Category Archives: Memoir

Book Review: THE WIDOWER’S NOTEBOOK by Jonathan Santlofer

THE WIDOWER’S NOTEBOOK

Jonathan Santlofer is a successful artist and novelist. I had the privilege of hearing him read recently as he shared the stage with two other distinguished writers, Neal Thompson and Wendy C. Ortiz, at a panel on memoir writing at Hugo House in Seattle. Later, in person, I asked Mr. Santlofer if he ever considered doing a graphic novel, given his facility with words and images, and he said he’d love to do it! He’s on my radar right now. His book, The Widower’s Notebook, is quite a page-turner. I went to the Tin Table for a late dinner and couldn’t put it down. The waitress even said I could stay as long as I wanted. After making some time for the Ford-Kavanaugh hearings, I kept reading the next day and finished in another sitting. What I got from this book is a riveting narrative covering a heart-wrenching time in the author’s life.

Mr. Santlofer has an uncanny observational style: you believe you’re with him. His writing is vivid and carries you along even when he’s writing about not feeling up to doing anything at all. It’s the mark of not only a good writer but an excellent writer to allow you into a life without you being aware of any of the effort involved. This is a story of a most significant loss, the death of one’s life partner. Santlofer achieves a level of the sublime by simply being in the moment. He does with his writing what he does with his drawings: evoke a sense of the hyperreal. You are really there with the author as he finds his wife, Joy, dying before his eyes, the subsequent rush to the hospital, and the frenetic tripping through memories.

We follow along as Santlofer reflects upon a grand life beginning with a young bohemian couple, just married, in Brooklyn, circa 1967. We progress in a stream of consciousness fashion from the birth of Dorie, his beloved daughter, to the recent death of Joy to the building up of a new life. The act of drawing helps with the act of mourning–drawings work when words seem to fail or seem to be not enough. There’s a touch of magic to art-making and it seems most explicit when examining an intimate and intricately crafted drawing. The excerpt below speaks to this process:

“I am able to draw my wife because drawing is abstract, because you can’t really draw something until you stop identifying it. You can’t think: this is an eye, or a nose, or lips, or you will not be able to draw them; an eye, a nose, lips are all the same, simply marks on a page.

Drawing has made it possible for me to stay close to Joy when she in no longer here. It is a way to create a picture of her without feeling weird or maudlin. I am not sitting in a dark room crying over a photo of my dead wife; I am at my drawing table, working.

Grief is chaotic; art is order. Ironic, as most people think art is all about feeling and emotion, when in fact the artist needs to be ordered and conscious to create art that will, in turn, stir feelings and emotion in others.”

A drawing is a complicated thing.

Santlofer’s book is about dying and about living. It is as much about mourning as it is about relationships, family, and the creative process. Indeed, art can save your life and Santlofer’s book eloquently and passionately speaks to perseverance and purpose.

The Widower’s Notebook is a 272-page paperback with illustrations, published by Penguin Random House.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Books, Death, Death and Dying, Hugo House, Jonathan Santlofer, Memoir, New York City, Penguin Random House, Seattle, writers, writing

Comics Review: A LIFE HALF-FORGOTTEN by James Burns

A LIFE HALF-FORGOTTEN by James Burns

James Burns is a very interesting cartoonist. It was a pleasure last year to review his work. A Life Half-Forgotten is an impressive piece of memoir comics, or “autobio,” as this work is commonly referred to within comics circles. Burns taps into his childhood with a confidence and curiosity that sets the bar high. It challenges and inspires each of us to reach back and take a closer look into the past.

Analyzing one’s childhood can be a daunting task. Where to begin? As an exercise in recovering memory alone, you have quite a job ahead of you. When did life truly begin for you? For Burns, life seems to have begun in preschool as he dutifully accepted a box of crayons at the start of the day. He goes on to write and draw his way to insightful observations. All the forgotten traumas come home to roost. Burns made it his goal to sift through the big and small details and see what mattered most. This is a childhood in a Central Ohio suburbia during the 60s and 70s. With great care, and a good dose of humor, Burns explores the high and low points: freedom and privilege as well as murder and divorce.

A LIFE HALF-FORGOTTEN by James Burns

Burns plays with that special ambiguity inherent in comics as he casts himself in this first-person narrative. We have Burns at the beginning playing host followed by him appearing to walk back into his childhood past. He is now a child but he appears to remain an adult. His face retains the same mature features in many panels but also seems to shift to a softer and younger version in other panels. The results, for my tastes, give the scenes an added edge. These are all memories, after all, with a dream-like tone. The black & white with gray tones also helps to heighten the sense of searching into the past.

