Paperback: $20.00 (Graywolfpress.org)

 

References:

1. “Citizen: An American Lyric.” Graywolf Press

2. Rankine, Claudia. Citizen: An American Lyric. Minneapolis: Graywolf, 2014. 44. Print.

I Was Raised to Marry a Monster: A Review of Rosamund Hodge’s Cruel Beauty

Photo credit to the Epic Reads website.

In 2014, HarperCollins published Rosamund Hodge’s Cruel Beauty as part of their Epic Reads program. Cruel Beauty, Hodge’s debut novel, is slated among other Young-Adult powerhouses such as the ever popular Divergent series by Veronica Roth and Neil Gaiman’s Coraline. Marketed as a fairytale retelling meets Greek mythology, Cruel Beauty delivers a rich world of magic and horror, ensnaring readers from the start and refusing to let go until its conclusion.

Cruel Beauty tells the story of Nyx, a seventeen year old girl betrothed to Ignifix, the evil immortal ruler of the land. Due to the bargain her father struck with Ignifix before her birth, Nyx has spent her life training to do just one thing: murder Ignifix and thus break the curse that has shrouded the kingdom in chaos for hundreds of years. Knowing that she must either kill him or die trying like the wives before her, Nyx becomes entangled in a mystery that has haunted the castle since the very curse was put in place. While adjusting to life with a sarcastic trickster demon, she discovers that although Ignifix is very much the monster of nightmares, he is also something more than just that; he’s someone who understands her. Nyx and Ignifix’s understanding of one another gives cause to a budding romance that can only end in disaster and death. Nyx must make the choice between what is her duty and what she wants.

Overall, Cruel Beauty does justice to both the “Beauty and the Beast” tale as well as the mythos of Cupid and Psyche. Hodge’s writing is spectacular, both haunting and encaptivating. She knows how to walk the fine line between having your audience love your characters and having your audience hate your characters. Ignifix, the demon taking the place of both Beast and Cupid, is extremely well-developed. By the end of the novel it is easy to be in love with him as a character despite the fact that he’s more than willing to murder without batting an eye. Hodge uses the romance in the novel well, keeping it as a starting point for Nyx and Ignifix’s character development, rather than turning it into the novel’s sole focus. Cruel Beauty is Nyx’s coming of age story with a romantic element, not a romance novel with Nyx as the title character. This distinction is what sets Hodge’s novel apart from similar fairytale retellings.

In the course of the novel we, as readers, discover that Ignifix is not the only monster in the castle but perhaps Nyx is one too. As a way of breaking the trope of Beauty always being kind, Hodge has Nyx often linger on the angered thought that it should be her sister in Ignifix’s castle, not herself. She hates her family, particularly her father, for betraying her and selling her to this fate. Nyx often feels as if her family never loved her and kept themselves at a distance viewing her simply as the sacrificial lamb that would break the curse and not a true member of the family. During a heated argument, Ignifix says to her: “You fought and fought to keep all the cruelty locked up in your head, and for what? None of them ever loved you, because none of them ever knew you.” (203). Ignifix becomes the only one who understands Nyx and that does not shy away from her own monstrous qualities. Hodge breaks away from the classic archetypes and asks the question: why can the beauty also not be the beast?

Although Cruel Beauty is Hodge’s debut novel, it reads as if it was written by a seasoned author. The novel has many plot twists, some easy to guess from the start and others that take place in the last thirty pages that leave you wanting for more. According to the author, she does not plan for a direct sequel to Cruel Beauty but rather a series of companion novels, each focusing on a different fairytale set in the same universe as Cruel Beauty. Out now is Gilded Ashes, a Cinderella novella, and come May, Hodge’s second full-length novel Crimson Bound—a Red Riding Hood retelling—will be published. If you enjoy retellings of fairytales and mythology or you’re just a fan of fantasy that features complex world-building and trickster demons, I strongly suggest checking out Cruel Beauty. You’ll be in for an adventure you won’t soon forget.

