Mission statement - To act as a tour guide to the enormous shifting worlds of literature, film, video games, comics, and other activities; pointing out and discussing events and dealiebobs worthy of your valuable leisure time.

The Not so Idiot Box

With my arm and shoulder basically nonfunctional I ended up watching a lot of tv this past week. I can't really use the computer (typing this is not fun) or even hold a book so end result is I got almost caught up on several shows and realized I hadn't discussed them here yet.

Grimm
I've probably mentioned how much I enjoy this show and its take on old, familiar stories. This season Grimm has expanded its offerings and is not as Euro-centric as it has been in previous seasons. Mommie Dearest, which aired at the beginning of the month, took a look at a Filipino legend called the aswang. Sgt Wu, an underutilized character if you ask me, gets to show some of his back story, including a lost love and childhood terrors. According to several websites actor Reggie Lee mined his own childhood while working with the writers to develop this episode. When the writers approached him to inquire about Filipino monsters he provided them with several choices from stories he was told as a child. Those stories and the manner in which they were told later became scenes in the episode, which is scary and filled with ethical quandaries. Even if you've never seen the show this is an episode worth watching. It is currently available for free on the NBC site. http://www.nbc.com/grimm/video/mommy-dearest/2749211#i140856,p1

Almost Human
As a long time science fiction fan I was immediately interested as soon as I heard about this new show, which features an obnoxious cop paired with an android – an android discontinued because the emotions he has are deemed flaws by “the man”. (The man as in “Just another day of the man trying to keep me down.”) Set a few decades in the future the series begins with John Kennex (Karl Urban), aka Cranky Cop, waking up from a long coma to discover that much has changed while he was unaware, including his own body which now has a synthetic leg to replace the one damaged beyond repair. Protocols require that every human cop be paired with a robot cop and John is less than thrilled with this arrangement. So much so that his first partner since his awakening lasts a very short time. Dorian (Michael Ealy) becomes his new partner, bringing a whole new level of sardonic wit and sarcasm to the partnership. The show has gorgeous production values, looking more like a movie than television, and a fabulous cast but it's Michael Ealy's Dorian that brings the series to life. He consistently blows me away with his utterly natural style and his sly, amused subtext. Even if everyone else on the show was terrible he would make it worth watching. You can watch episodes nine through thirteen here on the Fox website. http://www.fox.com/watch/180178499552

Teen Wolf

It's no secret that I really enjoy Teen Wolf, what with its campiness, fun writing and deeply confusing mythologies. Since the season picked back up again this year my appreciation has deepened, as has the scare factor in the show. The opening episode was particularly frightening, with the main characters showing the effects of their extreme actions in the previous episode. (I don't want to spoil anything so won't go into exactly what that was.) I also very much like the Japanese mythos they are exploring now. I have not yet finished the season and if you're like me you can get caught up for free on the MTV website. Be sure to watch Galvanize, featuring the very talented Doug Jones as an extra creepy murderer. http://www.mtv.com/shows/teen_wolf/video/full-episodes/

The Walking Dead: The Grove

I woke up at five am the other day and couldn't get back to sleep so I turned on the DVR and watched this episode. Maybe it was the early hour but the Grove affected me so strongly I felt as though I was being physically punched in the belly. Also Tyrese's speech towards the very end of the show really surprised me. I don't think we hear those particular words much in pop culture, which gave them even more of an impact. If you missed it you can watch it for free on the AMC website. http://www.amctv.com/full-episodes/the-walking-dead/3350347293001/the-gr...

Bonus Treat:
This week's bonus treat is an absolutely gorgeous paper doll of Hannibal Lector, as he appears in the show Hannibal. (i.e. not played by Sir Anthony Hopkins.) You can dress him in one of his classic suits, his chef gear, a plastic suit protector and the antlered head of Will's nightmares. It's quite awesome. https://tv.yahoo.com/blogs/tv-news/hannibal-paper-doll-poster-173155510....

The Dervish House; The Pothunters

No column last week as I was swamped with school, although I suppose I could have posted a profile of the coelacanth or my diagnosis and treatment plan for a man presenting with high fever, headache, confusion and nuchal rigidity. I wrecked my shoulder, wrist and hand so typing is (very) painful and difficult, so columns may continue to be short.

