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The Scapegoat review (Spoilers)

To watch the movie first or read the book first? This was a tough call for me, but since I was certain the movie would lose some impact if I did read the book first, I went ahead and watched The Scapegoat starring Matthew Rhys. Now I’m chomping at the bit to read the book, but that probably won’t happen for awhile as there’s much on my plate as far as both reading and writing projects.

The Scapegoat (2012) is an adaptation of the novel by Daphne du Maurier. Recently, I have become a big fan of du Maurier and her amazing, atmospheric writing. She has great skill in writing in just about any time period and sounding relatively authentic, plus has a great affinity for thrilling plots. The Scapegoat is a doppelgänger tale, two strangers switch places and their lives are never the same after. The plot immediately brought to mind the works of Patricia Highsmith (The Talented Mr. Ripley), whose Strangers on a Train is also on my reading and eventual watch list.

Two identical strangers meet coincidentally in a pub. One’s rich, the other poor. Shades of Prince and the Pauper, and they do exchange places, though the poor, out of work schoolteacher gets tricked into it. John continues the charade of playing Johnny because he’s rather thrilled with the aspect of being rich for awhile: Cool car, big house, etc. After meeting Johnny’s family, however, he realizes that his twin isn’t a very nice person, keeping mistresses, continually cheating on his wife, lying, and generally being careless with the welfare of his family and company. It quickly becomes clear that a company deal Johnny was supposed to have brokered did not happen, and he’s placed John in a position to take the fall.

The schoolteacher’s character quickly becomes clear: He’s very kind to all of Johnny’s family, especially his very precocious, annoying daughter, nicknamed Piglet. Since John is more bookish and intelligent than Johnny, he even finds a way to remedy the company situation and ends up getting the deal done, anyway. Throughout the film, which takes the place over maybe a week or so, we see how John affects Johnny’s family in positive ways, hearing out their troubles, getting his mother (Eileen Atkins) to forgo her morphine addiction and get out and among people again, comforting his sister (Jodhi May) who is still in mourning for the loss of a loved one, and giving real hope to his brother and a chance for him to move forward career wise.

Johnny is placed firmly in the villain camp. He comes back to find John settling quite nicely into his rather great life, and is so jealous, especially of John’s connection with his wife (Alice Orr-Ewing), that Johnny actually manipulates her into committing suicide. Fortunately, due to the precocious yet very smart Piglet, John is alerted and gets there just in time to save her. It is heavily implicated that Johnny was the cause of the suicide of Rose, whom his sister loved, and that he likely manipulated her in the very same way. Despicable does not even begin to describe this person.

As Johnny would now like his life back, now that the schoolteacher has fixed everything, John finds that he must literally fight for his life in order to oppose him. It is only the housekeeper/nanny (Phoebe Nicholls) who calls John out as not actually being Johnny, and it’s something she does as a last resort to get the better man to stay, stay and keep doing good for the family. I think it likely the rest of the family members suspect something–how could they not–but like this new Johnny so much, they prefer not to question. This is truly a happy ending: The villain is dead and has gotten his just desserts, and a much better man is installed in his place.

The term scapegoat comes from the Bible’s Old Testament. The sins of all the Israelites were symbolically placed on a goat by a high priest and the goat was sent off into the desert to die. This concept of someone or something else punished in one’s place is found throughout the Bible, because Jesus the Savior, though he was innocent, took on all of the sins of the world, and the punishment and death for them. He also conquered death from rising from the dead, something that Christians celebrate every Easter.

Another story connected with this idea, is The Whipping Boy by Sid Fleischman, in which a poor boy is whipped or punished whenever the rich boy does something wrong. In this story, the boys also swap identities. In effect, that is what a scapegoat means, taking on the identity of another person.

A great watch, and I can’t wait to read the book. Next week I will be back to reviewing Korean dramas. Just started Two Weeks starring Li Joon-Gi from the popular Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo. It’s about a falsely accused man trying to prove in innocence and make it time to donate bone marrow for his daughter dying of leukemia. I’m also reading and immensely enjoying the book The Lies of Lock Lamora. I heard about the book from perusing reviews of Six of Crows, which I loved. This is also a fantasy heist/con artist story, and although I never got into the Game of Thrones TV series, I think fans of that would like this.

Remembering Outbreak

Sadly, I don’t own the movie anymore, but for awhile Outbreak (1995) starring Dustin Hoffmann, Rene Russo, and Morgan Freeman, was my favorite disaster movie. Contagion, made in 2011 I thought kind of meh in comparison. Hoffmann’s really not much of a leading man, in my opinion, but I think he shines in the role, especially as it’s not so much a story about a worrisome viral outbreak, as it is a tale about corruption.

I think with the current Coronavirus outbreak going on, we can all see just how many of our politicians use situations like this to gain more power and money, often with little care for their citizens. With their mouths they say they care, but their actions often go against that.

In the film, a deadly virus escapes from Africa in the form of a cute monkey being sold on the black market. The monkey ends up in California, escapes, and subsequently starts infecting the people he comes across. One of the best scenes in the movie, comes with Patrick Dempsey, clearly sick, on an airplane with other passengers. Germaphobes everywhere will have nightmares, as they also will from a movie theater scene where they show how the droplets from coughs and sneezes spread everywhere.

