A Review of Sunflower by Tex Gresham

Published November 9, 2021 by Spaceboy Books.

Sunflower by Tex Gresham is one of those encyclopedic novels. To reduce it down to its most basic plot: the novel is about an international conspiracy, a terrorist plot, and Hollywood. It mimics the storytelling devices of film and almost begs for adaptation while also seeming impossible to adapt. Divided into three acts, the text has over a dozen deleted scenes in the back of the book, an alternate ending, includes excerpts of a screenplay, and even a message from the Zodiac killer to decode. This is a two-bookmark book. It actually feels more like a Criterion Collection release than a story ready for the screen.

Sunflower is kind of like vomiting the movies Inherent Vice and Brazil on top of Infinite Jest and House of Leaves. It runs the entire emotional gamut, it’s overflowing with rich characterization, it unravels and winds back up—it’s fucking long, a truly maximalist affair. In the novel, our reality blends into an alternate future where the United States is an empire with California as a commonwealth. References to A-list actors and films alongside fictional ones make this alternate future feel real and lived in.

Gresham has a penchant for the macabre. Few characters in Sunflower make it through the story unmaimed. There are tongues cut out, genital torture, hand bones squeezed to a pulp, stabbings, shootings, and people melting into slime. The conspiracies and horror were expected, but the top-tier comedy was not. When Gresham crafts a morose scene, it’s contrasted with black humor of the highest caliber. The comedic timing is uncanny, like a spoonful of sugar to help the misery go down. He has a knack for crafting high-tension scenes and then releasing that tension in a satisfying yet unpredictable way.

For example, there’s a scene where a man is on a blind date with a beautiful aspiring actress. They’re at an expensive restaurant. He’s a little anxious and trying to find the right moment to get up and pee. It gets to the point that he feels like his guts are in open revolt against him. When his date reveals that she’s only fifteen he loses all interest, stands up, and makes his way to the restroom. His contorted guts blast loud farts all the way through the dining room to the disgust of many. After urinating, he makes a dark discovery in one of the bathroom stalls that foreshadows what’s to come in the rest of the novel. Sunflower is chock full of gross and hilarious scenes like this, which are crucial to the plot’s development.

The book starts off a little messy. It’s not clear who the main characters are until the second act. But the story is engrossing if the reader can adjust to its nonlinear style. The meta-plot lands its climax and wraps up with a satisfying conclusion—though it does sort of sprint to the end in the third act. Sunflower is dense and there is only so much a reader can gleam in one pass, which is to say, it has incredibly high replay value. The novel stands out because of how it doesn’t fit into the publishing landscape. It’s too lowbrow for literary fiction and not sci-fi or horror enough for typical genre readers. So, take a break from your regular diet of genre and/or literary fiction and read some kind of bizzarro novel from a totally obsessed author.

Tex Gresham wears his influences on Sunflower’s sleeve. That’s not a diss or a detraction either; Gresham isn’t parroting his heroes. Rather, he is the dream realized of every kid with an encyclopedic knowledge of their interests. He’s one of those people who has seen every interview with their favorite filmmakers and musicians. The kind of person who probably bores their friends with the details they never cared to know about a film. But what sets Tex Gresham apart from the rest of that ilk is that he’s the one in ten thousand who actually takes that knowledge, those influences, and creates something truly inspired with it. He’s synthesizing his influences into some other style that is all his own and putting his work out into the world.

Regenerations & Celebrations: Doctor Who & Being Present in all of Time & Space

For this year’s birthday, my wife put sticky notes on my bathroom mirror. One multi-colored square for each letter of her expression of love ending with “Happy Birthday to You.” The message was so long that I couldn’t see my own reflection in the mirror in the morning. Slowly, over the next few weeks, I would peel away these individual sticky note rows so that now only the “Y-O-U” remains. These three squares still greet me every morning in my bathroom mirror as a reminder to be the “Y-O-U” I am today and not to be hung up on a previous version of myself. I’ll be turning fifty in 2022. That means my old body cells have mostly died and been replaced by new ones about every seven to ten years, so by my math, I’ve gone through a potential five to seven different bodies so far. Pre-mental-health awareness, I would have walked around each new body still hanging on to past anxiety or worrying about my futures not yet lived.

Years ago when I was inpatient, being present was the main focus of my mental health work and it still is something I work on today in talk therapy. While inpatient, I worked with a medical team to deal with my anxiety and panic attacks to function day in and day out again. I also dealt with not being haunted by the past or being frozen due to the fear of making the wrong choice for the future. When I first checked out of the hospital, I felt so raw that the only TV shows that didn’t set off a panic attack were the safe, nonviolent children’s programs found on public television like Sesame Street or Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood created around community and positivemessaging. Then, another doctor joined my recovery team—the Doctor.

The Doctor is the main character of the long-running BBC science fiction series Doctor Who, which first aired over sixty years ago. Doctor Who is about a runaway alien from a race of Time Lords who help wherever they can throughout all of time and across the universe—traveling in their stolen, dimension-hopping ship. Whenever a lead actor needs to leave the role of the Doctor, a new actor takes on their own interpretation after a regeneration storyline, which has kept the show going on for decades.

Doctor Who first aired on the BBC on November 23, 1963. History aficionados will note that it’s the day after the John F. Kennedy Assassination. Even though the Doctor travels through time, in addition to space, I feel the show has never been one to get historical events back on track. It is instead about noticing what is out of place when traveling in history, on distant planets, or one’s own surroundings. The Doctor is not a “time cop” arriving into a situation to bring law and order, even though the Doctor’s ship, the T.A.R.D.I.S. (an anagram standing for Time And Relative Dimensions in Space), has a chameleon circuit stuck as a blue British-police-phone box. For example, the Doctor met Charles Dickens when showrunner Russell T. Davies rebooted the show in 2005, but the episode was about a Dickensian setting with aliens traveling through gaslights and reanimating corpses without Mr. Dicken’s personal timeline and fictional impact being altered. Doctor Who isn’t about fixing divergences in time, but instead about being the best you can be at the moment you’re needed. This point of the show was huge for my mental health healing, as anxiety was keeping me from connecting to my daily life back then, nor was I fully a part of my life. I was no better than those gaslight, reanimated corpses shuffling through the day at my worst moments. Other time travel shows or movies got me in the mindset that I had made a mistake at some point in my past, and my thought process was locked into figuring out that one moment that would make everything fall into place and bring peace of mind. The Doctor’s example got me to break out of this time-travel mindset, to be present and positively interactive in the everyday.

The Doctor is a cosmic wanderer, not a warrior. They have seen almost everything from the Big Bang to the end of time in their hundreds of years of life through different regenerations. One of the other casting hooks of the show in addition to the Doctor is their companion, usually a young human, to keep the Doctor’s perspective of the universe fresh. Traveling through time and space with new wide-open eyes helps the Doctor to continue seeing the individual moments and not the moment as it connects like a cog into the clockwork mechanics of the universe. Rose is the Doctor’s first human companion in the 2005 reboot and it is appropriate since she helps the ninth Doctor—played by Christopher Eccleston—heal from fighting in The Time War and enjoy traveling again—she helps him “smell the roses.” Companion Donna Noble is able to call the Doctor out when he’s being too much of “a spaceman” and not connecting to the beings on the planets they are on. While Amy and Rory Pond actually give the constant wanderer a place at the dinner table and a place to call home on Earth. When I was able to borrow a note from the show and start going for walks outside of our home again, it was a big healing benchmark moment for me. I took in my surroundings instead of staying in my head during the time traveling to appointments trying to figure out past missteps and butterfly effects. At this point, I could see only this life and that there was no set path for myself, which had built to anger management issues. The Doctor helped me stop fighting myself and view beyond a place of anger.

The Doctor isn’t the character’s real name. “It is a promise,” as the eleventh Doctor, played by Matt Smith, explains to one companion. The Doctor does not have superpowers. As a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey, they can regenerate before the moment of death but they are still human-looking, the only difference being that they have two hearts. The Doctor doesn’t even carry a gun, just a sonic screwdriver to help get into any room or out of any situation. They face armies, mad gods, and dimensional beings, with their wits and a promise. The show’s fiftieth-anniversary special “The Day of The Doctor” revealed that promise as “Never cruel nor cowardly. Never give up. Never give in.” I would borrow this promise of the Doctor as I entered back into the working world after being inpatient. It was a quick catch firewall for anger management as anxiety crept up in situations. The promise of the Doctor reminded me to be kind in each moment, in addition to what I learned in therapy for handling my anxiety, and to talk to everyone with compassion, meeting them where they currently were in life.

