Book Review: ‘Kiss & Tell’ by Marinaomi

Sat down to write about artist MariNaomi’s draw-all tell-all graphic memoir Kiss & Tell: A Romantic Resume from 0-22, and found myself penning memories about playing tug-o-war over the one neighborhood boy on Fifth Place Northwest. Playing boyfriend-girlfriend in a room full of girls, sitting in a bean bag chair and drinking water we pretended was spiked with “Spanish Fly.” Surely something we had seen on “Love Boat,” our faces pressed together making “Mmm Mmm” noises, our heads making figure eights.

A “StarWars” fanatic whose friendship I forked left from the first time I saw Madonna on MTV. There she was, bed head and black lace, set against a white box. A clear line in the sand: No longer giving a rat’s about R2D2, but craving, absolutely craving tulle skirts, pouty lips, exposed stomach, flirtation, and please God, rhythm.

I bet this is a pretty natural response. Especially if the reader came of romantic age to a Cure soundtrack, like MariNaomi. The premise isn’t unique. Neither are the gritty, fuck-you-dad teen tantrums of this West Coast-based former wild child. Her taste for the mohawked and dreadlocked, the homeless teens, older dudes and future inmates suggests a certain After School Special-ness I wouldn’t have dared to test in the 1980s, which makes the gawking all the better.

It start with her origin story: Her father as an officer in the army teaching English in Japan and falling for one of his students, her mother. It’s a short story that says a lot about the conservative backbone of the family. In the final panel they coo over their young daughter, blessing her with the opportunity to someday fall into a love like theirs. “One day you’ll find a man to take care of you,” her father says.

Things quickly shift from their story of chaperoned dates to a not-so-innocent story of a pedophile babysitter who trades her nudity for grape gum, snaps a bunch of pix, then shows her his in a chapter called “The Most Beautiful Penis I’ve Ever Seen.”

She breaks her story into sections divided by age and the stories quickly turn from cries of Cooties to sneaking a boy in her bedroom window, Billy, who is cockblocked by, simultaneously, a menstrual explosion and her mom’s footsteps in the hallway. She grows up quickly in these pages, losing her virginity in her early teens, dropping out of school, running away from home, dabbling in the ladies and maintaining a relationship with a boyfriend who is sent to jail.

They are told in negative-style panels, back backgrounds with white images of orgies and tough talks.

Marinaomi is probably one of those people who has probably gotten the old “ohmygah, you should write a book about your life” over drinks with friends. She definitely succeeds, sharing the deets on dozens of romantic relationships without blinking. It’s solid entertainment that won’t change your life, but it will definitely take you back to that time in the bushes when you played kissy face with the neighbor.

 This review was originally published on Minnesota Reads on September 11, 2011.

Book review: ‘Paying for It’ by Chester Brown

In June of 1996, cartoonist Chester Brown’s girlfriend Sook-Yin — who would be his last girlfriend — admitted she had fallen in love with another man. She wanted to see how things would play out with this drummer and talked it out with Brown, who encouraged her to give it a shot. He continues to live with her and consider things like romantic love and committed relationships. He develops a solid case for being anti hearts and flowers.“… There were only three reasons why I wanted to have girlfriends,” he tells a platonic friend in the beginning of his book Paying for It. “One: because it’s socially expected — guys who don’t have girlfriends are considered to be losers. Two: I liked the ego boost of having a woman who wants to have that sort of exclusive relationship with me. And three: sex.”

When his friend suggests that he engage in one-night stands, he tells her: “I don’t have the social skills necessary to pick up women for casual sex.”

This is undoubtedly true.

Brown’s graphic memoir is about his transition into becoming an unflinching john who decides in 1999 that his human need for love is satiated by family and friends and that his human need for sex can be satiated by soliciting the prostitutes or escorts he sees advertised online and in publications. His story includes the women he meets with and his philosophical debates with his friends over the morality of his lifestyle and the legitimacy the profession and whether it should be legalized or regulated.

He meets dozens of women and each is disguised in the pages with fake names and no identifying characteristics. He learns that he dislikes fake breasts, worries that some of the women aren’t legitimately 18 years old and that sometimes he has to request a condom before they perform oral sex. He also has conversations about American history and the series of life events that landed the escort face first in his lap. Some he sees consistently, including one who is his favorite until the sex suddenly begins to feel empty and he moves on. With some he discusses his work as a cartoonist and he starts using his real name when he makes appointments.

Plenty of the spare panels feature a stick-ishly limbed Brown joined missionary style to an anonymous woman. Others feature him naked and flaccid, having pleasant post-coital conversations. His intent is obviously not to titillate, but to provide a journalistic series of first-hand experiences.

