Tag Archives: nonfiction

Movies: A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

This was… It’s a movie based on a magazine article, for starters. I didn’t know that going in. I didn’t know much of anything about this film except: Tom Hanks as Mr. Rogers. What else is there to know?

Well, I had wondered why Hanks had been put into the supporting actor category during awards season. The movie makes that decision clear. Rogers isn’t the real focus here. Instead, the central figure is the magazine article writer, here named Lloyd (actual article written by a guy named Tom). Lloyd has a difficult relationship with his father. Lloyd is given an assignment to interview Fred Rogers. What develops is a kind of friendship? I guess? But this movie is about Lloyd working things out with Rogers as a kind of gentle guide.

Did I like it? Not really. Did I find it moving? Yes, at moments. There’s no rule that says you have to find a movie that pulls at heartstrings to be wonderful. I didn’t really enjoy Lloyd’s story. The movie failed to make me care all that much about him, maybe because I mostly disliked him. The parts that touched me were the ones that brought back childhood memories of watching Mr. Rogers rather than anything about Lloyd and his personal problems.

A few years back we had that documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? That was wonderful. If you have an interest in Fred Rogers, that would be the film to watch. I’m not saying this one doesn’t have value… to certain viewers, looking for something oddly specific, maybe… It’s artistic? I don’t know. But overall it didn’t work for me.

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.

Books: Columbine by Dave Cullen

I can tell you where I was when the ATF laid siege to the Branch Davidian compound. (I lived in Texas and was in high school.) I can tell you where I was when Oklahoma City was bombed (still in Texas, freshman year at uni, was at my part-time job). But for whatever reason, I cannot remember hearing the news about the Columbine massacre. I still lived in Texas, worked a different job, was applying to grad schools… Those things were happening at that time, but as for the exact day and how I felt when I heard the news… Blank. I watched Peter Jennings every night after work, so I must have heard, but I cannot for the life of me remember any details.

Even after the fact, my understanding was sketchy. I recall “Trench Coat Mafia” being tossed around and then hearing that wasn’t actually a thing. If you’d asked me the names of the perpetrators, I couldn’t have given you an answer… not a correct one, anyway. If you’d asked me how many victims, I might have pulled out the correct answer, but I can’t promise that, and I certainly couldn’t have told you any of their names.

So did I read this book to put all that to rights? Not really. I read it because I watched a YouTube video that recommended the book. The video made me realize how little I actually knew and made me curious to learn more. So I grabbed the book from my library. It wasn’t always easy to read. I mean, it’s well written and moves at a good pace, but the specifics can be hard to hear (so to speak).

Cullen is thorough. He discusses what everyone thinks they know about Columbine and how much of that isn’t accurate. Of course, I didn’t even think I knew much, but it was very interesting to see the incongruities, how rumors became reported as “fact,” and few people ever learned the truth once the media blitz ended. There were people involved that I found difficult to like, though Cullen strives to report objectively. There is a lot of information, a lot of names, but he does a good job of bringing clarity to the morass.

That said, one has to keep in mind this book was written in 2009, so I don’t know if there is more up-to-date information available now. At the time of publication Sue Klebold had said very little publicly about her son Dylan, one of shooters. I’ve since seen a Ted Talk with her, so I know she’s become more open. Still, this is a really good place to start if you have any interest in the subject. If you like psychology or true crime, too, this is a pretty good read. I zipped through it, and it gave me a lot to think about.

Books: Rejection Proof by Jia Jiang

So many of my writer friends and colleagues will say things like, “You just need to get your 100 rejections!” They love this book. So when I saw it at the library on a NaNoWriMo display, I picked it up. And honestly, while some of it was interesting, I don’t think it really applies to the form(s) of rejection writers face.

