Graphic Novels

Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio.

This week I got the best thing ever in the mail: a book present from a friend.*

The book in question is Derf Backderf's new book Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio, and it is a nonfiction graphic novel about the events of May 4, 1970, at Kent State University in Ohio. That was when the National Guard was called in to restore order to the campus in the face of protests, and ended up firing into the crowd and killing four people (and injuring nine more). To this day nobody knows who gave the order to fire or why, and nobody knows who specifically did the shooting. If you don't know the story, you should immediately read this book, or read this to start with.

Kent stateAs my friend said, she hoped I enjoyed the book, although she felt that "enjoy" (considering the subject matter) was not really the right word to use.

The book is unbelievable. I'm not a huge graphic novel reader, but I find I enjoy graphic novel nonfiction in graphic form, particularly for historical or science stories that are interesting to me but on which I don't have the time to read a regular nonfiction book. What is perhaps the most stunning is the section of notes and bibliographical material; Backderf provides sources and information for every picture and page he draws, and it is fascinating to learn just how difficult it is to find the truth of this one story. History is anything but dry; excavating the layers upon layers of trying to find the facts of this story in different accounts and photos must have been quite a job.

I read the book in one breathless run (yes, I ignored the children, and the meals, and the house, and other work--you just have to do that sometimes). It also led me to do a little bit of poking around on YouTube to see what else I can find, and one thing I found was Glenn Frank's impassioned plea to the students to just leave the protest so they all wouldn't get shot. Frank was a professor at Kent State and you have got to go watch this recording of his scream. I've thought about this book (and that clip) a lot, this week.

This is what everyone should scream in the face of any violence: "Jesus Christ, I don't want to be a part of this."

Buy, and read, this book.

And thank you to my friend who sent it. You're right, "enjoy" was the wrong word. But it was the right book for me at the right time.

*Okay, we all know the best things to get in the mail are checks. Preferably large ones. But that doesn't happen very often, and actually, book gifts are so FUN they might even beat checks.

Reading notes from February 2017.

I read or skim-read a few interesting books last week, but none of them really seemed to warrant their own review. So here we go with a few quick impressions.

Really good dayI got Ayelet Waldman's A Really Good Day: How Microdosing Made a Mega Difference in My Mood, My Marriage, and My Life. I've always kind of gotten a kick out of Ayelet, but there wasn't enough here to keep me reading. Basically she read somewhere about how microdoses of LSD can help with mood disorders (as well as studies about how use of mushrooms, for their psilocybins, increased peoples' sense of well-being), and tried out microdoses for a month. This is her diary of that month. It did improve many factors of her life, but at the end of the day, she had to stop the regimen because LSD is illegal and she only got her original stash from a friend of a friend who had a bit left from running his own experiment. I skim-read the first 100 pages, then skipped to the last couple of chapters and called it good. A few things: not sure a whole book was necessary here. And, as long as she wrote the whole book, it needs an index; it references enough scientific and historical information that an index might have been helpful (and would have been fairly easy and cost-effective to prepare; her book is not long or complex).

I did enjoy her honesty concerning her marriage, her children, her work, and other facets of her life. Particularly noteworthy was her stream-of-consciousness fantasizing about getting divorced, in which she ruminates on how she's priced small apartments in the area so she and her husband could split but simply co-parent ("bird-nesting") while letting the kids stay in the house all the time. Seeing as Ayelet is a woman who's largely famous for declaring that she loves her husband more than she loves her kids, that made me feel better about having similar fantasies.

Our lady of birth controlI also read the graphic novel Our Lady of Birth Control: A Cartoonist's Encounter with Margaret Sanger, by Sabrina Jones. It was all right. It was an interesting book but it is hard for me to get too excited about a book when I am no fan of the book's subject. I get what she was trying to do and I am sympathetic to the desire (particularly in the era when Sanger was working, when women regularly had double digit-numbers of pregnancies, miscarriages, and births) to control one's reproductive destiny, but the simple fact of the matter is that I think Planned Parenthood and the birth control industry still disproportionately place the burden of birth control on women. When Planned Parenthod a.) pushes to develop and market a viable birth control pill for men, and b.) runs a massive campaign to tell men to wear condoms whether they "like to" or not (the poor dears), I will have no time for Planned Parenthood.

I did appreciate that the author of this graphic novel addressed some of the controversies and charges that have sprung up against Sanger in past years, including the fact that she was a proponent of the eugenics movement. I'm not satisfied by Jones's conclusion that a lot of smart people were interested in eugenics, so it wasn't really that bad, but her awareness of some of the complexities of Sanger's legacy was nice to see.

ThreadbareAnother graphic novel that I mainly made it through was Anne Elizabeth Moore's Threadbare: Clothes, Sex, and Trafficking. Mr. CR saw this one laying around the house and said, really? Where do you keep FINDING these depressing books? To which my only defense was, I don't know, they keep finding ME. This was another interesting graphic novel, but it was a collection of comics by different illustrators, which I never like: I find it too jarring to go from one visual style to another.

I think this is an important book and well worth a look--particularly for its early chapters on the links between "fast fashion" and clothing waste and slavery worldwide--but at times the links it made between fashion, the apparel industry, and human trafficking were too complex for me to follow. Right now. I'm scattered even on my best days lately, and last week we all had killer colds in my house, so I definitely wasn't myself while reading this. But take my word for it: you might want to check it out. Also? Shop less. Evidently apparel companies and retail outlets now change their offerings every few weeks, rather than every season--wasting a lot of material and wearing out a lot of workers just so people can "see something new" every time they go to the mall. Uck.

