Jul 6, 2015

Reading Notes: The Lola Quartet, Binny in Secret, Love Notes for Freddie

Reading Notes: The Lola Quartet, Binny in Secret, Love Notes for Freddie

It’s been a while since I last did one of these, but it’s time to play catch up again:

The Lola Quartet by Emily St John Mandel:

I really enjoyed The Lola Quartet. Not as much as Station Eleven — a novel I loved when I first read it, and then to my surprise grew to love even more with time — but enough that I’m still thinking about it weeks after I finished it. However, I’m having trouble verbalising what it was that I liked so much about it — which, after eight years of consistently blogging about my reading, isn’t something that happens very often anymore.

I think it might be because my favourite thing about this novel was the feeling that it conveyed. The writing, which is gorgeous, sets a very distinctive emotional tone that hit me right where it hurts. It captures something truthful about my experience of being a person alive in today’s world even though the character’s lives are nothing like my own — which is, after all, part of the power of fiction. The Lola Quartet is a contemporary novel that borrows elements of noir mystery. It follows the interwoven lives of four twenty-somethings, Jack, Daniel, Sasha and Gavin, who ten years previously had belonged to a high school jazz band. There’s also Amy, Sasha’s sister and Gavin’s girlfriend, who disappeared just around the time the members of the quartet graduated from high school, and whose perspective adds another layer to the story. Gavin is determined to find out what happened back then; as he starts to investigate, the story begins to come together piece by piece.

The Lola Quartet is set during the aftermath of the 2008 banking crisis, in a world where foreclosures and job losses have become everyday occurrences. It’s a novel full of crushed dreams, disillusioned characters and men I didn’t particularly like; yet even though it’s a dark, sad book reading it was like a balm. I could not put it down. There were sections that read a bit like a closer look at the “functioning sleepwalking” Clark describes in Station Eleven. Neither novel tried to pretend there’s an easy solution, but sometimes the recognition is enough.
The second round of layoffs came without fanfare. The first time, Julie told him, when he’d been in Florida, there’d been an anguish speech in the middle of the newsroom by the executive editor, who’d stood on a chair to be better seen but hadn’t been able to make eye contact with anyone. Two weeks later the second round was well under way before anyone realised what was happening. The executive editor’s assistant called the victims one at a time and asked them to drop by the office, and eleven people didn’t come to work the next day. The executive editor sent out a regretful memorandum that began with the words “As you may have noticed…” and included the phrases “online content” and “a changing media landscape”. The word “rightsizing” was used. There was a regrettable possibility, the memo concluded, of future cuts.
Binny in Secret by Hilary McKay:

It Mandel’s novel was comforting because it acknowledged something about life I want to see recognised, even if it’s painful, McKay’s achieved the same effect simply by being nice. Neither “simply” nor “nice”, by the way, are meant as dismissive terms. Hilary McKay’s writing is nothing short of brilliant. She’s sensitive and perceptive, but in a luminous, miraculous way that these terms probably don’t do justice to. She captures small moments of affection between people or of wonderment at the world in their full force; she makes it look easy when it very much isn’t. Take, for example, this moment between Binny and her brother James:
James said something, all blurry into his damp pillow. ‘I love you.’
Why did she argue with him? Binny wondered. Laugh at him? Think it was a good idea to leave him on the top shelf of the airing cupboard? The light from the landing shone dimly in at the doorway. It made smooth feathers of his hair and curved shadows of his eyelashes. He was enchanting. Perfect. How odd that she had never realised before.
Hilary McKay never fails to give me feelings about siblings. Like Jenny, I could have done with more Clem in this novel, but the moments we did get were absolutely wonderful.

Binny in Secret is a sequel to Binny for Short, one of my favourite novels of 2013. The Cornwallis family is still settling in in their new town; after an eventful summer, twelve-year-old Binny and her brother James are getting ready for their first day at their new schools. But while things go smoothly for James, who comes home with a newfound excitement about homework, Binny has a lot more trouble. When a sudden storm damages the roof of their new home, the family has to move temporarily. However, Binny’s hopes that this will mean no school for a nice long while are soon dashed. Unfortunately all it means is that she’s closer than ever to her new school nemesis, a girl she might have more in common with than she realises.

In Binny in Secret, McKay makes very effective use of her trademark combination of humour and emotional depth. She also tries something new by combining Binny’s contemporary storyline with shorter sections set a hundred years before, when three other children spent their summers at the house where Binny is now living. These sections are wonderful, and they lead to an ending that manages to be very moving without ever becoming sentimental or clich├ęd. The anniversary of WW1 has led to an understandable proliferation of stories about this historical period, and although it’s one I’m interested in it can be easy, after a while, to feel like most stories are treading the same terrain. So it means something to say that McKay’s WW1 narrative didn’t make me feel that way. It was about our relationship with historical narratives as much as anything else, and as with everything she writes it was both fresh and humane.

More wonderful bits:
Binny knew nothing of the countryside. Except for the last few weeks, she had lived all her life on city streets. The rabbits were an astonishment to her. Their numbers. Their rocking-horse hops and sudden quivering pauses. The cheerful bounce of their white flag tails. She forgot about Gertie, and the horrible day at school, and watched, enchanted. How lucky that just when she needed it, she had found a private world.

‘I’ll show you how it is,’ said Peter and gave her the globe to hold, and found a table lamp to be the sun. He was a good teacher. Very soon Clarry understood the coldness of the Antarctic, and could see that it would not have been the shock to Captain Scott that she had feared. She also grasped, as a sort of added bonus, that the universe did not have a top and a bottom and that therefore, whatever the problems of the inhabitants of planet earth, upside down-ness was not amongst them, wherever they might live. At the moment when these surprising facts became clear forever, Peter hugged her.
Afterwards, when Clarry remembered it, it seemed to her that there was no end to the laughter of that day. For the time that it lasted, there was no growing up and no grown away from, no leaving and no left behind, no future and no past. It was perfect sunlit present.
I can’t urge you enough to read Hilary McKay. If you don’t believe me, then listen to Jenny.

