Believe Care Invest

Believe Care Invest: Aladdin

Hey, where’s Marvel Reread Club?? Well, after overwhelming you guys with podcast content last week, I’ve decided to do one podcast a week. MRC will appear this Friday morning and will now be bi-weekly every other Friday from this point on. The next Friday, we will have a new Secrets of Story Podcast, then a new MRC, etc. Hopefully we can maintain both podcasts on a bi-weekly schedule, alternating with each other. In the meantime, let’s do Aladdin!
  • A merchant trying to sell us a lamp tells a story: First we see Jafar try to get something from a magical cave, then he says he must find the “diamond in the rough.” Cut to Aladdin who has stolen a piece of bread and leads the guards on a merry chase around the city, singing a song. He gets away with the bread, but decides to give it to some starving kids. He then protects the kids from the whip of a prince going to the palace.
Why Aladdin might be hard to identify with: No real reason, he’s tremendously lovable.

Believe:
  • We begin with a song about his culture and the setting.
  • He has a distinctive outfit.
  • He has a gap between his exterior and interior: When he’s alone, he sings to himself, “Riff-raff, street rat, I don’t buy that, if only they’d look closer, would they see a poor boy? Nosiree. They’d find out there’s so much more to me.”
Care:
  • He’s an orphan: The people in the streets say, “I’d blame parents but he hasn’t got ‘em”
  • He’s poor: “I steal only what I can’t afford – That’s everything!”
  • He’s envious of the prince.
  • Needlessly insulted: “You are a worthless street rat. You were born a street rat, you’ll die a street rat, and only your fleas will mourn you.”
  • He falls in unrequited love at first sight.
Invest:
  • He’s great at running away. After he dives off a building and swings down a series of clotheslines, the guards say, “You won’t get away so easy!” and he says, “You think that was easy??”
  • He has a reputation. Women think he’s adorable. “He’s rather tasty!”
  • He has a resourceful monkey assistant.
  • He’s kind: he gives bread he’s stolen away to poor kids.
  • He’s badass: He protects kids from being whipped by grabbing the whip away from the prince.
  • He’s good at improv with the princess when he has to save her from having her hand cut off. They “yes and” each other.
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Believe Care Invest: The House on Mango Street

  • Pre-teen Esperanza moves with her family to a modest house on Mango Street and looks for friends.
Why Esperanza might be hard to identify with: It’s an unusual format. The short book essentially consists of 150 one-page short stories, with only a small amount of interconnectivity. Obviously, scenes don’t go very far in depth and not a lot of momentum builds. There’s very little dialogue.

Believe:
  • She talks about, “windows so small you’d think they were holding their breath.” Always good to personify things
  • We always like vivid but unexpected smells: “Mama’s hair that smells like bread.”
  • We have all, in our odder moments, experienced bits of synesthesia. I remember as a child thinking “red and green make brown because red is 5 and green is 3 and brown is 8”, as if that were the most obvious thing in the world. Giving your hero a bit of synesthesia makes them feel oddly real: “In English my name means hope. In Spanish it means too many letters. It means sadness, it means waiting. It is like the number nine. A muddy color. It is the Mexican records my father plays on Sunday mornings when he is shaving, songs like sobbing.”
  • Odd sensory information: “At school they say my name funny as if the syllables were made out of tin and hurt the roof of your mouth.”
  • Let your characters relabel themselves: “I would like to baptize myself under a new name, a name more like the real me, the one nobody sees. Esperanza as Lisandra or Maritza or Zeze the X. Yes. Something like Zeze the X will do.”
  • Unlike some Hispanic authors, Cisneros doesn’t sprinkle in much Spanish, but she does have culturally unique syntax: “Two girls raggedy as rats live across the street.” Different characters have different culturally unique syntax. One says, “but me I’m Texas.
  • Not a lot of dialogue in the book, but what we do get has lots of personality: “People on the bus wave. A very fat lady crossing the street says, You sure got quite a load there. Rachel shouts, You got quite a load there too. She is very sassy.”
  • Vivid sound description: “Our laughter for example. Not the shy ice cream bells’ giggle of Rachel and Lucy’s family, but all of a sudden and surprised like a pile of dishes breaking.”
  • Unique similes: “It’s like all of a sudden he let go a million moths all over the dusty furniture and swan-neck shadows and in our bones.”
  • There are lots of chances to tie the book in to specific cultures, but there are also details like this not specific to their culture, implying that there are some aspects of culture that cross over, just because they’re great songs. “She can’t come out—gotta baby-sit with Louie’s sisters—but she stands in the doorway a lot, all the time singing, clicking her fingers, the same song: And we always love song lyrics. Apples, peaches, pumpkin pah-ay. You’re in love and so am ah-ay”
Care:
  • They had to move hastily because the pipes burst in their old home and their landlord refused to fix them. Decisions made under pressure are always good ways to launch stories.
  • The opening humiliation of the story is often the moment when a hero first realizes how others see them: “You live there? There. I had to look to where she pointed—the third floor, the paint peeling, wooden bars Papa had nailed on the windows so we wouldn’t fall out. You live there? The way she said it made me feel like nothing. There. I lived there. I nodded.”
  • She arrives in her new neighborhood and has to go through the humiliating ritual of asking kids to be her friend. One replies, “You want a friend, she says. Okay, I’ll be your friend. But only till next Tuesday. That’s when we move away. Got to. Then as if she forgot I just moved in, she says the neighborhood is getting bad.”
Invest:
  • This book is about Esperanza getting wised up to the true nature of the world: “I knew then I had to have a house. A real house. One I could point to. But this isn’t it. The house on Mango Street isn’t it. For the time being, Mama says. Temporary, says Papa. But I know how those things go.”
  • As with all semi-autobiographical novels, we invest primarily because of the fact of this book, which, because we’re reading it, proves that the hero broke free and made her place in the world (though the author and heroine have different names). All of the Believe examples above show both Sandra and Esperanza’s exquisitely perceptive eyes, and we like good eyes.
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Believe Care Invest, Comics Memoir Week: Persepolis

