Where the Crawdads Sing By Delia Owens

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From the very first pages of Where the Crawdads Sing, the reader cannot help but be transported to the coastal North Carolina Marsh.  Delia Owens expertly weaves a haunting coming of age tale with a murder mystery in which the natural landscape is a significant supporting character.  The story is about Kya’s journey from a young, abandoned child to an independent and accomplished woman.  She is the heroine but with a dark secret.  She grows up as the disdained “Marsh Girl” living on the outskirts of 1952 Barkley Cove, North Carolina.  However, it is the marsh and swamp surrounding her that provides a safe haven and saves her from her mother’s abandonment, her father’s alcoholic abusive behavior, and the complete loss of all family and sense of security at the tender age of seven.   One might expect a child to perish in the circumstances in which Kya is left but she thrives.  Kya is a keen observer and educates herself on the sights, smells, and sounds of the marsh, swamp, and inland waterways of the Carolina Coast.  The marsh raises her and is her family. 

After her mother and older siblings have all left, Kya is forced to learn to navigate the nuances of caring for herself and her father who is prone to drunken fits of rage and abuse.   She is able to carefully nurture this relationship and even learn a few things from her exceedingly flawed and damaged Pa.  He teaches her to fish which provides a source for food and to navigate the inland waterways by boat.  Just when it seems that there might be a chance for this father-daughter pair, it all dissolves when a letter arrives from Kya’s estranged mother.  Her Pa descends into a drunken bender and ultimately leaves for good.  Kya is left all alone.

Not only is Kya abandoned by her family but she is rejected by the townspeople of Barclay Cove.  They see her as the dirty, uneducated marsh girl, essentially trash that pollutes their segregated town.  Few reach out to help her but those that do are the true heroes of this story.  Their once tentative relationships grow and encircle Kya’s otherwise lonely existence with a make-shift family of support.  Her survival and some of her successes rest on their unconditional friendships, making the prejudices of the rest of the town all the more glaring.   Kya grows and evolves into a renowned biologist and protector of the marshland, capable of providing for herself while giving back to those that helped her along the way.

For others in town, Kya is a mysterious and alluring curiosity.  Chase Andrews, the handsome and rich town football star, attempts to manipulate and take advantage of Kya’s vulnerability.  He tricks Kya into trusting him and, though he is intensely attracted to Kya, he cannot turn away from societal expectations to honor his relationship with her.  Instead, Chase seeks to control Kya and keep her for himself in the shadows.  Chase underestimates Kya’s fortitude and her knowledge of marsh survival.  In the hurt and pain that he inflicts, she returns to the depths of the marsh where she finds comfort and answers to the harsh truths of her life.

As of late January 2021, Where the Crawdads Sing has spent 124 weeks on the bestsellers list, a stunning achievement for Delia Owens’ first novel.  Owens is an accomplished and award-winning nature writer with a BS in Zoology from the University of Georgia and a Ph.D. in Animal Behavior from the University of California at Davis.  On Owens’ personal web page, she describes that her mother encouraged her to be an “outside girl” and to “Go way out yonder where the crawdads sing.” Delia Owens earned awards for exceptional creative writing even in her childhood.  However, as a college student, she decided to pursue a career in science.  She spent decades in Africa studying the social behavior of mammals, especially female mammals, including lions, hyenas, and elephants.  She returned to creative writing in retirement.   Where the Crawdads Sing is a perfect marrying of Owens’ passions, nature, and fictional writing.  Delia Owens has truly led an extraordinary life.  Her experiences, as a keen observer of life science, translate readily in this captivating story that explores the behavioral impact on a young woman forced to live alone in the marsh without family.  Kya’s story is one of survival and the marsh, in all its natural detail, is her ally.  At its conclusion, you may put the book down and feel compelled to “go out yonder where the crawdads sing.”

-Johnson D.

TV Review: Marvel’s WandaVision

WandaVision | Watch Full Show Online

My parents are always raving about old sitcoms like The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Facts of Life or Friends.  Sitcoms, in their day, were the perfect half hour to hour where family and friends could gather for a show and a laugh with little worry.  They were children of the 70’s and 80’s, so I get it, but as a child of the 2020’s I prefer more action.  Disney Plus’ WandaVision is a perfect marriage of our mutual loves.  To add to its appeal, it comes from Marvel.  The creators of Marvel have expertly woven pop cultural references from the 1950’s, 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, 90’s, and 2000 television with Marvel action packed story telling.  Not only that, but the writers take a deep dive into Marvel lore, providing excitement for everyone from the basic fan to the aficionado.  This ended up being a show that our family watched together, something my folks would call “must see TV,” though I am so glad I live in an era when I can watch what I want when I want.  Beware this review may contain spoilers

