Monthly Archives: May 2017

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist: Fences

When this episode begins, Connie is waltzing through Whit’s End, narrating her sundae-making like she’s on a game show and complimenting everyone in sight. Her father is coming to town. As we learned in previous episodes, Connie’s parents have divorced, a rarity in Odyssey, and her father lives back in California. We, the audience, have never met him, and it’s implied that she has barely seen him since they moved. So it’s devastating when, upon arriving home, her mother says he cancelled his trip.

Apparently her father’s new wife’s mother is sick. Connie tries to be understanding, but she can’t help but mope through life for the next several days, and things only get worse when she learns that her father has a chain of upcoming business trips and meetings, and so has no plans to reschedule his visit with her.

Whit and Eugene, her coworker, notice her sudden change in behavior and ask her about it. She is honest about how she feels; miserable, mixed with a little guilt over feeling miserable. No matter how often she tells herself the reasons for his cancellation were out of his control, the hurt will not subside. So she goes through the motions of her ordinary life, hoping that eventually non-nauseating emotions will return again. Whit and Eugene have an aside about how she is behaving. They agree on the following; 1. Connie is upset about her father, 2. They want to help her, 3. Connie won’t let them help her.

The first point is rather obvious. She says as much, explicitly. The second is an admirable response, and an expected one. The third, however, is bizarre. The problem is not that she won’t let them help her, but that there’s nothing they can do to help. Connie’s sadness is not an inappropriate reaction. Whit and Eugene cannot change her father’s mind, nor can they fly to California and drag him back to see her, and furthermore Connie can’t ask them to. Instead of accepting this, they frame it as Connie being stubborn, and hope for her to get her mind back on God. It feels almost like they are blaming her for not enabling them to fix her. What do they expect? Do they want her to give them an itemized list of things that will make her feel better? There’s nothing wrong with her. A truly upsetting thing happened, and she’s going to be blue for a little while.

Now, I can think of one thing they could do that might make her feel better, if not immediately, then in the long run; validate her pain. Part of what’s hurting is the contradiction between her conscious desire to defend her father, and her unconscious understanding that something is up with his behavior. And one character does do this, albeit accidentally. Her elderly neighbor, Mr. Mitchell, is having a fence put up, courtesy of his son, who hopes it will help protect him. While they watch the construction, they chat about family. Connie asks, if his son lived in California, and couldn’t come visit, but Mr. Mitchell could get around more easily, how often would he visit? Mr. Mitchell says he would make the trip four or five times a year. Connie is dumbfounded, but Mr. Mitchell doesn’t think it’s a surprising answer. He loves his son, and no matter the distance he would have to make visiting a priority. Connie realizes that the problem isn’t her. It’s her father. Yes, life gets in the way, but the problem isn’t that this one time, he had trouble with his schedule. The problem is that Connie, his own child, is about seventieth on his list of priorities, which just makes him a shitty human being.

What does this revelation make Connie? A feminazi.

No, seriously. That’s what they think the next logical step in this character arc should be.

She gives a Bible study lesson that consists of listing every man who ever screwed up in the Bible, quoting verses that announce that men are filth (it’s never pointed out that she’s using examples where the Bible is actually saying humanity is filth and using “men” and “all actual human beings” interchangeably because sexist archaic language) and making posters of male models with their heads cut off. This causes every girl in her Bible study to spontaneously form the Men-Haters Club and go around locking boys in closets.

Again, I’m not making this up. That is literally what happens; they corner guys, lecture them on how awful they are, and lock them in closets. Because of one crappy lesson.

There is so much wrong with this. First, if Connie has the ability to so radically change people’s behavior with one lesson, that is a seriously misapplied talent. She should be going into peace talks and hostage negotiations. Second, this reaction makes no sense as a consequence of what happened to her. I thought it was weird even when I was a kid, and now I find positively enraging. I’ve also known actual women who, after a series of traumatic experiences, went through a distrusting-men-generally phase, but mostly it’s nothing like this. They are still basically tolerant and get-along-y towards the real human beings in their lives, but take a little longer to really trust new men, and get really into analyzing the ways that male privilege and toxic masculinity does teach men to solve problems in aggressive, hurtful ways. That’s not to say people who aren’t truly, actively mean to men in general don’t exist, just that there’s really only one type of person who does that; an asshole. Connie’s not an asshole. That’s what gets me really mad. Why the show is willing to assassinate Connie’s character like this? Of all the ways for her to act out, why the hell did they go with something uncharacteristically mean and petty?

I’m sure the answer has nothing to do with a desire to squeeze in a message about how feminism equals men hating, so as to discourage their female listeners from paying attention to actual feminists.

Anyway, Whit gets mad at her and tells her not to come back to Whit’s End until she gets her act together. He’s not firing her, he’s just… grounding her? I’m not saying it’s unreasonable for him to keep her out like this in response to those things, just pointing out that his role in her life is weird. He switches so frequently between mentor who happens to also be her boss and boss who happens to be her mentor that it gets hard to figure out the boundaries.

