The Art of Asking: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help

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“Amanda Palmer…the one from TED Talks?”

I really didn’t know what to make of Amanda Palmer other than being this eccentric creature submersed in her artwork. Neither had I listened to any of her music prior to reading her memoir nor did I stay religiously up to date on her revolutionary upheaval of the music industry. Amanda Palmer’s memoir The Art of Asking: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help replaces the unknown I previously had about her, capturing Amanda Palmer both as an artist and a person. Famous for successfully using Kickstarter as a means of crowdsourcing to release an album and continuing this way of practice in promoting and selling her later work, she confesses her insecurities in this memoir: from asking her fans for donations to her fear of being seen as a narcissist, self-serving poser.

To encapsulate, Amanda Palmer is a musician whose art is best described as eclectic; she uses different instruments and incorporates unique, experimental styles to form these raw and tonal sounds. Plus, she plays the ukulele. The Art of Asking is the unabridged version of her 2012 Ted Talk as well as her band’s war against her record label. The memoir delves into her relationship with famous author Neal Gaiman and her lifelong mentor and friend Anthony, who was living with cancer during the book’s conception. Most of the book, however, is a descriptive catalog of astonishing—but not always—instances where Palmer asks her fans for help and not just in the form of currency (housing, food, venues, etc.) Palmer leaves herself incredibly susceptible to the generosity of others. Although Palmer has witnessed the capacity of human kindness through her art and openness in accepting whatever the fans are willing to offer, she has to contend with being heavily criticized and occasionally painted as a shameful beggar in mainstream media. After reading her memoir though, she’s anything but a beggar and more of an entrepreneur.

Palmer explains that much of what she learned came from her years as a performance artist, her days as a living statue. While she originally did it to be her own boss and still be able to do art, remarking on the conundrum of having a liberal arts degree but not having an itinerary in pursuing a career in the arts, she engaged with her audience on an personal level through mostly an unspoken language and penetrating eye contact, conveying that she had truly seen them versus only looking at them. Palmer realized that finding that connection, even a tiny exposure of intimacy, is what most anyone needs, and she is ready to give it.

Is the Art of Asking a smooth and tired joyride of one person getting exactly what she wants?

No.

Make that a hard no.

Palmer struggled with finances along with her own pride; her memoir illustrates this in the case of her husband. After Palmer assembled a new band and wanted to go on tour, she tried to figure out how she would come up with the money to pay everyone. Her husband offered to loan her the money (though he didn’t expect her to pay him back) but this made her extremely uncomfortable. She had already accepted money from complete strangers, however, accepting money from her husband felt like it would be violating her feminist principles. Only when she sets her pride aside does she recognize the hypocrisy. Then there are times when Palmer doesn’t receive any help even after asking. After Palmer hurt her ankle while running, the three people she asked for help didn’t offer any assistance other than to call an ambulance, ergo, treating her like someone else’s problem. Living a life where you put your faith in others has also landed her in unfavorable sometimes disconcerting situations. One of her fans stole her favorite ukulele at one of her shows. It’s eventually returned but not after Palmer mourned over its loss for two weeks. At another show, a fan shoved a hand between Palmer’s legs while she’s crowd surfacing–and in a not so accidental way. Despite this, Palmer treats each mishap and break in trust as an isolated incident instead of empirically; she doesn’t apply one instance as a universal reason to mistrust everyone nor does she ever seem to hold a grudge.

Palmer’s lifestyle, willing to ask people for help for anything, is an extreme case, but it reveals what most of us are reluctant to do, even when we find ourselves in trouble, even when it’s irrational not to. Most of us are resistant to the idea of putting ourselves in someone else’s care because of its implications. That they are weak, incompetent. A failure. Or when we want something, such as asking for a raise or help changing a flat tire, we synonymously treat ‘asking’ like ‘begging,’ which Palmer is quick to clarify the difference: begging happens out of fear and desperation whereas asking occurs out of need and compassion. Palmer’s memoir captures the general goodness of people if you open yourself to them—but she’s not insisting everyone do this. She’s been lucky, and she knows it.

What we find is something remarkably rare and beautiful in this memoir, leading us to believe that maybe opening ourselves to others isn’t as scary or deadly as we feel it is. Then again, as Palmer puts it, if it were so easy, then everyone would be doing it.

 

Book Series Edition: The Unwind Series, Part 2

Undivided

I’m ambivalent about the Unwind series. It contains an interesting dystopia concept and plenty of political and medical criticism, but it’s far from being a perfect book. Actually, several parts felt like hiccups, so acutely off rhythm that you can’t help but notice them. Unwind struggles with character development and maintaining a propelling plot. While the series is interesting, the peculiar plot choices and the passivity of the female characters makes me reluctant in fully recommending this series, even though books one and four are definitely worth a read.

