Friday, February 23, 2018

Good Night Stories about Rebel Girls by Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo

Hardcover, 212 pgs, Pub Dec 1st 2016 by Timbuktu Labs, Orig Title: Storie della buonanotte per bambine ribelli: 100 vite di donne straordinarie, ISBN13: 9780997895810, Series: Storie della buonanotte per bambine ribelli #1, Lit AwardsWaterstones Book of the Year Nominee (2017)

The subtitle of this collection is 100 Tales of Extraordinary Women, and it is beautifully done. The short passages cover every continent and every race, religion, and sexuality…that is, the stories are about girls and women with lesbians and transgender individuals identifying as female included. It is ravishingly interesting.

Each short passage is a tightly written biography suitable for 9-14 year-olds, informative, and inspiring. Many unusual job descriptions and lifelong purpose are described, expanding our horizons about the scope of what is possible. As an adult, I didn’t expect to learn as much as I did nor enjoy it as much.

This book is about rebels. It challenges us to think again about what we admire and what we don't...and why. It is a fantastic teaching tool. I can imagine a mother reading an entry alongside her preteen (of either sex, by the way) and discussing it for a short while so that the implications of each success sink in: "Why would that person be considered a rebel?" "What do you think about what that person did?" "Do you know anyone who has done things like this?" The mother is going to recognize some of the names and so can add whatever backstory is not in the book.

A few examples from the stories are
✦ Inventor Ann Makosinski, a fifteen year-old Canadian who won first prize in Google Science Fair for inventing a flashlight that doesn’t need batteries, wind, or sun--just body heat.
✦ Amna Al Haddad, weight lifter from the United Arab Emirates. She was a journalist and discovered she really enjoyed exercising! She began to work out in a gym with weights for the first time in her life as an adult. She was good at it and began training for the Olympics.
✦ Anna Politkovskaya, the Russian journalist who was murdered for reporting on the truth of what she saw in the brutal civil war in Chechnya.
✦ Jane Goodall is among the women to emulate for having her own mind and studying a subject so deeply that she became the expert.
✦ Hayshepsut was an Egyptian pharaoh who ruled Egypt long before Cleopatra became Queen. Records of her were destroyed after her death, but archeologists were able to piece together a record of her successful rule, the first (and only?) female pharaoh.
Included with each biography is a full page color representation of the subject, and a quote of something they said or wrote. Next to the short bio of Misty Copeland, for instance, is a drawing of her in flight during a ballet performance with a quote that reads, “Dance found me.”

The authors, Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo, studied in Italy and the United States where they founded Timbuktu Labs, a children’s media innovation lab. What’s that? you may well ask. The authors define the mission of Timbuktu as committed to “redefining the boundaries of children’s media through a combination of thought-provoking content, stellar design, and cutting-edge technology.” They designed the first iPad magazine for children. The start-up has created mobile apps and creative content for users in more than 70 countries.

It’s more than just new. It’s exciting. The first edition of this book was published in 2016. Since then it has gone through multiple reprintings, and in 2017 Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls 2 was published. There are apparently also coloring books, temporary tattoos, and posters that go along with the books and can be purchased separately. It’s become an industry, with good reason. If you have a girl in the family in the target age range, check it out. Just when you thought your girls were too old for bedtime stories, this may bring it all back.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

Thursday, February 22, 2018

The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother by James McBride

Hardcover, 256 pgs, Pub by Riverhead Books (first published January 23rd 1996), ISBN13: 9781573220224, Lit Awards: Anisfield-Wolf Book Award (1997)

I never read this book when it was first published in 1996, but it was required reading in the high school of the town where I lived after publication. In fact, I have the Tenth Anniversary edition of this book and in the Afterword, McBridge tell us by the tenth anniversary over two million copies had sold worldwide, translated into more than twenty languages, serialized in the New York Times, and studied by thousands of students each year in literature, sociology, history and creative writing classes.

What strikes me now, reading it twenty-two years later, is the parallel between James McBride’s white mother and Trevor Noah’s black one. Both women crossed race lines romantically and tried to give their mixed children the best possible education within their reach. The kids didn’t take advantage in the ways their mothers had hoped, but the love the mothers had for their children did magic and something about the striving stuck. iIn his Afterword McBride tells us that may be the reason the work resonated so widely: more families than not have some mix somewhere in their family trees, and they relate strongly to this history. Details change but the basic struggle remains the same.

