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Books: My Favorite Series

Authors often get asked what some of their favorite series are. I guess maybe people think that, if they like the same books as a particular author, they might also like books by that author? I don’t really know. Maybe people think that authors must know which books are good because we know about books in general. The thing is, taste is truly subjective. I mean, there are objective qualities to “good” writing: proper punctuation, spelling, and sentence structure, for example. So maybe it’s more accurate to say good stories are subjective. What one person likes in a story (including what we call “voice”), another will not.

But that’s not the point of this post. I really just planned to list a few of my favorite book series so I would have something to point to when people ask. As they so often do.

Here goes. (In no particular order.)

The Dublin Murder Squad series by Tana French

I received a review copy of In the Woods during my time as a critic on Blogcritics. And I devoured this book. Later, I was also sent the second book in the series, The Likeness. But when I opened it up and discovered the main character was no longer Rob, I was so mad, I tossed it aside. It took me years to forgive that book and pick it up again, but I’m so glad I did. By then, there were several in the series, and I went through them like a box of bonbons. Each book focuses on a new main character, someone who was only a side character in a previous one. Once you are willing to accept that the characters you’ve fallen in love with (Rob!) have moved on, and open your heart and mind to whoever is next, you’re sure to enjoy this series. The prose is beautiful, and the plots and people who inhabit it are all somewhat dark and twisted—not in a bad way, but like gnarled old trees, fascinating and a little foreboding.

Rivers of London (Peter Grant) series by Ben Aaronovitch

Depending on where you live, the first book in this series is titled either Rivers of London or Midnight Riot. This one follows the progress of PC Peter Grant of the Metropolitan Police as he is conscripted to track down and deal with cases of a supernatural nature. He’s also learning magic because, hey, how can he be expected to hold his own against practitioners if he isn’t one himself? Peter is a witty narrator, and a colorful cast of characters fills the roster here. Though the first few books were strong, there did seem to be a bit of a dip in later volumes as (a) it became increasingly difficult to keep track of all the characters, and (b) more focus on Peter’s romantic relationship caused me to lose some interest. Still, I continue to pick up the new ones and read them. (I’m actually behind, as I’ve not yet read False Value, but it’s on my Kindle, ready and waiting.)

The Raven Cycle by Maggie Stiefvater

Loved these ones so much, I read all four books in the series inside of a week, then immediately re-read them. This is a YA (young adult) series about four boys at a private school who are working together to find the final resting place of an ancient Welsh king. Helping them is a girl named Blue, daughter of tarot readers and psychics, yet lacking any of those abilities herself. I fell in love with the characters, and the overarching plot is fantasy-meets-reality at its best.

The Vampire Chronicles by Anne Rice

An oldie but goodie, as they say. I first picked up Interview with the Vampire as a freshman in high school; I borrowed it from the school library so my parents wouldn’t know I was reading it. After buying The Vampire Lestat, Queen of the Damned, and Tale of the Body Thief at used-book stores, I waited for and bought every new novel as it was published. Though I couldn’t finish the more recent Prince Lestat and didn’t even try to read the one about Atlantis, I can say that up through Blood Canticle, it’s a highly entertaining (if sometimes uneven) series. Some of the books I re-read semi-regularly; others I will probably never open again. But they all stay on my bookshelf, and the brightly drawn characters remain vivid in my mind’s eye. Rice is sometimes lambasted for her sentiment and flowery language, but—whether you consider it for good or ill—no one writes quite like she does. And no one else could have told these stories.

The Chronicles of Chrestomanci by Diana Wynne Jones

YA? Middle grade? I’m not sure how these are classified, but they are a lot of fun. And they each stand alone, so you can read any one of the four and not really miss much. But I recommend all of them. I read them years ago, and then read them aloud to my children. These are absolute gems.

I’m sure there are other series I love. Hercule Poirot mysteries, for example. The George Smiley books that influenced Peter Stoller. And certainly there are many manga series I adore, but I feel like that should be a separate list. For now, these will suffice. They are the books that immediately spring to mind when I’m asked about favorite series, so that must mean they’re my true favorites, right?

