Reasons To Not Move to Starling City (Episode One)

arrowPeople keep telling me and my friend (henceforth referred to as Roommate) that the WB* show Arrow gets good. People whose tastes I want to respect tell me this. I got about eight episodes through season one and couldn’t take the emo angsty-ness anymore, and quit apparently “just before it gets good.”

So. I’m trying to suffer through season one and to make it to season two (which is good?). TRYING SO HARD, INTERNET. (Except now the people who tell me that season two is really good are telling me that season three is not so much. Dammit.) Blogging makes suffering bearable.

Also I want to say this disclaimer at the outset: If you like Arrow (even from the very first episode), that is all well and good and fine. I do not judge people who like the things they like. I want to say this now, and directly, because I know that when somebody is insulting and laughing at a show that you like, it’s easy to take that personally. Hell, I like Supernatural. We all like shows that other people think are dumb. I (so far at least) don’t like this show, and I’m not hiding that I don’t like the show; that doesn’t mean the show doesn’t deserve to be liked by other people. Okay? Okay.

Episode One: The Mighty Ragamuffin.

We open with Oliver Queen, who looks suspiciously like Chris O’Donnell, getting rescued from a desert island that he’s been stranded on. The mighty ragamuffin’s body is very (20%!) scarred, but otherwise not-Chris-O’Donnell is totally healthy and well-toned and not malnourished at all. He’s taken to a hospital somewhere, and his family is flown in, and his mom has a weird lack of urgency about needing to greet or hug her son, instead spending the bulk of the scene talking to the doctor in the hallway and not to her long-lost, presumed-dead son. There’s also a younger sister who I’m sure will become annoying in true WB fashion in short order.

New scene! We meet Laurel, an assistant district attorney (?) who is working in the law firm that Matthew Murdock probably should have joined rather than starting his own law firm in Hell’s Kitchen. She’s upset that not-Chris-O’Donnell has been found. Why? I’m sure it will be explained. At length. In greater depth than necessary.

Also, I will spend at least the next four episodes confusing Laurel and the sister, because we can only cast willowy female brunettes in this show and all white people look the same.

“After five years, everything that was once familiar is now unrecognizable.” That is some brilliant fucking voiceover script right there. Well done, writing staff. Not-Chris-O’Donnell is checking out his awesome hot body that is covered in scars. Awesome hotness that is covered in scars? POOR WOUNDED BOY. ME AND MY INNER EMO TEENAGE GIRL WILL FIX YOU.

Awkward family dinner time! The sister (or maybe Laurel, though I think Laurel doesn’t talk to anyone from the Queen family) asks what it was like on the island, which is apparently an inappropriate question and leads to awkward silence. Not-Chris-O’Donnell guesses that Walter is sleeping with his mom, at which point she tells him that she married Walter, and HOW IS THIS NOT THE FIRST THING YOU TELL YOUR SON WHEN YOU SAW HIM IN THE HOSPITAL THREE SCENES AGO. He found out about the past five years of Superbowl winners before he found out his mom remarried. That’s fucked up.

Not-Chris-O’Donnell’s friend wants to plan a party. Instead (in addition?) not-Chris-O’Donnell visits Laurel, who it turns out is upset because not-Chris-O’Donnell was her boyfriend until he took her sister on a yacht to screw her and then the yacht crash and her sister died and so did not-Chris-O’Donnell (except he didn’t). Okay. That’s actually a totally solid reason to not want to see a person ever again. I’m sure she will remain in this state of totally understandable aversion to his existence for at least three episodes.

Kidnapping! Guns! Guys in scary masks! Not-Chris-O’Donnell kicks their asses all on his own, then tells the detective (who is being all kinds of victim-blamey to a guy who just got kidnapped. But it’s fine because not-Chris-O’Donnell’s pre-desert island self was apparently a jerk, and the detective is just being a professional. Also this town only has twelve people in it) that a man in a hood rescued him. Sneaky devil. I assume his mom called the cops but that isn’t really explained. Also how long was he gone for? Did they realize he’d been kidnapped before he got back to his house? Maybe his friend (who also got kidnapped) insisted on calling the cops?

Best not to think about it. Not-Chris-O’Donnell is unfazed by being kidnapped, and so are we. He ducks away from the personal security his mom has hired and escapes to an abandoned factory that belongs to his family and builds himself a secret lair/personal home gym in the space of two hours and with only a band saw to assist him. I admit to being totally jealous of the pull-up ladder thing he can do. Also, building your secret lair in your family’s abandoned factory is the best idea that can have no potential for unforeseen consequences and will definitely never be discovered. We also learn that not-Chris-O’Donnell is really good with arrows, and has a green hoodie that totally disguises his identity. And that he is after justice. JUSTICE.

Onward to the welcome home party for not-Chris-O’Donnell. He is trying to be the sexy playboy when people are looking at him and dark and emo when people look away. Good luck with that. He spots his sister (at least I’m pretty sure it’s his sister and not Laurel) and OH NO DRAMA. She’s angry. Angry at him for being dead? But he’s not dead. She’s angry that he’s still alive? She’s angry that he left her all alone, like he had some choice in the matter? Also she’s accusing him of “acting like the last five years didn’t happen,” or that everything’s hunky-dory now. Girl, I know you don’t know this, but your brother spent most of the day getting kidnapped and then building himself a secret lair to capture criminals with. Your brother is not fine. He thinks he’s the goddamn Batman. Are you mad that he’s acting like a protective older brother? Is that not what older brothers do? Did you expect him to hand you some Grey Goose and a gram of coke and tell you to have fun?

