Friday, February 18, 2011

Welcome to the future!

This week I have mostly been dissertating and engaging in social activism. I might have reason to get into the latter in more detail, but perhaps not yet.

I have also been shopping, however -- well, I purchased two things that have made my week.

The first was a Possum umbrella. I have a fraught relationship with umbrellas, as I am prone to abandoning them on the bus after setting them on the floor; and umbrellas are likewise prone to betraying me by turning inside out or simply snapping a rib or two at slight provocation. The fact that I am in the habit of buying cheap umbrellas does not help, so the abandonment and betrayal is an endless vicious cycle.

Possum's design is brilliant in that the umbrella comes contained in a small zipper pouch. Lots of umbrellas do, of course -- but this pouch, after you take the umbrella out, also contains a small canvas tote -- dimensions about 10" x 10". The zipper part, which is still its own pocket, and which can be closed, is at the bottom of the pouch.

This means that when I'm running errands in the rain, I can unzip the umbrella, and then, as I go into buildings or onto the bus, collapse it and stow it in the tote bag, which stays safely on my shoulder.

I can also stick 4 or 5 books in the tote, and zip the umbrella into the bottom, and trundle off to the coffee shop, safe in case of rain. (But this is only a good solution when I'm only going to one destination; otherwise I might be in a situation where the tote bag was the only carrier for both the books and the wet umbrella.)

I'm extraordinarily pleased. I've also tested the umbrella in a storm with 36 mph gusts, and though it reversed a couple of times, it snapped back just as quickly, and apparently with no damage.

Most people wouldn't think of the future as heralded by an umbrella that's harder to lose. I do.

The other purchase was a Livescribe Echo Smartpen. I'd heard of smartpens before, but somehow I imagined that they were strictly smart because they had a convenient tiny recorder in the head of the pen. Only in the last week have I found out more about what they can do, specifically that they allow your handwriting to be easily digitized, and with an additional application, transcribed into plain text.

I don't think I've written here about my ongoing dilemma regarding iPhone vs. iPad, and which one will meet my needs better. I won't go into that, because it's mostly personal minutia, but one of the issues that's kept me off the iPad bandwagon is that I think best by writing in longhand. On paper. Ideally with BIC mechanical pencils, but pens will work -- the important thing is the feel of the paper, as opposed to a stylus on a flat screen. I've thought about whether it might be possible to become comfortable thinking through typing with my fingers on the iPad screen, but I'm not certain, and one of the major issues that's bugged me in regards to the iPad is that I'm worried that I still won't be able to think as clearly typing on it as I can when I write things out.

I write things out all the time, hence the massive stacks of paper that make up each dissertation chapter, and through which I often scrabble, searching for the paper on which I made notes on any given date. It's not entirely messy, because I can almost always remember the color of the ink, the style of script I was using -- but it's not especially efficient, either. And if I want to do something with the notes, then I have to type them into the computer. Sometimes that creates an opportunity for revision, but often, it just adds a delay that I don't especially appreciate.

And yet, though I've adapted tremendously to the net in so many ways, I've never stopped feeling like I can think better through writing things down than I can by typing them. I spent most of today being increasingly frustrated, feeling like my argument was unraveling as I tried to integrate ideas from Jameson's Political Unconscious into it. It took less than 30 minutes of working with the smartpen to regain my footing.

I'm annoyed that the transcription application is separate rather than being included, and I would love it if the pens were rollerball, rather than ballpoint, but that doesn't dampen my enthusiasm in the least. This solves all sorts of problems, not least making it easier for me to go off to the coffee shop without taking my laptop and the temptation of the whole internet in large screen format with me.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Social Network

Today has mostly been a succession of feeling stiff/achy/headachy/unwell, though I did begin by singing in a liturgy, and that was productive.

Last night I watched The Social Network, which is about the origins of Facebook, and then, back to back, Mamoru Hosoda's Summer Wars, an animated feature about a potentially world-destroying crisis that takes place in a global social network. I hadn't had the least interest in seeing The Social Network, but I've been hearing enough about it to be curious now that it's up for a Best Picture Oscar; and it seemed that the two films would be interesting companions.

That was a correct instinct. But sometimes I can review films at great length, and I'm not inclined to with either of these. TSN was extremely well-acted, well-directed, and well-organized, but left me unsettled, I think because I tend to avoid watching two hour films in which male privilege is the dominant storyline and impetus, and women are just sex objects. This morning, I found out that Aaron Sorkin had adjusted aspects of the history in order to make his narrative tight. At first I was supremely unimpressed, and then, chewing my lip, acknowledged that it was a very meta thing to do, to put tiny fragments of people's meetings together and make them into a story, which is driven in part by the way that other people perceive those fragments.

