River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey. Tor, 2017. 9780765395238. 176pp.
Sarah: So you told me wild west, hippos instead of cows.
Gene: Very LGBTQ friendly, and a great western.
S: I was like, yeah, maybe, and then I picked it up and I was like YES!
G: Isn’t it the greatest? Just putting the team together…
S: That was one of my favorite parts. The second person he tries to hire tries to poison him.
G: That’s Hero. The guy in charge, his name is Houndstooth. But first, the world. There’s a timeline of events in the back. It’s based on a thing that almost happened.
S: But later.
G: At some point the US government was going to turn part of the Mississippi River into a marsh and bring hippos in to solve some meat shortage. In this book that happens in 1857, part of the river is dammed to create habitat, and it’s named The Harriet after President Buchanan’s favorite cow (a nice touch). It’s declared neutral territory in the Great Hippo Compromise. A ranch is destroyed, hippos are released into the marsh and become feral.
S: Hippos in real life are vicious and will eat you, so this area is declared lawless.
G: And there’s a big gate to contain the hippos.
S: The area has been taken over by a criminal who runs a riverboat gambling operation. So his influence rests on keeping the hippos there for his illegal empire.
G: He feeds people to the hippos if they mess up.
S: Over the edge and into the water!
G: The government wants it cleaned up. Enter: Houndstooth, and his hippo Ruby.
S: A Cambridge Black, gorgeous, with gold teeth.
G: Sleek, fast, deadly.
S: He’s hired to get the feral hippos out, and the government assumes it will take decades.
G: He’s taking the job for revenge, but we don’t know why or against whom. He has a plan to do it really quickly. He’s got to put a crew together. He’s dapper, has a bag of gold.
S: People don’t know about his background but he’s British, and they keep saying he doesn’t look he would be…
G: And then he sleeps with the guy who hires him. Oh! This isn’t going to be like other westerns!
S: Right. I was wondering if Gailey could sustain that, and the answer was yes.
G: There’s a great moment where he’s looking at photos of the people he’s going to hire, and they’re not described much. The next person is Archie the Con, a very large woman, very sexually desired, on a mostly blind albino hippo. She’s a seductress and a pickpocket. Then he has to go to Hero.
S: They’re retired, sitting on a porch, drinking iced tea. Offers Houndstooth some tea. Hero takes a sip. And then the tea eats through the glass, the bannister, and a rose bush, which was so good, I was in at that point.
G: There’s not a great description of Hero.
S: Definitely doesn’t identify as a woman or a man. Some people don’t get it, but some do.
G: But most get it. This is an alternate history where more folks were like, They’re part of your crew? Awesome!
S: It was. There are lots of generations of westerns where they’re reframed to put the current us into the adventure. And so successive generations add themselves in like this. I love it!
G: Then they go into the Harriet to find the other two people, one a poor gambler, the other the most brutal contract killer in the world. Everyone on the crew has a good entrance.
Doesn’t someone keep asserting they’re trying to pull off a caper?
S: Yes. Houndstooth disagrees, he says it’s an operation. Reminded me of some of my favorite parts of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, some of the little back and forth quips that establish the characters.
G: Then the western proceeds in the swamp, with hippos. And you can’t explain any more, because it would give away too much of the plot.
S: It’s a short book that moves fast.
G: I love novella length stories that don’t get bogged down in explanation.
S: Someone asked me about this after I’d just finished it. I said I had been worried it would be one of those books where the LGBTQ aspect makes it feel like an issue book. This is not an issue book, it’s just a part of it. It’s deliberate and incorporated.
G: It’s just not a big deal.
S: It’s not a problem.
Be Prepared by Vera Brosgol. First Second, 2018. 9781626724457.
Gene: Be Prepared by Vera Brosgol, the very delightful Vera Brosgol, who I met at a dinner during Emerald City Comic Con and talked to for a bit. I loved Anya’s Ghost and… and what was her picture book about knitting?
Sarah: Leave Me Alone, which was so great.
G: She was also on a panel that I moderated. Vera lives in Portland and worked in animation, and this is her second graphic novel… Anya’s Ghost was more YA.
S: Yeah, and this one is a little more tween-y.
G: Maybe even a little younger. The protagonist is Vera when she was 9. The story is not quite factual, and she explains that in detail at the end of the book.
S: She combined a couple of years of summer camp into one.
G: There are some charming real-life things, like real letters from camp. The first one says “Dear mom, could you pick me up as soon as you get this? PLEASE! I’m desperate” (Only later on do you find out that that one was actually written by her brother.)
