Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Catching Up, part 1: Books

Wow. Four whole months and not a single post. Not so much as a "hey, I'm really sorry, I have x, y, and z going on in my life right now." Nada. Zip. If somebody were to ask me why I couldn't even be bothered to put up a measely "temporary hiatus" notice I would have to respond in the immortal, if rather lame, words of Beatrix Kiddo: "I don't know... because I'm a bad person?"

But seriously, my main excuse for not writing is that I've been busy moving to Paris. And yes, I know, it's not like they don’t have the Internet here in Paris, but still. I’m not saying that moving here hasn’t had it’s perks, because it certainly has, but not everything has been a walk in the Luxembourg gardens if you know what I mean. But that’s a discussion for another day and another blog. The point I’m trying to make here is that not only has this relocation been a huge adjustment for me overall, it also means that some of the series I was following and writing about in the States aren't as readily available to me anymore. (And I was just starting to get hooked on Sarasah and The Name of the Flower!) I still haven't quite worked out how or if I'm going to continue them, since I don’t think I’ll be in Paris forever, but I decided to pick this blog back up again anyways, since I never seem to run out of random things to obsess over and I'd hate to think of what might happen if I didn't have some kind of outlet.

So before I return to writing more detailed reviews, I thought I’d briefly revisit some of the items I’ve had on backlog since last November. This will actually be quite like the summer summary I posted last August after recovering from surgery, in which I gave a mini-review of everything I hadn’t been posting about lately. This time the whole batch will be broken up into several posts, with the first one (this one) being all about books. So here goes: a condensed review of what I’ve been reading recently.

Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground (translation by Constance Garnett)

So I’d been meaning for a while to tackle the great gaping whole in my high school education that is nineteenth century Russian literature, but I was a little nervous about starting off with one of those famously epic and wildly intimidating thousand-page novels. So what better way to warm up than with a shorter novella written by one of the period’s most celebrated authors? Well, I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting from Notes from Underground but in the end I was completely blown away. By way of introducing the story, I’d like to pull a quote from the text itself:

Every man has reminiscences which he would not tell to every one, but only to his friends. He has other matters in his mind which he would not reveal even to his friends, but only to himself, and that in secret. But there are other things which a man is afraid to tell even to himself, and every decent man has a number of such things stored away in his mind. The more decent he is, the greater the number of such things in his mind.

Notes from Underground is the narrator’s confession of one such “reminiscence”, a confession made in old age and infirmary, made out of spite as much as from any moral or philosophical conviction. Although the first third of the book consists mostly in the narrator’s rambling internal monologue, Dostoevsky’s writing has the rare ability to pierce right into your heart, giving one the impression that the author has discovered your most intimate thoughts and feelings, even (perhaps especially) the ones you’re not very proud to own. And yet while you could also say all of that about Madame Bovary, for example, I found that Notes from Underground managed to retain, in spite of its cynicism, a sort of romantic beauty and wistfulness to which Flaubert’s book certainly never aspired. All these elements made for a very striking combination, and an engrossing read I’ll not soon forget. I’m not sure if any of this is making any sense, but I’m finding it quite difficult to articulate my impressions of the book. It really deserves so much more discussion than I’m affording it in this laundry-list of reviews. Before moving on to the next book, a few more quotes from Notes. What I think so impressed me about the book was that even the parts that didn’t make total sense seemed intimately familiar, perhaps because they were so universally human. I think the following quotes exemplify that a little bit. From the pages of Notes from Underground:

Man is a frivolous, incongruous creature, and perhaps, like a chess-player, loves the process of the game, not the end of it… He loves the process of attaining, but does not quite like to have attained, and that, of course, is very absurd.

But why am I made with such desires? Can I have been constructed simply in order to come to the conclusion that all my construction is a cheat? I do not believe it.

I hated his stupid but handsome face (for which I would, however, have gladly exchanged my intelligent one).

Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Idiot (translated by Constance Garnett)

So after being so incredibly enamored with Notes from Underground I felt quite brave enough to attack one of his longer novels. I read [The Idiot] rather than the (perhaps more obvious) Crime and Punishment simply because I already had a copy; a friend had given me an old, tattered, paperback version many years ago and it had been sitting on my shelf ever since, just waiting to be read. And I have to admit that the novel caused me to fall a little bit out of love with Dostoevsky. I still think I genuinely admire and enjoy his work, but I don’t have as much of a crush on him as I did after finishing Notes from Underground. Essentially, The Idiot examines the question of what would happen when a truly pure and virtuous soul is thrust into the midst a humanly corrupt and degraded society. Reading this book was a very frustrating experience, because I cared so much about the fascinating main character, but in the end I don’t think the author did justice to his own creation and that’s something I have a hard time forgiving. Especially after reading a thousand pages of a story that really could have been told in less than half that amount. I also felt that the ambiguous, selective narration was a bit of a cop-out only rendered necessary by the excessive complexity sheer length of the story. On the other hand: I absolutely LOVED reading any scene with Lizaveta Prokofyevna, a truly delightful character whose personality quirks reminded me a lot of my own mother. From the pages of The Idiot:

There is something at the bottom of every new human thought… which can never be communicated to others, even if one were to write volumes about it and were explaining one’s idea for thirty-five years; there’s something left which cannot be induced to emerge from your brain, and remains with you forever; and with it you will die, without communicating to anyone, perhaps, the most important of your ideas.

