How To Understand Israel In 60 Days Or Less. Sarah Glidden. Clem Robins (letters). DC/Vertigo. Full Color, Hardcover, 208 pages.
Godless heathen that I am, Sarah Glidden’s How To Understand Israel In 60 Days Or Less appealed greatly, because despite being an aforementioned godless heathen, I definitely WANT to understand Israel, and I think as an atheist I’m sometimes at an even bigger disadvantage than those that have a better understanding and perhaps relation to or with religion and the conflicts that sometimes come with it. Not only that, but as someone with no real knowledge of her genealogy beyond “we come from a people that burn easily in the sun and are not meant to be out in it” I don’t know much about where/who/what I come from. My mother is adopted and so we know little from her side of the family, and my father (an only child), whether out of sensitivity and solidarity with my mother, or just plain old lack of interest, has never showed much interest in tracking down his family tree either – as such, I have no ties to anything remotely resembling a homeland. Definitely there is nobody likely to pay for me to go on a birthright tour should I find a homeland interested in having me. Regardless I find myself very interested in Glidden’s search for self and a more definitive truth as explored in her book.
But Glidden’s book (which already won her a 2008 Ignatz award for Promising New Talent when in its self-published incarnation) is also a good fit for me because it approaches a touchy and loaded subject with logic and rational critical thinking, but ultimately is not afraid to also get caught up in emotion when necessary. Glidden approaches her subject as a Jew, but not a religious one, as someone emotional and concerned about the world and seeking her place in it, but skeptical of anything resembling indoctrination or propaganda. Glidden was the prefect narrator for me, because she never felt like she was preaching, in fact she out right resisted what she was being told the same way that I resisted it here and would resist it in her shoes. She resisted it because sometimes resisting is the only way to find truth – subjective though it usually is – but she also seemed to realize along the way that sometimes giving in can help you find truth too. That thinking things through is never wrong, but that feeling things isn’t wrong either. That there is certainly room for both, and that perhaps that’s the only way to see our way through.
The actual story, part memoir, part travelogue details Glidden’s Birthright Tour to Israel in 2007. Glidden, a liberal Jew that doesn’t believe in God, is both excited and skeptical about the trip. Full of wonder and anticipation about all she is about to experience, but wary that she will be getting a balanced reality when it comes to the past, present, and future of Israel. Considering the trip is paid for entirely by the state of Israel, which clearly has a stake in which side Glidden (and others) ends up on, her hesitation about indoctrinations is not unwarranted. For what it’s worth, I found Glidden’s account wonderfully balanced and while never illogical, full of poignant emotional moments that moved even my cold heathen heart. I suppose I was moved mostly because it felt honest. I believed both what Glidden experienced, what she resisted, what she embraced, and ultimately what she took away from it. Her conflict, both internal and external, felt real and believable to me. Despite our differences (and perhaps in part because of our similarities – young progressive liberal artistic women living in NYC that don’t believe in God – and I use the words young and artistic extremely loosely in my case) I found myself relating to Glidden easily and feeling similar conflicts in myself as I tracked her physical and emotional journey.
The writing is simple and utilitarian, which though it doesn’t sound like it, is a compliment. Flowery language or the overly poetic would be out of place here. Instead Glidden works in a conversational narration style that is easy to follow and comfortably relatable. You can hear Glidden’s voice clearly throughout, and it’s a voice worth listening to – full of insight and also prejudice as Glidden struggles with her own fight between a surging emotional connection to Israel and the Jewish people and her intellectual beliefs and sympathy for the Palestinians. Had Glidden been any less of a narrator, and I’ll just say it – any less of a person – this book easily could have plunged into something far less nuanced and insightful, as it is, it’s quite wonderful. I certainly wish my news was this balanced and well-considered.
The art is lovely. It’s a simplified line work style – a nice linge claire look that’s well suited to the story and to the exquisite layered watercolors that Glidden provides. The book is subtly beautiful which is perfectly fitting for the tone of the book. In fact, anything more detailed or bold I think would be too gaudy for the story Glidden is telling and might actually take away from the larger messages throughout her book. Glidden sticks to a rather traditional three tier panel layout, and frequently a traditional nine panel per page layout and I think it’s a good choice in that it allows the story to take the lead and the art to follow in a functional way, never overpowering the story. Although the work is subtle throughout, Glidden also knows when to pare down even further for smaller scenes and when to let loose on beautiful landscapes, city views, and landmarks where she needs to convey the vastness and importance of what we’re seeing…to better see through her eyes and thus to better experience her emotional and conflicting journey. This was a favorite emotional moment for me:
Like Glidden, and unlike apparently the “majority of the United States” I find myself highly conflicted and emotional when it comes to the specific ins and outs of Palestinians and Israelis. I can’t help but sympathize with both parties, and wish there was a simple answer. If you’re looking for one in Glidden’s book because of the title you’ll be sorely disappointed because there is no answer, which is of course to be expected. There isn’t now and likely never will be an answer to this ongoing question of Israel and I knew this going in, but I couldn’t help hoping for a moment in which all would be revealed like the man behind the curtain in OZ.
But I suppose what is revealed is hope. The hope that others could read this book and come to some better understanding the same way that Glidden did thanks to her trip. The conflict within Glidden to both have that elusive feeling of wanting so much to belong to something – in this case to a rich culture and people – and her insistence on seeing things clearly and rationally without the rose colored glasses is palpable. Even without any of those emotional ties to the country and land and people I could feel it, almost taste how nice it would be to be a part of something so unique and special and powerful. Ultimately, Glidden – the intellectual, the skeptic – was able to see that there was more than just her specific viewpoint and that others opinions were perhaps more valid than she might have previously assumed, but she never lost sight of what was important to her and in the end she emerges from her experience neither brainwashed nor unaffected. She emerges from her experience to give us this wonderful work – a work that can stand in for people like me who are unlikely to ever visit Israel period – and certainly not on a Birthright Tour.
After reading Glidden’s book do I ACTUALLY understand Israel? No, probably not, I may spend the rest of my life not understanding it, but I did learn a lot that I didn’t know and perhaps more importantly I was moved repeatedly and forced to examine long held and perhaps unconsidered views, which is more than most of the best books do. I think the best bit of wisdom I came away from in Glidden’s book, was from her experience listening to the Bereaved Family Forum, and the personal tragedies faced by both a Palestinian woman and an Israeli man. Both having lost loved ones to violence relating directly to the conflict, the woman suggested that they leave their experiences in Israel and declare themselves not Pro-Palestine or Pro-Israel, but pro-peace, and while the normal cynical Kelly would be likely to guffaw at such an unrealistic naive hippy-ish statement…coming from a real victim suffering from a situation I can barely begin to comprehend…I have to say, it touched me. It moved me to want to declare myself pro-peace if ever asked…and maybe more. And I hope I will.
How To Understand Israel In 60 Days Or Less by Sarah Glidden released on November 3rd, 2010 by Vertigo is available in comic and book stores everywhere, as well as online at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and others.