The Sculptor

SculptorTitle: The Sculptor
Author/Illustrator: Scott McCloud
ISBN: 9781596435735
Pages: 496 pages
Publisher/Date: First Second, c2015.
Published: February 3, 2015

“So what if the art thing didn’t work out? Is it really that important?”
“It’s all I have.”
“What would you give for your art, David?”
“I’d give my life.” (32-33)

With those fateful — or maybe fatal — words, David sets the next 200 days in motion. David has spent so many years trying to accomplish his life’s goal of making a name for himself in the art world. But he’s currently a down on his luck sculptor who has no future work prospects, no girlfriend, no family, little money, and will soon be homeless. So he’s spending his last dollars on his birthday getting drunk at a local diner, until two unexpected visitors – one is an angel and the other is death – deeply impact the next six months of his life.

Visually stunning and satisfying. These are the first two words that come to mind after finishing. Scott McCloud literally wrote the book on comic books. This graphic novel proves that not only can he talk the talk, he can also walk the walk. The writing and drawings are equally affecting, and in some cases I paused to not only process the plot but also come up for air as I was immersed in this world. The monochromatic colors change the mood with the flip of a page, with one section using a much darker blue color scheme to convey the dark emotions and some panels and pages being completely devoid of color. Some pages are more traditional in their layout, whereas others change the tone of the narrative by either switching from a white gutter to a black one, and in some cases doing away with the gutter completely. The full-page panoramic shots are eye-catching, but the varied layouts add interest and keep readers engaged. Sometimes they feature detailed street scenes with identifiable individuals in the crowd, other times focus on a single character close-up which draws readers into the dramatic relationships, and that unique final sequence feels like a flip book as it follows one character’s descent.

David, the epitome of a starving artist, just can’t catch a break, at one point claiming he’s cursed, being told it’s just bad luck, and asking “What difference does it make?” His grand goals and aspirations are what continues to drive him. He can’t think small, he can’t be confined by what others in the art world dictates. He needs to succeed in a big way and make a name for himself, which is especially influenced by his having to distinguish himself from an already successful artists with the same name. He has made promises to himself that he refuses to break, which bring morals and character to an otherwise selfish and self-centered persona. In fact, he’s criticized for his impatience and his inability to consider anyone else’s needs, whether it deals with his life personally or professionally. His life of ongoing disappointments make it difficult for him to connect with others, and you see through his few relationships how loyal he is to them, although those friends have long recognized that they can’t count on him to “act normal”. His awkwardness in social situations is stereotypical (think of any geeky, artistic character, in any romantic comedy, and you have David) but if you have a problem with the stereotype don’t blame the artist and it’s also endearing to watch David try to navigate this space.

Meg is beautiful. Her unexpected meeting with David is rooted in today’s culture, but we view things from a previously unseen perspective. She is so full of energy and life, even though as we later learn she has her own scars and past to confront and manage. Her spontaneous, optimistic, romantic heart contrast against David’s more pessimistic mood swings, but David comes to realize that he can’t just take those attitudes for granted. Many have complained that Meg is a foil for David’s character development and she isn’t as developed as she could be. I feel that while this is a valid complaint, we see her primarily from David’s perspective when they are alone together, so I feel like this point of view is justified within the context of the story. Meg’s background is a mystery, sure, but that’s because David is so self-absorbed he doesn’t think to ask and when he does she is reluctant to reveal and let him in, going so far as to warn him not to let her push him away. While David’s attraction to her is fast, Meg holds him at bay until she is sure of her own feelings.

The presentation of Death is interesting, and David’s conversations with him bring to mind questions of death, memory, fame, art, and immortality. Some questions that spring to mind for possible discussion, if I ever get around to using this as a book discussion:

  • Do you continue to “live on” after death when others remember you?
  • Is David’s pursuit of fame on par with the pursuit of immortality?
  • How did events in David’s past influence his current goals? What are his goals, and does David accomplish them by the end of the book?
  • Is art for the sake of the artist or the public?
  • How often do artists intend their symbolism in art, is it found after the completion, or is sometimes a square just a square?
  • What qualifies as art, and who decides between underground and mainstream pieces?
  • On page 217, there is a discussion about rules, and how you “can’t break the rules”. Is this true? What are some of the rules that David tries to break and what are some of the rules he tries to keep?

