Tag Archives: reviews

A Cup of Kindness

Why, hello! I haven’t blogged since August!

This semester has truly been the most exhausting and hectic academic term of my life. I started off with back-to-back illnesses (food poisoning followed immediately by an interminable chest cold), then had a perfect storm of time consuming coursework and travel (a really fun Monday night Camden/Tuesday morning New Brunswick/Tuesday night Camden schedule), two conferences (one international), lots of grading, and quite a few brand new (to me) theories that took just my whole entire brain to understand. Plus, you know, the annual energy-sapping effects of the ol’ seasonal affective nonsense. I feel like I’ve been sprinting flat out since Labor Day.

I’m still really glad I’m in this program. So that’s a nice sign.

One oft-repeated truth about grad school is that it’s isolating, and that’s been especially true this term, just because I haven’t had time to do anything. This has been frustrating, because I think I’m actually becoming less of an introvert as I get older? I definitely couldn’t do Hermit Life again. But luckily the combined circumstances of next term look like they won’t be QUITE as intense as this one (please let me not have just jinxed that), so I’m looking forward to communicating with other human beings on a more regular basis. Part of that mission includes reviving this ever-neglected blog, at least throughout winter break. I’m excited to talk about some of the highs of this past term (guest lecturing! Monsters conference in Prague!), as well as more media, writing, children/childhood, and current event thoughts. I sometimes joke (“joke”) that I am 100% Strong Opinions By Volume, and I’ve accumulated a lot of pent-up opinions to share over the past few busy, somewhat lonely months. (Shout out to any of my fellow Childhood Studies colleagues reading this, especially my astonishingly wonderful cohort, for being there and keeping me functional since September. Literally don’t think I could do this if I didn’t enjoy being around you all so much.)

But first, as is traditional, for my last post of the year (and decade!), I wanted to do a little round up of media that I was grateful for over the past year, plus a little bit of my own writing. The first part of this post will be very easy; despite the dearth of posts on this blog over the last year, I did manage to review three of my favorite viewing experiences of 2019 (Schitt’s Creek, Rocketman, Hadestown). Another movie favorite from the beginning of this year was Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, which I went to see as a 30th birthday present to myself. All of these stories make me fall further in love with our messy human condition, which is all I really want a story to do; as I mentioned in my Rocketman review, I’m always after Big Emotions in fiction.

Two of my guiding principles as a writer and a person are that a) fondness may seem quiet and soft but is actually deeply profound and sustaining and b) despair is the death of creativity. Therefore, while a story can have moments where it is as dark as dark can be (see: Hadestown and also most of what I write), ultimately cynicism will never a good story make, so you always need to give characters and audiences something to care about and keep caring about. To reiterate my Hadestown review, the things and people we care about don’t necessarily fix or save our world, but that’s never what made them matter in the first place. Human connection, art, storytelling, celebration, love — they matter in their own right. To continue that thought, I think we need all those things to sustain us if we’re going to engage in the work of fixing and saving. I know I do. So I guess that’s what I was after in this last year of the decade, and what I’ll be taking into the new one: stories that remind me of the things that matter most, so I can happily continue to care, create, and contribute to the world’s well-being in whatever small ways that I can.

A small extra note about Schitt’s Creek, just because it’s the story that fully dominated my 2019: I’ve been joking (again, “joking”) that that show is responsible for a good 70% of my mental stability as a graduate student, and goddamn am I grateful for it. Anyone who hasn’t watched it yet and is dealing with literally any form of stress in your lives, do yourselves a favor and indulge in this Absolute Delight of a show. I’m so pumped for the sixth season, and yet I’ll be ridiculously distraught when it ends, even though I respect the hell out of Dan Levy for giving his story a proper ending. (I respect the hell out of all of Dan Levy’s storytelling decisions. I can only humbly pay fealty to the undisputed king of slow-burn showing-not-telling character development.) I entitled my review of that show “Disasters Learning To Love,” and I can only hope to find more stories with that most evergreen of meaningful plots in 2020.

