Review(ish): Let’s Talk Tropes in “‘T’ As in Trapped”

For Christmas, the Engineer gave me a Detective Book Club book from the 1940s.  It’s one of those special printings for members of a specific subscription service, like Heritage Press, containing three separate mystery novels.  The first, Agatha Christie’s There Is A Tide, we’ve been reading together, mostly because I started reading it aloud to him as a joke (the first scene was amusing and I wanted to share it) and he ended up wanting me to continue.  The third, called Borderline Murder, is why he bought me the book (besides its old-book smell – both of us found it funny to consider the concept of “borderline” murder.  Is it like the difference between mostly dead and all dead?

The only one of the mysteries I’ve actually finished reading is the middle one, Lawrence Treat’s 1947 novel T’ As in Trapped.  It follows Wayne, an architect from New York, as his girlfriend’s estranged husband tries to frame Wayne for the murder of a psychic.  While I wouldn’t say I really enjoyed the book beyond the campy fun of a classic old-fashioned murder mystery, the other reviews seemed harsh to me.  Granted, only two other people on Goodreads have apparently read this book, but neither of them gave Treat any credit for the era in which he was writing.

Yes, Wayne’s constant monologuing about his own inner strength and how sure he was of himself became grating by the end of the book.  Yes, neither of the female characters seemed to pass the “sexy lamp test,” even though one of them was the murder victim.  Yes, Wayne uncovered increasingly convoluted and unlikely connections between his own colleagues and the murdered girl.  And yes, I barely rooted for any of the ensemble besides a side character, a forensic detective (such as you could be in the 1940s) named Jub.

But I honestly didn’t expect any better.  It was written at a time when murder mysteries were supposed to be full of strong, silent men and characters who all spoke the same.  It reads like a 1940s detective novel, which is what it’s actually supposed to be.  Modern writers and creators have parodied this genre so much (and with such fun results) that I think we forget there was a time that the tropes were executed in earnest.

I might not recommend this to a friend who adores mystery novels, even older parlor mysteries like Agatha Christie.  But someone who understands the era and can appreciate a bit of campy fluff would probably enjoy this as a light read.

3/5 stars on Goodreads, partly because I felt bad about its low ratings when it had accomplished what the contemporary genre demanded


Am I overthinking this?  Does understanding a book’s era mean we should cut it some slack?  What are things you wouldn’t forgive in a piece of writing, despite the expectations of the time in which is was written?

FFF Profile: Camille, “Stitchers”

Welcome to Fierce Fictional Female Profiles, a semi-regular feature where I write about current female characters in popular culture (probably mostly TV and film) that I think are well-written and realistic.  With so many tropes surrounding women in the media and affecting the way we are perceived in real life, I like to call attention to stories that attempt to break those habits.

Camille Engelson, Stitchers

196b2fa8-9cfc-4002-b97e-4011a49af834Occupation: Computer science grad student; technician and occasional Stitch director in the secret government “Stitchers” program, where she helps her friends solve murders by “stitching” the protagonist into dead people’s memories.  Also originally hired to spy on said protagonist.

Three reasons I love her:

  • Her reaction to feeling powerless after an attack on the Stitchers team was to ask the guy recovering from a gunshot wound to train her in fighting, since he had plenty of spare time.  She then proceeded to continue learning Krav Maga so that when further threats arose, she could meet them head-on.  This demonstrates her response to failure: get better so it doesn’t happen again.  (Plus we get to see some pretty badass fight scenes.)
  • The writers allow her to have flaws.  Her original role as a spy for the program director, plus her own trust in her gut, lead Camille to have some inconsistent views on trust and loyalty, a code that sometimes frustrates her coworkers and distances her from her friends.  She lashes out when she doesn’t know how to deal with emotional situations (again, that instinct that leads her to fight physically) and is still dealing with a past she’s not proud of.  Cf472DEVIAQVBSP-300x300
  • Though she has a kind of Tragic Backstory, Camille neither milks it for sympathy nor deals with it in a one-and-done episode.  The series brings up unexpected ways in which her trailer park upbringing continues to affect her, making it just one part of a complex, developed character.  She deals with some things, like kicking her brother’s ass when he shows up and robs her friend (one of the best moments of the series, in my opinion), but she still struggles to move past other reminders of her childhood, which make her a weaker team member when she shuts people out.

