Tag Archives: Religious differences

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

The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout

Burgess BoysSmall-town Maine, where Elizabeth Strout was born and raised, has been home to her four novels. In her first title since she won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for her novel-in-13-stories, Olive Kitteridge, Strout returns to tiny Shirley Falls where she set her acclaimed, chilling debut, Amy and Isabelle. This time, in The Burgess Boys, she brings the whole wide world to the isolated mill town, from ex-residents who never intended to go ‘home,’ to refugee transplants who long to return to people and places that no longer exist, to the ubiquitous media with their imposing, exposing cameras that send the worst of Shirley Falls around the globe.

As soon as they were able, the Burgess boys left Maine, both becoming lawyers who landed in Brooklyn. Jim, the eldest, became a celebrity corporate attorney and lives a lavish lifestyle with his old money trophy wife and their almost-grown children. Bob also chose the law, but most of his Legal Aid clients can’t afford to pay him; his ex-wife remains his best friend, although she left him for a Park Avenue life with a new husband who could give her the children she desperately needed. Bob’s acerbic twin, Susan, is the only Burgess who stayed Shirley Falls-bound, solo-parenting a quiet teenage son, Zach, after her husband abandoned the family to move to ‘real’ Sweden after growing up in New Sweden, Maine.

Lonely, isolated, friendless, Zach’s done something terrible: a pig’s head, a mosque, Ramadan. Susan hysterically calls her brothers home. For the first time in decades, the Burgess siblings are forced together to face not only the charges threatening Zach’s entire future, but their own troubled relationships with each other, as well as their long-dead parents – a father killed too young in a horrible accident, and a mother whose bitterness poisoned them all. In spite of Zach’s heinous act, Strout avoids absolutes, moving fluidly between condemnation and empathy by adding diverse community voices, including a devout Somali storeowner who witnessed his son’s brutal murder, a twice-divorced Unitarian minister, and an elderly lodger in Susan’s home who has listened for years to Zach’s loud music … and his tears alone at night.

The single extraneous voice appears in the “Prologue” and then disappears: an unnamed Shirley Falls transplant to New York explains how she came to “‘write the story of the Burgess kids’” – those opening five pages wouldn’t be missed. And since I’m quibbling, might I add a quick warning that what ubiquitous narrator Cassandra Campbell (hard to pick up a book without getting her stuck in your ears) thinks are regional and international flourishes will just need to be ignored. Thankfully, Strout’s words are stronger than Campbell’s grating accents. By book’s end, what you’ll remember most are the challenges, negotiations, joys, acceptances, and renewals of the remarkably resilient bonds that make up family.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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

The Case of the Love Commandos: A Vish Puri Mystery by Tarquin Hall

Case of the Love CommandosMysteries don’t get any more substantially delicious than this: Vish Puri voiced by Sam Dastor as written by Tarquin Hall, with just the right balance of page-turning entertainment and sociopolitical insight. Before you partake, however, you should know that this is #4 in a series; while each installment provides standalone delight, only reading in order – The Case of the Missing Servant, The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing, The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken – will provide full satisfaction. Yes, they’re that good. So if you haven’t already, go catch up quickly!

Vish Puri, founder and leader of Most Private Investigators Ltd., is the “winner of six national awards and one international, also. … The Federation of World Detectives saw fit to name [him] super sleuth some years back. [His] picture was on the cover of India Today.” But for now, he’s taking a break from enjoying his laurels (although he always has time for a quick snack), as he’s convinced of “‘nazar lag gayi’ – the evil eye was upon him.” He’s actually failed to solve the Jain Jewelry Heist case, and now he’s somehow managed to get pickpocketed as he prepares to embark on a short family pilgrimage. Still, he insists, “‘My radar is working twenty-four hours a day, three hundred sixty-five days a year, only.’” And much to his wife Rumpi and his Mummy’s disappointment, Puri decides he can’t take that much-needed break, after all.

Puri’s operative “Facecream had never asked for his help before and he wasn’t about to turn her down.” Facecream’s latest assignment for the Love Commandos [a real-life volunteer organization "dedicated to helping India's lovebirds who want to marry for love"] has gone awry: would-be-groom Ram – of the Dalit, or ‘untouchable,’ caste – has been kidnapped from a Commandos safe house and his bride-to-be Tulsi – a “highborn Hindu” – is afraid her disapproving, all-too-powerful father will stop at nothing to keep the couple apart. And then Ram’s mother is found dead, and the case suddenly becomes far more than a missing persons report.