A great speech is often given by actors who play the Doctor before their version of the character regenerates to the next actor. These words work as both farewells to the fans and statements of goodwill keeping the Doctor’s spirit in viewers’ hearts till the next season. I’ve lost count of how many times I have watched the twelfth Doctor, Peter Capaldi’s, regeneration speech. The speech is his advice to the next Doctor on what to keep in mind to help the universe, ending with “Run fast, laugh hard, be kind.” This clip is my go-to for when I feel depression coming on and is a lifeline to not sink back into a feeling of despair where I could lose days of a functioning mindset. When I watch fan-theory videos about Doctor Who, it is a warning sign for me—viewing You-Tube videos for spoilers, I am giving into my anxiety instead of allowing myself to sit with that anxiety and experience the natural storytelling of cliffhangers. Or if I find myself looking at these videos when there is recasting news around a Doctor’s regeneration, I am looking for reassurance that I will feel safe with the choice of the new actor stepping into the role. Sometimes videos focus on the merits of another era of the show’s history compared to the present show. I feel these posts have increased recently during the current era with showrunner Chris Chibnall and the thirteenth Doctor played by Jodie Whittaker, who is the first woman to play the Doctor. Recently, the BBC announced that Russell T. Davies will return as showrunner for the sixtieth anniversary and upcoming season in 2023. Till then, Chibnall and Whittaker still have a whole season left to wrap up their storylines and characters. Whittaker has an inspirational approach. The Doctor message she filmed during the early days of the COVID-19 quarantine was uplifting and everything I needed to hear at the time. So, I hope fans will stay in the current moment and give this cast and crew their final sendoff, not just time jump to only focus on 2023. I myself am not focusing on the benchmark of turning fifty either. I wake up each morning and make sure the sticky notes are still on the bathroom mirror for that day’s Y-O-U. When my fiftieth birthday does come around, that will be my only present.

Review of New York, My Village by Uwem Akpan

Published November 2nd, 2021 by W. W. Norton & Company.

It took me a long time to write this review. I’m rarely at a loss for words, which goes to show how much New York, My Village struck me. It made me think, and I didn’t know how to organize my thoughts at first. I’m going to be mulling over the book’s themes for months to come, so, in the interest of actually helping you decide whether or not you want to read the book, here goes nothing.

Warning: This book contains racism, violence, and bugs. Lots of bugs. Lots of micro- and macro-aggressions and racial profiling. You are going to feel uncomfortable and, potentially, triggered.

When I first read the description for New York, My Village, I jumped at the chance to read it. Growing up with a parent who specializes in migrant literature, I’ve always been fascinated by immigrant stories and experiences. I found it exciting to get a glimpse into the protagonist’s culture and understand how a migrant writer might experience a publishing house (since the publishing industry is often inherently problematic).

Uwem Akpan is incredibly skilled, weaving humor, pain, and hope into this beautiful tapestry of a story. Throughout the book, readers follow Nigerian editor, Ekong Udousoro, as he heads to New York for a publishing fellowship that promises to help him finish an anthology on the Biafran War. Complete with an unexpectedly awful living situation, hostile neighbors, and racist assumptions about African culture, Ekong’s visit to America is hardly what he’d expected. While everything seems exciting and hopeful on the surface, hostility, greed, and bigotry quickly begin to simmer beneath the surface. All the while, we see Ekong try to navigate it without the pot boiling over.

I expected to enjoy this book. What I didn’t expect, though, was the physical reaction New York, My Village gave me. I could feel the grime in Ekong’s apartment and the itchiness of his skin: “I sprayed the analgesic on my torso till it dripped into my pants, but it was of no use tonight. When my nails carved out jewels of streaked blood and the itches still did not abate, I resorted to slapping the spots.” While I empathized with Ekong, something about the physical experience of reading the book made me feel even more connected with him. It heightened the stakes and made me feel like racing towards the end to find some sort of resolution to the chaos. Those details made the book more thrilling.

Akpan also skillfully makes readers feel the excitement, overwhelm, and disorientation Ekong experiences when he first arrives in New York. Even the familiar things, like yams and church, seem so foreign to him. Watching flickers of Ekong’s trauma surface while he’s in bustling Times Square, for instance—and almost having that familiar trauma comfort him—pierced me. The paradox that trauma can be comforting made me understand how alien Ekong felt in one heartbreaking beat. In the middle of the bustling square, he says “I would not have wanted to remember the war here, but the atmosphere was like an anesthesia and this seeming familiarity was like a precious opening, a doorway into the unbridled effervescence that was Times Square.” Akpan so skillfully depicts Ekong’s haunting loneliness throughout the book that my chest ached for pages at a time.

Despite Ekong’s loneliness, he is determined to share his story and bridge cultural divides. Through it all, he believes in the power of stories, and that’s so beautiful. As he is floored by the racism he experiences in America, Ekong expresses that one of “the only bits of consolation left for [him] in America were finishing [his] anthology.” He places so much hope in his work despite all the hardship. Ekong’s belief in the importance and impact of his work is moving. Akpan gives readers the opportunity to rejoice with Ekong, mourn with him, laugh with him, and root for him through this wild ride of a novel. And I guarantee everyone will learn something along the way.

The characters in New York, My Village are well-rounded and deeply flawed. But it’s their flaws that make them so interesting. Okay, yes, some characters you hate . . . but with many, you want to be mad at them, but yet they seem so human. That’s why you feel like you know them so well. Most of the characters are a foil to Ekong at some point in the book—including Ekong himself. People he thinks are his allies at the publishing house, in his neighborhood, and in his own family ultimately end up challenging him in ways he could have never expected. The complexity Akpan writes into the characters makes the book all the more frustrating, imperfect, troubling, and wonderful. By creating such layered characters, Akpan raises the stakes throughout. The author holds readers in a place of tension for an uncomfortable amount of time as we watch Ekong navigate these challenges. Yet, somehow it works.

Despite all the good, I felt like there were moments when too much time was spent on descriptions, which stalled the plot and left readers sitting in tension for a bit too long. While the book’s descriptions gave me such strong, moving reactions at times, when overused, they became distracting. There can be too much of a good thing—though, in this case that “too much” is more of a light drizzle than a full-on thunderstorm. While I hadn’t expected this prolonged tension, it created a sort of visceral discomfort that worked well for the subject matter. In my opinion, to pick up the pacing, parts of the subplot, including apartment infestations could have had a smaller share in the book.

Paragraph after paragraph, chapter after chapter, I was impressed that Akpan packed so many themes into one book. New York, My Village is messy. It’s raw. At times, it’s hard to follow. And it will make you question your own biases, preconceived notions, and flaws. In short, this book will make you think. If you’re someone who likes a challenge, who likes to read books that deal with complex societal issues, and you want to connect with some flawed, powerful, confusing, beautiful characters, you’ll definitely want to pick up New York, My Village.

A Review of Deadheading and Other Stories by Beth Gilstrap

Published October 3, 2021 Red Hen Press

I wouldn’t consider these stories lighthearted. They sting and challenge perceptions, but it’s a large part of their charm. Beth Gilstrap’s latest short story collection, Deadheading and Other Stories, weaves together multifaceted, complex characters fighting to endure and find meaning in the mundane in the Carolina region of the US. In particular, it promises melancholy reflections of the work-classing with a special focus on its women and their attempts at survival.  

I can’t claim to have much familiarity with the Carolinas. My knowledge of this region and its people extend to what’s taught in American history courses and media coverage of the last fifteen years. And while growing up in the Midwest doesn’t offer the same experiences as it would in the Carolinas, there’s something inherently universal about working-class small towns that transcend geographical differences. And Gilstrap captures that universal experience deftly and tenderly. There’s an element of soul-crushing heartache and yearning in this collection, especially in the stories that feature older couples living within the only environment they’ve ever known. Characters are so evidently unhappy but unable to make drastic life changes due to the socio-economic realities of this region. The “adults” in this collection exhibit a kind of acceptance you come to recognize from people just trying to get by.

