Review: The Best We Could Do, Thi Bui

Thi Bui’s graphic memoir The Best We Could Do was just released last week. Bui was born in Vietnam in the waning days of the Vietnam War. She was only a few months old on April 30, 1975 when Saigon fell. She begins her narrative with the difficult birth of her son, then flashes back to her own mother’s difficult birth of her younger brother in a refugee camp in Malaysia. Bui’s family eventually settled in California, and with beautiful artwork on every page, Bui movingly details her family’s story, starting with her parents’ childhoods contrasted with her own. Unflinchingly honest, Bui’s memoir is a must-read.

I grew up hearing what Bui calls the “oversimplification and stereotypes in American versions of the Vietnam War.” My father was stationed at Cam Ranh Bay when I was born, but he was in the Air Force, and as far as I know (and I think he’d have told me), he didn’t engage in combat. It was some time before a body of literature about this war started to published, and I think most people are guilty of listening to and perhaps even believing what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls “the single story”—that incomplete story of a people based on few examples in literature.

Image from The Best We Could Do © Thi Bui, reproduced under fair use for critique

But at Bui says, we tend to forget—to our peril—that “[e]very casualty in war is someone’s grandmother, grandfather, mother, father, brother, sister, child, lover.” Many times in history, as we know too well, the voices of the casualties have been silenced. Their narrative has not been heard.

Image from The Best We Could Do © Thi Bui, reproduced under fair use for critique

And I think one big thing we forget is that the Vietnam War continued after America decided to stop fighting. America’s involvement was on the wane when my father served in 1971. America withdrew from the war in 1973, a full two years before the war ended.

Image from The Best We Could Do © Thi Bui, reproduced under fair use for critique

Bui is at her best in this memoir when she puzzles over contradictions and tries to make sense of her past and her family’s past, which is also how she explains why she needed to write this book.

Image from The Best We Could Do © Thi Bui, reproduced under fair use for critique

The Best We Could Do will surely draw comparisons to Maus and Persepolis. I also recently read Vietnamerica, and while GB Tran’s story is entirely different from Bui’s, reading both of them gave me more stories about what Vietnam and the Vietnam War were like through the eyes of a family who were just doing the best they could do. The arresting images coupled with the narrative make for a gut-wrenching read. The book is gorgeous, as well. The paper is high quality, and the dust cover is thick, heavy paper. I didn’t try to read the electronic version, but my gut tells me this book needs to be experienced in print to be enjoyed fully. A remarkable read.

Rating: ★★★★★

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Review: Vietnamerica, GB Tran

As I mentioned in my review of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, I am interested in the Vietnam War for very personal reasons. My dad was in Vietnam when I was born and missed the first six months of my life. I can’t remember that, of course, but I can remember the looming presence that war had on my childhood. In the last couple of years, I have been wanting to learn as much about it as I can. I think one reason is that I became very close to a few of my students from Vietnam.

GB Tran’s graphic memoir Vietnamerica caught my attention through a post on Literary Hub about Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American literature. The list was compiled by Viet Thanh Nguyen, whose book The Sympathizer made such a splash in literary circles last year. I found the cover arresting, and I am trying to read more graphic novels, mainly because my students like them, and I want to be able to recommend good ones to them. Tran’s memoir is about his family, who left Vietnam five days before the fall of Saigon. He was born the following year. He felt, in many ways, separated entirely from his Vietnamese heritage and culture, and this book explores that feeling of being the first generation American in a family of immigrants. Tran initially has no interest in his family’s history, but as he notes in the book, quoting Confucius, “A man without history is a tree without roots.” This book is Tran’s journey of discovering his family’s history. As he says in his afterword, “Making this book broke my heart.”

