Six Impossible Things

A Blog About Fiction and Reading

American Born Chinese

ChineseAmerican Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang

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Ah, if the controversy over The Higher Power of Lucky wasn’t enough to get your attention, how about some opinionated blowhard espousing against graphic novels receiving National Book Awards?  Tony Long is the copy chief for Wired magazine, which has always struck me as one of the definitive sources of positive change and growth through technology and other means .  He promptly stuck his foot in his mouth with his condemnation of American Born Chinese being nominated for the National Book Award late last year:

“I have not read this particular ‘novel’ but I’m familiar with the genre so I’m going to go out on a limb here. First, I’ll bet for what it is, it’s pretty good. Probably damned good. But it’s a comic book. And comic books should not be nominated for National Book Awards, in any category. That should be reserved for books that are, well, all words.

“This is not about denigrating the comic book, or graphic novel, or whatever you want to call it. This is not to say that illustrated stories don’t constitute an art form or that you can’t get tremendous satisfaction from them. This is simply to say that, as literature, the comic book does not deserve equal status with real novels, or short stories. It’s apples and oranges.

“If you’ve ever tried writing a real novel, you’ll know where I’m coming from. To do it, and especially to do it well enough to be nominated for this award, the American equivalent of France’s Prix Goncourt or Britain’s Booker Prize, is exceedingly difficult.”

There’s so much wrong with this statement that I almost don’t know where to begin.  He hasn’t even read the book, but he seems to think he knows enough about it to condemn it.  His ignorance over what constitutes a story, or literature, is sadly profound, and his implication that a graphic novel isn’t a “real novel” is arrogant and condescending.  It makes me wonder why they have the literary equivalent of a Luddite working for Wired.

American Born Chinese is a brilliant work that starts out as a typical autobiographical story, but quickly melds into something different and unique.  There are three stories in the volume, interspersed among each other, but by the end of the story, it becomes clear that everything is relevant, and each individual story supports the primary one of race, identity, and self-acceptance.

The story is compelling, and Yang excels at stopping the chapters at the most appropriate points, where enough of that portion of the story is revealed, but enough questions are left unanswered to keep you reading.  His illustrations are right on point, too, merging the cartoonish with the realistic well enough to keep you grounded in the reality of the story, but also in a way to keep you from taking some parts of the story too seriously.  It’s a fine balance, but Yang seems to do it well.

I’d recommend this book to any young reader, even if he or she isn’t wild about graphic novels.  Unlike Mr. Long, I believe that the story is more important than its format, and American Born Chinese is one of those stories that begs to be read.

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March 23, 2007 Posted by | Graphic Novels, Reviews | Leave a comment

The Higher Power of Lucky

LuckyThe Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron

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Score one for the librarians! It’s about time that those of us who are closest to the books and their readers finally get to represent among the Newbery winners with Susan Patron’s delightful story of a 10 year-old girl coming of age in the middle of nowhere. Susan Patron is the Juvenile Materials Collection Development Manager at the Los Angeles Public Library, where she’s probably familiar already with the knee-jerk reactions from the public over innocuous statements taken out of context.

I’m referring to the controversy surrounding her book, since the word “scrotum” appears on the first page of the novel. I try not to be too shocked when I hear these sorts of things (the marquee change of “The Vagina Monologues” to “The Hoo-Hah Monologues” last month is another example), but I can’t help it. Are we really that repressed? Or are we really that convinced that the mere mention of a word is going to have a detrimental effect on our children? In the library where I work, I’ve heard 10 year-old kids using the F-bomb like it’s “the,” so it’s hard to be worried about how children will respond to medical terms about the human body. Penis, scrotum, vagina, breast. Have I missed anything? And is there anyone left to read my review of the book in question, or have I run you all off with the power of offensensitivity?

The Higher Power of Lucky is a sweet story of a young girl, Lucky, coming to terms with her own self-doubts, in a small town (population: 43) in the middle of the desert. She spends her days collecting bugs, sweeping up after the participants in the many 12-step programs that meet at the local insect museum, and trying to find the higher power that all of those 12-step participants talk about during their meetings (she eavesdrops on the meetings through a hole in the wall and hears the participants talking about their own higher powers). To further complicate matters, Lucky is being raised by her guardian, a young French woman who was her father’s first wife, but who came to the United States to care for her when Lucky’s mother died in a car accident. Living with the insecurity that her guardian could leave to return to France at any time, Lucky finds herself in a mix of wild emotions where it’s hard to trust anyone, even her best friend.

Lucky is a finely-drawn character, as are all the other characters in the book. Even the secondary characters, who play the smallest of roles in the story, breathe with a unique life, and I think this is what makes the book so compelling. The self-doubt, paired with the self-awareness that we all develop as we grow up, will be familiar to us all, especially those of us who grew up as cautious children. Lucky serves as a great role model for girls of that age and character.

It’s a shame that some children won’t even get a chance to read this book, since some librarians are choosing not to order the book for their collections, over concern about the aforementioned use of the word “scrotum.”  The book hasn’t even been challenged, as far as I know; the librarians are just choosing to censor it to avoid the controversy all together, thus robbing their patrons of making the choice for themselves.  It’s questionable, and against the practice of a library to provide materials of all sorts for the public.

It almost makes me ashamed to say that I’m a librarian.

March 23, 2007 Posted by | Juvenile Fiction, Reviews | Leave a comment

The Children of Men

ChildrenThe Children of Men by P.D. James

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My wife and I saw Children of Men in January, and were stunned at how good a movie it was.  We went, not really knowing much about it at all, and the story, along with the artwork and direction, shocked us with its gritty, surreal atmosphere.  It wasn’t much of a jump for us to decide to read the book, too.

Unfortunately, reading a book before seeing a movie or seeing a movie before reading a book can alter your perception of how good or bad the second piece is.  It’s impossible to completely forget the former when you’re trying to enjoy the latter, and how much you liked the first is always going to affect how you think about the second.

I was surprised at how different the book and the movie are from one another.  The main character, Theo, remains, as does the basic premise of the story (children stopped being born on Earth about 20 years ago), but those are the only two similarities.  Instead of being in a drudging job, Theo is a history professor, teaching adults in a childless world.  He has an ex-wife, too, but she isn’t involved in a counter-revolution, and the political theme of the movie is absent from the book (though there is a political angle in the story).

P.D. James is an excellent writer with a strong attention to detail, and a firm understanding of human nature.  I understand she’s more known for her mysteries and police procedural novels, and I can see how she can be so skilled at those genres from this book.  If she plots as well as she writes her narrative, then her popularity is deserved.

Ultimately, I think I prefer the movie over the book.  The movie is timely in its political overtones, and the dismal, gritty look of a near future of desolation is the perfect atmosphere for that sort of story.  James’ version of the story, though the original, lacks some of the punch of the latter version, by being a gentler sort of story with some of the same elements.  It’s still a good book, and one that I would recommend, but comparing the two is an interesting exercise.

I wish there were a way I could read the book without any knowledge of the movie, but I can’t.  I’d love to hear from people who discovered these two stories in the reverse order, and how they feel about the two versions.

March 8, 2007 Posted by | Adult Fiction, Reviews | Leave a comment