McBride, along with his eleven brothers and sisters, is multi-talented. Everyone in the family learned to play an instrument or sing, tell stories or draw. James’ special skills are telling a story and playing music, and all his life he moved between the two, getting hired and leaving one or the other, then starting a new book and playing music for diversity and cash. It is fascinating to me that kind of rounded life always seemed enough for him; he didn’t get caught in the racket of making money for its own sake.

One sister, Helen, left home early and precipitously. The kind of rough-and-tumble upbringing the family experienced doesn't work for everyone. Some of us are simply more sensitive and require a softer hand. It can be traumatic to be in such a large, rambunctious group, whatever James' experience was. At least he noticed, and mentioned it.

Since most of you reading this will be familiar with this book, I will just quickly point out a few things I admired. His process of getting the story from his mother was kind of ingenious. Plenty of families will have the experience of bumping up against their parents desire to keep some areas of their life private, with the result that the whole doesn’t make as much sense as it should. If I am not mistaken, McBride worked on this story for fifteen years at least, or at least he dreamed about working on it. He had a job working for the Boston Globe right out of college when a Mother’s Day piece he wrote ran to huge acclaim. To expand it, he had to convince his mother to tell her story…but it was years and years before she dropped the last veils.

Ruthie, or Rachel as she was known growing up, was unhappy about leaving her own family, but realized she had no other option. It must have been such a wrenching experience for everyone, that time of giving an ultimatum and having it accepted. But Ruthie was looking forward to living with black people because “they did not judge.” She apparently never changed her mind about that.

When McBride left on a Greyhound for Oberlin at seventeen, his mother accompanied him to the station. He’d been some trouble in high school, acting out and skipping school, playing music but also hanging around with an iffy crowd. His mother was very glad he’d found a place that would take him with his poor grades, and he’d won a scholarship to boot. She had to give him up and though she stood strong through the goodbye kisses and hugs, she broke down crying just around the corner of the building as the bus took off.

Yes, the book could be studied for lots of reasons, but it is a great example of how to write a memoir that doesn’t feel past. It feels as though it is all happening now, or close enough to it to still have fragments of the past showing up in the present. I wonder about that…how he did that, what he was thinking, what the struggle was, and whether or not it was heavily directed by an editor. I don’t think it was, actually, because no one could come up with that kind of structure without it being integral to the material and the creation process.

But McBride does this kind of brilliant sleight of hand in his other works as well. And reading this has given me some insight into the John Brown character he drew for us in National Book Award-winning The Good Lord Bird. McBride’s narrator Onion appeared to have a real affection for Brown, despite recognizing the man was bonkers. He wasn’t condescending. I couldn’t quite figure that out when I read it the first time. I think I might get it now.

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Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Winter by Ali Smith (Seasonal #2)

Hardcover, 336 pgs, Pub Jan 9th 2018 by Pantheon Books (first published November 2nd 2017), ISBN13: 9781101870754, Series: Seasonal #2

Ali Smith wrote this book fast, and I think that is how she intends us to read it, at least at first. We slow down when her images and meanings start to coalesce on the page and we suspect there is much more to this than the twitter-like, depthless sentences that don’t seem like they are adding up to anything. Afterwards, an image emerges. What is more suited to tweeting than a Canada warbler?

The story, as such, is that a young man breaks up with his girlfriend Charlotte right before a Christmas he’d wanted to bring her to his mum’s house to introduce her to his mother. He finds a substitute girl, who happens to be waiting at a bus stop, rather than go through the humiliation of saying he no longer had a girlfriend. He pays her—Lux she is called, though he’d never asked—to stay the three days of the holiday.

Art grew in the course of this book into a grander vision of himself. He writes about nature, the churn of seasons, in a blog he calls Art in Nature. Though he rarely writes anything political, he is thinking about making his work a little more political, like the “natural unity in seeming disunity” of snow and wind, “the give and take of water molecules,” and “the communal nature of the snowflake.” He, Art, is not dead at all, though he is being crushed by his ex-girlfriend Charlotte on Twitter.

