October 2010 Recommended Reads, Listens . . . and Looks

I am in love with my portable DVD player.  Seriously.  Not only has that little, relatively inexpensive piece of tech saved me from soul-sucking, gym-induced, elliptical/stairmaster/treadmill insanity, it has reminded me, yet again, of how well some movies work when it comes to story.

Stephen King, surely the greatest storyteller on the planet, said something really cool recently : regardless of medium, it’s the story that matters.  (Sort of along the line of “it’s the economy, stupid.”)  People have been telling stories for about as long as people have been around and in ever-evolving ways: from prehistoric petroglyphs and tales around the campfire to story quilts, books, plays, music, art . . . you name it.  Regardless of medium and delivery, the bottom line is people want–and probably need–stories.

So you’ll notice that, this month, I’ve included a new category: recommended looks–as in movies.  (Actually, if I were playing the proper scholar, I’d be drinking chablis and calling them  “films.”  Movies are for the masses, but films are for critics and PhDs.)  Now, part of the reason I’m throwing in movies is because I like them; I really, really do.  Part of the fun of doing a masters in film (actually, the swank term was a masters in “liberal studies,” which was code for study-whatever-the-hell-you-want-so-long-as-it’s-not-science) was that when I started out, film studies was still a fairly new discipline.  I remember one of my teachers saying the field was so wide open, you could carve out a little niche for yourself using just about any applied discipline–which I promptly did by drawing on my knowledge of psychoanalysis, then the stuff of my daily life.  (No, no, I wasn’t the first or the best or the most influential or anything; I just put in my two cents.)  For me, part of the fun of studying film was because I wanted to figure out how a movie got me to cry or laugh or root for the good guy and boo the bad one (or vice versa): to understand not only the mechanics of a movie (things like music and angles and all that techie stuff) but the themes a movie or television show plays with to suck you into the story.

I don’t do that anymore.  My goodness, now that I think about it, the last essay I wrote was actually a piece with this weighty title: The Trauma is Out There: Historical Disjunctions and the PostTraumatic Narrative as Process in The X-Files.” Gee, I only now remembered that essay  and that’s, what?  Eleven years old?  Holy smokes.  I got to update my resumé.

Anyway, I promise nothing that unwieldy here (although, you know, that essay isn’t half-bad; it’s even comprehensible).  What I figure is that since I really do like movies and movies deliver stories in a way that is altogether different from reading or listening to a book (or looking at a painting, for that matter) . . . why not share the love?

So, October: kind of an interesting month.  I was hip-deep in the mark-up for ASHES and I think that affected my choices as well as how much time I actually had to read which was, really, never enough.   As with September, though, I read and listened to and looked at far more than what’s on the list below.  One book I’d actually started a year or so before and then stopped reading because the writing style just got in the way of what seemed like a fabulous story.   Tried again last month, finally, but with the same result.  Rather than give up on the book, though, I switched to the audio version–and that did the trick, allowing me a different way into a wonderful book.

You’ll notice a certain repetitiveness here, too, in that all these stories, save one, are dystopian narratives of one kind or another.  All are coming-of-age stories, too, where the protags, regardless of their age, grow up and discover that the aliens/enemies on the outside aren’t necessarily as evil as those lurking within.  Really, think about it.  There are all kind of monsters and aliens out there: on the street, in your neighborhood, down the block.  In the seat right next to yours at the dinner table.  Read a newspaper, listen to the radio, watch CNN or visit a school playground if you don’t believe me.  And forget what you thought about evil.  Stress people enough–through war or divorce or death or trauma–and you’d be amazed what kind of monsters–and heroes–show themselves.

Here’s what I recommend:

Bick, Ilsa J.; Draw the Dark; Carolrhoda Lab, 2010 & Audible Audiobook, 2010. Yes, of course, I’m going to recommend my paranormal mystery about a teenager who literally draws the nightmares of the past and your darkest fears, which was officially released on Oct. 1.  Is this shameless self-promotion?  Well, okay, yeah, maybe.  (If I don’t tell you, who will?)  Plus,  as it turns out, a bunch of other people really liked this book (enough to give Draw a starred review in School Library Journal).  So, yeah, read it.  Do what YA-5 said: get creeped out; learn some history; support small publishers; and prepare to get your mind blown.

