Monthly Archives: March 2018

AIO Postponed a Week

So, I am working on some intense job stuff to prepare for a big upcoming move, and I haven’t got my next Adventures in Odyssey post up to snuff yet. I’ve decided to postpone this post until next week, and then I’ll do another one the week after to get back on schedule. Sorry for the last minute notice, and thanks for your patience!

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Elysium, by Jennifer Marie Brissett

Elysium

What It’s About

Two soulmates try to stay together in a tangle of computer simulated realities.

Why I Think You’d Like It

Narratives that show alternate versions of the same people are viscerally fascinating. We all wonder, if our environment were changed, how much of us would stay the same. I’ve tried a number of films and novels that use this concept, always really wanting to like them, but mostly I’ve been too disappointed to even finish them. Half of them are so obsessed with the gimmick of the narrative that they never give you time to get attached to the characters or plots in any reality. The other half seem to be using this as an excuse to write five stories only seventy percent of the way. Who needs to wrap up loose ends when you can just excuse it all by saying you’re being “profound”?

Although it’s entirely likely that I’m just a picky bastard.

In any case, this book absolutely nailed it, even for someone as particular as me. You wonder about the connections between the worlds and where the story is taking you, but you always understand what is happening now. You’re not lost, you’re curious.

We follow Adrianne and Antoine, who are sometimes Adrian and Antoinette or Adrian and Antoine or Adrianne and Antoinette, through a mixture of realistic and surrealistic worlds, all of which throw some kind of obstacle between them. Sometimes they are lovers or spouses, other times siblings or parent and child, but in every world they make you ache to see them together. Some stories are long, some short. Sometimes details change one at a time until world A becomes world B, like a literary version of an Escher painting. Other times we are jerked abruptly from place to place. Each transition feels meaningful, like there was a reason it happened one way or another.

Each individual story is satisfying, though usually in a bittersweet way. You are left with questions, but not painfully dangling threads. The similarities between the stories are clever and intentional. They let you put together theories about the reality underpinning all these fantasies, but like all good mysteries, you aren’t sure how the pieces fit until the very end. The resolution was beautiful; equally satisfying on an intellectual and emotional level.

It’s smart, artistic, moving and deeply absorbing. It’s one of those “finished it in a weekend because I could not put it down” books, and it’s getting added to my personal collection ASAP. I need to read it again.

Content Warnings

It’s intense without being graphically violent. It relies on more existentially terrifying concepts; post apocalyptic worlds, alien internment camps, scary cults, abusive mental hospitals, terminal illnesses etc.

Also, there are a few graphic sex scenes, but they are loving and consensual.

A Group Callout Checklist

1. Did somebody say something shitty? (if yes, proceed to step two. If no, I’m not sure why you’re here)

2. Was this a shitty thing that was absolutely integral to the philosophy of the group? Or somewhere between “kinda related but not everybody buys into it” and “totally unrelated?” (if integral, proceed to Outcome Three. If not, or you aren’t sure, proceed to step three.)

3. Did someone from the person’s own group immediately call them out? (if yes, proceed to Outcome One. If no, proceed to step four)

4. Are you deeply familiar with this group, or have you just read a couple of postings/hung out casually with a few individuals? (if deeply familiar, proceed to step seven. If not, take a stop by step five.)

5. Do more research. Look to find out if this kind of thing is said often in the group, or if this was an aberrant occurrence. This is also where you can clear up any ambiguity about how deeply the shitty thing is tied to the group’s philosophy. Once you have a clearer picture of where this shitty thing fits into the group’s overall culture, you can proceed to step six.

6. Has your research determined that this is a random occurrence, or that this group has a toxic element that has not been addressed? (if the former, proceed to Outcome One. If the latter, proceed to step seven. If you have discovered that this shitty is absolutely an integral part of the group as a whole, proceed to Outcome Three.)

