Happy Stories About Well-Adjusted People by Joe Ollmann – A Review

Happy Stories About Well-Adjusted People
Joe Ollmann
Conundrum Press, 2014, 242 pg


Joe Ollmann’s  graphic novel, Happy Stories About Well-Adjusted People, is really a collection of short stories in the best sense of the word, rich in character and structure. Moreover, his work includes a broad range of characters that stretches his writing from the sometimes insular biographical approach of other graphic novelists. The dedication to his characters is what makes the collection, and the lack of any self congratulatory nods, is what makes the collection strong.

The collection contains eight stories, which split into two rough themes: adults facing a present over-saturated with the past, and kids trying to understand the present. As overwrought as those kind of stories could be, there is a heavy does of humor in Ollmann’s work. In Oh Deer a nebbish office worker agrees to go on a hunting trip with his coworkers as part of a bonding event. As someone who has never had a gun or even thought of hunting, he is initially elated when he shoots a deer. But when he takes it home he finds himself burdened with a corpse he doesn’t know what to do with. From there he goes into epic efforts to dispose of the deer, ending in a late night of digging in his back yard.

In a more hopeful vain, Hang Over, shows a man whose life is has come to nothing (several of Ollmann’s characters are in this position, but thankfully not all). His alcoholic mother ends up in the hospital and leaves his adult brother who is developmentally disabled alone. He has to step in an and take care of the brother. It is something he hates, thinks is a burden, and wants to hand off to anyone he can. He is a total mess: drinks too much, lost his girlfriend. While the story could easily veer into maudlin sentimentality a la disabled brother makes drunk sober up, Ollmann is careful to keep the story grounded in a deeper reality. One where the brother is conflicted in both directions and not able to truly understand his bothers capabilities. It gives the story a sense of ambiguity.

Ollmann is equally good at capturing the lives of teenagers are the brink of a change. In They Filmed a Movie Here Once, Ollmann draws a Catholic girl whose mother has died and lives with her father who has taken to drinking at night. It is a lonely life, one she fills with the church, but she also wants to love. But here Catholicism puts her in conflict with the two guys she meets. One would like to have sex, but she is against that. She is too strict for that (there is a scene where she goes to confession and admits to swearing). The other guy she likes confesses she has stolen something. In each case she dreams of the men, but each is a disappointment. All the while she is alone. Her father doesn’t truly understand and the women she works with in a diner are too hard bitten to help. Ollmann’s interweaving of humor, disappointment, and lingering hope make this one of his better stories. He is at his best when he can find the right mix of the three.

Ollmann’s work is the right mix of humor and disappointment, one that doesn’t dwell in hopelessness, but finds its just something that sits at the margin. Its how his characters deal with the disappointments that propel his stories .

Mister Blue by Jacques Poulin – A Review

Mister Blue
Jacques Poulin
Trans: Sheila Fischman
Archipelago, 2011, pg 174

I’m not a cat lover. Other people’s cats are fine, but I have no need for them. And yet for some reason I keep reading Jacques Poulin novels which always seem to have a cat as some central organizing theme, if not a character. In Translation Is A Love Affair, a cat is the bridge between an author and a woman . And in Mister Blue there is something similar, although in this case, the cat is less a bridge and more symbolic of writers in general, independent spirits that don’t need to be with people all the time. In his writings cats have a weight and a currency that makes the mysterious, which along with his sparse and occasionally meditative writing style, fills his work with a tranquility and reflection that belies their simple stories.

The story of Mister Blue is fairly simple. A writer living outside of Quebec City on the Saint Laurence river finds a partially read copy of the Tales on a 1001 Nights in a cave. The mysterious reader, Marika, comes and goes on her sail boat, passing through the area unnoticed. The author passes her notes, sends his brother to meet her, and even puts a mail box on the beach, all to get the opportunity to meet her. For him, she is a mysterious reader, someone who becomes enveloped in story and yet is never seen, as unreal as story itself.

