Tag Archives: pop culture

Review ~ Ghostland

Cover via Goodreads

Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places by Colin Dickey

Colin Dickey is on the trail of America’s ghosts. Crammed into old houses and hotels, abandoned prisons and empty hospitals, the spirits that linger continue to capture our collective imagination, but why? His own fascination piqued by a house hunt in Los Angeles that revealed derelict foreclosures and “zombie homes,” Dickey embarks on a journey across the continental United States to decode and unpack the American history repressed in our most famous haunted places. Some have established reputations as “the most haunted mansion in America,” or “the most haunted prison”; others, like the haunted Indian burial grounds in West Virginia, evoke memories from the past our collective nation tries to forget.

With boundless curiosity, Dickey conjures the dead by focusing on questions of the living—how do we, the living, deal with stories about ghosts, and how do we inhabit and move through spaces that have been deemed, for whatever reason, haunted? Paying attention not only to the true facts behind a ghost story, but also to the ways in which changes to those facts are made—and why those changes are made—Dickey paints a version of American history left out of the textbooks, one of things left undone, crimes left unsolved. (via Goodreads)

Why was I interested in this book?
I enjoy reading/hearing about hauntings. I was browsing through the library’s audio catalog and Ghostland had a good narrator.

What Worked
Like a lot of folklore, ghost stories are strongly tied to the history and culture of place. In Ghostland, Colin Dickey takes some of the most famous haunted places in the US, fact checks the story’s details (when applicable), and then takes a look at how the setting and history of the location has played a part in the narrative’s current form. There are differences between ghost stories in Athens, GA and Hollywood, CA after all.

Dickey also examines how modern society views ghosts. On one hand, there is a cachet to having a ghost “destination.” Many of the hauntings in Ghostland have been featured on ghost hunting TV shows. In many cases, like the Winchester Mystery house, not-quite-true stories continue because that is the narrative that sells. On the other hand, no one *really* wants to live somewhere they believe to be haunted, even if phenomena can be easily debunked. Ghost are good if you want a tourist trap, bad if you want to sell a house.

What Didn’t Work
The structure of Ghostland was roughly chronological, but also broken into specific types of locations—domestic places (houses), commercial places (bars, hotels), public works places (prisons, cemeteries, parks), and even cities themselves. I probably would have preferred a more strict chronological order.

This is also a popular nonfiction work, not a scholarly work. Some of the tenants of Ghostland aren’t exhaustively investigated. For example, it’s argued that the ghost stories of the American south edit out the horrors of slavery in favor of more romantic stories, like Myrtles Plantation’s Chloe. But a good investigation of such an assertion could take a book itself. Ghostland is a sip from the well instead of a deep dive.

Overall
Overall, thumbs up. It was good to listen to during my reading slump. If you’re a fan of podcasts such as Lore or Just a Story, this is definitely up your alley.

Publishing info, my copy: OverDrive Listen audiobook, Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group, October 4, 2016
Acquired: Tempe Overdrive Digital Collection
Genre: nonfiction, pop culture, history

Review ~ Fascist Lizards from Outer Space

This book was provided to me by McFarland & Company via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Cover via Goodreads

Fascist Lizards from Outer Space: The Politics, Literary Influences and Cultural History of Kenneth Johnson’s V by Dan Copp

When Kenneth Johnson’s science fiction miniseries V premiered in 1983, it netted more than 40 percent of the television viewing audience and went on to spawn a sequel, a weekly series, novelizations, comic books and a remake. Entertainment Weekly named the show one of the 10 best miniseries of all time and the franchise continues to enjoy ardent fan support at science fiction conventions around the world. Yet the 2009 V reboot was cancelled in its second season, despite a robust premiere. Both versions of V were products of their respective times, but the original was inspired by classic works by the likes of Sinclair Lewis and Leo Tolstoy. Johnson’s predilection for literature and history helped give his telling of V a sense of heart and depth that the contemporary version sorely lacked.

