Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Legend of Galactic Heroes is a Trek Beyond the Familiar

Now, for a little something different - an audio excerpt. As a picture is worth a thousand words, at times a brief reading of a narrative is even more valuable. That is why audiobooks are on the rise.

Yoshiki Tanaka's Legend of the Galactic Heroes, narrated by Tim Gerard Reynolds displays the science babble of Star Trek with the pacing and detail of an Orson Scott Card. Fans of science fiction and those who love a great use of language and imagery will be riveted by the combination.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Not Every Sadness Yields Defeat

The discovery of a new writer is always a thrill. It is like a walk into a meadow in the midst of a thick forest. The experience brings light in unanticipated ways. You know there are more trees on the other side, and it leaves you anxious with thoughts about what comes next. That is it is like to explore Tim I. Gurung’s eighth novel, Old Men Don’t Cry!

The subtitle is A Hong Kong Tale of Sorrowyet don’t be fooled. The words are accurate. There is a great deal of sadness and disappointment in the story of Chan Hong, a Chinese kid with absentee parents who seeks to become a police officer and find fulfillment. At the same time, so many more things come from the novel, that saga is also a tale of triumph. The journey to his goals holds a number of sad twists and turns, yet what Hong traverses teaches readers a lot about what it means to be a man, to love and be hungry for achievement. That spirit is captured best in the title phrase near the novel’s end:

I had promised myself I would not cry anymore. I was too old to cry, and we all know that old men don’t cry. It was not that old men don’t feel pain, yet it is not easy for an old man to cry openly and express his feelings in public....One thing was clear: if there were a next life and I was given a choice, I wanted to repeat the same life again without any changes.

The reader might see such a sentiment and realize that what most adds fulfillment to a man’s life is to be in the sweep of change. That is the other great dimension of the novel. 
Gurung like the late U.S. Novelist James A. Michener. As Michener's Tales of the South PacificHawaii and Alaska , Gurung's Old Men Don't Cry!  sketches out characters against the sweep of a history and evolution of a great society. His prose has the meticulousness of a Robert Ludlum, whose Bourne Trilogy has been the basis for a number of popular films.

If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people,” Michener once said, “you might better stay home.” Like the American author, Gurung pulls readers into the  heart  of everyday life so that they experience  each moment in Hong's life as a period of their own. He grounds the chapters with background on the political and social changes of the nation, and then they play out in the character's  life. The emergence of China from 1980 to present is revealed in such detail at some points Hong appears to mirror his motherland's struggles.

Gurung, who was born in Nepal, but raised in Hong Kong, walks readers through the culture and sociology of the land. The author returned to the land of his birth for a few months after he retired from the Gurkhas in 1993, yet returned to the island nation to set up a business. After age 50, he began to write as he had in his youth. He uses those funds to support an educational foundation for youth in Nepal. 

At the same time, his main character, Chan Hong, is thoroughly steeped in a discovery of Chinese culture on and off the mainland.Readers learn about the important holidays such as the celebration of the Lunar New Year, the Ghost Festival and Ching Ming from an angle not open to most Westerners.   At the same time, the author shares the political and social changes that redirects the lives of everyday people in the country.

The author unveils a sensory tour of the land in minute detail, because in some ways he was one of those everyday people. Gurung, as his real-life fathers and uncles, became a Gurkha soldier at age 17. As the novel shows, life in the British military unit was tough. The Nepalese were set into a country within a country in many respects, yet the author shows that for children such as Hong, circumstances were almost no different. His service gave the author a special opportunity to see Hong Kong   ways many of the people who lived there never could. The novel benefits from that exposure as the narrative builds a character who seeks righteousness, yet discovers that the world in which he lives offers many people little hope. He places many of those insights into the mind of the protagonist.