  • Marjane Satrapi recalls being 9 years old in 1979 when the Islamic Revolution takes over Iran. The next year, the girls at school are all forced to wear veils. The girls play with their veils at school. She recalls wanting to be a prophet as a child, even before the revolution.
I’ll break my rule and do just one book in translation. The author is an English speaker who supervised the translation, so I’m going to let myself get away with it, and I just love it too much not to use it.

There’s no reason not to love Marjane, she’s intensely sympathetic. Let’s look at some of the reasons we Believe in her:
  • She acts recognizably ten when she takes off and plays with her veil at school, despite her religious bent.
  • She’s got beliefs and she’s written them down: “I wanted to be a prophet because our maid did not eat with us, because my father had a cadillac, and above all, because my grandmother’s knees always ached.” Her grandmother says to her, “Come here, Marji, Help me to stand up.” Marjane helps her and says, “Don’t worry, soon you won’t have any more pain, you’ll see,” then reads to her from the Holy Book she’s written: “Rule number six: Everybody should have a car. Rule number seven: All maids should eat at the table with the others. Rule number eight: No old person should have to suffer.”
  • The book captures how children process things: Marjane is told that her communist grandfather was put in a cell filled with water for hours. That night she insists on taking a long bath. “I wanted to know what it felt like to be in a cell filled with water. My hands were wrinkled when I came out, like Grandpa’s.”
  • She’s stubborn: When she tells her teacher she wants to be a prophet the other kids laugh at her and her teacher says to her parents, “Doesn’t this worry you?” They tell the teacher it’s fine, but she still decides to lie about it, even to them. Her father says, “So tell me, my child, what do you want to be when you grow up?” She thinks, “A prophet,” but says “I want to be a doctor.”
  • She’s imaginative: she has an amusing relationship with God, who talks with her long into the night.
As with most of our other examples, Marjane is caught up in a historical tragedy, so she’s easy to Care for:
  • She is forced to wear a veil she doesn’t want to wear. Her co-ed French school is shut down and she is sent to an all-girls religious school.
  • She is caught between the shah and the revolutionaries, both of whom are horrible. Her parents are political, so she has even more reason to worry about them. A picture of her mom taken at an anti-veil protest goes global, putting her life in danger. “She dyed her hair, and wore dark glasses for a long time.”
  • When she chooses Marxist revolution, she finds that her friend God no longer visits her at night.
There are lots of reasons to Invest in Marjane:
  • She’s got a pretty badass attitude for a ten year old: “I wanted to be justice, love and the wrath of God all in one.”
  • She’s precocious: “To enlighten me, they bought books. I knew everything about the children of Palestine, about Fidel Castro, about the young Vietnamese killed by the Americans, about the revolutionaries of my own country… But my favorite was a comic book called ‘Dialectic Materialism’”
  • She dresses up with a (presumably toy) machine gun and bullet sash, then marches around in her garden: “Today, my name is Che Guevara! Down with the king! Down with the king!”
In the end, Marjane will not lead the revolution, but we trust in the opening pages that she could.

