I hate chick lit.
I hate that the term for young, successful women's stories sounds like a cheap piece of bubblegum and is rife with references to dieting, dating, shopping and shoes. I've had enough of Bridget Jones and Candace Bushnell, and I really don't care if the "housewives" are desperate 'cause they're having an affair with the pool boy, the plumber and their own botoxed ego. I stumble like any other mad fool when the perfect pair of shoes beckons, but it doesn't define me or hold my interest for more than a passing moment.
Author Gloria Mattioni understands this and focuses her new book, Reckless: The Outrageous Lives of Nine Kick-Ass Women (Seal Press), on the achievements of, well, nine kick-ass women. From biker chicks to scientists, poker champions to eco-pirates, Mattioni's subject matter is incredible and interminable. Her interviews with Libby Riddles, who won the 1985 Iditarod sled race, and Wilma Mankiller, who led the Cherokee Nation for more than a decade, are, without doubt, worth a read. Mattioni has created an inspirational invitation for the unsure adolescent or the recuperating athlete, although her consistent, sometimes gushing state of awe is not for all. While her idealistic passion for her subject matter is well meant, it can become tiring to those not in the realms of activism or feminist academia. The descriptions of her subjects as "doe-eyed" or "radiant and younger (looking)" detract from the substance of the stories and angle the book to an almost strictly female audience.
Maybe I've become a bit cynical, but I prefer the universal over the gender specific, and author/illustrator Jessica Abel addresses this perfectly on her website when confronted by the f-word.
She says, "I am an ardent and declared feminist, not afraid of the label, but I simply allow my view of the world to inform my writing, not dictate it." Abel's new graphic novel, La Perdida, follows half-Latina Carla during a year in Mexico City. Naïve and longing for some kind of authentic experience, she makes every possible mistake a floundering ex-pat can, and then some. Abel's developed a simple style; her bold lines delineate only what's necessary for her character's development while her ability to create atmosphere and location carries the action throughout. Although the author is a born-and-bred Chicago girl, she spent two years living in Mexico City, and this does everything to up her confident style, giving her an experiential tone that makes the story believable.
Another great coming-of-age/ex-pat story is Ariel Gore's Atlas of the Human Heart, a memoir of the author's teenage travels that was lauded as a girl's version of On the Road when it came out in 2003. This year, Gore is back with an oddly enchanting tale that follows Frankka, a young, utterly confused stigmatic, as she too takes to the road in The Traveling Death and Resurrection Show: A Novel (HarperSanFrancisco). Gore's penchant for melding the fantastic with the everyday is back in full force as Frankka attempts to meld her grandmother's Catholic rearing with her mystic experiences, personal disillusionment and her oddball surrogate family of traveling performers. While Gore can get caught up in her own descriptions, Frankka's inserted stories of the saints keep the book moving. It's an easy, accessible read, recommended for those recovering from the hell of institutionalized religion, without rejecting the joy of tradition and the amazement of the unexplained.
Meanwhile, in the art-book world, Camille Rose Garcia is busy explaining post-modern predicaments with pretty pictures. Easily described as Walt Disney's ominous granddaughter, Garcia's work investigates the obscured side of fantasia as she superimposes the modern plagues of fear onto wide-eyed, cartoon-styled animals and droopy-lidded girls. She cites as influences her upbringing just outside of Disneyland, The Clash, The Dead Kennedys, Philip K. Dick and William Burroughs, and it shows. In her first collection of work, The Happiest Place on Earth, one finds pallid Pinocchio-like creatures sawing off their elongated noses in a maniacal attempt at relief from the conscience that may or may not be what keeps them human.
In the same way clowns are used to bring about a tragedy, Garcia understands that these sweet-faced dolls and alarmingly adorable creatures offer us an unflinching view of our modern carnage. Her work, while obviously dissatisfied with the current abominations of war, self-medication and greed, isn't angry or easily stereotyped by its dark overtures. Her most recent book, The Saddest Place on Earth (Last Gasp), contains six of Garcia's recent shows, from 2000 to 2006, and proves her to be one of the best pop surrealists of our time.