Offhand, I don’t remember how deadly the disease in the movie is, but am pretty sure it is many orders of magnitude higher than the current virus we are dealing with. In Outbreak, panic is truly justified, both from the CDC and from the average person. Despite that, though, the fictional Americans in this movie would hardly recognize the Americans of today. I think they would be baffled at putting the whole country–whole countries–on lockdown for something with symptoms not much different than the yearly flu. For the town that gets put in military lockdown and quarantine, those who are still healthy would be scratching their heads at how quickly we current Americans all acquiesced to a much wider quarantine. These days are strange days, and I wonder if all flu seasons hereafter will be different. If people will now actually stay home when they are sick and if employers will mandate them to do so. Hey, maybe we’ll all get more sick days to use. Maybe, though, it will be a mandated yearly loss of freedom of movement, gathering together, and the like. Many people are worried this will be the end result.

The best thing about the movie is that they find a cure, not a vaccine, which oddly people seem to equate to a cure, but an actual cure. Here we all are being encouraged to wait on a vaccine that will be ready well after we’ve all been exposed, when the virus has multiplied into many different strains, and, well, you get the idea. For many, this seems like a fear psy-op initiated by the media. I tend to agree. The numbers just don’t seem to justify the response, and there’s almost no analyzing of the data: For example for Italy, how many were and are older and already had compromised immune systems and underlying health issues? This matters because these are people who should already be self-quarantining almost all the time, but especially during times of the year when sickness tends to go around. Does it really make sense to restrict the movements of everyone who has a healthy immune system? Our current “science” will tell us it makes sense, just like they tell us the only way to protect these people from other diseases like measles is to vaccinate everyone, no matter any adverse effects of immunization on otherwise healthy people. Another thing I’m curious about from Italy: How many infected and/or dead are actually Chinese workers from Wuhan? I have heard they imported quite a lot of workers from there in the past year or so.

I have been waiting for the numbers of infected to rise, for hospitals to be overwhelmed and the like, because I don’t want this to be a psy-op, I would rather it be real. Awful as it sounds, it’s far more frightening to me if it’s fear pushed on us to get more power. I would much rather deal with a truly deadly virus than a hoax fomented by people salivating to bring the world to its knees. Real or not, the panicked reaction is almost impossible to go against. This is peer pressure at its finest, a real-life Stanford Experiment playing out right in front of us.

At the end of the movie, Dustin Hoffmann saves the quarantined town from getting annihilated off the face of the earth. Thankfully, we are nowhere near calling for the deaths of sick people, yet we are almost callously sentencing quite a few of our fellow citizens–healthy and sick–to very dire straights should we let this forced economic collapse continue. Every year there’s a dangerous disease out there, spread like a cold or flu–sometimes it just is a bad cold or flu. Are we really going to stop our lives every time flu season hits? With something like Ebola that has a very high death rate, to stop everything would be justified, but this… We didn’t do this for Ebola. We didn’t do this for SARS or Zika, or swine flu, or any other outbreak from recent memory.

Whatever the truth is, I know God’s in control, but sometimes I’m not sure what to pray for: An end to disease or that we wake up from this spell we’ve been put under? Probably, it should be both.

For a different perspective on this whole outbreak–I am not the only skeptic–checkout Del Bigtree’s Highwire show and Amazing Polly, both on Youtube. Del, especially, in his most recent show from yesterday goes through quotes from many doctors who also think the freakout just isn’t warranted. Also weird that the freakout continues despite clear forms of treatment showing quick results. If this is a bioweapon, as some claim, it’s not a super effective one, but that wouldn’t be the point, would it? No, if it were a bioweapon, manufactured by the evil people of the world, it’s just enough, just enough to keep that fear going, for the next time. A next time that may never happen, but now will always be a collective fear until it fades and a new fear trends.

This all reminds me of a couple of short stories I wrote considering Totalitarianism. They are below. Happy reading.

A Society of Health (written in 2010)

“Aaachoooiee!!”  Alyssa Taylor sneezed mightily into a tissue from the box on her desk.

“Bless you.”  Raymond Bins, her coworker said as he tapped away on a computer spreadsheet.  “Coming down with something?”

“I think it’s allergies.  Ever since we moved here––”

“Who sneezed?”  Ariana Blight stepped ferociously around the office partition.  She looked a bit like a crow with her tiny, birdlike frame, black sweater and pants.  Her dull gray hair was pulled tightly back into a bun that rested heavily on top of her little, wobbling head.  

Alyssa raised her hand.  “Guilty,”  She smiled sheepishly.  “Sorry, I know my sneezes are so loud.  My daughter always says I sound like a firecracker.”  She drew back into her chair as the older woman stepped up to her, the woman’s beady eyes bright with anticipation.  

“Do you have a cold?”

“It’s…just allergies.”  Alyssa exchanged a glance with Raymond who had stopped typing.  “This building is so full of dust…”  Ariana continued to inspect her, bending low enough to look up her nostrils.  “Is everything all right, Ariana?”

“You have mucus,”  She pointed to the left nostril.  “There.  It appears yellow, not clear.  Blow into this.”  The small woman brought forth a crisp handkerchief from the bowels of her sweater.  Laughing a little, Alyssa obliged.  Raymond rolled his eyes and made crazy signs that the old woman couldn’t see.  It had never been clear to them what exactly Ariana’s job at the company was, but she always seemed to know everything about everyone.  Ariana fearlessly opened the handkerchief and proceeded to inspect the leavings.  “As I thought. Yellow, going on green.  You, Ms. Alyssa Taylor, have the beginnings of a very bad cold, an infection.”

Alyssa shrugged.  “You know, I did feel a bit off yesterday, but I thought it was the weather.  And my allergies get so bad this time of year…”  She trailed off when she saw the glinting triumph in the older woman’s eyes.  “Is there a problem?”

