Review: Empire State by Jason Shiga

Empire State – A Love Story (or Not) by Jason Shiga (2011)

Jason Shiga’s Empire State is a graphic novel reminiscence of a bus trip from Oakland to New York City, told episodically in a manner best left to the reader’s discovery.  Jimmy aspires to a high-tech career, but he feels trapped in Oakland by familial expectations, a lack of worldliness, and seemingly minimal ambition.

He finds motivation to venture outside the Bay Area when his best friend Sara takes an internship with a New York publishing house.  With romantic notions of seeing the country and romantic notions of confessing his love, he purchases a bus ticket rather than a flight, thinking a bus ride will truly let him experience the country along his way.

Although I find the narrative to be tone-perfect, I’m also a romantic 51-year-old never-married English major who got on a plane in his twenties to propose to a woman.  Others may find the story unsatisfying, the way even great short stories can feel incomplete.

Where Empire State scores best is with an overall slacker, angsty mood.  References to Dreamweaver and Sleepless in Seattle set the era.  Sequences of wordless scenery provide the uncomfortable mundanity of aimless, post-college existence many of us remember as we contemplated stepping into a dreadful world inherited from boomer yuppies.

If you or a friend had a freshly printed college diploma in the mid-to-late 90s and a McJob shelving books in the local library, you’ll recognize Jimmy’s world, and you’ll probably recognize Jimmy, too.

A nice, quick read.

7/10

PS: Don’t pass it along right when you’re done.  It rewards a second reading.

2019 Consumption recap: written word

This year, the number of books I read is greater than the number of movies I saw, I’m pretty sure. It’s possibly the first time this has happened since the year I wrote my master’s thesis, although it’s possible the year before getting hired where I work now at least came close. That was a lean year.

Prioritizing sleep and exercise will do this to you, I guess. Especially sleep. Because I dislike crowds, I favor late movies, or matinees on weekdays. The late movies were tougher to attend while being conscious of my sleep hours, and honestly I’ve missed my cinema time.

The other big reason for my film decline is just what it is for most of us: too much media competing for my attention. Shortly after the 2016 election, I resubscribed to the Washington Post, largely out of a sense of responsibility. Most of my daily reading is a balance of the WaPo and Google News, with the Post usually as my breakfast reading.

Of non-fiction, the best thing I read is A History of Heavy Metal by Andrew O’Neil. I still need to go through my notes, which include bands I need to check out and some history I’d like more info on.

For novels, I may remember 2019 as the year of the re-read. I went back to favorites I haven’t read since high school, such as Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy, and books I read for my thesis but didn’t have time to soak up as I’d have liked, such as Patricia MacLachlan’s Sarah, Plain and Tall, Lynne Rae Perkins’s Criss Cross, and Linda Sue Park’s A Single Shard.

Also in the old favorites revisted category: Danny Dunn and the Anti-Gravity Paint and Danny Dunn and the Swamp Monster by Jay Williams and Raymond Abrashkin. The fifteen books in this series were among my favorites in fifth and sixth grade, and when I saw that some had been converted to ebook format, I had to see if they are as good as I remember. They’re not, but they’re still quite good. I expect to buy a few more in the series this year.

Of course, what took up most of my time (mid-January to mid-spring, I think) was my first re-read of the Harry Potter books, and my first read of its final installment, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I don’t understand people who dismiss the series as mere children’s literature, although I don’t understand the dismissal of anything as mere children’s literature. It’s a beautiful story, and while J.K. Rowling is not especially skilled with the language, she’s a heck of a storyteller. I think I’m going to re-read the last book this year.

I’d like to make 2020 the year I finish a bunch of books I started but never completed. I’d like also to read something from the English major canon I never got to, perhaps something Russian or Victorian English.

If that salt has lost its savor, it ain’t got much in its favor

It’s Veterans Day here in the United States, a federal holiday and a state holiday, which when I was a teacher usually meant a one-day weekend. Saturday and Sunday for work, Monday for relaxing. Normal two-day weekends were seldom real weekends — I usually worked both days.

Thank God we have more state holidays than any state in the union. We also have the longest life expectancy, and I don’t think the two are unrelated.

