Sunday, February 19, 2017

Books 7 and 8: Twice the Prince Lestat

I'm starting to wonder if series of vampire books all turn insane by the end. I only have three series to judge on, but let's look at them:

The Anita Blake novels, by Laurel K. Hamilton

These started out sort of interesting. The main character was a reluctant necromancer, accidentally dating a vampire and a werewolf at the same time. For the first two or three books it was sort of interesting and sort of diverting, and then the sex kind of took over. A lot of sex. So much sex with werewolves, vampires, werepanthers, regular humans, and other supernatural creatures that finally, in one book, they never resolved the plot. There was an opening chapter, a dozen or so chapters of creature sex, and then the bad guys just left town with a note that they'd be back.

The Twilight novels, by Stephenie Meyer

I freely admit that I have read all six Twilight books. If you didn't know there are six, I understand. Most people think there are only four, based on the movies, but there really are six, and they're all terrible. A whole chapter where Bella fills out college applications! Buildups to big fights that happen off the page! Vampire baseball! And sparkles! SO MANY SPARKLES! When I was reading the first four I was also carpooling with my friend, Jeannie, and every day I would update her on the new insanity.

"They're immortal, so they keep going to high school, over and over!"

"There's something called imprinting, and it makes werewolves mate for life with toddlers!"

"Their wedding night is so hot that he tears up all the pillows so he doesn't hurt her, and she ends up all bruised and in pain but it's somehow romantic!"

"THE VAMPIRE BABY FRACTURES HER PELVIS FROM INSIDE AND A FOUNTAIN OF DELICIOUS BLOOD SHOOTS OUT OF HER MOUTH!"

Batshit crazy, those books.

Also, there are actually seven, but one was only partially published online because it leaked and then Meyer stopped writing it.

The Vampire Chronicles, by Anne Rice

Oh, Anne. I liked you for so long. I discovered you in college and read you voraciously. I even read The Sleeping Beauty Trilogy and Exit to Eden (which, oddly, became a sex comedy starring Rosie O'Donnel). The longer the Vampire Chronicles went on, though, the worse they got. Lestat, the protagonist, met Satan. Every supporting character got their own book, and only some of them were interesting. She tied the series into her Mayfair Witches series, which had also degenerated into nonsense by only the third book, and the result was almost unreadable.

I'm serious. Blackwood Farm and Blood Canticle were so awful that I can barely remember what they were about. All I remember is that they were so bad, and so poorly received, that Anne Rice stopped writing about vampires. That was fortunate because I was ready to stop reading about vampires for a while, and I say that as a person who wrote a senior thesis on vampirism in popular modern American fiction in undergrad. Anne Rice made me love and eventually hate vampire books, but this month I gave her another chance.

The results were mixed.

In Prince Lestat, Rice kind of catches us up on where almost everybody has been. I say "almost everybody" because there are two notable exceptions that I'm calling notable because they had their own books: Vittorio and Ursula aren't mentioned in this book or the next one, and neither are Merrick, Mona, Quinn, and the rest of the Mayfair Witches and Blackwood Farm vampires, although their absence is eventually explained in the second book. Aside from checking in on everybody, there's a mysterious Voice urging old vampires to burn up young ones, and all the vampires have to come together to discover the source of The Voice and confront the danger to them all.

"Prince Lestat" is Queen of the Damned all over again. Cast of thousands, powerful but previously unknown old vampires, everybody coming together to defeat an ancient threat, etc. If you liked that book, you'll like this one, too, and (spoiler) it ends with Lestat as official Prince of the Vampires, with Amel, the spirit that created and animates all vampires, housed inside him and communicating with him.

And then in Prince Lestat and the Realms of Atlantis things go all the way insane, because it turns out that not only was Amel a ghost, not just a spirit, but he was the ghost of the ruler and creator of Atlantis.

And also he was sent to Earth by aliens.

Yup.

Not only that, but the aliens, an avian reptilian race that feeds on suffering and watches Earth from afar, sent other immortals to Earth, too, to stop Amel and destroy Atlantis, and now those immortal humanoids have read the Vampire Chronicles and know Amel is still around and they're coming for him for unknown reasons that may destroy all of the vampires and also all of humanity. And there are lots of other ghosts, too, and some of them wear clothes and talk to vampires. And it's right in the middle of all of this that Anne Rice reveals that she hates "Blackwood Farm" and "Blood Canticle" as much as I do. How do I know?