Ariana Blight pulled a small flip-top notebook out of a sweater pocket.  She proceeded to read:  “United States Code, Title Forty-Two, Chapter Two, Section Eight Thousand Four Hundred and Nineteen:  All persons shall take precautions to prevent the spreading of the common cold.  Subsection D, Four:  Any person expectorating or sneezing in a public place shall be examined for infection.  If infection is found, said persons are duty-bound to report to the nearest Health Center and receive treatment.  Upon refusal to do so within one hour of infection report, said person may be subjected to a fine of One Hundred Dollars or up to Thirty days in the local quarantine cell.  Subsection D, Twenty:  Any and all persons failing to comply with this Chapter shall be labeled as a Spreader of Disease and a criminal under this Title Forty-Two.”  

“What?”  Alyssa blinked up at her.  “I don’t…I’ve never heard…”

“They didn’t publish it, you see,”  Ariana whispered softly, leaning over her.  “Only passed it, our wonderful…New Congress.  Now, let’s come along down to the office Health Center, shall we?”  Alyssa sat there blankly.  “Ah, and Raymond…”  The crow-like woman filled out a yellow slip from her pad of paper, ripped it off, and handed it to him.  “The citation number, should you wish to pursue legal action in the near future.  Being around her nine hours out of the day, you are the likeliest to suffer from her…negligence.”  Raymond took the paper and paled at its contents.  “Of course, should you also come down with said infection and fail to address it immediately, you will be issued a citation as well.”

Mottle Knows Best (from 2010)

Mrs. Mottle scurried after her neighbor, Rose.  Rose stopped abruptly on the sidewalk and turned around with a grimace.  “Following me again, Mrs. Mottle?”  She put one hand on her hip.  “Let me guess, block party meeting this evening?”

“We are a social group.”  Mrs. Mottle said, taken aback at Rose’s fierceness.  “We get together and talk about the happenings in the neighborhood.”

“Gossips, the lot of you.”  Rose tapped her heels impatiently.  “I’m due at the office in twenty minutes.  If I arrive late and someone else grabs up the spot, I’m blaming you.”

“Me?”  Mrs. Mottle’s heart fluttered.  “Rose, you are so irritated at me when I’m only trying to help you…for your own good!  They may take you away!”

“What?”  Rose’s eyes narrowed and she stepped forward.  “What did you say?  What have you been telling the block party, Mrs. Mottle?  Only too happy to ‘report,’ aren’t you?”

Mrs. Mottle realized she’d said too much.  “N-no, of course not, dear.  We’re only here to help!  I would never get you…in trouble, but for your own good, it––”

“Then what is it?  What did I do this time?”

“Rose, you must understand that I have your best interests at heart.  This morning,”  She sighed, “Now prepare yourself…this morning your shower was seven minutes.”  Mrs. Mottle looked up hopefully only to find Rose staring down at her open-mouthed.  

Rose crossed her arms.  “And?  I’m waiting for the punch line…”

The younger woman laughed shortly.  “Oh, Rose, why, you’ve forgotten!  The new edict!  Now let me see if I remember it straight, ‘all citizens are responsible for their water use.  To go beyond the recommended five minutes for a shower is shameful and a waste.’ So you see––”

“Oh, shut up!”  Rose pulled her handbag up higher on her shoulder.  “What does it matter if I take a seven-minute shower?  What does it matter if I take a twenty-minute shower? I’m paying for it!  We have entire oceans at our disposal, and, apparently you haven’t noticed because you’ve been too busy spying on people, it has rained cats and dogs every evening for the last eight days!  Oh, and another thing!  You think the Higher-Ups really care about these things?  You think the block party does?  Damn it, Mrs. Mottle!  Can’t you see what they’re doing?”

“Of course, Rose, but Practical Science states––”

“Ha!  As if PS is ever practical!  Or right!  One day eggs are good for you, the next they’re bad!  Why, I saw an article just the other day on the evils of fruit!  Fruit!  You know what it is, don’t you?  They want us to eat only that dog food for humans they keep manufacturing, while the Higher-Ups feed on steak and wine!  Oh, I can’t believe I let you rile me up this early in the morning!  Good day, Mrs.  Mottle!”  Rose tromped off in her heels.

Her neighbor looked sorrowfully after her.  Little did Rose know the danger she was in.  Two more strikes and she would have to be put in rehabilitation…for the common good, of course.  Mrs. Mottle didn’t like her task, but the important thing was that the laws be kept.  Rose was always going off about the “stupid, ridiculous, impractical laws that made real living impossible!”  Mrs.  Mottle didn’t think that was for them to judge.  That was for the Higher-Ups, the people who knew better.  She wasn’t sure at that moment why they did know better, but surely they must, as they were in charge.  She must inform the party of Rose’s seven-minute shower.  The young lady puffed out her chest.  They would talk it through.  They would come up with a solution and show Rose how her thinking was wrong.  It was only a matter of time.  

Library Wars: Manga review

My local library has the whole manga series of Library Wars: Love and War, a series based on books by Hiro Arikawa. This series is written and illustrated by Kiiro Yumi. Throughout books 1 & 2, she has some notes about what it was like to create and release the books. Although the notes did take me out of the story, as a fellow writer it was interesting to get her perspective on her progress.

