The Prisoner

Hostage by Guy Delisle. Drawn & Quarterly, 2017. 9781770462793. 436pp.

Sarah: This is the story of when Christophe André was kidnapped and held hostage in the Caucuses when he was working for Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders). I know from his other books that Guy Delisle’s wife worked for MSF, which is why he was in Burma and wrote the book about living there. So Delisle has links to that group.
Gene: Is she his wife or partner? Maybe the latter?
Sarah: We’ll fact check.
Gene: We probably won’t.
Sarah: Okay.
Gene: This is the story of André being kidnapped and then enduring captivity.
Sarah: They show where he was taken while in “a small Russian republic west of Chechnya.” It was so interesting that the kidnapping…I think I’ve been too affected by efficient TV kidnappings. His kidnappers were bumbling. André knew there was a huge amount of cash in the office safe. His kidnappers didn’t.
Gene: They pretended to be police. They were not after the money, apparently.
Sarah: Or they didn’t know about it. But then later they asked for money for his release. And maybe more than was in the safe? But they could have had both. André had the key to the safe in his pants.
Gene: Yeah but who would think a medical NGO would have a safe full of money?
S: They had it to pay everyone’s salaries in cash. And if that was the norm there, maybe people would know that?
G: The thing I liked was that it opens with him talking to Delisle, so you know he survived. So after they picked him up, he was imagining the worst things happening. They made him get out of a car in the middle of nowhere and he imagined being shot in the back of the head. But there was not a sense of terror because we knew that didn’t happen.
S: And the book is hugely long. So you know there’s more to the story. But yeah, they took him to someone’s apartment and handcuffed him to a radiator. All there was in the room was a thin mattress and a radiator. And the only time he was released from his handcuffs was when he needed to eat or go to the bathroom.
G: The story is so long and so repetitive that it gives a sense of what it was like for him to be stuck there. Turning the page sometimes, and between the panels, there’s an amazing sense of time. It doesn’t feel like Delisle digitally copied panels, it feels like he drew each panel, even though many of them are so similar in the captivity sequences, over and over and over again. So I felt the effort.
I think it’s important to say when pitching this book, you have to set aside an hour or an hour and a half to read it all at once to get a sense of the story’s time.
S: Yeah.
G: I think it wouldn’t have worked as a prose book because you would have put it down and left it and then come back to it over and over again, as one does. But I didn’t. I read straight through.
S: Me, too.
G: Didn’t it feel compulsive? Like you had to?
S: Yes! Each day he hoped it would be the day he got released. And he honestly had this hope all the time. And when he started to lose heart, when he felt like everyone had forgotten about him, it brought me back to the Tehran hostages. There were people in the US who were saying, we need them to know they haven’t been forgotten. And I realized that was a real thing.
G: I love the light and darkness in panels. I love everything about the design. Andre’s internal dialogue just kind of floats on the panels, and the spoken dialogue, the word balloons, they don’t have borders. It all deadens the color palette, so that nothing is distinct or set apart. And as the nights get darker and the room does, there are slightly darker shades of blue and the grey. Delisle really plays with them. It looks so simple but it’s masterful.
S: There are numbers at the beginning of the sections that tell how long he’s been held, but he couldn’t always remember what day it was, though it was really important to him to hang on to that.
G: There were really tense moment where — I don’t remember how long he was held captive — weird things happened that broke up his captivity. Someone’s wife came in to sweep up his room.
S: He saw her one other time, too.
G: Another time the door was left open, and there was a kid in the hallway looking at him.
S: That was so hard for me to read. It wasn’t just that André was humiliated, chained to a radiator like a dog while this little kid just stared at him, but to me that this little kid was in a situation where it wasn’t weird that there was a hostage in the house. He didn’t go oh my god I need to call the police! It’s like, oh yeah, okay.
G: That’s not a good neighborhood to live in.
S: No!
G: For me the most harrowing moment was when he figured out the door was unlocked, and then tried to decide what to do. That was absolutely scary. He’d been trying to find a way to escape but suddenly, after becoming so real, his terror at the thought of being caught trying to escape and what his captors might do to him after that —
S: I felt so much of this. And every day he was drinking thin vegetable soup and tea, and that’s all they give him, and you could see his pants getting looser and looser. It wasn’t until much later that he realized they were falling down and he’d lost weight. But Delisle shows it.
This book terrified me. It was really well done.
G: It’s so unlike anything by Delisle that I’ve read. I fell in love with his books about living in foreign places — Pyongyang, Shenzhen, Jerusalem, and Burma. Did you ever see the strange little books he did for D&Q, the first of his that were published in English? Albert and the Others, Aline and the Others — so wacky, so strange.
S: I liked the ones about bad parenting!
G: Those are funny. But he did these wordless little books in French about a little boy named Louis that are amazing, too. (Louis Au Ski, Louis À La Plage) They’re in that beautifully big French graphic album format. It’s good to see Delisle can escape being pigeonholed as an author. He’s much more than the guy who wrote about living in foreign countries
S: I really want to give this book to adult book clubs.
G: Right. It belongs right up there with Safe Area Gorazde and The Photographer. And it reminds me a little of Alan’s War by Guibert, about an American soldier in World War II whose service was pretty boring.

