Friday, September 27, 2013

Friday Five: Memoirs

I love memoirs. I’m reading two right now - Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman and Her by Christa Parravani - and it’s gotten me thinking about how many of these personal tomes I’ve read in recent years. A well-written memoir evokes empathy in the reader, provides a sense of connection to a time or place that we may not be personally familiar with, and makes us feel something - happiness, sadness, anger, shock, anything really. Here are my personal top five memoirs and a few honorable mentions that I couldn’t help but include (all listed alphabetically):
  • Atlas of the Human Heart by Ariel Gore
    Atlas of the Human Heart follows sixteen-year-old Ariel Gore as she drops out of school and heads to China with virtually nothing but a copy of the I Ching. The next three years take her across Asia and Europe as she squats in abandoned buildings, smuggles drugs, studies at a language institute, and eventually ends up pregnant in Italy before returning home. 
  • Chanel Bonfire by Wendy Lawless
    In Chanel Bonfire, Wendy Lawless recounts a childhood marred by an alcoholic, inattentive, and suicidal mother with a taste for luxury. Lawless and her sister struggle to grow up and eventually to carve out lives for themselves away from their histrionic mother.
  • Loose Girl by Kerry Cohen
    From a young age, Kerry Cohen believed that using her body to get male attention was a surefire path to happiness and love. Loose Girl examines an adolescence and young adulthood of promiscuity, from Cohen's reliance on sex to her eventual understanding of true intimacy and love. 
  • The Memory Palace by Mira Bartok
    The Memory Palace tells the story of Mira Bartok's brilliant mother, Norma, whose descent into schizophrenia rips her family apart. As Norma's episodes became more violent, Mira and her sister are forced to abandon their mother and go their own ways. Years later, after an accident leaves her memory impaired, Mira attempts to reconcile with her mother one last time before her death.
  • Prozac Nation by Elizabeth Wurtzel
    Elizabeth Wurtzel's Prozac Nation is a searing portrait of a young life entrenched in anxiety and depression. Wurtzel's teenaged and college years are marred by suicide attempts, hospital stays, and drugs before she finds her way back to stability and hope.
Honorable Mentions: Blue Nights by Joan Didion, Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness by Susannah Cahalan, and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby

In making this list, I've realized how enamored I am with women's stories. Only one of the books I came up with was penned by a man (the honorably mentioned Jean-Dominique Bauby). Of course I read books by both men and women, but I guess when in comes to memoirs, I'm generally drawn to the experiences of women. And those experiences tend to be difficult, life-changing ones that beg for understanding.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Review: Bandette by Paul Tobin

144 pages, will be published on November 19, 2013 by Dark Horse Comics

It’s difficult to describe Bandette without using the word “charming” over and over. But I’ll say it: this is a truly charming graphic novel. Our titular character, Bandette, is the self-proclaimed “most talented thief this world has ever known.” With glee and wit, the teen crusader steals from those she deems worthy of being thieved: weapons dealers, shady underground organizations, and various other “bad guys.” Bandette is rarely alone in her adventures; she has a trusty pool of peers ready and willing to bail her out when sticky situations arise: a ragtag gang of street urchins, a trio of ballet dancers, and the adorable Thai food deliverer, Daniel. Luckily for this group, Bandette gets herself into sticky situations very frequently.

Although she’s on Inspector B. D. Belgique’s speed dial when the Parisian police just can’t finish a job without her, Bandette isn’t the only thief in France. Her greatest rival is Monsieur, a classic gentleman whose front is running a rare book and coin shop - his two greatest interests. Much to Bandette’s chagrin, Monsieur has beaten her to a steal several times. Unfortunately, it’s not all fun and games for Bandette. Okay, it’s mostly fun and games. But when Monsieur requests a midnight meeting with Bandette, it’s not to discuss thieving techniques. It’s to alert her that she has been targeted by the mysterious criminal group Finis whose leader, Absinthe, will not stop until Bandette is dead. Bandette’s life is in real danger and the first of Finis’s assassins is on their way…

I found myself smiling a lot as I read Bandette. It’s a truly delightful volume with bright, colorful illustrations and memorable characters. I loved diving into a world where knockout spray comes in a can, enemies have lengthy chats while fighting (which gives a pleasant Princess Bride vibe), and our heroine is more concerned with finding chocolate bars than the criminal mastermind who wants her dead. This volume collects the first five issues of Bandette. Additionally, he back matter includes several “Urchin Stories” - minicomics centering on the smaller characters featured in volume one of Bandette. The reader is also treated to a short story from Daniel’s perspective. I thoroughly enjoyed reading Bandette and I look forward to experiencing more of the teen thief’s gleeful adventures in the future.

