Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Inevitable 2014 List: Books, Movies, and TV Shows Worth Noting

As this year wraps up, I offer the following retrospective on entertainment that stood out to me in 2014. It's not necessarily a list of things I recommend (though that is true of some of them). It's simply meant to provide insight into the cultural stories that are reflecting and/or shaping our worldviews, particularly those of a young adult audience. In addition, they all offer some great talking points about some of the most profound questions in life.

FIVE BOOKS (or series) WORTH READING

  • Jonathan Maberry's Rot and Ruin series offers one of the best YA stories I have read. Maberry offers great characters, intense story lines, philosophy, ethics, honor, love, and sacrifice embedded in books that will make you reset your alarm. It's pretty grim - it is a zombie apocalypse - but it's saturated with goodness and hope.
  • Neal Shusterman's Unwind series presents a dsytopic world that is uncomfortably connected with ours (he includes actual news clips between many of his chapters). It is a mesmerizing, sobering look at not only what it means to be human, but also what happens when a society agrees to give up on those declared to be unwanted, broken, or simply unnecessary. My students at the Christian school where I teach love this series - and that's a good thing. For an overview, check out my reviews of the first three books in the four-part series: Unwind, UnWholly, and Unsouled.
  • Dean Koontz's Innocence is the latest from perhaps the most famous Christian author alive today. He has sold over 450,000,000 books, with 17,000,000 added each year.  He's moved more books than Stephen King, which is no small feat. Since he’s not published by a Christian publishing house, he flies under the radar in Christian circles. That’s a shame. He is writing about horror, hope, good, evil, nihilism and purpose in a way that is captivating, true, and broadly accessible.
  • Patrick Ness's Chaos Walking series has its flaws and the worldview was decidedly more secular than the previous three recommendations, so this recommendation is a qualified one. Still, there was a lot to like about this clever, thought-provoking sci-fi dystopia. It's a good discussion starter for topics involving war, human nature, the importance of the individual  vs. the community, and the pros/cons of consequentialist ethics. And it's on its way to theaters, so you might as well know what's up.
  • All You Need Is Kill/Edge Of Tomorrow is violent, vulgar, epic, mesmerizing, and at times strangely moving. After I finished reading All You Need Is Kill, I spent days thinking about both the cost and necessity of self-sacrifice. The book may be marketed to a YA audience, but it's certainly adult in its content (the manga version both cleans it up and drains it of its power, and Edge of Tomorrow is cleaner but butchers the ending). It's neither the best nor most wholesome book on the list, but it gives a profound view of heroism and nobility from a Japanese perspective. Considering the massive popularity of manga and anime, I suspect we will see similar stories increasingly making their way into mainstream Western storytelling. 

THREE TV SERIES THAT BLEW UP THE RATINGS IN 2014

  • The Walking Dead has taken cable TV by storm. It's one of the most gruesome shows, but it's also one of the most thought-provoking. Who knew a zombie apocalypse could provide so many opportunities to discuss morality, politics, religion, loyalty, evil, hope and love? This link to "Who Are We? Reflections on the Walking Dead, Season 4" will provide an overview of the series as well as links to more articles.
  • George R. R. Martin's Game of Thrones series is truly epic. Mr. Martin did his homework in the medieval era before writing, and his portrayal of human nature in a world where life, death and thrones are all a game is unrivaled in popular fiction. However, I'm being kind if I say it offers a pretty grim view of the world in which the brutal reality of evil leaves no one unscarred. Rather than reviewing the books (which I have read) or the show (which I have not watched), I posted a series of articles based on the essays found in Game of Thrones and Philosophy. Here's a link to one which will lead to the other articles in the series.
  • HBO's True Detective.  This is one of the most brilliantly acted shows I have seen. It's also one of the most vulgar, so don't read that first comment as a recommendation. In spite of that, True Detective's Season One offered an honest look into the heart of nihilism. If you are a fan of seeing what it looks like to take a philosophy and live it, you will be mesmerized as Rust embraces the void in which he so earnestly believes. How does one fight evil if the world is really that meaningless?  This series offers a great conversation starter between people of different worldviews who want to wrestle with topics of good, evil, morality, and God.

5 MOVIES FROM 2014 WORTH WATCHING AT LEAST ONE TIME (or three, if it's Guardians of the Galaxy)

  • Guardians of the Galaxy. Marvel can seemingly do no wrong right now. I saw this movie three times in the theater, and it got better each time. If you want to know why the superhero genre is flourishing,  Guardians is as good a place to start as any. 
  • Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a great film, maybe better than its predecessor. I spent days yelling "Apes!" randomly, which may or may not be a good sign. Entertainment value aside, Dawn offers a serious story that felt ripped from current headlines in the Middle East. 
  • Maleficent. If you think Disney's earlier portrayal of Maleficent should be set in stone, you won't like this movie. If you think fairy tales are a flexible vehicle for insight into the human condition, you will probably like this movie quite a bit. It's not a perfect story, but it offers a surprisingly moving narrative on honor, love and hope that intersects with real life more than you might expect. 
  • Days of Future Past. An older Xavier tells his younger self, “Just because someone stumbles, loses their way, doesn’t mean they’re lost forever.” It's easy to believe that the brokenness within us will inevitably result in devastation around us. Days of Future Past reminds us that it's never too late to turn around. Oh, and it's a superhero movie. Surprise.
  • The Equalizer. I never saw the show, so I don't know how the movie compares. If you like Jack Reacher, Liam "Special Set of Skills" Neeson or Joe Ledger, you will probably like The Equalizer. Robert is an honorable man who can't sit by and watch evil unfold when he can do something about it, particularly when the honor and integrity of women is in question. It's interesting that, in a world of increasing moral relativism, you can still find popular stories that declare some things worthy of judgment. (Note: it definitely earned its R rating.) 

