Posted in Books

How not to write a series finale

Warning: Contains major spoilers!

Now I'll Tell You Everything by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor

The 28th and final book of a long-running, much-loved series could be an unforgettable, epic tearjerker, or it could bite off far more than it can chew and leave a bitter aftertaste. Unfortunately, the latter is true with this book. Many readers feel the last few books were running out of steam anyway, but the finale takes it to a whole new level.

This book fell far short of the mark in so many ways.

1. Talk about an unrealistic life of upper-middle-class privilege! How many readers can relate to people who regularly vacation abroad, are able to take six years off work to stay home with the kids before coming back to that same job full-time, get their first and only job fresh out of college, spend two years living in Barcelona, or buy their dream house after leaving an apartment?

2. There are no real struggles, which leads to a lack of conflict. The few roadblocks are resolved quickly and never spoken of again (a broken engagement, attempted rape, breast cancer, problems with a rebellious teen, miscarriage).

3. When the time capsule is opened in the final chapter, Alice’s former classmates (now age 60) speak about how their lives haven’t always been easy, with things like divorce, health crises, and losing jobs. That sure as hell didn’t happen to Alice and her BFFs!

4. Is there a word for a reverse floating timeline, where characters age normally as time alternately stands still and passes faster than they’re aging? The first book was published in 1985, and the finale was 2013. A sixth grader of 1985 would not be texting and using Facebook when heading off to college six years later! The time capsule also has a newspaper with headlines about the USSR. Make up your mind about when this series is supposed to be set!

5. The opposite onomastic error of gut-loading your book with current Top 100 names is gut-loading it with dated names. Sure, we’ve probably all known a few young people with names that were most popular in previous generations, but so many of them in the same circle?

6. How many people nowadays marry at all of 23? Yes, I think the pendulum has swung WAY too far in the other direction from the 1950s, but that doesn’t mean you can ignore trends when writing contemporary.

7. The pacing is really off-kilter. Many times, a couple of years fly by within the span of a paragraph or a single sentence later.

8. Does anyone under 80 still seriously refer to women as Mrs. Husband’s Full Name? Nails on a chalkboard every time I saw that archaic convention in print! And again, for a contemporary story, how could there not be at least one woman who keeps her birth surname or hyphenates? Even the lesbian couple shared a surname!

9. A lot of events which took up an entire chapter or long scene in great detail had no relevance to the overall story arc (as it were), like Alice’s son Tyler having trouble with a urine sample, a one-day temp job at a construction site, and several vacations. Meanwhile things like the two years in Barcelona were rushed through in a few pages.

10. Is this intended for teens or adults? Alice’s college years are a natural subject for YA, but how many teens will connect to her worries about raising kids, caring for an aging in-law, and juggling family and work?

11. It’s kind of confusing to have a dad and daughter named Patrick and Patricia. Bad enough when people do that to twins. Why couldn’t Alice name her daughter Marie after her mom, instead of using that as the middle name? Marie is the most overused female middle name in living memory! It’d feel more special if that were her first name.

12. It feels like fanfiction. After the realistic, difficult issues Alice faces for much of the series, now she has a HEA with the guy she’s liked since sixth grade and smooth sailing through the rest of life.

13. Alice’s college years are really underdeveloped. It would’ve been better to focus on them, in a longer than normal book, and either have an Epilogue summing up what happened after she married Patrick, or put her adult life into a second book where each chapter was a short story.

14. Alice spends much of the series thinking about sex, yet when she finally does it, we get no window into her emotions.

15. Poor character development. New people are thrown at us thick and fast during the college years and all blend together, even Dave, the first guy she slept with and almost married. Even long-standing characters start to feel paper-thin.

I didn’t want a nonstop series of tragedies and traumas, but some conflict and realism would’ve been nice. Maybe Alice could’ve married Dave, reconnected with Patrick years later, and realised she still had feelings for him. Perhaps Alice and Patrick could’ve cheated instead of merely contemplating it. Alice could’ve changed her mind about her career path. Elizabeth could’ve kept having miscarriages and Alice volunteered to be an altruistic surrogate. Postpartum depression. Stage 4 cancer.

