The Ones Who Walk Away from Panem: Hunger Games

Before I start into this review, I would like to pose a question. Why is it so hard to talk about the books we love? I have been having just an unrelenting bitch of a time writing this review. I keep falling into holes and back-pedaling, not wanting to sound too squee or insincere and bring ruination on my real love for this book. Maybe it’s because it’s YA, about a plucky girl who surmounts incredible obstacles – but then, there, I’m doing it again – implying in my flip description that I’m somehow too adult and worldly to fall for this narrative. (And, I did it again.) I did fall for this narrative, hard, and I’m going to have to just suck it up and soldier on. 

I read this book in a swoon, compulsively. It was the kind of reading experience where I totally screwed myself by reading far into the the night, nervously checking the clock thinking “damn” as 1:15 flew by, then 2:45, knowing full well that kids would be up and jumping on me in six hours, five hours, just put the book down and sleep! If you could somehow concentrate and aerosolize this feeling, you would find me down by the railroad tracks, under a bridge, huffing powdered books out of bag, their glitter mixing with my drool and b.o. 

And here’s where the digression comes in. So, here, in my city, at some point in the last five years, it became a thing for the homeless to stand at the entrances of freeways and other major roads holding signs. They tend to say things like “wounded veteran” and “trying to get home” and “God bless.” In my driving about, I’ve seen that the cardboard signs lay folded in the shrubbery, waiting for the next person to come along, unfold, and stand on the edge of the frontage road. There’s one on 54th and Nicollet that reads “absolute desperation.” At first this set me giggling, because I’m an asshole, but then it got me thinking. This is a true statement, and terrifying all the more because the sentiment is interchangeable; something that can written on a piece of cardboard and reused by any person standing on that corner. Not that I need to justify this, necessarily, but I live in a pretty extreme climate, and the people standing on these corners are not doing this for kicks, but because it’s cold and they’re hungry or jonesing for something or whatever, and this seemed like the best option available. The best option. Yikes. 

I’ve had a long running joke with my husband about how we all live in bubbles of like-minded people, the kind of people with whom you argue vehemently about the nuances about how you all totally agree. We sort ourselves into the blindness of our own comfort, and I don’t mean this just in the happy, healthy, developed world sense of comfort that I was born into. We take it farther, drawing bright red lines down the political aisle and using those lines to determine whom we respect and where we live. It’s not a new thing, certainly, but in early new millennium America, I’m just floored by the widening gaps in our political discourse and how they are made manifest in the very real physical embodiment of the completeness of the gerrymander and the ease we all acquiesce to that reality. Taken as a whole, the country is awash in purple, but as you look from locality to locality, they flame bright blue or bright red as we sort ourselves into two Americas that exist in the comfort of local smugness balanced against that old, hoary American favorite, massive paranoia about what the other half is doing. This book takes the bubbles of our acquaintance and schematizes them into a distopian hell-hole. 

It’s a post-American America, with the center, the Capitol, ruling 12 districts that each supply their different products: electronics, coal, agricultural goods, etc. Maybe 75 years before, there had been a civil war, a rebellion by the districts ending in vigorous and complete quashing. As a reminder of the sin of rebellion, every year the Capitol chooses 2 children from each district, between the ages of 12 and 18, to fight in the Hunger Games. They fight to the death, until there is one kid standing. The whole event is, of course, televised. (I know that there has been some criticism that this plot has been used before, but this is sheer bone-headed stupidity. So what if Ice-T did it first?) This is not an economic/political system that makes a ton of sense, if you look at it too closely, but that’s not the point, or it is the point exactly. Collins takes our American disconnects and makes them manifest, relocates the people with cardboard signs reading “absolute desperation” from the arteries of our Interstate system and concentrates them into concrete ghettos of poverty and subjugation. 

And now for my love of the protagonist. I can see why this happens, because writers have to live with the people they create, but so often a writer’s love of the character strips them of moral ambiguity, even while that ambiguity nips at their heels. This may be even more true for YA lit, with things like Bella Swan’s clumsiness standing in for an actual character flaw, even while Bella herself wallows in self-centered satisfaction at her flattened aspect to everyone around her but Edward. (Yup, gotta get in the Twilight dig.) Katniss is competent and clueless and savage, a reminder to us old folks that sometimes the young have worlds of understanding that isn’t based on experience, but on character. Or it is based on experience, but simply because they have less of it, doesn’t make it something you can measure using the yardstick of duration. 

I was nailed to the floor when Katniss made her first kill in the arena and doesn’t have a what-have-I-done? melt-down, but is instead gratified by a horrible act that can never really compensate for the horrible acts enacted by the events preceding. We, as readers, are gratified, because it’s what we want, some good Old Testament justice that spills a little blood to try to even the odds in a seriously unjust system. The writerly propensity to fig-leaf this murderous satisfaction with an immediate “Oh no! I’m so bad for loving this” is absent. This is not to say that Collins sees these actions as having no moral, personal impact – Katniss’s mentor, who also survived the Hunger Games, is a constant, alcoholic reminder of how something like this might mess a brother up good. 

There are plenty of themes I hate with a passion – say, “crazy makes you deep” for example – but one that’s pretty high on the list is “you, reader, are a voyeur, and I, the author, will dish out a bunch of sick shit and blame it on you.” This is generally some lazy, lazy stuff; the kind of stuff used to plug the holes in the leaking boat of D-grade action films and misogynist bullpucky. This book could be that, easily, in less adept hands. But I’m still not through worrying about my intense reading pleasure in relation with a story that makes children fight to the death. No, of course the children aren’t real, but to mangle a quote, they are living in imaginary gardens with real toads in them. 

It makes me think of the short story by Ursula K. Le Guin called The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas In the story, Le Guin conjures a utopia whose perfection is tied, in some undefined yet concrete way, on treating on single child with the most unbelievable cruelty – never touched, never allowed to see the sun, nothing. Children, upon reaching the age of 16, are brought to see this child, as the basis for their adulthood. Most see and stay, but some simply walk away. I read this, and it felt kind of bloodless and psychomythic. Like, okay, whatever, fictional world. It felt like one of those indictments of people who are not abjectly impoverished that says, “No one should party while other people are suffering” I thought she was valorizing the walking away. Some time later, I freaked out, because I felt like I’d missed her point entirely. We all live in a society, in societies, where, right now, there are people living in the most shit-hole injustice, untouched, hungry, brutalized. I think probably the brutalized child is a fact of all societies, like it or not. Walking away doesn’t make you better, it just makes you end up in another society with a different kind of kid in the basement. And if you’re the child, walking away simply isn’t an option. 

Posts from Overshare Planet: The Piper’s Son

Oh my god. This writer.

The Piper’s Sonis the gentlest, most humane disemboweling I’ve ever experienced. She’s got a knack with a knife, Marchetta, filleting me word by word. She peels me like a snail, and what’s left is the unformed invertebrate mush of my adolescent self. I’ve managed, just barely, to keep from the overshare with my last two Marchetta books, but I can’t do that here. She’s gotten me. She’s gotten my by the throat. 

