Seconds by Bryan Lee O'Malley
Published by: Ballantine Books
Publication Date: July 15th, 2014
Format: Hardcover, 336 Pages
Rating: ★★★★★ To Buy
Four years ago Katie started a restaurant with her friends. Since then they have all moved on. Seconds feels like Katie's past now. Her future is a new restaurant, Katie's (she can live without the snarky commentary on the vanity of this name), that she will actually be part owner in versus just their culinary genius. Yet as the new restaurant is taking longer and longer to become a reality and she's still a presence at Seconds she feels frustrated being trapped between the life she's outgrown and the life she has yet to live. Then one night there's an accident at Seconds and one of the waitresses, Hazel, gets injured. Katie feels guilty and that night in a dreamlike state she finds a box with a mushroom, a notebook, and a card saying "A SECOND CHANCE AWAITS. 1. Write your mistake 2. Ingest one mushroom 3. Go to sleep 4. Wake anew."
Katie follows the instructions and awakes in the morning to find that Hazel's accident never happened. Confused Katie befriends Hazel and learns that perhaps Seconds has a House Spirit, a being protecting their restaurant and willing to help Katie fix Hazel's accident. This is well and good, as long as the house spirit is happy then Seconds is happy. Only Katie happens to find more mushrooms... what was to be a one time gift of the House Spirit is used by Katie to start fixing all the problems she feels are plaguing her life. The House Spirit tries to stop her, but things start to spiral out of control the more Katie tries to fix her life. Perhaps it would have been better if she had never started on this path, but it's too late to stop now.
Bryan Lee O'Malley has this surreal dreamlike quality to his stories that make you feel that you might be inhabiting the world of a video game or some other leftover hiding place from your childhood. He connects with my generation so well because he taps into our cultural zeitgeist of angst and nostalgia, where a heroine with the hair of Sonic the Hedgehog isn't just cool, but that we embrace her. The meta narrative technique of having Katie snarkily comment on what the omniscient narrator is saying feeds into the my sarcastic and disillusioned generation that isn't quite generation X or Y, being forgotten by the roadside when they started having a need to generationally label us.
But what I connected to so much is this idea of seconds, of a do-over. People of my age are still in a time of flux, they are on a path but they aren't sure it's the right one, they don't know if this will be their life. They keep waiting for their life to start not realizing that while you're waiting it's actually happening, you are missing your life because of the illusory belief that someone will tell you when it's actually begun. I know I keep hoping that instead of being forced to grow up that there will miraculously appear an easy way out, a way to pave the path in front of me and save me blood, sweat, and tears. Their might be some truth in the thought that my generation feels entitled to a life of ease, a life that helps and doesn't hider your path, that we would be willing to take whatever might ease our journey, but I think this is more rooted in the fear we all have of growing up.
And isn't the childlike dream that still lives in us the idea that whatever goes wrong it will be fixed for us? Here it might be a magic mushroom, but in our past it was our parents. Who wouldn't want a chance at a do-over? A chance to tweak one thing in our lives? A chance to take a different path? It's not surprising that Katie falls into the bad habit of re-writing what she didn't want to happen. If you had a bucket full of mushrooms and no apparent consequences, wouldn't you jump at a second chance? It's the final realization that their is no easy way out, their is no shortcut, no warps, no way to get through life then by living it that is the final step in growing up. Katie might have needed a little more of a push to learn this, but haven't we all at some time?
What I feel elevates this book beyond the angst and eighties nostalgia of Bryan Lee O'Malley's previous works is the, not mystical, but the folkloric side to the story. The House Spirit, or Household Deity of Lis, grounds the story in the realm of fairy tales versus 8-bit console entertainment. This makes Seconds feel more of a fable, a coming of age tale then Bryan's previous ventures. Even the Brothers Grimm wrote about these family guardians, these protectors of home and hearth.
In fact, the more I think about it, growing up is not just about leaving childish ideas behind and knowing that their is no easy answer, but in finding your place in the word, finding where you belong, finding your home. While some might just write off a graphic novel as cartoons, which is the biggest mistake I think anyone could make, I at least implore you to look beyond the girl with the Sonic the Hedgehog hair on the cover and read between the covers to find a magical coming of age story full of wit, wonder, and life lessons that all of us could be reminded of.