Anything but this rushed snoozefest devoid of details.

Posted in Architecture, Books

Yeas and nays of city planning

Setting itself out as “an attack on current city planning and rebuilding,” this book said a lot of radical, shocking things for 1961. Today, however, most of them are regarded as just plain common sense and have long been common practice.

The four main arguments are that, to be successful and vibrant, cities need to be mixed-use, have short blocks, be densely-populated, and have buildings in a range of ages.

Other topics are border vacuums, where best to place landmarks like libraries, the most effective layouts and locations of parks, unslumming (now known as gentrification and usually done by outsiders instead of locals), gradual and cataclysmic money, housing projects, the disastrous effect cars have on cities, and city governance.

While this book has become a blueprint for many modern urbanists, full of wonderful ideas which sadly weren’t considered when they were most desperately needed to nip urban decay in the bud when it was still relatively manageable, there are some issues I had with it.

1. It’s inevitably dated. I wish there were a special edition which laid out everything that’s since been widely implemented and the differences between now and then. E.g., kids just don’t play on sidewalks anymore, certain parks are no longer run-down ghost towns, and many cityscapes are now radically different.

2. I love her “eyes on the street” argument about streets being kept safe by constant watching, but modern society doesn’t enable that well. How many housewives gaze out their windows for hours while kids play stoop ball, and how many busybody “public characters” still exist?

3. Women don’t need their husbands’ permission to go somewhere anymore!

4. Mrs. Jacobs writes of a world where most women are housewives and men are the only ones working. Not exactly applicable to 2020 life.

5. After a certain point, the book starts to feel rather repetitive, the same few points made over and over again in different language.

6. She doesn’t give many citations, just her own observations and theories. I’m told many social science books in the Sixties were like this.

7. Not all cities or neighborhoods develop in the same way, and this isn’t a bad thing. E.g., because Manhattan (her most frequent example) was centered deep downtown and then gradually moved upward, the Upper East and West Sides are predominantly residential and academic.

People choose those neighborhoods to raise families or just have a quieter life for themselves, and thus are consciously rejecting the things she praises so highly about her own West Village. They have no interest in listening to saxophones in the middle of the night, fighting through throngs of kids while walking home from work, or living next to an old warehouse occupied by twenty wildly different businesses!

Part of the draw of the outer boroughs, prior to their mass discovery and gentrification, was this slower pace of life, with more green spaces, less density, and a suburbanesque feel. They cared less The Bronx supposedly had no decent restaurants or Brooklyn businesses closed at 8:00! Believe it or not, some people like that.

8. Likewise, there’s not a very diverse pool of cities represented. While I wouldn’t expect every single major city to be discussed, nor constant hopping back and forth between different cities, it would’ve been more balanced had there been a wider range of examples.

Manhattan is far and away the most discussed, with Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and L.A. also frequently mentioned. Every so often, a city like Baltimore or St. Louis makes an appearance.

Cities develop differently depending on the region. A city which started as a frontier town and has much more space to expand is radically different from one which grew up around an agrarian economy or a densely-populated city with little choice but to expand upward.

9. The Upper West Side, which frequently comes in for condemnation as not diverse enough or laid out properly, beautifully revitalized without chopping up its very long blocks!

10. So what if a landmark like a library doesn’t stand out in purpose and appearance? People know where their own libraries are, even if they look similar to nearby buildings!

11. I agree density is a positive force for diversity and vitality, but too much density is a bad thing. Just look at cities like Delhi or Beijing. No one normal enjoys living like that.

12. Even a city with relatively manageable density needs more than a few high-rises to comfortably accommodate everyone. They’re not inherently negative and impersonal.

13. Unslumming is a lovely ideal, but contrary to human nature. People tend to want to move on up as their socioeconomic situation improves instead of happily staying in the old neighborhood and investing beaucoup bucks into fixing up an old rowhouse or upgrading to a larger apartment.

It’s natural to upgrade to new digs reflecting a new status. Why in the world would someone who’s worked very hard to become middle-class voluntarily stay in a tenement, and why would a self-made millionaire want to stay in a strongly proletarian neighborhood?

