The Magician King

The Magician King by Lev Grossman

Quentin and Julia are King and Queen of Fillory, the Narnia-like magical world, but he’s bored. So he tries to go on a quest, and ends up back on Earth. The rest of the story is his journey back to Fillory and his defense of magic itself against the gods. Chapters alternate between Quentin’s story in the present and Julia’s story in the past, an account of her unconventional magical education.

I just love so many things about Grossman’s style. It’s rich with allusions to high and low culture. His metaphors often come from technology, comparing magicians and the cosmos to hackers and computers (he does cover tech for Time). An example: “uploading magical knowledge into her starving brain by the terabyte.” He’s always bringing the high-minded hero-on-a-quest rhetoric down to earth by using slang or a curse word, or making a comparison to sex, drugs, or something equally mundane. And when I love a book’s style, I’m always tempted to put lots of quotes into the review, so get ready.

Since I was on the lookout for it from the beginning, I noticed all kinds of metafictional asides and incidents. The self-awareness I loved so much about the first book was back in full force:

“There is Deeper Magic at work here, my child. Even the gods must bow to it. That is the way.”

“Oh, right. The Deeper Magic. I forgot about that.”

The Deeper Magic always seemed to come up when Ember didn’t feel like doing something, or needed to close a plot hole.

There are lots of conversations about the proper attitude to adopt when pursuing a quest. How much do you plan, and how much do you allow the universe to steer you?

“But find [the magic keys] and do what with them?” Poppy said.

“I suppose once we have them all they’ll tell us. Or perhaps we’ll know when we have them. Or perhaps we’ll never know. They might just take the keys and pat us on the behind and send us on our way. I don’t know. I’ve never done a quest before.”

“So…the journey is the arrival, kind of thing?” Josh said. “I hate that stuff. I’m an old-fashioned arrival-is-the-arrival kind of guy.”

“For what it’s worth, they told me the realm was in peril,” Eliot said.

Quentin wonders whether or not he can be happy in the ‘real world’ after life as a king of Fillory, and finds there are things on Earth he didn’t see or appreciate because he was so preoccupied with dreams of supposedly fictional places.

It was Quentin’s first time in England, and he was amazed. …it looked more like Fillory than he’d thought anywhere on Earth could. Even more than Venice. Why hadn’t anybody told him? Except of course, they had, and he hadn’t believed them. …

Maybe she was right, he hadn’t given this world enough credit. Zipping along the narrow highways and shady lanes of rural Cornwall, the four of them could have been regular people. civilians, and would they have been any less happy? Even without magic they had the grass and that blessed country solitude and the sun flickering past between the branches and the solace of an expensive car that somebody else was paying for. What kind of an asshole wouldn’t be satisfied with that? For the first time in his life Quentin seriously considered the idea that he could be happy without Fillory–not just resigned, but happy.

It sounded to me like the tug of war every true bookworm has felt in her soul: the appeal of glimmering worlds constructed by prose versus the dingy but real life we find ourselves in when we look up from a book. Do we spend our lives reading and forget to live? Do we abandon the rapture we’ve found in the pages of a novel, to focus instead on what’s tangible? Do we immerse ourselves in fairy worlds and ignore the everyday magic around us? Where does true happiness lie, in imagination or reality? For someone who’s still figuring this stuff out, reading about someone struggling with the same questions is touching and cathartic.

The scope of this story is much bigger than in The Magicians. Quentin goes back and forth between Fillory, Earth, the Neitherlands, and the underworld several times. The cosmology of Grossman’s universe is revealed, with religious implications. I’d definitely compare the series to His Dark Materials, and that’s a high compliment.

The ending is beautiful and tragic and heroic, in all the best ways. It seems inevitable, but it hurts in just the way that you want a good book to hurt. It also makes me long for the next in the series.

The Magician King is a book I wish I had written.

What You Can Change and What You Can’t

What You Can Change and What You Can’t: The Complete Guide to Successful Self-Improvement by Martin E. P. Seligman, Ph.D.

This is a very clinical and research-based psychology book, not a feel-good pop-psych self-help book. I imagine it would be great reading for a Psych 101 class. It gives an overview of several common mental health issues, a review of the research that has been done about various treatments, and recommends the treatment that is most effective in the long term. It’s really good information, and some of it is counterintuitive or goes against what some therapists and psychologists routinely do with their patients.

