Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Man of the Hour

Apparently, there is a finite number of books one can expect to read in one's lifetime, provided that one lives to seventy or eighty. This makes reading seem entirely pointless. There isn't enough time to read every good book out there, or even the guilty pleasure books - and what about re-readings? And the fact that literature is constantly, endlessly being produced? "The whole world is swarming with commentaries; of authors there is a great dearth" wrote Montaigne in the sixteenth century; how much more true is this today?

I have found the solution to this dilemma. Being James Wood. Acknowledged as the best critic of his generation by Harold Bloom, Susan Sontag, and others, Wood is which the Harvard Crimson writes "criticizes with purpose and insight." He writes essays, he writes books, writes book reviews, is on staff for the New Yorker and a professor at Harvard. I'm sure he travels. As a friend said, Wood can go anywhere - anywhere in the world. He just shows up and says "I'm James Wood" and people will say, "We've been waiting for you. We will pay you money to just read and be yourself."

Of course I understand that, like many other noble ventures, literary criticism does not pay especially well unless one is a Superstar Critic like Wood or Harold Bloom or Michiko Kakutani. I also know that there are a slew of talented literary critics both amateur and professional that don't reap the rewards of being a Superstar Critic, but still engage literature and criticize with both "purpose and insight." It is a discipline that must be less glamorous than it appears on the outside - but only slightly less. (Books in the mail, submersion in literary conversation, working from home, writing in coffee shops...)

James Wood's book, How Fiction Works, was a treat. I bought it with my birthday money last year. Not only was it beautifully designed in both hardcover and paperback, but written passionately and concisely. Even more impressive was the intimate disclosure that he only used examples from books he had in his personal library.

My question is: how does one become James Wood?

This is how Wikipedia notates his career path:
a) born to a professor (of zoology)
b) attended good schools (eg. Eton) because of singing voice
c) Cambridge
d) prizes
e) literary reviews (New Republic, Guardian)
f) more literary reviews
g) novel, essays
h) Harvard (Professor of the Practice of Literary Criticism)
i) New Yorker, staff writer

Hmmm... I have obviously screwed up on the first two. Also, Wood is British, which lends him authority in American letters. Can't be helped.

Gregory Wolfe, editor and founder of the Seattle-based literary quarterly Image: A Journal of the Arts and Religion (more to come on Image), mentioned that he went to Oxford to teach himself the process of criticism. This intrigues me - how does one learn the art of criticism? Why are there not as many books on the art of criticism as there are on the art of fiction? (Fiction interests a wider community of readers, I suppose.)

As with other disciplines, it is a practice involving both imitation and innovation: being immersed in preceding criticism, and responding to it. It is for this reason that I picked up a copy of Henry James' literary criticism and Virginia Woolf's Common Reader a few nights ago, hoping both will rub off on me.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Conversations at the Register

I sold a woman Machiavelli's Art of War today. Though a maths teacher, she had recently taken a seminar recently on Machiavelli and developed a fascination. I confessed that I had never read the Prince, and she said that she hadn't read it until very recently either.

"Isn't it modeled on Cesar Borgia?" I asked, remembering also that the familiar picture of Jesus was based on Cesare Borgia's handsome, degenerate face (learned from Gregory Maguire's Mirror Mirror).

She said that it was, and brightened a little. In a flurry of educating she told me the Prince was a treatise sent to Lorenzo de Medici as a job application, that she found Machiavelli realistic rather than cynical. "When he says 'armored'" she said enthusiastically, "he means prepared..." She compared 21st century North America to 15th century Italy, suggested that Obama had certainly read the Prince, and that it is as timely a read now as it was in it's original context. She passionately convinced me and thus the Prince is moving up my reading list several notches.

