All posts by Lane

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.

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as An Atheist: A is for Attitude

Before I start on the real show, I feel the need to actually describe Chris’s intro. Normally I skip them because, in the words of Tom Haverford of Parks and Rec

TED beige
“This is like listening to a TED talk by the color beige.”

But this time, she commits a crime which must not stand unremarked upon. She’s at a blood bank, and runs into someone with the type B+. And if you’ve noticed the title of the episode, you know there’s some prime Dad joke fodder there. So what does she do?

She laughs, then apologizes, and says, she’s sorry, it’s just that the episode is about being positive and there’s just a loose connection between being positive and “B+.”

She, a fictional character, who could have been written to say anything, laughs at the joke inside her own head, and then explains the joke without delivering it.


I’m sorry, but I could not let the murder of that perfectly respectable pun go unwitnessed.

Also, I don’t think I’ve commented on this before, but in a lot of the episodes where she has a mini-story, rather than just a bad TED talk, she also directly tells the other characters that they are about to hear an episode. At other times, she acts as if she’s eavesdropping on live events. This creates a weird intra-narrative paradox. Is AIO a show within a show, and all this time we’ve been witnessing the descent into madness of a fallen voice actress who comes to believe her only remaining gig is real? Or is she a Deadpool-like figure who is aware that she is in a work of fiction? If so, do the characters she talks to also know that they are in a work of fiction, or do they think she’s completely lost it? And what about the mini stories that take place inside the sound booth, while she’s canonically recording the intro for this radio show? What is the canon here?!?!

I’ve spent far too much time on this.

This episode properly begins with Connie struggling to concentrate on her homework. She’s studying for a geography test, and it’s one of her least favorite subjects. She decides to turn the TV on for some background noise. On an Oprah-type show, the host interviews a self help guru. He talks about how, say, sometimes students study hard but still failing because of stress and negative thinking. He says that, with a better attitude, you can do better even with less studying. Connie promptly decides to abandon studying for the adoption of a positive attitude.

We only hear a brief clip, so it’s hard to tell whether Connie’s decision is an accurate reflection of his overall message. He doesn’t actually say that positivity makes hard work unnecessary. He also doesn’t clarify that attitude alone can’t save the day. There are some people who make their living overselling things like willpower and mindfulness and positive thinking. At the same time, there is real use in those things, when balanced with practical action. It’s not entirely clear, at this point, whether they are directing their main criticisms at Connie, or the self-help guru.

Connie takes her test and turns it in with confidence. In her mind, she has already aced it. Then she waltzes up to her friend Cheryl. Cheryl loves singing, and Connie thinks she should try out for the glee club. Cheryl isn’t sure. She hasn’t had any formal training, nor has she even really sung in front of other people. She likes singing to herself in the shower, basically. But Connie gives her a pep talk and some catchy mottos, and Cheryl gets caught up in the enthusiasm. She signs up for auditions

Next Connie runs into Jimmy Barclay, who is practicing with his rather sucky basketball team. They are getting down on themselves, and she decides to deliver her new philosophy once again. She tells them their practicing isn’t working, so they should focus less on drills, more on getting pumped. At first they are skeptical, but when she makes a basket, seemingly with nothing but the power of positive thinking, they get into the idea.

One kid, Peter, goes to her afterwards and reveals that he has a fear of heights. All his friends who walk to school take a shortcut across a train trestle in McAllister Park, and he has to wake up an hour earlier because he can’t do it. Also, he gets teased.

Connie suddenly realizes that she is going all in on an untried philosophy, and frankly this kid sounds like he has a serious phobia that should be worked through with a qualified therapist. Naw, just kidding. She tells him that happy thoughts are magic.

That Saturday, Connie tells Whit all about her winning new philosophy. Which has not actually won anything yet. Whit calls it one of the most ridiculous things he’s ever heard. She drags him along to her friend’s audition, to prove him wrong.

Cheryl bombs it. Turns out she’s actually very tone deaf, and never knew it because, you know, this is literally the first time she’s sung in front of a living human. Whit isn’t happy that Cheryl was embarrassed, but he hopes he’s at least talked Connie out of this silly idea. Connie argues instead that Cheryl wasn’t really positive enough. It isn’t that the theory doesn’t work, but that Cheryl let herself get nervous before the audition. So she hauls Whit to Jimmy’s basketball game.