S: And later there’s a much, much longer real letter from young Vera that talks about how terrible camp is, all the kids are mean, I can’t deal with this…
G: It has the feel of an autobiography. I think it’s very autobiographical in terms of feelings, if not in terms of actual events. I believe she really grew up pretty poor, a Russian immigrant, going to Russian Orthodox church…
S: It was these tiny little differences between her and her friends that made her feel like a complete outcast.
G: The birthday party scene.
S: Oh, the birthday party scene! It’s heartbreaking.
G: It’s so clear that Vera is the little girl that the other kids’ parents talk to.
S: Yeah. There’s a scene where all the girls are setting up their cute flowered heart covered sleeping bags and she has a pillow and blanket with a patch on it.
G: And the other girls arrange themselves in a star shape together on the floor and she’s off by herself. And they all have these super-expensive dolls that they’re talking about and she doesn’t have one. It’s brutal and really well done.
G: And then she has her own birthday party that does not go well. You can see it’s not going to go well. Her family is poor, her mom’s a single mom, so they have the off-brand pizza, there’s Russian lettering on the cake. And the other kids are terrible about it all.
S: Do you have memories like that from elementary school? Where it was the tiny differences that kids would be completely obsessed with? I was the kid that the parents talked to at the party.
G: I wasn’t the kid the parents talked to. I fear that I was a kid who was inadvertently terrible. I had no worries when I was a kid, but we didn’t have a lot of stuff, either.
S: There are things like that I remember from my own life, I could feel so apart because I didn’t have the right brand of pants or something like that. My family wasn’t poor, we were just spending money on things other than pants.
G: My mother was very focused on us having those things even though she was a single mom, probably to a crazy extent. I had the right brand of jeans, she used to make me wear velour shirts because they were cool. She was wrong on some things, too. I think she was doing her best, but it was strange and hard to push back against it all until I was a teenager. I want that book to be written, too. Where a kid is forced to be the on-brand kid even though he doesn’t want to be.
But, back to the story, one of the big differences between Vera and her friends is that they all go away to camp in the summers while she’s stuck at home.
S: But one day at Orthodox church another girl says that she was gone last week because she was at camp. And Vera’s like “CAMP???” Turns out the Orthodox church sponsors this camp and might be willing to help her mom pay the fee to send her to camp for TWO WEEKS!
G: So she gets to go the next year, the summer after fourth grade.
S: And she’s so excited.
G: And her brother goes to the little kid part of the camp.
S: And at the end of the book she talks about how this organization was set up outside of Russia after the revolution to maintain this traditional sort of camping with a religious background because it was prohibited in the Soviet Union. It was interesting that she went into a camp with these fully-formed camp traditions that were totally unfamiliar to me as the reader.
G: It’s really cool, right? If she went to the sort of camp we recognized from movies, like Meatballs, it would be very different. Instead they go to a place where all the kids who go are different in the same way, but then she’s thrown in with these older girls.
S: Those girls!
G: Her little brother goes off with a camp counsellor who’s amazing, but hers is a seventeen-year-old girl who seems out of her depth. Her brother has a great time. The other girls in Vera’s tent are fourteen, and she’s this pre-pubescent nine-year-old girl. The girls are both named Sasha, they’ve been to camp together for years, and they’re totally crappy.
S: They’re obsessed with a cute boy at camp.
G: Very says goodbye to her mom, then finds out about the Hollywood.
G: My favorite part of the camp, the doorless outhouse. Three toilet seats, right next to each other, no divider. There are so many toilet gags in this book. The one where she’s in there and she looks up and there are spiders all over the ceiling.
S: Uuuuugh! It has the air of a vivid sense memory.
G: It’s terrible, because she’s really alone for two weeks, she wants to go home, the girls are crappy to her and hiding candy, she’s feeding a chipmunk, they’re washing their hair in the lake. There’s a capture the flag game going on between the girls and the boys… it’s getting just a bit better, bordering on bearable, and then her mom comes to take her home… and says she has to stay two more weeks!
S: That was a great plot twist, I enjoyed that a lot.
G: Other stuff happens, plot-wise. More capture the flag. There’s a missing hamster. She makes a friend. It’s really sweet.
Perfect Little World by Kevin Wilson. Ecco, 2017. 9780062450340. 352 pp.
Gene: I read Wilson’s The Family Fang and I loved it. It’s also about an unusual family.
Sarah: I hadn’t heard of it. Then I mentioned this book to Tom and he said they’d made a movie out of The Family Fang.
S: It came out in 2016. It has Jason Bateman in it.
G: (Adding it to his watchlist) It’s about a family that does public performance art pieces that people don’t know are performance art, some of which involve their kids. Very funny. You should read it. And that made me want to read this, not even knowing what it was about.
