Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist: Making the Grade

This episode opens with Lawrence Hodges making an invisibility potion to escape the evil agents of Destructo, which to the uninitiated looks an awful lot like hiding in his closet to avoid science homework. His mother, being one of those uninitiated, says that until he does his homework he won’t go to the Barclay family’s party. This is enough to make Lawrence abandon his top secret mission and participate in the reality occupied by the rest of us. Albeit reluctantly.

I don’t think I’ve mentioned Lawrence yet, but that paragraph tells you pretty much everything you need to know.

Lawrence is excited mainly so he can hang out with Jimmy Barclay, his babysitter/cool older friend, but the party is really more of a celebration for the parents. George Barclay has recently been accepted into seminary school, to fulfill his dream of being a pastor. Mary Barclay is pregnant with their third child. Everyone is excited for the new family member. They’re less enthusiastic about her cravings for anchovies on ice cream, mashed potatoes topped with caramel popcorn and ketchup frosted chocolate cake.

In the wake of all these changes, Jimmy is thinking about what he wants to do with his life, especially now that career day is coming up. It’s going to be a big deal. He’s going to fill out questionnaires, meet with counselors, and potentially even get to take a field trip. As he has been looking over his options, he has found himself obsessively returning to the idea of being a paramedic. He loves the thought of being first in line in the fight to save somebody’s life.

George encourages him, as does Lawrence, when he finally gets there. Granted, Lawrence doesn’t actually know what a paramedic does, but he figures that if it’s something Jimmy wants to do, it’s automatically awesome. Lawrence, by the way, wants to work for the NSA and the FBI, as a double agent. I don’t think anyone has explained to him what a double agent actually is.

While Jimmy meets with the counselor, Lawrence gets into another battle with his mother over science homework. With the lure of the Barclay’s party gone, she is forced to rely on the old “no TV until it’s done” game. Which, of course, is easily thwarted by watching TV when she’s not around. So she tries for making homework a little more fun. What if he’s a world famous spy trying to smuggle formulas out of the enemy countries?

“Nice try Mom, but I already tried that. World famous spies only need to know how to get the formulas out, not why E=MC squared.”

Yeah, she really shouldn’t have tried to out-imagine Lawrence. What makes this all worse is that she’s a teacher herself. Unfortunately she teaches history, so she can’t counter his defend Einstein’s formula with a description of spacetime itself bending to preserve the speed of light. So she plays the Mom card instead.

Willing to concede the battle, but not the war, Lawrence goes to enlist Jimmy’s help. He finds Jimmy practicing CPR on his sister’s doll. The counselor loved his idea, is taking him on one of those cool field trips to meet professionals in his field of interest. He’s nervous, and wants to impress his paramedic mentor with first aid knowledge. So on the whole, Jimmy is a bit distracted right now. But he can relate to Lawrence’s detestation of science, and promises that, after he’s done academically overachieving, he’ll help Lawrence underachieve.

So he goes to meet the paramedic, and finds the job as cool as he thought, but then gets a nasty shock. Turns out, science is relevant to the medical field. Whoda thunk it? To impress this on him, the paramedic delivers rapid fire questions about hypertension, conversion rates, and second vs third degree burns, barely giving Jimmy time to realize he doesn’t know before hitting him with another question. The paramedic emphasizes that he doesn’t want Jimmy to be discouraged. But he does want Jimmy to understand that, as a paramedic, his ability to recall this information instantly will be the difference between someone else’s life or death.

This is a completely fair thing to do, but it does mean Jimmy comes home pretty depressed. George gives him a talk. As a new seminary student, he can relate to not loving his studies. He is taking eschatology, hermeneutics and Ancient Greek, and can barely get through the titles of his classes without wanting to fall asleep. But he’s going to do it, because he wants to be the best pastor he can. Even as he says this, George admits that he feels like he’s being a bad role model.

“I feel like I’ve just broken one of the cardinal rules of parenting… you know, the one that says ‘Thou shalt not admit disliking school.'”

Jimmy has the opposite view, however. A moment of vulnerable honesty has had more impact on him than years of rote lines about the value of education. And it inspires him to go be a better role model himself.

As the rules of narrative progression dictate, he goes to see Lawrence just in time to witness another homework argument. His mother has reached the point of threatening to sell the TV and anything else fun. Lawrence counters that he would rather have splinters pushed under his toenails and be covered in killer bees than do any more homework. She calmly says “that can be arranged.” Yeah, she’s all out of fucks.

