Tag Archives: Books

Normalizing The Different

It’s easy to dislike folks you don’t know. They’re different. They look weird. You have no horse in their race. They’re those people. The Unknowable Other.

But it’s hard to keep up this mindset, that of the Them, the Other, after you’ve met said other. When you take the time to recognize them as a person, put a face to that Other, it’s much harder to not like them. Suddenly, they become an Us, rather than Them.

Meeting people, however, is hard. Especially people outside our relatively well-defined social spheres. Small towns are small, countries have borders, there’s a limit to the people you see every day.

Enter literature. Books. Movies. Video games. Comics. Anything that tells a story.

Stories are about people of some sort. And there’s no reason they have to be about someone like you.

Take Ms. Marvel. It’s a superhero comic about Kamala Khan, a first generation Pakistani-American immigrant who fights bad guys. Amidst all the crime stopping, we get a peek into Kamala’s home life. She’s balancing high school, friends, family, and faith. She struggled with heartbreak, talks to her imam for advice, and breaks curfew. Her story is new, but at the same time familiar.

But then, when we see stories about her move to the US; and in her first day at school and get a snapshot of her first day of school; I see my own experiences as someone who moved to the US is given weight, acknowledged, and affirmed. It’s normal to be different, the book says. I’m not the only oddball, my weirdness is shared. It’s the story of someone moving to the US, maybe it’s your grandparents, maybe it’s you, maybe you were just the weird kid in high school. It may not have been your experience directly, but it’s translatable.

We live in a world of narratives, we interpret the world as a story. Normal is a narrative. Weird is a narrative. Us and Them is a narrative. When we have one narrative dominating – the ‘all-American hero’, who is coincidentally typically white, male, and straight is the default and the most normal – anything that deviates is by default outside of the norm. Kamala is Other. I, a biracial Asian-American immigrant am Other.

That is a narrative of import to me, of course. Which is not to discount stories about other people. Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing makes the African Diaspora immediately personal. It’s easy to learn about it from a textbook and think about it in dictionary terms, but when given a face, it becomes more than that. The concept, one that I have the privilege to not have to think about, becomes unavoidable as I read about people – persons with names – who went through this. I hear stories about the people who went through it, who have made their lives in the aftermath.

And so the narrative can change; now Those People who I only knew about in the abstract become individuals with their own stories; recognizably human

Stories are important. Stories let us explore other people’s experiences. Stories let us see each other as we see ourselves. Stories make the foreign recognizable. Stories take Them, and make them Us.

It’s hard to dislike people once you’ve met them, once you’ve walked a mile in their shoes. Good stories let us in to other people’s lives. Ms. Marvel offers a narrative where the Pakistani-American girl is just like everyone else, Homegoing gives a voice to people you hear about. Alongside all this, they lend weight to experiences, say that, hey, your experiences are valid. Your life is worthwhile.

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Book Listening

I’ve been a huge Trevor Noah fan since he showed up on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show and started ragging on misconceptions of contemporary Africa by comparing it to the rural US. I found his stand-up special, African American, on Netflix and was delighted to hear him cracking jokes about growing up mixed. Though mine was in no way identical, there was enough familiarity there to really connect. Also, he’s funny. So I was one of the five people who was really keen on him taking over The Daily Show and I also got a chance to see him live last fall in New York when he taped his new special.

Point is, I’m a big fan of Trevor Noah. So when his book, Born A Crime, was available for free on Audible, I got audible and the free book. And by book I mean audio book. A book you listen to. Not read.

As was made plenty clear last week, I have Many Feelings about the Physicality of Books. I got a hold of the audio book because it was ~free~ with the intention of probably intentionally buying the physical version to actually read.

Because who has time to listen to a book?

When I read I like having my full attention on said reading. If I’m listening to music it’s gonna be instrumental (Current favorite: The Transistor soundtrack). I’m the sort who gets distracted easily and can end up reading a page and a half before realizing I was thinking about what to cook for dinner. So listening seems counterintuitive. A little too easy to get distracted.

That said, I did end up listening to a couple hours of Born A Crime while on a long car ride. It’s a great listen, and as a perk it’s narrated by Noah himself and so rife with accents and proper pronunciation of the Xhosa names. It’s a charming listen, and I don’t really feel like I’m missing out on anything I would from reading.

Except for the whole bookiness thing.

