What do Vampires Have to Do With Bioethics?

A terrifyingly true account of giving the vampire paper to a room full of bioethicists…

No, no, I did not talk about the possibility that health care providers might be creatures of the night. In my paper, The Undead in Bioethics and Vampire Fiction, I claimed that cultural and literary criticisms of vampire fiction could benefit from the addition of some bioethicists to the discussion, and that narrative bioethics could benefit from looking a little more closely at commercial/mass market/genre fiction, especially vampire fiction.

This is an annual conference put on by the largest bioethics organization in the US. There are 420 sessions over 5 days, and with most of those having 3 speakers, so you can imagine what a big conference this is. Bioethics is many things: academic, clinical, political, public. And this conference brings together people who work in traditional academic settings, academic medical centers, medical centers of the nonacademic stripe, public policy and think tank folks, artists, advocates, community organizers, students, practitioners, etc etc etc.

My paper was one of six in the sub-area Arts, Literature and Cultural Studies, but unlike another multidisciplinary conference I attended this year, the Popular Culture Association, ASBH doesn’t organize the panels or conference with the sub-areas in mind at all. There are affinity group  meetings each evening, which you can attend to see others in your area. Tonight, I plan to attend the clinical ethics affinity group meeting, because we have a very controversial issue before us: the credentialing and licensure of ethics consultants.

So my fellow speakers were a philosopher who talked about existential suffering at the end of life, and a JD/PhD who discussed consent to cadaveric donation (like, when you give your body to science, do you mind if the US government straps an explosive device to it, and blows it to smithereens? Or if some of your tissues might be used to plump someone’s lips … or penis?). Our session took place in the ballroom, where the plenary sessions have been, which seats about 500 and has two giant screens for your power points, as well as a large raised stage. Of course, the room wasn’t full as there were many other sessions taking place, but I would guess we had about 150 people, which would not have been possible in the smaller conference rooms. So I guess the organizers knew what they were doing.

My paper made a point similar to the one I gave at PCA in April. Lots of bioethicists appreciate the fertile ground which fiction presents for our work, whether it’s used as a teaching tool, a clinical tool, or a site of investigation of important bioethical themes. But they tend to focus exclusively on literary fiction. When they do look at popular fiction — and here I cited recent essays which addressed the work of Jodi Picoult, Stephen King, and Robin Cook — the analysis tends to focus heavily on the possible negative (distorting, simplifying, upsetting) impact of this fiction on readers and on public discourse about bioethics generally. So the first half of my paper involved making some claims about readers of popular fiction, how actively we read, and how we don’t necessarily need the protection of others to save us from bad messages. I also talked a little bit about the ways genre fiction can be read — in terms of system, in addition to as an individual text — to note that if a bioethicist picks up one book by Stephen King and thinks she is getting all of the things out of it that a seasoned horror reader would, she is mistaken. For example, characters that look thin when reading one book in a series (Sookie Stackhouse, for example) flesh out once you appreciate the serialized nature of their narrative. And other points along these lines. So, basically, I argued that (a) popular fiction can fail to  fulfill its aims, while literary fiction can fail to fulfill its aims, and (b) there’s no way to make an invidious distinction between good and bad fiction based on how popular it is, unless you have a secret anterior dislike to genre, which you’ll have to substantiate.

I know this argument won’t please some readers of this blog. Perhaps I should have just claimed there is no difference AT ALL between popular fiction and literary fiction, neither in terms of quality, nor in any other terms. But my goal is to convince people that they need to turn theoretical attention to genre fiction. If I can do that while making a less controversial, more easily defensible claim, I will.

In the second half of the paper, I talked about vampire fiction, how ubiquitous it is (I made reference to it as a “category killer” and to the joke about a “vampire industrial average” in publishing). I showed lots of fun slides — never have I had so many non-textual slides in my life. I talked about literary and cultural criticism of vampire fiction, and noted that it tends not to spend much time looking at the obvious: that vampires are undead and that death figures prominently in any vampire story. Indeed, I have come to the conclusion that being undead — not blood sucking or day sleeping or even being alluring — is the one thread that ties together every vampire narrative I know. Maybe we need to get out of the deep end of the psychology pool and just think about the more obvious issues: this is the one place in our culture where people are reading and talking and thinking about death. About what it takes to be dead. About how we figure out who is dead.  About whether there are nearly dead states that are enough like true death to count. About organ and tissue donation. Etc.  Don’t bioethicsts have anything to contribute to this discussion?

Putting my feminist hat on, I talked briefly about the tendency to think that if a vampire narrative is about romance it is therefore not about anything else, and that everything in it is a metaphor for sex. I used the image of Bella’s dream about being an old lover to an eternally 17 year old Edward to suggest that questions about what happily ever after means in the context of immortal love might be one way that women think about death.

There are many other bioethical issues I could raise in this connection —  longevity research being the one that comes to mind first — but you get the point.

I had 20 minutes total for reading the paper and for discussion. I made sure to position myself openly as a reader and fan of the vampire fiction I was discussing, and had to roll my eyes inwardly as one of my copanelists snickered through the whole thing. The response from the audience was really terrific, and also from the editors of  two  journals in this subfield of bioethics, who approached me afterwards. I was especially gratified that one of them told me he agrees completely that we need to be working on popular fiction across the genres. A medical anthropologist asked me be an outside reader for one of her PhD students who is writing on vampire folklore and medicine, and a med school professor told me he now plans to begin his unit on death by discussing vampires. I couldn’t be more pleased with that response.

Review: True Blood and Philosophy

There are now two series dedicated to philosophy and popular culture. The original, Popular Culture and Philosophy series (Open Court) began with Seinfeld and Philosophy in 2000 and is now on volume #52, Manga and Philosophy.  One of my very first publications was a review of Seinfeld and Philosophy, and I contributed to the 4th volume in that series, Buffy and Philosophy.

The newer series, Philosophy and Popular Culture (Blackwell) launched in 2007 with 24 and Philosophy. True Blood and Philosophy, which I received gratis as an examination copy, is the 20th volume in the series.

Within the philosophical community, there is some debate about the value of these books. And by “debate”, I mean that some critics see these books in the same way an evangelical Christian sees a darkened sky and oceans turning to blood. For two examples, check out this post, or this one.

My own feeling is that the discipline is in pretty bad shape if two lightweight and fun book series can destroy its credibility. The trick with these books, especially for the cynical professional philosopher, is to go in with the right expectations. As Blackwell puts it:

Our goal with the Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture Series is to get philosophy out of the ivory tower by publishing books about smart popular culture for serious fans. With each volume in this series we seek to teach philosophy using the themes, characters, and ideas from your favorite TV shows, comic books, movies, music, games, and more.

