Review: The Devil in Silver, Victor LaValle

The Devil in Silver is something like a horror thriller, set at an inpatient mental health facility in New York City, where the patients are being stalked–and sometimes killed–by the literal devil, who lives in their facility on a locked ward. Our protagonist Pepper teams up with a bipolar teenager called Loochie, a schizophrenic lifer called Dorrie, and a Ugandan immigrant, Coffee, to fight back against both the devil and the rigid structures of the hospital.

This book vibrates with anger at the mental health system. The text itself is shot through with anger, and the acknowledgements afterward include a literal “fuck you” to the psych ward at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt.

Criticism of the mental health system is a minefield with me. I have so much skin in the game I end up on defense no matter who you want to criticize. Yes, inpatient mental health care is a critical need in this country, and yes, I can understand why a reasonable human would choose not to submit herself to that kind of care, because yes, inpatient mental health care can strip you of your civil rights and subject you to a hideous and dehumanizing invasion by people who listen to you not at all and just want to get through their shift. And yes, the mentally ill are people with rights who are worthy of respect, and yes, caring for the mentally ill day after day is draining, frustrating work, and yes, the staff who do this work sometimes abuse their positions and make decisions based on expediency rather than the best interests of the patient, and yes, the staff who do this work are underpaid and undersupported and undertrained.

LaValle navigates all of this beautifully. It’s a strange and impressive thing for a book to punch so hard at a complex machine like the American mental health system without the blow landing on any individual cog. Though the staff at the hospital can be stern, needlessly rule-bound, and at times outright abusive (our protagonist, Pepper, decides to turn down his meds, and the hospital staff thereafter refuse to give him his meals either), there are no Nurse Ratcheds here; just tired, frustrated people who aren’t getting paid nearly enough to bring their human compassion A-game day after day.

But while the author can show compassion and grace to each part that together makes up the sum of the mental health system, his criticisms of the whole are trenchant.

The jury’s verdict (at best) might’ve been: We really feel terrible for these people. (And here’s the hard part, they really would.) We feel terrible, but we have doubts. We doubt the world works this way, because it has never worked this way against us.

Ouch, right? And true, right? I don’t even know how much I actually liked this book qua book, because I was just so floored by the accuracy and empathy of LaValle’s portrayal of life in an inpatient ward. That he has lived this experience (which he evidently has) and can still write about it without vitriol is really, really impressive to me.

Review: The Cranes Dance, Meg Howrey

BALLET BOOKS, YOU GUYS.

Have I told you before how I will read any book set in the world of ballet? Even if everyone says it’s idiotic? This is partly because I love ballet books, and partly because, for reasons passing (my) understanding, there just aren’t that many ballet books out there.

Yet my forays into the Alex Awards continue to yield glorious dividends, for a past Alex Award winner was Meg Howrey’s The Cranes Dance, a book about the older of two sisters who dance in a prestigious New York company. Or rather, the only of two sisters who presently dance in the company — Kate’s younger sister, Gwen, has gone back home to Michigan after what — in retrospect — was the long and heavily telegraphed lead-up to a psychotic break. Recently split from her boyfriend, and struggling to keep her head above water professionally, Kate tries to understand her part in what happened to Gwen.

Meg Howrey, the author of The Cranes Dance, is herself a ballet dancer, which is a double-edged sword. The good edge of having a ballet dancer write about ballet is that s/he will know the world inside and out. The bad edge of the sword is that professional ballet dancers are not, by and large, professional writers. This was the issue I had with Sophie Flack’s Bunheads a few years ago, and in the early parts of The Cranes Dance, I worried that it would suffer from the same problem. Kate is prone to using capital letters at time, which — and I except J.K. Rowling from this, although I think we all wish she had knocked that off, particularly in Order of the Phoenix — is not completely the mark of a protagonist whose inner monologues have been crafted by a seasoned writer.

(I know, I know. Issue your accusations of snobbery in the comments below, and I will meekly agree to them.)

HOWEVER. (See that? Things are working out okay!) I ultimately concluded that The Cranes Dance sits at a very sweet spot for me, which is, middlebrow stuff that is better than it needs to be. (See also the first season of Orphan Black, almost the entire run of The Good Wife, and the film adaptations of the Hunger Games books.) There are no pat resolutions here, nor — despite what I have to feel would be major temptation — beating to death of symbolical horses. Howrey juxtaposes moments from Kate’s professional life with moments from her personal life, particularly her past with Gwen, but neither Howrey nor Kate belabors the parallels between the two.