The resolution is shitty and contrived. Mr. Mitchell has a heart attack, on his porch and out of sight because of his fence, and he nearly dies but a series of coincidences let Connie find him just in time. She’s a hero, and Whit arrives to lecture her about how the fence that nearly killed him is a metaphor for the bad writing attitude that is cutting her off from people who want to take care of her. If she wants to get better, she needs to let people help her, and also God. God will fix everything, and if he hasn’t already it’s because she didn’t let him. Connie says that he’s right, and she’s now suddenly her normal happy self. Her father’s still a piece of shit, and he’s still rejecting her in a way that would fuck up a real human being in a serious long term way, but she is totally fine, because she realized her whole life can be explained with a metaphor about fences.

I was torn between putting this under the upcoming social issues theme, to talk about the shitty straw man representation of feminism, and mental health, to talk about what they teach kids about how to handle stressful, painful situations. It ultimately went under the latter because I think the straw feminist problem of the former is fairly obvious; too obvious to even be worthy of analysis. What’s more insidious is the fact that they let a misguided attempt at making fun of feminism get in the way of handling an important character moment for one of their most significant cast members. Connie is being rejected by her father. That is one of the most painful experiences possible. Yet, instead of showing how she gradually goes through a grieving process and eventually arrives at a semblance of acceptance and closure, they force her to lash out in a way that is out of character, then berate her for not being perfectly well behaved throughout the entire episode.

There is nothing complex or constructive here. Worse, because her actions do not resemble actual human behavior, this show, which prides itself on being a moral authority for kids, does not leave them with any constructive guides on how to handle real pain. Instead it has aphorisms about shutting people out and how that’s bad; it’s true, but without a well-constructed story, those aren’t enlightening. They’re just generic cliches. AIO is capable of writing complex character stories, as we saw last week. But unfortunately, this type of story, where they go for a contrived, cheap plot device, an obvious epiphany, and no real character growth, is far more common.

Final ratings

Best Part: the brief moment of happiness at the beginning

Worst Part: The Men-Hater’s Club

Story Rating: Contrived and awkward. D –

Moral Rating: Remember everything positive I about the last episode? This is the complete opposite of that. Also D –

Rose, by Li-Young Lee

Rose

  • Genre
    • Poetry, Free Verse
  • Plot Summary
    • A collection of memories, beautifully told in free verse
  • Character Empathy
    • Tender and immersive; his family is a main topic, and each poem made me feel like they were a part of me, just as they are a part of him.
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • Soothing like a lullaby. I could have finished this book in a day, but after a few poems I wanted to take a break and luxuriate in the impressions for a little while. 
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • At first I thought this was just a collection of lovely moments, and I was all right with this. Once I had begun the third section, though, I realized it had been telling me a story all along; one so personal and honest I felt oddly privileged to have been allowed to read it. I won’t spoil it here. 
  • Content Warnings
    • Not applicable
  • Quotes
    • “It’s late. I’ve come to find the flower which blossoms like a saint dying upside down. The rose won’t do, nor the iris. I’ve come to find the moody one, the shy one, downcast, grave, and isolated.”
    • “I was cold once. So my father took off his blue sweater. He wrapped me in it, and I never gave it back. It is the sweater he wore to America, this one, which I’ve grown into, whose sleeves are too long, whose elbows have thinned, who outlives its rightful owner. Flamboyant blue in daylight, poor blue by daylight, it is black in the folds.”
    • “Other words
      that got me into trouble were
      fight and fright, wren and yarn.
      Fight was what I did when I was frightened,
      Fright was what I felt when I was fighting.
      Wrens are small, plain birds,
      yarn is what one knits with.
      Wrens are soft as yarn.
      My mother made birds out of yarn.
      I loved to watch her tie the stuff;
      a bird, a rabbit, a wee man.”

An Open Letter to The Piano Guys

Dear Piano Guys,

I don’t listen to your music anymore. This is not a boycott, though it did begin with the inauguration. A boycott would be an intentional decision to avoid some business in order to make a point. I don’t have a point here, nor a desire to convince others to stand with me. It’s only that your beautiful music lost something, and I’m writing this to try to explain why, to myself as much as the world.

At the time of the inauguration, many celebrities saw that Donald Trump was A. dangerous in an unprecedented way and B. prone to seeing their presence at his events as an affirmation of what he stood for. Therefore, most of them refused to appear at the inauguration. Many others cancelled after outcry from fans. You, when you fans objected, wrote your own open letter. When I first read it, it actually made me feel better. You said a good deal about your positive message of love and you affirmed the rights of women and immigrants. I interpreted this as a subtle hint that you were were going to use the performance to engage in active outreach, rather like how the cast of Hamilton had respectfully engaged Mike Pence earlier that year. Perhaps you would point out how many of your hit videos have featured singers who were immigrants, or mention how, as Mormons, your people have a history of religious oppression and you believe no one should be denied freedom of religion.

