Turtles All the Way Down

Cover of Turtles All the Way Down, but John Green. A cream background with an orange spiral down the length of the book, with the title and author as overlayed black text.

I feel like I was in a unique position when I read this book, even though that unique position is shared by literally millions of other fans of John Green. There’s this community that has developed around the youtube channel John shares with his brother Hank (we call ourselves Nerdfighters), and as I think happens with a lot of vlog-style personal youtube channels, if you watch the videos often enough, and over enough time, it starts to feel like you really know that person, even if, like me, you only ever met John for approximately 30 seconds at a book signing over 5 years ago.

So when I read Turtles All the Way Down, it felt like I was reading a book by a friend. I could see so much of John in every page, more so than in any of his previous books. John Green is one of those writers that wears a lot of themselves on their sleeves when they write. His early books (most notably, in my opinion, Looking for Alaska and Paper Towns) feel a lot like stories of his own life, but I didn’t “know” him when he wrote them, so they resonated in different ways for me. The Fault in Our Stars is definitely a testament to the life and death of Ester Earl, which played out in Nerdfighteria, but I was only around for the aftermath. With Turtles, John is really tackling his life-long battle with mental illness, which he’s very honest about in his videos, especially over the last few years.

In a lot of ways, Turtles is a response to TFIOS, but not so much to the book itself as to the explosion around it’s publication and the subsequent movie. I think of those as dark times in Nerdfighteria, not because I didn’t like the book (I did) or because the movie wasn’t a great adaptation (it was), but because if you were paying attention, you could really see the toll that level of stress was taking on John.

Some authors never bounce back from a bestselling book like The Fault in Our Stars. It made “John Green” all but a household name. Most people in my life won’t necessarily recognize his name, but they’ll know who I’m talking about when I mention TFIOS. John Green was already a big name in YA and book communities, but the success of the TFIOS book and movie really propelled him into the rest of the public consciousness. It’s hard to follow up that kind of success.

Perhaps ironically, Turtles doesn’t remind me as much of his previous books as it does Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell (one of my favorite books, I might add). Both have characters who suffer from anxiety, although it manifests very differently in both their cases. Both protagonists are struggling to find their way to themselves, while also feeling like a burden to the people around them. They have trouble with romance; they have trouble just functioning in their daily lives, sometimes; and they both fight with this desire to feel or at least act “normal,” which is something that’s easy to relate to even if you’re lucky enough not to be saddled with the extra struggle of having a mental illness. Although both are very targeted in their characters, they’re still easy to relate to, and I think they really add positively to the conversation around mental illness (although I think this without being a part of that conversation, so take that with a grain of salt).

I almost feel like I’m too close to John to be able to adequately judge if this was a good or a bad book (also, what does that really even mean?), but it was an impactful book. It left me thinking, even just between paragraphs, and the ending was satisfying without being too neat, which I always appreciate.

There were a few places where I was left wanting. There were approximately five seconds in which I thought Aza’s best friend, Daisy, might be queer, but she was pretty quickly shuffled into a heterosexual relationship. This wasn’t a problem necessarily, and of course being in a het relationship doesn’t guarantee the character is heterosexual (as opposed to bisexual, pansexual, or some other identity), but since John’s only written queer characters when his co-writer was a gay man, it would have been nice to see him actively incorporate one. And I think Daisy could have been completely unchanged as a character if her love interest had been female. It would have only added to the experience of the book for me, and wouldn’t have negatively effected Aza’s story in any way.

Ok, this next point is about the end, and I’m going to try to do it as non-spoilery as possible, but you have been warned!

I’m not sure how I feel about the last page or so of the book, where John Green does something you’re generally not advised to do in YA books: jumps to the characters later in life. The YA editor in me was screaming, but I see why the choice was made. It’s one of those details that flies when your audience is adults, and is harder to pull off when your audience in teens, but since John Green does have such a varied readership (just look at the cover—this is not being aggressively marketed at teens; it’s being left open to both teen and adult readers, similar to how they marketed TFIOS, which I think speaks volumes about who they’re hoping to grab the attention of—that is, everyone), it can slide by. As an adult reader, I kind of like it; it makes me think of all the ways I’ve changed since I was Teen Lucy. But it did take me out of the book a little. It was one of the parts that felt especially dripping with John’s personal voice, and that’s not a bad thing necessarily, but like I said, I have mixed feelings about it.

