Back, Sack & Crack (& Brain)

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Back, Sack & Crack (& Brain): A Rather Graphic Novel About Living With Embarrassing Health ProblemsBack, Sack & Crack (& Brain): A Rather Graphic Novel About Living With Embarrassing Health Problems by Robert Wells
Format: Original Graphic Novel
Illustrated by: Robert Wells
Publisher: Robinson
Published: 2017
Length: 224 pages

We came across this in Forbidden Planet while we were browsing nerdy things this summer in London, and I was excited to see what it was all about. In this graphic novel, Robert Wells details his long-term struggle with various health issues, namely stomach problems and chronic, intermittently crippling, groin and back pain. He writes about how these symptoms first presented themselves, his difficulty in trying to get a diagnosis, and how these problems have affected his everyday life for the past twenty years.

I have Crohn’s disease, and as with most people with any kind of chronic intestinal issues, it took quite a few years to get a proper diagnosis. I spent over five years in and out of doctors’ offices, each time being told I just had irritable bowel syndrome before being immediately dismissed. None of the drugs prescribed seemed to help at all, and it was a very frustrating and frightening time in my life. I wasn’t always sick, but there was no way to predict when I would be and seemingly no way to treat it.

So a lot of what he describes in this graphic novel really hit home for me – the fear of not knowing what’s wrong with you, the frustration of struggling to get to the doctor’s office while sick for an appointment that amounts to nothing, the anxiety of getting on public transportation with no access to a washroom, the initial shame of having an embarrassing disorder (irritable bowel, I mean really?), having to miss out on social events with vague excuses.

#CrohnsLife in comic form.

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When you’re sick with an unknown illness over a long period, it can feel very lonesome. It feels like there’s no one else who understands what you’re going though, so when someone does show interest, it can be difficult not to unload on them hours upon hours of details – this doctor ignored me, the next two said I had this, one finally prescribed me this drug, it didn’t work so then I went on this, we then tried a different dosage, meanwhile I was trying this on my own – and on and on. There’s something in you that really wants to get across the full frustration of what’s happened. He’s been quite ill for a huge part of his life, so that’s a lot to unload, and this comic unfortunately falls into that trap a little too much. It is a memoir of his sickness, and sometimes I think he prioritized minute details over entertainment, although it does feel like that was a conscious decision. I imagine this was very therapeutic to write and draw.

A running theme in this is his doctors telling him the problem is in his head, and while he clearly hasn’t imagined all of these issues, he does come to the realization by the end that the stress of worrying could be making his symptoms worse. Reading that was a nice reminder to myself. Stress can really affect Crohn’s, and I have the uncanny ability to see everything that could possibly go wrong at any moment. I worry about getting sick, which in turn can make things worse, which then makes me more anxious, and it becomes a self-destructive cycle. While we were in Australia last month, I did try to be mindful about how much I worry about my illness and remind myself that I can’t control everything. I feel like it really helped, actually.

There’s no cure for Crohn’s, but I’m on drugs now that control it fairly well at the moment, and I have a wonderfully patient and understanding girlfriend, so I’m in a much better place. I have off days, and I still struggle with some drug side-effects and lingering anxiety, but Crohn’s can get quite nasty for people, so I consider myself lucky.

I really enjoyed this. I’m not sure how it would read to someone who couldn’t relate to what he’s going through, but he does do a great job of conveying what it feels like to live with chronic pain and an embarrassing illness. And props to him for having the confidence to write this. He really doesn’t hold back, particularly when drawing himself nude. I mean, give yourself at least a bit of a break, man. No one would know.

The Dinner

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The DinnerThe Dinner by Herman Koch
Published: 2009
Narrated by: Clive Mantle
Translated By: Sam Garrett (from Dutch in 2012)
Length: 08:55 (292 pages)

I’ve stated before that I enjoy unlikable curmudgeons for protagonists. Not in every book I read, but when I come across one I do consider it a treat. There’s something exciting about reading a character who completely personifies your worst Monday morning attitude, and this is one area where The Dinner succeeds.

Two couples meet at an expensive restaurant. The husbands are brothers, one was a school teacher and the other is a politician months away from an inevitable win. Over the course of the dinner, a dark family truth is revealed and we learn how they discovered this and how they plan to cope.

