Tag Archives: Personal transformation

Raven Girl by Audrey Niffenegger

Raven GirlInternationally renowned for her two bestselling novels, The Time Traveler’s Wife and Her Fearful Symmetry, Audrey Niffenegger is also a splendiforous artist with double the graphic titles to her lauded name. Her fourth and latest is “a new fairy tale” with origins that begin with movement: “Awhile ago, Wayne McGregor [resident choreographer of London's Royal Ballet] invited me to collaborate with him to make a new dance. … [H]e would make the dance, I would make the story,” she explains in her ending “Acknowledgements.”

As fairy tales go, Niffenegger weaves shocking originality between the seemingly (deceptively) formulaic opening and closing: “Once there was a Postman who fell in love with a Raven,” the story begins; “Once there was a Raven Prince who fell in love with a Raven Girl. And they lived happily together ever after,” the final lines resound. In between is a human daughter who is birthed from an egg, the Cat who reports strange occurrences to the unbelieving Court of the Ravens, a plastic surgeon who speaks about “chimeras” and builds wings before falling to his own death, the Detective Boy who is carried off and never seen again, and a half Raven/human family that considers movie offers and the circus until a crowned stranger knocks at their door.

Niffenegger’s intricate etchings gorgeously embellish her fantastical tale – the first full illustration as the Postman’s shadow encompasses the young Raven as she looks up in troubled wonder is a haunting, lingering image. The detailed realism of the ravens – every feather, every wrinkle on the talons – sharply contrasts the more suggested, less fleshed out human figures who appear almost unfinished in comparison to their avian counterparts.

Niffenegger’s illustrations question the imagined and the real, flipping our expectations with regularity. “Fairy tales have their own remorseless logic and their own rules,” she writes. Presented on the page in words and art, Raven Girl is “ready to undergo its own transformation into dance.” The curtain rose last week in London … oh, to have had the wings to carry me there …!!

Tidbits: Click here for an interview with Niffenegger about the Raven Girl-Royal Ballet collaboration.

Click here for my interview with Niffenegger for the November 2010 issue of Bookslut.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Graphic Novel/Manga/Manwha, British, Nonethnic-specific

The Perfect Mile: Three Athletes, One Goal, and Less than Four Minutes to Achieve It by Neal Bascomb

Neal Bascomb is a consummate storyteller: he can unravel a tale with an ending you already know, set it at a heart-thumping pace, and never let you rest until you hit that final page. Unless you’ve been in total seclusion your entire life, you probably know that the four-minute mile barrier was broken quite a few decades ago. [I'll save you a Google search: as of today, the world record of 3:43.13 (OMG!) by Morocco's Hicham El Guerrouj remains unchallenged since 1999.]

Just how that four-minute barrier was finally overcome gets breathtaking (bestselling!) treatment from Bascomb on the page; and in case you were wondering, the stuck-in-the-ears version incites even more excitement as read by Nelson Runger, who adds a welcome, old-time sportscaster enthusiasm to his narration. [One of my biggest gripes with audible books has been the laziness of producers with casting/directing for proper pronunciation. Why is basic respect for the author's words so much to ask for??!! Here's shocking (pathetic that it is so shocking!) news about thisproduction: Both Bascomb and one of the book's major subjects get a shout-out of "grateful acknowledgement" for their help in "researching certain pronunciations in this book"!! Really, how hard was that??!!]

But back to the pursuit of perfection … Mile by mile, race by race, Bascomb follows three young athletes around the world as each devotes himself to be the first to achieve the deemed-impossible sub-4:00 goal: British Roger Bannister, an Oxford-educated medical doctor-in-training; Australian John Landy, a Melbourne University track hero; and American Wes Santee, who had to battle his critical father for the chance to run (and be educated!). Their backgrounds are vastly different, their training plans at times antithetical to proven regimens, their lifestyles bear little resemblance to each other … and yet their shared goal never wavers, and ultimately, one man breaks that elusive tape.