Although some have called it cliched with the presentation of Meg as a “Manic Pixie Girl” and David as the starving artist ready to do anything to catch a break, this hefty tome is definitely thought-provoking. The plot twists, while somewhat expected, are no less gut-wrenching as we watch these two characters try to navigate this world. Portrayals of frontal nudity cause me some hesitation in handing it to younger teens, but high school students could definitely empathize with David’s struggle to make a name for themselves and garner fame as they pursue their own futures.

Swing Sisters

Swing SistersTitle: Swing Sisters: The Story of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm
Author: Karen Deans
Illustrator: Joe Cepeda
Pages: unpaged
ISBN: 9780823419708
Publisher/Date: Holiday House, c2015.

Dr. Jones loved music and wanted the children to love it too. In 1939 he started a school band that was just for girls, and he called it the Sweethearts.

Started as an fundraiser for a African American orphanage founded in 1909, the Sweethearts soon became something more. They played in the beginning for schools and church groups. When the musicians aged out of the orphanage, they stayed together, playing all over the country, including at the Howard Theater in Washington to an audience of 35,000 people and overseas in Europe for the troops during World War II. For years they quietly broke Jim Crow laws, allowing any women who could jump, jive, and swing on an instrument to join their band. This caused problems with some folks, forcing some of their members to sneak out of their bus and head to the train station via taxi rather than getting caught by the police in the company of African Americans. Eventually, the group disbanded as the women pursued other goals and interests, like other jobs or families.

It’s interesting to learn about an African American orphanage during the 1900s that taught literacy skills to children many saw as underprivileged, when so many African American children weren’t taught how to read or write. With sparse writing that conveys just enough information for younger readers which the book is geared toward, it’s a welcome addition that websites, books, and documentaries are available for those who would like to learn more, including a NPR broadcast and a Smithsonian feature from a few years ago. While just a blip in music, women’s, and African American histories, these trail blazers have not been forgotten, even if — as one interview remarks — few recordings of their work are still around.

The illustrations are multicolored and textured, and the oil and acrylic paintings lend a texture, similar to cracked paint, that encourage a lingering look and give it an old time feel. The crowd scenes are equally impressive as many of the people have distinguishing characteristics and skin tones, and the period clothing is quite colorful. The closing scenes of a silhouetted band playing in front of a sunset orange and yellow hued background, paired with an older women passing along a trumpet to a younger girl, reflect the closing sentiments of the book. “Those Sweethearts didn’t know it at the time, but they helped open doors for women of all backgrounds.” (unpaged)

nonfiction mondayThis review is posted in honor of Nonfiction Monday. Take a look at what everyone else is reading in nonfiction this week.

Korgi Book Three

Korgi 3 A Hollow BeginningTitle: Korgi Book Three: A Hollow Beginning
Author/Illustrator: Christian Slade
ISBN: 9780329889081
Pages: 112 pages
Publisher/Date: Top Shelf Productions, c2011.

It’s impossible to quote a wordless picture book. If you’ll remember my previous review of the first two books, I predicted that there would be a third book. This one is different than the other two, as there is more violence, which I was somewhat shocked by. The illustrations are still gorgeous, detailed, and expressive, with a flashback sequence set apart by a thicker border around each panel and darker lines composing the drawings. Ivy and her korgi Sprout have discovered a sliver of… something (it resembles a pieces of sharp glass) with a drawing on it. After asking around the village, they visit Wart, the librarian/historian for the town. (Side note, as a librarian, I’m drooling over Wart’s book collection and shelving.) Wart tells a story of where the piece may have come from, but it is almost stolen from the duo until a friend saves the day. Although the very last page seems to be the perfect ending (in a photo-copy-and-frame-that-drawing kind of way), there are still some unresolved plot points that may lead to a fourth book in the series, especially when tying the flashbacks to the current story line.

