Review: Boxers and Saints, Gene Luen Yang

Before I get started with this review, it’s time for PRAISE PLEASE, a segment I do sometimes because I need praise like oxygen. I decided that in 2014, I was going to read 20% non-white authors. I got a slow start because by the time I resolved this, I already had ten reviews scheduled or in need of writing, and they were all of books by white authors. However, in the first third of the year, my books have been 40% by authors of color. Half POC authors would be best, but I am still pretty pleased with myself.

(I’ve been surprised how overwhelmingly American my reading is, though! 65% American so far! I really thought I read more British authors than that.)

If you have been anywhere around the blogosphere over the last year or so, you’ve probably heard of Boxers and Saints, Gene Luen Yang’s companion-novel comics about the Boxer Rebellion. In Boxers, a village boy called Little Bao witnesses destruction, death, and abuse of power at the hands of Christians in China (both foreigners and native converts to the faith). Believing that he is possessed by the spirits of the gods, Bao organizes his friends and, later, men from many other villages into an army of “Boxers” to fight off the Christians. Vibiana, the protagonist of Saints, is an unwanted daughter whose interest in Christianity begins because she’s hungry and they feed her. Then she begins to see visions of Joan of Arc, and she tries to right injustices where she sees them.

People have made the joke before that many of the technical Academy Award categories boil down to “most”, not “best” — who did the most costume designing, who did the most acting — the idea being that the more a movie calls to its sound editing, its costume design, et cetera, the more likely it is to win that category. So I’m alive to the fact that I only mention coloring when it’s doing something unusual, and it doesn’t actually mean that the color folks for Hawkeye and Boxers and Saints are any better at their job than the color folks who aren’t being flashy all the time.

That said, I loved what Lark Pien was doing with color in Boxers and Saints. Day to day, Little Bao and Vibiana’s lives are drawn in dreary colors, grays and browns. But the visitations of the gods — Joan of Arc for Vibiana, warrior spirits for Little Bao — are drawn in vivid colors.

It’s hard to imagine a better representation of what these spirits mean to Vibiana and Little Bao: An alternative and a choice, in lives that have offered them very little opportunity to choose for themselves. That Little Bao gets caught up in the righteous fervor of the Boxer Rebellion, and Vibiana in practicing Christianity, makes perfect sense when cast in this light — they both yearn to be able to bring meaningful change to their lives and the lives of those they love, to be part of something greater than themselves.

In particular, Yang is brilliant at depicting the worsening atrocities of which Little Bao finds himself capable as the rebellion goes on. At first he’s joyful to be part of something greater, but the other side of that coin — he quickly finds — is that the something greater can have a life beyond simply what he wants. The spirits that possess him ask more and more of him. His own anger on behalf of those harmed by missionaries and British soldiers leads him to commit murders that feel both wrong and necessary.

I’m probably the last person in the blogosphere to read Boxers and Saints, but in case you are lagging behind as well, I’ll take this opportunity to further recommend them! They’re very user-friendly in medium (the comics panels are laid out in a way that’s easy to follow, with very little tricksiness that might mess up comics newbies) and in content (I didn’t know a ton about the Boxer Rebellion before beginning, and I never felt lost as to the broader context of what was happening). They’re the best YA historical fiction I’ve read in some time — strongly endorsed!

If you’ve read these, do you think they have the capacity to be a comics gateway drug a la Persepolis and Maus? I can very much see that happening, and I like the notion because it gets lame after a while to keep on recommending those two comics and only those two comics to nervous comics readers.

Review: Marbles, Ellen Forney

I started keeping a new TBR spreadsheet a few months back, with different tabs for pleasure reading, research reading, and forthcoming books. Maybe some weekend when I’m bored, I’ll set it up so that I can track when I read/review one of the books on the list, and it’ll make automatic pie charts of my percentages of gender, nationality, and whether the American cover was better or the British one. (Currently all that stuff is on another spreadsheet.)

(Yes, I like spreadsheets. Sue me.)

Anyway, Marbles, by Ellen Forney (affiliate links: Amazon, B&N, Book Depository), was the very first book added to my new TBR spreadsheet, and I have already read it, although it is only February. I feel like such an efficient reader now! I may make a habit of it. Maybe once a month, I’ll make it that I have to fish or cut bait on the oldest book currently sitting on my TBR spreadsheet. That could be a good way of keeping things currentish while also giving myself a joyous feeling of accomplishment.

