The home page for author Eric J. Juneau

Do I Hate Rich People? (Yes, and You Should Too)

gatsby movie toasting

I was talking to my wife about “The Dutch House” the other night. One of the things she commented on is that I seem to have a problem with rich people. I think she was particularly pointing out this passage in my review.

The main conflict comes from what I call “rich white asshole problems”, and these are common in post-modern literature, especially the ones I don’t usually finish or like (examples: Final Girls by Riley Sager, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, The Girl on the Train by Paula Dawkins). These two baby boomer kids live a huge old mansion in New England. Their father, although emotionally stunted, is still there and a rich real estate mogul. But they’re mostly raised by two housekeepers/cooks. Then the father marries a shrew and they get two stepsiblings. When the dad suddenly dies, she kicks the kids out and keeps the house and money. What do the kids do? They sit in a car outside the Dutch House and smoke cigarettes and grouse. Then they find out they get a trust fund, but only for education. So the older sister “gets revenge” by making the brother go to medical school and draining the trust from the shrew’s kids. But while attending free medical school, the brother is buying buildings because he wants to become a New York real estate handler like his father.

And you see how it’s hard to relate or sympathize with these characters when you’re a grocery store manager living paycheck to paycheck in 2020 and you just saw an off-duty cop shoot your neighbor for jogging while black and it gets no news coverage.

And that made me think “hm, am I prejudiced against rich people? I don’t want to be — I don’t want to be prejudiced against anybody. There’s no such thing as an entire group representing one personality. There are some good rich people out there… holding onto their…”

No, you know. Fuck it. Sure, I have a problem with rich people. Why shouldn’t I?

Maybe I’ve been conditioned to because they’re the enemy in every story. Just look at the Disney Villains — 64% have wealth or status as part of their evil persona, whether its Scar or Prince Hans having high status, or Gaston and Shere Khan being rich in allies and reputation, to the just plain wealthy like Sykes and Lady Tremaine (or you can be deluded like Cruella De Vil and Madame Medusa).

In any case, they use that wealth to keep others oppressed or to get their own way. They don’t use it for good. Yzma isn’t interested in using her position to help the citizens of the Inca Empire. Governor Ratcliffe doesn’t care anything about this new land besides harvesting it for gold. Even Willie the Giant is a greedy hermit.

And that’s just Disney. There have always been rich villains — Mr. Potter from “It’s a Wonderful Life”, Lex Luthor from “Superman”, Clubber Lang from “Rocky”, the Malfoys from “Harry Potter”, Mr. Burns from “The Simpsons”, Smaug from “The Hobbit”, Zorg from “The Fifth Element”.

Usually, it’s the “popular” movies more than the “good” movies that feature a wealthy antagonist. (The “good” movies have villains are like Hannibal Lecter and Nurse Ratched – sociopaths with capability for sympathy. Class doesn’t figure into it.). “Caddyshack” is no Oscar winner, but it’s all about taking the wind out of the sails of those snobs. Likewise Hedley Lamarr and “Blazing Saddles”.

It’s the elite in “Dirty Dancing” keeping Patrick Swayze and “Baby” apart. In “My Fair Lady”, Higgins’s education leads to wealth which leads to status which leads him to believe the lower class exists to be pushed around and used as tools. This is something he never grows out of, even when someone from that lower class loves him. Same thing happens in “Trading Places”. Heck, the entire theme of “Titanic” — the most popular movie of the last thirty years, is all about how douchebag the rich are vs. how cool and fun the working class is.

I’ve seen two horror movies (“Cheap Thrills” and “Would You Rather?“) that are about “how low will you go for money?” where people pay others to do increasingly risky and sick dares. In both cases, the rich guy leaves with no consequences.

Even when they’re not really “bad guys”, they’re corrupted by wealth — Charles Foster Kane from “Citizen Kane”, the Corelones from “The Godfather”, Tony Montana from “Scarface”, Jay Gatsby from “The Great Gatsby”, anyone from the Capitol in “The Hunger Games”, Christian Grey from “Fifty Shades of Grey” (he’s a “good guy” in the book, but I’d argue he’s a metafictional villain), the Lannister house from “Game of Thrones”, anyone in a Charles Dickens book.

Of course, I must acknowledge the occasions when a rich person is or becomes a good guy. Ebeneezer Scrooge, Scrooge McDuck, Oskar Schindler, Lara Croft, Richie Rich*, maybe Werner Von Trapp for leaving it all behind to get his family out of Dodge Austria. Daddy Warbucks was a miser who made his millions capitalizing on the war, until an adorable little orphan girl softened his heart. Both Batman and Iron Man use their money to implement justice and fix the wrongs of their respective pasts. But my point is there are few of these stories and many more of the other kind.

“Pretty Woman” is an interesting example — Richard Gere wants to be with Julia Roberts, but his world of elites will not accept her because she’s a prostitute. Nonetheless, he changes the business deal he’s working on such that he loses tons of money but it’s the right thing to do. In “Clueless”, money has made Cher into a moron. And in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” it’s led to a wedge between Cameron and his dad that doesn’t get resolved. I’ve never seen “Downton Abbey”, but it looks like a lot of conflict comes from the differences between the family and their lower-class employees.

Even the bible teaches us to fear the elite and wealthy, for they wield terrible power and wrath. Moses was a shepherd. Jesus was a carpenter. Those are your heroes, while the enemies are King Herod, Pharoah Rameses II, Governor Pontius Pilate.

And why shouldn’t rich people be the bad guys when they so often are in real life?

How about Enron? Millions of dollars wasted away. I saw “The Smartest Guys in the Room“. They laughed about screwing over others. What was the result? The CEOs aren’t in jail and thousands of people’s retirement plans wiped out. No consequences. Maybe they all need little orphan girls. That should be the punishment — over one million dollars in fraud and you’re forced to take care of red-headed ten-year-old.

Look at all these articles about the ridiculous decadent and evil things rich people do:

Rich people are unstable, manipulative, micromanaging, lying, fraudulent, homophobic/racist/misogynist/other-kinds-of-ist, do-what-i-say-not-what-i-do control freaks. They spend money on absolute bullshit — dog wedding clothes, terrible music careers, private firefighters, and other stupid things. They ignore the environment and lie about product safety for profits. Their children’s birthday parties are salads of decadence, corruption, myopia, obstinance, and bad parenting. Anything they want to get away with, they do. When you have that much money, a fine is simply the price for doing something illegal. That story about Amazon paying no taxes because of corporate loopholes isn’t an isolated incident.

