Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Of men and monsters

So I have spent much of my life feeling like I'm on the outside part of an inside joke that I don't understand. I attribute a lot of this to having grown up outside the US, but I realized that probably an equal amount of it is having never had a television.

There wasn't much point to having a television in Germany, because there was one English channel that played content it could get for free, which meant a lot of Unsolved Mysteries. After we moved to the States, my parents didn't buy a television because there didn't seem much of a point to it, having not had one for so long.

I think not having a TV is a value-neutral choice. There's nothing inherently wrong with having a television. However, I didn't realize how much American arcana is wrapped up in television. In addition to never having seen things like an episode of Cheers or All In the Family or any of those classics, I had a really hard time grasping that just anyone could watch anything available on television, and was frankly rather shocked at a lot of the content. So much so that sometimes I have to go put on another set of pearls, just to clutch them.

Which is kind of funny, coming from the Land of Exposed Teutonic Boobage. Seriously, in Germany boobs are everywhere, selling plastic surgery, cars, bathing suits, and face cream. I literally ran into a pair when I went around a corner while looking across the street and faceplanted into an advertisement. Boobs are just No Big Thing. That sort of relaxed attitude to the errant nipple clearly never made the jump across the Atlantic. In high school, I took a language immersion course in the summer on a college campus, and the staff had stocked the common rooms with German magazines, which are chock full o'boob, and some industrious counselor had gone through and carefully drawn black Sharpie bikinis on all the Claudia Schiffer look-alikes, lest the students' sanitized American minds be sullied by acres of Germanic cleavage.

Which is doubly weird in that while we lose our collective minds over a wardrobe malfunction, there's a tremendous amount of violence in prime-time television.

WHICH, in an extremely round-about way, brings me to the subject of this post - Young Adult fiction!! The parameters of YA fiction are super fluid, but I don't tend to go into the YA section all that often, because I (erroneously) and thinking of what I find appropriate for YAs, however you're defining them, and my appropriate-meter is apparently extremely low.

So, when I checked out Rick Yancey's The Monstrumologist and its sequel, The Curse of the Wendigo, I was all WHAT THIS IS MEANT FOR CHILDREN?! HEAVENS! and ran to find my backup Pearls of Outrage.

This is super violent! And extremely bodily-fluid filled! They're also really good, like training-wheels-Stephen-King, but dang.

Anyway! Onto the review part of this post:

The Monstrumologist and The Curse of the Wendigo follow rich, manic-depressive narcissist Pellinore Warthrop, the titular monstrumologist, and his young ward, twelve-year-old Will Henry. Will's father was Warthrop's faithful assistant, and, like many of Warthrop's acquaintances, died horribly, so Warthrop takes in the orphaned Will, from whose diaries the story is taken.

A gruesome discovery by an elderly graverobber in their quiet New England town kicks the plot into motion, sending Warthrop and Will on a quest to stop a ravenous foe and exposing some nasty secrets in Warthrop's past. From violated corpses to a lunatic rotting alive in an asylum to the fetid hold of a former slave ship carrying a fatal cargo to the New World, Yancey deftly sketches atmosphere and environment, and his occasional moments of dry levity shine against his dark, soggy New England, populated by men and monsters, with the line in between often blurring.

The relationship between Will and Warthrop is undoubtedly the book's strongest point. Warthrop is a self-engaged, deeply insecure, brilliant, and arrogant douchebag, and he treats Will as a combination whipping boy, man-of-all-work, and unwilling psychologist. Although Will's a naturally hardy and resilient soul, he's still a twelve year old, and prone to completely age-appropriate outbursts that alternately baffle and enrage Warthrop.

The book's sequel, The Curse of the Wendigo, sees Will and Warthrop headed to Alaska in pursuit of John Chanler, who has vanished in search of the elusive wendigo. Warthrop and Chanler were friends, if the prickly Warthrop can truly be said to have any friends, but due to the slight complication of Chanler marrying Warthrop's former fiancee, they're not really on speaking terms. Warthrop still carries a torch for Muriel, but the man they find in the Alaskan wilderness barely resembles Chanler, and once he's returned to his wife, all hell breaks loose.

With a colloquium of fellow monstrumologists, Warthrop and Will pursue an ancient enemy who seems delighted to have been transplanted to New York City, which I imagine affords far more prey than the Alaskan tundra.

The Curse of the Wendigo ups the violence and it most emphatically does not end well. People get nommed and eviscerated, Warthrop's antagonistic relationship with Will doesn't improve, and a host of colorful characters and equally colorful beasts are encountered.

So! Read these books? Definitely! Let your kids read them?

Sure, why not? Stock up on night lights though.

Also, there is nary a boob to be found.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Hey, if you're ever on a flight and you're wondering why the "lavatory occupied" sign has been lit for a really long time, it's probably because of this lady.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Starving in the land of plenty.