It’s a difficult novel to summarize, because a large part of the enjoyment of this is the slow reveal of the truth throughout the novel, the truth of the events that occurred as well as the true personalities of the characters. The novel, when not in flashback, takes place entirely in and around the restaurant. It’s the sort of story that depends completely on pacing, and Herman Koch really nailed that.

A terrible criminal act was committed, and the question of the novel is how the family will react and why they’ll react how they do. It’s interesting to see unfold, particularly when the characters are unsavoury and unpredictable.

Spoiler

What I didn’t enjoy is how Koch explained the behaviour of the protagonist and his son, how he essentially implied that Asperger’s was the cause of these people being violent sociopaths. He said in interviews that he didn’t want to name a disease, that he kept it vague to avoid people calling it a crude caricature, but in so obviously hinting at it the result was the same, even if he tried to rid himself of any personal responsibility.

There was really no need to even include this in the story. Trying to link this behaviour to a hereditary medical issue actually comes across as less believable than linking it to his environment and upbringing.

[collapse]

Anyhoo, despite some problems, I found this to be a compelling read. Having a story take place throughout a dinner, with the actual narrative being divided up by course, was fun as well. I liked how he gave character clues around how they interacted with the food and service staff. The reviews on this seem to be very divided, with some people absolutely hating it, but I had a fun time listening to this one on audiobook.

Believe Me: A Memoir of Love, Death, and Jazz Chickens

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Believe Me: A Memoir of Love, Death, and Jazz ChickensBelieve Me: A Memoir of Love, Death, and Jazz Chickens by Eddie Izzard
Published: 2017
Narrated by: Eddie Izzard
Length: 14:37 (368 pages)

I’ve always been a fan of Eddie Izzard, so I was excited when I saw he had written a memoir and narrated it himself. I love self-narrated comedian memoirs. The book spends quite a bit of time on his young life, revolving around the early lose of his mother, and then continues on with his decade-long struggle to launch his comedy career – from street performing to live sketch comedy, and eventually to stand-up.

During this period, he was also coming to terms with being transgender. Coming out as trans today must be terrifying, but I can only imagine how that must have felt back then, with essentially no support. These days people at least have the Internet and a few public role models. It doesn’t mean their home life will be any easier, but at least there’s online support and evidence of people leading healthy and happy lives. He started trying to research this over thirty years ago in a library and eventually found a local support group, after first trying to reach out to a medical professional who essentially ignored him.

I always assumed his coming out must have been made easier by being a famous comedian. Society just tends to be more lenient on performers in that way, writing anything off as artistic eccentricity, but he came out before he was even street performing. I don’t think I’d have the confidence to walk out in public in a dress today, let alone back then. Thankfully it all seemed to go quite well for him. His father was accepting and, while he did have some confrontations, he seemed to be able to live openly quite peacefully.

This really jumps all over the place, covering a wide number of topics and stages of his life, just like you’d imagine a book written by Eddie Izzard would do. It finishes with his amazing charity run of 27 marathons in 27 days, which is just ridiculous. Sometimes I have trouble getting out to buy groceries.

This is definitely one to get on audiobook. He’s constantly going off on footnote tangents in his meandering way, the same as he does in his stand-up and in interviews, even looking things up live on his phone during the audiobook recording. It really adds a lot to the experience.

October in Review

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Books Acquired:
The Happy Numbers of Julius Miles by Jim Keeble
The Amateur Emigrant/The Silverado Squatters by Robert Louis Stevenson
My Cat Yugoslavia by Pajtim Statovci
I Am the Wolf: Lyrics and Writings by Mark Lanegan
If We All Spat at Once They’d Drown: Drawings About Class by Sam Wallman
Dear Writer Revisited by Carmel Bird
Law School: Sex and Relationship Advice by Benjamin Law, Jenny Phang
Pickled: Pickles, Vinegars, Kimchi and More by Freddie Janssen
Appetite by Nigel Slater
#takedown by David Blumenstein

Books Read:
Mortality by Christopher Hitchens
Nod by Adrian Barnes
The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark

I always have big plans to read on vacation, but it almost never happens, and last month was no exception. Very little reading, but we spent three weeks in Australia, so that’s a fairly good excuse.

