2011: Explore My Literary Feminisms!

At the beginning of 2011, I set a goal to read 24 books before the year was through in the attempt to trump my 17 from 2010.  If I didn’t reach it, no biggie, the point is quality, not quantity.  I did feel though, that a good amount of my time was melting into endless nights of watching the uber-dramatic and the really important issues of wives from Beverly Hills and the Mob.  Maybe a portion of my time would be better spent on what I sometimes forget that I really love?

My choices were not preplanned at the beginning of the year and I tried to tackle a range of books resulting in some feminist, most not, and a surprising few dabbled in Library Science, which I saw as more bang for my buck in the end.

My reading plan for this year not only differed from last year in goal (from 17 to 25), but also price.  Besides one or two that were bought for me, I checked all of the books out from the library.  Like many library types, a good amount of us buy our books.  Shocking, I know.  A lot of us are collectors of books and pride ourselves on showing off our giant libraries.  Think of it as battle scars.  However, being on a fairly strict budget for much of 2011, I decided to put my money, or rather, no money, where my mouth is (I think this also had a direct impact on my increased number of books).  Once I remembered that I had free access to an endless amount of books, I found it difficult not to fill my arms with mass amounts of fiction and non-fiction with the  voracious appetite of a brain eating zombie who had just encountered fresh prey!

Top 10

The Night Eternal
by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan (2011)

The third and final book in the Strain Trilogy about vampires taking over the earth.  The trilogy was amazing and each book led me on an emotional roller coaster.  Needless to say, I cried when I closed the last book.

With GDT himself and yes, I am holding the first book of the Strain Trilogy

Neverwhere
by Neil Gaiman (1996)

This year I discovered Gaiman, as you will see as you read further.  I read most of his adult fiction this year, and Neverwhere was my favorite Gaiman novel, and second favorite overall this year.  It had a happy ending, a very likable protagonist, and it sucked me in within the first few pages.  I also recommend this on audiobook because Gaiman himself reads the text and because of this, the audiobook expresses exactly what the writer was thinking when he was writing it.

Gunn’s Golden Rules
by Tim Gunn (2007)

This book is my Bible, or the closest thing I’ve ever read to a guide on how I want to live my life.  Gunn gives practical advice on how to act like a normal human being, encompassing good manners, the importance of treating yourself with respect and of course, making everything work.  I will definitely be reading this on a yearly basis and I recommend buying this one.

An Object of Beauty
by Steve Martin (2010)

If you like artwork, New York, fashion, Steve Martin, coming of age stories, color pictures in books or any combination thereof, then this book is for you.

Herland
by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1915)

Three men crash land into an all-female utopia where the women actually function just fine!  Go figure!  Plus, it’s a classic by a classic woman.  If you haven’t read CPG yet, I recommend starting with her short story the Yellow Wallpaper.

American Gods
by Neil Gaiman (2001)

Gods living on earth in human forms.  What more could you want?  This piece of fiction is epic and like Neverwhere, grabs you right away.  At times, this book tackles some tough life and death issues but not so much that you feel like you’re reading a Russian novel.

Bossypants
by Tina Fey (2011)

Fey is a feminist and Fey is funny.  And I also want her to be my best friend.  Recommended for women and men who aren’t scared of childbirth, rotten breath or pubic hair that resembles vermicelli noodles.

The Fellowship of the Ring
by J.R.R. Tolkien (1954)

This year I thought that I’d take on the book since I love the movies so much.  It really reinforced that books and film are two totally different mediums and therefore are difficult to compare.  The book fills in gaps in the movie that I didn’t even know there were.  Plus, I was surprised by what an easy read it ended up being.

Based Upon Availability
by Alix Strauss (2010)

Short stories about women who are interconnected by their association with the Four Seasons Hotel.  Like her last fiction novel, Joy of Funerals, Strauss is really great at writing from varied female points of view.

Men Are Stupid and They Like Big Boobs
by Joan Rivers (2008)

What can I say?  It’s Joan Rivers and she rocks.  She’s a bipartisan powerhouse with a voice and an opinion.

Runners Up

The Anansai Brothers
by Neil Gaiman (2005)

The story of two reunited brothers who are the sons of an African God.  Very Gaimanesque: death; life; Gods; whimsy; a somewhat awkward central character who comes into his own; and as always, he presents us with magic and superstitions and makes it so easy to want to be part of that world.

Oh No She Didn’t: The Top 100 Style Mistakes Women Make and How to Avoid Them
by Clinton Kelly (2010)

Kelly’s guide makes you reflect on  your own wardrobe, laugh out loud on the bus and then look around to judge everyone near you.  However, I think his critique on eyebrows is totally incorrect.

Locke and Key
by Joe Hill (2008)

I am going to say it, Stephen King can’t hold a candle to his son’s writing.  Having never been a real graphic novel fan (besides being made to read Maus and Persepolis in undergrad), Hill’s graphic novel has prompted me to want to read the next three in the series.  A little bloody, a little disturbing and totally enthralling.  (May I also recommend Hill’s fiction: Heart Shaped Box and Horns.)

