Review #3: Drawing from Memory

by Allen Say

Published in 2011 by Scholastic Inc.

In short, I LOVED this book!

It’s a picture book, soft cover, slightly narrower and shorter than an A4 size. And it’s probably meant to be a read-to-your-child type book. Let me say here that I prefer soft covers because they’re so much easier to handle, though a hard cover would probably be costlier to produce and therefore cost more, bringing more profit to the publisher.

But I digress.

Why did I like it? Oh, so many reasons.

First, it was a memoir. I absolutely love memoirs. I find memoirs so much more fascinating than fiction, probably because the plot of a memoir is written by God (or destiny, depending on your belief), and contains some divinely inspired theme and lessons. Whereas the plot of a novel is usually crafted in the mind of a human, even if the author drew examples from real life.

Secondly, the illustrations were a mixture of realistic watercolors, sketches, comics, photographs, and charcoal/pencil drawings. There was even a Chinese style calligraphy of the author’s Japanese name. Why was this was so joyful for me? Well, let me explain. I’ve been working on several different books, each on a different aspect of my autobiography. I have already drafted the earliest part, tentatively entitled Life of a Rooster, but I envision it as a picture book. I mean a thick book of 100-300 pages, but with illustrations on every page. Some would be sketches, some would be photos, and some would be realistic watercolors. So, you see, this is a thinner version of my book with just 63 pages. Someone else realized the same concept! and won a Caldecott medal in the process!

Thirdly, this memoir celebrated the success of determination and joy of living.

It’s the story of the author’s childhood and youth in Japan up till the day he left for the United States. Allen Say is both the author and the illustrator of this book though in his childhood he just wanted to be able to draw comics. Despite his parents’ and grandmother’s negative attitude towards his drawings, despite their divorce and his moving around, he kept on drawing. By the time he was the ripe old age of 13, he was sent to live by himself so he could attend middle school.

This made me tear up. All by himself? My own parents sent my sister and me back to Paris when I was 11 to live with my aunt and her family, also for the sake of education. Though I was in the middle of a loving family, I felt lonesome and rejected by my parents. I cannot imagine how this young boy felt then.

He describes his feelings as freedom at last. He could now draw as much as he wanted!

Next is something I would never ever have had the guts to do at age 13. He went to the studio of a famous cartoonist that he admired and asked to become his apprentice / assistant. And even more surprisingly, he was accepted.

The cartoons threading the story through the book are in the clean realistic style similar to the Tintin books I grew up on. Larger scale events depicted are given dramatic space. For example, the drawing of a anti-government demonstration he got engulfed in one day takes up the entire page. The police force that stood waiting for them were grimly depicted in black and white on the entire next page.

By the time he was 15, his father suddenly decided to include him in his new family and asked whether he would join him and emigrate to the United States. He ends the book with a five-page “Author’s Note” describing his return to Japan many years later to visit his old mentor.

It’s a very moving memoir. I enjoyed and admired the illustrations over and over again. But most of all, I feel now vindicated. My idea about how to present my childhood story is not so silly after all. If someone else did it, I can do it too.

Review #2: Snow White

1987 American movie / musical starring Diana Rigg

I jumped on this movie because I’d never heard of it before! Diana Rigg was one of my favorite British actresses, especially because of her role in The Avengers –the 1960’s TV series, not the recent Marvel movie. Then, I realized she couldn’t have taken the role of Snow White because of her age, so… yup, she was the witch. Ah, well. Can’t win them all.

The other reason for watching this is of course because of my interest in fairy tales. After all, I am writing a series (“The May Fairy”) based on retold fairy tales, or stories that could have been fairy tales. I love picking at the weird illogical strands in fairy tales and twisting them into a more palatable story. Strangely enough, I’d never studied the inconsistencies in Snow White, maybe because the story was too well entrenched in my childhood.

The movie bases its plot on the original German fairy tale, not the Disney version of it. This meant three attempts of murder, and the prince only appearing at the end.

