How to be Happy

Yesterday I was totally enraptured with Irredeemable, so we’ll see how far I get with posts today. First up we have Eleanor Davis’ How to be Happy! Although featuring some nudity and violence, there’s nothing particularly obscene about the book. This book speaks to a broad spectrum of bittersweet human emotions and experiences and also social inequity.

Plot: Unrelated vignettes about human emotion, experience, and social inequity combine to deliver a visceral reading experience that explores what it means to be human or to feel something.

Initial thoughts: This is a beautiful book juxtaposing simplicity and color to evoke strong emotions, and if I could pick only one book to express what I am feeling at this very second, Davis’ book would probably be it. By the end of the book, the truth behind these stories might leave you with a sickly positive feeling, but I am quite a fan of that experience. Many of the stories have to deal with feeling and eating, which are the foundations of human experience. My favorite story in the collection, “MAKE YOURSELF STRONG” on pages 73-82, ironically features neither. I recommend this story because I am a fan of buff, hairy men and also the positivity of control over who one is and the ability to use your talents for good that the story expresses.

What’s wonderful about the book is that it has a mask of universality, but in truth these comics are rooted in current USA culture, such as the  “I used to be so unhappy, but…” on 109-111, which explores contemporary “solutions” to depression (undermined in culture as simply being unhappy) such as Prozac, meditation, childbirth, yoga, and gluten-free diets. Other stories, like “Stick and String” on 38-49, have a timeless feel whereas others yet have a futuristic, science fiction feel to them, like “The Emotion Room” on 56-57. These stories represent hopes and anxieties I think many people who constitute mainstream consumers in the USA can relate to.

What’s unfortunate is that there is a lot of social commentary that is missing from the book, such as the intersections among socio-economics, race, sexuality, and other identities. While many diverse bodies are represented, there are hardly any bodies that have pigment to them in the black and white comics, and the colored comics sometimes represent so many pigments that race becomes trivialized when in reality this is not the case. Depending on how aware of these issues you are or how much you care about them, this might not be a problem to you, but it most certainly was for me, especially when there was a story specifically dedicated to GMOs and food supply.

Itty Bitty Research: Given that each story has its own kind of back story, I’m going to focus on “Nita Goes Home” on pages 21-34. This story sticks out to me because while it seems like a bleak future, it is very much rooted in what is happening at this very second. We see a woman leaving a Fulldome by train, acclimating to leaving the dome via a holographic program, and donning a Toxoff suit as she returns home to a polluted city, but later we learn that this future is not so far from the present society we know today.

In the story, we learn that “Maddox Jolie-Pitt” bought one of the collection in Nita’s series (30). Maddox Jolie-Pitt is, of course, the first adopted child of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt. He is also the eldest of their (currently) six children, and his adoption raised quite the frenzy when the couple adopted him in 2002. The choice of Maddox out of the children is more significant than a merely arbitrary upcoming celebrity child, however. According to the Maddox Jolie-Pitt Foundation, Jolie established an organization dedicated “to environmental security, creating peace and stability in all communities by planning and implementing interventions that prevent negative environmental changes.” Among priorities are “to alleviate food insecurities and increase access to basic primary healthcare and education,” which are central to “Nita Goes Home.” By having Maddox purchase Nita’s art, it demonstrates how many people are committed to improving food supply and access in this seemingly post-apocalyptic world.

Other popular culture elements that features in the short story are the games Nita and Mona used to play as children: “Mars Colony” and “Na’vii Hometree.” As you may know, there is a mission to colonize Mars set to begin in 2025. While there are a number of concerns in the FAQ of the site, there is particular attention to water and food sustainability. Similar to the significance of Maddox Jolie-Pitt, this is a contemporary phenomenon that has ongoing dialogue. “Na’vii Hometree” refers to Avatar (2009), which also features a colonization storyline similar to the Mars One mission. You can learn all about the setting of the movie on Pandorapedia. Although both games rely on a futuristic setting, Mars and Pandora contrast each other significantly in natural abundance. The resources on Mars are minimal and must be created using the soil while Pandora features lush, abundant, and pristine flora. The two possibilities that Mars and Pandora represent to the story are in fact one and the same.

Finally, Davis explores the access and barriers to healthy foods on 26-27. Earlier Nita remarks that a fast food chain from her childhood memory is still in business, to which her sister responds, “Sure, we get Pico Taco all the time” (25). Oakton Community College found that eating at home is significantly less than eating at fast food chains, while the British Medical Journal posits the exact opposite: that fast foods are cheaper than healthy food by about $550 a year. These findings are not necessarily in opposition because eating at home does not necessarily mean buying healthy foods and eating healthy. While this is still an ongoing debate, the social constraints of choosing fast food over healthy food remains a reality for many who cannot afford to eat better quality foods.

Whether one decides to eat at home or in a restaurant, the debate about GMOs and organic foods is still relevant. When Nita attents to get “Gaiagrown produce” at the grocery store, her sister insists that they can only afford “ordinary vegetables,” which are in actuality “biomolded vegetables,” meaning not natural at all (26). However, Mona’s defense of the biomolded vegetables is that these vegetables “look the same, they taste the same” and “cost 6 USD – the Gaiagrown are 18! Not everyone can pay that much!” (26). Curiously, there is no input on whether or not these biomolded vegetables are as nutritious as organic vegetables, which seems to be the debate that spurs people to make infographics like this. Davis may sidestep this issue by focusing on the matter of natural vs. unnatural, but for many the debate is nutritious vs. affordable. For the folks living in the USA, be aware that a food product might not be 100% organic even if it is labelled as organic, especially if it is USDA confirmed, and that there is a difference between organic and non-GMO foods. Whiel there is a current push for foods containing GMOs to be labelled, there is not yet federal legislation for this in the USA. While it may seem like organic is the way to go, let’s not forget that there are valid reasons for genetically modifying food, namely to provide food to people that may otherwise starve if they do not have the economic resources to procure a healthy and organic diet.

Rating: 4.2/5

References: Davis, Eleanor. How to be Happy. Seattle: Fantagraphics, 2014. Print.

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