The same woman later returned for a brief but happy discussion of marvelous comics: Tintin and Asterix and Obelix.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

I've Heard Proust Can Change Your Life

For the past month I've been reading Swann's Way, the first book in the seven volume cycle that makes up Marcel Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu, or the Remembrance of Things Past. Proust is a literary catch-word. If you toss a reference to Proust into a milieu, chances are your companions will either contest what you have (glibly) said, or agree for form's sake. A well-timed mention of this literateur elevates conversation, and endows one with the appearance of cosmopolitanism, erudition, and initiation into the Great Mysteries. (This is observation, not opinion.) Truthfully, I decided I must read Proust when Max Medina gave Lorelei Gilmore a copy of Swann's Way on Gilmore Girls. And I think Rory (my pace-setter, my bookly challenger)had already read it. The book has sat on my shelf for at least six months waiting for the exact hallowed moment when I felt sufficiently intelligent enough to read it. It seems that this was the fated week in which to finish Swann's Way, because there was Alex Ross' essay in the New Yorker about fictional composition in literature, using the piano leitmotif Swann associates with his love for Odette as a central example.

It was both more readable than I expected, and less so. Proust is not a codified author - he is not an Eliot or a Pound or Djuna Barnes, needing continuous referencing. But one does need to pay attention to his blocks of text and his endless verbosity. Swann's Way was more or less a stream of constantly cascading thoughts; not stream of consciousness, but a microscope which looks at an intricate and sometimes ornamental world and provides every noticeable motive, every angle, with a beautiful word or explanatory phrase. Take this beautiful description of rain beginning to fall: "A little tap on the window-pane, as though something had struck it, followed by a plentiful light falling sound, as of grains of sand being sprinkled from a window overhead, gradually spreading, intensifying, acquiring a regular rhythm, becoming fluid, sonorous, musical, immeasurable, universal: it was the rain."

Depending on your sensibilities, you might find Proust haunting, evocative and lush. If you prefer Hemingway's American "one true sentence" method, Proust will lead you through a labyrinth instead of down the main street. If he can explain it in fifty words instead of ten, he will. The author might tantalize you or frustrate you. (Both, in my case.)

It seems I am fated to arrive at opinions of authors that are not only obvious, but ubiquious. After reading Wodehouse, I acknowledged how funnily he wrote his delightful English comedies. Proust is known for his gilded prose and his rambling observations. Ironically, the narrator talks so much at length about beauty and the senses - especially when discussing the aesthetic thrills of reading Bergotte's ecstatic prose. The very process he describes is the one taking place for the reader - at least, for this reader: "...if he had hit upon some great truth, or upon the name of a historic cathedral, he would break off his narrative, and in an invocation, an apostrophe, a long prayer, would give free rein to those exhalations which, in the earlier volumes, had been immanent in his prose, discernible only in a rippling of its surface..." This is exactly Proust's method, light storytelling descending into rapture.

The plot is minimal. The narrator, unnamed in this novel but assumed to be Proust, recalls the landscape of his bedroom as he falls asleep, his mother's late night Freudian kisses, the town he lived in as a child, Combray. There are two paths leading away from his house, the Guermantes Way and Swann's Way, and is the namesake of the latter that forms the protagonist of the third segment of the book and the first segment to continuously engage one narrative, "Swann in Love."

Proust cannot stop making metaphors. His narrator is so entrenched in obsessive thinking that one wants to yell at him to get out of his own head. Yet, therein lies the beauty - take this example, the narrator is discussing being addressed by his first name...
"Recalling, some time later, what I have felt at the time, I distinguished the impression of having been held for a moment in her mouth, myself, naked, without any of the social attributes which belonged equally to her other playmates and, when she used my surname, to my parents, accessories of which her lips - by the effort she made, a little after her father's manner, to articulate the words to which she wished to give a special emphasis - had the air of stripping, of divesting me, like the skin from a fruit of which one can swallow only the pulp..."

I showed Kristin and Patrick the pages, demonstrating the difficulty of reading Proust's Saramago-like blocks of text, the run-on sentences and plentiful commas. Patrick, looking at the text, exclaimed "Oh! He writes in Patrick sentences!"

