The smell of familiar houses

Hey, Kiddo: How I Lost My Mother, Found My Father, and Dealt With Family Addiction by Jarrett J. Krosoczka. Scholastic Graphix, 2018. 9780545902489. 310pp.

Krosoczka’s mom was the third of five kids. Her parents weren’t too happy when she got pregnant (she was pretty young), but supported her by buying her a house near them. His early memories are happy, but there’s a dark edge there — men coming over, a recurring nightmare of being surrounded by monsters. After his mother gets arrested (not for the first time), his parents move Jarrett into their house. He lives there as his mother drifts in and out of his life, seeming to get better and then relapsing. She lets him down again and again as he grows up, discovers his love of creating comics, and finally even meets his father, who didn’t want to have anything to do with him when he was born.

The book is full of drinking and smoking (I bet his grandparents’ place smelled like my parents’ houses) and even has a little swearing (though I bet there was a lot more in real life). It was a dark, difficult read for me because it all hit so close to home. It’s stayed with me, and I’ve found myself returning to its pages over and over again since finishing it a few weeks back, and I know there are kids out there who will read it repeatedly even though it’s not as funny as his Lunch Lady, Jedi Academy, and Platypus Police Squad series.

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“There are panels on every wall.”

Cruising Through The Louvre by David Prudhomme. Translation: Joe Johnson. NBM, 2016. 9781561639908.

Prudhomme’s entry into NBM’s English editions of graphic novels about the Louvre is one of my favorites. It starts with him getting a phone call while staring at Rembrandt’s self portrait, and reflecting on wandering the museum, “It’s like walking inside a giant comic book. There are panels on every wall.” But what he really enjoys is looking at people looking at those panels, and that’s the focus of this book. Tourists peering at paintings while holding up phones, people experiencing private moments that seem almost religious, groups of students on a tour, and of course the mob admiring the Mona Lisa (and ignoring the large painting on the wall across from it) — this is an appreciation of people’s attention and whatever focus they can muster. (My favorite guy in the Mona Lisa mob is ignoring the painting entirely, reading a book.) Prudhomme’s pencils bring the people, the artwork, and the building itself to life in a way that reminds me of being in the museum.  The woodwork alone is so intricate that it’s worth a visit by itself. (In fact when I was there years ago with my buddy Dave that’s all he looked at. The docents were very puzzled by his detailed questions about the floors.)