There's this movie out. You may have heard of it.

That's the one! I watched the first Hunger Games movie last week. Since its release, Hunger Games has unleashed a veritable tsunami of Internet chatter.

Which we'll get to. But first! I managed to offend a bunch of people in the theater before the movie even started, which is a first for me. Usually nobody gets annoyed with me until at least after the opening credits. See, I knew it was highly likely that the trailer for whatever Twilight movie is up next would be played before Hunger Games, and I was right, and the sight of Bella menacing a deer, who is all durp durp durping through the forest provoked gales of merriment, which I tried to suppress, only to end up snorting loudly through my nose for a few minutes. Seriously, the deer was emoting more in that scene than Kristin "Stoneface" Stewart.

ANYWAY. So. Hunger Games. I'm not necessarily going to say that you should dash out and watch this movie unless you've already read and enjoyed the books.

However. This is a pretty faithful adaptation of the book, and although I had trepidation when Jennifer Lawrence was cast as Katniss (Katniss is described as rather scrawny, Lawrence has a Playboy-centerfold figure and it's a stretch to imagine her as fourteen), but anyone who has seen Winter's Bone should know that Lawrence is a talented actress. Her Katniss is reserved, stoic, and determined, although if they intend to make the next two movies, they need to get on it before she ages out of the role.

Hunger Games doesn't provide the over-the-top pageantry described in the books (the costumes in particular are disappointing), but upon further reflection, maybe that was a wise choice. Except for scenes in the Capital, the cinematography is shaky cam, usually peering over Katniss' shoulder or bouncing along behind her, which makes the violence seem like less of a spectacle. I don't know if that was the filmmakers' intention, and although I hate shaky cam because I get motion sickness reeeealllllly easily (seriously, the three-D version of Avatar made me dry-heave, and not just because it's an incredibly expensive reworking of Fern Gully), I think it works.

The always-excellent Stanley Tucci does a glittery, avaricious Caesar, Woody Harrellson is snarky and weirdly endearing as the drunken Haymitch, and Josh Hutcherson's Peeta looks like a lost Backstreet Boy. (Which, while I may purport to be Team Gale, we all know I'd go for the chubby guy who makes cookies.)

Now. CULTURAL CRITIQUE time, y'all. Hunger Games has prompted a wave of Internet Stupid, Racism Edition, with a side of Reading Comprehension Fail.

Okay. So. In the book, Katniss and Gale are described as olive-skinned and dark-haired. Understandably, the casting of Lawrence caused a bit of a furor, since she needed some Clairol and a coat of spray tan, and she's still not any darker than I am. Since District 12 sort of corresponds to West Virginia coal country/Appalachia, I had imagined Katniss as a Melungeon.

Collins is pretty vague in her descriptions of many of the characters, leaving a lot of it up to the readers' imagination, but she does mention that Rue and Thresh, two tributes from the same District, as being dark-skinned.

But OH MY GOD, the Internet disgorged a wave of dumb at the shock! awe! that two black actors (the talented Dayo Okeniyi and Amandia Stenburg, who absolutely nailed the gentle, fawn-like Rue, and brought most of the audience to tears when Rue dies) were cast as Rue and Thresh.

Which, wow. And ugh. Which brings to another thing about the Internet - is the Internet, in some twisted way, a form of good in that it provides enough digital rope for idiots like the Twitterers featured in the Jezebel article to hang themselves? I mean, you've just outed yourself to the world as a big ol' racist, and the Internet has a long memory.

Anyway. See the movie, or don't. I think it's pretty great that a movie with a Strong Female Lead (SFL) who does not end the movie by toppling into the nearest dude's arms has been such a smash. The popularity of the Hunger Games series spawned a wave of similar books (dystopian future, adolescent female lead, big Defining Coming of Age thing, Fight the Power), which I'll take any day over Dating a Controlling, Borderline-Abusive Guy And Getting Married Right Out of High School is Wooooomantic.

I also ended up rewatching 300 last night, while guzzling a bottle of rose and eating chocolates, which was a very interesting contrast vis a vis the whole violence-as-spectacle thing.

Which, first of all, let me just say that I do not know what kind of alchemy took the ultimate dudebro movie and turned it into something that allll of the girls I know absolutely love. Rippling abs, homoeroticism, and Fassbender?? Plus a lead who is all I FEEL VERY DEEPLY ABOUT OUR EMPOWERING, MONOGAMOUS RELATIONSHIP, MY QUEEN, YOU ROCK. I argue that 300 is the ultimate chick flick.

But, my point being, 300 was all about style. The violence is so incredibly stylized that it's cartoonish (which, durr, was the point). Hunger Games takes the opposite tack. Although the Games themselves are the ultimate entertainment, the movie stays well away from making it anything but disturbing and revolting.