The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, adapted and illus. by Kristina Gehrmann

A little preface to say that I first read Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle as a young person – before high school, certainly – off my parents’ shelf, and it made a serious impression; I’ve read it several times over the years, and I still marvel at it. I know it has a reputation in some quarters for being dry and polemical, and that perspective is valid, but I find it a gripping and affecting novel. I treasure my parents’ copy (and here as well is the painting I did from it, in case it’s not clear that I’m a fan).

So, you understand that I was excited to see a new graphic adaptation offered and positively reviewed at the Shelf.

I think The Jungle was probably an excellent candidate for this treatment. It is a dense and extremely grim story, well-served by the visual form. Kristina Gehrmann’s illustrations are chiefly done in black and white, with occasional red ink for emphasis: the meat-packing industry offers lots of possibilities for red ink, but it is used sparingly and in perhaps unexpected ways here. The narrative is pared down and reduced mostly to dialog. The most surprising changes for me shouldn’t have been, because my colleague at the Shelf did warn me, but I’d forgotten: the story is somewhat gentled, with (as the reviewer says) a lowered body count, but please note that The Jungle gentled is still a hard, hard ride. More shockingly, the story ends much earlier, at about the novel’s halfway point. This was harder for me to swallow. The novel’s second half gets more didactic, it’s true, but I remain riveted, and I think it’s terribly important stuff. A lowered body count still allows for plenty of horrors in this version, but there are one or two (avoiding spoilers here) whose lack really felt like they changed things for me. It feels like this is not the book I love and admire, but volume one of its adaptation. I am unsettled by this amendment.

That said, I think it is a very fine volume one, and far more approachable than the original. I guess if this is what it takes to enter into this jungle’s horrors, then it’s a service. I just really hope readers continue from here – and I would love to see Gehrmann’s volume two.

When we love a book, its adaptations (usually to film, but the principle applies) will inevitably disappoint us, so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. And I did appreciate this graphic novel: it is affecting and stark and true to the original in feeling and much of its content. But The Jungle it is not. This just makes me want to reread Sinclair!


Rating: with some effort I award this book 7 boot soles.

Solutions and Other Problems by Allie Brosh

I used to follow Allie Brosh’s blog, Hyperbole and a Half. (I always loved that name.) I did not read her first book, by the same name, but I love the blog. This is her second.

Solutions and Other Problems is brilliant. Brosh is so vulnerable, honest, willing to share, and hilarious. Her openness is disarming and I think healthy both for her and for her readers who are comforted by knowing that they’re not alone in their struggles. And some of what she has to share is raw and painful. But also, she makes me laugh harder than almost anything, ever. I mean I laughed until I cried, gasping, couldn’t breathe, peed on myself. I was oxygen-deprived; she nearly killed me, I laughed so hard. (The funniest bits, for me, are anything about pets, and the chapter about the car stereo system and the smartphone trying to boss her around.) I would love to be able to spend a few minutes every day laughing this hard. I guess I need to re-follow her blog.

This is a graphic work – as in graphic novel, but nonfiction. A graphic memoir-in-essays, if you will; it’s not linear, but a sampling of experiences that have been especially funny or painful or moving. Because she jumps around so much and generally gets a little silly (in all the best ways), I thought it was neatly appropriate that (as noted by a brief “Explanation” following chapter 1) Brosh’s chapters are numbered but there is no chapter four. “Because sometimes things don’t go like they should,” she explains, and because she’s exercising a little power here, and we should be grateful she didn’t take it further than she did. It’s a random little bit of ridiculousness; but it’s also expressive of the kind of fun and angst I think she excels at.

Brosh’s illustrations are also a little ridiculous, fanciful, hilarious, and distinctive. I love them. She explains the world as she experiences it, in part, through fictional monsters and fantasies. Her drawings capture the mystery and awkwardness of life in a way that feels precisely right. (And I think she has dogs down pat.) (The Oatmeal‘s pretty good at this too.)

At one point she notes,

Experiencing real loneliness for the first time is like realizing the only thing you’ve ever loved is your home planet after migrating to the moon.

and I think that’s just perfect. I recognize this feeling. I had to migrate to the moon to find out just how place mattered to me.

I find Allie Brosh’s work comforting, as well as so funny that it leaves me a little breathless and wrung out. I recommend her so strongly, and I guess I need to go back and find the first book now too. Thanks, Liz, for the recommendation.