I zipped through a few books over the last couple of weeks. One of them was a bit of a slog but the others (mostly anthologies) were fast and fun. The Dervish House by Ian McDonald is set in a near future Istanbul and begins with a bang, literally. A suicide bomber on a tram brings chaos and blood to the morning commute, setting off a complex series of events. We follow an interestingly diverse set of people, ranging from a young man with a violent past to a woman who is on a quest for a legendary object to a young boy with a heart condition. There are almost too many characters and intertwined plots to keep them all straight. Luckily for me I read it as an ebook so I could easily look back when I got confused and figure out who was who and what their motivation might be.

I had some serious problems with some of the plot points, such as a nine year old boy's long QT syndrome, a condition that affects the rhythms of the heart. In the novel the boy is supposed to be so sensitive to noise that he is artificially deafened and sent to deaf school. Supposedly any loud noise will kill him. Of course people with LQTS are at risk from anything that startles, excites or upsets them but this kid is constantly super excited and that seems to be fine. You can read more about LQTS here: https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/qt/

Istanbul runs on nanotech, at the forefront of research and new products. It is so prevalent that it invades every aspect of life. Ridiculously someone is given a phone number via a nano vial that must be inhaled. That is one of the clunkiest ways to hand off info that I can think of. If the tech is so advanced why is there no better treatment for Can, the boy in question?

Things I did like includes the obvious love the author has for the historic, complex city with building built upon building. (The title refers to the place where most of the characters live, an ancient building that has been extensively changed many times over the years.)I liked the passion the characters have for their work, interests and each other. I liked the ambition and drive. I especially liked the deep mysteries such as the sudden appearance of otherworldly creatures. Overall I enjoyed the book but it was very difficult to keep my disbelief suspended.

You can read an excerpt here: http://www.tor.com/blogs/2010/07/preview-the-dervish-house-by-ian-mcdona... The very beginning is a bit stilted but as you can see the style changes right away and becomes more intimate.

The Pothunters by PG Wodehouse was an odd duck. It was very different from anything else of his I have read, making me wonder if it was an early effort. Set in a boy's school it follows the travails of several of the students who are in trouble for various things like trespassing, being out after curfew and maybe stealing some trophies. (These are the pots referred to in the title.)

There is an awful lot of sport in the book, which was a bit of a surprise. Usually Mr. Wodehouse's characters get all their exercise narrowly escaping bad engagements, although there are quite a few golf stories. The Pothunters begins with a boxing match and features two days of field sports, including a cross country race across obstacles like a freshly plowed field. There are a ton of characters in this novel also, again making it hard to keep them all straight. There's also a lot of obsolete slang, which I kind of like, but I couldn't find definitions for some of the terms and am still a little puzzled over some points. I did learn about a thing called a jellygraph, which is pretty interesting, if tedious to actually operate. If you're interested you can download a free copy from Project Gutenberg. http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/6984

Bonus Treat:
This week's bonus treat is They Might Be Giants' cover of the Four Lads' Istanbul (Not Constantinople). The video is a short from Tiny Toons Adventures. (I don't know why I often think of this city as Constantinople as they officially changed their name more than eighty years ago. One of my many failings I guess.)

Point and Click, Point and Click

The other day I was a little aggravated by someone who declared that not only are point and click games awful; they're also ruining video games. I'm old, so I've seen pretty much the entire historical development of video games, from text based Star Trek games to Pong and Asteroids, to Donkey Kong (mostly played by me on a military base in the early eighties) to home consoles, etc, etc. When they first became ubiquitous as arcade games I was irked because I was really, really good at pinball and suddenly the pinball games were vanishing and being replaced by these upstarts. Upstarts that you couldn't influence with your hips, walking that fine line between bouncing the ball into the hole and tilting the machine.

So maybe I could understand why this person was upset about point and click games changing the landscape of gaming, except for the fact that these types of games have been around for many years, well before the rise of MMOs. And in fact there have been wildly popular point and click MMOs, or MMORPGs including Ragnorak online in the past and presumably more will come around in the future.

