Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, by Grace Lin

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon

  • Genre
    • Fantasy, Coming-of-Age
  • Plot Summary
    • A poor girl named Minli goes on a quest to ask the Old Man of the Moon how to improve her family’s fortune.
  • Character Empathy
    • Both Minli and the companions she meets along the way are fun and likable. They were all characterized in the classic fairy tale way; quickly characterized and simple, prone to either remain unchanged or to change in very archetypal ways. Despite that, they all felt very vivid and lifelike. That’s not easy to pull that off, and it was absolutely wonderful.
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • A mixture of charmingly lighthearted and enchantingly beautiful. This is very much a  fairy tale adventure, but Grace Lin spices it with the effortlessly lovely descriptions of places, people, foods and scenes. Reading this book is like walking through a garden; stimulating but peaceful, and good for the soul.
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • Unlike many hero’s journey stories, where the people at home are abandoned offstage, this book periodically returns to Minli’s parents. They struggle in the aftermath of her disappearance, but ultimately both grow as people. It’s not something I’ve ever seen before, and I loved it. 
    • Tons of stories within stories that ultimately weave together in the most delightfully satisfying way. 
    • Dragons and grumpy old wise men and talking goldfish!
  • Content Warnings
    • None
  • Quotes
    • “If you make happy those that are near, those that are far will come.”

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist: Where is Thy Sting?

This episode begins very shortly after the last one left off. Connie and her mother are going through Mildred’s things, and they discover a lovely music box that plays “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name,” is inscribed with “From Bill, First Timothy 6:17-19, in my prayers that you may find true treasure.”

Then they go pick up Connie’s father, Bill, at the airport. He is surly, but rather than rest up at a hotel, he wants to go straight to the funeral home and discuss arrangements. They meet with the funeral director, a local pastor and Mildred’s pastor from New York. As they talk, Connie says that she wants the funeral to be more than just a standard dour experience. She has been thinking about how hopeful Mildred was at the end, and how for Christians death isn’t an end, but a transition to a new and better life. She wants the funeral to focus more on celebrating that. Bill is furious.

“If you’re thinking that my mother’s funeral service is going to be some kind of a party, well then you’re on the wrong track.”

The others try to calm him down and suggest a balanced service, in which they talk about the sadness of her loss but also the hope she felt for a life afterwards, but Bill isn’t interested. He continues to mock Connie’s idea, accuses everyone else of ganging up on him, then storms out.

Now, usually I give a full summary and save my thoughts for the end. This is going to be one of the exceptions. There’s just too much to talk about here, and too much that changes from scene to scene, so I have to give my analysis as I go. Here, Bill is clearly being an asshole, and I don’t think his grief is an adequate excuse. Everyone else in that room is grieving too, with the possible exception of the funeral director. What’s more, all of them will need different things to help them through. That’s a pretty normal situation after someone dies. Connie shared the thing that is helping her through this, and how she would like to incorporate that into the funeral. But she didn’t demand it; she merely brought it up, which is what this meeting is for. Bill clearly needs something else, and doesn’t seem to know exactly what that is, which is rough. But his first response is to attack Connie, who is hurting just as much as he is. That’s only okay if you’re about five.

Afterwards, Connie talks the situation out with Jack and Eugene. It’s Eugene, of all people, who takes it upon himself to explain how Bill is probably feeling.

“Alas, take it from one who has explored many philosophies of life and death. If he considers death a void, then it may make him wonder if life itself is a void as well.”

This introduces us to the idea that, without God, there is no such thing as coping. They illustrate it with Bill, who is not only an atheist, but a nihilist. Contrary to popular belief among fundamentalists, most of the time those two don’t go together. I’m not going to say it’s never accurate, only that nihilism is not a sustainable ideology. We don’t do well with lacking meaning – it’s a human thing. To be a nihilist is to crave for a reason to be anything else. But that reason is not necessarily found in religion. I find it primarily in the people I love and the fight for social justice. I’ve known atheists who find it in a futurist’s utopian vision, an artist’s work, a family to care for, or a never-ending search for self-improvement. All of these things have value, here and now. It’s just a matter of discovering what speaks to you.