Obviously, I am only scratching the surface. For more great insight into worldviews and entertainment, check out Focus on the Family's Plugged In, J.W. Wartick's Always Have a Reason, Austin Gravely's Another Ascending Lark, and James Harleman's Cinemagogue.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

50 Shades of Longing

50 Shades of Grey has been been something of a cultural phenomenon recently. If you are unfamiliar with it, here's an excerpt from an insightful piece by Terrell Clemomons at Salvo that establishes both the basic premise of the story and a crucial question that is well worth asking:
Dubbed "Mommy porn" because of all the women in their 30s, 40s, and 50s reading it, 50 Shades of Grey has sold more than 100 million copies after only three years in print, having outpaced Harry Potter to become the fastest-selling paperback of all time. 
The story centers on the bizarre relationship between Ana, a na├»ve 21-year-old virgin, and Christian, an intense, 27-year-old self-made billionaire. They're attracted at first sight, but before getting involved sexually, Christian wants Ana to sign a written consent form for a BDSM (bondage, dominance, submission, masochism) arrangement. He presents her with a multi-page document outlining the terms by which he will completely dominate her and she will fully submit. "The Submissive shall accept whippings, floggings, spankings, canings, paddlings, or any other discipline the Dominant should decide to administer, without hesitation, inquiry, or complaint." This is a shocking new concept to Ana, but Christian has had fifteen such contractual relationships before. 
Ana never signs, but she effectively becomes number sixteen anyway. There are multiple trysts in Christian's "playroom," which Ana calls the Red Room of Pain, and Christian's hyper-controlling personality drives the whole affair. Ana would like more of a romance with some conventional boyfriend-girlfriend affection, but Christian says he doesn't know any other way to have a relationship. "Because I'm fifty shades of f***ed up." 
This is no doubt true, but he's not the only one. The question thinking people should be asking is, What is the appeal here? Why are millions of grown women—both independent, modern, and secular ones and married, conservative, and religious ones—reading this, presumably identifying with a timid girl who willingly becomes a controlling sadist's sexual plaything?  -  - "Desperately Disconnected: 50 Shades of Grey & the Longings of the Female Heart"
What, indeed, is the appeal? Clemmons goes on to highlight a study done by Dannah Gresh, a sexuality expert, and Dr. Juli Slattery, a clinical psychologist specializing in women and intimacy. Slattery read the series and, based on her own response as she read, noted five desires of a woman's heart that the books address. Gresh consulted publisher guidelines for erotica and interviewed women who read a lot of popular erotica to create a list of five common characteristics in the genre. Though done independently, their lists matched. Here is what they found (and I am paraphrasing):

Friday, November 28, 2014

Stephen King's 'Revival: A Novel'

Stephen King has never been one to shy away from wrestling with the most important issues of life. He knows how to use the horror genre effectively as a vehicle for sobering reflections on God, good and evil, human nature, love, hope and despair, and the meaning of life.

King is also disturbingly inventive when it comes to portraying evil in all its gory detail. It's been said that we all have a better handle on evil than good because we understand it better. Maybe King's just more honest than most about following that trajectory to its conclusion.

In Revival: A Novel, King has reminded us once again why he is the master in his genre. By blending a number of significant influences in his life (Arthur Machen's "The Great God Pan,"  H.P Lovecraft's  Cthulhu, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein) as well as his religious upbringing, he has crafted a tale that I can best describe as bleak. To give you an idea of just how bleak, I offer something  Bertrand Russell wrote in A Free Man's Worship as a means of comparison:

"That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man's achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins--all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul's habitation henceforth be safely built."

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Guard Your Heart: Usher, Nicki Minaj and Honey Nut Cheerios

According to Multivu.com, "Eight–time Grammy Award–winning megastar Usher and Buzz the Bee, the iconic Honey Nut Cheerios™character, are using dance to spread the word that being healthy can be fun and delicious. Starting today, the two new friends are asking people to celebrate and share healthy and happy moments, like dancing to Usher’s new single 'She Came to Give it to You' and enjoying a heart–healthy breakfast with Honey Nut Cheerios. With health issues like heart disease on the rise, Buzz wants to get people buzzing about the importance of physical activity and healthy food choices as part of a healthy lifestyle."

Sounds great, doesn't it? After seeing the commercial, and I couldn't help but wonder how Usher's song helped to get people buzzing about healthy lifestyle choices. Maybe the "she" in the title was coming to give me heart-healthy cereal?

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Zombie Bible: Hungers That Devour and Hopes That Preserve

 "Nothing is broken that cannot be remade. Nothing is ill that cannot be healed, nothing captive that cannot be freed. That is what he taught us."  

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I first heard of Stant Litore while looking up the most popular zombie fiction. His books kept showing up on list after list, so I decided to give them a shot.

Of the four books in the Zombie Bible series, I have read two: What Our Eyes Have Witnessed, and Death Has Come Up Into Our Windows. I wasn’t sure what to expect. "Zombie" and "Bible" were two words I did not think I would see sharing a title. "The Zombie Bible series is surprisingly good" is not a sentence I anticipated writing either. Nevertheless, there it is.

According to his website, Mr. Litore's first book, Death Has Come Up into Our Windows, reached the #2 horror bestseller on Kindle in December 2011 before being translated into several languages. While he has continued to write, he has been a guest on numerous Comic Con panels, appeared in podcast interviews for ReelNerds and The Geek Port, and been featured in “The Year’s Best New Sci-Fi” at NPR (March 2014). He has also received coverage in multiple magazines, including the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the Huffington Post, SF Signal, and Weird Fiction Review (check out the link here for more media coverage). 

Stant Litore takes both zombies and the Bible seriously. He writes, “My first real encounter with the stories of the Old Testament occurred when I was a second-grader. Someone at school gave me a Bible and I took it home and (because I was an insanely fast reader) I plowed through Genesis before going to sleep that night. Those stories were compelling; they had me riveted. And they had me asking all kinds of questions. I wanted my readers to have that experience.”  

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

UnSouled (The Unwind Dystology)

“You should never apologize for existing, Lev. Not even to all those people out there who wish you didn't.” 
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To help us better understand the entertainment shaping today's youth, I offer my latest review of books effecting a primarily YA audience. My goal is not to critique the art form as much as look at the worldview in the story. This review will feature UnSouled, the third book in an unfolding series by Neal Shusterman that has earned a tremendous amount of critical acclaim

I believe Shusterman is doing an excellent job writing a YA series about a profound subject: what it means to be human. Unsouled hints in its title that the series is moving into even deeper (and murkier) ethical waters.

Since my reviews of Unwind and UnWholly established the basic premise of the series, this review will simply offer a series of quotes from UnSouled to give you an idea of the worldview that shows up in the course of the story. Shusterman has some strong opinions about societies that are “a mill of commerce, trafficking in flesh, working outside the realm of ethics yet within the law and with the complete consent of society.” And he's not afraid to give 'em.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Finding The 'Hallow' in Halloween

As a child, I was raised in a Mennonite community that did not observe Halloween. From its roots to its current form, we saw nothing compelling or good about it. We gave treats to oddly arrayed children on our doorstep, but we never dressed up, never went out, and did our best not to support the holiday financially or emotionally. I didn't really care; my mom didn't let us kids eat much candy anyway.