At first impression the original two-part alien invasion epic may seem a mishmash of science fiction cliches. Yet behind the laser pistols, anthropomorphic reptiles and flying saucers lies a compelling treatise on the nature of power, oppression and resistance, inspired by both classic literature and historical events. Featuring exclusive interviews with cast and crew, this book examines V’s cultural impact and considers the future of the franchise. (via Goodreads)

Why was I interested in this book?
I was eight years old when the original V miniseries premiered on NBC. Living in a household that appreciated science fiction, it was certainly a viewing event for us. In my wider world, even Star Wars wasn’t playground fodder, so I had no concept of how popular V was.* What I knew then was: V aired in the 8pm-10pm time slot and my bed time was 9pm. I begged and begged to be allowed to stay up. My mom relented. I could watch on the little TV in my room (black and white, btw), but I had to be in bed and the TV was to be turned off at 10pm sharp.** I was glad to have my covers to hide under, because the second half of the first night, when the villainous Diana eats a hapless guinea pig whole, was pretty heady stuff for an eight year old.

At that age, I knew nothing about WWII or the Holocaust, but I still felt that V had a different weight to it than its TV contemporaries (Buck Rogers, Battlestar Galactica). V‘s story was happening in something closer to the real world than other sci fi. When the character of Abraham Bernstein, a Holocaust survivor, refers to the past, it’s actually the real past. While I didn’t understand it, it wasn’t lost on me as a kid.

* Note also: I’m a girl. Maybe the boys were playing Visitors vs. Resistance…
** Even though it was kind of a big deal to have my own TV in my room, I don’t recall abusing the privilege. My parents might remember differently.

What Worked
Dan Copp does a really good job showing how Kenneth Johnson, writer and director of V (and many other sci-fi shows), grounds his speculative fiction stories in literature. V is more or less a retelling of Sinclair Lewis’s novel It Can’t Happen Here, a novel published in 1935 about the possible rise of fascism in the United States, with strong nods to the scope of Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

Copp also looks at Johnson’s career before V for evidence of science fiction strengthened by literature and finds it in the classically heroic underpinnings of Johnson’s The Incredible Hulk and The Bionic Woman episodes. Copp also notes how, without Johnson’s influence, V: The Final Battle and the V television series in 1983 and 2009 rarely rise above a shoot-em-up or the usual prime-time drama.

One of the other things the V does really well that  its later siblings doesn’t do, Copp points out, is show the use of media to control a population. In 1983, that was easily achieved by the Visitors taking over the small number of TV networks. The 2009 TV series (which I personally had forgotten existed until mentioned in Fascist Lizard‘s introduction) missed a great opportunity to similarly take advantage of how a fascist regime might levy social media.

What Didn’t Work
Much of Fascist Lizards from Outer Space is about how bad both TV series are. There is a nearly episode-by-episode breakdown of things that the TV shows do wrong. Some of it illustrates the choices that NBC (the 1983 series) and ABC (the 2009 series) made concerning the show’s budget and what they thought made the original popular. That part is interesting, but after a few strong examples, the litany of errors just gets boring.

I was also a little disappointed that Copp didn’t extend his evaluation past V to include Johnson’s Alien Nation. I was inspired by Fascist Lizards to rewatch both the original V and the Alien Nation TV series (1989). It’s hard not playing the “currently relevant” card right about here.

Overall
If you like reading about the history of science fiction in the movies and on television, this is solid choice.

Publishing info, my copy: ePub ARC, McFarland , April 1, 2017
Acquired: 1/17/17, NetGalley
Genre: nonfiction, pop culture

Review ~ The Bling Ring

Cover via Goodreads

The Bling Ring by Nancy Jo Sales

Meet the Bling Ring: six club-hopping LA teenagers accused of stealing more than $3 million in clothing and jewelry from the likes of Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Orlando Bloom, Rachel Bilson and other young members of the Hollywood elite-allegedly the most audacious burglary gang in recent history.

