6 Things I love about Sofia Samatar’s Olondria novels

I read A Stranger in Olondria last year and observed how different it felt to read it compared to other books I enjoy. Typically, books that become my favorites are those that are impossible to put down; quick, intense reads. A Stranger in Olondria is so dense with description and mythology that I was compelled to read it slowly, but found that it was absolutely worth taking the time so that the story can unfold slowly in layers and layers of detail.

This year I read Sofia Samatar’s second novel, The Winged Histories, and I cannot wait to read it again. In fact I did re-read the first few chapters almost immediately after finishing the book, just so I could linger in that world again. I’m trying to read through the stack of new-to-me novels I picked up from a used book sale, but what I’d really like to do is start from the beginning of A Stranger in Olondria and go through it all again.

Why do I love these books?

  1. They are rich with sensory detail. Every scene is crowded with information about how things look, feel, sound, and smell.
    Young Adult Historical Vault recently revisited a book I loved as a child, Quest for a Maid, which depicts medieval Scotland in gloriously vivid detail: the main character comes from an enormous merchant household that works hard and plays hard, and her narrative is packed with candies, ribbons, colorful markets, winter sports, instructions for making dresses and keeping house, and magic. I still think of this book many years later in the oddest of places, such as when I encounter marzipan, walk into a pop-up market, or sew.
    I have a feeling Sofia Samatar’s novels will be like this for me too, with its vivid peppercorn trees, the riot of noise and stimulus of the markets, the elaborate written rituals of royalty. Now that I work in a library, I look at old volumes with ornate covers and remember the first time Jevick in Stranger sees a book. When I sit down to write, despite my preference for typing I still think of the handwritten journals and letters, the writing implements, the rituals of writing space both physical and mental employed by the characters who can write.
  2. The books take place in a culturally and historically rich world. I went to all the Middle Earth movies, no matter how terrible. I followed Harry Potter up through the seventh book; I’m even going to Harry Potter Quizzo this weekend. I’ve played every game in the Mass Effect and Dragon Age universes, and in between watching Marvel Comics television and film releases I try to catch up on the original characters and their plotlines. What all of these cultural artifacts have in common is that they take place in worlds that have history, mythology, culture with layers of conflict and interrelationships, sometimes geeky ornamentation such as invented languages or social rules. These are cherished by fans in part because you can dwell in their worlds by learning their rules, languages, lore.
    A Stranger in Olondria provides that the sweeping history, the clash of cultures, the languages and lore in one novel. That is nothing short of remarkable. The Winged Histories expands on that world in a very satisfying way. In both novels, the reader becomes acquainted with the legends and history of Olondria because the characters are learning it (as with Stranger‘s Jevick, who is an immigrant) or loving and finding comfort in its tales (as is frequently the case in Histories). This is a primary factor in my wish to re-read: no doubt there are nuances and details to the lore I missed the first time.
  3. This imagined world is not just another version of the one you already know. By way of explanation, another story: I’ve watched maybe two episodes of Game of Thrones. The first episode I saw was the first episode of Season 2, where the narrative has to check in with each of the seven kingdoms. Although I was not familiar with the plot or characters, it wasn’t hard to follow: the tyrant king, here; the rebel king, there; the sorceress, over here. It is a story built on tropes which felt very familiar to me, which is one reason why I didn’t feel the need to continue. From what I hear, the show introduces novelty and surprise by crossing lines we don’t expect it to cross moreso than by introducing fresh perspectives on these old tropes.
    Olondria is not Medieval England Redux. The center of its empire is warm and lush, where spices and pomegranates grow, but the empire reaches into tropical islands, deserted plains, and snowy highlands. Olondria has tenuously united a diverse array of peoples with a variety of cultures who have a variety of appearances beyond the usual formula of “white people north, brown people south.” The Olondrian Empire doesn’t have a one-to-one parallel with real history: it draws a little from the Roman Empire, a little from the British Empire, most likely from empires whose history is less well known to me. Olondria is pre-industrial but not archaic; its social structures are sophisticated and complex. Its fashionable aristocracy would be recognizable in any time or place, but the trends they pick up and drop feel new and surprising.
  4. The imagined world engages oppression meaningfully, not reflexively. For one example: The Winged Histories explores historical fantasy sexism in a nuanced, meaningful way. It’s not all rape and slavery, as the medieval fantasies of certain male writers tend to be. Nor does it depend on exceptionalism, with just one female rulebreaker to throw the plight of women into contrast. The four female narrators each experience oppression differently based on their respective cultural and family backgrounds. When they rebel, they feel a little lonely, but not completely alone because they can refer to historical precedents and a few living examples: an ambitious queen, a swordmaiden, a sister.
    Likewise, both novels depict the colonial history of the Olondrian Empire as complex. The Empire itself is far from uniform and united; like any real-life empire, it is only tenuously held together by a preferred religion and an exhausted military. The cultures who are assimilated into the Empire have their own complicated history of triumphs and failures. The result is a thoughtful reflection on the exchange of power.
  5. Both books passionately love books. For the love of print, buy a hard copy of each. I did not, even though I knew better for The Winged Histories, but I had already started reading the free sample on my Kindle and I couldn’t wait to continue. But this is a book that benefits from being held in the hands: characters take great risks for books, plunging their hands into fires to rescue burning pages, or carrying precious volumes in their shirts even onto the battlefield. Besides, it would have been helpful to flip between the swordmaiden’s narrative and the map of Olondria to track her travels. I didn’t even know there was a glossary in the back of The Winged Histories; I just marched doggedly through, inferring words like teiva and milim from context. Which was fine, but you don’t have to.
  6. They are magical. The magical and supernatural elements build slowly. Everyone in Olondia has heard of magic, of course; many of them practice living religions and are prepared to accept miracles, spirit guides, and visions, even if those events are rare. And everyone knows the legends, of course. But not everyone experiences magic, and when it happens to certain characters, they aren’t always sure how to explain what’s happening, or why it’s happening to them. Magic enters the story through a process of discovery, making it all the more wonderful and miraculous for the reader.

