Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

I’ve almost always been pretty reluctant to read any books that are deemed as classics. It has something to do with going to school and having a teacher telling you what book you should read. I never really wanted to read those books. Anytime a teacher said that this is the book that we are going to read for an assignment, I always pulled away from it and never really read the book like I would if I was reading it for pleasure.

I made a promise to myself that I would go back and re-read the books that I was “forced” to read in high school and see if I could enjoy them without the threat of an incomplete grade hanging over my head. One of the books that I selected was Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neal Hurston. I started with Their Eyes Were Watching God because it was also given to my son as an assignment for a college paper. I tried to act really tough by telling him that it was a great book and that he would love it, but on the inside I had to tell myself, “you don’t even remember reading this book.” I felt pure shame with my motherly fib.

I took one for the team and started to read. The book tells the life story of a woman named Janie. Janie is a very beautiful woman who hasn’t been that lucky in love. When she meets Tea Cake, her world changes. He’s unlike any man that she has met before and Janie is swept off her feet in a whirlwind romance that is both beautiful and sad.

This book is told as if Janie is telling the story of her life to a friend named Pheoby. Janie is what Southern blacks considered different. She had very fair skin and could pass for white. As a small child, her grandmother worked for a white family and she was practically raised like one of their children. She even wore their expensive hand me downs.

As Janie matured, she was deemed beautiful and exotic by men and women didn’t really like her because she was so different from them. They took to gossiping about her behind her back and sometimes within earshot so that she would know how they really felt about her. Janie wasn’t the type of woman that tried to fit in. In fact, she marched by the beat of her own drum and this drove the women in her small town crazy with jealousy and envy. She really only had one true friend and her name was Pheoby Watson.

At the beginning of the book, Ms. Hurston writes about how there was this woman, who had just come back from burying the dead. Not just any dead, however. The “sodden and the bloated; the sudden dead, their eyes flung wide open in judgment.” It’s one of those openings that piques your interest. Why was she with dead people? What brought her to this fate.

This is one of those books that you read without prior knowledge of past events and then it takes you on a journey into the past when black people didn’t have all of the rights that white people did. It shows how they tried to come together as a community and have something that was a little bit better than what they previously had. It is also a love story. One that is so raw with emotions that I often found myself putting the book down so that I could let certain events seep into my brain. There were several instances when I had to read certain passages over and over to allow the message within to sink in.

This is one of those books that you want to read. It shouldn’t be one that people feel that they are forced to read. When the true beauty of Ms. Hurston’s words come to fruition, you feel the pleasure just from having picked it up.

If you’ve never read Their Eyes Were Watching God, you need to head to your nearest library branch and check out a copy. You will not be disappointed. Happy reading.

– Reviewed by Damera, Okolona Branch

Native Son by Richard Wright

I usually do not like recommending books to the average stranger, because my tastes, though wide, are more precise as I age. But I’m telling you, EVERYONE should read these two books NOW!  Native Son (1940) is a work of fiction that astounds me.

For years I have wanted to read Wright but never got around to it. In my twenties, I read a handful of Black authors and liked them but became a little burned out on the subject, much like telling a talker, “OK, I get it.”

Well, as I aged, I learned a lot about how things work and how people are, and about how I am. I am a white male. And as I became older and wiser, I discovered I had racist issues as is expected, since society is full of racism. My racism wasn’t hatred or feelings of inequality, but such that I bought into a lot of stereotypes that society threw at me.

Recently, I’ve gotten into a writer, Nelson Algren, who was a close friend with  Wright. They met at the Federal Writer’s Project in Chicago, and this gave Wright the time and money to produce Native Son.  Both were “Communists” in the 30’s and 40’s. Both experienced life from the bottom of society. Native Son, as well as Algren’s early novels, delves deeper into the intricate ways that the top and middle of American society preys upon its poor and black people than any work of fiction that I have read.