What about you? Favorite book series? Have you read any of these, and if so, what did you think? Let me know in the comments!

My Complicated Feelings About Holly Gibney

My husband and I have been watching The Outsider. No, we haven’t finished it yet. No, I haven’t read the book. And no, I haven’t read any other books featuring the character of Holly Gibney. So I can only go on this sliver of information taken from watching six of the ten episodes.

There’s my first disclaimer. My second is that I do enjoy Stephen King and have since I was about 15 and began sneaking his books off my dad’s shelf. Uncle Stevie has a history of taking differently abled characters and making them “special” in other ways. (See also: Tom Cullen, Bill Denbrough, etc.) Holly Gibney seems to fit squarely in that field. She’s hyper-intelligent but comes across as distinctly on the spectrum—or at least the way media likes to portray people who are on the spectrum, which is where I start to feel uneasy.

But first let me point out that as a character—that is, as someone designed to intrigue and entertain me—Holly Gibney ticks all the boxes. I like her. If I didn’t, my internal conflict wouldn’t be a conflict. I’d be able to write her off and simply rant.

The thing is, as someone diagnosed somewhat later in life, I’ve become aware of an entertainment media inclination toward casting high-functioning [Asperger’s] types as quirky genius saviors. We have hangups that get played for tension or laughs. We do complicated puzzles in our heads, apparently. And we solve all the mysteries and problems. We range from socially awkward (funny) to stubborn/difficult (sometimes also funny, but also obnoxious). We speak very little and/or blurt things that are variously blunt, random, brilliant. We practically read minds but also struggle with emotions because we’re really just human computers. We observe, read, do some research, then chew up all that data and spit out the resolution.

Many of these characters are not explicitly stated to be on the spectrum, they are simply coded that way via the above characteristics. Whenever someone tells me they “never would have guessed” I’m on the spectrum, I have to wonder if that’s partially because I’m not “as seen on TV.”

Holly Gibney, at least as portrayed in The Outsider, is definitely coded this way. It’s explained that her parents were afraid… of her? for her? But doctors couldn’t come up with a diagnosis. So there seems to be an attempt to separate this character from a definite identification, but that just reads as “not like other Aspies,” which is lame. Or maybe, “Aspie Plus” or “Aspie but Better!” I don’t know. But this contributes to my discomfort because I recognize the shorthand symbols for someone on the spectrum: social awkwardness, high intelligence (with a touch of savant in some areas), a little bit of fixed mindset in the form of needing to sit in the same seat each time she visits certain restaurants or whatever. Holly cares about some things and is ignorant of anything outside her sphere of interest or ability. These traits, taken together, almost always dictate a character meant to be read as high-functioning autistic. I could dig up a dozen other, similar characters and portrayals, so it’s probably disingenuous to focus on Holly specifically, but… She’s the one that’s fresh in my mind, so here we are.

So what’s the problem? I should be glad for representation of any kind, right? Diversity and all that? (And Holly is also a black woman, so… hat trick?) Besides, people on the spectrum come in such a wide variety of traits that any one representation shouldn’t be an issue because they’re all valid? Or something?

I’m really asking. Because I can understand that way of thinking, and it’s not entirely wrong. But it still doesn’t sit well with me.

Portrayals of high-functioning ASD people tend to choose the most entertaining “quirks.” Because, you know, the point of entertainment media is to, er, entertain. So these characters are almost always written one of a few different ways: (1) funny/weird; (2) a little creepy but a necessary evil because his/her abilities are needed; (3) awkward, but eventually someone “gets through the armor” and the person is revealed to be sweet and shy; (4) insanely smart and therefore arrogant and obnoxious. Or some combination thereof. ALL of these usually have some kind of emotional stuntedness, typically shown via semi-robotic behavior in which the character doesn’t understand emotions, or doesn’t respond to emotions, or has no emotions him- or herself. But there might be one character that, over time, is able to break that shell, making the ASD character… less autistic? more “human”?

Sigh.