The second piece in this collection, “The Denial Weeks,” is a perfect introduction to the worn-down adults who have worked their entire lives for a single company, only to discover they’ve been let go without notice or compensation. The repetition experienced by Paul and Imogen—married for decades and following the same routine for just as long—is suffocating to read. Yet, it’s reflective of a reality so many working-class adults experience. It reminds me of my own uncles who have gone into the same job every day, doing the same thing over and over, with the hopes of one day getting to slow down and enjoy a cold beer on the back porch. While more things transpire in their story, I felt most enchanted by the descriptions and the sensations experienced by this population without shame.

The stories that captivated me most, however, were the ones that featured teenagers and young adults. This age category, while still depressed about where they lived, maintained a degree of light and hope about their futures. Not yet beaten down or forced to make decisions for anyone but themselves, they continue to desire a life outside their town. Gilstrap wields their emotions to tap into often overlooked aspects of these towns and the people who inhabit them—that at one point they, too, dreamed of something more for themselves. Those complex emotions remind readers that they’re so much more than their jobs or where they live.

“Tomorrow or Tomorrow” was a story that had a particular note of longing and a search for meaning that sharply reminded me of certain experiences I had while living in my hometown. While drug use isn’t part of my own history, the loss of a classmate known since childhood—whether by suicide or accident—presented a certain kind of pondering I knew too well. Gilstrap captures the “whys” that seem to linger whenever someone young and bright dies effortlessly on the page. An important quality of the collection, especially for readers who might not be familiar with small, everyone-knows-everyone communities. As with “The Denial Weeks,” this story felt less about the action—though the try-hard cops and their soaring sense of self-importance highlights small-town law enforcement almost too well—than the feelings it evoked. But again, Gilstrap has figured out a way to weave moments of vulnerability with the hardness of her setting in a way that offers a unique perspective for her readers.

Obviously, I am a fan of this collection. If you’ve ever grown up in a small town where dreaming of more was met with scorn and rolled eyes, the desperation featured in this collection will resonate strongly. However, I do wish Gilstrap had included at least one story of someone who had gotten “out.” While I fell in love with each story and its characters for various reasons, as I neared the end it did start to feel like a slog being introduced to another set of characters and yearnings that felt similar to the ones that had come before. Getting out is as sensational in these towns as staying and it was an element that could have created a bit more variety and depth. Not only would it have added another layer to the stories, but I sincerely believe someone’s perspective of a town changes when they leave, and it would have been interesting to see Gilstrap include that viewpoint. This collection is a haunting telling of the Carolinas and their obsession with decay. And in many ways, it is a kind of ghost story, but it also felt a lot like a love letter to this region. Despite pinpointing its flaws and the strain this area has on its people, Deadheading and Other Stories is just as much a tender reflection of what it means to never quite settle.

Plastic Man Turns 80: Paying my respects to Jack Cole a second time

The hotel my older brother was working at in Rosemont, Illinois was having a comic book convention. It was back in the 1980s so about a decade off from the convention center comic cons here in Chicagoland. It was my first ever convention. I had a local comic shop where I would spend my weekend lawn-mowing allowance on current issues, but this hotel basement opened up a new world to me. My brother paid my entry fee but told me to make my money last because I had to hang out his entire shift. My wallet was empty by the time I hit the first comic book dealer’s table.

Up close, I had seen Silver Age comics from the 1960s and Bronze Age comics from the 1970s, but I had never before seen Golden Age comics from the 1940s, which saw the introduction of comic books to the marketplace. Craning my neck to see the wall of comics behind the dealer, I looked up at a beat-up copy of Quality Comics’ Plastic Man #26. Maybe it was the primary color scheme of the cover or that the page dimensions were larger, the draw of “52 Big Full Width Pages” next to the price tag of ten cents. Maybe it was the familiarity since I grew up watching The Plastic Man Comedy/Adventure Show. But mainly, I think it was because of the cover art by Plastic Man creator Jack Cole, showing Plastic Man fully stretched, his face stoic and calm, not the wacky, Jim Carrey-esque caricature we sometimes see in the DC Comics issues and animated versions of Plastic Man. In this essay, I want to go back to the beginning and look at a man named Patrick “Eel” O’Brian, a former gang member transformed into an iconic superhero. For the eightieth anniversary of Plastic Man, I would like to take a look at the first appearance of the character and the ways my mental health awareness aligns with Patrick “Eel” O’Brian becoming Plastic Man.

On the first page of Police Comics #1 (August 1941), we open on a robbery underway at Crawford Chemical Works. Just as Eel cracks the office safe, the chemical plant’s security guard bursts in on the gang. Eel, the last one out of the office, takes a shot from the security guard’s pistol, throwing him off balance. An unstable Eel tips a vat of acid over himself and into his open gunshot wound. He is still able to escape capture but misses out on the gang’s getaway car, who all wave “adios” as they drive off without him.

My first mental health takeaway (which is a term I will use going forward to connect Plastic Man’s character arc and my work on myself in therapy) is to know who my true friends are. When I got to the point where I had to check myself into inpatient care for self-harm, I filled out paperwork asking me who I would turn to if I got to this point again. Unfortunately, the friends I put down on the admission paper weren’t there for me going forward. I remember asking my family on visitor’s day if they contacted them as I looked to the doorway, waiting. And when I got out of the hospital, they weren’t willing to be part of my healing process. They were the people I wanted to be there for me—I admired them, wanted to impress them—but not the people I needed for healing, those who I didn’t have to don a persona for in order to receive support.

Abandoned by his gang, Eel escapes through swamps and up a mountainside till he passes out. He wakes to find himself in Rest-Haven, a retreat of monks. The monks who discovered Eel give him a bed to recuperate in. They also give him a second chance by turning the police away, who are on a manhunt for Eel and his gang. When Eel asks why he wasn’t turned in, a monk explains that Eel needed a chance to not be burdened by his past, and the monk listens as Eel tells the story of what hard knocks led him on his path of crime. How he grew up an orphan being beaten down by everyone, learning that the only way to make it in the world was to take what you wanted. It is in Rest-Haven that Eel reshapes himself and discovers his stretching powers to become Plastic Man. Eel learns that he does not have to always push back at the world because sometimes there is a helping hand instead of another slap down. Unburdened by his past, Eel literally stretches to relax after talking to the monk and notices his arms extending.

The next takeaway is to find my Rest-Haven; self-care is important. I have learned the benefits of talk therapy to help me be in the moment mentally and not lose myself to racing thoughts of “what if” scenarios or be haunted by past trauma. Being in my head with these thoughts, I do not focus on the conversations around me, which leads me to miss out on my life and its enjoyable moments. Those that know me can even recognize my tell when I am too much in my head, how my lower jaw juts out and I look like a caged gorilla at the zoo (I’m a very large man for those who have not met me). I may not have the elastic powers of Plastic Man, but through talk therapy, I have slowly been stretching myself over the years into being present. It was trial and error in the beginning to find a therapist who was a right fit but once I found that person, I was able to reshape my perspective of the past and be present. Sometimes I am totally drained after these sessions. It is like being wiped out after a gym workout. So, I give myself the time needed after sessions to recuperate. I always make sure that therapy days are on my days off and give myself the remainder of the day afterward for a walk wherever the sidewalk takes me, taking in the world around me and seeing what I can capture on my phone’s camera. There are also the options of writing (I am a big fan of art therapy), reading, or TV. If I need a nap after therapy, I view it as necessary restorative sleep and not depression sleep. Even Plastic Man needs to pull himself back together.

The remainder of the issue sees Eel “rejoining” the gang for a heist only to one-up them as Plastic Man and turn them into the police. Eel demands to drive the getaway car on the next caper. When the gang enters the building, he shifts his face and body into Plastic Man. As Plastic Man, he stretches up multiple floors to get ahead of the gang, such as morphing into a rug at the bottom of a flight of stairs to catch them up, frazzling them, and making them think that Plastic Man is everywhere in the building almost at once. When the gang returns, he jumps back into the getaway car, changes back into Eel, and drives them straight by the police station. Then, the new “long arm of the law” sneakily grabs the gang members from outside the driver’s window, pulling them around the car to drop the crooks off at the station. Eel is ironically believed to be the only one to get away this time, allowing him to have a secret identity that infiltrates criminal gangs only to bust them up as Plastic Man.