Sadly, I don’t have much in the way of book recommendations from this year — which is not to say that I didn’t read novels that I enjoyed, but I didn’t happen on any Big New Favorites. (I did get quite a few books for Christmas, though, so watch this space.) (Also, Anna, if you’re reading this, I am going to read Gideon The Ninth over break, you don’t need to yell at me again.) I did get to write about plenty of books that I care about this year, though. The highlight was definitely talking about monstrous doubling in Noelle Stevenson’s Nimona, Patrick Ness’s Release, and Eden Robinson’s Trickster series, all of which I could not recommend highly enough. That paper, which is the one I presented in Prague, was entitled “With Love from Self to Self: Monstrous Doubling and an Ethics of Care in Adolescent Literature.” I talked about this pattern I’ve been noticing in stories with sympathetic monsters in which the trope of the monstrous body splitting, duplicating, fragmenting, or containing multiple disparate aspects is used as a means of exploring a sort of desperate (and sometimes defiant) self-care in the face of a hostile society.

It’s no accident that this concept appeals to me so much, since I’ve actually written it myself, in MISBEGOTTEN CREATURES. It was exciting to realize that multiple authors whom I really admire are playing with similar ideas and to analyze what these narratives have the potential to communicate about the needs of marginalized young people. I closed that talk out by saying, “Monstrous care from self to self is not sufficient on its own; instead, it is the beginning of the story. It is the first acknowledgement, extended from within, that marginalized, scapegoated, and unstable selves are worth caring for and caring with.” So that’s another guiding thought I’m taking with me into the new year.

Finally, re: my own writing, since this is ostensibly a writing blog: I’ve officially been Writing Seriously (i.e., trying to write novels worthy of publication in a methodical manner) for a little over a decade. If you’d told 20-year-old me that I still wouldn’t actually be published at this time, she’d have been, uhhh … really sad. A lot of things haven’t exactly gone right in my writing career, and I’ve been dealing with the frustration, jealousy, and disappointment of that for a while now. But if things had gone differently, who knows if I’d be getting my PhD right now? I might have just kept on with a day job I liked less, instead of pursuing this additional path. In that case, who knows if I’d be living in a place I really like, so close to my sister and my NEPHEW, who is the most perfect thing to happen in 2019? I can’t take a peek into those alternate universes, but I do know that I’m doing work that I really like, and I’ve learned so much in the last three semesters, and all of it’s going to make my future writing better. Plus, I want the ’20s to be a decade of prioritizing relationships, and so I’m glad to be near my family. So I’ll continue to Write Seriously and embrace all the other opportunities and connections that crop up along the way.

Meanwhile, to everyone who’s read any of my writing (creative, academic, or sporadically blogged) and enjoyed it over the past 10 years, thank you so much. It means the absolute world to me when I find out I’ve written something that’s made another person happy. And you know what? I’m good at it. I’ve worked hard enough in the 2010s to have earned the right to say that. So, beneath the cut, please enjoy a selection of some of my favorite scenes from stories I’ve written this decade. Happy New Year to all!

Continue reading A Cup of Kindness

We’re Gonna Sing It Again

So I rounded out the summer by having a full on religious experience in a theater.

In other words, I saw Hadestown with my family a week and a half ago, and it was incredible. I loved it; I ugly-cried. When I was younger, I cried all the time at media, but now it takes more to really set me off. This show tore down any and all defenses I have. It destroyed me, in the best possible way.

For those of you who don’t know, Hadestown is a bluesy musical retelling of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Written by Anaïs Mitchell, it has an arresting Depression-esque aesthetic and a cast that may actually be made up of demigods. (Seriously, click that link. And then also click this one, because the first one doesn’t have Patrick Page as Hades in it and you need to experience his voice.) They really were all incredible, but for me, Amber Gray as Persephone was a standout. In one number, she bends 90 degrees at the waist as she stomp-dances, which was both wildly impressive and deeply visually distressing (as was appropriate, in context). The staging and design breathtaking, as well; I never knew I could get so emotional over factory light choreography.

But I’ve seen plenty of shows with great acting and music and visual storytelling. I’ve loved plenty of shows with those ingredients, ever since my musical-loving parents started toting their kids along to nights in the city. (I’ve even seen some shows that had slightly tighter pacing than Hadestown, if I were to be incredibly nitpicky.) Yet precious few would prompt me to begin a blog by facetiously-but-not-really claiming a RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE. So what was different about Hadestown?