Starting Middle School

Sarah: A friend of mine, her daughter is going to middle school next year. The school she goes to now has a lot of kids who have been protected from the bumps and bruises of life. The don’t have testing, they don’t have grades. It feels very accepting and hippie-ish, but they get to use computers.
Gene: I have some friends whose kids went to a school like that, and they didn’t end up too crazy.
S: It’s interesting, some of them go to similarly special middle schools, and some of them go to the regular middle schools, which can be a bit of a change.
G: Kids with chains and filed-down teeth waiting for them at the door.
S: Waiting to suck their blood.
So my friend gets a letter from the school about how to help her help her daughter to adjust to the changes in going to a new school. The whole thing is about how it’s hard, and it’s harder when they’re going through puberty and social changes, and starting to argue with their parents and having their own sense of what their lives should be. They’re no longer your cute perfect darling children. It can be hard. But it doesn’t approach it as though it’s normal (which it is) and that every parent goes through this (which they do), it’s more like, “This is the upcoming tsunami that’s going to hit your home, you may be concerned. Here’s how to ensure they don’t become dead-eyed drug addicts.”
G: I think I got a letter like this, too, years ago.
S: At the end of the letter, there is a list, Great Books About — and this is actually in quotations — “Middle School.”
G: (laughs) Because we’re not really talking about middle school?
S: I have no idea. There are four fiction and three nonfiction books. The nonfiction books are fairly well-chosen. There’s some recent ones and some older ones that are pretty good.
G: Does it mention using a short-wave radio to call for help?
S: Right, no, it’s not quite that bad. The fiction books, though… my friend, who has an MLIS, who makes booklists herself, was dismayed that they were so old. Old enough that two weren’t in the public library anymore, one was available only as an ebook rerelease, one that’s just old and there are only two copies available.
G: Maybe it’s a cry for help from whoever made that list. Maybe the list had to be district-approved.
S: Exactly. I feel the same frustration with lists people get from their doctors after a diagnosis. The books are all ten or fifteen years old and the library system only has one copy left, with a long, long waiting list. I want to write back to the doctors with a list of ten newer books and tell them to pick the ones they like.
G: You should do that for the school.
S: My friend asked me to make her a list she could share with the other parents.
G: That’s great! You’re living the librarian’s dream!
S: But 99% of my booklist is graphic novels, because that’s what I read. So I wanted to ask if you had some recommendations. Here’s what I have so far:
Awkward and Brave
G: I really liked Brave.
S: Drama.
G: How old is the main character in Drama?
S: I had thought she was in high school, but the synopsis said middle school.
Jedi Academy.
G: Timeless.
S: All’s Faire in Middle School.
G: Liked it, but maybe a limited audience.
S: I added this because I like the author and it had a lot of positive reviews, Planet Middle School. It’s poems about a girl making the shift into middle school, trying out new ways of being more grown up. And these two, which are constantly being requested by kids, The Strange Case of the Origami Yoda and Dork Diaries.
G: Are those middle school?
S: As far as I can tell, yes. Though it’s tough to say sometimes, when the summary describes the characters as being in sixth grade. That could be elementary or middle school. My friend does know me, and would not be surprised if I gave her a list full of graphic novels, but if you can think of any others. There’s those James Patterson middle school comedy novels that seem to be really popular…
G: I don’t read this age very much.
S: …and I don’t know if they’re positive hopeful you-can-do-it kind of books about middle school. Because you don’t necessarily want to give them the books where it looks like everyone gets teased.
G: I haven’t read this series, but I’ve heard they’re good: Positively Izzy. And Roller Girl is solidly middle school, about finding your way.
S: But it’s a summer story more than a school story.
G: But it’s a friend story. Real Friends is good, too
S: But that’s elementary, right?
G: Is it?
S: I seem to think it was pretty young.
G: I can’t remember how old the kids are in the Sunny Books, but Swing It Sunny is middle school. And there’s now a middle school Babymouse book.
S: I think I should ask a children’s librarian, too, because kids in late elementary grades are the ones who are curious about starting middle school. The kids in middle school are thinking about other things, because they’re there already. Which is why I thought of Drama, because it’s not about starting middle school, it’s about being in it.
G: Yeah, I would never booktalk a book about starting middle school in a middle school.
S: Right. My friend thought that clearly the expert would be the teen librarian, but apparently not.
G: Ask us about the transition to high school. The indirect stories, anyway. The direct how-tos are for parents.
S: I want to have the parents read these graphic novels. I want to say, “Hey, it’s not that bad. Everything seems horrible to them because that’s their bodies and their brains going through big changes. Everything seems intense because it’s all new. But people survive this. Kids survive this every day. You’ll survive it. It’s going to be obnoxious, but you’ll survive it.”

I need a Walkman to play all my old mixtapes

Luisa: Now and Then by Carole Maurel. Translated by Nanette McGuinness. English Language Adaptation by Mariko Tamaki. Humanoids, 2016. 9781594656439.

17-year-old Luisa falls asleep on a bus and wakes up in Paris seventeen years later and, with the help of a young woman (Sasha), she meets and is taken in by her 34-year-old self (they pretend they’re cousins). I was worried the book would have a wacky Freaky Friday vibe, but it’s a fairly quiet story in which the younger Luisa is horrified at how her older self has fallen out of touch with friends and settled for a career that’s not as glamorous as planned. Both Luisas are attracted to the older’s neighbor Sasha, and it’s no surprise there are conversations about a young woman Luisa just kissed in the past and hiding who they are (especially from their mother).

Younger Luisa’s clothes and Walkman took me right back to the 80s. The only time I’ve had a similar flashback to my teen years is seeing the hairstyles and shoulder pads in Papergirls, and when I see costumes in Uncanny X-men issues numbered in the mid 100s.

“And NOW, for the first time on stage…or almost!”

About Betty’s Boob by Vero Cazot and Julie Rocheleau. Translated by Edward Gauvin. Archaia (BOOM!), 2018. 9781684151646.

Betty dreams of lying in bed with her boyfriend and then of crabs scuttling over her naked body, about to start clawing at her left breast. She wakes up in a hospital bed, bald and not feeling well, and tries to put on her wig before examining her mastectomy scar. With a prosthetic in place she looks and feels great, but she’s a bit shattered when her boyfriend doesn’t want to get intimate. After her boss sends her out to get something “more suitable” to put in her bra (I don’t want to spoil the imagery of what she’s using at that point), the over-the-top shop she’s in is robbed by a masked group of villains, which is a hint of crazy things to come. I don’t think it’s telling too much to say she runs away and joins a show.