Cruel Beauty

Rosamund Hodge

342 pages. HarperCollins. $17.99

Railsea by China Mieville

This work of fantastical fiction by Mieville undertakes the shrouding of semiotic philosophy and social criticism in an industrial world of salvage, piracy, mole-hunting, and rails. A world where the soil that divides cities and islands are home to a variety of carnivorous earth dwelling beasts. The sky is divided in two: the upper layer an opaque cloud where mutant alien birds breathe the toxic atmosphere, the bottom the realm of the humans of railsea. Orphaned at an early age, Sham ap Soorap is raised by his aunt and uncle whom encourage him to become a doctor’s aide aboard a mole-hunting train – a creation that parallels the whale hunting stereotype of Moby Dick. It is Sham whom the narrative follows as his is lead into the unknown by a picture found in an old train wreck – one depicting sacrilege: a single railroad line dividing an empty horizon.

 Railsea-by-china-mieville

The mole hunting trains of this world travel upon a vast network of rails, intertwining in cacophony, dividing in multitude – this network is known as the railsea. Its origins have become mythology: maintained by mechanical Angels, a pantheon of gods presides beyond the material world; beyond the unknown reaches of the railsea. It is here, beyond the railsea, that Mieville brings us via a story interspersed with short chapters subtly unveiling the allegory within the text.  The captain of the mole-hunting vessel parallels the literary character of Ahab – chasing a great yellow mole responsible for her now mechanical arm. Exploring this literary trope further the mole is described as her philosophy, and many mole hunting captains have spent their life chasing their philosophy upon the railsea.

The genre of the book makes this text ready for absorption by young readers, not unlike the Earthsea novels of Ursula K. le Guin. Le Guin explores the individual through her fictional world where magic is failing and a young man must chase down and confront his shadow. Mieville presents a world of false myth and superstition; an isolated world of man-made artifact and broken down machines from times forgotten; a world peopled by those knowing nothing beyond its limits albeit mystic phrases. There is obvious homage to le Guin, presented by the synchronic characterization of a nomadic tribe that travels at the furthest limits of the known, as well as by the similarity in the titles: Railsea, Earthsea.

But where le Guin would bear us upon the internal and metaphysical, Mieville confronts external society. In his world captains chase their philosophy searching for meaning upon rails of thought, and a young boy is lead to a single rail where the railsea is escaped by two orphans of historian/salvager parents. On the way he is captured by pirates, who don’t look like what you’d think pirates would look like; who work in collusion with the government, paying them a tax. With deception around every corner true comradery and trust is present in the working crew of the mole-train – the drama that defines them all individually does not fail also to bring them to each others aid in times of need.

The reader is not eased into the intricacies of Mieville’s language: they are thrown in, kicking, screaming, searching – this is the point. The story, whose content stretches from the young adult novel to the study of language, is slow to initiate one to its depths. But around page 200 you are there: the stage is set and short chapters ringing with the an interjecting voice – a meta-voice- bring attention to the activity of the language itself, unsettling the reader from the illusion of the story. And what is so interesting, and so vital, is that as I put this book down I have already been returned to this world – by this work of fantasy and fiction.                              – tim stokes

Rain Reign: A Charming Dose of Vitamin H(umanity) for the Cognitive Disability Genre

rain reign cover

As visibility of mental illness increases worldwide, the subject is becoming more central in children’s media as well. Following this forging tradition set up in books like Rules by Cynthia Lord, Rain Reign follows the experiences of a young girl with Asperger’s as she manages massive shifts in her life as a result of hurricane Susan.  Anne M. Martin had a difficult task in writing this book, as she clearly endeavored to balance a tradition of “odd duck” protagonists, the legitimacy of Asperger’s, and to differentiate her story from the swathe of similarity among disability-based children’s novels.  Martin achieves each of these with only minor flaws for the critical reader. Regardless of who the reader might be, this book takes us through immersive and crushing tale that teaches practical lessons about the challenges that many children face in their lives. 

