Tag 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: ‘When Life Hands You Lemons, Check For Lymes’ by Phil Gerigscott

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“When Life Hands You Lemons, Check For Lymes” is a graphic memoir by Phil Gerigscott in which he ostensibly describes his struggles with Lyme disease. Consider the Lyme disease a bonus. If you’ve ever faced Lyme disease, there’s definitely much to relate with here. However, there’s lots more too. As in any life, one cannot live by Lyme disease alone. What you end up with here is a touching and very funny look at a young couple as they embark upon a life together with all its many challenges and joys. And you also get an honest account of one man’s journey to get answers about Lyme disease.

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This amounts to a journal created in a shorthand form of comics. The drawings are simple and serve to document as well as provide comedy relief. Gerigscott even points out that all the comics in his book were drawn during a certain time: October 2014 through March 2015. If you know anything about Lyme disease, know that it is a risk you take when venturing into the great wilderness. It is there that you, the urban dweller, are out of your element and at the mercy of all these foreign elements, like deer ticks which carry the disease.

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Gerigscott begins his story with where he first got a deer tick bite in early June 2012. It was on North Manitou Island near the northwest coast of Michigan. At the time, he thought he’d gotten the little sucker good. He had burned it off his thigh. That was his first mistake. As he later learned, by burning the insect, Phil had caused the little bug to vomit bacteria into his bloodstream. Not good. But then life happens and one distraction leads to another. Soon enough, Phil has forgotten about that particular incident. His next mistake. This results in a long journey of discovery as Phil tries out various cures for his mysterious muscle and joint pain that leads him to suspect a laundry list of possible causes.

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“When Life Hands You Lemons, Check For Lymes” is a 155-page, black-and-white, hand-drawn graphic memoir. It is a very funny book with a distinctive voice thoughtfully covering the subject of Lyme disease as well as: young adulthood, travel, partnership, mayonnaise, and ghosts in top hats. Lyme disease is not exactly a laughing matter and can, in fact, be deadly. But, thanks to this book and its quirky humor, we can gain some insight along with some laughs.

“When Life Hands You Lemons, Check For Lymes” is currently available for pre-order. For more details, go right here. You can also visit Phil here.

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Filed under Comics, Graphic Novel Reviews, graphic novels, Health

Review: RICHY VEGAS COMICS #8 and #9 by Richard Alexander

From "Richy Vegas Comics #9"

From “Richy Vegas Comics #9”

“Richy Vegas Comics,” by Richard Alexander, are what you would consider very personal and decidedly out of the mainstream. It reminds me a little of the work of Daniel Johnston. Based upon reading numbers 8 and 9 of this ongoing comic, I get the picture of what he’s doing and I can offer up some comments. For those who follow my reviews, you know that, at times, I’ll expand upon the review and make some general observations. I also want to discuss here personal comics in general.

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Filed under Alternative Comics, Autobio Comics, Comics, Comics Reviews, Independent Comics, Richard Alexander, Richy Vegas Comics, Self-Published

Review: ‘Truth is Fragmentary: Travelogues & Diaries’ by Gabrielle Bell

Truth-Fragmentary-Gabrielle-Bell-comics

“Truth is Fragmentary” is the name of Gabrielle Bell’s latest comics memoir collection and it says it all. Think about it. Truth is indeed fragmentary. You can point out honest, even blunt, bits of truth all you want. People will process it however they choose. Some will deny what you said. Some will misunderstand. Some will have never even come close to getting it. Maybe a few will completely see it your way. It’s a carnival we live in. Thankfully, we have astute and witty observers like Gabrielle Bell. If you’re new to her work, or if you happen to enjoy sly humor, then this is the book for you.

