Monday, May 11, 2015

French Milk

French Milk, by Lucy Knisley (pronounced "nigh-zlee") is, on the surface, a charmant little graphic novel about a girl's month-long trip to Paris with her mother.  It's biographical - she turns 22 in the story, and I believe she published it at age 22 as well.  She's almost preternaturally into food and writes lovingly about baguettes and cheeses and wines.  At 22, I was most interested in any pizza that was free.  I ate cheese out of a box.

Her drawing style was quite similar to Jeffrey Brown, who I like quite a bit.  (Oh, it looks like they both went to the School of the Art Institute at the same time...)  The book is interspersed with what appear to be (surely?) purposefully terrible photographs.  To tell the truth, although I found the book charming and the drawings were adorable and I liked all the food bits, Lucy comes off as a super-privileged kid who does way more complaining about her life than you'd think someone who was lucky enough to spend a month in Paris should.  While I admire her honesty and sort of bravery to put her whole self out there, it really lacks a maturity that only comes with, well, age.  Of course, the reverse is true as well: it sort of perfectly encapsulates the sort of self-absorbed, woe-is-me attitude of the privileged 20-year old.  It's sort of like the first season of Girls - really strikes a chord with a lot of women, but lacks diversity and wallows in narcissism. Nothing illustrates her youth better than the inspiration for the title - she loves the milk in France and guzzles it like a toddler. As I read French Milk, I wondered how she felt about it now.  And look what I found in a recent comic:


It looks like her style has changed quite a bit, and, just as I suspected, she appears slightly mortified by her work from 7 years previous.  If I had anything in print from when I was 22, I can tell you I would Simply. Die.  It would be embarrassing beyond measure, so, in the end, I really admire Knisley for having the courage to put herself on the page.  It looks like she's written quite a few more graphic novels and I look forward to reading more and seeing how her art and her perspective have changed.  


Thursday, April 30, 2015

How to Build a Girl

One of the things I loved about Caitlin Moran's How to Build a Girl is that it's a real journey. Joanna makes a bunch of stupid decisions and most of the time acts like a total idiot, but in the true spirit of a bildungsroman, she's allowing herself the freedom to experiment, and, importantly: start over. The real beauty is that Joanna's journey allows the reader to see the full range of possibilities for any young girl (or boy, I suppose) and lands in this very open-arms feeling toward experimentation in life.

While Joanna could never really be described as a role model (quitting school, lots of v. casual sex, drugs, etc) she's a child of wild imagination, determination and reinvention - what amazing qualities to find in any character, much less a real-life person.
All my life, I've thought that if I couldn't say anything boys found interesting, I might as well shut up. But now I realize there was that whole other, invisible half of the world--girls--that I could speak to instead. A while other half equally silent and frustrated, just waiting to be given the smallest starting signal - the tiniest starter culture- and they would explode into words, and song, and action, and relieved, euphoric cries of "Me too! I feel this too!"
The story of Joanna is quite similar to Moran's own bio - a young woman from Wolverhampton grows up in a "council house" (that's like subsidized housing in the UK, I guess) and becomes a successful rock critic as a teenager. Moran goes to some pains to illustrate that this is a work of fiction, which I merely note because I'm obsessed with art that borrows heavily from the artist's life, and I also have the radical idea that we shouldn't label book types. (Alphabetical by Last, à tute!) See my review of The Wallcreeper for more of my V. Important Thoughts on this subject.

Just as I lol'd and hell yeah'd through How To Be a Woman, so too did I alternately lol and nod in sage agreement with Moran's spot-on assessment of girls' growing up in the 90s. Another theme, near and dear to my heart, is the role of the critic. Joanna finds it more fun to eviscerate the bands she reviews, until she realizes that her "bile-filled persona" makes working-class kids like herself feel ashamed of the thing they love. "I started writing about music because I loved it. I started off wanting to be part of something - to be joyous. To make friends. Instead I've just, bafflingly, pretended to be a massive arsehole instead." I've had a similar trajectory in writing book reviews - long ago I found it easier and more amusing to write what I thought was a devastating review - but for the last few years I've tried hard to write about the positives, even of books I hate. It's harder and it's not as fun, but I'm not spewing infective into the world. I love reading, and the idea of other people finding what they want to read. I never want to stand in the way of that.

I am also not ashamed to admit I learned some new words (and not just for my special lady area! In one glorious page she referred to her "wedge", "fnuh" and "toilet-parts") Here are a few I picked up:
Frangible
ontic
ignominy
Hebridean
Blag
loo roll*
Moran writes, "So what do you do when you build yourself-only to realize you built yourself with the wrong things? You rip it up and start again. That is the work of your teenage years - to build up and tear down and build up again, over and over, endlessly, like speeded-up film of cities during boom times and wars." Even though she specifies that it's the work of "your teenage years" I'm not so lucky to be finished yet. But this book gives me confidence to keep working on that girl.


