Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Forge of Heaven

C. J. Cherryh

Sequel to Hammerfall, and much more satisfying on about every level. Foremost is the better situating of the setting, with thirty pages of enclopediac detail explainingn the worldbuilding of the series, and putting the happengs of the first novel in a much more reasonable and better understood light. It’s a book that manages to redeem the earlier flawed work extensively, both through providing more context as well as moving the story on to a more interesting place,. Besides the invented future that we’re shown here being interesting in its own right--although it is--it fuels a good layout for the intrigue of the novel. In the bureaucratic-heavy setting there’s a complex interplay of station governor against Outsider world interest against central Earth control against unknown alien presence against immortal survivors from the first book. It’s a dance of factions in a highly complex and enjoyable manner, particularly in the extent to which different groups have overlaping interests and different timescales. The scenario benefits from taking the issue of "The Gene Wars" in a more extensive treatment than it usually gets in science fiction. Rather than show the initial struggle between self-modifying and the group opposed to genetic change the story explores some of the long term consequences of after the latter faction has won, and the way they have to continually work to keep political stability and social coherence going. There’s a sophisticated examination of the interplay of police, radicals and strategic competition, as well as the momentum carried by bureaucracies harmful and beneficial. As well, Cherryh continues to be one of the few speculative fiction authors that delivers a believable and thought out pattern of economics.

Some flaws occur. The beginning third of the novel lacks real urgency--a common issue with Cherryh’s novels--and there are a couple character arcs that feel excessive to the existing story. The bratty Freethinking-affiliated daughter for instance--her escapades later force a rather powerful character moment for her father, but as an actual story it runs on too much and doesn’t benefit from receiving a point of view. It’s also disapointing that the aliens remain basically ciphers here. The history of their interactions gives a fair bit more credibility, but the actual nature of the species, their goals, intentions, interest, politics remain a blank slate. It’s disapointing to not have them fleshed out to any great extent, to the degree that characters in-universe wonder without being able to answer what they’re after. Disapointing both because I know Cherryh could deliver a fascinating picture here, and because the current form leaves the underlying situation of human intrigue fueled by fairly arbitrary alien behavior.

Overall a well plotted and at times quite intense science fiction piece. The ending third, in particular, frames some of the most effective writing I’ve seen from Cherryh. It also makes good use of engaging the narrative with a complex future that’s very different from both the Foreigner setting and Alliance-Union.

Better than: The Warriors’ Apprentice by Lois McMaster Bujold
Worse than: Destroyer of World by C. J. Cherryh


James Joyce

A number of short stories focusing on different aspects of life in the city. I can’t speak as to it sociological value, but taken as literature almost all of the discrete pieces is very nicely done. The stories are very short--most under ten pages, and within the limited narrative scale Joyce provides a lot of punch to his depictions. There’s never the space in any single story to manifest the same scale or psychological complexity afforded by novels--and right here is the basis of my main reluctance with short stories--but there is some very good plotting and characterization on display. Best of all, the fact that all these stories in some degree make Dublin a central character in the drama allow them to be read in aggregate effectively, showing with skill a wide variant of scholars, merchants, priests, sensualists and politicians. Highly recommended.

Better than: Welcome to the Monkeyhouse by Kurt Vonnegut
Worse than: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce

The Wayward Bus

John Steinbeck

Reading the story involved a continual type of experience-formed tension, a sort of race running within my enjoyment, involving a contest between all the characters being fascinatingly neurotic and all the characters being neurotically irksome. On the whole the former element won out and I enjoyed the book, but there were definitely some cracks and underwhelming sections. The novel looks at different aspects of ambition and frustrated ambition in the fulcrum of a single busride crossing from the United States to Mexico. It’s a pretty strong indictment of different aspects of class-bound prejudice, blindness and at points fundamental mental disconnect. The families in this novel cry out for qualified psychological help more than even most famous novels and the process of the book shows some rather amusing points linked to the main presentation. There’s no main central chracer or unifying plot beyond watching these people exchange with each other, so it sparkles when the encounters are believable and damning, and falls flat when it becomes too much. It does at times, but mostly functions effectively to intrigue with the vivid imagination of somewthing like realism.

There’s an enormous focus on sexuality in the book, traced from various sides and with a lot of depicted hang ups over it. That component shows the main success as well as disconnect in the story, as Steinbeck often made a quite arch narrative point but then moved on to some rather dated or essentialized claim regarding erotics that I found rather jarring. Not a bad book but neither is it exactly excellent, and for all the forthwhile elements and easy reading pattern it has some jarring elements. In a way reading this book immediately after Desolation Road and To the Lighthouse is approrpriate, as it contains elements of the main pattern from both books mixed together. It’s a weird mix, but better and more fun for reading than might be expected.

Worse than: In Dubious Battle by John Steinbeck
Better than: The Pearl by John Steinbeck

To the Lighthouse

Virginia Woolf

There’s one point in the novel in which one of the characters reflects on the form of perceiving others. Looking at people from a distance, she thinks that this way of identifying and following others through their outlines is one workable approach. It can be taken, as I believe it’s meant to be, as an analogy for the whole form of the book. In a way it’s a book of intensely realized, complex, three dimensional characters each of whom encounters the other as if the outsider were a two dimensional sketch, lacking real substance. More than direct conflict, this aspect of the perception renders a deep insubstantiality in the social ties that people build, and the deep distance that they build more effectively. The isolation doesn’t emerge just from self-absorption, rather it’s a sense of lacking the language or real community for authentic relation. In this amazingly writen account that manifests not in the major dramatic disconnect we might expect but in quiet, subdued points of systemic, often unnoticed, rupture.

It’s a beautiful, heartfelt and deeply sophisticated novel. Says a lot about class, gender, family and the way such conditions shifted into the first world war, all in under two hundred pages. Deservedly classic, and indicates that Woolf applied a comparable level of talent to her fiction as to her essays.

Similar to and worse than: Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust
Similar to and better than: The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton

Desolation Road

Ian McDonald

Much quirkier than I had expected. It’s an inevented future that’s highly bizarre on many levels, with a weird array of characters in their phsical and psychological characterisics. It’s a thoroughly strange environment, from the traveling carnivale selling ’make a baby’ kits, to the near-random timetravel and the widely shifting rate of politics. It works because there are clear emotional journeys for the characters even among all the bizarre and at times grotesque detail. It feels at times like McDonald is being too playful for his own good, but on the whole the push of the main characters onto their various successes, tragedies and wacky hijinks works well.

In the representation of larger events it’s hit or miss. At the best moments the book functions like an intensely genre version of the series Deadwood, showing the growth in complexity, numbers and mechanisms of community into an elaborate hypermodenr civilization. In this vein, the arc with escalating conflict between labor and the corporate management is particularly effective, particularly in the hectic narrative pace set once a full revolution breaks out. It’s interesting, intense, tragic and defined with lots of unique little details that tie the events to this specific invented future. On the other hand, at points the big picture stuff simply gets too far out there, straining suspension of disbelief overly and making for an excessively arbitrary story universe.

It was McDonald’s first novel, and is very different from the larger direction he ended up going. Well, it’s good to see that he wasn’t locked into a single recurrent formula like a lot of authors. Moreo, though, I have to say that I’m quite glad he moved beyond the writing pattern of Desolation Road. Overall it was good and it had a lot of strong elements, but I was also a lot more disatisfied than I’ve been with any other McDonald and there’s something about the way the whole narrative is formed that was a bit alienating. It’s not incoherent in the sense of a Hylozoic, but at points there are indications that might go in that direction, and as a text it’s one that could have used a bit more restraint. We always read a book under the shadow of the book we were expecting to find, and I’d say that factor was particularly strong here. Beyond that there are problems in the basic story, and I wouldn’t consider this boo a classic in the way Evolution’s Shore was. It’s a fair distance from aesthetic ruin, in no small part because of a lot of engaging pieces of characterization.

Better than: Hammerfall by C. J. Cherryh
Worse than: Ubik by Philip K. Dick

Welcome to the Monkey House

Kurt Vonnegut

Collection of short stories, some within the science fictional mold, others more mainstream in content. A rather focused way for me to look at the strengths and weaknesses of Vonnegut as a writer, and assess my own ambivalence with him. I’ve enjoyed almost all his books yet have rarely made an effort to seek them out, generally picking them up when I’m around. I find him amusing but less insightful than he seems to think he is, creative but often too awkward in what he’s trying to do that the larger project falls apart. By fame and general influence he’s certainly a major figure in twentieth century writing, but on the strength of my own reading I wouldn’t place him in that category, as with Gunter Grass but to a greater extent I find him lacking some quality that would allow real excellence. Part of that has always been my dislike over his self-marketing and scampering away from genre lables ’yes my books have time travel and aliens but they’re literature, not that science fiction trash’. As with Margaret Atwood, there’s something about that basic attitude that I see as either very calculating or very ignorant and dislike in either case. Strictly speaking that’s not a valid issue to bring against their writing, which should be assessed for its basic effectiveness and not the labels attached to it.

The stories in Welcome to the Monkey House are a mix, and a lot of specific stories I’m deeply ambivalent about. They’re engaging, maintain a fast pace, and a very good talent in quickly establishing character and situation. At times they also provide some great creativity and imaginative use of some unconventional setups. At the same time I’ve got more than a little kickback to most of them. They often seem too impressed with their own cleverness, for one thing, playing up thier position as hilarious in a way that sets my teeth on edge. Additionally, in terms of actual stories the sequence of events is rather predictible, I was frequently able to predict the next step several pages in advance. Vonnegut has significant skills, but the way he uses them I don’t find altogether fitting, and after a number of stories in a row I grew rather alienated from the (consistent) tone of the narrative voice. I definitely prefer Vonnegut’s novels, and this reading has made me interested enough to try to finish reading his main corpus, but I retain some sizable reservations.

Worse than: A is for Alien by Caitlin Kiernan
Better than: The Deceitful Marriage and other exemplary novels by Miguel de Cervantes

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

James Joyce

My second Joyce, after Ulyssess some six months prior. This novel is a vastly more direct and comprehensible text, benefiting from a clarity of presentation that allows intense absorption in psychology. It’s a highly effective novel on multiple levels, excelling at showing an unconventional proccess of transition into adulthood and through it a biting analysis of society, modernity, religion and art. It works to the way it shows the protagonist with deep intimacy and emotional acuteness, but yet refuses to grant him any easy outs or transcendence. His status as a future artist doesn’t bring him enlightenment or greater intrinsic natural worth, and it doesn’t free him from the nusances and challenges of the society he inhabits. It’s a very intense account, never more so than when it engages with the protagonist’s struggle with his religion, his sexuality and their intersection. There’s an intricate and gorgeously vivid presentation of what the tenets of traditional Catholicism feel like to someone who believes in them yet doesn’t live up to their moral code. His absorption with intellect as well as sex, and the tortured guilt he derives from the later, make for a perspective that is so convincing it’s hard not to assume strong autobiographical motifs. It’s a level of intimacy combined with quality of writing that often feel more real than reality, and that turn a very sophisticated eye on questions of faith, politics and the modern world. The debates on Irish nationalism are particularly intense, and are of a specific content that I feel the need for more historical conext before I can really situate the literary incorporation here. The novel gives a strong sense of the basic appeal and tensions inherent in the desire for an autonomous society, in that respect functioning very similarly to the whole spirituality/sensuality axis, generalized to a more collective level. It’s indisputably potent stuff.

And yet the book in the end suffers by comparison with Ulysses, not having anywhere near that volume’s power or raw, disorienting literary expertise. It’s still a wonderful novel however, and points up the great things that can be done with well crafted writing.

Worse than: Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Better than: The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy

The Great Russian Invasion of India

A. Dekhnewallah

A nineteenth century British military account. Not travel, military, for fresh and compellingly unique primary history reviewed for your pleasure. The description is fairly basic but reasonably structured, and the minor details and substantive value judgements have their appeal. As an actual piece of entertainment the direct conflict give it a bit of more direct appeal. It’s still not the sort of thing I’d expect to find much general readership, and it retains a number of inhibiting quirks from its time.

The Mayor of Casterbridge

Thomas Hardy

Nineteenth century literary classic, details a man seeling his wife and daughter and the long term consequence. It’s a pretty powerful and deeply ambitious story, one that makes up for a couple feeble plot stimulators with a powerful psychological representation. What’s most interesting is the protagonist, the titular individual. A man so committed to drunk and evasion that he will sell off his own family. Also a man that works across the rest of the novel to redeem himself from this moment, but not without much backsliding and fresh egotistical mistakes. He’s also capable enough to claw his way up into a position of wealth and authority, but then later lose that fortune, and the book is quite effective in showing the degree to which his admuirable qualities are tied in with his core defects. He’s far from a monster, and for all the damage his pride and spiteful rejection cause to other lives there is much to admire about him, his strength of character, his general optimism and the way he’s able to come forth with strong ethical choice at the most surprising moments. He’s an intriguing, complex and overall plausible character, most notably in the way that none of his grand transcendetal moments lack, the way he continually reverts back partially to his earlier ways.

More generally, the work shows an engaging cynicism about the status of class, gender and hypocrisy in contemporary England. There are some very strong critiques in here against Victorian society, to the extent that I’m surprised it attained the popularity it did in its own time, and these are always coonected to an engaging novel. It makes me a lot more interested in reading the other nineteenth century literary classics I’ve so far neglected. And more Hardy, of course.

Worse than: Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Better than: A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
Also better than: Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy


C. J. Cherryh

Somewhat disorienting and flat worldbuilding, wrapped in a decent and intriguingly twisty plot. The weakness of the setting was a major issue for me, though, partly because of where I thought the book would be entering onto, particularly because of some pivotal background stuff that isn’t very well situated. For instance we have the future human barbarians on an alien planet ruled by a technological immortal, with how that got established not being really explained. We also have other humans making contact with the world in an even more shadowy way, along with aliens that want to depopulate the planet but show a kind of strangely hesitant timeline in doing such. Given Cherryh’s usual dexterity in crafting complex, plausible future, this made the book rather underwhelming.

The book does have strong elements, however. While I wasn’t overly fond of the protagonist or main supporting cast--largely because, linked to the above, they seemed rather stock--but the things they do in the course of the novel are interesting. The protagonist sets off to destroy the immortal dictator Ila andliberate his people, but soon feels compelled to be her direct servant to work against a larger doom threatened against the planet. Given this isn’t stock epic fantasy they don’t succeed, and indeed it’s shown that the threat (aliens sling rocks on the planet, everyone dies--the titular Hammerfall) was never something that could be opposed. Rather the characters work to understand the danger and then preserve what little they can against the impending apocalypse. It makes for a fairly well laid out structure, and some strong creepy moments of high technology intruding on the lives of people with no context to understand it. In this vein appears both the planetary bombardment and a point where a nanotech-backed personality seizes control of an indigenous human. While there’s drama here and much that works precisely because of the juxtaposition of elements, the core of the invented future is a rather weak element in the book. Cherryh has certainly done a lot better.

Better than: Matter by Iain M. Banks
Worse than: Incandesence by Greg Egan


Vladimir Nabokov

A book I’ve tried to read several times, but didn’t get into. I’m not sure why, having sat down with it with some more focus I found it extremely readable, entertaining and fast paced. It’s also quite funny, and overall captures the lighter expression of life with a lot more substance and general engagement than Glory did. The book is all about the titular professor Pnin, with his odd manerisms and only partial successful adaptation to the United States, and the array of odd encounters he has. It’s clearly aiming for less ambitious and more surface story than Lolita or Pale Fire, and on that grounds it succeeds, making a fun, interesting and well written book. At the same time, by the end it doesn’t seem to have offered as much of insight or underlying meta-drama as I’ve come to expect with Nabokov. The degree to which it’s autobigoraphical may be debated, on the whole certainly less than Transparent Things, and it should be said that this factor doesn’t inhibit the presentation of deep intimacy with the subject. That’s what being a skilled writer means, one can convey more than just their own life with utter conviction.

Off and on in this novel I was reminded of an East European professor I know, not quite as quirky or generally off beat but having some similar issues in incomprehensibility with American youth, alienation from modern society and less than fully effective academia. At times this worked in favor of my pleasure in the account, making it easier to sympathize with him and his perspective. At other times it undercut it, in points where the story went for comedy and I was reminded of the professor, and the way I’ve generally found his situation rather sad.

Better than: Glory by Vladimir Nabokov
Worse than: Bend Sinister by Vladimir Nabokov

The Tin Drum

Gunter Grass

Nobel Laureate. I found this novel powerful and affecting, but not everything I had hoped for. In part I may be guilty of coming in with overly high expectations. Gunter Grass is someone I’ve heard a lot about, and heard a lot of endorsements concerning, for quite some time, on the level of personal reactions and academia. In the later I have seen a number of descriptions of Grass as one of the key German post-war writers, and as someone who brought a lot of necessary challengs to the general cultural climate with its specific national burdens and issues. After that, I found the novel strong and intriguing, but not great, and not something that establishes Grass as that unique an author. It abounds in intricate characterization, gifted situational description and basic mechanics of good writing. It lacks a certan measure of je ne sai quoi, though, a magnitude of literary quality or special insight into the character of human existene, a larger force to the plot, something.