But more than one film review called the film "expressively Shakespearean" or a classical drama of betrayal and ambition, and that, I don't understand. Surely being about ambition, or containing a betrayal, does not thereby make a film Shakespearean? Nor does it make it classical drama. In fact, the film is largely driven by the jumping between time periods, and I know that Shakespeare doesn't hold to Aristotelean unities (except in The Tempest), but I also don't think he tells stories in pastiche mode, or even stories that work well, as pastiches of moments!

Defending it on Facebook, a friend of a friend identified it as one of the movies perfectly capturing the way we live now, and I suppose that's true for a lot of people. It didn't feel that way to me. I could tell you about BonC, which I joined as a freshman in college, while Mark Zuckerberg was just getting started programming. or the excellent Murrys v. Austins Alternate Superbowl post over at Phantom Scribbler's (comments, alas, gone due to Haloscan's disappearance). The latter took place before I joined Facebook, at the urging of a particularly bright class of composition students -- after which my account languished until the women I knew from blogging suddenly migrated.

Then, there were several months of throwing sheep, cows, leprechauns, and Helen Vendler, via the custom poking applications. I had no idea who Mark Zuckerberg was, or what "poking," as defined by a single button on people's profile page, was, and certainly no use for Facebook as a tool for dating or casual sex.

Facebook might have made social networking easier for many people to understand and take part in. But to see it as The Social Network is to erase the development that was taking place on blogs, on Livejournal; and which wasn't engineered strictly through the actions of the young teenagers looking for sex. I think that's what makes the film hard to accept/enjoy for me. To appreciate it as epic, I have to buy into several conventional views about programming as a male thing, and about the internet as a tool in which the young are the most innovative/creative. I can understand how those conventional views came to be held, but it feels bizarre to see them enshrined again in this film. Even though I can't deny the importance of Zuckerberg's creation, it feels inaccurate to watch the lives of Eduardo Saverin, Zuckerberg, and Sean Parker magnified to this scale, given the definitive article: The Social Network. Instead, it's a film that one watches with the feverish intensity with which one reads a particularly incendiary comment thread. And as huge as it seems, in terms of the development of social networks, I think it's just as insignificant. It's very well made, but it shouldn't be watched by itself.

I'll write about Summer Wars, which I think is excellently paired, tomorrow evening.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

What is the key of satire?

Glad Day: a personal journey around the world of William Blake

C & P 2010 Guy Pearson
issimo ICD1757

One of the most surprising tracks on Pearson's album, which mixes vocal and instrumental pieces, is the third track, a representation of William Blake's early prose satire, An Island in the Moon. It's beautifully lilting, and immediately made me think about what it might be like if Hayao Miyazaki decided to adapt it for an animated feature. Pearson, like Miyazaki collaborator Joe Hisaishi, has a good ear for waltzes.

I think of satire as caustic, which at first might suggest a minor key, but on glancing around at some of the discussions on interpreting An Island in the Moon (summarized conveniently at Wikipedia and discussed in a more academic tone at the Blake Archive), and then wandered off to look at the text itself, Pearson's choice seemed entirely appropriate: the work, after all, is a social satire, ornamented with virtuous cats, and flocks of swallows. I can almost see Miyazaki making it brilliantly, for that matter. Blake's satire is sometimes heavy, in other works -- and even later in Island -- but Pearson's choice to score in a minor key reminds me that Blake's satire can be seen as part of the larger satirical style that shows up all through the 18th century.

There are a lot of musical adaptations of Blake's poetry, but though I've admired them or disliked them, enjoyed them, and carried them about with me as a soundtrack for walking, I think this is the first time that I've been prompted by a Blake cover to revisit the source material. I'm very impressed by that -- it is exactly the sort of experience that I enjoy having, and it is all the better because I wasn't expecting to have it.

Pearson performs the instrumental music himself, using a synthesizer to augment piano with occasional strings and percussion; in just over half of the songs, Rachel Major (soprano), James Savage-Hanford (tenor), and occasionally Milo Harries (baritone) give voice to Blake's words. Major and Savage-Hanford, who are featured most, have light and clear voices that blend well together -- there's a little vibrato for luminosity, but nothing heavier; and they're effective at setting off Blake's rhymes without overdoing it. I don't want to exclude Harries, however, because he's the soloist in "The Ecchoing Green," which is one of my favorite pieces on the album, and I can tell it's going to be a pleasant earworm in the next few days.