I knew how it would end, and yet I often couldn’t pull the earphones off my head: “shhh, he’s on the fourth lap,” I’d admonish the hubby, or “just a sec, he’s about to break another record,” I’d tell a whining child, or “we’ll talk in a minute, they’re gonna announce the official time,” I’d hang up the cell call as it interrupted my iPod function. With Bascomb’s addictive step-by-step retelling, knowing the ending never diminished the wanting to know happened next.

Confession time: I’m not delusional enough to ever think I’ll ever come close to run the perfect mile, but thanks to someone Bascomb and I know in common, I’m out there running a bunch of my own (albeit much slower!) perfect miles – yesterday morning, the exact time I had visualized actually flashed up on the board as I crossed the finish line of a local race. Not that I’m bragging (well … only a little bit), but my miracle-making coach has managed to make me an ultra-athlete (yeah, me!). So here’s the best sneak-peek news for ultra-wannabes: come next spring, the wisdom of that impossible coaching will be available to anyone and everyone when my ultimate ultracoach’s first book hits shelves next spring. Watch this space for details.

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2004

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Audio, .Nonfiction, Australian, British, Nonethnic-specific

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time by Yasutaka Tsutsui, translated by David Karashima

Déjà vu: If the title seems at all familiar to you even though the book’s U.S. pub date happened this fall, don’t be surprised because you’ve probably, already seen various iterations of the story on other multiple platforms. While this is the original 1967 bestselling Japanese novel translated for the first time into English, the story has had many, many lives through the decades, including television dramas, three live-action movies, an anime film (which, amazingly, you can watch in full with a dubbed English soundtrack here!), and at least three manga series! Talk about prolific longevity!

On the printed page, the actual book offers two stories. In the titular “Girl,” middle schooler Kazuko is sharing clean-up duties in the science lab with two of her classmates, Goro and Kazuo. She thinks she momentarily sees a stranger’s shadow, smells a mysterious liquid from a broken test tube, and promptly passes out. When her friends find her, she seems okay enough … for now. That night, an earthquake hits in the middle of the night, and her friend Goro’s house is threatened by a small fire. The next morning, running late because of the near-sleepless excitement, she and Goro narrowly miss a fatal truck collision. And yet Kazuko wakes up in her own bed again …! Was it a dream? What really happened?

In the second – totally unrelated – story, “The Stuff that Nightmares Are Made of,” Bunichi frightens his school friend Masako with such surprise and horror that Masako finally decides to bravely confront some of those fears head-on, literally going to new heights and traveling far and wide to solve her personal mysteries.

Considered one of Japan’s most prolific and lauded writers, author Yasutaka Tsutsui‘s translated-into-English titles are slowly growing in the West. How ironic, however, that derivative-”Girl”-works were so plentiful Stateside long before the original.

“Girl” is clearly the iconic piece here, with “Stuff” (somewhat oddly) not even mentioned on the back cover or the inside first page. “Girl” proves to be the more thought-provoking piece, and you’ll certainly be thinking about the futuristic machinations long after you leap through “Stuff.” And now that I’ve enjoyed the page, I’m looking forward to going backwards to check out that six-years-ago anime. Time is all relative, right?

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 1967 (Japan), 2011 (United Kingdom), 2012 (United States)

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Translation, Japanese

I’ll Give It My All … Tomorrow (vols. 3-4) by Shunju Aono, English adaptation by Akemi Wegmüller

Nope, tomorrow still hasn’t arrived for midlife slacker Oguro. As volume 3 opens, Oguro continues to struggle with his manga-making, his disappointed father isn’t above smacking him since “just telling [him] isn’t doing it,” and his teenage daughter has little choice than to detachedly watch the father/son duels.