Few if any of the essays in these books constitute philosophical research. The best of them of make contributions to the academic study of popular culture. But many don’t even do that: they are content to connect up a Philosophy 101 concept or problem (free will, personhood, the social contract, the problem of identity, etc.) with an aspect of popular culture in order to help readers (fans and students) understand philosophy in light of a pop culture phenomenon with which they are familiar.

If you read these volumes with the same expectations you would have for an issue of peer reviewed academic journal, you aren’t being fair.  I suppose some critics object to using examples from popular culture to teach philosophy (and by “teach”, I mean both in formal settings like classrooms, and the kind of self-teaching average fans might do when they pick up such books at Borders). That may be because they think popular culture is harmful (we should all be reading Proust instead), or because they don’t think using popular culture to teach philosophy works.

I have no comment on the former, but for the latter I will need to see some argument. What I know, after being in the front of a philosophy classroom for 12 years, is that starting from a place where students feel knowledgeable and comfortable can work very well to introduce them to a subject they have likely never directly encountered, a subject which in the absence of direct knowledge, signifies for many students obsolescence and irrelevance … if it signifies anything at all.

So what I look for first in such books is accurate philosophy. It is not easy to teach philosophy in the bite sizes necessitated by these short essays, and brevity can distort. Connecting philosophy up to popular culture also requires knowledge of and sensitivity towards the material. In reading this series, if I get something really insightful about the pop culture object of reflection  — something that could be developed and published in a peer reviewed popular culture studies journal —  I am delighted. And if I learn something about philosophy, or am made to see philosophical connections where I hadn’t, I consider it an unexpected bonus. A final requirement is restraint in the use of puns.

On most these counts, True Blood and Philosophy succeeds. It is divided into five sections, with three essays each: one on ethics, one on politics, one on sexuality and gender, one on the supernatural and divine, and one on metaphysics. The list price, $17.95 for a softcover, may be prohibitive for some readers, but Amazon has it new for $12.21 and there’s a Kindle edition for $9.99. As is typical for such collections, the contributors range in their connection to the discipline of philosophy, from tenured associate professors in the field to an undergraduate student (the latter being the daughter of one of the editors). There are also contributions from academics trained in art history, public policy, English, and political science. A few contributors hail from non-academic life: editors, contractors, and human resources specialists.

An initial concern I had about this volume was that at most two seasons of the TV show True Blood would have been aired before it went to press. Knowing that the book series on which it is based, Charlaine Harris’s Southern Vampire Mysteries, is now in its 10th installment, and that the show, which has great ratings, will likely continue into several more seasons, I questioned the rush to get this out. My concern was alleviated to some extent by two factors (1) most of the contributors seem to have read the books, and often make reference to them in the essays (so, a big spoiler warning for fans), and (2) the essays deal more with world itself, not on detailed character examinations or plot. Since most of the world building is complete in the first two books/seasons, it mostly works.

The volume focuses very heavily on vampires. Those looking for more on the shapeshifters, weres or fairies that populate Charlaine Harris’s world will be disappointed. Perhaps a casualty of taking their cue more from the show than the series, there is also less focus on Sookie than I would have liked. The books are written in the first person, and Sookie is a very complex and interesting character. Most of Sookie is lost in Alan Ball’s vision, which is extremely androcentric.  One essay,”I am Sookie. Hear Me Roar: Sookie Stackhouse and Feminist Ambivalence”, by Lillian E. Craton and Kathryn E. Jonell, reflects on the difficulties of feminist alliance (many of Sookie’s enemies are women), complicated by the different social locations women inhabit, some of which may place them (Tara) at a disadvantage relative to their white middle class sisters (i.e. Sookie), the double edged sword of female sexuality — both empowering and dangerous for women (Maryann, whom the authors see as the ultimate victim of female sexuality), and Sookie’s struggles to maintain her independence and autonomy while dating and working for men who have the potential to overpower her. On this last:

Sookie’s conflicted emotions about workplace relationships and her ongoing attraction to vampires complicate the potential of True Blood and the Southern Vampire Mysteries as feminist social commentary. Sookie’s biggest challenge doesn’t seem to be fighting oppression, but sorting out her own desires.

This essay raises several important issues, any one of which could constitute the subject of an independent investigation, and it is too bad the editors didn’t make room that that approach. It’s also compromised, in my view, by trying to cover both the television show and the books, which differ markedly in their treatment of these issues. Alan Ball’s version of  the character of Tara, for example, as a constantly victimized, ineffectually perpetually angry, shortsighted (to the point of stupidity) black woman is nearly unrecognizable to readers of the novels, who know Tara as a white woman with a level head who overcame a horrendous childhood (and, yes, who makes mistakes). The same goes for Maryann. And while the Sookie of the TV show is just a plucky gal with telepathic abilities, in the novels, Sookie is an incredibly astute, complex character, who recognizes that she is disadvantaged by her gender, her “disability”, and her economic status.

Some of the essays are very straightforward explications of basic philosophical concepts. For example, the first essay, “To Turn or Not To Turn”, by Christopher Robichaud, explicates the concept of informed consent using the example of Bill turning Jessica into a vampire (“vampires need explicit, informed, noncoercive consent before they’re permitted to turn the living into the undead”), while “Pets, Cattle and Higher Life forms on True Blood”, by Ariadne Blayde and George A. Dunn, is effective at exploring moral ranking among kinds of being (“The assumption that human beings occupy the highest rung on the great ladder of being ins challenged in True Blood by the existence of a species that seems to be superior to us in every way, possibly even in their kinship with the divine.”). “Signed in Blood: Rights and the Vampire-Human Social Contract”,  by Joseph J. Foy and “Honey, If We Can’t Kill People, What’s the Point Of Being a Vampire: Can Vampires Be Good Citizens?” by William M. Curtis, both consider what it would take for vampires to have rights and function as full citizens. Are vampires just another unique subculture claiming its rights, which our liberal democracy should accommodate, and what would that require (would a “life sentence” for a criminal vampire be cruel and unusual punishment?). The question of “what is natural” and how we define it, so important to debates over sexuality and new reproductive technologies, is addressed by Andrew Terjesen and Jenny Terjesen in “Are Vampires Unnatural”. Patricia Brace and Robert Arp explore connections between the social and moral status of vampires and and gays in “Coming Out of the Coffin and Coming out of the Closet”. Finally, criteria of personal identity are explored by Sarah Grubb’s “Vampires, Werewolves, and Shapeshifters: The more they change, the more they stay the same”.

A standout, especially for readers who know something about vampire mythology, is Bruce A. McClelland’s “Un-True Blood: The Politics of Artificiality.” McClelland, who has published a book on vampires and their slayers, situates True Blood within the evolving vampire lore. He wonders whether

the attempt to bring vampires into the human world  by encouraging them to consume TruBlood represents a drive to ensnare them in our same dependencies and lack of freedom that characterize our society, one that many would characterize as lacking belief, trust, or a deep link to nature.