Meantime, Howrey includes plenty of the kind of sausage-making details you want from a book about ballet. Gwen is mentally ill, but her illness is not easily categorized or mended, nor does Howrey need it to reveal something fundamental about her character. Kate and Gwen have been imperfect sisters to each other, but nobody is at fault, or rather, they are both at fault equally and in ways that are about carelessness, not about betrayal (such it often is! with siblings!). So all in all, an excellent read.

Do you like ballet books? Are there particular types of books, or particular book settings, that you feel deserve to get more play in the landscape of contemporary literature? Cause I legitimately find it baffling there aren’t more books about ballet dancers.

Not a dumb American: Namibia edition

Have I told you about my project to read one good history about every African country? It is a project I have had in mind for a while, and I started it this year with my beloved Namibia. Because here is the thing about Namibia: We have been underappreciating it. Sort of a lot.

Let’s start with the basics real real quick. This is Namibia:

Namibia!

As you can see, it is the country north of South Africa on the west coast of the continent. It was colonized by the Germans, and then after World War I when German colonial holdings were being divvied up, South Africa took over governing it until it gained independence in 1990. It contains fewer people than the city of Houston (because a lot of it is desert). You have not been appreciating it enough, and I will tell you three reasons why you should.

1) Namibia is the first country to do what we are all going to have to do eventually unless we fix global warming much faster than we are currently fixing it, which is to run sewage water through treatments that render it once again potable. You wrinkle your nose because that sounds gross, but you will allllll be sorry you didn’t get used to this idea once it becomes inevitable. Namibia will have been used to it for years. Namibia is a forward-thinking genius pioneer of water reclamation!

2) Namibia has the freest press of any nation in Africa. You didn’t expect that, did you? Did you? You thought it was going to be Ghana or something! Ha, ha, joke’s on you, Ghana, the true truth is that it is NAMIBIA. Every year when Reporters without Borders does that thing where they rank countries based on how free their presses are, Namibia is always in the top twenty percent or so. You know who’s not in the top twenty percent? America, and we’re getting worse year over year, by a lot.

(I don’t know why I trash-talked Ghana just now. That was unnecessary. Sorry, Ghana. I am currently reading a big history of the Democratic Republic of Congo, but maybe my next country to read a big history of can be Ghana. To show that I bear it no ill will.)

(It’s just that I feel like sometimes people are all, “Ohhhh, Ghana, you’re the very shiniest African nation, all the other ones are so lame compared to you,” and I get jealous for Namibia, which is just way down in the south there doing its best and recycling water and having a free press and whatnot. Ghana just has more people! They have like ten times as many people, so of course they’re going to produce more writers and artists that get exhibitions at the Brooklyn Museum. It’s not a referendum on Namibia, you know?)

3) Namibia is a total baller at conservation. See! You didn’t know that either! It is in their constitution. And this is very lucky for the biodiversity of the planet, because Namibia has crazy mammals, many of which are endemic to Namibia, and they work really really hard to preserve them. You know how we are all (when we remember to be) worried about black rhino populations? Well, Namibia has the largest herd of them in the whole world, and that is not by accident, friends! That is a successful plan implemented by Namibia to save the black rhinos.

Moreover (like that’s not enough, right? That’s what I’m saying! Namibia!), conservation efforts in Namibia benefit local populations. There is a nice New York Times article about it that you may read here, if you are curious. Essentially, the power to manage sustainability and ecotourism initiatives at the community level is given to the communities. So instead of the government applying a one-size-fits-all top-down version of conservation, it’s managed at the local level, and the communities derive economic benefits from it, which gives them a stake in continuing this work, rather than it just being “because the government said so.”

NAMIBIA.

The history of Namibia I read (Marion Wallace’s History of Namibia) was super informative, but rather dry. There really aren’t that many comprehensive histories of Namibia out there, and I’m pretty sure it’s because people don’t know what an awesome country it truly is. Please tell your friends. I want to spread the word.

Onward! The next book in my Africa project is David van Reybrouck’s Congo: The Epic History of a People, translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett. I am the queen of this reading project.