My taste for synthesized music is best described as underdeveloped as a result of snobbishness -- I don't often care for it -- but this album gets past my skepticism because the combinations of instrumental voices are adeptly chosen, and give more depth to the transitions within the songs. He ranges throughout from the light and lyrical to the cinematic, in orchestration. There are a couple of moments where the texture felt heavy to my ear, but only a couple; and they don't dim my delight with the blends elsewhere -- track 13, a cover of the Songs of Experience "Introduction" and "To Tirzah" is exquisite, and like the Island cover, it prompts me to go back to the poems and reconsider them.

In almost every Blake cover I hear, I find, at the very least, intrigue in thinking about the composer's choices. But I don't always feel compelled to listen to them more than once. Glad Day, however, is an album that I'm very pleased to have in my library.

Glad Day is available on iTunes and on Amazon, as well as in CD format from Guy Pearson's website, where you can hear a few of the tracks -- including track 13 -- in full.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011


Brought to you by the discount sale at the bookstore transitioning from brick and mortar to online, with the assistance of the "Ok, where do I start with that?" posts on and Among Others, and also my own curiosity. No links, because that would take more time than I can justify right now. And yes, I did just read Nine Princes in Amber last week, and Zelazny had me at "I was garbed all in the color of Moby Dick and vanilla ice cream."

Bohnhoff, Maya Kaathryn. The Spirit Gate. (Slightly weird spelling of author’s name forgiven, because I am a sucker for stories about labor, politics, and religion.)

Bradley, Marion Zimmer. Hawkmistress!

Broxon, Mildred Downey. Too Long A Sacrifice

Caudwell, Sarah. The Shortest Way To Hades

The Sibyl in Her Grave

The Sirens Sang of Murder

Ford, John M. The Dragon Waiting

The Last Hot Time

Jacques, Brian. Castaways of the Flying Dutchman (I’ve never read this series of his!)

Hambly, Barbara. The Silent Tower

Henderson, Zenna. The People: No Different Flesh

MacAvoy, R. A. The Book of Kells

Tea with the Black Dragon

MacDonald, John D. Ballroom of the Skies

Offutt, Andrew J. Evil is Live Spelled Backwards

Platt, Charles. The Silicon Man

Robinson, Spider and Jeanne. Starseed

Warner, Sylvia Townsend. Kingdoms of Elfin

Zelazny, Roger. The Courts of Chaos

The Guns of Avalon

The Hand of Oberon

Knight of Shadows

Prince of Chaos

Sign of Chaos

Sign of the Unicorn

Trumps of Doom

Notably, sadly not on shelves: Katherine Blake/Dorothy Heydt, and only Brightness Falls From the Sky by Tiptree, which I already have.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Ursula Le Guin BBC interview, and a question

I have little to say today, mainly because I'm getting over a celiac flare-up.

But in the meantime, if you haven't heard it yet, this recent BBC interview with Ursula Le Guin is excellent and charming in a number of ways. I'm afraid I find her interviewer rather obtuse in many of his questions. However, listening to their conversation, I thought of conversations that I've had with the SEL about graphic design and typography choices. Sometimes, he will acknowledge, an ugly combination is more effective than elegance at grabbing people's attention.

Along those same lines, I think that the interview is a lovely portrait of Le Guin that a questioner more knowledgeable about science fiction would probably not have been able to create.

What do you think? And if you remember other interviews/conversations that are particularly striking, were they good because the interviewer was knowledgeable and well-researched, or specifically because s/he was a bit daft or ignorant?

Monday, February 7, 2011

A Funeral at Redwall

The BBC is reporting that children's author Brian Jacques has died, at age 71.

My elementary school librarian, Mr. McKay, saved Redwall for me, so that I could read it first. I didn't know about it, of course -- it was the first book that Jacques had published in the US. He simply took me aside, and collected it from his office, and said he'd thought I'd want to have first crack at it. 1986 means that I would have been going into 4th grade, and it was around that time that the elementary school library made a special exception for me. Normally, the rule was that you could check out the same number of books as your grade level -- 4 for 4th grade, etc. -- but I was allowed to check out as many as I wanted.

That? Was heaven.

Actually, a lot of things about the library, where I spent most of my recess time, were heaven, including the fact that one could work as a page, reshelving books, and sometimes, be allowed to climb on top of the bookshelves to dust them, or to rotate through posters and artwork on the wall. And that in payment, one was allowed to choose selections of laminated bookmarks made using Apple Clip Art on Astrobrights paper.