Another very interesting essay is Fred Curry’s “Keeping Secrets from Sookie”, which explores the epistemological questions raised by Sookie’s telepathy, such as “whether anyone could possess any kind of knowledge that even the most powerful telepath couldn’t learn using her powers?”.

There is quite a bit of overlap in the essays, especially on the moral status of vampires, and their connections to other marginalized subgroups. This overlap was made even more manifest by the choice of the same quotations (Eric and Sookie’s discussion about whether humans are to antelopes and as vampires are to lions, for example) and sources (No fewer than three essays discuss Thomas Nagel’s “What is it like to be a bat?”). Many of the essays rely on a pseudo documentary about vampires, from the first season’s DVD. something many readers will not have seen. And some of the essays, in trying to keep a light tone, go a bit too far, for example Brace and Arp’s final exhortation that:

coming out of the coffin or the closet these days requires courage. Let’s hope, pray, and act so that in the future anyone, regardless of sexual orientation, religions or race, whether living or dead, can find acceptance along with basic human and civil rights in Bon Temps and your hometown, too.

I wish the editors had waited a couple of years to publish this volume. Perhaps a few more seasons of True Blood would have drawn more essays on other aspects of the narrative, such as Sookie’s problematic conception of her telepathy as disability, fascinating communities like the werepanthers of Hotshot or the weres of Shreveport, the complex relationship of Southern identities to various forms of Christianity, to name just a few.

Overall, though, this is a fun book for fans of the show with no philosophical background, and a good resource for teaching our vampire-loving students some basic concepts in philosophy. The brevity of each essay left me with more questions than answers, but that’s what good philosophy teaching does.

True Blood Season 3 Preview Post

As we gear up for the third season of True Blood, beginning June 13, the first full preview was just released. Click here to view it.

This post contains some spoilers.

Just as the first two seasons were loosely based on the first two of Charlaine Harris’s Southern Vampire Mysteries, so the third season will be based on the third book, Club Dead (which I review here). As we saw in the finale of season 2 of True Blood, Sookie’s vampire boyfriend Bill Compton goes missing. In the show, he vanishes in the middle of a marriage proposal, but in the book, after a period of distancing behavior (he is always holed up with his computer, to Sookie’s dismay) Bill leaves for an extended, mysterious “business trip” to Seattle. Later, after she is attacked by a were at Merlotte’s, Sookie learns — from Eric and Pam — that Bill was on some kind of business for the Queen of Louisiana (Sophie Ann), but has returned to his sire, Lorena, and is now in terrible danger.

Here is a cute promo poster:

Unlike the TV show, readers of the Sookie Stackhouse mysteries have had no knowledge to this point of who sired Bill, when, why or how (actually, Bill’s origin story is never told in the books, making the TV Civil War and roaring Twenties vignettes completely unique to the show). The addition of origin stories, including Eric’s, was an interesting choice on Ball’s part. I confess I felt their lack as I read the books, but perhaps I have just been conditioned to think of vampires as an “other” whose existence needs explanation, while Harris wanted readers to think of them as no more mysterious than humans. That said, despite finding the character of Eric’s sire Godric intriguingly enhanced on the show (and Season 3 will have lots of flashbacks of Eric and Godric), I haven’t been thrilled with them.

In Club Dead, a furious and heartbroken Sookie nevertheless does the right thing (by her lights) and sets off for Mississippi to rescue Bill. There, she is under the protection of Acide Herveaux, a were, and we are introduced to a new paranormal element (Merlotte’s owner Sam is a shifter, quite different in Harris’s universe from weres). Weres are pack animals, with a tendency to aggression. They are anxiously waiting to see how the vampires’ “coming out” goes for them among the humans. Some weres want to follow suit. The title of the book, Club Dead, is the nickname of the Mississippi bar where the weres hang out.

This is the book where Harris deviated completely from the romance script. Not only does Harris introduce a fourth potential suitor in Alcide (leading some to call “The Anita Blake” effect on her), but what happens between Bill and Sookie is surprising, shocking, and sad.

I will be very interested to see what Ball and co do with this book in Season 3 of True Blood. Overall, the casting has been great (Sookie the one major exception), and from what I can see casting of new characters continues to impress, at least visually. Here’s a shot of Alcide:

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And Alcide’s problematic girlfriend, Debbie Pelt (a character I really enjoyed):

And the vampire king of Mississippi, Russell Eddington, played by Denis O’Hare:

Here’s the regular cast promo poster:

Ball will continue to add his own elements to Harris’s universe. First, they’ve cast a beautiful new female dancer at Fangtasia, whom Eric will hook up with. Second, they’ve cast someone as a Reverend Daniels, to whom Tara’s mother will turn for comfort. A vampire love interest has been cast for Tara. Lafayette will get more screen time, as well as a boyfriend and mother, the latter played by Alfre Woodard. Also, more in store for Arlene and her relationship to the supernatural, and more with Jessica and Hoyt, the latter moving in with Jason, who continues to experience comedic sexual mishaps.

It looks like Ball will continue his signature bloody and hypersexualized tone, and that includes accelerating the timetable of Sookie and Eric’s complex developing relationship (notice her come on to him in the preview).

I enjoyed Club Dead a lot, especially the introduction of Alcide and the weres. Readers will recall a very memorable final (or near final) scene with Eric, Bill, and Sookie. My eyes may be deceiving me, but I thought I may have seen evidence of it in the preview.

While I would have loved it if Tara and her mother would have gone the way of the maenad, there’s a lot to look forward to come June 13.

True Blood Season 2: All Star Romance Review Panel

What happens when three romance novel readers and devotees of Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse series ruminate on an entire season of True Blood? Read on…

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Panelist #1 Wanderer, one of the three “opinionated booksluts” (hey, their words, not mine!) who runs The Scarlet Corset

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Thank you to Jessica for having me here on her lovely blog. I answered the invitation to blog about True Blood without hesitation; however, as I sit here typing, it’s sinking in who the other ladies are that I’m sharing this space with: Robin and Carolyn. *gulp* No pressure, none at all!

First things first, the books – yes, I have read all 9 books by Charlaine Harris and yes, I went into the viewing of the HBO show with hope that it would stick to a lot of the key points. It was probably 4 episodes into Season 1 when I scrapped that hope and decided to go with the flow created by Alan Ball.

So, what are my thoughts on Season 2? I think it started out great. The Dallas vamps and Fellowship of the Sun storylines were strong points and the Maryann storyline was the weak point. Sadly, that weak spot was stretched out over the entire season, becoming the major plot in the end. I was annoyed from the start by Maryann and how Tara fell for her BS but then to watch it progress over the entire season – it was just too much. The wobbly distortion thing, the horned helmet, the mass possessions, the black eyes, the orgies…way too much! When I watched the finale and what happened to Maryann, I couldn’t help but ask, “Why couldn’t they do that sooner?”

