Witches, Chainmail, and Banned Books

Thomas Chisholm

I watched the 2015 horror film The VVitch a few days ago and was floored. It’s a perfect pick if you’re like me and watch horror movies all October long. The VVitch is not campy, corny, or gory. It’s very slow and a bit like an old school Hitchcock movie with violence usually taking place off camera. The film is set in the 1630’s and focuses on a puritan family in New England that is being terrorized by a witch. My favorite aspect of the movie is how it puts you in that time and place. The family lives on the edge of a mysterious wood. Their lives are being turned upside down and they have no idea what is causing their turmoil. There could literally be anything in those woods, and I find that mystery especially frightening. The actors speak in accents authentic to the period, so I’d recommend turning subtitles on. The VVitch was the debut film from director Robert Eggers; his second, The Lighthouse, just hit theaters a few weeks ago, and I can’t wait to see it.

Venus Davis

Disenchantment, the most recent offering from The Simpsons creator Matt Groening, is a cartoon that premiered on Netflix in August of 2018. The second season was just released this past September. So, naturally, after being devastated by the drama and delighted by the black humor, I decided to binge watch season two this past weekend. At first, I was caught off guard by the fast-paced storyline; everything just felt random to me. However, I am a big fan of when narratives just kind of click at a certain point after throwing the reader or viewer all over the place. Disenchantment did just that! I’m not usually one that goes for stories set in fairytale lands or the middle ages, but this show has me ready to buy chainmail! If you like FuturamaBob’s Burgers, or web toons like Bee and Puppycat, this is the show for you! Check it out so we can scream about the ending of season two together!

Stephanie Molina

This week I want to recommend an oldie but a goodie: The Unofficial Harry Potter Cookbook, by Dinah Bucholz. It made high school me absolutely jump for joy and I still use it to this day. My favorite recipes are the pumpkin pasties (in the section aptly titled “Treats from the Train”) and the dark chocolate truffles (“Treats in the Village”), and I make the cinnamon breakfast rolls every year for Christmas. Bucholz includes everything from intimidatingly European classics like black pudding or steak and kidney pie to more approachable sweets like Harry’s favorite treacle tart or Hagrid’s rock cakes. Every recipe references the lines that inspired it and it’s the perfect way to go down memory lane while making delicious goodies! I highly recommend it to anyone who loves baking and Harry Potter.

Zoe Nepolello

Suggested Reading by Dave Connis came out on September 17, just in time for Banned Books Week (September 22-28), and oh boy. I think I’m going to have to make it a tradition to read this every year during Banned Books Week. This was a novel that really reminded you about the power of storytelling. It delves deeply into what books truly mean to us, how they shape us, and what happens when they’re taken away.

The novel follows bookworm Clara as her school bans 50 books—many of which shaped who she is. She starts an Underground Library (UnLib), taking the books that were banned from the school library, wrapping them in white paper, and checking them out to students from her locker. With the expansion of the UnLib, Clara interacts with and befriends people who she never thought would speak to her. It’s a bonding over the changes each character faces from this assault on their freedom.

While there are so many fantastic looks at books and how much they impact and connect readers, Connis also shows Clara facing some tough questions as the UnLib grows and a reader feels overwhelmed by one of the books Clara recommends. It makes her question if perhaps the people who banned these books were right. While she may have felt one way about the book, she’s disheartened that someone else had completely opposite feelings. It’s a great look at how books speak to each person differently.

With a great cast of characters, a plot that constantly has you turning the pages, and messages that make you think long after setting the book down, I highly recommend Suggested Reading to anyone who needs a little reminder about how much books truly mean to us and to society.

Mass Extinction, Scandalous Magazines, and Canine Detectives

Emily Brill-Holland

I devoured The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal.

The Calculating Stars follows war pilot and math genius Elma York after a massive meteorite hits the Earth, sparking an extinction event: York quickly figures out that temperatures will plummet for a few years, only to dramatically spike and go on to rise past habitable levels.

I’m a sucker for anything that has a mass apocalypse event in it—and the blinding light that startles York and her husband ticked my boxes. When they rapidly calculated a shockwave half an hour later, I was all over it. When the meteorite slammed into the US East Coast, I wasn’t putting the book down.

Add to that an alternate history space race, intelligent characters who are still human, sexism, racism, anxiety, math, science, history (when not alternate), and a supportive relationship that isn’t the main plot? Yes please.

TCS is a prequel to a piece of short fiction that Kowal wrote; I hadn’t read it and had no idea how TCS ended. The tension provided by sexism and humans who don’t think the world is warming kept me breathless until the end.

One of the best parts for me was that Kowal’s characters knew what they knew. If something was simple to them, like kriah (York is Jewish), the characters mentioned it and moved on—which left me curious and googling everything from religion to history and geography. None of it was necessary to understanding the story, but I wanted to know more. I also really appreciated Kowal’s handling of drama. Secrets were kept, yes. Secrets were discovered. But nothing was handled stupidly because plot required it.

TCS  is an effective remark on our time, with Kowal borrowing common twenty-first-century climate change denial arguments to provide a gentle reminder that while we didn’t face an extinction event when getting to the moon in the twentieth century, we could use some of York’s determination and ambition in the twenty-first.

