Review: After the Falls, Catherine Gildiner

Here are two recommendations to further your happiness:

1. Go read Too Close to the Falls. It is a lovely, touching, frequently laugh-out-loud funny memoir about Catherine Gildiner’s childhood in Lewiston, New York, and her friendship with her father’s delivery man, Roy. I cannot say enough good things about it. Toward the end, it gets quite a bit sadder, but the rest of the book is so wonderful that I did not really mind. Gildiner’s account of stabbing a classmate with a compass and being taken to a psychologist for evaluation is one of the funniest bits of life writing I have ever read.

2. If, having read Too Close to the Falls, you then feel you must find out what happened in Catherine Gildiner’s life subsequently, feel free to read After the Falls. Only do yourself a favor and don’t read Chapter 4. Really. I read Chapter 4 and now I am stuck with it in my brain forever. If you do not want to be made to feel nastily complicit in a group of dumb teenage boys taking sexual advantage of a dumb teenage girl in a really awful way, skip it. I have only your best interests at heart when I say: SKIP THAT CHAPTER. If you’re dead curious you can email me and I’ll tell you what’s in it. That will still be sad for your brain, but less upsetting than Catherine Gildiner’s polished, vivid prose. You’re welcome.

Catherine Gildiner’s lovely prose is a major bonus in Too Close to the Falls — every scene pops. In this one it just made me sad. Her descriptions of her family, and particularly her deteriorating relationship with her father, are often painful to read. I was so pleased that this book had been written, and so depressed while I was actually reading it. Gildiner’s skill as a writer is considerable. But I am far away from my Mumsy and Daddy (not to mention my Social and Indie Sisters and a whole slew of aunts and uncles), and I do not want to read about other people being mean to theirs. Or about other people being brave and tough because they need to be because their parents are ill and/or incapacitated.

In sum, I am not getting this for my mother for Christmas, as I initially thought I would. I will get her something else. Something better. A present even better than I thought After the Falls was going to be when I first heard of it. That tapping sound you can hear? Is my Christmas-gift-skills colors being nailed to the mast.

Burma Chronicles & Love and Rockets

And now for some comics that did not rock my world but count towards the Graphic Novels Challenge anyway:

Burma Chronicles, Guy Delisle

Once again Guy Delisle, French-Canadian animator and cartoonist, went a-traveling to a faraway land with an oppressive regime.  In this case, his wife Nadège was working for Médecins sans Frontières (MSF); Nadège, Guy, and their small son Louis take off for Burma (Myanmar) for a year.  Delisle notes at the beginning of the book that the UN has recognized the regime and calls it Myanmar, but that many countries, including Canada, have not.  Hence Burma.

If I hadn’t read Pyongyang first, I think I’d have liked Burma Chronicles better. Burma Chronicles is charming, with keenly noted observations of day-to-day life in Burma, but Pyongyang was so chilling and scary that it was hard for this one to live up to it.  Because Delisle was in Burma longer than he was in North Korea, he got to know people better, but you’d never know it from the book.  He has an eye for detail but not an ear for conversation.  His wife’s present throughout the book, and I never had any idea what she was like.

This isn’t to say that I no longer love Guy Delisle.  At first his wife believes that they will be going to Guatemala rather than Burma, and Delisle immediately pops Star Trek into the DVD player and starts playing it in Spanish.  A man after my own heart.  I love watching Buffy in French.  Plus there’s a picture of him trying to bathe his son in a shower that’s worth the price of admission all by itself.  Tip: Don’t try to bathe a baby in the shower.

Love and Rockets, vol. 1, by the Hernandez Brothers

Am I stupid?  Stupid in the head?  Very, very stupid?  I think I must be extremely stupid, y’all, because I swear to Jesus, I was reading these stories and they did not make sense to my brain.  I have heard that Love and Rockets is glorious.  It may be glorious but it is right over my head.

Any thoughts on this?  If you loved Love and Rockets, please tell me what I’m missing.  I have heard good things!  I don’t want to lose a good graphic novel series around being a fail reader.  Should I persist into volume two?  Now that Delisle has given me a taste for travel writing, do you have any recommendations along that line?  Good travel books?  Anyone?

Pyongyang, Guy Delisle

I first heard about Guy Delisle over at A Life in Books, when Lesley reviewed Pyongyang, and since then it seems he’s been popping up all over the place.  Delisle writes travelogues in comics form of the time he has spent living in countries with oppressive regimes, which is a slightly weird thing to be known for, but never mind.  Pyongyang chronicles Delisle’s two-month stay in North Korea, where he is supervising the animation of a children’s cartoon.