It started with the prince returning from a trip of treasure-gathering. Whatever. I’m going to refrain from criticizing this part. The only reason I see for this innovation is to explain why they had a cart right there ready to transport the glass coffin. Let’s move on.

Then the dwarves recount the story of how Snow White ended up in the glass coffin. Flashback. The queen (the first one) pricks her finger, not embroidering, but because the king came from behind and surprised her! [rolling eyes] I guess it would have shown her as a poorly skilled embroiderer? Now I don’t know why the “wish” was changed from “lips red like blood” to “cheeks red like blood”. Really? Can you visualize a girl with a face like a Japanese doll, totally white like snow, and two red circles on the cheeks? Maybe bloody lips in a white face brings up visions of vampires?

Anyhow, the next surprise is that the king is actually alive during Snow White’s childhood. I wonder why I never asked about his total disappearance from the original plot. How could he not know that his darling princess was dressed in rags and made to work as scullery maid? We know Cinderella’s father died, giving free reins to the stepmother to act as a wicked stepmother. But we were never told about Snow White’s father’s death. If he did die, then did the witch rule the country?

The huntsman’s attempt occurs on a hunting trip, which makes sense if the king doted on his little girl. He would have questioned why a huntsman was taking his daughter out for a stroll in the forest… right? Next, a wild goat was substituted for the deer, and the liver for the heart. Is it because of environmental factors? Goats are OK to kill for food, but not deer? Whatever.

The other surprise is that Snow White is still a child when she runs into the forest. A pre-puberty child. Why? Is it inappropriate for a teen to live with seven dwarves? However, she does go on to grow up right there in the little cottage, so what was the point?

Interestingly, the dwarves dig for “anything”, from truffles to diamonds. I mean, suddenly one day, one of the dwarves (named Liddy, Giddy, Biddy, etc) finds a huge perfectly cut diamond on the floor of a cave. I can see jewelers rolling their eyes here…

Anyhow, the mirror tells the queen one day she is not the fairest in the land any more. By the way, I always wondered about this part. Why that particular day? Did Snow White suddenly get her period and therefore qualify as a woman? Or did her beauty suddenly appear that day? How does a mirror decide?

By the way, I haven’t talked about the songs. Because it’s best not to talk about them. One thing about Disney movies, starting with the days of Walt Disney himself: he always picked lovely melodies. This one tried, but…

The queen starts off with a corset. Hum, I seem to remember it was a scarf… But a corset will do. Tight corsets do cut off breathing. I have no quarrel with corsets. Failure. The queen changes her disguise and the second time appears as… you won’t believe this… a Chinese/Japanese woman (they can’t make up their minds what she is) with aforementioned white paste all over the face, to sell combs. Please, European women also used combs. Why an Asian? Just so she could say, “I have traveled a long way…” ? Or because a poisoned comb sounds more Asian? The fake Asian accent killed me. Sorry, Diana, I still love you, but the director, or script writer, did not do you a favor.

The apple now was interesting. Originally, the doctored apple was half red and half green. Here green was changed to white. White? Why didn’t Snow White question why an apple would be half white? Then the worm. What was the point of the worm? To prove there was no poison? She was going to bite it anyway…

I like the return to the apple dislodging and falling out of the throat, instead of “Love’s First Kiss”. I know it sounds romantic, but it isn’t really. I mean, a guy strolls through a forest, comes upon a dead body and starts kissing it? So here, the prince begs the dwarves to allow him to take Snow White back to his palace so he can guard the body better than they can. Makes sense. Still, I don’t see why Snow White would wake up and happily jump into the prince’s arms instead of freaking out.

Now, the two returned to the castle, and ruled “together”. Hahaha. Nod to women’s lib. However, totally improbable in the Middle Ages. But which castle? It wasn’t clear. Snow White’s father had “died in a battle faraway” with no one ruling at all, unless it was the witch. The prince would eventually rule his own kingdom, so unless his father the king had died, he couldn’t have ruled there. So, was the kingdom then Snow White’s? Was the prince a younger son, not the heir to the throne? and therefore happy to have found another kingdom to rule?