Jimmy dashes Lawrence’s hopes of reinforcement. He admits that all this boring crap (seriously, someone get them some Neil DeGrasse Tyson lectures!) is important after all. He’s not willing to enable Lawrence’s procrastination. He is, however, willing to give some free tutoring. He’s got catching up to do, and teaching Lawrence is probably a decent way to give himself a refresher. Lawrence is torn. On the one hand, the agents of Destructo are, at this very moment, gaining the advantage while he and his elders are all distracted by such trivial matters. On the other hand, in his world Jimmy is basically God. In the end, hero worship wins the day. Jimmy has probably spared us all an annoying Broadchurch “how could such a horrifying child murder happen in a swell town like this” storyline.

Final Ratings

Best Part: Once again, I love George’s talk. The decision to make this a moment of empathy rather than a state-the-theme lecture was a good one; the theme is definitely there, but the scene has authenticity and catharsis that those scenes can so easily lack.

Worst Part: There’s a scene I left out, just before George and Jimmy’s talk, where Jimmy talks to his sister Donna about careers that wouldn’t require doing well in some kind of academia. They settle on politics. Seriously? You don’t need to study for politics? Look, I know politicians are eternally fun to dump on, but this kind of thinking how we get Trump and Kim Jong-Un playing “I’m not touching you” with nukes.

Although, technically they’ve both got high ranking jobs in the field, so maybe she has a point. The distant rattling you hear is my nervous laughter in the face of the Apocalypse.

Story Rating: Fun and funny. A little obvious where it’s going, but executed well enough to make up for that. A

Moral Rating: It follows the same pattern of common sense expressed clearly. Gets it’s message across while still having fun and not being condescending. A+

Advertisements

Falling in Love With Hominids, by Nalo Hopkinson

falling-in-love-with-hominids

  • Genre
    • Short stories, Folklore, Urban Fantasy
  • Plot Summary
    • Eighteen short stories from one of my favorite authors. The topics wander from apocalypse to mourning to falling in love to loving yourself to discovering a giant flying elephant in your apartment. What they have in common is that they are all amazing. 
  • Character Empathy
    • It’s Nalo Hopkinson. If you don’t both like and relate to at least 90% of the characters, you’re probably a sociopath.
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • The stories cover a wide range of emotions. There’s funny, sad, scary, trippy, wistful, triumphant… what they all have in common is the characteristic weird and fun originality that you get from Nalo Hopkinson every time.
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • One of the creepiest werewolf stories I’ve ever read (and you know how I feel about werewolves). 
    • A giant flying elephant. Did I mention that already?
    • Sometimes the protagonist is queer in a “this is one of several things about the person and not the most important thing at all” way.
    • A cherry tree who is really into body positivity and women power.
    • Look, every story here has multiple cool shiny things, and I don’t want to spoil them all because it is really fun to go in blind and discover them. Just go read it!
  • Content Warnings
    • You’ll be fine
  • Quotes
    • (From the Intro) “I’ve learned I can trust that humans in general will strive to make things better for themselves and their communities. Not all of us. Not always in principled, loving, or respectful ways. Often the direct opposite, in fact. But we’re all on the same spinning ball of dirt, trying to live as best we can. Yes, that’s almost overweeningingly Pollyanna-ish, despite the fact that sometimes I just need to shake my fist at a mofo.”

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist: Easy Money

Up next in the discussion of stewardship, we have the epic saga of two kids who reeeeally want to play street hockey.

Sam Johnson and Brian “Butch” Evans are looking at gear and finding out that quality sports equipment is expensive. Neither of them think their parents will help, but Sam suggests taking on odd jobs. Butch vows that he’ll do whatever it takes. Guess which one quits after their first gig?

In all fairness, they spend two hours scrubbing the floor of a mechanic’s garage, who says the cleaner they get it the more they’ll be paid, but when it’s paycheck time it’s suddenly a flat three dollars an hour rate. This is from 1995, so that’s maybe not quite as bad as it would be now, but it’s still a shit deal. Especially since the equipment they are saving for is apparently over $50.

Sam, who has zero negotiating skills, accepts. Butch storms out, and on his way home he meets Mac. Now, in this episode, Sam has a normal person name and generic midwestern accent, Butch has a tough guy nickname but a generic accent, and Mac has the tough guy nickname and a bad New York accent. So you can pretty much figure out the morality alignment right there. Mac hears about Butch’s money troubles, and tells him he can get money without lifting a finger. He bets Butch he can make a tough jump shot, fails, and hands over a dollar, and a business card.

Basically, Mac’s a bookie.

You know, AIO and it’s Christian ilk is full of characters trying to corrupt our protagonists, so as to make conservative fundie kids feel properly paranoid about the secular world. But hey, at least this version of the trope has an actual motive.