On his move from the small village of Kam Tin, Chan Hong goes to Tokwawan, a larger place, in pursuit of his dream to be a police officer. He meets his goal, yet is not a great success. The main character remains a street cop, because his attitude is not compatible with those who move into the higher ranks. In fact, his constant bids to try to discover, understand and help those he encounters at points diminishes his life. 

His lifelong friends, Eddie Ko and Tsang Adele have broader lives because they get to study in the United States, yet they all end up back in the circumstances they fled. Each of the players in the drama is guided by a trait, and Hong’s is self-sacrifice, which makes him vulnerable in every aspect of his life.

Advertisements on the novel say what Hong sacrifices, “will pain your soul,’ and his sorrows will, “just make you cry.” That is true. At the same time, many of those who read this book will want to cheer for the main character at the end. The novel is a classic tearjerker, but more than that it is a story of emergence for a man and his country. Readers can come away with three thoughts. First - a selfish life is a sad waste. Second, choice more than fate controls what you can do. Lastly, not every sadness yields defeat. 

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

A Testament to the Power and Freedom Hidden in Books

The Book Itch: Freedom, Truth & Harlem's Greatest Bookstore
Vaunda Micheaux Nelson (Author)
R. Gregory Christie (Illustrator)
Carolrhoda Books

Most people miss the value of people, places or things in which they see little connection to their lives.  For example, I did not know there was a Grandparents Day until time and circumstance forced me to become one. It is funny how many great things escape our notice. In that same way, award-winning author Vaunda Micheaux Nelson admits she did not realize the beauty or importance of her great uncle's life's work, until after he died. Yet, the light came on for her, as readers will see in the soon-to-be released nonfiction tale, The Book Itch. The writer captures an important American story about a die-hard book lover, as well as a time, place and people of which most people in the United States today missed.

The 32-page text is a simply written tribute to the importance of words, and a man who found his way to freedom and success through their embrace. Lewis Henri Michaux, the main character, is indeed an unusual figure in his devotion. The man was an evangelist for the power of the written word, because he understood the ability to read and grasp ideas was the essence of education. That fact is clearly shown in the sayings he shouted as he literally hawked titles in New York City's Harlem, such as, "Don't get took. Read a book," or  "Knowledge is power. You need it every hour. Read a book."

Those attracted to the book for a biography of a once important African American will not be disappointed. The author shares Michaux's story in several ways. Although, the narrator is the fictional voice of her cousin, Lewis Michaux, Jr., the facts are there. At the same time, book also builds on her great uncle's slogans to create a tableau that cleverly imparts a strong message that books are cool, even outside of school. "You are not necessarily a fool because you didn't go to school," was one of his father's fondest mottoes.

Lewis Michaux had not much more than a "sharecropper's education," which meant the main thing black youth in his time were taught was how to work in the fields. The bookseller, who died in 1976, was born in Newport News, Virginia, during the last decades of the 19th Century, a time when it was hard for poor African Americans to go to schools. Their school years were often held captive by the needs of the harvest. They would attend classes until the season came for them to pick the crops.

Michaux rejected that fate. He fell into a life of crime as young man, yet redeemed himself, and eventually discovered a passion for words that led him to become an apostle that spread a "knowledge is power" gospel. As mentioned, when his book business began around 1932, he walked the streets with a cart and shouted lines like, "Don't get took. Read a book." Ultimately, the message and those efforts grew into Harlem's African National Memorial Bookstore, a nexus for learning and free speech.

The store near 125th Street and Seventh Avenue was a magnet for readers of all ages, as well as writers, artists, musicians, scholars, and politicians, that included celebrities as diverse as boxing legend Muhammad Ali, the late trumpeter Louis Armstrong, the late Ghanaian President Kwame Nkrumah, the late authors James Baldwin and Langston Hughes, and civil rights leader Malcolm X. The Book Itch with its vibrant drawings by R. Gregory Christie will delight readers, even in kindergarten, as a read-aloud tale. There were times when the design and layout made the work a little hard to follow for novice readers, yet experienced readers even into middle school will be drawn to the tale's style and message.

