Book Review: Living Dead in Dallas, by Charlaine Harris

Living Dead in Dallas is the second book in Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse series, and the basis for the second season of True Blood. It follows the adventures of Sookie Stackhouse, redneck vampire boinker, as stuff happens to her in her small hometown of Bon Temps, then different stuff happens in the titular Dallas, then in Bon Temps again.

Most of what I said about Dead Until Dark still applies here. Harris’s writing is full of personality and small moments of brilliance that almost make up for the rest of the awkward prose. It’s nice light beach reading, though, because of both the simple writing and the tendency for characters to mindlessly repeat events that just happened (sometimes on the previous page), ensuring that if you get distracted there will always be a “previously on True Bl- Living Dead in Dallas” style review.

The plot is kinda interesting, but I don’t think it’s appropriate to describe this book (or the last one) as a detective story or murder mystery. First of all, there are pretty much two entirely separate stories in the book. The main plot taking place in Dallas has nothing to do with the murder occuring on the first page. Second, the murder plot that bookends the Dallas stuff is only a detective story in the Harry Potter sense: i.e., the main character happens to be around when the rest of the characters spell out the solution to the mystery then proceed to resolve it, but she didn’t do much “detecting” other than knowing where to show up.

I also need to comment on some of the, uh, “character flaws” here. Sookie is a selfish, petty, and manipulative “hero.” Her biggest worries seem to be not about the safety of her loved ones, nor even her own safety, but rather the state of her hair, and whether she is wearing an appropriate outfit or not. Seriously, she cries over messy hair. She is also willfully stupid, specifically refusing to think through actions that destroy others’ lives. Her boyfriend has the excuse of being a vampire, but he’s not entirely innocent either; he’s a bit of an abusive rapist who thinks all problems can be solved with sex, violence, or violent sex. But Sookie seems to fully agree, so maybe it’s a match made in heaven.

Just like the TV show, Living Dead in Dallas is glorious cheesy mess of violence, sex and character drama that, even if not thrown together very tactfully or providing any heartfelt messages about doing the right thing, is damn entertaining. Which is why I will resist the urge to end this review with “hah! More like Living Dead in Dallass“.

Oops.

Book Review: Dead Until Dark, by Charlaine Harris

Two of my favourite TV shows ever are Six Feet Under and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. So when I heard that the creator of Six Feet Under was helming a show about vampires, I had to check it out. As predicted, I enjoyed the crap out of True Blood, which lead me to impulsively buy the series of books that it’s based on.

The first book starts off with a great opening line: “I’d been waiting for the vampire for years when he walked into the bar.” Immediately from there, it launches into the story of Sookie Stackhouse, a Southern small-town waitress with two disabilities: the curse of having to read peoples’ minds, and a really stupid name. The first one is what first draws her to the vampire, because she can’t read his mind, which she thinks is awesome because men are scum and they only think terrible things. And although not mentioned, the stupid name problem probably helps her to relate to Bill, which is a pretty dumb name for a vampire. After she meets him, people start dying, hell breaks loose, etc etc. You know the drill.

True Bl Dead Until Dark is written in a first-person style from Sookie’s perspective, and indeed the novel feels like the rambling diary of a realistic, naive young woman who isn’t particularly good at writing, being full of awkward sentences and tactless exposition. This either means: (1) Charlaine Harris is really good at simulating how much Sookie sucks at writing; or (2) Charlaine Harris just sucks at writing.

But let’s just pretend it’s (1) and focus on the positive. Partly because of the informal first-person style, Sookie’s personality comes through, and the little expressions she uses and social conventions she frets over help to bring the Southern setting to life. I could’ve done without her agonizing over what to wear in every single chapter and the sickening mind-games she casually manipulates the males in her life with, but intentional or not, she at least seems like a flawed, real (albeit stereotypically female) person.

There is a murder mystery that ties each chapter together, but the characters seem more interested in short-term questions about cleaning the house, work timetables, and vampire ejaculation than about who’s killing their friends and families. Some chapters can feel separated from the rest of the story, as if nobody remembers what came before. As a single book it’s disjointed, and actually feels a bit like a big pilot episode, with dangling plot elements that exist only to set up future installments. But since there are plenty of future installments, and there is a TV series based on it, this episodic storytelling isn’t entirely unwelcome.

The novel departs from the first season of True Blood in quite a few significant ways. Most obvious is the complete lack of Tara in the novel, the alternate reason for Bill’s little trip late in the book, and the ending. There is also one plot element missing from the show, which is a great thing because, while I hate to use this word, it can only be described as retarded. Without giving anything away, it starts with “B”; anyone who’s read it will know what I’m talking about. True Blood also added a few entirely new subplots that I thought worked as well, if not better, than what was from the novel. This gives me hope for the show, because many of the show’s flaws were inherited from the book, and the creators’ willingness to depart from it can only bode well for future seasons.

Perhaps I’ve been a bit snarky in describing Dead Until Dark, but I did enjoy it quite a bit. It’s not a masterfully told story, but it does a few new things with the crowded vampire genre, and has just enough sex and violence to provide some cheap thrills. I recommend it for fans of the show looking to see what inspired it, or anyone else who likes cheesy vampire crap.