VietnamericaTran’s artwork is captivating. He captures the chaotic scenes of Saigon and the evacuation of refugees particularly well. His use of color is deliberate and thoughtful. Scenes in the past are often muted shades of sepia and gray, while the present is generally drawn in brighter colors. I found it a little hard to keep track of the cast of characters at first, but by the end of the book, I had it figured out. Tran also captures well the feeling of the first generation American in a family of immigrants who have different histories, cultural ideals, and personal beliefs. I liked, for instance, his motif of his family’s celebration of Tet, a small way he shows the cultural gap he feels between his parents and himself.

Vietnamerica

One interesting thing I learned from this book, and it is something I have wondered about for many years, is why America (and before America, France and Japan) did not achieve their goals in Vietnam. Tran’s answer, given through his family members, makes a great deal of sense to me. I won’t spoil it for you if you want to read it, too, but it underscores the importance of being exposed to multiple narratives. As Chimimanda Ngoze Adichie says, the problem with stereotypes is not that they are “wrong” but that they are “incomplete,” and when we are only only exposed to a single story about an event—and war often lends itself to “right sides” and “wrong sides” when reality is more complicated—we naturally have a limited understanding of the event.

Vietnamerica

Vietnamerica is not so much a personal memoir as a memoir of a family and Tran’s journey to learning who his parents and grandparents were. It is not a linear story, and it took me a little while to figure out the storylines, but it was worth it. If you enjoyed Art Spiegelman’s Maus, you would probably like Vietnamerica.

Vietnamerica

Rating: ★★★★★

Images © GB Tran and used for the purposes of criticism.

Wild Goose Chase Reading Challenge 2017I am counting Vietnamerica as my first book for the Wild Goose Chase Challenge as my “book with an exotic or far-flung location in the title.”

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Review: March: Book Three, John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell

John Lewis’s graphic memoir March was released in three parts. You can read my reviews of March: Book One and March: Book Two. March: Book Three was released just last month, and it concludes Lewis’s story of participating in the Civil Rights Movement, culminating in his involvement with the march from Selma to Montgomery, AL. and President Johnson’s signing of the Voting Rights Act. Woven through the story is also an account of John Lewis’s experiences on the day Barack Obama was inaugurated.

March: Book Three picks up Lewis’s story with the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. Lewis recounts how violence escalated as the movement drew closer to its goal of achieving voting rights for all. He tells of the murders of Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney, the subject of the film Mississippi Burning. He recalls visiting Africa and meeting Malcolm X. In addition, he recounts his own beating as he crossed the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma.

One of the things I love about this series is it preserves an important episode in American history, told through the voice of one who lived it, in an accessible and engaging way. I personally think the series is indispensable for teaching the Civil Rights Movement to teenagers. The story is interesting enough on its own, but with the hook of the visuals of Nate Powell, which has almost the same immediacy as film, the story really comes alive. Lewis is often called the Conscience of the House. Few have forgotten how he led a sit-in this past summer to attempt to convince the House to vote on gun safety legislation. I can think of few living people I admire more than John Lewis. At the age of 76, he is still actively working—peacefully—to preserve human life and dignity. He is an amazing human being, and his tireless work on behalf of others—all of his life—is just about unparalleled in public service.

The entire March series is a must-read for everyone, especially in these times when some states are engaged in voter suppression tactics. Alabama, for example, recently began enforcing a voter ID law and promptly closed DMV offices in predominantly black communities, making it difficult for African-Americans to obtain the ID’s they need to vote. It’s amazing to read this memoir and think, “these things really happened.” What’s more amazing is that they still do. Black men still have every legitimate reason to fear they will be killed when they are pulled over for minor infractions. Meanwhile, young white men can be caught in the act of rape and get away with very little in the way of repercussions.

In the spirit of John Lewis’s struggle, you owe it to your country and your community to go vote this November. There is a lot at stake in this election. Maybe your first choice of candidate didn’t make it through the primaries. Go vote anyway. Too many people died for your right to vote and to have a say in the way your country is governed, no matter what your background is.

