Saturday, January 8, 2011

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2010, pt. 29: Claire Light

Reading in 2010
by Claire Light

Things I read this year that made me think:

1. Robin McKinley Dragonhaven: A boy growing up in a dragon sanctuary goes through a sort of coming of age ritual, spending the night in the wild by himself. But when he stumbles upon a dying dragon who has just given birth, In getting away from her usual late-teens female protagonist, McKinley has allowed herself to do something very interesting with this a-boy-and-his-dragon story. There's very little romance here; the relationship between the boy and the dragon is a parent/child relationship, and the arc is both one of a teen-aged single father, and one of two different species learning to communicate. You can see McKinley's obsession with inimical beings overcoming their differences and learning to understand and love one another. But this time, she takes greater risks with the story, and allows the alien species to be truly alien. And she does it all in the chatty, digressive language of a highly verbal teenager.

   2. Cynthia Kadohata Outside Beauty: What are the problems with being beautiful and loving life? It's not the usual setup for teen angst, but this YA is unusual in more ways than one. A Japanese American mother enchants her four daughters (from four different fathers) with her attitude that life is a constant delight. They believe her, and their childhood is happy, punctuated by visits from and to their various fathers, each of whom was charmed in a different way by the mother's beauty and delicious perspective. But when the mother has a devastating accident and the girls have to split up and go live with their fathers, they find that this blithe outlook may not have been serving them well, and that the father with no beauty, grace, or charm may be the best father of them all.

   3. Sarah Hall The Carhullan Army/Daughters of the North: This book may need no introduction with Aqueduct's readership, but in case you missed out, this is one smart piece of world-building. In a dystopian future England, ruled with iron fists after environmental breakdown restricts resources, a woman runs away from her failed marriage and a no-hope life to a remote women-only commune where an army is building. Some of the logic of their rebellion is weak, but the scenes in the commune are wonderfully imagined. A great inheritor of classic feminist sf.

   4. Zetta Elliott A Wish After Midnight: Some of my favorite middle grade books when I was a kid were the Connecticut Yankee-style stories of kids being zapped back in time to experience history first-hand. This YA does them one better, by raising the stakes on the protagonist's involvement in the past. An African American girl growing up poor in Brooklyn makes a wish and wakes up during the American Civil War draft riots. She's badly beaten by a mob, and falls in with an abolitionist group. Elliott doesn't make the mistake of retconning anachronistic views of race onto the white abolitionists; they are complex and heavily burdened with bigotry. But it is her nuanced handling of the protagonist that makes the novel so good: the more subtle forms of racism this teenaged girl experiences in the present are illuminated by her trip to the past, and she loses her innocence in more than one way. The book ends with a cliff-hanger, and I can't wait for the sequel!

5. Ed Lin This is a Bust and Snakes Can't Run: The recent TV show Life on Mars (both Brit and American versions) renewed our interest in seventies-era cop tales. Ed Lin's new series gives that trope a twist: his hero is one of New York's Finest's first Chinese detectives, and he's working Chinatown. Lin commits to period detail -- and to the complexities of Chinese American enclave society -- to a fault: often the mystery-plotlines take a backseat to exploring that world. But I'm not complaining. It's a fascinating world, and the result is the love child of Chan is Missing and Serpico. I'm now an official fan and will be reading 'em as they come out.

   6. Nami Mun Miles from Nowhere: If you asked me to name the tropes and elements of literary fiction that I most despise, I'd list: novels-told-in-linked-stories, autobiographical fiction, troubled-teen epiphany, deliberate urban grit, and "poetic" diction. Yet Miles from Nowhere, drowning in my least favorite things, is a slam dunk. I think it's the difference between a genuine gift for fiction, and trendiness: Mun makes this way seem like the only way to tell her story. She has a strong and delicate hold on the "telling detail," and doesn't waste our time and patience throwing images at us, hoping something will stick. She also knows when to get out of the way of telling a story. I hesitate to recommend this to writers, knowing that it will just encourage more people to try this; but maybe it can be a negative example: if you can't pull such a feat off this gracefully, try just telling the story straight.

7. John Green and David Levithan Will Grayson Will Grayson: Two boys, both named Will Grayson, are struggling with identity and sexuality in Chicago. One, who is straight, is overshadowed by his enormous (physically and personally) gay best friend, Tiny. The other is trying to fend off his best girlfriend's crush, while pursuing a love affair with a boy he meets online. The two meet one fateful night, which changes both of their worlds. A collaboration between two writers, each writing alternating chapters about two characters with the same name, really shouldn't have worked. But it did, and beautifully. Writing in the first-person speech of their characters, the authors were able to get around the problem of clashing authorial voices. And the convergence of the two stories feels natural, especially since they converge with musical theater. But the real triumph of the book is the character Tiny Cooper, who really should have been my best friend in high school, and who is hands down the most interesting character I've seen in YA since Octavian Nothing.

