Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? By Roz Chast

Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?
Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

It’s rare the people talk about the stage of life in which they exchange roles with their parents. This is surprising given how common it is for people to live into their eighties, nineties, or even hit the 100 year mark. In Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? Roz Chast shares the experiences she had in her parents’ last years in her inimitable style. Chast’s story is comic and sad and frightening and very, very human.

Even when they were younger, Chast’s parents were no picnic. Her father, George, was extremely anxious, becoming more so as he began to suffer from senile dementia. Caring for him meant calming him down, helping him through his confusion, and coping with his constant talking about everything that popped into his head. Her mother, Elizabeth, was an angry woman who would deliver “a blast from Chast” whenever someone had infuriated her. Elizabeth and George were completely co-dependent, Chast remarks at one point before growing angry at the pair of them for thinking it was a compliment.

Chast moved out of the family apartment in the 1970s, never planning to go back. She didn’t go back until September 2001, a few days before the Towers were hit. The state of the apartment made it clear that her parents were in decline. Until the very last years of their lives, George and Elizabeth were stubbornly independent. They only grudgingly conceded to Chast and only gave in step by step to Meals on Wheels, then an assisted living facility known as The Place, then to the nursing home.

Throughout those last years, Chast struggles with her sense of duty and the financial burdens and the fact that her parents drive her “bats.” The three of them had never had the best relationship, so what does a daughter who wants to do the right thing do? How much does she owe them? And what happens when those parents really want to be left alone instead of being cared for by nurses and doctors and other hired caretakers because they’re no longer well enough to be independent? Any answers to those questions would be platitudes or outright lies. Chast wisely does not even try to answer them for us. Seeing her struggles, however, raises important questions that everyone with aging parents needs to think about. (More ominously, it raises questions for people with children to consider.)

I’m glad Chast wrote and illustrated this book. Its immediacy and emotional honesty filled me with empathy for her. It’s rare to read something so honest; Chast does not hide her own anger and anxiety and turmoil no matter how she might be judged by readers.

I am really looking forward to discussing this book with the group.

Step Aside, Pops! by Kate Beaton

Step Aside, Pops!
Step Aside, Pops!

I have a deep, abiding love for silliness. When silliness is paired with history jokes, I’m over the moon. Kate Beaton, creator of Hark! A Vagrant, is, therefore, one of my favorite artists and writers. I eagerly await each installment of her webcomic. And, when I spotted a copy of Step Aside, Pops! at the bookstore, I just had to grab a copy. I was up chortling late into the night.

Step Aside, Pops! is a Beaton’s second collection of strips from Hark! A Vagrant. There is some new material here, but most of the strips have already appeared on the sight. The value of the collection comes from having so many comics on hand to dip into when one feels the need for hilarious absurdity. This collection features strips about the Black Prince, Wuthering Heights, Aleksander Pushkin, the Founding Fathers at a modern mall, Liszt and Chopin, and much more. Between the comically exaggerated drawings and writing, Beaton is a treat for any academic nerd.

And now I’ll leave you with my favorite Hark! A Vagrant strip:

Dude Watchin' with the Brontës, by Kate Beaton
“Dude Watchin’ with the Brontës,” by Kate Beaton

Marvel 1602, by Niel Gaiman and Andy Kubert

What if the mutants, heroes, villains, and gods we know from the Marvel Universe had popped up four hundred years earlier? The answer comes from the delightfully demented mind of Neil Gaiman in Marvel 1602


Marvel 1602

Virginia Dare sailed for England in the company of Rojhaz, a blond Native American, in 1602. Count Otto von Doom plots to take over the world from Latveria. Sir Nick Fury and Doctor Stephen Strange try to keep Queen Elizabeth safe. Carlos Javier runs a school for the children of the gentry in rural England. Blind Matthew travels across Europe with the mysterious Natasha to recover a lost Templar treasure. The Inquisition tracks down “witchbreed” along with heretics and Jews. Dinosaurs roam the North American content. Strange storms make travel unpredictable. All this plays out in just eight swift chapters.

This is going to be a short review because I feel the urge to gush coming on, but this graphic novel had so many things that I love. Historical fiction blended with science fiction and the supernatural. Witty banter. Great illustrations. Historical and literary allusions. The only problem with it is that it’s too short!

Saga, Volumes I and II, by Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples

Once upon a time, a planet and its moon went to war. Because destroying the enemy would mean the victor would be destroyed too, the war moved to other planets. The wings and the horns and their allies have been fighting ever since. There is so much bad blood and so much is invested in the war that fighting will probably never stop. Both sides are taught to hate each other from childhood. It would take something remarkable to change the status quo.