Icing on the cake: THE SNARK.  Camille gets the best one-liners in the series (see below), but she’s always available to offer advice and sympathy (and open a bottle of wine) when her friends need her.

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Though she still adheres to certain aspects of the Best Friend role, Camille is well-written enough to feel real.


Who are some of your favorite female TV characters right now?  What do you think writers tend to get wrong?  Let me know in the comments!

Is This Really the Story We Want to Keep Telling?

When I first saw the trailer for Split, I knew I wouldn’t be going to see it.  For one thing, the scene shown in the teaser where three girls are abducted in a parking lot marked it clearly as Horror, and I hate scary movies.  (Not to mention that I already check under, behind, and around my car before I get in, lock my doors, and immediately drive away from any given location, so thank you Hollywood for reinforcing my paranoid safety check.)  Then there was James McAvoy’s character, who apparently is yet another example of Hollywood’s fascination with (and frequent mistaken representation of) dissociative identity disorder (DID).  It seemed unlikely to me that situating a person with mental illness as a kidnapper and probable villain could involve tasteful representation of mental health problems, so that gave me another reason not to bother.

Last week, two of my coworkers began discussing the movie.  They expressed their admiration for the apparent “twist” ending, praised James McAvoy’s acting, then turned to me and asked if I’d seen it.

“No, and I don’t plan to.”

“Why not?” one coworker exclaimed. “It’s awesome!”

“I don’t like thrillers,” I started, “and even more importantly,” louder over their protests that it wasn’t that scary, “I think it’s contributing to social stigma surrounding mental illness by continuing to portray people with those illnesses as automatically dangerous or monstrous.”

They looked at me.  “It’s actually sooooo good!” one of them said, but her voice was quieter.

“I’m sure it’s an interesting story,” I said, “and I’m sure that as far as movies go it has all the drama and suspense that it needs to.  But I don’t agree with perpetuating damaging stereotypes to do that.”

There was a slightly awkward pause.

“His acting was, like, insane, though,” the other coworker finally said, and they were off again.

I have no doubt that McAvoy’s acting in this movie was impressive; just watching the trailer, I was amazed by his ability to differentiate and fully inhabit even the few personalities shown there.  I have no doubt that the writers constructed a compelling enough storyline to accomplish all the goals of the genre.

My problem is with the priorities that this movie represents, the priorities that keep allowing movies like this to be made instead of giving us popular culture filled with realistic and non-shameful pictures of mental illness.  My problem is that even this article in The Guardian outlining cinematic misrepresentation of DID through the years ends with praise for McAvoy’s acting.  We keep putting “It’s a good story!” and “It’s a chance for the actor to show off their talent!” above the damage done by shoving mental illness into the same old categories.  And mental health deserves better from our popular culture.

Individuals with illnesses other than DID suffer from this idea of the “mentally ill monster” too.  Schizophrenia is the most directly affected, since it is often mistakenly conflated with DID and therefore seen as farther along on the “crazy” spectrum.  Depressed people are often assumed to be suicidal, even though the reality is that symptoms vary widely in intensity and depending on the individual.  As for anxiety, our society already mistrusts people who cannot conform to the Extrovert Ideal, so sufferers of anxiety are often watched as though they might “snap” at any moment.

This isn’t just me over thinking things, either.  The American Psychological Association has done studies interpreting the link between media and the perception of mental illness as dangerousness.  While conclusions vary, the researchers agree that this link does exist and that it is actively contributing to continuing stigma against mental illness.

Given all these perceptions and pictures of mental illness surrounding us, no wonder few people seek help when they need it.  Who would want to seek out a diagnosis or admit to having one of these problems?  Who would voluntarily categorize themselves as a monster?

