This made me think of everything. Every single sweet and sad thing that ever happened. Still, it stayed its own, and I loved these kids like crazy. So...moreThis made me think of everything. Every single sweet and sad thing that ever happened. Still, it stayed its own, and I loved these kids like crazy. So stupid. This stupid book made me cry from the Donkey Waltz all the way till the end. But, it wasn’t a mean book that was setting out just to make me cry – it wasn’t about that at all. It was about how when you are in ninth grade, you see everything sad, and it is probably your fault, or you don’t see any of the sad things, and later, when you realize your blindness, it kills you. It was about how you are wrong, even when you were probably right. I love these sweet kids.
Anything I say sounds so dumb, and I just picture Dinah and Skint reading it, like overhearing your mom tell a neighbor you’re just going through a phase. No dudes, it’s not a phase. Things are just fucked up and it is your fault sometimes, or it is not your fault, but it still is your responsibility, other times. And sometimes none of it is your fault or your responsibility, and that is the worst.
I have this little notebook I started keeping in college, and at the front of it, I wrote, “Things to Remember,” and then I wrote a list of life lessons underneath. I’ll write something there when I think it’s important, though, admittedly, some of them seem dumb now, and some of them are so vague that I actually don’t know what they mean. But, one of the first ones I wrote was “Elizabeth Vogler,” so that I would remember the part in Persona when Elizabeth Vogler watches the monks light themselves on fire. This book made me think of Elizabeth Vogler watching the monks burn. It made me think of Giulietta Masina in La Strada, of Holden Caulfield waking up to loneliness. It made me think of watching my own parents and grandparents die. It made me think of being a kid and never knowing what it was that I did wrong, but always knowing it was something.
I get so hollowed out and cold when I see stories that use rape and death and violence against powerless people to further shallow plotlines about some idiot getting a girlfriend or a simplistic moral lesson about “Doesn’t that suck for me when other people get raped and killed?” This was the opposite of that. This was perfect. It was funny where it should have been funny. I might even say it was hilarious at some parts. It was crushing where life is crushing. It was interstitially crushing in the unspoken and unrecognized. It was ironically crushing in the things that Dinah didn’t see. It was perfect. It made me laugh and then cry, and then laugh and cry at the same time and generally lose control of emotional reaction. Ultimate FoE, but it was both fantastic and excruciating all at once.
I don’t think it is a good idea for everyone to read this book any time, all the time, because there are some trigger issues – the death of a beloved grandma before the book begins, child and elder abuse and neglect. It is all done so delicately, beautifully, respectfully, that I love it all, but those are not issues everyone needs to see at all times in their life, so judge for yourselves about where you are. If it won’t feel too hurtful to you in opening old wounds, it is so beautiful and so worth it.
I am going to do punching at assholes who say this beautiful, beautiful voice should have sounded less unique and more like, I don’t know, the Wall Street Journal, or something. I am going to do Mockingjay-style punching. Dinah and Skint remind me of everybody beautiful, and they also remind me of ninth-grade me. But, they are themselves, too, and so full and vivid as characters that I know I will come back to them like friends tucked into the beautiful, warm coat of this book. I love this stupid beautiful book. Thank you for writing it for me, N. Griffin. Better than a parcel of treats.
___________________________ I received an ARC of this book from a friend at a bookstore, and I did not exchange anything for it.(less)
My mother died the day before my first law school final. Hope Edelman says, in this book, that partway through college she had a weird urge to walk up...moreMy mother died the day before my first law school final. Hope Edelman says, in this book, that partway through college she had a weird urge to walk up to strangers and tell them, “My mother died when I was seventeen,” because she recognized that this fact about herself, this fact that alienated her from the people around her, had become totally definitive about who she was. A girl can’t tell people that her mother died because it brings only fear and pity, it doesn’t solve anything to talk about it. But, at the same time, no one knows you without knowing that you don’t, that you didn’t, have a mother. For the past few months I have had this weird compulsion, too, to walk up to people and just say, “My mother died the day before my first law school final.”
But, what do I mean by that? It sounds like I want to be pathetic or impressive, and I don’t mean either of those things. It sounds like I conquered life that day, or like I lost all hope of being a woman. It is ambivalent and loaded. I know that even talking about reading and reviewing a book that is “self-help,” even if it is about grieving, is loaded, too. It has a pastel cover and a sentimental name, but I kind of appreciate that about the book. It looks like only the fierce of heart, those who can handle reading sentiment without shame, should attempt this book, and I think that’s good. I think I benefited from waiting to read it until I felt like I could really listen to a sentimentally titled book without sneering.
At the same time, I don’t think emotions mature themselves, so I always remind myself that I’m probably not going to get very far sitting back and waiting for mine to suddenly do so. It would be like waiting for myself to spontaneously become a stellar lawyer without ever actually going to law school or reading any books about law. Or, it would be like waiting for myself to spontaneously become a marathon runner. Not all self-help books have anything worthwhile about emotional growth to say, but neither do all legal scholars have anything worthwhile to say about the law or all personal trainers about marathons. I don’t think the gaining-skills-by-doing-nothing strategy works with almost anything, so I’m pretty enthusiastic about smart books about emotions and spirituality. I’m pretty enthusiastic about counseling, too – it’s like getting a massage for the soul.
I’m being really long winded about saying that, while I don’t think every time is the right time to read this book, I do think probably everyone would benefit from reading this book at some point. I wish I had been prepared to read it sooner. The book is directed to women, obviously, but Edelman makes the point that we, women or men, mourn rejection (in whatever form, whether death or emotional or physical abandonment) from our same-sex parent differently than we mourn rejection from our opposite-sex parent, and the book is mostly about that. Even if you have not experienced rejection from a same-sex parent, I think it would still give you perspective on what you gain from that parent that you might not even be aware of. It also might give you perspective on why (at least some of us) women who have lost our mothers act the way we do when we have not known how to mourn.
The book is arguably as sentimental as its title, even just because it is about death and emotions, but it is so smart. Edelman surveys over a hundred women who lost their mothers at various ages, and she tells their stories in an organized, clear layout. She also talks about many famous women, including Virginia Woolf, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and Madonna, and how they have reacted to the deaths of their mothers. In addition to hearing and recounting all of these stories, Edelman obviously did some pretty serious research into other studies about women and grief, and about family relationships in general.
For me, much of this book was practically a miracle. If you don’t mind my spoiling what the biggest revelation of the book was for me, I will tell you about it right now. I will not say it as clearly as Edelman, though, so you should still get her take on it, and it’s probably only a small part of the book, even though it was life changing to me. It is that when a mother rejects a daughter, whether she does it intentionally or unintentionally, such as through illness and death, the daughter starts to look for the mother relationship in all of her relationships. One woman in the book described it as a “cocoon,” another described it as “that family feeling,” which is something I have said, at least in my head, a lot. The daughter starts to think that any successful relationship ultimately has that particular form of intimacy – that the intimacy from a mother is successful intimacy.