S: I wanted to introduce this by saying that when I was in elementary school and we had reading time in our class, we had to read stories from a big stupid textbook. It had stories and parts of books, but not the good parts. And one of the comprehension questions was always: “Why do you think the author wrote this story?” We were clueless kids. “To get paid!” I think it was an easy way to ask us about the theme of a book. (Now, as an adult, I’m like, it wasn’t to get paid.)
That was on my mind when I was reading this because I wasn’t sure what the theme was until I was most of the way through. I liked it, but I wasn’t sure what it was about.
G: There were moments in the middle where I was really enjoying it and I didn’t feel like there was a huge conflict. I just liked Izzy so much.
S: So, the premise.
Continue reading “Imperfect Little Parents”
Rock Steady: Brilliant Advice from My Bipolar Life by Ellen Forney. Fantagraphics, 2018. 9781683961017.
Gene: Ellen Forney’s Rock Steady, which is a follow up to…
G: But this graphic novel is more… advice-y?
S: Yeah. So Marbles was her autobiography about how she figured out she had bipolar. This, years later, is about how she has managed her bipolar. It tells how she has gotten her shit together and how she hopes you can get your shit together, too. It’s based on a lot of work she’s done, and it’s also based on a lot of success that she’s had.
G: It has are other options that she hasn’t explored personally, too, but she’s really clear about what specifically works for her.
S: And she interviews people. I really liked that she interviewed people from a Somali-American health project about how a person’s background and community can really affect what kind of help it feels like you’re allowed to ask for.
G: It was interesting, because it’s local, too, and we know what the Somali health project is because we live in Seattle. I assume that’s not a unique thing, but it’s our thing.
I don’t know exactly how to start talking about this book. I know people who have bipolar disorder, I’ve talked to them about it, a lot of this rings true for me. The thing that I related most to was some of the self-care stuff in the book, which I do when traveling.
G: Specifically for my fear of flying, which I manage with a lot of breathing, recognizing when my body is ramping up, and I’d never thought that it’s also a way someone might recognize that they’re heading into a manic episode or a depressive episode, and how much other people have to watch themselves.
The breathing exercises recommended for them were the same as mine, plus just taking time for yourself — it all seems really generally applicable to everybody who has something that troubles them, who has to figure out how to deal with their bodies.
S: Yeah. She talks about the percentage of the population that has bipolar, and it’s not a huge number, but I feel like not only do you want to have this book available for people with bipolar, there’s a lot of overlap with other illnesses and there’s a lot of advice here that’s going to work for people with a variety of issues. You can pick and choose what’s useful to you. There are some things that are much more important for people with bipolar. The chapter on sleep and insomnia is a big issue for her, but I know tons of people who have that problem for other reasons. I think her advice could work for them, too.
G: The insomnia stuff was great. No screen time near bedtime, have a routine…
S: …to let your body know it’s time to chill.
G: She gives a sense that things might change for you, and that you might have to readjust even after something works for a while. Which I’ve had to do around my sleep schedule — the same things don’t always work for me. And that feeds into my fear of flying and my jet lag. When I’m on the road, when I’m doing speaking gigs, it can be just go go go. I have to recognize that I need to take time for myself, that I need to make sure I get enough sleep, otherwise I’m hosed.
S: She talks about finding your warning signs, about red flags — when you know the shit is going down — but also about red flagpoles, which are the circumstances that often lead to your red flags, the things in your life like travel, a big change, or a loss.
G: Reading about seasons as a flagpole, I realized I’ve heard of that before. But being on the outside of it, I don’t get it, so having that reiterated to me was good.
S: And she’s not saying that it’s definitely going to happen, she’s not saying you’re doomed in this circumstance or that, she talks about it in terms of if you know that’s coming up, do all that you can to buffer yourself. You could apply that to your normal life stresses. If you know that going to visit your parents is hard on you, why don’t you make sure that you’re eating a balanced diet before you go so that you’re not all jacked up on sugar. The equivalent of that, but for bipolar.
I’ve got to say, the other thing I really like about this is that there are lots of books on how to manage all sorts of different conditions that are written by doctors, that are written by people with backgrounds in medicine and pharmacology, and they all have good tips, they all know the symptoms and how to manage them, but they haven’t lived it, so they can’t talk to you like a peer would. Because Forney is not only talking about how to deal with medicine, what pills you need to take, etc, she’s also talking about how to make sure you don’t forget to take it, here’s how you take it when you go on the road. She gets into… I think this was in Marbles, too… when you get a diagnosis like this, especially a diagnosis that kinda changes how you can live your life, and changes it when you’re fairly young, that’s a big psychological blow. I didn’t anticipate my life was going to be like this. I didn’t think that I was going to be limited in this way. It can be really hard to take.
