Monthly Archives: May 2017

Bellman and Black, by Diane Setterfield

Bellman and Black

  • Genre
    • Drama, Historical Fiction, Magical Realism
  • Plot Summary
    • The story of William Bellman, 19th century English entrepreneur, starting with the day when he was ten years old and killed a rook. On that day, he attracts the personal interest of Mr. Black, a man with a strange connection to death itself. That interest, for good and for bad, will follow William through every joy and every tragedy of his life.
  • Character Empathy
    • These is another of those books where even the minor characters get unexpected layers. The main characters, meanwhile, are some of the most nuanced and engaging that I’ve ever read. William is a great protagonist; bright, warm hearted and gifted, yet relatably flawed. 
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • It has a richness of language and theme, a luxurious pace that doesn’t get boring, and a naturally developed Victorian countryside setting. I discovered Diane Setterfield a year or two ago, and she immediately became a favorite. Her books make me feel like I’m reading Wilkie Collins or Jane Austen back when they were first published. That is, I don’t feel like I’m reading a modern author mimicking classic literature. I feel like I have been transplanted back into the 19th century, and am reading something contemporary in the past. 
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • This book is full of death, but it’s not a depressing book. It’s a book about a brilliant man who can conquer nearly everything, except death. It’s about how that can destroy you, but also how rich and beautiful life is between birth and death. It’s about hope and rebirth as much as death and decay.
    • The magical elements are ambiguous without pretension. I love some mystery in my fantasy, but in so many books, the mystery doesn’t conjure up a sense of wonder so much as an image of the author wiggling their fingers and saying, “woo-oo-ooo-ooo!” Not so here. In this book, everything is warm and happy and logical until suddenly it’s not, because that’s death. It’s not mysterious for the sake of being mysterious. It’s mysterious for the sake of being honest about the thing that takes us all by surprise.
    • Sections are broken up with passages on the biology and mythology of corvids, told by an anonymous narrator. It’s creepy and fascinating and cool as fuck. 
    • Most of these I review after one read, but this is one I re-read within a few months, and caught approximately three thousand things I missed the first time around. I already want to read it again.
    • A minor gay character who is really likable and has a moderately happy life. It ends eventually, but for once that doesn’t feel like gay erasure. It’s just that the entire point of this book is that, eventually, all lives end.
  • Content Warnings
    • One attempted suicide. Lots of deaths, mostly not graphic.
  • Quotes
    • “The rook is a skilled survivor. He is ancient and has inhabited the planet longer than humans. This you can tell from his singing voice: his cry is harsh and grating, made for a more ancient world that existed before the innovation of the pipe, the lute, and the viol. Before music was invented he was taught to sing by the planet itself. He mimicked the great rumble of the sea, the fearsome eruption of volcanoes, the creaking of glaciers, and the geological groaning as the world split apart in its agony and remade itself.”
    • “His mother was dead: he had seen the body; yet this knowledge refused to find a settled place in his mind. It came and went, surprised him every time he chanced upon it, and there were a million reasons not to believe it. His mother was dead, but look: here were her clothes and here her tea cups, here her Sunday hat on the shelf over the coat hook. His mother was dead, but hark: the garden gate! Any moment now she would come through the door.”
    • “People remembered. They wept and they grieved. In the spaces between, they were glad that the leeks were doing well this year, envied the bonnet of the neighbor’s cousin, relished the fragrance of pork roasting in the kitchen on Sunday. There were those that registered the beauty of a pale moon suspended behind the branches of the elms on the ridge.”

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist: Letting Go

This week I’m going to talk once again about an episode that does better than average. My current theme is mental health, and this episode starts on the topic of grief.

This episode follows Zachary, who lost his father in a car accident that also left him in a wheelchair. He comes home early one day to find his mom, Eileen, being walked home by a guy. This guy is Blake, who she met at work and has started dating. She was waiting to see how this worked out before telling her son, and now that Zachary knows, they decide to all get dinner together.

All is a foursome, not a threesome; Blake lost his wife to cancer several years ago and has a daughter, Jill. Throughout dinner, Jill is sweet and chatty. Zachary tries to follow suit as Blake asks him about his interests. Unfortunately, Zachary quickly realizes that Blake is faking interest in science and model trains in order to connect with him. The longer the conversation goes on, the more stilted and uncomfortable it becomes.