I literally thought this. I had no idea that, ultimately, all intimacy, all sense of family, isn’t necessarily that feeling of a little daughter with her mother. I had always thought that because my relationships, whether friendships or romances, are not like that, it was like “people, iz doin it rong,” and that once I figured out how to do it right, my relationships would feel like that. I have been jealous of my friends, men or women, who have families (read: friends who have mothers) and their ability to do relationships right, shown just by the fact that they have a mother. And this intensity has created a completely unfair expectation for all of my relationships because then every time I experience rejection, it is the loss of my mom, the loss of my family, all over again. It means that friends living their own lives, not focused on me one hundred percent of the time, translated to rejection, and not just rejection, but also the death of my relationship with my mother all over again. It was basically a miracle to hear that I could treat the loss of that nurturing, cocoon relationship, that mother-child relationship, as a total loss, and not let that loss pile on to every other lost relationship I ever have. It sounds weird, but it is a relief to know it is not failure that no friend ever turns out to be my mom.
*facepalm* I totally love this book.
So, that concludes the review portion of your time, and the rest of this shall be a story with no real reviewing purposes in mind. It is more my experience of being a motherless daughter than a critique of the book. Even though my personal story, like anyone's personal story, is not the same as most other people's, it was really incredible to hear how similar my reaction to losing my mother is to the reactions of other women who lost theirs.
My mom died of Lou Gehrig’s disease, but as far as I am concerned, I lost my mom about twenty years before she actually died. I was six when my family first started listening to meditation tapes from the Foundation of Human Understanding, and when I was eight, we moved to Selma, Oregon, to join what we would later refer to as “The Cult.” Really, most of the diets or clubs or churches my parents joined ended up taking on a cultish quality once my parents got mixed up with them. First, that diet/club/church was the only thing that could save us from certain doom; later, it was evil. The Foundation is basically a Judeo-Christian group that teaches men how to stand up to the domineering women around them. It teaches them how to take the world back from the invidious control of women, and it teaches women how to overcome their natural tendencies toward evil (ya know, Eve, and all that).
This is my recollection of The Cult. If you look on the website, it mostly looks like stuff you’d get out of The Secret, but if you read through the call show questions, there is some stuff about bullying women that is more what I remember. I can’t find it now, but there was this cartoon in their magazine once, which to me symbolized the teachings. The first panel was a tiny woman and a big, strong man. As the panels (maybe six or eight panels) went along, the woman got bigger and stronger, and the man got smaller, until, at the end it was a huge, ugly woman sitting next to a coffin. Anyway, my mom and dad realized that my mom was the source of all evil in our family, and that if my brother and I were to grow up right, we would have to overcome the feminine influences in our lives.
My mom wasn’t allowed to touch us any more around the time that I turned seven. My brother had been nursing, and my mom cut him off from nursing without any weaning process. If I ran to my parents’ room because I had a nightmare, my mom had to put a pillow between herself and me so that she wouldn’t transmit her evil. I was a daddy’s little girl, so I understood that as long as I stayed that way, didn’t touch my mom, married young (it was understood that this would probably be to the cult leader’s grandson), and devoted my life to my children, I would avoid the pit of feminine evil to which I was otherwise susceptible. Years later, when a friend of mine went home early from a sleepover weekend because, she said, my parents never hugged us, my parents realized that still none of us touched each other ever, but it is difficult to change habits.
I am extra-sensitive to anti-feminist propaganda, I know, because of this upbringing. My mom continued to believe for the rest of her life that it was her job to repress any part of her personality that might conflict with my dad, the head of our household. But, I continued to look to my mom for the relationship I had with her when I was very young. I always hoped she would wake up and come back to me, until I realized a few years before she died, during her eight-year-long dying process, that she never would. I set some boundaries about what I could contribute to our relationship, and because my mom couldn’t contribute anything, we lost the façade that our relationship had been. At that time, a friend reprimanded me, saying that she cherished that special mother-child bond with her own kids, and I would regret not maintaining that before my mom died. I thought a lot about that later, and my inability to maintain that connection with my mom haunted me, even though I can’t say I regretted setting the boundaries I did.
From the time I was little and my mom emotionally vacated the family, I got so used to looking for that relationship from her that I also started looking to everyone for it. I thought it was intimacy. Motherless Daughters talks about how people often call motherless women “adoptable,” and this has been true for me. Many families have adopted me, and I love all of them, but I have always thought that I haven’t been able to re-create that specific form of intimacy because of my own emptiness and awkwardness. I knew I loved these people, but I thought it was not the right kind of connection. And, then, when they had to do normal things for their normal lives, which I completely want them to do, it was a betrayal to me that was its own, plus the loss of my mom. When friends would move away, or start a new relationship and get busy, it was a betrayal with emotional intensity far beyond what I actually expected from the relationship. This was true for both friends and romances, both women and men in my life.
So, I’m not totally sure how this mourning thing works, but Edelman says that for her it is like a companion – not in a morbid sense, but in the sense that she continues to be without her mother. I think it’s reassuring to know that when I feel disproportionately intense about some kind of failure or rejection, it could be part of mourning: I could need to step back and re-adjust myself to the losses I’ve had so they don’t get confused with the relationships I am having. I could need to recognize that not every action a dear friend takes for him or herself is a sign that I am a burden to that person and they secretly wish they could reject me. I’m not sure why, but recognizing this about my relationship with my mom makes it easier to accept that people I really care about could care about me, too, even if they are not devastated when I am gone, and that when life pulls us apart, they could feel the loss of me as I feel the loss of them. Each new love does not have to be the sum of all previous loves and rejections. No new love is what I lost from my mother.(less)
Okay, the star rating is a lie.Twilight rox. But you know what does not rock and gets only one star? Real-life Twilight experiences. Twilight tells t...moreOkay, the star rating is a lie.Twilight rox. But you know what does not rock and gets only one star? Real-life Twilight experiences. Twilight tells the basic creepy-old-man-stalks-young-girl story. You know the one. It’s everywhere. He woos her by being vaguely threatening and manipulative. She sees his condescension as the patient musings of a wiser soul. It’s fun in a book, but when you see it in real life, walk the other direction. In my experience, it is possible for creepy stalkers to come around almost anywhere, and the internet is no exception.
I don’t want to get lecturey on you, but I think that, especially for people who are the typical targets of stalkers (all you Bellas out there), but really for everyone, it is important to be aware and smart and even suspicious. Don’t give your address to people you don’t know. And don’t think that a compliment is always what it seems. Sometimes compliments are manipulation. If someone makes you uncomfortable or seems suspicious, don’t be afraid to tell them that. Don’t feel pressured to keep yourself in an uncomfortable situation or to talk to people who skeeze you out. You don’t have to be afraid, just remove yourself from the situation. If a friend tells you to watch out for someone, give that advice a chance. I know it’s obvious to say, but I like being reminded every once in a while that you can’t control other people’s actions, but you can control your own.
As an example, I’ll tell you a story of one time when I wasn’t smart and didn’t remove myself from a situation. This is a pretty specific situation, and it takes place in Ukraine, but I really think things like it could happen anywhere.
So, my friend, Vanessa, lived in the middle of the country, and I was going to visit her. We met in Kyiv to take the bus back to her city. The bus we got on was old and rickety, and the only seat was right in the front. We were exhausted and Vanessa fell asleep against the window. The bus driver kept looking at us in the rear-view mirror, but I didn’t think anything of it because we were American and got stared at all the time. He must have been going about thirty miles an hour the entire way there, because I think we got in about two hours after we were supposed to. Vanessa told the driver, in Ukrainian, where to drop us off, but he drove right past the stop down to the regular station. We got out at the station and Vanessa was pissed. It was really late, and it would have been easy for them to let us off at her stop. She had just woken up, too. We had both been sleeping off and on.
