A memoir about E. J. Koh’s formative years, The Magical Language of Others is structured around forty-nine letters, all that remain of a one-way correspondence from her mother over the seven years that they lived apart. Functioning as translator and memoirist, Koh revisits these letters as an adult and uses them as scaffolding to answer questions about herself. Along the way, she discovers a heritage of complex, disjointed attachments between her family’s mothers and daughters, where bonds of love are strained by various separations and people claim each other by virtue of their heartache. Koh decodes these unexpected dynamics and discoveries in a memoir that’s sublime.
When Koh was fourteen, her father received a job offer to head the technology department of a company in Seoul. Her parents accepted the three-year contract and relocated, leaving both of their children behind in California. With the company covering college tuition, two flights a year, and all the parents’ living expenses, the separation eventually stretched to seven years: “it was better to pay for your children than to stay with them.”
Although Koh doesn’t adhere to a strict chronology with the letters, she does allow her mother’s distinctive word choices, referents, and errors to stand. As both a translator and a recipient, she finds a depth of emotion, character, and voice in the letters’ limitations, and her shifts from letter to memoir capture the troubles of first love—a child’s for a mother—and the ways that love, like language, opens and closes a person.
When Koh’s mother speaks of her daughter’s work as a poet, she says, “My daughter teaches people how to let go.” In The Magical Language of Others, Koh uses a poet’s deftness to teach herself this lesson.
LETITIA MONTGOMERY-RODGERS (December 27, 2019)
The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree is a fantastical tale set in post-revolutionary Iran that concentrates on a family’s tragedies, loves, and losses. It’s a work of magical realism with plenty to unpack.
Bahar’s family begins to dismantle when her mother, Roza, climbs to the highest branches of a greengage tree, stricken silent after her son, Sohrab, is snatched from the family home, accused of harboring antiestablishment literature. Bahar is Roza’s daughter; though she was murdered in an act of arson, she visits with her family in the same ways that living people do.
For three days and three nights, Roza ignores her family’s vigils and pleas for her to return home. By the third night, Roza’s hair has turned completely grey; she knows, without knowing, the fate of her beloved son. Sohrab’s is a tragic outcome among countless others; he does not return to the family in the way that Bahar has.
The family of five slowly dwindles in number. Roza never rebounds, though her family works toward some semblance of ordinary life. Bahar’s older sister, Beeta, cannot forget how the Revolution altered her life and dreams. She spends her days at home with her father, who is soon the only one left in residence with her. Beeta tires herself out trying to reprise the roles of each of her departed family members. Meanwhile, Bahar paints her afterlife in bleak terms; her days are filled by stalking the living, comforting the newly departed, and walking with others among the wandering dead.
The family’s struggles intertwine with magical happenings in the lives of others, and the spirit world populates as much of the novel as do the living. Nods to poetry and literature make the parables of The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree engaging, tantalizing, and memorable.
TANISHA RULE (December 27, 2019)
A girl’s existence threatens to envelop the world in war in the graphic novel Wonder Woman: Warbringer.
Diana, a young princess on the island of Themyscira, is eager to prove herself a worthy Amazon. In the midst of an important race that could establish her reputation, she takes a shortcut and discovers a drowning girl, the survivor of a shipboard explosion. Earthquakes and other ominous signs indicate that the girl somehow brings destruction with her, despite her good intentions. Diana—who will one day become Wonder Woman—attempts to return the girl to her home, but in the process she becomes entangled in a battle between the girl’s protectors and those who would use her powers—the powers of the Warbringer—to remake the world.
Adapted from the novel by Leigh Bardugo, the book’s Diana is still finding her place in society and trying to understand her purpose in the world. She’s less confident, but perhaps more relatable, than the seasoned superhero she’s yet to become. Seaton’s art displays great vitality; DC Ink continues its appealing limited palette coloring style, heavy on blues and purples but with selective, effective spot use of reds to draw attention.
This is a rich story that blends the fictional DC world with that of Greek legend. Though Wonder Woman plots have often drawn upon Greek myths, this take demonstrates deep knowledge of Greek tales, weaving them and their characters into the text with facility. Diverse and well-defined, Wonder Woman: Warbringer is an exciting story with epic-scale consequences. Its greatest success comes in humanizing Diana with flashes of romance, uncertainty, and glory that the book’s young adult audience will identify with and delight in.
PETER DABBENE (December 27, 2019)
Explore the life and times of Benjamin Sterling Turner, an extraordinary man with a kind heart and a level head who fought for equality and civil rights, becoming one of the first black Americans elected to the US House of Representatives in 1870. In this illustrated biography with expressive portraiture and moving scenes, Turner’s determination, compassion, and intellect shine bright as he moves from his birth into slavery to becoming a free man and respected leader.
PALLAS GATES MCCORQUODALE (December 27, 2019)
Narcisse is the virtuoso black cat chef at Le Minipalais and the central figure in Jeffrey Erlacher’s delightful middle grade novel, The Little Palace. Animals and humans work together at the Paris restaurant, an oasis of food, art, and camaraderie during the waning years of World War I. It is an unabashedly Francophilic tale, full of alluring descriptions of architecture, cuisine, and art, balanced with philosophic ruminations on the cruel things humans do to each other and to animals.
In Erlacher’s fanciful world, animals can communicate with humans and are “attuned to humanity’s needs.” Even cats and dogs are fast friends. An artsy group of literarily-named restaurant regulars demonstrates each night, trading odes and artwork instead of fighting.
Narcisse’s motto is “The Equality of Fraternity and the Liberty of Life,” and everyone is welcomed inside Le Minipalais, whether they can only pay for their meals with poems or are dripping with pearls. Patrons include the mayor’s wife and a revolutionary dog-artist, Joao, who is not above announcing that, since orphans are roaming the streets, he should pee on the wife’s leg.
There is a lot of sadness during this war-ravaged tale: Narcisse worries about her father at the war front, especially when she learns that he has been wounded. When restaurant problems arise, she and her friends sensitively work to understand the unhappy backstory and motivations of a disgruntled character’s actions. Important messages about kindness, animal cruelty, and the need for art, beauty, and friendship are poignant. The mood is lightened by the humorous antics of sprightly animals, illustrated by Mary P. Williams in a delightful way.
The Little Palace is a unique and charming fantasy that’s loving when it comes to French culture and that imparts good lessons about living simply, well, and “in harmony with fellow beings.”
RACHEL JAGARESKI (December 27, 2019)