The story focuses on the recollections of a rather quirky individual--quirky to the extent that he’s writing his backstory from a mental asylum. It shows the progress of his life through two world wars and socio-political unrest, with the consistent metaphor of music used for both underlying patterns and madness. It has a lot of funny and very striking scenes, and one thing the novel does do very well is tying such a weird and comical figure into very substantive reflections on the process of history. It’s a juxtaposition that makes the book at once utterly absurd and very serious, building a measure of seriousness in with comedy in a way that most authors couldn’t manage but that Grass pulls off as if it’s second nature. The insights provided in here are in no small amount about Nazism and the relation of the general populace to it. Two particular moments come to mind. The first is where the narrator reflects explicitly on the fact that he wasn’t in the resistance in the Nazi period, and that his petty acts of juvenile disruption shouldn’t legitimately be considered a political strike against the Third Reich. In this approach he offers a strong indictment of the conventional rationalizations prevalent in postwar Germany (see some of the history texts from a bit ago) and offers a strong contribution to arguing for a shift in general responsability and cultural self-awareness. The second moment is a description of the entry of Germany into savagery through "the gas man", in a few pages of powerful horror that represent the most effectively written part of the book.

Other themes that emerge forcefully include normality, sex, class and physicality, all delivered in some quirky and illuminating scenes. The family situation as elaborated was some of the most interesting material, but by the end I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of it, what the author was driving at and how it connects to the central biazarre formula at the heart of the novel.

On the whole it’s funny, it’s meaningful, and I can see that it deserves to be widely read. I don’t quite see it as great literature though, and reserve judgement as to whether Grass is good enough to merit a Nobel prize. There’s nothing particularly wrong with The Tin Drum, but I do feel the potential for it to have gone further on character and story.

Worse than: The Revolt of the Angels by Anatole France
Better than: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

Independent People

Haldor Laxness

Nobel Laureate. This time it’s an Icelandic farming epic. The switch in locales isn’t a great improvement, and the movement in authors is only a slight improvement. There is a fair bit more drama and basic quality of interst in the narrative. It also benefits from a more complex provision for the main characters. I even won’t deny the high quality of writing for the story and some considerable subtlety in showing the movement of modernity and politics onto an agricultural community. Nevertheless it shares the same basic aesthetic problem of Growth of the Soil; in binding the plot to the development of agriculture it makes for a pace much to slow to drive consistent interest. Under the stress of little happening beyond interaction with the characters, these individuals are forced under a level of depiction that doesn’t benefit them. It’s not that they’re overly simple, rather they are unpleasant, being too dysfunctional and strongly petty to have much interest in rooting for them. That makes the continued long term presence of them with little that they do to take the novel outside of them rather exhausting.

I’m ambivalent as to the effectiveness of the main and titular theme of the novel. A lot of the book is about putting forth notions of freedom, and the protagonist’s desire to live as a free man against all obstacles. To a large extent this ambition is contextualized and deconstructing, making some rather satisfying representations of it as petty and largely incapable, showing wider social complexities and government moving in beyond any sort of juvenile Heinlein-esque focus on the rugged autonomous individual. In the moments of showing contradiction, and the way this independence can be born on the subordination of others, the novel achieves some strong insights and real interest. Yet it seems at the end to come down on some level to admiration of this desire for total independence taken as a behavioral approach and ideal. I may be misreading it, and to an extent my frustrations with the aesthetic experience may have blunted my grasp of the subtlety of the ultimate message. Still, as I see it presently the story appears to side uncritically with the rather disjointed individualist view in a way that undermines itself. Not least due to how unplesant the protagonist is.

Better than: Growth of the Soil by Knut Hamsun
Worse than: The Forgotten by Elie Wiesel

The Revolt of the Angels

Antaole France

Nobel Laureate. Excellent, starts a bit slow but proves itself to be a tour de force of comic invention, emotional intensity and general creativity. The story appears for the first forty pages to be a setup for a rather dull society world with one Maurice the owner of a vast collection of books and discovering one of them to have gone missing. After a bit of by the numbers effort to see who might have taken it, Maurice is met by the being responsible. It’s his guardian angel, and as the result of reading the rationalist literary text the angel has decided that religion and the bonds of heaven are tyranny, and sets about to spread emancipatory consciousness among the order of angels. The title of the book wasn’t symbolic, it features the direct plot of the book, with lots of unexpected turns, good insights and general hilarity. The strength of the discordant relationship between Maurice and his ex-guardian angel could carry the book in themselves--there’s lots of hilarious and surreal scenes like where Maurice tries (unsuccessfully) to preach the virtues of religion, or when he challenges the angel into a duel over an issue of personal honor. Ultimately the book’s scale is a lot wider than just that aspect, and it benefits from it.

Much of the book is a direct satire. It’s from the early twentieth century and bits of this humor haven’t aged well, but a lot of it has. For instance there’s the effort by one angel to talk another into rebellion against the celestrial arrangement and the current social arrangement in France. The second angel protests, on the grounds that France needs no change and was already completely perfect. It then goes on a speech on how the main credit bank of Frane was particularly refined "as pure and chaste and the Holy Virgin."
The novel also has, late on, one of the most affecting inversions of Christian myth that I’ve seen. The text had previously established a gnostic worldview where the entity ruling by the name of God was a lying oppressor of less than ultimate power. It had also shown Satan and his followers to be free thinkers, who tried to defeat God from humanitarian altruist notions. Across the novel the new outbreak lead by Maurice’s ex-guardian angel linked up with the old resistance and formede plans for a new front, gathering strength to a march against the status quo. In the last chapter Satan has a dream, whereby his invasion is successful, the God-being is cast down and he takes on the celestial throne. The scenario plays out longer, with Satan becoming more cold, distant and egotistical, remote from and callous towards the human suffering that motivated his earlier fighting. He starts to shroud himself in mystery and hierarchy and govern as a tyrant. Simultaneously, cast down from the seat of power and command, God begins to observe the suffering of the small people and has a turn towards compassion and activity. Satan awakes from the dream, sees that a successful invasion of Heaen would just switch roles, and calls off the attack, resolving to maintain his spirit of compassion and work to help in smaller ways. There’s a basic attitude of decency built into this story that’s rather affecting, combined with the very strong and narratively surprising ending tone of anti-militarism. Such moments, of which the above is only the culmination, establish a writer of great sensitivity and complexity as well as humor.

The novel is enormously rewarding and entertaining. Proof that at least sometimes the Nobel Award for Literature wen into deserving hands. I’m definitely going to look up more of Anatole France’s writings.

Similar to and better than: Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett
Similar to and also better than: The Hunchback of Notre Dama by Victor Hugo

So Forth: Poems

by Joseph Brodsky

Nobel laureate. Now, this one is more like it. The poems here have a crispness, intensity and basic clarity sadly lacking in Eliiot, and it gives them a great range in bringing to life specific situations. In the format most of the poems are attached to a definite situation or story, making them more like very short fiction that happens to be beautifully and strangely expressed, rather than a whole reflection of literature on literature that I found ultimately alienating about the Wasteland.

And that’s it. Not surprisingly I find it even more difficult to comment substantively about poetry that I like than to criticize it. I do think that Brodsky merits the Nobel Award he received,, and I could be interesting in seeing his other writing at some point. It also makes me interested in what other great literary poets are like, and the type of range that might be developed in mining this field more.

Better than: The Wasteland and Other Poems by T. S. Eliot
Worse than: Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes

The Wasteland and Other Poems

by T. S. Eliot

Nobel Laureate. Very difficult to approach with a clear setup or even as a fair reader. One, I don’t generally read poetry, and I enjoy it even less. Two, Eliot’s work is really too famous to engage with, and has been alluded to or quoted in part so often that it’s difficult to factor through the connections to the actual writing. I was always going to be a hard sell on this particular text. And, unsurprisingly, I can’t count myself highly moved, enlightened or entertained. There are good elements in here, with the obvious control over language on display, and some striking imagery. On the whole, however, I found it dull, awkward, overly dense to follow and not delivering appreciable insights when parsed. In part this issue comes round to Eliot’s distasteful politics and simplistic religious endorsement that I find displeasing, and which it’s hard to disentangle my view. In either case, though, ther seems to be a fundamental limitation in the vision of what to say with the poems and how to say it, a type of writing that at points seems to purposely distance itself from ready access.

Above all what struck me was how upper bound it was, how insistent Eliot’s poems were in citing earlier classics as the ground for becoming classics themselves. It’s overwhelmingly elitist, increadibly focused on an education available to few and which was accessed by even fewer in Eliot’s time. That makes for a fitting, is aesthetically deflating, pattern in the fame and widespread literary allusion to which the poems, and especially the Wasteland, have been subject. Reading it felt often like a closed book, it was so heavily bound up in referring to previous literary classics, and had been so often alluded to in a similar fashion, that all the nicely craften literary quality seemed self-contained. It’s a well formed exercise, and one can easily see how it gives generations of scholars work in parsing and interpreting. Beyond that, though, it seems to be self-contained and purposefully detached from possible application for the world in a manner that I do not see with most literature.

Worse than: Purgatorio by Dante Alighieri
Better than: Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane

Remembrance of Things Past

Marcel Proust

Technically speaking this work should be "In Search of Lost Time", as that’s a closer translation of the original french. The above title is what’s in wider cirulation, though, plus I prefer it on it’s own sake, as connecting better to the sentiment of the novel, the way it focuses on bringing in the past is always tentative There may seem to be a contradiction in switching the author over wording for the title and then trusting the source enough to follow the narrative for three thousand pages. So it goes, and the above titular modification isn’t a criticism of the larger text, which I enjoyed a great deal. It’s awesome, complex and highly engaging literature that has a lot of substance to say about the modern world. It bears the impact of its time but it is by no means dated, and the chief insights it delivers are readily applicable to conemporary times. A lot of classics struggle to find a main relevance to later reading, seemingly either overly constrained to the factors that made them initially popular or such that it’s puzzling why they took on great success in the first place. Proust doesn’t have these issues, and it was apparent fairly early on in the reading what made it worth taking seriously as great literature and, even more pressingly, produced an engaging text.

As a novel it’s about a lot of things, bringing in attention and a lot of insight into class, sexuality, anti-Semitism, literature, death, politics, nationalism and modernity. Beyond all these, what drives the book is the exploration of memory, reflection on previous events and the way they are recalled. In a large sense the protagonist isn’t so much the main character as an individual but rather the memories of that person and the way they play themselves out. It’s here that the immense length of the account works as a virtue rather than a flaw, providing a real sense of scale in depicting the mental relation to externality. It’s a very wide ranging account and provides a real feeling into the experience of decades, offering a work highly condesnsed yet feeling solid enough in its arching over a whole lifetime. For lare segments this recollection seems to be hijacked by the biography of other people the protagonist encounters, giving substantive detail on their own ambitions, successes and failure. The extensive focus in on Swann in the first volume of the work is probably the most extensive embodiment of this theme, and by reports it’s this aspect and volume that often repulses interest in the book. Yet I don’t see this aspect as a main problem, and certainly don’t object to the use of the formula of absorbing others’ lives in the way I did recently with Auster’s Moon Palace. Partly it’s because the focus doesn’t get as thoroughly sidetracked away into other people and incidents. While a lot of attention gets devoted, especially early on, to following the lives of others it’s still the protagonist that’s following them, giving a central unity and level of nuance to the recollection that binds it together. Partly the format works better, seeming more natural in the way it intersects with what happens to others over an extended period. Finally it also works better for this specific protagonist as exprssed in the book. Ultimately he’s a pretty passive person, and it works that his attention moves from his own life for sizable periods. It doesn’t ultimately diminish the interest in seeing his memories play out over his own experiences,a dn the fact that the novel is not insular on just his private experiences works to build the main sense of scale. There’s a way that this book primarily focused on society meetings, refined parties and aristocratic conversations is epic, and in certain ways passes even a high fantasy, intricate piece of worldbuilding like Lord of the Rings. The novel gives, even relative to length, a very great feeling of range, pushing into the way that an array of different people form and contest community.

A main aspect of the depiction of memory is how awkward it is, the way it works amongst a certain necessary void in the core of most people. The mental representation of the past is never in full accurate relation to the events as they happened. This imbalance is a truism, but it’s expressed with great literary force and grace by Proust. It’s substantive in itself that the book centers on a subtle margins-bound essence of human consciousness. It’s doubly impressive that the narrative works this theme into the process of recollecting so effectively. There’s the basic element of showing rather than telling writ large here--while there are a number of direct passages reflecting on the nature of memory and the insubstantial descriptive quality of thinking about others, such musings are never autonomous assertions of definitive claims. They are always elements bound within the process of memory, reflections that by their very self-declared claims are rendered ambigious. Moreover the notion of the impossibility of fully relating to others because of the warping of the past through personal consciousness is fundamental to the course of events in the novel. If people can’t maintain firm lines of continuity along their own lives--and the novel shows graphically how they can’t--then understanding another person beyond the part of oneself that is projected into them becomes doubly problematic. Yet it’s a quest people are continually compelled towards, the ultimately hopeless effort to overocome the barriers placed by their own perception, recollection and intuitive reformation of events. It’s a tension that frames much of the internal disconnect within the people of Remembrance of Things Past. The most direct manifestation occurs in extended romantic relationships of which the other partner is revealed to have been a serial adulterer, which causes a tortured re-examination of the remembered incidents. The same general pattern occurs even more gradually in the movement from childhood to adulthood, and then eventually to old age, and the way this alters the whole pattern of relating to society and family. The genius of Proust isn’t just in using extraordinary literary skill in the depiction of remembered sentiment but in how he approaches that not as a static atmosphere to be depicted but as something fluid and continually reconstructed.

Sexuality develops as one of the leading ’secondary motifs’ of the novel, rendered variously with intensity, in general reflections, in personalized encounters, as humor and as tragedy. This element was one of the most famous and controversial things when the book first appeared, and even now there’s a frankness and honesty to the representation of bodies and their encounter that stands out. The appealing part of this representation lies largely in how varied it is, how its shown to have wide-ranging modes and facets among different individuals and within a single lifespan. Sex for pay, for romance, for sheer eroticization, sex proscribed by society and illicit, sex in a relationship, outside of it or in violation of it. There’s even an extended assessment of homosexuality both male and female, the later of which it is rather surprising to find acknowledged in a text of the early twentieth century. The way it’s rendered as something integral to consciousness and behavioral life but occuring in varied states builds up the complexity of the work. In single motifs, perhaps the most striking cases are those that show a pattern of awkwardness in relation of sexuality to larger life, from the faintly comical effort to transition into and out of an erotic interlude in the larger mundane day to the wider hypocrisy of society’s prurient gossip on mattters of sex. Most tragically it emerges as another angle of the central disconnect between people that develops in some degree or other for everyone in the novel. Here it functions as both metaphor and actuality, in the way bodies can be in the most direct contact possible yet the bounded selves are ineffable distances apart.

Class is a heavily mined and heavily featured element. A large part of the direct action involves the social life of the French aristocracy and upper bourgeoise, in the habitual actions by which it constitutes itself as a group. Lifecycle events of members, general parties, rampant gossip and petty intrigue and an effort to police its boundaries by admitting or excluding others. It’s not a pretty picture that emerges, and the slow playing out of snobbery, destructive obsession, judgement and tangled morals is more damning than any direct satire would have been. It’s consistently entertaining however, largely because the range of rhetoric on display is ultimately very amusing and often pretty to witness. As with The Picture of Dorian Gray, the way aristocratic judgements express themselves are generally appaling but still highly fun to watch, and not just in a context of rooting for the participants downfall.

Anti-semitism plays a major role in the book, far more than I had expecting. Given the context of its writing it wasn’t surprising to find the Dreyfus affair featured, but the larger social engagement with the situation are explored at great detail. Here the representations of the aristocracy dovetail closely with specific politics and general efforts to build nationalism. The spurious treason charges against one Jew becomes a general paranoia of the Jews as a definable element, and from there an effort to define French identity through racial categories and enforced sentiment of loyalty. The text is really scathing on the general anti-Dreffussard and anti-semitic views circulating in the aristocracy, about how petty murky judgements connect to grandiose assertion of patriotism on the backs of self-inflated ignorance.

Another major focus involves death, and the way it’s built up to and experienced after through morning. This motif isn’t as consistently focused on as some of the others, but it’s very prominent for some key sections. The main insight I take on this element is the juxtaposition between individual reactions and the standard soceital model that’s given as approrpriate, and how awkward it can be to contextualize the loss of a loved one in the long-term, after the point where the immediate scripts apply.

The novel doesn’t express its main elements through a plot, in the conventional sense of the word. The layout of the story all technically occurs as a flashback from a later time, and the links between main specific moments is provided by the momentum of time’s passage rather than a strict relation of drama and action. This overall format lends itself to a far more engrossing work than might be imagined, one that is almost never dull by sheer force of Proust’s skill at chracterization, subtlety of theme and raw writing ability. If there’s one issue I had it’s that the sheer size of the secondary cast becomes a bit unmanagable at points, some of the less consistently appearing characters being hard to distinguish when they pop up again. Nevertheless, on the whole it manages with manifest excellence in small issues and large. This is one three thousand page literary classic I’m glad I read, and I’d say it both merits the length and is not overrated. Highly recommended.

