Bookclub Review: “Almost American Girl”

40030311._sy475_We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is “American Girl Readalikes”, in which we each pick an American Girl book and a book that can be connected to it, however tenuous as it may be.

For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for book club. We’ll also post the next book coming up in book club. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own book club!

Book: “Almost American Girl” by Robin Ha

Publishing Info: Balzer + Bray, January 2020

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

American Girl Book: “Felicity Saves the Day” by Valerie Tripp

Book Description: A powerful and timely teen graphic novel memoir—perfect for fans of American Born Chinese and Hey, Kiddo—about a Korean-born, non-English-speaking girl who is abruptly transplanted from Seoul to Huntsville, Alabama, and struggles with extreme culture shock and isolation, until she discovers her passion for comic arts.

For as long as she can remember, it’s been Robin and her mom against the world. Growing up in the 1990s as the only child of a single mother in Seoul, Korea, wasn’t always easy, but it has bonded them fiercely together.

So when a vacation to visit friends in Huntsville, Alabama, unexpectedly becomes a permanent relocation—following her mother’s announcement that she’s getting married—Robin is devastated. Overnight, her life changes. She is dropped into a new school where she doesn’t understand the language and struggles to keep up. She is completely cut off from her friends at home and has no access to her beloved comics. At home, she doesn’t fit in with her new stepfamily. And worst of all, she is furious with the one person she is closest to—her mother.

Then one day Robin’s mother enrolls her in a local comic drawing class, which opens the window to a future Robin could never have imagined.

Kate’s Thoughts

I had not heard of this book before it was picked for our book club session in March, and therefore going into it was a bit of a blind dive in. I had heard of Robin Ha’s previous book, “Cook Korean! A Comic Book with Recipes” but I knew that this was going to be a bit different. I figured I’d read “Almost American Girl” over the course of a few days, but then I ended up devouring it in nearly one sitting. I loved it that much.

The first thing that struck me about this book was how gorgeous and unique the art was. The colors are a watercolor-esque aesthetic, and it had both a calming effect as well as really evoking the emotions that were coming off the page. Robin’s transition from her life in Korea to her sudden shift to America was emotional and very difficult, and Ha used the imagery in both the pictures themselves and the color schemes to portray all of the ups and downs of Robin’s feelings during that time. From stark reds or darkness during difficult times, or almost glowing and bright colors in times of happiness, Ha uses the artwork to her advantage in her storytelling, and I really liked it.

The story, too, was compelling and very readable. While I was absolutely interested in Robin’s story as a girl who has to completely shift from one culture to another, Ha also makes a point to show the point of view of her mother, who made the decision to take her daughter from her life in South Korea and move them to Alabama without any hint or forewarning. I thought that at first I was going to have a hard time with her mother (while still trying to recognize the cultural differences between my experience and hers), but, like Serena mentions below, Ha was very deliberate in wanting to give a full picture as to how hard she had it and why she would take such a huge risk. And, on a personal note, I think that now that I’m a mother to a daughter (who is still just a baby, mind you) I was especially moved by their relationship, through the good times and the bad.

Ha also did a very good job of showing the straddling of traditional cultural expectations, and the different expectations that the children of immigrants may have. Ha’s step family was a mixed bag of those who thought that Robin and her mother should be adhering to the traditional roles they would have had back in South Korea (even though Robin’s mother didn’t feel like she had a place in that society as an opinionated single mother), and those who wanted to just fit in in American society. That was a theme that I wasn’t really expecting from this story, and I thought Ha was very careful in making sure not to say whether these expectations were right or wrong. Well, except in the case of her step-cousin. That girl was just mean. But we also got to see Ha make connections to other Korean-American kids her age as time goes on, and how once you do find that place in a community that ‘gets it’ it can make a world of difference in one’s life.

“Almost American Girl” was a moving and wonderful graphic memoir. I am so, so glad that we read it.

Serena’s Thoughts

As I’ve said many times before, a big part of my appreciation for bookclub is how it challenges me to read outside of my typical genres. Unlike Kate, I rarely get around to graphic novels, even though I tend to enjoy them when I do  read them. I was excited, then, when I saw that we’d be reading this book next!

This book had a lot of great things going for it, from the excellent looks into a girl’s experience as an immigrant coming to the U.S., to the exploration of her mother’s life and choices, to the beautiful use of the artwork to display the myriad of emotions that Robin experiences as she adjust to her new life. I’ve read a handful of other “immigrant experience” novels and they have all had something unique to offer as no “experience” will be the same, obviously. One thing that I think this story really highlighted were the challenges of language for Robin and the impact this had on her adjustment to life in the U.S. The use of the graphic novel format was cleverly used in this instance to replace speech bubbles with nonsense jargon to highlight how difficult it was for Robin to follow along in conversations, especially when the speaker was talking quickly.

I also really liked the inclusion of the mother’s story. From the beginning, seen through Robin’s eyes, it is challenging to understand the choices Robin’s mother has made that has lead to the complete upheaval of their lives. But as the story continues, we learn more and more about Robin’s mother’s past, the challenges she faced living in Korea as a single mother, and the values she saw in coming to raise her daughter in a completely foreign and new country. And even after that one major choice was made, we see the struggle and the myriad of choices, both good and bad, that Robin’s mother faces in the U.S. while trying to make a new life here.

