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The Pop Culture Vulture

The Obligatory Dark Knight Rises Post

Great movie. As I get older, I have a harder and harder time appreciating four-color rock-em-sock-em fests like The Avengers (which I liked, before you yell at me) and for me the Nolan Batman run has been one where the superhero story has been upgraded to feel like it’s by adults, for adults. It doesn’t ignore the reality of what Batman is — it keeps the creepy bits where “rich dude dresses up like vigilante to defend city from psychopathic terrorists and criminals” fairly well intact. It doesn’t look away from that discomfort.

As every story is a lesson to other storytellers, let’s peel away the Bat Nipples and look deeper into what I think worked about the film, and a little bit into what maybe didn’t work so well.

Some very mild general spoilers below. (Can’t promise the comments are a safe zone, though.)

Getting The Bat Right

Batman’s a hard dude to get right.

You gotta balance the vigilante with the billionaire. You have to keep his past in the front windshield while still not focusing so heavily on it that it becomes mawkish and obvious. You have to acknowledge his heroism while also acknowledging (at least a wee bit) his derangement. You have to see how he walks a line between psycho-conservative and radical liberal. You need to find the human in the suit.

This film does all that. Somehow juggling it all in a film where, surprisingly, Batman is not getting the majority of screen-time. This isn’t a movie about Batman, not really. It’s a movie about Gotham.

Be advised: I now really want to write Batman. So, somebody make that happen.

Batman Not About Batman

Most Batman stories give you too much Batman. And any time they spend time on other characters, hey, you just want to get back to Bats. Not here. TDKR goes long periods without ever visiting Mister Wayne, and this is a feature, not a bug. The film is populated with an incredibly strong supporting cast — not just in terms of acting but in writing (and more on that in a moment). By focusing on the characters orbiting Batman and by taking a long hard look at a city under siege, you start to get Batman. Batman is made stronger by those who carry him up — both narratively in the plot and metaphorically as a character.

Further, it ensures that when you do see Wayne/Batman, you’re so geeked out you’re doing the equivalent of the pee-pee dance inside your head. By limiting Batman, the strength of the character shines through.

He’s more potent that way.

And never overwhelms.

Complex Character

Good characters have alarming moments of weakness. Bad characters have troubling moments of nobility. Some characters vacillate so you don’t really know where to pin them — good, bad, selfish, assholes, not assholes, and so forth. It’s a wonderful tango — the script doesn’t give us four-color comic book characters. The script lets each character possess a million colors apiece — and just as many shades of gray.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt is this film’s winner, by the way. He is its throughline.

Start The Story Late

The story doesn’t spend a lot of time getting you up to speed. A lot has changed since we last visited Gotham and the story isn’t interested in playing catch-up: in fact, it leaps forward with some things being big question marks in the hopes and trust (correctly placed) that the audience will play detective and stay invested. It works. As such, what could be a very boggy beginning is as lean as it could possibly be.

Earned Distrust

I don’t want to trust my storytellers. I want a storyteller to show me that I can’t trust him. You can’t trust Nolan and that’s fucking phenomenal. I want him to do things to the character and the storyworld — and, by proxy, to me the poor little quivering audience member gnawing his fingernails down to the bloody quick — that aren’t right. I basically want all my storytellers to be Verbal Kint from The Usual Suspects.

Every Hit Hurts

In this kind of movie, characters need to feel pain. Not merely physical, but the pain of unkept emotions, of betrayals, of lost love and all of that. Bruce Wayne’s transformation into Batman only works if that pain is palpable — and we feel it in every twist of the film and every bone-shattering Bane punch.

Twists That Work

The film gets a bit twisty now and again. And every twist works. Why? Because Nolan isn’t just trolling us — he sets up each twist with a good two or three beats before hand so when it comes, you think, “Oh, see, he’s been showing me this the whole time, and I either didn’t get why, or he did some other misdirecting voodoo and I stopped thinking about it.” This is the man that made The Prestige, after all.

Some folks wanted The Riddler in this film.

Nolan is the Riddler in this film.

Overtold, On The Nose

If I had to be honest, while the front of the film is as lean as it probably could be, it still suffers from a characters overtelling the story — not so much to catch us up but to tell us their feelings on plot events.

It feels on-the-nose at times, like they’re mouthpieces for certain beliefs or otherwise want to be oh so very earnest, and it feels stilted and stunted. That goes away over time, but the front of the film is heavy with it.