Sookie and Bill – I’ve had issues with Anna Paquin’s portrayal of Sookie but try to ignore it and just watch the show as any other fan. Something about the TV Sookie doesn’t sit right with me. She seemed almost selfish at times. I never got that vibe in the books. As for Bill, I’ve always considered him a mediocre character (both book and TV versions). He and Sookie are alright together but anytime Eric is involved, Bill is totally overshadowed. Side note about the actor who portrays Bill: he’s gotten better but for a while he would pronounce Sookie as “Sukay” – made me laugh every time!

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Eric – Not since the Rachel Shag has there been such hoopla over a haircut. When I saw the first scene after the haircut it was like, hot damn! The trumpets sounded, a light shone down upon him and a sigh was heard across the land. What? That didn’t happen in your house? ;) Anyway, I’m enjoying Alexander Skarsgard’s portrayal of Eric which is cool because I didn’t think
he fit the role when I first heard of his casting. I hope in Season 3 we’ll see more of Eric, Pam and Fangtasia. I want to see more of him as the leader he is. Speaking of seeing more, wasn’t that a lovely little dream sequence? Definitely saw another side of Eric!

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Jessica, Hoyt, Lorena and Godric were surprises for me. Jessica was too whiny at first but she grew on me this season. She and Hoyt are very sweet together and I don’t like the turn her character takes in the finale. I was glad to see Lorena and hoped she’d cause more trouble for Bill but then she sort of departed on a whimper. Godric’s final scene is probably my favorite of the season. The idea of having lived so long a life, seen and done so much, and now you’re ready to go out on your terms? I thought it was a very powerful scene.

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Lafayette, Arlene, Sam, Tara – These are the characters I feel are most different from the books. I’m glad they kept Lafayette and I like the current path Arlene’s character is on. I hope they don’t take the route the books take with her. Sam is like background noise for me. I mostly feel sorry for him because he seems to be the guy that gets crapped on all the time. My impression of Tara is too heavily influenced by the Maryann thing so I’m hoping Season 3 will bring her better material. Right now, I wish she’d go away.

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Jason – He is probably the character most true to the book. One slight change in the show is his and Sookie’s relationship. I liked the scene where they have a heart-to-heart after the bombing.

Misc final thoughts – The finale has a nice scene where most of the main characters are back at Merlotte’s. It was nice to see the gang back in a central place. When all is said and done, some people can’t watch because of the bad accents. I don’t mind them. Some think the acting is horrible. I think the acting is fine. Some don’t like the differences from the books. I’m ok with them. If I’m entertained at the end of the hour, I am a contented viewer.

Panelist #2: Romance novelist Carolyn Jewel

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Mandatory Disclaimer: I have read all of Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse books. I’m also a romance author myself. What I’m not is a television watcher. I haven’t watched television for twenty years, aside from monitoring my son’s TV watching when he was young. (Sponge Bob, yeah!) I didn’t watch Season 1 of True Blood when it was on HBO, but I heard the talk about the show — what’s not to love about vampires? — and then downloaded and read a free copy of the first Sookie Stackhouse book on my iPhone (followed, shortly thereafter by my purchasing all the rest of the books). I bought the season 1 DVD and was just as hooked by the series as I was by the books.

My household then subscribed to HBO for the sole purpose of yours truly being able to watch season 2 of True Blood; the only television I have watched in twenty years. Despite what I’m about to say, I’m not sorry and I will be re-subscribing to HBO in time to watch Season 3.

My feelings about season 2 can be pretty much summed up by my feelings about the finale: Not enough Eric and seriously flawed by a major story line that lacked cohesiveness and tension. I refer, of course, to the Maryanne storyline. Maryanne, by the way, was brilliantly acted by Michelle Forbes.

Throughout season 2 I was sorry to watch Tara, one of my favorite characters, get shuttled into an offensive mess of a storyline that failed in every respect. They took her out of her interesting and transgressive relationship with Sam the shapeshifting bartender and plunked her into a nice little box of color. A show that is about the wrongs of prejudice segregated its African American actors and plunged them into every single racial stereotype known to American culture. Drug dealing, poverty, substance abuse, single-parent homes, absent fathers, domestic violence, you name it, the cliche was played out for us.

Why, I would like to know, were NONE of these characters able to figure out there was something wrong with Maryanne and her situation? Instead, Maryanne simply had a cadre of mindless slaves who did her bidding. Even worse, the relationship between Tara and Eggs (with a name like that, you knew he was marked for death) was suspect from the start in that at no time was it clear that Eggs was not a bad guy. Why on earth would I believe their relationship was true in any sense, when we never knew if Eggs was really a good person? He was Maryanne’s from the start. What a waste of some fantastic actors. By the time of the finale, with its focus on this disastrous storyline, the damage was done. I didn’t believe and I didn’t really care.

Thus, in the season finale, the Maryanne story line continued its wonderfully acted train wreck. I was sorry but not surprised to see those scenes descend into farce. The ostrich egg licking? What on earth does the Pallas Athena myth have to do with an egg? It was pointless and absurd. Jason and Andy continued to provide beautifully done comic relief up until the moment when they, too, were suddenly Maryanne zombies. I was so very disappointed by that cheap outcome.

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The series is picking up on Sookie’s non-human lineage — a lineage that Sookie’s brother Jason shares. Why wasn’t he immune too? The bulk of the finale was taken up by Maryanne with its nearly complete lack of tension and conflict. The means by which Maryanne met her end was quite satisfying but did we really have to suffer through all that soggy, tension-less mess to get there? All I can say is I’m glad that train wreck is over.

The best parts of the season and the finale were Romance focused; Jessica and Hoyt, Bill and Sookie, Sookie and Eric (except there was no Sookie and Eric in the finale. What where they thinking?)

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Stephen Moyer continued to show his acting chops when he feared Sookie was going to turn down his proposal of marriage. That scene was almost worth the mess that came before. But really, why, with all the wonderful tension between Bill, Sookie and Eric was the cliffhanger ending not more subtle? And why was Eric almost completely absent? We are, of course, to believe that Eric is responsible for Bill’s abduction. (The writers seem to have failed to appreciate the devious nature of Ms. Harris’s version of Eric. Alexander Skarsgard, who plays Eric, hasn’t, but the writers sure have.)

I have hopes this won’t be so appallingly simplistic as we get into Season 3. We’ve already seen that the major deviations from the book have, by and large, been disappointing. And by the way, Jason’s actions at the end were completely out of character. I expected much, much more. But I’ll still be tuning in to Season 3 to see what Alexander Skarsgard does with his role.