Lastly, I really enjoyed the last portion of the story that shows Robin briefly returning to Seoul when she’s in college and finding that she no longer fits there either. It’s an interesting look again at the differences between Korean and American culture, and touches on a side of the immigrant experience that is often skipped over. How, on returning to one’s nation of origin, many can find that they no longer fit in within that culture either.

I really enjoyed this book. I think the artwork was beautiful, and I loved the story itself. I highly recommend it to pretty much everyone!

Kate’s Rating 9: An emotional and personal memoir that tackles culture, the immigrant experience, identity, and the importance of community, “Almost American Girl” was a heartfelt and moving read.

Serena’s Rating 9: Through beautiful artwork, “Almost American Girl” presents a moving story of the immigrant experience full of challenges, sorrows, and joys

Book Club Questions

  1. How does “Almost American Girl” compare to other “immigrant experience” novels that you have read?
  2. What did you think of the artwork in this book? Was there anything in particular that stood out to you?
  3. How did you react to Robin’s mother’s parts of this book? Did you feel like you understood the choices that she made?
  4. How did you find Robin’s step family and the way that they treated her and her mother?
  5. Do you think that today Robin would have had the same experience when coming to a completely new culture and country? Why or why not?
  6. How did you feel about where she ended the story in terms of where she was in her life at the time? Did that seem like a good way to wrap the story up?

Reader’s Advisory

“Almost American Girl” is included on the Goodreads list “Great Graphic Novels Released in 2020”, and would fit in on “Books and Boba Reading List”.

Find “Almost American Girl” at your library using WorldCat!

Next Book Club Book: “This Place: 150 Years Retold” by  Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm, Sonny Assu, et al.

Kate’s Review: “The Third Rainbow Girl”

37655694Book: “The Third Rainbow Girl: The Long Life of a Double Murder in Appalachia” by Emma Copley Eisenberg

Publishing Info: Hachette Books, January 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: In the afternoon or early evening of June 25, 1980, two young women, Vicki Durian and Nancy Santomero, were killed in an isolated clearing in rural Pocahontas County West Virginia. They were hitchhiking to an outdoor peace festival known as the Rainbow Gathering, but never arrived. Their killings have been called “The Rainbow Murders.”

For thirteen years, no one was prosecuted, though suspicion was cast on a succession of local men. In 1993, the state of West Virginia convicted a local farmer named Jacob Beard and sentenced him to life imprisonment. Later, it emerged that a convicted serial killer and diagnosed schizophrenic named Joseph Paul Franklin had also confessed. With the passage of time, as the truth behind the Rainbow killings seemed to slip away, its toll on this Appalachian community became more concrete—the unsolved murders were a trauma, experienced on a community scale.

Emma Copley Eisenberg spent five years re-investigating these brutal acts, which once captured the national media’s imagination, only to fall into obscurity. A one-time New Yorker who came to live in Pocahontas Country, Eisenberg shows how that crime, a mysterious act of violence against a pair of middle-class outsiders, came to loom over several generations of struggling Appalachians, many of them
laborers who earned a living farming, hauling timber, cutting locust posts, or baling hay—and the investigators and lawyers for whom the case became a white whale.

Part “Serial”-like investigation, part Joan Didion-like meditation, the book follows the threads of this crime through the history of West Virginia, the Back-to-the-Land movement, and the complex reality contemporary Appalachia, forming a searing portrait of America and its divisions of gender and class, and its violence.

Review: I’ve mentioned this in the past about how my mother likes to send me book reviews from the New York Times or the Washington Post or what have you if she thinks that the book will be of interest to me. Such themes have included cults, murder, and a first scene which involved two men hooking up in a Bulgarian public restroom. Suffice to say, I’m always intrigued when a new review shows up in my inbox. So when she sent an article about “The Third Rainbow Girl” by Emma Copley Eisenberg, I knew that it was bound to be a spot on recommendation. And not only was it spot on, it was about a true crime cold case that I had never heard of until that moment! Mom comes through once again with the creepy and salacious reads!

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Who knows what kind of story will arrive in my inbox next? (source)

“The Third Rainbow Girl” is a dual narrative. One is the examination and dissection of a cold case murder from 1980 in which two women were found murdered in Pocahontas County, West Virginia, and the woman who was their friend and narrowly missed being murdered herself. The other is a personal memoir by Eisenberg, who spent a few formative years working in Pocahontas county decades after the fact. These two narratives come together to paint a portrait of the community, the culture, and the various hardships and struggles the people have, as well as how the murders and the fallout affected those who live there. But they also tell the story of women trying to find their freedom in different ways, and how misogyny and violence can have a hefty price. The story of Nancy Santomero and Vicki Durian is a familiar one of women who meet a violent end, but the way that Eisenberg slowly peels back the layers of their story is haunting and depressing in how incomplete it feels, even if it’s kind of solved. From thrown out charges to an overturned conviction to the confession from notorious serial killer Joseph Paul Franklin (that ultimately was never pursued as charges because he was already on death row for two other murders), Santomero and Durian’s case has been a mystery, even if the case is technically closed. And the idea of the ‘hillbilly monster’ trope has been one that haunted it from the get go, as everyone in town was sure that it was someone local who was taking aggression out on the ‘hippie’ girls. And yet, if Franklin is to be believed, he was an outsider and certainly not the monster we’ve come to associate with pop culture depictions of Appalaichian predators, though far more dangerous than some “Deliverance” backwoods hick. For whatever reason, be it misogyny, or two victims who didn’t fit the ‘missing pretty white woman’ mold to a t (as while they were both white, neither Santomero nor Durian were seen as ‘pretty’ by media frenzy standards, and as hippie chicks had certain stigmas around them), or a community that had turned on itself, this murder is still incomplete, and still haunts Pocahontas County.