Marbles is a memoir of Ellen Forney’s diagnosis with bipolar disorder and her subsequent struggles to understand and manage it. Ana recommended it in a comics round-up post last year, and what caught my eye in the review was this:

Part of me was afraid Marbles was going to be yet another exercise in romanticising mental health issues in the name of ~art~. … But as it turns out, Marbles is very much an exploration of all the reasons why this idea is uncomfortable, and that was what made it such an interesting read for me.

Hooray! Like Ana, I’m unhappy with the notion of Art and Madness They Be Linked — or, more specifically, I’m unhappy with the notion that Sylvia Plath would never have produced such brilliant work if she’d been on Xanax. (Sylvia Plath is here synecdoche for all mentally ill artists in the history of ever.) Forney wonderfully takes on these ideas from all sides in Marbles. When she’s first diagnosed, part of her feels proud: She is a crazy artist! They didn’t have medication and why should she? And part of her feels confident: Manic Ellen can organize everything to make life easy for Future Depressed Ellen.

(I sympathize with that so much! I am always trying to do things that will help out Future Jenny. It’s impossible to know what Future Jenny will have on her plate, you know? Best to take care of it now. I paid $50 into my 2014 taxes when I paid my 2013 taxes. Oh, also, I have already filed my taxes BOOM I am the responsiblest of citizens.)

But when she hits a depressive episode, she finds that it is far less manageable than she expected/remembered. (“My head was a cage of frantic rats” is an experience from my life.) So she dives into the fun and exciting world of psychotropic pharmaceuticals. I loved Forney for discussing the ups and downs of medicating with such honesty and humor: She acknowledges that life on the meds is difficult, but life off of them was becoming impossible. Taking them isn’t a perfect fix. There are side effects, which require additional medications; some meds work badly for her, and some don’t work at all. It’s a frustrating, messy, exhausting struggle to finally reach a balance that works.

Though Forney talks a lot about art and madness, she wonderfully doesn’t draw any broad conclusions, concluding instead that there aren’t broad conclusions to draw. For all her early fears that medication would destroy her creativity, she ultimately realizes that achieving balance with her bipolar disorder enables her to continue being creative. She knows this is true of her, not of everybody, and takes pains to say that different creative people respond differently to mental illness and differently to treatment.

So I liked that. I like it when someone is willing to look at a hard question and give the (potentially) unsatisfying answer, It depends.

I also wanted to mention something else about the diagnosis scene that interested me. Forney’s therapist takes out the DSM-IV and reads through the symptoms of bipolar disorder. Forney recognizes herself in every single one of them, and she thinks this:

My own brilliant, unique personality was neatly outlined right there, in that inanimate stack of paper. My personality reflected a disorder, shared by a group of people.

I was very struck by that. I’ve struggled with depression since high school, and when I’m on a downswing, it helps to read the DSM-IV’s list of symptoms, or take the Beck Depression Inventory. It frames all the things I hate about myself as a disease, not something intrinsic to me; it must be terribly sad and difficult to feel that everything you like about yourself is really just your disease.

Review: The Imposter’s Daughter, Laurie Sandell

Throughout her childhood, Laurie Sandell’s father would enrapture her with stories of his brilliant, varied, and successful life: top grades at the best universities, meetings with Henry Kissinger to advise on policy, multiple awards for valor in the Vietnam War. As an adult, she spun through years of dysfunction and uncertainty before becoming an interviewer of celebrities. But Sandell also begins to learn things about her father that make it clear he isn’t, and never was, the person he claimed to be.

Cover report: Same cover in England and America. I like it!