While Puri and Facecream take on India’s illegal caste system, political intrigue in the highest echelons, genome mapping without consent, marriage brokers, that rare ethical lawyer, and an evil Swedish medical director with heinous secrets, Mummy’s off in the remote mountains and shrines chasing a case of her own. Even as she recovers the stolen wallet in spite of being told by Rumpi that Chubby (her pet name for her inestimable son who only begrudgingly ever accepts her good help) did not want her involved, Mummy savvily realizes the pickpocket and his oversized belligerent wife have far greater riches in sight.

As proud as Puri is (when the evil eye has turned away, only) of his most excellent radar that eventually solves all, he’s not above accepting a few new truths. He knows to be humbly grateful (enough) when Mummy shows her sleuthing prowess once more – the chutney doesn’t fall far from the pakora, after all. And although he still frowns on marriage-without-parental-approval, Ram and Tulsi’s commitment to each other teach him plenty about true love … and thankful is he for Mummy, Rumpi, their three daughters, and a “house … filled with grandchildren and laughter.” He won’t be needing any pilgrimages to appreciate his many blessings.

There remains, however, one question left unanswered … oh mighty triumvirate of Vish/Sam/Tarquin: Where’s #5 already??!!

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, British, Indian, South Asian

The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother by James McBride

Color of Water McBrideWhat writer and musician James McBride initially thought might take just six months to write required 14 long years to produce his now-almost-20-year-old debut title, The Color of Water. “Mommy” – McBride never calls her anything else – was never a cooperative subject: she shared her memories in her own good time, in between her endless warnings of “‘Mind your own business!’” and “‘Leave me alone. You’re a nosy-body!’”

Born Ruchel Dwajra Zylska in Poland, Mommy’s “parents got rid of that name when we came to America and changed it to Rachel Deborah Shilsky.” Her father was an Orthodox Jewish rabbi who abused his own family, her mother a long-suffering sweet woman partially paralyzed by polio. The five Shilskys – Mommy had an older brother and a U.S.-born younger sister – eventually settled in rural Suffolk, Virginia. At 17, Mommy escaped her miserable home life and found independence in New York City.

She became Ruth McBride when she married her first husband, Andrew McBride, a kind African American man who eventually became a minister and founded – with Mommy’s unwavering support and involvement – the New Brown Memorial Baptist Church in Red Hook, Brooklyn. The as-yet unborn James was the 8th child of that union, which ended when Andrew died in 1957. He was not quite a year old when Mommy married the man James always called “Daddy,” Hunter Jordan, Sr., a “quiet, soft-spoken,” nattily-dressed African American furnace fireman for the NYC Housing Authority, with whom she had another four children. When Daddy died of a stroke in 1972, the hapa family was left in desperate poverty and yet Mommy miraculously managed to raise “twelve very creative and talented children.” Indeed, “her children’s achievements are her life’s work.”

Mommy’s story stayed on The New York Times‘ bestseller list for over two years. McBride has since written three novels, the latest of which, The Good Lord Bird, is currently a finalist in fiction for the 2013 National Book Award (the winner gets announced November 20). That his name has recently been popping up with regularity might be what prompted me to pick up Color again, although this time I decided to stick it in my ears.

As superbly written as this now-classic memoir is, the audible version manages to be markedly better. Truly. The unforgettable André Braugher gives elegant, commanding voice to McBride, but even more spectacular is inimitable Lainie Kazan who completely embodies “Mommy” in one of the best book performances I’ve ever heard. Although Mommy passed away at age 88 in 2010, Kazan’s riveting narration ensures she lives on and on and on …

Readers: Adult

Published: 1996

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Filed under ...Absolute Favorites, ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Biography, .Memoir, .Nonfiction, African American, Hapa

The Sleeping Dictionary by Sujata Massey

Sleeping DictionaryAfter 10 installments of her award-winning Rei Shimura mysteries, DC-area-based Sujata Massey goes historical with her latest Dictionary, published this summer after six years in the making. Dictionary marks the debut of a new series Massey intends, The Daughters of Bengal, each set in India. Given a choice between 500 pages in print or 16-plus hours stuck in the ears, choose the latter: Sneha Mathan’s crisp, enhancing narration adds both authenticity and depth.