Saga, Volume I

When volume I of Saga, by Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples, begins, something remarkable has happened. Alana, one of the wings, is giving birth to a child conceived with Marko, one of the horns. Minutes later, soldiers storm in and try to kill them. Marko and Alana go on the run. Mercenaries are sent after them, with orders to kill them and kidnap their child. Vaughn and Staples let their story roam across worlds to introduce us to the hunters, their bosses, and the history that led us up to his point. One touch that I simply loved was that Hazel, Alana and Marko’s daughter, also acts as a narrator in this story. She hints at what will happen later and raises the stakes of the story even higher.

Saga is full of wonderful characters and the universe they inhabit is stunningly rich. In just the first volume there are ghosts and rocketships made of trees, monstrous spider assassins, a cat that can tell when you’re lying, magic, and sinister robots. I enjoyed volume I so much that I immediately bought volume II so I could see what happens next.

Saga, Volume II

In Volume II, Marko and Alana have been joined by Marko’s parents–who were somewhat shocked to find that he’d married someone they considered the enemy. Marko’s mother does not take it well. She gets even more irritated when her son rushes off to rescue their ghost babysitter. Alana and Marko are still being tracked across the galaxy, but this time another hunter has joined in: Marko’s ex-fiancee, Gwendolyn. There’s so much story packed into this volumes that trying to explain it here wouldn’t do the story justice.

Besides, you need to see the artwork.

Talking about images on this blog is unusual for me. But, you kind of have to when you’re reviewing a graphic novel. Fiona Staples’ artwork is beautiful and bold; the colors are vibrant. I loved that its style is understated. Staples doesn’t go for absolute realism, but each frame is incredibly detailed. The images do so much heavy lifting in Saga that I think a print only version would run to several heavy volumes to try and capture the sheer imagination at play here.

I can hardly wait for volume III to come out next month.

Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened, by Allie Brosh

I received a free copy of this ebook to review from NetGalley, on behalf of the publisher. It will be released 29 October 2013.


Hyperbole and a Half

Allie Brosh reminds me of a few people I’ve met in my life, the people who things just happen to. They’re magnets for chaos and weirdness. And they always have the best stories. I’ve been a fan of Allie Brosh since I ran across her blog, Hyperbole and a Half, a few years ago. I couldn’t read her posts in public, because the blend of expressive drawings and unabashed confession would have me chortling and laughing so hard that taking a drink would be hazardous to my health. When Brosh stopped posting regularly to her blog, I–like many other fans–worried about her. She returned to her blog with the most moving description of depression I have ever come across. There was much rejoicing on the Interwebs when Brosh came back.

When I learned that her biographical book, Hyperbole and a Half, was still a go, I waited impatiently for its release date. When I saw the book on offer at NetGalley, I clicked the request button and kept my fingers crossed. (Publishers, never fear, I will buy this book as soon as it comes out.)

Hyperbole and a Half (the book) is about half new and half already published stories about Brosh’s life, arranged unchronologically. You’ll see the hilarious story of the time Brosh ate an entire cake, move to a new state with simple dog and helper dog, got lost in the woods with her mother and sister, and try to chase a goose out of her house with the somewhat inept help of her boyfriend. And, of course, you’ll see Brosh learning to cope with her anxieties and depression. Having seen others go through this personally, I have to say again that Brosh nails it. Serious depression requires more than having well-meaning friends and family tell you to cheer up and more than trying to will yourself out of it. Brosh shares her whole experience, without any hint of shame. Those chapters are incredibly brave, and I wanted to reach through the pages to hug Brosh’s cartoon avatar.

I adored Hyperbole and a Half. I hope more people discover and read her work.

Walking Dead, Book 8, by Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard

I haven’t reviewed the Walking Dead series for a while. But the most recent collection, Book Eight, gave me a lot to think about. The idea behind this series is that it’s not supposed to end. It’s supposed to be about what happens after the big zombie apocalypse, after the survivors find a safe haven. That’s what I really love about this series: seeing what happens after the credits roll in the movie and the safe haven turns out not to be so safe. For the last seven books, I’ve gotten to see Robert Kirkman torture his characters by taking away the safe zones, creating human monsters, and making his characters wrestle with their consciences after having to make very, very hard decisions.

The Walking Dead

In Book Eight, we get to see our protagonist, Rick, finally trying to think about the long term future. A few volumes ago, Rick and his fellow band of survivors found a place to call home for a while. After seeing the changes in Carl, who has been becoming a hard little man over the series, Rick realizes that living day to day is not enough any more. In order to try and give his son at least a little bit of a childhood, Rick forms a committee to start working on fortifications and farming and all the rest. Sure there are zombies running around waiting to take a bite out of them, but you start to see a ray of hope. It just might be possible to make a good life. At least until Kirkman turns the screws again and reveals the next big challenge Rick and the gang are going to face.

