Say You’re One of Them

say you're one of them

Say You’re One of Them, by Uwem Akpan, is going to be hard to review properly. Because it hurts to think about. But in a good way.

I picked up Say You’re One of Them in a thrift store. It had Oprah’s sticker on it. She has good taste in books, right? Also, it was written by a Nigerian, and I’m trying to expand my worldview. It had beautiful cover art. And it was only 25 cents. Worst possible scenario: waste of 25 cents. Easy decision.

This is a beautiful, awful book. It’s a collection of short stories about awful things happening to children in Africa. Each story is set in a different country, involving different children, and different problems. A Kenyan slum. An Ethiopian child who isn’t allowed to play with her Muslim friend anymore. A Muslim teenager on a bus full of angry Christians. The Rwandan genocide through the eyes of a little girl.

These stories are beautifully written, haunting, and surprisingly not as depressing as you would think from the topic material. Akpan openly acknowledges the ugliest parts of African history, politics, and culture—from the perspective of someone who has lived to see many of them—yet he brings a soft note of hope by choosing children as protagonists. He also doesn’t shy away from the difficulties caused by religion, even though he himself is a Jesuit priest. His stories don’t propose a solution, but they give you a better perspective, and something of a call to action.

Don’t read this unless you’re willing to wade through some pretty deep crap. But when you’re ready, read it. It’s a masterpiece. ♦

Penny Dreadfuls

penny dreadfuls

I picked up Penny Dreadfuls from Pioneer Book around Halloween time. I picked it up for a few reasons. It was on the Halloween display, and I kind of love that holiday. It was also a pretty attractive book. Bright red, with razors all over the front. (I have a pretty messed up version of “attractive” around October.) It contained the original story of Sweeney Todd, which I’ve always wanted to read. And it was edited by a man whose last name was Dziemanowicz, which is important because I have seen way too many Homestar Runner cartoons, and HR’s email address is DJmankiewicz@homestarrunner.com.

So anyways, I clearly had to get it. And then it took me forever to get through it because the very first thing they’ve got in there is the original 1818 version of Frankenstein. Tactical blunder. I mean, it’s pretty good—and Ethan was reading the later version at the same time, so it was fun to see what Shelley’s editors made her change—but man, that is not a short story. It is a long story. It is a novel.

This collection claimed to be a whole bunch of terrifying, gory short stories. What it actually is, is a whole bunch of over-the-top, gory-to-the-point-of-just-being-depressing, badly written first attempts from well-known authors who probably wish nobody remembered these particular stories. All of this sandwiched in between two classic novels. One of which was Frankenstein (which I don’t really care for, but I understand why it’s a classic), and the other of which was Sweeney Todd (which I absolutely loved, but I understand why people haven’t read it in forever. Plot holes, everywhere. No character development at all. Still a great ride.)

Don’t waste your time on this book. Read Frankenstein if you want, and read Sweeney Todd if you haven’t, but please for the love of every author who’s ever published something terrible just to make their next paycheck, don’t immortalize all this garbage in between. ♦

Stories from Puerto Rico

stories from puerto rico

Stories from Puerto Rico, by Robert Muckley (and a few other editors), is a good text for learning Spanish. It’s a bilingual collection of folk tales (from Puerto Rico, clearly.) They’re okay. Not super entertaining, but written at a basic enough level that I could understand most of it with my intermediate Spanish.

The real advantage to having the bilingual text, of course, is that when I have no idea what a sentence just said, I can jump over to the English page and figure out what I’m missing. If you’re learning Spanish (or English), it’s a great book to use. I wouldn’t recommend it just for kicks and giggles, though.

Me gustan los historias en este libro. El libro no es tanto grande, y las historias son cortos y fácil para leer. Yo aprendé más español de <<Historias de Puerto Rico.>> Peró necesito escribir más, claro.

Someone please correct my Spanish.♦

Cinderfella: A Rant

Okay. So I saw this video on Facebook. And of course, instead of just moving on, I got all worked up about it.

It’s a parody of “Cinderella.” They tell a two-minute story called “Cinderfella,” in which an innocent orphan (boy) is abused by his stepfather and ugly stepbrothers, is granted a new suit and a pair of glass loafers by his fairy godfather, and wins the heart of the fair princess by means of his rare shoe size. It’s absurd, and adequately points out how absurd the original Cinderella story is.

And up to this point, I think it’s fine. It’s actually rather clever. But then it goes on a feminist rant about how we share stupid stories with our girls, about girls doing stupid things that don’t matter, and how we would never read a story like that to our boys. Of course we wouldn’t. We don’t want them to grow up stupid.

But, of course, since we do read stupid stories to our daughters, that means that we expect them to be stupid. It’s sexist. Fairy tales are sexist, the video argues, and our girls deserve better.

First, let’s talk about the idea that we don’t read stupid stories to our boys. Have you ever read a “Caillou” book? If you have, I rest my case.

If you haven’t, count your lucky stars.

I’ll go back to the Cinderella logic. It’ll make the argument more cohesive, anyway. Cinderella is a classic fairy tale, found in the Grimms’ Fairy Tales collection. Now, the brothers Grimm weren’t out to create any great literature. They didn’t write the stories. They collected them—and not even for literary reasons. They just wanted to know how far German culture extended, and asking old grandmothers to tell stories was the easiest way to tell how far the same stories had spread.

