Friday, August 23, 2013

That's Not A Feeling, Dan Josefson

Dan Josefson's debut novel is an odd piece of fiction set in a darkly wrought juvenile camp for troubled children in upstate New York. Benjamin has been abandoned at Roaring Orchards by his parents and narrates his immersion into the strange community that is made up of unreliable, neurotic adults serving as counselors, and their delinquent young charges. These adults are hinted to have just as serious personal problems plaguing them as the kids at the camp, and multiple even dislike the techniques and structure that make Roaring Orchards so different.

The novel is populated by such a large cast of adults and teens that you don't really get a strong sense of any personalities, even our oddly omnipotent narrator Benjamin, who inexplicably describes scenes he didn't witness. Indeed, the character most likely to encourage connection with a reader is Tidbit, who is the closest thing Benjamin has to a friend, and also a compulsive liar. Tidbit's experience with the camp sets the scene, but again oddly enough, as narrated by Benjamin. It's an uncomfortable structure that muddied the waters for me. I kept waiting for Benjamin to have meaningful moments with counselors like Aaron and Doris, who he offers incredibly intimate insights on, but my waiting never offered up any fruit in that case

There really isn't a slow build up to any particular climax, but more the meandering nonsense of day to day antics and outbursts of the kids, paired with the ineffectual and oftentimes laughable pseudo-psychology of the camps' staff, as headed by the elusive and charismatic Aubrey.

The kids are routinely ostracized and manipulated, and sinister enough in their desperation to manipulate right back. That is where Josefson truly shines; you absolutely believe them capable of the haphazard chaos they create within and around themselves. There's a shamelessness in the drama that is life within this dry, sometimes bleak place that Josefson evokes consistently throughout this novel.

Aside from those bursts of action supplied by trouble making kids, the novel doesn't build directly upwards into a climax. It can be a bit dry at times, and chillingly unpredictable. The drawback is that it didn't encourage me to read on from chapter to chapter; it really felt like work. The humor is quiet, and bittersweet. You'll laugh as you flinch at the awkwardness of the shunning and other absurd counseling techniques. 

Monday, August 5, 2013

Habibi, Craig Thompson

I fell in love with comics at a young age, but it took a more educated, experienced mind to appreciate the emotional depths that graphic novels and comics can evoke with their combination of literary story telling and breathtaking illustrations. Craig Thompson, as the author of multiple graphic novels including the award winner Blankets, weaves an ambitious web of art and myth in his 2011 publication, Habibi.

Habibi tells the story of an escaped slave girl, Dodola, who escapes with another slave's baby, Zam, and raises him in poverty with the stories of Islamic and Eastern lore. Their love and devotion to each other is tested by their various shared and individual experiences, as sex, power, and racial identity threaten to tear them apart.

Indeed, Habibi features some intense instances of violence, racism, and sexual savagery. There's quite a lot to be said about this novel in terms of its mature content. For the sake of not trying to lead anybody's personal reading experience, all I will say is that this is a work to be celebrated for it's dramatic imagery, and complex amalgamation of language scripts, iconography, and Eastern art.

The intertwining of Dodola and Zam's histories with stories and myths make for a complex, earthy reading experience, massive in scope. I don't recommend reading this novel as any sort of depiction of modern Arabic culture, but rather as it's own narrative, enhanced by the rich story telling tradition of the Middle East.

Maybe reviewing this graphic novel as my first feature from that medium is a bit like shoving a non swimmer straight into the deep end of the swimming pool. I was extremely excited by the visual feast that Thompson has constructed, and eager to put together a post! If you're new to graphic novels, definitely check out Blankets (see right), his earlier Eisner Award winning graphic novel. It's a darling coming of age story about love and opening up to your own spiritual identity that I also heartily recommend! Blankets is admittedly a bit more user friendly, but not a bit less beautiful than the epic of Habibi.

I certainly plan on reviewing more graphic novels. It makes up a pretty good chunk of my reading these days, and thankfully I constantly have friends recommending new titles!