Don’t let us forget that the causes of human actions are usually immeasurably more complex and varied than our subsequent explanations of them.

François Mauriac, Thérèse Desqueyroux

Coninuing with the theme of psychological novels we have Thérèse Desqueyroux In brief, this is not a happy book. A short, intriguing, psychological character study? Sure bet. Overly melancholic? Perhaps just a bit. It tells the story of a woman who cannot escape from her unhappy marriage even after she’s caught trying to poison her husband. In order to preserve their reputations, both sides of the family decide to keep her as a prisoner in her own home. Believe me, it’s not as melodramatic gothic as it sounds; it’s actually a quite sensitive psychological study, and rather subtle in some of it’s finer points. Throughout the story, which is told out of chronological order, it becomes less and less clear who is the real monster and who is the victim: Thérèse or her husband. In spite of its depressing nature (there were plenty of internal monologues about loneliness and despondency), I really enjoyed the way the unique and clever way this story was constructed. It was short enough that the heaviness didn’t really get me down, and there were enough twists to keep me interested. All in all, I’d definitely recommend this to any francophone readers out there. From the pages of Thérèse Desqueyroux :

Rien ne peut arriver de pire que cette indifférence, que ce détachement total qui la sépare du monde et de son être même. Oui, la mort dans la vie : elle goute la mort autant que la peut gouter une vivante.

Sa solitude lui est attachée plus étroitement qu’aux lépreux son ulcère.

Rien n’est vraiment grave pour les êtres incapables d’aimer.

Ok, that’s it for now. After all that I think I’m ready for something a little lighter next time. More short reviews coming up soon (I promise!).

Saturday, November 21, 2009

A Touch of Dead, Grave Sight - Charlaine Harris' urbanfantasymystery realm

In order to break up the year-long wait in between releases of the Sookie Stackhouse novels (the series of books by Charlaine Harris on which HBO's hit True Blood is based), I decided this fall to check out a couple of her other publications - one Sookie-related, the other not. And so in this post I'll be reviewing two different Harris books: A Touch of Dead, being an anthology of previously published short stories about the Sookie universe, and Grave Sight, the first in another of the authors' ongoing series. My thoughts below...

First off, A Touch of Dead. I knew that Harris had published a number of short stories from the Sookie-verse in various other anthologies, but the idea never really interested me enough to track them all down individually. Which is probably why A Touch of Dead is such a brilliant marketing ploy, especially since the series itself has become so popular among its genre. Someone like me, who's already a fan of the books, might not care about these peripheral side-stories enough to go out and buy five separate books in order to read them. Gathering them all together in a single Sookie collection, however, suddenly makes the deal a lot more tempting. Another thing that peaked my interest in this little publication was just the fact that I don't own a single one of the Sookie novels. Maybe I'm just a little OCD, but it seemed silly to buy a few of the books if I'm not going to invest in the complete series (and I'm not that hard-core of a Sookie fan). Thanks to libraries and friends, I had managed to avoid throwing down a single cent for my enjoyment of the Sookie series, and A Touch of Dead seemed like a nice little compromise. This way I could have some representation of the Sookie books in my personal collection without having to go all out or be totally random about it. Not to mention, I'd get to read all those short stories I'd been missing. So I bought the tiny, overpriced little book, and was pretty happy about it.

A Touch of Dead includes five separate stories that all feature Sookie herself in some capacity. (I believe there are other short stories that focus on other characters from the same universe, but which were not included in AToD.) In the first story, "Fairy Dust", the fairy twins Claudine and Claude recruit Sookie's telepathic abilities to help them discover who murdered their third sibling (they were actually triplets), Claudette. The funny thing is, Claudine doesn't exactly tell Sookie that's what they're up to when she invites her over. You can imagine poor Sookie's surprise when she show's up at their house and finds all the suspects bound and gagged in various nooks and crannies (one in the pantry, one in the cellar, etc). That's a lot for a girl to take, but considering all the times her fairy-god-mother friend has conveniently pooped up to save our telepath from near death situations I'd say its the least Sookie can do. This story sheds some dearly needed light on the personal lives of the twins (what does one call a pair of triplets exactly?), and so "Fairy Dust" was a welcome addition to the collection.