Rating: 9 sneakponies.

From Hell: Master Edition by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell

From this list of horror novels (linked from Shelf Awareness, and thank you for that), I found From Hell, which has been a wild ride. It’s a graphic novel, it’s historical fiction, and yes, it’s horror, but none of these terms suffice. The master edition I invested in was totally worth it for the 40-page appendix (in tiny type) explicating every smallest point of the novel itself, and detailing all the research involved, where fact meets fiction, and Moore’s reasoning behind the conclusions he’s drawn. The meticulous and thoroughly-explained research was its own gripping story, and Moore’s voice in that appendix is frequently hilarious – when’s the last time I laughed out loud at an appendix?! – self-deprecating, clever, and smart. I marvel at what feels to me like rather a new form. (The only comparison, obviously, is the Maus books.)

The novel itself is a fictionalized version of the Jack the Ripper murders, their investigation, and the conclusion(s) drawn and not drawn in 1888 and the years that follow. I entered this reading not knowing much about Jack the Ripper – I knew he was a historical serial killer in London who targeted poor sex workers, did terrible things to them, and was never caught; I think I would have figured his victims at five. That’s about it. I’m not at all sure that a reader more knowledgeable of these events would be a better reader of this work; I had plenty to help me along with the included appendix, although I think I would often have been lost without it. At least, I would have missed many of the subtler references. I strongly recommend the master edition for this reason. On the other hand, with nearly 600 pages, this large-format, hardback work is indeed a phonebook, and I confess I had a few physical difficulties with it: not only size and weight, but somewhat hard-to-read printing (both the tiny-print appendix and the hand-lettered graphic novel) on glossy pages that threw some glare. I had to use more light than I usually do to read. Totally worth it, though.

Jack the Ripper is an interesting case, because it’s very well-known (even if you know as little as I did, you’ve certainly heard of it), but not well-understood. As Moore lays out here, there have been umpteen theories and suspects offered, but few solid conclusions; and now too much time has passed, and we’ll never know who really dunit. There is also something tantalizing about the time period (late nineteenth century) and the intersections of historical figures, of which Moore takes full advantage – those opportunities are clearly part of what’s drawn him to this subject matter. As he writes in a second (graphic) appendix, sort of a meta-narrative about JtR history and research and the birth process of this book, Moore was in 1988 “thinking seriously about writing something lengthy on a murder. The Whitechapel killings aren’t even considered. Too played-out. Too obvious.” And yet here we are.

It is one of Moore’s theses that “in many ways, the 1880s contain the seeds of the twentieth century, not only in terms of politics and technology, but also in the fields of art and philosophy as well. The suggestion that the 1880s embody the essence of the twentieth century, along with the attendant notion that the Whitechapel murders embody the essence of the 1880s, is central to From Hell.” Indeed, this is not just a fictionalized account of a series of brutal murders (and the conspiracies and power structures that executed them), but a carefully research account of 1880s English society, including the roles played by the royals, the Freemasons, law enforcement, medicine and technology, homophobia, misogyny, and economic forces. It is a broad investigation into history across traditional academic disciplinary lines (which is a special love of mine), and again, that appendix makes it a rich study to dip into, leaving me with high confidence in the facts that serve as structure to this fiction. It is broad and rich in concept, too, part ghost story and philosophical probe. There are depths to be plumbed here; a person could write a dissertation on this surprising book.

There’s plots and there’s plots!

I’ve been writing about Alan Moore as if he’s the author of this book – because I understand that he’s the storyteller, and clearly he’s the voice of the appendix. The other listed author is Eddie Campbell, who I understand is responsible for the graphic art itself. He is referred to in the appendix as a separate entity, often humorously: “I have decided to ignore the increasingly surly protests of my co-author, Brisbane’s own Mr. Campbell, and make Victoria herself the instigator of events.” Notably, Campbell is credited for fastidious research for his visuals: “Suffice it to say that any adequate appendix listing Eddie’s sources in the way that I am listing mine would be twice as long as this current monstrosity, which in itself looks set to end up twice as long as the work to which it refers.” The appendix’s self-deprecations amuse me. “[There is another source] to which I would refer the interested reader (I assume there’s only one of you).” I am very open to the occasional self-reference, as when a character in the story predicts: “Mark my words, in ‘undred years there’ll still be cunts like ‘im, wrapping these killings up in supernatural twaddle, making a living out of murder…” and the appendix: “Abberline’s eerily precognitive comments are my own invention. They are also, in their way, a form of shamefaced apology from one currently making part of his living wrapping up miserable little killings in supernatural twaddle. Sometimes, after all you’ve done for them, your characters just turn on you.” You get the point: I am tickled by this narrative voice, and tickled by the research narrative in itself. I can scarcely imagine this book without Moore’s appended guidance; I wouldn’t have gotten half as much out of it.

