THE DEVIL’S DETECTIVE by Simon Kurt Unsworth

28 the devil's detectiveOne of my favorite short stories is “Murder Mysteries,” by Neil Gaiman. It is, like a title says, a murder mystery, told in the same manner and style as countless murder mysteries before it. But it is unique in the sense that it is set in Heaven, where an angel is tasked with finding out the culprit behind Creation’s very first murder (or “Wrong Thing,” as it is called in the story, because there is no word for this particular cruel act among the Heavenly Host). It is a favorite not only because the conceit is exceedingly clever, but because the world (for a lack of a better word) it creates is just as ingenious and fascinating. Heaven is an actual city, gleaming and perfect. Its citizens, the angels — equally gleaming and perfect — are portrayed as workers, defined by their roles. The whole of Creation is being constructed inside a factory-like building, aspects of it discussed and decided by committee and delegated to teams of ethereal employees. It allows Gaiman play with the conventions of the gritty genre while still writing about shining, perfect beings. Seeing writers play around like that in stories is always fun.⠀

It’s a story I was reminded of countless times while making my way through The Devil’s Detective by Simon Kurt Unsworth. In many ways it reads like a distorted, perverse reflection of Gaiman’s seraphic murder mystery. And Upside Down version, as it were. Which is nothing if not appropriate, I think: as above, so below, and so forth.⠀

In The Devil’s Detective Hell also takes the form of a city, one populated by humans and demons alike. The former are given bleak tasks and roles to perform, while the latter, predictably, torture and torment them. It is a dreadful place, although not in the way you might initially imagine it. Because Unsworth has wrought a version of Hell that represents the scariest thing he could possible conceive: a bottomless pit of bureaucracy. Hell’s “operations” are overseen by a board of demons, with most of their work being relegated through a middleman, even. There are bars and brothels; offices and housing complexes. Trains and cabs are used to get around. The modern world as the underworld — or vice versa. There are even detectives, a thankless job in Hell if there ever was one.⠀

This novel follows such a person, our unfortunately named protagonist Thomas Fool, one of Hell’s Information Men, the infernal analogue to the sleuthing occupation.⠀

Hell is hosting angels, there to attend a slew of meetings where the parties of both Heaven and Hell perform a long-established practice of trading souls. The arrival of these heavenly beings coincides with a string of particularly horrific murders. Something is killing the humans of Hell, in a manner so gruesome that their very souls are released forcibly from their bodies, manifesting in a blinding blue light that dissipates in the accursed atmosphere. An atrocity that Fool and his team are sent to investigate.

(In Unsworth’s Hell, those condemned to it are reincarnated into a new body, carrying no knowledge of their previous life other than they have sinned and are now paying for it. It makes sense in a sadistic sort of way: how much more oppressive would Hell’s suffering feel were you still alive, after all?)⠀

Author Michael Chabon once said that detectives are great protagonists in mysteries because they have inherent access to every layer of society, from the proletariat to the elite. They can knock on any door. In gritty murder mysteries, these sleuthhounds often act as our guide through the more disreputable side of life. The Virgil to our Dante. In The Devil’s Detective, Fool gets to fill both roles of The Divine Comedy. He is the guide through this strange, twisted world, sure, but he himself is dragged along a journey through circles of Hell he never even fathomed.⠀

I’m focusing on the worldbuilding because it is this book’s strongest aspect. Unsworth writes a very vivid, markedly macabre setting and does a great job establishing a some semblance of logic to an inherently illogical place. There are rules in Hell, Fool repeatedly states throughout the story, they may make no sense, and they may get broken constantly, but there are rules just the same. It’s an engaging environment, and the sections where Fool just explores different districts of the city, searching for clues and answers, talking with characters of varying shapes and forms (the most curious of which being the Man of Plants and Flowers, a former human who has somehow transformed himself into, well, flowers and plants, and has spread himself throughout the city), were the ones that interested me the most. The world piqued my morbid curiosity, and I wanted to know more. It’s a rich backdrop, one that should easily lend itself to strong, solid plots.⠀

