The Fosters #2.09 (Leaky Faucets) recap: plumbing the depths

Sometimes I check TiVo and laugh at the generic episode descriptions written for some TV shows, which completely fail to differentiate one episode from another. (Whoever writes these obviously can’t be bothered to actually watch the episodes or even check Wikipedia.) Anyway, if The Fosters had a generic episode description is would be this: “Tough exteriors mask real emotion in this week’s episode.”

Indeed, in ‘Leaky Faucets’, you’ll never guess what happens: tough exteriors mask real emotion!

Yet the fact remains that the characters on The Fosters have so much more inner life than most characters on TV, so this contrast of tough exteriors/inner turmoil is worth revisiting. There’s a bit of TV farce thrown into ‘Leaky Faucets’, when the whole Adams Foster sib-set ends up at a Mexican street festival, but the show is smart enough to realize plumbing its characters’ emotional depths creates the real drama.

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The Fosters #2.08 (Girls Reunited) recap: chasing a feeling

In this episode, everyone’s looking for a feeling: whether it’s a pop song ideal of love, or a true sense of ‘home’, or even just an end to numbness.

Yet it’s ersatz feeling that’s overrides real feeling in ‘Girls Reunited’, as the characters say one thing while they mean another; reach for one person while they yearn for another. Everyone’s looking for the real thing – in Brandon’s words, “someone who gets you” – but they’re mostly just making do with whatever they can find. Sometimes good-enough really is enough, but sometimes it’ll burn your house down…

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Book review: Orange Is the New Black – Piper Kerman (memoir, ****)

“Don’t make any friends,” Piper Kerman’s lawyer warns her just before she enters prison for a one-year stint on a drug-money charge.

Indeed, at the outset of Orange Is the New Black – and especially if you’ve seen the TV adaptation – it’s easy to anticipate that rich-girl TV producer Kerman will find nothing in common with her hardscrabble fellow convicts.

I’d read so many wildly-differing reviews of this book (some glowing, but most negative) that it had ultimately fallen off my to-read list. But I started listening to it as an audio book on a whim and was surprised at how much I loved it.

Orange is not without its horrors – Kerman is shuffled through some penitentiaries that seem designed to drain away your will to live – but it’s actually a much gentler, light-hearted read than the premise might suggest. There’s little violence or hazing; most of what Kerman finds insufferable about prison is the loss of dignity and overbearing system of oft-nonsensical rules.

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Book review: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – Muriel Spark (fiction, ***)

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a novel so immediately charming that you can see instantly why it’s a classic. The audio book is read with aplomb by Miriam Margolyes (petition for Miriam Margolyes to read all audio books starts here), and so it’s easy to be enraptured in Prime’s witty idiosyncrasies.

Set at an Edinburgh private school in the 1930s, the titular Miss Brodie – teacher to a group of young girls who become her somewhat reluctant protégés – is a fantastic character: gloriously self-absorbed and hilariously pretentious. The school’s curriculum is rather left in the dust, as Miss Brodie instead lectures on art and music and adventure – and, of course, how wonderful the Fascist dictators on the continent are.

The story of young students and their magnetic teacher is now a well-trodden one, so I was surprised at how fresh this one felt, even in 2014. The wit of Muriel Spark is razor-sharp and her observations of adolescence and pre-adolescence are beautifully, uncomfortably accurate. She brings to life a funny, poignant world of pre-teen girls, where the obsession with sex is all-consuming – even though the young characters scarcely know what sex is (only that it’s terribly easy to get “swept away” and end up pregnant).

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Book review: Down and Out in Paris and London – George Orwell (non-fiction, ***)

I thought the “do something for a year and then write a book about it” trend in publishing was a fairly new thing, but apparently not. Just call George Orwell ‘Diablo Cody’, ‘cause here it is: his “I’ll just pretend to be poor for a while and write a book about it” book.

This is perhaps underselling Down and Out in Paris and London, which is a classic for good reason. Indeed, Orwell writes lucidly of life as a dishwasher in Paris and being ‘on the road’ as a tramp around London, vividly capturing the wretchedness of starvation and overwork.

I wondered, when I picked up Down and Out, if it would still be relevant some 80 years after its publication, but in fact, I found it remarkably resonant. Some aspects of Orwell’s experiences are wholly alien (casual wards for tramps to spend the night – ???), but working round-the-clock at a menial job or sleeping rough are still depressingly intrinsic to life now. Though I found Down and Out very depressing, it did give me a lot to think about.

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Book review: The Pregnancy Project – Gaby Rodriguez (non-fiction, ***)

What do you say about that girl in your high school class who gets pregnant? She’s a slut, right? She’s stupid. She’s ruined her life. And, oh yeah, you kinda knew it was coming.

