PAPER GIRLS by Brian K. Vaughan & Cliff Chiang

You’ve watched Stranger Things, right? If you haven’t, brace yourself for an all-night marathon right now. It’s a lush, redolent trip through a Spielbergian, Stephen-King-esque, eighties-horror-movie uncanny wonderland. If you did watch it and love it, then I have fantastic news.

Past readers may recall my love of Brian K. Vaughan’s graphic novel Saga and can certainly imagine how excited I was to hear about Paper Girls. In this new graphic novel, Vaughan has taken his own shot at the Spielbergian/King/paranormal set-up: the unexplained begins to run amok in a small town where nothing ever runs amok, and the only people who seem equipped to handle it is a group of clever, tough, determined kids. What immediately separates Paper Girls from your Goonies, your Stand By Me, your Super 8 and Stranger Things? It’s right there in the title: the heroes of this story are preteen girls. As I would come to find, though, that’s far from the only place where this wildly creative book diverges from any other like it, something I should have expected from what I’ve already seen from Vaughan’s spectacular imagination.

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Paper Girls opens with the main protagonist Erin in the midst of a recurring nightmare. Right away, the story introduces us to the surreal eighties pastiche that Paper Girls builds. In her nightmare, Erin appears in a version of Heaven that looks like the moon, speaking with a woman donning in a NASA jumpsuit, a space helmet, and angel wings; the woman introduces herself as Christa McAuliffe, one of the astronauts killed in the Challenger explosion. Erin awakens and prepares for her work day, taking a look at the calendar date she has marked as “Hell Day.” It’s November 1, and Erin is a paper delivery girl, meaning that on this particular morning she’s going to have to contend with drunken creeps and bullying teenagers leftover from the Halloween reveries. (Right away, the nods to classic horror movies are checked off with this date, and the costumes). In the middle of her first unpleasant encounter with a group of teenage boys, three girls come to Erin’s defense, introducing themselves as other local paper girls who have taken to doing the November 1 route as a team. The foursome sets out to get through the rest of the morning, but the vagaries they encounter seem even stranger and more sinister than in years past. When one of the girls is attacked and robbed by a group of strange looking men, the chase to retrieve her property leads the girls to a creepy basement containing a large pod–one that Erin notices bears a resemblance to an Apollo capsule. The search for answers becomes a run for their lives, with different villains and monsters appearing left and right and the rest of the town seemingly vanished as if in rapture. Why were these four girls left in the midst of the chaos, and how can they bring everyone back?

There is so much in this book to love. All four of the girls have strong personalities that immediately come through, and you feel instantly connected to them and their plight. The mystery itself is already so layered and complex. It’s difficult to distinguish “good guys” from “bad guys,” and hanging over each twist and turn is a nightmarish discordance with time itself. As is true in Saga, the biggest strength of this books comes from the thought put into each detail. The presence of symbols like the Apollo capsule, as well as others I don’t want to spoil, work to both situate the reader into a specific time but also completely unsettle it, creating an uncanny and almost self-aware version of this homage-genre we’re seeing popularized by things like Stranger Things and Super 8. It’s a take that only Vaughan could have, a completely weird, creepy, and wildly consumable adventure that earns the moniker “page-turner.”

Of course, being a graphic novel, much of this is accomplished through Cliff Chiang’s wonderful artwork. As strange and frightening as this world is, it is also lush and frankly gorgeous, even at its most grotesque. The hues are somehow both soft and vibrant, a pastel palette turned up to full volume, and it creates a version of our world both alien and inviting. The art is also able to nod to different images of popular culture without the text having to point it out, which makes the reading experience dynamic and fun.

As with Saga, I was completely engrossed by this story, and it’s going to be extremely challenging to wait for the next issue to come out. If you’re a fan of any sort of classic monster or science-fiction pop culture, you’ll get a lot out of this story, but even if you’re not clued in to the Easter eggs, the world of this comic is completely unique and enveloping in its own right. Definitely check it out. (And watch Stranger Things).

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Boston Public Library: An Off-Syllabus Field Trip

On my recent trip to New England, I had a day to spend in Boston. The list of potential bookish sites to visit was completely overwhelming (and unfeasible in the amount of time that I had), but one thing that was high on my list was the Boston Public Library. Every article I had read noted it as a must-see, and I was certainly drawn to the oldest municipal library in the United States. I only had about ten minutes to check it out (heh, unintentional library puns), but it was definitely worth the stop, even if it was a quick visit.

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The entire city of Boston is packed with history, and it was wonderful to see the way that the library fit right alongside the churches and courtrooms of our nascent days as a nation. The outside certainly reminded me of a monument or a museum, but the bustle of people also gave me the sense that this was still an active and vibrant hub for Boston, still fulfilling its dedication to the advancement of learning. Though some people seem to think that technology is obviating the library, I know that our libraries are as vital now as they have ever been, and are doing the important work of making sure that information is available to everyone. (Of course, being a resident of Columbus has made me especially passionate about libraries–I’m very lucky to live in a city that has such a wonderful resource). That’s why I was so excited to see this library, a testament to both how crucial libraries have been in our history and how essential they continue to be in modern communities.

