Category Archives: Reviews

How many buildings can we blow up in one episode? A review of “Dirty Pair”

About a week or so ago I stumbled on the Tumblr blog “Yuri Looking Pissed.” I was about to scroll right on by, but this caught my attention:

And that’s the end of Yuri Looking Pissed! What started out as me making a joke on Twitter turned into a way for me to share my love of Dirty Pair, as well as an excuse for me to share goofy screenshots.

The way it was written reminded me a lot of Josei Next Door’s Sailor Moon recaps, so obviously the next question was: what’s “Dirty Pair”?

As it turns out, “Dirty Pair” is an ’80s-era anime about two women, Kei and Yuri (aha!) who work as intergalactic special ops police officers for an organization called WWWA or 3WA. The show, in case you couldn’t tell, is set back in the future – specifically, the 22nd century. Kei and Yuri’s code name is Lovely Angels, but they’re constantly referred to as Dirty Pair because of the trail of destruction they tend to leave in their crime-fighting wake. Kei is particularly trigger-happy and fully believes that the best way to get things done is to shoot at people relentlessly until they obey. Yuri is not much better, but she’s armed with a light-saber style sword instead of a gun, so that tends to limit the amount of damage she can wreak.

Ah, the delicate flowers of womanhood.

The show didn’t get a lot of traction in its day, so the series is quite short.  The original “Dirty Pair” is only 24 episodes long I believe, and “Dirty Pair Flash,” its ’90s-reboot cousin, is a series of three seasons each with only five or six episodes.

I started out watching “Dirty Pair Flash” – and the dub, nonetheless, so I’m fully prepared to be crucified by internet fandom hordes. But hear me out for a second. I decided to watch “Flash” because it was such a low time commitment, and I wasn’t sure if I would even like the show. When I finished the first season, I went back to watch the original…and didn’t like it as much. I only saw one episode, so perhaps I need to give it few more before I render judgment (and I most likely will), but I found that “Flash’s” short seasons meant that you got dropped into the action right away, and the storyline in general was tighter and more fast-paced than that of the original.

Also, I’m not sure I can get behind this style. The phrase “’80s-tastic” comes to mind:

The hair alone is upsetting, but shoulder pads!! C’mon guys! Via Yuri Looking Pissed

Questionable fashion and style choices aside, I really like the show. It’s like a cross between “Thunder Jet” and “Star Wars” but with awesome girls who work for the galaxy authorities as opposed to against.

Of course, that might be part of the problem. There is certainly a “fighting the man” component to a lot of popular television shows that resonate with a target audience of tweens and teens, who often see themselves as victims of the powers that be, i.e. parents, teachers, librarians, crossing guards, driving instructors, etc.

The show also doesn’t fit the “magical girl” genre, in the sense that neither Kei nor Yuri are magical, nor do either of them display the qualities of “femininity” that young girls are socially conditioned to aspire to. Yuri, at least in “Flash,” can be incredibly whiny and annoying; Kei would probably just straight up murder you if you said the wrong thing to her. This doesn’t bother me at all, but I’m also an adult who has come to appreciate that sometimes, whininess and aggression get things done. I don’t know that 12-year-old me would feel the same.

Magical girls also have the advantage of visually appealing and fantasy inducing transformations. In cases where they don’t, they exude a sense of elegance and beauty that falls much more easily into those traditional paradigms of femininity and womanhood.

It’s crime-fightin’ time! Excuse me while I get dressed.

Kei and Yuri are not dressed to fit that paradigm. Their uniforms (I use this word very, very loosely) are what many would call provocative – “Flash” particularly does not shy away from cartoon nudity – and one gets the sense that they’re designed to appeal to a male gaze.

Nothing says “we mean business” like brandishing guns in your underwear. Via Oh no! It’s the Dirty Pair!

If you look at the Sailor Scouts’ costumes, they’re not necessarily any more modest, and there is arguably quite a bit of suggested nudity in the transformation sequences. However, the design – skirts, bows, an emphasis on nail polish and gloves and nice shoes – gives the viewer a sense that this is targeted to girls and their sensibilities and preferences.

(It may be worth noting at this point that the creator of “Dirty Pair,” Haruka Takachiho, and the illustrator, Yoshikazu Yasuhiko are both men. Naoko Takeuchi, writer and illustrator of “Sailor Moon,” is female).

