How To Be Happier: Teenager Edition

This is an example essay I wrote for my AP Language class when they were assigned a Process Analysis. If it’s a little on the nose, well — it’s for teenagers.


How To Be Happier

Are you dissatisfied with your life?

You’re teenagers. Of course you are.

But that’s the bad news. (Okay, it’s probably not news. But how would you know? When was the last time you actually watched the news? I’m not even going to ask about reading it.) The good news is that you can fix this. You can change your daily routines, in simple, manageable ways, and the result will be improved satisfaction with your life. In fact, even more than that: your life will get clearly, demonstrably better. I guarantee it.

Let me tell you how. Step by step, so you don’t get lost. Pay attention.


Step One: Waking Up

You’re probably still tired. School does come early, doesn’t it? I don’t really have a solution, because even when researchers say school should start later, their suggestion is between 8am and 8:30, so it’s as good as it’s going to get; but I will say that often, catching just a few more minutes of sleep can make you feel a bit more – well, not happy, certainly, but resigned, at least; accepting, maybe – of your day’s new start and the requirement that you must now move, and act, and interact with someone other than your pillow. So the key to that is to minimize your time preparing for school (or work, on the weekends) in the morning. Here’s what you do.

First, put your phone down. Checking the Twitters, or your Insta-Face GramBook, or your text messages or what have you probably doesn’t take a lot of your time, considering that your thumbs can move at skittering-cockroach speeds over the screen; but it does take your attention, and that slows you down. Brushing your teeth while looking at a screen is slower than brushing your teeth while looking at your teeth. Sure, brushing your teeth isn’t nearly as interesting as social media, but the goal here is a few more minutes of sleep: so stare into that bathroom mirror, pretend you’re a rabid wolf foaming at the mouth (Peppermint-flavored rabies is the best kind of rabies!), and get it done quickly. Same with depilation, if that is part of your morning routine: every minute you shave off of your shaving is a minute more unconscious. And that’s always the goal.

Do as many tasks as possible before you go to bed in the evening. Set out your clothes for the next day; floss at night instead of in the morning (If you floss both times, you’re either obsessive, or you snack too much in your sleep. Seriously, who has food in their teeth before breakfast? Do it at night like a regular person.). If you can shower at night without your hair doing alien levitation tricks the next day, go for it. Get your backpack/binder/whatever ready the night before, so you can just grab it and go.

Don’t skip breakfast, though. That’s important. Speaking of which…


Step Two: Breakfast

First, put your phone down. If you are one of those incredibly fortunate people with a loved one who actually makes you breakfast, show your gratitude by speaking to them. Try to be pleasant, though don’t demand a miracle from yourself; if this person is actually willing to get up in the morning and cook for someone else, they are almost certainly willing to carry the conversation, and would be happy with the chance to share their overly-chipper-insanity-babbles with you. Ask them what their plans are for the day, and then just try to nod without actually falling asleep on top of your waffles on the way down.

If you, like me, are on your own for breakfast, then it’s toast or cereal that you are looking for. If you’re a toaster: try buttering both sides. For the more cereal person, I highly recommend Mom’s Cereal. It is delicious, and it seems local, organic, and environmentally conscious; actually, it’s a Post brand with a good marketing scheme. It just pretends to be more aware.

Like you.

If you are eating cereal, then the only thing you are permitted to look at is the cereal box. Yes, I know it isn’t interesting; but that’s how cereal must be eaten. It’s a tradition. Try comparing the nutrition facts on the box to anything else you have available with a recommended daily allowance. Like the bottle of bleach under the sink! Pop quiz: which one’s healthier, bleach or Lucky Charms?

(Hint: it’s bleach. It’s also delicious on the cereal!)

All right, all fueled up and ready to hit the road? Then let’s go!


Step Three: Driving

This is a bit tougher, because there are two areas for improvement in driving: driving safer, and avoiding boredom while driving. The two can seem mutually exclusive, because things you do to entertain yourself can detract from your safety. But there are ways to accomplish both goals, which is where my suggestions will aim; anything you can substitute for entertainment is up to you. Here’s my idea.