I think what is going on here is the perennial attempt by some gamers to segregate different types of games, with them playing real games and everyone else playing “casual games.” Some of these people seem to take the success of games like Angry Birds, Cut the Rope, and recently, Flappy Bird personally, feeling that these games somehow take away from the “real gamer” experience. (I'm reminded of someone at a game store in the mid nineties who dismissed all role playing games as “You walk around and talk to people and then you walk around and get stuff.” How boring!)

Cameronwt wrote in to say, “Point and click adventure games are an iconic part of video game history. They started a trend of high quality puzzle games that were stimulating and challenging that are still held in high regard to this day. Current day point and click games are like any other genre, with some being standouts, but the spirit of the games are still strong, and anyone could pick up and enjoy them.”

My favorite old point and click game is probably Maniac Mansion and its successor Day of the Tentacle. Is there anyone who played it who wasn't a little tempted to put the hamster in the microwave? Right now I am playing a couple of games from Fire Maple, The Lost City and Secret of Grisly Manor, both on the Kindle Fire. I finished Mosaika a month or so ago and liked it enough to get others made by the same company. They are intriguing enough to keep me playing but not so compelling that I can't put them down in five minutes, which is about all the game time I can squeeze in at one time. I find them very soothing although I have heard from people who find them maddening because they find the clues are too obscure. I especially like the Lost City as the character who gets me going on the quest is a woman, unlike most of the other games like this I have played. She reminds me a fair amount of Amelia Earhart. If you're playing any of these games let me know how you like them.

In other gaming news Elder Scrolls Online has released beta keys good until the second. Did you get yours? More info here: http://www.elderscrollsonline.com/en/news/post/2014/02/27/beta-streams-t...

Possible conflict – my middle son is working on this game so I do have a vested interest in its success.

Bonus Treat:
This week's bonus treat is a recommendation for Sue Alcock's class called Archeology’s Dirty Little Secrets. Taught in conjunction with Brown University and Coursera, so far this free class has been fun and interesting. The title initially put me off but the actual content is terrific. It just started on the 24th so you have time to catch up. The course syllabus is below. https://www.coursera.org/course/secrets

Course Syllabus
Unit #1: Just what are these secrets anyway?
Unit #2: What has survived for us to find? And what have we lost?
Unit #3: So how do you find things? Archaeology ≠ just digging
Unit #4: How do you get a date? (And why are dates so important?)
Unit #5: What do you do with what you find?
Unit #6: What is involved in the archaeology of people?
Unit #7: Where does archaeology happen? Who can play?
Unit #8: Who owns the past?

Don't Even Think About It

Don't Even Think About It by Sarah Mylnowski has the best title. It can be read in so many different ways. Such as a warning; don't even think about it or I'll knock your block off. Or, don't even think about it in response to thanks; as in no gratitude is necessary. Or it could mean don't even think about it because everyone in your class can read your mind and they'll find out you cheated on your boyfriend. That last one is in fact what happens in Sarah Mylnowski's clever and fun romp through the trials of ESP in teens. (I know, last week's book was also about teens and ESP but trust me, this one is different.)

The story follows a class of sophomores as they get a bad batch of flu shots, which leads to them all (with the exception of a couple who didn't get the shot) developing telepathy. At first they don't realize this, they think everyone around them suddenly started being much ruder or more open about their worries. One young man is horrified and despondent when he discovers his family is hiding huge secrets from him. He goes from happy go lucky and sociable to being a depressed loner. But others find the telepathy working in their favor and use it to try and better themselves while still others are delighted to get the opportunity to cheat their asses off.

Of course since they can all read each other's minds they can't keep things like cheating to themselves, once one of them does it they all know about it. And love, good grief, how are you supposed to have a nice quiet crush on someone when everyone, including your crush, knows all about it?

This story is told from the point of view of everyone, which is an interesting approach that works really well. The class becomes a kind of Greek chorus, commenting on the events and emotions related. One character will say they did or thought x and the group narrator voice will say something like, “We agreed with her.” Or “We thought that was the biggest mistake she could make.” Having that extra layer of perspective is part of what makes this book so enjoyable. My mood, which wasn't bad to start with, improved measurably while I was reading Don't Even Think About it. In fact I thought about rereading it right away. I am definitely going to have to find more of this author's work, which should be pretty easy as she seems to be a prolific writer. Isn't finding a new author with a big back-list the best?

