On Station Eleven, the Obon Festival, and the Art of Longing

To mark the end of August, I’ve been wanting to do a post on the obon season here in Hawaii. Obon is a traditionally Japanese Buddhist custom to honor one’s ancestors as they return to “visit.” Most Japanese people return to their hometowns to celebrate this occasion, which is marked by a bon odori, or basically a very large traditional Japanese dance.

As a third generation Japanese-Okinawan American, I know next to nothing about the actual Japanese festivities. Here in Hawaii, it’s a little different. For one thing, the season spans almost all summer, from the end of June to the end of August, as opposed to the few days in each Japanese region. Generally all of the Buddhist temples here host their own obon celebration, complete with food vendors, craft fairs, and, of course, bon dances. All summer, every weekend is another bon dance somewhere on the island.

Hometown bon dance. Photo by Cheri.
Hometown bon dance. Photo by Cheri.

Evidently, there is an actual story behind this occasion, which I only discovered this moment on Wikipedia: One of Buddha’s disciples somehow found out his deceased mother was suffering in the afterlife and was informed by Buddha that he could help her by making offerings to the Buddhist monks who had just completed their summer retreat. This allowed his mother’s release from her suffering and, in gratitude and relief, the disciple danced.

I still don’t know if obon season necessarily makes me feel closer to my ancestors. But, despite the fact that I’m really really bad at dancing, participating in the obon festivities always makes me feel grounded in my culture. Whether or not they struggle to participate in the dance movements, everyone is part of so many generations holding tight to all these traditions, even after all these years.

Which brings me to the fact that I’ve finally finished Emily St. John Mandel’s highly acclaimed Station Eleven, which is all about extreme nostalgia. I mentioned this title a few times in the last months, mostly because I’d picked it up in a moment of optimism about my reading abilities while coping with Issues. Unfortunately, the whole world-ending thing put me off for a bit because, well, Issues.

The story follows a handful of different narrative perspectives, both past and present, through the mutated epidemic that wipes out 99% of the world, the shaky years following, and all the way through Year 20, when the Traveling Symphony of musicians and Shakespearean actors continue to bring art and beauty to the surviving communities.

The crux of the main conflict comes in the form of a territorial prophet who believes the epidemic was God’s razing of the Earth, leaving only the worthy behind, along with those who will test the worthy one last time. (There always has to be one of those guys, right?) The Traveling Symphony runs afoul of him and things get creepy from there.

What was most interesting to me, however, was that, despite this prophet storyline, the much bigger and continuing conflict happens on a much more personal level for most of the characters: namely a longing for the past, a forgetting and remembrance alike, for everything from air-conditioning to electricity to iced lattes.

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Review: None of the Above by I.W. Gregorio

Enter to win a copy of I.W. Gregorio’s None of the Above or Victoria Aveyard’s The Red Queen in OKPotato’s April Giveaway!


Here at OKP, we are desperate for diversity in the YA genre because:

A) We remember what it was like looking for representation of ourselves when we were in high school, and

B) It seems to be the genre that could reach the widest audiences with the most promising results (i.e. acceptance, understanding, and continued diversification).

So imagine my shock at discovering an upcoming YA release about an intersex teen written by an Asian-American novelist-slash-surgeon.
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None of the Above
is the debut novel of Ilene Wong Gregorio, a practicing MD who was inspired to pen her first YA work after helping her first intersex patient through the initial diagnosis. Though she never found out what happened to this patient in the long-run, Gregorio posits a journey from discovery to the beginnings of acceptance (self and societal) for the protagonist of her story, high school senior Kristin Lattimer.

Kristin is a pretty typical YA protagonist: white, straight, able-bodied, pretty, and reasonably popular. Everything seems to be going more than well — college to look forward to, a big win at Homecoming — until Kristin’s first time with her boyfriend, Sam. The pain during the first attempt lingers long enough that Kristin goes to her gynecologist, who discovers that Kristin not only lacks a uterus but has male gonads (or testes) and has XY chromosomes, not XX.

All these factors seem to point to the fact that Kristin has Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (AIS), one of many different forms of intersex. In short, she is not distinctly male or female. In Kristin’s case, she presents outwardly as female, but has male sex characteristics internally.

The story follows Kristin as she grapples with what this diagnosis means and how she identifies with herself with this new definition. She must learn the different between chromosomal sex, gender identity, and sexual orientation. And she must deal with “coming out” to her family, friends, boyfriend, and the peers who once voted her Homecoming Queen.

Intersex representation in fiction, to say nothing of YA fiction, is basically non-existent, so it’s hard for me to review this book without that in mind. Gregorio handles Kristin’s internal conflict realistically and well, juggling her inability to self-identify with the need to move towards knowledge and acceptance of her condition. You can see more in the above video, “What It’s Like to be Intersex.”

(More on the book behind the cut.)