My final takeaway is to ground myself in the room I am currently located. Through grounding—a practice where I work on being present in a situation when I feel overwhelmed or manic—I’ve learned how to be present in each room, to not anticipate my next move or be triggered by past trauma. By focusing on my breathing and feeling my feet on the floor, I can prevent myself from being uprooted and remain in the moment without pulling myself away with anxious thoughts or soaking in the toxic energy of others. For myself, I find I don’t have the power to bend the universe to my will, nor do I wish to, and my reacting manic to a situation is a sign that I don’t wish to deal with reality, but grounding allows me to be present in a moment and focus on the situation at hand with a clear head. I need my focus to be with me and where I am currently at in the present moment.

Plastic Man catches a lot of crooks by taking in his surroundings, morphing into objects, and waiting things out. Plastic Man is sometimes posing as inanimate objects and needs to not be an anamorphic object if he is going to come across as what he is turning into. (Meaning, a walking, talking briefcase wouldn’t fool anyone in a ransom money drop-off.) As Eel, he has to stay in his own lane to keep up the appearance of a criminal to remain undercover. The magic of Jack Cole’s Plastic Man is that it’s a kooky world, but Plastic Man adapts and morphs to meet each outlandish situation. Plastic Man gets misconceived as a walking cartoon character instead of the dual identity of Eel O’Brian/Plastic Man, a former criminal identity who changes into a heroic persona as a means of adapting to the world around him. The malleability of Plastic Man allows him to be more of a reed than the mighty oak he was before the accident and his time at Rest-Haven, someone who wasn’t going to budge for anyone. Now, Eel can go with the flow and adapt to the situation instead of being a tough guy bending the situation to his whim, or breaking under the pressure.

Another way I stay present is by observing pareidolia around me when I am out walking instead of being caught up in my head. Pareidolia is noticing shapes or faces in inanimate objects, like cracks in rocks that look like a smiling face or crumples in a discarded napkin that look like a dog. It’s like when you look at the clouds to see shapes, but without trying to Rorschach Test an image and instead stumbling on the moment naturally in the wild. Crooks in the comics don’t notice Plastic Man taking the form of an inanimate object because they are not focusing on their surroundings, only their actions. So, in these early issues, Plastic Man is not a human cartoon disconnected from the real world: he connects to the world in the comics by blending into his surroundings to wait out criminals; he processes but does not absorb shots or punches from others, they bounce off him; and most of all, he knows when to be Eel and when to be Plastic Man.

The tragedy behind Plastic Man is that Jack Cole died by suicide on August 13, 1958, in Crystal Lake, Illinois. At the time, he was working as an illustrator for Hugh Hefner at Playboy. Cole’s suicide note to Hefner can be found in the book Jack Cole and Plastic Man: Forms Stretch to Their Limits! by Art Spiegelman and Chip Kidd (Chronicle Books, 2001). I remember being hit hard by that read to the point where I drove almost an hour to Crystal Lake. After the biography’s publication, Jack Cole was being discussed and how his death by suicide left so many questions. But I wasn’t at the lake looking for answers. For me, though I wasn’t able to verbalize it at the time, I needed to be in the space not just because I was a fan of Jack Cole, but because I didn’t feel there was anywhere I could go to talk about my own thoughts of suicide.

Jack Cole was not being selfish to take his life by suicide—he was dealing with mental health issues, and society in the 1950s was not in a place where men could talk openly about those things. I took the afternoon to apologize to Jack Cole that mental health awareness wasn’t better during his time. I walked back to my car repeating to myself that I wanted to live. On the drive home, I thought about that same persistent stigma waiting for me as I looked for help for myself—I had a doctor who told me there was “nothing wrong with a nap” when I said I was too exhausted to do anything. My family and my employer facilitated my need to mask my struggles with a plastic grin out of a fear of breathing in their toxic positivity and gaslighting when what I really needed was their unbiased support. My own path of mental health wasn’t instantaneous. I did not just snap back like a rubber band after that trip to Crystal Lake. It was facing the stigma of getting help as I was growing up, it was that emotional drive home from Crystal Lake, it was having one day years later where I thought I couldn’t handle things anymore, it was finally asking for help that same day, and it is now diligent daily upkeep on my mental health. And it is worth it.

Jack Cole created some visually stunning advisories for Plastic Man, like the giant who walked on his hands (Police Comics #11) or when we first met future sidekick Woozy Winks (Plastic Man #13) whose supernatural good luck causes an unreal infallibility to his crimes. I found the trick to Plastic Man was that he wasn’t the zaniest one in the room but adapted to the oddest things Cole could think up. In the end, Plastic Man would pull himself together returning to form. Deep down, having that Plastic Man comic under his arm helped that grade school version of me as he left the basement convention. He kept at it, reading and supporting the non-mainstream superheroes. The next decade, that kid would be older and go to the comic convention at a large event center down the road. Decades later, he would see that convention move downtown, everyone cosplaying as their favorite characters and people on the street wearing superhero T-shirts from blockbuster movies. The world has become that hotel basement. That kid in the hotel basement picked up a few things from Plastic Man, adapted to our own off-kilter world, and lived to see fan conventions take the hint as well, expanding to not just talk comics, but to address mental health awareness and the necessity of suicide prevention with booths for suicide awareness organizations on the convention floor and panels for mental health on their schedules. Seeing comic conventions as a place I sought to escape from my problems now becoming a community to end the stigma around mental health, I couldn’t think of a better eightieth birthday present for Jack Cole’s Plastic Man.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255

Trans Lifeline: 877-565-8860

The Trevor Project Lifeline: 866-488-7386

Find your closest crisis center: suicidepreventionlifeline.org/our-crisis-centers

Psychology Today Therapist Finder: psychologytoday.com/us/therapists

Cool for the Summer: An Interview with Dahlia Adler

Let me open with this: what inspired your latest book, Cool for the Summer?

It’s funny because I know a lot of people think that it was inspired by Grease, but it was not. It was actually inspired by reading a YA book more than five years ago that also had a summer love interest and a school-year love interest. And I thought, “I feel like I would love this more if the love interests were not both boys,” and that’s how it started. Of course, I also love the song “Cool for the Summer” by Demi Lovato, so I thought about what a book version of that song would look like. Those two ideas meshed together, and for the summer destination idea, I had just taken a trip to the Outer Banks about a year after I read that YA book. So all those things came together and made Cool for the Summer happen.

Can you tell me a little bit about where your love of storytelling came from and how you decided to dedicate your life to creating these narratives?

It’s actually only a part of my life because I also have a day job and two kids. But this came from all the way back. I am the youngest by a lot, and I was a very early reader. That means at ages four and five I was picking up my siblings’ Sweet Valley High books that were around the house and deeply not understanding what I was reading. I was just so into the cool lives that they were having—those Wakefield twins—and I knew it didn’t look like the kind of life I was going to have. I was thinking, “what a great way to live both.” I could kind of do one life through fiction and one through what I was actually experiencing. I started to tell stories that were absolute rip-offs of a combination of Sweet Valley High and The Baby-Sitters Club. Eventually, around high school, I started telling my own stories that were actually my own stories. I started writing YA before I was even a YA, and the love of that never went away.

One of the things I found most striking about the book is just how funny it is. Every description is just making me giggle and makes me feel so close to the narrator. Are you just naturally that funny?

Oh yes, I am hilarious. I’m so glad whenever my humor translates because it often does not. I appreciate that you like it. Other people might find the main character unbearable, and that always happens. Some people like you and some people don’t. Some people think you’re funny and some people don’t. My characters often have my sense of humor in there somewhere. Lara, who’s the main character, and I are not so similar actually, and she’s so much more extroverted and I’m so much more introverted. I tend to just write with my voice everywhere.

Lara seems very outgoing and would rather go to parties instead of stay at home with a book. What was it like to switch your instincts and get into that extroverted perspective?