Now, there’s no reason why this show shouldn’t be targeted towards boys. Unfortunately, boys tend not to consume media where females are the main characters. Fun fact: J.K. Rowling’s publisher insisted that they use her initials on the “Harry Potter” covers instead of her name because they were concerned that boys wouldn’t buy a book written by a woman.

Why this is the case is an issue beyond this particular post’s ability to tackle (but stay tuned!). The point is this: you may not have heard of “Dirty Pair” before. You may not have found it interesting or engaging as a child. Watch it now. It’s good.

And let me know which you like better, “Flash” or the original!

Books you should read instead of the classics: An alternative To Be Read list

Recently, Lizzy of My Little Book Blog wrote about how she gave up on a To Be Read list chock full of classics and must-reads as decided by the Conglomeration of Literature Professors, which as we all know is a branch of the Illuminati.

(That was a joke. Hah.)

The post really resonated with me. I too have a TBR list in some dust-covered notebook that I’ve probably lost. It has a ton of familiar titles, all of which I have now forgotten.

I have, of course, read my share of classics. Jane Austin, the Bronte’s, Charles Dickens, several depressed Russians. My feelings on each vary widely. The only Charles Dickens I’ve ever read that I genuinely enjoyed was “A Tale of Two Cities.” Depressed Russians are great, but not for the books they’re most well-known for. “Crime and Punishment” is a great story but much too long. Leo Tolstoy has a book whose name I no longer recall but that was vastly more interesting than “War and Peace,” which is also too long. “Anna Karenina” is too long and has almost no likeable characters. “The Three Musketeers” is a fun romp, but “The Count of Monte Cristo” is too long and has too many characters. About a solid half of the book could be a separate story.

There’s a theme developing here. It’s not that I’m opposed to length in and of itself, or to multiple storylines. I think a large part of it is that language has changed and evolved and our expectations of what books should do has also evolved in ways that make these books seem less epic and more just long. Really, really long.

So instead, I would like to humbly offer a few alternatives to the classics that dominate our TBRs. Here’s a list of 10 books I think you should read:

The Travels of Ibn Battutah – edited by Tim Mackiintosh-Smith

On the road to Multan and ten miles distant from it is the river called Khusru Abad, a large river that cannot be crossed except by boat. At this point the goods of all who pass are subjected to a rigorous examination and their baggage searched. Their practice at the time of our arrival was to take a quarter of everything brought in by the merchants, and to exact a duty of seven dinars for every horse. When we set about the crossing of this river and the baggage was examined, the idea of having my baggage searched was very disagreeable to me, for though there was nothing much in it, it seemed a great deal in the eyes of the people, and I did not like having it looked into. By the grace of God Most High there arrived on the scene one of the principal officers on behalf of Qutb al-Mulk, the governor of Multan, who gave orders that I should not be subjected to examination or search.

Chronicle of a Death Foretold – Gabriel Garcia Marques

Many of those on the docks knew they were going to kill Santiago Nasar. Don Lázaro Aponte, a colonel from the academy making use of his good retirement, and town mayor for eleven years, waved to him with his fingers. “I had my own very real reasons for believing he wasn’t in any danger anymore,” he told me. Father Carmen Amador wasn’t worried either. “When I saw him safe and sound I thought it had all been a fib,” he told me. No one even wondered whether Santiago Nasar had been warned, because it seemed impossible to all that he hadn’t.

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat – Oliver Sacks

You have to begin to lose your memory, if only in bits and pieces, to realize that memory is what makes all our lives. Life without memory is no life at all…Our memory is our coherence, our reason, our feeling, even our action.

A Border Passage: From Cairo to America – A Woman’s Journey – Leila Ahmed

Even in my own childhood, Zatoun, my mother’s paternal home, was a place palpably apart, imbued with some unnameably different order and way of being. The aura and aroma of those other times and other ways pervaded it still, in the rustle and shuffle of silks and the soft fall of slippers along hallways and corridors, in the talk and gestures and in the momentary tremor of terror precipitated by the boom of Grandfather’s voice, and then the quiet, suppressed, chortling laughter of the women as its boom faded and he passed into the recesses of the inner hall. The order and aroma of another time, other ways, another order.

The Truth – Terry Pratchett

Shall I try again? he said. “Listen carefully. Drugs equal chemicals, but, and please do listen to this part, sheesh, chemicals do not equal drugs. Remember all that trouble with the calcium carbonate? When you paid the man five dollars?

