07734

Dear Fahrenheit 451: Love and Heartbreak in the Stacks: A Librarian’s Love Letters and Breakup Notes to the Books in Her Life by Annie Spence. Flatiron Books, 2017. 9781250106490.

Sarah: Each chapter of this is about a book or a genre. Each is only two or three pages long, and starts with a fake catalog entry — the subject headings are sometimes serious and sometimes hilarious. Each chapter is written like a letter. The first one starts “Dear The Goldfinch,” the book by Donna Tartt.
Gene: Have you read The Goldfinch?
S: No, but I feel like I needed post-it flags or a highlighter to mark all the books in here I want to read now. She writes love letters to the books that changed her life and why she loved them, how they came into her life at the right time…
G: So it’s as much about her as about the books?
S: Is is SO much about her, it’s this great autobiography through books. And she works in a library, so she also writes breakup letters to books she has to weed from the collection!
G: It’s not just love letters?
S: Not just love letters! Breakup letters, hate letters…
G: Hate letters!
S: Here’s one to a book, the subject headings she puts at the top are “Calculators” and “Old as Shit.” It’s to the book The Calculating Book: Fun and Games with Your Pocket Calculator. (laughs)
G: That one’s a breakup letter.
S: “We never go out anymore. To be more specific: you. You are REALLY not getting out much these days. It’s not that recreational mathematics isn’t a thing anymore. I guess it’s just that — how do I say this? Remember how on your book cover you ask if we have ever wanted to greet a friend electronically? People have kind of figured out how to do that without turning their calculators upside down to spell ‘Hello.'”
G: (laughs) Nice!
S: It covers all the relationships you can have with books. She’s got the one she reads every year, that she fell in love with in college…
G: Which one is that?
S: The Virgin Suicides. She’s got another one she fell in love with unexpectedly, and other books that came along at exactly the right time. She writes an angry letter to The Giving Tree for being a piece of shit.
G: (laughs) People love to hate on that book now.
S: Well, it’s a real weird story. I cracked this book open in Browser’s Bookshop in Olympia, to this page… well, I looked at the table of contents and had to flip to it…
G: Did you buy this? Do you own this?
S: Yeah.
G: (admiring) Well, look at you!
S: I opened it to Grey: Fifty Shades of Grey as Told by Christian. She starts he letter with “Whhhhyyyyy do people keep asking me if I’ve read you? Aren’t you the same book as the last one of you I said I didn’t want to read?” Towards the end of the letter she says, “You made me say ‘erotica’ to an old lady, Grey! I’m going to hate you forever for that.”
G: (laughs)
S: And this line, here, “It makes me want to shake readers and scream: YOU’RE SURROUNDED BY GREAT LITERATURE AND THIS SHIT ISN’T EVEN THAT DIRTY!” (laughs)
I was laughing out loud at these letters, I was touched, and she really has a handle on the kind of relationship I have with books. I mean, her life is different from mine, she has a kid and talks about the books she reads with her kid…
G: Does she write letters to them, too?
S: Uh-huh. Here’s one to My Truck Book, which her kid wants her to read out loud one million times! She has this great chapter, it’s not to any book in particular, but it’s her at a party, too shy to talk to anyone, getting progressively drunker, talking to the host’s bookshelf. (laughs)
She writes this one, “Dear Books I Imagine My Upstairs Neighbor Reads,” as a way of complaining about his horrible behavior.
She has a great section at the end that lists her recommendations by topic. One of the categories is Recovery Reads, “the books to turn to when you’re on the mend from a book that gave you nightmares or left you in a dark headspace and you need some lighter fare (but don’t want to give up quality).”
G: AKA The Zero by Jess Walter. (both laugh) What does she recommend?
S: Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk by David Sedaris, Dolly: My Life and Other Unfinished Business by Dolly Parton… she really likes celebrity tell-alls, she’s got a couple letters to them… Nobody’s Fool by Richard Russo, 32 Candles by Ernessa T. Carter…
G: Nobody’s Fool, I’ve meant to read that a couple times, and maybe this will push me towards it again.
S: She’s got other quick lists, “All Time Top Bios and Memoirs,” “Books About Girls and Romance that Don’t Make Me Wince Like Twilight.”
G: What’s on that one?
S: Just One Day by Gayle Forman, The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson, The Bermudez Triangle by Maureen Johnson, Like No Other by Una LaMarche, Dumplin by Julie Murphy. Plus some nonfiction ones.
G: That’s great! How fun! And not previously published on the web?
S: No, it’s an actual book! And worthy of being a book, worthy of being purchased, worthy of being a gift to your friends. Though I did have a coworker I recommended it to and she said it was hard for her to take because there were so many things about bad library interactions. (She read it all in one sitting and I read it over the course of several months, which I think made it more pleasant for me.)