Which makes it that much more of shame that we don’t exactly get one here. There’s enough to maintain your interest throughout the book’s four hundred and so pages, but the mystery at the center of it all is a little lacking. I suppose it’s maybe because I’m not the most perceptive of readers, but one of the reasons I enjoy mystery stories so much is that I hardly ever figure them out before they are done, and I love being pleasantly surprised. I figured out the who-and-whydunit in The Devil’s Detective a couple chapters in, which meant that I read the rest of the book hoping that I was wrong because it seemed so obvious. It didn’t help that the resolution came accompanied with a lackluster final confrontation, in which our main character spends a lot of time being disoriented to the point of not being able to properly tell what is going on around him. The ending proper just sort of peters out, leaving the characters and the story hanging off the proverbial cliff, awaiting a second book to continue their tale. It was a little underwhelming, to say the least. ⠀

Still, I appreciated the excellent worldbuilding, and also the way the novel explores its central theme, which revolves around hope.⠀

At the beginning of the story, Fool receives a feather from the wings of one of the angels. The feather gives off a bright glow that never dulls, and gives Fool comfort and clarity. He keeps it close to him for the remainder of the story, embracing its light in moments of difficulty and distress. Hope is the thing with feathers, etc. ⠀

Hope is a double-edged sword in the world of The Devil’s Detective. At several points in the novel Fool bemoans the futility of it all. Why bother investigating horrific acts in Hell, when Hell will never cease to be a place in which horrific acts are the norm? Why bother standing outside the building in which the meetings between Heaven and Hell are held, waiting to become one of the souls chosen to be freed from torment? Fool is told plainly at one point that Hell lets its humans have some semblance of hope because it makes the ensuing torment that much more terrible. Shades of Gaiman, again: In an issue of The Sandman where protagonist Dream visits that universe’s version of Hell, Lucifer asks him what can hope serve in such a place. To which Dream replies, “What power would Hell have if those imprisoned here would not be able to dream of Heaven?” Why bother with anything at all?⠀

But hope also begets change. The feather acts as a catalyst for Fool. Against his better judgement, he starts to imagine a different way of life in Hell. He begins to feel hope. And the condemned humans, inspired by his acts, follow suit.⠀

And so The Devil’s Detective ends with change, both with Fool as a person and Hell as place, a change that happened because Fool and the people of Hell, despite their cruel circumstances, chose to go on, in the hopes that things will, eventually, get better. Which is all any of us can do, in the end, whether we’re living through hell or not. A fool’s hope indeed.

THE UMBRELLA ACADEMY: APOCALYPSE SUITE by Gerard Way and Gabriel Bá

27 the umbrella academyMy partner and I have been enjoying the Netflix adaptation of The Umbrella Academy, the comic book series by Gerard Way and Gabriel Bá. It’s a fun ride, the show, reveling in its chaotic, irreverent energy. We’re it. And it finally made me want to pick up the source material, which I had been aware of for ages but never really felt compelled to read.⠀

The show and the comic are definitely different beasts, though, similar only in the way they both embrace the extravagant essence of the story. The show is bolstered up by the performances of its actors, who clearly seem to be having fun with their roles. The comic takes delight in the sheer fact that it is a comic, convoluted connotations and all.⠀

It goes like this:

In an inexplicable worldwide event, forty-three extraordinary children were spontaneously born by women who’d previously shown no signs of pregnancy. Millionaire inventor Reginald Hargreeves adopted seven of the children; when asked why, his only explanation was, “To save the world.”

These seven children form The Umbrella Academy, a dysfunctional family of superheroes with bizarre powers. Their first adventure at the age of ten pits them against an erratic and deadly Eiffel Tower, piloted by the fearsome zombie-robot Gustave Eiffel. Nearly a decade later, the team disbands, but when Hargreeves unexpectedly dies, these disgruntled siblings reunite just in time to save the world once again.

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This was Gerard Way’s first mainstream comics project and his enthusiasm for the medium is apparent in the way he wholeheartedly embraces its inherent anarchic nature. There’s no gentle, gradual introduction to the world and the characters that fill it. You’re simply thrown into the deep end, and are expected to keep up. The Eiffel Tower is attacking Paris! The Umbrella Academy is coming! There’s a monkey! Now we’re in space! Back on Earth! In the future!⠀

It’s fun, if a little disjointed. You definitely get the sense that Way is heavily inspired by the Grant Morrison’s earlier, more psychedelic work — and, honestly, who could blame him? The similarities here are mostly superficial, though: we get the liveliness and playfulness, but lack the compassionate core that drives most of Morrison’s work. It’s a cold story. Still — Way’s talent is evident (Morrison would eventually take him under his wing of sorts) so perhaps the series only gets better in its subsequent volumes.