Love Notes for Freddie by Eva Rice:

I fell in love with the opening chapter of this novel. The year is 1969, and at St Libby’s boarding school for girls Marnie Fitzpatrick is speaking with her teacher, Miss Julie Crew, about her perfect maths score. This chapter gave me a glimpse of everything I so adored about Eva Rice’s previous two novels: they’re stories that, first and foremost, acknowledge the fact that women develop significant emotional ties with each other. As Marnie expresses her admiration for Miss Crew and Miss Crew encourages her student to pursue her talents, we watch an important moment of support between women, and we’re reminded that intense, life-changing feelings and relationships are not circumscribed to romance.

There were other moments like that in Love Notes for Freddie. For example, I loved the scenes where Rice reclaimed her characters’ right to experience and act on their desire, much in the same way she did in The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets and The Misinterpretation of Tara Jupp. Also, Love Notes for Freddie alternates between Marnie and Miss Crew’s perspectives, and I enjoyed the fact that their creative lives (be it with Miss Crew’s dancing or Marnie’s maths talent) were central to their narratives. Both go through some tumultuous times, but finding their way back to what they excel at in whatever way they can is essential to these characters.

I’m sorry to say, though, that in most other ways Love Notes for Freddie really didn’t live up to my previous experiences with Rice’s fiction. First of all, I really wish Rachel Porter, Marnie’s classmate at St Libby’s, had been in the story more. She was a wonderful character, and the dynamics between her and Marnie in their early scenes together were yet another example of Rice being excellent at showing how girls can have an enormous impact in each other’s lives. Unfortunately (spoiler ahoy), Rachel ends up becoming a character whose accident and subsequent disability is all about enabling the protagonists to learn Important Lessons about themselves. I suspect that Love Notes for Freddie would have been a much stronger novel if Rachel’s perspective had also been included, and if we had been allowed to see her experiences in terms of how they affect her rather than just the people around her.

Secondly, the two end-game love interests had a Nice Guy vibe to them that made me uncomfortable; lastly and worst of all, I found Miss Crewe’s epilogue both troubling and disappointing (more spoilers): it suggests a link between infertility and emotional hang-ups by allowing Julie Crewe, who had become infertile after an accident in her youth, to miraculously get pregnant now that she’s happy and fulfilled and has “let go of the past”. There’s something very ugly about using infertility as a symbol for emotional upheaval: in a cultural landscape filled with narratives that subtly or not so subtly victim-blame women who want children but can’t have them for whatever reasons, we really don’t need yet another one.

Oh well — fingers crossed that I have better luck with Rice’s next novel. She’s still a favourite writer and I look forward to whatever she does next.

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Jul 2, 2015

You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train by Howard Zinn

You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train by Howard ZinnYou Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train by Howard Zinn

Revolutionary change does not come as one cataclysmic moment (beware of such moments!) but as an endless succession of surprises, moving zig-zag towards a more decent society.
We don’t have to engage in grand, heroic actions to participate in the process of change. Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world.
In his memoir You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times, Howard Zinn speaks about his decades-spanning political activism in a candid and approachable manner. The book covers the Civil Rights movement in the South, where Zinn mentored and supported black students at Spelman College (including Alice Walker); his experiences as a bomber pilot in WW2; the movement against the war in Vietnam, where he played a key role; his experiences of growing up in an impoverished working class neighbourhood in 1930s Brooklyn; and the several labour struggles he was involved in at Boston University.

This post will probably end up being a bit of a rehash of what I was saying about Zinn very recently (A People’s History of American Empire adapts some material from this memoir, so the two books cover some of the same ground); however, reading these books was important to me, and I can’t resist a further opportunity to a) talk about them in more detail and b) share some of my favourite quotes. I’ll start by saying, once again, how much I love the title You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train. The concept of “neutrality” needs constant challenging: we assume that it’s only when we do something that challenges the current status quo that we’re taking a political stance, when in reality the decision to go along with it is just as politically charged. This idea underpins Zinn’s approach to history and to political engagement, and I love that he came up with a title that sums it up so elegantly.

I enjoy reading Zinn because he gives me hope. And crucially, the kind of hope his writing conveys is one that I can get behind. It’s not based on a Pollyannaish approach to the world, but on a clear-sighted understanding of how unfair it is, how rigged in favour of the few and against the many, how deeply out of balance. And yet, even as he acknowledges this, Zinn reminds us that we’re not powerless, even if thousands of factors conspire to make us feel that way. The hope he offers is not passive — it’s not about keeping our chins up and smiling through hard times until things just happen to get better, but about dragging the world towards greater equality in whatever ways are available to us.

I loved reading about the historical periods and movements covered in You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, but what moved me the most was how Zinn told these stories. It would be much too easy for a memoir to default to a traditional heroic narrative, but Zinn is not concerned with painting himself as a hero. Instead, he uses examples from his live to empower others, mostly by gently saying, “Look what we did together. Look what we all can do.” He’s often angry, but never righteous, and he’s candid about his own mistakes: he describes his participation in WW2 and his younger self’s willingness to “just follow orders” when it came to bombing civilians in a humanising way that helps us understand the structures that encourage unquestioning obedience and gives us hope for breaking out of them. His concern is not to establish his own moral purity, but to remind us that we, too, can work towards a more just world.