There is supposed to be an excerpt on this page but it is pretty blank. The books is not yet out, I read an advance review copy supplied by Net Galley, so maybe the excerpt is due to go up soon? http://sarahm.com/excerpt.php?bid=176

Bonus Treat:
This week's bonus treat was chosen because of the trailer for the new 300 movie, which I seem to hear every three and a half minutes. It features someone wailing about witches serving their masters, which put me in mind of this fantastic, albeit rather old, video.

Sekret

International espionage, psychic powers, family loyalty, tortured love, the iron curtain – who can resist this combination? Sekret by Lindsay Smith has all these things and more. Set in the Soviet Union shortly after the Cuban Missile Crisis, this YA novel is told from the perspective of Yulia, a teen who has been in hiding with most of her family for some time. One day she goes to the black market to trade supplies for her mother's illegal clinic and is chased by suspicious looking people. When she makes it back home she discovers her mother and brother have been taken as hostages against her cooperation.

She is taken to a building that used to be amazing – the palace of some aristocracy before the revolution – but is now falling down and reeking of mold. There she meets several other teens, including blonde, buff Sergei and his polar opposite Valentin. Al of these teens have one thing in common – they have ESP with talents ranging from precognition to remote viewing. Yulia can sense the history of objects she touches, which makes living in the mansion intolerable. Everywhere she goes are the physic residues of torture, blood and pain. She is also haunted by the emotional memories of a girl who used to live with the other teens – a girl nobody wants to talk about.

From day one Yulia plans her escape but has enormous obstacles. If she runs her family will pay the price. How do you think about escape when everyone around you can read your mind? One of her captors, Rostov, is a chilling man whose very presence is painful. His brain gives off a noise that Yulia finds intolerable. He also has some terrifying skills, including the ability to reshape memories, both removing them and implanting new ones. The charismatic Valentin, nicknamed Valya, has the same ability, which makes Yulia doubt her feelings every time she is near him. One of my favorite parts of the book comes when she makes a list of people and put herself in the can't trust column.

While Yulia tries desperately to find a way to run away and keep her family safe her handlers put her to work doing two things; looking for a spy who is trying to steal space plans and looking for others like herself. If she brings them back they will face the same existence she does but if she doesn't help find them they may be found by another mind manipulator, who will leave them an empty shell.

There is a lot of suspense, and tension, in this novel, as Yulia works towards her seemingly unattainable goals. (Not to mention what happens if she does escape? Where does a single Russian girl who is being hunted go to hide out? And does she hide out forever?) While much of the conflict is external just as much is internal as she struggles with her conscience and her growing feelings for Valya. (Which may or may not be real.) Everything seems like a danger to her, from the blanket she sits on that overwhelms her with emotion, to her handlers and on to America, which is portrayed as pretty terrible. (No surprise there, there was a lot of propaganda on all sides of the cold war.)

Music plays an important part of this book, to the point where it is practically another character. If you are unfamiliar with the music of the time period you might feel a little lost.

Sekret is a fabulous novel that takes place in a time and place that isn't explored much these days. Fans of Code Name Verity should definitely give it a try, as should anyone who likes stories with brave, conflicted heroines.

You can read an excerpt here: http://us.macmillan.com/BookCustomPage_New.aspx?isbn=9781596438927

ETA - I read this book as an electronic advance review copy via NetGalley. It's not out quite yet but it should be soon.

Bonus Treat:
This week's bonus treat is a terrific comic from Randall Monroe discussing the consequences of birds being dinosaurs. http://xkcd.com/1211/ He is correct about that, btw. As Dr. Thomas Holtz says, “Dinosauria is "the concestor of Iguanodon and Megalosaurus, and all of its descendants.” All of its descendants in this case including birds. For more about this, try this page:
http://www.geol.umd.edu/~tholtz/G104/lectures/104clad.html

Papercraft for Valentine's Day

My apologies for the lack of a column last week and the extreme lateness of this one. I am still computerless (the super slow one now won't boot at all. I bought one secondhand that turns itself off every five minutes, so hooray?). I am on a borrowed system now, which sounds like a jet plane desperately trying to take off. I managed to cobble together a quick column with some Papercraft ideas for Valentine's Day and will now hopefully post it, five days after I wrote it.