Strength / Flaw: Fiery / Heedless
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Believe Care Invest, Comics Memoir Week: Maus

  • This book has a very similar structure to “March”: Begin with an emblematic incident from the hero’s youth (In Rego Park, New York, in 1958, young Art Speigelman skins his knee and goes to his holocaust survivor dad Vladek for sympathy but gets none) then we jump forward to a modern day framing sequence (In the late 70s, Art visits his dad for the first time in years to get out of him details of his life for a holocaust comic about mice) then jump further back into a harrowing past (Vladek tells of dating a poor girl in the 30s, then leaving her for a rich girl)
Neither Art nor his father are very easy to identify with. Art is an unsuccessful underground comic book creator, which isn’t any reader’s favorite profession. He hasn’t visited his father in two years, until he decides to come pump him for comic book material. He smokes constantly and gets annoyed when they get annoyed that he’s ashing on their stuff. Vladek is not a great dad in the 1958 sequence, unkind to his new wife in the modern day framing sequence, and a bit caddish and mercenary is his flashbacks. So the book has some hurdles to overcome with BCI.

Let’s do Art and Vladek separately. Here are some reasons we believe in Art:
  • In 1958, Art has an object unique to the time: Skates that attached to your shoes.
  • We get just a brief mention of Art’s French-American wife Francoise, but we can tell that such a wife makes him unique in Rego Park.
  • He has a signature piece of clothing: The vest he always wears.
There are lots of reasons to care about Art.
  • In 1958, he’s abandoned by his friends: “I-I fell, and my friends skated away w-without me.” His father responds, “Friends? You’re friends? If you lock them together in a room with no food for a week…then you could see what it is, friends!” We instantly get that it would suck to have to beg sympathy from someone who compares your suffering relative to the holocaust.
  • In the present, Art’s mother has committed suicide.
  • His father doesn’t respect his job: “Better you should spend your time to make drawings what will bring you some money”
  • His father is exasperating, telling him great stories and then insisting they not be in the book. We’re glad Art breaks his promise to leave them out.
As for Investing in Art, the quality of the comic itself is the ultimate testament to his skills. His goal of commemorating the holocaust is noble, and he does push to get it against resistance. Neither Art nor Vladek can suspect that this comic will make Art one of the first comics artists ever to become rich and famous. His stepmother correctly points out, “It’s an important book. People who don’t usually read such stories will be interested.”

Okay, let’s look at why we Believe in Vladek:
  • He has very distinctive syntax: “It’s a shame Francoise also didn’t come.” “I don’t want you should write this in your book.”
  • In the flashbacks, he’s got a nicely mundane job buying and selling textiles.
  • He knew his current wife back in Poland before he met his first wife, which is a nicely complicated situation.
And of course, there are many reasons to care, even before we get to his time in the concentration camps:
  • His wife has committed suicide, an ironic death for a holocaust survivor.
  • He doesn’t get along with his new wife.
  • He has a unique complaint “A WIRE hanger you give him! I haven’t seen Artie in almost two years—We have plenty WOODEN hangers.” Shades of Joan Crawford!
  • In the flashback, he finds his girlfriend more attractive than the richer girl he actually wants to marry, which is a caddish problem, but we still sympathize.
So why do we Invest in Vladek?
  • Crucially, he rides an exercise bike while he tells his son of his past. We love exercise and bikes!
  • When we get the flashback, he’s a great lover, “I had a lot of girls what I didn’t even know that would run after me. People always told me I looked just like Rudolph Valentino.”
  • Always a good superpower: When the hero understands a second language and then others use it around them, not knowing they understand it: “The next morning we all met together. My cousin and Anja spoke sometimes in English.” The cousin asks, “How you like him?” Anya replies, “He’s a handsome boy and seems very nice.” Vladek explains to Art: “They couldn’t know I understood.”
Speigelman is acutely aware of the ironies of this story. He overcomes the urge to present his late, longsuffering father as saintly, and instead presents him flaws and all. He worries aloud to his stepmother that unflattering aspects of his portrait will seem to some to confirm some of the racist caricatures that triggered the holocaust in the first place. But ultimately, he has to trust himself. The more three-dimensional the story is, the more powerful it will be, and the more it will impact every reader.
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Believe Care Invest, Comics Memoir Week: March

  • We begin on the Edmund Pettus bridge in 1965. John Lewis and Hosea Williams lead a group of marchers across the bridge and get attacked by the local police. We then jump to the morning of Obama’s inauguration as a much older John wakes up and prepares for his day. He goes to his office, where a family peeks in and he offers to show them around. He tells them about speaking at the March on Washington. One of the boys asks why he has so many chickens. He describes growing up in Alabama as the son of a sharecropper who eventually bought his own farm.
Obviously John Lewis is one of the great American heroes of the 20th century, so we certainly admire him right away. You might think that his monumental edifice might make him hard to identify with (as MLK is in stories about him), but Lewis is delightfully humble and human here, allowing us to Believe, Care and Invest right away.

Here are some reasons we believe:
  • First and foremost, his iconic, odd outfit on that bridge: He was wearing the standard suit and tie of the movement, but over it he had a trenchcoat and a backpack, which emphasized his young age and his preparation for going to prison.
  • We always love song lyrics. As he gets ready for his day on the morning of the inauguration, he sings in the shower: “You can take my freedom, oh yes, you can take my freedom, oh, yes, but you cannot take my dignity.”
  • Distinctive syntax: He says of his family’s cabin, “My father bought it in the Spring of 1940 for $300. Cash.”
  • He’s got odd kid logic: “When the hens began laying their eggs, I’d mark each one with a lightly penciled number to help keep track of its progress during the three weeks it took to hatch. The numbers were always odd. Never even. I had been told never to put an even number under a sitting hen. It was bad luck.”
  • His dreams are represented by an object: “I always hoped to save enough money for an actual incubator, like the $18.95 model advertised in the Sears-Roebuck catalog. We called that our wish book.” 
 As far as getting us to Care, this book does the classic trick of beginning with the most brutal moment in Lewis’s life, getting beaten on the bridge in 1965, then we jump forward to the framing sequence where he’s a comfortable congressman on a happy day for the country, then we jump back further to his hardscrabble childhood, having established both the highs and lows he’s heading toward. We fully care at this point. Let’s look at other reasons we care:
  • In the opening vignette on the bridge, he could not be more trapped, the bridge behind him is filled with marchers pushing him forward, and they discover a club-wielding mob waiting for them at the far side of the bridge. Williams nervously asks him, “Can you swim” He says “No.” Williams responds, “Well, neither can I, but we might have to.”
  • He’s viciously beaten.
  • In the past, he was very poor, going to substandard “separate but equal” schools using the broken down, discarded bus of the white kids, and their discarded old school books as well.
  • He’s forced by his parents to eat chickens he loves.
Obviously, Lewis is easy to Invest in. He’s tremendously badass.
  • When they realize militarized cops are waiting to beat them and he just says to Williams, “We should kneel and pray, Hosea.” This infuriates the cops who swarm and attack them.
  • In the present, he certainly has decision making authority as a congressman (in a party that now controls all three branches of the government, starting on this day.)
  • He’s a precociously smart and determined child. He can read the bible on his own at age five. On the days when his father tells him he must stay home from school to help on the farm, he hides until the bus comes by and then bolts for it just as it’s leaving, getting away to school before his father can stop him. “When I got home, my father would be furious. I was certain he would tan my hide. But he never did whip me—not over that.”
  • He’s a uniquely sensitive child: “No one else could tell those chickens apart, and no one cared to. I knew every one of them by appearance and personality. There were individuals to me. Some I even named.”
In seminary, Lewis tells of coming across the story of MLK told in comic book format, and what a powerful tool that was. He published his memoirs in prose form (as “Walking With the Wind”, which is also well worth reading), but then he chose to reach out to another audience with this comics version, and the result is a stunning success.
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Believe Care Invest, Comics Memoir Week: Fun Home

  • Alison Bechdel tells us of her memories of her life before and after her father’s death by suicide in 1980. Her father spends all his time renovating their house, and also runs a funeral home (The central irony: They shorten “Funeral Home” to “Fun Home”)
Bechdel is a passive hero. Her central action in the story is getting a phone call telling her that her father has died. She will find out some of her dad’s secrets before his death, and some after, but she mostly learns them because her mom drops them unexpectedly, not because she’s actively pursuing the mystery. This book’s primary value is that it’s thoughtful. She has, in retrospect, given a lot of thought to her relationship with her dad and now she’s got 242 pages of fascinating insights. That’s not an easy sell, but the book turns out to be easy to love simply because it’s so well written (and drawn, but the art’s not the main focus).