I later moved out of that community and for the first time came in contact with a lot of sincere Christians who viewed Halloween as just another holiday. They experienced it as an exercise of imagination, a sort of exorcism of the spirits of fear from which we Christians have been freed. God had not redeemed us so that we would cringe in the face of evil, so they boldly subverted Halloween with a freedom foreign to my upbringing.

These very different experiences have given me plenty to ponder over the years. Though I have more to understand, I have several observations that I hope contain wisdom.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

When Humans Lose Their Humanity: "No Sanctuary" and the Real Horror of Terminus

The Walking Dead has been one of the most thought-provoking shows on TV in the past 5 years, and the Season Five premier showed that the writers haven’t missed a step. However, I'm not sure that every step deserves to be taken. Let me explain.

I’ve been thinking about the profoundly disturbing Episode 5.1, “No Sanctuary.” Something was bothering me on a deeper level than just the visceral reaction to the horror in the story. I finally realized that The Walking Dead is (perhaps accidentally) revealing a troubling aspect of how human nature works: We have a tremendous capacity for dehumanization.
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Dehumanization: to deprive of human qualities, personality, or spirit (Merriam-Webster)
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The Walking Dead features human beings who have been dehumanized by a virus that has shut down almost everything except basic minimal brain function. Rationality, emotion, and morality are absent from this animated corpse. The Walkers are now just a thing that looks human, with none of the dignity or rights a human being deserves. If zombies like these were real, that would seem to be solid reasoning.
   
However, the dehumanization does not stop there. In The Walking Dead, people who treat the Walkers as if they are merely things increasingly treat the fully human beings around them as if they, too, are things. Pick any character in the show. They more they enjoy taunting, toying around with, or killing the dehumanized around them, the more cruel and indifferent they become to the human beings around them. They inevitably dehumanize the living in some fashion as well.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Dracula Untold

Dracula Untold looks to do for Dracula what Maleficent did for its title character. What if there is more to Dracula than we thought? What if he is a hero (albeit a problematic one)? Dracula Untold suggests that he is just that – a misunderstood monster who has become what he is for love. And make no mistake, Vlad the Impaler is a monster. 

His childhood is tragic. He and 999 other kids were impressed into the service of the Sultan of Turkey, who brutally turned them into killers devoid of moral or a conscience. Vlad eventually made his reputation by impaling entire villages of people (much like the real Vlad, who apparently skewered 20,000 people - in one day).

When the film begins, he has apparently put that behind him. He’s now a prince of Transylvania, a tribute country of Turkey.  He has a beautiful wife and child and a populace who believes in him. When the Turks return and ask for another 1,000 kids, he’s not about to let that happen. Unfortunately, his army is vastly outnumbered. If he is going to save his people, he needs the kind of power that brings armies to its knees.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Starks, Dothrakis, and Terminus: Are All Cultures Morally Equal?

As previously noted, the writers for the Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture series (such as The Hunger Games and Philosophy and The Walking Dead and Philosophy) offer an array of essays over a number of thought-provoking topics.

 My first post from Game of Thrones and Philosophy covered several essays on politics; the second post looked at competing ethical theories; the third addressed our ability to know anything. This post will  highlight Katherine Tullmann's "Dany's Encounter With The Wild: Cultural Relativism in A Game Of Thrones."Let's start with a brief quiz.

  • Between Tyrion's relationships with prostitutes, Cersei and Jamie's incestuous relationship, Jon Snow's brief affair beyond the Wall, and the marriage of Ned and Catelyn Stark, which one do you think is better or worse than the others?
  • The Dothrakis embrace pillage, rape and murder while the Starks attempt to fight with honor. Are they morally equivalent in their approach?   
  • The Dothraki weddings turn into orgies; the Red Wedding ends in bloodshed; other weddings involve food, celebration, laughter and life. If I say the third scenario is clearly better, is that simply a personal opinion with no moral ground?
  • Is it good or bad that Essos allows slavery and Westeros does not? 

Friday, October 3, 2014

The Equalizer: Gotta Be Who You Are In This World

Robert McCall is a nice guy. He challenges people to succeed with "Progress, not perfection," and he doesn't shame them for their failures. He befriends people whom others reject or ignore, like an overweight employee and a young prostitute named Teri. He's a great boss, a good neighbor, and a voracious reader of classic literature. He's also - unbeknownst to them - a mix of Repairman Jack, Jack Reacher, and Liam "I Have A Very Particular Set Of Skills" Neeson.

One night, during one of the frequent times his path crosses with Teri's at a diner, Robert asks her why she hasn't pursued a music career.
"You and I know what I really am."
"I think you can be anything you want to be."
"Maybe in your world, Robert. It doesn't really happen that way in mine."
"Change your world."
If only life were that simple. When it becomes painfully clear that her world will kill her, he decides to change it for her. The bad guys drag other people for whom he cares into the conflict, and he unleashes a one-man war of vigilante justice. In spite of his anger, he gives those deserving of judgment a chance to do the right thing. He might do justice, but he offers mercy. Most of them refuse it. It's a bad call on their part, because Robert is going to make sure they reap what they sowed. He stays true to his life philosophy: "When somebody does something unspeakable, you do something about it, 'cause you can."

He's a vigilante knight in shining but tarnished armor, fighting for good in a world that believes his kind of noble warrior only appears in fictional books. Teri sure doesn't think men like him exist when she meets him. She believes by the end of the movie.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Why Jon Snow Knows Nothing (from Game of Thrones and Philosophy)

The writers for the Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture series (such as The Hunger Games and Philosophy and The Walking Dead and Philosophy) offer an array of essays over a number of thought-provoking topics .

 My first post from Game of Thrones and Philosophy covered several essays on politics; the second post looked at competing ethical theories.This post will highlight the pursuit of knowledge as discussed in Abraham Schwab's “’You Know Nothing, Jon Snow’: Epistemic Humility Beyond The Wall.”

