Oink – Edinburgh

★★★★★

Oink is a pulled pork sandwich, simple as that. You know a place is good when there are more people than sitting places in an establishment (or when the line to order goes out the door, as it often does on Victoria Street). For a person like me, who gets agitated (let’s all say it, “freaked out”) by crowds, I’ll suck it up and go to Oink because it’s one of the best pulled pork sandwiches I’ve ever had.

I’m from Memphis, TN, which has a pulled pork/BBQ festival every year. There’s a BBQ restaurant so famous, it’ll FedEx menu items across the country. I grew up on this stuff, relentlessly comparing my hometown’s craft with everyone else’s. 

While Oink doesn’t doesn’t give me a sandwich slathered in sauce so there’s not a dry piece of pork on the whole thing (and all over my hands), it’s got it’s own delicious thing going: put haggis on the bun, then a heap of meat from the whole pig in the window, a little apple sauce (or BBQ sauce if I’m feeling homesick), and you’re done. The meat is so juicy I don’t need all the extra sauce I’m used to. In fact, if I were to ever go back to Memphis, I’d be looking in vain for Oink over there.

Flash Forward Podcast

★★★☆☆

Flash Forward takes an idea we have for the future (food pills, a world without bees, California becoming its own country, etc) and explores the plausibility of it. I love the idea of imagining futuristic scenarios (who doesn’t want an animal translator?), but some of the episode topics aren’t my cup of tea (a super computer that creates the ultimate religion).

Most of the episodes are great “info-tainment”, and it gives me good memories of the bleak, but wonderful year of 2016 when I started listening to the show and used it as a way to calm down. I’d just moved to a new country (Scotland! It’s so nice!), but my husband hadn’t joined me yet, and my own baby oven said, “since you’re not growing something in here, I will,” and it was tumors. This podcast, among others, gave me something to focus on and look forward to when I didn’t want to be in my own body anymore. 

Because of its speculative and science-y nature, I would compare Flash Forward to Science VS (which explores how scientifically accurate a certain idea is – like if essential oils really do what they claim) or Imaginary Worlds (which takes sci-fi/fantasy ideas in fiction and analyses why our brains accept something that’s clearly not true).

Overall, I like this podcast and I recommend it.

You can listen to Flash Forward on their website, or wherever you like to listen to podcasts.

Cecile and Marie Grace by Denise Lewis Patrick and Sarah Masters Buckley

★★★☆☆

Cecile and Marie-Grace are ten year old girls in New Orleans, 1853 — the year of the big yellow fever outbreak. The girls pull together to help where they can and build a friendship at the same time.

The story itself is fine. I don’t have any beef with the characters (except that they’re almost never together). Switching their perspectives from book to book shows the reader what life was like for a white girl and a free person of color. I didn’t honestly see much of a difference, except for some pretty hard segregation. I’m sure there was more to it than that, and it would have been interesting to learn about. It was interesting to see how primitive their knowledge of medicine and disease were in 1853. If this were just a book for middle-grade kids to read to make history fun, I’d move on and probably never thing about this series again.

But it’s by American Girl.

The characters are supposed to be so vibrant and beautiful, I’m gonna want to want to part with all my money to buy their entire collection in 1/3 scale.

Trust me, I do want to buy their collections. I’ve already got Cecile under my Christmas tree.

I didn’t feel it from the books. Not only did I not feel compelled to buy the whole collection, the descriptions in the book barely made me want to look at it. Don’t get me wrong, the dolls and accessories they released alongside the book series was gorgeous, and I always wondered why it sold so poorly they pulled the characters in only three years.

A few theories:

  1. The illustrations.
    My god. It’s the first thing you see when you pick up the book, and they’re not only supposed to get you hyped about buying THAT DRESS, but also
    to pull you into the world of the story. The illustrations are what made me love Pleasant Company/American Girl in the first place. Come on, Felicity sitting on the rooftop eating an apple? Molly getting sprayed with the hose in her hula costume? Kirsten and Singing Bird? They were charming and magical and captured me.
    But with Cecile and Marie-Grace, the illustrations showed poor connection from character to character (often with no one really making eye contact), in scenes so vague I can’t recall what was going on in any of them.

    Since the stories overlap with the two girls switching POV, there are duplicate illustrations too.
    This is especially upsetting because I looked up the artist, Christine Kornacki, and her work is gorgeous. She really does seem like a shoe-in for American Girl illustrations but … what happened?

    And you’re gonna see the vignette of that bird like five times.

  2. The descriptions.
    Remember, these books are supposed to sell toys — much like Saturday morning cartoons. Even as an adult who apparently has more important things to do than add to a doll collection, when I read Kit’s series earlier this year (largely unfamiliar with her collection), the author described not only what the character was wearing, but how she felt about it. How she felt about how her room was decorated. The descriptions plus the lovely illustrations made me dive into the back catalogue where I was thrilled to see things I recognized from the books.
    With Cecile and Marie-Grace, it wasn’t like that. Ok, Cecile has a desk where she wrote letters to her brother while he was still in Paris — the desk is gorgeous (I bought it), but it wasn’t in the books anywhere (or maybe a cursory “Cecile sat at her desk”). They have a plate of beignets, beds with mosquito netting, a banquet table, and a table and chairs for the courtyard. I mean, it’s all gorgeous, but it’s not in the book. And I understand that the dolls’ run was cut short, but some of the dresses in the (few) illustrations weren’t even manufactured.