I might just have to find a little something lighter to read for March. Any suggestions?

Love a good quick nonfiction graphic novel read: Andy Warner's Brief Histories of Everyday Objects.

Every now and then I like to read a good graphic novel (fiction or non, I'm open on graphic novels, for the most part) and Andy Warner's stupendously entertaining Brief Histories of Everyday Objects did not disappoint.

Brief historiesI found this title on some booklist of nonfiction graphic novels that I linked to in a weekly Citizen Reading post a few weeks or months back, leading me to once again say, YAY book lists. You gotta love a good book list, particularly one that is outside your normal reading interests or comfort zone.

In this lighthearted history Warner examines (very briefly, in just a few cartoon panels per story) the histories of some objects that we basically could no longer imagine living without: toothbrushes, kitty litter, silk, tupperware, traffic lights, beer cans, kites, and coffee beans (among many others). The drawings are clean and easy to follow (sometimes I'm too lazy to follow graphic novel layouts when they're too dense or complicated; I remain a word girl, not a picture girl, at heart) and the facts are fun, interesting, and very succinctly written. Also, at the end of each short history, Warner throws in a few panels of "Briefer Histories," with all the tidbits of research he couldn't really fit in anywhere else, like "Ingredients in ancient toothpaste included ox hooves, eggshells, oyster shells, and charcoal. Minty fresh!" (p. 5.)

I also really enjoyed running gags throughout the stories, such as when multiple visionaries/inventors failed to cash in on their inventions. In the first such instance, a briefer history discusses how "Walter Hunt's grave in Brooklyn's Greenwood Cemetery sits in the shadow of the monument of Elias Howe, who got rich manufacturing Hunt's unpatented sewing machine." (With a picture of Hunt saying, "Rub it in, why don't you?") (p. 47.) And by the end of the book Walter Hunt and a bunch of other poor visionaries are grouped together, saying "We've decided to move in together to save on rent." (p. 177.) I'm describing it badly, but it's funny stuff.

In other news, this book has a wonderful bibliography, including many popular micro-histories, and Mr. CR gave it the highest praise he can give a nonfiction book: "Hey, that book you've got in the bathroom right now is pretty good."

Now THIS is more like it: Mama Tried, by Emily Flake.

Remember a few weeks ago, when I was going on and on about how I'd love to see a parenting book whose author actually shared some of the gory details of childbirth? All I can say after reading Emily Flake's Mama Tried: Dispatches from the Seamy Underbelly of Modern Parenting, is HUZZAH!

Now THIS is what I'm talking about:

Mama tried"Just like in the movies, I was in the back of a cab making little hoo-hoo-hoo sounds and trying to assure the driver I would not have a baby in his car, though I couldn't guarantee I wouldn't crap all over it. Luckily for everyone concerned, the hospital was only a mile away; when I got out of the cab I was holding my belly and bellowing like a sow. I was put in a wheelchair and whisked into an examination room, where I stroked the wall very, very gently and waited for a real doctor (they'd sent in a med student to take my family history; I was impolite to him). A real doctor showed up, took a look at my lady parts, and took out a walkie-talkie. 'Clear a labor room,' she said into it. 'Wait, am I in labor??' I asked. 'You,' she said, clearly biting off the words 'you idiot,' 'are having a baby RIGHT NOW.' She said this because I was 9.5 centimeters dilated. That promise I made to the cabbie could very easily have been false, and I would have had the New Yorkiest of all possible birth stories to tell.

Only one thing saved the cab's upholstery: the baby was coming face-up. This is not nearly as worrisome as a butt-or feet-first baby, nor as awful as that thing where their head gets jammed to the side and they're somehow coming...neck-first? Yikes--but it does make the whole process a bit more difficult. There was an awful lot of pushing. I moaned piteously for ice...

But: back to my face-up baby, stuck in the canal. After a couple of hours we had all had it with the pushing; I asked if maybe they didn't have one of those vacuum thingies handy? They did. Three contractions, a Hoovering, and a big doctor squeezing down on my belly later, out came the baby. The placenta was less eager to make its debut; the cord snapped, and my OB--a...brisk woman--reached on up there with her hand to pluck it out of me. She regarded it quizzically: 'That's a really raggedy old-looking placenta,' she said." (pp. 86-88.)

Well, fucking hell and thank YOU, Emily Flake, THIS is what I'm looking for in a birth narrative, complete with not knowing when you should go to the hospital, birth not quite going the way you thought, doctor-being-a-dickhead moments. AMEN. And of course there's a reason I responded to this story with every fiber of my being...


When my second CRjr made his way onto the scene it played out much the same way: I dilated nicely and everyone at the hospital thought he would be popping out shortly after we arrived. Of course that is not what happened. I tried to dilate to the full 10 centimeters for many hours, and then pushed for several hours, before which a nurse actually said to me, "Huh, I hope he's not coming face-up, that can be..." and then she trailed off as she saw me looking at her, "...uncomfortable."

Of course he was coming face-up.

To make a long story short, because you, unlike me, may not be into gory birth stories, the littlest CRjr also made his appearance thanks to one of those "vacuum thingies." But, and here's the part you really may not need to know, I still have some physical issues from the experience. So for the last three years, no kidding, I have been beating myself up, thinking if I had just stayed home a little longer, I could have dilated further, birth could have gone faster, and maybe I could have avoided some problems...

But God bless Emily Flake, now I know that even if I'd arrived at that damn hospital at the full 10 centimeters things may not have gone any better. And I cannot tell you the good that this does for my soul. So maybe that's what I'm looking for in these birth narratives: solidarity with what women go through, and what they come back from.


