How to Use Pink to Draw the North

How To Survive In The North by Luke Healy. Nobrow, 2016. 9781910620069.

how-to-survive-in-the-northFor epic tales of icy climes that will make you feel the cold in your bones, read Leiber’s Whiteout or Bertozzi’s Shackleton. But for a beautifully rendered meditation on loneliness, bad choices, and survival, look no farther than How To Survive In The North.

There are three intertwined narratives. One begins in Nome, Alaska, in 1913 as explorer Robert Bartlett sets off on a scientific expedition to the arctic aboard The Karluk. (All does not go well.) The second begins in Nome in 1921 when young native Ada Blackjack signs on as seamstress for an expedition to claim Wrangel Island for Canada. (All does not go well.) The third, unlike the other two, is not based in fact. It involves a tenured professor in trouble with his school for having an inappropriate relationship with a student. On a forced sabbatical, he starts going through the papers of a former professor named Stefannson, learning about Bartlett and Ada Blackjack (via her diary) in the process. But he can’t get the student out of his mind. (All does not go well.)

There are two striking things about the way Healy drew this graphic novel. First, the colors — he uses a the washed out pink, yellow, and blue green that make up the aurora on the cover, along with white, to tell the stories. And somehow it totally works. Second, Healy creates the impression of maintaining a constant distance from is characters. Before taking another look just now, I could have sworn there were no drawings of them at a distance or close-up, that they were all framed as if seen from the same distance throughout. I would have been wrong, but somehow the work as a whole gives this impression — it feels like I’ve been watching an art film that I loved but that I can’t quite explain.

This is one of my favorite graphic novels from Nobrow, which is putting out some great books. Be sure to check out Luke Pearson’s Hildafolk books, Louis Roskosch’s Leeroy and Popo, and Marion Fayolle’s In Pieces.

Gross vs Reader, Everyone Wins

Dan Versus Nature by Don Calame. Candlewick Press, 2016. 9780763670719.

danvsnatureGene: Dan vs. Nature: the ultimate teen boy book!
Sarah: (laughs)
G: I would give this book to almost any normal, hormonal, insane teen boy that I know.
S: Yes. I gave it to an ELL student who said he liked Calame’s Swim the Fly. His tutor was there with him and didn’t know what the book was about. I said “it’s a nature book. It’s about nature.”
G: It’s like Hatchet, but everybody has a raging boner the entire time.
S: OK, the very first sentence of the book: “Charlie and I are getting our asses punched.” This is why I decided I had to read the entire book. There’s a lot of books where if it grabs me on line one, I’m in. “You had me at hello.”
G: So Dan and his friend Charlie are geeks.
S: Yes, and his mom, uh… hasn’t had the best luck with boyfriends. Continue reading “Gross vs Reader, Everyone Wins”

The Adventure of the Clashing Running Shoes

Running Girl by Simon Mason. Scholastic, 2016. 9781338036428.


What if a mixed-race, 15-year-old suburban British slacker had a mind like Sherlock Holmes’, with his photographic memory, knowledge, and analytical skills? Garvie Smith is bored out of his skull in school, gets terrible grades, refuses to apply himself, and hangs out with friends at the park smoking weed. The only thing he puts any effort into is avoiding another lecture from his mom. Then one of his classmates, Chloe Dow, goes missing. Garvie takes it upon himself to find out what happened to her even as the young and serious Detective Inspector Singh tells him to leave the investigation to the police.

The two brilliant investigators piece together conflicting stories and physical evidence on their own, only occasionally sharing their insights with one another. I rooted for each of them through heaps of twists and turns. This books is 432 pages long and never lags. I am someone who tunes out during chase scenes in pretty much any media, but the one in Running Girl had me gasping on the edge of my seat. I really hope this is the start of a series, or maybe even two: one for Garvie and one for DI Singh.

The Attack of the Night of the Living Dead

No one is happier to see another North American publisher putting out French graphic novels in translation. So when I found these two among the review books at December’s WASHYARG meeting, I was ecstatic.

The Attack by Loïc Dauvillier and Glen Chapron.  Adapted (into a graphic novel) from the novel by Yasmina Khadra.  Translated by Ivanka Hahnenberger. Firefly, 2016. 9781770857612.  152 pp.

the-attackDr. Amin Jaafari and others at the Israeli hospital where he works feel the explosion when a bomb detonates in a nearby restaurant, then spend hours trying to save the victims. (Among them, one man who would rather die than be touched by an Arab. Dr. Jaafari helps him anyway.) He’s soon called back to the hospital for what he thinks is a medical emergency. But he is asked to identify his wife’s body.

Dr. Jaafari thought his wife had gone on a short trip to see her grandmother. Instead she became the latest suicide bomber in Israel. The police don’t believe that he didn’t know she’d been radicalized. Others attack him and vandalize his home. As an Israeli citizen of Arab descent he is distrusted by Jews and Arabs alike. After a colleague takes him in, Jaafari goes on a dangerous journey to find out who his wife was.