Charlotte is pretty clear-eyed:
The people in this country are in furious rages at each other after the last vote, she said, and the government we’ve got has done nothing to assuage it and instead is using people’s rage for its own political expediency. Which is a grand old fascist trick if ever I saw one…the people in power were self-servers who’d no idea about and felt no responsibility towards history…like plastic carrier bags…damaging to the environment for years and years after they’ve outgrown their use. Damage for generations.
Plastic carrier bags? This is where Smith shines, making her argument so clear and relatable and yet so absurd. She’s funny. She’s right and wrong at the same time, like most of us. Like Art. Smith draws environmental degradation, suggesting chemical (nuclear?) drift in the air can settle like snow, like ash, like slow poison on our lives. She compares the influx of refugees fleeing for their lives in the Mediterranean to exhausted holidaymakers using their friends’ recommendations on the ‘best places to stay.’

Many images float around this book, inviting us to make connections: Iris-eye, art-Art, stone with a hole in it-eye, stone with the weight and curvature of a breast-Mother Nature…once we begin, we start looking for these parallels everywhere. Lux— she had some kind of luxurious brain, a luxurious education studying what she wanted (like Shakespeare, violin, human nature), and the luxury of floating through the world unencumbered and unafraid.

Lux is an out-of-body experience, an angel who appears and disappears, a Canada warbler blown off course. Lux is grace. Lux brings the two sisters together and reminds them of their shared history, of love, of the importance of struggling to create bonds. Lux tries to convince Art to stay after the three-day Christmas holiday to talk, late at night, to his mother. At first he refuses, but when Lux says she will help, he looks forward to it.

Soph, Art’s mother, is not crazy but prescient, depressed, and old. The word Sophia in ancient Greek and early Christian times meant wisdom, and clever, able, intelligent. Iris, the sister from whom Soph was estranged, is not a religious do-gooder but is targeting critical needs to save what’s best of the human race. She is named for Iris, the Wind-Footed Messenger of the Gods. Her presence signifies hope.

Smith is also concerned with truth, and at some point Lux points to the notion that the truth of a thing may be confused with what we believe to be true. Is there objective truth? This question has been argued since time immemorial. It is back with a vengeance, and must be adjudicated daily, moment-by-moment within each of us.

Art in Nature continues to exhibit itself throughout the novel: a female British MP is barked at by the grandson of Winston Churchill, who is also an MP. He says it was meant as a friendly greeting, she accepts the non-apology. Smith interprets this incident as snow melting on one side of furrowed ground in slanted winter sun. It turns out the stuff Art writes in his blog material is invented. Lies, one could say, but close enough to real to sound remembered. This novel has a lot to do with art and politics and what the difference is between them.

Iris writes
& th diff dear Neph is more betwn artist and politician—endlss enemies coz they both knw THE HUMAN will alwys srface in art no mtter its politics, & THE HUMAN wll hv t be absent or repressed in mst politics no mtter its art x Ire
Ali Smith—and this is only the second novel of hers I have read—is a skilled interpreter of our lives. She is involved in the struggle with us, and has enough understanding to recognize #MeToo began with the Access Hollywood tape; the rest, on both sides of the Atlantic and around the globe, is fallout. She doesn’t want us to lose hope, but recognizes the route to betterment is long and arduous, which is why she occasionally blows a Canada warbler off course in the middle of winter to thrill us with what is possible.

I note Recorded Books and narrator Melody Grove won Audiofile Magazine's coveted Earphones Award for "conveying every nuance in the second movement of Ali Smith's Seasonal Quartet." Sounds like it would be a wonderful experience, to listen to this marvelous book speaking of a very dark time in all our lives.

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Monday, February 19, 2018

So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo

Hardcover, 248 pgs, Pub Jan 16th 2018 by Seal Press, ISBN13: 9781580056779

People of every race are going to read this book—at least I hope they are. It is not written just for people still denying that racism exists in America today, but for people who know it does but do not recognize the myriad ways it manifests. Oluo writes so clearly and simply, this book just a pleasure to read, despite addressing emotionally sensitive material. It is so well-conceived and executed that one could conceivably use it for group discussion, one or two chapters a meeting, talking over what she has presented.

