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REVIEW: ‘Tangles’ an interesting, personal graphic novel

Tangles book cover

I don’t often read graphic novels, so reading “Tangles” by Sarah Leavitt, one of the featured writers at the upcoming UND Writer’s Conference, was an interesting experience.

“Tangles” details Leavitt’s experience caring for her mother as Alzheimer’s disease slowly took her life, taking its name from the tangles that form in the brain when someone develops Alzheimer’s as well as from the tangles in relationships as a result of the disease.

In sharing her story, Leavitt gives a deeply personal account of what it’s like to have someone you love develop Alzheimer’s, and there’s no way you can read this book without being impacted by it. She catalogs her mother’s decline, from normal memory lapses to needing help brushing her teeth to no longer understanding when to use the bathroom and going in her pants.

My knowledge of Alzheimer’s was limited to knowing it caused memory loss, but it’s much more than that. Relatives must stand by as someone they love loses their memory and cognitive abilities. By the end of Leavitt’s mother’s life, she slept often, barely ate and was unable to recognize her husband or daughters. The book has the potential to impact readers on multiple levels.

I like Leavitt’s decision to make “Tangles” a graphic novel. It’s much easier for her to interrupt the story and illustrate with a picture what would normally take paragraphs to describe, and it matches her writing style well. Leavitt knows when pictures can do a better job than words, such as when she shows her room at college and uses the image to show herself wrapped in an afghan her mother made. In doing this, Leavitt can show her mother’s continuous presence in her life with a single image.

I particularly like how Leavitt uses the drawings to insert random memories, both from growing up and from when her mother developed Alzheimer’s.

However, it wasn’t my favorite artistic style. The drawings are more like black and white outlines and squiggles. While they got the point across and added a lot to the story, I would have preferred more lifelike drawings.

Part of this is likely because my only experience with graphic novels is Art Spiegelman’s “Maus,” which reminded me a lot more of a comic or cartoon, only book length. It fit better with what I thought a graphic novel should be and established that as the standard in my mind, so it was really strange to see such a different style in this book.

But the other part is that these drawings came across more childlike. This made an interesting contrast with the serious subject matter of the book, but didn’t really seem to demonstrate her talent as an artist. Overall I felt it detracted somewhat from the overall experience of the book.

Despite not caring much for the drawings, I did enjoy reading “Tangles” and would recommend it as a change of pace from the usual novels. It also does a great job connecting the reader to the story, so you feel you really understand what Leavitt is going through.

I can only imagine how difficult it was to live through her mother’s Alzheimer’s once, let alone writing a graphic novel about it, and I appreciate that Leavitt decided to share her story.

It’s scary to think that a situation like this could be in my future, and I genuinely hope it’s not. But it’s books like “Tangles” that help prepare you for the possibility and support those who do have to deal with Alzheimer’s.

“Tangles” ends with Leavitt optimistic about the day she will no longer have to recite the Kaddish, or Jewish prayer for the dead, hoping it means she has accepted her mother’s death. While for most readers the story ends here, Grand Forks residents will have the opportunity to ask Leavitt about her story since finishing “Tangles” when she visits for this year’s UND Writers Conference April 2-4. She will participate in panels at noon April 2 and 3 and doing a reading at 4 p.m. April 3.

Call Meyer at (701) 780-1137 or email to