Travels of a Brooklyn Boy

Thank You for Coming to Hattiesburg: One Comedian’s Tour of Not-Quite-the-Biggest Cities in the World by Todd Barry. Gallery Books, 2017. 9781501117428.

Sarah: I recently read The Not-Quite States of America, too, so this is my year for “Not Quite” books. Todd Barry is a working comedian, really well established. I wouldn’t say he can work wherever he wants, but he does mention several times in the book that he opened for Louie CK at Madison Square Garden.
G: Right. He’s not super famous, but he’s been in a lot of movies.
S: People know him.
G: You would recognize him instantly. But it feels like he’s a comedian’s comedian.
S: I can see that.
G: One of the things people kept saying to him that he interpreted as “this show may not go well” was, “I’m a little worried you’re too smart for this audience.”
S: Yes. And he might be a little to smart for any audience. This is about his year of going to secondary markets, as he calls them. Not the big towns, but the next ones down or the college towns, partly because he likes playing those venues but also because he likes finding indie coffee shops…
G: Coffee shops that make him feel like he’s still in Brooklyn.
S: Yes! Which is kind of hilarious. He lives in Brooklyn and tries to have the same experience everywhere. Continue reading “Travels of a Brooklyn Boy”

I Dream Of Svið

The Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers. Harper Voyager, 2016. 9780062444134. 464 pp.

Gene: The book we both read this month but that you haven’t finished yet.
Sarah: I’m still going to finish it. I really like it a lot. (Later: I did finish it, and I loved it even more.)
G: I knew you would. It’s fun.
S: It’s been a while since I read science fiction. And getting back into it, I noticed there’s a lot of explanation needed to establish how this world that’s not like the one we live in. And I found myself not annoyed by that in this book, which is a sign of a very good writer. It’s in there in more natural ways. Rosemary is joining a ship as a new crew member. She’s been really sheltered, she grew up on Mars, this is her first time in deep space, this is her first time meeting nonhumans, so people get to explain things to her about being in space, alien cultures, and there are little bits of a future Wikipedia that is also written and edited by volunteers to fill in the info we need to know as she needs it.
G: And she’s a person who has studied other cultures and languages, so she’s looking up information she needs in an informed way. But I think what’s funny is I thought, okay, there’s someone new to the ship and we’re going to see the crew through her eyes. And that’s kind of true, but it’s not as true as it would be in other science fiction novels.
S: Yeah. Because we get to see through all of the crewmembers’ points of view. I really liked that. Their ways of seeing things, what they know and don’t know, is very different.
G: So the basic plot of the book — and you can’t pitch this book on plot much — is: a kind of kluged together ship that punches wormholes though space…
S: They’re like the highway building crew of the future.
G: …travels around with a crew that’s not just humans. At the beginning Rosemary is welcomed onto the ship by Corbin, who is the grumpy outsider on the crew. By the end of the book (I hope this isn’t ruining anything) everyone is completely a family. They get a big contract to go to a war zone and they’re going to make a bunch of money to punch a hole from there. But very little of the book takes place in that setting. The plot is so secondary to the characters that it’s just about them.
Continue reading “I Dream Of Svið”

Pentomino the Giant

Tetris: The Games People Play by Box Brown. First Second, 2016. 9781626723153. 256pp.