Those discussions can be within one's own group, and need not include people outside of one's race unless they want to be there, e.g. white people should be talking to white people. We have a lot to discover about ourselves, our culture, how our political and economic systems affect racist ideas. She gives us the tools to begin that work, and suggests that we not make black people the sounding boards for our own anxieties—anxieties about how we are perceived, or mistakes we may have made or…whatever. It's not about us.

Oluo’s book builds on earlier books on this theme in the best way possible: You Can’t Touch My Hair by podcaster Phoebe Robinson, and Why I Am No Longer Talking to White People About Race by British journalist Reni Eddo-Lodge, were both enormously helpful in raising some of the issues Oluo addresses with such clarity. Oluo organizes the material so that we are focused on behaviors or questions we will recognize if we have thought about these issues at all, such as "How do I talk to my mother about racist jokes she makes?" "Is police brutality really about race?" "What are microaggressions?" "Is it race or class that separates us?" "What is intersectionality?" "I was called out for being racist but I don’t know what I did wrong."

Oluo suggests ways to approach these questions, and tells us what is not okay. She says there are basic rules, which we might understand to be immutable rules:

--It is about race if a person of color thinks it is about race.

--It is about race if it disproportionately or differently affects people of color.

--It is about race if it fits into a broader pattern of events that disproportionately or differently affects people of color.

While Oluo will concede that in the context of the points made above, “just about everything is about race…” Pause here. This is such a critical point that is too easily missed. White people do not generally talk about race, do not think about race because they are in a white supremacist society. Understand this to mean that white is privileged in our society, and until recently was the largest population group, using their own means of measuring “white.” White is a race, like other races. We just haven’t had to think about it as such.

Oluo goes on to say “…almost nothing is about race.” Pause again. That would be true also. Race doesn’t even show up genetically. White Americans have more genetic difference with other Europeans than we do with Black Americans. It’s culture and context that rubs us differently. But Oluo goes through all this carefully, spending some time defining what racism is. She warns us that talking about race will make us uncomfortable. We need to forgive ourselves if we make mistakes, but we also have to forgive others who are trying to understand what they do not now understand.

“You’re going to screw this up,” Oluo tells us, but you can prepare, and try to lessen the amount of times you get it wrong. She helps by talking this out. This is not easy stuff. Racial justice activist Debby Irving agrees. Just when we think we understand what privilege is, we might discover we don’t know how to explain it, or give examples of it, or even recognize it immediately. We need to change something so basic as our vocabulary, and everyone who has learned a new language knows how hard that can be. Our behaviors are often habituated, learned when we were children, and some need to change. Change is hard, but not impossible.

Oluo sticks with the practical: ways she has lived with and uncovered her own lack of understanding around race--for instance, not making enough effort to understand what underlies the term Asian American. That particular chapter, “What is the model minority myth?” is enormously informative. We learn the large number of sub-groups fall under the category of Asian American, and how they are doing in our economy.

It seems hard to believe this book came out only a month ago, in January 2018. I am so thrilled there is such useful material now to help us with our own conversations with family, friends, and colleagues about race. I recommend buying this one. You will be grateful for this resource. You will probably need to refer to it again and again, or pass it around, when your conversations raise some of the questions Oluo deals with here.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Late Essays 2006-2017 by J.M. Coetzee

Hardcover, Pub Jan 2nd 2018 by Viking (first published 2017), ISBN13: 9780735223912

Coetzee is among my favorite Nobel Prize winners. There is a deep vein of humor in his work—so deep we may never break into overt laughter—but a vein that is fast and cold and refreshing. These essays are criticism for the work of others, and choosing the order from among the selections is a rare delight.

In Nemesis, one of a series of novels written by Philip Roth, Roth confronts the idea of a plague visited upon a city, in his case “the polio summer of Newark in 1944.” The reader is unsure for most of the novel who is writing. A voice belonging to Arnie is describing the life and inner thoughts of another person, a man called Bucky Cantor. "The novel is an artfully constructed and suspenseful novel with a cunning twist towards the end." Reading Coetzee read Roth is revelatory.