August is slipping away and soon we will be in autumn, and as much as I'd like to hang onto these long hours of Northwestern sunlight, the idea of cool, sharp air and back-to-school enthusiasm and bright fall foliage appeals to me; it must be the enjoyable feeling of inevitable change. Despite the book's constant references to the ending of winter and cold early spring, this is a wonderful book to read in the autumn, as the smell of damp, decaying leaves fill us with a sense of wistfulness and memory, and the cool air drives us indoors to sip hot beverages. Join Proust's narrator as he sips his tea and dips his madeleine biscuit in the brew (Kristin says that one is able to buy these cookies at Trader Joe's), and ruminate in the sensuous invocation of memory.

Friday, August 21, 2009

(Oh no)

A quote from wikipedia for the word bibliophilia:

"Bibliophilia is not to be confused with bibliomania, an obsessive-compulsive disorder involving the collecting of books to the point where social relations or health are damaged, and in which the mere fact that an object is a book is sufficient for it to be collected or loved."

And bibliomania is
"...characterized by purchasing multiple copies of the same book and edition and the accumulation of the same book and edition and the accumulation of books beyond possible capacity of use or enjoyment..."

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The School of Hard Knocks

It is my current hope to go to graduate school for English literature next year: a certain school in a certain place, both a goal and an insurmountable challenge. Having been out of college for a year already, and having graduated as a music major, I am rusty.

Trying to compensate, I googled “books every english major has read” but have had a difficult time finding a list that suggests what every (generalized) English major should have read by the time of (undergraduate) graduation. As a person who attended a high school whose meager syllabus prescribed the study of one novel, one play and four poems a year, and who could only scrape enough college literature credits for a minor, I feel woefully behind. Most American kids got a head start in AP English (seriously – who are those freaks who read Ulysses in high school?). American high schools may have their weaknesses, but a strong and ambitious push to read literature consistently is not one of them.

There are gaps, and I fear that when it comes to the important authors I have read, I’ve read the wrong works. I’ve read Jane Austen, some Bronte, one George Eliot, Homer and Virgil (translations), one Dickens, one Dostoyevsky, one Tolstoy. I haven’t read Madam Bovary yet, or Heart of Darkness or Brave New World or Animal Farm. I’ve read Joyce but no Beckett, and Willa Cather but no Twain. King Lear and Othello and Hamlet, but not Macbeth or Richard III or Henry V.

The lists are being drawn and I’m planning a time table that will stretch through to this January. No more leisurely reading - it’s time to homeschool myself. I’ve decided to call this plan “The School of Hard Knocks”. When I told Kristin, she looked at me flatly and shook her head. “Christy, that’s not what the school of hard knocks is.” Regardless – let it stand.

I'm pretty sure this plan may fail, like my plan to read all the Booker winners last year, and my plan to learn French in the car, or my plan to knit an afghan two years ago, or become a violinist. Oh well. No harm in trying with the foreknowledge that one might fail. At the very least, I will have read some of the Great Books. That's not so bad.

This is what I have so far:

Divine Comedy - Dante
Canterbury Tales - Chaucer
Paradise Lost - Milton
Faerie Queen - Spenser
Gawain & the Green Knight

Mill on the Floss - Eliot
Brothers Karamazov - Dostoyevsky
Swann’s Way - Proust
Madame Bovary - Flaubert
Heart of Darkness - Conrad
Brave New World - Huxley
Great Expectations - Dickens
Animal Farm - Orwell
(Tom Jones? Tristram Shandy? Clarissa? Evelina?)

Richard III
Winter’s Tale
Henry V
Waiting for Godot - Beckett
Lysistrata –Aristophanes
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? – Albee
Rosenkrantz and Guilderstern are Dead – Stoppard

Utopia – More
The Prince – Machiavelli
Leviathan - Hobbes

Any suggestions?