In between having powwows with himself at 15, 17, 22, 32, his current 42-year-old self, and God (!), Oguro works at H Burger, drinks with buddy Miyata, and churns out middling manga. Told by an expensive fortuneteller that changing his name will change his luck, Oguro decides he’s now “Person Nakamura,” ready to break “this unconscious tendency toward safety.” His inaugural work as Person, Revamp Yourself: Sayonara Stressful Lifestyle, not only reflects his new renegade spirit, but his editor Murakami actually likes the story! Could Oguro’s manga career finally be a possibility?

Since he dropped out of corporate life to pursue his manga dreams, Oguro himself hasn’t gotten very far, but he’s ironically inspired others to find freedom elsewhere: Miyata announces he’s trading in his white collar for a white apron and open a bakery, and Murakami decides life’s too short not to live an honest life and resigns his editor-ship after two years of holding Oguro’s hand.

So close to being published by volume 4, Oguro is – not surprisingly – the last to learn that Murakami has quit. Newbie editor Unami, just 23, offers to take on Oguro when no one else will claim him. At their first working meeting, Unami is blunt: her “I think you need to know when to give up” sends Oguro into a downward spiral so pathetic that he might actually be done with manga.

In a late-night, drunken reverie in Miyata’s new bakery, the old friends remember their poignant shared youth, and how they’ve always supported each other, even against the biggest bullies. Oguro’s memories of fighting against all odds as a kid, no matter the bloody consequences, recharges his commitment to manga: “I’m sticking with manga to the death.”

Meanwhile, editor Unami is battling demons of her own. She equates Oguro’s not-yet-successful devotion to her own father’s writing failures, and empathizes with what she believes must be Oguro’s daughter’s anguish over being a failure’s child. But Suzuko is making plans of her own, announcing to a surprised Oguro that she’s off to Finland to study architecture.

Lives are moving on … and as Oguro grows older, he hardly seems wiser. Still, his determination to live a life in pictures might yet convince even his staunchest naysayers otherwise.

Fans of Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata’s Bakuman will definitely recognize many of the processes (obstacles?) of getting manga published, although the experience of reading both series couldn’t be less similar: Bakuman’s creators’ artwork is all about rich, glorious detail; Oguro’s maker Shunju Aono doesn’t move much beyond basic line drawing here. Still, Oguro’s simplicity exudes a certain naïve charm, and when even the “brutally honest” Unami gets pulled back into Oguro’s orbit, hope returns anew that even slackers might someday, somehow give it their all … even as soon as tomorrow.

Click here for previous volumes on BookDragon.

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2011 (United States)
Original Japanese edition published by Shogakukan Inc.

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Graphic Novel/Manga/Manwha, .Translation, Japanese

Author/Artist Interview: CYJO + “KYOPO”


Come one, come all! Get ready for the upcoming Asian Pacific American invasion at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. “Portraiture Now: Asian American Portraits of Encounter” opens this Thursday, August 12 and runs through October 14, 2012.

Presented in conjunction with the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program, “Portraiture Now: Asian American Portraits of Encounter” is the Smithsonian’s first major showcase of contemporary Asian American portraiture.

This brand new exhibit features the work of seven diverse artists with roots in the Americas and Asia, often with peripatetic tendencies: third-generation Japanese American Roger Shimomura; Japanese Mexican hapa Shizu Saldamando; Japanese-born, U.S.-domiciled Satomi Shirai; Korean-native, U.S.-trained Hye Yeon Nam; Chinese-born, U.S./China commuting Zhang Chun Hong; Vietnamese American immigrant Tam Tran; and Korean American, currently China-domiciled CYJO.

Of the lucky seven, I caught up with CYJO in transit from there (Beijing) to here (DC) to talk about the impending opening. FINALLY, it’s really happening!

CYJO and I first crossed paths years ago at the Smithsonian APA Program office when then-director Dr. Franklin Odo called me in to meet one of my own. “She’s Korean. She’s from DC. And she’s really talented,” he insisted. When I raised my eyebrows warily, he promised that CYJO had one of the most intriguing projects he had ever seen. This time, he really knew what he was talking about!