It’s hard! It’s kind of like thinking about the opposite of what I would do. My instinct for Lara is to be like, “nah, I’m just going to sit on the couch.” I wish I was more out there, and I wish I was less lazy. So I kind of thought of Lara that way. It was really important to me that she be a more outgoing, extroverted, and frankly cool character than I am. A lot of YA, including most of the YA that I write, has very internal main characters. They’re kind of loners and more introverted and especially sarcastic. That’s very common for a YA character. But this was the personality I really wanted for her: being a girl in this position, figuring out her sexuality. I wanted somebody who was in the spotlight, and I wanted somebody who wasn’t a wallflower to be figuring this out with all of the risks that go along with that. Because coming out for Lara was not really unsafe, but she had to assess all the different ways it would affect her life. I really did have to reach far beyond who I am and my comfort zone. I feel like that was worth it.

If it was a little bit more difficult for you to tap into Lara’s mind, who do you think you identified most with in the book?

I definitely in part identify with Lara. I would say I kind of tore myself in half between her and Jasmine. I’m like Jasmine in that I desperately want to get to the point already and spend a lot of time on the couch. I always want to be home on the couch. The parts of her that love books and have a more indie rock taste in music, all that stuff in Jasmine is more me. She is more affiliated with Judaism than Lara is, and that’s also more me. Jasmine is Syrian, which I’m not, so my background ethnically is more similar to Lara. But the whole scene where Jasmine has a Shabbat dinner with her mother—I do that with my family every Friday night. Those parts are all me. And some of my emotional qualities are definitely in Lara, like wearing her heart on her sleeve and wanting to people please. And the fact that she’s an aspiring romance author. Her journey on that was my journey with another book of mine. That was very much pulled directly from me. Then, Kiki is like who I wish I was. Kiki is one of Lara’s best friends. She’s the most fun, she has all of the hobbies and style I wish I had.

Talk to me a little bit about the process of this book. How long did it take you to write?

The process was actually really smooth for something I didn’t outline. I had been struggling through what was actually going to be my next book for years, and I just could not nail it. Part of that was because it required so much research. What’s so nice about Cool for the Summer is that I didn’t need to do more research. It was set somewhere I’d been and somewhere I’d lived. I was giving Lara and Jasmine backgrounds I knew about. I actually wrote the first 15,000 words on my commute on the train. Before the pandemic, I was commuting three hours a day. Then I would come home to a kid, and there was so little time for the writing and none for the research. When I realized that this was the book I could write on the train, I prioritized it. Thankfully, writing this book was absolutely the smoothest process for me. Every time I thought, oh no, I’m having a writer’s block, within the week I would figure out where I was going. It honestly felt like a miraculous process, which is how I knew it was absolutely the right book at the right time for me. I was very lucky with this one.

You talked a little bit about the difference between letting the prose pour out and using an outline. How do you decide which strategy you’re going to take?

I feel like I don’t get to decide anything. Things work or they don’t work. Sometimes it’s like pulling teeth—if a book is meant to be written by you at that time, there is a scene somewhere in there that will pour out of you. I know some people like to save those scenes, and they want to wait until they get there. So when I’m desperate, I write the scene that’s pouring out now, because I’ll learn things about the characters, and I’ll learn things about their voices. There are things that will come out naturally in those scenes that are not going to come out in your pulling-teeth scenes. That said, if you write all the scenes you’re too excited about up front, you are never going to want to finish the book. So there is definitely a strong balance needed in doing that, but that’s usually my strategy. I find the part of the book that I’m so excited to write, and when I really need to, I will let myself skip to it. I’ll try to use that scene to advance the parts that have been harder for me.

My real desperation move, which I did enact with my next book, is the phone-a-friend option. This is just talking it out and letting them ask the questions that you don’t have the foresight to ask yourself about your own work. Ideally, every book just pours out, but when it doesn’t, there are some different methods you can use. Sometimes, when nothing else works, it’s just a sign that it’s not the book for you right then, and then maybe you can dig into one of your other ideas and see if something else is going to come out much faster.

You mentioned you did a lot of writing on the train. How in the world are you managing a day job, a family, and writing books?

There were years where I didn’t publish anything but short stories, and those were big stretches of time. I have a wonderful husband, and I had one kid at the time, so he took my now four-year-old son for a few hours on a Sunday or my in-laws did. I made the best use of those few hours. That’s the thing when you only have four hours a week to write. You are going to use them. But the year I last published a novel was in 2016. So in 2017, I was writing words that were going to be in my 2022 book. Maybe 2019 was when I wrote Cool for the Summer. Then, I had these YA anthologies that I published: His Hideous Heart and That Way Madness Lies. Those are both reimaginings of the works of Poe and Shakespeare, so that required a lot of my editorial time. I edit on a rolling basis, so you just figure out where the slots are in your schedule. You have to be so protective of your writing time, even when it makes you look like a jerk.

We’ll see what happens after 2022. Next, I have to write another book from scratch. We’ll see how long that takes now that it’s two children and no commute. No commute sounds like it should be a time saver, but it just means I have child care for a longer window. That window for writing isn’t there, so the truth is, I don’t know how it’s going to go for the future. I’m still happy to be home, but I appreciate that commuting gave me writing time.

What was your motivation for creating these two anthologies? Was it difficult fitting them into your busy schedule? 

The idea for Poe and His Hideous Heart came about when I had posed a question on Twitter just for fun: “If you could match up any author to reimagine any story, what would it be?” And this teacher replied and said a Poe anthology, and then she named a few authors. I loved that idea, and I mentioned some other authors. Those authors replied like, “I would do that!” and then, a couple of other authors were like, “I would do that, too!” Then I realized that this was going to happen. I had the time, because frankly, I wasn’t really working on a novel then. I was going on about five years with no agent, and I was doing short story contributions to other anthologies for which I didn’t need an agent. I thought this project was a great way to move forward, but also, I was just so excited by the idea of this anthology.

I can’t write them for my life, but I love thrillers and horror and dark fantasy. I really wanted to see that book happen. I had a strong network, I blogged for Buzzfeed, and I blogged for Barnes & Noble for six years. I’ve also run a site called LGBTQ Reads for the last five years. So, I felt like I could make the best version of this book happen. And then, once it happened, I was doing Cool for the Summer. I think the offer for Cool for the Summer came on my pub day for His Hideous Heart.

I really wanted to do this again—this thing where classic works are made more accessible and more interesting. And they can show different kinds of people with different backgrounds in classic literature and how there’s a place for everyone. The second author I thought of after Poe was Shakespeare. A second anthology was so much work because I handle contract negotiations, tax forms, and payments. Editing aside, there are a zillion other things that are a nightmare. I don’t know how many more anthologies I have in me because they are just so much. I do hope to keep writing novels, so we’ll see how things go.

Last question: what do you think is the one thing you really wanted to say with Cool for the Summer? Do you think you succeeded in this?

I would say my biggest thing with Cool for the Summer was that there is no right way to journey into your identity and your self-realization, and I feel like it got there. I think people very by and large have felt my intentions with bi representation and with the journey that Lara takes. There are a lot of things in there that are not favorites for people, and it’s a little messy. Despite how much people hate love triangles and YA, I feel like things have really been taken in the way intended, which I do not take for granted. So, I think overall, it’s been taken well and resonated with people in a way that feels really wonderful to see. I’ve heard a lot of people reach out to me and say “I wish I could give this book to teen me” or “this is the book I wish I had as a teen.” That feels wonderful to me, and I also hope teens are reading it and feeling glad they have this book. In a way, I wrote it as somebody who also wished they had it as a teen. I had a mom reach out to me to say she wanted to know if my book was age-appropriate for her daughter because it’s the first YA romance she has ever requested her mom get for her. That was actually months ago, and I’m not sure if she realized the book wasn’t out yet at the time. So I’m curious if she ended up getting it, and if the daughter ended up reading it and liking it. I would kill to hear from her.

