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Thuy Dinh

Book Review: RED CLOCKS by Leni Zumas

This review is by contributor Thuy Dinh, coeditor of the literary online magazine Da Mau.

In Leni Zumas’s lyrical yet unsparing novel, red clocks symbolize the identity crises, haunting wombs, ticking time bombs of five female characters: the Biographer (Ro Stephens); the Polar Explorer (Eivor Minervudottir), a nineteenth-century scientist and elusive subject of Ro’s unpublished book; the Mender (Gin Percival); the Wife (Susan Korsmo); and the Daughter (Mattie Quarles).

The bold crimson design on the book cover resembles an abstract, open-yet-closed vagina, which beautifully complements the epigraph by Virginia Woolf on the inside page: “For nothing was simply one thing. The other Lighthouse was true too.” Both the design and the epigraph reflect the ambivalence of inhabiting one’s womanhood.

In Red Clocks, four of the five women see themselves as disenfranchised from their ideal selves.

Ro, despite having a meaningful intellectual life as writer and high school history teacher, repeatedly fails to conceive by artificial insemination.

Eivor can’t author a book under her own name on the patterns of polar ice during the Victorian era, and is forced to use a male colleague’s name.

Susan, a law school dropout, resents the tedium of child-rearing and housekeeping while insisting a woman’s maturity comes from the fulfillment of her reproductive destiny.

And Mattie, a high school sophomore, aspires to a career as a marine biologist but gets impregnated by a vain and dim-witted boyfriend.

Gin, a homeopathic healer, is the only character who feels fully at home in her body and natural habitat. She, however, is ostracized as a witch by the townspeople.

While certain readers may be quick to label Red Clocks a dystopian novel, its depiction of a present-day United States where the Twenty-eighth Amendment bans abortion—and grants rights to life, liberty, and property to every embryo—functions more or less as a McGuffin. The harmful consequences resulting from this regime occur mostly offstage, and serve to heighten the characters’ conflicts but don’t represent the novel’s center.

Even without the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade and the abolition of Planned Parenthood, as the novel imagines, the characters’ struggles would still exist, because the idea of being a woman with choice is still open for debate in the twenty-first century.

Even without the fictitious Twenty-eighth Amendment, an unwanted or out-of-wedlock pregnancy still raises questions of decorum and ethics in certain milieu. Its inverse scenario—of a single woman wanting a child via artificial or in vitro fertilization—still entails considerable financial and emotional costs.

Zumas shows that her characters do not behave as a result of some legal construct, but in spite of it. Gin, who became pregnant as a teenager, did not terminate her pregnancy during the era when abortion was still legal, but chose to carry her baby to terms before giving it up for adoption.

Mattie, on the other hand, chooses to end her pregnancy despite the serious health and legal risks posed by the antiabortion regime. And Penny, Ro’s colleague at the high school, writes passionate novels in which Irish nurses have urgent and unprotected sex with hot, “britches-bursting” Italian stallions.

With humor and compassion, Zumas also describes how silence, judgment, and cowardice imprison her characters.

Susan, saddled with unruly children and envious of Ro’s freedom, nonetheless gloats that Ro is single and unable to have a baby. Ro, while mocking Susan’s choice of taking her husband’s last name, yearns for Susan’s lifestyle as a financially stable, married, stay-at-home mom.

Mattie’s adoptive parents are loving and protective, yet quick to judge unconventional life choices and cannot accept a scenario where Mattie might not be born. Even Gin, though kindhearted, will not save her lesbian lover from domestic abuse if that means she has to give up her own independence.

In lieu of pat resolutions, Red Clocks offer intimate, redemptive moments when the characters fully embrace their estrangement. It provides an excellent roadmap to the country of female awareness.

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Book Review: DRIFTING HOUSE by Krys Lee

This review is by contributor Thuy Dinh, editor of the literary webzine Da Mau.

With nine cinematic, well-crafted stories, Krys Lee’s debut collection literally takes your breath away in its unflinching portrayal of displacement. Almost all the stories in Drifting House illustrate the horrific but rarely redemptive struggle toward love. Her characters, while longing for change, are ultimately doomed because they cannot escape their preordained sense of self. In this way they become “drifting houses”—unmoored, hermetic vessels that travel through languages, cultures, space, and time but never “arrive” anywhere.