As someone on the spectrum, I can watch these characters and sometimes identify with them. In a few ways. I have hangups (mostly to do with noise, an issue I don’t see as often in media portrayals, and invasion of space/privacy, an issue I see portrayed pretty regularly). I’m smart, though I don’t solve nearly as many mysteries or save the world as often as other Aspies, if TV shows are to be believed. A lot of days it’s all I can do to remember to feed myself. I don’t like being touched, but I do have feelings and know how to love. I’m perceptive of others’ feelings, too; I just don’t always know what to do about them because the social aspects of dealing with emotions can be confusing. I’ve been known to be blunt and not understand when someone is joking. So, you know, all these various portrayals aren’t entirely wrong. And since everyone on the spectrum presents differently, what is true for me might not be at all true for the next ASD person you meet.

All of which is to say, it’s not strictly “wrong” to write these intelligent, quirky characters. But there seems to be a focus on one specific kind of intelligent, quirky character, probably because that’s the kind of character that contributes to the story: the one that can figure things out. But I do get irritated when some shows decide these characters need to be fixed, usually via a romantic interest, though sometimes a strong friendship does the job. Love is powerful, no doubt, but it isn’t a “cure” for autism. Loving someone on the spectrum means loving the things that make them different, not hoping that your love will magically change them.

So what would I like to see? Someone like me, maybe: a typical mother and wife whose autism is just kind of part of who she is rather than being the solution to some big mystery or problem. Someone who does a fair job of faking it through the world except when she just can’t. Someone who was classified as having a high IQ but chose a mundane life anyway. You can be high-functioning, brilliant and lazy, you know. “Gifted and talented” means very little in the long run; it’s all about what you do with what you have.

But maybe that makes for bad stories. Which is why we keep getting the same kind of ASD characters over and over. Often written by people who, as far as I can tell, are not on the spectrum themselves. They’ve just learned the shorthand and now this kind of individual has become a stock character.

As for Holly… I like her. And I want to like her. But there continues to be something about her that strikes me the wrong way. And maybe it’s because she sits atop this pile of tropes. I don’t know. She’s a black woman who has been coded as autistic (whether the writers admit it or not), so that’s… something.

I wanted to write this in the hopes that doing so might help me explore the root of the problem, whatever it is that makes me uneasy about this character. But I haven’t figured it out yet. Gonna have to do some more thinking/plumbing. In the meantime, if anyone else has thoughts about the topic, I’d love to hear them.

Books: Classroom of the Elite (Light Novels 1-5)

Ayanokouji is a first-year student at a government-run high school in Tokyo. His strangely deadpan expression leads others to believe he is morose, stupid, or maybe just sleepy. But it actually conceals a devious mind.

Students at this school are divided into four classrooms, A through D. Ayanokouji is in Class D, known colloquially as “defective.” That’s because the school has ostensibly assigned students based on their abilities. Class A would be the best students, and D… Well, one wonders why they even were chosen to go to such a prestigious school.

Except, of course, that’s not exactly the way the classes have been divided. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that strengths and weaknesses come in wide varieties.

Classroom of the Elite (Ayanokouji center)

Bottom line: this school then pits the four classes against one another by making them vie for “points.” Earn enough points to pass another class, and your class can climb the ranks to become Class A. To do that, though, Ayanokouji will have to use his master manipulation skills to get his disparate classmates to work together—all while avoiding bringing attention to himself as he has a past he’d rather not bring to light…

I’ll admit that I saw the anime first, which I enjoyed very much. The twelve episodes encompass the first three of these light novels. Right now only five of the novels (plus one interim set of short stories) are available in English, with a sixth coming in October and and seventh in January. (There are 16 volumes in Japanese, but my language skills aren’t quite there yet.) I’ve heard that a second season of the anime is supposed to be released later this year, but I don’t know how accurate that is.

Overall, I’ve enjoyed these characters and this unique setting/situation. While some of the characters are somewhat one note, Ayanokouji is deliciously layered, and it’s fun and interesting to read as those layers are peeled away one by one. Likewise, a number of other characters show myriad facets to keep readers guessing. There are a few editing mistakes in the translation, but it may just be that I notice those because of my writing and editing background. And sometimes it can be tricky to figure out who is speaking because the dialogue tags and/or formatting make it strange. Still, it’s not distracting enough to stop me from reading and enjoying the books. I would simply warn people about it. Also, quite a bit of fan service in the form of horny teenage boys, so beware there.

