2018 Reading log

A lot of specialized nonfiction this past year, but also a new fiction series, the Invisible Library, that is just really good.

Roughing It – Mark Twain

Twain’s account of his post-steamboat days, when he set off with his brother for Mormon Utah, then migrated to the silver mines of Nevada, then to San Francisco and onwards to Hawaii. Along the lines of Life on the Mississippi and Innocents Abroad, the book is a combination autobiography, travel report, and collection of yarns. Combined with Twain’s raw enthusiasm for the societies and natural wonders he tells about, it’s a great read. It is the first time I’ve seen actual evidence of Twain being racist against Indians. I read the imageless Gutenberg version, which I recommend because it looks like there might be a tarantula illustration in the “full” edition.

The Club of Queer Trades – G.K. Chesterton

A bit of overlap with the Chesterton collection I read last year. These short stories revolve around Chesterton’s detective figure, Basil Grant, a former judge who went a little nutty. The premise is that each story involves someone who has invented a genuinely new trade to make a living by. These stories are less atmospheric than the previous collection, but also more story-ish and less cold demonstration, and still written very sharply with the occasional philosophical observation thrown in for spice.

Shut Up and Eat Your Snowshoes – Jack Douglas, 1970

“Where do you find these?” – KJ

Douglas, a Hollywood humorist, relocates from Connecticut to a lake deep in the middle of Nowhere, Ontario to get away from civilization. He takes along his soon-to-be-pregnant Japanese wife, their son, two dogs, a cougar, and five wolves. As you can expect, there are a lot of close encounters with death in the form of blizzards, undrivable roads, adventurous biplane pilots, escapees from a prison farm, and wizened strippers. And the traditional caretaker who largely takes care of himself.

The struggle to adjust to their new life is entertaining, but one feels sympathy for the wife and son that the writer doesn’t seem to share. Douglas seems to have a little too much of the traditional “I am the head of the family and that settles it” mindset, to the point that it takes the edge off the humor at times. What can I say, it’s hard coming down from Mark Twain. Douglas also works a little bluer than I would like and throws in plenty of entertainment industry names to make sure the book is good and dated. Overall though, it is entertaining.

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry – Gabrielle Zevin

This is a novel about a closed-minded, unpleasant widower who runs a bookstore on a small island off the eastern U.S. coast. Into his life come an optimistic, open-minded publisher’s rep and a precocious orphan left in his store (leading him to search the web for ‘how does a father clean his daughter’s private parts without looking like a pervert’). This could have been painted in bright Hallmark movie primaries and concluded with a wedding or two, but it does neither. It’s a fairly fast read with some substance and unpleasantness to keep it grounded, with the prose remaining neutral and well-paced (and present tense) to balance all the Hallmark story elements. There’s talking about books and living with books and even a dash of detective novel, all of which are very welcome.

It’s a story about our relationship to books and about finding what matters in life and making the best of it, without ever coming out and saying so until the very end. Each chapter is prefaced with a short commentary on a book, which on first glance mirrors the protagonist’s worldview at that point of the story, but has further meaning as the story progresses.

Thought-provoking, warm in spite of the tragedic elements, and very enjoyable. It’s going to stick with me. If only because I’m not sure how “The Celebrated Jumping Frog” qualifies as “proto-post-modern”.

The Word Detective: Searching for the Meaning of It All at the Oxford English Dictionary – John Simpson

Simpson takes us through his career at the Dictionary, starting back in the ’70s during a supplemental update. He starts his job by combing books for new quotations and words, moves on to writing entries, and is gradually given more power until he winds up as a chief editor during the computerization, internetization, and eventual total revamp of the dictionary during the ’80s – ’10s. I came away feeling that I understood the life of a lexicographer (past and present) well. Partly to that end, Simpson scatters etymologies of quite a few words of interest throughout the narrative, such as AIDS (written and re-written as usage changed during the ’80s), balderdash, or crowdsourcing. In the background of the book, but certainly not his life, is a daughter who has never mentally developed beyond a pre-verbal toddler.

Apparently there have been a lot of books written about the OED. This is a good one, very accessible without being shallow.