Unlike part one, the following comments below contain spoilers:

That Creepy, Creeeeeeeepy Scene:

What happens when someone is unwind? Many theories get tossed around about this one with everyone choosing to believe that a person is sedated and then put to sleep. If only.

Patients are awake during the unwinding operation! While the patients are sedated, they simply watch as every part of them is harvested, like Hannibal Lector eating your brain while you’re awake. How is this kind of operation possible? Well, science—I guess.

Unlike others, I wasn’t at all prepared for this passage. After reading it, I had to put the book down to process. Unwind isn’t known for its writing, but this particular passage illustrating a teenager’s unwinding is truly one of the most disturbing things I’ve read in a while.

Like, OMG! Girls Chasing Boys! Like. OMG. Girls Chasing Boys?

Risa Ward is smart. She knows fighting is a last resort. Connor quickly picks this up too, allowing him to become the leader of the Graveyard and later represent the ideas of the unwinding resistance movement. Connor matures, as he should, but instead of Connor adopting Risa’s resourcefulness, which would add to their dynamic duo, Connor subsumes her role as the team’s strategist while being leader, but Risa is sidelined as the helpless, stuck in yet another love triangle, girlfriend; her being belongs to everyone but her own.

Unwind robs not only Risa of potential badassery, but many of the other female characters, most who remain in supportive and/or love interest roles:

  • Miracolina; Lev’s love interest.

Although she has all the workings to be this tenacious force in the series (she’s arguably far more committed to her own convictions than Risa), she doesn’t stay in the rotating cast of character for very long. She’s actually the only third-person narrator to drop out of the series. We see her at the end just in time for her to start a long-distance relationship with Lev–because this is what every girl wants after pining for a guy for supposedly two years.

  • Bam (Bambi): She’s in love with Starkey.

Unlike the other girls in the story, Bam’s happy ending doesn’t involve ending up with anyone. She’s Starkey’s second in command and also secretly in love with Starkey. Only when Bam discovers Starkey’s secret harem does she decide to stage a mutiny against Starkey—but she has to have help. Hayden is the brains of the operation and orchestrates the entire kidnapping (and dumping) of Starkey. She’s been Starkey’s second in command for months and a leader in her own right, but she had to go to Hayden for a plan, which wasn’t even a complicated one: drug everyone including Starkey, drop him in the middle of nowhere, and relocate the Stork troops while Starkey’s out cold. She apparently had to go to him.

Every girl has a romantic partner. Even Una, who tragically lost her fiancé, ends up finding love in a guy that has her deceased fiancé’s  hand—and I wish I were kidding

Unwind ascribes stagnant roles to women that only draw emphasis to the male characters. Every significant step forward is made by a man. Connor takes down the flying harvest factory. Lev sacrifices himself on national television, waking people up to the issues of unwinding. Let’s not forget that Risa also was on television two years earlier, outing the corruption of Proactive Citizenry, but no one paid attention to this apparently.

This is a story about people being treated as just a bunch of parts, which subsequently is how the story treats its female characters. The Unwind series represents only a singular, if not poor, interpretation of women.

Change Takes Time

Unwind’s ending delivers promise to a better world. Because of Lev’s stunt—faking a terrorist-clapper bombing so people would shoot him dead—makes the world reexamine the moral consequences of unwinding teenagers.

When Connor, having been rewound, shows up in Washington ready to diplomatically fight the problem, it shows just the beginning of the solution. Rebuilding. Reconstruction. Proper Representation. Laws.  These are things that were introduced and make the ending somewhat satisfying.

Overall, Unwind had its entertaining moments, and made sure everyone in the end got what they ‘deserved,’ but it falls to pieces in its plot and character departments. Although not a well-known series, Unwind does belong on someone’s shelf of dark dystopia, but it is, perhaps, too ‘morbid’for some too read.

Blogger Note:

So sorry for the infrequent posting. To say the least, a number of issues have marred me in the last couple months: Lows, online class, sickness, and horrrrrible reading dry spells. The good news? Online class shall soon end, the sickness is going away, and OMG, I’ve got my reading groove back! Yay! I should be back to posting regularly soon.

Book Series Edition: Unwind Series; Part 1

Unwind-Neal-Shusterman

By now, you’re so done with YA Dystopia books, set in familiar worlds and navigated by unruly, heroic/vigilante/anarchist protagonist characters. And, if it’s YA, there’s definitely a plot to overthrow the tyrannical government or upend a scientific experiment attempting to ostensibly improve humanity. I was done too until I heard about Neal Shusterman’s Unwind series, four books (plus some short stories) that are unnerving: young people made into organ donors—while they’re still alive. To put it mildly, Unwind isn’t for the faint of heart.

