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They talked about the war in the Sudan, about the decline of the African Writers Series, about books and writers. They agreed that Dambudzo Marechera was astonishing, that Alan Paton was patronizing, that Isak Dinesaen was unforgivable. The Kenyan put on a generic European accent and, between drags at his cigarette, recited what Isak Dinesen had said about all Kikuyu children becoming mentally retarded at the age of nine. They laughed. The Zimbabwean said Achebe was boring and did nothing with style, and the Kenyan said that was a sacrilege and snatched at the Zimbabwean’s wineglass, until she recanted, laughing, saying of course Achebe was sublime. The Senegalese said she nearly vomited when a professor at the Sorbonne told her that Conrad was really on her side, as if she could not decide for herself who was on her side.

Back during my Leaving Certificate examination year, a friendly rivalry was sparked between myself and another student. We both fancied ourselves writers, submitted essay after essay to our teachers competing for the highest mark and when that was not enough, most literary references per paragraph.

Here’s the thing – he was a far better writer than me. Plus he was a pretty interesting bloke, often telling stories about taking treks through the African veldt, or fishing with Rastafarians. After school was finished, he gave me a standing invitation to visit him in Botswana. I never took him up on the offer. Ever since I have had this abiding fascination with Africa, an itch I will have to scratch some day.

The Thing Around Your Neck collects a series of short stories by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, some autobiographical, such as the passage quoted above taken from Jumping Monkey Hill which describes the difficulties faced by African writers trying to break through the literary glass ceiling maintained by the Western canon; others contrasting the lives of ordinary Nigerians with foreigners, often Americans.

Imitation has a Nigerian woman living without her husband for many months of the year, but enjoying every comfort in a fine house in the States. Her only companion is a fellow Igbo house maid. When she begins to suspect her art dealer husband is having an affair back in Nigeria, her only confidante is this – an employee who in this foreign land is the closest thing she has to a friend. On Monday Of Last Week has another expat named Kamara find employment as a babysitter to a mixed race American couple’s child. Driven to distraction by the neurotic father – and increasingly curious about the absentee artist mother – she finds herself becoming infatuated with the other woman in the house. The Arrangers of Marriage focuses on a newly arrived bride in the States, whose naturalised husband insists on eroding her Nigerian identity.

Ghosts and Cell One both concern academics struggling to survive in modern Nigeria, as a result of profound personal grief and increasing gang violence respectively. Cell One is the first story in the collection and features a family left distraught when the eldest son is arrested for being a member of a street gang. The son is described as  over-privileged and arrogant, a result of his coddle middle-class upbringing. When he finds himself behind bars, the shock of witnessing genuine oppression changes his personality. Ghosts has a grieving widower encounter a former university colleague he believed had been killed during the Nigerian-Biafran war. At first thinking his old acquaintance to be a phantom, he stops himself from performing the traditional ritual of throwing sand on him,  remembering that he is a Western-educated academic and above such things.

This alienation from tradition and language is a recurring theme of the stories collected here. Another is the perception of Nigeria and its history by external bodies, such as the international media, American embassy staff, or indeed literary critics, in the case of Jumping Monkey Hill, my favourite story from the selection. A Private Experience alternates between an encounter between two women, one a Muslim the other a Christian, hiding in a store and the media coverage of the event afterwards, which would have these two individuals be natural enemies.

Again and again Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie seems to make the appeal that the stories of these people, of Nigerians generally, should be heard for what they are, without the intrusion of inferred Western values.

This is powerful writing, with a wry and critical tone throughout.

In a couple of hours I am off to Armageddon in Sydney’s Olympic Park. Nerd nivana. Will I ask John Rhys Davies to say ‘bad dates‘? Will I convince Lance Henriksen to do the knife trick from Aliens? Will I manage to stop myself from geeking out when I meet Gail Simone for the first time?

All of these things are doubtful.

So for today’s review I have chosen a comic book – but given the day that is in it, with Armageddon no doubt featuring plenty of promotions of upcoming superhero comics, movies, toys, it occured to me that if I must review a ‘graphic novel’, I see no reason why I should restrict myself to the caped brigade. Comics are a medium just like any other, a method of story-telling that combines text and image.

Why on earth are there so many comics are people punching one another really hard?

While Gene Luen Yang does introduce several fantastical elements into this tale of growing up Asian American, at its heart it is a story about a kid not able to fit in, who chooses to reject and hide from his culture in order to become more ‘normal’.

However, to get back to magic and fantasy, our story begins with a summary of the traditional Chinese myth, Journey to the West. The minor god Monkey wants to join the other deities in Heaven at a lavish banquet, but is rejected because he is just a monkey. In a rage the little god attacks and defeats his social betters. Over the years he becomes even more capricious, inventing new titles for himself and daring to antagonise the Almighty, Tze-Yo-Tzuh. For his hubris, Monkey is punished and buried beneath a mountain.