Embattled Dreams: California in War and Peace, 1940 – 1950 – Kevin Starr

A moderately scholarly work that divides into chapters by year, with each chapter generally focusing on one or two topics prevalent in that year. It starts with America’s deliberate attempt to ignore the War during 1940 and ends with Californians (the University in particular) under investigation for Communist ties. In between one finds the fifty-year war California carried on against Japan (and, when the Japanese had been decamped, the war against immigrant Mexicans and blacks), the bustling wartime industry that swelled California’s population and economy, Hollywood using the war to become an American institution, the influence of Hearst newspapers, and many individuals such as Earl Warren and Richard Nixon. There’s also a lot of examination of the sociopolitical underpinnings of specific movies and books.

The author has an apparent liberal bias, but it mainly comes out as a bit of a preoccupation with “democratic socialistic” policies (such as those implemented by the wartime aircraft industry). I wouldn’t notice it otherwise. The book seems even-handed overall and well-researched, with the author investigating accused individuals’ Communist histories, whether innocent or up to their necks, even as it’s implicitly understood that much of the Red Scare was damaging for America. A very colorful decade for one of the nation’s most influential states. The book’s main shortcoming is the lack of semicolons.

The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606 – James Shapiro

I expected an overview of the minutiae of early 17th century London society, but no. This book is largely about major events surrounding the year 1606, and their effects on the plays Shakespeare wrote that year: King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra. The Gunpowder Plot and its fallout receive especial attention. Shapiro traces themes and ideas, as well as lines of dialogue, back to the events, earlier plays, and King James’s humors that Shakespeare drew upon for inspiration. There’s a lot more “current events” going on in Shakespeare’s plays than I had imagined to suspect. That random drunken porter in Macbeth, for example, is alluding to the contemporary discovery that Jesuits were teaching English Catholics how to “equivocate” in order to hide priests from the authorities. Antony and Cleopatra turns the then-unquestioned “Cleopatra was a hussy who made a fool out of Antony” narrative on its head to draw on the rising sense of nostalgia for Elizabeth’s reign. Some idea of the overall performance culture of the time is also given. It’s good.

The Lost Plot – Genevieve Cogman

Irene Winters is a Librarian in the Library, which is a giant library that exists outside the multiverse. The multiverse is ruled partly by Dragons, who like order, and partly by Fae, who like chaos (this is simplistic). They don’t particularly like each other. The Library needs to stay absolutely neutral while it goes about its mission of acquiring books from all those multiverses. Irene goes about this task aided by her Librarian powers and her handsome assistant librarian.

So that’s the (hopefully) spoiler-free background for this, the fourth book in a series. In this installment, Irene finds out that a fellow Librarian on another world may be interfering in Dragon politics, which could set all the Fae and many of the Dragons to war against the Library. Her desperate task is to get in there (she lands in a 1920s America where the mob is very powerful), find out what’s going on, and get any shenanigans snuffed out without a hint getting out to taint the Library’s perceived neutrality. And if captured, the Library will deny everything.

It’s a smart book about smart people in conflict with each other with desperate stakes for everyone involved, with quick thinking and plot twists to get in and out of danger. I really enjoyed it thoroughly and will be reading the first three books as I come across them. A few spoilers for previous books, so you should start the series at the beginning.

The Invisible Library — Genevieve Cogman

Just as entertaining as the first book I read, which is technically the fourth in the series. This one takes place in an alternate, semi-magical London with dirigibles, a Holmesian detective, and most of the backstory I mentioned above. No tedious backstory or “early installment weirdness” here, but plenty of action and intrigue and villainous villains. And plot twists, most of which I didn’t see coming because the story was moving too thick and fast for me to move beyond living in the moment. Which is how I like my plot twists. Really looking forward to #s 2 and 3. I would not be surprised if these books got picked up for, say, a movie or a streaming series.

One of Our Thursdays Is Missing — Jasper Fforde

Another book-about-books, this one from a series I had vaguely realized existed. Usually I can get away with not picking out the first in the series, but this one kept me confused for a while. It was worth the read though.

There is a “BookWorld”, which exists of metaphysical books and characters who act out the books for readers. These characters have their own lives too? So if you were to visit there, you wouldn’t actually meet David Copperfield, you’d meet the character currently playing David Copperfield. Anyway, at the start of the book you get hit with a lot of cleverness that is confusing if you’ve been silly enough to pick this book up without reading previous books, then there’s a really funny bit about Crime and Punishment, and then the BookWorld is reformed by its governing body into an actual world, with actual geography, with books sorted into various genre-nations. After that, the actual plot starts.