I realize that not everyone is my specific type of nerd and therefore didn’t go through a big old mythology phase circa age 11, but I’m not spoiling the millennia-old story by telling you it’s a tragedy (especially since the first song of Hadestown tells you, too). I didn’t ugly-cry because I wasn’t expecting the ending. The way they told the story — that’s what was so meaningful to me. Mitchell’s magnum opus has been in the works for well over a decade now (it’s original incarnation was a concept album), but it could not have felt more timely. It reworks the ancient themes to comment on the destructiveness of capitalism (including allusions to climate change), the desperation of poverty, and the deep uncertainty that the future holds in dark times. It doesn’t pretend that everything will always be all right. How could it? After all, “it’s a sad tale; it’s a tragedy.”

But.

All right, here’s where I talk about the last two songs, which cut me open and held my heart in their beautiful terrible hands. If you want to listen to the album or see the show for yourself without hearing me talk about the ending, this is your warning.

So what is the point of art in such hard times? When even the most beautiful songs can’t guarantee a happy ending? What is the point of love, even, when it can’t do the same? There’s nothing and no one that can fully protect us from failing, from losing, from dying. From breaking our hearts.

But we haven’t stopped creating and appreciating art, have we? Even when it hasn’t saved us. We still turn to the Muses, after all these years and years and years. Love still needs its expression, and for so many of us, that’s art. Because we haven’t stopped loving, either! Even when it hasn’t saved us.

From the penultimate song:

It’s a love song
It’s a tale of love from long ago
It’s a sad song
We keep singing even so

Listen, I’m a person who got “with nothing on my tongue but hallelujah” tattooed on my body. Of course, of course, of course, this all matters. It doesn’t have to save us to matter. That was never why it mattered in the first place.

After the curtain call, the once embittered, now tentatively vulnerable Persephone leads us in a toast. Eurydice joins her.

Some birds sing when the sun shines bright
Our praise is not for them
But the ones who sing in the dead of night
We raise our cups to them

So let’s all be worthy of Persephone’s toast, yes? Let’s sing the songs.

On Such a Timeless Flight

As far as forms of storytelling go, I’m pretty one-note. I’m a novelist. Honestly, I’ve never really tried my hand at anything else. Sure, in college I had to write short stories for workshops, but I mostly cheated and used pieces of longer ideas that I had. Some forms don’t really personally interest me; others have been placed in the “maybe at some point” file; still others fascinate me but seem particularly difficult. I mean, novels are hard and all, but have you ever tried to write a genuinely good picture book? (Not that I’m exactly taking it easy on myself over here. My current project has multiple in-world first-person POVs, plus a couple of other “primary sources” including POETRY, which I don’t even write, with one character compiling and annotating this document. Because I’m a masochist, apparently.)

One form towards which I’ve generally had the attitude of “won’t catch me attempting that” is the biopic. I don’t just think that biopics are difficult; I think they’re inherently impossible. Try as you might, you can’t actually shoehorn a life into two hours, nor can you make it conform to a three-act structure. To quote the inimitable Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, “life doesn’t make narrative sense.” Trying to force it to do so requires lots of cutting and altering, while still trying to maintain an air of realism and historical accuracy. That isn’t even meant as disparaging, because the filmmakers have to cut and alter; otherwise, the movie would be an unwatchable mess. But viewers know that life doesn’t make narrative sense, so the formula of biopics too often seems thin and dishonest. Often you’ll be left with the frustrating thought of I know there was more to it than that, and it was probably more interesting. 

All of that to say, I really liked Rocketman.

I saw it with my mom and sister the other day, and all of us had high opinions of it. My mom mentioned that one of her friends hadn’t realized going in that it’s actually a jukebox musical instead of just a straight biopic. Apparently, her friend hadn’t liked the fantastical and surreal musical numbers, prompting me to ask, “Does she not enjoy FUN?” Which is not to say that all of the songs are fun; some are, while others are heartbreaking. All of them, however, were emotionally overwhelming, totally immersing the viewer in the inner world of Elton John.

As far as I’m concerned, all would-be biopic filmmakers and screenwriters should go and take notes. Rocketman did not try to maintain an air of realism and historical accuracy. Songs were used wherever they’d be most emotionally relevant, with no regard for the actual chronology of Elton John’s catalog. This is obvious from the beginning, as his child self sings The Bitch is Back while his orange-devil-suited older self looks on. There’s no point in asking “is this how it really happened,” because the answer is obviously no. “This is a constructed narrative!” the movie brazenly shouts from the opening frames. That allows the typical anxiously maintained facade of based-on-a-true-story to fall away (indeed, the tagline of the movie is literally “based on a true fantasy”), leaving the screenwriter and director (Lee Hall and Dexter Fletcher, respectively) to focus on emotional as opposed to historical accuracy.

