Books: Revolutionary Girl Utena by Chiho Saito

I love Touga Kiryuu. So much so that the one and only time I went to an anime convention, I cosplayed as him. But at that time I’d only ever watched the anime. I’ve owned this really nice box set of the manga for a few years now, and I finally decided to read them.

Me as Touga Kiryuu c. 1998

Shoujo Kakumei Utena is a pretty strange story. Utena Tenjou [note: I’m writing the names in the English order of given name first] lost her parents when she was young, and while grieving her loss one day, she went wandering through the city and fell (or nearly fell?) in a canal or river. But a “prince” saved her. He gave her a ring with a rose seal on it and promised they would meet again some day. Every year she receives a letter from the prince. Finally, some seven years later (Utena is now 13), he says they will soon meet.

Utena transfers to Ohtori Academy, an elite boarding school whose symbol is the rose. In so doing, she stumbles onto a strange ritual performed by the student council (of which Touga is president). They duel for possession of a girl named Anthy Himemiya, who they call the “Rose Bride.” They think being her groom will give them powers “to revolutionize the world.”

It only gets weirder from there. At some point the center of the story ceases to hold and it begins to make less sense; the threads of story are pulled too thin to form full connections. That said, I still really love these characters. Utena is perhaps the least interesting (as is sometimes the way of main characters); the council members are far more fascinating. The angry Juri, the sweet but sister-hounded Miki, the obsessed Saionji… And of course Touga. My favorite. In the manga Touga proves to be even better because he’s given more depth of character, which I appreciate. But I do also much prefer the character designs in the anime.

This manga doesn’t take long to read, and it’s worth reading if you don’t mind a story where you walk away unsure of what exactly happened. There are many “side stories,” too, with maybe alternate universes or??? They’re all good, but they in some ways contradict the main manga. I guess it’s just the author playing with her toys and trying new things with them. Fair enough. If I had characters this amazing, I might do the same.

Books: In a House of Lies by Ian Rankin

I’ve never read any of Rankin’s books before; I happened upon this one in a library display. It looked interesting, so I borrowed it. And for the most part it was interesting. Though I don’t know if it was so interesting that I’d go read any of the previous books in the series.

So there’s this retired Scottish police detective named John Rebus. And there’s a DI named Siobhan Clarke who is kind of his protégée or something? She catches a murder case that for twelve years has been a misper (missing persons) but now a body has suddenly turned up. And Rebus worked on the original inquiry. So… yeah.

Even not having read any of the other books, I was able to follow this fine and discern/infer enough not to be confused. The mystery was a pretty good one, with Rebus getting a B plot in which he gets to poke around in one of Clarke’s old cases too. I guess my problem was that I didn’t particularly like any of the characters. They’re pretty dry, even at moments when they (I think) are supposed to be witty. So I don’t know that I’d want to revisit them. Then again, I read on Goodreads that this is something like the 22nd book in this series, so maybe the characters have simply atrophied. Maybe they’re way more interesting and engaging in earlier novels.

Anyway… an okay read, but nothing I’m in a hurry to devour more of.

The Unpopular Truth

Much of the posts aimed at writers (and creatives in general) are bent toward one thing: encouragement. “Don’t give up!” and “Follow your dreams!” and all that. Which is good. Sometimes. But just as important is knowing when to accept reality, when to adjust your sails, or just plain quit.

A year or so ago, a young man wanted to meet to talk about screenwriting. Over Panera, I had to gently break the news that, no, Sony was not going to read his Sonic script. His only interest was in how to get it to them; naturally, he did not want to hear that it was fruitless. And sure, I suppose if he made the right connections and met the right people… But to do that, he needed to either get an internship or write something original that got attention before he could then make a play for a known property. That’s a lot of work, and there’s no instant gratification in that scenario, so he wasn’t interested.

Nor was he interested in anything but his one script. I see this sometimes—writers with “passion projects” that they focus on. A good writer needs passion in order for his or her work to have impact, but having only one script or manuscript is the same as buying only one lottery ticket. You might win, but your chances are better if you buy several. I’m not advocating gambling, but writing is a gamble. You put time and effort into something that may never get published or produced. You’re betting your time will be worth it but, sadly, sometimes it comes to naught.

Your odds get better, though, if (a) you work on more than one thing, and (b) you’re realistic about your chances, the market, etc. That young man with the Sonic script had reduced his odds to nil by having only one script, and that being based on a copyrighted property. At best it might be a good spec sample for people to see his writing ability. But these days specs are less in demand; it’s better to have original content and ideas.

