Wash Day Diaries by Jamila Rowser & Robyn Smith

From writer Jamila Rowser and artist Robyn Smith comes Wash Day Diaries. This graphic novel follows Kim, Nisha, Davene, and Cookie, four friends in the throes of their twenties, complete with group chat drama, toxic exes, and dance parties. 

The four narratives are woven together, independent until the novel’s finale. Each character’s storyline has a different color palette and drawing style, conveying a distinct sense of mood and establishing the characters’ different personalities. 

The otherwise light-hearted and ordinary narratives profoundly rest on the ritual of Black women’s hair care. We see each of the main characters wash, comb, and style their hair, delicately depicting the intimacy that accompanies braiding one’s own hair and the hair of loved ones. 

So much of Wash Day Diaries is playful, both in its story and illustrations. Still, there is a tenderness to each woman’s story that undercuts its light-heartedness. Our main characters struggle with depression, self-esteem, relationships; their trials and tribulations are distinctly their own, but there’s an undeniable sense of comradery amongst the group of women that is easily enviable. 

Rowser and Smith’s graphic novel is whimsical, gorgeously crafted, and toe-curlingly sweet. A love letter to Black women and sisterhood, Wash Day Diaries deserves as much adoration as it gives the women on its pages.

 

New Year, New Genre: Graphic Novels

I know far too many people who are skeptical about comics and graphic novels, either because they don’t like the narrative form or because they are under the impression that they are a “lesser” literature. Thus, I have made it my personal and professional mission to combat the general disdain towards graphics. 

Listed below are five graphic novels that are new to the library’s shelves, each of which I think will appeal to readers with a hankering for the perfect book to shake up their reading slumps. 

Queen of Snails: A Graphic Memoir by Maureen Burdock

The aphorism “family is complicated” has never felt more apt than in the context of this graphic memoir, which compellingly grapples with intergenerational trauma, abuse, and displacement. Starting with her childhood in Germany, Burdock shares the pain of her parents’ failed marriage, her own isolation and abuse after moving to the U.S., and the unhealthy coping mechanisms she developed to assert control over her own body. She also wrestles with the fact that while her mother and other Germans suffered during the occupation at the end of WWII, members of her mother’s family were ardent supporters of the Nazis, with some espousing anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial for decades afterwards. The art, with its intricate scientific details of snails, ears, and other bodily workings lends a surreal air, as though an episode of The Magic School Bus used entering the human body as a metaphor for coping with grief. A complicated and honest narrative that ends with hope that healing is possible and that we can create a better world.  – Booklist, November 2022

Who Will Make the Pancakes: Five Stories by Megan Kelso

This collection finds Kelso (Queen of the Black Black) exploring the dynamic between interpersonal relationships and interior experience with skill and insight equal to or greater than anyone currently creating works of short fiction in any format or genre. “Watergate Sue” concerns a woman who feels her mother’s obsession with the Watergate scandal overshadowed her early childhood, and her mother’s inability to see the problem with that. “Cats in Service” opens whimsically, with a woman inheriting her deceased sister’s staff of highly trained, impeccably uniformed cat servants, but when the woman’s young daughter shows a strong preference for her feline nanny over her actual family, the story transforms into a melancholy examination of generational trauma and personal responsibility. Kelso crafts a nuanced portrait of a single mother forced to confront her romantic notions about herself against a backdrop of post-World War II prosperity in “Korin Voss.” She saves the collection’s best and most affecting story for last: “The Golden Lasso” is a heartbreaking coming-of-age tale about a pre-teen girl and the adults who shape her understanding of the world. VERDICT A treasury of impactful stories from a virtuosic artist with a distinctively empathetic point of view.  – Library Journal, October 2022

Movements and Moments by Gantala Press, et al.