Panelist #3 Robin, blogger of Dear Author and Romancing the Blog Fame, and Twitterer extraordinaire

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‘Twas Dionysus proved our ruin; now I see it all. – The Bacchae by Euripides

If I had unlimited time and any measure of creativity, I’d write my summary of True Blood: Season in the style of The Bacchae, since so much of Alan Ball’s interpretive dance with Harris’s novels strikes me as a retelling of the Dionysian myth as dramatized by Euripides.

First let me confess my own prejudices: as a slavishly devoted fan of Charlaine Harris’s books, I’ve been alternately amused by and frustrated with the HBO series. I adore the opening song and visual sequence, find Alexander Skarsgard incredibly sexy if not perfectly cast as Eric, and think Stephen Moyer is a spot on Bill Compton. I still cannot see Sam as anything but strawberry blonde and comforting in his physical presence, though, and Anna Paquin annoys me on a regular basis. Then there is the Tara problem: the one character whose race is changed becomes the stereotypical angry black woman who has everything bad happen to her and can’t make one good choice. And she falls for the obviously dubious charms of the psycho maenad. Great.

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When I first heard that Ball was going to adapt the series, I was thrilled; who better to interpret the outsider theme of Harris’s books? Who better to fill in all the blanks of life in Bon Temps that Sookie does not have access to because of the first person narrative limitation in the books? Sensationalism, the dissembling that goes on in “respectable” families and towns, social hypocrisy – it’s all in Ball’s repertoire. Race and sexuality are both obvious issues in the tv series and the books, and Ball has been overtly investigating those via the supernatural beings (and Lafayette’s character, whose persistence has been a happy change from the books, as has the attention Jason’s character has gotten, and I wonder how much of that is driven by the talent of Ellis and Kwanten). And he’s been far more willing to delve into the violence of the vamps, something Sookie has been more reluctant to dwell on in the books.

But then there’s the maenad storyline.

Anyone who’s familiar with the myth or has read the Euripides play knows that the Bacchae, aka the maenads, represent chaos — celebration, intoxication, sensuality, and fertility gone to an irrational, violent extreme. Dionysus, the god of wine, is linked to nature, to the feminine, to madness, and to sexual indulgence. In Euripides’s play, Dionysus has been rejected, his worship made illegal, and his mother humiliated and disbelieved (for her truthful story that Zeus impregnated her with him). So Dionysus comes to extract his political and personal revenge. So while it is technically true that Dionysus catalyzes the destruction, Euripides complicates the idea that he’s completely at fault, suggesting instead that the suppression and rejection of Dionysian characteristics results in their tenfold manifestation. It’s the classic yin and yang: Apollo’s reason is essential, but so is Dionysus’s revelry.

But what’s up with Ball’s use of the maenad? There’s definitely an element of revenge (against Sam), and some kind of perverse punishment for a town of majorly judgmental folks, and, I think some general perversity for the sake of tweaking the establishment and illustrating the fine line between “civilization” and “chaos,” as well as the underbelly ugliness of the cannibalistic sentiments that characterize all the petty hatreds among the Ben Temps humans. And Ball keeps to the tradition of feminization in using Maryann to represent the maenad.

trueblood-maryann

But then there’s Tara, the conduit for Maryann’s infiltration of Bon Temps. Tara, with the alcoholic mother and a bad history with men. Who’s angry and feels deprived and like an outcast when Maryann intervenes on her behalf. Tara, who falls so very easily under Maryann’s spell and into Eggs’s bed. And who opens to door to Maryann’s victimization of the town by inviting her to stay in Sookie’s house, by serving as the intermediary between the town and Maryann. What’s up with that? If Maryann ultimately represents some sort of chaotic, unthinking violence, what does that make Tara? And what about the “family” that Maryann’s entourage  represents for Tara? It’s clearly cultish, although attractive at first. So what’s the lesson – that it’s dangerous to long so much for belonging? That we can’t trust the angry black woman? That women are irrational? That it’s not gays and blacks who are the threat but women wearing bull’s heads? That we’re all easily compromised unless we have supernatural aspects of our personality that make us immune?

Seriously, if I could answer those questions, I might be able to understand what the hell I spent a bunch of hours over the past few months watching. Sophie Ann’s cryptic lines about how powers exist because we will them into existence seems like it should be meaningful, but I’m not sure how. I mean, what doesn’t exist without us willing it into existence?

Sophie Ann

Had I not been so disgusted with the hijacking that Maryann’s story represented to me, and had I not been so frustrated with how that stripped so much nuance out of Harris’s vision, I might not be so intent on understanding the purpose of the maenad subplot. And I suspect that it was ultimately a vague, somewhat abstract revenge fantasy that has little relationship to the novels and makes little sense to the overall logic of the first half of the TV series. Except that it allowed the writers to go hog (bull?) wild with the blood and the gore, the sensationalized violence that’s becoming more and more central to the tv series. All of which leaves me feeling cranky and unsatisfied. And in need of a glass of wine.

***

A concluding note From Jessica:

Thank you so much Wanderer, Carolyn, and Robin. I selfishly wanted to know more of your thoughts on the show than you could explain in 140 character Tweets, and I was not disappointed. See you all in — gasp — nine months for Season 3.

Nobody discussed in detail my favorite element of Season 2, The Fellowship of the Sun, aka Alan Ball’s hysterical sendup of a certain kind of hypocritical, fanatical, evangelical Christians. I have to throw in a pic because it makes me smile:

Fellowship

PS. Here you go Robin! May it go down easier in Season 3!

True-Blood-Wine-true-blood-7746761-800-800

And finally, for those of you (like me) who missed it, here’s an image of Charlaine Harris’s Season 2 finale cameo:

large_trueblood charlaine

A Sookie Stackhouse Reader's Verdict on Season 1 of HBO's True Blood

Having read — and fallen in love with —  8 of the 9 Southern Vampire Mysteries by Charlaine Harris (I’m saving the latest for my vacation next week) featuring telepathic Louisiana barmaid Sookie Stackhouse and her vampire, shapeshifter, and faerie friends, I was curious about the HBO series True Blood, based on the books, which premiered in Fall 2008. Not curious enough to purchase a subscription to HBO or break any laws, I waited for the DVD. It came out recently, and I watched all 12 episodes of the first season over the course of a week.

I’m going to a premiere party for Season Two tonight, so I thought I would express my thoughts about the adaptation here rather than annoy people in person later (the other guests haven’t read the books).