Once, I walked out of a house during a fight, a bad fight, the kind of fight where even my memory of it is bruised and puffy. He was a friend, and then a lover, a night-and-a-half stand, and I had battered myself bleeding on how indecisive the stand was. I was yelling, and crying, a maelstrom of wild embarrassment. (Oh God, I hate still how bad I felt, and how most of it was my fault.) And then I closed my mouth, and looked at him – I can admit now that he was stricken too, in his own way, helplessly watching his friend go insane – and then I got up, and walked out. He stood on the lawn and watched me drive away. 

It would be overly dramatic to say I never saw him again, but that was more or less the truth of it for years. Years and years. I was a cracked and leaking mess for months, my life caught in a wobble. I’d returned untriumphantly to my hometown after an abortive attempt at college, half-assedly taking classes at the U, living with Mum and my high-school aged sister. He had been my best friend upon my slinking return, staying up too late doing the stupid projects he dreamed up, useless and hilarious projects predicated on a scaffold of inside jokes and too much time and not enough ambition. He liked to drive at night in his parents’ looming station wagon with bench seats. He had an insomniac’s knowledge of the city’s geography, and I’d act as passenger, my legs up on the dash. There are Indian burial mounds in a sleepy neighborhood in St Paul overlooking the highway and then the river, and they are magic in the dark hours. 

So yeah, Tom. I know you, you asshole. I know how I broke my own heart on you. I know other Toms too, the boys vomiting up blood and beer, vomiting up the pain of their fathers who hit them or their mothers, or walked out, and didn’t walk out but wound down so tight that nothing came out again, nothing. Boys who would go out drinking and work shitty jobs and tumble. Boys who played the guitar like dervishes, their fumbling lyrics badly rhyming their attempts at speech. Toms that could cleave you in two with five words, or none at all. 

This one boy, another of my Toms, an arrogant, beautiful dude, explaining the power of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29, drunk, to a group of my friends, and it was a moment of awe. They hated him, rightly, because he was a powerful asshole. He was mean to them because he thought it was funny, and much of the time it was. Sometimes it was just mean. The then, holy God, here was this moment, his unalterable self on display in another man’s words.

When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possess’d,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

Where the hell did that come from? This was a guy who played the football pool, and was working from casual alcoholism to the more complete kind. It was not enough that he had this inside him, but it was a close call there for a while. He had a twin bed. Whenever I slept in it, I had the sensation that I was going to fall in my sleep, my hips perched on the edge. I never did. I had resolved not to, and this was one of the few times in my life where resolve actually worked. I was not going through that again, landing on the floor and bruising my metaphorical ass. His brother was an older version of him, same shit-stirring, same laugh, and he threatened me once gently, when we were in a kitchen alone from the rest of the group. What do you think about Tom? He asked. There was a moment. Other than the alcoholism, of course. 

I laughed. Yeah, other than that. You know, he’s an asshole, but I like him. We have a good time. 

Don’t you go breaking his heart, he said. 

I was surprised, him? No offense, but I’m pretty sure I’m nowhere near his heart. He’s safe from me. His brother laughed. Tom was in the next room fighting his brother’s girlfriend for access to the CD player. I was too stupid and young to understand what his brother was saying. Maybe I was the Tom there. Maybe there’s no maybe about it. Good times, bad times, bad timing. 

But this isn’t just about Tom; there’s also his aunt, his friends, his family, all these people struggling on after heartbreaks that have calcified, generations of losses that accumulate and have to be spaded through, disinterred. It’s bold choice to follow a 42-year old pregnant woman as protagonist in your YA novel, bold as grief, bold as receding youth. I feel like sometimes fictions of the post-high school years insulate themselves from other generations. Dad does a walk-on so our hero can resolve his issues. Mom wrings her hands and sends money. But you don’t graduate into a seemless world of your peers, you keep eating at the family table, fighting politics, sending emails. The real world out there, the one everyone has been warning you about, is the same world with crow’s feet and more silence. It’s the same bed you fell out of, and maybe you can sleep on the couch for the rest of your life, or maybe you can’t. 

I’ve said this before, but I am in awe of Marchetta’s dialogue, some of the best I’ve ever read, ever. Character and voice in the same utterance, I’m in awe of her sprawling, almost gossipy plots that keep a slow burn going that makes your eyes burn and sting. Most of all I’m in awe of her compassion, the way she makes me think about my younger self. Mostly I’m ashamed of younger me – she’s an embarrassment and a natural-born idiot. Marchetta makes me cry for her, makes me love her in spite of her faults, because of her faults. It’s an uneasy love, and it wobbles, but when it winds down I’ll spin it again. 

Zombies Vs. Unicorns

Zombies vs. Unicorns is a solid collection of zombie or unicorn themed short-stories. Sadly, there was only one story that featured both, which let me down a little. Of course, when I think about it, a bunch of stories that only were about zombies fighting unicorns would have gotten old fast, but I really would have liked to see just one zed/uni battle. Just one. Somebody write this for me, please? I did not like the “humorous” “banter” between the two “Teams” – it felt like semi-witty Internet banter which is hilarious when it’s happening, but doesn’t read well when you come back to the thread a month later. Certainly the editors Holly Black and Justine Larbalestier had a really good time though, and that is nothing to sneeze at. Go Team(s).

So, to the individual stories:

“The Highest Justice” by Garth Nix: Aw, Garth, man, you know I love you, but this story was not a success. It displays his typically good writing, but the story doesn’t go anywhere. It felt like the beginning of something interesting about the source of power, of rule, of justice, something that could have developed but it strangled off way too short. Shame, really. (Points for being the only story with both a zombie and a unicorn.)

“Love Will Tear Us Apart” by Alaya Dawn Johnson: I liked this one a good deal. A zombie story, but with a novel explanation for the zombie protagonist, who is not a shamber or a groaner, but instead an emo teenage serial killer with a prion disease. God help me, it’s also a love story, one that was surprisingly effective. (The zombie kid’s not really dead though, so I didn’t have to freak out. Necrophilia = gross.) The zombie metaphor usually comes down to the whole mass consumerism/inevitability of death thing, but this twisted the drive of hunger with desire, along with some Oedipal fun. The romance is between two boys, and I know there’s something here about coming out and passing and all that, but I haven’t sorted all of that out yet, which makes the story surprisingly layered for a short story. I also really enjoyed how the characters talked about music and art, not in a topical name-dropping way, but in the obsessive enthusiasm and status-displaying name-dropping way that captured something really perfect about adolescent courtship rituals. Yup, I am a dork and grown-up for writing that sentence that way.

“Purity Test” by Naomi Novik: Urban smartass meets smartass unicorn. I don’t know, this didn’t really work for me, but I think it’s really more me than it, and the smartassery was pretty solid. There was something tonally off for me between the hungover runaway teen sleeping in a park set-up, and the bubbly, cheeky froth that was the dialogue. But, I give it tons of points for a solid Leia reference.

“Bougainvillea” by Carrie Ryan: Yeesh. Very effective and beautiful story about the daughter of an island dictator after the zombie apocalypse. The story ripples with nostalgia, which gets its throat slit in the final pages. Tears the hell out of wish-fulfillment narratives.