Believing that people “carry their history with them,” and that history is not “just a family’s history but the history and culture of a nation,” Lee uses her writing to explore many paradoxical facets of the uprooted self. Born in South Korea, resettled in California, educated in Washington State and England, and now living in South Korea but active in resettlement efforts involving North Korean defectors, the author relentlessly navigates the porous yet alienating borders between America and Asia, North and South, reality and myth, freedom and incarceration.

Lee’s fractured, volatile characters provide the cataclysm for her richly layered fiction. Their tragic flaws denounce all established notions of infallibility. Fatalistic but afraid, Lee’s fugitives rarely trust their instinct. Tragedy ensues when these characters succumb to the illusion of order. In “At The Edge of the World,” a family is nearly torn apart when the wife, a devout Christian, refuses to acknowledge her husband’s deep yearning for his dead brother and his desperate resort to shamanism. In “The Goose Father,” a married accountant is troubled by strong feelings toward his tenant, a younger male named Wuseong with “anxious rosebud lips” who owns a mangy goose that may or may not embody his mother’s reincarnated soul.

In the rare instances when characters reject their predetermined roles, they are still left with a sense of profound loss akin to death or exile, because their former selves are intrinsically tied to their society and families. The snow-covered landscape in “Drifting House” is an apt metaphor. The children who flee the North Korean famine in the story face the harsh skyline of China and intuit “the dim sense that the world outstretched before them would never know or care about them.” In “The Salaryman,” the main character—a homeless man after losing his job—uses a pair of metal chopsticks to defend himself against thugs. Survival liberates him from illusions, and at the same time deprives him of civilization.

In Lee’s world, love becomes terror because it resists all man-made boundaries. The author skillfully applies magical realism in a few stories to depict the deathless bonds of love. In its best incarnation, love—like Wuseong’s deep attachment to his goose—reflects a childlike openness to mysteries. To reach this level of transcendence, acceptance of imperfection is a requisite step. In “A Small Sorrow”—my favorite story in the collection—Eunkang, an androgynous painter with “boy’s hips and nipples like wild berries,” finally comes to terms with her spiritual and sexual hunger. Eunkang’s realization of her husband as a vain, weak man does not diminish her love for him, because she now sees him, and herself, fully. Eunkang’s embrace of her condition gives a luminous cast over Drifting House. Even in her darkest, most startling depictions, Lee is full of grace.

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Book Review & Giveaway: RULES OF CIVILITY by Amor Towles

by Thuy Dinh, editor-in-chief of Da Mau magazine

Rules of Civility, Amor Towles‘s debut novel, deftly reflects the American sensibility of being a nation of transplants. Structured as a bildungsroman, the novel begins in New York circa 1966 and proceeds backward to 1938, illustrating the youthful adventures of Katey Kontent, an orphaned but plucky twenty-something Russian immigrant.

Katie’s only assets are her wit, education, and emotional resilience. These inner assets make up the “True North” that guides her voyage through the treacherous undertow of social and gender assumptions, from a lowly job as a secretary to a plummy position as a Conde Nast magazine editor and happy marriage to a member of the Long Island gentry. As a meditation on the idea of being chosen (based on the gospel according to Matthew), the novel illustrates why many “beggars” are called to the wedding banquet that symbolizes America, yet only a few can survive the demands of this new world.

As a novel about dispossessed characters driven to reinvent themselves, Rules echoes Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany, with a gigolo passing as a Boston Brahmin, and a cornfed Midwesterner reborn as a continental socialite and Hollywood mogul. Towles is dead on when he describes the quintessential American need to redefine nature through desire and violence, such as when Katey articulates her attraction to guns:

[P]eering down the barrel into the open air, you suddenly had the power of a Gorgon—the ability to influence matter at a distance merely by meeting it with your gaze. And the feeling didn’t dissipate with the sound of the shot. It lingered. It permeated your limbs and sharpened your senses—adding a certain possession to your swagger, or a swagger to your possession….

If only someone had told me about the confidence-boosting nature of guns, I’d have been shooting them all my life.

The title is a direct reference to George Washington’s 110 Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior, written at the tender age of 14, encapsulating a code of behavior for young men that confirms the American hidden fascination with class and wealth.