Doll Bones

Doll BonesTitle: Doll Bones
Author: Holly Black
Illustrator: Eliza Wheeler
Narrator: Nick Podehl
ISBN: 9780804122900 (audiobook)
Pages: 247 pages
CDs/Discs: 5 CDs, 5 hours
Publisher/Date: Listening Library, c2013.
Awards: Newbery Honor (2014)

“It wasn’t like a regular dream,” Poppy said, her fingers smoothing back the Queen’s curls and her voice changing, going soft and chill as the night air. It reminded Zach of the way Poppy talked when she played villains or even the Queen herself. “It wasn’t like dreaming at all. She was sitting on the end of my bed. Her hair was blond, like the doll’s, but it was tangled and dirty. She was wearing a nightdress smeared with mud. She told me I had to bury her. She said she couldn’t rest until her bones were in her own grave, and if I didn’t help her, she would make me sorry.”[…]
“Her bones?” he finally echoed.
“Did you know that bone china has real bones in it?” Poppy said, tapping a porcelain cheek. “Her clay was made from human bones. Little-girl bones. That hair threaded through the scalp is the little girl’s hair. And the body of the doll is filled with her leftover ashes.” (62-63)

Zach, Poppy, and Alice have played an ever-changing, imagination based game involving pirates, mermaids, treasure, curses, and the Great Queen, influenced by a bone-china doll locked in Poppy’s mother’s cabinet. It’s all pretend, and Zach’s father is urging him to grow up. But Poppy claims to recently receiving dreams from the Queen, urging the trio to bury the doll in her empty grave. They set off in one last adventure, with Zach and Alice not quite sure what to believe. Is Poppy possessed, or is this just play? When things start going wrong, it’s anyone’s guess whether they will be successful.

Have I mentioned before how much I love Nick Podehl’s narrations? Because I really do. While this book did not require the range and variety that I know he can create, it was still an excellent audiobook. Black paints this questionably creepy situation where the events of the book could be explained away as someone playing a trick…. except maybe it really is a ghostly presence influencing the group. It was the creepy factor that did it to me, as the doll was described so well, I was picturing a feminine version of Chucky. The cover really doesn’t do the doll justice, and unfortunately neither do the interior illustrations. The beauty of the narration is the imagining, the what if, and the illustrations pull you out of that spook factor. I read one review that compared this to Toy Story meets Sweeny Todd, which I guess is apt although I think Sweeny Todd is much more graphic in nature than this one.

You can tell that a lot of thought went into this book. For example, if you Wikipedia East Liverpool, Ohio, where the bulk of the story ends up happening, it really does exist. And it really did have a number of potteries, “once produced more than half of the United States’s annual ceramics output. Throughout East Liverpool’s ceramics history, there were more than 300 potteries.” (link) You can read all about Holly Black’s road trip to this tiny town, which she did for research. The trio’s adventures were fully realistic, whether it was getting from point a to point b, budget issues, or dealing with suspicious adults who paid a little more attention then they would have liked to three unchaperoned minors traveling together. A pivotal scene takes place in a library with a pink-haired librarian who is super savvy about the ways of teens, and you can tell Black is a fan of librarians through her portrayal of this character.

I did wish that Alice and Poppy had more personality. While there is some exposition regarding Zach’s attitudes and evolution, we never really hear about the two girls and how they feel about the game that Zach’s father is so keen in making Zach give up. I think Zach’s father’s change in attitude towards the end came about a little too neatly, and the quest’s end was very convenient in nature. But it’s the journey, that’s the part that compelled me to keep reading, and the uncertain ground that Black keeps you on, forcing you to question everything that is happening. Leave the light on, and you’ll never look at your dolls the same way again. Especially the china ones, which plays such a big roll to making the whole premise work.

El Deafo

El DeafoTitle: El Deafo
Author: Cece Bell
Color: David Lasky
ISBN: 9781419710209
Pages: 242 pages
Publisher/Date: Amulet Books, an imprint of ABRAMS, c2014.
Awards: Newbery Honor (2015)

I wake up every morning happy and relieved to be home. I stay close to Mama, no matter where she is. But suddenly, I lose her. Where is she? I call out but she doesn’t answer me! When I finally find her, I know that everything is different. I think she knows it, too. I can’t hear. (11-12)

As a result of meningitis when she was four, Cece spent some time in the hospital. When she got back home, her parents and her realized that there was something wrong. She had become deaf. After being fit with hearing aids, Cece attends a special school to adapt to her lost hearing, but a family move means she leaves behind the welcoming environment. A new school means she needs to adapt to kids not understanding what the hearing aids do and how to react and interact with her.