The main character is called Thursday Next. She’s not the original, and this is where I was confused for half the book. I guess the original Thursday Next was a character who went out into the real world and then wrote about her BookWorld adventures there? Anyway, she had the main character take over acting out her books because she (the original) wanted her books less racy and violent. And that’s one of the main character’s problems: she wants to follow the original’s wishes, but that means the books are less read, and that means less money and prestige for the characters playing the books, which means her co-actors are perpetually mad at her. And the other major problem is that the original Thursday is missing just before a major peace talk between the Racy Novel, Women’s Lit, and Dogma genres, and the main character needs to find her. This leads to humor, cleverness-that’s-not-necessarily-funny, zaniness, poignancy, and a robot butler as the main character explores her world and the real world, with the secret police always on her trail.

Did I mention there’s a bad-tempered dodo and a real-world Cheese Mafia that’s played completely straight?

It’s hard to describe, and as you can imagine the moods don’t always cohere elegantly, but it’s quite entertaining, and this is certainly another series to which I will return.

Visions of Infinity: The Great Mathematical Problems – Ian Stewart

Whilst looking for a book someone else had read, I saw this title instead and took an interest. I have a book with a similar theme, Journey Through Genius, about distilling great theorems down to proofs that anyone with a bare minimum of high school math can appreciate (with some biography and historical context thrown in for funsies). I really like that book so I picked this one up. This one is much more focused on the math than my book but very readable and, for me, only slightly less accessible. It’s a much more flowing book, interested in following the trail from one mathematical discipline through another up to whatever major discovery or unsolved problem the chapter is about, and then often running ahead a bit for good measure. It’s from 2013 so pretty current. I recommend both books unless you’re past their levels.

Looking at the author’s other titles, I see he was a co-writer on the Science of Discworld books. He’s also written things called Another Fine Math You’ve Gotten Me Into and The Mayor of Uglyville’s Dilemma. I’m not sure which set of accomplishments is more impressive.

The Americans: The Colonial Experience – Daniel J. Boorstin

Picked this up at a library sale. It’s a great example of why we need to keep older books around, even if there may be newer books ostensibly covering the same material. You never know what detail an older work might mention that newer sources don’t see fit to include, or what the older work may reveal about its time. From this book, I learned that in 1950s America, self-irony simply did not exist.

The back cover promises stimulating ideas, fresh readings, and controversial points of view . . . so I was a little wary. But the first section of the book is innocuous enough. Boorstin looks at several settlements — Puritans, Quakers, Virginia, and Georgia — and describes the founders’ intentions, the unique aspects of each in practice, and usually what led to eventual “failure”. Even when describing what doomed a settlement, Boorstin typically has a gently positive attitude toward the colonists as he reports objective facts and draws reasonable-looking conclusions. I’m liking this so far.

The second and third sections are where it gets a little hairy. The main problem with Georgia, doncha know, was that the people running it from far-off Britain had unrealistic expectations for it (a massive silk industry because why not) and never learned different. Fair enough. Well, that pattern is magnified in the middle of the book, where America is just so wonderful and different and Europe is so stodgy. And . . . that’s pretty much the repeating theme here. While Europe suffered from guilds, in America everyone had to be the “undifferentiated man”: a little bit lawyer, a little bit doctor, a little bit everything. In America those nasty, imposed strata among lawyers and doctors never developed. Colonial America never had great or learned scientists, philosophers, or writers, but that’s okay because everyone in America was too busy discovering new species and observing practical human nature to bother with categorization or abstract philosophies. And so on.

Most of these contrasts between New World and Old are fine on their own, and stand reasonably well, especially the point that American “medicine” was largely free from the often destructive leechcraft of European doctors. But the theme just gets so repetitive, and Boorstin reiterates individual assertions, to the point that it all comes off as needlessly anti-intellectual. American shortcomings are noted neutrally or in a “admittedly, but” manner, while European ways are always a thing to be free of. If there had been just a little sense of wry irony it would have all been tolerable. I actually decided during this section that I would look Boorstin up on the Web to see if he was well-regarded or considered a crackpot.

