Review: ‘My Most Secret Desire’ by Julie Doucet

If Julie Doucet was a man, she would have a girlfriend with huge breasts. She would throw her down on the hood of a car and have her way with her. She would look similar to the woman version of herself, but with more of a V-shaped torso. She would zip up her pants and chuckle. Or maybe she would discover that she had grown a penis, and then shake her male member gleefully.

This is the sort of thing that crops up when the longtime cartoonist is asleep. The “If I was a man” premise creeps into her subconscious along with other super whacky dreamscapes in her collection My Most Secret Desire.

There is also the teeth-falling-out-of-the-mouth dream, the I’m-still-in-school dream, and the I’m-an-astronaut-dream. Each is told in this heavy-handed, darkly etched, highly detailed way that is dark and grisly and delicious. You wish you had dreams like this — meeting Micky Dolenz, for instance.

In another gender bender, she discovers that she has a penis and considers the usefulness of it. She can pop the top off of it and carry things inside of it. Magazines, a toothbrush, condoms. She can stick a flower through the hole at the top or use it as a third leg. She can harness it and pretend it’s a mustang.

One dream-within-a-dream finds her pregnant, sitting in the bathtub with her boyfriend. The child escapes through her stomach. She wakes, thinks that was weird, then proceeds to give birth to a cat that she breastfeeds in her bed.

Early in the collection she is an astronaut who is being sent into space. But first her mom stops by the space shuttle to deliver masturbation cookies. Julie strips down, tests them, breaks the fourth wall to smile at the reader.

This is some wicked stuff. Hilarious and detailed. Layered and interesting. A sort of R.Crumb if R. Crumb carried tampons. Julie Doucet seems to be that fantastic girl doodling dicks on her notebook.

This review was originally posted on June 24, 2011 on Minnesota Reads.

Review: ‘Cecil and Jordan in New York’ by Gabrielle Bell

Imagine a linear story. Now imagine cartoonist Gabrielle Bell studying it with her hands on her hips. She takes a giant scissors, the kind used by mayors at ribbon cutting ceremonies, and makes two incisions into the tale. A snip here, a snip there. What’s left is a short story without context, unfettered by fatty back story and neat closing statements. Like walking into the middle of a conversation and then leaving before it ends — or before being told, for instance, it was all just a dream.

Cecil and Jordan in New York is a collection of graphic novel style short stories by Bell. It’s a mix of real low-impact slices of life, twisted tales in which a woman transforms herself into a chair or a giant man plucks a woman out of thin air and keeps her in a cage in his home, eventually filling it with a pet and a friend, an artistic re-telling of a Kate Chopin story, and seemingly autobiographical coming-of-age stories.

This review was originally posted on June 12, 2011 on Minnesota Reads.

These stories are all told in the same steady no-panic voice — whether a woman is getting a potty-mouth bird caught in her hair or an artist is tutoring another artist’s neglected young son. At the center of these stories is usually a woman who stands unblinking in the face of the absurd or cruel, almost aware that in three panels things might change again.

The best of the collection is “Felix.” It opens with an art class in which an instructor is talking about negative space. When he lands on Anna’s painting of a nude woman with her feet in water, he describes it as “… Everything I dislike in painting.”

A visiting professional artist’s young son, Felix, digs Anna’s work, though, so the professional — who can pull in a cool million for an egg-shaped sculpture, hires her to help the kid make art. Anna’s unsure how to respond to a 12-year-old boy, so she lets him tag along while she works with a nude model. They work on flower arrangements. In his spare time, Felix works up portraits of Anna, which he stashes under his mattress. Things get wonky when Felix overhears his arty father telling Anna about how neither he nor his ex-wife wanted a child.

Gabrielle Bell is my favorite of favorite graphic novelists. Her brain lacks boundaries and you get the sense that she can get real weird with herself. The ordinary moments slant to wonky digressions. Then, like in the case of “I Feel Nothing,” the sort of bizarre encounter between a morning drinker who owns a trendy bar and the normal friendly girl downstairs, everything just goes back to normal.

Review: ‘Gryphon’ by Charles Baxter

I believe that Charles Baxter is one of the best writers on Earth. If I had to pick which one should sit at the head of the table during a gathering of my top ten, I’d probably just say “Screw it” and make him arm wrestle Haruki Murakami for honors. Let the loser carve the bird.

I also believe that Charles Baxter is the trickiest writer to write about. I decided this even before he wrote a state-of-the-reviewers address about “owl criticism,” in which a book is critiqued like this:
“This book has an owl in it and I don’t like owls.”

This designation isn’t just for the rookies.

See also: Nationally renowned publications’ coverage of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom.
See also: Citizen reviewers on Amazon.
See also: Me. Right now. On his book.

Baxter is tricky because I understand thematically what he does. I see the way he rips a slice out of a normal life and hip-checks it to just an inch from absurd, but toeing the line and swinging its arms to balance at the line where realism ends. I see that he is a clean writer. I see that he writes characters with layers that aren’t even hinted at, and that if you hung out with them a bit longer you might be surprised by the contents of a refrigerator or the smell their socks have trapped at the end of the day. He pits squares versus circles and tries to make them communicate.

But I’m not sure exactly how what he does results in the chemical response it leads to. Specifically: Why do I always forget what he wrote about and only remember that it was brilliant?

Charles Baxter’s writing has this way of absorbing into your skin. Setting up shop. Making a memory where you’re like: Wait. Was that me making out with my boyfriend on a football field that one night, or is that something that happens in one of Charles Baxter’s novels? And even when I can pinpoint it, say, “Oh, that was Feast of Love, not the summer of ’94,” I cannot attribute any more plot points to the novel that I would actually call one of my favorites of all time.

I’ve never found this to not be the case with Charles Baxter, and it rings just as true in Gryphon: New and Selected Stories, a mix of 23 stories. Not a dud in a bunch, but flipping through the collection I finished yesterday I’m all “Oh! Yes! The one about the young couple living in what seems to be Dinkytown. The warning from the exgirlfriend. The homeless man who grants three wishes! I love that story!”

I love owls.

Faves include “Harmony of the World,” in which a good musician who is not quite good enough works accompanies a singer who is good, but not quite good enough and it all ends in a very Edgar Allan Poe-ian crescendo, minus the beating heart in the wall; “Surprised by Joy,” in which a couple suffers when the pace of their grief isn’t in step; “Snow,” about a forever student drunk drives to help out his ex-fiance; the aforementioned “Kiss Away,”; and “Royal Blue,” which I loved so much that I can’t remember a lick of it; “The Old Murderer,” is the beginning of a friendly relationship between neighbors with dueling demons; “The Winner,” in which a freelance writer is thrown into “The Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.”

This review was posted on Minnesota Reads on March 6, 2011.

Review: ‘The Surf Guru’ by Doug Dorst

Well. Now Doug Dorst is just showing off. The relative newbie to the world of book glue’s new collection of short stories The Surf Guru, is so fun, so clever, and so so exciting that it will make people who play with words drool.

Reading his series of twelve tales is like watching a contortionist bend and shape shift, and thinking: “Holy crap. Do you even have a human rib cage?”

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