The Graveyard Book
by Neil Gaiman (2008)

The story of a baby who is adopted by ghosts in a graveyard after his parents are murdered.  Though technically a teen novel, I thoroughly enjoyed this coming of age story.

Carrion Comfort
by Dan Simmons (1989)

If you liked the Strain Trilogy, I’d recommend this novel as well.  Vampires living on earth unbeknownst to humans, a group of rag-tags on the hunt and characters that you fall in love with.  The end gets a little murky and I wouldn’t hold it against you if you speed read the last 1/4 of the book.

Tim Gunn’s Guide to Quality, Taste and Style
by Tim Gunn (2007)

Like Joan Rivers, I like everything that Gunn writes so naturally he’d make it to my runners up group.  Though not one that I’d stress that you buy, he does give good, solid advice on fashion and style, though through a somewhat more conservative lens.  Maybe it’s a New York high fashion thing.

Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter
by Seth Graham-Smith (2010)

Sometimes we need something to read where we don’t have to think, right?  Well this is it.  Lincoln was actually a vampire hunter and guess what, slave owners were usually vampires.  It’s real!  Seriously!

Wigfield
by Paul Dinello, Amy Sedaris and Stephen Colbert (2003)

Yet another book where you can just laugh and not have to think much, though be prepared to accept the utter silliness and absurdity of the whole piece.  I’d recommend this on audiobook because Paul Dinello, Stephen Colbert and Amy Sedaris perform the voices for several of the characters.

Mister B. Gone
by Clive Barker (2007)

The concept for this book is really unique–a first person, or rather demon, point of view.  Demon Jakabok Botch is trapped within the pages of the book that you are reading, at that very moment, and he warns and implores you throughout the book to stop reading or else be damned!

The Vegetarian Low-Carb Diet
by Rose Elliot (2006)

Okay, so I am listing this as a runner up because I lost ten pounds in two months.  I was a vegetarian already but the low-carb thing really works.  I wouldn’t take this book as word, but it’s easy to use it as a general guide and make it your own.

Summer of Night
by Dan Simmons (1991)

This book is a prequel to another Simmons book, Winter Haunting and describes a group of boys over the course of one summer.  It entails possession, ghosts, baseball and creepy teachers.  It’s an easy, mindless read and I would recommend it if you have nothing better to read.

The Terror
by Dan Simmons (2007)

I keep reading Simmons because I feel like a lot of the time he almost gets there, but not quite.  This book falls in the typical Simmons style, much like Carrion Comfort.  Most of this book is great–the story of an arctic expedition, Eskimos with special powers, and a large killer spirit who kills off a ship of 19th century English explorers.  The first 3/4 of this book keeps your interest piqued, and then the last 1/4 goes a little off course.  If you can stretch your imagination and suspend belief for a few dozen pages, then you’ll be fine.

Eh.

Holidays on Ice
by David Sedaris (1997)

I realize that by saying this I may be pegged with eggs on the street by strangers, but this book is not great.  The stories are disjointed and the book doesn’t seem to have much focus.  I think it could have been a lot better it if were just stories about his normal [holiday] anecdotes, but it pulls in some strange tales, such as a young Asian girl moving in with an American family and the mother killing her grandchild.  While this story is totally acceptable and somewhat entertaining, it seemed like it would be better in another book.

Salem’s Lot
by Stephen King (1975)

The more I read Stephen King, the more disappointed I am, and the more I read.  Stephen King is known as the king (pun intended) of horror, but I think that his novels are just okay.  I’m not drawn in, scared or excited by his stories and this novel was no exception.  There were a lot of gaps in the story and I was missing the meat of a great vampire tale.  The idea behind it was great, a vampire comes to a small town, but it lacked the follow-through.

The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon
by Steven King (1999)

A little girl gets lost in the woods and is accompanied by a battery operated radio with the voice of commentators reporting on baseball player Tom Gordon.  I did like how King describes being perpetually wet and stung by mosquitoes, because we can all relate to this.  However, I felt myself becoming bored at times because like Salem’s Lot, I felt like the meat of the story was lacking.

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He Said/She Said Review: Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark
dir: Troy Nixey (USA, 2011)
MGS rating: 5.5
JM rating: 5.8

This “dialogue review” of Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is a joint-venture of Exploring Feminisms and my spouse Michael’s film studies blog White City CinemaHe Said/She Said will be a semi-regular feature on both our sites.

MGS: Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark was written and produced by our old buddy Guillermo del Toro but was directed by comic artist Troy Nixey. My first question to you is to what extent do you think it can be classified as a “Guillermo del Toro film”? In other words, where do you see GDT’s fingerprints on it and what do you think Nixey brings to the table? Also, how do you think the film might have been different had GDT actually directed it?

