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This review contains spoilers.

In my morning kindergarten class my students hum the Adventure Time theme song; they chat about Princess Bubblegum and Lemongrab; they draw impressively accurate pictures of Finn and Jake. I’m beginning to think my six-year-olds love Adventure Time almost as much as I do. I struggle to sit through most children’s cartoons; they are too full of explosions and drawn-out sword fights, and the physical gags and moral wrap-ups are too familiar and predictable. Adventure Time, however, is different. Surprisingly, delightfully, sometimes heart-wrenchingly different.

Each eleven-minute Adventure Time episode follows Jake the body-morphing dog (voiced by John DiMaggio) and his adopted brother and best friend Finn the human (Jeremy Shada). Finn and Jake live in the Land of Ooo; a paradoxically post-apocalyptic fairytale world populated by an endless array of wonderful and odd creatures.

As writer/producer Adam Muto notes in this article from The Independent, “on its face it’s [Adventure Time] just a really simple show about a boy in blue and his yellow dog”. On the surface Adventure Time is also – of course – about the adventures Finn and Jake have and the characters they interact with. And Adventure Time is unrivalled when it comes to imaginative characters. Some of my personal favourites include: The Ice King – a lonely man who keeps penguins and kidnaps princesses for company; Tree Trunks – a tiny, gentle, apple-pie-baking elephant with a Southern drawl; Lady Rainicorn – a Korean speaking rainbow unicorn and the mother of Jake’s children; Marceline – a thousand-year-old vampire/demon/song-writer with daddy-issues; and Lemongrab – the extremely high-strung lemon-headed ruler of his own totalitarian city state, who also happens to be a cannibal.

After five seasons (the sixth is currently airing) the Adventure Time creators have developed an enormous – and enormously complex – world, with continuing storylines as well as independent stand-alone episodes. For me, one of the best things about this series is that after so many episodes I still have no idea what to expect from the next one. The fourth episode of Season Six, for example, continued a plotline about Finn’s relationship with his father, while the fifth episode was a self-contained story about Jake’s tail sneaking off to join the circus.

A couple of critics have compared the experience of watching Adventure Time to that of viewing a David Lynch production, and I can certainly see where they are coming from. Like much of Lynch’s work, Adventure Time is a visual feast; a bombardment of images that are dreamlike (laced with symbolism) and often a little dark. The flipside of Adventure Time’s Candy Kingdom is an as yet largely unexplored back story of destruction – a possible nuclear war that left much of Ooo irreparably altered.

The large team of writers and artists behind Adventure Time – with Pendleton Ward at the helm – seem to have been given the freedom to create (almost) whatever they like. It is in this spirit of freedom that truth emerges – and Adventure Time feels full of true feeling. There is no easy moral to be found at the end of an Adventure Time episode – just as at the end of a day/week/month no clear answers to life’s more complicated problems emerge. But – while it may not offer up quick-fix solutions – this series often deals with tough situations. Finn continually struggles with his fear of the ocean; young Lemonhope is forced to face the uncomfortable fact of responsibility; and Lumpy Space Princess spends much of her time nursing a broken heart. Emotions are complex in Adventure Time – “Now my heart feels yellow and green,” Finn comments; “Man, love is weird”, says Finn’s hero Billy from beyond the grave, after admitting he watches his ex-girlfriend while she sleeps. Adventure Time doesn’t talk down to kids (or adults, for that matter) by pretending to know what to do or how to feel in every situation. In Season Six Finn is angry with his father, and begins compulsively building a tower into space to seek revenge. Princess Bubblegum is against this course of action – “It’s bizarre and he could get hurt!” she says. “Feelings hurt!” replies Jake, who is in favour of Finn listening to his ‘melon-heart’. The question this episode seems to pose is can we trust our ‘melon-hearts’ to lead us in the right direction? And if we can’t, then what?