Oh good, Laurel’s at the party too. This is the best party, you guys.

Laurel offers to be a sympathetic ear if he needs to talk about what he’s been through. Well, I’m glad somebody has offered to be this person, because damn does this guy need some therapy, but Laurel, you should not be that person. You should be mad at him forever, or at least for like a week. You know what’s great, Laurel? Boundaries. I advise you to get you some.

Climactic fight scene. The corrupt business owner that not-Chris-O’Donnell was trying to blackmail (because JUSTICE) refuses to send the money to the place, so not-Chris-O’Donnell arrives to beat it out of him with arrows. A fight scene ensues, with lots of machine guns and breaking glass and not-Chris-O’Donnell hitting people and stuff, and it’s actually going pretty well (in terms of being just absolutely fun to watch, well-choreographed and well-edited) until not-Chris-O’Donnell throws an arrow into the barrel of the bad guy’s gun and makes it misfire while simultaneously leaping backwards over a couch. Roommate and I watched it twice to revel in the breaking of reality–both of the laws of physics allowing this farce and of the terrible CGI special effects that are supposed to lead us to believe that such a thing happened. This is no Legolas-surfing-down-the-stairs-on-a-shield-while-slaying-orcs, guys. This is just plain ridiculous.

Also, I gotta say, having a hood pulled down over your eyes while you’re trying to fight crime seems like putting yourself at a disadvantage. Maybe it’s okay though because he’s impervious to bullets. It’s his superpower.

Turns out that not-Chris-O’Donnell did somehow get the money he was after (“via an arrow” is the explanation that Roommate offers) and Robin Hoods it to the people who deserve it, because while stuck on the desert island becoming an expert in archery and hand-to-hand fighting he also learned all about hacking secure banking systems.

…Does anyone ever realize that the arrival of the vigilante in the hood on the scene exactly coincides with not-Chris-O’Donnell’s return to Starling City? I mean, seriously.

*I know it’s been the CW for like 20 years now. I don’t care. It’ll always be the Dawson’s Creek network to me.

Nyctophobia

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I originally wrote this in like 2006. It was published in one of my Spandrel zines, but I decided not to include it in my e-book because it’s really short and kinda doesn’t go anywhere, so I’m posting it here for posterity’s sake.

When I was a kid, I had a nightlight. Which probably actually aggravated the problem. I also had, on the wall directly across from my bed, a bulletin board with school papers and photos of family and pictures from magazines on it. The yellow light from the nightlight (which was shaped like Pooh Bear with a jar of honey) shone from underneath the bulletin board, casting warped shadows of the papers on the top part of my wall and ceiling. I used to stare at the shadows instead of going to sleep. If a car drove by the house, the shadows would travel, look like they were moving, and I was always partly waiting for them to move without external stimulus. To me, it looked like a canoe with about a dozen people in it. To this day, I don’t know how I knew what a canoe of people looked like, nor do I know why a canoe of people on my wall was scary, but there you go.

Also, the closet door had to be closed. Obviously.

Also, I couldn’t go to the bathroom (which was at the top of a very dark flight of stairs) unless I absolutely had to.

And after dark but before bed, if I had to go to the basement, I brought the dog with me. The fourteen-pound Shetland Sheepdog. She wasn’t exactly Bowser, but she was better than nothing.

Sometimes I slept with my little sister, who at the time would’ve been three or four. Her bed was against the wall. I slept against the wall—if anything came in to grab us, it would grab her first. Self-preservation before all else was kinda my slogan at this time.

In fourth grade, we had a fire safety unit. I’m sure it was planned with the general principle that knowledge is power, and with the idea that we would be less likely to burn to death if we knew to not run around in circles while on fire, but all it did was rob me of sleep. I’d lie there, watching my canoe people, making an inventory in my head of stuff of mine I’d have to grab when there was a fire (yes, my teacher told me you left everything behind, but no way was I losing my photo albums, or my bell bracelet. Or my dog, for that matter). If it got really bad, I went to my parents’ room—they were usually still awake, and if they weren’t, I woke them—and tell my parents I was worried about fire. My dad used to be a volunteer fireman, but somehow, this wasn’t reassuring.

When I was seven or so, I watched some of a movie that my brother was watching one sunny summer evening when we were having a barbecue. I remember very, very little of it—there was a boogeyman. The father of a family became possessed by the boogeyman, and floated on his back down a hallway chanting “boogedyboogedybooooooooooooo!” There was something about a carousel and a lightning storm. The evil demon thing was a laughing, cavorting sort of evil. Like the Joker in Batman—he knows he’s evil and he enjoys it. In retrospect, it might not have been a scary movie at all, it might have been a comedy that I misunderstood (I thought The Naked Gun was a drama until I was fourteen, because when I saw it as a small kid, my satire brain hadn’t grown in yet). I have searched imdb.com and my fear is no closer to having a name, but soon after watching however much of that movie I watched, I woke up late one night—I am certain of this even today, that I was awake, even though logically I must have still been asleep—that there was a blue hand at the end of my bed, reaching up, groping for my feet—as if someone was under my bed and reaching around to the top of it. I started screaming bloody murder, I must’ve woken the whole house. I made my mom sleep the rest of the night with me, and I slept with my light on—not the nightlight, but the ceiling lamp—for months after that.

