Salem Brownstone: All Along the Watchtowers by John Harris Dunning, art by Nikhil Singh

Salem BrownstoneSalem Brownstone, once the proprietor of the Sit & Spin Laundromat, gets an ominous telegram (on Halloween, naturally) calling him to New Mecco City, Azania to “take immediate possession of his [late father's] house and the contents therein.” His mourning – “[a]fter all these years of wanting to know my father, now it’s too late. I’ve lost him” – is short-lived when he discovers an intruder in the manse …

Before Salem has time to get better acquainted with visiting Cassandra Contortionist, who knew his father, the Shadow Boys descend. Uh-oh. Cassandra passes Salem the “scrying ball” which belonged to Salem’s father, with warnings that he must always keep it safe. Injured during their escape, Salem wakes up surrounded by the many creatures of Dr. Kinoshita’s Circus of Unearthly Delights. As Salem recovers, many strange occurrences happen, not the least of which include evil, dark plans to take over the universe. Salem, of course, holds the key – I mean the ball – to keeping the world in balance.

While the plot follows a rather straightforward good vs. evil narrative, the art is anything but predictable. As revealed in artist Nikhil Singh’s bio notes, the panels were seven years in the drawing with a major move in between for both creators from South Africa to London. From Salem’s single expressively squiggly eyebrow, to the mysterious Lola Q’s eyepatch, to Ed Harm’s stages of mutant transformation, and so much more, Singh’s irreverent, protean imagination is clearly manifested in the myriad tiny, peculiar elements of each panel.

Reading swiftly through will restore your sense of goodness and safety, but you’ll find you need to go back again and again)to make sure you haven’t missed any important details. After all, the fate of the universe lies between these glorious, mercurial pages.

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2010 (United States)

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Homeless Bird by Gloria Whelan

Homeless BirdKoly, the only daughter in a poor, rural Indian family, leaves all she’s ever known to fulfill her duties in an arranged marriage. Once the wedding is over, Koly realizes her family was tricked: her new husband is a sickly young boy whose parents are interested only in her dowry. Paltry as it is, it’s enough to take her dying groom to the holy city of Benares for a miraculous cure, and if not that, then at least a blessed burial.

Just 13, Koly becomes a widow. Tradition bans her from returning to her own family, so she assiduously serves her new family Over the next four years, Koly’s sister-in-law marries and leaves, her father-in-law dies, and her bitter mother-in-law remains unrelenting in her accusations and demands.

Koly dreams of escaping her hungry, belittled, desperate life, but she never expects that freedom will come as a result of abandonment: her mother-in-law leaves her in Vrindavan, a town where too many discarded widows meet their end. But thanks to the remarkable kindness of strangers, Koly is destined for so much more.

Winner of the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature in 2000, Gloria Whelan writes deftly of unchallenged traditions that begin with the devaluation of girls which allows for child marriage, abusive in-laws, and ends with disposable widowhood. Whelan empowers Koly to better face her bleak challenges: she is Brahmin-born, India’s highest caste; her mother teaches her a valuable practical skill, embroidery; her father-in-law secretly enables her literacy (the title originates from one of the poems in his beloved Rabindranath Tagore collection). Clearly aware of her younger audience, Whelan invests Koly with the determination to survive and thrive.

Should you choose to go audible, hapa British Indian actress Sarita Choudhury is an ideal narrator as she effortlessly adapts her voice from despair to feisty to hope to resolve to wonder. Her authentic range gives credible plausibility to even the deus ex machina-ending that may give cynical naysayers cause to sigh once or twice, but should ultimately leave most readers exhaling with relief and joy.

Readers: Middle Grade

Published: 2009 (United Kingdom), 2001 (United States)

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The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff

Monsters of TempletonFirst, a few details to address before we get to award-winning Lauren Groff‘s down-the-rabbit-hole, delightfully convoluted debut novel …

If you choose to go audible, the publishing world offers two versions: I went with Ann Marie Lee (via the local library), although the (later) more readily available recording is by Nicole Roberts. As long as Lee stays away from accents, her narration is just grand. Her version, however, doesn’t include Groff’s opening “Author’s Note,” so you’ll need to find those two pages in print (or stick Roberts in your ears) as they are dense with contextual information.

Templeton is real. Sort of. Templeton is based on Groff’s hometown of Cooperstown, New York, that baseball Mecca named after James Fenimore Cooper‘s father William, the town’s 18th-century founder. Quakers, house by the lake, Yale, great novelists with initials that begin with J.F. – do remember some of those real-life details.

