Relish

Book cover for "relish" showing a cartoon girl with eyes closed eating an oliveRelish: My Life in the Kitchen
Lucy Knisley

Lucy Knisley’s graphic novel memoir through food is really more of a celebration of good eating than a conversation about the author’s life. Sure, we get the broad strokes, but the book is mainly disjointed episodes displayed haphazardly.

However, it’s obvious she loves food. And I love food. I think it’d be pretty cool to have had a teenage summer job working a farmer’s market booth in upstate New York, or later in college at a fancy gourmet shop. I worked at a local grocery store, where it was a big deal when we started selling sushi in little plastic trays.

I liked the recipes between the chapters. Nothing fancy, but they show you can eat well without being a rocket scientist. I’m all for people taking a laid back approach to cooking. Try it! Perfection not required. I also loved the drawings, especially the scene with the chickens. The horror in young Lucy’s face is quite evident.

The book was less successful when Knisley snarked on people’s food choices or the obesity epidemic. Apparently, you can eat as many delicious flaky croissants as you want as long as you stay thin while doing so. Just stick to talking about delicious food, ‘kay?

Weekend Cooking is hosted by Beth Fish Reads and is open to anyone with a food related post to share. Join the fun!Weekend Cooking: Minding My Manners

Page by Paige

Page by Paige book coverPage by Paige
Laura Lee Gulledge

This graphic novel is heavier on the graphics than the novel, but the drawings and story are so sweet I really didn’t mind.

Paige Turner (yes, really) is a country mouse moving to the big city. She’s worried how she’ll fit in with so many new people, but at the same time wants to use the opportunity to develop her true self.

She falls in with a small group of creative kids at her school, and they bond over comics and other artsy endeavors.  Jules is a singer/songwriter, her brother Longo is a cartoonist, and Gabe is a writer (and maybe a love interest for Paige).

Paige devotes time daily to her sketchbook, and Gulledge uses the opportunity to show the reader what it looks like inside the mind of her introverted artist.

I lived in New York for a couple years, and I always marveled about how cool it would be to grow up in the city. Paige and her friends take advantage of it – decorating buildings with paper artwork attached with wheat paste, performing in shows, exploring the city. They do enjoy substantial priviledge – as Paige’s father points out, what they are doing may very well border on illegal. Some kids in New York can get away with that. Others, not so much.

Paige and Diana

Paige and Diana

I was excited to see Paige’s old friend Diana some to visit her in New York. Diana wasn’t jealous of Paige’s new friends. She fell right in with them. In fact, I was hoping there would be a little something between her and Jules. We know Jules is a lesbian, and Diana’s portrayal makes me wonder if Gulledge was trying to imply something about her sexuality. (Not that how one dresses or looks necessarily means anything about their gender identity of sexual orientation. In fact, Jules is pretty darn “girly” looking.)  Of course, they could both be lesbians and just be friends, which would be awesome, too! Not every lesbian in a book has to be attracted to any other lesbian that wanders across that pages. (Okay, I’m probably flubbing this up. Bottom line: I like that there was a lesbian in the book, and it was no big deal, and I want more of that. The end.)

Tiny quibble: I do wish the book would have been in color, but I understand that isn’t possible with many graphic novels. We know that Paige is a redhead, but in black and white she reads blonde to me.

Overall, a nice, if a bit idealist, coming of age story.

Zahra’s Paradise

Cover of Zahra's Paradise, dshowing a cartoon hand reaching up and recording an unseen scene on a cell phoneZahra’s Paradise
Amir and Khalil

This graphic novel focuses on one family’s search for a missing son during the Iran’s 2009 election protests. The setting is a bit intimidating at first – who are all these people the author is talking about? – but I just decided to roll with it and it was fine. Admittedly, I listen to npr most mornings, so I have a passing familiarity with a lot of major world events, but I am certainly no expert on Iran.

The story is compelling, the real life events horrifying, the artwork beautiful. I was struck by many of the images, especially a silhouette of Mehdi made of the flyers declaring him missing. The artists also eloquently show the many, many, practicing Muslims who abhor violence, and put their faith in their religion to bring them out of a crisis brought in the name of that very religion.

What kept me from giving it five stars was the male gaze-y aspects. The two main characters are Zahra, mother of the missing Mehdi, and Mehdi’s brother, Hassan. Zahra does join Hassan on some of the attempts to locate Mehdi, but I got the distinct feeling that Hassan was the primary actor. Zahra waited at home for news.