This version is definitely better on the logical side, though still leaving plenty of loopholes for my logic-addicted mind. But all in all, I enjoyed watching it very much, only yawning during the songs. They did try to create some digging song for the dwarves, but couldn’t match the greatness of “heigh ho”.

Review #1: The Love and Lies of Rukhsana Ali

By Sabina Khan

The review claims that this book “will break your heart and then piece it back together”. Right. Let’s see whether it will break mine. I was looking for a BIPOC author and Sabina Khan definitely is one, hailing from Bangladesh ethnically and presently living in the US. This book is categorized as Young Adult, so I imagined it was probably about a Muslim teen dating and hiding it from her strict parents.

Well, I was sort of right. I stifled a yawn at first, hoping it was not going to go down the well-trodden dating-is-better-than-matchmaking road. Very quickly, however, the readers find out that Rukhsana is actually gay. OMG! I mentally scanned all the Bengladeshi families I personally know and realized this was a bomb waiting to explode. My yawn was gone. I felt like kicking Rukhsana’s friend/lover who is Caucasian and cannot understand why she won’t just tell her parents about them.

The plot takes us through the typical teen-sneaks-behind-parents escapades but I am now on edge, knowing what thunder and lightning are threatening behind the clouds. Then, it happens. All hell breaks loose. Till now, everything seems predictable, and I am wondering how the author plans to wind up the story, when I realize the book is barely reaching the midway point.

Spoiler Alert!

Stop right here if you plan to read the book.

It turns out that this is just the turning point leading to the meat of the plot. There’s a lot to unpack here. The parents whisk Rukhsana home to Bangladesh under the pretense that her grandmother is dying and wishes to see her favorite granddaughter one last time. Rukhsana is American-born and bred and cannot understand how her parents could “kidnap” her thus.

I have to give it to Sabina Khan who manages a tour de force. It is very difficult to present the parents’ actions as loving and protective to an audience of American teens who, like Rukhsana, will only view the ensuing plot as manipulative, evil, and hateful. The protagonist is “introduced” to a slew of potential suitors –reminding me of a similar circumstance happening to my own sister almost forty years ago — whom she starts by rejecting. Then, (this is FICTION, so unrealistic coincidences are OK!) the one suitor who seems adequate turns out to be gay too!

The two happily realize that agreeing to the marriage would solve both their problems. But of course, Sabina Khan needs to turn up the suspense factor by making Rukhsana plan an escape back to California during the wedding.

At this point, we are given the grandmother’s journal. Sorry, but this is the only point that seems a bit contrived. Nicely selected passages inserted at intervals into the storytelling. Sometimes, one wonders why the protagonist would suddenly flip through the journal at this point instead of moving on with the plot. But I agree that the journal is a good tool that opens a window on the background of women’s status in Bangladesh and the baggage Rukhsana’s mother came with. The grandmother’s experience is rather extreme, to say the least. I would venture to guess it was not the norm. Yet, though Rukhsana’s mother managed to move to the US and leave the social traps behind, as expressed by Amy Tan, she still wasn’t able to shield her own daughter from them. In fact, she herself was the main actor, re-enacting the old traditional expectations. In a way, this was a grandmother-mother-daughter cycle à la Joy Luck Club.

It took nothing less than a murder to stun Rukhsana’s parents back to sanity. A bit extreme? Maybe. I guess extreme plot twists are needed to break through extreme constraints. But the reader is given the smooth landing after the roller coaster.

Kudos to Sabina Khan for juggling the thorny issues of gender identity and religion, further mixed together with cultural traditions. I guess it takes courage to cut through such a messy Gordian knot.

So did the book “break my heart and piece it back together”? Truth be told, my tears did flow. You want to read it? Get a box of tissues ready.

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