The novel is horrifying, as is appropriate for its subject matter. It is complex in its explanation of the murders, conspiracies, investigations and cover-ups, including that supernatural angle. I think it’s a hell of a wild ride in itself, but it was the additional material that made this one a complete standout for me personally.


Rating: 9 points of research, decision, and imagination.

A Quick and Easy Guide to They/Them Pronouns by Archie Bongiovanni and Tristan Jimerson

A concise, friendly, illustrated guide to gender-neutral pronouns written by a likable pair of friends.

The coauthors of A Quick & Easy Guide to They/Them Pronouns are friends. Archie Bongiovanni identifies as nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns; Tristan Jimerson (he/him) knew them before they came out as nonbinary, so Bongiovanni asked him to help communicate with a mainstream population who might have trouble with the concept. Bongiovanni and Jimerson make a jolly, jokey team in this graphic how-to manual, with Bongiovanni’s illustrations, but despite their often playful tone, they take this topic seriously. They agree that being told one’s pronouns don’t matter is “basically telling you that you don’t matter.”

A Quick & Easy Guide addresses what a pronoun is; why people might want to use gender-neutral pronouns; how to ask for and give one’s pronouns; how to change one’s language and how to handle mistakes; and how to integrate these lessons into professional and retail settings. It’s written both for a general readership that may be confused by they/them pronouns, and (in a special section by Bongiovanni) for nonbinary folks. It even includes sample scripts and signs to post in places of business.

This is a short, easy-to-read, affordable guide, because the authors hope it will be widely distributed and handed out on the street. It meets its goals neatly: just the facts, but in a friendly, approachable tone, enhanced by the true friendship of its authors. A Quick & Easy Guide is for everyone, because as Bongiovanni and Jimerson point out, we encounter nonbinary folks every day, whether we know it or not.


This review originally ran in the July 10, 2018 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 7 arrows of good intent.

What It Is by Lynda Barry

This is an interesting piece. Coffee-table-sized, all done in graphic format, and for a number of pages I wasn’t sure there was anything like a narrative here. Four pages of the first 24 involve narrative storytelling; the rest are collage, often with text in comic-style boxes, but not necessarily linear or related text.

None of this is un-fun, but it’s not what I was expecting. The drawing style is fun and quirky and consistent enough throughout that I gradually got to know the artist; and the collage, which involves materials other than Barry’s own creations, is an interesting way to look at the world and her vision, too. There are nearly limitless possibilities to interpret text that’s been all jumbled up together. I kind of enjoyed that. But my narrative-driven, literal, logical-progression-type mind–the mind that struggles with poetry–missed having a thread to grab onto.

There is a narrative, as it turns out. It starts in earnest on page 25. It comes and goes, interspersed with the collage-pages, which come to hold together a bit more as the narrative and themes become clearer.

Lynda Barry tells the story of her childhood, with its devotion to imagination and play, and her childhood delight in stories and pictures, and then the adolescence that stole these delights, chiefly when two questions came to her that refused to leave again. The questions are, is this good? and does this suck? She continues on, to show us how a certain art teacher in college helped her find her own way, release those outside considerations (at least temporarily; they do creep back in) and find the joy and the imagination and the inspiration again.

The latter third of the book is more craft book or how-to (although keeping the graphic format; this is my first graphic craft book!), with plenty of exercises, and a few whimsical characters to help us along. Whimsy does not mean the tone is light, however. Barry is serious about the difficulties of artistic work (writing, drawing, or otherwise), those two questions always threatening to intrude again.

It’s a different take than I’m used to; and I am not personally big on exercises. But it was visually very interesting, and good practice for the brain to take on something different. I respect Barry’s multiple talents, and I appreciate her view on what it takes to make art, and her idea that we tap into something a bit unconscious, or a different consciousness, to do it. I’m intrigued.


Rating: 6 sea monsters.