“A Thousand Flowers” by Margo Lanagan: Now, this is the stand-out in this collection, no contest. I didn’t expect a unicorn story to creep the freaking stuffing out of me, but this does. I really expected something different from the set-up: a peasant boy finds a ravaged noblewoman in the forest. You can almost write it from there: his tender ministrations, blooming love, whatever. No. Reminded me strongly of one of Angela Carter‘s wolf stories, the way it plays with narrative voice, the creation of folklore, bestiality (!), a bunch of other stuff. My word. Forbidden love never seemed so wrong.

“The Children of the Revolution” by Maureen Johnson: Maybe I’ve read too many zombie short stories, but this hit a lot of marks I’ve seen in the zombie dance before, but a lot less effectively. I just didn’t like the barely coded references to certain actresses, her rainbow tribe, and her hot actor boyfriend. (No, not Josephine Baker.) Felt lazy. Points for creepy kids though, even though creepifying kids is maybe too easy too.

“The Care and Feeding of Your Baby Unicorn” by Diana Peterfreund: This is another one where my disinterest is probably more personal than objective. I found myself shimming a lot, because there seemed like a ton of extraneous information, which in a short story seems weird. I found the concept of the venomous unicorn silly beyond the telling of it, and I thought the set-up of the religious household and their weird ideas about the return of venomous unicorns (seriously, it makes me laugh to write that) both underdeveloped and overdetermined.

“Inoculata” by Scott Westerfeld: Hmm, liked this, but it felt like an opening act, and I wanted the ideas explored more fully. So it’s pretty great as a teaser, but fails a bit as a short story, because it’s certainly not self-contained. Maybe that’s a bs thing to complain about – wanting more – but sometimes I think not enough credit is given the the form of the short story, its conventions and expectations. I’m not a short story aficionado or anything, but it bugs me when the thrust of the story can be spoilered in a short sentence in the editorial opening.

“Princess Prettypants” by Meg Cabot: My affection for this story is certainly beyond its literary merit, because it’s going to be dated in 15 minutes, and might be overly teen-y for some. A girl is given a unicorn by an aunt who always gets the gifts wrong – you know the aunt, the one giving you teddy bears in your mid-twenties – a unicorn who farts rainbows – literally! But then, date rape! sexting! the boy next door! Super fun to read though, and you go, girl!

“Cold Hands” by Cassandra Clare: Fail. I’ve heard tell of this Cassandra Clare from all the flaming and whatnot on the bookblogoverse, but I’ve never read anything by her. I think I’ll leave at this. Other than a bunch of other niggling nitpicks, my biggest problem was where the eff is this taking place? It’s all medieval whatever Dukes and public hangings, but then there’s CDs and pop cultural references, and the set-up is all, hey this one sorcerer cursed the town, and I’m like, okay, then, we’re in England? Wait, just kidding, England doesn’t actually have magic, and the monarchy is constitutional these days, so, seriously, where and when are we? Plus, everyone sounds like Americans. It’s a frustrating lack of coherence, one that started me picking the threads, and then the whole story fell apart. The more I think about it, the more this story fails – seriously, why don’t they just burn the dead – curse over! – and rrrromantic stories with zombies grrrrrosssss me ooooouutt.

“The Third Virgin” by Kathleen Duey: Another metaphor that I did not expect to be explored through unicorns, this time centering on their healing powers, but I don’t think this one worked as well for me. It’s told through the voice of unicorn, a voice which is pretty boring and overly expository, and would probably be better served through a third person narration. Good though; not perfect.

“Prom Night” by Libba Bray: A really nice sucker punch of an ending on this collection. The zombie apocalypse takes the adults first, leaving a town of traumatized teens aping adulthood. They play at jobs, take drugs, try to reenact the rituals that mark the movements from one stage of life to another. Yeah, right. Here it comes.

Daughter of Smoke and Bone: Auspicious Beginnings

I think I made a mistake when I read Daughter of Smoke & Bone so quickly after coming off of the high of Lips Touch: Three Times. Laini Taylor’s got a hothouse style, bejeweled and voluptuous, but cut with a street level sense of banter. This really worked for me in Lips Touch, but here I felt the style was unsteady, or possibly just badly matched to the setting. I’ve complained at length about “poetic language” elsewhere, but the sort form of my complaint is how sometimes writers mistake ornament for essentials, writing a bunch of flower petals when you should write the rose down to the roots. This started reading like that at points: everyone an impossible collection of traits both exquisite and ravaged, rain-slick cobblestone, and an anachronistic American sense of the desultory charms of Europe. Sparrow in her review calls this the “American girl behind the curtain,” which is pretty freaking perfect, really. On the one hand, Taylor’s style is brilliant, making the nod to the readership, a sort of tuning fork with twin prongs of youth culture and diction vibrating against this dreamy vision of the exotic adult world. On the other…I don’t know, I don’t want to complain too loudly here because this worked for me more than it didn’t.

So. Karou is a magical teen in a parent-less Prague, living a double life of artistic adolescence and demonic purpose. Raised by monsters behind a magic door, she helps her parent surrogates acquire teeth for occult purposes by night, and has a tumbling, active teen life in the dreamiest of imaginary schools, with friends raised by gypsies and vagabonds. As I write this out, I’m impressed I didn’t throw this book down in a chapter, because a double special teen and her problems of not fitting in, especially in contrast with how fantastically desirable her beautiful boho-chic life is, this is not a story for me in the abstract. So, yeah, maybe all my bellyaching in the above paragraph is bs, because Taylor’s style is full-throated, strong enough to pull me through what is functionally a paranormal teen romance, and pull me through happily. She’s not making mistakes but choices in her writing manner, and they are smart choices. 

And, while I called this a paranormal teen romance, that’s not accurate either. Or it is for the first half, until some things change in a way that it is beyond spoiler to detail too closely. I’ll just say this: these are not simple reversals, where it turns out that good is evil and vice versa, where love conquers all. The last half does pull the flower out by the roots. The shape of Karou’s world expands and textures with her growing understandings, but it also becomes more limited, not just because all the magical doors close, but because of why those doors close, and how, even opened, the doorway will never lead to the same place. This is a nice metaphor, one that works well with the way growing up is an unwieldy mix of upped stakes and diminished prospects, how the open path of all possibilities shrinks once you understand where that path started. I am often bothered by paranormal stories because the magic is pointless, meaningless hokum – oh look at my pretty blue hair, which I have only to show you how special I am – but here the magic is hokum with teeth, and the blue hair isn’t just ornament but signifier of something true and awful: all magic, even the necessary magic of knowledge, comes at a price. 