Adam Muto says of Adventure Time: “The best way to approach is just not expecting anything; just let it be what it’s going to be.” The same could be said of life. In the end, what makes this series so wonderful is its optimism; Adventure Time seems to be telling its viewers that while life may not always be easy, with the right attitude it can be a fantastic adventure. So grab your friends, and jump in.

Adventure Time began in 2010, and was created by Pendleton Ward and Cartoon Network. Other key creators behind the series include Adam Muto, Kent Osborne, and Jack Pendarvis. Click these links for more articles about Adventure Time: Emily Nussbaum in The New Yorker; It’s Adventure Time by Maria Bustillos; and I heart Adventure Time forever by Stephanie Van Schilt.

This review contains spoilers.

Last week we had three days off for the King’s Birthday and I bought two new books in anticipation of sitting by the pool of a nice guesthouse on the other side of the river. What actually ended up happening was that I got sick for four days and read both books in various stages of fever and sniffling on the couch.

A Spot of Bother

I started with Mark Haddon’s A Spot of Bother (a second-hand copy on the title page of which was scribbled “I hope you will enjoy it as I did” with a smiley face and an unintelligible signature). I’m a huge fan of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, and had also just read another very enjoyable Haddon novel – The Red House – while bus backpacking in Vietnam. I knew A Spot of Bother would be a fun, easy read; I got through its 390 pages in just over a day. What I had forgotten about Haddon, however, was that his books are not just engrossing family dramas, but family dramas loaded with honesty and insight. I found myself very much relating to this novel from the first page, when George – a fifty-seven year old retiree – begins obsessing about a lesion on his hip. It quickly becomes clear that George is suffering from severe anxiety; he is scared of flying, of being alone, and of speaking at his daughter’s upcoming wedding. I immediately recognised some of George’s symptoms (the less extreme ones, thankfully) as my own. It is an almost unexplainable relief to find in literature something you have been unable or afraid to understand about yourself. I certainly agree with David Kamp in this New York Times book review when he says that A Spot of Bother is a “fine example of why novels exist.” It is funny and sad, intelligent, insightful, and – above all – uplifting. A Spot of Bother is a fine example of a book that takes you out of yourself and reminds you that it’s okay to be yourself at exactly the same time.

Atonement

On day three of the lingering flu I started Atonement by Ian McEwan. This is a novel I’ve been meaning to read for ages, after recommendations from friends, rave reviews, and enjoying a number of McEwan’s other novels (most notably, Enduring Love, On Chesil Beach, and Saturday). And maybe the hype or an accidental glimpse online of one of the key plot points spoiled it, but I didn’t enjoy this novel as much as I expected to. I liked the character of Briony – I related to her longing to be a writer, and enjoyed her moment of realising what “real” writing is about. The first part of Atonement is certainly the strongest – with all its characters and perspectives stepping around one another. And while the writing is beautiful, the descriptions seemed a little much at times; the second section during World War II, especially, felt unnecessarily long winded to me.

After finishing the novel I spent the afternoon watching the 2007 film adaptation. The film is very visually captivating (the house, the fountain, Cecilia’s green dress). I always like to see a period novel (Atonement begins in 1934) on film, because I feel I don’t have the knowledge of history to quite do it justice in my own mind. I thought the young Briony (Saoirse Ronan) was perfect, and I particularly liked the use of sound; the beat of Briony’s clacking typewriter keys becoming a soundtrack, what drives her, what drives the ultimate tragedy of the story. Benedict Cumberbatch is subtle and sinister as the chocolate baron Paul Marshall, and I found the continuous scene on the beach during the war particularly affecting – horses being shot, a young man shivering, a group of men singing hymns, another group drinking.

I realised, upon watching the film, that in my slightly feverish state I had completely missed the point of the book. McEwan’s novel gives us its most important revelation in a single and (or so it seemed to me) very indirect sentence on the second last page. The film, on the other hand, feels much too direct: Vanessa Redgrave as an elderly Briony spelling it out for a TV interview accompanied by oh-so-clear visual flashbacks.