Eileen convinces Zachary to give Blake and Jill a second chance, and they go out to the mall a few days later. Jill drags Eileen off to look at cute hats, and Blake attempts to impress Zachary with his pitching skills at a speed throw. After boasting about his college days, he throws an utterly pitiful fastball and nearly throws out his back. This actually nearly creates an opportunity for some real bonding; Zachary prefers laughing at Blake, the actual human being, rather than making stiffly polite chitchat with Blake, the guy reciting All The Right Things. Blake tries to capitalize on this banter with an invitation to a baseball game, but this kills the mood. It’s only later that he learns that ball games used to be Zachary’s guy time with his father.

Despite these fumblings, the four continue to hang out as a group. One day, Jill corners Zachary and starts talking future plans. She hasn’t seen her father so happy in ages, and is one hundred percent ready for a new Mom, to the point that she has already been researching wheelchair accessible houses for them all to live in. Full points for good intentions, but she freaks Zachary out, understandably. This prompts a confrontation between boy and potential-stepfather. When Blake comes over a few days later to pick up Eileen for a theater date, Zachary asks him point blank if he plans on marrying her.

Blake doesn’t know yet, but he does really like her. He counters with his own honesty challenge; what does Zachary really think of them? The honest answer is that Zachary doesn’t like the way Blake is rushing his way into their lives. Blake sees his point, but feels the need to remind Zachary that more peoples feelings are at stake than just his.

Afterwards, Blake finds himself conflicted. He postpones their theater date to instead go out to dinner and talk. He does feel bad for moving so quickly, and understands how this must feel to Zachary, who hasn’t had nearly as long to move on as Jill has. When Eileen comes home to tell Zachary about this, she finds him watching old home videos of his dad’s birthday. The anniversary of which, by the way, is tomorrow, the same day that Blake and Eileen have moved their theater date to.

That morning, Blake finds out that Eileen has taken the day off work, and goes to check on her. He learns she is being hit unexpectedly hard by her former husband’s birthday, and tells her how his wife’s birthday has the same effect on him. He offers to drive her and Zachary out to the cemetery, even though it’s a two hour trip.

At the grave site, the two of them reminisce. Zachary’s dad had a great sense of humor; Eileen tells a story about how he made her crack up in the middle of their wedding vows. Zachary realizes that, like Jill, he wants to see his Mom happy like that again. Eileen has her own realization. She never gave Zachary the “he’s not a replacement for your Dad” speech. There is a difference between being open to new, good experiences and forgetting the old ones.

Zachary says he’s ready to give Blake another chance, and a while later, they all go to a baseball game together. As they pile into the car, Zachary finds himself talking to Blake, not like a Dad, not like a distrusted doppelganger, but just like a couple of people who are excited to see some baseball together.

What makes this episode work is that Zachary isn’t rushed into a moral epiphany. He is allowed to have mixed feelings, moments of frustration, and conversations that don’t end in everything being magically better. Instead, he goes through a variety of reactions, none of which is perfect but each of which moves him a little closer to a healing. Nor does anybody else react perfectly. Everyone is in a new situation, and everyone makes at least one mistake that they have to learn to get past.

Like many shows (secular and religious) AIO often ends on a moment of revelation, as if all flawed behavior could be fixed by just realizing what was wrong. The reality is that healthy, appropriate reactions to tough times are a skill, just like writing or cooking or running a marathon. With any skills, no matter what you think should happen, actually doing it is another matter. There will be mistakes made before the desired result is reached. Epiphany therapy shows just set up people to believe that, if they can’t just will their emotions into matching what they think they should feel, there is something wrong with them. Worse, they can lead to people supporting those who are struggling to think that, if the grieving or hurting person just understood how they were supposed to feel, they would stop being so inconveniently miserable. We need more stories like this, that show what realistic adjustment looks like.

Unfortunately, this approach is pretty rare on Adventures in Odyssey. Over the next few weeks, I will get into some examples that are more typical of how they approach pain, grieving and mental health crisises.

Final Ratings

Best Part: There’s a lot of options I could pick from. For purely subjective and arbitrary reasons, I like the moment when Blake messes up the speed throw and his perfect nice guy facade to reveal a still pretty nice guy.