The ending is both breathless and abrupt, the hammer hammer hammer of revelations held aloft in the moment that Karou has to decide what to do next. It’s not exactly a cliffhanger – the questions that fuel the plot have been solved, the riddles of childhood explained – but the story is far from done. I’m not frustrated so much as worried. I think I can trust Taylor, given how adept she is here at reordering the special girl paranormal narrative into something more…what…meaningful? complicated?, but until I know what happens next, where this story takes itself, I can’t say for sure. I pretty much hate when people say, oh but you have to read the whole series to know what you think of the first book, because usually those people are idiot trolls telling me I have to bump up a negative rating on some crapass thing I disliked. But, there’s some truth in it, even for things I liked, and liked a lot.* Star Wars is a kickass three-movie series, but the prequels, if you admit they exist, retroactively encrapify that ass-kicking a bit. (A bit more than a bit if I’m being honest.) So four stars, close to five, for my enjoyment of this book, for its masterful unfoldings. Pray heaven the next blooms that promise into something just as good. You can bet I’ll be reading it. 

*Though I’m not changing ratings on things I disliked, especially if I disliked them enough to stop reading and get to the 2000 page mark where I’m told things get awesome, thank you, just as I won’t change this rating even if the next disappoints.

Forests of Narcissistic Sociopaths, Which Could Have Been Cooler Than It Was

 The Forest of Hands and Teethis a well written but squandered book. Mary is down at the river being an annoying teenage girl with romance issues when the sirens go off. The walls of her small enclave of humanity have not been breached; instead her mother has seen her father beyond the fence, and gone to him, and been bitten. Her mother has a day or two before she dies and becomes undead – or Unconsecrated in the religious nomenclature of the town. The opening is a slam-dunk of rapid exposition, setting up the world and then dropping the reader into the middle of it, with feeling. 

I really enjoyed the beginnings of this story. There are often structural samenesses to zombie fictions: the first zombie, the first bitten, the ethics of a group of people trying to get out of the city, the electricity cutting out, the failure of society. Here, it is generations after the First Night, an insular community built in a tenuous enclosure, the constant dampening vigilance of checking the fences, the conservative high-handedness of the political/religious institutions that enforce social norms because, well, it is true that an individual’s single stupidity can bring those fences down. Of course, institutional stupidity can do the same, and without transparency, the individual cannot protect themselves from collective stupidity either. Nice. 

And Mary’s troubles were interesting at first too: her mother’s choice to become a zombie and search unthinkingly for her late husband; her brother’s anger at how Mary’s actions will result in hard choices for him; his early rejection of her. Even the fairly standard love triangle had potential, written at first with a kind of obliqueness I enjoyed, though I am no fan of the love triangle. I am often shouting priorities, people in zombie fiction – good gott, leave that family photo album behind and save your skin – and here it was complicated with the dreary everydayness of the zombie threat. Indeed, why can’t Mary choose the boy she favors? Why is this society so weirdly sexist when it is run by a Sisterhood? How is this society dealing with the inevitable infidelities that will occur when people have to marry for convenience? After several generations with a small group – no more than a couple hundred – do you have to worry about incest? Some of these questions are answered, and some of them are answered badly, and some of them are ignored completely as Mary’s tics, obsessions, and needs overtake the story and obliterate sense or character. 

Mary’s two love interests, a pair of brothers – hot! – are never even partially realized, and the fourth wheel, a friend betrothed to Mary’s paramour, she is dealt with shabbily, in that way that cuts down female characters other than the heroine. (I can’t even unpack Sister Tabitha at the moment, but when you put her fervent abstinence and cruelty up against the mother, who shows up only to die for love, abandoning her children, you have your usual ugly portrait of maternal figures in parallax. One’s an ineffectual noodle; the other a stone bitch.) Mary shows more compassion towards a fast zombie threat, a girl called Gabrielle, than she does any other character. 

Wait, let’s think for a minute about the love triangle, if one can even call it that. I get the impression – and I don’t pretend to know YA that well – that the triangle is a major component of much young adult writing. This makes sense; I see a lot of the themes of mass produced fantasy for women sinking down into YA. (Or bubbling up? Choose the metaphor that works best for you.) If you look at rom coms aimed at older women, you regularly have the Byron and the Baxter, tropes played for laughs for an audience who has likely chosen their Baxters after learning that the Byrons are a bunch of alcoholic dickbags who will steal from you and bang your roommate. But it’s fun to wax wistful about how jaunty the beret is. 

In YA, this choice is a little different. The best triangle I can think of is between Peeta and Gale in The Hunger GamesThese two characters embody choices that Katniss has to make about what aspect of her personality she wants to nurture: Gale’s anger or Peeta’s compassion. Love is a political choice as well as a personal one, and the fact that Katniss has to chose, and the choice she eventually makes, is riddled with regret and sadness. Here, the boys embody nothing, as far as I can tell. One has always loved her, the other has always stood aside. One makes a horrible speech about how amazing Mary is, when I do not trust that at all. Why is she amazing? Because she has an obsessive dream that does no one any good, and a lot of people ill? I guess I amaze at that, but certainly not the way the speachifier intends. Not getting too far into spoiler territory, I find Mary’s last ditch, and the way she treats her brother horrifying in the extreme – you, Mary, are as stone a bitch as Sister Tabitha, adhering to your insane idealism that is not dissimilar from hers. Except you never cared about community one whit. 

Though the writing is quick enough to keep you moving along, the middle section is a muddle, a Mordorian series of slap-fights, being hungry, and bickering. Will she work out the Roman numerals, or won’t she? My money’s on that she will, because otherwise we have wasted a lot of time pondering something the reader knows already with no freaking payoff. The section at the other village had me paying attention again, but it was for naught. Despite the fact that she is functionally co-habitating with her lover, her relationship with him never feels more than topical, two people in the same room, but silent. Maybe some of this is the YAness of the book, but one does not have to talk about the inevitable sex those two are having to discuss their relationship, to have it be more than OMG sparklez I lurves him. 

I feel like the later events grow more and more random, finally depositing Mary at the source of her obsessions, thinking back on all the people laid waste by her choices. (But not really thinking, more musing to herself –[remember that time when I got everyone I know killed because of a childish, useless dream?  That was awesome. What’s for dinner?) I really liked the zombie story written by Ryan for the Zombies Vs. Unicorns collection, because I felt like the story dealt with certain kinds of narrative narcissisms with a pickax – a girl raised up on romantic fictions learns bloodily how useless they are – but the way this one goes, I’m beginning to wonder if my reading there was against the grain, like I was wrong. Maybe I was to take away from the short story that the girl was wrong for discarding romanticism. If I’m to think of Mary as something other than self-involved to the point of sociopathy, then I don’t much like this book. There’s some wiggle room here, and maybe I’m to cower at the horror of idealism, given how destructive Mary’s single-mindedness is. This is a pretty subtle point though, one that if it is being made here, is likely laughing at the intended audience, which discomforts me as well. If Ryan is showing romantic cliches in their worst aspects – the antisocial nature of love, devotion to negation -that is wonderful, but she never shows her hand or lays this bare. 