The takeaway from The Book Itch for many readers is a sense of empowerment. They will see in Vaunda Micheaux Nelson's nicely knit tale, that an individual can yield real power over his or her future, and knowledge fuels that potential.

Monday, September 7, 2015

And, The Workers Say

Talking Back: Voices of Color
Nellie Wong, editor
Red Letter Press
240 pages
ISBN: 978-0-9323223-32-3

Given the recent reports on desperate conditions for service workers throughout the United States, there is no better way to honor Labor Day than to propose you check out Talking Back: Voices of Color. The work offers readers insights into the United States from laborers and a broad assembly of those who see life from the streets instead of ivory towers. The text might be ideal as a reader for writing students, because the commentaries are easily readable and well edited. It is also a chance to hear more from those who live daily with consequences of the social, political and economic policies rather than the competitive cries of paid pundits. Any adult interested in the honest exploration of views on those issues from a wide range of Americans - native-born and immigrant, different genders, races, sexual orientations, ages, and disabilities - is bound to find enlightenment in this essay collection edited by poet Nellie Wong. I did.

If you are closed to the views of those sectors of society, or prone to be biased against the fact that the group behind it is largely socialist, the work provides a chance for openness. No? Then it will not appeal to you.

Talking Back was - and is - a potent force, a crucial step in understanding that race oppression, sex discrimination, abusive bosses, income inequality, poverty, homelessness, and never-ending war were systemic, institutionalized under capitalism to wreak havoc on our political, working and creative lives.

Wong writes that in the introduction as the key lesson learned through the transformation she underwent in the 1970s. As a Chinese woman, she was raised to be silent about her views. The Oakland writer says that as she listened to the many voices of those shunted aside in society she began to grasp that speaking out was a path to change.

Talking Back: Voices of Color is filled with testimony on trending topics as diverse as immigration reform, the Mexican Border, police violence, the Middle East crisis, and workers’ rights. Most of the statements are less than 1,000 words, yet the writers use of facts and reflection give them punch. Interested readers will find themselves saying, “I didn’t know that,” over and over as the commentaries organized under chapter headings such as, “The border crossed us,” make it easier to hone in on the subjects of greatest interest. For example in Chapter 7, “Shaking it up,” retired Teamster Ann Rogers’ contribution, “Still working after 80: Social Security and me,” pulled me into the book. Her plight is one to which many retired Baby Boomers can relate.

 “The cost of living skyrocketed over two decades, my Social Security did not,” she explains in the dissection of a government benefit system that provides no comfort to many elderly. At 82, the Chippewa woman still works daily, “because I unfortunately also need food, clothes, medicine, a car, gas, and car repairs.” Rogers makes readers consider how the system doles out Social Security compensation. She talks about the general procedure, then asks readers to think about what that might be like for a working single parent.

A Social Security pension is based on an average of a person’s lifetime earnings. That means low-wage workers get smaller payouts. Rogers started as a waitress then worked for Sears. Her employer’s retirement rested on company stock. When those prices dropped like a boulder off a cliff in the recession in the late 1970s, and she was laid off at age 60, there was little to hope for except Social Security. “The highest 30 years of my wages were averaged to figure my benefit,” she states, then contrasts her underfunded fate with what will happen to those who will have to cope with the even more restrictive policies today.

Now wages are averaged over 35 years, and that is sure to include the low wages most people start out making. For many women, unaffordable childcare means they have to take time off work when their kids are young, and they don’t have 35 years’ worth of wage history. 

