2012 Books, and a Recommendation

So I’ve been trying to read a lot this year.  So far, I’ve been fairly successful.

In an effort to fill space before my Super Mega Awesome Cinco De Mayo movie review, I’ll summarize the books that I’ve read so far this year, that I’m currently reading, and that I have queued up next.

The first batch are in the “completed” stack:

Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy – Reviewed here.

Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy – I read these mainly because of the buzz surrounding the movie.  I liked them overall, mostly because of the way Katniss developed over the course of the books.  The subject matter is somewhat disturbing, but most of the darker themes weren’t explored as deeply as they would have been in more adult books.  The most interesting material could have been condensed to about a book and a half.

Lawrence M. Krauss’ A Universe From Nothing – An interesting and accessible book about cosmology and why we have a universe rather than not.  It’s eloquent and thought provoking.

Katherine Stewart’s The Good News Club – Stewart investigates the encroachment of religious groups, specifically fundamentalist Christian groups, into the public school arena in the  United States, which has been abetted by a series of court decisions that characterize religious activity as protected speech.  It’s a very compelling, and somewhat chilling, read.

Chris Rodda’s Liars for Jesus – Rodda reviews the subtle and not-so-subtle historical revisionism espoused by certain conservative Christian groups.  This can be particularly difficult for the average person to notice, since one must usually go back to primary documents to unravel the truth.  Rodda goes back to the source material and meticulously teases out the truth.  In many cases, she traces the evolution of a particular claim through a variety of successive embellishments, many of which start with the writings of David Barton.  It’s like an insidious game of telephone…

Charles Stross’ The Fuller Memorandum – I think it was Joshua Zelinsky that pointed out Stross’ Laundry Files books to me.  The basic hook is that “magic” is really math, and the weird things that H.P. Lovecraft wrote about are basically accurate.  The premise works.  I thought this was the second best of the three Laundry books published to-date, the best being The Atrocity Archives.

Richard Dawkins’ Unweaving the Rainbow – The wonders of science.  Dawkins is a very eloquent writer, and when he gets going on science, it’s hard to stop reading.

Charles Seife’s Proofiness – Lying with numbers, and how to detect it.  Counting is inherently messy, and lots of parties have a vested interest in exploiting that fact.

Eleanor Herman’s Sex with Kings – A look at the mistresses of a number of European monarchs down through the centuries.  It’s less about the sex and more about the political influence and authority that many of these ladies wielded during a time in history where royal marriages were more about bolstering international relations and consolidating power than about any actual affinity between the two parties.  The book is a little uneven, since Herman jumps back and forth a lot, but still interesting.

The books below are titles that I’m in various stages of reading ranging from “most of the way through” to “have barely cracked the spine”:

Ron Chernow’s Washington: A Life – Chernow’s hefty biography of the first U.S. President.  (In the literal sense – the print edition clocks in at over 900 pages).  Most of us know Washington based on a chapter or two in high school history classes and a few pithy anecdotes about cherry trees.  The real man was a much more complex individual, keen to be accepted in the higher circles of Colonial society, and with some significant grudges against the British military traditions that denied him the recognition that he felt he deserved.  I’m still working through this and will be for a while.

Compendium 1 of Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead – I’m a huge fan of the television series.  The premise of the graphic novels – survivors of a zombie apocalypse trying to figure out their places in a new world – is the same, but the development of most of the characters goes down rather different paths.  Watching the initially stable personalities start to unravel and the secondary characters grow into something new is fascinating.

Michael B.A. Oldstone’s Viruses, Plagues, and History – Oldstone takes a look at a number of the biggest killers in history, such as Smallpox, Yellow Fever, and AIDS.  He goes into some pretty gory detail, which is both engrossing and stomach churning.  The grim threat of weaponized diseases shows up several times.  Pair this book with the film Contagion for a fun-filled evening.

Richard Dawkins’ The Magic of Reality – Dawkins on critical thinking skills.  Aimed at a younger audience.  I haven’t gotten too far into it, but my initial thought is that Dawkins may be a bit heavy for teens or young adults.

And finally, queues but not started:

David Rothenberg’s Survival of the Beautiful – A work on the topic of sexual selection.  Why do peacocks have such elaborate plumage? Why are some animals brightly colored to the point where they attract predators?  Matt Ridley’s The Red Queen deals with similar material.

Martin Gilbert’s Churchill: A Life – A massive biography of Sir Winston Churchill.  This one will take quite a while to work through.

Bart Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist? – Ehrman takes on the topic of Jesus mythicism.  There has been some controversy around Ehrman’s scholarship for this book.  The existence of an historical Jesus has been a subject of contention among scholars for years, and despite what most of us may have been taught in church or Sunday school, is far from being a settled question.  At the conservative end of the scale are those who would claim that everything written in the Bible about Jesus is completely correct, and at the other end are those who would claim that Jesus was a character built out of bits and pieces of pre-existing myths and stories.  In the wide middle are those who posit an historical individual around whom various stories and legends grew.  It’s an interesting topic, but a very polarizing one.

My goal is to complete this list by the end of July, which gives me 4 months left in the year.  I’d like to aim for another 10 books by the end of December.  Suggestions are welcome.