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately thinking about how to expand our understanding of heroism and meaningful actions so that it takes into account the more subtle choices we make within contexts that severely limit us. As you’re all probably tired of hearing me say, I genuinely believe that individual traits like courage and moral conviction are insufficient explanations when it comes to determining how much we’re willing to risk for our ideals. The availability of support to mitigate such risks is a big factor, as Zinn reminds us here:
People are practical. They want change but feel powerless, alone, do not want to be the blade of grass that sticks up above the others and is cut down. They wait for a sign from someone else who will make the first move, or the second. And at certain times in history, there are intrepid people who take the risk that if they make that first move others will follow quickly enough to prevent their being cut down. And if we understand this, we might make that first move.
This is not a fantasy. This is how change has occurred again and again in the past, even the very recent past. We are so overwhelmed by the present, the flood of pictures and stories pouring in on us every day, drowning out this history, that it is no wonder if we lose hope.
I realize it is easier for me to feel hopeful because in many ways I have just been lucky.
Privilege, too, is an unspoken factor — Zinn readily acknowledges that it’s far easier for a white man like him to get involved in a campus movement that might cost him his job than it is for someone whose chances of re-employment would be affected by structural disadvantages. And hope is another big factor. As I was saying recently in the context of The Wire, we’ll do far more if we know our actions have the potential to matter, and in its turn that builds a context that allows them to be meaningful:
To me what is so often disdained as romantic idealism, as wishful thinking, is justified if it prompts action to fulfil those wishes, to bring to life those ideals.
The willingness to undertake such action cannot be based on certainties, but on those possibilities glimpsed in a reading of history different from the customary painful recounting of human cruelties. In such a reading we can find not only war but resistance to war, not only injustice but rebellion against injustice, not only selfishness but self-sacrifice, not only silence in the face of tyranny but defiance, not only callousness but compassion.
On a similar note, I appreciated Zinn’s frequent reminders that everything counts. If we only celebrate the big, dramatic acts, we disempowered people. We tell them it’s impossible to make a difference unless you’re willing to risk everything, when in reality history tells us the exact opposite:
I have told about the modest campaign to desegregate Atlanta’s libraries because the history of social movements often confines itself to the large events, the pivotal moments. Typically, surveys of the history of the civil rights movement deal with the Supreme Court decision in the Brown case, the Montgomery bus boycott, the sit-ins, the Freedom Rides, the Birmingham demonstrations, the March on Washington, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the march from Selma to Montgomery, the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Missing from such histories are the countless small actions of unknown people that led up to those great moments. When we understand this, we can see that the tiniest acts of protest in which we engage may become the invisible roots of social change.
Here are a few more passages I really liked — I’ll start with the one on the idea of defeat:
Social movements may have many “defeats”—failing to achieve objectives in the short run—but in the course of the struggle the strength of the old order begins to erode, the minds of people begin to change; the protesters are momentarily defeated but not crushed, and have been lifted, heartened, by their ability to fight back.
On the movement against the war in Vietnam:
For most of us, the movement was a life-giving force. To join a hundred thousand others in marches and rallies, to know that even if you felt helpless against the power of government you were not alone in your feelings—that people all over the country, of all ages, black and white, working people and middle-class people, were with you—was to be moved beyond words.
We often read in the press—or heard from some people—that the opposition to the war came from young people wanting to save their own lives. That was so clearly untrue; millions of people protested the war not because their own lives were at stake, but because they truly cared about other people’s lives, the lives of Vietnamese, of fellow Americans.
On WW2:
At our bombing altitudes—twenty-five or thirty thousand feet—we saw no people, heard no screams, saw no blood, no torn limbs. I remember only seeing the canisters light up like matches flaring one by one on the ground below. Up there in the sky, I was just “doing my job”—the explanation throughout history of warriors committing atrocities.
On “meritocracy”:
I’ve always resented the smug statements of politicians, media commentators, corporate executives who talked of how, in America, if you worked hard you would become rich. The meaning of that was if you were poor it was because you hadn’t worked hard enough. I knew this was a lie, about my father and millions of others, men and women who worked harder than anyone, harder than financiers and politicians, harder than anybody if you accept that when you work at an unpleasant job that makes it very hard work indeed.
My mother worked and worked without getting paid at all. She was a plump woman, with a sweet, oval Russian face—a beauty, in fact. She had grown up in Irkutsk, in Siberia. While my father worked his hours on the job, she worked all day and all night, managing the family, finding the food, cooking and cleaning, taking the kids to the doctor or the hospital clinic for measles and mumps and whooping cough and tonsillitis and whatever came up. And taking care of family finances.
And one final quote about how it’s not foolish to be hopeful:
It seems that human beings, whatever their backgrounds, are more open than we think, that their behaviour cannot be confidently predicted from their past, that we are all creatures vulnerable to new thoughts, new attitudes.
And while such vulnerability creates all sorts of possibilities, both good and bad, its very existence is exciting. It means that no human being should be written off, no change in thinking deemed impossible.
I’m so grateful for this book.

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Jun 30, 2015

Call the Midwife

Call the Midwife S4 cast
Call the Midwife
In case you haven’t had enough of me writing thousands of words about a TV series after last week, I’ve done it again — and this time I invited a friend over for extra fun. Jodie and I finally got around to discussing Call the Midwife in detail. Most of our post is about the latest season, but as we’ve never really written about it before we also use it as an opportunity to talk about why we love this period show in general. Be warned that there will be some spoilers.

Jodie: We have been avid fans of Call the Midwife since the doors of Nonnatus House first opened, yet somehow we've never gushed about the show in a lengthy public co-review. As we've never talked about it together before, maybe we should talk about why we like the program so much. What has made this program about the daily lives of midwives, nuns and the women of the East End stick out for you?

Ana: Well, the first reason is what you once called the “basic feminist act” of centring a story on a girl of woman. Call the Midwife is almost entirely centred on women's stories — not just because many of the plots revolve around pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood, but also because the central characters are women whose lives, relationships and professions are shown to matter. I love that — I never, ever get tired of that. I especially like series like this, with a large cast of female characters who relate to one another in a variety of ways and who remind us that “there's no wrong way of being a girl”.

Secondly, the series has been called “a love letter to the NHS”, and yes, it kind of is one. Call the Midwife has a political sensibility that is close to my heart, and the stories it tells repeatedly remind us that free public services improve people's lives in tangible, concrete, human ways. They're not a drain on us all; they're a common good and they help tackle inequality. This is an important narrative to put there in these troubling political times, when people in positions of power talk about “reducing dependency on services” with a straight face, as if the people who make use of them have an addiction they need to recover from. Several critics have pointed out that the series could do better — it's still primarily centred on the mostly middle or upper class nurses, after all, rather than the working class woman of Poplar. While this is absolutely true, I still appreciate the series' political subtext, and also the fact that it tells its stories in a way that feels organic and is never heavy-handed.

Finally, I love the characters. As a character-oriented reader/viewer, this is something that's always important to me. I adore Chummy, I love Patsy and Trixie and Shelagh, and sisters Julienne, Evangeline and Monica Joan. I loved getting to know them over the course of four seasons, and I love how the different storylines have continued to reveal different sides of them. What about you? What do you like about Nonnatus House and its inhabitants?

Jodie: Pretty much everything you already said. I know that when Call the Midwife first came out I felt an especial need for a new show that put women firmly in the spotlight; not just a woman but a whole cast of women. I can't remember specifically why I needed this kind of show at that time but I definitely remember feeling like Call the Midwife was an important show. And when critics talked about it I was happy. Even when they didn't exactly understand it, at least I saw regular column space given over to a show about women.

