Adventures in Reading

Looking Back at Stephenie Meyer

Before picking up Meyer’s final book in the Twilight series, I wanted to reflect on these recently read books. I asked another blogger about the pathos driving the series and the response was along the lines that they didn’t feel emotionally manipulated by Meyer, but I must beg disagreement. In fact, the entire series revolves around emotional manipulation and Meyer’s talent at doing so.

I didn’t realize this at first and was so blinded by my own emotions, by my heart going pitter-pat over Bella’s love trysts, by the teenage fan girl quality of the books that I nearly missed it. But a friend and co-worker who happens to be an exuberant fan of all things vampire related pointed out that in her opinion one reason this series has become so popular is because the whole vampire thing doesn’t matter. (Meyer even seems to agree with this.) In fact, one of the major marketing points of this book could be amputated and the reader would still have an emotionally alluring novel. And when I gave this some thought, I realized with some relatively minor editing Twilight wouldn’t change that much if the whole vampire thing was taken out and was replaced with straight up teenage hormones and sex (adíos double entendres).

This is less true about the next two books in the series: New Moon and Eclipse. And that is because without something else (anything else) occurring they’re not well-developed novels. New Moon is five hundred pages of near-suicidal reflection of an angsty teenage girl after being dumped and Eclipse is a sexually charged soap opera that dares to defy some of the best love triangles on Spanish speaking television. In retrospect, I think a more strict editorial process could have helped the story. After reading these three books, I firmly believe that Meyer did not have enough plot for an entire series of books. Maybe she had two (depending on Breaking Dawn three books) encompassing these characters. But then, Meyer describes herself as being “character driven” and that “The plot comes from the characters. If you have interesting personalities, the stories write themselves. Some writers love intricate plotting, some love the beauty of language. For me it’s all about the people – always.” [1] Honestly though, the characters were not interesting enough for me but I still found myself pushing through these three novels.

This doesn’t necessarily make the series bad (and the cotton candy stickiness is undoubtedly what keeps me coming back). It depends mostly on your tastes. If you feel exploited and used when an artist depends on provoking a purely emotional response or if you feel that this sort of narrative is too easy then avoid this series. It reminds me of the movie reviewer Pauline Kael when she bashed one of the world’s most beloved movies: The Sound of Music. Kael described the film as: “the sugar-coated lie people seem to want to eat,” and “we have been turned into emotional and aesthetic imbeciles when we hear ourselves humming the sickly, goody-goody songs.” You see, The Sound of Music is a melodrama and one of the intentions of this movie is to make the audience cry and for the most part the film has been quite successful at doing so. (Seriously, how many people aren’t choked up by the time the Von Trapps are being chased through a nunnery by Nazis?) But Kael hated the movie for this very reason and there is something malicious in it and masochistic involved for the viewer.

Regardless, I still immensely enjoyed Twilight (and The Sound of Music) and I stand by my Dworkian interpretation of events (if only because I love to look for layers everywhere). But the remainder of the series has been too extended, too melodramatized, just too much. (And I suppose my interpretation isn’t even necessarily about a work being character driven. After all one of my favorite directors is Woody Allen and the majority of his films are character driven. But Allen’s characters say interesting things and prod interesting ideas for 90-minutes.) They’re fun books in that they offer an extended exploration of the characters. (Like when Pride & Prejudice is over, even the real Austen purists must have a tiny burning desire wondering now what’s in store for Elizabeth and Darcy?) I read these books with a similar mindset to my near-obsession to the X-Files or Moonlighting. These were television shows that were fun and interesting, but the one thing that kept viewers coming back was that magnificent animal-like sexual tension pouring off of the screen. Meyer is a master at this! The woman definitely knows how to write passion and tension and I admit I quickly got lost in it.
But like with X-Files and Moonlighting, once that tension was burst I didn’t really care anymore? And this is why I’m roughly 1,500 pages into a series that I am finding increasingly running cool on but that has allowed my emotions to stampede over my best intentions.
[1] On July 31st an interview with Stephenie Meyer was published by the Wall Street Journal.


An Article: A Word, Please

Dictionaries erudite, but not infallible

Webster’s defines “define” as: “to state the meaning or meanings of (as a word).”

That’s right, dictionaries not only define things, they define what it means to define things. Talk about privilege. Actually, that has always been my dream job — the job of writing my own job description. (Trust me when I tell you it would be very short yet still pack in multiple occurrences of the words “beach” and “Brad Pitt.”)

Not only do dictionaries write their own rules, but as they do, the public never questions their authority. Imagine what our country would look like if all power-holders got that kind of free pass. Crawford, Texas, would be the nation’s capital, and brush-clearing would be declared the basic qualification for a Ph.D.

Many people assume that dictionaries’ rulings are absolute, wise and just. Many also seem to think that dictionaries are infallible. I mean, if you look up the word “flatulence” and read that it is “the ability to write legibly with either hand or either foot,” whose wisdom are you going to question first? Yours? Or the guys who know what that little “vt” and backwards e mean? Chances are you’ll just assume you were wrong all along and end up dropping your new vocabulary word at cocktail parties in a vain attempt to brag about your own ambidextrousness.

