#CBR IV Review 7: Collected Essex County by Jeff Lemire

I have been waiting to read this collection for some time. I won it in an online charity auction last summer, and waited eagerly for my signed edition. I am still waiting, so I borrowed it from my library’s ever expanding collection of graphic novels. I loved this book – it reminds me of David Small’s Stitches: A Memoir and even a bit of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, although I did not really connect Stitches and Persepolis when I reviewed Small’s book last year. I think the similarities are that the stories seem so personal, so sparely drawn in black and white, and able to express so much through the art that dialogue is not necessary.

The Collected Essex County is a collection of three intertwined stories (with a few small one-offs added at the end) set in a rural farming community in Essex County, Ontario. Given that the community is so small, everything and everyone are interrelated, but Lemire’s drawings of the wide open spaces of the land contrast nicely with the way the character’s lives seem so bound and limited. The first story is about a boy going to live with his bachelor uncle on the farm after losing his mother. The two of them struggle with their sadness and fear, and the uncle’s awkward attempts to connect with his young nephew only makes the boy angry and look elsewhere for understanding. The second story is about two brothers pursuing their shared dream to play hockey, but their partnership is severed when dreams change and mistakes are made. The last story is about a home care nurse trying to care for her patients in the community and in a care home. She knows these people and their histories, and tries to nudge them into reconnecting, with some nudges being more subtle than others. Each of them is trapped in grief and secrets and regrets, but they are all trying to reach out in some way.

The characters in these stories seem to be some of the loneliest people I have ever read about; it made me ache a bit to read about them because they seemed like people I would know in real life. The book has a melancholy tone, but is quietly hopeful that the people can connect with a little assistance. When I was in the midst of reading the book, I was thinking that it seemed so quintessentially Canadian, with so many dreams and connections tied up in hockey, but with some some reflection I now think that the book describes rural life in general beautifully. The isolation of a household in a giant landscape, but a place where everyone knows each other and secrets are hard to keep – it can be a hard lifestyle to live in, as I have learned through experience. Lemire rooted the book in his childhood hometown, and the books seems sincere and heartfelt. I loved this book as I did Stitches, and recommend it to all, even those who would normally not read graphic novels.

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#CBR IV Review 6: Sweet Valley Confidential by Francine Pascal

Francine Pascal’s Sweet Valley Confidential was reviewed a few times in #CBR III, and there was a fun discussion in Ashley’s review last year. I already knew what happened in the story, I knew that the Sweet Valley books aren’t quality literature, but still… I saw it on the shelf at the library and snatched it up right away. The librarian told me she had decided not to order it last year, but a mint condition donated copy came in so she shelved it. Apparently it has been very popular, so at least I am not alone in my shame.

As is evident from the cover, Sweet Valley Confidential takes place 10 years after Wakefield twins have graduated from high school. This was a bit jarring at first – how could the twins be a decade younger than me when I started reading the books when I was twelve or thirteen and they were (perpetually) sixteen years old? Given that I have not read or even thought of these books in over twenty years, it was a strangely depressing to find out how much of my mental real estate was seemingly devoted to the novels.

The story begins with the twins separated, alluding to some type of catastrophic event that had separated the sisters. Because this is a Sweet Valley novel, of course the girls are fighting over a man. Sweet Valley remains an insular community, with most people continuing to live there after college, and generally everyone being attractive and wildly successful. Much of the book is devoted to Elizabeth and Jessica’s interior monologues, which are kind of repetitive. Jessica’s monologues reflect her speech, using “like” and “so” repeatedly, the informal speech still emphasizing how Elizabeth is the smart twin. It is a vaguely more adult version of the books that focused on the characters as archetypes – Jessica generally means well but makes mistakes that outrage the tiny busybody community of Sweet Valley, Elizabeth is perfect and a martyr that everyone loves, Todd is the jock with a brain, the especially rich kids are careless, the ugly people are the endearing class clowns, people just can’t help but give in to their feelings, etc. The interesting changes from the early series is that there is homosexuality, several people “go all the way” (of course, they are making love and it is amazing, but still), and some of the nice characters turned into bitches for no good reason at all.

Of course it is all wrapped up all nicely at the end, but it was kind of fun, if only for the nostalgia of it all.

#CBR IV Review 5: The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt

The Sisters Brothers has won numerous literary awards in Canada, including the Governor General’s Award, but I must have been living under a rock, because I had not heard of it until it was recommended by another CBR participant at the end of CBR III. There were some mixed reviews on Pajiba, so I was curious about how I would like it. When I picked it up by the library, I was pleased by the cover art – I think the design is quite striking and clever.