She reveals that the entire cast died horrible off-panel deaths, in less than two pages of discussion.

Two vampires are discussing the humanoids, and both say, "I've never seen a creature that looks human but isn't human, not in thousands of years", and I'm thinking, "Wait, what about the Taltos monsters from the Witching Hour books?" but no one ever mentions them. They do mention Merrick, though, for a minute. "She burned herself up." Oh, no. Well, what about Quinn and Mona? "Oh, they burned up, too. It was really quick, but sounded horribly painful."

So all of the other characters from all of the other books survived, more or less, except for the casts of the two really awful books?

OK, then. Back to the aliens, ghosts, and vampires. And Atlantis.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Two Weeks of Jury Duty

It's been four years since the last (and first) time I had jury duty, but somehow I got called again, and spent the last two weeks in and out of Knoxville's criminal court doing my best not to end up on an actual jury. I was mostly successful, although I did end up on one for a short two day trial. It was a strange two weeks in the shining hall of justice known as the Knoxville City County Building:

Knoxville City County Building

which was especially shiny the other morning when I took that photo due to just the right amount of fog.

Here are the random things I've learned during my time performing my civic duty:

1) The City County Building has no lactation rooms. I know because one of my fellow jurors was a nursing mother, and one judge excused her from serving on his jury because she asked if there would be a place available to pump at lunchtime. The other judge told her she could use one of the restrooms, and did not excuse her.

2) If you get on a jury, there is free lunch, because they don't let you leave the building. One day we had Salsarita's, which was ok (I made two chicken soft tacos and had a cookie), and one day we had Naple's, which was fantastic. We didn't get to put in our own lunch order either day, which meant both days the vegetarian on our jury complained about a lack of options. No one asked if we had dietary restrictions, either, which surprised me in our time of peanut allergies and lawsuits (especially in a courthouse), and which also meant that the lady on our jury who was doing the Whole 30 Diet didn't really get to eat anything either day. We were allowed to bring our own food and snacks, so I'm not sure why she didn't, and didn't ask.

3) Jury duty works a little differently in every state my friends live in, based on Facebook posts. In Knoxville, if you get criminal court jury duty you have to call in before Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday each week to find out if you have to report. If you do have to report, and you get picked for a jury, that doesn't get you out of the rest of the two weeks. I was picked for a jury on Tuesday of the first week for a trial that ended the next day, but still had to report the next week on Monday and Tuesday. I didn't have to report the last Wednesday because there were three trials in progress at that point, and there were only nine jurors left in the pool. It was kind of humorous on Tuesday morning, though, when they asked who had served on a jury recently and almost everyone in the selection box at that time raised their hand.

4) It takes a long time for cases to come to trial. I went through voir dire (being questioned as a potential juror) multiple times throughout the two weeks, and I don't think any of the cases were more recent than 2012. In the two weeks time, I was a potential juror for an assault trial (I was challenged and dropped from the jury), a drug trial (I served on the jury), a murder trial (challenged and dropped), and a DWI (challenged and dropped). There was another trial, too, but it was seated while I was serving on my jury, so I don't know what it was because it went into the second week.

5) I take too many notes. They give each juror a notebook with our number on it to take notes during the trial. When we went into the jury room to deliberate I had ten pages of notes, and the juror seated next to me had a half page. When we had to turn in our notes at the end, I had the most out of everybody, but I wasn't sure what would be important later so I tried to write down everything. We did refer to my notes during deliberations, so I guess they were useful.

6) The notion of "a jury of your peers" intrigues me, because I'm wondering how, exactly, you define a peer. In the case where I actually was on the jury, the defendant self-identified as African American, but there was only one person of color on the jury. He did not finish high school, but four of us had advanced degrees. Eight of us appeared older, some significantly, than him. How did we, as a panel, seem to him as we sat in judgment? Did we look like his peers? It made me think a lot about who would be on my jury if I ever commit a crime. (I'm not planning to, but I've seen a number of Lifetime movies where someone gets framed.) Who would I want on my jury? What in our everyday lives prepares us to answer that question?

7) Neither attorney told us about how a girl in their sorority, Tracy Marcinko, she got a perm once.