Yesterday, I got all ready to sit down and write a review and realized I don’t really have a lot to say about the series. I really like and would love to read the original books someday, but the manga centers mostly around romance. This is not bad, I like romance and love triangles, but there’s just not much to say about them. That libraries could be in a war with government factions bent on censorship–this I believe. There’s something in human nature that wants to destroy and stamp out ideas we don’t agree with. We’ve often done this by destroying and confiscating books, a somewhat futile endeavor, as ideas come from the brain, and even if one stamps it out in the moment, the same idea will surely arise somewhere in someone’s brain in the future.

Along with many others, the most baffling “war” going on is the panicked run on toilet paper and other items, not only in America, but across the world. Although the Coronavirus has been around for months, people are now racing to the shelves and taking everything there as if there’s some shortage we should be afraid of. This is, of course, one of those self-fulfilling fears.

For a few weeks, I have noticed that the toilet paper aisle has been a little low at my local Walmart, but yesterday, as did need to purchase a pack, it was completely out and the store was crammed full of people. The dichotomy between canceled group meetings and events versus everyone rushing to the store to stand in crowded aisles and long lines is striking. I feel for the grocery store workers who have to deal with this. It must be alarming. It’s a strange, strange thing to see everyone apparently so panicked. I don’t remember anyone doing this during other virus outbreaks, not even with Ebola. Not sure what to make of it, but I am praying that everyone will remain calm and stay healthy and safe.

Are Those Who Seek the Truth Mentally Ill? (book review)

At one time, I don’t remember from where, I heard that the CIA or someone coined the term “conspiracy theory” in order to make those who question the official story, from the government or whoever, look crazy. The term is often used to discredit people who question official stories, or sometimes against people who just see things differently, and the media especially encourages the public to look at anyone labeled a “conspiracy theorist” as someone unstable and to avoid associating with. This has been done repeatedly over the years to questioners of the official stories of the JFK Assassination, shooter and terrorist attacks of all sorts, the attacks on 9/11/2001, and the like. “Conspiracy theory” is also a broad term encompassing topics on everything from flat earth and space aliens, to vaccines, to a New World Order, and, most recently, to Qanon. Sometimes these things involve speculations of people actually conspiring, sometimes it’s just a questioning of the mainstream narrative, whatever that may be.

As mental illness does sometimes involve paranoia and the idea that everyone is out to get you, it is prudent to be skeptical of someone exhibiting this paranoia, especially if they are seeing, say, people not actually there. However, it’s also good to remember that 1) conspiracy theorists aren’t always paranoid–they may be speculating about an event that doesn’t presently affect either their safely or well being, and their questions may be valid, 2) conspiracies do actually exist, and have existed all throughout time, and 3) sometimes they, whoever they are, are out to get you, your money, your influence, and even your life.

I am by no means an expert on mental illness, and cannot say offhand how often a person with mental illness is also someone who follows and is interested in conspiracy theories. I do really wonder, though, just why the media and society at large is always in such a rush to portray conspiracy theorists as having a mental illness. Aside from some symptoms that do manifest in some mental illnesses, like paranoia, the two things really aren’t connected. Isn’t questioning just a normal thing to do, something vital to holding those with power to account? And, when it’s obvious that the media in particular never tells the straight out truth, isn’t it crazier not to question things?

In Truthers, author Geoffrey Girard uses his story to plumb the depths of those questions. The book is YA genre about a teenager named Kate who’s father gets put in a mental institution for his wild claims and speculations about the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. In a brave move, even so many years after (it was published in 2017), the two towers now gone are portrayed in blue Matrix movie-like numbers on the front cover. Using a visual connection to the Matrix movies–about a conspiracy that is indeed true–Girard already tips his hat: He thinks the questions are vital.

Kate is sent to live with a foster family. Her father hasn’t been the best dad, but he’s still her dad, and she wants to help him get better and get free. For those readers who may have thought Truthers was going to be about dealing with mental illness, Kate’s next move is a definite step away from that: She starts to investigate the questions, speculations, and claims around 9/11 in the hope to have enough proof that there is good reason to question, so that a court will set her father free. The story pulled me in right away by connecting with what I’ve said above: The media and society at large encourage anyone questioning things to be seen as mentally unstable or really naive at best. It’s truly a fascinating form of gaslighting. Are you questioning too much? Well, it must not be that there are reasons to question, no, it must be that you are going insane or really dumb. See how it works?

Using Kate’s need to research, Girard takes his readers through some of the conspiracy theories about 9/11, from the thought that the government purposely dropped the ball in some way, to the idea that the government did it, that there were actually no planes, only missiles, and even to the idea that the people on the planes were taken somewhere else and executed there. In some ways, it’s concerning stuff, in others it shows just how far trust in our government has fallen. Many, many people don’t believe the official story. They believe they are purposely and even maliciously being lied to. Interestingly, the one person in Truthers who actually does seem crazy enough to go and kill someone is a person chillingly committed to the official story.

As painfully and also as callously as Truthers revels in speculations about 9/11, the author is just as quick to point out flaws in the “truthers” or conspiracy theorists. They are almost all men, most of whom are very paranoid indeed, using strange hacking measures to communicate with Kate, and having what seems to be an unnecessary amount of security set up around them. They jump to conclusions with little, concrete evidence. Kate goes back and forth, struggling, as we all would, with whom to trust. She gets frustrated with the lack of real evidence and real answers. Real, hard evidence is often difficult to come by, especially when considering an event from long ago. Even a recent event is tricky, as those in power have increasing technological tools to make sure their version of history is the only version future generations will know. The invention of the internet has made this difficult as of late, but corporations are now serving as the new gatekeepers by banning and canceling the accounts of people who refuse to toe the current PC line.