The second story, "One Word Answer", is significant in that it plugs up a gaping hole in the continuity of the main novels. When the Hadley storyline was rather abruptly introduced in the sixth book, Sookie already knew the whole story of her cousin's entanglement with Queen Sophie-Anne. Unfortunate readers like myself, however, were totally in the dark. "One Word Answer" is where Sookie, and dedicated readers, learn Hadley's history for the first time. In the third story, "Dracula Night", Eric invites Sookie to Fangtasia to take part in the annual celebration of the count's birth into darkness. This standalone story certainly brings the humor, as we find out that the usually cool, confident Eric suffers from a serious case of hero-worship when it comes to all thing Dracula. We also get to see a bit of the rest of the Fangtasia crew (including Pam), which is always a treat. In the fourth story, "Lucky", Sookie and the witchy roommate she picked up in New Orleans, Amelia Bradshaw, team up to figure out what supernatural forces have been plaguing the insurance industry in Bon Temps. This story was enjoyable (Amelia's always a hoot), but not particularly memorable in the grand scheme of things. The final story, "Gift Wrap" was my least favorite of the bunch. In it, Sookie rescues a wounded Were on Christmas eve from the woods surrounding her house. The two bond a little (physically as well as emotionally), before going their separate ways the next day. The reader then finds out that the whole thing was an elaborate set up by her great grandfather so she wouldn't be alone on Christmas. (Niall has the best of intentions, but as an ancient fairy he is a little out of touch with humanity). This story seemed a little gratuitous (Sookie shares an attraction with yet another hunky, but ultimately disposable, 'supe), but overall I was very pleased with the entire collection.

Shortly after finishing A Touch of Dead I decided to check out another one of Harris' series, seeing as how I've found the Sookie books to be so charming and engaging. So I ordered and read Grave Sight from the local library network. Grave Sight is the first in a series about Harper Connelly, a young woman who hunts down missing corpses for a living. Ever since she got struck by lighting in a freak accident as a child (yes, that's right, struck by lightning), Harper has had a powerful connection with the dead. She can locate corpses, and even relive the final moments of the deceased's life. Harper has decided to put her special skill to good use, hiring out her services to a skeptical but desperate clientele, traveling around the country to recover lost souls. Her companion and protector is her step-brother Tolliver Lang. Tolliver has always watched out for Harper since their abusive childhoods at the hands of their drug-addicted parents, and now he's sort of become her business partner and negotiator. The two share a powerful bond, but their relationship is kind of dysfunctional. On the one hand, they introduce live and introduce themselves as brother and sister, but care about each other more intensely than is usual or healthy in a sibling relationship. They're not actually related by blood, but they're not lovers either. I'd bet my bottom dollar that the development of this relationship is the focus of the series in terms of continuing character development. In the meantime they seem to get involved in various mysteries and human drama wherever their unique profession takes them.

Having only read the first book, I cannot really generalize about the series with any credibility, but I did find that it bears some resemblances to the Sookie novels. Both series feature twenty-something women coping with unusual supernatural gifts (telepathy in Sookie's case, a psychic connection with the dead in Harper's) who end up getting involved in small town mysteries. Yet the series differ greatly in that while Sookie lives in a world of vampires, witches, shape-shifters, and other supernatural beings, Harper only has to deal with regular humans in her universe. Now I'm not trying to say that the lack of 'supes makes Harper's world dull per se (humans can provide plenty of fascinating intrigue and drama on their own, no question.) But at the same time I can't deny that I felt something missing from Grave Sight. One of the most engaging aspects of the Sookie novels has been the whole mythology built up behind the series, which is so soundly grounded in the various supernatural communities of Bon Temps, and, by extension, of northern Louisiana. Whereas Sookie's story has this constantly expanding cast of recurring characters, the Harper Connelly series seems only to have the two central figures who travel nomadically from place to place. And after reading Grave Sight, I'm just not convinced that these two characters are interesting enough to carry us through an ongoing series of novels by themselves.

Overall, I didn't enjoy Grave Sight as much as I'd hoped or expected. It offered very little to balance out its melancholy and depressing tone, and its characters were uninspiring and unmemorable. If you enjoy a good mystery, however, you're likely to find that in any Harris book you pick up, the Harper Connelly series included. If you're looking for more character-driven plots, however, stick to Sookie Stackhouse.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Fushigi Yuugi, Volume 3 VIZBIG Edition (containing volumes 7-9)

I really love the cover art they chose for the third VIZBIG (three-volumes-in-one) release of Fushigi Yuugi. It depicts Miaka and Tamahome in what appears to be Bei Jia ceremonial garb (Bei-Jia is the northernmost of the four kingdoms in the Universe of the Four Gods, modeled after Mongolia).

But anyways, down to brass tacks. And be forewarned that, like all my reviews, this post is very spoilerific. I would also warn readers that this installment of Fushigi Yuugi gets kind of intense at some points. Volumes 7-9 (entitled “Castaway”, “Friend”, and “Lover”, respectively) are a bit darker than earlier, more comedic volumes have been. Each of the three contains a very tragic and/or violent event with significant traumatic repercussions for our characters. In volume seven, it is the slaughtering of Tamahome’s family at the hands of Suboshi in reparation for the supposed murder of his twin, Amiboshi. In volume eight, it is the tragic death of a main character, Nuriko. In volume nine, it’s Nakago’s apparent rape of the innocent heroine, Miaka. And so although Fushigi Yuugi might technically be classified as shoujo (“young girls”) manga, it definitely earns its T+ (older teens) rating in these three volumes.