It is an exceptional novel that begins with high drama and is able to sustain the climax for the entire novel. The protagonist is Bigger Thomas, a 20 year old African-American male, who at his mother’s urging gets a real job. He is a young “thug” surviving by stealing and using his wits. Wright intentionally makes him a stereotypical thug for effect. If Bigger is an acceptable young man, who fit into society, it would be easy for everyone to let him pursuit the “American Dream.” But Bigger is trapped in 1930’s society in Chicago slums. The Jim Crow effects reach northward in more subtle ways, but they are not subtle if you are black. Bigger was not allowed to be an AMERICAN. He was only a “Negro Nationalist” living in America. Bigger was unwanted by his OWN PEOPLE and “his” country of birth.

Bigger knows how to survive in a tough black reality. He is exceptionally smart and can figure out the con in every game. But all he knows of the white world is to avoid it. It is ok to rob a black liquor store, but not a white one. He knows the Cops will come down on you hard if you mess with white folks.

So the real action begins when Bigger gets a job as a chauffeur for a rich, white family.  One night out with the beautiful daughter (Mary) of this rich man, and her Communist boyfriend (Jan) forces Bigger to cross many boundaries he doesn’t want to. He soon learns that one small action can change  the lives of many. We are all interconnected in a very simple, yet complex way although we seem all separate from one another.

If I had to give one book to Middle School to College aged people to read, Native Son is the one. The language is so simple and Wright makes the complex ways of interconnectedness so clear than everyone can see.  This modern world is made to make us a cold money making machine. And we roll along with this machine as it grinds out human lives beneath it.

To some, who are not willing to open their minds, it may feel that white people are on trial here but it is more that society is on trial. Individuals only make up a tiny part of it. But individuals and their actions can shape the world at large. In groups, we go easily along with what is inhumane in society.

The great baseball player Curt Flood, speaking about The St. Louis Cardinals owner August Busch, who was astonished to learn that black players could not stay at white hotels during spring training, said: “It shows you how you can segregate yourself into the back seat of a limousine and not know what’s going on.”  In the novel, the wealthy Mr. Dalton is one that rolls along with it. He is a great philanthropist and supporter of black people but he also had made his wealth in real estate at black people’s expense.

There is an innocent intelligence to the main character Bigger Thomas. He knows what is going on, but not quite. His survival in his black world is much different than his trying to stay alive in the white world. The rules are much different.  He learns as he goes. Experience is his teacher. In the end, what Bigger (and the reader) has to learn goes SOUL DEEP. It speeds by all the rules of civilization. The REDS, the WHITES, and the BLACKS are all weighing on Bigger’s mind wanting something from him that he cannot give. He is truly an outsider who must face a reality he could never have imagined.

Another book that I highly suggest is The Fire Next Time (1962), a work of non-fiction by James Baldwin, an adversary of Richard Wright. It is very enlightening, collecting two Letters, written during the height of the Civil Rights Movement.  Each Letter looks frankly at the state of American race relations from the black perspective, as well as Baldwin’s personal history.

It was a suggestion offered by a Facebook friend, who said it should be taught in school. It did not disappoint me. In fact, it inflamed me even though it is 55 years old.

We have both books in three different formats. I used all three with both books. I read both the Hardcover versions, the eBook (when around a computer), and listened to the Audiobook as well.  I usually have a hard time following along with an audio version but both books were a joy to listen to. The Native Son CD is beyond excellent.

Reviewed by Tom, Main Library

Available Light: Louisville Through the Lens of Bud Dorsey

The Louisville Story Program recently released a fourth book, Available Light: Louisville Through the Lens of Bud Dorsey.  This time the book is set in the West End of Louisville, including the Shawnee and Chickasaw neighborhoods.

Bud Dorsey, lifelong photographer, has compiled a small collection of photos that focus on West Louisville, as well as the people that make up the community.  With an Introduction by Dorsey about his journey through multiple cameras, you feel that you are walking alongside him while capturing photos. They range from his childhood in Beecher Terrace, his service to our country in the naval forces, and on to photo shoots for Jet Magazine.

When America heard of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s death on April 4, 1968, Louisville had rioting in the street.  Survival was not guaranteed on 28th & Greenwood Streets, Dorsey says, because it was the police who started the riots.  If you have lived in Louisville but haven’t been to the West End, you will see what Dorsey witnessed in this collection of his photographs.