Truthers ends up going all spy-on-spy mode at the end, which kind of took away some of the realism it had going, but I liked the ending, and I liked this key scene: Kate and her friend Max are talking. He’s skeptical of a 9/11 Truther’s claims and says that anyone can hop online and think they’re an expert on something in just a few minutes. Before that capability, Max says, people who researched, say, JFK, had to do more due diligence. They earned their theories and their right to question. Max goes on to say that he doesn’t believe the USA is some evil country that did its own citizens in, although it’s certainly made mistakes. He says the cliche of “the USA is the worst country in the world, except for all the rest.”

Kate responds by listing off some very real ways in which the USA has historically done things not in the best interest of either their citizens or other people, and at times even harming them. She tells Max that he is very smart guy, but has a blind spot in his view. She tells him the country she just described could easily have masterminded 9/11. Next in the argument, Kate asks, what if it wasn’t the government that did it, but a powerful corporation?

Again, Max is skeptical, saying she’s really only researched this stuff for a few weeks, and it’s “easy to get swept up in it all.” “Half of the information you need for the truth is deemed too classified to see, and the other half is more info than any one person could possibly wrap their head around.” Kate asks Max if he thinks she would think differently if she spent more time on the subject, ‘earned it’ in his eyes. She then asks him a very profound question that anyone searching for truth should ask those who stubbornly stick to the official story: “Have you ‘earned’ it? Your views on this subject?” Max only grumbles at this, because of course he hasn’t, yet he’s so certain that the Truthers are wrong and off base. The certainty of ignorance works so well to discourage people from really doing their due diligence.

Truthers is an interesting book with much food for thought about questioners, truthers, or conspiracy theorists, whatever you want to call them. It grazes the surface on dealing with mental illness, so if you’re looking for a good book on that issue, this would not be it. This book is also definitely not for someone very emotionally connected to what happened on 9/11. A lot of the theories do sound loony, for some it may seem like Girard is stepping on people’s graves, and it may be traumatizing to read. But Girard’s intention is not to dishonor the dead, but to point to real questions and aspects about 9/11 that need to and should be answered by our government and those in power. He also indicates it is our civic duty to hold our government and those in power to account. Questioning doesn’t do this in and of itself, but it’s a start.

A person can have a mental illness and also have legitimate questions about horrific events like 9/11. This is what I took from the book: First and foremost, do your due diligence. Don’t write off things as crazy simply because they don’t fit either the mainstream narrative or your own personal worldview. The world is complicated and humans are fundamentally dishonest, conspiring against each other in hurtful ways all the time. The more questions, the better. Good thing is, with enough time, the truth often does come out. Truthers has a second good lesson as well: Conspiracy theorists may be asking the right questions, but they don’t often have concrete answers or proof, and one may disappointed they don’t have them. But if indeed those in power are hiding the truth, actual proof will be hard to come by. It’s simply the nature of the beast. I think that if enough people choose to hold those in power to account, therein lies opportunities to get real answers. Maybe someday there will be an American generation that does this. That would be amazing to see.

Annihilation/Silver Spoon/The Hour

Here’s some quick reviews for this week:

Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer. This book was kindly loaned to me by my brother-in-law. Watched the movie with Natalie Portman and it was easily one of the most gross and disturbing movies I have ever seen – and I have seen an embarrassing amount of movies. Still, something about the story intrigued me and I wanted to try the book.

The story follows a group of women scientists of different types, all of whom remain nameless, as they make up an 11th? 12th? (I can’t remember, and it doesn’t really matter) expedition into an unknown alien area that resembles Florida. From the start, it’s clear that they have been told nothing that would actually help them figure out what’s going on in this strange environment, and it’s never clear why. Because the main character is a biologist, a lot of focus is put on the natural world, and it’s refreshing to follow a sci-fi story that not a fantasy set in space, or a drama with science-y surroundings, or, really, that’s it’s just not set in space. Annihilation is a book I would call true science fiction, and had me thinking of Day of the Triffids for some reason, another story I would put clearly in science fiction.

Thankfully, the book is much less gruesome than the movie, though just as unsettling as we follow the biologist whilst she morphs into something other than human. An alien? I have no idea, but it is the first book in a trilogy called The Southern Reach, so maybe the other two books explain more about what’s going on. Much like the biologist grew up studying tide pools, her story, too, is something of a tide pool study. The reader is reading a narrative of her observing herself in this new environment. Unfortunately, observation does not equal explanation or lead to the truth of what is happening in this land beyond a border that may or may not exist. Some parts seem it may be simply a journey of her mind, others indicate an alien takeover slowly creeping over the world. That her observations give little answers to, well, anything, was not lost on me. Can this be a criticism of “science” as a whole? The answers that we’ve come up with in observing our world, are they something scientists simply make up? Are our stories of what’s going on on our planet actually true? If we think about it, we can probably remember times when we saw something–a frown, or an argument, or what have you, assumed what was going on, and later, in talking with the people or simply gaining more information, we found that the conclusions we jumped to were incorrect. Observation on its own, was simply not enough. Food for thought.

