Jim Kokoris’ It’s. Nice. Outside. is a road trip novel unlike any other. Fifty-something John Nichols (former college basketball player, high school English teacher and author) is on his way from the Chicago suburbs to his oldest daughter's wedding in South Carolina in a minivan. His companion? His developmentally disabled, autistic 19-year-old son Ethan who is afraid to fly.
The family is fraught with issues. Nichols is divorced, due to an affair with a wildly inappropriate woman (he blames it on the stress of parenting a special needs son). Now that woman is repeatedly calling again out of nowhere. Despite this, he still loves his ex-wife and holds out hope of reconciliation. Meanwhile, no one likes his daughter's husband-to-be. His middle daughter, a famous sketch comedian, has been feuding with her older sister and may not show up for the wedding.
Nichols makes his way south, using up his frequent stay points at Marriott properties that have pools (swimming calms Ethan) and eating at Cracker Barrels (Ethan likes routine). All the while, he’s trying to sort out what happens next in life for both him and his son. A trio of stuffed bears along for the ride provides Nichols with a cathartic outlet, as he runs them through outrageous comic routines tailored to entertain himself as much as they do Ethan.
Kokoris does a great job fleshing out believable, empathetic characters as he portrays the dysfunctional family dynamic. He shows sensitivity in his depiction of Ethan while spotlighting the everyday challenges of parenting a special needs adult. This novel is both laugh out loud funny and poignant, and will appeal to readers who enjoy books by Jonathan Tropper or Jonathan Evison.
Imagine a future where new high school graduates are funneled into one of two life options: prison (that's where they'll end up anyway) or a job at one of two superstores, AllMART or Q-Mart. This is the premise of Blythe Woolston’s MARTians, which follows Zoë Zindleman, a teen who is an unexpected early graduate of her now-closed efficiency high school.
Zoë’s homeroom technician explains that once upon a time a student like her might go to college to prepare for a professional position, but that was then and this is now. She’s lucky to have a job referral for both stores. Home life is a problem, because her house has been on the market for a long time, and so have all the other abandoned, looted dwellings on their cul-de-sac. And now that Zoë has job security, her mother, AnnaMom has decided to move away without her.
Lucky for Zoë, she meets Timmer, a fellow graduate who has had the advantage of working for AllMART for several months now. He’s also on his own, and he helps her navigate the world of the newly independent. He offers her a place to live at an abandoned strip mall, which serves as home to a variety of scrappy misfits. Of course, she could choose to live in the AllMART dormitory—after all, AllMART acts in loco parentis for its employees. AllMART is so much more than a job, her personal human resources manager reminds her. It’s all she can do to learn the departments within the vast store, all the while encouraged to remember “Your smile is the AllMART welcome mat.”
Although published as a teen novel, this dystopian satire features the kind sophisticated ideas and sharp prose found in adult science fiction classics. Savvy readers will notice references to Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles, which influenced this cautionary tale of a future that leaves superstores at the center of everyone’s existence. Equally funny and chilling, MARTians is a novel to share.
As a serious home cook who loves to read cookbooks, I was excited to get my hands on 101 Easy Asian Recipes, by Peter Meehan and the editors of Lucky Peach. I’m a longtime fan of Lucky Peach magazine, a quarterly journal that focuses on food writing of all kinds. Their first cookbook is very approachable. It features simple, clear instructions, plenty of procedural drawings (like how to properly fill and seal a dumpling) and glossy color photographs of finished dishes. Meehan admits that “Asian” is a wide catch-all term — for example, there are no Indian recipes in the book — and they’re not necessarily aiming for authenticity. A recipe for “mall chicken” is a nod to the sauce-doused chicken chunks sampled on toothpicks at nearly every food court you’ve ever visited. This version is baked rather than fried, but is no less craveable.
A trip to an Asian supermarket to stock your pantry is a must as you’ll need things you probably won’t find at your local supermarket. Not only does the book provide a frequently used ingredient list, but there are photographic spreads of the actual items. This helps remove any possible confusion, as many of the ingredients may be unfamiliar. These include things like black vinegar, fish sauce, sesame oil, sambal oelek, dashi and white pepper. Recipes call for all types of noodles, from ramen and udon to gluten-free Korean glass noodles (made from sweet potato starch) and rice sticks.
Meehan has a great sense of humor that shines through in the notes, the recipes are easy to follow and the results are impressive. I’ve made several dishes with great success in the last couple of weeks, including a smashed cucumber salad with chili, cilantro and peanuts; braised baby bok choy with oyster sauce and crispy garlic; and homemade “dollar dumplings” with dipping sauce. Borrow 101 Easy Asian Recipes now and you’ll likely buy your own copy later.
It’s a fact that librarians are partial to cats, but so are picture book authors. There is no shortage of felines on the pages of children’s literature, including this trio of recently published titles. In How to Catch a Mouse, author-illustrator Philippa Leathers introduces an adorable green-eyed marmalade tabby named Clemmie. Although readers find out about Clemmie’s superb mousing skills on the first page, we quickly realize that she may be bragging a bit too much. Has she ever seen a mouse? What about the little gray master of disguise who has been walking around the house, almost in plain sight? This gentle story, humorously illustrated in pencil and watercolor, is perfect for young preschoolers.