In the overall, the book is an unsubtle critique of capitalism. The work’s tone is not negative, however. This would be good for personal enrichment or to share with senior high or college writing students to open their eyes to ideas that differ from is usually published in essay collections. Most of the Talking Back authors are literate, yet not professional writers. Their political perspectives are far left of liberal or centrist perspectives found in my social anthologies, and that is one of the reasons the book provokes thought. The voices of color are a clarion call for change.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

New Comic Book Highlights the Vital Role of a Single Parent

There is nothing handier than to be able to catch a trend on the fly. The recent emergence of Marvel and DC comics characters as hits in graphic novels, television and the big screen was not lost on collaborators Jason Piperberg and Dennis Liu when they gave life to Raising Dion, a new independent comic book. The superhero's origin reminded me of a cross between Superman and Green Lantern. The twist is that the super child and his guardian are black.

Liu, who writes the story, told that the concept came from life experience and a broad knowledge of super sagas. The first key for me was the element of seclusion which is often evident before classic superheros place themselves on the scene. The story lines tend to take a nobody and turn him or her into a somebody who wants to hide from the public. Raising Dion is not exactly like that. For example, Superman, who creators Jerome Seigel and Joseph Schuster have  baby Kalel arrive from the doomed planet Krypton in a hardworking, hard scrabble Midwestern town ten minutes from nowhere called Smallville. It is hard to begin in a more obscure fashion. Yet, as those who read Raising Dion #1, will see, the creators found a way. No spoilers here,

Raising Dion #1 front cover
Dion starts out in a cabin in the woods of Hamilton, New York with his mom Nicole, whom Liu describes as, "equal parts Martha Kent and Alfred Pennyworth." The hero is important, yet she is a character to watch. "Parents install a value system, the author insisted to Fusion. That small thought won my heart and pushed me to look beyond the hype about African American characters and the lack of diversity in U.S. comics to see what he and Piperbrg did with the role of the single parent.

I admit, at first take, I found the idea a little cliche, worse stereotypical. Gee, a black child with a single mother. It's not like readers have ever heard that before. Then, I read the e-book. Never judge a story by reportage.

Liu samples those iconic caregivers to shape her character, and taps into his own experience as uncle to five nieces with single mothers. “If these key parental figures did not raise these superheroes correctly," he told Fusion, "then who knows what Clark Kent or Bruce Wayne would have become?” More than that the setting and overall plot that shows promise to grapple with hot topics such as the environment, science for profit, child-rearing, and racism yields a tale as au courant as selfies. 

I would like to have seen Dion with a more traditional family - mother, father and child - yet that is not here...exactly. As I, after you read the 22-page first issue, you might be cool with that. The final call is to see how the series develops.

I heartily endorse the debut manuscript I read, yet plan to watch before I hang five starts on the work. That said, Liu is an insightful and sensitive storyteller whom I am pleased to discover. Anyone that makes people more mindful of the monumental sacrifices, struggles and responsibilities shouldered by most single moms (and dads) deserves the eyes of as wide a readership (13 to 99) as possible. I often ask myself, but for someone who steps up to parent, what might have happened to the last two generations of  American youth?

 Liu captures the flavor of the story in a statement by Nicole in a trailer that advertised the book, "The most important thing about raising a superhero is learning to become one first." Sound advice to all adults,

I won't say a lot more about the story in the first issue, except that those who have read classic Superman will note many parallels in Dion's emergence.The only difference is the burden of being different, which for the hero of Liu and Piperberg's saga means to have powers beyond those of most people on the planet and being black in America. The author told Fusion that he deals with the issue of what he describes as The Talk most African American parents are forced to have with their children head on. The accuracy of his assessment is left to the reader. Otherwise, in the 22-page readers will find mostly back story and great potential. Like Superman, Dion's deepest struggle is to learn that who he is in much more than what he can do. 