I think it was about that time that I had a dream that I couldn’t breathe. I woke up and it wasn’t true, but still, it didn’t make falling asleep again seem advisable. All of this also roughly coincides with the time I got sexually assaulted, but I don’t recall ever making a connection to it then, so I don’t know if it’s connected at all. I didn’t imagine that the guy who hurt me was the one living under my bed, for example. But I do know that I didn’t have any words to describe what happened, and my fear of sleeping was similar. Why be afraid of the dark? Because I don’t know what’s there. If there’s a car coming at me, I can get out of the way. Danger I can see is danger I can react to. I’m fine with danger if I know it’s there. It’s the danger that hides, that you can’t get out of the way from until it drops on your head, that’s the danger that scares me. That’s what, in my head, looks like that dark staircase in my parents’ house, the one right by the bathroom, the one that kept me from peeing at night.

Book Review: Inside Scientology

scientologyI first posted this review on my Goodreads account over here.

This review is going to be necessarily short–a reflection of the amount of passion I felt for the book while reading it (and also a reflection of the fact that I finished it a month ago, and my memory is fading fast). So I apologize for the disjointedness of this review.

First, I knew nothing about Scientology going into this book besides it’s Tom Cruise’s thing. I’m pretty sure I may have been mixing it up or conflating it with Church of Christ Scientists, a group that I know even less about. I still feel like I don’t know a lot, but I know more than I did, and probably considerably more than the leaders of Scientology would like me to. This book’s original incarnation was as an article for Rolling Stone, and sometimes it shows, in its brevity over certain aspects, and skipping around in time (this could also be a reflection of gaps in the author’s research, Scientology being notoriously secretive). I could have done with a large-scale portrait of the Church’s structure much earlier than I actually got it, for example. And it’s not until the very end of the book that Reitman talks to Scientologists who are still part of the organization, rather than ex-Scientologists, providing (or attempting to provide) some balance to the narrative. So beware of bias. But that said: Reitman is a credible, established journalist; and Scientology is a notoriously lawsuit-happy organization. So I believe that what she says are facts. I had to keep reminding myself of this as I read the book, because some of the events she describes are disturbing, to say the least. The question of “What the hell is going on?!” keeps you reading–but unfortunately, what’s going on is so troublesome that you never feel like you have a good handle on it. You are uncomfortably aware, throughout the whole book, that however many sources Reitman had, she is now your one source on this organization, and I desperately want corroboration on some things. So I’ll be reading more.

Worth reading? Yes. Satisfying? Not so much, though I don’t think that’s Reitman’s fault.

Book Review: Leaves of Grass

stiffI first posted this review at my Goodreads account over here.

When I decided to read a poetry book to review, I decided to go for a book that I’ve been meaning to read but was pretty sure that, absent external incentive, I never would never actually get around do: Walt Whitman’s epic* Leaves of Grass. Two friends of mine set one of Whitman’s poems to music years ago, and I’ve picked up little tidbits about him here and there, all of which increased my level of interest in the man. So–onward into the world of epic prose-poetry!

A word about me and the books I like: I’m a pretty impatient person, and when I’m reading a book or watching a movie or a TV show, I definitely tend towards works that are direct and straightforward. I get bored with a piece fairly quickly if I don’t feel like I know where the story is going (this works to my disadvantage: I almost put down Peter Beagle’s The Last Unicorn the first time I read it, though I’m so glad that I didn’t). I don’t like stories that are predictable, but I want the characters’ goals to be clearly defined. As you might guess, I do not read a lot of poetry.

I decided to listen to the audiobook, because it helps if I can listen to something and do stuff at the same time, and because I knew if I tried to read the book on paper it would take me at least a month to get through. I resigned myself to the fact that my attention was going to drift sometimes. Because of that, my ability to assess this work critically is fairly limited (and even if I’d taken in every word, it probably still would be: Leaves of Grass is the sort of thing that English professors spend entire careers breaking down and analyzing). But I enjoyed it. Even when I wasn’t consciously taking in the meaning of all the words, the rhythm of the text (performed by Noah Waterman) was like listening to a lullaby, or sitting next to a river. It was comforting even when it was a more or less meaningless hum in my head.

Leaves of Grass, taken as a whole, is a lot of things. And I can’t think of anything like it in all of English literature. It’s not strictly a collection of poems.** It’s not a single story. It’s part travelogue, part autobiography, part philosophical treatise, part love story (to humanity, to America, to individual people). It’s completely overwhelming and staggering. Walt Whitman, how did you do this. (I mean, I know he did it over the course of forty years, but even so…). If I was going on an around-the-world trip that was going to take me six months and I could only bring one book, this is definitely in the running as one of the books. Because you can read it over and over and never get everything out of it that’s in there.

There are two parts that stood out to me (and neither of them are the sexy poems that always get everyone else’s attention): one part is a sort of tour of America, which takes a perspective that is both broad and global and utterly specific to such small individuals. It’s a mural, really. A painting with words. The other part was his recounting of his days as a volunteer nurse during the Civil War. I know that his poem “O Captain My Captain” is the one we all read in high school, but “Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night,” “The Centenarian’s Story,” about the young men who march off to war and the people they leave behind, and “The Wound-Dresser,”*** told from the point of view of an Army nurse trying to soothe fallen soldiers, are as haunting and as timeless as anything else ever written about war.