*Meanings
Frangible: Fragile
ontic: of or relating to entities and the facts about them
ignominypublic shame or disgrace
Hebridean: people from some islands off Scotland
Blag: To obtain something by dubious means - I wish I knew the derivation...
loo roll: Toilet paper! Isn't that the best?

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Maisie Dobbs

So, you know I love a British mystery. I can't remember where I heard about Jacqueline Winspear's Maisie Dobbs, but I think it was described as something like Downton Abbey with a detective which was enough to make me purchase the kindle book that moment.  Also Kindle has this thing where they sell you the audio book for a few dollars more.  So, I ended up listening to it.  

At first, it was great - what could be better than a British accent reading me to sleep every night?  But, it turns out I was falling asleep immediately, and not just because I'm bone tired from a long day making the proverbial donuts but because Maisie Dobbs is boring as hell.  

It is a lot like Downton Abbey in that Maisie starts out "downstairs" until her benevolent overlords recognize that she's really smart and pay for her to be taught by a tutor in addition to doing all her regular work.


Anyway, she gratefully takes the education, is pretty successful, for some reason joins the nursing squad for WWI on a whim and falls in love with this doctor.  Thus begins a long and chaste flashback to the war years and a lot of goopy, sentimental talk about "our boys" and sacrifices etc.  In the flashforward, you see that Maisie is alone, so obviously perfect doctor boyfriend died.


So, the mystery Maisie is trying to solve in the present has to do with this retreat that some guy has set up for wounded and disfigured soldiers, even though the war's been over for 10 years.  Maisie is very sympathetic to these people and the author goes to great pains to show what a sensitive soul she is to the veterans by never staring at their scars and recoiling in horror and whatnot.  Then she pulls back her hair and shows a friend that she's got a crazy awful scar on her head too, only her hair covers it up.  THEN! What happens but in the last few pages, she goes to a country hospital where perfect boyfriend's been all along?
And some shit about "tissue paper armour" that protected the memory of the past.  That's bullshit!  True Love doesn't care if you're in a wheelchair, speechless, with drool running down disfigured face! My God, at least go visit him once or twice in 10 years, Maisie!  


Friday, April 17, 2015

The Singing of the Dead

I visited a friend for the first time and spent a long time looking over her beautiful bookshelves, asking about authors she had collected and learning a bit more about her.  Bookshelves are the window to the soul, aren't they?

She loaned me The Singing of the Dead, by a mystery writer I'd never heard of before - Dana Stabenow.  This is the 11th book in the series and I definitely want to read more!  The lead character is Kate Shugak, an Aleut, a detective/contractor who lives in Alaska and recently lost her husband.  Kate is feisty and sad and doesn't put up with shit. She's hired by a political campaigner (another Alaskan native woman who's running for office) who is getting threatening letters.   Kate doesn't really care about the politics but she needs the money and they pay well.  

Alternately, the story of a prostitute in the very early 20th century, gold-rush days in Alaska is told.  She's murdered.  Kate learns about this woman and discovers her connection to the campaign.   I like Kate because she's so passionate - she gives a little speech about the limited opportunities for women in that period, without birth control, the right to vote, etc.  "Who cares what the founding mothers of our fair state did to get here, to stay here? What else was there to do for a woman back then? Wife, mother, maid, that was it. You were born, you got married, you had a bunch of kids first because there wasn't any way not to and second because the kids were your social security, and then you died, usually way too young, most of the time in childbirth. What did you do if you were a woman and you didn't want that?"

I learned a little bit about Alaskan history and perhaps a tiny bit about Alaskan natives (two subjects I knew very little about) so I really appreciated the Alaskan angle. I'm kind of surprised this hasn't been made into a TV series - I could totally see like a show like Wallander or The Killing out of this. 

Let me know if you've read any other Stabenow that you love!   


Monday, March 23, 2015

Dept. of Speculation

I sped through Jenny Offill's slender Dept. of Speculation quickly - I wish it had lasted longer, but it's 177 pages felt like a little treasure - one I'll surely return to many times.

The book felt utterly fresh and new, despite the timelessness of the story, the trajectory of youth, dating, marriage, children, near-divorce, etc.  Offill is very funny ("I found a book called Thriving Not Surviving in a box on the street. I stood there, flipping through it, unwilling to commit.") and insightful ("The undergrads get the suicide jokes, but the ones about divorce go right over their heads."). She does some really interesting things with POV - the book moves from first person to first person plural, then to third and then back to first person plural again (I think there might be a bit of second in there too).  Somehow she makes all these transitions very smooth - you might not even notice if you're not a POV Geek like I am.