As I read this volume and watched the characters lurch back and forth between emotional states, I started to wonder about the interplay between the book series and the TV series. The TV series has been shadowing the books for a while, with a few major rewrites but the book series has been soldiering on ahead. In this latest volume in particular, though, is saw conversations and events that seemed to me like Kirkman was trying to wrench his narrative around to make book Carl more like TV Carl. I could be wrong about this, but I couldn’t shake the thought.

Fun Home, by, Alison Bechdel

Fun Home

It took me a few chapters for me to figure out what Bechdel’s biography Fun Home reminded me of. It reminds me of the comparative literature papers I would write when I was an undergraduate. There were few things I enjoyed about my major more than finding the links between stories. As I read Fun Home, I started to see that Bechdel was drawing links between her life, her father’s life, and novels as diverse as James Joyce’s Ulysses and Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past (À la recherche du temps perdu). It might seem pretentious at first glance, but it really fits. Fun Home is recursive, jumping around in time to link and explicate events in the Bechdels’ life. This is a fantastic book. From the plain, rough illustrations (this book is told as a graphic novel), you might expect a simple story. Fun Home is anything but. And if the story itself doesn’t get you, the ending certainly will. It’s shattering.

Fun Home is as much about secrets as it is about memory. Because she came of age in the 1980s, Bechdel was able to be up front about her sexuality. Her father couldn’t. As Alison circles around her childhood and her father’s life, you pick up on the fact that Bechdel the elder is desperately unhappy. He spends all his free time perfecting the family home, turning it into a Victorian showpiece. He makes a few abortive attempts to make “friends” with younger men, but they never turn out well. Because he lives in a small town and because he’s locked himself into the role of mid-century pater familias, Father Bechdel lives out his life of quiet desperation. Well, I say “lives out” but there is some question about whether the circumstances of his death were entirely accidental. Alison writes that her support system of friends and family (to some extent) was what let her come out. Her father, she writes, never felt that. I can’t imagine what it would feel like to learn that a family member felt that they had to live with such a big secret, rather than being their natural self.

From Hell, by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell

From Hell
From Hell

I’ll be the first to admit that this is an odd book to read over the Christmas holiday, but Alan Moore’s From Hell is a deeply thought provoking graphic novel. I finished it almost two weeks ago and I’m still turning it over in my head. From Hell presents the theory that the Jack the Ripper murders were actually part of a joint royal-Freemason cover up, perpetrated by Sir William Gull.

The theory presented by From Hell posits that Queen Victoria’s grandson has made a secret marriage with a lower class woman and had a child with her. A group of prostitutes find out about it and decide to blackmail the grandson’s friend. The blackmail plot works its way up the pipeline until the Queen orders her personal physician to take care of it. Gull does, in spectacular and psychotic fashion, to “send a message” so that no one will try anything like this again. The murders seem to trigger some latent madness in Gull, because while the murders become increasingly horrific, the message never seems to get sent in the way it was intended. Gull disappears into Masonic visions and dies, in this version, in an asylum.

Plotwise, the book follows the chronology of the murders. It’s told from multiple perspectives. We get Gull’s angle. We get Inspector Abberline’s perspective. And we get the perspectives of some of the Ripper’s victims, which are gutwrenching to read because you know precisely what’s going to happen to them. You want to reach inside the book and warn them, get them to safety. Gull’s narrative is hard to read, for more that one reason. The less obvious one is that when he gets to theorizing and expounding, he pretty much disappears up his own ass. Abberline’s narrative, for me, was a lot more enjoyable to read.

Abberline is a bulldog of a detective and pretty much honest, which is impressive considering all pressure around him and considering what the rest of the Metropolitan Police are like. When I read Patricia Cornwell’s nonfiction book about the Ripper, Portrait of a Killer, I pondered on how difficult it would be to investigate serial murders in pre-forensic times. As Moore notes in his appendix, the police had to rely on witness testimony for the most part. Fingerprints weren’t even used at the time. Investigators have a hard enough time now solving serial murders. In 1888, it would have been well nigh impossible unless you caught the killer in the act. I can understand why they weren’t solved at the time because they didn’t even have a concept of the psychology of a serial murderer.

I want to say a word about the artwork. One might think that having this particular tale illustrated would make it too horrific to read. But Campbell’s work is fairly restrained–apart from the sex that crops up in the narrative. But when it comes to the murders, Campbell shies away from being completely explicit. (For which I am deeply, grateful.) It’s still pretty awful, but not as awful as the actual crime scene photographs. Even after more than a century, those are bad enough to make me nauseous.