I congratulate James McAvoy on his talent in his chosen profession.  But I refuse to pretend that admiration for a complete stranger is more important than the work we need to do to alter the perception of mental illness in our popular media.  Now, a movie about a man with DID figuring out how to live everyday life despite the society he lives in constantly viewing him with fear?  That’s a movie I’d go see.

Review: Eligible

*Note: This is a review of a book I have already finished and therefore contains spoilers.  Proceed with appropriate caution.

I’m a sucker for anything involving Pride and Prejudice, particularly modern retellings.  So when I saw Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible on my library’s Lucky Day shelf (relatively new and popular books you can check out for only a week, no renewals), I snatched it up, anticipating a fun, if fluffy, addition to my P&P mental shelf.

I ended up feeling very divided about the book.  Sittenfeld’s modernization of Austenian issues was admirable and unexpected, which is difficult to achieve in an adaptation of such an iconic work.  The main characters’ relationships remained intact, with Lydia and Kitty as joined at the hip as ever and Liz and Darcy shooting barbs at one another.  The portrayal of Jane as a 40-year-old seeking to have a child on her own is one of the most independent adaptations I’ve seen of the eldest Bennet sister.  One of my favorite parts was the change in Liz’s relationship with Catherine de Bourgh, who appears here as a famous feminist speaker rather than a disapproving aunt; the switch from condemnation to commendation was a pleasant surprise!  The author even went so far as to split the scurrilous Wickham into two questionable love interests: Jasper Wick acts as Liz’s long-term (married) boyfriend, with the original Wickham’s jerkier aspects and scandalous back story; Ham is a decent guy who happens to be transgender, which sends the old-fashioned Bennet parents into conniptions when he elopes with Lydia.  So while the story is familiar (Liz is prideful, Darcy is prejudiced, they love each other anyway), it wasn’t exactly predictable.

But for a familiar yet engaging story, the book was slow.  Sittenfeld used Austen-esque sentences to describe her modern characters, with phrasing more suited to a Regency-era parlor game than binge-watching a reality dating show.  The chapters were ridiculously short, ranging from half a page to maybe seven pages; it was as if rather than adding a line break between scenes, she decided to just give every separate scene its own chapter.  Then Sittenfeld fleshed out the Bennet family’s financial instability and added Jane’s pregnancy and a reality show wedding (and all the behind-the-scenes experiences of filming such a thing) to a novel that already has plenty of connected story lines.  And she wrote all of those new aspects in the same short-chapter, long-sentence style.  It added up to constantly feeling like I must have made a lot of progress, then being surprised by how few pages I had actually read.

I also found myself truly disliking Elizabeth Bennet (called Liz here) for the first time in any version.  True, her pride and stubbornness are central character flaws, without which her eventual growth as a person and subsequent coupling with Darcy would fall flat.  But Sittenfeld brings out a new side of Liz that frankly felt untrue to the character.  In Austen’s original story, Lizzie asserts her independence by refusing to marry someone she does not love.  This is radical for the time she lives in, but understandable for the character.  In Eligible, Sittenfeld extends that desire for control over one’s own life into an almost manic desire to control her whole family.  Liz apparently needs to parent her own parents, going so far as to list their house for sale without telling them.  I understand wanting to help fix one’s family problems, but is it really possible that someone as smart as Lizzie Bennet would decide that being her family’s savior means steamrolling over everyone, kicking her family out of their home, and insisting on overseeing all the financial decisions from now on?

Ultimately, this felt like fluff that didn’t know it was fluff.  The three stars I gave it on Goodreads were largely due to the love I already bear for the characters and their original tale.


Have you read Eligible?  Have you ever read any adaptations of a favorite classic that disappointed you?

Peace Is Not What We Should Pray For

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”… Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”

“For peace in our nation.”  I paused.  “We pray to the Lord.”

The congregation, slower in its responses here than in my home parish on the other side of the state, mumbled, “Lord, hear our prayer.”

It’s not my job to improvise the intercessions – lectors just read, we don’t write – but at that moment I wished I could add something to the single, well-meaning, inadequate line of that particular prayer.

Because peace alone is not good enough.