“Made me feel good,” muttered Mr. Tulip.

“Calcium carbonate? said Mr. Pin. “Even for you, I mean…”

Alexander at the World’s End – Tom Holt

The City of Athens, you see, has for quite some time now used Scythian slaves as policemen. Sorry, you don’t know what that word means; it means men paid by the state to keep order and punish people who break the laws (or at least, that’s the theory). We had to use foreign slaves for the job because no self-respecting Greek, let alone Athenian, would dream of doing a job that involved exercising practically unlimited power over his fellow citizens. Quite right, too. Ask yourself; what kind of man would you get volunteering for a job like that? Men who want that kind of power are by definition the last people you’d allow to have it.

Full Moon – P.G. Wodehouse

The moment Tipton set eyes on E. Jimpson Morgatroyd he knew that he had picked a lemon in the garden of medicine. What he had hoped for was a sunny practitioner who would prod him in the ribs with his stethoscope, compliment him on his health, tell him an anecdote about a couple of Irishmen named pat and mike, give him some ointment for the spots, and send him away in a whirl of good fellowship. E Jimpson proved to be a gloomy man with sidewhiskers, who smelled of iodoform and had obviously been looking on the black side of things since he was a slip of a boy.

In the Eye of the Sun – Ahdaf Soueif

How wonderful to simply do things instead of wondering if they are worth doing or discussing whether to do them or being told not to do them or listening to somebody else describe doing them.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams

 

Vogon poetry is of course the third worst in the Universe. The second worst is that of the Azgoths of Kria. During a recitation by their poet master Grunthos the Flatulent of his poem “Ode to a Small Lump of Green Putty I Found in My Armpit One Midsummer Morning,” four of his audience died of internal hemorrhaging, and the president of the Mid-Galactic Arts Nobbling Council survived by gnawing one of his own legs off. Grunthos is reported to have been “disappointed” by the poem’s reception, and was about to embark on a reading of his twelve-book epic entitled “My Favorite Bathtime Gurgles,” when his own major intestine, in a desperate attempt to save life and civilization, leaped straight up through his neck and throttled his brain.

What are your must-reads that don’t make the average TBR list? Let me know in the comments below!

Nadia watches Netflix: A Young Doctor’s Notebook

I don’t know why this show is classified as a comedy.

Is it funny? Yes. There are certainly moments of hilarity that catch you by surprise and make you actually LOL, but they are far outnumbered by the sheer depressiveness that drives the actual plot.

In “A Young Doctor’s Notebook,” Harry Potter Daniel Radcliffe plays a med school graduate in 1917 Russia. He’s a star student with zero experience, sent out to a small village in the middle of an unending blizzard. The nearest town is three days away, and not surprisingly, our hero is less than thrilled about this, especially with all the excitement happening in Moscow.

The reason we’re being introduced to the young doctor’s rather unfortunate circumstances is because of Jon Hamm, who plays the same doctor 17 years later, in 1934. He’s under investigation and in the process finds the notebook he kept of that time, which also chronicles his descent into morphine addiction, something he is trying to hide from the Revolutionary Guard going through all his stuff.

So not really the premise for a comedy, although again, the show has its moments of hilarity. Mostly these come from the city-bred, educated doctor’s clash with the uneducated residents of this sad little village, whose idea of medicine is limited to “gargle” and “drops.” In one particularly dark/hilarious scene, Radcliffe is insisting on operating on a young girl who is unconscious and clearly dying, her face completely blue. Her mother, sobbing and terrified of surgery, asks, “Can’t you just give her some drops?”

I’m going to be honest and say that I was predisposed to liking this show. I have a fascination with anything set in Russia during the first half of the 20th century, especially during or around the Russian revolution. I also like comedies. As much as I like it, however, there is no denying that the show is dark. Visually, the setting is gloomy and gray. Radcliffe’s life is incredibly dull, stuck as he is in this little hospital surrounded by 12 feet of snow. He becomes more and more disinterested in his patients’ welfare in the face of their ignorance and their admittedly blase attitude to health and hygiene. Still, because the seasons are so short (four episodes each), it seems like he succumbs to depression rather quickly.