Raised by a single father, the protagonist Rose lives with a high-functioning autism disorder called Asperger’s.  She struggles with the concentration, noise sensitivity, and obsessive tendencies that are hallmark of the disorder.  On top of this, Rose’s father is an aggressive drunk who battles between nursing his pride and caring for his daughter.  Rose copes with the stresses of her daily life by seeking out homonyms, prime numbers, and caring for her beloved dog Rain.  Rose’s father simply brought Rain home one day as a gift for his daughter, telling her that she was a lost dog and that her last owners must not have cared enough for her.  Rose adores Rain, and tends to her every need, want, and whim while managing her own internal battles. Rose’s life is ruled by homonyms, Rain, rules, and routine.

However, the world of Rose and Rain is disrupted when hurricane Susan hits her small town.  The town is devastated by the destruction, and Rose is crushed to find Rain missing after the storm.  After weeks of searching local shelters with her uncle, Rose finally locates Rain but the complications that arise after being reunited threaten to defeat Rose and her family.

Overall, Rose’s daily struggles are written with tact by the author.  The story is written as though by Rose’s hand, adding an element of closeness to the protagonist.  This tool used by the author is ingenious in the way that it also brings the reader into Rose’s mind, and allows for an immense amount of empathy for her. The way that Rose writes her homonyms often adds a poetic sensibility to the book that can be fun to unravel as she once describes how, “Rain puts one (won) of her front feet (feat) in (inn) my lap” (11).  Rose is hard not to fall in love with, and her relationship with Rain is one that will turn a hardened heart into jelly.  This empathy is crucial to the apparent goal of bringing understanding to children on the Autism spectrum, and to the book as a whole.  Carefully done, the childlike prose is immersive, intriguing, and witty.

One element of the book that was mildly irksome was in the occasional “symptom dropping.”   Though the task of conveying Asperger’s in a complete way was a challenging one for Martin to undertake, some of the methods used to convey Rose’s Asperger’s-related symptoms needed some refinement.  The most noticeable example of this was in Rose’s father yelling, “‘do you see any of the other kids clapping their hands over their ears and screaming when they hear the fire alarm?” (8) While this somewhat unrefined and slightly unbelieveable moment could be rationalized by the story-telling ability of Rose herself, there was a pattern of moments like these in which the expression of symptoms could have been more skillfully done through showing rather than listing to the audience.  Indeed, Rose’s sensitivity to sounds is described several times in more integrated ways later in the book such as when she explains overhearing a secret conversation, “I hear lots of things I’m not supposed to hear . . . because my hearing is very acute, which is part of my diagnosis” (39).  Since many of these Asperger’s symptoms are eventually skillfully expressed rather than just dropped into the reader’s ear, these moments of veritable “symptom dropping” felt redundant and sometimes poorly integrated into the story itself.

Of all the elements of this book, however, this was the only part that notably suffered; Martin is a very skillful writer who has thoughtfully crafted this book. The pacing in Rain Reign is spot-on, feeling masterfully balanced between all moments in the tale; the introduction of the story has just the right amount of time spent on it so that it does not feel like it overtakes the rest of the book, which is also very balanced.  The characters are also well written; no one character feels entirely like a trope, and all of the characters undergo excellent development throughout the story.

Ultimately, Rain Reign contains top-notch storytelling that makes the novel an accessible lesson in humanity for children, and an invigorating read for adults.  I believe it might be especially important for young readers who struggle to understand the challenging situations of others, especially their peers that deal with disabilities or poverty.   As autism diagnoses are on the rise, people on the autism spectrum are becoming more visible; it is no longer uncommon for a student to have a classroom aid like Rose does, to have to leave class to undergo a specified part of their curriculum, or to simply have trouble navigating their everyday experiences.  Kids and adults are having to learn more and more how to deal with, interact with, and have compassion for those who manage autism and Rain Rein in this case is a wonderful source of that daily dose of Vitamin H(umanity).

