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Archive for the ‘Graphic Novel’ Category

A User's Guide to Neglectful ParentingI love Guy Delisle’s graphic travel memoirs.  Shenzhen, Pyongyang, Burma Chronicles and Jerusalem are all well observed records of Delisle’s time abroad, humourously depicting the culture shock he experiences while also addressing the very serious political issues he confronts in his travels.  But as much as I love those books, it was delightful to just be able to have fun with Delisle’s most recent book, the 100% lighthearted A User’s Guide to Neglectful Parenting.

The book is short, just a collection of anecdotes about Delisle’s more irresponsible interactions with his son and daughter.  I loved it.  After a busy day last week, I sat down with it after dinner and had a very pleasant half hour giggling my way through Delisle’s missteps.  I still can’t decide which vignette was my favourite.  Was it Delisle repeatedly forgetting to act as “la petite souris” several nights in a row after his son loses a tooth and having to persuade his son that the mouse is running behind schedule?  Or was it when he is trying to convince his daughter that she prefers sugary cereals so that he can keep his precious Shredded Wheat, brought all the way from Canada, to himself?  Or perhaps when he decides to offer his daughter his professional opinion of her drawing?  They are all enjoyable.  If you’re looking for a fun distraction, this is the book for you.

How to traumatize your children with the aid of red chainsaw oil

How to traumatize your children with the aid of red chainsaw oil

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I adored Essex County by Jeff Lemire.  Honestly, that is not something I ever anticipated being able to say about a graphic novel but here you have it.  Set in the rural Southwestern Ontario farming community of Essex County, the book is a compilation of three inter-connected volumes, dealing with the personal stories of three of its residents.  They are not cheerful stories but they are beautifully, if somberly, told.    

Volume 1, Tales from the Farm, centers on young Lester Papineau.  Lester, sent to live with his Uncle Ken on the farm after his mother’s death from cancer, spends most of his time escaping into his super hero fantasies and reading (and attempting to draw his own) comic books.  The awkwardness between Lester and Ken is both sad and very realistic, neither one comfortable with the other, both still grieving for Claire, Lester’s mother, but unwilling or unable to share their pain with the other.  Their silent meals around the dining room table broke my heart.  The story follows Lester’s friendship with Jimmy, a former hockey player who, after a severe head injury, now works at the local gas station where Lester buys his comic books.  Jimmy spends time with Lester and encourages his artistic efforts and imaginative play.  But when Ken finds out about their friendship, Lester realises there is something he does not know about his family’s history with Jimmy.         

Volume 2, Ghost Stories, made me cry more often than I like to admit.  All three volumes are sad to varying extents but I found this one the most powerful.  Lou Lebeuf is living in his memories, remembering his happy childhood and then the split that tore him and his brother apart, as deafness and dementia set in and he is moved from his farm house to a nursing home.  I loved the image of the two brothers skating on the river together as boys, leaning into one another, the affection and camaraderie of it.  And both boys achieve that great dream of all boys who grow up playing hockey on rural ponds and lakes: they move to the city and get to play professionally.  And they get to do it together.  But then there is a betrayal between the brothers, one that cannot be overcome, and while Vince returns toEssexCountyLou stays in the city, though he hates it and longs for the farm.  The isolating images of the middle-aged Lou, going deaf and driving streetcars in Toronto when he wants nothing more than to be back on the farm with a brother he can’t even bring himself to talk to, were gut wrenching. 

Finally, volume 3, The Country Nurse, is devoted to Anne Quenneville and her grandmother Margaret. The story follows Anne as she flits about the county in her capacity as a nurse, visiting and caring for others, all the time struggling with her own family situation, while Margaret, more than a hundred years old and living in the nursing home, remembers the circumstances that first brought her to Essex County ninety years before.  This is as close to cheery as Essex County gets, as the indefatigable Anne encounters the characters from the earlier volumes and we see how their stories are resolved.