Ok, the potentially-spoilery part is over!

Overall, this book was exactly what I was hoping for: a continued distance between current John books and the legacy he started back with Looking for Alaska. I feel like he was stuck for a few years writing the same book over and over again, and I liked all the iterations of it, but I’m happy to see him continuing in the vein of TFIOS and treading new ground. It was also mercifully different from TFIOS in so many ways that I can see him growing and changing as an author. I’m such a proud little fan right now!

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Nostalgia

We’re all familiar with nostalgia. Sometimes it seems like Hollywood, and really the rest of the entertainment industry, is leaning heavily on the nostalgia fad, rebooting anything and everything they can (with mixed results, of course). I’m definitely guilty of wallowing in nostalgia, and have been doing so pretty much since I started approaching adulthood. In high school, I went through a second My Little Pony phase, and started buying up various old VHS tapes from dollar bins at video stores (we still had video stores back then, although it was the beginning of the end). And a lot of my current hobbies rely a lot on nostalgia.

But recently I’ve been thinking a lot about the context of nostalgia.

Back around 2010, I was a big fan of this website called That Guy With the Glasses (which is actually still a thing, albeit with a different name), run by the titular creator. His main series was the Nostalgia Critic, but through that website, he took on a lot of other creators as well. They all had their own focus, ranging from movies to comics to popular music.

A lot of these creators have also uploaded their work to youtube, especially as they’ve gone on to do other projects, and recently I’ve fallen into rewatching some of my old favorites. Weirdly though, these videos don’t make me nostalgic for their source material so much as for the website itself.

I think the interesting thing about nostalgia surrounding things on the internet is that, unlike the thousand rereleases of kids movies we get, some things are just hard or impossible to recreate. Yes, I can go back and watch these videos, but the context is missing. There are countless cameos that I just can’t explain to new viewers. It makes them a little less watchable now, but it makes them uniquely special.

I guess where I’m going with this is that even in this age, when it seems like everything is being remastered or remade or repackaged, some things still aren’t reproducible. And maybe nothing ever really is. I can rewatch Mighty Morphing Power Rangers from the comfort of my own couch, but it’s not the same as illicitly watching it in my best friend’s front room in first grade, or desperately wondering what episodes I’d miss during TV Turn-Off Week. I can still log in to Gaia Online, but I can’t jump back in to the “newspaper” I was running with other teenagers, or watch sponsored movies with my friends, because we’re just not all in that place any more.

Still cool, though.

I think nostalgia is powerful not so much because of the things that inspire it, but because of where and when we were when we loved them. I loved some really horribly made shows when I was a kid, and many of them I still love now, not because there’s really any value to them, but because they remind me of being young and still learning about the world. Sometimes they were a happy escape from unhappier things, and sometimes they were a model for how I wanted adulthood–at least as I understood it then–to be. Watching these old youtube videos reminds me of being in college, when youtube was just taking off, my friends all lived within a five minute walk from me, and “summer” still guaranteed some time off.

But nostalgia can be dangerous. I think it’s easy to keep looking back, to keep trying to retread old patterns or chase old dreams, when instead you need to look at where you are now, and evaluate where you’d like to be, realistically. The bitter-sweet tang of nostalgia can be a captivating drug, but you have to learn to process that into new projects. At least, that’s what I hope I can do.

 

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Audience

Although it’s not something I recommend writers think about too much during the early creative side of building a story, audience is very important when you get close to the publishing side of things. But just because your story has a natural, intended audience, doesn’t always mean that will be it’s exclusive audience.

This week I’ve been thinking a lot about audience. Or, more specifically, the weirdness of liking something that’s not aimed at you.