The title does not have a grammatical error – the story is about Eli and Charlie Sisters, brothers who are killers working for a criminal called the Commodore. The travel from Oregon to San Francisco to do a job, following the lead of another Commodore employee already watching their target in gold rush era San Francisco. There is a lot of hard riding, wanton killing, and witty repartee on the road, as one might expect. Charlie yearns to be a criminal mastermind like the Commodore, but Eli would like to leave the murdering business and run a store instead.

The description of their surroundings are brief and matter of fact, and much of the book is spent in dialogue. The story is told largely from Eli’s point of view, and he seems to be reflecting on the meaning of his life and his relationship with his brother. Once the Sisters meet up with their target, the book starts to more explicitly examine the motivations that people have for doing what they do.

I know the novel is supposed to be satirical, but I think that I do not know enough about Westerns to truly understand the satire. I also did not find it particularly funny, although I had heard that it was “darkly humorous.” I did think the characters were interesting, the story moved quickly, and I can appreciate how well written the novel is, but I did not love it.

#CBR IV Review 4: Bossypants by Tina Fey

I had really been looking forward to reading Bossypants. I have loved Tina Fey for many years, and she has been on my husband’s laminated list for years, so I though it was about time to size up the competition. That being said, my husband was a bit creeped out by the cover – apparently lovely Tina Fey with giant hairy man arms does not a fantasy romance make, so she may now be off the list.

Bossypants was widely reviewed by CBR III readers last year, so I read the book with moderate expectations. I admit had difficulty not reading the book in the voice of her 30 Rock character Liz Lemon. Of course, Fey is a person, not a character, but portions of the book seemed to be outright comedy sketches so it was hard to differentiate sometimes. The introduction was the most Lemonish, I think, and it made me cackle over my lunch break a few times. The remainder of the book was less funny (with the exception of her “swarthy baby”), but was still largely amusing, self-deprecating, and fairly relatable. Much of Fey’s life has been normal and non-glamourous, and she seems pretty comfortable with her awkward and nerdy nature.  I know that Fey wrote her memoir carefully, carefully presenting the information she wanted to share, but her honesty about things like her long held virginity and some distress over whether or not to have a second child was kind of heartwarming.

I found the background information on how sketch comedy troupes and Saturday Night Live work interesting, and was particularly excited to learn about how Fey’s Sarah Palin impression was developed. The first Palin sketch she did was the first episode of SNL I had stayed up for in many years, and it was one of the funniest and pointed sketches I have ever seen. It feels like it all happened quite a while ago, but Fey is careful to point out how Palin and Clinton were treated in the media is not necessarily all that different from how women are treated in comedy and the entertainment industry as a whole. She notes that the situation seems to be improving, but suggests that when people ask how how she likes being the boss, it is a both a responsibility that weighs on her and also is a question people would not ask of a man.

The book was a quick and smart read as well as being fairly amusing. I do not often read memoirs, particularly not by comedians or actors, so I cannot compare it to any similar books, but I did enjoy reading it.

#CBR IV Review 3: World War Z by Max Brooks

I have been reluctant to read this book, despite all the recommendations that I have had, because zombies are my weakness. I know they are kind of ridiculous (notwithstanding the inevitable invasion), but nothing gives me nightmares like zombies. I love and own Shaun of the Dead, but have not been able to rewatch it, and the 2004 Dawn of the Dead movie still gives me night terrors. That little girl in Sarah Polley’s bedroom on the first morning, and then the escape through bathroom window, gah.

All that being said, I really enjoyed World War Z. The book is a collection of survivor’s tales, interviews that were not included in the UN report after the war has ended. Brooks does an excellent job of making sure the voice of each survivor is distinct and unique, and also is careful to make all the survivors seem very human – no superheroes, (nearly) everyone suffering and just trying to survive in their unique circumstance. The book surveys an interesting group of survivors, from different countries and different experiences of the war. There really isn’t any glory or glamour involved, but lots of suffering and complex reasoning. That being said, the characters all have engaging stories; I particularly enjoyed reading of the stories of the Japanese student who was too engrossed in online culture to really understand what was going on at first, the astronauts stuck on the Space Station, and the strategists who developed the survival plans. The stories all felt so authentic, so the details about the zombie physiology and abilities were a bit… distressing for me – of course they can survive underwater, but I had never considered that before – gah again.

I understand that Brad Pitt has been filming a movie version of the book for some time now. Given that the narrator is anonymous and largely removed from the story, I am curious as to how the vignettes will be tied together over the course of the movie, unless the narrator becomes a character in the film. One of the interesting things in the book is that the characters are allowed to tell their own stories and are not edited by the interviewer, so the movie might be quite a different experience. In any case, I thought the story was cleverly constructed and very entertaining, and would highly recommend it.