Silver Spoon by Hiromu Arakawa. I am not obsessed with Japan or Japanese culture—really! I just have, and have always had, friends who are, mostly Millennials. Sometimes I ask myself: Why are so many Millennials obsessed with Japanese stuff? Anime, Manga, the food, the everything? The planners? Ok, don’t get me started on more planning stuff! And then I remember, oh, yeah, there’s plenty of Gen X-ers obsessed with Japan, too. The blame surely falls on Pokemon, somehow, and I have no doubt that a large portion of Generation Z, too, will have the love of all things Japanese. Me, I’m more fond of China, mostly because I lived there, and I like S. Korean drams, but I’m not sure I could breathe in their culture. Same with Japan. But I’ve never been to either country, so it’s really hard to say for sure. Anyway, the point is, Japan is following me, I am not following it.

This was my first time really trying to read a Manga book, or Japanese comic book. I have seen several of the more popular Anime movies in the past decade, so am a bit familiar with how Japanese storytellers tell their stories. And it’s still always so unexpected. At first, I was really dizzy and cross-eyed from trying to read book one of Silver Spoon. Being left-handed, you’d think reading a book from R to L instead of L to R would be easy. Nope. And after having finished the book, it still feels awkward, but I’m really glad I pushed on and read the whole thing.

Silver Spoon is hilarious! It’s about a boy named Yuugo Hachiken who decides to go to an Agricultural high school, thinking it will be easy. Boy, is he ever wrong. As a mostly city person myself, I found I shared some of his freakouts about this strange world of land and farm. In thinking that technology has solved everything, we city people so often forget just how hard and long that the people who run farms and grow the food actually work. People who don’t read Manga, or graphic novels, or even comics often forget that they aren’t all about super heroes and they are not all for kids. Like novels, the genre does offer quite a variety if you know where to look, and if you have a friend who’s obsessed with Japan, they will know just where to direct you. [As an aside, the Japanese anime Weathering with You is awesome. I haven’t written a review of it because I want to see it again before doing so, but have no idea when that will be.]

The Hour. Although I really love the actors in this BBC drama, especially Ben Whishaw (Perfume: The Story of a Murder), and Romola Garai (best Emma ever!), I just couldn’t get into this series. One episode away from finishing season one, or series one, I found I was bored to tears. The plot wasn’t really moving, and the characters had flatlined. Part of it, is the increasing problem with most stories, whether books or movies put out nowadays: Censorship. Not the censorship of old keeping smut off the screen or foul language at bay, no, this new forced “wokeness” that everyone has to conform to actually involves putting smut and bad language on because the stories need to be “real” or something. Stories are never just stories anymore. Characters and storylines must wear their diversity and sex views on their sleeves. These days, one could almost be forgiven in thinking that the only oppressive societies out there must be “right wing,” for that’s so often all the current censorship allows. And The Hour wasn’t even that egregious with the political correctness stuff, either.

The show’s focus was entirely off, spending way too much time on a mundane storyline of infidelity. Ben Whishaw’s rather smart but gamma character does chase after an interesting murder mystery, but it’s so often not at all connected to the producing of this show, The Hour, which is what the series is supposed to be about. It’s also laughable to see how these characters pretend they are standing up to their government telling them what to produce. That is a grand lie that journalists have been telling for decades. I can forgive the writers a little in this one, because it was made in 2011-2012, long before the idea of “fake news” became a thing. Nowadays, it’s hilarious to suggest that any journalist working for any major news organization is doing any free thinking. And they never mean truly free thinking: these supposed wild cards on TV or in movies only spout the same views, whatever current version of political correctness gets one the most virtual signal points. Bo-oring! It was amusing to see the very easily led Bel Rowley (Garai), who clearly is at sea without her smart friend Freddie (Whishaw), be appalled, so, so appalled that she was hired as producer because the big bosses think women are “easily led.” Actually, that part was pretty good. I think the writers were letting some truth into their series, there. Maybe they just weren’t woke enough at the time. Or maybe they were, and now they’re broke? Ha, stupid joke. Maybe The Hour got better in series two, but I doubt it.

The Planner Planning Planners

Since this fall, I have been obsessed with designer planners, planning stuff, and planning videos. It started with budget planning, and then moved on to watching videos showing how fellow writers set up and use a bullet journal. Finding myself not having enough current patience or artistic ability to make a bullet journal work, I then went in search of what else was out there. Could there be a planner that would nudge more towards making my own bullet journal that I would actually use, some day? Could I use a planner to encourage myself to write more?

Selling designer planners is big business. Largely catering to women, and often run by women, it would be easy to look at these designer books and see oh-so-much fluff. There is fluff–pretty stickers and girly designs that remind me of my love of Lisa Frank notebooks from the 90s–but there’s also a lot of substance and practicality as well. Many of these women are professionals, juggling full-time jobs along with husband and families, some are homeschool moms, trying to align school times with other family events, and some are thinkers, writers and artsy people who want to be creative in how they plan and organize their lives. And some are all of those combined.

Most people who are not into planning as a hobby would probably be shocked at the prices of some of the daily, yearly, and monthly planners out there–I know I was. As I learned more, though, I found that often these products involve an enormous amount of work put into the design and also choosing quality binding products and paper. A designer planner is akin to a quality art product or material, and those do not come cheap, either. Quality is also important as many of these planners are used throughout the year, carried in bags or thrown onto carseats, and need to hold up well to wear and tear.

This article, I just want to do a rundown of my thoughts on the more popular planners out there, and also the Youtubers on this subject that I’ve started to follow and why.

First of all, although bullet journaling is not for me right now, it is a very cheap option. All you need is a grid or dot grid notebook, and the pens and layouts of your choice. If you’re interested in trying it out, Walmart has dot grid notebooks for about $10. Mine is now going to be used as a regular notebook – it’s a fuchsia Pen + Gear brand and even comes with a little plastic stencil ruler and a pen holder which other more expensive brands of planners and notebooks do not always include. Pen + Gear also has other types of notebooks/planners for cheap, so you can try them out first, i.e., traveler’s notebook system (see below).

