Reviewlets

Here it is the middle of November, and I have to accept that I am never going to get full posts written on some of these books before the end of the year. So I am doing a small batch edition. First up, Max Brooks and Canaan White’s comic The Harlem Hellfighters, which I received from the publisher for review consideration, and am (eek!) reviewing rather belatedly. The Harlem Hellfighters were an all-black infantry regiment in World War I; they never lost a man through capture or gave up a foot of ground to the enemy. Rather touchingly, Max Brooks learned about this unit when he was eleven and has always wanted more people to know about their heroism in the First World War.

Harlem Hellfighters

Canaan White’s black-and-white line drawings are lovely, and you can’t help but be moved by the story. Throughout their training, the Hellfighters are subject to vicious prejudice from their fellow American soldiers on account of their skin color. They’re considered second-class citizens in the very country they’re fighting to defend, and every battle they fight is proof of their worth as men and as soldiers. I teared up a few times when Brooks quotes praise they received for their extraordinary bravery. However, Brooks doesn’t bring a lot of new stuff to this story. The characters aren’t very well-delineated; where the book succeeds, it’s because the history itself is an incredible story.

As travel writers go, I am fond of Guy Delisle, who writes cartoon memoirs of his time in various far-away nations. (His wife works for MSF, so the family travels.) Jerusalem, like all of Delisle’s books, focuses on the lived experiences of living in conflict-torn areas: the laws, yes, but most often the way people live within those laws, the workarounds they find, the small annoyances, the insane contradictions that arise from lawmakers failing to think their policies all the way through.

Honestly I will probably never travel to Israel (I have other places to go that do not cause me that same level of ideological and emotional stress), so I like to hear from Delisle what it’s like to be there. Do I depend on him for sophisticated political analysis? Nope, but the man writes  a reliably enjoyable travelogue.

Officially, I’m off Crazy Family Memoirs, but I checked the end of Brando Skyhorse’s Take This Man and was pleased to discover that his mother and grandmother are already dead. So the only person’s feelings to get hurt by this book would be Skyhorse’s biological father, with whom he reconnected a few years before the book was published. And that guy barely features. And he maybe should have his feelings a little bit hurt, because it’s not cool to ditch your kid even if the kid’s crazy mother is forcing your hand.

Take This Man is about Skyhorse’s string of fathers. The biological son of a Mexican, Skyhorse’s mother claimed that both she and he were Indians, and that he was the son of an Indian, Paul Skyhorse Johnson, in prison for resisting the government in some unspecified way. Over the course of his childhood, this was one of the least crazy lies she told him. Her perpetual hunt for a man to take care of her presented little Brando with stepfather after stepfather–each of whom his mother demanded he refer to as his father. Once one of the stepfathers took off, Brando’s mother insisted that that person had never been his father in the first place.

I think I’ve said before in this space that it feels weird to review family memoirs. I give your f*cked-up childhood three stars! Not enough knife fights to merit four! So I’ll just leave it by saying that I’d have enjoyed this book more if it had more jokes. Not because screwed-up childhoods have to be funny, but just because without jokes I get real sad about them.

Last but not least, I finally read my first! Ever! Frances Hardinge book! Long long long ago, the wonderful Ana sent me A Face Like Glass, and because it was slightly slow to start, I panicked and hid it under the couch to prevent myself from discovering that I didn’t like Frances Hardinge after all. Silly Jenny, I should never have worried that Ana would steer me wrong. Though the first third of A Face Like Glass contained more studied whimsy than I prefer, the second two-thirds more than made up for it. The premise is too insane for me to go into much detail about, so you will just have to believe me when I say that it’s worth sticking with. There is a final act that brings together everything that has happened up to that point in a wonderfully crazy and brilliant and intricate climax. With a message about social justice! (that is not too messagey)

Thanks, Ana! I am sorry it took me so long to read this! It . . . was under my couch for much of the year. Next up, Cuckoo Song!