Anyway, the mechanic offers Sam a steady job. All he has to do is get up at 5:30 am so he can bike over to the garage, scrub floors for an hour, accept three dollars for his trouble, and then make it to school having already exhausted himself. What a swell and non-exploitative guy. Sam asks his parents’ permission, and after talking to him about making sure it doesn’t take too much out of him, and being willing to stop if he can’t handle it, they say it’s okay. I’d complain about this, but you know, I do think kids need to take risks. I’d call it irresponsible parenting if they weren’t keeping any kind of eye on him, but since that’s not the case, I think this is awesome. Plus, I’m pretty sure they don’t know how badly he’s being compensated. Man, I know it was the nineties, but that still bothers me.

From here, the progression of the characters is easy to foresee. Butch takes bigger and bigger risks, but as he keeps winning, he has no intention of quitting, even after he can afford the hockey equipment. And Sam, well, there’s this one scene where he’s reminded that he promised to put together a booth for some charity carnival. He tries to sit down and think of ideas but can’t stay awake. In the end, he shows up with a garbage can and a bunch of balls for people to toss in, and if they succeed they get to pick from an exciting box of junk Sam could grab out of his room. Mr. Barclay gives it a go and tries so hard to be polite and seem so thrilled to have won a pencil. With teeth marks on it. By throwing a ball about two feet. Meanwhile Sam is such a zombie he wouldn’t notice if Gordon Ramsey himself showed up.

And yet, when the mechanic offers to let him come in even earlier, Sam says yes. This time he doesn’t check with his parents, but just agrees to wake up at 4:30, in the interest of getting his hockey gear a few weeks earlier. No doubt, despite protesting that Butch is earning his money the wrong way, he is irked that Butch beat him to the games. But he doesn’t keep this up for long before his father catches him sneaking out. Instead of forcing him to quit, Sam’s dad talks him through the things he has jeopardized for this job. He’s falling asleep in school and church, he’s risking his health, and he isn’t able to fulfill any other responsibilities. There’s a difference between honestly earning something, and making a job your only priority. Sam decides that, after today, he will quit the job, and go back to after school odd jobs.

Butch’s overconfidence in his hot streak finally starts to kick him in the pants. It’s ambiguous whether he is honestly losing, or whether Mac fed him easy wins until he was hooked enough to bet big and lose big. Regardless, after cleaning him out of his savings, Mac tantalizes Butch with the huge stakes in the upcoming Odyssey/Connellsville game. Butch sells his baseball card collection to get into the pot, and is still short of the minimum bet. He borrows 50 bucks from Mac, and promptly loses it.

And what ironic consequence does this episode have in store? Well, Mac strongarms him into giving up the hockey equipment, of course. Butch loses his taste for gambling, and joins Sam once again on his odd jobs.

All of this hits a good balance between having a clear moral, but willing to avoid a single, simple state the theme moment. It explores a few different nuances of the idea of earning money responsibly; avoiding scams, recognizing when you’re being played, putting in honest work, not shortchanging other priorities in the single minded pursuit of one goal. One thing I like about morality tales with a bit more scope is that they encourage a person to think in terms of overall balance. When AIO tells one story with a single target theme, then another story with a single target theme, I feel like they’ve expressed two ideas, and I want to criticize them for the third and fourth and fifth ideas that they have neglected. When they acknowledge in one story that there’s a need to look out for multiple wrong paths and pitfalls, they’re suggesting that the world doesn’t always offer a single clear path, and that you have too look at all the variables and alternatives. They’re encouraging analysis of a problematic human tendency, not rigid adherence to a single maxim.

Final Ratings

Best Part: I really love the consistent emphasis from Sam’s Dad on independence. So often AIO parents are little autocrats, and in the real world this creates adults who don’t know how to think for themselves. Sam, on the other hand, gets a balance of guidance and autonomy, and I think that’s great. 

Worst Part: I can usually think of something, but I’m honestly drawing a blank.

Story Rating: Events move at a nice engaging pace, there’s a good use of humor, it all comes to a satisfying end… Yeah, good job on this one. A+