Better than: The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
Worse than: Nothing

Informal Empire: Mexico and Central America in Victorian Culture

Robert Aguirre

A simple but well presented look at how late nineteenth century Britain treated and represented Mexico in its culture patterns. There’s less focus on literature or formal texts as widespread public spectacle, specifically looking into the networks by which fairs were organized and how the relevant producers worked to give a consistent and racialized hegemonic message.

Wirtten in a direct and engaging style that gives direct presence to the historical associations contained within it. The type of work that more effectively engages with its aspects of both complex specific style and a general structure that should be welcoming to those outside academia.


C. J. Cherryh

There are elements that are the most engaging of the trilogy, and it benefits from having the magic and wider community come more clearly into focus. However the pre-existing series and Cherryh's general writing approach is ill-suited to the amount of teenage angst that is introduced in this book, and the centering on this element weakens the interest in the story. Again good, but the weakest volume in the series.

Worse than: Exile’s Gate by C. J. Cherryh
Better than: Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold

Moon Palace

Paul Auster

Has its witty and insightful elements, but far too much of the book is the main character hearing stories from other people. The tales themselves go on to long, are frequently somewhat uninteresting, and ultimately don’t add up enough to enough to make the novel seem wortwhile. Small moments occasionally shine, but as a whole it’s shot through with an omniprescent, increasingly forceful flaw.

Worse than: City of Glass by Paul Auster
Better than: Solar by Ian McEan


C. J. Cherryh

Good but not great. Better than Rusalka, because it enters the story with the characters more fully defined and fleshes out the relevant backstory and cosmology more. It also begins with the characters is a higher state of stability and happiness and then brings them crashing down threatened with utter ruin, which works in a classic dramatic sense. This is the way to make this kind of scenario play out, and shows Jim Butcher to quite fully be a third rate hack by comparison. Nevertheless, as the series proceeds some of the appeal thorugh deconstruction of Western fairy tales and horror elements wears off somewhat, and the final arc somehow lacks the full urgency implicit to the scenario.

Worse than: Finity’s End by C. J. Cherryh
Better than: Rusalka by C. J. Cherryh

Cuban Counterpoint: Tobacco and Sugar

Fernando Ortiz

Extended early twentieth century analysis of the titular themes, tracking the comparative impact of Tobacco and Sugar on Cuba. Starts with the premise of a very dry subject matter, but quickly makes it fascinating, rolling off fascinating insights, neat connections, stunning juxtapositions and effective systemic analysis. The look into the philosophy and aesthetic behind each plant is entertaining, the argument for how each substance is gendered intriguing, but it’s in the overview of how the economics functioned that really make the book take of is the insight into economics. Ortiz argues persuasively that while it’s the most pleasant crop, sugar has also directly accompanied a process of standardization, mass production, mechanization and foreign exploitation of Cuba that connects a very destructive long term legacy. In contrast, he explores venues by which Tobacco has had the potential for autonomy and overall financial advantage.

The first half is a surprisingly engaging and fast moving chain of analysis that offers much of worth in asssessing colonial and postcolonial conditions generally. After that, the second half is far less satisfying, as it goes into listing and specifics to substantiate the main thesis, slowing the main pace down to a crawl and rendering large setions frankly boring. Still, taken as a whole this is an exciting and virtal work.

Veniss Underground

Jeff Vandermeer

His first novel. Interesting, fast moving, inventive, grotesque. Well worth reading, although lower in quality than both Finch and City of Saints and Madmen. It’s directly science fiction which doesn’t actually mean much sylistically. In principle things are more physically possible

This point is useful to demolish the whole assumptions of a separation between science fiction and fantasy, ’backward looking’ and ’forward looking’, possible and impossible. In some positions that type of binary makes sense, and if we’re talking about Tolkien or his endless clones it makes sense on some level to distinguish a type of wide-trend focused writing from the story of epic adventure with all its romanticized view of the aristocracy. But of course those lines aren’t at all clear or inrevitable in practice, and generally serve mostly as a kind of self-righteous attitude by science fiction only fans that live in ignorance of the strongest voice in modern fantasy. This description, I should add, applies to me up until about a year and a half ago.

In any case, knowing that this is a VanderMeer novel tells me vastly more it than knowing that it’s set in the future. There’s a similar type of grim creativity at work, and a directly comparable focus on portraying a whole wide-functioning culture. What we’re persented at here more than in City of Saints and Mademn is a social enviornment already in the process of disintegration, suffering from collapse of central authority and a general process of anarchy. The main plot concerns the protagonist (eventuallly revealed as such) working to stop a mad scientist crimelord from his effort to replace humanity in the successive battle of the city. He’s foiled, but the larger issues of the society remain beyond direct counteracting, in a state of technological fervent and communal erosion.

It’s not a weakly dying polity, and it doesn’t by any means make for a feeble narrative. Very well written, standout setup for characters and a very inventing backdrop. One surprising element in the story was that the mad scientist crimelord wasn’t shown as a campy or deliberately ironic figure. Instead he was written quite seriously, and by the end of the story he’s done enough damage and demonstrated enough sadistic combinations of art, slavery and living creatures to serve as a quite viable antagonist.

Worse than: City of Saints and Madmen by Jeff Vandermeer
Better than: Dune by Frank Herbert. Not a judgement most genre fans would share, I believe, but such is my view. Bettter characterization, certanly, and if one looks at the worldbuilding line by line I see it as having a lot more creativity and overall sense of credibility. In no small part because it’s not coded as sylistically fantasy like Herbert’s is. And of course one could make the case tht without Dune’s success there wouldn’t have been the pattern of elaborate worldbuilding in speculative fiction so that it enabled VanderMeer’s later creativity. Even if that’s true however it makes Herbert influential, not necesarily good.


C. J. Cherryh

In the layout of the story this book is different than the Cherryh I'm familiar with. Not because it's fantasy primarily--the Gate of Morgaine books were as well stylistically, for all that they also tied into Alliance-Union. That series was recognizably a similar approach to her larger canon, the focus on politics and intrigue, the outsider as central figure. Here it's recognizably the same hand with characterization and prose, but the plot layout looks fairly conventional. It takes a pre-Christian Russian fairy tale, but at core it's a dramatization of a stock mythological concept with a focus on building of relationships rather than sustained reflection on the larger community. As a book it works pretty well, slow and a little disorienting to get into but after that point quite gripping, with some strong writing and good moments of horror and wonder. Also, after awhile of finding myself displeased by the characterization of Bren, here the layout of more flawed and believable people is good. They’re characters without a firm grasp on the answers for their universe, without a blueprint for their future. That works in many of the most intense scenes, where they have to grapple with their own ignorance and the strange metaphysics of a world that is actively coming around to kill them. The novel toys with a lot of the forms of magical horror, but ultimately turns from it because the victory lies in obtaining knowledge and clarifying ambiguity. Some initially menacing forces turn out to be co-opted into alliance, and there’s usually a lot more room to work with than killing or being killed.

I'd view this work as more minor than a lot of Cherryh's work, though, and the focus is in many ways narrower and less ambitious. At a certain level I think her approach to writing doesn't capture the fun potential of exploring stories and mythology in the way a Neil Gaiman can do.

Better than: The Shining by Stephen King
Worse than: King Rat by China Mieville
Roughly equivalent to: The Steel Remains by Richard Morgan

The Origins of the Modern World: A Global and Ecological Narrative

Robert Marks

Doesn’t go as far with the main premise as it could, or indeed as the author seems to think he did. Fundamentally this is a work too slim and too general to really deliver the force of ecohistory promised in the main argument, and to an extent it runs into similar tension of the McNeil work of beign uncertain who the history is marketed towards. That notwitstanding there is a lot of value in here, and the focus on human history as told through impact on the environment, diffusion of diseases and overall ecological processes is a compelling standpoint. In particular the definition of an "ecological ancient regime" to the planet and the way it was shifted by trade, travel and more direct material control over the environment is a compellin gone.

The Moon and the Sun

Vonda McIntyre

Nebula-winner. Reading this book the setup suggested parallels to two other books, which made this one appear quite unfavorable by contrast. The first was Kit Whitfield's In Great Waters, with the mutual focus on a sapient underwater species in a historical backdrop. However where Whitfield created a complex and interesting species whose presence changed the whole pattern of history, McIntyre makes an idealized perfect sea-person, using it's almost saintly attitudes as a way to shine unfavorable light on humanity. The other book I was reminded of was McIntyre's Hugo-winning Snakedance, with its compelling exploration of gender, femininity, and its restriction. Here, that takes a far more basic approach, outlining ways the France of Louis XIV restricted women and made for an exploitative environment. The point is well served but ultimately the analysis is pretty obvious, and there's not enough character complexity to support a more ambitious reading. Beyond the parallels The Moon and the Sun is ultimately a weak book because it feels too slow. It's padded, the plot spends too long bouncing off the obvious potential outcomes and the level of intrigue produced in the story is ultimately too little spread over too long. This book definitely shouldn't have won any major awards.

Worse than: The Orphan’s Tale by Cathereynne Valente
Better than: Whre Late the Sweet Bird Sang by Kate Wilhelm

Wonder Boys

Michael Chabon

Highly disappointing. After The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay I had a fairly sizable appreciation, goodwill and interest towards Michael Chabon, and didn’t wait long before obtaining another of his works. This novel, however, was rather weak, failing to make any of the same sense of wonder, energy or interest. Rather it shows the over-familiar formula of an author struggling with writer’s block and the process of writng. He also has a pattern of serial infidelity and assorted dysfunctional relationship.

I have to ask why. Why does Chabon expect me to be invested in the story, when he makes the character unlikeable and overly bound to archetypes? When he uses main elements already done before, and done more imaginatively? What was the mental process that lead to such a bland setup and underwhelming narrative? The meta element common to Chabon’s other writing reappears, then, but in a far less unique or interesting format. Perhaps the most encouraging thing about this work’s failure is that it occured earlier in Chabon’s career, and perhaps it reflects an ongoing process of refinement for his literary direction. It’s still a poor choice, and it makes me more skeptical about the wider literary investmnet. I don’t think this is the same case as Number9Dream, where I couldn’t disengage my perception from the shadow of Mitchell’s earlier success but it was still a competent work. Here, there are real and fundamental problems.

It’s not entirely a bad book, being engaging enough to go through and having a number of amusing incidents. On the whole, however, it delivers a very limited amount of insight, and the more one moves from individual lines and scenes, the emptier and less compeling the experiment seems. By all means an author can give us nothing but failrues for characters, throw the environment into despair, destroy the whoel world with their imagination. There needs to be more point to it than the kind of liftless failure Chabon offers up here.

Worse than: The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon
Better than: Secret Son by Laila Lalami

The Birth of the Modern World 1780-1914

C. A. Bayly
Tracks the world’s past through a set of eras and linked major themes, looking at the way major political upsets spread beyond the boundaries normally assumed for world history. It’s particularly effective in showing the highly diffused nature of ideologies of revolution, and tying China directly into what occurs with Europe and North America much earlier than the standard political account does.

Has a couple of rough patches and doesn’t do quite as good a job as it could in maintaing continual engagement, but there’s an effective argument here well backed by organization of amassed detail. Good history.


C. J. Cherryh

Start of the third Foreigner trilogy. The story returns to the atevi, to find them in a civil war. I have a mixed response to this. On the one hand this plot development feels like a bit of a detour, the sort of thing that doesn't actually imperil human-atevi relationships but creates temporary conflict to allow a new level of prosperity. On the other hand it does work as a good followup to the awkward liens of the future history, that everything isn't always in a straight progression. As well, the notion that this crisis might have developed because of Bren's pushing human values onto an alien society is welcomed, it serves as a good corrective for the personal level as well as the meta one of reading too much conventionality into aliens. And on a thematic level an atevi civil war works well with the ongoing challenge of understanding, balancing intrigue and culture, and switching power to the next generation.

On a direct reading level, though, the book dragged a little. It's still complex and engaging stuff, but it wasn't nearly as good as Explorer and featured not enough actually happening. A prohibitive part of the book was Bren hearing about what had happened recently on the planet, and there wasn't enough emphasis on his decisions, movements and interactions. It's a complex setting and story that's unfolding, but this novel felt like an underwhelming segment in the larger block.

Worse than: Explorer by C. J. Cherryh
Better than: Foreigner by C. J. Cherryh

The Asutra

Jack Vance

Third volume of the Durdane trilogy. After the previous two, and especially "The Brave Free Men" I found this a bit of a disappoint. Basically it seems like a competent standalone, not very connected to the preceding volumes. That's a bit of a shame given the potential for pulling foreward the character work and political development, instead we're left with a basically stock Vancian character doing stock Vancian things--investigating an alien threat, bluffing his way across borders, getting captured, rescuing himself, triggering major alien social collapse. The details all work fairly well but the larger picture ends up being a bit lacking. I think I prefer Jack Vance when he's a little outside of his comfort zone.

Better than: Planet of Adventure by Jack Vance
Worse than: The Brave Free Men by Jack Vance

Black Hole

Charles Burns

Graphic novel, set in the '70s, with a group of teenagers and the very strange mutating-STD that develops. Primarily a character-driven piece, using the weird disease as both metaphor and the driving plot to character transformation. Also has a somewhat unnecessary horror mystery arc put within the larger narrative. The artwork is beautiful, very distinctively and evocatively drawn. I first saw this book in the gift shop for an art museum, and I can see why. The story is also reasonably effective, if not quite as breathtaking. The use of genre elements is poor (the bug pretty much has to be magical, no explanation for the origin is given and people seem remarkably unconcerned about a disease that causes a second mouth to grow on someone's neck). Still, it's effective for some very creepy moments and some solid character progression.

The Bookman

Lavie Tidhar

2010 book, Israeli science fiction. Victorian punk, taking and reworking a lot of elements from nineteenth century history and literature. Verne, Wells, Jack the Ripper, Moriarty (as prime minister) and dozens of other recognizable icons feature predominately. That in itself is a part of the problem, with Tidhar using a lot of familiar elements and stirring to produce a story that doesn't offer enough new stuff to be worth a story. Sill, there is a certain charm in watching the intersection of different elements, with a few creative wrinkles and fun world building details (like an anarchist political group that makes a point of distracting geniuses so their writing of books will be disrupted). The political intrigue that works in the intersection of myth, story and class are pretty good.

Not good enough for a Hugo and I won't be voting it on my shortlist, but still a reasonably entertaining story. Similar in tone to Boneshaker to an extent, but better worked overall.

Better than: Boneshaker by Cherie Priest
Worse than: New Model Army by Adam Roberts


Jeff Noon

A Clarke-winner, and not quite as strong as I'd expected from my reading of other books of that type. Vurt wasn't bad, but I'm not sure I'd call it a very good one either. A gritty, character-driven exploration of near future society. Most of the story revolves around the use and misuse of virtual reality, linked to certain other cybernetics as a form of addictive element. The whole thing reminded me a lot of Dick's Ubik, a comparison that didn't do the book any favors, drawing attention to its reduced energy of story and reduced amount of creative detail. As well, unlike with Ubik, things are grounded enough that we're supposed to accept this story as a plausible future, which I take issue with. It's not precisely cyberpunk, but shares a number of stylistic and political overtones. Which brings up a level of unrealistic backdrop that I generally find incredible about cyberpunk--the presentation of technology leading to an absence of a real community, of a state, or wider political sovereignty.

There are some very interesting passages, moments and concepts, but the whole thing never came together for me into a compelling story.

Worse than: Ubik by Philip K. Dick
Better than: Retribution Falls by Chris Wooding

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay

Michael Chabon

At this point in the reviewing I’ve caught up quite a bit, I’m now covering books that I’ve read weeks ago instead of months. There’s also a feedback loop involved at this point in the writing. When I finally got around to my Moby Dick review and got back on the path of regular commentary I found myself talking about Michael Chabon quite a deal. Partly because writing up my thougts on The Final Soloution made me realize just how much I liked it, partly because for awhile I was comparing a number of other mystery-type works with it and reflecting on the basic talent involved. Under such a context I was finally motivated to read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, a work that had been on my to read list for quite awhile, given the high amount of praise I’ve seen attributed to it, and the way it was generally considered a more succesful take on the Yiddish Policeman’s Union. Having read it, I can concur on both judgements, and was enormously pleased in it as a talented and engrossing piece of writing.

