Level UP With Some Graphic Novel Goodness for Your Friday…

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Well, it’s Friday and I’m in love with Gene Luen Yang’s graphic “coming-of-age while being harassed by imaginary supernatural beings” memoir, Level Up.  We received our copy from PanMacmillan Australia for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Nothing is what it seems when life collides with video games.

Dennis Ouyang has always struggled in the shadow of his parents’ expectations: Stay focused in high school, do well in college, go to medical school, and become a gastroenterologist.

But between his father’s death, his academic burnout, and his deep (and distracting) love of video games, Dennis can’t endure. He’s kicked out of college. And that’s when things get . . . weird.

Four adorable—but bossy—angels, straight out of a sappy greeting card, appear and take charge of Dennis’s life. He’s back on track to become a gastroenterologist. But is he living the life he wants?

Partnered with the deceptively simple, cute art of Thien Pham, Gene Yang has returned to the subject he revolutionized withAmerican Born Chinese. Whimsical and serious by turns, Level Up is a new look at the tale that Yang has made his own: coming of age as an Asian American.

There’s nothing better, during a run of large, hefty novels, to kick back with a graphic memoir and revel in the brevity of the text.  Having said that, Level Up is probably best enjoyed in two or more sittings, just to allow the pain and indecision of “new adult” angst to sink in.  Dennis Ouyang is an all-round good egg it would seem, who is torn between fulfilling his parents’ wishes and chasing his video-game-glory-shaped dream.  For a fair bit of the book it feels like poor Dennis can’t do anything right, because whether he is achieving excellence in the field of pixellated reality or intestinal correction, he is plagued by guilt, or the ghost of his father, or general early-adult insecurities about the permanence of one’s initial course choices at university.

I particularly enjoyed how Dennis changes his mind multiple times throughout the book as different information, and family secrets, come to light.  It’s quite satisfying and reassuring to know that the choice that Dennis eventually makes is the right one for him, despite the fact that it evinced so much agonizing and drama in its attainment.

I feel the need to mention that Level Up is another addition to the “diversity” canon, as apart from the first-generation Chinese immigrant perspective, there are also Indian and Latino characters making up Dennis’s core group of friends.  The differences between Dennis’s life and family responsibilities are highlighted when Dennis’s Caucasian friend can’t understand why Dennis would pursue such a massive undertaking as medical school simply because it’s what his parents expect.

While I haven’t yet mentioned the ghostly, imaginary angels on the cover of the book, this is not because they do not play a major part in the story.  These four certainly sit at the creepier end of the angelic spectrum, and demonstrate an unshakable belief that Dennis’s true destiny lies in the field of gastroenterology.  To aid him in attaining his destiny, the tiny cherubs cook, clean, wash and generally sort out Dennis’s living arrangements to allow him to concentrate on study.  While this may sound like a boon for Dennis, the benefits go hand in hand with the demonic freak-outs to which the angels are prone when Dennis dares to defy their wishes.  The angels are an interesting plot device and we discover, in hilarious and unexpected fashion, the real purpose behind their existence toward the end of the novel.

Level Up was both a great brain-break in between much heftier reading responsibilities, and an endearing and authentic snapshot of early adulthood, with all its opportunities and uncertainties.  I’d definitely recommend it for when you need a quick reminder that you aren’t the only one wandering around wondering what on earth you are going to do with the rest of your life.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

 

A Graphic Memoir GSQ Review: Tomboy…

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Welcome once again to a Good, Sad and Quirky review.  Today I have a memoir in graphic novel format that relates the tale of one Liz Prince, a girl who struggles to fit into the pre-packaged image of how a girl should look and how a girl should behave.  It’s a fantastically engaging book and one that may well become essential reading for anyone who feels that their biological attributes don’t match with society’s expectations as to how those attributes should be deployed.

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Tomboy is the story of Liz Prince – it chronicles the difficulties and triumphs she experiences from childhood into young adulthood and beyond, in identifying as a “tomboy”.  Liz likes baseball, superheroes and action figures, and feels most comfortable in jeans, a t shirt and her favourite cap.  She’s happy like this.  For her it is not a problem, it just is.  Imagine her surprise then, on discovering that the people around her, from her own siblings, to her classmates, to her teachers and coaches, seem to find this disconcerting in the extreme.  Tomboy covers the bullying that Liz experiences due to her boyish appearance, the difficulties in making and keeping friends that goes hand in hand with being visually different to one’s peers and the emerging problems that Liz encounters when trying to get to know boys in a romantic way while looking like a boy herself.  Tomboy is an important and emininently readable piece of work that speaks clearly to one girl’s struggle to figure out what exactly it is that makes a girl and where she fits on the spectrum of womanhood.