While not pink, red and white, or covered in flowers and hearts, this Ferris wheel can work well for Cupid's holiday because everyone knows that getting stuck at the top of the Ferris wheel is the most romantic thing in the world. http://cp.c-ij.com/en/contents/2028/03474/index.html And if you're not in a lovey dovey mood you can set it up in front of a fan blasting at top speed while pretending all the lovers are trapped in a hurricane.

This roller coaster can be used in a similar way. Either you can squeeze your honey as you both go through the sickening drops, or you can fling annoying happy couples over the edge as you rocket through the hills and turns. http://cp.c-ij.com/en/contents/2028/10208/index.html

For something a little more traditional, try this mobile, which features a couple of rabbits smooching and lots of hearts. Since it features nice bright colors it would make a good addition to a nursery, maybe to hang over a crib. (Do people still do that or did someone decide it isn't safe?)http://cp.c-ij.com/en/contents/2023/mobile_heart-rabbit/index.html

Anyone who wants to be labeled ruler of Valentine's Day could make this tiara, which features large pink hearts. Think how much money you’re saving by making it out of paper instead of silver and rubies, garnets or spinels. http://cp.c-ij.com/en/contents/3158/10209/index.html If the tiara is too pink for the recipient maybe this gold crown with a red stone will work better. http://cp.c-ij.com/en/contents/3158/10211/index.html

This card is perfect for those who like to say “I love you” with a snail. Flowers are so yesterday, right? http://cp.c-ij.com/en/contents/3031/g00597/index.html Don't worry, I've got those who want something a little more traditional covered. This card features two birds united in love. http://cp.c-ij.com/en/contents/3031/g00599/index.html It is much more elegant than the snail card.

This is a link to a “string decoration”, which can be hung from a ceiling, so it can rotate in space and react to air currents, or you can make it more two dimensional by putting it on your door. http://cp.c-ij.com/en/contents/3158/string-valentine/index.html The colors are oddly reminiscent of Autumn, but it is labeled as an official Valentine's Day decoration.

The Toymaker has a fantastic template for an elephant that delivers hearts, flowers and a little book, which is blank, just waiting for your love poetry. http://www.thetoymaker.com/Holidays/Valentines/Elephant.pdf
While you are at her site you should probably also grab this hanging heart basket, so you have a place to store all the hearts you break this year. http://www.thetoymaker.com/Holidays/Valentines/Valentinebasket.pdf
Bonus Treat:
This week's bonus treat is the single greatest love song every written, bar none. Who can resist these lyrics?

I'm your only friend
I'm not your only friend
But I'm a little glowing friend
But really I'm not actually your friend
But I am

Monkeys Versus Balloons

My apologies for the lack of a column last week. We have been having horrid weather, like the rest of the world, which resulted in our pipes freezing not once, but twice. Then we got a power surge and despite the use of surge protectors my computer gave a sad popping sound and died, taking my column with it. I'm now working on the one that died when a coke exploded over it a couple of years ago. It now functions but is slower than any other computer made in this century. This has also negatively impacted my schooling.

I'm taking a bunch more classes (genetics, paleontology, neuroanatomy, psychology, communications, history, social sciences, philosophy and business) and in between them I am not exactly bursting with mental energy. The perfect game to play as I recharge is one I got for either nothing or hardly anything called Bloons TD 5. Available on the Apple app store, Google Play and the Amazon Kindle, this little time waster is aggravatingly fun to play. As you can probably tell from the title it's a tower defense game, like Plant Versus Zombies. In the Bloons series monkeys fend off balloons called Bloons. (Is that monkey slang or the tribal name of the balloons?)

The towers in tower defense are a little confusing to me. I thought that the tower was what was being defended, as in protecting forts, castles, keeps and other structures from the invading hordes. But in this game, and apparently all the others, the towers are the soldiers etc protecting the structure. Is this named after the siege tower? I have no idea but if so then I guess calling them towers makes a little bit of sense.