Yet in spite of all the tragedy and melodrama contained therein, Fushigi Yuugi is still not nearly as harrowing a read, emotionally speaking, as a more subdued, realistic series could be. For example, I’ve found the melancholy coming-of-age manga Sand Chronicles to be much more affecting, because it feels much more real and is therefore more poignant. With Fushigi Yuugi, its frequent and gratuitous forays into “over-the-top” territory prevent me from ever taking the series seriously, even when its main characters are suffering. That being said, I always enjoy FY, perhaps precisely because it does not need to be taken seriously. Yuu Watase is a talented artist and storyteller, and even if her works incorporate many elements of the ridiculous they are usually engaging and addictive and engrossing. Fushigi Yuugi in particular has a sort of timeless quality that rarely disappoints. I always get sucked into reading it, even though I already know the story from watching the anime, and I’m always excited to pick up each new release, and proud to add each one to my shelves.

Volume 7, “Castaway”, begins just after the botched summoning ceremony. Tai Yi-Jun tells Miaka and the warriors that their last hope for summoning Suzaku is to find the Shentso-Pao, a mystical artifact of the priestess of Genbu, who came to the universe of the four gods many years ago. Tai Yi-Jun also warns Miaka in private that although Tamahome has returned to them, she is to have absolutely no (physical) relations with him; in order to summon Suzaku the priestess must be pure, i.e. a virgin. Confused and conflicted, she begins by treating him coldly to push him away, but confesses everything to him soon enough. Although initially taken aback, Tamahome promises her that until Suzaku is summoned he will be content to serve her faithfully as a celestial warrior should. Once everything is over and peace is restored, however, he will “make her the happiest bride in the world”. Also in this volume, we learn more about Chichiri’s past, and he actually turns out to be a much more serious person than we might have thought. In a touching scene, he confesses his past transgressions to Miaka before removing his mask and showing her, for the first time, his true face. Later on, we also learn about Nuriko’s past, and why he first began to cross dress at a very young age. Nuriko was already one of my favorite characters because of his hilarious, straightforward personality, but this revelation of his more serious, tender side just made me love him all the more. I should have read the warning signs right then and there, but it was only later that I began to suspect the imminent killing-off of his character. Alas.

I’d also like to take a second to appreciate the fact that the summoning of Suzaku, as the driving force of conflict in the story, has come to represent so much more than a simple granting of Miaka’s wishes. When she first learned about her priestess-hood, all Miaka could think about was using her wishes for simple, selfish means like passing her high school entrance exams. At this point in the story, however, she and all the other Suzaku warriors have each become fully committed to the summoning for a higher purpose.

Volume 8, “Friend”, follows Miaka and the six warriors (Hotohori had to stay behind in Hong-Nan and do his emperor thing, poor guy) on their journey to Bei-Jia in search of the Shentso-Pao. I like it when the gang goes on the road, because it invariably provides for lots of humor involving the three most gregarious of the warriors (Tasuki, Tamahome, and Nuriko). After being shipwrecked in a storm, the crew washes ashore on a sinister island populated solely by female warriors who kill men on sight (or do worse to them), so of course the celestial warriors must all disguise themselves as women! Nuriko’s thrilled, Tasuki and Tamahome put up a fuss, and poor, sweet, burly Mitsukake fails miserably despite his honest efforts. They finally escape from the island, but not before some nasty encounters with Seiryu warriors. In order to summon Seiryu, they also need the power of the Shentso-Pao, but rather than seek it themselves, they’ve chosen to go about it indirectly by sabotaging the Suzaku warriors whenever possible. Our heroes do finally prevail and reach Bei-Jia in tact. Their triumph, however, is short-lived.

Both the Seiryu and Suzaku camps reach the capital of Bei-Jia separately, but it doesn’t take long for them to run into each other. Nakago learns that the spirit guardians of the Shentso-Pao will never relinquish it to a Seiryu warrior, so he decides to wait until the Suzaku group wins it fair and square and then steal it from them. Bastard. It’s at this point, when the Miaka & co. are on the verge of securing the Shentso-Pao, that Nuriko dies suddenly and tragically in combat. Although it really is quite devastating for such a lovable character to die so brutally, Nurko is pretty lucky in that he at least got to make peace with himself and his conflicted identity issues (resulting from his sister’s death) before he died. He also got to tell Miaka how important his role as her celestial warrior has been to him, and how much he’s grown as a result of it. Even if he had to do everything over again, he wouldn’t change anything. He’d still choose to die in her service. Heartbroken, Miaka is more determined than ever to summon Suzaku.