In the introduction, Seligman says that his goal is not just normal functioning, but optimal mental health for all. At the same time, there are limits to how much we can change certain conditions, and if we try to change something that can’t be changed, it’s a recipe for disaster. Seligman hopes to draw those boundary lines as clearly as he can. I appreciated this grounding in reality.

The issues covered are: anxiety, panic, phobias, obsessions (OCD), depression, anger, PTSD, sex, weight, and alcoholism. I’d recommend most readers to read only the chapters that pertain to them or their loved ones. I read the whole book, and I’m not sure that I got much out of the chapter on phobias, for instance. Each chapter contains a quiz readers can take to see if they have a particular problem, so it would be easy to use those quizzes to screen for which chapters you really need to read. The chapters I cared the most about were the ones on anxiety, depression, and weight.

In the anxiety chapter, Seligman does a great deal of work to distinguish what he calls “everyday anxiety” from more debilitating forms, and rational from irrational anxiety. The treatment he recommends is relaxation and meditation, preferring these techniques over tranquilizer drugs.

Seligman has research claiming that depression is the dominant emotion of the current time. I really appreciated the fact that he discussed the cultural issues that lead to women becoming depressed at much higher rates than men: learned helplessness, rumination, and the pursuit of the thin body ideal. Later in the book, Seligman recounts a study that showed that depressed people were more realistic in their assessments of their own performance than others, who were overly optimistic: “Basically, depressed people see reality correctly, while nondepressed people distort reality in a self-serving way.” That’s probably why I struggled with depression for so long. I made a virtue of seeing the world as it really was, and what I saw sucked. I didn’t really pull out until conditions in my world changed enough that the reality I saw was acceptable. Seligman’s recommended treatments were cognitive therapy or interpersonal therapy.

In the chapter on weight, Seligman basically says that diets never work permanently because we all have a “natural weight” that our body returns to after a diet. He debunks some myths about dieting and overweight people, including the idea that you can’t be both healthy and overweight. There have been very, very few long-term studies of dieters to see if they were able to keep the weight off. He even suggests that the yo-yo up-and-down dieters may be damaging their health more than they would if they just kept the weight on.

Seligman also spends a good deal of his conclusion time debunking what he calls the “inner child recovery movement.” I liked this section. It’s a thorough take-down of therapy that consists of remembering childhood and blaming parents for one’s current problems. It creates a victim mindset.

This is an informative book with a sensible message for anyone concerned with their mental health or hoping to improve their emotional life.

Pandemonium

Pandemonium by Lauren Oliver

Pandemonium is the sequel to Delirum, which I read last year and loved. In this dystopian society, love is seen as a disease, so everyone is required to have an operation at 18 to render them incapable of loving. Nice place, right? In Delirium, first person narrator Lena falls in love with Alex, and they make an attempt to escape the society. Pandemonium, like most sequels, is about what comes next. It’s told in alternating chapters of “then,” the time just after Lena’s escape, and “now,” about six months after that, when she’s re-infiltrated “zombie” society. I mostly prefered the “now” chapters, because I like daring escapes and budding relationships more than hardship and camping.

The novel is definitely action-packed, with lots of chases and intrigue, but Oliver mixes the action with an attention to language that you don’t often find in YA novels. Lena’s pain comes out in poetic interludes and asides.

We learn more about the inner workings of the regime in this book, mostly through the introduction of a new character, Julian Fineman, whose father is a leader. The society turns out to be as mean and duplicitous as you’d expect. As we often see with dystopian books, a main conflict is whether the rebellion will maintain its high ideals or become just as cruel and oppressive as the previous system.

The novel ends with a great cliffhanger that brings the first book back to mind and makes you wish the third were coming soon. The series has turned into a love triangle, a common YA romance structure. But I’d like to compare this series to Twilight and The Hunger Games, two other YA series with love triangles. For the most part, I think Oliver’s books fall about halfway between Meyers’ and Collins’.

The main focus of Twilight is definitely romance. In The Hunger Games, the main focus is whether or not Katniss will survive and how being forced to kill will change her. Romance is a side note. In Delirium, the regime is oppressive because it takes away people’s right and ability to love. So the romance is directly tied to larger issues, questions and plotlines. The focus becomes how this couple can escape and find a safe place to be together. It’s romantic, but it’s romance made political, romance for a purpose.