The idea of a nihilistic atheist being the norm is common. Fundamentalist Christians cling to it particularly hard, I think partly because they spend so much time putting down the worth of the world we have here. It is constantly compared to the value of the glorious, eternal afterlife. The present world is, at best, a pale facsimile, and at worst an active distraction. Switching mentalities from that to one where earthly love and human well-being is a perfectly valid reason to live and have hope is well, a bit awkward to pull off, even if you’re just switching your thinking temporarily to empathize with an unbeliever. I also think there’s a bit of confirm bias and survivor’s bias mixed in. Confirmation bias because fundamentalists want to see atheists this way, rather than consider that someone might be satisfied and happy without God, so they assume any happy atheist is lying. Survivor’s bias because the rare nihilistic atheists are the most likely to convert, and thus are the former atheists Christians are most familiar with.

This idea is impressed on the audience more when Connie’s mother talks to Bill, back at the house. She tries to reiterate Connie’s point about the balance of life and death, and the reward for believers.

“Well, that’s great, but if you believe the way Bill Kendall believes, you live and you die and the people you leave behind spend years trying to get over losing you.”

She also shows him the music box, and asks if he knows what the inscription means… kind of a weird question, given his clearly expressed disinterest in the Bible. He doesn’t know, he’s annoyed by the whole thing, and he goes for a “walk,” and isn’t seen until the viewing is almost over.

When he turns up, at the very end of the viewing, he is staggeringly drunk. He cries, snarks, and waxes poetic… if you expand the definition of poetry to slobbering doggerel.

“I am grieving the loss of my mother the only way I know how. You do it by having happy funerals and I do it by trying to forget.”

I have mixed feelings about this scene. On the one hand, I love how, despite his relentlessly dickish behavior, you are made to feel for Bill. He’s no simple villain. He’s a human being who is expressing his pain destructively, but you are made to feel his grief along with him nonetheless. On the other hand, it’s clear that the writers of AIO struggle to understand how a non-believer truly thinks and acts. Even for a nihilistic atheist, Bill’s statement is a little too on the nose, too perfectly aligned with where the writers are determined to take us.

Bill manages to behave through the funeral, and afterwards he goes up with Connie and her mother to view Mildred one last time. He reflects that the service was actually quite beautiful, contrary to his expectations. He also reveals that he and his second wife are getting a divorce. He feels like a failure on every level; he can’t keep his marriages together, he missed his mother’s final days because he was off on a cruise, and he can’t help making a mess of the mourning process, swinging his grief around like a club that keeps everyone at bay. Connie comes in with her solution. He needs to become a Christian. She emphasizes that the Bible verse on the box was an exhortation to pray for unbelievers, especially those obsessed with money and fancy living, and how it proves that Mildred wanted nothing more than for Bill to accept Christ. Bill reiterates that he can’t believe, and can’t forgive himself either. Connie tries again, and Bill runs off. Connie’s mother reflects that they probably won’t see him again, and how she’s realized that she has a choice between handling life the way Connie does or handling it the way Bill does, and it’s about time she became an official Christian.

I’ve already explained how bad that dichotomy is, so I’ll go into the other big problem with this scene. Based on my experience, there are two ways to deal constructively with someone acting like Bill; someone full of pain who is simultaneously incapable of caring for themselves and lashing out at others. First, you can put up some boundaries to protect yourself from their attacks, and focus on your own healing. Second, you can sit down with them, listen to them, let them vent while taking nothing they say personally, and hope that somewhere along the line you both figure out what they need. Both are valid choices. The latter can be noble and admirable, but when you can’t juggle your pain and theirs at the same time, which is typical, there’s no shame in the former. Better to successfully heal one person than try and fail to heal two.

What’s not okay is to insist on this being the moment the other person radically change their worldview, so they can grieve correctly and heal in the way you’ve decided they need to. Healing is complicated, beliefs are complicated, human development is complicated, and all of the above are incredibly personal. In the scene at the funeral, what Connie does is like trying to collect an insect with a sledgehammer. She is saying he can’t heal and grow unless he somehow acquires a belief in God. He doesn’t believe, and can’t will himself to accept it, because nobody can even at the best of times. Bill is too raw for her statements to do anything but drive him deeper into a feeling of hopelessness.

