Becky Ohlsen

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The unifying theme for the latest batch of comics and graphic novels is the blending of two worlds that are usually thought of as separate: fiction and reality, artists and material, families and their ancestors.

Confronting the truth
Even before you peek inside, it’s clear that The Unwritten is an unusual book. The extremely cool cover, by Yuko Shimizo, shows someone reaching or falling out of a cloud of tangled words in the sky, through a blank distance and into an open book. Simple but wild, it also turns out to be a perfect reflection of the story. Volume 1 collects the first five issues of the ongoing series, a labyrinthine metafictional tale about the art and power of storytelling. The art is beautiful if not earth-shattering, but the plot takes serious risks—and is deeply rewarding. It hinges on Tom Taylor, the son of a man who wrote a Harry Potter/Books of Magic-type series of books, the star of which was named Tommy Taylor. The series ended without its final volume, on a cliffhanger, and fans are still rabid. Tom’s dad is long gone, but the younger Taylor still makes the comic-convention circuit, signing autographs and trying to maintain the boundary between his own personality and that of the fictional hero based on him. Mostly he succeeds. But when a probing question at one convention raises public suspicions about Tom’s real origins, the line between fiction and real life blurs. Add to that a creepy mansion, a mad vampire, a couple of possible femmes fatales, a hit man whose glove dissolves objects into words, a winged cat and Rudyard Kipling, and—well, we can’t wait for Volume 2.

Chabon’s Escapist comes to life
Like The Unwritten, The Escapists is about the joy of storytelling and the often insubstantial membrane that separates the fictional world from the physical one. Inspired by Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, it features a collaboration of artists bringing to life Brian K. Vaughan’s story of three youngsters who buy the rights to a long-dead comic book character, the Escapist, and attempt to revive him. The blend of styles works perfectly to move the story between the real world and the comic-within-the-comic, which naturally move along parallel tracks. The dark, large-paneled, painterly pages of the new Escapist book are simply gorgeous, and the interplay between the two worlds in the book is not only entertaining but also makes some sharp observations about the origins of inspiration, life’s impact on art and vice-versa, and the difficulty of recognizing which “reality” is more important. There’s also a charming introduction by Chabon.

One town, two worlds
Positioned for young readers, but with a richness of ideas and atmosphere that adults will equally enjoy, Mercury, the latest from Hope Larson (Chiggers), spans two worlds: a farm community in Nova Scotia in 1859, and the same setting 150 years later. In the first, Josey Fraser falls for the mysterious stranger Asa Curry, who turns up on her family’s doorstep with a proposition. While stealing Josey’s heart, he persuades her father to help him dig for gold on the family’s land, a project that leads eventually to disaster. A century and a half down the road, in the same spot, teenage Tara Fraser is struggling to work her way back into public school life after her family’s house, where she was home-schooled, burns down. The two stories converge when Tara comes across a necklace with a strange power to pull her toward history and a kind of multigenerational redemption. Larson’s spare line drawings are great at evoking movement and emotion—family tensions around a dinner table, for instance—and they lend themselves nicely to her touches of the supernatural.

A peek at the creative process

Anyone interested in how comics end up looking the way they do will be fascinated by Rough Justice, a behind-the-pages study of the work of Alex Ross, the legendary artist behind the Kingdom Come epic as well as various famous character re-imaginings. Through the pencil and ink sketches that eventually become Ross’ characteristically gorgeous paintings, you can see the artist experimenting with his characters, their expressions, costumes, postures and even the lines on their faces, all in the service of the larger story. How many crinkles should the Kingdom Come Superman have beneath his eyes? How much gray in the temples will look right? There are also proposals for new looks for reinvented characters, such as one story idea in which a disabled Batgirl spends some time in the Lazarus Pit and comes out healed but much darker. For fans, witnessing the artist/writer’s creative process at its very beginning is a treat, and it doesn’t hurt that the art looks incredible even in these embryonic stages.