As Burns puts it, we are all dealing with fragments when it comes to our personal memory. One person paints a picture based on childhood while a sibling paints another. We are summoning up phantoms. We are asking our phantoms to dance again. Burns points out that his recollections seek a greater truth. He acknowledges that he wasn’t concentrating on capturing anyone’s likeness. Instead, he wanted to try to understand things better like the tragic death of a classmate.

Now, I’ll get back to this wonderful tension between the adult Burns seeking out his childhood self, with Burns depicting himself as a child but with an adult’s face. It makes for some very compelling passages. I think I like best where he looks back at how much he enjoyed wearing a Superman costume for Halloween when he was seven years-old. He loved it so much that he ended up wearing the costume on a regular basis underneath his street clothes, just like Clark Kent! It’s such a sweet and innocent recollection–and there’s a depiction of Burns, as a child in a Superman costume but with an adult’s face. It’s an scene filled with haunting melancholy and one of the more striking images I’ve seen in comics this year.

Actually, there are more scenes I could get into. I’ll also mention here the birthday party for Burns when he turned six. That’s another passage that I find very moving. The conflict between nostalgia and truth can take a rest here. For one moment of pure joy, Burns is having a grand time with friends in his backyard. He’s having cake and ice cream. And he gets to play with the most amazing toy fire engine, his featured birthday gift. You attach a garden hose to its side and it gushes out water through its tiny fire hose! I would have loved one of those toys!

A LIFE HALF-FORGOTTEN by James Burns

The murky world of memory is evoked quite well and Burns manages to snare some of his childhood ghosts. He manages to sit down with them, talk to them, play with them, and reach some sort of closure. This book invites the reader to do the same.

Visit James Burns right here. You can find A Life Half-Forgotten at Amazon right here.

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Filed under Alt-Comics, Alternative Comics, Childhood, Comics, Family, Graphic Novel Reviews, graphic novels, Independent Comics, Indie, James Burns, Memoir, Memory, Not My Small Diary

Review: ‘Bread & Wine: An Erotic Tale of New York’ by Samuel R. Delany and Mia Wolff

Bread-Wine-Samuel-Delany-2013

“Bread & Wine: An Erotic Tale of New York” is a curiously disarming story about love. There is sex but there is also love. The matter-of-fact quality of this graphic novel reassures us in an offbeat and mysterious way. It is the story described by the great contemporary writer Samuel R. Delany and interpreted and drawn by fine artist Mia Wolff. Because this is a graphic novel we get a unique perspective on events. Ms. Wolff reveals some things left unsaid and emphasizes other things left understated. This 64-page hardcover book is now back in print, published by Fantagraphics Books which you can view here.

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Samuel R. Delany has been in the literary spotlight since the publication of his work, “The Jewels of Aptor,” in 1962, at age 20. Author, professor and literary critic, Mr. Delany’s work includes science fiction novels, memoir, criticism, and essays on sexuality and society. This graphic novel, originally published in 1999, springs from a memoir and stands alone as engaging and insightful. Much has been written about Mr. Delany’s relationship with Dennis Rickett, a homeless man near Mr. Delany’s New York apartment on the Upper West Side. For such a celebrated author, who often writes on issues of class, one can only wonder what Mr. Delany was thinking as his relationship with Mr. Rickett blossomed. But, read carefully, and you’ll find some answers. The short answer is that it all boils down to honest affection.

For a book that promises an erotic tale, there are even more scenes that speak to the great divide between the two men which they will either struggle with or overcome. All signs appear to point to a relationship that continues to grow. We are free to give shape and meaning to our lives as we see fit. For this book, Mr. Delany weaves lines from the great German Romantic lyric poet, Friedrich Hölderlin. His poem, “Bread and Wine,” is freely quoted throughout. It is a poem about the inevitable failure of reconciling the classic past to the present. Perhaps it is there that Mr. Delany reveals himself most naked and raw. An appreciation for the finer points in life make the present all the sweeter. As written in “Bread & Wine,” towards the end of the poem: “Bread is a fruit of Earth, yet touched by the blessing of sunlight, from the thundering god issues the gladness of wine.”

Bread-and-Wine-Delany-Wolff

“Bread & Wine: An Erotic Tale of New York” is available now. Visit our friends at Fantagraphics Books here.

