Monthly Archives: December 2015
Cristin Stickles (with the best Twitter handle ever @ThtsWhatSheRead), the Children’s & Young Adult Buyer at McNally Jackson Books in Manhattan, recently wrote about the very terrifying reality of Elf on the Shelf for BookRiot.
We’ve covered the dark underbelly of Christmas that is represented in this Elf on the Shelf; the implications of its promoting a snitching culture, the racial unrest it leads to, and the overall creepiness of it all. Stickles tackles these issues and more as she examines how this new holiday tradition “is a psychological weapon that perpetuates a culture of fear among children. Still worse, it makes parents active participants in the destruction of childhood wonder.”
She has also reached that point in the holiday retail world where, well, she’s gone a little crazy. It’s a normal condition, quite commonly found in anyone within the general retail working community this time of year, but usually reaches a more virulent and aggressive state among booksellers. That’s science.
Let’s not forget that this whole rant started while she was repeatedly circling a display using her retail Jedi powers to discover what book was missing. A book was missing, a book is always missing, and a true bookseller will always sense a disturbance within their displays.
The best booksellers out there are Jedis, they have to be; have you ever watched a bookseller explain to someone on Christmas Eve that the particular book they’re looking for is out of stock and no, it can’t be ordered in time? Did that customer then destroy the galaxy? Nope. Jedi Bookseller Mind Trick. It’s a thing.
Now that we’ve gotten completely off topic, and apparently tried to establish that the Elf on the Shelf are Stormtroopers and Santa is actually Emperor Palpatine (you have invited that evil into your homes people and only have yourselves to blame), you should go read Stickles’ original post and try, deep down, to remember that Christmas isn’t supposed to be about little snitching backstabbing elves, but a good, old-fashioned year round fear (respect) of your parents.
But, if you haven’t had several meltdowns and completely given up yet like I have, and you’re still out there shopping on Christmas Eve, at least do yourself a favor and just take what they give you.
Looking for a coffee-table pop-up book on late 19th century Japanese warships and you’re given a wonders of the world bargain book? Take it. Need a new charging cable for your Zune? Wait, what? Really? Had your heart set on picking up the bluray of “Star Wars: the Force Awakens” and you know it’s out because you saw it on Amazon—no! It’s pre-order! It just came out in theaters, why do you not understand how the world works? Take that copy of “the Wiz” the salesperson is trying to stab you in the face with and go away.
Those retail employees are one clueless customer away from falling to the Dark Side, and as someone who personally witnessed two Target employees earlier this week have a full-on lightsaber duel in the middle of the electronics section, a Retail Jedi who has given into the hate is not someone you want to mess with.
Phil is a terrifying creature. He is bitter, vindictive, opportunistic, petty and his brain regularly falls out, which leads to some of his more outlandish moments and thankfully, his ultimate downfall.
And unfortunately, reading this novella within the context of the current presidential election, Phil is an all too recognizable figure. You can hear a distinct voice as Phil begins to rant about border protection and keeping those lazy, puny Inner Hornerites out of the vast, good and generous Outer Horner. Phil speaks in simple, passionate, fear-mongering language meant to evoke an immediate, emotional, knee-jerk patriotic response.
But Phil isn’t Donald Trump. Except that he is. And, according to the author, so am I. And so are you.
Originally published in 2005, “The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil” wasn’t meant to represent a specific person or dictator or ideology, and certainly not Donald Trump. In fact, as George Saunders has said, Phil came to represent humanity itself in that he encapsulated us all and the terrible people we can become doing horrible things, whether out of fear or malice or self-preservation or whatever other justification we cling to.
“The story came to be about the human tendency to continuously divide the world into dualities,” Saunders wrote in his essay, ‘Why I Wrote Phil’, “and, soon after, cast one’s lot in with one side of the duality and begin energetically trying to eliminate the other.”