Review: Sunbolt, Intisar Khanani

Note: I received a copy of Sunbolt from the publisher, through NetGalley, for review consideration.

So all the bloggers have been on and on about the wonders of Intisar Khanani, and I finally got the chance to read one of her books (thanks, NetGalley!). Sunbolt is the novella beginning of a new series, about a street thief named Hitomi who’s part of a resistance force against the oppressive sultanate, and who secretly is the daughter of two (deceased) mages and thus a fairly powerful mage in her own right. I’d have already been in at street thief in a non-Europeanish fantasy world, but Khanani went and added secret magical heritage on top of that, and the whole thing became my exact cup of tea.

Let’s start with the (for me) weakest link, the secret magical heritage. When I say “weakest link,” I’d like you to appreciate that I really liked this novella, and “weakest link” isn’t much of an insult within that context. It’s the weakest link because it’s got striking plot similarities — as noted by The Illustrated Page — to one of my favorite books of all time, Robin McKinley’s Sunshine. And so I kept thinking, mmmm, Sunshine, that was a good book, and not focusing on the book in front of me. So actually, let’s let that go. It’s not germane.

The worldbuilding: Sometimes you don’t realize how status the quo was — and how stifling you were finding it — until you get something that shifts away from it. Hitomi lives in a decidedly non-European world. Light skin reads as foreign to the people in Hitomi’s native Karolene, the king is a sultan, and the fishing boats are dhows. There’s something refreshing and surprising about reading a fantasy book that doesn’t make you look around for Yorks and Lancasters.

(No disrespect to George RR Martin.)

(Just, not everywhere is England. Not everywhere is even Europe. It is good when books remind you of that fact.)

Meanwhile, Hitomi’s a street thief, which means she can sneak through alleys and run across roofs and pick complicated locks with the same sort of flair and insouciance you’d like to imagine you would possess as a teenage magic street kid. See how when you put those words together, “teenage magic street kid,” you automatically start to root for that person without knowing anything further about them? And on top of that, Hitomi thinks on her feet and is ferociously devoted to the resistance cause. When you leave her behind at the end of the book, you want to know where she goes from there. One novella (to steal a phrase from Ronlyn Domingue’s The Mercy of Thin Air) is not enough for the trouble of which she is capable.

Next I shall read Thorn! Everyone raves about that too, and it will be a perfect Once Upon a Time fairy tale read in case Poison doesn’t work out for me. (Facts: I have grave concerns that Poison isn’t going to work out for me.)

I am participating in Carl’s Once Upon a Time challenge, and this has been my Fantasy book for it. Still to come are mythology, fairy tale, and folk tale books. Visit the reviews site to see what other people have been reading!

Who-all’s being brilliant on the internet: A links round-up

On “trash food,” class, and the South.

The short history of spoiler warnings.

You should just assume that I’m going to link to everything Elizabeth Minkel ever writes. Here she is talking about the gendered reaction to responses to Zayn Malik’s departure from One Direction vs. responses to Jeremy Clarkson’s departure from Top Gear.

Foz Meadows, being typically fascinating about the way gifs are changing critical discourse. She does seem to think that academic journals are profit-making beasts. Are they? I do not know. I have only worked on the books and online side of academic publishing, where we are all broke and well-intentioned.

Laurie Halse Anderson, author of Speak, and Courtney Summers, author of All the Rage, are in conversation at Book Riot about stories of sexual assault. It’s really good.

Pop culture genius Adam Sternbergh invents the term “purge-watching” for when you’re watching a show unlovingly just so you can have it off your docket. This is a term we needed. Well-played, sir.

There is an open-access journal called Neo-Victorian Studies, and that’s pretty much all I did on Tuesday.

Ta-Nehisi Coates fears that the movies have ruined X-Men (I know, dude), but he’s got a lot of other thoughts on the rise of superheroes.

What it’s like to be a first-generation scholarship student at an Ivy League.

Oh, you may have missed it, but there’s a new Star Wars teaser. It ends by trying to make every Star Wars fan in the whole world cry. But my heart is made of stone.

Reading the End Bookcast, Ep.38: The Royal We and a Royalty-and-Rebels Game

Today, as a pairing to our earlier podcast about books that intimidate us, we’re talking about topics that intimidate us. Whiskey Jenny can’t abide eye stuff, I can’t read anything about floods–share yours in the comments! You can listen to the podcast in the embedded player below or download the file directly here to take with you on the go.

