Staff Picks Book Review - Stitches by David Small

Monday, February 13, 2023

Stitches by David SmallThrough a series of elegiac vignettes, David Small offers a haunting account of his formative years into adolescence with Stitches, a graphic memoir. David’s mother is not what one would call emotionally available. She snaps at him if he shows vulnerability and, when he gets sick, she only gripes about the medical bills. In therapy, young David grieves the heart wrenching truth: “Your mother doesn’t love you. I’m sorry, David.” To make matters worse, the boy’s father, an aloof radiologist, has been making his son ill, albeit unwittingly. Before radon exposure was known to cause cancer, radiation treatments were standard practice for respiratory problems. So, when a growth appears on David’s neck, he goes to the hospital for what he’s told is a routine operation, only to wake up and need a second surgery. When he comes to, the lump is gone—along with half his vocal cords. Unable to speak, David looks in the mirror and screams a silent scream. His reflection shows “a crusted black track of stitches; [his] smooth young throat slashed and laced back up like a bloody boot.” Nobody tells him he had cancer and could have died. Small’s black and white pen and ink illustrations evoke a somber mood in this bleak family drama. He employs a chiaroscuro technique that accentuates shadow and ink washes which reduce entire scenes to a muted gray. The effect is a play on light reminiscent of the cinema of German Expressionism, with David’s psychological experience projected onto the pages. Fans of Augusten Burroughs and Alison Bechdel will appreciate Small’s intimate portrait of his troubled upbringing in a dysfunctional family.

My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf

In 1991, Jeffrey Dahmer—the most notorious serial killer since Jack the Ripper—seared himself into the American consciousness. To the public, Dahmer was a monster who committed unthinkable atrocities. To Derf Backderf, "Jeff" was a much more complex figure: a high school friend with whom he had shared classrooms, hallways, and car rides. In My Friend Dahmer, a haunting and original graphic novel, writer-artist Backderf creates a surprisingly sympathetic portrait of a disturbed young man struggling against the morbid urges emanating from the deep recesses of his psyche—a shy kid, a teenage alcoholic, and a goofball who never quite fit in with his classmates. With profound insight, what emerges is a Jeffrey Dahmer that few ever really knew, and one readers will never forget.

My Favorite Thing is Monsters by Emil Ferris

Set against the tumultuous political backdrop of late '60s Chicago, My Favorite Thing Is Monsters is the fictional graphic diary of 10-year-old Karen Reyes, filled with B-movie horror and pulp monster magazines iconography. Karen Reyes tries to solve the murder of her enigmatic upstairs neighbor, Anka Silverberg, a holocaust survivor, while the interconnected stories of those around her unfold. When Karen's investigation takes us back to Anka's life in Nazi Germany, the reader discovers how the personal, the political, the past, and the present converge.

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel

Meet Alison's father, a historic preservation expert and obsessive restorer of the family's Victorian home, a third-generation funeral home director, a high school English teacher, an icily distant parent, and a closeted homosexual who, as it turns out, is involved with his male students and a family babysitter. Through narrative that is alternately heartbreaking and fiercely funny, we are drawn into a daughter's complex yearning for her father. And yet, apart from assigned stints dusting caskets at the family-owned "fun home," as Alison and her brothers call it, the relationship achieves its most intimate expression through the shared code of books. When Alison comes out as homosexual herself in late adolescence, the denouement is swift, graphic -- and redemptive.

Hey, Kiddo by Jarrett Krosoczka

In kindergarten, Jarrett Krosoczka's teacher asks him to draw his family, with a mommy and a daddy. But Jarrett's family is much more complicated than that. His mom is an addict, in and out of rehab, and in and out of Jarrett's life. His father is a mystery — Jarrett doesn't know where to find him, or even what his name is. Jarrett lives with his grandparents — two very loud, very loving, very opinionated people who had thought they were through with raising children until Jarrett came along.Jarrett goes through his childhood trying to make his non-normal life as normal as possible, finding a way to express himself through drawing even as so little is being said to him about what's going on. Only as a teenager can Jarrett begin to piece together the truth of his family, reckoning with his mother and tracking down his father. Hey, Kiddo is a profoundly important memoir about growing up in a family grappling with addiction, and finding the art that helps you survive.

The Parakeet by Espé

An account in graphic novel format, based on the author's own childhood experiences, of eight-year-old Bastien coping with his mother's suffering from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia by seeking refuge in his own imagination. Through his eyes, we see how mental illness can both tear families apart and reaffirm the bonds of love, as Bastian struggles to accept the mother he has while wishing for the mother he needs.

Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs

Running with Scissors is the true story of a boy whose mother (a poet with delusions of Anne Sexton) gave him away to be raised by her psychiatrist, a dead-ringer for Santa and a lunatic in the bargain. Suddenly, at age twelve, Augusten Burroughs found himself living in a dilapidated Victorian in perfect squalor. The doctor's bizarre family, a few patients, and a pedophile living in the backyard shed completed the tableau. Here, there were no rules, there was no school. The Christmas tree stayed up until summer, and Valium was eaten like Pez. And when things got dull, there was always the vintage electroshock therapy machine under the stairs.

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