But the novel also allows Katey to supplant Washington’s status-oriented rules with what can be called the Tao of Inner Peace. Katey’s principal rules include the literal and/or metaphorical appreciation of “a morning cup of coffee,” kindness to strangers and a deep strength in one’s conviction. Above all, Katey yearns to live “in a perpetual state of wonderment” like a child about to take her first steps. But while Katey understands this romantic ideal, she realizes that assimilation is the first order for survival, and that means the loss of innocence and the exclusion of certain possibilities.

For extra effect, Walker Evans’s photography project Many Are Called, undertaken during the time period of the novel (1936-1941) and capturing the expressive faces of New York subway riders hurtling through dark tunnels, acts as the novel’s recurring motif: how strangers’ lives collide and foster the cultural milieu of their time. The everlasting tension between rugged isolationism and noble yearning for global engagement is amplified by Katey in the novel’s epilogue:

Life doesn’t have to present you any options at all….To have even one year when you are presented with choices that can alter your circumstances, your character, your course—that’s by the grace of God alone. And it shouldn’t come without a price.

Amor Towles’s novel is, in essence, a literary restatement of the Declaration of Independence. Its bittersweet message resonates deeply, for it brings home the fact that freedom is both hard won and miraculous.


Viking is kindly allowing me to give away a copy of this book. To enter, leave a comment telling me the one rule you always try to follow in polite company. Doesn’t have to be a serious, important one. I’d accept something like “Always wear deodorant.” Giveaway ends this Sunday, August 21, 5 p.m. PST. U.S./Canada residents only, please, and no P.O. boxes.—PCN



Conjurer of Destinies: Review of Monique Truong’s BITTER IN THE MOUTH

This review is by contributing writer Thuy Dinh, a practicing attorney and the editor of the literary webzine Da Mau.


In Vietnamese, words that convey happiness and suffering are themselves distinct tastes. While happiness is always nutty-sweet (ngọt bùi), suffering provides a wide range of bitter tastes: bitter-spicy (đắng cay), sour-bitter (chua cay), medicinally sharp like bitter melon (khổ qua) or acidly bitter like soap berries (bồ hòn—a Southeast Asian fruit that’s also used as a natural detergent).

In Bitter in the Mouth, Monique Truong dazzlingly explores a whole array of an outsider’s experience via the literal and figurative trope of synesthesia. Her main character, Linda Hammerick, suffers from a rare sensory disorder: she registers words first and foremost as specific tastes, isolated and independent from their meanings. When she hears the word mom, Linda thinks of chocolate milk. (Incidentally, the word chocolate from the Aztec word xocolatl means bitter water). Linda’s challenge–which is also the central mystery of the novel—is how to unravel her sensory confusion, to discard/distill the bitter from the nutty-sweet.

Linda’s memory begins not in infancy, but Athena-like in 1975 when she is 7. She either does not remember or is vague about the years and events that precede 1975.  Bitterness is the first taste that Linda remembers, which was “bitter in the way that greens were good for us were bitter. Or in the way that simmering resentment was bitter.” Linda’s favorite color is fire, because it contains “red and yellow and orange and blue.”  The following excerpt from the first chapter provides the main clues to the novel’s mystery, which is not revealed until the book’s second part:

I’ll tell you the easy things first. I’ll use simple sentences. So factual and flat, these statements will land in between us like playing cards on a table: My name is Linda Hammerick. I grew up in Boiling Springs, North Carolina. My parents were Thomas and DeAnne. My best friend was named Kelly. I was my father’s tomboy. I was my mother’s baton twirler. I was my high school’s valedictorian. I went far away for college and law school. I live now in New York City. I miss my great-uncle Harper.

But once these cards have been thrown down, there are bound to be distorting overlaps, the head of the Queen of Spades on the body of the King of Clubs, the Joker’s bowed legs beneath a field of hearts: I grew up in (Thomas and Kelly). My parents were (valedictorian and baton twirler). My best friend was named (Harper). I was my father’s (New York City). I was my mother’s (college and law school). I was my high school’s (tomboy). I went far away for (Thomas and DeAnne). I live now in (Boiling Springs). I miss (Linda Hammerick). The only way to sort out the truth is to pick up the cards again, slowly, examining each one.