In Volume 9, “Lover”, Miaka and her remaining five companions venture into the cave containing the Shentso-Pao, guarded by the spirits of two of the Genbu celestial warriors. After a series of trials, in which Miaka surprises even her own warriors with her newfound strength and resolve, they succeed in receiving the treasure, which actually turns out to be an elaborate necklace worn by the priestess of Genbu during her (successful) summoning ceremony. The group’s happiness is cut short be the discovery that the Shentso-Pao alone is not sufficient to summon Suzaku; they must also secure an artifact from the remaining kingdom, the Western Xi-Lang. Poor Tamahome! His crestfallen “will I ever get married!?” expression is really quite hilarious. But as they emerge from the cave, I was strongly reminded of a line from one of my favorite plays ever, Into the Woods: “You may know what you need but to get what you want better see that you keep what you have.” Because the Shentso-Pao is of course immediately stolen by those gosh-darn Seiryu warriors.

This is almost too much for Miaka. After everything they’ve been through, after Nuriko’s sacrifice, to just lose the Shentso-Pao? Guilt-ridden and distraught, she’s willing to do anything to get it back. Knowing this, Nakago is ready to take advantage of her desperation. Using Seiryu’s power, he creates an illusion of Tai Yi-Jun that tells Miaka the only way to reclaim the S-P is to weaken Nakago’s chi. Because she’s no match for him in combat, her only chance, says the fake Tai Yi-Jun, is to seduce him. Miaka is appalled, naturally. “But I thought the priestess had to be a virgin in order to summon Suzaku?” Fake TYJ says that was just a lie she made up in order to keep her and Tamahome in line. This is especially sickening, because not only does Nakago not love Miaka, he doesn’t even desire her. His one and only motive is to violate Miaka and thereby prevent her from ever summoning Suzaku (because the virgin rule is actually valid). So why doesn’t he just kill her? Because as the priestess of Seiryu, Yui has some control over Nakago and she doesn’t want Miaka dead. She still hates Miaka (or thinks she does) and wants to destroy her chances of happiness, but she doesn’t want to kill her.

And so, crying bitterly, Miaka goes to him, but of course she cannot go through with it. Nakago’s much stronger, however, and easily overpowers her. She desperately tries to access her spiritual powers to fight him, but he’s still too strong, and the effort (plus all the emotional stress) really wipes her out. She faints, and we don’t actually see what happen next. The other Suzaku warriors, meanwhile, have been caught in an illusion of their own, while Tamahome, sensing that Miaka’s in danger, breaks free and follows her. He arrives at the Seiryu camp – just as Nakago is leaving. It’s not long before he puts the pieces together and figures out what must have happened. He’s there when Miaka wakes up (undressed and in pain) and quickly takes her away from the Seiryu camp. The next few scenes are pretty painful, but I love how Tamahome surpresses whatever he must be feeling on his own behalf (anger, hurt, etc) and concentrates solely on Miaka’s needs. He tells her how much he loves her, how much he’ll always love her. “You’re beautiful. You’re no different from before. No one and nothing could defile you. Even if we can’t summon Suzaku, it doesn’t matter. I promised I’d make you happy, remember?” But the pain she feels can’t be so easily mitigated; she still feels hurt and used and guilty. And so while Tamahome sleeps she slips quietly away and runs off on her own. End of volume 9.

Well that was a little more detailed of a summary than I intended, but these were pretty action-packed volumes. Fushigi Yuugi, Volume 4 VIZBIG Edition (containing volumes 10-12) will be available on December 15.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Northanger Abbey: finding humor in gothic melodrama. Seriously.

Thus concludes my quest to read all six of Austen’s novels, and boy am I glad I saved this one for last. It’s been so long since I read Emma, I’d almost forgotten that Austen novels could actually be fun. And considering the fact that the last two I read were a little on the solemn side, I was quite pleasantly surprised by how lighthearted and playful Northanger Abbey was. I liked it more than I expected, especially since I feel that it generally gets the least love from Austen fans, though I can’t imagine why. It’s still not my favorite of all six, but it’s definitely in the top three. But more on that later.

Northanger Abbey tells the story of a young girl who travels with family friends to Bath in order to experience fashionable society. She quickly makes a variety of new friends, including the seemingly kind and generous, but ultimately expedient and self-serving, Thorpes, as well as the more elegant and distinguished Tilneys. When the Tilneys invite her to stay at their home, the titular abbey, Catherine’s overactive imagination begins to run away with her. Finding herself housed in one of those old and forbidding structures featured in so many horror novels, she begins to imagine all sorts of dreadful, fantastical things about its inhabitants. Having unknowingly convinced herself that she’s the heroine of a story that doesn’t exist, she attempts to solve a mystery that isn’t really there. The results are amusing, but the consequences aren’t to be taken lightly as she winds up interfering in some rather serious matters along the way.