Interested readers can order a print copy for $4. Those who want to take advantage of the sample to make up their minds can check out the free first issue in e-book from Liu's personal website. As an option, explore that book and others on, an amazing Orlando-based resource for fresh new voices in the medium. NOTE: The IndyPlanet site was crashed on Sunday, when I checked on the availability. I don't know why. There is a notice that says the trouble is under repair. Check them later in the week.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Organization Takes Poetry to the People

Poets & Writers, one of the premier organizations for both in the United States, offers lit lovers a number of resources online, as well as in public. One of those offerings are conferences, and the organization will host its sixth live event on Oct. 17 in Portland, Oregon. Here is a visual treat plucked from coverage of the fifth author showcase in Chicago - Northwestern University Press Poetry Editor Parneshia Jones reads from her debut collection, Vessels.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Stanley Stirs School Excitement and Memories

Stanley at School
By Linda Bailey
Kids Can Press
Published: Aug. 1 2015
ISBN: 1771380969

The calendar has changed faster than the weather outside my window. As the first beams of gray daylight make it possible to see more than shadows moving down the street, I see the
high school students on the way to timely meet attendance on the first day of school. In an hour or so, the elementary school kids will follow. Like clockwork, every school day, I watch the faces as young people of all sizes move past me. Some are on foot. Some ride bikes. Book bags are on their backs. I barely still remember when I was one of them. Full disclosure - I liked school from the first day of kindergarten to college. I cannot fully recall everything that happened on the first day of school in those years. Memories grow faint, but the sense of curiosity and anticipation never fade. Those elements are guaranteed to stir some of the same feelings in those who read, or listen, to the fast-paced action in award-winning Canadian author Linda Bailey’s delightful picture book, Stanley at School.

Anyone who thinks that praise is just hype should give the 32-page work a read. I won’t share much of the story, because you really have to hear the tale for yourself. In fact, the way the author uses words is the first remarkable aspect of the book. First, let me be candid.

When I first saw the title and read the description for this work, I was intrigued yet unimpressed. Several authors have written read-aloud books about dogs (or other animals and creatures) going to school. A standout is Ree Drummond and Diane deGroat’s tale of how Charlie the Ranch Dog makes it in a classroom. Several audience polls rate in slightly higher than Norman Bidwell’s classic Clifford’s First School Day. On its face, Stanley at School, seemed too close in theme and content to Constance McGeorge’s nicely written, Boomer Goes to School, published in 2012. That is why it pays to look beyond the cover.

Stanley at School is a romp in language and art. Bailey repeats key words at pivotal parts in the narrative to poke the readers attention. The way the writer sort of seeps words drop by drop to the point cinches along the action. That breeds a gentle tension:

‘What do we do now?’ asked Alice.
But she already knew the answer. All the dogs knew. They had to wait outside.
‘Don’t you ever get tired of waiting?’ asked Stanley. ‘Wait outside the library. Wait outside the coffee shop. Wait outside the bakery.’
And that is when Stanley got an idea. A big idea. A bold idea! An idea so daring it made his fur stand up.
Happy but embarrassed to admit I was right there in the conversation with those dogs. More than that, award-winning Illustrator Bill Slavin’s vibrant drawings make the scene more believable. His image of the closed school doors up a long flight of stairs not only gives the reader an insight into a dog’s vantage point. I could imagine how a three- or four-foot child might similarly see the setting.

Parents who want to slake the interest of a preschooler, or ease the jitters of someone in kindergarten, will find Stanley a great resource. Even readers like me, who have not answered the school bell for a half century will smile, laugh and at some points guffaw, at the tightly woven tale. Those familiar with Bailey’s five earlier Stanley books will attest, the goofy, yet adventurous character strikes something beautiful in the core of many people. Bailey, who is head over heels for her Golden Retriever Sophie, asserts that Stanley is “the dog I would love to be.” That spirit also infuses the narrative, you will see.

It is obvious that I enjoyed the experience, but some of the pictures seemed out of sync with the text. In a couple places the text came on a page after the drawing. I read an e-book, and even went into two-page mode to see if the alignment changed. It did not. I was distracted. Nonetheless, a clever narrator, can hold the image in order for a child. Well, let Stanley at School take you back to that first day when you thought the worst nightmare lay behind a school door.