The other narrative, that of Eisenberg’s own experiences in Pocahontas County while working for VISTA, gives a little more context to the culture of the area, though it sometimes treads into ‘this could have been ME!’ territory. The title of the book refers to the Third Rainbow Girl, a woman named Elizabeth Johndrow who had been friends with Durian and Santomero but narrowly missed becoming a victim due to timing and sheer luck. You can see that Eisenberg relates to Johndrow, and on other levels Durian and Santomero, because of the need to explore the world and to find herself when she was young and living in the area, without knowing what would come of that need for adventuring. She experienced first hand the highest highs of living in Pocahontas County, and also saw the way that women are both taught to be tough while being cut down because of circumstance and the misogyny that is rampant in that culture, as it is in other American cultures, though Appalachia gets more scrutiny than some supposedly more progressive parts of the country. I thought that the memoir section of this book, along with the history lessons, definitely made me approach the subject matter with more compassion and a more open mind that I would have had it not been there. But that said, I did find some of the comparisons made between her life and the victims lives, even if not overtly, to feel a little self centered. Because of this, I wasn’t as connected to this part of the story, and wanted to get back to the case at hand as it unfolded and shifted.

Overall, “The Third Rainbow Girl” is a unique take on the true crime genre, and it examined themes that many true crime books don’t. I think that if you are looking for straight true crime it may not be the best fit, but if you want a little reflection and contextualization, you should definitely give it a whirl.

Rating 7: A cohesive and deep dive into a cold case that I was unfamiliar with, and while I liked the background provided to West Virginia, the memoir aspect felt a little shoehorned in.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Third Rainbow Girl” is included on the Goodreads list “True Crime by Women and POC”.

Find “The Third Rainbow Girl” at your library using WorldCat!

Bookclub Review: “Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood”

9516We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is “American Girl Readalikes”, in which we each pick an American Girl book and a book that can be connected to it, however tenuous as it may be.

For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for book club. We’ll also post the next book coming up in book club. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own book club!

Book: “Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood” by Marjane Satrapi

Publishing Info: Pantheon, June 2004

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

American Girl Book: “Samantha Learns a Lesson” by Susan S. Adler

Book Description: Wise, funny, and heartbreaking, Persepolis is Marjane Satrapi’s memoir of growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution. In powerful black-and-white comic strip images, Satrapi tells the story of her life in Tehran from ages six to fourteen, years that saw the overthrow of the Shah’s regime, the triumph of the Islamic Revolution, and the devastating effects of war with Iraq. The intelligent and outspoken only child of committed Marxists and the great-granddaughter of one of Iran’s last emperors, Marjane bears witness to a childhood uniquely entwined with the history of her country.

Persepolis paints an unforgettable portrait of daily life in Iran and of the bewildering contradictions between home life and public life. Marjane’s child’s-eye view of dethroned emperors, state-sanctioned whippings, and heroes of the revolution allows us to learn as she does the history of this fascinating country and of her own extraordinary family. Intensely personal, profoundly political, and wholly original, Persepolis is at once a story of growing up and a reminder of the human cost of war and political repression. It shows how we carry on, with laughter and tears, in the face of absurdity. And, finally, it introduces us to an irresistible little girl with whom we cannot help but fall in love. 

Kate’s Thoughts

While it’s true that I read and reviewed “The Complete Persepolis” a couple years back, I really wanted to read it for book club. It was my turn for the American Girl theme, and I knew that I wanted to do “Samantha Learns a Lesson” (as Samantha has always been my favorite American Girl). So I decided that “Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood” would be the match up, as both are about girls from upper classes who have to learn hard social justice lessons about the lower classes in the society in which they are living.

My opinion of “Persepolis” hasn’t changed since I last addressed it here. It’s still one of my favorite graphic novels of all time, like top ten no question. But with the focus specifically on Satrapi’s childhood for this reading, mixed with the lens I had on social class, AND the current tensions the U.S. is having with Iran, this reading was all the more meaningful for me. Satrapi does a very good job of disseminating how Iran changed so fundamentally as a society in the aftermath of the fall of the Shah, and addresses the complexities of those changes, showing how it isn’t a black and white, right or wrong situation. She also points out her own privileges within Iran during the Cultural Revolution. While she was a girl and her family wasn’t as socially favored as some, they had enough wealth and means that not only could she carefully rebel against societal norms with little repercussions (though some of this was pure luck), she also wasn’t part of the social class that was being used as cannon fodder during the war with Iraq. Along with all that, she also had the means to be sent away for school in Austria when it was becoming clear that being a teenage girl was becoming more and more unsafe.

I’m so pleased that we read “Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood” for book club! It fostered a lot of good conversation, and I will take any excuse to revisit this stunning memoir.

Serena’s Thoughts

My only previous familiarity with this book was through reading Kate’s glowing review of the complete collection. But with that strong recommendation, I was excited to finally get the excuse (more like the push, but “excuse” sounds better) to finally read it myself. And, put simply, like always, Kate was spot-on in her stamp of approval for this title!