14. It’s unnecessarily verbose, and could’ve easily been condensed to half its size, at least.

15. What’s the point of moving Central Park’s carousel and Chess and Checkers House to the borders so more people can use them after dark? Who goes to a park at night, no matter where attractions are located?

16. I fail to see why Garden Cities are so awful. They’re the best of both worlds, a suburbanesque neighborhood in a big city.

17. I don’t get her beef with the City Beautiful movement either. Who could object to beautifying cities and increasing quality of life?

18. Likewise, I didn’t get her issue with “too many” parks. The larger the city, the more parks are necessary. People crave green spaces. If you don’t live in a neighborhood, you’re not in a position to authoritatively declare a park is a failure!

19. Not everyone wants to live in Greenwich Village as it was in 1961. The magic formula for one neighborhood would never work for others, and not everyone wants the same thing out of a city.

20. Her vision of an urban Utopia is as much predicated on how people “should” react as urban planners’ “reforms” were. Both unable to understand the wider demographic picture.

21. While I share her dislike of suburbia, at least I understand why so many families were drawn to it in that era. Mrs. Jacobs constantly trots out Greenwich Village as the be-all and end-all of perfection which everyone should aspire to live in.

22. Even in 1961, the famous ballet of Hudson St. was unusual. She’s idealizing a way of life that was well on its way out. Unless something radically changes, bourgeois urbanity just isn’t coming back.

Posted in Books, Laurel and Hardy

A comedy genius with a giant heart

Since yesterday, 23 February, was Stan Laurel’s 55th Jahrzeit (death anniversary), here’s a review of The Comedy World of Stan Laurel, which I wrote for my old Angelfire site around 2003–04. Surprisingly, it needed very little editing.

4.5 stars

This delightful out of print book by John McCabe isn’t a biography so much as a collection of Stan’s comedy sketches and transcripts of comedy bits he did with Oliver Hardy on tours across America and England. He also goes into detail about Stan’s early silent films, and his early years as a vaudeville performer in England and America.

The majority of the non-skit text consists of long quoted passages from those who knew him best, like friends, ex-wives, and his widow Ida. [2020 note: Like Charles Chaplin, Stan too found the great love of his life and most brilliantly successful relationship in his final wife. Ollie also found his greatest match in his final wife. Soulmates are worth waiting for.]

McCabe wrote two others books on Laurel and Hardy, including a full biography, so he didn’t want to do a lot of repeating. He was a personal friend of theirs, so he really knew his subject from the inside, not as a casual outsider doing secondhand research.

The previously undiscovered comedy sketches brought a smile to my face at a time when I was still newly getting over my heartbreak from “Max.” They also demonstrate Stan was the opposite of his onscreen personality. Everybody who knew him pointed this out; he may have written his character as a dimwitted simpleton and buffoon, but in real life he was extremely sharp, serious, and intelligent.

Oliver Hardy was also the opposite of his character—in real life he was the sweet, innocent one, not the high and mighty, smart and capable man always getting his great ideas foiled by his best friend’s utter idiocy.

Stan managed to come up with all of these great skits for radio plays, road tours, vaudeville, and movie shorts, with only a few that didn’t work well. The later movies he made with Hardy are said to supposedly suck because he had little or no creative output. [2020 note: The post-Hal Roach films are a mixed bag, but not nearly as across the board dreadful as popular wisdom has long insisted.]

It’s the reason he demanded to be paid twice the amount as Hardy, and succeeded; not because he felt he was twice as funny, but because he did twice the work while Hardy was off playing golf.

In the midst of this busy schedule, even to the end of his life, Stan always found time to do good for others. He was like his onscreen persona in that he had a really kind heart and loving spirit in real life. He never understood racial prejudice, kept his number in the phonebook so fans could talk to him, let people come to tour his house, gave a lot of money to friends or people who did him favours (the reason he didn’t have a lot of money when he died in 1965), and answered practically every single fan letter personally.