Hamm, meanwhile, is struggling to hide his morphine addiction. This is where the show loses me a little. Hamm watches his younger self take morphine and laments his fate, but in reality that’s just not how painkiller addictions work. It’s not something that kicks in from the first moment, especially if, as in the case of our young doctor, you take the painkiller for actual pain. As long as you’re taking a painkiller for genuine physical pain, you should not get addicted – this is why morphine is used in hospitals, but not cocaine or opium (anymore, at least).

In any case, “A Young Doctor’s Notebook” is a show I highly recommend. It’s the kind of show that’s a new take on the well-known setting of revolution-era Russia and pokes a little fun at it while at the same time addressing a difficult – and very modern – issue. One thing I know for sure, after this show, I’m going to read Tolstoy with a very different mindset.

The nature of human nature: A review of “Last Man in Tower”

“Last Man in Tower” is a novel by Indian writer Aravind Adiga. The story is about the struggle between a real estate developer and the residents (eventually, resident) of the tower block he wants to tear down.

Via goodreads

I was intrigued by the book because its premise is very different from a lot of the “set in India” novels you usually get. Here, there are no arranged marriages, no slum dwellers, no epic Bollywood lifestyles. Instead, “Last Man in Tower” is a story about a universal issue, gentrification, and the impact it has on this one building and its middle-class dwellers.

The developer wants the land in order to build his dream project, and he offers to pay an exorbitant amount of money to the residents of the dilapidated Mumbai tower block so as to tempt them into selling him their flats. The catch: they have to accept the offer by a certain day, and they all have to sell before anyone can get the money.

At first, several residents resist, but the developer is able to convince all of them except for an old retired schoolteacher. And thus the conflict goes from developer vs. residents to everyone vs. teacher.

The teacher, by the way, has good standing in the building – he tutors some of the other residents’ children. But he’s also known for being very strict, so as each resident gives in, their opinion of him warps. Instead of being a lovable if curmudgeonly old man, he becomes a cruel, selfish man who gets a kick out of traumatizing their kids with his outdated teaching methods.

The story, ultimately, is a reflection on human nature. What motivates good people to do bad things? What motivates one person to stand against his neighbors, pitting his will against theirs? How far can you push someone before they crack?

Why is it so easy to turn people against each other?

I won’t tell you what happens, because even the Chronic Spoiler has her limits, but I highly recommend the book. “Last Man in Tower” is a novel that goes beyond its setting to address universal issues, and its one that I think anyone can enjoy and learn from.

The fate of a revolution: A review of “Trip Along Exodus”

There really is no place like home, although that’s not always a good thing.

“Trip Along Exodus” is filmmaker and poet Hind Shoufani’s first feature documentary, at once an exploration of the Palestinian resistance and her own father’s personal journey.

Elias Shoufani’s trials and triumphs (mostly trials) form a path that is shaped by the history of the Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation. It starts in 1948, when at the age of 16 Elias and his family were forced to flee their home. When he attempts to return, he is herded onto a bus along with 20 or so other young men, including his brother, driven to the border, and told that if they try to return again, they would be killed.

From that moment, Elias embraced his refugee status, brandishing it as a weapon, turning it into a symbol of his dedication to the resistance. That dedication is still there at the time of shooting, when Elias is living in a Syria still at the beginning of the war that now devastates it. The film is punctuated with calls between him and Hind, who calls in to check on his health – he’s fine, he tells her, but the city is running low on the most basic supplies. But he refuses to leave. His socialist ideals necessitates that he stay with a people fighting for their rights and their freedom in the country he has lived in for many years.

Socialism and secularism are a defining feature of Elias’s life. Of course,  the time when he became most active in the Palestinnian resistance, the 50s, was marked by a surge in the popularity of socialism throughout the Arab world. The other defining feature is travel. As a refugee, Elias goes from Syria to Jordan to Lebanon to United States (not in that order). He marries, divorces, marries again despite his best instincts, but he is driven by the cause of Palestine wherever he goes. His academic work, technically his job, is essentially a side gig to his role as political strategist to the Palestinian Liberation Organization, or Fateh.

It’s when the conversation turns to Fateh specifically that you most get a sense of the passion and fire that must have driven Elias for so many decades. The moral decline of Fateh, as he would characterize it, is perhaps his greatest disappointment, more so even than the continued occupation of Palestine 70 years after he was turned out of his home. In one memorable scene, he is digging out old VHS tapes for his daughter to include in her documentary. She asks him how he expects her to get through Dubai customs with this kind of material. He responds, “Tell them Fateh is dead and these tapes are its funeral.”