Moral Rating: Good ideas explored with common sense. A+

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, by Caitlin Doughty

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

  • Genre
    • Nonfiction
  • Summary
    • A mortician describes her early years of working at a crematory, blending her experiences in the industry with insights into the human struggle to deal with death. 
  • Information
    • There’s a little of everything in here. There’s biology, history, anthropology, economics, and a fair bit of practical philosophy. She explores what actually happens when the body dies, how our attitudes towards death have changed, how different cultures around the world deal with death, and what our knowledge of our own imminent demise does to make us human beings.
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • If you’ve watched her Youtube channel, you’re probably well prepared for Caitlin Doughty’s style. She’s funny and poignant all at once, mixing wry observations and weird anecdotes with some of the most beautifully existential musings you’ll ever hear. 
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • I love her descriptions of the people she meets. She can simultaneously make you smile at someone’s human foibles and deeply empathize with them as people going through one of the hardest experiences a human will have to bear; burying a loved one. 
    • I also love when she talks about non-Western attitudes towards death. There’s a bit where she describes the cosmology and beliefs of a certain cannibalistic society, and what that act actually means to them, and soon I was thinking, “aw, that’s really sweet.” I got teary when I heard about how the colonialists came in and made them stop. Stupid imperialists.
    • If this book has a main goal, it’s to make you think more complexly about death and how we deal with it, and to see how our society in particular has gotten seriously bad at providing ways for people to cope. I keep wanting to say something like, “this book isn’t for everyone, but if it sounds like something you’d be into, you’re definitely right.” But I also want to recommend this to people who wouldn’t think they’d be into it. I want this book to be read by people who are afraid of death, afraid of thinking about it, afraid of examining their reaction to it. I feel like, with all the disturbing elements, this book will make you realize that you can see the realities of death and, afterwards, you’ll still be okay. Death is inevitable. It doesn’t have to be terrifying.
  • Content Warnings
    • Descriptions of decomposition and dead bodies. How they die is mentioned but not generally described in detail. 
    • She also reflects on her own mental health experiences. Some of this might be triggering, especially for those with a history of suicide.
  • Quotes
    • “Accepting death doesn’t mean you won’t be devastated when someone you love dies. It means you will be able to focus on your grief, unburdened by bigger existential questions like, “Why do people die?” and “Why is this happening to me?” Death isn’t happening to you. Death is happening to us all.”
    • “Death might appear to destroy the meaning in our lives, but in fact it is the very source of our creativity. As Kafka said, “The meaning of life is that it ends.” Death is the engine that keeps us running, giving us the motivation to achieve, learn, love, and create.”
    • “The great triumph (or horrible tragedy, depending on how you look at it) of being human is that our brains have evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to understand our mortality. We are, sadly, self-aware creatures. Even if we move through the day finding creative ways to deny our mortality, no matter how powerful, loved, or special we may feel, we know we are ultimately doomed to death and decay. This is a mental burden shared by precious few other species on Earth.”
    • “If my decomposing carcass helps nourish the roots of a juniper tree or the wings of a vulture—that is immortality enough for me. And as much as anyone deserves.”

AIO Post Delayed

I fucked up. While I was working on the next review I realized it didn’t belong in the stewardship theme, but another category entirely. Naturally, I realized this when it was too late to start another blog.

So, no post today, but there will be one next week to make up for it, then one the week after so we will be back on schedule. Sorry everybody, and thanks for your patience!

A Long Way Gone, by Ishmael Beah

A Long Way Gone

  • Genre
    • Non-Fiction, Memoir
  • Summary
    • Ishmael Beah takes us through the loss of his home during the wars in Sierre Leone, his recruitment by the army to become a child soldier, and his eventual rescue and rehabilitation.
  • Information
    • I was scared to read this book. The idea of forcing children to do your violence for you seems worse to me than killing them. I couldn’t imagine, if I was taught to kill as little kid, how I could ever go back to being a remotely functional human being. I was terrified to be in the mind of somebody who had gone through this. That same fear is what drove me to try it. I had to know what this is really like. 
    • I was wrong, of course. Ishmael Beah did become a functional human being. More than that, an extraordinary one. He found family, friends, redemption and purpose. I’ve always been someone who wanted to believe in transformation, in transcending even the most impossible circumstances. He doesn’t sugar coat that process. He is honest about how hard it was, and how some of his friends didn’t make it out.
    • This book taught me more about humanity than any ten psychology textbooks.
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • Strangely beautiful. Ishmael Beah is a person of incredible hope, perception and appreciation for the little things. He’s a music lover and a loyal friend. These things kept him alive, and it seems important to him to convey not just the bad of his life, but the good, and the way that even when those good things were incredibly small, they could mean everything.
    • This book skips directly from his life before being caught up in the army to the day he was rescued and began his rehabilitation. His boy soldier days are told in flashback, concurrently with his recovery. That was a mercy; I don’t think I could have gotten through it if there had been page after page of unrelieved battle.
    • Also, it seems to reflect how he himself perceived it. Any time they weren’t training or fighting, the soldiers got the children high on drugs and plopped them in front of a movie screen; usually something violent like Rambo. The days of actual fighting were a blur until therapy began.
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • Beah is just a great storyteller. There are so many little scenes that stuck in my mind, because he tells them so well.
  • Content Warnings
    • There is incredible violence here, though not always where you’d expect it. He tends to skim and spare us the gory battles, but preserve smaller moments, like the times before his soldier days when villagers would beat his friends out of their homes, just because they had learned to fear all strangers, even young boys. This has the effect of letting you understand the depth of the ugliness of their world, without drowning you in it. He is not writing a slasher film. His goal is not to shock and disgust you. His goal is to make you understand how someone can survive something so terrible.
  • Quotes
    • “Some nights the sky wept stars that quickly floated and disappeared into the darkness before our wishes could meet them. ”
    • “When I was young, my father used to say, ‘If you are alive, there is hope for a better day and something good to happen. If there is nothing good left in the destiny of a person, he or she will die.’ I thought about these words during my journey, and they kept me moving even when I didn’t know where I was going. Those words became the vehicle that drove my spirit forward and made it stay alive.”
    • “I joined the army to avenge the deaths of my family and to survive, but I’ve come to learn that if I am going to take revenge, in that process I will kill another person whose family will want revenge; then revenge and revenge and revenge will never come to an end…”
    • “…children have the resilience to outlive their sufferings, if given a chance.”