But that's another post. I had never read anything like Redwall. Babe, the Gallant Pig, had come out a couple of years earlier. I'm not sure if I had read Watership Down by then, but I think not, and I think it would not have struck me as being in the same genre. The fattest fantasy book I'd read at that point was The Hounds of the Morrigan, by Pat O'Shea -- so I had just discovered, you might say, the pleasure of a big fat book, as opposed to what I think of as elementary school sized books, usually just over an inch thick.

I had never read a book with such careful, detailed worldbuilding, and yet one which was written for children. Part of me wants to say, of course! Children are interested in treats, and in eating, and so it is natural that one way of conveying the wonder of a world would be to describe the wonderful things that are eaten in that world's parties. And I also know how much I learned from Jacques: the names of herbs, and how important they were for flavoring; that fruit and mint could go together, that honey and cream were pure decadent delight. It isn't that my mother was a poor cook -- she wasn't -- but I wasn't always involved in food preparation, and when in Redwall, I stood over Friar Hugo's shoulder by default.

Redwall was the first book I read in which there was detailed, intentional, cruel violence;* where characters with names didn't just die in battle (as is gently implied in the Narnia books), or die tenderly at the book's finale, as in Old Yeller and Where the Red Fern Grows, but were killed in callous accidents and intentionally. The body count started within 12 pages of the story beginning. I knew it was a serious, and rather adult book, because there were mentions of hell, but I also knew that it was a book that was easy enough that I could just sink into it without having to puzzle over sentences and paragraphs that I didn't fully understand. I had tried to read The Name of the Rose a little earlier, having found it in the mystery section of the public library, and thinking that since I liked murder mysteries, and that since it was thick like The Hounds of the Morrigan, and about an abbey, which I found interesting, and since it had a beautiful cover... -- but needless to say, I didn't get very far, which is just as well.

In Redwall, I found a detailed portrait of a community, where there were multiple characters who wandered in and out of the spotlight, who clearly were busy living their lives, and doing the various work of keeping an abbey running. Matthias, who was discovering his own capabilities, Methuselah, who kept records, and Constance the badger, who clearly was the dominant fighter, and whom Jacques felt no need to temper with more flowery feminity. And I watched, captivated, as that community reeled, and changed, confronted with an outsider who wanted simply to torture, to kill, to possess them. There was a typical quest/coming-of-age story in the middle of this, for Matthias, and I loved that, and took time to memorize the "I -- am that is" poem that is so important to the plot's development. But there was so much more than that, too! The history of the abbey is vital to surviving the conflict; and the way that the abbey is situated in the midst of a landscape where it is one culture, interacting with other cultures of varying compatibility, neutrality, or hostility -- sparrows! and Guerilla Shrews! -- I had never seen anything like that in my life thus far. Not told that way. I knew Jason and the Argonauts backwards and forwards, and was in the habit of reading mythological dictionaries to try and find more stories, but the tellings of Greek myths in collections and dictionaries were not attempting to be an adventure novel, and so they could not in the least compare with what Brian Jacques had done.

I remember how horrified I was by the actions of Selah and Chickenhound, and the way it felt to learn what happened to them. Reading Agatha Christie and watching Murder, She Wrote, I knew plenty about murderers, but I didn't really know about stories of betrayal that occurred in the middle of the story, of double-crosses -- I hadn't read any noir at that age. And then, when Asmodeus appeared on the scene, it was approximately like discovering that Twinkies had a creme filling.** Multiple problems that had to be dealt with, each one dangerous in a different way! I had never seen such richness between the covers of a book. And what makes Redwall extra special, along with The Hounds of the Morrigan, is that it is one of the first times that I can remember beginning to think carefully about what an author can do, and has to do, in order to make a book be brilliant. Before that, I had simply swallowed books whole, swimming through them like warm water, and this is not to say that I read through them hurriedly without enjoyment -- but stories were the air I breathed, and I am not sure that I gave much thought to how that air was produced, and the choices that went into it.

A few years later, Brian Jacques actually came to my elementary school -- but I was in junior high. My second brother, who loved the books as much as I did, took my copy of Mossflower to school to have it autographed, and, horror of horrors, had it signed to him, instead of me. At the time, I was furious, and only slightly mollified when said brother bought me another copy of the book. It's forgiven, now. The landscape of Redwall was an escape for both of us, in the midst of family turmoil. I couldn't see that years earlier, when A. was tormenting me by being Baby Rollo, who was so quick and heedless to drop into rhyming song, who knew that joy was in singing; or any one of the other various rambunctious Dibbuns; but in hindsight, I am endlessly grateful that we both found that escape.