Becky Ohlsen is a freelance writer in Portland, Oregon.

The unifying theme for the latest batch of comics and graphic novels is the blending of two worlds that are usually thought of as separate: fiction and reality, artists and material, families and their ancestors. Confronting the truthEven before you peek inside, it’s clear that The Unwritten is an unusual book. The extremely cool cover, […]
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Graphic novels continue to break new ground, with recent works that run the gamut in both style and content. Here we take a look at four of the best new releases, ranging from a colorful tale of pirates and sea monsters to a close examination of democracy in America.

A CLASSIC TALE
It took Joann Sfar’s touch to make me finally fall in love with the story of The Little Prince. Sfar’s illustrated version of the classic by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry is more playful than precious; the combination of his captivating artwork and the pared-down prose allows the story to sneak up on you rather than blatantly yanking your heartstrings. As drawn by Sfar, the mysterious prince from a tiny, faraway planet is adorable, wise and funny, rather than simply tragic. Sfar gives him depth and attitude, with tired shadows around his big blue eyes and subtle facial changes that express feelings it would be clunky to describe in writing. Sfar tells as much of the story as he can visually, employing words only when necessary, which gives the whole thing a feeling of restraint that the original lacks. In my favorite scene, the little prince meets a wild fox who begs to be tamed (“It means creating a bond,” the fox explains). So the prince tames him, but when it’s time to leave, the fox starts to cry. “So it hasn’t been worth it,” says the prince. “Oh yes it has,” the fox replies, and suddenly whole swaths of adult life make sense. (Sfar’s fox looks a lot like the namesake of his best-known book, The Rabbi’s Cat—angular, sly and prone to curling up expressively.)

ON THE HIGH SEAS
Similar in tone and in its rich color palette, The Unsinkable Walker Bean by Aaron Renier is, on the surface, a rollicking tale of pirates’ adventures on the open sea. But in fact it’s a story about loyalty, honor and keeping your promises. Walker Bean’s beloved grandfather has fallen ill after being cursed by a stolen skull; it’s up to Walker to return the skull to where it belongs and end the curse. But to do that, he has to keep the skull out of the hands of a creepy octopus man, a feisty pirate girl and his own father, among others. There are also huge, menacing lobster women and a ship that turns into a planetarium. Like all young boys trying to solve grown-up problems, Walker makes mistakes, but he also makes some very helpful friends, including a pirate boy named Shiv and, eventually, tentatively, that feisty pirate girl, Gen. Renier’s drawings are vivid and expressive, full of movement and sound, and the twist at the end of the story adds an unexpectedly heartwarming touch. Walker’s adventures will continue in Volume 2 of the series.

TRY, TRY AGAIN
At the other end of the graphic-novel spectrum is Good Eggs, Phoebe Potts’ memoir of her and her husband’s struggle to get pregnant. Her spare and simple line drawings invite you into the story; it’s mostly realistic, but with occasional flights of fancy that spring from Potts’ imagination. A discussion of a soul-sucking job, for instance, includes one panel showing a row of new college graduates on an assembly line, a “PhD factory,” as she puts it. And when she meets her future husband, something he says makes her draw herself being held aloft by little doves (who then drop her to the floor when he mentions having a girlfriend). It’s sweet, and effective. The writing is also excellent: sharp, clever, realistic dialogue with no wasted words. Potts grew up in Brooklyn, and her characters talk the way people talk in Brooklyn—always entertaining, and usually hilarious, even when the subject matter is serious. The story centers on her desire for a child, but it’s all the other things she discovers—about her own life, her priorities and values—while pursuing this desire that make the book so rewarding.