Peace is easy for people like me to find.  Peace is what we get because we are white, and heterosexual, and cisgender, and above the poverty line.  Our peace is not truly disturbed by the reports on TV of violence elsewhere, of fear elsewhere, of hate crimes elsewhere, because, if you noticed, it is always elsewhere, not next door.  And even if it is next door, we can draw the blinds.  We can change the channel.  We can shuffle to and from our cars and listen only to radio stations that agree with us and read only the same old books we have always read and we can do this because we are the ones who are represented in those places.  We have the option of shutting ourselves off from those different from us.  And when we cannot ignore what’s happening outside our comfort zones, we can at least use it to reinforce the mentality that allows us to shake our heads gently and think, “At least We are not Like Them.”

Peace is easy for people like me to find.

But it is a “negative peace which is the absence of tension.”  The things that might bring us true peace, a “positive peace which is the presence of justice,” are more complicated.  And it’s not a terribly peaceful process.

Probably the writer of that intercession was hoping for a deeper peace, not just peace of mind or the bliss we speak of that comes from ignorance, but the peace we are promised in the Gospels, the kind “that surpasses all understanding,” which is good because a lot of other things right now surpass understanding.  But we are creatures who need the process spelled out for us, the true meaning defined and articulated point by point.

So this is what I’m praying for.

For peace and protection of marginalized groups and minorities as they face growing violence and aggression on top of the daily struggle of navigating a culture in which they are not the group in power.

For peace and communication between opposing views, that they may allow themselves to be coaxed toward a middle ground in which they can recognize the humanity of the Other standing before them.

For peace and humility in our leaders, that they may recognize their responsibility to those they represent and to the world as a whole.

For peace and true justice as we continue to work toward equality and a more perfect fulfillment of the American vision.

Lord, hear our prayer.

Review: Grimm’s Last Fairytale

I’ve always liked the darker versions of beloved fairytales.  There’s something fun about knowing the grisly details behind the glitter and glamour, perhaps because it makes sense to me that the malevolent beings in these stories should be harder to silence, harder to kill.

When I picked up Grimm’s Last Fairytale, I thought it was biographical, something about the Brothers Grimm and their fantastical collection of dark tales.  But when it turned out to be a historical novel, I was pleasantly surprised.  Middleton takes three storylines and braids them together like Rapunzel’s hair: the present, where Auguste accompanies her aging uncle Jacob Grimm around the German countryside of his youth, hoping to discuss family history he will not share; the past, where Jacob and Willi grow up together from happy boys to the family’s sole breadwinners to political activists; and some other realm, where a boy is sent by his mother to find a princess in the Rose King’s abandoned court.

Grimm himself is the common denominator throughout the book, slipping in and out of dreams that just might be the boy’s journey to the briar-bordered, sleeping palace – just might be, mind you, because here, reality is uncertain.  But the relationships between the major characters prevent the book from being too abstract.  Auguste’s hero-worship of her enigmatic uncle, the mutual devotion of the Grimm brothers, the boy’s unwavering loyalty to his mother, and even the manservant Kummel’s struggle to remain indifferent to his eccentric employers deepen the reader’s interest in the already engrossing plot.

There’s a lot of meat to this story: a man growing old, a lifetime of responsibilities piled up behind him; a woman whose life is on pause until she gathers the courage to ask the question burning a hole in her mind; the backstory of a well-known childhood tale.  And that’s not even counting the historical context that pokes through in parts of Grimm’s life, particularly as his deeply held belief in the unification of Germany’s many little kingdoms conflicts with the world events around him.  Then there’s Middleton’s gorgeous, expressive writing to carry it all.

While this type of dark, multiple-storyline book isn’t for everyone, I found it highly enjoyable and gave it 4 out of 5 stars on Goodreads.


What’s your favorite fairytale?  Would you want to know the dark version behind it?

NerdCon Stories Part 3: Saturday

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I figured if there was anywhere to wear my Augustus Waters t-shirt, this was it.

