Monthly Archives: September 2010

Definitely Dead and All Together Dead: Sookie Stackhouse Novels

Charlaine Harris, 2006, 2007
Books 6 and 7 in a series of 10

Genre: I have seen these books filed under science fiction in bookstores, but they are definitely more a mixture of romance and mystery. And more romance than anything. In terms of romance subgenres—maybe contemporary paranormal romance is best. The major plot elements center around whichever macho hunk Sookie is dating or fantasizing about, whether it is vampire Bill, vampire Eric, werewolf Alcide, or weretiger Quinn. Sexual chemistry blossoms, traditional dating rituals begin (dinner, dancing), passionate kissing ensues, and one traditional sex scene is the eventual reward. In the meantime, Sookie becomes more enmeshed in the culture and politics of the supernatural world and generally her spunk and telepathic insights save the day for humans and supes alike.

Historical events: These two books were written pre-Katrina and post-Katrina, respectively, and the hurricane figures its way into both, since Sophie Ann, the teen vamp queen of Louisiana, has her headquarters in New Orleans. I like to see what writers choose to do when a historical event occurs while their series is in full swing. Here, Harris simply folds it into her plot—an evacuee witch lives with Sookie for a while, Sophie Ann gets a lot of sympathy for the damage to her mansion, and Alabama’s vampires are all but decimated by the storm.

Text to TV: I keep thinking about the decisions Alan Ball had to make when adapting this series for television. For an HBO show with an ensemble cast, he had to beef up a bunch of the characters that are flat in the books and give them backstories and pieces of the plot. Though Sookie’s brother Jason, the local cops, Sophie-Ann, and Russell stay pretty much the same from page to screen, Sam, Tara, and Lafayette are fully developed. On the supernatural side, Lorena and Jessica hold our attention and gain our sympathy. Even Arlene and Terry feel fully formed, whereas they are just blips in the books. I love that these folks get more play on TV; I am often tuning in just to see what’s happening with Lafayette (my favorite), Sam, and the Jessica/Hoyt love story. And I adore Terry’s vulnerability as a shell shocked Vietnam vet. A strong ensemble of characters makes the show feel more like a community coming to terms with its supernatural citizens, which I much prefer to the Sookie-centeredness of the books.

I can’t believe it, but: this series is growing on me. I keep going back to the library for more, and I even read these two in Large Print because it was the only format available. The books are entertaining, and I am even beginning to like  Sookie’s mainstream, working class flavor. In the books, this comes out more clearly than on television–she buys her clothes and lingerie at Walmart, religiously uses a Word-A-Day calendar, and goes on a date to see The Producers. Her lack of sophistication is actually kind of endearing, though I tend to prefer the sleek, hard-assed Sookie of the HBO show. (Pam, vampire Eric’s “child,” also prefers pastel twin sets in the series). I also appreciate that there are lots of LGBT (well, LGB) minor characters in the book, since vampires aren’t so picky about the gender of their sexual partners. Harris has created an appealing southern supernatural world.

Advertisements

The Hunger Games Trilogy

Suzanne Collins, 2008-2010,

(1) Hunger Games, (2) Catching Fire, (3) Mockingjay

YA science fiction

Note to filmmakers: Please use the tagline “the revolution will be televised” and make these movies sleek, dark, gritty, and grimy—the cinematography and overall tone should be Blade Runner, not Tim Burton. In other words, notch up the realism and naturalism and tone down the surrealism and camp.

Note to talk show hosts: Please interview Suzanne Collins alongside former contestants of competition reality shows like Survivor or Biggest Loser. Ask them what it really feels like to be on camera all the time, how the camera (and the expectations of the viewers and show creators) shape how they present themselves, what kinds of personas they feel pigeon-holed into, and whether they have felt used or exploited. Then have Collins talk about Katniss’s behavior during the televised parts of the Hunger Games and, later, the Districts’ uprisings.

Note to teachers: Put the first book on a summer reading list and/or ask your librarian to facilitate a book group. But please do not teach it in the classroom; instead, teach about actual oppressive governments and real-life uprisings and revolutions. Keep teaching Fahrenheit 451 and Lord of the Flies. And keep teaching critical thinking and analytical skills related to media literacy and gender roles.

Note to YA authors: In our post-Harry Potter world, the doors are wide open—young readers will read longer books and producers and moviegoers are ready to spend. In our Twilight and True Blood cultural moment, it is smart for female protagonists to have two handsome love interests (are you on “Team Peeta” or “Team Gale”?). And it always helps to think ahead of time about the kids who will dress up as your characters for Halloween. Make sure you describe their costumes in great detail so the marketers can have them on the shelves in time.

OK, 24 hours later, I am thinking–dang, why am I so cynical? Clearly I have been engaged enough in this series to read the whole thing, and I have enjoyed these books. I like Katniss, and I also like Gale and Peeta. It’s just that the whole thing seems a little too movie and merchandising-ready. And for teachers, I think there are better books out there. Maybe that’s me being a literary snob rather than a YA enthusiast, but I’m still learning how to read YA. So there you have it.