To begin with the good things about The Imposter’s Daughter (affiliate links: Amazon, B&N, Book Depository): It’s a fascinating portrayal of the way Sandell’s father’s dishonesty permeated her life. As a little girl, Sandell is told that she’s her father’s favorite, and you can see that she’s subconsciously fighting hard to hang onto that designation. She sits at his feet and listens to his stories, always trying to get him to keep talking–a habit that serves her well when she gets a job as a celebrity interviewer. But as happy as little Laurie’s relationship with her father appears to be, her cartoons from the time (reproduced in the book) make it obvious that she knew more than she knew she knew.

sandell1

Sandell is funny and insightful, and she doesn’t spare herself any more than she spares her father. Her years of listening to crazy stories from her father have given her a wonderful taste for the absurd, and it comes out in the writing and the art.

sandell2

She also addresses head-on the concern that I always bring up when I’m reviewing family memoirs, which is her family’s response to what she’s doing. Prior to writing this book, Sandell published an anonymous article that discussed her father’s insane lies and the effect they had on her. Her father was predictably outraged, cutting off contact with Sandell, and her mother and sisters were angry too. Rather than engaging with Sandell about what she had found out, they clearly wished that she would just stop talking about it. Sandell includes these reactions in The Imposter’s Daughter, which didn’t alleviate my discomfort with the Family Memoir as a genre (it’s not alleviate-able — Family Memoirs are an uncomfortable genre), but at least acknowledged the inevitability of its presence. I couldn’t help wondering what a piece of life writing by Sandell’s mother or sisters would look like: How do they tell their father’s story to themselves? Or do they steer clear of it in their minds, as Sandell seems to think?

For all the positives, though, The Imposter’s Daughter ends up feeling more like a therapy session than like a story that needed to be told. Jennifer Finney Boylan, whose book She’s Not There I am going to read and review later this month (I hope), was born to write stories; she can take four disparate events in her life and weave them into something that feels like a narrative. Sandell doesn’t have the same gift. There is urgency in The Imposter’s Daughter: you can see that it is important that Sandell have some medium to insist upon her own reality when her whole life has been predicated on this other, not-real reality. But that insistence isn’t the story Sandell spends most of her time on, and the book suffers for it.

Review: Saga, vols. 1 and 2, Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples

Upon finishing the second volume of Brian K. Vaughn’s most recent series, Saga, I have decided to be excited about Vaughn. This could have happened sooner, except unfortunately Runaways was my introduction to him, and it is not great around race and it put me off him. But having read Y: The Last Man and Saga, I think that Vaughn’s writing is great, and I like that he creates comics with end-dates in mind, so I’ve decided to hop (at last!) on board the Brian K. Vaughn train.

My favorite thing about Saga is the relative tininess of its stakes by contrast with the hugeness of its scope. The story is about a world called Landfall that has been at war with its moon, Wreath, for as long as anybody can remember. Though the two planets are no longer directly at war with each other, they have spread their conflict across all the known planets, forcing the entire universe to take sides. Marko and Alana fought on opposite sides of this battle in their lives, before falling in love and getting married. When their baby is born, interested parties on both sides of the interplanetary conflict hire mercenaries to track them down (and presumably kill them).

Typically, I’d be out as soon as I heard “interplanetary conflict”, but the thing Vaughn has done here that I love is to make the comic all about finding a home. Alana and Marko and baby Hazel are searching for an Ithaca that may not even exist: a quiet place in the universe where Hazel can grow up untouched by the war that has torn apart so many lives.

In particular, I would love to call out the fact that Hazel is not (and please Brian Vaughn let’s keep it that way) any kind of Chosen One. Her birth hasn’t been foretold, she doesn’t have magical powers, and apart from being the product of two races that don’t tend to intermingle, there appears to be nothing special about her at all. I strongly strongly hope that persists. It’s one of the things that keeps the stakes of this story feeling urgent but small, as opposed to urgent and global.

Vaughn is also managing the trick of making Marko and Alana’s opponents interesting(ish) in their own right. The Will and his Lying Cat (a large cat that knows and says so if you lie in front of it) are among the bounty hunters who have been hired to track and kill Marko and Alana. So far so dull, but then he gets a subsidiary motivation that has the potential to be interesting, and for his mission, he teams up with Marko’s former fiancee and a little psychic girl he rescued from slavery, and they… Well, I do not know what their deal is going to be just yet. But I do know that I am a sucker for a team of unlikely allies.

Fiona Staples’s art is fantastic — detailed and weird without feeling overcrowded. She also hand-letters the narration of the story by Hazel (speaking from some undetermined point in the future), which is very very cool. I can’t say enough about her. Below is an example of just one of the many awesome things that Fiona Staples does.

I love knowing that Vaughn has an endgame in mind for this comic, and I can’t wait to see what it shakes out to be. Check it out!

Position statement: Hawkeye should have won at least one of the Eisners that Saga won this past year. Hawkeye is easily as good as Saga but probably better. My growing affection for Saga has in no way swayed me on this point.