So Atonement is a story, I finally realised, about truth and imagination. Sort of like Life of Pi. Which would the reader prefer? The hard truth or the nice lie? In what way is Briony helping by writing a happy ending now? Is she doing more to help herself? To assuage her own guilt?

Overall, I liked Atonement, but I think I would have enjoyed it more had I been well. Perhaps McEwan is best saved for healthy, poolside reading. Haddon, on the other hand, is marvellously comforting on a sick day.

A Spot of Bother is Mark Haddon’s second novel for adults, and was first published in 2006. In 2009 a film adaptation was made, in French, with the title Une Petite Zone de turbulences.

Atonement was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2001. It is McEwan’s eighth novel.

 

One of the best offerings of adult animation on television at the moment has to be Bob’s Burgers. The Simpsons has, it must be admitted, lately lost a great deal of its satirical genius to celebrity cameos; and Family Guy – in my opinion, at least – continues to make its characters more unlikeable by the episode, and stretches its narratives around crude, unintelligent, and humourless gags. We are left, then, with Archer, South Park, and Bob’s Burgers.

Bob’s Burgers follows the Belcher family in their burger restaurant, situated on Ocean Avenue in a Jersey Shore town. The restaurant is sandwiched between a mortuary and an ever-changing shopfront (in one episode it is ‘Annie Get Your Gum’, in another the ‘Cane You Dig It?’ Candy Cane Outlet, and in yet another episode ‘Miles of Vials’). Across the road is a pizzeria; Bob’s competition and the home of his arch nemesis, Jimmy Pesto (voiced by Jay Johnston).

It is certainly the characters that make this show great. Each time I watch it I struggle to choose a favourite. Bob (H. Jon Benjamin) is the long-suffering father and chef with a penchant for puns (as demonstrated in his burger specials, such as the ‘Open Sesame Burger (served open-faced on a sesame seed bun)’, and the ‘Pickle My Funny Bone Burger’). His wife Linda (John Roberts) often spontaneously bursts into song, and enjoys jokes about diarrhoea almost as much as her eleven year old son. Tina (Dan Mintz) – who was originally written and drawn as a boy – is the eldest child, and is awkwardly exploring her budding sexuality (which often manifests itself in fantasies about cute boys and zombies). Gene (Eugene Mirman, who played the landlord in Flight of the Conchords) is Linda and Bob’s only son, a middle-child with an equal interest in music and toilets. And finally, there is Louise (Kristen Schaal, also of Conchords fame), the youngest daughter with the mind of an evil genius and a neurotic attachment to her pink bunny-ears. Bob’s Burgers also boasts an impressive array of recurring characters, including restaurant regulars Teddy the handyman (Larry Murphy), Mort the mortician (Andy Kindler), and Jimmy Pesto’s twin sons Andy (Laura Silverman) and Ollie (Sarah Silverman). Over its four seasons Bob’s Burgers has hosted a wide range of voice-acting talent, including Bob Odenkirk as a dodgy insurance adjustor, and John Hamm (yep, Don Draper himself) as a talking toilet.

While Bob’s Burgers may not be as politically biting as South Park, or boast the expansive (if wonderfully outlandish) narratives of Archer, it is a very entertaining show. Bob’s Burgers offers flawed yet extremely likeable characters, engaging storylines, and just the right amount of poop jokes. If you’re looking for something fun to settle down with on a Sunday night, Bob’s Burgers is just the thing.

Bob’s Burgers was created in 2011 by Loren Bouchard. It is currently in its fourth season.

In December last year two of my closest friends in Cambodia were married. She is English, a foreigner (‘barang’ in the Khmer language), and he was born and raised in Kampot, a province about two hours south-west of Phnom Penh. What follows is an account of their wedding day.