First, put your phone down. Distracted driving is rapidly becoming the largest cause of accidents. According to the Almighty Google, 431,000 people were injured in accidents involving distracted drivers in 2014, and by far the largest population of drivers using phones while they drive is teenagers. You. Putting your phone down is the easiest thing you can do to make yourself safer – and believe me, you do not want to start your day with a car crash. Or end it that way. Or have one in the middle.

In terms of entertainment, try singing along, at maximum volume, to whatever is on the radio. It’s best when you’re listening to opera or Spanish music. When you have no idea what the words are, you get to make them up. And the tune, too! Try it with your windows down – entertain the other drivers! See, it feels good to make other people happy!

Before you know it, you’ll arrive. (Even faster if other people are chasing you.) Time for…


Step Four: School

Once again, there are many aspects, some of which can pull you in opposite directions. If you do well in class, does that make you a nerd, and therefore persona non grata among the interesting sex? (If you are interested in women, then no: they tend not to be that shallow. If you are interested in men, then no: they are way too shallow to care about intelligence.) But in any case, I will try to help you out in as many aspects as I can. Here we go.


Classes: If you really can get more sleep, that will make the biggest difference. Along with eating breakfast. Nobody can learn while they are asleep. Other than getting more sleep, the next best thing you can do is this: first, put your phone down. Pay attention. I know it can be difficult, but it’s a positive feedback loop: the more you pay attention, the more sense it makes, and that makes it easier to pay attention and also more useful at the same time; at some point, you will be able to get distracted by the ideas in the class, and still pay attention at the same time.

Trust me. That is a very fun way to learn something. Give it a shot; your current method of ignoring the very idea of work, and then hoping that something, somehow, will make sense when the test is placed in front of you, is probably not working real well.


Using the bathroom: First, put your phone down. Carefully: you don’t want to drop it here. And talking to someone else while you are on the toilet makes you worse than Stalin. No exaggeration. But it is fun to have a fake one-way conversation while someone is in the next stall. Ask the air how their hemorrhoids are doing. Or if they plan to torture that last one they caught, or just kill it and dump the body. Or try talking to the person in the next stall, demanding a response, and then when they respond, say disgustedly, “I wasn’t talking to you!”

Please note: if you are using the men’s room, don’t talk to people while you’re using urinals. Don’t do it. Ever. Worse than Stalin. Really.


Dealing with teachers and assorted “authority” figures: First, put your phone down. The people who think they are in charge of the school are old-fashioned; to them, eye contact is respectful, and looking down and away – say, at a phone screen subtly palmed in one hand (Or both hands, if you have an iPhone 6) –  is disrespectful. I know, I know, it makes no sense – you don’t respect them whether you look at them or not – but you will find that things are much easier when you give people what they want, particularly with “authorities,” when it doesn’t actually cost you anything to give it to them. It bothers my pride, too, to just give people something they didn’t earn (Like passing grades or an answer to their ridiculous questions); but then, in exchange, they don’t give me something I didn’t earn: a Walmart-sized ration of crap. So look them in the eye when they are talking to you. Unless they are angry: then look down at the ground. At the ground, mind you – not at a phone. Teachers hate it when you look at phones while they are talking to you. I think it’s because they don’t actually use their phones. They never have friends. And even if they do, nobody texts a teacher: they correct your grammar. Ain’t nobody got time for that.

A secondary note: teachers never want to see your phone. Never. They don’t want to look at that video, they don’t want to read that webcomic, they don’t want to scroll through those memes or screencapped text conversations. If they look when you bring it to them, they are only being polite, and praying that you will go away soon. If you think you have something so funny or interesting that a teacher has to see it, send them an email. If it’s not worth you putting out that much effort, then it isn’t worth them looking at your cracked screen, trying to make out the tiny letters.


