Staying In and Getting Real: Current Events Roundup, Part One

It seems like I’m always doing “part ones” of series. But anyway, enough about me, so how are you?

I had a pretty productive day, I guess, but instead of going out tonight (it’s a Monday, so it’s par for the course, but whatevs), I decided to stay in, watch TV, and do laundry.

And of course, what is all over the news is pretty shocking. In case you’ve been off the grid for the past few hours, there was an explosion at an Ariana Grande concert in England, with 19 people dead, most likely all teenagers or preteens. It’s shocking and troubling, and all over every news and social media platform out there.

But what a lot of people don’t realize is that this week was a gigantic victory elsewhere in the world that no one seems to be celebrating – 82 of the 200+ girls who were kidnapped while taking exams at their school in Nigeria have been found and returned to their parents. When I heard this news yesterday, I was truly elated. I can’t imagine what those families must have been feeling, and the relief that even though the girls endured much horror, they seemed to be happy and healthy to be back with their parents. I couldn’t stop clicking through YouTube videos of the happy reunions. I’ve always thought that if what had happened in Nigeria happened in the USA or Canada or England, the entire world would be up in arms, and not forget after a few days like they did when it happened 3 years ago. I’ve actually been thinking about it since it happened, I even remember where I was when I first found out about it, getting ready to embark on my first Summer Odyssey back in 2014. It was shocking then, and it’s stayed with me consistently ever since. Although I’m really happy that those 82 are back, in addition to the 50 or so others who’ve escaped/been rescued over the years, there are still around 100 unaccounted for, which is way too many people to just forget about.

And just like the parents of the kids who died, were injured, or are MIA in Manchester right now, the parents of the Nigerian girls haven’t forgotten, despite the world seeming to do so.


Dooley, Unduly

Yesterday afternoon, I opened YouTube to look for a video – probably a song from Hamilton or a clip from Family Guy – and the first thing that came up on the recommended videos list had a thumbnail of a confused-looking redhead, and was entitled “Kids for Sale.”

So, naturally, I had to click…and I might have been sorry that I did, because the last 24 hours of my life have been occupied by one Stacey Dooley.

Ms. Dooley, who is just a few months older than I am, is a British TV journalist/documentarian who presents shows where she goes to different countries and investigates/attempts to solve/ingratiate herself in a local social issue, like human trafficking in Cambodia, cybersex in the Philippines, and the hard-partying lifestyles of the tourists of Magaluf.

Stacey Dooley gained fame on a show called Blood, Sweat, and T-Shirts, where she was one of a few unknown fashion-obsessed British teenagers who went to India to see how much illegal child labor goes into making the bras, jeans, and sweaters that are so readily disposed of after one season in the UK. Dooley was so inspired by either the plight of the people or the attention that she decided to extend her one-off appearance into a television career.

I watched first the episode called “Kids for Sale,” where she goes to Nepal in order to free children who are illegally working in sweatshops. I was actually kind of impressed; she seemed to take no shit from people, have a genuine interest in learning about their lives, and in the welfare of the children in these situations. She managed to free a little boy completely in no time at all, which was incredible to watch, and then joined another boy on a long trek to find his parents, which ultimately failed, but at least she (or her producers) had the wherewithal to take the boy back to Kathmandu with them rather than leave him in the company of some shady relatives. The whole piece had a very positive, uplifting attitude about it, and I wanted to see more.

In my research, I found a few websites which threw her under a double decker Routemaster bus. There was an article about how her piece on Japanese suicide culture was so lame that it actually seemed to glorify suicide at times. People picked apart everything about her, from her constant crying to her lack of journalism experience to the fact that while we see subtitles when non-English speakers appear on the screen, she seems to be listening to them intently and nodding along, as if she speaks fluent Spanish or Filipino or Thai. Several comments sections and derogatory remarks later, I returned to YouTube to watch some more from her.

The next one I watched, about Cybersex and Children in the Philippines, made me cringe a little at first. After reading the comments of others, I saw the whininess, the crying, the repeated lines, and a few moments where I was going “really, Stacey? You’re just going to walk away as this tween continues to flirt with sexagenarian British men on Facebook? You’re going to get in a stranger’s face and tell him he is a bad bad person?” (As a side note – the raid scene was incredible to watch. I can’t believe they pulled it off, especially foreigners with camera equipment) Overall, this hour made her seem more like an uninformed, blithely attempting do-gooder from the West who was either ineffective or making things worse.