Friday, August 14, 2009

From Airline #166, Seat 20 F

Aside from working out how many extra pairs of underwear you need, the hardest part of traveling - or perhaps the most enjoyable challenge - is what book (or books) to bring on the plane. Should they be fluffy beach reads? A pot-boiler? Something you were embarrassed to read in front of your flatmate? Or perhaps something you had always meant to read and now were forcing yourself to read in a small enclosed space surrounded by strangers, sustained only by diet Coke (spilled on shirt) and pretzels (nutritive content = 0)?

After making the trusty pro/con list, I brought with me a short story collection I'd meant to read for a while, Flannery O'Connor's A Good Man is Hard to Find, and a book highly recommended by several co-workers, Helen De Witt's Last Samurai.

I read the O'Connor second, discovering why her reputation for an odd combination of grace and the grotesque is deserved. O'Connor's South is peopled with those who are backwards, squinting, freckled, sullen, sweaty and missing limbs. Her characters are bigots, racists, idiots, liars and frauds, and yet, for all their homeliness and pettishness, often strive for salvation. In the short story "A Good Man is Hard to Find" a ridiculous old woman exhorts the Misfit, a serial killer, to strive for goodness while she is being held at (his) gunpoint. In another, a young Bible salesman surprisingly erodes the defenses of an educated female atheist with a prosthetic leg. An anxious woman's beloved property and sense of safety is invaded by three uncontrollable boys. These short stories are slices of life that I pray I will never have to live. Despite the apparent ugliness of life in the South that O'Connor depicts, the recurrence of celestial imagery, the moon and the sun and the planets, drew me. The sun sets like a blood red elevated Host; there are planets shimmering in the radiant tail feathers of a peacock. These images are mirages in a barren landscape. Today, I sold a book of O'Connor's spiritual writings to a man and confessed my recent and belated introduction to her fiction. "You'll have to read more," he said firmly and I sheepishly said that I would. So now I must.

The Last Samurai (note: not at all the same as the movie starring Tom Cruise) was devoured, shooting onto my list of favorite books. Sybilla is highly intellectually gifted single mother living in London on a valuable work permit. Her son Ludo is a genius and a prodigy: he reads Homer in the original Greek at the age of four, teaches himself Latin and Japanese and algebra, at six reads books on aerodynamics, etc. With no father figure for Ludo, Sybilla resorts to a "masterpiece of modern cinema", Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, which she and Ludo watch continuously. The movie forms a constant form of reference for the novel with film dialogue, and directorial notes.

It is a dazzling virtuosic experiment with linguistics, the humanities and the sciences, written with courage and determination. The dialogue is emphatic and real, the stories the author tells full of bravado and slyness. I learned to read Greek while reading this novel! In my journal shortly after finishing the novel I could not help but gush: "De Witt deserves the Booker, the Pulitzer, the Nobel for this gift to humankind!" (Which may be too strong, but...only barely.)I cannot praise it highly enough; it is a book which prizes the intellect but is propelled by a pathos that lays beneath the surface and speaks for itself. The Last Samurai is a rare book which does not have to sacrifice sharp intelligence for the sake of being an engaging read. Read it. Read it. (Jedi-Mind-Trick.) Read it.


The church I attend, St. Paul's Episcopal, follows the Lectionary, a set schedule of scripture readings for a given day or service usually containing a psalm, a reading from the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the Gospel. In this way, the entire Bible is read during a four year cycle. This is common Christian liturgical practice inherited from Judaism, though I was only introduced to it in college. This participation in a cycle enables one church to be in community with all other churches following the Lectionary; it also ensures that we don't just read publicly the parts of the Bible we feel comfortable with and enjoy listening to, but also the parts we prefer not to hear (ie. "dash their infants against the rocks") and the parts we'd rather others not connect to us as a group. This also provides the person preaching with the creative challenge of teasing out a theme or a story or a thought which threads through the reading, presenting a holistic sermon to the community. I cannot rid myself of applying this method to the books I'm reading; the lectionary of imaginative literature. How do these disparate stories rub up against each other? What friction do the narratives create? Avoiding moralizing, what do O'Connor's short stories and De Witt's novel have to say to each other? I don't have answers, but the questions ruminate and linger.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Bulwer-Lytton Contestant