The idea of portraying the people as bunnies was an inspired choice on the author’s part. Deafness seems more pronounced when exhibited by an animal with such pronounced ears, and that makes real the anxiety that the author feels when trying to hide her defining characteristic. I had a classmate with a similar hearing device that Cece wears and uses in school, and it’s interesting to see the world from that perspective. Cece’s reluctance to learn sign language was surprising to me, but her reasoning makes sense. She is trying so hard to not appear different that she is isolating herself because she can’t change her differences. It’s when she finally embraces her differences and uses them to the class’s advantage (like a super power) that she makes friends. But honestly, I’m glad she made friends like Martha, who didn’t care about her hearing aids, either as a positive super power or a negative disability.

Most of the feelings of acceptance are universal, they are simply amplified by Cece’s difference. Fans of Raina Telgemeier’s Smile and R. J. Palacio’s Wonder will probably enjoy this graphic novel with a similar story line. These books are important to have to teach acceptance to children and share unique perspectives, but some may be turned off by the continued emphasis of the differences and the primary role they play in the plot.

Older Faster Stronger

Older Faster StrongerTitle: Older, Faster, Stronger: What Women Runners Can Teach Us All About Living Younger, Longer
Author: Margaret Webb
ISBN: 9781623361693
Pages: 296
Publisher/Date: Rodale, c2014.

My impulse was to say no. But how could I say no? My sister is 13 years older than I. And the beauty queen was honing in on my territory. Yet the thought of running a half-marathon–I didn’t even know how far one was at the time–seemed inconceivable, overwhelming, impossible. […]
My instinctive response to my sister’s challenge was to admit defeat before even trying to declare that I was well beyond my athletic prime and saw no chance of redemption. (3-4)

On that fateful day, author Margaret Webb, 42-years-old at the time, took up her sister’s challenge in honor of her elderly mother, who legs were affected by polio. That first run was all it took, and Webb continued to run, race, and train. Years later, when she was approaching 50, she wanted to use running as a spring-board to achieve her best health yet, like she saw other older runners, especially women, achieving. Working with physicians, nutritionists, other athletes, and her regular running crew, Webb sheds a light on the history and health benefits of women taking up physical activity later in life, spotlighting those who have paved the way, the differences between female and male athletes, and the science behind this athleticism.

The science behind this journey can be confusing. Webb attempts to break it down into less jargon and more layman’s terms, and sometimes succeeds. Starting with a checklist of things that aging contributes, such as more injuries, loss of lung capacity, dexterity, flexibility, bone density, balance, estrogen and muscle mass, and increase in fat. Where she lost me was discussing VO2, which she explains is the “maximum amount of oxygen my body can use to make fuel” (19) Those readers not scientifically inclined should be prepared to read these sections two or three times in order to fully grasp the information. For instance,

I’m hauling in air, but my heart and lungs are still unable to supply enough oxygen to my working muscles, tipping them into oxygen dept. Lactic acid floods my bloodstream as my body shifts to anaerobic metabolism, away from burning energy-rich fat-which requires oxygen– to burning a thinner (less productive and plentiful) energy source, carbohydrates, which are stored in the muscles and liver as glycogen. […] When all the glycogen in the muscles is used, the body will suck glucose from the blood, which will run out even faster.” (35)

Her chapter titled “Eating Smarter” is much easier to understand. It discusses specific snack options (like midmorning and midafternoon snacks of 1/4 cup of nuts) and stresses a nutritionist recommended diet of cutting out simple carbohydrates instead of carb-loading before a race. It works for her, and emphasizes the difference in men and women’s ability to process carbs and the ongoing habit of doctors and researchers to apply study results to everyone when studies splitting male and female participants have shown that those findings can not be universally applied. This was surprising to me, because I mistakenly believed that since women’s athletic abilities and health issues (like risks of heart issues or cancer) have always been compared to men, that studies concerning healthy living would follow-up to prove these assumptions. It’s also interesting to hear the history of women’s running, where women were banned from marathons, with Kathrine Switzer becoming the first female runner of the Boston Marathon in 1967 while facing down the race director who tried to throw her out.