Now, there is one other resource I’ve found myself spending a lot of time reading lately, and even though it doesn’t fit in the “book” category, I wanted to go ahead and put in a plug for it.

Over at Patheos, a young woman named Libby Anne has a fascinating blog called Love, Joy, Feminism.  Libby Anne comes from a family that is involved in the Christian Patriarchy/Quiverfull movements.  I was not terribly familiar with either of these beyond the very general premise that Quiverfull families have lots of kids.  Libby Anne left these movements in college.  Her story speaks for itself – there’s no way I can summarize it that does justice to the eloquence and sensitivity with which she writes.  She also frequently links to a number of blogs dealing with similar stories, which are all compelling in their own way.  I’m not sure exactly why I find her story so interesting, but I do.  I recommend paying Libby Anne a visit and reading her About page.

-Jay

Vampires Are Not Supposed to Sparkle

Last evening, a friend of mine initiated a Facebook thread about not going to see New Moon (the second Twilight movie) at midnight.

I inadvertently hijacked the thread when I commented that vampires aren’t supposed to sparkle, and that got me thinking about different literary and theatrical versions of vampires.

In light of that, I thought I’d put together a list (admittedly incomplete) of literary and film vampires, with a few comments about what makes them stand out in my mind.  I don’t intend for this to be exhaustive – it’s based on works that I’m personally familiar with, and in many instances I’m working from the memory of things I read or watched many years ago.

I’m not going to go too far down the path of vampire mythology – there are far too many to do that in the space of one post, and in any case the typical American vampire archetype goes back to Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel, Dracula.1 (The link will take you to Project Gutenberg’s page for Dracula.)

Literary Vampires

Dracula, in Stoker’s novel, is portrayed as a proud nobleman.  He’s well aware of his power and influence, and isn’t slow to use either.  His characterization in the novel also represents a counterpoint to repressive Victorian-era sexuality, although it’s not presented anywhere near as explicitly as it would be if the book were written today.  Dracula could create new vampires from his victims, but that was a fairly rare occurence. 

Prior to Stoker, one of the foundational literary vampires was Lord Ruthven, in John William Polidori’s 1819 short story, The Vampyre(Again, the link goes to Project Gutenberg.)  Rutheven, too, was a nobleman, and like Dracula,  The Vampyre has quite a bit of sexual subtext. 

Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot, written in 1975, is in many ways a reimagining of Dracula set in a small New England town.  Kurt Barlow, the vampire, is powerful and arrogant, much like Dracula.  ‘Salem’s Lot is the first book I can recall where every victim of a vampire was turned into a vampire – by the climax of the book, the entire town had been turned. 

In 1976, Anne Rice started her Vampire Chronicles series with Interview With the VampireRice introduced angst to the literary vampire, and made the vampire characters (mainly Lestat)  the focus of the books rather than simply the villains.2

Brian Lumley’s Necroscope series, which started in 1992, took a science-fiction turn with vampire Thibor Ferenczy and his descendants.  Necroscope-world vampires (or wamphyri)  were virtually indestructible extra-dimensional parasitic creatures that infect their hosts.  This series got more and more convoluted as it went on, and vampires (as a category) gained or lost powers almost at random depending on the needs of the story, and by the time I quit reading at around the fifth book or so, the series had lost just about every shred of internal continuity or coherence.   

The Southern Vampire Mysteries, by Charlaine Harris, started in 2001 with the publication of Dead Until Dark.  Harris’ vampires have recently made themselves known to the world at large following the development of a synthetic blood substitue.  Vampires are revealed to have a complex social/political structure that has developed over thousands of years of hiding from humanity.  Initially, Harris used her vampires as a metaphor for social acceptance of marginalized groups, but as she introduces more supernatural societies in later books, she seems to have shifted focus somewhat.3

Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series, based on what I’ve heard, ratchets the angst way up and introduces sparkles to vampires.  I don’t have any plans to read these books.  My observation is that they’re insanely popular among teenage girls. 

Film (and TV) Vampires

The movie and TV worlds are replete with vampires.  Many of these are of literary origin, but at least as many exist only on-screen. 

Count Orlock
Count Orlock

The vampire in the 1922 silent film Nosferatu: eine Symphonie des Grauens, directed by F.W. Murnau is an unauthorized adaptation of Dracula.  Max Schreck played Count Orlock, the bald, rat-like vampire.  Orlock is basically a bringer of pestilence and death, and is destroyed by the rising sun at the end of the film.   Orlock was played by Klaus Kinski in Werner Herzog’s 1979 remake of the film, and in E.E. Merhige’s Shadow of the Vampire, Willem Dafoe played Max Schreck playing Count Orlock in the 1922 film, the catch being that Schreck was really a vampire.  Got that?

