Sunday, November 29, 2009

Dead Until Dark: Charlaine Harris

Charlaine Harris is the author of the Sookie Stackhouse series—the books on which HBO’s True Blood is based. As a resident of the deep south, Harris writes the Stackhouse novels with authority, bringing Bon Temps, Louisiana alive with dark, foreign descriptions. While her story and descriptions are vivid, her characters sometimes lack dimension. I find Sookie Stackhouse to be the weakest of all Harris’ characters; she is a telepathic waitress who falls in love with a vampire (and has all the personality of Twilight’s Bella Swan).

Harris’ greatest achievement in Dead Until Dark is not the descriptions of Louisiana, or the lackluster characters, but the society she has created in her books. In her world, vampires have “come out of the coffin” (a charming turn of phrase that reminds the reader that vampires are a minority), and are living amongst general population. They feed off of “fang-bangers” who are essentially blood prostitutes who allow themselves to be bitten, but not drained. Vampires who choose to “mainstream” may choose to live on the synthetic bottled blood, made available in most bars and restaurants (the stuff even comes in flavors—A negative, O positive, etc).

Dead Until Dark introduces the reader to the protagonist, Sookie Stackhouse—a pretty young woman who is uneducated, but not stupid. She was born telepathic and that talent has caused her no end of grief all her life, so she has chosen to live as simple a life as possible. She has learned, over time, to control her mind. She is able to put up her guard and block everyone’s thoughts, but it takes a lot of energy. Sookie lives with her Gran, and has ever since her parents died. Her older brother, the charming (and fairly sleazy) Jason, lives in their old house and works at a non-descript hillbilly job. He spends his time chasing skirts and getting drunk. Overall, the characters and town of Bon Temps are about as interesting as any four-way stop called a town.

In walks Bill. Bill Compton, also known as Bill the Vampire. After the vampires gained public freedom, he chose to return to his old homestead in Bon Temps. In about 24 hours, he meets and falls in love with Sookie, who finds herself equally enamored. However, as with any small town, bigotry still exists in Bon Temps, and when people start showing up dead, all eyes turn to Bill. Just because vampires have been given rights, doesn’t mean everyone likes them. This is where Harris reeled me in. She has taken a fairly innocuous fad—vampires—and created a beautiful analogy for bigotry. We live in a society that claims to accept all people and wants to give all people fair and equal rights. But the reality is that fear exists, and that fear turns into hatred. That’s when the lynch mobs show up. Which is exactly what happens in Bon Temps.

The real murderer is not a vampire at all. Harris wraps up her story by solving the mystery and allowing Sookie and her vampire to ride off into the sunset. Well, into the next book, anyway. I have to mention that the first season of True Blood is taken almost exactly from this first book, save a few minor characters and unimportant events.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Brokeback Mountain: Annie Proulx

Brokeback Mountain is a short story that Annie Proulx included in a collection of shorts titled Close Range. It is a tale about two old fashioned cowboys—rough, gritty, and aggressive men—who spend a herding season on Brokeback Mountain together, working with a herd of sheep. In a short span of time and very close proximity, they discover something in one another that they have each longed for all their lives. They connect on a level that is intangible to both of them. Startled by the discovery, they never title their love, refusing the terms “gay” and “queer”. Each man marries and has children, while maintaining their friendship. They both know the possible consequences of being caught together.

I find it difficult to read a book after having seen the movie, because I will inevitably place the movie actors in the roles of the characters without giving the writer the chance to describe them. Brokeback Mountain doesn’t have that problem. Proulx is such a fantastic writer that in the 55 pages of her short story, she is able to illustrate the characters of Ennis del Mar and Jack Twist with such clarity that the Brokeback Mountain movie actors are separate characters.