I don’t know. I liked the very beginning, and the writing on a sentence level, but I’m not impressed by the characterizations or all of the dropped threads. I’ve seen YA novels which mess with romantic tropes a ton better, like Daughter of Smoke and Bone, with its Romeo and Juliet stylings that go in unexpected ways. Here, it wasn’t so much unexpected as confounding, and I’m left standing on a beach full of corpses looking for the way of things. There’s another book, at least, in this series, and I’m curious to see where it goes. I’m worried, worried a lot where this will go, but it is okay for now

Ghosts of Exile: Finnikin of the Rock

I don’t think I’m ever going to be up for talking about Finnikin of the Rock, so I’m just going to ramble. Two glasses of wine and the worst day for a while I’ve had under my belt, and maybe I’m up for some raw blithering.

There’s a joke among SFF nerds that what makes a fantasy novel a fantasy novel is the maps. Open any fantasy novel worth its salt – and most of them not worth anything – and you will be confronted by a map of an imagined geography – rivers and towns, mountains and names. The land is a character – often the most important one, when you get right down to it. There’s a lot of boring in Tolkien – oh hai, I’ve invoked him; how could I not? – but when he gets going about landscape, about the feel of the earth and the sense of history in the soil, you best go for the hankie. That’s when he goes for your throat, if you have any throat to go for. 

Here comes a digression. Many years ago I painted for an Episcopal priest who ministered to a parish in downtown St Paul. Because of the make-up of the neighborhood, many of the parishioners were Ethiopian or Somali, emigrants from the mixed conflicts and starvation that were going on in their home countries. Most were newish immigrants, only in this country for a few years, five at the most. He spoke one day to us about a funeral he had just officiated for an Ethiopian teen who was killed in a car accident. Like for most that die young, the funeral was packed, standing room only. But, said the minister, it wasn’t just that he was young. It was also that this was the first member of the community to be buried on American soil. Until someone dies, and you have to put them in the ground thousands of miles from what you think of as home, you’re just visiting. The dead are an anchor; their graves are what makes a country a home. 

Holy shit. 

Ten years before the start of this book, the country of Lumatere suffered a violent upheaval – the royal family dead, an ugly reprisal of a religious minority, a curse on the land that cut the country off from its neighbors. Many are living in exile in a gossip of countries. Here’s where my grousing comes in – the character of these outer countries is too fractured for me, too many, too unresolved. I like the idea of the complexity – this is no Manichean us-versus-them, no bother of a simple exiled experience – but the way the characters moved so easily from this country or that, all with their own languages and cultures which were only hastily sketched, I spent more time confused than was necessary. And, speaking of Tolkien, there was too much godamn walking for me to be comfortable. 

So. Our Finnikin is the son of the (murdered) King’s Guard who meets with a girl of unexplained occult power. She is hard and silent, the kind of girl I like to meet in my fantasy novels. They begin questing, circling one another, trying to find their meaning in this exile. Is our homeland with the dead, in the soil of exile? Or is it in the soil we ran from in those ugly days of upheaval? Should we even want to go back? I’ve said before that the power of fantasy is in nostalgia, and that is front and center here – the exiles evoking their lost homeland. But Marchetta is savvy enough to understand that nostalgia is often tinged with survivor guilt, so that evocation is in whispers. Do you remember? Do you even want to anymore? What good is memory? 

They do return to lost Lumatere, and here’s where the blood really flows. The people trapped within have been living their own exile, on their own soil, a catalog of horrors.I have a friend who builds schools in Ethiopia because he lost his fiancee, an Ethiopian, to a car accident here in the US, and I thought of him a lot while I read this. His love, and his loss, and the building and rebuilding he does in her name, in the name of girls just like her growing up in a country just on this side of the border from a conflict so ugly it doesn’t seem like it’s ever going to end. I don’t have words for it. I don’t even know what it is. It’s a tale told in gestures, between people who have forgotten a common language. It’s a hand holding a child’s hand, a child who was born out of the worst thing there is. It’s a country of the unspeakable, spoken. 

Holy shit. 

Still. In stillness, I recoil from parts of this denouement. Although I don’t know if that’s just because recoil is part of the rebuilding game, or the realization of the horrors before. Love, can you mend this? I’m old and cynical enough that I don’t think so – love is never enough, not by half. But, still, still, I find hope in these ashes. If love is enough to spur action, then maybe. Maybe. We shall see. At least we still have eyes for seeing, and the anchor of our loved ones buried in this country, and the ones outside its borders. Our homeland is exile and vice versa.

Howl’s Moving Castle

I’ve never read Diana Wynne Jones before. I know! 

Another ride to the cabin, another audiobook. I’ve discovered the young adult section, which is better suited to listening while driving. The length coincides with the time it takes to drive up and back, and it’s just lighter thematically so I won’t concentrate too hard and drive off the road. The reader for the audiobook had an accent that bugged me at first, but I eventually got over it because I liked how she said the word “logs”. Plus, you just get used to accents after a while. I loved the way she read Howl with one of those drawling, lazy-sounding Welsh accents that I wish I could imitate but can’t. 

This is the story of an eldest sister – my favorite kind, for purely selfish reasons – who is cursed by a witch to become an old woman. Sophie sets out not to make her fortune – she knows, the way the bookish young do, that the eldest sister is doomed to be a cautionary tale in the stories of younger sisters. The story trades in the parallelisms and structures of a fairy tale, but loosely so – for example, she meets three creatures on the road on the way to Howl’s castle – a man, a scarecrow, and a dog – and while you expect certain things from these interactions – here comes the clobbering plot – the actualities end up being…stranger than the expectations. 

Sophie ends up in the employ of the wizard Howl – roughly; it is more that she pushes her way in and refuses to leave – and the story is mostly the domestic happenings of Howl and Sophie’s families and familiars. The characters all continue the theme of expectations not conforming to reality – Howl is a clothes horse and shirker, in addition to being a competent and feared wizard; Calcifer is a fire demon, and also something sweeter and lightly tragic. Sophie’s sisters enact a plot that owes something to The Importance of Being Earnest with its doubling and trebling of Letties and mistaken identities, which I found charming and not horrifyingly sit-com-like. (And probably without a gay subtext, but I didn’t give it much thought.) 

I wasn’t enamored of the ending, which takes all these sprawling threads that have been weaving in and out around each other without much urgency and ties them in a slip knock and ends. I complained to Richard about this a little, and he quoted a nursery rhyme at me:

Ride a cockhorse to Banbury Cross
To see a fine woman upon a white horse.
With rings on her fingers and bell on her toes,
Ahhh! There she goes! 

My parents always went with the more traditional ending line of, “and she will have music wherever she goes”, but his folks would recite this while giving a horsey ride to the child on their laps, at the end of which the seat would be rescinded and the child dumped onto the floor. (But, you know, in a nice way – the kid knowing this was coming and grinning madly before the end.) And when the bridge bended, the story was ended! I take his meaning: this story is more about the journey than the destination, and grumbling too loudly about endings doesn’t really credit the ongoingness of the story, even at the supposed end. 

