Monthly Archives: December 2017

Disabled Characters Who Rock

I’m sure this won’t be news to you; we need better disabled characters. Portrayals of people with disabilities tend to misinform, sensationalize, stereotype and outright villainize them. There are thousands of articles out there on harmful disability tropes and more still to be said.

But you know what I’d rather do than write another one of those articles? Talk about some disabled characters I love. I think that, when talking about disability representation, or any other kind of representation, it is easy to get bogged down in the difficulty. I don’t just mean the labor of research or the ethical questions about which stories are yours to tell; I also mean the emotional consequences of submerging yourself in pain. It is not creatively energizing. It puts you into that “everything sucks” mentality, and going straight from that to writing can turn into the toxic editors “everything I write sucks” mentality. This is especially damaging when it comes to diverse characters, because, on the way to writing awesome representation, you will probably write some shitty representation. Not because you’re a bad person, but because all your writing is shitty when it’s on it’s way to being awesome. Representation isn’t different, it’s just extra emotionally charged.

I also think writers need “dos” as well as “do nots.” While it’s good to be aware of problematic tropes, I think that when you actually sit down to write it’s better to have an idea of good representation to focus on. You don’t hit a bullseye by focusing on the people in the crowd who you are hoping not to shoot. You know the bystanders exist, but you keep your eyes on the target.

Besides, this has been a rough year for all of us, and it’s nice to spend a little time dwelling on happy thoughts.  Continue reading Disabled Characters Who Rock

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The Gene: An Intimate History, by Siddhartha Mukherjee

The Gene An Intimate History

What It’s About

A history of the discovery of the gene, the decoding of DNA, and all the difficult social and ethical questions that come with the science of genetics.

Why I Think You’d Like It

In general, I love the style of teaching science through it’s history. It’s a reminder that science is not a result, but a quest, and scientists not as austere demigods of knowledge, but fumbling discoverers who make no shortage of mistakes along the way.

In this book, it is an especially appropriate approach. Every scientific story has included the potential for abuse, but the science of genetics has been misused in some of the most horrific ways yet. Even the nuclear bomb can’t compete with the deaths and tortures we have justified with some misappropriated genetic jargon. By telling the history of genetic studies side by side with the cultural implications, Siddhartha Mukherjee brings home the importance of thinking hard about how we use and abuse genetics today.

He also tears apart the cultural abuses of science brilliantly. He starts with the justifications themselves; what people said in order to make segregation, forced sterilization and genocide sound not just socially acceptable, but enlightened. He puts you in the place of an ignorant citizen, easily impressed by anybody who sounds like they can tell a mitochondria from a protein. This is paired with reminders of the culture at the time, and the way certain lines of reasoning sound appealing as they justify pre-existing beliefs. Then, just as you’re beginning to worry about whose side he’s really on, he attacks. He lays out the lies, the misconceptions, the assumptions and outright biases. He exposes the reality of the lives affected by the various racist and toxic policies, and the actual moral questions we are left with. As he moves forward through history, you see the gaps close between antiquated notions and ideas we can find in any modern grocery store magazine stand. You see the common lineage of modern ableism, sexism and racism share with the eugenics movements of the past. He points out the flaws in saying, “well, they didn’t know better back then” by showing the questions that scientists could have asked, even with their resources at the time, but didn’t, and the dissenting voices that were ignored until it was too late.

But don’t think this is a downer book. It’s also full of the miracles and wonders of real science and true discover. The prose is fantastic as well. Siddhartha Mukherjee has a good sense of narrative rhythm, and hits a beautiful balance between thought provoking and fun to read. This history is fascinating and cool, but it’s not an abstract curiosity for any of us. He does a fantastic job reminding us of this.

This is an awesome book for anyone into science, history, politics, social justice, human rights, culture, or just learning for the sake of being a more informed person. It is fascinating and cool, but genetics not an abstract curiosity for any of us. It is inextricably linked to who we are, and how we view it will determine how we operate as a society.

Content Warnings

Nothing in a MPAA sense, but as you probably gathered, a good deal of the book covers arguments for oppression, and the real world consequences. Unless any of that would trigger actual PTSD symptoms, I’d encourage you to give this book a read. He is blunt, but not graphic, and the payoff is exponentially worthwhile.

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist: Back to Bethlehem, Part 3

When last we left off, Judah was pestering Connie and making plans to ask her master (aka Eugene) about owning her body and entire life from now on marrying her.

Then they run into the Romans, and Judah insists on eavesdropping. Felix and Lucanus are expecting some kind of revolt, but have opposite views on how to handle it. Felix is spoiling for a fight. Lucanus is hoping to de-escalate any situation that arises. Once that has been re-established for the audience, Lucanus announces he’s sleeping in the courtyard, since there’s no inn. It’s not like he could commandeer any building he wants or anything.