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Gabriel Bá does the art and will get no complaints from me. I love his work and style in general, and here he channels Mike Mignola — another favorite artist — at his most playful. The book just looks effortlessly cool. And as much as I enjoy the show I do wish it had implemented more of the comic’s aesthetic. Bá’s designs are just more fun, especially in the case of Luther (known mostly as Spaceboy in the comics), because the rubber suit of the show just doesn’t work at all, a fact I never fail to mention anytime the character walks on screen.⠀

(Speaking of the art: they got the inimitable James Jean to do the covers, which is always an excellent idea.)

Comics!

THE GIRLS OF SUMMER PART II

26 summer graphic novels

I read both Click and its sequel Camp, one right after the other, pretty much in a single sitting. It’s something I rarely do, even with other graphic novels, which I tend to read through fairly quickly. Which should help show just how much I enjoyed them. One of the things I’m always on the lookout for in middle grade books — and especially in middle grade graphic novels — are elements that remind me of the stories I used to love as a kid. This charming — so charming —series by Kayla Miller about a young girl trying to find a place in the world gave me major Pepper Ann and Doug vibes, both of which were some of my favorite animated series, so of course I dug these books as well. I probably enjoyed Camp just a tad more, but only because I love stories with remote, singular settings.


Lucy Knisley’s Stepping Stones didn’t remind me of anything in particular except for other Lucy Knisley books. Which is a good thing because I am a fan. Knisley is not only a great artist, but also probably one of the strongest memoirists working today. Skills that she brought out in full force for this book about a young city girl moving to the country with her mother and her new stepfather. Stepping Stones was advertised as Knisley’s first work of fiction, and when I finished it I was left feeling very impressed, thinking that as far as first steps go, this was a particularly skillful stride — but then in the back matter of the book Knisley writes of how the story is heavily inspired by her own childhood experiences. Which is sort of a cheat! At the end of the day, though, I won’t begrudge an artist for drawing from the well of a rich, storied life. Especially when it results in work of this quality. It’s still an impressive and auspicious debut, and I enjoyed reading it immensely. (Stepping Stones is supposed to be the first in a planned series, too, and I look forward to reading these future entries.)

THE GIRLS OF SUMMER

25 summer reads - the girls of summerLike most of the internet I really enjoyed Netflix’s adaptation of The Baby-Sitters Club. I thought it was utterly charming and clever. Timely and relevant, too: this is a kid’s show that handled a trans story better than most recent adult shows.⠀

Unlike most of the internet, however, I never read any of the books. (I didn’t read as a kid but even if I did I probably would have thought they were “girl books” and never picked them up, because this was the nineties and we were all ridiculous). The show didn’t exactly make me want to read one of the books now, but after I finished it I watched The Claudia Kishi Club documentary and that did it. It featured a bunch of cool people excitedly talking about their favorite childhood books and the power of representation and look infectious enthusiasm will always do it for me.⠀

I picked Baby-sitters on Board! mostly because it takes place on a cruise ship and I just find stories set on modes of transportation appealing. Also: Florida (which we all agree is terrible but it is also my second home). Like the show it was cute and charming, although not half as clever (but I’m not going to hold that against it). The story takes place around the same time I first visited Florida/Disney World too and it just brought all those memories back, which is nice. Nostalgia, man — always gets this reader.

Anyway Claudia Kishi is the best pass it on.⠀


The First Rule of Punk was just a gem. It starts as your typical new-kid-at-school-feels-like-an-outcast-until-she-finds-other-misfits kind of story. But then it quickly veers into and-then-they-form-a-ranchero-style-punk-band territory, and it becomes much more new and fun. It’s also the only book I’m aware of that uses zines as part of its format. Main character Malú’s energetic and cathartic collages are an integral part of the story (being her main method of expression) and author Celia C. Pérez did a great job incorporating them in. They were my favorite aspect of this middle grade novel.⠀

(Just realized that Florida also features in this book. All about themed reading here at ricardo reading.)