Although Offill works through a number of interesting themes, one of the big ones that stuck out for me was the simple fact that maturity leads to greater understanding - sometimes it's devastating and sometimes it gives you the strength to make it through heartache.

I highly recommend this terrific little book - it was a real joy to read.

Sunday, March 08, 2015

Parable of the Sower

I've been wanting to read more Octavia Butler ever since I picked up Fledgling in Seattle a few years ago.  For book club I recommended Parable of the Sower and everyone really loved it.  I didn't know much about it, except that it's apocalyptic and Butler is awesome so I didn't really care.  It was written in 1993 but takes place in 2024 after a series of disasters both environmental and medical.  The United States still exists, but there are very few working public services and basic necessities are very expensive.  Lauren, 18, lives on a compound with her family and some other families outside LA, but they are constantly under attack from people outside the walls.

Lauren's dad is a preacher, but she's been formulating her own religion and writing down how her belief system works.  She calls it Earthseed.  Apparently Butler meant to write a number of Earthseed books but died after the second one.  (Here's an interview with Butler on the subject.)  To tell the truth, the bits re: the religion were a bit much for my tastes.  Every chapter started with a poem or something from the book of Earthseed or whatever and halfway through I quit reading them.  They were so... earnest.

Eventually Lauren's compound is attacked and almost everyone is killed, so Lauren starts walking north (up the 101!) where things are rumored to be better.  Along the way she meets people and invited them to join her if they wish and tells them about her made-up religion and doesn't allow anyone to make fun of it.  Because it's reasonable and Lauren really has her shit together, many people are willing to join her.

Despite being so young, Lauren studied survivalism and is very savvy about negotiating the road and the journey.  You see her building a new community as she walks up the freeway - it's multicultural, diverse, spiritual and strong.

Oh yeah, Lauren is a "sharer", which means she can feel other people's emotions and pain.  This is largely a disadvantage in the dystopian future because if someone gets knocked in the head and she sees it, she feels like she's been clubbed in the head too.  It also makes her really enjoy sex because she feels her own pleasure and the pleasure of her partner.  Empowering sex was a big theme in Fledgling too.  Butler really had her finger on the pulse of popular fiction but brings such an intellectual spin to the stories.

If you have a Butler book to recommend, please let me know!

Sunday, February 08, 2015

Caleb's Crossing

I listened to an audiobook of Geraldine Brooks's Caleb's Crossing (2011).  Listening to a book is so different than reading one that I would hesitate to say that I "read it".  I'm a big fan of Brooks since March, which is absolutely brilliant.  I actually wasn't crazy about the reader, Jennifer Ehle.  She's an actress and really put her heart into reading this, but it made for slow going and many time I was like, Ugh, I should just read this with my EYES because it was taking so long.  That's impatience for ya.

Like a dummy, I didn't realize that Caleb's Crossing is based on a true story until the moment I finished it.  I guess I should have realized, it being Brooks.  It's about a young girl who lives on an island - Martha's Vineyard, in the early 17th century.  Martha's Vineyard had a large native american population back then.  Some white settlers came and mostly had a harmonious relationship with them, although a lot of colonization was going on. Bethia Mayfield befriends a Wampanoag boy about her age, Caleb.  He is eventually educated by her father, who is teaching her brother too.  He stopped teaching her around age 9 because girls don't need no book learnin', but she managed to educate herself by cleaning nearby the lessons.

Imagined portrait of Caleb via
Bethia is fictional (I think?) but Caleb is based on an actual historical figure, Caleb Cheeshateaumuck, who is eventually accepted into Harvard College and the first Native American to graduate there.  Bethia allows herself to be indentured in Cambridge to support her horrible brother because she thinks  it's God's will.  Despite the fact that she is the greater scholar, her brother is acknowledged as her mental and personal superior, and he makes life fairly miserable for her.  She and her friend Caleb are socially inferior, being, respectively, a woman and a "savage" - both subject to the whims of the white, male population.  Bethany is an interesting character because she's very motivated to learn as much as she can, and she's frustrated by her place in society but she's also very loyal to the confines of her Puritan religion and, as such, does not rock the boat too much.  She accepts a certain amount of futility.

Anne Bradstreet is a oblique character in the book - she's the aunt of a student in Cambridge and Bethia is familiar with her work.  I love some of Bradstreet's poetry, and even almost got a line tattooed on my arm before I wimped out.  Turns out Bradstreet is a bit of a problematic figure, in terms of her feminism or not - being very much a product of her time, that's certainly understandable.  And that's why it's practically impossible to get a tattoo.

Ultimately I wish I'd read Caleb's Crossing with my eyes, parts really dragged for me but I think that was a matter of the audio.   As usual, Brooks's language is poetic and beautiful. She utilized archaic terms in Bethia's journal-like entries which really allowed me to feel immersed in this time period I'm not very familiar with.