G: For some people it’s that the whole this isn’t fair thing. Other people don’t need to worry about this.
S: That’s really baked into the whole book, I really appreciate that.
G: Whereas I liked the pictures.
S: Yeah, the pictures are so good, too.
G: I like the little personal anecdotes, I like the way the pages are laid out, almost like slides for a meeting, an image for each idea. Every page feels very organic, the way the information is packaged. Sometimes there’s a little doodle, sometimes more than a doodle.
S: She’ll go from a cartooney expression to show someone feeling emotions, then switch to more realistic drawings to talk about actual events in her life. She has these great, funny, entertaining ways of talking about… on this page on the importance of having lots of coping tools she has a drawing of a utility belt!
G: Like Batman’s utility belt, but featuring pill dispensers, red alert flags, mood trackers, and compressed sunlight. And a grappling hook, because everyone needs a grappling hook. And tissues.
S: Oh, man, that page on how to cry in public! I think that’s applicable to everybody, I think we need to print that out and have it available in a lot of places.
G: I did that the other day. I can’t remember why.
S: The whole thing is put together in the pattern of an acronym. Other books have acronyms like SMART, but hers is SMEDMERTS! Which she admits is long and unwieldy, but she draws a mascot, a little pig/gremlin creature.
G: It looks like something Elise Gravel might draw.
S: It’s a way to remember the tools you can use to stay Rock Steady. And the book has an index, so you can find what you need when you need it.
Attachments by Rainbow Rowell. Plume, 2012. 9780452297548. 336pp.
Gene: Why did we pick this book?
Sarah: One of the Book Wows I’m going to post about in a few weeks — Dear Fahrenheit 451 — recommended it as a good romance.
G: Oh, right. That was after trying to read a different book I picked and neither of us liked it. We were both like, WTF is up with this?
S: [mentions title, but Gene and I are not revealing it because we know folks who like the book in question, though it’s not a book for us]
G: Unrelated, but can I admit I shit-talked a book by a publisher whose books I usually like to an author whose books I love, and she admitted she didn’t like the book in question, either. So satisfying.
S: I got to talk to some of the school librarians I work with in a non-school setting and they were able to tell me which of the Battle of the Books books they hate. It was great.
G: Have you read Rainbow Rowell’s books before?
G: I loved Eleanor & Park. It’s one of my top 10 YA books of all time. It’s on my shelf at home, my entire family loved it. It’s so good.
This was her first novel, and an adult novel, apparently.
S: It’s set in 1999, which is important.
G: I was pitching it to my 15-year-old daughter, and I realized why it’s not a YA book. “It’s set in a newspaper office in 1999!” Her eyes rolled back into her head. (She is excited by Rainbow Rowell’s current run on the Runaways comics for Marvel. In fact the first collection was just published.)
S: So yeah, a newspaper, 1999. The office just got computers because their publisher is like, “Everyone is just going to be screwing off. They’ll look like they’re working but they won’t be working.” So they hire a few people in the tech department, and one of them is this guy who’s been hired to make sure people aren’t screwing off on work time.
The Zero by Jess Walter. Harper Perennial, 2006. 9780061189432.
Sarah: Yeah, and I’ve been sort of rationing his books out because a novelist can only write so fast and I was reluctant to run out of them. Reading this, I realize I need to stop being reluctant and just gobble the rest of them up.
G: What was your favorite? The one where you were in love with the protagonist?
S: Citizen Vince. I was in love with Vince. The Zero is really… I’m going to say it’s different plot-wise, but the stuff that I love about Jess Walter is that he writes the kinds of sentences that make you stop and just appreciate how good they are.
S: So I feel like I don’t care what genre he writes in, I don’t care what the plot is, I just want to read his writing. But I am glad that I went into this book without reading the back of it, I didn’t know anything about it except I thought it was a mystery. And it does use bits of the genre — elements of noir and of mystery — but it’s not really in it.
G: You think it was noir? It didn’t feel very noir to me. It was kind of a detective book though. Give me the pitch.
S: The first page, a guy opens his eyes, he sees an empty bottle of booze on its side, and the carpet looks like the treeline of a forest. He starts with this description of what this guy on the floor is seeing and the guy eventually gets that his head hurts and he’s bleeding. He figures out that he shot himself. Possibly on purpose, possibly not. He left a note for himself that said, “et cetera.” This sets the tone of the book. This guy is losing chunks of time.
G: Right, he’s unstuck in his life, like Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse Five.