Mr. Dorsey also includes photos of folks from around the country in the music industry, such as  James Brown and Michael Jackson, and political activists like Anne Braden and Dick Gregory.

A tour de force for local history and visual art, this book shows the compassion of West Louisville from its past to the present, with hope for the future.

[Editor’s Note:  An exhibit of Mr. Dorsey’s photographs from Available Light are on display at the the Muhammad Ali Center until January 5, 2018]

Formats Available:  Book

Reviewed by MicahShawnee Branch

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

“Once, in my father’s bookshop, I heard a regular customer say that few things leave a deeper mark on a reader than the first book that finds its way into his heart. Those first images, the echo of words we think we have left behind, accompany us throughout our lives and sculpt a palace in our memory to which, sooner or later—no matter how many books we read, how many worlds we discover, or how much we learn or forget—we will return.”

While The Shadow of the Wind is not the first book to have found its way into my heart, the story and its characters most certainly sculpted a palace in my memory, a labyrinthine palace populated by a wide assemblage of characters.

The Shadow of the Wind takes place in Barcelona, Spain, in the years after the Spanish Civil War, which, as with many civil wars, was especially bloody and brutal.  The protagonist, a young boy named Daniel Sempere, assists his father in the family-owned bookstore.

When Daniel is ten years old, his father takes him to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a secret and magical library where books consigned to oblivion are kept waiting for the day when a reader discovers them.  On this occasion, since this is Daniel’s first visit, he is allowed to choose a book.

And it is his particular selection and the mystery surrounding its author, Julian Carax, that begins a quest for Daniel in which he journeys into the shadows of Barcelona in search of answers, a journey in which he meets both friend and foe and learns a great deal about life along the way.

This is a captivating story peppered with mystery and suspense, love and hate, humor and terror with these elements combining to form a true tour de force.

“Every book, every volume you see here, has a soul. The soul of the person who wrote it and of those who read it and lived and dreamed with it. Every time a book changes hands, every time someone runs his eyes down its pages, its spirit grows and strengthens.” 

And I would say that The Shadow of the Wind has tremendous spirit and strength.

– Reviewed by Rob, Crescent Hill

Savour: Chocolate Tasting

“Never say savor when you only mean taste – one is a holding on the tongue and an intoxication and the other is cursory, a sampling, connoting reluctance to bask. Never say a thing you don’t mean.” 

Bryana Johnson (Poet)

Tasting chocolate is different from chocolate tasting.  If it seems as if I’m quibbling, I promise I am not.  What’s the difference you say?  One is a quick, almost involuntary, response to something you put in your mouth.  The other is a slow and purposeful exploration of the senses and the mind.  You can actually test this statement using chocolate.

In Chocolate: Indulge Your Inner Chocoholic there is a challenge to taste two pieces of the same dark chocolate at different speeds.  You are instructed to eat the first piece quickly.  Put it in your mouth, chew a few times and swallow.  Between the first and second tasting you should cleanse your palate with water.  The second piece of chocolate should be approached with slowness.  Hold it cupped in your hand and hold it close to your face.  Breathe in deeply and then put the chocolate in your mouth.  Let the piece of chocolate begin to melt in your mouth before you begin chewing.  You should be able to taste a difference between the slow and the fast.  For some people it will register as more sweetness when you go slowly, for other’s there will be hints of other flavors.  There is no right or wrong taste.  It is an individual experience.

 Where, When, What, Why and How

Before we talk chocolate tasting, there are some basic considerations and preparations.  I’ll begin with the setting.  Setting is important for many reasons.  Smells, sounds, and external stimuli all impact the process of tasting.  Choosing your location lets you control potential distractions like TV, computers or music.  Certain sounds and pitches can literally change the way you taste things.  Take a look at the article, “How Does Sound Affect The Ways We Experience Food and Drink?”

Choosing your setting also allows you to control smells like colognes, perfumes, lotions, hair products or even pleasant household smells!   Heavy smells of any kind can interfere with the olfactory portions of tasting.