Epistemology is the study of what we know and how we know. Epistemic humility is when we recognize what we don’t know. So how confident can we be that we know anything? A popular candidate is something called justified true belief. In order to have JTB, at least three criteria must be met:
  • One has to believe it’s true (Jon refuses to believe Benjen is dead)
  •  It must actually be true (I can know that George R.R. Martin will finish the series only if Martin finishes the series)
  •  It must be justified (A guess is not knowledge. Sam could not have given a reason why Dragonglass worked on the Other because he didn't know why it did. He was lucky, that's all.)
Unfortunately, even justified beliefs might be false. The Night Watch is certainly justified in believing dead people stay dead – at least until some of them come back as Wights. So what theories have been offered to help us see if we are justified in our belief that we actually have knowledge about anything?*

Monday, September 22, 2014

The Ethics of Virtue and Consequence (from Game of Thrones and Philosophy)

Game of Thrones presents Eddard Stark as a good, heroic protagonist, while Cersei stands out among many characters who fit the mold of the classic evil antagonist. Is this too simplistic and judgmental? Is it unfair to think of people in such stark moral distinctions? Should words like ‘good’ and ‘evil’ even be used in the conversation?

Games of Thrones and Philosophy, one of many books in the Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture series, offers an array of essays over a number of thought-provoking topics (see my reviews on The Hunger Games and Philosophy and The Walking Dead and Philosophy).

My first post in this series covered several essays on politics as seen through the eyes of Hobbes and Machiavelli. This post will look at ethical systems discussed in “Lord Eddard Stark, Queen Cersei Lannister: Moral Judgments From Different Perspectives”(Albert F. F. Anglberger and Alexander Heike), and “No One Dances The Water Dance” (Henry Jacoby). 

If we are going to talk about what’s good or evil, we will need at least some idea about what these terms mean.

Aristotle used the the term ‘virtue’ to talk about the good. He claimed that virtues (honesty, courage, justice, etc) were character traits that brought about eudaimonia, or well-being, in the people who had them. In eudaimonia, rationality controls the desires and appetites. Any time people let their appetites override their rationality, they were going to get into trouble. People not controlled by reason may find pleasure in the indulgence of their appetites, but they will never find true happiness since that can only be found in the goodness of virtue. The Big Three – Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle – all agreed on this point.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

"You Win Or Your Die" (from Game of Thrones and Philosophy)

Considering the popularity of the Game of Thrones series, it’s probably worth considering the worldviews and philosophies that emerge throughout the story. Games of Thrones and Philosophy, one of many books in the Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture series, gives an array of essays that are helpful in at least starting the discussion. (For similar posts, see my reviews on The Hunger Games and Philosophy and The Walking Dead and Philosophy).

The book begins by looking at the game of politics through the eyes of Hobbes and Machiavelli in “Maester Hobbes goes to King’s Landing” (Greg Littmann),“Playing the Game of Thrones: Some Lessons from Machiavelli” (Marcus Schulzke), and “The Death of Lord Stark: The Perils of Idealism” (David Hahn).

Thomas Hobbes, famous for his Leviathan, lived through a real-life version of Game of Thrones when the Stuarts fell to a civil uprising then rose to power again. Hobbes observed that this kind of conflict arose because of three key reasons: greed, self-defense, and glory. These three base drives bring about a life that is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” No one is safe. Even champions like Clegane can be killed by the lowly Samwell Tarleys of the world.

Eventually, people tire of this violent and chaotic “state of nature” and agree to societal rules, willingly giving up some measure of freedom and comfort for the sake of stability. When that happens, someone will need to enforce the rules. This enforcer will be the king, a sovereign power that will keep us from returning to brutish anarchy and to whom everyone must give complete allegiance. This is the Leviathan. 

Monday, September 8, 2014

Rebellion, Freedom and Art

From Paul Gregory Alm's "Songs Without Borders" (in the September/October 2014 edition of Touchstone Magazine):

"This is the great irony in the popular art of the last sixty years. Its forms thrive on rebellion and the overturning of conventional limits and expectations and even of morality. Popular art often seeks to break conventional patterns and to ignore what society expects. Singers cry out for personal freedom. Painters disregard normal rules of color and perspective and form in order to transgress a boundary. Writers sketch narratives that investigate the immoral or amoral, or sometimes abandon standard narrative altogether.

But the irony is that for such art to work, in order for it to make a statement, such rules and boundaries and markers have to be in place. If one wishes to deface a wall with graffiti or some other outrageous markings, the wall must be there to be defaced… If one wishes to scale a barbed-wire fence marked "no trespassing" and wave his arms and say, "Look at me," there must be a fence to scale. If one wants to sneer at conventional rules of behavior, there must actually be rules that govern how most people act… 

Those boundaries and rules are increasingly absent in today's society. But without such restrictions, popular music and art more and more become a rebellion in search of something to rebel against." 

I'm not sure I fully agree with the entirety of this author's analysis - surely some conventional patterns and expectations are worth challenging - but I find his broader idea thought-provoking. What happens as the rebellion against all the moral walls created by social, moral and legal boundaries becomes increasingly successful? After all, there is more than one kind of wall. Some keep us prisoner; others keep us safe. We may think we are destroying our captor when we are actually destroying our protector. 

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Uglies, Pretties and Specials: Scott Westerfield's Brave New YA World

To help us enter into and better understand the entertainment shaping today's youth, I offer my latest review of books effecting a primarily YA audience. My goal is not to critique the art form as much as look at the worldview in the story.

This review will look at Scott Westerfield’s Uglies, Pretties and Specials. In spite of mixed reviews, the series has consistently been on the New York Times bestseller list with more than 3 million copies sold. Uglies, which was nominated as a Best Book For Young Adults in 2006 by the ALA, has been turned into a mange-style graphic novel and is on the way to the big screen (there have been several false starts so far).

Mr. Westerfield has a B.A. in philosophy, so it's no surprise this book series seeks to dig deeply into culture and humanity.The series isn’t destined to become part of any literary canon, but it offers a YA Brave New World that highlight the dangers of our culture's idolization and seemingly endless pursuit of youth, pleasure and beauty.

In Westerfield’s world, everyone can become beautiful, fixed and enhanced by a pretty invasive surgery that radically changes one's appearance while altering one's brain to bring about obedience. Upon completion, the Pretties enter into a “bubbly” world, a lifestyle that makes the most extravagant Hollywood excesses seem tame. The theory behind this seems to be that people fight each other and pillage the planet because they are unhappy, and they are unhappy because they are ugly and/or poor. The solution must be to make them pretty and rich.

It doesn’t work.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Pixar and Personhood

I don't think it's a secret that media has a tremendous impact on our view of reality. The medium is the message all entertainment contains messages both overt and covert. In many ways, the most impactful messages are the ones the story assumes about the world, not the messages that subtly embellish a clever plot.  Even shows about nothing are about something. 