It’s the story of two Jewish immigrants in New York during the early ’40s who start a comic book strip. The story involves their lives up to and after that point, their families, the state of the culture at the time and the specific issues involved with early comic book production. It’s intense, funny, engaging and unique. Most notably, despite all the scnearios I’ve seen of Jewish life in 1940s U.S this narrative manges to make everything feel fresh. It’s above all a thoughtful and respectufl look at the depicted lives that doesn’t slack down on the potential for fun and sheer delight along with tragedy. Also features a psychologically nuanced exploration of minority identity, Jewish, homosexual and other, and makes a rich period piece not limited in application to the time. It’s this book that makes me realize Chabon is definitely an excellent writter, when he’s not undermining his main approach as he does in the Yiddish Policeman’s Union. Chabon also provides a great use of tying mythology to the narrative, in this case the Jewish legends of the golem, in a way that has much of the same appeal as Gaiman’s books. Fundamentally in its portrayal of comic book as a medium Chabon brings in a great deal of intense interest that allows the imagined historic characters an intense freshness and narrative energy.

Often I hedge my praise for books that I really like, indicating that this one should be appealing unless you don’t like this type of analysis, or aren’t found of post-modernism, or don’t like fantasy literature, or don’t tend to embrace elaborate prose. This book I’ll be less cautious: I think most people will enjoy this book and would benefit from reading it. It’s virtues are not remote, and as a text it is not inaccessible. It’s a bit long, but if one is attracted by the first segment it should draw people in readily. It’s a great book that is not in any major way intimidating.

Worse than: The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
Better than: Final Solution: A Story of Detection by Michael Chabon

The Return of the King

J. R. R. Tolkien

I've managed to never quite finish the Lord of the Rings trilogy, for all its status as *the* classic work of epic fantasy. I read the Hobbit a couple of times in early teenage years, then read both Fellowship and the Two Towers six years ago in the span of a month, but then lost interest in the project. I picked up the third volume a few times in the intervening years but never even really started reading it. I knew the basic story and how it ended, and the combination of the pace and prose were somewhat alienating, plus it was at a time when I was mostly turning towards science fiction and away from fantasy. More recently, over the past year and a half my fantasy consumption has become a lot more extensive, and my not having finished Tolkien was starting to seem an ever larger gap. So several months ago I made a definite commitment to finishing the third volume, had it sit on my shelf for that time, and then finally picked it up and read Return of the King in the span of a day. Interesting to compare this delayed followup to my experience with Dante, perhaps the recent pleasure in that played another influence in following up with Tolkien.

It's quite good, and I think I appreciate Tolkien a lot more than I did on the last runthrough. The high quality of writing is a draw, once one gets in past a certain point, seeing the flow of eloquent language and even better description makes for a nice appraisal. There's also the immense detail of worldbuilding, the little snippets of detail thrown in that make for a sense of a complete, enormously complex world. The unfolding history of Gondor and its long-term crisis along with the immediate all out battle with Mordor were of particular appeal. Tolkien's experience with and rejection of the first world war come through strongly, and it makes for some forceful dramatization of the battle with modernity.

It's not perfect, though, and I'd still say the trilogy doesn't deserve the monumental status it has. There's the reactionary politics as one defect, the veneration of monarchy and nostalgia for the rural past. It works to make the worldbuilding ultimately somewhat contrived and less persuasive even in speculative fiction, the way aristocratic institutions apparently work better for some reason on Middle Earth. Related to this issue is the stark moral binaries, the lack of any real ambiguity in the account, weakening the ultimately complexity of the narrative statement. More central is the weakness of characterization, the fairly flat tones given to the protagonists. The format of the story doesn't for the most part make it a large problem but where charaterization becomes an issue is the Frodo and Sam section, where the interior focus and issue of the Ring's corruption makes it awkward how stylized and unnatural these people seem. There are also issues of pacing, the way the book draws out some elements and erroneous details at tedious length and then speeds through key sequences at breathtaking pace.

Nevertheless, a good book. I was more interested in the story after the overthrow of Sauron, the breaking up of heroic acquaintances, the return to the Shire, and especially the battle against the roaming men and quasi-fascist internal corruption of the hobbits. Insofar as Lord of the Rings has a claim to real greatness I see it not in the story of destroying the Ring and fighting Mordor itself, but rather the way that's set up and transitioned out of. The invented history of how all these societies came to be in this position, and the passing of the age that happens after the quest.

Better than: A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin
Worse than: In Great Waters by Kit Whitfield

Retribution Falls

Chris Wooding

I didn't like this one. Yes, it's low-ambition adventure story, and it benefits from a fascinating setting, but the actual layout of the narrative never did it for me. In part it's my inability to really connect with the characters--far from being a lovable rogue I found the main crew fairly despicable from first to last, a collection of overly archetypes without many redeeming characteristics. Frey was the worst, a stock petty outlaw that's also unforgivably stupid and selfish while being convincing of his cunning. The basic plot is decent enough, but seems too easy at key points--when point A in the conspiracy is worked it easily rolls over on point B, who after a moment's work is eavesdropped on to implication point C. There is the requisite number of shoot-outs and capture of the protagonists, but no enough sustained difficulty at any point for real drama.

Across this work I was reminded again and again of Firefly, but the comparisons did no favor to the book. Additionally there's a major troubling element in its use of gender, particularly the relegation of female adventure to sexuality and the scorn poured within the narrative on denigrating women Frey has used and thrown aside in the past. There are the elements in here to push for a major redemption, but the story just doesn't carry Frey far enough to make this effective. It wasn't entirely a waste, but I don't view it as any stronger than Boneshaker. So, I'd say I'm significantly harsher than the general reaction to it, seeing the book as a weak piece that didn't belong on the Clarke or other shortlists and it does drag down the quality of that set somewhat. Although it is better than Wake, Flesh and Fire or The Love We Share, and overall the Clarke emerges as easily the strongest genre shortlist of the year.

The Iron Dragon’s Daughter

Michael Swanwick

The fourth Swanwick book I've read, and the first fantasy. I also discovered after the fact that it was a Clarke shortist candidate. I'd consider such a status deserved, this was one of the more compelling fantasy sagas I've read in awhile. It's just so purpusefully bizarre and interesting, taking apart a lot of stock fantasy elements and rebuilding them into an awesome new setting. Above the environment, though, what I like the most about this piece is how the situations get conveyed, with a lot of major weird encounters and exchanges. This work is also one that makes better use of extreme continual sex than Bug Jack Barron, mixing in a lot of play on it which builds to the situation. In the story, I'm particularly impressed with how seamlessly the plot goes from a forced-labor camp to a surreal magic university. A little difficult to organize my thoughts coherently on this one, I do plan to reread this book a few years down the road, and it also moves up my interest in reading Swanwick's other work.

It works particuarly well by playing with conventions on fantasy, taking a lot of very familiar elements and completely demolishing the whole post-Tolkien convention on what they’re supposed to behave like and want. The society that emerges is a lot more chaotic, diverse and alive than the typical fantasy setting, and it’s also a lot more interesting. Even more believable, within the confines of a very weird mix of college antics, apocalyptic dragon-oriented intrigue and shadowy quasi-religious forces. Particularly enjoyable is the way the account largely doesn’t halt for exposition, instead it dives on following its protagonist through a weird array of circumstances that are funny and bizarre enough to be appealing even when there’s no context, and to pick up the sense of large understanding later.

Better than: Un Lun Dun by China Mieville
Worse than: Iron Council by China Mieville

The Human Web: A Bird’s-Eye View of World History

J. R. McNeil and William McNeil

A rather short and general account by which to try to trace a world history. The main conceptual development, focusing on networks and specifically webs that frame larger human communities is a persuasive one, on the whole. It is rather general however, and limits the argumentative force of the book by making the main idea seem a bit vague and watered down. This aspect isn’t helped by the line by line style of writing, or even the two authors, seeming to express a main ambivalance as to whether the book is a specialist path-setting work of historiography or a general history intended for the wider public. The tension is not entirely a productive one.

Worse than: After Hitler by Konrad Jarausch.
Better than: History after the Three Worlds by Arif Dirlik

The Brave Free Men

Jack Vance

Very entertaining, and a step up in quality from the first volume in the trilogy. Primarily this gain is because of the focus--having taken over the seat of power the hero has now become the ruling institution, and must deal with all the political fragmentation, complications, betrayals and ambiguities of rule. It's a carrying of the victorious narrative further than a lot of science fiction normally goes, asking what happens next in the ambiguous situation, and bringing in a more nuanced understanding of societies and their transition than was given in the last edition. It's oddly stationary for a Jack Vance novel--the protagonist remains in the same basic position of power first to last for this novel, and the skills in improvisation and bluffing are involved in managing the existing fronts rather than climbing around the galaxy in pursuit of a specific quest. This element, along with the entertaining cast gathered to the end, makes for a quite interesting setup in Vance's complicated future. It’s carrying the necessity of consideration beyond what the ndividual agent can do, putting a more complicated responsability for herosim and political transformation than Vance usually delivers.

By the end this angle has shifted somewhat, a new underlying alien threat has been detected and some earlier political divisions prove to be attributed to this force. It's pretty well done as far as it goes, but feels a bit more conventional, as indeed do the main characters' roles in reshuffling society and instituting the titular Brave Free Men as a liberated force. It seems a little too facile a political resolution, like the trilogy is resolving its main potential too lightly. Still, overall it's a very effective piece, and I'm curious to see if the third volume gives a more conventional or ambitious structure in resolution.

Better than: The Anome by Jack Vance
Worse than: Inversions by Iain M. Banks

Land's End

by Frederik Pohl and Jack Willaimson

Strong mix here. By that I don’t mean a mixture of elements that forms a strong book on the whole, rather there’s a type of meld here between quality and less so in the novel. The main premise is interesting and there are a lot of very powerful and creepy moments, and the larger setup of disaster, conflict and survival works well. The representation of underwater life in the Eighteen Cities is also quite good, and brings a bit of Pohl's satirical edge to the Clarke-esque range of technical detail. On the other hand, the main alien force in this work feels rather abruptly written and is given far too many scenes of doing nothing but establishing its nature. Linked to this problem is the excessive buildup to the main event, the first hundred pages really drag. Finally, there's some corporate villains that are generic, shortsighted, wholly malicious evildoers, and the intrigue with them really weakens the book. Worth reading but has some definite cracks involved, and falls pretty far short of greatness.

Better than: The Golden Grove by Nancy Kress
Worse than: King Rat by China Mieville


It seems like just the time to miss being cutting edge by five years. Basically I'm going to read Stephanie Meyer's novel Twilight and offer various thoughts on the book as I read it, chapter by chapter. For the moment I'm trying to disengage from the impact of the sequels, the media, the online presence. My understanding is that the main popularity of the Twilight phenomenon came from the first book and I'm going to treat it to that end. By everything I've heard about it I don't expect to particularly like it. I'm not a fan of romance fiction in generation or paranormal romance fiction specifically, the YA market it's oriented at isn't me, and by general descriptions I've been given it looks to have poor writing and some objectionable gender messages.

So why read it? And why go to the effort of writing up on it bit by bit to inflict on the general forum? A few reasons.
1. Twilight is a significant phenomenon. By sheer number of sales and press attention it's something that reflects and changes the wider culture. Being part of that culture already I've had more osmosis of this book than most I haven't read--I feel I could name the main characters and themes, and make a guess at the major narrative moments and basis for love and hatred for the book. That's necessarily incomplete, though, and I'm better equipped to understand it if I take the marginal time to read the whole narrative and understand it on its own terms. I'm certainly not in the habit of focusing on popular culture or the more published things as a general standard--that would involve a lowering of my reading quality that I'd consider unacceptable. I can certainly read one, however, amidst the books that I generally read expecting quality.
2. Precisely because it's reputation suggests it's badly written and has some troubling gender attitudes. These things are rarely a matter of fixed absolutes, complete binaries of acceptability or abomination. So, it's worthwhile to see what this narrative indicates about both. Particularly in the degree of sexism--how extreme is it? How disturbing is its portrayal, how much more problematic are the assumptions beyond a culture and genre of writing that were already sexist?
3. Understanding the context of people writing after Twilight. Whether they're trying to push some of the same appeal or if they're writing very distinctively with an anti-Twilight approach.

For this work I'm trying to get away from the question of Meyer as a writer, Meyer as a bad writer, and so forth, and take the text as a presence in itself. Two reasons. One, I've been interesting in breaking through the habit of assessing or personally critiquing authors as a reviewing strategy more generally. Second, with Twilight specifically a lot of the criticism seems to quickly degenerate to attacks against Meyer's writing ability, character, values or religion--and the last element in particular lends itself to the kind of genial xenophobia towards an uncommon religious sect.

So, death of the author approach for my part in this review, as a buffer against a conversation that often seems to focus on calling for the death of the author. And no, a work doesn't in itself have to of literary quality to make literary tools useful for interpreting it. In part this is no different from work as an historian, looking at often badly written things for key motifs and insights into a given culture--the only difference is the culture is near-contemporary. A few main themes I'm looking to explore:
*Is there anything in this novel that indicates why it became so enormously popular? Was it simply a case of writing and marketing to a niche audience or is there anything else in the layout that indicates why this one became the major phenomenon of the last few years?
*What is there in this novel that tabulates with the extreme backlash against it? How much is the usual line of criticism warranted, if this is a bad book how strongly and uniquely bad is it? Actually reading the work should present a better grounds to criticize both the book as well as the hype against it, as needed.
*What is up with the gender portrayal in the story?
*How is capitalism represented in the book? Status of wealth, poverty, commerce, the market, the role of or lack of the state. I'd be interested in seeing what indications of this develop in the presentation of atmosphere--there's been a lot of debate over gender in the book but I've seen less on this angle. Which could be interesting, if there's any relevance in. Twilight definitely became a major factor in capitalism, and I'd be curious if part of the appeal in the story is in offering a supernatural romantic liberation from the world of currency and work.

-The beginning quote is from Genesis 2:17, tree of knowledge of good and evil. Put with the large apple on the cover it pretty clearly indicates a focus on immortality, evil, or both. Useful to set the stage I suppose if one had no prior idea of what Twilight was, and of course initially it was completely obscure. Makes for a kind of ironic juxtaposition with the later success--the quote from Genesis refers to the conditions of paradise, a fall from grace and into mortality and sin. In contrast Twilight's situation was a rise from obscurity to extreme fame, financial success and cultural presence. As I understand the larger story of Bella across the series it's somewhat parallel--shy awkward girl becomes loved, beautiful and immortal. If the terms of the book's protagonist triumph are the same as that underwent by the book itself, it makes for a kind of intriguing situation, a meta-fantasy narrative.

-Even questioning the grounds of fantasy itself. In Adam Roberts' recent novel Yellow Blue Tibia a Soviet SF writer is asked whether he believes in alien visitations. He says he doesn't believe in the physical reality of alien encounters, but does believe that millions of people themselves believe in them, and to that extent they do have an actual social presence of reality. If enough people buy into a fantasy it becomes an actual presence, to the extent of influencing people directly detached from the story. The issue of course is that some fantasies can't be implemented in reality, they take the energy and wish for it without necessarily understanding the full implications or underside. Anyone can start a fantasy narrative with their own lives if they have a desire or expectation for such a thing, the question is how the narrative concludes, where people actually end up. It'll be interesting to track that against the larger story of Twilight, in the book and in the "actual" world.

-There's the Preface, half a page on a first person narrator being faced with threatened death from "the hunter". Clearly an insertion from later on in the narrative, putting a teaser of action and threat in to compel interest. It's often inherently awkward when books do this--the teaser is meaningless until the narrative catches up with it, and here it strongly suggests that nothing engaging is going to start out the narrative proper. It's telling us to have patience, that things will happen later--effectively beginning with a deferral.

-Also kind of interesting approach for a first person account. Commonly that's done to introduce empathy or at least some measure of common perspective with the narrating character. Here, by giving us a future snap of down the road for the story we're immediately primed to be more aware, more genre savy than the main character.

-The preface pushes the theme of "beyond imagination" pretty hard. Both the notion of the actual circumstances of the death (which remain unclear) being what Belle "would not have imagined" as well as the wider context "When life offers you a dream so far beyond any of your expectations, it's not reasonable to grieve when it comes to an end." So, the story is going to be wish-fulfillment, Cindarella lifted from her position. And the reference to dying in the place of one you loved as a good thing clearly fills in the bit of the detail.

-Sort of interesting that Bella doesn't reference her love for Edward by name [Spoilers!] at this point. Presumably all the vagueness is to keep suspense going about what happens with the love plot, but it also makes it seem a lot less tangible in this introduction to the character--someone actually devoted to a real person rather than the idealized sensation of being in love would think of the name and distinguishing characteristics, one would assume. I'll hold judgement on how this situation actually plays out, but it looks possible that Twilight just undermined its core concept within the first five sentences, which had the sole purpose of establishing the core concept.

Chapter One: First Sight.
-If I still had no clue from the series fame, marketing, side-cover or preface, the chapter title here pushes me to anticipate a romance, love at first sight. The text lays itself out fairly directly, which could be a large part of the appeal--if one is reading for a certain expected situation (romance, actor, humor, military tech) there could be an inherent attraction to it being done transparently and directly. No point in waiting a hundred pages for the murder to be committed in a murder mystery after all, or for the main conceit of troubled cross-species romance to be established.

-Off that, Twilight is longer than I expected. The edition I have from the local library is 498 pages, albeit some larger font than is needed but that's still more than I thought, in the discussions and media concerning Twilight I'd gotten the impression it was closer to 300. Let's see how the story develops in that kind of length.

