Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Waste of Space

You'd think a nice staycation would be a great time to get some blogging done, but you'd be wrong.  The beach is exhausting, people.

I got Gina Damico's Waste of Space as an ARC from Netgalley quite a while ago, but I didn't read it till recently because of the PDF Problem. Books with interesting formatting often offer PDFs instead of Kindle files, and with some, like Waste of Space, the formatting can't translate onto my e-ink Kindle.  I ended up reading it on my computer, and I'd recommend a paper copy if you're going to read it.

Waste of Space is a scathing satire of reality TV, modern stupidity, teenagers, and basically everyone.  An insanely slimy and deeply stupid internet TV producer named Chazz hooks up with an organization called the National Association for the Study of Aerospace and Weightlessness (NASAW, aka low-rent NASA) to fake launching a dozen teenagers into space for $$ratings!$$. 

The teenagers are awful, except our hero and heroine. Hibiscus is a mindless, crunchy hipster. Clayton is a rich ass after fame. Snout is...well, actually a decent person, but since he's the hick from the sticks, he talks with a heavy accent and only tells stories about his pet pig Colonel Bacon (who is on the ship with him). Bacardi is the woo girl who stays sloppy drunk and makes out with random people.  There's an overachiever, a girl who speaks only Japanese, a supernerd--every stereotype you can imagine.

Plus our heroes, of course.  Nico, whose parents died and who is really shy, and Titania, who is running from her Troubling Past.

They go into "space," with a weekly half hour show and a live feed. Unbeknownst to them, they're on a sound stage being managed by NASAW scientists at the behest of Chazz.  The world is watching with bated breath, though it's not entirely clear if the world is hanging on a bunch of kids in space or an audacious reality TV gambit.  Either way, the world is full of people who buy this hook, line, and sinker, in spite of it making not a lick of sense.

This is what it comes down to--the book is so heavy handed that it ceases to be satirical and becomes slapstick.  I'm not going to let the YA designation get it off the hook for that--reality TV can be such a parody of itself that you almost can't make fun of it, but that doesn't mean the solution is going so far over the top I can't see the top in the rear view mirror.

Essentially, every character here was such a parody, and the entire cast (including the watching world) was so devoid of common sense, that I didn't have anyone to latch onto.  Even our POV characters, the kids who were pretty "normal" in the cast, were just exaggerated versions of the characters you root for on reality shows.

The coolest thing about the book was its form, as a collection of found documents and transcripts of both broadcast episodes and unaired footage.  The anonymous intern who put the book together and sent it to the Center for Missing and Exploited Children is the person I'm most likely to sympathize with in the whole thing, and she barely appears herself.  But she is the only sign that the world that real people inhabit has any relationship to the one in the book.

I can't say the book wasn't pretty fun, especially the few characters who you learn more about at the end--there's no real development for anyone, but there are some revelations that keep you interested. The boredom of living in a reality TV house between stunts is pretty well-evoked, though I can't say that's a selling point.  But there are some great lines, and honestly, I kind of wanted to meet Bacardi and Snout.  If I had to spend a few weeks trapped in a fake space plane with a couple of teenagers, I suppose I could do worse.

Thursday, August 03, 2017

HIPPO COWBOYS, Y'ALL

Best. Premise. Ever.

First, go listen to this segment on This American Life: "Hungry Hungry People." (Or you can read the Kindle Single on the same story.) It's the true story of how, in the early part of the 20th century, Congress considered solving a food shortage by populating the Louisiana bayou with hippopotamuses.

In her novella River of Teeth, Sarah Gailey takes that proposal, pushes it back 50 years, and imagines the cowboys who would herd and manage hippo production.  This is an amazing alternate history premise.

It's put to the service of what is essentially a heist story, in which five sketchy folks team up to pull off an elaborate plan that will make them a big pile of money--clear this big stretch of water of all the feral hippos. (Also, one of the characters is out for revenge.)

Verdict: more heist than the book could handle; not nearly enough worldbuilding.

I am really hesitant about "I wanted more" as a criticism of a book, because the best books are able to create realism without drilling down into all the detail, and evoking a fully realized reality is often enough.  But I wanted more here because reality did not feel as concrete or specific as I wanted it to be.  It's not that I needed more heist, or more backstory, or more time with the characters.  I needed a deeper understanding of what was going on. 

One issue was that there were just too many characters for a novella.  Five folks on the job, the villain, and the lawman.  If the five on the heist had been an established team who fit together neatly, that might have worked out, but the amount of infighting and double crossing and getting to know each other was just overwhelming, and I felt like I got only a loose sketch of most of the characters.  They were all very different, but I still had some trouble keeping track (the two main female characters both had names that started with A, which confused me more than it should have). 

I'm a bit skeptical about the hippo lore, too.  I assume the author did plenty of research, and I know that hippos are violent and dangerous, but they are not generally meat eaters unless driven to it, so the "hungry" element of the danger of the ferals seemed out of place to me.  If it had been explained why they were so eager to eat people, maybe it would have felt more real? 

Also, we didn't find out what the heist was about for the first half of the book. There's the actual, legit job, the trick they have to make it worth their time and money (but if that was the plan, why did they need a con artist?), and the secondary goals of all the main characters.  It was too much and it never really came together for me.

