This week: a 19th century bookseller's obsession with a lost masterpiece, plus Chester Brown's latest graphic novel.
When Botille Flasucra finds Dolssa de Stigata lying on a riverside close to death, she takes the stranger to her family’s tavern. Botille, a young matchmaker, and her sisters nurse Dolssa back to health in secret—a Dominican friar obsessively hunts Dolssa, whom he condemned as a heretic to be burned at the stake. The year is 1241 in Provensa (now Provence), where the aftereffects of the Albigensian Crusade have led to an inquisition meant to rid the Christian world of heretics. Dolssa, however, feels called to heal the sick in the name of her beloved Jhesus, and her miracles eventually bring danger to the small town of Bajas. Berry (All the Truth That’s in Me) again delivers an utterly original and instantly engrossing story. Drawing from meticulous historical research (highlighted in extensive back matter), she weaves a tense, moving portrait of these two teenage girls and their struggle to survive against insurmountable odds. Love, faith, violence, and power intertwine in Berry’s lyrical writing, but Botille’s and Dolssa’s indomitable spirits are the heart of her story.
On one level, Brown’s new graphic novel is a stunning piece of exegesis. His 2011 graphic memoir, Paying for It, nakedly recounted his years of hiring sex workers and his changing attitude toward prostitution—evolving from a nervous john to a thoughtful connoisseur and advocate of the often-reviled oldest profession. Following his previous examination of the financial, social, familial, and medical objections to sanctioned prostitution, the new book delivers more than a well-researched argument, imaginatively reconstructed from Scripture, against a Judeo-Christian condemnation of sex work: rather, it’s a full-fisted counterpunch right to the biblical “souler” plexus. Brown’s thesis is that the Bible endorses prostitution, but does so in a coded manner. By reverting to what he believes is the uncensored version of Jesus’s parables—the Aramaic version of Matthew’s Gospel—and the “sexual initiative” shown by the women in the Old Testament treatments of Tamar, Rahab, and Ruth, he aims to overturn a sacred attitude. This is an impressive, worthwhile, and even brave text.
Hapless Victorians, bizarro royal courts, and incisive art criticism all feature prominently in Cumming’s (A Face to the World) lively account of a small-time bookseller who acquired a portrait of King Charles I of England and made it his lifelong mission to determine who painted it. After purchasing the painting at liquidation auction in 1845, the bookseller, John Snare, develops a complex theory that the portrait, despite being credited to a famous Flemish painter, is actually the work of Diego Velázquez, the 17th-century Spanish artist. Snare begins to publicize his theory through an exhibit at his shop and then at a hotel in Edinburgh, where the painting subsequently seized and declared stolen property. An absurd trial concerning the authorship and ownership of the painting ensues; meanwhile, the bankrupt bookseller abandons his family and flees America with his treasure in hand. Snare’s story is noteworthy, but it is Cumming’s spirited and clever narration that makes this enigma utterly engrossing.
Girmay (Kingdom Animalia), winner of a 2015 Whiting Award, crafts a moving collection of lyrical, image-thick poems that balance on the knife edge separating vulnerability and unapologetic strength. The lives of Eritrean refugees and immigrants serve as the collection’s thematic foundation, though Girmay also thoughtfully dissects and examines blights of America’s current sociopolitical climate, particularly police brutality and the murders of such young black women and men as Renisha McBride and Jonathan Ferrell. The ideas of diaspora, alienation, and separation—whether borne by the devastating legacies of slavery or the heartbreaking necessities of political asylum—are viewed as the repetitious and stubborn waves of history: “memory has long skin, it counts// the invasions, the factories & ports & rails.” However, these ideas are never treated as the heritage or sole narrative of particular peoples, but rather an indictment of colonialism and nationalism. Girmay effortlessly slips between collective history and personal memory, tackling the subject of black pain without victimizing herself or exploiting the voices of the marginalized.