Have I also mentioned that this book is hilarious? Not only is it a quick read, it's illustrated, and Flake's pictures and their captions are really the best parts of the book. Just imagine her pictures and captions for her description of the third trimester: "The Dampening." (Horrifying but hilarious.) At one point the author also asked her sister, a postpartum nurse and lactation consultant, who her least favorite patients were. Her sister's reply? "'Oh, you know, older, professional moms who read too many parenting websites.'" (p. 37.) In other words, patients just like the author. God love modern parenting.

It's a great book. Get it for any new (or newish) mom you know, who doesn't mind a bit of swearing, off-color humor, and a good gory birth story. (Or, even if you don't get this one, consider Let's Panic about Babies!, another hilarious, truthful book about parenting.)

A pair of graphic novels I either could have done without, or really needed.

Mary weptLast spring (or thereabouts) I noticed that a graphic novel titled Mary Wept Over the Feet of Jesus: Prostitution and Religious Obedience in the Bible was getting a lot of press attention. As it was a historical/religion graphic novel, and therefore nonfiction, I thought I would try it. I had read another graphic novel memoir by the same author, Chester Brown, about a million years ago. I couldn't remember it at all, other than its title: I Never Liked You. But I thought, let's try it.

And then I waited for it on hold from the library for so long that I forgot all about what it even was. I kept seeing the title "Mary Wept Over the Feet of Jesus" on my hold list, and I thought, I wonder what that book's about? And then it came.

How could I forget this one? It's a graphic novel, illustrating the stories of numerous women in the Bible, as well as other well known books/stories. Included here are illustrations of the Cain and Abel story, Ruth's marrying Boaz, the Annunciation of Mary, Bathsheba and David, Tamar, and Rahab (the latter two whose stories I don't know very well, but involved prostitution or sex as an exchange in some way). And what is the theme? Well, I'm vastly simplifying it here, but Brown speculates that the way the stories of these women were told, particularly in the Gospel according to Matthew, means there is some evidence that not only were there many prostitutes in the Bible, but that Mary the mother of God was one of them. Here's Matthew talking to himself while writing his Gospel account:

"All the evidence indicates that Jesus's mother was a whore. Jesus himself said so. But many Christians are against prostitution, and they don't want to hear the truth. Even if I wrote it, it would just be censored when the scribes copy out the book. But I want to acknowledge the truth in some manner. Is there a way of hinting at it without it being censored?" p. 146.

So I finish this thing, copious afterword and notes included, and my one thought, is, Wow, for some reason this guy really needs prostitution to be okay.

So I looked up his earlier books, and find his title Paying for It: A Comic-Strip Memoir about Being a John. And of course, everything makes more sense now. Of course he needs prostitution to be okay, because he goes to prostitutes.

Which is all, at this point, bothering me much less than you would think (or my mother would expect of me). For one thing, as a Catholic of a certain age, I was raised in a religious education environment that didn't really pay a whole lot of attention to the Bible. Sure, we had scripture every week in church, but Catholics doing "Bible study" when I was growing up was pretty much unheard of. In my family we seemed to depend a lot more on certain prayers, saint stories (although yes, I had books of Bible stories too), Catholic catechism (as laid down in the conservative Baltimore catechism series), and a special fondness for Mary.* So you know what? I don't care if Mary was a prostitute. I don't really care if she was a virgin, although that's what I learned and frankly it's just as easy for me to believe she was a virgin as anything else (see earlier: I just don't particularly care). The important thing is Mary IS my mother. I love her as my mother and I ask for her help and her intercession like a mother. She has been my only friend at many dark 3 a.m. hours in my life. The Catholic Church has done many things appallingly wrong in its history. But I am so grateful to Catholicism for giving me Mary as an individual in her own right, and my mother.**

So if Chester Brown wants to think she was a prostitute, and has done a lot of reading and research to back that up, well, okay.*** Evidently a lot of his ideas are based in part on Jane Schaberg's scholarly book The Illegitimacy of Jesus. At this point I wasn't particularly bothered.

But then I had to go and read his memoir Paying for It as well.

And now, friends? Now I'm a bit disturbed.

It's not a complicated book. Brown decided, after his girlfriend (with whom he lived) asked if he minded if she pursued a relationship with another man (while they still lived together), that he really didn't mind, and that in fact he was glad to be rid of the jealous feelings of a monogamous relationship. Things progress until he decides to pursue his two competing desires: "the desire to have sex, versus the desire to NOT have a girlfriend," (p. 16) and soon he responds to an escort ad and begins a series of encounters with paid sex workers. Most of the book thereafter details those encounters, set off by interludes of him and his friends engaging in discussions about whether his behavior is wrong or not.

Well, okay. I read the whole book--once again with copious appendices and notes wherein Brown lays out most of his arguments that prostitution should be decriminalized--and while I was reading it I didn't really have much of a reaction. But then I found I would think about different parts of the book, and Brown's arguments, at random points later in the day. And the more I recounted his experiences and his arguments, the more I reacted.

I'm not going to take each chapter or experience in turn. Instead, I'd like to give you a broad overview of what disturbed me about some of Brown's encounters with sex workers: 1. he often pays for half-hour sessions rather than full-hour sessions, and then depicts himself variously trying to get the prostitutes to move on from oral to full sex, or he shows himself periodically stopping the action to slow down his, ahem, "completion." At least one of the women asks him why he keeps stopping and starting again, informing him, "it's starting to hurt, y'know!" (p. 63.) 2. Periodically he has to question whether the women even understand English, or whether they are really the age they claim to be. 3. At least once he wants to walk away because the prostitute is unattractive, or (gasp) appears to be as old as "in her thirties." 4. After several visits to the same prostitute, he notes afterward that the "dates" are starting to make him feel empty inside. 5. Several prostitutes indicate (to me) they might not be enjoying the work--one says "ow" throughout the entire encounter, another answers Brown's questions about her previous work in a massage parlor and admits that she would rather be back at the massage parlor rather than working as an escort.