Lee-Ann used to live there, and has travelled around the country quite a bit, but this was my first visit. For the first week and a half we were in Western Australia, staying in Mandurah. We spent a couple of days eating and drinking our way through the Margaret River region and also managed to spend a bit of time in both Perth and Fremantle. We got to go out on the water a couple of times as well. I drove the boat one day, which was very exciting, and a we were lucky enough to find a few dolphins while we were out there. I’ll put a short video up on my Instagram and Twitter once I get around to editing all of my snippets together.

Will be sorry to leave Falcon in a couple of days. It's been a great trip so far.

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Spent the day in Castlemaine today. What a cool, laid-back town.

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We like to try to take selfies with animals when we travel. From a safe distance, of course. Side note: I don’t know how to smile for the camera, so I just open my mouth.

Continuing the tradition with a kangaroo selfie!

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Alpaca selfie!

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We did visit quite a few bookshops and buy quite a few books. I noticed that several of the shops had these blind date books, where they wrap a novel in paper and write vague descriptions on the front, which I thought was a fun idea. I decided to pick up one, and managed to choose a book I hadn’t heard of and didn’t own.

Saw a couple bookshops with these @ablinddatewithabook stands. Thought I'd try one!

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Movies watched:
The Big Sick (2017) – Sitting on planes for about forty hours this month, and having a touch of motion sickness that made reading tricky, I watched a lot of movies. I’ll just list my favourites here, and this was one of the best. I loved it. Having been a fan of Kumail Nanjiani and his wife Emily Gordon for years, I was excited to see this story of how they met after hearing about it on podcasts and such in the past. Funny and touching.

Hidden Figures (2016) – The inspiring and true account of a group of black mathematicians and their integral involvement in NASA during the race to space. Loved this also – a perfectly paced story.

Tucker and Dale vs Evil (2010) – We watched this in the office on Halloween, and it was so much better than I’d anticipated. Hilarious and surprisingly smart horror comedy.

Wilson (2017) – I read this comic just before I started this weblog and really enjoyed it, although it hit weirdly close to home for me at the time. The main character is quite unique in how he’s both misanthropic and desperately searching for human connection. Very funny dark comedy, and I wouldn’t have considered Woody Harrelson for the part if you’d asked me, but he did a brilliant job.

TV watched:
Chef’s Table: Season 3 (2017) – I love this series! I’d forgotten that we’d never gotten around to finishing this, so we watched the last few episodes. Great as always.

Games played:
Golf Story (2017) (Nintendo Switch) – I’ve only played the first couple of hours of this, on the plane to Australia, but it was a fun little concept. I’m not sure if it’s going to hold my attention to the end, but I plan to eventually get back to it.

What have you been reading/watching/playing this month?

Ninefox Gambit

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Ninefox Gambit (The Machineries of Empire #1)Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee
Published: 2016
Narrated by: Emily Woo Zeller
Series: The Machineries of Empire #1
Length: 10:52 (384 pages)

Captain Kel Cheris is a brilliant captain in a very strictly run army and finds herself disgraced by running unapproved formations while trying to keep her soldiers alive, but she is given one chance to redeem herself. To do so, she must take back a lost fortress with the help of a master tactician from the past. He has never lost a battle, but he’s also a murderous traitor.

The first chapter of this was so confusing, with so much unexplained terminology, that I nearly gave up. A lot of people seem to see this as part of the book’s charm, throwing the reader in headfirst and letting them slowly figure things out, but charmed I was not. I listened to this as an audiobook, and when I listen to a book I want to absorb just as much of it as I would if I was reading it on the page. I’ll let my mind wander during podcasts or music, but for audiobooks I actively listen. So a book like this, that is purposefully unclear, really throws me for a loop. I appreciate the author trying to avoid info dumping at the beginning, but it just leaves the reader feeling like they missed some required exposition. I listened to the first chapter twice, thinking I must have missed something.

Once the book gets rolling, it has a gripping story with some fascinating characters that also happen to have a refreshing take on the theme of gender identity and sexuality, something that isn’t focused on but is there in the background. The characters change and surprise you throughout the novel, and the ideas he’s come up with really do feel fresh, but the writing made it difficult to appreciate. This is the first in a trilogy, and I’m still unsure if I should continue or not. Now that I have a grasp of the world, maybe the second book will be a smoother read?

