A Memoir of Love and Life in China – Our Story

Our Story: a Memoir of Love and Life in China,

Rao Pingru,

Square Peg/Vintage Books

All we children knew about them was that books were among the good things of this world.”

This was an unusual one for me, an autobiography by an 88 year old Chinese gentleman; I think the last Chinese biography I read was back in the 90s, the globally conquering Wild Swans. Rao Pingru recalls his long life spanning most of the twentieth century: childhood, adulthood, meeting the woman who would be his wife for nearly six decades, it takes in the huge events they lived through (and many did not), from the end of an ancient way of life to war then civil war and revolution, and Our Story takes us through these events, but at a personal, family level, with an elegant and warm charm; by the end of this I felt as if I could sit down with Pingru for a chat and tea.

After losing Meitang, his wife of nearly sixty years, Pingru didn’t want the stories they had shared to vanish, and writing was a good way not only to share those memories, but was no doubt quite therapeutic after his loss. This isn’t really a graphic novel, it is more prose with illustrations, rather lovely ones at that, painted by Pingru. In fact there are scenes much later in the book, in his retirement years, where he takes up painting, which Meitang teases him for not being terribly good at, that he should have started learning this skill as a child so by now he might be good! And while there is an amateur quality to those paintings, they are done with love and affection and work far better than a professional illustrator’s work would have done, because this is clearly so personal and from the heart.

Pingru’s long life spans a huge series of changes in the ancient civilisation of China, events that have shaped the present day we live in and the future to come, not just in China but globally. But Pingru keeps those vast historical moments to the personal level: childhood in the last days of an old way of life, about to vanish forever, the long war with Japan (starting long before Singapore and Pearl Harbour brought that fight to the West), the subsequent civil war (just as they think they can at last go home to their lives and families), the Maoist revolution, the “re-education” camps, the emergence of modern China. All of these are seen through the personal level, how it affected him, his family, his friends, and as such it reminds us that those big historical moments are one thing, but it is the people swept up in them who really matter, because they are us.

A recurring theme in Our Story is food, and more importantly, the sharing of food. From the little treats beloved in childhood – especially the dishes served up only at specific festivals, like the Dragon Boat festival or Chinese New Year (we all have similar memories, I’m sure), the warmth of family around you (grandparents, aunt and uncles sneaking you extra treats or little pocket money gifts), through sharing food as a married couple then as their own family grew in turn, or the special occasions when several generations of the family get together. These events stand out against the harder, leaner years – the war, the early Mao era which saw Pingru sent to a re-education camp, apart from his family for so much of the time, making those moments together even warmer, more precious.

There are glimpses into another culture’s way of life – the lovely little rituals observed, such as one to mark the first day of proper schooling, including paying homage to the venerable Confucis, the writing of elegant short poems to mark special occasions in life, the seasonal festivals. Mostly, however, Our Story shows the traits of humanity and family run deeply through us all in any decade, in any nation, there is so much family life here that anyone, anywhere, will recognise, empathise with, smile at. Pingru’s paintings add a lovely touch (in some ways taking the role of family photos), and even the designers of the book have gone the extra mile, crafting a gorgeously bound volume; it’s physically elegant (everyone I showed this to thought it very beautiful), but as with any book it is the inner life between those handsome covers that truly counts. And in Our Story it’s a beautifully warm, personal, human story of life, love and family.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Jeff Brown’s A Matter Of Life

A Matter of Life,

Jeffrey Brown,

Top Shelf

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American cartoonist Jeff Brown has been a bit of a favourite with many of us here for several years. In recent years he’s expanded his audience with some delightful all-ages Star Wars parodies imagining Darth Vader actually trying to be a dad to Luke and Leia, but he remains best known (and loved) for his bittersweet autobiographic works. Yes, I know, Indy cartoonist doing autobiographic comics is almost a cliché these days, but for me Brown always stands out with his simple but elegant and effective style and voice – he’s one of those creators that the minute a new book is announced you know you’re going to have to read it.

In this recent book he turns his attention to family matters, mostly the men of the Brown family – himself, of course, but also his father and his own wee boy. Eschewing the regular chronological approach, instead A Matter of Life (I’m guessing the title is a nod to the classic Brit fantasy A Matter of Life and Death) offers up several snapshots of life in the Brown household – we can go from a very young Jeff at school or church (lot of church scenes, his dad being a minister) to adult Jeff with wife and child of his own, or back to high school or college age Jeff. The theme that ties these short scenes together is little glimpses into formative moments – all those little things (and the odd Big Thing, good or bad) that makes up this funny old thing called Life that we all deal with.