I have definitely talked myself into re-reading; I may even come up with an entirely different set of Things I Love.


Elsewhere on the Internet: Summer Movies Matter

Where have I been these last few months? Writing. Cooking. Job-hunting (again). Updating my food blog. And watching a lot of new TV and movies.

I have not and probably will not read anything about Jurassic World I like more than this post by Michelle Vider, “Drink up that toxic masculinity”:

So I’m walking away from Jurassic World having enjoyed it an enormous amount, both for the spectacle it provided and for its view of toxic masculinity. It isn’t enough to consume media and check off the Y/N box next to IS THIS FEMINIST. That’s not how it works. Feminism is a lens through which we can mark the continued growth and evolution of gender roles, and that learning process should never be as easy as a Yes or No question.

That’s a pretty fair summary of my own response to this movie. I had a blast.Was it a good movie? Nah, I don’t think so. Can I recommend it? Probably only if you, like me, went to see Jurassic Park twelve times in the second-run theater when you were a kid. Yet I woke up thinking about the film for several days after, and there are very nearly enough Things I Love about this movie to make a list!

  1. So much homage to Jurassic Park. Jurassic World is basically a Jurassic Park fanvid. Some of the shots are framed exactly the same. JW characters revisit the location of a significant JP scene and it’s all lovingly recreated and covered with a layer of bones and dirt. A character wears a vintage JP tee.
  2. The movie’s twin villains are Big Corporate Entity and the Greedy General Public who forces Corporate Entity to churn out bigger and scarier attractions. This conflict is delivered without either irony or false earnestness, which is remarkable because of course churning out bigger and scarier attractions than JP is exactly what the movie itself does.
  3. The level of depth, dialogue, and character development was pretty much exactly what I expected when I saw the following bit in the trailer: 
  4. i.e. not very deep, not very developed. And yet! I was pleasantly surprised by this film more than once. Mostly by which characters were allowed to survive.
  5. My companions and I laughed so hard throughout the whole movie that a man across the theater yelled at us. That’s how much fun we were having.

I would never in a million years have gone to see Mad Max: Fury Road if not for Tumblr. I’m not familiar with the series, I’m not into vehicle-based action movies, and if you told me that the series centers around a lone wolf type who wanders around the desert, I would have politely declined. But instead I heard that the film centered around women. Not just one token female character, but lots of women. “Dodecabechdel test,” actually, was the line that hooked me. I couldn’t think of another film that featured twelve women all talking together. And talk about a movie that I think about for days after viewing it: I saw MM:FR in theaters nearly a month ago and not a day goes by that I don’t reflect on it at least a little.