“Trip Along Exodus” strikes a deft balance between the personal story of Elias and the broader story of a country’s struggle, but Elias’s emotion and passion are really the draw here. It’s easy to see why so many women found him so attractive in his youth – his personality is intense and focused. Unfortunately, this left little time for his family and children. It’s something he shies away from discussing, insisting as Hind shoots that she change the topic. “I’m sorry Baba, we made you cry,” she says when a tear escapes him.

Perhaps that is part of the reason Elias is so passionate about recounting his time with Fateh, about clarifying his position – his opposition – with regards to Yasser Arafat and the leadership of Fateh in the 1970s and 80s. He wants you to know that he saw through their selfish motives, that he stood against his destructive policies; you can hear it in his voice. Maybe he’s so insistent on this point because he wants his daughters, Hind and her younger sister, to know what he dedicated his life to, to understand why he was so absent, a fact even his siblings acknowledge. Does he have anything to show for it? His children are still refugees, along with more than 7 million Palestinians, including 5 million who are eligible for UNRWA assistance. The trip along exodus continues.

But that’s not what matters, really. If that’s the one thing you get this from this film, it’s that the ends are not as significant as the means. This was a man who lived by his principles to the very end (spoiler alert: he dies), and that is really what he leaves his daughters.

You can watch “Trip Along Exodus” on Vimeo. Seen it already? Let me know what you think!

Never go with a guy to a second location: A review of Sofia Khan is Not Obliged

A good friend of mine recently recommended the book “Sofia Khan is Not Obliged” by Ayisha Malik. It was a book that had been on my radar for a while, so I took this as a sign that this was the time to read it.

“Sofia Khan is Not Obliged” follows the trials of – you guessed it! – Sofia Khan, a Pakistani Muslim Londonite working a rather unfulfilling jobs as a book publicist. (A little self-insertion on the part of the author? You know where I stand on this).

Sofia inadvertently suggests writing a book on Muslim dating, such as it is, and gets roped into doing it herself. She gets an advance she can’t refuse, and signs up to an online dating site for people from the Indian subcontinent.

Meanwhile, Sofia’s preexisting love life presents recurring issues. A relationship on the cusp of marriage has recently broken down because of the boyfriend’s insistence that she live with his parents per South Asian custom. Sofia’s 30 years old, and she really liked this guy, and she struggles with the breakup even as she embarks on new dating adventures for “research.” It doesn’t help that these adventures are extremely disappointing. One man in particular is everything that is wrong with men as a group. He’s self-centered, noncommittal, aimless, looking to kill time with Sofia while he waffles through life. Unfortunately for our protagonist, he is also very charming (these types often are), and we spend a lot of very frustrating time with him.

While this is happening, we’re also introduced to Sofia’s family – traditional South Asian parents and her sister Maria, who is getting married – and her friends, each with their own romantic problems. Her coworkers also form a significant portion of her social circle, misconceptions of Islam and South Asian culture included, as well as aloof Irish neighbor Conall.

I thought this book was great! It was a refreshing departure from a lot of “Muslim narratives” out there, that tend to revolve around arranged marriages, government corruption, gender-based oppression, etc. This is just an average girl living an average life, and she happens to be a Muslim from a South Asian family. That obviously has it’s impact on the trajectory of the story, as it impacts the kinds of decisions Sofia and co. make and the way in which those decisions are implemented. But it’s not the crux of the story. Yes, it’s about Muslim romance, but the story doesn’t live or die on details like Sofia’s ex’s attachment to his parents or on her friend’s struggle with polygamy (a detail I personally found rather pointless in that it presented a very serious and controversial issue and then barely addressed it).

Ultimately, Sofia is a fun-loving, lighthearted working gal, faced with a life that becomes increasingly serious over the course of the novel: the book that needs to be written, the tension between her sister and her now-husband, pressure from her parents to just pick a guy already, etc. As these conflicts heighten, we see Sofia struggle to handle it all – her personality makes her, I think, averse to this level of seriousness. That nuance in the story’s development was something I really appreciated.

Overall, “Sofia Khan is Not Obliged” is a funny send-up of love, marriage, generational conflict, and the push and pull second generation kids are always balancing. It’s also a great example of the kind of Muslim representation that I personally would like to see more of. In fact, I’m quite looking forward to picking up the second installment, “The Other Half of Happiness.”