Empress of a Thousand Skies, by Rhoda Belleza

Empress of a Thousand Skies

  • Genre
    • Science Fiction, Soap Opera, Youth Adult
  • Plot Summary
    • Princess Rhiannon Ta’an is the last survivor of her assassinated dynasty. Upon her coming of age, the world expects her to take her throne. She intends to take vengeance. 
  • Character Empathy
    • This is a more plot and setting focused story, but thankfully the characters weren’t neglected. The chapters jump back and forth between Rhee, the princess, and Alyosha, a soldier who gets caught up in events. Rhee was a real surprise to me. The author wasn’t afraid to let her get dirty, both physically and emotionally. She goes through shit, she reacts badly, she is impulsive and well, a teenager. It was fascinating to read teen royalty who, instead of being wise beyond their years, was wise at exactly-her-years, and awfully banged up inside to boot. And despite, how raw and angry she was, I still cared about her. Alyosha, meanwhile, was also wounded and naive in his own ways, but a bit sweeter and more mature. He was a unique person, but had a more familiar protagonisty flavor The two perspectives complimented each other perfectly; Alyosha kept the book from being bogged down while Rhee kept surprising me. 
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • Exciting! It was one of those books I got through in just a couple days, because I was too eager to find out what happened next.
    • It is the first of a series, and leaves some unanswered questions at the end. But thankfully it wasn’t one of those that felt like it just stopped before the last scene. The characters went through real change, the questions that could be answered were, and the ones left were the ones that really felt too big to be satisfactorily resolved in a single book.
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • The technology in this is not only cool, but well used. I’ve seen too many stories where something with mind-boggling implications is just used in one limited context, and the rest of the world has never heard of it. In this book, there’s a bit of tech that I thought was just background world building, but it keeps coming up again and again. Not only was it used in multiple ways throughout the setting, but the ethical issues and potential for abuse ended up being key to the ever deepening layers of conflict. I really loved it.
    • Dwarf planets! She uses dwarf planets to justify the single-biome tropes, and also throw in some cool stuff with gravity and weird geography. I’ve been wanting to see people embrace dwarf planets as a new and cool thing instead of a travesty inflicted on Pluto, so this made me really nerd-happy. 
    • The plot justified itself well. By which I mean, I’m used to tolerating a certain degree of coincidence to get through a story, especially when an author clearly wants to have fun, but in this one there kept being a perfectly thought out explanation, even when I was prepared to expect that there wouldn’t been.
  • Content Warnings
    • It’s an action adventure book, so there’s some fights. A few of them are pretty brutal, which I actually liked. In this story, violence isn’t just a video game. It not meant to be glamorous; it’s scary, and has real impacts on the character’s lives.
  • Quotes
    • “If all we are is what people think we are, then we’re all screwed.”

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist: Tales of Moderation

Welcome to my second themed series. This one is on stewardship, which is a term I haven’t heard outside of my old evangelical Christian circles, though I’ve certainly encountered the concept. It encompasses discipline, financial responsibility and proper use of one’s talents. In Adventures in Odyssey, and other Christian media, these values were bundled together by the idea that we are all stewards of God’s gifts. In the last series, on mental health, they sometimes made good points, but overall failed to address the most important realities of trauma and emotional pain. Let’s see how they do with this one.

The episode opens with Connie helping Whit clean out his garage. Well, no, I lie. It opens with her praying, and thanking God for her amazing friend Whit, and then stating that he (God) is probably wondering why she’s bringing this up. Apparently she missed the memo on omniscience.

Anyway, while Whit and Connie were working, Connie rather self-consciously brought up a personal question. Whit owns Whit’s End, which he does not make a profit on. He also owns a publishing corporation, and has a hand in a few other businesses, here and there. In other words, he’s wealthy. Yet he lives in a house that Connie thinks isn’t much better than hers. Why doesn’t he live in luxury?