Now that I’m out of the classroom these eight (wow) years, I no longer really work all weekend, but I still put a good amount of time in, either on Saturday or Sunday, so a three-day weekend usually means a normal two-day weekend.

I went to the office Saturday, but only for a literal couple of hours. In the morning, I met two of the NaNo regulars for a small write-in, where I banged out about 4,000 words. Then got a few things moving in the office, then we had Penny’s birthday dinner at Chicken Factory. I was going to try to wring another thousand words or so out of my brain at the boba spot, but I did the Friday 5 instead. It was good for me.

Sunday I did a little bit of tidying up at home and worked on specs for steaming broccoli in the microwave oven. Broccoli is one of my favorite foods and I prefer it blanched above any other method, but I’m trying to take healthier lunches to work during the week, and while blanching isn’t exactly a hassle, if I can work out a good system for microwave steaming, the time and energy I save will be worth the slight decrease in epicuniary pleasure.

I think I’ve almost got it. Also, I ate a ton of broccoli Sunday.

In between attempts, I just napped. It was such a stressful, tiring week. Then I went to the folks’ place to hang out, watch football, do laundry, and have dinner. I did a couple of crossword puzzles, too, which may have been the most therapeutic activity all weekend.

I’d already blocked today off for work and NaNo, and it was pretty productive both ways. I went over the 20K words mark for NaNo (yay) and am ahead of the pace by about a full day, I think. In the very late afternoon I wasn’t feeling physically well, so I took myself for a long walk. Okay, no. I think that was the most therapeutic activity all weekend. During lunch (microwave-steamed broccoli and rice) I got halfway through Linda Sue Park’s 2001 Newbery-winning A Single Shard, which I’m rereading for the first time. I read it the first time when I was working on my thesis and haven’t been back to read it for pleasure. I thought it was time.

My next read was going to be Erin Entrada Kelly’s Hello Universe, the 2018 Newbery winner. I bought it right after the award was announced but never got to it — in fact, didn’t know anything about it — and was really looking forward to getting to it this weekend.

But, you know. NaNoWriMo. November is the worst time to start a new book. I was trying to work out a reward system, where I’d allow myself to read X pages for every 1000 words I wrote this month, when Crush Girl mentioned to me that she thought it looked interesting. So I lent it to her, alleviating myself of my problem while also doing something nice for her, so double win.

I did not know that Kelly is a writer of Filipino descent, which makes it three Asian American writers who’ve won the Newbery. Linda Sue Park’s A Single Shard, Cynthia Kadohata’s Kira Kira, and now this book by Kelly. At a time when people seem to question my American-ness, I have to say this really resonates.

I practically begged Crush Girl to take her time with the book. I really shouldn’t get started on it until December 1.

And speaking of her, I got to hang out with her outside of our usual context for a very brief moment this weekend, with a small group. It was nice. I managed not to spill anything, offend anyone, or break down crying over the sorry state of the world and my sorry place in it, which I’m always in danger of doing when I have a drink or two.

You gotta love alcohol. It really lets you be yourself!

I’ve been moody as heck all day for no discernable reason, unless it has something to do with the work stress, which has been formidable. I feel like I’m on the verge of plunging into the darkness. I was already kind of teetering on the edge because of some of the other work stuff that’s been bumming me out.

Which is why I’m doing this instead of working on NaNo. Just needed to open up the laptop and write whatever. I think it’s helping, at least a little.

The plan, once I finish this, is to put myself to bed at a very early hour (it’s only 8:30 now) and face the new week determined to reflect light, no matter how many attempts others make at putting it under a bushel. If you hide it under a bushel, it’s lost something quite crucial. Don’t quote me — that’s from Godspell.

My calming mantra all of last week was “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.” It helped. So this week I’m going to repeat the light of the world stuff to myself and see what happens.

I like it because it is bitter, and because it is my heart. That was my mantra for weeks before last week. I liked it (I liked it because it is bitter and because it is my heart) but I think maybe now I need to focus on more forward-thinking thoughts. This week’s episode of Heavyweight has convicted me about not being who I was, but being who I am and who I hope to be.

The Heavyweight podcast usually inspires while also making me want to stab myself in the heart (my bitter heart) with my own pen because the writing is so good it’s maddening, but this week it just inspired me. It was either not written quite as amazingly as usual, or I’m pretty pleased with the quality of my own output this week.