This causes Zahra to be a flat, mostly static character. She does not change, except in the intensity of her grief and worry. We don’t learn about her other than as a mother worried about her missing child. While Hassan is also consumed with finding Mehdi, the reader learns gets a sense of who he is as the novel progresses. He and his brother have a substantial circle of friends both in meatspace and online. Hassan knows how to leverage his connections to get the information he needs. He acts on that information. He takes risks. He suffers consequences. He likes pretty girls. He seems to get jealous when one tells him of her sexual exploits with another man, even though he barely knows her.

At the climax, when Zahra claims the stage, it feels false somehow. I do not doubt that a woman in her position might very well have the thoughts that she does, but their expression does not feel like a natural fit for her character. Although the title if Zahra’s paradise, this book seems like a story put on her, rather than a story of her.

I wish I’d felt like I knew her character more before the last few pages. She’s certainly an interesting woman.

Interestingly, this book was first published as a serial webcomic, where it was simultaneously translated into multiple languages (but not Farsi). Now there are excerpts online, but the full text is only available in print.

Two Graphic Novels

Book cover of Skim, with face of teenage Asian girl in comic styleSkim
Mariko Tamaki
Jillian Tamaki, Illustrator

Skim is set in 1993 in Toronto. The main character, a Japanese-Canadian girl nicknamed Skim, attends an all-girls high school, where her best friend is Lisa, a typical 16 year old with a bit of a cruel streak and an interest in Wicca.

Things start getting tense at school when popular girl Katie gets dumped. Then her ex-bf commits suicide, and Katie’s friends  respond by creating the Girls Celebrate Life (GCL) club. Skim thinks despite their newly professed compassion, they are still your average high school mean girls clique.

This is a confusing time for Skim. She’s fallen for Ms. Archer, a free spirited young teacher who is definitely crossing all types of boundaries with their relationship. Plus there’s the rumor that Katie’s ex killed himself because he was gay. She is keeping her same sex explorations to herself, feeling increasingly isolated from her already not-exactly-welcoming school.

This novel felt “true” in many ways. Skim’s parents exist mainly off-stage, which is a pretty realistic portrayal of how I remember my teenage years, at least. There was no way I was talking to a parent about anything that I was stressing over. Additionally, it seemed like I went in cycles with friends – things were great with my bestie, then we drifted apart and I was glued to someone else for awhile.

Overall, good read, great illustrations.

Book cover of Laika, with small dog in blue jumpsuit and rocket launching in backgroundLaika
Nick Abadzis

A plucky, adorable stray dog gets caught up in a ex-political prisoner’s big dreams in this Cold War tale. The Soviet space program has just had a major victory with Sputnik I, but Krushchev wanted an even bigger spectacle to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. The director of the space program decided to send a living being, a dog, into orbit.

Sweet little Laika becomes that pioneer. I was completely caught up in her journey from stray on the street of Moscow to the cages of the space program to her spot on the satellite.

Unfortunately, I probably should have refreshed my history or at least read the book flap, with compared this tale to that of Old Yeller.

Which raises concerns for me – Laika’s tale apparently drew much criticism even at the time, at least from the West. So this retelling feels a bit like a rehashing of Cold War bickering, where a Western artist is telling what a horrible thing those Communists did. That doesn’t make their actions laudable, but it’s always important to consider the messenger. And it’s not as though the UK has a blemish free record on animal cruelty.

Do you read graphic novels? Have any suggestions? Leave them, or any other thoughts, in the comments 🙂

A Child’s Life: Graphic Novel

A Child’s Life

A Child’s Life and Other Stories
Phoebe Gloeckner

This is one graphic novel that certainly lives up to its name. I’m glad I wasn’t reading it in public when I turned the page and saw the panel depicting two young girls peeping in through a broken bathroom window and catching their stepfather in a *ahem* private moment. (Granted, there were far more disturbing scenes, but that was the first one that I recall being particularly explicit.)

I came across this title when I was looking for graphic novels written and illustrated by women. It seems like a lot of the well known books in this medium are by men, and if you’ve read my blog at all you probably know I like reading female authors. (And yes, I read male authors and yes I like them and yes Maus I & II are amazing).

The characters in A Child’s Life and Other Stories are clearly based on Gloeckner’s self and family and friends. It was a little odd to get used to at first, as she often changed the main character’s name from story to story. It’s understandable that she would want to put some distance between herself and some of these incredibly painful experiences. The stories are in rough chronological order, grouped as child years, to teen, to adult. They were not all completed at the same time, so there are very noticeable differences in drawing styles. This isn’t a bad thing – in fact, the differences lend interesting visual variety.

