One-Minute Book Reviews

November 20, 2009

A Midwestern Gothic Boyhood – David Small’s Graphic Memoir for Adults and Teenagers, ‘Stitches’

An illustrator found that during a painful childhood, “Art became my home.”

Stitches: A Memoir. By David Small. Norton, 329 pp., $24.95. Ages: See discussion below.

By Janice Harayda

David Small’s mother had her heart in the wrong place — literally. Elizabeth Small was born with her heart on the wrong side of her chest, and the defect serves as a metaphor for her coldness to her son in this graphic memoir and Midwestern Gothic tale of growing up in Detroit in the 1950s.

As a teenager, Small had surgery for throat cancer caused by high doses of radiation given to him by his physician father for sinus problems. His parents didn’t tell him he had cancer, and he learned of it from a purloined letter. He discovered that his mother was a lesbian when he found her in bed with another woman and that his grandmother was insane when she set her house on fire.

Small blends real and imagined scenes as he describes these and other traumas in a book that fittingly bears many hallmarks of neo-gothics: a madwoman, night terrors, family secrets, a locked drawer, mysterious passageways, a church with pointed arches. He also nods to Alice in Wonderland through both words and pictures, including images of a psychiatrist-as-White-Rabbit who helps him burrow into his past and find redemption through art.

Working in pen-and-ink washed with black and white, Small has filled Stitches with artistically and psychologically rich illustrations that help to offset the limits of the weaker, solipsistic text. In his pictures he vividly shows the world from a child’s point of view, often by casting himself as a small figure looking up at adults whose eyes are obscured by glasses that suggest their inability to see him for who he is.

But Small writes from the point of view of an adult looking back on his childhood, which at times makes for subtle discontinuities between the images and words. The back matter suggests that he knows his mother comes across as a monster and that he became aware of some aspects of her grief only after she died. And yet countless writers have made you feel both their youthful sorrow and that of the parents who caused it.

The pain of unhappy housewives like Elizabeth Small was powerful enough to help launch the modern feminist movement. Hers must have been that much greater because she had the added burden of having to hide her sexual identity. But Stitches gives you little sense of that pain; you see its roots in her own upbringing, but you never feel it. Perhaps a sequel will capture more of the spirit of a quotation in Small’s afterword about his mother, which comes from the poet Edward Dahlberg, “Nobody heard her tears; the heart is a fountain of weeping water which makes no noise in the world.”

Ages: Stitches made the shortlist for the 2009 National Book Award for young people’s literature, and some people questioned whether it belonged there or in an adult category. It’s a judgment call: This is a crossover book that may appeal both to mature teenagers and to adults who enjoy graphic novels and memoirs.

Best line/picture: No. 1: “Art became my home.” No. 2: In a review in the Washington Post, Michael Sims described one of the finest pictures in the book, which appears on the frontispiece and elsewhere: “The boy sits on the floor, on a sheet of drawing paper almost as large as he is. Crayons lie scattered nearby. He leans forward, resting the top of his head on the paper. Then he begins to literally sink through the floor, to disappear into the paper. A last kick of his legs reveals that he wasn’t sinking so much as joyously diving head-first into the world he created, leaving behind the world he was born into.”

Worst line/picture: “On the one hand, I felt the fear, humiliation and pain … While on the other, for reasons I could not quite understand, I felt that she was justified … and that I deserved everything I had gotten.” This passage supposedly describes Small’s feelings at the age of six but sounds more like something he worked out later in therapy. It is also involves telling rather than showing. Small doesn’t trust you to understand his feelings from his pictures, as he does in many other parts of the book, so he overelaborates here.

Published: September 2009

About the author: Small also wrote Imogene’s Antlers and illustrated Judith St. George’s So You Want to Be President?, which won the 2001 Caldecott Medal. His work has appeared in the New Yorker and other magazines. Born in 1945, he lives in Michigan.