Look, I like turning pages. I like glancing back. But one thing that Audible does that I really like is that I can bookmark chunks and write notes down. Well, type notes up. So I can take the recording back to the place where he discusses how his grandmother saw him as being white growing up or how he used language as a kid to jump between social spheres at school. It’s neat, to be sure.

That said, one thing that’s nice-but-daunting is that it clearly says how long each chapter will take you. I’m gearing up to start the next one, but it’s gonna take twenty-two minutes and I don’t know that I have twenty-two minutes. Sure, I could break it up; listen to ten minutes now and twelve later, but it feels like I’m interrupting his train of thought. More so than a book ‘cuz I can’t skim the past couple of pages. I can rewind back a minute or so, but I can’t skim. But I can now consume a book while doing something else, like playing video games. Which is how I usually watch The Daily Show or stand-up anyway. So not all bad – but Born A Crime is a pretty meaty book in some parts, so, again, full attention is better. But hard. Because I’m sitting around doing nothing.

Now, Born A Crime is a bit of an oddity, in that it’s read by Trevor Noah, a person known for talking. Where most audio books are read by someone who’s not the writer, with this we get to actually hear it ‘as intended.’ So does that make it truer to its ideal than the written version? I’m not sure. I lean towards the understanding that if something is presented one way, it is intended to be seen that way. Movie scripts are great and all, but they’re supposed to be movies. A stand-up special doesn’t work as well on the page, for obvious reasons. So does a work that’s meant to be read work as spoken word? Especially if it’s spoken by the dude who wrote it?

I don’t know. I do know that I’m enjoying the book, but I wonder if I’d enjoy it more read. I do know that I will be picking up a physical copy eventually to reread and annotate. Will I listen to another book down the line? Hard to say, ‘cuz half the reason I like reading is, well, the reading part.

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Page Feel

I read a lot. This is partly a byproduct of having grown up a bookworm and partly having taken a course of studied that meant a lot of reading. Like a lot a lot. Since graduating, I’ve kept it up best I can and I’m sitting at fifteen-odd books in the past eleven months.

Like I said, reading a lot.

A side effect of this is that I have a wonderful bookshelf. You’ve got Ulysses there and the first volume of Saga there with CS Lewis’ Of Other Worlds. I like it, in part because it’s an egotistical testament to All The Books.

I mean, it’s kinda why I had a BluRay collection for a while. I love special features and stuff, but there’s also the fun of being able to tell a lot about a person based on what movies, games, books, music they own. But I’ve slowly been relying more on Netflix, etc for movies and tv with only really special things (Star Wars) getting bought. So books is the thing on my shelves.

And I’m moving in a couple months, which means packing everything up and hauling it down six(!) flights of stairs and to wherever I’m off to next. Which means packing up All The Books. And carrying All The Books elsewhere.

Which then begs the question: Why the crap don’t I have a Kindle? It’s light, I can fit All The Books inside and would make things so much easier. Also, once the thing is paid for, arguably cheaper. So there’s no real cons.

But the bookshelf.

And the books.

I like writing in my books. My copy of Ulysses is covered in my scrawls. Some books only have the occasional comment or underline. The Chinese in America has a lot of notes in the margins. Sure, you can do that on a Kindle and typed notes is easier to read than my handwriting, but there’s the process. Pen on paper. Flicking through a book looking for those notes. The feel of the pages.

There’s the bookshelf too. Maybe it’s an egotistical thing where I like having a monument to All The Books I Have Read in my apartment and to make sure people visiting can see All The Books. It’s a way for me to tell any visitor that I have a diverse array of interests (why yes, that is Mark Mazzetti’s study of the CIA, The Way of The Knife, next to Ready Player One; behold for I am cultured). It means that when some friends and I are a few drinks deep and talking about 80s movies or Ulysses I can pull a book off my monument to All The Books I Have Read and point to a passage relevant to our discussions. Like I said, it’s egotistical, but it has a purpose.

But maybe that egotism has a deeper root in a declaration of identity. Books are, to an extent, more personal than, say, movies. You don’t just go read a book at random, usually. Bookshelves represent what you’re into and what you’re enjoy, what you’ve studied and what you read for pleasure. They work as a summation of your interests and are thus reflexive back on you as a person. If you’re someone with The New Bloomsday Book you take reading important books seriously, but The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy lets everyone know you know how to have fun. By curating a bookshelf, you’re displaying a facet of yourself. You don’t get that on a Kindle.