Timing is everything, or in this case can make a big difference.  There is no set hour or day of the week, but you should pick a time that allows you to feel relaxed.  Feeling like you have to hurry is a distraction and will take some of the fun out of it.

After where and when, comes what.  What type of chocolate are you going to taste?  Are you sticking to one variety from different vendors?  Are you comparing and contrasting types of chocolate?  Or are you sampling different flavor varieties of one type of chocolate?  Think about why you want to do a tasting and choose accordingly.  Whichever you choose, try to limit yourself to 6 chocolates.  If you try to taste more than 6 per setting, your pleasant tasting may become a chore.  For a complete beginner I’d even suggest sticking to 3 or 4.

In addition to your chocolates of choice, you will need a palate cleanser.  This can be as simple as water, or it can include things like crackers and apple slices.  If you buy a block of chocolate, you might need a knife and cutting board.  If you are a lone taster, make sure you’ve gathered something in which to store your left over chocolate, presuming you have the self-control required to resist eating it all in one setting.  If you’re like me and may not remember details about each chocolate, you may want to have a pen and some paper handy to take notes.

This brings me to engaging your mind, as well as senses.  As you’ve read, there is already a bit of thought that goes into a chocolate tasting.  But beyond the questions of what, where, when, and why is how you approach chocolate tasting.  Although it is not inherently necessary to know anything about the chocolate chosen for a tasting, learning a little bit about your chocolate can enhance the experience.

For instance, if you’ve chosen to sample 3-4 dark chocolate varieties with 86% cacao, you might want to know a little bit about the origins, growing conditions and processing of your chocolate.  In this particular instance, many of these chocolates will have distinct overtones based on all three of those factors.  If you are comparing and contrasting dark (bittersweet and semi-sweet), milk, and white chocolate, you might want to know what traits define each type of chocolate.  The types of chocolate are determined by the amount of cacao, milk solids, and sugars they contain.  If you are a traveler, arm chair or frequent flier, you might be intrigued by the varieties of cacao and the regions in which they are grown.  There is no right or wrong way to approach what you want to learn about chocolate.  Like sense of taste, delving into the informational world of chocolate is an individual quest.

Now it’s time for the nitty-gritty.  Your five senses and your mind are all you need from here on out.

Sight:  This stage is known as presentation.  Upon unwrapping, your chocolate should have a smooth, glossy surface.  If dull, waxy or showing snowflake like marks it has either been the victim of poor tempering and/or bad storage habits.  Ideal storage places chocolate between 59 and 68 degrees in an airtight container.

Sound:  I like what Sandra Boyton wrote, “Good chocolate should have a lively, decisive break.  If it splinters, it is too dry.  If it breaks reluctantly, it is too waxy.  If it folds, something is definitely wrong.”  The snap good chocolate should make is part of the crystal structure formed during tempering.  Chocolate is a six-phase polymorphic crystal, which means it can take on 6 different crystalline structures, and how those little chocolate molecules group together is determined by the temperature of the chocolate when you pour it. Who knew science could be so tasty!

Smell:  Time for some orthonasal olfaction!  Place your piece of chocolate in the palm of your cupped hand, lean in and take a sniff.  Now put your other hand over it and make a chocolate cave.  I’m totally serious.  Okay, maybe not serious, but it is a real instruction.  Once you’ve created your chocolate cave, inhale deeply through your nose.  If you’re mind starts racing, that’s okay.  Thoughts, impressions and memories are the process of the brain trying to identify what it smells.  Is the scent ephemeral or pungent?  Is it here then gone, or does it stick around?  Is there more than one aroma?

Touch: This one involves your hands and you mouth.  During the process of breaking the piece of chocolate and sniffing it, what does it feel like and what is happening to it?  Is it melting?  If not, put it between your forefingers and thumb and hold it there for a few seconds.  Quality chocolate, with high cocoa content, will melt differently than the normal sticky mess that milk chocolate or inferior chocolate will make.  The secret is the combination of high cocoa and cocoa butter.  Many chocolates, milk and dark, will have fillers and/or emulsifiers instead of cocoa butter.  Cocoa butter not only slows the melty mess, but gives your chocolate a fantastic texture.  This brings me around to mouthfeel.  As Boynton says, “This somewhat upoetic expression means texture.  A good piece of chocolate should feel smooth and moist.  And the dark, which may not melt on your hand at all, should begin to melt once it’s setting on your tongue and your mouth closes around it.

