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

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.

The Gettysburg Address: A Graphic Adaptation

The holiday gift guide continues! Here’s one for the history buff in your life. Or the reluctant reader. Or the pot head who rails on and on about states rights vs federal authority.

the-gettysburg-address-a-graphic-adaptation-mcconnell-hennesseyHennessy, Jonathan. The Gettysburg Address: A Graphic Adaptation. Illus. Aaron McConnell. New York: William Morrow, 2013. Print.

Genre: Nonfiction Graphic Novel

Summary: Hennessy and McConnell use the innovative and fast-moving format of the graphic novel mode to tell the story behind the Gettysburg Address, what prompted it, what it changed, and why it mattered to America and the world.

Critique: The cover of this book claims to retell this moment of history through Lincoln’s words. I was immediately drawn in because Lincoln is one of the most eloquent writers e.v.e.r. I assumed from that cover claim that the graphic novel would rely only on Lincoln’s writings. It turns out that is not the case, but the book hardly suffers as a result. Hennessy’s script is excellently composed and draws on a ton of primary sources. The writing is clear, even when dealing with ideologically or philosophically tough stuff. And combined with McConnell’s excellent artwork, each page is densely loaded. But the arc is compelling, engaging, and hard to put down.

The book opens like a movie with a series of live action scenes: a family returns to the war carnage on the front lawn of their home. Cut to: President Lincoln receiving word of the outcome of battle at Gettysburg. Then the narrative steps back and an omniscient narrator takes over. Acting like the voice-over in a film, this narrator begins to explain what is going on. The imagery takes on more of a mix-and-match composition. Sometimes a page might have as many as 9 panels, and each one is treated like an individual block of information, rather than one piece in a sequence of actions (which is what you usually get in graphic novels). Often the panels are briefly footnoted, informing the reader who or what is being depicted. Senator So-and-So from Tennessee 1865 or Governor Whatshisname from Maine 1848 or the Such-and-Such building.

But overall, the artwork works hard to embody the principles under discussion in the text. For instance, as the text presents the two founding ideologies of the nature of government in America, the artwork depicts the busts of the two historical figures alive and debating their sides from atop their marble, museum columns. At other times, the imagery is a little tougher to follow. For example, when the text shares a quote from a then-famous newspaper, the picture gives readers a drawing of the newspaper building or printing house with a word bubble popping out of a window to contain the quote. Or to represent the idea of sovereignty, the artist has Lincoln holding a shiny white ball with a modern power on/off button (such as the one you see on your computer). At first glance, it seems as if Lincoln is holding the precursor to Apple’s iPod. (Judging by the look on his face, he clearly wishes it were less literally “appled” and more pocket-friendly.)

Structurally, the book takes what I call the rabbit hole approach. It establishes the “present” moment: the political climate, the historical context, what happened at Gettysburg and why Lincoln needed to make a speech there. Then, it dips down the rabbit hole of time and moves backwards, to that “four score and seven years ago” when the Founding Fathers were first conceptualizing a new form of democratic governance. Then it dips further down, or shifts further back, and back again, and back again, going all the way back to the conditions of North American continent post-dinosaurs. Then it walks the reader forwards again getting all the way to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Hugely effective, efficient, and easy to follow. Given all the recent conflict between communities and policing authorities, this book made for a sobering, yet illuminating read for the mature and leveled way it navigated issues like abuses of power, authority over the masses, and more!

Whether you have kids tapping into this era of American history, or you’d like a refresher, this book is well worth nabbing off the shelf! (And if you read it now, you’ll be able to look super-knowledgeable in all your patriotic 4th of July conversations coming up!)

Journey by Starlight by Ian Flitcroft

With the holidays fast approaching, I’ll spend several posts sharing my top gift picks, fics, nonfics, and everything in between to titillate the book lovers, knowledge hunters, and idea crafters in your life.

Flitcroft, Ian. Journey by Starlight: A Time Traveler’s Guide to Life, the Universe, and Everything. Illus. Britt Spencer. Long Island City, NY: One Piece Books, 2013. Print.

