Dash Shaw is unreal. I was in awe the whole time I was reading this. Twice as good as Bottomless Bellybutton, in my opinion, and I already thought tha...moreDash Shaw is unreal. I was in awe the whole time I was reading this. Twice as good as Bottomless Bellybutton, in my opinion, and I already thought that was pretty perfect. The thing that's so great about BB is it's such a tightly executed graphic novel with a singular vision and style, but with this collection you really get to see Shaw's range and the way he plays with color and shapes and bends time to his will, all while maintaining humor and heart. And the whole thing still manages to cohere as a collection, bookend-ed by storyboards and sketches for motion- and time-based projects. I can't even decide which story is my favorite: they are all great explorations in different ways, though I think I really have a soft spot for both the stories that showcase circular elements. Also, the whole thing is just flat-out gorgeous, which I somehow forgot to mention at the beginning.
Body World is next! Then I will sit around twiddling my thumbs until his next two books are released, because I cannot wait to see what he does next. (less)
Miss Jennifer reminds me of my monkey Lobert, only more violent and less confused about the English language. Also, my monkey does not wear a dress.
I...moreMiss Jennifer reminds me of my monkey Lobert, only more violent and less confused about the English language. Also, my monkey does not wear a dress.
I thought this was an improvement on the first volume, both in the quality of the art and the story. I love all the extra bits at the end, especially when Jennifer reads fan mail! And drinks NyQuil! (less)
“I cried the next time Mom asked if I wanted a story, because I didn’t know how to say I wanted a story but not that one.”
In her debut novel, Katie Ar...more“I cried the next time Mom asked if I wanted a story, because I didn’t know how to say I wanted a story but not that one.”
In her debut novel, Katie Arnold-Ratliff leads her readers into the cavernous mind of Francis Mason, a young teacher whose entire life begins to unravel after his second-grade class finds a dead body washed ashore a San Francisco beach. As the narrative continues—and Francis’ past slowly emerges through a stream of flashbacks in the even-numbered chapters—it becomes clear that the aforementioned tragedy is merely a catalyst for his downward spiral. The real story lies below the surface in a series of failed relationships that haunt his past and his present.
Arnold-Ratliff’s luscious prose is at once fragile and unrelenting. With her use of understated imagery and metaphor—a looping DVD menu, a childhood song on repeat, a typewriter resetting new line after new line—she manages to capture the endless cycle of broken and misguided relationships with startling subtlety. We realize, through Francis’ exploration with his past, how much our relationships with our parents shape the adults we eventually become. We also realize the dangers of holding too tightly to the relationships we forged in our teens, even when we know they have long since become stale.
Amidst the other complex and morally ambiguous characters portrayed in the novel, the presence of Francis’ father mars an otherwise quietly heartbreaking story. He is a figure who continuously hovers on the outskirts of the main action, never quite taking the spotlight. Nevertheless, he verges on becoming a caricature: the blatant scenes of physical and emotional abuse seem to give reason for Francis’ erratic and often unforgivable behavior when no reason is needed. Near the beginning of the novel, Francis marvels that he will never fully understand the inner-workings of his students, affectionately referring to them as “little mysteries.” Fictional characters are the same way. As readers, we don’t always need to know everything about our narrator’s psyche. Some things are better left inferred.
For anyone familiar with the area, Bright Before Us also reads as a love letter to San Francisco, where the author herself grew up. The characters carve a path all along the Bay Area, from Lowell High School to the MacArthur BART station to a suburb of Vallejo. One thing is apparent as Francis’ story unfolds like a road map taken from a glove compartment. Everywhere we go, we leave pieces of ourselves behind: forgotten dresses hanging in the closet of an abandoned home, a fallen strand of hair in an ex-lover’s car. At the same time, we take a part of that place with us when we leave. Above all, no matter how hard we try to escape, the past follows us. Stories never die, even the ones we no longer want to hear. They stay in our memories—both the good and the bad—in the form of scars and blemishes, our experiences rooted in our bones and on the skin that houses them.
(This review originally appeared in Issue 13 of the literary journal Eleven Eleven in summer 2012.)