Saturday morning began bright and early with a John Green Yoga Adventure hosted by YogaQuest MN.  This was basically like MadLibs with yoga poses: one of the instructors read a narrative in which the protagonists of Green’s novels found themselves outside their stories and tried to find where they belonged, while the other instructor led us through poses associated with each character name, certain nouns, and some verbs.  Whenever Hazel from The Fault in Our Stars was mentioned, for instance, we did Warrior II, because she is a strong female lead.

After yoga I ran back to the hotel for breakfast in the Executive Lounge (leftover perks from having to stay on the pullout couch in the Executive Suite!) before heading off to “Centering Women in Fiction: Removing Your Unconscious Bias.”  A panel of amazing women creators talked about internalized and learned biases that even we women have against ourselves, and how we can combat those by supporting (and even demanding) those stories when they do appear.  The girl power in the room was fantastic.  I also ran into Shayna from the feminist publishing panel the day before, so we sat together and chatted a bit.

When that panel let out, I went back to the expo hall because I wanted to try out the Depict-O-Mat.  Essentially, it’s some people in a box who interview you for a few minutes and then produce an impromptu puppet show starring you.  In mine, I was Queen of the Dragons.  Plus I got to keep the puppet!

After some lunch, it was time for our kaffeeklatsch with Saladin Ahmed.  Twelve attendees got to sit down with a featured guest at kaffeeklatsches (so called because there were coffee and tea available) for an hour and chat about creativity, process, and whatever else we wanted.  Though I didn’t actually talk, it was just nice to hang out and hear others’ thoughts on representation, writing, publishing, and reading recommendations.

From there, I dashed straight to the auditorium to get a good seat for the afternoon variety show.  This is also where I found Shayna again and she joked that I must be stalking her.

2016-10-15-16-55-45The variety show included a Q&A lightning round with a squid, a conversation between Nalo Hopkinson and Daniel Jose Older, a lip sync battle, and a talk by John Green.  All I’ll say about that talk is that 1. he made me cry again and 2. you should go read it.

After the variety show I went down to something called Story Circle, where we all literally sat in a circle and talked about nerdom.  I got to say some things about Arabian Nights and how cool it was to be at NerdCon: Stories in the first place, so that was definitely fun.

My last panel at NerdCon was “Breaking into Publishing,” which is pretty self explanatory.  I got some good notes, some good quotes (my favorite was “How did I break into publishing?  With a black ski mask at night.”), and some good motivation to actually finish my manuscript so I can start querying! (I also saw Shayna.  Again.  Really can’t blame her for thinking I was stalking her.)

And thus, knowing I had a shuttle coming at 5 am the next day, my NerdCon: Stories experience was over.

NerdCon Stories Part 2: Friday

After hanging up with Dad, I walked a few blocks to the light rail and rode it back to the airport to pick up my phone.  Fortunately I had a few hours before the first panel I really wanted to attend, so I wasn’t missing any of the convention as a result of my predicament.

Riding the light rail without my phone was surprisingly serene.  Public transportation in new cities always reminds me of taking the T on my visits to Boston and riding the Tube around London, and without any games to play or people to text, I was left to look out the window at the city around me.

Of course, once I got my phone back, I immediately began documenting the experience via Snapchat, Twitter, and texting.

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The wall of a parking lot right outside my hotel.  I wonder what melody it is.

Back at the hotel, I took one of Minneapolis’s many downtown skyways to the convention center, a convenience that made running back to my hotel room between panels much easier.  Unfortunately, I was too late to attend the Mental Health in YA Literature panel, but I was overjoyed to see that it was filled to capacity because so many people wanted to discuss that topic!  After checking in and getting my preordered t-shirt, I wandered around the expo hall a little and bought some typical convention center fare for lunch.  The tables were huge, so huge that you were almost forced to sit with strangers because it was too ridiculous to have a table for 10 all to yourself.  Thanks to this, I soon discovered one of the perks of NerdCon – social interactions aren’t as awkward because everyone is around the same level of nerdiness.  For instance, a random guy asked to sit at my table, struck up a conversation, and ended up showing me his short story.

2016-10-14-11-18-24After lunch I wound up in a panel on self-promotion, which was entertaining if not particularly enlightening.  All of the panelists claimed not to be good at self-promotion, which seemed like poor planning, but since I wasn’t terribly invested in the topic I just enjoyed the banter between the featured guests.