Rain Reign

Anne M. Martin

234 pages. Feiwel & Friends. $9.99 (Kindle edition)

The Past, Future, and Nao

Immediately following the earthquake, the tsunami and the Fukushima meltdown, Canadian-American writer and Zen Buddhist priest Ruth Ozeki decides to scrap her original attempt at her third novel believing her work was no longer relevant for the forever changed Japan. The result of her revisions: A Tale for the Time Being. Since its publication in 2013 the novel has had quite a bit of success and recognition including the 2013 Man Booker Prize Finalist, the 2013 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction, and the Kitschies Red Tentacle for best novel. [1] Ozeki’s novel was also named a New York Times Bestseller and recently awarded the 2015 Association for Asian American Studies Award. [2]

The novel explores two interlocking narratives—Nao’s diary and the story of diary’s finder, Ruth. Nao is a sixteen-year-old girl writing in a French café somewhere in Tokyo. Due to her father’s recent unemployment after the dot-com crash, Nao and her family has relocated from California to Tokyo. During this time, Nao faces the struggles of poverty, ruthless school bullying, and a suicidal father. Unable to bear all of her loneliness and her classmates’ bullying, Nao decides that there is only one escape. However, before ending her life, Nao decides to write a biography of her late great-grandmother, a century old Buddhist nun who was once an active anarchist and feminist in her younger years. In her attempt to write this biography, Nao reveals her struggles in navigating her own existence.

Not too long after the 2011 tsunami and Fukushima meltdown, a Hello Kitty lunchbox washes upon the shores of Vancouver Island. Ruth, a novelist, discovers that within this lunchbox hides several different artifacts including a diary. Upon reading the diary, Ruth is pulled into the past as she tries to solve the mystery of Nao’s unknown fate.

Despite being somewhat irritating at times with her moments of teenage angst and cruel encouragement of her father’s attempts at suicide, Nao is the most dynamic and endearing character within the novel. The reader witnesses Nao’s transformation from helpless victim of school bullying to a tragic figure contemplating suicide and finally to a young woman finding her superpower and the strength to live. Even though she endures more in her short sixteen years of life than most adults face within an entire lifetime, the style of Nao’s narration, meant to mimic a diary, makes the reader feel an immediate connection with the character. This connection is even established on the very first page:

Hi!

My name is Nao, and I am a time being. Do you know what a time being is? Well, if you give me a moment, I will tell you.

A time being is someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and every one of us who is, or was, or ever will be. As for me, right now I am sitting in a French maid café in Akiba Electricity Town, listening to a sad chanson that is playing sometime in your past, which is also my present, writing this and wondering about you, somewhere in my future. And if you’re reading this, then maybe by now you’re wondering about me, too.

You wonder about me.

I wonder about you. (3)

Not only does Nao create her connection with the reader with this short introduction, but she also introduces one of the novel’s most thought-provoking themes: the fluidity of time and persons in time. All of the major characters within this novel are concerned with some aspect of time. For Nao, time provides her with a connection to all beings in her otherwise emotionally solitary life. Other than Nao’s own musings on time and her existence as a time being, Ozeki masterfully blends different philosophies concerning time ranging from Schrodinger’s quantum superposition to the works of Proust and Dōgen to display the human desire to connect with one another through writing and time.

Do not think that time simply flies away. Do not understand “flying” as the only function of time. If time simply flew away, a separation would exist between you and time. So if you understand time as only passing, then you do not understand the time being. To grasp this truly, every being that exists in the entire world is linked together as moments in time, and at the same time they exist as individual moments of time. Because all moments are the time being, they are your time being. [3]

This novel is for any reader who is ready to think and to potentially reread several portions of the story in order to pick up on some of Ozeki’s most subtle clues. The reader might also have to do some of his/her own research to understand multiple references to Japanese culture and complex philosophical ideas (even though Ozeki provides some footnotes and appendixes on these subjects). Even though this reading requires some work and agency on the reader’s end, Ozeki’s unique tale that travels across both seas and time is well worth the effort.

A Tale for the Time Being

Ruth Ozeki

403 pages. Published by the Penguin Group

Hardcover: $19.08 Paperback: $10.27 (amazon.com)


References:

  1. “A Tale for the Time Being.” Wikipedia. Wikipedia Foundation, 09 Feb. 2015. Web. 09 April 2015
  1. “Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale For The Time Being Wins 2015 Association for Asian American Studies Award.” Newsroom. Penguin Books, 3 Feb. 2015. Web. 9 Apr. 2015. <http://www.penguin.com/newsroom/ruth-ozekis-tale-time-wins-2015-association-asian-american-studies-award/&gt;.
  1. “A Tale for the Time Being Quotes.” Goodreads: A Tale for the Time Being Quotes. Web. 09 April 2015

Conformity and Mindlessness; Foreigners sin Morals. The Juxtaposition of Political Fears in “The Strain.”

Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan’s The Strain is a complex and interweaving multi-narrative story centered in 21st century New York City during the inception of what promises to be a worldwide pandemic. This pandemic is supernatural in variety. Usually with books like this, the perpetrator is turning people into some kind of monster, such as a vampire or a zombie, but in this book the perpetrator is turning people into both.

 

Traditionally, these two kinds of monsters are rooted in political fears. Often, when a democratic president is in office, zombie movies become very popular because they represent what the left wing fears most: conformity and mindlessness. At the time that this book was written, the United States had not only elected a democratic president but also our first African American president, a massive milestone in the nation’s history.

 

What’s interesting about this book is that it also utilizes the fears of the opposing political party via the use of vampires, which represents what republicans fear most: foreign entities with no moral code. Del Toro and Hogan’s choice to include this duality of fear in this book is interesting because it provides something for everyone to fear both on a conscious and subconscious level.

 

The book follows multiple narratives, but the main narrative is that of a doctor named Ephraim Goodweather who, at the start of the novel, is losing a custody battle for his son. He is called in to investigate an airplane at the JFK airport which had an uneventful landing but mysteriously shut down on the taxiway and could not be contacted from outside. He and his partner are granted entrance and what they find inside are many dead bodies and four living.

 

The four alive are initially free of symptoms but taken to a hospital anyway. One of the four is a lawyer and she convinces the rest that there is no reason for any of them to be in the hospital so all of them leave except for one, the co-pilot of the plane. The novel then follows their narratives as they each develop more symptoms, particularly debilitating headaches and sore throats that simply cannot be soothed. We begin to learn that these people have vampiric tendencies when one of the survivors, a rockstar, is involved in a sexual tryst in which he takes a hickey too far. The next survivor drinks the blood from his two saint bernards.

 

The story takes off very rapidly, jumping from narrative to narrative, introducing new characters regularly and returning to old ones often. It is very slowly revealed through a key player named Abraham Setrakian that this is all the work of a man named Sardu and these creatures are of a very old kind called strigoi. He knows how to defeat them but the mainstream thought is, of course, highly preventative, so Ephraim and his partner must first be convinced and then help Abraham along the way.

 

This book was very tied to politics which I found interesting. On the surface it is simply about a doctor who gets involved in something that he doesn’t understand but truly it is about how political our world is. At the beginning of the book, Ephraim is a very respected and high ranking doctor in the CDC but as soon as he begins to submit ideas that the CDC disagrees with his authority is called into question and when he presses these ideas the CDC goes as far as making him a fugitive of the law. The book doesn’t directly state this, but it would seem that one of the main themes in the book is that our culture is so afraid of being wrong that we focus all of our authoritative power on blocking any unfamiliar ideas and forget to actually explore them, regardless of how scary they may be.

 

After Ephraim is stripped of his title at the CDC and made a fugitive, his tertiary plot line becomes fighting the politics of medicine, which holds a heavy irony because many people don’t assume that a doctor would have to fight to save his patients. This book works so well because there is simply so much going on. Ephraim himself is racing to stop hordes of zombie vampires while also trying to maintain his relationship with his son and evade the law. All of this is coupled with the individual plot lines of numerous other characters to create a book that simply doesn’t have time to be boring.

 

In my opinion, the kind of audience who would enjoy this book must enjoy horror novels and, to some degree, mystery novels as well. There is a lot of mystery and a lot of questioning in this novel and most of the questions don’t get answered until the very end. Anyone who reads this book must be able to deal with a sense of dissatisfaction as well because this novel is not lacking for moments of perfectly executed frustration and weariness. Finally, this book is intended for gore fans as there are many graphic descriptions of many gruesome deaths within its pages.

 

The Strain

Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan

585 pages. Published by HarperCollins. USA $9.99.

The Strain

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