The Walking Dead: Compendium One by Robert Kirkland et al.

walking-deadIn a word – get ready, because you won’t hear this from me very often – the movie was better. (Okay, the series.)

I’ve had the three The Walking Dead compendia on my wish list for at least a year, because I’m a big fan of the television series by the same name. What finally inspired me to buy this first one was one of the early episodes this season (ahem), which has me worried that we’re about to jump the shark. And I guess also because I’m insatiable. I love this story, these characters, their plights and the way they feel like my own friends & family. And I thought, if I’m going to geek out, I may as well know the original.

I’m not the hugest fan of graphic novels/graphic works in the world, although I have dearly loved some (Alison Bechdel, the Maus series). But I’m not precisely a connoisseur. And this one claims to be more classic “comic” than “graphic novel”, I think, so maybe I’m missing some insider knowledge. These are my disclaimers, before I tell you why I didn’t love this book.

Series fans, be aware that the story is significantly different in the comic. There are a few characters added and taken away (famously: there is no Daryl Dixon in the comic!!), and several serious plot twists that differ: different couples hook up in the comic, and more couples hook up in the comic. (Mild, long-past spoilers follow)—— Lori survives delivery of Judith. Tyreese is romantically involved first with Carol, then with Michonne (what?!). Andrea and Dale are a couple. A certain three-way marriage is proposed. For those of us immersed in the series… wow.

That’s not a fair criticism, of course. To say the comic is not the series is no more relevant a complaint than to say that the movie is not the book. No, my disappointments with the comic as a standalone are these. The dialog is unrealistic and cheesy: manly men saying things to each other like “I can’t pretend like I know what you’re going through…” “You don’t have to say anything… I know you care. That’s something. That’s enough.” There is some odd emphasis in that dialog, so the above lines read “I can’t pretend like I know what you’re going through…” “You don’t have to say anything… I know you care. That’s something. That’s enough.” (Weird.) The plot has quite a bit of sex-and-jealousy, soap opera stuff, and it’s just not balanced with the kind of character development that would let me buy in. I guess I feel like it rushes through the action (and the sex-and-jealousy) too quickly, without enough time to get to know the characters. It’s too sensational. I get why that may sound funny from a fan of the zombie show, which could be described as sensational (!); but I think those of us dedicated to the show would agree that it’s the characters and relationships that make it. And that kind of investment is not bought in a day, or solely with blood, guts and nudity.

The art is good, and it’s a remarkable and promising storyline for sure. I guess I’m saying I see the potential for it to be something more, and I’m glad someone else did too.

I think I’ll skip the next two compendia of comics, and stick to the series. And if this is the season that we jump the shark, well, thanks for six years and counting of outstanding drama.


Rating: 5 propositions.

The Bind by William Goldsmith

This graphic novel celebrates sibling rivalry and the art of bookbinding in a sepia-toned historic London.

the-bind

The illustrations and imagination of William Goldsmith (Vignettes of Ystov) adorn a story of bookbinding and family history with The Bind.

This graphic novel opens in 1912, as the ghost of Garrison Egret tours his family business, Egret Bindings, now run by his sons, Victor and Guy. Garrison is frustrated by the way they’ve “tarted it up,” and by the way Guy overworks himself without taking enough credit while Victor takes too much credit without doing the work. Their latest project will showcase the Egrets’ finest talents, and test both their skills and their relationship; it is a poetry collection called A Moonless Land, jewel-encrusted, hand-tooled with leather inlays and gold leaf. Victor, the high-maintenance artist, pulls out all the stops while business-minded Guy worries about the bottom line. Will “the most expensive book in existence” prove to be too much for the most prestigious bookbinding firm in London?

Goldsmith’s illustrations in black and gray, rust and rose, are understated and beautifully evocative. Characterization is accomplished through detail, like a carnation in Victor’s lapel, and the finer points of Egret Binding’s products. In large format on heavy stock, with bonus foldout panels, The Bind is as impressive a physical object as the Egrets’ great creation–minus the rubies and topazes. This carefully presented ode to the craft of bookbinding is also a story of family dynamics and the dilemma of faithfulness to artistry in a modernizing world: a special treat for booklovers, and a lovely work of art.


This review originally ran in the November 15, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 7 counterfeits.

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel

fun homeFun Home won awards and got more attention than Bechdel’s later Are You My Mother?, which I loved, so this was an obvious choice and yes, I will add my praise to the chorus.