I do agree that, in the long run, Bill needs deep, transformative change in order to become a functioning adult. But Connie, at the end of this episode, expects him to convert entirely to her method of coping, and offers no other way to help him. In a way, she’s doing the same thing he did to her earlier in the episode. She goes about it in a nicer way, but she is still more hurtful than helpful, for exactly the same reason; she’s refusing to acknowledge that his pain needs to be dealt with on its own terms.

Final ratings

Best Part: When Jack and Eugene go to the funeral and are just their adorable selves. Which is to say, Jack quietly listens and hugs and makes everything feel a little warmer, and Eugene goes on a ramble about “the historical development of necrology and it’s impact on Etruscan archaeology…” and then remembers he’s at a funeral and apologizes a few thousand times. It’s sweet. 

Worst Part: It’s a tough call between the various lines that oversimplify the nature of unbelief, and how unbelievers can cope with death. The worst, I think, is actually Eugene’s. Eugene is a kind of intellectual jack of all trades, and at this point in the series he’s actually something of an agnostic. Eugene is probably my second favorite character after Connie, but all too often, AIO uses him as a legitimizing mouthpiece. He confidently asserts something that we are to assume is well founded, because A. he’s smart and B. he’s not a full-fledged believer so it’s also coming from an objective perspective. But of course, those statements are written without any actual research. His statements don’t follow his character or a coherent philosophy, but are simply what the writers want him to say, dressed up with the aide of a thesaurus.

Story Rating: Honestly, if I just look at the bare bones plot, without the ideas explicitly discussed, it’s a pretty good idea for a story. The central conflict is between two different methods of grieving; that’s interesting. The execution isn’t all bad either. Many of the scenes are well constructed and much of the dialog sounds like how actual humans talk. There’s still a bit that’s stilted, but overall… B – 

Moral Rating: “If you don’t believe in my exact religion, clearly you can’t cope with death and you’re doomed to misery forever.” D – 

This One Summer, by Jillian and Mariko Tamaki

This One Summer

  • Genre
    • Graphic Novel, Young Adult, Coming of Age, Literary
  • Plot Summary
    • Rose Wallace spends the summer at her family’s favorite beach, while her parents struggle to get over a year of tragedy. 
  • Character Empathy
    • I love how Jillian Tamaki draws the expressions. They are incredibly subtle, especially for a graphic novel. If most comics characters are dancers in a Broadway musical, this is that underrated actor who communicates an entire mood with one twitching jaw muscle. The effect is immersive and effective.
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • The story is a strange mixture of sweet and suspenseful. Rose and her friend Windy are on the brink of growing up, but aren’t quite ready to yet. They want to enjoy one more summer of childhood, yet events around them keep threatening to shatter their innocence. As they peek in, then pull away, you’re simultaneously curious at what they’ve missed, and relieved that they have avoided it.
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • This is one of those rare books that perfectly captured what it was like to be a kid in the summer. I think it’s the things the girls did that seemed almost boring; lounging on the couch, picking up pebbles, digging massive holes, debating whether to go swimming or rent a movie or pick up ice cream without really caring. Part of the fun of summer is that nothing you do is too important, so you just do whatever you feel like. Often that something is nothing at all.
    • I loved the way the characters were drawn. I saw bodies that you see every day in real life, but almost never in art or fiction. I especially liked Windy’s squashy pear shape. I don’t know why; I think she reminded me of a friend I once had.
  • Content Warnings
    • Not really applicable; most of the adult content is hinted at, rather than depicted outright.
  • Quotes

God, man, just look at the pictures in this one.