Then came A Brief Exploration of Feminist Publishing, in which I met several wonderful ladies who are also striving to both find women in writing and create their own content.  We talked about the point at which we first realized the divide between male and female authors, who our favorite women writers are, and the history of feminist publishing.  I loved my little group and our whole discussion was fantastic.

The Writers Panel with Ben Blacker was up next.  I made more new friends as we filled up a ballroom and waited for the interview to begin.  The interviewee?  John Green.2016-10-14-16-24-04

I will admit to quietly flailing in my seat and taking far too many pictures as John came out and introduced himself.  But as their conversation began, I found myself simply needing to listen.  I was so grateful that John was so generous in sharing his writing experiences of the past and present, and that he was willing to delve into mental health and personal balance as well.  One part in particular hit me in a visceral way, because he used a similar word choice to what I tell myself when I talk about my depression.  The interview closed with questions from the audience, which John answered thoughtfully.  (I will update this post with a link to the podcast when it is released.)

My first day at NerdCon: Stories closed with an invitation to dinner with one of my favorite bloggers from SnarkSquad!  Mari and I had connected over Twitter when I realized we would both be at the convention, and she was nice enough to include me in a dinner with a few other internet friends.  After dinner, I went back to my room, watched the end of the second Harry Potter movie on TV, and went to bed (a real bed, having switched rooms earlier in the day!).


Read about my travels to NerdCon: Stories here!  And read about my adventures on the second day of the convention here!

Adulting: Why Not Celebrate Small Victories?

Two friends of mine are getting married next weekend.  Though I’m not in the wedding, they asked me to lector, so I’m driving 3 hours to the rehearsal dinner the day prior to the actual ceremony.  Since I didn’t want to drive another 6 hours round-trip between the rehearsal and the actual wedding, I booked a hotel room.  As soon as I received the confirmation email, I took to Facebook:

Just made my own hotel reservation for the wedding of two friends.  Am I adulting?

Normally I cringe at words like “adulting.”  Innocent nouns should not be pressed into service as verbs unless absolutely necessary.  But the verb form of “adult” is one I will allow for the simple reason that it is the most expressive word for the situation at hand.  “To adult,” according to Urban Dictionary, means “to do grown up things and hold responsibilities such as a 9-5 job, a mortgage/rent, a car payment, or anything else that makes one think of grown ups.”  Frequently appearing as a hashtag on social media, it can be used ironically (“Goldfish crackers and prosecco count as dinner, right? #adulting”) or seriously (“Checkbook balanced, apartment cleaned, laundry done, and dinner in the oven. I’m adulting well today!”).

The term has come under fire for its celebration of everyday chores.  Some who are already proficient at adulting (or like to pretend they are) say that everyone has to do these things.  You’re not special for cooking a real meal or running a vacuum.  A recent Cosmopolitan article argued that emphasizing the basics of grown-up life undermines real accomplishments like career growth, adding that this probably stems from Millennials’ “extended adolescence” because “growing up may feel optional” nowadays.

While many young people do benefit from still living at home and the perks of having their parents do most of the grocery shopping, this actually makes adulthood more scary, not less.

I was fortunate enough to have parents who insisted I learn to cook some basic meals and keep a bathroom sanitary before I went off to college.  They gave me a larger allowance in high school with the understanding that I would use it to purchase my own clothing, coffee, etc. so I could learn to manage income and savings on a small scale.  Though I’m sure I rolled my eyes at these lessons (sorry, Mom and Dad), I’m grateful for them now.  But no parent can teach their kids everything, at least not specifically (“Today I’m going to show you how to call the insurance company for a quote and where to find your policy number on that stupid little card”).

Many of us also grew up hearing that we could do anything, be anything we wanted, follow our dreams, etc.  And those are wonderful things to hear when you’re a kid.  They are also very broad, sweeping encouragements, with little to say concerning the nitty gritty of how to support yourself while chasing those be-anything dreams.  Again, I was lucky; both my parents were happy to help me pursue my love of writing, and at the same time they made sure I would be qualified and capable of holding a day job until that passion could become a sustainable career.