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Get at me on Twitter, email the podcast, and friend me (Gin Jenny) and Whiskey Jenny on Goodreads. Or if you wish, you can find us on iTunes (and if you enjoy the podcast, give us a good rating! We appreciate it very very much).

Credits
Producer: Captain Hammer
Photo credit: The Illustrious Annalee
Song is by Jeff MacDougall.

The three main problems I had with Laura Kipnis’s essays on men

On a process level, Men: Notes from an Ongoing Investigation is a successful essay collection. Kipnis is a fluid writer with an eye for the mot juste; she varies her sentence structures with grace; nothing she writes ever feels forced. If that sounds like faint praise, it’s because (alas) I have a lot of problems with the sentiments Kipnis expresses in her elegant prose. Here are the main three:

1) So. Much. Freud. Lady, you are aware that further work has been done in psychology since the mid-twentieth century? Kipnis’s references to Freud, Oedipal complexes, and psychosexual development are so numerous they would make an excellent drinking game condition, an idea I am sorry I have only come up with now because I would probably have enjoyed this book more if I had been a bit drunk for it.

Sometimes this leads to interesting insights — there’s a reason Freud’s giant shoulders are the ones everyone’s been standing on — but as a theoretical framework, it’s sharply limited, and you run up against the limits fairly quickly. The essay about Dale Peck and how his harsh reviews are his way of enacting the same abuse scenarios to which he was subject as a child is armchair psychology of the most simplistic variety.

2) Perhaps this is my own limitation, but Kipnis doesn’t seem to be in conversation with much of modern feminism. She does have an essay about outrage culture (framed as a cutesy confession of her own tendencies to moral relativism, gag), but it’s mostly about something else, and in a later essay she says this:

Yes, Dworkin reads like a stampeding dinosaur in our era of bouncy pro-sex post-feminism. Feminist anger isn’t exactly in fashion at the moment: these days, women just direct their anger inward, or carp at individual men, typically their hapless husbands and boyfriends.

Er. What now? There is certainly a strand of bouncy post-sex writing, but — like, Amanda Marcotte, Roxane Gay, Jessica Valenti, Anita Sarkeesian, Mychal Denzel Smith, Lindy West, Jamia Wilson? I’m not even trying hard to think of names of fashionable feminist writers who regularly express anger about feminist issues.

And relatedly:

3) Kipnis has an air of being above the fray when it comes to many of the issues that occupy feminist writers and thinkers. Since she’s written this book, it’s clear that she isn’t above the fray; but she gives the impression that she is far too cool for your petty problems. Her reaction to crappy behavior (whether it’s Norman Mailer being a shit or Harold Bloom hitting on students) is frequently along the lines of “How can you be mad at them when all they want is attention? I just find it rather endearing!”

Well. Neat? I guess? That you feel that way? But that sort of reaction elides and perpetuates the troublesome power dynamics at play. It tells the people who are bothered that they are wrong to be. And it tells the people doing the bothering that they are okay to continue behaving that way, as everyone will just chuckle indulgently. And that, my friends, is how we all end up jumping over missing stairs.

To return to the Harold Bloom example, Kipnis has a lengthy essay about the absurdity of sexual harassment policies at universities. Much of her alarm over these policies feels like received wisdom, given that she admits upon reading her own university’s guidelines that they are “far less prohibitive than other places I’d been hearing about” (where are these mythologically prohibitive universities?). She goes on for a while about how when she was in school everyone slept with their professors and they were totally happy about it, because actually the power was quite balanced: The students had the power of being young and beautiful and desirable, and the professors had the power of, you know, actual power over the students’ futures.

Kipnis feels that the tricky part of sexual harassment is that you don’t actually know until you have already groped the student whether that sexual advance is “unwanted” (prohibited in school guidelines). So what is a professor to do? Here’s one idea, just off the top of my head: perhaps professors could try the radical strategy of waiting until the class is over and grades are handed out, and then to hit on their students by saying “Now that class is over and grades are handed out, I wanted to tell you that I think you’re swell, and I would love to take you out for dinner sometime if you’re interested.” And if that is too much of an emotional challenge for the poor wee vulnerable bunnies in the professorial field, I submit that they perchance should find something else to do with their genitals.