What I liked:

1. Casting. Perfectly cast were Stephen Moyer (Bill), Ryan Kwanten (Jason), Sam Trammell (Sam), Chris Bauer (Andy Bellefleur), Lois Smith (Adele Stackhouse), and Alexander Skargard (Eric Northman). Even the minor characters were cast to perfection, especially Carrie Preston (Arlene), Michael Raymond-James (Rene), Jim Parrack (Hoyt Fortenberry), and Todd Lowe (Terry Bellefleur). Anna Paquin (Sookie) did grow on me, although I still wouldn’t call that perfect casting — she’s a good actor, but just not beautiful or statuesque enough to fit my personal image of the character.

2. Sets and setting. Places like Sookie’s house, Merlotte’s, Bill’s house, and Sam’s trailer, were exactly as described in the books and as I had pictured them, with additional touches that enhanced them.

3. The expansion of Jason’s storyline worked for me, mostly, thanks to the engaging performance of Ryan Kwanten. Same for Lafayette’s expanded storyline.

4. The violence of some* scenes was more visceral and scary than in the books, and I enjoyed that. I’m thinking of the Ratrays’ attack on Bill, or Sookie’s visit to Bill’s house when he’s entertaining the bad vamps. (*but see #4 below) The Vamps’ super fast movement was portrayed well.

5. Music: sometimes a bit heavy handed (playing “Devil in Disguise” when the murderer is shown with Sookie) , but a fun addition. Playing the Bangles’ Eternal Flame when Lafayette was about to have sex with his dorky vamp john was inspired.  Same for Bill’s Tuvan throat music and Amy’s Joan Baez.

What didn’t work:

1. Tara. This was one character expansion that failed utterly. I was bored or annoyed every time Tara was on screen. I hated Tara’s “attitude”. Tara’s vomit eating mother. Tara’s crush on Jason. Tara’s having sex with Sam (!!!!!!! — hate that storyline!). We fast forwarded through her scenes at the halfway point in the season.

2. It’s an ensemble. Sookie is just one among many characters. Jason and Tara get more screen time than Sookie. My favorite thing about the books is Sookie’s first person point of view. I am in love with her character, her view of the world, her personal growth. So for me, this show can never compare to the books for that reason alone.

3. Lack of humor. In the books, especially the first few, Sookie often overhears amusing thoughts, and her own take on the world is often humorous. There’s a quirkiness and a fantasy element that get almost entirely lost on the show. In True Blood, everything Sookie “hears” is vile. Even the irrepressible Eric is a big downer. It’s a lot darker than the books, which leads me to …

4. The show is unnecessarily and gratuitiously sexually explicit. Ditto for its goriness. I suppose folks want to make full use of the medium, but it’s not for me. This change in tone is signaled by the change in cover from the original to the show tie in:

n49261-1dead-until-dark-1

5. The sweat. Every character, in every scene, has a layer of sweaty sheen, and the men usually have armpit stains, regardless of whether they are working out or sleeping. Hair is also often greasy, especially on the men. No one looks clean in Bon Temps. I get it. It’s hot. But is there no A/C? As a bonus, everyone’s skin appears very bad. Am thinking of sending a case of Proactiv to the cast.

6. The Tribunal storyline. I am not one of those people who thinks film adaptations must be literally faithful to the book. Doing that often ends up being less faithful to the spirit of the book and shows a failure of imagination. But how on earth could it make sense that Bill would get in trouble for killing a vampire who stole from his vampire elder? If anything, Eric would be grateful to Bill.

In sum, I can’t say I was all that engaged. The show often seemed quite boring, actually. Was it because I had read the books, and knew how much of Sookie’s characterization was missing? I don’t know. The most interesting thing to me at this point is comparing the adaptation to the books. I can’t say if that will be enough to keep me watching.

I’ve got to get offline and think of something red to make for the party tonight. We have red lettuce and radishes growing in our garden, but something tells me they won’t do. Any ideas??

Academics Take a Bite Out of Sookie Stackhouse

I’m in NOLA at the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association Annual Meeting (for posterity: April 2009)

I just attended am excellent standing room only 4 paper panel session on the Sookie Stackhouse series, their televised version, True Blood, and the Stephanie Meyer Twilight series.

There’s lots here but I wanted to note a couple of the points made that I found most interesting:

1. The TV series is an improvement on the novels because (a) the tone switches in the novels from humor to horror and this is better achieved with visual media, and (b) because the novels portray a white de-racialized, de-ethnicized rural South, which the show features complex African American characters

2. Sookie and Bella are viewed by a lot of academics as terrible literary protagonists, horrifying role models for women and girls, and passive nonresistors and even seekers of abusive relationships who serve to shore up capitalist patriarchy.

Here are summaries of the papers. I did my best, but readers should contact the folks listed below for copies of their papers, which are sure to be more accurate accounts of their views than my own hastily typed notes.

1. “The Vampire rises … Again: True Blood and the Sookie Stackhouse Novels”, Nicole Burkholder-Mosco, Lock Haven University

EDITED TO ADD: Professor Burkholder-Mosco sent a very helpful email explaining a few of her points.  I appreciate the time she took to do this. Added bits are in this color.

“I did work directly with Charlaine Harris for this paper. I found her to be delightful, helpful, and an all-around lovely person. As far as her professional work, I like her books very much. In fact, I also find her books “instruct” as well as “delight”–that age-old paradigm for what constitutes important work in literature.”

[I offered to go up to my hotel room to get my Mac adaptor for one of the speakers and missed the beginning of this one.]

Race, homosexuality, and gender roles are explored in the series.

She thinks TB  succeeds in a different way when it comes to the portrayal of the immediacy of violence, because with the visual media, the viewer can grasp the switch of pace and tone – images, sound effects, visceral fear. The visual reenactment makes us feel like the real fear is in the everyday. The TV show works better to show this.

Tara is an asset to the series. She is more a stereotype in the books. She is complex in the show. She shows a clip for the show, of Tara taking her mother to rid her of a demon in a voodoo ritual. [My note: Wow, I guess the show really departs from the book.]

[My note: I wonder what the methodology is in studies like this. Is it “academic” and what does that mean? A smart careful fan can watch True Blood with no training and make these observations.]

Professor Burkholder-Mosco very diplomatically pointed out in her email that because I had missed the first few minutes of her presentation, I missed the Noel Carroll/Nina Auerbach set up. Theory was, in fact, grounding her observations, in particular the theory of cylcical violence. Sorry!!!

Twilight, Anita Blake, Sookie – the new vampire tale is “terribly democratic”. Werewolves, demons, myriad of mythical monsters.

Quotes Harris: “I’ve had a lot of bad things happen in my life. None of them were caused by vampires.”

The post 9-11 world finds fear in the every day like never before. It’s easier to pretend the bad guys are easy to spot, as in supes.

Fear isn’t just the other. “Home grown terrorist”. The other looks just like us.

[My note: But this has always been the mark of the vampire genre. This is why the original vampires cannot see selves in mirror. We are they. They are us.]