I just deleted a funny, self-deprecating line here because it wasn’t in keeping with the positive note I hoped to end on. So you’ll just have to imagine it. You’d have laughed!

Enough with the Coughs (and a Friday 5)

I’ve been sick in bed for the past three days. I’m rather sure it’s just a cold, but “just a cold” hardly exists anymore in my old age. Day one was just an overall tiredness and lack of energy, followed by sniffling and coughing. Day two was deep coughing and chest congestion plus a ragged-sounding voice. Day three (today) was less congestion and less coughing. My stomach aches from the coughing.

I’ve just been keeping up with the work lately, so the three days away from my desk are going to hurt. I didn’t have any hard deadlines, but where I wasn’t in a hurry on most things before, I’m in a hurry now. Being ill sucks.

bates and anna

I could probably have gone in today, but I think the coughing would have disturbed people, not just for the noise but for the suspicion I might be contagious, which I think I probably was. I feel pretty sure I’m not contagious now, since I’m not feeling yucky anymore. I’m even at a boba cafe typing this now, something I wouldn’t have done (out of consideration for others) yesterday.

I think two others in my department were out sick today, so something might be biting us all right in the productivity. I hope the others didn’t get it from me, and I’m wondering where I picked it up.

Æon

I finished season one of Downton Abbey. What a finish. And yeah, Mary is no longer in my list of favorites. Now it’s just Anna, Bates, and maybe Sybil.

Years of observing R and her little sister taught me not to judge women based on the way they interact with their sisters. I swear R was a different person when her sister was around. Sometimes their interactions were downright infantile, something neither of them would ever be called by people who didn’t know them in the context of family.

Mary’s silly contests with her younger sister Edith go beyond mere communication, though. They were just suuuuuper mean, and I don’t like it. Meanwhile, Anna and Bates are good and noble, far nobler than the nobles they wait upon.

I’m concurrently going through Aeon Flux (the animated series, not the Charlize Theron film, although I’ve got that queued up next). I have nothing to say about it now, but I think I will when I’m done, if for no other reason than to remind myself of what I saw, so that years from now I’m not tempted to see it again because I’ve forgotten everything.

a better read than you might think

I’m reading this great book called A History of Heavy Metal by Andrew O’Neil. The author is apparently a stand-up comic, and the history is apparently part of a popular stage routine. I’ve decided not to look up any of the performances of it so they don’t influence my reading.

It’s very funny. And quite literate, and while not exactly scholarly, it’s well researched. I know a lot about the history of this form of music, but he’s filling in a lot of holes in my knowledge, and I’m taking some really good notes for listening later. The casual fan might find it interesting, but anyone less interested in the music than that probably won’t. Which is too bad, because it’s a fascinating history full of great music.

I expect he’ll go into it more later (I’m about a third of the way through), but in the intro, he touches on the long hair and the denim-and-leather attire favored by heavy metal performers and fans. It has a lot to do with identity, not with the music but with others who like the music. O’Neil explains that there’s something about the outsider status of the music and the people who love it that draws them to the hair and clothing.

Someone at work asked me about the long hair recently, and the best I could come up with was, “I just like the way I feel when my hair is long.” I can’t explain it. I know I look ridiculous, especially at my advanced age. I look a lot better with short hair. I might even look better shiny bald (I’ve been there a few times in my life and have photos to prove it). But nothing I’ve done with my hair (and I’ve done a lot of things) makes me feel better than the way I feel when it’s long.

That outsider identity thing? I think that nails it. I need to think about this, very deliberately, since my hair is thinning and my hairline is receding at an alarming rate.

It’s just hair, and I’ll be completely fine with or without it, but dang it. There are few things in life that make me feel good about myself, and this stupid hair is one, as ridiculous as it sounds, and as ridiculous as it makes me look.

Frick.


I wasn’t planning on doing the Friday 5 this evening, but I have 15 minutes before this boba spot closes so maybe I’ll attempt to get it done in this small window.

