CBR Review 17: Stitches: A Memoir, by David Small

David Small is an award winning illustrator and writer, having worked on several books, including one of my son’s favourites: When Dinosaurs Came with Everything. Stitches was recommended to me by one of my librarian friends who is also a graphic novel enthusiast. It is a kind of graphic memoir, in a manner somewhat similar to Persepolis but with a much tighter focus, no larger political backdrop. It is amazing.

Stitches is a quick overview of Small’s childhood to his young adulthood, and hinges on an long delayed operation he had when he was 14. He thought it was a simple operation to remove a cyst in his neck, but in fact it was to secretly remove a cancerous growth along with one of his vocal cords and his thyroid gland. He was unable to speak, but the resulting silence was nothing new in his family home, having grown up in a strangely strangled, hostile environment where each member of the family seems to live without a voice. I hesitate to give much more detail for fear of spoiling the book, which has a fair number of startling revelations for being such a relatively short story. However, Small did an interesting interview with Amazon that gives some interesting background into the history of the book, although be warned the Publisher’s Weekly blurb underneath the interview does contain spoilers.

Small is an excellent illustrator in general, and this book is no exception. The art in this book is fairly spare and done in black and white, but is really evocative of the mood of the book, illustrating how huge everything seems when one is a small lonely child, but how focus becomes narrow and detail oriented when the situation is threatening or sad. There is very little dialogue in the book, but the art is able to carry the narrative along very clearly. Stitches is a really powerful, moving memoir, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

CBR Review 16: A Storm of Swords, by George R. R. Martin

The third book in the A Song of Ice and Fire series, it is as excellent as the first two books. As this was published in 2002, that comes as news to no one, but I am eagerly finishing the series. I have been borrowing the books from a friend, and am planning to try and read A Feast for Crows more slowly, as he has yet to get his copy of A Dance with Dragons. I hope my patience and restraint holds out.

A Storm of Swords is exciting, fast paced and as filled with jaw-dropping surprises as the first book. I had not liked the second as much as the first, but I appreciate it more having finished A Storm of Swords, because of how the plot points set up in the second pay off in this book. Events move along so quickly, it is sometimes hard to get a sense of how much time is actually passing, but there is still that same sense of foreboding and inevitability to the story, even though so much happens that is unexpected. The contenders in the game of thrones crash, the plight of the smallfolk in the realm (and of the slaves across the Narrow Sea) is desperate, and Littlefinger’s hand begins to be revealed. So many different plotlines, disconnected by time and space but still paralleling each other; it is very complex, and Martin seems to have a very tight control of his story.

Martin continues to develop his characters, giving greater insight into those who earlier seemed to be callous villains, most notably Jaime Lannister. He also continues to kill off key characters to move the story along, including, for the first time (that I can recall) a POV character. The women in the story continue to be complex and strong, acting to advance their own agendas within the constraints placed on women in this world. The exception to this is Sansa Stark, I think – she remains an unwitting pawn in plots beyond her comprehension, but seems to be maturing and becoming more aware. I have read somewhere that she symbolizes romantic ideals in the realm, and she seems to be slowly relinquishing her dreams as the realm continues to fall apart. Jon, Bran, Tyrion, Daenerys, and Arya continue to develop even as their paths seemingly diverge ever further. I hesitate to say more for fear of spoiling the story, as it seems I am not the only one a decade late to the party.

CBR Review 15: Confessions of a Prairie Bitch: How I Survived Nellie Oleson and Learned to Love Being Hated, by Alison Arngrim

I was led to this book by a review I first found through CBR III, although I can’t seem to find the review (and the ensuing discussion in comments) – I am certain it was a review of Melissa Gilbert’s biography. So, thank you, CBR III participant, for the recommendation!

For those who are not familiar with the series, Alison Arngrim played Nellie Oleson on the Little House on the Prairie television program. Nellie was, for most of the series, an unrepentant bitch, the likes of which is rarely seen on family-oriented television. Arngrim has taken a lot of grief over the years from people who can’t seem to differentiate her from the character (with the notable exception of the French, who love Nellie above all characters). While as a young girl and woman, this was very hard to deal with, as an adult she has used the notoriety ┬áto advance her charitable causes.

Arngrim is very frank in this book, dealing pretty honestly with her arms length bringing up by her parents, as well as with her sexual abuse at the hands of her brother. (Her brother is actor Stefan Arngrim, who recently played the store owner with the typewriter in the back room on Fringe – I wonder about how often he will be hired now that she has revealed the identity of her abuser) She is matter of fact about her challenging personal history, but doesn’t really do very much mud slinging, which is kind of nice. She gives quite a bit of background what it was like growing up in Hollywood, working on a very successful television series, and a bit of interesting background on some of her co-stars and other Hollywood luminaries, including Rob Lowe (ex-boyfriend of good friend Melissa Gilbert) and Michael Landon. The book is very respectful of all the people she discusses, not giving away personal information about others, but still has interesting stories and her impressions of her strange childhood.

The role is Arngrim’s signature, and she has not really had much acting success since, although she has a thriving stand-up career and is an avid advocate of AIDS and child sexual abuse charities. Truthfully, this book shows how likeable and self-aware Arngrim is, very witty, compassionate and charming. This book is very funny, honest, heartbreaking and enormously entertaining.