The art is wonderful and used to powerful effect, especially in capturing the stillness and emptiness of the rural community.  The panels without text, generally used in sequence, were a wonderful way to evoke the mood of a moment – whether it be Uncle Ken sitting alone at the dinner table or the elderly Lou wandering alone and confusing down to the river.  There are many flashbacks and Lemire does a particularly impressive job of making characters both recognizable and realistic at all ages.  His drawings of elderly characters were especially excellent. 

More than anything, I was impressed by Lemire’s skill in capturing such a true-to-life portrait of rural life.  The stories and experiences of the characters seemed very real, just the kind of things I might encounter or at least hear about if I went back to the rural Southwestern Ontario farming community where my own family is from (the farmers are all like Uncle Ken and my great aunt was a nurse like Anne and visits the elderly and afflicted even more often now that she is retired).  There was no suspension of disbelief here.  Each depressing detail, each tragedy, each family rift felt very human and very genuine.

If all graphic novels were this thoughtful, well-plotted, and emotionally honest, I’d certainly read more.

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I’m afraid that Moving Pictures by Kathryn and Stuart Immonen, while much praised by other, far more knowledgeable reviewers of graphic novels, left me cold.  Graphic novels aren’t my thing.  I have enjoyed a few – I’ve been particularly delighted by Guy Delisle’s graphic memoirs – but more often than not I find the medium jarring and ill-suited to tell a story that might otherwise have captivated me.  And this story, sketched out in the barest possible terms, had all the potential to be a gripping one. 

Individually, each panel is striking.  The graphics articulately express the tension that pervades the novel.  Everything is restrained and stark except for the paintings in the museum.  These are recreated in extravagant detail.  The famous subjects bend and curve and emote, breathing life into characters’ otherwise restrained existence.  But the art provides the only real energy in the book and it is strangely at odds with the dry, vague text of the novel.  More than anything, the scenes from the book felt like vignettes from a larger tale, as though the real storytelling was taking place somewhere else.  You could piece together the story from what was there but you couldn’t help but feel that there was a richer, more satisfying narrative behind this work, something you were being denied access to.   

I went into this book knowing it had a Canadian heroine (Ila) and was set in wartime Paris where museum and gallery curators were working to ‘misplace’ items from their collections before they could be handed over to the Nazi occupiers.  I’m not sure I came out of the reading knowing all that much more, which was so frustrating!  Ila’s conflicted relationship with Rolf Hauptmann – by turns her lover, her interrogator, and her rival – seems so intriguing.  I want to know more about them, I want a full book devoted to their personal interactions.  Instead I get a few lines of incredibly restrained dialogue.  I want that novel and I want it now.  Doesn’t that sound like a book you would read?  

While I’m glad that I tried another graphic novel, this wasn’t a particularly successful reading experience for me.  There’s simply too much story – or rather, the promise of a story – for such a slim, minimalist volume.

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So many books read, so little of interest to report.  You have all been incredibly patient, even going so far as to humour me by commenting on what were clearly filler posts (the idea of going a day without posting fills me with dread – I am working on this).  Bless.  The truth is that after reading The Rehearsal, which blew me away, I had a lot of trouble settling on any one book and, when I did, nothing that I picked seemed particularly worthy of its own individual review.  So, I have decided just to bombard you with all of the books I read last week in one post.  Fair?