AN AMERICAN JOURNEY
Taking the search for fulfillment from the personal to the political is Maira Kalman’s And the Pursuit of Happiness, an investigation into the roots of democracy in America and how it has changed throughout our history. Kalman was inspired by the 2008 elections, and on inauguration day she went to Washington, D.C., to begin a sort of political-science travelogue. She gets a crush on Abe Lincoln, discovers you can patent a peach, chats with farmers and meets diplomats. The sketches and collages she uses to illustrate what she learns are placed opposite pages of her hand-written observations, which are spirited and funny, keeping the material from ever seeming dull. On the very early origins of America, for instance, she says, “Growing tired of the ocean, creatures migrated onto the land. Then came dinosaurs and motorcycles.” Which sounds about right. A few pages later, we learn, “Then came Commerce and Greed.” It’s a fast-paced tour, hitting all the highlights and the lowlights, and enhanced with Kalman’s sketches and paintings as well as archival photos, postcards, pages from old books and diaries, etc. There’s a lot to learn from this book, but reading it never feels like hard work.

Graphic novels continue to break new ground, with recent works that run the gamut in both style and content. Here we take a look at four of the best new releases, ranging from a colorful tale of pirates and sea monsters to a close examination of democracy in America. A CLASSIC TALEIt took Joann Sfar’s […]
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These three graphic novels might not seem to have anything in common, but in a sense they do: All three are written from the perspective of a lone explorer making his or her way through an unfamiliar landscape. One involves a woman tracing her heritage in an Israel that bears little resemblance to the country she’d imagined; in another, the child of Vietnamese immigrants digs into his parents’ past; and in the third a miserably single American man navigates the terrifying world of dating.

SEEKING TRUTH IN THE HOLY LAND
In her graphic memoir How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less, Sarah Glidden runs the emotional gamut, from stubborn to weepy to giddy to furious and all the way back around. The book records a “Birthright Israel” trip she took several years ago; the Birthright fund pays for trips that give non-Israeli Jews their first introduction to Israel. Sarah went intending to “discover the truth behind this whole mess once and for all,” meaning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Packing her suitcase, she tells her boyfriend, “It’ll all be crystal clear by the time I come back.” But of course everything turns out to be more complicated than she expected. Between touring cultural sites and hearing wise counsel from various perspectives, Sarah finds that her convictions are shaken but her understanding deepened through her engagement with Israel. Given the complex material and the fairly text-heavy panels, Glidden’s clear and simply drawn illustrations, painted in watercolor, add just the right amount of emotional impact to the story.

A VIVID FAMILY HISTORY
GB Tran takes a much more impressionistic approach to memoir in his Vietnamerica: A Family’s Journey. The book, appealing enough in its black-and-white version but stunning in full color, describes Tran’s parents’ decision to leave Vietnam for America in 1975. In flashbacks and retold stories, Tran learns about what life was like for his mother and father when they were young children, what their parents were like, and how much they left behind when circumstances forced them to abandon the lives they had made and start from scratch. Tran is 30 when he returns with his parents to Vietnam for a visit shortly after the death of his last two grandparents. The combination of the young American’s disorientation and the many disjointed recollections he hears from various family members can be confusing if you try to follow the story in strict linear fashion; the key is to relax and let the gorgeous images wash over you. The wild, vivid pages here work the way oft-told and half-remembered family stories from long ago normally do; they’re more about conveying emotion than information.

HOPE AMONG THE RUINS
Daniel Clowes is great at many things, not least of which is leaving readers with a sense of alienation and vague disgust for humanity. But in Mister Wonderful he does something unusual: He transcends his customary gloom and despair to find hope. The story follows a guy named Marshall on a blind date. Marshall is divorced, unemployed and severely lacking in confidence. His scathing internal monologue as he sits at a coffee shop waiting for his date is painful to behold. Told in Clowes’ characteristically tidy style, with its neat rows of panels and straightforwardly drawn characters in plain, blocky urban settings, the story veers often into miniature fantasies, illustrated by miniature versions of the characters. When Marshall’s date, Natalie, appears and is charming, he can’t decide whether to be thrilled or to embrace the miserable certainty that she’s out of his league. But it turns out Natalie is equally fragile. Their delicate emotional parrying, complete with awkward misunderstandings, large and small faux pas and even a mugging, makes for a suspenseful and affecting read. The fact that the story comes down on the side of cautious optimism only increases its impact.