Social Life: First, put your phone down. Seriously. Counterintuitive, I know, but listen: people who want to hang out with you will want to hang out with you. Not your phone. There is no meme you can show them that they haven’t already seen. And if you make memes, nobody will want to hang out with you. Ever. Nobody. I mean it. Stop making memes. And when you meet someone that doesn’t immediately make you want to puke with boredom or nap with rage, then try talking to them. Of course you can talk about your phones, but you’re either going to make them feel bad when your phone is better than theirs, or feel bad when their phone is better than yours. Better to just forget about the phones and, I don’t know, talk about music. Or movies, maybe. Or which teachers suck least. Or how individual existence is only an illusion and we’re all connected aspects of one divine godhead. Once you get to know a person, you could sit together for hours staring at your phones together; but it’s better if you don’t. If you want to watch something, get a bigger screen; otherwise you’re breathing their damp, half-used exhaled air, and they’re stealing bites of your Twinkies and sometimes catching your fingers instead, and it’s weird. If you don’t have access to a bigger screen, try going out and doing something together. Take a walk. Go to a dog park or the shelter and pet puppies for free. Go to the mall and race the old people – it’s up to you if it’s more fun when they know you’re racing, or if it’s more fun when they don’t; I recommend both. You always get better stories when you make them than when you see them online.


Homework: First, put your phone down. You are fooling nobody when you cheat. Seriously. Fooling nobody, and gaining nothing but disdain and a sense of your own hopelessness. Feel free to not do the homework, of course – who really cares? I mean, teachers, but who cares that matters? Nobody, that’s who. Your parents may think they care, but there’s an easy way out: pretend you’re gay, if you’re not; or pretend you’re not, if you are and your parents know it. Then when they’ve forgotten entirely about that missing math assignment, just tell them it was a phase. It never fails. More advanced options include convincing them that you have fallen in love with, say, a toaster. Everybody knows about teenaged hormones: you can sell it, if you work hard enough at it. Just like pregnant women can convince people that they want to eat literally anything, and usually get the person to provide it. I almost wish I could be a pregnant woman: I’d tell everyone that I was suffering an unbearable craving for human flesh; then I’d stare at them silently, hungrily, and wait to see who was really my friend.


All right, that’s the end of your school day. For the drive home, treat it the same way as the drive to school: sing your way home. Pretend your car is powered by music. See if you can get it to fly on the wings of song. As for dinner, treat it like breakfast: if you are provided dinner, show your gratitude by talking to the person about their day, but this time, try to add something about yours. It doesn’t matter what, as long as it isn’t on your phone. If you make your own dinner, read the cereal box. Oh: let me add one thing here that could be scattered throughout your day.

Step In-Between: Waiting in line/in traffic/for your turn

Go ahead and get your phone out. This is what phones are actually good for, other than talking to Grandma. Unless you’re driving: if you’re driving, now’s your chance to really wow your audience in the nearby cars, because they’re waiting with you. Here’s a challenge: get them to listen to you when their windows are rolled up. Try adding pantomime to your singing.


Once you finally get through the day, it’s time for . . .


Step Five: Evening entertainment

I don’t want to tell you what to do with your free time. I mean, how invasive  and controlling and arrogant, to tell somebody how to live their life. You do you.


Step Six: Bedtime

At last, time to get some sleep! After you shower, floss, shave, pack your bags and set your clothes out for tomorrow, that is. Your pillow has been waiting for you all day! Oh, how you’ve missed it! You’ve got your narwhal pajamas on, your six fans directed at you, three of them blowing over heater vents and three over buckets of ice; the alarm is set, the clock is turned away so you don’t obsess over how much time you have until you have to get up; you’re all set. And how do you make your sleep deeper, more restful, more rejuvenating for the next day?

First: put your phone down.

Book Review: The Last Werewolf

The Last Werewolf

by Glen Duncan


This is the third Glen Duncan book I’ve read, and probably the one I’ve liked the most. I enjoyed I, Lucifer, and I thought Death of an Ordinary Man was just too damn depressing; but I thought the concept of this one suited Duncan perfectly. In every case, I’ve been struck by the poetry of the man’s writing, and this one was no exception; but Duncan seems to be best with switching between sacred and profane, going from lyrical descriptions and philosophic ponderings to filth and dirt and blood-sex-death. And what could be better for that than a book about werewolves?