Read the worst sentence today, revealed to me by my coworker Stan, from Pat Conroy's new book, South of Broad. (Note: Have not read the rest of the book; it may be a literary success...)
It is on the first page of the novel and the narrator is discussing his loyalty to Charleston, South Carolina. Here is the sentence:

"I carry the delicate porcelain beauty of Charleston like the hinged shell of some soft-tissued mollusk. My soul is peninsula-shaped and sun-hardened and river-swollen."

I have many questions about the aptness of comparing the love of place to "soft-tissued mollusks". My soul is probably Mesa-shaped or Rainforest-hardened. Yours is probably Butte-shaped.

Saturday, August 8, 2009


Several weeks ago, I suddenly caught Bloomsbury fever. This happens, I think, from time to time for no apparent reason but random osmosis. It's like the weird fascination I have for Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes (and I know I'm not alone). Susan Sellers' novel Vanessa and Virginia kept on sneaking up on me in lit-blog posts and newspaper reviews and on bookshelves. Eventually, succumbing, I checked it out of the library and began to read it on the bus I took to see Othello. I have experienced several books like this recently; it is as if there is a trap door that is suddenly opened and as one sits to read (or stands), one plunges suddenly down twenty-five levels and (in the manner of Dumbledore's pensieve) there is a smudging of colors and sounds and all that flows in and around your brain is Words. It sounds very dramatic, I know, but oh well.

Vanessa and Virginia is, as one might imagine, about those famously intelligent and talented sisters, the writer Virginia Woolf and the artist Vanessa Bell. The novel takes the form of a letter to Virginia from Vanessa, a loving chronicle of their childhoods, their lives and careers, their simultaneous friendship and relentless rivalry. Sellers credits Hermione Lee's biography of Virginia Woolf as a major source for her work, and having read the biography the influence is clear. The novel might have fallen flat because of its linear (and mostly factually supported) narrative if it wasn't for Sellers' ripe language and her descriptive emphasis on the senses (Vanessa is an artist, after all).

The story has no hidden twists if one is acquainted with the members of the Bloomsbury group, though I was suprised by the suggestion of incestuous tendencies between the Stephens children. Vanessa is the older sister, the "saint", the internal processor, the nurturing mother-figure to be depended upon. Virginia is a verbally virtuosic, mentally agile child who dazzles and impresses dinner guests, but her witty and often cruel remarks makes her sister nervous. After the death of their parents, the sisters move into their Bloomsbury apartment, whether they quickly became to assemble a host of the most influential personalities and talents of early twentieth century Britain and begin to establish the reputation of the Bloomsbury group, greatly enhanced by the success of Woolf's novels. Their paths were to part: Vanessa marries first, but it is Virginia who finds a true partnership in her husband, Leonard. Vanessa has children, and her painting is successful, but she is never able to achieve financial success with her art as Virginia does with her novels.

This novel confirms what those familiar with the Bloomsbury Group might know but is kind and welcoming to the initiate, both without compromising history or sacrificing aesthetic quality. Sellers' languid, impressionistic novel is an ode to a particular pair of sisters at a particular moment in time when the Western world was undergoing numerous and sometimes severe transitions.

Another volume that Sellers drew upon for her novel, one less sympathetic to Vanessa's influence, was Angelica Garnett's memoir Deceived with Kindness : A Bloomsbury Childhood. Angelica Garnett's personal life and identity embody the confusions and tangled relationships of Bloomsbury. Angelica was Vanessa's illegitimate daughter by Duncan Grant (the love of her life but alas a man of bisexual habits, leaning towards men). Angelica believed she was the legitimate child of Vanessa's husband, Clive Bell, until Vanessa told her the truth at sixteen. Angelica later married - to her parents' understandable displeasure - an old lover of Duncan's, David "Bunny" Garnett (author of bittersweet Bloomsbury classic reissued recently by McSweeney's Lady into Fox.)