Facts in Truong’s novel are never what they seem, the same way an acquired language may assault, dilute or obliterate an immigrant’s mother tongue. In this sense, all outsiders are synesthesiasts. Truong, a 21st century writer writing about displacement, has drifted a long way from the refined taste of Proust’s madeleine and the fragrant waft of Tran Anh Hung’s Scent of Green Papaya. Her protagonist’s sensory world is instead attacked by tuna casserole and chicken a la king, gray, gloppy food held together by Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup—“the Great Assimilator,” as Linda wryly quips. American optimism, embodied by Bisquick pancake mix (“the possibilities, the sweet and the savory, were all in that cheery box”) is both salvation and forgetfulness.

Linda’s mom—her chocolate milk—is both her mom and not her mom. Linda’s true name and the word matricide both evoke peach. Linda is her father’s New York City because it was there that he met the love of his life. Linda’s best friend is her uncle Harper, who evokes a not-too-subtle reference to the novel’s literary influence, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mocking Bird. (Or perhaps Harpers Ferry, the site of the abolitionist John Brown’s failed rebellion against Southern slaveholders).

Yet Linda asserts that she “was never Scout. I was Boo Radley, not hidden away but in plain sight.” Linda’s self-identification with Boo Radley is another clue to the novel’s mystery. She is a self-willed, almost ruthless exile who cannot even entertain the sentimental thought of nostalgia. While Uncle Harper is the closest embodiment to Linda’s sense of home, he is no Atticus Finch because he, like, Linda, is mutely and deeply estranged from his own Southern Baptist culture.

Linda’s need to reconstruct her personal history from memory’s gaps and distortions is probably similar to an immigrant’s reinvention of identity in his/her adopted homeland. In this sense, a self-inventor is both explorer and fortune teller: how to construct a believable narrative from a jumble of cards?

Truong proceeds to answer this question by weaving in the seemingly disparate legends of Virginia Dare (reputedly the first child born in North America to English parents), the Wright Brothers, and the poet-slave George Moses Horton—outcasts who helped define North Carolina’s cultural history. Her novel is an ambitious and poignant meditation on how to define your true essence, a compelling assertion that individual will can trump biological and geographical destinies. To celebrate your affliction—if being different is seen as an affliction—is not enough; you must learn how to synthesize your synesthesia into a larger canvas so that, like the Wright brothers, your ultimate achievement isn’t simply “flight but flight accompanied by a safe landing.”

Monique Truong has flown and landed with amazing grace.

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Hell is Other People: Review of Piper Kerman’s ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK

This review is by contributing writer Thuy Dinh, a practicing attorney and editor-in-chief of the literary webzine Da Mau.

Piper Kerman’s memoir, Orange is the New Black, deftly invokes the themes of “white girl gone wrong” and No Exit. In fact, the memoir’s best selling point is the atypical profile of its author: a blond, blue-eyed Smith graduate who happens to be a federal offender, sentenced to 15 months in prison for a drug charge committed thoughtlessly in her “bohemian” youth. (Kerman was released after 13 months for good behavior.)

Early on in the book, Kerman describes her self-surrender at the women’s minimum security federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut with dissonant yet arresting (no puns intended) details: slowly shedding her identity before going behind bars by first taking off her seven gold engagement rings, then the multiple earrings from “all the extra holes that so vexed my grandfather.” In the lobby of the prison, she stalls the inevitable moment by munching on a foie gras sandwich chased with Diet Coke, wryly wondering if she is the only Seven Sisters graduate who samples her last gourmet meal at the entrance of a penitentiary. The book’s epigraph—lyrics from “Anthem,” a song by Leonard Cohen—says it all:

Ring the bells that still can sing
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in

The attraction of Kerman’s memoir is the story of a privileged, middle-class girl who transgresses, then later redeems herself through her own self-discipline and the emotional support of her family and prison peers. The horror of her condition is not unlike the horror of hell described by Jean-Paul Sartre in his famous play No Exit: hell is not an external condition like torture or physical pain, but the deprivation of one’s community and the relentless confrontation of the imperfect self.

