369. Review Roundup: Fairy Tale Edition

Once upon a time, in the faraway land of Indiana, Adam the blogger enjoyed a number of whimsical stories and contemporary fairy tales. Here are his impressions of three animated films, a video game, and an anime: Inside OutBraveBrother Bear, Ni No Kuni, and Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun.

These are the stories of a plucky princess, an Inuit tribesman, a brave little boy, a Japanese manga artist, and the personifications of a girl’s emotions. Do they live happily ever after?

Let’s find out.

Inside Out

Inside Out

Inside Out brought me closer to weeping openly in a movie theater than any other film has done. (Fortunately, I have a heart of stone, sparing myself and my younger brother the embarrassment of annoying our fellow theatergoers.) This is a brilliant movie, and I have literally nothing bad to say about it.

Pixar’s Inside Out pictures the human mind as a control room operated by five engineers, each representing an emotion: Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust. In the mind of Riley, a girl from Minnesota, her emotions struggle to keep her happy as she moves with her parents to California. When an accident sends Joy and Sadness to the farthest reaches of Riley’s mind, these unlikely partners must make it back to the control center before Riley breaks down.

This film boasts the usual Pixar polish, with top-notch animation, writing, and performances. Beyond that, Inside Out is the first Pixar movie in years to feature a truly original concept. (Of the past four Pixar films, two were sequels, one was a prequel, and one had the style of a traditional fairy tale—more on that last one in just a bit.) The movie’s concept of the mind is creative, clever, and—importantly—consistent. The way the mind works in Inside Out isn’t hard to understand, and the film does a fine job of sticking to it.

As I hinted above, this is a film with emotional punch. Pixar has a gift for depicting emotion with heartfelt sincerity and simplicity: Carl’s irritable despondency in Up, the toys’ sense of loss in Toy Story 3, Mike’s resignation to his limitations in Monsters UniversityInside Out is quite literally a film about emotions, so you can bet it hits the viewer—at any rate, this viewer—with feels.

This is pretty much how I felt at the end of the film.

This is pretty much how I felt at the end of the film.

Inside Out is a fantastic film. Somewhere deep inside my mind, my sense of Joy is fiddling with whatever knobs and buttons affect my actions, willing me to recommend this film. Watch it. Your own sense of Joy will thank you.

Brave

Brave

Here’s another Pixar classic, this time telling the age-old story of a princess who falls in love with a prince and—what’s that? She doesn’t fall in love with a prince? Well, that’s different.

Brave is an original fairy tale. Set in Scotland, it tells the tale of a princess named Merida, who decides she doesn’t want to let her parents marry her off to any of the local chieftains’ sons. Merida tries to change her fate… and accidentally transforms her mother into a bear. Mother and daughter must shelve their pride, settle their differences, and somehow make things right.

The film’s independent, self-reliant heroine is a refreshing change of pace from the mild princesses of other fairy-tale movies, and I appreciate the way the Merida and her mother learn to understand, respect, and trust each other. Merida’s family is a colorful bunch. Even the chieftains and their sons, who could easily have been throwaway characters, have some personality.

As a Pixar movie, Brave doesn’t feel particularly, well, brave. It’s a fairy tale. Even with its feminist undertones and emphasis on family relationships, it treads a lot of familiar ground. It’s a fine film nevertheless, and I appreciate it as a deeper alternative to the princess-flavored romances Disney loves so much.

By the way, does the Scottish setting of Brave give anyone else flashbacks to How to Train Your Dragon? No? I guess it’s just me, then.

Brother Bear

Brother Bear

Here’s another animated movie about people turning into bears. Why do people keep turning into bears? I just can’t bear it. (I’m so, so sorry.)

Brother Bear is a Disney animated film from the early two thousands: that nebulous stretch of Disney history whose movies nobody remembers. In the film, an Inuit tribesman named Kenai seeks revenge on a bear that killed a loved one, and is turned into a bear for his trouble. He must go on a quest, and learn the power of love, and—y’know, forget it. If you’ve ever seen a Disney film, you know where this is going.

This is not a bad movie. The Canadian wilderness is a great setting, and Inuit culture is largely unexplored in pop fiction. The acting, animation, and story were all perfectly adequate. I just couldn’t help feeling that this film didn’t really need to be made. Brother Bear is an uninspired blend of other Disney movies. Its plot borrows heavily from The Emperor’s New Groove: a man turned into an animal finds a buddy and goes on a trip to regain his (literal and figurative) humanity. The film’s music channels the soundtrack of Tarzan, down to a song from Phil Collins. It’s all been done before.

Brother Bear does have its moments. A couple of moose with heavy Canadian accents wander in and out of the movie, providing comic relief and stealing every scene in which they appear. The movie lacks a traditional villain, which is a refreshing change from Disney’s usual black-and-white morality.