Good Bones and Simple Murders

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Good Bones and Simple MurdersGood Bones and Simple Murders by Margaret Atwood
Published: 1994
Length: 165 pages

This is a collection of short stories and essays covering a wide variety of topics. I was never a huge fan of collections like this, and while I have warmed up to them over the last couple of years, I still had a hard time with this little book.

A lot of these felt like writing exercises to me, the sort of thing that can be more fun to write than to read. I like the idea of short, experimental fiction, but a lot of the pieces here felt very by the number. The topics were varied and interesting, but her handling of each of them felt very similar and, because of that, predictable, even when many of the stories or essays seemed to want to surprise the reader. I think if I read one story a month, I would have enjoyed a lot more of this, but you can really see the stitching when you read them all one after another.

That said, a few of these I absolutely loved. I was happy to see In Love With Raymond Chandler included in this, which is a piece I posted about six years ago, in which she gushes over Chandler’s writing in the form of an imagined love affair. Murder in the Dark and Happy Endings are two others that come to mind as favourites.

I may have to re-read parts of this. I have a feeling I’ll enjoy more of it when I’m in the right frame of mind and spread out the reading a bit more.

September in Review

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Books Acquired:
None

Books Read:
The Dinner by Herman Koch
Microserfs by Douglas Coupland
Three Men on the Bummel by Jerome K. Jerome
Small Gods: A Discworld Graphic Novel by Terry Pratchett, Ray Friesen

The reading slump! It continues! September was a bit of an unfocused month for me, but I did finally finish Microserfs, which I actually did enjoy despite not being able to read more than a few pages of it each night. It’s an incredibly quick read too, but I think I was just a bit scattered these last couple of months. I also need to learn to put down a book if it isn’t working out, but I’m very stubborn and will instead ruin reading for myself while I slowly crawl to the last page.

Not much interesting happened this month, but I did get a new phone that I’m very excited about. It’s a Galaxy Note 8 (the one after the phone that exploded last year – fingers crossed). It’s my first Android phone, so I’ve been obsessively watching tutorials on it, digging through pages of settings, and customizing the themes and widgets. Usually the process of switching to a new phone is unsatisfyingly smooth, so it’s been nice to spend some time playing with the ins and outs of a new operating system.

The only real event we went to this month was Brewery and the Beast, an annual event hosted at a local brewery here. Restaurants and farms from around the region have booths where they provide sample plates of different food, all based around meat and seafood. The first year they had really interesting things like beef heart tartare, but it’s become less adventurous over the years. This year was a bit better, though, and we ate some delicious food. My opinion might have been swayed somewhat with the bone marrow I received as soon as I arrived. Definitely a step in the right direction!

Freshly groomed. She'll be white for at least a day.

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And this marinated scallop and pork belly from @the_bluecrab. Delicious! #MeatFestYYJ

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I also didn’t write a single post last month, apart from the last wrap-up, so I’ve fallen quite a bit behind. I think I might do a catch-up post on multiple books at once to get back on track. We’ll be in Australia for three weeks this month, so I doubt I’ll get much done during that period, but hopefully I’ll come back refreshed and ready to dive back in.

Movies watched:
None

TV watched:
The Guild (2007-2013) – We went on a bit of a Felicia Day binge this month. Lee-Ann hadn’t seen The Guild or Dr. Horrible, so we went through both. The Guild is still fun, but it definitely has a different vibe watching it today rather than ten years ago. I think a large part of the appeal back then was just watching a show that featured gaming terminology and ideas that weren’t watered down for the sake of a wide audience. Outside of CSI episodes where they track down someone who went on a killing spree after playing violent video games, that wasn’t, and still isn’t really, something that you found in mainstream media, so it was fun to see.

Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog (2008) – This still holds up well today. Good songs, and a fun story that doesn’t take itself seriously but still manages to have to poignant moments.

Games played:
PLAYERUNKNOWN’S BATTLEGROUNDS (2017 pre-release) (PC) – My unfocused month wasn’t just in reading. I couldn’t really focus on any new games either, so whenever I got the itch, I’d just play a round or two of this. I’m getting better, but still consistently die in very stupid ways. It’s fun, though.

