Review: The Escape Artist

The Escape ArtistThe Escape Artist by Brad Meltzer
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I’m a big fan of Meltzer’s in general, but his presidential-themed novels are unique because of the way they balance neat historical facts with action-packed adventure. So when I heard he was coming out with a new, similar-but-different story, I bought The Escape Artist the first week.
The book is about Zig, a mortician with the tragic but important job of putting the military dead to rest, who–because of fate and Plot Bunnies–stumbles upon a deadly conspiracy that reunites him with Nola, a girl with a similarly tragic and horrible backstory who reminds Zig of his dead daughter. The book, while ostensibly a mystery-thriller, is mostly about grief and death, and how people handle it differently.
And…it’s just ok.
Death shows up in so many forms in this book that you could write a college essay on it without even trying too hard. It’s everywhere. And while that’s a good theme, the poignancy of the (many) tragedies doesn’t balance well against the actiony drama, in my opinion. I just struggled to like it and to get through it.
It retains a dash of that historical information that I like so much about his other books, but it is way less important to the story and therefore feels just like random tidbits that are tossed in because Meltzer thought they were cool (and often, they are!). The mortician’s work is very interesting, but the nature of an adventure is he can’t spend much time doing his regular job. Without spoiling anything, I can say the plot falls into a trope that I find really frustrating in mysteries, where things end just a little too pat and tidy to be believable, and that takes away from the excitement of the story. I also didn’t like the incredible brevity of the chapters, which were often maybe just three pages long. It was hard to get invested in the characters, as we flipped back and forth among them, when we had so little time with each initially.
Don’t let this discourage you; Meltzer is a fine writer and his ideas here were fresh and interesting. They just didn’t add up to much for me–maybe I saw the rabbit up the magician’s sleeve.

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Review: Murder on the Orient Express

Murder on the Orient Express (Hercule Poirot, #10)Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s interesting to read a mystery written in a different era—the “rules” of a mystery are so different now. The differences range from little things (no editor would allow Poirot to ponder that he’d like to speak to someone and then have the person appear in the next sentence without a transition) to big things, like I’m fairly sure no modern mysteries are written as a straightforward conversation with one person after another.

And yet, Christie is the champion of murder mysteries for good reason. While I struggled sometimes with the old-style format, she definitely kept me guessing, and I definitely did not see the ending coming! I had most of the same information as the hero Poirot, and yet he maintains his reputation as a sleuth with an incredible mind.

This was the first Poirot Christie mystery I’ve read, and it was a grand adventure, if a bit stuffy.

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Review: Guards! Guards!

Guards! Guards! (Discworld, #8; City Watch #1)Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is one of the most-recommended Pritchett books, so when I was looking for a light vacation read it was my first choice. And it was perfect!
Guards! Guards! follows the downtrodden Captain Vimes of the Watch, a role that used to be prestigious but now is just holding on. In this city, it’s wiser to run from trouble than to arrest anyone. Cue a rather mysteriously opportune dwarf-raised human and a weasely bad guy who decides to call in dragons to restore a puppet monarchy, and you’ve got a recipe for a really fun book.
I hadn’t realized there were dragons in this one, and the dragon discussions were by far and away the best parts of the book. I really think someone ought to go through Pratchett and parse out all the lines; there’s a quip for everything in this series! The Librarian also gets quite a lot of action, and the book as a whole definitely holds up to its reputation.

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Review: Lost Solace

Lost SolaceLost Solace by Karl Drinkwater
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In space, you are all alone—unless you have a hacked military AI to keep you company as you explore a strange ship.

Lost Solace is dominated by just two characters: Opal, a tough escaped space marine with lots of secrets, and her ship, which Opal has named Clarissa. This is a clever plot that shrinks the vastness of the decisions into something individual.

We don’t know much about the situation as the story opens: there’s a girl, a ship, and a weird, misshapen, alien ship floating near a black hole. And Opal is crazy enough to jump on board. The story chases down dark hallways full of creepy crawlies, dashed away from the space marines in close pursuit, and meanders down to find secrets against a ticking clock.