Garnett's childhood was singular: she had the advantage of being related to and friends with people of great talent and influence. They were all devoted to art.
I particularly liked this quote: "Though we were unbrushed, unwashed and ragged, our carpets and curtains faded and our furniture stained and groggy, appearances of a purely aesthetic kind were considered of supreme importance. Hours were spent hanging an old picture in a new place, or in choosing a new color for the walls." Despite this creative asset, Angelica felt emotionally crippled by Vanessa, taught to be dependent. She explains her reason for writing the book as a catharsis in achieving independence from her past.

If one is still feeling Bloomsburyish, take a look at some of Vanessa Bell's vivid paintings or the colorful pointillist covers she did for her sister's novels. At the risk of sounding just like Stuck in a Book, because I know he's had the same advice recently, if your interest is still peaked you should watch the film adaptation of Michael Cunningham's novel The Hours, music scored by the marvelous minimalist Philip Glass. I put on the soundtrack nearly every morning;the second track is called "Morning Passages" and it sounds like a person (probably Virginia) lounging about, smoking tersely, writing and crossing out, ink-fingered, with a leaky pen. It sounds like somebody playing their morning scales on the piano. It makes me feel crisp, like I should sharpen my pencils.

Friday, August 7, 2009

To Be Posted Up at Work

Yesterday, I bought a book by Clive Linklater entitled Reflections from a Bookshop Window and I opened it randomly to a page that made me laugh:

"The most surprising thing of all about secondhand bookselling is that anyone should want to do it in the first place. What sort of parents are they that encourage their offspring with the suggestion -
'Have you ever considered becoming a secondhand bookdealer when you grow up?'
Where are the schools that have secondhand bookselling on the list of careers that they recommend to their pupils?
Why become a bookdealer, when there is such a shortage of property speculators, television interviewers, media tycoons, prime ministers? (All of which are well paid, and none of which require any particular talents or qualifications.)
Why become a bookdealer, when, if the same techniques were employed selling secondhand cars, the rewards would be a thousand times greater?
And yet people do become bookdealers. For every bookdealer that plunges lemming-like into the sea, there are always two or three young lemmings jostling to take his place on the cliff edge.
Possibly they are motivated by the same sense of calling which persuades a monk to take a vow of poverty."

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

A Day for Postcards

I love postcards. Inexpensive souveneirs, colorful, evocative, artistic, kitsch, memorable. You can send them. You can hoard them. You can find them by the box in antique shops and garage sales and bookstores and airports and museum gift shops. Finding postcards with messages written on the back is much like discovering inscriptions in old books; there is a sense of connectedness, of intimacy with strangers. There is dried ink, a real address, a real stamp, a real sliver of history.

I found this one in the Pioneer Square subterranean antique mall last week. The caption is "The King and Queen on their way to St. Paul's Cathedral for the Royal Silver Jubilee Service." (The date indicates King George V and his wife Mary of Teck, grand-parents of the current monarch Elizabeth II. This was the year before the King's death; he does look rather haggard. Apparently George V preferred to stay at home with his stamp collection rather than tour his Empire. In this postcard I just see him thinking to himself - "By Jove, I'd rather I was at home in front of the fire with a cup of tea and some lovely Ceylon stamps.")

It is postmarked June 20 1935, sent to St. Louis, MO, and says:

Hello there
England is a grand place - should I say country - next stop Leningrad.
Regards to the girls - J Laycob & Son."

(May be wrong about the name - handwriting is ambiguous.)

And I found this merry Moomin postcard in my mailbox yesterday from a co-worker and friend, Erin. Moomins and postcards - what could be better?

