I know what I read last summer

In the air and on the ground in South Korea and Vietnam I made it through three book books in a month. That’s a lot for me. My secret: I read slowly. Must be why I like graphic novels so much.

Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews. Pocket Books, 2013. 9781501168918. 576pp.

A personal recommendation by the owner of Seattle’s BLMF bookstore who said something like, “This got me reading spy fiction again.” This is indeed a great book that doesn’t center on the character in the movie trailer seducing everyone after going to sex/assassination school (though Dominika Egorova does to to that school). The book starts with a young CIA operative in Moscow (Nathaniel Nash) nearly getting caught as he goes out to meet a high level Russian double agent, then alternates telling the stories of Nash and Egorova as it brings each into the other’s orbit. The less said about the plot the better, but the characters are scary brilliant at every turn, and the situations they face will have your heart pounding.

Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers. July, 2018. 9780062699220. 368pp.

Chambers is writing the most upbeat, character centered science fiction that I’ve read. Plot seems secondary to people in an absolutely brilliant way in the Wayfarer series, which started with The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. (You don’t need to have read it first, but there are some references to it in this one.)

This book revolves around life in the Exodan Fleet, the ships in which humanity left the Earth behind centuries ago as it set out for the stars. To members of a Galactic Federation, the Exodans’ way of life and level of technology are very backward, though to some their communal way of life is fascinating. The story is told from several points of view — young people who want to head planetside as soon as they’re able, a young man who grew up on the ground but has come to the fleet to try their way of life, an archivist in the fleet, a person who prepares bodies for recycling and handles funerary rites, and an alien who has come to study and report on Exodan society. The insects they eat sound delicious, and I’d go visit in a moment if this was a real place — not many books make me smile as often and unexpectedly as Chambers’ do.

The Crippler: Cage Fighting and My Life on the Edge by Chris Leben and Daniel J. Patinkin. Skyhorse, 2017. 9781510727731. 296pp.

I was a huge fan of Leben’s bloody slugfests in the UFC — he was tough and often seemed to keep fighting on pure heart. Reading about how tough his early life was and how he abused his body before and during his time as a pro fighter was a bit horrifying, but about halfway through the book I checked his Facebook page and saw photos of a smiling Leben in Hawaii with his family, and that pulled me through.
The only other MMA bio that I’ve read is strategist/fighter Georges St-Pierre’s The Way of the Fight, whose “this is how I became who I am” book stands in stark contrast to Leben’s “I can’t believe I made it through this” stories. Maybe the contrast means they should be read together?

You got peanut butter in my chocolate!

Here are two great graphic novels by pros at the top of their game.

Delilah Dirk and the Pillars of Hercules by Tony Cliff. First Second, 2018. 9781626728042. 247pp.

You ever read a graphic novel where suddenly a page or a panel is so awesome it just stops you cold? I love that moment. But it also makes me wonder: was the artist holding back on the other pages to achieve that effect?

Well Tony Cliff never holds back. Every page and panel of this graphic novel is beautiful, and feels like he poured all of his love for the time period and the characters into it.

The Delilah Dirk books center on the international adventurer and her faithful friend, Selim, in the early 1800s. This one is about the search for a lost city, with some bits about the price of fame and those who want to exploit history and archaeology for monetary gain. I know that’s a crappy pitch, but the less said about the plot the better. Start at the first one if you haven’t read any of Cliff’s books yet, so you can see how Delilah and Selim meet. I guarantee that the action scenes he draws will leave you breathless.

Come Again by Nate Powell. Top Shelf, 2018. 9781603094283. 272pp.

Powell has become well known for drawing the March trilogy, which is great, but he’s been putting out amazing work for years. This is his first indie graphic novel since winning the National Book Award. It’s about an affair gone wrong between folks who live in a nice little commune, and a little boy who goes missing. It’s mostly quiet, the layouts work as hard as the lettering, and Powell is a master of using black and white space with a minimal coloring palette. I know it’s not true but his lines make every page feel effortless. Read it to see a master comic creator at the top of his game.

So Prepared

Be Prepared by Vera Brosgol. First Second, 2018. 9781626724457.