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Wow. Don’t be fooled by the cartoony style of the artwork, this is a book that packs an ideological and personal punch.  Before even a third of the way through the book, Mad Martha was nodding and tearing up, so close to home were the situations and emotions presented here by Liz.  The book follows a a chronological order, opening on a scene in which four-year-old Liz is screaming in an attempt to stop her mother from putting her in a dress.  From there we move on with Liz into her years in primary school and on towards middle and high school, by which point being the only comfortable tomboy in a crowd of pubescent teens becomes quite a challenge indeed.  The book finishes with Liz finding some stable ground as an adult in accepting how she is and how she wants to be and discovering that there is a community in which she can be socially accepted.

The art, as I mentioned, is in the traditional cartoon style and is both easy on the eye and perfect for conveying the humour underlying many of the situations Liz finds herself in.  See for yourself:

There’s plenty in the storyline that is though-provoking and touching and challenging, but there’s also a lot here that will be very familiar to anyone who’s beyond the age of 15, whether they had trouble fitting in with peers or otherwise.  In one sense, Liz is telling the story of any-teen in the struggles she has in making friends and finding her place and her passions, but over the top of that is her specific story of gender-image, which will also strike a chord with many teens, wherever they fall on the spectrum of appearing to be socially-acceptable.

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The only problem I had with this graphic novel is that I felt the pace started to drag a bit during the high school section of the memoir.  By that stage the issues that Liz was struggling with – particularly in terms of finding a romantic partner – had already been raised and the narrative seemed to get bogged down a little at this point.  That’s just my personal interpretation though, and I’m sure others will think differently.

There are also a few instances of swearing and “adult situations”, so if you’re not into that, steer clear.

Otherwise…I got nothing.  I really enjoyed Prince’s style in both artwork and written word.

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Two parts of this memoir really stood out to me as being original, in the sense that I hadn’t encountered them in fiction before.  (I realise that this is technically factual, in that it actually happened, but it’s a subjective retelling and presentation of a particular person, and in that sense, it reads like fiction).  The first was the very clearly outlined difficulties that Liz encounters as a heterosexual female whose personal fashion preference is decidedly masculine.  I haven’t encountered this in any YA before and I think it provided a real sense of depth to the story.  It got me thinking about how personal presentation and sexual preference are linked in our minds…if we see a woman dressed in man’s clothing, do we automatically assume she is a lesbian? If so, why?  How does this affect young people as their identity is emerging in the teen years – do they feel pressure to conform to gender image expectations and how does this affect them psychologically if they do conform or if they don’t?  These are things that I am still pondering and it was wonderful to see these presented realistically for a YA and new adult audience.

The second thing that jumped out in this particular memoir was Liz’s personal dislike (bordering on gut-wrenching hatred) of anything considered to be “girly”.  This was articulated fantastically throughout the memoir, and resolved somewhat in the latter part of the story as Liz begins to separate the idea or image of “girliness” being bad from the idea that being a girl (or a woman) is bad.  This part of the story raises some great questions about attitudes in wider society about females and femininity and the worth that is placed on boys’ activities (and therefore, boys) as opposed to girls’ activities (and therefore, girls).  While I’ve definitely come across these arguments in reading on feminism that I have eagerly devoured in the past, it was refreshing to see it presented in situ, as it were, as it unfolded in Prince’s life and development.

My overall take on the book?

A must-read, must-discuss, must-unpack book for anyone working with young people or anyone who has any interest in gender stereotyping.  And anyone who likes a good graphic memoir, really 😉

I realise I’ve blabbed on a bit here, but this really is one of those rare books that comes along and touches a nerve, inspires important discussions, and makes one cling all the more defiantly to one’s favourite, comfy, non-fashion-forward hat.

Tomboy is due for release on September 28th from Zest Books and I received a digital copy from the publisher via Netgalley.

Until next time,

Bruce

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