But I decided to watch just one more, and I definitely picked the right one, about Tourism in Magaluf, a hot spot on an island off the coast of Spain where British teenagers like to go and get knackered (or is it knickered? I don’t know). This episode just struck me as something that could apply to teenagers everywhere, not just in Britain – it should be required viewing for high schoolers. In the first part, Dooley tries to enjoy herself despite all her crazy peers who are not documentary-makers, and then she continues on as a worker in the resort town, volunteering with the police and the paramedics on different nights, and seeing how disruptive the behavior of British teens can be, not just for themselves but for an entire island whose population they outnumber each summer. I used to be curious about going to Magaluf as a tourist and seeing what it’s all about, but now I kinda want to do what she did and volunteer with the police to see all the crazy people. I’m sure that if any teen from the UK – or the USA – were to step into Dooley’s shoes on one of those nights, they would never drink again. And if my rowdy neighbors would watch the bit about the hotels, and how annoying all the drunk people were, maybe they’d cool it on Saturday nights (as in: right now, where every thought I have is punctuated by a door opening, noises and bodies spilling out, and then said door slamming shut). Even though drunk and entitled teenagers isn’t as groundbreaking as child sex workers, I do think that Dooley made some really good points and showed me, at least, something that I would not have seen otherwise. Because we’re almost the same age, it does feel like I’m traveling along with her, and that I’m glad to not be rotting in a ditch on the Punta Ballena. She doesn’t get particularly emotional in this piece either, and on the whole, it seems like a responsible journalistic work. Except for the part when she ran after some thieves, wanting to interview them, that was kind of stupid, she could have gotten hurt.

In the past 24 hours, I’ve gone with Stacey Dooley to visit the homes of tourism workers in Thailand and Kenya, and the mean streets of Cambodia where pimps and child prostitutes roam, and I’m not done yet.

But my feelings about Stacey Dooley have gone back to the admiration of how I initially felt about her. I don’t know about the British public, but in terms of their misgivings about her and her shows, as far as I’m concerned –

1. Yes, she’s young and emotional, and that’s okay. She’s braver than most of us are, and is probably in even more danger than her show leads us to believe. She doesn’t always ask the most rational questions, because she’s interested in the humans and their experiences, rather than delivering history lessons and listing off facts. And yes, she cries a lot. But I think I would too if I was sitting with a child prostitute in Cambodia or in a morgue for dead British teenagers in Thailand. She’s a human, with emotions, and if that annoys you, go do something else.

2. She’s doing something that you are not doing. So yeah, you donated twenty dollars, but she actually went there



Don’t Call These Midwives

Amidst all my prelim-reading, and a little bit of a summer cold, I actually finished a book. Totally tired, but I actually finished it. The book was Two for Sorrow by Nicola Upson.

I didn’t find out until about a hundred pages in that it was actually the third in a series about protagonist Josephine Tey, a real-life author and playwright in Victorian England. In this mystery, a local woman is found murdered and brutalized with tools in her clothing design workshop, with the backdrop of Tey writing a story about legendary baby farmers (and also real-life personalities) Amelia Sach and Annie Walters, whose exploits landed them in a double hanging.

The book was enough to keep me reading, but after finishing it, I don’t think I’ll be returning to the series. A reviewer online commented that it seemed that one of the other characters actually solved the mystery, and Josephine was just kind of…there…which I agree with. Plus, she had a lesbian sex scene when she could have been investigating, and actually attacks the murderer after their identity is revealed. However, the clues came at a relatively steady pace, with some good reveals, and it did keep me guessing. I actually was more interested in the long-deceased historical characters than those in the present day, especially when they cursed a bit too much for society ladies and talked about nothing at length.

Well, that was a short book review, despite the book being almost 500 pages. This book review was brought to you by Maybe (I Shouldn’t Have Taken That) Antihistamine.


Who Ya Gonna Call? Part II

Ever since I finished reading Call the Midwife, I’ve been dying to get my hands on one of the sequels. Despite only having seen about half of the first season, I decided to forgo any and all spoilers and interlibrary-loan a copy of Part II: Shadows of the Workhouse, once again, by Jennifer Worth.

