new england literary news | nina maclaughlin

Graphic novel tells story of 2016 election and a crumbling marriage; MIT Press publishes photos of Chinese artist, activist

An illustration from James Sturm’s “Off Season.”
An illustration from James Sturm’s “Off Season.” James Sturm/"Off Season'' by James Sturm

A graphic novel about family in today’s world

The grim 2016 election season and its aftermath is both backdrop and foreground to James Sturm’s powerful new graphic novel Off Season’’ (Drawn & Quarterly).

The story follows Mark, a carpenter who’s not getting paid, and the dissolution of his marriage to Lisa. It is about the real and daily woes of the job of trying to keep head-above-water under tides of demands of children, work, love. That she supports Hillary Clinton and he Bernie Sanders is both point of contention as well as reflection of their differences.

Sturm, who co-founded the Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont, as well as the Seattle alternative newsweekly The Stranger, works in a minimal palette of gray-blue, suggesting the chill of the New England late fall in which it’s set.


Sturm captures the moment when frustration boils to rage. “Maybe two people liking something for different reasons is only a fight waiting to happen,” Mark thinks.

The weight of family (individual burdens of depression, illness, money) vie with moments of connection and warmth (a child asleep in the arms, a connecting conversation on the phone, an arm brushing against an arm). The ache of a specific sort of masculine longing and restraint is powerfully articulated — fittingly the book has been compared to the work of Raymond Carver. Sturm, who is reading at Harvard Book Store at 7 p.m. on Feb. 22, has made a book that feels true to the current moment.

A look at an artist becoming himself

This week, the MIT Press publishes a monumental collection of photographs by an iconic Chinese artist and activist. Ai Weiwei: Beijing Photographs 1993-2003’’ includes over 600 images and documents a decade in his life following his 10 years in New York (recalled in “Ai Weiwei: New York 1983-1993’’) and before he was put in prison and achieved worldwide fame. The photographs, organized by year, constitute “a visual diary of a decade,” writes John Tancock in an introductory essay (the book also includes interviews with Ai). Street scenes, images of his father’s decline and death, pals, artists, family, many middle fingers given to various places (a field of cows, the Reichstag in Berlin, the Guggenheim Museum). Images of his studio in Longzhuashu, Beijing are arresting, offering a look at process, of an artist becoming himself. “Everything is art,” Ai says. “Everything is politics.”


A middle-grade novel dealing with anorexia

Chelmsford author Jen Petro-Roy’s experience with an eating disorder and exercise addiction informs the writing of Good Enough’’ (Feiwel & Friends), a middle-grade novel out this week about 12-year-old Riley and her stay at a treatment facility for anorexia. Petro-Roy explores the insidious inner voices, so hard to quiet, that tell lies about our bodies. “How am I supposed to know what to do if I don’t know what I weigh?” Riley asks herself. The portrait of the young track athlete, aspiring artist, and older sister, as well as her flawed parents and the people at the clinic is voicey and apt. The book is a resource, and a hopeful one; through Riley, Petro-Roy shows, there is a path to quieting the voices and getting healthy.

Coming out

“Lethal Theater” by Susannah Nevison (Ohio State University)

Famous Children and Famished Adults’’ by Evelyn Hampton (Fiction Collective)

Nobody’s Looking at You: Essays’’ by Janet Malcolm (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Pick of the week

Rick Kowarek at Books by the Sea in Centerville recommends Mudbound’’ by Hillary Jordan (Algonquin): “Set in the Mississippi Delta in 1946, this tale tells the tragic story of economic hardship and the brutal consequences of racism in the Deep South. City-bred Laura McAllen is forced to learn how to cope when her husband decides to follow his love of the land. She finds solace in her husband’s charming, but troubled brother. Storytelling at its best.”


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Nina MacLaughlin is the author of “Hammer Head: The Making of a Carpenter.” She can be reached at nmaclaughlin@gmail.com.