Category: Graphic Novel

Top 5 Non-Fiction Reads of 2014

These are my favourite non-fiction titles read or reviewed (not necessarily published) in 2014. Click the title for a link to the full review where applicable. See the previous post for my top five fiction reads of the year.

Brown Girl Dreaming

ISBN 9780399252518

Cover image for Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline WoodsonI received an advance reader copy of this memoir in verse at ALA Annual in Las Vegas this summer. I had been asking publishing house representatives at various booths about books with diverse protagonists, when a lovely rep for Penguin Young Readers excitedly pressed a copy of Brown Girl Dreaming into my hands. I’d never read anything by Jacqueline Woodson, and a memoir in verse didn’t really sound like my thing, but the rep’s excitement stuck with me, and I took the book home. Then, in November, I was following the National Book Awards on Twitter when the watermelon incident unfolded. I hadn’t yet read Brown Girl Dreaming, but it seemed like time to pick it up. I read the entire book in less than twenty-four hours. Far from being a challenging read, Woodson’s flowing free verse slides down easily, telling the story of a black girl who is born in the North in the 1960s, but grows up at her grandparent’s home in the South at the height of the Civil Rights movement. This beautifully written memoir is both timely and a pleasure to read. I never wrote a review because I didn’t make a single note while I was reading, but I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

Categories: Young Adult, Poetry, Memoir

Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, and Me

ISBN 9781592407323

Cover image for Marbles by Ellen ForneyShortly before her  thirtieth birthday, artist Ellen Forney was diagnosed with Bipolar I Disorder. Worried that medication would damage her creativity and destroy her ability to earn a living as an artist, Forney resisted treatment until she become so depressed she couldn’t function. Marbles chronicles the trial and error process of finding the right medication to treat her illness, while also exploring the relationship between mental illness and creativity that has plagued so many artists. At the same time, she must come to terms the fact that things she once considered part of her personality and identity are in fact symptoms of her disease. Forney’s evocative black and white images capture the experiences of depression and mania in a way that is entirely different from the many prose novels about the subject.

Categories: Memoir, Graphic Novel

My Life in Middlemarch (US)/The Road to Middlemarch (UK)

ISBN 9781482973556

Cover image for My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca MeadOne of my favourite reads of the year, I listened to My Life in Middlemarch as an audiobook, performed by the unsurpassed Kate Reading, who as far as I am concerned can read all of my audiobooks to me forever. Unfortunately for my blog readers, I almost never review audiobooks, since I don’t make any notes while I’m listening. My Life in Middlemarch combines memoir with literary criticism and biography. Writer Rebecca Mead tracks her long relationship with George Eliot’s famous novel from her first reading at the age of seventeen, to more recent revisitations in middle age. With each reread, it is not Middlemarch that has changed, but Mead, who finds her focus shifting to different aspects of this multifaceted novel as she moves through adulthood. Interspersed with her own memoir and musings are reflections on the life of George Eliot, also known as Mary Ann Evans, who herself led a very interesting life that defied social expectations of the period.

Categories: Biography, Memoir, Criticism

The End of Your Life Book Club

ISBN 978-0-307-96111-2

Cover image for The End of Your Life Book Club by Will SchwalbeIn 2007, Will Schwalbe’s mother, Mary Anne, returned from a humanitarian trip to the Middle East with what initially looked like hepatitis, but which turned out to be Stage IV pancreatic cancer. As she began treatment to slow the disease and hopefully prolong her life, mother and son started trading books, and discussing them when he drove her to medical appointments. Their books become a proxy for important conversations about mortality and end-of-life care, helping them navigate the difficulties of Mary Anne’s final months. Packed with wonderful book recommendations, and a great story about a mother-son relationship, The End of Your Life Book Club is especially recommended for those who agree with Mary Anne, that “reading isn’t the opposite of doing; it’s the opposite of dying.”