In the four-part book series, we mainly follow the characters Connor, Risa, and Levi in a world highly invested in Unwinding: a scientific breakthrough that makes every organ and tissue viable for harvesting and accessible to anyone. People aren’t using the organs from recently deceased people, however. Unwinding uses fresh ingredients from living, young adults between the ages of 13-18. No one’s being hunted, of course. This is all conducted appropriately. The parents give the order to Unwind their child. Some children, called Tithes, are even bred for it. Who would do that? Tired parents. Selfish parents. Uneducated parents. Gullible parents. Basically humans.

Connor is one of the many whose parents have decided to sign the Unwind order and have his organs harvested, except Connor doesn’t go willingly. He escapes from the Juvie cops (special task force that locates Unwind AWOLS), takes a Tithe called Levi hostage, subdues a Juvie cop (which later bites Connor in the ass), and meets the street-smart, orphaned Risa Ward, who’s also sentenced to be Unwind. When things settle, the three meet Sonia, a member of the resistance group against Unwinding. From there, the three of them are on the run. Connor wants to destroy the system of Unwinding. Risa wants to just survive and protect the ones she loves. And Levi wants to find purpose with his life.

The Unwind series omits the distant-future pretense found in other YA Dystopias and is set in our current world, paralleling our science and technology along with our culture (to clarify: the United States.) To make this apparent, Shusterman incorporates articles from real life—which are all legit—about the black market harvesting organs, babies being abandoned, and abortion clinics being closed. Although it can feel like padding at times, the articles remind us of one of our more pressing social issues. In the Unwind universe, a war broke out between the factions of Pro-Life and Pro-Choice. Right now, especially with the presidential campaign, the topic of abortion is more than heated (especially when you have a red-beaten hog insisting women be punished if they have an abortion). There’s certainly a verbal war that’s been happening for years, but it’s not only just talk. We see countless political agendas manifesting in laws, hospital-building regulations, and insurances policies to restrict and deprive women in having the choice to abort fetuses. This wouldn’t be the first time the United States went to war over human rights. What’s to say that won’t happen over women’s choice to terminate pregnancies? Unwind provides us with a terrifying alternative by subjecting young adults to cruel ends. This might seem impossible to imagine, but it’s probably more real than you think.

The Unwinding process and order isn’t necessarily the problem but actually how beneficial it is.  No matter how inhumane it seems (it is), there’s a lot of good that happens when there’s a replete of body parts at our disposal. We’re talking about kids who are paralyzed that could receive new spines and walk again. New pair of eyes for the blind. Amputee veterans who don’t have to use prosthetic limbs. Genetic diseases that could be avoided just by replacing the isolated, affected area (maybe? Still on the fence with this one). These are truly wonderful benefits of Unwinding. It’s also a system that preys on people’s body insecurities and vanity. Plastic surgery becomes obsolete when you can just pick what nose you want on your face. Exercising is beneath anyone who can afford to purchase toned abs (even though I think the science behind this is a bit flakey). The system easily morphs into a corrupt industry perpetuated by profits and people’s egos.

Similar to how I reviewed the Harry Potter series, I’ve included some of my commentary below. Unwind wasn’t a series I consistently enjoyed. There are parts that I didn’t agree with or I thought weren’t executed well. Books one and four had a gripping story and descent characterization; however, books two and three (mainly three) liken to white noise. I will discuss more of the series in Part 2.

The Heartland Wars: Pro-Life and Pro-Choice

I implied earlier that Unwinding was the solution to abortion between the Pro-Life and Pro-Choice factions during the United States’ second civil war named The Heartland Wars. Unwinding actually helped put an end to the war and was invented by a scientist that simply wanted to help people (usually the case). Unwinding prevents overpopulation which the world will need because, after The Heartland Wars, abortions are illegal, thereby, more babies. A woman doesn’t have to keep the child, however. This is what is known as Storking, a law passed that rarely makes anyone’s life happy.

Storking is when a woman leaves her baby at someone’s home and that home is required by law to take custody of the child. The only stipulation that would require the woman to keep the child is if she’s discovered in the act of dropping the baby off. As you can imagine, several families have at least five to ten children per a household, leading to higher stress, not to mention, the financial costs in raising those children. Because abortion is banned, families are forced to adopt children they don’t want.  Kids end up being resented and isolated from the family. In most cases, Storks are given up to be Unwind. Storks are dropped into these circumstances with no rights in a system that is rigged against them.