These kids definitely do not have an attitude problem. They’re chanting and cheering each other on loudly. The coach even compliments them on their spirit. He announces that next time around they are going to work on the skill part of the picture, because they have just lost 56 to 12.

Now it hits Connie that she might be wrong. There’s a little bit of obligatory “don’t trust this motivational speaker’s book, trust the Bible.” Yeah Whit, the Bible definitely has a whole bit on how, in the late twentieth century, Western civilization will be swept with a fever for trashy self-help books. It’s right there in Jeremonicus 4:20, “yea, you shall read these books, and you shall take from them that you deserve to love thyself and work on thy goals, but thou shalt take their advice with a grain of salt, for verily they maketh extraordinary claims without extraordinary evidence.”

Anyway, then Connie notices that Peter isn’t at the game. His team says he had something to do at McAllister Park, and Connie remembers the train trestle. This is a radio show, but I swear you can see her eyes bug out with the realization. Whit and Connie rush over there.

Peter did pretty well, to be honest. He got halfway over before the power of positive thinking wore out. Technically Connie’s best success yet.

Less good news; he is now absolutely frozen in the middle of the tracks. You know, the train tracks. That actual trains run on. And since they make train schedules based on dramatic impact, one is coming right now.

Whit goes out and gets him to jump. Both of them are okay, and Connie is totally over positive thinking.

Although, to rub it in, she gets a D in geography.

This is the first of my theme on personal development. In retrospect I could have combined some of this with the mental health theme, but while that was about dealing with emotional problems, this is more about the ongoing process of growing, regardless of whether or not you are starting from a healthy place. AIO is a show that is obviously very into learning to be better, but they also have a kneejerk distrust of self improvement that isn’t directly tied to religion. That said, the distrust isn’t always unwarranted. There genuinely is some bullcrap out there, and apart from my slight nitpicks, I like what this episode is trying to say.

Final Ratings

Best Part: I give Whit a lot of crap, because I think he is put on a very undeserved pedestal by the writers and characters. But I’ll hand it to him; his jump at the end is pretty badass.

Worst Part: The death of that poor, poor pun.

Story Rating: Moves along at a nice steady pace, a little formulaic but not in a bad way. It knows what it is supposed to be, and it is exactly that. B

Moral Rating: I wish the delivery of the moral was more “look the reasoning and evidence” and less “look at what the Bible says,” but the story illustrated the point pretty neatly. And frankly after all the crummy morals from the last theme, I feel like acknowledging the good in this series. In other words, I’m gonna B+

Legend, by Marie Lu


What It’s About

A dystopia where the United States has turned into a totalitarian dictatorship and children are subjected to eugenic trials. In this world, June, the Republic’s military prodigy, goes on a manhunt for a Robin Hood-like rebel, and in the process learns more than she wanted to about the world she is living in.

Why I Think You’d Like It

First of all, I really enjoyed both protagonists. I didn’t lose sympathy for June despite the ways she was a tool for a corrupt institution. I also thought Day, the rebel, hit a good balance between heroic figure and ordinary human. He wasn’t just a cunning rogue; he had clear vulnerabilities and limitations, right from the first chapter.

This is in many ways a relationship novel. Not gonna say what kind of relationship, because spoilers, but the characters are well matched, with a nice blend of contrasts and similarities. Their perspectives and skill sets are in opposition, but both are observant, logical, driven by family yet coolly devoted to justice. The interplay between their different agendas and natural kinship makes for fantastic scenes. There wasn’t a single point where the dynamic was driven by a contrived miscommunication or other such device. Everything that happened between them unfolded naturally and proceeded from what had been established about their characters.

Also, the world felt messy and human in a way that I liked. I feel like, in the YA dystopia subgenre, there’s a pressure to have some high concept gimmick in your world. Many of these are genuinely clever, but sometimes they are so tidily conceptual, they stop feeling like a world that arose from human failings. This world has verisimilitude. No tricks, just bad human beings who gained far too much power over other human beings.

The pacing moved perfectly; slow enough for me to adjust to each twist and new revelation, but fast enough that I was always hooked. The exposition was nicely interwoven with the plot as well. And, while it is the first of a trilogy, the central conflict is given a satisfying resolution. There is room for continuing adventures, but you aren’t left with the feeling that the climax has been left off just to force you to buy another book. It’s an exciting, satisfying adventure, so if you are into the dystopia YA genre and haven’t tried this book yet, you should!