Categories: Memoir

Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood

ISBN 9780062242167

Cover image for Tinseltown by William J. MannThis true crime mystery set in silent film era Hollywood investigates the unsolved murder of film director William Desmond Taylor, who was killed in his home on the night of February 1, 1922. William J. Mann profiles three actresses who may have been involved in Taylor’s death, including two prominent stars, and reveals the secrets hiding behind Taylor’s cultured facade. Like any true crime writer, Mann believes he has cracked the cold case, but what really sets Tinseltown apart is his grasp of the history and politics of Hollywood. Mann situates Taylor’s murder in the broader context of the scandals that were plaguing the film industry in the 1920s, with particular attention to  the damage control done by Adolph Zukor, the CEO of Famous Players-Lasky, the largest film conglomerate of the period. This is a great pick for film lovers and mystery readers alike.

Categories: True Crime

That’s it for me! What were your favourite non-fiction reads of 2014?

Sisters

Cover image for Sisters by Raina Telgemeierby Raina Telgemeier

ISBN 978-0-545-54059-9

Three weeks. Two sisters. One car.”

In a follow up to her popular autobiographical comic, Smile, Raina Telgemeier returns with Sisters, which centers on a three week road trip to Colorado for a family reunion. Raina is trapped in the car with her younger sister, Amara, the much wished-for younger sibling who turned out to be as much trouble as fun. Also along for the ride are Raina’s mother, and her younger brother, Will. In the back seat of their VW van, Raina and Amara squabble and try to entertain themselves on the long car ride, coming to the belated realization that their father hasn’t accompanied them on the trip because their parents aren’t getting along. Although Sisters follows up on Smile, it deals with different subject matter, and can also be read as a standalone.

The road trip to Colorado, told with Telgemeier’s usual bright colours and exaggerated facial expressions, is counterpointed by yellow-toned flashbacks that recount the story of Amara and Raina’s relationship. Beginning from Raina’s wish to be an older sister, to the reality of a cranky baby uninterested in playing with others, Telgemeier conveys a sibling relationship that was never quite what she expected. There are glimpses of common ground in a shared love of drawing, and tense disagreements over Raina’s fear of creepy-crawlies, while Amara loves the outdoors and wants a pet snake. At home, they struggle with sharing everything from their bedroom to the computer to their art supplies. Their teeth-grindingly realistic sibling rivalry will have readers simultaneously cringing and laughing along. And you’ll occasionally want to throttle the lot of them.

Being trapped inside a car provides a uniquely tense setting that will be instantly familiar to anyone who did family road trips or camping trips as child. Telgemeier’s depiction of the family reunion in Colorado Springs is similarly accurate. At the reunion, Raina finds herself awkwardly placed in the family dynamic, not cool enough for her older cousins, but too old to play with the little kids. The adults, of course, are busy arguing. She turns to her sister, only to find that Amara is too hurt by the rejection of the preceding weeks to accept her olive branch. Sisters is the ups and downs of sibling relationships perfectly captured.

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Cover image for Atlantia by Ally CondieYou might also like Atlantia by Ally Condie

In Real Life

Cover image for In Real Life by Cory Doctorow and Jen WangIn Real Life

by Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang

ISBN 978-1-59643-658-9

“Don’t just think because its video games people can’t get hurt.”

Anda is a geek girl, studying programing in high school, and playing tabletop games in the Science Fiction Club after school. When a pioneering female gamer makes a presentation to the class, and offers the girls a chance to join a top clan in a popular MMO game on the condition that they also play female characters, Anda jumps at the chance. Anda’s mother has reservations about online gaming, but Anda promises that is for school, and that she will only talk to other girls her age. Playing as a warrior, Anda finds she has a talent, and quickly levels up doing missions and raids with her clan. But when Sarge, a fellow gamer girl, invites Anda to join her for a paid mission, Anda finds herself over her head in the murky world of killing gold farmers for pay. It seems fair enough to eliminate cheaters from the game, but after talking to Raymond, a Chinese gold farmer who supports himself by working twelve hour days as gold farmer, things suddenly don’t seem quite so clear cut.

