At the height of the military dictatorship in South Korea, Insuk and Sungho are arranged to be married. The couple soon moves to San Jose, California, with an infant and Sungho’s overbearing mother-in-law. Adrift in a new country, Insuk grieves the loss of her past and her divided homeland, finding herself drawn into an illicit relationship that sets into motion a dramatic saga and echoes for generations to come. From the Gwangju Massacre to the 1988 Olympics, flashbacks to Korean repatriation after Japanese surrender, and the Sewol ferry accident, E. J. Koh’s exquisitely drawn portraits and symphonic testimony from guards, prisoners, perpetrators, and liberators spans continents and four generations of two Korean families forever changed by fateful past decisions made in love and war.
In Six Walks: In the Footsteps of Henry David Thoreau, Ben Shattuck begins the first of his six walks on a whim, or, more accurately, as a coping mechanism to deal with nightmares stemming from the end of a relationship. It is unplanned, and it doesn’t go particularly well. By the end of the book, when he retraces a few stops from that walk, his life has changed quite dramatically. The book is both a meditation on Thoreau’s influence on Shattuck’s life and thought and a memoir detailing Shattuck’s development from that particularly difficult time in his life to a much brighter ending. As he writes near the end of the work, “…walking through the dark forest, you might eventually look up through the trees, see that the sky above is the same as the sky over the sunny pasture, that it is one canopy of light spread over your whole life’s landscape. Grief and joy are in the same life, but it’s only in the forest where you notice the shafts of sunlight spilling through.” Shattuck explores both grief and joy in his life and in Thoreau’s life, helping readers understand both emotions and both people more clearly.
Reviewer bio: Kevin Brown has published three books of poetry: Liturgical Calendar: Poems (Wipf and Stock); A Lexicon of Lost Words (winner of the Violet Reed Haas Prize for Poetry, Snake Nation Press); and Exit Lines (Plain View Press). He also has a memoir, Another Way: Finding Faith, Then Finding It Again, and a book of scholarship, They Love to Tell the Stories: Five Contemporary Novelists Take on the Gospels. Twitter @kevinbrownwrite or kevinbrownwrites.weebly.com/.
In a Friday Night Comics session for Sequential Artists Workshop, Will Betke-Brunswick explains that using birds as characters allows an “access point into emotional-heavy material,” and even though advised by a mentor “not to do birds,” Will says, “I feel connected to birds.” There is no doubt readers will also develop a connection, if not immediately, then over the course of topics covered in the graphic memoir A Pros and Cons List For Strong Feelings. These topics include Will’s mother being diagnosed with terminal cancer during Will’s sophomore year of college and going through treatments as well as Will’s coming out as genderqueer. There are flashbacks to Will’s youth, sharing thoughtfully tender and supportive moments, like when Will’s mother creates math problems for them to solve on the school bus to alleviate anxiety and when she writes a note for Will’s school when picture day rolls around to say it’s okay for them to wear a hat. It’s easy to sort Will’s family of characters, all represented as penguins, from other characters: buzzards, quails, parrots, toucans, and more. Betke-Brunswick uses line drawings with some fill, minimalist backgrounds, just two colors throughout, and varying framed and frameless compositions to express events, which include observational humor and situational poignancy. This is the kind of memoir that offers brief but deeply intimate and sometimes discomfortingly honest glimpses into someone’s life. In the same way Betke-Brunswick expresses feeling connected to birds, readers will develop their own connection to humanity through these feathered depictions.
A Pros and Cons List for Strong Feelings: A Graphic Memoir by Will Betke-Brunswick Tin House Books, November 2022
During Will Betke-Brunswick’s sophomore year of college, their beloved mother, Elizabeth, is diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer. They only have ten more months together, which Will documents in evocative two-color illustrations. But as we follow Will and their mom through chemo and hospital visits, their time together is buoyed by laughter, jigsaw puzzles, modern art, and vegan BLTs. In a delightful twist, Will portrays their family as penguins, and their friends are cast as a menagerie of birds. In between therapy and bedside chats, they navigate uniquely human challenges, as Will prepares for math exams, comes out as genderqueer, and negotiates familial tension.
In his debut memoir, When They Tell You To Be Good, Prince Shakur traverses geography and time to answer a question that has “haunted” him since adolescence, “Who am I? Who am I? Who am I?” There’s Shakur, a Jamaican immigrant, searching for a better life only to have his father murdered. There’s the closeted Shakur who faces his truth as well as his family’s violent proclivities. There’s Shakur, who travels the globe because, “If America could not deliver me what I deserved as a young and curious Black person, I deserved to try to find it where I could and not be overpowered by the kind of son or citizen I needed to be.” There’s Shakur, the revolutionary, who combats racism, homophobia, and colonialism. There’s Shakur, the humanist, who learns that “one of the best ways we can love people is to not be afraid of them.” There’s Shakur, the provocative writer who becomes “grateful for my body, my heart, my mind, and all the people who loved me and asked questions.” This speaks to the power of “Who Am I,” which Shakur asked early on and ultimately transcends to a universal query in this artful debut.