What do today’s books have in common? Well, they’re about having things in common. Today’s Stack Overflow is about things that bring us together. This past week has been a trying one for the Asian-American community on top of a year in which anti-Asian violence has risen sharply, piled on all the consequences of the pandemic and the continued pursuit of justice and equity for Black Americans. It’s easy to see the divides in our nation and the cracks feel like they’re always getting wider; the books I’m sharing with you this week offer a bit of hope that things could be better.
I’ve been hearing about What Unites Us every so often on social media—the prose version of Rather’s book was originally published back in 2017—but I hadn’t gotten around to reading it myself. (Time is weird: if you’d asked me when it was published, I would have guessed it was closer to 2019!) This is a graphic novel adaptation from First Second, published as part of their World Citizen Comics line (which also includes the excellent Unrig and Fault Lines in the Constitution), which I’ve really been enjoying. This book series takes some difficult (and, let’s face it, sometimes boring) topics and brings them to life in a way that is engaging, entertaining, and informative. (I imagine that the content has been abridged to make it into a comic book, though I haven’t read the original to know what specifically has been cut.)
What Unites Us as a comic book lets Dan Rather, clad in his trench coat, take us on a journey across America through both time and space. He talks about his childhood and the lessons his parents taught him and the ways he learned about civic responsibility in school—and also when he became aware that Black children didn’t have the same access to education he did. He talks about starting his career as a reporter and reporting on the Civil Rights movement, and the way that opened his eyes to the ways that our country falls short of the ideals that it claims to uphold.
Rather starts with the question “what is patriotism?” He describes it as a love for your country that also wants to see it become better, as opposed to nationalism, believing that your country is morally or culturally superior to others. With that in mind, he explores the things that make up our country, good and bad, and talks about the challenge of making America a home for all of its citizens, not just a privileged few. He talks about democracy and the importance of participating in it, through our votes and through dissent, and describes the ways in which people have been prevented from taking part. On the topic of community, Rather discusses inclusion and empathy, and takes a look at immigration in the US.
Make no mistake: this book is political. The illustrations are colored in reds and blues, a constant reminder that our country is often divided along political lines (in contrast to the purple binding of the book). Rather believes that it’s important to focus on the things that bring us together, but he’s not describing a Pollyanna “let’s all smile and get along” scenario where we pretend we all agree or ignore conflicts. He recognizes that there are a lot of barriers, and that there are those who make it difficult for others to experience the freedoms and benefits that America promises. I don’t necessarily agree with everything Rather says, but I appreciated that the book ultimately is optimistic about our future: he acknowledges the ugliness of injustice, but he’s also seen the people who are working to make changes for the better and believes they can succeed. In a time when it often feels like our differences are insurmountable, it was comforting to read a book that hopes we’re up to the challenge.
Before I get into the content of this book, I want to note that the link above goes to the Kickstarter campaign, which has about a week left to go. In case you’re not familiar with Kickstarter, here’s our crowdfunding primer. Basically you’re pledging to help get a project made, and there are various tiers available depending on whether you want the comic in digital format only, hard copy, and some other bonus items. The campaign has already met its funding goal, so the book will be printed, but note that the physical book would not actually be arriving until around November of this year.
Okay, so this is a graphic novel that includes crossword puzzles to solve—or maybe it’s a set of crossword puzzles that includes a graphic novel framing story. It depends on how you look at it, which also happens to be what the story itself is about. Maggie A. Cross is a crossword fan (and blogger) who doesn’t care about being politically correct and thinks some people are just hypersensitive; Derry Down is a grad student who blogs about his frustration with racism and sexism in crossword puzzles. As you might guess, there’s a reason the two are pictured above in red and blue, though the book focuses on their opinions about culture rather than the voting booth. The one other notable character is Amanda Zucker, Maggie’s roommate and co-blogger, who also happens to be a junk food vlogger; she’s hilarious and one of my favorite parts of the book.
Maggie mysteriously starts receiving letters from Margaret Farrar—the first crossword puzzle editor of the New York Times—after having another puzzle submission rejected, and begins a correspondence about what does and doesn’t belong in a crossword puzzle. Why mysterious? Well, Farrar has been dead since 1984. Meanwhile, Maggie and Derry strike up a friendship. Well, it starts off a bit more adversarial, and makes its way toward romance, in the traditional way of many romantic comedies, all the while arguing about word choices.
