Cult of Celebrity

SPOILER ALERT!

I’m not entirely sure why I picked up Caroline Zancan’s Local Girls from the library, but something written on the book jacket told me that it might be an interesting coming-of-age tale. The book took place over a single night, with its three main characters, 19-year-old Florida girls, sitting in a bar with drinks (why they are allowed to drink when they’re not of age is not explained very well) when a very well-known (fictional) celebrity, Sam Decker, randomly comes in and starts talking to them. For some reason (again, not fully explained), this triggers a series of flashbacks that make up the majority of the book and explain why a fourth girl is no longer the main characters’ friend anymore. Sam Decker ends up dying at the end of the night, so the fact that he spent his last night with ordinary girls was supposedly enormously significant, but I didn’t understand why.

Admittedly, the author is talented. I liked some of her insights about life and friendship, but I felt as though it was wasted when she was speaking in the voice of a character who supposedly graduated high school with “low B’s and high C’s, and even the stray D’s” and didn’t seem all that interested in college or ambitions beyond drinking with her friends and hanging out with a boyfriend who seemed far too good for her. I don’t think it would be realistic for such a character to have insights like that.

The other girls were portrayed similarly. They seemed to live for the celebrities they idolized from magazines and movies, which is why they were so enraptured when Sam Decker entered the bar. I’ve personally never understood the point of celebrity worship, so I couldn’t sympathize with these characters. I mean, if I saw Susan Lucci or some other famous person I like walking around in my town or at Walmart, I’d stare for a little bit, try not to stare, then go about my merry way. I’m not the type to run squealing up to a celebrity and beg for an autograph.

I am (I think) one of the few people who actually enjoys flashbacks in books, and the flashbacks were what made the book bearable to read. They brought the characters more to life and distinguished the girls from one another, but they didn’t make me feel sorry for the characters or put myself in their shoes. The flashbacks reminded me of hearing someone talk about drama that happened to someone else—there was too much distance, a “you had to be there” kind of feeling.

Overall, I felt like the book would have been better off as a short story or even a novella. If the author had written in a shorter form, she might have been forced to make the book less meandering and more punchy. She has a lot of talent, but it was wasted here. I wouldn’t recommend this book at all, and I don’t like saying that, but there are much better choices out there.

At the Mercy of Children

SPOILER ALERT!

So I finally got around to reading Stephen King’s Under the Dome. (Yes, I know there was a TV mini-series, but I don’t think I’ll ever watch it.) In short, I liked the premise of the book and enjoyed the experience of rushing through it to see how Mr. King would wrap up all the craziness he’d created, but the ending was sort of a bummer.

Big Jim Rennie was probably one of the best King villains I’ve read about in a while. He’s your (stereo)typical slimy used car dealer, and to make matters worse, a hypocrite of the highest order. I wanted so badly for him to have a much more gruesome death than he actually did. Having him die alone haunted by the “ghosts” of the people he killed did not in any way justify the hell he unleashed upon the other characters, as if actually being under the dome wasn’t bad enough for them.

I didn’t like the idea of alien “leatherhead” children using the dome as a kind of experiment just to get their kicks, the same way that human children would burn ants under a magnifying glass.* Because the town of Chester’s Mill was basically a huge meth lab, I wanted the dome to be some kind of byproduct of all those chemicals. Wouldn’t that have been a positive anti-drug message? Yes, but that’s not what we got. Instead, we got a sermon on how we should treat ants and those smaller than us with respect because you never know: they might have quite complex lives after all, just like us. (I mean, it wasn’t a bad message, but it wasn’t quite big enough and loud enough to match the bigness and loudness of the book. I suppose it was too “literary” for mainstream horror/sci-fi.)

King also tried to be charitable toward Republicans by making one of the heroines a Republican journalist. However, he was not in the least charitable toward Christians, whom he often portrays as a bunch of mindless sheep who can be very cruel and unaware of how hypocritical they are acting. I find it somewhat unfair, but hey… everyone has their bias, right? King also uses his typical tactic of having a young kid save the day—or at least prove himself to be smarter than most of the adults. I like that trope of his because it is nice to see an underdog pull through and have a victory.