The deeper I got into Leaves of Grass, the more I wish I could’ve known Walt Whitman, or just followed him around for a few days. I have no idea what sort of outward person he was like–if he was grouchy and crotchety, if he was friendly, if he was talkative and outgoing or a silent observer. But I don’t think you can spend 40+ years on a work of art and not put yourself in the pages. And Whitman seemed to be, to the end, a man who believed in the fundamental goodness of humanity. A person who was interested in meeting people and telling their stories, and fitting them into this tapestry of America that he’d woven in his head. He reminded me of Mark Twain in some ways, who I’ve always thought of as a cynical optimist (though Whitman is less funny than Twain).

So yeah. Especially if you find yourself ever faced with a long road trip, or you’re the sort that goes on extended backpacking trips through the backcountry. This is most definitely a road trip sort of book. Possibly an existential crisis sort of book. My friend Eleanor, who got lost in the Mexican mountains for two weeks with no food or water, had this book with her. She said it was one of the things that kept her sane. So yes, this book can also save your life.

*Epic here meant in the “WHOOAAAAAA” sense, not in the “epic poetry like Homer’s Odyssey” sense.
**Wikipedia refers to it as a collection, but because the individual poems don’t have titles, and because I listened to it on audiobook, I definitely experienced it as one long work. It doesn’t tell a continuous narrative by any means, but it is cohesive. If something can be cohesive without being continuous.
***I looked these titles up in a book edition after listening to the audio.

Book Review: Fifty Shades of Grey

fiftyshadesI first posted this review on my Goodreads account over here.

I try to be fair with reviews. I really do. If I don’t like something, I tell you why I don’t like it, and/or what I typically DO like, so that you (Gentle Reader) can evaluate my judgments, and decide for yourself if the things that bother me about a book are also likely to bother you. I’m not the arbiter of taste. I understand that.

And it’s not like I have super high standards. I don’t need my books (or any of my entertainment, really) to be High Art. I don’t hold a lot of truck with high falootin’ lit’ry achievements. I’ve given positive reviews to Stephen King. I find Tom Clancy and John Grisham entertaining. I enjoy Jodi Picoult. I watch more CSI and Law and Order than any self-respecting human should. I don’t need my stories to change my world. I don’t need them to be soaring artistic achievements. I just need solid tales, decently told.

All that said: I cannot even with this book. 50 Shades of Grey is bad, Gentle Readers. Infuriatingly bad. I know it’s popular (it’s outsold Harry Potter in the UK), but if ever there was an exemplar for the idea that popularity and quality do not necessarily overlap, this is it. I’m sorry if you like it. Not just sorry that I’m about to spend the next 2000 words offending and angering you (though I am), but also sorry that you apparently haven’t been exposed to more good stories, the better to compare this to. I suggest you branch out and read other things and expand your tastes, because this is bad.

As I read the book, I was so annoyed and frustrated that I started taking notes on the things that annoyed me. To whit:

  • It’s in present tense. Gah.(This actually works in the book’s favor during the sexy scenes, but for the rest of the time, it’s just jarring and annoying. There’s a reason why 98% of novels are written in the past tense).
  • In the opening scene, Ana is preparing to interview some tycoon (Christian Grey, who becomes her sexual partner) for the school paper because her roommate, the newspaper’s editor, can’t make it. I can tell you as a veteran of a school newspaper: This would not happen. First of all, in an interview as important as this one, more than one student reporter would go (and the photographer would go as well, making the whole scene in the other chapter with the photographer moot). If Kate (the roommate) couldn’t go, she’d call another editor on the paper (there are likely several), not rope her roommate into pinch hitting. Second of all, the interview is apparently a three hour drive away. Does this school not have Internet access? Skype is not a thing? Phone calls? The interview has to be in person?
  • Ana describes an elevator as “whisk[ing her] at terminal velocity.” Elevators do not do that, not even super fancy modern ones.You would be dead. The elevator would stop at the top floor and your body would continue to fly upward and would splatter you into pieces against the elevator ceiling.
  • A conference room in the office is described as having “at least 20 chairs.” Seriously? Pick a number. She’s sitting there waiting for her interviewee to become available, it’s entirely plausible for her to count them. Also, it’s a work of fiction, there’s no reason to be vague about the number of chairs.
  • In the interview, Christian Grey says he employs over 40,000 people. That makes his company twice as big as Enron. And he seems to have founded the company, not inherited it (though EL James is not specific on this point). This makes the company maybe five years old at the outside. Enron existed for 15 years before it folded. I’ve heard of fast growing companies and all, but this stretches credulity.
  • During the farcical school newspaper interview, Ana asks Christian if he’s gay. She, at least, is horrified and embarrassed (as she should be), but this comes out of nowhere, with no lead in, and at no time is Ana’s roommate (who came up with the question) challenged on her ridiculous premise that Christian must be gay because he’s never photographed in the society pages with a woman. (He’s spent the last five years building a company that’s become twice as big as Enron. I think a much more logical assumption is he’s never photographed with women because HE’S WORKING.)
  • Christian Grey is the CEO of his company, but he says he doesn’t have a board. Now, apparently, this is not a contradiction: The only companies that must have boards are ones that are publicly traded (something I’m sure Grey, control freak that he is, wouldn’t do). Most companies past a certain size have boards whether they’re publicly traded or not, but they don’t have to. And while a CEO is a common board position, there’s nothing that says that a company can’t have a CEO on his own. But still: It took me like fifteen minutes and asking four people about this before I came to the conclusion that EL James wasn’t actually wrong about this. 15 minutes that I could’ve spent reading the book. Fiction isn’t supposed to send you on fact-checking hunts, especially not this early in the game. I already distrust this author and that’s not a good sign.
  • Ana drives three hours, asks seven questions that were written for her and maybe another seven that she thought up herself in the moment. That is an extremely crappy interview, maybe half an hour long (I would read the conversation out loud to see, but I can’t bear to open the book again). It took 9 months to convince Grey to schedule the interview, and this is supposed to be an in-depth profile, and you ask seven questions? I’ve had interviews over an hour long for a 500 word article. I couldn’t even tell you how many questions I asked–I started out with a list that was maybe a page long, that I used as a guide when the conversation needed steering. Also, Christian Grey asks Ana if she wants to be shown around, and she says no. WHAT ARE YOU DOING. YOU ALWAYS SAY YES TO THAT. Even somebody with no journalistic instincts whatsoever says yes to that. Again with the “Why is Kate sending her roommate on these shenanigans and not calling another editor on the newspaper staff, especially since this is so important, and Ana is so clearly bad at it.”
  • EL James explains characters’ jokes for us after they say them: “Obviously, he’s referring to my earlier less-than-elegant entry into his office.” Yes. Obviously. So obviously you don’t need to tell us that, Ms James. Your readership is not stupid.
  • Ana goes home and offers to make her roommate a sandwich, and her roommate accepts. Even though she just had the flu a few hours ago. If the roommate–driven, tenacious roommate–was too sick to do the interview, she’s too sick to be eating a sandwich now. And yet here she is, eating a sandwich.