I will admit to having only the barest understanding of the events that happened during Iran’s Cultural Revolution. I knew the end result, of course, but had very little clarity on the progression of events. In that way, this book does a fantastic job at bringing reader’s down to the street level of a topic that is often discussed, at least here in the U.S., at very global levels. Her life also offers an interesting window, coming from an educated and modern family who have many privileges at their finger tips that can help mitigate the experience.But, with those privileges, we also see the increased strain of a change that is felt quite acutely, especially for a young girl growing into her teenage years. We see the burgeoning of the obligations towards social justice weighed against the practicalities of safety and one’s own welfare.

I also loved the illustration style of this book. The choice to use only black and white colors not only parallels the movement of a society towards a more black and white way of thinking about life, but leaves the readers to focus largely on the content before them. It is not “prettied up” in anyway that could distract from the fact that this is based upon a woman’s real life experience. That said, the style of drawing is also very approachable to young readers and nicely balances out the stark color palette.

I really enjoyed this book and am so glad Kate picked it for bookclub. Like the broken record I often am, I’m yet again thankful to be part of a group of readers who expose me to books that I would likely not get around to reading on my own.

Kate’s Rating 10: An all time favorite of mine that I will happily revisit over and over.

Serena’s Rating 10: A must read for fans of graphic novels and those looking for more insights into life growing up in Iran during the Cultural Revolution.

Book Club Questions

  1. What did you think of the choice to tell her personal story in graphic form? How do you think it would have been different had it been written in a traditional narrative structure?
  2. “Persepolis: A Story of a Childhoold” is set before, during and after the Cultural Revolution in Iran. How much did you know about this historical period before reading this book?
  3. Like Samantha, Marjane is a child who has to learn some hard truths about the society she’s living in as a child. Are there any obvious differences between how Marjane experienced this period vs other Iranian children from other backgrounds may have?
  4. In an interview Satrapi said that she wanted “Persepolis” to show that Iran wasn’t only the society and culture that is shown through western lenses (that of a fundamentalist culture). Do you think she succeeded? Why or why not?
  5. Captivity and freedom are themes that are prevalent throughout the narrative. What are some of the ways they are presented within the story?
  6. How does a persons personal history interact with the history of a society or a culture they live within? How do you think your own personal history ties with the history of your country?

Reader’s Advisory

“Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood” can be found on the Goodreads lists “Best Memoir Graphic Novels”, and “Reading Recommendations for a Young Feminist”.

Find “Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood” at your library using WorldCat!

Next Book Club book: “It’s Not The End of the World” by Judy Blume

Kate’s Review: “They Called Us Enemy”

42527866Book: “They Called Us Enemy” by George Takei, Justin Eisigner, Steven Scott, and Harmony Becker (Ill.)

Publishing Info: Top Shelf Productions, July 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: A stunning graphic memoir recounting actor/author/activist George Takei’s childhood imprisoned within American concentration camps during World War II. Experience the forces that shaped an American icon — and America itself — in this gripping tale of courage, country, loyalty, and love.

George Takei has captured hearts and minds worldwide with his captivating stage presence and outspoken commitment to equal rights. But long before he braved new frontiers in Star Trek, he woke up as a four-year-old boy to find his own birth country at war with his father’s — and their entire family forced from their home into an uncertain future.

In 1942, at the order of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, every person of Japanese descent on the west coast was rounded up and shipped to one of ten “relocation centers,” hundreds or thousands of miles from home, where they would be held for years under armed guard.

They Called Us Enemy is Takei’s firsthand account of those years behind barbed wire, the joys and terrors of growing up under legalized racism, his mother’s hard choices, his father’s faith in democracy, and the way those experiences planted the seeds for his astonishing future.

What is American? Who gets to decide? When the world is against you, what can one person do? To answer these questions, George Takei joins co-writers Justin Eisinger & Steven Scott and artist Harmony Becker for the journey of a lifetime.

Review: When I was in grad school, one of our professors asked us how old we all were when we first learned about the Japanese American Internment during World War II. I was in sixth grade, but I remember that was on the early side of things in that straw poll. It is a shameful part of American History when our Government targeted innocent people based on their race, and shipped them off to internment camps based on bigotry and fear. I knew that actor and political activist George Takei and his family were sent to one of these camps when he was a little boy, but didn’t know his full story. “They Called Us Enemy” is him telling that story, but not only is it that, it’s connecting that experience and horrible government policy with more recent policies that are playing out in our country today.

Takei weaves his own personal story together with the broader political climate and maneuvers that ultimately led to Executive Order 9066, which relocated over 100,000 Japanese Americans to internment camps during World War II. Takei was a little boy when this happened, and his memories are shaped by his age and perceptions at that time. I thought that it was especially effective to tell the stories of how he as a little boy perceived what was going on around him, and how looking back at how his parents were acting during that time now shows him the broader pain and injustice of what happened to their family. Moments like him and his little brother Henry playing on the train that was taking them to Camp Rohwer, where their natural curiosity made their mother nervous that they would get the negative attention of the guards, were especially chilling. He remembers having a fun time with Henry, but then also looks back and sees the unease his mother had regarding their safety, and it hits the point home that their innocence was being slowly chipped away at, even if they didn’t know it. I also liked that he would show other moments of childhood joy and innocence, like seeing their first snow or experiencing a visit from Santa at Christmas, but then would still reiterate that moments of happiness do not outweigh or negate the fact that he and his family were being imprisoned because of their heritage and race and not their actions.