ANTI-RACIST READS

24-anti-racism

Reading. Learning. Growing.

There was a tweet making the rounds back when the BLM protests first started up, mocking the history books North American and colonized students have been indoctrinated with since time immemorial. It went: “Slavery was bad but then Lincoln fixed it! Then, segregation was also bad but Malcolm X didn’t need to be so mean about it. But MLK went on a big walk and fixed racism! The last racist left killed him but then he went to jail the end.”

Which is to say I probably learned more about BIPOC history and race relations from these two books (both of which are aimed at younger audiences) than I ever did in any history or social studies class. Which is only slightly wild, to say the least.

Stamped is a book I’ve been looking forward to since it was first announced. Dr. Ibram X. Kendi’s original tome is on my wishlist, and I will get around to it someday, but I confess to being more than a little bit intimidated by it. Heavy books about heavy subjects! There’s certain mental preparation I have to do before I am able to tackle them. But I was familiar with Jason Reynolds’ work enough to be certain that his own adaption for younger readers— or remix, as they call it — would be perhaps a bit more approachable, full of language that is as playful as it is thoughtful; as lyrical as it is meaningful. Which is essentially Jason Reynolds’ trademark style. And that is what we get here: an imminently readable, fiercely empathetic, endlessly illuminating history lesson. A handful of passages even made my eyes well up. Don’t pass up on this book.

On July 2, 1826, Jefferson seemed to be fighting to stay alive. The eighty-three-year-old awoke before dawn on July 4 and called out for his house servants. The enslaved Black faces gathered around his bed. They were probably his final sight, and he gave them his final words. He had been a segregationist at times, an assimilationist at other times—usually both in the same act—but he never quite made it to being antiracist. He knew slavery was wrong, but not wrong enough to free his own slaves. He knew as a child that Black people were people, but never fully treated them as such. Saw them as “friends” but never saw them. He knew the freedom to live was fair, but not the freedom to live in America. The America built on their backs. He knew that all men are created equal. He wrote it. But couldn’t rewrite his own racist ideas. And the irony in that is that now his life had come full circle. In his earliest childhood memory and in his final lucid moment, Thomas Jefferson lay there dying—death being the ultimate equalizer—in the comfort of slavery. Surrounded by a comfort those slaves never felt.


Whereas Stamped is concerned with the past and how it shaped our present, Tiffany Jewell’s This Book is Anti-Racist is more interested with how our current reality can shape our immediate future. And while Anti-Racist briefly talks about past events that led us to now, it is a thoroughly modern book. The amount of timely, relevant topics Jewell manages to cover in such a short amount of space (this book is less than 200 pages long) is truly staggering: activism (both true and performative); the internet’s influence on social discourse; internalized and institutionalized racism; prejudice and bias; identity and class. Jewell does more with these topics than a dozen hot take articles put together, and does so with grace, patience, and righteous outrage. Do not pass up on this book, either.

We have been conditioned to the bias of whiteness. We can undo this. People play a big role in keeping racism going. If we do not work to recognize our prejudices, we remain a part of the problem. When we become aware of our biases and our role in racism, then we can begin to understand how we are a part of a system that is much bigger than us.

My own education growing up may have been lacking, but I’m just glad that kids these days have access to books of this caliber, that discuss issues so often suppressed or actively ignored. Books that tell them — us — how things were, and how they are, and how they could be. Books that remind them — us — to keep growing, and learning, and reading.

READALIKES: MAD MEN

I rewatched the entirety of Mad Men a couple months ago. Because what better thing to do during lockdown than spend seven seasons with characters full of angst and ennui?

As is my wont, whenever I immerse myself into a show or film , I always get the urge to seek out some readalikes — books that, to my mind at least, share similarities with whatever it is I’m watching. My criteria for this is a little loose and ambiguous, admittedly: sometimes I look for similar moods and themes; oftentimes it’s just a matter of aesthetics. The last time I did this with Mad Men I ended up reading Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man and Rona Jaffe’s The Best of Everything — books that read the part. This time around I thought it’d be fun to explore books that looked the part.

So I went with comics, of course. The ones I went with were perhaps not as deep and brooding as Mad Men, but they were certainly as stylish.