We got out of the bus to get our luggage, and as we were grumbling and trying to find our bags, the driver’s assistant came up to us and explained that they were actually going to let everyone off and drive us BACK to her stop. Oh! We slapped our foreheads. That makes so much more sense. We got back into the bus. (NEVER GET BACK INTO AN EMPTY BUS.) Duh. We were really tired, so that’s some excuse, but not much. Anyway, the driver’s assistant got behind the wheel, and took off in the opposite direction of the town. So, there we are, driving out in the middle of the country (but really the middle of nowhere because there aren’t even houses or lights or anything) with these two old, creepy Ukrainian guys.
Vanessa was freaking out a little bit, and started gathering weapons around her. She had her keys out and some kind of antenna from the dashboard. I don’t remember what else, but that is exactly what you should do if you find yourself in a situation like that. Self-defense 101. The driver, now freed from his driving responsibilities, sat across from me and asked us the Ukrainian for “do you girls like to party?” We quickly answered “no.” He told us that he had a stash of vodka stored in the back of the bus for just such an occasion. He slid his hand over onto my leg. Vanessa immediately slapped it off. You could see the gears in our brains turning. What if we were murdered, there in the Ukrainian countryside, and just left out to rot? What if we escaped, but spent days wandering in circles in the empty fields and eventually died of thirst? Could we jump from a moving bus? Why did we get back on the fucking bus?
Then, after about ten or fifteen minutes, they pulled up to a gas station – in the middle of friggin’ nowhere, mind you – got gas, and headed back to town. We were fine. We were shaken, and it wasn’t a safe situation, but we were fine.
What I’m telling you is this: it’s not your fault if you are the victim of unwanted attention, but there are a lot of things you can do to be smart and safe. Take a self-defense class. Be honest with other people. Listen to your instincts. Block people on the internet if they are making you uncomfortable. Don’t harass people yourself, but if you’re uncomfortable, be smart. Learn from your mistakes.
Twilight is fun. I’m the first to admit it. Fictional Edward is a boyfriend you could buy at Claire’s™. How much does that rock? But in real life Edward is just an old, bossy man with a thirst for blood. That’s not romantic. It’s gross. While awesome, fictional Edward got into Bella’s home through her window, gross, real-life Edwards get into our homes through our computers. (Not literally, although, oooo sci-fi fan-fic waiting to happen?)
It recently came to my attention that a member of goodreads was accused on another website of using Goodreads(.com) and other places on the internets to harass people - basically he was accused of being a real-life Edward. (I expressly claim the content of that link, though I apologize for its graphic nature. Goodreads(.com) does not claim the content of that link. : this should in no way constitute legal advice to anyone, including Goodreads(.com) or affiliated agencies, but according to §§10, 12, and 14 of my and the accused member's contract with Goodreads(.com), as well as U.S. federal law, 47 U.S.C. sec. 230(c)(1), and U.K. law, Defamation Act of 1996 §1(3), Goodreads(.com) is only a content provider, not a publisher of my statements, and has no liability for what I say on here. Although Goodreads(.com) may not be convinced that any users of its service are creepy, I am persuaded. We are separate. Please don’t blame it for what I say. I have talked to both parties involved in the incident. Below are the accused’s responses to me. The girl who originally posted the accusations has asked that we not contact her, as all of the harassment she has received from questions about that post has been just about as awful as the original harassment. I hope you will respect those wishes. I would be glad to answer any questions I can about this either in the thread below or in a private message.
You might not think that the accusations are true, and that is entirely valid. I did the investigation I needed to do in order to confirm for myself that the accused member of Goodreads is creepy, you can do what you need, or ignore the situation entirely, as you like. I understand the importance in a trial of presuming someone innocent until proven guilty, but I do not believe that I need to wait to have an opinion about someone until that person has gone through a trial. I can have an opinion based on whatever standard of evidence I like, and the testimony of a witness, combined with my own experience, and countered by nothing, is enough evidence to persuade me. Also, I am willing to err on the side of caution where the potential for harm is either exposing Bellas to stalking and harassment, or exposing an innocent man to loss of business. Both are horrible, but the former is more horrible to me. Again, everyone should balance that for themselves. Honestly, beyond blocking him myself, I'm not very interested in this particular person, as I don't think he's at all unique. He serves as a symbol in this review, yes, but a symbol of something much larger and more ubiquitous. If someone STARTS harassing the accused member because of the things I wrote here or for whatever reason, I will think that harassment is as stupid as any other harassment.
The community manager of Goodreads(.com) has informed me that the appropriate way to deal with a potential predator on Goodreads is to inform the community manager of where the offensive posts exist, and he will delete them. That seems to me like just about the worst way possible to deal with situations like this. Not only does it cover up for the offender by erasing evidence, it also makes it difficult to warn people in the future of patterns. I think the stupidest (bless their ‘lil hearts) way to deal with stalking is to pretend you can stop it by erasing it. I have already blocked the accused member because I don’t want him to access my friends through my profile, but I think censoring his account or his comments is a ludicrous way of “dealing” with a situation. Also, I frankly think that crazy people have the right to read books and talk about them, too. Just because I don’t want to be friends with the accused member, doesn’t mean other people, who are not in danger of being targeted by him, shouldn’t. Plus, deleting his account or comments doesn’t accomplish anything, as he can make a new profile, or write new comments. The point is that we should all be careful (especially the Bellas). Again, trust your instincts and learn from your mistakes. If you have bad instincts, trust your friends. Do the opposite of what Bella does because Edward, in real life, is the opposite of what Edward is in fiction.
I’m a big fan of the Take Back the Night movement, but I don’t think the night is the only thing that shouldn’t be dominated by fear. So this is your call to take back the internet. When goodreads originally took down this review and the others like it, I had invited people to copy my review and write about their own experiences with real-life Edwards. I invite you to do that again if you would like. You are definitely responsible for whatever you copy or change from this review, but you are welcome to it. The world is there for all of us to enjoy, for men and women. Parents shouldn’t be afraid to let their kids use the internet. We are real people on here and should treat each other as such. Don’t let people gain power through fear.
POSTS from me to the accused Goodreads(.com) member
Do you have a response to these accusations? More specifically, have you given attention to other people that they have perceived as unwanted or offensive, or have you threatened people? I'm also specifically interested to hear what you have to say about the accusation of racism.
For myself, I'm not very concerned about being friends because if you harass me, I can always block you. I don't want my posts to expose other friends of mine to that kind of harassment, though. If you don't respond to this with some kind of reasonable explanation, or if you delete this post, I will probably block you. I would rather not block anyone, but I don't want people I care about to feel uncomfortable posting on my threads. I look forward to your response.
message 11: Sep 28, 2010 07:54am
I had hoped you would be upfront about answering the livejournal accusations because it seems both childish and overly formal to need to set a deadline for you. However, because you have not responded, I will be more clear. I am willing to wait until 11:59 p.m., PST, on Wednesday, September 29, 2010 for you to provide a reasonable explanation for the accusations listed on the livejournal link in my comment below.
If you delete either of these posts, or if you do not respond by that time, I will understand that as you acknowledging that the accusations are true. At that point I plan to block you as a user and do what I can to make it known on goodreads that you have acknowledged the accusations. I recommend you post your explanation here on your own profile for future reference in case this issue comes up again.
(At this point, the accused member sent me a PM with the quoted language in the message below.)
message 12: Sep 28, 2010 01:45pm
[The accused member] Wrote: "I saw the first line on your comment to me and couldn't read any further. I don't read or discuss Bad News. I cannot read anything that will be hostile or minatory or derisive."