Summer 4Summer 1Summer 3Summer 2

I Remember Beirut, by Zeina Abirached

I remember Beirut

  • Genre
    • Non-Fiction, Memoir, Graphic Novel
  • Summary
    • The memories of a childhood spent in the middle of no man’s land, during the Lebanese Civil War.
  • Character Empathy
    • Characters are sketched very simply, but in a way that doesn’t diminish them. In the same way that a silhouette can trigger a more visceral reaction than a photograph, the characters here don’t suffer even a little for the brief glimpses you get of them. 
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • Simultaneously light and thought provoking. I brought it to work and finished it in one lunch break, then was mulling over it for days later. It’s sad, but in many ways also beautiful and hopeful.
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • As you can no doubt see from the cover, the art is absolutely beautiful.
    • The contrast between the perspective of Zeina and her brother, for whom all of this is normal, and their parents, who remember the old days and are trying to give their children a normal life despite everything. It’s understated and perfect.
    • There is a story about a terrible barber that I absolutely loved. I can’t explain why, but something about it was immediately familiar and made me laugh. You’ll just have to get the book and see what I mean. 
    • Almost every sentence in the book starts with “I remember,” but it never gets tiresome. It just pulls you straight through. I don’t know how she does that.
  • Content Warnings
    • Although the time is brutal, there is no graphic violence. It’s more about psychology. How does the human mind adapt to a world where violence is your next door neighbor? It’s about damage, but also resilience, and finding joy and beauty in the little things.
  • Quotes
    • “I remember that during the war, the school bus skipped our neighborhood. The neighborhood’s alleys were close to the demarcation line and had a dangerous reputation. The bus would stop at Ward’s ice cream parlor at 6:30 every morning and 3:30 every afternoon. By virtue of being on the edge of the zone where the bus didn’t dare go, Ward’s had been turned into a bus stop.”
    • “I remember back when you could still smoke in planes. I remember that during the war, we were short on water, bread, electricity, and gas… but never cigarettes. I remember that every living room had a platter with packs of cigarettes on it. The hostess would offer them to her guests, as if she were passing around chocolates.”
    • “I remember my brother collected bits of shrapnel. I remember that after my brother’s outings with Chucri, he would spread his loot out all over the coffee table. Then he would put the shrapnel away in a basket my mother had given him. I remember that I had taken to leaving my backpack by my bed at night. In my backpack, I had everything I wanted to take with me, if we had to run.”
    • “I remember old Kit Kat wrappers. I remember the three steps before eating: ripping through the glossy red paper, folding back the white tissue paper, and crinkling up the foil.”
    • “I don’t remember the last day of the war. But I remember the first time you could take a real shower.”

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist: A Touch of Healing

This episode takes place during a period where Whit was off in the Middle East, being a missionary adventurer archaeologist (no, I’m not making that up), and Whit’s End was run by his son Jason and his old friend Jack. This was actually a pretty good time. See, they couldn’t bring in a new character who would usurp Whit’s status as most perfectest human being, and instead they replaced him with two guys with good hearts and human flaws. Jason is proactive and inventive, eager to adapt new technology and trends to engage the kids at Whit’s End but often too hasty. Jack is more cautious and old fashioned. He needs Jason’s energy to keep up with the times, but he can also see where Jason is rushing in without considering all the potential drawbacks. As a result, formulaic answers delivered by a Mary Sue were replaced with actual debate and compromise, and room for the audience to think longer about an issue before deciding who they agreed with. It not only made the morals less trite, but also tended to force the episode quality up.

In this episode, Jason has developed a new program for the Imagination Station. I don’t think I’ve mentioned it before, which is astounding because it is a major part of the AIO canon; in brief, it puts kids into a world where they act out a story, programmed in by Whit or Jason, but brought to life “by the power of imagination.” It does actually seem to penetrate the mind directly, rather than just being a glorified virtual reality machine, which has some freaky ass implications. But I’ll have more opportunities to get into this later.

For now, Jason has realized that, since disabled kids can imagine they don’t have disabilities, he can program the Imagination Station to put them through an adventure, completely able bodied. Jack felt like there could be problems with this, but couldn’t offer anything beyond a vague bad feeling, and Jason more or less took that as a challenge. He went straight from idea to implementation to trying the program out on some Whit’s End regulars.