Content Warnings

Violence, fights, blood, scary plague victims…. the usual dystopic stuff. Nothing unexpectedly graphic though.

Black Self-Determination, by V. P. Franklin

Black Self Determination

What It’s About

An early history of resistance and achievement by African-Americans, from the antebellum era to the beginnings of the Civil Rights movement.

Why I Think You’d Like It

If you’ve read many conventional history books, the agency of Black Americans erased or downplayed. Many kids grow up thinking of them as largely helpless and ignorant up until the days of Martin Luther King. This book is one of the most thorough challenges to that notion. It uncovers a wealth of original sources that were long ignored by white historians, and tells the history of Black emancipation from their own cultural perspective.

Rather than being a simple linear history, it takes on history subject by subject. It starts with the work of Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Dubois, and puts them in the context of a contentious period of self-discovery. He shows how their perspectives didn’t align with the experiences of many freed slaves, which is context that I never got when I learned about these men.

It goes on to talk about the cultural history of Black religion, education, music. It outlines core values of the early Black community, such as freedom, education and self-determination. It especially argues how they were developed as tools to survive slavery and how they evolved to empower and strengthen their communities as slavery ended only to bring new challenges.

It is incredibly thorough, both in its scope and in its cited sources, and I sorely needed to read it. For anyone looking to unwhitewash their understanding of history, I can’t recommend it enough.

Content Warnings

Quotes periodically from writings of Black people on lynchings, beatings and other acts of violence that they witnessed or experienced. Some descriptions are fairly graphic.

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist: Blind Justice

And now, my second installment of Meta-Moralizing, the part where I don’t analyze the message, but rather how themes are constructed in Adventures in Odyssey.

This episode is based off Twelve Angry Men, which I will be spoiling heavily. Even though it’s well past the statute of limitations, it is also one of my favorite movies, I think everyone in the world deserves to watch it at least once without knowing what’s coming, so there, consider yourself warned. Eugene and Bernard have been given jury duty, on the same case. I don’t think I’ve reviewed an episode with Bernard yet, but he’s kind of a poor man’s Tom Reilly. Folksy, convenial, generally prone to giving out life advice that mostly isn’t crappy. The biggest difference is that he works as a custodian and general handyman, rather than farmer/politician, and he is a lot snarkier. He also has a fun love/hate dynamic with Eugene, who is his distant cousin.

The case concerns a high school senior who is accused of a house robbery. He actually confesses to breaking and entering, but says it was just part of an initiation into a gang, and he didn’t take anything of value. According to him, the gang went in afterwards, unbeknownst to him, and torched the safe. When the kid left the gang, they planted a bracelet in his locker to frame him. Part of the point of gangs is that they are hard to leave, after all.

He does have an alibi for after the break-in, but it’s fairly loose. According to the prosecution’s expert witness, the safe would only take about fifteen minutes to torch through, so the timeline still works in the prosecution’s favor. The kid’s case looks even worse because, during the investigation, he kept adjusting his story. When he thought he could convince the cops he had nothing to do with the robbery, he denied everything. When they had a more solid case, he essentially confessed to what they could prove, but came up with a story to get off the hook for the rest. An entirely unverifiable story. Most of the jury thinks this is an open and shut case.

Although everyone is interested taking a quick vote and dashing out, Eugene insists on following procedure. Bernard is elected foreman and they issue their votes by secret ballot. The secret part turns out to be pointless, however. Everyone votes guilty, except for Eugene, who gives himself away by writing a nigh incomprehensible mini-essay on reasonable doubt instead of “not guilty.” He insists on going over all the evidence again, to everyone’s dismay.

In both Blind Justice and Twelve Angry Men, the other jurors are impatient, but also genuinely convinced of the defendant’s guilt. The difference is the reason for the single dissenting vote. In the film, Juror 8 is disturbed by the implications of casting the twelfth guilty vote. The defendant is a boy accused of murdering his father, and in the setting, a guilty conviction guarantees a death sentence. The kid is barely old enough to be tried as an adult. Juror 8 doesn’t feel right giving someone that young a death sentence. That unease turns into reasonable doubt when he coincidentally finds a knife identical to the one used in the murder. The prosecution’s case rested in part on the knife’s design being rare, possibly even rare, but if Juror 8 could find a copy without even looking for it, what does that say about the prosecution? Worse, what does it say about the defense? Have they been neglecting other obvious holes in the prosecution’s case? Is a teenage boy about to be killed because his public defender is tired, apathetic or lazy?