The towers range in killing ability from super weak, a dart monkey, to ridiculously strong, a giant temple, which requires sacrifice to activate. (It slorgs up all the towers nearby and costs like a hundred grand in in-game money.) One of the reasons I enjoy playing this game so much is because there are so many combinations I can make. Only some of them will win the various mission maps and figuring out which ones to use is a bit of a brainteaser. There are some towers I prefer over others, such as the submarine and the monkey engineer. Each tower is purchased with in game dollars. You begin with x amount and earn one dollar for each balloon destroyed. You can also earn money with banana farms and the monkey engineer can make a balloon trap, which catches balloons and gives you a payout when it is full.

TD5 features many different maps designed for various skill levels starting from beginner and ranging to extreme. Each level is further divided into difficulty, ranging from easy to hard. There are also some odd options such as running the map backwards or deflation. You get medals, tokens and experience points and monkey money for each map that you complete. You also have the option of playing missions, which come in extremely aggravating special missions and the less aggravating regular missions. These are more like mental puzzles as you have to figure out the right combination of towers to activate to beat the level. For instance how do you beat a lightning shaped map with only little machines that spew out tacks? (I still haven't figured that out.) The special missions alone have already eaten up several hours and most of my patience.

As I am once again overloaded with classes this column will likely be sporadic, short erratic for the next couple of months. One of my classes alone has twenty hours of lecture per week. Why? Why? Why?

Bonus Treat:
This week's bonus treat is from the Missouri Department of Conservation. It's an important fact sheet about a new invasive species; zombies. It gives good advice about avoiding cauliflower fields, what to do if you catch one while you're fishing and which tree stands are the safest while climbing out of zombies' reach. http://mdc.mo.gov/zombies

Five Days at Memorial

So, Five Days at Memorial; holy cow, what a disturbing book. We read the article the book is based on for my disasters class and found it very upsetting. The book is even more so, as it details the atrocities outlined in the article. Written by Sheri Fink, it's about patients dying at medical facilities in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. While it focuses on possible euthanasia done at Memorial Hospital in New Orleans, performed just as rescue is arriving, it also discusses other medical centers with high patient death rates. Ms. Fink also looks into the long history of “mercy killing”, giving everyone more reasons to dislike Napoleon Bonaparte.

The first half of the book is a play by play account of what happened leading up to, during and after the hurricane. It documents the perfect storm of lack of planning, overloaded infrastructure, panic, rumor, confusion and hubris that led to the hospital disaster following the natural disaster. The book looks at the history of Memorial as well as previous problems with drainage and flooding in New Orleans. Ms. Fink also relates some disturbing facts about the then parent company of Memorial Hospital regarding settlements they made in response to various allegations. (Here's an example: 54 million dollar fine for performing unnecessary heart surgeries, including open heart surgeries. http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/money/industries/health/2003-08-06-tenet-... This press release is regarding 900 million they had to pay in relation to alleged fraud. http://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/2006/June/06_civ_406.html) I wasn't terribly surprised when the parent company is described as failing to give support during the disaster as they sound like your typical soulless corporation more interested in the dollar than healing patients.

The book raises many questions, some of which remain unanswered. If you need everything to be resolved you might be left unsatisfied. The biggest question in my mind was why? Why was the timing so strange? Why give “comfort care” to extremely ill patients just as an avalanche of rescue boats and helicopters appear? Why did so many people behave in questionable ways? Why do we as patients put up with medical providers deciding when people live and die? Why, why, why.
Even if the content of the book doesn't appeal to you the epilogue is a must read. The epilogue discusses changes in policy that have or should have been made since the Katrina disaster. Have hospitals made sure their generators and electrical support systems are out of range of flooding? What types of emergency plans have facilities put into place? One of the many disturbing subjects discussed is legislative change, with the idea that medical personnel will be protected from criminal and civil penalties for their actions during a disaster. It sounds as though a doctor could put an entire ward to death and get a hearty handshake and a “well done”.

You can read an excerpt here: http://www.npr.org/2013/09/03/217193724/exclusive-first-read-five-days-a...