A personal aside is, be mindful of what you eat in the hours before you do your tasting.  Anything too acidic or spicy may throw off your tasting groove.  Everyone is a little different, but I have discovered that my palate is deeply affected by the chemistry of my food.  Sticking with bland foods (think pasta with summer veggies), at least a couple hours before your tasting, will put you in the safe zone.

Taste: This last sense is both simple and complex.  Place the piece of chocolate in your mouth, but let it rest on your tongue.  Don’t chew it yet.  Try to let it begin melting on your tongue.  A flavor of some sort should become distinct as it begins to melt.  What descriptors come to mind?  Is it sweet, nutty or bitter?  Does it make you think of flowers?  How about spices?

If the chocolate isn’t melting and/or you’re not getting a distinct flavor, there are a few things you can try.  First bite into the chocolate, try not to chew.  And/or you can pinch your nose while it is melting and/or you are biting gently.  Once you perceive a sensation of some melting, release your nose and inhale through your nose.  This should deliver a flavor burst of some sort.  Your sense of smell is linked to your sense of taste in creating what we describe as flavor.  Without retronasal olfaction, you will not get a true sense of any flavor.

In Tasty:  The Art and Science of What We Eat, John McQuaid uses the metaphor of marriage to describe the relationship between taste and smell.  “Each partner has complementary strengths and weaknesses.  Their paths through the brain unite.”  And later in the same chapter, “Taste and smell blend so seamlessly in flavors that the different senses merge, becoming indistinguishable.  The brain even mixes them up.”

When we think about the “smell” of chocolate, we will often default to the idea of sweet, but that is actually the taste.  When we describe a taste we might say something is sharp or tangy, but those are actually descriptors derived from olfaction. Chocolate tasting should help convince you that taste and smell are an old married couple.

For more information on the marriage between your sense of smell and taste click on the picture below from the Monell Center Blog.

 

Parting  Thoughts

If you, like me, obsess over giving something the perfect description, you might want to consider the use of tasting wheels.  The two primary types are texture wheels and flavor/aroma wheels. Both of these are found in the book Chocolate: Indulge Your Inner Chocoholic; but they can also be found online.  Just make sure you specify chocolate before the terms TEXTURE WHEEL OR TASTING WHEEL.  There are so many things to taste and different wheels for each of them.

However and what ever you choose to taste, the experience will likely impact all your future flavor perceptions.  Our sense of smell, McQuaid explains, is hardwired to parts of the brain that “link the past and present.”  This connector is a part of the brain known as the insula, which ultimately helps translate the “body’s internal state and external circumstances.”  So have fun, make some memories, and build your flavor library.

Angel’s Reading List

In the last Savour post, Chocolate, En garde!,  I wrote about the learning process involved in preparing for a chocolate tasting program.  I challenged readers with a quiz; and promised answers.  Here are the answers:

CCN-51; Hawaii; Paso de la Amada, home to the Mokaya; cheese; fresh pears and oranges; clean palate; symbolized the human heart, torn from chest at the moment of sacrifice; money;  an agreement to certify cocoa’s “child labor free” status; froth hot chocolate.

“The secret of food lies in memory – of thinking and then knowing what the taste of cinnamon or steak is.”  Jerry Saltz

Article by Angel, Bon Air Branch

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Ready Player One is a fun and thoroughly enjoyable romp across the world both real and virtual in the year 2044.  For those of us that grew up during the 1980’s, it is also a very nostalgic romp full of references to things such as Rubik’s Cubes, Pac Man games and 80’s movies. In addition, if you are a fan of the Canadian rock band Rush as I am, you are in for a treat!!!