She could have structured the book by building up to the shocking reveal of his death, or the shocking reveal that the seemingly-accidental death was probably suicide, or the shocking reveal that her father was pursuing affairs with adolescent boys, but all three of those facts are mentioned very early on. We sort of move outward in concentric circles from these central facts, adding a series of layers to the narrative.

So Bechdel had a lot of work to do with BCI. She had to get us to connect with a passive heroine on an inner quest that doesn’t build to any catharsis in real time. How did she do it?

There is no shortage of reasons to believe in this character and this world. Bechdel has the ideal material of every memoirist: She kept extensive diaries as a girl and still has them. That means she has hundreds of details ready at hand. The diaries themselves are fascinating: She became increasingly unsure of herself and started to add a qualifying “I think” in tiny letters after every sentence. Eventually she just creates a shorthand symbol to express this, and soon she’s just scrawling the symbol on top of every word.

Some other ways she gets us to believe:
  • Characters usually reveal themselves in what they compliment in others, but her backhanded compliments towards her father show what she doesn’t value: “He was an alchemist of appearance, a savant of surface, a Daedalus of décor.”
  • In response to her unloving father’s obsession with interior design, she develops a motto: “When I grow up, my house is going to be all metal, like a submarine.”
  • Sense memory always makes a character come alive. She remembers one of the few times she felt close to him: “My mother must have bathed me hundreds of times. But it’s my father rinsing me off with the purple metal cup that I remember most clearly. The suffusion of warmth as the hot water sluiced over me… …the sudden, unbearable cold of its absence.” Later, she has to remind herself, “He really was there all those years, a flesh-and-blood presence steaming off the wallpaper digging up the dogwoods, polishing the finials, smelling of sawdust and sweat and designer cologne.”
  • We see the books he’s reading and often they’re red flags to his secrets.
  • Her grandmother has unique syntax: “Why he was all over mud, dears.”
Obviously, the main reason to jump ahead and reveal her father’s death early on is that it makes it easier to care about her right away. If she had waited to wallop us with it later, we might not have gotten as involved with the narrative. Other ways she gets us to care:
  • Foreshadowing through the use of parallel characters: In a moment that is fairly typical of the book’s philosophical bent, she remembers her father lifting her up on his feet, and tell us that she now knows that it’s called “Icarian Games” in acrobatics. She then talks about how Icarus and Daedalus became parallel characters for her and her father. (And then this leads to a discussion of Joyce’s character Stephen Daedalus)
  • Her father cares more about restoring the house than playing games with her.
  • Her father calls a room he’s decorated “slightly perfect.” Nothing is ever good enough for him.
  • Her father insists on pink and flowers for her room though she hates both. She hasn’t figured out yet that they’re both gay.
  • Her father hits both her and her mother, and at one point she flees the house in fear of violence.
  • “I grew to resent the way my father treated his furniture like children and his children like furniture.”
  • Everything is a risk, “If we couldn’t criticize my father, showing affection for him was an even dicier venture.”
We never fully Invest in Bechdel to solve the book’s mysteries. In the end, she gives it all a lot of thought, and reaches some fascinating conclusions, but she has no big breakthroughs or catharsis. It’s a gentle, melancholy book. Nevertheless, here are some reasons we invest:
  • She’s defiant: “I was Spartan to my father’s Athenian. Modern to his Victorian. Butch to his Nelly. Utilitarian to his aesthete.”
  • Rides a bike: “I bicycled back to my apartment, marveling at the dissonance between this apparently carefree activity and my newly tragic circumstances.”
  • She’s brave. She comes out to her parents as soon as she figures it out, though she has reason to suspect they won’t approve.
  • She’s a classic book-taught amateur: She decides she’s gay totally hypothetically, comes out to her parents, then reads every book ever written on lesbianism (braving potentially-disapproving librarians), then launches into her first relationship fully informed.
Ultimately, Bechdel forges a universal story out of observations that are very specific to her odd circumstances. It’s the ultimate testament to this story’s fundamentals that it was able to be translated into a hit Broadway musical, despite having none of the elements one generally associates with musicals.