Possibly the most heated controversy in this book is to be found in Boorstin’s urging that European influences traditionally credited for certain American innovations be largely disregarded, because the thing was already happening in America. Boorstin does not look to contemporary Europe or ancient Athens for the inspiration for American democracy, but rather to colonial Virginia, where voting was limited to aristocratic landowners who had to be capable and intelligent to make their fortunes. And because of their experience in this, Virginian Founding Fathers trusted republicanism.

The third section, mostly less cheerleadery, deals with American literary culture: varying stresses on religion and practical matters across the board, with pamphlets and newspapers far outnumbering works of fiction. Boorstin also discusses why the colonies never had a single “ultimate” cultural center like London or Paris. It further comes out that printing presses were very rare, so that authorities could squelch uncomfortable opinions quite readily, and in fact several Founding Fathers were strongly in favor of maintaining such a controlled press. (Paper was also very rare, and a British increase of its taxation stirred up the printers against the mother country.)

The last, short section is back to a reasonable objectivity, largely looking at the differences in professionialism between American militia and European professional soldiers. One recognizes much the same attitude that would appear in the Civil War decades later, much stronger here, with soldiers electing their own officers and militiamen tending to show up to fight when they felt like it, and heading home when the fighting seemed over. A strong provincialism kept colonies from helping each other with fighting, whether against Indians or redcoats, which frustrated the British and later Washington.

Overall a good read, aside from the sense of overbearing rah-rah Americanism and anti-elitism in the middle. Wikipedia says Boorstin was respected enough to win a Pulitzer and head the Library of Congress, and interesting enough to spend several paragraphs talking about his politics and philosophy.

This is also the only new book I read this year in which I didn’t catch a typo or wrong grammar (titled != entitled, folks).

The Map That Changed The World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology – Simon Winchester

KJ picked this up for me at a library sale. It is what it says: a popular* biography of William Smith, a surveyor with a passion for rocks who, from his years of experience in the field, developed a map of the crust beneath Britain and published it, inventing a new science in the process and starting a tide that would overturn Bishop Whomever’s notion that the Earth was only a few thousand years old (I had no idea that was as widely accepted as it evidently was). Thanks to his lowly ancestry, a few bad financial choices, and bad luck, it didn’t secure him much acclaim until late in life. He even spent a short time in debtor’s prison. The book feels like it could have been a bit meatier somehow(?), and the author suffers an attack of colons about midway through, but it’s a good and informative read.

* The author says a more serious bio was coming out soon

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Roald Dahl

If I’ve read this before, I don’t remember a single detail, so it counts as a new read. The first few pages took me off guard as to how talk-downy they were, but otherwise it’s all the sort of wacky inventiveness I expect from Dahl. I was surprised that the Oompa-Loompas sing in the book, too (though not the movie songs). Very fast-paced due to telling much of the story through dialogue, and of course being a children’s book. A few good bits that didn’t turn up in the movie, but the movie got pretty much all the best bits in some way or another, and then Gene Wilder turned the character of Willy Wonka up a couple of notches. My third grade teacher didn’t approve of how the original movie changed the book, but I think it was a very faithful adaptation by Hollywood standards.

Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials that Shape Our Man-Made World – Mark Miodownik

A Christmas gift from my parents. Mr. Mark Miodownik is a professor of materials science and society, and it turns out that’s an excellent background for writing a popular science book about the materials we take for granted (or may soon embrace) in modern civilization: steel, various carbons, chocolate, and six other materials plus a chapter on the expanding world of biomaterials. Miodownik clearly and simply describes how these materials are found or made, what gives them their properties that make them so essential, and their role in society now and through the ages. There’s a lot of talk of crystals, for example, without digressions into vectors or the subvarieties of lattice structures. A very good read if you want to appreciate materials science more.

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NaNoWriMo, Days 17 and 30: Oh, is the plot starting?

Chapter 2

I awoke with my legs freezing.

I groaned and reached down for the covers I must have kicked off during the night and grabbed a handful of nothing.

Well, this was starting out as a very good day. I lay there, sleepily waiting for the alarm to go off, and savored the dreams I’d had the previous night. Eventually I realized several things. One was that my internal clock was telling me the alarm should have sounded by now. The other was that my legs were freezing because the AC was blowing directly on them. I have never had an air-conditioning vent in the ceiling of my bedroom. On top of that, the background noise just *sounded* wrong somehow. I opened my eyes and looked around and found that, as you may have guessed, I was not in my bedroom. Just a simple rectangular room with basic walls and no windows.

I didn’t panic. I probably wasn’t awake enough to panic. But I was freaking out a little, I’ll admit. I could remember last night quite clearly enough to know I should be in my own bedroom. With nothing better to do, I got back into bed to consider my options, and realized that I wasn’t wearing my bedclothes either. The clothes I was wearing weren’t mine at all. I began to seriously consider the idea that I had been kidnapped or drugged. Why anyone would do such a thing was beyond me. I wasn’t exactly the President of the United States, after all.

The door behind me opened, and I turned to confront my kidnapper, a sharp fear washing over me. But then I was confused. It was the second woman from my “alien bar” dream last night. I didn’t mention her before because I was busy getting blasted into nonexistence, but as I was falling to the floor, the knowledge came to me, as it does in dreams, that there was one other person in the bar with me, a female I could see over my assailant’s shoulder. And it was this person. Somehow.

MST3K 12×01: The not-too-distant future is . . . pretty nice

I didn’t expect that we’d be able to watch the new season for a long while, because it’s streaming-only (I guess MST3k has a . . . reputation) and we have ragged satellite internet, but we tried streaming yesterday and it worked pretty well, so hooray!

Let’s do this!

“I wanna see the movie this composer thought he was scoring.”

The movie: Mac and Me, a title I’ve actually heard of! No, it’s not the one about the dog, that’s Marley and Me. I was confused too

Last season was pretty good. Even the one or two lackluster episodes were pretty okay, and grew on me with rewatching. But this first episode is . . . well, it qualifies as “pretty good” by new standards too, but it’s still an upswing in quality. The riffing is solid throughout. But more than that, everyone’s in the swing of things. All the acting is natural and flows. This is, dare I say it, Frank and Forrester era levels of gelling, even if nothing will top those two. The Mads’ big dramatic revelation of “THE GAUNTLET” was a joy to watch, the total frustration of Jonah’s attempts to tell his escape story was unforced and an entertaining, affectionate troll of the fans expecting a good explanation for his survival, and that first host segment?

That first host segment was pure classic MST3k, taking a trait of the movie that the writers found amusing and running with it. Fun, silly, inexplicable, it played the concept to the hilt without trying too hard.

Props for taking a concerningly short season (because of actors’ prior commitments, I hope, and not because of Netflix not being sold on a top-rated show) and turning it into an asset with the Gauntlet thing.

The movie. Oh, that dialogue is so uninspired. Like, totally uninspired, since I guess they moved to California. There’s one good line, the wheelchair boy complaining about only seeing the ceiling. That was good. The rest was just not good at all, and a lot of the acting was poor too. And those alien costumes. I’m gonna say it: a better movie could have turned those cheesy bug-eyed aliens into an asset. With some of the visual effects that happened, I think there was intended to be some humor there, like when Mac gets smeared across a windshield, but . . . no. You have to handle the movie the same way you handle those costumes and dolls.

And what in the seven nebulas was with that McDonalds party. I just. It’s like they just threw whatever into that scene. They spent more time coming up with things to put in that party than they spent on the dialogue in the entire movie.

Push the button: I am so very pumped for the rest of this season.

NaNoWriMo 2018, Day 17: Nobody ever writes dreams properly in my experience

That night I managed to burn the spaghetti.

The lowly plate of spaghetti isn’t the trendiest food, but I’ve always liked it. It was one of the meals Mom would make when she felt up to doing more than taking us out for hamburgers. Wednesdays I cook spaghetti and watch sitcoms before turning in. Today, as I poured the water into the pot and dumped the spaghetti in, I found my thoughts returning to the sympathetic woman. I’d been right, she was a regular, though she’d never visited my little roost. She’d turned out to be one of those people it is very pleasant to talk to, full of positivity and charm. And very pleasant to look at, too. Was she married? I could guess either way on that. She wasn’t giving off the usual signals that I could pick up, but that kind usually didn’t. Did she have a ring on? I didn’t remember one, but I hadn’t been looking at her hands.

Something tingled at the back of my mind as I allowed a serious question to come to the forefront. I was a professonal, committed to the job, but, well, maybe it was time? Time to give romance another go? Not with her — Krissie — if she were married, obviously, but was there room in my life at all for a woman?

Unfortunately there was a little too much room in my fridge. That explained my unease: I’d forgotten to thaw the hamburger. And there was more room in the freezer, emptiness where a slab of cow-derived meat should have been. Hmph. Maybe pork would work?