Whit admits that he once did live much more extravagantly, but he found that a simple life of moderation suited him better. Connie can’t imagine how that would be, and as an answer, Whit gives her a book of short stories that he claims will explain his reasons better than he can. At his urging, she takes a break and starts reading.

The first story is about two farmers. Their names are Bill and Ted and I have completely forgotten which one is which. I could go back and listen again, or I could just call them Farmer Woah and Farmer Dude.

So Farmer Woah and Farmer Dude both have an incredible harvest. They meet up in town to discuss what they’re going to do with their bounty. Farmer Woah declares that he’s going to live it up. He’s worked hard and he is ready to party. Farmer Dude, on the other hand, is going to divide up what he gets. Some will be saved, some donated to the poor, some donated to the church, and he will keep about a quarter to live on. Farmer Woah laughs at him, and Farmer Dude patiently says that he hopes Farmer Woah has a good time.

Farmer Woah certainly does. He eats out every night, throws giant parties, and buys a shiny new truck; one with all the impressive car words, like V-8 and turbo-charged. Farmer Dude settles for meat and potatoes at home, celebrates the New Year with his family, and repairs his old pickup.

The next year, the Blights show up. The Blights are a family of insects who, after politely introducing themselves, devour every single one of their crops, leaving Farmer Woah and Farmer Dude with nothing.

Farmer Woah is penniless. He loses his car, dumpster dives for meals, and finally has to take advantage of the charities Farmer Dude has supported. Farmer Dude, having saved so much of his previous bounty, gets to spend the year exactly as well as he did the year before. The point being, shit happens. Don’t blow all your luck at once.

Whit comes to check on her, and she says she liked the first story, though the moral was pretty obvious. Whit comments that common sense usually is. Not unkindly, but man, that was an unexpected burn. It’s not often that he turns on the snark. Next Whit asks if Connie knew what the moral was before she read it, and she admits that she didn’t, despite how obvious it seems in retrospect. He laughs and says maybe the next one will be a little less obvious. The whole scene is actually a pretty great bit of banter. This is early in Whit and Connie’s relationship, and the back-and-forth is just barby enough to show they can pick on each other without crossing a line. In other episodes I’ve complained that the Whit/Connie relationship has uncomfortably blurry boundaries and squicky power dynamics, but this time, they don’t have that problem.

The second story follows a young man who defines happiness as complete self-sufficiency. When he comes into a lot of money, he puts it all into having an up to date, fully automatic home. All goes well, until the morning his toaster starts talking to him. The shiny new gadget has, somehow, turned into a stained, crumb filled mess. It’s almost like we exist in a universe where entropy increases or something. If the young man wants good toast, he needs to periodically scrub out his toaster. And it’s not just the toaster who has a beef with him. Every appliance, from his razor to his TV to his personal shower massager has issues.

Let the record show that all the appliances have male voices except the personal shower massager. I would consider that sexist and unfunny, except there is no way in hell AIO intentionally made a masturbation joke. They don’t try to slip things past the censors. This show is where good little censors go after they die. The writers probably just figured practical things are male, froofy unnecessary things are female, and who needs more than one female character amirite? Still sexist, but the fact that they have no idea what they just did is hilarious.

Anyway, at first the young man complies with the machines’ requests, but soon he finds that he is spending more time cleaning his products than enjoying them. He snaps, hollers at all of them that if they don’t figure out a way to serve him without even the slightest inconvenience, he will turn off their electricity and gas. Which… I’m sure will be very convenient for him? Yeah, if there’s one thing established about this character, it’s that he’s a little short on foresight. He hops smugly into his car, intending to give them all some time to think it over. And, well, no sooner does he turn the engine on, but his car and garage come to life, with full throated gangster voices, asking just where he thinks he’s going.

As Connie says, it’s another fairly obvious moral, but I am constantly surprised by how many people in real life get excited about some new gadget, only to discover that shit breaks. Or needs maintenance. Or is just likely to get outdated. None of that has to be awful. Plenty of new tech is worth the upkeep. It’s just good to remember, when you’re about to get something new, that more stuff never simplifies life in the long run. When you forget that, you get clutter, not convenience.

The third story is a retelling from the Bible. It opens with a young prince who strives to be a good person. He faithfully keeps each of the Ten Commandments, and yet he still goes to every religious teacher and asks, “what must I do to gain eternal life?” All of them confirm that he does not steal, does not murder, does not lie, does not covet, and therefore he has already done everything he needs to do. The prince is satisfied, but only temporarily. As soon as he hears of a different teacher, he must seek them out.