Lastly, I was hugely fond of old-yet-young Sophie. I went to a wedding of some youngens this weekend – people a dozen or more years my junior – and was struck by how earnest these young people were, how incredibly serious. I don’t mean they are joyless or anything – and they seem a very happy couple – just that they are so serious about their adulthoods. There was this conversation at one point about subjects not fit for young adult book reviews, and the groom expounded some opinions that made most of us smug marrieds, including some eavesdropping women, laugh until we almost barfed. He looked a little abashed, but earnestly so, and will not be softening his youthful opinion, I’m sure, until he has any experience at all to measure against his carefully theoretical knowledge. 

I remember being like this – not in terms of opinions held, because lol – but believing things in this manner, believing in the inevitability of narratives, the trajectory of story. I mean, I’m probably still believing things like this, and my folks are busy laughing themselves sick about some opinion I’ve espoused about being older. So Sophie in her old skin because she’s bought the line about eldest sisters not amounting to anything, because she is squandering her youth on being responsible in a way that serves no one but an ideal, that was lovely. And it gave me licence to steal some glasses from the reception, because you’re only young once, even if you aren’t that young anymore. And being not that young anymore is liberating as all get out. 

A Monster Calls: The Qualities of Horror

I came late to horror – I think, though I can’t be sure, I only started reading horror after I had children. Most of my horror experiences as a young person involve my friend Amy (this is not her real name) who had just an alarming childhood, characterized by abuses no one, no one should have to endure, let alone children. She loved horror, and metal – really anything that screamed. We’d watch Hellraiser, or the Evils Dead, or whatever other pulp gore-fest, and I would cover my face, go to the bathroom every ten minutes to hide, and then have nightmares like crazy. Amy would howl with laughter. She knew monsters much, much scarier than whatever pin-faced Deadite. Her monsters, I wouldn’t ever want to meet them. 

Conor is being visited by a monster, the kind he laughs at: a green man in a yew tree who tells three tales, demanding a fourth from Conor at the end of the telling. The art here is perfect, reminding me strongly of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark – one of my few, memorable forays into kiddie horror as a kid. You can see the other monster stalking his life, the one that makes him immune to your more average monsters like walking trees. But that monster is more a game of hide the birdie; Conor’s mother is dying of cancer. I wasn’t completely on board with the beginning of this story: the way the cancer was never named, the the way the trajectory of the story seemed overly determined – Scheherazade by way of things that bump in the night.

But, something changes partway through the book, and I think it was intentional, this overly constructed start. I snuggled in to fairy tales – even though they were more Grimm and less Disney – confident that these tellings would impart morals and revelations without the requisite pain of true understanding, of confronting the real monster which is more unnamed than the cancer. There was a moment, after Conor does something so awful, so unforgivable, blaming his monsters and I closed my eyes and wished it undone the way he does. This is just a story. This is just a story. Oh, no, no no it isn’t. No no no. The ending is several sharp kicks to the gut, the foot hovering for that last strike of the clock. 

Seraphina, or The Uses of the Paranormal in Fiction

Rarr. Totally lost my review for Seraphina by Rachel Hartman due to computer problems, and now I’m really ticked off. I’m going to go review something I don’t care about as much, and then I’ll be back when the pissedoffedness has dwindled.

Okay, I’m back. I think I started off by writing about what kinds of young adult novels work for me, adult reader. Like most genres, it is legion, running from your baldest of wish fulfillment exercises, to post-apocalit and sff more generally, to romance, to topic-driven Public Service Announcement like fare. I know I wrote something about how I don’t really like young adult in more contemporary settings, especially if there seems to be some sort of message or topic – though you can blow a giant Melina Marchetta shaped hole in that statement. Now that I’ve had some time to process, my disinterest in young adult fictions in realistic, contemporary settings isn’t specific to young adult. I don’t really want to read about a character’s round robin of affairs and mid-life crises that you can sometime find in grown-up books, just as I don’t want to read about sexting and the effect of parental divorce in something for teens. 

I may sound a little dismissive, but I don’t really intend that. My interests bend to the fantastic in fiction for a number of reasons, the most easy to explain being the fantastic – and I mean this in the little-f sense; like, not just elves and stuff – can twist the reader’s perceptions, throwing in a gravitational mass that affects the usual order of one’s personal constellations. To start out with a bad example: Twilight without vampires is a boring tale of a stalker and the woman who loves him. I mean, arguably, it still is that story, but the stakes are higher and the metaphors more disturbingly theological. Or to switch to grown-up books, what does something like The Road read like if transported into a contemporary setting? The wasted America that is the setting for that novel is an emotional reality for the boy and his son, not strictly plausible, but a place to work out the father-son dynamic in a way that isn’t possible in a more domestic setting with sippy cups and play dates. To mix my metaphors, the fantastic red-shifts the everyday into something that must be re-calibrated or recolored to see its meaning. 

Of course, this red-shift isn’t always successful, and I must have a perverse need to undermine my own argument by using one of the more derided examples of YA out there, one whose pleasures are described as guilty even by its defenders. But I’m simply trying to note where my interests, as a reader, lie, and why. The fantastic can be a place for writers to camouflage authorial insert or blatant wish fulfillment – the parameters of the universe of the book bending inexorably to the needs of the protagonist/authorial-proxy/reader-proxy. This conflation of the protagonist and reader may work more often in young adult, as the creation, management and fulfillment of wishes is an important part of learning who you are. I can see why such universes would resonate – I would like the universe to bend to my will as much as the next girl – but I get a little squirmy when it’s too blatant. When the fantastic shift works, it captures the heightened emotional reality of life though the impossible and the unlikely. My often roiling internal state owes nothing to strict reality. 

Oh Gawd! I remember how my review started before! (I swear, this review is turning out be remember that one time I wrote a review that was no doubt AWESOME but it got eaten by my computer; alas.) I mentioned this scene in the b-grade horror film Ginger Snaps – which is about a pair of near-pubescent sisters, one of whom is bitten by a werewolf at the start of the movie. Her changes are looked upon with distress by her younger sister – staying out too late, hanging out with a different, more jerkish crowd, expressing an interest in sex that didn’t exist before. The younger sister goes to the school nurse early in the film and lays out the changes – she’s growing hair on weird parts of her body! – and is met with a politely condescending speech about how she, too, will go through the changes of puberty, and is given an embarrassing pamphlet. I love this scene because it gestures to the obvious way the metaphor of lycanthropy is being used – this movie is about puberty, both the physical and mental changes – but the dismissal of the profundity of those changes by an authority figure is both enraging, and not just a little bit funny. Puberty, while you’re going through it, is the end of the freaking world, and the metaphor of the werewolf is a better capture of the feelings of that time than the bloodless facts. 

So, finally – sheesh – I can start talking about this book. I’ve mentioned a couple of monsters that show up in fictions of the adolescent – werewolves, vampires – but the monster, the metaphor here is dragons. I’m too lazy to do an exhaustive search of the dragon in literature, and will instead rely on my limited experience, but the dragon doesn’t lend itself to tidy summation. Like werewolves, they are often understood to have divided motivations – fiercely intelligent, but with a bestial nature that humans like to evade. (See the dragons in A Wizard of Earthsea, Grendel, or The Hobbit) They tend toward inhuman scheming and their murderousness is almost droll – we kill to live, they say, why do you pretend you don’t, ape? 