This colorful, impassioned collection focuses on Indigenous women rebelling against colonialism and capitalism. Selected from an open call made by the Goethe-Institut Indonesien in Jakarta, eight comics short stories highlight the power and resiliency of Native women, from Bolivians forming a trade union against great odds in “The Anarchist Cholas” by Vanessa Peñuela and César Vargas to villagers in the Philippines fighting to keep ruthless industrialists from building a dam on their sacred river in “Let the River Flow Free” by Gantala Press and Nina Martinez. Other narratives highlight individuals who have dedicated their lives to empowering others, such as “Shanti: Beyond the Veil” by Bandana Tulachan and the autobiographical “Times Will Pass…” by trans artist Chandri Narayanan, drawn by Sadhna Prasad. The artwork throughout is excellent, presenting a panoply of approaches ranging from the cartoony stylings of Cecilia Larrea and Citlalli Andrango’s “Mama Dulu” to Vietnamese artist Phạ m Thu Trà’s lush lyrical drawings in “Tracing Between Colors of the Highlands.” Taken together, these shorts carry a cumulative power, offering a heartening reminder of the strength and spirituality within resistance and a potent call to arms against injustice.   –  Publishers Weekly, October 2022

It’s Lonely at the Centre of the Earth by Zoe Thorogood

In It’s Lonely At The Centre Of The Earth cartoonist Zoe Thorogood records six months of her own life as it falls apart in a desperate attempt to put it back together again in the only way she knows how. This fresh and thought provoking auto-bio-graphic is an intimate and metanarrative look into the life of a selfish artist who must create for her own survival.

“This book has served as a creative sanctuary for me from the day it was conceived—an experimental playground that I hope will inspire, disturb, and comfort in equal measure,” said Thorogood.

Eric Stephenson, Publisher at Image Comics, added: “Zoe’s debut graphic novel, The Impending Blindness of Billie Scott, was one of the highlights of 2020, and we were thrilled when she approached us about publishing her next project… which as it turns out, will be the project after this one! But one of the great things about exciting new talent is that the creative process often takes on a life of its own and It’s Lonely at the Centre of the Earth was a project that had to happen, very much to everyone’s delight. This is excellent work by one of comics’ best new voices!” Image Comics, 2022

Wash Day Diaries by Jamila Rowser & Robyn Smith

Wash Day Diaries started out as a successfully crowd-funded mini comic,and this release expands on the original with four additional short stories, giving readers a window into the lives of four best friends and each of their respective wash days. The stories are interconnected and happen within a small time frame, revealing glimpses into the lives of these four Black girls from different backgrounds and with different struggles and situations. Each short story has a different predominant color, representing the mood and the person it focuses on. Color is also used to flip back and forth between past and present. Besides being a window into the lives of these women, it’s a window into the lives of young Black women, specifically, and all the work and care that goes into maintaining their hair. The multilayered stories reflect how hair is cultural and affects not just appearance but their work lives and interpersonal relationships. This inviting and illuminating slice-of-life comic shows how the friends, all in different stages of life, can support and show up for each other. – Booklist Reviews, July 2022

Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh

Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen is a wintery noir set in an anonymous town, and follows Eileen Dunlop and her miserable existence. If you are familiar with Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation, you will appreciate the tonal and characteristic similarities of Eileen. This author does not write likable characters, but rather ones that are deeply flawed, often disturbed, and always challenge the reader’s tolerance for abnormality.

It’s Christmas time in X-Ville, the anonymous city in which Eileen spends her dreary days, but that does little to lift the darkness shrouding her life. Eileen is stuck, and is only coaxed along by bottles of gin shared in the kitchen with her drunk, nasty father and the prospect of escaping X-Ville. Beyond her job as a secretary at the boy’s prison, she has and is nothing–except for the proud new owner of her father’s gun.

That is until the synthetically joyous Rebecca Saint John takes a counseling position at the prison. Rebecca is clean, polished, and poised–a stark difference from the quietly unsettled and perverted Eileen. Rebecca unearths something inside her: Attraction? Maybe. Infatuation? Undoubtedly. The events after Rebecca descends upon Eileen’s life are catastrophic, though eventually lead to Eileen’s permanent release from the psychological grip X-Ville has on her mind and body. 