I admit I was a bit less enamored of the basic plot of this book, at least in the beginning. The idea (no spoilers – at least no big ones) is that the hero, Jake Marlowe, is the last living werewolf. It has been more than a century since a person was turned by being bitten; the theory is that a virus of some kind has arisen that makes the transformation impossible. Jake is still alive because once turned, werewolves can survive for centuries; unless they are killed by fire or silver.

Unfortunately for Jake, there is a group of humans who have been hunting down werewolves. With fire and silver. That’s why he is now the last: this group has killed every other surviving werewolf. And now they’re coming for him.

But they want to make it interesting. For the lead Hunter, Jake’s death is personal, and he wants to take him out, mano a – I guess lupo? But there’s a snag with this plan: Jake is ready to die.

That’s the part that makes this book depressing; which also seems to be a Glen Duncan specialty, because both of the others I read were equally dark and melancholy, Death of an Ordinary Man even more so. This one spends a fair amount of time going through Jake’s malaise and the reasons for it. I will say that I understand why he feels that way, which made it a little easier to take. There’s something else, though: even when he’s in the depths of it (I’ll spoil the book this much: this blue funk of Jake’s does not last. I won’t spoil it by telling you why it ends.), it feels insincere. It’s like he’s trying to force himself to believe there is no point in going on; wracked by guilt, Jake feels as though there shouldn’t be any hope for him, and so he convinces himself there’s not.

But that doesn’t work for the Hunters. And so they try to force Jake to rise to the occasion, to give them some kind of grand final fight. And that’s the story of the book: the Hunters trying to provoke Jake, and Jake responding to their provocation. And throughout, Duncan does a masterful job of blending the two sides of Jake’s personality, and matching them with his prose: there is the man who has been alive for 200 years, who has learned everything there is to know (at least everything he wants to know) and who understands far too much about the apparent futility of existence; and then there’s the Wolf, who wants to run, and hunt, and mate, and kill; kind of all at the same time.

So the book has a lot of sex (a LOT of sex), and a lot of violence and blood and death; pretty gruesome stuff, too – the violence, not the sex. Lots of foul language, too. The sex is largely unloving, mostly lusty and sometimes dirty; but it suits the character and the feel of the book. There’s good action, along with that, though much of it is brought a little low by Jake’s indifference to his own life: he doesn’t really fight very hard for a lot of it, and that makes the action, well, anticlimactic. Honestly, I didn’t much like the Hunter organization; I suppose it’s possible that such a thing could exist, in a supernatural world, and even be fairly effective – but they’re the biggest kids on the block, and in a world that has werewolves and vampires, I have some trouble accepting that. Seems like the superpowered immortal things would be able to do some real harm to a human organization. But any road, the story takes a great turn, and the second half of the book is far more interesting – and the first half is pretty damn interesting. Jake is a good character, and Duncan is a hell of a writer, even when he’s being depressing and angsty.

The ending is sad. Again, maybe a Duncan standard: the three books I’ve read all end sadly. But this one is largely redeemed by the circumstances of that sad ending, which may be why I liked this one best. It was very good. I recommend it.


And holy crap: I just found out that this is actually the first book in a trilogy. Okay, now that makes the ending even less sad, because it isn’t actually the ending! Now I have to go read the others!

Too Much

I forgot to start the coffee this morning.