Piecing Women Together: The messy grieving process in Pieces of a Woman

When a woman I love lost her boys to miscarriage she planted pine trees in her garden and waited for them to grow. When Vanessa Kirby’s character in the film Pieces of a Woman, Martha Weiss, lost her girl right after she was born she put apple seeds between moist cotton pads in her fridge and waited for them to sprout. The former is not my story to tell, on the latter, however, I can elaborate freely. All of us, whether imaginary or flesh and blood, have our own weird, winding ways we embark on to process our grief. These pathways are difficult to trace back or explain, but the urgency of putting them out there remains potent. Art conveys the stories we want to be told but can’t quite get around to telling. Ones that are filled with awkward silences and uncomfortable questions.

Like, how do you mourn for something that never got the chance to truly be?

In grappling with that question Pieces of a Woman emerges as a fine piece of storytelling art, even if the story it tells seems filled with peculiar rituals the meaning of which we don’t fully understand. But it doesn’t seem wrong or out of place: after all, the grieving process is often murky, opaque to those around the bereft. At first glance, Martha may come off as difficult to those who try to provide her with an emotional support network. She refuses the comfort of intimacy to her visibly suffering partner, leaving him to balance on the brink of relapse and turning the blind eye when lapse he does. She fobs off her concerned sister, acts defensive towards her increasingly demented mother, and kisses a (token black) colleague at an office party. Her grief is not a neat linear process and for most of the film she’s not even visibly processing anything. And this excruciating, tedious quality is, I would argue, the best thing in the whole film. Too often we get stories that are clear-cut and task-oriented: the bad thing happens, you process it, with perhaps just one minor setback occurring around three-quarters of the movie, and—bang!—you’re good to move on with your highly functioning life.

Meanwhile, the strenuous work of grieving is not the stuff of action movies. Those who try to come to the rescue often end up doing more harm than good, adding to the griever’s pain their own frustration about the inefficacy of help they—as rescuers—are trying to provide and failing to realize that there is no quick or easy fix. Such is the case here. To Martha’s family circle, what is perhaps the most frustrating part of her messiness is her refusal to blame the stand-in midwife; the woman who helped deliver the baby and for a split second partook in the joy of her flash-like motherhood. It is especially Martha’s mother who tries to push her own agenda, fixated on the idea of getting some kind of revenge for the death of her grandchild. This brings me to the two directions that I think the story could have developed more, which might have made it an even more compelling film to watch. The first is how the generational trauma of the Holocaust is brought up by Martha’s mother as leverage and how Martha is clearly reluctant, if not altogether unwilling, to partake in her difficult heritage as a Jewish woman. The second is how the prosecution of a midwife by an affluent family plays into the social-class conflict. Mentions of the former are scattered throughout the movie but never explored in a thorough way that a sub-plot of this gravity deserves. Of the latter there is but one indication, in a scene when Martha overhears news coverage of the trial while sitting in a cab but refuses to listen, turning her head away to stare blankly out of the window.

As she detaches from what the TV reporters are saying, the viewers can feel locked out of this other story. All throughout the movie we can sense another tragedy unravelling, not before our eyes but beneath the surface—the life of Eva, the midwife, being implicitly, systematically dismantled by the investigation and the court proceedings. This could also be a potential source of frustration for some viewers; in particular, the awareness that all the while somewhere out there another story is taking place. One that could provide more dramatic, tear-jerking—and maybe even cathartic—moments. What could be this juicy courtroom drama turns into a long-winded, psychological journey, or perhaps a trip, given that the main characters seem intoxicated by their mourning, tightly cocooned in soundproof grief. But even though some sort of overt conflict or confrontation between Martha and Eva could have given the movie more dramatic impact, the movie takes a different approach—a more empowering and less obvious one. Through the entire film, Martha’s family circle puts increasing pressure on her to punish Eva, pitting the mother against the midwife to orchestrate a battle that the bereaved woman wants no part of. A battle in which her personal tragedy becomes compartmentalized, supposed to serve as a pretext—which is what, ultimately and bravely, she refuses to do.

There is another movie that echoed in my mind while I was watching Pieces of a Woman, particularly the scene that took place in the courtroom where Martha finds her own voice and refused to cast the blame on Eva. The exchange between Eva and Martha—admittedly nonverbal, but intense nevertheless—reminded me of a scene in Love & Other Impossible Pursuits, where still-bitter wife #1 (Lisa Kudrow) confronts much-maligned wife #2 (Natalie Portman) tormented by the cot death of her newborn daughter. Rather than using this moment of vulnerability to her advantage, Kudrow looks at the other woman and pointedly tells her, “You did not kill your baby.” There is something quietly moving and powerful when characters refuse to play by the rules of the world that incentivizes them to hate each other and teaches them that the downfall of one will be the triumph of the other.

The whole shtick of pitting women against each other is older than cinema itself. Our pop culture, much like our history and our media, is rife with examples of putting women on trial to shine on them the spotlight of shame. A cold, blinding light that they either internalize or choose to avert to other women. The often source of conflict is the man, because of course it is. The infamous Bechdel test has demonstrated time and again that in most screenwriters’ minds no thing is of more concern to women than male attention. But when the core of potential conflict is not a male, but the particularly female experience of motherhood, that is where things become interesting. The ultimate manifest solidarity between two women positioned by circumstance to be rivals is a much-needed relief to the viewer. Especially since, at this point, we have witnessed a fair share of blame-tossing aimed both at the invisible midwife and the bereaved mother, who for the most part refuses to pull herself together and play according to the fixed rules of orderly grieving (whatever those might be).

Given the poignant beginning and the interesting (though at times underwhelming) development of the movie, its end might ring a bit off-key. After the pivotal (if a bit melodramatic) courtroom speech comes a teatime reunion with Martha’s mother and sister. It’s a final bright-green shot of hopeful days that could lie ahead once the apple seeds sprout and grow into tall trees. Seems a bit corny, like a technicolor-tinted cliché found in feel-good movies, which this one manifestly is not. But there is a deeper truth to all this, which is that, in order to heal, women should not let themselves be systemically antagonized and pitted against each other to provide an easy fix for what they know is unfixable. Martha’s child does not resurrect, her mother’s dementia does not retract. Life is still pretty tough as it is. But there is hope in forging those bonds and refusing to give in to revenge. Ultimately, the film shows us Martha’s reward for that refusal is the opportunity to piece together her womanhood by returning to the vital relationships with the women in her life. And maybe, in the years ahead, the possibility of creating a new life, a new beginning, a new woman. The final credits left me wondering whether that was cheesy, but it felt true, nevertheless. And if sometimes the truth comes with a whiff of cheese, so be it.

A Review of One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston

Published June 1, 2021 by St. Martin’s Griffin

The success of Casey McQuiston’s debut novel Red, White & Royal Blue set the bar remarkably high for their sophomore New Adult novel One Last Stop. Pitched as a queer retelling of Kate & Leopold, the novel centers on the cynical, twenty-three-year-old August Landry, a self-proclaimed loner who just moved to modern-day New York City. On her daily subway commute to university, she meets Jane, a mysterious Chinese-American lesbian in her early twenties who’s unable to remember much of her past. August quickly becomes infatuated, only to discover Jane has somehow been transported in time from the 1970s and become stuck on the Q Line, reappearing back on the train every time she tries to leave. Thus ensues a heartwarming quest to help her regain her memories and her freedom, while August struggles to keep her feelings under control.

The author’s love for New York is palpable and the novel captures a vibrant, authentic snapshot of the city. The plot, while engaging, is a little slow-moving at points and is probably the least notable element of the book. Where McQuiston really shines is their characters. Through August, McQuiston expertly epitomizes the experience of navigating your early twenties; discovering who you are and where you belong, and coming to terms with not knowing exactly what you’re supposed to do with your life. Jane, the love interest, is unparalleled. Brave, caring, and quick to stand up for what she believes in—she is unapologetic about who she is. Messages, reports, and newspaper clippings detailing strangers’ encounters with Jane throughout the years feature at the start of each chapter. They serve not only as a clever narrative technique but also as a way to emphasize Jane’s impact on those around her, making it all the more realistic that August falls for her so fast—because everyone does. The slow burn sapphic romance that develops between them is exquisite. There’s an air of serendipity as the two share stolen moments on empty subway cars and memorable declarations of love reminiscent of those in Red, White & Royal Blue.