Cooper rechristened the town ‘Templeton’ in The Pioneers, his novel about Cooperstown, in which “his facts also went a little awry,” Groff explains. She herself initially intended to “write a love story for Cooperstown,” but she realized hers was “a slantwise version of the original.” Groff adapted Cooper’s ‘pioneer’-ing approach, as well as some of Cooper’s characters, including Marmaduke Temple, Natty Bumppo, and Chingachgook. “In the end, fiction is the craft of telling truth through lies. I ended up with a different sort of story about my town than the one I had begun.”

So now … welcome to Monsters, of which Templeton seems to have many. “The day I returned to Templeton steeped in disgrace,” confesses protagonist Willie Upton – a few months short of finishing her Stanford PhD in archeology, and pregnant by her married advisor – “the fifty-foot corpse of a monster surfaced in Lake Glimmerglass.” That titular beast is the town’s least benign, and symbol it may be, it’s alas a rather unnecessary diversion from the rest of the narrative.

Having nearly killed her lover’s wife in a spectacular plane chase on the frozen Alaskan tundra, Willie returns to Templeton and her mother Vi in a think-later state of shock. With the discovery of the town’s monster, home is not the calm escape Willie expected. Her former flower-child mother has unexpectedly embraced religion, claiming the town’s pastor as her boyfriend. Hoping to purge her past wrongdoings, Vi confesses that Willie’s wild birthstory involving three potential donors is untrue, and that Willie’s father is actually a shall-not-be-named Templetonian, which means Willie’s heretofore unknown paternal link shares the same blue blood as mother and daughter. Willie’s challenge to dig up her lineage is just the insane sort of project to restore her sanity …

Interwoven with Willie’s personal quest is an acerbic, possibly dying best friend on the other side of the country, the “Running Buds,” a homecoming King too attracted to his returning Queenie, a transformed “Peter-Lieder-Pudding-and-Pie,” not to mention a sprawling, entangled family tree that includes ghosts, slaves, Native Americans, murderers, cheaters, and, of course, writers. From that epic monster mash came forth Wilhelmina Sunshine Upton … and she’s not leaving again until she’s unearthed all her buried roots.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2008

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Abby Spencer Goes to Bollywood by Varsha Bajaj

Abby Spencer Goes to BollywoodOkay, so what are the chances?! Varsha Bajaj‘s exuberant debut middle grade novel begins with a food allergy that sends her teen protagonist, the titular Abby Spencer, to the ER with an anaphylactic reaction. Talk about eerily prescient – less than 12 hours later, I’m repeating Abby’s opening number, Benadryl shot “meant for the baby hippo,” ambulance, and all. Before old age kills me, overcautious doctors will, egads!

“‘No one in my family is allergic to coconut,’” Abby’s mother tells the ER staff. “‘What about Abby’s father?’” is, naturally, the next question the doctor asks. At 13, Abby has spent her life explaining “‘Families come in all shapes and sizes’” when kids voiced curiosity about her absent paternal parent. Sure, she’s wondered, but Abby’s ever-caring mother and doting maternal grandparents have been all the family she’s needed … until now.

That coconut allergy is reason enough to want to know more at least about her medical inheritance. Although her mother is ready with a few answers, the internet ends up providing far more: Abby’s father, who has changed his name since he was a college student in Dallas with her mother, turns out to be Bollywood’s most famous mega-star. After a few fraught phone calls and Skype sessions, Abby’s flying first-class to Mumbai, to a family she never even knew she had … not to mention more glamor and surprises than she could ever have imagined.

Bajaj occasionally tries too hard to make her teen tale contemporary, even as she mixes in Taylor Lautner and Simon Cowell with the 1960s Jetsons and a so-called “PBS voice,” all in a few pages. If nothing else, such references are more likely to unnecessarily date her modern fairy tale. That said, Bajaj carefully presents Abby’s unexpected journey to the other side of the world as quite the eye-opening experience. Mingling with the over-the-top fabulous are important glimmers of reality: the grinding personal price of fame, the paralyzing consequences of tradition, parental neglect however unintended, the extreme poverty amidst vast luxuries that teems throughout Mumbai.

Young readers in search of an international adventure will surely enjoy accompanying Abby on the page. Bajaj’s vivid descriptions of paneer and pooris should inspire repeated visits to an Indian kitchen. Place an order for takeout, then queue up Dhoom 1, 2, or 3. Although no one compares to my Aamir, I’m guessing Abby’s Dad is not unlike Hrithik Roshan: “Dhoom again and run away with me on a roller coaster ride, dhoom again and see your wildest dreams slowly come alive.” Dancing yet …?