Jin Wang’s mother told him the tale of Monkey. To him though it is just another story from China, another thing that sets him apart. Bullied by the other children at school, he is desperate to be accepted, even tolerating the ‘friendship’, of a boy who physically abuses him. One day another student, Wei Chen Sun, arrives from Taiwan. Jin seizes his chance to finally become the bullier, raise himself up through the social pyramid by belittling another student. Instead, he finds himself becoming Wei’s best friend. Now if only he could work up the confidence to ask the beautiful and blond Amelia Harris out on a date.

A third story thread mixes the realism of Jin’s adolescent angst and the fantastical excesses of Monkey’s tale, involving an all-American boy named Danny, who is embarrassed when his distant cousin, Chin-Kee, arrives to visit. Followed everywhere by his cousin, who spouts stereotypical racist dialogue, can grow in size and insists on drawing attention to Danny’s relationship with him in a humiliating fashion, any hope he has of being popular quickly vanishes.

Chin-Kee is a monstrous manifestation of the contempt Jin sees directed to him by the other children at his school. As the three stories continue we discover how they are inter-related, how Monkey, Jin and Danny are in fact all connected.

When I was a kid growing up in Co. Dublin, I was obsessed with the Japanese show Monkey Magic which shares the same mythological source material as this book. Emmet at age five just saw it as an entertaining program and used to swing from the bicycle railings outside of school singing the theme song. So I am familiar, albeit in a distant fashion, with some of the fantastical elements Yang employs in American Born Chinese. I also, however, grew up an outsider, bullied in school, not able to fit in and reading this book brought all of that back to me.

I love how Yang links these autobiographical elements of growing up in America with the more supernatural and religious aspects of the story, representing an overall metaphor for the cultural differences thrown up before a young Chinese boy. The story is also wickedly funny, quite sweet at times and well paced.

This is an excellent book, well told by a confident and imaginative story-teller. Fantastic.

Right, now I’m off to geek it up.

‘Sure,’ said George. ‘We kinda look after each other.’ He indicated Lennie with his thumb. ‘He ain’t bright. Hell of a good worker, though. Hell of a nice fella, but he ain’t bright. I’ve knew him for a long time.’

Slim looked through George and beyond him. ‘Ain’t many guys travel around together.’ He mused. ‘I don’t know why. Maybe ever’body in the whole damn world is scared of each other.’

I had to study Steinbeck’s The Pearl when I was preparing for my Junior Cert exams. Sadly I suspect having to read a book in school often has the effect off killing of any interest the writing might invoke. Obviously not always, but in my mind the writing of Steinbeck is synonymous with the schoolroom. This is a real shame, as it has taken sixteen years for me to read another book of his.

George and Lennie are labourers travelling on the road during the Great Depression. It is a hard time for everyone and few can afford to work land on their own, becoming itinerant farm hands to make what little money they can. George complains often about how he has to care for Lennie, a giant of a man with the mind of a child. Not knowing his own strength, the gentle giant was involved in an incident at their last job that forced the two men to go on the run. George desperately tries to teach Lennie not to draw attention to himself, promising a bright future once they earn enough, living off land of their own, with rabbits that he can play with as a reward for his good behavior.

After they arrive at their new job, George quickly realizes that they are going to have to keep their heads down. The boss’ son Curley takes an immediate dislike to Lennie, looking to prove himself by getting into a fight with the much larger man. If that was not bad enough, Curley’s wife of two weeks has a habit of flirting with the labourers, which only makes the jumped up landowner’s son even angrier. When elderly farmhand Candy offers to go in with the two men on their plan to buy property of their own, it seems their dreams are just within reach. George just has to make sure Lennie does not draw any undue attention to himself.

Steinbeck writes simply and directly without sentiment, or overwrought moralizing. When Lennie begs George to talk about their wonderful plans for the future it is heart-breaking, as is his childlike joy at petting small, vulnerable animals. Unfortunately as he does not know his own strength, he can accidentally harm such creatures, an ominous hint of where Steinbeck intends to take his story.

The symbol of an elderly dog close to death lies at the heart of this story. In a time of such economic desperation men are reduced to the state of animals and the long suffering dog’s fate reminds his owner Candy that he can expect little more mercy.

This book is so sad it brought a tear to my eye, but I also could not help but admire Steinbeck’s gift for expressing such humble truth.

It was after this realization that I began trying to find the “point” of California, to locate some message in its history. I picked up a book of revisionist studies on the subject, but abandoned it on discovering that I was myself quoted, twice. You will have perhaps realized by now (a good deal earlier than I myself realized) that this book represents an exploration into my own confusions about the place and the way in which I grew up, confusions as much about America as about California, misapprehensions that I can still to this day confront them only obliquely.

