Thursday, January 31, 2008

Twilight/New Moon/Eclipse by Stephenie Meyer

Twilight, New Moon, Eclipse
by Stephenie Meyer

As I've said on a post on my main blog, once I read Eclipse, I had to go back through and read the others again, and then re-read Eclipse again, too. And this last re-reading of the whole series brought new perspective for me—on the whole series.

There is a lot to be said about these books, and right now, all over the Internet, people are saying it. I have read complaints about inaccuracy (Forks isn't really like that, in New Moon Alice gave a guard a thousand dollar bill, and those don't exist, etc.), that the books aren't written very well, people debating about the characters: who they like, who they dislike, and why (and of course, "like" and "dislike" are completely mild—love passionately and loathe fit the bill a little better), some who claim that Stephenie is "dangerous" because the books depict an abusive relationship—there have been some really strange things coming out of the woodwork from these books.

To me, though, it's all the discussion about the books that is intriguing: why is a silly romantic YA fantasy getting so much attention? Stirring so much feeling? When you look at the plain fact that it's a teenage romance in which there is NO SEX—really, what's the big deal? A YA romance novel—eliciting controversy!

I have a theory about this kind of thing, but was having trouble articulating it. Then I happened to read the preface of the next book on my list, and found Oscar Wilde already described it perfectly:
"All art is at once surface and symbol.
Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril.
Those who read the symbol do so at their peril.
It is the spectator, and not like, that are really mirrors.
Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital.
When critics disagree the artist is in accord with himself.
We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely.
All art is quite useless."
from the Preface of A Picture of Dorian Gray

When people read a book, the thing that reaches them, moves them, makes them think is the thing in the book that reflects themselves: their fears, their hopes, their ideologies... I think that, generally, people see the world as a reflection of themselves. And so, the reviews of these books have been revealing much more about the reviewers than they do the art or the artist. (Thank you, Oscar Wilde.)

Yet, the question remains—are these, then, "good" books?

What makes a good book? How do you define it?

Is it flawless writing? The communication of new ideas? Or of old ideas in a new way? Something that stands the test of time (whatever that means)—a work with enough universal truth in it that it captures public attention for decades, centuries? Or is it a work that touches, moves, and causes you to feel? Or is it one that merely stimulates your intellect? A work that is moral, or educational, or that exists simply for its own sake? How is it defined?

I've struggled with this question forever, and have pestered countless literature teachers and professors to share their views on the subject, and then debated it with them. because, as far as I could see, there is no easy way to define a "good" work or a "great" work. For all of the above criteria, I can think of several books that defy part (if not all) of them, and yet are still considered "classics." What is good? What is great?

If I take one of Wilde's statements again, and apply it to these books:
"Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital."

...well, by this measurement, Meyer has been extremely successful.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Eclipse by Stephenie Meyer

by Stephenie Meyer

I already reviewed Twilight, the first book in the series, and I mentioned in that review that I had a problem with a character, and a problem with a theme. If you're interested in more of the problems I had with the first book (along with all the things I liked), click here to read the Twilight review. Matter of fact, if any of the following review is going to make sense, you'd better read it, since this review is a continuation of the first. (I never did review New Moon, because I wasn't keeping this blog the first time I read it. Maybe when I re-read it sometime?)

Again, this book was completely suspenseful, completely romantic, and once I picked the dumb thing up, I couldn't put it down again until I was done (and even then, I had to pick it back up and read a few passages again).

I am very pleased that one of the problems I had with Edward in Twilight was starting to resolve itself in this book (hooray!), namely, that he was so overprotective of Bella he wouldn't let her do a thing for herself. It made me want to scream. But he finally backed off a bit when he found that if he really loved her, he was going to have to let her make her own choices. That was really, really nice—that's a characteristic of a more mature love.

(And thank heaven! That really was driving me crazy...)

The other bone I had to pick—about the confusion of love and infatuation—that was addressed, if not resolved. At least, in my head it was. The author had Bella in love with two people by the end of the book—one a love that was more human and healthy, more ordinary (as close as Bella could get, anyway: he was still a werewolf), but not less passionate; and the other, her love for Edward, which really is a bit obsessive (Jacob even tells Bella "he's like a drug for you"), unusual, and otherwordly: the very essence of what pop culture considers love and romance to be...

My most practical and issue-prone part of me was disappointed that she chose the impossible love over the possible; but that's not what fiction is for, is it? Of course she was going to choose Edward in the end. And if she had chosen Jacob, I suppose the more fantastic and unrealistic part of me would be way to win, I guess.

I can't help wondering what will happen in the future, though. There were plenty of things left open, questions unanswered (my most pressing was what will it be like for Bella as a vampire? And what will her special ability be, if she has any?). And what will become of Jacob and the rest of the pack? (I rather think that Meyer is going to be writing a novel from Jacob's perspective next, just a hunch.) And I wonder, too, how my perspective and views about this book will change when I read it again?