Clockwise from top left: Lugosi (1931), Lee (1958), Oldman (1992), Langella (1979)
Clockwise from top left: Lugosi (1931), Lee (1958), Oldman (1992), Langella (1979)

 

The 1931 version of Dracula, directed by Tod Browning and starring Bela Lugosi as the titular vampire, remains (in my mind) as the exemplar of old-school vampire films.  Lugosi had played the role on stage, and brought basically the same characterization to the film.  England’s Hammer Films remade Dracula in 1958 with Christopher Lee in the role.  A 1979 remake starred Frank Langella as the Count, and in 1992 Gary Oldman turned in an excellent interpretation. 

Kurt Barlow from 'Salem's Lot (1979)
Kurt Barlow from 'Salem's Lot (1979)

1979 saw King’s ‘Salem’s Lot appear as a TV miniseries starring David Soul (from Starsky and Hutch) and James Mason.  Barlow has been reinterpretted as an Orlock-esque monster (portrayed by Reggie Nalder), and is presented more for his shock value.  (‘Salem’s Lot was remade in 2004, and was somewhat more true to the book’s interpretation of Barlow.)

The 1980’s saw some unusual twists on the vampire.  David Bowie, Susan Sarandon, and Catherine Deneuve starred in The Hunger (1983), a stylish film that tried to add some depth to the vampire characters.  (In my opinion it was more style than substance.)  In 1985, Tobe Hooper directed Mathilda May in LifeforceThis film could best be summarized as “sexy naked space vampire runs amok.” 

Vampires met music videos in 1987 with Joel Schumacher’s The Lost Boys, starring a pre-24 Kiefer Sutherland and a bunch of late-80’s stars that haven’t done a whole lot recently.  This film firmly established the concept of a nest of vampires that hang around (hah!) together for companionship and support, and in so doing introduced  some sympathetic aspects to vampires that usually didn’t show up in movies.4

Angel and Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer (TV)
Angel and Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer (TV)

The 1990s gave us the first appearance of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in 1992, starring Kristi Swanson as Buffy and Rutger Hauer as the head vampire, Lothos.  This film played the concept mostly for laughs, and is mostly forgettable.  Buffy didn’t really come into her own until the TV series of the same name kicked off in 1997 with Sarah Michelle Gellar in the title role.  The series was much truer to creator Joss Whedon’s vision, and allowed Buffy’s trials and tribulations to stand in for the challenges of growing up and dealing with life.  It also introduced us to two of the more interesting vampires to-date:  Angel (as played by David Boreanaz, now on Bones) and Spike (played by James Marsters).  The detailed development of the interconnected back-stories of these two gave them much more character depth than most vampires, and the complex relationships with the other characters on the show (and later on Angel’s spin-off series) have influenced subsequent characterizations of vampires on film.

1992 also gave us Innocent Blood, directed by John Landis and featuring Anne Parillaud as the vampire Marie.  Innocent Blood is, in my opinion, a forgotten little gem of vampire cinema.  It doesn’t really add anything new to the genre, but it does feature Don Rickles as a blood sucking lawyer (hah!).

1998 marked the big-screen debut of the Marvel Comics character Blade, the half-human, half-vampire anti-hero.  Wesley Snipes did a respectable job bringing Blade to life, although the sequels didn’t hold up as well.  Blade signalled the start of the transition of vampires from horror characters to action characters.  Also released in 1998 was John Carpenter’s Vampires.  Thomas Ian Griffith played Valek, the original vampire created by the Catholic church in an exorcism gone awry.  (The church creating vampires was the main new element here).  The film is most memorable for James Woods’ over-the-top characterization of Vatican-backed vampire hunter Jack Crow. 

Moving into the 2000’s, we’ve seen vampires reimagined as sexy, vinyl-clad gunslingers such as Kate Beckinsale’s Selene in the Underworld series, or as Victorian superheroes (Peta Wilson’s Mina Harker in 2003’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen).5
 
This brings us up more or less to today.  In 2008, HBO began adapting Charlaine Harris’ books into the series True Blood.  The series is enough of a departure from the continuity of the books that it deserves to be considered separately.  The tension between prejudice and acceptance is much more visible in the HBO series than in the books, in my opinion.  The show has also featured some interesting contrasts between the behavior of the vampires (the monsters) and that of the humans, demonstrating that morality in many cases depends on your perspective. 

And then, just to be complete, we have Twilight and New Moon, wherein vampires sparkle and teenage girls swoon.

Jay 

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1And even then there are some differences. Most people either forget or don’t realize that in Stoker’s book, vampires could walk in the sunlight without bursting into flames. They were weaker, but still formidable. And they didn’t sparkle.

2ObDisclosure – I tried to read Rice’s books. I really did. I just couldn’t get into them. If anyone who has read them would like to add any elaboration on them, feel free.

3The biggest complaint I have about Harris’ books is that she throws way too much sex into them.  I have absolutely no objection to sex in books or movies so long as it serves to advance the stories, but the vast majority of the sex in The Southern Vampire Mysteries doesn’t need to be there.  Pre-teens and younger teenagers could get a lot out of the social acceptance themes present in these books (particularly the earlier ones), but the graphic sex knocks them right out of consideration. 

4The Lost Boys is one of those films that I still can’t decide if I like or not. The concept isn’t bad, but the comedic elements of the film don’t sit well with me.

5The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was a loud mess of a film. Alan Moore’s original comic book is vastly better.