Driven by celebrity worship, vanity, and the desire to look and dress like the rich and famous, the Bling Ring made headlines in 2009 for using readily available sources-like Google maps, Facebook and TMZ, to track the comings and goings of their targets. Seven teens were arrested for the crimes, and instantly became tabloid fodder. The world asked-how did the American obsession with celebrity get so out of hand? And why did a band of ostensibly privileged LA teens take such a risk? (via Goodreads)

I.

I am a late edge Gen X-er. I am young enough to have still been in high school when the label “Generation X” became prominent in the early 1990s. I was told that my generation was a cynical bunch of slackers that would never be as successful as our parents. Those were the shoes I was apparently destined to fill when I started college in 1993. Way to inspire optimism, adults!

It’s easy to look at a younger generation and purposefully not understand them. In retrospect, what was taken for laziness in Generation X was caution. We’d spent our childhoods in the mess that was the 70s: huge financial recession, the wake of a divisive war that wasn’t a war, and social changes that led to a rise in divorce rates. Even if your parents stayed together and managed to remain employed, there was still a pervasive tension. As Gen X hit adulthood, we didn’t jump into the world. We slowly and deliberately made our way, doing things our way.

II.

Between October 2008 and August 2009, a group of upper middle class teenagers from Calabasas,  CA burglarized famous people. This wasn’t at all on my radar when it happened. I’ve never followed current fame culture. I do have an interest in heists though and I was intrigued when I learned that Sofia Coppola was making a movie based on events. Okay, not enough to see the movie, but I did bookmark the book at the digital library and decided to read it on a whim last week.

Alas, heist is a strong word for what these kids did. Pretty much, they used Google maps to scout the celeb’s houses and looked for easy entrance. Which they generally found. You’d think that really rich people would have kick-ass security systems. Instead they seemed to rely on the fact that their neighborhood (in some cases, gated community) is safe and crime-free. In many cases, the Bling Ring walked in and walked out. The better part of the story, for me, turned out to be the different versions of events that each Ring member told later. Whether misremembered or self-protecting lie, it’s a marvelous case of seven-way he-said she-said.

Nancy Jo Sales originally wrote a long-form article about the Burlar Bunch for Vanity FairThe Bling Ring is part further story, in light of concluded criminal proceedings, and part explanatory theorizing.  Why would these youngsters do this? In most cases, they didn’t need the money. Did they do it because they felt entitled to engage in these celebrity’s lives? Had reality TV made them envious of a certain lifestyle that they didn’t quite have? Did they do it to be famous too?

These are good questions. Unfortunately, Sales tinges her answers with a sort of cherry-picked nostalgia. In her eyes, current culture is to blame; this never happened in the past. I don’t have refuting details at my fingertips, but it seems that the more history I am exposed to, the more I realize that nothing is new.

III.

I try not to be too hard on Millennials. They spent childhood in an economic boom. Their parents, later Baby Boomers, had the resources to protect them and give them everything they could need. Millennials have been emboldened with the notion that they can be anything, do anything. In moderation, that’s a great thing! Unfortunately, the Millennials entered adulthood in the 2010s: huge financial recession, continually rising cost of education, and an increasingly connected social world that can be pretty damn hostile.

Having lived through the 70s,  I feel like Gen X-ers spent the economic boom time like any good survivalist would. Expecting that the world would go to pot again eventually, we built figurative bunkers, well-stocked with fresh water and canned goods. We know the world sucks, but it’s a survivable level of suck. So Gen X-ers, if a Millennial comes knocking, share a can of green beans with them. Millennials, please accept a can of beans in friendship and know they’ll at least be French cut. I mean, we’re not savages.

Publishing info, my copy: OverDrive Read, HarperCollins, May 21, 2013
Acquired: Tempe OverDrive Digital Collection
Genre: nonficton, popular culture

As a good Gen X-er, I felt inspired to make a mixtape, er, playlist reflecting the struggles of every generation: