January 7, 2013

Building Stories

I spent part of my winter break at a lovely vacation rental surrounded by family. There were several days of rain, which left us free to guiltlessly sit around reading in front of the fireplace. In anticipation of this, before the trip I'd purchased a copy of BUILDING STORIES, a new graphic novel by Chris Ware.

"This is a present for everyone," I announced. And then I guiltlessly started reading it, because one of the great things about this work is that it can be enjoyed by many readers at the same time.

BUILDING STORIES is packaged in a large box like a board game. Inside are 14 separate printed materials in formats that include hardcover books, pamphlets, and newspapers. These 14 pieces make up the story, and they can be read in any order, which is why this is so perfect for sharing. (Don't forget to read the box, too!)

You can dive in anywhere, but I do recommend the piece that looks like a game board as a starting point because it provides a good overview of all the characters. That's one of the mostly wordless sections where the pictures tell the whole story. Others have plenty of text, both inside speech bubbles and as narrative "voiceover". There's a variety of storytelling and some different visual styles, but all of it is presented with Ware's clean, colorful drawings that simultaneously evoke cartoons and convey detailed human gestures and emotion. You can see samples at NPR Books and in the New York Times review.

Reading these stories in the company of loved ones is also a good idea because this is a depressing work overall, with a central theme of loneliness. Most of the characters are miserable most of the time, though there are moments of exquisite happiness, particularly in the parts focusing on a mother's love for her child. I cried a few times while reading, but I didn't mind. I found this a very honest and realistic portrayal of the different stages of several lives, detailing both the good and the bad of romance, marriage, parenting, and families.

This is a beautiful, touching work that succeeds at addressing the big stuff like death as well as the tiny moments that make up a life. I would have appreciated the story even in a more conventional format, and the presentation adds an extra layer or two to the experience. BUILDING STORIES is well worth reading.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Jacket Copy, Hector Tobar resolves to tackle bookshelf chaos: "My book collection is in a state of disorder many decades in the making. I have books boxed and shelved in four different places. More than once in the last few years, I've gone to a bookstore to buy a copy of a book I need and which I already own -- but which I can't find, despite driving back and forth across L.A. to the places where my books live."

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