Review: Relish, Lucy Knisley

I had a dream the other night where NetGalley had changed the way its Dashboard looks so that when you logged in, it had a list of all the books you’d requested and whether you’d reviewed them. And it was like, color-coded as it went down the list, in increasingly angry colors, to indicate that if you ignored THIS book you’d have reviewed half the books you requested (yellow), if you ignored this book too it would be forty percent (orange), and so forth down the list, in darker and angrier shades of orange and red. It was intense.

(Sometimes my subconscious tells me really obvious stuff, like, hey Jenny guess what? You feel guilty about not reviewing things promptly! and then I wake up and I’m like, Yeah, I already knew that, asshole, can you let me sleep in peace? Last month I had a dream that I was living in a really grody apartment with no private bathroom and I was a teacher and I had lost all ability to recognize the faces of the children in my class and I had enormous pimples all over my face and my contact lenses started peeling out of my eyes and when I went to the grocery store I discovered I had no money in my bank account. Why, yes, subconscious, those are all things that would make me feel terrible. Thanks for the reminder.)

Long ago I read Lucy Knisley’s first book, French Milk, and I was inspired to embark upon a similar journey of my own, except to London rather than Paris. This was an excellent idea by me! Mumsy and I ate chocolate twists every day and drank coffee out of big mugs, and I saw my friend Sazzle and my adjunct sister Catin.

Relish, though also charming, did not inspire in me a comparable desire to imitate Lucy Knisley’s life.

Lucy Knisley, that lucky duck, had one parent who was fond of fine dining (her father) and one parent whose life basically was all about producing fine dining. From her earliest days, then, she can remember being wrapped up (not literally, that would be gross) in food. Relish is a graphic memoir of food anecdotes from her childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood, punctuated with illustrated versions of some of her favorite recipes. As in French Milk, her drawings are simple and charming, with crucial details indicated by arrows lest you miss what is going on.

Knisley is at her absolute best when she’s evoking a sense of place. Early in the book she talks about spending time as a child at her uncle Peter’s food shop, which was mostly staffed by young writers, musicians, and artists, who would ply their trades in and around the shop.

Spraying leaves

Details like this make it feel like someone’s life. Another high point is the whole sequence in which she and her friend Drew and their mothers all head to Mexico for a vacation. On this trip, she gets her period and Drew discovers porn, and they spend all their time in Mexico trying to conceal their secrets from their parents and eating all the Mexican food available to them. As in French Milk, Lucy Knisley is just really good at pointing out the small, ordinary things that make a place memorable.

Mmmm guacamole

(Or it could be I just like knowing what kind of food I would get if I went to various different places. Especially if one of the foods in question is guacamole because dear GOD guacamole is good.)

At other times — when Knisley is devoting herself to telling a story rather than giving pictorial details of what it was like living in a certain place at a certain time — the book is less successful. She has the knack for picking out worthwhile place details but not necessarily worthwhile story details. And in some places it felt more like she was telling cocktail party stories than writing a book. Eh, fine. You saw Kate Hudson and she was cold.

Kate Hudson is cold

An absolutely delightful feature of this book was that at the end of each chapter, Knisley includes a recipe relating to what she’s just been talking about. A chocolate chip cookie recipe follows the junk food chapter; a recipe for sushi follows the chapter about her adventures in Japan as a young teenager. I wish Lucy Knisley would write an entire illustrated book of recipes she enjoys. That would be great.

Sushi

Haha! I don’t need Lucy Knisley to tell me how to make sushi, although her sushi sounds really delicious. Believe it or not, I know how to make sushi and have known how to make it for longer than I have known how to make anything else except hashbrowns. Indie Sister showed me how, lo these many years ago. It isn’t that hard. Rolling it up isn’t that hard either. Cutting it is trickier, and Knisley tells you tricks for how to do that properly.

This book has wonderful sections — mainly the ones where she’s talking about new experiences in foreign climes, because Lucy Knisley just is great at writing and illustrating travel — and less interesting sections. Generally it was a fun read, and it’s nice to see that Knisley is still in the books business, because she is always a wry and charming pleasure.

(Seriously, I would love her to do an illustrated recipe book. I hope that can happen.)

I received this e-book for review via NetGalley.