Recently, I’ve fallen back in love with the anime Dragon Ball Z. Even if you’re not into anime, you’ve likely heard of this show (or seen some of the art), because it was one of the early powerhouse franchises when anime was first sweeping the American airwaves back in the 90s and aughts. Back in the day, you only had a few options for anime on tv, and one of the most “mature” (aka aimed more at teenagers) was Dragon Ball Z. It was about heroic warriors defeating grand villains in dramatic one-off stands, often on other planets, and usually involving a good amount of comic relief and ridiculous abilities. It was campy, macho, and at least a little self-aware. And 12 year old Lucy was absolutely obsessed with it.

The cast of Dragon Ball Z, in ulter-dramatic epic poses, close-up montage shot.

Yeah, this.

I never expected 3o-year-old Lucy to be able to still care about it.

I am not now, and have never been, the intended audience for this show. It’s aimed at boys in the child-to-teen range, and prides itself on being badass, tough, and occasionally gross. These are not normally things that I like, and I’m always kind of stumped when pressed to explain what I like about it. Sure, at this point nostalgia plays a heavy roll, but I wasn’t any more into those things when I was 12 than I am now (possibly less so).

I guess the easiest explanation is that at the time it delivered all the other things that drew me to anime: grand, overarching plot; characters who were allowed to grow and change with the show; nuanced approaches to the concept of good and evil. It gave me in a cartoon the kind of complex stories I was used to only finding in books.

Now, I’m no stranger to liking things that are not expressly aimed at me. Steven Universe is one of my favorite shows, and it’s definitely not aimed at 30-year-olds (although, I could go on and on about this show, and probably will at some point). I read a lot of YA literature, despite being now nearly twice as old as most of the characters. But I feel especially weird when it comes to DBZ. I don’t know if it’s the gendered thing. It is very aggressively aimed at guys. But I like super hero stuff, which has essentially the same audience.

I think it comes back to some habitual embarrassment about anime. When I was a teen, it was just coming into its own as a medium in America, and most people thought anime was either A) only for little kids (because it was animation), or B) porn (because the fact that there was anime porn pretty much traumatized everyone who was expecting option A). Anyone who knew better, but wasn’t actually in to it, just thought it was nerdy in the extreme. Which, maybe it was. I guess as a teen I got used to either having to defend my love for a show, or just pretend I didn’t care about it. Like a true hipster, I learned to love things ironically before it was cool, because that was easiest.

Well, I’ve been trying to get better at loving things unironically, but it’s hard with DBZ, because it seems so completely opposite to how I think of myself. I mean, I still love Sailor Moon, and I can see how it influenced me as a writer. I have no idea how DBZ influenced me, and that’s a weird feeling.

I think some of it does come back to how much of a boy show it was. Even at the time, I felt like it was something I shouldn’t be watching. Not because it was any sillier than Sailor Moon, but because it wasn’t for me. In reality of course, girls watched DBZ and boys watched Sailor Moon (and everyone watched Pokemon), because that was what we had to watch, and because both were compelling and fun in their own ways.

Still, whenever I see art or merchandise for the show, I’m reminded how much it’s not targeted to me. Often when I hear guys talk about it online or at conventions, I’m reminded how much it isn’t targeted to me. And the show is actively sexist; from the lack of female characters to the creepy sexualization of what few woman there are.

It’s a weirdly alienating feeling. It’s probably also a very privileged feeling, as it’s not that hard to find things that are aimed at me.

Actually, lets talk about that. Most of the things I like are not aimed at me. Sure, there are things aimed at women in their late twenties and early thirties. They’re mostly romantic comedies. I enjoy a good rom-com as much as the next person, but I’m not really drawn to them. Be it literature or movies, I like things that are a little darker, a little rowdier. And sometimes, a little more juvenile. But as a white woman who dates men, it’s not like I’m being ignored as a demographic, and it’s pretty easy to find characters who look like me who I can at least somewhat relate to. There are certainly many people who are more ignored by pop culture than I am.