In the end, however, Brother Bear is nothing special. I recommend The Emperor’s New Groove instead: pretty much the same story, but much funnier.

Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch

Ni No Kuni cover

Flipping heck, this game is amazing. I’ve already discussed the excellence of Ni No Kuni, so I’ll try not to ramble!

Ni No Kuni is a beautiful fairy tale. (It also happens to be a JRPG for the PlayStation 3.) It tells the story of Oliver, a little boy who sets out on a quest to save his mum. Accompanied by Drippy, the “Lord High Lord of the Fairies,” Oliver must mend broken hearts, defeat an evil jinn, and rescue a parallel world.

That world is one of the most charming and beautiful places I’ve seen in a video game. The look of Ni No Kuni was based on the work of the legendary Studio Ghibli, which handled the game’s animated cutscenes. This a lovely game. Apart from the cutscenes, which are nothing less than I expected of the Oscar-winning animation studio, the game itself is gorgeous.

I mean, look at it. Just look at it.

This is a gameplay screenshot, not an animated cutscene. This is what the game looks like. Ain't it pretty?

This is a gameplay screenshot. This is what the game looks like, more or less. Ain’t it pretty?

Ni No Kuni is visually appealing, but its excellence doesn’t stop there. The music, composed by renowned film composer Joe Hisaishi and performed by a live orchestra, is fantastic. Most importantly, the game is flipping fun to play.

The gameplay blends the fighting and adventuring of Final Fantasy games and the creature-catching of Pokémon. Oliver and his companions command familiars, adorable monsters that handle most of the fighting. Like Pokémon, familiars can be caught, trained, and metamorphosed into stronger creatures. Outside of battle, exploration is fun and sidequests abound.

Ni No Kuni even includes the full text of an original book, The Wizard’s Companion, which contains maps, spells, descriptions of familiars, old-fashioned illustrations, runes to decipher, and fairy tales. Yes, this fairy tale contains fairy tales of its own, and they’re delightful. In fact, The Wizard’s Companion is so good that I wish I owned a hard copy. As Oliver travels, he gathers the book’s scattered pages, unlocking more reading material.

Alas, Ni No Kuni is not quite perfect. It’s hard to read The Wizard’s Companion on a television screen, and flipping through its pages is a pain.

By far the biggest flaw of Ni No Kuni is its ending. Without spoiling anything, I must admit that it feels tacked on. The game reaches a satisfying conclusion, with Oliver reaching his goal and finishing his character arc… and then the game goes on for another four to six hours, limping doggedly to an anticlimax. Although the game’s final chapter answers some lingering questions, a little rewriting would have tied up those loose ends sooner, giving the game a stronger finish.

Despite its weak ending, this game is one of the finest I’ve ever played. RPGs aren’t for everyone, but for anyone with the patience, Ni No Kuni is a gem.

Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun

Monthly Girls' Nozaki-kun

I can’t decide whether Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun is a heartwarming parody or a self-aware romantic comedy. Either way, it’s brilliant.

In Japan, there is a genre of manga (comics) called shojo. This genre is aimed at teenage girls, generally focusing on romance and emotional characters. Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun is the story of a high school student named Sakura. When she tries to confess romantic feelings for Nozaki, one of her classmates, he mistakes her for a fan of his work. You see, Nozaki—an analytical, unromantic wet blanket—is secretly the writer and artist behind a popular shojo manga series, Let’s Fall in Love. When Nozaki invites Sakura to be his assistant, she agrees, hoping to get closer to him.

This twelve-episode series is a hilarious deconstruction of romantic comedies. The eponymous Nozaki-kun is intrigued by romance, but only from an academic point of view. For example, he loves St. Valentine’s Day, but only because observing romantic couples gives him ideas for his manga series. The thought of actually being romantic never crosses his mind. This makes for some delightful moments when Sakura is convinced he is finally falling in love with her… only to realize he’s testing out ideas for his manga.

For example, Nozaki realizes it’s romantic for a man and woman to share a bicycle, but he doesn’t understand why. He tests the scenario repeatedly with Sakura, eventually acquiring a tandem bike and riding down city streets with Sakura reluctantly in tow. Once he figures out the most romantic method for sharing a bike, he reasons, he can use it in his story for optimal effect.

Romantic, I guess

This is romantic, right? Right?!

As Sakura becomes acquainted with Nozaki and his other assistants, she realizes how much of his manga is based on people she knows. For example, the heroine of Let’s Fall in Love is based on Mikoshiba, a flirtatious male friend of Nozaki’s who is secretly very insecure.

Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun deconstructs rom-com clichés, yet the series is never bitter or mean-spirited. I was also pleasantly surprised by the show’s family-friendly tone. Japanese anime is notorious for its inappropriate content. As I began this anime about high school romance, I resigned myself to the saucy innuendos and panty shots that plague other series. Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun rises above cheap lewdness, keeping things at a PG level. I found the show’s innocence added to its charm, which is already considerable.

Like many anime, this one offers fascinating glimpses into Japanese culture. I was particularly interested by the creative process of writing and drawing manga, which is gradually shown in the series as Nozaki enlists more assistants.

I highly recommend Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun to anyone who likes anime or romantic comedies. I’m not a particular fan of either, yet I really enjoyed it.

What books, films, shows, or video games have you enjoyed lately? Let us know in the comments!

368. Ten Steps to Being a Writer

I had planned to publish a longer post today, but unforeseen complications (read: typewriter monkeys) prevented me from writing one. Instead, here are ten essential steps to being a writer. (I originally shared them on Twitter some time ago.) I’ll do my best to publish a proper blog post next time. For now, dear reader, consider these steps, and write your way to success!

Step 1: Wear glasses. I’ve mastered this step.

Step 2: Acquire a computer, typewriter, pen, or Etch A Sketch pad.

Step 3: Obtain a comfortable chair. Nothing kills creativity like cramps.

Step 4: Write. This is the hardest step.

Step 5: Submit your writing, face rejections, weep, revise, repeat.

Step 6: Become dependent upon an addictive substance. Mine is coffee. (Disclaimer: Don’t really do this.)

Step 7: Be grateful to your readers. Don’t skip this step.

Step 8: Be jealous of better writers. If none are better than you, congratulations: You are P.G. Wodehouse.

Step 9: If you think your writing is never good enough, you’re probably doing it right.

Step 10: Profit. Unless you’re a religious writer, in which case: Prophet.

What are your best writing tips? Let us know in the comments!

President Obama, Anime Fan

Obama waifuOh, the Internet. Its wonders never cease.

It has become a running joke on the Internet that Barack Obama, the President of the United States of America, is a hardcore otaku obsessed with manga and anime. (For the sensible readers who keep a safe distance from geek culture: an otaku is an obsessive geek, manga is a style of Japanese comics, and anime is a kind of Japanese animation.) The Internet, in its vast and incomprehensible wisdom, has given the US President a fierce love of all things geeky and Japanese. His obsession with anime has been duly documented in a long series of (digitally altered) photos and GIFs.

Oval Office

Politics is a touchy subject. I know people who admire President Obama; I know people who think he might be the Antichrist. When it comes to a subject as volatile as the US president, it’s nice to see geeky jokes for a change instead of arguments, accusations, and insults.

Although his love of anime is just an Internet joke, President Obama did thank Japan (on behalf of America’s young people) for manga and anime. swear I am not making this up.

367. Notes from the Road

Well, I’m back.

My journey to Wisconsin was refreshing, wonderful, exhilarating, highly caffeinated, occasionally uncomfortable, and a smashing success. Here, in no particular order, are some of my thoughts from the trip.

The pastor who invited me to speak at his church is a really cool dude.

Rev Kev, the pastor who invited me to Wisconsin, is a tough-looking dude with epic tattoos, pierced ears, manly stubble, and massive biceps. He could probably have snapped my spine with his bare hands.

Adam and Rev KevFortunately, the good Reverend turned out to be a true gentleman and total geek. He and his family—which included a dog, three cats, and a colorful assortment of friends and honorary family members—were welcoming and kind. I was treated not as a guest, but as a friend.

Rev Kev has an amazing story. One of the highlights of my trip was sitting in his dining room, drinking coffee and listening to his testimony. His faith and story inspire me.

In other news, Rev Kev has a wonderful church office. Surrounded by Star Wars and comic book posters, a large plastic Hulk stands on his desk, wielding an Adam West Batman action figure like a club. ’Nuff said.

My only concern about the good Reverend is that he might be a Sith Lord. No doctrine in Christianity states a person can’t be a Sith and a pastor, but I still consider it cause for concern.

Sith pastor

I drank a lot of coffee.

For all my jokes about coffee, I do really love the stuff. In two days of traveling, I drank roughly eight cups of brewed coffee, two bottled frappuccinos, a latte, and a double shot of espresso. I also drank a masala chai tea latte, because variety is important.

I ate the best burger I’ve ever eaten.

My humble road trip was transformed into a glorious pilgrimage by a quick stop at a tiny burger shack called Wedl’s. This burger vendor serves such good food that it was featured on the Travel Channel. Wedl’s grills its burgers on a skillet that has been in use for nearly a century.

Wedl'sA drunk driver once totaled Wedl’s and broke its skillet. Fortunately for all of humankind, the shattered skillet was repaired. Just as the broken shards of Narsil were reforged into Andúril in The Lord of the Rings, so Wedl’s skillet was restored to its divinely-appointed purpose of grilling tasty burgers.