Worst Part: I honestly can’t think of a scene in this episode that didn’t feel authentic and moving.

Moral Rating: Honest and affirming without being cloying or preachy. A+

Story Rating: Well rounded characters with relatable conflicts resolved realistically. Also an A+

The Chaos, by Nalo Hopkinson

The Chaos

  • Genre
    • Fantasy, Urban Fantasy, Young Adult
  • Plot summary
    • The line between external and internal battles gets blurred when a strange phenomenon makes monsters from stories and dreams come to life. The story follows Scotch, a mixed racial teenager looking for her brother while the city tries to survive The Chaos.
  • Character empathy rating
    • Have I mentioned how incredible Nalo Hopkinson is at this? Scotch is every bit as likable as Makeda from Sister Mine, and so are all the other characters. 
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • Does “modern day Alice in Wonderland with snarky teens and Afro-Caribbean folklore” sound appealing to you? If that sounds good to you, why are you not at the library RIGHT NOW?
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • Scotch calls her personal monsters “Horseless Head-men.” How awesome is that?
    • She’s actually trouble in normal teenager ways, while still being a very good and likable person. Teen trouble, like kid trouble, is one of those things were we tend to all copy each other instead of actually write young people like they are. It’s great to read a teen who actually feels like the way you were when you were in high school. 
    • There’s a dance scene, and normally those are pretty boring to read about, but this time I could see it in my head perfectly and I don’t know how Nalo Hopkinson did that but it was amazing. 
    • Baba Yaga is a character and she’s fabulous.
    • The scribble monster who might also be a puppy.
  • Content Warnings
    • Honestly, I think you’re good.
  • Quotes
    • “In the dance movies, people can dance their way out of any trouble. If some bad guy’s coming at you, just take him out with a flying roundhouse kick, right?  After all, aren’t you a capoerirista along with being able to get buck with the best of them and pick up the tango after watching someone do it for, like, five seconds?  Oh yeah, and let’s pretend that standing on one foot while you fling one leg up in the air and swing it in a circle doesn’t have you unbalanced with your crotch open to attack from someone who has the sense to just throw a quick jab at you and get out of the way.”

Blood Child, by Octavia E Butler

BloodChild

  • Genre
    • Science Fiction, Short Story Collection
  • Plot Summary
    • Five stories (seven in the 2005 edition) by Octavia Butler, who broke ground as one of the first Black women to publish speculative fiction and won multiple Nebula awards, including one for the title story.
  • Character Empathy
    • As I noted in my review of Kindred, I think Octavia Butler is a bit more of a setting/concept writer than a character writer. I think the short story format helps bring her characters out a lot more, though. I especially like that she’s not afraid to give her characters reactions that are hard to talk about. We all have those parts of ourselves that don’t follow the standard script. Whether we act on them or not, we all have thoughts and feelings that are bewildering, taboo, or just strange enough that we are embarrassed to share them. When you read your stories, you find yourself understanding things that you were afraid to even admit were part of you.
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • I love short stories, because of how easy it is to get sucked in, then pop out and meditate on the story as a whole. Her style plays to that very well. The stories are idea-dense, and each one made me think for days afterwards. 
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • Made up sci-fi diseases that are well thought out and have terrifying, yet thought provoking consequences.
    • Dystopias that explore what it means to survive, and put marginalized  characters at the center.
    • Aliens that feel really, truly alien.
  • Content Warnings
    • Several stories explore violence and very twisted relationships
  • Quotes
    • “First forget inspiration. Habit is more dependable. Habit will sustain you whether you’re inspired or not. Habit will help you finish and polish your stories. Inspiration won’t. Habit is persistence in practice.”
    • “Shyness is shit. It isn’t cute or feminine or appealing. It’s torment, and it’s shit.”
    • “If you work hard enough at something that doesn’t matter, you can forget for a while about the things that do.”

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist: Afraid, Not!

For my first theme in this reboot, I’ll be talking about how Adventures in Odyssey handles mental health. The fourth episode I ever reviewed was awful. It took a kid with every symptom of an anxiety disorder, made her fear magically go away by singing about God, and ended by informing anxious kids everywhere that God’s love casts out fear. Sounds positive, but the real world impact of that message tends to be damaging to people with real medical problems. They absorb the belief that their condition wouldn’t exist if they just loved God enough, which tends to A. actively make the symptoms worse and B. discourage them from seeking treatment. That’s not to say you can’t use religion to comfort fearful kids, just that you need to be thoughtful about how you use it.