From beloved daughter Pom (“our father … would sometimes say that a daughter’s life lengthened a father’s life and that for having three strong girls he might live to one hundred”), to freedom fighter Kamala (“‘you are too valuable to risk being arrested’”), to cherished wife and mother (“he held me as if the past had never happened”; “Your loving daughter, Kabita Zeenat Hazel Smith”), Dictionary follows the trajectory of a determined young woman through two of India’s most tumultuous decades when the sprawling country moves from colonial British rule to violently fractured independence.

Orphaned as a young girl in 1930 when a tidal wave destroys her West Bengal village, Pom is reborn as Sarah, a Christian servant at the girls-only Lockwood School. Alternatively abused and ignored, she tenaciously manages to learn more than the privileged British and Indian students. When she’s accused of a terrible crime, she barely escapes; before she reaches her intended destination of Calcutta, she mistakenly disembarks in the smaller city of Kharagpur where her new life as Miss Pamela keeps her trapped for too many years. By the time she finally arrives in Calcutta and becomes Kamala, she has more secrets than baggage. Her love of books – the only vestige of her truncated childhood – saves her again and again, especially in leading her new friends close enough to be family, fellow citizens committed to a greater cause, and even everlasting love.

Combining history, social commentary, espionage (Massey’s literary reputation thus far is based on thrillers, after all), and love-story-across-race-and-class-lines (British-born, Minnesota-raised Massey herself is hapa Indian and German), Dictionary is an intricate journey that occasionally lingers a bit too long (Kamala’s not-quite relationship with Pankaj), then suddenly speeds through rather too conveniently to its ending (no spoilers!). That said, learning the original meaning and history of the title alone was worth the read, especially as Massey adds her own literary layers. Besides, bumpy journeys can often be quite enlightening, detours and all.

Tidbit: Well, how interesting … look what Google pulled up: this no-relation-to-Massey’s-novel, celluloid Sleeping Dictionary features quite the high-power cast (Hugh Dancy as the dispatched English officer, Jessica Alba as the lowly local girl – I just have to cringe for so many reasons! – Brenda Blethyn, Bob Hoskins!). But it never went to the big screen, landing straight to video in 2003. Has anyone seen it?

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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

Skeletons at the Feast by Chris Bohjalian

Skeletons at the FeastEvery so often, I seem to get on a specific reading spree on a topic not exactly of my choosing – that is, the books seem to serendipitously line up on their own. The latest batch of they-chose-me-titles have been set during the final brutal months of World War II on the European continent, with an emphasis on the not-so-well-known experiences of the women.

Yesterday’s post, Elizabeth Wein’s wrenching Rose Under Fire captured the horrific tragedies of the women-only concentration camp, Ravensbrück. Today’s Skeletons is a three-part narrative, in which one-third is comprised of the lives (and heinous deaths) of the prisoners of an unnamed (not unlike Ravensbrück) women-only camp. Coming up: The Light in the Ruins – another Chris Bohjalian novel, his latest – highlights the Italian end-of-war story, which also receives pagetime in Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins (interesting overlap of titles, too, no?).

But back to the triangulated Skeletons … Binding all three narratives together is Anna Emmerich, half of just-turned-18-year-old twins and the only daughter of a Prussian aristocratic family. In German-occupied Poland in January 1945, war is drawing to a frenetic close amidst changing borders and desperate military maneuvers, prompting a mass exodus of surviving civilians in hopes of escaping the final onslaught of Russian soldiers and reaching safety somewhere west with the incoming Allied Forces.

While the Emmerich men have been conscripted by the Nazis, Anna, her mother, and her younger brother are accompanied by a Scottish prisoner-of-war who is also Anna’s lover. Their arduous journey will overlap with that of Uri Singer, a German Jew who has lost everything but his own life, who has thus far survived by literally donning the enemy’s clothing. Paralleling these flights are a group of Jewish women prisoners on a death march away from their camp, the only remaining of thousands who must not be allowed to tell the world the truth of what they have witnessed and endured.