And what comes to mind when I say the following? Fyre Festival. Martin Shkreli. Operation Varsity Blues (a.k.a. the Aunt Becky college scandal). My Super Sweet 16. That guy from Tiger King who promoted the park by driving tiger cubs and strippers into Las Vegas.

And yes, like any lumped group, there are cases where CEOs and rich people do act as good guys. Warren Buffet and Mark Cuban and Richard Branson and Bill Gates have done a lot of good. But they have to struggle to stay in our consciousnesses. They are vastly overshadowed by the reprehensible. Leona Helmsley was a cheater and a liar and she left all her money to her cats. Elon Musk started as a billionaire innovator with pinned hopes of an electric car and reviving the space program. But then he started sending roadsters into space, calling people pedophiles on Twitter, being a Covid-19 denier, and generally being incomprehensible. (Did he really think he was going to get away with naming his child after a math formula?) J.K. Rowling made so much money she became a billionaire. THEN she gave so much away to charity she lost billionaire status. But does that change her anti-transgender stance?

Here’s the thing — the most basic rich person has one fundamental problem that can’t be escaped: they aren’t using their money to help others. They’re using it to make more money.

If you give a regular person two thousand bucks, they are going to use that to buy groceries, pay the electric bill, upgrade their car, get that air conditioner fixed, pay for schooling. It’s going back into the economy and used.

If you give a rich person two thousand bucks, they’re going to invest it. They’re going to put it into stocks or hedge funds or debt-purchasing or something. They’re going to put the money in a box and let it make little baby dollars, which make more baby dollars and so on. It’s not being used to build community centers or new businesses or charities. The only ones guaranteed to benefit through this are banks.

This is what the “Occupy Wall Street” movement was about. It failed because A) they never had any firm leadership or a manifesto/list of demands B) what do you expect to happen? How are you going to make people give back their money? All the CEOs and managers close lose their fortunes, close their businesses, and lay off dozens of employees? And you can’t steal from them. (Couldn’t if you tried — all their money is digital, tied up in money markets and investments.)

Money is at it’s best when it flows. It shouldn’t be measured by how much you get or how much you spend. It should be measured by how much throughput there is. It’s like food and losing weight. You can’t just reduce the calories you’re eating. And you can’t just exercise while not changing your diet. You have to do both. There has to be good throughput. Money in, money out.

The mere existence of rich people is an affront to the “hard work, get reward” value that’s part of human morality. They say you only need $75,000-$100,000 a year to be happy and I’d agree with that. Remember Forrest Gump — “Mama said there’s only so much fortune a man really needs and the rest is just for showing off.”

It’s a strange take on these people though. We all hate them, but we want to become them.

*What did Richie Rich do? I mean, like, what were his stories like? Was he a treasure hunter like Uncle Scrooge? Go after smugglers? Invent things? Did he stay in his mansion all day and whack off?

A “Trivial” Complaint

trivial pursuit pie

So I recently joined a trivia contest through work. It was just a lunchtime thing, through Zoom, hosted by the work’s “environment committee.”

It wasn’t in “buzzer format”, which was good — you can’t do timed responses when the connection’s erratic. No, you just went down the line. Each person answered a question. If you didn’t get it, the next person could try to answer for half-credit. If they got it wrong, the next person got to try, and so on.

I joined because I thought, fuck it, why not. I like trivia. Climate change is an unusual topic for a Q&A contest and it’s not exactly my strength… okay, I’d say I’m pretty weak. I lean toward the pop culture and entertainment colors of pie.

earth climate change burning

What kind of questions they could ask? Because most times I read about climate change, it’s steeped in numbers. X tons of carbon in the atmosphere. Y number of cut-down trees. Z years since the last temperature change. I guess people love information like that, even though I can’t comprehend numbers above a certain magnitude. There are thousands of multicellular critters in my eyebrows right now, but I couldn’t feel one. What does 3.3 billion metric tons of CO2 mean? It’s an impressive number but is that a lot? A little?

Which brings me to my topic.

There is a right way and a wrong way to write trivia questions. And it’s easy to get it right — just look at Trivial Pursuit. None of the questions in that game have numbers as answers. And if they do, they’re multiple choice.

Now this might sound like sour grapes because I didn’t win, but one of my questions was “How tall is the Eiffel Tower… in meters?” (because it’s a British company). Another was “How many tons of trash is on Mt. Everest?” No more information than that. No range. No margin of error. All the host said was “higher” or “lower” before the next person got to guess. So then it became a binary search to find the answer. It’s supposed to be trivia, not “The Price is Right“. Every answer was a number or a country (e.g. “Which country is the cleanest?” Well, gee, there’s only three hundred countries. Could ya narrow it down a touch?).

The questioning format was especially bad because there WERE true and false questions. That’s a 50/50 shot for one person and an automatic point for the next contestant. Same for the multiple choice.

Now it’s not exactly like we were playing for a new car (in fact, we didn’t win anything. I guess it was just for “awareness”.) And trivia’s one of those things where you either know it or you don’t. It’s not like a math problem you can figure out.

But if you’re making a trivia contest, you should still review your work with a critical eye and the audience in mind. Say to yourself “could the average person answer this?”

Sub-Worlds in Horror

super mario minus world

Since I’m noticing trends these days (and why not, I’ve got nothing to do but stare at the ceiling while contemplating civilization and life and the meaninglessness of time), here’s another one.

Is it just me or is there a thing about horror movies and thrillers hinging on some kind of subworld? Especially since the year 2000. Stranger Things has the “Upside Down”. Insidious has the “Further”. Coraline has the world of the “Other Mother”. Get Out has the “Sunken Place”. Even Us had a subworld with its secret lab maze under the carnival. I didn’t see Don’t Blink, but I guess that has some kind of Bermuda Triangle thing going on. And there’s the room in 1408, although I think that might just be haunted.

I know alternate dimensions are nothing new in speculative fiction, but it seems horror especially has been using this as a trope lately. Why? Usually horror movies prey on fears that consume us in our current society. But I’m not sure which one this is or why it’s coming up now. Is it preying on the fear that there’s some kind of other society that we know nothing about that could rise up and invade any time?

Is it rooted in climate change? The “Upside Down” does look pretty polluted.

Is it manipulation? In both Get Out and Coraline, the extra dimension is used as a way to placate the victim, luring them somewhere so the bad guy can parastically use them.

Is it… is it… ghosts? I’m sorry, I can’t think of anything for Insidious. That movie was so stupid (and the impetus for this article) I had to write something about it. I mean, the bad guy is called “lipstick-faced demon”.

