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.

Tidy Marie Kondo

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Is it true that how you acquire, keep, and shelve your books is a reflection of how you maintain friendships? Can a properly folded pair of socks improve your relationship with siblings and parents?

Before you dive down the Netflix rabbit hole and bingewatch Marie Kondo’s hit series on tidying up, check out the book that sparked the joyful spiritual transformation inherent to tidying up.

Kondo, Marie. The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing. Trans. Cathy Hirano. Berkeley, CA: Ten Speed Press, 2014. Print.

Genre: nonfiction

Summary: Tidying coach and expert Marie Kondo shares in this book the top-secret techniques she normally teaches one-on-one to clients paying top-dollar. Throughout, she defies conventional wisdom and practice so that the act of tidying up can be done only once in your life and never again. And, if you follow instructions carefully, you might just tidy up your soul, too.

Critique: Did you notice how the title of this book sort of repeats itself? Much of the text will do that, too. Many paragraphs will feel not like a progression of thoughts, but more like multiple iterations of the same sentence. I chalk this up to the difficulties inherent in translating — supremely demonstrated in this snippet from RadioLab.

Besides the repetition, the first fifty pages or so feel like the cousins of a Popeil infomercial. Kondo beats a steady drum to advertise that these methods are hers, hers alone, perfected over decades, beginning when she was but a tweenager obsessed with lifestyle magazines, and that she has trademarked these techniques as the KonMari method. (And in case you couldn’t figure out the etymological roots of that mysterious moniker, she tells you: it is her name, flipped and abbreviated. Well played, Ms. Kondo. Well played.)

I promise I am not merely quibbling over this book’s minor flaws and quirks. My hope is that if you know about these flaws in advance, you will smile at them and then read the book all the way through. Because you should. Kondo has an uncanny way of rooting out why we hoard, why we clutter, why we stockpile, why we acquireandacquireandacquire, how these habits hurt us emotionally, and why our repeated attempts to clean up and get organized ultimately fail within a few months.

As I noted above, Kondo defies our conventional tidying habits. She might as well. They don’t work. But the real knock-out epiphany lurking in her methods is not just its originality. Kondo links the way we treat our home and our stuff to the ways we treat the people in our lives. (Especially ourselves.)

Is it true that how you acquire, keep, and shelve your books is a reflection of how you maintain friendships?

How does a properly folded pair of socks improve your relationship with siblings and parents?

Can you really find true love (or better treasure your soul’s mate) by giving an honorable farewell to old mementos?

Will a tidy home actually make you a more joyful person?

These questions may seem innocuous. Inane. Insane? But when it comes to finding enduring happiness, the questions are as worth the asking as the methods are worth the trying. I mean, heck, think about it. What if all that’s keeping us from experiencing joyous and fulfilling lives is a poorly folded pair of socks?

The Language of Spells by Garret Weyr

Did you say dragons? In turn-of-the-last-century Vienna?? Enchanted and entrapped as everyday working Joes??? What ought to be a most marvelous storytelling feat turns into a lengthy, dozy tellingstory book.

Weyr, Garret. The Language of Spells. Illus. Katie Harnett. Chronicle Books: San Francisco, 2018. Print.

Genre: middle grade fantasy

Summary: Grisha the dragon and his first best friend, Maggie — a young, human girl — set out to find and free the seventy or so dragons Sleeping-Beauty’ed and buried underground by a power-hungry sorcerer.

Critique: You know those old, possibly apocryphal, world maps which pointed to their own outer edges — those fringes marking the extent of human exploration — with dire Here Be Dragons! warnings? I feel obliged to put similar warnings around this book…

Here Be Exposition!

For anyone unfamiliar with the literary component called exposition, I shall unbriefly elaborate. Exposition explains. It’s the information sections included in a book to summarize past events, ongoing actions, or a character’s thoughts and feelings and motivations.

When you’re not reading exposition, you’re most likely reading scenes, which are the moments when characters interact, talk, conflict, pick locks, unload groceries, kiss, dig tunnels, spy, gossip, or eat turnips.

Imagine you’re reading about Tillie, a supermarket cashier who’s beeping items over the scanner while the shopper unloading the cart prattles on about pineapples and their secret homeopathic applications. The point at which the text begins to explain how back in 1992, Tillie developed an extreme aversion to pineapples in the midst of a disastrous, tropical honeymoon getaway is the point at which you are reading exposition.

One minute, you were observing an interaction, gathering clues about the characters, making judgments and assumptions, forming opinions, and anticipating what’s to come. The next minute, you pause your work so that the author can inform you. Fill you in. Get you up to speed. Tell you a thing or two, rather than show you.

In good writing, exposition and scene go hand-in-hand. One is not better than other. Each involves the reader in a different way. Scenes make you work and spark your curiosity while exposition affirms your budding theories. In the best writing (which is also the best kind of storytelling), you never notice the narrative switching between the two tactics.

But in this book, you cannot help but notice that you are perpetually in exposition. Chapter after chapter, the author tells you this and tells you that. You are told that the dragons with golden eyes are put to work as tour guides in old museums and castles around Vienna. But what you want is to see this dynamic play out. You want to witness some of those interactions. You want to experience this strange, unfamiliar world where these chosen dragons must work or be eliminated; where these fire-breathing work-a-day Joes gather once a week at 2 a.m. at a hotel bar to share old war stories.

Heck, you want to hear those war stories, but instead, you are told about young Maggie sleeping under the nearby bar table where her poet father and his eccentric artist friends gab until dawn (amongst themselves and not with the dragons, by the way). You are told her entire backstory, about her mother’s tragic and untimely death, about her troubled interactions with other children, about her homeschooling, and her wanderings through the city on its new cable cars.

And bear in mind, much of what I have described here doesn’t arrive until you’re halfway through the book. The preceding chapters have been telling you about Grisha’s time enchanted and entrapped as a teapot.

Yes, you heard me right. You’ll spend nearly half a book watching a dragon teapot watch the world the change.

And so, dear readers, believe me when I tell you: He Be Exposition! Here be a book that opts for tellingstory instead of storytelling.