7. Are you part of the group? (if yes, proceed to Outcome Two. If no, proceed to step eight.)

8. Are you one of the people the shitty thing affects? (if yes, proceed to Outcome Two. If no, proceed to Outcome Zero.)

Outcome Zero: Talk to people with personal stakes in the situation, either because they are part of the group, or affected by it. Support them in addressing the thing. Your perspective is not invalid; an informed outside opinion is often very useful in identifying problems. But recognize that it is their thing to fix. Don’t write a callout post unless a lot of the affected people want you to.

Outcome One: this should not be a group callout. An individual in a group was shitty. Sometimes this happens, because groups are people, and enough people are shitty that growing groups will eventually gain shitty people. Call out the shitty individual if that’s something that you really think needs to happen, but move on with your life. You can’t fix everything, and there’s no shame in saving your energy for more important battles.

Outcome Two: talk about the thing. Acknowledge that it is not a thing that everybody does, because then people on your side will be more likely to listen to you. Aim to be constructive for the sake of those people. Remember that it’s sometimes easier to recognize a problem from a distance than when it is right up next to you, and that’s why good people sometimes seem to ignore problems among their own. It is possible to keep those things in mind and still issue a powerful callout. You are not weakening your strike, but adding precision to the blow.

Outcome Three: this is a shitty group. They will probably not care what you say, and will like the attention your callout brings. However, it is also possible that their shittiness will harm others. Carefully weigh the cost of feeding the trolls against the risk of ignoring a wildfire. No one can make the final decision for you. Godspeed

Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays, by Zadie Smith

Changing My MInd

What It’s About

Assorted essays, written for various occasions by award winning author Zadie Smith.

Why I Think You’d Like It

There are some books you read because you want to learn a particular lesson, and others you read because they are fun, and some books you read because they feel like a friend. This is a good friend book. Reading it feels like going out for a cup of coffee with the author, and rambling on about literature and movies and politics and places she’s travelled to. In terms of content, I did get a lot out of this book. It convinced me to hurry up and read Middlemarch already, reshaped my understanding of the whole “death of the author” debate, and gave me a new way to frame how I approach writing (I’m, apparently, a macro-planner, rather than a micromanager). But it’s not a book that you go into knowing what you’re going to get out of it. You read it because Zadie Smith is a person worth listening to, even when she herself isn’t sure what she thinks.

The book is titled Changing My Mind with good reason. While she has strong opinions, she is also, like most interesting people, in a constant state of re-evaluating them. Many of these essays are almost short stories of how her thinking has evolved, as new things occur to her, as somebody points something out, or as something unexpected happens. At times she almost comes across as intellectually ostentatious, but then reveals a very English self-deprecation. You like hearing what she thinks, even when you disagree, because you don’t feel frustrated. Instead, you feel that, if you were to stand in front of her and make a counterpoint, she’d listen with interest and keep talking it over with you.

These essays all have a meandering, conversational feeling to them. Sure, they have topics and themes and all that literary stuff, but she can start out quoting Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion and end up talking about Barack Obama as a symbol of our changed expectations for leaders in an era of globalization. But it all hangs together, because those are both people who engage in code-switching; who pick up one style of speaking and then learn another. And that connection is interesting, because of what that says about identity, and how we judge the identities of others, and how willing we are to let people have multiple identities, and when the insistence on multiple identities becomes its own way to condense your own personhood, and…..

I found it all great stuff to think about, and I think you will too.

Content Warnings

She alludes to adult content, from violence to suicide to sex to former child soldiers in Liberia. She avoids being graphic, and often it seemed not that she was being delicate out of some sensitivity, but because she had interesting things to say that didn’t need to plunge you into the visceral experience in order to say them. In other words, you’re probably good.

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist: When Bad Isn’t So Good

This episode opens with Eugene gifting Rusty, a recurring bad kid, with a sundae. This is part of a rewards program for struggling kids. Rusty got some good grades, which is pretty rare for him, hence, sundae. Sitting nearby is Sam Johnson, recurring mostly-good kid. Sam is jealous. He nearly always gets good grades. He also generally has to pay for his sundaes. This doesn’t seem to add up.

