Books: People Who Eat Darkness by Richard Lloyd Parry

I’ve known about this book for a long time and had it on my Amazon wish list, but then I had this brilliant moment of realizing my library probably had a copy? And it did! With a less cool cover, but whatever.

The book (which is about a decade old now) recounts the disappearance and eventual discovery of the murder of 21-year-old Lucie Blackman. She was a British woman working in Tokyo as a hostess. Parry does a fair job of explaining what “hostessing” is, but I think it might be difficult for those who don’t know much about Japanese culture to fully understand it. It’s easy for people to jump to the idea that Lucie was a prostitute, but she wasn’t. In Japan, there are clubs where men can pay to just spend time chatting with pretty young ladies. They’ll buy the women drinks, they’ll do karaoke with them… And many of these clubs have foreigners working in them because some of the men like to talk to foreign women, even just practice their English with them.

Still, such a setup lends itself to predators in a number of ways as well, and unfortunately Lucie crossed paths with one of them.

It’s a long book, and detailed. It started strong but for me began to wobble about halfway through. Parry shifts focus from Lucie, her family, and the search in favor of the accused. Who is indeed a strange character. But I felt a lot more time was spent with this guy than perhaps strictly necessary, particularly since there is a lot not known about him. He grew up rich in Osaka, but as someone whose family originated in Korea, he also faced a certain amount of discrimination. Eventually he became a serial rapist and suspected murderer. Parry is crazy fascinated with the guy, it seems, but has never been granted an interview, so… Meanwhile, he does talk to Lucie’s family, her friends, etc. That part of the book feels richer to me, and more worthy.

The bits about the eventual trials go on for a while, too. I absolutely applaud the thoroughness of this book, but I’ll admit I started to skim at places.

As a person who loves true crime, this one was really something. It will stay with me for sure. But potential readers may want to prepare to be a tad bogged down by the minutiae.

Movies: Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

I, like many, have mixed feelings about Quentin Tarantino. I mostly don’t like his movies, though that may be because I mostly don’t like him. I find him sexist and gratuitous, and the fact that he’s so smug and pleased with himself about these things is a massive turn off. It’s fine. He doesn’t need me to like him, and he clearly has an audience that revels in his bad attitude. And I will say that I’ve enjoyed, if not all of any one of his movies, parts of a few of them?

So. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood re-imagines what might have happened if the Manson Family had picked a neighboring target rather than Sharon Tate and her friends. But that’s pretty much beside the point in this movie. The real story is of washed-up actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt stand-in Cliff (Brad Pitt). Never mind that these guys look nothing alike, mind. Maybe that’s supposed to be funny?

The film meanders through, er… I’m not even sure what. It’s not a cohesive story, more like loosely stitched events. Rick being turned down for a role and having to make spaghetti westerns. Cliff picking up hitchhikers and dropping them at Spahn Ranch. And we follow Sharon Tate around a little bit for no apparent reason except, I suppose, to establish her as the neighbor. And then the whole Manson Family thing and… ::shrug::

It’s not a bad movie. In fact, for me it’s one of Tarantino’s most tolerable. Which probably isn’t saying much. Maybe because I like Brad Pitt, and he’s very Brad in this. Still, there’s no reason this film needed to be nearly as long as it is (running time: 2 hours 41 minutes). A lot of this is Tarantino indulging himself, but that’s pretty much all his movies anyway. He’d be first to tell you he makes movies for him, not for viewers. He doesn’t much care what anyone else thinks.

Well, that’s one way to approach the industry, I guess. Must be nice to be an old, white guy that people hand money to and don’t hold you accountable if you lose any of it making your hack movies.

I can say OUaTiH deserves the production Oscar it won. That much was well done, and Leo and Brad are fun to watch, even if the movie doesn’t give them a whole lot to do. Well, I guess there was enough for Brad to do to win him Actor in a Supporting Role, and I can’t begrudge him that either. He does a fine job, and seems to be having fun at the same time. No one said you had to be miserable to win an Oscar, right? If anything, it seems harder to win for an upbeat role than a serious, dramatic one. So good on him.

