Saturday, February 25, 2012

Trashy books, continued

So, here are some of the trashy books I like, and have been avoiding writing about.

Twilight series, Stephanie Meyer
Why it's trashy: unbridled sentimentality.
In the Twilight universe, emotion is king. This is the world of Romeo and Juliet; a world where feelings run SO DEEP that the characters cannot possibly be expected to control them, or any behaviors caused by their feelings. Everyone is riding this wave of emotion, and can but watch as it crashes to an (apparently inevitable) conclusion. This is a book for the 12-year-old girl in us. If you don't have a 12-year-old girl inside, you should probably skip it and move on.

Southern Vampire series (Sookie Stackhouse), Charlaine Harris
Why it's trashy: The Cult of the Whim
Apparently the motto here is "I felt like it, so I did it." Sookie's world is full of fun things to respond to: a rich world of fantasy beings, mostly embodied by Appealing Men. There's a lot of reacting, and hardly any reasoning - kindof like a soap opera, or Grey's Anatomy. I found that I ended up having VERY strong feelings about what I wanted to happen. It's a fun ride.

Hollows series, Kim Harrison
Why it's trashy: "I had to do it"
Rachel Morgan is constantly bombarded by crazy circumstances, which give her a good (?) reason for some fairly wild behavior. The magic vampire powers made her do it, of course. Otherwise, she would never.

Stephanie Plum series, Janet Evanovich
Why it's trashy: Totally over-the-top
Realistic? What fun is that? The Stephanie plum books have unrealistic characters, unrealistic plots, unrealistic explosions and of course, unrealistic relationships. It's like...a badly-written-but-still-funny action/comedy/romance. I mean, what's not to like?

And here is some reading that other people mentioned:

R.A. Salvatore (trash for dudes, you guys)

Fan fiction (I'm fully prepared to group all Star Wars and Star Trek books into this category.)
Children's books (I don't really think this qualifies as trash, but people kept mentioning it.)

And the NUMBER ONE trashy read, the MOST-MENTIONED item: People magazine. That's right: lots of people love it, and lots of them feel the need to apologize for it.

Well, no one needs to apologize to me - in fact, I'd love to hear more of your guilty reading pleasures!

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Reading Junk Food

Fellow readers, I will begin with a confession: I sure have been reading a lot of vampire-romance novels lately. Over the past couple months I have blazed through all of Kim Harrison's Hollows series and all of Charlaine Harris' Southern Vampire series. And yet, I haven't posted any "what I'm reading" posts about these books. Why? Because there's a part of me that has designated these books as "trashy."

Ah, trashy books! Our guilty pleasures, our so-bad-but-so-good stories, our junk food of reading. "Delicious and utterly without merit," said one friend of mine. She, like I do, describes her books in food terms, and right now we're talking about the Marshmallow Peeps of literature.

It used to be a rare thing for me to read something trashy - not because I was embarrassed, but because I assumed that I didn't really LIKE trashy stuff. I never read Sweet Valley High, I thought those Jean Auel books were too boring for words, and I'd never felt the slightest inclination to read a bodice-ripping romance. But have you ever noticed that music connoisseurs start to lose their musical prejudices and appreciate everything for what it is? Well, the same thing happens when you work in a library - you read new and different stuff. I read Janet Evanovich and I didn't care who knew about it. But I really think that my turning point, the moment when I changed from a person who doesn't read trash to a person who does, is when I LIKED TWILIGHT. I don't mean, I read it and thought, "I kindof liked that." I mean that I stayed up late reading it, I mean that when I was waiting for the next book to come in I went to the library and dug through the "hold" bins to see if my book was in there. I could tell that the books were not very good, but I just didn't CARE.
So it seems that my critical faculties are still intact. I can still make a fairly objective judgement: this book is well-written, that book has major plot holes, this series is formulaic, that character has no observable motivation. The difference is in recognizing that there are some flaws that I am cheerfully ready to ignore - I can like the books anyway.

So is it the presence of those flaws that what makes a book "trashy?" I don't think so. Bad or mediocre writing is not sufficient - I can imagine badly-written fiction that wouldn't qualify as trashy, and in fact there seems to be a great deal of poor-quality, pretentious, time-wasting literature that doesn't count as trashy at all. So what makes us use the "trashy" label?

In my opinion, trashy books are a cheap thrill, meant to appeal to a broad spectrum, designed to hit our primitive emotional triggers: humor, violence, fear, sex, love, revenge, fame.

