Wednesday, June 30, 2010

A Little Less Dumb than I Would've Been: The Photographer by Guilbert, Lefevre, and Lemercier

"It's hard to describe all that the Afghans gave us,"  Robert observed.  "I reckon that thanks to them we're just a little less dumb than we would've been".

I don't normally review adult books here, but I'm making an exception for The Photographer, since I think it has such great "crossover potential", as we say in the biz;  in other words, I think many older teens could get a lot out of it.  I sure did. 
The Photographer is a collaboration between Didier Lefevre, photographer, and his close friend Emmanuel Guilbert, graphic novelist.   In July of 1986 Didier agreed to accompany a group of medical professionals from MSF  (Doctors Without Borders)  who were setting up a clinic in rural Afghanistan.  His task as a photojournalist was to document the group's journey to their destination and the work of the clinic they set up.  He came home to his native France three months later with four thousand photographs.  Six were published that year in a French newspaper. Some of the remainder were published in Didier's 2002 photography book Voyages en Afghanistan.  Many more appear throughout the remarkable pages of this book. 

What this book gave me was a sense of really being shown, in the finest detail,  another, very foreign, part of the world under the heightened circumstances of war.  The sense of immediacy Didier's photographs give the book is really profound.  In an interview, Guibert explains that The Photographer is really documenting three different things;  the work that goes into photojournalism, the work of NGO medical aide groups such as Medicins Sans Frontiers, and the lives of the people in certain regions of Afghanistan at a particular moment in history.  I found each thread fascinating.  Much of it surprised me--for example, I was shocked at the huge task it was for the party to simply get to their destination.  Because Soviet troops were controlling the roads, Didier, the doctors, and their guides walked overland for several weeks to reach the rural community they were there to treat.  By "walking overland" I mean crossing mountains on foot, sometimes in the dark to avoid being fired on by Soviet planes.  This was a physically gruelling experience that left Didier stripped of all his body fat. On the other hand, I was moved by the many photographs of elderly Afghani men carrying their grandchildren around on their backs and otherwise caring for their grandsons and granddaughters.  These aren't images I would have expected to come out of a patriarchal Islamic culture. 

Here are some parting images from Didier's camera:

Monday, June 21, 2010

Mercury by Hope Larson

I've always been interested in Hope Larson's graphic books, which are so graceful and elegant and dreamily imaginative. Up until now, my favourites have been the earlier ones, Salamander Dream and Gray Horses.  Despite their simplicity and lightness I find them linger-worthy.  Larson's latest has a more complex, plot-driven story than her early work and is perfectly suited for tween girls who like romance, family dramas, or historical fiction but like them a little off-beat.  

Mercury  is deliciously shadowy and mystical, with a very strong sense of place. It's set in a small Nova Scotian community, French Hill,  at two different points in history.   Larson does a beautiful job of showing us the landscape of that part of the world, beginning with a gorgeous five-page  sequence showing the passing of time from the 1400s onwards, and the marks that various groups of humans have left on the land that becomes French Hill.  Her landscape includes some supernatural creatures which blend in with the forests and skies while adding an otherworldly dimension.

Larson shifts us  back and forth between the years 1859 and 2009 as we follow the separate stories of two young teens, Josey Fraser and her modern look-alike and descendant, Tara Fraser. Josey's story involves a mysterious young man, Asa, who appears at her family farm claiming to have found gold on their land.  As he becomes more involved with her and her family, Josey develops feelings for Asa.  These lead  lead her to clash with her mother, who views Asa with deep suspicion.  Tara, meanwhile, is in conflict with her mother around the fate of the family homestead, which has burned down.  Their two stories are linked not only by kinship and location but also by a secret treasure. 

I loved both the writing and the visuals in this book and felt that they complemented each other perfectly.  Larson is a true artist and a wonderful storyteller, all rolled up into one great package.  I look forward to reading more of her work.