And of course, I love the characters. My absolute fav has to be Trixie (because obviously) closely followed by Patsy, Shelagh, Sister Julienne, Chummy, and Jenny. Barbara is growing on me too though, which is extraordinary considering she's only been in the show for one series.

Ana: Yes, I grew to like Barbara a lot too over the course of this season, and I hope they'll continue to spotlight her more as the series continues. Having her around more helped me cope with my sadness at the fact that Chummy wasn't as present (I'll admit she'll always be my favourite).

Jodie: In your 2014 in Review post you talked a little about your hopes for Series Four:
...with Jenny moving away and the supporting cast being given a chance to shine in terms of character development — perhaps the series will become a real ensemble show, much like Orange is the New Black in its second season. Likewise, I’m excited about the introduction of a lesbian character, who I hope we’ll see much more of next year.
Did you feel like the wider cast came out from under Jenny's shadow in Series Four?

Nurse Phyllis, Trixie, Barbara and Patsy
Ana: Yes, in most important ways I did — it was great to see the various characters get more backstory and subplots dedicated to them. I felt that they did an especially good job with the older woman: I really liked the episode about sister Julienne and her past, I enjoyed learning about Nurse Phyllis, and I loved Violet. Also, I felt that the strong emotional links between the nuns were brought to the foreground, and I really appreciate that. These women are important to each other, and Call the Midwife is unapologetic when it comes to telling stories that hinge on that. Bonus: we got to see a lot of Shelagh this season.

However — and this is an important however — I still feel that the series underutilises many of its characters and needlessly sticks them in stereotypical subplots. This is particularly true of Trixie and Patsy, but I expect we'll have plenty more to say about that in due course. Before we move on, how do you feel the new Jenny-less, ensemble approach worked?

Jodie: It worked a lot better than I expected. Even though I love all the secondary characters, I thought the show would struggle without Jenny. Lots of shows struggle once they move away from their founding concept or central character. And, because I'd seen Miranda Hart say we were going to see less of Chummy this series too, I was worried I would feel a bit at sea as I waited to get really interested in other new characters like Barbara and Sister Winifred (who I wasn't much interested in when she was first introduced).

In practise though, I didn't miss Jenny that much because I was so caught up in what the other characters were doing. I wouldn't say the show is better without Jenny - I really like what Jenny brought to the show, especially when it came to her friendship with Trixie. However, I didn't feel like there was a Jenny shaped hole in each episode. I'm not even sure I can imagine this series with Jenny. What that shows me is that Call the Midwife has developed its secondary relationships well and given the viewer great secondary characters to care about. Even if, as you rightly say, the show often doesn't quite seem to know what to do with those characters.

Speaking of characters the program kind of dithers around, what did you think about Cynthia's storyline? Cynthia, I feel, has been one of the most under-used characters of the show, and I was keen to see if they'd manage to make something more substantial out of her character once she felt called to become a nun.
Sister Mary Cynthia with one of the patients she supports in S4
Ana: One of the interesting things about Cynthia, and about the other nuns in the series as well, is that their stories are reminders that faith is dynamic rather than stale or immutable. I'm an atheist and so is everyone in my immediate family, and I feel that it's often much too easy to default to an understanding of faith as the end of questioning if you mostly hang out with people who aren't religious. But as I grew older and made friends with (plus starting engaging with art by) people of faith, it became increasingly obvious to me that people have rich, dynamic and varied relationships with their beliefs. It's extremely simplistic to portray faith as a set of easy answers to life's big questions that prevent true intellectual engagement. These days I know a lot of people of faith who share my values and who ask the same question I do about how to live a meaningful life. And even if the framework of understanding within which we engage with these questions is different, very often the practical ramifications of our answers actually aren't.

Cynthia's story, like Shelagh's previously, showed this dynamic side of faith at work, and also illustrated said ramifications. I really liked how these two characters' stories complemented each other, particularly in light of Sister Julianne's relationship with each of them. The head of Nonnatus House is unwaveringly supportive, and her attitude is a reminder that there's no one true way to live a good life, or a life that feels right in light of your beliefs (can you tell that multiple truths are my favourite?). Shelagh doesn't lose her faith, though she prioritises things that require her to move away from her life as a nun. Sister Julianne understands this. Cynthia, on the other hand, becomes more and more drawn to this life, and sister Julianne gives her room to make what is quite a big decision in her own time.

I liked all these aspects of Cynthia story, but one thing that was just as important to me was that the series showed that becoming a nun didn't require a complete break with the person she was before making that decision. Obviously her choice represents a lifelong commitment that is deeply felt, but it doesn't erase her personality or trump her relationships. In some ways S4 does show us that: Cynthia continues to work as a midwife, a kind of work that was always important to her, and you could even say she becomes more confident and deliberate. I really enjoyed all the storylines around her relationship with her patients, like the one with the mother from a group of Irish Travellers she helps (bonus points for Mrs S from Orphan Black's appearance :D). However, it made me sad to see her friendship with Trixie suffer some setbacks. I can understand why the two would feel shy around each other, but I really wanted to see them sit down, talk it through, hug it out, and go back to being close friends. The fact that Cynthia was there for Trixie in the final episode gave me hope: fingers crossed that we'll see them interact a lot more in the next season. How about you? Any thoughts on Cynthia?

Jodie: My one problem with Cynthia's storyline is that I feel like her decision to become a nun was inspired more by the creative team's need to find something for her to do, rather than by any kind of natural character development. Cynthia's desire to become a nun is revealed and then before you know it she's off to The Mother House. She gets a few episodes to mull over her feelings, and the viewer is offered at least a chance to adjust to and genuinely connect with her deliberations, but it still progresses extremely quickly. It's so sudden and feels like the kind of about face decision a soap might introduce rather than a plotted series.

I mentioned that the show doesn't quite know what to do with some characters and Cynthia's individual development has definitely been left aside. The show sometimes struggled to work out how to develop her as an individual rather than as a member of a supportive group. Like Trixie and Jenny, Cynthia is involved in medical cases which develop her character and deepen the viewer's understanding of her background. However, unlike the other midwives, she doesn't really get much development as a person when she's away from midwifery. She stays stuck as one of the original three midwives; ready to get to work and always available for a slightly risque night out. She never looks much like moving into a new, independent personal sphere until she quickly goes off to become a postulant, returns as a nun and begins on that new (slightly forced) character journey.