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Believe Care Invest, Comics Memoir Week: El Deafo


Hey guys, we’ve been talking about comics on the new podcast, but we’ve never really done any story analysis on comics on this blog! So let’s go ahead and do Comics Memoir Week! Let’s start with one of the best, El Deafo.
  • In the mid-70s, four year old Cece Bell gets meningitis and loses the ability to hear. She soon gets a powerful hearing aid and decides that she is now a superhero called “El Deafo”.
Why Cece might be hard to identify with: It’s a little hard to identify with a four year old, since most of us have lost all of our memories of that age. It’s pretty odd that it seems to take her days or maybe even weeks to figure out she’s gone deaf—I believe it, because this is obviously a very honest memoir, but it just makes me think, “how could a four year old not notice that? They’re so weird!”

So I think that this book may have the best one two punch of believe and care that I’ve seen. Here’s the first page:

 
So right away we’ve got six reasons to believe:
  • First and foremost, she always wears the same two-piece swimsuit, every day, even when other people are dressed in normal clothes. Distinctive wardrobe choices really help us believe, and, to the extent that we remember being four, that’s so perfectively indicative of that age’s peculiarities.
  • Then we have five individual memories: In the first, she draws on her mom’s vanity mirror with lipstick, which is believable enough.
  • Then she watches Batman on TV with her siblings, which establishes the setting and her family situation.
  • Then she rides with joy on the back of her dad’s bicycle. We love to watch people enjoy things fully.
  • Then she finds caterpillars with her friend. Always good to give them friends and give them an activity to do with that friend that we haven’t seen a million times or more.
  • And finally, song lyrics! We love song lyrics, and singing into a cardboard tube makes it tactile and unique.
So boom: We totally believe in this four year old hero in one page. Then what happens on page 2?
 

She almost dies! This specific song we all love is interrupted and she’s rushed to the hospital. Because we totally believed on the first page, we now totally care on the second page! (And superimposing the car on top of her mother’s words makes effective use of the medium.)

At the hospital, she’s taken from her parents and has a needle put in her back. We hear (but she doesn’t) the doctor tell her parents: “The fluid from her spine tells us she has Meningitis. Her brain might swell--” Her mom replies, “But she’s only four!” Cece wakes up in pain. She notices that the other girl in her room got ice cream and she didn’t (and only much later figures out she didn’t hear when they offered it to her.) When she tries to get up, she can’t stand or walk.

Of course, she’s only four and quickly becomes very helpless, so we don’t invest right away, but we finally get the chance to invest starting on page 22, when she gets a hearing-aid and starts to realize that this makes her kind of a kick-ass bionic woman. Then she goes to school and gets a super-hearing-aid. At first, she feels self-conscious about it, and enters a “bubble of loneliness”, but then she realizes that she can hear so much more than the other kids. She can hear her teacher going to the bathroom, and gossiping about the kids in the teacher’s lounge (“That Jimmy Malone is making my life HELL!”) She thinks, “I have amazing abilities unknown to anyone! Just like Bruce Wayne uses all that crazy technology to turn himself into Batman on TV”. Once she lets her secret be known, she becomes a hero to the other kids. She now sees herself as a superheroine called “El Deafo”. The bubble pops (though it will return intermittently as we move through several years of story.)

Strength / Flaw: Resilient / Self-conscious
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Believe Care Invest: A is for Alibi

In the present, private investigator Kinsey Milhone is trying to process that she’s just shot and killed someone, then jumps back to three weeks earlier, when she was hired by a woman who had just gotten out of jail to find out who had really killed the woman’s husband. Kinsey goes to the cops for information, but they inform her that not only is the woman guilty, but they suspect she also killed another victim and never got caught.

Why Kinsey might be hard to identify with: She’s hard to identify for the same big reason that we…