Rev Kev and I discussed the legend of Wedl’s skillet, weaving a story of how the skillet’s greasy shards were held by a weeping maiden in a lonely meadow, only for a kingly elf to ride up on a stallion and pledge to restore it. He worked in secret, reforging the skill on a magical anvil, his furnaces blazing hotter than ten thousand suns—and it was done. Wedl’s skillet was resurrected, and its noble work continues to this day.

When I bit into my Wedl’s burger, my reaction was pretty much the same as Samuel L. Jackson’s in Pulp Fiction, but roughly seven hundred percent more excited.

Wisconsin has beautiful scenery.

On my way home, I following winding roads past green hills, lovely woods, and beautiful streams. It was fantastic. Indiana occasionally has nice scenery, but approximately ninety-six percent of the state is covered by cornfields. What I saw of southern Wisconsin was breathtaking.

I don’t know how I lived without a GPS.

As usual, I seem to be a decade or two behind everyone else in my generation when it comes to technology. I finally acquired a GPS, and it is amazing. It made traveling so, so much easier. My GPS, GLaDOS, is a gift of God.

Hell has a tenth circle, and its name is Chicago.

As much as I appreciate my GPS, I must quote its namesake, GLaDOS from the Portal games: “Remember when you tried to kill me twice? Oh, how we laughed and laughed, except I wasn’t laughing.” My GPS made two attempts to murder me by taking me through Chicago going and coming back.

I have an embarrassing fear of city driving. (My decision to buy a GPS in the first place was prompted by a stressful visit to Fort Wayne.) For all my travels, I haven’t done much driving in big cities, and I have long made a point of staying away from Chicago. Unfortunately, my GPS took me through Chicago twice.

The Chicago freeways were vast rivers of faded asphalt, channeling streams of vehicles over, under, and through an arid wasteland of concrete, weeds, and rusting metal. The summer sun blazed overhead. (My car lacks air conditioning.) The traffic was predictably slow. My trips through Chicago were all sweat, noise, fumes, desperate prayers, and hopes for the sweet release only death could bring.

This brings me to my next point.

It did me good to work through some of my anxieties.

Besides my fear of city driving, I’m stressed out by traveling alone, public speaking, and prolonged social commitments. My trip to Wisconsin consisted of driving hundreds of miles by myself, hanging out with new people for hours on end, and speaking in front of a church congregation.

My anxieties are silly and irrational, but also very real. I was forced to confront them, and I lived to tell the tale. As George Orwell wrote, “You have talked so often of going to the dogs—and well, here are the dogs, and you have reached them, and you can stand it. It takes off a lot of anxiety.” I survived my anxieties, and that’s encouraging.

It was nice to get away from my typewriter monkeys.

For two glorious days, I didn’t see a single banana peel, hear a single explosion, or smell a single whiff of burning apartment. It was nice.

Now that the trip to Wisconsin is done, what’s next? I wish I knew. I suppose I’ll resume my quiet, caffeinated, day-to-day life, and daydream about my next road trip.

366. TMTF Hits the Road!

Meet Eliezer.

EliezerEliezer is my car. My old vehicle, an ailing car called Tribulation, began to show signs of imminent death a long time ago. When my older brother sold me his car before moving with his family to the Dominican Republic, I christened it Eliezer—which means God is my help—in the hope that my newer car would prove to be more dependable than my old one, which repeatedly lived up to its name.

Tomorrow Eliezer and I will journey from Berne, Indiana, to Jefferson, Wisconsin. A reader of this blog has invited me to speak at his church. Although I’m baffled that any pastor would deliberately inflict me on his congregation, I’m honored to accept his invitation. I’ll tell a few stories, read from the Gospel of Mark, and discuss C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, because that is how I roll.

I won’t lie: I love road trips, but they scare me. I felt less much anxious flying halfway across the world by myself than I feel driving long distances alone. When I flew to and from Uruguay and South Korea, in spite of all complications, all I had to do was board the right planes. If anything had gone wrong before or during the flight, I could have simply sat back and let someone else fix it.

When I go on road trips by myself, however, I’m responsible for everything. I’m on my own if anything goes wrong. Having faced car trouble repeatedly in the past few years, I’m nervous as heck.

Fortunately, this time, I’ll have some new equipment: my first ever GPS unit, which I’ve christened GLaDOS. I’ll also take along my usual assortment of traveling items: apples, coffee, iPod, headphones, and an emergency hard copy of driving directions. (I’m not sure I trust GLaDOS.)

My typewriter monkeys will remain at home. That said, I hope I still have a home when I get back. (I trust GLaDOS considerably more than I trust my monkeys.)