The Sound Mix

Holy shitty sound mix, Batman.

I saw it in IMAX — which is to say, “IMAX” in quotations because it’s kinda half-a-dick IMAX — and the sound was a deep bass crotch-punch. Impactful! But muddy. And it meant Bane often sounded like this:


He talks like he has poop in his mouth.

I probably missed about 25% of what that dude said.

I lost dialogue from other characters, too — any character speaking at a low, deep register was in danger of saying words that became naught but a thunder rumble to my ears.

These are top-shelf theaters and I still get better sound at home. And not for a ton of money, either.


I liked it.

Really great movie.

I have a very strong visceral (meaning positive) reaction to the second film, and wasn’t a huge fan of the first one, but this one ties all three together into a single storyline. And while I maybe enjoyed the second one more, this one might actually be the better story. Not sure yet. More ruminating needed.

OH! And I would totally watch a Nolan-made Catwoman movie with Hathaway in the role.

Hathaway, as a sidenote, is my ideal Miriam Black, for those who have read Blackbirds.

(Though Lizzy Caplan is sometimes Miriam now, too.)

(This is really apropos of nothing so I’ll shut up.)

The Wreck Of The S.S. Censorship (Or, “How Writers Steer Their Careers Into The Rocks”)

Cause? Meet effect.

So, a couple days ago a video games freelancer, Ryan Perez, said some things on Twitter about delightful geek super-goddess (said without irony or sarcasm, as I am indeed a fan) Felicia Day.

He said:

And then:

And then:

Worth noting: by this point, Ryan Perez had about… ohh, 50 followers. I don’t know much about the dude, but it seems he’s fairly new to games journalism, and was writing for the site Destructoid at the time.

One wonders if he were tweeting to the relative vacuum of those 50 followers only, he wouldn’t have violently overturned the dinner table on which his food was waiting — ahh, but he tweeted directly to Miss Day, and therein dumped a Gatorade bucket of his own waste over top his own fool head. Because his misogynistic, dismissive opinion of her (and, apparently, drunken) got a fabulously epic signal boost in the form of Wil Wheaton via Veronica Belmont. (Here we are given an image of a schlubby mortal man, sitting on a throne made of his own emptied Pabst Blue Ribbon cans, shouting incessant invective and surly epithets at not the Greek Gods above but rather, the Geek Gods, and lo and behold one of them heard and oh shit she has friends and now they’re gonna tear open your breastbone and breathe fire and awesomeness and d20s upon your stupid drunken dipshit heart. VOOOOOOOOSH.)

(Sidenote, I now want to see art depicting a pantheon of current Geek Gods. SOMEBODY DO THAT.)

Wil called out Ryan’s current employer — Destructoid — and Destructoid said, basically, “Hey, everyone, be cool,” and that was just pee on top of poop because no, really, people weren’t going to be cool.

And so began the slow motion boat crash of Ryan Perez’s freelance career. At least, in the short term. I can’t speak for what will happen to him in the long run, as I am not an oracle — sure, sure, I like to play with pigeon guts and goat bones but that’s purely recreational quit lookin’ at me. For all I know Fox News will swoop in and hire the guy (“You speak for us!”), but for now, what happened is that a freelance writer who, I suspect, didn’t have a whole lotta career behind him now may not have a whole lotta career ahead of him because social media can give very big ripples to one poorly-thrown pebble.

Destructoid fired him, of course.

Now, this has an imperfect mirror in a situation that unfolded a little while ago about a dude not in the video games industry but rather the pen-and-paper games industry where said dude made some link-bait, button-pushing commentary about how rape is a wonderful plot device and how it’s okay because women have rape fantasies and — well, whatever. Point is, he was then surprised that his link-bait took and the buttons he pushed were actually hooked up to something (like, say, The Internet), and when the rain of shit was just a drizzle he found no shelter and instead kept pushing buttons. The shit-rain fell harder and harder until a petition arose to get him canned from one of his publishers. At that point said game-writer dude dug his heels in even deeper and then made some comments about the very real rape-threats against the petition-writer that were ill-advised, and, lo and behold, he got canned from his publisher, oops.

There’s more to that story, just as there is and will be more to the Perez story, but that’s not the point of this post. The point of this post isn’t even, “Don’t be a jizz-bag,” or, “The gaming industry has a deep, deep problem with puerile ass-hearted butt-trolls treating women like second-class citizens at best and doe-eyed sex-objects at worst.” Those things are, of course, true.

