Otto: A Palindrama by Jon Agee

January 15th, 2023

Although Otto is published by Dial Books for Young Readers, I think this “palindromic graphic novel” would be fun for readers of all ages who like wordplay. As others have mentioned, most of the book is a kind of daydream/reverie/fantasy journey, which means the plot doesn’t have to make a ton of sense, but that didn’t bother me: I’m here for the text, which is totally made up of palindromes. At the start of the book we see Otto’s parents in the kitchen; his dad is making soup. When Otto is called to the table his dad tells him to eat (“Nosh, son”) but Otto is entranced by the steam rising from his bowl. We’re transported to a beach scene, where Otto’s dog, Pip, gets lost while chasing another beachgoer. The beach leads to a desert, which leads to a road, which leads to a city, which leads to a cemetery, which leads back to the ocean, which leads back to the dining table—none of which is the point, really. I like Agee’s art, but the palindromes are really the draw. When Otto catches a ride to the city of Grubsburg, all the license plates and signs on trucks and billboards are palindromes—from “Walsh’s Irish Slaw” to “Regal Lager” and “Octet Co” and more. There’s a bookstore where all the covers on display are palindromic, and Otto finds himself at one point in a “Mueseum” (yes, that is a bit of a cheat) that has a “Moore Room” and a “Koons Nook”, all of which I find totally charming.

I found out about this book thanks to Neil Pasricha’s post about the best books he read in 2022, and I’m really delighted to have read it!

I always enjoy Lucy Knisley’s books: I like graphic memoirs in general, and I like Knisley’s style a lot, especially the way that her books combine drawn art and text and photographs (which may have drawn-on embellishments or labels). I got engaged in March, so it seemed like the right time to read this one, which is about Knisley’s wedding (with some background info about her relationship with her now-husband, and some added stuff about weddings in general). I found myself nodding a lot as I read: like Knisley, I’m a feminist child of divorced parents who hasn’t always understood the appeal of marriage or weddings. Also like Knisley, I’m a queer/bi woman marrying a cisgender guy (and like Knisley says re: marriage equality in the US, “changing laws went a long way towards reconciling my feelings about matrimony”) (112). My fiancé and I, like Knisley and her now-husband, are both atheists, so yeah, our wedding will not be a religious one, which means we also get to answer the question that Knisley phrases thus: “how do two rational atheists who don’t believe in “bad luck” design their wedding ceremony?” (208).

Obviously there are differences: I’m not an artist, and my mom is not a retired caterer, and no one in my family or my fiancé’s family has a piece of land on which we can build a barn in which to get married. We’re not planning on having bridesmaids and groomsmen, and I’m definitely not into DIY decor as much as Knisley is/was. But it was still nice to read a book about weddings by someone coming at it from a perspective of wanting to make their wedding their own, whether that’s in terms of saying no to traditions that don’t appeal (e.g. spouses-to-be not seeing each other on their wedding day before walking down the aisle) or in terms of not wanting to buy into what Knisley calls the “bridal weight loss imperative” (97). As Knisley puts it: “I want to eat cookies and be happy” (99). Me too.

I love the part where Knisley talks about how she and her fiancé had totally different online experiences once they got engaged (she saw a ton of wedding-centric ads; he saw none) and she wonders: “Where are the ads that truly target me, as I see myself?” – imagined ads that include “Top 50 literary passages to read before you get married!” and “Most comfortable inexpensive shoes to pad around your ceremony in!” and “10 ways to avoid those uncomfortable religious connotations at your wedding!” and “What’s your game plan? to greet your guests and also eat every single kind of appetizer at the cocktail hour? CLICK HERE FOR ADVICE!” (110) Yessssss I feel so seen. I mean, so far my fiancé is the one doing more of the planning, so maybe he’ll see more wedding ads than I do, but those imagined ads definitely speak to me.

I also love the part where Knisley talks about when she and her now-husband got engaged and how it felt to tell all their friends and family, how they ended that day “full of elation and joy at sharing the news—drunk on it and on our own happiness” (66). The part about shopping for wedding dresses only added to my own dread about that whole portion of things, though Knisley did end up with a dress she loved, which does give me hope. And aw, the part about the wedding itself made me tear up—the way Knisley describes how happy she was walking down the aisle, and how happy she was to be with close friends and family after the reception: “Everything was mud and smoke and the sweet smell of my childhood home after the rain. And John’s warm shoulder. The feeling that the day had been an eternity, and not nearly long enough” (266). Aw. This is such a charming book, maybe especially if you are planning a wedding, or are about to be planning one.