Stan felt that if someone took the time to write to him, he should respect him or her by taking time in return to write back. That is so rare in today’s world, someone who spends hours each day personally reading and answering fan mail, letting strangers walk through his or her house, and being willing to talk on the phone with any fan who might call. He was only made to curtail these activities towards the very end of his life when he got sick.

As great as the book is, it is a bit dated in some ways. Obviously, some of the sources in the bibliography are now quite out of date and/or out of print, and some of the celebrities he refers to I’ve never heard of. However, on the whole, this is a really fun book.

Stan Laurel holds Academy Awards Oscar presented to him for his creative pioneering in the field of cinema comedy on July 11, 1961. (AP Photo/Don Brinn)
Posted in 1940s, Books, Books I dislike

Beautiful prose, lacklustre storytelling

Yet again, I’ve been most sorely disappointed by a book with massive amounts of hype. In fact, I was so turned off by this book, I removed a reference to it during my second edition edits of Journey Through a Dark Forest. The first book Katya reads on her way back to UC-Berkeley in 1946 is now If He Hollers Let Him Go. I couldn’t stand by my former description of it as complex and nonconformist. More like dull and pointless!

I expected a story about a 12-year-old girl who doesn’t quite fit in as she comes of age, with her only friends her much-younger male cousin and the family cook. Instead I got a story which has beautiful prose and technically proficient writing but sleep-inducing, detached storytelling.

The book immediately starts off on the wrong foot with a heaping helping of telly infodump and backstory. While I understand people in the 1940s didn’t operate under modern writing standards like “Show, don’t tell,” that doesn’t preclude an engrossing story. Just look at A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which has quite a few passages heavy on telling. Betty Smith managed to make these events come alive despite not actively depicting them.

Why did this book annoy me so much, and why was it such a chore to slog through?

1. No one likes a story that’s little more than summaries of events. “This happened. Then that happened. Name did this. Name said that. Infodumpy, ‘As you know, Bob’ dialogue. These things happened last year. This happened three months ago.” Impossible to be emotionally drawn in.

2. Confusing nonlinear format. It was often hard to discern whether Ms. McCullers were writing about something happening in real time or in the past, since she shifts around so much.

3. Not nearly enough chapters. There are deliberately long chapters, and then there are chapters that just stretch on and on without any sense of unifying theme or plot. Even deliberately long chapters should be divided into sections, not just roll on and on with no distinguishing breaks.

4. The breaks into Parts I, II, and III didn’t seem coherent either. The only thing marking them as distinct parts is that the protagonist goes by a different name in each—Frankie, F. Jasmine (so freaking pretentious), Francis.

5. Where’s the plot? Even an episodic, slower-paced, character-based story needs to be hung on a narrative arc and plot trajectory!

6. We’re supposed to believe Frankie HAD SEX (at twelve years old!), yet is childish and naïve enough to think her brother and his bride will be totally cool with her tagging along on their honeymoon?

7. The title bears almost no relation to the story. The wedding takes up a paragraph at the end, all that buildup (as it were) to a whole lot of nothing.

8. Frankie is extremely annoying, childish, and psychotic. I’ve no problem with deliberately imperfect and/or difficult to like characters, but this takes it to a whole new level!

9. Frankie does little more than wander around town putting herself in potentially dangerous situations and starting conversations with people who couldn’t care less about her. Most of the rest of the time is spent around the kitchen table. BORING!

10. So freaking rambling!

11. Where’s the evidence this is a coming-of-age story? All Frankie does is change her name! She’s the same insufferable, mean-spirited brat at the end as she was at the beginning.

12. Non-existent character development.

13. It takes a special talent to make a book under 200 pages drag on this much!

14. Emotionally detached prose. I never felt in Frankie’s head.

15. A lot of disturbing content that’s just brushed over as normal or not a big deal.

Ms. McCullers had an interesting idea which was executed very poorly. This is a long, slow road to nowhere. Not only is there no real plot, Frankie shows absolutely no growth from start to finish. If all that dull telling had been fleshed out into active scenes, this book might’ve been better.