I’ll spend quite a lot of time on the road, and I have a number of other commitments, so I’ll be taking a one-week break from this blog. TMTF shall return on Monday, June 22… assuming I survive the trip.

I probably won’t update TMTF during the break, not even to recycle old posts. Fortunately, this is the Internet, and it has all kinds of cool people doing cool stuff. Here are my recommendations for cool sites to check out while TMTF is on break.

As always, Amy Green and Thomas Mark Zuniga have great blogs; if you haven’t checked them out, I recommend ’em very highly. My friend JK Riki just began a site about creativity and inspiration, and it’s off to a good start! If you like movies, Honest Trailers is an awesome (if occasionally off-color) series of trailers mocking popular films. (There are also Honest Trailers for video games, because this is the Internet.) Finally, the animator who made the lovely animation for TMTF’s three-hundredth post has a webcomic I finally got around to reading: Cyn Wolf, a comic about a cynical wolf and some quirky dogs. I really enjoyed it.

Now I should finish packing for tomorrow’s trip. If you’re a person who prays, I’ll be most grateful for your prayers this weekend as I travel, speak, and (I hope) make it home alive.

Thanks for reading! We’ll be back!

…Probably.

Romeo and Juliet and Dave

A Sequel to “A Portrait of the Artist as a Performing Monkey”

“Ave, Imperator! Morituri te salutant,” grumbled Gabriel Green, fumbling with his scarf and scattering snowflakes over the carpet.

The lady at the desk giggled. “I don’t speak Spanish, Mr. Green.”

“Latin,” corrected Gabe. “It means, ‘Hail, Emperor! Those who are about to die salute you.’” He looped the scarf around his neck and pulled it upward like a noose, doing his best impression of a hanged man. “Is Phil in his office?” he asked, somewhat ruining the effect.

“Oh, don’t be such a drama queen,” tittered the secretary. “I’ll let him know you’re here.” She pressed a button and leaned forward to speak into a little microphone on the desk. “Mr. Lector? It’s Mr. Green. Should I send him in?”

“Gabe!” crackled a familiar voice. “Come in, come in, come in! Just the man I wanted to see.”

“You can hang your stuff on the wall over there,” said the secretary, waving vaguely toward some coat hooks on the wall.

“Can I hang myself?” inquired Gabriel. “I mean, will the hooks take my weight, or should I find a sturdy tree?”

Moments later, as he stepped into Phil’s office, Gabriel was met with the comforting smell of old coffee.

“Gabe!” boomed his agent, rising from his desk. “Been waiting for you! Have a cuppa joe. It’s old and sludgy, but I don’t charge.”

Gabriel needed no encouragement. Filling a foam cup, he recited, “Out of the gloom that covers me, when wind is cold and sky is gray, I thank whatever gods may be for coffee on a winter day.”

“That’s good, that’s good,” said Phil, beaming. “An original?”

“From a poem by William Ernest Henley,” admitted Gabriel. “More or less. You wanted to see me?”

Phil motioned to a leather chair across the desk from his own. “Have a seat, Gabe. We gotta talk.”

Gabriel sat down, feeling like a student in the principal’s office. “What have I done this time?”

“The problem’s with your latest book,” said Phil, frowning. “I won’t mince words, Gabe. The Sun and the Spire didn’t sell.”

“It wasn’t exactly a bestseller,” he conceded, “but the critics loved it. The review from The Typewriter Ribbon called it—”

“I don’t care what reviews called it. I call it a loss.” Phil’s tone softened. “Look, Gabe, I love your stuff. You know that. As an agent, I like representing at least one brainy writer for bragging rights. You’re my trophy author.”

“Thanks a lot, Phil.”

“But even trophy authors have to earn a few bucks now and then, and my kids occasionally need to eat. We’re counting on you, Gabe. We need a bestseller: something for Young Adults.”

Gabriel sipped his coffee, stared at his hands, and asked in a small voice, “What did you have in mind?”

“Glad you asked!” exclaimed Phil, slapping his desk. “I’d suggest a vampire novel, but since that’s apparently, ahem, ‘impossible,’ we’ll have to try another angle. How’s a love triangle sound?”

A pained noise, something between a moan and a wail, escaped from somewhere deep inside Gabriel Green.

“You okay?” asked his agent.

“I’ll be damned.”

Phil smirked. “Language, Gabe.”

“A love triangle?”

“You know, a romance where a character has to choose between two lovers. Haven’t you read Twilight or The Hunger Games? They’re hot sellers. They’ve got love triangles.”

“Do you know what else is a hot seller? Romeo and Juliet. Two lovers: great romance. There’s a reason Shakespeare didn’t call it Romeo and Juliet and Dave. Three’s a crowd.”