His first test case, Jenny, does not go as planned. Jenny was born blind. She can’t accurately imagine being sighted, and as she talks about it upon leaving the Imagination Station, it seems that she also doesn’t really see her blindness as a fault. It’s just a part of her, and she has a good life just the way she is. The second one, with Zachary, who became quadriplegic in a car accident, goes much better. He walks and runs, and what’s more, sees this as absolute heaven. This is, by the way, the same Zachary from Letting Go, but earlier. He was still adjusting in that episode, but here he’s positively raw from the double shock of losing his father and becoming disabled. As soon as he is pulled out of the program he becomes enraged and demands to be sent back. His mother, Eileen, who was not informed about what Jason was about to do, is furious. Jack takes Eileen’s side, but Jason can only think about how happy Zachary was during the program, and can’t understand their problem.

Meanwhile, Connie and her Mom are welcoming Connie’s paternal grandmother, Mildred into their home for the foreseeable future. Connie’s father, as you may recall, is largely absentee, and Mildred is dealing with some ongoing heart problems. It says a lot about Connie’s family life that she’s the one unanimously chosen as the best suited to take care of her grandmother. Mildred is sweet, warm and utterly delightful. Unfortunately, during her visit, her health takes a sudden and dramatic turn for the worst. She is admitted to the hospital, and when Connie visits, the two of them spend much of their time in prayer.

The next day, Jason finds out from Eileen that Zachary was a wreck after the Imagination Station. He threw tantrums and, when he finally went to bed, she found him crying in his sleep. He has also been refusing to go to physical therapy. PT apparently has the potential to help him, but it’s a slow, frustrating process for a kid who is already emotionally scarred. Zachary says that there’s no point anymore, since he can just go into the Imagination Station and walk like he could before. Eileen asks how Zachary is supposed to cope with reality when Jason has created a perfect fantasy for him to escape to. Jason, still wanting to defend his invention, thinks that maybe later on, Zachary’s experiences in the Imagination Station can help him be more motivated to go through therapy. Jack takes him aside and tries to show him how he’s undermining an already stressed out parent. He argues that it’s always been a policy of Whit’s End to never contradict parents when it comes to their kids. Jason doesn’t like that policy. I don’t either, but in this instance I’ve gotta take Jack’s side. He’s started messing around with Zachary’s healing process without even consulting his mother, and that’s seriously unacceptable.

The episode then cuts to Connie and Mildred in the hospital. By now, Mildred knows her own body pretty well, and she wants no more hopeful double talk from the doctors. She lists the problems, the transplants she would need to survive and her slim odds of getting them, and sums up her condition as terminal. The doctors are stunned, but admit she’s right. Mildred thanks them for their honesty, and Connie asks her why they have been praying if there’s no realistic hope.

Instead of saying they are praying for a miracle, Mildred says that the prayers aren’t for herself, but for Connie; for her to have strength, whatever happens next. A short time later, she slips into a coma.

Over the next several days, while Connie works to prepare herself for the worst, Whit’s End is mobbed by disabled kids. Jason sees that Zachary’s not alone in his reaction. These kids have a brief experience of cheap release, but they leave either angry, because they have to return to a reality that now feels doubly unfair, or disappointed, because like Jenny they lack the experiences that let the program work on them. For those who can use the program, they mostly went through the same kind of pain Zachary did. The Imagination Station makes them go from a world where they’re struggling to learn how to be different, to a world where everything is as it was before, and then are thrust back into the real world, with no coping mechanisms, no tools to adapt to the transition. He hasn’t invented a way to heal them, but a way to torture them. He suspends the program indefinitely, until he can figure out a way to make it genuinely work for the kids, and apologizes publicly for the damage he has done.