Unwind points out the problems in having children if we’re only going to expose them to a miserable life and treat them as burdens. I don’t have children and probably never will, but, to me, that type of treatment is damaging to kids and isn’t something they’ll just grow out of. We’re looking at adult-kids feeling ashamed and unwanted, parents feigning affection, and people forced to become parents who may not be parent material (maternal instincts don’t come with the uterus, folks.)

The series discusses just what happens when women do not have any say in their medical choices. Everyone makes different choices—but it’s fairly lousy to have kids suffer that kind of abuse because you were forced to have them instead of wanting them.

Excessive Narration: Filling In Every Gap and Beating Me With a Hammer

When the character Starkey was added, Shusterman created this interesting dichotomy between Starkey and the lead protagonist Connor.  Starkey wasn’t about preserving the peace. In the second book, he’s running from a Juvie Cop, but unlike Connor who knocks out the Juvie cop in book one, Starkey kills the cop. From then on, we study the characterization of these two in terms of hero versus icon. Shushterman employs this similar character contrast with Lev, a fallen Christian, and Miracolina, a devout Christian. These are things I wish were employed more frequently in the series and does reflect Shusterman’s penchant in developing characters.

But then the narration takes a sharp turn and becomes extraneous. The narration broadcasts everything from the viewpoint of a gardener witnessing an attack on a a harvest camp, a girl hiding in the corner before blowing herself up, to, and, I kid you not, an old military plane. I just don’t need that much information.

Creating additional characters to narrate these moments feels like lazy editing in the sense that you haven’t presented enough information and clues to the reader to fill in the gaps. The prose is excessive and encumbers much of the story. It’s by far what makes book three so hard to read. Make use of the characters you already have and expect that they’re not going to know everything. Not everything needs to be said. Let my brain do some of the detective work.

To be continued in Part 2.

 

 

 

 

All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

All the Bright PlacesJennifer Niven’s novel All the Bright Places will be the novel I recommend to anyone desperately in need of the feels. Its subject is not without its controversy and emotionally hard to process, but Places is beautiful and finds the extraordinary in everyday places (and being a Midwestern native who knows our hills are more like lumps—I should know.) It makes us reexamine our current criteria of living, if we’re really ‘awake’ or just going through the motions. Violet and Finch meet on the ledge of a bell tower for similar reasons with different purposes. The novel examines two young adults both caught up in their own struggles. While Finch is obsessed with death, Violet is just looking for a way out. Although this sounds like the worst pairing, both of them rediscover passion and excitement, but even love is not enough to keep someone going. Places is a reminder that amid loss and death, people somehow solider on.

Before I continue, this post contains content on mental illness and suicide. Be advised. Also: SPOILERS.

Theodore Finch spots Violet Markey on the ledge of a bell tower the same day he’s tempting to jump off of it himself. He ends up talking himself out of jumping and keeps Violet from doing the same. From there, everyone believes Violet is a hero for saving Freaky Finch: mercurial, manic, a new guy every week. Former cheerleader Violet is the opposite of him or at least she was before the accident that killed her older sister. Violet has been left stranded in what she calls ‘extenuating circumstances,’ and just wants to get the hell out of Indiana. During a class assignment about discovering new places in Indiana, Finch volunteers to be Violet’s partner, giving the chance for them to grow closer and fall in love. Behind Finch’s tenacity is more than just persistence but an ominous, pervasive feeling tearing Finch down. Finch is quickly unraveling and despite everyone knowing about it, no one intervenes, and it’s too late.

Places  delivers a straightforward story about a girl and boy meeting and quickly falling in love. The opening passage quickly sets up the story within the first several passages by introducing Theodore Finch and his disturbing, dry sense of humor on suicide, exemplified by his conveyance of the pros and cons of death via jumping off a building. The narration switches over to Violet Markey, who’s sensible and less enthusiastic about flinging herself off a building than her counterpart; however, she anchors the story whereas Theodore adds comedic relief to a bleak storyline, thus, creating this complimenting effect. The changing narrations help the boy/girl plot, but, admittedly, still contains several tropes from the Teen Romance genre, which explains why it’s so often compared to The Fault in Our Stars (yes) and Eleanor and Park (just no.)  An eccentric boy appears in a girl’s life and changes her complete outlook on things, but in the case of Places, it’s not as one-sided. Each of these characters imprints something on the other, bestowing us with beautiful metaphors and nuggets of wisdom perfect for young adult.