This is not a book to willy-nilly recommend to your friends. It is intense. The subject matter is dark – excessive drug and alcohol abuse, pedophilia, rape, child abuse.

Unlike Maus, there is no attempt to depict the atrocities in anything other than minute detail. All the horrors are present for perusal, which can make you feel a bit like a creepy voyeur. What does this mean? What is the purpose of these artistic choices? Perhaps it’s to force the readers’ heads point at these acts, force them to watch and acknowledge they exist. Because unfortunately, there are too many children who know about them first hand.

Americus

Americus

Americus
Written by MK Reed
Illustrated by Jonathan David Hill

I had such high hopes for this book. It’s a graphic novel exploring the theme of censorship – restricting people’s access to certain books deemed “bad” in some way. It’s about two boys, friends, one gay, who are incredibly into a female-fronted fantasy series that’s all about family and honor and doing the right thing.

It started to go downhill when the “evil” parents were over the top monsters. That seemed false. Yes, I know there are religious fanatics (um, I was raised by one). However, flat and static doesn’t work in a character. Dynamic, three dimensional – that’s what I like. You don’t get a pass because your book has pictures.

Then, came this:

This is one of the main characters in the book. A good guy. A guy who’s recently been turned on to “cool” music. And the lyrics smack of classism and fat shaming. 

But it gets better!

Yay, slut shaming! Love it! Um, not really.

Do I expect all books to conform with my personal viewpoints? Of course not. I’m not telling anyone to ban this or any other book. But this is a great example of a book where you might agree with the main theme, but still take serious issue with some of the other views presented. And here, it felt like the author had an agenda. She was beating it into you: Censorship bad! Books good!

It just didn’t work. Too bad. Like I said, I had high hopes.

Want more like this? Try:

  • Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451. The classic book on limiting society’s access to book. Which, um, I still haven’t read. But I will! Promise!
  • Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis and Persepolis 2. Two graphic novels with a nuance, multilayered examination on living in Iran, during and after wartime – censorship and all.

Continuing with Aya

Aya, staged for
the mini-challenge

Aya of Yop City
By Marguerite Abouet
Illustrated by Clément Oubrerie

Aya of Yop City is the second in a series of graphic novels by Ivorian born writer Marguerite Abouet. There are six novels published in French, but only three have been released so far in English. The fourth is set to come out this summer (if anyone knows of a way to get a review copy to this blogger, she’d be eternally grateful, *hint, hint*). I read the first one, Aya, last year and loved it.

I was happy to find that my library had the second book. It picks up right where Aya left off, and it was fun to fall right back in with the delightful cast of characters populating 1970s Ivory Coast. Aya and her friends all have their own worries, but they are there to lend a hand when one of them needs something, be it babysitting or boyfriend advice.

This time around, it’s not just Bintou who needs help. The girls’ parents are in for some big surprises, too. Unfortunately, the book ends rather abruptly, on a big reveal that is sure to have major consequences in the third volume, Aya: The Secrets Come Out.

I read this during the April edition of Dewey’s 24 Hour Readathon. I also used it as inspiration for a book-staging mini challenge hosted by Midnight Book Girl. I chose to surround the book with a bold patterned scarf, since the women in the book are find of them, stick a picture of my cute nephew in to represent the baby, and add a bright lipgloss for the town beauty contest.

Gorgeous Radioactivity

Radioactive, Lauren Redniss

Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie, A Tale of Love and Fallout
Lauren Redniss

I have been wanting to read this book ever since I first heard about it six or so months ago. Unfortunately, my library did not have a copy, and I kept waiting and waiting for the one they ordered to arrive. When I went the other day to pick up a hold, the librarian said, “Oh – it says you have two holds – let me go see what the other one is.” To my absolute delight, it was their brand-spanking new copy of Radioactive. I gleefully snatched it up and started reading it over lunch.

Line drawing in black ink on white background of Marie Curie sitting at a desk with a pen in hand, writing in a notebook. Her face is in three quarters view and she is staring at the reader.
Those eyes! They’re staring into your soul!

Immediately, I was drawn into the book. The opening pages are in beautiful tones of blue, and green, and orange. They glow much as you imagine vials of radium glowing. Then, when you actually get into the first “real” pages, Marya Sklodowska, aka Marie Curie, stares at you through a completely captivating black and white drawing.

As much as I loved this drawing, I was a bit worried that I wasn’t going to get any more of the intense color of the introductory pages. I actually flipped ahead, and was relieved to see plenty of color.

