Monday, May 14, 2012

Graceling: Monsters and Grace

In my attempt to enter into and better understand the stories, worldviews, and messages shaping my kids and the rest of today's youth, I submit the latest review of trending books, films, and TV shows effecting a primarily YA audience. My goal is not to critique the art form as much as look at why a particular story resonates, and how it is shaping its fans.

Oh, and one other thing: There will be spoilers.
Publishers Weekly listed Graceling, the debut novel from Kristin Cashore, in its Best Book of the Year list in 2008. Since then, Cashore has published a sort-of prequel called Fire and a sequel titled Bitterblue. Here's Wikipedia's list of awards:
Graceling was shortlisted for the ALA's William C. Morris YA Award, is an ALA Best Book for Young Adults, was a Cybils finalist (Fantasy/SF category), and was a finalist for both the Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy (the SFWA's award for YA given concurrently with the Nebulas) and the Indies Choice Book Awards (Best Indie Young Adult Buzz Book category). Graceling won the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance 2009 Young Adult SIBA Book Award. 
The book also was awarded: Publishers Weekly Best Books of the Year 2008 ; School Library Journal Best Books of 2008; Booklist 2008 Top Ten First Novels for Youth; A Booklist's Editor's Choice for 2008-2009; Amelia Bloomer List 2009; Amelia Elizabeth Walden Award Finalist; Won Mythopoeic Fantasy Award For Children's literature in 2009; Nominated for 2010 Washington Evergreen Award; Nominated for 2010-2011 Eliot Rosewater Award; On the Bulletin's Center for Children's Books 2009; Blue Ribbon List; 2012 California Young Reader Medal.
For what it's worth, Graceling probably deserves them all.

The story unfolds in a world where certain people are born with Graces. These graces can be anything from cooking awesome pancakes to controlling the weather.  The kings claim those with the greatest Graces  and forces them into servitude. Those whose Graces are too ordinary to be of use are sent back home to live on the margins of society.  Every Grace is a mixed blessing; the recipients 'unique strength becomes their undoing.
Unfortunately, Katsa has a killing Grace.
When she was eight, an unfortunate incident involving her fist and and leering man's nose revealed her ability.  Her mother had died of a fever and her father had been killed in battle, so her uncle, King Randa, quickly forces her into his service.  His brainwashing and  iron control turn her into a brutal enforcer and assassin by the time she is a teen. When the story opens, she is feared by all in the realm - and for good reason.  Katsa knows how to kill.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Are You Not Entertained?

       Because of the nature of the entertainment industry, my friends and I consume entertainment produced primarily by non-Christians, which means it will contain chaff that needs to be separated from wheat.  Not surprisingly, the three of us disagree on what is chaff, and how much is acceptable. The Walking Dead of Modern FamilyBreaking Bad or The Office?  Mad Men or Men of a Certain Age?   
     What follows in a discussion as "iron sharpens iron." It is not the end of the matter.  Feel free to weigh in with your thoughts.

A. Weber: When it comes to entertainment, I like John Stonestreet's template:
  • Is it true (does it show the world honestly)?
  • Is it good (is it of high quality)?
  • Is it noble (does it make us want to be better people)?
    There are some other questions that follow from those three questions: With whom/what does the story want us to identify? What is the source of redemption? Does the sin tempt us, distract us, or appall us?What are the assumed messages about the world? A couple examples:
  • Though I am drawn to Game of Thrones, it doesn't fit this template.  The writing was good (high quality), and the story was true (actions have appropriate consequences), but even though I  wanted to be Ned Stark, I felt in some way dirtied by the amount of evil in the book, like I had wallowed in a world from which I emerged a little more hardened, a little more disillusioned, a little more broken than before. That's not noble.
  •  The first two seasons of The Walking Dead mostly fit.  Though the quality of the writing has dropped, the series has been mostly good (especially Season 1), true (it shows how the evil and the good wrestle within all of us) and noble (I can clearly see good and bad characters and their actions, and I cheer or jeer appropriately).  Based on how Season Two ended, I'm not sure my opinion will hold.
  • I'm almost done with Season Two of Men of Certain Age.  It is very good; it is largely true, but it's "hit and miss" handling sin in a way that always enobles me.  The characters played by Ray Ramano and Scott Bakula sleep around and gamble, but if I see real world consequences, and I'm not seduced into their weaknesses with them, I'm okay with those situations being portrayed.  As Season Two winds down, I would say the show overall contrasts the emptiness and pointlessness of sin with the reward of commitment, faithfulness, and character.
K. Meszaros: Those criteria are fine, but you are picking and choosing your examples.  Saw, Boogie Nights and Show Girls could be made to fit the above criteria depending on how you define your terms.  I suppose they were all done well to some degree; each one said something true about the world, and I don't think anybody walked away wanting to be a serial killer, porn star, or stripper. They even be more determined not to be any of those things than before.  I would go with some criteria like this:
  • Does the writer intend for us to root for the bad guy or for evil to prevail?  (The Oceans movies, Pirates, or The Godfather)
  • Are there consequences for evil actions?  (Ben on Lost)
  • Is there a lot of nudity? (Basic Instinct, Show Girls, or Boogie Nights)
  • What is the trajectory of the main characters? (Do they get worse or better?  See The Shield or Sopranos)
  • Is redemption a key part of the show? (Lost or Star Wars)
  • Is sin viewed as desirable? (The American Pie movies or any daytime soap)
  • Is evil an unbeatable force? (Constantine or just about any slasher film vs. Stephen King's Desperation)
  • Given that we have almost limitless entertainment choices, if something is iffy, can I find a cleaner substitute?  (Why watch Transformers when I could watch Thor?)
S. Smith:  I'm not sure how you conclude that movies that entertain with torture, porn, and stripping can be in any way noble.  Do you really think people walked away better people for having seen it? Sure, they can claim they do, but I think simply viewing the subject matter undermines whatever decision they make to not be like that or treat people that way. I think Stonestreet's criteria does exactly what you want it to.