Inhumanoids, Inhumanoids…

I subscribe to other review newsletters, I get notified every time my local library system buys a graphic novel, I haunt comic shops, and still it’s hard to get a handle on what great European graphic novels Humanoids is publishing in the U.S. Here are two that you’ll probably never come across unless you’re looking:

The Retreat by Pierre Wazem & Tom Tirabosco. Translated by Mark Bence. Humanoids, 2017. 9781594656156. 112pp.

Two friends, Serge and Igor, take a melancholy trip to the country to stay at their friend Matt’s family cabin in the woods (in Bordeaux, France, I think). It’s the last place they spent time with Matt before he died, and it’s the story of both trips and the conversations they had.

Serving this simple, touching, straightforward story, Tirabosco’s art feels thick and creamy, like he used mostly white crayons or pencils or the like on black paper. The color and texture of the paper, as well as the light application of white and some very strategic erasing seems to have played a role in really making the blacks pop off the page. Or maybe I’m totally wrong, I’m just guessing — but I’ve never seen anything that looks quite like this.

Adrift by Gregory Mardon. Translated by Mark Bence. Humanoids, 2017. 9781594658396. 116pp.

Adrift takes place mostly in the past as Mardon tells the life story of his grandfather, Adlophe “Dodo” Hérault. In 1937, at age 16, determined not to spend his life as a butcher’s boy in Douai, France, he joined the navy…where he immediately started working as a butcher. He got to see the world, though his crazy shenanigans often landed him in the brig. (One of my favorite scenes is of a bar fight he starts somewhere near Hong Kong. The crazy stuff he did is best discovered on your own, some of it quite funny.) When WWII breaks out and France is invaded, the tone of his story gets much less goofy, and he never does quite forgive the British for shelling the French naval vessel he was on. (The Brits feared the French would surrender to the Axis.) His love for the woman who would become Mardon’s grandmother is amazing, as is their life in northern Africa until they’re forced to relocate to France. His gruff exterior and his grandson’s love for him make the very end of his life that much harder and more touching.

This book reminds me of Guibert’s Alan’s War and How The World Was, rememberances of the life of his friend Alan Cope, an American who settled in France after WWII. Though I have to say, this also reminds me of my own gruff-seeming and entirely loving grandfather, especially of watching him shave.

The book is black and white and looks as if it was inked. The blacks and grays have a beautiful texture, particularly the shadows, that I’ve got no idea how Mardon achieved — it’s stunning.

All By Myself

Alone by Chabouté. Translated by Ivanka Hahnenberger. Gallery 13, 2017. 368pp. 9781501153327.

The English translation of Chabouté’s graphic novel adaptation of Moby Dick is amazing for its pacing, its artistry, and its sense of time and place. Alone is the story of a deformed man living alone in a remote lighthouse, separated from all humanity, his only contact with the outside world the boxes of supplies dropped off by fishermen (though they never see him). A new deckhand on the boat thinks the man must be unhappy, but his boss would rather not think about it. Inside the lighthouse, the man flips open a beat-up dictionary at random, reading definitions and imagining  the outside world. These short looks into his mind are brilliant, and form the heart of the book, telling as much about this lonely soul as the expressions on his face. And then the deckhand secretly initiates contact.

For such a long book, it really is a quick read, with long sections that are wordless. But I’ve found myself flipping it open again and again after finishing it the first time (or was it the second)?