The Endless Cycle of Checking Stuff

My use of the internet has reached a critical point. A point where, if I’m not careful, it becomes a self-perpetuating cycle that is nearly impossible to escape.

It used to be, I’d wake up, check my email, respond if needed, then get on with my day. Maybe check my email again an hour or two later.

Now, it’s wake up, check my main email, check Facebook, check Twitter, check Friendfeed, chat on MSN a bit, check Tumblr, check Google Reader, chat on Google Chat a bit, check my other email address, check the news, and oh, it’s been an hour, so there might be something new at my main email. And Facebook. Can’t forget Twitter. Maybe in between, if there’s time, I think of something to blab about on the blog – hi – and then it’s time for the cycle to resume.

Then, oh, whoops, it’s bed time. I’ve been at the computer for 16 hours. And I’ve wet myself.

What I should do is unplug my router. I should turn off my computer. For seriously, what I should do is, I should cut off my electricity and chop up my desk to burn for heat. You know, really get back to the basics and focus on what’s important – family, friends, pets, a good book.

I’ll just check my email one last time.

———-

Edit: In related news, here’s an article on multitasking in Wired Science. It’s interesting, but could also win the award for most blatant contradiction between the headline and the article.

Me, Elsewhere

Oh hi blog. You know you’ll always be my first love, but I’ve been writing stuff in other places too.

  • I have a guest post about horror movies over at The London Free Press’s Dan Brown’s Cool Blog Name to Come. It’s kinda deep. Tell me if you agree / disagree with my little assessment.
  • If you haven’t already listened to my very first musical horror story, Thinking About Polar Bears is here. Reviews are in, and it has been described as “eh,” “okay,” and “I could hardly STAND [it]” (though I think that last one was meant as a compliment). I might put a PDF of it up soon. We’ll see.

Children of the Corn

There’s a commercial for bottled water on TV right now that shows kids frolicking in a swimming pool, and a voiceover goes something like: “your children don’t swim in high fructose corn syrup.”

The conclusion you’re supposed to draw, I guess, is that your kids shouldn’t eat foods with high fructose corn syrup, and should instead drink this particular brand of bottled water.

Here are some other things your children do not swim in:

  • Vegetables
  • Toothpaste
  • Looking both ways when crossing the road
  • Politeness

Yet, in my humble opinion, these should be included in every child’s life.

It’s such a dumb argument that I feel stupider just writing about it. But I’m sure there are millions of people out there who will see the ad and say, “oh golly, that there ad is right huh? My kids don’t swim in corn syrup! And I heard on them there news program that corn syrup is doggone toxic! Honey, can you go down to the store and get some bottl- DAMMIT BRANDON GET OFF THE FUCKING SHED!

Of course, the truth is that high fructose corn syrup is just like any other sugar and is only being used as a villainous contrast to sell a product you get for free out of taps in every modern home. Sorta the opposite of calling something “green.”

In conclusion, when I have kids, I will dunk them in high fructose corn syrup.

Joel Plaskett at Aeolian Hall, July 16th

Joel Plaskett played last week at Aeolian Hall. It was a fantastic show; the dude is ridiculously talented. For the majority of the concert, he played completely solo, just him singing and one of three different guitars.

Aeolian Hall is tiny, so everyone at the sold-out show got good seats. It felt very intimate, with Plaskett telling the stories behind his songs to the rapt audience. When people shouted out requests, he was happy to drop whatever plans he had to accommodate them. This sort of audience interaction, along with some improvisation and alternate versions of his songs, elevated the show way above a live rendition of his albums.

For me, music is all about emotion, and Plaskett really gives the impression that he is feeling what he’s singing.

He was joined by Peter Elkas for several portions of the show. I gotta admit, I’d never heard of him before last night (though he seemed vaguely familiar), but he was a great compliment to Plaskett’s music and humour.

The dudes even stayed around after the show to sign stuff and chat with fans. I shook Joel’s hand! OMG! But anyway, I highly recommend seeing Joel Plaskett live if given the chance. Best show I’ve seen in a long time.

Oh and I managed to win two tickets to another show at the Hall in August, because I am very skilled at winning random draws. Who wants to be my date?

The Emotion of WTF

WTF should be an emotion. There isn’t yet a single word for the sense of seeing something that totally boggles the mind; it’s related to confusion, but not the same thing. Confusion is aversive, while WTF leads to LOLs and a state of blissful unawareness of what’s going on. It’s more like confusion feeding into a jolt of happy surprise.

The Dadaists and surrealists didn’t quite have a name for it either, but they certainly understood WTF. While they wrapped their work up in a philosophical movement and reaction to existing art, it would never have caught on if people didn’t have an inborn love for the non-sequitur.

Many artists get their inspiration from dreams, and dreams illustrate that we all have nightly encounters with WTF. When left to their own devices, our brains rejoice in the random. We’re built to like it, and I suspect this serves an evolutionary purpose. Love for the outlandishly mysterious is part of the same drive that allowed early humans to figure out why the clashing rocks and the sparks and the fire always went together. It’s the same stuff that fuels science today.