KM: Okay, take the question, "Does it make me want to be a better person?"  In Saw, the killer is torturing people because he is dying of cancer and they are taking life for granted.  It’s actually a pretty in-depth story, just with bloody torture.  One could easily say, “Saw makes me appreciate the blessings God has given me - including life.” Sure, the presentation is pretty awful, but doesn't AW's  criteria of nobility only ask about the end result?  And I don't think his view automatically excludes nudity.  That would, for example, exclude Schindler's List.

SS:  Is it possible that some people could take something positive from Saw?  Maybe, as long as Saw doesn't provide a justification or create sympathy for torture and violence.  But what about just the idea that it uses torture as entertainment?  Perhaps "nobility" should not be measured just what you do when you leave (the end result), but by what's happening to you while you watch (the process).
    Same for Showgirls and Boogie Nights.  There might be a story arc with a form of redemption, but let's be honest: they make us want to see more naked women. This does not promote truth or nobility, no matter how good I may think it is, or how hard the filmmaker is trying to send a positive message.

AW:  Here's a different example (and a little less extreme).  I don't like Pretty Woman because it does not make me want to be a better person. It makes me want to find a stunning hooker in need of rescuing and rescue her, and I don't mean with the help of Jesus.  I don't think the movie is true on two key points: assuming all I have read is true, prostitues are not as happy as Julia Roberts; and relationships that start like theirs do not work in the real world.   Pretty Woman may have been "good," but it was not true or noble.

KM: So what do you do with sitcoms?  As much as Joey should come down with HIV on "Friends," he can’t because it ruins the situation which makes the sitcom work.  And in order to be funny, the characters have to warped.  You’re not going to find many role models on sitcoms, because by nature they are not trying to be real people; they are creating stereotypes to satirize both good and bad things. This may bother you, but it doesn’t me because I know they are not trying to show real life.  So, it's not "true" at all, but can't it still be good and noble?

AW:  The fact the sitcoms reset is one thingI dislike about them. People start to think they can live episodic lives, and their real world lives are becoming disastrously fragmented as a result.  This does not mean individual episodes do not contain good things, but the medium sends a message.  When life is broken down into unconnected episodes, that is part of a worldview that people absorb. Sure, they can be noble and good, but it's tough for them to be true (though that's probably the case for everything on television simply because of the medium).
    My bigger concern with today's comedies is that they make me laugh at things I shouldn't. The Office is funny, but should I really be laughing at Oscar and Dwight?  Good, true, noble entertainment should make my emotions match the real world. I want to laugh or cry at the right things, otherwise life gets very confusing.

KM: So what funny things can Christians watch?   Tommy Boy makes fun of drug addicted gluttons.  Planes, Trains, and Automobiles makes fun of another overweight dude.  Jim Carrey spends Dumb and Dumber trying to get laid.  Every comedy purposely distorts the world and makes fun of sin.  I don’t know how you get around it.  Sometimes, laughing at serious issues helps to change our perspective in a good way while our guard is down - it's the spoonful of sugar.  Isn't that why God gave us a sense of humor?

AW:  If the Bible were a long-running TV show, would it be acomedy, tragedy, or both? Perhaps you are right about comedies; I can see  Ecclesiastes working great as an Old Testament version of Men of a Certain Age.  On the other hand, I'm pretty certain King Saul would star in an early version of Breaking Bad. Either way, the genres would have to capture how honest, deep, whimsical, dark, light, beautiful, true, noble, good, and hopeful the Bible.  I'm trying not to settle for less from my TV.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012


In an effort to keep up with an increasingly influential entertainment culture, I recently walked into Horizon Bookstore in Traverse City and asked the manager, “What’s the next Hunger Games?” Though the HG trilogy was not ideal, there was a lot to like, especially in comparison to other recent series (I'm talking to you, Twilight).
The answer? Divergent.

This is the beginning of what I hope will be a long list of reviews of trending YA books.  It is my attempt to enter into and better understand the stories, worldviews, and messages shaping today's youth.  I hope you find the reviews helpful.
Oh, and one other thing: There will be spoilers.

 Divergent is the first book in a trilogy (the second book, Insurgent, has been released) for which the movie rights have already been optioned. 


The story is set in a dystopian future where a decision has been made to separate people into five key factions, each representing a key virtue needed to make society work. 
“Decades ago our ancestors realized that it is not political ideology, religious belief, race, or nationalism that is to blame for a warring world.  Rather, they determined that it was the fault of human personality – of mankind’s inclination toward evil, in whatever form that is.  They divided into factions that sought to eradicate those qualities they believed responsible for the world’s disarray….     
Those who blamed aggression formed Amity (peace). Those who blamed ignorance became the Erudite (knowledge). Those who blamed duplicity created Candor (truth). Those who blamed selfishness became Abnegation (selflessness). Those who blamed cowardice were the Dauntless (fearless)."
In this world, faction is everything. “Without a faction,” we read more than once, “we have no purpose and reason to live.”  In some ways, the story reads like a commentary on the polarization of political, economic and religious factions within America. As far as introducing a YA audience to the dangers of this disconnection, Divergent does a great job.  There’s even a study guide at the back with questions to help readers (and book groups) wrestle with some of the deeper issues raised.