Gene: Be Prepared by Vera Brosgol, the very delightful Vera Brosgol, who I met at a dinner during Emerald City Comic Con and talked to for a bit. I loved Anya’s Ghost and… and what was her picture book about knitting?
Sarah: Leave Me Alone, which was so great.
G: She was also on a panel that I moderated. Vera lives in Portland and worked in animation, and this is her second graphic novel… Anya’s Ghost was more YA.
S: Yeah, and this one is a little more tween-y.
G: Maybe even a little younger. The protagonist is Vera when she was 9. The story is not quite factual, and she explains that in detail at the end of the book.
S: She combined a couple of years of summer camp into one.
G: There are some charming real-life things, like real letters from camp. The first one says “Dear mom, could you pick me up as soon as you get this? PLEASE! I’m desperate” (Only later on do you find out that that one was actually written by her brother.)
S: And later there’s a much, much longer real letter from young Vera that talks about how terrible camp is, all the kids are mean, I can’t deal with this…
G: It has the feel of an autobiography. I think it’s very autobiographical in terms of feelings, if not in terms of actual events. I believe she really grew up pretty poor, a Russian immigrant, going to Russian Orthodox church…
S: It was these tiny little differences between her and her friends that made her feel like a complete outcast.
G: The birthday party scene.
S: Oh, the birthday party scene! It’s heartbreaking.
G: It’s so clear that Vera is the little girl that the other kids’ parents talk to.
S: Yeah. There’s a scene where all the girls are setting up their cute flowered heart covered sleeping bags and she has a pillow and blanket with a patch on it.
G: And the other girls arrange themselves in a star shape together on the floor and she’s off by herself. And they all have these super-expensive dolls that they’re talking about and she doesn’t have one. It’s brutal and really well done.
S: Yeah.
G: And then she has her own birthday party that does not go well. You can see it’s not going to go well.  Her family is poor, her mom’s a single mom, so they have the off-brand pizza, there’s Russian lettering on the cake. And the other kids are terrible about it all.
S: Do you have memories like that from elementary school? Where it was the tiny differences that kids would be completely obsessed with? I was the kid that the parents talked to at the party.
G: I wasn’t the kid the parents talked to. I fear that I was a kid who was inadvertently terrible. I had no worries when I was a kid, but we didn’t have a lot of stuff, either.
S: There are things like that I remember from my own life, I could feel so apart because I didn’t have the right brand of pants or something like that. My family wasn’t poor, we were just spending money on things other than pants.
G: My mother was very focused on us having those things even though she was a single mom, probably to a crazy extent. I had the right brand of jeans, she used to make me wear velour shirts because they were cool. She was wrong on some things, too. I think she was doing her best, but it was strange and hard to push back against it all until I was a teenager. I want that book to be written, too. Where a kid is forced to be the on-brand kid even though he doesn’t want to be.
But, back to the story, one of the big differences between Vera and her friends is that they all go away to camp in the summers while she’s stuck at home.
S: But one day at Orthodox church another girl says that she was gone last week because she was at camp. And Vera’s like “CAMP???” Turns out the Orthodox church sponsors this camp and might be willing to help her mom pay the fee to send her to camp for TWO WEEKS!
G: So she gets to go the next year, the summer after fourth grade.
S: And she’s so excited.
G: And her brother goes to the little kid part of the camp.
S: And at the end of the book she talks about how this organization was set up outside of Russia after the revolution to maintain this traditional sort of camping with a religious background because it was prohibited in the Soviet Union. It was interesting that she went into a camp with these fully-formed camp traditions that were totally unfamiliar to me as the reader.
G: It’s really cool, right? If she went to the sort of camp we recognized from movies, like Meatballs, it would be very different. Instead they go to a place where all the kids who go are different in the same way, but then she’s thrown in with these older girls.
S: Those girls!
G: Her little brother goes off with a camp counsellor who’s amazing, but hers is a seventeen-year-old girl who seems out of her depth. Her brother has a great time. The other girls in Vera’s tent are fourteen, and she’s this pre-pubescent nine-year-old girl. The girls are both named Sasha, they’ve been to camp together for years, and they’re totally crappy.
S: They’re obsessed with a cute boy at camp.
G: Very says goodbye to her mom, then finds out about the Hollywood.
S: Hollywood!
G: My favorite part of the camp, the doorless outhouse. Three toilet seats, right next to each other, no divider. There are so many toilet gags in this book. The one where she’s in there and she looks up and there are spiders all over the ceiling.
S: Uuuuugh! It has the air of a vivid sense memory.
G: It’s terrible, because she’s really alone for two weeks, she wants to go home, the girls are crappy to her and hiding candy, she’s feeding a chipmunk, they’re washing their hair in the lake. There’s a capture the flag game going on between the girls and the boys… it’s getting just a bit better, bordering on bearable, and then her mom comes to take her home… and says she has to stay two more weeks!
S: That was a great plot twist, I enjoyed that a lot.
G: Other stuff happens, plot-wise. More capture the flag. There’s a missing hamster. She makes a friend. It’s really sweet.