Or, for a lot of people, just sex. For a significant minority of the people I talked to, "trashy" was closely related to "sexy." Either they considered the presence of sex in a book enough to make the book trashy, or they considered sex to be the main qualifier. "It's not trashy unless there's sex in it" seemed to be a prevailing opinion, although I don't share it. While erotica may be most people's epitome of trash, I think there are equally as many romance novels with no sex scenes, but an overabundance of emotional abandon, and they are still trashy. Then there are horror novels - equally designed to appeal to our baser emotions, but instead of playing on sex, they're playing on fear.

While I was getting ideas for this post, I asked a bunch of friends and co-workers if they liked to read anything that they considered trash. A few people said yes, of course, I love my trashy books! A few others said no way, I don't want to waste my time. The largest group BY FAR said Yes, but only in certain situations: on airplanes, in the dentist's office, when I want relax, when I'm sick, etc. I guess our trashy reading material is embarrassing by definition, such that we feel the need to make excuses for enjoying it?

Well, no more! I'm saying it loud and proud: I LIKE TO READ TRASH!

(Stay tuned for a list of my favorite trashy books.)

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

What I'm Reading: Jim Butcher

I'm currently on book three of Jim Butcher's Codex Alera, which starts with Calderon's Fury.

Now, you may know that I'm a big fan of Jim Butcher's The Dresden Files. The Dresden books have a lot of adventure, self-deprecating humor, nerd-culture references, and appealing characters. The first two or three books are a bit weak, but around book four the storylines really pick up.

So I was interested to see what Jim Butcher did with this fantasy series. I have to say, though - the Codex Alera really isn't grabbing me. It's not awful or anything, I don't think it's bad, I just don't find myself drawn in.

I've been wondering why that is. It's the same author, writing the two series' concurrently. Jim Butcher and I clearly share a set of values, which manifests in the main characters of both series: friendship, family, loyalty, integrity. (I've noticed that Values is often a tipping point for me - in the absence of strong merits or flaws in a book, the likability and integrity of main character will make a difference between liking and disliking a book. But that's not the issue here.)

I'm tempted to think that the lack of humor is the main difference. The Dresden Files are funny, and the Codex Alera really isn't. But I think the real problem is broader than that. I've got two theories, and ya'll get to hear them both.

Theory #1: Overthinking it
The Codex Alera is really an attempt at high fantasy: an epic story, told over the course of years, with a complex system of magic, multiple characters, and a little map in the front of the book. It's possible that all this structure kills the exuberance that pervades the Dresden series

Theory #2: Dresden is Jim Butcher
The Dresden books are written in the first person, with a distinct humor and voice. It seems possible that Dresden's voice has so much life because Jim Butcher is putting a lot of himself in the story.

In summery, forget the Codex Alera, and go get some Dresden books.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Design Inspiration - Art Nouveau

I've got the fever. ART NOUVEAU FEVER. While I enjoy the lamps and jewelry and some (though not all) of the architecture, what I'm really obsessed with is the graphic design. Posters, book covers, book illustrations - they're all fantastic. Here are some great ones, more or less randomly selected from, you know, stuff I found on the internet:
Georges Massias, Gladiator Cycles poster I absolutely love this Gladiator Cycles poster. It's pretty much designed for Kate: it's got stars, and long flowing hair, and surrealism. I also really like the contrasting colors - the intense orange of the woman's hair and skin, against the blue of the sky.
Aubrey Beardsley, poster for The Studio It's fun to see how dynamic black-and-white work can be. There's really quite a bit of text in this piece, and yet it all works, and it's beautiful and organic. Aubrey Beardsley is really a genius with black-and-white - check out some of his other work to see some great combinations of detailed texture and large fields of solid black/solid white.
Théophile Steinlen, Chat Noir poster There's so much to love in this ubiquitous poster. First of all, you just have to love the limited color palette. The red and black and yellow are so striking together. Second, the hand-drawn text! It's so beautiful and interesting. Third, I like the attitude on that cat - it's not cute, it's tough. I love the striking red block at the bottom of the piece, and the way the cat's tail curves over the text.
Albert Angus Turbayne, poster for Macmillan’s illustrated Standard Novels Again, the wonders worked with a limited color palette! This peacock is just plain cool - I love how the tail swoops around the text. It's a little busy, but overall it works. I think the bits of blue help anchor the complexity of the design. Check out the little scarab hiding in the top left corner.
Fred Ramsdell, Crescent Cycles poster Okay, I know - another red-haired bicycle poster. But this one's different, really - it's, um...not french? This has great vintage poster elements. Say it with me: Limited Color Palette! I like the impact of the large fields of color - there's a simplicity to this piece, and it's so striking. Why, you may ask, are there so many babes in these bicycle posters? It's because these self-powered vehicles offered women freedoms they may not have had before! Now you've learned something new for the day!
And now, a technical tip: if you're having trouble keeping your "float"ed images from floating next to each other, try putting them in divs with the style of "clear: both."