Sunday, December 29, 2013

End-of-the-Year Young Adult Literature Review 2013

What’s more annoying than teenagers exchanging “whatevers,” “likes,” and “ya knows”?  Teenagers who have a literary allusion ready for every situation, that’s what. Author John Green’s main characters in his fifth novel, which was published in 2012, suffer from this malady. The story is told from the point of view of Hazel Lancaster, whose thyroid cancer has metastasized to her lungs. After she meets fellow cancer patient Augustus Waters in her support group, they fall in love almost immediately. Hazel relies on an oxygen tank to breathe and Augustus’ osteosarcoma has left him with a prosthetic leg. The two share a goofy vision of the world. They can also easily see through the maudlin, insincere ways many people misunderstand kids with cancer. Their love affair is neither condescending nor saccharine. At times, however, their conversations are too witty. As a result, many parts of the novel irritated me. I felt like I was stuck in an episode of the TV show Gilmore Girls. Being peppered by staccato, conversational one-uppers is not my idea of a good read. The novel successfully illuminates the inner life of the terminally ill patient who is living longer—albeit with a lower quality of life—thanks to biomedical advances. Although the witty banter is tiring, their relationship remains uplifting. It’s also refreshing to read a work of fiction that is not about werewolves, vampires, or zombies. The book has already been made into a movie, scheduled for release in June 2014.

Sexism alert! I thought that the author of Poe was a man, mainly because the main protagonist is male. I also don’t associate the comedy-horror genre with female authors. To be fair, the name J. Lincoln Fenn, like S. E. Hinton before her, is androgynous. Twenty-something Dmitri Petrov is a recently orphaned obituary writer. After his parents die in a car crash, his existence is plagued by a series of mysterious events. He attends a bizarre séance at a local haunted mansion known as Aspinwall, where he encounters an ethereal, feminine specter he dubs “Poe,” in the spirit of Edgar Allan Poe’s spooky stories. Using his crack reporter skills, Dmitri tracks a series of gruesome murders happening in his small town. An eccentric cast of characters from the past and present seem to be connected with Aspinwall in some way, but how, exactly? As murder victims pile up around him, Dmitri must find out before anyone close to him is harmed.

To me, one of the best things about Diana Rodriguez Wallach’s books is that her sense of comic timing is perfect. Another is her gift of storytelling. In her latest work, she introduces us to Emmy, who comes from a long line of Greek gods and goddesses. She may hail from a family of immortals, but as a young adult Emmy has to endure the same slings and arrows the rest of us do when faced with a gaggle of judgmental peers. It’s the family business to cleanse the world’s population of ultra-narcissistic individuals. Her great-grandmother GiGi sends her on assignments to track down the overly self-involved on “the List.” If one of Emmy’s targets gazes into the mirror of her silver compact, the unlucky girl’s (or boy’s) soul gets sucked into it forever. In other ways, Emmy is a typical teenager. She finds herself attracted to a cute boy who is only peripherally involved in her mission and is mocked by mean-spirited, jealous girls. Just when you think Emmy has another soul in the bag, Rodriguez Wallach throws a delightful curve ball at the reader. The trilogy is tinged with sadness, as well, for the reader feels Emmy’s pain at not being able to lead a normal life.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Frances Ha (2012)

After immensely enjoying Frances Ha, I’m convinced that the HBO show Girls is but a pallid imitation of this movingly funny indie dramatic comedy. Twenty-something Frances shows us that life is an unfinished work in progress, whether you are in your 20s or your 40s. Noah Baumbach directs a stellar cast, ironically including Adam Driver, who plays Lena Dunham’s douchebaggian on-again-off-again boyfriend in Girls. So far Driver has made a career of playing rootless, hipster males. But his character Lev in Frances is delightfully complex. As Lev, Driver never succumbs to the nihilism embodied in Girls’ self-loathing sociopath Adam. Frances is ever optimistic about her future, but she hasn’t yet found her niche. As an apprentice in a modern dance company who apartment hops every few weeks or so, on the surface Frances is barely scraping by. Through all of her trials, however, she remains kind, bubbly, and faithful.
Frances’ best friend from college is Sophie, who serves as her foil. Sophie has a secure position at Random House. Seemingly more self-possessed than her free-spirited counterpart, she is practically engaged to a waspy yuppie named Patch. When Patch gets transferred to Japan, Sophie leaves her best friend behind in New York. Frances herself embarks on an impulsive journey of self-discovery in which she makes an ass out of herself—repeatedly. Nevertheless, she does so without whining self-pity, which is more than you can say about the petulant mean children on Girls. You find yourself happily rooting for Frances’ success rather than cringing at her social mishaps and drunken confessionals.
When I was around the same age as Frances, I survived an especially rough patch from which I emerged relatively unscathed. My life was about to get a lot messier before it got better, but I made it through the worst, just like Frances. One is left with the sense that she has endured a trying time in her young life with graceful style. Not the last, for sure, but one of the many that we all gladly suffer as evolving human beings. Frances Ha will make you happy to be alive. Streaming now on Netflix.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Sint (2010)