One of the benefits of working in a supermarket is that you never have to go anywhere after work to buy food and other basic commodities. The flipside is it’s embarrassing when you get home and realize you needed to pick something up.

Pondering dinner, I headed into the next room and turned on the TV, just in time for the opening credits for “The Angie Show”. They ended, as always, with Angie Angelsdottir’s character smiling radiantly into the camera. I might be married to the job, but I’d happily go on a date or two with a woman like Angie for the chance to have her smile at me like that. Krissie had had a nice smile too, when I had straightened out her confusion over not finding condensed milk in the refrigerated dairy section. A very warm, lingering smile, pointed at me. I’d had half a mind to tell off the stockers for being as unable to help as she’d claimed they were, but it seemed a waste of a fifteen. And anyway I’d gotten a nice thing out of it. Maybe I would find out, if I ever had a chance, whether she were married.

Oh, this looked like a good episode. Angie had received a terminal diagnosis and was going to convince her husband to let her become a rodeo rider. Angie was such a hopeless city girl, and her urges to visit the country were always gold. I watched happily, mind partly elsewhere, as the spaghetti boiled down and stuck to the pan.

***

That night I dropped off to sleep easily, but my dreams were more frenetic than usual. The recurring dream about getting off the bus at high school only to find myself naked, but this time there was a parade going by, with Chewbacca waving from the parade marshal’s car, and suddenly I was pulled into the procession and a drum thrust into my hands. I did my best, but the parade crashed to a stop because I couldn’t keep the beat, and everyone lined up with dark scowls on their faces, anxious, I knew, to yell at me. Then I was an office worker, rushing about a bewildering maze of claustrophobic cubicles, blindly snatching up and passing out wads of generic office documents — only to find myself in the boss’s office. The boss, a round, bald man in his fifties, flapped his red striped tie at me as he yelled about my lack of effort and fired me, despite my pleadings to keep the job I had no idea how to do. Then I found myself high in a mountain fortress, opening a sarcophagus I knew was cursed, and finding an impossible tunnel inside the head part. From out of the tunnel, into the room, rolled a giant boulder that was actually a humongous orange, and it chased me down a series of ancient passages, never gaining, never falling behind.

You know that thing where you’re dreaming, and you kinda recognize deep down that you’re dreaming, but then you forget and live the dream as if it were real? That was going on for me, and deep down I unwound a little when the next dream started and I found myself in sort of a seventies idea of a small space alien bar. White and off-white everything, simple furniture, no clutter. The actual bar, to my right, had nobody behind it. I was aware of a few presences off to my left, but there was the exit ahead at eleven o’clock, and a table against the interior wall leading to it that had my name on it. I went over and sat down.

There were pumps and spigots set into the table, sort of like ketchup dispensers in fast food restaurants, and buttons on the wall to serve as a self-serve menu. Kinda like a vending machine. There were the vodkas, there were the whiskeys, there were the beers. With a vague idea that I wanted a Budweiser, I raised my hand and punched in what felt like a predetermined series of commands, even though it should have been one button, one drink. A plastic cup appeared in front of me and the spigot poured bright green. I felt embarrassed; I’d accidentally gotten myself a whiskey. Nothing to do except drink it. I lifted the glass carefully, trembling I knew not why, and felt something pointed and metal poke into the side of my skull.

I turned to find one of the presences from earlier holding a ray gun against me. She was tall, black-haired, beautiful, commanding, and disappointingly human aside from the goofy helmet she wore that I knew marked her as a bounty hunter. She was also terrifyingly angry, or I would have enjoyed the James Bond-ish drama my mind had conjured.

“So!” she sneered. “You rebels thought you could set up such a clever little meeting here, did you? I got all your friends, and now I’ve got you too!” And she pressed the gun’s trigger, ray gun energy poured through my shuddering body, and the world went black as I died and the dream ended.

