The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui

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A pervasive color, temporal slip n’ slides, hop-scotching graphics, one voice to rule them all—everything you’ve ever loved in a Samuel Beckett play now in a graphic novel memoir!

Bui, Thi. The Best We Could Do. New York: Abrams ComicArts, 2017. Print.

Genre: graphic novel memoir

Summary: A graduate school assignment turns into a decades-long quest to collect one family’s immigrant history morphs into a graphic memoir. The author recounts her family’s escape war-torn Vietnam and their rough, raw transition to America.

Critique: Orange hues pervade, warm, and stain every page and panel. It’s an apt color because the memoir roots back to Vietnam’s most turbulent and violent years of occupation, liberation, and civil insurrection. However, the unrelenting “Agent Orange” on every page adds as much as it detracts. To be sure it contributes an entire whispered universe of historic weight and suffering and survival. At the same time, it muddies the narrative timeline which alternates between then and now. The orange past is often indistinguishable from the orange present.

Perhaps this temporal slipperiness is exactly how the author lives with her heritage. The graphic novel may well be her attempt to share that experience with readers. And isn’t that one of the primary and most fundamental objectives embodied within every literary work? Creating that magical, telepathic exchange between the writer and the reader (to poorly paraphrase Stephen King from his memoir, On Writing). I believe it is, but I’m not convinced the exchange here has been entirely successful.

And the omnipresent orange is not the only culprit.

The confusion between past and present may also be tied to how this novel uses its panels. Commonly, graphic novel panels contain moments arranged sequentially—like individual frames from a movie reel. One panel can show a man approaching a door. The next can show keys sliding into a doorknob. The reader connects these two otherwise disconnected ideas: ah, that man is unlocking that door.

As Scott McCloud puts it in Understanding Comics, “…panels fracture both time and space, offering a jagged, staccato rhythm of unconnected moments.” Our minds have the power to fill in the gaps based on experience and prior knowledge, thereby creating a continuous narrative.

In this graphic novel, the moments within the panels are not entirely sequential. For instance, in one panel, you might have two people huddled at a dining room table. In the next panel, farmers work rice fields. It takes a while to decode that those farmers exist in the past and are being remembered by the people at the dining room table set in the present.

Presumably, the dialogue in that first panel would have made it clear that the subsequent panel was going to represent the memory being discussed. That’s not the case and is almost never the case because this novel rarely employs dialogue. Instead, exposition pervades the panels. It’s a one-way dialogue—the author’s monologue. Imagine watching a movie with no sound other than a voiceover telling you about what you’re seeing. Characters come together, interact, discuss, argue, but you don’t get to hear any of that. You only get the voiceover…for 330 pages.

Pervasive orange…. Temporal slip n’ slides…. Hop-scotching graphics…. One voice to rule them all.…

I can’t help feeling as if all these oddly juxtaposed elements should have combined into a brilliant, unconventional narrative. I mean, really, aren’t these precisely the kinds of bizarre components we know and love in every Samuel Beckett play?

Sigh. If only Samuel Beckett had made graphic novels.

Inkling by Kenneth Oppel

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Cheating thuds from this book’s heart. A father and son must confront the question: what exactly counts as cheating on work projects or school assignments? And, how much are they cheating themselves by not facing their fears, which are really their sorrows?

Oppel, Kenneth. Inkling. Illus. Sydney Smith. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2018. Print.

Genre: middle grade, graphic novel hybrid

Summary: One night, for reasons unknown and unclear, ink lines, scribbles, and splotches on a sketchbook page congeal into a sentient blot that jumps off the page. The little blot, Inkling, is on a quest to find something…something that summons and beckons with a steady pull. Amidst this quest, Inkling befriends Ethan Rylance, son of Peter Rylance, the famous comic book artist! Both father and son are struggling to produce the artwork required at school and work. Inkling lends his own tremendous talents to their projects, and in the process, discovers the grief holding them back and tearing apart their familial bond.

Critique: Inkling is one of those rarest of literary characters. That one-of-a-kind charmer which only comes along once in a generation, if we readers are lucky. He is earnest and noble. He is kind and generous. He is rambunctious, meddlesome, and curious. He is Mr. Toad and Winnie the Pooh and Stewart Little and Ramona Quimby and Calvin (plus Hobbs).

After a long day spent drawing for Ethan or Peter, Inkling needs to refuel by gobbling the ink off books or newspapers. Each meal imparts its unique voice to Inkling. For instance, after he devours Anne of Green Gables, he is a dreamy, wordy chatterbox who sees kindred spirits in everyone he meets. Or, when he eats an Earnest Hemingway novel, he communicates only in short phrases. And the short phrases were simple. The simple phrases were repetitive. And they were good.

Inkling also has a serious sweet tooth for colorful comics, but those send him literally bouncing off the walls, leaving BLAMMO CRASH BOOM murals everywhere.

No small wonder that Ethan and Peter have a hard time keeping Inkling a secret. Once word gets out, everyone wants to borrow or steal little Inkling.

All the while, the ink blot senses something summoning him, pulling him to a box hidden in the back of Peter Rylance’s closet. If he can only sneak past Richman the cat (and his painful claws), he can maybe see why the contents of that box have halted the Rylances’ creative powers along with their ability to laugh with and love each other.

The book’s ending is a heart-twisting tear-jerker, but you need not drain the entire Kleenx box just yet. Thanks to some unresolved subplots, I suspect a sequel or three in the works.

Young Fredle by Cynthia Voigt

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In this delightful, subversive novel, Voigt gives young readers everything they usually aren’t supposed to get: strangers, dangers, and unanswered questions.