I mentioned puzzles: throughout the book there are actual crossword puzzles for you to solve, designed by Mike Selinker and Andy Kravis. The puzzles are tied to the story itself: for instance, you get to solve multiple drafts of Maggie’s own puzzles, seeing how she rewrites some clues for the same answers, or reworks sections of the puzzle to replace answers altogether. The crosswords—some of which are presented as NYT puzzles—also come up in the story, as the characters blog about them (so be sure to solve each puzzle before you continue reading!).
The book is double-sided—what you see above are the front and back covers—with one side told from Maggie’s point of view and one from Derry’s, with some overlapping scenes so you can see both sides of the story. It’s a clever format, though you should definitely read Maggie’s story first and then Derry’s for things to make the most sense.
Letters to Margaret picks on both liberals and conservatives a bit, but ultimately sticks to its “opposites attract” romance that I didn’t always find entirely convincing, but it was a cute story nonetheless and I enjoyed the way the puzzles and the story connected to each other. Will it help you unite some alt-right relatives with neo-lib friends? Okay, probably not, but maybe it will nudge you a little more toward understanding the other side’s point of view at least a little, accompanied by a lot of fun wordplay. (A word of warning to the pun-averse: there are lots of puns in this book.) If you’re intrigued, check out the Kickstarter page for more information.
Sourdough is another book that was originally published in 2017 that I’ve only just gotten around to reading; GeekDad Robin Brooks wrote about it back at the beginning of 2018. I’d been a fan of Robin Sloan’s previous book, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, and so after Robin’s review I picked up a copy for myself at the bookstore … and then never got around to reading it. Well, since baking sourdough bread was apparently a new hobby for many people during the pandemic, I figured maybe it was time to crack it open.
Lois Clary has moved to the Bay Area to work at a robotics startup, one that hopes to eliminate repetitive tasks for humans with their robot arms. She works long hours, doesn’t really have any friends outside of work, and doesn’t have anything left for hobbies. She feeds herself primarily with Slurry, a brand of nutritionally complete, probiotic food that many of the employees of General Dexterity consume. It’s a familiar portrait of San Francisco startup culture: mostly young people and their disruptive tech ideas.
But then she orders takeout from Clement Street Soup and Sourdough, and finds something she has been craving: nourishing, spicy stew paired with amazing bread. She soon becomes the “number one eater” of this little, not-quite-legal eatery run by two brothers from the unheard-of Mazg people. Then: disaster. The brothers’ visas expire and they have to leave, so they leave Lois with a parting gift: their sourdough starter. This sends Lois off on a new path, learning to bake bread, stumbling into a weird underground farmers market scene, encountering people who are pushing the envelope of foods and eating. Her exploration of baking bread—the way that the task was repetitive and somewhat tiring yet made her feel more alive—is probably the same reason so many people took it up during this past year; it feels real at a time when so much of what we do is virtual. And there’s also something very weird about her inherited sourdough starter, the reasons for which are gradually revealed in a series of emails from the older brother.
As with Mr. Penumbra, this book is often about the clash between new vs. old, startups vs. the establishment, wild experiments vs. tried and true techniques—but especially in the weird places where they meet and overlap and mix. Also as before, the book includes a bit of the impossible, but when juxtaposed with tech culture, it almost seems plausible anyway. I really enjoyed Sourdough, even without having gotten into baking sourdough bread myself. Aside from making me contemplate questions about food and life and work and technology, it’s just a really wild ride, too.
Aside from the above, I’ve also read a few other comics in the past few weeks that didn’t quite fit into this week’s theme, so we’ll probably get to those later. My current read is Time Travel for Love and Profit by Sarah Lariviere, about a girl who decides to build a time machine to get a do-over on her terrible freshman year of high school. I’ve always got a big stack of time travel books in my queue but it’s been a while since I’ve dipped into it, and after hearing this conversation between Charles Yu and Ted Chiang last week, I decided I wanted to get back to it. I just started it today, so I don’t know exactly where the story is going yet, but I’m curious.
Disclosure: I received review copies of the books mentioned in today’s column except Sourdough, which I purchased myself. Affiliate links to Bookshop.org help support my writing and independent bookstores!
This post was last modified on March 22, 2021 6:07 pm
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