Ready Player One is set in the not so distant future. It’s the year 2044 and the world isn’t a good place. Reality is so bad for most people that they experience their lives mostly through their avatars in an online virtual world called OASIS. A unique opportunity arises when James Halliday — the 1980’s obsessed computer guru that created OASIS — dies and lets the world know that he has left a series of puzzles that lead to an Easter Egg in OASIS. Whoever solves the puzzles and finds the Easter Egg first wins the ultimate prize…Halliday’s massive fortune and control of his corporation.

In Halliday’s video will that was released upon his death, he left a clue:

“Three hidden keys open three secret gates

Wherein the errant will be tested for worthy traits

And those with the skill to survive these straits

Will reach The End where the prize awaits.”

Halliday also left a clue in a book he wrote that contained a puzzle to help people know where to begin hunting for the first clue.

“The Copper Key awaits explorers

In a tomb filled with horrors

But you have much to learn

If you hope to earn

A place among the high scorers.”

Our hero — Wade Watts, AKA Parzival — is a student and like countless others, has been obsessed for years with trying to solve the puzzle that Halliday left. The ‘gunters’ (shortened version of egg hunters) teach themselves about 1980’s movies, pop culture and video games to better equip themselves for solving the puzzles. It has been years since Halliday’s death and still no one has solved the first part of the puzzle. Parzival suddenly makes a connection and figures out the location of where to begin the quest. As he solves the first puzzle and gets the first key, he appears on the Scoreboard which attracts the attention of the whole world. He embarks upon a deadly, epic quest to solve the puzzles along with many others who are close at his heels.

Will he get there in time? Read and find out!!!

— Review by Marci, Fairdale

Indie Author Day at the Library

Indie Author Day

Saturday, October 14, 2017 – 1:00 PM to 4:00 PM

Join us at the South Central Regional Library for a celebration of local Indie authors and learn about IndieLou, the suite of services available from the Library that helps authors create, share, and promote their works.

Here’s the event roster:

1:00-4:00 PM: Local Author Marketplace

1:30-2:30 PM: Panel discussion with four local authors:
Amy Metz, Tytianna Wells-Smith, Bill Noel, and Atty Eve

3:00-4:00 PM: Memoir Writing Workshop by Kimberly Crum, MSW, MFA

Location: 

South Central Regional Library

7300 Jefferson Blvd.
LouisvilleKY 40219
Phone: 502-964-3515 

 Map    RSS Feed

The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss

Phenomenal book! Full of brilliant brave, strong women! It’s Charlie’s Angels as if written by Mary Shelley! I can’t use enough exclamation points!

The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter includes all of the gothic horror of Moreau, Hyde/Jekyll, Holmes and Watson, Dracula and Van Helsing. I didn’t think it was possible to put all of my favorite things in one story but Goss did it.

The story begins with Mary Jekyll, who has just buried her mother and is orphaned and broke and desperate for a way to make money. She’s also very interested in the secrets of her father’s shadowy past…one clue leads her to believe that if she could locate her father’s former friend, Edward Hyde, there is a reward for his capture and this could solve some of her urgent money troubles.

But her hunt leads her to Hyde’s daughter, Diana, a wild, untamed and hilarious young girl suddenly shoved into Mary’s care. With the help of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, Mary becomes involved in a spectacular adventure and mystery and befriends more remarkable women, all of whom have been created through frightening experiments.
The women uncover a secret society of wicked scientists and they band together to fight the forces of evil and take back their identities.

It’s such a fun read, I highly recommend reading it as I did with the windows open and rain falling outside, crisp fall air and a large ginger cat at your feet. Or another colored cat, doesn’t have to be a ginger. Or a dog. Whatever your preference. But it’s the perfect book to curl up with during the autumn season.

Review by Heather, St. Matthews

In Defense of Comics, pt. 5: Understanding Comics as a discussion tool

The biggest problem when discussing comics in an analytical way is determining just what they are. It is easier to talk about how they work than to come up with a solid definition, other than the old “I know a comic when I see it” one.  This is particularly true if you wish the definition to cover most (if not all) expressions of comics.

Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud, a classic work of the Comics Studies discipline, defined comics as:

“Juxtaposed pictoral and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer.”