There’s so much good writing about this movie online and, to be honest, some of my favorites are just the one-off posts on Tumblr that zero in on tiny character moment like Nux not knowing what a tree is or the implications of Max’s back tattoo. But here are a few longer pieces I liked:

  • From The Daily Dot: “Fury Road passes the Bechdel Test, of course; it also passes the Mako Mori Test, on at least seven different counts.Mad Max: Fury Road leaves those mediocre measurements of gender representation—which the vast majority of Hollywood films never even attempt to pass—so far behind that it seems almost silly even to use them as yardsticks in the wake of the strength of Fury Road‘s narrative. . .  Fury Road is every inch the high-testosterone, manly action movie of your dreams. And even when they show weakness, its female characters are still fully in charge of their own destinies.”
  • Tumblr user and fetal amputee Laura wrote about how incredible she felt seeing Imperator Furiosa kick ass onscreen with one hand. Then she created fictionability.tumblr.com to write about it some more. Then she was interviewed by Nerdist.
  • In addition to having beautiful composition and dramatic use of color in each shot, this movie is remarkable in its use of center-framed shots to focus your eye on the action in the center of the screen. Tumblr user bonehandledknife digs into this a little further, comparing Fury Road to The Avengers: Age of Ultron and reframing shots from MM:FR to show how they would have looked if they had been framed in more traditional golden ratios. Conclusion: center-framing was crucial to portraying the female characters as people rather than decorations.
  • More Tumblr: here’s how the narrative would have gone if Mad Max got the conventional Movie Hero treatment.

I did watch the new season of Orange is the New Black. I probably won’t make a separate post–most of the Things I Love about the show still stand–but I did just want to say that I really enjoyed the season. Seasons 1 and 2 had unmistakable villains and high-stakes conflict; Season 3 stands out because those elements are much less clearly defined. On the other hand, S3 focused more on developing and deepening relationships–and showed that the ability to grow and connect is the defining trait of which characters become heroes or villains.

  1. Taystee, Poussey, Suzanne, Black Cindy, and Janae have to mend their relationships after Season 2’s big villain, Vee, tore them apart and left them wounded. Their process of making peace with themselves and each other is mostly private and internal, which is not something we’ve gotten to see much of in a show with a billion characters, most of whom don’t go in for long earnest talks.
    Taystee’s been a favorite of mine for a while, and her realization that she is effectively the new mother of the group was hilarious, touching, and wrenching all at the same time.
  2. Big Boo and Pennsatucky have both been villains of a sort in earlier seasons, but it’s impossible not to root for them in S3 because we watch them grow and confront some of their fears. I’ve always felt that Pennsatucky was a character not well understood by the show–one of the few in S1 who didn’t get a lot of depth or sympathy from the plot–but she certainly got her character development in 3.
  3. On the other hand, Piper seems not to have learned a thing. Like the New Corporate Overlords who take over management of Litchfield, her decisions generate a lot of pain and conflict and serve no one but herself. Arguably, she and they are the two Big Bads this season.
  4. Season 1 dropped the viewers right in the middle of an insular community with tensions and hierarchies firmly in place; we see through Piper’s eyes as she learns to navigate them. Season 2 shakes up those dynamics by introducing a rival queen. But in Season 3, we see a lot of the characters we’ve come to know either on their way up or down. The previous leaders have left, died, or stepped down; we’re seeing their followers attempt to step up and lead in their place. Even the subplot backstories for Chang and Norma, who are both typically treated as ciphers or jokes, have narratives about choosing to lead or follow. It may feel like a radical shift to see origin stories three seasons in, but as the series continues I think we’ll get a sense of the circular pattern of such shifts.

I am also watching Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, and I have so many feelings about it, but since most of those feelings are “!!!!!!” I think I’ll have to wait until the series ends before I can gather my thoughts. But if you want to talk about it with me in comments, have at it.