And that’s just Chapter One, Gentle Readers. It goes on like this. I tried to stop taking notes, I really did, but I couldn’t because this nonsense is just so frustrating:

  • Everyone mind’s everyone else’s business whether it’s needed or wanted. At a bar, Ana’s roommate Kate is about to leave the bar with a guy she just met. Ana tries to follow her on the grounds that she needs to give Kate “a safe sex lecture.” Kate is 22, and Ana is not her mother. I really hope that Kate’s learned about safe sex by now. Also, Ana is drunk, making her impulse to be the responsible mom figure somewhat laughable. Leave Kate alone, Ana. (This is outweighed by my total annoyance at Kate generally, who keeps going out of her way to make Christian angry/jealous on purpose. Interference of Roommate into Ana’s relationship aside, playing stupid high school games with guys is just….stupid, immature, and high school.)
  • At some point, Christian scolds Ana about her hair being damp. Of course it is. She just got out of the shower, Christian. Which you know because she’s in your hotel room. And you’re the one who told her to take the shower. Shut up.
  • Ana has apparently gotten through four years of college, from 2007-2011, without an email account. I refuse to believe that a middle class American girl born in 1989 did not have an email account before now. (On the other hand, I was so relieved when they started emailing each other, because James included header and signature text from all the emails, which made turning the pages that much faster.)
  • Christian has told her to start her BDSM research on Wikipedia. Sigh.
  • The narrative voice is inconsistent. Ana is the narrator, yet halfway through the book I still don’t feel like I know her. At the beginning of one chapter, she takes a moment to “admire the pretty” that is Christian standing in front of her. Later on, she says,”His gaze is impassive; his eyes cold shards of smoky glass.” It’s jarring to just switch tone and mood this way. Either Ana is Hannah Montana, or she is Jane Eyre. She cannot be both.
  • For someone who says she’s never been drunk before, she drinks a lot of wine, with almost every meal, whether she’s with Christian or not. She also never eats.
  • And this is without even getting into the assumption, which goes completely unchallenged here, that everyone who gets into BDSM is messed up or damaged. Or Ana’s assumption, also completely unchallenged, that Christian just needs to be shown what true love and acceptance are to mend his ways, and thinks that that fixer mission makes it okay to completely disrespect his needs and desires–which he went out of his way to state to her, clearly and honestly.

A few chapters into the book, I started thinking of John Laroquette’s rant from his appearance on the West Wing about hitting people with cricket bats, and couldn’t stop. And I hadn’t even gotten to the sexy tying up parts yet. (I also started sending angry texts to my friend Skippy, who doesn’t want to read this book, and didn’t want to hear about it, and now knows more about it than he ever wanted to. But he didn’t tell me to shut up once. Patient man, is Skippy.)

And yes. Most of these are petty details that I should overlook. I know. People read this book because they want to read the sexy tying up parts. They don’t care about Ana’s graduation ceremony, or the length of the interview with Christian, or the fact that EL James doesn’t seem to know that “army” should be capitalized when you are referring to someone’s employer or profession, ie, “ex-Army.” But you know what? The little details irk me. They pull me out of the story. By the time I get to the sexy tying up parts, I’m angry and frustrated and I don’t care anymore. And frankly, it’s insulting. Because if EL James doesn’t have the barest minimum of respect for me as a reader–if she did, she’d notice that she said “besieged” twice in two sentences, or think for three seconds about whether Ana can see Christian’s feet and tell us about the shoes he’s wearing when there’s a desk between them–she’d care enough to get this stuff right. I can’t tell you how aggravating it is when I just want to fall into a story, but I keep getting knocked out of it by these stupid little details. I respect you enough as an author that I spent a week reading your story. The least you can do is not treat me like I’m stupid.

We deserve better than this, Gentle Readers. We deserve solid tales decently told. Even if all you want is a story that, in the words of James, “makes desire pool in your belly,” you can do better than this (or you can search on the internet for files put together by helpful people who excerpted all the sexy bits of the 50 Shades series and put them in a single document, so you don’t even have to bother with the story). The internet has entire terabytes of bandwidth devoted to better erotic and/or BDSM tales than this. (And if this book has made you curious about BDSM and/or you want to try this with your partner, for the love of god, use something besides this book and ever-loving Wikipedia as sources/inspiration/guides.)