Eugene, on the other hand, votes not guilty because… he’s not convinced? He honestly never gives a coherent reason. He buys the kid’s story as a plausible alternative because otherwise the episode would be over too quickly.

When I was young, I knew the moment Eugene began to protest that the kid was innocent. On my first re-listen as an adult, I at first thought this was because I was precociously genre savvy, but then I began to reconsider. Younger me didn’t know what this story was based on. Furthermore, you could write an equally interesting story where Eugene is in the wrong. He often tries to prove he’s more intelligent than everybody else, and has to learn a lesson about his own arrogance. How did I, as a little kid, know that wasn’t where the story was going?

Because, in this episode, Eugene was clearly the highest ranked character.

Adventures in Odyssey has a very simple moral hierarchy. It goes like this;

  1. Whit
  2. Tom Reilly, Jack Allen, or any Christian parental figure
  3. Jason Whitaker
  4. Eugene
  5. Connie
  6. Childless Christian adults with recurring roles
  7. Christian kids with recurring roles
  8. Non-recurring characters of unspecified religion
  9. Non-Christian parents and adults
  10. Non-Christian or non-recurring kids

Non-Christian, non-recurring kids are never right, and Whit is never wrong. Everyone else is always right if they are the highest ranked character in the episode, or agreeing with the highest ranked character, but they are always wrong if they disagree with the highest ranked character. And I’m not hyperbolizing about the frequency. I racked my brain to come up with exceptions, and if any of you can think of one, please leave a comment. I can’t think of any episodes that break this rule.

So, now that both stories have hit the “somebody votes not guilty to the other juror’s dismay” point, we move into “intensive re-examination of the available evidence” which will take the majority of the remaining time. Twelve Angry Men gets fairly complicated at this point. As they examine each piece of evidence together, there is always a point where an alternative explanation is possible. The boy has an alibi that he was at a movie theater. According to police records, the boy could not name the films or newsreels when at the stations, although he could on the stand. Was he coached by the defense? Or too confused and stressed at the station to think clearly? These are the kinds of questions the jurors ask. At no point are we convinced of his innocence, merely made to doubt his guilt. The movie frequently discusses the difference between the two, which is a distinction that too many people don’t think about. We like binaries. “Guilty” or “innocent.” The third category, “not proven guilty or innocent,” is troubling. Yet, in a sense, reality can never offer absolute proof, only probabilities. How probable does a case have to be before you take a side? To fail to ask this question is to fail to understand the very concept of justice.

As the evidence develops, so do the characters of the other eleven jurors. One is highly prejudiced against immigrants and the poor. One seems to be voting with his mood. He is more concerned with his bladder, his stomach and an upcoming baseball game than the case. He grumbles about the heat and votes guilty. Then air conditioner turns on and suddenly he votes not guilty. Another juror changes his mind every time a new argument is made. Still another, who prides himself on having a logical and cool mind, also projects that logic onto the actions and decisions of everyone else in the case. Which is ironic, because what is less empirical than the belief that humans behave logically?

All this makes us think about the fallibility of the human mind. Justice as a perfect ideal must always be filtered through the imperfect human mind. How can we ever claim to know, with certainty, what is true? What is fair? How can we take a stranger’s life into our hands… yet when justice for a person’s death is at stake, how can we not?

One by one, the jurors change their votes, for good reasons and bad. We don’t know if any of this is moving us closer to the truth, but it feels more just.

In place of all this subtlety, Eugene stares at the evidence until another juror, who owns a hardware store, realizes that the prosecution’s expert misidentified the safe. It’s actually a sturdier model that would take a couple hours to torch through. Now the kid’s alibi is actually, you know, an alibi. If the safe took fifteen minutes to open, there’s no reason to believe his story. If it took two to three hours, there’s no reason not to. In place of ambiguity, we have a light switch issue.

Everyone on the jury agrees to change their vote to “not guilty,” on account of how the kid is obviously not guilty. There’s one holdout, however, who rants about how obviously bad and guilty this kid is. In the middle of his rant, he accidentally reveals that he used to know this kid, and hated his guts. In order to get on the jury, he lied about it.