In the introduction, Cory Doctorow describes In Real Life as a book about how games are more than “mere amusements.” The graphic novel is an apt and interesting choice for telling that story, since it is a form which is also often regarded as being insufficiently serious, but In Real Life makes good use of the medium. It is difficult to render video game play interesting in writing, but Wang’s watercolours bring Coarsegold Online vibrantly to life. In the real life sections, Wang utilizes a muted, muddy colour palette to convey the dreariness and mundanity of Anda’s day to day existence. Brighter, richer colours suffuse the panels depicting the game world, and we get a nod to body image issues when Anda transforms into a thin, red-headed warrior in distinct contrast to her pudgier, plainer reality. However, while In Real Life encourages young female gamers, it doesn’t really examine the reason why women might be reluctant to play online in female avatars, or otherwise reveal themselves to be female in real life. Liza, the Coarsegold Online recruiter, references the problems female gamers face obliquely in the opening pages of the book, but the subject is never returned to.

In Real Life has an ambitious mission, as laid out in Cory Doctorow’s six page introduction, dealing with the unexpected connection of virtual economies to the real world, and labour practices in the developing world. At less than two hundred pages, the book has to move extremely quickly to cover all that ground. Continuity suffers somewhat, but more importantly, the complex issues the story grapples with are reduced and over-simplified. Telling the story from Anda’s perspective is probably a narrative choice intended to make the story more relatable for young Western readers, but it a decision that comes with problematic baggage when Anda tries to ride to Raymond’s rescue. Her actions do have consequences, but Doctorow’s desire to write an ending that speaks positively to the power of activism and organizing ends up undermining the message that people in the developed world may not fully understand the economic implications of their choices on people in developing countries. Many other readers have suggested Doctorow’s For the Win, a novel told from the perspective of gold farmers, as a more in-depth examination of the issues that are barely touched upon in In Real Life, leaving it feeling half-finished.

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Cover image for Soda Pop Soldier by Nick ColeYou might also be interested in Soda Pop Soldier by Nick Cole.

Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, and Me

Cover image for Marbles by Ellen Forney by Ellen Forney

ISBN 978-1-592-40732-3

“Sometimes it seems like ‘pain’ is too obvious a place to turn for inspiration. Pain isn’t always deep, anyway. Sometimes it’s awful and that’s it. Or boring. Surely other things can be as profound as pain.”

In 1999, shortly before her thirtieth birthday, cartoonist Ellen Forney learned she had Bipolar I Disorder. Diagnosed at the height of a manic episode, and terrified that being put on medication would destroy her ability to make art, Forney resisted treatment until she sank into a black depression that forced her to admit she needed help. Even as she accepted the need for treatment, she became fascinated with what she called “Club Van Gogh,” the long list of famous artists known to have suffered from mental illnesses. Documenting the four year journey to finding the right combination of medications, Forney explores the associations between mental illness and creativity, and how the relationship between the two complicated her feelings about the psychiatric medications prescribed to balance her emotional states.

Marbles introduces Forney in the midst of a manic episode, blithe and philosophical, and more than a little impulsive. Chapter two is a clinical contrast, showing Forney in her psychiatrist’s office reviewing the DSM list of symptoms for Bipolar I, and facing the stark realization that her “own unique personality was neatly outlined right there, in that inanimate stack of paper.” From there, she delves into the long list of famous artists with mental illnesses, many of whom attempted or committed suicide. Marbles shows what life is like with bipolar, acquaints readers with the clinical reality of treatment, and explores Forney’s personal concern with the stereotype of the “crazy artist.”

