Friday, August 31, 2012

Nothing but Shadows

I read a lot of series. Not by design, but I get a book, I like it, and lo and behold I come to the end and, surprise-it’s a series. The past couple of months I’ve reached the end of a couple of fun series, The Parasol Protectorate being one, and have been lucky enough to also land the ARC’s of many sequels in my series repertoire. I love getting sequels, but as I have stated before there is a certain on edge feeling that goes with them. Namely, you ask yourself “is this book going to make or break my new favorite series?” (see Curse of the Sequel). That question has unfortunately been answered for one of my most touted new series of 2011.

Ashes by Ilsa Bick was a book I really stood behind in September of 2011. I blogged about it, I tried to put it into hands, both young and old, and with a cliffhanger ending, I genuinely could not wait for the next book. So, when a copy of Shadows, its sequel arrived on my desk I was ecstatic and couldn’t wait to dive in where I had left off. Which is exactly what I did, only it seemed as though I was diving into something wholly unfamiliar, and gruesomely unappealing.

What I loved about Ashes was Bick’s great twist on the post-apocalyptic zombie-esque thriller, her young characters were forced to survive in unimaginable conditions, but somehow they all managed. The addition of the elderly survivors, and a village straight of The Lottery only added to the appeal. The characters were interesting, and the concept of an EMP bombing aftermath was really ingenious. So, how could the sequel be so bad?

Shadows was a choppy mess—over-ambitious in its goal to cover so many narratives and horrifically violent. Basically, it’s like Rob Zombie took over the writing and tried to add as many bloody cannibalistic torture scenes as he could. Let me preface this upcoming rant with this—I am not a prude, or a wimp. I was a teenager who loved horror movies, wrote a twenty-page research paper about the evolution of the slasher film in college, and don’t typically shy away from watching, or reading about violence. That being said, even I have my limits and this book’s gratuitous use of torture, graphic cannibal scenes, and its villainization of, believe it or not, Vietnam Vets, has not only pushed me to the limit, but well past. There is no happiness in this book. I can deal with that. I can deal with bleak, if it’s delivered within the brilliantly written confines of a book like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, but the lengths to which this author goes to instill upon the reader the horrors of this post-apocalyptic world, and the utter lack of humanity presented within these Vietnam Vets, who appear more like Nazi doctors experimenting on young survivors for “knowledge”, is just plain sickening. There is no other way to put it and when you add in an uneven narrative, and a flimsy attempt at creating an underlying mystery/suspense plot within the confines of a horror novel, you just get a ghastly mess of a book.

In some ways I could excuse the atrocities of this novel, and just shrug it off as a book that’s “not for me”, except for more thing—this is a book written for teenagers, with the words 14 & up printed on the back, and shelved in the teen/young adult section of your local bookstore. I’ve sold Ashes to teens—young teens, and there is no way I would put Shadows in a young person’s hands. I would even be reluctant to do so in an adult’s hands without a major disclaimer and a lot of working to persuade them not to buy it. I’ve also noticed that this book will be marketed with AMC’s Walking Dead—a brilliant series for fans of the genre, and filled with it’s own horrors, but here’s the difference—reading is highly personal, the images take place in your mind, the words in your voice, it’s all very insular in a way, making it far more real than when you watch something similar in the movies and television. I’m sure many people would argue with me, but what I read in this teen novel far more horrified me than anything I’ve seen in The Walking Dead, 28 Days Later, or even Doomsday—in which there is a scene where someone is literally barbequed on a spit and fed to a roiling mass of punks. This is mostly because the intimacy of the images in my mind while reading far outweighs the actors scripted portrayals onscreen. I can shut the movie off, but it’s hard to do that with my own imagination.

To say I’m disappointed by Shadows would be an understatement. It is one of the most disappointing sequels I’ve ever come across, and definitely the most gratuitously and unapologetically grotesque in it’s display of violence, particularly torture and Veteran behavior. I not only would never recommend this to someone, but I feel as though I need to revoke my earlier approval of it’s predecessor Ashes, which sadly due to it’s cliffhanger style ending can’t stand on it’s own. I love sharing books, and am saddened to see such a promising series go to hell in a hand basket, but Shadows is a book that just needs to go away.

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Friday, August 17, 2012

Seeing/Reading "The Iliad"

I love going to the theater. It’s my first love. I mean I love books and reading and everything that goes with that, but when push comes to shove theater will get my immediate attention. This might sound odd coming from someone who makes their living from books, someone who on a weekly basis writes on this blog about books and authors, but what many people don’t know is that my background is in theater, and having had the privilege to work, perform in, and study theater for many years I find myself feeling a little lonesome without it in my life on a daily basis. One might ask what a book blogger is doing speaking about theater when she should be discussing The Dog Stars by Peter Heller or some other newer title, but bear with me—I’ll get to the correlation.