It surprises me that you say this, given the books you seem to usually read. I'm left to assume that you mean that you cannot read anything derisive about yourself. I think it has come to a point where you might need to learn how to read that type of material, as many people, including myself, are prepared to take your silence on the topic as admission of guilt. (less)
I guess, sometimes our emotional bones need to be re-broken in order to set them right. Maybe this was a common experience for those who read this boo...moreI guess, sometimes our emotional bones need to be re-broken in order to set them right. Maybe this was a common experience for those who read this book, but a lot of its most emotional points were like reading a bizarre dream about the last few years of my own life. I’m not going to go into it because that would be, like, an unacceptable amount of over-share, even for me. That’s just to say that I have no ability to be objective about it. This story: real or not real?
I love Mockingjay like I love The Prophet and Catcher in the Rye, and of course anything by Willa Cather and Dostoevsky. They’re all books that have at one time or another spoken to me on such a personal and emotional level that they mean something more than writing or storytelling. That is only a personal reaction, not a recommendation. Actually, it makes me not want anyone else to read the book ever. I want to keep it as my own because I don’t want to hear a bunch of fools say they think the names are funny or something like that.
There are many threads of meaning and themes you could take from this story, but the one that strikes me as profound right now, a few days removed from my reading, is, why are we so goddamn powerless? Is it apathy or, maybe, discouragement? Are we powerless against other people or government systems, or are people and systems only symbols of our general powerlessness against the universe? Throughout this book, there is a steady rhythm of characters reminding Katniss of her power and describing her power to her.
I did some research recently about fundamental attribution error, and I've probably already told you about it, but I'm going to again. Basically, the theory of fundamental attribution error says that we think that we make our own life choices because we are tossed in the wind and the crazy, random happenstance of outside forces makes us who we are. But we think other people make the choices they do because of natural inclination. Like, someone who murders might think she did so because of an unplanned series of unfortunate events, but an observer thinks the killer did so because she is naturally a murderer. This story creates an interesting contrast between the way Katniss sees herself and the way others see her. She only sees the random events that lead her to become the symbol of rebellion against tyrrany. Others see her as the natural embodiment of the symbol. And I think this says a lot about all of us and the things we choose to do or to ignore. I think Collins would say we are powerless because we have abandoned our power, or perhaps because we don't remind each other that we have power.
There are some beautiful moments in other stories, like The House of Flying Daggers and Hamlet, where the tragedy of the conflict culminates in good friends battling each other. Nominally, they fight out of some shallow sense of vengeance, but ultimately I think it’s more the total injustice of loss that motivates them. I think they fight because if you can fight you are still alive, and sometimes that’s all that’s left. Maybe what Dylan Thomas meant when he said, "Do not go gentle into that good night / Rage, rage against the dying of the light." There are a lot of moments in this book that make me think of that image of friends fighting each other, but really fighting something more abstract and unconquerable. We fight, maybe, as some kind of animal scream in the face of the cold universe. But, Collins also shows how we fight because of the warm arms and kind hearts of the people we love. We fight because we are wrong and evil and stupid and cunning and loving and compassionate and fierce. There’s no simple answer.
Reading the other books in this series, I identified on a personal level with the political and cultural commentary. The way Collins held up a mirror to my own apathy and opulence was a slap in the face. This book meant so much to me emotionally and personally that I hate to pretend that my reaction is political at all. This book, to me, was the story of what happens when suddenly the person you trusted the most in the world sees everything you do as evil. I don't think I've ever seen someone write about that, and I was totally unprepared for the experience of reading it. Do you become evil because you've lost that person? Does their definition of you become your own? Do you sacrifice everything to repair the relationship? If they don't know what's real, how do you? It was so beautiful and tragic to watch that in this book, and it resonated on such a personal level with me, that after reading it I had to rebuild a lot of how I see myself.
On the other hand, I feel like it is important to acknowledge the cultural/political side of this story, and that, while this series is stylized, it is not much of a step away from reality. It, like all of Collins’ writing that I have read so far, is about adults training children to kill children. And that’s what we do, right? In Africa, the Middle East, Russia, America, in uniform and out of uniform, we train children to kill children.
I’m sure you’ve all already seen the wikileak about the American soldiers shooting the Reuters photographers and later wounding children who were riding in the ambulance coming to help the photographers. If you haven’t seen it yet, the linked article also links to the video. One of the most disturbing things to me about that video is how the soldiers laugh. Real or not real? I couldn’t watch the whole thing. When people get in fights on the listserv at school, we call it a “flame war.” Do we call it that here on GR? Anyway, a student posted that video to the listserv last spring, asking, if that video is something that we now know about, how many other incidents like this have happened and not been released to the public? That post started an outrageous flame war on the listserv, in which a couple of the military guys threatened the poster. People who I generally respect and even look up to in some ways said things like, "This is your final warning!" and argued that it is unacceptable to question people in uniform because without their sacrifices, we wouldn’t have the freedom to question them. Even aside from the circular logic, that argument just makes me go ballistic. And I think that is exactly the labyrinth of war that Collins writes about.
Everything she did here is beautiful, even, at times, poetic. I love that she didn’t glorify the rebels, and I love the image of communism she gives as much as her version of capitalism. It makes sense that she published this story in three parts, but I think it could also be read as one whole. I love her characters and her thoughtful messages. I love the way her relationships fall apart and grow back together. I almost had to stop reading this book partway through because it was too painful. But I think it was a stern talking-to that I needed. This story real or not real? For me, real. (less)
When I was between the ages of seven and eleven, my father was particularly ready to start a militia and secede from the union. I say "particularly" b...moreWhen I was between the ages of seven and eleven, my father was particularly ready to start a militia and secede from the union. I say "particularly" because in one way or another he's always been a little paranoid and iffy on the subject of loyalty to his citizenship (except when republicans are elected to any office, then you are guarantied to see him sporting his American flag suspenders). My parents "home schooled" me for a few years (quotation marks indicate that you could take out the word "school" and the phrase might be more accurate), when not putting me in various, sometimes experimental, private schools, so I have a colorful educational background. I always loved learning, as Derrick Jensen would say we all do, but I loathed the educational circus that was my childhood. I say all this because I have a deep mistrust of people who, like my father, are excessively suspicious or critical of civilization. Jensen is one of these people, and so I am sorry to say that I am absolutely persuaded by every argument I have heard him make. He positively has me ready to march out and overthrow the global economy.
My first exposure to Derrick Jensen was at the University of Oregon's Public Interest Environmental Law Conference last year. My vegan friend and my noble-savage friend took me to hear him as a keynote speaker. When the girl introducing him to the standing-room-only audience and said something to the effect of, "Don't stampede out of here when you hear his crazy ideas. We need extremists like Jensen to make the rest of us look normal" I sighed and braced myself for chanting and rhyming gibberish (in Eugene that kind of thing, unfortunately, is not completely uncommon). Instead, I met this hilarious, kind, thoughtful man, who I believe is truly trying to help people - and not in a patronizing, rich-American kind of way, either (pet peeve of mine). He's obviously doing the things he does because he understands that making us better helps him. To give you an idea of the lecture he gave when I saw him, this youtube clip shows a small section of the beginning of the lecture, when he gave it elsewhere. In this clip he describes the original script for the movie Star Wars: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zwhL4L... .