Takei is also really good at presenting the political events and policies that surrounded the Japanese Internment, from putting forth the major players like FDR and Warren Berger in the spotlight to showing how the racism and fear meant more policies and more rules, and more distrust of those who were imprisoned. We see such policies play out on the larger scale, and then see how they impact the Takei family. His parents Takekuma and Fumiko are doing their best to keep their children safe, but as the policies become more restrictive their refusal to declare ‘loyalty’ to America, as to do so would be pledging loyalty to a country that had imprisoned them AND supposed that they were loyal to the Japanese Empire even though they did not live there and hadn’t for most of their lives. This, of course, led to consequences and the Takei family was sent to an even more restrictive camp called Tule Lake. We also see George Takei reflecting upon the conflict between older prisoners and younger prisoners, with older prisoners more likely to try to bow their heads and stay safe, and younger ones more willing to question and openly rebel. This is all seen through hindsight, as Takei has memories of, after the fact when he was a young adult, pushing against and deriding his father for not fighting back, and his father clearly still feeling caught between what was right and what would keep his family safe. It’s clear this still hurts Takei as he looks back on it.

Finally, Takei isn’t afraid to compare the Japanese Internment Camps and Policy to what we are seeing at the border with asylum seekers and the Muslim Travel Ban. The comparison has made some people uncomfortable and indignant, but Takei is more than game to show that the inhumanity of these policies is very reminiscent of what happened to Japanese Americans during World War II, and that they’re based similar fears and racism that Executive Order 9066 sprung from. It’s a wrenching comparison, and a hard reality to face that we’re falling into the same mistakes and injustices of our past.

The artwork by Harmony Becker is lovely to look at and fits the story well. It strikes a balance between realism, especially when talking about policy and world events, but also has cartoony moments that reflect childhood and childrens’ reactions to various events in their day to day lives.

4
(source)

“They Called Us Enemy” is a story that is upsetting and personal, and it is a familiar situation that many had hoped we had left in the past. George Takei opens up and shares this story with power and grace, and if you want to know more about the Japanese American Internment, this is a good place to start. Learn our history. We’re repeating it now and it’s atrocious.

Rating 9: A powerful, heartbreaking story that shows injustices of America’s past (and present), “They Called Us Enemy” is a stunning and personal graphic memoir by George Takei.

Reader’s Advisory:

“They Called Us Enemy” is included on the Goodreads lists “Japanese American Internment”, and “History Through Graphic Novels”.

Find “They Called Us Enemy” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Stay Sexy and Don’t Get Murdered”

41068144Book: “Stay Sexy and Don’t Get Murdered: The Definitive How-To Guide” by Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark

Publishing Info: Forge Books, May 2018

Where Did I Get This Book: I own an Audible Audiobook/ was given a partial ARC by a friend.

Book Description: The highly anticipated first book by Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark, the voices behind the #1 hit podcast My Favorite Murder!

Sharing never-before-heard stories ranging from their struggles with depression, eating disorders, and addiction, Karen and Georgia irreverently recount their biggest mistakes and deepest fears, reflecting on the formative life events that shaped them into two of the most followed voices in the nation.

In Stay Sexy & Don’t Get Murdered, Karen and Georgia focus on the importance of self-advocating and valuing personal safety over being ‘nice’ or ‘helpful.’ They delve into their own pasts, true crime stories, and beyond to discuss meaningful cultural and societal issues with fierce empathy and unapologetic frankness.

Review: I’m a Murderino and have been a Murderino for about two years now. For those who may not be familiar, a ‘Murderino’ is the name for fans “My Favorite Murder”, a true crime comedy podcast hosted by Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark. I know I’ve spoken about it on this blog before, as I highlighted this book for the month of May, put the podcast in a “Not Just Books” post, and have referenced it on and off, here and there. I first discovered “My Favorite Murder” when I was going through a bit of a hard emotional time. I was feeling stagnant and unappreciated at one of my jobs, I was having anxiety about the future and big decisions that I knew needed to be made sooner rather than later, and one of my aunts (whom I had been close to) was dying of cancer, which sent a number of other family members into a turmoil. My friend Amanda recommended MFM to me, and I started it on the plane ride out to visit my ailing aunt/start preparing her house for hospice/getting other affairs in order. MFM became my comfort during that trip, as Kilgariff and Hardstark were able to talk about dark (yet eternally fascinating) topics with wit, empathy, and humor. I’ve been hooked ever since. And when I found out that Kilgariff and Hardstark were writing a book, I was PUMPED. I was very lucky to be given a partial ARC (thanks to my friend Carol! THANKS CAROL!), and read the first half of this book a couple months before it came out. But I knew that when the book came out in full, I had to get it on audiobook, as Kilgariff, Hardstark, and Paul Giamatti (it’s a long story) were the narrators. So I did a dual read/listen. And it mostly lived up to all I wanted it to be.

I will say, first and foremost, that if you are going into “Stay Sexy and Don’t Get Murdered” thinking that it’s going to be focused on true crime, you are mistaken. Whlie Kilgariff and Hardstark DO make references to various cases within it’s pages, and do share their own experiences that may have been close calls, this is definitely more essays/memoir about who they both are as people, and the various life experiences that shaped them into the true crime junkies that they are today. So if you are a fan of the podcast but consider yourself a ‘skipper’ (aka you skip the first third of the show where they are bantering and conversing to get to the cases), this book may not be what you’re looking for. But while this isn’t a book about true crime at its heart, what it does have to offer is a personal and relateable set of essays/memoirs that show the lives of two women who have come a long way and gone through a lot of hardship in their lives. Both women has struggled with their mental health, eating disorders, drug addiction, and various personal losses as time has gone on, and they are both very reflective on these things that they have had to endure and overcome as time has gone on. Both Kilgariff and Hardstark talk about their experiences with candor and grace, and while they definitely can find some humor in these things they never feel like they’re making light of these experiences, nor do they make them self-exploitative. While they touch on these issues here and there on the show, in this book their vulnerability is on full display, and I found it to be very relatable in a lot of ways. Given that both women have talked about putting up defenses, seeing them put it all out there was very admirable.