I was a little apprehensive in starting the novel, as I knew it contained a good deal of satire of gothic fiction. I happen to be a fan of the gothic novel (everything from Frankenstein to Jane Eyre – I eat it all up), and I was concerned I wouldn’t enjoy a book that basically made fun of another genre. Yet I needn’t have worried. Satire well and lovingly done can always be enjoyed, even by those who highly esteem its object. Northanger Abbey serves as much more than a stern lesson to naïve young girls about the inherent danger and foolishness of reading novels. Indeed, what a silly, hypocritical thing to write a novel about! On the contrary, Austen does not disparage fiction in this particular work of fiction. In fact, she spends the better part of an entire chapter defending the activity of reading novels against its harsher critics. And yet her tale does caution the over-zealous, indiscriminate reader against the unhappiness one can expect if one fails to distinguish properly between fiction and reality, something most readers can probably appreciate all too well. And all of this Austen accomplishes through a very entertaining and amusing story to boot.

The heroine of Northanger Abbey is Catherine Morland, a young girl from a large family who grew up in the countryside reading as many novels as she could get her hands on in diligent, if slightly misguided, preparation for the time she would enter fashionable society for the first time at the tender age of seventeen. Some readers might take issue with Catherine’s poor jugement and lack of perception throughout the novel, but I don’t think that’s entirely fair. The combination of her inexperience (she’s by far the youngest of Austen’s heroines) and her open, trusting nature (having grown up among good, honest people she naturally expects others to be good and honest as well) make her an easy target for those who would take advantage of her innocently unsuspicious character. It was really fun to get inside Catherine’s head, and to watch her grow up over the course of the novel.

I don't really have a whole lot else to say about this novel; although it was very enjoyable, it was pretty straightforward for the most part, which is why it doesn't trump the more complex Emma or Pride and Prejudice in my opinion. Heck, even the horrible Mansfeild Park was more discuss-able than this one.

That being said, Northanger Abbey was one of the most quotable of Austen’s novels, what with the heavy satire and all. Some memorable excerpts from the pages of Northanger Abbey

To look almost pretty is an acquisition of higher delight to a girl who has been looking plain the first fifteen years of her life than a beauty from her cradle can ever receive.

But from fifteen to seventeen she was in training for a heroine; she read all such works as heroines must read to supply their memories with those quotations which are so serviceable and so soothing in the vicissitudes of their eventful lives.

It would be mortifying to the feelings of many ladies could they be made to understand how little the heart of man is affected by what is costly or new in their attire.

The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.

Ok, so now that I’ve finished all six completed Austen novels, I can finally rank them. (That was the whole point of reading them, right?) Drum roll, please…

1. Emma. Hands down. The funniest, the most entertaining heroine, the best cast of extended characters, plus a very satisfying romance.
2. Pride and Prejudice. The most romantic. Also, some pretty classic characters. The one with Mr. Collins.
3. Northanger Abbey. See above.
4. Persuasion. Was ok, but not the best.
5. Sense & Sensibility. Meh. Started out great, went downhill. Had lost patience with both sisters long before the end.
6. Mansfield Park. I’ve already said enough about my feelings for this one.

Dollhouse cancelled! Sad, but not terribly shocking...

The bad news, which the small yet devoted Dollhouse fanbase has been trying to stave off since the show's inauspicious premiere in February, has finally arrived. FOX officially announced this week that Joss Whedon's television allegory about identity and exploitation will be cancelled after the remaining nine episodes air. This was a huge disappointment for me (I've really enjoyed watching and writing about this show, and I feel like there's so much about the characters and story yet to be explored), but I cannot say that it was wholly unexpected. Whether due to it's undesirable Friday night timeslot, or to its overly complex and unwieldy plot structure, or to a combination of the two, the show never managed to build up a large enough live audience to keep it going. I was grateful and optimistic when Dollhouse was picked up for a second season last spring, but seeing as how the show remained in it's Friday night spot, continued to draw depressing ratings, and got swept out of the November sweeps, I wasn't terribly surprised to hear the news. Still, it's hard to face the finality of the cancellation after stubbornly holding out hope for the better part of the year that things would turn around, and that the show might yet have a bright future. It must suck even more for the actors and production team.

And speaking of those actors, let me just say how much I dearly hope Enver Gjokaj finds a new project soon. It's not just that I have such a crush on him. I also think he's an amazing actor, and really deserves more recognition. I also wouldn't mind seeing Dichen Lachmen again on either the big or small screen.

If there's a silver lining here, it's that the remaining nine episodes will air throughout December and January, and that advanced notice of the cancellation will at least allow Joss & co. to prepare for the end. What that means is that fans will most likely be given a degree of closure which wouldn't be possible if the show had been cancelled in a more brutal fashion (as in kind of like, oh I dunno, the last show Whedon created for this network. At least Dollhouse won't go the way of Firefly. Although, if it meant we'd get a feature film several years later it might be worth it.)

So there's nothing much for fans to do except reconcile themselves to the harsh reality, and to console themselves as best they can with the remaining nine episodes of season two. On the other hand, if finishing DH means Whedon can actually get to work on the Dr. Horrible sequel he's been promising for, like, ever - well, that wouldn't be a completely terrible thing either.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Memorable TV opening themes

Ok, this is kind of random, but I was just thinking today about how much I love the opening sequences of television shows. On the one hand, if it’s a show you really love, it doesn’t even matter how good the opening is, you still react to it like Pavlov’s dog to a bell; the very first notes of the theme song cue that instant rush of excitement and anticipation as you await the imminent commencement of another episode. On the other hand, there’s a lot to be said for opening sequences that are creative and exciting in and of themselves, even if the show itself doesn’t really do much for you. Yet if one of your favorite shows has a killer opener, one that is dynamic and interesting and perfectly captures the unique tone of a unique show – the effect is amazing. It’s an art form, really.

And so here are some of my favorite television opening sequences, in descending chronological order (i.e. in reverse order of when the shows premiered with their openers).

True Blood (2008). It’s gritty, it’s grotesque, it’s bizarre, it’s strangely fascinating. Just like the show itself, in fact. None of the main actors appear in this opening, but the images used perfectly convey the show’s tone and its stylized northern Louisiana setting. And the song is just perfect! I usually cannot stand country music at all, but I actually had Jace Everett’s “Bad Things” as my cell phone ring for like six months. I can’t really describe the effect of the True Blood opening; it speaks for itself.

Conspiracy in the Court (2007). Ok, this comes from a kdrama, not an American show. But I had to include it because I really thought it did a wonderful job of introducing this fusion sageuk political thriller drama. Conspiracy in the Court stands apart from other dramas in a lot of ways – it really sets out to achieve something different (hence the fusion aspect), and does so extremely well – and this opening really reflects that. When you consider also that most kdramas have pretty lame, generic openings if they have them at all, this sequence becomes all the more remarkable. Observe:

Dexter (2006). Honestly, I never really got into this show. I admire it, I think it’s very cool, I just never got hooked on it enough to make the time to watch it. But the opening is just so amazing. It was expertly shot and edited so as to make an ordinary, tame morning routine appear violent and savage. Thanks to this sequence, I will never look at breakfast in quite the same way again.

Veronica Mars (2006). I say 2006 even though the show premiered in 2004 because they revamped the opening sequence for the third (and, unfortunately, final) season. For the first two seasons the VM opening was pretty average. I liked the song (“We Used to Be Friends” by the Dandy Warhols), but other than that the sequence was pretty unremarkable. For the third season they reworked the song, making it more subdued and stylized, and set it to a series of sepia-toned stills. All in all, I think the new version was much more interesting, and a much better representation of the series. Veronica Mars was, at its core, a noir-influenced detective show set in southern California and featuring a petite blonde heroine. The new opening reflected that.

Cowboy Bebop (1998). I think I’ll just let this one speak for itself. You don’t need to know anything about the show in order to watch this opening and think its just plain awesome. The brass music, the bright solid colors, the animation…

The X-Files (1993). My parents were both diehard fans of this show in the 90s, and they let me watch with them on Sunday nights even though I was probably too young. Even to this day the eerie whistling music gives me the shivers. I remember waiting anxiously each week to see what message would appear at the very end, whether the typical “The truth is out there” or that once in a blue moon substitution. Exciting times indeed. (Sorry about the quality.)

Cheers (1982). Oh, this makes me miss Boston so much! This is just another example of an opening in which all the elements work. The lyrics of the song, combined with the slideshow of images, evoke a powerful nostalgia in me – for Boston, my former home, for the show and all its incomparable characters, for the time when I used to watch it with my family. This was a great show. So simple, so fantastic, so hilarious. It really does make me think about going home, and the theme song hits a very special place in my heart. And now I think I might cry. But it’s a good, happy kind of feeling. That’s how powerful a good tv opening, with strong personal associations, can be.

So although I’m sure there are many more great television openings out there, these were just a few of my favorites. A good opening sequence can be a very powerful thing. May this special art form continue to flourish for many years to come!

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Predators and Prey (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 8, volume 6)

Gosh, it seems like forever since I wrote about volume 4 back in June. This most recent volume of Dark Horse’s comic continuation of the epic television series was released in September, but it’s taken me quite some time to catch up. First, Barnes and Noble postponed my order for about a month, and then when it finally did arrive one thing lead to another, and now here we are in November and I’m finally getting down to business.

All in all, this was a decent installment of Season 8, but the comic as a whole still fails to recapture the awesomeness that was the original television show. It has all of the same characters (well, most of them anyways), and I do like how it has boldly continued to develop the mythology of the story beyond the cataclysmic series finale. Yet much of the magic of the series has been lost in its translation into the comic medium. One of the main casualties of the switch is the show’s humor, which by and large has not carried over. The writers of Season 8 do sprinkle in the occasional witty one-liner here and there, but without the delivery of live actors the dialogue tends to fall rather flat on the page. The show should always find fresh, surprising ways of being laugh-out-loud hilarious. So far, Season 8 has yet to achieve that. Or maybe I’m just too picky, or too close to the original material to judge the comic objectively. I will say that, for what it is, Season 8 is usually a pretty solid, entertaining read. So long as one remembers that what it isn’t is as good as the original.

But anyways, on to a discussion of the particulars of volume 5, which contains issues #21-25, plus a few extras.

Issue #21, “Harmonic Divergence”, was pretty exciting in that it reintroduced one of my favorite recurring characters from the show, Harmony Kendall. Harmony was a vapid mean girl, characterized by pettiness, petulance, a week will, and an absurd love for tacky unicorn figures. Very little of her personality changed when she was made into a vampire at the end of season three (with hilarious results.) Her incorporation now into Season 8 is a really good illustration of why the comic both works and doesn’t work. Harmony’s foray into the world of reality television in this issue was a great storyline that stayed true to her original character and was very entertaining. And yet, at the same time, it just wasn’t’ the same as watching Mercedes McNab’s pitch-perfect performance. I’m not sure, but I also think the writers may have been taking a dig at (or at least playing off of) True Blood in this issue, what with their setting up Harmony as a kind of spokesperson for vampire rights, spearheading the integration of vampires into mainstream society. Of course the twist here is that the social justice movement modeled in True Blood (“vampires are people too!”) is made out to be shallow, manipulative PR designed to put a negative spin on the real heroes of society (i.e. the slayers).

Issue #22, “Swell”, featured two characters I don’t really love (Kennedy, who first appeared in season seven, and Satsu, an original creation of Season 8), but still managed to be pretty cool, regardless. Kennedy shows up in Japan to run a “standard op” evaluation of Satsu’s performance in her new role as cell leader. That’s the official reason anyways, but in truth Kennedy just wants to give Satsu a little pep talk to help her get over the whole still-in-love-with-Buffy thing. (Of course, this is Kennedy we’re talking about, so her heart-to-heart, while well intentioned, is a little bit on the abrasive side.) Nevertheless, I like the way this episode provided some closure to the whole Satsu/Buffy thing without writing off her character or making her too one-dimensional. Well done, Season 8 writers. Oh, and the Japan team also takes down an army of vampire teddy bears as well.

Issue #23, “Predators and Prey”, was kind of a confusing issue, plot-wise, that involved Andrew and Buffy tracking down a rogue slayer and her team of marauding thugettes in the Italian countryside. While the duo fails to bring Simone and her gang back over from the dark side, they do share some much needed bonding time. Ah, Andrew. Another one of my favorites from the show. If I could pick any television character to be my real-life best friend, it would be a toss up between Marshall from How I Met Your Mother or Andrew from Buffy. Sure, he’s annoying, slightly delusional, and not too long ago he was a weak-willed accomplice to murder. Yet he’s become the poster boy for second chances, and I really dig that. He’s walking proof that even geeky villain wannabees can find redemption. Plus, how much do I love the fact that, in this issue, Andrew makes the confession when confronted with certain death that he’s always been on team Spike? (I love Angel too, don’t bite my head off, I just have a special place in my heart for Spike.) So although I wasn’t too enthused about the story of this issue, I thought the character stuff was great, and at the end of the day that’s what really counts.

In issue #24, “Safe”, we return to Giles and Faith, who teamed up and kind of broke away from the slayer organization, at least temporarily, back in volume two. While I’m very glad to see these two back in action, it’s also very sad for me to be reminded of how distant Giles and Buffy have become. They barely keep in touch with each other anymore. Their relationship underwent a great deal of strain in season seven, and although there’s no real animosity between them they’ve kind of grown apart. It’s just sad considering how uber-close they were in the past, in spite of their differences. They shared a genuine father-daughter love for one another, but Buffy’s a hero, and Giles was always more willing to make the hard choices. I’d like to think their bond will never truly fade, but I guess only time will tell. Another question I had about this issue: didn’t the entire Watcher’s Council die in the bombing in season seven? Where did this survivor come from? I guess it’s not important, I just felt like that needed more explanation.

Issue #25, “Living Doll” was a little blah in the plot department as well, but it served a much greater purpose in the grand scheme of things: namely, turning Dawn back into her human form for good. This whole deal with Dawn and the tricewise’s curse dragged on long enough, and I was more than happy to see it finally explained and resolved. It seemed almost as if the writers didn’t really know what to do with her character in Season 8; this weird plotline has kind of marginalized her from the group for a while now. I hope now that she’s back to normal she will play a more integral role in slayer operations. I know Buffy wants to protect her, but Dawn’s practically grown up now, and has at least as much right to be included as Xander, who’s just as human and powerless as she. Oh! And how tickled was I when Dawn made that reference to Valley of the Dolls, which I recently finished reading?

After issue #25, volume five also contains a special short story featuring the misadventures of Harmony on her reality show, “Harmony Bites”, as well as some faux magazine inserts and advertisements from her publicity. Fun stuff, but I’m not sure how I feel about sweet, unaffected Clem (the loose-skinned demon who used to play kitten poker with Spike) being Harmony’s new “friend” (i.e. chauffeur/pawn/source-of-amusement-when-she’s-bored). I guess it makes sense, though, since Harmony uses people and Clem’s a total pushover. I just feel bad for the guy. I wonder if the two ever reminisce about their former mutual friend Spike?

Volume six of Season 8, entitled “Retreat”, will be released in March of 2010.