I can remember starting Primary School in 1984 and the small building of thin walls and low ceilings in the village of Rathcool, with a large poster of the 1916 revolutionaries hanging on the wall facing the entrance. This was the first sight upon entering the school and I grew to recognize the face of Padraig Pearse as a modern day quasi-saint. I grew to understand that my identity as an Irish child was as much a product of nationalism, as the Catholic faith with which I was raised. The priests who visited us in school were the symbolic descendants of those martyrs who hosted secret masses under the yoke of British rule, spreading God’s love under the threat of persecution. When I walked under the threshold of my secondary school building, significantly to be taught each of my subjects through Irish instead of English, my eye was drawn to the Latin motto painted on tiles in the floor Pro Deo et Patria.

Cut to the present day, with reports of the abuse of children by Catholic priests the world over; my country well on track for a double-dip recession due to the ineptitude and greed of our national leaders; the conflict in Northern Ireland perpetuating itself out of a constant recycling of hatred divorced from any ideological concerns – disillusioned seems too small a word to fit my state of mind. Thankfully that is why we have things like the Hark A Vagrant strip by the enormously talented Kate Beaton. Oh tis good to laugh.

Joan Didion’s book is informed by an investigation into the myths and aggrandized history that surrounds the ‘manifest destiny’, march to California. This is as much to situate herself as a product of this ‘immigration’, as a discussion of what makes up contemporary America.

As such the opening chapters of this book detail the efforts made by Didion’s ancestors to cross the Americas. There are startling stories of whole families throwing themselves across the wilderness, with the risk of starvation, attack by the creatures of the wild and being snowed in before crossing the Sierra Nevada mountain range. There were also encounters between the colonists and the native Indians who lived on the plains. A relation of Didion’s leaves a diary describing one such meeting, where her husband entertained a curious group of Indians by demonstrating the use of fire-arms. This also served to warn them of their capability as an offensive weapon of course.

The fiction of Jack London is also examined, as much a product of the mythologising of America as a late contribution. Particular attention is drawn to his novel The Valley of the Moon. The unironical naming of the heroine Saxon Roberts suggests just how London regarded his own status as an ‘Old American, a representative of the civilizing force emanating from Britain. A second novel, The Octopus by Frank Norris, concerned with the grand narrative of ‘Wheat’, is chosen for its ambivalence. Popularly considered a simplistic attack on corporate America (one quote features that phrase so recurrent in Lovecraft’s purple prose ‘cyclopean’), Didion reveals that its passages identify the would-be romantic farm-hands as fellow exploiters of the land, who arrived too late to establish themselves as the train barons and such had.

Further sections of the book trace the development of middle-class life in the author’s home town, considered so anathema to American ideals of being classless, with aristocracy itself a supposedly abandoned European decadence. In as much as this is a study of American history, Didion’s book celebrates the incredible efforts of families and individuals to tame the landscape of California, while refusing to romanticise the results.

A thought-provoking and incisive dialogue with the past. For a historical study, this book is uncommonly moving.

The Judge tilted his great head. The man who believes that the secrets of the world are forever hidden lives in mystery and fear. Superstition will drag him down. The rain will erode the deeds of his life. But that man who sets himself the task of singling out the thread of order from the tapestry will by the decision alone have taken charge of the world and it is only by such taking charge that he will effect a way to dictate the terms of his own fate.

Blood Meridian is a story about violence and history – the savage underbelly of civilization. McCarthy repeatedly uses  ‘meridian’ to describe the divide between day and night, life and death. It is also the border between America and Mexico, the white man and all other races. This is a novel heavy with portentousness and symbolism, but also seeping with horrific images of death.

The Kid is born in Tennessee. At age fourteen he sets out to find his fortune. He finds work where he can and travels when he has some money to his name. He takes to drinking and fighting in bars. He has two fateful early encounters with men that will later become important in his life. The first is a fellow wanderer named Toadvine. The second is known to most as the Judge. The Kid witnesses him falsely accusing a preacher of sodomy and inciting a lynch mob.

Living by his wits only gets the Kid so far and eventually his aimless life leads him to join a company of soldiers on an ill-advised sortie across the Mexican border. Once across the border, the Kid is catapulted into a life of violence and death. Apache prowl the Mexican desert and wolves track men during the night. Then the Judge finds him once again. He has taken command of a group of hired killers and they have a contract for Indian scalps.