The book is also very funny at times. Both Kilgariff and Hardstark have fun senses of humor, but Kilgariff especially has a wry tone and a knack for making me laugh hysterically. She has always been my favorite of the two, and it’s no surprise that it was one of her sections, about a childhood memory involving her and her older sister in their latchkey kid days, that had me laughing so hard I was crying. Both women have a very conversational tone in the writing that works both in audiobook form AND in print form, and none of the humor felt out of place or forced. And the bonus with the audiobook is that you get to hear their voices, and their intonations of how they wanted their words and stories to sound. In some ways I felt that this was better than the print book, but honestly, you can’t go wrong with either of them.

I did have a couple of criticisms with the book, and though they may not be limited to this book specifically I do want to address them. The biggest one is that both Hardstark and Kilgariff fall into a familiar ‘self help’ trap of not thinking about how accessible their advice is for their readers. This comes out the most in their advice on how to tackle mental health, as both of them are huge proponents of therapy being a be all end all and something that everyone should do. As someone who has benefited from therapy greatly, I also believe that therapy is wonderful for those who have access to it. But the sad truth is that the ability to seek out therapists/therapy, and mental health care in general, is not something that everyone can do, be it because of financial reasons or other inhibitors. It’s very easy to say ‘everyone should go to therapy!’ when you have the financial means to do so, but sadly, that isn’t the case for many people, so to make it seem like it can be achieved by anyone is rather tone deaf, or at the very least reeks of privilege. Now this certainly isn’t something that is unique to Kilgariff and Hardstark, as MANY ‘self help’ books trot out solutions that fall into this trap. But given that the sometimes blindness to certain privileges is a common critique of this show and both authors, I was a little disappointed to see this advice, especially since in so many other ways they were quick to check other kinds of privilege blind spots that they have had in the past. And I do kind of wish that they’d done a little more with the true crime angle. What we did have was interesting and they certainly don’t HAVE to rehash cases we’ve heard time and time again, especially since they admittedly don’t do deep dive research. But a reference here and there felt more tacked on than anything else.

All of that said, I really did enjoy “Stay Sexy and Don’t Get Murdered”. Kilgariff and Hardstark are still a couple of my favorite podcasters out there, and I’m glad that they have come so far and have been able to overcome so much while still staying true to themselves. And remember everyone: Stay out of the forest, buy your own shit, and most importantly 

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G’bye! (source)

Rating 8: A fun and enlightening memoir from two of my favorite true crime podcasters, “Stay Sexy and Don’t Get Murdered: The Definitive How-To Guide” is sure to delight MFM fans!

Reader’s Advisory: “Stay Sexy and Don’t Get Murdered: The Definitive How-to Guide” is included on the Goodreads lists “Murderino Reading List!”, and “Books of Podcasts”.

Find “Stay Sexy and Don’t Get Murdered: The Definitive How-To Guide” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Disaster Artist”

17404078Book: “The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside “The Room”, The Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made” by Greg Sestero, Tom Bissell

Publishing Info: Simon & Schuster, October 2013

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it on audiobook!

Book Description: From the actor who lived through the most improbable Hollywood success story, with an award-winning narrative nonfiction writer, comes the inspiring, fascinating and laugh-out-loud story of a mysteriously wealthy outsider who sundered every road block in the Hollywood system to achieve success on his own terms—the making of The Room, “the Citizen Kane of bad movies” (Entertainment Weekly).

In 2003, an independent film called The Room—written, produced, directed, and starring a very rich social misfit of indeterminate age and origin named Tommy Wiseau—made its disastrous debut in Los Angeles. Described by one reviewer as “like getting stabbed in the head,” the $6 million film earned a grand total of $1,800 at the box office and closed after two weeks. Now in its tenth anniversary year, The Room is an international phenomenon to rival The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Thousands of fans wait in line for hours to attend screenings complete with costumes, audience rituals, merchandising, and thousands of plastic spoons.

Readers need not have seen The Room to appreciate its costar Greg Sestero’s account of how Tommy Wiseau defied every law of artistry, business, and interpersonal relationships to achieve the dream only he could love. While it does unravel mysteries for fans, The Disaster Artist is more than just an hilarious story about cinematic hubris: It is ultimately a surprisingly inspiring tour de force that reads like a page-turning novel, an open-hearted portrait of a supremely enigmatic man who will capture your heart.

Review: As a bad movie connoisseur, it will probably come as a huge surprise to people that I have not actually seen “The Room” in it’s entirety. My first experience with “The Room” was while at a midnight showing of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”, as they were advertising a special screening of this piece of cinematic napalm. I’ve seen plenty of clips online. I’ve seen lots of references to it, gifs, parodies. And I had heard of the book “The Disaster Artist”, written by Greg Sestero. Sestero was one of the stars in the movie, and decided to write a memoir about the making of it, as well of his friendship with Tommy Wiseau, the man behind the film. With the new movie out based on this book, I felt that before I saw it, I needed to read the original memoir to get the full effect. So I got my hands on the audiobook, read by Sestero himself.

And it was more surreal than I ever could have imagined in the history of surrealness.