The Pirates! In an Adventure with Communists by Gideon Defoe
Published by: Vintage
Publication Date: January 1st, 2006
Format: Paperback, 176 Pages
Rating: ★★★★ To Buy
What seems like years ago now, probably because it was, I remember seeing a few of Gideon Defoe's Pirates! books at Half Price Books and thinking they looked rather fun. I promptly forgot about them because do you realize the number of books I look at on a daily basis? It's seriously staggering. But shortly thereafter Lauren Willig mentioned them in passing as being hilarious so this confluence of events led me to order the first two books, handily sold as one volume, and I put it on my bookshelf and promptly forgot about them again. Fast forward to 2012 and Aardman Animation has adapted the first book for the screen. David Tennant, Hugh Grant, Russell Tovey, no wait, not Russell Tovey in the US, grumble, grumble, but once again I thought of the books and again promptly forgot. For some reason all my encounters with Gideon Defoe's work was promptly forgotten until his third book, The Pirates! In an Adventure with Communists, was picked out of the hat for book club in 2016. Not being one to start in the middle of a series I picked up my copy of the first two books, promptly fell in love, ordered the next three books and plundered my way through them all.
The thing is, I've always had a soft spot for pirates. This started quite young with my parents reading Irene Haas's The Maggie B. to me. A young girl wishes for a boat to travel the world in with her little brother. I wanted a boat just like it for myself. A pirate ship in miniature with flora and fauna and the coziest rooms you could ever imagine that weathered all storms. As I grew up there were Lego pirate ships and Playmobil pirate ships that actually floated helmed by my Star Wars figures. There were hideouts down by the railway tracks and in my back yard with hammocks, just like on a real pirate ship. There were other books too like Peter Pan and The Princess Bride, and tons of movies from The Goonies to Muppet Treasure Island to Hook. Finally there was Pirates of the Caribbean, opening night at Point Cinema on the UltraScreen with my girlfriends. Some were there to see Johnny Depp, some to see Orlando Bloom, and some to see an anvil three stories tall. I was there for the pirates!
But these Pirates! by Gideon Defoe, they are a breed apart. They are the love children of Blackadder and the briny deep, with historical cameos thrown in just as much as historical accuracy is thrown out. With this lovability that makes you just want to take them home give them a big feast predominately of ham and tell them a good bedtime story before tucking them in for the night. Gideon Defoe's writing combines the wit and love of footnotes of Terry Pratchett with the absurdity of Monty Python. Yet it's so uniquely his own that while I can draw comparisons all day it will never do justice to a series of books that need to be read for their hats and their love of ham. And I'm not joking that once you start you won't be able to stop until you've read them all. From Darwin and Bobo, the "man-panzee," to Ahab and what hunting the great white whale does to the Pirate Captain's sanity, to Wagner trying to blacken the name of Communism, to beekeeping on St. Helena where Napoleon causes quite a ruckus, to Byron and the Pirate Captain forming a true bromance while the Pirate Captain tries to woo Mary Godwin away from Shelley, you will just pillage your way through Defoe's prose.
Yet what makes this series really unique is that, aside from them being kind of hopeless as pirates, is that the characters names aren't really names, instead being character descriptions. There's the Pirate Captain and his faithful number two, the pirate with a scarf, there's the pirate in green, the pirate with rickets, the albino pirate, Jennifer, and every one's least favorite pirate, the pirate in red. While this could be viewed as just a humorous joke at the readers expense, I mean, think how many times we as readers when faced with a new story with oodles of characters has picked up on a character trait to remember them all by? Instead I don't think it's about readers and the inability to remember names, instead I think it's a clever conceit. While yes, there is a bit of poking fun at stereotypes, I think it actually goes beyond this and is making the character archetypes. The Pirate Captain is THE DEFINITIVE pirate captain. He's the only one that matters, suck it Black Bellamy! Just like the pirate with a scarf is the perfect number two, and the pirate in red is the perfect red shirt for us to hate on. These are the lovable essence of all the pirates we wanted to sail the high seas with as a kid and therefore we gleefully go with them wherever that may be. Even if there might be ghosts. And we all know how scared pirates are of ghosts!
In fact I think that the film by Aardman Animation, The Pirates! Band of Misfits, is doing a disservice to the books. While these pirates are true characters by making them cartoonishly animated it has turned them into caricatures. This movie has lessened them. In the books they are larger than life fiendish friends, on the screen they are a kind of boring movie. Which is really odd when you consider that Gideon Defoe wrote the screenplay. When I think back to when I first saw the movie, it in no way made me want to rush out and read the books, which is such a shame. Think of all those people out in the world who are judging these books based on that movie? The movie has far more "presence" and it's overshadowing these lovely, sweet, and comical adventures. When reading the books I thought how much they reminded me of the TV series Galavant. There's an absurdity and a gallantry and a sense of humor that makes it similar to The Pirates! Plus done as live action, there's a basis in reality with having actors like the brilliant Timothy Omundson bring the characters to life. This humor works best with the dichotomy of the absurd versus the real. Which leads me into my next point, when is there going to be a live action movie with Timothy Omundson as the Pirate Captain?