Friday, October 30, 2009

Literary Halloween Costumes

I've never been a big fan of Halloween. As someone who doesn't like scary movies, haunted houses, or bothering strangers for candy, it has never been a holiday I could really enjoy. Added to that the fact that, as a student and a high school teacher, I usually ended up spending Halloween working on last-minute details for the fall musical and/ or spending quality time with the theatre's resident ghost, Halloween has always seemed more of a headache than anything else.

However, like the upcoming Christmas season, it has become impossible to escape. Just in case the omnipresent costume company and candy ads I have been assaulted with for the past month didn't jog my memory, this week I received an email from with poet-inspired costume ideas. These included Emily Dickinson (wear all white, pull your hair back, carry plastic flies to give to people), Edgar Allen Poe, and Walt Whitman. The website cheerily suggests that you might use these costumes to impress an English teacher or if going to a party with a literary theme (do they have costume parties with literary themes?).

While the entire thing struck me as kind of ludicrous, it also got me to think about what other poets and authors would lend themselves to good Halloween costumes. Unfortunately, outside a few select authors, such as William Shakespeare, Poe, and Dickinson, I couldn't think of a lot of authors who would be easily recognizable to the average person. When you stop and think about it, how many authors would you be able to recognize if given just a picture and no context?

Luckily, if you have your heart set on a literary Halloween costume, characters prove to be easier (and much more recognizable). Furthermore, even if you don't have a large costume budget or you waited until the last minute and the only things available at the local costume place are those awful Kate Gosselin wigs, here are a few more literary-themed ideas that would be easy to pull together if you have the right things in your closet:
  • Nancy Drew - I've always been a Nancy Drew fan girl, and since that she's been around since the 1930s, almost anything will work for her as long as its neat, preppy, and comes with red hair and a magnifying glass. If you have a lot of 1930s-style clothes (think pencil skirts, smart blouses, gloves, and hats), you could channel original recipe Nancy. On the other hand, if your clothes are more modern, there's always the latest film version of Nancy. Whatever you do, be certain to badger everyone with questions and be annoyingly perfect at everything you try. Bonus points if you can find a handsome guy with dark hair to be Nancy's "special friend" (that's what he is called in the original books) Ned Nickerson or a curvy blond and a tomboyish brunette to be Bess and George, Nancy's loyal sidekicks.
  • Daisy Buchanan - Okay, this one might be a little harder than Nancy Drew, since Daisy is a character set in the 1920s. However, if you can procure a 1920s-style white dress and you have a "voice full of money," then go for it.
  • Hester Prynne - While The Scarlet Letter is set in the 17th century, all you really need is a long black dress (or a dark blouse and a long skirt) with a lavishly decorated red "A" on the bodice. If you can get a black cape, a doll to represent Pearl, or a man to dress up as Dimmesdale, then so much the better. However, I do know that an accurate Hester Prynne costume isn't as sexy as you might like, so you could go with the Demi Moore version. It is pretty much the same, except you need a heaving bosom and some really bad acting to go along with the basic costume.
  • Mary Lennox - Although Alice from Alice in Wonderland is more recognizable, getting to be Mary Lennox from The Secret Garden would probably be more fun. Wear a drab neutral-colored dress (tans, browns, and greens are good) with a white pinafore and a sneer. Throw tantrums whenever things don't get your way and utter spells to amaze/ disturb those around you. Expect to be tamed by the love of your adopted family by the end of the night.
  • Carrie - If you have an old prom dress that you hate, this is the costume for you. Put on the prom dress and dowse yourself (hair, dress, everything) with fake blood (you can buy this at a costume store. You can also can make your own with corn syrup and food coloring, but know that this will be sticky and you might be stained for a few days). Try to keep your murderous, telekinetic powers under control until the night is over.
Men, never fear, here are some costume ideas for you:
  • The Monster from Frankenstein (Frankenstein is the name of the doctor, not the monster) - Put on ragged clothes and give yourself some fake bruises, scars, and stitches. If possible, try to give your skin a sickly-looking tinge.
  • Oedipus - Fashion a toga out of a white sheet. Use some artfully applied makeup to make it look like you gouged your eyes out. Prepare for a lot of unpleasant questions about your mom/ wife and your sisters/ daughters.
  • Edward Cullen (I never said that I liked these characters) - put on a lot of powder (face, baby, it doesn't really matter) or foundation to make yourself really pale. Then throw on some strategically placed body glitter, spike up your hair, put on some red lipstick, and forget how to smile. Be warned that most sane people will find this entire getup repellent.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

