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Ventures in Wonderland

aliceConfession: I’ve never read Lewis Carroll’s beloved Alice in Wonderland cover to cover…until now. I tried once as a youngster, and before getting terribly far, decided Carroll was full of nonsense. Alice seemed to drift from scene to scene, from character to character. And why was there no plot? No plot, no point. The whole thing was, ahem, mad as a hatter.

Perhaps I could have avoided Alice for the rest of my natural life, but as a self-professed lover of children’s books, this omission on my reading list made me feel ever so slightly like a fraud. Plus, there are a lot of Alice fans in the kidlitosphere. So over the weekend, I decided to patch this gap in my education.

Going in, I expected Alice to be irritatingly trippy, full of mushrooms with magical properties and hookah-puffing caterpillars. (This was my sole memory of the animated Disney film that baffled me as a child.) Alice surprised me by coming across like a comedy sketch you’d watch on the BBC, deadpan yet absurd. I found myself reading in the pauses before the punchlines.

You promised to tell me your history, you know,” said Alice, “and why it is you hate–C and D,” she added in a whisper, half afraid that it would be offended again.

“Mine is a long and a sad tale!” said the Mouse, turning to Alice, and sighing.

“It is a long tail, certainly,” said Alice, looking down with wonder at the Mouse’s tail; “but why do you call it sad?”

and

Take some more tea,” the March Hare said to Alice, very earnestly.

“I’ve had nothing yet,” Alice replied in an offended tone, “so I can’t take more.”

“You mean you can’t take less,” said the Hatter: “it’s very easy to take more than nothing.”

If the people behind Monty Python didn’t read Alice growing up, then that’s curiouser and curiouser. Next question, is Through the Looking Glass just as funny?

Sometimes I Hate Being Right

The reviews for The Giver movie are trickling in, and it’s as I feared. The movie’s being described as yet another YA dystopia action thriller à la Divergent or The Hunger Games, complete with a love triangle (gulp. There goes Lowry’s request to the filmmakers). Worst of all, some of the reviewers have clearly never read the book:

From The Guardian:

One can easily see why this is such a popular book, especially with teens roiling with angst and hoping to lash out at society.

From The New York Times:

Ms. Lowry’s “The Giver” preceded both the “Hunger Games” and “Divergent” book series, to name two popular feel-bad sagas. Yet because both “The Hunger Games” and “Divergent” hit the screen first, the movie version of “The Giver” — scene by formulaic scene, narrative cliché by cliché — can’t help but come off as a poor copy of those earlier pictures.

Thank goodness for this bit of sanity from Slate, which separates the book from the movie:

There are no bad guys in The Giver, exactly. It’s a book about the evil that good people can commit when they complacently submit to societal pressure—a book about how evil functions in the real world, in other words.

It would be difficult, but not impossible, for a skilled filmmaker to adapt Lowry’s novel into a quiet, intelligent movie, something along the lines of 2010’s Never Let Me Go. Phillip Noyce’s The Giver, in wide release today, is not that movie. Where Lowry’s book is subtle, disarmingly simple, and humane, Noyce’s film is loud, overly complicated, and cynical.

I think I’ll go drown my sorrows by re-reading the quartet, and never reading another Giver movie review, let alone watch the actual movie.

ShadowHero-Cov-final1Grab a timer. I challenge you to name all the Asian and Asian-American superheroes you can think of in one minute. Go.

OK. Who did you come up with? How many were you able to name?

My point exactly. Unless you’re a diehard comic book buff, that was probably a frustratingly long and fruitless minute. When was the last time (or first time) superhero blockbusters, and their inevitable summer sequels and spin-offs, have featured persons of Asian descent gowning up in spandex to save the world?

Enter storytelling geniuses Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew. Their graphic novel, The Shadow Hero, hits all the marks of a great comic book–vibrant action sequences, ruthless villains, hero-defining moments, vigilante justice, justice in upholding the law–while finally giving a face to the mysterious Green Turtle. Take a step back, and his origins story is also a playful and nuanced exploration of the Chinese immigrant experience in pre-WWII America, as well as Chinese history, culture, and personal identity.

Growing up in Chinatown, teenager Hank Chu’s biggest dream is to carry on the family grocery business. Then there are his mother’s loftier aspirations for him. In a comedic turn of events involving a bank heist, a high speed car chase, and an appearance from a caped hero called the Anchor of Justice, Hank’s mom becomes determined to transform her reluctant son into the first Chinese-American superhero. Appropriately, Hank’s initial crime fighting escapades are downright embarrassing until, in true superhero tradition, personal tragedy propels him to embrace a new identity as the Green Turtle.

