Claire Pincumbe

LEAVING RICHARD'S VALLEY

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LEAVING RICHARD’S VALLEY BY MICHAEL DEFORGE

Michael DeForge’s Leaving Richard’s Valley invites you in with its quirky style and zany characters—keeps you reading with unexpected turns, insights into city living, and subtle commentary on modern capitalism. “Do you ever get this feeling that living in a city is kind of like being at a party that’s gone on too long?” asks Paul the Spider, one of the many creatures that has joined Richard’s Valley, a health-obsessed cult that has turned its back on the “toxicity” (both metaphorical and literal) of the city and has made a home in a Toronto public park. Their leader, Richard, is vapid, enigmatic, and slowly growing bored of his followers and the life he has built for them. When a group of friends breaks Richard’s strict rules to save Lyle the Raccoon from a mysterious illness, they are exiled by Richard and his fanatical lackey, Caroline the Frog. Forced to make their way in a city plagued with cults and gentrification, the animal friends quest for a home, a community, and a purpose in their new world.

Michael DeForge’s simple, delightfully bizarre style opens the mind to new interpretations of faith, the hero’s journey, and the purpose of art in the modern world. Entirely black and white, this is a world in which spiders become masseuses and supermodels, snakes fall in love with raccoons, and butterflies interrupt the narrative to provide the history of fictional places. A witty and strange rumination on cult mentality, obsessive love, and city life, Leaving Richard’s Valley surprises the reader with each page.

Drawn & Quarterly.

—Review by Claire Pincumbe

BLAME THIS ON THE BOOGIE

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BLAME THIS ON THE BOOGIE BY RINA AYUYANG

Rina Ayuyang’s graphic memoir, Blame This on the Boogie, reads like a sequence of freestyle dance numbers of her life, chronicling her childhood, motherhood, and career, as well as the ways in which music has propelled her through each. Music and dance rule the world of Rina’s imagination—help her through school boredom and bullying, and live in her adult mind as a place of escapism, obsession, and artistic appreciation. Boogie is a love letter to the style and art of golden age musicals, to football, dance, and family, and an exploration of the ways in which we cope with juggling the thrills and responsibilities of daily life.

Ayuyang’s stunning, bold style leaps off the page and draws you in close, pulling you into the images where you find tiny captions, thoughts, and text hidden on road signs and football jerseys. The bright colored pencil drawings slide from realistic to otherworldly with the grace of a broadway musical changing scenes—at times combining memory with song or football practice with dance number. Reminiscent of concept art for animation, these images thrum with movement and life. Blame This on the Boogie manages to create its own beat, a visual rhythm that sweeps you through to the last page.

Drawn & Quarterly.

—Review by Claire Pincumbe

ÖRÆFI: THE WASTELAND

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ÖRÆFI: THE WASTELAND BY ÓFEIGUR SIGURÐSSON, TRANSLATED BY LYTTON SMITH

Öræfi: The Wasteland, Ófeigur Sigurðsson’s stunning novel, translated by Lytton Smith, opens on an injured Austrian toponymist—naive, curious, passionate to a fault—ostensibly arriving at Skaftafell National Park Visitor’s Center after dragging himself down a glacier. There, he is treated by a vacationing veterinarian, the brilliant, frenzied Dr. Lassi, and the two swap tales of how they, and the wasteland, have come to be there. What follows is a collection of Icelandic stories, realist and mythic, historical and fictional, nestled inside an epic adventure. It is at once a history of place, and a man’s intensely personal journey through the elements of the land, and of his own mind. A delightfully complex play on the epistolary novel, the narration of Öræfi is layered, at times coming to us through five or six levels of character interpretation.

On translating Öræfi, Lytton Smith says: “The fiction of translation is physical: a translation is a creation in which one geography gets moved to another.” Read Öræfi to be transported to a world of beauty, horror, treasure, and ghosts. Full of tall tales, mighty storms, mysterious sheep, and impossibly large traveling trunks, Öræfi: The Wasteland draws you in to its baffling web, asks you to linger in this brutal, exquisite place

Deep Vellum.

—Review by Claire Pincumbe

THE GOVERNESSES

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THE GOVERNESSES BY ANNE SERRE, TRANSLATED BY MARK HUTCHINSON

Mark Hutchinson’s translation of Anne Serre’s elegant French novella, The Governesses, brims with restless energy and fairy-tale eroticism. Addictively sensual and subtly violent, the titular trio of governesses emotionally manipulate the house staff, ignore their pupils, and devour handsome strangers who wander to their gates. They perform for the old man watching them through his telescope, always aware of his gaze. Stunning, selfish, and seemingly ageless, like baroque sculptures come to life, the governesses explore the house’s enchanted, endless gardens, packed with every place and experience that they’ve ever known, and explore their sexual and romantic power over those around them.

In her simple, elegant style, Serre often directly invites the reader into her carefully crafted, waking dream world, and shows us all the contradicting sides of these women, their strengths in the strangeness of their world and in their own exceptional loveliness, as well as their weaknesses when the realities of the outside world invade their home. Like the book itself, they are at times frenzied, while at others, they turn dark and sweet, never fully forming, never submitting to capture. Anne Serre’s debut in English, The Governesses is exhilarating and hedonistic, an enchantingly dark French fable that delights to the last line.