So is the movie worth watching? Eh. It’s almost the kind of thing you can have playing in the background while you cook or something. It simply does not require your full attention to follow. But it’s a bit of fun. I’m not sorry I saw it.

Books: Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke

This one was recommended by a friend, and the prologue had me hooked. I’m just sorry the rest of the book wasn’t from that character’s point of view because the voice of the prologue was, to me, far more interesting and authentic. Not that the rest of the book wasn’t, but…

Well, let’s start with the premise. Darren Mathews is black. He also happens to be a Texas Ranger. On suspension pending a grand jury’s findings in a murder. But when an FBI friend puts Darren on the trail of a small-town murder that’s possibly a hate crime, Darren heads to Lark, Texas to investigate.

I’m from Texas. Grew up in a small town then moved to a bigger town then went to to school at UT. Locke’s descriptions are spot on, her tone perfectly captures the culture. (No surprise given she’s from Houston herself.) I read some reviews saying it was all too slow and too descriptive, so it’s possible that I liked this book more than some just because of my connection to the location. For me, reading this book was like going home.

Still and all, it isn’t perfect. Darren is not a particularly interesting main character. The prologue is told from another character’s POV, one I found much more interesting, but also one that isn’t as evident in the rest of the book. Instead, the chief female character is the murdered man’s widow, and she’s every kind of irritating. Between her and Darren, I will say there were times when I was a bit bored and annoyed with the book. Not the story, mind, just the book. The story is a good one, a solid mystery, though it has a somewhat abrupt resolution. And the book itself doesn’t entirely resolve as it ends on a bit of a cliffhanger. I found that to be the most annoying thing about it. Because it makes me think maybe Locke intended or intends to write another one? And yet I feel more or less done with these characters. This doesn’t feel like it should be a series.

Final bit of exasperation comes from the fact the book needed at least one more thorough copy edit. A character named Mack is called “Mark” on page 19, and, well, a few other little things that probably wouldn’t bother anyone not an editor. But having worked as one, they did bother me.

I ended up giving it four stars on Goodreads, would have gone higher if not for that ending. This is a mystery in the vein of something like True Detective—not a fast-paced thriller, but a meandering thread that is more character based than plot driven. A bit like my Peter, in fact. If you want to immerse yourself in small-town Texas, be disturbed by the true racial undercurrents of the American South, this is the book for you.

Movies: Marriage Story

As a rule, I don’t typically love Noah Baumbach films. And I can’t say I love this one, either. Only that I tolerated it better than most others of its kind.

The movie is pretty much what every clip you’ve seen suggests: Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson play Charlie and Nicole respectively, an artistic couple (he’s a director for theatre productions and she’s an actress) going through a separation that falls into a messy divorce. At the center of their many issues is their son Henry. Nicole takes Henry to LA, where her family lives and where she’s shooting a television pilot. Charlie believes they’ve agreed that they will all live in NYC together once the pilot is done. But free from Charlie’s decisions, Nicole begins to make different plans for herself… and Henry. Mean-spiritedness ensues.

If you enjoy watching people do and say terrible things to one another, this is the movie for you.

Which isn’t to say… Well, “enjoy” is the wrong word. I could have gone my life without watching this movie and probably wouldn’t have felt like I’d missed anything. But I’m not sorry I watched it? That’s maybe the best I can say for it? That, and that parts of it are likely to stick with me over time. Which is, at least in part, the point of art: to make an impression.