Lanterns helpfully provided at the entrance to extra non-corporeal dimensions

Aren’t we a little old and jaded to be scared of “demons” and “ghosts” anymore? Didn’t Buffy put that whole genre to rest? Nowadays, horror’s family-oriented (The VVitch, The Babadook, Us, A Quiet Place) or functional relationships (It Follows, Get Out). Not ghosts and goblins.

Or maybe it’s just me who’s old and jaded. I’m so jaded Indiana Jones tried to steal me to put in a museum.

get out sunken place

Late to the Game: Diablo

diablo logo

So I bought some retro games over the Coronavirus outbreak because my computer is too slow to play anything new (and has been for several years now).

One of them was called Diablo, which passed over my radar when it made its big splash in the nineties. I think I played the shareware version of it (ah, ♪shareware♪) , but never got interested. I wasn’t into PC games then. I had an N64 and the world was my oyster.

This is said oyster.

After playing Dusk I’d realized how much I missed my old Doom and Quake clones, so I bought Heretic and Hexen and some others like Warcraft, Warcraft II, and Diablo. The best thing about retro games is that they’re so cheap. And you don’t notice the bad graphics because you’re old and nostalgic.

When I got to Diablo, I played a little bit and realized it was really fun. I thought it’d be closer to Starcraft–needing strategy and placement rules. But it’s just another rat-in-a-maze hack-and-slash with RPG elements and an isometric view. The movement is wonky, probably because of the perspective, and it’s hard to figure out the mechanics when you start. For some reason you don’t even get a map in town.

It reminded me of Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance. I played the shit out that with my friend on the PS2 and I still haven’t found a decent replication of it anywhere else. We creamed over the piles of gold and monsters and leveling up and swords with names like “Keen Masterwork Broadsword of Frostiness +1”. I didn’t realize it at the time but Baldur’s Gate felt fresh and fun where IT was the clone of Diablo.

But there’s a problem.

Because there are RPG elements, the game does not increase your potency– the amount of damage you can do–until you kill so many baddies. And baddies don’t respawn. So I’m stuck on level 9 and I can’t get past a big clump of bad guys around a corner. Ranged weapons aren’t working (partially because they have them too, partially because they seem to be unaffected). I can’t duck in and out because I have no cover. I can’t bait one to follow me, because they’re in some kind of cage.

So now I’m just stuck. I bought this game and there’s no way to move ahead, short of some time-consuming tactics (i.e. chuck one arrow at a time until the healing potions are used up, make the long trek back to town, buy more, make the long trek back, repeat). There aren’t even cheat codes to let me progress.

I hate the way these old PC games were just too hard because of cheap tricks and ludodissonant advantages. By “ludodissonance” I mean a fireball hits me even though I wasn’t anywhere near it because of the wonky 3-D view. Or I dodged into it because of the wonky movement. Resident Evil had the same problem — you could easily dodge those slow moving zombies, but the tank controls limit your agility, even though no human being moves like that.

Warcraft and Warcraft II were the same way. I wanted to beat them on my own merit, but I got frustrated that my men weren’t doing what I wanted them to do. Either I didn’t click on them right or they decided to fight a different guy or they’re attacking a house and ignoring the orc pounding them or because the path-finding AI is TERRIBLE. Seriously, there’s only nine maps. Couldn’t you playtest this a little better to make they don’t go the long way around the forest and get stuck? It’s like they’re too stupid to know there’s no straight line through the cave wall.

Once a guy built a farm, got stuck in a corner, and I had to kill him to free up my resources

Let’s just put a hundred bad guys together and call it difficulty. Ganged up, they take half my health in three seconds. And then let’s design the game so that you get stronger the more monsters you kill, but then never give you new monsters to kill. Seriously, I’ve killed everyone on each floor — I should be at least able to take enough punches without chugging all eight of my potions.

I’m just gonna play Bioshock 2 again. At least I know A) it works on my PC B) someone put some time into figuring out the level of challenge.

Zelda: You Can’t Save Them All

link zelda sad

I’ve noticed a recurring theme in The Legend of Zelda that I’m not sure anyone else has picked up on. The fantasy genre and the dichotomy around the world of heroics and sword-and-sorcery and fairy tales and the like often uses this trope, but for Zelda, it’s a little unusual.

You can’t save everyone.

More to the point, you aren’t allowed to save everyone. The game won’t let you. It’s teaching you a harsh lesson that not everyone gets a happy ending.

As the games became more complex, it became easier to bake this story point into each plot, be it either a sidequest or a main twist. It might have started all the way back with Mr. Error.

Now, it’s widely believed that it’s a mistranslation, but it’s sort of not. The man’s real name is Erā, which phonetically is “Error”. I believe this is the unfortunate “meaningful” naming of a character that works in Japanese but not so much in English (see also Aeris/Aerith/”Earth”). He was meant to pair with a guy named “Bagu” which is phonetically “Bug”. So we’ve got “Error” and “Bug”, both programmer in-jokes. But Bagu’s name was left untouched. That left poor Error out there, all alone, with a confusing name and no purpose*.

Perhaps this was the impetus for Shigeru Miyamoto to put a character like this into all his games. For the next edition, we have a small side quest character known only as Flute Boy. When you enter the Dark World version of the Haunted Grove, you encounter a humanoid tapir sitting on a stump. (Everyone in the Dark World becomes something that reflects who they were in the Light World — Link is a bunny!) He asks you to find the flute he buried in the Light World. But returning his flute is all for naught. As soon as you give it to him, he says he is “fading” and asks to hear it one last time. After you play it, he becomes a vaguely tapir-shaped tree.

That’s pretty sad for a light-hearted game with cute smiley dwarves, a fat fairy princess, and lumberjacks with buck teeth. The ending shows that the flute boy recovers, but you don’t know that while you’re playing.

This sentimental downturn has been wildly successful because in the next game, Link’s Awakening, you can’t save ANYONE, because everyone is a dream. The only character to make it out alive is the Wind Fish. Everyone else wisps away like so much Thanos snap fodder. This includes one of my favorite characters, Marin, who seems to know her fate, but keeps singing as the world fades around her.

Ocarina of Time follows A Link to the Past. At the end of the first dungeon, the Great Deku Tree tells you that he can’t be saved and grays away. For this, you are kicked out of the Kokiri village. But later on, when you revisit the tree, a Deku Sprout erupts. Telling us that no one ever really dies, because life goes on.

Majora’s Mask follows suit, being the bleakest of the bleak Zelda’s. Your mission is to make sure Termina doesn’t become another Koholint Island, with everyone wiped out. But even so, not all of Majora’s black magic can be erased. When the game ends, the Deku Butler’s son remains as it was when you first encountered him.