But that’s not my point. I’ve made those points already. You know that stuff already.

No, here the point is, writers? You can steer your career into the rocks with shenanigans like this. Now, you may assume that I’m telling writers to — eep, watch what they say, button up that language, don’t rock the boat with your opinions, be soft and moist and colorless like a pre-chewed glob of cardboard, but believe me, that’s not what I’m suggesting. Look at me: I’ve been a freelance writer for close to a decade-and-a-half now, and I could probably write a blog post with nothing but the word COCK-WAFFLE written a thousand times, each time in an incrementally-larger font-size, and no one would fire me. I could and have offered opinions about religion and politics, about health care and food politics, and I remain un-shitcanned.

You may also assume I’m saying, “Don’t piss off your employers,” AKA, “Don’t poop into the hand that feeds you,” but that’s not exactly it, either. That’s part of it, yes, but the heart of what I’m saying is, you need to watch out for the audience. The audience is mighty. The audience is all-seeing. The audience doesn’t want to stand for your tweaked and twisted opinion when it comes from a place of (real or imagined) hate. You turn on the audience and they will turn on you. This isn’t just about turning on a geek icon, about spitting in the eye of one of the Geek Gods. It’s about how one dude misread who his audience is — one assumes he thought the audience was just a bunch of high-fiving bro-heims like himself, when really, uh-oh, the audience has women in it, too. Women who matter. Women who will shank your ass in the shower for looking down on them and treating them like lessers when they’re an equal and awesome part of what we do and who we are as an army of gaming and geek and pop culture.

Ryan Perez took a bite out of Felicia Day.

The audience — not just women but all who recognize that they’re part of our tribe — bit back.

You can call it censorship if you like — and it is, in the sense that the audience will not stand for your bullshit anymore and would much rather see your mouth taped shut with tape and your body dumped in the trunk of an Oldsmobile swiftly sinking into the waters of a forgotten lake. But this isn’t legal censorship. This is the censorship of an angry audience. This is a vote-with-your-dollars-and-your-voice type of censorship. Natural and normal and part of the system.

Matt Wallace tweeted the very-true:

And then, of course, Perez doubled-down (as they usually do) with:

That is the sound of a boat crashing into the rocks, by the way. Remember it. Why do you think Perez has over 1000 followers, now? They’re rubber-necking. They want to see the body pulled out of the fire.

Writers, cut it with the hurtful and hateful crap.

The audience is listening.

The end.

P.S., Don’t be a jizz-bag.

P.P.S., We need more women in gaming, so, uhh, somebody make that happen.

P.P.P.S., Seriously, GEEK PANTHEON, someone get on that.

P.P.P.P.S., Yes, this is posting on a Sunday but it counts as my Monday post NO YOU SHUT UP.

Prometheus: In Which The Gods Of Plot Punish The Characters For Their Precious Agency

(Beware. Below be spoilers. Also, I’m posting this Sunday, but it’s my Monday post. Shut up.)

If you’ve come to find out whether I liked the movie:

I liked it.

You now may go.

Go on! Shoo. Shoo. Ah, you’d prefer I offer up some kind of… valuation. A grading or ranking of sorts. A 3.5 out of 5! A B, maybe a B+! One thumb up and the other thumb kind of herkily-jerkily turning up and down in a most uncertain manner. There. Done. Graded. Off with you, then.

Aaaaand you’re still here.

Well, since you’re stuck to me like gum on a shoe, I suppose you’ll forgive me rambling a bit about the film? And the story? See, this is a fascinating film. Fascinating for its strengths, and fascinating for its (many) flaws. A number of folks on Twitter tried to turn me off of seeing this film (which is a bit curious — I mean, if there’s a bridge washed out on the way to the theater, please do warn me, but otherwise, assume I’m capable of making this decision) as if a lack of enjoyment was reason enough not to go. It isn’t. Not really. Because even in a flawed film I’ll still find value — it may not be an entertainment value, but storytelling done badly has educational value, at the very least.

And so I knew going in I’d likely get some education.