Kyopo, the Korean word, refers to people of Korean descent who do not live in Korea – some seven million dispersed throughout the world, 2.3 million who live in the U.S.

KYOPO,” the exhibit, is a marvel. The collection in comprised of 240 wildly individual portraits, yet each presented against a common background – a stark white wall with a pale wood floor beneath. CYJO’s message is clear: while the subjects share the same Korean ethnicity, each individual clearly represents, champions, shouts out a unique, intimate experience.

“Portraiture Now” showcases a selection of 60 individual portraits from “KYOPO” chosen from the full roster of 240, plus one collective portrait of all the “KYOPO” participants together. Once you’ve been amazed (and you will be, guaranteed!) by the quarter-sampling, you can access the entire collection in a gorgeous, breathtaking coffee table book published this month by Umbrage Editions. The book offers the added bonus of interviews with almost all the subjects, with an introduction by Julian Stallabrass and foreword by Marie Myung-Ok Lee.

In all its stunning beauty, KYOPO on the page is definitely a photographic treasure to have and to hold …

So first things first … HOW did “KYOPO” start?
The idea surfaced from a curiosity and a need: a curiosity to understand how those who shared the same ancestral culture contextualized themselves in their societies; and a need since I didn’t see many photography books that focused on Korean culture and contemporary issues. [...click here for more]

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2011

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Filed under ...Author Interview/Profile, ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Nonfiction, Korean, Korean American

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

Truth: if not for Sunil Malhotra, I would never have finished Abraham Verghese‘s bestselling first novel, Cutting for Stone. Immediately opened upon receipt more than two years ago, for some reason, my bookmark never moved beyond the first few chapters …

Timing mattered: I realize now to fully appreciate Stone, I first had to read Beneath the Lion’s Gaze by Maaza Mengiste (for Ethiopian political context), The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee (for medical background), and Half the Sky by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn (for an overview of women’s societal maladies). Then Sunil Malhotra’s mellifluous narration embodied the characters (after which, with his many talented voices still in my head, I returned to the page because my eyeballs are quicker than my ears).

The final result is, in a word, wondrous.

On September 20, 1954, conjoined twin sons – “tethered together” at the head by a “short, fleshy tube” – violently enter the world in Missing Hospital’s Operating Theater 3 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Born to an Indian nun who dies, and a British surgeon who vanishes in shocked stupor, they are named Marion (for the pioneering American gynecologist) and Shiva (who was “all but dead until [his adoptive mother-doctor] invoked Lord Shiva’s name”).

Now at 50, Marion Praise Stone examines his life: the twins’ Ethiopian childhood intertwined with their nanny’s daughter Genet, their cleaving when Marion is forced to flee their homeland, his training in a New York inner-city “Ellis Island hospital” (far removed from a more genteel “Mayflower hospital”), the shattering events that lead to reunion, and his ultimate trip back home. His telling repays a debt: “What I owe Shiva most is this: to tell the story. It is one … which I had to piece together. Only the telling can heal the rift that separates my brother and me. … Where silk and steel fail, story must succeed. To begin at the beginning …”

And thus the prologue ends and the epic begins. Over the next 500-plus pages (or 24 hours if you let Sunil woo you to the end), ShivaMarion will vividly inhabit your imagination; Verghese makes sure their residence is long-lasting, using his formidable literary skills to both unravel and bind the twins’ story amidst the chaos of immigration, colonialism, missionary life, political occupation, and so much more. More remarkable, however, are the small reminder seeds Verghese plants chapter after chapter, scenes so unforgettable that the tiniest triggers will cause you to envision ShivaMarion once more long after the final page: a hurt thumb, Middlemarch, helpless puppies, stalled motorcycles, even The New York Times.

