Archive for November, 2008

When the media first started comparing Stephenie Meyer to J. K. Rowling, my hackles rose. Insofar as I could tell, both the mood and execution of their respective series seemed entirely different, a suspicion which was confirmed when, last month, I finally finished Twilight, the first book of Meyer’s quartet. Drifting through the life of Bella Swann is, in its own way, peaceful: the writing flows smoothly from page to page, a continuous, soothing rhythm comparable to soft music. The pace is good, and the characters are, by and large, believable. Given that I’m no longer wracked by teenage angst, however, I wasn’t nearly so invested in the ups and downs of Bella’s relationship as I once might’ve been. Consequently, I found the in-depth description of Edward’s every pose and expression frustrating, a troublesome sour note which, by itself, caused me to stop reading for two weeks at the halfway point. It’s not that Meyer writes clunkily – far from it. It’s simply that, as an adult, my attention is fixated less on the physicaility of fraught exchanges and more on their content.

From friends and reviews, I knew that Jacob Black was supposed to become a competing love interest later on, and a werewolf to boot. Invariably, this knowledge changed my expectations for the character: I was looking for someone to rival Edward by displaying a different kind of magnetism, helped along by the ancient were/vamp battle mojo. I was, therefore, extremely disappointed with the reality. Had Bella Swann gone to Forks and never met Edward Cullen, I felt, it was unlikely that she would’ve looked twice at Jacob. Which, of course, would be a different story; but the point of Edward and Bella is one of destiny – that regardless of the circumstances under which they met, the pair would fall in love. From Twilight, the same cannot be said of Jacob Black, and although this isn’t a plot hindrance in the first book, I suspect it may become so later on.

As a heroine, Bella is markedly different from those around her, both in her perceptions and actuality. Her internal monolouge describes her as feeling older, quieter, awkward, more distant than her teenage friends, contrasted with a childlike naivety when it comes to all things Edward. In actuality, Bella is, inded, different, but not in the way she imagines. Forks fits her like a glove, such that, despite her protestations, it’s hard to imagine her ever living boisterously in Phoenix under the hot sun, pale and quiet as she is. Indeed, presented with her physical appearance, preference for classical music and love of Jane Austen, one instinctively places Bella in an English locale: somewhere soft, green and glowing from frequent rain. It’s a measure of Meyer’s ability that she pulls off this deception with ease, allowing Bella’s self-perception to shield us from just how much she does, in fact, belong. This skillful tension permeates the narrative, and is arguably Twilight’s real heart – not romantically, but in terms of craftsmanship. It’s why the book works, and the reason it holds together: a solid sense of place.

The ending, however, troubled me, not only because it departed from that environment, but because Edward’s decision to save Bella undermined the entire narrative. In order to allow for even the barest physical interaction, Edward’s danger and ferocity are systematically blunted throughout the book, until it becomes difficult to believe they ever really existed. Similarly, his inner struggle to resist feeding on Bella has, by the end, vanished, such that the climactic moment of choice – to keep her human – poses neither threat nor tension. Over and over again, we have been told that Edward is dangerous to Bella without actually witnessing it; which suggests, ultimately, that he isn’t. Compare this to the turmoil of vampire Angel’s TV relationship with Buffy Summers. Admittedly, Buffy is significantly  stronger than Bella, such that Angel can physically attack her without killing her outright; nonetheless, it’s impossible to doubt his dark side. The same cannot be said of Edward Cullen.

Ultimately, I enjoyed Twilight. At its best, Meyer’s style is captivating, while the story flows steadily from outset to conclusion. Despite this, however, I don’t want to finish the saga. What made Twilight successful was its grounding in Forks, and the extent to which that environment was built, bones-up, to reflect Bella Swann. Outside those parameters and with Edward’s danger dissipated, the story can only be continued by making it more complicated, introducing new elements and moving the protagonists to new locations. At best, this style of serialising can make each successive volume a new first, with each story standing slightly apart from the others, unique despite a linear chronology. At worst, it devolves into the kind of add-on storytelling all too common in Hollywood sequals – notably Pirates of the Carribbean – in which a stand-alone first instalment is undermined by the introduction of a larger, unfamiliar world. The Twilight Saga will, I suspect, fall somewhere between these two points: Meyer has left enough undone to merit further exploration, but following through will invariably take the story away from what made it work in the first place, prolonging the initial catharsis by setting the characters on a largely circuitous route.

In fairness, I should read the rest of the series before passing final judgement; maybe Bella and Edward will pull the story through. Either way, Meyer isn’t the new Rowling, but that doesn’t stop her from being a skilled author in her own right, and certainly one worth keeping a careful eye on.