To make matter worse, (though it was, in retrospect, a really useful juxtaposition for reviewing purposes), I read 50 Shades of Grey the same week that I listened to Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass on audiobook, specifically the part where Whitman is recounting his experiences as a nurse in a Union Army hospital, dressing the wounds of injured Civil War soldiers. One is a story about a silly girl whose biggest problem is that there’s a disconnect between what her brain is telling her she should want and what is actually giving her orgasms. The other is about the indomitable human spirit and the sacrifices that men make, about pain and courage and friendship and humanity. I don’t understand half of what Whitman wrote, but I feel like a better person for having read it. 50 Shades just made me want to hit things, and not in a fun sexy way, either.

I think if I was offered a choice between reading this book again, watching The Human Centipede (a movie which is, I’m pretty sure, the absolute nadir of creative human output), or getting punched in the face, I’d have to think about it. And then I’d probably choose getting punched in the face. Immediately after reading this book, I started listening to the audiobook for Stiff by Mary Roach, about human decomposition and what cadavers donated to science are subjected to. It’s gooey and mushy and contains phrases like “intracranial steam,” which is what happens when the inside of your skull gets so hot that your brains literally melt out of your ears (don’t worry, you’re dead by the time this happens)–and it’s so much more entertaining and less disturbing than 50 Shades of Grey.

Approach this book with extreme caution, Gentle Readers. I wouldn’t have given it even one star but the computer didn’t give me the option of negative numbers.

Book Review: When You Are Engulfed in Flames

sedarisI first posted this review on my Goodreads account over here
As I have previously noted (in my review of Bossypants), I have an unfortunate inability to connect with a lot of comedy. I’m not sure why this is, but it’s true of most comedy media, whether books or movies or stand up or sitcoms.

I do, however, like David Sedaris, at least when he has contributed material to This American Life, which I listen to entirely too much. He’s clever and funny, and knows how to exaggerate events in order to capture their true essence. For example, in Sedaris’ classic essay about being a Santa Elf, “The Santaland Diaries,” which was originally recorded and broadcast for NPR’s Morning Edition, I believe, and re-broadcast several times on This American Life, as well as being reprinted in two of Sedaris’ books and various magazines, Sedaris has this interaction with a mother and son:

The woman grabbed my arm and said, ‘You there, elf. Tell Riley here that if he doesn’t start behaving immediately, then Santa is going to change his mind and bring him coal for Christmas.’ I said that Santa changed his policy and no longer traffics in coal. Instead, if you’re bad, he comes to your house and steals things. I told Riley that if he didn’t behave himself, Santa was going to take away his TV and all his electrical appliances and leave him in the dark. “All your appliances, Riley, including the refrigerator. Your food is going to spoil and smell bad. It is going to be so cold and dark where you are. You’re going to wish you never even heard the name Santa.”

The woman got a worried look on her face and said, ‘All right. That’s enough.’ I said, ‘He’s going to take your car and your furniture and all of your towels and blankets and leave you with nothing.’ The mother said, ‘No, that’s enough. Really.’

Now, obviously, I don’t know if Sedaris said all this to a child. It seems a bit much to me. But I would not be at all surprised if he said at least some of it. The rest is exaggeration for effect. But I’ve been a Christmas elf. I worked in retail for a lot of years. And a little part of me just wants that story to be true so badly. Maybe he said it, maybe he didn’t, but you know what? He got it exactly right. At his best, that’s what makes Sedaris so great: he makes these caricatures that are obviously caricatures, but are also exactly right.

When it came to When You Are Engulfed in Flames, though, my reaction was a bit mixed. Flames is a collection of essays, most of which have been pre-published in periodicals, and most of which pertain to Sedaris’ life as an American living in France with his boyfriend Hugh. What I realized, reading this book rather than listening to Sedaris perform it, is that Sedaris’ caricature humor really works best when he’s writing about people other than himself. When he turns his pen in his direction, it sometimes creates this weird self-conscious meta thing where Real David is writing about Caricature David and Real David knows that Caricature David is being ridiculous/isn’t really like that, but is writing it that way anyway. For the writing to be both self-aware and self-oblivious is a distracting, at least to me. When he’s writing about a third party, this works, because he has no access to (and doesn’t have any reason to talk about) how the person in question sees themselves, or their own internal contradictions. But when writing about himself, it’s a little problematic.

The other, much more minor, irksome detail is that he provides very little contextual explanation for even the simplest things. For example, Hugh is only introduced in the beginning as “Hugh,” not “my boyfriend Hugh,” or any other relationship signifier, and if I didn’t know who he was from listening to This American Life I probably would’ve been confused through the first two essays before I finally picked up on the context. And he never, ever, explains why he and Hugh moved to France to begin with, or why they lived in both Paris and Normandy. Did they just feel like it? Did one of them have a job? Is Hugh actually French? Were I reading just a single essay, I wouldn’t necessarily need all the background, but over the course of a book-length collection of essays, I miss it. And it wouldn’t have been that hard, either. Two sentences added in to one of the essays. A short introduction. Something.

On the other hand, Sedaris is enormously successful at bringing me along with him, and having me believe in his actions. Sedaris is a very different person than me–I can tell he expresses emotions differently, he’s looking for different sorts of relationships, he has wildly different interests, and a different temperament. He’s more cynical than me. He keeps pet spiders, for crying out loud. I do not read a lot of books where the narrator and myself are so disparate. I’m even less likely to connect with, believe in, or like such a narrator. But Sedaris pulls me in, even while I’m disagreeing with everything he’s doing, I understand why he’s doing it.