Rating: 4.5/5

**I received an ARC of Bandette through NetGalley

Monday, September 2, 2013

Review: If You Could Be Mine by Sara Farizan

256 pages, published on August 20, 2013 by Algonquin Young Readers
Sahar has been in love with Nasrin for as long as she can remember. But the hidden romance they’ve shared in Iran is on the verge of destruction when Nasrin’s parents arrange for her to marry a handsome doctor. No one knows that the girls’ relationship is anything but a close friendship, but Sahar can’t stand the thought of Nasrin being with someone else. She thinks she has found a solution to their dilemma when she meets Parveen, a post-op transsexual. While homosexuality is considered a sin, sex changes are accepted and often encouraged by Iran’s government. Convinced that this is the only way to be with Nasrin and stop her wedding, Sahar begins attending support group meetings with transsexuals, both male and female. As Nasrin’s wedding date draws nearer, Sahar becomes desperate to begin the process of her sex reassignment, attempting to acquire hormones illegally and setting up a session with a surgeon. Of course, desperation rarely allows for things to go as planned and Sahar is predictably left where she started.
It was fascinating to read about everyday life in Iran, especially through the eyes of a young woman who is knowingly breaking the law. A love story between two young women is also rare and refreshing. But aside from the social commentary, I found If You Could Be Mine almost unreadable. Sara Farizan’s two lovers are so unlikable that it’s hard to understand how anyone could possibly fall in love with them. Writers should show rather than tell their audience the message they want to share. But the reader has Sahar simply telling us over and over how much she loves Nasrin without giving us much of a reason to believe their relationship. Most of her narration is spent lamenting how spoiled, rude, and bossy Nasrin can be. What we see of Nasrin confirms this; she seems to enjoy stringing Sahar along like a pet, always available at her beck and call. While Nasrin whispers a few “I love you”s to Sahar throughout the novel, she never even mentions finding a way to be together. Without being inside her head, we see only surface emotions from Nasrin, and it’s simply not enough to believe their relationship.
Surprisingly, I ended up disliking Sahar even more than her selfish counterpart. Sahar may only be seventeen years old, but she is certainly old enough to understand that undergoing a major operation such as sex reassignment is not something that can be done on a whim. She seems to think that it’s akin to visiting her dentist, a quick trip that will magically solve all of her problems. She doesn’t even consider the fact that the people who have this operation feel that they have no other choice, that they were actually born in the wrong body. Sahar may not be able to love Nasrin in public, but she is comfortable in her body, never doubting that she is meant to be a woman. It becomes offensive how little she respects the struggles of transsexuals. Sahar completely disregards the thoughts and feelings of those in her support group – people who have actually struggled with gender identity for their entire lives. Instead, she complains about them sharing emotions when all she wants is to find out how to start taking hormones. It’s only when she meets with a surgeon (and sees Nasrin’s doctor fiancĂ© at the clinic) that she begins to understand the magnitude of what she plans to do. As the surgeon explains in graphic detail what the surgery entails, Sahar faints, and in turn finally comes to her senses about the operation. 
I appreciate Farizan’s effort to illuminate the struggles of two women in love, especially in a culture that is largely unfamiliar to western readers. Fiction can be a great vehicle for sharing views and information about topics that are traditionally taboo. However, the message of this story  was overshadowed by Sahar’s naivety and Nasrin’s selfishness. The more I read of If You Could BeMine, the more desperate I was to be done with it. Unsympathetic characters are unfortunately complemented by stilted dialogue that pushes the story to a sad and messy conclusion.
Rating: 1.5/5
**I received an ARC of this book from NetGalley.

Review: Bad Houses by Sara Ryan

160 pages, will be published on November 12, 2013 by Dark Horse Comics
Teenager Anne Cole is a photographer, fascinated by abandoned spaces and things left behind. Lewis works with his mother managing estate sales in the small town of Failin, Oregon. When Anne tries to explore the left behind items at an estate sale, she and Lewis click instantly. But Bad Houses extends much further than a teenage love story as Anne and Lewis struggle with family and identity in their economically failing town. Anne’s mother, Danica, and Lewis’s mother, Cat, add their own unique storylines to Bad Houses, with their relationships to Lewis and Anne taking center stage.
Bad Houses is, above all, about the connections between people who love each other and the objects that fill their lives. Danica is a hoarder, filling her home with an endless stream of random objects to which she assigns profound meaning. Anne is intrigued by what people leave behind and experiments with shoplifting, curious if she’ll feel the “thrill” of stealing what doesn’t belong to her. Cat feels most comfortable when she’s ordering other people’s belongings into a display that will appeal to customers. And Lewis is almost an object himself, constantly being controlled by his mother and desperate to escape.
I enjoyed Bad Houses more than I first anticipated. I’ll admit that I was thrown a bit by the cover of Bad Houses. I really liked Carla Speed McNeil’s illustrations, but the coloring on the cover seemed a bit too bright and cartoonish. I think McNeil’s work translates better in black and white, especially given the tone of this story. Once I got past the cover and started reading, I found a compelling study of family, love, and the power we give to the things in our lives. But Bad Housesisn’t without faults. Lewis’s character is sadly underdeveloped, aside from a weak storyline about his absent father. The flashback sequence seemed unnecessary, throwing together Cat, Lewis’s father, and the town’s grouchy antique store owner, Fred, for a few scenes from high school. And Danica’s boyfriend AJ, along with his pill pushing business, didn’t add much to the story. Even with these weaknesses, Sara Ryan has created characters that are real, flawed individuals, capable of tugging at the heartstrings of the reader. We can’t always admit to our own struggles – with both people and objects – but it’s easy to see ourselves in any one of Ryan’s characters.
Rating: 4/5
**I received on ARC of Bad Houses through NetGalley.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Book Haul

I went to New York last weekend and did quite a bit of book shopping while I was there. This is what I bought:
I’m Only Here for the WiFi by Chelsea Fagan
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
Over You by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Krauss
The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick
Great House by Nicole Krauss
What A Wonderful World, Volume 1 and 2 by Inio Asano
Point Omega by Don DeLillo
Brain On Fire by Susannah Cahalan
Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell
Fun Home by Alison Bechdel
Marcel Duchamp from Taschen

I went to New York last weekend and did quite a bit of book shopping while I was there. This is what I bought:
  • I’m Only Here for the WiFi by Chelsea Fagan
  • Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
  • Over You by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Krauss
  • The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick
  • Great House by Nicole Krauss
  • What A Wonderful World, Volume 1 and 2 by Inio Asano
  • Point Omega by Don DeLillo
  • Brain On Fire by Susannah Cahalan
  • Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell
  • Fun Home by Alison Bechdel
  • Marcel Duchamp from Taschen