Wednesday, November 11, 2009

REVIEW: Stitches

Small, David. Stitches: A Memoir

0393068579, 336 pages.

Thirty Second Summary: In this autobiographical graphic novel, author David Small reflects on his childhood growing up in Detroit in the 1950s, and the secrets held by his outwardly-perfect family.

I always feel a little nervous about reading and reviewing memoirs. There’s only so much, after all, that you can suggest to the author. It’s hard to be all, “Yeah, I would have appreciated more excitement in [insert portion of life]. Could you have made something up? Just for the sake of your readers?” Because then, we get into books like Lying, and then Monica gets all sorts of migraines trying to figure out when the author is full of it, and… yes. It’s risky. However! There was no need for any such worry, because Stitches delivered from the first page to the last.

I don’t know about you, friends, but I love graphic novels. There’s something about the ability of the author to transmit details to us visually, without needing to spell everything out in print, that I just find fantastic. On the other hand, this is a book by the man who wrote Imogene’s Antlers, which I adored with all my heart and soul at age five, and I was unsure I’d be able to handle the sharp contrast between that lighthearted children’s favorite, and this 300-page-long child’s nightmare. The majority of the book *was* nightmarish, but it’s the knowledge that the author did manage to escape, and did manage to overcome (at least the majority) of his childhood traumas, that allows you keep on reading even as the darkness within his family grows.

Stitches is a stark book that lays everything out in (literal and figurative) black and white, and we as readers are able to clearly see past the thin veneer of “normal” that Small’s parents attempt to hold over themselves. The narrative is peppered with illustrated moments of what David is thinking -- Diving into his own drawings to try and escape neighborhood bullies, being tossed on the waves of his mothers disapproval, climbing into his own mouth to inspect the ravages of his vocal cords. Be sure to go back and reread the hospital scenes after it comes out that everyone but David knew he had cancer. There’s something incredibly chilling about the blank stares of the doctors and the crazy-wide smiles of the nurses and, of course, the stiltedly apologetic actions of his parents.

The book is disturbing, and disturbingly hilarious, and menacing, and hopeful, and ridiculously-richly illustrated. You’ll be sad when you finish, but relieved at the same time – David’s world is not one you want to visit for longer than the length of the novel, and it was a relief to me to pull my head up out of his drawings and see my own tame, colored world, where Grandma never tried to burn the house down around Grandpa, and where I’ve never stumbled in on my mother sleeping with the woman who lives next door, and where my father never accidentally gave me cancer. The story, however, will stay with you long after you close the covers – that is, after all, the mark of a masterpiece.

Quotes of note:

“Mama stayed angry. Her silent fury was like a black tidal wave. Either you get out of the way, or...” (p. 46)

“Well, the fact is, you did have cancer… but you didn’t need to know anything then... and you don’t need to know about it now. That’s FINAL!” (p. 238)

“The apartment was too cold for canaries, and I wasn’t faring much better. I was lonely, often hungry, and afraid of the neighbors. Plus, my new attempts at becoming a world-renowned artist were not going too well.” (p. 297)

If you thought this was delicious, try:

Maus, by Art Spiegelman.

It’s the quintessential book of the genre. If you haven’t read it, do so immediately.

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