Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Unfinished business and detours into vampire land

I'll be most likely not updating this blog for the next month, because I'll be traveling. My travel bag has been supplied with books and zines, so I should be good--I just might not have a chance to update until I get back.

30. Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris

Although I've read some Anne Rice and enjoyed The Little Vampire books as a kid, I was never a vampire-story fanatic. There are some genres that I will keep on reading even if I've had bad experiences with them, but vampires-as-a-genre was never my thing. Which is unfortunate, because my prejudice had kept me away from the Sookie Stackhouse novels.

Had we not started watching True Blood, series based on the Stackhouse books, I might have never given them a go. Especially after seeing that cover. My God, what is that supposed to be? A book about vampires for 12-year-old girls? Why is the vampire pictured as a stereotypical Bela Lugosi-creature wrapped up in a cape, when in the book Bill walks around in his Dockers khakis and is trying his best to "mainstream", to be like humans?

But to the book. I am completely hooked on the series, so it's hard for me to write about the book without comparing the two: although True Blood's Season 1 follows Dead Until Dark fairly faithfully plot-wise, Alan Ball went ahead and used some creative license in the screen version with the supporting characters and in leaving some issues from the first book to be handled in the second season. For once I feel like both of the versions work equally well. They both are still about Sookie Stackhouse, an ordinary waitress at Bon Temps, Louisiana. Except for that mind-reading part. Her town is one of the last places in the United States where vampires are now roaming around like any other human beings, which is not to say that they are tolerated. Although Harris draws comparisons between racial prejudice and the fear and hatred of vampires, the screen version is more heavy-handed in pointing out the parallels. And why not: while I read the book, I can stop and think of the words and implications more, whereas on screen the same treatment could be overlooked.

I was surprised to see that Tara is not in this book, and that some events that had a big effect on Sookie and Bill's relationship proved to be originally acts of other people, which meant that the story does not take us forward at the same speed as it does in the on-screen version. Also, Bill is much meaner and scarier in this book. I chuckled when the bookstore clerk told me I'd find the Harris books in the horror isle--now I know why! Although True Blood has plenty of blood and gore in it, Dead Until Dark was occasionally genuinely frightening when Bill seemed to be totally out of control. Alan Ball decided to save that for much, much later.

In both versions, Sookie Stackhouse's character is great. I've read so many portrayals of waitresses/barmaids that can fit only into two groups that it's getting tiresome: either she's an angelic girl who's just stuck at a waitressing job until something better comes along (because only uneducated, unambitious people are waitressing!), or she's the girl who's seen it all and slept with all, and who will either become the angelic girl at the end, or somehow get her comeuppance. So it's refreshing to read about Sookie, who is proud of being good at waitressing, of being able to flash a fake smile on for tips all the while reading people's minds and how they judge her as a piece of white trash and borderline retarded. She almost could fall into the first group of stereotypical waitresses, the angelic good girl who's just in bad company, if she just wasn't so horny all the time and prone to occasional temper tantrums. All of those features make her even more lovable--she seems like an actual human being! In her world, being modest and wanting to wear a sexy dress out on a date are not exclusive, and neither is being a good person and being someone who is ready to kick some butt.

Not only is the story fun, fast-paced and a refreshing look at the vampire mythology, the story is just written really well. Not once did I find myself rolling my eyes at word choices or storytelling (OK. Once, when Sookie makes the same Godfather joke twice within two pages). Which brings me to...

The book I did not finish this time. Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami
This was recommended to me by an acquaintance who loves this book. I got it from the library, and I will need to return it before I leave on my trip, and I doubt I'll get it again. I have heard people talk about Murakami in awed tones, so I figured I'd give it a try.

The story itself did not seem bad at all: your usual Bret Easton Ellis-style fair, focusing on a college kid who is stuck in a rut like all other college kids, with the exception that he's really insightful and smart and has to alleviate his weltschmertz by having sex with all the girls he can. Did I say "exception?" I meant, the same old story since Holden Caulfield. This story is just set in Japan, so what I found most interesting was when the narrative veered from the usual "omigod he's so torn and smart!" and became tangled with Japanese values and mores (such as when an almost 30-year-old woman laments how she cannot be married off to anyone at that age, especially after having been in a mental institution).

I was, unfortunately, unable to see past the horrible writing. Or maybe it was the English translation? I hoped I could read Japanese so I could see whether it really was Murakami who wrote like this, or whether it was the translator. There was a lot of this:

First page:
"Just feeling kind of blue." Kind of, huh? Well, that's forgiveable--it's a line the narrator says, and that sounds like something a person would actually say. 
But by page 4, the things and the hedging words were killing me.
"It almost hurt to look at that far-off sky."
"Memory is a funny thing."
"I never stopped to think of it as something that would..."
"Scenery was the last thing in my mind. Now, though, the meadow scene is the first thing that comes back to me."
"...these are the first things that..."
"How could such a thing have happened?"
Page 5:
"I have to write things down to feel I fully comprehend them."
" all the other things she used to spin..."
Page 6:
"...the image of a thing I had never laid eyes on became..."
Naoko and the protagonist talk what it would be like to fall into a well and die:
"Things like that must actually happen."
"The best thing would be to break your neck, but you'd probably just break your leg and then you couldn't do a thing."
(from the first paragraph on page 7:) "Somebody should find the thing and build a wall around it."

AARGH. And it doesn't stop. Everything is a "thing." And once I started paying attention to "things", the "kind ofs" started popping up, too, although the line from the very first page should have warned me about it. He was kind of tall but kind of shy and kind of cute and the sky was kind of blue and the sex was kind of good but the alcohol was kind of better... Stylistically, this book is the hedgiest I have tried to read in a while. I don't oppose to using the word "thing" in general, and sure, people talk with "things" a lot, I just find it's very sloppy work to have one word be repeated so damned often that it can take a reader out of the story and wonder, "Do I know anyone who is as vague or 'thingy' in his or her speech as all these characters? No, I don't."

My bet is on a translator who went on a literal translation spree without thinking of how to rephrase the sentences. What kind of an author would not change The best thing would be to break your neck, but you'd probably just break your leg and then you couldn't do a thing into at least "It would be for the best if you broke your neck, but you'd probably just break your leg and then you wouldn't be able to do anything" to avoid repeating the same expression so many times on a single page? Even if this was a calculated move by the author (or the translator), it still does not sway me to finish this book because I was so bored by the style. Maybe someday I'll attempt to overlook it and find out what happens in the story itself.

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