Walking On Water is primarily about Jensen's experiences as a writer and writing instructor at a prison and a university in Washington state. Those experiences are really only the frame, though, in which he presents his criticisms of the American educational system, where Jensen says we are trained to submit ourselves to a society that turns us into slaves and masters. This book is what I wished Lies My Teacher Told Me would have been. Rather than focus on the details of misinformation in textbooks and the politics of the educational system, which bogged down Loewen's complaint against public education, Derrick Jensen tackled the larger problem of the systems in which we live. This book doesn't necessarily deal with all of the larger issues Jensen typically talks about, but I read it because it's . . . ummm . . . how shall I phrase this? It's about six hundred pages shorter than his other books. It seemed like a good place to start.
The thing that really makes me impressed with Jensen's writing and speaking is that I think he deeply believes in the destructiveness of industrialized civilization, and he is honestly fighting to save the things he loves. One of the points he made in the lecture I heard was that people used to get their food from forests and rivers, so we would fight to the death to protect forests and rivers. Now we get our food from supermarkets, so we will fight to the death to protect supermarkets and let the forests and rivers that actually provide the food be destroyed by the systems that created the supermarket. I mean, it's just true. They change the deli section at a grocery store and there's a public outcry from the same people who laugh at the major destruction of ocean mammal life. And I'm no different. The things I don't know or understand that are deeply important to the survival of the human race are staggering. I'm not willing to abandon civilization entirely, but I'm definitely a believer, if only from the arguments of Derrick Jensen, in the evils of industrialism.(less)
In high school, I made the mistake of thinking that Hamlet was an angst-ridden loser who was pissed about having to take algebra when he “knew he was...moreIn high school, I made the mistake of thinking that Hamlet was an angst-ridden loser who was pissed about having to take algebra when he “knew he was never going to use it.” Not that I had any problems with angst. Big fan. I just thought he failed at angst. He wasn’t the dreamy eyed poet, he was the kid in class who made everyone cringe by shooting his hand up to complain about the abstract unfairness of the school system (or universe. Whatever). I saw the beautiful words, but they only meant words, they didn’t mean anything. When I read the play again in college, the profound beauty and compassion for humanity devastated me, and I realized that it is not about angst of any variety. Hamlet still breaks my heart, probably more than any other story.
I saw a staged production of Hamlet for the first time last month. A live show is almost always a good experience, and this certainly was. I grew up living pretty near the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and I’ve gone to productions there as much as possible since high school. It’s a magical place (not so much in a ren-fest way, though a little. More in a professional-live-show-for-cheap way). It’s about three hours away from me now, so I took a couple of days, drove down, and stayed in a hostel across the street from the OSF. I’m assuming in this review that everyone has read or seen Hamlet, but if you haven’t (and this might drive some people nuts) I actually really like the Mel Gibson version. I’ve seen it a kagillion times, and I think it’s a solid version. Who better to play Ophelia than Helena Bonham Carter? (Other than Rachel McAdams in Slings and Arrows.) Anyway, like I say, seeing Hamlet in the wonderful Bowmer theater was a really good experience. I do, however, have a lot of problems with the production, all of which I will gladly share with you now.
A couple of things that don’t work in any production of a Shakespeare tragedy: hammy heroes, pyrotechnics, rapping and hip hop dancing, sign language that is not used for communication, extended martial arts scenes, and Kenneth Branagh. If I think of more, I’ll let you know. Mostly, when I see a play, I want to see the play, not the MTV version of the play. I find it insulting that directors seem to think I’ll understand Hamlet better if it’s MC Hammered at me. And I get that stage fighting is fun, but unfortunately TV fights look better. Maybe it makes it confusing that those things tend to work in the comedies, and directors get caught up in the comedy momentum. There’s some kind of self-reflexive irony framed by larger irony, though, when Polonius says, “brevity is the soul of wit,” and not only is Polonius a pompous old fool, but the entire production is also a pompous old fool.
So, in this version we didn’t have Kenneth Branagh or an extended martial arts scene, which is a mercy. They did, however, have everyone dressed like they were in an emo band. It worked at first, and then got really annoying. Also, there was this gimmick about the ghost speaking sign language, and that kind of kills me. And the play-within-the-play was a free-style hip-hop show. So painful. The thing is, it would be kind of cool to see Hamlet in all sign language with the words voiced over in the theater (or even subtitled). I would probably dig that. But, the way they did this was all wrong. The ghost said something in sign language, and then Hamlet, who apparently was the only character who spoke sign language, would say his lines. Then Hamlet would say his own lines. Fail. I’m not positive Hamlet was the only one who spoke sign language because there was a lot of exaggerated gesturing all around. Like when Hamlet mimed a shotgun to his head when he said, “To be or not to be.”
If Hamlet is not about hip hop and angst, then, what is it about? Hamlet is about being totally unprepared to face reality. Because what is more real than death? Hamlet is about the coolest kid in school (a prince, no less), not about a soulful nerd. Hamlet’s dad could beat up all the other dads; Hamlet has a beautiful girlfriend; Hamlet is spoiled, maybe even a little bit of an asshole, and then, suddenly, his father’s death forces him to recognize that the universe could be a hostile place. Don’t get me wrong – when the play starts he’s not the golden child he was the month before. He goes from being privileged and sheltered to having to face real loss, grief, and betrayal. He wants revenge, but also asks if life is really worth living in a world where those you love the most are the ones plotting against your life. But he didn’t start that way – it’s not just his nature to be melancholy. Fate cut him into shreds the minute before the play starts. Ophelia, too, (but during the play) loses the security of a happy ending, loses her love, loses her father. Both of these bright, advantaged, unprepared children wake up to the brutality of the world around them, and ultimately that awakening destroys them.
That type of tragedy profoundly resonates with me. I realized that both this play and the other favorite I saw in Ashland, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, are about rich people who trust the world to bring only good and then are crushed by reality. Maybe it resonates because of my own personal experiences, but I think there is also something about Hamlet that both transcends cultures and is immediate to American culture. As Nahum says, "Hamlet will be Hamlet. An ineffable tragedy of the human spirit that still resonates, even today." It used to be that the people sheltered from the realities of death were princes, but now look at us, with our hot running water, packaged meat, and sanitized hospitals. Tragedy and death are not part of our everyday lives, and I think many of us are as unprepared to deal with a hostile universe as Hamlet and Ophelia are. When we see our own mortality, we are not eased into it, but caught unawares by a specter we never knew was following us. We are in many ways perpetual children, like Hamlet and Ophelia.
Even then, maybe Hamlet is not tragic. Is it more horrifying to be surprised by death or to live a childhood that causes you to expect it? Although it is not my experience, the latter was probably more common at the time the play was written and probably continues to be so today. Nevertheless, that experience of betrayal by life must, on some level, be universal, whether people experience it young or old, once or many times. There is something innocent and wise and deeply human about both Hamlet and Ophelia because of it.(less)
Maybe it goes without saying that we write differently in letters than we do in email or text. Something about putting pen to paper makes a handwritte...moreMaybe it goes without saying that we write differently in letters than we do in email or text. Something about putting pen to paper makes a handwritten letter more intimate and less imposing than electronic media. We take off the tin-foil hat. Our mistakes are not made invisible by a backspace key, but crossed out with our own hand. We reveal ourselves. And letters to people we love are that much more intimate and revealing, even sentimental. We create something, a product, that you can hold in your hand, and then send it off, like a little piece of ourselves. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is Jonathan Safran Foer’s love letter to New York City.