The reading/event for this book that Allie Brosh did with Powell’s Books on Zoom was one of the best things that happened in September, but it took me until now to actually read the copy of the book that I’d purchased—I think I was saving it for Christmas vacation reading? Anyway: I am delighted to have read this and delighted that I bought a copy; I’m sure I will be rereading it in the future. It’s a mix of very funny life stuff and very serious life stuff (Brosh had a health crisis, lost her sister to suicide, and got divorced)—and while I didn’t love every single piece in the book, I really liked a lot of them. On the humorous side, Brosh’s childhood stories never fail to crack me up—the piece at the start of the book where she gets herself stuck in a bucket at age three made me laugh a lot, as did the second piece, “Richard,” which was just as good when I read it for myself as it was when she read it at the Zoom event. And, as always, one of the things I like best about Brosh’s work is how she writes about and draws animals—dogs especially, but cats and other animals too. There’s a great piece in which Brosh imagines how confused pets must be by human behavior, and multiple great pieces about particular pets, including a dog described as a “brown pile with no eyes” and a cat who has a complicated relationship with his favorite toy. Another highlight of the book for me was the piece called “Bananas,” about a particular fight that Brosh had with her now-ex husband, which perfectly captures the feeling of “that infinite loop where everything the other person does—no matter how innocuous it is—seems inflammatory.” And I really liked the last piece, about becoming friends with oneself.

The back cover describes The Perineum Technique as “a contemporary meditation on seduction and intimacy in our age of hyperconnectivity”: it’s a graphic novel about an artist, JH, who meets a woman, Sarah, on OKCupid; they proceed to have Skype video chats where they talk about sex and watch each other getting themselves off. He’s done this before but usually just once before either meeting up with someone or not, but this is different: they’ve been talking for a week and have had a dozen chats. He invites her out; she says no. He invites her out again; she counters with an invitation to a swinger’s party. After the party, she brings up the technique of the title, which she says she’ll teach him, so he can last longer. And after that comes a challenge for JH: Sarah says she’ll be away for four months, and if he doesn’t ejaculate while she’s gone (which is one of the things the technique is about), they can go out to dinner when she gets back. We then see JH in Sarah’s absence, working on pieces for his upcoming gallery show, kind of miserable, kind of driven crazy by sexual frustration, but also artistically flourishing: he’s been unhappy with his work for a long time, and now he’s doing things he’s excited about. I like the way we see bits of JH’s art/dreams/fantasies, how his interior landscape is also the landscape of the book, and I like how the book explores a relationship that’s sexual before being anything else (if it ever is going to be anything else, which it may or may not be). And I like the art, which is playful and coolly sexy and just lots of fun: there’s one scene where we see the cast of an opera backstage, waiting for the curtain to go up, and the text is just speech bubbles near the ceiling saying “whoops” and “sorry” – the voices of JH and Sarah making their way out of their seats to find a quieter spot to talk before the show starts.

In this graphic memoir, which was originally published in French in 2012, Marcelino Truong writes about his family’s move to Saigon early in his childhood, during the earlier part of the Vietnam War: they lived there from 1961 to 1963. Truong was born in Manila, after which his family lived in the DC suburbs, which is where the book opens, in 1961: we see Truong (Marco, in the book) and his brother Domi playing with neighborhood kids as their sister Mireille plays with her Hula Hoop. Not that it’s all idyllic: the Truong brothers are always cast as the enemy when they’re playing war games (Indians in Cowboys and Indians, “the Commies” against the GIs in the Korean War). Truong’s father, who is Vietnamese, works at the Vietnamese Embassy, but then, in 1961, he gets word that he’s being called back to Saigon. His French wife is not happy about it, but there isn’t anything to be done. We see the family’s trip to Vietnam, with an initial journey by boat to Saint-Malo, France, where Truong and his siblings and their mom visit her parents before Truong’s dad joins them and they all fly from Paris to Saigon, and then we see their life in Saigon, where Truong’s father ends up working as President Diệm’s interpreter.