Seraphina lives in world where humans and dragons were at war forty years before, and the peace, such as it is, is fragile. Seraphina has come to her near adulthood in a place where her divided allegiances are not just uncomfortable, but dangerous, and the way she guards her body and her self, even with people she aches to connect with, is so vividly true. She’s a talented girl, her talents as much the result of practice as they are of some innate competence – which is my favorite kind of talent – the earned one. There’s a lot about music in this novel, which works beautifully in the ways emotions can be expressed in the non-verbal, especially when the verbal is impossible. 

The plot of the book is court intrigue murder mystery – a prince of the realm is found sans head in a way that points to the involvement of dragons. If this had been the focus of the book, emotionally, I would have been politely bored, the way I am with court intrigue. But the bald facts of the plot are mechanical, and you watch that architecture unfold through the strange parallax of Seraphina’s bisected vision. But this isn’t the world bending to her; this the world seen through her, and it’s wonderful. 

I don’t want to get too far into it for fear of spoilers, but I will say that I loved so so many of the secondary characters. There’s a girl, a friend, whose laughing ease is in sharp contrast with Seraphina’s discomfort, but she is not cut down or diminished simply because she is not like the protagonist. She has a moment, late in the book, overcome with grief and weeping, and she pulls her head up, and says, I’m doing this now so I don’t have to do this later, and you want to reach out and hold her, and you understand her matter-of-fact-ness in grief. That’s a character moment a less generous author would not have given to a girl other than the heroine. 

There’s a boy, a friend, who shares affinities with, and is angered by Seraphina in equal measures – who understands as far as he can, but is hamstrung by Phina’s dissembling. He is not there to make her look good, or make her look bad, but has his own credible motivations, and life outside of Seraphina’s existence. The worst of young adult fictions – of any fictions – cast the opposite gender friend as a prop, as an extension, and it’s so beautiful to see one who is a character in his own right. 

And family – there is an uncle here who is such a fascinating creature, though again, I don’t want to get into it too far for fear of spoilers. I do have some reservations about the way Seraphina’s father was portrayed – his reservations and near-absence felt…tidy, or possibly convenient – though the trajectory of her relationship with the uncle in many ways stands in for the paternal relationship in a way that made emotional sense, even if it didn’t exactly make concrete sense. And the absence/presence of the mother…the way that relationship was expressed through the fantastic – Seraphina’s mother died in childbirth, but her memories were encoded in an emotional mechanism – that completely worked for me. 

I’m running out of steam, which is too bad, because there are plenty of other things to note about this world – the sweetness of Seraphina and one of her friends talking imaginary philosophers, like you do when you’re sort of showing off your first year of college, but showing off in a way that’s incredibly important at the time; the system of saints in this culture, and the way those saints are used and understood; the strange near-dragons who literally stuff themselves on the edges of this world, a mystery that no one is watching; the sly humor that is throughout this book, such a happy thing to find in capital-f Fantasy stories, because so often they are so dead serious that they invite ridicule. 

Such a good book. Such a smart book. Such a good metaphor for the experience of growing up, my discomfort and unease, but also my blinding moments of connection and ultimately prosaic, but completely shattering revelations. I wish that I could have read this at 17, and that’s high praise, even though I sometimes make fun of 17 year old me now. On some level, she’s reading this anyway, because it’s not like my younger self is a completely vanished creature, but someone there just behind my eyes. The best young adult books call her forth and respect her. Oh man. 

(I received an ARC from, and I have been friends with Rachel Hartman on Goodreads for while now, for full disclosure. Neither NetGalley nor Rachel offered me cookies or anything for a good review, and all opinions are decidedly my own.)

The Twilight of Girlhood

Two things happened in my household, shortly after I started reading it, that seem germane to a discussion of this book. First, I was in the kitchen, dealing with the endless in-and-out of the dishwasher, and I became aware of a small, soft, wet noise coming from the back bathroom. This made my mom-ears perk up, and I went back to find my daughter, who is about 2 ½, tearing off strips of toilet paper, wadding them neatly, throwing them into the toilet, and then flushing. She looked up at me with her deceptively cherubic face and said, “Here Mum, this is for you.” She held out a tp wad. I tossed it in, and flushed, and then we went to find less futile pursuits. Second, in the same back bathroom, my dog was in there diving for tootsie rolls in the cat-box. The litter tray has one of those detachable tops, with an opening in the front so the cat can go in there and do her business without sending litter all over the freaking room, theoretically. The dog, in her lust to eat cat shit, got her head stuck in the opening and the topper thing lodged on her neck. She freaked out, the way only largish dogs in smallish bathrooms with a litter topper on her head can freak out, and there was all manner of howling, skittering and general mayhem, until I went in and rescued her from herself.

I’ve been known to let my metaphors run away from me, but let’s see if I can pull this off. We all have stuff that we do that’s stupid, futile or disgusting, or all of these things at once: eating cat shit, flushing wads of toilet paper down the toilet, smoking cigarettes, polka, embroidery, reading Twilight, etc. There’s nothing wrong with these pursuits, exactly (although I would give consuming feces a miss if you aren’t a border collie) but to the non-enthusiast, they seem inexplicable. But that’s the thing: eating cat shit is a source of pure, whole body pleasure for my dog; that, barking at kids on bikes and sleeping on the couch. While I may grumble at the mess and unintended comedy these activities generate, I really can’t criticize her joie de vivre. So, reading Twilight was like eating cat shit for me, but I mean this in an understanding way. You may not love smoking. The thought of the smoke hitting your lungs and the buzzing sensation you get in your fingertips may turn your stomach, but man if just typing these words doesn’t make me want to go out on the back porch and pound down a heater.

So I get it, I get the whole Twilight thing, on some level. But then there’s the girl thing. I’m not exactly the intended audience for Twilight, because I’m not a teenage girl. But I keep having to account for my not reading Twilight, as I will now have to account for disliking Twilight, because I live in a community of women who were once girls, because I was once a girl. I’m fascinated by how many women I know who love this book, women I love and respect, women who are not laughable, stupid or thoughtless. They may express chagrin or embarrassment, as though they just were busted for smoking on the back porch, but they love it just the same. Hating on Twilight, for guys, is easy, because it doesn’t betray their essential guyness; in fact, probably the opposite. (Yes, yes, girls are gross, now back to the clubhouse!) Hating on Twilight, as a woman, is essentially a betrayal of girlness, an erasure of that awkward adolescence many of us share. One can easily, oh so easily, enumerate the literary failings of this book. One can easily, oh so easily, parse the religious messages and sexual politics into something monstrous and ugly. This is all fine; go for it; I will be on the sidelines with pom-poms. But what I keep coming back to is the true, earnest and deeply felt pleasure this book provokes in so many women. Pleasure that is real and not deserving of scorn.

