17 Aug

New Voices from Oz

 

Oz Reimagined book cover

Oz Reimagined

Oz Reimagined is a great collection of short stories on the topic of, of course, Oz. There are 15 stories collected from notable writers in science fiction and fantasy, all accompanied by a cool illustration. What I particularly enjoyed about this anthology was that the stories were so diverse. If you enjoy Oz, or re-tellings, or fantasy in general, you should give Oz Reimagined a try (and if you don’t want to commit to all the stories, you can buy them individually on Amazon).

The stories in this collection were all inspired by the original written canon of Oz books (not the movies or subsequent adaptations), so you find characters like Jack (who has a pumpkin head) and Ozma (child queen and erstwhile boy, Tip). Some of the stories deal with Dorothy and her life after her original visit to Oz. Sometimes she is an Ambassador (which is a much less dry story than it sounds), sometimes she returns as an adult. Some of the stories focus on the Wizard and some of them don’t feature Dorothy or Oz the Great and Powerful at all, instead focusing on the people of Oz.

Many of the stories take a darker turn, which I suppose is to be expected when you ask authors to work off a story that is pretty solidly for children. One of the more cynical stories that particularly resonated with me was about Oz’s reality television show Wish. The show was orchestrated by Oz’s witches and the story is told from the perspective of a jeweler. Wish turns out to be the social event of the season and it is revealed that it is actually part of a plan to orchestrate a coup against the Wizard. Another story that hints at the, perhaps, surveillance-state nature of Oz is about a munchkin who works as a window washer in the Emerald City. One of his buddies dies on the job, despite all the safety measures that are in place. When he comments to some friends saying that something about the whole situation seems “off,” a flying monkey he works with brings up the fact that the friend had been working to unionize them.

One of the other stories that I thought was totally unexpected was one called “The Veiled Shanghai.” In this story, Dorothy is a fourteen-year-old Chinese girl (Dorothy is her English school name and she lives on Kansu Road) who unwittingly facilitates the May Fourth movement via her actions in the Veiled Shanghai—a place where carrots are magically sweet and that is ruled by a wicket warlord. What I liked about this story was that it used the Oz mythos to describe real events. The story ascribed a magical impetus for the May Fourth movement. I have to admit that this movement is not something I know much (ahem, anything) about, but I like the concept of using stories like this to explain history.

This collection is full of cool stories, but I don’t want to spoil them all. There is a riff on One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, a cyberpunk version of Dorothy and Oz, a story about a Zeppelin, and one about a young L. Frank Baum meeting the girl who would show him the Kingdom of the Air (which inspired the Oz stories, of course). There were a lot of stories; I enjoyed all of them. They all offered fresh takes on the Oz mythos without overlapping. I think some of the reason for this is that the source material is so vast. The other part of this is that there are so many ways to interpret an older version of Dorothy or to characterized the other denizens of Oz (and there are a lot of them).

I was giving some thought to why the dystopian views of Oz appeal to me so much. I don’t know if it’s simply that our era is so jaded and cynical (is that too much of a generalization?) or if it’s that the original Oz is so squeaky clean that it’s impossible, from a writer’s perspective, to avoid corrupting it in some way. But I think the Oz story was ripe for reconsideration. The way that Oz’s society is set up naturally lends itself (if I may be so presumptuous) to dystopian interpretations: four cultures who all live in their own isolated areas of the country, an autocratic ruler who doesn’t let anyone see him, a capital city that literally shines (seriously, nothing is that clean on its own). And if you think about the movie, you have that road and no one else is travelling on it. What are the people of Oz doing all day? Obviously not traveling. Perhaps, like so many police states, travel is strictly regulated. Okay, I will stop with this line of thinking because I am clearly talking myself into a story of my own!

I’ll end with some book recommendations. I hadn’t heard of a lot of the authors featured in this collection, but at least half of the stories made me want to look them up to see what else they had written. Here are some book selections if you’re looking for something to read after you’ve made it through Oz Reimagined. Oh, and I won’t bother recommending the original Oz stories or Wicked because come on, you can find that in two seconds of Googling.