And who knows if any of the events you accomplish in the game get erased when you travel through time.

In The Wind Waker, our sacrificial lamb is Daphnes Nohansen Hyrule a.k.a. King of Red Lions a.k.a. the guy whose beard looks like it’s a Roman column. But it’s actually a touching and poignant and significant to the plot. He sacrifices himself so that Hyrule can have a future. It’s an ode to the existing generation making the sacrifice for the young people.

Twilight Princess pulls a kind of bait-and-switch “unrecoverable” moment centered around Zelda. First, you see her surrender when Zant invades her empire, which is rather heart-breaking — Hyrule had never given up before. Then in the middle of the game, Zelda does… something to help an injured Midna can live which makes her disappear. The next time we see her, she’s a zombie in Ganon’s power, and you have to fight her. (But she gets better… once you beat her ass.)

There’s the one sage who’s killed during the “Imprisoning Ganondorf” cutscene, which is a bit distracting. The sages, in this game, are weird monochromatic uniformed entities. They kinda look like techno-angels. But you can’t see, according to the Arbiter’s Grounds, the one with the broken pedestal was the sage of water — Ruto.

At the end of it all, Midna returns to her kingdom, but then destroys the only way to do that — the Mirror of Twilight. Why does she do that? You had a real bond together. Not like Navi or King of Red Lions.

And there’s other scary moments too. What are the Interlopers? Why are they Dark Links? Why is possessed Link screaming? Why does Ilia want to stab me? WTF are those cucco-man things for real? Why does that song in City of the Sky creep me out?

In Skyward Sword, Fi makes a heartfelt goodbye when she is resealed inside the Master Sword and begins a long slumber. Although at this point I was wishing she was slumbering in a bathtub with a toaster. Nonetheless, she is a loss the hero experiences. And maybe Impa and the old woman. I don’t know. Honestly, I almost gave up on Zelda after this game.

Finally, in Breath of the Wild, our big loss is Hyrule itself. And by the end of the game, you may have banished the evil, but the kingdom is still in ruins. When you first saw the Temple of Time ruins, didn’t you have a reaction? Didn’t you feel something when you saw your first human after hours of gameplay? Know that lives were lost at Fort Hateno? Become acutely aware that, although the “wild” is vast and beautiful, it’s missing people? Missing that “lived in” feel?

There’s a little ink spot in each Zelda game. An indication that although this is a game about fighting monsters and saving princesses, not everyone gets a happy ending.

*He does have a purpose, though it’s unrelated to his name. In Mido, someone there says “Ask Error of Ruto about the Palace”. After that, Error tells you how to get to the third dungeon. But who remembers that?

What Will It Take to Reopen?

dungeon door

My whole problem with the “Do we open? Do we not open?” debate is that there is no clear goal. My governor (Minnesota) is doing this hem and haw, basically stepping outside to see if it’s still raining, then stepping back in.

It would be a lot easier to swallow this lockdown if there was some goal in mind to reach before reopening – do we have to get down to a certain number of infections per day? Deaths per day? Tests per day? A vaccine in our hands? But no one’s willing to set that objective in stone. I’m sick of having my kids’ sports postponed, not canceled, so they can hold onto our money.

Look, folks. There is no scenario where opening up does not lead to an increased infection rate. Not now, not six months from now, not two years. It’ll take until September 2021 when there’ll be a vaccine in commoner hands. That’s eighteen months from March 2020, when the research really started. That’s how long development takes–tests, trials, funding, bills passing, double-checking and triple-signing, evaluating long-term side effects. Eighteen months is the fast-tracked vaccine. And that’s IF the developers get it right the first time.

The world cannot self-isolate for eighteen months. It’s psychologically impossible. We can’t even do it for two months. It’s not just a matter of the mental toll it takes on a person. The economy as a whole can’t take this many businesses shut down for this long. It’s simply too much unemployment.

And I’ll be the first person who’ll say “fuck the economy — I don’t want my mom to die” (spoiler: I’m not). But eighteen months is unreasonable. There is a value you can put on a person’s life. Is it worth spending $1 to save a woman who has leukemia? Yes, of course. Is it worth spending the nation’s GDP? No, that’s silly. So we’ve established that life has a price. Now we’re just negotiating.

Bottom line: We’re not getting through this without scars.

People are going to die. Like Robert Frost said, “The only way out is through.” And that means we’re going to have to compromise. I know, I hate that word too. I hated that word when my mom used it to mediate fights between me and my sister. I hate it now, because everyone gives up something, and no one really wins. But that’s the kind of situation this is. We’re not trying to win, we’re trying to survive. We’re going to have to determine “acceptable losses”, because there’s going to be losses.

I’m not advocating “open everything up again! Let them all get sick! Build up immunity!” Because Coronavirus isn’t like that. It’s not binary results — you either die or make a full recovery. But you could also get liver damage, kidney damage, lung damage, even PTSD from being in the ICU, and all those other diseases that could get through because your immune system is busy fighting Covid-19 (stupid kill-stealers).

But I can’t stand the way every thing is closed down now. Not because it’s inconvenient, but because my friends don’t know where their next paycheck is coming from. And it’s not just the register-monkey at Cinnabon’s. I know nurses who are laid off and furloughed, doctors who are taking pay cuts to keep hospitals open. Substitute teachers and child care specialists. It’s middle and upper-middle class stuff too, not just the janitors and security desk officers.

So… there must be a compromise.

The Books I Read: March – April 2020

bookshelf books
the calculating stars mary robinette kowal
The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

I had never read Mary Robinette Kowal before. I admit, I’m a little green-eyed at her. She’s one of those people that can’t seem to fail at anything they do. She’s an art director, she’s a theater producer, she’s a puppeter working with Jim Henson Productions. One day she just decides “now I’ll be a writer” and immediately gets book deals and awards and becomes president of SFWA. Meanwhile, I’m writing novel after novel, trying to get published, throwing darts in the dark hoping I word vomit out something well-written and marketable.

But I digress. This is about the book. The Calculating Stars is good. It’s “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” plus “Hidden Figures”, with a little “The Right Stuff”.

Basic plot: in 1950, a meteor hits the Earth. In fifty years, it’s going to cause enough climate change to bring out an ice age, so if we want humanity to survive, we better get our butts into some moon colonies. The Space Race has become less about “beating the Ruskies” and more about getting the hell out of Dodge. This means lots of problem-solving and mathematics. Which might make you think it’s like The Martian, with tons of math and physics that makes it feel like a school assignment. But it’s not.