One day, he hears word of another teacher, and finds him preaching in the streets. As the prince draws close enough to listen, he is convinced that this man truly is the greatest of all of them. He asks his question, and confirms that he has kept all the commandments since he was a child. Instead of saying that he is surely guaranteed eternal life, the teacher tells him that one thing remains. He must sell everything he owns, and give it to the poor.

The prince makes excuses to himself, which he doesn’t even seem to quite believe, and leaves in a haze of sorrow, unable to surrender his wealth.

The teacher, of course, is Jesus, and the story is taken from Matthew 19:16-24, which is also where we get that saying about a camel having an easier time going through the eye of a needle than a rich person entering the kingdom of heaven. This is one of those cases where atheism made a Biblical story resonate more, not less, with me. As a child, I just thought, “well, he’s too attached to his material possessions to listen to Jesus, and that’s bad!” Now I see another layer to it. I see the real cost of extravagant wealth. I see what happens to nations where there is a great divide between the wealthy elite and the rest. I see my own country headed that direction, when it was once supposed to be the land of opportunity. It’s not bad to live comfortably; able to fulfill your needs and be free of fear for the future, while having enough left over to pursue your passions and do things with your loved ones. It’s another thing to have more money than you know what to do with, to buy bigger and bigger houses and more and more things just to have something to do with all your money, to accumulate things you won’t ever really use or appreciate, yet be terrified of losing the status attached to your hoard of objects.

And I think there’s another layer to the prince’s story. Everything he does right is an example of goodness by omission. He’s being good by not cheating, not stealing, not dis-respecting people. That’s all well and good, but apart from not harming it, how is he making the world better? For someone who has little influence, avoiding doing anything bad might be the best they can do, but for someone of great power and wealth, goodness has to mean more than just not being an asshole. In fact, it’s poverty and vulnerability that make not being bad costly; when you have the resources to buy whatever you need, how hard is it to not be an awful person? Jesus is asking him to stop worrying about how to avoid doing things that will get him barred from heaven, and start thinking about how what he has can be used to make actual human lives better.

Connie closes the book, and Whit reveals that he’s finished the cleanup on his own, because he felt that Connie was doing something more important. You know, I want to mock this, like by saying that this must not have been a big job, given that an old man finished it alone over the course of a 20 minute episode. Or that he could have always just loaned it to her. But I’ll be honest; this moment got me right in the feels. I’ve mentored kids before, and I know how sometimes you get a sense that they’re about to have a meaningful breakthrough, and you change every plan you had to make sure that breakthrough happens. They captured the feel of that mentor moment well. Connie starts superficially flippant, but the initiative to ask the question, and keep asking for a better answer, shows a deeper hunger to understand something. What’s more, this initiative shows that the hunger is coming on her terms, not on Whit’s. At the end, she doesn’t react with a lot of loud promises to always live in moderation and never be greedy, but by quietly processing the answers she has received, in a way that suggests they will stay with her in the long run.

Final Ratings

Best Part: There’s a lot of great material here, but honestly, I love the last story. I love that it’s simple, that it doesn’t bring in any twist beyond putting you in the mind of the prince, making you share his moment of weakness, and feel for yourself the difference between doing good and doing not-bad. 

Worst Part: Despite how unintentionally funny, I’m gonna go with the female shower massager. Somebody really needs to explain the Bechdel Test to AIO.

Story Rating: I think this triple fable structure was a good choice. Much of quality storytelling comes from knowing yourself. What are you trying to do with your story? How do you prioritize that? AIO cares more about theme than plot, and when they own that, they end up telling better stories. The second frame device is effective; interesting enough to draw you in but not distracting. Each individual story makes time to have fun as it makes its point, and the couple of off moments aren’t big enough to ruin the overall impact of the story. B+

Moral Rating: I like the way the messages of the three fables interact. One goes into the straightforward, practical cost, one into the emotional cost, and one into the moral cost. As Connie stated, these are all common sense, but the effect of the stories is to make that common sense memorable. These fables aren’t about convincing, but reminding us of something we already know. A+