I’ve seen some readers complain that its sentimentality is manipulative, and even though I can imagine reading the book that way, I can’t understand it. I think this book is one of the most beautiful explorations of love, grief, and humanity that I’ve ever experienced. It’s been years since I last read it, and I wanted to read it again before reviewing, but I’m not really at an emotional place where I could take it right now. What is love without death? And sometimes both are too harsh to look in the face. I have to make a nothing place for them. But I’ve had this review percolating in my brain, and I felt like I needed to share it, even though it’s only impressions.
Traditional wedding vows summarize pretty economically that classic feeling of being in love. I will love you in sickness and health, for richer or poorer, till death do us part. It’s that feeling of “I loved you before I knew you, and I will love you after we’re dust.” Foer does something similar here. He’s saying to the City, “I loved you as a child. I love you as an old man, as an old woman. I loved you when I only had a key to your secrets, but didn’t know what door it belonged to. I love you in the health of family and in the sickness of grief.” And somehow, for right or wrong, it is more meaningful to be reminded of love when we are at our most worthless and broken. This love letter takes place just after the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center, and it gives me the feeling of Foer sewing up the wounds of the city.
I lived in New York a couple of years before the September 11th attack, and I hated the city. When the attacks happened, I lived in one of the religiously fanatical far-away places where a lot of people felt, secretly or openly, that New York deserved to have a symbol of its decadence cut down. I lived in Oregon. People would say that “we” brought this upon ourselves, but, despite my aversion to New York City, that always offended me. New York is not “we” to anyone in Oregon. “We” is Rainie Falls and Mount Pisgah and Voodoo Doughnuts and Dutch Bros and Rice Hill. “We” is the Caveman statue and Powell’s and the stupid Enchanted Forest. The World Trade Center is just as foreign to “us” as Afghanistan or Nicaragua, Dresden or Hiroshima. Not only do I not believe that anyone, English speaking or not, brings that kind of devastation upon themselves, I also do not believe that it is “our” right to speak to the justice of that kind of event. I love where I live, and I feel that same kind of love and care in Foer talking about where he lives. I think it is beautiful. I think that it is not possible for a place that could be so beloved, no matter how much I dislike it myself, to have deserved bombing. I would say the same about Afghanistan, Nicaragua, Dresden, and Hiroshima.
On a lighter and more bitchy note, Nicole Krauss is married to Foer, and her book The History of Love is very, very similar to Extremely Loud. I think that if you’ve read one of those, you can’t really like the other, unfortunately. They are both, to some extent, about the injustices of growing up, but Krauss takes the tone of overcoming adversity, where I think Foer takes the tone of reconciliation and healing. Maybe they both have all of those elements. I’m one thumb up, one thumb down on History of Love, but words cannot tell you how much I love Extremely Loud. Some of the similarities are in the family phrasings, some are in the plots. You can see how they are very different writers who suffer from the disadvantage of living in the same house with another great writer. It’s stressful.
Extremely Loud is American folklore. It is regional, but can’t be held responsible for it. Not that regionalism is necessarily a turn-off, but we want to read about ourselves. Cultures that are familiar but foreign can be suspicious. At the same time, this story does bring me into the culture that was devastated by 9/11. I was not the target of the 9/11 attacks, just like Oskar, the protagonist of this book, was not. But also, we both were. We both are Americans, despite our foreignness. It is one of those muddles that political boundaries make out of culture. We are foreigners and family at the same time. It’s confusing and figurative and sentimental. In fact, all of this, everything in this book, is more figurative and sentimental than many readers care for, but what do you expect from a love letter? (less)
My sister saw The Glass Castle on my coffee table and said, “Oh, I read that. It’s kind of . . .” then she paused and we both were awkwardly silent fo...moreMy sister saw The Glass Castle on my coffee table and said, “Oh, I read that. It’s kind of . . .” then she paused and we both were awkwardly silent for a minute. “Well, I was going to say, it’s kind of like us, a little bit, but not –“
“Yeah,” I said. “I wasn’t going to say it – because not all of it – “
“Yeah, not all of it.”
We didn’t talk about it again.
When I first saw this book, I think I died a little inside because of the cover. I didn’t hate The Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood like I hated The Mermaid Chair or (*shudder*) Bastard out of Carolina, but when there’s a little girl on the cover of a book, looking all innocent, it’s like a movie with the word “Education” in the title. You just know you’re in for a published trip to the psychiatrist’s couch. Kiddy-sex and soul-searching. I’m not saying people shouldn’t tell their stories (I mean, look at me, I’m all up in your website telling my stories), but I do think people should get a handle on what their story is before they try to tell it. Or at least before they make me read it. Sorry, that’s kind of asshole-ish of me to say, but I just think a lot of books with innocent little girls on the cover are really arrogant. They have this sense that since some man did something horrifying, everything that women do, including dancing around a fire with girlfriends or taking exotic lovers, is just part of the loving circle of nature’s healing. I am such a fan of women, and so I take it personally when we look like morons.
This book has absolutely nothing in common with its cover. I haven’t written a review of it before because I think it is a perfect book, and how do you review a perfect book? I’m like Wayne and Garth when they meet Alice Cooper. This book is my Alice Cooper. I’m sure it wouldn’t be everyone’s Alice Cooper, but to me this is exactly what a book should be. Everything about the book is simple, concise, and action-packed. It makes me laugh and it makes me cry. The people are incredible, but deep and smart and human. In some ways, I think this book is the Great American Story, but it’s the story none of us talk about and all of us live. In other ways, the book is so specific and personal to the Walls family that I never would have imagined the stories if I had not been told them.
Virginia Woolf and Rainer Maria Rilke, two of the wisest people I have read, both ask when and how women will be able to tell stories without being self-conscious that they are women. How can we write, or even live, not as reactions to men, but as separate masters of our own experiences? I don’t know where the genders are on the space/time continuum of respecting each other, and I think there are probably gender-related specifics to any story (maybe that’s just natural and not even bad), but there is something about this book that is just human and strong. It is compassionate and unflinching. Oh, I hate adjectives. Just, read the first chapter of this book, and if you don’t think it’s compelling, don’t keep reading because it’s probably not for you.
My family was nomadic, like Jeannette Walls’s family, but, like I say, all of her stories, and my stories, are unique. When I last lived with my parents, it struck me that we never really understand other people’s relationships with each other. I grew up, probably as many of us did, thinking that my parents never really got along and that my mom was a victim of my dad’s anger and wild scheming. But, later, I realized they probably both got something that I never understood out of their relationship. I think a lot of this book is about how we know the people we are close to and, also, never really do – how it is useless to hold other people to our own standards of what love or responsibility looks like. But, still, it is about holding each other responsible. Or, maybe the book is just about her family with no real moral lesson at all. Walls is so loyal to her stories in an almost scientific way. None of the adult outrage that contaminates so many stories of children creeps into Walls’s. She tells you what happened, and maybe how she felt about it at the time, but she doesn’t impose emotion on the reader. Here’s just a small part (well, actually, half . . . I couldn’t resist) of the first chapter to give you a little taste:
Mom was sitting at a booth, studying the menu, when I arrived. She’d made an effort to fix herself up. She wore a bulky gray sweater with only a few light stains, and black leather men’s shoes. She’d washed her face, but her neck and temples were still dark with grime.