And sometimes you just have to stop chasing the white rabbit. No one wants to hear that they should set a project aside, “trunk” it as some writers call it. That maybe it’s not ready for prime time. That maybe wait for the market to change or… *ahem*… maybe it’s just not that good. Which doesn’t mean the time was wasted! No time spent writing is wasted because practice is so important. But not everything you write is going to be worthy of publication or production. That’s the thing people don’t want to hear or believe. That sometimes you just need to quit and move on.

Books: Zucked by Roger McNamee

Almost everyone I know is on Facebook. My friends, my family, the people I used to work with, people I went to school with, other authors I’ve met… In particular, if you’re an author, you’ve been told you simply must have a Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. presence. And I’ll admit that when I deleted my Facebook page a few months ago, and left pretty much every FB Group I’d been a member of, I saw my sales plummet. But I also so my general life satisfaction and happiness go up, so…

But this isn’t a book about how Facebook and other social media impacts your happiness; there are plenty of other books and studies that do that. Zucked is about how Facebook (and Google, and Twitter, etc.) undermines democracy and is generally dangerous to the population.

That’s right. Dangerous.

To be clear, though I deleted my author page on Facebook, I do still have a personal account. This is because I live far from where I grew up, far from family, and my friends are spread across the globe. It’s also because all my kids’ schools lean on Facebook to disseminate information. See, Facebook has made itself practically indispensable. And there’s no other platform like it because Facebook squashes or absorbs all competition. Unregulated, Facebook is pretty much a monopoly.

And while we all think it’s great that Facebook allows us to keep in touch with people—people who otherwise would never email, so you’d pretty much never hear from them again—and/or snoop on old friends and flames, we need to remember that it’s a business not a charity. Facebook connects people at a price. It’s free to join, but you pay with your personal information, which Facebook sells to anyone willing to make them rich for it.

At this point, I’m sorely tempted to delete my Facebook account, but the damage is done. I exist in their system, and my profile has surely been sold many times over. That data, once sent out, can’t ever be called back. Who knows how many copies of it exist?

But here’s the thing: I absolutely won’t let me kids sign up for Facebook. Or any other major social media platform. For their own safety (cyberbullying being a real issue) and so that they can hold on to their information until the day we have legislation and regulation to protect them.

If any enterprising startup would like to make an ethical site that connects people, or if such a thing exists, I’d love to hear about it. I’d much rather pay a monthly or annual fee to protect my data than sign up for a free site that sells me as their product.

Oh, but what about the book? This was one of the clearest explanations of how these platforms do business and how bad actors (like the Russians) are able to use those business models to their advantage. Points deducted for the “History of Silicon Valley” chapter, which gave me flashbacks to my college days when I had to take a bunch of history of media classes. That bit was mind-numbing, and I don’t think it contributed much to the overall case against these platforms. It was meant to give context, but… meh. I ended up skimming that bit.

Still, anyone who has Facebook, anyone who uses Google or Instagram or other major platforms, should read this book. McNamee has decades of experience and lays things out neatly. An enlightening read.

Another 20 August

A long time ago, I wrote a screenplay titled 20 August. It did well in competitions and had a number of indie directors show interest in it. I had several verbal agreements, but of course they came to nothing. Such is the way of the biz.

Most indie directors, I’ve found, want to write their own material. I’ve been told as a writer that I should just direct my own movies. If you want something done right, as the saying goes. But I’m old-fashioned enough not to want to direct a movie. I’ve worked on film sets; I’ve witnessed the hassle. I just want to write and let someone else do the rest.

20 August was designed to be fairly low budget with limited locations. It’s a small drama that examines how the pressure to be successful by society’s standards can lead to misery. I’ll admit that for every two or three people who love the screenplay, I’ve found one who hates it. The subject matter appears to be somewhat divisive. That actually makes me happy because it means the content is striking a chord somewhere. It has impact.

For a couple of indie director friends, I did a short form version at their request. I thought for sure that a short could at least get made. Alas, so far no joy.

I haven’t written anything for screen in years now. Books are easier; movies require a lot of people to say “yes,” but I’m the only one who has to green light a book [assuming I self-publish]. Anyway, my computer won’t run my old Final Draft 8 anymore, and I’m too cheap to upgrade to a newer version. Why should I if my screenwriting goes nowhere?