5 Things I Love About the BBC adaptation of Wolf Hall

As I noted in my books by women roundup, I loved Wolf Hall and its sequel, Bring Up the Bodies. I had grown very skeptical about historical fiction, because I’ve read very little of it that had writing chops necessary to sell the historical research. Mantel’s books work for me because they are so well written and carefully observed; it’s an interpretation of history, but it’s also a really absorbing narrative. And while there is certainly plenty of the sex, poison, and political intrigue that make long-dead royalty so fascinating to us now, the conflict in these stories go much deeper than greed or sexual jealousy. England under Henry VIII is on the verge of its Renaissance, but half the country is still wild, muddy, and savage. The protagonist, Thomas Cromwell, spent his young adulthood overseas, learning the art of war from the Italians, the science of memory, and the craft of good business in Italian and Dutch counting-houses. His Continental education makes him a rich and influential man in England,  while England’s court is torn apart by terribly primal, carnal matters of husbandry and breeding.

The character of Cromwell as drawn by Mantel fascinates me because he does nothing without a purpose, and yet it’s not clear what drives him. He accumulates wealth, but gives much of it away, so greed  isn’t his motive. He cultivates safe spaces for Protestant religious practice but retains a lifelong loyalty to a Catholic cardinal. He rises in court and in authority, but doesn’t get drunk on power; his inner monologue reveals a man who never believes he is completely safe. But he likes good things and an orderly home; he likes for jobs to be well done and for a kingdom to be well run; he likes for people to get their due–and he will take risks–calculated risks–to procure these ends. Mantel weaves these details into complexity rather than inconsistency, and if we don’t get to know Cromwell deeply, we can still recognize what is human in him.

Every time Cromwell walks into Anne’s rooms, he is greeted with an exaggerated tableau of virtuous domesticity.


I drank up the BBC adaptation as soon as I could get it, and it was overall an extremely satisfying experience, although I still can’t believe they crammed two books into six episodes. I would watch another six hours of this adaptation, no question. Here’s what made the television version work for me:

  1. After the hot mess of The Tudors, it’s such a relief to see a well-cast ensemble. All the characters look just as they ought. Henry is older–old enough to know better–and kingly, a big man who is imposing but not menacing, princely until he loses his temper. Anne is small and tightly wound, pretty but a little drawn around the eyes, a raw nerve. Cromwell is perhaps more handsome than he ought to be, but retains just enough roughness that you can see why other characters think he’s a thug. I have a slighter harder time telling apart some of the senior lords and the boyish courtiers who put on the pantomime skewering Cardinal Wolsey, but one might easily argue that the latter are interchangeable.
  2. Along the same lines: age appropriate actors. Mark the dancing-master is young, just a boy really, which makes his involvement in the trial even more tragic. Cromwell’s nephews and ward are very young men, and Thomas More is very old. It’s more than an aesthetic choice. For the men, age diversity underscores the dynamics of apprenticeship to mastery and old guard to new guard that shape political change. For the women, realistic age diversity shows us insight into womens’ lives we don’t always get to see, since we have these ideas that older times must have fetishized maidenhood even more than we do, and that women young and old were equally powerless. Anne, nearly 30 at the time of her coronation, is noticeably older than many of the women in her court, and for the most part considers them unworthy of her attention. Anne and Mary Boleyn are both very beautiful; though some members of the court have taken mere children as brides, it’s not exactly the norm, and it’s clear that the Boleyn women know the value of their adult beauty. Johann, Cromwell’s sister-in-law and sometime lover, is attractive and appropriately lined and aged for a fortysomething woman who hasn’t had the costly cosmetics and care of the court. Jane Seymour, 20 years old, looks real-20 and not Hollywood-20, still girlishly round and blank in the face.
  3. Jane, Jane, Jane. I love Mantel’s Jane. In so many versions of this story, Jane is the milquetoast angel in the house, so acquiescent that she demurely dies after giving Henry his much-longed-for son. In Mantel’s books and in this adaptation, Jane is weird. She is quiet and awkward, certainly inexperienced, but not stupid or simple. No one likes her or pays any attention to her until Cromwell does and then (always more of a follower than he’ll admit) the king does. Her family panics and starts trying to teach her how to be courted; she basically ignores them, prioritizing her own safety and sense of rightness. Jane is on the rise just as Bring Up the Bodies ends; I cannot wait to see her as Queen when the third book is published.
  4. Henry is well-cast and well-played. Somebody in the show refers to Henry as a lion; you can pet him and pull at his ears if you like, but you have to remember that he has claws. Book and film depict this Henry, a Renaissance prince who must be many things to many people. He is a man who was raised to be king, and he is indeed very regal and knowledgeable and artful–and he also believes in profane female magic and a vengeful God. He is a man who loves his buddies, and craves their approval as well as that of the woman he loves.  He is a man who is surprisingly prudish about sex–at least, people talking about it openly–who has at least one child out of wedlock. He is a deeply vulnerable and frightened man, who has bad dreams and imposter syndrome. One of the big questions of the book is: what is it to be a subject of a man who is, after all, just a man, yet who is said to be God’s anointed ruler of the land? Henry onscreen is a man who to all appearances believes himself imbued with divine right and power, and yet glances out of the corner of his eye at his lady love or his laughing court, smiling tightly, uncertain what the joke is or what her reaction will be. Cromwell is loyal to this sovereign lord and serves his interests, yet to do so, he must monitor those moments of weakness closely and swoop in before the king does something rash.
  5. This is not to exclude the excellent performances by Claire Foy and Mark Rylance, written about elsewhere. This show has excellent face-acting all around. In court you can’t say everything you feel–that’s a good way to lose position, or perhaps even your head–and in the book, part of Cromwell’s job is read between the lines and understand what the king means apart from what he says. For example, when Anne demands that Thomas More be arrested, Henry lifts his eyes eloquently to Cromwell–what can I do?–and Cromwell understands that he must arrest More but leave him a way out. For his part, Cromwell says little to the gentlefolk, especially when they say and do crazy things to him. Mary Boleyn practically throws herself at him, and his face is mostly impassive–waiting–but you can also see a little fear, because what would happen to him if he were to forget his place with her? Mary is not too greatly loved but her family, but a breach of conduct with her would be a good reason for his enemies to attack him.