Kaley Kiermayr

Bitch is an independent quarterly magazine published in Portland, Oregon. Its tagline is “a feminist response to pop culture.” From their scandalous name to their bevy of thoughtful content, Bitch doesn’t pull any punches. Whether you’re looking for independent, feminist, radical thinking in a print magazine, or want to read explicitly political and feminist readings of pop culture on the daily, I think you’ll find Bitch to be critical, mandatory reading. I’ve been reading Bitch Magazine since 2014, and they’re on my mind as of late because they’re in the midst of an enormous fundraiser. Today is the last day to reach their $150,000 goal and #KeepBitchInPrint after 23 years!

Website

Fundraiser link

Stefanie Molina

I recently read Heart of Barkness which is the latest installment in the long-running Chet and Bernie series. Sometimes, after a marathon of dystopias, violent fantasy worlds, fairy tale retellings, and thrillers…you just need something light and happy. Chet and Bernie always provide that for me while also handing out a healthy dose of drama and intrigue. This dynamic duo’s private investigator adventures are narrated by Chet, whose fresh way of seeing the world makes any tale (tail?!) worth telling.

Oh, I forgot the best part.

Chet’s a dog.

Dog lovers everywhere will completely fall for his innocence, his smarts, the simplicity of his day-to-day in the face of danger and complexity. He loves his Bernie (as he calls him) to the ends of the earth, and Bernie, hapless and endearing yet completely capable and badass, returns the favor in spades. You won’t find a more charming voice anywhere. And you won’t find a more loyal friend than Chet the Jet!

Math Destruction, Testaments, and Boarding School Mutations

Carolyn Janecek

Many of us joke about “our assigned FBI agents” watching us through our webcams––an attempt to make light of the pervasive surveillance and data mining of the 21st century. Well, I just finished reading data scientist Dr. Cathy O’Neil’s book Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy and learned about the incomprehensibly terrifying extent of corporate and governmental data mining in the United States. I was aware of many of the injustices laid out in this short, two-hundred-page book: standardized testing algorithms harming K-12 teachers, our country’s history of redlining, and healthcare discrimination based on preexisting conditions. But knowing about such examples in no way prepared me for the sheer proportions that Dr. O’Neil lays out. From fueling the Great Recession to curating our social media feeds, big data has permeated every part of our lives. Weapons of Math Destruction made me anxious about our future, but that’s exactly why I’ll be recommending it to everyone I know.

Eileen Silverthorn

I just finished listening to The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides. We follow Theo, a psychotherapist, who is trying to get through to his newest patient, Alyssia, a woman who has been silent for six years following the murder of her husband. She is the only one who knows exactly what happened the night of the murder, and Theo—as he struggles with his own brand of psychosis—begins to unravel the pieces of what Alyssia has been keeping secret all these years. I was at the beach when I got to the super dark and twisty end of this novel (I sat up on my towel, shocked, screeching “WHAT!” and scaring my friends half to death). The writing is great, there are lots of interesting references to Greek tragedy weaved throughout the story, and again, the PLOT TWIST my friends, the PLOT TWIST. Highly recommend for those looking for a good mystery novel!

Ariel Fagiola

I’ve been deeply buried in Margaret Atwood’s new novel, The Testaments, and I’m already grieving it being over. She is one of my all-time favorite authors, and The Handmaid’s Tale (to be as dramatic as possible) changed my life in high school. And now she’s at it again with this long overdue and greatly appreciated continuation. I also only watched the first season of the show, so I felt even more desperate for this return. While I haven’t finished the book yet, and I’m sure I’ll have more opinions then, for now I highly recommend allowing yourself to be whisked away by Atwood’s stressful, beautiful, majorly screwed up, and heartbreaking writing.

Amanda Farbanish

Hi, yes, it is I, the staffer who won the Red, White & Royal Blue Battle of 2019. I’m back to give you another queer rec—this time, a queer feminist YA sci-fi horror thriller. (If you read that description and don’t immediately want to read the book, know that I’m judging you.) Wilder Girls by Rory Powers is everything I’ve ever wanted. You have an all-girl school that’s been infected by a mystery something (disease? alien infection?) they call the Tox, causing their bodies to develop weird and sometimes gross mutations. In fact, the entire island is infected, with a trip through the woods almost guaranteed to be deadly. Though the government promises to help, that help seems to be rather slow in coming.

But despite a horrific premise, what grounds this story and really makes it shine is the characters. The surviving girls and two teachers have to figure out how to survive together, creating a fascinating evolution of relationships. All of the characters are so incredibly realistic, their reactions, thoughts, and feelings in such a dangerous, high-stress environment wonderfully tailored to each character and their personality. Constantly facing death, they have to band together; Hetty, Reese, and Byatt—the trio the story centers on—have to manage their own fears along with their desire to protect and care for one another, a complicated line to walk when you’re constantly facing the creeping reality of death. If you’re in the mood for character-driven queer horror, this is the novel for you . . . what am I saying? No matter what, this is the novel for you.

Staff Picks Special Edition: Solo Dance Parties, Post-Apocalyptic Farmers, and Melodrama

Why is this staff picks a special edition? Well, because…

These very special picks are exclusively from our fantabulous Fall 2019 Interns! Learn even more about these new Brinkeroos in their very own Q&A on Monday.