Brown is always quite honest, rarely trying to revise his personal history to make himself look better – instead he offers it up, warts and all. There he is as a kid in Bible study class or church youth group holding forth about the meaning of events in the Bible or God’s intentions, but in the commentary present day Jeff is noting that he wasn’t really that clever and most of this was stuff he had heard from his dad and his fellow ministers or read somewhere, repeated now as if he’d thought it up himself. Or a bit older and now at college and realising that an old school friend who writes to him a lot isn’t just being friendly but is actually gay and in love with him, and the cold way he responds, not from homophobia as such, just from being socially awkward and too young to know better. Some elements will be familiar to many readers – being young and curious about sex but not having a clue, and this being pre-internet youth no real way to find out. One sheltered girl in class is teased for asking what a condom is during a sexual health class, while teenaged Jeff sits at the back thinking “what’s this oral sex thing they’re talking about?” Or there are those awkward moments when shared aspects of family life you took for granted as a kid simply fade as you get older and become your own person – in his case religion becoming increasingly remote to him, failing to make sense any more, while his parents are still firm church-goers (and indeed his dad is a preacher) but he stops going and eventually decides he doesn’t believe anymore (leading to a delightfully surreal moment about feeling Jesus in your heart – taken literally with a tiny wee Jesus standing in his heart calling out “Jeff?”).

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Like all of life there are happy moments and sad moments – his dad becoming ill, so slowly, gradually that they don’t realise the seriousness of his ailment at first and that horrible dawning that a loved one is going to die and there is nothing you can do about it. Then being a dad himself and having to explain to his wee boy about it all, that one day he and mummy will be gone, that one day, hopefully when he is very old, he too will go. It’s pretty emotional, suddenly brightened as his wee lad, understandably upset, suddenly declares I know, I’ll fight Death, daddy! And suddenly the now sombre dad is grinning again because of his wee boy.

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Or simple little things like his mum telling him that music he listens to is just a noise and he’ll never listen to it when he is older – young Jeff adamant he will love that music forever, the way you do with your music when you are a teen. And then admitting years later as an adult that his mum was right… Or warnings by some in his church that heavy metal music and science fiction books would lead to the Dark Side – quite why reading Douglas Adams would lead you to Satan’s service is beyond me (may lead one to the Evil Demon of Missed Deadlines, of course), and Jeff takes a shot at this narrow minded view in fairly gentle yet effective fashion with his younger self thinking “I guess I shouldn’t let them know I play Dungeons & Dragons...”

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And that’s the way it rolls, little vignettes from different parts of Brown’s life and his family’s, the little mysteries when you are a child, wondering, the bigger mysteries that puzzle you as an adult, the stupid things you did from awkwardness, or things you said without thinking when younger and brasher and look back at now and wince. Lots of little moments and then the odd bigger ones, but each leaving a mark, each shaping the person you will become. Then being a parent himself and thinking how on Earth did my mum and dad manage, this is the hardest thing in the world?! And there’s more of that Life stuff just starting out again with the new little Brown, all told in his quite gentle, honest manner. Jeff Brown is one of those comics creators that any decent collection requires on its shelves, and this 2013 slice of life is a perfect way in for those new to his work and a welcome addition to his previous work for the established fans.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

March Book One

March, Book One,

John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, Nate Powell,

Top Shelf

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A cold January day in 2009, Washington DC, and a venerable politician goes about his morning routine before heading to his congressional office, preparing for inauguration day – a new president is about to be sworn in. Always an important day, but this particular occasion is more remarkable than most – Obama is about to take the oath of office, the first black president of the United States of America. The veteran old politician we see preparing for the day is congressman John Lewis, not just a man who has served his constituents for decades, but a veteran of the Civil Rights movement, a campaigner who stood there during the famous March on Washington in 1963, giving an important speech alongside Doctor Martin Luther King’s iconic “I have a dream” speech, surely one of the most moving and inspirational political speeches of the 20th century.

In a way I found this quite a daunting book to review – not, I hasten to add, because of anything wrong with the book. It’s beautifully put together, open, accessible. It was more a worry that anything I might say wouldn’t really do justice to the events recorded here, from eyewitness testimony of someone who was there, who stood up for rights for himself and others and had to struggle terribly for it against vile, brutal, racist thuggery that it is hard to credit was ever allowed to happen in a free and democratic society. And so I delayed it, kept rethinking it, rewriting it and eventually just had to decide to post it, warts and all. I’m not sure any review can do justice to someone’s memories of events like these that helped shape the world (and are still shaping it, Lewis is still fighting the good fight), but at the very least I can commend it as a book very worthy of your reading (and hopefully the sort of book you will want to pass around friends), and also one of those stand-out works which again emphasises how well the comics medium is suited to tackling any subject.