Don’t Eat the Great Chuck Knit

The Great Puppy Invasion by Alastair Heim, illustrated by Kim Smith. Clarion Books, 2017. 9780544999176.

Hundreds of puppies invade the town of Strictville, which has a history of ridiculous rules. The adults think it’s a catastrophe and treat it like a horror movie. The large-eyed puppies just want to play. The entire joke depends on the cuteness of the puppies, and it totally succeeds.

Chuck and Woodchuck by Cece Bell. Candlewick Press, 2016. 9780763675240.

Caroline’s classmate Chuck brings Woodchuck to school for show and tell. He’s so funny the teacher invites him to come to school every day. And he’s super friendly to Caroline, helping her with whatever she needs, probably because Chuck likes her so much.

Bell’s graphic novel El Deafo is so good! Try that one, too, if you’ve never read it.

Cat Knit by Jacob Grant. Feiwel and Friends, 2016. 9781250051509.

Cat loves his new friend Yarn, but when Yarn changes (and becomes an itchy sweater knit by Girl), Cat isn’t sure he still likes Yarn.

Buy this for every knitter you know.

Don’t Eat That! by Drew Sheneman. Viking / Penguin Young Readers, 2018. 9781101997291.

A young girl scout out bird watching sees a brown bear about to eat a rock and screams at him. She decides to help him figure out what to eat to earn her Wildlife Buddy merit badge. But he can’t swim, has poor judgement, and even rabbits beat him up. Best moment: when he tries to chew on a tree with a very suspicious beaver.

Sheneman is a syndicated cartoonist with several picture books to his credit. This one is formatted like a comic book throughout, and the drawings are hilarious.

 

The Starlost

Lost Stars Volume 1 (Star Wars) by Yusaku Komiyama, based on an original story by Claudia Gray. Yen Press, 2018. 9781975326531. 256pp.

A Japanese manga adaptation of a Star Wars novel originally written in English, translated back into English. Strange thought? Yeah. Worth reading? Totally.

Thane and Ciena are friends who grew up on the same backward planet with the same dream: attend the Imperial Academy. At the academy they were on the verge of becoming more than friends, but were driven apart. Now Thane flies an X-wing for the Rebellion, and Ciena is rising in the Imperial ranks. How’d all this happen? It’s not quite clear by the end of this, the first volume of the story, which takes place in the background of the original Star Wars trilogy (the good one, the original original, not the three movies you’re trying to forget).

When I talk about comics at library staff days and conferences, I meet a lot of folks who never read manga. I often recommend they try the original Star Wars manga that Dark Horse published back in the 90s because it’s easier to relate to the manga art style when the story is already familiar. But since those are long out of print, this is going to become my go-to recommendation for such folks. The focus lines make X-wings soar and help the AT-ATs on Hoth look extra intimidating. The layouts make for some amazing pacing. And everyone has such great hair! It’s kind of a relief. (I mean, have you watched the original trilogy lately? Why did no one in that far far galaxy ever invent hair care products?)

Stuffed Animals

Walter Potter’s Curious World of Taxidermy by Dr. Pat Morris with Joanna Ebenstein. Blue Rider Press, 2014. 9780399169441.