I particularly liked the view the story offers into life in different parts of Israel. (I’ve been corresponding with an Unshelved reader who lives there, so I couldn’t have found this at a better time.) The images in the book feel incredibly straightforward, and the colors are marvelous. Makes me want to read Joe Sacco’s Palestine and Guy Delisle’s Jerusalem again, though I’m going to read Sarah Glidden’s How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less first.

Continue reading “The Attack of the Night of the Living Dead”

Yes Yes Nanette

Every Exquisite Thing by Matthew Quick. Little, Brown and Company, 2016. 9780316379595.

everyexquisiteHigh school junior Nanette is on a well-planned track to her future. She’s good at school and amazing at soccer,  and she’ll soon have colleges fighting to pay her way. Then her English teacher gives her a xeroxed copy of The Bubblegum Reaper. The novel is pretty simple, about a high-school boy who decides he wants to “just quit,” but it changes Nanette’s life. Her teacher ends up introducing her to the reclusive author, who took the book out of print after one too many people used it to justify shootings. The author introduces her to Little Lex, an intense poet her age and also an ardent fan of the book. Nanette falls in love and makes huge changes in her life, at a high price.

This story did not go where I thought it would, or where I was afraid it would. Nanette’s life and sense of self change drastically and painfully in totally believable ways, and she’s surprised by who is willing to stick with her and who isn’t. Quick brings in some hallmarks of his other books: a quirky person who has something significant to share (a cop who wears a ribbon on his finger in memory of his young son who was murdered) and a therapist who helps the protagonist find the strength she needs. (Nanette’s doctor, who recommends that she speak about herself in the third person to help her take better care of her own needs.) Nanette does, and it changes how about a third of the story is written. It’s touching and hilarious.

Someone giving a protagonist the book that changes their life can feel a little bit like pandering to teachers and librarians, but Every Exquisite Thing is more about finding what you need to change your life and how painful that can be. It’s also about feeling locked into a particular path because it’s what’s expected of you: one of Nanette’s realizations is that she doesn’t actually enjoy soccer, even though she’s very good at it. It’s that aspect that makes me want to ensure I’ve always got a copy available for the kids who need it.

One dead (maybe two)


One D.O.A. One on the Way [a novel] by Mary Robison. Counterpoint, 2009. 9781582435619. 166pp

I don’t read much literary fiction, but what I do read is usually recommended to me by my friend Wally or my favorite bookseller at Third Place Books. This is one of the latter. His pitch went something like this: Mary Robison is a fantastic writer. A while back she had a severe case of writer’s block she cured by writing on index cards. She jots down sentences and scenes and just bits that reveal character and then, when she has enough, arranges them until they form some sort of narrative. He showed me a few pages of the book, written in small bits as he’d described. I was hooked. (He may have also told me she now writes in her car, but I heard Nicholson Baker say that he does that, too, so I’m not sure about this. I’m also not sure how much of this I’m remembering wrong, so I’m not putting quotes around the pitch or telling you his name.)

The story that slowly reveals itself is about a location scout living in post-Katrina New Orleans. She’s married to one of two twins, and having an affair with the other, as she tries to train a new assistant. It’s full of sentences and descriptions so full of craft that they stopped me cold — I’d  often put the book down and walk away for a few moments before sitting down again and reading them again.

Love (Not Actually)

Love Addict.jpg

Love Addict: Confessions of a Serial Dater by Koren Shadmi. Top Shelf, 2016. 9781603093934.

Publisher’s Rating: For Mature Readers.

(I’m writing this in part because Sarah couldn’t stand this book, and I consider that a challenge.)

After an intense breakup, K is planning on a year of loneliness until another woman comes along and takes pity on him. But his friends try to convince him that it’s okay to hook up with women for sex, and get him signed up for an online dating site. Soon he’s sleeping with all kinds of different women, and enjoying himself quite a bit. But he’s also becoming a shallow asshole.

This has a very different tone from Jeffrey Brown’s first graphic novels, which were mostly stories of his bad relationships, but they have something in common in terms of how revealing they are about the misery of dating. And I loved Shadmi’s art, which looks as if he drew the whole thing with a cheap blue Bic pen before adding very muted colors with a computer. (I recently read his surreal and un-book-talkable The Abaddon, which at first seems to be about people in an apartment building with no way out. Are the people there dead? Or is something weirder going on? Either way, it’s full of even more relentlessly strange colors and textures than this book.)

Sarah:  K probably shares substance abuse and risk-taking problems with his train-wreck of a roomie. Everyone in this book, including the parade of women the two date, are my nightmares. This book makes me want to never ever date another human being again. And did I mention the near-rape? I’m willing to believe that Shadmi knows this behavior is atrocious, but K sure doesn’t. If the sign of great art is provoking a reaction, consider me provoked, but I’m not going to pick up another book like this one.

Gene: I may give this to my teenager daughter to keep her from dating for the next few years. I disagree with none of what Sarah said, but the book is very readable in a “I’m glad this isn’t my train wreck” way. And the art is fab.