These three graphic novels might not seem to have anything in common, but in a sense they do: All three are written from the perspective of a lone explorer making his or her way through an unfamiliar landscape. One involves a woman tracing her heritage in an Israel that bears little resemblance to the country […]
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Four new graphic novels address the appeal of running away and the impossibility of escaping your past, for good or ill.

TRIUMPHANT RETURN
If you’re even vaguely interested in graphic novels, you’re probably aware that Craig Thompson has a new book coming out. Thompson’s 2003 graphic novel Blankets told an autobiographical coming-of-age story and floored everyone who read it, winning all kinds of awards and making a star of its author. His long-anticipated follow-up, the utterly engrossing Habibi, is at least as gut-wrenching and even more substantial in size and scope.

Just to be clear, this book is not for the faint of heart. In the first few panels, our nine-year-old heroine, Dodola, is sold into marriage by desperate parents whose village is suffering from drought. Dodola’s new husband is no brute, but even so . . . she’s nine years old. Thus begins her journey through the world as a headstrong and beautiful Arab girl. Fortunately for Dodola (and us), her husband is a scholar, and he teaches her to read and write. She learns the stories of the Qur’an, the work of the great poets, the Thousand and One Nights. Then, abruptly, marauding thieves kill her husband and kidnap the girl. She’s brought to a slave market, where she finds and rescues a three-year-old orphan boy, Zam. From then on their fates are linked. They escape and live for a while on a ship marooned in the desert, but their need for food and water leads them to be discovered and separated. Each of them endures years of torment, accumulating scars, grieving and longing for each other. It’s pretty brutal.

But it’s also beautiful. Dodola’s and Zam’s stories are interwoven with the stories they learned as children, the underpinnings of Islam. This lends not only beauty and texture but also meaning and redemption to their suffering, and Thompson’s handling of the religious elements—something that might have been awkward or controversial—is restrained and graceful. His black-and-white drawings, often incorporating Arabic script, are at times floaty and feverish but always perfectly clear. He breaks up dreamy exposition with tightly structured action sequences, and the pages couldn’t be prettier. As always, his economical writing is deeply moving. Habibi is a book not to be missed.

A CHILD’S-EYE VIEW
Another story of a childhood spent in hostile surroundings, Marzi by Marzena Sowa, takes the opposite tack. Marzi’s story, especially at first, seems like it could be happening almost anywhere. In fact it’s set in Poland during the 1980s, as the country was rebelling against communism. It’s only as Marzi grows up and gains understanding that the impact of the political situation starts to become clear. For most of the book she’s a wide-eyed, innocent daddy’s girl with completely typical attitude problems, arguments with her friends, difficulty eating her vegetables, fights with cousins and so on. It’s fascinating and often hilarious to see huge world-changing events like the Chernobyl explosion and factory-workers’ strikes from the point of view of a regular little girl absorbed in her own life.

A FINE ROMANCE
Entirely different but equally charming is The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt by Caroline Preston, a fictional memoir told in gorgeous full-color collages. With postcards, news clippings, ticket stubs, receipts, catalog pages and drawings that look like illustrations from vintage fashion magazines, Preston tells the coming-of-age story of Frankie, a bright young girl who graduates from high school in 1920 and goes to Vassar on scholarship after her father dies. She gets herself into numerous romantic entanglements, all of them ill-advised, and seems constantly on the verge of abandoning her dream of becoming a novelist. But Frankie is stubborn and scrappy, and she manages to take care of herself in a world where most girls like her just want to be taken care of. The happy ending is a little sudden, but it’s a pleasure to watch Frankie develop and learn to trust her nobler instincts until they pay off.

