Monthly Archives: February 2011

#5: Sister Salty, Sister Sweet by Shannon Kring Biro and Natalie Kring

This book should have been a big hit for me.

1. It’s a memoir.  I like memoir.

2. It’s about sisters.  I have a sister.

3. The sisters grew up around the same time I grew up.  I like relating.

However, it fell flat.

I wanted to like it.  I liked the structure.  The chapters switch back and forth between the two sisters and start off with the age they were when the moment happened.  You often see the same event from both points of view, which is great because of the four year age difference.  This worked well when the two were dealing with their mother’s miscarriage.

Except for that one section though, I found myself not really caring.

I think it was the written voice of the sisters.  It felt like they were dictating the basic elements to someone else and not exploring the emotions behind everything.  It felt like adults trying to remember how a teenager would feel and then trying to wrap that around their current version.  There were a few horrible moments and I thought to myself “I should be really upset about this, but I’m not.”  I was upset that I didn’t feel upset.

Even when they did get into emotions, it felt too much like telling and not showing.  There were a few moments that felt real and captured what had happened.  Unfortunately these made other moments feel even more flat because they didn’t hold up.  The potential was there but the follow through wasn’t.

I did relate to much of the story.  My sister is six years older than I am, so I responded to Natalie’s reactions to Shannon.  However, their family dynamics are nothing like mine and my sister’s.  However, there were some universal threads in there so the book wasn’t a total loss.

#4: The Cheese Monkeys by Chip Kidd

The fiction as memoir; fiction based on real life experiences; or fiction with a few things thrown in that maybe really happened in real life genre…  Just enough to trip you up into thinking that this must be how it happened.

The Cheese Monkeys: A Novel in Two Semesters is a manic race through the narrator’s introduction to art classes in college.  Parts felt very much like a memoir and it was clear that Kidd was drawing (no pun intended) on his college experiences.  I related to the first few days of chaos at college and the almost instant panic that you’ve made a terribly bad decision.

Our narrator, let’s keep his professor’s name for him and call him Happy, creeps into his first art class and soon meets the insanity driven hurricane that is Himillsy Dodd.  The book suddenly becomes her book, or at least that’s what she wants you to think.

Hims doesn’t so much as take Hap under her wing as she drags him in bemused terror and adoration off the edge of a cliff, making sure they crack their heads as many times as possible on the way down.  She seems to have everything and nothing figured out and he is at times pathetically desperate to please her.   It’s possible he would have continued to trail after her until she graduated and left him groggy on the side of the road.

But then second semester starts and they meet Professor Winter Sorbeck.  Winter is just as crazy/brilliant/destructive as Hims, but they are going in opposite directions.  Hap finds himself between the two, struggling to learn everything he can from both without giving in to either.

Getting back to Hims taking over Hap’s book…  Early on I thought this was going to be another coming of age, finding yourself at college story.   Hims shows up to show Hap a way into The Real World and I figured he’d decide for himself what was true.  But then I decided that he was simply along to record the path of Hims as she ran and screamed and flung herself through college, trying to take as much of it down with her as possible.

It wasn’t until the very end of the book that Hap decides this is his story and when he shows up… holy shit.  Seriously.  I said it out loud.  I read a line three or four times, my eyes jumped back a few paragraphs, I came back to it and wow…  Hap starts to appear a bit before this and my reaction was “Oh.  Well… this is interesting” but it is nothing compared to the holy shit moment.

When I finished the book I immediately wished I was in a book club so we could all sit in someone’s living room to try to figure out what in the hell just happened.  I popped over to Good Reads to see what people had written and man, were they pissed.

Many felt like they had been tricked and they weren’t sure if they were furious or just angry but willing to forgive because of the first 200+ pages.

Me?  I think I’m delighted, even though I’m still not sure what happened after the last sentence.  I detest books with endings that are wrapped up in pretty packages with giant bows and everything is perfect and no one’s feelings were hurt and here’s a box of candy and a picture of a puppy and let’s hold hands and talk about our favorite ice cream flavors.  The Cheese Monkeys is not that type of book.   It leaves a lot open and yet it did shut a few doors.  Or at least it almost shuts them and lets you decide if Hap is going to kick them closed the next time he walks by.

The writing is wonderful.  I know people complain that Kidd tries too hard or is too clever or cute in places, but I loved it.  There are a few descriptions where I wanted to high five the book because I bet Kidd high fived himself when he finished.  The first person confessional narrative lends to the memoir feeling and there a few moments where you feel like Hap is sitting at a desk somewhere much later in his life, pausing to remember what this moment felt like and how to get the words down just right.   He does a great job with the moments of pure emotion and when Hap is in a haze, I felt like I was staggering through the sentences along with him.

#3: Fun Home – A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel

I enjoy reading memoirs.  I like reading someone else’s story and finding the universal connection between myself and a stranger.  Failing that, it’s nice to see if someone else’s life is more fucked up than mine.  A competition among strangers to see who gets the bigger laugh and the most pity.

Graphic memoirs are amazing because the author is choosing the images she wants you to see.  A sentence that I might pass over in text becomes impossible to miss because of the way the shadowing was done on the page or the angle of the bodies or the images in the background.  Less words are needed, so the ones that are chosen have more importance.

Of course this doesn’t work if I don’t like the art work.  If the story sucks but the art is my style, I can slog through.  If the story is great but I  hate the art, I’m probably not going to finish.

Luckily for me, Bechdel has an amazing story and I really like her drawing style.

Trying to summarize this story is giving me fits because of all the levels.  It’s a story of a girl growing up in a messed up family.  It’s a story of a Fun House – the funeral home owned by the Bechdel’s where the kids saw the bodies and helped set up for calling hours.  It’s a coming out story.  It’s a story where Bechdel learns about her father’s sexuality.  It’s a story of a child, then an adult, then an adult looking back at her childhood.  It’s the story of a miserable marriage.  It’s the story of OCD and transference and cognitive dissonance.

That last paragraph was a bitch to write because it’s not correct, even after I chopped it apart and rewrote it several times.  There’s a lot going on in these pages and it’s difficult to explain, but that’s OK because there’s a lot going on in Bechdel’s head that’s probably still difficult for her to explain.

I responded strongly to the ending.  I think most of us get to a point where we begin to view our parents as people.  As we get older we think of the decisions that our parents made in terms of how we would make them right now.  It changes the relationship and it’s hard to hold onto anger and grievances of your teenage self when your adult self suddenly understands.  But they’re still your parents and you’re still their child and the mix of kid and adult is confusing at best.  And your 12 year old self is still wicked pissed.

Bechdel does a beautiful job longing to and resiting the urge to reframe her father’s story into something she can relate to.  On the other hand, she does relate to parts of it, and that has to irritate the hell out of her younger self.

There are very few secrets in this book after the first few pages and the back and forth spirals work as Bechdel tries to untangle her life.  It wasn’t horrific, it wasn’t ideal, and it is hers.