In the middle of the long list of Redwall books, A. and I agreed that they had begun to seem formulaic to us. But I recall that we were both delighted by Loamhedge and Rakkety Tam, and I shall look forward to catching up with the more recent books in the series, and the final novel, when it arrives later this year.

I never got the chance to thank Jacques. It seemed that I was always finding out about him being in town the day after he had been, or when I was scheduled to be somewhere else. But one night, when he was at the University Bookstore, or rather passing through it, on the way to a sold-out signing at Kane Hall on the UW campus, I caught sight of him in the midst of an entourage. And I hadn't seen the announcements that he was in town, didn't know who he was at all, only that he was in a cluster of people, and looked familiar, almost like someone I had seen on TV. And then my eyes landed on a poster announcing the event, and that it was sold out, and I realized, and sucked in my breath, and stared at him in shock -- and somehow, 20 feet away, he realized, and looked right at me, and I grinned at him as happily as I could, to try and say thank you. And he smiled back. So I think he understood.

After I finished Redwall, I wasn't content with simply chanting the "I -- am that is" poem over and over; so I went back and memorized the prologue: "It was the start of the Summer of the Late Rose." For a long time, when I thought of beautiful writing (as a quality in itself, quite distinct from a good story), that passage was at the forefront of my mind. I think it's time I refreshed my memory of it, and knocked the dust off.

* ETA: I know -- obviously, I hadn't yet found the indescribably great Pork, and others, by Cris Freddi.

** I know, it's kind of sacrilegious to talk about Twinkies in the same post that I'm writing about food in Redwall Abbey. But it was the question that everyone in elementary school pondered -- how did the creme filling get inside the Twinkie?

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Review: Tender Morsels, by Margo Lanagan

This will be a quick review, partly because of time constraints, and partly because I'm finding it difficult to think about how to discuss the book at length. It's a hard book to read, and I fear that any lengthy discussion of it would turn too quickly into a discussion of some of the ideas that it provokes, and then it would become something other than a book review. Not that such a discussion isn't worth having -- I've just been having it in a few too many places recently, and to host it here, right now, would feel repetitive of what I've already said elsewhere.

I learned about Tender Morsels through the controversy described by Scott Westerfeld here. I'm very glad I did, and I hope it gets more attention from that controversy, because it deserves it.

The other reason that this won't be a long review is that I think I can say concisely what makes Tender Morsels unusual, and worth reading:

Almost everything -- every major event -- that occurs in Lanagan's novel is the result of some form of failure or mistake: either a failure of compassion and kindness, or courage, or strength; or intentions that have a little goodness in them, but a lot of selfishness; or are outright selfish, though the selfish person may still have flashes of kindness.

That doesn't mean that there isn't bravery and love and generosity, too. There is. But what Lanagan does; how she weaves them together, seems to me to subvert a lot of our ideas of what a novel is in the first place. Certainly it subverts what I think of as a tenet of the YA genre, which is that the stories are about the protagonists rising up, coming into their own, triumphing over struggle. Tender Morsels doesn't negate that -- but it subverts it. It's the most interesting portrayal and story about agency that I've seen in recent years, and maybe ever.*

At some point, I'd like to say more about it. I just need to think for a while before I do.

* This is meant as a compliment, but of course, there's a great deal that I haven't read. Disclaimer issued so as not to make the superlative hollow: there may be other books with equally interesting and complex portrayals of agency -- but I still think it worth commenting on when I stumble on something that stands out in the history of my own reading.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Among Others, by Jo Walton

There is apparently a controversy about the magic in this book, and whether it's real, or a manifestation of PTSD or mental illness or both on the part of the narrator, Mori Phelps. I'm not the least bit surprised by that, given the blurb on the front cover by Robin Hobb, which includes the comment "...if you remember the magic you used to do...," and when I got the hardcover (having started the book in Kindle, and then abruptly lent it to someone else because I knew I could just get a dead-tree copy, and that I wanted one), I was deeply suspicious. At the time, I wasn't very far into the book. To talk about magic as something you used to do when you were a teenager sounded to me like an invitation to read the book as nostalgia for the way things used to be, rather than as a serious story.

I'm not saying that's Hobb's intention, mind you. It's just what it seemed like at the time.

Onto the book: I think it's strong and splendid, and one of those books which might cause people to say, "oh, anyone could do that; it doesn't take any effort as long as you love books," because Walton makes it look natural and effortless.