Ally Geist

Lately, Ralph’s 2018 album, A Good Girl, has been my go-to pump-up music to start off my day. I heard Ralph perform live in Toronto a few months ago, and ever since I’ve been hooked. One of her songs (“Living For Yourself”) was inspired by the lovely RuPaul drag queens, and is the perfect song to have a solo dance party to. The album has a song for pretty much any mood, including some heartfelt songs that may induce a spontaneous sob-fest. But who doesn’t love a good catharsis after a hard day, am I right? I love supporting Indie artists, and Ralph is definitely a badass babe boss who fits the bill! Ralph perfectly demonstrates how you can grow through hardship and find self-love and passion on the other side of it. 

Jaclyn Morken

You know when you read one of those books, the kind that plow right into your heart and nest there forever? Lately, for me, that book has been Leah Bobet’s YA fantasy An Inheritance of Ashes. I read it earlier this summer, and I still think about it all the time. I’m a bit late to the scene—the novel came out in 2015—but it stayed with me for so many reasons.

In a fantasy/post-apocalyptic world vividly realized through lush prose, I found sixteen-year-old Hallie Hoffman, months after a devastating war in the south, trying to convince her sister to take on a hired hand to keep their struggling family farm afloat. It’s a story about family and friends old and new, learning how to face the remnants of the war everyone thought was over—and, most importantly, how to move forward from the darkness of trauma. The characters and relationships are brilliant and beautiful—from the sisters’ mutual need for reconciliation to Hallie’s slowly budding romance based on consent and honesty.

If, like me, you’re looking for a fantasy that focuses on aftermath, that shows the ways love and community can heal, then this book is definitely for you.

Venus Davis

Melodrama is the sophomore album of singer-songwriter, Lorde. To me, this album is mine. Music should feel so personal that it’s like someone is stealing a page from your diary. Melodrama crept slowly into my ears and I haven’t stopped thinking about that haunting feeling of being twenty and not twenty-one or nineteen. I make it sound like this album has made me think negatively of myself, but I want to stress that this album empowered me. When Lorde talks about feeling like a disaster, but still being there for herself to pick up the pieces, as if she’s her own romantic partner in “Liability;” when she calls out romantic interests and lets them know how she would write about them in “Writer in the Dark;” how she creates a chillingly accurate caricature of herself and young adulthood . . . I felt that so much it was like a second skin. I highly recommend listening to this album with a juice box and a journal in hand to reminisce and write about how you feel about growing up and your relationship with the word love.

Abi Mechley

I’m sure many more avid gamers and game reviewers have already said their piece about Horizon Zero Dawn, the PS4 exclusive open-world game that debuted in 2016. Far be it from me to claim that my take is wholly original or groundbreaking; nonetheless I hope that—if you have not had a chance to play it—you might give it a try.

Essentially, Horizon Zero Dawn is a world inhabited by monstrous machines and vast tribes. You play Aloy, a young woman fighting for recognition in a tribe that has left her an outcast since birth for being motherless. The game is deeply and clearly influenced by the power of relationships, and the core of Aloy’s story is one of family, particularly shown in her attempts to unravel her past by searching for the mother she never knew. The worldbuilding, the random notes and letters and interactions with NPCs . . . all of it is intertwined with this idea of the bonds and relationships we have with others. It was an incredibly meditative experience to sit down with Aloy and explore this world, get to know these characters, and confront the mysteries hidden just beneath the surface.

Horizon Zero Dawn—E3 2016 Trailer | Only On PS4

Viengsamai Fetters

I’ll say this up front: podcasts are hard for me. I struggle to focus on auditory input for long periods of time, especially if I’m not doing something that requires the rest of my attention, like driving; often I find myself having to rewind in order to catch key details that I missed the first time around. This podcast isn’t like that, though—I’m enthralled the whole time. The Strange Case of Starship Iris is an audio drama, a tangle of mysteries that keeps getting bigger. It’s sci-fi for those of us who don’t see ourselves in sci-fi. It’s chock-full of queer and trans and Asian representation—voice acted by people who share similar identities—and while that’s what initially drew me in, I binged the show because I love the characters and boy howdy, do I want to know what’s next!

Starship Iris is set soon after Earth narrowly defeats aliens in an intergalactic war; the podcast follows Violet Liu, a sarcastic and dauntless (but also terrified) biologist as she adjusts to life after the title ship is mysteriously destroyed . . . leaving Violet the only survivor. I can’t tell you more for fear of spoilers, but Violet and her newfound allies soon have some major conspiracies to unravel. The episodes are still coming out, albeit with a little distance between them, and I, ever impatient, somehow don’t mind the wait.

Tarot Readings, Magic Princes, and Kickbutt Evil Scientists

Chase Bailey

I’m all about tapping into the mysterious unknown and trying to make sense of the nonsensical, which is why this week I’m sharing my current appetite for pick-a-card tarot-reading videos on YouTube. There are tons of channels that you can choose from, but my particular favorite is Charmed Intuition Tarot. There are readings for all types of things, and I just watched her video “September 2019 Predictions.” You’re encouraged to take a breath, clear your mind, and choose one of three decks, which she’ll then do a reading for in tandem with a charm casting.

Part ASMR, part opportunity for a little self-introspection, I really have come to enjoy watching these videos and seeing how her predictions align with my personal goals (I’m big into manifesting right now). Her voice is super calming, and, if anything, it’s a great way to visualize positivity for oneself. I’m not saying her September predictions are correct (we’re still in August!), but I am saying I’ve latched onto her positive message about as much as I desperately latch onto a good result on a BuzzFeed quiz.