[rating;5/5]

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Review: Are You My Mother?, Alison Bechdel

The day before yesterday, I posted my review of Alison Bechdel’s first memoir, Fun Home. That memoir focuses on Bechdel’s relationship with her father. Are You My Mother?, naturally, focuses on her relationship with her mother. I picked it up as soon as I finished Fun Home. Bechdel’s relationship with both parents is complicated. Bechdel’s mother in particular is a complicated individual. She’s talented and beautiful, but she lives in an age when it’s difficult for a woman to pursue much beyond being a wife and a mother, and it’s not clear that Bechdel’s mother wanted to be either a wife or a mother very much. Frequent allusions to the works of Virginia Woolf, in particular, A Room of One’s Own, underscore the ways in which Bechdel’s mother was held back by her times. Bechdel also weaves in her readings of the work of psychologist Donald Winnicott, and the memoir that emerges is part self-psychoanalysis. Bechdel frequently describes and interprets her dreams and weaves in memories of her therapy sessions.

Perhaps every woman’s relationship with her mother is somewhat fraught. I was particularly touched by a question Bechdel asks her mother near the end of the memoir: “What’s the main thing you learned from your mother?” I won’t give away her mother’s answer here, but it struck me that in some significant ways, women repeat the experiences they have had with their own mothers. We establish cycles. Our mothers socialize us to be women, and their ideas of what is acceptable for women are passed on to us. It took me a long time to grapple with some of these ideas. In some ways, it might be a kind of conditioning that we undergo. I’m not sure. I’m still thinking about it. I’m not sure if men experience the same things with their fathers or not.

I am definitely a fan of Bechdel’s work. I’ll read any future books she writes for sure. She’s a smart writer, and the way she connects ideas is fascinating. I envy her mind quite a lot. As an English teacher, I especially appreciate the way she looks for connections in literature. She strikes me as a person who truly sees literature as a way for us to understand ourselves. Reading her makes me want to ask her for a recommended reading list so I can immediately go out and read everything on it.

Rating: ★★★★★

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Review: Fun Home, Alison Bechdel

I just returned from the annual National Council of Teachers of English conference. Alison Bechdel was a keynote speaker Friday morning, and she spoke about her two graphic memoirs, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic and Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama, as well as her other work in comics. Her parents had both been English teachers, and she had much to share with us about encouraging writers and the ways in which her own parents shaped her as a reader and a writer.

Fun Home centers on Bechdel’s relationship with her father, who likely committed suicide in 1980, right after Bechdel came out to her parents. Her father was a somewhat distant and arguably abusive man who was plagued by his own struggles with his sexual identity. Bechdel chronicles the family’s difficulties with her father, whose passion was restoration. His preoccupation with appearances profoundly affected Bechdel. She grew up in a very cold home.

Panel from Fun Home

But Bechdel’s father influenced her as a reader and writer.

Panel from Fun HomeFun Home is packed with literary allusions, from her own identification of Bechdel’s father and herself as Daedalus and Icarus to her connection of her father to F. Scott Fitzgerald to finding herself in the writing of Collette and other LGBT writers. There is a good interview with Bechdel on NPR you might want to check out if you want to learn more about her and also about the Broadway musical adapted from this book.

I truly enjoyed this book. I read it while waiting in the airport to return home from the conference and finished it on the plane. It’s a quick read, but an absorbing and very deep read. It’s a well-written memoir on top of being poignant. There are moments of levity, even in panels in which Bechdel is dealing with her father’s death.

Panel from Fun Home

If you are not familiar with Bechdel’s work, you probably have at least heard of the “Bechdel Test,” which is a criterion for determining whether a movie has some consideration of women as fully realized characters to the following extent:

  1. It has to have at least two women characters
  2. Who talk to each other
  3. About something other than a man

I was fortunate to be able to meet Alison Bechdel at the conference, and she signed my copy of this book.

Alison Bechdel and DanaIt was wonderful to meet her and hear her speak about her reading and writing life.

Rating: ★★★★★

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