Believe
  • Her work is fairly mundane and her attitude toward it is rather bland, even this more-interesting-than-usual murder case. This is all just a job for her, no different from her other small jobs: “I had to go take some photographs of a crack in a sidewalk for an insurance claim” She’s not engaged, so we also find it hard to engage.
  • Her terse, hardboiled voice gives her individuality. And she’s got some fun observations: Of the head cop: “He looks like he would smell of Thunderbird and hang out under bridges throwing up on his own shoes.”
  • The case has lots of unique details, such as poisoning using oleander.
  • What we compliment in others shows our values: She says of the cop: “his powers of concentration are profound and his memory clear and pitiless.”
  • After the cops sends her to a side room to read about the case, she returns to his office: “I leaned on the doorframe, waiting. He took his sweet time ambling over.” Good capturing of how people communicate and express conflict just with body language. She sends a message by leaning, he sends one by ambling.
Care
  • She’s had to kill someone in the flashforward, and that’s roiled up her placid exterior. “The day before yesterday I killed someone and the fact weighs heavily on my mind… Killing someone feels odd to me and I haven’t quite sorted it through.”
  • She has a hardscrabble background: “I’ve lived in trailers most of my life, but lately they’ve been getting too elaborate for my taste, so now I live in one room, a ‘bachelorette.’” She drives a dent-covered ’68 VW.
Invest
  • She’s just killed someone, and the cops don’t seem to mind very much, so she’s badass.
  • She can traverse different worlds, and she’s satisfyingly rebellious: “That’s why you didn’t like being a cop yourself, Kinsey. Working with a leash around your neck.”
Strength/Flaw: Professional / Dispassionate
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Believe Care Invest: Go Tell It on the Mountain

John becomes aware on the morning of his fourteenth birthday in 1935 that he does not want to become the preacher that everyone expects him to become. He imagines cursing his abusive father on his deathbed. He goes down to breakfast and worries that no one has remembered his birthday.

Why John might be hard to identify with: For modern readers, no real reason. He’s an intensely sympathetic character.  White readers in 1952, of course, were not primed to care about black, possibly-gay masturbating teenagers, but Baldwin didn’t give AF.  

Believe
  • It’s always good to differentiate siblings right away by having them react to the same thing in individual ways: “John and Roy, passing these men and women, looked at one another briefly, John embarrassed and Roy amused.” Even the baby has an individual personality: “The baby, Ruth, sat in her high chair banging on the tray with an oatmeal-covered spoon. This meant that she was in a good mood; she would not spend the day howling, for reasons known only to herself, allowing no one but her mother to touch her.” Every character comes alive when they have secrets, even babies.
  • Semi-autobiographical novelists have a ready-made store of the sights and sounds of their childhood: “the sisters in white, heads raised, the brothers in blue, heads back; the white caps of the women seeming to glow in the charged air like crowns, the kinky, gleaming heads of the men seeming to be lifted up—and the rustling and the whispering ceased and the children were quiet; perhaps someone coughed, or the sound of a car horn, or a curse from the streets came in; then Elisha hit the keys, beginning at once to sing, and everybody joined him, clapping their hands, and rising, and beating the tambourines.”
  • There are lots of song lyrics. Baldwin has abandoned his religious upbringing, but he knows it provides him with lots of good material.
Care
  • The opening quote says of the faithful: “They shall run and not be weary”, but that’s never true in Baldwin’s work, where weariness is never far behind. Later, he says: “Her full lips were loose and her eyes were black—with shame, or rage, or both”. In Baldwin’s books, rage often becomes shame and shame often becomes rage.
  • John is burdened by an unwanted legacy: “EVERYONE had always said that John would be a preacher when he grew up, just like his father. It had been said so often that John, without ever thinking about it, had come to believe it himself. Not until the morning of his fourteenth birthday did he really begin to think about it, and by then it was already too late.” Begin at the moment the longstanding personal problem becomes acute and undeniable.
  • Everybody feels misunderstood, though some of us think of ourselves are better than we’re regarded and some of us think of ourselves as worse. John is tortured by secret shame: He has “sinned with his hands” in the night, looking a shape on the ceiling that looks like a naked woman. (And he also seems interested in the body of the boy who plays the organ at church, which is presumably even more likely to bring him feelings of shame)
  • Shades of Sixteen Candles, he’s worried that his whole family has forgotten his birthday: “His first thought, nevertheless, was: ‘Will anyone remember?’ For it had happened, once or twice, that his birthday had passed entirely unnoticed, and no one had said ‘Happy Birthday, Johnny,’ or given him anything—not even his mother.”
Invest
  • He has decided to defy God, which is pretty badass: “The darkness of his sin was in the hardheartedness with which he resisted God’s power; in the scorn that was often his while he listened to the crying, breaking voices, and watched the black skin glisten while they lifted up their arms and fell on their faces before the Lord. For he had made his decision. He would not be like his father, or his father’s fathers. He would have another life.”
  • He remembers being praised by his principal at his school and sensing what that might mean: “That moment gave him, from that time on, if not a weapon at least a shield; he apprehended totally, without belief or understanding, that he had in himself a power that other people lacked”
  • He is beaten for his individuality, but he knows it’s a superpower: “it was his identity, and part, therefore, of that wickedness for which his father beat him and to which he clung in order to withstand his father. His father’s arm, rising and falling, might make him cry, and that voice might cause him to tremble; yet his father could never be entirely the victor, for John cherished something that his father could not reach. It was his hatred and his intelligence that he cherished, the one feeding the other.”
Strength/Flaw: Self-aware / Guilt-wracked
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Believe Care Invest: Slaughterhouse Five