WandaVision begins as an idyllic 1950’s sitcom in the vein of The Donna Reed Show or Leave it to Beaver.  We are the audience watching an hourly scheduled program, of which Wanda is the main character.  How audiences found entertainment in these vanilla black and white comedies, I’ll never understand but, as pop culture goes, they reflect American values of the time.   The first episodes keep in step with the idea of a 1950’s happy home where the husband goes to work and the wife stays at home in the kitchen.  Weird, right?  We see that Wanda Maximoff (Scarlet Witch) is blissfully married to Vision, a sentient robot created by Ultron to destroy the world but who is later reprogrammed to help the Avengers.  Right away, the set up is a surprise because when audiences last saw this pair, Wanda is grieving the tragic destruction of Vision by Thanos at the conclusion of Avengers, End Game.  Here, Vision is very much alive and functional.  The couple is in love, recently married, and have moved to the perfect American small town, Westview, where they appear to be happily trying to fit in as “normal.”   At first it appears their ruse is working but there is a very peculiar and eerie undertone that something is not right.  As the sitcom transforms in rapid time from the 1950’s to the 1960’s we realize that not everything is as it seems in this little town, and by the time we reach the big hair and fluorescence of the 1980s, we learn that our protagonist has a dark secret and danger is lurking in a neighbor right next door.   We also are clued into a concurrent present day storyline, in the outskirts of Westview, that threatens to collide with WandaVision’s tranquil and out of time-sync town.

What is particularly attention-grabbing is that past Marvel characters, who were seemingly peripheral to the ultimate Marvel storyline, make appearances in WandaVision and are integral to the movement of this story.  You can’t help but almost cheer when they arrive on scene like an old friend you haven’t seen a while and remember how cool they are to hang with. I don’t want to give too much away except to say that Agent Woo has some amazing and quotable lines from this series.  If you don’t know Agent Woo, do yourself a favor and revisit Antman.  Oh and check yourself, you may not be a true Marvel fan.

WandaVision: What Big Marvel Cameos Could Happen? | Den of Geek

Without a doubt there is a blurring of lines between good and evil in WandVision which the audience comes to understand as we learn how and why Wanda escaped to Westview.  What is clear, however, is that actress, Kathryn Hahn, brilliantly sneaks up on you as the evil villain.  She is suspicious from the start but the true nature of her back-story unfolds in a wonderfully diabolical manner, drawing from historical fiction dating back to the Salem witch trials of the 1690’s.   She drives Wanda in the direction of her destiny as the Scarlet Witch.  Hopefully, this is not the last we will see of Kathryn Hayn and her mischievous character in the Marvel Universe.

Lastly there is a deeper message about running from problems and pain in WandaVision and that message is delivered via the ridiculousness and lightheartedness of the sitcom.  The sitcom is the perfect escape from the real world.  Typically, it is funny, sometimes even cheesy.  The basic sitcom plot involves the introduction of a problem that is most often resolved, with hijinks to boot,  by the end of the half hour. Who wouldn’t want to hideout in that kind of easy-natured fun, at least for a while.  Unfortunately, life is not a sitcom and even Wanda, with all of her powers, can only suspend reality for a brief time before her spell begins to bend and become vulnerable.  The pain of her losing Vision, along with the pain of her other life struggles, can’t be resolved in a half hour sitcom and trying to bury it there hurts everyone around her.  She has to embrace Vision’s lesson “But what is grief, if not love persevering?” In the end, Wanda emerges stronger, and more powerful and the audience is left to ponder her next move and also to ponder the ultimate question, “where will the Marvel Universe take us next?”

Johnson D.

Be More Chill By Ned Vizzini

Are you a teenager who feels like they don’t fit in, or like you aren’t cool enough to date your teenage crush?  Do you run with the geeky crowd but pine away wanting to be a part of the popular crowd?  Do you need to be more chill? If so, this is the perfect book for you.  Be More Chill was published June 1, 2004 by American author Ned Vizzini.  It is a modern take on the perils of what can happen when you are not true to your authentic self.  Be more Chill is a hilarious yet mature read with adult themes that is not appropriate for all teens.  However, Vizzini’s message is attention-grabbing, so much so that Be More Chill was adapted as a musical with original music and lyrics by Joe Iconis.  Be More Chill, the musical, premiered off Broadway in 2015, followed by a Broadway run in 2018.  Unfortunately, plans for London and Chicago productions have subsequently either been cut short or cancelled due to the Covid 19 pandemic.  

