He was real

Is This Guy For Real? The Unbelievable Andy Kaufman by Box Brown. First Second, 2017. 9781626723160.

(This conversation started with me talking about a British documentary show on Netflix called Embarrassing Bodies. Gene sends his daughter screenshots from it. You should watch it.)
Gene: I’m a recovering pro wrestling fan.
Sarah: Coming into this, I was like, he’s this comedian…
G: Did you like him?
S: Not my favorite but I respected his funny meta-comedy, practical joke sense of humor, but it wasn’t something I tuned in for.
G: I remember watching SNL when I was really little, I used to stay up all night watching TV. (This and letting me read anything I wanted are what I owe my parents for.) I watched the first season when it aired when I was 7. I remember seeing him do the Mighty Mouse thing. It was crazy.
S: I saw an HBO special he did that was all the hits, so I saw all of his famous bits compressed into like an hour.
G: I saw him on Taxi, too. I remember seeing him wrestle women. I remember seeing him apologize to his parents on Letterman.
S: I saw some of those too.
G: Weird, right?
S: Not as weird as Crispin Glover, but weird.
G: Glover never really seems to be having a good time. Andy Kaufman seemed to be having fun.
S: We start in Kaufman’s childhood, and it was funny to see so many of his later bits reflected in his childhood. Obsessed with Elvis, watching Mighty Mouse…and it didn’t feel artificial, it felt like we were finding out this was the kind of kid he was.
Continue reading “He was real”

The Sheer Joy of Colors

This Beautiful Day by Richard Jackson, illustrated by Suzy Lee. Caitlyn Dloughy / Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2017. 9781481441391.

Lee’s black and white and oh-so-blue Wave was so beautiful that, after finding it in a bookstore, I read it three times before I made it to the counter. This one also has a lot of that wonderfully blue water as three kids enjoy a rainy day. And then even more color explodes on the pages as more happy kids with umbrellas join them, the sky clears, and the gray goes away.



Little Red Riding Sheep by Linda Ravin Lodding, illustrated by Cale Atkinson. Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2017. 9781481457484.

I can’t think of a folk tale where color is more important. Retellings don’t usually do much for me, but this one features a Heidschnucke sheep named Arnold who refuses to be in a traditional version tale and talks back to the writer/narrator, bringing more light into the forest, casting his friends in key roles, and finally just changes the story to altogether. My favorite picture is of his friend Einer, a muskrat, making his scary face.

Pocket Full of Colors: The Magical World of Mary Blair, Disney artist extraordinaire. Amy Guglielmo and Jacqueline Tourville, illustrated by Brigette Barrager. Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2017. 9781481461313.

After two colorful picture books, round things out with a bit of nonfiction about artist Mary Blair, who collected colors wherever she went. She was one of the first women to be hired by Walt Disney Studios, but the men there rejected her colors as too vivid and wild. After she left and became a successful illustrator on her own, Walt Disney himself invited her back to use her colors to design the It’s A Small World ride.

Right Round Round Round

Spinning by Tillie Walden. First Second, 2017. 9781626729407. 345pp

This is the best graphic novel I’ve read in a long time. Everyone once in a while a comic is so innovative or well executed it gives goosebumps. This is one of those.

The level of craft is as amazing as the art. It will be a crime if this doesn’t win a bunch of major YA and graphic novel awards.  I don’t really want to say anything more about it than GO READ IT!

But here’s a little more: I read a lot of high fantasy, more superhero comics than I’m comfortable admitting (I only tell you about the best), plus a bit of science fiction, crime, and literary stuff. Before this I had read one graphic novel biography about ballet (Mark and Siena Cherson Siegel’s To Dance) and zero books about ice skating. I never planned on reading a book about ice skating, and would have bet anyone money against my ever finishing one. But this autobiographical graphic novel showed me that ice skating is fascinating (there’s a taste of the diagrams skaters use to plan programs on the back cover). And as much as this is about ice skating (my high school English teachers just rolled over in their graves at my word repetition), it’s also about growing up: Tillie struggles to fit in, find people who love her, figure out if skating is worth the time and effort, and how to tell everyone who she is. (It most reminds me of another amazing YA graphic novel, Jillian and Mariko Tamaki’s This One Summer, which is also just so good.)