In the first chapter, Vonnegut tells us that this is a mostly true story and he was actually there for the bombing of Dresden. The second chapter introduces us to Vonnegut’s alter ego Billy Pilgrim, who is convinced that he’s unstuck in time, and has been abducted and put in an alien zoo, in addition to his own experiences in Dresden. In the war flashbacks, he has to deal with a psychotic fellow soldier named Roland Weary.

Why Billy might be hard to identify with: The first chapter gets us to invest in Vonnegut, not Billy, then it’s a little awkward to shift to the fictional character. Once we meet Billy, we never really believe his perceptions: He’s got PTSD from the bombing and he’s recently had a head injury from a plane crash. In the Dresden flashbacks, he stresses that he was totally incompetent, which usually keeps us from liking a hero. Even worse, he “wouldn’t do anything to save himself.” Traditionally this makes heroes pretty hard to care for, but Billy is an exception. I think it has something to do with the recurring phrase “So it goes”. The book gets us into a different, more philosophical mood, admiring the character who is learning to let himself be carried along by events, and despising the character fighting so hard against the Nazis with his own weaponry

Believe
  • An abundance of detail that Vonnegut actually witnessed: the bizarre equipment of a chaplain’s assistant, for instance. “While on maneuvers in South Carolina, Billy played hymns he knew from childhood, played them on a little black organ which was waterproof. It had thirty-nine keys and two stops- vox humana and vox celeste. Billy also had charge of a portable altar, an olive-drab attaché case with telescoping legs. It was lined with crimson plush, and nestled in that passionate plush were an anodized aluminum cross and a Bible. The altar and the organ were made by a vacuum-cleaner company in Camden, New Jersey-and said so.” 
  • His life as an optometrist is believably mundane.
  • His son is fighting in Vietnam, tapping the novel into real life national pain. To a certain extent this whole book is about Vietnam, where America was already creating a lot of new Dresdens. Vonnegut is saying, “Even the ‘good war’ wasn’t all that good, so what does that say about our current entirely-unjustified war?”
  • Vivid similes throughout: “Billy was preposterous-six feet and three inches tall, with a chest and shoulders like a box of kitchen matches.”
Care
  • He’s “cold, hungry, embarrassed, incompetent.” We care for characters who are cold, hungry, and embarrassed. We usually ask that character not be incompetent, but we accept it here.
  • He’s totally humiliated: “A chaplain’s assistant is customarily a figure of fun in the American Army. Billy was no exception. He was powerless to harm the enemy or to help his friends. In fact, he had no friends. He was a valet to a preacher, expected no promotions or medals, bore no arms, and had a meek faith in a loving Jesus which most soldiers found putrid.”
Invest
  • It’s hard to invest in him because he’s so hapless, but his meek faith will serve him well: God seems to be watching out for him throughout the novel, as he survives against steep odds through no effort of his own.
  • No matter how much he blundered into it, that doesn’t take away that he survived being a prison of the Nazis at the Battle of the Bulge, so that’s still pretty badass.
  • We do admire the way he spars with Roland Weary by refusing to engage with Weary’s psychosis. We like heroes who don’t let themselves be baited, and let big talkers hang themselves.
    • ‘How’d you-like to be hit with this-hm? Hmmmmmmmmm?’ he wanted to know.
    • ‘I wouldn’t,’ said Billy.
    • ‘Know why the blade’s triangular?’
    • ‘No.’
    • ‘Makes a wound that won’t close up.’
    • ‘Oh.’
    • ‘Makes a three-sided hole in a guy. You stick an ordinary knife in a guy-makes a slit. Right? A slit closes right up. Right?
    • ‘Right.’
    • ‘Shit. What do you know?’
Strength/Flaw: Zen / Helpless
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