Genre: nonfiction graphic novel

Summary: Super-genius extraordinaire, Albert Einstein ushers the curious and the confused on a revelatory journey through the universe. Along the way he clears up those oft-pesky matters such as relativity, quantum mechanics, gravity, black holes, dark matter and anything else you likely forgot (or never learned) in school.

Critique: When I was in high school and college, I roamed feral with the artsy crowds. Creative types who could not tell an ion from an isotope. After a brutal public shaming in an algebra class, I avoided the deepest halls of science. Now, because the universe is a strange, through-the-looking-glass place, I work as a children’s writer focused mostly on…science.

Consequently, I am always on the watch for good resources. I falcon anything that illuminates, explains, and entertains. Swoop! Snatch! Mine!

I came across this book while researching the nuclear arms race. I intended to read only the parts related to my own project, but eagerly devoured the whole text, cover-to-cover. The graphic novel format welcomed me into the very halls I had previously skirted.

Technically, this book should be classified as nonfiction-ish. Of course Albert Einstein did not really serve as a science tour guide á la Neil deGrasse Tyson (but wouldn’t it have been nifty if he had?). Nonetheless, readers will allow the narrative conceit not only because the Einstein character Britt Spencer illustrates is so charming and funny, but also because the information presented is so engaging and clear. Credit for this feature goes to Dr. Ian Flitcroft who developed much of the books’ content on a popular blog by the same name.

By day, Flitcroft operated as a surgeon at a children’s hospital in Ireland. By night, he wrote. His knack for addressing young people shines in a style that is witty, trustworthy, and disarming. The terminology never meanders into jargon. He erodes complexities down to digestible fundamentals. He pokes fun, snarks, and teases.

I learned volumes from this book and have repeatedly returned to it as a quick and easy reference.  If you know a young person who is either an avid or a timid science fan, gift them this book. It will open doors that ought not ever close.

1066 by Andrew Bridgeford

1066_bridgefordBridgeford, Andrew. 1066: The Hidden History of the Bayeux Tapestry. London: Harper Perennial, 2004. Print.

Genre: nonfiction; Medieval history

Summary: Following the Norman conquest of England in 1066, a 70-meter embroidered tapestry was commissioned to record the event. At a glance, the tapestry seems to celebrate William the Conqueror’s victory; however, Bridgeford takes a much closer look and posits that the cloth tells two stories. One faithfully records how William sailed from France and gutted English defenses. The second story is hidden in subtext and tells a much more subversive version of the battle that would forever alter the cultural landscapes of England, Europe, and the rest of the world.

Critique: Unless you’re a big Medieval history geek, or a huge fan of Kevin Kostner’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991), odds are you have never heard of or seen the Bayeux Tapestry (commonly pronounced bi-yooz). Think of this tapestry as a precursor to the graphic novel. Across its 230-ish feet of fabric are skillfully embroidered vignettes depicting scenes that establish the main characters, the lead-up to and ultimate fighting of the battle in 1066, and its initial outcomes. Fanciful borders scroll across the top and bottom. Most of the vignettes also include Latin captions that explain who is present or what is taking place.

And in Bridgeford’s excellent storytelling hands, never has a strip of fabric outside of a Victoria’s Secret catalog provoked so much intrigue, mystery, and titillation! Bridgeford zooms in on the tapestry, paying particular attention to the stories, hints, and clues transpiring along the top and bottom borders. He goes totally CSI on the thread dyes and wool sources in an attempt to root out who really commissioned the tapestry. He turns Sherlock on the more random and puzzling panels featuring Aelfgyva — majestic noblewoman or seductress and femme fatale?) and Turold — dwarfish servant or undercover author of the tapestry itself?

And the biggest intrigue Bridgeford wrestles with is the tapestry’s true purpose. Was it really made to celebrate William’s victory, one that transformed England from a Scandinavian backwater into a future world power? Or does the tapestry actually reveal William’s ruthless, greedy, and back-stabbing schemes throughout a bloody power-grab that would make House of Cards Frank Underwood cringe?

Buckle your seat belts, readers. Every chapter is packed with conflict, corruption, pillaging, invasions, ominous comets, mistresses, and more!