  • Rosemary and Rue (October Daye, Book one) by Seanan McGuire has the kind of cover that generally signals something I don’t want to read, but I really liked her story in Oz Reimagined, so I guess I will have to take that advice about not judging books by their covers. This book is billed as urban fantasy and its main character is a half-human, half-fae changeling. So, what could possibly go wrong?
  • David Farland is the author of a cool cyberpunk story that made it into Oz Reimagined, but it looks like his books are fairly fantasy-based (although he has a lot of books and I can’t promise that I’ve comprehensively gone through them). The Lair of Bones is book one of his Runelords series, and it sounds like some pretty good fantasy.
  • This recommendation isn’t actually out yet, but it sounds super good and it’s from the author of the Oz has a reality show story. How the World Became Quiet: Myths of the Past Present, and Future by Rachel Swirsky sounds like it is going to be a great read.
03 Aug

Based on a True Story

The walls here are soft, not like a blanket but like one of those boards that you can stick pieces of felt to for telling stories to children. Maybe one day I’ll stick some felt animals on my wall and tell the story of Noah’s Ark. Their felt figures stacked haphazardly above the boat. Dinosaurs crying for help from the expanse of the soft, grey sea. But maybe kids all have tablets now and they don’t use felt anymore. It doesn’t matter. There are no children here.

Anyway—it is soft. Soft and a muted grey color flecked with whites and reds like a man’s suit, I guess. Not a lot of men here either. Not really anyone in suits. But it’s the kind of thing you can imagine being suiting fabric. Or maybe one day I’ll just tear it down and wrap a soft, grey cloak around myself. It will be a toga or a sari or a cape. You can’t make a suit without needles, scissors, other sharp objects.

Everything is grey here, not just the walls. The only other thing I can really see from my designated space is the ceiling and that’s filled with grey too. Grey tiles with pounding, fluorescent lights interspersed between them, washing out any other colors. At first, the lights made my head hurt, but I guess now my head has grown used to it and doesn’t hurt, or it perpetually hurts and I’ve just accepted this as the new normal. It’s hard to say.

There are other people here too. I can hear them and sometimes they visit them or they visit me and we talk about how grey it is and how you can almost see out the window if you stand in the right spot. There’s a small balcony area, but no one is allowed to go out there. My neighbor said that they are afraid we might jump. She said it like she was joking, but I don’t think she really was. Her eyes weren’t joking.

They give us meaningless work to complete. It piles up and then I look at it and write notes about it. I even call people sometimes. Then I pile it up for someone else. I guess that’s how work works. I didn’t know that before, but here it is true.

It feels like I’ve been here for years, but it’s hard to say at this point. Maybe it was only a week, a day, an hour, a minute. Time is stretching out across the sunny spot on the floor to warm its belly like a housecat.

You know in the movie version of The Wizard of Oz? It starts out in black and white. Being there feels like being stuck on the bleak Kansas prairie. All grey. I understand why Dorothy was glad to leave (but not why she was so eager to go home). When I leave, it’s like I’m suddenly in Oz and like Dorothy, I’m overcome; the color outside is so blinding, so brilliant in comparison to the grey expanse inside.

I head to the restroom and say goodbye to my coworkers. I check my email once more, turn off my computer, and grab my purse. It’s finally 5 o’clock. Work is over for today.

 

06 Jul

Zimbabwe, America, and the immigrant experience

Book Review: We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo

We Need New Names

I can’t quite recall where I first heard about this book, but I have been hearing about it a lot lately. I discovered that We Need New Names is definitely not being over-hyped; it is awesome. This is probably the first work of Africa-related, contemporary fiction I’ve read since Achebe’s Things Fall Apart in high school and it made me feel like I’ve been missing out on something profound and interesting.