Moshfegh is truly a literary master. Her ability to create a character wrought with flaws and failings and still make her readers feel a twinge of empathy for them is incredible. Eileen is more than just an eerie story: It’s a portrait of how poisonous loneliness can be and how it can warp our realities. A refreshingly strange, and sometimes uncomfortable read. I’m looking forward to reading more from Moshfegh.

Gilmore Girls Winter Reading List

Have you, like me, begun your seasonal rewatch of Gilmore Girls? If so, check out these Gilmore-approved titles—each of which is mentioned on the show! You might just find the perfect literary addition to your adventure into Rory and Lorelei’s little corner of the world.

Emma by Jane Austen

“Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.” So begins Jane Austen’s comic masterpiece Emma. In Emma, Austen’s prose brilliantly elevates, in the words of Virginia Woolf, “the trivialities of day-to-day existence, of parties, picnics, and country dances” of early-nineteenth-century life in the English countryside to an unrivaled level of pleasure for the reader. At the center of this world is the inimitable Emma Woodhouse, a self-proclaimed matchmaker who, by the novel’s conclusion, may just find herself the victim of her own best intentions. 

Holidays On Ice by David Sedaris

Holidays on Ice is a collection of three previously published stories matched with three newer ones, all, of course, on a Christmas theme. David Sedaris’s darkly playful humor is another common thread through the book, worming its way through “Seasons Greetings to Our Friends and Family!!!” a chipper suburban Christmas letter that spirals dizzily out of control, and “Front Row Center with Thaddeus Bristol,” a vicious theatrical review of children’s Christmas pageants. As always, Sedaris’s best work is his sharply observed nonfiction, notably in “Dinah, the Christmas Whore,” the tale of a memorable Christmas during which the young Sedaris learns to see his family in a new light. Worth the price of the book alone is the hilarious “SantaLand Diaries,” Sedaris’s chronicle of his time working as an elf at Macy’s, covering everything from the preliminary group lectures (“You are not a dancer. If you were a real dancer you wouldn’t be here. You’re an elf and you’re going to wear panties like an elf.”) to the perils of inter-elf flirtation. Along the way, he paints a funny and sad portrait of the way the countless parents who pass through SantaLand are too busy creating an Experience to really pay attention to their children. In a sly way, it carries a holiday message all its own. Read it aloud to the adults after the kids have gone to bed.

Misery by Stephen King

Misery Chastain was dead. Paul Sheldon had just killed her – with relief, with joy. Misery had made him rich; she was the heroine of a string of bestsellers. And now he wanted to get on to some real writing.

That’s when the car accident happened, and he woke up in pain in a strange bed. But it wasn’t the hospital. Annie Wilkes had pulled him from the wreck, brought him to her remote mountain home, splinted and set his mangled legs.

The good news was that Annie was a nurse and has pain-killing drugs. The bad news was that she was Paul’s Number One Fan. And when she found out what Paul had done to Misery, she didn’t like it. She didn’t like it at all. – Goodreads

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

Read the cult-favorite coming-of-age story that takes a sometimes heartbreaking, often hysterical, and always honest look at high school in all its glory. Now a major motion picture starring Logan Lerman and Emma Watson, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a funny, touching, and haunting modern classic.

The critically acclaimed debut novel from Stephen Chbosky, Perks follows observant “wallflower” Charlie as he charts a course through the strange world between adolescence and adulthood. First dates, family drama, and new friends. Sex, drugs, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Devastating loss, young love, and life on the fringes. Caught between trying to live his life and trying to run from it, Charlie must learn to navigate those wild and poignant roller-coaster days known as growing up.

A years-long #1 New York Times bestseller, an American Library Association Best Book for Young Adults and Best Book for Reluctant Readers, and with millions of copies in print, this novel for teen readers (or “wallflowers” of more-advanced age) will make you laugh, cry, and perhaps feel nostalgic for those moments when you, too, tiptoed onto the dance floor of life.

Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. . .”

With these words, the reader is ushered into an isolated gray stone mansion on the windswept Cornish coast, as the second Mrs. Maxim de Winter recalls the chilling the chilling events that transpired as she began her new life as the young bride of a husband she barely knew. For in every corner of every room were phantoms of a time dead but not forgotten—a past devotedly preserved by the sinister housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers: a suite immaculate and untouched, clothing laid out and ready to be worn, but not by any of the great house’s current occupants. With an eerie presentiment of evil tightening her heart, the second Mrs. de Winter walked in the shadow of her mysterious predecessor, determined to uncover the darkest secrets and shattering truths about Maxim’s first wife—the late and hauntingly beautiful Rebecca. – Goodreads

Cult Classic by Sloane Crosley

Sloane Crosley’s Cult Classic is witty, self-aware, and eloquently rendered. The novel follows Lola, a woman in her late thirties, as she maneuvers her half-hearted engagement, eccentric collection of colleagues from a psychology magazine, and the seemingly endless slew of ex-flames that she keeps running into. Lola’s smart–too smart to consider these run-ins with old boyfriends a coincidence. What she failed to predict, however, was who was behind these interactions and why they placed so much weight (and currency) in her past romantic escapades. 

The plot gains more and more momentum the farther we delve into the cultish endeavors of Clive, the self-appointed psychology guru that Lola cannot help but be entranced by. Like all cult-leaders, Clive denies that his group, the Golconda, the abundance of infatuated followers, or the synagogue-disguised secret headquarters are attributes of a full-on cult. But the true nature of his secret society resides somewhere between meditative groupthink and the layers of social media that petrify the what-ifs of our expired relationships.

 I, unfortunately, found the ending to leave a little to be desired. The majority of the narrative was incredibly engrossing and ultimately deserved a better finale. The plot plunges into the mysterious cosmic alignments between Lola and her exes, which we discover is a product of Clive and his followers’ mind-control. In the end, though, the climax flat lines. 

Crosley’s originality in story conception almost makes up for some of the gaps in narrative substance. The story especially shines in its focus on our main character and the mental aerobics she performs to work through her underdeveloped emotional tendencies. Crosley’s underlining commentary on social media and how it has altered modern dating is sharp but forgivingly nuanced. Her contribution to the overarching conversation about human connection in the age of online relationships alone makes Cult Classic worth a read.

Also available as a CD audiobook.

I’m Glad My Mom Died by Jennette McCurdy

It is a particularly exciting experience to read a popular book while it’s popular, and I often am either too stubborn to be swayed into reading mainstream books or too far behind on my TBR list to add a brand new one. That was not the case with Jennette McCurdy’s memoir, I’m Glad My Mom Died, which came out at the beginning of August and is already a smash hit. I was enthralled with the former Nickelodeon star’s book and devoured it cover to cover. 

Maybe my childhood memories of watching McCurdy in iCarly fueled my ambitious reading speed, but the memoir itself stands strongly on its own apart from her child-stardom. Spanning the time she was just around 6 years old to her late twenties, McCurdy details the obsessive pressure her mother placed on her to be an actor. The fervor with which she wanted her daughter to be famous quickly developed in teaching her to “calorie restrict,” which horrifically evolved into a life-long string of eating disorders of which McCurdy will never completely be free. Her mother also exhibited many signs of undiagnosed mental illness, manifesting most profoundly as hoarding and obsessively restricting her own diet. 

McCurdy’s memoir moves linearly, a narrative choice that punches home the notion that mental illness itself does not follow a linear path of recovery. So much of the book is about the years of her adolescence and early adulthood she spent sinking farther and farther into a hole of self-loathing and self-destruction. McCurdy’s life up until her mid-to-late twenties was riddled with addiction and bulimia, all the while smiling for Nickelodeon as if her life wasn’t crushing her day after day. And then her mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer. 

The death of McCurdy’s abusive parent was unsettling and complex, a barrage of relief that she was free from the abuse but also sorrow that her mom was dead. Beyond this particularly warped brand of grief, she not only lost her mother but had to watch her slowly and viciously die. She posits the years of her life after her mother’s death almost as a renewal, as it was the first time in her life that she had full control of her body and her career. 

Cathartic and achingly candid, McCurdy’s memoir is a solid portrait of survival and the moxie it requires to laugh at and in spite of your trauma. If you have been considering giving I’m Glad My Mom Died a read, I highly recommend it! 