That community of women thing is what sent to reading Twilight in the first place. My sister was reading Twilight at the urgings of one of her co-workers. She has had an uneasy relationship with this other women, which had recently been patched up into something resembling friendliness. In their water-cooler conversations, the co-worker began extolling the merits of Meyer’s book, and pushed it into my sister’s hands. She knew what she was in for – how could she not given total cultural saturation at this point – but found herself unwilling and unable to actually finish reading the book. How was she going to explain this to the co-worker? We all know (or maybe we don’t) how quickly this sort of thing can get personal. It gets especially personal with books of this nature, that slip into the female hind-brain and coil around our unspoken (unspeakable?) drives and desires.

One of the reasons I hated this book (and I mean that word emotionally, not critically, if you know what I mean) was that Meyer was far far too damn evocative of the strange alienated horror that is adolescence. Bella is never easy; there are very few unqualified pleasures for her; every single action, especially the ones that occur within the bewildering sucking chest wound that is her social scene, is considered for its effect on everyone else, her status, her placement in the group, her precarious self esteem. It gave me vivid and lingering flashbacks, and not in a wheee-I-see-trails kind of way, but in the countless shaming episodes way. The only real source of pleasure for her is her time with Edward. And while it’s probably not original to point this out, Edward is the externalization of her desire, an embodiment of the girl-fic wish fulfillment of both desire and fear, the shaming female libido that goes bump in the night. He can’t read her mind because he’s an extension of her mind. Which brings me to the creamy ironic center of this review. On some levels, this book is a morality tale about female pleasure, and I was unable to take much pleasure in that. Gods, but I love me some irony though, so it the book evoked entirely unintended pleasures.

Never is this more apparent than in the scene in which Bella is menaced by some would-be rapists. She’s been mooning all day about Edward, which in very concrete terms gets her cut off from her female companions and their consumerist escapades. She ends up surrounded by threatening male desire, which she has provoked by her dreaming thoughtlessness. Edward appears, the sort of flip side of this desire, and rescues her. When I was working on my Feminist Merit Badge, there was much talk about the virgin/whore thing, and then also romance novels and other mass-produced fantasies for women. Too much of this kind of talk can make me really really tired, but I’ll try to keep it brief, for all our sakes. Although I don’t think I’ve heard about a boy version of the madonna/slut thing, I think one is at work here, as one is at work in many female wish-fulfillment exercises. Men are conjured, neutered and domesticated, and that process of domestication both justifies and condemns female desire. Bella simply cannot help herself: her mooning attraction to Edward gets externalized into her scent, which makes him unable to help himself, makes him an animal, reminds us she’s an animal, a sort of endless mirroring. That scent also ribbons through the air, cartoon-like, bringing horribly unlikely rapists wafting in by their noses. Desire is a dangerous thing, girls. Here’s a Ken doll for you, his smooth, cold, inhuman man-parts stamped carefully into place.

I’m bringing up Ken deliberately. In her Goodreads review, Elizabeth describes this book as a Barbie doll, which pretty much nails the whole thing for me. Barbie is the embodied consumer. She teaches girls how to accessorize their lives: boys, friends, dresses, houses, all neatly displayed in little consumable packages. Barbie teaches the values of consumerism, of consumption, while simultaneously being completely immune to its effects. Barbie cannot get old, fat, or overdose on heroin. She is the bulimic model of perfection. By many yardsticks, one could say that Edward is an anorexic. A vegetarian vampire is a contradiction in terms. While not personally a sufferer of an eating disorder, I have a number of very close people in my life that I’ve watched go through that mangle. I get it too: I was demographically ripe for this sort of thing: a white, middle-class overachiever. The anorexic, as it has been explained to me by people I love, craves control over the uncontrollable, over her needs and ambitions. That Edward cannot or will not eat is especially troubling when he’s viewed as Bella’s externalized desire. It’s a closed loop: food equals death, desire equals death. Bella can’t see Edward in a mirror (in a dream) because he’s not really there; he’s wasted away. That the book ends with Bella begging Edward to “change” her – this is not a spoiler, everyone in the world could see this one coming – means that she is begging for death, the way any girl who expresses desire is begging for death.

I’d like to finish with a craft project, if you don’t mind. Please, warm up your glue guns. There’s a paper store near my house that hosts classes every month, and I keep thinking about attending the one about altered books. I’m not entirely clear on the idea, but it seems you take old books, and cut-and-paste alternate text and pictures as commentary or whatever. I haven’t done this yet for three reasons: a) lazy b) somewhat uncomfortable with the idea of cutting up books, even in the service of making cool, new books c) don’t want to be caught dead anywhere near something that even remotely has a chance of being associated with scrap-booking, even kinda sorta. I can’t emphasize this last one enough.

This is my idea for the altered book of Twilight. If I weren’t a squeamish girl, I’d march right down to Sex World in the warehouse district, and I’d buy up a bunch of pornography. Not just any pornography, but pornography with people with normal body hair having enthusiastic sex, cheerful happy sex. (Does such a thing exist?) No smoothies allowed, no shaved, pre-adolescent vaginas, but big furry bushes and armpit hair a la the 70s edition of The Joy of Sex. This would get pasted over every description of Edward’s cold and marble-like skin, because Stephenie Meyer’s ossification of the human body bums me out.

I’d toss in photos of Michelangelo’s David and Christ on the Cross, just to show how the nude male body has been depicted over time. (Women can certainly complain about the female nude, but since the rise of Christianity in the West, the most predominate male nude is Jesus’ broken body on the Cross. The primary visual representation of the male body is one of torture.) In would go some stills of the pretty blond-haired girl who has just devoured her bickering parents in Romero’s Night of the Living Dead because zombies freak me the hell out the way vampires never did. Also, because in the ongoing conversation I’ve had about this book with my sister, which ended in the double dog dare that I read it, she expressed bewilderment as to how anyone could love a dead thing. Quote she: “Vampires are just high-functioning zombies.” More than the crap prose, the endless adverbs, the discouragingly accurate portrayal of adolescent discomfort, this may have done the book in for me. Zombies man, brrr.

I’d put in wads of tp, to represent for my daughter, who some day may find this book appealing. But also for another reason: I recently had occasion to be in one of the local high schools, not the one I graduated from. I went into the bathroom, had some good times reading the graffiti: various people are bitches, etc. Then I looked up, and the ceiling was dotted with wads of dried tp, stuck to the ceiling after some industrious young women had spent what I know from personal experience is a very long time getting those suckers to stick. Throw too soft, and they won’t even hit the ceiling. Throw too hard, and they’ll bounce back. You’ve got to get them wet enough to stick, but not so wet they just fall apart. Stupid, futile and possibly disgusting, but emblematic of times spend with other girls doing the useless and possibly damaging things that made adolescence so enjoyable. I think I’ll do without the cat shit. I’d douse the book in the cologne my first boyfriend wore, that, the smell of cigarettes and leather jackets. Mmmm, smell-o-vision. Then, I’d cover it with the brown paper bag covers we all put over our text-books in school to protect the actual covers. I’d draw all manner of doodles, phone numbers, one liners, hearts and bunnies all over the outside. Finally, I would affix a picture of Spider Jerusalem on the title page, and dot it with pink nail-polish blobs in a heart shape around the picture. Then I’d put the book away and try very hard never to think of it again.