Sarah: The most compelling, addictive video game ever invented had a super weird, soap opera style story about how it got out to the rest of the world from the Soviet Union. This is that story.
Gene: Did you play Tetris?
S: Absolutely! Oh god yes. Hours and hours. Did you ever get the Tetris dreams?
G: I did. I was a casual video game kid. But I mostly avoided it for some reason — I don’t know why. Maybe it reminded me too much of Arkanoid? What’s it called? It’s Pong with the blocks on top.
S: Oh yeah yeah — Breakout!
G: Right. Arkanoid is a branded version of that. It had power ups.
Then I played Tetris for about two days, and I totally had the dreams. I was obsessed. I couldn’t really sleep. It invaded my head. So I just stopped cold turkey. I have never stopped playing a video game before or since that I liked that much. But my brain clearly liked it too much.
S: I got a keychain version of it. It’s so simple you can put it on anything.
G: I hear they have condoms with little LED screens and that you can play Tetris on them.
S: Yeah, very small items. The intro to the book talked about games and what they mean in our minds and what competition means and he’s just talking about that this game boils down to some essential aspect of something our brains want to do, some way to solve problems.
G: You’re fitting things together. It’s like shelving books.
Continue reading “Pentomino the Giant”

8-Bit Nostalgia

Impossible Fortress: A Novel by Jason Rekulak. Simon & Schuster, 2017. 9781501144417.

Sarah: So do you find yourself wondering if a book is intended to be an adult or teen book and then judging it differently?
Gene: Yeah.
S: I think I would have been harsher to this book if it had been a teen book.
G: Isn’t it a teen book?
S: It is not a teen book.
G: I read it like it was a teen book.
S: I read it as an adult book, so I was a little bit more forgiving of the fact that it meandered.
G: But it’s clearly a teen novel. It just relies so heavily on nostalgia that you can’t put it on the teen shelf. It’s much more for us.
Continue reading “8-Bit Nostalgia”

Totally Killer

The Killer Volume 1 by Matz and Luc Jacamon. Archaia, 2009. 9781932386448. 128pp.

The Killer Volume 2 by Matz and Luc Jacamon. Archaia, 2009. 9781932386561.  176pp.

Gene: The Killer Volumes 1 and 2, my pic for our book club!
Sarah: Do you want my first reaction?
G: Yes!
S: I went to an exhibit on Martin Scorcesse and there was a little thing in there about a film he directed for Roger Corman. (Many great directors directed a film for Corman because he would hire you before you were well known.) And apparently Corman said “You can rewrite the script however you want as long as there’s nudity every 15 minutes.” So I felt like this was one of those movies.
G: Ow!
S: There was murder, there was darkness, and there was nudity every 15 minutes.
G: Well it’s about a killer for hire, he’s French.
S: The whole book is so French! They translated the words in the word balloons but not the sound effects.
G: The book was originally published in French. It’s very hard to translate sound effects because they’re part of the image — changing them would require the art to be redrawn. It’s easier to change the letters in the balloons because they’re isolated. That’s why in manga you usually see sound effects in Japanese.
S: Good to know!
G: I love the coloring of these graphic novels so much. It’s subtle and amazing. It’s from the mid 1990s so I’m not sure whether it was done digitally, but probably not.
The story starts with the killer waiting to shoot a doctor from an apartment where he’s holed up. The guy doesn’t show up, doesn’t show up, doesn’t show up, so the killer reminisces about other jobs he’s done. He thinks about a job he had three months earlier, another rich guy who he killed next to his swimming pool. There’s a picture of the guy sitting next to the pool with his hand on a drink and you don’t realize until you flip the page that the guy is dead already. Loved that.
Continue reading “Totally Killer”

Nerdy and Dirty

The Nerdy and the Dirty by B. T. Gottfred. Henry Holt, 2016. 9781627798501. 304pp.

Sarah: So Pen is a girl who thinks she’s a freak because she thinks about sex. She thinks she’s the only girl in her high school who masturbates.
Gene: Which she does all the time.
S: All the time. She thinks. It’s not interfering with her life. Her family is Catholic, and have some very strong feelings about sexuality, and her mom is kind of crazy in a way that she’s not totally functioning…
Pen can’t let anyone know the kinds of things that go on in her head. Not just sex things but her thoughts, her opinions, she can’t tell anyone what’s in her head because then people wouldn’t want to be around her any more. And she’s relatively popular, she has a cute boyfriend with stubble (that’s very important to her), wears a leather jacket, and she just speaks in single syllables.
Continue reading “Nerdy and Dirty”