Sarah: This is one of several books that Joanna Ebenstein has done through a couple of art imprints on strange historical things, often related to the odd and morbid. She runs the Morbid Anatomy Museum that I think lost its space recently, so now it’s a pop-up. Her co-author Dr. Pat Morris has written a lot of books on the history of taxidermy. Walter Potter was a guy working in the late 1800s in Britain, a taxidermist in a small country town.
Gene: This reminds of something I saw online.
S: Potter did normal taxidermy stuff for hire.
G: “Normal stuff?”
S: Then he started a hobby…
G: (looking at the book) What the hell is that?
S: This is someone else’s work that inspired him. It was Hermann Ploucquet’s work shown at the Great Exhibition of 1851. Potter may have seen it as a kid. It’s a retelling of the Reynard the Fox stories using actual stuffed foxes put in storybook poses.
G: He saw that and thought, “I could do that!”
S: The thing is, if you live in a farm town, there are animals…
G: I don’t like sentences that start like that.
S: …and life is cheap…
G: How many dead kittens are in this photo?
S: This is The Kittens’ Wedding. There were generally cats on the farm and they weren’t fixed. So when they had kittens, the farm would keep one of them and the rest would… not be kept. So Potter had access to a large number of dead kittens, and he made them into a wedding party.
G: (curses)
S: Similarly, he had a lot of dead rabbits.
G: Where did he get the eyes for the kittens, Sarah?
S: They’re taxidermy eyes.
G: There’s a thriving market in fake animal eyes?
S: You just buy those as a part of your taxidermy supplies.
G: This is in the late 1800s?
S: Yes. He created a series of tableaux. His most famous was the Death & Burial of Cock Robin.
G: A large and creepy scene.
S: And The Kittens’ Tea and Croquet Party. He started exhibiting them in a museum that had some other stuff, but in which his work was the main focus.
G: This is so wrong. But that’s the fun of the book, I guess.
S: Yeah. The thing is, when he made these, they were just a curiosity, that he told a story in this way, a tourist attraction. (Rabbits’ Village School really upsets Gene.) Over the course of generations, these exhibits got more and more disturbing to the general viewer.
G: It’s not just me?
S: No, it’s not just you. This is interesting to me, how we feel about animals has changed so much. Maybe because our lives are further from the farm? Maybe because we’ve changed culturally?
G: How did he get access to these squirrels?
S: They were a pest, the farm dogs would kill them. They’re also a different type than are now common in the UK, because they got out-competed by grey squirrels.
G: There’s a squirrel smoking a cigar. Did he make those squirrel-sized playing cards?
S: Some of the stuff he made, some stuff he found or re-purposed. Eventually these little roadside curiosity museums couldn’t make enough money to support the people who ran them. The pieces ended up being crammed into smaller and smaller spaces, they got bought by different people. Eventually, in an auction in the early 2000s, this collection was broken up and sold off piece by piece. They are now all over the world.
G: I don’t want to look at these pictures anymore.
S: The reasons people pick this book up today are completely different than why people would have visited the museum. I kind of like that aspect of it, it’s this weird function of history that we can feel differently about he same object over time.
G: I’ll be honest with you, if you described this book to me I would think, “I would love to one one of those creepy little scenes.” After looking at this, I don’t want one at all. Would you want one?
S: No! If you ended up with it in your house, you’d walk by it every day and shudder.

I Know What You Did Last Summer

All Summer Long by Hope Larson. Farrar Straus Giroux, 2018. 9780374310714. 172pp.

I loved this amazing middle grade graphic novel by Hope Larson (A Wrinkle in Time, Batgirl, Chiggers, and my favorite of hers, Salamander Dream). Bina (13) is stuck at home and all alone after finishing 7th grade when her best friend and next door neighbor Austin (also 13) heads for soccer camp. They’re growing up and may be growing apart — Austin doesn’t want to participate in calculating their Combined Summer Fun Index anymore, and seems to be looking ahead to high school rather than their last year in middle school. But she starts to get seriously good on her electric guitar, and finds a few bands she really likes. Has she found her thing, music? Are things about to get weird between her and Austin? Can she really be friends with Austin’s older sister, Charlie, the loudest lifeguard at the pool?

Larson’s graphic novel captures something true about the transitional time at the end of middle school without turning it into too overt a lesson, and shows that, yeah, boys and girls can absolutely be just friends for the long term.