The aliens were my favorite: juicy and unique, haunting and definitely run-away-worthy. I struggled a bit with some of the sentence structure and grammar, though that may be because of the author’s Britishness against my American ear. By the end, I liked the plot a lot, but in the middle it sagged a little and some things that seemed obvious to me as the reader took too long for the very clever Opal to piece together. The action in the last act is truly top-notch, though, and I’m glad I stuck with it!

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We Need More Goodness (and Less Happytime Murders)

My husband giggled when he turned on the video trailer for the new Melissa McCarthy movie The Happytime Murders. He may have laughed once or twice while it played. Me? I didn’t. I went to bed angry.

(Here’s the trailer if you want to see how you’ll feel about it.)

That trailer filled me with a rage I did not expect, and it took me two days to formulate why I was so viscerally upset.

Here’s what I finally decided: I want there to be some scrap of positivity, of decency, of just sweet-natured happiness left in the world.

For me–and many others–the Muppets in general represent that kind of cheer. Sure, bad things happen sometimes, but even the “bad guy” characters aren’t really always that bad, and the Muppets are kind, compassionate, funny, and just generally nice. They are wholesome. They are good.

But we’re in an era of “grimdark” right now. The Happytime Murders is totally in line with a lot of other cultural moments right now: it’s gritty, it shows the seedy “truth” to our happy Muppet-esque characters, it goes out of its way to dirty and otherwise shit on that wholesome goodness.

Some people are into that, I guess. But I am wholeheartedly NOT.

My real-world feels particularly “grimdark” lately, and all the media I consume seems to lean grimdark even if I don’t want it to, and I can’t turn on the news without hearing yet another terrible thing that shows that there just isn’t much wholesome goodness in the world. I’m already tired and gross and brought low by the cumulative weight of all of this real stuff—why in the hell would I want to throw down like a pig in the sty and get even dirtier?

This might seem inconsistent when you realize I wrote a zombie apocalypse book. Isn’t that also a way of making things darker than they really are?

But no, I wrote a book that’s as funny as it is scary, and gets downright goofy. You can make zombie decisions! How can that ever be taken seriously?

But other movies have taken “tortured” looks at childhood loves and you don’t hate them?

First, how do you know I don’t? Second, okay, I do count Who Framed Roger Rabbit? as one of the pivotal movies from my childhood.

(Let’s just take a minute to appreciate how adorably stupid and straightforward that movie trailer is… )

And yes, murders and scary things do happen in that. But you know what? Every single cartoon character in that movie acts in a way that is completely consistent. Bugs is a lighthearted asshole; Mickey and Minnie are in love. They are still who they are. There’s no need to show any seedier underbellies than what already exists in their toon world. And it’s a great movie and a hilarious comedy!

What I want is more goodness.

My favorite movie so far this year has been The Greatest Showman.

It is admittedly not the best movie ever made. The elephants are a little rough and animated, the story is pretty obvious from the trailer alone, and it can seem a little hokey, sure. It’s watered-down and probably not all that closedly hewn to the real story of P.T. Barnum, and glosses over some aspects of how the “freaks” were treated.

But it is pure. It is so pure and wholesome and sweet. It has incredible music, colors, and light, and it just a wonderful, happy, uplifting movie. I felt good when I left the theater. (I definitely can’t say that after watching Infinity War.) It was so incredibly nice to feel good for a change, to feel like the world wasn’t such a bad place and that it’ll all work out okay in the end.

I want more of that.

The Happytime Murders can go flush down a toilet where they belong.