The characterization in this novel sharply imagines teens dealing with real, complex problems and doesn’t exploit characters with mental illness. The crazy, flirtatious banter between Finch and Violet is irresistible, especially in part because of Finch’s compulsive behavior to deviate from the mundane and lighten the mood. Finch’s story is very much about trying to find something to complete him than it is about finding the perfect way to die, though this might just be one of the many caveats of the story. He’s surprisingly hyper sensitive of what people think of him while being incredibly resilient to his peers’ castigation. When the manic episodes dominant his waking hours, his character begins shriveling. The reduction of this larger-than-life character painfully illustrates Finch losing his agency and the underbelly of mental illness, showing us how he departs gradually, boxing himself into smaller spaces until he’s gone. Niven carefully describes Finch and his descent. She distinguishes the two by showing off the intrepid Finch and when he’s lost control. The distinction reminds us of how mental illness is just a condition and doesn’t subsume a person’s identity.

Violet, although is burdened by her previous life and does everything to break away from the past, is characterized as a normal girl. With a character like Finch, it’s easy to overlook Violet. Her story appears minor but contains its own interesting problems. Like Finch, she’s in the public eye but with everyone’s attention trained on her. She is loved, so everyone panders to her circumstances because they know she’s still grieving. She even has supportive parents who are also grieving. She has so many people trying to be there for her but no one that’s capable of helping her transition. Her people are all super sensitive around her and trying to push her back to a place before the accident, but Violet starts to recognize that death isn’t the end but a trigger for change. When she suffers two devastating losses, the theme of the story is punctuated. She survives but is left behind and for someone to have to lose two people she loved in such a short amount of time, this leaves her with survivor’s guilt. Niven also thematically concentrates on the aftermath of loss and shows Violet piecing her life together and trying to make sense of Finch’s death. With Violet, her story isn’t about wanting to find an end but how to restart.

Places never lets go of the challenges of existing in the presence and valuing our lives. Finch, despite his fast-track spiral, was about the liveliest person because he lived each day like it was his last. And Violet wanted to save him—just like he did on top of that bell tower for her. Places does good work in breaking our hearts but doesn’t leave us broken. It reassembles all our parts leaving us with an important message: be there as much as you can. Love the people closest to you. Don’t live according to everyone else’s idea or for your family’s convenience. We’re born and then we die. Not to have lived even one moment is a waste.

Afterword:

Yes. I’m going to do the thing where I tell you things that you have heard on a bunch of public service announcements. If you feel suicidal, contact someone. I know. You don’t want to. You feel like a bother. No one can handle you. You’re too much. If you talk about it, then someone knows just how crazy you are. You’re worried what they’ll think afterwards or what they’ll do with you. Some might worry that person will take you home. Others might try and send you to a psychiatric facility. How do I know this? Three times I’ve tried (and obviously it didn’t stick) but there was someone to intervene—by sheer luck. I got lucky. Eventually I found out that I didn’t want to be lucky. I wanted to feel less lucky. I wanted to be in control.

There are resources available to you, and I get it: the last thing you want to do when you’re in this state is sparse through research or have to wonder about the cost of treatment, which is why reaching out before you reach critical is good. Talk. Cry. Talk. Ramble. I’m sure my SO would tell me my episodes were nonsensical and incoherent, but I felt better afterwards, and I’m very grateful that there’s a person in my life for that.

Tid Bit: Don’t wait fucking ten years to seek help like I did. We are complex creatures who need to converse awkwardly, sometimes in between sobs or through clenched teeth to find our doughy parts again. It’s better than feeling mean and hard.

So. There’s my public service announcement.

I’ll Give You The Sun by Jandy Nelson

20820994I’ll Give You The Sun by Jandy Nelson is a beautiful, coming-of-age story about finding yourself when everything feels shared, less, or not your own. The death of their mother significantly changes Noah and Jude, fraternal twins struggling to feel a sense of belonging. Sun is narrated by the shifting perspectives of Noah and Jude, from the year before their mother’s death to three years later. Even before the life-changing event, Noah and Jude were opposites in every way, competitive for their parents’ attention and a yearning for acceptance, but once things change, they flip personas. Sun creates a vacuum only for self-discovery with everything and everyone being conveniently pulled to one place. It’s about breaking free of encumbering labels, self-perpetuating guilt and shame, and rediscovering the magic.