Bella Swan is a weak character completely ruled by emotions, to the point where a breakup sends her into an immobilizing several-month-long depression. She’s surrounded by supernatural creatures who must defend and protect her, because until the final book she’s pretty helpless. Katniss Everdeen is cold, emotionless, starved into survival mode and thus unable to access her feelings. She’s the best hunter and fighter in the Games, independent and fierce. She makes choices and ultimately controls her fate, outwits the Capitol, and finds a measure of happiness. Lena is not a ball of raw feelings, but she does feel what she feels, even when she is focused on surviving. Her feelings don’t immobilize her; they propel her to make choices in line with her values. Lena has no training or practice in fighting, but she’s pretty scrappy when threatened or cornered.

It seems Oliver has found a sweet spot, a happy middle ground where a heroine can be strong and decisive, enjoy healthy relationships, and fight injustice, without losing herself in a vampire’s “velvet voice,” or freezing out a sincere suitor. Good for her, and lucky us.

Hunger Games movie review

The Hunger Games movie has already proved to be a great success with audiences. It had the 5th-best opening day ever, and the best ever for a non-sequel. Only the last Harry Potter movie and the 3 Twilight sequels made more money in the first 24 hours. I got to see it in that first 24 hours, so I guess I helped give it that record, although I also helped the other top 4 films achieve their opening day glory. I like going to movies on opening weekend. I don’t mind the crowds because they’re full of a fan’s intensity. I really enjoyed the movie and would recommend it to anyone older than 12.

I have seen enough of my favorite books made into movies to expect by now that they will be condensed, and the action will at times feel rushed. The Hunger Games is no exception. In the arena, things moved quickly from one conflict to the next, and good scenes of Katniss interacting with Rue and Peeta got cut. I wish more books got made into series like True Blood or Dexter, so that a whole book could spread out over 10+ hours instead of being jammed into 2 or 3. It allows so much more room to explore the plot’s twists and turns, and the minor characters get a chance to expand and shine. We’re in a golden age for TV now, so hopefully this model of adaptation will catch on.

My biggest complaint with the movie is that one of Katniss’s many layers seemed to be missing. Her actions in the arena weren’t shown to be performative the way they are in the book. In the book, she is aware of how her actions are seen by others and adjusts accordingly and strategically. But without her inner monologue, movie viewers don’t really get that she’s putting on a show to save her life when she acts like she’s in love with Peeta. Movie Katniss is softer than book Katniss; you can see her opening herself up to Peeta more and more. There is at least one totally spontaneous and heartfelt kiss that I don’t remember from the book at all. Book Katniss is too scared to open up, and only pretends to in order to please the cameras. She puts aside the question of whether or not she feels anything for Peeta; it’s so irrelevant in comparison to her survival that she doesn’t even have the capacity to begin to figure out how she was feeling. It doesn’t even register. In the scheme of things, this is not a major issue, and the later movies could correct this by making the performative nature of all her public actions more clear.

Even though Katniss was softened and simplified somewhat, the focus of the story remained on survival rather than romance. The movie probably has more romance than the book, and the movie’s publicity had even more than that, as much much romance as Twilight. Thankfully, the director did not make The Hunger Games into Twilight. Katniss’s victory is not getting the guy; it’s surviving and undermining the Capitol.

I don’t generally like handheld camerawork, and this movie used a good deal of it. The worst was the cornocopia scene at the very beginning of the Games. It’s jarring to watch and the viewer gets little information. All this camera style communicates to me is: “OMG CHAOS! WTF IS EVEN GOING ON? THE CHARACTERS DON’T KNOW AND NEITHER DO YOU!” The style is appropriate sometimes, but that doesn’t mean I like it. Handheld camerawork leaves me a bit queasy and wondering if I missed something important.

The movie did a great job showing what happens behind the scenes of the Hunger Games, facts that Katniss as participant is not privy to because she’s too busy in the arena, so this information was not in the first-person-narrated book. It established the way the gamemakers were in complete control of everything that happened in the arena. Toggling between the forest and the white room with its fancy computer interface clarified why some of the action happened, and why the gamemakers did what they did.