There’s been too much. Too much going on, too much to do, too much to think about, too much to remember. I forgot to sleep last night, too, after about 3:30; should be fun, since I have parent teacher conferences after school today until 7:00. There was also a department meeting scheduled in between school, which end today at 2:21, and parent conferences, which begin at 4, but my department agreed to just meet in our minds. It’s a good department. Of course, that doesn’t make the day much easier, as I still have morning duty, when I have to stand out in the parking lot before school starts to make sure that none of the students get run over, followed by a full day of classes, and then Toni and I have to come home – pick up a Papa Murphy’s pizza for dinner on the way – and walk the dog and check on the bird and the tortoise before returning to school for PTCs. I also have to make sure I have everything ready for tomorrow, because tomorrow is an all-day English conference at school, and so I need to lay out my sub plans for tomorrow, have to print rosters so the sub can take attendance, have to clean off my desk a little so they can find the stuff they need, and I’ll need to make copies of the worksheet I made yesterday – which means I hope the school has gotten their copy paper delivery, or else I’ll have to make up something else for them to do – and I also need to find a test question to use for my AP students tomorrow. And make copies of that.

Pardon me, the coffee’s ready.

Okay, that’s better. Coffee good.

Where was I? Right, still on the school day today. And of course, since parents will be coming in tonight to be talking about their kids’ grades, I need to get some more work graded, because one of my classes only has one graded assignment this semester. And I’m ashamed of that. Or I would be, except the reason is that I had to read through 120 essays for my AP classes, and that took up quite a bit of my time. So I just haven’t gotten to the grading yet. I will.

Am I complaining? I don’t mean to complain. Lots of people have it much harder than me; here I am in my white-collar bourgeois job, talking about how much work I have to do, when there are people working 12- and 15-hour days, sometimes more, sometimes at more than one job. And I don’t even have kids. Well, other than the pets. That reminds me: Samwise needs to get groomed, since I never had a good chance to really brush out his undercoat. And I should brush his teeth more. I keep forgetting to do it more than once a week. I don’t want him to get cavities.

Right: speaking of cavities, I need to make an appointment for myself at the dentist. At least I finally remembered to ask at school if anyone knew a good dentist on this side of town, now that we’ve moved too far away from our last dentist, who overcharged us, anyway.

Oops – hold on, I need to go wake Toni up. I’m up early. Insomnia and all. Good thing I have coffee.

What was I talking about? Right, the dentist. I need to get my hair cut, too. And I really should go to the gym more often; but we want to ride our bikes down there, because Toni hates the treadmill (Valid), and that means I need a new inner tube for my front tire. What the hell is with those Presta valves, anyway? They never had that shit when I was a kid. Freaking thing doesn’t work at all. Last time I went to get a new tube, the guy at the bike shop asked which valve I wanted, Schrader or Presta, and I forgot which was which and asked for the wrong one. Stupid thing can’t hold pressure at all. So I need to get to the bike shop, too. Gotta lose some weight: every time I look in the mirror before my shower, I am reminded that I am 42, and those Cheez-its don’t just melt off, any more.

Jesus, I’m 42. This was going to be the year (Answer to life, the universe, and everything!) that I published my novels. I mean, it should have happened fifteen years ago, but I didn’t have a finished book then, and by the time I did, I couldn’t get it picked up by an agent, nor any of the three books since. I gotta get some writing done. I’ve got the book planned out, and a first draft probably ¾ done or a little more; then I’ll need to edit it and get Toni to do my cover art, and then I can upload it to Smashwords – is that it? Or is it Smashbooks? I’ll find it – and then I can start advertising and hopefully selling some books. That would be nice. We could use the money. Our tax return wasn’t all we’d hoped it would be: Toni started teaching full time, which is awesome (For the money, at least; the stress is not so good. I hate watching her go through all that. I wish I could help more.), but she only started in August, so we made just enough more last year to make it into a higher tax bracket. I mean, we’re doing great month to month, but we’d like to do some things we’ve been putting off, like getting a new computer. Right: I need to research computers. Maybe get out to Best Buy. So yeah, I’m hoping to get some sales and make at least a little bit of cash. That means I’ll have to advertise.