While Bohjalian is the consummate storyteller, his most exceptional talent is his uncertainty – that is, rigid definitions of right and wrong prove impossible, and good and evil could change places minute-to-minute. Humanity cannot be defined by unyielding rules, and yet – as Bohjalian hauntingly shows from both ‘sides’ – inhumanity has an intractable bottom line.

Tidbit: If you choose to go audible, Mark Bramhall once again proves an excellent choice, smoothly embodying not just ages, accents, and both genders, but convincingly distinguishing degrees of desperation and decay. The single drawback to listening is that no one will read you the ending “Acknowledgments” in which Bohjalian describes the novel’s genesis (a close friend’s East Prussian grandmother’s diary!). Lucky for you aural junkies, Bohjalian’s got you covered: his “Backstory” appears on his extensive website.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2008

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Armenian American, European, Jewish

Sweetness in the Belly by Camilla Gibb

Sweetness in the BellyRaised as a Roman Catholic convinced of at least one past life as a Jewish grandmother, I find myself in my old age utterly wary of institutionalized religions, repeatedly alarmed at what we human beings commit upon one another in the name of various (one-and-only) gods. In our post-9/11 era of heightened intolerance, this quote from British-born, Canadian-domiciled author Camilla Gibb‘s Sweetness struck me as especially sane: “My religion is full of color and possibility and choice; it’s a moderate interpretation … one that allows you to use whatever means allow you to feel closer to God … It’s an interpretation where … one’s personal struggle [is] to be a good Muslim, not a fight against those who are not Muslim.” Replace “Muslim” with any other religion, and it still remains a rational, caring, open-minded statement … oh, if only we could all be so accepting.

Meet Lilly, a white Muslim, “born in Yugoslavia, breast-fed in the Ukraine, weaned in Corsica, freed from nappies in Sicily and walking by the time we got to the Algarve.” The only child of “two solitary renegades who’d met at Trinity College Dublin in the 1950s,” Lilly’s early life was rootless: “‘You don’t want to spoil the journey by missing what you’ve left and worrying about where you’re going,’” her parents insisted. When Lilly is orphaned at 8, the rest of her upbringing continues in a Sufi shrine “on the Moroccan edge of the Sahara,” quietly educated and nurtured under the guidance of the Qur’an and the Great Abdal.

At 16, Lilly is sent on pilgrimage to Harar, Ethiopia, where her gender does not allow her access to the intended sheikh’s home and she is instead thrust upon an impoverished, angry mother of young children. Eventually Lilly’s open teachings of the Qua’ran earn her both students and respect – for awhile – as well as the attention of a young local doctor.

By 1974 when the Derg overthrows Emperor Selassie and plunges the country into tragic violence, Lilly flees for an unfamiliar ‘home.’ With her cultural fluidity and linguistic efficiency, she works as a hospital nurse in a London hospital that serves the city’s downtrodden. She creates a family-of-sorts with Amina, a single mother – also from Harar – and her children, the youngest of whom Lilly helps delivers in an alley. Together the two women form a community organization that helps incoming refugees reunite with their families. “Our work is not as altruistic as it sounds,” Lilly admits. Amina awaits news of her missing husband; Lilly of her good Dr. Aziz.

For Gibb, Sweetness was 16 years in the making, including two years spent living in Harar while finishing her Oxford PhD in social anthropology. A university friendship with a young Ethiopian woman who arrived in Toronto as a refugee was Gibb’s initial inspiration for the novel; “this book is my attempt to understand” her friend’s experience of dislocation, of feeling “like a ghost” that first year of escape and arrival. Seamlessly moving between two decades, two countries, and multiple cultures, Gibb presents a jarring, difficult story with empathetic grace, carefully sifting through what we hang onto and what we must let go in order to do more than just survive, to somehow become whole.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2006

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, African, British, Canadian

The Keeping Quilt and The Blessing Cup by Patricia Polacco

Keeping Quilt and Blessing Cup

Although published a quarter century apart, these are two books that tell a single tears-of-joy-inducing family story. If chronology is important, you might read Patricia Polacco‘s multi-generational family epic out of publication order – that is, Blessing Cup (out this year) first, and then Keeping Quilt (which debuted in 1988, and reappeared this year in an updated, 25th anniversary edition). The former begins with Polacco’s great-grandmother Anna’s life “long before she came to America,” and the latter continues with “When … Anna came to America.”

