When Anne Carson meets Charles Schultz: Kyo Maclear on picture books for grown-ups
I looked at the bookshelf in my study this morning and found Anne Carson sitting alongside Charles Schultz. I have no idea what they were doing there together, but I would like to think they were having a fruitful conversation. (They both like to draw. They are both observant and funny.)
There are picture books of all kinds on my “grown-up” shelf. Some I pilfered from my children. Some I bought for myself. Some are a little beyond me but I figure I’ll grow into them.
Lately unaccompanied prose feels bereft to me. Perhaps it’s all the time I have spent in the company of my young sons, who believe a book without pictures is a travesty. (Why not just make a book without a binding, or page numbers?)
In the belief that grownups need pictures too, I’ve assembled a selection of adult-friendly visual reads.
Pear Tree Pomes by Roy Kiyooka: Call me naïve but I really believe that print books will continue to flourish for the next millennium. They will survive on the basis of their physical and tactile beauty. How can a book that touches you back ever become an endangered species? Kiyooka’s finely crafted volume is proof of what’s possible. Yes, I fell in love with Kiyooka’s irresistible phrasing but I cannot imagine his (sumptuous, steamy, lamenting) words without David Bolduc's beautiful watercolour drawings. Quality-committed publishers such as Coach House are the future.
Harvey by Hervé Bouchard and Janice Nadeau: The distinction between books for adults and children is so often arbitrary, as much a product of marketing prejudices and close-mindedness as anything else. But some books simply refuse to be pigeonholed. For example, one of my favorite books of all time—The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip by George Saunders—is, according to its blurb, "an adult story for children, a children's story for adults." Harvey is another cross-generational book. Marketed to pensive YA and adult readers, Bouchard and Nadeau prove (in this spare tale of death and grief) that simplicity does not preclude emotional complexity. This is a desolately beautiful and deep exploration of loss, which I guarantee will move any adult reader.
Running in the Family by Michael Ondaatje: I know this isn’t technically a picture book but it feels that way to me. At least in my memory of it. In my memory it is completely filled with full-page color plates, pop-up pictures, and foldout maps. Have I remembered it incorrectly? Is this book not about texture and collage? It all seems a delirium in retrospect—a grandmother swept away by a flood, the epic drinking, the dancing, the friendly grey cobra—a dreamy symptom of lush Asian heat. I had a beautiful Bloomsbury Classics edition—a little green hardback—but it has gone missing. I suspect one of my sons pilfered it. Always the litmus test for a good book, stealing works both ways in our house.
I Was a Child of Holocaust Survivors by Bernice Eisenstein: Eisenstein’s captivating and courageous Holocaust memoir addresses taboo topics with wry but revealing humor. She tells her story using a visual mashup of Chagall-like dreamscapes, comic-book panels, and black-and-white sketches based on family photographs. I don’t think I’ve read a better or braver book on the subject of vicarious witness and the experience of being a second-generation survivor.
Book of Longing by Leonard Cohen: A gift from my mother last Christmas, a book in which Cohen comes down from the mountain, where he spent years meditating and studying Zen. Apparently he has not emptied out his longing. Quite the opposite. In these poems, lust does a grinding slow-dance with metaphysics. Cohen’s playful, erotic, and weirdly (for him) optimistic drawings appear on almost every page. If grace is a measure of how we far we have come in embracing our contradictions—our refinement and beastliness, our depth and horniness—then Cohen is a paragon of grace. How can one refuse a drawing or a man that says: "I didn't get rich. I didn't get the girl. Follow me."
The Paper Garden by Molly Peacock: I am choosing this book because it’s so darn pretty and pleasing: an eye-catching book that celebrates second chances and the possibility of a late-in-life flowering. I marveled at Delany’s powers of observation, her patience and perseverance. Some books are especially special because they came as gifts. My children’s book editor—a literary soulmate, and one of this country’s greatest defenders of artful publishing—gave this one to me.
Was She Pretty? By Leanne Shapton: Shapton makes extremely stylish books out of equally stylish bits and pieces and this book is no exception. This plotless collection of miniature stories set off with expressive black and white line drawings parses the theme of jealousy and ex-love. The spare and cool prose has just the right dash of deadpan humor, but ultimately the real story for me is Shapton’s painfully-hip social set. (Was she fabulous?) Read it as an anthropological glimpse of an über-cool cosmopolitan milieu.
Milk Teeth by Julie Morstad: D+Q’s petit livre art book series does not suffer from narrow preconceptions of audience. Many of their books appeal to children, teenagers and adults equally—i.e. anyone who reads and looks. This book is a collection of wordless “stories” set in surreal and dreamy places. This is not a book for those needing the safe harbor of narrative structure but for those willing to be gently tossed through someone else’s bizarre, hirsute and occasionally morbid imaginings, it’s just the thing. (This is a limited-run publication. I ordered my little book by mail.)
Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography by Chester Brown: An exemplary example of comics as serious literature, this landmark graphic novel about the Metis leader is a triumph—filmic, scholarly, and narratively impeccable. Despite its raucous themes of rebellion and madness, an eerie feeling of stillness pervades the story. Brown’s restraint only adds to the drama in this stunning historical biography.
Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City by Guy Delisle: All I can tell you about this book is that I have it on pre-order for April. Judging from Delisle’s past work (Burma Chronicles), it should be utterly captivating and insightful.