I recently read an interesting article over at Discover Magazine called "The Hidden Message in Pixars' Films." The author makes an interesting case that Pixar's movies are changing the way the next generation thinks about what it means to be a person - or even what it means to be human:

Popular culture is often dismissed as empty “popcorn” fare. Animated films find themselves doubly-dismissed as “for the kids” and therefore nothing to take too seriously. Pixar has shattered those expectations by producing commercially successful cinematic art about the fishes in our fish tanks and the bugs in our backyards. Pixar films contain a complex, nuanced, philosophical and political essence that, when viewed across the company’s complete corpus, begins to emerge with some clarity. Buried within that constant  and complex goodness is a hidden message...

What if I told you they were preparing us for the future? What if I told you Pixar’s films will affect how we define the rights of millions, perhaps billions, in the coming century? Only by analyzing the collection as a whole can we see the subliminal concept being drilled into our collective mind...

An entire generation has been reared with the subconscious seeds of these ideas planted down deep. As history moves forward and technology with it, these issues will no longer be the imaginings of films and fiction, but of politics and policy. But Pixar has settled the personhood debate before it arrives. By watching our favorite films, we have been taught that being human is not the same as being a person. We have been shown that new persons and forms of personhood can come from anywhere….

Andrew Fletcher, a Scottish writer and politician, is credited with saying, "I said I knew a very wise man [who]... believed if a man were permitted to make all the ballads he need not care who should make the laws of a nation, and we find that most of the ancient legislators thought that they could not well reform the manners of any city without the help of a lyric, and sometimes of a dramatic poet."And a good script writer. 

Please don't misunderstand - I like Pixar's films. The Toy Story series is fantastic; Up starts with some of the most heart-wrenching and beautiful 10 minutes you can find in film; Finding Nemo never gets old; The Incredibles was both entertaining and thoughtful; and Brave - okay, I could have done without Brave.  In general, I think Pixar films have some of the best overtly good messages in the industry.

I'm not even sure I agree with this article's final conclusions. The author may be giving Pixar more power than it's due. Nonetheless, it's a good reminder that those who tell our most winsome and engaging cultural stories  - books, movies, music - are settling our deepest debates in ways we often don't fully appreciate. 

Saturday, August 16, 2014

The Maze Runner: Something WICKED This Way Comes

The Maze Runner took the YA world by storm in 2009, winning the New York State Charlotte Award, the Kentucky Bluegrass Award, the Oregon Reader’s Choice Award the New Hampshire Isinglass Teen Read Award, the Missouri Truman Readers Award, the Illinois Abraham Lincoln Award , the Tennessee Volunteer State Book Award, the Arizona Grand Canyon Reader Award, the Georgia Peach Book Award , and the New Jersey Garden State Book Award.

So, yeah, it's kind of a big deal. Dashner went on to write three more books in the series: The Scorch Trials, The Death Cure, and a prequel called The Kill Order). The previews for the upcoming film look promising, so I suspect it will be a hit as well. However, as much as I enjoyed The Maze Runner (and am looking forward to the movie), I grew increasingly frustrated as I read the remaining books. Please be aware there will be all kinds of spoilers as I offer some thoughts about the series.

The Maze Runner

A boy named Thomas wakes up in a village populated solely by other teenage boys. He doesn't know who or where he is. He learns they all live in the middle of a maze that changes every day. Runners go out every morning attempting to map the maze, then return every night before mechanical monsters kill them (or at least make them wish they were dead). Somehow the maze is important, but no one knows why.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy

Marvel Comics is on a roll. Guardians of the Galaxy opened with a stunning $94 million dollar weekend, breaking the previous August record for a movie opening. In spite of bewilderment within the entertainment industry leading up to its release (check out Rotten Tomatoes' discussion), critics and audiences have been giving it well-deserved reviews.

It's funny, surprisingly moving at time, and loaded with great special effects. It's not perfect (it's got some crude language, and the scope and severity of the violence was minimized and at times too light-hearted), but as far as summer blockbusters go, it's very good. I was certainly entertained. I was equally challenged by a thought-provoking scene near the end of the movie.

When Peter Quill realizes that he finally has a chance to stop running from hardship and do something truly noble, he tells the other soon-to-be guardians of the galaxy what he has in mind. Rocket soberly summarizes what is painfully clear to all of them:

 “You’re asking us to die.”

As I left the theater, a line from a very different kind of hero kept running through my head: “When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die,” wrote Dietrich Bonhoeffer in The Cost of Discipleship. Don’t get me wrong –  Guardians of the Galaxy isn’t meant to be a spiritual parable. But that unexpected, sobering moment lingers with me.*

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Patrick Ness's Chaos Walking Trilogy: Knives, Questions, and Monsters of Men

Patrick Ness’s award-winning first book in the Chaos Walking trilogy, The Knife of Never Letting Go, introduced us to a world of war, love, sacrifice and Noise (read my review here). The second book in the series, The Ask and The Answer, won Publisher’s Weekly award for best YA science fiction novel. The conclusion of the trilogy, Monsters of Men, won the 2011 Carnegie Medal and was nominated for the Arthur C. Clarke award for best science fiction novel, an unusual accolade for YA literature. The first two books are already on their way to the big screen under the direction of Robert Zemeckis. 

The knife in The Knife of Never Letting Go symbolized the power our decisions have to altar the
trajectory of our lives for good or evil. In The Ask and the Answer and Monsters of Men, the New World (a colonized planet) is put to the edge of that knife.

After the events in The Knife of Never Letting Go, three separate plot lines emerge: Todd is forced to live with and work for the Mayor when he takes over the wistfully named town of Haven; Viola joins a group of rebels; and the Spackle prepare to take back their planet. To further complicate matters, an advance ship of new settlers has landed, and they have enough firepower to lead one side of this war to victory. Will war truly make monsters of them all? Is there a path to peace, reconciliation, and redemption? And is anyone beyond forgiveness?

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes has been a commercial success ($73 million the opening weekend) as well as a critical success (91% critics approval at Rotten Tomatoes and 79% at Metacritic). I will leave it to others to highlight the acting, directing, special effects, and overall plot. I am going to focus on why this story resonates with us. 

Think of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes as a modern allegory similar to District 9.  D9 used aliens and humans to tell a story about apartheid; Dawn uses apes and humans to tell a story about how fear and hate lead to war (think of the troubles in Northern Ireland, or how  the Arab/Israeli conflict is escalating again as I write this). The story is clearly fiction, but the situations are all too real.*

Everyone had a logical reason for his or her actions. Koba spent his life being tortured by humans. When Caesar tells him he wants to wait for the “human work” to finish (in this case, fixing the dam), Koba points at scars on his body and growls, “Human work.”  Humanity has certainly earned his wrath and distrust.