Forney uses the graphic medium to depict her illness to great effect. Her art manages to embody the frantic exhilaration of her manic state in one chapter, and the dark, lethargic depths of depression in the next. Wild, overflowing panels convey mania, while darker, spare, and constrained panels depict depression.  Although the illustrations are all black and white, it is easy to imagine the manic pages bursting with colour. On page 77, with a series of simple line drawings, she succinctly captures a day in the life of a depressed person. Jam-packed two page spreads, while less neat, clearly express mania. Equally fascinating are Forney’s numerous self-portraits from this time, an indication of her struggles with identity in her radically different states. This draws an interesting parallel to Vincent Van Gogh, perhaps the most famous “crazy artist,” who also painted numerous self-portraits.

Extremely candid and open, Forney shares the reality of living with bipolar disorder with humour and intelligence.

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Challenge Badge for the 2014 Eclectic Reader Challenge hosted by Book'd OutThis title fulfills the Graphic Novel requirement for my participation in the 2014 Eclectic Reader Challenge hosted by Book’d Out.

 

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Cover image for Calling Dr Laura by Nicole J GeorgesYou might also like Calling Dr. Laura by Nicole J. Georges.

The Night Bookmobile

Cover image for The Night Bookmobile by Audrey Niffeneggerby Audrey Niffenegger

ISBN 978-0-8109-9617-5

Have you ever found your heart’s desire and then lost it? I had seen myself, a portrait of myself as a reader. My childhood: hours spent in airless classrooms, days home sick from school reading Nancy Drew, forbidden books read secretively late at night. Teenage years reading—trying to read—book’s I’d heard were important, Naked Lunch, and The Fountainhead, Ulysses, and Women in Love…It was as though I had dreamt the perfect lover, who vanished as I woke, leaving me pining and surly.”

Sample page from The Night Bookmobile by Audrey  Niffenegger
Click to enlarge

At four o’clock on summer morning, wandering the streets of a Chicago suburb after a fight with her boyfriend, Richard, Alexandra stumbles across an old Winnebago parked on a street corner.  Inexplicably draw to it, she goes ventures inside, where she meets Robert Openshaw, the librarian of The Night Bookmobile’s unique collection. As she browses the shelves, Alexandra realizes it contains every book she has ever read, and only books she has read. In fact, they seem to be her exact copies, even of the books she still owns. Everything up to and including her childhood diary is there. When dawn comes, Robert Openshaw tells Alexandra the collection is closed, and that nothing may be checked out, and she goes reluctantly on her way. This is the first of Alexandra’s three encounters with The Night Bookmobile and The Library it represents, and each of these encounters will have a profound effect on the course of her life.

The Night Bookmobile is likely to be a very touching read for anyone who has a powerful relationship with books, because it is a story about the way books define who we are at the various stages of our lives. In Niffenegger’s words, it asks to reader to consider “what is it we desire from the hours, weeks, lifetimes, we devote to books?” The personal consideration will make this a very different book depending on what you bring to it. My own reading has never had the burdensome sense of weight Niffenegger gives to Alexandra’s reading life. There is a sense of oppression and danger there that I have never experienced. I recognized an essential part of myself in Alexandra on one hand, and felt entirely alien to her on the other. Niffenegger has a knack for creating beautiful things that take a dark turn, and The Night Bookmobile is no exception. However, I was left longing for a deeper exploration of this intriguing idea, for the full work entitled The Library of which Niffenegger says The Night Bookmobile is but a part.

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More Graphic Novel Reviews on Required Reading:

The Shepherd’s Tale

Calling Dr. Laura

A Game for Swallows

Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes

Are You My Mother? 

 

The Shepherd’s Tale

Cover image for The Shepherd's Tale by Joss and Zack WhedonWritten by Joss and Zack Whedon

Art by Chris Samnee

ISBN 978-1-59582-561-2

Well, if you look at your life as a chain of events, each responsible for the next and caused by the last, where does any story begin? Could take you all the way back to my birth, and before that the meeting of my parents or the meeting of theirs…

After a recent re-watch of a large part of Firefly and Serenity with my brother over Canadian Thanksgiving, I was reminded that I’d never read The Shepherd’s Tale, the 2010 comic which reveals the mysterious back story of Shepherd Book, which was wasn’t covered in the cancelled TV series or the feature film that helped wrap up the story. This review necessarily contains some spoilers for Firefly and Serenity, but will not contain spoilers for Book’s back story, in case you decide you would rather not know.