-At this point my commentary has run longer than the actual Twilight lines I'm reacting to. That's not going to continue.

-The actual story. The beginning few pages feature a lot more geographical musings than I expected--specifically extended comparison between small town Forks and Phoenix. Bella is put as the outsider, the new arrival at an environment that doesn't suit here. On one level this format is unsurprising--it sets her up to be sympathetic, showing a situation of alienation and feeling out of place that most people have experienced at some point. It does go on a bit with the problems with Forks, I wonder how many small-town readers the book has gained. Does it appeal more to people that live in larger communities and hate the idea of small town life, or more to people living in small towns that want out?

[QUOTE]When I landed in Port Angeles, it was raining. I didn't see it as an omen--just unavoidable. I'd already said my goodbyes to the sun.[/QUOTE]
Kind of strange phrasing, and more than a bit melodramatic. Not necessarily unrealistic for a teenager's thought process. Related to this facet, there's assessing the prose, the line-by-line writing. Honestly, by the first chapter at least, it's not as bad as often claimed. Yes, there's far too much purple prose, excessively generic claims and description that doesn't actually give a good mental picture of what's being described. Still, it's hardly unreadable, manages dialog okay and overall is competent to follow the unfolding of events. The first person account gives some excuse for the more silly phrasing, and overall it's not transcendently worse than a lot of genre stuff.

-Page five there's a mention of Bella's desire to buy a car, "despite the scarcity of my funds". A bit surprising, and doesn't fit the mental picture given of Bella thus far, I'm preemptively putting in the 'not anti-women' category to assess the larger presentation of her character; the motivation given (faster not being driven by a cop car) is fairly trivial but it also indicates some desire for mobility and independence.

-Of course there's also the particular class status established here--Bella has enough disposable income to conceivably purchase a car, but not very much.
-Page seven, reference to both her father (Charlie) and Bella herself not being comfortable with expressing emotions verbally. File for further reference.

-"No need to add that my being happy in Forks is an impossibility. He didn't need to suffer along with me."
Okay, this is starting to get a bit much. The self-pitying expectation of unhappiness because this town is too small and limited at this point is making Bella look fairly elitist and purposefully bitter. Nothing has actually happened yet to justify this reaction.

-All the stuff with Bella's family is really weird, particularly the overly distant and cautious way she has of engaging with her parents. Seems to suggest some major dysfunctionality or at least some past tragic backstory.

-Page nine, Bella moving into her room is interesting and kind of poignant.
[QUOTE]The room was familiar; it had been belonged to me since I was born. The wooden floor, the light blue walls, the peaked ceiling, the yellowed lace curtains around the window--these were all a part of my childhood. The only changes Charlie had ever made were switching the crib for a bed and adding a desk as I grew.[/QUOTE]
Alright the language here is especially awkward ("It had been belonged to me?" What is the word "been" doing there?) but it's kind of an interesting dynamic described, a subtle way of feeling confined and predetermined to a familiar juvenile role. It makes sense on a direct level--she and Charlie haven't seen each other that much, but it also suggests that on a level of material environment and assigned possessions she'd reducible to a much younger and more restricted environment. Even the computer in there is mentioned as a way for her mother to keep in closer touch, it acts as another form of parental control. Not wonder Bella wanted a car and liked it (specifically for its indestructibility) so much, it's arguably the one thing that marks her.

-Similar indication page eleven, suggesting that the kitchen as well hasn't changed in eighteen years, a basically static layout of possessions.

-Page ten, Bella describes herself:
[QUOTE]But physically, I'd never fit in anywhere. I should be tan, sporty, blond--a volleyball player, or a cheerleader, perhaps--all the things that go with living in the valley of the sun. Instead, I was ivory-skinned, without even the excuse of blue eyes or red hair, despite the constant sunshine. I had always been slender, but soft somehow, obviously not an athlete; I didn't have the necessary hand-eye coordination to play sports without humiliating myself--and harming both myself and anyone else who stood too close. [/QUOTE]
This is not good. It's a character who thinks of herself almost entirely in terms of negatives, who has a major self-loathing expressed throughout. What's worse is the huge emphasis on clumsiness, to the extent of actually injuring herself and others--it's an overdone portrait designed to make its subject alienated from the possibility of normal happy relation to society. And the fact that she's female really sets the stage, the way expectations of others factor in. What's troubling is that the defining oneself by what one isn't is probably a major issue of the book's popularity. Making the protagonist a blank slate like this allows more identity and connection to the alienation, but it's directly fueling a form of pre-romantic romantic focus, establishing a neurotic perspective of being incapable and unlovable until someone comes along to love her. In essence, this representation makes for a disturbing romantic subtext before the romance is actually introduced.

-Page thirteen, Bella thinks Forks High School isn't like a real school, and is nostalgic for chain-link fences and metal detectors. Seems an intentional point of irony there.

-Bella parks her truck.
[QUOTE]I was glad to see that most of the cars were older like mine, nothing flashy. At home I'd lived in one of the few lower-income neighborhoods that were included in the Paradise Valley District. It was a common thing to see a new Mercedes or Porshce in the student lot. The nicest car here was a shiny Volvo, and it stood out. [/QUOTE]
See, I don't need to fish that hard for indicators of capitalism. This one is fairly intriguing, suggested that Bella mostly sees class and possessions as fitting in, or at being shamed by an environment of greater affluence. Here's a way that despite feeling more out of place in Forks she's actually closer. Of course, there's also the fact that I'm assuming the Volvo is Edward's, which sets up an ambivalence with the whole nature of wealth--a desire at once to be invisible in material possessions while also being drawn to them as an indicator of higher value. I'd suggest that there's a basic contradiction here, born from an awkward situation of middle-class America within the larger world economy and individuals in relation with the middle class. In the perspective of this work there's a basic embrace of conflicting values that can only be resolved through sparkly vampires.

-Bella receives a classroom reading list: Bronte, Shakespeare, Chaucer, Faulkner, she sees it as basic and had already read all of them. Is Faulker really standard for high school these days? That doesn't track with my past experience.

-Page 16, Bella is approached by Eric trying to be helpful, but she is dismissive because he has skin problems and seems overhelpful. There's the elitisim again.

-First view of the Cullens. Beautiful, distinctive, similar, impressive, mature.
[QUOTE]The girls were opposties. The tall one was statuesque. She had a beautiful figure, teh kind you saw on the cover of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, the kind that makes every girl around her take a hit on her self-esteem just by being in the same room...I stared because their faces, so different, so similar, were all devastatingly, inhumanly beautiful. They were faces you never expected to see expect perhaps on the airbrushed pages of a fashion magazine. [/QUOTE]
Two striking things here. One is how infused this impression is with commercial metaphors, the way Bella reaches for comparisons with celebrity glamor and models before great artistic tropes. This passage will be interesting for future generations as they look back and try to contextualize the Twilight phenomenon, to see the ways that the summoning of transcendent beauty is determined by an understanding from specific forms of media. Nothing is timeless or innate here, the whole form of aesthetic appreciation for another human being has to come through the operation of the market. Second, the presentation of female beauty here is more drawn out and striking than the male, which is far more generic. Even the first overview of Edward practically gets lost in the crowd. Why? And no, there's not any same-sex attraction here. Instead it's because female beauty is held to negate that of every other female, it further establishes an imbalance and sense of awkwardness about Bella in her own body. It's the direct mythological counterpoint to Bella looking in the mirror a few pages earlier. That character and negation of character seem to flow directly into the whole presentation of the story's universe. Again, not good.

-Edward's furious glare at Bella. So, that's the first sight the chapter was referring to. Hmm.

-Bella chats with another guy Mike for a bit, and is less immediately dismisive than with Eric above.

-In reference to her car: "It seemed like a haven, already the closest thing to a home I had in this damp green hole." See, significant.

So, that's chapter one. In itself it doesn't seem hugely more or less impressive than the general paranormal romance mixed with YA. At this point I'd speculate that the book's popularity came from the way the protagonist isn't too defined, and yet is still coherent as a personality. The problem is the way this level of self-image connects to the gender portrayal, and the role of women as narratively erasable at just the point in which they become identfiaible. As well, given that I've gathered the whole book, and indeed series, is all about the beautiful romance of Bella and Edward, it's somewhat disturbing that there first meeting involves a death glare, and the way the vampire beauty is taken as so transcendent and automatically effacing to people, especially women people.
Chapter Two: Open Book.
-You know, this type of running commentary would have a lot more value from someone that had managed to sit out the whole hype thing and had absolutely no idea what Twilight was going in. There's never an unbiased or unconnected reading of anything but at this point I have knowledge of later plot elements from wider discussion that make for a juxtaposition of the series. For instance, by the title here I assume that it refers to Edward's telepathy, which is able to read people's minds but not Bella's. This isn't knowledge I should have relative to taking the book on its own terms, and it's likely to make me more impatient with the unfolding story than it really deserves in its own right. Oh well.

-Bella is forming a circle of friends or at least people she sits with at lunch, and feels less alienated, page 29. That's nice, better than if she was completely isolated all the time until the romance sweeps her up.

-Bella gets really tense and obsessed over Edward not being present at school, to the extent that it's basically her full day. I don't get it. If she's remotely as unpopular and alienated as everything about her prose indicates, is she truly so impacted by someone that glares at her to the extent that his absence unnerves her? Of course this case is different because the larger narrative is about True Love, but even accepting that all Bella knows at this point is that Edward glares at her and doesn't seem to want to be around her. The only distinguishing thing about the issue is his exceptional beauty, which just makes her look shallow.

-Page 33 Bella's mother is over-anxious to get an e-mail response. On one level the way this familial pressure plays out seems dull and meaningless, on the other hand it feels fairly believable and makes me a bit more sympathetic towards Bella, which is what the narrative should be doing at this point, so I'll give the interlude passing marks.

-Charlie describes Dr. Cullen:
[QUOTE]a brilliant surgeon who could probably work in any hosptial in the world, make ten times the salary he gets here...We're lucky to have him--lucky that his wife wanted to live in a small town[/QUOTE]
This description reminds me a lot of the setup to Everwood--world famous neurosurgeon chooses to go to a community in the middle of nowhere which mystifies everyone. That was a great show. Anyway, more directly this passage reinforces the notion of Cullen superiority to everyone else, here in relation to talent beyond beauty, although Charlie also rather awkwardly makes a description of Dr. Cullen's great looks and sex appeal to nurses at the hosptial. Not entirely sure why he feels the need to mention such to his teenage daughter, as it seems most readers would assume Dr. Cullen was beautiful just like the rest of his family.

-More of Edward's absence for subsequent days. Bella is described as being able to relax and not be bugged by this, but focuses in on this angle a bit too much to make us believe it’s not totally about him.

-Page 38, she checks out the local library but finds it so small she doesn't bother getting a card, resolving to drive up to Olympia or Seattle find a good bookstore, then worries about the involved gas mileage. Another indicator of the ongoing capitalist stress in this book, the fear of a gap between what's available and what's wanted. As well, file under 'non negative gender things', Bella is shown to be a significant reader, and that the range of thing she's interested in is more than available in a small town. This is a type of frustration I can relate to, and insofar as it expects the reader to be engaged with other books that seems positive. Though I'm not sure why Bella doesn't just use Amazon to ship in books rather than drive extended distances to physically purchase them. This book seems a bit disconnected from available technology in some ways--the Internet so far has featured only as a means for communicating with her mother, and that at the mother's insistence.

-There's reference, page 38, to a trip to La Push Ocean Park in two weeks, Mike and others. Bella accepts the invitation, although not without a lament for the low quality of regional beaches. Presumably this forms a plot point, since the story focused in on it and it rarely describes Bella's day in any detail. Some of the criticism I've seen on the novel expresses frustration at the slow pace, and that may become a problem down the road. At this point, I'm more struck by the opposite issue, with entire days passing with only very fragmentary description of what's happening. More detail on what Bella is doing in her interactions would actually be desired, it would make her story feel more lived in and her character authentic.

-Edward reappears.
[QUOTE]They were enjoying the snowy day, just like everyone else--only they looked more like a scene from a movie than the rest of us.[/QUOTE]
Deliberately highlighting the multi-media characteristics of some of the characters but not all. It seems to be deliberately showing the Cullens as less real but more desirable than regular people. Par for the course for vampire romance, I'd suspect, although again the infusion of media culture mechanisms into the idealized romantic imagination.

-A similar passage later, page forty. Description of Edward, post-snowball fight:
[QUOTE]His hair was dripping wet, disheveled--even so, he looked like he'd just finished shooting a commercial for hair gel.[/QUOTE]
Again, romantic aesthetics cannot be imagined without consumer culture.

-Earlier there's also a direct overview of the Cullens with wealth.
[QUOTE]I saw the two Cullens and the Hale twins getting int their car. It was the shiny new Volvo. Of course. I hadn't noticed their clothes before--I'd been too mesmerized by their faces. Now that I looked, it was obvious that they were all dressed exceptionally well; simply, but in clothes that subtly hinted at designer origins. With their remarkable good looks, the style with which they carried themselves, they could have worn dishrags and pulled it off. It seemed excessive for them to have both looks and money. But as far as I could tell, life worked that way most of the time. It didn't look as if it bought them any acceptance here.
No, I didn't fully believe that. The isolation must be their desire; I couldn't imagine any door that wouldn't be opened by that degree of beauty.[/QUOTE]
The Cullens' wealth shouldn't be that much of a surprise, given Charlie mentioned the father was brilliant and could make a higher salary, one might assume he did in the past. Directly Bella here reflects on high wealth accompanying other appeal as part of the inherent unfairness of life. Yet, significantly, this wealth is made to be secondary to their character of overall beauty. They don't look good because they're wearing expensive clothes and have a god car, instead their beauty is so innate and overpowering that at first it distract from the wealth they have access to, and Bella emphasizes that they'd be gorgeous even if wearing rags. There's the ambivalence about the capitalist process here again--wealth is unavailable but appealing, crucial yet unimportant to ultimate nature, resented and yet impressive. Again it comes down to an emphasis on their beauty, which Bella assumes is automatically enough to establish whatever role their desire, their isolation from other people must be their choosing. Agency accompanies beauty.

-First conversation between Edward and Bella. Lots of discussion about names and knowledge, followup romantic tension while doing school science. Having it be a biology experiment is perhaps a bit too much on the money. As far as their actual interactions go, it's not really that creepy. Fairly disjointed in terms of how the conversation goes, but not in a very unrealistic way, and at this point Bella herself notes how strange it is.

-And the last moment is Edward standing nearby and staring at her, disturbing enough to almost provoke an accident.
Chapter Three: Phenomenon
-The first chapter title I don't know exactly what moment to expect from reading it. Presumably something odd and vampire-related, but not a specific encounter.

-Bella sees the ground has been frozen solid:
[QUOTE]I had enough trouble not falling down when the ground was dry; it might be safer for me to go back to bed now.[/QUOTE]
All the emphasis on Bella as barely capable of avoiding injuring herself is really rather creepy, it plays into the whole fantasy of needing a man to protect and help her. Writing her as continually incapable of navigating basic life challenges also plays up childlike aspects, which makes the romance genre rather problematic. Related to the self-danger issue, it turns out that Bella can drive easier than anticipated because Charlie had put snow chains on the truck.

-Related to this theme, when Bella thinks of Edward she's far more critical of herself and her "babbling" than his unexplained hostility and staring at her.

-Bella almost gets hit with a car, Edward rescues her. See above. This is also the first scene that the quality of description becomes an actual dramatic problem--the scene as it unfolds should be fast moving and tense, but it's dragged down by the way it's narrated, making the order of events somewhat awkward.

-I'm reminded a lot of the pilot to the show Roswell in this sequence--paranormal boy saves girl and romance results. That worked better though because they didn't have a previous connection--it was effectively the occasion of their meeting, random gunshot that causes him to interfere. Here the past interest undermines the ongoing romance, and implies that Edward wouldn't have exerted himself to save Bella if he hadn't already had an interest in her.

-Anyway, hospitalization ensues. In talking about Edward's character, here the narrative rather missteps--it takes him saving her life and manages to make it into a negative by him being so hostile and defensive in insisting he displayed only perfectly normal capabilities. I assume that he's reacting this way because of a long history of secrecy by the clan, fear of attracting fear and hostility from normals, government dissection and the like, but his attitude here is still off-putting. Not really an indication of fear or self-concern, but instead a lot of blank dismissal and arrogance. At this point the story should be making us be drawn to Edward in some capacity. A measure of remove from the character goes with the terrain for this stage, but there should also be appealing chracteristics beyond his beauty and strength, and I'm not really getting that from his personality. When he tries to cover his secret by sneering things like "I saved your life--I don't owe you anything" it doesn't make him sympathetic or do an effective job concealing the truth.

[QUOTE]"You think I lifted a van off you?" His tone questioned my sanity, but it only made me more suspicious. It was like a perfectly delivered line by a skilled actor. [/QUOTE]
I think the prose is getting worse, or I'm becoming more aware of it as the book develops, and in intrudes on scenes where things are actually happening. Here the last line in particular just takes me out of the flow of the narrative entirely, it's the epitome of telling rather than showing, distancing me from the event and the protagonist.