When Brokeback Mountain was made into a movie, it was garish and romantic. Grown, straight men cried, and young gay men held their heads a little higher. I personally feel that it was an incredibly important film, and it was some of the best acting either of the leading men have ever accomplished. Reading the short story gave me further insight. Proulx writing is clever and very real, setting her above other writers. The gruff adoration of two cowboys for each other isn’t treated like a Hollywood love story—it’s told as honestly as if Ennis del Mar had sat down and wrote the story himself.

The Girl Who Stopped Swimming: Joshilyn Jackson

I read The Girl Who Stopped Swimming in about two days. An innocuous hardcover volume with an alluring title and cover, this book is possibly the hardest I’ve ever had to review. I simply have no idea where to start! It is so filled with story, emotion, social commentary, and fantastic writing that I find it hard to separate the elements and gather my thoughts into any kind of cohesive form. That said, bear with me as I try to articulate this novel into a review.

Laurel sees ghosts. She was haunted by the ghost of her uncle Marty after he died in her childhood, but he disappeared from her nights when she moved to the gated community of Victorianna when she got married. Now she’s living a relatively average life as a wife to computer programmer David, and mother to teenage daughter Shelby. Average until she wakes up one night to find a dripping wet neighborhood girl standing in her bedroom. The ghost is that of Molly, a neighborhood kid and friend of Shelby. Molly’s ghost directs Laurel to the swimming pool in the backyard where Molly floats, face down and bloated. The death of the neighborhood girl is a trigger that sends Laurel and her family on an emotional roller coaster. Laurel brings her willful sister Thalia to stay with her, which brings past events into light that explain why Marty’s ghost haunted Laurel as a child. While facing long repressed demons, Laurel tries to maintain her grip on her family, who are rapidly unwinding.

Around the edges of this story is a theme of social morality. Laurel and Thalia were rescued from an Appalachian life in a small town called DeLop by their strong-willed mother who pulled herself out of the mining town through a successful marriage, never to look back. DeLop is described in cruelly clear detail as a place where children never graduate junior high school, and people develop addictions to ward off the misery. Laurel tries to protect Shelby from the ugliness of such a place by never taking her back to visit the cousins left behind. When Shelby shows interest in knowing how the other half lives, Laurel bends, allowing Shelby to make a DeLop pen pal named Bet. In Bet, the differences between Victorianna and DeLop are highlighted. Where Shelby is educated and healthy, Bet speaks with the twang of her DeLop upbringing and is starkly malnourished. Joshilyn Jackson has put a lot of thought and care into the details of illustrating the disparity between the haves and the have-nots.

While this novel could easily be about the accidental drowning of a young girl and stop there, Jackson is unmerciful in her efforts to make the death only the tip of the iceberg. There is so much meat to this story that it hooks the reader on many levels. I felt my heart strings tugged and my guts wrenched, my mind working overtime to figure out whodunit and my anxiety peaked as the story unraveled. Jackson is definitely a writer worth reading.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Seventh Son: Orson Scott Card

Orson Scott Card has a knack for writing about different planes of time. Most known for his Ender’s Game series, Card writes about a differently imagined future or past in an accessible way that feels less like sci-fi, more like philosophy.

Seventh Son is an alternate historical fiction, meaning it’s written about an imagined history. One in which the folk magic of early settlers of America is widely popular. Families protect their homes with hexes and some individuals are believed to have special gifts. It is also a time when the seventh son of a seventh son is believed to hold great power and is revered for his status in the family. Alvin Junior is such a son.

Al Junior was born to the Miller family, and at the moment of his birth, it is obvious that he is a special child. His family dotes on him and respects his natural abilities. However, there is a dark force hovering at the edges of Al Junior’s life, waiting for the opportunity to take the child out of the world where he will do so much good. It is a traveling story teller named Taleswapper who helps Al Junior understand what he is and what his purpose will be. He is the sole Maker who can battle the Unmaker and help move a new country into the future.