NaNoWriMo 2018 Days 3, 17: . . . but it’s never stopped me

Chapter 1

Now’s the part where I bore you with my entire life story. Except I’m not going to tell you all about my idyllic childhood, spent chasing butterflies and playing baseball under a golden sun every day, coming home to a loving family every night. I had a rough childhood actually, in the small town of Plonksbury. Dad came home every night, roaring drunk on life, and beat us soundly at chess. Mom worked as a cook. She was a great cook, could’ve worked at any number of fancy hotels around the world, as long as they didn’t mind her penchant for putting chili powder in everything. She would come home worn out from a long day of standing around and she’d refuse to cook for us, and Dad never met a pot of spaghetti he didn’t burn, so dinner was always McDonalds or Golden Corral or delivery pizza. How I longed to be a normal child like everyone else at school, with a mother who made the same boring thing night after night. But they both loved me, in their own ways.

I know you want to hear less about Happy Meals and more about alien spaceships, so I’ll cut to the chase and give you just a few brief incidents from my childhood that defined who I am today. The first occurred when I was seven. It was the end of August, the end of a summer vacation I had not yet learned to value. The ice cream truck came dinging along toward our street, and I was filled with desire. I had never really thought about that truck before — it was just part of the Plonksbury landscape — but now, as naturally as if it had always been so, I connected the concept of that truck with the concept of me eating ice cream. So I dropped the tennis ball I had been throwing against the garage and ran inside. Dad was at the dinner table, doing the Sunday crossword puzzle upside-down as usual.

“The ice cream truck is coming!” I shouted at him. “The ice cream truck is coming! Can I have ice cream Dad? Please?!”

Dad looked up from his puzzle, looked me square in the eyes, and said, “No.”

“But Daaad –” I whined.

“You don’t need ice cream,” he said, and went back to his puzzle.

I lost my innocence that day. I learned the hard way that you have to depend on yourself if you want to get anything in this world. I dwelt upon this lesson all through the school year, and the next summer I got a job delivering newspapers to the local nursing home. I threw myself into my work, and before the end of summer I had been promoted to also delivering papers to the other nursing home in town, the big stylish one that held refugees from the clamor of the big city. I learned a second lesson then: you have to work hard if you want people to let you get ahead in this world. Breaking the other delivery boy’s leg helps too.

I learned a third lesson as well, that I hate ice cream with nuts in it, but you probably don’t care about that one.

***

Another life lesson occurred in high school, where I guess everyone learns a few life lessons. I was a pretty decent student — I studied and I got B’s in English and passed everything else, except for the interpretive dance elective I took because the shop teacher came down with an acute case of wanderlust and spent that year in Sweden and Norway. But I had no luck with the girls. Even then I was a bit rugged-looking, so I thought I’d go the manly route grow out a nice big beard like you see on mountain men. That was harder than I expected. Months passed and I barely had half an inch, which was better than the fuzz I started out with, but made eating feel really weird. But senior year came and I had my eye on Jess, who was tall and vivacious and dark-haired down to here, as well as other qualities one doesn’t discuss in public. So I worked up my courage and got on friendly terms with her, and after a couple of weeks I asked her to the prom.

“Uh,” she said, and my quivering heart dropped a few inches just at the sound of that word, “no, thanks, Steve. I don’t think I could kiss a guy with a beard.”

“I, I could shave it off, if that bothers you I mean–” I stuttered, with more desperation in my voice than I wanted.

“No, I like you okay, but I just, the beard would always be there in my mind you know?” she said. There was an uncomfortable moment of silence, and then she returned to talking about her snorkeling trip to California in a way that showed it hadn’t been uncomfortable at all for her.

So I went home and shaved off the beard and, after nearly a week, asked her to the prom again. She turned me down. I guess the beard really was still there in her mind. Or maybe she had her eye on the quarterback, whom she eventually married and had three boys and a coffee shop with. Anyway, I went to my backup choice, Mandy. Mandy wasn’t all that much to look at, but we got along okay and she seemed like the kind of girl a guy could settle down with. Plus, we’d kinda felt like we were starting to connect in a good way. Plus the odds of anyone else having asked her out were pretty low.

You know what happened? I bet you can guess. I came up to her front door that Saturday and knocked on her door. Fortunately she came to the door, it would have been awkward if her dad had answered. He scared me.

“Oh, hi Stevie,” she said (my childhood name). “What happened to the beard?”