MERRIMENT ON MOTORBIKES
And finally, an idea I’m surprised hasn’t been tried before: a graphic novel adaptation of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales—on motorcycles. This retelling is done by Seymour Chwast, one of the founders of the influential Push Pin Studios who has already adapted Dante’s Divine Comedy. His irreverent humor makes him an even better fit for Chaucer, who never left a good fart joke untold. And nothing goes better with fart jokes than motorcycle touring. (It’s not entirely clear just why the pilgrims are riding hogs, but that doesn’t matter.) Most everyone in these 24 travelers’ tales ends up being thoroughly mocked, both in the smartypants dialogue and in the simplified but pointed drawings. The book works either as an introduction to Chaucer’s original text or as an alternate take for those who’ve read it many times already.

Four new graphic novels address the appeal of running away and the impossibility of escaping your past, for good or ill. TRIUMPHANT RETURNIf you’re even vaguely interested in graphic novels, you’re probably aware that Craig Thompson has a new book coming out. Thompson’s 2003 graphic novel Blankets told an autobiographical coming-of-age story and floored everyone […]
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Harvey Pekar, best known for his autobiographical American Splendor, teamed up with artist Gary Dumm, editor Paul Buhle and a handful of others to create Students for a Democratic Society: A Graphic History. Though text-heavy for a graphic novel, it's an accessible and exciting look at the roots of the most influential student activist group of the 1960s and '70s. Concentrating on the years 1960-69, and packed with dynamic black-and-white drawings, the book digs into the motivations behind SDS, the struggles over method and direction within the organization, the personalities who shaped the civil rights and peace movements, and the external forces that worked against the radical left. In addition to Pekar, other former members of SDS tell their own stories, and the last few pages illustrate attempts to revive the group in 2006.

An interesting companion piece, also from Hill & Wang, is the equally accessible history lesson of J. Edgar Hoover: A Graphic Biography by Rick Geary. Using simple, straightforward line drawings (literally—Geary's artwork is full of pinstripes), the book traces the FBI director's journey from successful young lawyer to paranoid control freak, addressing key points in U.S. history along the way.

Another side of the nation's history comes to life in Incognegro by Mat Johnson, illustrated by Warren Pleece. With shadowy black-and-white artwork and hardboiled dialogue, Pleece and Johnson deliver a pulp-detective-style tale about a black newspaper columnist in the early 20th century who "passes" as white and writes an anonymous column about his experiences. Going undercover to investigate a series of lynchings, he becomes embroiled in a murder, a jailbreak, mob violence, a case of mistaken identity and a slew of other complications. True to life, there's no happy ending, but the characters find human decency in unexpected places, and the twisty plot makes for a gripping read despite the bleak subject matter.

A MOODY MEMOIR
Also fairly bleak, yet suffused with heartwarming optimism, is Frederik Peeters' memoir Blue Pills: A Positive Love Story. The book recounts Peeters' relationship with his girlfriend, Cati, who, along with her young son, is HIV positive. The author's expressive drawings instantly telegraph his mood, whether he's anxious, exhausted, terrified, nervous, adoring or cheerful. His engagingly realistic writing includes mumbled half-sentences, lots of ellipses and occasional Socratic moments where his thoughts swirl in worried circles and nothing makes much sense. Peeters is a well-known Swiss artist; Blue Pills, his American debut, was translated by Anjali Sing, the editor responsible for bringing Persepolis to U.S. readers.

EMOTIONAL STRUGGLES
Though handled with equal seriousness, the themes in Skim, written by Mariko Tamaki and illustrated by Jillian Tamaki (they're cousins), are aimed at teen readers. But that doesn't mean the book is free of emotional struggles. It opens with a broken arm and moves right along to teenage suicide, followed by possible gay crushes on teachers, best-friend betrayals and standard adolescent identity crises. The writing takes the form of a diary kept by 16-year-old Kim, nicknamed Skim ("because I'm not," she explains). The elegant illustrations call to mind traditional Japanese art but with a modern looseness; the drawings aren't always confined to panels, and key plot points are shown subtly, never exaggerated or over-explained. In other words, despite its hot topics, Skim is pretty cool.

