Review: My Friend Dahmer

My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf. Abrams Comic Arts. 2012. Personal copy. Graphic Novel. Alex Award Winner.

It’s About: A graphic novel memoir by Derf Backderf, a classmate of Jeffrey Dahmer. This is not the story of a serial killer; it is a look at the childhood and teen years of Jeffrey Dahmer, before his first murder. (Note: nothing graphic is shown in My Friend Dahmer.)

What was Dahmer like, then? Were there signs of the serial killer he would become? And if there were, why did no one do anything?

The Good: Of course, I had heard of My Friend Dahmer. Read the reviews. And, as some of you who follow me on my Twitter feed know, I watch TV shows about real and fictitious serial killers. And yet — despite the Alex Award — I was still hesitant.

Then I heard Backderf speak at ALA (both at the YALSA Coffee Klatch and the Alex Awards program) and I changed my mind.

My Friend Dahmer is about Jeffrey Dahmer, and Backderf didn’t rely solely on his memories in writing this. He also did extensive research, showing the reader more about Dahmer than what the teen Backderf knew or suspected. (This is part of what intrigued me: the extensive research for the book).

But, My Friend Dahmer is also about a time and a place, the late seventies, that is a different world than the world that today’s teens would know. The fathers went to work, the mothers stayed home. A combination of baby boomer teens and the seventies recession meant overcrowded schools. While I’m a good eight or so years younger than Backderf and his classmates, there was still something so familiar about the setting and time he describes, down to schools having designated smoking areas for both students and teachers. And that also made me quite interested in My Friend Dahmer.

Teenage Dahmer “was the loneliest kid I’d ever met,” Backderf explains. Backderf proceeds to be brutally honest about himself and his friends, in a way that time allows. Backderf has real friends (Neil, Kent, Mike) and together they are fascinated by the eccentricities of Dahmer. Dahmer is a loner but he also does strange things: he “threw fake epileptic fits and mimicked the slurred speech and spastic tics of someone with cerebral palsy.” Backderf and his friends are amused by this (at one point Backderf also observes they were bored in the suburbs with little to do).

Later on, Dahmer also comes to school drunk and drinks continuously at school.

Do Backderf and his friends say anything? No; they had no idea that Dahmer was already being haunted by dark sadistic fantasies. (The author is clear that for any pity he feels for Jeff, that ended with the first murder.) Because of Backderf’s research, the reader (and the adult Backderf) knows what is going on in Dahmer’s head. It’s a bit jarring, the contrast between watching Dahmer lay in wait to kill someone and then being in the classroom with his friends who think he’s just being different.

Backderf’s defense, and it’s a good one, is that they were typical teenagers and self-absorbed and had no idea. Actually, it’s more than a defense: it’s a clear eyed look at how teens thought, how he as a teen thought. I appreciated that he neither downplayed nor exaggerated the time period. (Note to people writing memoirs or stories told about their teen years: yes, sometimes time must pass to be truly honest about that time period.) But where were the adults? Why did his antics go uncommented on at school? How did he get away with being drunk for about two years of school? I wondered — what could be excused by the time period, and what by adults ignoring the obvious because it’s easier?

Other reviews: Wrapped Up In Books; The Hub Interview with Derf Backderf; Bookshelves of Doom.

Review: Rapture Practice

Rapture Practice by Aaron Hartzler. Little, Brown & Co. 2013. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

It’s About: Aaron Hartzler’s memoir about growing up in an ultra-religious Christian family. It is funny; touching; rebellious; believing; and loving.

The Good: I have a bit of a fascination with religion, especially those that say they have the answers. In a world that is at times messy, and unclear, how reassuring to have, well, a guidebook telling you what to do. I watch shows like 19 Kids and Counting or Polygamy USA and wonder, what about the kids who aren’t satisfied with such a black and white worldview? What happens when that guidebook doesn’t work for you?

Rapture Practice is about one of those kids.

Hartzler writes with love and honesty and respect for his parents, their religion, and the way they raised him and his siblings. His parents do everything they can to have young Aaron and his siblings follow the path of his parents, including keeping such secular things as popular music, television, and movies out of their lives and having all the children attend strict Christian schools.