Phil dismissed the Bard of Avon with a wave. “Shakespeare’s ancient history. We’re talking Young Adults, Gabe, and they want love triangles. Give them one. And Gabe,” he added, “this time it had better not be impossible.”

Gabriel Green drained his cup, crushed it in his fist, and dropped it in the trashcan as he slunk out of his agent’s office. As he gathered his coat and scarf from their hooks on the wall, the secretary asked, “Where to next, Mr. Green?”

“To find a sturdy tree,” he spat, wrapping his scarf tightly around his neck.

When Gabriel returned to his apartment, he left his winter clothes in a heap on the floor and went straight to the kitchen to brew coffee. Then, reluctantly, he fished a cell phone out of his pants pocket, sifted through his contacts, and selected a number labeled BARBARA.

“Gaby Baby!” cried a breathy voice on the other end of the line.

Gabriel cringed. “Hello, Barbara.”

“When will you learn to call me Babs like everyone else in the universe? Oh, never mind. You haven’t called in forever, Gaby.”

Gabriel,” he corrected. “I’ve been busy: the life of a writer, you know.”

“That’s no reason not to call your big sister now and then,” she pouted. “What do you need? I’m sure you’re not calling because you miss me.”

“I miss you lots,” he lied, “but my reason for calling is that I have some questions about, um, teen romance novels.”

He pulled away the phone from his ear as shrill laughter rang from the earpiece. “You’re writing a teen romance?” gasped his sister. “I never thought I’d see the day.”

“Since you read a lot of romances,” he persisted, “I thought you might, um, have some pointers.”

“Sex!” she exclaimed. “Put in lots of sex.”

“For heaven’s sake, Barbara, I’m writing for teens. They don’t need sex.”

“But they sure want it,” she replied, and giggled.

“These are the times that try men’s souls,” he muttered, and added more loudly, “Moving on, dear sister, what sort of things do writers put in romance novels?”

“Besides sex? Well, the main characters have to be beautiful. The gal should be adorably awkward and clumsy—are you writing this down?—and the guy should have abs, and maybe be a werewolf or a vampire or something.”

“Barbara, I’ve got to go,” said Gabriel. “Something is boiling over on the stove.”

“Wait! Before you go, let me recommend some romances for you. In the Light of the Blood Moon is good, and so is Once Bitten, Twice Loved, and Only a Farm Girl.”

“All right—thanks—bye,” he said, and stuffed his phone back in his pocket. The stove top lay before him, cold and empty, and he grinned crookedly. “A lie is an abomination before the Lord, and an ever-present help in time of trouble. Ah, coffee’s done.”

After a few cups of coffee and a humiliating trip to the library, Gabriel threw himself onto his sofa and picked up Once Bitten, Twice Loved: the first of a short stack of teen romances.

“As Leonard lay burning with fever,” he read aloud from the middle of page sixty-three, “Isabelle sat beside him, her eyes shining with compassion. His hard, flat chest heaved with the effort of breathing. She stroked his raven-black hair. ‘I love you,’ she whispered, but as the words left her lips, she thought guiltily of Alexander. His soft brown eyes and warm smiled filled her mind.

“I think,” added Gabriel, dropping Once Bitten, Twice Loved, “I’m going to be sick.” He lay back on the sofa and closed his eyes. “I can’t do this. It’s impossible.” Sitting up again, he cast a venomous glance at the stack of romances on the stand beside the sofa, and then moseyed to the window. Snow was falling in the dying light.

“I can’t do this,” he repeated slowly. “It’s impossible.” His face brightened. “I can’t do this!” he exclaimed, and laughed. “It’s impossible!”

Six months later, Gabriel Green found himself sitting across the desk from Phil Lector, sipping old coffee from a foam cup, and looking at his hands.

“Gabe, Gabe, what am going to do with you?” asked his agent, holding up a newspaper. “Ink Blot Quarterly reviewed your book. Listen to this: ‘Gabriel Green’s latest opus, Romeo and Juliet and Dave, is a ruthless satire of contemporary romance novels. It spares no fault or foible of the genre, and deconstructs the concept of love triangles with vindictive glee.’ I could go on, Gabe, but you get the idea.”

“Did it sell?” asked Gabriel.

“Well, yes,” admitted Phil, and burst into a laugh. “Your book sold in the thousands. You struck gold, you magnificent bastard.”

Gabriel smiled. “Language, Phil.”

“It’s not too early to think about your next book. I hear dystopian fiction is pretty hot in the Young Adult market these days. How does something post-apocalyptic sound?”

Gabriel grabbed the end of his necktie and pulled it upward, pretending to hang himself.

“Excellent!” exclaimed his agent, beaming. “I want the first chapter on my desk next Tuesday.”