She waved enthusiastically when she saw me. “It’s my baby girl!” she called out. I kissed her cheek. Mom had dumped all the plastic packets of soy sauce and duck sauce and hot-and-spicy mustard from the table into her purse. Now she emptied a wooden bowl of dried noodles into it as well. “A little snack for later on,” she explained.
We ordered. Mom chose the Seafood Delight. “You know how I love my seafood,” she said.
She started talking about Picasso. She’d seen a retrospective of his work and decided he was hugely overrated. All the cubist stuff was gimmicky, as far as she was concerned. He hadn’t really done anything worthwhile after his Rose Period.
“I’m worried about you,” I said. “Tell me what I can do to help.”
Her smile faded. “What makes you think I need your help?”
“I’m not rich,” I said. “But I have some money. Tell me what it is you need.”
She thought for a moment. “I could use an electrolysis treatment.”
“I am serious. If a woman looks good, she feels good.”
“Come on, Mom.” I felt my shoulders tightening up, the way they invariably did during these conversations. “I’m talking about something that could help you change your life, make it better.”
“You want to help me change my life?” Mom asked. “I’m fine. You’re the one who needs help. Your values are all confused.”
“Mom, I saw you picking through trash in the East Village a few days ago.”
“Well, people in this country are too wasteful. It’s my way of recycling.” She took a bite of her Seafood Delight. “Why didn’t you say hello?”
“I was too ashamed, Mom. I hid.”
Mom pointed her chopsticks at me. “You see?” she said. “Right there. That’s exactly what I’m saying. You’re way too easily embarrassed. Your father and I are who we are. Accept it.”
“And what am I supposed to tell people about my parents?”
“Just tell the truth,” Mom said. “That’s simple enough.”
It’s been a while since I read this book, so a lot of the stories aren’t fresh in my mind, but some are so vivid to me that I think of them whenever I see a trash can or think of the desert. In high school, I thought that American history was the most boring topic imaginable. Then, in college, I took a class called the History of Women in the U.S., and I realized that I think the history of industry and conquest is mind-numbing, but the history of actual people is riveting. The Glass Castle is a real, honest history (or as honest as histories can be) of people in America. It is so close to me and so foreign in just the way this country is.
It is also, in a way, a tribute to family oral histories. My dad has a . . . loose . . . relationship with the truth, as I’ve probably mentioned on this site before. In the past couple of years, every time I see one of my siblings, we sit around and tell stories from my dad or about my dad, trying to weed out what actually happened, what got a nice polish in the story factory, and what is an outright lie. I get that same feeling from this book – of siblings sitting around and saying, “Do you remember . . .” and “You weren’t there this one time . . .” or “No, that’s just what Dad said happened, what actually happened was . . .” I’m sure someday, my siblings and I will put together a history of our own, since every one of us seems to have inherited the storytelling gene. Whatever I write will be in some way inspired by this book.(less)
Twilight follows what I think has become one of the great traditional plotlines: star-crossed vampire/human truelove. So, move aside, Jack London. In...moreTwilight follows what I think has become one of the great traditional plotlines: star-crossed vampire/human truelove. So, move aside, Jack London. In acknowledging my friend Ms. Meyer’s role in developing this new tradition, I feel like the first important thing to say is that Stephenie Meyer is not The Man. While most criticisms of the Twilight series are empirically true, it is nevertheless also true that this series is ubiquitously influential in culture right now, and I don’t think it’s influential in the same way as the War on Terror, or even Sarah Palin. The War and Palin are both The Man in ways that I refuse to believe Ms. Meyer is. I do concede, however, that Stephenie Meyer is a polished and packaged product of culture, and that she is the same package, in almost every way, as me. I don’t care about age or cynicism, I am the audience for this book. If you want to see my reaction summed up much more quickly than I plan to, I refer you to Paul Bryant’s Georgia . To introduce you more thoroughly to the audience for whom this book was written, I’ll start with a little summary of the story.
Bella arrives, at the opening of the story, in the small town of Forks, Washington, and she’s not thrilled. She’s like, A little town, oh, it's a quiet village - ev'ry day like the one before. Little town full of little people, waking up to say, bonjour!
She checks in at school, which is awkward because everyone’s staring and whatnot. They’re all, Look there she goes that girl is strange, no question, dazed and distracted, can't you tell? Never part of any crowd, 'cause her head's up on some cloud. No denying she's a funny girl that Bella.
Even her father doesn’t really get her and goes around thinking, Look there she goes that girl is so peculiar. I wonder if she's feeling well. With a dreamy far-off look and her nose stuck in a book, what a puzzle to the rest of us is Bella!
Even when she makes friends, they still just don’t understand that she’s an old soul – too old for dances and shit like that. Everyone still wants to be her friend, though, and they go around whispering, Look there she goes a girl who's strange but special, a most peculiar mad'moiselle. It's a pity and a sin, she doesn't quite fit in, 'cause she really is a funny girl – a beauty but a funny girl. She really is a funny girl – that Bella!
If, after that brief summary, you don’t have a very particular song (and maybe some dance moves that you made up to go with the song at one time or another in your life) stuck in your head, then you are not the designated audience for Twilight. I’m not even intending to be disrespectful or critical when I say that the resonance people feel with Twilight is the resonance of Disney. It is the dividing line between those who fall in love with this story, and those who can’t stand looking at the cover art. Interestingly, though, I think most of the people who cringe at the mention of The Twilight Saga would still go see a new Pixar movie or even Beauty and the Beast if it was re-released on the big screen. It’s got the candlestick and the teacup, right? Who doesn’t like to see inanimate objects sing and dance? It’s just awesome. Disney, however, is totally The Man. Disney is, like, whatever is above The Man telling The Man what to do. I would call it The Superman, but I don’t want it to get a big head.
Disney is smoother than Twilight because it knows that you can’t just present the story of a young, beautiful girl falling in love with a potential abuser without including a catchy tune and some dancing flatware. In that way, I guess it’s a mixed blessing that the movie version of Twilight is so freaking boring and awkward. It gives you time to reflect on whether it’s not a little convenient that our girl thinks it’s so groovy to have a vampire stalk her in her own bedroom. It lets you stop and think that undying for love might not be all it’s cracked up to be. The book version has lots of sparkles, though, and cars flying in every direction, so you don’t have to dwell on the unfortunate implications of the central relationship unless you’re inclined to. But, let’s face it, most of us have contemplated that at one time or another. If you haven’t, now’s your chance. What do you think about a cartoon that encourages little girls to stay in abusive relationships because underneath the gruff exterior of the abuser lies the heart of a prince? What do you think about a book that has women across the country swooning at a cadaverous stalker watching a teenage girl sleep?
I’ll tell you what I think: it totally doesn’t bother me. I mean, if those aren’t the implications that the storytellers were intending (and I don’t necessarily think they are), then oops!, but that’s the extent of my criticism. On the other hand, I think it’s equally possible that those are the implications that the storytellers intended, and, if so, they are both pretty effective in being persuasive and single-minded in their goals. The messages might be sugar-coated, but they’re still obvious. They’re not sneaky or underhanded. I don’t like it when I feel like an author is trying to sneak around with themes, but if I just disagree, it’s not so bad. I think they’re good stories, too, despite their unfortunate messages, and they are made all the better by their singing and sparkles. Whether we like it or not, stories that idealize stalking and teach girls to try reforming their abusers through patience and fancy dresses are deeply ingrained in (at least) Western culture. It seems possible that these stories are even products of a conflicted nature in humanity. Men want the virgin/whore; women want the beast/god. But, also, none of us really want those people because they’re freaky. We don’t know what we want.