Jiang wanted to be an entrepreneur. He was so miserable not being an entrepreneur that his wife gave him six months to go do just that. He gathered a team to develop an app. But when the investor they pitched it to ultimately declined, he was devastated by the rejection. So Jiang decided to make himself “rejection proof” through a kind of exposure therapy. He launched a “100 Days of Rejection” campaign, actively seeking to be rejected by making wacky requests of people. If he got used to hearing “no” maybe it wouldn’t hurt so much.

This book follows Jiang’s rejections—many of which weren’t. Jiang dives into the psychology of it, the ways to get “yes,” and how to politely reject someone without hurting them. But there are some flaws in taking all this and applying it to something like querying a manuscript.

  1. Jiang says to ask “why” when someone rejects you. Usually the reason isn’t personal, and you can feel better about the “no.” However, it’s pretty common knowledge that, if you don’t get feedback with a rejection to a query, you’re not supposed to pester by demanding to know why. I guess you could still email back and ask, but don’t bank on a response. Agents are often too busy for that, and they may not even remember exactly which book was yours to begin with.
  2. Jiang’s requests were for things he didn’t particularly expect—or even want—to receive. Like a haircut from a dog groomer. It’s a lot easier to laugh about and walk away from a “no” you never really wanted. And while, yes, I understand and even do believe the mantra that you should not be attached to outcomes, that you should only focus on what you can control, that’s not always entirely possible. “Hope springs infernal,” I always say. If we could turn off our hearts, our wants, we would. Life would be so much easier that way!
  3. Jiang became famous pretty early on in his experiment when a video he made went viral. He went on national television. Clearly he got a book deal. His fame most assuredly had an impact on everything that came after. So I’m not sure he can say he’s faced rejection in the same way an average no-name has. If people around Austin (where he lived at the time) recognized him, if they saw he was videoing them, they were possibly more likely to be agreeable to his requests. If I were to become abruptly famous, even for those fifteen minutes, maybe I’d have a better chance at a book deal, too.
  4. “Everyone has a number.” Jiang says that you just have to keep asking until you get a “yes.” That’s a nice idea, and it’s true. But the fact is, for writers at least, you may never get a “yes.” I’ve queried some manuscripts upwards of 100 times and never gotten anywhere. Yes, even after tweaking both the query and the manuscript. Sometimes, no matter how nicely you ask or how patient you are, it isn’t going to happen. Not to bring anyone down, but false hope can be more painful than reality sometimes.

This is a fairly quick book to read, though mostly anecdotal. Jiang goes through various rejection attempts and talks about what he learned from each of them. There’s nothing groundbreaking here, though. And I’d say a lot of what he discusses is more applicable to, say, sales and marketing than someone trying to get their book represented.

I will say, in the chapter on how to say “no,” I wished agents would read it! Jiang writes about how “yes, but” is harmful, as is “unfortunately.” Almost every rejection from an agent, form or personalized, is designed that way. “This was interesting but unfortunately…” I’d much rather have a direct “no thanks, here’s why” than be told they liked it and yet, for some unknown reason, don’t plan to accept it. I realize agents think they’re being kind, but it’s really not.

Do I recommend this book? Eh, maybe. Do I think it’s a great resource for writers seeking to beat rejection? Not really.

Books: Catch and Kill by Ronan Farrow

I went into this one thinking only that it was mostly about the Harvey Weinstein case. But it’s actually about a lot of things. While the first two-thirds of the book does focus on Farrow’s investigations regarding Weinstein’s sexual assaults, the underlying current is about how NBC squashed the story, forcing Farrow to take it to The New Yorker instead.

There are apparently any number of reasons NBC News behaved this way. 1. Because Weinstein threatened legal action. (The reason many other news agencies had dropped the story at various times in the past.) 2. Because Weinstein was a friend of a few of the upper management guys. 3. Because NBC had its own history of sexual malfeasance that it didn’t want exposed, and by reporting on Weinstein it may itself come under scrutiny and be accused of hypocrisy.

Bottom line seems to be that supposedly objective journalism was buried by a wave of unethical, biased behavior.