The novel is host to an eclectic ensemble of diverse secondary characters. From the first page, I fell utterly in love with Niko, a trans psychic/bartender, and his confident, positive outlook on life. The other side characters are equally wonderful and genuine, exuding unconditional acceptance and warmth. With their frequent pop culture references, comfortable roommate dynamic, and inventive games like “Rolly Bangs,” they’re the type of characters you long to be friends with in real life. They serve as so much more than just plot devices, experiencing their own trials and triumphs that exist outside of August’s narrative. McQuiston excels at executing the found family trope as August carves out a space for herself among them and the group band together to liberate Jane from the Q Line.

The book also serves as a love letter to queer culture and an homage to the sacrifices made by the LGBTQ+ activists of the past. Through Jane, these activists roar to life. They become so much more than faded photographs and obscure figures; they are real, tangible people, with hopes, fears, and dreams outside of their role in a movement for equality. Several prominent events from queer history are referenced in the novel, and through August and Jane, we see these events from both a first-person and a modern perspective. There’s an overarching sense of hope for a future with more acceptance and freedom to be who you are and love who you love. The novel’s only couple of drawbacks are that the explanation for Jane’s time slip calls for considerable suspended disbelief from the reader and elements of the plot end up tying together just a little too neatly. For instance, revelations about a certain long-lost family member feel a little too convenient to be believable. However, these are easily overlooked as you are drawn into this hilarious, profound, sexy celebration of love and diversity. Ultimately, One Last Stop more than lives up to expectations as an effervescent medley of friendships, romance, drag shows, pancakes, history, and train rides.

A Review of The First Ten Years: Two Sides of the Same Love Story by Joseph Fink and Meg Bashwiner

Published May 11, 2021 by Harper Perennial

The First Ten Years: Two Sides of the Same Love Story is a joint memoir about the relationship between the Welcome to Night Vale podcast co-creator Joseph Fink and his wife, writer and performer Meg Bashwiner. The book follows them through the first ten years of their relationship, with alternating chapters where they discuss their interpretation of that year’s events.

“There are two sides to every love story,” as the tagline of the book says, and The First Ten Years explores those two sides fully. Joseph and Meg did not consult one another prior to writing their recounts, but they both end up diving into the most raw and vulnerable parts of their relationship and explore the subtle differences between how they remember each memory and what sticks out to them as memorable from each year of their relationship. Even when they remember details the same way, they have “their own narrative on just what they mean.”

I have been a fan of Welcome to Night Vale since its first season, so getting to read about the relationship between the show’s co-creator and one of the voice actors was fascinating. The text refuses to shy away from difficult experiences, tackling those topics in conjunction with acknowledging the good things, which make for an incredible reading experience. The book made me laugh and cry as it took me on a journey through international fame, world tours, the death of a parent, mental health issues, and bickering over who actually paid for the morning after pill after their first date. The text’s ability to balance the happy and the tragic in equal measure in ways that mirror life makes the book so much more poignant.

I loved how The First Ten Years gave me the chance to dig into what makes relationships what they are. How even couples that “become one” by adopting each other’s ways of being and thinking after being together for so long still interpret events differently, focus on different aspects of nuanced situations, and generally have different perspectives. The First Ten Years presents a couple of young dreamers in New York City falling in love and struggling to get by, who become adults with a flourishing relationship and discussions about having children. In many ways, it represents a microcosm of what it means to grow, change, and learn in one’s early twenties, and as a young dreamer approaching my mid-twenties myself, I found their story far more impactful and personal than I expected.

The only negative thing about this book is quite how targeted it is at fans of Joseph and Meg. If you don’t care about or at least know of them, it may be a less enjoyable reading experience because there is less incentive to care about their thoughts and experiences. Because their relationship was so affected by the sudden success of Welcome to Night Vale and those experiences shaping their relationship, readers without that wider context may find the text harder to relate to. That said, I do still think that even without the extra context, the book is an awesome exploration of how relationships adapt as people grow and change.

9 Public Domain Images to Cure Your Writer’s Block

The public domain is a vast treasure trove and often-overlooked resource for the literary community. Where entrance fees and distance may create barriers to certain museums and literary resources, copyright-free material is always easily accessible on the internet. Retro is in, so why not riff off the past? We’ve gathered a collection of settings, characters, and other oddities to help get the brain juices flowing. Consider this list a quick intro to inspiring your pen and generating your own prompts in the future! 

Setting

“Harold’s Auto Center, Spring Hill, Florida; 1979.” For more of John Margolies’ photos of Roadside America, check out the Library of Congress. 

Who works here, and how did they get this job?  

Your character sees this for the first time—describe the moment. Do they stop?  

What is this town like? 

What does the dinosaur see?  

What happened here? 

“New Year’s Eve Foxfires at the Changing Tree, Ōji.” 1858. For more work by Utagawa Hiroshige, check out Open Access at the Met. 

What place is this?  

How do the creatures speak to one another? What do they say? 

Do they exist? Do you? 

What will happen here? 

What histories surround this place? 

“Space Colony Artwork.” 1970s. Visit NASA for more renderings and concept art. 

Who gets to live here? Who works here? 

Who isn’t supposed to be here, and what are they doing? 

What is hidden? 

Where and when is this? 

What haunts this place? 

Character

Circa 1912. To browse more of Hugo Simberg’s photographs, check out the albums of the Finnish National Gallery on Flickr. 

Who is under that hat? 

Where does this path lead? 

Do you recognize who it is?  

Where is this pair going? How do they feel about their destination? 

When you take a second glance, something’s different. Do you say anything? 

“Shadows on Tent, Quarter Circle ‘U’ Ranch, Montana.” For more of Arthur Rothstein’s work, visit the Library of Congress’s Free to Use and Reuse Sets. 

What story does the standing figure tell? 

Who sits alone? What are they thinking? 

What sounds can you hear?  

Where have they pitched their tent?  

Who is in love? Who is afraid? Who is planning something? 

“Operating a hand drill at Vultee-Nashville, woman is working on a ‘Vengeance’ dive bomber, Tennessee.” 1943. For more photography by Alfred T. Palmer, visit the Library of Congress. 

How was the commute this morning? 

What else is she thinking about? 

What is different about today? 

Who is waiting for her? 

What does she want?

Object

Where do these grow? A strange land? A greenhouse? A planet? 

What kind of person grows plants like these? 

What sounds do they make? Do they speak to you? 

Pick one. Can you trust it? 

Pluck one. What happens?

“Bulletins, from January 4, 1909 to April 12, 1909.” For more resources from the Alexander Graham Bell family papers, 1834-1974, visit the Library of Congress. 

What does this structure do? 

Where did it come from? 

Do you understand it? 

How does the photographer feel when they capture this shot? 

What’s the last thing your narrator said to one of the figures?

“A Whale-Bus.” For more postcards of the year 2000 from 20th century France, check out Wikimedia Commons. 

Where are they headed? 

What conversations can you hear? 

What is the relationship between the conductor and the whale? 

How much does the whale make, hourly? 

Who wants to stop this bus, and why? 

Further Resources

If places like Wikimedia Commons or the Library of Congress seem overwhelming, never fear! There are plenty of other spaces, such as the Public Domain Review, willing to aggregate the weird and wonderful of the public domain for you.  

History is not an impartial or panoramic study—archives are shaped by the interests, intellect, and biases of those who decided what was valuable. It’s always important to consider, where is this coming from? What kind of person took this photo or made this drawing? What part of this do I use? What specific associations should I respect or be aware of? 

You hold the pen now—the writing is up to you. 

Fractured and Forgotten Memories: A Reading List

You’ve likely heard the phrase “our memories often deceive us.” To an extent, this is true: the past—or at least our understanding of it—is fallible, shaky, and often colored by our emotions and subconscious desires. But there is a flip side to this. By nature, books that tackle the absence of memory, either by forgetting or through forceful fracturing, often deal with the repercussions of those memories as they return to us. The result is an interesting case study on how we interact with and remember our past: the potent mix of pain and relief that comes with remembering, the way it helps us uncover our identity and the power it has to reconfigure our close relationships. Here are six books about fractured and forgotten memories and the power they have to encroach on the present as well as the future.  