Next comes a jarring cut to the sound of a baby crying, and Connie announcing to the men that Jesus has been born. Off-screen. Which, you know, is fine. It’s not like we were building up to that moment or anything.

Eugene and Connie have about ten seconds of back and forth. Connie is thrilled by what she just witnessed, and she’s just shouting about how Eugene should have been there. Eugene makes a point about how he couldn’t, old timey traditions say “no mensfolk allowed in the birthing chambers.”

This almost feels like they are trying to reward Connie for enduring all this sexism. This entire adventure has sucked for her, but at least she got to see one thing Eugene didn’t get to witness! It’s a pretty lousy compensation. It’s not like his absence somehow made it more special. I mean, I’ve certainly heard people arguing that sexism was fine because while women are dehumanized they are also idolized, and stuff like childbirth and menstruation gets to be all magical and inaccessible and those two things totally balance out…. wait, is that actually the point they are trying to make?

You know what, let’s put a pin in that. We are almost at the end.

Eugene goes to get Hezekiah. While waiting for him to return, Connie to accidentally runs into General Lucanus, who is pretty much playing creepster bingo. Interrupting her work and ignoring her protests? Check. Ignores multiple attempts to leave? Check. Says he’s been watching her? Takes her hands without her permission and talks about how soft and delicate they are? Asks if she wants to go to Rome, and then cuts immediately to “I’ll speak to your master about it” without giving her a chance to give a clear yes or no? Check check checkity check.

It’s like he knows the story is almost over and he is way behind Judah on the creepster scale.

Speaking of Judah, he pops out of nowhere and heroically announces that no, he’s not taking her to Rome! Because who needs all that “respect a woman’s choices” crap when you can just have two men fight over which choice she doesn’t get to make?

So Lucanus and Judah have a swordfight while Connie begs them to stop. They both ignore her. Lucanus easily beats Judah, then Connie knocks Lucanus out with a water pot. Judah, once again, is upset that she helped, and then decides to just kill Lucanus while he’s unconscious and helpless. Wow, my hero.

Connie won’t let him, proving once and for all that even if these guys gave a shit about her as a person, and even if they weren’t just simulations in a computer program, she would still be way too good for either of them.

Naturally, as Judah respects neither basic human ethics nor Connie’s point of view, she can’t just say “don’t do the bad thing” and let that be that. No no no, she’s more stalling him with an argument until some menfolks come along to actually stop it. Hey, you know who we haven’t seen for a while? Eugene and Hezekiah.

They come in, see her arguing with Judah and wrestle his sword away. Hezekiah and Judah rant politics vs religion at each other for a little while, without listening to what the other is saying. Then the Romans show up. Felix arrests Hezekiah and Eugene, assuming that being in the vicinity of an unconscious Roman means they are somehow guilty of something, while Judah runs off.

I’ve given this episode a lot of grief for inaccuracy, both historical and human, but they got one thing right. If a guy’s ego can’t handle a woman helping out, then, when you leave him to handle his own shit, he’ll be a total wuss.

Once the coast is clear, Judah returns and tells Connie that he’s running off. Again. In a more permanent sense this time. He asks her forgiveness for being stubborn. She adds immature and inconsiderate to the list, but does forgive him. See previous statement, re: her being way too good for him. But oh-uh, Felix once again shows up and arrests him.

Is it just me, or is this episode mostly just people showing up and disappearing and showing up again?

Well, now all the men are locked up and none of them have gotten to see baby Jesus. We don’t have time for a cool jailbreak, so instead Lucanus regains consciousness. He tells Felix that Judah isn’t to blame. He was attacked by a “wild-eyed revolutionary, but all I see here is a jealous boyfriend.” Wow, nice burn. You’re still a creepy-ass motherfucker. He tells Felix that Eugene and Hezekiah aren’t responsible either, and tells everyone to go to bed.

Later Judah retracts the proposal that Connie totally didn’t accept, because the feelings of two people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Dude, you’re not Humphrey Bogart, there’s no plane, and she did not come to you last night asking that you decide for all of us because everything is too complicated. You’re a loudmouthed wuss with no real plans except taking off, and she’s a woman who has repeatedly told you she’s not interested.

Also, in a battle of the two creepsters, you’re the non-imperialist of an appropriate age, yet you still managed to be the less likable character. Just, fuck off already.

Shepherds show up raving about angels, and after they’ve had their turn to fawn over the baby, Eugene, Connie and Hezekiah finally get to meet Jesus. I mean, Connie already has, but now she gets to do it with Eugene. And a random old guy. Hezekiah gushes over the baby, and Eugene starts crying. He ends the program, as he’s too choked up to continue.