A large part of the theme is advancing feminism in a world where we need all the smart people we can get and cutting out half of them is not a wise idea. My favorite part is that it’s not like the “Strong Female Protagonist” like Captain Marvel or Erin Brockovich or Miss Congeniality. A dame who’s got no flaws (except stubbornness) who don’t need no man. This character’s married, in a happy relationship, and they’re both working together. That’s refreshing to see.

The expected trapfalls of stories like this is present though — the chauvinistic male general who disregards anything a female says, the hotshot cowboy who thinks women can’t fly, the woman who acts as anti-thesis for feminism. Characters get a little archetype-y, but they stay likable, because it’s not just “one girl against the world”. There are helpers and hurters, and each is distinct enough. We’re talking about a single character POV with a problem that’s on a global scale. Is that a little too much to shove into one book? Maybe.

I bought in. Some people might criticize it for characters that are too much like stereotypes. Or a main character whose biggest flaw is “stage fright”. When people could die by rocket explosion, and there’s only a few years to get to the “moon colony” stage of the space program, and the tension is supposed to come from public speaking? Seems like her Big Problem is being a progressive woman in a myopic world.

It has hindsight glasses on. But that didn’t make it less enjoyable for me. Especially because, like The Martian and The Right Stuff, all the science seems right, but doesn’t get in the way of the story-telling. I’ll be reading the next in the series.

the starlit wood new fairy tales
The Starlit Wood by various authors

When they say fairy tales retold, they don’t mean “Rapunzel in middle school” or “Cinderella in cyberpunk“. This is more “crank up the maturity by adding sex, drugs, and woman abuse” type of retelling. The themes are skewed toward “men are the devil, women are helpless”. The writing is parched and lifeless and bleak. “The man put a seed in her belly. She lay there while he lay on top of her and did his thing.” And I mean literally using the terms “did his thing”.

Everything screams “I AM WOMAN” and “my character is defined by my womanhood. Whether I spread my legs and let a man on top of me or a take a lover (male or female because love should be free) or I’m a woman in a man’s role. I scream womanness and I have no point beyond that but to be a woman and exist in relationship to men.”

I get that lots of fairy tales are about women suffering due to the actions of men. But when you’re revamping those tales for current sensibilities, they don’t all have to turn it on the same head. Viewing everything from the same lens is dull. Plus it makes everyone unlikable. And I certainly don’t want to read about it over and over.

Especially the female authors. They treat their stories like they’re an artsy short film–all experimental and pretentious. Some of them call it “playing with form”. I call it choosing form over function. Construct over content. Should a collection of short stories really be your experimental ground?

Oh, and two of the stories are of the “set in a world from another story I wrote” variety, and I HATE that. Making your short story as if it’s an advertisement for your other book series. No wonder short stories fell out of favor.

john hodgman medallion status
Medallion Status by John Hodgman

I guess you have to like John Hodgman a lot to appreciate it. And I don’t know why anyone would. He’s not very funny. He’s not very popular. He hasn’t lived through any great tragedies or demonstrated expertise with the written word.

From the book, it sounds like his job is being a celebrity. But a celebrity of what, you don’t know. Like Kathy Griffin or Kim Kardashian. And it’s not even a big celebrity, more like vice-vice-vice-celebrity. And the essays in this book prove that. They’re not even funny, they’re just… diverting. Agreeable.

But not fulfilling because there’s no conflict or drama here. You either get peeved at him because of his elevated status (e.g. his quest to be in the most prestigious Delta Sky Club) or tedious musings on Disneyland (celebrities are just like us!).

High concentrations of meh.

the odd 1s out
The Odd 1s Out: How to Be Cool and Other Things I Definitely Learned from Growing Up by James Rallison

Just watch his YouTube channel. It’s the same content — 75% of the essays/stories are just regurgitated, almost if not fully verbatim, from his videos. And those have the benefit of animation and comedic timing. Even one of the chapter titles still has the words “not clickbait”.

david sedaris calypso
Calypso by David Sedaris

I had never read anything by David Sedaris before, but I had heard him on This American Life several times. He has a distinct monotone that makes him a character just through his voice. And his stories always seemed interesting and funny. So before the apocalypse closed all the libraries, I grabbed this.

Like John Hodgman, he’s a celebrity, but no one knows what he’s a celebrity for. Being a writer, I guess? Like Dave Barry or Lewis Grizzard? But when the essays you produce are mostly about yourself, can you really call that fameworthy? Seems a little narcissistic to me. But I digress.

My biggest beef is that the essays sound super judgemental. Hypocritical of me to complain about someone else being judgy, I know. I like judging. But judgement should be rendered with the right criteria, and for the right reasons. Not petty superficial ones that damn a region or race instead of individual behavior.

His writings have a background of disdain for America. He’s very into criticizing anything that’s not European or his beach house in North Carolina. Except for when those towns and states fund his lecture tour.

He has a dark streak that’s hard to describe. He’s like a George Carlin that’s too lazy to get off the couch. There’s no vitriol or irony, but the same disdain for poor language, travel, and stupid people. In one chapter, he gives an iPad to a sick kid in the hospital. But in another, he makes it his mission to feed his exsected tumor to a wild turtle for… reasons? He even went to extra effort to have a black market medical procedure done for this purpose. There’s something about a character who would take the trouble to do that that makes me ill.

I wish one of his other collections has been at the library that day, like Me Talk Pretty One Day. This book, his latest, sounds he’s taken the turn of old age, losing hope and gaining cynicism.

beat the band don calame
Beat the Band by Don Calame

This is a direct sequel to the first, except this one takes the POV of the group’s Stifler.

There’s a reason that Stifler is a secondary character in the American Pie series and not one of the main four/three. You can only take him in small doses. As comic relief, he’s not supposed to learn anything or grow. The Stifler in American Pie is the Stifler in American Wedding (I didn’t see American Reunion). He’s the trickster, the shapeshifter. He challenges the status quo. He’s the foul-mouthed friend with the crazy schemes. He’s a little bit the enemy — how far will he drag his friends down to pursue his own self-interests?

And you’re going to make a novel about him?

I almost quit in the beginning. Cooper is chauvinistic in a way that doesn’t mesh with 2020 culture. He’s the same character as the last book–obsessed with who’s cool and who’s not. Staring at boobs. Making constant sex jokes and double entendres. Wanting to get with the hotties and naught with the notties. Trying to prove he’s a macho man, almost to the point where he’s a bully. Spending more time and effort avoiding work than actually doing the work. And wanting to bone everything in sight, even if that’s not how teenagers are.