There is a manga, too, for those who feel like they’d rather read that. Having already watched the anime, though, I don’t feel any need to read the manga. The books give a bit more depth and character development, and they are slightly different from the anime as well. Not so much as to make a huge difference to the overall plot (so far), but noticeably different in some ways. I don’t know if the manga follows the books or the anime.

tl;dr: I really enjoy these light novels as well as the anime. I would recommend them as quick reads and to writer friends who want an example of multifaceted characters and antiheroes.

Television: Gekkan Shoujo Nozaki-kun

If you need something lighthearted to keep you from falling apart right now, this is the show for you.

Based, as I understand it, on a Japanese comic strip, this is the story of Sakura Chiyo, a high schooler with a crush on the oblivious Nozaki Umetarou. (Note: I’m putting the characters’ names in Japanese order of surname first, given name last.) When Sakura declares herself a “fan” of Nozaki-kun, he mistakes her as a fan of the shoujo manga he writes and illustrates. Soon Sakura finds herself roped into helping with said manga.

The story is rounded out by a fun ensemble of zany characters, each of which plays some role in Nozaki’s work. For someone who writes a popular romance manga, he’s utterly clueless about real-life relationships (be they friendships or romances), which leads to a lot of amusing scenarios.

Gekkan Shoujo Nozaki-kun (Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun)

I can’t remember the last time I watched anything that made me laugh out loud as much as this show. Sadly, it’s only 12 episodes. Though originally created in 2014, Netflix recently imported it. I don’t know if the wider exposure might lead to more episodes in the future, but one can hope. The comics have been collected into volumes as well, so those have made it onto my wish list!

In short, highly recommended as a cute pick-me-up.

The Shakespeare Thing

If you follow me on Twitter, you know my handle is @sh8kspeare. Why? Well…

Shakespeare has had an influence on my life from early days. My best friend’s mother introduced me to his work; she even made me a lovely sign with Ophelia’s quote from Hamlet IV.v: “We know what we are, but know not what we may be.” That sign remains on my bookshelf to this day, 30+ years later.

So I read the stories as a child, and I saw that one episode of Moonlighting… But like many Americans, I did not come face-to-face with the actual works until high school. Interestingly enough, I had no trouble with the language. It felt second nature to me, possibly because I must have heard it, or something like it, before then. We did Romeo & Juliet my freshman year of high school, and our class rewrote it into a Mafia context (well before Baz Luhrmann, I might add). I was Lord Capulet, wearing my dad’s Hawaiian shirt and with my hair in a ponytail. We filmed the play, and for the rest of my high school days, freshman would come to me and say, “You’re Lord Capulet!”

We acted out some Julius Caesar, and I was Cassius. I was the Third Witch in MacBeth. And I got to do some of both Hamlet and Ophelia when we read Hamlet. I also got to be Viola in Twelfth Night. None of this as true performance, mind; all semi-acted in English classrooms (excepting that Romeo & Juliet, which we performed and recorded in a library study room). Still, I found it exhilarating. Despite having many friends in drama, I was too shy to sign up for drama classes, so this was as close as I was going to get.

Until Winedale.

My final spring at the University of Texas at Austin, a couple of my friends recommended I sign up for Shakespeare Through Performance. Even though they’d both taken this class, they did not warn me what it truly was.

I didn’t need another English credit, I just needed something to fill out my schedule so I could get my financial aid (I had to have a full course load to qualify), so I went for it. And ended up as part of the Shakespeare at Winedale program. To this day, it remains one of the best experiences of my life, and I only wish I still lived close enough to be involved.

Each spring, Doc Ayers would choose a play and the students would learn and perform it. Not on campus, however, but at “The Barn.” Winedale is out in the middle of nowhere and consists of a house/dormitory and a miniature Globe Theatre (as well as other buildings). On weekends, we would go live together at this house and practice and rehearse. There were many late nights sitting out on the porch and singing. We got by on very little sleep. It was amazing.