More fun: Hilary Mantel published an excerpt from her character notes for a stage adaptation of the books, and it is a little bit of prose poetry itself.

7 Things I Love About Station Eleven

I don’t usually do Things I Love about books for several reasons–spoilers, for one. But I can’t help it with Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, a recommendation I took from Roxane Gay’s  2014 reading list. I started recommending to people before I even finished it because it was so much fun to read, surprising and scary and deeply sad as it sometimes is.

  1. It’s postapocalyptic speculative fiction…
  2. …Following a troupe of actors and musicians that travel the wastes of the Great Lakes region performing Shakespeare…
  3. …with the words “Because Survival is Insufficient” carved on their lead caravan. Not only is this one of numerous references to pop culture that linger and evolve decades after the cataclysm, but it’s also a summary of the novel’s richest explorations: in [author’s vision], human kind does not lose its taste for beauty and passion despite the hardship of survival.
  4. The entire character of Miranda. I love that, through flashbacks, we get to see her young and uncertain and older and powerful but still uncertain. I love that she is an artistic and creative soul who ends up in a high-paying, respected job because she loves organization and efficiency. (Hello, fellow INTJ!) I love that she finds her creative passion sort of late in life, but that she nurtures a private thing of beauty into existence that impacts numerous other characters decades after it is created.
  5. I adore many of the characters, to be truthful; they are all finely drawn and utterly recognizeable, not as stock characters but as humans. They are diverse in gender, race, age, ability, and psychology; they feel differently about their losses and the purpose of their postapocalyptic struggle.
  6. Trauma is hard. Surviving is hard. Being with others is hard. Being alone is hard. No one is a superhero here.
  7. Postapocalyptic and dystopian fiction inevitably mount a critique of contemporary life: civilization is usually brought to its knees by its own sins or excesses, or else it is implicitly chastised for not being sufficiently grateful for its privileges, or the lawless or zombie-infested aftermath is an indictment of the savagery of our natures. Station Eleven picks up those tropes, examines them, and gently sets them down again. There are certainly a lot of things that her characters miss about the pre-apocalyptic world, but they acknowledge that some of it was garbage. (There is a great conversation about business jargon between two characters who used to be high-level executives and are now roasting venison on spits and whatnot.) Some humans are dangerous, some are feral and unpredictable, many long for safety and comfort and community.
    And as I mentioned above, there is a strong current of optimism that even when there is little else, there is still a strong human yearning for music, magic, and beauty.