There’s more, of course. The fact that Weinstein paid for surveillance of the journalists pursuing the story as well as the women being contacted to come forward. Not your typical PI stuff, but black ops-level with ex-Mossad agents and the like. The book also addresses the breaking of the Matt Lauer scandal and NBC’s continued scrubbing of things like Wikipedia. But the title, Catch and Kill, refers to American Media, Inc. (AMI) and The National Enquirer‘s practice of buying rights to people’s stories and then never publishing those stories, thereby protecting powerful men *cough*Trump*cough*. Basically, you catch the story, buy the rights, and kill the story. So, for instance, someone who wants to sell her story about being sexually assaulted by Big Name Guy has the rights bought by AMI and then AMI never runs anything about it. Meanwhile the woman has no recourse because she has signed something that promises she won’t give the story to anyone else.

Overall, this book is about how unethical journalists protect bad people. Which in turn keeps those bad people in power so that they can continue to profit from their bad behavior. And, by trickle down, so do those unethical journalists.

As someone who started out in journalism, the moved on to film, and finally ended up in publishing, this is a very engaging book. It reads like a thriller. But I can’t say whether the average person would find it interesting or truly understand the implications. I’ve read a lot of reviews saying that Farrow’s ego is too big, that he’s painting himself as a hero here, that he should have left NBC sooner when he realized what they were doing… Maybe. I don’t know. I didn’t read the book that way, but I can see why some might. And his ego doesn’t change the basic facts of the story.

It can be difficult to find good, unbiased news coverage these days. AMI and FOX seem to be hard right, and there are a number of outlets that lean the opposite direction. In a world of increasing noise, sussing out the truth gets harder and harder, and a lot of people don’t have the time or energy, or maybe aren’t interested enough. They want to be spoon fed. They want to read about celebrity breakups rather than about sexual assault. Or maybe they only care about assault if it’s salacious and/or involves big names.

In any case, I wonder if I dodged a bullet by leaving the film industry. I was lucky enough to work for a female producer and be surrounded mostly by women. Perhaps that saved me a lot of trouble. Having been forced to resign a job because of having a baby seems like a small issue compared to what many others have gone through, though I recognize that’s a false equivalency. This isn’t about which women have had it better or worse; it’s about power being applied against women and a system that supports that. We’d like to think that system is being dismantled, but let’s be honest: even if it is, it’s a very slow process that won’t continue unless the foremen stand watch and make sure every nut and bolt comes out. And who will be those foremen? We’ve had a lot of lip service over #MeToo, a lot of token committees created, etc., but has anything really changed? I have to wonder.

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.

Books: Game of Crowns by Christopher Andersen

I seem to be on a bit of a Royals kick these days. Well, nothing like summer for reading trash and gossip, I suppose. Which is mostly what this book is—a curated collection of tidbits culled from magazines, interviews, tabloids. At least, that’s my guess.

The book begins with a hypothetical overview of what is likely to happen when Elizabeth II passes. The phone calls, the conversations, etc. I understand this as a “hook,” but it honestly put me off a bit.

From then on we re-tread old ground of Charles & Camilla (and Diana), William & Kate. The thesis of the book is to examine the succession of the British monarchy, but it mostly just points out that, no matter what anyone wants, Camilla will be de facto queen, at least for a little while. And that most people would much rather have William and Kate and skip Charles and Camilla entirely. All true, of course, but we know Elizabeth will give Charles his crown. Whether the monarchy will last under him is another question this book raises, but with Wills and Kate on the horizon, one thinks the monarchy may cling on a bit longer if people are willing to wait Charles and Camilla out.

I didn’t like Camilla before, and I like her even less after reading this book. I had more sympathy for Charles before reading this book, too. In short, this book does little to nothing for their reputations. It repeatedly underscores how they are outshone by the following generation and maintains that a number of Commonwealth countries may decide to leave and become republics when the crown devolves upon Charles and his Rottweiler. These countries, per Andersen, may not want to wait out Charles’ reign.