Dragonhaven by Robin McKinley

by Robin McKinley

I've mentioned it before, but I'm a huge fan of McKinley. She always tells a story with—what? honesty? Is that it? Yeah, a bare-to-the-bone honesty, and I think any writer who is a GREAT writer has to do that—and, boy, did I mention I like her stuff? (I really ought to do a compound review of her stuff when I feel like a re-reading spurt—I really want to tackle things like Sunshine and Deerskin again—whereas The Hero and the Crown is one of my all-time favorite books and I've re-read that one countless times.)

This one, Dragonhaven, came out not too long ago (September?) and it took me this long to get my hands on a copy.

If you like dragons (and I grew up reading Dickinson's A Flight of Dragons, which is a flippin' reference book on dragons with great illustrations and the like—and when I was wee, I remember watching the cheesy cartoon movie of the same title on television, and I sooooo loved it—I wanted to live in that movie because I was five and didn't notice it was cheesy at the time), this is a great read. It's a great read anyway, but if you always wished dragons were real, it won't hurt.

McKinley is as honest with her portrayal of her characters as always, and the lead in this book, Jake, is brutally honest, a compulsive worrier, and—since it is written in first person—sometimes pretty annoying! But I loved the guy anyway, enjoyed the story greatly, etc., etc.

Since McKinley is married to Dickinson nowadays, and since I had Dickinson's book memorized, it was fun to see the influence he'd had on her, and the different turns she took with it, and some of the stuff she came up with that was different from some of the stuff he came up with...but I doubt anyone else would care about that, the theme of How One of My Favorite Authors Influenced Another of My Favorite Authors by Marrying One Another and Doubtlessly Talking of Book Ideas to Each Other. Yeah, only I'm freak enough for that.

The best thing about this particular book (for me, I mean) was the way it accurately captured the feeling of being a mom—especially the claustrophobia, worry, and exhaustion that goes along with it—helped me feel a little more human. (McKinley always does. Thanks, Robin.) I have to get a quote...let's see...*rummaging for several minutes through said book, occasionally getting distracted by re-reading some good passages, until finally, 40 minutes later*...Ah! Here:
"giving up your life to keep someone else alive is kind of hard"
Well, okay, it doesn't seem like much, but the first time I read it the truth of it resonated in me like I was a bell that had just been struck. Kind of a big "duh" moment for wynne. I love it when authors can do that for me. The thing is, the narrator of the story, Jake, had a baby dragon imprint on him, and he became its mother, without having an idea of how to take care of it. And he was like any mom with a newborn: constant feedings, constant care, and like he said, he had to give up his life as he knew it, and he was just a 14-year-old kid.

Here are two more examples of the kind of stuff that she was writing that resonated with me:
"Proud Mom. Obsessed Mom. Silly with relief for even a few feet and a few minutes of semi-freedom Mom."
"But those first few months, the stronger the panicky sense of being trapped by this little live thing that was utterly dependent on me and only me got, the stronger the dreams got..."
(dreams that comforted him, thankfully)

I don't think I made my point very well, but, really, that was the best part of the book for me. But that's only because I have weird personal problems and really bad postpartum depression with my first, only (and very likely, last) child, right? Does everyone feel that way? Jake did, and that helped me. Yeah, I'm so not getting the point across. Oh well—on to the next book!

Friday, January 4, 2008

Hattie Big Sky by Kirby Larson

Hattie Big Sky
by Kirby Larson

I've read a few books about homesteading in America—My Antonia, Our Only May Amelia, Little House in the Big Woods—and most have been pretty good.

This one was excellent.

I didn't start reading it expecting much, not even a few chapters in, but the farther in I got...well. The first thing I began to think was how spoiled I was pressed up against a baseboard heater reading it while it is a mere 39 degrees outside, while Hattie was living through a frozen Montana winter with little else between her and the harsh world was a shack, a cat, and a wood stove. (I so would've died. I'd make a lousy pioneer.)

Also, it seems that most books these days leave religion entirely out of the equation, or dance around it, or if it is put in, it seems so...forced, sappy, and sentimental (not to mention self-conscious). But Hattie, who is a religious person of sorts—her conversations with God were so natural and beautiful, as was her faith. It was refreshing to read that. (And because she was so honest, it was assuming or forceful—just there and peaceful.)

Also, the ending wasn't neat and tidy, wrapped with a bow, as happens in some stories (and of course, there's nothing wrong with that, unless it is a story where the author is really trying for authenticity and reality). There was heartache, and mess, and the story sometimes came to a place I wasn't expecting. More like life, if you know what I mean.