I’ll admit I haven’t actually seen many of Baumbach’s movies (the ones he’s directed, I mean). I do recall liking The Meyerowitz Stories, but I really did not like The Squid and the Whale, and I never even made it through all of Margot at the Wedding. Baumbach was once described to me as “Wes Anderson without the whimsy,” and that seems about right. I do love Wes Anderson, but it’s the whimsy that makes me happy. Meyerowitz came closest in a Royal Tenenbaums kind of way. There is, between the two (and yes, I am aware of the work they’ve done together), a real fixation on creative genius, public perception, and family hierarchy (which I suppose is “private perception”?). Marriage Story doesn’t quite go there because it’s so caught up in the drama of a dissolving relationship, but it touches on it—Charlie’s “genius” and how Nicole’s mother adores him, and the fight over who boosted whose career. I do find such themes interesting, but the lack of depth to them here makes them, and the movie, slightly less so. For me. Great performances, though, and Laura Dern definitely earned all her praise. In short, I wouldn’t go out of my way to recommend this one, but I wouldn’t warn people away from it either.

Hidden Scars

I have focal nodular hyperplasia (FNH). This is a very long way of saying I have benign tumors in my liver. They aren’t cancerous, or pre-cancerous, but they can be a literal pain.

My diagnosis came in 2002 and quite by accident. I’d gone in for a CAT scan for another issue and the FNH was simultaneously revealed. My doctor at the time immediately took me off birth control because she suspected the hormones were causing the problem. After some monitoring (read: MRIs every few months), it was determined that the nodules weren’t growing, so all was well. (If the tumors get too big, or block anything important, they have to be removed.)

There was some concern when I got pregnant that the FNH might become more serious. Oddly enough, I had no problems when pregnant with either of my boys, but the pain returned when I was carrying my daughter. Different hormones, I guess?

And now, just recently, the pain reared its ugly head again. I’ve since moved across the country and whatnot, so it took some explaining to my current doctor. When I went in today, she of course took a look and at first didn’t believe me when I told her that, no, I haven’t had a gallbladder since 2010. Because she couldn’t find the scars.

Gallbladder issues run in my family, but it’s also very common for women who’ve given birth to have gallstones. One of those things they don’t tell you before you decide to have kids. A year after my third and final child, it was discovered I was, as the ultrasound diagnostician put it, “full of stones.” So a very dour but incredibly skilled surgeon from South Africa removed my gallbladder. There are four tiny, nigh invisible, scars. (More visible in summer when my skin goes toasty.)

Anyway, there’s something wonderful about witnessing one medical professional admiring another’s work. Once my doctor did finally spot the gallbladder scars, she was highly impressed. If only I could take the credit, but I can only say I’ve been fortunate in my choices of health care providers—fortunate, that is, in whom I’ve been able to choose because this system is the pits.

As for the FNH, I’m due for an ultrasound next week. We’ll see if those nodules, lesions, tumors–whatever they decide to call them–are misbehaving. As I age and the chemicals in my body change, well… I can’t say I’m a fan. BUT. I’m still here, right? All these changes, no matter the inconvenience, are better than the alternative.

Books: One Day in December by Josie Silver

I’m a sucker for love-at-first-sight stories and tales of destined soul mates. Which is why, when I read an online blurb about this book, I thought it would be right up my alley. And it started out well, for sure. But about 30% of the way in…

Just so you have a sense of what I’m talking about (in case this book is unfamiliar to you), let me give the setup in a nutshell: On… wait for it… one day in December, Laurie is riding a bus and sees a guy out the window at the bus stop. And it’s the aforementioned love at first sight. The guy reacts a bit slow, though, and doesn’t make it onto the bus in time. Laurie and her best friend Sarah then spend a year looking for “bus boy.”

So far so good. I liked Laurie and Sarah, though Sarah is a bit too perfect. I realize the reader is seeing her largely through the eyes of Laurie and Jack (more on that in a minute), people who love her and do believe she’s amazing, but… Please. No one is saintly enough to always have charitable thoughts about even their best friends or girlfriends. And best friends/girlfriends are not always wonderful, which is pretty much how we see Sarah 100% of the time. Blech.

Anyway, it’s not really giving anything away to say that, roughly a year after the bus incident, Sarah brings home a new boyfriend (Jack) who is, of course, bus boy.

