Virunga by the Stanford University Graphic Novel Project (Review)

I’m going to preface my review by saying that this book was put together almost entirely by a bunch of undergraduates taking a class in college. I say that not because I’m about to give it a bad review, but because I’m actually about to give it quite a good one, and I want to acknowledge that it means a lot.

I’ve owned a copy of Virunga for a loooong time. I picked it up for free at the release party years ago, but, while it seemed interesting, I pretty much put it on a shelf for years until rather recently when I watched the documentary of the same title (but no affiliation) and re-remembered the graphic novel. The movie had struck me with the visual beauty and scale of the giant national park, as well as the intensity of the conflict over resources and money in the region.

The graphic novel follows a young girl named Malika who lives in a refugee camp. Her uncle makes coal from old growth trees, which is illegal, but helps keep the refugees alive by giving them much needed heat for cooking and other life needs. Malika draws gorillas and the people she encounters to help deal with the loss of contact with her parents and the daily stresses of the refugee camp.

She meets a bunch of rangers one day in the forest, rangers who are keeping tabs on a different armed rebel groups and trying to stop poaching. All of these characters rely on each other in some way in a complicated ecosystem where right and wrong are hard to decipher.

The book would have been interesting even as an ordinary novel, but the fact that it is a graphic one of course adds something extra. The illustrations lend extra personality to each of the characters and help control the pace of the story — when to pause over a dramatic moment, and when to keep reading onto the next frame.

After reading Virunga I really want to pick up another graphic novel, maybe Persepolis, which I’ve been meaning to get to for a while as well. Anyone else got suggestions for graphic novels that are must-reads?


September Book Finds

Fall has started and while I’m a little sad to be ushering in colder weather soon, I’m also enjoying the change and the freshness to the air that the season of seasons brings. This month I found myself adding a bunch of books to my list of to-reads. Here are a few that I decided to highlight:

Horrorstor: A Novel by Grady Hendrix
This is one of those books that I probably never would have found on my own. But through the network of other book bloggers I encountered this kitchy visual mystery. The format of the book alone and the graphics (modeled after an IKEA catalog) are enough to make me curious about what’s inside.

Hardwiring Happiness: The Practical Science of Reshaping Your Brain–and Your Life by Rick Hanson
Happiness. It’s what we all want, right? And what if that happiness or at least a better sense of well-being is actually something we can move toward with a change in how we think? That’s an idea I’ve held onto as a life philosophy for a while, and I’m curious to see the analysis and suggestions that Hanson has for how to perceive–and live–better.

Fire Shut Up in My Bones by Charles Blow
I read an excerpt from this book somewhere, now I can’t remember where, and I was taken away by the powerful prose that Blow uses to talk about his past. I’m always on the search for memoirs by people of color that diversify the literature of our life experiences, and it seems that this one will definitely fit the bill.