Zoe Nepolello

Anyone who knows me knows I’m a diehard V.E./Victoria Schwab fan. This woman can write anything, and I’m all-too-eager to read it. Her most recent venture is a medium that’s relatively new to me, but that doesn’t make me any less obsessed with it—comics.

With The Steel Prince, Schwab has created a kickass prequel to her Shades of Magic series. And while I absolutely recommend that trilogy (guys, it’s so good), these comics stand completely on their own.

The story follows young prince Maxim Maresh as he’s sent to a violent and unmanageable port city in his kingdom, with orders from his father to cut his military teeth in this lawless environment. As of now, the comics are set to have three arcs (The Steel PrinceNight of Knives, and Rebel Army), and with two of those arcs already being out (and the first bound up as a graphic novel), now’s a great time to get started!

These comics excel in so many ways. The world is built spectacularly, especially for people who have never been introduced to this world’s complicated magic system; the panels are used perfectly to tell the story, nailing the layout, pacing, camera angle, and overall cohesion of each story of Maxim Marersh; and, not least of all, the art here is just fantastic. With these comics, Schwab has really shown her talent and versatility in all manner of storytelling. Whether you’re a comic enthusiast or just starting out, I highly recommend picking up these gems.

Giancarlo Riccobon

A Town Called Panic is a movie for adults that haven’t grown out of playing with toys. After a lot of films that try a little too hard to be photorealistic (looking at you, Lion King remake!), I find it refreshing to see a stop-motion film that makes no effort to hide the fact that it’s stop-motion. It’s designed to look like the animators grabbed some plastic action figures and a video camera and started goofing off. The characters waddle around on their plastic bases like the army men from Toy Story. Here’s the plot (though I use that term loosely here). When Cowboy and Indian realize that they forgot to give a birthday gift to Horse (who is the closest thing to a responsible adult in this world), they mistakenly order 50 million bricks when they only meant to order 50, thus triggering a chaotic chain of events. In any other movie, the nonsensical plot would have been a death blow. Here, it makes perfect sense, as if the story is being told by a six-year-old who is making it up as he goes. Kickbutt evil scientists? An underwater department store? Sure, why not? In fact, “Sure, why not?” is the motto of the entire movie. 

Mutant Genes, Slavery, and Other Colonialist Traditions

Carolyn Janecek

As the Marvel Cinematic Universe churns out blockbusters about despondent billionaire tech giants and actors named Chris with chiseled abs, I find myself turning to different superheroes. Searching for underdogs and character arcs I can relate to, I’ve found C. B. Lee’s YA series, The Sidekick Squad. With protagonists who easily switch between first languages, who have blended families, and welcome new members into their Resistance movement with names and pronouns, this series does the trick. Lee’s world explores a future where a solar flare has caused nuclear reactor meltdowns around the world, fundamentally changing the ecological and political landscape as it activated mutant genes and caused global food insecurity. A hundred years after the Disasters, the protagonists are used to viewing meat as a luxury and solar-power as the norm. But even as the North American Collective overcomes nuclear disaster and frames itself as a utopia, the protagonists quickly uncover depths of corruption in their society and realize super-powered battles between heroes and villains are just distractions to keep the general public from digging deeper. Fast-paced, heartfelt, and with a hint of teenage drama, The Sidekick Squad is a series I’ve devoured this summer, and already I’m looking forward to C. B. Lee’s future books.

Andrew Jimenez

In August of 1619, a ship appeared on the horizon, “near Point Comfort, a coastal port in the British Colony of Virginia. It carried more than 20 enslaved Africans, who were sold to the colonists. No aspect of the country that would be formed here has been untouched by the years of slavery that followed.” So begins The New York Times Magazine’s brilliant The 1619 Project, a thorough examination of the legacy of slavery in the United States. Through a potent mix of poetry, storytelling, personal essays, and traditional journalism, the project explores how slaves and their ancestors both built the infrastructure and economy of this country and embody—more than any other people—the ideals America was founded upon. Of particular interest to me was Matthew Desmond’s essay on the link between the plantation and our nation’s brutal brand of capitalism. It not only challenges the notion that the American way of doing capitalism is a natural and unplanned phenomenon, it also lays to waste the idea that it is the only way to do capitalism. It reminds me of the best parts of Mark Fisher’s 2009 book, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?. Both Fisher’s book and The 1619 Project are required reading for anyone who questions what we do in America and how we ended up doing it.

Kaley Kiermayr

When I picked up the poetry chapbook Girasol, by Vianney Casas, at AWP, one of the people working the Foglifter Press table said, “You’re going to want to drink a glass of red wine with that.” 

If you’re reading this—oh, how I wish I’d listened to you. This chapbook is so gutsy, so hypnotic, and grapples with so many scary things so bravely that I did feel like I should be reading it with—yes—a large glass of something strong. Instead I read Girasol by the pool under the hot sun, and it was a harrowing experience. I ended up (repeatedly!) reading a few poems and then going to dunk my head in the pool—and not just because it was 110 degrees outside.