Marika is a former resident of a collective of women who live with a matronly woman helps shepard troubled women through troubled times. One such woman is La Petite a young woman not even in her twenties who begins to visit the writer. She is nosy taking pleasure in looking through his things, digging into his past, a past he wants to hide for its pain. She, too, is a mystery. Something has damaged her and the writer does not probe deeply into the past. Instead, his past becomes their shared connection as she slowly pulls out of him his divorce, his interest in living in partial isolation out side of Quebec City. It is a truly Poulinesque relationship because it is one of two damaged people who create a friendship that is sparse and quiet, filled with silences and disappearances but ultimately comes to a peaceful understanding that friendship is quiet and patient respect for one another.

La Petite was curious about everything. She turned the pages of the old album unbelievably slowly; we were advancing at the rate of two or three pages an hour, because she would put her finger on every picture and ask all kinds of questions. We were comfortably ensconced in the wicker love seat with the floral cushions at our backs, our feet on the window ledge. Her legs were stretched out, mine slightly folded: that was a minor difference. There were more important ones, such as the fact that she was sixteen or seventeen years old and I was over forty, but when my work had gone well, i was capable of forgetting certain painful aspects of reality.

The above is a typical passage from Poulin and in it there is a tranquility and innocence in it. I’ve only read two of his books, but ever time I’ve come across these encounters with between older men and younger women I think there is a subtle sexuality, a longing, but it never reveals itself. Instead, it is more of a paternal element that pervades his characters. A paternality, though, that has very little rules.

Ultimately, Mister Blue leaves many mysteries open. What is remains is Poulin’s focus: the need to connect. Without connection the mystery that is other people remains unexplored. In this Poulin has a singular approach to this that make his books disarmingly simple and more complex than they seem.

Álvaro Pombo Wins the Nadal Prize with El temblor del héroe

Álvaro Pombo has won the Nadal Prize for El temblor del héroe, a book that is a criticism of the insensitivity of these times of crisis. That’s all I know about the book which will appear in February. You can read the notice from El Pais and from La Vanguardia.

From el Pais:

Además de -o por culpa de- la crisis, son tiempos en los que la gente ha perdido el entusiasmo hacia los otros; no se sabe qué actitud tomar frente a ellos; cuesta reaccionar ante cualquier drama, propio o ajeno. A un escritor de la alta sensibilidad de Álvaro Pombo no podía escapársele esa situación moral, que ha decidido volcar en un profesor universitario de Filosofía recién jubilado, atribulado en el Madrid actual, que asiste a una desgracia ante la que ni se inmuta. Así es el protagonista de El temblor del héroe, novela con la que el autor ha obtenido en Barcelona los 18.000 euros del 69º premio Nadal (que convoca ediciones Destino), decano de las letras españolas, que llegará a las librerías el 2 de febrero. Cierta añoranza por tiempos pasados más bienaventurados destila también Quan erem feliços, con la que otro veterano, aquí en lides periodísticas, el gerundense Rafael Nadal, se alzó con el 44º premio Josep Pla de prosa en catalán (6.000 euros), memorias de infancia con las que el galardón regresa a la no ficción tras 24 años de novela pura.

My Review of Translation is a Love Affair is up at the Quarterly Converastion

My review of Jacques Poulin’s Translation is a Love Affair is up at the Quarterly Conversation. Jacques Poulin is from Quebec, a city that is relatively close but can seem rather distant to someone from the US. It was a good change of pace to read a book from our neighbor to the north. The review begins

True to its title, Translation Is a Love Affair is centered around language—not only how writers and translators use it but also how it brings people together. Author Jacques Poulin’s characters see language as something to live, like a friendship, and translation is both a means of rendering one language in another and closing the distance between people, and even creatures. But that doesn’t mean Translation is a work of theory; it is a quiet novel of companionship through language.

Translation is a Love Affair – A Novel from Quebec

I haven’t read Translation is a Love Affair yet, but it seems to be popping up all over my radar screen. First Three Percent has posted a review of it and Nick’s Book Club is going to be discussing it Monday, December 28 in Seattle. I am looking forward to reviewing the book soon. I have never read anything from Quebec and though I think the idea of national literature is a little over done, it will be a welcome change.