Which means I need to work more on the blog. And my Twitter. Maybe I should start an Instagram? I don’t know, though, I can barely keep up with my Twitter feed. It’s been filled to the brim and beyond with everything our new Vainglorious Leader has done. I should write about that. DeVos got confirmed yesterday, and I have an opinion on it – though maybe not what one would expect from a liberal teacher such as myself – and it would make a good blog. Maybe I can do it after school tomorrow.

No, wait, we have that extra meeting after school tomorrow. Dammit, it’s already Wednesday; I wanted to get at least three blogs posted this week. I thought I had one last night, because one of my former students posted a link on Facebook to a survey he’s running about the current state of education under the new Headmistress; I took the survey and took my time giving what I hope were real, solid answers. Then I thought I could copy/paste my answers into a blog post, but it didn’t work: I got the questions and then a bunch of empty text boxes. Oh, and Facebook last night: Jesus, the argument I got into with my former student. Two arguments, actually: he posted one meme about illegal immigration, saying that we should follow Mexico’s lead and make it a felony punishable by 2-10 years in prison; and then another meme saying something about Muslim women taking advantage of our freedom of speech to promote a society that doesn’t allow them freedom of speech. Which is nonsense in like ten different ways: first of all, Muslim women have the ability to speak and be heard, even in the strictest traditional societies; they’re just expected to speak to their husbands and sons and fathers, who then go out and fight the fight for the women. I don’t think it’s the right way to do it, but it isn’t the kind of oppression that people talk about when they denigrate Sharia law. It’s funny, too, because there was another former student who posted a meme about how much money women make compared to men, and that discussion turned into him saying that he believes women should take care of the emotional side, the home side of life, while he goes out and does the dangerous stuff, the hard labor, and earns the money. And the guy arguing against Sharia law would completely agree with that, while simultaneously arguing that Sharia law – which essentially does exactly that, precisely what conservative Americans think should be the proper division of labor across gender lines – is the worst thing ever to happen to women. And I should have been grading (I was, in between comments), but I think it’s important that we stay involved politically, and another friend of mine and I were discussing how we break down biases and prejudices that cause all this contentious factionalism, and we agreed that it requires us to engage genuinely as often as possible. And so I didn’t want to walk away from the arguments, even when they quickly stopped making sense.

Then the next thing you know, it’s 10:30 and we had to go to bed. Long day today.

Which was made longer by the insomnia. Which was annoying because I wasn’t thinking of anything useful, wasn’t plotting out my next chapter or planning my classes; I was just thinking about what’s happening to the Gallaghers on this season of Shameless. I think it just shows that I haven’t been writing enough: I’m caught up in the stories I’m watching. Though I’d like to be watching more – still haven’t seen Rogue One. Would rather go on a weekend, but Toni’s been sick two of the last weekends. It’s horrible, because she had a nasty cold over Winter break, too – and she had the flu during Fall Break. You believe that? Her first year of teaching, and she’s been sick through every vacation, and a couple of other times in between. It’s the stress: it’s messing with her immune system. We need to get to the gym and work some of it off. Gotta get that bike tire. I mean, it’s bad enough that it’s her first year of teaching; on the plus side, she’s done a lot of subbing and whatnot over the years living with me, and she knows so freaking much about her subject – art, of course – that she could teach it blindfolded and with one hand tied to her feet; but see, the last art teacher at the school retired last year in the middle of a conflict with the administration (She wasn’t the only one, either – we’ve lost at least four teachers in the last three years over conflicts with this administration.), and so she apparently decided to teach the school a lesson: she emptied out her classroom. Took all her lesson plans, all her classroom materials, most of the good art supplies. Didn’t leave any instructions about how things worked, how to do purchase orders or field trips, none of her art history materials – nothing. Even though she knew Toni was going to be taking over her job, and before we had talked about Toni doing student teaching with her, and she had said that she had books and folders and file cabinets full of great stuff Toni could use. All gone last summer. We figure she wanted her successor to fail, so the administrators would know what they lost. Which is, if I may say, fucked up on an epic scale. It means Toni has had to make up all of her curriculum herself, from scratch, without any support other than what little I and the other teachers can give her – which isn’t much because none of us teach art. Any other first year teacher would have quit by December. She’s making it work and doing a hell of a job. But she’s also having to work twice as hard as any first year teacher should, and that’s saying a fucking lot.