Voigt, Cynthia. Young Fredle. Illus. Louise Yates. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011. Print.

Genre: middle grade

Summary: Separated from his home and family in the walls of the house, Fredle the young mouse must make his own way in the outside world. Deadly barn cats, owls, scamming field mice, snakes, and raccoons are just some of the hazards he encounters. When Fredle finally does find the way back home, he is not sure he can give up stargazing, flowers, and all his new friends.

Critique: One night, while scouring the dark kitchen floors for food, Fredle finds an unknown object. Flat and round and with a ridged edge, the thing tasted of metal. It was not food, but he still wanted to know what it was. His family and all the other mice warn him not to wonder. Wondering is how good mice get “went.”

Readers remain actively engaged throughout this novel because Voigt is a master of crafting inference moments. Fredle may not know what a coin is, but we do and we can infer it from the description provided. Fredle also does not know about stars, flowers, rain, chickens, owls, raccoons, snakes, grass, dirt, and so many other things. For each encounter with a new thing or creature, Voigt takes her time relaying all the clues readers need to solve the riddle.

As a result, young readers accumulate a sense of mastery, feeling clever and knowledgeable. By providing these inference moments, the author cunningly mirrors and echoes Fredle’s feelings and experiences as he learns more and more about the world. He too feels increasingly knowledgeable, clever, and adroit.

Fredle also encounters strangers: Bardo and Neldo, the field mice; Angus and Sadie, the dogs; Tarnu, Ellnu, and all the cellar mice. He learns skepticism and trust. Not everyone is as altruistic as they seem, and not everyone is as dangerous as we might like to assume.

Like a good teacher, Voigt’s narration is very patient. When a trap snaps, all the mice flee. Readers wait a long time before discovering which mouse just got “went.” When a band of raccoons thieves from the trash the ice cream carton with young Fredle inside, readers again wait a good while before Fredle is discovered. Will they crunch him as a snack, will he escape, or will they induct him into their gang? The answer unfolds gradually.

Other times, answers do not unfold at all because Voigt is unafraid to ask potentially unanswerable questions. For instance, should we honor tradition and remain close with our family and community, or should we change and adapt with life’s waxing, waning rhythms even though those changes lead us far away from the home and family we love? What should we love more: family or self?

Failing to supply a ready answer is simultaneously a great taboo and mighty treasure. Too often, we adults rush in with answers for all the queries young people have. We tend to believe danger lurks in the dark, blank spaces. But a dark, blank space can also be home to trillions of stars. A gap can be gain, such as when space makes way for growth.

The Limber Inventor by Yours Truly

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How hard could it be to teach yourself to build and program a robotic arm that receives instructions from your thoughts?

If you’re a bored sixteen-year-old like Easton LaChappelle, the answer is: sorta not hard at all. Easton grew up rather isolated in Colorado’s Four Corners region–down the road from where I live now. All he had was YouTube, persistence, and unlimited curiosity. His robotic creation won the state science fair, which launched him into a NASA internship, which then resulted in a handshake with then President Barrack Obama.

Now almost old enough to rent a car, Easton heads up his own company which is enthusiastically revolutionizing the prosthetic limb industry, bringing affordable, wireless prostheses to the young people most in need!

You can read all about Easton’s story in the February 2019 issue of Muse magazine. I had the privilege of interviewing Easton and he kindly answered all my technical questions about programming and robotics. More importantly, he outlined how crucial it is to have a simultaneously very hungry and well-fed curiosity.

Aphrodite After Therapy

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“If music be the food of love, play on,” says Duke Orsino at the opening of Shakespeare’s comedy, Twelfth Night. He goes on to request his musicians give him such an excess of music that he may kill his appetite for it entirely. And with it, his yearning for Olivia, the woman who does not yearn for him.

Without discounting the full weight of Orsino’s truth and his pain, I’d like to take a moment and focus only on that first statement. Playing on.

It’s a tricky skill — a complex finagling of fingers on keys, you might say — to learn how to play on when we lose a mighty love.

I played the trickster Maria many years ago in a community theater production of the Bard’s play. And in a twist-outcome befitting the tangled love lines in all of Shakespeare’s romantic plots, I fell for the Duke, and he for me. Sorry, fair Olivia.

When our hearts were no longer star-crossed, I had a hard time recovering. I struggled to write and create. I battled depression and grief. Playing on required a lot of help and guidance from a therapist, as well as from all my loving friends and family.

Slowly, quietly, softly, in my early morning hours always devoted to my writing, I began to hear … musical words. I jotted them down, not knowing what to do with them until my phenomenally talented musician friend, Tim Birchard, suggested turning the poems into songs. Eventually, Tim’s wife Cheryl brought her powerful voice into the studio. And together, we collaborated, crafted, and crooned. Plenty of times, I cried because the more we refined the lyrics, the more I healed my heart and coaxed my soul out of hiding.

And so, without further ado, I bring you “Aphrodite After Therapy.” An EP gathering together a quartet of songs documenting my breakdown and my rebuilding. My return to music as the food of love. My testament to the resilience of human love, that elemental universal force which never ceases to play on…and on…and on.

You can listen to the album for free from Tim’s own music site. It’s also available to stream on iTunes and Spotify. If you choose to give monetarily, please know your gift supports the supremely talented and kind musicians who helped me piece this project together. And if you’d rather give something other than funds, we welcome your feedback in posting a review, as well as your shares across your social media circles.

 

Early praise for Aphrodite After Therapy…

“It’s Meatloaf and ABBA and Dan Hicks and Queen and Grease and…wow!”–Jason from Texas

 

Justin from Colorado says Aphrodite After Therapy is a “…two-ton slab of healing…”!