I like the art in this book, most of which is either red-toned or blue-toned, with some pages or spreads in more vivid/naturalistic color, including the opening page showing the Truong family in Washington DC, pink cherry blossoms blooming against the blue sky, and I like the story, too. Truong’s narrative mixes his family’s story and details from daily life with sections about the larger political/military context for what was happening: we get a recap of events in Vietnam from 1954 onwards leading up to where things stand in 1961, which I appreciated: I’m not sure how much about this period I ever really learned in school, and if I did learn about it, I apparently didn’t remember it that well. The balance of the personal and everything else worked for me: I liked reading about the Truong siblings listening to their parents argue and about Catholicism in Vietnam and about the 1962 attack on Saigon’s Presidential Palace and about Truong’s mom telling the Vietnamese teenager hired to help around the house that “You don’t put nuoc mam (fish sauce) in boeuf bourguignon” (62). Truong writes about the fear and anxiety of being in a place at war, but also about the everyday things, like how he and his brother caught crickets and kept them in boxes, or how Chu Ba, a Vietnamese man also hired to help around the house/with the kids, used to take them to the outdoor swimming pool at the Cercle Sportif de Saigon, or to the movies. Truong writes, too, about his mother’s bipolar disorder, which made things at home even more unpredictable than they already were. And Truong writes about leaving Saigon and moving to London in 1963, before the coup d’etat in which President Diệm was killed.

This is a really satisfying graphic memoir: I’m looking forward to the English translation of the sequel, which is about Truong’s life in London between 1963 and 1975.

Two things that are relevant to my reading of this book:
1) I’m going on vacation to New Zealand at the start of April! I’m very excited. One of my favorite people has lived in Auckland for several years now and has kept telling me I should come visit and I finally am going to. She gave me some NZ-centric book and movie recommendations and this comic, by NZ artist Dylan Horrocks, was one of them.
2) In general, I like graphic memoirs more than I like graphic novels or other kinds of comics. It’s hard for me to articulate why that is, but something about a personal narrative in words + pictures is really appealing to me. As such, possibly my favorite part of this book was the introduction to this new (2010) edition, in which Horrocks talks about his own childhood connections to comics, Tintin especially, and his subsequent work as an artist creating them. The drawings of Tintin panels are great, and so is the rest of the introduction – I especially like a bit where we see Horrocks looking out a window at a view of sea and sky and mountains, his own frowning reflection looking back at him.

Not that I didn’t like the book itself, too, which is about a journalist, Leonard Batts, who travels to Hicksville, a (fictional) tiny town in New Zealand, to learn more about his comic-book-writing hero, Dick Burger, who is from there. When he arrives, he finds that everyone in town really loves comics, and no one particularly seems to like Dick Burger: part of the story is Leonard (and us) finding out why. The book is full of comics quotes and references and in-jokes, and also full of comics itself—we get a mysterious strip about Captain Cook and the Māori leader Hōne Heke and the surveyor Charles Heaphy, plus a character’s weekly strip for a humor magazine, plus a character’s autobiographical mini-comic, and more. We also get the Māori story of how the North Island (Te Ika-a-Māui) came to be, and digressions on maps and map-making and navigating and art-making/storytelling, and a fair bit of tea, which Leonard, unfortunately, does not enjoy at all. Even outside of the comics within the book, the story jumps in location and time: we see one character, Grace, in the present/returning to Hicksville after time away; we also see some of her time away. There’s a lot going on, is I guess what I am trying to say, and it mostly works, though some of the comics references were lost on me (there is a helpful glossary at the back, which I wish I’d known about sooner)! I like both the writing and the art, which is good at both big wordless pages full of water and sky and light and at detailed panels that show things like, for example, one character having a copy of If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino.

As I make my way through Luke Pearson’s “Hilda” graphic novels for kids, I find myself liking each one more than the last. The art is consistently excellent—I like the colors, the clean lines, and how it rewards attention to detail—and the stories keep getting better. This one opens with a scene from Hilda’s life in the country, where she used to wander on her own to the edge of the forest to draw, and her mom was fine with it. Now, Hilda and her mom have just moved to the city of Trolberg, and Hilda’s planning some solo exploration of their neighborhood, but her mom doesn’t think it’s safe. She wants Hilda to stay inside for the day, but promises they can go out together to the town’s annual Bird Parade that night. Some kids from Hilda’s school show up, though, and her mom lets her go out with them. But rather than drawing or reading or even playing at the playground, these kids amuse themselves by pulling pranks on strangers and throwing rocks at birds: Hilda, who is kind and has a rapport with all kinds of creatures, is clearly horrified. When one of the kids actually hits a bird with a rock, Hilda rushes to help it, and her interactions with the bird lead to further wanderings, and to the kind of adventure she maybe didn’t think was possible in the city.