Which is a shame.  Because hippo cowboys, y'all.  Hippo. Cowboys.

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Back from the Land: In Which Hippies Take to the Woods

Alternate post titles I considered here: "Schadenfreude: Wood Heat Dries Your Sinuses; Hauling Water is Hard," or "On Not Knowing What We Don't Know."

This might be the first time I really wished I track where I find the books that end up on my to-read list, because this one was a direct reference from somewhere--another book, a blog post--and I found reading it to be SO interesting that I wish I could go back and retrace my steps.  The book Back from the Land: How Young Americans Went to Nature in the 1970s and How They Came Back, by Eleanor Agnew, started out by scratching a very particular itch that I have and ended up leaving me feeling like I had some insights into the author's personal defense mechanisms and personal narratives.

The itch--the reason I picked up the book--is because I love "huh, farm life maybe isn't so idyllic after all" stories. City folk moving to the country and trying to chop enough wood to get through the winter amuses me.  City folks being shocked at how heavy buckets of water are makes me feel--here, I'm admitting it--superior.

I'm not proud of it.  Honestly, I don't deserve the superiority; I'm not the one who woke up twice a night to feed the wood stoves when I was a kid.  But my parents did, every night.  My father had to tromp 100 yards through the snow to feed the greenhouse fires, too, every night of February and March and most of April, for years. I just had to fill the wood box in the entryway from the shed in the barn, and even then, not often.  I was spoiled.

But I know how hard all this stuff is, which is why I get satisfaction watching noobs learn things that my mom is an expert on (cooking on a wood stove is hard!). It's similar to what I enjoyed about Kristin Kimball's The Dirty Life: A Memoir of Farming, Food, and Love. Kimball brought a wry self-deprecation to her recollections of starting this out.  Or what I liked about the This American Life segment called "Farm Eye for a Farm Guy." Listen to it--it's only 20 minutes long and it's super great.

This is what drew me to the book, and the reason why, as I read the first chapter or two, I kept reading passages out loud to my family and chuckling.  These folks are so naive!

What kept me reading, I think, was the insights into the author. Eleanor Agnew moved from, I believe, Pennsylvania with her husband and two young sons to live on a homestead in Maine. (If you are going to live off the land, why would you pick a state in which winter lasts 8 long months? Did you even think about this?)

The book contains her own reminiscences and those of many other friends and acquaintances, back-to-the-landers from all over the country who lived everywhere from communes to wilderness to small farm towns.  She seeks out the threads of commonality to their experiences--including how they end--and that's interesting and worthwhile. But in the end, it is also very anecdotal, and the citations and statistics drawn from sociology and economics don't add any rigor to what is essentially a group memoir.  As a memoir, it works somewhat, even with so many voices and experiences represented. As a study, even a pop-social science study, it doesn't stand up to any scrutiny.

The author has an agenda: she knows that their philosophies were sound, even if they weren't strong enough to live them out.  She believes that "mainstream society" is full of materialistic sheeple, but back-to-the-landers--even those who have rejoined the mainstream and are now architects and college professors--are still pure of heart.  She describes how much she values nature, and how she gets such bliss observing the koi pond in her backyard in the subdivision she lives in.  See, she values nature in ways that other suburbanites do not. 

This sense that the internal lives of the people who share her beliefs are virtuous and consistent and justify whatever outward choices they're making, while the internal lives of others who make the same outward choices are suspect, is pervasive in the book.  She talks about how hippies didn't need fancy new cars, and then she discovers that wow, an old car in a Maine winter takes a lot of upkeep and often means getting trapped in your backwoods home. She even says explicitly that she would not mind at all having a new car, because it would be a safe and reliable connection to the outside world, but doesn't follow that line of thought through to the notion that maybe other people who get new cars have useful reasons, whether practical or psychological.

xkcd.com 
Maybe it's because I've been thinking a lot lately about intersectionality and other people's points of view, but this seems like a huge gap to me.  Maybe it's because she is thinking of the society of the late '70s, when Ronald Reagan was about to get elected, and that kind of cynicism is justified.  But the time she spends near the end of the book justifying how okay it is that they've gone mainstream but they're still more virtuous and in touch with the harmony of the universe than other people just frustrated me and really detracted from the point she never quite got to about what made life more authentic if you have to haul water instead of using pipes.

Also, darn it, she misused words and ideas in a few places.  I don't want to be pedantic, but "I was donned in my uniform" is not how you use that verb; the fact that the average life expectancy was 18 years does not mean that no one lived to grow old; the goal of the pioneers was not to live in harmony with the land, but to gain economic security and prosperity so they could improve their lifestyles.  They lived in dugout houses so they could later afford nicer ones, not because they wanted to live in dugouts.  They would not have said no to running water.

So in the end, my satisfied schadenfreude about the naive kids getting in touch with mother earth was replaced by a kind of sad schadenfreude about baby boomers who still think that they have it all figured out.  I'm reminded of my father's old saying: "My opinions may change, but not the fact that I'm right." Agnew has readjusted her view of the world so that no matter what they do, she and her friends have cornered the market on virtue.