It's a bit difficult to talk about how the book works and what makes it good without dropping into spoilers, though I can do so a little more effectively if I talk about it in relation to my own life -- though then I worry that I'll sound self-centered, and worse, boringly so. Among Others is being marketed as a book that feels uncanny if you happened to be a teenager reading sci-fi/fantasy in the late 70s and 80s. (I wasn't). Mori Phelps is a character who makes people think that Jo Walton is their "secret best friend." I didn't feel that, especially because I didn't know that Heinlein and Zelazny and Tiptree existed back when I was 14, and reading Piers Anthony* and David Eddings, and Robert Lynn Asprin, and Douglas Adams.

What I did though, when I was 9 or 10, or 11 at most, and discovered Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane via the BBC adaptations, was to adopt them as parents. Mine loved me, quite clearly, but equally clearly, they couldn't be the parents I needed. That's heartless, I know, but it's also true, in that it was becoming clear that we had incompatible views of morality and politics, and that it was going to get worse, rather than better. And their constant arguments were dangerous. At the time, I couldn't have articulated why in terms of self-esteem, independence vs. co-dependence, and personal boundaries -- but it was around when I was 10 that I really began to understand that they were dangerous. Not evil, but dangerous. It is a very hard lesson to learn; I wish no children had to learn it.

In response, I adopted Lord Peter and Harriet. And I wished, over and over again, rather like Holly and Ivy in the Rumer Godden novel, because that was what I had for reference, that I could grow up to be as strong and intelligent as Harriet Vane. (I didn't necessarily think that meant academia or even writing and literature). I went so far as to bargain with the powers that be, to say that I would accept an ordeal like that which Harriet went through, if it meant that I could develop the ability to think and imagine and be strong in that way. I may have had vague thoughts about an equivalent Lord Peter, but they were just that: vague thoughts -- because though I admired him terribly, he wasn't the point, nor did I think that wish was a good one to try to make.

What Among Others does is provide a context that allows me to think through what I was doing when I made that adoption, and that bargain, and everything that arose from it later. The satisfaction that I get from it, then, is very personal; because it reveals to me that something I hardly thought could be a story's central focus can be one. I do think that that's a mark of lovely work; to take something that seems, for whatever reason, difficult to capture at all, and show that this insubstantial or deeply buried quality can be a story in itself. If you go down to Felpham and Bognor Regis on an overcast day and look at the sea, you can see strange lights shining out of it -- and I've seen paintings that capture those lights brilliantly. This book is rather like the first painter who saw those lights and knew that they could be the subject of a painting, and set out to do so, and succeeded.

Walton writes about families as brilliantly as she writes about magic, so it's not really any surprise that the charged energy between family members features as heavily as any energy from spells. Thinking about this, I realize that one of the things I like best of all is her method of portraying the inevitable convergence of the two: impossible that the charges of magic wouldn't end up involved in family; and even more impossible that family dynamics wouldn't effect the way that one practiced magic, and how its effects manifested. Moreover, someone who was influenced by magic (whether by practicing or being practiced upon) would think about everything differently. There's a passage I really like at around p. 64, which, oddly enough, lines up perfectly with one of the critical essays I was reading last week, though I won't say whose, or tell you any more than that. I will admit that I like books when they manage to think through complex ideas in quick, trenchant asides, without being unnaturally didactic, and if you like that, then you'll probably enjoy this one.

I realize that this is getting a bit long. Though I suppose if you read this long, then you thought it was worth it, so. Plotwise, it's an odd book and meandering book, whose style I'd described as overlapping episodic if I had to give it a name. If you've read other Walton, especially books like The Prize in the Game, (which, I know, people who have known me in other blogs are sick of me harping on, but in many ways, it feels like my Lord of the Rings, I'm that fond of it) -- then the style of action is a lot like that. I wonder how people are struck by a confrontation that happens late in the book; because I found it entirely convincing, and beautifully written, but it parallels confrontations that I've had myself, so I don't feel the least bit capable of evaluating how it will hit other people. ETA: looking around, it seems that a lot of people find it rushed/tacked on. I didn't -- but how to explain the electricity in such a meeting to people who've escaped having it, and how that electricity builds for weeks or months in advance? I despair, for the moment.