Before Noah’s mother died, Noah was passionately consumed with art. Whenever he was emotionally entangled or brainstorming, he conceptualized paintings in his mind. His sister Jude was a surfer girl with latent, artistic talents but more interested in boys and parties than trying to get into a prestigious, art school, which was all Noah wanted. Flash forward three years later: Noah is sports guy and taking stupid risks by jumping off steep cliffs and not doing art anymore while Jude is attending the prestigious art school that Noah didn’t get into. She’s not surfing or going to parties anymore. Instead she’s creating misshaped clay sculptures (divine repercussions,) chatting with her Grandma (a figment of her imagination or possibly divine intervention,) and relying on her Grandma’s bible of superstition, quoting verses that are so unfounded but funny (like putting an onion in your pocket will bring you good luck.) She has already come apart at this point. After the death of their mother, Noah and Jude both put their lives on pause and just exist now. Then Jude’s teacher sends her over to be mentored by the “Rock Star of the Sculpture World” Guillermo Garcia, who’s a typical austere, tortured artist archetype. Beforehand, while waiting in a church, Jude meets the charismatic, chatterbox Oscar Ralph and everything changes.

What works best in Sun is its two, young adult protagonist. Noah and Jude engage us with witty commentary and playful banter containing symbols and metaphors. Noah and Jude play this game where they offer parts of the world off to each other. When Jude sees one of Noah’s drawings, she must have it and offers the sun to him as well as most everything else, except the flowers because Noah lets her have those. As twins, they already share most things with having both of them feel like they’re compromising or bargaining for things, which extends to how they feel about their parents and their friends. The mother, while wanting both of them to attend art school, spends most of her time with Noah on museum trips. When Noah’s crush Brian meets Jude for the first time, Noah wants to shut her out. After Noah and Brian join Jude’s posse of friends, Jude feels she’s snuffed out of the group. Sun constantly feels like it’s having these characters go back and forth with each never feeling there’s a place for them. Noah and Jude are ostensibly opposites but it feels more like a response to the other. Jude’s art only really surfaces when Noah decides to quit art. Jude stops surfing only for Noah to take on sports, creating this constant see-saw effect between the two characters. Nelson maps out a story that’s peppered with ambiguous lessons, stripping the black and white world to one full of colors. It’s not one way or the other.

Sun delicately weaves two different kinds of love stories but never goes excessively into the romance department. The twin’s experiences with love start with someone noticing them apart from being twins. Their love interests don’t know Noah and Jude as “NoahandJude.”  Even while the characters are falling in love, Sun is far from being another love story and emphasizes the kind of people Noah and Jude are intimately.  Noah’s story is painful, confusing, yet beautiful because of his narration of when the world, although doesn’t ostracize him (everyone kind of knew he was gay before he did,) makes him feels less of man when already he prefers arts over sports and doesn’t live up to his dad’s definition of masculinity. Noah’s conflicted about his identity, his sexual orientation, and belonging anywhere when it feels to him like so much of what he loves has to be kept reserved and he’s forced to live a lie. Jude struggles with breaking from that image of being “that girl,” which her mother often called her. When she loses her virginity to some guy in a car, the other guys determine she’s easy and brand her a slut. Afterwards she’s insecure and aimless trying to find her mom in her artwork, which she claims keeps breaking because her mom is angry with her. She’s trying to find forgiveness and a chance to start over. Love ends up being more transformative than a means of escape for each of the characters. There’s romance but it never replaces the twin’s personal stories.

But on the other hand, Sun is surprisingly a small world. Each character is connected in some way with some kind of purpose. While I love stories like this, cynics will toss their eyes at the many, MANY coincidences that arise at the end and at how smoothly everything comes together. Sun borders on being too miraculous but wins out by having almost all its characters happy and together, briefly suspending our disbelief and making us believe in the notions of prophecies. There’s a kind of invisible force in Sun that takes your broken spirit and turns it into your best self.

 

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

Fates and FuriesMy thoughts on marriage are what you call ‘a glass-half empty,’ the scope of marriage like a cone, open and wide at the start but narrowing as time passes, which, subsequently, outlines the majority of novels about marriages. Rarely do I read books from this sub-genre in Adult Fiction because these novels, more often than not, transfigure married couples into conjoined twins, making them a unit instead of two, separate beings. Sure, they may care deeply for the other—definitions varying—but the affection or adoration end up substituting for a spouse lacking identity or agency (aka, codependency.) What a relief it was to read Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies, a hard yet unique take that analyzes more than a marriage but who these people were before they collided, a meeting that feels destined in many ways but, alas, isn’t. Fates and Furies deploys not tricks but filters, letting us watch a rosy-colored landscape transform into a storm. Fates and Furies is way more interested in unraveling the effects of past circumstances, fortunate or traumatic, and in handling life in motion, when changing practically goes against everything learned, our experiences as teachers. Maybe there is no change, no transformation at all. Even in love, do we change or do we escape?