Readers: Middle Grade

Published: 2014

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, .Fiction, Hapa, Indian, Indian American, South Asian, South Asian American

Secrets of Eden by Chris Bohjalian

Secrets to EdenThe day after Alice Hayward is baptized, she’s found strangled in her own home; her husband George is on the couch with a bullet through his head. The apparent murder/suicide understandably has the couple’s tight-knit small Vermont town in shock, especially causing a crisis of faith for Reverend Stephen Drew.

Into Haverhill swoops an angel of sorts – at least a renowned celestial expert with two inspirational bestsellers to buoy her lofty (some might say loopy) status. Eerily enough, Heather Laurent is one of two surviving daughters who lost their parents to a gruesome murder/suicide decades back when they were teenagers. Which gives Heather much to talk about with the 15-year-old Hayward daughter, Katie. Meanwhile, deputy state attorney Catherine Benincasa is certain the Hayward tragedy needs further investigation, and at the top of her must-be-questioned list is the good Reverend Stephen.

The prolific Chris Bohjalian (my favorite hapa Armenian American writer, whose 17th title – Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands –hits shelves July 8) has become my latest go-to aural author, encouraged as I am with his repeat cast of dependable narrators, especially the versatile Mark Bramhall who is part of this title’s marvelously convincing quartet. Stephen, Catherine, Heather, and Katie, each get their unique say – although I can’t help wishing that Alice, too, might have had the chance to voice herself beyond snippets from her journal. Indeed, even after the whodunnit-reveal, only the two corpses will know the whole truth of that fateful evening … and their ‘secrets of Eden’ will remain forever buried in separate graves.

That sort of ponderous ambiguity is what keeps me going back for more books Bohjalian: what’s on the page (or stuck in the ears) is a many-layered story that always demands deeper engagement.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2010

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Armenian American, Nonethnic-specific

With or Without You by Domenica Ruta

With or Without YouAh, well … who needs enemies when you have relatives like debut author Domenica Ruta? ‘Dysfunctional’ sounds nearly sane after meeting Ruta’s family on the page or stuck in the ears – choosing the latter is especially recommended as Ruta herself narrates with chilling, detached efficiency.

Her father – who abandoned her mother during a Hawai’i vacation when he found out she was pregnant – was mostly absent. Her “Uncle Vic” – apparently known by many of the extended family to be a pedophile – sexually abused her as a child.

No one, however, compared to Ruta’s mother Kathi: “Spell [her name] with a Y or, God forbid, a C, and she’d lacerate your face with her scowl.” Drug addicted (“a narcotic omnivore”), neglectful (“Groceries could wait another day, but Calvin Klein and HBO could not”; “There were several occasions on which my mother let Uncle Vic sleep in my bed when Auntie Lucy threw him out”), abusive (“‘You miserable c***. You don’t love me. You never loved me. I knew it’”), Kathi is surely one of the most monstrous mothers memorialized between the pages.

Occasionally, surprisingly, Kathi’s maternal instincts kicked in – albeit in roundabout ways – especially when Ruta’s education was at stake: she helped sell a “brick of cocaine” to pay for parochial school, she dressed Ruta “like a prep-school fetish out of Playboy magazine” for her interviews at the “ten most expensive boarding schools in New England” believing she was gaining Ruta admission, then “was envious, heartbroken, and scared, but, more than that, more than anything, she was proud” when Ruta entered 10th grade at Phillips Academy Andover.

In order to live to tell all, Ruta survived a teenage suicide attempt, her own addictions (alcohol is her drug of choice), and decades of mother/daughter toxicity, until she finally exorcises her past in print. Amazingly, in a telephone call with a New York Times writer, Kathi affirms Ruta’s memories: “‘She lied about nothing. She told the painful, honest truth.’” No chance of a James Frey-style exposé here! 

Ruta is a visceral writer, arranging her words with blunt clarity. She miraculously avoids any self-pity. Through the bleary and brutal, she even manages surprising moments of pithy humor – laughing through drowning eyes and clenched teeth.