Posted in Books, Books I dislike, Historical fiction

How not to write a parody

Egads, what an absolutely terrible book! Little wonder Ms. Randall was sued for copyright infringement. As a result of that settled lawsuit, all copies now have to bear a label marking it as unauthorised parody. Publishing house Houghton Mifflin also had to make a contribution to Morehouse College, a historically Black college supported by Margaret Mitchell’s estate.

I love the idea of GWTW from the slaves’ POV. In fact, Ms. Mitchell’s estate did too, seeing as they gave Donald McCaig permission to write Ruth’s Journey about Mammy. But Ms. Randall’s book falls flat for so many reasons, not just because she wrote it without permission.

And why might that be?

1. Way too short! While GWTW is over 1,000 pages, TWDG is all of 208 pages, slightly under 6×9, and with rather wide margins on all sides. Unless a story is set over a very short timeframe, hist-fic is not a genre that lends itself well to brevity. That leads to underdeveloped, shallow, rushed stories.

2. Too much rambling on the way to getting to an actual plot.

3. Diary format is a really bad gimmick that doesn’t work here. While I love epistolary novels, this wasn’t a story crying out for such a style. It doesn’t even read like a real diary!

4. Impossible to make heads or tails of anything unless you’ve read GWTW. Characters are dumped on the page with the presumption the reader knows who they are. There’s a huge happy medium between the infamous Chapter Two of The Babysitters’ Club and dumping characters on the page with no context!

5. Speaking of, everyone but Mammy has a stupid alternative name. E.g., Scarlett is Other, Ashley is Dreamy Gentleman, Pork is Garlic, Mr. O’Hara is Planter, Belle is Beauty, Melanie is Mealy Mouth, Rhett is R, Mrs. O’Hara is Lady. Even the plantations have new names. Tara is Cotton Farm and Tata; Twelve Oaks is Twelve Slaves Strong as Trees.

6. Radically changing established characters. Ashley is gay and had an affair with Prissy’s brother (whom Melanie had whipped to death); Mammy and Prissy are murderers; Belle is a lesbian; the O’Haras had a loveless marriage; Pork is a criminal mastermind and murderer; Rhett is absolutely nothing like his alpha male self and has a breastfeeding fetish.

7. Killing off both Mammy and Scarlett. Yeah, those are convenient plot developments! As awful as when Mammy was killed off very early in Alexandra Ripley’s Scarlett.

8. Awful, juvenile, embarrassing prose. The sex scenes were also very cringey.

9. A lot of inconsistency in language. Either your narrator speaks vernacular or proper English. She can’t do both at once.

10. Inconsistency in tense. I feel very strongly writers need a LOT of practice writing the classic default of past tense before trying present. It’s very hard to pull off well if you don’t know what you’re doing and haven’t a feel for whether it’s a natural fit for a particular story.

11. Cynara has no personality. She blandly recounts events in a very stream-of-consciousness, nonlinear style. Third-person is the default POV for a reason, particularly with a large ensemble cast. Not nearly as many stories need to be in first-person as their authors believe.

12. Way too much telling! I can’t be emotionally pulled into a story that’s little more than “This happened. Then that happened. Name said this. Name did that. This happened twenty years ago.” Give us active scenes, not dull summaries of events!

13. Chapters are so short and underdeveloped! This ain’t the kind of story where fragments work well.

14. Cynara is a total Mary Sue. Enough said.

Again, I love the idea of a GWTW spinoff told from the slaves’ POV, esp. with the twist of the protagonist being Scarlett’s secret halfsister. However, this story would’ve been so much better if it were told concurrently to GWTW, not after the fact. I also would’ve preferred Cynara to have her own character arc, not just be a Black version of Scarlett, right down to having an affair with Rhett since age fifteen.

A good retelling, parody, fanfiction, or spinoff should put the author’s unique spin on that world, not radically alter established characters. TWDG does absolutely none of that. This is pure garbage, little more than a poorly-written, huge middle finger to fans of the original novel. All the characters come across as terrible people, and the paper-thin plot is unrealistic soap opera-esque garbage.

I recommend avoiding this steaming pile of disjointed garbage.