An Unnumbered List of Things I Love About Gone Girl

Another day, another think piece about Gone Girl–but this New Yorker article is the first I’ve read that almost exactly nails what I like about the movie and book, especially the book: they show us what happens if we take a story we already know to its furthest logical outcome. Comparing Gone Girl to Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk about Kevin, Elif Batuman writes:

Both books restage marriage as a violent crime—an abduction. . . . These narratives speak less to the specific challenges of having a sociopath for a child or a spouse than to the pathology of the unstated assumptions that we all pass along and receive. They speak to the revelation lying in wait for women when they hit the ages of marriageability and childbirth: that their carefully created and manicured identities were never the point; the point was for it all to be sacrificed to children and to men.

That’s more or less what drew me into the story, from the moment I picked it up (on a rare break during a hectic, draining destination wedding weekend) to the moment I came to the bleak, inevitable ending (on the flight home just a day or two later). I once read that detective novels are always about policing social order: the plot is initiated when a transgressor with irregular desires disrupts the status quo, and resolved when the transgressor is captured or killed, allowing survivors to return to normalcy. But Gone Girl is a thriller about two people who try to want exactly what they are supposed to want; achieving their perfectly normal goals is what’s killing them. What fascinated me about the book is how it depicts casual, everyday cruelty—and how much of that cruelty is permitted or even encouraged by cultural expectations for heterosexual romance. Until Amy’s dramatic exit, she and Nick hide their escalating emotional abuse and daily deception in plain sight simply by following well-worn paths within what we consider normal human behavior.

Beyond this point there will be spoilers.

When I read criticisms of the film or book—rightful criticisms, I think—they often come down to the way Amy is characterized and the way the narrative ultimately compares her unfavorably with Nick. Amy acts out every misogynist nightmare known to the internet: she fakes rape, she traps men into emotional and legal commitments, and by “crying victim” she is flooded with public support. Her character is troubling because she performs the strawperson that is invoked whenever the public refuses to believe a female survivor: the mythological woman who voluntarily ruins a man’s life due to self-righteous fury or mere buyer’s remorse. But one thing that is, I think, better explained in the book than in the movie is that Amy would never have won over public support in any of her schemes except that she presents herself as the perfect victim. She is blond, beautiful, educated, wealthy, even a little famous. If she had even one less drop of privilege—if she was dark or plain or struggling financially—her character would be raked over the coals like any other female survivor. (The book makes this much clearer than the movie can, as Amy is repeated described by the news with a minimum of two glowing adjectivies. And when Amy lives alone in the Ozarks, it becomes very clear how much her wealth and beauty have sheltered her, as she is incredibly unprepared for life on the run.) Further, Amy maintains careful control over her public image, so that there are many people who can attest to her good character and none who can safely speak against her. From extensive research, Amy is keenly aware of what makes a good victim in television in movies, and takes steps to ensure that the public also sees her as a supportive wife, a mother-to-be, a good neighbor, basically a beautiful and selfless woman who lives for others.

That’s a pretty brutal critique of news media. It takes Amy a year of planning and sharp PR work in addition to her inborn privilege to make herself into the kind of victim who will be believed.

And Nick? Nick in the film is perfectly cast, with Ben Affleck’s beefy, cleft-chinned, ruggedly handsome bro who’s not into sharing his feelings. But we are incredibly used to seeing similarly shiftless, emotionally stunted husbands with sharp, nervy wives onscreen; this kind of man is usually the hero of a TV series, the guy everyone likes. It’s hard not to see him as the good guy in the film, especially as the plot traces his race to outsmart the evil mastermind, Amy. The film is slick and scary as a thriller ought to be, but that leaves little time to flesh out the inner monologues of Nick and Amy, which in the book makes clear that Nick, too, is a sociopath.