They were also mostly about murder, which is surprisingly common with stories set during this time, which makes me wonder what is about this certain period of American culture that fits so well with crime thrillers and murder mysteries and thrillers? Is it the Hitchcock influence or is it that everyone was seemingly so repressed in those days that the thought of someone snapping only made one go, “well that was inevitable”?

In any case, I definitely consider it a genre (let’s call it Mid-Century Murder), and comics seem to do it better than almost anything else. And hardly any comic does it better than Darwyn Cooke’s adaptations of Donald E. Westlake’s Parker novels (written under the Richard Stark pseudonym), which follow the eponymous lead across heists, murderous plots, and other criminal activities. I had read — and deeply enjoyed — the first two books in the series, but this was my first time reading through all four volumes (Cooke sadly passed away before working on any more). Westlake’s Parker novels were famously cold, bare-boned affairs, featuring stark prose (hence the pen name) and simple, straightforward plots.

There’s a famous scene from the 1967 film Point Blank, one of the first adaptations of the the Parker stories. It features lead Lee Marvin walking down a hallway with deadly purpose. There’s no music playing, just the metronome-like sound of his steady footsteps, meant to evoke the relentless nature of the character. He sounds unstoppable — a bullet out of a gun.

It’s a rhythm that Cooke translated beautifully into comic book form. Throughout the books he uses wide panels, with little to no dialogue. And this, combined Cooke’s sleek and sharp artwork, evokes a sense of speed. Like Westlake’s original novels, these books are meant to be read quickly. There’s no real story development and certainly no character growth. As with any decent heist: you get in, you get out. The end. Like a bullet out of a gun.

Visually this is the most Mad Men-looking of the bunch, mostly due to Cooke’s general retro aesthetic, but also because Parker comes from the same squared-jawed, handsomely generic mold as Don Draper.

I read all four volumes in the series and had a blast with each one. The third volume, The Score, might just be my favorite, though.


Lady Killer, written by Joëlle Jones and Jamie S. Rich and illustrated by Jones herself, follows Josie Schuller, a seemingly perfect homemaker in a seemingly picture-perfect sixties household, who also happens to moonlight as a professional assassin. Hijinks ensue. (The series was pitched as “Betty Draper meets Hannibal,” but I think it’s more accurate to think of it as “Midge Maisel meets John Wick.”) This is essentially a dark comedy — emphasis on dark (morbid humor abound). Joëlle Jones and Jamie S. Rich’s writing is perfectly sly and tongue-in-cheek and pairs well with Jones’ art, which manages to evoke the commercial art of the era while still retaining that modern edge.

There are only two volumes so far. I enjoyed the second one a lot more, mostly because it ramps up its lounge aesthetic.


On the more serious end of the spectrum we have The Fade Out by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, who pretty much have the crime corner of comics covered. This series owes a lot more to Old Hollywood lore and the visual flair of film noir than it does the sleek aesthetics of the mid-fifties. True to conventions, it tells the story of the tragic murder of a rising starlet. Unlike Parker and Lady Killer, this is played as straight as it could be, which is probably why I didn’t vibe with is as much. Brubaker’s writing is great, and Phillips’ art is fantastic, but it just didn’t speak to me as much as the rest of these readalikes so I don’t think I’ll be continuing it.

BOOKMAIL

Another 📚📦 courtesy of 𝐍𝐢𝐠𝐡𝐭 𝐖𝐨𝐫𝐦𝐬! This month’s theme was another I couldn’t pass up. Latinx representation! In horror! Yes, please.⠀

Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic is a book that’s been on my radar for a while, and in fact I was considering getting it for this year’s Hallowe’en reads literally the day before getting the package. I had no idea which books were coming in this package, so it was a lovely bit of cosmic coincidence. Would you just look at that cover?⠀

I had never heard of Adrian Ernesto Cepeda’s  La Belle Ajar, but it gets instant points for the title being just an excellent pun. It’s a collection of horror-tinged poems inspired by Silvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, which definitely sounds interesting and deliciously 𝔫𝔬𝔫𝔢 𝔪𝔬𝔯𝔢 𝔤𝔬𝔱𝔥, 𝔢𝔱𝔠.⠀

Lots of goodies accompanied these two books. Bookmarks! Author notes! Book plates! Stickers! Coffee! I was particularly glad to find the stickers since I just recently got the urge to cover my laptop with them and these make excellent additions. The coffee I brewed it a couple days ago and it was pretty dang good! You can find all the makers tagged in the photo. ⠀

Thanks once again for the neat things and the TBR fodder, Night Worms!⠀

As always, you can check them out on their website or over on Instagram .