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No, Mark, that’s a compliment!! (source)

Okay, for the super uninitiated, “The Room” is a nonsensical, poorly written, poorly directed, poorly acted vanity project written, directed by, and starring Tommy Wiseau. I would say go watch it, but… HERE, see some scenes for yourself. Greg Sestero, who plays Mark in the movie, had known Wiseau for some time before he was emotionally manipulated asked to appear in the film by him. The memoir he’s written takes two different timelines and juxtaposes them into the narrative: the actual making of “The Room”, and his strange friendship with Wiseau, from it’s inception in an acting class to the moment Wiseau decided he was going to make his own movie after success eluded him. I had heard plenty of stories about the bizarre antics of Tommy Wiseau on and off the set, but none of prepared me for the ‘what the FUCK’-ness that was this memoir. I walked away from it thinking that either Sestero has the patience of a saint, or has found himself totally within the clutches of an incredibly toxic friendship and doesn’t know up from down anymore. I really hope it’s the former.

So many of the stories in this book read like they should be fiction, and yet I have no doubt in my mind that they absolutely occurred the way that Sestero said they did. They are just too outlandish and random to have not. Be it a moment where Wiseau reads a key code to Sestero telling him it’s very complicated, only for it to be ‘1234’ (and written down because Wiseau ‘can never remember it’), to descriptions of Sestero coming home to find Wiseau hanging upside down from a pull up bar and just kind of lingering in stasis, to Wiseau telling Sestero to meet him in downtown San Francisco, only to surprise him by saying they are running The Bay to Breakers Race THAT VERY MOMENT (poor Sestero was only wearing sandals), the anecdotes are stranger than fiction. And laugh out loud funny. I had it on my phone as I was setting up for work one morning, and one of my coworkers needed to know why I was laughing so hard. And, of course, the descriptions of the antics on the set itself were mind boggling in their hilarity. Wiseau would take hours upon hours to get a seven second line correct; he would perform his suicide scene, and then writhe around and moan in spite of the fact his character had just eaten a gun; he would insist upon green screens for simple shots that end up looking out of place at best, ridiculous at worst. And he had a knack for getting the absolute worst performances from his players. In the moment it had to be absolutely maddening; but Sestero tells it in such a way that the humor is always there, and it is entertaining as hell.

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What a story indeed. (source)

But along with that, Sestero does a great job of capturing the darker and more poignant sides to Wiseau and their complicated friendship. Behind the oddities and eccentricities, there is definitely a dark side to Tommy, one that is hard to completely understand, if only because he is so private with his past and his personal life. He is desperate for friends, he is desperate to be loved and admired, and he latches onto Sestero out of what appears to be sheer loneliness. Unfortunately, like most of the time, this makes for a very tempestuous, and unhealthy, friendship. Wiseau could switch from being supportive and whimsical, to threatening and abusive should he think that Sestero, or anyone, was crossing him. Hell, “The Room” itself seems to be a reflection of how Wiseau sees himself in the world, as the one truly pure person who is taken advantage of by the people he loves. Wiseau insisted that Sestero play Mark, the best friend of Johnny (played by Wiseau), who betrays Johnny by having an affair with Lisa, Johnny’s fiancee. When you look at that in the context of a deep resentment that Wiseau potentially had for Sestero due to his perceived ‘success’ in Hollywood pre-“The Room” (booking a few roles here and there is success in this case), the casting makes perfect sense. There were moments where I felt deeply uncomfortable about the toxic nature of their friendship, as in some ways it hit a nerve. I’ve been in Sestero’s shoes before, as I’ve been in the position of having a friend who is so completely draining and yet you don’t know how to extricate yourself from them. One review I read thought that Sestero either had to be lying, or downplaying his own ‘leech’ status to Tommy (who provided him with an apartment at a reduced rate), because how could he continue to put up with the abusive nature of their friendship for so long if there wasn’t something in it for him? To that reviewer, I say that it is far more realistic than one would think. To Sestero’s credit, this could have been a complete hatchet job towards an unstable and narcissistic asshole. But instead, by giving some insight into what sort of (potential) experiences Wiseau went through in his early life, he writes of him in such a way that while you are repelled by some of his actions, you also understand why he acts in certain ways. I don’t feel that Sestero ever makes excuses for it, either, as he is VERY clear when Wiseau goes over the line against him and others. But he’s made peace with this relationship, and shows the good with the bad.

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Patience. Of. A. Saint. (source)

As mentioned previously, I listened to this book, and Sestero reads it himself. I HIGHLY recommend it. At first he sounded a little bit wooden and I wasn’t totally sure… but the moment that he started imitating Wiseau, well, that sold it for me. It’s pretty much the perfect imitation as only a friend can do.

“The Disaster Artist” was easily one of the most bizarre and entertaining books that I’ve read. It says a lot about the need for acceptance, the desperation for fame, and how sometimes being just off the wall wacko can pay off, even if it’s in ways you never intended.

Rating 10: A hilarious, outlandish, and at times incredibly pathos ridden and disturbing romp about dreaming of stardom, acceptance, and success… no matter how you define it or achieve it.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Disaster Artist” is included on the Goodreads lists “Books ABOUT Movies”, and “Best Eccentric Characters”.

Find “The Disaster Artist” at your library using WorldCat! And here is the link to the Audiobook version because TRUST ME.

Kate’s Reviews: “Everything Is Teeth”

26109143Book: “Everything Is Teeth” by Evie Wyle and Joe Sumner (Ill.)