The highlight of the week, and this is sad, was Hungry by Crystal Renn (with Marjorie Ingall).  A barely literate memoir by someone born in 1986 (people my age should really not be allowed to write memoirs), Hungry begins with tales of Renn’s happy if unconventional childhood, leading up to the moment she was ‘discovered’ by a scout and told that if she could get her weight down to 110lbs (at 5’9), the modeling agency would be interested in her.  Renn did even more than was asked: she got her weight down below 100lbs through a combination of anorexia and compulsive exercising and, at fourteen, earned her ticket to New York.  There, she was miserable and unsuccessful (yes, it is a morality tale as well).  Eventually, she came to her senses, made her health a priority, and switched to plus-sized modeling, where she has been hugely successfully as a US size 12 (at approximately 165).  Renn is now one of the few modeling faces (and, it must be said, bodies) that are instantly recognizable even to people like me, who know nothing about the modeling world.  A very typical celebrity memoir, the book comes across as very frothy for the first half and preachy towards the end, when Renn advocates for the HAES (Healthy at Every Size) philosophy and devotes many pages to her arguments about acceptance and empowerment.  Far, far too many.  The message is good, but the reader is bombarded and then bored with it.  Still, it’s a fascinating story of a woman who has made a very real difference in a generally sizest industry, conquering the accepted wisdom that plus-size models only have limited appeal.  I may have been unfairly won over by the photos as well – I do love nice, glossy, colour photos. 

Renn's most famous work (for Breast Cancer Awareness)

I also read two (count ‘em, two!) graphic novels: Burma Chronicles by Guy Delisle and Blankets by Craig Thompson.  I was incredibly unwhelmed by Blankets, which was disappointing after reading so many enthusiastic reviews.  The illustrations were fabulous but the story seemed rather dull and predictable to me.  There was no tension in it, nothing that made me care about the narrator or his life events.  Burma Chronicles, on the other hand, was just as delightful as Delisle’s Pyongyang.  There’s something terrifically charming about Delisle; both his illustrations and his sense of humour endear him to me.  Certainly, this is the best way to experience any military dictatorship. 

Moving on from Burma to India, I read The Immigrant by Manju Kapur.  The story of an arranged marriage and the ensuing culture-clash when the wife, Nina, comes to join her husband in Canada, this should have been right up my alley.  It was not.  The first section, handling the events leading up to the marriage, was fascinating but after that everything fell apart and focus shifted entirely to the sex life of the couple.  Sounds salacious but it was in fact terribly, terribly boring.  I persisted until the end, hoping it would improve.  It did not.  I enjoyed the author’s style of writing so will (after I recover from my disappointment) attempt to track down more of her work (Difficult Daughters seems to get high praise).

The weekend was then spent reading ridiculously fluffy Regency romance novels.  I knew, years ago, when I started reading Georgette Heyer that she was viewed as a gateway drug.  Lauren Willig’s novels signaled another slip (confirmed when I reread The Masque of the Black Tulip on Saturday).  Finally, my former manager (of all people) recommended that I try the newest book by Kate Moore (with the awful title To Tempt a Saint) and down I went.  It was quickly followed by the equally ridiculously-named (but far superior in style and substance) Then Comes Seduction by Mary Balogh.  I am a ridiculous snob and even as I enjoy these books I feel rather ashamed of even having ‘lowered’ myself to crack the covers (and rather afraid that I will be shunned by other bloggers).  But such books are fun, not even remotely as explicit as some of the other literature I read (see The Immigrant above) and, while I’d never spend money on them (thrift overlapping with snobbishness), my library seems to be stunningly well-stocked.  Not the sort of thing to read all the time but, as a diversion every once in a while, very pleasant.  The Balogh book was also surprising descriptive about garden layouts, which, combined with the recent improvement in the weather here, has reawakened my passion for landscape design, a passion I suppress all winter long and obsess over most summers.  The appropriate volumes have been ordered from the library and it won’t be long before I’m daydreaming about sunken gardens, blossoming orchards, and fragrant rows of roses.

Sunken Garden at Upton Grey

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My conversion into a graphic novel fan continues!  A quick review now for what was, in fact, a very quick read. 

Apparently, based on my conversations with friends who saw me reading this during my lunch hour, there are still people left in the world who have not heard of Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi.  For these readers, a quick summary:

In powerful black-and-white comic strip images, Satrapi tells the story of her life in Tehran from ages six to fourteen, years that saw the overthrow of the Shah’s regime, the triumph of the Islamic Revolution, and the devastating effects of war with Iraq.  The intelligent and outspoken only child of committed Marxists and the great granddaughter of one of Iran’s last emperors, Marjane bears witness to a childhood uniquely entwined with the history of her country. 