This book is beautifully written. It is just full of amazing imagery. I’m not inclined to gush about such things, but as I was reading this book, I just wanted to drink up all the language and become drunk from it because it was so heady. Even though the story is told from the point of view of a child, the language isn’t necessarily puerile. Darling, the narrator, doesn’t use lots of sophisticated language, but her thoughts are really succinct and what she says makes the reader picture everything. For example, when speaking about the heat she says, “The sun keeps ironing us and ironing us and ironing us,” which is something I can relate to with the heat wave happening at the moment.  In another chapter, Darling is watching a funeral and comments of the cemetery:

“[It] is mounds and mounds of red earth everywhere, like people are being harvested, like death is maybe waiting behind a rock with a big bag of free food and people are rushing, tripping over each other to get to the front before the handouts run out. That is how it is, the way the dead keep coming and coming.”

Not all the imagery is morbid, of course, but this example stood out to me because it’s such a mature observation even though it is rooted in kid-logic.

As to the plot (which is, I suppose, what people want to hear about in a review), the book is told from the perspective of Darling, a girl who lives in Paradise—a shanty town in Zimbabwe. Her observations about life are folded in among vignettes of playing with her friends: Bastard, Godknows, Shbo, Stina, and the pregnant Chipo. Darling dreams of moving to America, a place where everyone has enough food and is rich, and she knows that one day she will because her Aunt Fostalina lives there. The second part of the book focuses on Darling’s life in America (specifically, in “Destroyedmichygen”) and how she copes with the reality of living in the US, works through her identity, and relates to others. The result is both a poignant view of life in modern Zimbabwe and of the immigrant experience in America.

The first half of We Need New Names made me realize how little I know about Zimbabwe specifically and Africa in general. From the way the story is told, the reader can gather that Zimbabwe used to be ruled by a king, but then it was taken over by white colonialists. The colonialists were eventually ousted by the native black people, who were then deposed by another group of black people. That is an extremely rudimentary understanding, but clearly this isn’t a book about politics or history; it’s about one person’s experience in Zimbabwe. I feel like I should be able to at least put names on some of these movements or governments, but I don’t have any in my head. I think that reading up on modern African history is definitely going to be on my to-do list.

The second half of the book was, in a way, more relatable, just because I am American and Darling’s experiences were easier for me to digest, even though they were through the eyes of someone new to the country. I briefly taught English as a second language when I was a teacher, so I was able to appreciate some of the observations about learning (or improving, more accurately) English. In one scene, Aunt Fostalina is on the phone trying to order something from Victoria’s Secret, but she is not being well-understood. Darling comments about how you can practice what you want to say beforehand, but the words still come out wrong, concluding “English is like a huge iron door and you are always losing the keys.” This is such an amazing way to conceptualize all language learning, but especially English learning.

Something incidental to the story, but that I really liked, is the concept of a “talking eye.” Essentially, this is when you look at someone in a way that says something, like when a little dog wearing a pink jacket tries to get attention from Darling and she gives it a talking eye that says “No, dog, you don’t even know me like that.” Or you could give a talking eye that says “Don’t even think about it,” or “Get over here.” Bulawayo has managed to name something I didn’t know I needed a word for.

We Need New Names is stuffed with observations about life both in Zimbabwe and in America. I really enjoyed Bulawayo’s take on the world and I feel like my worldview has definitely been expanded (which is the point of reading in the first place). There is a lot more in this book that I haven’t discussed because I know I can’t just talk about a whole book, but if anyone who has read it would like to discuss it with me, I would love to talk about it! I will definitely be keeping my eye out for future works by NoViolet Bulawayo.