The Shepherd’s Tale opens on Haven Mining Colony, shortly before the scene in Serenity in which Mal and his crew arrive to find that the Operative has begun slaughter their allies in an effort to flush them out of hiding. The set up is somewhat heavy handed, as the boy Terrors asks Book “when’s the Captain and them comin’ round again,” and an unidentified woman asks “how did you fall in with those folks, Shepherd?” Their conversation is interrupted by the drone of the Alliance gunship that Book shoots down in the film, though not before it slaughter the inhabitants of Haven. Fatally injured, Book recounts his story in a series of flashbacks, moving through time in reverse, all the way back to his childhood.

I was initially a bit confused by the timeline of The Shepherd’s Tale, as I read each of the “x years earlier” captions as being dated from the time of the frame narrative. It wasn’t until the scenes aboard the I.A.V. Cortez—about halfway through the book, though the pages are unnumbered—that it became clear to me that the timeline as I was reading it didn’t make sense, since Book looked younger in a scene captioned “six years earlier” than he did in a scene captioned “ten years earlier.” I started over from the beginning, and the story made a lot more sense once I started reading the timeline captions as telling you how long before the preceding scene they occurred, rather than referring back to the frame narrative. Perhaps this mistake wrong footed me, because I had a hard time getting into this story even once I got the timeline sorted out. If you’re confused, I found the Firefly Wikia timeline with dates pretty helpful.

Chris Samnee’s dark and gritty artwork is well suited to depicting Book’s troubled past, but it occasionally leaves something to be desired in terms of distinguishing characters from one another at a glance because his faces are sometimes insufficiently detailed. Except where the faces lacked detail—usually characters in the mid-distance or background—his depictions of the crew of Serenity are quite good, including a lovely frame of River doing a one-handed handstand.

The Shepherd’s Tale had a number of key points to cover in order to tie up the loose threads of Book’s story, and I found it unsatisfactory in this regard. The back story revealed here specifically did not jibe with the events in Safe, where Book’s identity card gains him immediate medical treatment aboard an Alliance ship. The story clears up most of the mystery surrounding Book’s background, but in a volume so short that it seems like a gloss on the character, rather than a completion. The explanations it offers are insufficient if not contradictory, and it doesn’t add much to the depth of Book’s character. If you’ve imagined an interesting or satisfactory back story for Book—as I had before reading The Shepherd’s Tale—I’d recommend skipping this one.

Calling Dr. Laura

Cover image for Calling Dr Laura by Nicole J Georgesby Nicole J. Georges

ISBN 978-0-547-61559-2

There were a few different men in her mother’s life when Nicole Georges was growing up, but none of them was her father. As far as she knew, her father had died of colon cancer when she was two or three years old. But at a visit to a psychic on her twenty-third birthday, Georges is told that her father is still alive. Georges’ sister eventually confesses that the family has been lying to her all along, but the rest of the family closes ranks, and no one else will admit to knowing anything about her father. With her relationship with her mother already troubled by a turbulent past, and the fact the Georges is hiding her sexual orientation, Georges incongruously turns to conservative talk-show host Dr. Laura Schlessinger for advice about how to confront her mother. Georges must process hard truths, old lies and glaring inconsistencies in her life story in order to move forward.