Don’t get me wrong: nostalgia plays a huge part in the enjoyment of these books. I love re-reading about Felicity, Molly, and Kirsten the most because I devoured them when I was a kid. But as an adult when I read about Kaya and Kit and Josefina and Julie, they all felt like I’d always known those characters and those stories even though it was my first read through. That’s so special.

But in saying that, Cecile and Marie-Grace’s series would have fared much better as a continuous novel instead of six books. Dividing it up gives the reader hope that the next book will be different, but they act like episodes in a show — and it got monotonous. In previous series, each book focused on one aspect of the character’s life (school, holidays, summer vacation, etc). If the company had released the characters when they did the Beforever rebrand (where the 6 book series is mushed into two books, and the story reads like one big novel), without the illustrations, the collection might have done better. They went out on a limb to try something different (they’ve never paired two girls before — always focused on one), and it didn’t work.

If you have a middle-grade kid who wants to learn a little about the olden days and yellow fever, and meet some decent characters, this would be a good series for them. For the adult collector who misses Pleasant Company, you could probably skip it.

The Last Black Unicorn – Tiffany Haddish

★★★★☆

I’ve gotta be honest, I didn’t know who Tiffany Haddish was until she hosted Saturday Night Live a few months ago. After a few lines of the monologue, I liked her. I felt like I knew her.

Her book is called The Last Black Unicorn, which was a huge draw for me because I loved The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle. I knew when I started reading that Haddish’s Unicorn would be nothing like Beagle’s, but she had my attention.

From the beginning, she got me with her voice, which reads just like the SNL monologue. The narrative is conversational and intimate about her difficult life. Her stories are hilarious, heartbreaking, and vulnerable, and I couldn’t help but love her at the end.

While I’ve read meatier books, or ones that make a stronger point, as a matter of character, this is one of the better memoirs I’ve read.

Lightness by Catherine Meurisse

★★★☆☆

Lightness follows one of the survivors of the Charlie Hebdo massacre and how she learns to see beauty again.

I had to read this book in small doses because of the subject matte’s gravity. While the “plot” of the book can be summed up tidily, the author pulls us into her head by showing how faulty her memory had become after the attack and by tying her past to her present. She sees the attack everywhere she goes, from the police escort that follows her in Paris, to the statues in Rome, to paintings in the Louvre. She sees her dead colleagues when she experiences things they would have enjoyed.

When the attack happened, I was working at a French salon in New York. Everyone was glued to their phones in horror as the news came through (and then again at the end of the year when the Bataclan was attacked). For me as an author, I thought about what it meant that a group of cartoonists were murdered — sure, I didn’t write the same kinds of things they did, but surely I was objectionable to someone. And even if what is written really is offensive (my boss at the salon bought the first issue Charlie Hebdo released after the attack, and when he showed it to his clients, there were a few cartoons he refused to translate because “that one’s really bad”), do they deserve to die for it? And I have to admit, I was swept up in the “Je Sui Charlie” hashtag along with my writing community, because of course, that answer is NO.

The style of this book reminded me of Guy Delisle’s travel graphic novels. Story-wise, there’s not much to them, but through the eyes of the narrator, you see a place you might never go yourself — and in the case of Lightness, feel something you (hopefully) will never feel.

The Devil and Jimmy Biscuits by Taylor Dunn

★★★★☆

Jimmy is a 15 year with some demands for the Devil (wishes, to be specific). As you might expect, ol’ Satan had his own ideas.

This story is an easy, quick read that left me smiling the whole way through. It has moments of humor, thoughtfulness, and because we’re dealing with a character as basal as Satan, it challenges ingrained ideas.

“I’m not sure you fully understand the implications of the proposition,” Lucifer replied slowly. “Your soul, the part of you that lasts forever, in exchange for three wishes. Wishes that I presume will benefit your temporal personage?”

Jimmy stared with a perplexed expression.

“Your earthly body, genius.”

“Oh,” Jimmy said brightly. “Yeah, exactly.”

“Go home kid,” Satan said, “before you get hurt.”

Lucifer is powerful, able to grant a wish, and already suggesting said wish will not be chosen well. The “Go home” suggests maybe he’s not as big a dick as culture portrays. 

Thinking Satan isn’t a dick goes against everything I learned as a lifelong Christian. Instead, I should wish him to sit on a tack (ouch!), not be afraid of him, and most of all: never, ever mess with him (this means not entertaining witches like Harry Potter, not hugging trees like those nature-worshiping faeries in Fern Gully, and not acknowledging someone else has power, like that hussy Synergy on Jem and the Holograms). 

The nice thing about being an adult and letting a piece of fiction be a piece of fiction is that I can read about someone who’s supposed to be my enemy and see the good in them. Or at least be curious about who they are.

But as great as the main characters are in this story, the supporting cast is just as good. Mig, I love you.

This short story is funny, it challenges ideas we already have, but also conforms to the idea that people get what’s coming to them. I mean, you don’t expect a story about Satan to be completely above board, do you?

Taylor Dunn is also the author of another short story called Fear and Loathing in Shanghai, which I beta read, but haven’t read the finished product. Also available is a full-length novel (also featuring Lucifer) called Clockwork Angels (which I beta read as well, and it’s one of my favorites). If these works are anything to go by, this author will be entertaining us for a long time.

http://www.taylordunn.org

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