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Book Review: “Monica” by Daniel Clowes

Cover: Monica by Daniel Clowes

Daniel Clowes’ “Monica” is rich and confounding, an artful comic exploring what it’s like to seek but never fully find.  

It’s told in vignettes centering on the title character, a girl whose mother gets caught up in the counterculture and ends up abandoning her. Monica spends much of her life trying to figure out that act. Even in what should be a successful adulthood, she remains trapped in the past, snared by the need to understand what happened to her mother, and by extension, to her.

This quest is anything but straightforward. There are hippie cults, Lovecraftian figures, ghost radios and vague intimations of some apocalyptic event. But there’s also the normal stuff of life: ex-boyfriends, aimless youth, the possibilities of late-life romance. To complicate things further, Monica is prone to writing stories, and some of these fictional accounts enter the narrative, weird little sections in the vein of old Creepy Comics or the “Tales of the Black Freighter” interludes in Watchmen.

Clowes is assured at capturing it all, from cult derangement to edge-of-apocalypse noir to the day-to-day vibes of just never quite fitting in. I found the least fantastical scenes the most engaging. My heart sank with each dippy new lover Monica’s mom takes on; when Monica meets a man she can share her stories with, I was eager for her “October” romance to work out.

The art is excellent throughout, detailed, expressive, carefully blocked and plotted. Clowes’ lines are precise and fine, like something John Severin might offer. But the story itself resists easy explanation. I typically resist ambiguity in this vein, but Clowes is so assured and intentional with what he offers here that I ended up being captivated instead.

Book Review: “Utopia Avenue” by David Mitchell

An engrossing work of historical fiction, David Mitchell’s “Utopia Avenue” blends “Behind the Music” mythmaking with intriguing light fantasy elements.

Set largely in Britain in the mid-1960s, the novel is a telling of how its titular band makes it. Utopia Avenue doesn’t form organically but is cobbled together by a Canadian producer possibly looking at his last shot overseas.

It includes several musical archetypes: the guitar god, the rowdy drummer, the folk songstress, the working-class bass player with a knack for hooks. Mitchell interweaves actual musical figures from the period, including David Bowie, Brian Jones (a fun, damaged presence), Jimi Hendrix, several stars overseas. Taking real figures and putting fictional words in their mouths can be a dodgy enterprise, but it largely works here, with the real-life cameos expanding “the scene” and the stakes for the band.

Mitchell walks us through the standard music biopic scenes: the rocky first gig, arguments with the label, an overseas tour. These pieces feel familiar, like musical standards, but he does such a good job evoking the group and their dynamics that it’s exciting to see Utopia Avenue’s progression (as well as the obstacles the author throws in their way).

There are setbacks and tragedies–enough to make the book a brisk read. But Mitchell also works to capture the creative energy of making music, the little magic of notes and phrases. This could easily be overdone, full of fluff and sentiment, but he keeps even these conceptual sections focused. They don’t weave off too far into the mystic.

The members of the group are more complex than what we see at the beginning. Abusive childhoods, sexist expectations, autism and asylums: they’re all carefully woven into the narrative, building our sense of who these characters are, what they’re trying to accomplish and why we should care.

There’s even an undertone of fantasy in the mental issues one key character experiences, a storyline that includes some callbacks to other Mitchell books as well as a deep dive into what’s basically magic. I found it fascinating; your mileage may vary.

Even with that caveat, Utopia Avenue’s story feels complete and creative and varied. It’s an accomplishment, one that makes me want to dive back into Mitchell’s earlier works.

Quotes

“Dean never saw the point of church. ‘God works in mysterious ways’ seemed no different from ‘Head I win, tails you lose.'”

***

“‘Our persecutors maintain that’–Francis sighs the word, regretfully– ‘”homosexuals” violate Nature’s law. A decrepit falsehood. Nature’s law is oblivion. Youth and vigor are fleeting aberrations. This truth is the canvas on which I paint.'”

***

“‘Amsterdam won’t be the same without you.’

‘Bless you, but Amsterdam won’t notice a damn thing. The city’s changed since we stayed up late redesigning the future and crashing the royal wedding.’ “Trix traces her forefinger along Jasper’s clavicle. “Remember the free white bicycles? Nobody repairs them now. People think, Why can’t somebody else do it? Or they paint them black and lock ’em up. Provo is winding down. New revolutionaries have grabbed the megaphones. Humorless ones. The ones who quote Che Guevara like he’s a close personal friend. “It is better to die on your feet than live on your knees.” They’ll say, “You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs,” as if a demonstrator’s spine, or a policeman’s skull, or an elderly widow’s window is only an egg.'”

***

“‘A brain constructs a model of reality. If that model isn’t too different from most people’s model, you’re labeled sane. If the model is different, you’re labeled a genius, a misfit, a visionary, or a nutcase. In extreme cases, you’re labeled a schizophrenic and locked up.”

***

“‘I’m in no mad rush.’

‘Good for you. The word “faster” is becoming a synonym of “better.” As if the goal of human evolution is to be a sentient bullet.”

Book Review: “A Visit from the Goon Squad” by Jennifer Egan

Illustration of guitar top with messy strings. Text: Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad

“A Visit from the Goon Squad” offers an impressionistic look at life in music. Jennifer Egan’s novel jumps from character to character in thinly linked scenes intended to illustrate the triumphs, compromises and, most frequently, failures that accompany the ego-driven impulse of trying to make yourself heard.