I’m doubly blessed because the audiobook, with narration by Joshua Swanson, is fabulous.  I’ve listened to many of Joshua’s narrations and he’s got a great voice for YA.  (Although how did Ship Breaker get past me?  Got to put that on my November to-listen list.)  So, if you’ve got a stack of books you just can’t seem to get through and want a great introduction to the wonderful world of audiobooks with a very good, clean narration, give this puppy a listen.

Grant, Michael; Hunger: A Gone Novel; Katherine Tegen Books, 2009.  This second installment in the GONE series finds the survivors still stuck in the FAYZ where conditions are deteriorating, fast.  With their food supply nearly exhausted, the kids begin to splinter into warring factions—self-proclaimed humans against the freaks—while also battling an mind-sucking entity calling itself the Gaiaphage.   Grimmer than GONE, this book pulls absolutely no punches.  While good kind of triumphs, it also kind of doesn’t.  For teens and tweens in the market for a grim, gritty, no-holds-barred read.

Ness, Patrick, Chaos Walking: The Knife of Never Letting Go ; Audible Audio Edition/Candlewick on Brilliance Audio, 2010.  This first volume of the Chaos Walking series is one I started reading not once, not twice but three times.  The premise is great: a planet where men’s—and animals’–thoughts are continually broadcast as Noise and women, at least so far as young Todd Hewitt is concerned, were killed by the Spackle, the indigenous species of New World.  The only boy left in Prentisstown, Todd and his very engaging dog, Manchee, are forced to go on the run when Todd discovers a hole in the Noise: a Silence that then undoes all his assumptions about not only the past but the future.

I mean, really, what’s not to like about a book with this great first line: The first thing you find out when yer dog leans to talk is that dogs don’t got nothing much to say. Yet I really had trouble reading this book, not only because of the language (Todd is illiterate and the language itself is, as one reviewer put it, “pigdin” English) but because of the style: one that borrows from modern-day thrillers in very short, declarative sentences and choppy paragraphs (frequently as few as three words).  I just found it tough to settle into a nice, comfortable read–and believe me, I tried.

So I put the book aside.  Picked it up a couple times; put it aside again.  I even tried again while in Heathrow waiting on a connection (Ness is a British author and the book had just come out in paperback.)  That was a no-go, too.  So I had to hope that, maybe, someone would figure out how to make this into an audiobook.

My prayers were answered when Audible put out its edition at the end of September.  Nick Podehl is pitch-perfect, not only as Todd but Manchee, Todd’s faithful, wonderful, unforgettable dog.  Podehl transformed this story into an emotional roller-coaster that had me in tears at several points.  Gritty and heart-rending, this is another grim story.  And be you reader or listener, beware: Not only are there cliffhangers a’plenty, this book is a fabulous reminder of something people frequently overlook–that truth often comes at a terrible price.   For teens 14 and up.

War of the Worlds (Steven Spielberg; 2005).  I make no apologies for flat-out loving this film.  Say what you will about Tom Cruise, the guy’s been in some seriously fine films and this movie is no exception.  Anyone familiar with Spielberg’s work (and, yeah, I am so unapologetically a fan; my first publication in Cinema Journal was on E.T.) knows that this director’s really interested in ordinary people confronting extraordinary crises: be those divorce, death, aliens–or the end of the world as we know it.  Based oh-so-loosely on H.G. Well’s  1898 novel, Spielberg’s remake of Haskin’s 1953 film is, in a word, fabulous: a pulse-pounding, fast-paced thriller.  Tom Cruise is excellent as Ray Ferrier, a failed dad who must figure out a way to reconnect with his alienated kids while surviving an apocalypse;  although Dakota Fanning had been in other, very good films (the spooky Hide and Seek, in which she played opposite Robert DeNiro, came out the same year), Rachel Ferrier is her break-out role; and a moony Justin Chadwin injects Robbie Ferrier with just the right amount of teenage rage.  (And, oh, are those blue-blue eyes to die for, or what?)

Marry all that with Tim Robbins in a seriously creepy role, great direction, super special-effects and a pounding John Williams score . . . and you have the makings of a movie that make hours on the stairmaster evaporate.  (Oh, and check out Ray’s muscle car; I got to get me one of those.)  Now, if only the gym allowed popcorn . . .


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