  1. When did you last make an adjustment to your daily getting-ready routine?
    Okay, this is going to sound psycho, but a few weeks ago, every day of the working week, I left the house and about a block from home, turned around to check my front door. Every day! I don’t know what’s happened to my sense of getting things done with details taken care of, but it’s driving me insane. So now, unintentionally, almost every morning, I load up the car, turn the ignition, then turn it off and hop out to check the door. I can’t seem to get over it most days, although once in a while, I do walk back to the door before getting into my car. That second check has become compulsive, though. Ugh!
  2. When did you last try a new personal hygiene product?
    I switched to some variety of Herbal Essences shampoo and conditioner recently, and I really like what they do to my hair. I should probably take a photo so I know what to look for next time. For ten years or so, I’ve almost always gone with a two-in-one of various brands, but lately they’ve left my scalp feeling weird.
  3. What food or drink item have you most recently added to your regular consumption?
    I recently went back to oatmeal as my regular breakfast, only now I’m doing overnight oats in the fridge. They taste best with some kind of milk, or some kind of milk alternative, so I’ve brought back almond milk as a pantry staple. I’d rather have oat milk, and I may switch to that soon. Costco has almond milk at a really good price, though, and that may be the determining factor.
  4. What’s a brand-named product you recently abandoned your loyalty to?
    I don’t know if this counts, but because of budget constraints, I recently switched from bottles of Diet Pepsi, picked up at the 7-Eleven near the office on my way to work, to the fountain Diet Pepsi, which is cheaper. Although it doesn’t taste as good, it’s good enough, and I can suck on ice cubes throughout the morning when I’ve consumed the Double Gulp (that’s half a gallon of soda, with no ice, but I put a LOT of ice in it).
  5. What item in your wardrobe have you recently moved out of the regular rotation?
    When Ryan died, I bought a pair of Jams beach shorts to wear to a memorial gathering for some of his friends — it was separate from the services and ceremonies his family organized. Ryan was known for wearing loud shorts whenever he wasn’t at work. A whole bunch of us bought Jams for the occasion (when I went to the Jams store to buy mine, the store clerk asked if it was for Ryan’s memorial). Since the memorial, I’ve only worn them around the house, but now they’re worn out beyond even that. I’m toying with the idea of buying a new pair.

Is this thing on?

So yeah. My brain’s been a little drained lately, specifically the part that writes stuff. I get home lately, have a small dinner, and hit the sack. Consequently, this will probably be short and will undoubtedly be a bit shallow, not to mention ineloquent.

Reading. I just finished Flour Babies, something I picked up used at the annual Friends of the Library book sale. Proper review later, but it was an interesting read. I couldn’t decide until the very end whether I liked it or not. I did. Anne Fine, the writer, does something really strange, unless I misread the novel. She’s certainly a fine writer, but in the last five pages or so she really cranks up the writing, and it sounds almost like a different person. The last five pages are lovely, almost heartbreaking prose. I’ll probably skim it again to see if I missed something earlier.

I’m now in the middle of Lynne Rae Perkins’s Criss Cross, my favorite book of the 2000s for sure. It received the Newbery Medal in 2006, the year I wrote my master’s thesis on the Newbury Medal, and honestly it’s the book I’ve been trying my whole life to write. It’s possibly better this second time through.

Amazon says I’ve purchased the book six times, which doesn’t include my original purchase at the local Barnes and Noble. I like giving it as a gift.

I saw Spider-Man: Far from Home last week. Fun movie! It’s really sweet, like a good teen flick, and the web-slinging is the coolest it’s ever been. And holy moly Marisa Tomei.

In the evenings before bed, I check my BP, but I have to sit still a while before I hit the button on the machine, and then I sit still a while more so I can take a second reading. Usually during this sitting still, I watch an episode of Silicon Valley, of which I’m nearly finished with season three. It doesn’t match the first two seasons’ creativity and genius, but it’s still pretty smart, and despite one story arc that’s distracting and stupid, it seems to have concluded that arc and done something pretty neat with the character involved. I’ve got season four on DVD on its way to my mailbox. Ordered it on physical media so I could pass it around.

Concert scene’s been a little dead after what’s been a pretty great previous twelve months. I’m okay with it, really. My last show was Michael Franti in early May, and I left the concert while it was still going on. I think he’s great but his audiences drive me crazy. I didn’t enjoy myself the last time I saw him a couple of years ago either.