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But, as I said this first book of John Lewis’ memories of the long march for Civil Rights is, quite deliberately I would think, made as open and inviting as possible to the reader, regardless of prior knowledge on the part of that reader – if you’ve read the history of the period or if much of it is new to you, this will still welcome you in gently. In a way it reminds me of Walter Scott’s approach to retelling Scottish history, the “Tales of a Grandfather”, and it did feel like that to me, as if a much-loved, warm-hearted older relative, a grandfather or favourite uncle, were telling a tale. And what a tale it is…

Through the framing device of a lady bringing in her young boys to meet Lewis and learn a little about the history of the struggle for equality we are taken back to his earliest days, as a young boy on the family farm in Alabama, his love of the animals, especially the chickens (although, as he points out wryly, there is a bit of a pitfall to becoming emotionally attached to your animals on a farm, since eventually they end up in the pot…), an early desire to become a preacher prompted by the gift of a Bible which he read and re-read and then school – especially school: “But school was important to me, and it was ultimately the reason I got involved in the Civil Rights movement.” In a simple but moving scene he also highlights the roles of educators, librarians and books in creating awareness, an enthusiastic school librarian telling the children “read everything.”

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But how does a young lad in a rural county start to learn about the movement, much less get involved? Especially when much of the advice he is given is to keep his head down, not to attract the attention of “white folk”. A favourite uncle clearly sees something in the young boy, something he himself is probably not yet aware of, and he takes him on a road trip to expand his world a bit. This isn’t the usual road trip we’d think of today though, the freedom of the open road, seeing new places – as the book explains the trip took careful planning, such as carrying their own food because there are no roadside restaurants ‘coloured’ folk will be allowed in, some places they just can’t risk stopping in. It’s a simple part of the tale, but like many simple examples it illustrates a complex and distasteful truth, that a century after the end of the Civil War some citizens of a democratic country couldn’t fill up the tank or eat at a roadside diner in the Southern states simply because of the colour of their skin. And that was simply the accepted norm. Until some very brave people started to challenge it.

The early episodes where young Lewis is introduced to those creating the Civil Rights movement are fascinating and horrifying in equal measure – on the one hand to see a young man realising that he and others can make a difference, can work with others to make their society a better place, it is uplifting, inspiring, empowering, even; you feel, perhaps, just a little of that excitement he and his friends must have felt that they could make things better (and isn’t that something any of us in our societies should always aim to do?). And the determination to follow that model of Ghandi and remain resolutely non-violent is admirable in the extreme. Turning back on violence and hate with more violence and hate in response only fuels an endless cycle, trapping both parties. In some very upsetting, harrowing scenes we see activists (black and white) subjecting each other to harassment, derogatory remarks, pushing and more, to train themselves not to react with violence. I’m not sure I could bite my tongue or remain still in the face of that sort of provocation, and yet here are these young people disciplining themselves to do just that. To be better than those who want to ‘keep them in their place.’. It’s remarkable.

And it is at the same time horrifying in exposing the virulent face of unreasoning bigotry and pure hatred based on nothing more than seeing an entire group as ‘different’, and that difference justifying Jim Crow laws of discrimination, actually using institutions of state to repress and control black people, something you would have thought unthinkable in a free, democratic society, that it would do this against a section of it’s own citizens. And of course there is the raw hatred, indoctrinated into each generation to generation which justifies this control and repression, and which all too often leads to outright acts of sickening violence, with the perpetrators rarely held to account in any hall of justice, because those who are supposed to administer justice are as swollen with the same hatred – or indeed sometimes the acts of violence are perpetrated by those such a policemen who are supposed to ‘protect and serve’.

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Throughout Nate Powell, whose work I have admired greatly since his powerful  and atmospherically drawn Swallow Me Whole, brings this to life with quiet, un-showy monochrome artwork, clearly striving not to let the art become more important than the story here, but also still ensuring these moments of memory are brought vividly to life. It’s obviously quite an emotional story, and Nate’s art captures this essence and enhances it, most notably, for me anyway, in the expressions, from the haunted, worried look as some of the black characters traverse a mostly white area to the hideous, contorted expressions of unreasoning hate as police lay into peaceful protestors, or the opposite, the gentle, loving expression of friends helping one another, that simple expression on a friend or loved one’s face that can be enough to get us back up the floor and make us keep going because we know they’re lending us their strength.

This is a slice of recent history, but it is also a personal tale, a beautiful reminder that all historical events were enacted by people. Actual people, not remote historical figures, real people with families, loved ones, hopes, dreams and fears and that to make that history they had to embrace the dreams and overcome the fears. And this is history that remains painfully relevant to modern society – just a few days ago a UK politicians tried to claim that recent extreme winter storms were God’s wrath because of Parliament allowing gay marriage; there is always someone, for whatever reason, prepared to justify treating others in an unfair manner because they are ‘different’, and March reminds us how hard the road to equality for all is and that we’re not at the end of that road yet, but perhaps we can see it, and we can all keep marching towards it. March made it into my top three graphic novels from 2013 in my Best of the Year.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Reviews: Nine Lines of Metro and Seven Days in Berlin

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog.

