Friday, February 28, 2014

One Soul, by Ray Fawkes

I'm pretty new to the world of graphic novels.  I might not have ever picked on up at all, except that as a
reading coach at the elementary school where I work I have to keep up with the latest trends in children's literature, and they are very popular there right now.  But I have found that despite the "picture book" format, graphic novels for adults are able to tell very insightful and substantive stories that engage me as a reader in a very different way than more traditional formats.

One of my book clubs recently read One Soul by Ray Fawkes as our monthly pick, and the premise itself is intriguing, even for a graphic novel.  The book follows 18 distinct lives, from prehistoric times through the 20th century, with one panel from each life on each two page spread.  The people come from all different geographic regions and backgrounds.  There is an Egyptian priestess, a Sumerian warrior, a medieval doctor and a 19th century dance hall girl.  There is a mix of men and women, and two of the characters are gay.  As you read each page, the panels are sometimes completely independent of each other, and sometimes when read together they form a longer thought or theme that only has full meaning when read together.  The art work is almost rudimentary, and the lack of color only adds to the general stark portrayal of the lives of the characters.

The overall theme of the book seems to be humankind's search for meaning in a world where oftentimes meaningless things seem to happen.  Each of the characters has their moments of struggle and of triumph.  Some of the characters are sympathetic, and some are violent and hard to love.  There are oppressors and the oppressed, yet despite the sometimes vast differences in their perspectives and experiences, they all go through essentially the same journey-the search for love, the search for self, the search for acceptance, the search for meaning.

The prevailing opinion of my book club ladies was that the book was pretty depressing.  And it is true that there are not too many moments of transcendence.  Most of the people led rather short, sometimes violent, often unfulfilling lives.   But woven throughout the book are glimpses into a deeper meaning, and it is often the characters who have died that provide the deepest insights into the struggles of human life.  In the end, all of the characters in the book meet death, and become one with the universal consciousness that Fawkes must imagine exists outside of our mortal lives.  While I can't say I found the stories hopeful, I did find some comfort in the idea that all human beings are engaged in the struggle together, even while in the end we are each so desperately alone.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Poor Little Rich Girl, Chinese Style

If you are a person who knows anything about Chinese culture, beginning in the medieval period through the 20th century, you probably know that women were not valued in society, except as pawns in their family's quest for wealth or political gain.  Foot binding and female infanticide are the two most horrific examples of this attitude I can think of, but overall the fate of women and girls in China has largely been left in the hands of their fathers and husbands.  Foot binding continued into the 20th century, and even today in China girl babies are abandoned to orphanages at a much high rate than male children.

And, as Falling Leaves: The Memoir of an Unwanted Chinese Daughter demonstrates, this sad state of affairs for women and girls crossed class lines, and affected both the rich and poor alike.  But Falling Leaves is more than just a story of a Chinese girl who grows to thriving womanhood in spite of her family's cruelty. It is the story of China's transition from monarchy to communism, both from the perspective of how it affected the daily lives of its people, and how it changed the economic landscape for the wealthy and well-educated. The author, Adeline Yen Mah, is the titular unwanted daughter.  She was the result of her wealthy father's first marriage, but her mother died soon after giving birth to her.  In Chinese tradition, this was the first mark against her-she brought bad luck to her mother, so she was bound to bring bad luck to others.  When her father remarried, to a much younger Eurasian woman, she and her older brothers and sister were shunted from the forefront of family life to the background.  They were forced to watch as their younger half-brother and sister were given every advantage, while they had to beg for even the most basic necessities, such as train fare to get to school.  Her step-mother, Niang, was cruel and manipulative, setting the siblings against each other whenever possible, and eventually beating down her husband's spirit such that he no longer stood up for his older children.  Ma and her siblings were mostly able to escape their step-mother's day to day control, but she held the reins on the family finances and pitted her children against each other until her death.

Despite her lonely, abusive childhood, Ma was extraordinarily privileged compared to most of her countrymen.  Her family was able to escape to Hong Kong before the Cultural Revolution, and was able to keep most of it's wealth along the way, But that privilege did not keep her from being affected by the larger societal forces at work, and it certainly didn't help her beloved aunt, a mother figure for Ma, or her elderly grandfather, who was made to feel like a beggar in his own home.

Ma tells her story matter of factly, without drama or exaggeration.  In a way that makes her story all the more chilling, reflecting as it does the emotional barrenness that Ma lived with most of her childhood. Just relating the events as they happened was enough to make me feel her loneliness, her longing for acceptance, her anger, and, in the end, her resignation.  Ma's story should strike a chord with anyone who has desperately tried to gain acceptance and love from people who were never able to give it, as her step-mother appears not to be able to do.  May as well try to get love and acceptance from a piece of cold, green jade.

Monday, February 03, 2014

Is the Universe Trying to Tell Me Something?

The last book I reviewed for this blog was about a medieval hangman who solved the mystery of a murder supposedly perpetrated by a woman who was then falsely accused of withcraft, The Hangman's Daughter.  I read the last page, looked at my Kindle library, and chose a Robert R. McCammon book that I hadn't yet read.  The first McCammon book I read, called Boy's Life, reminded me a lot of one of my very favorite author's, Stephen King.  I assumed I would get something similar with Speaks the Nightbird.  So imagine my consternation when I found myself reading a mystery, about a murder, that was blamed on a woman, who was falsely accused of, you guessed it, witchcraft.  What exactly is the universe trying to tell me?  Should I refrain from making poppets and potions?  Healing the sick? 

Speaks the Nightbird stars Matthew Corbett, clerk for Magistrate Isaac Woodward, who is on his way to the far flung town of Fount Royal, in the Carolina territory to hold the trial of an accused witch, Rachel Howarth.  The year is 1699, and the Salem witch trials are still a fresh memory in the minds of many.  Fount Royal is the dream of a weathly shipbuilder who will do anything to see his town survive.  People have been fleeing ever since the murder of the minister and Daniel Howarth, husband of the accused.  The town founder had one goal-burn the witch, for the sake of the town!  But things are not as cut and dried as one might think.  Matthew finds himself drawn to Rachel, but more importantly to his sense of honor and justice, he thinks she has been framed, meaning the real killer is getting away with murder, literally.

Well, regardless of the message I was being sent, Speaks the Nightbird and The Hangman's Daughter are not exactly the same.  The Hangman's Daughter takes place in 17th century Germany, and Speaks the Mightbird takes place in 17th century America.  Matthew Corbett, the main character of Speaks the Nightbird, is a well educated man who was rescued from the almshouse as a young man.  The titular hangman of the other novel is an older gentleman who is a societal outcast because of his profession.  But the stories end up being remarkably similar, and both shine a light into the kind of superstition and hysteria that caused innocent men and women to be burned alive as punishment for the supposed witchcraft they hypothetically practiced. 

To be honest, if you had given me both Boy's Life and Speaks the Nightbird, minus the author's name, I would never have guessed that these books were written by the same person.  McCammon's earlier books are mostly supernatural thrillers or horror, but he took about a decade off from publishing, and Speaks the Nightbird was the first book he published in this new genre.  This book is the first in a series, of which there are at least two more.  I'm looking forward to both carching up on McCammon's earlier works, and continuing the journey with Matthew Corbett and 17th century America.