In Girasol, the character Friducha “grapples with the question of artistic freedom within a colonialist tradition that exploits and obscures brown, femme bodies, and yet paradoxically draws solace from the suffering depicted therein.” The language in these poems shifts endlessly—between English and Spanish, dream and reality, tenses, boundaries, location, context—and so it manages to somehow be menacing and forgiving at the same time. While reading, I got the distinct image of a dreamlike bubble, trauma suspended inside it—what happens when it bursts?

If work of this caliber and sensitivity is what comes from Foglifter Press stepping forward as a new publisher of experimental and innovative queer chapbooks, sign me up.

Giancarlo Riccobon

At a glance, Wolf Children might seem like just a fluffy anime with adorable werewolf children. It’s definitely got adorable werewolf children, but it’s so much more than that. It’s a serious drama geared more towards teens and adults, and it doesn’t shy away from the struggles of adulting. Watching single mother Hana try to raise two half-wolf children will certainly remind readers that parenthood isn’t easy.

The movie touches on many situations that any parent will relate to, such as watching your kids grow up and choose their own paths. And of course, it has the occasional moment that’s unique to parents of wolf children. (Most kids don’t claw up your furniture!) There’s a clever scene where poor Hana has to decide whether to take her daughter to a children’s hospital or an animal hospital.

It’s got a beautiful score and some spectacular montages, so what more could you ask for? Also, did I mention the adorable werewolf children?

Childhood, Graphic Novels, and Magical Creatures

Zoe Nepolello

In honor of the announcement that there’s going to be three books, I have a mighty need to gush about Crown of Feathers by Nicki Pau Preto. This YA fantasy debut simply blew me away in its scope. The world is lush and big, the characters jump off the page with relatability, and the phoenixes—they’re fun and beautiful and I need one now. The political atmosphere intrigued me from beginning to end, the magic system was subtle but complex, and there was a twist that I didn’t even come close to guessing—and I (unfortunately) have a knack for guessing endings.

The story is divided into three separate narratives: Veronyka, Tristan, and Sev. Each individual gives you different access and information to how the world works, but they ultimately all give you themes of community and finding your place in this decimated world. I cannot wait to continue with this trilogy and see where each character goes from here.

If you’re a fantasy fanatic, and you dream of having your own magical creature, this is new series is not to be missed.

Kathy Nguyen

Last week I finished Adrian Tomine’s Killing and Dying. It’s a collection of graphic short stories, and this fact alone is what made me pull it off of the shelves of my local library. While I’ve read short story collections and I’ve read graphic novels, I don’t come across the combination of the two genres as much. Obviously, I need to fix that, because I adored this book! Tomine’s art is impeccable, and his stories accomplish so much with so little. My favorite story has to be “Translated, from the Japanese,” when Tomine cuts down on the high panel density that characterizes most of the stories in his collection, opting instead for a style that gives space to the big, pulsing heart of the narrative. 

Giancarlo Riccobon

The movie “Only Yesterday” has surprised me in the best way. A Studio Ghibli film, it was considered “undubbable” and wasn’t released in North America until 25 years after its release. It’s the kind of story that probably could have been told in live-action but gains so much more from the medium of animation.

It follows 27-year-old Taeko on a life-changing visit to the countryside as she starts to re-evaluate what she wants to do with her life. Woven into the narrative are flashbacks of Taeko’s childhood. The anecdotes are charming and relatable, like the day Taeko first tasted pineapple, and the time she spent weeks rehearsing for her school play even though she only had one line.

Perhaps the most compelling part isn’t the past or the present, but where they each bleed into one another. Taeko is still bothered by all these ghosts from her childhood that have shaped who she is today—her shame at never understanding how to “flip the numerator” in fractions, and the guilt of knowing that a kid from her fifth grade class never forgave her for not wanting to sit next to him.

You’ll definitely want to stick around for the ending. It’s deliciously understated, and it’s sprung on you after the credits start rolling.

Eileen Silverthorn

I recently finished watching The Umbrella Academy on Netflix. SO. FREAKING. GOOD. It’s an adaptation from the graphic novel series from Dark Horse Comics, written by Gerard Way (My Chemical Romance fans, let me hear you!) and illustrated by Gabriel Bá. I must say—and I know this might be sacrilege—but I actually prefer the Netflix series. It’s the story of a dysfunctional family of superpowered siblings who have to navigate time travel, love, the apocalypse (casual), and their own trauma and self-doubt. Highly recommend!

Mermaids, Prophets, and Other Heroes

Carolyn Janecek

There is a niche genre of “Mercreature Romance Drama” that caught the public’s eye when The Shape of Water won Best Picture in 2018. After watching all of the The Little Mermaid spin-offs and graduating to the Freeform original series Siren, I consider myself a connoisseur of the genre. The series follows the return of mermaids to Bristol Cove––a small town with a tourist industry that profits off the legend of a mermaid massacre that happened generations ago. It has everything a contemporary sci-fi show needs—including unethical military operations, ecoterrorism, and a cult of mermaid worshippers.

I wouldn’t call Siren an objectively “good” show, but the 94% Fresh Rotten Tomatoes rating proves how damn addicting it is to watch the characters make terrible decisions. Ben Pownall, a marine conservationist, rescues a mermaid who has been forced to the shore by corporate overfishing. With a handsome protagonist who spends a lot of time in a wetsuit, you would think that there would be an awful love triangle between Ben, his girlfriend Maddie, and this somewhat-bloodthirsty mermaid named Ryn. You would be correct––except for one small detail. This overly-dramatic series completely embraces the human-mermaid polyamorous relationship. As Guillermo del Toro taught us two years ago, nothing is taboo as long as there’s a fish-person involved.

