Saturday, August 9, 2008

Twilight Mania

So I finally gave in to Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series, a series which has spawned a huge following among teen girls, a handful of considerate boyfriends, and a few groups of dedicated mothers. This succumbing has much to do with finding wounded copies of the books in a donation pile, and a large dose of curiosity as to what makes these books so palatable to girls under eighteen. Let’s not lie; it may also have a little to do with the impending release of a movie based on the first novel, “Twilight,” starring Robert Pattison (of Harry Potter fame, “Cedric”) in the lead male role.

If you haven’t observed this national vampire obsession, look at display tables in any major bookstore. Chances are there is a prominently featured table with Meyer’s novels to catch the eye, each with arresting artwork in red, black, and white. The Twilight series was first published in 2005, and now contains four books: “Twilight”, “New Moon”, “Eclipse”, and “Breaking Dawn”, which was released August 1st at midnight. The books have become immensely popular in the manner of the Harry Potter phenomenon: fan websites, book release parties, and record-breaking sales. Meyer has been compared to Harry Potter author Rowling quite often. Rowling rose from obscurity as a single mother in Edinburgh to one of Britain’s most wealthy citizens. Meyer was a Mormon housewife who has rocketed to popularity with her gothic sagas. In the Twilight series, Meyer creates a tension-filled romance between the pale and slender Bella Swan and her immortal, godlike lover Edward Cullen, who happens to be a vampire.

Isabella Swan (Bella) moves to Forks to live with her father, a police chief. At her new high school, she makes the acquaintance of Edward Cullen, whose apparent distaste for her and exquisite good looks fill her with alternating desire and confusion. Edward and his family of beautiful outcasts quite unlike other Forks residents, and the answers are forthcoming and not disappointing. The Cullens are a coven of vampires who refuse to become monsters by attacking humans, but try to content themselves with animal prey instead. Though believing himself to be putting Bella in danger by his presence, Edward is unable to stay away from her, and the two begin their tumultuous relationship. Bella’s habit of landing in a plethora of dangerous situations (being followed by less exemplary vampires who want her blood) propels the dramatic plot.

Despite enjoying the read, my complaints against the books remain. Firstly, the characters have awkward and pretentious names (“Bella”). Secondly, the book is gushingly and poorly written in many places:

“About three things I was absolutely positive. First, Edward was a vampire. Second, there was part of him – and I didn’t know how potent that part might be – that thirsted for my blood. And third, I was unconditionally and irrevocably in love with him.”

I don’t think that YA fiction has to be poorly written in order to be accessible. C.S. Lewis wrote that one knows a children’s (or a young adult’s) book is well written if it is read by persons of any age. The Twilight’s fan base largely tends to be female teenagers, although this does have aberrations.

Thirdly, although I find that Edward is an attractive, Byronic, Rochester-like character (as any female reader might), he is often commanding and domineering, and speaks for Bella. Bella, to her credit, occasionally breaks out of her ecstatic love-induced coma to mention to Edward that “I can’t always be Lois Lane…I want to be Superman, too.”

On the positive side, the Twilight series has a heroin-like plot which hooks the reader. I was up until the early hours of the morning wading through the first book. Stephanie Meyer may not be Murakami, but she can craft a brisk plot and many consider her to be giving J.K. Rowling a run for her money. Also, as a new resident of the Northwest, I am rather partial to the series’ setting in Forks, Washington, allegedly the rainiest location in the United States.

Edward’s pseudo-erotic desire to drink Bella’s blood is a question of concern. The theme of desire makes up a very large part of the novel’s premise: Bella has an insatiable desire for Edward’s touch, Edward has an insatiable desire for Bella’s blood, and neither of these themes seem to be suitable for the ten year girls to whom I have sold “Twilight.”

Parents might be glad to have their daughters reading, but I would much rather hand them Rowling’s books instead of Meyer’s. The Harry Potter series appeals to children of both sexes and multiple ages, and addresses timeless themes of loyalty, greed, death, and the complex moral issues involved in the battle between good and evil.

If you like a brisk, compelling plot, tend towards tales of eternal love and damnation, or want to know more about the most recent national best-seller craze, you might as well try “Twilight” before the movie comes out.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

"Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day" by Winifred Watson

Winifred Watson had never been to a nightclub in her life. Yet, from her pen came the 1938 Cinderella story of a dowdy British governess who by chance appointment discovers the glamorous dazzling nightlife of London, and in the process, herself. Accustomed to reading Watson’s provincial historical romances, Watson’s fans were surprised when she spun a tale of cocktails, cocaine, and jazz singers.

Miss Pettigrew is a woman who is on her last stretch, one step away from financial and emotional bankruptcy. Her final hope is an appointment with a Miss LaFosse, a beauty and jazz singer in negligee. Miss LaFosse instantly recruits Miss Pettigrew to help manage the string of lovers that weave in and out of her boudoir: Phil, Nick (a devilish Lothario who enslaves Miss LaFosse’s affections), and Michael (an intemperate man wishing to marry the beautiful singer). Due to Miss LaFosse’s quick affection and confidence in Miss Pettigrew’s talents, Miss Pettigrew finds herself able to see herself as more than a lonely woman past her prime, and exchange her poor self-esteem and maiden-aunt moralizations for a sudden ring of friends, affirmation, and even love.

Any review I write will inevitably spoil the freshness of this book. The development of Miss Pettigrew’s self-confidence over a single day is charming and inspiring. I only wish I could hug Guinevere Pettigrew, and doubt that the 2008 movie adaptation will stand up to the endearing characterizations Watson sketches.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

A Detour from the Booker

Trenton Lee Stewart seems unafraid to pick up a few children’s lit archetypes in his book “The Mysterious Benedict Society”: four remarkable and lovable children (albeit one slightly less lovable than the others), missing parental figures, the kind male guardian, the boarding house/ evil school scenario, and themes of mind control and world domination. But within the archetypes, Stewart creates his own brand of magic. One becomes fond of Reynie Muldoon’s human perception, Sticky Washington’s nervous glasses cleaning habit, Constance Contraire’s irritability (can you guess the reason for this?), and Kate Wetherall’s acrobatic maneuvering and endlessly helpful red bucket.

The intelligent writing, Carson Ellis’s charming illustrations, presence of narcolepsy, the in-text puzzles, and memorable characters like Kate Wetherall make this book a must-read for those interested in children’s lit. As soon as I finished the book, I ran out to buy the sequel.