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Filed under Comics, Fantagraphics Books, Graphic Novel Reviews, graphic novels, Memoir, New York City, Samuel R. Delany

Book Review: MY FATHER’S HOUSE By Beatrix Ost

My-Fathers-House-Beatrix-Ost

“My Father’s House” is unusual in many ways. It is an honest and loving portrait of the author’s father, beautifully written, that provides a unique window into Nazi Germany. The book is made up of numerous vivid details such as this passage:

Once, my parents had lived a truly magical life. In the early years of their marriage, between the wars, they lived with their friend Baron Wilhelm Farnbühler at his castle near Stuttgart. The Baron had his own wing; my parents, with Uli and Anita, had theirs. In the great hall, in a cage, there dwelt an owl, who preferred to eat living things: rabbits and mice. His lame wing folded into a crutch, he shrieked into the night and rattled the bars.

I simply happened upon the life and work of Beatrix Ost while in the process of exploring. It began while I was doing some research for a book review of, “Jerusalem,” a graphic novel that relates to the creation of the State of Israel. I had also just written a movie review of a documentary, “The Flat,” about the unusual relationship between a Jewish couple, who had emigrated to Palestine during World War II, and maintained a friendship, after the war, with a high ranking Nazi official. Life is complicated. Things are never quite as they seem. In the case of Beatrix Ost, this is an enormously talented person: writer, artist, desginer, actor, and theatrical producer. She is what she appears to be and so much more.

Beatrix Ost comes from a world of the rich, those F. Scott Fitzgerald has noted as “different from you and me.” Ost is not here to deny the world she was born into. She was born in 1940, in the castle from the above passage. However, given this difference or distinction, Ost finds a way for you to join in. It is, in fact, a world not so different from you and me. It is far more earthy and raw than you may imagine.

This may sound trite, but many readers may relate to the stories presented here if they think of the landmark musical, “The Sound of Music.” As jarring as it is to juxtapose Nazis with Bavarian folklife, general audiences understand, in the context of the musical, how two Germanys could coexist: one run by Hitler and another very different one. It takes a strength and boldness to be able to bring out a multitude of memories that are innocent and sweet amid a backdrop of war. Ost engages the reader on a Proustian level, never missing a beat of recovered memory and dipping deep into a well of language that consistently produces gems.

Think of this book as a collection of passages that, as a whole, bring out a greater truth. Each passage is like a little story of its own. Consider this passage from “The Gleaners,” describing people during World War II coming to the Ost family farm in search of food. They would come in search of even the smallest potato. Dieter, a member of the household staff would be dispatched to fetch a bunch of the teenaged girls from the girls school to help themselves to potatoes. They arrived in what they could muster up for the latest fashion, all hardened by the war but joyful:

The girls trudged along behind the plow, collecting potatoes in sacks. When the sacks were full, they were tipped into a cart. It started to rain. The girls sought shelter under the one available roof: the potato wagon. But the rain got through between the narrow planks, and after a short while, they were drenched. Their cheap dresses rode up above their knees, clinging to their thin bodies. Little rivulets of color ran down their legs.

It is Ost’s father, Fritz, who looms larger than life over this landscape of memory. He did his military service in Africa and subsequently retired, including his membership in the Nazi party. He had only belonged to the party to help his friends, particularly his Jewish friends, secure safe passage out of the country. He was a proud man that seemed to only want to be left alone to rule over his estate, Goldachhof, a rural paradise of manor, farm and stables, about twenty miles out of Munich. If there were Nazis amidst the circles he travelled in, he didn’t want to know. What he, and his wife, Adi, did know was to help those in need and Goldachhof proved a haven for refuges many times over. It is this backdrop that little Beatrix grew up in and learned the ways of the world, from getting by on rations to celebrating the dawn of a new world ushered in by the Americans.

This excerpt gives you a taste of the exuberance of youth faced with big change. The Americans, all brash and exciting, had finally arrived. But they make a few missteps. A couple of homesick Texans decide to ride a couple of the carriage horses, who were not meant for riding. Then some soldiers got the nutty idea of going fishing with hand grenades. This was far too much for Herr Ost and he finally managed to restore order by bringing in a high ranking American officer to have a talk with his men. But change had arrived and there was no turning back:

Now we children played Yank all winter long as we sledded down the granary path on our Jeeps. We still had our “Judenstrick,” ersatz cigarettes made from the winter-dried marrow of elderberry twigs, but we were infatuated with everything the Americans brought into our little world. They had landed among us with the exciting utensils of their exotic culture. Chewing gum. Nescafe. Powdered milk. Hershey’s chocolate. Blue jeans. Johnson’s lotion. Marlboros. Things useful and also symbols of hope, the end of terror. Our blue days were gone–love live The Blues.

Beatrix-Ost-My-Fathers-House

How such a book came into being is remarkable. “My Father’s House” is an inspiring and enlightening work. It can be appreciated on many levels, not the least of which is in the classroom. You can purchase it here.

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Filed under Autobiography, Book Reviews, Books, History, Memoir, Nazi Germany, Nazis