Publishing Info: Johnathan Cape, August 2015

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: From the award-winning author of All The Birds, Singing, a deeply moving graphic memoir about family, love, loss, and the irresistible forces that, like sharks, course through life unseen, ready to emerge at any moment.

Ever since she was a little girl, passing her summers in the brutal heat of coastal New South Wales, Evie Wyld has been captivated by sharks—by their innate ruthlessness, stealth, and immeasurable power. Young Evie would listen intently as farmers and fishermen told stories about being alone on the water at dusk; she would lose herself in books about legendary shark attacks, mesmerized by the photos of the victims. And even though she returned to London at the end of each summer, Australia’s sharks never released their hold on her imagination. Now, in this quietly penetrating narrative of personal memories, beautifully rendered by illustrator Joe Sumner, Evie Wyld lends her exceptional voice to the telling of a story all her own.

Review: When I was four years old, I discovered sharks. We were on a family trip out to California to visit my aunt, uncle, and cousin. They lived in San Jose, but we would take many family trips to the ocean up and down the coastline between San Francisco and Monterey. This meant that there was a lot of driving to be had, and ya gotta find ways to spend the time. My parents bought my cousin, who is a few years older than me, a cassette tape and accompanying book about sharks. It was short and informational, but it did have some kind of creepy music to go with it. Because “Jaws”, probably. Turns out, it was too much for my cousin, who thought that it was way too scary to listen to. My parents, not wanting to waste the thing, gave it to me, four year old Kate, thinking that maybe I’d be able to handle it. And I guess I pulled a full Raffi on them, insisting they play it over, and over, and OVER again the entire trip… And then more when we got back home to Minnesota. And thus, my lifelong love of sharks was born.

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Actual image of my Dad having to listen to that tape for the 63rd time. (source)

So the graphic memoir “Everything is Teeth” by Evie Wyld is so incredibly relatable for me that it was kind of uncanny. Evie Wyld grew up in England and spent family trips in Australia, and she first found her love for sharks when her older brother was given a set of shark jaws for the holidays. She then started reading books about sharks, and shark attacks, her first celebrity crush being Rodney Fox, famed shark attack survivor and conservationist (another thing I can relate to, because I TOO loved Rodney Fox during my most fevered obsession time). But this memoir is a bit different from other graphic memoirs that I’ve read in the past, as instead of having a full linear narrative it’s more a collection of snapshots into her childhood, framed through the shark obsession. But the shark obsession and the anxieties that go with it, of course, speak to deeper childhood fears and worries, from isolation to familial loss. The irrational fear of sharks served as a tangible fear to stand in for the ones that Wyld couldn’t quite articulate at the time, and as a child who was also riddled with anxieties about just about everything, this, too, was a familiar thing to me as I read it.

You don’t get the events in her childhood spoon-fed to you, you have to surmise what is going on. During a viewing of “Jaws”, she recounts how her loving yet somewhat detached father drank glass after glass of wine. After being unable to sleep one Australian night, she and her mother go for a night swim in the pool, as her mother was dealing with one of her regular bouts of insomnia. When her older brother would come home from school bloodied and beaten up, he would come to Evie and ask her to tell him shark stories. We learn about Evie’s family and their pretty common issues, but always with the context of the love of, and fear of, sharks. It’s a quiet story that ultimately unwinds to show how these intangible fears ultimately become tangible as time goes on, and that a fear of sharks disguises a fear of loss that eventually most everyone will experience in their life. It is ultimately a sweet, and sad, story about a girl who comes of age like many do, and her childhood interest in sharks that shapes her along the way, and I found it just as powerful as some of the graphic memoirs I’ve read that deal with childhood trauma or tragedy. There is no specific trauma or tragedy here; it’s just bits of her life, some parts sad, some parts not, all parts incredibly real.

I also liked that even the bits that were sad or upsetting were still muted, letting the reader figure out why. There is a scene where Evie’s Dad takes her to a shark attack museum, thinking that she will enjoy it. What they find is a spectacle, with graphic photos of shark attack victims with no context (just showing Rodney Fox’s wounds, not his calm demeanor or how he persevered), broad brush strokes painting sharks as mindless man eaters, and a stuffed and shabby white pointer, which is Australian terminology for great white, that is decaying on it’s platform. Child Evie is awash with nausea and discomfort, and while it’s never explained why, the reader is as well. Wyld never has to tell you it’s wrong; you just know that it is.

Joe Sumner did the illustrations for this graphic novel, and I really loved his style. He has a huge range from the flat out cartoonish (Evie and her family members), to the more realistic (stills from “Jaws” and pictures of shark attack survivors in the aftermath), to the hyperrealistic that I could have sworn were photographs (almost all the sharks in this book).

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(source)

I was completely struck by this art style and how effective it was.

“Everything Is Teeth” is a very subdued read, but it’s one that struck a chord with me. If you are looking for a graphic memoir that isn’t necessarily steeped in tragedy and trauma, but still packs an emotional punch, it may be the one for you.

Rating 9: A quiet, resonant, and somewhat haunting graphic memoir about growing up, loss, and sharks. The illustrations are great and the story is compelling and relatable.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Everything Is Teeth” is included on the Goodreads lists “Women Creators in Comics”, and “Comics for Teen Girls (That Are Not Japanese Manga)”.  Side note: I’m hoping that this list isn’t intended to diss manga, because there’s nothing wrong with it.

Find “Everything is Teeth” at your library using WorldCat!