It gets better. The big conflict is that, for his Health class project, he’s paired with a “persona non grata” girl. All he’s worried about is how this will affect his reputation and how to either get out of it or do as little work as possible. And as you’d expect, Coop’s journey is him learning to see women as people instead of weird objects indicative of status and pleasure. And that there are more important things than how you are seen by other people. And I guess I’m a sucker for that kind of story, as that was a common trope in during my teen years (e.g. The Outsiders, She’s All That, American Pie 2, Carrie, Harry Potter). If you can get used to the constant sex references, there’s a decent story in here–a romance and a comedy.

Most times when I read a sequel, I usually don’t have much to say. My oft-repeated tagline is “If you’ve read the first one you’ve probably already decided whether or not you’ll read the second one.” But in this case they’re different books. The first has a butt-monkey as the main character and this one stars the “jerk with a heart of gold”. You don’t need to read the first one, but why not? They’re both good books.

the dutch house ann patchett
The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

Okay, so first, this is a damn ugly cover.

Second, this is not my typical fare. I read this because my wife was reading it for book club, and I really didn’t have anything new. I had finished everything I picked up from the library for quarantine and all my “to read” books were still on hold at the library. She couldn’t stop talking about how much she hated the last book (Judy Blundell’s The High Season), so I decided to join her this time so I could sympathize and relate. That’s what good husbands do, you know.

Second, my copy had a stupid little “ReadWithJenna” sticker on it and I had to look up what that was. Apparently, the Jenna is Jenna Bush. As in former president George W. Bush’s daughter. Apparently, she’s trying to copy Oprah with talk shows and media correspondence, even down to the book club. I’ll tell you, anything recommended by something that sprang from dubya’s loins already has a strike against it. I don’t need to be told what books to read by someone who’s half-Kathie Lee Gifford and half-political darling. Plus the last time I read a book with a book club sticker, it was “Wild”.

The beginning feels erratic. You don’t get a sense of what the book is going to be about. It’s stream-of-consciousnessy, jumping from one thing to another. My writing advice says that, by the first chapter, you should know what the story is about, but I didn’t feel that way by chapter two or three. It was just setting and exposition. Nothing was happening. Nothing was giving me something to make me say “Boy, I can’t wait to read the next chapter of The Dutch House“. And that’s kind of how the whole thing is.

I mean, it’s well-written and it tells a good narrative, so you get a good book. It’s like oatmeal. Mild and bland. No surprises. No innovations. No risks.

The main conflict comes from what I call “rich white asshole problems”, and these are common in post-modern literature, especially the ones I don’t usually finish or like (examples: Final Girls by Riley Sager, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, The Girl on the Train by Paula Dawkins). These two baby boomer kids live a huge old mansion in New England. Their father, although emotionally stunted, is still there and a rich real estate mogul. But they’re mostly raised by two housekeeper/cooks. Then the father marries a shrew and they get two stepsiblings. When the dad suddenly dies, she kicks the kids out and keeps the house and money. What do the kids do? They sit in a car outside the Dutch House and smoke cigarettes and grouse. Then they find out they get a trust fund, but only for education. So the older sister “gets revenge” by making the brother go to medical school and draining the trust from the shrew’s kids. But while attending free medical school, the brother is buying buildings because he wants to become a New York real estate handler like his father.

And you see how it’s hard to relate or sympathize with these characters when you’re a grocery store manager living paycheck to paycheck in 2020 and you just saw an off-duty cop shoot your neighbor for jogging while black and it gets no news coverage.

But I still give it three stars, and this is where I need to explain my rating system. When I think of how to rate a book out of five, I think “Okay, pretend you’re going to a desert island. But you can bring as many books as you want. Would this be one of those books?” If so, I always rate it three stars or above. If not, it should be two or one.

My first instinct was to give it two stars, because of my system. I would not want to read this again. It gave me no emotional reaction. Like I said before, it’s oatmeal. But on the other hand, it’s high quality oatmeal. And I think giving it less than three stars does a disservice to the craftsmanship behind it. I mean, it was a book I didn’t have to read. I could have stopped at any time, but I didn’t.

Orcs Be Racist?

angry orc

This was a recent hot take on the interwebs, and I love the low hanging fruit so…

I actually have a little expertise in this (as much as one can about a swords & sorcery race that doesn’t exist). I have read the D&D Player’s Guide & Dungeon Master’s Guide cover-to-cover, and written a novella about orcs. So I’ve done my research. I mean, I’m not savvy on the history of orcs in fiction, but I’ve got some stakes as a fiction writer.

So the big debate is whether orcs are a stand-in for Black people, either in the tribal African “Shaka Zulu” sense or the “genetic predisposition” sense.

There has never been scientific evidence that Black people intrinsically violent or unintelligent. Could you see Idris Elba or Dulé Hill as an orc?

orc and bunny

This is all conjecture. It’s circular reasoning — you’re starting with the conclusion and then cherry-picking the evidence that supports it. You have to assume the premises are true to accept that the conclusion is true. I know this is true because what if I said “Hey, I think orcs were based on cowboys. They’re both violent, unintelligent, and uncivilized. How do we know Tolkien didn’t have vicious American cowboys in mind when he wrote Lord of the Rings?” I could do the same thing with Romans, Mongolians, or frontiersmen like Davey Crockett and Jeremiah Johnson.

I’m not gonna rehash the history of orcs. That’s what the Wikipedia page is for, so check that if you’re interested. Suffice to say, the word “African” or “Black” (in the context of race) does not appear in the page. Point one.

Second, orcs were brought into modern usage by J.R.R. Tolkien, an author from a land where they don’t have systemic racism. There weren’t Black slaves in England. There weren’t phrenologists and quacks trying to prove Africans as inferior so they could justify slavery. That was America. Meaning they weren’t conceived as a mock for Darkest Africa.

orc family

However, fantasy writers have a history of making their races as caricatures of existing cultures. Dwarves have been stereotyped in lots of places as being Jewish (obsession with gold, semitic-sounding language) and/or Scottish (since most Fantasy is vaguely British-based, dwarves resemble Celts best in terms of behavior, history, and relationship). So the idea is not without merit. But like Belle and Stockholm Syndrome, even if the circumstances are ripe for it, there is no evidence associating the culture of orcs to African-Americans.

The original argument was presented in the context of Dungeons & Dragons, a modern day game that is ever-changing. Let’s talk about orcs in that context.

Death of the Author– No

Someone noted that if you play as an orc, no matter the class, you take a -1 penalty to your intelligence score. That means the smartest orc can never be smarter than the smartest human. (The reverse is not true, since stats can’t go below zero – the dumbest human is as dumb as the dumbest orc). Extrapolate that out and that means the average orc is dumber than the average human.