But Keb’ Mo’ is coming next month, and he’s terrific, and last week I purchased tickets I can’t afford for Patton Oswalt in the lovely Hawaii Theater. It’s the night before my birthday so I couldn’t resist. Now I gotta find someone for the other ticket. Still on the fence for Keb’ Mo’. Gotta decide this week.

Friday 5: A Week

I’m reading Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine, winner of the National Book Award for Children’s Literature in 2010. The momentum I had coming out of my Harry Potter re-read carried me through several pretty good books (and one really good one), but this one’s been a speed bump. It’s a short book, too, so that’s kind of a disappointment.

It’s written from the point of view of a ten-year-old girl with Asperger’s Syndrome, whose brother is killed in a school shooting. If you’ve worked with Asperger’s students, you know they require a lot of patience, patience I have (almost) always had because they were my students. Reading inside the mind of one of these students who isn’t mine requires a bit of patience I don’t have. It’s been a little frustrating, but I may have turned a corner. Something in the novel I hadn’t thought of, a connection to To Kill a Mockinbird, may have emerged, something I find intriguing.

Still takes a bit of effort to pick that thing up during my usual reading times. I’m finding it easier to stare at my phone.

Friday 5 from here.

  1. If I give you $20 to spend selfishly by tomorrow evening, what do you spend it on?
    Almost surely a meal out. Maybe a bowl of pho and some Vietnamese iced coffee. Heck yeah.
  2. What’s a delivery you recently waited too long for?
    I ordered a book to give a friend for her birthday, even though I don’t know when her birthday is. I just want to have it ready for when it comes up. The book has had a few covers, but I wanted the hardcover edition with the original cover, so I ordered it from an Amazon seller who claimed my order was Prime eligible. They shipped it out the next day, all right, but they sent it USPS media mail! Do you know how long media mail takes to get to Hawaii from the U.S. East Coast? In this case fourteen days. Since I wasn’t exactly in a hurry to get it and since the book is in terrific shape, I’m not going to complain (‘though I mentioned it in my review of the seller), but next-day MEDIA MAIL is not what I’m paying for when I renew my freaking Prime membership every year. Gr!
  3. How annoying have you been lately?
    I’d say pretty annoying. I’ve been having difficulty getting myself locked in at work, which always makes me a little distractible, which makes me a distraction to those around me. Sorry, office-mates.
  4. When did you last give someone a ride in your car for the first time?
    Hey, but I did give a coworker a ride when she had to leave her car in the shop before work one morning. Met her at a nearby Starbucks with a cup of coffee, and drove her in. That was two weeks ago I think.
  5. What was the last piece of candy you ate?
    We have this bucket of candy on the reception desk at the office, and I threw a bag of li hing mui honey drops in there last week. I often throw candy in there and seldom indulge, but I have a weakness for these and had four of them Thursday and another few Friday.

Friday 5: A Garbage Heap of Questions

Gearing up for another NaNoWriMo, I purchased a very short book on writing the cozy mystery.  I used kind of a how-to book for my 15 flash fictions in 31 days project in July and it went really, really well, so I’m looking for similar guidance for NaNoWriMo.

I’m thinking of revisiting a failed concept for a few NaNos ago, a cozy mystery set in an elementary school with a tweener as the sleuth.  It gives me something of a new concept in a new (to me) genre, and it has the bonus of being a good audience for a complete novel at 50,000 words.

I’m wolfing down a quarter-pounder with cheese (deluxe) meal at the McD’s on the corner, coming down off the post-concert high from New Order.  It was a most excellent show, and Kathy and I had a great time from rather good seats.

I just saw a Domino’s delivery car go through the McD’s drive-through.

I’m 59% of the way through The Bookshop, the Penelope Fitzgerald novel from which the film is adapted.  It’s rather good.  Such a completely different voice and style from Kevin Kwan’s in Crazy Rich Asians and China Rich Girlfriend, both of which I enjoyed.

I want to be a writer whose fans enjoy his voice.  I enjoy my voice, although I have to admit I’m getting tired of it, and I’ve been playing around with some variations to see if they fit.

In John Steinbeck’s Sweet Thursday, the sequel to Cannery Row, the author refers to himself in the prologue, describing a conversation between him and one of the characters.  I might be remembering some of this incorrectly, but the gist is that the writer agrees to keep his flowery prose limited to a few chapters, and agrees further to title the chapters “Hooptedoodle” so the reader who avoids flowery prose can just skip ahead.