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Ways Real Life Is Not Like Video Games

  • Random strangers you meet are not, however tangentially, related to your Destiny
  • You are not athletic
  • You are not flexible
  • Physics has pretty solid limitations
  • You are probably not highly skilled with a bow, handgun, or rocket launcher, and definitely not all three
  • You do not manage to carry a nearly unlimited number of items in only an outfit that has no obvious place for pockets
  • You will not be in a situation where you need to craft a gun from spare parts you “found” in an ancient temple
  • You are not encouraged to break pots in other people’s houses
  • You should not disturb artifacts. They belong in a museum
  • Your grandfather does not come back as a ghost to judge you on your farm quality
  • You are unlikely to be The Chosen One
  • You are not likely to survive an apocalyptic event
  • You will not be asked by said strangers to go on a fetch quest
  • You cannot fast travel
  • Cut scenes are unskippable
  • Resource boxes are not located conveniently just before the Big Boss location
  • Respawn is highly unlikely and unpredictable
  • Save points are possibly nonexistent
  • You do not get to choose your baseline appearance or personality
  • Leveling up does not come with any obvious sound effects and only rarely with badges
  • Additionally, most achievements cannot be shared with friends
  • You will not be known and respected across the land
  • If you slaughter a village of peasants, you cannot load a saved game to restore your honorable reputation
  • Not all merchants will trade with you
  • You are unlikely to make a living by selling natural resources you found by the road
  • Your companions do not have to listen to you or follow your leadership
  • You need to eat just because you burn energy, not just because you got punched in the face or otherwise injured
  • Do not light fires unless you know what you are doing
  • You do not have an awesome, inspiring soundtrack at key moments
  • If you tire of your storyline, you cannot put it aside or switch to a different game
  • Getting a date and getting married are somehow both more and less complicated
  • You are not required to give people gifts in order to make them become your friend
  • You have to take bathroom breaks
  • You are unlikely to encounter werewolves, zombies, or mechasoldiers
  • Weather lasts more than five minutes
  • Climbing a mountain is not the fastest way from A to B. Just stick to the road
  • The controls can be tricky to learn and operate, and the rules seem to be continually changing
  • You cannot draft players onto your sports team. You do not own a sports team, and even if you do, it doesn’t work quite like that
  • Drinking “potions” with unknown ingredients is a good way to get sick
  • Healing takes more than a mouthful of herbs
  • Call for help if you jump in a pipe and end up in a dungeon
  • No one is giving swords to 10-year-olds, and people in caves who try to should be reported to the authorities
  • Important objects do not highlight when you look at them
  • Plants are a poor defense against the undead
  • If you think you are fighting the Greek pantheon, a horde of demons, dragons, or aliens, please consult a mental health specialist

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Is “This is America” the Modern “Invisible Man”?

“Shake him, shake him, you cannot break him For he’s Sambo, the dancing, Sambo, the prancing, Sambo, the entrancing, Sambo Boogie Woogie paper doll.” (Invisible Man by Harlan Ellison)


First, backstory:

There was one black boy in my elementary school. His parents came, at the invitation of my kindly first-grade teacher (who was also black), and taught us about Kwanza. It seemed marvelous; they had full costumes, the lighting of candles, eating of special foods, and there were stories. The whole thing seemed magical, and I was deeply impressed with my classmate, and that he got to participate in this incredible celebration.

Later, we had a visiting storyteller come by and tell us Anansi stories. The storyteller also wore the colorful South African-inspired clothes and had black skin, and that was fascinating, but I was focused on Anansi. She invited class involvement, and I was picked to play Tiger, a role I took deeply seriously. Tiger was strong, and fierce, and angry, but Anansi was clever, and trapped Tiger in a hole. This storytelling lesson inspired me to read many more Anansi stories as I got older, too. Anansi was clever, if not always kind, and he was an inspiration, how smart could beat strong.

While my school, over time, was minority-majority, there were very few black people; the main minority in my area was Hispanic. I learned about Crispus Attucks, Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King, Jr., read Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Huckleberry Finn and was troubled that these people, locked tight up in history books, resigned to the past, had been hurt, but proud that they had struggled and won, had finally been proven how right they were. The history was done; it was written down, final. Black people were free. I didn’t need to worry about it anymore.

I grew up thinking we were in a truly post-racial society; racism didn’t happen to me, or in my range of vision, so that meant it was done and gone.

I shake my head at my naiveite now. It’s embarrassing that I ever believed the world was so pure, that I was so insulated that I didn’t know I was insulated.