As a little girl, Anna lived in a Jewish Russian village that was often at the mercy of cruel soldiers. Every week in celebrating Shabbat, Anna’s mother pulled out a remarkable wedding gift tea set: “The tea set is magic,” the giver wrote. “Anyone who drinks from it has a blessing from God. They will never know a day of hunger. Their lives will always have flavor. They will know love and joy … and they will never be poor.” Because the family would always have each other …

When the czar violently ousts Jews from Russia, Anna’s family’s difficult journey to safety is buffeted by the magic of the tea set. When Papa falls seriously ill, a kind doctor shelters and feeds the family, and even makes their escape to America possible. In gratitude, Mama leaves the good doctor her tea set, with the exception of a single cup “so that we can still have its blessing.” And so that Blessing Cup begins a new life in a new land, passed on from generation to generation to generation …

The Keeping Quilt is born in the new country, made of the memories of the old. As Anna quickly grows into her new American life, “[t]he only things she had left of backhome Russia were her dress and babushka.” Anna’s mother gathers all that’s been outgrown and creates a quilt: “‘It will be like having the family in backhome Russia dance around us at night.’” And so the Keeping Quilt becomes an integral part of Anna’s family’s life: it serves as the Shabbat tablecloth, the picnic spread on which Anna agrees to marry Great-Grandpa Sasha, the huppa at many weddings, the warm blanket for each new baby and every elder in old age. As generations pass, the Keeping Quilt, too, grows fragile … but Polacco’s children find a way to lovingly give it new life.

As inspiring as Polacco’s stories are, her exquisite art imbues her words with mesmeric meaning. Using a base of mostly black-and-white pencil sketches, Polacco enhances each scene with splendid, specific splashes of vibrant color – the dancing cut-outs of the Keeping Quilt, the precious details of the Blessing Cup, the spirited backhome babushka, the fine Persian rug that saves four lives, the glowing fire that warms and the sweeping fires that destroy. Polacco’s pictures add the proverbial thousand words to each page as she captures the changing generations, from her orthodox ancestors, to her parents’ non-Jewish wedding guests, to her daughter’s commitment ceremony. Her family’s story is also America’s story – the changing faces, the unforgettable memories, and the unbreakable traditions that bind us all together. L’chaim indeed.

Readers: Children

Published: 1988, 2013

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Filed under ..Children/Picture Books, .Memoir, .Nonfiction, Jewish, Russian

Beirut 1990: Snapshots of a Civil War by Sylvain Ricard, Bruno Ricard, illustrated by Christophe Gaultier, translated by Anna Provitola, edited by Alex Donoghue

Beirut 1990Almost a quarter century has passed since two French brothers – in their early 20s at the time – decided to visit their Aunt Thérèse in Lebanon. In September 1990, the country is a 15-year-old war zone, but the brothers plan to deliver supplies, medicine, and a wheelchair to the Red Cross where Aunt Thérèse works. Their decision seems almost quixotic, with little concern about personal safety, as the brothers tease one another about when and what they will tell their parents, glibly explain the trip to friends, pore over maps and newspapers while sharing a few smokes, and laugh over their own silly behavior at the airport just before boarding their flight from Paris.

Over the three weeks of their journey, the brothers travel between various cities, never getting the opportunity to use any of their first aid training. The closest they come is the back-breaking task of clearing out giant rocks in a dilapidated hospital courtyard so that patients might have safer access to a little fresh air. Much more memorable to the brothers are the people, and the shocking, tragic, absurd, and yet still joyful moments of the people’s daily lives: “The daily life of those who the media does not discuss and whose voices are never heard. … The reality of those who have slept in death’s shadow for countless years, but who still dream that the Lebanon of tomorrow will be like that of yesterday: the Switzerland of the Orient … “

Fourteen years after their safe return home, realizing that they “can’t forget … [that they] need to put it to some use,” the brothers teamed with award-winning graphic artist Christophe Gaultier (with whom brother Sylvain collaborated twice before Beirut) to produce this resonating travelogue. Gaultier’s style is at once immature and poignant, an ideal representation of the brothers’ youth – the frantic ducking under a window after being warned about snipers, the innocent fun of giving a group of Sisters silly nicknames, the uncontrollable rage at fruitcake-stealing inspectors. The trio’s collaboration debuted in France in 2004; it took another nine years to arrive in English translation across the Pond.