Kate comes off a bit better, though, in Andersen’s writing, that seems to be in spite of a grasping mother that pushed Kate under William’s nose and worked to keep her there.

It boils down to a lot of ambition on the parts of the women depicted here. Something to be said for persistence, I suppose, but it really only illustrates that good people are often trampled by those willing to do anything to get what (or who) they want.

Books: The Creation of Anne Boleyn by Susan Bordo

You know where I must begin with this: my relationship to the material being discussed. I like history, though I only came to any real interest in Anne Boleyn after picking up The Other Boleyn Girl at an airport bookstore several years ago. Like many of the people from Bordo’s website and research, a tidbit of historical fiction sent me looking for the truth, though not in any deep way. I read the Wiki and a few websites to glean what about Gregory’s novel was accurate, what was speculation, and what was pure fabrication. It was enough to satisfy my curiosity.

Last week I was wandering the library and came across Bordo’s book and picked it up as a potentially interesting read. Her ostensible goal with this work is to hold up what people think they know about Anne Boleyn and compare it to why they think or believe these things and where in the historical record these ideas may have come from. Considering there are precious few primary sources to mine, and that many of the sources we do have are biased (*cough* Chapuys *cough*), the exercise is not a bad one. But…

Unfortunately, at least in my eyes, the attempt is ruined by Bordo’s own clear biases. She disdains works by Alison Weir, rips apart Gregory’s fiction, snipes at Mantel’s version of Boleyn, and pretty much hates on anyone who ever said a bad word about Anne. Then gushes over Anne of the Thousand Days and Natalie Dormer’s take on Boleyn in The Tudors. Yet seems unable to be clear on why creative license is okay for some but not others (unless it’s because she’s just not okay with Anne Boleyn being a villainess?).

Okay, so some historians make what seem to other history buffs to be wild claims. The real truth is, we don’t know. Bordo disagrees with, well, a lot. And that’s fine; she’s allowed to make her argument and present her data. But to take it that step further and really just attack all these other historian and writers? That’s a bit much.

And the underlying notion that historical fiction should be “more accurate” (or just nicer to Anne, I guess)… It’s f***ing fiction, for one thing. And Bordo doesn’t know for sure Anne wasn’t a total bitch, for another. She’d just rather not believe it. But what really gets me is the argument that, because people will take the historical fiction as true and accurate it should be as faithful to history as possible… That just boggles me. I like to think people know enough to know when they’re reading something that’s made up. I like to think that, just as I and many others Bordo spoke to did, people will go look up the truth if they really want to know. And I don’t think it’s novels’ or movies’ or television programs’ jobs to teach history. If (as The Other Boleyn Girl did for me) one of these media spark an interest in a historical subject, fantastic! If, on the other hand, someone walks away thinking Anne Boleyn was blonde, or had a sixth finger, or was evil incarnate… So? It’s not hurting her any. Pretty sure she doesn’t care, so why does Bordo?

It’s one thing to examine why people think the things they do. That’s an interesting psychological and sociological study—how information spreads in a society, where that information comes from, etc. Even in Boleyn’s time, Chapuys was intent on a smear campaign. But there’s no point in getting angry about it. If it were a fatal disease maybe, but what people think and believe about a long-dead queen? An academic exercise at best; not anything that will save lives or change the world.

In short, Bordo needs to ease up. If she’d come at it objectively, but she didn’t, at that tanked what otherwise was a decent read.

Books: The Bodyguard’s Story: Diana, the Crash, and the Sole Survivor by Trevor Rees-Jones (with Moira Johnston)

I was working on a night shoot when the accident happened, and my whole life was about working both on a film set and my “regular” job, so I didn’t give the news much of my attention. Though I’d loved Princess Diana—or really, the thought of her—by the time the divorce happened and everything after, I wasn’t really following news about her. Maybe this is because I didn’t have regular Internet access, and I’ve never been one for tabloids. Maybe I just didn’t want to believe the fairy tale was over.