The narrative of Fates and Furies is divided into two sections in the form of the characters’ perspectives, Lancelot (Lotto) and Mathilde, that it invents a kind of dichotomy between fantasy and reality. Named after the Arthurian knight, Lotto is immediately treated as the golden child who will achieve greatness. He’s the son of a billionaire in Florida, loved by an uncomfortably, doting, religious mother, and afforded every kind of opportunity available. Already Groff tosses out any kind of standards of normalcy; Lotto’s life far exceeds that of the average person, but it’s not without its hardships. The sudden death of his father pivots the story to shift from its sunny outlook to Lancelot’s turbulent teenage years in falling in with the wrong crowd, being shipped off to Boarding school, and having been sexually molested by his teacher for two seconds to eventually going off to college, partying, man-whoring himself to all the women on campus, achieving success in his college’s theater, and meeting his future wife, Mathilde. Lotto’s story escalates, from a lost soul to—what everyone saw at the start—greatness, a playwright, becoming a visionary overnight without ever written a story in his life. Lotto is someone you rarely meet and know because he’s hardly ever exposed to the underbelly of poverty, hate, and rejection. He was raised with an endless supply of love, adoring affection, and is virtually clean of faults, besides his level of ignorance, but making his story, his comprehension of people and relationships, hard to stomach. He’s someone everyone loves, but is incredibly daft and self-absorbed. His narration is irascible to read, even hard when he starts to mansplain at a conference after a commenter asks him about domesticating women in favor of supporting men’s ambition (even though it’s the most pointed, out-of-place moment in the novel.) Groff’s characterization of Lotto is perhaps exaggerated, but hard to read when we’re unfeeling of his circumstances and fortunes, that the first half the novel is too surreal to believe, with Mathilde aiding in creating this illusion.

Stated in Fates and Furies, Mathilde is truly the “interesting one”. Lotto’s narcissism lends to building a mystic around Mathilde, who does everything to maintain the status quo and supports his career, but any attentive reader will recognize that beyond her cold veneer is something more loose and shrewd. Mathilde’s story starts early like Lotto’s but is unsettled with tragedy from the moment she ostensibly lets her baby, brother fall down the steps, thus, breaking his neck. From there, Mathilde’s parents send her away believing she’s innately, emotionally disturbed. After living with her grandma and then with her uncle and never having friends, she is employed by a man named Ariel, with singular, sexual preferences, and remains in his services for the next four years to pay for her college tuition (yes, like that novel.) Upon learning of Lotto, Mathilde is quick to orchestrate events for their ‘destined’ meeting. They marry two weeks later. Mathilde is more than a housewife but a person trying to efface the events from her past but, meanwhile, is self-assured and a resilient female character, demonstrating an aptitude in several skills, even in ‘editing’ her husband’s works. We can’t tell though if Mathilde feels ashamed of her history, but we can glean from her twenty-year (ish) marriage, that she didn’t see it as relevant, or at the very least, knew that disclosing this information to Lotto would ruin the image he cultivated of her (suggesting more fear than shame.)  By choice, she’s supportive, honestly believing in her husband’s aspirations, and, I believe, truly loves him, but none of that changes what happened to her or who she is. Scorned and abused, Mathilde isn’t one to forgive until she’s dished out some payback, thus, revealing the title of Fury. She’s a character that attempts to rebound from everything that’s done to her, tantamount to the pain inflicted on her (parents abandonment of her = cutting ties with them entirely, for example.) Groff’s portrayal of anger doesn’t demonizes her unlike Amy from Gone Girl, arguably complex but now a case study of sociopathic personality disorder. Mathilde nurtures her appearance, letting Lotto believe what he wants to believe, and she omits the macabre events from her past because, let’s face it, Lotto couldn’t handle it anyway. And how incredibly easy it was for her to do so, especially when her golden-child husband never bothers asking her.

Fates and Furies is zealous with rich images and metaphors found in Lotto’s parentage (Lotto a nickname of Lancelot, Lotto’s father Gawain, and the description of Lotto’s mother as a mermaid [who becomes a whale]), their Shiba Inu named God (we all worship our pets,) and with the parenthetical commentary inserted into the prose like a play to parallel some of the Greek tragedy themes. So much happens beyond the plain of the story-telling that bolsters the story’s subtext and appeal—but there are certainly problems with the prose that make it awkward and difficult to adjust to. Fragmented sentences make up most of the prose with sometimes incomplete thoughts complicating the mostly linear narrative style; hence, creating these passages of incoherency. With plenty of imagery and illustrative prose, the added, brusque prose causes problems and isn’t something for everyone.