Do the Netherlands count as a Scandinavian country? If yes, I continue my Nordic bent this week with another comedy-horror offering from way up North, but this time with a holiday twist. Sint was released in the U.S. as Saint Nick, “Sint” being short for Sinterklaas.
Writer and director Dick Maas’ St. Nick is not the benevolent, bearded, jolly gift-giver you thought he was. At least, not when it comes to Amsterdam. In the 15th century, the apostate cleric sailed to the city from Spain every Christmas Eve (December 5) during the full moon to terrorize citizens as he sat upon a white steed. He and his “Black Petes” pillaged, plundered and brutally murdered men, women and children before retreating to his waiting schooner. Although it’s not explicitly stated in the film, I suspect the Black Petes are Spanish Moors. Finally, the townspeople unite to destroy St. Nick and his henchmen by setting fire to their ship.
Unfortunately, but predictably, this event does not mark the end of St. Nick’s bloody visitations. Every full moon, he returns to Amsterdam with the Black Petes to avenge his death. Sadly, his main target is children, but he will kill anyone who happens to get in the way.

In the present day, Kurt (Bert Luppes) is an anxious, astute cop on the outs with his department. His fellow officers think he’s nuts for believing that Sinterklaas is responsible for the periodic attacks. The official, happy story is that every year Sinterklaas comes from Spain bearing gifts for all the good children. As a little boy, Kurt was the lone survivor when St. Nick massacred his three siblings and parents on their small farm one snowy December 5. Kurt will tell anyone who’ll listen about his wackadoo theories, but every one brushes them off as mere myth. He meets flaky teenager Frank (the very cute Egbert Jan Weeber), who witnesses St. Nick’s evil deeds. Ultimately, Kurt reluctantly teams up with Frank to combat St. Nick with the only weapon that works against the crotchety cleric: fire. The two men successfully send Sinterklaas back to hell! Or do they?... Streaming on Netflix now.
Warning: there is one offensive scene in the film in which two of Frank’s friends don blackface to dress up as the Black Petes on Christmas Eve. Apparently, Europeans are not as racially sensitive as Americans. If you search for images of “Sint” on Google, moreover, you will find more racist imagery that I don’t believe is meant to be hurtful, but to our eyes, it seems that way. If you have strong feelings about blackface, then, you may want to skip this scene.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

'Tis the Season to Be Grouchy

Rittenhouse Square under snow, circa 2006.

 I’ve been trying in vain to get in the spirit of the season by watching American Horror Story: Asylum, 28 Days Later, and Teeth, but to no avail.
Literary scrooges are portrayed as outward curmudgeons only. Their harsh exterior conceals a softer persona underneath the layers of bitterness. As for me, I think my inner and outer selves are both hardened. Merry Christmas to all, and to all a grouchy night!
Like many people this time of year, I alternate between loving and hating this season of cheer. On the one hand, the stark branches outside are festooned with lights; gingerbread is plentiful; and I love egg nog. On the other hand, I am feeling the pressure to spend a lot of money, an impulse I annually give into. Coming up with original gift ideas to buy for friends and family is no mean feat. After you have kids, this problem is merely compounded; not only is one obligated to purchase presents for the children, but also their caregivers and teachers. I am eternally grateful for their taking my rug rats off my hands to take charge of them in a careful, loving manner, but I could do without the stress of having to shop.

It’s not out of stinginess, but laziness. It’s cold outside, after all. Thank goodness for the Internet: With a few simple keystrokes, I can visit Amazon to buy anything (except, perhaps, an actual Amazonian warrior) for everyone. But eventually I reach my limit—on my credit card, that is, and I’ve now exceeded it with my seasonal generosity. Although I love spending more time with my immediate and extended family, the latter of whom I only get to see once or twice a year, I really just want to be alone. Don’t we all? Would I be content to seclude myself in a cabin tucked away in the dark woods with my faithful hounds Donut and Thelma (RIP) at my side, drinking red wine, curled up in front of a wood-burning fireplace reading back issues of The New Yorker and the Sunday edition of The New York Times? Yes. Yes, I would. 
Sunbathing in January. 

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Everybody Dies and Then We Have a Good Cry