Lauren Redniss has done an amazing job tying her artwork with the story of Marie and Pierre Curie. She tells about their personal lives, their work, their interests, and the future implications of their research.

I was amazed at how much work they had to put in to their experiments. The tools they needed often didn’t exist, so they made them. They were interested in anything that could enlighten them and cast light onto their experiments, even if that meant attending Spiritualist sessions where tables somehow levitated and scientists tried to measure the weight of ghostly presences.

The first x-ray of the human interior

They worked along side other accomplished scientists, including Albert Einstien, and Wilhem Röntgen, who discovered the x-ray. It was an experience to be holding the pages of the book with my left hand, next to the first x-ray, which was of the left hand of Anna-Bertha Röntgen, Wilhem’s wife.

There were some jarring elements. I’d be going along, happily reading about the Curies, when suddenly I’d turn the page and be reading about the Manhattan Project or something else. The little extras were interesting, and certainly form a major part of the fallout from the Curies, but they felt out of place somehow, as if they weren’t fully integrated in the rest of the book.

Another nit-picky criticism is that the text was often unevenly spaced, in places where it made no sense to space it that way. It was sometimes hard to read, because the words would be almost squished together.

Still, I rated the book overall as 4 stars. Usually I give books 4 stars because there’s some little tidbit that keeps them from being 5 stars. In this instance, the book, while very good, probably was only 3 stars on its own. I bumped it up a notch because of the incredible artwork.

This copy is going back to the library, but I’m going to need a copy on my shelves to add a little beauty.

Want more like this? Try:

  • Margaret Atwood, Alias Grace. This time it’s a murder mystery, but based on a real case in the mid 1800s. Some of the characters are very interested in the intersection of Spiritualism and science. 
  • Rebecca Skloot, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Non-fiction, approachable science. 
  • Laurence Yep, Hiroshima. A slim young adult novel dealing with the aftermath of the US’s atomic bombing of Japan, and the Hiroshima Maidens.

American Born Chinese: A Graphic Novel

American Born Chinese

American Born Chinese
Gene Luen Yang

In this acclaimed graphic novel, Yang tells three interconnected stories about the importance of accepting yourself.

The first tale to be introduced is that of the legendary Monkey King. Although he is an important figure in his community, he is laughed out of a party with the gods. He is determined to have his revenge.

The second story belongs to Jin, a young boy who moves from Chinatown to a predominantly Caucasian neighborhood. He is desperate to fit in and determinedly avoids his only Asian classmate. However, when Wei Chen arrives from Taiwan, Jin slowly accepts him as a  friend, until a fight tears them apart.

Finally, we meet Danny,  high school student embarrassed by his horribly stereotypically Chinese cousin Chin-kee, who visits every year. Chin-Kee’s character is so over the top I was afraid my eyebrows would get stuck in the raised position.

Honestly, I was expecting more from this book. There were some interesting aspect, including the ways Yang interwove the three stories, but then the moralizing at the end was a huge turn-off. Also, I know Chin-Kee was supposed to make the reader feel uncomfortable, but I can’t put my finger why he bothered he so much. It was like the book as a whole couldn’t decide if it was a sophisticated commentary or an overwrought fable.

On a more positive note, I will leave you with the ever-adorable Monkey King:

Persepolis 2

Persepolis 2

Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return
Marjane Satrapi

Persepolis 2 starts up where the first volume left off – Marjane has left Iran for the safety of Europe, where she bounces around from house to house, school to school. I was shocked by the seeming ease with which her initial host family carted her off to a boarding school in the Alps.

Marjane has trouble fitting in and making friends. She misses her family, but tries to put on a brave face, knowing how much they’ve sacrificed to allow her this opportunity, and knowing what they must be going through at home with the revolution.

The pressure becomes too much when she has a bad breakup with a boyfriend. She completely breaks down and ends up homeless and suicidal. This signals the beginning of the return, when Marjane rejoins her family in Iran.

But returning to Iran does not solve her problems. Satrapi eloquently portrays her feelings of fitting in in neither a secular, Western culture, nor the Islamic, repressive society Iran has become. It is fascinating to read her story as she progresses from the headstrong young girl of volume one into the equally strong willed woman in volume two.

Satrapi’s illustrations do not disappoint. On one page, she describes an art class. It’s amazing how much she is able to express when the majority of the illustration is a flowing black garment.

I really enjoy graphic novels. I don’t know why I haven’t read more of them. Maybe I can fit in a couple more before the end of the year. Do you have any suggestions for me to look for? Let me know in the comments!