Have you read this book? Share your opinions in the comments!

I can’t stomach the Santa Clarita Diet

At the risk of being drawn and quartered, I’m going to confess to you, my faithful and loving readers, that I just don’t like the Netflix series “Santa Clarita Diet.”

I tried. I really did. I’ve watched six episodes over the course of four weeks, and I don’t think I can keep going. And I’ve figured out that it’s not the show, it’s me.

I completely understand why the show is so popular. It’s really funny – I’ve been in love with Timothy Olyphant since I saw him on Conan, and he’s actually the reason I started watching the show. Abby and Eric are great, and I’m rooting for Eric so hard! How can he be denied love when he’s so adorably awkward?

So yeah, it’s a funny show, and I laugh along with the rest of the internet world. I mean, the gifs alone:

But guys, it’s just so gross. So gross. I’ve never been good with blood. I couldn’t watch “ER” with my mom because the sight of people being cut open made me nauseous. I wait 15 minutes after the start time before I turn on “Law and Order” or “Bones” (which I’ve recently gotten into) because I don’t want to see bloody corpses. If I am so unfortunate enough as to catch a glimpse, I have to keep telling myself “it’s not real, it’s not real, it’s not real” so I don’t get nightmares.

That’s just how I’ve always been, so the fact that I kept going through the “Drew Barrymore bites off Nathan Fillion’s fingers and then eats him” scene is frankly a breakthrough moment for me.

The thing is, it’s not that he didn’t deserve it. He was a creep and a jerk. But I can’t help but feel that being eaten is not really what society would call proportionate punishment. In fact, I can’t see that being eaten is proportionate punishment for anything. Yes, the showrunners are making a real effort to make Barrymore’s victims truly awful human beings, but, and this is where it gets weird for me, they’re really just actors, so they don’t deserve to get eaten – they’re also not really being eaten, but my brain for some reason is not processing that part quite as well. Probably it’s the sheer amount of blood being shed on the show that my brain can’t get over.

Another thing that’s definitely not helping is how much Barrymore’s character enjoys eating people. Watching her cheerfully make a smoothie out of a dead guy’s ear – just typing that sentence out made my stomach turn a little – is incredibly disconcerting to say the least. I am also not convinced that she wouldn’t eat her family if she was truly starving and their were no other options. When a girl’s gotta eat, a girl’s gotta eat.

So that’s where I’m at now, but that’s not to say I won’t revisit the series later when I’m feeling a little more up to it, if only to find out about that Serbian town that no one wants to go to. After all, “Gotham” is pretty violent but I’m definitely going to watch the second season…sometime. (Also “Gotham” may be darker than “Santa Clarita Diet” but it’s significantly less bloody. Just sayin’.) I’m also very excited for the second season of “Jessica Jones,” although again it took me a while to get through the show’s first season because it was just so overwhelmingly violent.

I think that’s part of why I’m struggling with “Santa Clarita Diet.” There’s already so much gore on television (by my standards, anyway) that I normally gravitate to comedies as a relief from it all. The last thing I want to think about when I’m trying to relax and enjoy myself is the brevity of human life, and I definitely don’t want to think about cannibalistic neighbors. My neighbors seem nice and normal enough, but then again, so does Drew Barrymore. She’s a real estate agent.

Sexism ruins lives: A review of The Muse by Jessie Burton

Have you ever had this happen with a book, where you read the first, say, five chapters, and you think huh, this is pretty interesting. Then you come back to it the next day maybe, and you read a few more chapters, and suddenly the ante ups by 500 percent and you’re reading well into the night because you must find out what happens next.

That’s “The Muse” by British author Jessie Burton. The story is about Trinidadian Odelle Bastien, who works in London in the 1960s and wants to be a writer. She takes a typist job at an art gallery, where she meets Marjorie Quick, an upper level executive. Marjorie takes a liking to her for mysterious reasons (*coughs*), but the story doesn’t really take off until Odelle meets Lawrie Scott, a young man in possession of a very strange painting. Through Odelle, he brings this painting to Marjorie’s gallery, and, well, things take a major turn.