Calling Dr. Laura has an extremely personal, almost confessional feel. In many panels, Georges’ cartoon self speaks directly to the reader, creating a deep sense of intimacy (not to mention a deep desire to give Georges’ younger self better advice than what she is receiving on panel from various people, most especially Dr. Laura). With the exception of a few scene-setting panels, Georges focuses on depicting people, and her relatively simple drawings manage to convey incredible amounts of character through facial expressions and body language. The contrasting rounded cuteness and vulnerability in Georges’ portrayal of her childhood self underscores the impact her upbringing had on the period of her life chronicled in Calling Dr. Laura. Despite not focusing on the setting, Georges also does a great job of conveying what it is like to live in Portland and be part of its DIY art scene, which she isn’t above poking fun at.

calling-doctor-laura-panelSearching for her father forces Georges to re-examine seemingly unrelated aspects of her life, particularly her relationship with her girlfriend, Radar. The above plot summary necessarily glosses over the significant chunks of time that pass between the various steps of her search, and she processes and comes to terms with each new situation. There are long gaps between visiting the psychic and talking to her sister, and between the call to Dr. Laura and the decision to seriously pursue efforts to locate her father. These gaps conveniently give Georges room to explore what kind of life and family she wants to create for herself. This is done in depth, whereas Georges’ peculiar attraction to advice columnists goes largely unexplored—I was dying to know why she chose Dr. Laura in particular, of all the people she might have called or written to. Thus a story that is ostensibly about the search for a father, is really about all sorts of family connections, both those you are born with, and those you make, and how you negotiate them. This is a funny and well-told story, and one that many people will find more accessible than Are You My Mother? or Fun Home, to which it is often compared.

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Cover image for The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil GaimanWant to win a signed copy of The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman? Check out Required Reading’s First Birthday Giveaway. Thanks for reading!

A Game For Swallows

Cover image for A Game For Swallows by Zeina Abirachedby Zeina Abirached

ISBN 978-0-7613-8568-4

In the neighborhoods along the demarcation line, walls of sandbags sever the streets. Containers taken from the docks of the deserted port stand in the middle of alleys to protect residents from snipers’ bullets. Buildings shut themselves away being walls of cinder blocks and metal drums. Inside these divided sectors, life is organized around the ceasefires.

Born in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1981, civil war was the backdrop of Zeina Abirached’s childhood. In 1984, she is living with her parents and younger brother in East Beirut, in the midst of a war zone. The family lives mainly in the entrance way of their apartment, which is closest to the interior of the building, and slightly more sheltered from the bombs and gunfire in the streets. Their apartment is located on the treacherous demarcation line, which divides the Christian East from the Muslim West. One night, her parents leave Zeina and her brother at home to venture out and visit her grandmother on the other side. They are caught out by a bombing, leaving the children alone with the neighbours, a motley cast of contrasting characters. Together, they wait, and hope that Zeina’s parents will make it home safely.

Page one of A Game for Swallows by Zeina AbirachedThough A Game for Swallows is relatively short, the pacing is often ponderous despite the dire subject matter. The hours tick slowly by, with repetitive panels illustrating the tension and monotony of the situation. The lives of the characters spiral out from the central story, using numerous flashbacks to cover back stories and illustrate what life was like in Lebanon before the war. The characters faces change subtly and expressively in these panels, but everything else remains much the same. The clean black and white drawings work well for these interior scenes, but are almost too stark and clean in their depiction of the ravaged city, which is in some ways a character unto itself. Abirached dedicates the opening panels of her book to the setting, in a manner more reminiscent of Japanese manga than Western comics.

A Game For Swallows is often compared to Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, and the art style is decidedly similar, as is the situation; both women grew up in a Middle Eastern country in the midst of a war. But the scope of Abirached’s tale is simultaneously larger and smaller than Persepolis. On one hand, it is much more intimate, centering as it does around a single night, rather than a lifetime of events. This single representative incident provides a surprisingly broad window into life in Beirut during this period. However, the cast of characters is larger, as it is a story of a group of people, a community, rather than a single individual. From different classes and backgrounds, each character is coping with the civil war in their own way. While Persepolis made a space for more graphic memoirs, such as A Game For Swallows, to equate them would sell both titles short.