Becoming a nun is a great storyline for Cynthia, and I think the show is developing her story well now, but I wish it felt less like the initial decision to send her down this story path was a bit slap-dash. Especially since Cynthia is the only (straight) midwife who doesn't have any kind of romantic relationship. We're going to talk about Patsy, the only lesbian midwife included in the show so far, later and I think her romantic storyline needs to be discussed separately. So, for the moment I'm going to focus on the romantic lives of the straight midwives.

There's no getting away from the fact that all the straight midwives, apart from Cynthia, get involved in romantic relationships. And then Cynthia becomes a nun. When I look at that chain of events it looks like the showrunners throwing in a plot vindication of Trixie's remark that if Cynthia had only kissed a boy she'd put this nun stuff right out of her head. While the show has its characters dismiss that remark, the setup of its midwive's personal lives seem to prop up the idea that if a straight character don't got a man then that character needs to be 'solved' somehow; there needs to be a 'reason' why they're not in a romantic relationship. Loose women roaming the streets by themselves - heaven forbid! And that's a little hard to take from a program which is basically all about women roaming the streets by themselves. It kind of says 'it's all well and good to bicycle through the neighbourhood alone, as long as there's an expiration date on that status'. It makes me worry about what they're going to do with Phyllis who is so unapologetically single. Don't pair her up with a man, show - just don't do it!

Otherwise, I'm really enjoying Cynthia's faith storyline so far. I hope the connection between her and the other midwives is going to allow the show to bring her and the nuns into the program even more. And I love how her new state as a nun lets the other Sisters talk frankly about issues like celibacy.

Ana: That's an excellent point about the narrative feeling the need to “explain” why a woman wouldn't have followed a culturally normative life path, in this case by being single. And yes, fingers crossed that they don't feel the need to pair up Phyllis!

To carry on with the theme of characters the story doesn't really do justice to, what did you think about the subplots surrounding Trixie this season? We've talked before about how sometimes the series seems to be punishing her for being fun, and I'd really love to hear what you have to say about that.

Jodie: Series Four really focused on Trixie's relationship with Tom, her cute but dorky priest boyfriend. Trixie and Tom's relationship is set up as a pairing of opposites. Trixie is fun and flippant. Tom is quiet and patient. Trixie likes to dance in clubs while Tom is terrified of dancing in public. Trixie wants a big wedding while Tom wants something more restrained. Yet, despite their differences they bond over their shared interest in helping others. Oh, the hilarious conflicts these differences will inspire, but at the end of the day they'll come back together because of their heartwarming common purpose!

Except, their fights stops being funny pretty quickly - right around the time the pair start discussing their wedding and their future. I was not a fan of Trixie and Tom's relationships because it allowed the show to shame Trixie at every turn. The program sets up situations where she's expected to compromise or inevitably lose Tom, the pure and darling priest, because she's standing in the way of his calling or asking him to do something that conflicts with his very nature. Like actually help to plan an extravagant wedding… I know, she's so unreasonable.

This chain of events ends with Trixie validating the show's subtle hints that she's not cut out to be a curate's wife because she isn't willing to sacrifice as much as he is. Essentially it shames a midwife who works and lives in an incredibly poor part of Britain - a woman who works long hours delivering other people's babies - for saying 'I'd quite like for our own children to live in the countryside'. Which is just a ridiculous way for the show to behave. Trixie once climbed a rope ladder to deliver a baby on a trawler - back off, show.

Trixie in scrubs and gloves preparing for a delivery
And then the program has the audacity to give her a drinking problem and call that 'character development'. In the context of the show, Trixie's reliance on alcohol makes sense. Trixie's father was an alcoholic. Trixie is losing her self-belief and her support systems. So, there's an argument that she employs a coping mechanism she learnt from her father. And I do think that cracking open Trixie's happy go lucky exterior adds a lot of realistic depth to her character. However, in the context of Trixie's treatment by the show, it does look like just one more way for the creators to 'bring her down to Earth'. She can never just be happy - there's always got to be something waiting around the corner to bring her down.

Ana: I absolutely agree that some of the storylines have tended to frame Trixie as kind of selfish or shallow, which is completely absurd in the context of everything we've seen her do. And yes, the power imbalance between Trixie and Tom bothered me a lot too. She's always the one who's shown to be coming short — to be failing to commit sufficiently or to sacrifice enough — and there's no reason why that should be so except for unspoken assumptions about how women should be the ones to give things up. Again, I'm interested in stories about how lopsided power dynamics affect personal relationships, but like you I never got the sense that the show was actually questioning this. It's presented as The Way Things Are — Tom is a perfect angel who simply wants to do good, and if Trixie's wants or needs get in the way of that they're simply framed as self-sabotage.

Jodie: Now it's time to talk about Patsy. Call the Midwife is well known for looking at relationships which were considered taboo in 1950s - 60s Britain but Patsy & Delia are the first lesbian couple the program has ever shown. Hey Ana, just wondering, how did you feel about Patsy & Delia's storyline? >.>

Patsy and Delia standing side by side and looking adorable

Ana: HAHA WHERE DO I EVEN START? Perhaps a five minutes-long wail of “WHYYYYYYYYYYYYYY, WRITERS, WHYYYYYY” will do?

Patsy and Delia's fate in the finale caught me at a particularly bad time: I had just watched Heidi Thomas' older series Lilies, and while I really liked it overall I was enraged about the storyline concerning the three girls' brother, Billy, and his romantic relationship with another man. It ends (you guessed it) with a Sudden Tragic Death that is in sharp contrast with the thoughtfulness and nuance of some of the series' other subplots. Coming across the same thing in Call the Midwife, then, was a vivid reminder of the pattern these stories contribute to.

In the case of Call the Midwife, though, it's not even just the pattern I have a problem with. “It's not each individual story, it's the overall trend” is something you've probably heard me say a million times in the past, but you know what? Here it is the individual story. I would say that about, for example, Angels in America: this is a series I love and adore; a series that explores a dark chapter in lgbtq history (how the community was affected by AIDS) in humane, thoughtful, and ultimately hopeful ways; and one that I found moving and necessary. However, you could rightfully argue that there's a problem with the trend of elevating AIDS narratives above all other lgbtq narratives — this knowledge and my love for the series can and do exist simultaneously.