We arrived in Kampot the afternoon before, turning off the main highway from Phnom Penh onto a skinny orange dirt road. We were greeted by a vibrant mess of a village: kids, dogs, chickens, and decorations going up. Behind the flurry of activity, rice fields stretched into the distance, peppered with gangly coconut trees and fanned with a cool harvest-time breeze. Once our cargo had been unloaded (boxes of whiskey and armfuls of pink and white lotus flowers) we were ushered inside for the first ceremony: a Buddhist blessing for the bride and groom. We covered our knees and shoulders and knelt on the floor, hands pressed together at our chests while saffron-clad monks chanted. My Cambodian is rudimentary at best, but when I later asked the groom what the monks were saying he shrugged his shoulders. The chants are an ancient language – Sanskrit – that many Khmer people don’t understand.

We slept that night on the second floor of a wooden house, and were woken at five-thirty by the distorted disharmonies of Cambodian wedding music. The morning was a blur of braided hair and fried bananas for breakfast. By ten-thirty we were dressed (pink skirts, gold belts, false eyelashes) and ready for The Fruit Walk.

12. WalkingThe Fruit Walk is one of the most important ceremonies in the Khmer wedding tradition. The bride and bridesmaids wait in the house for the groom and the guests, who come bearing fruit and other gifts. The bride is escorted downstairs just before the groom reaches the house, and she walks a few metres to meet him. The couple then walk together to the wedding tent, where the fruit is acknowledged and the guests are thanked. There is no priest or celebrant in a Khmer wedding, but a male and female ‘MC’ run the show. I understood very little of their rapid-fire Cambodian, but the feeling in the air was palpable: a heady mix of excitement and joy.

A quick costume change for Cut Sok – The Hair Cutting ceremony. Burnt orange pants and35. The ceremony single-shoulder tops had us feeling a little like princesses out of Arabian Nights; the boys were similarly regal in shiny gold jackets. Traditionally, close relatives would cut a piece of the bride and groom’s hair to symbolise a new beginning. These days the cutting is mimed – though the groom’s elderly grandfather managed to get a few real snips in!

The last Khmer ceremony for the day (and my favourite) was P’tum: the Pairing Ceremony. The bride and groom are dressed from head to toe in gold, to resemble a king and a queen. According to the story, a king falls in love with the daughter of a dragon, and she takes him to visit her palace under the sea. To help him breathe, she holds him close to her in the water (this is represented in the ceremony by the groom holding the bride’s clothes as they walk together). Family and friends throw flower petals over the couple, and tie pieces of red string around their wrists to wish them well (the song traditionally sung during this ceremony goes: “We wish for true happiness and success to this couple, who will always be together like wet grass seeds”). There is no limit to how many people can tie the string, and by the end of the ceremony the bride and groom had forearms covered in red thread. The string must remain tied for at least a week after the wedding. It was lovely to see so much good will, so brightly worn.

 

12. Girls & dogsOnce the Cambodian ceremonies were done it was time for the Western component. After some initial complications (a broken stereo cord, kids running off with the basket of flowers) everyone sat down for the exchange of vows. For an English wedding in the Cambodian countryside things were predictably chaotic – and perfect. The sun began to set over the rice fields as the bride walked barefoot down the ‘aisle’ (read dirt path in front of the house); kids were running around, baby chickens ‘cheeped’ in the background; some guests chatted to each other and into cell phones while others listened intently; and at one point the bride’s dog settled himself on her train and went to sleep. Lips were kissed, confetti was thrown, and the bride and groom headed off into the rice fields for a photo shoot with the cows (one of which was presented to the bride in place of a dowry[i]).

The day ended with eating, drinking, and dancing. So much dancing. We sashayed – Apsara-style – late into the night. Kids, coiffed teenagers, parents, grandparents; Khmer rock, K-pop, and even some Mariah Carey. We woke the next morning with sore feet and aching heads, but big smiles. Back down the skinny orange track to Phnom Penh – no cans rattling on the back of the minivan, but a whole lot of red knots tied.

24. String me & Andrew

[i] The modern dowry system in Cambodia is based on money rather than livestock. However, when the bride refused to let the groom’s parents pay for her hand in marriage it was suggested that a newborn calf be given instead. The cow remains on the farm in Kampot, but out of respect for the bride – a vegetarian and an animal lover – it will not be used for meat.