I love the below, in which Hilda’s explaining to the bird that she didn’t think she liked the city at first, but now she thinks she might:

Hilda and the Bird Parade

In February 2011, Lucy Knisley (who was 27 at the time) went on a Caribbean cruise with her grandparents (who were 91 and 93), and this graphic-memoir tells the story of that trip. It’s the fourth book I’ve read by Knisley and not my favorite (that would be either Relish or An Age of License), but I like graphic-memoirs in general and I also like Knisley’s art a whole lot.

So, right: at the start of the book, Lucy’s grandparents sign up to go on a cruise with a group of other seniors who live in the same assisted-living facility. But they don’t really know anyone else in the group, and their kids (including Lucy’s dad) worry about whether they’re really up for a cruise. The solution ends up being for Lucy to go along: it’s not a vacation she would choose to take (or would get to take) by herself, but she can help out her grandparents and also have a tropical escape from a New York City winter.

As expected, the cruise is not necessarily an easy or relaxing trip. Knisley’s grandmother has dementia and has moments where she can’t remember where they are or why, which is upsetting to everyone involved, and Knisley has to help with everything from laundry to medications, as well as planning daily activities. She wants her grandparents to enjoy the cruise and experience the ship’s various offerings, but she also doesn’t want to drag them to things they aren’t interested in—but without her prodding, they wouldn’t go to anything. It’s a big contrast to Knisley’s last trip, which was all youth and freedom and self-directed experiences. But Knisley is glad to be spending time with her grandparents, and there are moments of sweetness—a conversation with her grandfather, or the discovery that her grandmother unexpectedly loves being in a warm shallow swimming pool.

I like that the book includes snippets of Knisley’s reading material before and during the cruise—we learn that she read David Foster Wallace’s essay about a cruise (“A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again”) before her departure, and then on the cruise itself she’s re-reading her grandfather’s WWII memoir (the book features some great illustrations of scenes from it, including a swimming pool filled with corn flakes on a troop ship that was a converted ocean liner) and she also reads The Lover’s Dictionary by David Levithan (aww).

In Kiss & Tell, after telling the story of her parents’ meeting, courtship, and marriage (her mom was 16 when they met; her dad was 25; they married when her mom was 19), MariNaomi recounts all of her romantic/sexual encounters from childhood to age 22—from the boy who kissed her on the cheek in kindergarten to a five-year-long relationship that lasted longer than it probably should have, with all the crushes and hook-ups in between. There are funny stories and awkward stories and stories that are kinda sad; there are drug-fuelled stories (including a really pleasing depiction of an acid trip) and alcohol-fuelled stories and threesome-stories. There are stories driven by wanting, and stories driven by being wanted, and stories about the kind of hook-ups that just kind of happen for lack of anything else more interesting.

I liked the longer pieces in the book most—like the one about a relationship with a model who was in trouble with the law for stealing car stereos, and several intertwining stories about that five-year-long relationship—but the whole thing was pretty pleasing.

I liked this second “Hilda” book more than the first: the art is as whimsical and gorgeous as it was in the first book, and there’s a bit more of a story. Just after the book opens, Hilda and her mom hear a knock on their door: but when Hilda opens it, no one’s there. Hilda finds a tiny envelope on the grass outside: it’s the latest in a series of threatening letters (all equally tiny). The letters, all of which are from local elves (who are invisible to Hilda and her mom) all say that Hilda and her mom have to leave their home. But things quickly escalate after the arrival of this letter: stones come through the windows, and the elves announce that Hilda and her mom are being forcibly evicted. Hilda manages to prevent that from happening, but her mom suggests that maybe they should move to town anyway: it’d be better for her career, and maybe better for Hilda, too. Hilda’s having none of it, and her mom agrees that if she can get the elves to let them stay without further harassment, then they can stay.

Meanwhile, the elves aren’t the only fantastical creatures around: late at night, Hilda keeps seeing a giant who’s unfathomably enormous, mountain-sized. Size is relative, of course: Hilda’s as much of a giant to the elves as this giant is to her, and the idea that we’re all going about our lives, possibly oblivious to/overlooking others around us, gets played with in humorous and satisfying ways.