Children’s book reviews appear on this site on Saturday’s. You can also follow Jan on Twitter (@janiceharayda) www.twitter.com/janiceharayda, where further comments on them sometimes appear during the week.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

October 14, 2009

David Small’s Graphic Memoir of Throat Cancer, ‘Stitches,’ Makes Shortlist for National Book Award for Young People’s Literature

David Small has made the shortlist for the 2009 National Book Award for young people’s literature for Stitches (Norton, 336 pp., $24.95), his graphic memoir of getting throat cancer after receiving high doses of radiation for a sinus condition while growing up in Detroit in the baby-boom era. The sponsor of the awards doesn’t give a separate prize for graphic novels or memoirs but considers them along with other submissions in the relevant category, so you could easily miss that this one has a different format from other books on the shortlist. Small talks about Stitches in a YouTube trailer that shows a generous number of pages from the book. He won the American Library Association’s 2001 Caldecott Medal for So You Want to Be President?, and his work has appeared in The New Yorker and other publications.

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

September 17, 2008

Graphic ‘Novels’ — Actually, Memoirs — for People Who Don’t Read Graphic Novels — Marjane Satrapi’s Tales of Life Under Islamic Fundamentalism

Not long ago, the nether parts of Hurricane Gustav hit my town and trapped me in a coffee shop just after I’d left a bookstore with Persepolis and Persepolis 2, Marjane Satrapi’s tragicomic memoirs in comic strips of her childhood and early adulthood in fundamentalist Iran. What a welcome diversion the books made as rain pelted the plate glass. Both have enough to offer teenagers — assuming there are any left who haven’t read these bestsellers — that I hope to review them on a Saturday soon. Until then Persepolis could be a good choice for adult book clubs that want to try a graphic novel, the industry term that’s a misnomer for nonfiction. Both memoirs are much more engaging than — but would make a fine complement to — the pontifical Reading Lolita in Tehran, a book club staple. You’ll find more on Satrapi’s work at www.randomhouse.com/pantheon/graphicnovels/catalog/author.pperl?authorid=43801. If you like the genre, you may want to explore other comic-books pages at Pantheon www.randomhouse.com/pantheon/graphicnovels/, the Tiffany’s of graphic-novel publishers.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

July 15, 2008

Four ‘Classic’ Graphic Novels

Filed under: Graphic Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:21 am
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Graphic novels — which have been called “comic books on steroids” — aren’t always novels but include many kinds of book-length stories, memoirs among them. As a group, they’ve come into their own recently enough it’s too soon to call any of them classics. But four books are candidates for that status, a panel sponsored by the New York chapter of the Women’s National Book Association suggested:

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (Mariner, 232 pp., $13.95, paperback), by Alison Bechdel. The creator of “Dykes to Watch Out for” comic strip writes about growing up in the 1960s and 1970s in rural Pennsylvania, where she realized that she was a lesbian and her troubled father was www.houghtonmifflinbooks.com/catalog/titledetail.cfm?titleNumber=689441.

La Perdida (Pantheon, 288 pp., $14.95, paperback), by Jessica Abel. A young American moves to Mexico City hoping to learn about her estranged father’s country in a book in which much of the dialogue is written in Spanish and translated or explained in a glossary www.jessicaabel.com/laperdida/?s=intro.

Maus (Pantheon, 106, $14.95, paperback), by Art Spiegelman. No graphic novel has earned more praise than this Pulitzer winner. Nazis are cats and Jews are mice in Spiegelman’s meditation on the experiences that shaped his father, a Jewish Holocaust survivor lambiek.net/artists/s/spiegelman.htm.

Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood (Pantheon, 160 pp., $10.95, paperback), by Marjane Satrapi. Satrapi uses small black-and-while panels similar to those of Persian miniatures to describe the often frightening experience of growing up in Iran just after the overthrow of the Shah www.randomhouse.com/pantheon/graphicnovels/satrapi2.html.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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