I did. Not because it’s a bad film. It’s not. It is to my mind quite good — it’s beautiful, elegant, icy, and has some truly gut-churning scenes of body horror. Just the same, it’s a film that misses its mark, but that’s okay — the mark was quite small and quite far and it was brave of them to shoot for it. I appreciate a film that aims for the bullseye and misses more than a film that tries only to hit the broad side of a barn and then — nicely done, chap! — hits. Aspirations matter in storytelling. They’re not the only thing. But they matter.

Here is where the aspirations of Prometheus fall down — and, also, where the storytelling lessons lurk.

This is a film about ideas, not about people.

Put more crassly, it’s a film about plot, not about character.

There exists a mode of storytelling that some call “plot-driven,” and Prometheus is most certainly that. The plot is a machine. A program, of sorts. Things happen — or, to the storyteller’s mind, “need” to happen — and the characters are forced to either catch up, strap in, or retroactively become part of the mechanics. The plot-driven storyteller says, “I need the White House to explode,” and so they arrange events and shuffle characters to make that happen. It’s all a bit of artifice. Sometimes it’s done well. Most times it’s done so you notice it — you see the puppet characters living in the shadow of the sequence, relegated to catalysts or bystanders or square pegs hammered into circle holes.

BUT ENOUGH OF ALL THIS SEXY TALK OF PEGS AND HOLES, you say. What, then, is character-driven storytelling? A plot is a plot is a plot, so what’s the problem?

Well, as I’ve said in the past and will say again and again because I quite like the way it sounds and I think it’s clever and I am at times in love with my own cleverness, “Plot is like Soylent Green: it’s made of people.” By which I mean, plot does not exist as a mechanism for characters to hop into, but rather, characters — by being characters with their sticky wants and trembling fears and all their other foibles and peccadilloes — create the mechanism by making choices based on their motivations. They’re building the machine as they go. They’re not cogs. They’re prime movers. They’re the motherfucking engineers.

Mark that word. “Engineers.” We’ll come back to it.

The storytellers of Prometheus — or so I like to imagine — sat down and said, “Okay, we need to retrofit an origin for the Alien mythology, and we’ve got this basket full of lofty ideas we can play with. We’ve got fate and free will and faith. We’ve got questions of science and ethics. Plus we’ve got all these other little awesome things — body horror and sci-fi tropes and spaceships and corporations and, y’know, aliens. It’s great!” And they went off to the races imagining the sequence of events necessary to bring the story backward far enough to explain the origins of, oh, all of mankind and then forward enough so that the audience starts to see where the Alien mythology comes from.

Somewhere, I like to also imagine one of the writers squinting and lifting a delicate finger and, when someone calls on him he says, “Ummmm. So. What about the characters?” * blink blink blink*

And then there’s a lot of ohh and mmmm and ahh yes right of course, and then they get to figuring out the characters. But that’s already the wrong order. The machine is built. Now the characters can only fit into it — like plugs, like gears. It’s an inorganic fit, as if characters are just automatons shuffled onto the stage.

And it shows. Yes, our lead scientist has “issues” of faith, but they feel painted on — as shallow and shiny as lipstick, and just as easy to rub off and forget. Characters make decisions not because they’re characters, but because they’re serving the Great And Powerful Plot Machine. One character gets inexplicably drunk because… the plot needs him to be drunk. Another character — a biologist — cares nothing for biology at one point and then gets lost (because the plot needs him to be lost) and, upon meeting some squicky Star Wars trash compactor creature decides now that he loves biology so much he wants to play a game of grab-ass with the damn thing. Again, because the plot demands it. (A tiny note: this film is filled with scientists and they are easily the shittiest scientists ever put to film.) David the android is a cipher because… drum roll please, the plot demands it. The plot demands things left and right and soon characters are constantly betraying good sense and their own motivations to feed the howling mechanical beast.

The plot is in service to ideas and ideas drive the film — but again, the connection is missed between plot/character and idea/human. Ideas are the most human thing in the world. They’re ours. All life is subject to genetics but only human life is subject to memetics and so it is a great shame to separate people from ideas. Science obeys laws outside of us but the study of those laws are uniquely, well, us.

Ahh, but here’s where it’ll really bake your noodle. Remember, I asked you to bank that word, “Engineer.” Well, that’s what the characters in this film call the aliens that “made” us (and who are apparently an exact genetic match despite being easily twice our size) — and it starts to occur to me that the problems I’m having with the film are in a way the problems that exist in the film’s storyworld and mythology, too. In the world, characters discover that humanity was made by uncaring titanic space-psychopaths who engineered events without regards to any kind of emotional intervention that they can parse. And I, as a film-goer, feel the same thing about the film itself: the plot and characters are made by the “engineers” (the storytellers) who have little interest in the emotional intervention of the characters. The plot is the plot. Mechanisms — let’s call it “fate” — exist outside the characters and beyond the audience. The characters have minimal agency because the Space Gods — whether they be the writers or the albino xeno-titans who created us — don’t want them to possess that agency.