-Still, there are things happening in the story, and as set up the situation with the wider Cullen family has its interesting elements. More than anything else at this point I'm curious about Dr. Cullen now that he's been met--the type of intergenerational thing within a vampire society while being a lot more involved in the local community than Edward is has its intriguing elements.

Chapter Four: Invitations.
-Bella's dream of Edward: it's very dark, but light is radiating from his skin. That's it, the whole dream. The account seems to be going for angelic qualities, but at this point it's impossible to separate from my knowledge of the sparkly vampires that have been so mocked.

-A month of time conveyed in several pages, it mostly involves Bella worrying about Edward and thinking he hates her again.

-Some love triangle drama gets drawn up--Jessica is interested in Mike who is interested in Bella. There doesn't seem much point in this element--Mike and Jessica have previously existed as characters only to explain elements of the town and the Cullens to Bella, and this element seems to just add another tangled element to the main story. Mike's interest here is received with more surprise than it seems to warrant--Bella previously reflected to herself that she was a lot more popular than in Phoenix, and knew that Eric (haven't seen him lately) and Mike were both interested in her. One might think that this type of situation and centered interest would make Bella less self-pitying about how loathed and unpopular she is, but one would be wrong.

[QUOTE]Gym was brutal. We'd moved on to basketball. My team never passed me the ball, so that was good, but I fell down a lot. Sometimes I took people with me.[/QUOTE]
This continues to be the most disturbing thing about the book. On one level the initial image of Bella looking at herself in the mirror wasn't that bad--one could accept that as a self-assessment it's not untypical for many teenage girls, the cultural norm for being too harsh in judging themselves. However, the story makes it deeply problematic by backing up everything she said in her later behavior--she actually is so clumsy that even moving across the court without a basketball she's unable to stop injuring herself and others.

-Eric reappears out of the aether to also express interest in Bella and the upcoming dance. She says no. He vanishes again. That serves to emphasize how pointless he is as a character, just serving to echo a sentiment that's already happened. The effect is the opposite of which was presumably intended--it serves to make me less sympathetic to Bella. As currently portrayed there are people who like her, romantically and non, but she holds out all of her attention for the beautiful guy that acts cold and hostile. That's a romantic fantasy at once self-entitled and self-effacing.

-And then Tyler, the one who almost crushed her with his car last chapter, also asks her to the upcoming dance. So, calling this arrangement a love triangle was a bit of an understatement. And I know from things I've heard online that someone named Jacob is going to show up at some point to play a similar foil. And also to be a werewolf. Spoilers.

-Page 81. Edward shows up again, using his super speed to rush in and when challenged about that replying "Bella, it's not my fault if you are exceptionally unobservant." That's really not very encouraging. So they talk a bit, Edward invites her to ride with him to Seattle while continually laughing at her, mentioning in veiled terms how dangerous he is and continuing to attract her with his intensity. I'm not exactly liking the way this is developing.

Although I'll admit I found the rational for carpooling sort of amusing: "The wasting of finite resources is everyone's business." The environmental justification comes out of nowhere and attaching a socially conscious collective sentiment to what's so heavily individual-centered romantic melodrama is kind of a fun juxtaposition.

Chapter Five: Blood Type

-Bella worries because Mike doesn't sit by her in class, but then is met by the door "so I figured I wasn't totally unforgiven." Awkward double negative in there. More broadly while it would normally be nice to see Bella give some attention to someone that's not Edward, the assumption that she would need to be forgiven for turning down a request to a date is rather possessive and creepy. I'm sensing this is how romance and gender relations are structured across the book, not just with Edward.

[QUOTE]It was hard to believe that someone so beautiful could be real. I was afraid that he might disappear in a sudden puff of smoke, and I would wake up.[/QUOTE]
It's kind of interesting that the story keeps reinforcing the unbelievability of its main conceit in this way. It's dwelling on the main issue that the reader has to have suspension of disbelief on, and maintaining it as a fairly generic type of beauty that's impossible to actually visualize. At this point I think it's a deliberate strategy, a way to bring in imagination and romanticization of the reader.

-This moment launches another Bella-Edward scene, in the lunchroom. He continues to mention how dangerous he is, and how she's stupid for wanting to be around him. Beyond the disturbing context of this conversation it's redundant with earlier ones in the plot--it could have been folded into that one or cut entirely.

-I note that in speculating about Edward's character Bella references Spiderman and Edward Superman. I'm hoping this sets up some long passionate argument later with them respectively debating the merits of Marvel as against DC, although I don't think that's where this trend is going. I do wonder at this point how much the novel is aimed at people that already have some contact with genre ideas and how much amateurs. Of course Spider and Superman are the types of things that are pretty well distributed into the larger culture and I'd assume to be recognizable but I seem to recall some ambiguous passages earlier on.

-The science class requires everyone to take blood samples of themselves to determine blood type in preparation for the impending blood drive. Seems really unlikely and a contrived manner to transition into the whole vampire thing. Bella then faints at the sight of blood, Edward comes up and laughs at her for it. You know, it would take so little effort for Edward to not come across as an asshole here. I suppose we could be charitable and assume that, in addition to explicit warnings, he's also trying to act like a jerk to increase the distance with Bella for her own safety. That doesn't track with his increasing number of encounters with her, however. As well this story is from Bella's point of view, and the continuing attraction she has says more about her than anything. And it's sort of disquieting--either she's ignoring everything except Edward's beauty or the callous way he acts is also part of the appeal.

-Page 103, Edward pulls Bella by the jacket into his car, threatening her several times. She relaxes and chats with him a bit once she recognizes the music playing. Similarly, there's Edward's casual assertion that he'll send Alice around to bring her truck back. The assumption is that women are to be commanded and controlled.

[QUOTE]"Don't be offended, but you seem to be one of those people who just attract accidents like a magnet. So..try not to fall into the ocean or get run over or anything, all right?" He smiled crookedly. [/QUOTE]
Yes, that largely sums it up.
Chapter Six: Scary Stories.

-A visit to the La Push beaches. Wait, wasn't that announced for two weeks in the future over a month ago? Did they delay it or something or do I have the timeline wrong?

-Enter Jacob Black, page 119. Ah, so he was the son of the person Charlie bought the truck from? I suppose if we're going to have another major character it's better to have some kind of connection in a small town rather than them just popping out of nowhere.
[QUOTE]His skin was beautiful, silky and russet-colored; his eyes were dark, set deep above the high planes of his cheekbones. He still had just a hint of a childish roundness left around his chin.[/QUOTE]
None of the these elements are too ineffable in themselves, but add them together and it doesn't seem like a face.

-I gather from larger knowledge of the series that Jacob forms the other side with Bella-Edward of the true love triangle of the series, the ultimate and transcendent love triangle before which all the Eric/Mike/Tyler stuff is shown to have been just training wheels for the serious relationship melodrama.

-First impressions: the story tries to hard and tells overly about how intelligent and funny we're supposed to find Jacob. Still, his dialog feels more authentic than Edward's and is a lot more grounded in daily components of life--ages, building a car, details on what mutual acquaintances are up to. It works both to tie him to the real world and gives him a more unique and distinguishable personality. He also has a sense of humor that doesn't revolve around sneering at Bella and lets her in on the joke. A breath of fresh air in several ways.

-I'm also predisposed to like him because he actually explains the wider setting and the grounding for the plot, doing more necessary exposition in a few minutes than Edward provided in months after using his superspeed overtly. That backstory is as follows: many legends, but the accurate one is a conflict between werewolves and their descendants and the cold ones. The Cullens were vampires aka cold ones granted special disposition because they were more civilized, refraining from hunting humans. The Cullens being immortal have remained the same people with a couple new editions. As backstories go, so far this one isn't bad. Combining mythologies of vampires and werewolves as rivals with some exceptions is fairly unique, and a group of vampires that decide to stop hunting humans to draw less hostility on themselves actually makes a fair bit of sense. There needs to be a lot more detail on fleshing all this out, of course, I'll be pissed if the preceding is all the explanation given for an urban fantasy this size.

Chapter Seven: Nightmare

-Bella's dream of Edward as a vampire and a wolf. Mike also features, poor schmucks Eric and Tyler don't get to feature even in Bella's subconscious any more.

-Bella does a web search for vampire.
[QUOTE]I turned to my computer. Naturally, the screen was covered in popup adds. I sat in my hard folding chair and began closing all the little windows. Eventually I made it to my favorite search engine.[/QUOTE]
Apparently Bella has lousy spam subtract software and blocking. Also, "my favorite search engine"? In 2005? Not just Google? This description appears rather distant from the actual daily use of the Internet.

-Ironically do a google search for vampire now and the first result involves the latest Twilight-verse novel. The book's success has been enough to change the mundane minor conditions described as part of the book. This element is part of how Twilight's cultural success has to be taken stock of. It makes everything meta.

-Anyway, Bella looks through vampire stuff and finds only one minor mythological reference to good vampires, somehow managing to not see any of the Anita Blake or Buffy stuff. She then wanders into the forest and thinks about Edward's possible vampirism for awhile, thnking about just avoiding him:
[QUOTE] Iwas gripped in a sudden agony of despair as I considered that alternative. My mind rejected the pain, quickly skipping on to the next option [/QUOTE]
This instinctive reaction and decision not to think about avoiding the bloodrinking supeerhuman that both Edward and Jacob at this point have confirmed is in continual danger of losing control--that's Bella's character for us in a nutshell. It's not just character defect, though, it's the way she stands in as a Reader Avatar. After all we basically all know even without Twilight's success what kind of book this one is, and presumably most of us aren't in this as a project of cultural deconstruction. For the story to proceed on, to grapple with the actuality of Edward is a necessity. The form of the genre insures that Bella can't do the sensible thing and break off all contact forever.

-On page 140 of my copy, after Bella settles on the decision to keep things going because she ultimately cares about Edward, someone has written in marginalia "Cheesy. Off the heezy." What better demonstration can there be of the fluidity of reading encounters, the way the text is mediated by outside context? Flipping through it doesn't seem there is any other marginalia in this library copy, more's the pity.

-In Bella's reflection on her father we learn that he's a burned out ex-romantic, slowly fading in vibracy and engagement. "but when he smiled I could see a little of the man who had run away with Renee when she was jsut two years older than I was now."
That actually explains a whole lot about Bella and her family background.

-It appears that Bella's essay that she's mostly finished with is "Whether Shakespeare's treatment of the female character is misogynistic." Page 143. Given what this book has and the issues that most reviews of Twilight have brought up, it's extremely interesting to see a character like Bella actually bring up the question of weighing an author's writing for misogyny. It has no follow through, of course, and given the book's somewhat lackluster approach to showing schooling I doubt there'll ever be any detail on this topic, but the mention of this topic suggests Twilight is somewhat aware of the issues it raises. That might easily make it worse, mind you.

-In the context of explaining he was helping her friends find dresses "I wouldn't have had to explain this to a woman." The essentialized gender distinction rings loud and clear.
Chapter Eight: Port Angeles

-Bella, Jessica and Angela go out to try on dresses. It's all in relation to attracting men, of course, but despite that is one of the nicer moments--it feels comparatively natural and relaxed to the usual pace.

-Bella gets chased by four men trying presumably to assault her. Considering the text's continual adoration of the Cullens and the wealth and beauty they have, it seems significant that the account emphasizes their grimy clothes, and it's an area of the city with warehouses. Basic class paranoia here, and the way that Bella is immediately suspicious of them as opposed to how she generally reacts to Edward.
On the actual incident, Edward appears out of nowhere and rescues her, of course.

-Edward and Bella go out to a restaurant, the waitress there ignores Bella and keeps trying to flirt with Edward. That scene and the interactions really remind me of Thomas Raith and his reaction on people, apparently some kinds of archetype are pretty similarly marked.

-Bella speaks: "I've always been very good at repressing unpleasant things." Now that's a very interesting character trait to self-define as. It was hinted at several points already, most strikingly when she just shut down her whole worry about hanging out a vampire.

-More conversation between Edward and Bella with direct romance and threats, and some half-direct statements about Edward's abilities. His dialog implies Bella's freakish attracting of danger might actually be significant metaphysically and in terms of the plot.

Chapter Nine: Theory

-Direct disclosure of Edward's telepathy, and that it's unique to him among the clan. He can't read Bella's thoughts because her mind works on a different frequency somehow. As well, vampires aren't burned by the sun, don't sleep at all. And his clan abstains from human blood, although they're continually tempted by it.

[QUOTE]"I decided it didn't matter," I whispered.
"It didn't matter? His tone made me look up-I had finally borken through his carefully composed mask. His face was incredulous..."A hard mocking edge entered his voice. "You don't care if I'm a monster? If I'm not [I]human[/I]?"
Honestly after the buildup it's somewhat of a relief to see Edward consider Bella's attitude towards romance sublimating self-protection as completely insane. However it's somewhat undermined by Bella continuing to insist on a romance, and the whole template being laid for the series in Edward continuing to need to work to keep Bella alive. It lays a whole dependency angle to the whole thing that's ultimately as problematic as the whole predator of the night thing.

-Bella's closing narration helpfully sums up the whole series:
[QUOTE]First, Edward was a vampire. Second, there was a 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.[/QUOTE]
The formula of vampire romance isn't a terrible one in itself. That's part of the problem with a lot of hype against Twilight--it dismisses the whole premise of any worthwhile storytelling in a teen vampire romance and then, not surprisingly, finds a lot fatally wrong in the course of the book. While it touches on some major issues and problematic subtext (the eroticization of the vampire attacks which goes back at least to Dracula) it can be done effectively. Twilight isn't because it makes Bella so totally devoted to Edward, effacing most of her own defining characteristics to focus in on her. As well the way this "developing romance" has been presented to date has been four fifths Edward being cold, mocking or directly menacing. It seems to be a love story not entered into above and beyond the possibility of the man brutally murdering the woman but it's a love story where the strength and beauty that are the whole appeal are directly linked to the danger.

-On a more direct plot level, it seems that everything in the last two chapters could have been introduced much earlier, soon after the car crash incident. Beyond padding and slowly building some of Bella's circle of friends, crushes and antagonists it doesn't seem to offer much purpose.
Chapter 10: Interrogations

-From the Roswell comparison earlier I had this image of Edward being tortured by the FBI like Max Evans was in late S1. It would be kind of out of left field, but I sort of liked the Roswell shift from intense teenage melodrama with some of the people happening to be aliens to direct life and death confrontation with psychotic authority figures. It does sort of reinforce how Twilight doesn't factor in the external world at all, pretty much all plot stimulus comes from the magic side. That's something I've always been puzzled about for some urban fantasies, that aren't actually about intersections between the modern and magic worlds. Harry Potter was basically about the escape from modern society into a self-contained alternate magical worlds. As well, I recently read Seanan McGuire's Rosemary and Rue/A Local Habitation, which had the characters immersed the modern environment of gritty San Francisco--yet every single character was a full fae or hybrid, and there was no interaction with actual full humans. It makes for a different template for fantasy then it seems to present on the label.

-Anyway, the actual story. Bella opens by considering if the previous events were a dream. She does this sort of thing a lot, I'll return to this concept later in the context of reflecting on the text's relation to the Edward/Bella relationship.

-Edward is still as asshole, insisting that Bella really is extremely delicate, and rebuking her for making it hard to tell what she's thinking. There's an assumption of control here both for use and protection that reinforces all the problems in their interactions.

-Bella turns in a paper for English. It's unnamed at this point, but if I'm tracking correctly this would be the one assessing misogyny in Shakespeare's works (or maybe just in Macbeth, the descriptions are unclear). Ironic.

-Bella and Jessica chat a bit about her situation with Edward, page 204.
[QUOTE]"I do have some trouble with incoherency when I'm around him," I admitted.
"Oh well. He is unbelievably gorgeous." Jessica shrugged as if this excused any flaws. Which, in her book, it probably did.

In [I]her[/I] book? This passage is perhaps the most glaring hypocrisy in the text to date, and a hypocrisy that runs to a core of the book. Bella was basically impressed by Edward's looks, everything about how he drew her in despite his personality was related to his transcendent beauty, and we've seen how she respects beautiful people (Edward and to a lesser extent Jacob) vastly more than average guys like Mike and massively more than people with acne like Eric (who seems to have been MIA for quite awhile now). And yet, it's crucial to the whole format of the story that Bella not see herself, and the audience not see her, as being shallow. So we have Jessica's viewpoint dismissed as taking Edward's beauty over anything else, while just recently we had Bella so awed by his beauty that she continued on despite the expressed danger of being murdered by him. Bella will constantly berate herself and express self-loathing about different aspects of her life, but the flat out most problematic thing about her--her disregard of her own safety and life in pursuit of a visually appealing talker--apparently gets a pass in the name of being a virtue. Here is the basic disconnect at the core of the book, why Bella's point of view on Edward is fundamentally unhealthy.

And then page 208 we have an encapsulation of how the relationship is twisted in regards to Edward's motivation.