This episode takes up the topic of childhood anxiety again, and I’m happy to say it genuinely does a better job. The story opens with a kid named Danny refusing to go to school. His parents assume he’s just going through a school-hating phase, so they give him a lecture about the importance of education and see him off. But before the day is over, his mother is called to come pick him up. Sometime between leaving home and getting to school, Danny got a black eye.

It takes a while to get him to open about what happened, but it turns out he has a stalker. No, seriously. Danny walks to school every day. A girl from another school has a crush on him, and she has been cutting classes to follow him around. She’s been getting aggressive, chasing him and demanding that he say he likes her, and finally she punched him in the face. Which… wow, dark shit. I’m not even going to say this is unrealistic, because I know this kind of thing sometimes happens, but it’s unusual for AIO. They’re usually too committed to the Mayberry picket fence image to admit that this kind of intense harassment is a reality.

The principal convinces Danny’s parents to call the police. They’re worried that’s too drastic, but eventually agree. I’m torn about this solution. On the one hand, I think this does need to be taken seriously. On the other hand, I’ve heard some scary stories about cops being sent to handle misbehaving kids and taking things way too far. Danny seems to be seven or eight, and this girl is implied to be only a little bit older. I worked with aggressive kids for about five years and could probably do a whole post on my thoughts and experiences, but this isn’t the place for it. So I’ll just say that it’s complicated and cops usually aren’t well informed about the difference between handling a kid and an adult. (not that they have all been doing great with the latter either, #blacklivesmatter)

Anyway, the next morning Danny is afraid to go to school, even though his father has agreed to drive him until the girl is caught, but before this conflict is resolved they are called to the station to identify a girl the police found in the woods. The girl is scared straight offscreen, and everybody expects that Danny should be fine from now on. A woman cop even jokes about how this isn’t actually that unusual, and how she once gave a kid a fat lip because he said he wouldn’t say he liked her.

Um, ew. Seriously lady, either you followed him and pushed him around for several days, in which case that wasn’t ok and the fact that you think it was makes me think you shouldn’t be a cop, or you just had a stupid one-time fight and learned from it, in which case you were being a regular kid, in which case you shouldn’t be comparing the two situations and normalizing her behavior.

I do feel the need to acknowledge that part of their intent is to emphasize that Danny isn’t a wimp for being beaten up by a girl, no matter how he feels. That is great, honestly. That’s an important message, especially coming from a show that is normally so gender conformist. I just have a problem with how they went about it.

After this uncomfortable detour, the episode gets back on a good path. As I said, people tend to assume he’s fine now, but he’s not. He puts off walking home from school until the last minute, because even though the girl probably won’t bother him again, he can’t be sure. When one of his teachers realizes what’s going on, he offers to give Danny a ride home, but Danny refuses. The kid isn’t just terrified of his stalker. He’s also scared of the kids, who might mock him for needing help and being beat up by a girl.

I think Danny’s reaction is much more nuanced and realistic than the portrayal of Shirley in that earlier episode on anxiety. I like that he’s torn between different fears, that he feels like he doesn’t have good options, and that he feels the pressure to put on a brave face even though he doesn’t want to. He feels like a person in this episode, in a way that designated-lesson-learning-kid-of-the-week often doesn’t. After he refuses his teacher’s offer of help, he spends the walk home looking out for signs that the girl is still out there, waiting for him. When he starts hearing snapping twigs, he tries to convince himself it’s all in his head, until he no longer can deny that there is definitely someone else in the woods with him.

Just as he’s about to run for it, Whit emerges. This being a small town, Whit already knows the rough outline of what happened, and he listens to Danny talk about it some more. He tells Danny that he gets scared sometimes too, and when he does there’s a Bible verse he likes to remember. He offers to teach it to Danny while they walk together, giving the kid a face-saving excuse to have some companionship.

Isaiah 41:10. Don’t be afraid, for I am with you. Don’t be discouraged, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you. I will hold you up with my victorious right hand.