The storytellers are the titans. The titans are the storytellers. Man — and character — is puppet.

Prometheus serves as a commentary on its own storytelling.

Probably not intentional.

Though, if it is, pretty much genius.

So, to conclude: I liked it. I did. I was entertained and educated. It’s a beautiful film and its many ideas and questions are still ping-ponging around the ol’ skull-cave.

But it’s not a character-driven piece. If it were, it would’ve been an A+, I think.

Oh, and P.S., it’s basically just the first Alien movie retold in a bigger, weirder way.

No, seriously.

Scenes From The Bookpocalypse

I feel like a war correspondent reportedly reporting from the front lines, but the war has already come and gone, the battle lost. What’s left now is just looting as thieves pick pocketwatches from corpses and steal high-priced TVs from shattered store windows. What’s left are bodies picked clean by crows and dogs and worms, scavengers fighting tooth-and-nail over a rib-bone here, a loop of intestine there. What’s left is an accounting of the dead. War’s over. The good guys got fucked by the bad guys. Now it’s the end of days. Or the end of books. Or, at least, the end of Borders.

* * *

I’m reminded of a scene on the news where a beached whale — dead, not dead, I don’t even know — is blanketed by squalling, complaining gulls. That’s Borders. Local store got the axe. Most of the Borders in the state are done, it seems. And now it’s a carcass on the beach besieged by those who smell a cheap pop culture meal.

I’ve never seen a bookstore that busy. You could hip-bump a hive of bees on its side and not get this kind of action. Everywhere, jostling bodies jockeying for books. The sci-fi and fantasy section is a parliament of owls: bespectacled readers hungrily looking for a genre fix. Mystery, too: a gaggle of detectives on the hunt for books about detectives. The children’s book section has, and this is no joke, no joke at all, three books left. Three nuggets of puckered meat clinging to otherwise bleached bones. One book about a wombat who is allowed, mysteriously, to play with a human infant. Children’s books can be very stupid.

The literature and fiction section is empty, though. Shelves, still full. One in a while, a lone reader wanders into the alcoves — not because it is where he wants to be but rather because he got lost, because he is the flotsam (or is it jetsam? are there any dictionaries left for purchase?) that washed up here from the churning chum-capped tides here in the bookstore. When he realizes where he is, he will shake his head as if clearing his mind of illusion and infection and then totter off again, buoyed by another belching current. Or driven by cheap prices the way a zombie is driven by his hunger for brains.

* * *

People still want books, it seems. They just don’t want to pay full price.

* * *

The prices are half-off and the shelves are half-empty and still I see books I’ve read and loved, books that I know to be popular, books by authors who I see on Twitter or even here at the blog, and for a moment I’m consumed by a dog-shelter moment. The Sarah McLachlan song cues in my mind. I see the books as sad pups and pooches: one with a scar on his brow, the other missing an eye, a third cowering in the corner equally afraid of me and desperate for my love. I want to sweep them all up in my arms and take them home and lather them with kisses and give them that thing they need most: my eyes to read them, my mind to process them, my mouth to share of their wealth. But then I remember that Borders is fucked, Borders isn’t paying out, and I don’t even know if the authors of these books will ever see what they’re owed from these sales. And I think, if I want to buy these books I should at least go home and buy them from Amazon. Of course, isn’t that what got us here in the first place? Is it? Isn’t it? I don’t even know.

* * *

Borders, of course, can’t pay publishers. It’s broke. Still wearing days-old diapers and a hat made of newspaper. And yet its hobo bindle must be heavy with secret hobo gold because Borders still intends to pay $8.3 million in executive bonuses. I’m sure I’m just naive in that I don’t understand economic realities, but it seems to me that someone should pay the writers via publishers first. Any executive looking for a hand-out should get one: and by “hand-out,” I mean “fist to the nuts.”