Shadows has a very different tone and focus than its predecessor. The foreboding title notwithstanding, it ventures away from some of the more lighthearted tales of Jenny’s adventures to some darker places further afield from Nonnatus House, from the workhouses of turn-of-the-century London to war-torn France. Most of the book has little to do with Jenny and the other nurses. The first and last sections focus on characters who are mostly tangential to the plot of the book and to Jenny’s life, but appear in other contexts both in the previous book and on the TV series.

The first section revolves around Peggy, a cleaning lady at Nonnatus House, and her relationship with Frank, a sometimes-handyman for the ladies. I actually just watched this episode last week, so I knew what happened with them, but the TV show did not figure in the third character in this section, Jane, and kind of gave most of her traits to Peggy – unless there is a episode with Jane in it that I have not seen yet, and I’m not going to go looking in an episode guide at the moment because I want to remain surprised. The Peggy/Frank/Jane story line really brought to life the horrors of the workhouse. Before reading this, I had no idea how squalid it really was; it’s almost as if living on the street would have led to a better and healthier life than being trapped in the bug-infested, lifeless, prison-lite conditions of the London workhouse. Yes, I understand that it was an effect of social services, and one of those “it seemed like a good idea at the time” things, but it obviously spiraled out of control, leaving its mark on people like these three. Ultimately, in both the book and the TV series, I thought that this story line was more bittersweet and heartbreaking than troubling. Peggy and Frank’s situation was so unique that I was just glad that they were able to lead the lives they led.

Skipping ahead to the third section, we meet Joseph Collett, an elderly, ulcer-stricken army veteran with whom Jenny takes a shine to; not in that way, rather in more of a grandfatherly way. The harshness of Collett’s life and the circumstances surrounding his death were counterbalanced by the sweetness, honesty, and loyalty Jenny showed him in his waning days. I think I said this before, but of all the midwives, Jenny is my least favorite (ironically, since she’s the main character and all) but in this vignette both on TV and in writing, I came to admire how she treated this man and actually cheered for her. Good on you, Jenny. The TV episode about this vignette is absolutely riveting and does Collett justice, as well as driving home the importance of honoring all veterans of wars, young or old, American or British.

And then there’s the middle section: a quasi-comedic look into the hijinks of Sister Monica Joan. I was sitting in Short Stack last night as I read this part, and I couldn’t put it down. I won’t tell you what happened, but it’s a nail-biter. Just when you thought that Sister Monica Joan couldn’t get weirder…she does. This section really brings out the individual qualities of the ladies of Nonnatus House, from plummy Chummy to goody-goody Cynthia to mischievous Trixie to the kind but judgement-questionable Jenny. Overall, the real winner was Sister Julienne and her equanimity, in addition to the deus-ex-machina twist, she’s more and more like Meryl Streep’s character in Doubt. The moral of the story: the real S.M.J. must have been the biggest pain in the ass to put up with, but one of the best to watch if you don’t have to watch her.

I’m ready for Part 3!

Some new words I learned:

  • Serried – packed in rows
  • Turbot – a type of European food fish
  • Quinquereme – an ancient Roman galley with five oars on each side
  • Golliwog – a type of black doll
  • Drachm – another word for dram
  • Flavine – a type of antiseptic

This book review has been brought to you by PBS and the Pennsylvania State University-Mont Alto Library


The Wonderful Wizard of…Wales

I usually read two books at a time, and this semester’s long slog was no different. I started this one back when I could still sit on Memorial Union Terrace in a t-shirt and jeans, and I finished it shortly before I left Madison. Unlike River Cross My Heart, this one actually kept me wanting more. I’m talking about another book from the one and only Scarlett ThomasGoing Out.

My copy was actually a different cover, but I think that this one’s much more interesting and relevant to this early 21st century twenty-something adventure/journey novel.

