May 19 2009
The Photographer, by Emmanuel Guibert – This is one of the most awesomely powerful graphic novels I have ever read. I’d say it is a very close second to Maus. Guibert is an interesting artist, because he doesn’t seem to believe in using any of the ‘tricks’ of the comic medium to tell a story like this. No funky angles, interesting page layouts, motion lines, graphic symbols… just a straight linear narration of the true story of a photographer (Didier Lefevre) who accompanied a Doctors Without Borders mission to Afghanistan. It’s a very documentary style — and I don’t mean a cleverly edited documentary like Supersize me, but a totally straightforward one like Blindsight (see below). The only thing experimental about it is that it mixes Guibert’s drawings with Didier’s photos, to great effect. Nevertheless, Guibert’s art is amazing. It manages to look both like a Tintin homage and a sketchbook of someone who was actally there with Didier. The real power of the book comes from the subject matter, though. This is an incredibly stark and nuanced portrayal of the Afghani people, and of the amazing work of the doctors who hike through physically and socially dangerous terrain to treat the casualties of the violence in that region. A must-read.
The Eternal Smile, by Gene Luen Yang and Derek Kirk Kim – These two guys are part of the latest wave of comic geniuses, and consequently their collaborations are pretty darn good. This book isn’t actually a GN, but a collection of 3 short stories previously published elsewhere. All three are very impressive demonstrations of drawing, storytelling, and playing with a psychological/existential twist. The second story, from which the book gets its title, was my favorite. It’s basically a mashup of Disney’s Ducktales with a certain popular existential movie which I won’t name lest it spoil part of the story for you. As such, it’s not the most original story ever, but it’s an awesome reworking of the source material, and obviously I have a soft spot for good reworkings of source material.
My Stroke of Insight, by Jill Bolte Taylor – the account of a brain scientist who undergoes a massive stroke which disables much of the left side of her brain, and then not only recovers, but learns how to reintegrate the left brain in a way that allows her access to the blissful state of freedom-from-suffering she experienced when the voice of reason was silenced. The subject is riveting reading: directly useful for anyone interested in the brain or the mechanisms of consciousness and suffering, and also great roadmap for stroke recovery. Unfortunately, I found the writing rather weak, and the author’s reading in the audiobook version to be actively irritating. Still, with that reservation, I highly recommend the book, especially the last part about how she managed the selective reconstruction of her left brain. Her TED talk is a good capsule version of the first part of the book (you’ll see what I mean about her voice).
Blindsight – the story of a group of blind Tibetan teenagers attempting, with the help of a blind mountaineer and a large sighted support team, to climb Lhakpa Ri, a 23,000 foot peak next to (really part of) Mount Everest. Amazing stuff. After seeing this I decided I had to re-read my favorite John Varley short story…
“The Persistence of Vision”, from The John Varley Reader – the narrator, hitchhiking through New Mexico, stumbles upon a commune built by a group of blind and deaf adults so they can live a life more suited to their special abilities and challenges. A fascinating, albeit speculative, look at how these people might live, and how their touch-based lives appear to a sighted person. Varley gets a bit too gleeful with his ideas about their sex lives, and tacitly condones a couple of behaviors that the reader may justifiably find disturbing. But it’s still a wonderful story. Now I’m reading a bunch of the other stories in the collection. They’re quite good, and I’m surprised at how many I’ve read before. I guess the period when I was reading sci-fi anthologies lasted longer than I thought.