Author’s Note:

I’ve been reading the Hunger Games trilogy lately. It has become a pop culture phenomenon, so I decided to find out what all the fuss is about. The books are full of intrigue, near escapes, and… romantic tension. Of course.

The love triangle in the Hunger Games books set me thinking about the ubiquity of complicated romances in Young Adult fiction. That made me want to poke fun at the concept; that, in turn, reminded me of a snarky little story I once wrote poking fun at a literary trend.

This seemed like a fine time for a sequel to “A Portrait of the Artist as a Performing Monkey,” so I brought Gabriel Green out of retirement and put him through a new gauntlet of discomforts. The title of this story, like the last, is a pun on a famous literary work. I would like to chronicle further misadventures of Gabriel Green in a series of short stories, but I’m not sure how many I could write before they became repetitive. At any rate, this one was fun to write!

Thanks for reading!

365. Collectible Card Games

A few days ago, as I chatted with a dear friend from Ecuador, our conversation turned to his brave but ill-fated attempts to teach me to play a collectible card game. Years ago in Quito, my friend and I sat down with colorful packs of Magic: The Gathering cards. He wanted to teach me to play; I wanted to learn to play. It seemed simple enough.

However, there were two things neither of us considered. That first is that I am easily distracted. The second is that I have a deplorable memory: especially in the case of rules and systems. As my friend, whom I’ll call Socrates, explained the rules of the game, I flipped through his cards, looking at the pretty pictures and reading incomprehensible bits and pieces of game instructions.

Magic The Gathering cards

The rules for most collectible card games are only slightly less comprehensible than Finnegans Wake. (I’m sorry; I can’t help making lit jokes occasionally.) The pictures are nice, though!

When Socrates and I tried playing a round of Magic: The Gathering, I asked him an average of thirty-seven questions per turn. We gave up in the end, opting for Mario Kart or Super Smash Bros. or some other game that wasn’t so far beyond my feeble intellect.

For years, I could hardly sit down at a table without having to brush away collectible cards. My friends in middle and high school collected cards from all kinds of games: Magic: The Gathering, which featured fantasy elements in the vein of Dungeons & DragonsPokémon, starring Nintendo’s cutesy Pocket Monsters; World of Warcraft, which had leaped from computers to tabletops; and Yu-Gi-Oh!, which featured the most egregious anime hair I have ever seen.

Yu-Gi-Oh! hair

Yu-Gi-Oh my gosh that hair is horrible.

I never got into collectible card games, except for a brief fascination with Pokémon cards as a kid. I went through what I can only call a Pokémon phase in fifth grade, in which I collected dozens and dozens of cards. I never learned the rules of the game, but that didn’t stop me from playing it with friends. Fortunately, my friends were as clueless as I, and our card games turned into anarchic free-for-alls with rules made up as we needed them. (It was sort of like Calvinball.)

I’m not sure what happened to all of my Pokémon cards. They probably slipped away to whatever inscrutable corner of the world swallowed up Amelia Earhart.

Pokemon cards

To this day, I have not forgotten the value of a holographic Charizard.

Since I finished high school, collectible cards seem to have vanished from my life, though news occasionally reaches me. I hear there’s a new My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic collectible card game making the rounds, and Magic: The Gathering seems to be doing well. World of Warcraft cards have been replaced by an online card game. The anime hair in Yu-Gi-Oh! is probably just as bad as it was eight years ago, but I’m too disinterested to find out.

I enjoy looking at them, but I don’t plan to buy collectible cards any time soon. My money must go to necessities like rent, gas, coffee, and food. Besides, my life is complicated enough without the unintelligible rules and instructions for card games! If I tried to learn all the rules to a new game, I would probably lose whatever sanity I have left, and end up eating grass like old Nebuchadnezzar. No card is worth that!

Well… a Charizard might be; I suppose it depends on whether it’s holographic.

364. Why Guest Posts Are Awesome

As a blogger, I love guest posts and collaborations with creative people. In fact, over the years, I’ve pestered a number of people either to write posts for me or else to let me write posts for them.

Why is this? Well, hypothetical reader, I’m glad you asked. I’m not sure I’ve ever explained my love of creative collaborations, so here are six reasons why guest posts are awesome.

Guest posts offer a refreshing variety of styles and views.

My blog is written with a particular style from a specific perspective, and it probably gets old. Guest writers bring their own unique views, styles, and stories. As wise Uncle Iroh reminds us, “It is important to draw wisdom from many different places. If you take it from only one place, it becomes rigid and stale.”

Iroh

Uncle Iroh is an inexhaustible fount of wisdom. He also makes great tea.

Guest posts can explore subjects I can’t.

Following up on the first point, I must acknowledge that my experiences and expertise are limited. Guest writers offer more than just changes of view and style. They can discuss subjects about which I know nothing.