I disagree with this critic who said that the deaths of the tributes had no moral weight in the film. I do agree that if it had not been for the necessity of a PG-13 rating, the murders would have been shown in more detail, and that would have made them more horrifying, and had a deeper effect on the audience. That would have been a better movie, but one that would not have broken box office records. Despite the reduced violence, at no point did we feel anything more positive than relief at a tribute’s death. The music didn’t tell us to feel triumph, it told us to feel sad and disturbed. Most often, the emotion was pity. Even vicious Cato was humanized at the end. If people left the theater happy, it was because they had already processed their disturbed emotions after reading the book and knew what to expect, or because the focus was after all on Katniss and Peeta and they did escape, not because the audience had become like the people of the Capitol, desensitized to violence and the loss of young life.

The death of Seneca Crane is just as chilling as those of the tributes. The little scenes between him and Snow were not in the book, but gave good background, especially for newcomers, so that they could understand the stakes of the game and the Capitol’s motivation for staging them in the first place, why they couldn’t let Katniss and Peeta pull a Romeo and Juliet.

With the exception of Seneca Crane’s beard and Cinna’s gold eyeliner, Capitol fashions looked ridiculous in the movie, not decadent. I don’t think they translated well to screen. In my imagination, people from the Capitol were glamorous and ostentatious, like movie stars on the red carpet every day of their lives, even though I’m sure that exact descriptions of the outfits from the book were used by the costume designers to make clothes that came out just looking silly.

I loved the shots of the District 11 riot. It was good that the movie included that because it showed the effect of the deaths of the tributes on their home districts and why Katniss was potentially dangerous to the Capitol and its tight control on the districts. I was sad that this scene made me think of Trayvon Martin: a community calling for justice for the murder of a child.

The last exchange sets up the next movie well: “What next?” “We try to forget.” “I don’t want to forget.” Peeta wants a relationship, and Katniss doesn’t know what she wants and is still traumatized by the violence she saw and participated in. Neither of them will get what they want. Scary to say, but things only get more brutal from here.

Wishing Chair Productions’ The Tempest at NPL

Last Saturday I went to see a puppet show production of The Tempest at the downtown library. It was in the children’s theater, so I got to see the children’s department for the first time. I was really impressed by its size and comfort, as well as the whimsical and colorful artwork displayed all around. The theater itself was set up for kids and their parents to sit on the floor. It was fun watching a show with small children, who giggled at the puppets and made little sounds of wonder when the puppets and puppetteers did amazing things.

The marrionettes used were about 70 years old, hand made by a Nashville puppetteer named Tom Tichenor who got started giving shows for children in the public libraries. They were cute or silly, dressed in pretty robes. The courtly characters had beautiful, rich garments, and the Ariel puppet was particularly ethereal. I was also impressed with the staging and scenery. The effects they used to create the storm were pretty impressive.

It’s about a half hour show, vastly condensed for a child audience. It’s in modern English, with a few quotes dropped in. The effect of the abridgement was to make the story seem even more like a fairy tale than it already is. The stakes seemed lower, since the happy ending started happening almost as soon as the conflict was introduced. Postcolonialists might have been scandalized at the way Caliban was made into a caricature, rather allowed to raise important questions about the way we treat native peoples. However, the purpose of this series of puppet shows is to introduce children to Shakespeare’s plays so that they’ll better understand and enjoy them when they encounter the bard later in life, not to communicate the complexity of the drama and the Elizabethan language. The show suits that purpose just fine.

The puppet show plays this weekend and next, on Friday and Saturday, at 10:30 and 11:30 AM. That means today and tomorrow! This show is just part of a series, so I hope to see the future shows as well!

The Hunger Games movie buzz

The Hunger Games comes out tonight at midnight! I’ll be going to see the show tomorrow evening.

The movie has had an amazing amount of buzz; people are comparing this opening to the Harry Potter and Twilight movies, which all made bazillions on their first weekends. I’m very optimistic the movie deserves the hype. Best of all, The Hunger Games is an action movie with a strong female lead. Maybe it will do for action films what Bridesmaids did for comedies.

Here are some of the articles and reviews I’ve read about the movie in the past few weeks. Many of them seem focused on central problems of adaptation and whether it’s even possible. Others focus on how this and other YA novels are engaged in potical and social justice issues.

Will The Hunger Games Be the First Real Female Franchise? This article highlights what I think is one of the most important aspects of this movie: its potential to change the entertainment industry and our cultural definition of a hero.

The Sexual Politics of The Hunger Games I don’t think this article tells the full story, but it makes some good points in comparing HG to Twilight and talking about how the male characters are the ones objectified in these series.