Young Aaron believes: “when I say we believe that Jesus is coming back, I don’t mean metaphorically . . . I mean literally, like glance out of the car window and, “Oh, hey, there’s Jesus in the sky.” Yet as time goes by, he cannot help but question; cannot help but have questions that his parent’s doctrine doesn’t answer.

Such as, what is so wrong with popular music? Or movies? Why does his father not see that the messages found there can be about love, or friendship, or forgiveness? Is watching the movie Pretty Woman really a danger?

As Aaron grows, he begins to do more and more things that he knows his parents would disapprove of; or, worse, be disappointed by, because disobeying them, and rebelling against them, is the same as rebelling against Jesus. He knows that he shouldn’t, but he does — he goes to movies. He listens to rock music. He dreams of becoming an actor. He pays attention to the clothes he wears. He watches TV at his friends’ houses. He tries a beer. He kisses girls. He drinks. He does all the things his parents don’t want him to. And yet — yet he wants to please his parents. He wonders why he has to pick; why he has to lie.

Some things I cannot emphasize enough: just how funny Rapture Practice is. And just how loving Aaron’s parents are. This is not a memoir about abusive religious parents. Aaron’s parents love him and want what is best for him; they believe and they want Aaron to believe. They have created a warm, loving, caring family. Rapture Practice is one reason I like non-fiction, because this type of complexity, that Aaron’s parents can be both loving and restrictive, warm and controlling, is something hard to find in fiction. Aaron’s moment of coming of age is not embracing independence by moving on from his family; rather, it’s the recognition that he has to accept them as they are in the same way that he desires to be accepted by them.

Part of Aaron’s high school years includes relationships with girls. It’s part of what could get him in trouble with his parents and his school, because saving oneself for marriage is something taken very seriously. Yet, it’s also part of what Aaron does to fit in, to hide from himself and his parents and his friends that he may like boys. It’s heartbreaking, reading how Aaron sits through classes about the abomination of homosexuality, and his take away is a that the two guys shown kissing are look like him; “it looked like they were nice guys who were nice to each other.” Kissing girls hides this the world, and from himself. But as I said, see the humor even here, in that the very film whose point was to show Aaron just how wrong being gay is instead ended up being one of the series of things leading him to the recognition that he likes boys; and that people who are gay weren’t so different after all. So it’s sad and it’s funny; and I want to say to Aaron, it’s going to be OK; and I’m glad that since this is a memoir, it’s a built in spoiler that it gets better for Aaron.

Yes; this is a Favorite Book Read in 2013. Because it is warm and wonderful and full of joy; while at the same time, showing just how damaging narrowness can be.

Other reviews: Forever Young Adult; The Nervous Breakdown Interview; Lambda Literary Review; Book Riot; Leila Roy (Bookshelves of Doom) at Kirkus; The Librarian Writer.

Review: Relish

Relish: My Life In The Kitchen by Lucy Knisley. First Second. 2013. Review copy from publisher.

It’s About: Relish is a memoir/coming of age book about food and cooking, told in a graphic novel format.

The Good: It’s a memoir. And coming of age book. About food. And cooking. In a graphic novel format. What else do you need to know about how great it is?

Knisley starts with childhood memories, and Relish takes her all the way after college, and the focus, of course, is food. And it’s all kinds of food, from creme brulee to oysters to foie gras to boxed macaroni and cheese, frozen dough croissants and fast food burgers and fries.

Recipes and remembrances of food are woven through Knisley’s story: of being a city kid in Manhattan, until her parents divorce and she moves with her mother to the country. Knisley is at first a reluctant country girl, but eventually grows to appreciate her new home — especially the new, fresh food. Significant trips and vacations, choices for school, what art means to her — all of these are part of Relish, which is much about relishing life as it is about relishing food.

Be warned: Relish will make you hungry! There are recipes and food advice (such as why not use the store bought croissants in a tube?), plus just tons of talk about fresh vegetables and eggs from chickens and croissants and cheese….

Relish will also make you laugh. Knisley has a great way with words: “my parents moved to New York City in the late seventies, where they lived the kind of Manhattan life that has since migrated to Brooklyn.” And, of course, a great way with pictures. I loved the panel where a frustrated and angry young Lucy tries to hail a cab to take her back to Manhattan — as her mother doubles over in laughter, because of course there are no cabs to be had.