Brown is hyper self-aware, at times acting like his own analyst. When Sook-Yin finally asks him to move out of their shared space so that she can live with her boyfriend, Brown sits around, a stickish figure in tighty whities acknowledging that he feels depressed. Then he realizes that he has just had a brief glimmer of happiness, so he backtracks to the root of the upswing: Where had his thoughts strayed that brought on that feeling? Ah. An image of sitting up in his own bed in his own home reading. And with that he has worked through his sadness and exorcised it. Plus: Now he can invite the prostitutes into his own home.

Brown is a little prickly. A friend in the afterward describes him as “robotic.” He knows himself and understands human emotions — although he doesn’t really subscribe to them. Jealousy, he tells a friend who questions how he continues to live with Sook-Yin, is a learned behavior. He simply doesn’t feel it. There are plenty of character traits that are anti-social, including his admittance that a 28-year-old woman who greets him at the door is older than what he was looking for. He also sneak attacks friends by starting debates about prostitution, specifically issues he has clearly given much thought to. They don’t stand a chance against his fine-tuned arguments. On the other hand, much of what he is saying makes sense. Relationships are not necessarily the cure-all for a person looking for happiness. And what is wrong with a scenario in which a person wants to have sex and another person consents to sell it to him/her — with the inclusion of personal guidelines like no kissing or oral sex. The last faction of the book includes further arguments in favor of legalizing prostitution and notes that build on things that appear in the panels. This part gets to be a little much, but is consistent with Brown’s very clinical style of presenting the most 100 percent thorough argument he can give.

This review was published on Minnesota Reads on August 28, 2011.

‘Fun Home’ by Alison Bechdel

Sometimes my reading takes on a sort of frantic archeological hunt-ness and I find myself tearing through books looking for the best sentence, the most aurally appealing word, the most curious idea. The next best thing ever. Or the next worst thing ever. A superlative in some respect. Something that bonks me over the head, bleeding from pores and lamenting the cruelty of only being able to read this thing for the first time once. And that there is a chance I will never again read anything better, so prepare for a lifetime of disappointment. Better find a new hobby. Maybe hiking.

Of course, this rarely happens. The majority of books are fine. Fine-ish. Just enough of everything. Next book, please.

Enter Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. Game over. Time to find a nice trail, sturdy boots, and tick repellent. This is the most multi-layered, wholly complete graphic anything I’ve read or suspect I will ever read. It would stand on its own as a novel; it would stand on its own as completely wordless.

The longtime “Dykes to Watch Out For” creator’s coming-out-of-age story centers on growing up not-at-all pink and flowery in an old mansion with hug-free parents — mom is a Henry James-style character, and dad is more Gatsby. Her father Bruce dies two weeks after she reveals to her parents by letter from college that she is a lesbian and her mother reveals that her father has had a series of flings with teen-aged boys. She suspects he killed himself, purposefully stepping in front of a truck.

Bechdel tells her story in a way that keeps doubling back to this discovery about her father, and she writes the story of her life from this new perspective about what was really going on in this huge old house he was restoring just millimeters from where he grew up in a town teeming with Bechdels.

Whoa. Bechdel has got a crazy way with words and descriptions and the chops to pull off the story even without these wicked detailed panels. Second of all, whoa. The art is amazing with telling details and bits of humor. One of her best tricks is telling a story from mythology or a classic novel with her words, while including images of her family’s parallel narrative.

Your brain will explode at the consideration taken in creating this graphic memoir.

This review was posted on May 23, 2011 on Minnesota Reads.

Review: ‘The Impostor’s Daughter’ by Laurie Sandell

When Laurie Sandell, if that is her real last name, was growing up, her father would have the mail stopped every time he went out of town. If, by some twist, Laurie did get her hands on the delivery, she would find envelopes addressed to all sorts of people she had never heard of.

The Impostor’s Daughter by Laurie Sandell, a chronicler of celebrity stories and editor at Glamour, is a graphic memoir recounting a childhood spent with a mysterious father who has larger-than-life stories of honors, awards, medals, and elbow rubbing. Sandell, his favorite of his three daughters, is always trying to please him, and likes to leave little funny drawings for him to find. As she gets older, and they disconnect a bit from their original clique, she starts to question the truth in the fantastic stories he has told her. Does he work for the CIA? Who is this guy? And why in the hell did he open multiple credit cards in her name, and completely demolish her credit score before she’s ever even pursed her own plastic?