Aaaand that’s it. That’s seriously where the story ends. Whit and Connie are all, “aw, Eugene got emotional? That’s so sweeeet,” and roll credits.

I’ve already said a lot about the three major issues with this story. Eugene’s character arc relies on him forgetting that this is all a simulation, and he’s canonically a computer scientist. The historical accuracy is overhyped, to say the least. And Connie spends most of the time being subjected to one kind of humiliation or another. Each of those things are problematic individually, but I’ve talked plenty about that during parts one and two. Now I want to look at how they all interact together, because even if they had been executed better, they are a very incongruous mix.

Good writers use thematic elements to link disparate elements together. Les Miserables, for example, follows a large cast of characters, many of whom never meet. It contains stories so complex that an entire revolution becomes a subplot and we are all cool with it. But every story element feels like it belongs, because of their thematic links. They all show characters who are powerless against systemic oppression, but able to alleviate each other’s pain with small acts of individual kindness. So what is the point of Back to Bethlehem?

Well, at the beginning, Eugene and Connie have a conflict. They trust Whit to resolve it with his computer program because he is so wise and all-knowing. That’s why the continued, if somewhat undeserved, insistence  The text of that conflict is that Eugene is skeptical of the Nativity story, while Connie views it through sappy eggnog tinted glasses. This is a narrative from a Christian perspective, so naturally Eugene needs his skepticism to be fixed, so he can eventually become religious and not burn for all eternity in hell, simply for expecting evidence. Okay, internally consistent if not something I can really approve of. Why does Connie need her perspective changed?

As I said last time, while I think Connie’s feminist leanings are awesome, I still am in favor of her learning a more complex understanding of women’s history. But I don’t think this episode showed that happening. She spent a lot of time being humiliated, dehumanized and harassed, and very little time appreciating her work. The only happy moment she really had was when she witnessed the birth of Jesus, and that was mostly offscreen. If we are assuming AIO is aiming to teach her what I thought she needed to learn, that was a very clumsy execution.

But there’s another way to look at this story. See, I’ve said over and over again that Connie was humiliated, but her reactions aren’t those of someone in real pain. She is experiencing days of isolation, but doesn’t act lonely. She is experiencing days of hard manual labor, but doesn’t act exhausted. She is experiencing sexual harassment, but doesn’t act scared.  She rants and grumbles, sure, but in a way that only someone mildly inconvenienced has energy to do.

Also, while the argument that started all this might have been about the realism of conventional nativity scenes, the subtext was about sexism. In the middle of some normal teasing, Eugene took offense at a comment that threatened his masculinity, and reacted by pretending she should, for some reason, follow old fashioned sexist norms.

Then, during one of her final scenes, she is overjoyed at witnessing a birth that men were barred from.

I think the real point of this was to tell Connie that things weren’t all that bad back in sexism times.

As to the writer’s actual intent, I don’t know. I don’t live in their minds. But I do know that, when talking to men, especially older men, experiences of sexism often get discounted. As a kid, I was often told that things used to be so much more unfair and nobody minded. The fact that people bothered to change things is, apparently, not proof enough that somebody minded. I also notice that, now that I’ve transitioned, simply being male is enough to make people take my experiences of female gender bias more believable. I tell men who routinely dismiss sexual harassment about what it was like to be scared to wander down the streets, and they pause. They are startled. They take me seriously, because I’m trans male. My point is, I don’t think it’s unfair to think that these writers might be writing this episode to show little girls how sexism really isn’t that bad, because it’s a mentality I encounter all the time, among both conservative and liberal men.

And even if that was not their intent, I think it is worth taking a bit of a death of the author stance here. When I listened to this episode, for the first time in years, I did not remember how sexist this episode was towards Connie. That is, each event individually felt familiar, but I was thinking, for the first time, “holy shitballs, Connie is being picked on for her gender in literally every scene.” Sometimes, I actually remembered finding the scenes of harassment funny, even though, when I was placed in Connie’s shoes in real life, I found it painful and dehumanizing.

I think that’s why we don’t get to see Jesus’ actual birth. We are watching and laughing at Connie, but we are feeling with Eugene. They are both protagonists, but Eugene is the locus of empathy. His feelings matter, and are (however inaccurately) developed. Hers don’t, and we get to laugh at them.

I’m featuring this as part of my politics theme, because it did the best job of showing how AIO treats gender issues, on the rare occasion that they are addressed even sort of explicitly.

Hardly anybody on this show breaks with gender norms in any way. Girls like shopping and makeup, women are either housewives or have an appropriately feminine job description. And to be honest, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. Many women are like that, and if, as a writer, you prefer writing femme women, that’s cool. It also shows femme women as strong. Lisa from my prior episode was a great example. She’s both outspoken and a girly girl, and the episode shows how her gentle caregiving approach is not inherently less valuable than Nick’s manly confrontational one. I genuinely think stories like that are awesome.