The characters – which there are way too many of, in true Scarlett Thomas fashion – are by and large an interesting bunch of flawed specimens. At first, we meet best friends Luke and Julie, who live in . Luke’s problems are evident; Julie’s not so much. Luke has some sort of condition that prevents him from going outside. Therefore, he has spent his entire life inside his house, learning about life from the TV and the computer. Julie is a waitress at a local cafe, where she is perfectly content to serve salads and solve complicated math theorems in her head. When Wei, a healer with whom Luke’s been communicating, ends up in Wales, Julie and her friends hatch a plan to sneak Luke out of the house and across England so he can see the healer. The crew of six is assembled rather haphazardly, expanding to include David, a co-worker of Julie’s who has cancer; Leanne, a mutual childhood friend and her cousin, Chantel, who’s just won the lottery; and Charlotte, an ex-girlfriend of a now-deceased neighbor who has gotten close with Julie.

The story drags for the first hundred pages or so, introducing us to all the characters and their families and everyone else, but once all the niceties are out of the way, Julie hatches her plan to cure Luke once and for all, with Leanne creating a special “spacesuit” for Luke; Chantel renting a van and being the money behind the operation; and David and Charlotte…joining in for the ride and helping navigate, but not doing a very good job of it. Not their fault, though; the more we learn about Julie, the more we learn about her little psychoses: fear of large highways, fear of travel, fear of ingesting poison through packaged foods. It’s the former two that make the journey a challenge; they must drive on smaller roads (Julie is the only one of them who knows how to drive), most of which keep getting flooded out due to the apparent monsoon that’s overtaken Britain. When they finally get to Wales – small spoiler: not everyone makes it, but no one dies, though – they meet the mysterious Wei, and what ends up happening is not quite what anyone expected.



“What the hell are we doing here? I mean…”

“What, why are we standing on the edge of Epping Forest with a Scooby Doo van, a Lottery winner, a guy with cancer and someone dressed in a space-suit – that we made – having just waved a tearful goodbye to a domineering retail-assistant who’s gone into the words to ‘fulfil her destiny’ and learn how to channel her humungous [sic] witch powers?”

“Yeah,” says Julie.”

– Scarlett Thomas, Going Out, p. 242

I would say that this is probably up there with PopCo as my favorite Scarlett Thomas novel. Even in the slower beginning, it is clear that something amazing is about to occur. There’s a sense of urgency that seems to come with the rain, and it’s only through quick and rash decisions by the characters that anything happens. The second part of the book is really where the fun begins; Julie and her crew are really a set of young, modern-day adventurers in the purest sense, driving around England in what one of them refers to as “the van from Scooby Doo.” There is something special in the fact that they aren’t really that special; other than Chantel, who just won the lottery (which could happen in real life, improbable as it may be), nobody has any sort of magic or super-strength to get them where they need to go. I mean, if you don’t count a lot of weed and cigarettes. It’s just the six of them and one old van against the rain. Sometimes the group members take gambles that pay off, and sometimes Julie almost kills everyone. About three-quarters of the way through the book, I realized what a Wizard of Oz quality it maintains, and I guess I was right, since the final epigraph is a long quote from L. Frank Baum’s novel.

The world needs more Julies, more Lukes, more Charlottes, more Leannes in its current literature; people who have shit to deal with and no witch or werewolf or vampire powers to help them. Because sometimes life sucks. Life sucks a lot in Scarlett Thomas’s novels, which is, I think, why they work, and why I like them so much.

“Anyway, going back to our discussion, then: whatever happens to you, there are two possible outcomes, apart from the infinite one where you turn yourself into a die, throw yourself a billion times, and come up with the number six every time.” He laughs. “You must realise that, in your predicament, when you have too much fear, even the infinite outcomes boil down to two basic ones. Essentially, you’ll either survive, or you won’t. Even the Schrodinger experiment demonstrates that. There really is no such thing as being fifty percent alive. You accept that?”

Julie has to accept elegant maths. “Yes.”

– Scarlett Thomas, Going Out, p. 347.

But then you get moments like this, which seem magical in their own simplicity.


People and Things I’ve Discovered This Semester (And How They Connect)

Now that, as of 11:58 PM CST last night, my political science paper is finished, I feel like I can breathe again. So while I complete my other three final papers (I just sent in my theatre paper as well), I can get back to blogging and Reading Like Crazy, like I set out to do.

But first, I would like to pay homage to all the work I pulled together this semester.