Nick hates women. He thinks that he loves them: he falls for Amy, he carries on a single affair for years, he adored his mother, he has a close bond with his sister. He has a throwaway line about loving ugly women in particular, since ugly women raised him. He actively fights to block out the voice of his father’s misogyny. But let’s tally again. He loves his endlessly-maternal, never-complaining mother. He loves his tomboyish, brilliant sister, who achieves professional success first but also fails first; at her first and only moment of questioning him, he feels irreparably cold toward her. He loves Andie, a very very young woman, until she starts needing too much–then we hardly ever hear about her again. He feels warmly toward Detective Boney, until it’s plain that she will not coddle him, and then he mocks her continually (and often sexually) in his head. And he falls for Amy, who is playing the role of Cool Girl until she doesn’t. He loves her and admires her, but eventually he starts to bait her, to set traps she cannot help but fail. Their relationship starts out with her consciously being “cool” about everything, but he increasingly tests her boundaries, and punishes her for protecting those boundaries. In other words, he loves women who he believes are perfect and better than him, and he loves them as long as they do not challenge him to do better or show themselves to have human needs. Then he becomes either emotionally distant or emotionally violent, even physically violent. Even his family values are motivated by narcissism rather than care: Nick marries Amy because he knows he won’t find someone with the pedigree Amy has, and in his own words he wants to have a baby to see if he’ll give it a better shot than his own father did.

It’s difficult to see Nick’s cruelties in broad daylight, in part because they are outshined by Amy’s extravagances: Nick lays traps, lies, lashes out physically, fantasizes about killing his wife, but Amy’s plans, lies, and murder are planned in such detail over such time that they steal the show. But also, we take husbands like Nick for granted. Of course men in failing marriages date younger, disposable women; of course they grow bitter and resentful and lash out at their wives; of course they aren’t as empathetic as they (and we) expect the women in their lives to be. That’s just men, amirite?

That, to me, is the most frightening and compelling lesson of the book, and what kept me interested through two readthroughs and one film. A cruel woman like Amy can get away with murder only by being extraordinarily clever at planning and pretending. A cruel man like Nick can hide in plain sight just by being himself.

8 Things I Love about Orange is the New Black

Orange is the New Black

It’s not an unproblematic love. I’m well aware that as a privileged television viewer–one who has never been incarcerated and most likely never will be–there’s necessarily something lopsided about my enjoyment of a prison drama. A prison dramedy, even, as this show can be very funny. But I think it’s a well-made show that does some valuable things, as shows go.

A lot of the conversation about Orange is the New Black revolves around whether or not it is a realistic depiction of life in prison. Let’s go ahead and settle that debate for the purposes of this post: it’s not. How can it be? And why should it be? It’s riveting television: hours of boredom and dreary routine have to be collapsed to make way for plot advancement; some aspects of the prison complex must be exaggerated and others must be downplayed in the service of narrative and character arcs. For example, with the exception of Piper’s first stint in solitary, we only get to know the horror of SHU by the way people look when they come back from it; Piper’s Thanksgiving SHU experience will probably be the only time the show spends much time in a solitary cell, because without the narrative frame of “new girl’s first SHU” there’s not much you can do with it storywise. It’s not a realistic depiction, it’s realistic fiction: its purpose is to present situations that could happen, place them in a coherent narrative, and in so doing provide us with insight into the time and place of its setting as well as our own.

And as a fictional narrative, this show does that extremely well.