I Really Think So

Turning Japanese: A Graphic Memoir by Marinaomi. 2dcloud, 2016. 9781937541163. 217pp.

I picked this one up because I was a huge fan of Kiss & Tell, Marinaomi’s graphic memoir about all of her romantic entanglements from age 0 to 22. It’s amazing, and if you haven’t read it, I recommend you remedy that.

This one picks up post-breakup when she was 22, and is more than a little about her romance with Giuseppe. But the great parts for me were where Marinaomi works as a hostess in Japanese bars, first at an illegal place in San Jose and later during a trip with Giuseppe to Japan. She uses the jobs to learn Japanese and a bit more about Japan’s culture (her Japanese mother never really taught her much, and she feels pretty alienated). But my favorite bits are the weird, awkward customers at the bars and the folks she worked with. There’s the coworker who models, who tells her she could be a hand model (implying she’s not that good-looking). The boss who throws secret hand signals telling girls which table to switch to when they aren’t hitting it off with clients. Awkward karaoke — the guy in San Jose sings “Sometimes it’s hard to be a woman…” at the top of his lungs every night. Casual racism. Sexual harassment. The guy in Japan who carries around a photo of himself and Andy Warhol. And Marinaomi’s first regular customer who seems to want to know everything about her and to give her lots of money. But he may just be messing with her.

The straightforwardness of the comics made it easy to feel Marinaomi’s awkwardness, particularly during the trip to Japan and trying to connect across cultures with her relatives there.

One Memoir A Day

High on Arrival: A Memoir by Mackenzie Phillips, Gallery Books, 2011. 9781439153864. 320pp.

Guest review by Murphy’s Mom

I remember watching Mackenzie Phillips on TV as Julie Cooper on One Day At A Time. I was too young to know who her father was, let alone how twisted her real life really was.

Her father, Papa John Phillips, from the 1970’s band The Mamas and Papas, was in and out of Mackenzie’s life. Whenever he came around to visit, he was usually high or drunk or both. To maintain a relationship with him, Mackenzie began do drugs with him at an alarmingly young age (11). Her father is the one who injected her with cocaine the first time she got high.

Mackenzie is utterly blunt and honest about her failed stints in rehab and getting fired from One Day... But the most horrific part of her memoir is when she talks about the time she woke up from a blackout in bed with her father.  The two continued a consensual sexual relationship for 10 years! 

I feel sorry for her if that’s the truth, but honestly, it would be worse if she is lying for attention. This is one of the most sick and twisted celebrity memoirs — if you’re like me, you’ll probably keep reading it for the shock value alone.

Meanwhile, back in Mosul…

Poppies of Iraq by Brigitte Findakly and Lewis Trondheim. Translated by Helge Dascher. Drawn and Quarterly, 2017. 9781770462939. 120pp.

Gene: This graphic novel is by Brigitte Findakly and drawn by her husband, Lewis Trondheim, who is my favorite cartoonist. (She’s his colorist, and apparently does some coloring for other cartoonists as well.)