Gordon-Reed, who won the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award for The Hemingses of Monticello, and Onuf (The Mind of Thomas Jefferson), professor emeritus of history at the University of Virginia, probe the paradoxical figure of the third president, unpacking what Jefferson himself “thought he was doing in the world.” They neither indict nor absolve Jefferson; instead, they aim to make sense of his contradictions for modern sensibilities by mining familiar texts, as well as his actions as a Virginia plantation owner and American ambassador to France. Although considered progressive for his time, Jefferson was fully cognizant of the hypocrisy of owning slaves while fighting for liberation from Great Britain. Jefferson’s immersion in revolutionary France tempered his attitudes toward slavery, but did not persuade him to abandon it. He made his peace with this moral dilemma by striving to be the “kindest of masters.” The authors reveal what plantation family life meant to Jefferson and explain how his notoriously poor plantation management shaped the lives of Monticello’s enslaved people.
Though some poets revel in emotional chaos and seek an existential abyss, Harris (allegiance) works in her second collection to peel back the superficial aspects of subjects such as emerging girlhood, sex, romantic relationships, and love, exposing raw wounds and snarling demons. She bends language to her will, generating atmospheric tension as she teases out each line’s deepest sonic qualities: “I sling open one eye to the white/ whale of you.” Harris doesn’t aim to capture the universal; rather, her poems insist that one person’s means of survival can have powerful, deleterious effects on an unfortunate other. For example, in “Pink Pigs,” a four-part poem interspersed throughout the book, Harris, through careful syntax and precise diction, crafts a minimalist yet full-blooded scene that charts the emotional devastation and psychological resignation of a 13-year-old girl. The header and footer of that poem, a repeated and unbroken sequence of the word girl, starts out as a whisper and ends in a predatory moan. Harris is a keen observer of self and other, writing not as a distant anthropologist, but as an empathetic and silent witness.
When the affluent Jensons move into town, it’s difficult for the neighborhood children to see past the allure of the fancy toys, bikes, and aboveground pool that sons Colt and Bastian have. Syd Kiley, his brother Declan, and their friends Avery and Garrick befriend the new boys, while Syd’s oldest sister, Freya, takes a shine to Mr. Jenson, idolizing this more attractive counterpart to her own drunken father and chaotic family. It’s clear that unhappiness simmers beneath the surface in this neighborhood, with everyone believing that “the things they don’t want are all they have.” But similarities exist between these disparate individuals, and as Hartnett’s narrative methodically unfolds, lurking secrets reveal themselves, with many children paying the price for their parents’ failings. Writing in an Australian vernacular and alternating among the perspectives of Colt, Freya, and Syd, Hartnett (Butterfly) skillfully weaves metaphors and foreshadowing into her affecting prose, such as Freya’s view of the world as a castle to explore, and her darker vision of a haunting yellow-eyed monster.
Two parents and their son set out on a marathon car trip, headed to Grandma’s house for her birthday. “This is taking forever,” the boy groans. Suddenly—is he dreaming?—a steam locomotive appears beside their car, chased by a cowboy on horseback. Following the text around sequential panels, readers end up flipping the book upside down and turning the pages back to front as the family travels into the past. Outside, pirates fight, knights joust, dinosaurs loom. Then, just as suddenly, text and pictures right themselves and the family zooms into the future, arriving at Grandma’s house to find a space-age building in its place: “Today is October 24, 2059,” a huge screen announces. The conclusion is as neat as the bow on Grandma’s birthday gift (a clock). “Be patient,” writes Caldecott Medalist Santat (The Adventures of Beekle), dedicating the book to his son. “We have all the time in the world.” His own patience is what harnesses the energy of his riotous story and gives it a laser focus. It’s a remarkable feat—a turbocharged adventure that’s also a meditation on the relative nature of time.
Tussing’s second novel, following The Best People in the World, is a clever, satisfying story about the struggle to find meaning in the lives we’ve made for ourselves. Jimmy Cross is an aging rock star accompanied on tour by Peter Silver, his new traveling physician; he’s followed by Arthur Pennyman, a fan who has been at every show for the past 20 years and blogs about it. Told from alternating perspectives, the story toggles between Peter’s reluctant submission to adventure, after being convinced to tour with the rock band, and Arthur’s pursuit of enlightenment through fandom, which ultimately becomes a metaphor for love. Arthur, who abandoned a suburban life as a husband and father after hearing Cross play for the first time, has structured his life around the singer’s touring schedule, while Peter struggles to move forward following a recent breakup and is now just going wherever the tour bus takes him. Both men have yet to discover their final destination. The novel weaves together the mystery of Peter’s connection to Cross, while offering surprising insights into the nature of identity, legacy, and what we owe to the people we love. A dazzling ending caps off this memorable novel.