Across the Page: Something for Everyone

Always by Nicola Griffith (Riverhead Books)

Like any good thriller, Nicola Griffith’s Always grabs the reader by the collar with the very first sentence: "If you walk into a bar and there’s a man with a knife, what do you do? Walk out again. If you can." Of course, Always is not the story about a bar or a man brandishing a knife. It is, however, about recognizing the potential for danger in any situation — with a stranger, family member, lover or even within your own body.

Aud Torvingen, Griffith’s alluring heroine (and lesbian) from The Blue Place and Stay, is on her way from Atlanta to Seattle to meet her mother’s new husband. She’s traveling with good friend Matthew Dornan and has plans to handle complaints from the EPA and OSHA about one of her properties — a warehouse, she discovers, that was rented out for well below market value.

The lot in question is currently occupied by a harmless production team trying to finish a flawed film. Then again, when Aud and the entire crew are poisoned with an amalgam of drugs, she realizes there is something far more sinister behind the EPA and OSHA complaints than she’d initially thought. Meanwhile, she begins to fall in love with Kick, a former stuntwoman-turned-caterer who has a few secrets of her own — secrets that challenge Aud’s need for perfection.

Aud’s life is filled with superheroish advantages and exploits, from the extreme wealth she inherited from her father to the strength and skills she developed in martial arts. But Griffith also forces her to live in the real world, to make mistakes, and ultimately it is this duality that makes her such an interesting character to follow.

One of the real pleasures of reading Griffith’s work lies in her ability to weave together several different narratives. Always combines two distinct stories told in alternating chapters — Aud’s experience falling in love and protecting her property in Seattle combined with a series of self-defense lessons she teaches to a group of Southern women in Atlanta. The lessons (which are actually quite informative and practical) all take place before Aud leaves for Seattle and culminate in a surprise ending.

Though the book is largely driven by plot, the succinct prose is also absorbing. Griffith’s writing is precise whether the focus is food ("The oysters were cool and slippery and tasted like the beach at low tide"), sex ("If I let her, she could make me very happy"), body language ("It’s a language clearer than English. If words and actions conflict, believe the body"), commercialized fear ("More than eighty percent of us spend our lives afraid because that helps soap makers and computer manufacturers sell products"), or the complexity of a mother/daughter relationship ("We never said to each other, I love you. When I was little it had never occurred to me to believe otherwise. By the time I was old enough to wonder, I would not make myself vulnerable to ask").

Always is a strong addition to Griffith’s series, an engaging read regardless of whether or not you’re familiar with Aud Torvingen’s past adventures.

Stuck in the Middle: Seventeen Comics From an Unpleasant Age, edited by Ariel Schrag (Viking)

The inside jacket to Stuck in the Middle: Seventeen Comics From an Unpleasant Age asks the question, "Have you ever been called one or more of the following: Freak, Loser, Weirdo, Alien, Sucker, Slut, Skank, New Girl, Goth Boy, Crater Face, Nerd?"

Whether you’re still fighting your way through middle school or are lucky enough to have those hormone-infused years behind you, there is plenty to relate to and laugh about in this new collection of comics edited by out lesbian writer Ariel Schrag.

Stuck in the Middle presents 17 comics from 16 cartoonists with a variety of experiences and backgrounds. The stories hit all the traditional angst-ridden hot spots: tormenting bullies, misguided teachers, embarrassing parents, bad skin and, of course, unrequited love.

Vanessa Davis’ "B.F.F," an acronym I don’t have to explain, features the all-too-familiar tale of a friendship torn apart by the shared affection for one boy. Ariel Schrag’s sister, Tania Schrag, offers a fairly dense and complex piece about the impulse and consequences of "tattling" on bullies — i.e., it rarely comes back in anyone’s favor. Eric Enright’s "Anxiety" is a brilliant and simple analysis of a teenager’s slip into depression and thoughts of suicide.

Ariel Schrag’s piece "Plan on the Number 7 Bus" shows a teenage girl’s capacity for meanness against the development of a conscience. Similarly, Daniel Clowes’ "Like a Weed, Joe," is a beautifully illustrated and narrated story about growing up.

Ariel Bordeaux’s "The Disco Prairie Rebellion of ’81" is a hilarious account of how she came to embrace the term "weirdo." One of the more poignant pieces in the collection is Gabrielle Bell’s "Hit Me," about the impact of parental neglect.

What’s startling about many of these pieces is the emotional accuracy when exploring aggression (several include scenes with violence or the threat of violence), the insistence on receiving respect without any understanding of what the word means or how to offer it to another person, and the sheer strength of sexuality and identity in bloom.

As this tremendous books attests, it’s amazing any of us survive the experience of middle school. Then again, it also shows what many of us have already figured out: The freaks, losers, aliens, suckers and nerds usually end up being cooler in the end anyway.

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