But is this legitimate? You’re trying to apply biological, psychological, and sociological traits with game statistics. A person’s logic, understanding, self-awareness, learning, reasoning, creativity, problem-solving, etc. cannot be reduced to a simple number.

D&D is a game. You need balance in a game. Like in any Madden NFL game, a character might be a 99 for catching in real life, but has to be reduced to 90 or else one team is going to dominate or exploit a mechanic or something.

In most RPG games, there is some kind of “brute” playable character–something with high strength and low intelligence. Something that’s strong when it comes to melee or physical attacks and weak to magical attacks. The INT penalty is a game mechanic.

pensive orc

And keep in mind this is the same game where being “evil” is a naturally occuring trait. (Which goes into a whole big about the nature of evil and nature vs. nurture and condensing motivations to a 3×3 grid and do you kill the orc babies and so on). This wasn’t meant to be a universe, it was meant to help with role-playing. All monsters have some innate descriptors — mermaids, nagas, ettins. Some have characteristics they share with existing cultures. Some do not.

Death of the Author – Yes

In the excerpt, it says “an orc trying to live within the confines of civilization is faced with a difficult task.” Fine, but is the author is assuming that said orc was raised among other orcs and will have culture shock? Or is the author saying orcs are born “uncivilized” like primates?

Orcs started in D&D as monsters. They were enemies to fight that you didn’t have to worry about the moral implications of killing. Something more challenging than animal-like monsters. That’s how Tolkien envisioned them too. Orcs live for battle. They want to prove their strength.

Then D&D got popular and expanded. Then orcs became a race that people wanted to play, to add flavor to the game. The game designers obliged, but they had to keep the orc as an orc, otherwise it wouldnt be an orc. That meant integrating a fighty-shouty monster into a world where the apex citizens had civilization and culture and highly advanced problem-solving skills.

That meant you had a monster that had to live among human kind. Kind of like the Klingons in Star Trek: The Next Generation. They had the same stats as a monster, but were living among humans (and dwarves and elves). They’re not human, but apparently they can breed with humans, because there are half-orcs. And that gets into all kinds of issues I don’t have the wherewithal to comprehend.

pretty like an orc

That’s the thing–in D&D, anything goes. This is not a set world. Not a set culture. There’s no such thing as canon. All Wizards of the Coast provides is world-building. The characters and stories and situations within are created by the millions of game players worldwide. That means an orc could be a savage race in one game session and a tribe of noble warriors in another. Or a race of bunny-farmers in another.

My question is–where is the Black person in all this? When do they show up? Cause I haven’t seen it. What makes you think when we talk about orcs, we’re really talking about Black people?

It’s all BS and pot-stirring. D&D is meant to be played how you want. Anything in the book is a suggestion. A helpful guideline. An approach to impersonation. Play the orc how you want. Maybe he’s a sophisticated guy with a monocle who sits in an upholstered chair smoking a pipe. As long as the orc has a reason for getting to that station in life, it’s fine.

An orc is an orc is an orc. If you see something else, that’s your own Rorschach test.

female orc and knight love

How I Spent My Summer Vacation (in Quarantine)

geek with computer in basement

You know, most of my life I kept saying that I was so introverted I could be a brain in a jar and be happy, as long as I was hooked up to TV and the internet and books and such.

Now that’s essentially what I am, and even I’m occasionally having fits of anxiety, panic, dread, and ennui.

I was the last one to come to my office. But that only lasted a week before the governor closed all non-essential businesses, including my own. No one needs software developers to be present and accounted for.

As much as I complain about commutes and the vapidity of being in the office and having nothing to do, I worked better when I had a designated place and time to sit my butt down and work. I wrote better when I had a designated place and time to write. I could listen to podcasts on the way in and get educated. I never got tired of either environment because I didn’t spend too much time in either. And the coffee was free.

But now I spend all my time in my basement. I work in my basement. I play video games in my basement. Not only am I not leaving my house, I’m not leaving the room. Saturdays and Sundays don’t mean anything to me anymore. Tuesdays are now the worst part of the week. Mondays aren’t so bad because it’s a change of pace. But Tuesday comes and it’s “I gotta go down to the basement for the next nine hours… again.”

will smith stuck in basement

I didn’t really go anywhere, but those few places I did go, I treasured. Just like how I don’t talk much, but when I do, I expect to be heard. Now I can’t get food wherever I want. No more deciding “hmm, should I have Chinese today? Or pizza today? Or gyros? Or a sushi burrito? Or any of the other hundred interesting food kiosks and trucks in the downtown area?”

The things that used to keep me sane are now driving me insane. I go right from my work computer to my home computer — no break in-between. I don’t write consistently anymore because, since my gym closed, my only exercise is taking the dog for a thirty-minute walk. And yet I’m still hungry all the time.

Reading at work? What’s the point anymore? I can watch YouTube and be be on my phone all the time and there’s no one to see me and tut-tut.

warcraft guy south park

And even worse is that it seems there’s nothing I want to do at home. I was about to go out and try and join a D&D Adventurer’s League at a game shop that opened up in my town (Shut up! No, I really was. I would have gotten up the guts. I really would have. Shut up, I would.) but that ship sailed. (How can they call game stores non-essential, I ask you.)

No one in the house wants to play games with me. And when they do, it’s not the games I want to play. I just got Concept and Betrayal at the House on the Hill, and everyone’s like “…meh”. They all want to play Animal Crossing. They’re obsessed with that game–all the fun outfits and furniture and wallpaper and toilets you can get. And I’m like “What is the point? This is just Chore Simulator 2000. There’s no central goal to achieve, no way to make your character stronger, nothing to explore. Stardew Valley is the same game, and it had all of that. I put a hundred hours into that beast before I ran out of stuff to do.”

The only thing I can look forward to anymore is food, and even that’s not so great. I have no motivation to make lunches ahead of time anymore to because I have to plan grocery store stuff two weeks ahead of time instead of just one. Can’t just get my tub of ice cream and Nilla wafers any time I want. Plus now I’m so close to my refrigerator I can eat something immediate and quick. Except that’s all food my family needs. That lunchmeat is for the kids. That ground beef is for tacos tonight. Meals are based on what we can get at the grocery store? Will there be rice? Flour? Pickles? I don’t know.