From the human perspective, the simian flu brought humanity to the edge of extinction. Their fear of the apes is justified as well. One man noted he couldn't look at an ape without getting physically ill. His hatred was illogical, of course. Humans created the virus that the apes spread. But fear and hatred blind people to the truth; the mind will justify what the heart desires.

Monday, July 14, 2014

MemeThink 202: Hobby Lobby Edition

MemeThink 101 offered a perspective on the frustrating trend of using memes to talk about serious cultural issues, in particular same-sex marriage. This follow-up post will address the recent Hobby Lobby ruling as seen from the perspective of the MemeThink.

MEME #1

Does anyone actually believe this meme represents reality? In the eyes of the Supreme Court, women are persons, corporations are an association of citizens and/or persons  (it's a centuries old "legal fiction"),* and unborn babies are not persons.  In the eyes of Hobby Lobby, unborn babies and women are persons and corporations are an association of citizens who have constitutional rights. Who exactly is undecided about whether or not a woman is a person?

Everybody in the discussion thinks a woman is a person. Not everyone agrees, however, on 1) whether or not the baby is a person and 2) if an abortion actually results from the contraception in question. Justice Samuel Alito noted that “federal regulations, which define pregnancy as beginning at implantation, do not so classify them.” Many pro-life advocates (including the owners of Hobby Lobby) believe that life begins at fertilization.  If that's true, the baby is a person from the moment of fertilization and thus deserves the protections granted to other persons.

It's not like one side has science as the other does not. Everyone is looking at the same evidence while disagreeing about the moment life begins - which is a legitimate and significant question. Doctors, biologists, philosophers and theologians all have something to say that's worth hearing.  If Hobby Lobby errs, it is on the side of caution (and with more medical support than you might think).

Friday, July 4, 2014

True Detective

"Touch darkness and darkness touches you back."

"Matthew Coniglio's Georgia home held a trove of child pornography, more than 50,000 images and videos stored on laptops, external hard drives and thumb drives. Among the stash, hidden in a bedside table turned around to conceal the doors, authorities made an even more horrifying discovery: 56 8-millimeter cassette tapes they say show him raping and molesting girls. All were unconscious, apparently drugged, FBI Special Agent William Kirkconnell, who viewed the tapes, told The Associated Press. Some were so incapacitated they were snoring. The camera was always turned off before they awoke."   -The NY Daily News
I read this story in my local paper two days after I finished watching Season One of True Detective. If you've seen the show, this news story probably sounds eerily familiar. There are monsters among us. It's not a pleasant thought. If you are looking for a fictional story to help you come to grips with that kind of horror in the world around us, True Detective will do just that.

Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Eric "Marty" Hart (Woody Harrelson) are assigned to investigate a horrific murder. They discover it is just one soul-searing link in a chain of evil formed by dozens of victims, many of whom are very young. Unfortunately, even those whose cause is just cannot escape the stain of that kind of sin. They must subject themselves to the hell of seeing and documenting horrors that should never see the light of day.There is a price to be paid for even knowing about this kind of corruption. No matter what Rust and Marty were when they first became detectives, they are both damaged goods now.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Maleficent: A Fairy Tale for Our Times

The new version of Sleeping Beauty showcases something Disney has been good at for a long time: offering a story that reflects the times. Maleficent is not meant to be a prequel, sequel, or addendum to the 1950's tale of Beauty. It's a new twist on an old story that Disney had already altered from its original version. If you think Disney's earlier portrayal of Maleficent should be set in stone, you won't like this movie. If you approach it with the idea that fairy tales are a flexible vehicle for insight into the human condition, you will probably like this movie quite a bit. It's not a perfect story, but it offers a surprisingly moving narrative that intersects with real life more than you might expect.
A young lady wakes up after falling asleep in the arms of a man who says he loves her. He drugs her and violates her by taking something precious. He then abandons her, brags about his conquest, and turns his back on her despoiled life. 
In the aftermath of her abandonment, she chooses to embrace revenge, hate, and a lust for power. Joy becomes bitterness; warmth and laughter become cold cynicism. She builds walls around her heart and her kindgom so no one can hurt her again. She begins to use others for her selfish purposes. And when the opportunity for revenge presents itself, the girl who once loved to help is the first in line to harm.
If you have not heard this story before, you’re not listening, and I'm not talking about Maleficent's updated story. It’s happening around us all the time. Lest you think I am reading too much into this, Angelina Jolie noted: "The core of [the movie] is abuse, and how the abused have a choice of abusing others or overcoming...What could make a woman become so dark? To lose all sense of her maternity, her womanhood, and her softness?"

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Steelheart: Helping the Heroes Along

Have you ever finished a really satisfying book and thought, “How did I not know about this author before?” Brandon Sanderson's YA hit Steelheart is that kind of book. I promptly followed it up with Mistborn: The Alloy of Law, then Warbreaker, then his Mistborn trilogy (in which I am currently immersed).

Brandon Sanderson is a teacher at Brigham Young University who also writes prolifically: he has continued Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series while managing to write seventeen novels, a number of shorter works, and a graphic novel. He’s been nominated for and/or won major literary awards every year since 2005, and he co-hosts an award-winning podcast. I get tired just reading his bio. He probably wrote a novella while I typed this paragraph. 

Even more impressively, his track record would suggest that this imaginary novella I just had him write is very good. I suspect I will eventually read everything he has written. His stories are innovative, thought-provoking, and grounded in a moral universe that fits in well with my Christian worldview.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Days of Future Past: Do Our Choices Matter?

So many battles waged over the years... and yet, none like this. Are we destined to destroy each other, or can we change each other and unite? Is the future truly set?” – Charles Xavier
X-Men: Days of Future Past is a story about free will and human nature.  Sure, it’s many other
things as well – an excellently crafted movie, an equal rights parable, a commentary on human atrocities, a discussion starter about evolution – but  the latest installment in this thought-provoking franchise is perhaps the most cerebral of all.

As he considers the carnage of the Mutant/Human war, Xavier wonders, “Are we destined to destroy each other? Or can we change who we are?” The Mutants have found a way to jump a few days into the past and avoid small catastrophes, but changing single events cannot alter the larger arc of stubbornly insistent history. All seems lost; both the characters and the conflict are succumbing to the chaos. Bryan Singer noted in an interview:
“[Days of Future Past] confronts the notions of hope and second chances. It's characters that are lost trying to find themselves. In X-Men one and two, the characters had come into their own and knew who they were. In this one, they're all lost. And they're trying to keep it together.” 