What have you been reading/watching/playing this month?

August in Review

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Books Acquired:
The Blue Guitar by John Banville
The Complete Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham
The Chrysalids by John Wyndham
Small Gods: A Discworld Graphic Novel by Terry Pratchett
Ship of Magic by Robin Hobb
The Wilful Princess and the Piebald Prince by Robin Hobb
Back, Sack & Crack (& Brain) by Robert Wells
The Gastronomical Me by M.F.K. Fisher
The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark
The Girls Of Slender Means by Muriel Spark
The Sellout by Paul Beatty
Tetris: The Games People Play by Box Brown
Travels With My Aunt by Graham Greene
The Paintings That Revolutionized Art by Claudia Stauble
The Innocence and Wisdom of Father Brown by G.K. Chesterton

Books Read:
Believe Me: A Memoir of Love, Death, and Jazz Chickens by Eddie Izzard

This was a bit of a weird month. I spent the entirety of August reading Douglas Coupland’s Microserfs incredible slowly, still not finished, and the only thing I actually got through was an audiobook, Eddie Izzard’s memoir (which was great). You might think from the above list that I spent all the time I should have been reading spending money in bookstores, and you would be correct.

The first six books are from local shops here, mostly used and a little birthday gift to myself, and the rest are from various bookstores around London. We spent a week there on holiday, with a day in Brighton, and we made a point to do a bit of a book crawl. Of the seven or eight shops we visited, I’d say my top three were Daunt Books, the London Review Bookshop, and Foyles. The London Review Bookshop was small but had a fantastic selection. I came out of there with the Muriel Spark books. Daunt Books, my favourite, was a great little shop that had everything categorized by country, containing both authors from the country and books set there. Foyles was like a little Powell’s Books, which is a very positive thing.

London book haul! Partly the fault of @SavidgeReads. Thanks for the bookshop recommendations!

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We also loved @foylesforbooks. It reminded us a lot of @powellsbooks, which is always a plus.

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Pork and black pudding scotch egg from #boroughmarket. Delicious!

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As you can see from the book haul photo above, I also bought my first two Folio Society editions, both used for a pretty good price. I don’t really want to get into collecting those books, as that path leads to a diet of instant ramen, but I’ll always keep an eye out for well-priced copies. Both Travels With My Aunt and the Father Brown Stories have been on my mental to-read list for a while now.

It was a fun little trip. We visited the Tate Modern, which I hadn’t been to and really enjoyed. I’d also never been to Brighton before, and was pleasantly surprised. What a cool little town. I turned the ripe old age of thirty-five just before the trip, so it was nice to get out of the country and start the second half of my thirties off well.

Movies watched:
Kong: Skull Island (2017) – Every movie I watched this month was on an airplane. That’s my excuse. This was kind of a train wreck. It had such a weird tone, and maybe it was the sleep deprivation, but I couldn’t tell if it was intentional or not. It felt like a parody, but it wasn’t. Or was it? So bizarre.

Power Rangers (2017) – I watched this mainly because it was filmed in my hometown, and seeing it get destroyed by giant alien robots was very exciting for me. This was another one with a weird tone. A Power Ranger movie that opens with a very oddly placed bestiality joke? The young actors in this were actually really good, but the writing wasn’t really on their side. Overall, this was actually better than I expected it to be.

Snatched (2017) – This also wasn’t great, but I did find some of it funny. I give it a strong meh.

TV watched:
Departures: Season 3 (2010) – I love this series and was sorry to see it end. Half the team went on to film a scuba diving focused travel program, so we might seek that out soon.

Wet Hot American Summer: Ten Years Later: Season 1 (2017) – This was just as good as the last Wet Hot American Summer series. These just crack me up. I love how they start off as basic goofy comedies and just get more and more surreal as the season goes on.

Games played:
PLAYERUNKNOWN’S BATTLEGROUNDS (2017 pre-release) (PC) – I think I’m getting worse at this game, but it’s still fun.

Pyre (2017) (PC) – I’m still not finished, but this is the latest from one of my favourite game developers, Supergiant Games. Beautiful art and music, although it is dragging a bit in the second half.

Mario Kart 8 (2018) (Switch) – Lee-Ann bought me a Nintendo Switch for my birthday! She’s the best. We’ve mainly been playing Mario Kart, which is both fun and infuriating.