Kerman’s prison, her version of hell, is in fact the classical notion that her self-worth and free choice as a functional member in society have been taken away due to her crime. Behind bars, a prisoner is forced to become institutionalized by accepting all the arbitrary rules, spoken and unspoken, about prison life. Yet, as Kerman reflects, the prisoner’s acceptance of her new environment reveals a cruel paradox: Most prisoners with long sentences are not given any preparation or emotional support to cope with the outside world once they are released. Like the characters in No Exit, prisoners are conditioned to feel as if they will never be free, even after all barriers to their physical freedom have been lifted.

Kerman is most effective in evoking this constant stigma: the strip search—the women are forced to remove their clothes, squat on the floor, and cough hard—after every visit or contact with the outside world, the grim notion that a prisoner’s words have no value if weighed against the “truth” as asserted by her jailer, the sight of small children being wrenched away from their mothers as the visiting hour ends, prisoners giving birth, then having to leave their newborns in someone else’s care before being whisked back to prison in shackles.

While Orange does not try to scale the cosmic questions raised in Crime and Punishment, its central message echoes the lesson learned by a penitent and existential Raskolnikov: Even if there is no God or no viable authority to guide anyone, a moral code exists naturally within the individual. This moral code makes him suffer once he transgresses. Yet the awareness of a moral code is like “a crack that lets in the light,” the very thing that redeems the individual in the end because it makes him realize he has the freedom to choose between good and evil.

When not in her introspective mode, Kerman speaks of the prison’s unspoken but entrenched code: No one is supposed to ask how anyone ended up there. The reader does not know specific details about many of the women’s crimes, only that most of them are amazingly kind, and fairly normal, like any woman who’s not in prison. They gossip, bicker, commiserate, give each other forbidden pedicures, cook prison food with the aid of a microwave (Kerman’s signature prison cheesecake serves as a nice contrast to her foie gras sandwich eaten prior to her admission).

Photo by Sam Zalutsky

But all this normalcy, meant to encourage public acceptance, is a bit disturbing. By making the world behind bars accessible to the average reader through her Margaret Mead observations, rendering Danbury as a gritty “all-girls high school” with West Side Story tribal overtones, where Kerman becomes healthier and thinner by running track and practicing yoga, the author occasionally dilutes or contradicts her message. While it’s unusual for a well-educated, girl-next-door type to land in prison, Kerman’s confinement does not make it more fashionable, more tragic, or more acceptable than for someone who comes from the wrong side of the social equation.

Orange should not, ever, be considered the New Black, given the personal stigma and erosion of self-worth that Kerman so eloquently evokes in the book’s more forceful, memorable chapters. I wish she had probed more deeply into other cases besides her own, to prove that the mandatory minimum sentences in non-violent drug cases are inherently unfair to defendants and financially disastrous to the country’s economy. (Kerman’s Justice Reform links on her website makes a better argument than her memoir). Nevertheless, Orange is the New Black should probably be required college-level reading on social justice.

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Book Review: Lorrie Moore's A GATE AT THE STAIRS

Written by Thuy Dinh, contributing writer

My children, ages 11, 8, and 6, are discovering the Beatles for the first time. Not only do they listen to the songs endlessly during the rides to and from school, but they also play some of the Beatles’ simpler melodies on their piano keyboard almost 24/7.

It might have been a simple case of osmosis, then, or it could have been just a quirky coincidence that I heard the whole message of Lorrie Moore’s most recent novel, A Gate at the Stairs, summed up in “All You Need is Love,” but with double negative lyrics:

There’s nothing you can do that can’t be UNdone

Nothing you can sing that can’t be UNsung

Nothing you can say but you can’t UNlearn how to play the game

It’s NOT easy….

There’s nothing you can make that can’t be UNmade

No one you can save that can’t be UNsaved.

Nothing you can do but you can’t UNlearn how to be you

in time…

Though the message is unflinching, it’s affirming in that it holds the reader in high regard and tries to portray the world in a complex way. Told in the voice of Tessie Keltjin, a 20-year old college student, Stairs begins in the fall of 2001, shortly after 9/11. Right away, Moore sets the stage for the polarizing forces of her novel: faith versus faithlessness, love versus the absence of love, life versus death.

Tessie comes from the rural town of Dellacrosse (of the cross) and she goes to college in Troy (like its Greek antecedent, a liberal, cosmopolitan town somewhere in the Midwest). Soon, Tessie is hired to be the nanny of a mixed-race child adopted by the Thornwood-Brinks, a white, upper-middle class, progressive couple who live and work in Troy.