BOOKMAIL

Most recent 📚📦 comes courtesy of 𝐍𝐢𝐠𝐡𝐭 𝐖𝐨𝐫𝐦𝐬! Was quite excited to finally get this.⠀

For those who don’t know: Night Worms is a monthly subscription package with a heavily-curated focus on horror books and other genre-related goodies.⠀

Horror is not my main thing, although I do have a deep appreciation for it, especially around the Hallowe’en season, as my Instagram feed can attest. But Night Worms has been on my radar for a while now, mostly due to other bookish people being subscribed to it. I would see all the unboxings, and the stuff looked not only top notch, but fun, which I always value in horror. ⠀

Fun was what led me to finally make a purchase. Like most other subscription services, they do themes, and the one for this package (June’s) was “The Boys of Summer,” a phrase that instantly invoked the kind of horror that I generally gravitate towards — stories like Stephen King’s “The Body” / Stand by Me, The Goonies, and, of course, Stranger Things. Dark coming-of-age tales tinged with nostalgia and whimsy.⠀

Which is totally the vibe the contents of this package seem to capture. Would you just look at that tea packaging?⠀

You can check them out on their website or over on Instagram (their account is a lot of fun).

BOOKED by Kwame Alexander

20-bookedWell, hello there.⠀

Thing’s are a bit overwhelming, aren’t they? At least more so than they were before, and they already pretty dang whelming. I’ve certainly been feeling it, which is why I’ve been more or less neglecting this blog. I’m still reading, but haven’t felt enough creative energy for writing out my thoughts, much less for taking and editing pictures. I’ll get back on it soon enough, I expect.⠀

In the meantime: read more books by Black authors. The current discourse focuses mostly on non-fiction and understandably so: one of the many things the BLM movement has taught us is that most of us have so much to learn, still. Non-fiction works are crucial. But I am a firm believer in the power of fiction to help us see the world through the eyes of people who are not you, and I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the importance of reading it, too. Stories are, after all, the ultimate empathy engine.⠀

Kwame Alexander’s Booked is a particularly lovely example. I finished it back in April, and I liked it so much I read it again before the month was out. It’s about Nick Hall, a smart young Black kid who lives and breathes soccer, and how he deals with having his world turned upside-down after some turmoil erupts in his home life. Helping him deal with this is an eccentric, decidedly uncool, hip hop loving librarian who is constantly giving Nick books he thinks will help. I loved the emphasis of words in the story, too: Nick’s overbearing father is a linguistics professor with “chronic verbomania.” So much so that he has written a book of obscure words that he makes his son read every day. Nick resents this, of course, but he also very clearly loves words, as he is constantly using them in sly, clever ways. It’s a novel written in verse, which I had never read before, and I found the experience highly enjoyable. It’s very specifically a book about language, and about how words can hurt us just as much as they can heal us. Which is something we all need to be reminded of from time to time. ⠀

It also happened to round up the trifecta of sports books I was picking up at the time. That was another fun little reading detour for me.

BOOKMAIL

Getting a lot of graphic novels lately. I’ve been a little stressed out these past couple of weeks, and comics always help me deal with that.⠀

I’ve been following Noelle Stevenson’s work since the days of Tumblr (I still think of her as gingerhaze), when I came across her Broship of the Ring comics, which to this day still stands as my all-time favorite AU (𝒉𝒊𝒑𝒔𝒕𝒆𝒓 𝒉𝒐𝒃𝒃𝒊𝒕𝒔) and I’ve really loved seeing her career grow over the years. The Fire Never Goes Out collects Noelle’s personal comics, which in sharp contrast to the more goofy Broship strips, are often wistful and melancholy. They break your heart. They are lovely. Stevenson is going to take over the world someday.⠀

Lucy Knisley we all love. She’s known mostly for memoirs, but Stepping Stones is, I believe, her first foray into fiction. Middle grade, too, which is exciting! Lucy Knisley isn’t going to take over the world only because she wants to let her son do it first.⠀