Did You Know? (Hippopotamus Edition)

That hippo ‘sweat’ is red-orange and acts as an antibiotic and sunscreen?

I found this information on page 20 of Hippopotamus by Patricia Whitehouse, part of the Read and Learn series. It states that hippos can get sunburned and they have a red oil on their skin to keep them from burning in the sun. In fact, this is not sweat, but a reddish oil that comes from glands all over their skin. It is commonly referred to as ‘blood sweat,’ even though it isn’t blood either.

Other animals have their own ways of protecting themselves from the sun. “Elephants will throw sand on their backs and on their head. They do that to keep them from getting sunburned and to keep bugs off,” says Tony Barthel, curator of the Elephant House and the Cheetah Conservation Station at Smithsonian’s National Zoo. “They also douse their young with sand. That is probably part of the teaching process,” he adds. “Not only are they taking care of their youngsters, but they are showing them that they need to do that.” Adult elephants will also create shade for their young by standing over them while they sleep. Rhinos and pigs wallow and coat themselves in mud, which protects them from the sun and helps to keep moisture in their skin.

It seems odd that hippos would have to keep moisture in their skin, since they spend so much time in the water, but they dry out very quickly on land. Also, they spend all that time in the water, and they can’t even swim! Hippos walk on the bottom and push off from the riverbed to come up to breathe. Hippos Can’t Swim by Laura Lyn DiSiena and Hannah Elliot is full of fun animal facts like that.

The Great Rift: Africa’s Greatest Story on DVD from BBC Earth has some phenomenal footage of hippos (and many other animals) in their natural habitats. An amazing show for the whole family.

No wonder hippos have ‘built in’ sunscreen. They live in Africa, where it is very hot and the sun blazes. Wouldn’t it be nice if we humans had that to? But humans need to apply their own sun screen. Heal Your Skin by Ava Shamban tell us about the best things for our skin. She explains the difference between sun screen and sun block, and about UVA and UVB rays as well as what the SPF ratings mean.

Sun is not the only worry that animals have. Saving the hippos and other large animals in Africa (specifically in Gorangosa Park) is something environmentalists have been working on for generations. White Man’s Game: Saving Animals, Rebuilding Eden, and Other Myths of Conservation in Africa by Stephanie Hanes probes the often troubling implications of well-meaning Western aid projects for animals. She demonstrates how there are few solutions without vexing consequences. Consequences that affect both people and animals directly.

Favorite Authors Jackpot!

I have a rule that’s hard and fast. If Nic Stone has a new book, I’m going to read it as soon as I can. Same goes for Elizabeth Acevedo. There aren’t many other authors I’d say this about, but both of these novelists write about important and timely issues in unique and compelling ways. They capture the voices of youths in ways that feel incredibly authentic to me while also resonating with the young people I meet. This year, I’ve been lucky enough to get thrilling new projects from both of them, which is reason enough to call 2019 a great year for books.

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First out was Elizabeth Acevedo’s With the Fire on High. Her YA debut, the verse novel The Poet X, is a tour de force, one of my favorite novels, and the winner of the National Book Award among many other honors. With the Fire on High proves that Acevedo will remain a literary force for a long time. The book follows a young mother named Emoni as she navigates her senior year of high school. Emoni lives with her grandmother and is hyper-focused on providing stability for her young daughter while balancing school, work, family time, and her tenuous co-parenting relationship with her child’s father. Along with her fiercely loyal best friend, she has pushed back against the stigma of getting pregnant as a freshman but has also become extremely guarded about the people she lets into her life. Emoni has set aside her own dreams for her future, believing they were derailed by her unplanned pregnancy and focuses instead on making her daughter’s life as happy as possible, even at the expense of her own. 

Emoni is also a talented chef, who can’t help but find solace, community, and joy in the time she spends in the kitchen. All her carefully constructed walls threaten to tumble down when a new Spanish cooking immersion class at school offers her an unexpected opportunity to explore her restaurant dreams, and a new student’s persistent interest in Emoni is coupled with an undeniable connection between them. Emoni must decide how to advocate for herself, reach for the future she deserves, and let people in, even if it means risking personal disappointment and adds stress to her family life.  