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Review: Allegiant by Veronica Roth

Hey, readers. Cheri here with the penultimate installment in my Divergent trilogy series (make sure to check out Chebk’s review of Divergent, and my reviews of Divergent, Insurgent, and the first two Divegent movies) — which, yes, there will be one last post even though this is the review for the final book, Allegiant. It seems Veronica Roth has got a deeper hold on me than I would like.

As much as I thought finishing the series would be a relief, it was actually more of a trial than the first two books combined. I was blissfully ignorant of the shitstorm that occurred when Allegiant was first released and fans everywhere notoriously disagreed with the series’ end (and you can read Roth’s response to them; big spoiler alert), but now it seems I have become legion because this last book disappointed in every way possible. Please note that this is the calm version of my many emotions. The rest comes later in bullet form, rest assured.

SPOILERS FROM HERE ON OUT STARTING WITH THE NEXT SENTENCE.

The final book in the Divergent series, Allegiant, and its creator Veronica Roth, gleefully smiling at her destruction and mayhem.
The final book in the Divergent series, Allegiant, and its creator Veronica Roth, gleefully smiling at her destruction and mayhem.


Insurgent
left off with the big reveal: The city of Chicago and its five-faction structure is actually a large-scale social science experiment being conducted by the US government. You may now find yourselves asking, “But why?” And that would be an excellent question…for which Roth has concocted an answer so poor SO AS TO SET MY ENTIRE SOUL AFLAME WITH FURY.

In their time of “great peace,” the government decided, “What the hell. Everything’s going so well we should fix what made things wrong in the first place when we weren’t peaceful.” (We later find out that there was never a great peace, but it doesn’t matter. The damage has been done when pretty much an entire national scientific community accepts this as truth.) The solution is to genetically modify humans to select for specific personality traits that will help perpetuate peace. Obviously this goes wrong. But let me tell you why: Because they conduct this experiment on an entire population from the goddamn get-go.

Veronica Roth, if you are reading this, please know that there is a world of scientific research with standardized processes ready for your perusal. All legal research starts with a small sample. Not half the nation’s population.

Please note the wall filled with THE NUMBER FOUR behind Channing Tatum.
Please note the wall filled with THE NUMBER FOUR behind Channing Tatum.

In any case, this leaves a lot of people “genetically damaged” and they wage a war against the still-remaining “genetically pure.” Death and destruction happen, evidently across the entire country because this is how Roth measures everything, and the remaining government decides, “Nah, not gonna help our actual citizens any more. Gonna set up these new experiments to return everyone to genetically pure status.” Which, okay, sometimes even I think this is how our government works, but come on. Essentially everywhere outside these experimental cities becomes tent cities and dog-eat-dog hobos.

Outside the city walls, Tris, Tobias, and a few others are taken in by the Bureau of Genetic Welfare who monitors the city experiments. It turns out that Tris, as a Divergent, is one of the “genetically healed,” and made to reintegrate genetic purity into the greater population. Oh, good. Also, meanwhile, Tobias’s mother and father (leaders of the factionless and Allegiant, or those who want to return the city to the five factions, respectively) are planning to wage war in their small experimental city.

The good, the bad, and the silly behind the cut.

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Book Review: Throne of Glass

Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas is a YA fantasy book with an interesting cover.

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The story follows the tale of Celaena Sardothien, the world’s most renown assassin as she gets out of her life-sentence of digging in salt mines (why is it always salt mines?) The Crown Prince has pardoned her under the stipulation that she enter the competition for the King’s Champion under his patronage. The King and the Prince don’t get along because the King is corrupt and the Prince is beautiful and royal. Celaena is trained by the Prince’s best friend, the Captain of the Guards who is also handsome and she eventually becomes the King’s Champion amidst magical intrigue and regular political intrigue.

There were a few things I didn’t like and very few things that I did like, but first, here is a picture of the author, just to compare it to the main character shown on the cover.

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So onto the spoilers:


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Review: Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton

We are participating in Caffeinated Book Reviewer’s Take Control of Your TBR Pile Challenge. This review is for a To-Be-Read book, published before March 2015.

There aren’t a whole lot of extinct species that continue to enjoy posthumous remembrance and fame; most are lost the annals of time, footnotes in dusty textbooks. Dinosaurs have always been the exception with their size, and strength, and, you know, that whole ruling the Earth for 165 million years thing. The new Jurassic World movie comes out this June and, in preparation, I’ve been rewatching the original Jurassic Park movies when I realized that I’d never thought to read the books on which they were based.

Published in 1990, Jurassic Park became Michael Crichton’s signature novel (despite his prolific body of work of thrillers, medical and science fiction such as Sphere, The Andromeda Strain, and Congo). Crichton has a background in computer modeling and biological anthropology and received his MD from Harvard Medical School, all of which serve him well in fleshing out his writing with legitimate scientific and mathematical theories that serve to bring his stories to life.