Harvey Pekar, best known for his autobiographical American Splendor, teamed up with artist Gary Dumm, editor Paul Buhle and a handful of others to create Students for a Democratic Society: A Graphic History. Though text-heavy for a graphic novel, it's an accessible and exciting look at the roots of the most influential student activist group […]
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Kelly Link’s stories fit into the young adult category in the same way that Salman Rushdie’s collection, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, does: sure, youngsters will love these stories, but grown-ups will love them more deeply, more permanently and with the full weight of experience. Link is the author of two short story collections for adults, Magic for Beginners and Stranger Things Happen, which have put her into the demi-pantheon of those who appreciate slightly dark experimental fiction. That the title story from Magic for Beginners is included in her new book, Pretty Monsters, shows how thin the line is between Kelly Link for kids and Kelly Link for adults.

The only thing that makes this collection YA is that most of its protagonists are teens. There’s Miles, the boy who buried the only copy of his poems in the casket of his dead girlfriend and now regrets it; Jeremy, in the aforementioned "Magic for Beginners," whose parents are separating even as his favorite cult-TV show seems to be leaking into the real world (or is he in the real world?); and Genevieve, whose grandmother keeps an entire fairy village inside her furry dogskin purse. Link’s monsters are scary but also funny. In "Monster," boys at summer camp become snacks for a hungry beast who uses a cell phone. ("No way," one of the boys says. "That’s stupid. How would the monster know Terence’s cell phone number?").

After eating the other campers, the monster stops for some witty banter with the leftover boy, James, and makes fun of him just like everybody else always has. ("I’ve never seen anything as funny as you," it tells him. But more than her oddball characters and wacked-out plotlines, what makes these stories haunting is Link’s disinclination to resolve them in any ordinary way. Many of them end mid-chase, or immediately before some cataclysmic event that will change everything. The story stops, and the imagination takes over. These are perfect bedtime stories for people who never want to have boring dreams.

Kelly Link’s stories fit into the young adult category in the same way that Salman Rushdie’s collection, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, does: sure, youngsters will love these stories, but grown-ups will love them more deeply, more permanently and with the full weight of experience. Link is the author of two short story collections […]
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You don't have to be an artist in the 1920s to find inspiration in Paris. As Lucy Knisley shows in French Milk, you can be an artist in your 20s, in 2007, and still find the City of Light a moving place. Knisley and her mom rented a Parisian apartment for a month to celebrate their respective birthdays: her mother turned 50, and Knisley turned 22. Knisley, an up-and-coming star in the comics world, kept a trip journal that combines her adorable sketches, evocative photographs and sharp observations of herself, her parents and her temporary home.

If Knisley had merely described the pleasures of Paris, the journal would still be worth reading, thanks to her eye for detail, her exultation in French food and her appreciation of the aesthetic delights of the city. But she goes further, bravely including her own moments of weakness: she gets grumpy with her mother, she feels inexplicably sad and lethargic despite her surroundings. The book, in other words, does what all good travelogues do: it traces the inner journey provoked by an outward one. In the course of her stay—thanks to the city's art museums, over-the-top cookies (including a garlic one that received the "Grossest Cookie" award) and especially the extra-thick unpasteurized milk—Knisley falls for Paris. She also discovers that she's happiest while working, and she arrives back home in Chicago excited to start her graduate-school art program, with a new appreciation for her life and friends.

Her gentle humor and overall enthusiasm are part of what make this book—originally self-published—such a charmer.