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Filed under Comics, Comics Journalism, Gabrielle Bell, Travel, Travelogue, Uncivilized Books

Review: ‘An Age of License: A Travelogue’ by Lucy Knisley

Lucy-Knisley-Fantagraphics-Books

Lucy Knisley snatches from the ether bits of ephemeral conversation and other momentary pleasures to present to us, “An Age of License,” her latest travelogue graphic novel. We are swept up by a whirlwind European adventure as we follow Knisley on an all-expenses paid trip of a lifetime in September of 2011. As opportunities arise, one must try to choose wisely. And so we see how Knisley fares, after some pre-travel jitters (it happens to the best of us) and she is off and running. Knisley has a clean line in the service of a direct and crisp narrative. It is a pleasure to see her continue to evolve as an autobiographical artist.

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Filed under Comics, Fantagraphics Books, Food, Graphic Novel Reviews, graphic novels, Lucy Knisley, Travel

Comic-Con 2014 Interview: Lucy Knisley

Lucy Knisley is a wonderfully observant cartoonist. There wasn’t anything quite like her comics journal, “French Milk,” when it was first published in 2007, and it has grown in stature ever since. It’s a fun read, first of all. It’s also a gentle push forward in what the comics medium is capable of. Knisley has created a number of other works with that same personal quality. Her more recent notable work is “Relish,” published by First Second in 2013. In this work, the narrative is tighter and the drawing more refined in keeping with the book’s structured theme. For this interview, there is some comparison of these two works and some thoughts on what lies ahead for comics.

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We begin with thoughts on M.F. Fisher, a master at storytelling that made a fine mix of memoir and writing on food. Fisher’s first published book was “Serve it Forth,” in 1937. And, like the title implies, the pages within contain words that express an uncanny zest for life, and food. Nowadays, it seems like we’re all foodies. But only a few can claim to be standard-bearers to Fisher to any degree. I started thinking about that in terms of what Knisley is doing and that is where our conversation takes off.

You can find out more about Lucy Knisley by visiting her site here as well as visiting our friends at First Second Books right here.

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Filed under Comic-Con, Comic-Con 2014, Comics, First Second, graphic novels, Lucy Knisley

Lost Cat: Fremont’s Grey is Missing.

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Easter turned out to be a very nice day. I’ve just walked around my Seattle neighborhood of Fremont to surmise the current situation, take the pulse of the zeitgeist, and just get some fresh air. There’s a flyer I’ve seen a number of times and I thought I’d share it with you. Apparently, there’s this neighborhood cat, Grey, who loves to take strolls and just wander about. But he keeps getting picked up by well-intentioned people who turn him in to the local shelter! I had friends who were constantly compelled to pick up neighborhood pets they were certain they were lost only to find out that these pets were simply doing their own thing, not lost at all. Anyhow, as the above flyer makes clear, Grey, and his owner, have been dealing with this for quite some time and so a flyer went up pleading with people to just leave well enough alone. Here his Grey’s message in its entirety:

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Filed under Cats, Essays, Portlandia, Seattle

Interview: Liz Plourde and Randy Michaels and HOW I MADE THE WORLD

How-I-Made-The-World-Plourde-comics

“How I Made the World,” is an intriguing title, don’t you think? It happens to be the title for a series of comics about Liz, a college student and writer who expresses herself in true epic glory, like any young person should. Now, this is most assuredly a SERIES, not a ONE-SHOT. There may have been a bit of confusion regarding this since the Diamond Previews catalog, the monthly bible for all comics retailers and regular comics buyers, has given the “one-shot” label to this series. Okay, now that we have that cleared up, here is an interview with the creators. It was a pleasure to get to chat for a bit with Liz and Randy.

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Filed under Comics, Interviews, mini-comics, Xeric Grant

Review: HOW I MADE THE WORLD #1 by Liz Plourde and Randy Michaels

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“How I Made The World” is a Xeric Award-winning comic that follows the misadventures of Liz, a college student and aspiring writer. From her vantage point, just about everything in her life is epic. And so we begin in this first issue with not just a midterm art project deadline on the horizon. No, this is fodder for our first big story, “The Monster.”

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Filed under Alternative Comics, Autobio Comics, Comics, Comics Reviews, Xeric Grant