Part Thoreau, Part Princess I love the title of this article. It discusses the tension in The Hunger Games between telling a survival story and a Cinderella/makeover story. Katniss’s own ambivalence does much to keep her story from becoming She’s All That: Wilderness Edition. In the end, she learns to use her beauty as just another tool in her toolbelt, and clothes and makeup are weapons and skills she learns to use against her enemies. Sounds pretty Third Wave to me.

Can The Hunger Games Really Capture All of Katniss Everdeen? This speculative article wonders whether the medium of film will be able to communicate the interior life of the heroine, when everything that makes her a sympathetic character is inside her, and her actions often make her seem unfeeling and cold. I agree this is one of the main challenges of the filmmakers.

10 Things from The Hunger Games That the Movies Probably Can’t Pull Off Just what it sounds like, a top 10 list of moments and concepts from the book that might not translate well to film.

The Mockingjay Problem Examines why the third book in the Hunger Games series may be problematic to adapt, and compares it to several previous movie adaptations to see how translating it to screen could change the story.

What The Hunger Games Gave Me This one is about the writer’s personal response as an abuse survivor to Katniss’s focus on survival. It’s the character’s key trait; it’s what makes her strong and also sometimes unappealing.

‘Hunger Games’ pits book gore vs. movie gore This article is mostly written for parents trying to figure out whether to let their kids see the movie. It points out the difference between violence in books and movies, mainly that with books readers have the choice about how much detail they want to see in their imaginations, but in movies, the director decides that for you.

Why The Hunger Games Is Way Better Than Twilight. Agreed.

The Hunger Games: Why It Matters This essay discusses the themes relating to reality TV and how it has the potential to change peoples’ perspectives.

Counter insurgency and ‘The Hunger Games’ compares the situation of the books/movie to questions about war and when it is or isn’t worth the cost in lives.

Slate’s review tells the skeptic: Just go see it! The biggest argument is that this story will dominate popular imagination for the next couple years, so you might as well know what’s going on.

The Washington Post’s review is very thorough and descriptive. Best quote: “One of the trickier aspects of bringing “The Hunger Games” to the screen is to avoid indulging in the very voyeuristic spectacle the story is supposed to be condemning.”

Is The Hunger Games Publicity too Hunger Games-ish? I don’t always agree with Katie Roiphe, but she has a point here, one that echoes the Washington Post review above. The book criticizes spectacle-creating marketing schemes, but the movie’s promotion engine is committing some of the same sins that the Capital cronies do.

Acting Trumps Action in a ‘Games’ Without Horror This negative review says that because the way the violence had to be filmed to get a PG-13 rating, the film loses the emotional revulsion and moral criticism of violence found in the book.

From Young Adult Book Fans to Wizards of Change This article discusses how readers of popular YA books like The Hunger Games and Harry Potter have created “fan activist” groups to take action on real-world issues.

Climate Change in The Hunger Games. This essay is about how this and other YA series imagine a world in which global warming has had catastrophic consequences, and the books are galvanizing some teens into action.

The Hunger Games: The first reviews are in, and they’re overwhelmingly positive A round-up of reviews.

A novice’s guide to The Hunger Games in Q&A format

The Hunger Names Explanations of the names of several characters.

Reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. 90% rating at last check. Strong showing.

The Hunger Games: 16 (Im)posters A bunch of people took stills from the movie and made posters in the style of other movies and directors. Some are better than others.

The Capitol of Panem is Galt’s Gulch Professor Weston says HG is like a sequel to Atlas Shrugged.

Movie Review: The Hunger Games Is Either Terrific or Just OK–It All Depends on You Well, if that’s not the most wishy-washy movie review headline I’ve ever seen. Take a stand, people! The review profiles types of fans and predicts their reactions to the movie.

The Hunger Games: A lightweight Twi-pocalyse This negative review faults Collins for not explaining more fully how the society of Panem developed from our current society. I think he misses the point. The Hunger Games does criticize parts of our violent, celebrity-crazed, “reality”-hungry culture, but it’s not a critique of current politics like 1984, Brave New World, or The Handmaid’s Tale are. I don’t see a problem with Collins constructing a fantasy world. The reviewer also says that the movie focuses too much on the love triangle, which will probably be true. Mostly he just seems like a cynic who would hate any movie based on a YA novel.