You don't have to be an artist in the 1920s to find inspiration in Paris. As Lucy Knisley shows in French Milk, you can be an artist in your 20s, in 2007, and still find the City of Light a moving place. Knisley and her mom rented a Parisian apartment for a month to celebrate […]
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In the land of guilty pleasures, food is a go-to theme, for good reason: it’s hard to make a decadent meal sound anything but tempting. Cooking also lends itself to metaphor, which is part of its appeal to Vanessa, a chef and the narrator of Dirty Girls author Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez’s newest romp, The Husband Habit.

A troubled woman, Vanessa is frustrated in her career and love life. She works for a monomaniacal chef at a chic Albuquerque restaurant who takes credit for her brilliant creations without apology. That’s bad enough, but then there’s her habit of—purely by accident—falling for men who turn out to be married. It’s happened three times in a row, so Vanessa is understandably a little gun-shy when she meets her parents’ new neighbor, Paul.

Her overprotective sister, Larissa, has warned her about Paul already, so Vanessa puts on her best above-it-all act, but Paul is difficult to ignore. He’s charming and persistent, and confounds Vanessa’s expectations at every turn: despite being an ex-military guy with a crew cut who listens to speed-metal in his garage and has a yellow-ribbon magnet on his SUV, Paul is enlightened—even a pacifist—and a very good cook.

There’s no complexity to the novel’s story arc, and the author’s transparent political agenda could’ve used some finesse, but then this is a beach read—agendas are second to the love story, and that simmers along nicely. Vanessa and Paul are multidimensional characters with the capacity to surprise each other and the reader. And there’s a lot of good cooking along the way. The Husband Habit might not be a particularly nutritious read, but it’s not just empty calories, either.  

In the land of guilty pleasures, food is a go-to theme, for good reason: it’s hard to make a decadent meal sound anything but tempting. Cooking also lends itself to metaphor, which is part of its appeal to Vanessa, a chef and the narrator of Dirty Girls author Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez’s newest romp, The Husband Habit. […]
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Reading a Willy Vlautin novel feels a lot like sitting in the bar talking with Willy Vlautin. And it feels a lot like listening to the songs he writes with his band, Richmond Fontaine. The author's previous two novels, The Motel Life and Northline, shared stories with a couple of Richmond Fontaine songs. So does his newest, Lean on Pete, but in this one Vlautin makes room for even more bad luck to plague his main character. In his books, though, bad luck always comes with good stories.

Charley is a 15-year-old kid who's just moved from Spokane to the outskirts of Portland with his dad, a freight worker who tends to disappear for days on end whenever he gets a new girlfriend, and who doesn't say much about why they had to up and leave Spokane. Charley was great at football at his old school, so he's basically killing time until tryouts start at the end of the summer. He eats constantly and goes running every chance he gets. One day his run takes him past a dilapidated old horse-racing track called Portland Meadows (where the author himself has been known to spend time writing, and where you imagine he found inspiration for a lot of Lean on Pete’s saltier characters). Charley ends up working for a guy named Del, a sleazy, two-bit trainer who's usually too drunk to remember how much or even if he paid the kid and too mean to pay him the rest of the time. But Charley gets attached to one of Del's racehorses, Lean on Pete, so he sticks around even when Del treats him (and Pete) badly. Then the worst bad luck hits, and Charley starts sleeping in the tackroom at the track, stealing food to get by. From here on out, things get worse in wildly unpredictable ways.

Like most of us do when we hit a long stretch of bad luck, Charley spends a lot of time thinking about where, exactly, it all started to go wrong. Unlike in Vlautin's previous two books, none of what happens here is really Charley's fault. He's a good kid, but the people around him constantly let him down. It's a story about how you manage when nothing goes your way, when you lose every bet and nobody helps you. People do help Charley, of course—if they didn't it wouldn't be a Willy Vlautin novel. And one of the great things about his writing is that you believe in the good guys just as much as the bad. You believe every bad thing that happens to Charley, but you also believe the whole time that things are going to turn out all right.