On top of everything, I was fortunate enough to be in the class that was putting on my favorite play: Hamlet. But not the standard Hamlet. We were going to do the First Quarto (Q1). In that version, Polonius is called Corambis, which was my part*.

The thing about Winedale is that it is such an experience that it can’t be articulated. It has to be lived to be understood. You form bonds there that are for life. You take away with you something that cannot be obtained in any other way or circumstance. It is truly life changing.

Shakespeare at Winedale, Spring 1998 (Hamlet, Q1)

In fact, I was able to use that experience later on when asked to teach Shakespeare at a summer camp in Massachusetts. The camp was called College for Kids, and it was for ages 9-14. Each summer I chose a different play. The kids and I would read and discuss it. Then I would give them the choice to either learn and perform the original or rewrite it. Hamlet was my first year. Subsequent years were Romeo & Juliet, MacBeth, and Taming of the Shrew. I’ll never forget the camp director telling me, “I’m getting calls from parents. They keep saying, ‘I don’t know what that teacher is doing, but my kid won’t shut up about Shakespeare’ and ‘I wish they’d taught it like this when I was in school.'” I count that as success! And I owe that to having experienced Shakespeare in a marvelous way at Winedale.

The other thing about teaching Shakespeare—it was an unexpected side effect—was how it opened the door to other discussions. When I was teaching Romeo & Juliet, a student tentatively raised his hand and said, “My friend’s brother committed suicide…” Another student, sensing an opportunity said, “I went to camp with a girl who would cut herself. I don’t get why she did that.” Whew. Big topics. But Shakespeare had given them an opening to talk about something they otherwise might not have felt comfortable bringing up. So we discussed it. And when I taught Taming of the Shrew, a girl asked, “Why is this considered funny?” So we talked about that, too—about gendered comedy, but also about forms of abuse in relationships. And, yeah, I did show them that episode of Moonlighting.

It wasn’t all seriousness. My MacBeth students turned the play into a comedy about Banquo [Banquet] frozen dinners. My Hamlet students created a dark comedy called Denmark High. We had a great time.

When I left Massachusetts, I came to a town where the local Shakespeare group met with me to ask about how I taught Shakespeare. Eventually they created a program that goes into the second-grade classrooms as well as a summer camp. And all of this is rooted in my time at Winedale.

Shakespeare has colored my life. I’ve seen a number of shows at the actual (well, reconstructed) Globe in London. I edited some versions of the plays while working in publishing. I have outlines for YA novels that stem from Shakespeare as well. There probably isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think or say a line from one of the Bard’s plays. Then again, so many words and phrases come from Shakespeare that many people don’t realize they’re quoting him. Did you know he made up the word “manager”? Go ahead and find more words created by Shakespeare here. You might be surprised.

I won’t say Shakespeare is for everyone. I will say the themes in his works, the drama—those are universal. Which is why his works endure both in their original form and via a multitude of adaptations. I recall telling my Hamlet students on that first day: “Imagine you’re away at college. You find out your dad has died, so you have to go home. Then you find out your mom married your uncle.” The look on their faces was priceless. “Ew!” a few of them said. Then I added that final layer: “AND… your dad was king, and you were the prince. But now your uncle is king?” That’s soap opera-level sudsy right there. Those kids were all in.

Many people find Shakespeare stuffy or simply incomprehensible. But he was the Spielberg or Nolan or [insert big-name director here] of his time, producing blockbusters designed to draw a crowd. We revere him now as a literary genius, but he was really just trying to tell stories that would sell. The fact that they not only sold but endured? It’s only what every author and creator can wish for.


*I was Corambis the first night. On the second night, I was supposed to play the murderer in the play within a play, but our Hamlet skipped two pages of script and the play never happened. So I was only seen onstage as a servant later that night.

Kuroshitsuji (Black Butler) Series I & II

So let’s be 100% clear from the start. I have not read any of the manga. I have only watched the first two series. The first is from 2008-2009, the second from 2010. I hope to find and watch Book of Circus, Book of Murder, and Book of the Atlantic. And of course I’d really love to read the manga. But, long story short, all I have to go on right now is what I’ve seen in these first two series.