This is where I started to struggle with the book a bit. It became harder and harder to continue to like Laurie, or to like Jack much at all. The author works hard to make them each sympathetic, and I acknowledge Silver also seemed to be laboring to give Jack and Laurie facets and depth. Unfortunately, for me it didn’t really work. I found Laurie whiney and Jack to be a jerk.

The story is told from two POVs, and that didn’t work much for me, either, because I didn’t find Jack all that distinctive in tone. It’s not that he and Laurie sounded the same—not at all. He just wasn’t interesting. Self-pitying asshole seemed to be his main mode, and I found it tough to live in such a character’s head for any length of time.

Also, the book felt like a slog through a good chunk of the middle.

I will say I liked the ending. So, in short, it started well and ended well, but the middle 50% was a trial. This book ends just as you would predict, so for books like this one, the journey toward that end is meant to be the fun bit. In this case, however, it wasn’t fun at all. I ended up giving it three stars on Goodreads, but only because the moderately amusing ending saved it from receiving two. Even now, I’m thinking this is more a 2.5-star book, but I rounded up like they teach us in school.

Maybe chick lit just isn’t my tea.

No Hope for the Self-Pubbed

Yesterday I was told that, since I have already self-published my work, I will never be picked up by an agent or have a traditional publishing deal. Not just for the books that I’ve self-published, but ever. Because the only self-published authors that get agents are ones who sell a zillion copies of their stuff, thus proving it’s market worthy. In other words, only the self-published authors who don’t need agents ever get them.

My books are of solid quality. I know this thanks to (a) good reviews from professional sources, and (b) feedback from agents. The “problem” with my books is that I write stuff that doesn’t fit neatly into any one genre* and/or stuff in unpopular genres. Basically, what I’ve been told by agents is that, while my work is good, it’s not marketable.

Which is why, I suppose, I don’t sell a zillion copies.

And therefore I will never get an agent or a big publishing deal for anything I write, no matter how good it is or how marketable it may actually be.

This is what I’ve been told. By traditionally published authors, mind. Maybe I should ask an actual agent? Pretty much every one that I’ve submitted to has told me to try them again with other works. I used to think they were just being polite, but I later heard at a conference panel that, no, that’s a line they only add to their rejection letters when they mean it. Which should mean, just maybe, that even if I self-published that book, they might still be interested in something new by me?

Publishing seems to be contracting and expanding in strange ways. There are more authors than ever, more books out there than ever, and yet fewer and fewer authors seem to be able to get agents and traditional publishing deals. Or maybe it just seems that way when one stacks traditional authors next to all the indies. But it does feel like agents and publishers are actually narrowing their focuses rather than widening. They seem to be less comfortable taking a chance on someone new. (Just like movie studios these days, leaning heavily on known IP rather than being willing to try anything original.)

It seems like certain genres do well in the indie market (romance, thrillers). Well, that’s also like indie films, isn’t it? Indie drama is pretty common, but how many indie action movies are there? Not many (if any) because indie filmmakers can’t usually afford to make a big budget film. At least with books the cost is more or less the same regardless of genre. It’s the ability to reach the various markets that causes some indie genres to stall, I think. Romance and thriller readers are typically voracious and will pick up a wide variety of titles in their preferred genres. More literary reader, though… are harder to reach via indie outlets. Underserved markets are more willing to go indie, assuming they can find your books in the piles of content out there. (Hey, if you like historical fantasy gay romance, try Faebourne! Yeah, again, my oddly specific books keep agents from picking them or me up…)

I guess the question eventually becomes: Do I want an agent and traditional publishing deal? And the answer is: I’d like the option. Maybe it’s that old need for validation, but… Yeah. I’d like an offer someday. At the same time, I won’t waste too much time chasing agents. Because I might like to have an agent, but I’ve learned I don’t have to have one to be happy or satisfied with my work.