Burma Chronicles & Love and Rockets

And now for some comics that did not rock my world but count towards the Graphic Novels Challenge anyway:

Burma Chronicles, Guy Delisle

Once again Guy Delisle, French-Canadian animator and cartoonist, went a-traveling to a faraway land with an oppressive regime.  In this case, his wife Nadège was working for Médecins sans Frontières (MSF); Nadège, Guy, and their small son Louis take off for Burma (Myanmar) for a year.  Delisle notes at the beginning of the book that the UN has recognized the regime and calls it Myanmar, but that many countries, including Canada, have not.  Hence Burma.

If I hadn’t read Pyongyang first, I think I’d have liked Burma Chronicles better. Burma Chronicles is charming, with keenly noted observations of day-to-day life in Burma, but Pyongyang was so chilling and scary that it was hard for this one to live up to it.  Because Delisle was in Burma longer than he was in North Korea, he got to know people better, but you’d never know it from the book.  He has an eye for detail but not an ear for conversation.  His wife’s present throughout the book, and I never had any idea what she was like.

This isn’t to say that I no longer love Guy Delisle.  At first his wife believes that they will be going to Guatemala rather than Burma, and Delisle immediately pops Star Trek into the DVD player and starts playing it in Spanish.  A man after my own heart.  I love watching Buffy in French.  Plus there’s a picture of him trying to bathe his son in a shower that’s worth the price of admission all by itself.  Tip: Don’t try to bathe a baby in the shower.

Love and Rockets, vol. 1, by the Hernandez Brothers

Am I stupid?  Stupid in the head?  Very, very stupid?  I think I must be extremely stupid, y’all, because I swear to Jesus, I was reading these stories and they did not make sense to my brain.  I have heard that Love and Rockets is glorious.  It may be glorious but it is right over my head.

Any thoughts on this?  If you loved Love and Rockets, please tell me what I’m missing.  I have heard good things!  I don’t want to lose a good graphic novel series around being a fail reader.  Should I persist into volume two?  Now that Delisle has given me a taste for travel writing, do you have any recommendations along that line?  Good travel books?  Anyone?

Pyongyang, Guy Delisle

I first heard about Guy Delisle over at A Life in Books, when Lesley reviewed Pyongyang, and since then it seems he’s been popping up all over the place.  Delisle writes travelogues in comics form of the time he has spent living in countries with oppressive regimes, which is a slightly weird thing to be known for, but never mind.  Pyongyang chronicles Delisle’s two-month stay in North Korea, where he is supervising the animation of a children’s cartoon.

From the first page I loved Pyongyang.  Delisle starts by excerpting the travel information he’s received about going to North Korea.  “Do not do anything on your own,” says one of them, and indeed Delisle is not supposed to go anywhere without his guide.  The guide is responsible for ensuring that Delisle sees and hears the best of North Korea, and is always taking him to see monuments of Kim Jong-Il, or pointing out “volunteers” cleaning up roads or picking up trash.

Delisle has an excellent eye for small, chilling details of life in North Korea.  At one point he notes that only married men with children are permitted to travel outside of North Korea.  He leaves it at that, but the implication is obvious.  What creeped me out the most is when Delisle realizes he hasn’t seen any handicapped people since coming to North Korea.  He asks his guide, and the guide says there are none.  Everyone in North Korea is born strong and healthy and intelligent.

I always think it must be very difficult to end a travelogue.  The obvious ending to a travelogue is, And then I went home, but that’s not necessarily very satisfying, particularly if, as in Delisle’s case, you have been writing about some serious, important issues.  Pyongyang doesn’t just end, it has an ending.  Props, Guy Delisle.

I am afraid that Burma Chronicles will be unable to meet the standard set by Pyongyang, but so far it is also good.  Updates as warranted.  This review brought to you by the Graphic Novels Challenge!  Which I’d completely forgotten about, along with all my other challenges, until I noticed that someone else had read Pyongyang for the Graphic Novels Challenge, so I guess I cannot really say that this review was, in fact, brought to you by the Graphic Novels Challenge.  That reminds me, I bet some of the books I have read recently can go towards some of my other challenges, and I didn’t even notice.  Dear, dear, dear, I am plainly teetering on the edge of senility here.

Other people reviewed it too:

A Life in Books
A Striped Armchair
The Captive Reader
The Bookling
Helen’s Book Blog

Have I missed yours?  Tell me and I’ll add a link!