Card has presented a story that is mystical and magical, but also theological. There is an inherent battle of good and evil at play in this novel that the reader will unwittingly take part in. Al Junior is a vulnerable character that instantly earns sympathy, and it his protection at the center of this novel.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Visions of Sugar Plums: Janet Evanovich

Known for her hilarious, action packed mysteries, Janet Evanovich takes her leading lady, Stephanie Plum, on a romp of a holiday ride in Visions of Sugar Plums. Bounty hunter Stephanie Plum finds herself four days away from Christmas with no decorations or presents in sight. Waking up to find a sexy hunk of a man in her kitchen, she starts on a Christmas adventure she won’t soon forget.

The hunky blond goes by the name of Diesel and proclaims himself to be of the supernatural variety. He says that he was sent to her to give her some holiday cheer. I know that at this point, the novel sounds like it’s on its way to becoming a bodice-ripper romance. On the contrary, Diesel and Stephanie find that they are facing the same foe. While Stephanie is on the hunt for a man named Sandy Claws who jumped bail, Diesel is looking for Sandy’s nemesis, Ring. It doesn’t take long for Ring to zero in on Stephanie and her efforts to lock Sandy behind steel bars for the holiday. Stephanie shrugs off the absurdity of supernatural beings with single word monikers and dives into the madness. As Christmas inches closer, the panic over Christmas trees and presents, family dramas and parent-pleasing increases. In some ways, the story is incredibly realistic!

Evanovich has spun a deliciously fun little holiday yarn, using her eclectic cast of characters, including the foul-mouthed Lula, who appears in one scene wearing red Lycra pants and a sweater adorned with a giant felt Christmas tree. I can’t say that there’s a lot of mystery to this novel, but it is certainly entertaining.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Don't Follow Me, I'm Lost: Richard Rushfield

Don’t Follow Me, I’m Lost is a pitch-perfect story of what happens when a new era swallows an old mentality. Richard Rushfield had the opportunity of experiencing Hampshire College at a time when the 80’s nihilism movement was overcoming the drug-induced era of hippie love.

Rushfield’s memoir is a delightfully structured, well written narrative. Beginning with his pre-enrollment days as a kid without social label, Rushfield discusses the realities of a “hippie school”. In its heyday, Hampshire was a college built on the foundation that learning shouldn’t be structured. The student body was a notoriously drug-addicted clan of mixed social circles, while the staff consisted of free-loving, free-thinking hippies who encouraged students to “try it out” whenever faced with something new.

Through a series of well-timed events, Rushfield falls in with a campus clique known as The Supreme Dicks, who are the most hated people at Hampshire. A group of lackadaisical layabouts, The Supreme Dicks lived by a certain standard of nonchalance. It is in his descriptions of the Supreme Dicks housing that Rushfield’s writing really shines. As I read about the food-encrusted paper plates stuffed between couch cushions, stagnant smoke-filled air, and industrious cockroach population, I could feel a layer of grimy apathy climb over me. Such were his descriptions of dorm life at Hampshire, that I could feel the weight of bitter nihilism.

Having discovered that college was a place where teachers didn’t take a roll call, Rushfield reveled in his freedom by not going to class at all, opting instead to loll about in the dingy quarters of his dorm. With a track record like his, it seems a miracle that Richard Rushfield ever graduated. His memoir is filled with the rollicking adventures of a young man on a college campus where one could do no wrong. The era of hippie love and free thinking had created an atmosphere where all expression was artful and censorship was to be banned. However, in the 1980’s, the hippie movement at Hampshire college faced its first set of campus rules. Class completion became mandatory, and disciplinary action could be taken against students for almost anything. The response was nihilistic, with a student body turned aggressive and determined to hold onto its apathy.

Don’t Follow Me, I’m Lost is a meandering narrative, with no moral theme of divine intervention to tie it up neatly. It is a very real—one might even say gritty—story of how complicated it can be to come to terms with responsibility in an atmosphere where apathy rules. Rushfield is a talented writer who brings every scene and emotion to life without trite clichés.