But it does sometimes have female characters complain about sexism, and when that happens, those complaints are rarely taken seriously. They are instead used as setups for jokes at the female characters’ expense. Sexism passes without comment, while feminist characters are quietly humiliated.

This show rarely does anything as straightforward as argue against women’s issues. It just quietly normalizes sexism, so subtly you can’t even be sure how intentional it is.

Final Ratings

Best Moment: Eugene is worried that his name won’t fit in with the denizens of the Imagination Station. So he introduces himself as Eugenius. The more you think about it the funnier it gets.

Worst Moment: The one where you realized that Whit actually had think up a program where his teenaged employee gets not one but two virtual reality stalkers. I just hope there’s something to the program that stops General Lucanus from treating girls who are younger than her that way. The more you think about it, the creepier it gets.

Moral Rating: What was even the point!?!?! I mean, I guess I just spent several paragraphs speculating on the point, but even my best guess was equal parts shoddy and shitty. F

Story Rating: To be honest, if you took the adventure out of the Imagination Station, and made Eugene and Connie two regular travelers who happen to meet Mary and Joseph in ancient Bethlehem, this might be a pretty good story. But the Imagination Station sucks the drama out of every plot point. How does Hezekiah know that Jesus is the Messiah? Because he was programmed to. It’s the Imagination Station. Are Connie and Eugene going to find Mary and Joseph? Of course they are. That’s the point of the whole adventure. It’s the Imagination Station. Will either of Connie’s icky suitors win her over? Probably not, because both of these people will cease to exist once the program ends, because it’s the motherfreakin’ Imagination Station! D-

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist: Back to Bethlehem, Part 2

When the last episode left off, Felix was harassing Hezekiah for no reason other than this story needs a bad guy, and the two guys sexually harassing Connie won’t do. Connie yells at Felix to stop, but he ignores her, because she’s a girl, but then Judah pops up out of nowhere and Felix is all, “sweet, new target! I look way cooler beating up on a young man than an elderly one.” Connie continues to beg that he stop, and continues to be ignored. Finally Lucanus returns and breaks it up.

Afterwards, Connie and Judah have a nice bonding moment over their shared passion for politics and justice and standing up to The Man. Yeah, no, I’m just kidding. Instead, Judah complains about the humiliation of being defended by a woman. Nice. Real nice, man.

Well, now that we’ve exhausted that plot point, it’s time for Joseph and Mary to show up! Benjamin says they don’t have any space, but Connie convinces him to put them up in the stable. Hezekiah hovers and fanboys over the pair until Eugene drags him away. Eugene may be socially awkward, but even he sees the faux pas of drooling over an exhausted pregnant woman.

Side rant; when Joseph reveals his fiance is pregnant, Benjamin says a sarcastic “mazel tov.” Ummm…. mazel tov is a modern Yiddish idiom. I mean, the words are Hebrew, but the phrase isn’t, based on my internet research. I bring that up for three reasons.

First, this episode has prided itself on historical accuracy, but there isn’t much to back up their boast. Little details like this make the pseudo-intellectual bravado more irritating. Second, Benjamin has a pronounced Yiddish accent, but not every Jewish character does. Mary doesn’t, Joseph doesn’t, Judah doesn’t, and most of the extras don’t. Benjamin is a stingy, self-absorbed businessman. A funny one who you are supposed to like, but he does not care about people. He cares about the stability of his inn. Hezekiah also has an accent, as does Benjamin’s wife, so it’s not like every character who sounds stereotypical is also greedy, but of the three Benjamin gets the most dialog. Third, the Yiddish phrases and accent create a paradoxical whitewashing effect. Sure, they say everyone is Middle Eastern and Jewish (except Connie, Eugene and the two Romans). But by making a few people sound stereotypically Yiddish and the rest sound like they come from Idaho, it’s hard not to picture an Ashkenazi minority among a white majority, when instead everyone should be Middle Eastern.

Okay, rant over. There will episodes where I can talk more about the racial politics of AIO.

Connie continues to do chores around the inn while the women tease her for her housekeeping ignorance. The women also bond over past experiences with childbirth and work, which… well, it’s the closest this episode comes to really teaching Connie something new. I do think it’s important to understand that, historically, traditional women’s work might have put women on the lower strata of society, but it also could bring meaning and community. If you’ve read Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (and everyone should), a central point was how modern conveniences like microwaves and dishwashers stripped feminine work of required skill and therefore pride. This, combined with the isolation of suburbia, left women lonely, bored, and preoccupied with putting up an appearance of a feminine ideal that technology had rendered superfluous.