Reading (or listening) with dropped jaw will surely fulfill any Schadenfreude fantasies, while reaching book’s end should inspire respect and admiration, perhaps even some fear: the next line of that U2 song that I assume inspired the title continues with “And you give yourself away …” and then multiple repeats of “I can’t live / With or without you …” Now that Ruta’s given herself to legions of readers, let’s hope her survival instincts remain stronger than ever.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Memoir, .Nonfiction, Nonethnic-specific

Dust of Eden by Mariko Nagai

Dust of EdenPlease correct me if I’m wrong here: The Japanese American imprisonment has been the focus of many, many titles for audiences of all ages, via fiction, non-fiction, poetry, short stories, plays, graphic titles, picture books, and more, but I believe Mariko Nagai‘s Dust of Eden is the first novel in verse on the subject. Again, please enlighten me otherwise …

Mina Masako Tagawa, 13, lives in Seattle with her journalist father, her homemaker mother, her rose breeder grandfather, and her track star older brother Nick. Her cat is named Basho, her best friend is Jamie. Until December 7, 1941, Mina is an ordinary American girl, and then suddenly she is reduced to a “Jap“: “We are not Americans, the eyes tell us. / We do not belong, the mouths curl up. / We are the enemy aliens, the Japs.”

Mina and her family are among the 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent taken from their homes and imprisoned during World War II. First Mina’s father is arrested without cause. After President Franklin D. Roosevelt signs Executive Order 9066, the family is given a week to gather their belongings. They are initially “evacuated” to the horse stalls of Camp Harmony in Puyallup, 30 miles south of Seattle, until they are shuttled away by cattle train to the remote dust fields of Minidoka Relocation Center in Idaho. “We held our breath for three / years. We did not have anything to call / our own …”

Those three years bring separation, isolation, devastation. Jamie is Mina’s one constant on the outside. One teacher renames the students with “American names. / So we can be more American, / she says.  So we will be less / the enemy alien”; a more thoughtful teacher returns the children’s identities. Father is released, only to watch Nick demonstrate his loyalty to the government that imprisoned him by offering his very life.

Nagai captures a family in flux, caught in someone else’s blame, struggling to stay together, fighting to understand. Perhaps because Nagai herself is Japanese-born and currently Tokyo-domiciled, her final “Epilogue” – a letter sent by Nick from the other side of the world – is especially compelling. While nothing is particularly new here, Nagai’s crystalline phrases, stanzas, lines that barely cover 120 pages prove gorgeously resonating.

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2014

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Poetry, Japanese American

Coyote Run by Gaëtan Dorémus

Coyote RunHere’s your oxymoron for the day: wordless books that convey so much.

French illustrator/author Gaëtan Dorémus pays a kid-friendly homage to the American western … with whimsy, ingenuity, and (of course!) chocolate chip cookies. Somewhere in the wild surrounded by red rocks and jaunty saguaros, Coyote watches a tiny friend flying free while he remains behind bars. The sheriff and his somnolent deputies are otherwise distracted, so Coyote grabs the keys and makes for the hills.

The sheriff gives chase, and a mesa-top face-off ensues with the hunter and huntee angrily pointing guns. But Coyote’s tiny ladybug friend appears to distract the enemies, its tiny flights of fancy inspiring foes to become friends. [Yes, getting along can be that simple: just put down the weapons, raise a toast, and roast a meal together!] Alas, peace proves short-lived … until once again, the ladybug rallies to provide quite the Coccinella septempunctata ex machina rescue.

Dorémus’ latest import, which arrives Stateside thanks to delightfully innovative indie press Enchanted Lion Books, is proof-positive that his pictures are worth thousands of words, especially when his artistry is so full of action, humor, and just plain fun (you wouldn’t expect less from someone who, according to his back flap bio, enjoys eating his green tomatoes with cinnamon, right?). Rest assured, nothing gets lost in translation here!

Readers: Children

Published: 2014 (United States)

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World Class: Poems Inspired by the ESL Classroom by J.C. Elkin

World ClassComprised of just 27 pages which hold 14 poems, this collection feels more like a pamphlet than an actual book. That said, the spare verses by J.C. Elkin, a Pushcart Prize-nominated ESL teacher at a Maryland community college, are not without complexity and depth, inspired by her actual students’ lives: “Their names, nationalities, and some occupations have been changed, but their circumstances in these narratives are real. The quotations are as exact as memory permits,” Elkin explains in her introduction.

“My students arrive in dust storms of change,” Elkin’s first poem opens in “Foreign Soil.” She empathizes with their struggles in “World Class,” herself once an ex-pat abroad who “know[s] how it feels to be the alien.”  The “‘Tribal’, ‘slanty-eyed’, / Slavic, ‘rag-head’ strangers” in her class are her “heroes and friends / who put their lives on hold for twelve long hours a week, / asking probing questions, aiming for the A.”