This title is also available as an eBook on Libby.

Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner

Michelle Zauner’s wildly popular memoir, Crying in H Mart, is everything everyone said it would be: devastating and beautifully written. Zauner is a musician who rose to fame with her band Japanese Breakfast with their breakout album Psychopomp which came out in 2016. Her memoir, though, is not about her musical fame, but about her mother’s terminal cancer diagnosis and the months following her death. 

Zauner grew up in Eugene, Oregon, which is the backdrop of her contentious childhood and difficult relationship with her mother. She describes her mother as “not a mommy-mom,” compared to the mothers of her classmates. She was not as warm or affectionate as Michelle thought she ought to have been, but as she grew into adulthood the two became much closer. Her mother’s diagnosis only cemented her filial love, and they ultimately became “innately, intrinsically intertwined.” 

Food fuels the story. The title, for one, references the Asian grocery store chain H Mart, but Korean food is also woven into every aspect of the narrative: The fish covered in gochujang Zauner’s mother makes for her before she leaves for college; the “tender short rib” with “Hard-boiled soy-sauce eggs sliced in half, crunchy bean sprouts flavored with scallions and sesame oil, doenjang jjigae with extra broth, and chonggak kimchi, perfectly soured” she prepares when she comes to visit after the initial cancer diagnosis; the jatjuk (pine nut porridge) Zauner makes for her mother during her final months and continues to make for herself when she is gone; the doenjang jjigae (fermented soybean soup) she makes the day after her funeral.

Perhaps the most powerful element of Zauner’s story is how she ties the living memory of her mother to the Korean food she ate as a child and learns to cook in her mother’s absence. Each dish holds a piece of her mother. Each conversation she stumbles through in Korean grasps at her mother. She found a home in her mother’s culture, thus allowing her to embrace that culture as her own.

Zauner’s memoir is striking in many ways, but one of the most profound is how she brings a humanity to her mother that we sometimes struggle to do with a parent. After her mother’s death, she learns more about her than she ever knew while she was alive. She realized how similarly she and her mother saw the world, how their emotional turmoil was inseparable, and how the memory of her mother would continue with her. Even as just a reader and spectator at the sidelines of Zauner’s relationship with her mother, Crying in H Mart feels like a tether between the two that now lives beyond their physical bodies. It was beautiful to read about and I think Zauner did an excellent job memorializing her mother with this book.

This title is also available in the following formats:

Large Print

Libby eBook

Libby eAudiobook

Cultish by Amanda Montell

Okay, language lovers–You have to add Cultish to your to-read list! Amanda Montell’s explorative work weaves together several interviews and primary accounts of people who have been entrapped by the linguistic power of, yes, cults, but also of organizations like Crossfit or multi-level marketing schemes. With each former cult member and cult-like group that Montell examines, she picks apart the diction that is used to isolate and persuade potential followers–and how saturated our society is with this linguistic phenomenon. 

She begins by discussing the heavily debated difference between religious groups and cults. It turns out that even incredibly well-researched academics cannot narrow down criteria that technically distinguishes one from the other. One difference that has been pointed to, though, is the age of the organization or faith-based group. Christianity, Islam, and Judiasm are ancient and that passage of time grants a respect to organized religions that newer organizations do not have. They do, however, still use language that makes individuals feel special and eventually creates a divide between them and those outside the group. Cults, Montell argues, do this as well and then some. 

What sends cults and cult-like groups into territory that alarms most people in ways religion doesn’t is the way they warp language. A commonality amongst all the groups that Montell examines is how they expand the standard definition of words in the English language to fit their needs. The end result is believing in a shared language that is fundamentally different from the vernacular our society uses to function together, which is ultimately divisive. 

Montell also debunks and demystifies the idea of “brainwashing,” explaining that it is incredibly unlikely for so many minds to be overtaken by buzz-words, mantras, and glossolalia against their will. For one’s mind to become complacent in what we colloquially refer to as “brainwashing” they must already be in a state of mind where they want to be controlled and validated. There is a “charisma” that cults have, Montell argues. They make people feel safe and not alone, which is attractive to most and is the reason why so many people get caught up in cultish groups. 

