Saturday, July 03, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 150 (7/3) -- Monkey Food by Ellen Forney

For a year or so in the late '90s, cartoonist Ellen Forney had a regular strip called "I Was Seven in '75" in a number of alternative weekly papers, primarily Seattle's The Stranger. Fantagraphics published a collection of those strips in 1999 as Monkey Food, I found that book in 2007, and finally read it the other day. The strip, as you can guess from the title, was made of of Forney's memories of her youth, focusing mostly on the mid-to-late '70s, and particularly the most "70s" aspects of that life. (So this is a ten-year-old book about events about thirty-five years old, which I've had for three years -- it's well-aged in every possible way.)

I myself was only six in '75, and my parents were much straighter and less interesting than Forney's -- no nudist camps or pot-smoking -- but we both grew up in New Jersey, which I decree gives me a better standing to review Monkey Food than anyone whose childhood was spent in one of the other forty-nine states. "I Was Seven in '75" is one of that wave of alternative-weekly comics that now seem so far away in time, the child of "Ernie Pook's Comeek" and "Life in Hell" -- like both of them, it's full of narration and text, alternating between comics panels and layouts that look more like an illustrated book, allowing more space for Forney's explanations.

Children's lives are broadly very similar across time -- friends, bullies, getting older incrementally and learning about the world as you go, the rhythms of the calendar and school year -- but radically different in the details, of what a particular generation was thinking and doing and watching and experiencing when they were a specific age. Of course, that might just be a specific case of something more general: that we're all human (and so recognize the similarities) but had different experiences. So Forney's stories, like all good stories of a specific childhood, will veer from seeming exactly like a reader's experience in the same era to seeming very different and unlikely -- and which details fall into each category will vary by the reader.

But Forney is specific here, as well as great at remembering the small details of her own life -- from Judy Blume books to hand-clap games, with dogs and church and microwaves and nicknames and the weird time-wasters children think up in between. It's a great book about being a specific kid in a specific era that will remind many readers of strange details of their own childhoods, whenever and wherever that was. (And the precise line and mobile expressions of her art help out a lot as well.)

This is a book about being a kid that most adults probably wouldn't want their own kids to read -- there's too much about nudity and drugs and wondering about sex in it, and parents always want to pretend that their kids know much less about all of that than they did at the same age -- but it's wonderful for those of us who were kids in the mid-'70s, and probably equally wonderful for those post-kids who came along earlier or later.
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index
Listening to: Okkervil River - You Can't Hold the Hand of a Rock and Roll Man
via FoxyTunes

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