Breaking down the divisions between men’s and women’s work was essential for letting women take meaningful roles in society again. Unfortunately, when historical scorn of women’s work was combined with efforts to leave the confines of the home, feminism became conflated with femmephobia. Lots of more qualified people have talked about this, and I’m happy to say that while it is a problem, it is also a problem that is being discussed constructively in feminist circles. Meanwhile, the world outside of feminism tends to, on the one hand, mock feminists for being anti-feminine, and on the other, do nothing to actually portray housework as important and valuable.

This episode is a perfect example of that. There’s even a brief exchange where Connie asks, incredulously, if all this work is really necessary. A woman responds, “it is if we don’t want our families to complain.” Not “starve” but “complain.” The phrase conjures up images of the women in the fifties who actually did cook just to stop their families from complaining. Sure, some genuinely had a passion for it, but many cooked because a fancy meal cooked by a stay at home mom was a status symbol. They could have just as easily ordered takeout or reheated something frozen, and had time to pursue other life choices, but that would have emasculated their husbands, and heaven forbid the men just learn to be less fragile in their masculinity!

That wasn’t the reality for women of ancient times. They cooked to keep their families fed. They sewed to keep them warm. They cleaned to keep them healthy. Conflating modern housework with the housework of old times simultaneously puts down the legitimate problems of the former while degrading the importance of the latter. The writers don’t seem to truly understand their own criticisms of Connie’s feminism, which is why, instead of learning to participate in the feminine community and take pride in their work, she is just embarrassed.

And it’s about to get worse. Shepherds show up, loudly announcing they are about to head to the hills where everything will be nice and quiet. We, who know there will soon be angels freaking them all out, are supposed to find this hilariously ironic. Ok, whatever.

Connie asks them a bit about sheep herding. Big mistake. The main shepherd first say, “and who might you be, pretty little girl,” in this intensely condescending voice, and then laugh about a girl being curious about a man’s job.

There is no narrative reason for the shepherds to show up. They poke their heads in to ask if Benjamin is around, and they seem to just want to say hello before they leave. Nothing in the story changes because of their arrival, nor are they used to establish some “historical accuracy” about the work of shepherds. All you learn is that they sometimes went out into the fields because that’s literally where the grass was, and also they smelled bad. These are short episodes, and we’ve spent several minutes where nothing happens except Connie gets picked on for not fitting into this uber historically accurate sexist old timey Israel.

Uuuuuuuuuuuugggggggggggggghhhhhhhhhhhhhhh

Hezekiah takes Eugene back to his home, which is full of toys that he has been carving for years in the expectation that he would one day have the opportunity to give them to baby Jesus. Eugene is blown away by the level of effort and all the blind faith that it took. This is really Eugene and Hezekiah’s dynamic in a nutshell. Hezekiah knows things about the virgin birth, and Eugene is blown away by his intuitions, and Hezekiah being all “yeah, isn’t faith amazing!” Then Eugene is all, “I’m so conflicted because this level of faith does not make sense and yet is so moving!”

Um………. YOU’RE ALL IN A VIRTUAL REALITY MACHINE!!! Hezekiah can say or do or know anything, because he’s not real! Whit made him up! If Eugene were a real agnostic skeptic, not a figment of the AIO writer’s imaginings, he would not be impressed by this shit.

But enough of that. Benjamin’s wife Rebecca starts asking Connie about possibly settling down in Bethlehem, because Judah clearly has the hots for her. This makes Connie highly uncomfortable. Not only does she not reciprocate those feelings, but she can’t exactly say “neither you nor Judah are actually real so this is literally impossible whether I want it or not.” Rebecca still reads Connie’s hesitation and keeps trying to pressure Connie to be emotionally okay with Judah’s attraction, which is such a mindfuck. Even though neither Judah nor Rebecca are real, they are realistic, and Connie is immersed in their world to such a degree that she can’t help empathizing with them. So Connie genuinely feels the pressure to play along with the Judah love story, just to avoid disappointing them. But the more she does, the more attached she gets to people who, as soon as the program stops, will cease to exist. She can be distant and uncomfortable now, or attached and miserable later.

On top of all this, Rebecca isn’t actually seeking Connie’s consent for the relationship. Sure, part of her is really into the idea of seeing a match unfold; enough to be all, “what, you don’t like Judah? You don’t like Bethlehem? Give me a reason for disliking either of these things so I can condescendingly shoot it down.” I guess she likes the idea of these two hotheads together, or she thinks its her duty to make Connie find the security of a spouse, or something like that. But at the same time, she does not empathize with Connie’s powerlessness or discomfort. In fact, she seems to be reveling in the schadenfreude of Connie’s discomfort. Rebecca is half old woman identifying with the oppressor and imposing sexist norms on the next generation, half first grader squealing, “Judah’s got a crush on yo-ou!”