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Knife of Never Letting Go (Chaos Walking)

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"The Noise is man unfiltered. And without a filter, man is just chaos walking."

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Patrick Ness's opening book in the Chaos Walking trilogy,  The Knife of Never Letting Go,  garnered plenty of awards and overwhelmingly positive reviews when it was first released. Now, like so many other popular YA novels, it's headed for the big screen (Lionsgate bought the film rights).

THE PLOT

Todd is the last innocent boy in a town of corrupted men on a planet that humanity had begun to colonize decades before. The endemic corruption is hardly a secret. Through some odd twist of fate, all men on the planet have the Noise:
“There ain’t nothing but Noise in this world, nothing but the constant thoughts of men and things coming at you and at you and at you… and them’s just the words, the voices talking and moaning and singing and crying. There’s pictures, too, pictures that come to yer mind in a rush, no matter how much you don’t want ‘em, pictures of memories and fantasies and secrets and plans and lies, lies, lies. 
Cuz you can lie in the Noise, even when everyone knows what yer thinking, you can bury stuff under other stuff, you can hide it in plain sight, you just don’t think it clearly or you convince yerself that the opposite of what yer hiding is true and then who's going to be able to pick out from the flood what’s real water and what’s not going to get you wet? Men lie, and they lie to themselves worst of all…Noise ain’t truth, Noise is what men want to be true, and there’s a difference twixt those two thing.”

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

MemeThink 101

It seems clear that the battle to think carefully and reasonably is being lost. Oh, don't worry - I'm not here to gripe! Rather than bemoan the loss of our ability to think with clarity and depth, we should embrace the new way of forming opinions quickly and painlessly: MemeThink!

As a template for how to frolic in the shallow end of the intellectual pool, I offer for your consideration the meme I encountered online last week. It provides a great example for how to engage serious subjects by building an argument that does not require any heavy lifting on your part. You, too, can change the world one fallacy at a time! So with no further ado, here's some advice for how to flourish in our brave new intellectual(ish) world.

MemeThink 101

1) Swear. It's a simple way to challenge stuffy prudishness. If someone can't see how cool and edgy it is to be vulgar in even the most ordinary of conversations, you probably don't want them to be part of the discussion.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

All You Need Is Kill/Edge of Tomorrow

All You Need Is KillHiroshi Sakurazaka’s widely praised breakthrough novel, was nominated for Japan's Seiun Awards, published in Japanese and English, and adapted to manga beginning this past January. Warner Bros. is bringing it to a theater near you on June 6 as “Edge of Tomorrow,” featuring Tom Cruise as yet another unlikely Japanese warrior (for more info, see The Last Samurai – or maybe not).*

In Sakurazaka's imaginative literary world, the United Defense Force has been fighting Mimics, a nightmarish advance force sent by a race that wants to remake the earth into a habitat in which they can live. That means humanity has to die.

Keiji, a rookie warrior, sustains a horrible injury in his first battle. Rita Vratiski, a virtual goddess of destruction reverentially known as the Full Metal B****, finds him as he bleeds out. He manages to ask her if this is the end. ”Yeah, “ she tells him, “But I’ll stay with you until you die.” And die he does.

Then he wakes up. Through a convergence of unlikely events, he is fated for this to happen over and over again. Every time he dies, he loops back in time. He soon realizes he can train in such a way that he might be able to eventually win the battle – and perhaps the war – on behalf of humanity. He takes courage from the mindset of the samurai: “Strike down the enemy, and learn.” He shakes off his brooding nihilism, stops experimenting with ways to die, and chooses to fight.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

"Who Are We?" (Reflections on The Walking Dead, Season 4)

The Season Four finale of The Walking Dead attracted 15.7million viewers, 10.2 million of whom were in the 18-49 demographic. It shattered previous records (the Game of Thrones season finale garned 5.4 million; Duck Dynasty reached 6 million; Breaking Bad’s Season Four finale recorded just under 2 million, and the final show of the entire series hit 10.3 million).

In other words, The Walking Dead is a cultural phenomenon. A lot of people are turned off by the gore (and it’s certainly gruesome), but The Walking Dead offers a gold mine of philosophical, moral, religious, and cultural talking points. I’ve written elsewhere about these issues (see links at the end). What caught my attention at the end of Season Four was the way in which Carl brings up one of the most important questions of all.

Michonne, Rick, and Carl are walking toward Terminus, a fabled place of sanctuary and rest in the midst of the apocalypse. As they get closer, Carl asks, “Will we tell them what we did?” Rick responds, “We’ll tell them who we are.” And Carl asks the right question in response: “Who are we?”

Part of the brilliance of The Walking Dead is that we are constantly challenged to ask what we would or would not do, what we could live with and what we could not. In the end, it all boils down to Carl’s question: Who are we?

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Dean Koontz's "Innocence"

Dean Koontz is perhaps the most famous Christian author alive today. He has sold over 450,000,000 books, with 17,000,000 added each year.  He's sold more books than Stephen King, which is no small feat. Since he’s not published by a Christian publishing house, he flies under the radar in Christian circles. That’s a shame. He is writing about horror, hope, good, evil, nihilism and purpose in a way that is captivating, true, and broadly accessible.

His latest novel, Innocence, is yet another highly acclaimed novel of beauty and hope in the midst of a dark, dark word. Rather than working my way through the plot (I really don’t want to give away the ending), I will let Koontz's own words (from the book and from interviews) reveal why his message has resonated so deeply with so many.

FAMILY

“According to my mother, my real father loved freedom more than he loved her. Two weeks before I was born, he walked out and never walked back in, off to the sea, she said, or to some far jungle, a restless man who traveled to find himself but lost himself instead.” 
“You’re too high a price to pay,’ my mother declared on the afternoon when she sent me away. ‘I’ve lived by my own rules, and I expected a cost, but not this. Not you.’”
Koontz’s childhood was troubled to say the least, but he made the best of it. He told the National Catholic Register, “As a boy, I yearned for a normal family life, but later I understood that the darkness of my childhood was in a strange way a gift. Because of the poverty and violence of those early years, I have a depth of experience to draw upon that enriches my work.”

No wonder he writes poignantly of the perils of childhood. In a world increasingly characterized by the fragmentation of families and the damage that comes from rejection, criticism, and abuse, Koontz’s novels offer both empathy and hope. Our history is real, but it’s not our destiny.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The 100

To help us enter into and better understand the entertainment shaping today's youth, I offer my latest review of books effecting a primarily YA audience. My goal is not to critique the art form as much as look at the worldview in the story.