So, looking at the above as a whole, the picture I'm drawing of the author is that he's a cheap bastard who so badly wants what he's doing to be okay that he never questions whether women are foreign-born or actually eighteen; who's in his late thirties himself but of course is completely uninterested sexually in women of a comparable age; and although he seems desperate to reassure his friends that he treats these workers kindly (he tips them, lets them use his phone, etc.) he clearly is not put off his stroke when a woman shows clear signs of being in discomfort or pain.

I'm sorry, but there you have it. With that picture in my mind, I simply cannot take most of his arguments for the decriminalization of prostitution seriously. Like the one he relies on a lot: "I believe that, if prostitution is decriminalized, its normalization will happen relatively quickly--within a few generations. When I was born, in 1960, homosexuality was widely seen as 'sick' and disgusting. It was illegal to engage in homosexual activity in this country (and probably all of the other 'western' countries). In 1967, Pierre Trudeau decriminalized homosexuality in Canada...The result, forty-something years later, is that homosexuality has become normalized for most people 'in the west.' It's no longer widely seen as sick or disgusting." (p. 231.) Does anyone else find this argument weak? Are paying for sex with professionals and homosexuality really analogous situations? Also, if activities like pedophilia or necrophilia were "normalized," does that mean they would be okay?

Brown also likes to make the point that prostitutes should have their choice to make their living in the way they choose. Another weak argument, I think. How much money can a woman really make in this line of work if men stop choosing them (as Brown does) the minute they look like they are past their twenties? What is the percentage of women who are really CHOOSING this work? I would suggest you read Robert Kolker's Lost Girls for a look at how someone gets into this work and what happens after they do. It doesn't seem to me that choice often has a lot to do with it.

Anyway. Blah blah blah. I had a lot more thoughts about these two books, but this post is already ridiculously long. I didn't particularly enjoy the experience of interacting with these books, but I do have to admit that I have now given them a lot of thought and even argued with their author in my head. So, paradoxically: A good reading experience. I think the Paying for It book might actually be a good book for all women to read, for its scary insights into one male mind (particularly what Brown describes as the "burden" of his life--"Every time I saw an attractive woman, I wanted to walk up to her and try to initiate some sort of interaction. I usually lacked the confidence to do so...I wasn't even aware that all of that felt like a burden until I walked out of that brothel and saw an attractive woman on the street and realized I felt no inner tension about whether or not I should talk to her. Of course I shouldn't--she was a stranger. Why would I worry that I was missing an opportunity to potentially have sex? Suddenly, sex with beautiful women was easy to get." (p. 263.) I'll tell you this: it obviously takes all kinds.

*Family legend has it that Dad appealed to Mary to intercede and help him find a good wife, and he found our mother. My mother is spectacular, so thanks, Mary!

**And the subject of one of my favorite prayers, a poem by Anne Porter: "Mary, in you/We see the flowering/Of our human beauty/And hear/The songs of God. And in your heart the lost/Rejected and abandoned ones/Are held in honor. Stay with us now/And always."

***This is way off topic, and I never reviewed it here, but this summer I also read a lot of Tom Bissell's really interesting book Apostle: Travels among the Tombs of the Twelve, also about Bible history, and how very little anyone knows about even the Apostles (arguably well-known and often-cited figures that they are). In that book Bissell noted that when he noticed all the inconsistencies and historical fuzziness in the Bible, he lost his verve for his Catholic religion. This does not happen to me. The more I learn about how complex the Bible is, how historically difficult it is to pin anything in it down with certainty, it doesn't make me take my religion less seriously. It makes me take the Bible less seriously. If that makes any sense.

Paul Madonna: Everything Is its Own Reward

Have you ever seen Paul Madonna's art?

If you haven't, you're missing out. I read and loved his first collection, All Over Coffee, a few years back, but I didn't know he'd published a new book (Everything Is Its Own Reward)** until I saw while browsing at the library.*

Finding graphic novels and art collections I enjoy is always a bit of a challenge for me. I am not a very visual person (I cannot follow instruction or direction lists that only include pictures), and I never took any art theory or history courses (which I regret), so most of the time I am very content just to stick with words. But when I find an artist I like? I really, really love them.

Madonna is a case in point. He does very simple (well, they look simple, but I am sure they are very hard to do well) line drawings of buildings, homes, and city streets in his city of San Francisco. Sometimes the pictures contain text, and sometimes they don't. But I love them all and could study them for hours.

*I still love browsing the library and bookstores. Searching or poking around online will just never be as fulfilling.

**Well, newish. It was published in 2011.

"So-so" books: Over Easy

Over Easy
by Mimi Pond

This year I've been trying to keep a spreadsheet of what I'm reading and why, but I'll admit it's a tough slog. I barely get the time to read, lately, so taking even a moment to type book information into Excel just isn't happening. As a result, as always, I'm still not sure how I find out about most of the books I read.

A case in point is Mimi Pond's graphic novel memoir Over Easy. It's about Pond's experiences working as a waitress in a 1970s California diner. I'm not sure why or how I heard about it, but as a former waitress myself, I will almost always get and read any book that I can find on the subject.