Rebecca Hannigan

Three WomenThree WomenThree Women! I can’t say it enough. It’s all I’ve been talking about, or alluding to, since I finished it—and I finished it quickly because it’s that good. Every woman should read it, or anyone who wants to look more closely at sexual desire and how it plays out for women. Lisa Taddeo spent years getting to know the three females whose stories she tells in the book, and it’s incredible how much she learned. (It gets fairly explicit in the middle though, so be aware of that.) You’ll reconsider your notions of who is responsible emotionally and what is acceptable socially in large and small communities, what we do when we have needs that aren’t being met, and the lengths we’ll go to meet them. One need you might not know you have is reading this book.

Helen Maimaris

In my quest to spend as much of my free time as humanly possible consuming comics, I’m currently reading an absolute classic—Watchmen (written by Alan Moore, art by Dave Gibbons, coloring by John Higgins).

Written and set in the 1980s, Watchmen is still considered one of the best novels of all time. Its 12-issue arc follows a bizarre team of retired superheroes as they navigate a world on the brink of nuclear disaster. The plot shifts between the present day and the origin stories of each of the characters, weaving a complex narrative that delves into topics such as psychological trauma, sexual assault, redemption, and ambition.

Though it is overwritten in some places and the flat-style coloring may not appeal to everyone, the storytelling and characters are absolutely knockout. Plus, there’s nothing quite like an apocalyptic work of psychological realism to while away the summer evenings. 

Zoe Nepolello

If you don’t know who Mindy McGinnis is, you’re really missing out. The Female of the Species was a brutal feminist masterpiece that forces every emotion upon you. I won’t say more about this one, because it’s so much better to go in completely blind.

McGinnis came back again this year with another emotionally draining, uncomfortable, but important and life-changing novel in Heroine. I’d first like to say that this book does come with a trigger warning for recovering addicts, and I encourage those who fall under that category to heed it.

“When I wake up, all my friends are dead,” is the very first sentence of Heroine. After that first chapter, McGinnis goes back in time, and what you get is a build-up to the horror that you already know is coming. It’s a novel that’ll open up your own mind, allow you to see things from a different perspective, and have you panicking for the main character. It’s a novel that’s heartbreaking, raw, brutal, sad…and also surprisingly hopeful. It’s one that’ll stick with you for days, months, years to come. And it’s a novel that’ll make you empathetic—something we all seem to need right about now.

What’s so great about McGinnis’s writing is that she doesn’t pull punches or sugarcoat for her audience. I highly recommend Heroine (and of course The Female of the Species) to anyone who is in a good place mentally and needs a new perspective.

Giancarlo Riccobon

Ever wonder what you get when you cross poetry and animation? Well, you’ll get Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet. This little-known film is an adaptation of Kahlil Gibran’s book of poems by the same name. Eight poems were selected and each was turned into an animation by a different animator from around the world. The whole thing is strung together beautifully with a frame story that is directed by Roger Allers (The Lion King). The poet Mustafa is placed under house arrest for writing dissentious poetry. When he hears that he is released, Mustafa travels to the harbor, meeting the many people who have been inspired by his poetry. But one bright young girl, who hasn’t spoken since her father’s death, worries that Mustafa’s release is too good to be true.

Some of the poems are adapted very literally, while others show scenes that capture the overall ambience of the poem. One even conceives the brilliant metaphor of a walking birdcage. Each animated poem has its own distinctive art style. “On Eating and Drinking” is made from crayon drawings. The characters in “On Children” resemble Indonesian shadow-puppets, while “On Good and Evil” was done in the style of Japanese ink paintings. “On Work” was finger-painted by Joan C. Gratz using a single finger.

If you watch this visual treat, I promise you won’t be able to tear your eyes away.

Role-playing Horror, Erotic Stories, and Baba Yaga

Chase Baily

This week I finished reading Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows by Balli Kaur Jaswal. I really appreciated the main character’s exploration of understanding her Western identity while learning to embrace her Punjabi identity as well. I work at a Punjabi restaurant and it was fun to expand what I know about Punjabi culture through fiction. Jaswal crafts a thrilling tale of culture and community through mystery, humor, and, well… sex! It’s definitely a book I recommend anyone adding to their to-be-read pile.

Andrew Jimenez

Despite being a theatre kid through much of my adolescence, I’d never seen Angels in America, Tony Kushner’s early-nineties epic play about being gay in America during the onset of the AIDS crisis. A good friend had seen the National Theatre’s 2018 revival and told me Andrew Garfield’s performance is the best acting he’s ever seen in his life. This prompted me to finally start the 2003 HBO miniseries, which was adapted for the screen by Kushner and directed by Mike Nichols. As this year’s NYC Pride approaches, we find ourselves in a world where HIV is no longer a death sentence for those of us privileged enough to live in the wealthy western world, and the Pride March has been completely co-opted by corporations—the visibility that was once protest now a line item in so many marketing spreadsheets across America.

What was supposed to have been a 250-word staff pick about Angels in America had turned into a much-longer think-piece on capitalism’s cynically peaceful take-over of Pride. But I think a more apt thing to do would be to link to this wonderful Vox piece written by Emily Todd VanDerWerff, on her coming out as trans at the age of 37.

Kaley Kiermayr

I am slowly working my way through this tabletop RPG podcast that plays through movies as role-playing games. My favorite game so far is a two-episode oneshot based on the Friday the 13th movies. The GM hasn’t told any of the players that they’re in Friday the 13th. He tells them they’re playing through an indie sex-comedy coming-of-age film they’ve never heard of (because he made it up). The dramatic irony is awesome, because the characters in a slasher flick don’t know they’re in a slasher flick. Why should the players of this game? Other great movies Film Reroll has played through: The Wizard of Oz, Alien, and Jurassic Park.

Stevie Molina

Recently I read the latest installment in the Mercy Thompson series, Storm Cursed. Of the series, this was one of the best; it gets darker, the stakes are a bit higher, and we get to find out the origins of a character author Patricia Briggs has been teasing for a while. If you like black magic, werewolves, vampires, and fae—all minus the cheesiness—with a side of historical Easter eggs like Grendel, the Green Man, and Baba Yaga, then this is your deal. The series definitely isn’t without its problematic moments, but I stick with it for the excellent action, mystery, and incredibly engaging side characters—plus the fact that this is one of the few urban fantasy series with a mixed-race protagonist (that I know of). Mercy struggles with the two halves of her identity in a way that feels true to life, and she’s smart, hilarious, and bold to boot.

Teen Movies, Psychedelics, and Rapping Backwards in Portuguese

Jerakah Greene

Everyone is abuzz about Booksmart, but I can’t stop/won’t stop begging everyone I know to see it in theaters. Not only is the soundtrack absolutely killer, but it is such a real film. The jokes, the premise, and the friendship are all unbelievably real. To see a young queer girl navigating high school without it being the main component of her story is so refreshing, and something I desperately needed as a teenager. And the dialogue! The jokes! Olivia Wilde created a relevant film that will remain in the canon of teen cinema forever. Seriously—this film will take its place next to Legally Blonde and 13 Going On 30. Everyone, go see Booksmart!

Andrew Jimenez

I’ve finally gotten around to reading How to Change Your Mind, Michael Pollan’s exploration of recently renewed scientific research into the healing powers of psychedelics. The book begins with a bit of prolonged foreplay—as I imagine, due to the potentially scandalous subject matter, the author feels the need to convince a skeptical reader that he is not a druggie or a hippie. And he makes it clear that before researching this book he had no interest in (or even any real knowledge of) psychedelics beyond one minor excursion in college. However, once Pollan gets over trying to convince you he’s a “healthy normal,” the real magic of this book kicks in—beginning with an account of clinical trials performed at Johns Hopkins studying the effects of psilocybin on a group of “spiritual but not religious healthy normals.” 

From there, the book covers the science of mycology—focusing on psilocybes specifically—the troubled history of psychedelic-aided therapy, and peaks with the author’s own guided therapeutic trip. Those looking for cool drug stories, however, will be disappointed; the book’s intention is make a case for the clinical and therapeutic powers of psychedelics, arguing that these drugs present us with the paradox of opening a window into the divine through the most materialist of all earthly things—plant matter.

Kaley Kiermayr

I am just one of many currently rereading The Goldfinch in preparation for the film release in the fall. The Goldfinch is a coming-of-age story about art and grief from the perspective of a flawed and conflicted character. It took over a decade to write and publish, which will make more sense when you understand the scope of it: 784 pages. It’s satisfyingly intricate and philosophical in the best way. This is a book I will pull out and reread every ten years or so, because there’s just so much to unpack and many ways to experience it. There’s a lot to love, but my personal fascination (at the moment—ask me again tomorrow) is with the way Tartt captures setting.

Giancarlo Riccobon

I’m still reeling from watching O Menino e o Mundo (Boy and the World), an indie animated film from Brazil. The movie follows young Brazilian boy named Cuca, whose family is torn apart when his father leaves for the city in search of work. With only a photo of his father and a vague idea of where he’s going, Cuca sets off in search of his missing dad. The film is mesmerizing—an explosion of brilliant colors. Everything looks as though it’s been hand-painted. It’s amazing how the animators can make you care about a stick figure with no mouth and two slits for eyes.

The director, Alê Abreu, deftly shows viewers the world from a child’s eyes. All the machines in the film are designed to resemble animals, because, to a boy who’s never seen a tree harvester before, of course it looks like a tree-chomping monster.  There’s little dialogue in this film, and when characters do speak, it’s in backwards Brazilian Portuguese, because, to a child, adults might as well be speaking backwards Portuguese. The movie is playfully surreal. A cart full of cotton becomes so light and fluffy that Cuca can swim in it. Later, a washed-up cotton worker is soon literally washed-up in a merciless storm at sea. But the film has much darker undertones. It’s full of clever political and environmental commentary, and it seems that every time Cuca is close to finding happiness, he loses it again when he resumes searching for his elusive father. If for nothing else, see it for the backwards rapping in Portuguese.

Evan Sheldon

I am rereading Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong. I have his new novel, On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous, waiting on me at the library and I wanted a refresher of his work before diving in.