Jack goes to visit Connie and Zachary. The conversations he has with both of them are about turning to God for emotional healing, even when the physical healing we hope for doesn’t come. These talks are both very different from the ones Whit gives. Jack spends a lot more time listening. There’s no railroading them into a predetermined point, so you get the sense that he doesn’t come in with an agenda. He hears what the other person says, gives his honest response, and then listens to see what they made of it. You know, like an actual conversation. With Connie, they meander through faith, prayer, sin, pain and the afterlife. She doesn’t emerge with any new answers, but she feels heard and loved in a way she didn’t get in the previous review. With Zachary, there’s a “let me tell you about Jesus” talk, but it comes up naturally as a result of Jack sharing his philosophy on spiritual healing, and Zachary asking to hear more.

In the end, Eileen and Zachary both are converted. Mildred dies, but Connie finds comfort in her belief that they will see each other again in heaven.

It is clearly indicated that the official message is that God is a more powerful force for healing, particularly mental and spiritual healing, than medicine and technology. I don’t agree with that basic premise, in partly because I think the latter exist and the former don’t, and also because my experiences with mental health have shown the opposite. Religion tended to exacerbate the problem, modern medicine had very good results for me. At the same time, this topic is handled with unusual nuance in this episode, and that does make it better.

In this episode, characters who disagree with the official moral aren’t strawmen. They have reasons and are given the space to fully explain them, so even though they end up proved wrong, you can still think about circumstances under which they might have been right. If Jason had collaborated with physical therapists and parents, for example, he might have set up a more helpful program; perhaps one where it’s a reward for therapy, to make the results more tangible.

The other thing that works well here is that there’s something organic about how faith is used. Connie, Mildred and Jenny have a long personal history of faith, so it makes sense that they turn to it. As for the conversion, while I don’t like what Jack says (he calls people who don’t believe in Jesus “spiritually handicapped”) I do think he has a right to share his faith with those who are interested, and Eileen and Zachary don’t feel forced into an out of character religious experience for the sake of the story.

Science has brought us a long way, but there are many things they can only alleviate, or haven’t been able to solve at all. The history of science is also full of therapies that were tried and did not work, or have the potential to be applied in both helpful and abusive ways (think electroshock therapy or lobotomies). While meds have made a significant difference in my life, and therapy can help many others, for other people religion is genuinely a source of emotional healing, and that’s great. When it comes to mental health, I’m happy for anyone who finds something that works for them.

Of course, this episode avoids a big potential problem by only portraying characters who are happy to turn to Christianity for healing. I’ve already talked some about ways that religion can be counterproductive for people with mental health problems. In the next review, Connie’s father shows up for Mildred’s funeral, and we get to look at how AIO treats characters who are hurting, and unwilling to convert.

Final ratings

Best Part: Jack comforting Connie. It was so genuinely warm, and after Fences I was really ready for her to get talked to like a human being and not a troublesome project.

Worst Part: They keep referencing an earlier episode where Jason tried to invent an arcade game that taught kids about the Bible, and Jack was so shocked because, you know, video games. That episode, to AIO’s credit, did not force Jason to realize video games were evil; only that they were loud and needed to be put in a soundproof room so they don’t disrupt the rest of the shop. The writers almost seem to feel guilty about making that compromise, because now Jack keeps saying that they can’t be healthy, what with all the lights and noise and punching buttons.

Literally, he complains about the kids punching buttons. The whole time, I’m thinking, “you hear that your childhood BFF invented something that literally induces hallucinations in minors and you’re fine with this, but video games are bad because buttons???”

It was a minor point that didn’t detract too much from the overall episode, but it was still annoying.

Story Rating: The dialog was natural, and the conflicts progressed very naturally. At no point did the story feel like it was relying on contrivances or manipulation to make it’s point. I got genuinely invested in all the characters and how things were going to turn out. A

Moral Rating: I think the basic point is problematic, but of all the takes on this idea, they took the best one. C +