* * *

By the comic book shelf, a big pear-shaped dude is blocking the aisle while picking up one graphic novel after the next and reading them. Front to cover, from what I can tell. American Vampire. X-Men. Manga. Flip, flip, flip. Read, read, read. Eventually I see him gravitating toward the exit, no books in hand. Part of me wants to grab a magazine rack (on sale for $100 bucks, the whole fixture) and break it over his head. Or hurl a copy of a D&D book at his dumpy Baby Huey body as if it were the crazy shuriken from Krull. The other part of me thinks, eh, fuck it. Isn’t this what Borders always wanted? For us to hang out? Sit down? Read books and magazines? Sip a latte? Why spend money on books? Don’t we just want everything cheap and free now? Twelve dollar cappucino, hold the wordsmithy.

Words on a page like ants on snow. Poetic. And meaningless.

* * *

They’re selling everything. All the shelves. The racks. The end caps.

They’re even selling manila folders.

Two for a dollar.

Two used manila folders for one whole dollar.

One of the workers there, she’s snarkily telling a customer, “Would you pay that?”

He shakes his head. “No.”

She gives him a look like, Duh.

* * *

I can buy 100 manila folders new at Amazon for about ten bucks.

* * *

Three kids pinball between the sci-fi and fantasy shelves. Hoodies. Skull shirts. Mop-top hair. Kids today, with their hair and their clothes. “There’s nothing good here,” the one mewls, moans, whimpers, pules. I want to grab his face and drag it across the book spines the way you would a stick along a picket fence. I want to show him, “There’s so much good here.” But then I think, well, at least he’s in a bookstore.

At least he’s still looking at books.

* * *

One aisle down, a guy in his 20s is picking up a book. Hardback. Something pretty, but I can’t tell what. He says to his friend, “I think it’s a role-playing game.” He says this with some reverence, but also a kind of confusion, like he’s someone picking up something he’d heard of but never seen: a rotary phone, a Viewmaster, an honest Republican. He walks away with the book, planning to buy it.

* * *

I used to work at Borders.

It was like belonging to a cult. And not in a good way. Not in a, “We all love each other and sing songs and eat granola under the caring eye of Mother Moon” way. But rather in a, “Drink the Flavor-Aid and if you don’t drink the goddamn Flavor-Aid I’m just going to shoot you in the head anyway.”

I quit after a couple weeks.

* * *

The mood here is wildly vacillating. It is the frenzy of fishes and sharks, eyes rolling back and jaws clamping on books never-before-read without thought or meaning, a kind of predatory bliss. But here too is the sadness of prey, and some folks are stumbling around, faces vacant as they stare at a nowhere-nothing point. They look like the shell-shocked victims after a bombing, an earthquake, a zombie apocalypse.

* * *

My pregnant wife comes up to me and she’s got tears in her eyes, and I think, is she sad about Borders? I know I’m sad about Borders. Maybe not enough to cry about it. But still, a little sad.

She instead hands me a children’s book. She says with a sniffle, “Read this.”

And I think, now I’m like that pear-shaped douche standing here reading a whole book from front to cover, but a cursory glimpse through the book tells me I’m going to be able to read it in about 30 seconds. Okay. Fine. I read it. It’s called Remembering Crystal. It’s about a bird — a duck, maybe? Who has a friend who is a turtle and the turtle is old and then the turtle dies and the duck continues to look around for the turtle even though the turtle is dead. Eventually the duck-like entity goes to sleep, sad about the turtle, and there the duck realizes that he/she/it has found the turtle after all, in the duck’s dreams, in the duck’s heart. The memory of the turtle named Crystal is how the turtle still lives. It is adorable. And also horribly sad.

The book is for pre-school to age two.

It choked me up. I’m not even a pregnant woman.

Part of me recast the book, though. I am the little duck. I’m wandering the ends of the earth looking not for a turtle but rather for a Borders bookstore. Or any bookstore. Or even a book.

And by the end, I realize the only place they still live is in my head.

* * *

We go to checkout. My wife has some books on child-rearing. I have Patton Oswalt’s book. Our checkout person looks dazed. Sad, even. She’s slow, methodical, peeling off prices with this red plastic price-peeler that looks like some kind of little lobster claw. She’s saying little to us. Part of me thinks she might cry.

Her cohort at the counter is the precise opposite. She’s young, bubbly, talking to everyone. The bookpocalypse hasn’t fazed this one. Her head is probably full of Facebook and Farmville. I envy her.