Unfortunately I have no way to describe how Call the Midwife treats Patsy and Delia other than as exploitative, emotionally manipulative, crass tragedy porn. Delia doesn't die, but her sudden accident and subsequent loss of memory result in her being taken back home to Wales and removed from Patsy's life. I suppose the writers were going for social commentary here, because it's the fact that Patsy and Delia couldn't be open about their relationship that separates them. They couldn't acknowledge how close they were, how central they were in each other's lives, and so Delia's parents don't think much of taking her to a place where Patsy can't visit and don't know to send her news. However, all of this unfolds over the course of what, half an episode? It's a footnote in a story that comes across as predestined for tragedy, and so any sort of commentary on the realities of inequality is forced and halfhearted at best.

If you want to explore the consequences of homophobia in the early 1960s, you have to do better than that. It's possible to tell a good story about this, but to do that you also have to acknowledge that there was survival and resistance: that there were people who were lucky enough and found the necessary support to live happy, fulfilling lives as queer couples within a socially hostile environment. Homophobia was and is awful and we mustn't minimise it, but we don't do people's lives justice if we pretend it has always won. It hasn't. There were women like Patsy and Delia who moved into their own home and smelled the coffee in the morning and had private moments of happiness while continuing to fight for equality in ways big and small. They didn't live in a bubble, unaffected by society's homophobia, but my point is that they lived.

Lastly, when I say manipulative what I mean is that the way Delia's accident was set up in the episode was designed to be a facile tearjerker: their brief moments of happiness in the house they're about to move into, the promise of future happiness snatched away too soon, the music and camera shots in the accident scene itself — it all feels cheap, and it all hints at the inevitability of tragedy for young lesbians in love. That's too troubling an implication for words. It made me furious and was genuinely awful to watch.

Jodie: You've covered exactly why this storyline was THE WORST. It was painful to watch the story take all control out of Patsy's hands and then stretch its narrative control to the absolute bounds just to pile on the dramatic tragedy. Delia has told her parents Patsy is the 'lady she helps with the cubs'? Why wouldn't she have covered by telling them they were best friends or at least friends, which would have made Delia's mother more likely to let Patsy see her? Unthinking dramz is why. And Delia's parents don't even have a phone and don't want her to visit? That's not just a program attempting to show the reality of life in the 1960s. It's a program piling on dramatic obstructions because it thinks they make a situation more heart-jerking for the straight viewer. And without presenting another lesbian couple the show pushes the viewer to see 'tragic 1960s lesbians' as the One Truth, furthering a dominant media representation that insists lesbians can't be happy in the long run; in fact that there is no long run for lesbians.

How did you feel about the storyline from Episode Three of Series Four where an expectant father is caught attempting to pick up men? Did you think that skirted closer to social commentary than melodrama for straight viewers, and how did that storyline sit in the context of Call the Midwife so far?

Ana: I would say that yes, it skirts a little closer, but at the same time, no — it definitely wasn't enough. My feelings about this storyline were inevitably influenced by my feelings about Patsy and Delia's fate: if they were telling the story of a man trapped by the circumstances of a homophobic society alongside a story about a lesbian couple who were able to live together, that would be one thing; it's quite another to tell Tony's tragic story and then pile even more on with the gratuitous tragedy that befalls Patsy and Delia. It's also worth mentioning that there have been no other significant lgbtq characters in the show's four seasons. There's no counterbalance — there's either erasure or tragedy.

When I say there was a more cogent attempt at commentary in this episode, I mostly mean that Tony's story at least took the whole episode and was given a little bit more room to breathe. But considering what we're comparing it to, that's still not saying much. The episode gave viewers who might be unfamiliar with this side of history the chance to learn about agent provocateurs, about homophobic laws, about community backlash, and about the horrifying chemical castration "treatments" gay men were forced to undergo.

However, it's important to note that Tony's story is very much still geared towards straight viewers. It's a story told from the outside, not only because it assumes ignorance but also because the way the episode handles the narrative makes it less about Tony and more about giving other characters an opportunity to air their views — from Dr Turner to Fred to the inhabitants of Nonnatus House (Patsy not included, for obvious reasons), who sit around the table and discuss whether homosexuality is a sin they should condemn. And this — the fact that at the end of the day the story is about them, their feelings and their views, and not really the person they're discussing — is a form of marginalisation I'm very tired of seeing. Obviously the point of the episode is that homophobia ruined people's lives and that it's good that we've started to move away from it in the past few decades, but… we can tell much better stories that still acknowledge this history. A progressive central theme alongside more insidious forms of marginalisation is not good enough. It's more than about time we start to do better.

How about you? Any thoughts you'd like to share?

Jodie: Tony's storyline sucked and I have pretty much retconned it in my head by believing that Tony eventually runs away with a man he meets in a travelling circus. I feel like Tony and Patsy's storylines were the creative team's attempt to rectify the show's previous erasure of lesbian and gay history (they included so many other underrepresented groups in previous episodes but had never had an LGBTQ storyline). Unfortunately, they completely screwed it up. It must have been rough for LGBTQ viewers watching Series Four.

Ana: You'd said before that Shelagh is one of your favourite characters, so I was wondering if you'd like to talk about her a little bit, perhaps including her challenges this season concerning her obvious passion for her work and the expectations surrounding married women with children?

Jodie: Shelagh is amazing, partly because she's had such a great character journey, partly because of her friendship with Sister Julienne and partly because I'm a Sound of Music fan. Nuns who find love is a great trope! Nun BFFs - help, I died.

Again, I think this series the creative team have struggled to know what to do with her, especially as she has such a supportive husband. The show can't make a strong point about the problems of mothers who work without compromising Patrick at least a little (NO ONE WANTS THAT) so Shelagh has something to push back against. So, instead it's made her storyline mostly about her not knowing how to define her purpose when she doesn't want/isn't able to go back to full time midwifery. As a consequence, and because we haven't had much access to Shelagh's thoughts, her storyline has been a little wishy washy.

I actually think the show has made a better point about working mothers in Chummy's storyline. Chummy has struggled to balance motherhood and work. Peter, though supportive, has had issues with helping out at times because he's trying to develop his career while helping out with his first small kid who won't sleep. In contrast, Dr Turner is established in his career and well used to being a parent (and a single one at that). So, there are more sites of traditional conflict for the show to work with in Chummy and Peter's partnership than in Shelagh and Patrick's relationship.