(Arguably, the moral of Beauty and the Beast is that looks aren’t everything, and the moral of Twilight is that true love waits. I think those are less interesting messages within the stories, so I’m not going to address them. They are obviously there, though, so disagree as you wish.)
Maybe there is a little Harold Bloom in all of us, mentally applying for the role of literary gatekeeper every time we read a book we don’t like. I have read criticisms of Twilight that are both hilarious and poignant, and, like I say, this book has a very specific audience. When I hear criticisms, though, they usually just make me really sad. A girl I know is a mother of three young kids and lives out in the middle of nowhere. At the time she read Twilight she was mostly staying home (again, in the middle of nowhere) and being a mom. She hated the book and had two criticisms. First, she thought that the clothes were really dorky (and, it’s true, the clothes are distracting). Second, every time she looked at Stephenie Meyer’s picture on the back, it bugged her because she thought about how Meyer is “just a mom,” as though a mom shouldn’t have a valuable voice in literature.
I hate that on a lot of levels. I hate the idea of limiting literature to what I agree with, and I hate the idea of taking the voice of moms out of any part of culture. It also seems like a creepy excuse for nonparticipation to say that an entire group of people, to which you belong, shouldn’t be respected in the literary world. I’m not trying to say that Stephenie Meyer represents all moms, but I do think that a lot of criticism I have read of her writing either dismisses her as The Man or as a mom. It reflects the idea that literature should be a table at which only the cool kids sit – or at which the cool kids can’t sit. I don’t know who’s supposed to sit there.
There are a lot of totally valid reasons to dislike any book. I recognize this book’s faults, but I think that one of its greatest strengths is that it was written by a mom. I think it is a fun, hilarious, action-packed story. I think that Stephenie Meyer has story-telling skillz and that you can’t teach that. Henry James might have had a big vocabulary, but he couldn’t tell a story to save his life. Ms. Meyer could benefit from reading the dictionary once or twice, but she already has what you need if you find yourself sitting around a campfire. Possibly, she could use just a dash of self-awareness, but too much self-awareness can ruin any good story – just look at Dave Eggers. Honestly, I would rather be brave enough to write Twilight than smart enough to criticize it.
It’s funny to say, but this book actually inspired a real crisis of faith in my life. I’ve had some occasions where I’ve had major fallings out with God and then other occasions where I’m a big fan – like ya do. A crisis of faith is not unusual for me. There’s this thing that goes down in mainstream Christianity that is really annoying (I’m sure it happens in other religions, too, but I’m talking totally pop culture Christianity here so that my point makes sense). It’s this thing where people will frame a story as though the hero’s dreams are sure to fail, but then, suddenly, through the power of prayer, God swoops down and fixes everything in a magical money donation. Don’t get me wrong; magical money donations are the bomb. But does that mean that for those whose magical money didn’t come through, God’s showing that he’s angry with them? Does God speak in a reward/punishment system? I don’t think so, but I don’t really know anything about it. I know that in that situation, you’re supposed to say that God has a better plan, but that lacks something to me, also. To be clear, this isn’t a criticism that I’m making of religion in general, or even of Christianity in general, but of this Disneyland Christianity that is everywhere in America. It’s a religion of total convenience where everything has a vague, cliché explanation and, if it doesn’t, we don’t look at it. And the way people tell these stories is like they’re telling the plot of the newest movie about a down-and-out kid’s sports team. The stories are all informed by the plot development of Disney movies.
Like this Disney filter, Edward and Bella’s relationship is very convenient. Edward is immortal and can give immortality. He watches over Bella. His desire for Bella is consuming both physically and emotionally. Bella’s maturity alienates her from other humans. She is physically vulnerable. She is smart and values passion over care for her life. Edward is the Disney god and Bella his disciple. I really don’t mean to be disrespectful when I say I’ve heard God and His people described just this way many times. I don’t know why I hadn’t really thought about this before I read Twilight, but from thinking about the silly convenience of the Edward/Bella relationship, a lot of real things fall apart for me. Like, if we believe that God is really real (not just abstractly real) and we think that God is with us all the time like Edward is with Bella, why isn’t that creepy? I know I think it’s creepy with Edward, but why not with God? I think it’s because we believe God is there when we’re thinking about Him and not when we’re not. I think Jesus has become a sparkly, romantic immortal with super-strength who thinks you’re so awesome he can’t take his eyes off of you and gives you cars sometimes. This is obviously a problem, but I think any generation will interpret traditional writings through a contemporary cultural lens, so it’s not shocking. It’s just, perhaps, not the lens most of us would prefer.
On the other hand, if we think we’re completely alone when we aren’t with humans, no possibility for anything supernatural or spiritual, that seems limited and conveniently clean, too. I don’t have an answer, and it seems like it’s not really possible to have an answer that’s not annoyingly convenient on some level.
Also, I'm not saying this because I think Stephenie Meyer invented the Disney Jesus, but because I think it helps explain Twilight's resonance in society. I think Meyer expressed something very simple that both culture and religion have prepared people to receive.
It is probably important to say, again, that I’d be surprised to find out that Stephenie Meyer is part of a vast conspiracy to subdue Western civilization by reducing our worldview to clichés. Plus, I think that when someone’s worldview is a cliché, patronizing them out of it isn’t really the way to go (yeah, you know who you are. No, not you – you in the back. That’s right). Also, what do I know? Maybe, Jesus really is sparkly and has a warehouse full of new cars. It is just as legitimate to say that I don’t believe that because I don’t want to as that someone else believes it because they do want to. *sigh*
This may seem backwards, but I started reading Twilight in the mood for something fun and silly and not well written, and so I enjoyed (almost) every minute of the series. In a more anti-Disney mood, I probably I would have wanted to burn them for the weak and whiny heroine and glorification of stalking.
I think of these books like the show Friends, though. Everything works out well for everyone by the end of the episode, and so despite appalling personal choices and caricatured personalities, the stories are comforting. I don't know whether I think it's worse to be comforted by stories that present unhealthy worldviews, or to expect books to represent literal reality. Both seem suspicious, but the first seems more fun. I appreciate and think it's hilarious that Meyer loves her characters so much that she'll sacrifice anything in the plot to make things turn out well for them. I never feel like she is trying to impress me, but only writing what she wants have happen.
The main criticism I hear of these books is that the love story is completely unrealistic. This is absolutely true, but it is also a series about vegetarian vampire superheroes, so I think it's important to have a little perspective about realism. I hope that we are not so culturally bankrupt as to go to Friends for dating advice or vampire stories for authentic representations of love. Unfortunately, we actually might be that bankrupt, and I sadly acknowledge my own experience with teen girls and grown women taking these books VERY seriously. I am reluctant, however, to be angry with books I thought were so silly and fun only because of other people being silly in a not fun way.
To conclude, I’m planning to petition Tim Burton to do a song-and-dance version of the Twilight movie. It will be awesome. For the vampires, we will cast all professional dancers, and for the normals we’ll cast normals. I mean, we gots a meadow scene, fast cars, and a baseball scene in here! Not to insult the My Dinner With Andre version, but my version is going to kick ass. We’ll throw in a little irony, music up the melodrama, and show the haters what a story looks like. You’ll love it.(less)