What should you read after you’ve finished We Need New Names? Here are some things I am thinking of picking up that have similar themes:

  • Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie seems to be focused on immigration in a similar way to Bulawayo’s work, but centers on a teenage couple from Nigeria. The woman in the couple manages to immigrate to America, but the man is unable to do so. Adichie won the 2002 Caine Prize for African Writing for one of her previous novels.
  • A Contellation of Vital Phenomena is the debut novel of Anthony Marra. This story is set in Chechnya, another place I don’t know enough about.
  • The Fear: Robert Mugabe and the Martyrdom of Zimbabwe by Peter Godwin looks to be a pretty solid work on the modern political situation in Zimbabwe. If, like me, you know want to know more about Zimbabwe, this would be a good pick.

 

30 Jun

Dreaming Is Free: Its Aftermath Is Not

The book cover for Dreams and Shadows

Dreams and Shadows

Book Review: Dreams and Shadows: A Novel by C. Robert Cargill

I loved reading this book; I guess we can start with that. Like most books I’ve been reading lately, I spotted this on the “new” shelf at the library. The cover looked really cool and the description sounded good, so I went for it. I know we’re not supposed to judge books by their covers, but I think it’s okay to do so sometimes, especially when the cover is awesome and the text is awesome too.

I would describe this book as probably urban fantasy or, perhaps, a modern fairy tale. And yes, it’s a fairy tale with all the nasty, brutish implications of one told by the Brothers Grim, not the Disney adaptation. I know I am not the first person to say this, but it definitely reminded me of a Neil Gaiman novel—it’s kind of American Gods-esque. Like all great fantasy, it deals not just with the fantastical, but also with how humankind’s fantasies reflect its true nature. I’ll get into that in a minute.

Before we go any further: a summary. The first part of Dreams and Shadows alternates between two characters. There is Ewan who is kidnapped by fairies as a baby and replaced by a changeling who wastes no time compelling Ewan’s parents to kill themselves. There is also Colby, the son of an alcoholic, negligent mother who encounters a genie. Part of the excitement of reading this book was that I immediately knew that the characters were going to cross paths (because, duh, that is how stories work), but I couldn’t wait to find out how. Ewan and Colby are both eight years old during the first part of the story (with the exception of the part of the exposition that involves the changeling) so even though they are operating in realms that would seem illogical to adults, they inhabit this madness readily.

Ewan is being raised by the fairy folk of the Limestone Kingdom (near Austin, Texas—and when was the last time you read a fantasy set in Texas?) and is being slowly transformed into a fairy. Unfortunately for him, he is not being turned into a fairy just for fun, but he is the tithe child. Fairies, it is explained, have an ongoing pact with the devil that requires them to sacrifice one of their own every seven years in order to maintain their longevity. Rather than sacrifice their proper kin, they often steal children, turn them into fairies, and sacrifice them as soon as they’ve turned.

Colby meets the cursed genie (djinn, to be more accurate), Yashar. Yashar has an interesting backstory that involves a jealous vizier, the genocide of the djinn, and years of lonliness. He selects Colby for wish-making because djinn are unable to survive unless someone remembers them. Although Yashar is reluctant to grant Colby’s wish (cursed djinn, remember?), he does eventually grant it. Colby, somewhat unfortunately, wishes to “see everything.” By everything, he means all the supernatural things that no one else sees. This wish is eventually what makes him cross paths with Ewan.

I won’t go into the rest because I don’t want to ruin it, but suffice to say, Colby and Ewan do cross paths. Colby also wishes to become a wizard in what I found to be a hilarious display of child-logic. One thing I will also say about the progression of the narrative is that I appreciated Cargill’s inclusion of faux-scholarly texts on the matter of the fey. There is a series of excerpts from the work of Dr. Thaddeus Ray, Ph.D. Some of them explain different types of fairies (djinn, for one), or fairy custom (like the tithe). The best explained where fairies came from. Fairies are essentially the result of whatever ambient emotion there is to be found in an area. If a city radiates misery and hatred, fairy folk are created who feed off these emotions. A region full of goodwill is likely to engender fairies who feed on those emotions instead. In this way, the fey are a true reflection of humanity. Miserable people beget miserable creatures.

