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Book Review: IT OCCURS TO ME THAT I AM AMERICA: NEW STORIES AND ART

It Occurs to Me That I Am America: New Stories and Art

What does it mean to be American in these strange times we live in? We have someone in power who behaves like a self-serving gremlin, determined to dismantle and foment unrest, boasting a horribly inarticulate screed. Here is a collection from some of the most respected names in the arts that acts as an answer to what it is to be American. It is entitled, It Occurs to Me That I Am America: New Stories and Art, published by Touchstone, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. This title came out in 2018 and it deserves to be on everyone’s radar in 2019 and for years to come.

Vote Hillary by Deborah Kass

Sometimes, perhaps too often, we get such a gem of a book that deserves a whole new shout out. Let me run through for you what makes this one special. Gathered within 375 pages are works by talented artists and writers all tackling a common theme in refreshingly unexpected ways. The book is edited by celebrated artist and novelist Jonathan Santlofer, with an introduction by Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen. The roster of creators runs the gamut from exciting new talent to established legends. Each piece is a highly original voice. You’ll find, for instance, Hate for Sale, by Neil Gaiman, a poem tailor-made for today and yet unnervingly timeless. Or how about Joyce Carol Oates, “Good News!”a cautionary tale that nicely channels Ray Bradbury.

Little House on the Prairie Holding Company LLC by David Storey

Among visual art, one that immediately strikes just the right defiant tone is Vote Hillary, by Deborah Kass, a screen print channeling Andy Warhol with Trump replacing Nixon as the subject. Another compelling piece is The Ugliest American Alphabet, by Eric Orner, where he recounts all that is dismaying about Trump using every letter of the alphabet. Some other thoughtful work in comics comes from Roz Chast with Politics; and from Mimi Pond with Your Sacred American Rights Bingo. And one of the most beguiling works in comics in this book is a tryptic by Art Spiegelman. To be sure, all the work here is not espousing one particular point of view. You’ll find a bit of everything when it comes to articulating all things American. It’s not as easy as simply pointing fingers. It’s complicated, right? All in all, you have 52 distinctive voices here sharing with you just how complicated it all is in the best spirit of vigorous critical inquiry.

Your Sacred American Rights Bingo by Mimi Pond

I will finish up here by taking a closer look at the piece by Alice Walker, Don’t Despair. It is one of the shortest works and comes towards the end of this collection. She recounts how growing up in rural Georgia, all white men seemed to be like Donald Trump, petty and hateful. She looks back and wonders how she survived those times. Part of the answer is that Walker comes from a long line of ancestors who chose to live or die on their feet. Her family would survive, even proper, in the tiniest of spaces allowed to them by white people. Fast forward to today, Walker asks Is living under a dictatorship all that of a surprise? Her solution: Study hard! Study who you’re really voting for! And don’t rely on just voting for someone! “It is our ignorance that keeps us hoping somebody we elect will do all the work while we drive off to the mall.” Walker isn’t just offering hope. As she puts it, she’s offering counsel. Real change is personal and involves relating with each other. It is a time for an awakening and the choice is ours.

The Ugliest American Alphabet, by Eric Orner

It Occurs to Me That I Am America: New Stories and Art is a 375-page hardcover, with black & white and color images, published by Touchstone, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.

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Filed under Anthologies, Art, Art books, Art Spiegelman, Artists, Book Reviews, Books, Comics, Eric Orner, Fiction, Jonathan Santlofer, Mimi Pond, Protest, writers, writing

Review: AMONGST THE LIBERAL ELITE by Elly Lonon and Joan Reilly

Off and running…

Have you ever wanted to just go all Jack Kerouac and do an extended road trip? You’d yell out, “Nothing behind me! Everything ahead of me!” Well, what if you’re also caught up in trying to grapple with America under Trump? Then consider this new graphic novel, Amongst the Liberal Elite, written by Elly Lonon and illustrated by Joan Reilly, published by powerHouse Books. It is based upon Ms. Lonon’s hilarious McSweeney’s column. More on that later. If you also happen to enjoy a regular intake of NPR, MSNBC, and lean left in your politics, you’ll especially appreciate the ongoing quips exchanged by the story’s two main characters, Alex and Michael, a couple of upwardly mobile middle-aged lefties.

Page excerpt

The humor is of the razor-sharp rapid-fire Jon Stewart variety. It can sometimes feel like too much of a good thing so everything depends upon the timing and delivery. The characters let loose a bon mot, hold back a bit to engage in self-deprecation, and then repeat. That’s basically the pace of this narrative. If you like the characters, then all is golden–and these two characters are very likeable even if you never really get past their walls of witty retorts. And, hey, maybe you know people like that. What you get here is a very lean, crisp, extra-dry and droll, gluten-free set of misadventures. This sort of political humor tends to be built this way and for good reason. There is only enough character development to serve the jokes and plot. There’s no deep connection nor would you need or care for that. Think Seinfeld. These are fictional constructs here to tickle your funny bone and offer up some finely-tuned political satire. Bravo! It works exceedingly well.