It’s the story of her growing up in Iraq. Her mom is French, her dad is an Iraqi dentist. Her mom moved to Iraq after they married — she met Findakly’s dad when he was in dental school in France. And they lived in Mosul, which has been in news for all of the wrong reasons lately. So this is her story about growing up Christian in Mosul, half Iraqi, French-speaking at home…
Sarah: Oh yeah.
G: …going to Arab schools. It’s written so that a kid can get it, but there’s some adult level weirdness, too. It tells the history of Iraq, it has photos of her family, and it has cultural tidbits about Iraq that were a bit surprising.
What struck me were a few parallels between Korea (where I lived for a few years) and Iraq. Here’s a moment  where all of the kids are out running behind a truck spraying a fog of DDT to kill mosquitos. I saw this in Korea in the early 1990s (and my wife Silver remembers it in her neighborhood farther back than that), though there the kids breathed it in and out as they pretended to smoke.
S: I remember a similar story from the U.S. in Frank Zappa’s autobiography.
G: This can’t be safe. I hope they’re not still doing it. Or if they are that they’re using some safer chemical.
Another moment that reminded me of Korea is when Findakly says that if a family has a whole bunch of kids, but a married sibling doesn’t have any, they’ll just give a kid to the couple. Silver’s mother was actually given to one of her aunts for a time. (She lived in Manchuria for a bit in the 1930s until that aunt lost her fortune and returned Silver’s mom to her birth family.) I’ve heard this is done in India, too…
It really gives fascinating day-to-day details, too. Here’s a bit about Findakly’s mothers’ magazines from France. Iraqi customs officials would cut out any photos of Jewish people.
And this is my favorite cultural tidbit, a two page sequence that ends with this: “In Iraq, before a wedding, the future husband is asked if he wants his fiancée’s pubic hair completely removed or left as is.” (laughing) The groom said, “Completely,” so the bride is crying. Relatives carry the message between them.
S: Oooooh!
G: Here are some nicely done pages about the history of Mosul, and some really old photos of Findakly’s ancestors and relatives.
Here her parents are on the phone, speaking French, while her father was in Baghdad. The government officials listening in interrupt and tell them not to speak French because they can’t understand.
Here’s a bit about Iraqi manners. Findakly’s mom never got the hang of the fact that people were supposed to refuse second helpings even if they wanted more, so she’d just put her amazing French desserts away. (Their guests eventually adapted and started taking seconds.)
S: Nice.
G: Overall it’s a kids-eye view of the country. At one point people were angry at Christians and they were being killed but in Findakly’s experience, she wasn’t really alarmed. Her father was a dentist for the army, and that protected them a bit, even from looting by soldiers.
(minor spoiler) Her parents are still alive. And so the narrative not only moves between all of what I’ve mentioned before, it also moves between the past and the present. They’re in their late 80s or early 90s and live across the street from her. Sometimes when she needs to clarify something for the book she goes and talks to her mom.
S: I’m glad there’s another book that reminds me of Persepolis.
G: Yeah, they’re both great, and neither of them ever comes across like an after school special.
And just one more point, after the family eventually moves to France, it becomes a bit of an immigration story. Her father can’t work as a dentist, and she’s told she can’t be Arab because she’s Christian. (She walks away from the kid who said that, calling him an idiot. Findakly seems to feel like Iraq is home, and even goes back to visit a few times.)

Thanks to my friend Dawn who got me a signed copy at Comic-Con in July. Trondheim and Findakly even drew this in my book!

He wasn’t 19.

Such A Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961 – 63 by Marcelino Truong. Translated by David Homel. Arsenal Pulp Press, 2016. 9781551526478. 272pp.

This not-quite-all-ages autobiographical graphic novel opens in Washington DC in 1961, with the author’s French mother writing a letter home, upset at having to move back to Saigon in the middle of the Vietnam War. Truong’s father worked as cultural attaché at the Vietnamese embassy in DC but had been recalled by Vietnamese President Diêm. Truong’s mother is worried that all whites and mixed-race people will be killed if the Communists take over. Outside their house, Truong and his older brother play war, forced to take the part of Communists and endure racial slurs because the neighborhood boys think they look the part.

In Vietnam, the family lives an obviously upper class existence as Truong’s father works for President Diêm and his mother gets more and more anxious. (Her mental illness is explained in the book.) There’s an easy-to-understand history of the country and the conflict, as well as many fights between Truong’s parents as the war gets closer. The violence in Saigon  never really has much of a direct impact on the kids, and before things get really rough they take an extended beach vacation and then relocate to London. (There the boys face racism from the neighborhood kids, but by that point they’ve clearly had enough of that.) A short section at the end tells what happened to Vietnam and Truong’s parents.

Saigon is drawn in beautiful detail from a kid’s point of view — most of the pages’ black inks are accented with red, though there are a few totally beautiful, full-color pages sprinkled throughout. Truong’s art is a masterclass in how to draw almost anything in a straightforward, simple way, from a horseshoe crab to an antiaircraft gun, while it still managing to express character and the beauty of Vietnam.