But guess what?  Adulthood is still really freaking scary.  Yes, the big career moves are nerve-wracking, but it’s also the little things that no one tells you about, like having to put towels down when it’s too late in the evening to call maintenance.  Even when you have a potential safety net at home, couldn’t you feel a certain amount of pride when you stop being complacent with letting your parents do everything?  If I lived at home, I would be proud when I made dinner for the family.  And now that I don’t live at home, I still like to send my mom pictures of the flowers I potted or the art I finally hung up on the walls.  These are small accomplishments, yes, but they’re still symbols of independence I am still learning to claim.

Perhaps this is nothing new.  Perhaps every generation up to this point has felt the same way as they’re thrown into the deep end of Grown Up Life.  But we have social media now, and ways to connect internationally with other people who are experiencing the same thing.  The only difference between us and the young adults of the past is that we can be much more public with our anxiety, and we can cheer each other on through the victories, big and small.

So I will keep on adulting, thank you very much.

 

Review: The Transcriptionist

*Note: This is a review of a book I have already finished and therefore contains spoilers.  Proceed with appropriate caution.

Mom sometimes says that when I type, it sounds fake, like someone is just smashing the keys randomly to sound as though they’re doing work.  My speed is mostly due to practice – we took “Computer” every year in elementary school and it was always the same.  When I’d finished all the lessons (my least favorite was alternating between L and the semicolon key over and over), I’d try out the Freetyping section until I found a sentence that seemed to flow for me, then repeat it relentlessly until I could do it fast without mistakes.  I first broke 100 words per minute with 100% accuracy on the bizarre query, “Did you know there is a curious creature called the Platypus?”  (Even as a 6th grader, I doubted the capitalization of the creature’s name was correct.)  After that, I quickly realized that in order to keep up with my own thoughts, typing out my stories was much more effective than trying to scribble them down on paper (though I still take notes and journal by hand).

It is this love of typing that led me to pick up Amy Rowland’s debut novel, The Transcriptionistsince the title implied a theme of words and the channels we use to convey those words.  And I was right, in a way.  The eponymous transcriptionist, Lena, works at a New York newspaper, transcribing articles and interviews on tape and sending the words on their way.  She frequently describes it as being a mere conduit and letting other people’s words run through her.  Even in her conversations outside of work (which, initially, are few and far between), Lena quotes from literature she’s read rather than create her own sentences.  She worries that she is dissolving, drowning in Other People’s Words.

The book is a chronicle of Lena’s reaction to one “story so shocking” that it drives her to begin pricking, then ripping, holes in the bubble of words that suffocates her.  There are other characters who can be divided into two camps: those who do not understand what is so wrong with a comfortable, even easy, job, and those who acknowledge her fear and support her in getting unstuck.

There are animals in Lena’s world, too – a pigeon that never leaves the balconette outside her Recording Room window, and a lion that becomes depressed after eating the woman whose death becomes the shocking story that jolts Lena out of her torpor.  She also frequently dreams of a mountain lion from her youth that terrorized her farming community.  Lena’s relationships with these animals reveal as much about her as her relationships with other humans, yet not in a sappy or heavyhanded way.  The pigeon’s true significance is withheld until the very end, and the two big cats’ effects on Lena are far from straightforward.

I was riveted by the idea of someone’s agency suffocating beneath too many words, seeing as my own relationship with language has been one that allowed me to discover aspects of myself rather than bury them.  The only weakness in Rowland’s prose was her tendency toward verbose dialogue that didn’t seem real – but then again, given Lena’s propensity for letting Other People’s Words slip into her conversation, perhaps it was appropriate to the character, if a bit distracting for the reader.

Lena’s long-ignored fears bubble to the surface and carry the plot swiftly along in a brilliant example of how the struggle to change one simple life can be just as compelling as a sweeping drama.

4/5 stars on Goodreads


Have you read The Transcriptionist?  What did you think of it?  What is your relationship with words like?