“Too Far Gone”
It is with a heavy heart with which I inform you that the mid-season finale of The Walking Dead is upon us. What’s cheerier than this episode filled with death, destruction, and loss? A documentary I just saw about physician-assisted suicide in Oregon; a Norwegian zombie movie; and a Swedish vampire romance featuring two preteen lovebirds. I apologize in advance for not including more “yuks” in this synopsis, but nobody said every installment of the zombie apocalypse was going to be funny, ‘mkay? So here you go.
The Gov is trying to convince his new group to “survive.” That is, he wants the prison. They’re not safe, he opines. But we can take the prison without killing anyone, yet you never know what might happen, heh heh…The Gov has captured Hershel and Michonne, whom he plans to use as pawns. He feeds his group a load of B.S. to rile them up, eliciting their sympathies. Some fans argue that it’s high time the drama moved from the cloistered, claustrophobic prison to the more exciting venue of life on the road, where death is always imminent and escape not necessarily a possibility.
Yet Lilly has some problems with the proposition. The Gov makes no bones about it; his job is to “keep them alive.” But Lilly’s not looking for an upgrade. She already had her jerk husband leave her; does she really need a bigger one in her life? The Governor professes his love for Lilly, but she doesn’t respond in kind. Instead, she replies that she doesn’t know who he is.
Michonne and Hershel are in one of those crappy trailers. When Michonne starts to wax elegiac about how she’s going to kill the Gov, Hershel interrupts her. He wants to find a way to live together. But the Governor hates Rick passionately, and he can’t live with Michonne after she slayed zombie Penny. Hershel appeals to the Gov’s empathy: “How can you threaten to kill someone else’s daughter when you have one of your own?” “Because they’re not mine,” he mumbles. The Gov is an animal that has no empathy. He reminds me of Chip, my German Shepherd mix growing up. Chip was nice to us. He would bite the balls off anyone who he deemed a threat. Unfortunately, the U.S. mail was also a threat to Chip, so we often had to piece together shredded bills. He never bit or growled at us, but his attitude toward everyone else ranged from indifference to utter hatred. Like our beloved Chip, the Governor has no morals but plenty of instinct. The new Gov may not enjoy inflicting pain on others, but he has no moral qualms about doing so if it’s in aid of his overriding goal of saving Lilly and Meghan.
The Gov situates Meghan, Lilly et al complete with el crapo trailers by the edge of the river, claiming no walkers can make it across the water, declaring it safe. Famous last words.
Daryl is mighty pissed that Rick banned Carol. Daryl can’t believe that Carol wasn’t even sorry, and Rick says he hasn’t told Tyreese yet. Hmm, might not want to do that just yet. Daryl is worried that Carol is on her own. Daryl wonders what will become of Lizzie and Mika now that Carol is gone.
Tyreese has found something odd; a dead rat splayed on a wall, displayed like a specimen. As Rick and Daryl ponder the fate of the rat, their attentions shift quickly; a blast rattles the prison. The Gov is here and he wants to “talk.” Rick abdicates his decision-making responsibilities to the council they formed earlier. But now is not a good time to have fun with democracy. We need a firm but benevolent dictator—Rick? Hello? The Governor has a tank. That can’t be good. He tells them to get out by sundown or you all die. This is a do or die moment for Rick; can he stand up to the Governor once and for all?
Aah, back to the bucolic river scene. Lilly anxiously keeps a lookout as Meghan makes mud pies. So biters can’t make it across the river, eh? Looks like the Gov may have been wrong. It’s fairly shallow. But no, looks like he got washed away with the current. But Meghan is not having luck with walkers this week; one very dead looking decomposed one rises out of the mud to bite her on the shoulder. Lilly reaches her but not in time, shooting the walker in the head. We can blame the Governor for this, too. If it wasn’t for his maniacal bid to take the prison, Lilly and Meghan would be cozily ensconced in a crappy trailer out of harm's way.
Carl is confident he can shoot the Governor where he stands. We see dear little Lizzie again, determined to help the way Carol would have wanted it—with weaponry, of course. Rick offers to share the prison rather than getting in a shootout, but the Gov says no, not after Woodbury. Rick stands his ground. Rick invites anyone who wants to join them, to come in. The Gov threatens Hershel with Michonne’s katana sword. Rick gives a nice speech about how we can all change, and come back from the bridge of inhumanity. It’s not too late to change. All this is lost on the Governor, who mutters “Liar” in response to Rick’s flowery speech, and then kills Hershel with the katana. RIP Hershel! Your senior citizen bad-assdom will live on forever in our hearts! He’s not quite dead yet but manages to crawl away for a spell until the Gov comes and finishes the job.
The Gov shoots Meghan in the head after discovering that she is dead. A devastated Maggie and Beth wield shotguns. The tank mows down some fences, clearing the way for the SUVs. Rick and the Gov duke it out, mano a mano. Rick is taking it pretty badly. Now walkers are moving in. Lizzie and Mika just graduated from bad asses in training to certified bad asses; they shoot Alisha and another insurgent, saving Tyreese. The Gov is strangling Rick, but wait—Michonne steps in and does indeed kill the Gov…or does she? She stabs him through the chest and leaves him for dead. Daryl and Beth take off after Daryl shoots Mitch through the heart with his crossbow.
The prison seems very beat up. Is it even repairable? Carl is missing. Was he on the bus? Nope, the kids were the real bad asses of this episode. Carl is fine, taking out walkers. It’s dad Rick that’s barely holding it together. In a heart-wrenching development, Baby Judith is missing, with blood on her carseat. Apparently she was lost in the fray. Lilly shoots the Governor, putting him out of his misery. The prison seems lost. The school bus left earlier. So here we are, halfway through the fourth season. What you may be wondering is, what will I be writing about on Hell’s Domestic Backside now that The Walking Dead is no more until February 2014? Be assured you will see movie and television reviews from my Netflix queue. If I ever make it to an actual movie theater, I’ll recount this experience as well! For now I bid you adieu and thank you for your continued patronage.