"Imagine Marley & Me but for Teens": Pitching Popular Young Adult Literature

Last week's New Yorker had an intriguing article on Alloy Entertainment, a leading book packaging company of popular young adult literature, including the Gossip Girl series and The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. Although it is nice for us to imagine that writers are suddenly struck by inspiration and write feverishly until all of their thoughts are on paper, this article quickly dispels us of this image. Instead, Alloy's approach is a more collaborative process, where people pitch book ideas in weekly development meetings. Some ideas are rejected, while others are fleshed out into a summary. The most promising ideas are given to a writer, who writes a sample chapter.

While any collaboration certainly has its merits and limitations, this article really underscores the calculation and sometimes profound lack of creativity that goes into these pitches. For instance, many of the pitches mentioned in the article have a basis in current events or films. From the sound of the article, it is like any previous idea, be it Knocked Up, Nancy Drew, or Chappaquiddick, could make for a potential YAL pitch.

This approach to getting books published isn't new (the Stratemeyer Syndicate did it with numerous book series, including Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys), but the process seems more than a little cynical. Maybe it is my naivete, but I'd like to think that teens deserve more than just an adolescent version of the latest hit film for adults or the most recent news story. On the other hand, many of the most interesting and intriguing works have a universal appeal that allow them to be remade or repackaged for teens.

With all of this said, check out the article and then try to come up with some creative (if nonsensical or perhaps borderline offensive) ideas for YAL book titles or pitches. My personal favorite for the worst idea in the article might just be I Did the President's Daughter, a pitch that mercifully failed.

October Madness

While October might not seem like a month prone to craziness, this particular October has been insane. Between the weather (it snowed last Sunday) to the workload (I turned in a second grant proposal today), things have been more than a little crazy. However, on the bright side, the weather seems to have returned to normal, and since the grant has been submitted, I can stop subsisting on caffeine and junk food. Now I just have to get through the rest of the semester...

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Movie Review: To Wong Foo

Recently (perhaps due, in part, to the untimely passing of Patrick Swayze last month), BET has been playing To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar. This movie follows three drag queens, played by Swayze (Vida), Wesley Snipes (Noxeema), and John Leguziamo (Chi-Chi), as they make their way to a drag queen pageant in California. They get harassed by a homophobic sheriff, their car breaks down in a small town, and hi jinks ensue.

While in the town, Vida and Noxeema help plan the Strawberry Social, find vintage 60's fashions, and give the women of the town a makeover. Vida befriends abused housewife Carol Ann and intervenes when Virgil, Carol Ann's husband, tries to beat her up again. Chi-Chi indulges in a crush but eventually does the right thing and sends the young man into the arms of Carol Ann's daughter, Bobbie Lee. Essentially the three of them (well, not so much Chi-Chi) revitalize the town.

On one hand, I know that this movie isn't particularly good. It is basically the poor man's The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Also, the film student/ English major in me understands that:
  1. The script takes the magical Negro stereotype (where an African American character helps a white protagonist) and makes it about drag queens. The queens (especially Vida) are selfless individuals who try to make the best out of their given situation and help those around them. From beating up Virgil to giving Bobbie Lee tips on how to attract Bobby Ray, they are like fairy godmothers (Vida even makes a comment about this).
  2. The character of Noxeema is pretty one-dimensional, even by this movie's standards. Her main job is to act sassy and spout off one-liners.
  3. The movie seems to have some sort of personality disorder. It veers from serious (spousal abuse) to farcical in a blink of an eye.
  4. The ending, which wraps everything up in a pretty bow, is much too perfect.
In short, this is a movie that makes drag queens completely acceptable for middle America by portraying them as essentially sexless do-gooders who are there to help others.

Despite these issues, I really love this movie. In fact, I consider it my favorite Patrick Swayze film (sorry Dirty Dancing). Yes, it is cheese, but it is satisfying just the same. There is something very sweet and charming about it that makes my black and shriveled heart grow three times its normal size. Swayze is very effective in the role of Vida, a person who really wants to be loved for who she is, and Snipes makes the most of an underwritten role.