I don’t think the Trump administration would have listened to that outreach, but I still think the effort to reach out publicly has merit, if only because it inspires other people to stand up. Also, his reactions tend to highlight his temperamental flaws and make it difficult for the media to normalize him. I think that there are many forms of resistance, all with advantages and disadvantages, and the movement as a whole is best if we all do our best at the type of resistance we are most suited to. I might not have chosen to perform, even with outreach, at that inauguration, but I could respect someone’s decision to accept and then use that platform.

But of course, that wasn’t your plan at all. You did nothing newsworthy. You just played for a man who has raped women, incited others to violence and is under investigation for treason. Then you went home with your check.

There is a difference between outreach and validation. Outreach is when you see a person doing something wrong, call them out, but don’t let their wrong behavior stop you from talking to them as fellow humans. It’s hard to do, and not always received well, but when it works the results can be incredible. Validation, on the other hand, is when you prioritize the wrongdoer’s comfort, and refuse to call them out even when your conscience tells you that you should. Your letter indicated to me that you did see and understand all the reasons why the bigoted, hateful rhetoric of Trump’s campaign needed to be called out, but instead you chose the actions that he would see as validating.

This letter comes a long time after the inauguration. This is because part of me has been waiting to see you prove that this validation came from lack of understanding, rather than lack of a desire to affect change. I’ve been waiting for evidence of this. You specifically said you support immigrants and women. If you want to fight xenophobia, why not give a benefit concert for the ACLU? Why not donate a portion of your proceeds to a women’s group, or an interfaith event, or something to benefit refugees? Why not perform for a candidate you actually do believe in? It’s too late to say you don’t want to be political; we all know performing for a politician’s act is at least a partially political act, and you knew that going into this situation. So why not be political in a truly bipartisan, healing spirit? I would still disagree with your choice to perform at the inauguration, but I would at least trust that your letter was honest; that you were flawed, but not disingenuous. At this particular moment, it does not feel like you genuinely care for women and minorities the way you claimed to.

As I’ve re-read your letter, searching a reason to stay a fan, I only see more gaps in your understanding.

You compared yourself to Marian Anderson, who performed at a time when neither party could claim to be supporting Black Americans. But that’s exactly why her situation was different. She knew that to perform at an inauguration at all would be a slap in the face to racists, regardless of their political affiliation. Simply by singing, as a Black woman, she was engaging in outreach to both parties. You performed for a man who spent over a year actively insulting every type of a minority to a degree that even members of his own party would not ordinarily stoop to. You did so as fellow straight cisgender white men. Your presence did not challenge him in any way.

You compared your choice to Barack Obama’s dignified handling of the transition. He only did what he was legally required to, and he did not let democracy’s need for a smooth, peaceful transition stop him from imposing sanctions on Russia, protecting scientific data on climate change and preventing the new administration from erasing all evidence of their Russian ties. You accepted a paying gig that you could have easily turned down. These are not comparable decisions.

Worst of all, you compared the inaugural performance to one you gave in an unnamed country that you perceived as hostile to the USA. Do you not understand the difference between a nation’s leaders and their people? Do you paint a whole nation with their leader’s actions? Performing for the ordinary people of a country we are at odds with should not be different from performing for the people of any other nation. But in your description of this show, you seemed to think that A. the people who showed up were your enemy and B. because your music was so good you had some kind of transformative global impact. No. You played for regular human beings, and it was a good show. That is all.

You used that show to indicate that music changed hearts, and implied that, therefore, it was your duty to perform even for people you disagreed with. I agree that music is powerful and can bind us, but you’re painfully naive if you literally thought an admittedly brilliant mashup of Vivaldi’s Winter with Frozen’s Let it Go could magically un-racist a white supremacist. And if you didn’t actually think that, then your letter was a lie.

But why do I care? Why did the impulse to write this open letter not leave, even after five months? Well, I’m really angry because, to quote the song, you give love a bad name. There’s been plenty of great talk about the power of love to crush hate, and I believe in that power wholeheartedly, but if when fellow activists distrust it, that distrust always seems to originate in the false notion that love is synonymous with pleasantness. The two have nothing to do with each other. Love is a burning force within that drives you; depending on the individual and the circumstances, it can drive you to laugh or cry, embrace or bare your teeth. It can take almost any form, but the one thing it never does is stand by passively when the beloved is harmed or threatened. It might take subtle action, it might bide its time for the opportune moment, but it does not make nice to abusers in the interest of keeping things superficially friendly, then turn it’s back on the abused.

Pleasantness is not a virtue at all. It is something we earn with work, with love, and with willingness to challenge those who would say, “tolerate oppression of others, or I will make your lives unpleasant.” When we skip the unpleasantness of difficult love, in a rush to get to superficial niceness, only the bullies benefit.

You said you wanted to show love. So I waited, but in the end I saw no signs that you were willing to fight, in any way, for me or the people you claimed to support. I saw willingness to co-opt the language of the warriors of love, but no willingness to fight alongside them.

That’s why I no longer listen to your music. It’s not a political statement. It’s only that, where I once heard joy and beauty, I only hear empty pleasantness.

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.”