Of Butterfly Or…

Posted: November 24, 2008 in Life/Stuff
Tags: , , , ,

Moth.

Specifically, the moth which, for the past three nights, has appeared in my bedroom at exactly midnight, flapping skritchily at the walls in a misguided bid for freedom before, just as inexplicably, vanishing again. I never see it during the day. It’s not there when the lights are on – which is odd, given the normal mothly passtime of bashing into fluorescent surfaces until concussion sets in. It doesn’t appear in any other room of the house, nor is it there when I wake up. Instead, it waits for the witching hour and appears, suddenly and mysteriously, directly above my right ear, where it hovers loudly before fluttering vigorously against the corner nearest my bedside table for five or ten minutes.

A very fanciful part of me wonders if it’s a Spirit Moth, come to bestow some divine entomological wisdom. After all, I’ve had some interesting experiences with moths. As a child, I once inhaled a live moth through a drinking draw, felt it beating feebly against my tongue and spat it out, whereupon it limped off along the carpet. (That powdery stuff on their wings, just FYI? It tastes like medicine.) And then there was my encounter with The Biggest Moth In The World, which – and I’m not making this up – flew into our glass windows and actually shook the room with its impact, being, as it was, the size of a small bird. Or maybe it was a small bird – anyway. The point is, moths clearly feature in my history.

So what, I wonder, is this one trying to tell me?

Cruising through the New York Times today, I did a double-take on the following headline:

Teenagers’ Internet Socializing Not a Bad Thing

As this is a blatantly obvious observation akin to announcing that Chocolate Is Bad For You But People Eat It Anyway, I spent a good minute staring at the link, trying to figure out what I was missing. My instinctive reaction was that, for reasons unknown, the Times and the Onion had somehow contrived to swap stories. Or maybe those fake headline guys had struck again – who knows? Unable to come up with a better theory, I decided to read on.

Frighteningly, it appears the story is genuine. How anyone could remain oblivious as to why teenagers – or, for that matter, adults – use MySpace and Facebook is beyond me, while the idea that the MacArthur Foundation actually put money towards proving the bleeding obvious causes a small but vital part of my cerubellum to bulge in a worrying fashion. Seriously, dudes? Young folk nowadays use of the Internets. They send of the text messags, speak on the cellular phones and jive to the rock’n’ roll musics. Deal with it. (I have a sneaking suspicion that the author, Tamar Lewin, is a modern-day Luddite. Only someone completely out of touch with reality could put quotation marks around the phrase “geeking out” and hope to be taken seriously about either technology or youth culture.)

In other unintentionally-self-mocking news, Germaine Greer, that grumpy old feminist, has lambasted Michelle Obama’s election-victory dress with the kind of angry, colourful prose normally reserved for botched military campaigns. The irony of a feminist icon slagging a powerful, intelligent, prominent woman purely on the basis of her clothes – and, stranger still, complaining that Malia and Sasha’s dresses weren’t “girly” – is disturbingly potent. Especially now that actual fashion designers have called Greer’s own wardrobe into question (lordy!), the whole ludicrous incident is eerily reminiscent of something the Monty Python pepperpots might have done.

Now there’s a thought – try a photo of Germaine Greer next to Terry Jones in drag and see what you think. To quote the quintessential Python/Pepperpots exchange:

“Shh. It’s satire!’

“No it isn’t – this is zany madcap humour!”

Also, there’s a two-faced kitten.

Fourth wall, anyone?

Inspired by Proposition 8, my latest column over at Halo 17, The Case for Gay Marriage, is up. Check it out and dig the politics!

Dropping by Neil Gaiman’s blog, I found a link to this article about writers and their cats. Being both a writer and a devout cat nerd (such that if I wasn’t married, and never married, I would inevitably end up in a ricky old house, talking to myself and potting geraniums in odd gumboots while one of my seventeen cats dissected a mouse on the landing; and even so, it’s still not an altogether unlikely future scenario), I was very much drawn to the idea of cats as a totem animal for writers. Their cynical expressions, come-as-I-please mentality and blythe acrobatics are qualities which lend themselves to favourable anthropomorphisation, because they all translate, more or less, into Things We Think Are Awesome. Call it the Greebo Effect: the contradictory tendency of cat owners to perceive their pets as adorable balls of joy while simultaneously envying their cool-kid machismo. Dogs just can’t compete.

Personally, I have two cats. I’ve taken pains not to blog about them here, because – to my shame – the subject turns me into a grinning, anecdote-spouting moron with all the repetitive tedium of a Kevin Costner romance. And it’s not just me, as explained by this excellent xkcd comic on cat proximity. We’re all susceptible. Combine this effect with writerness, and the whole thing just explodes in a goopy word-syrup palateable only to other sufferers.