While working as a nanny, Tessie becomes involved with a darkly handsome but vaguely dangerous classmate in her Introduction to Sufism class. The man may or may not be Brazilian and only speaks or sings in Italian. The third plot strand is Tessie’s relationship with her family, most notably her close connection with her younger brother Robert, who plans to join the U.S. Army after high school. Moore takes her time getting to the heart of the story so at first it’s challenging, but once it speeds up, she covers impressive ground in a take-no-prisoners way.

The title of Moore’s novel is both literal and elusive. A Gate at the Stairs may simply mean a baby gate to prevent Tessie’s 2-year old charge, Mary-Emma, from reaching the stairs, or it could mean Babygate, Watergate, or even…Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (The novel, which was clearly written before Professor Gates’ July 2009 incident with the Boston police, has a character in a consciousness-raising group casually mentioning a story about a black  youth being accidentally shot by the police in his own home). A gate, therefore, can be something shameful and secretive, an impediment to progress, barring the stairway to heaven, blocking the path to true understanding.

Stairs is streamlined and layered, more like a Chinese shadow box, or a Vidalia onion as opposed to a messy head of radicchio (vegetables are also prominent in Moore’s novel, as Tessie’s father is a gentleman farmer who cultivates organic “pearl” fingerlings for yuppie consumers). The various gates in Moore’s novel are variations on the same theme: love and/or the lack of, and loss of love. Her characters are either recklessly in love or reckless with love. Lust, hunger, lack of faith, neglect and/or mistreatment of children, and racism are simply manifestations of love’s absence. Tessie poetically compares a decadent meal to an empty experience that leaves “the spirit…untouched,” “a condition of prayerless worship,” or an “endless communion” that offers no grace or salvation.

Moore’s cast of passionate yet lonely characters, like her punning/cunning use of language, have names that aptly describe them, yet at the same time may not represent who they really are. Like doomed figures in a Greek tragedy, Moore’s characters misinterpret events, or misinform each other, to escape from their oppressive fates. Tessie always complains of “not hearing things right” or “not believing what she hears.” Language in Moore’s universe is itself a shape-shifting, subversive character. In church, Tessie thinks she hears “Our Father” as follows:

Our father who art a heathen

Hollow be thigh name

Thigh king is dumb

Thigh will is dun

on earth as it is

at birth.

Stairs is the feminine, and feminist, answer to J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. (Incidentally, Holden Caulfield’s yearning to save the young children who run too close to the cliff of a rye field is also a deliberate misreading of a literary source. Robert Burns’ 18th century poem, “Coming Thro’ the Rye,” is sexually provocative and has nothing to do with saving children.)

At the end of the novel, after undergoing many forms of personal losses, Tessie becomes “nobody’s sister” who literally stares death in the eye. Wiser, sadder, but still at heart a romantic, Tessie concludes, “Love is the answer…It was OK…as an answer. But no more than that. It was not a solution; it wasn’t really an answer, just a reply.”

Just a reply, but it was way moore than enough for me.



This review was written by contributing writer, Thuy Dinh, my resident expert on graphic novels.—PCN


In A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge, Josh Neufeld presents a graphic journalistic account of six survivors’ real-life experiences after Hurricane Katrina. Neufeld based his stories on first-person interviews, photos and other on-location research he conducted while volunteering with the Red Cross. Though he has a sure hand with the visual medium, his reluctance to subject his own views on the matter somehow dilutes its emotional resonance.

His visual style is poetic and powerful in rendering the horrors of Katrina: the gigantic mushroom-shaped storm rising from the New Orleans skyline like a vision of latter-day Hiroshima; the Biblical water full of rats after the levee broke; a non-functional public bathroom at the Convention Center filled with trash, human waste and broken stalls that signifies a complete breakdown of the social order. But he’s at his most eloquent when he renders his panels in virtual silence; the symbolic effects of Katrina are most deeply felt when there is little or no intrusion of verbal caption.

Before A.D was reformatted and expanded into book form (the book has 25% more story and art than its online version), it first appeared in 2007 on the SMITH magazine website (still available here). The characters—Doc Brobson, a well-off white male; Denise, a financially strapped black female; Abbas, immigrant entrepreneur; Gen-Xers Leo and Michelle; and Kwame, a middle-class high school student—were chosen to represent a cross section of the wider populace affected by the storm.