Lets take Steven Universe again. I’m not saying it’s the be-all-end-all of television, but I love this show. More than I’ve loved any piece of popular culture in a long time. And it’s not aimed at me. It’s definitely aimed at kids, but it feels like it was written just for me. It plays with gender norms, bucks heteronormativity, and is full of awesome, diverse, interesting ladies. It’s also got kind, intelligent, complex men. It makes me feel a little bit better about humanity.

I think a big reason Steven Universe clicks for me is it feels like I could have written it. Or one of my friends could have. More and more, I’m finding things that are written by my generation, by people who were influenced by the things that influenced me, and there’s something so awesome about that. And perhaps unsurprisingly, Steven Universe definitely has some DBZ influences in it. Also Sailor Moon, and Revolutionary Girl Utena (and I hear Transformers, but I can’t speak to that). Basically, it’s by my people, so it’s not that surprisingly that I would fall in love with it.

That doesn’t really solve my frustration over DBZ, though. It just brings it around again.

I guess I’m not going to come to any conclusions here, but as a writer, I think it’s important to remember that there are probably more audiences out there than I’m thinking about. Even if I’m aiming for this specific idea of a person (maybe a little bit like me, or a while lot different), I can’t predict who my story will resinate with. I can’t control who will find it and love it, and that’s a good thing. I just wish more shows recognized their varied audience. I’ve been let down by Dragon Ball before, and I will be again, because I’m really not on their minds. But I’m still here, and I’m still watching.

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The Cemetery

I realized it had been far too long since I posted any recent writing!

This is a small excerpt from one of my works-in-progress. It’s gone by many different names, but the current working title is Echoes. This takes place in the first chapter, and is based off of a cemetery that I used to go to as a kid.

If you like comparisons, I posted a scene from a much earlier draft back in 2010, about a eerie school at night, and it’s still available here. I also have some early marketing copy from when I used this for a project in grad school.

The Cemetery

It’s September, and although the days are still hotter than I would like, the evenings have begun to cool off enough that I really should have brought a sweater. I don’t turn back, though. You couldn’t pay me to go back there right now.

The night is chill, but its clear, a relative rarity in the Pacific Northwest, even in the summer. The sky stretches out above me, the stars only slightly dulled by the light from downtown off to the West, and I feel like I could fall into the sky if I stood there long enough. I squeeze my camera, trying to imagine how to capture that feeling on film.

After my house, the streets are eerily quiet. There’s no one else in sight, and it feels like I’m not just alone on the street, but alone in the world, it’s so quiet. That waiting quiet of midnight in the suburbs. Continue reading

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Power Couples for the Win! Dragon Ball Super Episode 99

(Transferred over from my Tumblr…minor spoilers and stuff)

I got a tad ranty last time I talked about Dragon Ball Super, but this time they actually did something well! In episode 99, they managed to produce a kind of awesome example of how you can write a healthy power dynamic between men and women.

So Krillin and 18 are married at this point, with an adorable daughter, but Super has been generous enough to actually let 18 do stuff in this current tournament arc (unlike pretty much every other female that has gotten married–I’m looking at you, Videl). She’s not only been supportive of her husband, she’s gotten an acceptable amount of development herself, and one of the highlights of this arc for me has been getting to see their dynamic at play. Well, they got to shine for a part of this episode, and for a few glorious moments, everything was right in the world.

While fighting baddies and generally kicking ass and taking names in the battle royale, 18 nearly got kicked out of the ring. Krillin rescued her and blasted them back to safety, carrying her in his arms in full Superman/damsel-in-distress mode…but it actually wasn’t terrible. Why? Here was, basically, their exchange:

Him: Whoa, honey, you normally don’t get distracted so easily

Her: (with a smirk instead of dewy eyes) Oh, shut up, you.

It was adorable. Neither was weakened by the exchange, and neither came out “on top.” Krillin may have saved the day (for the time being), but it wasn’t because 18 needed saving as a weak female–it was just one fighter helping out their teammate, with some added warm-fuzzies from their relationship. It’s a small moment, but its actually a great example of how to write characters helping each other while keeping them on even footing (power-dynamic-wise), and subverting some tropes while you’re at at.