This review will look at Kass Morgan's The 100. Ms. Morgan studied English and History at Brown University before pursuing a Master's Degree in 19th Century Literature at Oxford. She currently works in the publishing industry. In other words, even though this is her first YA novel, her training and credentials have prepared her well.  

In spite if the popularity of The 100, not all the reviewers are overly enamored. Amazon.com's reader reviews are decidedly middle-of-the-road; plenty of Goodreads' readers have expressed surprise that a show is being made from a book that didn't rate that highly on their site. Nonetheless, the TV version premiers on the CW on March 19, 2014.
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It’s been one hundred years since mankind decimated the planet through nuclear war. A remnant living on the Ark - twelve space stations linked as one -  have been waiting for the planet to become habitable again, but nobody really wants to find out first-hand. Meanwhile, life on the space station is falling apart. The original 400 has turned to 4,000, and oxygen and supplies are running down. The need to control the population has brought about severe social stratification, excessive capital punishment and draconian birth laws.

The solution is to send underage criminals awaiting execution on their 18th birthday. These kids are going to die anyway –why not let them die for the greater good? That’s the 100 – doomed juvenile delinquents  sent to earth as a scouting party. What could possibly go wrong? If you thought, “Pretty much everything,” you were correct.

I’ve heard it said that our culture’s stories confirm either what we fear is true or what we hope is true. If so, The 100 offers some interesting - and frustrating - insights into this generation’s hopes and fears.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

This Dark Endeavor: The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein

After having a book published while still in high school, Kenneth Oppel earned a degree in cinema studies and English at Trinity College at the University of Toronto before becoming an editor at Quill and Quire, the trade magazine for the Canadian publishing industry. (Thanks, Wikipedia, for compiling all that for me.) 

In other words, he understands books, films, and the publishing industry in general. His experience and training have served him well. His writing has received both popular and critical acclaim, and at least one book - This Dark Endeavor: The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein - is on its way to the big screen.

As might be inferred from the title, Mr. Oppel is writing a prequel to the classic Frankenstein that was grounded both historically and stylistically in the life and writing of Mary Shelley, the author of the original story. He notes in the discussion guide:
“Victor’s parents I actually based on Mary Shelley’s real parents, the radical writers William Godwin and Mary Wollestonecraft, so my Frankenstein household is very liberal for its time. Mrs. Frankenstein writes pamphlets on the rights and education of women; Mr. Frankenstein is a fair magistrate who insists on his own family making the servants their Sunday dinner as a gesture of egalitarianism (a concept that was sweeping through Europe in the late 1700s).”
I was prepared to be disappointed. I am a fan of Shelley's classic, and I was concerned This Dark Endeavor would be a cheesy intro heavy on shock value and silly romance. How delighted I was to be wrong.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Vampire Academy

To help us enter into and better understand the entertainment shaping today's youth, I offer my latest review of books effecting a primarily YA audience. My goal is not to critique the art form as much as look at the worldview in the story.

This review will look at Richelle Mead's Vampire Academy.  Ms. Mead's MA in Comparative Religion from Western Michigan University fits well with her love of folklore and mythology; it's no surprise that Vampire Academy combines both. 

The series won the 2010 Teen Read Awards, the 2011 Kids' Choice Awards, and the 2011 Goodreads Choice Awards. As of 2013, the series has sold 8 million copies in 35 countries. Vampire Academy: Blood Sisters has just hit the big screen. The critics aren't impressed, but the target audience seems to be.
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Lissa is a Moroi, a living vampire who wields elemental magic (earth, wind, fire, water, or a combo platter of sorts). It’s part of the Moroi nature, a gift that connects them to the world. The Moroi live in fear of the Strogoi, the undead vampires who have an existence “dark and twisted, the greatest of all sins, both against the Morio way of life and nature itself.” The Strigoi lose their vitality, gifts, and heart as they enter a soulless world devoid of light and life. Literally.

Rose is Lissa’s guardian. Her father abandoned her, her mother is totally uninvolved in her life, the girls in her school think she’s a slut, her teachers don’t trust her, and the boys just want to take advantage of her. But she is also Dhampir, half human and half vampire, and she lives to protect and serve Lissa to the point of giving her life (and sometimes her blood) for her.

The Moroi and their Dhampir protectors are always close, but Lissa and Rose have an unusual connection: Lissa brought Rose back from the dead. Now, Rose is one of the Shadow-kissed, bonded with Lissa in a way that allows her to feel her emotions and see through her eyes. It’s not a pretty sight.* The more Rose sees the world through Lissa’s eyes, the more her mission clarifies: “Save her from herself.” And when she thinks of herself as a savior, she’s not kidding. “I don’t believe in angels. I believe in what I can do for myself.”

Saturday, February 1, 2014

The 5th Wave: I Am The Battlefield

“I may be the last one, but I am the one still standing.  I am the one turning to face the faceless hunter in the woods on an abandoned highway.  I am the one not running, not staying, but facing. Because if I am the last one, then I am humanity. And if this is humanity’s last war, then I am the battlefield.”

To help us enter into and better understand the entertainment shaping today's youth, I offer my latest review of books effecting a primarily YA audience. My goal is not to critique the art form as much as look at the worldview in the story.

This review will look at Rick Yancey's The 5th Wave.  It has received starred reviews in Publisher's Weekly and Kirkus; the New York Times and Goodreads both listed it as one of the best YA books of 2013. Entertainment Weekly thinks it might be "the next big thing." If the trailers for the upcoming movie are any indication, it might be.

The 5th Wave is an ambitious alien invasion story written for both YA and adult audiences, packing not just one but five extinction events into one book. Aliens have been waiting patiently for decades to take over east, infusing their essence into unborn babies and lying dormant until the right time for an invasion. They begin their attack with Four Waves of disasters that obliterate most of humanity. 

At this point, the embedded aliens manifest in their human hosts to infiltrate – and then eradicate -  the remnant of humanity in a decisive 5th Wave of human/alien hybrid assassins. These Silencers have brought the sucker punch. Up to this point, humanity had feared the aliens. Now they have to fear themselves. 

It's certainly an ambitious book, perhaps more memorable for what it attempts to do than what it always accomplishes. However, it has resonated strongly with a huge audience for good reason. Mr. Yancey has tapped into some of the deepest hopes and fears of this generation.