I am all for this style of storytelling about real people. After all, we all construct our lives in various ways. We have our favored anecdotes and the influences we decided in hindsight were formative. We streamline our memories and allow most quieter moments to dissipate, if only because we don’t have room to hold them all. But every person knows their own inner complexity, the desire and passion and ambition and love and disappointment and fear and sheer cussed stubbornness that define us to ourselves. I’m only 30 and have had a far less interesting life than Elton John, and I’d still have a hell of a time putting my whole emotional universe into two hours and deciding which life events were “major” enough to include in the right order and trying to trick an audience into believing that that’s exactly how it all unfolded. Rocketman is still technically a biopic, so it has to do a bit of the picking and choosing, but in dispensing entirely with the pretense of realism, it can focus the vast majority of its energy on Feelings. It wears its bruised heart on its sparkly sleeve. It still can’t put Elton John’s whole universe into two hours, but it can give us an awfully moving glimpse.

In general, I am more and more interested in stories that are unabashedly about Feelings over everything else. For example, after a good long run as a fan of the MCU, I think I’m officially superhero-ed out. Too much Action, too many Twists, not nearly enough time spent on Emotions beyond what the valiant actors managed to wear on their faces. And, I mean, I’m literally a fantasy author, so I can’t exactly dispense with plot — nor would I want to — but I want every detail to be in service of this is how it feels to be human. Biopics, when they creatively bypass the restrictions of its form, can show us this is how it feels to be this human. And though I’m still quite certain that I’d never try to write a biopic myself, I’d certainly go to see more if they can pull this off as gorgeously as Rocketman does.

Disasters Learning To Love

What should I write my blog about this month? I asked myself when I woke up this morning and realized it was the last day of February. I answered that question with another question: Well, what’s just about the only thing you’ve thought or cared about this month aside from all the schoolwork you have to do? And the answer to that, gentle blog readers, was my new favorite sitcom of all time, Schitt’s Creek. If you have not already done so, please get thee to Netflix, where the first four seasons are waiting to delight you and also probably take up more time than you have to spend. (I have recently taken to literally unplugging my router to make myself stop rewatching favorite scenes and do my work.) (It’s open in another tab right now, god help me.)

Before you binge away, though, you can continue reading this blog, because I’m not really going to be talking about the specifics of the show’s plot. Instead, I want to discuss the reasons that stories like this one are so attractive to me. I commented in a Twitter conversation about the show that, to me, Disasters Learning To Love is the story type to which I keep returning. (Actually, what I really said was that it’s the only type of story that matters and is worth telling, because hyperbole is where I live, but also was I really being hyperbolic? Nah.) For those of you unfamiliar with the premise, Schitt’s Creek is about a filthy rich family that loses their fortune after their business manager embezzles everything away, and the one asset remaining to them is the titular rural town that they bought as a joke. Obviously, the resulting culture shock is … significant.

Basically all the major characters in this show qualify as awful babies, a term coined by my dear Anna to describe the best type of fictional character. I can’t remember if I’ve ever used this perfect turn of phrase on this blog before, so for the uninitiated (i.e., those of you who somehow haven’t heard me expound upon this in real life), awful babies are characters who are very bad at their own emotions (Anna once used the metaphor of “flailing ineffectually against the current of their feelings”) and are consequently Terrible. Not all awful babies are created equal, and plenty of different personality types can translate into awfulness. If I may be so arrogant as to use my own work as an example, I really enjoy creating characters who are very different from one another, but I exclusively write awful babies. In fact, “all your characters are assholes kathleen” (also from Anna) is one of the greatest texts I’ve ever received, and high on the list of my most prized compliments about my writing.

With all of that said, it may seem a contradiction to admit that when it comes to sitcoms, I really only like those with characters whose company I think I’d actually enjoy in real life. For example, I’ve never been a Seinfeld person, simply because I’d last about thirty seconds in a room with those characters before walking right out the door again. (I also fully understand that that was part of the point, don’t @ me.) But there’s a very important distinction between an awful baby and a just plain gross human being. The former do have the ability to experience personal growth — or, more accurately, to drag their own selves into personal growth kicking and screaming. That’s the story that makes me laugh and makes me care. After all, what can be more (often alarmingly) relatable?