JM: Great question, and yes, I definitely do see GDT’s influence in this film, and that’s probably why I stuck it out for the while hour and a half. The first GDT calling card that stood out was featuring a child as the main character (Pan’s LabyrinthThe Devil’s Backbone and even possibly Geometria) and, further, telling the story through a child’s eyes. The difference between this film and his others is that with this film one of the adults begins to buy into the child’s fantastical story whereas in GDT’s own films the fantastical elements are usually exclusive to the child characters. A second aspect where I noticed GDT’s trademark – the creatures. The creature being a tooth fairy in Don’t be Afraid… is a direct throwback to the tooth fairies in Hellboy II. I know that we’ve talked about this many times, Mike, but to reiterate, GDT is in love with his monsters and makes them sympathetic (at least I know that we find them to be so), and in this film I don’t side with his monsters at all. One last GDT influence that I noticed was the blending of the child’s world (whether made up in his/her own mind or not) and the natural world. In this film, there’s a scene where Sally walks into a garden full of falling snow, but the snow almost seems to be floating around her. This is very reminiscent of the scene in Pan’s Labyrinth where Ofelia explores the labyrinth.

As for what Nixey brings, I think that answer can be summed up in one word: Hollywood. GDT brings in actors who are good for the part, not for their name (besides Ron Perlman). I am a fan of Guy Pearce but the film seemed beefed up with him and Holmes to make up for a bland and formulaic storyline, though I will say that the little girl who played Sally was great and I appreciated that she didn’t look like the typical American female child star. What kept me interested throughout the film was to seek out and identify those glimpses of GDT but having seen all of his movies, including Blade II, I feel that the overall direction of this film lacks the heart of a GDT project.

To answer your last question, I think that I’ve pretty much described what this film would be had he directed it but again there would have been more care paid to his creature-characters and more of a focus on quality as opposed to quantity – that is, the quantity of big name actors.

MGS: I agree that Guy Pearce was wasted. He should be getting the kind of roles that Brad Pitt, Viggo Mortenson and, now, Michael Fassbender are playing. He is just too good for this kind of thankless, one-note role. The Katie Holmes part had more substance but I couldn’t see past the “Katie Holmes-ness” of her performance, if you know what I mean.

You raise an excellent point about the creatures being more sympathetic in GDT’s own films. I suspect the fact that they aren’t depicted that way in this movie is one of the reasons he decided not to direct it himself and farmed it out to someone else instead. I don’t think he is capable of making a monster movie that doesn’t express a love of monsters! Also, it seems like GDT isn’t really interested in making “pure” horror films. The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth mix horror with the melodrama and war film genres and also have a lot of interesting things to say about history, politics, fascism and moral choices. Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark on the other hand is just a simple ghost story – a kind of Pan’s Labyritnth-lite.

Speaking of the differences between del Toro and Nixey, something that bothered me about the visual style of this movie was the extensive use of moving camera. GDT loves to have frequent but subtle camera movements in his own movies; I think this lends them a sense of creeping dread and the feeling that he’s depicting a world off-balance. But Nixey’s use of elaborate crane shots was overkill. The camera was constantly swooping around the rooms of that mansion in such dramatic fashion that the movement ended up quickly losing its effectiveness.

But I would also like to say a few words in favor of the movie (I do after all think it’s slightly above average for a contemporary Hollywood horror film.) As you mentioned, Bailee Madison gives an exceptionally good performance as Sally. She conjures up and sustains extreme emotional states, such as terror and depression (as opposed to merely looking sad or scared), which child actors aren’t often asked to do, and she’s always believable. I also found the set design of the house impressively spooky. Finally, I would argue the best way to measure the success of any horror movie is in the effectiveness of its scares. I counted two good ones here: the opening scene where Mr. Blackwell obtains the teeth and the scene where Sally finds the monster under the covers of her bed.

Anything else you’d like to add?

JM: If I were to say anything in this film’s favor, it would be that GDT worked on it. Haha, only semi-kidding. But seriously, I did like Guy Pearce, though he wasn’t as sexy as he was in Ravenous.

MGS: Since you write a feminist blog I would like to know if you think Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, which centers on the relationship between two female characters, lends itself in any way to a feminist reading.

JM: Well let me just remind you that there are many feminisms, and I don’t claim to have the definitive answer. I just have my answer. That being said, I do find it to be a little tiresome that the female adult character (played by Katie Holmes) is the one who begins to believe Sally and her character is emotional and nurturing, even though she doesn’t have a child of her own. The male adult character (Guy Pearce) is pragmatic and reasonable, and even though he is Sally’s father, he doesn’t believe her that there are little killer monsters in the basement. Though I hesitate to discuss too much about what this film isn’t, I will say that it would be refreshing to see the male character/father sensitive to his child’s needs. I think it plays too much off of the stereotype that the female characters are inherently mother-like and are more susceptible to accepting the world of the fantastic. In Devil’s Backbone, for example, GDT subverts this normative gender assumption by making Dr. Casares, the elderly male teacher, emotionally available to his students and he himself buys into magical theories.

MGS: Good point. You also just reminded me of the refreshingly original and touching relationship in Cronos between the little girl and her vampire grandfather. Del Toro’s own movies always have those unique touches that make them so endearing and put them in a league of their own.

I had a lot of fun doing this. We should do it again sometime with a movie we totally disagree on!

JM: Like the sex/rape scene in A History of Violence? We’ll keep those worms canned up for now.


Me, Guillermo del Toro and my spouse Mike at the 2010 Chicago International Film Festival