One of the themes that I found in Dreams and Shadows is that monsters aren’t the real monsters; people are. When Colby first meets Yashar, the djinn, he asks if monsters are real. His response was to tell Colby:

“Monsters are real. Very real. But they’re not just creatures. Monsters are everywhere. They’re people, they’re nightmares … They are the things that we harbor within ourselves. If you remember one thing, even above remembering me, remember that there is not a monster dreamt of that hasn’t walked once within the soul of a man.”

So, even though most of the villains in this story are fairies, we must remember that the fairies are, effectively, created by humans. It’s easier to understand and contextualize our own humanity when we see it in another group of beings.

Another piece of the ‘monsters aren’t the monsters’ trope is Yashar’s behavior. After Colby and Ewan meet, the local fairy council decides that Colby and Yashar have to go because they pose a threat to the tithe child, Ewan. Yashar’s response to the fact that Ewan is going to be brutally murdered for the sake of the Limestone Kingdom: “You’ve got to be kidding me.”  Yashar displays a much higher degree of humanity than almost anyone else in the story, despite being a djinn.

But don’t worry, this story isn’t preachy, I just like analyzing literature. Dreams and Shadows is also hilarious. One of my favorite exchanges is between young Colby and Ewan. Colby finds out that Ewan has never seen Aladdin because he’s been busy being raised by fairies. When Ewan thinks Colby is an idiot for not knowing something basic about fairies, Colby shoots back, “At least I’ve seen Aladdin!” Cargill does a great job of representing what children find to be critically important and incorporating it into the story. Another part that I laughed out loud over was Colby wishing to be a wizard. Yashar insists that he can’t “just make [Colby] a wizard.” Colby just keeps wishing, insisting that Yashar promised he would grant any wish as long as they left the Limestone Kingdom and Ewan behind. Obviously, describing jokes out of context is not that funny, but trust me, there are some pretty funny bits in this story.

There is a lot more to this story than I’ve written about here because I don’t want to spoil it. I really loved this book and it was one of the best fantasies I’ve read in a while. If you’re looking for a modern, hilarious, but poignant story, definitely check out Dreams and Shadows.

07 Apr

Every day the same, but different

Book Review: Every Day by David Levithan

Every Day cover

Every Day cover

I picked this book up from the library on a whim. I volunteer there twice a week, so I spend a lot of time walking past books, and this one caught my eye. The author wrote another book that a friend of mine has been telling me to read and the summary on the back sounded good, so I borrowed it.  I was glad I did because even though it is a “young adult” book and a quick read, I enjoyed it.

The premise of Every Day is that the protagonist, a 16 year old who has taken the name A, wakes up in a new body (of zir own age) every day. Ze (ze is a gender neutral pronoun) can “access” the  host body’s memories and generally tries to go about zirs day without disrupting the life of the body’s owner. A’s life has been like this for as long as ze can remember. Furthermore, A has no idea why or how this happens, just that it does. A also doesn’t know what zir original body is: boy or girl, straight or gay. A has experienced all types of genders and doesn’t feel anymore at home in one type of body than another. Each chapter of Every Day tells us what day A is on. The book opens with day 5994 with A inhabiting a boy named Justin. This leads A to Rihannon, Justin’s girlfriend, with whom ze immediately falls in love. On that day, A breaks zirs own rules and disrupts Justin’s life, skipping class with Rihannon to drive to the beach and get to know each other. The next day, A is desperate to meet Rihannon again. Luckily, A seems to stay within a relatively small geographical area so on any given day our protagonist isn’t too far away from the love interest. The book chronicles A’s efforts to meet her and get her to see A’s inner self, apart from the physical trappings. They deal with issues of attraction and sexuality and try to figure out what it means to be with someone who is a different person every day.