I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to see La Jolla Playhouse’s An Iliad, a re-imagining of Homer’s epic poem The Iliad (the Robert Fagles translation) at the Mandell Weiss Forum. The performance is done in one act (approx. 110 minutes) as a single, yet captivating monologue. The only addition to its storyteller, known simply as “the Poet”, is a musician who interacts musically using a double bass, the metal staircase, and a variety of other small instruments and tools. The musician never speaks, but the power of his music, particularly the double bass, interweaves perfectly with the storytelling, at times overwhelming the audience with its low, occasionally violent sounds that perfectly emulate the hardships of war as described by the Poet. For his turn, the Poet, as played by actor Henry Woronicz, is an intriguing figure, alternating from a hobo-like man pacing about a sparse utilitarian set speaking to the audience as though they were sitting beside him in a way station (there is no fourth wall in this production), to this eloquent poet with a visible and visceral connection to the men within this story that he is compelled to keep repeating to the world. Woronicz and musician Brian Ellingsen perform their material beautifully, bringing the right touches of humor, drama, and horror to this epic retelling. The only fault of the play is the text itself—not that great epic poem The Iliad, or even some of the modern comparisons used to create a better picture for the audience, but in the addition of dialogue that instead of adding to the underlying “horrors of war” theme, rather took audience members out of the tale and into a bit of clock watching. It seemed as though this dialogue, lists really, would just go on and on, destined to bore the audience, despite the excellent delivery by Woronicz. For example, at one point the Poet lists off every war since the Trojan War-every war. At first I was impressed at the research that was done to give the audience a chronological listing of so many wars, many I had no recollection of hearing about in my history classes, but after what felt like several minutes I found myself just waiting to hear the end so the play could go on already. I looked at my watch a couple of times here. Now maybe I’m missing the point, perhaps the director/writer wanted to desensitize the audience in much the same way our culture has become desensitized to war and violence—in which case they succeeded with me—but overall that and a few more stanzas like it, took me and those people around me right out of tale and into time tables and thoughts that perhaps 80 minutes would have been a more ideal time. Whatever my thoughts, this small criticism certainly does not detract from the fantastic performances of the actor and musician, and the brilliance of their natural and captivating storytelling skills.

 So, how do I possible connect a mini-theater review to make it relevant to a book blog? Let me try.

I don’t really remember much about reading The Iliad. I know it was in 7th grade and we followed it up with Beowulf. I remember more about the mythology; Paris, the apple, Helen, Achilles and his heel, but the nuts and bolts have left me. I’m far more familiar with its follow-up The Odyssey, both because I read it at an older age, and because a fellow student and I took key scenes and rewrote them in modern tongue for a performance back in college (see I can be a dramaturge too). But The Iliad, that was one I never did revisit. Having seen this production—hearing the parts of the epic poem as it was meant to be presented—orally, I couldn’t help, but be curious about the text itself. Enter the Fagles translation. This is a translation I have sold, ordered, and found for countless high school students. I haven’t read it, I haven’t really had an interest, but I know that it’s the preferred edition of teachers in La Jolla, Ca and after witnessing it in performance, I just might go back and peruse its depths, and then again, I might not. In some ways I’m hesitant to reread this work—I’m not shying away from the text itself, I’m not a 16 year old student any longer and certainly don’t balk at ancient texts, but after hearing and seeing Henry Woronicz’s performance I am reminded that much like Shakespeare, these works were not meant to be read to one’s self, like one would read Dickens, but they are meant to be performed, the words given life by an actor, poet, or musician; no longer merely a book, but a reenacting, a personal experience; which is far more cathartic that any words on print. Now I’ve gone and hurt myself by basically telling readers to watch, not read. Please don’t take this to mean that in the future you should see the movie (or in this case, the play), and just forgo the book! Instead what I recommend is to see this wonderful performance, and take all of the actor’s despair, anger, humor, humanity; tuck it into a small corner of your soul and then pick-up this epic poem, allowing yourself to resurrect those feelings when reading of the friendship of Achilles and Patroclus, the death of Hector, and the fall of Troy. I think you will find it will move you beyond a reading experience, into a whole new understanding of an ancient text that still bears so much weight in the affairs of today.

It is my hope that those of you reading this will do two things—see the play and read the book. Not to sound too much like an advertisement, but I think it will change the way you see the text.

So, moral of the blog—do the opposite of what your teacher told you to do. See the play, read the poem, get a whole new outlook on Homer. And maybe I’ll pick-up that Fagles edition and give it another whorl.

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