From the first page I loved Pyongyang.  Delisle starts by excerpting the travel information he’s received about going to North Korea.  “Do not do anything on your own,” says one of them, and indeed Delisle is not supposed to go anywhere without his guide.  The guide is responsible for ensuring that Delisle sees and hears the best of North Korea, and is always taking him to see monuments of Kim Jong-Il, or pointing out “volunteers” cleaning up roads or picking up trash.

Delisle has an excellent eye for small, chilling details of life in North Korea.  At one point he notes that only married men with children are permitted to travel outside of North Korea.  He leaves it at that, but the implication is obvious.  What creeped me out the most is when Delisle realizes he hasn’t seen any handicapped people since coming to North Korea.  He asks his guide, and the guide says there are none.  Everyone in North Korea is born strong and healthy and intelligent.

I always think it must be very difficult to end a travelogue.  The obvious ending to a travelogue is, And then I went home, but that’s not necessarily very satisfying, particularly if, as in Delisle’s case, you have been writing about some serious, important issues.  Pyongyang doesn’t just end, it has an ending.  Props, Guy Delisle.

I am afraid that Burma Chronicles will be unable to meet the standard set by Pyongyang, but so far it is also good.  Updates as warranted.  This review brought to you by the Graphic Novels Challenge!  Which I’d completely forgotten about, along with all my other challenges, until I noticed that someone else had read Pyongyang for the Graphic Novels Challenge, so I guess I cannot really say that this review was, in fact, brought to you by the Graphic Novels Challenge.  That reminds me, I bet some of the books I have read recently can go towards some of my other challenges, and I didn’t even notice.  Dear, dear, dear, I am plainly teetering on the edge of senility here.

Other people reviewed it too:

A Life in Books
A Striped Armchair
The Captive Reader
The Bookling
Helen’s Book Blog

Have I missed yours?  Tell me and I’ll add a link!

Reviewing other people’s grief

Alone in my sublet apartment, no library books whatsoever and no library cards also, and my sublessor having very few books unrelated to law and class anxieties, I picked up Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking and read it.  It’s a very unfortunate book!  When Joan Didion’s only daughter Quintana was in the hospital with a serious brain problem, she and her husband went home for dinner, and her husband died.  Being a writer, she wrote about it.  Attempting to research death, she finds herself without a road map for grieving.  She finds herself subconsciously taking measures to bring back John or deny the reality of his death: hence, the year of magical thinking.

I am not wild about Joan Didion’s style of writing, I have to say.  She keeps circling back around to the same references, the same snippets of quotation, which I can’t say I uniformly hate as a device, but I do not like it here.  I didn’t dislike the book – quite the contrary! – but the reason I liked it was Didion’s honesty about the experience of grieving her husband.  I liked that she didn’t gloss over difficulties she had had in her marriage.  But I might not read the other four Didion books my sublessor owns.  In fact I will definitely not.

Thereafter, I thought it would be interesting to read the classic thing, C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed, a copy of which my lovely sister gave me upon my arrival in this Impressive Academic Town.  Along with a Josephine Tey mystery, some Life cereal, and The King Must Die.  That’s how lovely she is.  Oh, and some water when I was all shaky and dehydrated from drinking four cups of coffee on the plane and no water and then there were no food vendors or even vending machines between the plane and the train so I had no water for ten hours.  And also chicken with lemon sauce and goat cheese that she made herself, and, on a different day, sushi from a sushi place.

I know that I am supposed to be reading all of CS Lewis’s books in order so as to follow the progression of his thought.  However, I thought it would be interesting to read A Grief Observed right after The Year of Magical Thinking, and anyway, I have already read a bunch of his books like the Chronicles of Narnia and Mere Christianity and Surprised by Joy, so if reading a book out of order spoils the project, then the project has been spoiled since I was three years old.

A Grief Observed is exactly everything I love best about C.S. Lewis: the fluidity of expression, the nice clear prose, and the sincerity of emotion.  He pays attention to what he is thinking, and how his grief takes many different forms, and every now and then there is a truly wrenching cri de coeur.  I was particularly interested in Lewis’s fears that his imperfect, self-oriented memory of his wife would replace, eventually, the complex, contradictory, fundamentally other reality of her.  Although he says little about her (he castigates himself for writing so much about himself when he should be writing only of her), the little he says speaks volumes about her ability to not put up with his shit:

What was [Joy] not to me?  She was my daughter and my mother, my pupil and my teacher, my subject and my sovereign; and always, holding all these in solution, my trusty comrade, friend, shipmate, fellow soldier.  My mistress; but at the same time all that any man friend (and I have good ones) has ever been to me.  Perhaps more.  If we had never fallen in love we should have none the less been always together, and created a scandal.  That’s what I meant when I once praised her for her “masculine virtues”.  But she soon put a stop to that by asking how I’d like to be praised for my feminine ones.