This is a memoir centering around Bechdel’s father Bruce, her own discovery that she is a lesbian and her coming out to her parents, which is immediately followed by the discovery that her father is gay, too, shortly before he kills himself just weeks later. (The evidence is inconclusive, but she makes a good argument for her conviction, that it was suicide.) The title is a reference to the family business, which is a small-town funeral home that they call ‘Fun Home.’ That’s a lot, right? It is also a memoir in graphic form, and I am crazy about Bechdel’s technique, which combines dialog (speech boxes for the characters in her panels) with a voiceover-style narrative in different boxes that sort of caption those same panels. It’s astonishing how much can be communicated in pictorial form.

Despite the often heavy subject matter, Bechdel is often laugh-out-loud funny, while also taking her material seriously. She beautifully evokes the absurdity of many different elements of her story. Bruce is a passionate restorer of historic homes, down to all the details, the bizarrely frothy, lacy, heavy decor. This is both hilarious and pathological. He “treated his furniture like children, and his children like furniture.” Bechdel and her father are most intimate when they share books and reading (note that this is an intimacy with decided remove). Bruce works as an English teacher as well as a funeral director; and two thematic elements of the book are death and books. Bechdel is best able to understand and characterize her parents when viewing them through the lens of literature: her father as Icarus, then Daedalus, then a character from Fitzgerald; her mother one from Henry James. “I employ these allusions to James and Fitzgerald not only as descriptive devices, but because my parents are most real to me in fictional terms.” On the other end of the cultural spectrum, as a child Bechdel confused her family with the Addams family.

The reader has a different experience of the story than she does, because we find out earlier than she does the big reveal – that her father has had relationships with men and boys. But she still has us share in mixed feelings of relief, shock, perplexity.

The story is weird, fascinating, and moving; Bechdel has a gimlet eye for the psychological struggle in each chapter of it; the structure of this book – the disordered chronology and release of facts – is a smart puzzle. But the art is what completes the perfection: I’m still reeling from, and trying to comprehend, how precisely she uses visual images (with those careful text additions) to communicate. I can’t adequately articulate it, but this is a special, a uniquely wonderful way to tell a uniquely interesting story. One to study.


Rating: 9 books, of course.

book beginnings on Friday: Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

fun home

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

I loved Are You My Mother?, and don’t know why it took me so long to pick up Fun Home, her earlier work and sort of a partner to Mother. She is still hilarious, insightful, and smart.

Because this is a graphic memoir, I’ll have to do this beginning a little differently. Here is an image of the whole first page.

fun home start

That reference to Icarus was when I knew (not that I doubted) that we were going in a good direction. I can’t wait to spend some more time with Bechdel and her wacky family and amazing mind.

The Wild Party by Joseph Moncure March, illustrated by Art Spiegelman

What?! I found time to read a book just ’cause I wanted to? I know! It was amazing. I’ve read a lot of truly astonishing good books this year that I got assigned to read; but there’s nothing like choosing one myself.

wild partyIt was from MetaMaus that I first learned about this slim book, and it is worth tracking down, friends. The Wild Party is a book-length story-poem originally published in 1928 but banned far and wide for its explicit content. (Tame by our standards today: there are references to sex and a fistfight or two. And lots of booze.) It is the narrative of a party, in the jazzy, profligate 1920’s. Queenie and Burrs live together, but their relationship does not run smoothly; in the opening stanzas they threaten each other’s lives, and then make a very tentative peace by deciding to throw a party that night. Everybody comes: and the descriptions of their guests are lovely, vivid, ghoulish and grand. The party itself does not run smoothly, either. It is a great orgy of drink, music, betrayals and sex. It’s awesome.

I loved Art Spiegelman’s introduction, in which he points out that he doesn’t normally do poetry (thus reassuring the rest of us, likewise). William S. Burroughs gave confirmatory acclaim to March’s work by reciting a good portion to Spiegelman at their first meeting. And of course I loved Spiegelman’s illustrations of the poem, which conform perfectly to March’s words. There’s nothing like a literary work that is evocative of pictures… unless it is those pictures also perfectly composed.

A quick read of, I don’t know, under two hours, this narrative poem takes the reader on a wild ride, and Spiegelman paints it beautifully. Do check it out.


Rating: 8 unnamed drinks.
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