[QUOTE]"I warned you I would be listening."
"And I warned you that you didn't want to know everything I was thinking."
"You did," he agreed, but his voice was still rough. You aren't precisely right, though. I do want to know what you're thinking--everything."[/QUOTE]

Consider that what first drew Edward to Bella was her immunity to his psychic scanning. And he has a desire to overcome that metaphysical limitation and find out everything she's thinking. There's a discomforting text here--attracted by resistance yet seeking to overcome it, desire to know all and in the process controlling all. Eavesdropping considered as a right is the logical outcome of this stance.

-Pages later, Edward describes how special and extraordinary Bella is. This attitude has to speak to the idealized model of romance being done here, telling everyone whose felt out of place that they are actually transcendent, unique, and can be valued above all else. Here's part of the disquiet of Twilight, especially following the above. I don't see the creepy relationship context as something that can be detached from the whole story, it's the basis of the appeal. The idea of a relationship that runs across all bounds and restraints, that shows the man recognizing no limits on privacy and focusing on control. That shows the woman as so invested in love that she repeatedly spurs warnings on her own self-interest. That's part of the fantasy, the type of secular religion being offered here. I think it's deliberate that the relationship has disturbing components, shown to reinforce how the sheer transcendent specialness of Edward and Bella transform everything that should keep them apart. What makes the book somewhat unique is that it's not at all the standard teen melodrama in this regard. It's not about external circumstances as a barrier. Even the love triangle stuff doesn't as of yet have much dramatic force. The main pressures against happy heterosexual union comes from within the characters themselves, specifically the danger of murdering and being murdered. It's a fairly good embodiment of the teenage romantic self-absorption--and the whole concept of love as a two person thing isolated from the world and done in defiance of all rationality. The notion of love as being insane, transcending normal standards and basic comparison. To that extent the core of the book is going to work insofar as one accepts that paradigm for love, or demonstrates some basically problematic conceptions is passion as total and isolating.

-Edward describes his hunting of bears and mountain lions. Predatory analogies becomes more explicit.

Chapter 11: Complications

-Bella playing tennis.

[QUOTE]I somehow managed to hit myself in the head with my racket and clip Mike's shoulder on the same swing.[/QUOTE]
-Normally at this point I'd ask why the story hates its Reader Avatar protagonist so much, but it actually follows pretty logically from the larger role of the story. Bella is there to be pathetic and incapable in her own life so it builds the inherent appeal of a supernatural protector that's totally devoted to her. It's not really insulting the reader who identifies with Bella by making her so clumsy, as it's offering them a fantasy of failure and then vindication.

-Lots of back and forth with Charlie concerting the drive up to Seattle, having him feature more in the story than he has for a long time.

-Billy and Jacob renter the narrative.

Chapter 12: Balancing

-Again in contrast Jacob seems much more friendly, non-menacing and grounded in realworld detail than Edward. On a direct story level this encounter seems like a detour, however.

-Edward again flat out states the concern that being alone with Bella will lead to him killing her.
[QUOTE]I realized slowly that his words should frighten me. I waited for that fear to come, but all I could seem to feel was an ache for his pain.[/QUOTE]
One of the interesting things about Twilight is how strongly it appears to build the case against it. It's not like there's a huge amount of work necessary to mine the text for creepy sentiments and issues, instead the novel keeps drawing attention to the disconnect at the heart of the relationship. One could almost at this point of the book believe all the emphasis is a deliberate subversion of the romantic cliches--that at the end the relationship will be shown to be a mistake, Edward's beauty not enough in itself to counteract his disturbing behavior and Bella's equally disturbing reaction to that. It's pretty clear that's not in the cards, and even without wider culture hype I wouldn't expect that from the story to date. It does seem to have built up the case for the anti-Twilight fervor rather effectively though, and continues to emphasize precisely those aspects that one would think would be quickly glossed over.

-More dialog relating to the preparations for the Seattle trip. I realize this is setup for a significant development in the book's terms, but it is still rather excessive and unnecessary. Given this book was before the cultural success one would think there were be stronger editorial presence. The ideal reader at this point is breathlessly waiting on the next Edward/Bella scene, right? By that standard what does all the back and forth about the truck really add?

-They go on the trip finally, go over to a forest trail, and in a dramatic chapter cliffhanger Edward "stepped out into the bright glow of the midday sun." There is actual meta-suspense at this point, as I can anticipate that one of Twilight's most infamous and easily most mocked elements of vampire mythology is about to come to the fore.
Chapter 13: Confessions

[QUOTE]Edward in the sunlight was shocking. I couldn't get used to it, though I'd been staring at him all afternoon. His skin, white despite the faint flush from yesterday's hunting trip, literally sparkled, like thousands of tiny diamonds were embedded in the surface. He lay perfectly still in the grass, his shirt open over his sculpted, incandescent chest, his scintillating arms bare.[/QUOTE]
This is the part that everyone has heard about. We have achieved the point of sparkly vampires. In retrospect it would have been better if this scene wasn't setup as a major dramatic and aesthetic impression, I can't visualize this scene in a way that's not ridiculous.

-Edward shows off his speed and strength, Bella reflects that he's never been less human...or more beautiful.

-Edward also describes different levels of temptation to kill and drink humans.
[QUOTE]"So what you're saying is, I'm your brand of heroin?" I teased, trying to lighten the mood.
He smiled swiftly, seeming to appreciate my effort.
"Yes, you are [I]exactly[/I] my brand of heroin."[/QUOTE]
And of course this particular draw to consume her is the basis for Edward's whole romantic and sexual attraction towards Bella. Just as Edward's general menace, and later capacity and urge to kill her make him more appealing to her. The creepiness in this setup largely speaks for itself, and it's just an intensification of what I said on chapter 10--it's a core element of a certain formula, and a lot of people have bought into it emotionally and financially.

-Some interesting hints about Edward's family and their different temperaments and capabilities.

-And then back to the main issue at the core of this novel.
[QUOTE]He closed his eyes, lost in his agonized confession. I listened, more eager than rational. Common sense told me I should be terrified. Instead, I was relieved to finally understand. And I was filled with compassion for his suffering, even now, as he confessed his craving to take my life.[/QUOTE]
Late in S2 of [I]Dexter[/I] there's a moment reminiscent of this in some ways. Lilah, the ex-girlfriend of the titular serial killer has been tracking his movements, and comes across someone locked up in a cage. She's rather puzzled by this, and moves to let him out, when he mentions that he's a cop and that Dexter put him in there, because he's the serial killer Miami has been focusing on for months. Lilah stops short and is struck by a moment of incredible compassion and empathy, the cop says he's not in such a bad shape. Lilah corrects him, she wasn't feeling sorry for him, all her feelings are for Dexter, finding out how much inner darkness he had only deepens her feelings for him. This moment is the point of the series where Lilah becomes confirmed as a full on psychopath, she kills the cop immediately after, and sets herself up as a general menace to society, such that Dexter can without qualms kill her off. I prefer that take on this type of attitude.

-There's another reason to draw in the parallel between Dexter and Twilight. Melissa Rosenberg was a writer and co-executive producer for the former, and the main writer behind all the films of the later. To me, this common link to dissimlar products and dissimilar levels of quality show that the promoting machine know what they're doing, who they're writing for, and the commerical success of the films is not a mistake, or unconnected with things that a lot of reviewers have found frustrating. The machine of commerce works, on its own logic. How much of that is present in deliberate intention for the underlying novel is a separate question, but I'd say it's a lot.

-Edward also recaps earlier scenes from his point of view, including at one time his strong urge to kill the receptionist and then drink up Bella. Bella has a moment of compassion and concern for the receptionist, but no equivalent reaction to the possibility that she was nearly killed. This attitudes manages to be at once entirely selfish while having no concern for her own continued existence. It's not like if Edward killed her it would be an effective, if perverse, sacrifice to her love--by everything the story has said so far he'd feel horrible about it, it wouldn't be a net gain. If we accept the (itself deeply sexist) notion that Bella herself is a unique temptation, the best thing she could do for both of them is to maintain a wide distance. As opposed to, you know, dating him.

-The superspeed run through the forest, the kiss. The story seems to be hitting the proper buttons for pre-sexual attraction of a teenager for a beautiful superhuman.

Chapter 14: Mind Over Matter

-Edward's backstory, born in 1901, dying in 1918 of the Spanish influenza. Description of Carlisle and the process of bringing him and other individuals into the vampire clan. Fairly interesting setup, particularly in Alice and Jasper developing a conscience separately and finding them out.

-The notion of distinct superpowers for specific vampire individuals (Edward telepathy, Alice precognition) seems unique from most vampire mythologies I've enocuntered. It's not entirely satisfying though--it seems like a doubling of suspension of disbelief, much like with the X-men or Heroes. Okay, the main premise of the series is a basically magical gene that allows weird effects. Now this magical gene creates effects of massively different character for no readily explored reason. By not connecting the powers to any defined magical system (at least at this point) and insisting they're just a side-effect of being a vampire, a natural instinct, the book seems to waver in its own coherence. I'm also wary about Alice, while the hints of her lifestory at this point are quite interesting precognition is very hard to pull off effectively, more often than not it turns the precog into a huge plot device that doesn't make sense in retrospect.

-In the end there's more direct speculation, it seems the Cullens' don't know their own mythological backstory or mechanism behind themselves, all they have are some general guesses. At a point this item feels like an evasion--reminiscent of the whole Lost non-answering 'Oh, it turns out that the shadowy mysterious Others and Dharma Initiative don't know the real answers either'. On the other hand relative to the story and direct situation we've probably been given enough background for the moment, and there's something kind of intriguing about vampires that don't have a huge defined scripture or explanation of themselves, that can be agnostic about whether they're a product of evolution or something more mystical.

-Then there's the other famous scene from Twilight now--Edward describes, with basic glee and to Bella's only mild annoyance, how each night he came into her room, spied on her and listened to her talking in her sleep. I wish I could say I was surprised, but the moment follows pretty directly from the buildup of the relationship--Edward despite initially being a normal human, knowing people's thoughts and trying to be inconspicuous for a hundred years has zero conception of or respect for people's privacy. When faced with this disclosure, Bella is embarrassed for what Edward might have heard, rather than creeped out by the stalking behavior. I wish I could say that this is the most dysfunctional relationship I've ever read about that's presented as appealing, but it isn't. It does deserve to be condemned, however.
Chapter 15: The Cullens

-More back and froth from Bella and Edward. They visit the Cullen house.

[QUOTE]The house was timeless, graceful, and probably a hundred years old.[/QUOTE]
Four years younger than Edward, in that case. Connection of glamor and wealth comes across fairly clearly in the description of the appeal.

-Seeing Esme, the last of the Cullen family Bella hasn't yet seen. "Something about her heart-shaped face, her billows of soft, caramel-colored hair, reminded me of the ingenues of the silent movie era." Again, aesthetics deriving from media culture, and an explicit description that emphasizes the unreal aspects of vampire beauty.

-Alice is friendly to Bella on sight. Edward composes and plays piano music. Rosalie is jealous of Bella because she'd like to be human. Esme is a bit B/E shipper.

-Edward exposits:
[QUOTE]"Nothing's wrong, exactly. Alice just sees some visitors coming soon. They know we're here, and they're curious."
"Yes...well, they aren't liek us, of course--in their hunting habits, I mean. They probably won't come into town at all, but I'm certainly not going to let you out of my sight till they're gone."
I shivered.
"Finally, a rational response!" he murmured. "I was beginning to think you had no sense of self-preservation at all." [/QUOTE]

It's disconcerting to find myself in full agreement with Edward. Again, it's not surprising to come to Twilight after all the discussion and see that it shows Bella to be disturbingly singleminded in focusing on Edward and willfully overlooking all danger. It is surprising that the book lampshades this element so strongly.

This quote also indicates something like real tension that doesn't involve a random car accident or equally random lower-class rapists. From these lines it seems that the Cullens are just going to schmooze with the other vampires for awhile--there's an interest in keeping Bella safe but apparently not confronting the other vampires and stopping them from murdering random people now and for generations to come.

-Carlisle is apparently 362 years old, from London, born to common folk. He was an active inquisitor type under the service of his father, helping hunt down vampires. In this process, he was attacked and turned. See, that is an interesting backstory, particularly as put against the current persona of the effective, bellow his payscale country doctor.

Chapter 16: Carlisle

-More background exposition. After being turned, Carlisle tried to kill himself but found himself unable to do it, either by drowning or jumping off great heights. Yeah, WyldCard hasn't been exaggerating their feats in vs debates. In the context of the background this makes sense--if vampires weren't physically durable and quick it's harder to accept that they wouldn't have gotten wiped out long ago. And, ironically, the fact that the common vampiric folklore on weaknesses--garlic, sunlight, stakes, crosses--is unconnected to the reality of vampires is a more realistic approach than the common one for vampires. Contrast with the whole Dresden Files approach to worldbuilding, or that of Lovecraft--all myths everywhere are largely true, extraordinary stories could not have existed unless inspired by extraodinary beings, so mix lots of myths together, stir, and you have the underlying reality. In contrast, the notion that vampires would be very different from the forms circulating in the last few hundred years makes sense, particularly in the underlying notion of people dealing with a supernatural threat by comforting themselves with some basic weaknesses and artifacts that can repel them.

-So, anyway, three hundred and forty years ago or whenver Carlisle stumbled on the whole "vegetarian" option of not eatng humans, developed a philosophy of saving human lives and the medical knowledge to do it, perfecting his self-control to the extent of being able to work in a hospital. He went with some refined but still predatory humans, he tried to talk them out of eating humans, they tried to talk him into it, things were left at a general impasse. Eventually he separated and made his way to North America, where he recruited new vampires starting with someone already orphaned and dying.
This is all very interesting. Clearly the novel should have been about Carlisle.

-Edward describes a period of youthful rebellion where he followed a very Dexter-like path: gratifying his darker urges by killing only evil men, using telepathy to identify the guilty, indulging his hunger in a way that saved lives.

-Edward and Bella flirt for a bit amidst him lunge at her and restrain her. Again, creepy.

[QUOTE]"You will be watching," Edward clarified. "We will be playing baseball."
I rolled my eyes. "Vampires like baseball?"
"It's the American pastime," he said with mock solemnity.[/QUOTE]
That seems to come out of nowhere. Works in story, though, I think, as a setup with a precog talking about a story and then suddenly moving into baseball, it's surreal enough to be engaging.

-While this chapter had the requisite seen of increasing the level of proprietary menace that Edward shows, in was probably the most engaging and interesting of the book thus far. There is some effective use of heavy exposition by way of storytelling, and having both Edward and Bella be briefly interested in and impressed by something besides each other works. One hundred and fifty pages remaining for the book.
Chapter 17: The Game

-Billy shows up and warns Bella in foreceful but vague terms about associating with the Cullens. Doesn't really seem to advance things very much, and it could have built up more detail on the werewolf-vampire things. Jacob is present for a bit as well, and does nothing.

-Jessica gushes about Mike kissing her. I wonder if she thinks she's the center of the story. Of course her whole thing here is intended to be boring compared with the dreamy vampire romantic danger, but by all indications it's a more stable and less menacing relationship even if Mike is still overwhelmingly interested in Bella.

-Bella tells Charlie about Edward. Writing the sentence out makes it seem like a a high school word problem for math, we just need an Amy and Daniel in to complete the set and calculate money transfer or train times.

-After Edward comes by to pick her up, Charlie asks him to make sure she's safe, all wacky textual doublemeanings. Edwards promises he will. Bella stalks out, and Edward and Charlie both laugh together for a moment before Edward follows. Creepy little moment there, not in the usual way of suggestion of physical violence, but in showing Edward and Charlie as basically on the same page with regards to Bella for a moment. It gives an even more patriarchal vibe to the larger relationship.

-Esme talks with Bella and casually mentioned how her child died, and that was why she jumped off a cliff in her first life. Women's priorities always come down to men or maternity in this series, don't they?

-Baseball played at superspeed. It doesn't seem like it would actually be as much fun to watch as Bella appears to believe.

-Alice senses the other vampires coming in sooner than anticipated. Apparently they love the idea of vampiric baseball as much as the Cullens do.

Chapter 18: The Hunt

-The other vampires show up. Bella's first impressions are that they're far more catlike, physical and sinister. Also beautiful, but hardly in the transcendent terms used for Edward and his siblings. How convenient that the bad guys in this universe are easily distinguishable as more sinister, while the most gorgeous people around all those rare vampires that have dedicated restraint in not feasting on humans. This format is pretty pathetic, and is less sophisticated than YA books and fairy tales for ages--the visually stunning stranger is often the most dangerous ones, evil having a seductive face and all that. Isn't that what the whole Christian mythology on Lucifer is? Most beautiful of all the angels, and so forth?

-The newcomers are Laurent, Victoria and James, They don't really have any personality--nothing in their dialog or stances suggests long established character beyond the generic. The threat they pose is pretty well conveyed, though, how quickly everyone starts talking about the need to flee completely, get Bella completely out of town, prevent picking up the scent, etc.