The brothers’ experience treads somewhere between naively well-intentioned privilege and creating necessary testimony of invisible real lives; thankfully, it veers toward the latter. Even as it reveals the brothers’ seeming ineffectiveness, their book is ultimately an eyewitness account “of people’s kindness, of their unstoppable love of life, of their humor even in the darkest hours of unhappiness, of their joyful Mediterranean blood,” as Aunt Thérèse writes in an afterword from Beirut in 2004. “They saw with their own eyes what it means to live dangerously, to be afraid, to skirt the absurd, and to discover the value in every moment of existence.” Inarguably, we can all learn a life lesson in that!

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2004, 2013 (United States)

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Graphic Novel/Manga/Manwha, .Memoir, .Nonfiction, .Translation, European, Lebanese

Boxers & Saints by Gene Luen Yang, color by Lark Pien

Boxers and Saints

In 2006, Gene Luen Yang made major literary headlines when his then-debut, American Born Chinese, became (not without controversy, ahem!) the first-ever graphic novel nominated for a National Book Award. [Click here for my 2007 post-NBA interview with Yang.] Released earlier this month, Yang’s two-volume Boxers & Saints returns him to the recently announced NBA Young People’s longlist. Allow me a moment to whoop and holler in congratulatory glee …

Although packaged as two separate titles, both should be read together to maximize insight and enjoyment. You wouldn’t be satisfied with half a story, right?

“Every war has two faces,” the back covers of both titles aptly insist. During the foreign-incited Boxer Rebellion in 1890s China, the eponymous Boxers are represented by a young boy named Little Bao, who is more interested in the epic stories of the traveling Chinese operas than the hard labor needed to keep the family farm producing; the titular Saints are led by a young girl known only by her birth order, “Four-Girl,” who as the fourth daughter in her extended family is neither welcomed nor nurtured.

Even in the remotest villages, the “foreign devils” are encroaching with both their indiscriminate guns and their proselytizing religion. Little Bao’s father falls victim to the foreigners’ violence, and the villagers realize they will need to learn to protect themselves. A mysterious man named Red Lantern appears, savior-like, and trains the young men in kung fu. Little Bao’s childhood conversations with the opera gods morphs into the constant demands of the warrior spirit of Ch’in Shih-huang, China’s first emperor who managed to unite the vast country. The emperor demands that Little Bao must keep their beloved country together – which can only be achieved by ousting not only the foreign devils, but the “secondary devils,” as well – their fellow Chinese who have fallen under the influence of Christianity.

Those Chinese Christians are the so-called Saints. They are who welcome “Four-Girl” in spite of her endless questions, recurring doubts, and demands for snacks. She finds her community – and even a name of her own, Vibiana –  among those very foreign devils and their converts. She also discovers her own heroine, Joan of Arc, who both inspires and haunts her. As the Chinese vigilantes bring violence closer to her walled Christian village, she begs young Joan for guidance … and impossible answers.

Boxers, at almost double the length as Saints, is the volume to read first. Its extra page count sets up a fuller context to what happens on either side of war; it also sets up the narrative overlaps between Little Bao and Vibiana. The tragic outcome is inevitable –this is the guaranteed horror of war – but Yang’s graphic frames that fast forward to the conclusion are filled with moments of joy, discovery, empathy, soul-stirring doubt, and inexplicable resolve.

Most remarkable of all, Yang (who himself is a “secondary devil”-Christian, as well as a teacher in a Catholic high school in Northern California) gives literal face and voice to the undeniable forces that wield such terrible power over the actions and lives of young people – the war machine will not be ignored. ‘Good’ and ‘evil’ no longer exist, which ‘side’ you’re on predetermines your actions, loyalty can only be upheld with devastating choices. While the historic details here are inspired by the actual Boxer Rebellion, the underlying narrative is clearly of war –  any war: the impossible demands, the illogical spin, and always, the unavoidable carnage.

Read and weep. And read and weep again. Boxers & Saints – up next, NBA shortlist? And then … history awaits …!

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Graphic Novel/Manga/Manwha, Chinese, Chinese American