Nine Lines of Metro

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Seven Days in Berlin

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Neil Slorance, Pipe Down

I know Zainab had mentioned Glasgow-based Neil Slorance’s Seven Days in Berlin on the blog before, but browsing in Glasgow recently I picked up both that work and the preceding Nine Lines of Metro mini comics and took an instant liking to them; I rarely ignore my instinct when I get a good vibe on a new work, even when I know little of it, because that instinct usually always points me to some good reading, and so it proved again. Both comics are rather charming, autobiographical short works detailing a couple of trips abroad by Neil to Spain and Germany respectively.

In Nine Lines of Metro Neil goes to visit his friend Morv, who is living with her sister, sister’s husband and their kids in Barcelona for a wee break after a rough time back home, and also to catch up with his old chum. It begins like a gentle travelogue, Neil arriving in Spain, meeting his friends, going exploring (using the metro system, whence comes the title, although he notes he later found out there were actually more metro lines than he thought, oops!) and having fun. Being Barcelona he naturally ends up taking in works by Picasso and Gaudi, wandering the narrow streets of the city’s oldest quarters.

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So far so good – there’s nothing overly remarkable, but it is a gentle, good-natured short comic, in a nice, simple style for the most past, and not so very different from many other short comics about trips to different places. But for me Nine Lines started to become a bit more different and find it’s emotional feet towards the end, when Neil and Morv come across an outdoor concert by accident and stay to listen. Smoking a pipe he attracts the attention of a German visitor, Toben, and the two of them are soon chatting away in a friendly manner, when he is introduced to one of Toben’s companions, Lisa. There’s a nice feeling of him relaxing, all troubles forgotten, sitting in a warm country with old and new friends, listening to music, content, happy. And then as he and Lisa spend more time together their hands find each other’s hands, and Neil captures the emotions of that magical moment of first physical and spiritual contact with another person rather wonderfully, I felt, that simple pleasure of mutual touch “all of a sudden I had someone’s hand to hold.” Simple, unfussy but so wonderfully, humanly warm.

 

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Of course, as is the way with such things he’s met her right at the end of his stay in Barcelona and has to leave for home just as he is starting to connect with Lisa. There’s one of those strange little sad-glad scenes as he takes his leave of her and his friends, sad to part but obviously a happier person for having come and stayed with them and for meeting his new friends. But there’s more to this to come in Seven Days in Berlin – Neil keeps in touch with Lisa and eventually takes her up on an invitation to visit her. This is a slightly longer work and starts off with him being very welcome into Lisa’s circle of friends, including Toben – in fact it is Toben’s birthday and he’s invited along, fitting in nicely. He explores the city, as you’d expect, gazing at the architecture, marvelling at the tower by the Alexanderplatz vanishing into the clouds, enjoying the festival of light, when all sorts of major buildings are illuminated in interesting ways (in fact this causes him to divert from his usual small panel sequence to do a two-page splash of the Brandenburg Gate) and suddenly coming across piece of that iconic symbol of division, the Berlin Wall:

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Of course while I’m enjoying his recounting of visiting galleries and buildings, and musical spots, the zoo and other cultural and historical parts of Berlin, what I’m really thinking is what’s going on between him and Lisa. And that part is rather lovely and sweet and very natural, unforced, two friends who become a little more than friends but are still aware they live in different countries, mostly speak other languages, where, realistically, can this relationship go? But the pair are sensible and don’t really consider this too much, they simply spend the time they do have together as enjoyably as they possibly can, not a bad philosophy when you know the time you can share together is going to be too damned short. And he handles this in a lovely, open, charming manner, with quite sweet scenes that leave you with a nice, warm feeling inside:

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Both connected works are nice, gentle, very enjoyable, good-natured works, the travel lit side of them is fun, although for describing some of the sights perhaps he should use a few larger panels as he did try with his Brandenburg Gate scene in Seven Days and save the smaller sequence of panels for the more intimate, person to person moments, but clearly he’s still trying things out and I’m sure he’ll play more with layout in later works. Of the two the longer Seven Days is more enjoyable and better composed – I felt as if Neil was not just trying to say more in this comic than he did in Nine Lines, I felt he was relaxing a bit (perhaps the result of two good trips!) and giving himself more space to breathe as an artist in the latter book. And both, especially Seven Days, are very satisfying on an emotional level – there’s a charming, brief romance and chance connection formed and an acceptance of it, of taking something nice when it comes into your life even if for a short while, because you know that even when you part and have to return home you take a part of that experience and person and the feelings the two of you created together with you, still inside, making you a different, hopefully better person. Sweet, honest and very charming works.