It was like I watched all those movies about trials for nothing.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Books #5 and #6: "The Family Plot" and "Bait"

This new idea to review books this year as I finish them has a pro that I thought of and a con that I didn't think of. The pro is, of course, that I'm updating my blog more often, because I read a lot. That was one of my goals with this, as I noticed last year that I wasn't writing as much as I usually do and felt like I was neglecting this space. The con is that some of these entries are going to be really short, and most of my blog is now going to be about books unless I make a concerted effort to stick some other content here. I guess doing that could also turn out to be a pro, eventually?

I'll keep thinking about that.

In the meantime, I finished two books, and don't really have much to say about either one, unfortunately.

A lot of people kept recommending Cherie Priest's The Family Plot as exciting new horror, and a book not to be missed. Local people also seemed a little excited about it because it takes place nearby, in Chattanooga, but now that I've finished it I'm not sure what everyone was so excited about.

The book concerns Music City Salvage, a family architectural salvage business based in Nashville. Augusta Witherow, elderly last survivor of the once wealthy Witherow family, walks into Music City Salvage one day with a fantastic deal: for forty thousand dollars the company can have the Witherow mansion, everything inside, the barn, the carriage house, and everything in both of those buildings as well. Filled with vintage wood, stained glass, antiques, marble fireplaces, hardware, doors, a grand staircase, and whatever's in the attic, the estate is a gold mine that can turn Music City Salvages failing bottom line around, and Dahlia Dutton, the owner's daughter, takes a small crew and two big trucks down to start harvesting whatever they can. And that's when they find the tiny cemetery that Augusta forgot to mention. And the sealed bedroom. And the footprints and handprints all over the dusty, locked house.

This is a haunted house story, but there's nothing really all that interesting here. There are ghosts, family secrets, danger, and what feels like an obligatory dramatic conclusion at night in a thunderstorm with help too far away to reach them, but everything about this feels like it's been done before. Reading this is like watching a horror movie on the SyFy channel: entertaining while it's on, but nothing about it is really new.

Chuck Palahniuk's Bait isn't really new, either, but you'll like it if you like Palahniuk. The stories are interesting, short little bursts of physical and moral squeamishness, and the illustrations are interesting even if I'm not going to color mine in as the book suggests that I should.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Book #4: The Secret History of Twin Peaks

Before I say anything about Book #4 for the year, Mark Frost's The Secret History of Twin Peaks, I'm going to give a warning: I cannot talk about this book without spoiling the book, the past seasons of the show and, possibly, spoiling the upcoming season as well. I'm saying that now so that, if this is important to you, you can go ahead and stop reading now and not have anything spoiled for you.

Spoilers ahead.

Not kidding.

OK, you had your chance. A couple of weeks ago, I read two other Twin Peaks books to get ready for the show coming back to Showtime this year. Not only am I excited enough about that to decide I'm going to get Showtime, but I also picked up "The Secret history of Twin Peaks" to see if it could tell me things I didn't already know. While reading it, I also started re-watching the original series again, and I have to say a few things about it before I say anything else:

1) The first season finale is an amazing piece of television. It doesn't solve the mystery of Laura Palmer's death, but it manages to take the plot threads of over twenty characters and tie them all together. It doesn't pay off all the plots, but it moves every single one forward if it doesn't conclude them, and it still offers cliffhangers leading into season 2.

2) It was slightly disorienting to see Madchen Amick as Betty's mom on Riverdale the other night after I just saw her as Shelly Johnson last weekend. I know I've seen her in other things since "Twin Peaks" ended, but it was just a weird jump to think that Shelly's old enough to be someone's mom now, and I wonder if she's going to be on the new "Twin Peaks" at all when she seems to be a regular on "Riverdale". Maybe she'll do both.

3) I'm up to Maddy's death in my re-watch. Decades later, it's still one of the most horrifying things I've ever seen on television, both because of the supernatural part but also because of the sheer brutality.