Good for her.

Guest review: Blankets, Craig Thompson

That’s right, everyone!  My puppy voice paid off!  My mumsy has agreed to review Blankets here guestily.  I am hoping that she will find she loves doing guest reviews and will subsequently write about some of the cool and interesting books she read when she was getting her master’s degree in pastoral theology.  She has many books about women in the Bible and feminism in Catholicism and like that, and I would slap a Women Unbound label on the reviews she would write of them, and then I would pretend they counted towards my totals.  Because I have been shamefully neglecting that challenge this month.

So, without further ado, heeeeeeeeeeere’s Mumsy!

Blankets, Craig Thompson
(a review by Jenny’s lovely mum)

First, a somewhat shaming confession:  when I was a kid, I would deliberately make friends with kids whose parents would spring for comic books.  I was a big reader anyway, anything from “Little Women” to the back of the Cap’n Crunch box, but I was a truly impassioned comic books fan.  So the graphic novel format is already close to my heart.

“Blankets” is Craig Thompson’s memoir of his childhood in an intensely religious, rigidly fundamentalist home.  Wedged between his family and community’s punitive, authoritarian God and his own compelling need to draw and write, young Craig is a  loner and a misfit who wants desperately to  find a way to please God while maintaining some vestige of inner integrity.  Some of this is painful to read – Thompson is very, very good at drawing emotional turmoil, and  the first episode of this novel was so heart-wrenching that I wasn’t sure I could continue reading.

But then, oh then, in his senior year of high school, he meets Raina at church camp.

And that is where Blankets moves from being an interesting memoir to being the most moving story of first love that I have ever read.  Thompson has a true artist’s gift for total recall, and he has not forgotten one beat of his heart from that year: his drawings of his two weeks at Raina’s house seem to actually shimmer with passion.  Wielding the graphic novel format with the skill of a master, Thompson never has to use more that the simplest prose to convey sweeping, transcendent emotion.  Craig’s love for Raina is his first genuine experience of the divine – the experience he so longed for, and never found, in church – and he is able to convey this with absolute simplicity and overwhelming tenderness.

I love memoirs, but my one objection to them has always been that I sometimes cringe when I imagine what the publication of the memoir did to the relationships of the author with his significant others.  (I once heard an author say that when you lived with a writer, you always knew there was an assassin in the family.)  So kudos to Thompson for respecting the privacy of both family and friends, while penning a memoir so nakedly open that one is shaken at the end by how much he revealed of his inner life.  And more than kudos to Thompson for using his beautiful drawings so brilliantly, often conveying in a single panel what could not have been expressed in a thousand words.  The two panels in which his parents express their deep pride in their grown son, while remaining utterly oblivious to the man he really is, are truly impressive.

Other reviews:

things mean a lot
The Zen Leaf
Regular Rumination
A Life in Books
Stuff as Dreams Are Made On
Book Addiction
Melody’s Reading Corner
Rhapsody in Books
A Good Stopping Point
Sophisticated Dorkiness
Shelf Love
Book Lust
Bart’s Bookshelf
One Swede Read
Reading Rants!
Should Be Reading
So Many Books
1 More Chapter
Experiments in Reading
One Literature Nut

Phew!  That was many! Let me know if I missed yours.

Review: Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven, Susan Jane Gilman

The word “grandiose”, in my family, is a loaded word.  When one of us uses the word “grandiose” to describe someone, we understand that we actually mean “might possibly benefit from medication; updates as warranted”.  I bring that up because if I had been traveling in Communist China with a girl I didn’t know very well, and she had started talking about the project she was working on that was going to be important to national security, I’d have called home and said, “Claire is waxing grandiose,” and my parents would have said, “You get her on a plane and both of you come home this instant.”

Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven is a chronicle of Susan Gilman and her friend “Claire Van Houten”, who decide to go on a round-the-world backpacking trip after they graduated from Brown.  They plan to see the world raw and real, stay off the beaten path, and come home with stories of places and things unseen by Western eyes.  This already sounds very unawesome to me.  I have high anxiety levels and no sense of direction, and I do not like to go to new places (especially new places where I don’t speak the language) without a minder to mind me.  But wait!  Susan Gilman’s already unawesome plans become so much worse.  As they are traveling off the beaten path in Communist China, Claire goes crazy.  Crazy.