All in all, Sedaris is a talented guy. I have no idea where this book ranks amongst his others, or how it compares. I’m guessing Flames isn’t his best, but I don’t know. If you like him, it’s worth reading. If you like wry, self-deprecating humor based out of insecurity and perceptiveness, Sedaris is worth trying (and if you don’t like it, hey, it’s a collection of essays–you don’t have to read them all). I don’t know if I recommend reading this book, but I do recommend checking out the material he’s released on This American Life.

And the Santaland essay. Listen to the extended version on This American Life. Totally worth it.

Book Review: The Silence of the Lambs

silencelambsI first posted this review on my Goodreads account over here.

I have hinted at this in other reviews, but I will say it now directly: horror and I do not get along. When I was a kid, if I saw a horror movie by accident, I wouldn’t sleep for weeks. Thankfully, as an adult, my tolerance for horror books seems to have grown (I can read Stephen King without too much trouble), but still, I was decidedly trepidatious about reading the notorious Silence of the Lambs. Why did I read it? To see if I could. Will I be seeing the movie? No. No I will not.

Silence of the Lambs is equal parts gory suspense-thriller and police procedural drama. FBI trainee Clarice Starling has been sent on what is almost certainly a fool’s errand–to visit Dr. Hannibal Lector, imprisoned serial killer and cannibal, and see if he is willing to talk to her. The FBI is trying to build a database of profiles of serial killers, and for obvious reasons they want the database to include Lector. Lector doesn’t fill out the questionnaire. Instead he does something that is, at first, inexplicable: He tells Starling that there is a Valentine’s Day gift for her in the car of one of his victims. And so it begins, this cat-and-mouse between murderer and student, and it’s hard to tell who in the relationship is in control, especially when Starling’s interviews with Lector pull her into an investigation to capture an active murderer. Lector speaks in riddles and hints, so the action, while generally straightforward, is never predictable. And to my fellow horror-phobics: though the action ramps steadily upward, the horror doesn’t really; if you can get through the first ten chapters, you can probably get through all the way to the end.

The most surprising aspect of the book for me was Thomas Harris’ prose, which can be unexpectedly beautiful and affecting in a way that very, very few suspense novelists are. There is a moment, near the beginning, after Clarice Starling has seen the body of a murder victim. Any cop’s first body is bad enough (so I’m told), let alone one that’s been murdered as savagely as this woman has. Harris describes Starling’s reaction thus:

“In her life she had seen some of the hideously offhand ways in which the world breaks things. But she hadn’t really known, and now she knew…The knowledge would lie against her skin forever, and she knew she had to form a callous or it would wear her through.”

The knowledge lies against your skin, and you must form a callous or it’ll wear you through. That’s the most beautiful way to describe a most horrible thing.

Oh, and if you were wondering, the scariest moment in the whole book?

When the lights go out.

Book Review: Bossypants

bossypantsI first reviewed this book on my Goodreads account over here.

I have a confession. It’s something that distanced me from my peers in middle school, and interfered with my ability to make friends. It’s not something that I tell a lot of people.

I don’t really like Saturday Night Live. It’s possible that I straight up don’t like it at all. There have been some funny skits here and there, but it’s largely just uninteresting to me. I feel the same way about all of the movies that have been made by and with SNL alum, including anything with Will Ferrell, Chris Farley, or Adam Sandler. I also have no use for South Park, which my friends have all been obsessed with since middle school.

Lest you think I completely hate fun, I assure you that I do watch and love and quote The Simpsons like any self-respecting Millennial.

At some point, though, somebody forced me to sit down and watch 30 Rock and, to my enormous surprise, I liked it. It’s clever and funny and random, but most of all, good-hearted. It’s not a mean show. So, I watch 30 Rock and The Office and maybe one of these days I’ll take a chance on The Mindy Project and then I will have comedy mojo.

None of that is why I picked up Bossypants, though. I picked up Bossypants because Buzzfeed.com put it in a list of “65 Books You Need To Read In Your 20s,” and I’d gotten all the way to age 31 without reading most of them, and was concerned that maybe I had missed something important. Other than cultural literacy, I mean.

I admit I didn’t like Bossypants much at first. I wasn’t opposed, didn’t dislike it, but didn’t respond to it. But it grew on me. I think most of this is just that I’m plain more interested in Tina Fey’s adulthood and current philosophies than I am with anything that she did as a child. But the other part is the we never really hear from Childhood Tina. We hear from Adult Tina, talking in Adult Tina’s voice, about Childhood Tina. And as a result, I didn’t feel like I knew Childhood Tina very well, and didn’t really care much when she got left behind and we transitioned to Adult Tina. In the latter half of the book, we get to hear both from Adult Tina and about Adult Tina, and the whole character of the narrative changes for the better. Also, I’m a sucker for behind-the-scenes looks at TV shows and movies and things (I am the person who always listens to DVD audio commentary and watches the “Making Of” featurette). It also just started being funnier as her voice grew on me–right around the time when, to preserve his anonymity, Fey gives her husband a different alias every time he’s mentioned in the chapter about their honeymoon. (Conversely, she refers to her daughter as “my daughter” through 80% of the book, and then starts suddenly referring to her by name with no qualifying introduction, so keep that in mind and just make the inference you think you should be making.) I also appreciated her advice, specifically: if you are put in charge of hiring creative people and you need to work with those people for 80 hours a week, pick the people who are least likely to go crazy and punch you in the face (related: If you’re hoping to get hired to do something creative for 80 hours a week, don’t come across as the kind of person who will go crazy and start punching people in the face. You may be a genius, but that doesn’t matter once you start hitting).