2. “Shades of Bromance Between Vampires and Weres: Homoerotics and the Trafficking of Women in Sookie Stackhouse and Twilight”, Jennifer Moskowitz. Morningside College

**I found this paper the most interesting and troubling.

Why don’t we see Team Bella t-shirts at Wal-Mart? Because she’s nobody to root for. Same for Sookie.

Sookie is no more heroine or protagonist than Bella. She’s a vehicle by which men establish a hierarchy. Female characters are employed as eroticized figures of exchange for male characters.

Getting the girl is important because possession signifies power. Power is represented and augmented by “getting the girl”.

Werewolves and shifters represent hyper-nature (nature but better, better even than itself). Vamps represent hyper-humans. And the battle is on.

Historically, the rightful end of women in novels is social –community and social connectedness (citing Du Plessis). Social death is as bad or worse for women characters than physical death.

This has not changed for Bella or Sookie.

Note dig at romance (there have been a lot of these this morning): “Each woman is little more than a romance novel character.”

Bella – clumsy, needs protection. Sookie too.

Sookie is in center of action, but not an independent actor. She is aided by many characters, all men except for her guardian Claudine, who is on order from a man.

She is a “hard sell” as a protagonist.

Telepathy tells us about the other characters, not about Sookie.

[My note: this makes Sookie a complement to the vampires in a way I had not considered.]

She inhabits novel as a participant. Although it’s first person, we get third person omniscience via Sookie.

Vegetarianism and synthetic blood represent self-discipline of “good” vampires. They are more self-disciplined than the humans.

Ex. Edward repeatedly reminds Bella he must maintain sexual control because she cannot. He actually has more human characteristic than Bella has. He is hyper-human (humanity better than itself).

In Sookie books: Wisdom of the ages and ability to adapt. Uniquely suited to 21st century existence.

Weres and shifters have retreated to a more pastoral existence in both Twilight and Sookie. Compare difference between Sam’s bar and Eric’s.

Cites eve Sedgwick. Says both series shore up patriarchal capitalism.

Sookie often talks about improved physical status when drinks blood. Hyper human.

Contrast to weres’ imprinting (is this in Twilight) – bring characters closer to nature. Hyper natural.

Cites Rene Girard’s Theory of Erotic Triangle. Bond that links rivals is as intense as bond to beloved. Sexual awareness of the other. (Girard is discussed in Sedgwick)

Sookie: Highly charged erotic scenes serve to relationship forward between competing men. Ex. Sookie takes Eric’s blood in All Together Dead. Her were-panther boyfriend Quinn watches. The two men are much more interested in each other in that moment in each other. And the fact that Eric disappears means hyperhuman Eric is more suited to be Sookie’s mate. [My note: This would make the Sookie books NOT romance.]

Also note weres have not been able to mainstream, while vamps have. Hyper human trumps hyper natural.

Also in Twilight – eternality afforded to Bella and Edward. They will never age, perfectly suited to 21st century global world

3. “The Vampire Who Loved Me: The Modern Vampire Hero in Stephanie Meyers’ Twilight Series and Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse Series”, Heide Crawford

EDITED: Professor Crawford has emailed me to ask that the summary of her paper be taken down.  As a professional courtesy to her, I did so. Anyone who is interested in following up with her should contact her directly.


4. “Casting A Reflection: Vampire as Metaphor for the Changing American society in Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse Series” Eden Leone, Bowling Greene University

She focuses on the first three books in the series. This is another paper that sounds like a series of observations, rather than a cohesive argument.

“Vampire Bill” – the “Bill” shows acceptance, the “Vampire” marks him as other.

Who is the “other”? Seem HIV/AIDs, but not. It’s post 9-11.

Nests are like sleeper cells.

[I am always puzzled by this sort of claim. The rise of the modern vamp novel with Rice predated 9-11. Buffy predated it. Etc.]

she contends the novels do two things:

1. Unique way to deal with repercussions of 9-11.

2. Provides an example of how to live with people “other” than ourselves.

[My note: Wow! Ethical criticism is alive and well!]

Q and A Session:

Q1. (Actually 3 separate questions. Cheater.) What makes B. and S. unique is their immunity to glamour, etc, of vampires. So they do have power. Also, you never discuss class. Isn’t that pivotal in vampire culture? And isn’t it significant that Edward doesn’t bite Bella but uses a syringe when she turns?

A1. (It’s moving too fast for me to identify which speaker addressed these questions)

Glen Thomas, TMT blogger and friend of Eric and Sarah, yells out: “That’s safe sex!!”

It also follows pattern of only turning her after she’s dying. So what was posed originally as a choice never really is.

Q2. (This woman is wearing a Fangtasia t-shirt, but says she wishes she had a Sookie T-shirt). She strongly objects to the idea that Sookie is a cipher. She says everyone refers to these books as “Sookie” books for a reason) “I am about to teach DUD for third time to gen lit students. I liked your comment that the jokes cover fear. Clive Barker has said horror is about everyday fears  and Sookie has these: poverty, rape, aloneness. My students read her fear as very real.”

Q3. “I kept noticing that Harris’s books are in the top 20 bestsellers. Do we know who is reading them?”

A. Someone in the audience says the publisher markets them as 25-35 year olds.

Q4. Woman teaches vampires and literature. Confirms her students love Sookie and read all books in series even though she only assigned DUD.

Q5. My question: why are you referencing 9-11 when we had Anne Rice and Buffy pre-9-11?

A: Of course it’s all connected, but after 9-11 the vampires are OUT, the way terrorists are out, among us.

Panel: To me these fantasies objectify a woman. I cannot get on board with this. I have to ask, what is going on here? Form a Marxist perspective, this is all about who is taking on power. And it is not Bella or Sookie.

Audience: Recognizes prevalence of domestic violence, yet dream of perfect baby, perfect home, cult of domesticity. Perpetual limbo.

Panel: Bella and Sookie never had normal relationship, upbringing. So they launch into abusive relationships.

Audience: Ethnic other was the original issue for vampires. Now vamps are de-ethnicized. Eric is a Viking. The kinds of power dynamic all happens in a sphere if the white world, even when it’s in the South. I’m baffled by the Sookie books for this. This is how the TV show is better. Contrast to 30 Days of Night, the monstrous vampires are the ethnic vampires. [I add: this is really interesting. To become a romantic vampire, vamps had to be made white.]

Review: Dead As A Doornail, by Charlaine Harris

n1383651

My Take In Brief: For pure enjoyment, my favorite one so far, although I do sympathize with those who felt it was a mishmash.

Series?: Yes, this is number 5 in the Southern Vampire Mysteries, of which there are 8 in print at this writing. Check the reviews page on the sidebar to read my reviews of the first four books in the series.