In its current form, most of Neufeld’s characters don’t quite register. To make sure Denise, an African-American social worker, can tell her own story without racial and gender bias, it seems Neufeld gave her script approval. While his need to respect Denise’s suffering is understandable, his cautious treatment of her anger and self-loathing distances us from her plight. I wish Neufeld had explored with Denise the “many things that FEMA didn’t understand” about struggling, unmarried, professional black women living in untraditional households who feel they were grossly under-compensated in the aftermath of Katrina.

Neufeld seems much more comfortable in portraying Leo, twenty-something comic book collector and publisher of the New Orleans music webzine Antigravity. In treating Leo’s loss of his valuable comic book collection as a symbol for all the random losses in his life, Neufeld captures in Leo’s story what he couldn’t do in Denise’s case—the sense that Katrina represents the sheer mystery of destruction, a godless force that irretrievably deletes one’s recorded existence.

If Neufeld had explored his connection with Leo as a way to bring in his own subjective viewpoint, it would have helped A.D. pack a bigger emotional punch. In a March 2007 interview published in Antigravity, Neufeld, a Brooklyn resident who called himself a “helpless observer” of the 9/11 attacks, said that while 9/11 had national and international impact, its physical effects were largely limited to Ground Zero. Katrina, on the other hand, as “a toxic combination of nature and government incompetence, directly affected far more families than 9/11.”

This perspective, had it been included in A.D., would have shown how poverty and apathy are both more banal and yet insidious than any planned terrorist attack. Neufeld would have brought home the dire message that in this day and age, our citizens are still living in an Old Testament world, waiting Godot-like for the coming of  progress.


Review: David Mazzucchelli's ASTERIOS POLYP

This review was written by contributing writer Thuy Dinh, an editor of the webzine Da Mau and my resident expert on graphic novels. —PCN


As children, my cousin Allan and I would spy on Mrs. Seven, the mean lady who lived next door to our grandparents. She would pray to God then curse at children and beggars. We drew comic strips about Mrs. Seven, putting her in situations that literally exposed her hypocrisy, like having the wind blow away all her clothes on her way to church, leaving her naked, or her long wig snatched and eaten whole by another neighbor’s giant German shepherd.

Because I had so much fun drawing these strips with my cousin, I never thought they touched on anything serious. Later, when I grew older, I felt traditional comics—with their static panels of images and silent dialogue encapsulated in bubbles—were poor relatives of multi-sensory moving images in films.

And yet, I was completely blown away by Asterios Polyp, David Mazzucchelli’s latest “comic book,” a pull-out-all-the-stops package that’s funny, poignant and deep, with panels of thoughtfully shaded images that form a visual novel, a paper movie, and finally, an existential meditation on things that matter to us: religion, art, science, love and memory. In other words, Asterios Polyp manages to embody Up; Synecdoche, New York; and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button without losing its fluid eloquence or sly sense of humor.

At the beginning of the book, Asterios Polyp’s apartment is struck by lightning and, like ancient Troy, goes up in flame. His beloved wife, Hana Sonnenschein (whose Japanese-German name means Flower Sunshine), is nowhere to be found. The book, with flashbacks interspersed with the present, shows Asterios’s progress from hell and back. He is both Ulysses and Orpheus, someone who has to find his way home.

For a work presumably focused on images, Mazzucchelli has a lot of fun with words. Asterios is of Greek descent. His fancy name suggests a polarized nature: star and anal wart (“asterios” means “star, “polyp” can mean a rectal cyst). His dead identical twin, Ignazio, narrates the book and constantly reminds us that our hero is physically and metaphysically divided. Asterios, an arrogant and famous architect, creates buildings that are only models on paper because they have never been built (thus, he’s not unlike a comic book artist, whose world is rendered in two-dimensional images).

ap & hana

via Comic Book Resources

Mazzucchelli’s graphic novel is also a cosmic quest for beauty. The book is full of contrasting visual shapes, text fonts and color tones, with each form/palette tailored to the personality and philosophical outlook of each character. Asterios is often drawn in linear, geometric form, awash in cool blues. His wife Hana, on the other hand, is often depicted in softer, rounder lines and in warmer coral or pinkish tones.