What have you been reading/watching/playing this month?

Get Jiro!

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Get Jiro!Get Jiro! by Anthony Bourdain and Joel Rose
Illustrated by: Langdon Foss
Series: Get Jiro #1
Publisher: Vertigo
Published: 2012
Length: 160 pages

I was very excited when this comic was announced, being a fan of everything Bourdain does, but I remember reading quite a few bad reviews for it. Comics are expensive, so I do like to be selective, but having read it now, it was actually much better than I thought it would be. He didn’t reinvent the medium or anything, but for a first time comic writer, it was an enjoyable story.

This takes place in a future L.A. where the city is now ruled by chefs, essentially crime lords with nice knife sets. All forms of entertainment are now gone. There are no sport teams anymore and no performing arts. Food is society’s main source of pleasure and extravagance. There are two main warring factions in power – one brings food in from around the globe to make specialty dishes and the other will only cook organic and local vegetarian food. Bourdain loves to take digs at the veggie crowd, which he gleefully does here, but both sides are equally demented.

Jiro is a renowned sushi chef and both factions want him. He has to decide which side, if any, to join. If he turns down either of these chefs, they’ll be after blood.

The plot is silly, the characters aren’t as interesting as they could have been, and the dialogue is a bit stilted, but it was a fun read. It’s hyper-violent and amusing, and it both pokes fun at and shows reverence to different aspects of food culture. Worth reading if you find yourself with a copy, but I probably wouldn’t run out to buy it unless you’re particularly interested in everything Bourdain does.

The Last Unicorn

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The Last UnicornThe Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle
Published: 1968
Series: The Last Unicorn, #1
Length: 294 pages

I loved the animated version of The Last Unicorn when I was a kid. All of the films from that studio fascinated me. They also did The Flight of Dragons (my favourite) and the most frightening version of The Hobbit you’ll ever watch. They were all a bit eerie and off-putting, as the motion, the character designs, and the adult voices always felt a bit wrong to me as a kid. That was part of what made them different and interesting, though.

I’m not sure how I didn’t know this, but it wasn’t until a few years back that I discovered this was based on a book. And not just any book, one that many people consider a true fantasy classic. I knew I had to read it at that point. I was worried that I’d be annoyed by the differences between the movie and the book, as happens sometimes when nostalgia gets mixed in, but thankfully I’ve been blessed with the memory of a goldfish. It’s also been nearly twenty-five years (that’s depressing) since I last saw it. As a result, every new scene was a nice flashback to childhood.

Real magic can never be made by offering someone else’s liver. You must tear out your own, and not expect to get it back.

This story is about a unicorn who discovers that she is the last of her kind. They are solitary creatures that don’t keep up with the outside world, but she overhears two hunters discussing how her species are no longer seen in the world, which leads her to leave her home to discover the truth. I’m not sure what else to reveal without falling into spoiler territory, but it’s much more interesting and unique than I’m making it seem. I’m terrible at synopses.

This turned out to be beautifully written. The prose reads like a fable, which would normally be a turn off for me, but it’s just enough that it adds a magical, surreal quality to the story without it becoming irritating. It’s also much more obviously meta than I remember the movie being, although I have a feeling I just didn’t really notice when I was a kid, but I loved how Schmendrick explained the world around them in terms of how fairy tales work.

The true secret in being a hero lies in knowing the order of things. The swineherd cannot already be wed to the princess when he embarks on his adventures, nor can the boy knock on the witch’s door when she is already away on vacation. The wicked uncle cannot be found out and foiled before he does something wicked. Things must happen when it is time for them to happen. Quests may not simply be abandoned; prophecies may not be left to rot like unpicked fruit; unicorns may go unrescued for a very long time, but not forever. The happy ending cannot come in the middle of the story.

There’s a great mix of creepy, tense moments (such as Mommy Fortuna’s carnival) and lighthearted moments, but there is always that feeling of dread and mystery in the background. It was that atmosphere, which was perfect from start to finish, that really made this feel special. I glad I decided to finally read this.

Peter S. Beagle has written quite a lot over the years, but I’m unfamiliar with his other books. There is a free short story sequel on his website that I’ll have to eventually read, though.