The first half of the book is almost wordless and very powerful, and the second half felt less emotionally harrowing (though there are still tough moments) as Betty discovers the joy of people paying attention to her body on and off stage. It’s a nicely done, somewhat fantastical payoff after the all too real emotions of what she goes through.

These are the people in your neighborhood

Made in India: Recipes from an Indian Family Kitchen by Meera Sodha, photography by David Loftus, design by Fig Tree. Flatiron Books, 2015. 9781250071019.
Vegetarian India: A Journey Through the Best of Indian Home Cooking by Madhur Jaffrey, photography by Jonathan Gregson and Sanford Allen. Alfred A. Knopf, 2015. 9781101874868.

Sarah: A couple of years ago, I decided to try to eat better and one of the ways I did that was to follow the USDA food plan. You know the thing you learned in elementary school, the food pyramid? They still have that, but now it’s called My Plate. You can look up by your age and height and weight and see how much of what kind of foods you should be eating. And I liked it because the plan is revised every ten years by a panel of people who look at current research on diet and health. The website had some cool free tools to track your food intake and exercise. I liked that it was based on scientific consensus and only changed every decade. It wasn’t based on whatever was on Oprah or whatever diet fad book is a bestseller.
Gene: I feel like everybody disbelieves science now, including educated folks, especially about what to eat.
S: Yeah, it’s really frustrating. And if you’re a total nerd, they have the scientific basis available in a long report where you can look up what the research says, all the citations, this is why we recommended this. And then you get to tease people on high protein diets. “Look how much bread I get to eat! Mmmm, yummy!” But if you’re on the 2000 calorie a day plan, you eat two and a half cups of vegetables a day, plus two cups of fruit.
G: That’s a lot.
S: It is. Compared to the usual American diet, that is a crap-ton of vegetables. I was having a hard time finding ways to eat enough vegetables. (Because salad is not very dense, so you have to eat twice as much as other vegetables.) It was becoming hard for me to do this.
G: But kale counts three times as much, right?
S: (laughs) Nope, kale counts the same as anything else, because this is not a fad diet. So I started looking at vegetarian cookbooks at the library, because I thought “Who eats a lot of vegetables? Vegetarians!” No, turns out the books were full of recipes for grains and other things. I had a hard time finding vegetable dishes in vegetarian cookbooks. So then I wondered where else I could try. I figured: India. I ended up reading through a lot of Indian cookbooks and, after discarding many, I ended up with two that I really like to use to cook. One is Vegetarian India by Madhur Jaffrey, who has been writing awesome cookbooks for 30 or 40 years. The other one is Made in India by Meera Sodha, I think this is her first cookbook.
G: It looks old, but it isn’t.
S: The cover is kinda cool, because it looks like a label you’d get on a bag of rice or something.
G: Because the cover has a matte finish, without a dust jacket — I assume it was issued like that? — it feels like a classic cookbook. The other is more glossy.
S: Part of why I chose India, besides it having a really established vegetarian culture, I felt like a lot of the other vegetarian books were approaching it like, “You grew up eating meat, so here’s something like meat that you can eat instead.” These recipes assumed you grew up eating vegetables, so here’s some tasty vegetables. Though Made in India has meat dishes as well as vegetable dishes.
G: I like it already, because I flipped to “A Simple Goat Curry” which sounds great.
S: The other reason I chose India is because my neighborhood has at least four different Indian grocery stores, so if I’m looking at an Indian recipe book, I have no excuse to not buy all the ingredients on the list.
G: Cool.
S: So I went out and bought a bunch of spices, bought a bunch of dry legumes, bought a bunch of vegetables and gave it a shot. I tried it for a year, and it was really good. The authors bring their own stories into the books.