I felt that it had some strong themes that would be good for teenagers who are still trying to figure out who they are. Feeling like you’re a totally different person every day is not uncommon for a lot of  teenagers (or, let’s be real, 20-somethings) and Every Day plays with that concept quite literally. At one point, A tells the reader, “Part of growing up is making sure your sense of reality isn’t entirely grounded in your own mind” and I have to agree. You can always spot the mature children based on how aware they are of things that go on that have nothing to do with them. And from a perspective of advanced reality-awareness, being able to navigate the world around you without basing all your decision on your immediate feelings or hormone situation really is the secret to being a level-headed adult.

Another identity-related theme is our protagonists attitudes about sexuality. I know that not everyone is going to agree with this sentiment, but there is a part in the book where A expresses that zir preferences aren’t based on what sex organs people have, but on the person as an individual. Or, as I like to put it: love the person, not the parts. Again, I know that not everyone will feel this way, but I feel like for young LGBTQI (especially for the “questioning” part), the message that it’s not a big deal which gender the people you like are is an important one. It’s okay to just like people for themselves and not based on your considerations of how to have sex.

As a practically inevitable counterpoint to A’s genderless attraction preferences, ze is thrown into contact with some people who strongly disagree with those ideas. A ruminates on the family of one boy whose body he inhabits; the children are homeschooled in the extreme Christian way (not the cool, learn what you want and experience life way) and the mother goes berzerk when he catches her son (so it seems) kissing a girl–the beloved Rihannon. A remarks on the lecture ze received about “the sins of the flesh” and comments, “I want to tell [the mother] that ‘sins of the flesh’ is just a control mechanism–if you demonize a person’s pleasure, then you can control his or her life.” Speaking as an ex-Mormon, I find this to be totally true. Control of one’s sexuality is an all too common tactic that religions use to keep people down. Even though A feels this way, ze also expresses a lot of empathy for people who go to church. As a by product of zir life, A has been to all kinds of religious services. A emphasizes to the reader that religions have about 98% in common, and it’s that other 2% that everyone wants to focus on. Even though I am not a religious person, I liked that bit of perspective. It is a good point and I think that we do focus on the differences when we disagree with someone, rather than on the vast amounts we might have in common. And that’s really the point of Every Day. A wants us to focus on the commonalities of human experience as a way to come together, rather than dwell on the minute differences and let ourselves be dragged apart.

As a fan of science fiction and fantasy, I enjoyed the premise (a new body every day), but I did want there to be more to it. Of course, that would make it a dedicated genre novel, rather than more of a YA work. The way I see it, there are two ways to interpret A’s condition: either ze is some kind of “soul” that isn’t linked to a body, or A body swaps every day, with the essence of the host body going to A’s body somewhere. Based on A’s description of how the mind of zir host works (the host seems to remember the day how A wants him/her to remember it, A can access memories of the host’s life), the latter interpretation seems unlikely; however, it is the better launching point for telling an alternate perspective of this story. Imagine, A’s body somewhere waking up everyday confused and alarmed. Parents come in and ask “What’s wrong, Liam?” (or whatever A’s possible “real” name is). The guest consciousness panics, “Liam? Who’s Liam? My name is Ashley. Wait … who are you and WHERE AM I?” You’d get various levels of hysteria from different personalities. Frustrated, Liam’s parents seek professional help, seeing a new doctor every week it seems like. Every day, Liam is someone else and the people are so detailed. Liam is so young, where does he get these ideas? Even worse, Liam never recognizes his parents. Eventually, unable to cope, Liam’s parents send him to a psychiatric institution. Every day, the psych tech wakes Liam up and sometimes she’s frustrated and sometimes she laughs at him. He sees the doctors who ask, “Who are you today?” Every day, Liam is someone new. I think that is a story that would be fun to write, perhaps I will look into that, although it’s likely that the premise has been used before. Even though Every Day didn’t delve deep into the genre stuff, I still liked the system created around A’s talent, if you will. It was consistent and it was interesting. This book might be disappointing if you’re looking for serious science fiction or fantasy, but if you think the premise sounds interesting and you like young adult literature, you will probably enjoy this book.