Outside, beyond a wall of thin steel and cheerful creaking plastic, it’s minus sixty degrees and forty thousand feet to the ground. Flung across the Atlantic at five hundred feet a second, you submit to the folly because everyone else does. Your fellow passengers are reassured because you and the others around you appear calm. Looked at a certain way – deaths per passenger mile – the statistics are consoling. And how else attend a conference in Southern California? Air travel is a stock market, a trick of mirrored perceptions, a fragile alliance of pooled belief; so long as nerves hold steady and no bombs or wreckers are on board, everybody prospers. When there’s failure, there will be no half measures. Seen another way – deaths per journey – the figures aren’t so good. The market could plunge.

I decided to reread this novel about two months ago, but then let it sit for a long while on my bedside table. Over the last few years I’ve developed a fear of flying (a particularly inconvenient phobia when you spend most of your time living and working overseas – though I have recently discovered this extremely helpful website) and after the disappearance of flight MH370 I was afraid to open Saturday. I remembered the vivid description of a plane crash in the first few pages, and wasn’t sure I was ready to let those images enter my head. I eventually realised that reading the news in the mornings was much more detrimental to my peace of mind than reading books, and so took Saturday out onto the balcony with my tea and toast. Instead of being frightened by Ian McEwan’s imaginings of a plane going down I was moved by them – by the beauty of his language, and also by the similarities between the character’s fears and my own. In Saturday the protagonist – a doctor with a very rational way of looking at the world – is somewhat mystified by literature. He wonders what purpose prose serves, what meaning people find in poetry. For me, one of the greatest things about a novel is its ability to show us who we are, to put into words feelings and experiences we have but are unable to describe. Saturday does this very well – through the close-up examination of a single life McEwan gives us a wonderful portrait of larger human experience.

Saturday is set in London on the 15th of February, 2003. The novel follows – from third person limited perspective – successful neurosurgeon Henry Perowne as he goes about his day. The writing is stream of consciousness in style, and the structure reminded me strongly of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, though Perowne’s thoughts are pragmatic and political rather than poetic, and he is buying fish instead of flowers. Perowne plays squash with his anaesthetist, visits his elderly mother, and preps for a family dinner – all of this against the backdrop of an enormous protest against the impending Iraq war. In the midst of his errands Perowne has an unsettling encounter with Baxter, an aggressive and unstable man who Perowne suspects of suffering from a serious neurological disorder. This moment leads to a significant twist in plot and tone later in the novel – a sinister, dramatic thread that is something of a trademark of McEwan’s style.

I have only read a few of McEwan’s novels, but it is this taking of events and suddenly turning them in another, darker direction that I have enjoyed most (his books might best be described as literary thrillers). In Saturday I also liked the sustained stream of consciousness style across a short span of time, and the way McEwan balances and links exterior storytelling with Perowne’s internal dialogue.

I did appreciate the prominent political backdrop – as a post 9/11 novel Saturday paints a good picture of Western uncertainty in the early 2000s. However, I felt that there were moments where the story served as too much of a vehicle for debate about the war (and while both sides were represented, Perowne does seem to lean a little towards the right). I also thought that the technical details were somewhat overdone. McEwan observed a real neurosurgeon for two years while writing the novel, and the surgical descriptions certainly add a lot of depth to his main character. After a few paragraphs of brain surgery, however, I started to get a little bored. Finally, I found it hard at times to relate to the characters; perhaps because of their success and privilege (none of the main characters seem to have any real flaws). Perowne is a doctor, his wife a lawyer, his twenty-three year old daughter a published poet, and his son a successful blues musician. I found myself feeling a little inadequate in their wake.

Overall, however, Saturday is a thoughtful, relatable, and compelling novel, which reads just as well the second time as the first. Highly recommended.

Saturday was published in 2005, and won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction. Other novels by Ian McEwan include Enduring Love, Atonement, and Amsterdam.