I think that’s something that we lose when we go digital. Sure, it’s a bit of a luddite’s perspective, but I like recognizing a book a stranger’s reading on the subway or having an immediate icebreaker when you recognize a book on someone’s shelf.

So will I get a Kindle? Maybe. Probably eventually. Let’s see just how much I complain about lugging these books to a new apartment.

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Okay, Seriously, What Is A Superhero Movie?

A couple weeks ago I was at The Strand looking for a copy of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Because it’s on my personal reading list and I figured it’s as good a book as any to pick up at The Strand. Anyway, after scouring the A’s in the science fiction section, I was directed to check in general fiction. And there it was.

Which, alright, fine. I mean, it’s vaguely science fiction – though Atwood prefers describing it as speculative fiction which I’ve seen argued as being the same and/or different from general science fiction – in that it’s set in an indistinct future that’s the vague result of the progress of technology and climate issues circa the mid-80’s. But it’s no more science fiction than, say, The Dark Knight where the biggest diversions from reality are burn wounds, a futurist’s view of cellphone tech, and a loose interpretation of grappling hook physics. Though since one’s a superhero movie, one gets to be in Serious Fiction and the other, not (granted, one’s a book and the other’s a movie, but I digress).

So what is science fiction? And what’s a superhero movie? Which brings me to Logan, a movie that’s been called a great superhero movie in part because it’s so unlike every other superhero movie.

And in all honesty, Logan’s great. Really. It’s an interesting movie that meditates on its down time as much as on its brutal action sequences. It also just might be a better adaption of The Last Of Us than the Old Man Logan comics. And people are calling it a really good superhero story.

But is it a superhero story?

This is something I think about every now and then, and as superhero movies – usually meaning adaptions of DC or Marvel comics – become bigger and bigger tentpoles, the definition of it starts to be blurry.

Because Logan features very little superheroing tropes. There aren’t any fancy outfits and there’s very little romantic derring-do. It’s more drama than anything, one with a dosage of science fiction. So really, it’s more of a science fiction drama than a, quote-unquote, “superhero movie.”

It’s times like this where genre really starts to break down. Because, technically, Logan, Guardians of The Galaxy, and Iron Man are all in the same ‘genre.’ Even though Guardians is more like a Star Wars movie and Iron Man is as action adventure. But Logan is on top of those because it’s a ‘serious’ movie and un-superheroey

The thing about genre is that it creates a stratification of stories. Look at any given bookstore and all the ‘important’ books go in the fiction section, while much of the rest is classified as science fiction, fantasy, mystery, and young adult. The movies that win big awards are most always not-genre movies; saying ‘comedy’ or ‘action’ almost instantly disqualify you.

As someone who creates a lot ‘genre’ stories, this bugs me. As someone who likes a lot of ‘genre’ stories, this bugs me a lot. ‘cuz in the past decade we’ve seen superhero movies take on a host of forms, be they a thriller like The Dark Knight or a hijinky fantasy adventure like Thor. In the century-or-so since its inception, science fiction has been Star Wars and District 9; The Handmaid’s Tale and Ready Player One. We’ve seen good superhero movies, and we’ve seen Batman vs Superman. These run the gamut in their type of story, setting, and quality. Y’know, it’s starting to sound like they’re just stories.

Now, I’m complicit in this, I use the terms ‘science fiction’ and ‘superhero film’ with abandon. But when I say I like the former, I say I like the fun adventure that’s been a hallmark of Marvel Studio’s output. I love science fiction’s imagination and willingness to go to places unseen (as opposed to the onslaught of White People Problems that ‘drama’ tends to be code for [coughLaLaLandcough]). As fiction evolves and lines get blurred (is Gravity science fiction?), our old definitions of genre don’t work so well. So I will enjoy the most fictitious of science fictions and the most heroic of superhero movies, even if those movies don’t really fit the Platonic ideal as a superhero film.

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Stuff From 2016 I Wanna Talk About

Every year I do a thing on this blog where I list my top nine movies. Thing is, movies aren’t the only things that come out in a year. So here’s a list of a bunch of stuff in a bunch of different mediums that came out last year that I really liked that I wanna talk about. They may not be the best thing to come out of the year, but it’s stuff I want to talk about.

Book: Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi

I talked about this book when I first finished it, and I’d like to bring it up again to talk about how magnificent it is. It’s a concept album made book, where each chapter/short story stands wholly alone, yet is enriched and inseparable from what comes before it. Plus, it’s a novel about the African Diaspora which, really, isn’t a thing that gets explored nearly enough in fiction, especially at this scale and yet so intimately.