As someone who loves words and how powerful language is, I hung onto every word of Cultish. There is an incredible variety to Montell’s research, which provides an approachable reading experience that allows you to put it down and pick it back up without disrupting the narrative flow. I could write many more paragraphs about her findings and arguments, but I will leave you all with this sliver of insight into this riveting book. I cannot recommend this enough! 

This title is also available as a Book-on-CD

 

Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer

If you, too, are interested in all things true crime I recommend Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith

In the last couple months, a few television series were released that depict the dangers of extreme and fundamental religious faith, most notably Netflix’s docuseries Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey and Hulu’s adaptation of Under the Banner of Heaven. Amidst my viewing of these revealing and disturbing episodes about Fundamental Latter Day Saints, I felt it necessary to read Krakauer’s narrative exposé of the gruesome murders of a mother and her baby at the hands of her brothers-in-law. Ron and Dan Lafferty, the brothers who committed this evil act, rooted their reasoning in their Mormon Fundamentalist faith, and more specifically in some of the incredibly dark and violent origins of the religion. 

Krakauer situates his book somewhere in-between a history lesson about Latter Day Saints and a journalistic account of this double homicide. His reports are researched and informed by several interviews, notably from Dan Lafferty (one of the murderers). What I found to be particularly captivating about the book are the interviews leading up to the murders of Brenda and Erika Lafferty, and how Krakauer weaves them together with the historical narrative of the Mormon Church. So many of the Lafferty friends and family members knew that the brothers were planning to “remove” Brenda and her baby from this world, but no one stopped them. The “why” to this question is what ultimately fuels Krakauer’s book. 

Though I would not use this book for academic research about the modern LDS church–none of the historical information is explicitly his own, nor is he himself Mormon–Krakauer’s examination of how damaging religious faith can be when it is blind and unrelenting is superbly executed. 

Krakauer proves to be an expert non-fiction writer who can illuminate reality without supplementing fact with fabrications. I highly recommend Under the Banner of Heaven if you are in any way interested in true-crime, or if you are falling down the rabbit hole of religious-extremist media coverage like myself. 

 

Unicorn: The Memoir of a Muslim Drag Queen by Amrou Al-Kadhi

As part of my Pride Month reading this year, I tried to pick up books that would help me learn about the diverse experiences of LGBTQ+ people beyond the margins of white, cisgender America. Amrou Al-Kadhi [they/them] expertly does just so in their memoir, Unicorn: The Memoir of a Muslim Drag Queen. This lavish and raw autobiography renders a refreshing peek into the life of a queer Iraqi-British Muslim drag queen- an intersectional identity that demands the careful and nuanced representation Al-Kadhi offers in their memoir. 

In their beautifully written story, Al-Kadhi, or Glamrou as they are known on stage, is a stunning example of the self-expression and self-exploration drag allows. Raised in a socially-conservative, religious household, Al-Kadhi was instilled early on with a torturously rigid sense of shame and self worth. Their journey outlines the beauty and freedom they experienced as a child, as well as the connection they felt to their mother and the world she created for them. “My mother’s middle east was one I felt safe in,” they lovingly recall. 

As they grew through their adolescence, though, they became painfully aware of the Middle East and Islam’s perspective on homosexuality and gender-noncomformity. It would take years of cultural healing and rediscovery for Al-Kadhi to feel connected to their family, heritage, and religion. While simultaneously mending the pain of the past and celebrating a mergence of femininity and faith, it was ultimately through drag that they finally felt at home in both their queerness and their culture. 

Unicorn is one of the best memoirs I have ever read. Beyond Al-Kadhi’s personal narrative of self-acceptance and perseverance, the story is heavy with complex understanding of how culture and faith belong to a people, not an individual. Al-Kadhi’s revelations of gender, sexuality, and belonging are inspiring and beautifully rendered. 

I would sincerely recommend this to anyone hoping to immerse themselves in a piece of nonfiction, at the heart of which is a story of the human search for acceptance and home.