And that's all I'll say about it, because I don't want to spoil it for anyone else. (It's only lousy books that I'll blow parts of the plot out into the open, like that incredibly stupid book I read before this one.)

Pemberly by Emma Tennant

by Emma Tennant

What a load of horse manure. Really. I didn't start reading this book with much in the way of expectations (at least, I didn't think so). Since this is a sequel to a classic novel, I was by no means expecting it to live up to Austen's work, and I was prepared for some stupidity and dishonesty to Austen's characters and themes—after all, that's what happens when someone tries to write a sequel to a work they didn't write. (Hello, Scarlett, anyone?)

And yet, I still picked it up hopefully, since I had had some good experiences with similar Austen-esque material of late (such as this and this). And I was willing to forgive the book's shortcomings. I really WAS! But I must admit, I was unprepared for how bad this novel was. Really and truly, utterly baaaaaad.

So there was no witty dialogue—not too surprising. Who can imitate Austen's dialogue? And there were bits and pieces of lines stolen from the original book, also to be expected (it's like the author thinks this is cute or something to put in a bit of the original book's language—why? To prove that they have indeed read the novel they are attempting a sequel to?) The plot twists and the things that Tennant did with Austen's characters was at first entertaining and amusing—she killed off Mr. Bennett with a flick of the pen; gave Jane a child and another on the way; made it so Elizabeth and Darcy could not conceive a child of their own; and gave Lydia four under the age of four. All reasonable and interesting (except for the last—the math doesn't add up in Lydia's case, unless she had two sets of twins, which she hadn't). And then there was the idea of all the Bennett sisters and their families, widowed mother, Bingley and his sisters, Darcy and his sister, AND his aunt Lady Catherine all under the roof of Pemberly for Christmas. Intriguing...

However, it soon fell apart and proved to be far beyond the author's grasp and skill. For example, more and more logical errors cropped up throughout the text that just didn't make sense (Lydia's too-many children being one of these): a character knowing something they couldn't possibly have known; people carelessly misplaced and showing up where they couldn't possibly have been, etc. Just bad editing.

And yet, more: It is not possible for me to believe that the estate of Pemberly would be entailed should Darcy be unable to produce an heir. Unbelievable AND shows a sad lack of imagination on the part of the author (by borrowing yet another idea from the original novel and applying it nonsensically).

And then she begins to slaughter my favorite characters: some dialougue that is meant to pass off as Elizabeth's wit is actually just rude and crass insults; Elizabeth's independence and spirit is reduced to mere pigheadedness and selfishness; she allows Darcy's reserve and delicacy to lead him, after getting into an argument with his wife, to simply walk out on her without a word, and leave her alone for an entire season; after this episode, Elizabeth does not attempt to communicate with her estranged husband but begins to pursue a life as a governess. Apparently she does not understand the characters she is writing AT ALL.

And the crowning glory of stupidity, the most horrid thing of all, was to solve all the problems in the Darcys' marriage by a crass deux ex machina: it wasn't Darcy who had had a mistress and fathered an illegitimate child off her, oh no! It was Bingley—honest, open, kind, moral BINGLEY—and Jane, fresh from the sickbed from delivering a son for him, was perfectly fine with it—!

It was gross and ridiculous, awkward and preposterous, full of errors as I stated before, and ... and ... heavens, I don't believe in burning books, but if I ever needed to start a fire and was short on kindling, this book would be the first to go in. And I would probably enjoy ripping the pages from the spine and tossing them in. Blech.

The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper

The Last of the Mohicans
by James Fenimore Cooper

I've always wondered how some books become "classics." It is truly quality and originality that transcend time? Or is it, sometimes, luck that makes a book popular (it's more of a fad then a "classic"), but the luck holds and even manages to grant the book longevity?

For example, I've read several books that I can't believe are classics—has anyone read any of the Tarzan books by Edgar Rice Burroughs, for example? Or even things like Uncle Tom's Cabin—completely racist (while trying to be propaganda for anti-slavery), political, and flat, that had a definite purpose at the time, but why are we still reading it now? And I've always thought Wuthering Heights a bit of...well, a gothic flop, if you must know. And yet, they are still classics.

I think this may very well be one of these books. It's an exciting* adventure story with plenty of violence and action. The characters are static and exaggerated (Cora is set up as the epitome of all lovely womanliness and virtue; Uncas as a paragon of masculine and Native American virtue and strength; Magua a representation of the Native American cruelty, cunning, and selfishness; Hawk-Eye the symbol of American resilience, cunning, strength, and the attempt to blend the Old World and the New). So, all characters are larger-than-life, not particularly believable, and occasionally annoying (especially Hawk-Eye and his long-winded ramblings about his world view—which never changes, just gets repeated over and over and over...blech).