This is the first Cormac McCarthy book I have ever read. I have very little knowledge of him, apart from Owen Wilson’s mocking caricature in The Royal Tenenbaums. Wes Anderson was a bit on the nose there. This is compelling writing, with the Judge leading his men across the Mexican landscape like Captain Ahab. Is he really a man, or the devil himself? The book is written in a quasi-Biblical language, ripe with hellish imagery and Jacobean excess. The campaign of violence waged by the Americans is unrelenting, slaughtering peaceful villages and rampaging through unsuspecting townships. One scene in particular has a bar-room fight spill out into the street, encountering a funeral procession and resulting in a massacre. For long passages of the book the Kid himself drops out of sight and we are left in the company of the Judge and his right-hand man Glanton, or Toadvine the Kid’s sometime ally. There is also an ex-priest named Tobin, who does not shirk from killing.

However, the story promises a final confrontation between the Kid and the Judge, the two of them continually meeting  despite all odds. Here, McCarthy sets up a further contrast, another meridian, this time the divide between a man who thinks he is free and one who knows he is master. The Kid is quick to anger, surly and not given to speak much. The Judge on the other hand waxes lyrical constantly, can be charming and kind in action, capable of speaking many different languages. He is also given to lectures on religion and the law, which he uses to confound those who investigate the crimes committed by his men. Beneath all of his culture and wit beats the heart of a monster, unrelenting and cruel. McCarthy has created a truly diabolical villain, one who would destroy anything he cannot control and wipe away all trace of it.

I can see why Hollywood tries to adapt McCarthy to the screen so often. The imagery of Blood Meridian often feels intensely cinematic. I would argue though that this is more due to the author’s use of language, which flows and ebbs on the page, a quality that would be very difficult to replicate on screen. However, this is bloody and intense plotting, certainly not making for a nice evening’s entertainment. In terms of a masterclass though, as an opportunity to observe a writer in full command of his craft, I thoroughly recommend it.

Seattle used to be an uncomplicated trading town fed and fattened by gold in Alaska, and then it had dissolved into a nightmare city filled with gas and the walking dead. But people had stayed. People had come back. And they’d adapted.

Whelp, (spit!) looks like we gots ourselves a steampunk novel! And what a delightful rip-roaring yarn it is too. With Boneshaker Priest essays an alternate America, with the town of Seattle abandoned in the wake of a catastrophic man-made disaster. Or has it?

The civil war between the Confederacy and the Union continues to be waged. The Klondike gold rush happened over a decade earlier than in real-time, drawing thousands to the environs of the one-time fishing village of Seattle. The Russians never successfully sold off Alaska. Oh, and there are zombies.

Leviticus Blue was a mad inventor who designed the Boneshaker, a device that could burrow through the earth. Instead of delivering it to the Russians as promised, to aid in their attempts to recover gold from the frozen tundra of Alaska, Blue used it to rob the vaults of the city’s banking district. This led to earthquakes, collapsing buildings and an untold number of deaths. Blue’s creation also caused a strange gas to be released into the atmosphere, slowly poisoning Seattle’s city dwellers.

The gas came to be known as the Blight, killing its victims before resurrecting them as the shambling creatures called  Rotters. In an effort to contain the Blight a wall has been erected around the city of Seattle. Life went on, those who survived moved to the Outskirts, where Leviticus Blue’s name was a curse.

Which would be fine, but for his widow Briar who has been left to live with the actions of her mad husband. She has struggled to raise their son Zeke on a menial income, suffering abuse from their neighbours, and not even able to retreat to the safety of her maiden name with her father regarded a traitor for rescuing prisoners left for dead during the Blight outbreak. Zeke, now aged fifteen, has many questions Briar cannot answer and in frustration at being trapped in poverty decides to cross the wall into the Blight equipped only with a breathing mask and torn scraps of old maps.

Boneshaker is the story of a mother braving a multitude of dangers to rescue her son. Briar encounters zeppelin pirates, marauding Rotters, and the machinations of the strange Dr Minnericht who controls the lives of those who remain behind the wall. Briar Wilkes is a heroine giving the likes of Aliens’ Ellen Ripley a run for her money, driven by a fierce desire to protect her son, but also able to blow a zombie’s head off with a single gunshot.

Priest invests great effort in describing the period detail while ruefully confessing the changes she has made to the historical timeline facilitating the advent of zombies in 1880s Seattle. The addition of steampunk  standards such as prosthetic limbs, sophisticated suits of armour with built-in breathing apparatus and yes, sonic disruptors, is all part of the fun. It’s a swashbuckling historical novel that doesn’t pretend to verisimilitude, except when it’s convenient. Chapters switch from Briar’s point of view to that of Zeke and it’s always nice to see well written, colourful and strong female characters, such as Lucy the one-armed cyborg and Princess Angeline who’s a dab hand with a knife.

Boneshaker is a fun work of steampunk and alternate history. It’s a breezy ride with a good eye for period detail, melancholic in tone with a kick-ass heroine. Really, what more could you ask for?


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