Gaby Rodriguez knew the type of things people say about pregnant teenagers better than most – her mom got pregnant at 14; her siblings, almost without exception, became parents as teenagers; and even their children are now continuing the cycle.

This seemingly-endless cycle forms the backdrop to a unique school project – one that, as it turned out, would court massive media attention. Rodriguez, a straight-A student, a leadership volunteer, and an all-around ‘good girl’, decided to fake a pregnancy of her own and see how the people around her reacted.

The reaction? In short: she’s a slut, she’s stupid, she’s ruined her life, and they knew it would happen.

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Book review: Pity the Billionaire – Thomas Frank (non-fiction, ***)

In Pity the Billionaire, Thomas Frank seeks to unravel the peculiar mystery of how the 2008 financial crash paved the way for the Tea Party and the resurgence of the Republicans in the US.

The answer is many-layered, but it mainly lies in rhetoric that lumps together big business and big government indiscriminately, an erroneous tendency to conflate the interests of small businesses with the interests of big corporates (even though they’re wildly different), plus some rather outrageous pilfering of the branding and tactics used by leftist activists.

There’s so much interesting material in this book that it’s a shame it didn’t hold my interest more. I’ve read (or tried to read) three of Thomas Frank’s books now and I’m becoming wise to his weaknesses as a writer. His ‘poli-sci nerd’ creds may be his strength as a commentator, but it means his books tend to be rambling and unfocused. Billionaire is a lot more readable than One Market Under God (which seemed to me more like an Masters thesis than a book for general audiences), but it’s lacking the easy panache of a more journalistic read like Matt Taibbi’s Griftopia.

Plus: while I found Frank’s What’s the Matter With Kansas? retained a sense of long-term relevance, Billionaire already feels a bit stale, even though it was only published a couple of years ago.

I’d recommend reading What’s the Matter With Kansas? (and, indeed, the aforementioned Griftopia) before this one.

I guess you could… follow me on twitter: @njmwrites

Book review: The Secret Rooms – Catherine Bailey (non-fiction, ****)

This is a story about impulse buying borrowing and how sometimes a 10-second-sell really delivers:

I was browsing the Regional History section of my local library (I know, what a life I lead; full of danger and intrigue at every juncture) and I found this book titled, The Secret Rooms. I thought, “I love secret rooms!” Then I read the blurb, setting up the mystery of why a set of rooms in a mouldering country estate were sealed upon the death of the lord of the manor, and I thought, “Ohmygod, what happened? I need to know what happened!”

And guess what? This story of impulse borrowing has a happy ending, because reading The Secret Rooms turned out to be just as satisfying as I’d hoped. Now onto the story of the book itself…

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The Fosters #2.07 (The Longest Day) recap: uncharted waters

Callie ropes in Jude to join her in spending the day with the Quinns on their yacht. But it’s Brandon who’s all at sea, when he finally reveals the iceberg-sized truth about what happened with Dani to his parents. (Sorry, the scope for ocean-based metaphors in this episode recap has me cast adrift with excitement.)

Stef and Lena begin the episode by planning a quiet, relaxing afternoon alone together – a type of plan that has fallen through for them so often that, at this point, we basically hear a vengeful god’s booming voice say, “haha, nope!”

With Mariana at dance practice, Jesus at wrestling practice, and Callie and Jude headed for the open sea, it’s only Brandon (and his secret) left at home. Lena gently tells him that today’s the day: “The kids are all out of the house, so I think it’s time.” Lena’s phrasing, excluding Brandon from being one of “the kids”, is heart-breaking and more than a little ironic in the context of what’s to come.

Instead of a relaxing afternoon, it’s time for a little family therapy session.

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The Fosters #2.06 (Mother) recap: little earthquakes

“You’re not my real mom.” It’s a phrase so overused – a soapy line reserved for bad TV – that it’s almost hard to take seriously. In ‘Mother’, however, The Fosters returns the phrase’s potency. Lena reveals her worst fear: that one of her adopted children will one day dismiss her with that very phrase: “you’re not my real mom.”

Not coincidentally, this episode’s subplots pair each of the Adams Fosters’ blood relatives. Jude and Callie are joined in their shared struggle to speak, to open up. Brandon wrestles with the secret he’s keeping from Stef and Mike. Jesus and Mariana simply bicker.

This bickering provides the episode’s white noise. It’s a continual reminder of the bond blood relatives share. When you’re related, you can tear strips off one another and still be safe in the knowledge that you love each other. Lena, we learn, is acutely aware that she lacks that sense of safety: “sometimes I’m afraid that they won’t love me as much as I love them, because I’m not their biological mom.”