Anyway, all this is a long way of saying I don’t even think I knew someone had survived the crash that killed Diana and Dodi. And I only stumbled across this book at the library. Every now and then I get an itch to gorge on some nonfiction, usually history, biography, or psychology. This time I found myself in the world history/culture section and walked away with a small stack that included this one.

I don’t know the whole truth, and I don’t think anyone does, but I appreciate how forthright this book is in tone. I never read all the reports on the crash or more than the summarized versions of the outcomes of the investigations, so this book provided a bit more detail. However, anyone looking for the answer to what actually happened is likely to be disappointed. Though Rees-Jones (and Johnston) paint a thorough pre-crash picture, he doesn’t remember the crash at all, only getting into the Mercedes with Henri Paul at the wheel and Diana and Dodi in back. The back half of the book is about Rees-Jones’ recovery and his being hounded by Dodi’s father, plus various legal issues. Still, I found it interesting enough to push through it all. Those wanting more about Diana might not.

All in all a solid read, if dated, as the book was written and published before all the information was in. One would need to read something more recent for later details. But I think anyone curious about what happened would benefit from getting this side of the story.

More Writers, Fewer Readers

What to Do?

I’m currently reading iGen by Jean Twenge, which discusses all the ways the iGeneration ( b. ~1995-2012) is different from previous generations. There’s a ton to unpack, and I’m not even very far along in this book, but as a writer I wanted to focus on the data that shows this generation doesn’t read. At least not for fun.

Are we surprised? Not really. Attention spans are getting increasingly short, cut into tiny slices of memes and video clips and text messages. As per the anecdotal evidence Twenge cites, most members of the iGeneration find reading boring because it requires them to sit still, be quiet, and pay attention. The result are slumping SAT scores in reading comprehension, which Twenge says we shouldn’t ascribe as either “good” or “bad” but… I can’t help thinking it’s bad. We want critical thinkers and problem solvers, but the up-and-coming generation can’t be bothered to work their brains that hard. (Twenge suggests ebooks that include videos and are written in very short chapters/info bursts, but really? We have to dumb things down for these kids?)

Okay, okay, so I’m an old fogey. That’s beside the point. In a world where (for good or ill) getting published is easier than ever, we have more content out there than ever, too. And we have fewer and fewer readers interested in buying or consuming that content.

Hmm.

“What about all those YA novels that sell so well?” you ask. Well, turns out it’s a lot of adults reading those novels and not that many, er, young adults.

“But older people still read!” Yeeeesss. But we need new readers to sustain publishing. And not just new content, since there is clearly plenty of that.

“So just write stuff they want to read.” Yeah, except they don’t want to read anything longer than a listicle.* Hell, short stories try their patience.

*Here’s an interesting tangent: iGen’ers don’t party as much, aren’t as into drinking or sex. So all these “old” people writing books for them… Books that look like something out of the 80’s, with parties and sex and alcohol… These books don’t reflect the current teen experience. Write a book entirely in text messages and memes and you’d be closer to the mark. And they’d be way more likely to read it. Especially since it probably wouldn’t take as long as reading it in prose form.

Bottom line/takeaways: the youngest generation isn’t reading books beyond those assigned to them at school (and sometimes not even that much). They have short attention spans and aren’t interested in an activity that takes time, patience, and concentration. We have more books and writers than ever and fewer readers. [Yes, I know those who do read often read avidly and voraciously, but again, we need new readers in order to sustain writers and publishing.] Already magazines and newspapers are desperate, and publishing is next in line; only people writing pithy (and short) articles online will be safe. And because trends move more quickly than ever, even then one is only likely to be a brief success.

Where am I going with this? Well, to be honest, I haven’t been writing much lately anyway. I’d already seen success (as I personally define it) as unattainable for me. So this data only reaffirms that I made the right choice by walking away. The situation is only likely to worsen.

Then again, once enough writers quit the field, those left might still find an audience, eh? Good luck out there!