The titular character in Kuroshitsuji (known in English as Black Butler) is Sebastian Michaelis, a demon working as a butler in Victorian England to the 13-year-old Earl Ciel Phantomhive. (Well, Ciel is 12 at the start of the series, but whatever.) Sebastian and Ciel have a contract: Sebastian will help Ciel discover and get revenge upon whoever murdered Ciel’s parents, and when the revenge has been taken, Sebastian will devour Ciel’s soul.

Seems like a fair trade.

In the meantime, Ciel carries on the family tradition of serving as Queen Victoria’s “guard dog.” He investigates crimes in London’s seedy underbelly.

The real draw here is the relationship between Sebastian and Ciel, which treads a very fine line—exactly the kind of line that makes fangirls swoon. And I’ll gladly admit I am one. But I’ll also admit that, while the first series had what I’d consider a satisfying ending, the second was a mess. IMHO, of course.

Spoilers follow, so if you don’t want to know details, click away now.

At the end of the first series, revenge has seemingly been achieved and Sebastian is prepared to devour Ciel’s soul as per their contract. Cool.

But since they needed an excuse to continue the story, the second series tells us that a spider (that turns out to be a demon) stole Ciel’s soul just before Sebastian could devour it. So Sebastian goes to retrieve it and reanimates Ciel. Uh… okay, I guess? And Ciel doesn’t remember anything, so… And this is just me trying to work out exactly what the issues were, so I may have misunderstood… It seems like Sebastian is back to square one because as far as Ciel knows there has been no revenge taken? So Sebastian must redirect Ciel’s anger by giving him a new vengeance target. And that target ends up being Alois Trancy, another young earl who has made a deal with a demon named Claude. Like, what are the chances, right? Unless demons really like to play butler? I don’t know what kinds of fetishes demons have, so… maybe?

I’ll skip the intricacies because the leaps in logic were astounding, but at the end of it all, both Claude and Sebastian were after Ciel’s soul. But Ciel’s body was being inhabited by Alois’ soul at the same time. And Alois was jealous that Everybody Loves Ciel. So he played a final trick in not allowing either demon to have Ciel’s soul. In fact, he (with the help of yet another demon named Hannah) made Ciel into a demon. So… bottom line… Sebastian ended up not getting the nummy soul he’d worked so hard for and instead ended up in an eternal contract with Ciel that will never, ever pay off. I think?

And this really irritated me.

If asked to articulate why, though, I struggle. Is it because I believe patience and hard work should pay off, even for demons? Is it because I fell in fangirl love with Sebastian and don’t like seeing him get the wrong end of a raw deal? If he’d seemed happier and more satisfied with the situation, I think I would have felt differently. But his demeanor by the end of the second series was just as irked as I felt. Which in a way ruined the “happily ever after” I wanted for Sebastian and Ciel. Yes, I want them to be together, and now they can be—forever! But at the same time, Sebastian doesn’t seem too pleased with the circumstances. And I want their together forever to be a happy one.

Perhaps it’s about distribution of power. Sebastian was always the servant, but he was also the one with supernatural abilities. Ciel was his master, but Ciel also heavily relied on Sebastian and almost could not function without him. This made for a good balance. If Ciel is now a demon, however, and still master of Sebastian, the relationship has become seriously unequal. And that holds a lot less interest for me. In fact, it’s rather frustrating. It’s like I’m embittered on Sebastian’s behalf.

Keep in mind that I’m only basing all this on these two series of anime. Nothing more. I read somewhere that Black Butler II is completely unrelated to the manga. So maybe if I read the manga I’ll be more satisfied? Or if I watch the rest of the anime? I’ll let you know if/when I do and whether that changes my overall feeling. For now, I’m trying to hold on to what I loved about the characters and show and get over the things that soured me toward the end.

Jobs: The Dolls’ House

Any time I talk about places I’ve worked, my kids are like, “You need to write about all these things!” I suppose it’s never all that interesting to the person who has lived it, but today I’ll post about one of the many jobs I’ve had in my life: a clerk at a doll shop.