I haven’t even really drank since quarantine started. Just beer — my liquor cabinet is empty. And it’s not like there’s anything stopping me from getting more — the liquor stores are still open. I just don’t have any motivation to drink anymore. I’m not stressed enough to need to blow off steam or just be bad for a while. Because I’m at home all the time. The video games and ice cream are right there.

trapped in room with window

So that’s where I’ve been at these past four weeks. They say “If you’re getting out of bed these days, you’re ahead of the game”. And I should be very thankful that I still have job and it’s one I can do from the safety of home and that I am living in a relatively low-risk area. But that doesn’t change the fact that none of this feels good and that I feel helpless to do anything about it. How can you feel positive about the outcome when the president hints that you should drink bleach or pool cleaner or UV light and that right-wingers with assault rifles are parading around my state’s capitol because they want to get a haircut.

The Books I Read: December 2019 – February 2020

bookshelf books
six of crows leigh bardugo
Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo

Man, this was so long ago, let me see if I can remember it. Imagine Ocean’s Eleven crossed with The Lies of Locke Lamora. I know Locke Lamora is already kind of a caper book, but that one focuses on two people and it’s very character driven. This one’s closer to that classic “golden fleece” caper story–a team of eight people with different backgrounds and skills come together to get some prize (in this case, kidnap someone during a party in a fortress.) Includes the “getting the band back together” and “breaking the team member out of jail” scenes.

It’s pretty darn good. I wasn’t sure what to expect from a fantasy novel with an ensemble cast. Usually a fantasy novel is very “hero protagonist” focused. They’re always “super important” or “the key” or “the chosen one”.When there’s more, they’re usually epics that with multiple POV characters in separate settings, so it’s really just three short novels. The problem becomes that there are so many characters it’s hard to keep track of, like a D&D party of eight. In this case, the characters feel lived in. Each has a distinct background and way of thinking so when the narrative switches to their POV, you remember who it is.

My other worry was that, in fantasy, it’s very easy to “deus ex machina” an ending. “They were trapped in the pit with the falling ceiling and the spikes and alligators, but, oh, they just used the wand of teleportation and escaped.” That doesn’t take place here, and it helps that there’s good world-building here. The world has been tested, abused, like Star Wars–someone’s established a history and presented the effects of it in the present-time. That means you get a nice mix of plotting and character development.

The problem is that the ending is unsatisfying, and that’s because it just stops. It’s split into two books, like Harry Potter 7 and Mockingjay. Is that the thing we’re doing now? “An Absolutely Remarkably Thing” by Hank Green did the same thing — left the story open-ended. Or you can say it ended on a cliffhanger. I say it ended unfinished. Fortunately, the book is good enough that I want to find out what happens next.

Five Feet Apart by Rachael Lippincott with Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis

So here’s a thing I didn’t know: this was a screenplay before it was a novel. Usually it’s the other around (and nine times out of ten, the book is better). But this here is a novelization of a movie. And you know how those are.

It’s a basic love story about two kids who have cystic fibrosis. This means they have low lung capacity and getting a cold can be life-threatening. They both essentially live in a hospital, but the boy has a bacteria that takes him off the lung transplant list. The girl doesn’t, but if she gets that bacteria, she’s off the list. Hence the five feet apart.

It’s like The Fault in Our Stars, but watered down. There are no grand thoughts here–no weighty contemplations about metaphors or suffering or oblivion or existentialism. It feels like this book is riding TFIOS’s coattails, capitalizing on a similar story with more focus on romance than the dissertation. Fortunately, that also means it’s shorter. But I guess it’s hard to communicate the gradualness of love in a short book.

And it has the trappings of a romance, like the gay best friend, the disapproving parents, the one “date”, the third act break-up, designed to make you cry. It’s going through the motions and cystic fibrosis is the way we’re going to tell the story this time. TFIOS is still probably the best teen romance I’ve read, one where it felt like the characters earned their togetherness and they weren’t smashed together because the book demanded it.

wolf hollow lauren wolk
Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk

I read this because my twelve-year-old read it and said she really liked it. She especially liked the theme of a man falsely accused and the main character’s choice to try and absolve him, even if it might condemn her. That’s pretty heady for a YA book, and I was pleasantly suprised that it gives more than that.

It reminded me a lot of To Kill a Mockingbird (but in rural Pennsylvania), which is high praise. Most of the similarities come from the themes and characters. For example, the POV protagonist is a young girl and there’s a reclusive man who has trouble fitting into society (although in his case, it’s because of WWI). The book dedicates a hefty third to explaining her small-town life and what she does when she walks around, goes to school, deals with bullies, relates to neighbors, learns minor life lessons, and so on. No racism, but it’s thematically about prejudice and how there are some things too beautiful to be in this world. The adults act like real people, not the “kids vs. adults” a lot of children’s fiction exhibits.

It’s a somber story, a tough story. One that might be hard to hear. If you liked To Kill a Mockingbird but want to avoid the hard-to-explain racism aspects, this is an excellent choice.

who put this song on morgan parker
Who Put This Song On? by Morgan Parker

I picked this one up because it was from a collection of YA books about teens with mental disorders. Some Kind of Happiness was another of those. This one was about clinical depression, but it does not deliver.

What’s supposed to come through as depression comes off whiny and resentful. Granted, it’s difficult for depression-sufferer to fit one of the traits of a compelling main character (heroic, sympathetic, smart, principled, or winsome). Depression’s not a disorder you want to be around. You wind up falling into Anakin Skywalker emo-whiny territory. Just like this book does.

This reeks more of that 1990s Reality Bites stereotype of new adults. The one that’s ungrateful for anything, blames all adults for their mishaps but has no problem taking their money. They think they’re alone, they don’t belong, but they still have friends. Selfish, disaffected, aimless. Jerks.

The main character is a black female teen in an affluent neighborhood. She’s gossippy, cynical of Christianity, riled by people who’re happier than her. Which is everyone.

In-between events, she’s going to therapy and doing teen things. But all the time she’s criticizing and belittling everyone and everything. This isn’t depression, this is a discontented teen caught between childhood and adulthood. The Rest of Us Just Live Here had a better portrayal of depression. Or Please Ignore Vera Dietz or Speak (although in that case, the depression had an impetus).

I stopped reading because A) I couldn’t sympathize with the main character and B) the story never started. The character is not working toward a goal. It’s just a series of scenes from high school life like an episode of Degrassi. Maybe it’s because I’m a forty-year-old white boy, but I couldn’t find anything to relate or empathize with the character about.

And I had depression. (I mean I still have it, but I’m on medication now.) I know what it’s like, and it’s not this. Depression is a set of contradictions. It means wanting to be alone, but being extremely lonely. It doesn’t mean hating everyone, it means hating yourself. It means thinking one thing and doing something different. It means being afraid all the time. This is just teen drama with an extra scoop of misanthropy.