Dealing With Dragons, by Patricia C. Wrede

Dealing With Dragons

  • Genre
    • Fantasy, Comedy, Young Adult
  • Plot Summary
    • To escape an unwanted engagement to an insufferably dull prince, Princess Cimorene volunteers to become a dragon’s princess. This turns out to be a great career move. 
  • Character Empathy
    • This book has some of the most likable characters I’ve ever read. Special shoutout to Princess Cimorene. She was the first spirited, non-traditional princess I read, and most who came afterwards haven’t lived up to her. Too many authors aim for rebellious and hit spoiled brat. Cimorene is someone you would want to invite over for a dinner party, and wouldn’t mind asking to grab some chairs or watch the grill while you get the drinks set out. 
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • Adorable and goofy and really, really fun. 
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • Morwen. She’s a sensible, scrupulously neat witch who keeps nine cats, none of which are black. All the traditionally warty witches think she’s a hopeless mess and Morwen gives zero shits.
    • Negotiations with an accidentally freed genie; one of the funniest scenes I’ve ever read.
    • Patricia C. Wrede uses a great mix of famous and obscure fairy tales. When updated-fairy-tale-mashup stories rely too hard on the ones everyone knows, it gets really easy to see where everything is going. She included some that even I hadn’t heard of before, which kept things interesting.
    • So many feminism metaphors. And, you know, just straightforward feminism.
    • If you like it as much as I do, there are three more books in the series.
  • Content Warnings
    • You’re good
  • Quotes
    • “Well,” said the frog, “what are you going to do about it?”  “Marrying Therandil? I don’t know. I’ve tried talking to my parents, but they won’t listen, and neither will Therandil.” “I didn’t ask what you’d said about it,” the frog snapped. “I asked what you’re going to do. Nine times out of ten, talking is a way of avoiding doing things.”
    • “Then they gave me a loaf of bread and told me to walk through the forest and give some to anyone who asked. I did exactly what they told me, and the second beggar-woman was a fairy in disguise, but instead of saying that whenever I spoke, diamonds and roses would drop from my mouth, she said that since I was so kind, I would never have any problems with my teeth.” “Really? Did it work?” “Well, I haven’t had a toothache since I met her.”  “I’d much rather have good teeth than have diamonds and roses drop out of my mouth whenever I said something”
    • “No proper princess would come out looking for dragons,” Woraug objected.”Well I’m not a proper princess then!” Cimorene snapped. “I make cherries jubillee and I volunteer for dragons, and I conjugate Latin verbs– or at least I would if anyone would let me. So there!”

Code Talker, by Joseph Bruchac

Code Talker

  • Genre
    • Fiction, Young Adult, Historical Fiction, Military Fiction
  • Plot Summary
    • Ned Begay, veteran of WWII, tells his grandchildren stories from his days as a Navajo code talker with the Marines. 
  • Character Empathy
    • Ned tends to view people through the lens of culture first, and then sketch them out as individuals, but this doesn’t result in stereotyping or simplifying. Instead, Ned has an eye for the complexities of culture; how it influences people for good and ill, how it can share knowledge but also limit perspective. Through his eyes, you see his love for his own Navajo culture, his affinity for other marginalized groups, and his ability to see the difference between an oppressive culture and the individuals who make it up. He’s able to do the latter without minimizing the crimes or neglecting the victims.
    • At the beginning of the story I thought of Ned as a mere neutral storyteller, but by the end I was intensely attached to him. He sees the worst of humanity and reports on it accurately, but he is also determined to look for the best in humankind. He’s one of those characters that my brain won’t let me treat as a fictional character. He’s real, dammit! He’s real!
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • It’s understated, in a good way. On the surface, it’s the voice of an old man, pragmatic rather than poetic, recounting the facts as best he’s able to for the sake of his family’s history. Beneath, it’s full of love, sympathy and insight. It never beats you over the head with its points, nor does it bandy about with false complexity. It is simply authentic.
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • The research is incredible, both the military history and the portrayal of the Navajos. Joseph Bruchac, an Abenaki Indian, was especially determined to get the latter especially right, and sought out as many Navajo code talkers to interview as he could find. I’ve looked at a few different reviews, both from Navajo perspectives and non-native history geeks. Everybody says it is dead on accurate; I’ve yet to find someone mention a single error. This book will probably teach you more than most non-fiction books. 
    • The bantering friendships between him and his fellow Marines. So many warm happy feels! Also, although he mentions that people die, he doesn’t usually torture you with in depth gory deaths of individuals you love, so that’s a nice change. It doesn’t feel cheap; more like Ned just didn’t want to spend time dwelling on the sad parts. These were his friends, and he doesn’t want to remember them dead. He just wants to pass on the happy memories.
  • Content Warnings
    • Obviously there’s violence, though he tends to skim over it. As I said, it seems to be that, as a narrator, Ned doesn’t want to dwell on the bad. The most intense description actually isn’t of the war at all, but his time in boarding school, when his mouth was scrubbed with soap for speaking Navajo. 
    • Racism against the protagonist and other Navajos, running the gamut from intentionally harmful programs like the boarding schools to unintentional microaggressions like the ubiquitous nickname “Chief.”
  • Quotes
    • “Never think that war is a good thing, grandchildren. Though it may be necessary at times to defend our people, war is a sickness that must be cured. War is a time out of balance. When it is truly over, we must work to restore peace and sacred harmony once again.”
    • “Strong words outlast the paper they are written upon. ”