In one of the Graphic Novel Discussion Group‘s meetings, McCloud’s definition elicited respect on one level but was hard to defend in toto when combined with some of his other assertions. For instance, his general assertion that writing (the act of inscribing thought in physical space) is distinctly non-pictorial in nature seems hard to defend considering there is a whole species of design – graphic design – that considers writing as a pictorial element (a.k.a. typography). Even within the comics industry, the position of “letterer” has been a long established one and the style of each letterer is often a strong consideration for the development of a particular work’s look.

McCloud violates his own rejection of a single panel as comic (which is asserted on pages 20-21 of Understanding Comics) on page 98 in the third and fourth panels. Granted, he hedges in the next two panels by differentiating between captions and word balloons but I think that’s because the narration is supposed to be framing the picture rather than a part of the world of the picture.  However, it is the introduction of speech and that speech takes time to happen that creates the sequential effect according to McCloud.

His distinction that in-picture indication of sound introduces sound as a narrative element — and thus changes things — doesn’t seem to add up as traditional forms of comics are a species of visual art. How such a sound is conveyed is part of the storyteller’s visual style, most clearly seen in the crafting of sound effect (think of the shape of letters used when you are to hear lightning or a punch to the jaw). Speech or audible sound is still an aspect of the story supplied by the reader’s mind, prompted by the images on the page (be they words or sound effects).

[Cartoon by Bil Keane (copyright holder King Features Syndicate), Fair Use]

So with Family Circus, it is clear that the words are actually speech that takes place in the world of the comic. Really, Bil Keane‘s quotes below the panel are just him avoiding using a word bubble. Maybe this is for sound commercial reasons (designated space on the page), for reasons of composition (to preserve the close-up shot feeling of the panel), or simply for reasons of style.

Further, McCloud misses that there is essentially an unbound panel of text next to the panel with obvious borders that has a picture. (At least) two panels = sequence, no? Here the mind moves from one kind of visual element (pictures) to another (type) and creates a connection, right? This would also apply to the sixth panel on p. 98 (if you ignore that there is no “gutter” – or gap – between the picture and the box with text).

During the discussion, I personally foundered when trying to separate the art of comics from other arts that use sequential methods/techniques. It’s not that I can’t get behind the idea that they are all just parts of “Art” or human communication – a position vigorously defended by a particular participant – but it seems like that kind of flattens out what makes comics differ(ent). Because when I talk about Watchmen, for instance, I don’t think it would be germane to bring in references to the methods of dance or sculpture or broadcast radio.

Part of it to me is that comics are the product of a particular technology, printing. And, as Marshall McLuhan wrote, “the medium is the message.” (1964) Because comics are creatures of print, our eye works a certain way, time is controlled more by how we read than by some static rate of delivery (such as television or radio), and a certain set of senses (sight and touch) are more dominant than others (smell, taste, and hearing).

I was especially flummoxed when asked about animation. My instinct is to treat animated works differently than more realistic film, to include them directly with comics. But animation is film and any distinction there is really just my own (or a general cultural) bias. They work by static broadcast, by use of light that is projected rather than ambient, and incorporate sound directly rather than by visual approximation (sound effect words, sound motion lines, etc.).

And what you would call Building Stories by Chris Ware?  Is it an architectural comic?  A comic box set?  An elaborate game with intricate pictures? A piece of conceptual art?

These distinctions seem a little silly on the surface but they do matter for no other reason than that of marketing. Being able to determine what to call something often guides the producer towards a target audience (and vice versa). If Building Stories is a work of architecture then it will be sold to schools of architecture and design. If it is just a  comic then it will be sold at places where comics are sold. If it is a game then it will be sold at gaming shops. And if it is a work of conceptual art, there might be an installation at some fine art gallery.