Another character, Ursula Major (a pun on the constellation Ursa Major), who is like Ceres in Homer’s epic, is often rendered in bright yellow or deep purple squiggles as she represents a mystical earth mother type. This traditional cartoon technique of employing form and color to denote character was most recently seen in the movie Up, where the rounder, more exuberant form of the boy Russell is contrasted with the blocky, rigid lines that make up the old man Carl.

In essence, a story told by Asterios to Ursula Major serves as the main theme of the book: A wooden Shinto temple in Ise, Japan, originally erected in the 7th century, has since been ritually torn down every twenty years and rebuilt, and yet the Japanese would tell tourists the temple is 2000 years old. The riddle suggests that human existence, like a building that’s constantly being destroyed and recreated, must yield to larger forces in the universe.

Asterios, in his lofty reach toward the stars (toward perfection and permanence), doesn’t realize that stars, though lasting thousands of years, can also self-destruct. His search for the meaning of life, like his search for Hana, resonates via the myth of Orpheus—presumably, Asterios must go forward and never look back. The controversial ending of the book makes one wonder if Asterios has indeed gone forward.

Similarly, David Mazzucchelli’s ambitious effort, while shredding the comics/cosmic barriers, is a look back toward the traditional purpose of comics, the ability to wield simple lines and forms to capture—or destroy—everyday reality.


Ayelet Waldman's Annoying BAD MOTHER

This review was written by contributing writer Thuy Dinh, a practicing attorney and an editor of the webzine Da Mau. She is also a mother of three.


Ayelet Waldman, wife of Michael Chabon, is no stranger to controversy. She became notorious by publicly admitting that she loves her husband more than her kids and wishing that her son will turn out gay (he’s the same son who likes to give his mother long “movie kisses” and wishes to marry her when he grows up). Waldman’s new essay collection, Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace, is occasionally thoughtful but most of the time dull and relentless—not unlike Chinese water torture—no, worse, perhaps more like waterboarding.

Waldman, who compares her “unnaturalness” to Anna Karenina (but admits she lacks the impulse to fling herself under the wheels of a train), acknowledges that at times she puts her own “selfish” and “[not] insignificant needs” before her children’s needs. Indeed, this collection, like Waldman’s description of her bipolar disorder, reflects a “mixed-state” enterprise: It is neither literary memoir nor a consciousness-raising tract. Anticipating itself as a book club selection, the book helpfully includes a list of discussion questions at the back. The last question is, “Why do you think the author chose to write this book? Do you think it was successful in its aims?”

I was stumped when I got to that question. In an Amazon interview, Waldman said her purpose is to commiserate with other mothers who march to a different drummer and are crippled by guilt. She also said her “snarky” purpose for writing this book is to say “F**k you” to all those mothers who judge her. But this is disingenuous because her writing reeks of her desperately wanting to be liked.

It seems Waldman doesn’t truly believe she’s a bad mother, only a quirky one, as she spends over 200 pages trying to prove that she, despite her bottomless need for attention and affirmation, is aware, sincere and loving. One moment she hooks you with her astute analysis that a mother’s conflicted role comes from a lack of delegation and an ill-defined role for her husband, the next moment she drones on about the discomfort of using paid, Third-World domestic help to ease her burdens. There’s something faintly hypocritical about the need to disclose that she has to hire a second maid to clean after the first one because Waldman has neither the heart to fire the former nor the spine to show her how to clean house.

The only insight I seem to gain from the book is a negative one. Waldman mainly succeeds in proving to readers her manic compulsion. It dominates her core: her early promiscuity, her insecurity, her jealousy—of her future mother-in-law for having weekly lunches with Chabon during their courtship days, of her baby daughter for having quality time with her husband. Even if one manages to remain non-judgmental, how should one process Waldman’s revelations? What she probably intends as honest and complex just comes off chaotic and alienating. Granted, a writer is not expected to be perfect, but Waldman should at least show some groundedness in her writing to convince her readers of gutsier and truer ways to define motherhood.

The recent trend, when so-called “bad mothers” try to outdo each other in confessing war tales both true and tall from the domestic front, makes one almost long to be born into the age of Mad Men, when emotional repression—reflected in wonderful literary dialogues—seemed, well, glamorous, more interesting and less cruel than the relentless push for neurotic analysis and over-sharing.