She writes of Hala, who was once a superintendent of girls’ schools in Pakistan, where nine million girls are denied an education. She bids “Vaya con Dios” to Fernan who returns south of the border to bury his mother. She regrets not letting JoySong keep the textbook that wasn’t hers, especially when she returns the next day with bruised signs of spousal abuse. She commiserates with Verdad whose son’s English is not expanding with quite the right vocabulary. She’s left speechless by Young who can’t connect words into comprehensible sentences, but knows exactly how to show his appreciation towards her.

“I’m proud to say I help,” Elkin writes. “Ashamed I don’t do more.” Yet, what she accomplishes here is perhaps that most important ‘more’: giving voice to the newest generation of Americans-in-the-making. Her ‘help’ is never blind, as she knows when to be firm with chronic latecomers, because “[t]he wait list is full of contenders.” She is uncompromisingly honest, ready to expose her own insensitivities; she admits to her own ‘them/us’-mindset as she, too, once thought “‘[t]hey should speak our language or just go back home.’” She confesses without guilt that when she sees one of her students bearing the suffocating weight of her hijab while Ramadan-fasting in steamy August heat, she realizes”… watching her melt in submission, I hate her religion today.”

As brief as Elkin’s Class may be, her universal lessons are many … and each a learning experience ready to share.

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Poetry, Nonethnic-specific

Fagin the Jew by Will Eisner, foreword by Brian Michael Bendis, afterword by Jeet Heer

Fagin the Jew“I am Fagin the Jew of Oliver Twist,” begins the ‘father of the graphic novel’-Will Eisner‘s 21st-century literary reclamation of the 19th-century classic. “This is my story, one that has remained untold and overlooked in the book by Charles Dickens,” a tattered old man insists. “Tarry a bit, Mister Dickens,” he speaks directly to his maker, “while ol’ Fagin here tells you, Sir, what I really was and how it all came to be!!”

The infant Moses Fagin arrived in London with his parents after surviving the pograms of Eastern Europe. While England was kinder to immigrant Jews, the more recent arrivals from Middle and Eastern Europe “were regarded as lower class.” Fagin paraphrases Dickens’ own A Tale of Two Cities-opening as he remembers his upbringing: “These were grim times, and yet the best of times for us newcomers.”

Moses learned early of life on the rough streets, but was given the chance of a promising future when he was hired as a houseboy to a wealthy Jewish merchant who soon enough came to treat him more like his own son. A single unthinking action sends Moses back to the streets, where he must use every means to survive. Again and again he’s mistreated and betrayed, unjustly accused and imprisoned. Somehow, he manages to keep some semblance of humanity and, in his later years, provides a haven-of-sorts for homeless boys, including the young Oliver Twist. The “Epilogue,” narrated by an adult Oliver – now a happily-married, well-established barrister – offers an apocryphal “turning point in Fagin’s life and his legacy” that is especially,  sigh inducing. Oh, if only!

As memorable as Fagin’s narrative is, the context in which it was written is perhaps the more enlightening story, especially as revealed in Eisner’s 2003 “Introduction to the First Edition.” In reimagining Fagin, the legendary Eisner – whose name is on the U.S. graphic industry’s highest awards – was, in essence, responding to his own stereotypical creations more than a half-century earlier. In 1940, Eisner introduced The Spirit, which featured an African American character named Ebony. By 1945, after surviving military service, Eisner became “more aware of the social implications of racial stereotypes, and [he] began to treat Ebony with greater insight.” More years passed until Eisner realized how Ebony was “feeding a racial prejudice with this stereotype image.” Eisner transferred that new awareness toward “produc[ing] graphic novels with themes of Jewish ethnicity and the prejudice Jews still face.” In the original editions of Oliver Twist, he “found unquestionable examples of visual defamation in classic literature … Combatting that became an obsessive pursuit …”

For this 10th anniversary issue, Fagin is bookended by an illuminating foreword and afterword that provides further insight in the story’s creation and aftermath. The levels of reclamation are especially intriguing – from Eisner’s distancing of his own stereotypical creations, to his rescue of Fagin from ignominy, to many-Eisner (of course!)-winning comics maker Brian Michael Bendis and culture journalist Jeet Heer‘s involvement in getting one of Eisner’s ‘minor’ titles to more and more readers.

Much like Jean Rhys gave Jane Eyre‘s ‘madwoman in the attic’ a voice in Wide Sargasso Sea, and Tom Stoppard offered Hamlet‘s schoolfriends a play of their own in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Eisner literally gives life to Fagin: “This book,” he rightfully insists, “… is not an adaptation of Oliver Twist! It is the story of Fagin the Jew.”

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2003, 2013 (10th anniversary edition)

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Graphic Novel/Manga/Manwha, British, European, Jewish