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Twilight in Forks, WA

I read in Publishers Weekly several weeks ago that an estimated 1 in every 7 books sold in 2008 was one of Stephanie Meyers’ Twilight books, that this series may have saved the publishing industry in a particularly bleak year where the economy plummeted and discretionary spending on amusements like books shrank. I’m not sure whether to be impressed or appalled.

I have read the books, the last two read out loud with my roommate Kristin late at night with a cup of coffee, spending an enjoyable hour or two mocking and laughing and shamefully admitting we were having a good time. The fourth book, Breaking Dawn, was especially fun as it contained gory details of certain honeymoons, pregnancies, and birth (I won’t spoil it by telling you whose). And I have seen the movie; have gone to the midnight showing of the movie and indulged in an awkward and still enjoyable film experience – shared with hundreds of teenage girls and several reluctant boyfriends.

Now I have made the pilgrimage to Forks, Washington, the setting of the books – though not on purpose. There may or may not be a legitimate trek being planned for this purpose, but this time I happened to end up in Forks entirely by chance. My family was visiting for the week, and last Friday we took the ferry from Seattle to the Kitsap Peninsula and drove over the Hood Canal Bridge to the Olympic Peninsula, home of the Olympic National Park, our destination. We drove an hour and a half through appropriately misty hills and dark forests to Port Angeles where short-story writer Raymond Carver is buried (though I am saving the trip to his grave for the next trek).

From Port Angeles we entered the National Park, drove up to Hurricane Ridge, then turned our car westwards towards the Hoh Rain Forest, which we could only visit by driving through Forks. Stopping at a gas station/ subway, we saw little red badges at the counter with Jacob + Nessie printed on them, and there was a “Twilight” sandwich. We passed the stores entirely devoted to Twilight merchandise and on more than one occasion saw the hulking cardboard frame of Robert Pattison through a window. Apparently – though I have not seen them – there is a designated Cullen house in Forks, a Swans residence, a spot at the hospital for Dr. Cullen, and a simulacrum of Bella’s red truck outside the visitor’s center. It is clear to see that this little logging town, looking very much like a one-stop town, is deeply in debt to Stephanie Meyer to picking it as her setting, as it has given the small town (population just over three thousand) the chance of an economic boost. Forks was not, however, used for Catherine Hardwicke’s film. She found Oregon more to her taste and vision, and Forks must feel the slight. I have to agree that it is not a very cinematic town; Meyer selected it as her setting because of its high yearly rainfall and cloud cover. I’m not sure she visited it before the first book was published.

Unimpressed by Forks, we spent several hours in the Hoh Rain Forest not seeing elk (to my father’s dismay), and marveling at the large trees, the mossy epiphytes, and the quality of golden light through the branches. This was followed by a trip to Rialto Beach (neighbors of the La Push beach, featured in the Twilight series), where the sun swathed itself in mist and fog and the temperature dropped twenty-five degrees. Beautifully desolate, my mother called it as we collected stones – the beach is covered in perfectly round, smooth, skipping stones – and played with the washed up debris, the kelp and driftwood. The beach at La Push is (if it is anything like its neighbor) cinematic and may have been used for the film had not production decided to remain in the Portland area.

Since I cannot lie and hide the fact that the books are riddled with poor grammar, bad syntax, heavily manipulated plots and stilted dialogue, and have abysmal depictions of love and a very weak heroine, it is hard to understand the stir these books have created. For me, I chalk is up to setting; had Meyer’s books not been set in the Pacific Northwest, I doubt I would have felt them resonate at all. But they do resonate if only because the trees, the rain, the mist and the mountains are a familiar landscape and the elements make an excellent setting for a brooding, gothic supernatural romance. To make the books into any more elaborate, anything more meaningful, is sentimental justification.
Despite this, I look forward to venturing into vampire country again if only to hunt out Raymond Carver’s grave, walk deeper into the rainforest, and collect rocks on beautifully desolate beaches.