It’s amazing to me, though, that a script can get so much great feedback, be inexpensive to make, and still get passed over in favor of… whatever else. Someone on Quora asked me whether quality was all that matters in the success of books. I said no to that, and that’s true for movies too. Neither publishing nor filmmaking are meritocracies. The good doesn’t automatically rise to the top. It’s all about connections and being able to sell yourself as well as your work. I guess I’m not so great at that bit.

Still, every 20th of August I find myself thinking about it…

Starting Over?

Lately I’ve felt that my life is in transition. We’ve recently moved house, renovations are in the offing, and the kids start school on Monday. Much of my time and energy has been focused on domestic things. I haven’t written more than a couple paragraphs in months, and I can’t seem to settle on any one project. Nor have I felt the particular drive to write.

Part of me wants to tear it all down to the studs. Dump my Twitter, my Facebook, this site. Unpublish everything I’ve put out there. I don’t even know why I feel this way, except that there’s a desire for a clean slate.

And then what? I’m not convinced I’m going to continue writing. I have a long list of half-begun projects and a number of works that really need to be edited and re-launched, yet… zero motivation to finish any of them. I suppose I could just leave everything as it is and still walk away, but taking it all down feels like the equivalent of tidying a room; leaving all my books and sites up makes me feel like I’m leaving behind a mess. I don’t like to do that.

So I don’t know what I’ll do. I won’t scrub my stuff until I’m sure it’s what I want. In the meantime, I’ll keep doing stuff around the house and with my family. There are far worse ways to spend one’s time.

Books: The Romanov Empress by C.W. Gortner

You may have noticed from my reading history that I have an interest in the Romanovs. Mostly that interest has been focused on Nicholas II and his immediate family, but when I found this book at the library, I decided to go back a generation. Sure, it’s historical fiction, so I spend a certain amount of time reading a book like this with historical references in my other hand (not to undermine authors of HF, but because I’m a curious person and find I often want to look up facts and information about historical personages as I read fictional accounts of them). In particular, when historical fiction is centered around a well-known, well-documented figure, I feel the author must work harder to hew to the facts while still creating a compelling narrative. If the author chooses to, er, elide a few things for some reason, I do say it gives me pause. I have to wonder why. To make the story more interesting somehow? I suppose some readers would value a punched-up story over accuracy, but I’m not one of them.

I’m not saying Gortner does that here. Honestly, I don’t know enough about the subject at hand to judge, and maybe that’s what makes me a tad uneasy about the novel. I’d almost want to go read a biography for comparison.

But before I get much further, a quick synopsis: The Romanov Empress tells the story of Dagmar of Denmark, who became Empress Maria “Minnie” Feodorovna, wife of Tsar Alexander III. It’s told in first person, which gives fair insight into Minnie’s thoughts and feelings, but necessarily means that anything she is not present for must be explained in dialogue scenes where she and Someone (usually Miechen) discuss politics or whatever. In fact, while the novel started strongly for me, by a little more than halfway through it began to founder for lack of tension, pace, action. Lots of terse discussions as the Russian Revolution built up around Minnie and the Romanovs. But nothing much else until the final few pages of being held by the Soviets and getting the bad news of her son’s family’s execution.

I almost wish the book had gone on a bit longer and shown some of Minnie’s days in exile. There is a solid afterword in the book that discusses where she and others ended up, but I might’ve liked to have seen it depicted. Another reason, perhaps, to pick up a biography.

This isn’t a bad book. I counted it as average on Goodreads, probably 3.5 stars but not quite worth rounding up to 4. I’d maybe try another Gortner book.

20 Questions

It’s a fair bet I’ll never be featured in my graduate school’s magazine… or any magazine, for that matter. But I can pretend by answering the questions my alma mater asks of people anyway.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Wandering a new city or place I’ve traveled to.

If you could study any field aside from your own, what would it be?

I really enjoyed all the psychology classes I took, and I’d possibly pursue that.

Whom do you most admire?

Queen Elizabeth II, I think. She has such grace under fire and has lasted through so much.

What are three adjectives you’d use to describe Emerson?

“Expensive”? Seriously, though, “connected” comes to mind. Also “purple” because all the banners were that color.

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?

I say “sure” way too often. And any other filler words: like, so, etc.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?

Having my short play produced twice and then turned into a short film. (I know I’m supposed to say my children or something like that, but I want to be honest. I adore my kids and am proud of them, but I don’t consider them an achievement.)

What is your greatest regret?

When I interned for Lynda Obst, she suggested I go work in her L.A. office and I instead chose to finish my last year as an undergrad. At the time I didn’t really understand that offers like that are not forever. And I feel like that was a huge missed opportunity. Of course, then I wouldn’t have gone to grad school, met my husband, etc.