The supporting cast is also quite good, and the small moments are surprisingly touching. One of my favorites is when Jimmy Joe (yes, the names are all like this) asks Beatrice to dance, saying, "Miss Beatrice. I've waited 23 years to ask you this. May I have this dance?" and Beatrice (played by the great Blythe Danner), in a wonderfully understated line reading, accepts with a soft "Oh my gracious." Since my description cannot hope to compete with the actual scene, check out the first part of this clip:

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Because Hating on "Twilight" Never Gets Old

The Harvard Lampoon, the university's humor magazine (which has had such luminaries as Conan O'Brien on the writing staff), is releasing a parody of Twilight called Nightlight. According to the Entertainment Weekly website
Nightlight follows a “pale and klutzy” girl named Belle Goose, who moves to Switchblade, Oregon, and meets Edwart Mullen, a “super-hot computer nerd with zero interest in girls.” The vampire-obsessed Belle becomes convinced Edwart is one of the undead after witnessing events she considers otherworldly (”Edwart leaves his Tater Tots™ untouched at lunch! Edwart saves her from a flying snowball!”).
If Nightlight is half as hilarious as the synopsis above suggests, it should be awesome. And really, anything that mocks Twilight gets my support.

Also, just in case you were curious, here is the cover in all its glory:

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Banned Books Week: Won't Somebody Think of the Children?

It may surprise you (or not) that children's books are often challenged and/ or banned. According to the ALA's "Top Ten Most Frequently Challenged Books of 2008," most of books are actually children's books or young adult literature. From picture books like And Tango Makes Three and Uncle Bobby's Wedding to YAL series like Gossip Girl, children's and adolescent literature seem to be lightning rods for controversy. Perhaps it is because parents (who reportedly lodged 56% of book challenges in 2008) become overzealous when trying to protect their kids, or maybe its because we as a society have a knee-jerk reaction of sheer hysteria when it comes to the very idea that something might be corrupting our youth (see Helen Lovejoy's plea above). Or maybe it is because some tend to underestimate children's and teenagers' ability to comprehend and deal with complex ideas.

Whatever the reasons, here is the ALA's top 10 list. Be certain to read some of them and see (or try to figure out) what all of the fuss is about.
  • And Tango Makes Three, by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell
    Reasons: anti-ethnic, anti-family, homosexuality, religious viewpoint, and unsuited to age group
  • His Dark Materials trilogy, by Philip Pullman
    Reasons: political viewpoint, religious viewpoint, and violence
  • TTYL; TTFN; L8R, G8R (series), by Lauren Myracle
    Reasons: offensive language, sexually explicit, and unsuited to age group
  • Scary Stories (series), by Alvin Schwartz
    Reasons: occult/satanism, religious viewpoint, and violence
  • Bless Me, Ultima, by Rudolfo Anaya
    Reasons: occult/satanism, offensive language, religious viewpoint, sexually explicit, and violence
  • The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky
    Reasons: drugs, homosexuality, nudity, offensive language, sexually explicit, suicide, and unsuited to age group
  • Gossip Girl (series), by Cecily von Ziegesar
    Reasons: offensive language, sexually explicit, and unsuited to age group
  • Uncle Bobby's Wedding, by Sarah S. Brannen
    Reasons: homosexuality and unsuited to age group
  • The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini
    Reasons: offensive language, sexually explicit, and unsuited to age group
  • Flashcards of My Life, by Charise Mericle Harper
    Reasons: sexually explicit and unsuited to age group

Banned Books Week: Have You Hugged Your Librarian Today?

"And on the subject of burning books: I want to congratulate librarians, not famous for their physical strength or their powerful political connections or their great wealth, who, all over this country, have staunchly resisted anti-democratic bullies who have tried to remove certain books from their shelves, and have refused to reveal to thought police the names of persons who have checked out those titles.

So the America I loved still exists, if not in the White House or the Supreme Court or the Senate or the House of Representatives or the media. The America I love still exists at the front desks of our public libraries."
- Kurt Vonnegut, A Man Without a Country

God bless librarians. While they are often the butt of jokes (imagine the sour-faced spinster shushing teenagers in countless movies), they are also the ones who often stand up to people who try to challenge, ban, or restrict books. Besides that, most of them are extremely cool people who love books, love reading, and love sharing books with others.