The book starts with a slightly interesting concept: it's a collection of documents assembled by a mysterious archivist, detailing the secret history of the town of Twin Peaks, which are being analyzed by an FBI agent who is not Agent Dale Cooper. At the beginning of the book, the archivist's identity is unknown, but it is revealed by the end. In between, the documents start as far back as the Lewis and Clark expedition before moving to the present day. Along the way, historical characters from Richard Nixon to L. Rob Hubbard drift in and out of the pages, but more exciting for fans of the show is that ancestors of the characters we know and love, and eventually some of the characters themselves, also pop up. As a reader, I expected to hear about some of them, like the history of the Log Lady's marriage and widowhood or the growth of the Horne business empire, but there were other, more surprising pieces, like the tale of Pete and Catherine's courtship and marriage, or an exploration of Josie Packard's sordid past.

The book also does a bit to set the stage for the new series by casually filling in the details of where a few of the characters have been since the last time we saw them. In some cases, this is a welcome surprise (the final time we saw Pete Martel, Andrew Packard, and Audrey Horne in the series, they were inside the bank when it exploded, for example, so it's nice to know who survived and who didn't), but in some cases it turns out to be a dark indicator that the character we know and love will not be the same people when we see them again.

This was at times a dense read, and it's definitely not for people who haven't watched the show. If you're a fan, though, this is fantastic, and probably essential reading.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

I Went to a Women's March

I didn't plan to go to a march yesterday, and as such was completely unprepared. I didn't have a fun shirt, or time to make a sign. It was raining, so if I'd made a sign, I would have also had to laminate it, and I didn't have time to do that either, since I didn't have a sign to begin with. I didn't have a hat or set of cat ears, and ended up grabbing my Pride hat instead because I'm bald and have to have a hat to be outside for more than an hour. I wore the wrong shoes, since I was planning to wear a different outfit, then realized that the shirt I wanted to wear is in the laundry, and then had to get out the door to make it to the march on time and picked a pair of shoes that sort of went but really didn't.

Spending too much time thinking about the shoes I'm going to march in is probably one of the many reasons why I don't organize marches.

I support all the reasons people were marching, and I support all the people marching. I am horrified that our country elected a self-admitted sexual assaulter, liar, racist, and Islamophobe under the most openly homophobic party platform in US history, but it never occurred to me that I should go to a march on Saturday. I knew they were happening, knew we had one locally, and knew people who were going, but it just never occurred to me that I should go, too, until a funny thing happened: I spent an hour looking at Twitter and Facebook while procrastinating going for a walk. I saw people holding hands, people linking arms, people raising their voices, and people refusing to quietly let this blanket of ideological darkness and barely disguised fascism roll over us, and I thought, "That's where I should be. With those people."

So I went.

It rained most of the time, and it was crowded, but an odd thing happened: no one bumped me. No one shoved. None of the things that I hate about crowds made me feel like I was overwhelmed by a crowd of 2500+ people in a tiny area of downtown Knoxville. Everyone was excited, and yet also somehow very Southern: people were polite, the march waited at corners for crosswalk signals to change, we thanked the police as we passed them, and people picked up after themselves.

Knoxville Women's March

Knoxville Women's March

Knoxville Women's March

Knoxville Women's March

Knoxville Women's March

Knoxville Women's March

We sang, and we chanted, and we marched.

And now we have some elections in 2018 to get to work on.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Books 2 and 3: "The Autobiography of FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper" and "The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer"

I'm talking about books 2 and 3 for this year as a pair, because they kind of are. The Autobiography of FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper and The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer are both tie-in books for the early 1990s television series Twin Peaks, which is coming back to Showtime this year. As part of the preparation for the return, I decided to reread the secret diary and to read the autobiography for the first time. There are similarities between the two books, but also a number of differences.

Both books attempt to give more background material on main characters from the show. In an ideal world, this would enhance the experience of watching the show, but it really only works for the secret diary. In the show, Laura Palmer is the honor student, Meals on Wheels delivery driver, special education tutor Homecoming queen, and after her murder Agent Cooper discovers that Laura hid a number of very dark secrets. Her secret diary expands on that, detailing her descent into drug dealing and prostitution and the reasons behind it. The book, which actually appears in the show, gives voice to a character who doesn't really have one for the simple reason that the first time Laura shows up in the pilot, she's already dead. While she eventually speaks a little through tape recordings and video tapes, this book is the only time fans get to hear her speak for herself.