The next morning, Danny tells his parents he doesn’t want to be driven to school. He wants to walk, and use his verse to stay brave. They remind him that his father doesn’t mind, and it’s okay if he’s not ready to walk to school, but Danny insists. He wants to learn to face his fear. I really love that. This is how you actually deal with fear; not by finding a way to erase it, but finding a way to move through it, even when it’s hard. And for the record, I don’t care whether that way is a Bible verse or an Oprah quote or showtunes from Dr. Horrible’s Singalong Blog. I personally prefer the latter, but you do you.

As he’s walking through the woods, he gets ambushed by Rusty, a recurring bully character. Rusty teases him for having been beat up by a girl and then demands his lunch money, but Danny starts shouting his Bible verse. Rusty, already freaked out by this weird behavior, hears somebody approaching to investigate and takes off. That person turns out to be Whit, who congratulates Danny on standing up for himself, and the two walk off together into the sunset.

Well, not the sunset, because it’s morning, but there’s a definite metaphorical sunsettiness.

This episode is good because it never tells Danny that he doesn’t get to be scared. Instead, it gives him tools to be brave despite his fear, and vicariously makes the viewers stand up for themselves. This is how battling real world anxiety works, whether normal or pathological. The religious angle is much healthier here; there’s a universe of difference between “truly loving God stops you from being afraid” and “God is looking out for you, even when you are scared.”

Final Ratings

Best Part: Danny standing up to Rusty

Worst Part: the whole bit with the cops

Story Rating: B+

Moral Rating: A+

Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

americanah

  • Genre
    • Drama, Realistic Fiction, Romance
  • Plot Summary
    • The story of Ifemelu, Nigerian immigrant who becomes a successful writer and returns home, and Obinze, the college boyfriend who she hopes to reunite with.
  • Character Empathy
    • Much of this book is about making you understand people. Why do some people become religious extremists, or pick up a sugar daddy, or attempt suicide? Why do people lie and steal identities? Why do people try to hide their accents? Why do people change their hairstyle? This book never preaches. You don’t get to come to conclusions as simple as “she did the wrong thing” or “she did the right thing.” You just learn to understand.
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • You’re surprised at how much you laugh, given that the protagonist grows up with war and then endures poverty, sexism and racism. Ifemelu survives by her wit, both in the sense of her intelligence and her snark. Her ability to cut through bullshit is absolutely delightful. 
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • Nearly half of the book is just Ifemelu sitting in a hair salon getting braids and reminiscing about Obinze, and I don’t even care. She makes a hair salon so vivid and funny I could have spent the whole book there. If she ever writes a spin-off about the braiders at the salon I will buy it immediately.
    • So much feminism. It’s feminist heaven.
    • Obinze and Ifemelu are so damn shippable. I’m not typically a romance reader, because I’m too picky about couples chemistry. You can’t just tell me two people are soulmates; you have to really sell it. At the end of this I was making threats to the book about what would happen to it, library copy or no, if it didn’t end well for them.
    • Relationship conflicts that aren’t contrived and do resolve in ways that make sense for the characters.
    • Speaking as a white person to other whites, I’ve learned a lot from this whole project, but nobody has schooled me like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. This should be required reading.
  • Content Warnings
    • One sex scene may be triggering for survivors. It also might be comforting, in a “somebody gets it” kind of way. It doesn’t dominate the story but it’s a necessary turning point, and it doesn’t sexualize the event in the slightest.
  • Quotes
    • “Racism should never have happened and so you don’t get a cookie for reducing it.”
    • “If you don’t understand, ask questions. If you’re uncomfortable about asking questions, say you are uncomfortable about asking questions and then ask anyway. It’s easy to tell when a question is coming from a good place. Then listen some more. Sometimes people just want to feel heard. Here’s to possibilities of friendship and connection and understanding.”
    • “The only reason you say that race was not an issue is because you wish it was not. We all wish it was not. But it’s a lie. I came from a country where race was not an issue; I did not think of myself as black and I only became black when I came to America.”
    • “What a beautiful name,” Kimberly said. “Does it mean anything? I love multicultural names because they have such wonderful meanings, from wonderful rich cultures.” Kimberly was smiling the kindly smile of people who thought “culture” the unfamiliar colorful reserve of colorful people, a word that always had to be qualified with “rich.” She would not think Norway had a “rich culture.”
    • “She rested her head against his and felt, for the first time, what she would often feel with him: a self-affection. He made her like herself.”