RIGHT IN HER HEAD.

Here is the point at which I, child of therapists, talker-out of feelings, and frequent consulter of the DSM-IV, would have decided to pack it in:

“I’m working on a world curriculum,” she said distantly, twisting her watch around on her wrist.  “A compendium of insights on all the nations we’re visiting.  I have to profile their cultures, their histories, their outlooks.  Eventually it will be adapted for grade schools, high schools, universities, and think tanks in Washington.  It’ll be a prototype – you know, a sort of Proustian examination of the world today?  But it’ll be practical, too.  Kids like Cynthia’s boys, whose parents can’t take them to China and India, they’ll be able to access it like a database…It’s something I’ve just got to do.  It’s crucial.  One day it might become a component of our national security.”

Here is the point at which Susan Jane Gilman decided to go home:

“Claire jumped in a river?” I say after a moment.

“Yes.  But do not worry,” Jonnie adds hurriedly.  “The peasants fished her out.”

“Peasants?”

“Yes.  And they gave her clothes.”

“Clothes?” I say faintly.  “What happened to her clothes?”

“It seems she took them off,” he replies, “when she jumped in the river.”

Horrific, right?  Remember, they were in Communist China in 1986, before the internet, or like, international phone cards.  They got questioned by the military police more times than one time.  Gilman does a good job conveying her own ignorance and helplessness, her (understandable, I think) failure to recognize the signs that Claire was having a breakdown, her occasional seriously awful behavior to the people she meets.  She also writes movingly of the splendor of the good moments: walking on the Great Wall of China, listening to a Chinese opera singer on a boat late at night, the kindness of the people they meet.

However, I couldn’t enjoy this book.  It resembled too closely my worst nightmares of traveling.  It was one of those reading experiences where you can’t abandon the book in the middle, because your imagination has to be worse than the truth, and at the same time, you can’t go to bed with the book unfinished, because it will crawl into your subconscious and affix itself to your dreams like a leech.  After the Oscars (which I watched using the channels on my television, and turning the volume up and down with my remote control just because I could) I stayed up until 12:30 to finish the book.  I cannot take this kind of stress.  I must never read this book again.

I felt this same way, but more so, about Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal Dreams, which I read once on a road trip.  I had to keep reading and I didn’t want to keep reading, and finally I abandoned it at a rest stop in Alabama.  What’s been an upsetting read for you in the past?  A book that you wished you had never started but you couldn’t not finish?

Other reviews:

Sophisticated Dorkiness
reading is my superpower
Bermudaonion’s Weblog
5 Minutes for Books
S. Krishna’s Books
Wrighty’s Reads
One Person’s Journey Through a World of Books
A Bookworm’s World
Chick with Books
Devourer of Books
Bibliophile by the Sea
She Is Too Fond of Books
Books, Movies, and Chinese Food
Books in the City
Bookin’ with Bingo
Drey’s Library
A Novel Menagerie
My Book Views
Bookopolis

West with the Night, Beryl Markham

DogEar ReadingChallenge

For Jeane’s Dog Ear Challenge: West with the Night was the nonfiction book on an obscure topic/on a topic you don’t often read about.  I had a broad selection of Jeane recommendations for this one, since she is always reading books that sound interesting but that I would never pick up on my own.

West with the Night is Beryl Markham’s memoir of growing up on her father’s farm in Africa, and becoming a horse trainer, and eventually learning to fly a plane.  Beryl Markham sounds like a pretty cool person, though from reading her Wikipedia article it sounds like you sure wouldn’t want to be married to her.  (She had an affair with the author of The Little Prince!)  And the writing was lovely, though a bit plummy for me.

One thing that didn’t really work for me was the fact that the memoir is composed of chapters that tend to provide slice-of-life-y anecdotes about her time doing different things.  I liked some of the anecdotes a lot, and some of them not so much, but I struggled to fit them into a narrative.  If my brain were a laptop, it would have made a lot of whirring noises and eventually overheated, that’s how hard I was trying to make an overarching story out of the chapters.  This isn’t necessarily a fault in the book, but I didn’t care for that structure – every time I got interested in something, the chapter ended, and the book went on to something totally else!

Now I am on to something totally else: In Defense of Food.  I understand the food being defended is generally vegetables?  Maybe this will make me love vegetables more, or maybe it will make me hungry for fast food – which is what happened, I’m sorry to say, when I read Fast Food Nation.  Mm, I fancy some cheesy fries right now.

Other reviews: Jeane’s, Framed and Booked, ChainReading