She begins investigating her father, with plans to write an article for a magazine about his life and lies. At first he is totally game. He spends hours with her talking about killing people and almost being killed and jail time and the biggie bigs he’s called friends. She records these sessions, and then starts fact checking. No, he didn’t graduate from that university. No, he never worked there. Looks like he borrowed a shitton of money from a family friend, never paid it back and ruined the chance for future dinner parties. And he is wracking up some serious debt. Her mother, meanwhile, ignores all of this. Continues to give him, as she says, the benefit of doubt.

As a journalist, I’m not sure why Sadell went the illustrated memoir route. She can obviously write, she’s a professional writer. Her drawings are more from the spare and realistic vein, and they are fine. She doesn’t take advantage of the panel space. No extra details. No hidden jokes. No foreshadowing or clues to the time period the story is set in. It’s a bit of a waste. Especially in the case of this story: Dude, her dad is a total fraud. And as she investigates his claims, he appeals to her emotionally with reminders of family loyalty and vague suicide threats. This is compelling stuff that could have been an epic, if not award-winning, word book. It’s a total page flipper, even for its faults.

The side stories, too, seem to strip away some of the skin from the meat of all of this. Sandell inserts her relationship with Ben, a guy she meets online with whom she develops a long-distance relationship. It’s a lot of mixed emotions, on again off again, and I believe it is meant to illustrate the point that: Look. My dad fucked me up so big time, that I don’t even know what I want with this nice and normal dude from California. She’s also building up her tolerance for Ambien and mixing it with wine. And then there are these celebrity interviews that land her across the table from the fluffy haired and sunglassed sect. She’s clearly enamored with her job among the rich and famous, which she explains by noting the way her father’s larger-than-life stories have made her crave larger-than-life, oft-photographed super people. Unfortunately, paired with a drawing of all the celebs she has interviewed, it seems unprofessional and name dropp-y. (Ashley Judd, for instance, is one of the supporting characters in the story).

There is just so much potential here with the base story, that was all whittled away because of some bad decision making about delivery. I wish she had a do over.

This review was originally published at Minnesota Reads on November 22, 2010.

Review: ‘Drinking at the Movies’ by Julia Wertz

Julia Wertz is that little voice in your head cracking wise during situations that are absurd or even borderline tragic. Where plenty of (boring) people have learned to silence it, or at least self-edit, Wertz spits out these bits of irreverent nuggets:

“My life is the abortion Juno should have had,” the be-T’shirted and bobbed 20-something tells her friend in her graphic memoir Drinking at the Movies.

The quip comes in a vignette called “Today Everything is Shit” and by “shit” she means a jackhammered morning, a massive coffee spill, a broken camera and printer, and an accidental “reply all.” Her brother, a drug addict, relapsed — and crashed her car. She brought brown pens instead of black, her health insurance ran out, and she’s accosted outside of her apartment by a bum with a hook hand.

It’s all part of the mess hinted at on the first page of the “Fart Party”-creators story. Wertz comes to consciousness at 3 a.m. on her 25th birthday in a laundromat in Brooklyn. She’s got a fistful of Cracker Jacks, and she’s dressed in plaid pajama pants.

“What the …” Wertz asks, staring at a pile of double decker dryers.

From there she doubles back to chronicle the year that she moved from her excellent apartment in San Francisco to Brooklyn. A sort of whim that represents the side of her brain prone to doing the thing everyone advises against. The antagonist to the side of her brain that is totally responsible and, like, knows how to handle a weeping baby.

Wertz. Is. Hilarious.

She is a cartoonist who trolls for minimum wage jobs, who wears a uniform of comfy pants and a T-shirt or hoodie. She drinks plenty, sometimes in bed, and has the universal thought: What if computers had breathalizers attached to prevent drunk internetting? She’s got a handful of cool friends, who also draw. And her life has some downers: Lupus, but no insurance; Her brother is an addict who keeps relapsing, and she feels guilty for being the width of a country away from him. Her stepfather has cancer.

Still, she drops perfect colorful punchlines, the smartass in the back of a classroom. If her memoir were a movie, she would be a supporting character who outshines the star of the show with re-Tweetable one liners.

“I bet my spirit animal is something retarded like a root hog,” she thinks in a fit of insomnia and homesickness.

“That’s gayer than giving a rainbow a rimmer,” she says while chilling with a friend in Chicago and missing a very important conference call — which she eventually takes in an unlikely place:

“This is Julia from a trash can in a back alley in Chicago,” she says.

This year-in-the-life is such a superfun memoir. And if you don’t believe me, Wertz got a super clever blurb from Fiona Apple, who says she wishes a 2-D Wertz was her indian in the cupboard. “I’d make an easy chair out of a ring box, fasten it to the front of my bike, giver her a pen cap full of whiskey and off we’d go.”

This review was originally published on Minnesota Reads on Sept. 29, 2010.