Bonus Treat:
This week's bonus treat is a Nebula Award nominated short story by the incredibly talented Harold Waldrop, who has written some of my favorite stories. Mary Margaret Road-Grader is set in an alternate history, or maybe years in our future, that is somewhat Mad Maxesque. The Sun Dance and Big Tractor Pull is a celebration where the people can gather, trade stories, compete against one another and buy, sell and trade cars. But the old ways are slipping away, replaced by new fangled things like using horses instead of automobiles. Into this changing landscape comes Mary Margaret Road-Grader. She wants to compete in the tractor pull, shattering the cultural mores. No woman had taken part in the past and just the idea of her participating sets the people on edge. http://www.strangehorizons.com/2001/20010129/mary_margaret.shtml

Unwind

I've been merrily reading my way through Simon Pulse's 31 Days of Reading, where they release a free book a day through the month of December. http://www.pulseit.com/go/article/view/events/264357/announcing_pulseits...! It's been a bit of a mixed bag with some really interesting, well written stories but there have also been a couple that were weirdly preachy. One of them, which had a promising beginning, turned out to be a bizarre religious screed with the protagonists all being reincarnations of martyred saints. And it was anti-science, in a sneering, misunderstanding kind of way. Another book had a terrible beginning, with a beyond ridiculous premise, that turned out to be a good adventure story, so long as I could pretend it was all happening in a different universe with a mentally ill populace.

I'm not going to go into any details about the martyr book, not even the title, as I could only spoil it, but the other book is called Unwind and is by Neal Shusterman. It's set in an alternate future where the United States had another civil war; this time over reproductive rights. The “pro-life” and “pro-choice” armies went to war and only stopped fighting when a ridiculous piece of legislature is passed. Called the Bill of Life it states anyone who gets pregnant must carry the fetus to term, no matter what. If it has no heart and will die on delivery too bad, its erstwhile mother must go through the dangers of pregnancy and childbirth. If the mother has an illness that won't let her body tolerate pregnancy, too bad, so sad, she'll just have to die so long as she doesn't do anything to harm the fetus. (There is absolutely nothing in the book about what happens to women who get abortions illegally, so I can only imagine that this world must be similar to the United States prior to Roe v. Wade, when women died horribly from illegal, unsafe abortions.) To make the pro-choice side happy I guess, children can be retroactively aborted from the ages of 13 to 18. This process is called unwinding and involves donating every part of the child to organ and tissue banks. (The parts supposedly retain their owner's previous thoughts, memories and emotions, so the kids are supposed to be technically alive. But this also means the donated parts can take control of their new owners. (I know, as I said it's completely ridiculous.)) Never mind that that this wouldn't make the pro-choice side happy. Equally unhappy would be the pro-life crowd, as chopping up teenagers isn't usually something they're lobbying for.

Parents can get rid of teenagers whenever they want. Anyone who accidentally gets pregnant can leave the baby on someone's doorstep and whoever answers the door is forced to take them in, a practice called storking. (This is one of the times the author gets overly preachy, talking about how easy it is to walk away from responsibility) They also have the option of putting the baby in an overcrowded state home. Either one of these choices seems like a fast track to unwinding, the fate of unwanted or unloved teens. Another big supplier to the harvest farms are religious parents, who tithe one of their children. These children grow up knowing that they will be unwound once they are of age, but are taught that this is the greatest gift they can give and are trained to accept their fate.

Now that the stage is set, what actually happens in the story? Is there a story or is it all just an excuse for making points about reproductive rights? There is in fact a story and it's not bad. We meet three teens who are being sent to be unwound for various reasons. One grew up in a state home, one is being discarded by his parents, (maybe for fighting?), and one is a tithe. They all collide, somewhat literally, on a highway and end up on the run. If they can survive until they turn eighteen they'll be home free. If Risa, the girl from the state home, chooses, she can try to get pregnant, which will give her a reprieve as obviously unwinding someone who is pregnant would violate the Bill of Life.

In the course of the story we meet many other kids slated for unwinding, including a teen whose parents had a bitter divorce, fought over who would get custody, then decided they'd rather unwind him than let the other parent have him. This rang truest to me of anything in the book. I have seen parents fight in court to the tune of thousands in lawyer fees and then in the end neither one of them wants the children. They just want to use the kids as a lever to hurt the other parent.