Bernard reveals this to the bailiff, the case is ruled a mistrial and everybody goes home. The defense is given the hardware guy’s notes, and they will use it in the upcoming retrial, which gives the kid a good chance. Bernard and Eugene go get pot roast, and that’s the end of the story.

Twelve Angry Men also has a final holdout with a personal grudge, but once again, the situation is more complicated. Juror 3 has a bad relationship with his son, and he’s been projecting that onto this case. We get the sense that he’s spent his entire life believing that his son was just an irredeemably bad seed, because the alternative would be to believe he did something wrong as a parent. He is afraid of this idea, and will resist it at all costs. Even the cost of another kid’s life.

When Juror 3 finally realizes what he is doing and votes not guilty, it’s a beautiful, cathartic scene. It also does not convince us that the defendant is innocent. It only makes us see the importance of judging the value of his life as someone who is still, in many ways, a vulnerable kid. We don’t know what will happen to him. We don’t know if Juror 3 will reconnect with his son. We only know that human nature is not simple and the human intellect is not infallible. After a tragedy, we cannot always know what happened or what we should do about it. We can only approach our decisions with as much thoughtfulness as we can muster, balancing fairness against mercy.

Now, at this point, you might want to criticize me for saying more about Twelve Angry Men than Blind Justice. Well… yeah. That’s completely accurate. But I dare anybody to watch these two back to back and have more to say about Blind Justice. It’s not that Blind Justice is bad, or wrong. It’s just unmemorable. I mean that literally. I’ve actually listened to this episode more times than I’ve watched Twelve Angry Men, yet the scenes and jokes of Twelve Angry Men play in my mind like a newsreel, while the events of Blind Justice blur together. In fact the only scene from Blind Justice that immediately comes to mind is one where a female juror orders cashew chicken despite being allergic to cashews. It wasn’t a good scene or a bad one, just kind of head-scratching, enough to be remembered.

Before I asked myself how I knew Eugene was right, I wasn’t going to review this episode. I was going to toss it in with the others that were too boring to say anything interesting about. Then I realized the unwritten hierarchy of moral authority. Once I realized it, I knew I had to talk about it, because it is part of why I was such an uncritical viewer of this series.

I was an analytical kid. Once, when accused of being an overthinker, I started to seriously debate whether there was such a thing as thinking too much. I think I was eleven at the time. Yet, as I review these episodes, there is so much that is staggeringly under-thought. Not even wrong, just lazy, sloppy, and needlessly mediocre.


That’s the other reason why I have gone into so much detail, in comparing it to Twelve Angry Men. Unambiguous authority figures don’t make for clear moral thinking. They discourage moral self-examination. Twelve Angry Men encourages you to side with Juror 8, but it doesn’t dictate that stance. Juror 8 could be wrong. My partner actually is positive that the boy was the murderer; at one point the jurors re-enact the crime to check the timetable, and they forget to mime wiping fingerprints off the handle. After their re-enactment, they come to distrust a piece of eyewitness testimony, but my partner thinks the crucial seconds they left out were enough to invalidate their already sketchy experiment. We debate back and forth. But in that very debate, we are internalizing the point. True justice requires care and deliberation.

In contrast, I don’t think I internalized any lessons from Blind Justice. Because I trusted Eugene to be right, I thought no more on the issue.

If there is any theme to the Reviews as an Atheist/Agnostic/Godless Heathen series as a whole, it’s that evangelical Christians aren’t always wrong, but the modern movement has gotten bad at catching themselves when they are wrong. They take a hierarchical, authoritarian approach to their ideas, and trust their preferred leaders without taking a serious look at the evidence their leaders are basing their judgment on. In this world of climate change deniers, anti-vaxxers and corrupt administrations, that tendency has taken on dangerous consequences.

Final Ratings

Best Moment: I don’t know, I can’t think of a scene except the cashew scene. Like, I know what happened, because I took notes, but I can’t remember the scenes and the dialog.

Worst Moment: Like, she said, “does anybody want my cashew chicken, I’m allergic,” and then somebody said, “then why did you order it?” and she said, “because the cashews give it a nice flavor,” and the guy sputtered “but, but you’re allergic to cashews, so why… nevermind.” Is that a good joke? A bad joke? A so bad it’s good joke? I literally cannot decide.