  1. Drawing from Piper Kerman’s experience and additional research, the show depicts more of prison life than most viewers will ever see, and has sparked a great deal of interest in prison conditions. That’s a meaningful step, and I have to say that it works on me: I find myself reading reports and articles about prison life that I might well have skipped otherwise, because now I have a frame of reference for it.
    But in a fictional narrative, imprisonment also works as a conceit for other types of containment and restriction. Since it’s a women’s prison, we see again and again the ways the female characters are trapped because of being women. For an easy example: Season 2 opens with Piper overhearing a lewd conversation among COs referring to women as “poochies;” one CO explains that he can no longer say “bitch” because it’s degrading. Piper’s face shows how she feels about being subjected to this conversation, but obviously she is not in a position to give one of her signature prim corrective speeches. And how many of us have had to swallow our words because speaking up about sexism will open up a world of trouble? [Link goes to a classic Shakesville piece on daily negotiations with sexism.]
  2. Of course, sexism is not the only oppression at play in this show, and Piper’s sheltered character introduces a lot of sharp criticisms of race and class privilege. Piper is often criticized for being the least interesting character who is given way too much screentime; I don’t disagree, exactly, but I also really love what the show does with her. She’s very recognizable to me as a product of a certain kind of education and upbringing; I find it hilarious when she goes off on her little rants about how “The Road Less Traveled” is commonly misinterpreted or how emperor penguins care for their young. She could easily be someone I know: over-educated by birthright and irritatingly proud of it.
    In Season 2, Piper goes off on a loud public rant about how she understands that she received her furlough because she’s white but it shouldn’t matter because she’s going to see her beloved grandmother. It’s hard to watch–I’m not much for cringe comedy–but I’m glad it’s included. Piper learns a lot in the course of this show but there are a great many things she resists learning; her little cafeteria rant about race gives voice to white resistance you can plainly see anywhere on the internet anytime a nonwhite person is speaking about their lived experience of injustice, and I’m frankly glad that OitNB shows us how pointless and wrong it is to be that person. Sometimes Piper’s narrow-sighted naivete offers a lesson in How Not To Be.
  3. One more for Piper: I also love/hate her character for her insatiable need to be liked. Piper’s need to be liked drives her to do and say some completely stupid things: for one minor example, she gets a little miffed when Luscek refers to Alex as “the hot one” (as opposed to Piper); more egregiously, she argues with Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” that she (Piper) is too a nice person, despite the fact that she has deeply hurt Suzanne’s feelings. Piper is an asshole, and has no idea she’s an asshole; when she does have her occasional flashes of insight and realizes that she’s a total tool, self-awareness brings her to her knees more painfully than any external antagonism.
    On the other hand, her need to be liked also leads her to do some genuinely nice things for other inmates, and form a legitimate bond with other inmates such as Miss Claudette, so that’s nice to see.
  4. Enough about Piper. The next few things I love are similar to other Things I’ve Loved about other shows, but they are still are unusual enough to be noted–starting with the fact that this show is almost entirely about women! Here is a critically respected show with an enormous ensemble cast and almost all of that cast is women. Women of many races and ages and sexualities and backgrounds! Although the male characters get just enough backstory that we can see their complexity and feel sorry for them if we so choose–even the Big Bad of Season 1, Pornstache–it’s really not about them. Honestly, I could do with even less of certain men, like Boring Larry, but then if we didn’t have some reasons to sympathize with him, we might get too sympathetic with Piper. (Truly they are two of a kind; my grandmother would say that it’s a shame to waste two houses on them.)
  5. Did I mention women of all races? Women of various races who have their own friendships, rivalries, and interests that have nothing to do with the white “main character.” It seems pretty basic, but it’s rare. (Here’s an older but still relevant post from the Angry Black Woman about the need for a Bechdel Test-style rubric for nonwhite characters.)
  6. Female desire is obviously foregrounded in this show–in a closed system of women, most of the romantic plots are between women. This is one of the points on which the show is often criticized, actually: lesbian action is so often eroticized for a male gaze in visual media that it’s really difficult to depict same-sex sex without traipsing a little into erotica territory. Fair. But what’s remarkable about the show is that female characters get to to be sexy and sexual without necessarily conforming to conventional (i.e. male, heterosexual) standards of desirability. Women express desire and desirability whether or not they wear makeup and fix their hair. They express sexuality regardless of size, appearance, or age. Toward the end of season 2, longtime inmate Red lays back on her medical seg bed with her face all bruised and discolored, and purrs like a cat as she talks about sex with her husband. Why shouldn’t she? But then, how often do we get to see older women depicted as sexual without it being a joke?
  7. Speaking of sexuality–I really enjoyed this piece by the OitNB writer who realized she was gay while working on the show. I was gratified to see that this is the writer who was responsible for that sweet scene between Piper and Alex when Alex tells her “I heart you.” Cheesy, absolutely–that’s why it’s perfect. Alex is definitely a character who is afraid of being vulnerable, so of course she would try to throw a Cloak of Plausible Deniability over her admission of love. In general, I think the writing on this show is great–very smart, very sharply observed, very revealing of various characters’ fears and longings.
  8. There are so many characters and I can’t think of one who I could do without. Even in Season 1, which had the busy work of introducing them all and setting the major plot points in motion, allowed even the minor characters to have little moments which revealed their motivations and personalities. Season 2 really opened up a lot of those storylines, and for the most part they are consistent with those little glimpses we saw in Season 1. It’s all about the long game, as more than one character has noted.

For more  thoughts on the series–some positive, many not–see the Round Table at Public Books. For fun, an insider view on how hair and makeup achieves some of the main characters’ signature looks.