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French Milk Paperback – October 14, 2008
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From Publishers Weekly
For her 22nd birthday—and her mother's 50th—Lucy Knisley and her mother went to Paris. For more than a month, they toured the City of Lights from their fifth arrondissement flat, exploring museums and cafes, taking photographs, eating pastries and drinking French milk, which Knisley says is sweeter than its American counterpart; she compares it with the influence we take in from our mothers. Knisley's first book is unquestionably a travel journal first and foremost: Lucy-the-writer is so close to Lucy-the-subject that at times the story lacks background and emotional complexity. But as a travel journal French Milk shines. Knisley's photographs from the trip punctuate sketches of her daily adventures and musings about graduating from art school, first love and having an adult relationship with her mother. Best of all are Knisley's portraits of home at the beginning and end of the book, which capture her childhood home and college life lovingly but with clear eyes. Knisley's cartoony drawings are pleasingly clean in one panel and tellingly detailed in the next. A word-of-mouth hit when it first came out in a self-published limited edition, French Milk will remind readers of their own early trips to Europe and of traveling in their 20s. (Oct.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
"A keenly observed letter back home...the pleasure Knisley takes in food and company is infectious." -- Douglas Wolk, slate
"Charming." -- Publishers Weekly
"Wonderful....Read it and you will not be disappointed." -- Whitney Matheson, Usa Today
Top customer reviews
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The nicest artworks are some portraits, like a lovely sketch of Audrey Hepburn from "Funny Face". Lucy can draw; I wish she did more of that. Her cartooning seems derivative of other better artists. The photos are distracting, and highlight that the cartoon Lucy looks nothing like the real Lucy. In fact, it is impossible in the simplistic drawings to distinguish Lucy from her 50 year old mother!
The blurb suggests this is the story of a wondering mother-daughter trip, on the even of two "big" birthdays. But the story is nothing of the sort; Lucy's mom (Georgia Dent)barely figures in the story, although by googling articles about Ms. Knisley, it is clear Mrs. Dent is the actual author of the journal.
Most of the story centers on visits to familiar Parisian landmarks (museums, stores), shopping trips, trinkets purchased....but mostly on eating...the Knisley/Dent family are devouted "foodies". Goodness knows, plenty of good books abound on the subject of fine eating in France -- I'm a fan of MFK Fisher and Julia Child -- but Ms. Knisley has very little to say besides "I pigged out on fois gras" accompanied by crude drawings in which the food drawings look like lumps of playdough. A food illustrator she is NOT.
There is nothing so interesting to a person than what they eat, wear, think, feel, lust for....oh and did I say eat? But honestly, this is ultra boring to other people. Only the most fantastic food writers have the rare ability to make what they eat interesting to others. For one thing, it seems Lucy only eats but doesn't cook or even shop for food (only Mom did that? it's never explained).
This is not even her first trip to Paris; she makes sure we know she's just been there a year earlier. She is a very pampered child, who is indulged with European trips, fancy foods, consumer electronics (expensive cameras and computers) but not a single reference to a paying job. The college kids that I know all work part time during the year, then summer and Xmas jobs...most of them couldn't go to Paris again and again, even if the trip was free because they need to WORK to pay TUITION. Clearly not Ms. Knisley's dilemma, as "Fresh Milk" tells us that she is in her 6th year (MFA) of studying....cartooning.
Question: did Charles Schultz....Gary Trudeau....Art Speigleman...Daniel Clowes....Berk Breathed....Lynda Barry...any of these fabulous graphic artists need to study cartooning as the subject of a Master's degree program? Just wondering. We live in a very insular, indulgent and pampered culture where a 23 year old woman can study cartooning like it was Political Science or Engineering, and never work a day at a paid job, take Parisian vacations on her parent's dime and then sell a graphic novel based on it.
It makes for a very insular experience. I wanted this book to be better than it is (I love graphic novels). It feels very much like a raw, unfiltered travelogue of a very sheltered young woman, who is oddly incurious about one of the Great Cities of the Western World, outside of where her next lunch is coming from.
Knisley's travel diary is littered with photos and cute little drawings that recount her time in Paris with her mother. A large part of the book is spent talking about food. While food is such an essential component of Paris, I really felt that, due to Knisley's drawing style, the multitude of food pictures could have been totally left out. I mean, it all just looked like scribbles and triangles. I kind of felt like it was filler for the lack of a real, thoughtful experience that you'd expect from a diary of an American girl in Paris. There are glimpses, yes (such as Knisley's awareness of French men, and body issues as an American in super-skinny Paris) but they are gone a page later - leaving you wanting to know more.
The preface mentions that the book "also deals with the valuable and significant influence that we take in from our mothers" yet we see none of that in it's pages. Knisley's mother is a side-character that we don't really even get to know - definitely not enough to draw any ideas about the influence she has on her daughter.
One thing I did enjoy about the book was the format - a perfect mix of drawings, photos, and text. Maybe it's because I myself have always dreamed of going to Paris for a significant amount of time, but the book struck that envious chord in me. I'd recommend picking it up if you're a Francophile, but don't expect too much from it.
Instead of insightful reflections on her experience, this book briefly recounts Knisley's daily banalities. Not that journals can't be fascinating--graphically, the form was put to good use by Phoebe Glocker in the fictional "Diary of a Teenage Girl." But in "French Milk", the supposedly charming observations about Paris, food, and mother-daughter relationships that the book blurbs promise are either sparse, ham-handed, or shallow. This is the Paris of francophilic tourists--the Eiffel tower, art museums, shopping, food-- and not an illuminating encounter with a complex metropolitan center or its people.
Neither the text, the illustrations, or the photographs work at a sophisticated level themselves, and they don't come together well either, since I found the inclusion of the photographs jarring and distracting.
To do this type of writing well, an author needs to carefully manage the relationship between individual personal experience and the larger significance of it, especially if the story itself is not compelling. And this book doesn't manage to do that. Gabrielle Bell's "Lucky," a chronicle of apartment hunting, low paying jobs, and artistic exploration in Brooklyn is a much better autobiographical piece by a young aspiring cartoonist.
I found myself frustrated with Knisley by the end of the book, both in the triviality of her problems, and for wasting my time on a narrative so unfocused that it was a bit like the misery of being subjected to someone's travel slide show.
Occasionally the book succeeds at being cute-ish and whimsical, but not always, and the tongue-in-cheek moments aren't enough to save the book. If Knisley eventually becomes a famous cartoonist, this will be a curious artifact of her past. But on its own merits, I would give it a pass.