The League of Secret Storytellers

The One Hundred Nights of Hero by Isabel Greenberg. Little Brown, 2016. 9780316259170. 224pp.

Kiddo, daughter of a God named Birdman, created the Early Earth. For a time it was a paradise, a happy world full of perfect, ignorant people that she liked to watch. Birdman was revolted by their purposelessness and the fact that they knew nothing of him, so he took over, creating a world where people feared and worshipped him, and where they knew their place. But he also accidentally created love.

This is a tale of two lovers in that fearful world, two women who are secretly in love, Cherry and her maid Hero. It starts when Cherry’s husband Jerome and his repulsive friend Manfred make a bet: Jermome believes Cherry is faithful, and he agrees to leave her for 100 nights to give Manfred a chance to seduce her. (Manfred doesn’t seem to understand the difference between “seduce” and “rape.”) When Manfred soon climbs uninvited into Cherry’s bed, she begs him to let her hear a story from Hero first.

Thus starts a series of magical tales (and tales within tales) that Hero learned from the League of Secret Storytellers. In a world where women aren’t allowed to learn to read or write, they stitch stories into tapestries and pass them around. They captivate not only Manfred but the guards at Jerome’s house as well. They are tales of a woman who marries the wrong man and tells him her secret, that she and her sisters can read and write; of two sisters seduced by the same man, and possibly of a murder; of a young girl whose mother is the smallest and most beautiful of the three moons, and of a king looking into a mystery posed by his three daughters.

The art in this graphic novel is dark and the lines heavy, though there are brush strokes that seem loose and unplanned. This odd combo gives the story both mythical gravitas and a bit of whimsey.

Why is the whale called “Moby Dick”?

Herman Melville’s Moby Dick by Chabouté. Translated by Laure Dupont. Dark Horse Books, 2017. 9781506701493.

I’ve danced around reading Moby Dick since buying a Fone Bone action figure with a little plastic copy, but I’m still too intimidated — I’ve never gotten past adaptations by Eisner and Kish and now this graphic novel.

This book is gorgeously large and  heavy, and illustrated in glorious black and white. It opens with a young, would-be whaler unexpectedly sharing a room with the intimidating Queequeg, a much tattooed harpooner recently arrived from the South Seas with a souvenir: a bunch of mummified heads. (Don’t worry, things work out. Q not only agrees to teach his new friend whaling, he also tells the man they’re married. Who knew Melville was that progressive?) After a freaky sermon they sign on with the Pequod. It’s clear from the start that Q is a badass harpooner, that Starbuck is trying to keep everyone safe, and that Ahab is mad and will do anything to kill the whale. But then, like me, you probably knew that already.

It’s the art and the pacing that kept me moving through the book. The story is told in short chapters, which is good because things are grim. From the short quotes (from the original I assume) that start each section and the heavy handed way everyone talks to each other, if this were just text or didn’t shift in time frequently I’d never have made it to the end. Ahab’s heavy, long coat is as black as the sea, and his eyes as crazy as Marty Feldman’s, though he’s clearly got focus. This gives the same sense of life on a boat as Nick Bertozzi’s Shackleton but it feels much more oppressive and frightening. The whales are huge. The boats that go after them aren’t. And even when the crew succeeds in killing one, it turns the boat into something worse than a butcher shop as they cut up and then boil down the blubber for the oil. (If they had eaten any of it this book might have turned me vegan.)

Fierce Bicyclists

Step Aside, Pops: A Hark! A Vagrant Collection by Kate Beaton
Drawn and Quarterly, 2015
9781770462083

stepasidepopsKate Beaton, of course, is super awesome and funny. Her gag-strip humor range? Black Canary making friends with a heavy metal singer. Alexander Pushkin enters a cat show. The emotional fallout for a nasty boy called out in Janet Jackson’s Nasty Boys music video. Wuthering Heights jokes. Ida B. Wells. Hard as nails lady Victorian bicyclists. Extra bonus for book nerds: her strips riffing on Nancy Drew and Edward Gorey book covers.

One dead (maybe two)

OneDOA.jpg

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.