-Not sure why Alice is against killing them, looking for other options even though they outnumber them. I suppose the dynamics of the situation, as seems to have been implied, are that the vegetarian vamps are a tiny minority, tolerated at presents but seen as somewhat weird. If they started killing more sociopathic brethren they'd be viewed as going rapid, and would be hunted down. If that's the calculation so be it, but there should still be some recognition of the fact that leaving unrestrained vampires around means that innocent people will die, people beyond Bella.
Chapter 19: Goodbyes

-The fake fight with her father to mislead the rival vamps, driving away.

-Edward describes the psychology of James, the hunter:

[QUOTE]"If you didn't smell so appallingly luscious, he might not have bothered. But when I defended you...well, that made it a lot worse. He's not use to being thwarted, no matter how insignificant the object. He thinks of himself as a hunter and nothing else. His existence is consumed with tracking, and a challenge is all he asks of life. Suddenly we've presented him with a beautiful challenge--a large clan of strong fighters all bent on protecting the one vulnerable element. You wouldn't believe how euphoric he is now. It's his favorite game, and we've just made it into his most exciting game ever."[/QUOTE]

That's a fairly credible presentation for a creepy adversary, particularly considering how much more physically capable vampires are to humans. It's also striking that the single-minded psychology described here is quite similar to Edward, except with the aim for homicide rather than romance. That underscores how creepy the main relationship is of this book. Edward is similar to James except that he's trying not to kill Bella, and that's nowhere near enough to not make him demented-creepy.

-Apparently the only way to be sure of killing a vampire is tearing it to shreds and then burning the pieces.

-Alice is the first of the vampires to ask permission before lifting Bella and speed running somewhere. Bella's response to that is wry amusement.

Chapter 20: Impatience

-Flight for awhile.

-Alice admits that the range of vampire abilities is superfluous, more weapons than are reasonably required. Including a paralyzing venom which if bitten and then left unchecked eventually changes humans into vampires in an agonizing fashion.

-Mention again of Alice's total amnesia of being human.

-Alice has another vision of James, things shifted so that he was waiting at a ballet room. Some intresting stuff of tracking James, trying to pin him down in or en route to Phoenix.

Chapter 21: Phone Call

-Alice has a vision of Bella's mother's house. The mother calls, sounding panicked, then James takes over and in an agreeable, generic voice directs her on what to say to not tip off the others, directing her step by step on how to get away to prevent harm to her mother.

-It's actually a pretty tense situation set up. The threat to a relative by phone, the combination of explicit superhuman violence, intelligent planning and a polite form of direction to that end make for a fairly strong development. This book is a lot better as a horror and thriller than as a romantic melodrama.

Chapter 22: Hide and Seek

-Bella shows more adaptability than she's done before to outmaneuver a precognitive vampire and another protector in order to get away and be killed by a homicidal vampire. There's the usual shtick from a lot of suspense thrillers of not telling allies the full situation to come up with a less suicidal plan, but as always would you really be prepared to gamble with the fate of a loved one? Here I'd say the interior logic for the setup and the momentum of the event works fairly well.

-James took the precaution of moving the mother to the nearby ballet studio and leaving a number, to prevent himself getting stormed in the house. And then in transpires that he never had her hostage, he just used a video tap of her saying "Bella, Bella" in a panicked tone to draw her in. Well, it has the unfortunate effect of making Bella's previous decision the wholly wrong one--but it's a clever enough trick, and again I'll give the story that for the interest of momentum.

-James monologues his planning up to this point to the human he's about to kill for no reason except to fill in the readers. So typical.

-James turns on a video recorder to show his somewhat drawn out taunting and killing. This part works better--it fits his intention of getting a more thrilling hunt by ensuring that Edward will come after him, and makes an intelligent if basically insane sense. He also explains his role in Alice's mysterious backstory--she was previously the Bella to someone else's Edward, made into a vampire as part of protection. Eh, that seems a bit too neat a coincidence.

-And we've now caught up to the preface, after only four hundred and fifty pages. I will say that the description for the past while hasn't been as much of a problem as earlier--it's certainly still bad prose, but it no longer interferes with the comprehension of what's happening as much.
Chapter 23: The Angel

[QUOTE]And then I knew I was dead.
Because, through the heavy water, I heard the sound of an angel calling my name, calling me to the only heaven I wanted.
"Oh no, Bella, no!" the angel's voice cried out in horror.[/QUOTE]

Heh. The story had been going fairly well with the last few chapters, but then Edward returns with a huge dose of Narm. I should probably analyze the implications of this explicit linking of teen romance to a transcendent religious force, or at least be creeped out by this level of devotion to Edward and his incessant predatory stance, but honestly I just want to laugh uproriously at how inappropriate these lines are in continuing a sentiment of menace, doom or horror. "'Oh no, Bella, no!' the angel's voice cried out in horror." Hilarity. Okay, granted Bella has a literal head injury at this point so messed up perception can be excused to a significant point, but it's just so cliched and jarring as a tone that it doesn't work.

-Bella writhes in pain as the only chance to prevent transformation is for Edward to suck out the venom. This standoff doesn't really work because:
1. I'm still laughing at the unintentional hilarity of Edward as a sad angel.
2. It's a point where the telling rather than showing of description really lets down the ability to feel akin to Bella's situation. "Other pains came, stronger pains" indeed.
3. I keep remembering the How it Should Have Ended for Twilight.

Part of the liability of seeing the parody before the original movie/book.

-Anyway, Edward sucks out the venom, problem solved, Bella sleeps. Kind of anticlimactic, particularly since the viewpoint character is either distracted by pain or losing consciousness at that point.

-Hmm, only one chapter left.
Chapter 24: An Impasse

-Seems like of an awkward chapter title for the end of the book.

-Edward told her mother that Bella's injuries were from falling down two flights of stairs and through a window. Really bad abusive boyfriend vibe just imagining that scene.

-So James got pulled away and killed by Emmett and Jasper off-stage? Kind of a weak finish. Really that whole plot arc should have been introduced earlier and definitely developed to a more satisfying conclusion.

-Bella's mother tries to caution her about Edward, Bella reflects this is the first time she's tried to be parental since she (Bella) was eight. Puts things a bit in context.

-Bella flat out asks Edward why he didn't let the venom change her.

[QUOTE]"I'll be the first to admit that I have no experience with relationships," I said. But it just seems logical...a man and woman have to be somewhat equal..as in, one of the them can't always be swooping in and saving the other one. They have to save each other equally."[/QUOTE]

Edward counters that he's not ready to have Bella throw her life away, she says her parents are already fairly unconnected. Both of them make some reasonable points, but and setting aside the days of pain thing the way they seem to, there's also creepy elements in both sides. For Bella, the total willingness to throw away everything about her life and other relationships outside of Edward. For Edward, precisely ensuring that there won't be equality in their relationship, that she'll never be able to save him, assuring a specific form of very looming dominance. And the ongoing prospect that he might kill her at any time he looses control. Besides, my inner transhumanist says they should just spread the venom in the water supply or something, transform all of humanity into supercapable immortals. Stops that whole danger of dying thing, plus nicely undercuts the problem of unrestrained vampires preying off humans.

Epilogue: An Occasion

-This title is also an awkward one for the end of the book.

-Alice is now dressing Bella in frilly dresses. Sure, let's run with that.

-Edward tells off Tyler, ending his extremely mild range of pursuing Bella. Seriously, have we seen him in the last two hundred pages? In any case it would be a romantic epilogue if we didn't have the boyfriend demonstrating a creepy possessive attitude towards the girlfriend.

-The prom ensues. Jacob reappears. His presence in this book is extremely fragmentary--it feels like nothing so much as a long-running television series that they can only get his actor for occasional guest star status. This time, again, Billy apparently sent his son to warn Bella to break up with Edward. I've been saying that since the beginning, Jacob. Honestly, this book has vastly less of the love triangle with him, Bella and Edward than I was anticipating. And whatever happened to Eric? Or, for that matter, James' partner in the hunt Victoria? I think she was never tracked out, and might have some interest in revenge on Bella and groups for the death of her clan-leader. At an a minimum there are a lot of non-vegetarian vampires out hunting people down, but there not in a wonderful love relationship like Bella and Edward are so they can just get slaughtered.

So, that's the novel. I'll writeup some general assessment on [I]Twilight[/I] soon, different aspects of the story, the popularity, the hatred and of course the whole gender angle. Before that I'll probably respond to some specific comments people have made in the last couple pages, as well as any other thoughts people might want to put down on my commentary not that the read is concluded. This manner of approach was about the most exhausting way to write up on a book--a lot of redundancy as I'd comment on an element in the book that appeared in minor form, then it appeared a chapter later with much greater force and needed it's own assessment. It does give a much different sense of reading and assessing a book in 'real time', though, and might be interesting to do with a book of higher quality. Maybe the next Culture series book as it comes out--that could be intriguing to approach in this way, especially given Banks' past effectiveness and more recent mediocre quality.

Assessing Twilight: The Writing

The basics here--is Twilight overall badly written, and if so to what extent? Core elements of assessment: prose, plot, characterization, genre elements. Any given novel can be weak in one or even two of these areas and carry through a strong work if they hit the other two effectively. Fail in all four areas and the book is aesthetically damned without hope of redemption. Twilight's prose is indeed bad--overwritten, gushing on description, oddly lacking in detail, and at some major points wrecking the drama for a given scene. It's not terrible, however, it carries the meaning across, isn't grotesquely slow, and allows a decent momentum across most scenes. It's the type of writing that is easy to laugh or sneer at if studying almost any given line for writing, but to be fair most people for most of the book aren't going to stop to look at the

Characterization is a thorough failure on multiple levels. Some of that is linked to the ideology of the piece, others to what has to be the intent to create blank space for the readers to juxtapose themselves, but at best that's context for the failure, not a mitigation of it. While there are decently framed personalities, vampire and non, they exist on a small minority, and the overwhelming majority of the book features Bella, and most of that features her having or wanting encounters with Edward. And this arc is not done effectively, creating blank slates to interact with eachother where there should be the most intensity. The lack of establishing detail of personalities is a crucial problem here.

Genre elements are fairly effective, in terms of this book doing what it situates itself to do. The main genre here is YA romance, so lots of physical attraction and awe at beauty without any actual sex. A lot of the commentary I've seen on this dichotomy tends to attribute it to Meyer's Mormonism, I think it's at least as plausible as a writing approach. It's about a very sentiment focused romance, beauty and touching without actually dealing with bodies terribly much, and seems the type of approach better suited to sex as an ideal rather than a practice. I understand Edward and Bella consummate their relationship post-marriage, I'd be interested to see how that compares.

In terms of other genre elements, the fantasy, this part goes over decently. As mentioned above, the material offered as to vampire origins and character are fairly coherent and make sense. That they're different from traditional forms of vampires is arguably a strength for the layout, and given the main focus as a romance it makes a great deal of sense that it takes this approach. As to this type of thing being a travesty of a vampire novel---well, it features a group of blood-drinking immortals with superhuman strength, speed and durability. They're vampires, and the book is under no inherent obligation to use them in particularly the way another genre subset would prefer.

So then the plot. I think my initial reaction on the length (huh, it's two hundred pages longer than I thought it was) was fairly direct--this work could have been a lot stronger if it had been condensed to that length. As is, it's quite padded, meanders in its main arc of Edward and Bella particularly. Still, it is a story. It's not a plotless as, say, Blindsight or Little Brother, and features an actual narrative of events happening and a timeline that works to propel characters along, albeit in a somewhat drifting fashion. The horror/thriller section works almost as a self-contained book with in the main book. It's a lot tighter and more urgent than the larger story of romance, and managed to work decently even though I didn't really care about Bella as a character or feel invested in her well being. That part doesn't redeem the main plot, however, since James' entry is far too late and unforeshadowed relative to the main story, and his actual existence along with threat is resolved very anticlimatically.

Overall Twilight is definitely a badly written book, with some persistent minor issuues that could have been tweaked and some fundamental defeacts that sink the main endeavor. Genre writers should and frequently have done better, same with YA writers and writers sans subdivsion. However it's not a terribly written book, and is by no means as badly written as I'd have been led to expect by much internet commentary, including multiple posts on the first page of this thread that suggested I was either a deviant for seeking out [I]Twilight[/I] or a minor hero for talking on the immense burden of subjecting myself to it. Neither is the case. It wasn't boring, it didn't lag through the work and it had numerous positive points along with major problems. It's not even the worst book I've read this year, offhand the one that comes to mind for that category is Rudy Rucker's novel [I]Hylozoic[/I], far more contrived and increasingly incoherent in its main story. So, I'd currently say that certainly Twilight's popularity is not reaching for the best, even among YA books, but in terms of direct writing it's not a harbinger of the cultural apocalypse.
Twilight: The Gender Angle

One of the benefits of looking at the bad treatment of something is a thorough job of critiquing something[1] is you also have to formulate an ideal of a better system. Bring up problems with a book's writing and you have to, implicitly or explicitly, have a system for what one needs to accomplish to do such writing effectively. Talk about a sexist gender portrayal, as I'm now doing, and you have to have some criteria of how sexism is represented and what one can do to make it more feminist. Let's start with that. Giving Bella something to do beyond focus on Edward is fundamental. Making her have other relationships beyond the nominal. A romance should by no standard mean the woman care about nothing except the romantic partner, that's a sentiment born from desperation rather than genuine connection. Have Bella care about and have interest in her family, the other people she meets at Forks.

Also, for a non-misogynist Twilight, one would have to have Bella be attracted to Edward's good qualities as a romantic partner. Which would mean actually giving him some. As currently written he's gorgeous, superhuman, dangerous and obsessed with her. The first two are largely neutral qualities, the last are enough to reasonably veto the relationship up front.

Twilight is indeed sexist, and I'd argue for a moral imperative for people engaging in the text to be aware of and bring criticism on this element. However, there's two issues that often seem to get brought up in such an approach. First is arguing for Twilight as a single critical node of gender failure, that it's transcendently more flawed in its representation of women than everything else. This claim is untrue. Twilight's portrayal of stalking as love and menace as sexy is disturbing, but not nearly as much as, for instance:

-The preteen group sex at the end of Stephen King's It

-The representation of rape in Nobel Laureate Jose Saramago's Blindness. Specifically his equation with it as humiliating to the women rather than the perpetrators, going so far as to refer to husbands of the raped women as "cuckolds".

-Ira Levine's novel This Perfect Day, which features the male protagonist explicitly raping a woman to break brainwashing on her, and the two soon after marrying to a happy life together.

-Similarly, in Robert Heinlein's Friday there's the "strong capable female protagonist" being gang-raped by enemy agents early on, one of them was gentle about it. When he meets up with her near the end they link up, marry and live happily ever after.

-For more recent matters how about Rudy Rucker's Hylozoic again? A women in her thirties forcing sex on a fourteen year old autistic boy? Admiteadly done through alien drugs but still presented as fairly titilating, and gossiped about by characters after the fact in the same way.

-Piers Anthony's book And Eternity, or really most of the things he's written.

Twilight is not a single critical node of failure, and it should be seen as part of a larger culture, political system, economy and science fiction ethos that are themselves sexist. The solution isn't just sneering at Twilight as something in isolation, as damaging in itself. The answer is not just scuttling the whole vampire romance thing as uniquely problematic or the root of the problem for poor behavioral models of young women. We need better writing, promoting and reviewing of feminist materials and a level of critical scrutiny brought against misogynist texts. I'm not trying to be fanatical in this--for the major disturbing elements listed above I still consider It and This Perfect Day well written, effective and aesthetically admirable works.[2] That doesn't mean they get a pass though, and there needs to be a culture of questioning and inquiry, to realize that we as a society do some terrible things to women and in the representation of them in fiction, and that it's possible to do better, and worth doing better.

The second issue with assessing the anti-feminist character of Twilight is a lot of the hatedom is itself rather sexist. Commentators that bash Stephenie Meyer as weak, stupid woman specifically often take of this tone, or the anger against Twilight as a stupid teen girl phenomenon. Assumptions of basically stupid women and femininity abound, on this forum among others, this whole mode of writing for romance being seen as a deficiency next to the really important non stupid things in life--like calculating firepower for different fictional universes and determining which would prevail in a crossover.

[1] Of course one could also try to fight the beast by making up stories of demented Twilight fans or assuming all of the problems are the fault of the Church of Jesus Christ and Latter Day Saints, but I'm not terribly enamored of either approach.

[2] The relation of judging effective literary value as against gender issues is a complex one. I don't believe one should simply veto all books that show a disturbingly sexist message--goodbye all nineteenth century Russian literary classics--but I also don't believe in holding the gender issues as something unrelated to the story. Books should be available to wide readership access, and if there's fundamental grounds in the work for an entire gender to be represented poorly, then that's half the species effectively being bared. No solid rule for assessing such, but it depends partly how prominent the sexism is, how fundamentally it's tied to the main story, and how much else of wroth is going on. Suffice to say some works are still enjoyable despite a deeply problematic gender message, others are so flawed and focused enough that the issues with women put them over into the negative category, others are massively flawed such that the poor treatment of women is only one oft he problems, and even if done in a wholly egalitarian way I would probably still have detested the book (Hylozoic and Friday both fall into this category).