Moore really did his homework. It’s impressive the way that he dovetails his story to the history. The appendices at the back are just as fascinating as the novel itself. As I read them, the theory sounded like the Ripper murders might actually have happened this way. I’m still unconvinced personally. There’s just too much, well, frenzy, to the murders. There’s no symbolism in them. They sounded, and still do, to me like sheer butchery. This was the only false note for me in the book, where the elegantly constructed theory runs up against the brutality of the actual Ripper murders. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m no expert. I know more about the Ripper murders than I really want to. So for me, From Hell remains a fascinating theory.

Y: The Last Man, by Brian Vaughan, Pia Guerra, and Jose Marzan, Jr.

Y: The Last Man
Y: The Last Man

Y: The Last Man is a ten volume series and one of the best graphic novels I’ve ever read. Created by Brian Vaughan, Pia Guerra, and Jose Marzan, this series begins with a plague that inexplicably kills everything with a Y chromosome except for Yorick Brown and his capuchin monkey, Ampersand. As the series progresses, Yorick and his unwilling allies–a mysterious government agent and a geneticist, both with very small reserves of patience–try to find out what caused the gendercide, find a cure, and track down Yorick’s lost fiancé.

Meanwhile, they have to contend with dwindling food reserves, whacked out Amazons (who think the plague was a good thing), and AWOL Israeli soldiers who were tipped off to the existence of the last males. Throughout the series, Vaughan, et. al. keep the the pressure on. Every time it seems like Yorick’s team finds a safe haven, something happens to keep them on the road. Y: The Last Man is a great Apocalyptic road movie, but without (most of) the Mad Max stuff.

Over the course of the first volumes, Yorick and his team travel across the United States, then travel abroad to Australia, Japan, China, Russia, and France. Each volume is built around a smaller adventure, including rescuing stranded astronauts or dealing with the widows of a state militia, that builds into the bigger story. And, along the way, we get to see what might happen in a world without men. Turns out, women aren’t much better without men than we are with men. There’s war and violence and theft. It’s far from a utopia. If nothing else, men and women have in common the fact that we’re both human.

Graphic novels have been gaining mainstream acceptance for a while now, ever since books like Maus and Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns. I think Y is part of that. Even though there are more pictures that words, Y is a nuanced story. It’s not filled with fist fights and inexplicable origin stories. Rather, the characters are strong and well developed and utterly believable. It’s engagingly told, too. I was hooked from the first page. Because it’s a graphic novel, it’s almost cinematic, complete with flashbacks for the principle characters and the odd explosion. It’s also a fast read. One of the great things about the format is that the scene setting stuff–which can really bog down a book if not done well–is taken care of by the images. The plot is handled by the dialogue and the action and it’s up to the reader to interpret everything, since there’s no text to explain the implications of what’s said and done. I love that.

The Walking Dead, Book I, by Robert Kirkman

The Walking Dead
The Walking Dead

And so I go from seeing worlds built up to watching them fall apart. Last night, I started reading the first collection of episodes in the Walking Dead series. The purpose of this series is not just to tell a kick-ass zombie story, but to tell one that doesn’t end. Kirkman writes in his afterword that the thing he hates most about zombie movies is that they end. He always wanted to see what happens to the survivors after the credits rolled.

The beginning is a little derivative, as it starts pretty much the same way that 28 Days Later does, with the main character waking up in a deserted hospital after waking from a coma. Rick Grimes is a former small town cop who realizes that his family is missing, and that everyone left in the hospital and the town has turned into a zombie (Romero-style, not Boyle-style*). He find a pair of survivors who tell him that the last they heard, people were supposed to gather in the cities and that his family has probably headed to Atlanta to wait for a cure. When he arrives, as you’d expect if you’ve ever seen a zombie movie or read a zombie novel, that everyone in the city is dead. He meets a scavenger that leads him back to a camp where (surprise!), Rick finds his wife and young son. From that point on, Rick, his family, and the other survivors travel from place to place, trying to find a place to settle down and live in peace.

The art is a very stylish black and white, which I appreciate. There’s zombies about every five pages or so, on average, so if they did it in color the book would be covered in red and gore. It also harkens back to the original Night of the Living Dead.

I’m looking forward to the next books in the series, but I need to wait for the publishers to print more copies because Amazon seems to have run out of copies for the time being.

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* Romero-style zombies: slow-moving zombies, created by unknown causes but allegedly because “there’s no more room in Hell for the dead.” From the Night of the Living Dead series.

Boyle-style zombies: fast, aggressive zombies that were possible created by a virus or something. Still alive, but very hard to put down. From the 28 Days Later series.