Fledgling – Octavia E. Butler 

The last novel by lauded American science fiction writer Octavia E. Butler, Fledgling tells the story of Shori, a young amnesiac whose inhuman desire for blood leads her to realize that she is actually a fifty-three-year-old vampire and member of the Ina species. The novel follows Shori’s quest to unearth the murky waters of her stolen past before those that took it from her return for something more important—her life. A book both alluring for its diverse spin on a time-old, Eurocentric trope and the navigation of classic themes of freedom and survival, Fledgling is Butler’s sparse yet pointed prose at its finest as she reckons with what it means to be “other” and how a loss of memory often marks a loss of self.  

You can order a copy of Octavia E. Butler’s Fledgling HERE.  

More Than This – Patrick Ness 

Though Patrick Ness is best known for his Chaos Walking trilogy and his low fantasy novel A Monster Calls, his novel More Than This holds its own as one of the most provocative YA novels published in recent history. The book begins with sixteen-year-old Seth who, after drowning in the ocean, wakes up alone and with no memory in what he believes to be his own personal hell: the Suburban Southern English town where he lived before tragedy struck. As the story unfolds, Seth is forced to confront his past and the blame his mother places on him because of his sexuality and the incident that forced their family to move to America, illustrating how the muddiness of our memories often inhibits us from stepping forth into the future. A shimmering example of the eternal teenage desire for meaning, More Than This is an impressively challenging teen novel that tackles the importance of our most painful memories with the candidness that is so indicative of Ness’s writing. 

You can order a copy of Patrick Ness’s More Than This HERE.

The Buried Giant – Kazuo Ishiguro 

Kazuo Ishiguro is no stranger when it comes to writing about the fallibility of memory. Set in post-Arthurian Britain, The Buried Giant tells the story of elderly British couple Axl and Beatrice as they set off to visit a son they can barely remember due to a mass amnesia referred to as “the mist.” As they begin to recover their memories, however, Axl and Beatrice are forced to reckon with a dark and violent world—one they might have been better off forgetting. Filled with memorable characters and marked by Ishiguro’s distinctive prose, which grounds the story’s more fantastical elements in a realism that makes its message more potent, The Buried Giant ruminates on the double-edged sword that is memory—both the way it protects us from the difficulty of our past, and how it is necessary for us to heal from it.  

You can order a copy of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant HERE.

The Museum of Forgotten Memories – Anstey Harris 

Best-selling author of The Truths and Triumphs of Grace Atherton, Anstey Harris returned this past November with The Museum of Forgotten Memories. In the novel, we meet widowed Cate Morris and her son Leo who, after being let go from her job as a teacher, moves from London to her late husband Richard’s hometown of Crouch-on-Sea to take up a job at his old museum: Hatters Museum of the Wide Wide World. But the more invested she becomes in reviving the dilapidated museum, the more she is forced to confront the reality of Richard’s death—and the part she played in it. Though The Museum of Forgotten Memories has yet to grace our shelves, Harris’s sharp voice ensures that readers are in for a richly descriptive narrative about how the process of piecing together our past can be as relieving as it is painful.  

You can order a order a copy of Anstey Harris’s The Museum of Forgotten Memories HERE.

The Blinds – Adam Sternbergh 

The Blinds, set in a rural Texas town of the same name, is home to criminals who have had their memories altered and are granted a new lease on life. The only problem: they don’t know if they actually committed a crime, or just witnessed one. For years, Sheriff Calvin Cooper has maintained a relatively shaky peace in the town, but when its citizens revolt after a string of grisly incidents, the deputy and a group of outsiders get involved, threatening to unearth the town’s grim secrets and upend its unsteady foundations. Potent and endearingly dark, Sternbergh’s The Blinds is a memorable account of how our memories provide vital glimpses into the human condition—and its vices.  

You can order a copy of Adam Sternbergh’s The Blinds HERE.

The Memory Police – Yoko Ogawa 

Reminiscent of George Orwell’s 1984 and the surrealism of Franz Kafka’s short stories, Yōko Ogawa’s The Memory Police tells the story of a young writer who lives on an unnamed island where objects disappear and those in authority are committed to making sure they stay gone. When the memory police set their sights on her editor, she hides him beneath her floorboards, the two clinging to writing as a way to preserve their shaky past. Dreamlike and haunting, Ogawa’s The Memory Police is a timeless rumination on the dangers of repressing memory and the importance of reconstructing the past—however painful it may be.  

You can order a copy of Yōko Ogawa’s The Memory Police HERE.

The world of our memories is vast and wonderful, as well as strange and painful. Perhaps these books will force you to look back on your past, and maybe they will help you unearth some forgotten memories of your own. Looking for more pieces on memory? Check out our latest issue, F(r)iction #17 The Memory Issue!

Five Literary Quotes Connecting Memory & Sense

When we stumble upon something that triggers a memory, neuronal circuits fire away to decipher what exactly the association is and to pull up the stored recollection. Smell, taste, touch, hearing, and sight all serve as sensory connections to the world around us so that we can form and recall memories. What better way to luxuriate and ponder this phenomenon than the written word? Below is a list of literary quotes that either directly discuss memory or portray a character trying to recall a memory. Either way, they encourage the reader to recall something themselves due to the provocative nature of the sense evoked. Dive in to exercise your neural pathways! 

1. Smell as recollection: 

“The house smelled like fireplace kindling and hot water in old brass pipes—like metal melting into wood and becoming something all its own. It smelled like his childhood. Like chaos and terror and oatmeal cookies and lamb stew and nighttime in front of that drafty front window.”  

Melodie Ramone, Lights of Polaris

This quote by Ramone evokes how strongly a smell can transport us years in the past, to memories long buried and forgotten. While everyone’s childhood has its own unique set of smells, the experience captured here reminds the reader of the powerful impact senses have on memory and how to use them in writing to capture that.  

2. Taste as transportation to the past: 

“I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate, a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place [ . . . ] Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I was conscious that it was connected with the taste of tea and cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savours, could not, indeed, be of the same nature as theirs.” 

Marcel Proust, Swann’s Way

Proust captures the intense sensation of when a simple taste throws us backward in time. We struggle to recollect the memory, continuing to nibble and drink to coerce the answers out of our minds. Everyone has experienced the visceral connection between taste and memory that uses sensory input to assert order over the endless logs of recollections stored in our brains. 

3. Touch to recall:  

“Touch has a memory. O say, love say, / What can I do to kill it and be free in my old liberty?”  

John Keats, “What can I do to drive away”

Here, Keats bemoans how unwelcome sensory input immerses us in painful memories of lost experiences. A simple touch, from brushing against a soft blanket to the perceived texture of a handshake, can ignite a thousand recollections at times when all we wish is to forget. 

4. Hearing a voice and remembering whose it is: 

“The weeping fit would pass, and I would drag myself back to the mirror expecting to see a child version of myself. ‘Who are you?’ I’d ask. I could hear the words; it sounded like me, but it wasn’t me. I’d watch my lips moving and say it again, ‘Who are you?’”  

Alice Jamieson, Today I’m Alice: None Personalities, One Tortured Mind 

When we contemplate sound triggering memory, we often recall snippets of experiences that happened to us or around us—the sound of breaking glass, the whistle of a tea kettle, the guffaws of another person. We rarely consider the musical albums of our singular existence, like the sound of our whistling or our laughter. So, what happens when we forget a sound that is integral to our identity, something that is important to how we perceive and associate with ourselves in an auditory manner? This quote explores the consequences of this frightening question by diving into the author’s own experiences with dissociating her own voice with her identity.  

5. Seeing a familiar sight from childhood: 

“Yet no painter could have re-created what she saw more convincingly. Every detail was as she remembered. At the bottom of the stone-cobbled path was a pond with rose-flushed lilies, and a marble bench under the cherry tree.”  

Elizabeth Lim, Reflection 

We can also be mentally transported to the past by coming across a familiar sight. The narrator of Lim’s Reflection returns home after time away, and the vivid sights remaining from her childhood inspire awe and nostalgia in her as the past and present blend together in a display that makes the reader envision scenes of beloved places from their own histories.  

There you have it! Interested in delving deeper into the nature of this tenuous human property? Pick up a copy of F(r)iction #17, Memory