Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63 by Marcelino Truong
Translated by David Homel
Arsenal Pulp Press, 2016
March 18th, 2017
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.
February 4th, 2017
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.
September 20th, 2016
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:
September 16th, 2016
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.
July 10th, 2016
Hildafolk is a quick and sweet graphic novel for kids that made me want a backyard and a tent and a rainstorm. At the start, we see the little red cottage where Hilda lives with her mother: it looks very cozy, with yellow-lit windows and smoke coming out of a chimney, a spot of warmth in a rocky landscape. Inside, Hilda is listening to the weather report on the radio and reading a book about trolls. When she hears it’s going to rain, she asks her mom if she can sleep in the tent that night; her mom says she can.
But sleeping in the tent is only a little adventure: the next day, Hilda and Twig (her animal companion, who is like a small blue fox with antlers) go outside so Hilda can draw. She sees a rock that has a protrusion like a nose: she’s sure it’s really a troll, so she sketches it, but only after taking the precaution of tying a bell to the protrusion so she’ll hear it if the rock moves. Hilda and Twig fall asleep, then wake to the darkening sky and the sound of the bell—and things get more exciting from there.
I like Hilda’s boldness, and the whimsy of her world – the troll is not the only fantastical creature around. There’s also a sea-spirit (see picture below—depicted in a way that makes me think of Miyazaki, particularly Spirited Away), a wood man who comes into Hilda’s cottage when she leaves the door open (and brings firewood), a giant, and other creatures we only glimpse.
I found the art stronger than the writing—I love, for example, the panel showing rain falling on the outside of Hilda’s tent, with the KSSSHHH sound of the rain appearing as letters in the sky, or the panel showing Hilda’s bedroom in which you can see that she has a picture over her bed of a boat with the arms of a kraken reaching out of the water next to it. Not that the writing is bad—I thought some of it was quite funny—but the flow of the art was stronger, I thought. Still, I enjoyed this and will be reading the next one.
March 20th, 2016
This graphic-novel featuring a middle-school theater production and its cast and crew is a fun and quick read: its characters are in seventh and eighth grades, and it’s written for a middle school/junior high audience. Callie, the pleasingly-purple-haired protagonist, is the set designer for her school’s spring musical: she’s loved musicals since she was little, but she can’t sing, so has found her way to the stage crew. Her best friend, Liz, is the costume designer, but Callie is sometimes a little distracted from friendship by boy drama: she’s initially smitten with Greg, but hm, twins Justin and Jesse are awfully cute, and meanwhile, why is Greg’s younger brother Matt being such a jerk to Callie lately? Callie sometimes is gossipy without meaning to be, but can be trusted with secrets that matter: when one of the aforementioned boys comes out to her as gay, she assures him she won’t spread the news around. Meanwhile, Callie’s not the only one with romantic drama: the play’s leading lady keeps getting broken up with, and other characters are slow to figure out who they are or aren’t interested in. More interesting, to me, were the logistical challenges of putting on a play: costumes and sets and possibly-malfunctioning props, and is anyone coming to see this thing, anyway?
I like Telgemeier’s art, which is a little manga-style (in the characters’ exaggerated facial expressions, with bulging eyes and wide-open mouths at moments of emotion or humor), satisfyingly crisp, and beautifully colored. The wordless “Overture” and “Intermission” sections are fun and attractive, and overall the balance of text and pictures felt right on to me. The book is mostly straightforward panels featuring dialogue via speech bubble, but I especially liked some of the more playful bits, including one section where Callie and Jesse are portrayed inside the pages of a book they’re flipping through, and one panel where Callie frustratedly increases the volume on a movie she and Liz are watching to drown out her little brother’s distracting (and nonstop) conversation.
I don’t know why it has taken me so long to read this book. I was a fan of Allie Brosh’s blog before the book was published, which may be part of it? I mean, partly it felt like there wasn’t any urgency because I’d already read a lot of these pieces in blog-post form, and partly it felt like there wasn’t any urgency because I knew the book was going to be amazing, so I was sort of saving it. (Does that make any sense at all? Do you do that with books you’re sure you’re going to love?)
So, right: this book contains eighteen comics in Brosh’s signature style, which is a combination of autobiographical text + color drawings done in Paintbrush (which is like MS Paint—as Brosh puts it in her FAQ, these drawings have “a very precise crudeness”), and they’re pretty much all amazing. I laughed out loud on the train while reading this; when I was at home I flopped on the couch and rolled around while laughing, and read things out loud to my boyfriend even though he read this book before I did. Not that this book is all light reading—some parts of the pieces about depression (part one and part two: these are seriously worth reading) made me teary-eyed, though they have moments of humor, too.
Highlights for me include basically all the parts about Brosh’s dogs (they’re so funny! she draws them so hilariously!), especially the one where she gives “simple dog” an intelligence test. I mean, this comic contains this sentence: “This dog is uncoordinated in a way that would suggest her canine lineage is tainted with traces of a species with a different number of legs—like maybe a starfish or a snake” (20). Remind me again why I took so long to read this in book form?
October 1st, 2015
Near the start of Photobooth: A Biography, Meags Fitzgerald talks about taking photobooth pictures with a friend in 2003 to celebrate the last day of classes of tenth grade, and how, after that day, she got very into photobooths: taking photobooth pictures, learning about the history of the booths themselves, and collecting photobooth pictures taken by others. The rest of the book talks about Fitzgerald’s experience with all those things, and also about various photobooth-related travels she’s taken, including a trip to California for the International Photobooth Convention and visits to photobooth warehouses in Montréal and Holland.
I am really fond of this kind of book in general—I find it easier to find “graphic memoirs” or illustrated travel journals or nonfiction comics that I like than I do to find graphic novels I’m excited about—and also, I like photobooths. So it’s not surprising that I really liked this book. Fitzgerald’s drawings of photobooths, photobooth pictures, herself, and various people she met on her travels are really satisfying, and pair well with the text. I liked reading about various different angles of photobooth history/production/art/culture, including but not limited to: how chemical photobooths work and what their charms are, and how they’re largely being replaced by lower-maintenance digital ones; the precursors to the photobooth and various inventors and companies whose work shaped the photobooth landscape; why photobooths appealed to Fitzgerald in high school, and how her relationship to them has changed over time, along with the art she’s made in them; how photobooths have been used by various artists and ordinary people throughout their existence. (Speaking of Fitzgerald’s photobooth art, I like it, and you can see more of it here and here.)
This book makes me nostalgic for my own photobooth experiences circa 2004-2007, when New York City, like other places, had more non-digital photobooths than now. I was amused to be reminded of the existence of photobooth.net, where the picture for the now-departed photobooth at the Wonder Wheel has me in it. More photobooth pictures featuring a younger me are here and here and here. Awww. Also, this: