Book Review: Quiet Girl in a Noisy World: An Introvert’s Story by Debbie Tung (2017)

Friday, December 15th, 2017

I could have used this book twenty-five years ago.

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley.)

Quiet Girl in a Noisy World is a memoir in graphic novel format. Author/illustrator Debbie Tung explores the growing pains of adulthood … made all the more agonizing and confusing by her introversion. As she struggles to maintain a proper level of sociability – first as a graduate student, then as a member of the workforce – Tung wonders what the heck is wrong with her? When she stumbles upon a personality test online one day, it all clicks: she’s not broken, just different.

I have social anxiety; I’m probably an introvert, too. I wasn’t exactly sure how much I’d relate to Tung’s life but, as it turns out, it’s like looking in a mirror. Whether it’s celebrating the cancellation of a much-dreaded get together, lying awake obsessing over an embarrassing episode that transpired years ago, or spending the remainder of the day napping to recuperate from an hour-long appointment, many of these could be scenes from my own life.

Yet these are pretty common manifestations of social discomfort and malaise, especially in the modern era, where technology often circumvents face-to-face interactions. It’s when Tung’s more specific weird quirks hit home that my mind was well and truly blown.

Humiliating parent-teacher meetings about your shyness? Check.

(My sixth-grade teacher actually set me up with another girl, on account of we were both so quiet and friendless. Like can you imagine?)

Fantasizing about eloping in order to avoid the public spectacle of a wedding? Check.

(My husband and I did elope, in Las Vegas. The only witness? The secular priest. My mom tried to send some family along and was super-pissed when I begged off.)

Not being able to make a phone call around other people? Yup, I’m afraid so.

Honestly, it just got freaky deaky after a while. It’s like she cracked my skull open and was crawling around inside my mess of a brain.

The artwork is sweet and complements the story nicely; the color scheme is a muted grey, which suits the story’s melancholy feeling. Topics like this can get real dark, real fast (seriously, just read my journal. Or don’t!), and there are some rather depressing panels, but overall it’s pretty gentle and forgiving. It’s clear that Tung has found a place of acceptance and self-love (or at least understanding), which lends the book a hopeful vibe.

Along with Hyperbole and a Half and the Sarah’s Scribbles collections, this is a book that I’ll keep on my bedside table and return to in the future, whenever life feels like it’s just too much. A must read for introverts, the terminally shy, those with social anxiety – and the people who love them.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

Rescue dogs, interspecies manifestos, and vegan pizza: An interview with Nicole J. Georges.

Tuesday, July 18th, 2017

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(Photo © Amos Mac.)

 

Nicole J. Georges is a professor, writer, and illustrator who has been publishing her own zines and comics for twenty years. Her first book, Invincible Summer: An Anthology, published by Tugboat Press in 2004, is a collection of her autobiographic comic Invincible Summer. Since then, she has published several additional books, including Invincible Summer: An Anthology, Volume Two; the Lambda Award-winning graphic memoir Calling Dr. Laura; and Fetch: How a Bad Dog Brought Me Home, out today from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Her work has appeared in Bitch Magazine, Food & Booze, Baby Remember My Name, and It’s So You. Her custom pet portraits grace the homes of many lucky animal people. (I’M NOT JEALOUS YOU’RE JEALOUS.) Georges lives in Portland, Oregon and Los Angeles, California.

Equal parts coming of age memoir and love letter to a four-legged best friend, Fetch chronicles Georges’s sixteen-year relationship with Beija, a shar pei-doxy mix who Georges adopted at the tender age of sixteen. Meant as a gift for her then-boyfriend Tom, Georges ended up keeping Beija: first when Tom’s step-father wouldn’t allow the exchange; again when multiple attempts at rehoming didn’t pan out; and finally, for good, after her relationship with Tom imploded. Through unhealthy relationships, personal and professional upheavals, kitchen fires and living room concerts, Beija was there. Barking at strangers and friends alike, peeing on the carpet, and chasing down children; Beija was the so-called “bad dog” who helped Georges grow up.

I was lucky enough to receive an early copy of Fetch for review (spoiler alert: it is gushy and oh-so-fangirly) – and to interview Nicole about rescue dogs, interspecies manifestos, and vegan pizza, among other things.

 

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Twenty-nine pages in, I texted my sister a photo of Fetch: “I think you’d like this book Fetch. She’s part Corgi, and the book opens with her attacking two kids at her 15th birthday party.” She’s a dog person; she gets it.

 

Nicole, I’ve been a fan since I first saw your artwork in Bitch Magazine (longtime subscriber here!). As a self-described “heathen vegan feminist,” I often find that my support for women’s rights and animal rights are intertwined. I especially love how you drew this connection with Beija’s manifesto, “I am not a stuffed animal.” How would you say that your veganism has influenced your feminism, or vice versa?

I think I became a vegan and a feminist at the same time. At first it was about finding my voice and taking up space, speaking for myself and other women. I felt like this was also my obligation with animal issues.

I had this dog, Beija, who was actually a very reasonable animal (coming from a rough puppyhood, she needed a certain level of familiarity with people to trust them enough to be pet by them) , but since she did not perform the function of “friendly, pettable cute thing” for people, they didn’t see her value. It felt like objectification, which felt familiar, and I wanted to write her manifesto to clarify that she still had intrinsic value anyway, as we all do, as beings on this Earth. We don’t need to perform submission and likability to have worth.

One of my mission statements in life has been self empowerment through representation. I try to offer tools to people to share their stories and take up space.

Obviously animals can’t do this (self publish), so I try to represent their stories and intricacies whenever I can.

You draw parallels between your own “feral” nature and Beija’s many behavioral issues. Did your own dysfunctional upbringing make it easier or more difficult to relate to Beija and handle her hangups?

I could relate to her. She just needed patience, and so did I, and I tried my best to give her what I both had and wanted growing up.

I grew up in a very makeshift and scrappy way. I would white knuckle through anything, and make do with whatever I had in front of me. I idolized the Boxcar Children in this way.

I think if I hadn’t grown up with this as the bar, I may not have had the patience and fortitude it took to keep a special needs rescue dog for as long as I did. She barked incessantly, picked fights, peed on the floor religiously, and jumped at strangers and children. I just moved my life around her. I don’t regret it at all. We grew up together and at the end of the day, she was an extension of me.

If adult Nicole could offer teenage Nicole one piece of advice, what would it be?

Go take some figure drawing classes, and start publishing comics immediately. Send your work to small publishers and people you like, but ask for feedback this time.

Also, consider letting your very stable sister adopt Beija when she offers to do so. It will give you more freedom of movement growing up.

If teenage Nicole could offer adult Nicole one piece of advice for surviving a Trump presidency, what would it be?

I would somehow quote both Nina Simone and Shirley Chisolm (which would be extraordinary to hear a teenager do):

It’s the responsibility of the artist to reflect the times we’re living in. -NS

Service is the rent we pay for the privilege of living on this Earth. -SC

Keep making art, keep doing service. Keep your head down and do your own thing, it will be over soon.

I just have to know: What’s with the water bottle Beija’s dragging around on page 179?

OMG GOOD QUESTION. That drawing is based on a polaroid I have of Beija’s leash tied to a giant empty water bottle at a yard sale. It was to slow her down if she tried to run away or run at a dog walking down the street.

Like I said, I really made do with the resources available to me!

If there’s one thing – a lesson, a feeling, an impulse, whatever – you hope that readers take away from this book, what would it be?

I hope that people can cultivate empathy for animals, even ones who are too complicated to pet.

Portland or LA: which city has the best vegan pizza?

I’m sticking with Portland. Because you can walk into Sizzle Pie and buy a slice, get an entire OUTRAGEOUSLY DELICIOUS cornmeal crust pizza at Dove Vivi, or go to Via Chicago and get your own Chicago deep dish.

If Los Angeles has equivalents to these that are within 20 minute drives of each other, I’d like to see them.

Book Review: Fetch: How a Bad Dog Brought Me Home by Nicole J. Georges (2017)

Tuesday, July 18th, 2017

oh h*ck.

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review. Trigger warning for allusions to rape, child abuse, domestic violence, animal abuse, alcoholism, self-harm, and suicidal ideation.)

I first discovered Nicole Georges’s artwork nestled within the pages of Bitch Magazine. Instantaneously smitten, my adoration only grew when I learned that Georges was a vegan who referred to her furry sidekick Beija as her “canine life partner.” Her 2010 Invincible Summer Queer Animal Odyssey calendar still rests in the plastic protective covering it arrived in. (Don’t worry, I take it out every once in awhile for much-deserved admiration.) I enjoyed her debut graphic novel, Invincible Summer: An Anthology, well enough, though haven’t quite gotten around to reading Calling Dr. Laura. Even so, I can say with 99.9% certainty that Fetch: How a Bad Dog Brought Me Home is her best work yet.

2017-07-14 - For My Dog Mags (Fetch) - 0011 [flickr]

My Mags, more noodle than dog.
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At the tender age of sixteen, Georges adopted a dog as a gift for her then-boyfriend and first love, Tom. The ensuing back-and-forth demonstrates why you should never give a dog as a gift: despite clearing it ahead of time with Tom’s mother, Tom’s stepfather did not sign off on the deal. Nicole’s mom reluctantly allowed her to keep the dog, but Beija’s many behavioral problems quickly wore her patience thin.

Beija harbored an intense dislike/fear of men, children, and veterinarians; did not enjoy being picked up or touched on her sides; did not suffer invasions of space lightly; and frequently antagonized/was victimized by other dogs. She was temperamental and required patience, compassion, and understanding – much like her new human.

And so, in a situation so weird and improbable that it seems like the plot of a bad Fox sitcom, you have both sets of parents conspiring to push their teenagers out of the nest and into a seedy apartment, just so they could have a Beija-free home: “Starting now, this gift would change the course of both our lives. […] All of this in order to keep the dog. As if we’d had a teen pregnancy.”

While Nicole’s relationship with Tom would soon implode, her partnership with Bejia proved to be for keeps. Through unhealthy relationships, annoying roommates, professional upheavals, and the trials and tribulations of growing up and discovering oneself, there was one constant in Nicole life. And if she just so happened to have four legs, a soft tummy, and spoke in a series of barks, whimpers, and tail wags, so what? Family is what you make of it.

2017-07-14 - O-Ren Hearts Fetch - 0011 [flickr]

Fetch is Rennie-approved.
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Most of the blurbs I’ve read so far focus on the coming-of-age aspect of Fetch (e.g., it’s not “just” a book about a dog). And while it is indeed that – after all, at the time of her death, Beija had lived with Nicole for almost exactly half of Nicole’s life – to me Fetch is, above all else, a love letter to and everlasting celebration of a best friend. A soul mate. A patronus, to quote Georges. (A daemon, in my vocab.) The dogs, they will always come first. PRIORITIES.

There’s this one Mutts comic I love: It’s a lovely day, and Ozzie is walking Earl on a long leash. A little heart bobs in a thought bubble above the human’s head. To the right is a quote by one W.R. Purche: “Everyone thinks they have the best dog. And none of them are wrong.”

To borrow a phrase from an online friend (Marji Beach, who works at another awesome animal sanctuary called Animal Place), it’s clear that Nicole considers Beija the best worst dog ever. Their love for one another shines through every panel and page, making the inevitable goodbye that much more heartbreaking. It took me a full week to read the book, just because I couldn’t bear to face the last forty pages.

I think it’s safe to say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, especially when it comes to Fetch, and animal lovers will take something a little extra special away from their experience. When I say “animal lovers,” I mean both in the conventional sense – i.e., those who care for culturally appropriate animals, such as dogs, cats, horses, and rabbits – as well as those of use who extend that circle of compassion to all nonhumans. There are precious few comic books that I could call overtly vegan – only two come to mind, namely Matt Miner’s Liberator and The Animal Man by Grant Morrison – and I’m happy to add Fetch to the list. While Georges only drops the v*-word (vegetarian or vegan) a handful of times, she does introduce readers to animal rights issues in a gentle, subtle way. If you’re not on the lookout (and I always am!), you might just miss it.

Though all the better to sneak into your subconscious, worming and niggling and prodding you to think about the face on your plate or the skin on your back … to see them as someones rather than somethings, more alike than different from the dog snuggled up next to you or fast asleep at your feet.

2017-07-14 - O-Ren Hearts Fetch - 0009 [flickr]

Full disclosure: In between bites of spider trappings, Rennie assisted me in writing this review.
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I especially loved Bejia’s manifesto, “I am not a stuffed animal,” which surreptitiously introduces readers to the idea of intersectionality: “It’s kind of like feminism, but for dogs.” That line (along with countless others) literally had me squealing for joy. Little Beija-Boo – is she a shar pei-doxy mix? corgi and beagle? who knows! – is adorable and tubby, even as she’s telling you to back the fuck off.

I could go on and on – about the many weird parallels between Georges’s life and mine; about how I see pieces of Bejia in my own dogs; about the many ways, both large and small, that my loved ones and I have adapted our everyday routines and very existences to better accommodate our four-legged family members – but suffice it to say that Fetch is a must-read for anyone who’s ever loved (and lost) a dog (though you may want to wait until the loss isn’t quite so fresh – the ending is freaking brutal).

Ditto: anyone who just likes good storytelling or quirky artwork. I know I’ve focused on the nonhumans for most of my review – hey, that’s how I do – but even those rare scenes sans doggos are beautifully rendered and engaging.

In summary: Fetch is easily my favorite book of 2017 thus far, graphic novel or no.

Aaaaand just in case the previous 1,000 words didn’t convince you, here are a few of my favorite panels to help seal the deal.

(That last one? So charming that it displaced foster doggy as the background on my desktop. Temporarily, but still.)

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Book Review: Becoming Unbecoming, Una (2016)

Friday, November 25th, 2016

Raw, powerful, necessary.

five out of five stars

(Trigger warning for violence against women, including rape.)

Canon Gordon Croney, vicar of Leeds, considers police-controlled houses of prostitution to be impractical. “I know it’s an easy answer, but I believe it could make the problem worse,” he said.

“If prostitutes came under police protection, then it could make a psychopath like the Ripper prey on innocent women.”

So many popular cultural monuments to Sutcliffe have been built by men. Perhaps it’s easier to see it as just another story, if you don’t belong to the group of people the Ripper wanted to kill?

So what’s the truth?
Maybe it’s something like this:

Ordinary men are capable of extraordinary violence.
Women and girls are neither virgins nor whores.

None of it is funny.

Between 1969 and 1981, Peter Sutcliffe – who would eventually become known as the Yorkshire Ripper – attacked at least twenty women, killing thirteen of them. He primarily targeted sex workers, either because he was conned by a prostitute and her pimp – or because God commanded him to. (When caught, he pled not guilty due to diminished capacity, on account of a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia. He’s currently serving a life sentence.) However, not all of his victims were sex workers; the investigators’ inability to reconcile this inconsistency is perhaps one of many reasons they bungled the investigation, for example, by ignoring important evidence from an eyewitness who survived, 14-year-old Tracy Browne. Sutcliffe was caught in January 1981 – after he was brought in for driving with false license plates. The police had interviewed him nine times at that point, and had countless “photofits” bearing his image in their files.

The author – who goes by the pseudonym Una – was just entering her teenage years when the attacks escalated. Born in 1965, Una lived in west Yorkshire; her formative years were colored by the hysteria and misogyny whipped up by the killing spree. By the police and in the media, the Ripper’s victims were deemed complicit in their own assaults; what else could women with “loose morals” expect? As his body count grew and came to include “regular” women (and girls), evidence of immorality could be found everywhere: going out drinking at night (with or without your husband), dating outside your race, arguing with a boyfriend.

No one was safe, and that’s kind of the point: Peter Sutcliffe was a misogynist and, to the extent that he targeted sex workers, it was because he felt he could get away with it. And he did, for far too long.

2016-10-26 - Becoming Unbecoming - 0010 [flickr]

Nor was the Yorkshire Ripper the only threat facing the women of England in 1977. According to current rape stats for England and Wales, 1 in 5 women aged 16 to 59 has experienced some form of sexual violence since the age of 16. Only about 15% of victims choose to report; some 90% know their attackers. Furthermore, 31% of young women aged 18 to 24 report having experienced sexual abuse in childhood. The Ripper may have been the face of violence against women in the mid- to late-1970s but, in truth, danger lurked much closer to home.

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Book Review: I Know What I’m Doing — and Other Lies I Tell Myself: Dispatches from a Life Under Construction, Jen Kirkman (2016)

Wednesday, April 13th, 2016

Comedian Jen Kirkman on Life After Divorce, Turning 40, and Finding Gray Hairs (Down There!)

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Edelweiss.)

So here’s the thing about memoirs, especially humorous ones written by comedians and actors: if I can, I usually try to “read” the audio versions. Even though I miss out on the funny-embarrassing awkward family photos and cringe-worthy ’80s/’90s pics, the trade-off is more than worth it. Funny people aren’t just funny for what they say, but how they say it: much of a joke’s charm is in its delivery. An audio book at least restores the verbal part of the joke (and makes the visuals a little easier to imagine). This is true pretty much across the board: Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Kathy Griffin, Mindy Kaling – I always find myself laughing harder when they read their books to me.

I suspect the same is true of Jen Kirman’s second book, I Know What I’m Doing — and Other Lies I Tell Myself: Dispatches from a Life Under Construction. (Her first book, I Can Barely Take Care of Myself: Tales From a Happy Life Without Kids, is still in my TBR pile.) Kirman writes about her divorce (amiable, but inevitable); her brief stint as a cougar; her hep C scare (doctors, ugh!); maintaining a decades-long friends with benefits relationship; participating in an undercover blackmail sting; traveling alone; and dealing with overbearing neighbors. While the material is entertaining enough, I often wondered how much more I’d enjoy it if I could hear her perform it aloud. In some cases, I didn’t have to wonder: the chapter on finding gray public hairs was part of her Netflix special, I’m Gonna Die Alone (And I Feel Fine), which I love-love-loved.

Kirkman is best when deconstructing sexism, especially in the comedy circuit.

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Book Review: A Cup of Water Under My Bed: A Memoir, Daisy Hernández (2015)

Friday, October 9th, 2015

The Personal is Political – and Also Poetic in Hernández’s Deft Hands

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewers program. Trigger warning for child abuse.)

Journalism: A fancy word to say that I spent days with my hands in other people’s stories, asking and telling, because nothing happens in isolation, especially when it has to do with language. Nothing is more vulnerable than the words in our mouths, because nothing has more power.

It will take years to understand that writing makes everything else possible. Writing is how I learn to love my father and where I come from. Writing is how I leave him and also how I take him with me.

It is a story as old as time, that we always find what we needed was right at home.

But, therein is the riddle: a child has to leave to return. My mother had to. She says it often. She only appreciated her mother, only understood her mother, after she had left home.

I had to leave, too. It was me, not my mother, who needed English, who needed the stories and feminist theories. Without them, I might never have come back to her.

Daisy Hernández is the coeditor of Colonize This! Young Women of Color on Today’s Feminism, and a former editor of ColorLines magazine. A queer (she identifies as bisexual), second-generation Latina (her mother and father immigrated from Colombia and Cuba, respectively), she speaks and writes about feminism, race, and the media. Her memoir, A Cup of Water Under My Bed, began way way in 2000, when she was hired to pen a regular column in Ms. Magazine at the tender age of twenty-five.

A Cup of Water Under My Bed features eleven essays (which often have the feel of stories, so lyrical is Hernández’s writing) organized not by chronology, but loosely by topic: assimilation and language; sexual identity; and work and money. Whether she’s calling out the state of New Jersey for its switch to an automated telephone system to manage unemployment benefits in the ’90s (ostensibly for the convenience of its recipients, but really to hide the scope of the problems created by NAFTA), or writing about her aunties’ reactions to her romantic partners (rarely favorable, save for Alejandro – the trans man they all assumed was cisgender, on account of he was built like a linebacker), Hernández writes deftly and with both insight and wry humor.

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