Amongst the Liberal Elite by Elly Lonon and Joan Reilly

To be able to take a popular column made up of clever repartee and turn it into a graphic novel is quite remarkable. I can’t stress enough what an ambitious task that is. Joan Reilly’s artwork successfully sustains this very special blend of political humor. Ms. Reilly is a masterful political cartoonist in her own right so she proves to be the perfect creative teammate to Ms. Lonon. Together, Elly Lonon and Joan Reilly bring to life two super quirky characters with much to say and reveal about our current political state.

The full title is Amongst the Liberal Elite: The Road Trip Exploring Societal Inequities Solidified by Trump (RESIST) and it is a 156-page hardcover published by powerHouse Books.

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Filed under Comics, Donald Trump, Humor, McSweeney's, politics, pop culture, Satire

Review: BILLY BUDD, KGB by Jerome Charyn and François Boucq

Yuri and Stavrogin: It is a matter of trust.

In Herman Melville’s last novel, “Billy Budd,” we follow the fate of an orphan plucked from adversity and conscripted into the British Royal Navy. In the graphic novel by Jerome Charyn and François Boucq, the lost little orphan is carted off into the service of the Soviet Union. Like Melville’s main character, there is something special about this boy. As we find in much of Charyn’s work, we have a protagonist of limited means compelled to honor his great potential. However, as we begin, we have only an emotionally stunted, ignorant lad with a hideous harelip. It is 1954. Stalin is in power. Yuri cannot resist all that is offered to him by the Soviets. In fact, he has no choice. “Billy Bud, KGB,” originally released in France in 1990, has recently been re-issued, with a new English translation by Jerome Charyn, by Dover Comics and Graphic Novels.

Four graphic novels by Jerome Charyn, available from Dover Publications.

Mr. Charyn’s literary career began in America in 1964 with his first novel, “Once Upon a Droshky,” a story of underdogs fighting to remain in their tenement apartment. After 19 prose novels, including the Isaac Sidel crime noir series, Charyn decided to adapt one of his stories into a graphic novel. That led to more. It all began with 1987’s “The Magician’s Wife,” with artist François Boucq. They also collaborated on 2014’s “Little Tulip.” Another graphic novel by Charyn in a similar spirit is 1991’s “The Boys of Sheriff Street,” with artist Jacques de Loustal. All four of these stories have multi-layered plots, primarily set in New York City, and filled with offbeat characters.

Yuri encounters the spiritual realm.

Our main character, Yuri, seems to be a typical malleable cog but something burns inside him making him go astray. He is far too innocent and ignorant to be in command of his intuitive desire to rebel. All he knows is that there must be more to life than what his Soviet handlers are telling him. Luckily, Yuri stumbles into a friendship with an instructor that will inform the rest of his life. Comrade Grigori’s unique artistic skills and broad knowledge have made him an asset over the years at the KGB training camp. But that same treasure trove of knowledge makes him very dangerous to the Soviet agenda. As a tutor, mentor, and friend, he provides Yuri with a key to unlock his soul.

It’s not easy being a spy.

By fits and starts, Yuri emerges as material for a competent secret agent. The KGB arranges a few encounters with prostitutes in order to, in their view, make Yuri more worldly. And then he’s shipped off to America. His new identity, a knowing nod to Melville: William “Billy” Budd, the lost soul. It will be up to the newly minted Billy in New York City to struggle with his life’s purpose. Stavrogin plucked him out of a ditch and gave him a future. Grigori opened his eyes to life’s possibilities. And Red Eagle, a Native American mystic, may offer him the salvation he’s hungered for all along.

Yuri gains a deeper spiritual connection.

Both Charyn and Boucq work in such a synchronized and nuanced manner that was as rare a treat then as it is now. Such pairing can only happen when the time is right. Today, readers in America and in general, are far more receptive to this level of quality. While a unique challenge, some creators choose to control all aspects of their work alone. But, as this graphic novel collaboration makes clear, the results can be stunning when writer and artist work together. We can all thank novelist Jerome Charyn for being a true trailblazer in adding his unique literary talent to the pantheon of exemplary work in comics. This book is a mesmerizing story and comics of the first order.

BILLY BUDD, KGB by Jerome Charyn and François Boucq

“Billy Bud, KGB” is a 144-page full color trade paperback. For more details, and how to purchase, visit Dover Publications right here. You can find it at Amazon right here.

Also note a Kickstarter campaign going on now thru May 21st for a deluxe reprint of FAMILY MAN, a collaboration between Jerome Charyn and Joe Staton.

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Filed under Comics, Dover Publications, François Boucq, Graphic Novel Reviews, graphic novels, Jerome Charyn, Russia, Soviet Union, Spies

Review: ‘Abandoned America: The Age of Consequences’ by Matthew Christopher

Abandoned-America-Matthew-Christopher

The immediate impact of these photographs is undeniable: Outrageous oblivion. Everything torn apart, inside and out. Nothing spared. Nothing redeemed. You quickly draw your own conclusions despite what your more sober thoughts might tell you. This is a book about total destruction, along with numerous more measured considerations. “Abandoned America” takes you on a most unusual journey with this collection of photography by Matthew Christopher, published by JonGlez Publishing.

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Filed under Art, Art books, JonGlez Publishing, Photography