The book opens with Pond, an art student, finding herself in a diner, and deciding that she'd like to try working there. And so she does. And her stories (and drawings) about working with a wide variety of other wait- and kitchen staff are not completely uninteresting. But it never really gelled for me into any kind of narrative; Pond always seemed, perhaps true to her nature as an observer/artist, ever so slightly outside of the action.* I read this one barely a month ago and I remember hardly anything about it: therefore, "so-so."

If you're looking for a memoir on waitressing, you'd be much better served by Debra Ginsberg's wonderful Waiting: The True Confessions of a Waitress. Even Barbara Ehrenreich's overrated investigative work Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America contained a more lively section on working in a restaurant.

*Bonus points for Mimi Pond, though: an interview with her at The Bat Segundo Show is interesting (and you can see her artwork there, which, actually, I enjoyed).

Jim Ottaviani strikes again.

I don't read as much science nonfiction as I should, I'll admit.

This is a puzzler, because I have liked almost all of the few science books I have plowed through over the years. I think I have to be in the right mood and the right place mentally--science nonfiction, even popular science nonfiction, seems to demand a bit more attention and reading in longer chunks of time than I often have these days. But when I find a short science title by an author I have always enjoyed...I bring it right home.

A case in point last week was Jim Ottaviani's (and Maris Wicks's) young adult graphic novel Primates: The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Birute Galdikas. When I saw this on the shelf on the library, I got all excited; I love Jim Ottaviani. I'm not a huge reader of graphic nonfiction but Ottaviani's artwork is easy to follow and his treatment of often complicated scientific precepts (and biography of scientists, often complicated individuals in their own rights) is clear enough that even I can grasp most of what he's explaining.

In this short volume, Ottaviani and his co-author Wicks provide brief overviews of the lives, educations, and work of primate naturalists and scientists Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Birute Galdikas (of whom I'd never even heard before picking up this book). The book is under 140 pages long, so you can imagine that most of the discussion of their work among the animals, and their very differing personalities, is superficial at best. So although the book left me vaguely unsatisfied, I do think it functioned well as a great introduction to primate science and three fascinating women. It left me wanting more, which all really great books do (I think), and provides a very nice bibliography if you're inclined to go find more to read on these subjects.

Holy downer book, Batman.

Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt
by Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco

If you're looking to become suicidally depressed, have I got the book for you.

A few weeks ago I was actually browsing my library's "Serendipity Collection"--a shelf of books that are new, bestselling, or otherwise popular, and for which there are usually long waiting lists, but in that small collection they are available on a first come, first serve basis. I place a lot of holds, and normally have a pile of books to pick up and check out, but nothing great had been coming in for me, so I thought I'd look around. So I ended up checking out Chris Hedges's and Joe Sacco's investigative work Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt.

According to Hedges's intro, the pair (Hedges is a journalist; Sacco is a graphic novelist/journalist) "set out two years ago to take a look at the sacrifice zones, those areas in the country that have been offered up for exploitation in the name of profit, progress, and technological advancement. We wanted to show in words and drawings what life looks like when the marketplace rules without constraints, where human beings and the natural world are used and then discarded to maximize profit."

So yeah. You're starting to see where the suicidal depression comes in, right?

The book is comprised of four chapters on "destruction": in journalism and graphic novelettes the two tell the stories of people they found on the Native American reservation at Pine Ridge South Dakota (poverty, alcoholism, drug dealing); Camden, N.J. (a former industrial/dock town where immigrants used to find the American dream and now poverty and lawlessness rule, along with racial tensions and violence); a coal-mining region of West Virginia (where mountaintops are being blown off, there are very few coal jobs to work anymore, and everyone has diabetes or other health conditions from breathing in coal dust); and Immokalee, Florida, where illegal immigrants work in modern-day slavery. A fifth and final chapter titled "Days of Revolt" centers on the Occupy protests in New York City.

It's so sad, but I couldn't stop reading it. On the other hand, I don't know if I can recommend it. Really. I know the authors meant the last chapter in particular to be inspiring, but I just can't help feeling that the Occupy protests were not enough to offset the relentless misery in the first four chapters. What I did find inspiring, actually, was one of the graphic novelettes in the Camden, N.J., chapter, featuring a woman named Lolly Davis, who not only worked and took care of her own children, but also raised other people's children, and in one memorable story, during race riots in the city, warned her white neighbors across the way to "put something red in their window" (as a rioter had told Davis to do) so rioters would leave them alone.

I thought the format was done well too--I'll admit I skipped ahead and read most of the graphic novel bits before I read the rest of the text. But that was to be expected--I've never been much of a Chris Hedges fan. I find him a bit histrionic in all his books (I wasn't overfond of his title War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, either). Here's what he has to say towards the end of his narrative:

"The game, however, is up. The clock is ticking toward internal and external collapse. Even our corporate overlords no longer believe the words they utter. They rely instead on the security and surveillance state for control. The rumble of dissent that rises from the Occupy movements terrifies them. It creates a new narrative. It exposes their exploitation and cruelty. And it shatters the absurdity of their belief system." (p. xii.)

Okay, sure. I wish the game really were up, but I suspect it is not, and won't be for a long time, even with continuing Occupy protests. But that's just me. Do read the book sometime, but do me a favor and make sure you're not depressed when you start (although whether you should blow a happy mood with it either, I just don't know).

Here's the problem with True Crime.

There's just no way to say to anyone: "Hey, I just read this unbelievably good book about Jeffrey Dahmer."* The book could indeed be very good. But once you insert "Jeffrey Dahmer" into any sentence, let's face it, the gut reaction "ick factor" is going to scare a lot of people away.