Who are your favorite writers?

Right now? Tana French, Ben Aaronovitch, Kate Morton. I pretty much buy whatever they publish at the moment. But I love a lot of authors, like Jane Austen and Agatha Christie and Diana Wynne Jones.

Reading on a Kindle or other device: Yay or nay?

Nay. Not because I think it’s a terrible idea—it’s nice to have many books in one handy, portable place—but because I just don’t go looking for a device when I want to read. I’m old enough that I look for a physical book.

If you could have dinner with one person, alive or dead, who would it be?

I think Cary Grant would be a fun dinner date.

If you could have any superpower, what would it be?

Saving animals somehow.

Coffee or tea?

Tea. Chai, specifically.

Beach or mountains?

I’m more of a meadows/hills/forest kind of girl. Someplace secluded, but where I can still get food delivered.

Broadway or Hollywood?

Hollywood.

If you could spend 48 hours in any city around the globe, where would you go?

I really want to go to Japan. I don’t even care which city.

What song are you most embarrassed to love?

My friends will tell you I have terrible taste in music. To hear them tell it, I think should be embarrassed by any of the songs I love.

You’re stranded on an island. What three possessions would you not be able to live without?

My notebook and pen (does that count as two?) and at least one book, I guess.

What is your motto?

Well, per my logo: “From words to worlds.” But I don’t think I really have a motto per se.

What’s the best thing about Emerson?

Emerson got me the internship at Houghton Mifflin that started my publishing career. It’s got a solid reputation in the business and a string of accomplished alumni. I feel fortunate to be able to say I got my M.A. there.

Walt Disney World 2019

I’ve been away for a bit, off on vacation at Walt Disney World (and then we tacked on a short Disney cruise as well). But we’re back now, and I’d like to give some overall impressions of WDW. I’ve been a few times, including my honeymoon. We were last there in 2010 for Alexander’s fifth birthday. So of course a lot has changed, but… I wouldn’t necessarily say for the better.

As someone who enjoys Disney (and particularly Disneyland), but not someone who self-identifies as a Disney fan, I still have come to expect a minimum standard from Disney’s parks and resorts. Disney prides itself (or did) on the “magic” it creates. That used to mean spotless theme parks and warm interactions with cast members (Disney’s preferred term for its employees). It meant a seamless experience as visitors moved from resorts to parks and back again.

But not this time.

I chatted about this with my parents, who were with us. They go to WDW every 12-24 months, so they are definitely more well versed than I at what counts as “normal” for these parks and resorts. And they agreed that something was very off about, well, everything.

While we did, as expected, have a number of lovely interactions with cast members, we just as often had, not rude, but stone-faced and indifferent service. And the parks and resorts were not as clean as usual either. I found cigarette butts and gum on the ground, mushrooms growing in green spaces… The un-retouched paint on some of the buildings was shockingly noticeable. Parts of some of the parks simply looked and felt rundown.

My sense is that Disney is so focused on their shiny new stuff that they’ve begun to neglect the older stuff. Disney is all about its Star Wars world (yes, yes, I know it’s actually called Galaxy’s Edge), its Tron coaster, the new Guardians ride that’s being built at Epcot, the new resorts, etc. I suppose the company is banking on these attractions bringing more money (as if they need it)… Meanwhile, the parks are already overcrowded, and Disney does nothing to enforce the rules against line jumping etc. Ticket prices continue to rise, and people keep paying it, which means the patrons behave terribly because they feel entitled, after spending so much money, to do whatever they want.

The buses were especially bad during this trip. Though billed as running every 20 minutes, they were consistently late and overburdened. We used the Minnie Van service quite a lot, which of course costs extra. One suspects Disney wants to nudge people toward that service, though they can’t get rid of their free transportation without causing a riot.

Magic bands didn’t entirely work as they should, either. In particular, they didn’t open our hotel room door and we had to hike down to the lobby and have them reprogrammed. We stayed at Coronado Springs, which I think exemplifies what I stated earlier about Disney being more interested in its new things. All focus at this resort was on the brand new Gran Destino tower; meanwhile, those of us out at the older parts of the resort felt a bit abandoned and like second-class citizens.

This isn’t to say we didn’t have fun. We did. But these fissures in the bulwark that is Disney were impossible to ignore. I did not get the experience I expected (and paid highly for). And I don’t feel any pressing need to return to WDW any time soon. Hopefully my next visit to Disneyland will restore my faith in Disney magic.