I found echoes of other stories in Unwind, including Logan's Run, with the theme of being sentenced to death, a sentence that stands solely because of age. Like Logan's Run there is plenty of action and suspense, lots of chasing and the threat of death everywhere. It's a fast read that is satisfying so long as you can suspend a lot of disbelief.

You can see a Google preview of the novel here: http://books.simonandschuster.net/Unwind/Neal-Shusterman/Unwind-Dystolog...

Bonus Treat:
This week's bonus treat is in the classic style of the Christmas horror story. It's a comic from the very talented Emily Carroll. Called Skin, it gave me the shivers. It begins with a woman alone in the woods who makes a terrible discovery. What comes next is chilling. http://www.emcarroll.com/comics/skin/

The Ghost Bride

We read a surprising amount of material in my Plagues, Witches and War class, much of which I liked quite a bit, including some stories I would never have picked up on my own. The book that I liked the most, by a strong margin, is Ghost Bride by Yangse Choo. A YA novel set in historic Malay, this gorgeous story takes place both in the secular and the spiritual world.

Li Lan is a young woman whose family has fallen on hard times. Her mother passed away from smallpox years ago and her father spends his time smoking opium and neglecting his business duties. Not only are they financially beleaguered, they have also fallen in status. As the story begins Li Lan's father tells her that a wealthy family called the Lims has asked her to be a ghost bride to their deceased son, who was spoiled in life and expected to get everything he wants.

Li Lan's Amah, who has cared for her since her mother passed away, and cared for her mother before that, is horrified. Even though Li Lan tries to pass the idea off as a joke Amah is afraid of the bad luck talking about such matters can bring. Amah is very superstitious while Li Lan is more like her father, whose philosophy doesn't include luck or things like the God of Smallpox.

But soon the matriarch of the Lim family begins to treat Li Lan as though she is already engaged to Lim Tian Ching, the dead heir. She asks for something of Li Lan's and suddenly Lim Tian Ching invades Li Lan's dreams. These dreams are filled with luxurious, but impermanent and foreboding, luxuries. The tables are set for a feast, everything is decorated. The house is ready for a grand event which never occurs. These dreams terrify Li Lan, who has to struggle with all her might to wake up from them. When she and Amah seek help from a medium things spiral even more out of control. Li Lan is suddenly stuck in the afterlife, surrounded by all sorts of mysterious creatures, trying to find her way back home again.

The Ghost Bride is told in two different styles. For the first part of the book things move slowly, with lots of description. Then once Li Lan enters the spirit world things speed up and we see a lot more action. This was my favorite part, despite being the worst for poor Li Lan. (Yes I am a terrible person taking pleasure while others suffer.) I have been reading ghost stories, mythology, fairy tales, etc for more than forty years and I sometimes feel like I'm too familiar with much of the oeuvre. The Ghost Bride introduced me to a fascinating array of spirits, demons and gods. I would love to read more books set in Li Lan's world(s).

The Ghost Bride is a mixture of romance, mystery and history, all set in the classic Western ghost story framework. It takes place in an intersection of many things; Western and Eastern cultures, traditional and modern mores, the living and the dead. It is always these interstitial stories that make for the best reading. How much did I like this novel? Apparently I lent it to two different people at once, which led to a bit of a squabble as I only had the one copy. So maybe if you want to be more prepared than me you should pick up a few copies?

You can read an excerpt here: http://www.scribd.com/doc/143423725/Excerpt-of-The-Ghost-Bride-by-Yangse...

Bonus Treat:
This week's bonus treat is the website of a designer called Ai Hasegawa who is working at the intersection of fantasy, biology, and design. She's doing some really interesting/mind-boggling work. I discovered her through her I Wanna Give Birth to... series, which looks at what would happen if a woman gave birth to an endangered animal that is considered a food source. Could someone carry a shark in their womb and then eat the shark? Instead would she feel a connection to the shark (or salmon or dolphin, etc)? Could she set it free in the ocean or would she want to have it around? These are all questions that crossed my mind when I read a short blog post about this project. You can learn more about her projects here: http://www.aihasegawa.info/ Be warned, her untitled video on Vimeo is possibly the most horrifying thing I've seen ever.

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