Gripping and beautiful written, it shares more sadness than thrills. Our recurring characters include a kleptomaniac with a damaged past who serves as an assistant for a punk rocker turned label mogul. His mentor drifts in from decades back, showing the predatory nature of the scene and the raw atavistic impulse to dominate. We get burnouts and broken writers, despot publicists and stay-at-home dads trying to recollect who they once were. 

It’s not seamless, but it’s tender and deeply felt. Egan absolutely nails the ending too.

Quotes

“She could tell that he was in excellent shape, not from going to the gym but from being young enough that his body was still imprinted with whatever sports he’d played in high school and college. Sasha, who was thirty-five, had passed that point.”

***

“In fact the whole apartment, which six years ago had seemed like a way station to some better place, had ended up solidifying around Sasha, gathering mass and weight, until she felt both mired in it and lucky to have it–as if she not only couldn’t move on but didn’t want to.”

***

“Lou is one of those men whose restless charm has generated a contrail of personal upheaval that is practically visible behind him: two failed marriages and two more kids back home in L.A. who were too young to bring on this three-week safari.”

***

“I looked down at the city. Its extravagance felt wasteful, like gushing oil or some other precious thing Bennie was hoarding for himself, using it up so no one else could get any. I thought: if I had a view like this to look down on every day, I would have the energy and inspiration to conquer the world. The trouble is, when you most need such a view, no one gives it to you.”

Book Review: “Hakim’s Odyssey Book Two–From Turkey to Greece” by Fabien Toulme

Cover: Hakim's Odyssey Book Two--From Turkey to Greece

French cartoonist Fabien Toulme continues his thoughtful, moving recollection of a Syrian refugee’s complicated journey to France. 

As this second volume starts, Hakim, his new and now pregnant wife, Najmeh, and Najmeh’s family have just moved from a smaller town in Turkey to Instanbul in search of more opportunities. But working under the table is hard in the big city too, particularly as more refugees make their way to the scene. 

So Najmeh’s dad buys a fake passport to make his way to France, bringing his family in soon after to begin the process of applying for refugee status. There’s one issue, though: Hakim and his new son, Hadi, aren’t covered on the family’s status, and so they have to stay behind. 

It’s a stressful, tenuous time, especially since Hakim is forced into sole caregiver responsibility as opportunities to earn money dwindle. Toulme does a great job recounting Hakim’s desperation as he’s forced to bunker down with his son in a hot-plate apartment, his wife mostly reduced to a weeping voice on the phone. 

Things get worse when tragedy strikes back home in Syria, leaving Hakim nearly broken. As he tries to rebound, a paperwork snafu with the French consulate leaves him open to a choice he’s previously dismissed as too risky: making a trip across the Mediterranean with Hadi in search of safe refuge in Europe.

These scenes are the most heartrending in the book. They cover the nervy work of trying to find passage, the preparations for a dangerous journey, the hours of waiting on a remote beach under the watch of armed men. Hakim has prepped as best he can, buying a life jacket for himself and, devastatingly, water wings and a tiny tube for little Hadi. But the journey becomes desperate, with the men jumping into the water to try to swim their raft to shore in the middle of a dark, strange sea. 

Toulme conveys just how frightening it is–how worried Hakim is for his son, and how desperate he’s become to take this risk. Since the series opens with Hakim and Hadi healthy in France, we know they make it, thankfully. But this second book of Hakim’s Odyssey fulfills Toulme’s goal of humanizing the refugees risking their lives to travel to Europe.

Book Review: Nettle and Bone by T. Kingfisher

Cover: Nettle and Bone by T. Kingfisher. The book shows a woman in a rough-hewn garment.

Charming and bingeable, T. Kingfisher’s “Nettle and Bone” blends a thrilling sense of magic with some predictable storytelling.

The book stars Marra, a not very princess-y princess from a tiny kingdom stuck between two larger rivals. An alliance is what’s needed to keep her people safe, and so her mother arranges marriages for her older sisters with the heir of the Northern Kingdom. Marra is set aside in a convent, both to prevent her from producing any pesky rivals to the throne and also to keep her as a spare spouse in case another wife is needed.

Sadly, a spare has been needed before. It turns out Prince Vorling, the heir to the northern kingdom, is a violent man, with his wives bearing the brunt of his anger. When Marra realizes the seriousness of the situation, she decides that the only recourse is for him to die, and so she sets out on a quest to find the magical support she needs for a bit of regicide.

“Nettle and Bone” hits it strides when it embarks on its “Goodbye Earl” phase, but the book spends too much set-up getting there. It hits us with more backstory than necessary, with some convoluted chronology thrown in to boot.

Still, Kingfisher’s world-building is my favorite part of this Hugo-award winning tale. We get dust wives and fairy forts, bone dogs and goblin markets. There are fey folk that can make your teeth dance away from your jawline and great rolling curses gathering grave robbers like gelatinous cubes. It’s imaginative, creative and often surprising; I loved the way she twisted some familiar fantasy tropes and would recommend the book on those merits alone.

On the flip side, the characters aren’t very nuanced. They’re spirited and well-rendered, but they’re generally one note, hero or villain, with few complications to color them. It’s exciting how Marra gathers her diverse crew, but they go along with her a little too easily. That’s especially true for the book’s romance, which feels painfully obvious as it predictably progresses.

So it’s a mixed bag. The creativity certainly recommends it, particularly since it’s a compact and easy read. But I do wish it had risked more, even if I enjoyed how it all turned out.