Rusty comments that if Sam wants to get rewarded for being good behavior, he’s got to step up his being-bad game. See, Sam is good so often, it’s not interesting or noteworthy. Nobody wants to encourage him to be better because he’s clearly already got the idea. When Rusty is good, on the other hand, it’s such a rare event that everyone bends over backwards trying to encourage him to keep it up.

Now, here I feel the need to point out that Focus on the Family, the organization that produces AIO, is skeptical of positive behavioral support systems. They prefer to just spank the bad out of kids… God I wish I was being snarky and not just literally reporting on their belief system. When I initially prepared for this review, I intended to talk a lot more about that, but honestly, all that stuff doesn’t come up often on AIO. In the literature they market to parents, yes, absolutely, but this isn’t a review of their parenting literature. So, I’m going to acknowledge all that, but this is not the place to unpack it.

Back to the episode. The show now cuts to our B plot, which has Regis Blackgaard, beleaguered Shakespearean actor, getting cited for a few fire and safety violations at his theater. A few here meaning, quote, “thirty-two odds and ends, plus you need a sprinkler system.” Regis is understandably upset. The Harlequin Theater is already struggling, and these modifications will take both time and money that he barely has. Odyssey isn’t exactly a cultural hotspot, and he has to work hard to convince people to give classic theater a try.

Still, he tries to look on the bright side. He has an upcoming interview with the most popular local radio program. It is a shock radio program run by a guy called Cryin’ Bryan Dern, but Regis is trying not to think about that.

Bryan Dern isn’t exactly into the artistic aspects of the play, and tries to bait Regis into talking about anything more juicy. Regis knows exactly what Dern is doing, but in his current mood, it’s hard to resist a platform to rant about the failed safety inspection. This turns into a long tirade on municipal regulations, permits and bureaucracy as a whole. People call in with their own rants, and Dern is into it. He offers Regis a recurring guest spot complaining about red tape and city workers. This conflicts with Regis’s artistic sensibilities. Dern clarifies that this is a paid position, and that artistic integrity dries right up.

Meanwhile, Sam gives being bad a try. Since Rusty got his ice cream for his grades, what better place to be bad than at school? So Sam intentionally turns in a test without any answers. But as it turns out, the test itself was misprinted, and it won’t count towards anyone’s grade. In fact, based on Sam’s good reputation, the teacher just assumes Sam noticed the error all on his own. On his first try, Sam has already learned something about himself; he has the worst luck at being bad.

Rusty takes pity on the poor little good kid, and decides to give him some bad kid tutoring. He’s basically the anti-Chidi.

After a few weeks on Dern’s program, Regis decides to take on the volunteer fire department. It isn’t that the fire department is bad, but they aren’t professionals, and Regis thinks that reflects poorly on the city. He might genuinely be irritated by this, or he might just be running low on material. Either way, it’s a fairly petty rant. A firefighter calls him up to defend his people. He announces that they’ll be protesting at the theater, and this rattles Regis. Dern talks him down, by pointing out that there’s no publicity like a bit of controversy. So Regis decides to keep doing the program.

The A and B plots dovetail when we learn that Rusty isn’t thrilled about Regis’ program either. His dad is a city worker, so he takes the talk show personally. He decides to take Sam on a bad kid tour. They’re going to hit the Harlequin Theater, but on their way, they swing by Bernard Walton’s place and Rusty tells Sam to shatter a piece of glass. Sam throws a rock, but it just bounces off. He throws the rock again. More bouncing. He starts shouting and pounding on the glass. Bernard shows up and Rusty bails on Sam.

Bernard tries to pull Sam away, and Sam rants that the glass won’t break. Bernard says of course it won’t, it’s unbreakable glass. He’s replacing the windows of the bank. Sam shouts in frustration about how hard it is to be bad, and Bernard is fairly confused.

Sam explains that he thinks that if he doesn’t do bad things, he won’t be given ice cream sundaes for being good. Bernard gives the perfect response; so what? Being good isn’t about being rewarded. The rewards for being good are incidental. The real rewards of being good aren’t anything tangible. Being a good person is an end in it’s own right.

Sam realizes how stupid he’s been, and runs off to stop Rusty. Rusty slips into the Harlequin Theater, in the middle of the firefighter’s protest, with a fistful of cherry bombs. His plan is to freak Regis out in the middle of his rehearsal.