Madhur Jaffrey has travelled widely and tells stories about the people she met and the food she ate. So let’s take a look at her book, Vegetarian India. She doesn’t assume you have a background in this sort of cooking. (Both cookbook’s authors are British, and they know their audience members come from a wide variety of cultures.) But they don’t cut corners or compromise — I ran across a recipe in another book for Saag Paneer that said if you can’t get paneer, substitute feta or tofu. Gross!
G: I love paneer. But every time I can, I eat too much and get a stomachache.
S: Paneer is so good. If you live where I live, it’s easy to buy, and if you don’t it’s actually easy to make. Jaffrey’s assuming you want to taste the real deal. She’ll have stories about how she got a recipe, or how best to serve it, and tons of great vegetable-heavy recipes. I feel like if you picked this up and cooked a bunch of these recipes and served it to people who eat meat, they wouldn’t even notice.
G: I agree.
S: They wouldn’t feel deprived, like if you were serving them a plate of raw kale.
G: The flavor’s great in all of these, right?
S: Yeah, and that made a huge difference for me in helping me stick to my plan to eat a lot of vegetables. It all tastes delicious. There are several recipes that are otherwise very simple, but spiced in a way that you enjoy it more, you look forward to it.
G: In the other book, there’s a recipe for how to make paneer!
S: It requires milk and lemon juice.
G: That’s it?
S: That’s it.
G: I don’t have to put in that stuff from a calf’s stomach, what’s it called, rennet?
S: Exactly, because it’s from India. (laughs)
G: Wait, this only takes three hours?
S: That’s time it’s draining. You hang it up over your sink.
G: You could make it in the morning and eat it for dinner.
S: Yeah. I felt like I ate a lot better using these books. At first, I was looking for recipes that I liked in restaurants, but it turns out those taste good because they’re full of cream and butter. So because I didn’t want to feel like a ball of grease, I liked that these call for peanut oil or olive oil, and aren’t heavy and oily. The dishes are more homestyle. The recipes are drawn from all over India, which is nice, because like the US the food isn’t the same everywhere in the country.
G: I like the look of Made in India, it’s a mix of old style designs and cool poster art looking illustrations.
S: I think they’re all original graphic designs, but based on bright product labels.
G: Good photos, too.
S: I think that’s important, because you can have a book of the best recipes in the world, but if you’re flipping through it and you don’t see something that makes you say, “Yum!,” then you’re not going to make it. You’re not going to take that extra time.
G: Everything in here looks like something I would eat in a heartbeat.
S: There are cookbooks where I get partway into them and realize they require more equipment and expertise than I have — these were not like that.
G: These look great, and I’m not even a cookbook guy.

I know what I read last summer

In the air and on the ground in South Korea and Vietnam I made it through three book books in a month. That’s a lot for me. My secret: I read slowly. Must be why I like graphic novels so much.

Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews. Pocket Books, 2013. 9781501168918. 576pp.

A personal recommendation by the owner of Seattle’s BLMF bookstore who said something like, “This got me reading spy fiction again.” This is indeed a great book that doesn’t center on the character in the movie trailer seducing everyone after going to sex/assassination school (though Dominika Egorova does to to that school). The book starts with a young CIA operative in Moscow (Nathaniel Nash) nearly getting caught as he goes out to meet a high level Russian double agent, then alternates telling the stories of Nash and Egorova as it brings each into the other’s orbit. The less said about the plot the better, but the characters are scary brilliant at every turn, and the situations they face will have your heart pounding.

Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers. July, 2018. 9780062699220. 368pp.

Chambers is writing the most upbeat, character centered science fiction that I’ve read. Plot seems secondary to people in an absolutely brilliant way in the Wayfarer series, which started with The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. (You don’t need to have read it first, but there are some references to it in this one.)

This book revolves around life in the Exodan Fleet, the ships in which humanity left the Earth behind centuries ago as it set out for the stars. To members of a Galactic Federation, the Exodans’ way of life and level of technology are very backward, though to some their communal way of life is fascinating. The story is told from several points of view — young people who want to head planetside as soon as they’re able, a young man who grew up on the ground but has come to the fleet to try their way of life, an archivist in the fleet, a person who prepares bodies for recycling and handles funerary rites, and an alien who has come to study and report on Exodan society. The insects they eat sound delicious, and I’d go visit in a moment if this was a real place — not many books make me smile as often and unexpectedly as Chambers’ do.

The Crippler: Cage Fighting and My Life on the Edge by Chris Leben and Daniel J. Patinkin. Skyhorse, 2017. 9781510727731. 296pp.

I was a huge fan of Leben’s bloody slugfests in the UFC — he was tough and often seemed to keep fighting on pure heart. Reading about how tough his early life was and how he abused his body before and during his time as a pro fighter was a bit horrifying, but about halfway through the book I checked his Facebook page and saw photos of a smiling Leben in Hawaii with his family, and that pulled me through.
The only other MMA bio that I’ve read is strategist/fighter Georges St-Pierre’s The Way of the Fight, whose “this is how I became who I am” book stands in stark contrast to Leben’s “I can’t believe I made it through this” stories. Maybe the contrast means they should be read together?