If I had any concern that Acevedo’s beautiful writing, which I had only previously read as verse, would not translate to prose it was forgotten in the opening pages of With the Fire on High. Emoni is a loveable yet complicated narrator, and Acevedo deftly layers her inner dialog and conversations with the people in her life to give the reader insight into her past and current struggles and stresses, but also her resilient and caring spirit.  

Next up was Nic Stone’s latest, Jackpot. Stone’s previous novels both blew me away, but for very different reasons. Dear Martin is a story of race, police violence, and youth activism that is an impeccably written punch to the gut. Her follow-up, Odd One Out, is a queer love story that explores social pressures, identity, and friendship in nuanced and original ways. It made me realize how much I love a good rom-com, which also makes me question the assumptions that I make about people. So, yeah, I was excited for Jackpot.

81XI1rKQRILJackpot follows Rico, a young woman whose family is going through an extraordinarily difficult time. She lives in a small apartment with her overworked, underpaid mother and her younger brother. Rico is determined to make sure her brother has a more stable childhood than her own and works as many hours as she can manage at a convenience store to try and help make ends meet. It still isn’t enough – her family is constantly on the verge of eviction and live in fear that a small financial hiccup could push them over the edge. When the store she works at sells a winning lottery ticket, Rico becomes convinced that she sold the ticket to a sweet elderly woman on Christmas Eve. As time goes by, and the winning ticket remains unclaimed, Rico becomes increasingly sure that somewhere in town there is a little old lady who has forgotten to check her ticket. And as her family’s situation continues to deteriorate, Rico grows more and more desperate to find the winner, convinced that if she can change the winner’s life, they might reward her for helping. 

The only problem with Rico’s plan is that she needs help. And that help is going to have to come in the form of Zan, who seems to be different from Rico is every way. He is light skinned, she is dark skinned. He is filthy rich, she is dirt poor. He is uber-popular, she is invisible. Shockingly, Zan isn’t just game to help, he also seems very interested in Rico. Almost too interested. And while he sometimes behaves in ways that infuriate her, he is also far more intriguing than she could have ever imagined. As they move closer to uncovering the mystery of the lotto winner, Rico must try to figure out how to keep her family afloat, what she wants for herself, and what she wants from Zan.  

Stone continues to show an incredibly deft touch for exploring difficult subjects in her stories. Jackpot dives deep into America’s economic divide, the barriers it can create, and how devastating small problems can be for people living in poverty or living with housing insecurity. And yet, she also manages to make Jackpot a flirtatious romp, a light mystery, and a story of resilient young people finding their way through difficult times.  

Nic Stone and Elizabeth Acevedo are writers of immense talent telling wonderfully imaginative stories featuring people who represent and reflect the diverse experiences of young people today. I am grateful to be able to give books like theirs to young readers in our community and I can’t wait to see what they do next.

Spot-Lit for December 2019

Just a reminder at this time when various outlets compile their lists of best-books-of-the-year that we offer you here an ongoing monthly selection of the most anticipated fiction and a link, updated each month, to our notable new fiction of the year. So check in regularly, no need to wait until the end of the year to see some of the best recent writing that awaits you. For your convenience we also link to a regularly updated selection of the best releases from first-time novelists and short story writers.

Click here to see all of our December picks in the Everett Public Library catalog, where you can read reviews or summaries and place holds. Or click on a book cover below to enlarge it, or to view the covers as a slide show.

Notable New Fiction 2019 (to date) | All On-Order Fiction | 2019 Debuts

The Good Place

Finally, the ultimate philosophical questions surrounding life and death have been answered. In a sitcom. Called The Good Place.

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The premise is a little difficult to explain without getting into multiple spoilers, but here we go.

There is an afterlife! When people die they either go to the Good Place or the Bad Place, depending on how they behaved while alive. The show focuses on four people who die at roughly the same time and are thrust together in the Good Place in a neighborhood designed by an eternal (or nearly-eternal) being named Michael. Michael is sort of like a god in the neighborhood, able to help people, fix problems and create heavenly things such as frozen yogurt restaurants.