Where the Line Bleeds, by Jesmyn Ward

Where the Line Bleeds

  • Genre
    • Fiction, Drama
  • Plot Summary
    • Upon graduating from a poor high school near New Orleans, twin brothers Joshua and Christophe look for work. Joshua finds it, but Christophe doesn’t, and turns to pot dealing. As Joshua becomes afraid of the path Christophe may be following, and Christophe becomes resentful of Joshua’s good luck, both struggle to keep the relationship that has let them survive this far. 
  • Character Empathy
    • The two protagonists are lovingly detailed. Some of the secondary characters are a little less fleshed out, but on the whole, I liked all of the main characters, even while I felt the need to scream “what are you doing? Don’t do that thing! That won’t end well for you!” 
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • The pace here is simultaneously luxurious and suspenseful. The book takes time to set up the characters, so you never have to ask “why do I care?” You care because you know Christophe and Joshua, and you know what they’re going to do, and if they don’t get through their shit okay then so help me… and once the book has you in that position, it just lets you stew, for page after page while the tension builds and the climax is inched towards. It’s agony, but god help me if I didn’t love it anyway. 
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • The scenes are full of the kind of sensory details that too many authors neglect. Jesmyn Ward knows that to really put readers into a scene, you shouldn’t just tell them what a thing looks like. We need to know smells, sounds, tastes and textures. I can still remember a scene where their grandmother was preparing shrimp, not because of anything special that happened, but just because I really felt like I was there.
    • Teenage characters who actually feel like dumb teenage boys, while still being incredibly sympathetic. Not many people can pull that off. 
    • No spoilers, but I was so worried that I wouldn’t like the ending and I very much did. 
  • Content Warnings
    • Some fistfights and obviously drug use (mainly alcohol and marijuana). Without going too deep into my personal politics, I think the substance abuse is handled very well; not demonized, not glorified, just portrayed as something people are vulnerable to when they have nothing else in their life to look forward to.
  • Quotes
    • “Christophe peeled the shrimp slowly and carefully: that was his way around her, and it was the exact opposite of his usual demeanor. She knew it for what it was: love.”

New Youtube Channel!

So, my best friend Sister Mark and I have started a Youtube channel, Lectio Fictina, where we read our favorite lines from our favorite books and ridiculously overthink them. We are very much at crappy-webcam-in-a-bathroom level quality, but hey, we’re both broke. Anyway, we’re having fun making them, and if you want to check them out I hope you have fun watching them.

My favorite so far is our third one. It has a kitty.

The People Could Fly, by Virginia Hamilton

people could fly

  • Genre
    • Folklore
  • Plot Summary
    • A series of tales passed down by generations of Black storytellers, gathered from collections and primary sources by award winning children’s author Virginia Hamilton.
  • Character Empathy
    • As with oral folklore found around the world, the characters are more archetypes than individuals. However, this book does bring subtle but powerful empathy for it’s storytellers, as Virginia Hamilton points out the elements of the stories that came from the struggles of slavery and reconstruction. 
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • The loving care put into this project is evident on every page. So many of these stories have either been erased from mainstream folklore collections, or only presented in whitewashed or minstrelized versions. This was a work that came from a passionate hunger to put these stories back in their rightful place.
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • I loved the variety in this collection. There’s humor, fairy tales, animal fables, riddles and tall tales. I love studying the common roots of fairy tales, and I saw ones that clearly shared DNA with stories I’ve read since childhood, and ones that were brand new to me. Either way, I was a very happy folklore geek.
    • Each story comes with a note on the cultural and historic context, which again made the folklore geek in me really happy.
    • Virginia Hamilton worked very hard to add in elements of the original dialects, enough to make it evocative and honor the original voices but not enough to confuse the average reader (as opposed to those old Uncle Remus collections that are almost unreadable). In my opinion, she hit that balance perfectly.
    • Most of the stories are pure fun, but the title story was so beautiful I honestly got a little choked up. 
  • Content Warnings
    • It is intended to be suitable for parents to read to their children, so there’s nothing to talk about here. 
  • Quotes
    • (from the author’s introduction) “These tales were created out of sorrow. But the hearts and minds of the black people who formed them, expanded them, and passed them on to us were full of love and hope. We must look on the tales as a celebration of the human spirit.

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist: Fences

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

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

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

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

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

What does this revelation make Connie? A feminazi.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final ratings

Best Part: the brief moment of happiness at the beginning

Worst Part: The Men-Hater’s Club

Story Rating: Contrived and awkward. D –

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

Rose, by Li-Young Lee

Rose

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