Story Rating: Meh. C-

Moral Rating: Again I say to thee, meh. C-

Starry River of the Sky, by Grace Lin

Starry River of the Sky

What It’s About

A runaway named Rendi gets stranded in a town with no moon. There he meets a mysterious storytelling guest, who unveils secrets about the ancient wrongs that left their marks on the town, and how the boy can help to erase them.

Why I Think You’d Like It

This is an excellent companion to Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, and I think anybody who likes one would like the other. After all, who can get enough of little kids going on quests in beautiful magical lands? Not me, that’s for sure!

Like Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, this book is full of stories within stories. The folklore adds color and depth to the world, but they also hold clues to the resolution of the protagonist’s question. Once you have read both you will also see ties between each other, but honestly you can read them in either order. This one was written second but takes place first, so I suppose it’s technically a prequel, but the main connection is simply that they take place in the same world.

As much as I liked Minli, I liked Rendi even more. He actually started out as quite the spoiled brat, but in the fun way where he starts growing as a person almost immediately, and each chapter gives him more depth and nuance. For such a short, simple book, there are beautiful layers, both to his character and the ideas and world that are built around him. He’s not the only one with an interesting character arc either, and those who don’t evolve have some other interesting secret to be unveiled.

The magical elements were absolutely captivating. This is a marvelous, enchanting world that I was thrilled to spend some time in. It’s a great story for kids who want to be transported, and adults who want to rekindle their childlike wonder.

Content Warnings

You’re good.

The Wrath and the Dawn/The Rose and the Dagger, by Renee Ahdieh

Wrath and the Dawn

What It’s About

A magical retelling of the Arabian Nights, with love triangles, political intrigue and ancient curses.

Why I Think You’d Like It

When I was a kid, it was easy for books to sweep me up. As soon as I picked up a book, I would get lost in the world. I would care about the characters so deeply that I would periodically close books and whisper to the spines, begging the pages to not kill off this character and please make sure this one evil jerk gets punished. I’d yell at them and curse the author’s name if they ended on cliffhangers, and then run off to get the very next book. Growing up has brought more good than bad, but I really miss that feeling of total immersement. Books can still make me feel that way, but some I enjoy more cerebrally, and others gradually earn it. Suspension of disbelief has become more elusive.

This book brought back that feeling almost instantly.

The protagonist, Sharzad, is simultaneously larger than life and intimately relatable. She is fierce, brave, brash, clever and beautiful, but she has more than enough moments of short sightedness and human failings. You want her to win because she has good intentions and an admirable strength of will. You’re scared she won’t because she is ultimately human just like us. Khalid, the young caliph who she marries to stop him from murdering his nightly brides, is a great character as well. Renee Ahdieh does a fantastic job hinting that there will be a big reveal of how he has been compelled to become a murderer, and in the meantime characterizing him as flawed but longing to break free of his crimes. Long before you know why, you want there to be a reason that will let you like him, and the reveal hits that perfect blend of surprising and inevitable. Lesser authors have failed to make less monstrous characters relatable, but you care about Khalid. The supporting cast is fantastic as well. I can’t reveal too much about them without spoilers, but every one starts out fascinating and only become more so as the story fleshes them out.

The setting is marvelously rich and magical. The pacing will stop you from putting this book down for a moment longer than necessary. The resolution is satisfying… once you get to the second book, that is. The Wrath and the Dawn wraps up several major plot threads but does end on a cliffhanger, which The Rose and the Dagger resolves perfectly. That’s why I am recommending both books together. It seems unfair not to warn you that, once you pick up the first book, you will absolutely have to read the second.

But hey, who says that’s a bad thing?

Content Warnings

Mostly violence. There are sword fights, assassination attempts and references to a past suicide.

There is some sexual content, but despite the source material it is all consensual. In the first few pages, Sharzad believes that Khalid will expect her to sleep with him, but Khalid makes it clear that she does not have to make herself available to him. She does continue with her plan, because she intends to use her sexuality along with her stories to end the slaughter. It is a conflicted choice, but it is unambiguously her choice. There’s also a brief scene where she is harassed while in disguise on the street, but that ends poorly for the harassers.

Also, the only drawn out, sensual scenes are the ones where consent is not only present, but enthusiastic.