Sigh.

Rounding up some more comics

It’s time again for a round-up of my comics reading! So many recommendations on this earth!

Through the Woods, Emily Carroll

Yeah, I can only assume that Emily Carroll knows me personally and designed Through the Woods to cater to my interests. It is a collection of some hella creepy stories about living near a forest. Girls go into the forest, and they come out different, or they don’t come out at all. This may be very shallow of me, but I love graphic novels where the lettering looks like proper handwriting. Though Saga has many charms, an early and prominent draw for me was the fact that Hazel’s narration is drawn in real handwriting. Similarly:

Love it. Next I would like Emily Carroll to write some retellings of underloved fairy tales. If she could start with my beloved favorite “The Six Swans,” that would be absolutely swell. Her color choices and creepy little writings are so good it’s hard for me to deal with them.

This One Summer, Jillian and Mariko Tamaki

Remember when I said that the Tamakis’ book Skim captured perfectly what it was like to be a teenager? Well, their 2014 book This One Summer also captures perfectly what it is like to be a teenager, while depicting almost none of the same aspects of teenagerhood we saw in Skim. Here it’s two girls who have been coming to the same vacation area every summer for years. But this one is different, because Rose’s parents can’t stop fighting, and Rose finds herself angrier and angrier.

Everyone in the blogosphere who ever recommended This One Summer was right. I loved it. It’s a little more focused than Skim plotwise, and although there are elements of the Problem Novel to it, it saves itself with absolutely lovely visual storytelling and a wonderful depiction of the fifteen-year-old best friends, Rose and Windy. Highly, highly recommended.

(There’s a character called Jenny. Guess what happens to her, oh I will just give you a hint, the answer is nothing good. But at least she’s not a servant or a prostitute, I guess.)

Sweet Tooth, Jeff Lemire

The news that Jeff Lemire will be taking over writing Hawkeye when Matt Fraction (sniffle, sob) finishes gave me the push I needed to finally read something by Lemire. The library had the full run of Sweet Tooth when I visited, so it was Sweet Tooth by default. I had the notion that it was a story about a person who could sense things about objects by ingesting them — and I am still pretty sure there exists a comic book with that premise — but actually it’s a dystopian story about a half-deer-half-human kid trying to find safety in a dangerous world. So…pretty different from what I was imagining.

If I step back to evaluate Sweet Tooth, I have some problems with it. I’d have liked to see more depth and complexity to these characters: Sweet Tooth is your standard-issue hero kid, and Mr. Jepperd is your standard-issue tough guy tormented by his wife’s death, and a lot of the secondary characters are fairly bland as well. And there’s more than a whiff of fridging around the wife’s death in terms of the motivation it provides Mr. Jepperd, and I’m as far over that as it is possible for a woman to be, and Jeff Lemire is a teeny weeny bit on notice as regards tropes about women.

BUT: I couldn’t put this series down. I limited myself to one trade paperback a day and tore through the whole thing in a week. I’ll forgive a lot in a good yarn, and Sweet Tooth definitely is that.

What comics have y’all been reading?

The Villette Readalong Staggers to Its Inevitably Irritating Conclusion

Yep, I screwed up the reading last weekend. I can only assumed I was blinded by rage when I approached the chapter numbers. Dr. John and Paulina did get engaged last time, and I just didn’t read that far. Whatever, you two. The fact that Dr. John pays court to Paulina by talking about how it felt when six-year-old her touched his cheek is yet another more way in which Victorians in general and Charlotte Bronte in particular are just SO FUCKING WEIRD.

Victorians got better late in the century which is one of many reasons why I’m an Oscar Wilde girl.

So M. Paul announces he’s leaving, and Lucy mopes around because he’s been really nice to her lately, but when everyone’s saying goodbye to him, she just lets Mme. Beck shove her to one side so M. Paul doesn’t even see she’s there. Lucy I guess does not know that a person can use her words to make her presence known to someone whose line of vision she’s not currently standing in. There’s two chapters of Lucy wishing she could say goodbye to M. Paul, but not actually taking any steps to give herself a chance to say goodbye to M. Paul, and then off he sails for Australia or something, because he’s gotta something. The details surrounding his departure are fuzzy in my mind because:

Mme. Beck tries to drug Lucy, but it doesn’t work and Lucy heads to the park, where everyone in all Villette has assembled for a party that Lucy wasn’t invited to. Wonder why.

