Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Graphic Novel Memoirs: Blankets, Imposters, Houdini and Persepolis

For several years, my favorite genre to read has been memoir. Personal narrative always draws me in the quickest. I don't usually pick up fiction when I browse Barnes and Noble, or our local used bookstores. I go straight to the biographies, the essay collections, and the memoirs. People telling their own stories always fascinate me.

It's one of the reasons I love my job: I get a little glimpse of individual lives as I open new savings and checking accounts or process loan applications. Sometimes the conversation is strictly business (social security number? Address? Income?) but I love it when personal details come into play. It's a pretty unique role I have; I can ask really personal questions of strangers when they come to me for a loan. Then my job is to translate their situation (sometimes messy, emotional, painful, exciting, you name it) into a formulaic summary, basically stating "so-and-so wants this much money, and here's why." And I love that. Something about paraphrasing the details really invigorates me.

It's the kind of writing I love best, telling my own stories. Maybe because I don't fear failure: no one can cite references and tell me I'm wrong when I describe the world as I see it. Plus, I appreciate mundane things more when I see them as potential writing-material.

I've been exploring the genre of memoir by reading a couple of unique examples. Last summer, I read Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life (by Amy Krouse Rosenthal). The author was really clever: she made an alphabetized list about herself (memories, fears, preferences). Then it got published (that's the short version of the timeline, I imagine). My first reaction was, "Hey! That's cheating! That's not real writing, that's just a disjointed list of fascinating personal facts!" Then I thought, "I wish I'd thought of it first."

On the cover (in case you can't read it from the link) is an excerpt from the foreword:
I have not survived against all odds.
I have not lived to tell.
I have not witnessed the extraordinary.
This is my story.

Pah! Genius!!! This is one of those books I picked up in the bookstore, flipped through, and thought, "Must. Own." I highly recommend it, for it's literary uniqueness, and for plain old enjoyment. I LOVE this book. Click on that link above, and scroll down to the excerpts. Random, huh? Totally engaging, right? Yeah, I know! I'll loan you my copy if you'd like.

I've also discovered some memoirs written as graphic novels. Ooh, these are fun. The writing has to be brief (text has to fit into a word balloon in a single panel) but a picture is worth a thousand little word balloons. One reason I love these is that they are familiar territory: my family is a family that loves to draw. With a cartoonist father and a pen-and-ink illustrator mother, it kind of comes with the territory. Since they home schooled us, all five kids turned out to be visual learners. We all operate best with illustration and captions. Heck, my brother learned to read because of Tin Tin.

So far, I've read (and really enjoyed) these graphic memoirs.
Blankets This is a coming-of-age story that addresses siblings, parents, church, relationships, sex, art, and choosing independence and identity. The Publishers Weekly review says, this sensitive memoir recreates the confusion, emotional pain and isolation of the author's rigidly fundamentalist Christian upbringing, along with the trepidation of growing into maturity. Skinny, naive and spiritually vulnerable, Thompson and his younger brother manage to survive their parents' overbearing discipline through flights of childhood fancy and a mutual love of drawing. [Taken from the Amazon .com page]. I loved the illustrations because the author used really exaggerated images to tell his story. Very vivid.

The Imposter's Daughter This book blew my mind. Laurie Sandell tells the story of her (dysfunctional) relationship with her Dad. He is an odd character to begin with, but the further into the story you read, the more you discover how little anyone truly knows about him. Fascinating.

Houdini: The Handcuff King This isn't really considered memoir; more of a brief biography since it describes one trick of Houdini's. I read it in one sitting at the comic book shop. It's a quick read but brings this figure to life and makes Houdini seem more relate-able by including the people around him in the story. It made me want to study him, not as a magician or a trickster, but as a man with strange abilities and motivations. There are additional resources in the back of the book for further reading.

Persepolis I just finished this book yesterday. It's the story of the author's childhood in Iran, the revolution in 1979 from her perspective as a 10 year old, and war with Iraq. I had to flip back to the introduction several times, to re-read the historical summary she provides of the region since I am so unfamiliar with the politics of the middle east. But again, it was brought to life more than any textbook could have done, because it is a very personal account, from the eyes of a child. The illustrations are really simple, but still packed a punch. Who knew black and white silhouette and could communicate so much.

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