Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Best Books of 2015

Nein. A Manifesto

It's hard to believe 2105 is drawing to a close. Of course I find myself saying that every year. Perhaps this time is especially difficult though because it saw the publication of so many fabulous books. NPR's Book Concierge, a great resource for slimming down your reading list to select the best of the best, has put together their yearly list of the Best Books of the Year. Be sure to check it out to make sure you didn't miss anything in your genre of choice! I also enjoy using it as a guide for when I feel like stepping outside my normal reading patterns, and want to make sure that I'm getting something that's already sparked interest or maybe even controversy.

Personally, I've read some pretty fabulous books this year. Among my absolute favorites though have been "The Country of Ice Cream Star" by Sandra Newman (Postapocalyptic SpecFic), "Newt's Emerald" by Garth Nix (YA SpecFic/Alternate History), "Made You Up" by Francesca Zappia (YA), "The Water Knife" by Paolo Bacigalupi (Postapocalyptic SpecFic), and "When We Were Animals" by Joshua Gaylord (SpecFic/Horror). Of these, I have added "The Country of Ice Cream Star" and "When We Were Animals" to my personal library. Even having spent the year working in and studying books though, I know that there are excellent works that I just missed, due to lack of either time or knowledge of them. As always, I love receiving book recommendations so if you would like to see something reviewed here, let me know! I look forward to sharing more books here in the coming year.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Book Review: "Ms. Marvel" by G. Willow Wilson, Adrian Alphona and Jacob Wyatt

Of the wide variety of comics that I've read for class this past fall quarter, superhero comics have by far been my favorites. The sheer variety of modern superhero comics, and how each one of them qualifies as a superhero comic in its own right according to theory on the subject, capture my imagination in ways that Golden Age floppies of Superman and The Fantastic Four never did.

I'm not the only one getting inspired by the potential of superhero comics. Beginning in February of 2014, the superhero character of Ms. Marvel was revamped. The resulting project by Sana Amanat, Stephen Wacker, G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona introduces us to Pakistani-American teenager Kamala Khan as the current reincarnation of this Marvel superhero. This series has been recognized again and again for its presentation of "otherness" in American culture, particularly for a Muslim teenage girl in a situation where she feels like she intrinsically doesn't belong.

The story in this comic is nothing new: girl gains superpowers, there are villains, she is defeated but doesn't give up, and in the end good triumphs over evil. The art is incredible throughout, although appearing in two very different styles. The use of bright colors, with an incredible number of layers to achieve detail and nuance, pull the eye across the page and draw readers into a vivid world that's recognizable as our own, but also just separate enough to make us want to know more. A personal favorite feature of mine was the entertaining slogans and labels written on boxes, products, and advertisements in the background. Be sure to look closely to get a few more laughs!

What makes this comic truly incredible is the *way* in which the contributors accomplish their depiction of being "outside" of the norm. Kamala is like any teenager in that she doesn't feel she belongs. But the struggles that she faces regarding her self-identity and comfort being herself are so many that my heart aches fro her from the very beginning. This is probably most aptly displayed when she first makes her wish to be Ms Marvel, and finds herself transformed from a Middle-Eastern teenager into the leggy, blond, busty image of Captain Marvel with which she was familiar. As the story goes on though, Kamala's appearance even in the persona of Ms. Marvel shifts and changes. Instead of the traditional revealing costume that makes her feel over-exposed, Kamala adopts parts of her own personal blended culture and, as she starts looking more and more like herself, feels comfortable using her powers in her own unique way to be *her* version of Ms. Marvel.

The creators show that she's "just like us" in that she has personal struggles on many levels, which is admirable. But this recognition of Kamala as "just like us" implies an inherent sense of other-ness. It still implies that you have to look beyond some more obvious, even intrinsic traits of hers (like her ethnicity or religion, and the stereotypes and assumptions that get made because of them) to recognize her humanity and how really she has a lot of the same troubles as any teen. But truly, she does not.

I am a middle-class white female. And as a teenager I went through some rough stuff that still dogs me some days even as an adult. But I never had my peers compliment my hijab in an offhand way, or ask if my parents would "honor kill" me if I took it off. Nobody ever asked me to stand back because I smelled like curry. These are all experiences that Kamala has, being Pakistani-American and Muslim. All this is in addition to having to hide her mysterious new superpowers and try to find out what they mean for her. How should she use them? How can she best represent herself and her values, as an individual as well as as a product of her background, in her newfound position as a superhero?

I'm not sure if recognizing and celebrating her otherness is "better" or "worse" than ignoring it in an attempt to be "colorblind." Where does recognizing differences turn into discrimination, and where does lack of acknowledgement become erasure? I don't know the answers to these questions, and maybe there are no hard rules when it comes to the subject. But I do know that "Ms. Marvel" does a (yeah, I'm going to say it) marvelous job of exploring these questions and others. There's a hefty dose of humor in there as well, which helps to balance out the struggles that gnaw at Kamala both in and out of her superhero suit. If you like superhero comics or movies at all, and if you're ready for a painful, beautiful trip through the life of a person who doesn't quite belong anywhere she's found so far, pick up a copy of "Ms. Marvel" soon! You can find the "floppies" in many local comics shops or get the hardcover compilation at your favorite local, independent bookstore.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

TED-Ed Vernacular Lessons

Image result for TED ED
Readers, I have a confession to make: I am a TED junkie. Studying English (or any other subject, really) is a commitment to that one subject for a very extended period of time, as it should be. But what about when my brain needs a break from literature and analytical writing?

One of my favorite things to do when I reach that breaking point, which happens no matter how much I might love what I'm studying, is to listen to a TED Talk. TED-Ed has so many great series out there about everything from new groundbreaking polymers to cultural explorations to, yes, stories about literature and language. They're perfect for putting on when I go for a run or head to the gym for a little study break and some exercise. I'm still learning, but I get to do it in a different manner, with some subjects that I may not otherwise find myself exposed to.

Lately, as I enjoy a brief winter break from the rigors of my academic program, I'm listening to a great TED-Ed series called "Mysteries of Vernacular." It explores some of the most interesting or unexpected words in the English language and where they come from. My personal favorite so far? The word "odd." The next time you need a break from the holiday music or want something stimulating to listen to while wrapping those gifts, check out the "Mysteries of Vernacular" series from TED-Ed. You'll learn some fascinating bits to bring up over fruitcake and eggnog at your next holiday gathering.