Be More Chill (Broadway Tie-In) by Ned Vizzini, Paperback | Barnes & Noble®

Ned Vizzini’s novel, Be More Chill, is a story about a highschool boy named Jeremy Heere.  Jeremy is an outsider and a loser amongst his popular classmates.  He is bullied and picked on by his peers and has only one true friend to console him, Michael Mell.  Michael is also part of the loser crew but unlike Jeremy he is happy, content, and comfortable with himself.  Jeremy dreams of dating his crush Christine Canegula, but unfortunately cannot work up the nerve to approach her.  Jeremy obsessively looks for a way to get Christine’s attention without making a fool of himself.  Despite his notion that signing up for the school play is a “sign-up sheet for getting called gay,” he decides to go for it as a ploy to get Christine’s attention.  He quickly learns that Christine’s focus is on the school play and not on Jeremy.  Hurt and defeated, Jeremy is vulnerable to taking advice from his worst enemy and tormenter, Rich Goranski.  Rich gives Jeremy a “get cool quick” scheme.  Rich tells Jeremy about a top secret experimental pill created by Sony called a SQUIP (Super Quantum Unit Intel Processor).  Rich explains that the pill size supercomputer can teach you how to be cool and convinces Jeremy that, if he swallows the SQUIP pill, he will no longer be a loser.  Jeremy gets his hands on a SQUIP and mayhem ensues.   Jeremy finds himself the popular center of attention.  He attends all the cool parties and finds himself making out with all the hot girls.  At first Jeremy loves reaping the benefits of the SQUIP, but soon he learns that being cool isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.  Bad behavior has lasting consequences.  At risk of losing his best friend and losing  any chance of connecting with the girl of his dreams, Jeremy has to make tough decisions and repair the damage that his SQUIP intoxication creates.   

Amazon.com: Be More Chill (9780786809967): Vizzini, Ned: Books

Be More Chill is a satire of the teenage high school experience as told from the perspective of an overly awkward, dorky, and anxiety-prone Jeremy.  It is mostly hilarious because Jeremy’s character is over exaggerated to the point of being almost ridiculous.  In some ways the story is sad because Jeremy is so paralyzed by his lack of self esteem that he can’t approach the girl he loves and is willing to trade his best friend for being cool.  He seems pathetic.  The concept of a pill sized super-computer as the “drug of choice” for transformation is interesting especially as it reveals to Jeremy that we do not win when we are not true to ourselves.  I feel like this is a lesson we all know and have read and re-read from a variety of perspectives. Ned Vizzini couches his version of the lesson in mature themes including drugs, sex, and violence that are at times shocking and disturbing.  That someone thought to turn this into a musical seems equally as shocking but also brilliant.  Unfortunately, the novel’s end is abrupt and a disappointment, as there is no real redemption for Jeremy.  The reader is left feeling that Jeremy has really learned very little and is still, unfortunately, a loser. 

-Johnson D.

Be More Chill by Ned Vizzini is available as a free download through Overdrive.

Star Wars: The Mandalorian

Whether you are casually entertained by the Star Wars franchise or a rabid fan, Disney Plus’ The Mandalorian is a truly fun escape from the humdrum of life since Covid 19.    This Disney Plus series, which now has completed two seasons, takes place after Return of the Jedi and before The Force Awakens in the Star Wars universe.  For those, like me, who thrives on Star Wars lore, the exact year is 9 ABY (After the Battle of Yavin).  During this time the empire has been mostly destroyed and the New Republic has taken over the galaxy and is attempting to bring stability and peace, though corruption lurks behind every turn.  The series follows a bounty hunter who seems to have no affiliation with either the Empire or The Republic.  His aim is to make money for his clan who live in the shadows to avoid conflict with the outside world.  As season one unfolds, a disturbing and sinister connection between the Mandalorian race and the Jedi is revealed that intertwines and blurs the lines of good versus evil.  This blurring of lines persists through both seasons and is inherent to the exciting plot twists within each episode and at the conclusion of each season.  The central story is based around the bounty hunter who sacrifices his position as a bounty hunter to save a child he was meant to deliver to the hands of the Empire.  Instead, he listens to his inner voice and makes it his mission to protect and return “the child” to his people.  This proves a dangerous and challenging odyssey that carries the pair across the Star Wars Universe.  They face sinister and sometimes familiar characters along the way and are often forced to fight their way out of what seems like near-impossible situations.  Along the way, more and more is revealed about “the child” and the unexpected and surprising man who is called Mandalorian.