Lucy at a party

Also at the party: M. Paul! Not sailed yet after all! Shocking! Lucy sees him, but again, apparently unaware that you can say “Hi! It’s me, Lucy!”, she just keeps quiet and stares at him.

Lucy doing her best to say goodbye to M. Paul

When Lucy gets back from the parade, having absolutely refused to say anything to M. Paul, I swear to God this girl doesn’t have a firm grasp on the function of speech, she finds GHOST NUN sleeping in her bed. I got so excited for a second before I remembered that Charlotte Bronte hates me and would never have an awesome climactic ghost nun scene for me.

It’s just the costume. No ghost nun showdown.

Apparently, Ginevra’s boyfriend — now husband; they eloped! — was the one dressing up as the ghost nun in order to sneak into the school and see Ginevra. That is such a surprising and hilarious plan that I think he’s going to make an awesome husband for Ginevra. I want them to adopt Lucy, and she can live with them and say bitchy stuff to them every time they try to be nice, and they can giggly merrily and call her adorable nicknames from antiquity.

But, that’s not what happens. Instead M. Paul tells Lucy he loves her, and blah blah blah they’re going to get married after he gets back from his three-year voyage and you know what fucking happens?

His ship sinks.

HIS SHIP SINKS.

Charlotte Bronte, I cannot with you. Don’t try and throw me a bullshit bone being all “oh happy minds can imagine a joyous future for us, I’m not going to say any more.” YOU HAVE JUST MADE IT OBVIOUS THAT HIS SHIP SINKS.

Despite my frustration with this ridiculous fucking book, I am delighted Alice hosted the readalong. Thanks, Alice! Reading along was super fun, all the bloggers are great, and the only tiny thing that could have improved is Charlotte Bronte not being such a FUN-KILLING ZERO-FUCKS-GIVING LUNATIC.

I will just leave you with the following exchange:

“Spartan girl! Proud Lucy!” she would say, smiling at me. “Graham says you are the most peculiar, capricious little woman he knows; but yet you are excellent; we both think so.”

“You both think you know not what,” said I. “Have the goodness to make me as little the subject of your mutual talk and thoughts as possible. I have my sort of life apart from yours. . . . Yes, [solitude] is sadness. Life, however; has worse than that. Deeper than melancholy, lies heart-break.”

“Lucy, I wonder if anybody will ever comprehend you altogether.”

Villette was published 160 years ago, and no luck so far.

Links for a Thursday

Can I brag for a quick sec? This week I got renters insurance for the first time ever. BOOM. ADULTING. Though, I hope the hurricanes of the world won’t take this as permission to bring around a cloud to rain on my parade.

If the internet were a high school. I like the BuzzFeed one the best. Also keep your eyes peeled for a cameo by the Lizzie Bennet Diaries‘s own William Darcy.

Scott Tobias wrote an article called The Church of Scientology is Bad at Twitter, which is one of many reasons I cherish the internet.

Trevor Noah is going to be taking over for Jon Stewart on The Daily Show. He made some dumb jokes on Twitter, but I am hopeful that those jokes don’t represent anything fundamental to his humor. I am also hopeful that in the next iteration of the Daily Show, we learn ALL ABOUT AFRICA.

Writing about a networked world.

The wonderful Cass of Queerly Seen is running a project about Oscar Wilde from now until May 25th. Seems like this is as good a time as any to write a long, indignant post about the wrongs done to my beloved Robbie Ross.

The New York Times has a wonderful article on Orphan Black and how it plays with gender, if you don’t mind spoilers for the early parts of the second season.

This fortnight has been the time in which I have truly realized the delights of the Australian show Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries. I don’t even like murder mystery shows. But this one is THE LEGIT BEST, and the third series is due in May (huzzah). Ana of Things Mean a Lot put me onto it, but see also NPR’s MonkeySee, Previously.TV, Tor.com, Smart Bitches Trashy Books, and The Toast.

On politics and the Hugo Awards.

On when “no” means “yes.” (Ahahahaha I tricked you, you thought the article was going to be about rape culture and then it was about contranyms. GRAMMAR HUMOR.)