I hope there will be a sequel, though I can understand the challenge of undertaking such a thing. Actually, no I can't. I've never written a sequel, after all. But I think that one of the compliments that I can give Among Others is that it's entirely possible to think about a sequel and want one badly, and what might happen in it, and just as possible to think that the characters' lives went on, and that the events of the sequel are occasionally barely visible. I don't do magic anymore**, except by accident when reality goes a bit transparent and I can see that someone is about to phone, or that I'm about to lose my wallet, but I think I can sort of see Mori Phelps occasionally. Not in an exactly intelligible form about which I could say, "oh, this will happen in the sequel," but see all the same, much as she can see fairies. This is an unusual thing to say about a book, and a really odd way to end a review, but I appreciated the effect to no end, and think it a remarkable thing to pull off.

* I fully agree with the brief aside comparing Anthony to one of the literary greats; also, though I have problems with much of Anthony these days, Dragon on a Pedestal is somehow good every time I read it, and some day, I will get round to explaining why that is. If I figure it out myself.

** Actually, no, that isn't true. A lot of my research, and what I've found, is really only explainable if I acknowledge that it's the hybrid of critical thinking and divination. But that's a different sort of magic, not dealt with in this story.


All day long, or most of it, and well into the evening, I worked on paraphrasing Percy Shelley's A Philosophical View of Reform, rewriting it in my own language. This is for two reasons: one, his tendency towards long compound complex sentences, and sometimes second phrases, is, um, overly evident. (To be fair, he didn't publish the work, so it's not like he was sloppy about prepping it; and I don't write neatly when I'm drafting, either.) Two, it's really easy for one treatise on the rights of the poor and the oppression of the rich to sound like another, and to lose sight of the individuality of the author's perspective. Paraphrasing in detail is the best way that I've found to avoid this. I don't think it's ever served me badly. I finished the middle section today; tomorrow I'll tackle the shorter 1st and 3rd chapters, and I think they'll either go much faster, or that I've found my way sufficiently into Shelley's head for the paraphrasing not to be necessary.

It's often slow work, but I have to admit that it leads to good and useful insights. I'm very pleased with what I learned. But man, am I ever tired.

The first things I remember reading, or being read

(Because in the comments to the previous post, we've gotten into a discussion about how one develops preference for genre fiction, or lit fic, and to what degree that preference is innate and hardwired, much like one's sexuality.)

First and foremost, Bill Peet's The Caboose Who Got Loose. This one was read to me, but I memorized it, and I think it's responsible for my love of dactyls (Trochee fixation wasn't actually my syndrome, recognizable as it is.) Anthropomorphized train cars, and houses! Though the illustration that stayed with me for years, more than any of the others, was of a train yard at night, and a little house, suspended above the tracks, where a night watchman lived. That, to me, was another world, and moreover, one that I wanted to get to, and live in: to be high over the world, in a light place overlooking the dark place where people travelled. (There was also Chester the Worldly Pig, and The Whingdingdilly, but neither of those compared, really, to Caboose).

Secondly: books about marine life. One had lots of pictures, in color; the other was more like an elementary school textbook, mostly text, and brown and white sketched illustrations. I fixated on jellyfish, and on diatoms, and on the chambered nautilus.

Thirdly: a big treasury of Beatrix Potter, in which, as I recall, the stories that I wanted to hear repeatedly were "The Tailor of Gloucester," and "The Tale of Two Bad Mice." The best part about the latter was when Hunca Munca and Tom Thumb try to eat the dolls' food, and find the wax ham inedible. Wax fruit: more fascinating than any fart joke.

I knew fairytales, at least, I knew Little Red Riding-hood, because I suffered my parents and grandparents to help me act it out, utilizing the armoire for the woodsman to jump out of.

Dr. Seuss, specifically Hop on Pop, and The Cat in the Hat. The Cat in the Hat Comes Back was vastly superior to the original. Green Eggs and Ham made me very, very uncomfortable (early aversion to people who won't stop pestering you?) Horton Hears A Who was also vastly superior to Horton Hatches the Egg, mainly because I figured out that the Grinch had to be much tinier than I had realized. (This led to a brief phase in which I wondered whether the world as we knew it might be contained on a piece of lint stuck under God's toenail.)

Ezra Jack Keats' The Snowy Day, which, now that I think about it, is very much a book about the world being transformed into another place.

There was Captain Kitty (go look at the illustrations!), which totally explains my love for the lime helmet LOLcat. And again, voyages, and other worlds.

And The Wheedle on the Needle, which I loved, and Leo the Lop, which I loved a little less, I think mainly because of the embarrassment phobia.

The Year At Maple Hill Farm, lovely for all the detail in the illustrations.

There was also an easy reader book about a mouse exploring a house, fascinating because it was illustrated with photographs, rather than drawings.