So we haven’t been able to go out on the weekends. Which is too bad: we could use the relaxation. Maybe this weekend.

Though I still have to do that grading. And we need to get the bird’s nails trimmed. Oh – and I should call Mom, see how she’s doing.

Shit –what time is it? I have to go. Have to make coffee for Toni. Then eat breakfast, and then head to work. Did I remember to grab that Papa Murphy’s coupon? Yeah, right, it’s on top of that form I need to fill out for my absence tomorrow, for the English teacher meeting. I gotta find that test for AP. I hope the paper gets in today, or I’m screwed. Maybe I should just rush straight to the copier and do all my stuff before the last paper is gone. But I may need to talk to the others about the standardized test results. And I gotta finish those grades before tonight.

Well, at least I got a blog written, right? Good thing I woke up so early.

Book Review: Jack London and Captain! David! Grief!

On the back is a closeup of that grimacing face.


The Adventures of Captain David Grief

by Jack London


I saw this one, by Jack London, with that unbelievable cover, and I just had to buy it.

Took me a while to get around to reading it, though. Because I don’t know how I actually feel about a character named Captain Grief. I mean, really? Captain Grief? Now, if he was a pirate, that would make sense; but he’s not. He’s a capitalist. A man’s man, taming the South China Sea with grit and pluck and stick-to-it-iveness, and sheer manneosity. Is that a word? Should be. Because with Captain David Grief, the manneosity never ends.

But I did finally read it, and it was totally worth the wait, and the $3.95 I paid for it. Because, for one thing, Jack London really was a hell of a writer. I like the way he characterizes, and the descriptions of the South China Sea are detailed and interesting. He does action very well, particularly suspense and the kind of moment where you suddenly plunge into a much more serious danger than you thought was going to happen, like wading into the ocean and suddenly hitting a dropoff and you’re over your head and sinking. It’s a short book, and it was fun to read.

It ain’t all wine and roses, though. It’s thoroughly racist, for one thing. David Grief – bearer of the White Man’s Burden – is a millionaire entrepreneur who “tames” the “wild” islands of the South China Sea, Indonesia and Polynesia and Melanesia and Micronesia (Can’t believe there’s not a Griefanesia – but there will be soon, by God!) and forces them to turn a profit. He befriends the natives – described by color, dress, and essential level of savagery in comparison to the Mighty Grief – and convinces them, through a mixture of trade, bribery, and violence, to allow him to build plantations on their islands, which he then works for MIGHTY, MANLY PROFITS. Inasmuch as money is interesting, this aspect of the book is; I admit I dreamed of being a man tearing a living from the jungle through the strength of my arms and the quickness of my wit. And being rich sounds nice, too, which Captain Grief is. So, cool.

But that’s not the main attraction here. The main attraction is the way Grief is fearless and capable in all things. The way he sails his ships better than anyone else, navigates better than anyone else, reads the seas and the skies better than anyone else (Actually, the sailing parts were really interesting. London knew a ton about ships, and sailed to Hawaii and elsewhere in this part of the world, and that knowledge shows. I liked it.). The way he assesses the value of pearls better than anyone else, and grows coconuts better than anyone else. The way he reads more books, knows more languages, and has been more places than anyone else. The way he always acts as a consummate gentleman, and gives a gentlemanly thrashing through whatever means are at hand for administering lessons, be it bare-knuckle fisticuffs, or bundles of dynamite, should that be called for – and in one case, it is – to anyone who doesn’t act as gentlemanly as he does. In one story, he beats a guy in a sailing race; in another, he beats a guy at cards; in my favorite, he just beats the guy with his fists, and then makes him spend days on end cleaning an old rusted chain until the guy knows what it is to be a man. A man who can hold his liquor, dammit. (The guy Grief beats is an alcoholic. Grief is, too, judging by the amount of drinking that goes on in the stories – but Grief, like a man, never gets drunk.) Of course it goes without saying that this sort of thing is only for the other white men; the savage islanders don’t get treated with the same respect. No thrashings for them. Grief trades them liquor and cigars and talks to them in pidgin, before sailing off with some exclusive trading contract back to the white-only country club resort island.