There is also a word that you should remember: blorft. It means “Completely overwhelmed but proceeding as if everything is fine and reacting to the stress with the torpor of a possum.” Thank you, Tina Fey, for giving a name to that feeling, for that I will be forever grateful.

So. Life changing? Nah. Best book ever? Not really (even if I’d been a huge Tina Fey or SNL fan going in, I don’t think that I would think that). Worth reading? Sure. Funny? Yes.

Book Review: Seraphina

seraphinaI first reviewed this book on my Goodreads account over here.

Here’s the thing about fantasy: It is so dominated by JRR Tolkien (who, in turn, was heavily influenced by European mythology–English, Norse, and Celtic, most notably) that you can sometimes forget that there’s space for anything else. Dwarves and orcs and elves and men. Dragons and unicorns. There may be minor variations (i.e., Robert Jordan and his trollocs), but for the most part, no matter who writes the fantasy, a dragon is a dragon is a dragon.

Unless you’re Rachel Hartman.

When is a dragon not a dragon?

When he folds himself up into the shape of a human, and lives in a human city.

Honestly, that should be enough to make you read the book, I think. Dragons that attempt (and mostly fail, unless they’ve been doing it for a very long time) to pass as humans. But Hartman’s prose is also both beautiful and subtle, descriptive and poetic without being overly flowery. Wanting to figure out Seraphina’s world and how it works will pull you in, but the plot keeps you going until the end. This is such a unique and creative novel, even if you don’t like fantasy (perhaps especially if you don’t like fantasy because it all sounds like JRR Tolkien to you), it’s worth trying this book. The biggest problem with this book is that the sequel (of course there’s a sequel, it’s a fantasy novel, after all) doesn’t come out until 2015.

It got me thinking, too, without ever being didactic about its themes. It makes you think about trust, between individuals and between cultures. About xenopobia. About how we accommodate (or fail to accommodate) people in our society who are different, and about how hard we try (or don’t try at all) to communicate with people that we don’t understand. And about what we lose, as a society, as humanity, when we fall into the traps of distrust and xenophobia and the rejection of difference.

There were times when the plot felt a little too plotted; when characters have revelations or realize things just at exactly the right moment. Hartman throws a lot of balls into the air and doesn’t always do full justice to all of them, and the cast of characters is large and (for me) somewhat confusing (there is a glossary in the back, which I didn’t realize was there until I finished the book, but there you go). But that’s small potatoes. This is Hartman’s debut novel. Which is completely insane to me. I hope she writes more–not just finishes out the story of Seraphina, but takes us to other worlds too. I’d love to see through her eyes more.

Book Review: Valdez is Coming

valdez I first posted this review on my Goodreads account over here.
If you know anything about Elmore Leonard’s style, you’ve probably been told one of two things: His prose is “spare,” and the way he writes dialogue is beyond compare (him and Mark Twain. They can listen to people, and write the way people talk–a deceptively difficult skill to master). Leonard’s dislike of adverbs, of any speech attribution other than “said,” of prologues–of any superfluous words–has been well and truly immortalized in his 10 Rules of Writing that he wrote for the New York Times in 2001. (You know you are indelibly associated with something when The Onion uses it as the basis for your obituary.)

What the ten rules boil down to is this: every single word that Elmore Leonard uses moves the story forward. He wastes nothing. He gives nothing away, either: he may tell you what a character is thinking, but he will never tell you what a character is planning. He may tell you what a character’s doing, in which case he doesn’t feel the need to tell you what the character’s thinking. He doesn’t waste time setting scenes or describing landscapes, unless you need to know what the landscape looks like, in which case he tells you in the fewest possible words. He reminds me of Dashiell Hammett and other mid-century male crime/noir authors–stories where Men Are Men, Actions Are Self-Explanatory, and If You Can’t Follow Along You’re Not Paying Enough Attention. Even if you don’t like Westerns or crime novels, if you like to observe different authors’ styles, you could do much worse than checking out Elmore Leonard.

So. Valdez is Coming. In a small Arizona town, the town constable (Valdez) has killed an innocent man. When he tries to get the town to make amends, he’s beaten and mocked.

And then the town finds out what Valdez–who has lived in their midst for ten years, but who nobody really knows–is capable of.

It’s a deceptively simple tale with a very easy premise. Leonard probably could have told it as a short story, rather than a novel, if he’d had a mind to. But when you read it, with Leonard’s trademark taciturnity, with no words wasted, you know that the story is exactly as long as it needs to be. Ironically, it is because the prose is so spare that the story gets away with being as long as it is (in the hands of a lesser author, like me for example, it would’ve bogged down and gotten completely boring and lagging in the middle, and I would’ve been justifiably critized for putting in too much narrative padding). And it is Leonard’s disinclination to over-explain that keeps the climax of the book a surprise for the reader, even though you suspect all along what the ending will be or must be (this is a Western, after all, there’s only a few ways it could end).

So yes. You should read this book. It’s not just a good story, but it’s a story told by a master, a guy who managed to simultaneously impress book critics and literature professors and ordinary readers. I will be finding more Elmore Leonard to fill my life.