Of course, the other characters instantly grumbled about how she ruined the moment, I guess by not being a submissive dewy-eyed damsel, and the episode kind of took a turn for the worst (and it could be argued that Krillin got punished for not being manly enough in this moment), but I don’t care. I’m taking this as a win. For now.

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CDs vs Music


This week, I’ve been thinking a lot about…CDs. Not albums, not music, but CDs. Physical CDs. 

Or more specifically: how few of them I have these days.

CDs used to be a necessity. Like tapes and records before them, they were required in order to, you know, listen to music. But these days, I almost never buy CDs. I mean, what’s the point, really? It’ll only be useful for the five minutes it takes to download the music onto my computer, and from then on, the CD is useless. I don’t even have a CD player anymore, other than my computer. If I’m listening to music, it’s on my iPod, or through Pandora (or even Youtube). If I really need to own it and have it on hand, I download it from iTunes.

And that makes me think: the CDs I have are kind of extra special, aren’t they?

So, I wanted to do a quick survey of the CDs I do still own, discounting any that aren’t actually in my room.

Mostly, I have stuff that is super indie. Hank Green and the Perfect Strangers. The Doubleclicks. Some indie singles I’ve picked up at cons.

Then, there are my Vienna Teng CDs, which date back from college, but are beloved enough that I’ve kept them around.

And finally, I have some musical soundtracks, because I can usually pick them up for cheap at used stores; cheaper than if I downloaded them.

And finally, Hamilton, because…well, because Hamilton.

I guess my conclusion is that I buy/keep CDs when I really care about a band or show, or if it’s the cheaper option.

But I’m left with a dilemma. The Steven Universe soundtrack finally came out this month, and I instantly bought it in iTunes. But I kind of want the physical CD, too….

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I’ll just be over here spitting fire about Dragon Ball Super episode 89…

(Transferred over from my Tumblr…Spoiler alert or whatever but it’s not about plot)

Maybe later I’ll write up some detailed critique on my blog, but right now I just want to be Mad.

So, Dragon Ball has a long, torrid history of not being great to its female characters. I (like probably many fans) tend to excuse that as it being from a different era. After all, the 80s and 90s were a long time ago. Surely the writers now would treat women better, right?

Apparently not.

This was a long time coming, and I’m not actually surprised, just deeply disappointed. I would like a thing I love to be better to me.

Quick recap: Goku is gathering fighters, including Tien and Roshi. They’re hanging out at Tien’s dojo, so Goku goes there, and stumbles into a dumb plot wherein a girl Tien used to know shows up to challenge him, gets systematically creeped on by Roshi, and no one does anything.

Of fucking course no one does anything. Because this show, full of strong characters we’re supposed to look up to, can never bother to actually defend women and stop perverted assholes from assaulting them.

To be clear: I’m not mad that the perverted assholes exist, necessarily. They’re a cliche of shonen stories, which are known for raunchy humor, and just, whatever. But our heroes are supposed to be better than that.

Sure, Goku’s an oblivious moron and I don’t expect him to suddenly become this defender of women, but there are so many ways to have him shut this bullshit down, while staying in character and maintaining the tone. It doesn’t have to be a Lesson. It can still be goofy, raunchy Dragon Ball, but just maybe don’t have your main character fucking back out of the room where a perverted old man is alone with a clearly-protesting woman.

It’s not like the show is trying to tell us what Roshi’s doing is right, but it’s also not telling us that it’s behavior we should take any steps to stop, either. It’s played off as harmless perversion; dirty old men will be dirty old men, after all. But is it harmless?

Actions speak louder than words, and from the beginning this series has shown through its actions that women and girls should expect men to ogle and assault them, and the good guys in their lives won’t do anything to stop it.

It’s in character. It’s not unexpected and I shouldn’t be surprised…but it’s fucking disappointing every damn time.

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