My parents have the same sitcom sensibilities as I do, and after watching the first two episodes of Schitt’s Creek on my recommendation, they were unsure why I recommended it, because they mistook these incredible awful babies for gross human beings. I have been flat-out begging them to trust me, because this show has some of the best slow-burn character development I’ve seen in a long, long time. That’s also why I’ve refused to show them any of the scenes that I know would convince them that these characters are worth investing in, because they have to see them earn it. Everything is so much more satisfying when it’s that hard-won! I’ve been reading a lot of books lately that are Relevant To My Research Interests, which means I can’t just stop reading them when they fail to fully engage me. Honestly, one of my main complaints with fiction that bores me is when the main characters a) aren’t awful enough, which means that b) they don’t have to work hard enough for their victories.

Dan Levy, who is the showrunner and one of the stars of Schitt’s Creek and is now my latest creative idol, is committed to storytelling without cynicism. The many interviews I’ve been reading (those are two good ones) make this clear, but so does the work itself. And to me, being an awful baby aficionado as both a writer and a consumer of fiction is rooted in compassion and delight for people in general. We’re so dumb, bless us! We’re so bad at so many things, especially managing our own messy, scary, ridiculous lives. I love finding points of comparison between my own strand of melodramatic, vain, recalcitrant awfulness (that I hide, for the most part, relatively well (or at least I hope I do)) with fictional characters who are flailing just as wildly as I am towards something like happiness. Towards the ability to love, and love well. That’s a hard journey, but if you like people, it can also be a deeply funny journey.

I’m personally not a comedy writer. My stuff is just a wee bit too dark for that. (My newest project is about, um, death.) But that’s not to say my characters don’t make me laugh, especially when they’re at their awfullest, and I really hope that they’ll inspire the same kind of tender, indulgent fondness that I feel about the characters from Schitt’s Creek. Because you know what that does? It allows people to feel the same tender, indulgent fondness about themselves. And that’s what makes the stories worth telling.

Glory

Almost all the snow in my backyard has melted. We might get more on Monday, but I’m pretending that we won’t. I’m sitting in a quiet yellow room, waiting for life to start blooming again.

I finally managed to see A Wrinkle in Time, and I predictably loved it. It wore its heart right on its fancy, shiny, sparkly sleeve, and it didn’t feel self-conscious about it at all. I respect and admire that about any type of art. I can’t really speak to it as an adaptation, because I don’t quite remember the book well enough to do so, but as a movie for children and people who are not afraid of Big Feelings, I found it very successful.

Blooming is, I think, a good word for A Wrinkle in Time. Colors open up and spill out across the screen, music crescendos, hope turns its face towards the sun. Or, you know, towards Oprah. Though my dear Claire wondered if she would feel, as she perfectly and delightfully put it, Oprah-whelmed by Mrs. Which, we both agreed that all of the gloriously decked out celestial guides were perfect for both Meg and the viewers. Mrs. Which especially isso gentle in her power. Gentleness is an awfully underrated quality. It provides rich soil for seeds of hope to hide in when they’re not quite ready to grow.

Meg herself is not quite ready to grow for much of the movie. This movie is not remotely subtle, but Storm Reid’s acting is. Even though a lot of emotions wind up baldly (and I’ll admit occasionally jarringly) stated in the dialogue, Ms. Reid conveys a whole host of unsaid things, as well. She conveys Meg’s sense of isolation, of smallness, within the tension in her shoulders and the slight frown on her face. Meg, of course, is not small, but fear is a diminishing state, and Meg has existed in that state for a long time. She fears that she is unworthy and unlovable, and so she doesn’t look up or out, in case she finds evidence that she is right.

But her story makes her look up and look out and look within. In all directions, she sees the universe, and that universe, the movie insists, is glorious. The universe doesn’t care if you think it’s too sentimental or showy in its beauty. The splendor of existence won’t mind if you think it’s a try-hard. It will be as vast and spectacular as it naturally is, and it will make room for even the smallest, most frightened girl to be vast and spectacular, too. Because she is. Because she always was.

It’s spring, and there may be more snow coming, but it’s time to bloom anyway — gentle and powerful, hopeful and huge.