Sam tries to stop him, but Rusty throws the bombs anyway. A curtain in the stage catches fire, and Regis gets a sudden, intense lesson in why the city thinks he should have a sprinkler system. Sam runs outside to alert the firefighters, who, despite their animosity towards Regis, rush in and save the day.

Regis gives his last performance on the Cryin’ Bryan Dern show, which is an apology for all his previous bits. He saves a special shoutout for the brave, hardworking volunteer fire department.

He also thanks Sam Johnson for his quick thinking. Sam talks to Bernard about how he’s glad he did the right thing, reward or not, and while they’re talking Eugene comes up and gives Sam a sundae on the house. Bernard remarks that being good is it’s own reward, but an ice cream sundae every now and then doesn’t hurt either.

I work in special ed, mainly with kids who have behavioral issues. Positive reinforcement is a huge part of my work, and I stand by it as an important element. Good behavior is a skill that takes practice and hard work. Little kids often aren’t cognitively ready to understand all the benefits of being a good, kind person, and more tangible rewards help them along the way. Eventually they become able to understand the more subtle, longterm benefits of being good, and the reinforcements become unnecessary.

Given all that, and what I know about Focus on the Family, the opening scene of this episode made me prepared to eviscerate their misunderstanding of positive reinforcement. But, honestly, I’ve seen kids act exactly like Rusty. They’ll act a little bad, and then, as soon as an adult’s eyes are on them, they turn it around and become pointedly, performatively good. You feel like you have to reinforce them for turning their behavior around, but at the same time, there’s this sense that they have not remotely gotten the point. Worse, I’ve met some adults who still act this way.

Rewards might have their place, but they aren’t the only part of the picture. I remember one kid I worked with who had a behavior reward system. He got red, yellow or green stamps at the end of various activities, and then he went to talk to a behavioral specialist at the end of the day. If he got mostly green stamps, he could pick something from a prize box. But the most important thing the specialist did was ask him how he felt about how he did. Over the weeks, I could see the wheels in his head turning, as he noticed that how well he did changed how he felt about himself. He learned to feel proud of himself when he worked hard and followed the rules. He also felt bad when he didn’t do well, but not in a hopeless, “that’s just the way I am” way. He started to see his behavior as something he could practice and get better at, and that the benefits of that work went far beyond a sticker book or a candy necklace.

Now, this episode doesn’t go into all that, but I think, for a twenty minute comedy, it’s a good introduction to the idea that rewards aren’t the real point of being good.  And I think the sundae at the end was a good acknowledgement that, as adults, we do sometimes have to remember that the kids who are good at being good might still need a little encouragement as well.

Final Ratings

Best Part: Bryan Dern tries to tell the firefighters that they shouldn’t protest, because Regis has the right to speak his opinions. The firefighters come back with, “and so do we,” with this perfect mic drop intonation. It’s beautiful.

Worst Part: Again, not a lot of bad scenes in this one. I think I found the coincidence of the misprinted test a little annoying, but it’s a minor blemish on an otherwise solid, entertaining episode.

Story Rating: The dialog and events had a good rhythm, the jokes were mostly at least smile worthy, the setups all paid off well and the two plot lines tied together neatly without feeling contrived. A+

Moral Rating: Valid criticisms of a flawed approach that leaves room for acknowledgement of it’s place. Ties in well with the story, and is clear but doesn’t over-explain itself. A+

The Mistress of Spices, by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

The Mistress of Spices

What It’s About

In a quiet little Indian bodega, an elderly enchantress works her subtle magic on her customers, through the spices she sells.

Why I Think You’d Like It

I love those little shops that feel a little bit magical, and I love the idea of magic being all around us, working subtly. So, if this had only been a series of anecdotes about the customers and the spices, I would love loved it. I would have rejoiced in the ideas of subtle actions having tremendous ripples, and ordinary problems having the same import as grand quests. And this book did give me all of that, guaranteeing a positive review. It just also gave me a whole lot more than that.