For example, I am an introvert, and I once wrote about it. It was impossible for me to explore extroversion, the opposite characteristic, but another blogger graciously shared her thoughts on it. Readers were able to explore both sides of the subject, even though I was qualified to discuss only one.

Guest posts work to the mutual advantage of bloggers.

When I write a post for another blog, not only do I reach a new audience, but I share that blog with my own audience via social media. This often works both ways. When I share guest posts, I introduce my readers to new writers, and those writers sometimes introduce my blog to their own readers. Guest posts are a kind of creative symbiosis.

Creative collaboration is symbiotic, like clownfish and anemones. Wait, this is a terrible metaphor. Never mind.

Creative collaboration is symbiotic, like clownfish and sea anemones. Wait, did I just compare blogging to clownfish? What is wrong with me?

Guest posts are posts I don’t have to write.

What’s not to like about that?

Guest posts are a privilege for me to write and share.

I’m honored that guest writers have considered this blog worth their time, effort, and creativity. In the same way, I’m honored that other bloggers have allowed my ramblings to invade their quiet corners of the Internet. Whether I write ’em or share ’em, I consider guest posts a privilege.

Guest posts strengthen a sense of community.

Neil Gaiman once observed that “writing is, like death, a lonely business.” Guest posts are a welcome respite from the solitary grind of blogging. They bring bloggers out of isolation and into a larger community of writers and readers.

If you ever feel like tossing a guest post in my general direction, or want a guest post for your own blog, please feel free to let me know!

Metal Gear Music

This song gives me chills nearly every time I listen to it. From the slow buildup underscored by static, to the epic crescendo and thrashing drums shortly after the two-minute mark, to the soaring conclusion backed by choir and strings—this song is odd and exciting and beautiful, and I love it.

This music comes from Metal Gear Solid 2 of all places. (It’s a strange game.) The creator of the Metal Gear Solid series, Hideo Kojima, is basically the video game industry’s Quentin Tarantino. Like Tarantino’s movies, Kojima’s games are violent and campy as all heck, yet stylish, complex, and compelling. This song, with its unusual blend of orchestra, drums, and electronic music, suits Metal Gear Solid perfectly.

I hear Kojima recently left the Metal Gear Solid series, which is a shame. I also realize I have yet to play Metal Gear Solid 4. One of these days.

363. About Storytelling: Shock Value Is Overrated

This blog post discusses subjects exploited for shock value in fiction, including atrocities like torture and sexual violence. I have done my best to address these subjects in an appropriate way, yet sensitive readers may want to give this post a miss.

There has been a lot of buzz lately over Game of Thrones and its sexual violence. I’ve never watched Game of Thrones, yet I’ve gathered the impression that it is not—to put it as gently as possible—a family-friendly show.

That looks... familiar.

This picture looks… familiar.

Some weeks ago, the controversy over the show inspired a sensible article explaining why subjects like rape must be handled very carefully by storytellers. (I would link to the article, but I can’t find it.) The gist was that rape is a monstrous crime and should not be taken lightly.

Can such atrocities be used effectively in fiction? Of course they can. Are such atrocities used effectively in fiction? Far too often, they are not. Subjects like rape, torture, and pedophilia are sometimes used by storytellers merely for shock value. Such atrocities are a cheap way to make a villain seem evil, a setting seem dark, or story seem gritty and “mature.”

Here are a few problems with such a shallow approach.

Stories that include heinous crimes too often focus on the criminals and ignore the victims.

If storytellers have the guts to depict a vicious crime, they had better also have the guts to show its effects on its victims. Using an atrocity like rape or torture for shock value, but glossing over its horrific consequences, is not only disrespectful—it’s bad storytelling. The cost of such crimes is too great to be ignored.

Shallow or tasteless use of monstrous crimes in fiction is deeply disrespectful to real-life victims of those crimes.

Before depicting a shocking crime, storytellers should ask themselves: What if anyone in my audience has been a victim of this crime? What will that person think of this scene? Fiction can explore atrocities in a meaningful way, but using them merely for shock value is cruelly disrespectful to those who have suffered them in real life.

There are endless ways to depict evil or depravity in fiction without using horrific atrocities as a cheap shortcut.

In my twenty-something years, I’ve read a lot of disturbing books: Lord of the FliesMausHeart of Darkness, and The Road, among others. (Twilight was equally horrifying, but for entirely different reasons.) These novels are chilling in their depiction of evil. So far as I can remember, none of them relies on torture, sexual perversions, or sexual violence for shock value. The depravity of humankind isn’t limited to these atrocities!

Shock value has its place in storytelling, but it must be treated with caution. Using shock as schlock, treating monstrous crimes as shortcuts to edgy storytelling, is a terrible mistake. Shock value can be used effectively—but it must be used carefully.