Another essay highlights my second encounter with the work of Heinrich von Kleist, whom another author I admire has called greater than Shakespeare. Heinrich von Kleist wrote in the early part of the 19th Century, and died by his own hand at age thirty-four. Von Kleist was a playwright foremost and wrote prose fiction for money, thinking it a very inferior art form. His “Michael Kohlhaas” story has lasted two centuries, lately resurrected every couple of years with new film treatments, i.e., The Jack Bull (1999), and Age of Uprising (2013). I understand that story is now considered a novella rather than a short story; I was able to discover it reprinted in Twelve German Novellas, translated and edited by Harry Steinhauer. Hopefully that's up next.

On the subject of Samuel Beckett, Coetzee breaks his musings into four separate essays, one concerned with the young Beckett, one on Watt, and one on Molloy. His final essay “Eight Ways of looking at Beckett” completes his examination. So thorough and intriguing are these essays, they could be used as the basis of a university course, with students reading Beckett (in the original French if possible) and Coetzee’s observations. Why did Beckett begin to write in French?
"Part of the answer must be that by 1946 it had become clear to him that France was and would in future be his home. Another part of the answer was that the French language was hospitable to a savage directness of tone that he wanted to cultivate."
What I find so intriguing about his analysis of Molloy is that Coetzee finds the soliloquy assigned to Molloy
"…is not the voice of an individual, a ‘character’ (in this case Molloy), but the communal voice of much of Beckett’s fiction from Molloy onwards. It is a voice that seems to echo, or take dictation from, another remoter and more mysterious voice… "
Coetzee moves on, sharing facts about fellow citizen Patrick White, who on most counts is considered
"…the greatest writer Australia has produced, though the sense in which Australia produced him needs at once to be qualified: he had his schooling in England, studied at Cambridge University, spent his twenties as a young man about town in London, and during the Second World War served with the British armed forces.”
Patrick White’s fiction was too difficult for me to grasp when I first encountered him, and I see in Coetzee’s discussion so many reasons why White escaped me. This delicious substantive critical analysis mixed with well-chosen highlights from the author’s biography is perfectly intelligible to someone not steeped in the tradition of criticism. White wrote of an adult world outside of my experience. I was more at the understanding level of his Kathy Volkov, a thirteen-year-old girl in The Vivisector, “for whom White draws—a little too closely at times—on Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita.”

Coetzee does not discuss the work of David Malouf (born 1934) or Thomas Keneally (born 1935) in this work, but does discuss the work of their contemporary of whom I have never heard, the so-called fiction writer, Gerald Murnane (born 1939). Murnane was of Irish Catholic descent and suffered for it. His work was apparently awash in self-criticism, uncertainty, fear, and lacked the standard features of novels. In his later years he admitted,
“I should never have tried to write fiction or non-fiction or anything in-between. I should have left it to discerning editors to publish all my pieces as essays.”
The extraordinary range of Coetzee's essays, covering writers from every continent over five centuries, is the least of its astonishments and delights. What we appreciate most is Coetzee’s deep reading and enlightened presentation, his enjoyment of untangling the mysteries of great and not-so-great writing, and the fact that not for a moment is he dismissive or forgetful of the ordinary human failures we all share.

All of the essays, edited from the originals, have been previously published, many in The New York Review of Books. Others are mostly excerpts of Introductions written for reprints of his subject’s work. In one of his essays on Patrick White, Coetzee discusses White’s insistence, before he died in 1990, that his unpublished papers be destroyed. They were not. Coetzee suggests authors who know their executors will not comply with their wishes do the deed themselves before they are too infirm. He has thought about his own legacy, I suppose. I wonder what he will choose to do.