Becky Ohlsen writes from Portland, Oregon.

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Reading a Willy Vlautin novel feels a lot like sitting in the bar talking with Willy Vlautin. And it feels a lot like listening to the songs he writes with his band, Richmond Fontaine. The author's previous two novels, The Motel Life and Northline, shared stories with a couple of Richmond Fontaine songs. So does […]
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Maile Meloy specializes in writing short fiction about privileged but emotionally fragile characters who are self-aware to an almost destructive degree, and who can be startled by their own dark thoughts. Meloy delves deeply and expertly into these personalities, plumbing the repercussions of various events in their worlds. In her new novel, she takes that approach and revs it up to top speed.

Do Not Become Alarmed starts as two cousins and their families are setting out on a cruise to South America. At first everything is pleasantly relaxing, but things quickly begin to go wrong. Persuaded to take a day off the ship, the two families are divided: The men go golfing, while the women take their kids on a zip-line tour. Almost immediately, complications arise for the zip-lining crew. Their vehicle breaks down, and when they go for a swim at a nearby beach, the kids disappear. It’s any parent’s worst nightmare: You’ve lost your kids, and it’s your fault.

The book moves at a rapid-fire pace through the events that follow, as the kids get into deeper and deeper trouble and their parents become ever more distraught. The story is told from as many viewpoints as there are characters, and everyone gets at least one chapter. Meloy skillfully analyzes each person’s reaction to his or her situation in remarkably efficient prose that never scrimps on detail or emotional impact. It’s a grim story told with a light touch, and it’s completely addictive.

 

This article was originally published in the June 2017 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Maile Meloy specializes in writing short fiction about privileged but emotionally fragile characters who are self-aware to an almost destructive degree, and who can be startled by their own dark thoughts. Meloy delves deeply and expertly into these personalities, plumbing the repercussions of various events in their worlds. In her new novel, she takes that approach and revs it up to top speed.

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Human relationships are tricky: They’re built on communication, which relies on language. And language, of course, is unreliable. This is the frustrating truth at the heart of The Idiot, Elif Batuman’s debut novel.

Batuman, a staff writer at The New Yorker since 2010 (and author of the 2010 essay collection The Possessed), says her novel is semi-autobiographical. Like its heroine, she was born and raised in New Jersey to Turkish immigrant parents. The two also share a fascination with language, which is evident on every page.

The Idiot is part coming-of-age, part love story. It’s steeped in travel and in the devastating power of words—or, more precisely, the general inadequacy of words when it comes to truly getting close to other people.

Our narrator, Selin, is about to start her freshman year at Harvard in the mid-’90s. Quiet and awkward, Selin observes her surroundings with an unfiltered blend of wonder and deadpan humor. Her running commentary is a pure delight. She’s at once hilarious, self-deprecating and painfully accurate—and free of the conventions of thought that can make the inner life of a college student seem so ordinary. Basically, she’s odd in the best way.

Meeting a professor in his office one day when she has a terrible cold, Selin silently ponders the similarities between a book and a box of tissue: “[B]oth consisted of slips of white paper in a cardboard case,” she notes. But one of the two—ironically, given the setting—has zero utility if all you want is to blow your nose. “These were the kinds of things I thought about all the time, even though they were neither pleasant nor useful,” she adds. “I had no idea what you were supposed to be thinking about.”

Part of the novel’s joy comes from Selin’s encounters with others, from her snippy roommate and her intense classmate Svetlana (with whom she travels to Paris) to Ivan, the enigmatic Hungarian she falls for in Russian class and follows to Budapest. Batuman is especially great at illustrating the torment of love. But nearly all of her characters’ efforts to achieve mutual understanding are imperfect—which, for the reader, turns out to be perfect indeed.

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read a Q&A with Elif Batuman about The Idiot.

This article was originally published in the March 2017 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

BookPage Top Pick in Fiction, March 2017

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