The Mandalorian (TV Series 2019– ) - IMDb

The mastermind behind The Mandalorian is none other than, Jon Favreau.  Favreau is a director, actor, producer, and screenwriter.  He directed the wildly popular Christmas comedy, Elf.  Additionally, he is the creative genius behind the Iron Man franchise among many other popular films.  Favreau has been quoted as saying that The Mandalorian is meant to “hearkened back to the Westerns and samurai films that had originally influenced Lucas.”  Favreau is referencing George Lucas the original creator of Star Wars. The world Lucas imagined in the original Star Wars movie has been capturing the imagination of audiences since its release in 1977.  Jon Favreau includes himself as one who was fascinated by Star Wars lore and he has built on that in The Mandalorian, staying true to Star Wars roots but adding his own take.  With the expanded format of a TV show,  Favreau has been able to take a deep dive into the Star Wars expanded universe and draw from Star Wars spin-offs including The Clone Wars and the video game, Star Wars Battlefront.  However, there is enough character development, revelations, cliff-hanger, and adventure that even audience members new to Star Wars can enjoy the fun.  Favreau has said that, with this show, he wanted to create a “good party” for the Star Wars audience.  He has done just that.  Grab your family, your best friend, and your lightsaber and join in.  “This is the way.”

-Johnson D.

Gris Grimly’s Frankenstein

If you love comic strips, graphic novels, or rad video game graphics that tell the story seen in your imagination, then you will find Gris Grimly’s Frankenstein intriguing. This literary remake of Mary Shelley’s classic work captures attention immediately with on-point illustrations complementing the descriptive narrative, down to the smallest imagined detail. Grimly himself writes in his Afterword, “I wanted to set the tale in a world that could only be visited through my imagination. Dark moral lessons exist amidst a whimsical tone.” (Grimly 195).

The original Frankenstein was published in 1818 by Mary Shelley but the core messages of this chilling classic stand the test of time, especially told through Grimly’s words and pictures. Shelley’s original work was very advanced for its era. For many, the disturbing concept of creating life in a laboratory was difficult to understand. However, Shelley’s lessons about the consequences of what we create continue to captivate and even frighten readers today. As medical science has evolved, we can now transplant organs from one human being to another to sustain life. This is the positive side of such advancement but what are the consequences? Mary Shelley was asking these questions before anyone around her could imagine this kind of science. The problem with Shelley’s telling of Frankenstein is that the novel is long and difficult for a modern reader to get through. Enter Gris Grimly. Grimly is a wildly talented illustrator who was inspired by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein so much so that he re-wrote the story in a way that would be more understandable to a wide audience. He added captivating, weird, and sometimes horrifying (in a good way) graphics that help usher the reader through the dense and detailed story.

Frankenstein is the story of Victor Frankenstein’s twisted life. A key component to understanding Victor is learning that he loses his beloved mother to scarlet fever. He is heart-broken and his grief drives him to the brink of insanity. His entire purpose becomes trying to find the cure for all illness, to prevent man’s demise from disease. This transforms from wanting to cure disease to creating life. Through research and experimentation, Victor succeeds in resurrecting the dead and creating life from a dead body dug out of a graveyard. The glory of his creation turns into fear because the life form has a hideous appearance. “For this I had deprived myself of rest and health. I had desired it with an ardour that far exceeded moderation; but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart.” (Grimly 42) Victor immediately flees the creature, his own creation, without even giving the creature a chance to learn humanity. The monster is brought into the world and abandoned by his maker. Grimly’s illustrative rendering of the scene is grotesque, sad, and begs the question, “who is the real monster?” Victor’s abandonment of the monster is a grave mistake. The monster flees into a world he does not understand with no guidance. He is shunned and hated by all manner of person. The rejection destroys the monster. He becomes jealous, hurt, and angry. The monster does not understand why he is treated differently than Victor and he is jealous of the love and acceptance Victor has from his family and friends. The monster’s rage and jealousy turn destructive and then deadly as he seeks to make Victor suffer in the worst way imaginable. With the guilt of his family being murdered by his own creation, Victor sets out to kill the creature and send it back to the darkness. Ultimately, this obsession leads to Victor’s own demise.

Grimly’s illustrations and written word are dark but weirdly drive home sympathy for the monster and disgust with Victor. Grimly writes in his Afterword about seeing the story through Victor’s eyes, “Beware the slippery slopes of acclimating to a life of self-absorbed achievements and fame, lest one falls into the pit of fire and brimstone.” (Grimly 195) Victor’s selfish undoing is not the only lesson of Frankenstein. The damage of ” judging a book by its cover” is another. The monster wants only acceptance and love. Anyone who has ever felt like the outsider or outcast can identify with him. Grimly beautifully draws the monster asking Victor to create a companion for him so he can, “become linked to the chain of existence and events, from which I am now excluded.” (Grimly 117) This drives home the monster’s feeling of loneliness and desire for acceptance and companionship. The reader can’t help but be frustrated by how the monster is treated and ask themselves, “wouldn’t I treat him better?” Ultimately what Gris Grimly accomplishes with his interpretation of Frankenstein is illustrative magic. Grimly draws the reader into his cool, grotesque, and hipster version of Frankenstein’s world, without allowing the reader to miss the key elements and moral questions of the original story. He takes the hard work of Mary Shelley’s immense masterpiece and makes it an easy ride for all readers.

-Johnson D.