New Directions.

—Review by Claire Pincumbe

BITTER ORANGE

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BITTER ORANGE BY CLAIRE FULLER

Set in the summer of  1969, Claire Fuller’s sensational story of guilt, voyeurism, and sexual obsession burns deliciously while it holds a mystery open at the center, until its final moments. From her deathbed, Frances Jellico recalls meeting and living with Clara and Peter, a seductive couple, in an ornate, decaying mansion. Here she quickly finds herself lost in the beautiful maze of their charms and lies. As an aging, socially inexperienced academic who’s used to caring only for her ailing mother, Frances is surprised and then delighted by the intensity of their friendship that catches her in an all-consuming and decadent spiral toward catastrophe. The glamorous couple, and even Frances herself, are just as enigmatic and damaged as the mansion they are meant to be surveying—peel back another layer and something new and crumbling waits.

Fuller’s language too is as hedonistic as her characters—dark, atmospheric, and bittersweet—lingering just long enough to grab at your senses. A mystery lies at the heart of this slippery novel, unfolding piece by piece, and never quite what it seems. For as soon as you have the story in your grasp, Bitter Orange darts away, proves you wrong, and drags you in deeper and through to the very last page.

Tin House.

—Review by Claire Pincumbe

NARRATOR

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NARRATOR BY BRAGI ÓLAFSSON, TRANSLATED BY LYTTON SMITH

Lytton Smith’s English translation of Bragi Ólafsson’s Narrator is as compelling and readable as it is bizarre. Our narrator, G.’s otherwise mundane day is interrupted when he spots an old romantic rival, Aron, at the post office. Abandoning his task, he proceeds to stalk his perceived adversary through the city of Reykjavik, casting suspicions about Aron’s actions, and reminiscing about his unrequited love. G. is both endearing and vaguely sinister as we move through his surreal story. The more we learn about his life, his past, and his views of the world, the more we question the truth he is presenting to us.

Ólafsson bends rules of tense and perspective, and Narrator is made all the better by it. Hopping between first and third, between past and present, these breaks in form capture G.’s erratic temperament, and explore the psychic distance between character and narrator. G. strives for objectivity, wants to cast himself as the hero, but cannot help slipping back into his own obsessive, unreliable mind. The kind of novel that teaches you how to read it while you’re reading it, Narrator asks odd, fascinating questions about the function of the narrator as a character, and the reliability of self-reflections and our accounts of ourselves.

Open Letter.

—Review by Claire Pincumbe

THE STRANGE

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THE STRANGE, BY JÈRÔME RUILLIER, TRANSLATED BY HELGE DASCHER

The first of Jérôme Ruillier’s graphic novels to be translated into English, The Strange, offers readers an intricate and poignant exploration of the daily struggles faced by an undocumented immigrant in a fictional, amalgamated Western city. The protagonist, a “strange” in this new city, starts his journey with nothing but hope and a small amount of money, both of which are siphoned away as he is pushed into a corrupt, unbearable cycle of abuse, xenophobia, and betrayal. After the brief opening the protagonist’s language isn’t translated on the page—instead, his story is told by those he encounters. Some help him, some fear him, but rarely does anyone understand him. It is only through their eyes that we see the protagonist and even to the reader, he is a “strange.” Rather than inviting us into the protagonist’s head, we are invited to witness the facts of his circumstances, his constant fear in this new place and the hostility he encounters from every direction.

Ruillier’s straightforward and striking style lends itself perfectly to the themes of the novel, and the simple, limited color palette points the reader’s focus to the elements that the author chooses to highlight. By depicting the characters as non-human animals and stripping away all real world identifiers of people and place, Ruillier gives the novel a sense of global authenticity. The Strange is a universal story, an unflinching portrayal of the vulnerability of the undocumented, and a commentary on the rights and comforts taken for granted by those who so harshly judge the “strange.”

Drawn & Quarterly.

—Review by Claire Pincumbe

SHIT IS REAL

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SHIT IS REAL BY AISHA FRANZ

Aisha Franz’s graphic novel Shit is Real is a quiet, dream-like look into the life of a young woman, lost. After a difficult breakup, Selma finds herself unable to relate to friends or accomplish simple tasks, and sinks into a state of depression—portrayed by Franz as a stark, alien desert on the outskirts of civilization. Desperate to be pulled out of her life, when Selma learns that her stylish neighbor has left on vacation and forgotten her keys, she tries on her life like an ill-fitting hat. Her emotions rise off the page, each disappointment, each small struggle breaks the heart.

But here in a world that comes across both strange and frighteningly realistic, Franz is able to comment on the concept of social currency as self-worth and the strangling hold of technology on society. With her bold style, Franz magnifies the ways in which abstraction conveys emotional truth beyond the capability of realism. Characters don’t just express embarrassment. They melt off the page. Loneliness and hope are experienced in the space of a large, sparsely populated fish tank. A unique portrait of modern loneliness, Shit is Real explores what it means to be lost in one’s own life.

Drawn & Quarterly.

—Review by Claire Pincumbe