When Steinbeck wants to be showy, he can really be showy.  It’s some lovely writing.  But it’s all Steinbeck’s voice, the regular chapters, the intercalary chapters, and the hooptedoodle chapters.  I want to be this consistent.

No problem, right?  I mean Steinbeck did it.

Sweet Thursday is not one of his stronger novels, but it’s one of my favorite.  I think it’s my third favorite behind The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men.  For some reason I like it better than Cannery Row, ‘though it’s not nearly as good.

Friday 5 from here.

  1. What should be the collective name for accountants?
    A reconciliation of accountants.
  2. What should be the collective name for cafe baristas?
    How about a misspelling of baristas?
  3. What should be the collective name for tattoo artists?
    Two other respondents suggested a sleeve of tattoo artists, which I totally love, but since I refuse to copy, how about a permanence of tattoo artists?
  4. What should be the collective name for people who vape?
    A cumulonimbus of vapers.
  5. What should be the collective name for people in your profession or hobby?
    A futility of writers.  A paragraph of writers.  An epitaph of writers.  Ooh yeah, let’s go with that one.

Stephen King on Reading

As part of Camp NaNoWriMo I’m finally reading Stephen King’s On Writing.  I don’t read many books about writing because I don’t want to be one of those people who reads about writing and talks about writing more than he actually writes.  But I do need a spark lately, and this has been good for it.

More notes and a complete review next month, when I’ve finished it.  This past week, though, a few things King writes have reminded me of something I’ve been keenly aware of for at least a year: I’m not reading enough, and reading is a huge part of the job of writing. My writing partner reminds me of this all the time, but for some reason we don’t talk about it much and it hasn’t been sticking.

My problem is (as it always is) time. I try to read the news (I subscribe to the Washington Post and the Honolulu Star-Advertiser) every day, at least some of it. And I do a lot of reading for my jobs. But none of that is really the reading I’m supposed to be doing in service to my writing, so I’ve made some adjustments.

Now, if I’m on the bus or waiting for a bus, that’s time for pleasure reading. It means less podcast-listening, probably, and less music-listening, because for some reason I can’t read if music is coming through the earbuds. I mean I can’t read for pleasure. I work-read with music in the earbuds all the time.

Also because of Stephen King, I was reminded of how much I enjoy Sixties-era science fiction, so with refreshed resolve (and not a small amount of liberation, permitted — nay, directed — by Stephen King himself to indulge my escapism because it’s part of the craft, I remembered an anthology of Harry Harrison stories I purchased a couple of years ago but never read. Perfect for bus stops.

The anthology is published by Wildside Press, a legit publishing company that makes an effort to keep older material in print. It has a “Megapacks” series, a series of anthologies (like the one I’m reading) that it sells for very cheap, giving a lot of the content away free on its website. This collection of Harry Harrison stories and novels appeared in the SF periodicals of the day, such as Analog. Wildside either purchased the entire back-catalogue of these magazines or worked out an agreement with the publishers, and it’s a really nice thing, because the stories can be difficult for the enthusiast to track down if they only exist in pulp magazines from 60 years ago, you know?

I paid $.99 for this Harry Harrison Megapack (I hate that name, but whatever; the price is right). So far I’ve read a short story called “Arm of the Law,” which could have been an early inspiration for Robocop, and am halfway through a novel called Deathworld, about a planet so hostile to its own inhabitants that every form of plant and animal life seems to have evolved with the sole purpose of killing its humans. Like many classic SF novels of the time, it was first serialized in these magazines before being published in novel form, so what I’m reading is different from the novel Harrison fans know as Deathworld; I’m reading the earliest version before it was ever a book.

I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed Harrison’s prose. His action narrative is just right, and I think I may subconsciously have learned a lot of my own action narrative (such as it exists) from his Stainless Steel Rat novels. The Stainless Steel Rat stories aren’t included in this collection, but I’m okay with that since I’m enjoying what’s here. Also, $.99.

I just looked it up on Amazon and the Kindle edition is now priced at $.55.  Recommended if you want some good escapism with a bit of pacifist worldview thrown in.