The illustrations also make the recipes friendlier — at least to someone like me. Never more than a couple of pages long, the recipes from Spice Tea to Pasta Carbonara seem to be something even I could make because, hello, pictures!

I think perhaps one of my favorite sections is the part about Knisley and her mother raising chickens. Because I know a thing or two about chickens and what they are really like and all the eggs and the animals that eat them. That aren’t us.

Because while food is obviously important to Knisley, it’s clear that it’s part of her life, not her Life. Because Relish made me hungry and made me laugh. Because I just want to hang out with Knisley, and ask her what cheese goes best with Fig Balsamic Vinegar. Because I want to pick up copies to give to everyone. Because Relish shows the depth of graphic novels. This is a Favorite Book Read in 2013.

Other reviews: Reading Rants


Review: Bossypants

Bossypants by Tina Fey. Reagan Arthur Books, an imprint of Little, Brown. 2011. Audiobook narrated by Tina Fey (Little, Brown 2011). Listened to audiobook, borrowed from the library. Vacation reads (aka, when I talk about books for grownups and post them before holidays. St. Patrick’s Day counts.)

It’s About: Tina Fey writes about her life.

The Good: Tina Fey writes about her life. Or, rather, in this case because it’s an audiobook, Tina Fey talks about her life, so it was like I was carpooling with Tina Fey for a week and she never shut up and it was AWESOME.

It’s Tina Fey’s book, goshdarnit, so she writes what she wants to — about different things in her life, primarily about her career but also some personal anecdotes as well. This is not a linear autobiography, but rather a story of a journey to being the creator and star of 30 Rock.

So, yes, this is funny; and it shows the path to where she is now. You want some laughs, you want to find out how she got into the TV business, you’ll enjoy this book.

I wasn’t going to read this book; oh, yes, I appreciate Tina Fey’s work, but it’s not like I was a fangirl. Then Sophie Brookover told me I had to read this, not just read but listen to Bossypants, because of what Tina Fey says about gender and being a working woman and working hard and being accomplished and sexism. And, well, when Sophie tells you to something, you do it.

And now I am a fangirl. Because yes, Tina Fey is funny and I laughed myself silly but even better, Tina Fey is smart and observant and knows how to explain just what is wrong and why and what to do about it, about work and life and feminism and careers and everything. And much as I loved carpooling with Tina Fey, now I want to buy the book so I can mark it up for all the quotes I’m going to be using forever.

Don’t waste your energy trying to educate or change opinions; go over, under, through, and opinions will change organically when you’re the boss. Or they won’t. Who cares? Do your thing, and don’t care if they like it.” This, this, this. Who cares. Just do. your. thing.  Note she’s not saying to be quiet, she’s not saying not to do your stuff, she’s saying don’t waste energy on closed ears and don’t let that stop you from your path. Tina Fey (I’m sorry, we’re not friends so I cannot call her Tina) also makes terrific points about women being bosses: not because women are better or smarter or more compassionate but because being the boss means you can do your thing.

And this: ““My unsolicited advice to women in the workplace is this. When faced with sexism, or ageism, or lookism, or even really aggressive Buddhism, ask yourself the following question: “Is this person in between me and what I want to do?” If the answer is no, ignore it and move on. Your energy is better used doing your work and outpacing people that way. Then, when you’re in charge, don’t hire the people who were jerky to you.” Of course, the trick here is determining whether the person is indeed between me and what I want to do. And note again, the reason to be in charge — to control who you work with. Or who you don’t.

And this, about the falseness and reality of competition: ““This is what I tell young women who ask me for career advice. People are going to try to trick you. To make you feel that you are in competition with one another. “You’re up for a promotion. If they go for a woman, it’ll be between you and Barbara.” Don’t be fooled. You’re not in competition with other women. You’re in competition with everyone.”

And, finally, (and finally only because otherwise I’d be quoting the entire book) when someone talks to you in a way that is demeaning, insulting, or bullying (her context is being called the c-word but I think it works in other areas): “A coworker at SNL dropped an angry c-bomb on me and I had the weirdest reaction. To my surprise, I blurted, “No. You don’t get to call me that. My parents love me. I’m not some Adult Child of an Alcoholic that’s going to take that shit.”

So. Yes. Read this book. And of course it’s a Favorite Book Read in 2013.