Oh, also there’s a huge dose of “his constant immature petulance is just proof he likes you, boys will be boys, this is a normal and healthy way for relationships to start” thrown in. Again, this is a program Whit devised for kids.

I wish this was one of the areas where I could complain about implausibility, but I’ve known too many older women who actually are like that, so……

Mary’s labor begins and, well, it’s pretty much just a repeat of the plot points from the cooking scene. Connie is supposed to help, but is lost and confused. Rebecca is exasperated by Connie’s incompetence, and this is not used as an opportunity to teach Connie about old timey female bonding but merely to laugh at Connie’s ignorance of ancient midwifery. Meanwhile, Benjamin, Joseph, Hezekiah and Eugene wait for the baby. This too is just a retread of the previous Eugene/Hezekiah scene. The three not-real men debate the various levels of faith and skepticism they have been programmed with, and Eugene is blown away by the faith of the faithful, even though he knows it’s just a virtual reality program.

In our final scene, Judah meets Connie by the well, where she is getting water for Mary. He startles her into spilling the water. Then he helps her draw another bucket, and apologizes for yelling at her earlier, but it’s one of those weird apologies that is mostly guilt trip. He’s so miserable and humiliated all the time, and Connie made it worse and that’s her fault. But also he admires her for being so bold and brazen as to stand up to him. She’s not like all the other girls! (TM) He wants to know what she thinks of him. By which I mean he wants to pester and pester her until she kind of admits that maybe if a thousand different things were different she might be into him. At that stunning confession of love, he announces that he will speak to her master Eugene about a marriage. He ignores literally every attempt of hers to say no, and runs off to find Eugene, because it’s Eugene’s consent that really matters.

Also he spills the second bucket and leaves her to draw the third on her own. Worst. Proposal. Ever.

This story has one more episode to go, and my plan is to post the final part on Christmas Eve. Apologies for getting this up a little late; I was feeling sick and didn’t get to work on this episode as much as I wanted. Thanks for your patience, enjoy your holidays, and look for part three in just four days!

Furthermore, by Tahereh Mafi

Furthermore

What It’s About

Alice is a young girl, born colorless in a land where color and magic are intimately interwoven. But that doesn’t mean she can’t go on a quest to the mysterious and unpredictable country of Furthermore, with her equally mysterious and unpredictable friend Oliver.

Why I Think You’d Like It

Did you like Alice in Wonderland? The Phantom Tollbooth? The Wizard of Oz? Do you wish for more stories of dangerous adventures in beautifully bizarre otherworlds? Do you want them to be funny, heartfelt, and have little asides from the author? The kind where she admits that her characters are about to do something stupid and get into serious trouble, and you go, “noooo, I love these immature little shits, what are you doing????” because you do, you really love them? Do you like it when they grow, but not in a stupid forced aesop way, just in that natural way, where little kids get some stupid out of their system, and it gets them a little closer to being an adult? But not too close, because this is still a kids book? By which I mean a book appropriate for kids but also a delightful return to fantasy and wonder for adults?

Read Furthermore. It has all of that, plus origami foxes.

Content Warnings

Only mildly scary in a fantasy adventure way. You’ll be fine

The Scorpio Races, by Maggie Stiefvater

The Scorpio Races

What It’s About

A lonely island, an annual race, and deadly magical horses.

Why I Think You’d Like It

First, a personal confession. I’ve wanted to read a fantasy novel about water horses for ages. If you don’t know, they are a creature, with variations throughout Celtic mythology, that approaches humans in the form of a beautiful horse in order to drag them into the water, often to eat them. I love the incongruence of an elegant horse and a vicious water monster, but it’s either a concept most authors are unaware of, or unsure what to do with.

Maggie Stiefvater has become one of my favorite authors, precisely because of how well she takes magical premises that could be a bit too bizarre and makes them not only natural, but real, raw and heartfelt. As a kid, I went through a serious horse fanatic phase. I loved the “we’ve got to win the big race to save the farm!” plot and the “I work with horses and love this particular horse so much, but alas someone else owns it” plot and of course the “look at these two protagonists who both totally deserve to win, you really want them to win but it’s got to be one or the other, I’ll torture you for the next two hundred pages mwahahahaha” plot. So, for me, I’d love this book just for mashing up all that with a tragically underused mythological creature.

But it’s so much more on top of that.

It’s one of the most beautiful love stories I’ve ever read. It’s one of the most frightening fantasy novels I’ve ever read. It’s one of the most atmospheric gothic novels I’ve ever read. It’s a book of blood and nerves and wind and salt water tears. It’s one I want to read over, and over, and over and over again, until I’ve memorized every beautiful phrase.