We must celebrate the random. Bathe ourselves in nonsense. WTF.

Some more pictures from the internet’s leading source of WTF, Picture is Unrelated:

 

Michael Jackson Is Dead

I always feel weird when I see a headline like “Michael Jackson Dies.” Dies; like dying is just one of those things he does. Something he makes a habit of including in his life. Sorta like, “oh, watch out for that dog, he bites.” But maybe it’s appropriate, because let’s not forget, on top of his many contributions to entertainment, MJ is a crucial part of the history of zombiehood.

So yeah, once in a while, he dies. It’s just a little more permanent this time.

I’ve seen some people acting nonchalant about this. Complaining that the story is dominating the news ahead of local or political stories. But come on. This is the bottom line: the arts are a crucial part of history and of what it means to be human. Michael Jackson was a crucial part of the arts; he created the best selling album of all time, for fuck’s sake, and let’s not forget his influence on dance, music video, and style as well. Therefore his life was of great importance, and his death is a globally signficant event. Billions of people will be affected by it. It’s ignorant and naive to think that the media and individuals shouldn’t be covering this and allowing it to affect their hearts.

Also: it’s useful to keep in mind that while his contributions to humanity are not in dispute, his evil actions involving children are. He may have been a very bad person. He may not have. Maybe now we’ll never know.

Look at Elvis’s death. It’s still talked about and disputed today. And I wonder how long it will be before the rumours about Jacko’s death start; “evidence” that he killed himself, or he was murdered, or that he’s still alive. Careers will be made impersonating him. Maybe in a decade, one of his kids will end up marrying the current Queen of Pop. In any case, he will live on; cheers to one of entertainment’s greatest zombies.

Book Review: This is Your Brain on Music, by Daniel J. Levitin

Before I begin, let me just say right off that I enjoyed reading this book a whole lot and I heartily recommend it. The following harsh criticism is partly because I care enough to wish it was just a bit better, and partly because its subject matter falls in my own general area of expertise (psychology), so I’m bound to be nitpicky.

This is Your Brain on Music explores the science behind music, drawing from the latest research in psychology and neuroscience to explore various facets of creating and listening to it. After reviewing some basic information about music and music theory (most of which was new to me), Levitin begins describing the science behind topics such as categorization of music, the role of emotion in music, and musical expertise.

My first beef with the book is in its accuracy. Vague hypotheses and tentative research findings are often presented as established fact. However, this is to be expected in any science book written for a popular audience (again, me being a nitpicky psychologist). But there are other little errors. Levitin briefly mentions that Canadian psychologist Glenn Schellenberg was an original member of the popular 80s band Martha and the Muffins. However, a bit of Googling reveals that Schellenberg seems to have only played a guest role on a later album of theirs.

This only caught my attention because I’m currently running a study that Schellenberg kindly provided some audio files for. And speaking of name dropping, Levitin devotes many words to telling us how many famous people he has chilled with. At one point, he suddenly goes from talking about the role of the cerebellum in music to an elaborate tale of how he attended conferences with all his scientist heroes and even met Watson and Crick. This autobiographical stuff is interesting enough, but it ruins the flow – the rhythm, if you will – of the scientific stuff when the two are discordantly mashed together.

This haphazard organization is also exemplified in the book’s final chapter. During a discussion of music’s primary role in human evolution that is finally starting to lead somewhere, Levitin suddenly jumps to a vague hypothesis about mirror neurons fueling cultural evolution, then jumps again to a rambling, repetitive paragraph that pretty much says “humans live in groups” 5 times in 5 slightly different ways, and then, the book ends. No real final thought; no paragraph even trying to tie the preceding chapters together, just a random stopping point when he ran out of facts and anecdotes to throw onto the page.

Did I mention I liked this book? While it may be a disorganized collection of facts about music, each fact is fascinating on its own and well worth reading about. We often fail to think very much about the music we listen to for hours each day, and This is Your Brain on music, while it could use improvement, is an eye opening exploration of the deeper layers of the magical human experience that is music.

Side note: In this post, I wondered about the underlying reason for certain musical conventions. For example, why do minor chords sounds sad? Is it arbitrary and cultural? Or is there a more concrete reason? This book answers some of those questions. Long story short, like usual, it’s both. The laws of physics are responsible for some combinations of sounds going well together, but arbitrary choices and conventions also play a large role. E.g., apparently not every culture thinks minor chords sound sad. Interesting stuff.

London Ontario Zombie Walk 2008

I am of the firm opinion that the zombie walk phenomenon is the best thing to ever happen to the world. I’m so glad that London has one every year now. I managed to make it out yesterday, albeit as a puny human and not a zombie. Here are some pictures.







I love how every zombie had some twist or detail that made them unique. The girl above has a pencil sticking out of her neck, and that guy held the severed hand in his mouth the entire time.







The makeup on the one above was amazing. Every time I see a girl dressed as a zombie, part of me falls deeply in love.

I’m not a photographer and my pictures aren’t the best. Check the London zombie walk’s official site and the event’s Facebook page for better professional-type pictures.

I love this one that someone else took:

And here’s a closeup of that amazing makeup:

I so wanna participate next year.