Taking more than five years to write, the ghost of an antagonist that haunted Saunders’ subconscious while he worked on ‘Phil’ changed forms constantly, from Hitler to Stalin, the atrocities in Rwanda, Bosnia, the Holocaust and, as time progressed, “Islamic fundamentalism, the war on terror, the invasion of Iraq, red states vs. blue states, Abu Ghraib, Shia vi. Sunni, as well as smaller, more localized examples of Us vs. Them.”
Some characters try to fight back against Phil, and some recognize that what he is doing is wrong but are afraid to act. Others follow along, kissing up and betting on what looks to them like the winning horse. After all, Phil has the loudest voice. He’s speaking his mind and the people really like that. He knows how to manipulate those around him, including the media.
Not all are fearful or cowardly and the world at large begins to fight back, but it’s ultimately Phil’s own ego that brings him down (with a little divine intervention) and saves the world of Inner and Outer Horner. Even then, that tendency to see “us” and “them” comes through, and you understand that this was probably not the first and would not be the last time a scenario like this would play out.
Check out Saunders’ own essay that gives a little more background into how the novella came to be, even though I’ve quoted a good amount of it for you already. If you have read the book already and enjoyed it, or if you’re interested in the craft of writing and how one gets from Point A to Phil, you should read it.
(And if it’s the latter reason, go and watch his video from the Atlantic)
Saunders has mentioned how at one point the book was over 300 pages. Eventually, he found it necessary to cut it down for reasons of pacing and tone, but sometimes an author just can’t let go. On ReignofPhil.com you can read what hit the cutting room floor in the outtakes section, with a little background on the scenes and why they didn’t make it. It’s a great behind the scenes look you don’t always get with books, and it’s a pretty cool website, so take a look.
An article I came across about a secret ballroom built in the 19th century beneath a lake piqued my curiosity and led me to search out more information and photographs about this incredibly intriguing hidden marvel. The history of Whitaker Wright, his property at Lea Park where the underwater ballroom is located, his shady business deals and eventual suicide when his deception was uncovered seems ripe to transform into any number of plotlines and stories.
While gathering information for my own story (one that leans more towards Lovecraft than Agatha Christie), I found the Facebook page for “The Folly Under the Lake”. It hadn’t been released yet and I kind of dismissed it, but as I kept writing and tinkering and going back to search for new information, it kept popping up until finally I bought it.
To be honest, I underestimated “The Folly Under the Lake”. I didn’t expect to enjoy it and maybe I didn’t want to, so at first, I didn’t.
Initially, I was put off by being thrust into the story through two characters who seemed set up to be a secondary, annoying couple you pity but deep down can’t stand. From there, too many characters were introduced too quickly where I got to the point I didn’t care who was talking anymore and had no interest in trying to keep them apart.
But I kept reading and they kept talking. And talking. And there was a lot of dialogue. But then I told myself to stop trying to hate the book, to stop trying to look for what was wrong. I would read a couple chapters and put it down, read a couple more the next night, and during the fourth day, when I was six or seven chapters in, I found myself excited for later when I would get to pick it up and read some more.
While this was not a great book, it nevertheless had me hooked.
Whether it was my interest in the underwater ballroom itself or curiosity over how Walter would be killed, and whether I was right about who did it (I wasn’t), I was excited to keep reading it, pacing myself as I did to tease the story out.
Could “The Folly Under the Lake” have benefited from deeper characterization and more thorough descriptions to build up of this incredible setting? Definitely. The book synopsis says the story is set in the 1930s, but I didn’t feel there was anything in the text itself to establish that. Given that the historical basis for the setting and characters is rooted at the turn of the 20th century, with Whitaker Wright committing suicide in 1904, my knowledge of the background and the claims from the synopsis were always at odds and that left me with a feeling of inconsistency that more attention to setting by the author could have avoided.
But ultimately, it was a fun read and I enjoyed more than I expected I would. The book did exactly as it needed to keep the reader engaged and moving forward through this little murder mystery, offering up valid suspects in each of the characters that kept you excited to read on and solve the crime.