There is a “but”.

But Eleanor (the main character) realizes she doesn’t belong in the Good Place. She was, in fact, a horrible human being while alive. Thus, Eleanor assumes there’s been some sort of clerical error that saved her from eternal punishment. And, wanting to remain in the Good Place, she tries to cover up this mistake. To her credit, Eleanor does try to make up for previous behaviors by studying ethics with Chidi (a professor of ethics while alive), who is her soulmate in the Good Place. But it becomes apparent that covering up her past is not going to be easy.

Other characters include another pair of soulmates, Tahani, a rich socialite while alive, and Jianyu, a silent Taiwanese monk, who live in a fantastic mansion next to Eleanor and Chidi’s tiny, clown-themed house. And let us not forget Janet, a sort of supercomputer in human form, who knows literally everything and is able to fill all the desires of the neighborhood’s inhabitants (such as providing frozen yogurt).

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This is the premise, more or less, at the beginning of the first season. But it’s important to remember one thing about The Good Place: Nothing is what it seems to be. In fact, viewers’ expectations are constantly turned upside down over teakettle. By the end of season 1, the above description is highly inaccurate and the show reboots, so to speak, in an entirely different direction. And this is one of the strengths of the show, its willingness to explore entirely new circumstances, essentially trashing everything that has already occurred. In a way, this aspect of The Good Place is similar to the premise of Groundhog Day, with characters reliving the same or similar situations with different outcomes. This device provides a level of freshness that is seldom found on television.

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Later seasons are impossible to describe without giving away the many twists that make The Good Place such a refreshing show. Suffice to say, a variety of permutations of the original plot find their way into the afterlife, creating much humor along the way.

The fourth and final season of the show is currently airing on network TV, meaning there will only be 50 or so episodes of the show in total. Higher quality often means fewer episodes, which means viewers will have to find other innovative programming. So take advantage of this excellent program while you can. The writing, acting, plot twists and explanations of the afterlife are superlative. As a young British prime minister once said, “Hey, that’s my donut!”

Not Your Father’s Ancient History

Do you like your historical biographies bold and unapologetic? Do you want to learn something new from a set of seemingly old and exhausted primary sources? Want to hear the tale of a person constrained by crushing societal forces, but striking out in an unconventional and incredibly effective way? Finally, are you o.k. with expletives and current cultural references while learning about the ancient world? If so, let me recommend to you the thrilling, fascinating, well researched and bitingly funny Agrippina: The Most Extraordinary Woman of the Roman World by Emma Southon. Read on to find out more.

If you haven’t heard of Agrippina before (technically Agrippina the Younger but, as Southon points out, the Romans were super unoriginal when it came to giving a child a name) you have probably run across some of her notorious relations. She was the granddaughter of the first emperor Augustus, the sister of the emperor Caligula (yes, that one!), the wife of the emperor Claudius, her own uncle (Ewww), and the mother of Nero (oh, my!).

So with an interesting pedigree like that, why haven’t you heard more about her? Well the elephant in the room when it comes to telling the story of a woman in the ancient world, and much of history alas, is who does the telling. The two primary surviving historical accounts of her time are written by two senators, Tacitus and Suetonius, roughly a hundred years later. Both had a major axe to grind when it came to the idea of a woman stepping out of her ‘proper’ role and, heaven forbid, wielding a little power for herself.

Southern does an excellent job of demonstrating how Agrippina only shows up in the historical record at all as a foil or reaction to a male protagonist. Because of this, there are huge gaps when it comes to trying to form a cohesive narrative of her life. Most historians look at the gaps and just give up on trying to tell her story at all. Not Sothern. Instead she embraces the ambiguity and speculation with gusto and produces a convincing and entertaining account.

It is really hard to do her style justice by just describing it, so I’ll just quote a great passage here concerning Agrippina’s mother, yet another Agrippina, and her return to Rome after her husband’s death:

Agrippina the Elder returned to Rome in 19CE with two symbolic middle fingers raised in Tiberius’s direction, while Tiberius sulked in his palace. The atmosphere went slowly downhill from here. But they were family, and – like Michael Bluth – the Julio-Claudians put family first. They couldn’t just avoid one another and get on with their lives, and Agrippina the Elder didn’t want that anyway. Agrippina the Elder wanted revenge.

So clearly this is not your father’s ancient history. But if you give this excellent history a chance, you will be thanking the gods that it isn’t when you finish.

Home: Book to Movie

In this particular case, I watched the movie well before I had ever even heard of the book. This could be because: I never paid attention to the credits or because the book is not under the name Home. It is titled The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex.

Having discovered the book, I jumped at the chance to read it and write this review. The concept of alien/human friendship has always been fascinating to me. Let me tell you, it is definitely worth the read. Having watched the movie before reading the book, I went in expecting a heartwarming tale: I got that but in a unexpected way.

Spoilers ahead for the book and movie

The plot of the story is still the same in both. Alien’s come, move the humans to another region, take over the world, and Tip has to take a trip with one of the aliens to find her mom. But by simply explaining this before “move in day,” it changes a majority of the story. Sort of like remixing or twisting a fairy tale.

The character names in the book change a bit as well. Tip still has the same name with more explanation. Our main Boov’s name, the Boov are the aliens, is completely different though. It went from Oh to J.Lo. (He will be referred to as Our Boov to cut down on confusion) Our Boov calls it their “earth name” as their real name is unpronounceable by humans.

One of the biggest differences is the time frame. The movie shows that the Boov arrive on earth, move in, and relocate the humans all in one day. In the book, the Boov arrive six months before they even reveal themselves and their trip takes another couple months. The entire book’s story lasts a little longer than a year. In the movie, Tip’s trip is about three days.

Another big difference is the perspective you get. In the movie we are really seeing it through the eyes of the Boov. The book is from Tip’s perspective. This wildly changes the plot. Through Tip’s eyes we see a more typical alien invasion story. This includes alien abduction, doom’s day looting, and the ”fight” against the Boov.

The villain has changed as well. The Gorg are only one in the movie and they appear towards the end with the intent of catching the Boov and, after that fails, destroying the earth. In the book they are one but have cloned themselves over and over so now there are many of the one. The Gorg also negotiate in the book, instead of immediately destroying the planet which, good on them.

Book Tip’s mom gets a makeover and a bit more of a part to play. In the book her mom is portrayed as a less than stellar parent, where Tip is mostly the adult. In the movie, Tip is more of the kid. Within the year that the book takes place, Tip’s mom changes drastically, much to Tips surprise.

Some minor things that changed between the two:

• The scene where our Boov jumps into water. The book has our Boov jump in to rescue Pig (the cat) as well as the camera Tip has been using to document the trip. Movie Boov jumps in to get away from his body’s reaction to music/dancing.

• In the movie we have a brief scene where our Boov reacts to Pig (the cat). Movie Boov doesn’t know what a cat is, book Boov knows what a cat is and cats adore him because he smells like a fish.

• The book and movie end about the same with the Gorg not destroying the earth and the Boov leaving as well. The book had more cats involved than you would expect though.

All in all, after reading the book, I actually liked it better than the movie. The movie is funny and lighthearted while still having those heart clenching moments. The book, on the other hand, has a lot more emotion throughout. I do feel like its hard to compare the two as they almost seem to be completely different stories with the same baseline.

Either way I encourage you to read the book and watch the movie.

Hoarder’s Delight

A dozen years ago my mother flew to California to help my grandma pack up her tiny apartment and move into an assisted living home. Now, my grandma wasn’t the classic definition of a hoarder. There were no precarious stacks of yellowed newspapers or National Geographic magazines going back to the 1940s lying around. Grandma Flower was more of a pack rat: squirreling away slips of paper she’d scribbled on or pretty papers that caught her fancy, even if she never looked at them again.

During the visit, my mom and grandma sat on the couch watching television. My mom studied my grandma as she ripped a piece of Kleenex into tiny pieces and shoved them down the side of the couch. “Hey mom, why are you doing that, why are you tucking pieces of Kleenex into the sides of the couch?” My mom asked gently. Bewildered (and no doubt embarrassed about someone witnessing her little ritual) my grandma spat out “I just don’t know, Linda!” Now my brother and I yell it at each other when we catch each other doing something downright goofy.