8. Mark C. Carnes Secret Ritual and Manhood in Victorian America: I'm not sure I'm recommending this as a fun read to anyone: it tends towards the academic. But it was one of the books that got me thinking this year. Carnes' interest in the development of contemporary ideas about masculinity takes him back to the origins and heyday of fraternal societies -- such as the Masons or the Oddfellows -- in the 19th century U.S. He points out that the pseudo-religious fraternal organizations were deliberately opposed to the Christianity of the second Great Awakening, which empowered women and had a distinct feminine bent. I read this for research for a novel, and I'm really pleased to see increasing amounts of scholarship on the origins of our ideas of manliness. It's a good book for those interested in the history of gender roles.

9. S. C. Gwynne Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History: Gwynne tells a nearly lost story of how in the mid-nineteenth century, the Comanches -- who were at that time the best light cavalry in the world -- actually turned back the tide of Euro-American westward expansion for about two decades. In the process, he contextualizes the real people behind the classic John Wayne flick The Searchers. I love a good narrative history, and this is a great one. I'm still working off of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee's presentation of the interaction between Euro-American settlers and Native Americans. That's the one in which First Nations were, one by one, fought, treated with, cheated, and debased. It's good to have my conceptions smashed and reformed every once in a while; and to be reminded that history is never just about oppressors and oppressed, but is a very complicated story -- too complicated to tell in one book.

10. Afsaneh Mogadam Death to the Dictator! A Young Man Casts a Vote in Iran's 2009 Election and Pays a Devastating Price: The author hides behind a pseudonym, the protagonist is also so hidden; it's hard to know if this is journalism, propaganda, creative nonfiction, or something else entirely. But this story of a young man who decides to participate in the protests against the stealing of the 2009 Iranian election is, for me, a rare narrative glimpse behind conflicting, flat, and agenda-ridden media depictions of a society I know nothing about. The protagonist has his brief moment of freedom in what appears to be an entirely evil regime, and is then arrested, held, and tortured. The book owes a great deal to 1984 and other 20th century political incarceration narratives; in fact, it's easy to see the seams where the narrative is sewn together to make a more affecting story. My helplessness to understand what is real and what is not in the face of the media onslaught about Iran is pretty telling; the book won't answer any of those questions, but it will raise them, tantalizingly.

  11. Suzy McKee Charnas The Holdfast Chronicles: A classic I've never read before. A four-novel cycle about a tiny, holdout community of humans who have survived the Earth's environmental collapse by completely oppressing women and incompletely oppressing young men. In the course of the series, the young men rise up against their leaders, destroying much of what is left of their society; then women who have escaped slavery return to free their sisters, and destroy half again of that. Charnas' basic premise -- that men are capable of completely overlooking the essential humanity of women for centuries -- may have been easier to believe in the seventies. It's harder to swallow now. But if you can get past that pretty big stumbling block, the cycle is an amazingly, and increasingly complex piece of world- and character-building. Difficult, rich, and enjoyable, it's holding fast as a timeless work of literature, and not merely a topical work of politics.

12. Suzanne Collins The Hunger Games trilogy: Proof that we are in a true golden age of young adult fiction, this dystopian trilogy raises the bar on both the dystopian trend, and every other YA-money-making trend. A teenaged girl from the coal-mining province of a city-centered totalitarian dictatorship is one of two "tributes" chosen annually from each province to fight-to-the-death in the televised "Hunger Games." Her successful bid to save her partner's life touches off a rebellion, which leads to a war even she couldn't have foreseen. The series is morally complex, as is the de rigueur love triangle. It's not a feel-good series, but you'll feel good anyway.

Claire Light is a founder and former senior editor of the nonprofit Asian American magazine Hyphen and has been a contributing editor at nonprofit magazine Other. She's published stories and articles in McSweeney's, Far Thing, Hyphen, Other, Sensor, Viet Tide, and various online and print zines. Aqueduct Press published her collection Slightly Behind and to the Left: Four Stories and Three Drabbles in 2010, as well as her essay "Girl in Landscape: How to Fall into a Politically Useless Narrative Rut and Notions of How to Get Back Out" in Narrative Power: Encounters, Celebrations, Struggles. She blogs at her personal blog, SeeLight, at a mapping blog, atlas(t), and at the Group Asian American issues blog at Hyphen magazine.

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