Novels on marriages can be repetitive in its plots, from secrets destroying a marriage to a spouse trying to murder the other, and while Fates and Furies falls into the former of these categories, it’s not without intrigue and contrasts with its contemporaries driven by racing, scandalous plots. Fates and Furies takes the time (a lot of time) to probe the lives of Lotto and Mathilde, and implores us all to refrain from making judgements about people’s marriages, but, instead, see the people for who they really are.

Considering Trigger Warnings and Our Biggest Offense

trigger warnings

Even though it’s only been three years since I graduated from college, so much has changed. I read works like Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, Cruse’s Stock Rubber Baby, and Keat’s “Leda and The Swan,” and engaged with my peers in heated discussions about these books with topics on rape, sexual exploitation, race, and bigotry. When we signed up for these courses, we were expected to read the works and participate in class discussions. Professors didn’t warn us of the content (okay, they may have offhandedly said that we’d be hating the world for a week) but they did provide a syllabus listing what we would be reading. If we wanted to know anything further, we’d research it. I went in blind on all my assigned readings, never knowing what I would have to talk about or how it would affect me until my eyes found the words lying on the page. No one challenged the material even if they didn’t agree with it, not in an academic setting anyway. So much as changed.

Trigger warnings, the term originating from the psychological term ‘trigger’ that dates as far back as World War I but found digitally in the back alleys of the internet on feminist forums, are devices warning of explicit sexual violence or graphic material contained in a piece of literature. Lately everyone’s jumped on the band wagon of inserting ‘TW’ before everything’s written, when in truth is excessive and thoughtless; yet in the academic setting, where students are taught critical theories and are exposed to unnerving content to prepare them for the ‘real world,’ using trigger warnings is tricky since professors never know what might trigger someone, but we’re now witnessing students opposing material that they deem offensive for whatever personal reason, thus, raising complicated questions about learning, cultural sensitivity, and censorship in colleges and universities.

The use of trigger warnings are exaggerated due to misinformed definitions and purposes. TW are devices that anyone can use but don’t necessarily apply to everyone. They’re intended to alert people who have undergone significant trauma and experience physical symptoms that hinder their daily activity. The confusion arises in people’s understanding of people who have suffered trauma; most, unless they’ve personally witnessed it, don’t believe someone could experience physical symptoms when the issue is mental. Although there are cases where someone will be unable to engage with the material due to the severity of the trauma, TW are implemented to better aid in a person’s recovery and shouldn’t be treated as a permanent evasive approach.  Gradual exposure to the content may help combat the physiological symptoms. Trigger warnings enable those to prepare themselves to partake in rational discussions versus having their own intense experience impair them.

While inserting ‘TW’ is mostly innocuous (but frustrating to see used incorrectly,) there are some people who abuse the intention behind them for their own reasons, creating a sheltered culture of intolerance and privilege. One recent example of this occurred at Duke University where some of the freshmen students objected to reading Alison Blechdel’s Fun Home as it compromised their Christian beliefs, but as Dianna Anderson wrote, “one is a physiological response; the other is a choice in the practice of religious belief.” The Atlantic released an article “The Coddling of the American Mind,” which has been circulating and igniting the contentious debate of cultural sensitivity demonstrated in how much we apply TWs in our everyday lives or at how often we hear of students’ protests over written material. Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt write on the ostensible “movement…arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense,” and applying the term microaggressions, defined as the verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or. unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their. Although a dubious and perhaps an exaggerated claim, the article does point to some less than romantic ideas about academia.

From an economic standpoint, universities and colleges are places of business that try to maintain a constant flow of revenue; they can’t run on lofty ideals alone. Governing education falls more upon administrators than the professors and one of the factors influencing administrations are the students, i.e. the customers. If enough students ban together to have material removed from the course, then the administration, even when the students’ protest are unfounded, will more than likely submit and have the professors pick another topic, with the professors, afraid they might lose their jobs, do little to pushback. What’s arguably needed now is some pushback. Classrooms provide the appropriate context to discuss diverse and complicated issues. The academics aren’t a hodgepodge of obstinacy but a place fostering worldly perception of challenging ideas and reinventing ideas of culture. Having your own beliefs is acceptable but obstructive when absorbing the material that could possibly enlighten us.

I imagine I will continue to see stories pop up of students banning together to have a novel removed from class because it offends them—but that action is offensive in itself.  None of these works like the ones above are easy to talk about, but I absorbed them with the kind of necessary discomfort that we hold in us, a kind of vague unknowing feeling that sounds like a reluctant ‘maybe’ and scares us  from ditching the life map and driving. Staying in our comfort zone is safe but self-restricting stunts intellectual growth and maturity. We shortchanged ourselves and others.