As I started watching planning videos online, I kept hearing about Erin Condren this and Erin Condren that. Who is this person? Well, her company designs colorful products of good quality, and her monthly and weekly planners are must haves for a lot of planner collectors. The prices of some of these designer planners are definitely daunting, often $50-$100 when you count in shipping cost, plus if you decide to buy any stickers, bookmarks, or pens that go along with your new planner. I wasn’t really sure I’d use an EC planner well enough to justify the cost. But then I found out about traveler’s notebooks.

Although there is an actual company called Traveler’s Notebook, or just Traveler’s, the term refers to a cover that houses several folios or notebooks, usually securing them with a stretchy cords or bands. Being a lefty, I like the idea of having a planner or notebook where there’s no coils, binder rings or discs to get in the way of writing or to get twisted or bent when thrown into a bag, so trying a TN definitely intrigued me. Happily, I found that Erin Condren makes a traveler’s notebook set of planners called her PetitePlanner Folio System. After splurging, I have been trying it out for a couple of weeks and really, really like it, especially her planning folios with pages for each day. The paper is very good quality, a fact I realized after finding some other notebook inserts cheap at a craft store. This is what I’ve learned about the planning world: You can have quality or you can have cheap. There’s some middle ground at Walmart stores like it, but the shelves are often in disarray, and they may only stock, say, bullet journals, as long as it’s a trendy thing. For buying a nice planner at a store, Michael’s or Hobby Lobby would be a better choice.

Another popular planner that is on the less expensive side is the Happy Planner. These days you can find them in a lot of stores. The planners use a disc-bound system, so you can easily switch around pages, or create your own planner, or take a whole planner apart and rearrange it. The array of spreadsheets, covers, and discs is mind boggling, and if I was a fan of the disc system, I probably would have gone with an HP, but I just wasn’t sure how it would hold up on the go. Other popular, more expensive planners are: Golden Coil, Planner Perfect (uses the TN system), and Hobonichi. If you’re into personalized leather covers for whatever notebook, folio, binder, etc., you’re into, there’s Foxy Fix.

If you’re interested in planners and planning, I highly recommend watching some videos about it first. There are a ton of planning channels on YouTube, and many of the content creators give really in-depth reviews of all of the planning products, plus explain how they use them or how they could be used. They are almost all on Instagram as well. Here’s the ones I follow and why:

The Pixie Planner: She has very thorough flip-throughs and pen tests of just about every popular designer planner out there. If you’re deciding to buy a planner, her videos are helpful and informative. I started following her channel because she did a great review of The Budget Mom’s Live Rich Planner, which I was considering purchasing before it went out of stock.

Amanda’s Favorites: Amanda has the most comprehensive collection of planner review videos that I’ve seen so far. She comments a lot on the kinds of paper, the weight of it, the feel of it, etc., and even if she doesn’t always show how to use some spreads, she talks about it or gives ideas while flipping through pages. She also includes pen tests and critiques on add-ons like dashboards or bookmarks that are to be used with the planners.

Annie Smith: For great videos on how to actually plan and use a planner, especially a traveler’s notebook system like Planner Perfect, Annie’s channel is super helpful. Many people struggle to use a planner because they don’t have a list of appointments every day, but a planner is so much more than that, and Annie gives a lot of practical advice by showing how she uses her planner for her daily life.

Key Lime Ink: I haven’t been following this channel for very long yet, but her videos on planner paper sizes are great resource. Her videos have a different take on planners and notebooks, as she uses them more for serious journaling and artwork. This is why paper and paper quality are so often important for these designer planners. Many women use them as scrapbooks, memory books, and art books, and for that, one needs paper that’s going to hold up well and withstand many kinds of ink and sometimes paints.

This year so far I have found using a planner does keep me more on task, but I’ve had to really make the effort to get into the habit of using it everyday. If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably bought pretty planners at some point in your life and used them for awhile, but then forgot about them. It helps that I currently have a lot of things going on in my life for which I have to plan. It also helps that I’ve become more focused on budgeting, and thus planning, and it’s amazing how easy it is to plan for upcoming events, costs, and purchases now.

The TN planning style is definitely for me, so I will likely continue with it. I may or may not stick with Erin Condren’s Petite Planners–I like them, but I might want to eventually make my own spreads or try a smaller size than A5, and it bugs me that the covers don’t come with any pockets or a pen holder. The paper quality and designs are great, though. I may get an EC coiled or softbound planner for next year just to have as a desk reference. The Hobonichi system is intriguing also, as the pages are somewhat laid out, but there’s room to make one’s own spreads, and it might be a great option if I do decide to do full on bullet journaling at some point, or just get back into daily free writing–some of my best story ideas have come from that. These are all in competition, though, with whatever The Budget Mom comes up with for her new sizes and designs for her Live Rich Planner for next year. I’m already loving her Budget by Paycheck workbook, and now seeing so many reviews of other planners, it’s now easy to tell that because she’s coming from a finance angle, her designs have a unique side to them that others don’t. Speaking of finance, Dave Ramsey should make a budget planner. I think people would really go for it.