The scales of privilege didn’t start to fall from my eyes until I read Invisible Man by Harlan Ellison in high school. It shook me, deeply. I was very troubled that this man would be treated so unjustly in so many ways, again and again, based on the color of his skin. But still I didn’t connect that it was not just a history book, that it was a fact of life for real people living at that very moment. I asked my reading group, “What can we do? How can we, as people, fix this?”

I wanted to patch things up, tuck it nicely back into the history books. My classmate said, “I don’t think we can. All we can do is try.”

So, all that is to say: I know I’m not the audience for Childish Gambino’s This is America. I’ve seen some commentary that white people shouldn’t try to dissect and comment on the music video but “listen and learn.” And maybe that is true. I am trying, do try, to listen and learn. I admit my privilege and my shortcomings, but I also can’t help but react to the music video. It’s powerful, and it resonates. And all I can do is try.


Soaked with Symbolism

Maybe the first reason Childish Gambino’s music video reminds me of Harlan Ellison’s novel is because it shook me the same way. Neither experience—reading the book or watching the video—feels good. In fact, it’s revolting; I want to draw away from it. But at the same time, it echoes in my mind long after I’ve interacted with it. There’s an inherent push-pull, where I want to swim in the content more, but also hate how it makes me feel, hate the mirror it holds to the world.

Second, both are steeped with symbolism. Buzzfeed tries to break down some of it; even Forbes has chimed in with the dance-move call-outs. It all happens so fast it’s impossible to take in in one viewing.

But I haven’t seen anyone, yet, say that the music video has parts of Invisible Man in it.

Go read the book (or at least the plot summary). There’s too much for me to break down briefly, but the basics: It’s a symbolic, unusually-styled book about an unnamed black man and the many (many) ways he is abused by society, both writ large and personally. It is both subtle and not in its use of symbolism (the narrator, at one point, works for a company that sells white paint… paint so white it will get anything white – the way it’s meant to be, it’s implied).

At the time of first reading, I had to ask a teacher about the dancing Sambo doll in Invisible Man. From context, I knew it was racist somehow and some kind of mockery, but I didn’t know the cultural weight of it. Sambo was a word for a person of mixed (black plus anything else) ancestry. It’s a name that shows up all over the place for black characters and African Americans as a whole.

But the Sambo doll had more layers. The doll pranced and jived and looked happy for all the (white) children and doll-purchasers. It is based entirely on stereotypes and yet is seemingly innocent fun. It was the entire minstrel movement shrunk down and commoditized; you, too, children, can play with a Sambo of your very own! (The package instruction–“easy to work!”–also strikes me as insidious double-messaging.)

In the book, it’s repulsive that a black former activist has resorted to selling these racist dolls—it’s a repudiation of his prior interaction with the narrator and a meta-commentary on society as a whole. It makes the reader question: is the seller mocking the white people, for being so stupid as to think Sambo is a reflection of reality? Is the seller mocking the other blacks, for their participation in the system? Is he just out for money by playing on stereotypes? Has he betrayed the other blacks he used to work with?

Which gets me back to Childish Gambino: is he a living Sambo doll in the music video?

He dances with jerky movements (like a puppet doll might). He distracts the (white?) audience from all the chaos going on behind him. He smiles and japes like a minstrel act, while representing something deeper and more tragic. “Look at these great dance moves,” Gambino seems to say, “you don’t need to care about anything else. This is the only kind of black person you want to see, audience, so here I am, performing my tricks for you. You are so stupid you won’t see anything else.”

Are Gambino, and the dancing school children with him, a reflection of the commoditization of black bodies, black culture, the way the Sambo dolls are in the book? Is Donald Glover/Childish Gambino the rich sellout Sambo-dancing his way to the American public, tricking us white idiots into swallowing the message we don’t want to see?

Invisible Man ends with the character on the run, chased by both one of his black former friends and an angry crowd. The book ends in darkness, counterbalancing the electric lights of the beginning. This is America ends similarly, the fear etched in Childish Gambino’s eyes as the people who ignored him, looked past him, didn’t see him, finally do—and want to kill him for it.

 

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