The best parts of the book were the fast pace and the interesting characters. There was literally never any downtime. It was one death right after another, and just when you thought the carnage would be over for a few pages, it started right back up again in the next paragraph, which of course made the book nearly impossible to put down. I kept comparing it to my favorite Stephen King book, Needful Things, mostly because it centered on the destruction of one small town and followed a multitude of raucous characters. However, Needful Things had the satisfying ending that Under the Dome did not.

I’d recommend Under the Dome if you want a big, juicy book to keep you turning the pages on a boring car ride or maybe on the beach. It’s so gory at times that you almost feel like a sick person for enjoying it so much… then you wonder about the author’s sanity.

*As much as I disliked the ending, it was incredibly accurate because when I was much younger, I used to pull the legs and wings off Japanese beetles, mostly because there were so darn many of them and they destroyed my mother’s rosebushes, so they were basically Public Enemy Number 1. At one point when I got a bit older, I realized that as gross and destructive as the bugs were, they were living creatures that felt pain and had lives, no matter how short and seemingly useless. When I realized that, I let all the Japanese beetles out from the glass jar where I kept them… under the dome. So I was one of those creepy leatherhead alien kids after all. So reassuring.

Books vs. Movies vs. Video Games

Reading fiction is constantly portrayed as a Really Good Thing™. Books engage your brain by forcing you to create the images for yourself in your own mind and interpret the deeper meaning behind the author’s words. Books are supposed to make you live longer because they keep your brain working. (If that’s true, then I’ll probably live forever.)

But is reading fiction better or more worthwhile than other modern forms of entertainment, like watching movies and playing video games? When I read fiction, I do it to relax and get lost in a story. (Sometimes I do it to study the author’s technique.) I don’t necessarily read fiction to give myself an intellectual workout or ponder the meaning of life, unless the book lends itself to those kinds of themes and ponders those questions. I don’t actively seek to deeply study the fiction I read.

It would seem like watching movies is more or less the same. Most people don’t watch movies to study them. They just want to relax and be entertained. Movies are supposedly more passive than books because you’re not envisioning the events yourself—it’s all right there for you on the screen. But I suppose that when you’re watching a movie, you’re doing the same as you would with a book: trying to anticipate what the characters will do next and possibly trying to analyze characters’ true motives or some deeper meaning.

Video games get the worst rap out of any form of entertainment. They are seen as complete garbage because many of them involve gratuitous violence, and they can suck you in for hours at a time. A movie lasts for 2 or 3 hours at the very most. A book lasts anywhere from 2 to 8 (or even more) hours, depending on how long the book is and how quickly you read. A video game can last for months, depending on the depth of the adventure, the number of side quests, and how long it takes you to figure out the game’s mechanics. Some video game veterans can beat complex games overnight, but for the most part (from what I’ve experienced), you can sink hundreds of hours into certain video games and not really have gained anything that is useful outside of the game world. Do video games cause you to ponder the workings of the universe? For me, no.

Many argue that because video games are games, they keep your mind working because you’re trying to figure out the rules of the game, develop a strategy, and complete the quest. Games teach problem-solving skills, but do they do that in the same way a book or movie does? A book or movie wraps up the problem neatly at the end (in the best case), but a video game leaves that responsibility to the gamer. You are in charge of your own destiny in a video game, so perhaps video games are more valuable than they seem.

I suppose it all depends on what kinds of books you read, games you play, or movies you watch. A deep fiction book like something by Faulkner is obviously more valuable than Grand Theft Auto V. A thought-provoking movie like Inception is more worthwhile than one of those cheap regency romance novels, and a video game like Myst or a similar strategy game is superior to a movie like Fifty Shades Freed. I would argue that any movie or video game is better than any book supposedly written by a reality TV star. But “better” or “more worthwhile” even depends on the particular person reading the book: a certain person may get deeper meaning out of Doom than from Love in the Time of Cholera, and the video game may honestly be a better use of time for that person.

Books will always be my favorite. I get so little out of movies and video games most of the time—I guess I’m not really a “visual” person in that sense. But that doesn’t mean that books are inherently superior. What do you think?