The book is filled with statistics and studies that stress the importance of adapting an active life-style, so if you weren’t convinced before picking up this book, you just might be by the time you finish it. While we all wish that we could achieve the health and fitness levels of not only the author but of the other women she features throughout the book (including world record holders and trail blazing feminists), this book may not be best for casual runners. Webb revels that she spends 10 to 12 hours training each week and travels the world running Iron Mans and marathons. I wish she had spent more time on how she got started, and what her running habits were starting at square one. For the beginner, this might be something to aspire to, but not something they should attempt to duplicate immediately.

Discovery of Witches

Discovery of WitchesTitle: A Discovery of Witches
Series: All Souls trilogy #1
Author: Deborah Harkness
Narrator: Jennifer Ikeda
ISBN: 9781449823863 (audiobook), 9780670022410 (hardcover)
Pages: 579 pages
CDs/Discs: 20 CDs, 24 hours
Publisher/Date: Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., c2011.

“What is happening to me?” Every day I ran and rowed and did yoga, and my body did what I told it to. Now it was doing unimaginable things. I looked down to make sure my hands weren’t sparkling with electricity and my feet weren’t still being buffeted by winds. […]
“But I didn’t ask for it. Do these things just happen to witches–electrical fires and winds they didn’t summon?” I pushed the hair out of my eyes and swayed, exhausted. Too much had happened in the past twenty-four hours. (210-211)

Diana Bishop, a professor visiting and conducting research at Oxford’s Bodleian Library, requests a manuscript called Ashmole 782, skims the contents, and then sends it back into the storage. But Diana, who never invested in studying the witchcraft that has flowed through her family’s blood for generations is quickly informed that Ashmole 782 contains secrets that other witches, vampires, and even daemons have been searching for over a century to find. Matthew Clairmont, a geneticist vampire also residing at Oxford, takes a special interest in protecting Diana as her dormant powers burst forth and refuse to be ignored. Although their growing relationship and interest in each other has long been deemed taboo, historical documents may be linking both of them to the manuscript. Loyalties are questioned and alliances are formed as it becomes a race against time to determine the manuscript’s origins and purpose and who should ultimately gain ownership.

A friend of mine has been trying to get me to read this for years. She loves the series, raves about the series, and thinks it’s the best thing since sliced bread. And I’ve seen it mentioned in blogs and journals with increasing regularity as the series continued to be published and it became a New York Times bestseller. But I disappointingly can not join her on her fan-wagon, and I’m apparently not the only one. Jessica Day George reviewed on Goodreads that she was torn as to whether or not to read the second one, and I think she described it really well, so I’m going to direct you to her review and I’ll wait for you to come back.

Back?

Good, because I totally agree with everything she said. Two hundred pages into the book, Diana and Matthew have eaten dinner together, gone to a yoga class together, studied old manuscripts together, and discussed creatures together. Oh, and everyone, not just the vampires, have incredible noses and knowledge of scents. They smell cloves, cinnamon, flowers, carnations, nuts, and other ingredients that I had to Google to figure out what they were talking about (malmsey? say what? Oh it’s a grape, thank you Wikipedia). Something FINALLY happens that forces both of them into hiding, where it takes another 150 pages of talking and multiple info dumps of relevant back story and plot points before climatic event number two happens, lasting only 40 pages before they go into hiding again and talk some more.

Matthew constantly withholding information from Diana and everybody else, even after being asked point-blank. I was so tired of Diana’s naivety, which seemed more and more unrealistic as the story continued and we learned more about her past and her family history. Is it any wonder Diana is so naive when her own family cuts her out of teachable moments and neglects to give her relevant information? Matthew is cold, distant, removed, and overprotective to the extreme. I found myself comparing this book to a Twilight for grown-ups, with a moody, brooding, know-it all vampire “protecting” a naive woman who is being chased by other mythical/fantastical creatures while she may or may not have special powers that she doesn’t know how to use, can’t be taught, and is not bothered by the overbearing nature of her boyfriend.

The one thing that saved this overly long, excessively descriptive, audiobook was Jennifer Ikeda’s narration. She brings life to the characters, especially all the accents and inflections that the secondary characters require.

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