My Friend Dahmer
by Derf Backderf

So, I'm well aware of what you might think of me when I say this: I just read this unbelievably good book about Jeffrey Dahmer.

The book in question is Derf Backderf's graphic novel/memoir/true crime title My Friend Dahmer. Backderf attended high school in Ohio with Dahmer in the 1970s, and knew him as a strange guy who went from flying way under the radar to adopting a strange persona based on speech and movement tics (some thought he was imitating a local interior decorator, a businessman who suffered from cerebral palsy, while later it was thought he was perhaps imitating his mother, who suffered from seizures). Backderf and his friends even were part of something they called the Dahmer Fan Club, in which they egged him on while he did his persona, and who sneaked him into a variety of club and activity (to which he did not belong) photos from the yearbook. So this is not just some, "Hey, I went to the same high school as Dahmer, how weird is that" anecdotal memoir.

It is a memoir, so of course it is told from Backderf's point of view, and for many of the scenes portraying Dahmer's inner and personal life he had to depend on other sources, like later confessions of and interviews with Dahmer. But it's done very well, and the fact that it is in graphic novel format makes it all the more disturbing. In a way it's the best possible format--it allows the story to be read quickly, so you don't have to spend a lot of time in the story**, and it also sets the right tone. Dahmer's huge glasses, for instance, are often drawn throughout so they obscure the reader's view of his eyes.

Like most good True Crime, it'll make you think. Particularly when you learn things like Dahmer actually talked his way into a guided tour of Vice President Mondale's office for him and his friends when they were on a school trip to Washington, D.C. Dahmer and Walter Mondale in the same room: it boggles the mind.

*Unless that someone is my brother. I knew he had read Lionel Dahmer's strange but compelling memoir A Father's Story, so I knew we could discuss it.

**I think this is a large part of True Crime's appeal, actually. It often is very quickly paced, which is good, so you don't have to live with the stories too long.

Is your cat plotting to kill you?

I am a fan of Matthew Inman and his site The Oatmeal, and I heartily enjoyed his first book, 5 Very Good Reasons to Punch a Dolphin in the Mouth (and Other Useful Guides)

So when I saw that he had a new book out, How to Tell if Your Cat Is Plotting to Kill You, I had to get it from the library. It was funny--and I do like kitties, and I rather suspect mine IS plotting to kill me (sometimes, anyway, when I don't feed her fast enough)--but it wasn't as good as the first book. I like kitties, but this was almost too much kitties; I rather preferred the first book where a variety of subjects were on display in the cartoons.

I know it's just a book of cartoons, but this one felt very slight. There were lots of full-page panels that could have been smaller and fit on fewer pages, and I'll admit his The Bobcats series is not my favorite (and it comprises a fairly good-sized chunk of the book). But still? Good for a laugh, and a nice quick read.*

*And Mr. CR did enjoy the illustration of two kitties riding bunnies in a jousting contest. He likes the highbrow stuff like that.**

**I just looked at the book again, to find said illustration of cats riding bunnies, and I must say: Inman draws the cutest kitties imaginable.

Graphic Novels: The Challenge, Part 2

As you may or may not know, I started the reading summer out being challenged by Beth to read ten graphic novels. Because I am allergic to being told what to do, I suggested a compromise of me reading two graphic novels. Beth agreed and a mini-challenge was born.

Her first choice for me was Hope Larson's YA graphic novel Mercury; I reviewed that book last week. Another suggestion she made was Hannah Berry's Britten and Brulightly, although she noted it was a bit strange.

Britten Turns out I don't mind strange. This is a completely different novel from Mercury: much different story (crime/mystery/noir), much different art. One of the things that makes it strange (I'm not going to be a spoiler and tell you what it is) didn't really bother me all that much, although I did wonder why Berry used it as a plot point. I thought it would have worked just fine without it. The book opens with Britten describing his career as a private investigator--and his nickname "The Heartbreaker"--earned after telling people what they hired him to find out but which they really don't want to know anyway. I enjoyed that aspect of the story, and the actual mystery he is charged with, very much. Although towards the end I did think the story got both unnecessarily complex (and then was resolved too quickly)*, that's a criticism I have of a lot of modern-day noir and mystery.

But I did love the art of this one. Very dark, with lots of line detail of the city in which the story is set. It reminded me of Paul Madonna's work, which I love, and looked to me the way a graphic novel "should."

So, thanks, Beth. These were both interesting reads and when I passed the graphic novel section of my local library yesterday, I didn't run past it the way I normally do. I slowed down a bit and actually thought about perusing it. (I didn't, but the next time I might! Baby steps.)

*Mr. CR read it too and also thought the ending was too abrupt. Interesting that our reactions to these graphic novels has been quite similar, as we both have quite different reading tastes.

Graphic Novels: The challenge, part 1.

If you'll remember, a while back Beth challenged me (in the comments) to read ten graphic novels this summer. Because I have a deep, deep antipathy to being told what to do (ask my parents, siblings, spouse, and former employers), I bristled at the "ten" part of the challenge, but I did compromise and say I would read ONE GN, of Beth's choice. She was a good sport and made some suggestions--and they were good suggestions. So good that I read TWO whole graphic novels, and am still trying to track down the third. So today, part one of the graphic novel challenge.

Mercury The first of Beth's picks that I read was a small YA graphic novel titled Mercury, by Hope Larson. It's very much YA material; the protagonist is a teen girl (two teen girls, actually, as the story pivots back and forth in time between a current-day story and an historical one) experiencing some family issues, first love, and even a bit of witchcraft (or, more accurately, cases of "second sight") thrown in.

