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Book Reviews Gabrielle Bell’s Everything is Flammable, Cathy Malkasian’s Eartha and Kristen Radtke’s Imagine Wanting Only This, reviewed

Everything is Flammable

By Gabrielle Bell

Uncivilized, 160 pages, $37.50

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Gabrielle Bell built her previous books around small dramas, those moments of life that seem so out of place they verge into fantasy. A stranger in the throes of a seizure by the subway, the too-friendly attentions of a contractor – Bell carefully preserves such disruptions, again, in her new memoir, but this one has more of a crisis at its centre: Her mother's house, in the off-the-grid mountains of Northern California, burns down one night, a continent away from Bell's Hudson Valley home. The artist thrives on bearing witness to life's precarious whims, her tone perched carefully between deadpan humour and real dismay, populating her anecdotes with walk-on parts from taciturn, mildly unhinged outcasts. Fringe-dwellers, for Bell, harbour a complex humanity. Her abusive stepfather appears in flashback, curiously mourning for family pets; the ex-con who squats on her mother's property diligently performs odd jobs to help out, between bouts of getting high. Anchoring this cast, of course, are the characters of Gabrielle herself – eloquent, anxious, apt to daydream – and her independent, idiosyncratic mother, who spend months quietly rebuilding a strained but loving relationship.

Eartha

By Cathy Malkasian

Fantagraphics, 256 pages, $38.50

Watching Cathy Malkasian construct a world is a pleasant and gently surprising experience. The visual splendour and quizzical customs she dreams up to outfit the stomping grounds of Eartha, a genial giant who's embarked on a quest, share much of the verve of Pixar's weirder ideas, along with some of the darkness of Don Bluth's cartoons (the book's scenes of murder and self-abuse make this more of a PG-13 affair). An award-winning animator herself, Malkasian briskly sweeps her story along, from the introduction of Eartha's idyllic homeland, Echo Fjord, where the country folk harvest dreams out of their soil like crops, to our heroine's journey to the Orwellian City Across the Sea, where she must find out why the city folk have stopped dreaming. The allegory here can be a bit pat – "Without dreams," Eartha protests, "we are lost," as the citizens around her rather devote themselves to something much like the Internet – and the charmingly strange notions can arrive at such a clip that they just start to pile up, but Malkasian's dexterous, droll and velvety drawing smooths over many such bumps.

Imagine Wanting Only This

By Kristen Radtke

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Pantheon, 288 pages, $39.95

Kristen Radtke acknowledges a couple clear influences in her smart debut memoir, which grafts her fascination with hollowed-out cities onto her family's history of heart disease. Early on, her younger self jokingly compares her life to Joan Didion's in New York; later, she lectures on documentary filmmaker Chris Marker. Like Didion, Radtke sets out to situate, with clear-eyed disinterest, her own place within a culture that seems to be falling apart. Like Marker, she attempts to string together insights gleaned from disparate locales (Iceland, Corregidor, Colorado) into a meditative whole. But what should seem dispassionate comes off as stilted, while the book's bevy of topics never quite gels – perhaps because the writing and cartooning never quite work in tandem, either. Visiting a dilapidated cathedral in Gary, Ind., Radtke's words describe an organ's pedals, "its broken legs like piles of pulled teeth." Her drawings, however, which resemble photo-real rotoscoping, convey little of this imaginative detail. The images act as mere signposts, pointing to the existence of "real" people or places, rather than serving as integral, expressive elements in the text – something Alison Bechdel, also using posed photos, pulls off so intimately in her own comics essays.

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