Which is why cat people seek each other out. It’s hard to have a conversation about the dead bird in the laundry with someone who just doesn’t care, because right when you get to the interesting bit, it turns out they walked off five minutes ago and you’ve been regaling a potplant. Bastards.

1. Right now, I’m sitting really, really still, because I haven’t moved my feet for ages. For some reason, although I’m wearing open sandals, not moving has made it feel as if I’m wearing shoes, and the novelty is so extreme that I can’t bear to break the sensation.

2. Every time I listen to It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine) by REM, I can’t shake the nagging suspicion that there’s some kind of weird prophecy about current events embedded in the lyrics, especially now I know that Barack Obama’s Secret Service codename is Renegade. (Before, I was fixated on the aeroplane, hurricane and foreign towers lines, but it’s always good to diversify.)

3. Despite the fact that there are hot, howling winds strong enough to fling chairs down the street today, I cycled to work in a skirt.

Back when Barack Obama was still duelling banjos with Hillary Clinton over the Democratic Party nominations, there was a huge flurry of speculation as to who black women would vote for, and how conflicted they must be feeling, forced (as the media had it) to choose between the first African-American president and the first female president.

If the language of those discussions was anything to go by, many people were already sure the Democrats would win; or maybe, given that neither candidate was the first woman/African-American to run for president, it was simply more exciting to assume that one of them would succeed. Whatever the reason, however, more commentators than not focused on Clinton as the (potential) First Female President, just as Obama was then, and is now, the First African-American President, and these perceptions dominated discussion.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’ve been cheering for Obama since last year, and the significance of his being the first African-American president is not lost on me. That being said, the Democratic primaries and all their attendant speculations on whether race would trump gender made me extremely angry: because the ultimate display of non-prejudice is to vote in someone regardless of ethnicity or sex, simply because that person is the best candidate for the job. When the media based all their commentary on the face of these two qualities, they only served to emphasise the problem: that these are things we should be above considering, but aren’t.

Look at this another way. Historically, when both candidates have shared the same gender and pigmentation, the media focus has been on policy. If (and, inevitably, when) the debate has veered into personal territories, it’s been understood as the triumph of our human fondness for gossip, but not lauded as a vital part of the political process. Often, in fact, it has been condemned – rightly, too. So when Obama and Clinton first locked horns, it angered me that here we had two powerful, intelligent competitors – equal underdogs, if you like – stuck in a process where most of what passed for commentary hinged on the twin novelties of their gender and parentage.

To cut a long story short: I am vastly more enthused by the idea of Barack Obama as an intelligent, forward-thinking leader than I am by his being the first black president. Because the real point of mentioning his race is, ironically, to prove that it doesn’t matter: that skill, regardless, of the body in which it resides, should always speak for itself.

Which brings us to Sarah Palin; or, rather, to the nebulous-yet-worrying notion that she plans to run for office in 2012. Maybe. It’s less a plan at this point than an unfertilised potential plan, and at best, it’s a tiny wee zygote. Nonetheless, moose-lovers and moose-haters everywhere have pounced on it with a kind of animal glee, whipping themselves into a frenzy over what is right now, and will be for at least the next three years, zip, nill and nada.

But. (You knew there’d be one.)

Even from her supporters, and especially not from her critics, the obvious phrase which hasn’t stuck to Palin – ever – is First Female President. The women who rallied to Clinton (and who, pointedly, threatened to turn Republican once Obama won) have not subsequently rallied to Palin. There’s a variety of good reasons for this, ranging upwards from She’s Not My Type, through She’s A Republican and into the land of She’s A Raving Imbecile, Are You Insane?, because to say that Palin polarises is an understatement akin to comparing the Grand Canyon with a cracked pavement. But the point, the lesson we should take from Sarah Palin, regardless of what happens (or doesn’t happen) in 2012, is this:

That supid people can run for president too, and that not all of them are middle-aged white men.  

Because stupidity doesn’t have a gender. Poor leadership doesn’t have an ethnicity. The flaws of the human race are universal. Margaret Thatcher’s femalehood didn’t make her a fluffy bunny, nor did it make her intelligent, left-wing, determined, frivolous or anything other than biologically capable of falling pregnant. Obama’s race, undeniably, was responsible for the influx of black voters this past election, but it’s not what makes him suited to leadership, nor should it be the sole reason for which we laud him.

The moral of this story is: don’t be dazzled by what shouldn’t matter. If we truly are building a world of equal citizens, we should be free to vote for or against women and black candidates, not because of who they are, but because of the strength of their policies.