The show almost needs to tap into a new language about career women and motherhood to tell Shelagh's story and I think it's struggled to do that in a strong way this series. Probably the best moment it set up was when Shelagh put her nurse's uniform on again in order to gain the patient's trust and re-establish her medical authority. Even then, the show doesn't really dig into what that means for women - how important wearing a costume is for professional women even when you've all the necessary credentials and how quickly people forget your work when you move from being a midwife to a wife.

Ana: I completely see your point about that not being explored enough, but I still found that moment really powerful — the fact that Shelagh found so much joy in slipping back into an authoritative role, plus her competency and obvious enjoyment of her work, really resonated with me. Of course, there's plenty more that could be said about people's need to separate Shelagh-the-wife-and-mother from Shelagh-the-professional, and like you I'd also have really enjoyed a story that digged into that properly.

Jodie: Is there anything else you want to talk about before we close?

Ana: Why yes, yes there is. However did you guess?

In episode four of this season, Sister Winifred meets a young sex worker who is pregnant and who suffers from syphilis. This woman is also responsible for caring for an older woman, a mentor figure who obviously means a lot to her and who is struggling with the final stages of the disease. These two cases inspire Sister Winifred to educate sex workers about contraception and protection against STDs.

I think this episode is another good example of Call the Midwife setting out to do something really good but then not quite going far enough to be completely satisfying. It's important that the series depicts sex workers without shaming them, and that we see someone like Sister Winifred (who hasn't always been the most understanding of characters, like in the episode where she makes homophobic assertions about Tony) spreading the word about contraception because she's a trained nurse and the health of her patients is more important than any sort of moral high ground. However, I couldn't help but compare this to Borgen's sex work episode in my head, and I have to say Call the Midwife fell short. Borgen acknowledges that there's a long history of sex workers being patronised by people who profess to have their best interests at heart; of being spoken for instead of listened to. Call the Midwife makes no such acknowledgement, and in fact perpetuates these dynamics in a way.

The most promising moment in the episode comes when Sister Winifred, who is out distributing pamphlets about contraception, talks to one of the sex workers she approaches. This woman tells her that as much as they'd like to have safe sex, the men who come to them would simply refuse to. If they insisted, they'd simply take their business elsewhere, which would make it impossible for women in strained economic conditions to make ends meet. This moment is a crucial acknowledgement that the balance of power is tipped against these women. As long as they remain marginalised, they have no recourse. In an ideal world, they'd work without fear of either public shaming or criminal charges, join forces in a union, and make use of collective bargaining to ensure that safe sex became the norm. None of them have the power to change the rules on their own, and unfortunately other courses of action are barred to them.

However, despite this key moment, the end of the episode still shows us Sister Winifred giving a lecture about safe sex to a group of sex workers. I'm not saying this isn't important — we absolutely can't assume that women in the late 1950s and early 1960s would have had access to this information otherwise — but it's an insufficient solution of its own, and one that puts the responsibility solely in the women's hands. The episode's final montage frames it as an unqualified victory, though, which is something that could easily have been prevented by having a scene where Sister Winifred (or perhaps someone else) also approached the men who seek out sex workers in the East End.

Sister Winifred sitting by a diagram about contraception
Jodie: I remember almost nothing about this episode - probably because it wasn't handled that well. I really struggle with Sister Winifred. I think she's been brought in to be a site of conflict - a nun who hasn't embraced Sister Julienne's overwhelming non-judgemental attitude - but without being a monstrous character. She comes off kind of preachy, but is also sweet and wise in her handling of some situations. Again, I don't think the show has really gotten to grips with her character. I realise this is pretty much my repeated party line in this post. I swear I really do like this show!

Ana: Yes, same here. It's because we love it that we expect more! As always, it was a pleasure to discuss all the reasons why this series both delighted and frustrated us with you. Thank you for sharing your smarts, and I look forward to swapping impressions about season five with you when it premieres early next year. I'm so glad we'll get to go back to Poplar and find out what all our favourite characters are up to. Any particular wishes for the next season?

Jodie: Delia should get her memory back. Trixie should meet a boy from the wrong side of the tracks with a kind hearted nature, and he should be cool with supporting her determination not to drink (I am all over a good stereotypical male romantic lead). Shelagh should go back to midwifery and Dr Turner should get a practise secretary. Barbara should get her own story before the show does something weird to her. And Cynthia and Trixie should bond again, and not just over her drinking. I think that's everything if I really can't have Trixie/Patsy which it seems I cannot.

Links of interest:

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Jun 28, 2015

Sunday Links

The Lola Quartet by Emily St John Mandel, Austerity Bites by Mary O'Hara, Binny in Secret by Hilary McKay, Nimona by Noelle Stevenson
Recent reading, on which more soon (she says hopefully).
Sunday Links

Hello, friends. I’m happy to report that I’m doing much better than when I last checked in, and as you might have noticed I was even able to finish a few posts last week. Hopefully this trend will continue. Also, this week I got Edinburgh Book Festival tickets, and I’m so thrilled that I’m going back. I won’t be there for long and I’ll only catch the tail end of the festival, but still — I had such a wonderful time in 2011 and 2012 that it will be great to just be there again. This year I’m seeing Naomi Shihab Nye and Caroline Lucas, and of course hanging around the festival bookshop and trying not to be too tempted.

Here’s what grabbed my attention in the past week or so:
  • I haven’t read any of the books Gerry Canavan covers in this LA Review of Books piece, but the title caught my eye on Twitter and before I knew it I had read the whole thing. I like the point about ‘lifeboat ethics’, and especially this:
    The truly radical kernel in both of these books is the notion that as we drift through space in our tiny pocket of air and water and warmth, much too small and much too fragile, leaping together into an unknown and frightening future, maybe the best choice we can make is to try to take care of one another as best we can.
  • The essay above makes reference to Cory Doctorow’s “Cold Equations and Moral Hazard”, which I’ve probably linked to before but am leaving here again because it’s so great.

  • These photos of celebrations outside the US Supreme Court after the marriage equality ruling make me incredibly happy.

  • A few more great images from the celebrations: rainbow colours over landmarks, rainbow crosswalks in Seattle, and (my favourite) the first gay couple to be married in Dallas (George Harris, 82, and Jack Evans, 85. Don’t read the responses under the original tweet.)