I digress. The point is, Cinderella is a Grimm story. And so is “Hans in Luck,” “Hans Married,” “Strong Hans,” “Foolish Hans,” and “Hans Files His Income Taxes With a Late Exception Because He Was Singing Down a Well and Forgot When the Due Date Was.” Hans, as a character, is apparently a German legend. And he was so stupid, bland, and irrelevant to the story that he didn’t even get an interesting name. I mean, at least “Cinderella” is distinguishable from the next-door neighbor.

So no, we don’t just tell stupid stories to our daughters. We tell stupid stories to all of our children, gender aside. And why do we do that?

Ask a child to tell you a story sometime. If they’re old enough to make one up, it’s probably going to be stupid. They’re kids. Their concerns are equally spread around being lost, left behind, unloved, and losing jelly beans. And they’ll probably include all those things in a poorly-constructed fairy tale about a turtle named Bob. (Or Hans, perhaps.)

Now sit down and write your own story. Was it brilliant? Probably not. Was it adequate? … Probably for bedtime. Maybe. These stories were told, spur-of-the-moment, by the fire, usually by an elderly woman trying to entertain small children with short attention spans. No wonder they include shiny objects (like glass slippers,) magical beings, and gaping plot holes.

If you want higher entertainment for your kids, I don’t blame you. But stop complaining about old German folklore, and go write something better. ♦

Stories from Mexico

stories from mexico

Ethan picked up Stories from Mexico for me because I want to practice my Spanish. It’s a bilingual book: English on the left side, Spanish on the right. The stories are native to Mexico (hence the book’s name), and written out simply enough that I could usually get the idea from the Spanish before double-checking with the English. (My Spanish is probably somewhere between beginning and intermediate.)

As a short story collection, this isn’t thrilling. The stories themselves are interesting, but they’re deliberately written simply enough for student reading. If you’re a Spanish student, it’s a great book. It gives you culture and practice at the same time. But if you already speak Spanish fluently, or if you’re just planning on reading the English versions and skipping the Spanish, you should go with something else. It’s not interesting enough to stand on its own, outside the classroom. ♦

The October Country

So I work at Pioneer Book, which is a used bookstore on Center Street. (If you live in Provo, you’ll probably recognize it. It’s the one with all the books painted on the front facade.) Anyways, I work from home, but I still have an Employee Picks shelf.

I was looking through the science fiction section to see if we had any Ray Bradbury – because I almost always recommend Ray Bradbury – and I found The October Country. I picked it up to put on my Employee Picks… and by the time I read the inside jacket blurb, I decided I just needed to buy it.

October Country

The October Country is a collection of Bradbury’s stories. It’s somewhere between horror, nostalgia, macabre, and silly. It’s kind of like Tim Burton, but more poetic and – at times – much more creepy. But then, some of the stories are pretty tame. It’s a peculiar mix.

I still prefer Dandelion Wine or Something Wicked This Way Comes (for summer or Halloween, respectively), but Bradbury is a wonderful writer, and these stories were brilliant. I highly recommend The October Country to anyone who wants a taste of Bradbury, or anyone who didn’t like Fahrenheit 451 (in my opinion, far from his best work), but still wants to give him a shot. ♦

Christmas Readings for the L.D.S. Family

christmas readings.jpg

Check out this glorious artwork. This is Christmas Readings for the L.D.S. Family, compiled by George Bickerstaff. In the aftermath of my grandfather’s death (- I like using aftermath; it makes it sound like Grandpa died fighting off a rabid polar bear, instead of peacefully in a hospital bed-), we found this collection in the study, and brought it home with all the American history tomes.

I was hesitant about this one: first of all, look at the cover. I mean, there’s technically nothing wrong with it, but it does seem to say, “I’ve been sitting on this shelf for the last 40 years, and not in a ‘classic’ way.” I can overlook the artwork, however, in favor of the content. I mean, a good Christmas story is still good, even with 60’s art.

But then we come to my second hesitation: “…for the L.D.S. family.” L.D.S. stands for Latter-day Saint, as in Mormon. These are Christmas readings for Mormons. What, exactly, is so different about Mormon Christmas? Less rum in the punch, is all I can come up with. So this probably means the writers were L.D.S., and the guy got published through a local L.D.S. publishing company.

Which is true. Several of the stories were originally written for L.D.S. magazines, and a few of them are just people’s memories (dug up from their family histories) of Christmases long past among the Mormon pioneers. In an anthropological moment, one of the stories casually mentions “Father’s other wife, Hannah.”

So I had my qualms. But it’s less than 100 pages, and it’s easy reading, and most of the stories are less than 4 pages long. No big deal. And really, I got a better deal than I expected. (Easy to do that when the book is free, but still.) There were at least 2 stories that I might consider putting into a collection of my own.

There was, of course, at least one story so sappy it kind of made me gag. But you know, it was written in ’54, and it was written about a teenage boy, and it was written by a grown woman, so there was a whole lot of “Look, I totally know how to use teenage slang!”

All in all, I don’t think I would recommend buying the book. But if you’ve got easy access to it, and you’re looking for a few heartwarming Christmas stories, give it a shot. I think my favorite part was the poetry section at the end, which was (in my humble opinion) higher quality than most of the stories. ♦