United States of Tara, Season One

Showtime.

Synopsis: A suburban mom with Dissociative Identity Disorder (formerly known as Multiple Personality Disorder) tries to live a normal life without her meds, learn to understand her alters with her family’s help, and remember the traumatic incident that may have led her personality to “split” during college.

Watch this show for these two reasons:

1. Toni Collette

It’s pretty incredible to watch Collette transition from one identity to another on-screen. The viewer never knows which of her alters will emerge, and a sense of joyful anticipation (and sometimes dread) occurs whenever Tara slumps her head a bit, closes her eyes, and then reawakens as foul-mouthed Vietnam vet Buck, seductive 80s teen T, or 50s housewife Alice. Her amazing ability to create distinct voices and physicalities for her alters, as well as her beautiful rendering of the strengths and insecurities of Tara, makes Collette consistently exciting to watch. Plus, she’s a handsome woman.

2. This warmhearted family

Hands down, this is the most loving, supportive, resilient, and healthy families-with-teen-kids I have EVER seen on a movie or TV screen. Mom Tara, dad Max, teen daughter Kate, teen son Marshall, and mom’s sister Charmaine. I am totally in love with the nascently gay son, played by Keir Gilchrist. He dresses for school in shirts, ties, and sweater vests with no irony, adores early 20th century films, and discusses literary tropes with ease. He also falls head-over-heels in love with the hunky son of a local evangelical pastor. Gilchrist’s face is angelic, and his physical awkwardness is supremely adorable. Also, I love the fact that Marshall’s gayness is a total non-issue for this family. Kate is also adorable and wide-eyed, though I am much less interested in her side plot of weird love for her manager at her dumpy chain restaurant job.

Usually when I see high-functioning families on TV or in the movies, it just repulses me; I start measuring my own childhood dysfunction against it, filing it away as completely unbelievable and losing faith and interest in the plot. Though it is hard to believe that any family in which a member has Dissociative Identity Disorder could ever function this well, somehow the sharp writing and the warmth and chemistry of the ensemble cast make me root for them, believe in them, and keep watching.

Season One available on DVD via Netflix. Season Two On Demand until October for subscribers. DVD not yet available.

Going Bovine

by Libba Bray, 2010

I do not do zany, madcap, sprawling road trip/philosophy novels with science fiction bents and trippy endings that make you question whether any of the events of the book actually happened. This book may be perfect for teens who will later fall in love with Hunter S. Thompson and the Beats, but it sure isn’t for me.

The protagonist is a white disaffected teenage boy who learns he has Mad Cow Disease, and then, in the hospital, learns from his hot-teen-girl guardian angel that he must save himself and the world by escaping from the hospital with a hypochondriac dwarf and hopping on a bus to New Orleans. Later, they pick up a garden gnome that is actually a trapped Norse God, and these dumbass fire-being things keep popping up out of the roads and threatening to kill the ragtag crew. There is a good deal of looping language–like an obscure band name that shows up in each chapter–and Bray’s writing style is perky, snarky, and loony–everything I hate in a writer.

The message of the book seems to be “seize the day” and don’t let a terminal medical diagnosis stop you from running away from the hospital on some kind of insane mission to save the world, befriend little people, and make love to a hot angel before you die. The ending does hint at deeper, more sane meaning, which may be partly why this book has won the 2010 Printz Award, whose committee chair called it a “wildly imaginative modern day take on Don Quixote [which] is complex, hilarious, and stunning.” I have never read Don Quixote, but I bet I would like it a ton better than this.

Frankenstein: The Graphic Novel

Mary Shelley; Script Adaptation: Jason Cobley, 2008

This is my first foray into a graphic version of a classic text, and I like it! I was a bit leery when I flipped through and saw the modern, stylized way the monster is drawn–the art is in classic comic book style, and this just did not match my imagination of what this monster, or his female version, should look like (rotting, mismatched body parts). But I pushed on, and I really enjoyed the reading experience. For me, this was a quick and satisfying way to encounter Shelley’s entire original plot, which I had forgotten major chunks of, along with key excerpts of her wonderful language.

The original Frankenstein story is so rich and fascinating, especially in the ways in which the monster haunts Dr. Frankenstein for months and years during his lonely existence in forests and caves. It is powerful to see the monster begin as a kind and gentle being who transforms over time into a brutally marginalized creature whose deep pain eventually becomes anger, resentment, and murderous violence. Personally, I will always prefer the full original text of this work, but I am also DYING to teach this story to high school students (along with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), and this would be a great way to do it. A medical ethics unit has been on my mind all summer. . .

Classical Comics is a UK-based publisher that creates texts in three versions: Original text, which uses the author’s original language in excerpts on the page; Plain text, which converts each bubble of text into modern English and cuts down on the number of words; and Quick Text, which just puts the essential meaning of each text bubble into modern English–usually in one quick sentence. The artwork and pagination remain the same across all three versions, which makes these great teaching resources for classes in which students are reading at different levels, or just for examining two versions with the same students, akin to using No Fear Shakespeare.