While Odelle is doing her thing, we catch up with Olive Schloss, an Austrian-British teenager living with her wealthy family in 1930s Spain. Olive’s father, Harold, is in the business of selling art to wealthy people all over Europe and North America, and he’s kind of jerk to his daughter. Harold believes firmly that only men can be true artists – women, he tells his daughter, don’t have the right temperament or whatever to pursue art professionally (and if this sounds familiar to you, well, I urge you to contemplate the state of the world today). Olive, not surprisingly, is very depressed by this attitude and loses her motivation to paint, until she meets Isaac and Teresa Robles, siblings who serve her family’s landlord. Well, mostly Isaac. He’s older and deeply involved with the unions and communist party in Spain, and he’s also tragically poor, which is always romantic.

So Olive paints and paints and paints, and it’s clear even to the unworldly Teresa that she has a special talent. But Olive knows that anything she produces will be dismissed by her sexist father, so she decides to pass off her paintings as Isaac’s, a scheme that he accepts for reasons.

But this is 1930s Spain, and conflict is brewing even in the countryside. Olive and her family have the privilege of neutrality – up until they don’t. The Spanish Civil War takes a while to reach their small town, but when it does the results are catastrophic. Isaac, and by extension Teresa, are targets of Nationalist supporters, and the Schloss family (yes, they’re Jewish), can’t help but feel trapped on a continent that seems to be unraveling before their eyes.

The nature of their escape and the fate of Lawrie’s painting, which is obviously Olive’s wrongly attributed to Isaac, is too much of a spoiler for even me to reveal here. I will say this, the beauty of Burton’s writing is that she gives you just enough to see a few feet ahead on the path, but not quite enough to show you the destination. By the time you’ve reached the inevitable conclusion, the story is effectively complete. All that remains are a few loose ends for Odelle and Marjorie to tie up. In that sense, it reminds me a lot of “The White Lie.”

Burton crafts the story incredibly well. Odelle speaks in Trinidadian English when with her countrywoman friend, but switches to a much more formal, British English when at work or speaking with other characters, a detail that many writers who don’t have that background could easily have missed. She also does not shy away from showing just how Harold’s sexism dooms Olive, and how in turn European fascism dooms them all (to varying degrees).

What she does shy away from is racism. I find it difficult to believe that Odelle faces very little racism in 1960s London. This is barely 30 years after the “Aryan race” was a thing, and yet the worst she gets is impolite waitresses and people “complimenting her” on her English. That’s how racists act now, 70 years after WWII and in a time when racism is much less socially acceptable. I’m also astonished at how willingly she jumps into an interracial relationship. At no point does Odelle ever consider the impact this could have on her, what she might face as a black woman in the company of a white man – and it would have been much worse than a few surprised looks and disapproving tuts. Again, this kind of attitude is much more reflective of race relations today than it is the 1960s. Particularly given the current climate, we need media that clearly says: Racism hurts. Racism ruins lives. Instead, racism in Burton’s world is little more than a mild inconvenience.

“The Muse” is an intense tale. It left me emotionally exhausted and wondering how different things could be if only there was a little less prejudice in the world.

Nadia watches Netflix: A Series of Unfortunate Events

I was a huge fan of “A Series of Unfortunate Events” when I was a kid – I stumbled across “Hostile Hospital” (and “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” but that’s a post for another time) at a bookstore and bought it before realizing it was part of a series. I was immediately hooked. Talk about reverse psychology! Every warning from Lemony Snicket only made me want to read it more.

A few years later the movie came out, and I…liked it a lot, actually. Jim Carrey was INSANE as Count Olaf, and by far the best part of the movie. Of course, there is no denying that the movie had very little resemblance to the actual books, but then again, few movies do. It also didn’t help that it tried to condense four books into two hours.

What I particularly appreciated was the way the movie captured the dark humor of the series. That’s something that the recently launched Netflix series trips over a little bit, particularly in the first few episodes. So let’s break it down, bullet point style:

I liked:

Neil Patrick Harris as Count Olaf. I mean, need I say more?

Klaus Baudelaire. Even in the books, he’s the only one with a reasonable sense of outrage at the injustices they’re facing. Violet is great, but she really ought to be angrier.

The mystery! Readers of the original series will know that the whole VFD stuff and the eye and the big mystery behind the Baudelaire’s parents deaths (and the Beatrice thing) doesn’t even start to be revealed until, what, Ersatz Elevator? That’s book six. So yeah, it’s great that the series is already giving us these tidbits of the background in which “Unfortunate Events” is happening.