Admittedly, I know very little about Iran.  We covered the bare minimum in high school history classes, so I knew the basics about the overthrow of the Shah and the Islamic Revolution, but Satrapi personalises those events, providing a glimpse into life inside the country during those tumultuous times.  But it also provides a glimpse into the mind of a child coming of age under very usual circumstances, which is what makes this book stand out.

Satrapi is a delightful protagonist – unique from our first introduction to her, as a ten-year old who can’t understand why, in the wake of the Islamic Revolution, she now has to wear the veil (though she may prefer to play with it in the schoolyard).  Quickly, we flash back four years, to a six-year old girl determined to become a prophet and who holds private conversations with God each night.  Irresistible.

There is a pervasive sense of paranoia throughout the book, and no wonder.  Satrapi’s parents were not passive bystanders to the events taking place: they were protestors, Marxists activists who saw many of their friends disappear as the situation worsened.  The most chilling moments in the book come from Satrapi’s encounters with other dissidents, whether it be her beloved uncle (executed as a Soviet spy) or two communist family friends who come to dinner shortly after being released from jail, full of details about the torture techniques used on them.  This kind of personal detail is certainly not what they taught us in my history classes and had an incredibly powerful effect.

I’m already eager to pick up Persepolis II, the story of Satrapi’s return to Iran after years spent studying abroad.  Satrapi’s illustrations aren’t in and of themselves particularly special, but her story is and absolutely worth reading.

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There’s a question that has to be burning on the lips of all foreigners here, a question you refrain from asking aloud but one can’t help asking yourself: do they really believe the bullshit that’s being forced down their throats?

I think Pyongyang by Guy Delisle may have converted me into a graphic novel fan.  In fact, I may now be able to call them graphic novels without snickering, which, trust me, is a breakthrough.

Pyongyang is subtitled ‘A Journey in North Korea.’  Journey might be overstating is somewhat: for the most part, Delisle is stationed in Pyongyang, where he is working for a French animation company, occasionally being escorted on day trips further afield.  However, his experiences and commentary are fascinating and beautifully illustrated and, occasionally, hilarious.  I think it is this humour that made the book special for me: the subject matter is far too depressing otherwise, if I hadn’t been able to laugh every few pages I probably would have abandoned it mid-way.  Happily, I was hooked quite early when, immediately after arriving in Pyongyang, Delisle is reading a passage about the thought police from 1984 in his hotel bedroom and subsequently becomes somewhat paranoid about his room being tapped.  This is also where I first realised the power of images over text, as the episode is conveyed without commentary. 

Delisle’s experience is the same of any foreign entering a communist country.  He is assigned a translator and a guide, both of whom chaperon all of his excursions outside of the sterile hotel-zone.  Like all foreigners, he attempts to get his translator to admit to feeling stifled and scared by the communist regime.  Like all foreigners, he fails.  He is outraged by the propaganda that pervades throughout the country: his field trips are all to such inspiring sights as The Children’s Palace, the Museum of Imperialist Occupation, and the Pyongyang subway, which foreigners are only allowed to ride from one stop to the next.  As Delisle notes in frustration: “there’s a banner on every building, a portrait on every wall, a pin on every chest.”  Naïve to be surprised by this perhaps, but his documentation of the various forms of propaganda is fascinating nonetheless.  I know so little about North Korea that any glimpse of it is fascinating and Delisle handles the little details exceedingly well – everything from the make-work projects civilians ‘volunteer’ for to the disgusting, soiled tablecloths that can be found in all restaurants.

All in all, an intriguing glimpse into a very private country and a wonderful introduction to a talented illustrator.  I’m already eager to get my hands on a copy of Delisle’s The Burma Chronicles.

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