As you see, I am already becoming an addict to this planning hobby. Like a lot of planners, I am considering: Hey, how can I use all of them? And, don’t I need ten more stickers on this page? More flowers? More cartoon characters? Bookmarks, pen loops, markers, page holders, dashboards? Planning is an interesting world. I like that it’s scrapbooking one’s life without being an actual scrapbook, and it’s fun to check out how other people plan and are using their planners, much like watching an artist work on a painting.

Life As a Story Addict (Part 2)

Last time I went through some of the pitfalls and downsides to a story addiction, especially a fiction addiction. Addictions of all sorts basically come down to this: Something else takes over our lives and gets in the way of our relationships to God, family, friends, and neighbors; gets in the way of our financial goals; gets in the way of how we spend our time; in the way of our health, physical, spiritual, and mental; and lastly, gets in the way of being the best person we were born to be. Me addicted to caffeine or staying up all night to watch six hour-long episodes of a drama I just have to finish, is not the best me. It’s a me that’s hyper, tired, cranky, and down due to lack of sunlight and sleep.

Addictions vary widely in how harmful they can be, however. A severe drug or alcohol addiction can immediately impact a person’s behavior and thinking, while something like too much caffeine, for most people takes a much larger dose and longer time period to show evidence of harm. The great thing about being human is that we have a lot of control in the choices we make in our lives. We can choose to change an addiction from something negatively affecting us, to a positive pursuit. When it comes to story, for example, a young woman who spends her youth with her nose stuck in romance novels may one day be a best selling romance novelist. She still has that passion, but has turned into something she masters, not the other way around. This is why I call this blog A Life of Story, rather than An Addiction to Story. A passion for good stories leads to good things.

The biggest benefit of loving stories is that stories are largely the way humans connect. Though they may not say it, many people are delighted to have listeners and readers of the stories they want to tell. They are anxious to share, whether it’s the old man telling that big fish story one more time, or the mom pealing with laughter over the funny thing her toddler said. For teller and listener, this is a learning and bonding experience. Everyone has at least one great story to tell, as they say, but once one starts listening to people, really listening, one finds they are telling that story or parts of that story almost 24-7. That story is them in some way.

So many story addicts are also writers. This is great, they are attempting to turn their addiction into a good thing. Some are more successful than others, but nearly all simply find peace in writing down the stories they want to tell, often even if no one wants to read them. It’s a bonus if someone does want to read them, and the general public thus has reams and reams of stories both online and off to read, and often for free to boot.

Reading or watching stories, whether fiction or non, are also a great way for people to “travel” in their minds without actually physically traveling. It’s also a way to communication without actually directly interacting with the creators of the stories. We don’t think about it often, but it’s really quite an interesting phenomenon that I can read Crime and Punishment many years after Dostoevsky’s death and still be connecting with him and his thoughts. Some people may want to go see China, for example, and may never have enough money or opportunity to do so, but they can read stories about China, watch movies set in China or made by the Chinese film industry, and if they’re really adventurous they can make China a part of their own story by taking up Chinese cooking or dancing, or language skills. In my own love of Korean dramas and a previous addiction to Bollywood movies, I’ve picked up quite a few phrases in both Hindi and Korean. Stories area great way to learn knew skills or introduce oneself to a potential career or job.

Lastly, stories can be helpful in our spiritual lives. Most of the world’s religions have a creation or origin story to tell, and that directly impacts how a person sees the world. For me as Christian, I know that God created me, that he is a righteous and holy God who demands perfection, but also a loving God, who, when humanity failed to remain perfect, sacrificed himself, his own Son Jesus Christ as a payment for that sin. Instead of trashing the world entirely, God instead decided to save it by great pain and sacrifice on his part. I don’t begin to understand it, but I believe that it’s true because the Bible, tells this story of sin and redemption over and over and over again. This is God’s big fish story, and for believers in him, the greatest story ever told. Story addiction often causes me to sit down and read the Bible. I just want to read the story of Job or Esther or Daniel one more time. Jesus himself spoke in parables, fictional stories with a heavenly meaning or lesson. Our God is a great lover of stories, too, and it’s amazing that we can connect with him in that way, whether by reading the Bible or listening to it read in church. These stories tell us we’re not alone in our sin and weaknesses, that even the best of people, like the apostle Peter, still mess up, but that God is always there to give us a helping hand. Plus, he encourages us to not let the addictions rule us, to not give the devil a foothold, but to always hold firm to the truth. And the Truth is the greatest story ever told! I just think that’s pretty awesome for Christians to consider.

Prayer and living with purpose are the best ways to fight any addiction, or at least to turn it into a beneficial passion. We need a plan of action and spiritual support in that plan. In some cases we are simply too affected by the story or drug or whatever it is and our plan of action has to be to drop it entirely. I had to give up Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series at book 3 because all I was doing was reading, reading reading those books and it was exhausting and hard to focus on everything else in my life. I think story addiction is a kind of addiction that can be made into a passion and a pursuit rather than a monster ruling over me. Along with prayer, my plan of action as I get older is threefold: 1. Limit my consumption of fictional stories, either limit the time spent or be more discerning with the content. 2. Work on my own stories more. I love storytelling and have so many stories I want to tell, and sometimes my desire to read other people’s stories gets in the way of this. 3. Spend more time with people. Okay, this seems like it would counteract step 2, but all the steps work towards the same goal, staying away from addiction, and connecting with people is one of the best ways to do that. Step 2 is a little tricky, because I could very well become addicted to my own fictional stories, so that time, too, should be and must be limited. Oh, I should add a step 4: Always tell myself the truth. As in, it’s ten o’clock, put the book down, it’ll be there for you to read again tomorrow after you get plenty of sleep.