That is, I suppose I was a clerk. I was never given a title, per se. But I was one of three people who worked in this shop—a converted old house with requisite creaky floors. I was also the youngest, being 19 at the time and in my first year as an undergrad. My co-worker was attending the same university but was, I believe, a sophomore or junior. The store manager was an older woman who wanted to be a poet and seemed embittered by her lot in life.

The shop was owned by a woman who designed dolls and figurines as well as drew art prints, all of Victorian-era children. Each had a name: Brooke, Rebecca, David, James, etc. The girls wore frills and bows and bonnets; the boys wore sailor suits and short pants. They were charming, for those who like that sort of thing, which I did. But they were also very much of their time—not Victorian, that is, but 80s and 90s—and while the artist enjoyed a certain amount of popularity for a time, one never hears about her or her work anymore.

In any case, I took two buses to get to this store. While there, I often had to cut mattes for framing prints. Besides framing art done by the shop owner, we had one customer who would bring us scads of Thomas Kinkade prints to matte and frame. Other than that, I would wander the shop, straightening things and making sure none of the prints were being faded by sunlight.

Every other Saturday, I had to work in the shop alone. We had a radio up on top of one of the tall display cabinets; I had to stand on a bar-height chair to reach it. Some Saturdays I would never see a soul, so I always made sure to bring a book or notebook. Too bad food delivery services weren’t yet common; I always had to pack myself a lunch to store in the shop’s ancient refrigerator.

My favorite would be if and when we’d get a thunderstorm. The house would grow steadily darker and the rumble would shake it. Then rain would lash the windows. There was a sunroom where we put sale items, and that was the best place to be when it rained. The only down side was that the radio would go all to static in a storm.

One Saturday a man came into the store to buy a few things. He said something about a discount. It turned out he was related to the artist; he was her nephew or something. Well, he said he was, anyway. I guess I had no way of knowing, though I checked with a friend later (someone who worked directly for the artist, which was how I’d gotten the job) and it turned out to be legit. Whew.

The bitter manager got in trouble once for treating me badly at a doll show after other employees complained and the artist saw the manager berating me. Sadly, that may also have been what precipitated the shop closing a year later. So I only worked there for that one year. I didn’t mind not having to take two buses to get to work anymore, but there was a modicum of panic over finding new work. As it turned out, though, after the doll shop I ended up in the best job I’ve ever had (short of being a writer). But that’s another story for another post… Or probably several posts…

Movies: Palm Springs

This… was part Groundhog Day, part Hangover, and pretty much all stupid. So if you like that kind of thing…

Andy Samberg stars as Nyles, a man who has been living the same day repeatedly for longer than he can remember. That day includes the wedding of his girlfriend’s bf Tala, an event Nyles isn’t terribly interested in, maybe because (as BNL says) it’s all be done before, or maybe he wouldn’t have been keen even if it was the first and only time. Hard to tell.

When Tala’s older sister Sarah (Cristin Milioti) gets stuck in the time loop with him, however, Nyles must show her the ropes of existing within it. Then they hang out and goof around. Then they fall in love. Then she learns quantum physics to try and extricate them.

That’s… that’s pretty much the story. There are minor subplots, but they hold little to no weight.

The screenplay is bland and leans heavily on sex “humor.” That is, I assume it’s meant to be funny, but it was mostly trite. The characters lacked depth as well. We have the man-child, stuck in life both literally and figuratively; the ditzy, vain, cheating girlfriend, complete with trashy name Misty*, who declares that no one ever breaks up with her; and a would-be Janeane Garofalo character in the form of Sarah—disillusioned, no longer putting in an effort and wishing people wouldn’t expect things of her. There are odd attempts at something nearing philosophy (i.e., “meaning of life” stuff), but it falls flat amid the pedantic path of the plot itself, which fails to do more than skim over anything that might actually be interesting in favor of hitting all the color-by-number story beats.

Bottom line: aside from one or two cute moments, this movie doesn’t hold much for viewers who want anything more than empty calories. Despite the quantum physics, which is glossed at best, the loop doesn’t ever really get explained. For anyone watching this movie, brain rot sets in from the get-go. Samberg and Milioti, who have genuine chemistry, deserve a better script.