Album: Colors Run, by House of Heroes

…while on the topic of concept albums, I’ve gotta mention House of Heroes’ Colors Run. I haven’t listened to it enough yet, I don’t think, but it’s an interesting album that crafts its narrative through implication. It mayn’t be my favorite album this year (Run River North’s Drinking From A Salt Pond and Barcelona’s Basic Man are two strong contenders there), but it’s one that’s really been sticking with me.

Video Game: One Night Stand, by Kinmoku

I’m a sucker for a video game that goes somewhere most games don’t. One Night Stand has you waking up in a stranger’s bed and piecing together how you got there. It’s essentially a point-and-click by way of a choose-your-own-adventure game, but it’s set apart by how warmly and sweetly it handles its subject matter. Plus, the rotoscoped graphics make the game feel like a sketchbook come to life.

Comic: Mockingbird, by Chelsea Cain, Kate Niemczyk, et al.

I mean, duh. But so we’re clear: wonderfully funny comic with a savage feminist streak that has a lot of fun in a comic book world. It’s too seldom we get to see women as fully-fleshed out characters in comics, and Bobbi Morse is so winning its hard not to love it. Also, major props for being one of the first Marvel comics with an all-women creative team. Man, I really wish this comic was still going.

Television Show: Stranger Things, by the Duffer Brothers

I’m a sucker for 80s movies. I’m also a sucker for movies like Easy A and Super 8 that have their own takes on the aesthetics of those movies. Super 8 marches brazenly into that field with a dose of horror. So yes, there’s D&D and 80s movies references galore, but what really makes Stranger Things better than being just an ersatz Spielberg film is its characters. Be it the boys and the new friend Eleven, Hopper and Joyce, or Nancy and Jonathan; the show is filled with those quiet relationship moments that made 80s films so wonderful. That it tells a delightful science fiction story in the process is just the icing on the cake.

Play: Vietgone, by Qui Nguyen

Look, theatre’s really white. Sure, you’ve got Hamilton flipping things around, but, that’s the exception that proves the rule. So along comes Vietgone, which features a mostly-Asian cast that tells a love story set against refugees immigrating to the US after the Vietnam War. Besides its fantastic use of language to invert the typical understanding of the other, it tells a damn sweet story in its own right – that features people who don’t look like your usual romantic leads from a unique background. It’s plain wonderful, and also the only play I’ve paid to see more than once.

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Xenophobia, Science Fiction, and, eventually, Hope

I didn’t learn the term ‘xenophobia’ from the news, the radio, or a textbook. Didn’t come up in class or any place you’d expect. Rather, I learnt the word ‘xenophobia’ from the old Star Wars Expanded Universe books.

Was in the context of various political factions being distinctly anti-alien. Now, the xenophobia usually stemmed from the Empire and their staunch humans-first attitude and view of anyone who wasn’t as being intrinsically lesser, but some players in the New Republic also held xenophobic beliefs which made working together harder. Key thing was, these people were either villains or antagonists and their belief that someone who looked and thought differently was worth less than a person was wrong. The heroes, Luke, Leia, and even Han, weren’t about that; it was Emperor Palpatine and his ilk who pushed a xenophobic agenda. For a kid in his early teens recently immigrated to the US, it was a pretty clear distinction: good guys aren’t afraid of or mean to people because they’re different.

Now we all know that aliens and hyperdrives and Jedi are fictitious. But, xenophobia, as I would find out later, is a real term used by real people to describe real issues. The idea behind it, though — treating different people differently and meanly — was something I knew was unquestionably wrong because, well, Star Wars books. That and I was, y’know, a half-Singaporen cultural immigrant to South Carolina. But you get the idea.

I’m loathe to call Star Wars and science fiction in general ‘morality plays.’ Heck, I’m loathe to call any good fiction a ‘morality play’ because good fiction doesn’t preach at you. What science fiction does particularly well is, well, it says something without saying something. Diego Luna, in an interview with Vanity Fair,  said that the wonderful thing about setting Star Wars in a galaxy far, far away was “…whenever you get too personal, you can say, “No, I’m not talking about you. This is a galaxy far, far away.” But with this tool, you can actually make the most effective comments on the reality in which you’re living.”* Learning that species isn’t a demarcation for the capacity to do good is good practice for knowing that skin color and country of origin don’t have any bearing on whether someone is ‘good.’