Night Sky with Exit Wounds is Vuong’s first full-length poetry collection and it went on to win the Whiting Award. Filled with lovely imagery, but not so image-laden as to not be accessible, this collection dives into big topics (love, family, sexuality) without ever seeming didactic. Each poem feels purposeful and true, and while the form for each poem varies, this only serves to enhance the experience of the collection as a whole.

This collection is published by Copper Canyon Press who, by the way, also have published Jericho Brown and Camille Rankine, so you know that they are the real deal in poetry. If you don’t have time to read Vuong’s whole collection, be sure to at least check out the poem “Queen Under the Hill.” It is unforgettable.

Creepy Stories, Bunny Ears, and HBO’s Other Shows

Mac Bowers

I recently finished reading The Changeling by Victor LaValle. A dark, creepy fairytale mixed with modern fantasy and commentary on Internet privacy, I loved every second of it. The shape of the story itself felt a bit like a changeling, with the beginning following familiar patterns of the changeling fairytale. However, as it went on, new elements were constantly being added until the novel had undergone a transformation into a story that was completely different and wholly unique. I was genuinely transfixed for the last 100 pages, and I would recommend it as an addition to anyone’s to-be-read pile.

The Changeling can be found at your local independent bookstore, at Barnes and Noble, or online.

Tommy Chisholm

On May 9th I saw Beach House perform at the Moore Theatre in Seattle. It was the last night of their US tour. For a band that gets saddled with labels like dream pop, slowcore, and chillwave, they are unimaginably loud live. I was floored by their hypnotic melodies, their near-seizure-inducing light show, and Victoria Legrand’s smoky vocals. I think she’s my favorite vocalist, unmatched by anyone from what’s left of the indie circuit.

I missed dinner that night and thought I could scarf a sandwich before Beach House took the stage. Instead, I found myself chewing through set-opener Levitation as I sat in the third row of the mezzanine. In the first row sat a little girl with her parents, wearing bunny ears like Louise from Bob’s Burgers. The two ears standing straight up, silhouetted by the stage lights, were pretty adorable. I assume it was her first concert. The band managed to play at least one song from every album. Some of my personal highlights include: “Levitation,” “10 Mile Stereo,” “Beyond Love,” and “Master of None.” 

Ariel Fagiola

I finally hopped on the bandwagon and binged Big Little Lies. And I have no regrets. If we all were to allow ourselves some well-made drama TV, this would really hit the spot. There’s something very therapeutic about rich, beautiful people fighting, sharing secrets, and dealing with murder. Plus, HBO brought in Meryl Streep for the next season, so perhaps she’ll bring some high-brow merit to its trashy charm.

Andrew Jimenez

I was recently turned on to the music of Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guébrou. Born into a wealthy Ethiopian family in 1923, she went to boarding school in Switzerland, where she studied violin. She returned to Addis Ababa in 1933, just a few years before the Italian occupation—during which time her family were taken as prisoners of war to the island of Asinara. At 19, having returned to Ethiopia with the Polish violinist Alexander Kontorowicz, she joined the Guishen Maryam monastery. She did not play music during her time there; the area was so remote, and the conditions so harsh, that she fell gravely ill and had to return to her family in Addis Ababa. It was here she began composing for the piano, organ, and violin.

Although her work uses the distinct pentatonic modal system that defines native Ethiopian music, jazz phrasing and classical compositional style run strong throughout. Piano pieces like “Homesickness” recall Satie’s Gymneopedies, while one can hear Gershwin in “The Last Tears of the Deceased” and a bit of the Old West in “A Young Girl’s Complaint.” A compilation of her piano compositions, which she first recorded in the mid-1960s to help raise money for an orphanage, can be found on Spotify.

Kaley Kiermayr

Anne Lister wrote about 27 partially-coded volumes (the equivalent of four million words) about her life in the 1800s, and now there’s an HBO show called Gentleman Jack about all the stuff she got up to: being public with her nontraditional gender presentation, loving women, being a swaggering (questionable) businessperson, her home-renovation and travel hobbies, so much more. 

When I hear that jaunty theme music and watch Anne decide she’s going to go into the medical field—wait no, coal mining—wait no, landlording—wait, no, maybe seduce a neighbor?—I just want to scream as I remember that this is all taken straight from her journals. SHE EXISTED. IT’S WILD.

Evan Sheldon

I’ve been reading The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories. This anthology, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, presents a collection of weird short stories and flash. Organized chronologically—beginning with a story by Alfred Kubin that was originally published in 1908—with stories from Pulitzer Prize winners (Michael Chabon), international bestsellers (Stephen King), and modern masters (Kelly Link), The Weird is a massive, thorough, and deep dive into the development of weird lit. 

If you are worried that the stories may not be weird enough, my favorite so far will put that fear to bed. In “White Rabbits,” by Leonora Carrington (1941), a woman is asked to bring rotten meat to the dilapidated house across the street. Featuring undying hosts and a carnivorous horde of rabbits, in only three pages this story is unforgettable. The collection is a master class for anyone interested in weird literature. Being able to compare the work Haruki Murakami, Joyce Carol Oates, and Stephen Graham Jones side-by-side offers insight into structure, form, and technique in a very accessible way. Writing benefits aside, the stories are awesome, always strange, and often creepy. 

You can find The Weird in most bookstores or online. I checked mine out from the library because libraries are the best—though now that I’ve read it, I plan on purchasing a copy. The Weird is something I hope to revisit again and again.