Plot: Sookie stays in Bon Temps, and trouble comes to her in the form of the return of Alcide, who wants Sookie’s help in his father’s bid for pack master, Tara’s creepy vamp boyfriend, a new bartender at Merlotte’s, on loan from Eric’s bar, who may not be what he seems, and her brother’s new life as a were.

Continue reading

Review: Club Dead, Charlaine Harris

My Take in Brief: A terrific third installment, although I was slightly less enthralled this time out. This review contains spoilers.

For background on this series, and introductions to the main characters, see my reviews of Dead Until Dark and Living Dead in Dallas. This review contains spoilers for Dead Until Dark and Living Dead in Dallas.

Continue reading

Review: Living Dead in Dallas, Charlaine Harris

My Take in Brief: A terrific second installment.

For background on this series, and introductions to the main characters, see my review of Dead Until Dark. This review contains spoilers for Dead Until Dark.

Word on the Web:

Avid Book Reader, Keishon, positive

Book Smugglers, Ana and Thea, both 7 out of 10

AAR, Rachael, B+

LoveVampires, 5 stars (btw, this is one of the coolest looking blogs I have ever seen)

TRR, Susan, 4 hearts (she gave Dead Until Dark 5) (Ok, I have to take issue with this line: “Bill is caring, protective, and sexy.” Um. No, no, and …hmmm… let me think … NO! Explanation below.)

Thrifty Reader, B+

Amazon.com, 4 stars after 149 reviews

Plot: One plot involves solving the mystery of who murdered Sookie’s friend and coworker, who is found dead in a car outside Merlotte’s early on in the book. Another involves the appearance of the maenad, another supernatural creature, who wreaks havoc at pivotal moments. A third involves Sookie’s trip to Dallas to help the vampires find a kidnapped vamp.

The Racy Romance Review:

I loved Dead Until Dark and I also loved Living Dead in Dallas. (I love this series so much that I have turned it into an academic interest. You can read the abstracts for the papers I am working on here.) However, romance fans should know that this second installment is even less of a romance than the first, for several reasons, the main one of which is that Sookie’s relationship with Bill is now steady, and often takes a back seat to other things. Another reason is Sookie’s sexual interest in other men. For example, she shares a lusty kiss with Sam, her boss:

Sam’s lips actually felt hot, and his tongue, too. The kiss was deep, intense, unexpected, like the excitement you feel when someone gives you a present you didn’t know you wanted. His arms were around me, mine were around him, and we were giving it everything we had, until I came back to earth.

A third reason I find it less of a romance is Bill’s utter lack of typical romance hero traits. I’ve already blogged about how how odd a hero a vamp makes.  Bill has always been not just reserved and quiet, but flat. For example, after an emotional separation and even more heated reunion, here’s Bill’s line:

“Let’s not separate again.” Bill said.

Makes you go all melty, huh? For another, Bill is never around when Sookie needs him — she always gets out of her jams without Bill’s help. Third, he’s inconsiderate. He never thinks about how his presence in her life can make hers better, nor about how it’s making it worse, which it is. He seems mostly interested in having sex with Sookie and having her look good enough to make other vamps jealous. Fourth, when he’s not horny, he’s disengaged, spending most of his time on the computer (a circumstance that takes on some significance in the next book). The guy is just not good boyfriend material, by either human or vampire standards.

I don’t like Bill, and I sure wish Sookie would show him the door (she’d wouldn’t be alone for long. Sookie’s like catnip to males — human, vamp, and shapeshifter alike — a fact which bothers some readers) but the way Harris writes him, he’s very real. Besides, I read the Southern Vampire Mysteries for Sookie, Bon Temps, and the vampire culture Harris has created, and on all those counts, it was very rewarding.

I love the distinctions — both large and fine — that Harris draws between vampires and humans. For example, when Sookie and Bill are preparing to leave their Dallas hotel room to meet Stan, the local head vampire, she makes this observation:

He gave me a dark look, patted his pockets like men do, just to make sure they got everything. It was an oddly human gesture, and it touched me in a way I couldn’t even describe to myself.

And this one:

People fidget. They are compelled to look engaged in an activity, or purposeful. Vampires can just occupy space without feeling obliged to justify it.

(I did notice one very rare slip in Harris’s mythology. Sookie and Bill are getting amorous against the hotel room door — all the sex scenes in these books are briefly described and nonexplicit, by the way — and Harris writes, Sookie “wriggled against him and his breath caught in his throat.” Hmmm.)

Sookie grows quite a bit in this installment (although her habit of frequent crying remains unchanged). She goes to the big city for the first time as an adult, takes on a job that offers new challenges, and takes decisive action at several points in the story, often without Bill’s knowledge or approval. She becomes more comfortable with her negative emotions, such as anger and jealousy, and more confident of her telepathy, using it in new purposeful ways. And, most interesting to me, she acknowledges not just the gray areas in morality, but the fact that we sometimes have to make choices which compromise our integrity regardless of how careful or well-meaning we are.

But she’s still uniquely Sookie. She hasn’t turned into your generic super heroine. She relies on her Word of the Day calendar, her copious reading of genre fiction, especially mystery, her knowledge of movies, and her common sense to figure things out, often long before the supposedly superior vampires do.

(Although I have a slight beef with the telepathy. In an early scene Sookie says “I could hear my temper creak and give way. Bill, unfortunately could not” but later, Sookie thinks, “[Bill] could pick up my slightest mood, which was wonderful about eighty per cent of the time.” This is one of my pet peeves in books with empathic or telepathic characters — it seems to come in and out at the author’s will, not the characters’.)

Happily, we learn more about how the vampires are organized, and how their power is structured. We discover that some vampires experience remorse or ennui after years of immortality, and commit suicide by “meeting the sun”. Others, rejecting the new era of assimilation into human society, become “rogues”, drinking and killing humans to encourage renewed social division.

Human attitudes towards vampires vary correspondingly, from the wannabe “Fangbangers”, to the Brotherhood of the Sun, an anti-vampire cult. Parallels to race relations in the US are not hard to draw, especially when Sookie herself explicitly compares the cult to the KKK.

There’s so much more going on in Living Dead in Dallas that this review hasn’t touched. There’s a development with Sam, for example, that I felt was very out of character for him, basically a klunky way to get him involved in the action at the climax. But one thing I had to mention was Eric, Bill’s vampire boss. Harris, via Sookie, tells us over and over that Eric is pure vampire: selfish, sex obsessed, violent without remorse. But in his actions toward Sookie, Eric is thoughtful, kind, generous, restrained, tender, helpful, and protective. Everything, in short, which Bill, despite the appellation “boyfriend” is not. Hmm.

I’ve already read the third installment, Club Dead, and since the series shows no sign of letting up, neither will I!

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