In T. Kingfisher’s The Twisted Ones, Mouse’s aging father asks her to clear out her deceased grandmother’s home in rural North Carolina. Mouse thinks, why not? She’s a freelance editor and can work anywhere. Plus, her father said whatever the house sells for she can keep. Mouse and her hound dog Bongo head to North Carolina. How bad could the old woman’s place be since the last two years of her life were spent in a retirement home?

Turns out, pretty damn bad. The house is crammed with the junk of a long life; a house of nonsense collections of items her grandmother couldn’t throw out. Had her grandmother been a kind and warm person, the task might have been a terrible emotional war, but Mouse’s grandmother was nothing but mean with a cruel streak ten miles wide. Instead of taking only a few days, Mouse realizes it’s going to take weeks to clear the house out, especially when she finds a room dedicated solely to her grandma’s creepy doll collection.

She picks out the most livable looking room to stay in and finds a journal written by her step-grandfather. She barely remembers the man. He was mostly a quiet person who read the newspaper all day. As Mouse reads through the journal, she starts to wonder if he had been in the active stages of dementia. He mentions marrying Mouse’s grandmother because ‘They’ steer clear of her. There was something about her that ‘They’ despised and avoided.

He mentions his birthplace in Wales and wonders if ‘They’ crossed the ocean with him. Because really, the old gods and creatures, whose only joy lies within darkness, like to follow humans wherever they go. They’re like ancient pop stars who fear being left behind and made irrelevant. Cotgrave, her step-grandfather, had a mantra he repeated to himself to keep ‘Them’ away: I made faces like the faces in the rocks, and I twisted myself about like the twisted ones, and I lay down flat on the ground like the dead ones.

Mouse finds the sing-song chant creepy but chalks it up to an old man whose mind was beginning to sour. In the following days making trips to the dump (bye bye terrifying dolls) the chant begins to roam through her mind more and more. One night she’s awoken by her dog Bongo who is growling at the window. Mouse looks out to see deer crossing the front lawn except one of them seems disfigured, its legs bent at odd angles. Pretty weird but nothing to be afraid of.

Taking a break from cleaning one afternoon, she takes Bongo for a walk in the woods. The house itself is out in the boonies with a couple of neighbors down the road. Mouse and Bongo follow a trail only to discover something grotesque hanging from a tree. It looks like a deer, but the skull is upside down and pieces of it seem to be held together with wires and strips of cloth. Is it alive in that tree and watching her? It makes a clicking sound: rocks hanging in its chest knock against rib bones, like wind chimes from the deepest reaches of hell.

Mouse and Bongo almost break a land speed record running back to the house. After a fright, humans are good at rationalization, our brains making excuses for what has been seen. But that night she’s woken again by Bongo’s growl. The thing she saw hanging from a tree is at her window and looking at her. There’s no explaining that one. Mouse fears she might be losing her mind.

She’s made friends with people down the road, people her grandmother labeled sneeringly as hippies. Foxy is head of the household, a woman in her late fifties and far from a hippie. More like Annie Oakley, target shooting over her shoulder using only a mirror. Mouse tells her everything that’s been happening and Foxy’s not surprised. She says there has always been spooky happenings in the woods and even more remote places. People don’t talk about it much and treat it like a biting insect: if we don’t bother it, it won’t bother us.

Not really relieved to hear that otherworldly creatures exist and people just accept it, Mouse is ready to pack up her dog and go back home. Her father gave her an easy out. If cleaning out the house was unimaginable, then it could be bulldozed and the land cleared. But before Mouse can make her getaway, Bongo disappears. There’s no way Mouse will leave without him. Foxy invites herself along on the search, because what lies on the edge of their known world is a different and uninviting world.

This was a unique book that brought old customs and beliefs into this century, along with a compulsively relatable friendship between a woman and her dog. Great. Now I can’t see a deer without imaging its skull pressed against my window, watching me. I’d better twist myself about like the twisted ones. Maybe that will help.