Continue Reading »

I’m partway through Diana Wynne Jones’ The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, and it’s so good I can’t wait to finish it before writing a review. Written in the style of an A-Z guidebook, it’s best appreciated by connoisseurs of the genre, hardcore fans and weary eye-rolling readers alike. Jones skewers clichés, inconsistencies and the often faulty logic found in fantastical realms (as Jones helpfully reminds us, the Rules were created by the “Management,” aka fantasy authors, so it’s no use blaming her). It should be required reading for every aspiring writer. Here are just a few of the delights:

CLOAKS are the universal outer garb of everyone who is not a Barbarian. It is hard to see why. They are open in front and require you at most times to use one hand to hold them shut. On horseback they leave the shirtsleeved arms and most of the torso exposed to wind and WEATHER…It is thought that the real reason for the popularity of Cloaks is that the inhabitants like the look of themselves from the back.

Of course. Who hasn’t wondered at the obvious impracticality of fighting, riding and trekking with a billowing blanket strapped to your neck?

FOREST OF DOOM. This is usually the home of mobile and prehensile TREES. There will be giant SPIDERS too…

One of the many clear references to Middle Earth (“SPIDERS…lair in certain WOODS and in CAVES, where shorter and slighter Tourists may be seriously inconvenienced by their gigantic webs made of sticky, rope-thick strands. Often only a special SWORD will cut these webs, and it usually takes two or more Tourists to defeat the Spider.”)

Jones seems to be targeting copycat Lord of the Rings epics, and because Tough Guide was written in 1996, she didn’t have a chance to reference the Harry Potter craze, so we can only imagine what she would have done with that.

DARK LADY. There is never one of these–so see DARK LORD instead. The Management considers that male Dark Ones have more potential to be sinister, and seldom if ever employs a female in this role. This is purely because the Management was born too late to meet my Great Aunt Clara.

Hmm. Good point. Someone should get on that and invent Sauron’s XX cousin.

More to come once I’ve finished the book, including a note about the guide’s attitude toward names with apostrophes.

40 acresI’m now in the Reconstruction phase of the O’Dell Awards, and the next two books make a natural pair. Forty Acres and Maybe a Mule by Harriette Gillem Robinet follows former slave Pascal and his brother Gideon as they fight for the land and freedom they were promised. Along the way, they befriend people both black and white, while struggling to avoid the notorious night riders.

In Shades of Gray by Carolyn Reeder, Will, a white boy in Virginia who loses his family during the Civil War, is sent to live with relatives he’s never met. Will is sure he’ll hate it. How can he respect Uncle Jed, when he refused to fight in the Confederate Army? Will’s cousin Meg is no better, constantly putting him to shame by easily doing the farm chores that Will, a city boy, isn’t strong enough to do. But after weeks of working beside his uncle, Will starts to respect the man–until Jed lets a Union soldier stay at their house.

shades of grayForty Acres offers the more complex story, and the book is better, too. While both boys struggle to find their place in the world, Will gets to do it in the safety of his uncle’s farm. Aside from a few run-ins with the neighborhood bully, he’s protected from external dangers. His main conflict–learning to understand and respect Jed–is emphasized again and again as various people have one-on-one conversation with Will to try to change his mind. The repetition got a bit dull after awhile, so it was a relief when the Union soldier arrives, bringing new complexity to Will’s life.

Pascal, meanwhile, has to deal with so much more. One of the saddest moment occurs at the beginning of Forty Acres, when Pascal wonders if he even understands what it means to be free. Does freedom mean owning his own farm? the chance to go to school? or being able to walk around without fearing the night riders? His personal journey merges seamlessly with the larger historical context, as he meets dozens of other emancipated slaves trying to rebuild their lives. The lucky ones, like him, manage to get their 40 acres. Others are rounded up by plantation owners and forced back into slavery under another name. It’s the variety of experiences, and their awareness of what’s happening in the world at large (like the moment they learn of President Lincoln’s death), that makes the book stand out.

Next up: Chickadee, by Louise Erdrich, will be the first O’Dell winner I’ve read since January that doesn’t involve the Civil War or its immediate aftermath.

In honor of the 2014 World Cup, The Guardian’s How to draw… series invited author and illustrator Dave Cousins to teach us how to draw a footballer (not of the American pigskin handling variety).

While I haven’t been following the matches as closely as some, while browsing through the live commentary, this second goal scored by Miroslav Klose of Germany against Ghana (whom the US narrowly defeated) piqued my attention. So here you go! Flipping awesome victory somersault not included…

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peter panI was shocked recently when a friend asked me to clarify a plot point in Peter Pan, and I realized I’d never read J. M. Barrie’s book. It got me thinking about all the other classic children’s books I’d never read, or read so long ago I barely remember anything about them. And while I may have gotten over my guilt of not reading certain adult books, I don’t mind catching up on classic kids’ books. Here’s a partial list of what I plan to tackle:

Peter Pan--never read

The Jungle Book--never read

Anne of Green Gables–never read

Charlotte’s Web–last read in elementary school. I only remember the basic plot and some of the characters’ names.

The Secret Garden–all I remember is the existence of a garden behind a locked gate, and a grumpy kid who may or may not be sick.

I should probably add Alice in Wonderland to this list, but I can’t quite bring myself to do it. It was just so boring and confusing. Alice fans, feel free to convince me otherwise.

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