I was stunned that there was no torrid affair, no woman he could seduce and then sail off, leaving her pining for him on a tropical beach under the Pacific sun.

The book was goofy in a lot of ways, most definitely. But it was fun, too.

And here’s the really funny thing (Other than the cover – and London’s original title for these stories, which was “Sun of the Son.”): they made a TV show out of this.

If you like cheese and pulp and a dash of pirate, and the tropics, then I definitely recommend this.

Book Review: Darwinia


by Robert Charles Wilson


For the first 100, 150 pages, I really enjoyed this book.

The concept is intriguing: in an alternate history, in 1912, the continent of Europe vanishes and is replaced by a place soon dubbed Darwinia– maybe part of another planet. Wildlands, populated by plant and animal life that bears only a slight resemblance to Earth-life. No humans; no cities. France, Germany, Austria, England, Belgium – all gone. And there are, of course, many interesting repercussions from that, but perhaps most important: no World War.

The main storyline follows an American photographer, Guildford Law, who joins an expedition into the heart of the strange new continent, looking to explore and discover what lies behind the mystery. There are some good and bad parts here, honestly; the main character is a good guy, and the other explorers on the expedition are interesting, both good and bad. The new flora and fauna are very interesting, and the political turmoil that follows on the heels of the magical disappearance of every major power at the time are definitely intriguing. I was annoyed by the photographer’s wife, who struck me as a self-centered pain in the ass, and who has her own storyline, unfortunately. But that wasn’t too bad, really, because it gave me someone to dislike while I was cheering on her husband. The expedition runs into trouble, falling afoul of bandits (who may actually have hidden motivations, and surprising allies.) and harsh conditions. Then they find this abandoned city: completely empty, apparently ancient, certainly not a human artifact. It is something different, built of enormous square blocks of stone, piled together into buildings set into a perfect grid of square angles and straight lines. Cool: a mystery! There is still another story line, with a charlatan who has somehow become possessed with an actual paranormal power: he can channel a powerful spirit, which he calls a god, and maybe he’s right. He works his way into high society, where he begins living a life of debauchery at the urging of his “god.” Meanwhile Guildford Law is trying to survive the harsh winter, trying to keep his sanity despite extremely strange dreams, and his wife is off being a pain in the ass. Everything is going well.

And then Wilson went and screwed the whole thing up. In my opinion.

There’s a twist that comes around this time, between a third of the way and half way through the book. When we find out that none of this is actually true. Not only is the missing continent of Europe explained, but so is the charlatan’s “god,” and Guildford Law’s dreams, and the mysterious abandoned city. And the explanation is crap. It’s obnoxious. Sure, it explains how the European continent could vanish overnight, and what is going on, and it sets up the rest of the book, which is a struggle between Guildford Law and others like him and a terrifying and alien enemy; but it makes the whole book meaningless. It’s as if Law suddenly found out that he’s a character in a science fiction novel by some guy named Robert Charles Wilson. It’s annoying: it feels like the kind of thing that would really amuse a stoned person – though because Wilson is clearly up on his astrophysics, it would have to be a stoned astrophysicist. Unfortunately, I am not a stoned astrophysicist, and so I prefer my novels to be set in real places, with real human characters – even if the places are invented and the characters aren’t entirely human. I can take strangeness; I can’t take the revelation that everything I’m reading is a lie.

The story goes on from there, and there are some good parts; the final battle scene in the abandoned city is great, really. And there’s a wonderful poignant moment, when innocents are killed, and your heart breaks. Good stuff. Wilson’s a good writer.

But I hated this idea. And therefore didn’t really like this book.


Oh — and “Darwinia” is a stupid name.