Michael Crichton reignited an interest in paleontology that led to a dinosaur being named in his honor.
Michael Crichton reignited an interest in paleontology that led to a dinosaur being named in his honor.

For those who don’t know, Jurassic Park is the cautionary tale of men (in this case, the scientific world) playing God with genetic engineering. Much in the vein of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Crichton showcases how much can wrong with the right amount of hubris and madness. Billionaire John Hammond and his team of scientists have discovered how to create dinosaurs from preserved prehistoric DNA. The reasonable thing to do, of course, is to make an amusement park out of it all. Unsurprisingly the park hits multiple snags in its start-up and experts are brought in to assess the safety of the little island off of Costa Rica that is to become a dinosaur haven. WHAT COULD GO WRONG?

I think we all know the answer to that. The rest of the book is a study in chaos theory, where the park owners and workers think they can predict the outcome of their work (a successful park, obedient and sustainable organisms, etc.), when in reality the future conditions are entirely unpredictable. Also, pretty much everything bad that can happen does happen.

Highlights include: All-female, barren dinosaurs finding a way to breed in the wild; baby velociraptors secretly escaping on boats; corporate dinosaur espionage; a startling amount of dinosaur poop that comes with its very own mystery; and the adventures of the stalker T-Rex!

More on Crichton’s writing style and diversity representation behind the cut!

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Review: Insurgent by Veronica Roth

Well, I finished Insurgent, the second installment in the Divergent trilogy by Veronica Roth. Last week, Chebk and I both reviewed Divergent (you can read the rant and the sane review, but we encourage both for you to understand our reluctance going into this endeavor), but this has now become a solo project and it is a TRIAL, friends. Especially since I recently learned there is some kind of prequel, entitled Four, which I really do not want to read. :((((

Nonetheless, I forge onward.

I have few problems with Roth’s writing style overall. Like Suzanne Collins, there aren’t too many stylistic markers to focus on, except the most awkward ones (his “eyes were green like celery,” direct quote, full judgment), so most of my problems still rest on the world-building and character logic or lack thereof.

insurgent2

Diversity in Insurgent is somehow both better and worse. People of color are represented mainly by Christina, Tori, and Uriah, as well as the introduction of two leaders Johanna Reyes of Amity and Jack Kang of Candor — but there is fair mention of “dark-skinned people” which isn’t ambiguous but still rubs me the wrong way because all of these dark-skinned people are 1) nameless and 2) seemingly mentioned by description merely to justify racial diversity while showcasing a very white cast. Similarly, an egregious shoe-in of a queer character coming out at the literal moment of her (SPOILER ALERT) death pretty much negates actual LGBTQ diversity as Roth makes sure her queerness has no point except in vague retrospect.

Disabilities remain the most significant representation in this series, as many people get injured and are shown to grieve and adjust appropriately, such as (SPOILER ALERT) Shauna, who becomes paralyzed from the waist-down. It’s questioned whether she can still be Dauntless without her ability to run or walk, but thankfully Tris makes sure the Dauntless (and readers) understand that you don’t need legs to be brave.

I will say, however, that the representation of Tris’s Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and depression symptoms is respectfully and appropriately handled throughout Insurgent, maybe even more so than Katniss Everdeen’s PTSD following her stint in the Hunger Games. The loss of Tris’s parents and her murder of a mind-controlled friend, Will, in cold blood in the previous book take a huge psychological toll on Tris and she doesn’t just get over it for plot’s sake. Roth makes sure we see her inability to handle guns, her apathy towards life, and her significant grieving process even within the context of a growing war. Though somewhat reminiscent of Bella Swan’s apathy after Edward leaves in New Moon, Tris’s psychological exhaustion is justified and handled with patience (even by the reader).

That said, I still had my fair share of exasperation with the book:

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Book Review: Robopocalypse_a_novel

I texted my brother (who is currently in Korea) at six in the morning to tell him that if robots attack, to come home. That is what Robopocalypse_a_novel by Daniel H. Wilson did to me.

robopocalypse

As I mentioned in a few previous posts, this is the only book that I have ever picked up solely for the writing.

I came across Wilson’s work in a most provocative and heart-wrenching short story in the hard science fiction anthology Carbide Tipped Pens. His prose was so smooth and simple, it drew me completely into the story and I knew I had to pick up his other works.

Now, another disclaimer. Though I am a science fiction fan, I have come to the genre late and admittedly do not enjoy a lot of the typical ‘classic’ sci-fi — which is why I have not read a lot of it. A lot of the critiques on Goodreads said that the plot was recycled and it was predictable. My rebuttal: so was Romeo and Juliet.

The story starts off with a narrator in the ‘present’ telling us that the New War has ended. Then he finds a box that speaks robot that has recorded events from pre-war to the New War of people who would play pivotal roles in the war. The narrator, Cormac Wallace, then proceeds to give a narration and written recording of the events that he sees as the black box of the war recounts the stories.

robopocalypse fan art
fanart

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