But back to Understanding Comics and the discussion it engendered.  One of the participants in this discussion commented that he thought that McCloud was at his best when he was discussing the nuts and bolts of comic structure (e.g., explaining things such as conveyance of time via panels and the structuring of a story via panel placement) and also when explaining the artistic level of abstraction used to carry the story (e.g., highly detailed art for personal narratives versus pictographic expression for symbolic works). He thought that McCloud failed to really differentiate comics distinctly from visual art as a whole but that his presentation feels inspiring if one doesn’t dig too deeply, echoing an argument that Dylan Horrocks leveled at McCloud in his essay, “Inventing Comics.” (2001)

Horrocks feels that McCloud is writing more of a persuasion piece, which he deems a “polemic.” [As an aside, this feels like a mild misuse of the term as “polemic” tends to refer to a vigorous disputation of an argument rather than mounting a defense for – or presenting a supporting argument for – a position.] Further, that McCloud is trying to build a justification for comics as serious art, thereby uplifting the community of comic readers from their previous status as scruffy-looking nerf herders. Doing so comes by way of a definition (highlighted in red above) that excludes many other things that comics could be said to be without discussing why those exclusions make sense.

“Nation building,” as Horrocks calls this effort, seems kind of quaint nearly a quarter of century after the book’s first edition. In the intervening time, comics, comic nerds, and comic fans of all stripes have garnered the respect that McCloud was working towards. Comics are regular parts of academic studies and art galleries, and receive high-toned collections of previous works. Comic fans come from increasingly diverse backgrounds and feel no shame in hiding their passions. Comic industry insiders find that their work no longer traps them in the lower ends of the publishing industry.

And while I tend to like the basic idea, I also have felt the need to add a little meat to McCloud’s definition in this series of essays about comics by mentioning both cultural and historical factors that also have made comics what they are today. Even so, I feel like I am still very, very far off getting to just what makes a comic a comic. However, Understanding Comics did give our discussion a great starting place, and my sense of what is a comic was altered through that discussion. For that alone, I would recommend the book for anyone who wants to explore these questions.

Plus, it’s a fun read!


If you are interested in discussing these titles or other works of sequential art, please join LFPL’s Graphic Novel Discussion Group. Meetings are held at the Main Library on the second Monday of every month, starting at 6:00 PM.

At our next meeting (October 9th), we will be talking about Monster Comics!

Women and the Square Circle

Women’s wrestling appears to be garnering interest with the public again due, I surmise, in part to the rise in popularity of the Netflix show GLOW (Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling).  Stepping into the square this year are two books which throw a spot light on the world of women in the ring.

The first is Sisterhood of the Squared Circle: The History and Rise of Women’s Wrestling by Pat Laprade and Dan Murphy. It offers short biographies of several athletes from around the globe and their journey into the world of female wrestlers. Two of the women are from Kentucky whose paths led them from an attraction at a freak show in a circus to a tag team matched up again male wrestling tag teams.  While some will see wrestling as a charade, which by in large it is, the performers/wrestlers display athletic prowess and drive to do whatever it takes to get ahead even if it results in broken bones or missing teeth, as displayed in the book.

Pat Laprade and Dan Murphy present a good mix of information, past and present, up to the latter half of 2016, as well as images of each female wrestler. There is still enough mystery in the field of women’s wrestling to keep the reader wondering what the future may hold for this rough and tumble sport.  If shows like GLOW are of interest or if wrestling draws your attention check out this latest non-fiction title.

My other selection is entitled Crazy is my Superpower: How I Triumphed by Breaking Bones, Breaking Hearts, and Breaking the Rules by AJ Mendez Brooks

As in many autobiographies/memoirs, there is a mixture of good, bad and ugly. Brooks’ book is no different. Memories of her early years show the hardships – being bullied as a child and being raised by her older siblings – while her parents worked just to keep food on the table.  As a child, Brooks was drawn to the world of wrestling as she watched the excitement in the ring and the fancy ring attire.  She also struggled with anorexia and depression but she always knew she wanted to be in the ring, at the center of attention.  

At one point in the book she talks of traveling to a plethora of different venues around the States and Mexico.  Each chapter builds Brooks’ story and brings the reader along on her journey to the ring. There are lists at the end of the chapters in which Brooks’ rates her experiences.

Formats Available:  Book

Reviewed by MicahShawnee Branch