An old man stands at the counter next to us. The bubbly one attends to his check-out. He’s got a book on writing. The Art of Storytelling or something like that. She chirps, “Are you a writer?”

He laughs a dismissive laugh, and shakes his head no.

“I bet you have lots of stories to tell,” the bubbly one says. She doesn’t say, but we all hear: because you’re totally old. She confirms this by adding, “My grandfather has lots of stories to tell. He’s not a writer, but boy he can tell stories. You should be a writer.”

The old man offers another yeah, but no chuckle and shrugs in a way that suggests, “Why bother? Have you looked around? Do you know where you work? Don’t you see what’s happening? Be a writer. Sure. So my book can end up here. Unbought. In a mass grave. Squirrels nesting in its chest cavity. Maggots for eyes. My words serving as their own dirge, their own funerary incantation. I’ll get right on that, you empty-headed twit. Writer. Pfft. Pshhh. Pah!”

Then again, maybe that was all in my head, not in his.

Maybe he chuckled and shrugged the way babies do, and for the same reason. Maybe he just had gas.

* * *

The bubbly girl, finding no one behind the old man, talks to us as our own shell-shocked counter-jockey obsessively works to remove price stickers from our books.

“We’re efficient,” the girl says, proudly. “We get the job done.”

I can tell. Bureaucrat of the apocalypse. Again, the accounting of the dead.

Bubbly girl has another customer. She asks them, “Do you have your Borders Rewards card?”

Because such mighty rewards await us in the kingdom beyond.

* * *

On the way out, I say to my wife, it’s kind of sad, isn’t it? She agrees.

We get in the car and we leave, navigating the swarm of cars incoming and outgoing, book-hungry scavengers of the wordsmith’s wasteland, desperate for a taste, a taste at cut-rate game-over prices. They come only when they smell smoke. They come not for the meal but to pick the trash.

* * *

Now that my email is working, the remainder of this week will be guest bloggage by the Friends of Terribleminds. They’ll start tomorrow and will go into next week — note that regularly-scheduled Friday Flash Fiction challenges will continue, however. Keep your grapes peeled.

If My Mockingjay Don’t Sing

Finished Mockingjay.

Loved Mockingjay.

But wondering: why all the middling reactions toward Mockingjay? I wouldn’t call it “hate,” exactly — but I was warned repeatedly that the third book was essentially a big disappointment from the high of the previous two. Lots of “ehh,” “mehhh,” “pbbbt” reactions.

To which my jaw drops, my eyes launch out on springs, my tongue rolls, and the floor drops out from under me. Dang, I did not find that to be the case.

Your job, then, is to explain your disappointment (if you desire) in the comments.

I will not fling aspersions toward your general character. The question is not subject to any wrong answers. I mean, sure, I’ll throw flaming bags of poo at your head. I kid! I kid. They won’t be on fire. Sheesh.

My thoughts (and this will contain some very light spoilers):

The book was unflinching. Unflinching. This is not a shiny happy book. It is a book about children and war. It is a book where lots of characters you care about die. It is a book that again puzzles me and haunts me with the question: “How the hell are they going to make this into a PG-13 movie?” Seriously. Blood. Gore. Children dying. Nightmarish images. Murder. War. It’s not splatterpunk, but it’s not Harry Potter, either. Any effort to water this down to an acceptable family-friendly rating potentially does harm to the story’s message, a message carried on purpose by such grim, unceasing nastiness.

The book felt to me as the natural conclusion to the series — it carries the “game” motif back into play, this time on the battlefield. It pays off on things to which it was building. Nothing out of left field. For the most part the characters we care about are… concluded properly, I suppose you could say. Only one sticks out (Finnick) as feeling narratively inconclusive (and actually a little strange).

And yet, the book remained surprising, too. At no point did it feel rote.

The ending was pitch perfect, for me: like a shot of espresso, the book was super dark with a very bittersweet finish. I’ll say it again: not a happy book. And it does exactly what I was exhorting the other day — the storyteller is an emotional manipulator and the best and most memorable stories are the ones that truly made us feel something. Collins doesn’t fuck around. She’s constantly kicking you in the spleen, punching you in the kidneys, wrapping her hands around your throat. The woman knows how to hurt her audience. And the ending doesn’t do much to salve the wounds — a little. But not much.

So, chime in.

You read it?

You like it?

You find it disappointing?

Color me curious (which is actually a robin’s egg blue!).