Mr. Poe. I should hate him. I really should. His utter incompetence is the source of the Baudelaire’s troubles (that and the VFD stuff). If only he would call the cops in a timely manner, the kids might have a better chance at a guardian who doesn’t die on them. But what can I say, I like the guy. He’s well-meaning, if inept.

Very true. Mostly ’cause of you dude.

Sunny Baudelaire. She knows what’s up.

Olaf’s henchmen. I’ve always kinda had a soft spot for these dudes. Even in the books, they’re mostly just along for the ride. This guy is especially enjoyable:

I didn’t like:

The narrator. I like the concept of a narrator, and it certainly makes it more true to the books. But he’s played too deadpan, and the explanations of what things mean is getting kinda boring. It was quirky and fun in the books. Here, it’s just an unnecessary interruption.

We know dude.

It’s not funny enough. Basically what I said in the beginning. In the first few episodes, the show really had trouble striking the balance between humor and horror. What’s happening to the Baudelaires is truly terrible, and it’s largely due to adult incompetence and passivity. Children should not have to live like this, and it’s infuriating that they do. Part of this is that I’m an adult now, and I feel more strongly about child welfare. When you’re a kid, it’s all part of the adventure, and it confirms a deep-held belief that adults are the worst. But even then, a large part of what makes the books more palatable is that they’re genuinely amusing. In terms of funny-to-sad balance, I would say the best part is the “Miserable Mill” episodes. “Wide Window” has its moments, but Aunt Josephine is just so annoying.

The Marvelous Marriage. I had totally forgotten about this part of the first book. I didn’t remember it until well into the first episode, and I immediately felt squicky. Again, this is one of those things that when I was kid didn’t strike me as any more evil than all the other plots Count Olaf was putting together, but now…just no.

Poor Violet.

Overall, I can’t wait for next season. I feel like the series really hit its stride in the last half of the season, and I can’t wait for the next season. Also, “Ersatz Elevator” was my favorite book of the series, and I can’t wait to meet Esme Squalor.

Stop that balloon! A review of “The Aeronaut’s Guide to Rapture” by Stuart Campbell

Another book review! What can I say? I’m on a roll here, guys.

I took some time off last week and took the opportunity to read another one of my holiday sale books, “The Aeronaut’s Guide to Rapture” by Scottish writer Stuart Campbell.

The story is definitely not your traditional beginning-middle-end type. It follows three characters in three different places: Ursule is in Paris in 1864, Dexter is mired in the Vietnam War in 1965, and Dante is a priest in modern-day Italy. They’re completely different people in completely different situations, united by two things – terror and a hot air balloon ride.

From the beginning, Campbell’s focus is the hot air balloon. The story starts out with him missing a hot air balloon ride that he had planned in order to inform his three stories. He believes that the ride will create a sense of rapture, a freeing sense of escape from the mundane world below.

Instead, he is forced to imagine what that rapture may feel like. Each story is an excerpt of what we, the readers, are led to believe is part of a larger novel that Campbell is writing. Each one ends with the air balloon landing…somewhere.

After each mini-story, Campbell laments his writing skills. He doesn’t like how he describes the experience of being in the hot air balloon, the feeling of escaping death by a hair in what he imagines is this fantastical mode of transport. The freedom of being in the air, the threat a tiny speck on the ground, is a sense he struggles to capture (or say he says. I thought he did a pretty good job.). All because he missed his flight.

I wonder if he got a refund, or do you pay when you board?

Anyway, the stories are engaging, and Campbell deftly creates three different worlds with ease and authenticity. But you’re left with that sense of incompleteness. What happens to Ursule when she lands in the middle of a war zone? Does Dante really die, or is he stalking the Italian countryside? We don’t know.

(Incidentally, Dante has by far the best escape: he grabs onto a giant balloon of the Virgin Mary and kicks her away from the platform she’s tied to.)

Ultimately, “The Aeronaut’s Guide to Rapture” is more a story about Campbell himself and his writing process than it is about any of the characters that occupy the pages. They are background figures to the real hero, Campbell, who struggles to achieve his purpose. In a way, it takes you out of the rapturous sense that he’s working so hard to create. But in another, it’s kind of like the balloon rides he describes: an uplifting sense of being in a new world, only to have it come to an abrupt end. In that sense, he’s achieved his purpose.

Goodbye cruel world! Wait, are we going down?