I think you’ll love it.

Content Warnings

The plot revolves around flesh eating magical horses, so there’s gore. It’s not even violence that you should be concerned about. There’s very little, except for a few race scenes, and then things happen so fast it’s like the prose equivalent of shaky cam (and I mean that as a compliment; she does a great job making you feel the chaos while still letting you follow the action). It’s just that if you don’t want to read weirdly poetic descriptions of viscera washed up on the beach, this isn’t the book for you.

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist: Back to Bethlehem, Part 1

I’m back from the land of Nanowrimo! Thanks to everyone for your patience, and we will now resume the political theme, with an episode that just happens to be seasonal.

This Christmas special opens with Chris interviewing Dr. Julius Schnitzelbanker, a stereotypical mad scientist with an annoyingly nasal voice. He has an invention that transmogrifies random objects into commercialized holiday paraphernalia, like tinsel and eggnog cartons and shit. He brags about the money he’ll make off of this, and Chris tsk tsks, because clearly he doesn’t get the True Meaning of Christmas (TM). But this is just a silly cold open frame device thingy, so they don’t have time to really get into it. Instead Chris uses his own device to transmogrify him into a Tinkerbell ornament.

Well, whatever we’re supposed to learn from that, I’m sure it will tie neatly into the main themes of the episode.

The episode proper opens with Whit making a new Nativity display. He wants some reference photos, so Connie and Eugene are posing in costume. While they pose, they rib each other over how silly they feel in their first century robes and tunics. Eugene mentions not having a period accurate beard, and Connie teases him for not being able to grow one. He immediately takes serious offense and lectures her on how, in the first century, she wouldn’t be allowed to speak to him that way. She would be required to speak only when spoken to, cause that’s how things were for the womenfolk.

Uhhhh… WTF?

Connie rebuts that she is playing Mary and Mary was special. She’s missing the obvious “last I checked, this wasn’t the first century” response, but hey, we’ve all had staircase wit. Eugene says that he bets she thinks Mary also had a halo and gave birth in a nice clean stable with no labor pains and the animals smelled nice and the baby never cried. Wow, way to strawman her, dude. Connie, caught completely off guard and being a genuine fan of the Hollywood Nativity, goes with “well, who knows, because God,” as her counterargument. Look, nobody said she was a candidate for the debate team.

Connie and Eugene often get into silly arguments that escalate quickly, but even for them, this is ridiculous. Whit finally intervenes. He says that obviously Connie struck a nerve, but bringing up antiquated gender norms to get on her nerves is not an okay response. They both need to take a deep breath, think about how this conversation made them feel, and then share that with each other and really listen, like two people who are friends and adults.

Oh wait. That’s what I would have said if I were Whit. No, that’s not what he says at all. He says this all important historical accuracy question should be settled with a trip in the Imagination Station.

Wait, what? Whaaaaaaat?

First of all, the historical Nativity is not even close to the important thing going on. The important thing is that Eugene and Connie are being assholes, Eugene in particular, as he is being sexist as well as petty. Second of all, even if historical accuracy was the issue, your solution is “let’s see what my magic hallucination machine says?”

Just… Whaaaaaaaaaaaaat????

But naturally, both Eugene and Connie are totally on board with this. The Imagination Station drops them in ancient Bethlehem, where they see a crowd around a young zealot shouting about Roman oppression and coming change.

Man, I haven’t seen such detailed historical accuracy since Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

An innkeeper named Benjamin fears that this chaos will bring Roman attention and ruin his business. He breaks up the crowd. Eugene thinks Benjamin might be a good lead on the whole Mary and Joseph situation, and runs off to speak to him. Connie, meanwhile, tells Judah, the zealot, that she doesn’t think his approach of screaming at people is likely to be helpful. He immediately scoffs and asks what a woman would know about it. She’s not taking that bullshit from a first century hologram, so she starts listing all the things she can do that he probably can’t. Judah is lost for words, mostly because she’s talking about oil changes and making double decker sundaes and he is completely lost.

Then she starts ranting about guys like Eugene treating her like she’s just a human tool for jobs that are beneath them. Just as she does, Eugene himself turns up, and announces that Connie will be working at Benjamin’s inn. How did this come about so quickly? Oh, Eugene just told Benjamin that Connie is his servant girl and he has the right to pawn her off at his convenience. You know, like slavery, but we’re saying servant because it’s a kid’s show.

Why has Eugene done this? Well, Benjamin told him about a weird old guy named Hezekiah, who rants about the coming Messiah a lot. Eugene wants to go find Hezekiah, and insists that Connie can’t come with him, because women, wandering the streets, totally not cool back then.

What exactly is supposed to happen to her? She’s in a virtual reality program.