The autobiography, on the other hand, adds almost nothing to the show. It's the story of Agent Cooper's life as told through tape recordings he made from the age of nine onward, but it doesn't tell the story of anything that fans and viewers would want to know. Wondering how Cooper became a devotee of mysticism? This book won't really tell you, because Cooper didn't make any tapes during that time. Wondering about his career in the FBI before he went to the town of Twin Peaks to investigate Laura's murder? Sorry, those recordings are classified. On the other hand, if you're wondering what puberty was like for a young Dale Cooper, well, there are pages of it. I can't imagine that any fans of the show who bought this were all that glad that they did so.

So, I read two books. One of them expands and illuminates the fictional world it is based in, while the other is a shameless grab for fan cash. That probably explains why the secret diary has been put back in print, while the autobiography, which I paid a dollar for at a library book sale, is now selling for fifty bucks on Amazon.

I'm assuming people who are willing to pay that are people who haven't read it.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Book #1: Donna Tartt's "The Secret History"

I ended 2016 by rereading Donna Tartt's The Secret History, a book with which I have a long and complicated history of my own. It continues to be one of my three favorite books in the world, and continues to be a book that I recommend and give out to others. This past year, I gave it to one person in the Facebook book exchange, and I hope they liked it.

(And yes, I know the book exchange was a terrible pyramid scheme, but I sent out one book and got back two, so as far as I'm concerned the book exchange worked, because I got a free book.)

I generally only reread this book when I have a "hey, I haven't read that in a while" feeling, the way that I sometimes decide that it's been a while since I watched a particular movie, but right before Christmas my friend Jackie decided that we should reread it together. She has not yet finished her re-read, but she also started later than I did, as she was locating her copy. I'm not going to talk too much about the book, since I've already written the long entry about it linked above, but I have a few thoughts.

The first thing I noticed was that I find it much harder to get into this book when it isn't winter. The book itself, for the most part, covers an academic year at the fictitious Hampden College, so a good chunk of it is in winter and a lot of important plot developments take place then, but even though a lot of the plot is also in the other three seasons it's fixed in my head as a wintertime book, possibly since that's also when I first read it. By about a third of the way through I had slipped comfortably back into the story, but in the beginning I was kind of not really in this mood.

Even when I did finally get into it, I still felt a little detached from the plot, fully aware of what was coming up next and mentally bookmarking where I was in the story. Because of that, I noticed a small continuity error that I hadn't noticed before: Francis, one of the main characters, lives in an apartment that's owned by the college. Richard, the narrator, spends a few paragraphs describing the building being owned by the college, being sought-after upperclass student housing, having 70's fixtures and finishes, and mentioning the kind of things that Francis has furnished the apartment with. A few pages after that, though, on page 167, Henry, while sitting in Francis' apartment with Francis and Richard, mentions an interaction with his landlady, and Francis claims the same interaction. Francis doesn't have a house and landlady, though, because he lives in campus housing. I've never caught the error before in any of my other readings, but it comes right at a pretty central moment in the plot, so I assume I've always been too caught up in the story at that point to nitpick something like that out.

The other thing I thought while reading this is that Tartt does a really good job at something that I would call offhand authenticity, or maybe local Hampden College color. Most of the random characters mentioned in the book as asides and world-building extras feel like the kind of random people and random stories that I ran into in college. Judy, Richard's neighbor, casually tells a story involving "Flipper" Leach, so-called because she flipped her car "four or five times" (Judy, a notorious cokehead, is probably exaggerating), and I'm reminded of Left Field, a girl who moved onto our floor in the spring of freshman year and was called "Left Field" at her old school because she got hit in the mouth with a softball and it knocked out a bunch of her teeth. Midway through spring of that year I watched a drunken Left Field and Michelle, my friend Alena's roommate who once almost crushed Alena by bunking their beds herself instead of having maintenance do it and then being surprised when they came crashing down in the middle of the night, stopped only by the dresser, sing "I will Survive" without looking at the screen during a karaoke night. Tartt peppers the book with those kind of random stories and asides about the people that Richard interacts with at Hampden, and it makes the college seem real because people who have been to college and lived on campus know people like that. Granted, it's probably because all of these small and small stories are based on people that Tartt met in college, but it still makes reading this sound like a real college.

By the end of this, I was glad I reread it again, as I always am. If you haven't read it, maybe you should.

Onward, to Book #2 for 2017!