“I, uh, shaved it off,” I said. “Look, prom is coming and I was wondering if–”

“I really liked that beard,” she said. “I was getting into you and I would have loved to go with you to prom but now that I see you without a beard I just don’t know.” She didn’t actually say that, Mandy wasn’t rude, but I could read it in her face. Mandy had a very expressive face. It got to where I could tell exactly what was in her hand when we played Go Fish. But I asked her to the prom anyway, and she accepted, but the reluctance in her voice boded ill. Prom was fun in itself, but the budding warmth in our relationship was gone, and we drifted apart. The lesson from all this was that sometimes you can’t guess how to please people, so don’t go out of your way, just do what you want. I’ve never tried to grow facial hair for anyone since. I never really liked how that beard looked on me anyway.

***

After graduation I went to college in Smooshville on the other side of the state, but it really wasn’t for me. I was ambitious — majored in Cutlery Design with a minor in Ancient Greek Dramatization — but in practice, much of my time was spent with a crowd of fellow small-town boys. We called ourselves the Drake Boys because the Smooshville U mascot was the Drakes and we liked to think we were big men on campus. I had a falling-out after they found me at the zoo, practicing my small talk on a giant panda before a date, and the ribbing got to be a little excessive. After dropping out, I drifted back toward home and wound up working at a supermarket in the big city of Andre, where I guess the story really begins.

This was a local store that had been bought out by a national chain but kept its name for local recognition purposes. Rancid’s had been founded by a man with a very unfortunate last name, but had become the grocery store for a hundred miles around. I started out as a humble bagger, got promoted to clerk within a week, transferred to the deli just long enough to find I hated that, and eventually moved back up front as a Customer Service Manager.

I’d found that I had a knack for dealing with difficult customers. There are only so many types of people in the world; everyone is just a minor variation on one or the other. Once you figure out which type you’re dealing with, it gets much easier to send them away satisfied regardless of whether their little problem is solved or not. In my experience, most people default to being agreeable as long as they aren’t being stressed out. But then you get people who are, well, challenging. Like the woman I was helping now.

“I bought these oranges two days ago,” she was saying in that serious tone of voice and face that tells you you’re in for a doozy. “They’re for my daughter’s wedding tomorrow. But we set them against the reception decorations and they’re a shade too orange. Do you have any that are paler? Maybe a little yellower?”

What do you say to that? You tell her that we only carry one provider of oranges, and store policy is to not accept returns on produce for stupid reasons that aren’t our fault, and if she wants to be so picky maybe she should go to the hardware store up the street and invest in spray paint. And then you remove all the reactions that don’t align with actual store policy and add some that do, and say that instead.

I matched her dead-serious demeanor. “I’m sorry to hear that, ma’am. We only carry regular oranges and organic. They’re both the same shade of orange, I believe. Bright orange is the popular color for oranges to be in this area.”

She’d come at least several miles to fix this terrible problem, and wasn’t going to be thwarted so quickly. “Well, that’s terribly unfortunate. They clash with our periwinkle-and-seashell decor so.” The ball was back in my court, in other words, and was going to keep coming back until her little conundrum was made better.

I stepped in before she felt the need to further say that it was our store’s job in life to kiss her boo-boo all better. “Well, ma’am, it’s store policy not to accept returns on fresh produce, but in your case I’m willing to bend the rules this once. If you would like to head over to the produce and find some yellower oranges to your liking and bring them back with the ones you already bought” — I let just the tiniest hint of a shade of a shadow of an edge hang around my tone in those last few words, but of course she never noticed — “I’ll happily give you an exchange.”

“Thank you so much,” she said. Her demeanor and words were all light and happiness, but her tone was the same old let’s-get-on-with-life as before. But she packed her oranges back up, as the line behind her continued to grow, and she left.

How long was the line now? I glanced over it as I greeted the next customer, a short man who needed to wire money to his son in New York City. A silly thing for a grocery store to focus on, but it brought in money and reduced the chance that corporate was paying any of us to stand around not making them money for ten minutes, so it was something we did. A very I-Am-Businessman guy caught my eye. Three-piece suit, balding, middle-aged, nose buried in his phone, probably worked in the offices a few blocks over and drove whatever make it was fashionable for top executives to drive. Also probably just worked in middle management pushing papers. Keep your suits, mister, it’s the grocery life for me. A woman about my age was looking away from me back at the slip of paper she held, with what looked like the end of a sympathetic expression on her face. A regular, wasn’t she? I thought I’d seen her around before. Fifteen people in line now. I excused myself with Shorty long enough to page Becky to man the third CS register and reached into a drawer for a Western Union slip.