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As soon as you walk into the Boston Public Library, you get a sense of this importance. The lobby of this library is like a palace (which is, in my opinion, completely appropriate). This part of the library was definitely the most grand, and it immediately inspired a sense of reverence, as much as the historic churches and monuments that are so abundant in Boston. (Trying to take a picture that captured the whole sense was completely impossible!)

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As you venture deeper into the library, the mood transitions from the more grandiose monument to a place of scholarship and work. The large reading room was probably my favorite spot; it made me completely nostalgic for my college days. I could just imagine sitting in here working on my thesis. (Leave it to me to be daydreaming about studying on vacation!)

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As you move even deeper, the mood and decor of the library completely transitions into a sleek modern hub of information and resources. It was so inviting and comfortable, but I had one section in particular that I wanted to see: the children and teen sections. Of all the bookish jobs I’ve gotten to do, I’ve felt the most passionate about working with students to inspire a love of reading and access to language and literacy, and I was curious what these sections would look like in this library. I was not disappointed. The children’s section was bright and colorful, and the teen section was funky and cool without trying too hard to be. It seemed like a place that would be completely inviting. The library had clearly put a lot of time and energy into making sure these spaces were encouraging, and I was glad (but not surprised) to see that they were a priority.

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I wished I had had all day to browse the stacks, explore the labyrinthine rooms, and find a cozy spot to devour a new book. Even still, I’m glad I got to take a quick look around this wonderful library.

H IS FOR HAWK by Helen Macdonald

Not to brag too much, but I had packed up this book for my vacation reading before I found out that I would be sharing it with President Obama. If one of his post-presidency projects is starting a national book club, let me use this moment to go ahead and offer up my services. (Seriously: I’m waiting by the phone). In the meantime, I hope that the President enjoyed this engrossing, warm, smart memoir as much as I did.

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H is for Hawk is a bit of a genre-blend (familiar readers will know how much that excited me), combining memoir, nature writing, and even literary criticism. In this book, Macdonald recounts her life in the immediate aftermath of her father’s death and traces through her grieving process. Macdonald had been training and hunting with hawks for much of her life (and had devoured literature on the subject even as a small child), but she had never trained a goshawk, a bird with a reputation for being particularly wild. As she grappled with the shock of her father’s sudden passing, Macdonald found herself drawn to the goshawk as almost a premonition, something she simply knew she had to begin. As she writes:

“When I was small I’d loved falconry’s historical glamour. I treasured it in the same way children treasure the hope that they might be like the children in books: secretly magical, part of some deeper, mysterious world that makes them something out of the ordinary. But that was a long time ago. I did not feel like that any more. I was not training a hawk because I wanted to feel special […] I was training the hawk to make it all disappear.”

Macdonald’s book isn’t a simple retelling of her life, though. She weaves her narrative of grief and healing amidst beautiful nature writing. Her descriptions of the time spent with the hawk are crisp and fervent, wild and melancholy. The reader is granted entrance to a perspective both alien and instinctual as Macdonald brings her hawk into the narrative. Mabel the Goshawk (for it is falconry tradition to name your bird something fatuous and silly; it is believed you won’t be successful if you name your bird something too overweening, like Striker or Killer) is one of the most fascinating characters I’ve encountered in literature, and I do think it’s fair to call her a character in this story. Macdonald relays her personality accurately: her confusion, her sense of play, and even her occasional blood lust. As a reader, I felt tuned in to Mabel without ever feeling like I was reading a caricature, a cartoon animal with humanity pasted upon her. The relationship between Macdonald and Mabel is at times funny and touching and at times heartbreaking, and it is the heartbeat of the story.

Another element I wasn’t expecting from this book is Macdonald’s engagement with a piece of literature. She recalls encountering T. H. White’s The Goshawk as a child and being confused by its difference to her other books, instructional manuals and grandiloquent histories of falconry and hawk training. The Goshawk, instead, is the memoir of a complicated and troubled man, working through his demons in the course of (unsuccessfully) training a goshawk. While this angered Macdonald as a child, the book came back to her in her grieving, and H is for Hawk stays in conversation with The Goshawk throughout, adding further depth to this narrative. I wasn’t expecting this part of the book, and it was a wonderful surprise.

I was swept up by this book, by the pulse of the natural world that beats throughout, by the rawness of Macdonald’s emotions, by the connection that spanned between her and another soul that sought solace in the wilderness. It’s certainly sad, but it’s also hopeful and intelligent, and presidential approval or not, I highly recommend it.