*Apologies to anyone actually named Misty; this is more about the connotations carried by certain names in pop culture than real people who carry the names themselves.

Speaking of, who names one child Sarah and another Tala? Like, those are two very different kinds of names, I feel? Whenever I meet people with multiple children, I feel like there’s a cohesiveness to the kids’ names. Parents think about these things, how the names will sound together, whether they “fit.” This is a minor point, I know but, as a writer, stuff like this really bothers me.

Books: Ghosts of the Tsunami by Richard Lloyd Parry

Richard Lloyd Parry is a foreign news correspondent in Tokyo, and this book is comprised of numerous interviews with survivors of the March 11, 2011 tsunami that hit the Tohoku region of Japan. I only heard about this book from a YouTuber of all things (Chris Broad of the Abroad in Japan channel). But I have a dear friend who taught in Sendai and knew people in the affected area, so I already had some interest in better understanding just what happened there. After all, today’s news cycles are spectacularly brief, so we often only get the “highlights” and headlines. This book goes a bit deeper into the impact the tsunami had, focusing especially on the tragedy at Okawa Elementary School.

Parry (Lloyd Parry? I don’t know which is his last name, but my library shelves him under P, so I’m going with Parry) first goes over his experience of March 11, 2011 while in Tokyo. They felt the earthquake there, too, but the tsunami was a non-issue. Soon enough, Parry describes the part of Miyagi Prefecture that was hit… In fact, he goes to some great lengths to give readers a mental picture. I was reading on my Kindle, and there were a few maps and photographs, but they weren’t as clear as might have been in a printed copy of the book. So I really don’t know if I’m picturing the geography all that well, despite all the words used. The book isn’t that long, so maybe he was padding his word count? In any case, what one really needs to know is that there is the ocean, and also the Kitakami River, and some hills. And that this tsunami came not just up out of the ocean, but also up the river and partly up the hills—farther than any tsunami in living memory. So a certain amount of complacency resulted in more deaths than necessary, particularly at Okawa.

Parry interviews a number of parents who lost some or all of their children. There are a lot of names in this book, so it can be tricky to keep track of who is who. Parry interviews a man who nearly died in the tsunami, and one who had been possessed by the ghost of a tsunami victim. He also talks to religious leaders who, in the aftermath, did their best to help in ways both practical and spiritual. It’s all interesting, if a bit of a mishmash.

There is also a good bit of time spent on the lawsuit against [what amounts to] the school board for negligence. Seventy-four children died at Okawa Elementary, and ten teachers. The emergency handbook did not have clear instructions on what to do in case of a tsunami, and none of the adults seemed to believe a tsunami could even reach the school, even after local bureaucrats drove by with loudspeakers and announced the oncoming wave. Poor planning and poor decision making were on full display, it seems. Some of the parents who lost children eventually filed suit and… Well, you can read the results online or read the book.

As for Okawa itself, it still stands as a memorial.

The “ghosts” thing was tangential; I might have liked a few more examples of people having encountered supernatural phenomena, but this simply isn’t that kind of book, so it would maybe have seemed weird. Even the bits that are there don’t feel entirely homogenous to the rest of the book.

As someone who has, all my life, had a very visceral fear of drowning—not sure why, if it’s a past-life thing or what—it was a bit difficult for me to read this. But I’m glad I did. It really did mostly engross me, barring some diversions into explaining the culture, the bureaucracy, etc. At least these spurs were not too long-winded. I know they were for context, but I also think anyone reading this probably already has an interest in Japan and knows a bit about the culture going in without needing lengthy explanations. I could be wrong.

This book does not go into the nuclear meltdown or fallout caused by the tsunami. So if you’re looking for that, look elsewhere.

And this one is more tightly written than People Who Eat Darkness, another nonfiction book by Parry that I read earlier this year. That one did have much more exhaustive passages about the culture and the legal system, but Ghosts of the Tsunami manages to avoid that. On the whole, as I said, I enjoyed it and would recommend it to anyone who has interest in the subject.