  • From Roxane Gay’s Confessions of a Bad Feminist TED Talk:
    I am a bad feminist, I am a good woman, I am trying to become better in how I think, and what I say, and what I do, without abandoning everything that makes me human. I hope that we can all do the same. I hope that we can all be a little bit brave, when we most need such bravery.

  • #Charlestonsyllabus: a comprehensive reading list for developing a better understanding of systemic racism. Many thanks to everyone who helped put this together.

  • I loved Liz Bourke’s “How Do We Talk About Strong Female Characters?”:
    Some people never go out and Do Deeds of any active kind. Their heroism—if we may see it as heroism in a narrative sense—is surviving under strain, mental or emotional or physical or all three. Sometimes intolerable strain. Survival is a quiet ongoing necessity, and living under circumstances that one can neither abandon or substantially change has historically been the lot of many women. Because their struggles were domestic—because their choices were, and often still are, significantly more constrained than the men around them—they are overlooked as heroes.
    I spend a lot of time thinking about this.

  • On social justice and library cuts.

  • Amy Winehouse, Kurt Cobain and the Gendering of Martyrdom. “We martyr our women because we fear their greatness. We do so because we fear women who are living out of bounds.”

  • Lastly, I haven’t read Lies We Tell Ourselves, but as a reader who has long since been frustrated by obscure hints about “secrets” in plot summaries, I really like what Robin Talley says in this interview about making the jacket copy of the paperback edition plain and clear about the fact that the two main girl characters fall in love with each other.

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Jun 24, 2015

Lumberjanes by Noelle Stevenson, Grace Ellis, Shannon Watters and Brooke Allen

Lumberjanes by Shannon Watters, Noelle Stevenson, Grace Ellis and Brooke Allen

Lumberjanes by Shannon Watters,  Noelle Stevenson, Grace Ellis and Brooke AllenLumberjanes is a comic book series about a group of close friends spending the summer at a scout camp (official name: Miss Quinzella Thiskwin Penniquiqul Thistle Crumpet’s Camp for Hardcore Lady Types). April, Jo, Ripley, Mal and Molly are five young teens determined to have fun and to live up to the camp’s motto, “Friendship to the max”. When it becomes apparent that the woods surrounding the Lumberjanes’ camp are infested with supernatural creatures, well, they don’t let that get in their way. Together with their beloved camp counsellor Jen, the girls face giant wolves, yetis, velociraptors, dangerous mazes, and Greek gods run amok. They run into the mysterious Bear Woman who lives in the woods and try to understand their enigmatic camp director, Rosie — all while enjoying the enormous pleasure of each other’s company.

I waited until the first trade paperback was out before I started reading Lumberjanes, even though I’d been hearing great things about the series since last year. This was mainly because I’ve never been in the habit of reading comics as single issues, and also because I like to binge on stories. You’ll notice, however, that this isn’t a post about Lumberjanes Vol 1 (which collects the first four issues of the comic): as soon as I finished the book, I knew I needed more. So for only the second time ever (the first time having been for my beloved Carol Danvers), I treated myself to some digital comics and devoured all 15 issues of Lumberjanes. This, it turns out, was absolutely the correct life decision.

Lumberjanes:  April, Jo, Ripley, Mal and Molly saying 'We can explain!'
Writing about Lumberjanes has turned out to be a bit like writing about Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries last year. I started out thinking that I probably wouldn’t have much to say beyond “yay, this comic is so much fun!”, but slowly I began to realise that the reasons why I was able to relax into this story were worth discussing (you’d think I’d have learned by now). Like Miss Fisher, Lumberjanes is restful largely because it’s “devoid of constant reminders that girls can’t do or be certain things”, and this will never not be a big deal for me.

Lumberjanes is a fun story about girls having adventures. It represents a wide variety of girls who enjoy different things, have different body types, fall in love with each other (or not), adopt furry critters, are terrible at frosting cakes, are excellent at making scrap books, are impressive arm wrestlers, like hugs, outsmart dinosaurs, solve elaborate riddles — in short, remind us in every page that there’s no wrong way of being a girl. The world of Lumberjanes takes it for granted that girls and women are human beings, with all the complications and infinite variations inherent to that — a fact that shouldn’t be worthy of note, but still is in our cultural landscape. Again, the power in numbers principle applies: in a series with such a large cast of girls and woman, none of them has to carry the weight of representing their gender as a whole. Whatever they like, whatever they do, whatever they excel or fail at is allowed to belong to them alone.
Lumberjanes: April, Jo and Ripley hold a scrap book.
I’d seen Lumberjanes referred to as a young version of Rat Queens, and I can see why the comparison is apt. I also think the series would appeal to Buffy fans, especially for the snappy dialogue and the girls’ quick and witty comebacks. Lumberjanes is a more egalitarian kind of story, though, which is yet another thing that made me happy. There is no chosen one: instead, there’s an emphasis on collaboration and on girls with different skills coming together to defeat the threat of the week.

Lumberjanes and unicorns
Also (spoiler), the moment when Ripley uses her newly acquired universe-destroying powers to make sure nobody is allowed to do any harm (after, that is, magically conjuring kittens for everyone) was a powerful subversion of common assumptions about human nature. It’s not true, Lumberjanes reminds us, that the siren call of power will corrupt everyone. The girl who says she wants to spend the summer with her friends and make sure the world is there for them to enjoy isn’t saying that simply because she hasn’t had the chance to treat others as pawns. Perhaps she genuinely means it — perhaps many of us do. Equally important is the fact that a rejection of power we’d inevitably read as gendered in most stories doesn’t have that connotation here simply because there are women everywhere. There are women who do want to rule the universe for dubious purposes, women who do yield power and do it sensibly, women who just want to hang out with their friends — women everywhere, making the myriad choices human beings are bond to make.
Lumberjanes: Mal explains her plan
Lastly, have I mentioned that Lumberjanes is fun? There’s an enormous sense of joy to these stories, plus they’re full of pop culture references (anything from Indiana Jones to Jurassic Park to Frozen), hilarious exchanges, scenes with humour and heart, and dorky jokes that are exactly up my alley (“Dinosauria Minutulus Jerkfacius” cracked me up more than it probably should have). In short, I’m a proud Lumber Jumbie: this series makes me incredibly happy and I’ll continue to buy each new issue the moment it becomes available.

Lumberjanes: 'The cold never bothered us anyway'

Lumberjanes: Jen says 'Friendship bracelets'

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