We accept dictionaries’ word as gospel and never stop to wonder whether they actually deserve this blind faith.

As a citizen of a country that prides itself on publicly depantsing its leaders, I find this downright un-American. So it is with a surge of self-satisfied patriotism that I report to you that dictionaries are quite fallible.

I learned this recently when I checked two different dictionaries to see whether they had yet reached a consensus on whether “underway” is one word or two. No. They have not.

But I noticed something even more interesting. In the sentence, “Preparations were underway,” “Webster’s New World College Dictionary says “underway” is an adjective. Merriam-Webster Online says this function is actually an adverb.

Remember that adverbs aren’t just those -ly words that describe actions. They also answer the questions where? when? and how? So in the sentence, “Finals were yesterday,” the word “yesterday” is an adverb. Compare that to the sentence, “Finals were hard,” in which “hard” is an adjective.

So does “preparations were . . . ” call for an adverb or an adjective?

My first instinct, of course, was to assume I had lost my mind. I was almost too racked with self-doubt to muster up the courage to ask someone. Happily, I got over it.

I wrote to Geoffrey K. Pullum, professor of linguistics at UC Santa Cruz and one of the main guys behind the popular blog. This guy actually co-wrote a grammar book. Not like my books. A good one.

I got straight to the point: “Unless my brain is broken (which is quite possible), ‘Webster’s New World’ and ‘Merriam Webster’ can’t decide whether ‘underway’/‘under way’ can be an adverb. . . . Am I a dink?”

He was gracious enough to reply: “Dictionaries are very bad at diagnosing adjectivehood and adverbhood in general; there are good reasons for being suspicious about whether they have it right. Investigation would be needed to figure out whether people are using ‘underway’ adverbially now.”

“Investigation would be needed.” In other words, the dictionaries don’t know. I hope that this revelation will make at least a tiny dent in our national epidemic of linguistic low self-esteem. I, for one, will keep riding high on Pullum’s most salient comment: “You are not a dink. Whatever that is.”

A Vocabulary List
August 12, 2007, 5:36 pm
Filed under: thoughtful, vocabulary | Tags: ,

In a previous post I commented how I sometimes maintained a list of words I looked up while reading. Some of these words are entirely unfamiliar, are familiar but not in the context they were used in, or words that I’ve always assumed I’ve known the meaning of but looked up anyway. It did not take me as long as I thought it would to find twenty (nineteen – I accidentally deleted one of them!) words I needed to look up.

caul n. the amniotic membrane enclosing a fetus. part of this membrane occasionally found on a child’s head at birth, thought to bring good luck.

balustrade n. a row of balusters topped by a rail.

baluster n. a short pillar or column in a series supporting a rail or coping.

obsequious adj. obedient or attentive to an excessive or servile degree.

salutary adj. (esp. with reference to something unwelcome or unpleasant) producing a good effect; beneficial.

profundity n. deep insight; great depth of knowledge or thought. great depth or intensity of a state, quality, or emotion. a statement or idea that shows great knowledge or insight.

taciturn adj. (of a person) reserved or uncommunicative in speech; saying little.

cruet n. 1. a small container for salt, pepper, oil, or vinegar for use at a dining table. 2. (in church use) a small container for the wine or water to be used in the celebration of the Eucharist.

tutoyer v.t. to address (someone), esp. in French, using the familiar forms of the pronoun “you” rather than the more formal forms; address familiarly.

bagatelle n. 1. a thing of little importance; a very easy task. 2. a game in which small balls are hit and then allowed to roll down a sloping board on which there are holes, each numbered with the score achieved if a ball goes into it, with pins acting as obstructions. 3. a short, light piece of music, esp. one for the piano.

indefatigable adj. (of a person or their efforts) persisting tirelessly; untiring

chatelaine n. dated a woman in charge of a large house. historical a set of short chain attached to a woman’s belt, used for carrying keys or other items.

cigarillo n. 1. a very small cigar. 2. a cigarette wrapped in tobacco rather than paper (etymology: Spanish).

caprice n. 1. a sudden and unaccountable change of mood or behavior.

constituent adj. 1. being a part of a whole.

lucidly adj. 1. expressed clearly; easy to understand

derelict adj. in a very poor condition as a result of disuse and neglect. (of a person) shamefully negligent in not having done what one should have done. n. a person without a home, job, or property.

rostrum n. 1. a raised platform on which a person stands to make a public speech, receive an ward or medal, play music, or conduct an orchestra. a similar platform for supporting a movie or television camera. 2. chiefly Zoology a beaklike projection.

grandiloquent adj. pompous or extravagant in language, style, or manner, esp. in a way that is intended to impress

Something to remember when looking up words is that the definition may vary from dictionary to dictionary. Some of the definitions may provide more information than others. So if the definition you have stumbled upon seems incorrect I do suggest you look for an alternate version. All of these definitions were looked up on a Merriam-Webster’s electronic Dictionary as well as the Oxford American College Dictionary. The definitions included either best defined the word in my reading or had the most elaborate definition.

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