The modern story centers on Tara, a girl staying with her aunt and uncle and cousin in a fictional town in Nova Scotia, after her and her mother's home has burned down (and her mother is working a job on the other side of Canada). The historical story follows events in the life of Tara's ancestor, a girl named Josey, whose life is turned upside down when a gold prospector arrives at her family's farm to look for gold on their property, and eventually enters into a mining partnership with her father. Different events are causing upheaval in each girl's world: Tara is about to go back to high school after being homeschooled for several years, and Josey finds herself falling in love with the mysterious gold prospector.

So what happens? Well, the copy on the back cover takes it from there: "As Josey's story plunges into tragedy, Tara's emerges with the promise of gold." Because it's a YA novel, and a graphic novel at that, if you're so inclined, you'll be able to read the whole thing in not much longer time than it will take you to read this review, so that's all I'm going to say about the story. But as for the experience of reading the graphic novel:

I liked it. I did. It was a fast read; one of my favorite things about graphic novels is that it usually takes me all of a half-hour to read all but the longest ones. And I liked certain conventions of the art--about halfway through the book I noticed the page background on the historical story was black and on the modern story it was white, which was a nice touch (and I was dense not to notice it sooner). But...I didn't love it. The art was basic cartoon, simple but nothing special. Ditto with the story--interesting but not fascinating, and when I finished it, I had too many questions to feel satisfied. (Mr. CR read it too, and we concurred in our opinion that the book and story ended too abruptly.)

Part of the problem, I thought maybe, was that I am unused to reading fiction. After Mr. CR finished the book and I asked him my several questions, he finally opined, "I think you're supposed to fill in some of the story yourself." Oh man, I thought. I have become such a slave to nonfiction that I need everything spelled out for me in fiction too. That's no good! So I worried about that until, a week later, I read Anita Brookner's novel The Debut, and I didn't have any questions about that at all. (I mean, I had questions, but not the "am I missing something here" type questions...) So, ironically, in this graphic novel, spelled out in both pictures and text, I felt unsatisfied.

But all in all, for a YA graphic novel? Not bad.

Taking a shot at understanding.

I really, really enjoy nonfiction graphic novels that are not memoirs. Specific enough for you?

As previously noted, a lot of graphic novel memoirs seriously bum me out; tops on this list were David Small's Stitches and Alison Bechdel's Fun Home. There's something about seeing challenging if not downright horrific childhoods and young adulthoods portrayed in pictures that I very nearly can't handle.

Logicomix But history and biography graphic novels? Love 'em. Another good case in point of this phenomenon is Apostolos Doxiadis's and Christos Papdimitriou's graphic novel Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth.* Although the authors admit the book is more "based on reality" than it is pure nonfiction (they provide a very nice note in the back, explaining how and when they deviated from pure fact), I decided it didn't really bother me. The book is a rather selective biography of the life of philosopher and logician Bertrand Russell, and covers the overlap between the philosophy of logic and the science of mathematics.

Now, I'm not saying I got a lot of it. I certainly don't get the math stuff and most of the logic stuff just seems like semantic wrangling to me, but I must say that the graphic novel format, for whatever reason, makes me feel like I've got a shot at understanding some of the basics of what the authors are trying to say.** Although I most likely won't have time to follow the interest, it also somewhat motivated me to maybe someday read more about Bertrand Russell--his is one of those names I hear a lot but can never really place. (Just so you know: he was born in 1872 in Great Britain, the grandson of former Prime Minister Lord John Russell, became a mathematical logician and well-known author, later became a vocal anti-nuclear activist, and died in 1970.) So thumbs up on this one; it ranks right up there with Jim Ottaviani's historical/scientific graphic novels Fallout and Suspended in Language: Niels Bohrs's Life, Discoveries, and the Century He Shaped.

*Can't remember where I heard about this one. Lesbrarian, did you suggest I read it? If so, thanks!

**I did learn this: I don't think you want to be married to a logician.

Evidently I'm just reading the wrong graphic novels.

Rall I read all of Ted Rall's and Pablo Callejo's graphic novel The Year of Loving Dangerously: A Graphic Memoir, and about the only lasting impression I have of it is that it left me depressed as hell.

And then I thought, every time I read graphic novels I end up depressed as hell. Consider: David Small's Stitches. Alison Bechdel's Fun Home. Art Spiegelman's Maus. Neil Gaiman's first episode of Sandman (Preludes and Nocturnes).* What I can't decide is, do I end up depressed because so many nonfiction graphic novels deal with somber and graphic stories, or do I end up depressed because I either don't understand the book (this is always the case with Gaiman) or because literally picturing things is too intense for me? It's a quandary.

But. Back to Rall's graphic memoir, in which he tells the story, and Callejo provides the drawing. The teaser for this story is "dumped, fired, arrested, expelled, and evicted--Ted Rall lost everything in the summer of 1984. Survival meant breaking all the rules." And that's pretty much it, really. Through no real fault of his own (and due to an unforseen medical emergency), Rall got booted out of Columbia University in the summer of 1984 and didn't have any place to stay in New York City. What he did then, basically, was put together a string of one-night stands and amorous encounters so he usually had a place to stay at night.

Which is resourceful, to say the least. But I still found it depressing. (Mr. CR didn't understand me at all when I was trying to explain my feelings. I think he was just impressed by the chutzpah of the solution.) Maybe it's because the cartoon of Rall on the cover doesn't look all that happy (although the women around him do). Maybe it's because later in that summer he had a slight STD scare, and nothing puts me off the idea of a summer of free lovin' more than the idea of an STD. But all of this is neither here nor there. As an attempt at a graphic memoir, there's nothing wrong with this book. I picked it up primarily because I find Ted Rall to be a very interesting writer, in the same camp as Matt Taibbi,** and I'll always look at anything he writes. But this one just wasn't for me.