And all these cardboard cut-outs go and have a big, hairy adventure that has a tragic ending. Fine for a stock fiction novel, I suppose, but for a classic? I must say, if it was just adventure and action I wanted, I much prefer the movie (especially after the interesting things they did to the original plot—a much more riveting story, I think).

Though I shouldn't be so hard on the book. There are some things about it that are of worth, such as taking a look at frontier life through the eyes of Cooper. Some historians give him a great deal of credit for accuracy, especially to the extent that he understood the Native American cultures.

Also, the thematic undercurrents of race were interesting: each race seemed to consider itself superior to the others, and everyone considered themselves as superior to the blacks (even though there was only one character who had a trace of black ancestry in her, which was carefully hidden). It was a time in history steeped in prejudice. Of course it was.

The great thing is that Cooper himself was not racist in the sense that he thought one race was better to another (which idea I got through Hawk-Eye and his incessant monologues), but he did feel that the different races were fundamentally different—had different world views, talents, and abilities more as a result of differing cultures. After all, Cora, who I've mentioned before set up as the epitome of womanliness, was the person whose mother was partially black. (But before I can argue that Cooper wasn't racist, it was, after all, Cora whom he sacrificed at the end, and her white sister he let live on.)

But, hey, even after an interesting dip into a the literary theory of "race," I'm not likely to read this book again.

*Exciting for the time it was written, I mean. I found the action a little dull, used to things like, oh, television and movies, you know.

Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron

The Higher Power of Lucky
by Susan Patron

Enjoyable, quirky, funny, even touching—is there a better way to do Young Adult Literature? What I like best about it, though, is the sense of place that Patron develops—the overly-small town, the oddities of the characters that would live in such a place—even her focusing on desert wildlife (such as it is—mostly insects and arachnids)—through all that, the LIFE of a tiny desert town really rang true.

Other things that I liked: when she wrote about Lucky and used imagery like "brain crevices" and "meanness glands;" the way she had Lucky eavesdropping on an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting to try to figure out more about a "higher power;" the way she wrote Lucky period; the sense of pathos of small lives affected by things bigger than themselves and how they deal with it (on all sorts of levels, from the desert critters, to the children in the town, to the entire town itself).

One trouble I had with the book was a personal one: the setting was so strong it left the aftertaste of the desert in my mouth, which I found unpleasant. (The story is set in the Mojave Desert, where I just happened to grow up—though in a different part than Lucky did—however, it hit a little too close to home in some areas for me.)

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

The Turn of the Screw
by Henry James

I've read Henry James before, and greatly enjoyed, psychology, I guess you could say. And I had heard this particular work mentioned many times—I know it was adapted for the stage as well—but somehow, in all that, I somehow missed this was a ghost story. (If I'd known, I probably would have read it in October.)

The most terrible thing (meaning the scariest element of the work, not how terrible the work is, of course) about the story is the way the characters of the two children use passive-aggressiveness. Or, rather, the way they play head games with the narrator, their governess. That, and the way he uses euphemisms to frighten ("horrible" things that the children have done and that were done to them were hinted at constantly, but the only thing he lets us know for sure is that a Mr. Quint (now deceased and haunting the house) had an affair with Miss Jessel (also currently deceased and haunting the house) and that the two ghosts spent a great deal of time in the company of the children while living, were "bad" people, and are now haunting the children, who enjoy the haunting). Every bit of evil and past sin is only hinted at, which allows the reader's imagination to fill in the gaps with just as much horror as they can imagine. I suppose that James, like Hitchcock, understood that the truly scary stuff is the stuff you can't see/know.

I did enjoy it, but I admit that living in a time where everything is tell-all, and people are given the facts of every gory detail, the story was...well, not very scary, and a little frustrating with all the information it did withhold. But there you have it. Maybe James intended to frustrate me personally. (Yeah, not likely.)

Borgel by Daniel Pinkwater

by Daniel Pinkwater

Pinkwater puzzles me. By all accounts, I should love this guy's writing: he's silly, and random, and odd. Normally I really like silly, I love random (isn't that the charm behind things like Monty Python and Douglas Adam's novels?), and I AM odd.

Buuut...somehow, I really haven't gotten IN to Pinkwater. This isn't the first one of his books that I've tried, but this is the first that I liked. And I'm still baffled that I'm not in love with him. Oh well. Maybe in some other decade?

I guess if you want a synopsis, the book is about a kid who has an Uncle Borgel show up one day to live with his family. They have no idea who he is, but they take him in. Turns out that he is actually from another planet and he lets the kid and the family dog go with him on his interstellar travels in an old car. And they get to see, among many different things, a magical, cosmic Popsicle.

See? I should love this! But I don't. I'm puzzled. I mean, why not?