Wait no more. Be ready. Be haunted. Be enthralled.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2009

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, African, Indian African, Indian American, South Asian American

Dear Zari: Hidden Stories from Women of Afghanistan by Zarghuna Kargar

“‘I hope other people – particularly women – listen to these stories and become kinder to their own sex,’” a woman laments, her life made unbearable by her female in-laws who condemn her because she literally flushed away the evidence of her virginal blood.

“‘I don’t understand why God allows men who don’t care about women and girls to have families,’” reveals a woman whose life has been “pointless, empty” since she was married off at 14 to a 40-year-old drug addict-abuser as punishment for falling in love with the boy she grew up with in the same home.

“Girls are kept like dolls in the corner of the house. If they are sent to school they are taught to see this as a big favour; if they are given the same food as their brothers they have the best parents, and if they are bought new clothes they have the best family,” says the author, the most privileged of the women whose lives are captured here in this wrenching collection, having enjoyed the relative freedom of a western life, and yet still judged by the standards of her family’s traditional Afghan upbringing.

Dear Zari is the Afghan equivalent to Xinran’s acclaimed international bestseller, The Good Women of China: Hidden Voices. Like Xinran (who offers her personal support of the book on its back cover!), Zarghuna Kargar is London-based, and met many of her subjects because of a radio show; in Kargar’s case, she worked on the influential BBC World Service program, “Afghan Women’s Hour,” for several years until the UK government ended its funding in January 2010. “Dear Zari …” these women began their stories … and from them and their often shattering experiences, Kargar found the courage to share her own which she weaves through the lives of the women who bravely speak here.

Reading these chapters is a disturbing experience, especially knowing these stories are now – post 9/11, post-Taliban, 21st century. Most of the men here are, in a word, inhuman: if they are not violent pedophiles enslaving child brides, or giving away sisters and daughters to pay off their debts, then they’re discarding innocent girls for not bleeding on the wedding night, or, in one of the worst stories, a once-loving husband coldly abandons a young wife who lost a leg during a tragic bombing.

Shockingly, worse than the men are the women: the mothers trapped by their own abusive husbands, the mothers-in-law wielding the only kind of power they have, the sisters-in-law staking their territories – their cruelties have no limits. Only the final three of the 13 total provide glimmers of hope, albeit muted: a successful home business, living life as a man, and choosing one’s own partner allow at least three women to escape horrific fates. Their inclusion holds necessary promise for Afghan women of an equitable life free of repression, denial, and erasure.

Kargar, working with journalist Naomi Goldsmith, is a heartfelt, caring moderator, although perhaps a better champion than a writer. That said, the stories themselves are more important than their exposition in providing unforgettable testimony by women too often lost and forgotten, especially following the “State of the World’s Mothers 2011″-report released by Save the Children earlier this month that revealed Afghanistan is the worst place in the world to be a mother.

A US pub date doesn’t seem to have been announced, but UK copies are available from international booksellers. For those of us with such lucky access, Dear Zari should surely be required reading at the very least, and a challenge to initiate sustainable change at the most hopeful.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2011 (United Kingdom)

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Memoir, .Nonfiction, Afghan, British

The Paradise Bird Tattoo (or, Attempted Double-Suicide) by Choukitsu Kurumatani, translated by Kenneth J. Bryson

A major Japanese prize-winning book (Naoki, 1998) and film (Akame shijūya taki shinjū misui, 2003; in English, Akame 48 Waterfalls), Paradise is an unflinching meditation on late-20th-century disconnection.

Middle-aged Ikushima, once again a self-described “corpse” in shoes and suit, recalls his drifting life 12 years ago: after abandoning his meaningless advertising job, he eventually settled in a squalid apartment in an industrial town, “eking out a living sticking bits of animal organs and chicken meat onto skewers.” He initially observes his fellow inhabitants – prostitutes and johns, a volatile tattoo artist and his young son, the artist’s enigmatic lover, various gang members – with a detachment that gradually fades. A surprise liaison proves dangerous and sends him on the run again. That Kurumatani’s reputation is defined by his shishõsetsu (a Japanese literary genre of realistic, autobiographic novels, translated as the “I-novel”) adds poignancy to his protagonist Ikushima’s desperation.

Verdict: Gen-Xers with nihilistic literary preferences (“There’s no fundamental meaning or value in human existence,” Ikushima repeatedly insists) looking for a fast, gritty read need look no further.

Review: “Fiction,” Library Journal, May 15, 2011

Readers: Adult

Published: 2011 (United States)

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Translation, Japanese

The Other by David Guterson

I could cry over The Other. And not tears of the ‘I’m so gratefully happy’-variety, alas; I’m talking truly disappointed waterworks.

David Guterson writes quietly wrenching novels, including his bestselling Snow Falling on Cedars, and later East of the Mountains, which I actually found more effecting. The Other, too, could be described as quietly wrenching … but it’s also tediously neverending. Sniffle sniffle.

Neil Countryman and John William Barry meet in 1972 on the high school track when John William narrowly beats Neil in a half-mile race. Raised in two different worlds – working class Countrymans, old-money established Barrys – the two unlikely friends will wander in and out of each other’s rather disparate lives.

More than three decades later, John William dies alone, having spent his final seven years living in a Washington wilderness cave, his solitude broken only by Neil’s provision-bearing visits. On page 6 of the novel, Neil – now a husband, father, English teacher, unpublished novelist – unexpectedly inherits John Williams’ $440 million. He spends the next 250 page trying to figure out what happened and why, re-examining, re-envisioning his relationship with his enigmatic friend.

Numerous plausible elements for a memorable story are definitely here … and perhaps therein lies the problem. So much seems promising – the traumatic long-term consequences of dysfunctional families, the hypocrisies of the overprivileged, the debilitating effects of easy money, the abandonment of so-called civilization for a purer life, etc. etc. – that the end result too soon devolves into predictably flat, clichéd repetition.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2008

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

I’ll Give It My All … Tomorrow (vol. 2) by Shunju Aono, English adaptation by Akemi Wegmüller

Shizuo Oguro’s definitely getting older, although not quite yet better. Having quit the corporate life at age 40 determined to become a manga artist in volume 1, Oguro is now 42 and facing creative rejection, trying to convince himself that “Great talents bloom late.”

His friend – the angry young Shuichi – is now working at a dubious bar with the usual seedy lot. Meanwhile, Oguro is still living at home with his disgusted father and worried teenage daughter. He’s sitting around in his underwear, glugging beer while glued to the TV … ironically watching a news broadcast on the current crisis of the “dramatic rise in shut-ins & slackers” among today’s youth. Oguro has his own theory: “There’s nothing wrong with the kids. The problem’s with the adults! The problem is that all the adults these kids see are pathetic!” Spoken like a true middle-aged slacker himself!

Feeling underappreciated at home, Oguro decides to venture out. His decades-old friend Miyata – divorced and lonely, barely hanging on to his necktie-and-suit career – won’t take him in: “Come on, two guys in their forties living together? What would my neighbors think?” So Oguro shacks up at young Shuichi’s, diligently filling enough manga panels to keep returning to the publishing offices with hope, especially when he meets an encouragingly sweet editor not his own. Talk about strange timing: Shuichi gets battered and fired, and ends up finding strange comfort with Oguro’s father who shares wistful, sad tales from his son’s past.

Two volumes in, Oguro has settled quite comfortably into his midlife artist’s life. Glimpses into his childhood – the devotion for his dying mother, his attempts to help his struggling father – are welcome interruptions that give Oguro enough depth, even sympathy to believe that his ‘all’ is coming in volume 3 or 4 or certainly by volume 5 …! In the meantime, his quiet determination – not to mention his changing eye fashions! – will surely keep you curious and engaged.

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2010 (United States)
Original Japanese edition published by Shogakukan Inc.

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Graphic Novel/Manga/Manwha, .Translation, Japanese