Owners of timid felines come in droves to the newly established Miss Hazeltine’s Home for Shy and Fearful Cats, also the title of this charming picture book by Alicia Potter. Their cats are failing at all things cats are known for, including pouncing, purring and chasing birds. Patient Miss Hazeltine runs her nervous charges through a daily roster of classes such as Climbing Up, Meeting New Friends and How Not to Fear the Broom. She lavishes special attention on the most bashful little kitty, Crumb. But what happens when Miss Hazeltine goes out to fetch some water and needs rescuing herself? Birgitta Sif’s pencil illustrations and muted palette perfectly capture the essence of such a fanciful boarding school in the woods, run by a sweet, calm and lithe young woman who loves her work. Sif is a master at depicting the many aspects of feline nature, with distinctly different kitties of all shapes and sizes napping, licking, hiding, lapping, perching and hanging on every page.
Poor Cat. He’s lost a tooth, but he was asleep when the Tooth Fairy came and he really wanted to meet her. But when he tries to trick her by leaving the tooth of a comb, she turns the tables and insists he must help her out by picking up the teeth of various animals who have lost them. Although he’s excited to be the Tooth Fairy’s apprentice, Cat is none too thrilled to wear a tutu and wings, let alone to share duties with Mouse! Deborah Underwood’s Here Comes the Tooth Fairy Cat is a funny take on this childhood legend, complete with a few surprises along the way. Underwood, who previously featured Cat in two holiday offerings, Here Comes the Easter Cat and Here Comes Santa Cat, uses the technique of an off-page narrator who speaks directly to Cat, questioning him and offering advice. Cat himself communicates only through broad facial expressions and signs he holds. Claudia Rueda’s comical yet warm color pencil and ink drawings are integral to the story, which like its predecessors, would make an excellent classroom read aloud for the kindergarten set.
Fans and producers of graphic novels and comic art will converge in Bethesda this weekend, September 19 and 20, for Small Press Expo 2015. Many storytellers are slated to speak about their art, including three with recently released graphic novels.
Jessica Abel takes on a challenging topic to visually present in Out on the Wire: The Storytelling Secrets of the New Masters of Radio. Abel leads readers on an in-depth behind-the-scenes tour of a number of popular National Public Radio shows and podcasts, from the first conception of an idea to the final edit and broadcast. The seeds for Out on the Wire were sown back in the late 1990s, when This American Life host Ira Glass came across Abel’s work and suggested she try drawing “radio comics.” That led to her spending a week with his show’s staff as they were putting together an episode. The result, a pamphlet called Radio: An Illustrated Guide, which is excerpted in the book. Readers will note how much technology has changed since 1999 and appreciate the degree to which Abel’s craft has expanded. Literal representations of radio personalities and their narration give way to more imaginative depictions of stories and ideas. Fans of NPR will pore over the pages of this fascinating, highly detailed graphic novel. It’s highly recommended to anyone interested in the art of producing radio and podcasts.
Bill Griffith, known for his absurdist syndicated comic strip Zippy the Pinhead, makes his first foray into graphic memoir with Invisible Ink: My Mother’s Love Affair with a Famous Cartoonist. His story begins with a letter from his mother’s brother, Uncle Al, who has come into possession of a box of family photos and memorabilia. Soon he’s off to North Carolina to explore his history. Griffith’s childhood in 1950s and ’60s Levittown, New York, was not one to be remembered fondly — his military father and aspiring writer mother had a cold, distant marriage. His father remained a mystery to him, as did the reasons he was physically abusive to both Griffith and his sister. His mother never intervened. But she had her own escape, in the form of a secretarial job in New York City that turned into a 16-year love affair with her boss, Lariar, a prolific writer and cartoonist. Griffith maintains an exquisitely realistic style throughout the exploration of his family history, choosing to depict only himself in cartoony manner, with a long pointy nose and two prominent front teeth. How would his life had been different had he been mentored by Lariar? Did his father know what was going on? Readers will lose themselves in the detailed panels as Griffith shares his discoveries. Fans of David Small’s Stitches and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home will appreciate this emotionally honest and graphic look back at growing up surrounded by secrets in an emotionally distant family.
Before it was a critically acclaimed independent film, The Diary of a Teenage Girl was a hybrid graphic memoir/novel by artist and writer Phoebe Gloeckner. First published in 2002, Diary has been reissued with new material to coincide with the opening of the movie. Gloeckner’s alter ego Minnie Goetz is a 15-year-old year old coming of age in 1970s San Francisco with a liberal librarian mother and a pesky younger sister. Gloeckner has been both praised and criticized for her raw, honest portrayal of female sexuality, particularly because Minnie’s ongoing partner and object of lust is her mother’s 35 year old boyfriend. As much a celebration as a cautionary tale, The Diary of a Teenage Girl is unlike anything you’ve read before.