Yeah, there’s this whole thing in Imagination Station episodes where the characters act like they have actually gone back in time and there is actual shit at stake? I guess it makes sense. Games are more fun if you pretend they are real, and this is supposed to be fun. But on the other hand, games are also more fun when you know you won’t be harmed. Whit explicitly said this was a program he had already been working on. The Imagination Station is for kids. So are we supposed to believe that Whit programmed a lot of sexual harassment in to teach little girls that they had to be afraid to roam old timey streets alone? Or just that Eugene is letting his sexist perceptions color his expectations for what he and Connie will experience? I dunno. Let’s see which interpretation is better supported by events as they unfold.

Anyway, the job at the inn introduces Connie to one of the two main things she will be doing this episode; performing menial chores while grumbling about gender. The other thing will be dodging sexual harassment.

Man, I wish I was kidding.

Her first stalker comes when a pair of Roman officers show up. Captain Felix is just concerned with getting a room. General Lucanus is just concerned with informing Connie that she has the look of a princess, rather than a serving girl. Oh, but he can’t tell her that to her face. She’s a lowly female common person. Instead he turns to Captain Felix and pointedly talks about how hot Connie is. Nothing turns a girl on like talking about her like she’s a piece of art in a museum. And I say girl, because Connie is canonically fifteen or sixteen at this point in the series. She is also clearly put off by this, but neither Roman acknowledges her reaction at all.

Eugene returns to the inn, and tells Connie he hasn’t found Hezekiah. He thinks that maybe this inn, which they’ve happened to turn up next to, is the one where Mary and Joseph will turn up.

No, really? You think that this virtual reality simulation, made to let you encounter the Nativity, dropped you right where the birth of Jesus would go down? What a stretch.

Eugene’s actual reasons are threefold. The first two are rather transparent efforts by the authors to impress us with their Historical Accuracy (TM). Unfortunately, they get things wrong. First, Eugene says that this inn has real rooms, which wasn’t actually common back then. Typically inns just had large communal hostel-type spaces that the guests all shared. And since the Bible says “there was no room for them at the inn,” the Official Nativity Inn must have had rooms, right? Uh, no, actually. First, even in English, “no room” can mean “we have several rooms and none are available” or “there is no space to cram another person into this general area.” Second, when you are looking at the original Greek, it’s not clear that inn was even the best translation.

Eugene’s second big clue is that this inn has a stable, which they initially overlooked because it’s in a cave instead of a big red barn… yeah. Big red barns would have been an anachronism. Knowing that is not as impressive as you think it is. Also, again, if you read the above link, the whole stable thing itself might be a mistranslation.

Eugene’s final reason for thinking they are already at the right inn? This inn has a massive shining star hanging over it, and everyone’s been talking about it since they arrived. No, really?! You think that might be a clue?

Finally Hezekiah shows up at the inn, talking about stars and Messiahs and signs from the scriptures. Eugene is interested, even though nothing Hezekiah says actually brings up new information to us. It is news to the Roman officers, however. General Lucanus thinks Hezekiah is just a harmless old kook, but Captain Felix hasn’t punched anybody in way too long. He tries to make the case that Hezekiah is a dangerous radical who must be dealt with, even though nobody takes Hezekiah that seriously and he’s not even saying anything directly against the Roman Empire to begin with.

Lucanus is all, “yeah, whatever, I’m gonna go do literally anything else, don’t rough him up too much,” which Felix hears as, “blah blah blah rough him up blah blah.” He starts pushing Hezekiah around, Connie starts yelling for him to stop, and then Chris breaks in to announce that the story will be continued in part two!

Dun dun duuuuuuunnnnn!

They do take the time to wrap up the opening teaser, however. Chris turns Dr. Schnitzelbank back into a human, and after listening to that episode he’s all on board with the spirit of Christmas. Even though nobody talked about the spirit of Christmas at all during that episode. Mary and Joseph haven’t shown up, let alone Jesus. I’m guessing his real reasoning is “say whatever the crazy lady wants, I don’t want to be a Tinkerbell ornament again.”

I too will be continuing the story in part two, so until then, happy holidays!

(that’s right, I said it. I’m a dirty, dirty heathen)

The Universe of Us, by Lang Leav

The Universe of Us

What It’s About

A series of short poems about being in love.

Why I Think You’d Like It

Because these poems made me revisit the feeling of being in love in a way that I hadn’t felt since I was a kid. Because they made me feel, viscerally, types of falling in love that I’d never experienced before. Because they made me look back on the disappointing experiences of love that I had thought of as unworthy of poetry, and see the beauty in them.

Because they’re beautiful and insightful and made me hold my breath. Not figuratively took my breath away. Sometimes, I’d hit the end of a line and stop breathing for a little bit.

Content Warnings

Not applicable