Of course, as the episode painfully emphasises, real moms are those that love their children enough to sacrifice for them.

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The Fosters #2.05 (Truth Be Told) recap: control and callie-amity

Jude cuts a sad, almost eerie figure in this episode, silently wandering the house unheard, like a cat without a bell. He overhears conversations about himself – Jude’s working through things in therapy, the moms emphasise – and stumbles upon situations he’d rather avoid, like Callie’s tête-à-tête with her brand new sister.

The causes of Jude’s silence remain cloudy. Stef and Lena give the family a cribsheet on selective mutism that sounds like it came from skim-reading Wikipedia. (I know this, because last week I Googled it and skim-read the Wiki entry on selective mutism. Ahem.) It’s an anxiety disorder, they explain; he’ll speak when he’s ready.

Connor, of course, blames himself. He thinks it’s because he told Jude his dad wouldn’t let him sleep over anymore because he thinks Jude’s gay. Callie also blames herself. She thinks it’s because she went to see Sophia, effectively betraying her bond with Jude.

It’s Wyatt who gives perhaps the most convincing theory on why Jude won’t speak: “You two have been through a lot of bad stuff,” he tells Callie. “You’ve been jerked around. Never known where you’re gonna live or for how long. Maybe not talking is [Jude’s] way of finally feeling like he’s in charge of something in his life.”

Control – being in charge of your own life – hums beneath the surface of this episode.

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The Fosters #2.04 (Say Something) recap: dude, that’s my sperm

The show’s theme song may tell us “it’s not where you come from, it’s where you belong,” but this episode is nonetheless pretty preoccupied with where you come from.

Callie gets to know her biological father and half-sister, while Jude is quietly devastated by a sense that he means less to Callie for only being half a brother. Timothy’s insistence that he should be a part of his biological child’s life continues to wreak havoc on Stef and Lena’s happy pregnancy bubble. Even Brandon is caught up by the biological vs. chosen family dilemma, revealing an obvious and continuing internal battle over whether an adopted sister is a “real” sister.

Love may be what makes a family, but in this episode, everyone’s preoccupied with DNA.

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The Fosters #2.03 (Play) recap: pulling pigtails

‘Play’ takes a classic teen show trope – the parents are out of town; let’s have a party! – and gives it a wry remix, using it as lens through which to view The Fosters’ changing characters and relationships.

This episode is probably the show’s funniest to date, with lots of visual comedy and plenty of opportunity to use Maia Mitchell’s expressive face to full effect. The humour is a relief following the misery of season 1b and its fallout, but ‘Play’ still manages a few poignant moments where the laughter falls away and we’re reminded: oh yeah, life’s not a rom-com.

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Book review: The Third Man – Graham Greene (fiction, ***)

The hardest thing about reviewing The Third Man is to judge it on its own terms. I was initially drawn to the novel for its setting of postwar Vienna – a ‘smashed city’ that has been divided among the Allies, none of whom are getting on terribly well.

Does Graham Greene find anything particularly profound to say about postwar Vienna? Well, no. It’s just a grubby, uneasy backdrop for a grubby, uneasy tale of crime – which is all Greene sets out to accomplish, after all.

The result is a brisk, compelling story about black market racketeering, with a twist I didn’t see coming and a requisite (though not quite believable) shootout to finish. Add in a genuinely funny subplot about the protagonist being mistaken for a famous literary author and the whole thing becomes eminently readable.

‘Readable’ is not the most glowing of compliments you can give to a novel. Did I wish it had more depth of emotion, more literary cachet, more challenging viewpoints, more female characters? Of course. Is it fair to ask those things of a popular novel published in 1949? No.

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The Fosters #2.02 (Take Me Out) recap: catalyst

‘Take Me Out’ hinges on Brandon’s desire to have further surgery on his hand. It’s surgery that could repair the remaining damage and allow him to play classical piano once more – but it also risks making his hand much worse. Brandon’s injury radiates out through ‘Take Me Out’: it’s a story in its own right, but it’s also a catalyst that stirs up other characters and storylines.

Each character has a very different reaction to Brandon’s proposed surgery. Jesus is shruggingly straightforward: “Shouldn’t it be his decision? He’s the one who got his ass kicked.” Stef’s immediately negative about it, reflexively protective of her son. Lena seems to view Brandon as a Child Psychology case study (“[if it goes wrong,] we help him to learn from it”). Callie’s reaction, meanwhile, seems wholly coloured by her own experiences of loss and hard-earned resilience.

The Fosters is a show with a frankly unwieldy cast list, which made some of season one feel disjointed, but I think in season two, it has begun to cohere. In ‘Take Me Out’, the story strands spool outwards from a single point, and then tangle together, creating something that feels like several sides of the same story.

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