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Thursday, February 15, 2018

Woods etc. by Alice Oswald

Hardcover, 56 pgs, Pub May 5th 2015 by Faber & Faber (first published January 5th 2005), Orig TitleWoods Etc., ISBN13: 9780571218523 Lit Awards: T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry Nominee (2005), Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize (2006)

If you have never fallen heart over head for a poet, you may not know the delight of reading a poem you want to memorize. I mean, what is a poet anyhow? Alice Oswald appears to be that thing, for me.
I was once a man. Very tired.
Very gone-inwards glaring outwards at the road.
His pusky eyes, his threadbare hair,
feet frozen in his boots, back sore.
from “Five Fables of a Length of Flesh”
This slim collection, called Woods etc. is so deceptive in its dark green cloth cover. The etc. is tacked on, but the book is certainly at least as much about that, the unspecified other.
This is the dandelion with its thousand faculties

like an old woman taken by the neck
and shaken to pieces

This is the dust-flower flitting away

This is the flower of amnesia.
It has opened its head to the wind,
all havoc and weakness…
from Head of a Dandelion
This book begins with the sea and ends with the stars. We move quickly from "oscillation endlessly shaken" to being airborne: "We are crowds of seabirds…we are screaming…" Not every poem has a tree but every poem has nature key.

The title poem begins mid-thought, and a title “Marginalia at the Edge of the Evening” glazes one’s eyes as we picture it. Then we come upon an alphabet primer in the form of a ballad with foot notes, called “Tree Ghosts,” written as a memorial to Clifford Harris, a lifelong forester at Dartington Woods, on the Dartington Estate in southern Devon, run through by the River Dart.

The River Dart
The River Dart

Oswald won the T.S. Eliot Prize in 2002 for poems collected in a book called Dart. When I encountered Memorial, Oswald’s book interpreting Homer’s Iliad, the world I lived in subtly changed. A month and immersion into the ancients later, I learned that Oswald gave a memorized recitation of the book--the entire book--in Edinburgh. So began my thralldom. Her book Falling Awake, is similarly memorable.

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Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Ghost World by Daniel Clowes

Paperback, 80 pgs, Pub April 2001 by Fantagraphics (first published March 1998, ISBN13: 9781560974277

In one of his interviews, the great graphic novelist Craig Thompson cites Daniel Clowes as a must-read graphic artist he admires. I admire Thompson’s work, so it makes sense I would seek out Clowes. This graphic novel was made into a movie in 2001 starring Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson. I haven’t seen that yet, but it may well be the first sighting of Scarlett Johansson before big stardom.

A GR friend of mine wrote a deeply insightful meditation on the development of American cities in response to this work, going big in the face of adolescent alienation. As much as I enjoyed that piece, the book made a different impression on me. I’m going to go small: this is a novel of ideas that happen internally and out of sight. All we see is the petulance, the ripple on the surface of a psyche.

A young thin blond girl and a much edgier dark-haired friend who sports an aggressive haircut and heavy-framed glasses are nearing the end of high school. Contemplating their futures, the dark-haired girl wishes to become someone else. “I totally hate myself,” she cries late one night lying on the couch of a boy she’d just admitted she loved. Poor guy.

At that age we are both afraid of and jealous of the complexities adults wrestle every day; we want to try out our problem-handling skills to see if they can measure up. We want the next thing to happen so that we are not merely sitting ducks when it does. Desire for the world and fear of that same world mix unsteadily in our gut. We’re not ready, but when will we ever be?

The ideas shown in this graphic novel struck me as completely within the range of 'normal' adolescent angst, disaffection, confusion, and fear about the world and one’s role in it. We’re pretty obnoxious and self-absorbed at that age, as anyone with a teenager in the house will readily commiserate. Clowes actually plays it so low key we are as bored and unimpressed with their lives as the characters are.

My favorite frame comes near the end when the dark-haired girl is driving the hearse her father graciously bought for her to take to college. Despite having a vehicle and a direction, the girl says she is depressed: “Everything is all the same no matter where you go.” The Buddhists say it like this: “Wherever you go, there you are.”

The tricolor palette in this book works fine: black and white with a green wash. The pen drawings capture the sprawled-leg teenager-y postures, the trying-so-hard-to-be-cooler-than-thou clothing choices and the deliciously descriptive backgrounds absolutely fill in the picture. I thought Clowes was brave to take on the persona of a teenaged girl, but he caught that moment in the lifecycle of a female of the species perfectly.

This is another example, if we needed one, that the writing—including what isn’t said—is as important as the drawing in great graphic novels. So many things have to come together to make a great and lasting work. I admire the heck out of artists working in this medium and encourage anyone who hasn’t picked up a graphic novel lately to try one. It’s hard to read just one.

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