*There are exceptions. Brian Fies's Mom's Cancer, although it was really sad, didn't actually leave me depressed, nor did Mat Johnson's Incognegro, which was just such an unbelievable story I didn't know how to feel about it.

**And like Matt Taibbi, he is completely underrated, which is wrong. If you've never heard of Rall, please do look into anything he's written.

Book Menage Day 4: The Wrap-up.

Welcome to Day 4 of our Book Menage! I just want to take a moment and thank everyone who has popped into the comments so far; I have found this to be a particularly fascinating discussion and I'm rather glad we went with the true crime subject matter, even though they're not typically easy books to read.

I think we've already covered a lot of ground, so a few easy questions today.

1. What were your favorite and least favorite parts of each of these books? Would you suggest either to other readers, and if so, why?

2. Do you think you'll ever read another true crime book, ever again?

Sleep  3. You know that I always have to ask about covers. How did you feel about the covers of these books? (The Horn book has different covers in hardcover and paperback; the paperback cover is the one I've posted before--look below and you'll find it and the Geary cover--and I'll post the hardcover jacket with this post.

I have emailed some of our questions to both of the authors, but it's a hard time to be making a living as a writer (or artist) so I'm not sure either one will have time to answer. Please do check back, though; if they reply I'll post their answers here.

A good graphic novel, but not one that I'm in love with.

I am a huge, huge Brian Fies fan.

His graphic novel Mom's Cancer is not only one of my favorite graphic novels, it is one of my favorite memoirs, and favorite books, full-stop. It was his take on his mother's battle with both lung and brain cancer, and a family story of how he and his siblings dealt with her illness. It was, of course, horribly sad, but it was also fantastic. The rare graphic novel that I loved without reservations, and in which the art and the text were easy to integrate, and which complemented each other.

So I was very, very excited to see that he had a new graphic novel out, titled Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow? This one starts at the New York World's Fair of 1939, and charts the course of scientific and future discoveries and aspirations in different decades, including 1945, 1955, 1965, and 1975.

I did read the whole thing, but it turned out to be not for me.

Tomorrow This is no reflection on the quality of the work, which is once again very, very high. I love Fies's clean drawings, simple text, and how easy it is to integrate the two while reading. However, I have never been enthralled with science and progress* OR comics, which are two things that clearly had a big effect on Fies; in fact, this book is like an extended love letter to both. In fact, in between the chapters, Fies has inserted what appear to be classic comic books, titled "Space Age Adventures" and printed on what appears to be pulpy comic/newsprint pages. Unfortunately, the beauty of much of his work is lost on me, as I am not and never was a comic reader. (I am such a person of inaction that most action/adventure stories, which is what a lot of comics are, completely bore me.)

I was also a bit confused by the characters in the story, as Fies uses the same father/son pair in each decade, without the kid growing up for several of the first decades, which I found disconcerting. (He explains this in a foreword, commenting on the wonder of "comics time" which allows characters never to age or change.) Anyone else have this problem?

Still and all, though, Brian Fies is a super-talent. Immediately upon finishing this book I went and re-read my copy of Mom's Cancer, and appreciated him all over again. Give this one a try if you're interested in science or comics; I don't think you'll be disappointed.

*I am in fact usually quite cranky about both science and progress, although I am a fan of indoor plumbing.

Sadness, illustrated.

I don't have much to say about David Small's graphic novel memoir, Stitches.*

Stitches Small, an artist and illustrator,** did not, by all conceivable standards, have a happy childhood. His mother and father had an unhappy marriage; his mother had all kinds of issues of her own (including health issues: she was born with her heart on the opposite side of her chest, and personal problems: Small describes "her furious, silent withdrawals" that "could last for days, even weeks at a time"); and he suffered from multiple illnesses, including a sinus condition, which his father, a radiologist, treated himself, with (you got it) radiation. The end result of that? At the age of 11, Small developed a cyst on his neck, which wasn't removed until three and a half years later, and which of course was cancerous.

That's right: his dad gave him cancer.

Why don't I have much to say? Well, other than saying that you should read this book (which I am indeed saying), I just don't WANT to talk about it. There are a few topics I just don't like to explore. Kids suffering is one of them. Health problems of any kind and the scariness of various health procedures is another. And the graphic novel format of this story? Not making it any easier to take, really. Not that I think it should be easy to take. But for some reason I just never have a lot to say about graphic novels of the nonfiction type. I always find them interesting; they just never stand out as my most memorable reads, even when they are very memorable. Maybe the pictures make them too REAL, and not enough like books? I don't know. Evidently I'm just too much of a text girl, and that's that.***

*I know, it doesn't happen very often, so try not to fall over in shock.

**He often collaborates with his wife, children's author Sarah Stewart, as he did on the wonderful picture book The Library.

***Goodness, evidently I had more to say than I thought about this one.

A little bit tricky for the self-employed.

Boss I really, really enjoyed Graham Roumieu's very short, very funny, very strange book of doodles titled 101 Ways to Kill Your Boss. Because it can be read through in about fifteen minutes, I'd highly advise taking it along to work and perusing it while you eat your lunch. Plus, what boss isn't going to be a little more careful around you if they see a book with that title on your desk?

Do check it out. Some of the comics are hilarious, some are weird, and some are deeply disturbing. (Okay, they're all deeply disturbing.) My favorite? The one where an employee has just decapitated his boss into a file cabinet drawer marked "Heads." The librarian in me thrills to the classification and neatness of the solution.