Now that’s democracy.

The Writer’s Prayer

Posted: November 10, 2008 in Ink & Feather
Tags: , , , ,

I’m a bit adrift in words right now: I’m halfway through what I suspect will be a very long (and, hopefully, very good) Halo column and nearly finished fixing the biggest fixable bit of my novel, with two end-of-semester uni paper-thingies thrown in to boot (most shocking of all, I actually want to write them). I also feel like I’ve got about two years’ worth of poetry chunked up somewhere like gunk in a spigot, and damned if I’m not going to get drunk at some point soonish, sit down in front of a keyboard and let the words ring out like a volley of dropped nails until I can think without borrowing from older, better writers. Until then, however, here’s a poem I wrote back around highschool, when I waxed most lyrical most often, and which kinda reflects my current state. So:

The Writer’s Prayer

our brain which art

commemorates, hallowed

be thy form! (a kingdom

come to earth) my will be done

in varied media: give us this day our

eyes, tongue, fingers, throat; forgive

us our songs, who cannot sing a note; lead roundly

into temptation/tempestuous passion

and avow

that we shall know some small evil. yours is the how/

why/ever/when; the dream and the dreamless dark –

amen!

Errata

Posted: November 7, 2008 in Mixed Lollies
Tags: , , , , ,

Every so often, I make the mistake of thinking my life is a quiz show, a spy novel or some weird hybrid of the two, and start memorizing obscure and pointless facts about myself in case I’m ever asked to prove my identity at gunpoint. This probably says more about my psyche than is, in fact, comfortable, but nonetheless, I persist, forcibly recalling odd moments from primary school, ancient thoughts, uncomfortable memories and utterly useless trivia against inevitable necessity. Such as:

– The longest a song has ever been stuck in my head is six consecutive days. The year was 1999, and the song was Every Morning by Sugar Ray, who practically no-one has heard from since.

– My three pet mice were called Pippi, Minnie and Maxi.

– When my late Aunt Barbara dropped by our house when I was eight and nobody heard the bell, my mother and I were watching White Fang.

– I used to have an invisible friend called Bad Girl, who inexplicably spoke in an American accent and whose sole function was to orchestrate whatever bad things happened to my toys in the course of a game.

– At my primary school, we’d collect handfuls of placid, pretty-looking, green-and-yellow insects, which we called Banana Bugs, and spiky seed pods, which we called bommyknockers. Not for any special reason. They were just cool.

– For several years growing up, I was convinced that the horse in the poster by my bed moved once a night, and that if I saw this happen, I’d fall asleep within five minutes. (Yeah, I’ve always been crazy.)

– I stopped believing in Santa after I received a pair of rollerbades in my Santa stocking that I’d already found in the top of mum’s cupboard. After feeling momentarily disappointed, my reaction was to tell my best friend at the first available opportunity, thereby (unintentionally) ruining her Christmas.

– I’ve never broken a bone, but I’ve sprained my ankles about five times all told, and my shouders make a decidedly unhealthy crunching noise whenever I roll them.

– The first time I ever listened to the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy radio series, I had to pause the CD after the phrase ‘they were stuck in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet, stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying “Beware of the Leopard”‘ because I was laughing too hard, and continued to do so for the next half-hour.

…and so on.

Thinking just now, I realised something so obvious that I am stunned, literally stunned, at not having noticed it before. Behold my revelation:

Sarah Palin is the exact American equivalent of Pauline Hanson.

Think about it. Both were politically obscure, self-aggrandising women raised into sudden prominence at election-time. Both prided themselves on being average and down-to-Earth (read: redneck and bogan, respectively) and were, as a result of their awful catchphrases, cringeworthy interviews and general ignorance, lampooned with a public ferocity and vigour normally restricted to mob lynchings in revolutionary France. Compare the Pauline Pantsdown ‘I Don’t Like It’ song to Tina Fey’s Palin impersonations. Contrast Hanson’s infamous TV blunder, wherein she asked for an explanation of the word xenophobia despite her aggressive anti-immigration views, with Palin’s claim to have foriegn policy experience because Russia is visible from Alaska. Oh, and then there was Sarah’s little problem with a certain Alaskan trooper; although at least, unlike Pauline, she didn’t go to jail for embezzeling party funds. (Instead, she spent them at Neiman Marcus.)  It all adds up, and to such a frightening extent that it’s almost like one politician has been inhabiting two separate bodies. (Stephen King, eat your heart out.)

So, what’s next for Palin? A trip on Dancing with the Stars and a string of lacklustre interviews with New Idea until fading gently into obscurity?

God, I hope so.