Large themes of loss, accountability, and redemption in a sometimes too neat package.

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BLAMELESS

In rural Michigan, home to the family abuse and emotional distress Reardon captured so vividly in Billy Dead (1998), the specter of a dead child forces a woman to face herself and her demons.

At age ten, Mary Culpepper plotted to escape the strictures of her north Michigan hometown, where booze and adultery helped the populace make it though long nights. Instead of falling prey to those same sorrow-filled vices, she grows up to become a school-bus driver whose modus operandi is to absorb life’s shocks in stony silence. Her best friend Amy dubs her The Lone Rangerette. Physically impressive and earthy, a star at softball, Mary sleepwalks through life, remaining close to Amy even after she seduces away Mary’s husband, Carl. But then the discovery of little Jen Colby’s battered body in a closet in the house at the end of her bus route wreaks havoc with Mary’s carefully built defenses. Summoned to testify in the explosive case against the child’s mother, Mary suffers a breakdown. Her sleep is haunted by an oppressive granite figure she calls The Night Visitor, and her days are filled with fantasies of Number 34, the guy whose forearms catch her eye at the local tavern. The story starts slowly, and its many dangling references cause some early confusion; but effective conceits like that of “Loretta” as a personification of Mary’s feelings (her “heart”) who nevertheless acts independently of that sad—and mad—protagonist, add direction. While Mary struggles, Loretta, symbolic of Mary’s estrangement from herself, always knows what to do. Amid a surfeit of misery, the author shows the love and affection that can bind women together despite the jealousy and back-biting that grow in the fertile field of small-town life.

Large themes of loss, accountability, and redemption in a sometimes too neat package.

Pub Date: May 1, 2000

ISBN: 0-375-50405-2

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2000

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Rich, creamy art and playful paneling make for a fun read.

THE GIGANTIC BEARD THAT WAS EVIL

Cartoonist Collins’ debut graphic novel is a long, smooth fable of a man whose unkempt facial hair ravages the tidy city of Here.

Here sits on an island, surrounded by the sea, separated from the far-off land of There. And whereas Here is all row houses and trimmed trees and clean cheeks, There is a dark, disordered place that would mix your insides with your outsides, your befores with your nows with your nexts—unpleasant business brilliantly depicted in panels breaking across a single body as it succumbs to chaos. So the people of Here live quiet, fastidious lives, their backs to the sea, and neighbor Dave delights in doodling it all from his window as he listens to the Bangles’ “Eternal Flame” on repeat. But an irregular report at his inscrutable office job triggers the single hair that has always curved from Dave’s upper lip to be suddenly joined by a burst of follicles. Try as Dave might, his unruly beard won’t stop pouring from his face in a tangled flood—and soon it threatens the very fabric of life in Here. Collins’ illustrations are lush, rounded affairs with voluptuous shading across oblong planes. Expressions pop, from the severe upturn where a sympathetic psychiatrist’s brows meet to the befuddlement of a schoolgirl as the beard’s hypnotic powers take hold. With its archetypical conflict and deliberate dissection of language, the story seems aimed at delivering a moral, but the tale ultimately throws its aesthetics into abstraction rather than didacticism. The result rings a little hollow but goes down smooth.

Rich, creamy art and playful paneling make for a fun read.

Pub Date: Oct. 7, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-250-05039-7

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Picador

Review Posted Online: Aug. 24, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2014

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A thin sliver of illustrated memoir that barely hits its stride before fading away.

CHICKEN WITH PLUMS

Satrapi (Embroideries, 2005, etc.) recalls the tragic final days of her great-uncle, an Iranian musician who died of a broken heart after his wife destroyed his favorite instrument.

Set for the most part in Tehran circa 1958, this graphic memoir tells the story of Nasser Ali Khan, a renowned master of the tar, an Iranian stringed instrument. A man of taciturn demeanor and moodiness, Khan believes himself too much of an artist to perform non-creative labor; he barely contributes to the household upkeep with either work or money. Not surprisingly, his firecracker of a wife doesn’t take well to this attitude and eventually cracks, snapping his beloved tar in two and sending Khan to his bed, where he grows gloomy and frets. This day-by-day reconstruction shows Khan’s wife and brother trying to rouse him back to the land of the living. But his artist’s pride (the tar was Stradivarius-like in its perfection) is not easily mended. As always, Satrapi’s artwork is simple and expressive, with its rich pools of black ink and swooping, lyrical curlicues. Only occasionally does she break out of a strict frame-to-frame design, but when she does, the results are breathtaking. One beautiful page depicts the family of one of Khan’s sons seated around the TV: In the top half, they’re happy and chatty, watching a woman sing; in the bottom, all is in perditious shadow, a bearded man lecturing on the screen, with the text reading simply, “But in 1980 war erupted and that was the end of happiness.” Unfortunately, the volume is so short that the story doesn’t have enough time to take root, and what could have been an emotional and heart-rending drama becomes instead an intriguing footnote.

A thin sliver of illustrated memoir that barely hits its stride before fading away.

Pub Date: Oct. 3, 2006

ISBN: 0-375-42415-6

Page Count: 96

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2006

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