In addition to all the little stories woven throughout, Tilo, the Mistress of Spices herself, has her own story. Her backstory is not what I expected, but it was brilliant and set up a whole adventure and character arc of her own. I won’t give it away, but I will say she is among my favorite protagonists of all time.

The world itself was also beautiful and extremely cool. I’ve heard it said that if you want magic to solve your characters problems, it needs rules, but if you want magic to create problems, it needs to be mysterious. In this world, the magic is somehow both at once. The spices have their associated powers and are each good for different things, but at the same time, they collectively have a will and mind of their own. It was brilliant and made for a unique and stunning fantasy world.

Then there’s the prose; beautiful and meandering, simple and philosophical. It got me thinking about fate, destiny, will and choices. I felt I was being prompted to ask questions rather than fed questions, while at the same time I was given satisfying conclusions. The ideas interacted with the plot like, well, like a well spiced dish.

All in all, this book had layer after layer to it, each one making it better and gripping me more intensely. As I reached the last pages, I was completely oblivious to the world. I was sitting in my car, waiting to meet with a friend, and not only did I not notice when the friend arrived, but I did not notice when she repeatedly banged on my window.

She forgave me, on the condition that I loaned her the book when I finished.

Content Warnings

She sees flashes of other characters lives, including times when they have been beaten, bullied or sexually abused. Some of the physical violence is on the graphic side.

How to Be a Friend to a Friend Who’s Sick, by Letty Cottin Pogrebin

How to be a Friend to a Friend Who is Sick

What It’s About

A cancer survivor writes an in-depth etiquette book for those with chronically ill loved ones.

Why I Think You’d Like It

Given the title and subject matter of this book, you could be forgiven for thinking it has niche market, which you are probably not in. Now that I’ve read it, I disagree. I think it is a good book to read if you want to understand the perspectives of people in hard circumstances. It think it is a good book if you spend a lot of time thinking about how to make the world a kinder, more empathetic place. And, frankly, because everybody will probably have a sick friend someday, it’s a good book to read just in case.

I think one question that is incredibly hard to answer, in modern times, is “how to be a genuinely kind person?” It’s hard to ask, for that matter, because even to ask it is to raise insecurities. And I don’t think modern society is creating some kind of horrid post-manners hellscape from which decency will never emerge again. Nor do I think we need to reclaim antiquated norms in order to be nice again. We have come up with a new society. We need to invent new rules to go along with them.

I’ve read some attempts at inventing new rules, and a lot of them have frustrated or upset me. They have been too married to the author’s limited experiences; that one person takes how they would like to be treated and projected it on the entirety of modern culture. What I love about Letty Cottin Pogrebin is that she does not just give a list of ways she would love to be treated. She talked to her fellow cancer patients, and reached out to people with different health problems, and created her book from an aggregate of experiences. She talks about things that some patients appreciate and others don’t. She offers suggestions of things to offer or ask about, and tips on how to recognize when you are tasking a sick person with too many questions. She lists of things that hardly any sick or disabled person wants to hear. She goes into the fine art of caring for a sick person’s caregiver. She explains why, barring a few special circumstances, health advice is rarely appreciated but ice cream nearly always is.

On top of that, the prose style is simply delightful. She has a fantastic sense of humor that is equal parts snark and self-deprecation, and at the same time the whole book feels very warm and caring. It was like hanging out with your cool great-aunt; the politically active one who drinks wine and knit you a Hogwarts scarf that one Christmas. The great-aunt who knew which house colors to use, because she gets you.

It’s not only a fantastic primer on how to help sick people, but a good framework for how to talk about kindness and empathy in general, and frankly a really fun read.

Content Warnings

There’s not a lot to be afraid of here. She does mention some potentially disturbing medical conditions, but keeps a good balance between frank and tactful, so even if you’re easily grossed out by hospital stuff you’ll probably be okay. Honestly, the biggest content warning I can issue is for language. As an author, her voice is not one you would usually associate with profanity, but every so often she likes to make the point that, for someone in real pain, sometimes you just gotta unleash your inner sailor. I really liked that.