Let’s start with political science. I researched puppets and national identity. I came up with the idea by looking at a book which I ended up not using, but it did introduce me to Ubu and the Truth Commission, The Punch and Judy Show, Handspring Puppet Company, and Gary Friedman. On the topic of puppetry in nineteenth-century England, one of those who was also intrigued by Punch and Judy shows was W. B. Yeats, upon whom I wrote in my theatre paper. In that one, I focused on The Words upon the Window-pane, which involved mediums, spiritualism, Madame H. P. Blavatsky, and Japanese Noh theatre. Japan is where my history paper is traveling to, exploring Macbeth on the Chinese and Japanese stages. Heading further into the Pacific is my English paper, about the postcolonial stages of Papua New Guinea through Nora-Vagi Brash’s Which Way, Big Man?

And then, there’s the additions to the reading this: Power and Performance, The Spiritualists, Writing and Rewriting…to name a few.

And, now, onto Ubu, finally.


Book Review: Scarlett Thomas, PopCo

I finished the first book out of the 20 or so I brought home with me. It took me a few weeks, to finish it, but not because I was bored with it, mostly because of end-of-semester stress. Ladies and gentlemen, PopCoby Scarlett Thomas.

Cover of "PopCo"

I found it on the shelf at Memorial Library; it had a fascinating front cover with an eye and lips, and an equally more interesting back cover. After a few minutes of debating whether to get it and face the reality that it’d be returned unread, or not getting it and then when I went back to look for it, find it gone, so I just got it and put it under everything I had to read for the semester…well, not really, more like…alongside it, getting in a chapter or two here and there. This is the kind of book that’s hard to put down, but once you pick it back up again, it’s easy to get back into.

To summarize: Alice Butler is a twenty-something crossword puzzle constructor turned toy creator for a gargantuan toy company called PopCo. She is invited to the annual company retreat in a place called Battersea. There, in this weird company compound where there may or may not be children testing toys, she is assigned to a team of other eclectic and mysterious PopCo employees to make the “perfect product for the teenage-girl market.” Much like her predecessor in Wonderland, Alice goes on a strange journey full of encrypted messages left at her door, wacky workshops where she has to play a paddle ball game, solve riddles, and sail a boat. It is also a journey into her childhood, as she searches for the solution for the mysterious code inside a locket given to her by her grandfather, reliving it alongside searching for the answers to the questions PopCo brings up – both of which yield unexpected results. It’s like a hybrid of Alice in Wonderland and 1984.

It’s got all the ingredients for a good story, but I think it’s about 75% there. I loved the character of Alice; she seemed like a great combination of nerdy and spunky. Socially awkward, yet sexually desirable. Some of her friends, particularly Esther, got on my nerves for the sheer lack of information Thomas provides us with. I feel like it has a strong start and keeps going for awhile but loses steam toward the end. The last few chapters were fascinating, but still somewhat of a let-down. We never find out if Alice left PopCo or not; if the treasure was found, and by whom; if anyone from PopCo came up with the desired product; how Chloe’s sabotage worked out; if Alice and Ben ended up together; and what the hell happened to Alice’s father. I don’t know if the author planned on writing a sequel, but since it’s been a decade since she wrote it, it’s unlikely that there will be a PopCo 2.

I would definitely recommend this book; it’s full of fun and tidbits about cryptography and an inside look at major toy corporations and branding schemes. I loved the crazy book-page code, and the complicated one with the massive grid.

One thing I noticed that may or may not have been intentional; the names of the PopCo employee characters all line up in alphabetical order and alternated by gender and importance of their role in the story. Take a look:

Alice (protagonist)

Ben (her love interest)

Chloe (Ben’s “fawn-haired” friend who isn’t who she seems)

Dan (Alice’s friend, a programmer)

Esther (a mysterious and duplicitous internet marketer)

Frank (not a major character; described as a “large black man with tattoos”)

Grace (female Asian employee who beats Hiro at Go)

Hiro (male Asian employee and reigning Go champion who has a thing for Grace)

There are no I or J-named people, but there is Kieran (who is male but should be a girl, by the rule of being an odd letter of the alphabet) and two Icelandic employees, Mitzi and Niila (who fit, as Mitzi is female and Niila is male). There is also a Violet, however, nobody with names between O-U.

This one was tough to let go, knowing that I had so many unanswered questions. All the same, it intrigued me so much that I got two more of her books from the library, brought them home with me to read, and will probably end up moving their way to the top of my reading list.