And that’s the thing about stories: they’re practice. See, folks smarter than me have been trying to figure out why humanity does this whole storytelling thing. One theory is that stories are practice for interactions, a sort of simulation. When we read, we experience it ourselves. It’s science, since there are studies that “…suggest when we experience fiction are neurons are firing much as they would if we were actually faced with Sophie’s choice or if we were taking a relaxing shower and a killer suddenly tore down the curtain” (pg 63 of The Storytelling Animal by Jonathan Gottschall, if you’re wondering). Stories are practice. They’re parables, where you can learn something by living something in a different way. As Gottschall says, “if you want a message to burrow into a human mind, work it into a story” (118).

Back to science fiction. Reading stories about the real world can be tough, because seeing the crap we know exists in real life existing again isn’t always the funnest thing. Science fiction (and fantasy, etc) are reality adjacent, and so have more leeway. Ursula K. LeGuin can explore classism and sexual identity without pointing a finger at anyone for being a bigot. It becomes a safe space to discuss complex topics and live experiences you wouldn’t ordinarily. Stories can change you, can impact you because, well, the nature of fiction is that it strives to put you in that place. A good book has you working with the writer to empathize and live the narrative first hand. You can’t read a good book and come out entirely unchanged.

And the fantasy of science fiction means that there is a quick gratification to that hope. You don’t have to wait years and years on the edge to know that good will triumph over evil, that diversity beats xenophobia; you just gotta reach the end of the book.

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The Give And Take of Books

When I was 13 I visited a slave castle in Takoradi, Ghana. Which is a weird sentence to type, but kinda standard given the whole grew-up-on-a-ship-thing. It was sobering, seeing something you’d read about in history in person. But at the same time, for me, something firmly in the past. What had happened there was firmly in the was.

Now, I recently finished Yaa Gyasi’s exceptional Homegoing. Early on, a slave castle on Africa’s coast plays an important role, setting-wise. Naturally, this conjured up my memories of that old castle. Books have a way of doing that, where the prose merges with the reader’s imagination to create a world in between. Written stores, more so than a more visual medium, rely on a dialogue between the reader and the text. Where film or tv show the viewer what something is, a writer can only describe it and hopes the reader meets them halfway. In a weird way, written stories are a lot like video games: both require the consumer to be an active participant. In video games, if you can’t beat that one boss, you won’t get to continue on with the story (as my years long quest as a child to find out how Mega Man X4 ended proves). Similarly, if you can’t parse a book’s prose, you won’t get through it. It’s very easy for Ulysses to not make sense, given how friggin’ dense it is. The impetus is on the reader to bring what they know to the table, and put the work in to help the writer create the effect.

So Homegoing progresses in a beautiful, heartbreaking fashion, creating a narrative from a series of generational short stories; each story complete in and of itself but stronger from what came before and strengthening what comes after. Gyasi’s prose flows like poetry, making West Africa and Harlem soar. As the book progresses, it catches up in time, eventually arriving in contemporary times. Asanteland is revealed (within the book) to be modern-day Ghana and the slave castle is located in, you guessed it, Takoradi.

I found myself wondering, as the pages ran out and I neared the end, was that castle the same one I’d been to twelve years ago? I finished the book and a quick google search revealed that, yeah, it was.

Woah.

Remember what I said a couple paragraphs ago about written narratives being a dialogue? The thing about dialogues is that they go both ways. For all the information my memories bring to Yaa Gyasi’s words, her words bring their own set of information to my memories.

As such, the ending of the book had a unique effect on me. When I’d visited the slave castle, I’d known the history of the place, but I’d never realized it. Because I brought something — my own memories of the place — what I got out of the book was different than someone else. Likewise, someone who’s spent years studying the ramifications of the transatlantic slave trade would pick up on bits and subtext of the book I totally missed.

Maybe this is a reason why a favorite book feels a lot more personal than a favorite movie, because what you bring to the story deeply affects what you take out of it. The way you feel about The Catcher in The Rye is different if you read it for the first time in your teens or in your twenties, just as someone who sneaks through all of Metal Gear Solid 3 will have a very different experience from someone who just shoots their way through. But it’s books, and their heavy reliance on the reader’s imagination and foreknowledge, that really benefit from that give and take, that dialogue. What you get out of it is all dependent on what you bring going in.

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