And there was Professor Wormbog's Gloomy Kerploppus: A Book of Great Smells. There were other Mercer Mayer books in the Little Critter series, but mostly I did not like them, because they were mostly about what I should and shouldn't do.

There were others: The Poky Little Puppy, The Little Engine That Could (fascinating because of all the things that could be carried on a train, which made up for the stupid didacticism of the story), a Little Golden Book version of A Child's Garden of Verses.

Later, there were the Something Queer books, which also made a huge impression -- but the ones above were what I owned, and what I read, or had read to me, before I got to the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, and on from there.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

On believable characters, and reading sci-fi

After writing yesterday's review of Bradford Morrow's The Diviner's Tale, I was startled this morning by one of the comments on this article in The Guardian, about whether speculative fiction was ready to break into big awards like the Booker Prize. One of the commenters responds as follows:
I think it is probably not the best idea. I have read a lot of science fiction and the problem lies with the characters, it seems as if all SF writers are incapable of producing a believable character, especially if it is an Alien character, which does not end up sounding like your English Teacher from High School. Morever, some of the more fantastical elements of simply making up names for alien cultures, with wobbly bits, it is absolutely confusing and mostly ridiculous. There is always a war going on in which not much seems to be happening.
Proper fiction, got which some niche should be preserved, should as a starting base point have believable characters. I am fairly sure that it is beyond the capabilities of any Fantasy/SF author to come up with anything more than Carboard charachters, whereas novels rooted in reality have more dimensions more reference points to peoples lives, so is probably superior. (emphasis mine)
The funny thing about this is that it is precisely what I would say about most literary fiction. I had to rack my brain and my bookshelves to find literary fiction titles/authors whom I loved, and thought of as having believably complex characters (the latter being the condition for the former). I did think of one, and immediately: Siri Hustvedt's What I Loved, which I've read over and over again, and never gotten tired of. Now that I think about it, I also enjoyed Michael Cunningham's The Hours, though I don't own it. Let's see: I also was absolutely delighted with Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City, and the sequels that followed. For the most part, literary fiction, no matter how many titles I look at, and what awards they're up for, give me the sense that the authors carefully followed a formula akin to that of the sonata form, carefully choosing objects and character traits that they felt were both unusual and poetic. This was how I felt about the house dragged across the ice in E. Annie Proulx's The Shipping News.

But I remember my delight at reading Pamela Dean's Tam Lin, when a friend lent it to me as an undergrad, as being a book that seemed to be written about the same world I lived in, or closer to it -- my university and my own development did not present the opportunities of Nick, Robin, and Thomas. In jr. high and high school, I read Terry Brooks, and David Eddings, and Piers Anthony, and a lot of Star Trek novels. It seems funny that I read these (most of which I now think of as fluff) at the same time I loved Dorothy L. Sayers and Noel Streatfeild, who wrote what I think of as utterly believable characters, and who seemed to see the world as I saw it (and thus to be confronted with adventures and problems like my own). When I got to college and someone introduced me to Carolyn Heilbrun's Kate Fansler detective stories, I felt that I had found someone writing about a woman who I hoped to become.

I don't remember when I started reading current sci-fi/fantasy, exactly. However, I will never forget the experience of reading Sarah Monette's Doctrine of Labyrinths series, and thinking "oh, my God, I had no idea that it was even possible to capture life, and its disappointments and victories, in this way." I'm afraid that's not an especially original eloquent blurb, but it's what I felt at the time, and what I still feel when I go back to the whole quartet to reread it, which I do about every year. If you're curious, you should rush right out and buy the series, or at least the first volume, and you should pay no attention to the cover art, which gives the impression that Melusine is a soppy bodice-ripper. It's nothing of the sort. Though it is a series in which sex, both abusive, and non, plays a major role. And it's what I would hold up as an example and standard to literary fiction authors who feel that they simply must include a sexual abuse plot in their novels: that is how you do it.

Monette isn't the only sci-fi/fantasy author who has been able to reach me, though she was the first, and the one who did so most dramatically. I think it's fair to say that she's the reason I began paying attention to other sci-fi authors, and to blogs at Tor. I haven't time tonight, but at some point, I would like to write more about why the other major genre that I read is YA Lit.

So, if you're reading this: is there a book, series, or genre, that amazed you, that knocked you flat by portraying the world more richly than you imagined was ever possible?

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Review: The Diviner's Tale, by Bradford Morrow

In hindsight, I should have heeded my suspicions when I read the review of this book on BoingBoing, because it was praised as "literary," and in my experience, that means that it has pretensions to being a grand novel of sentiment and rebirth, when mostly, it's just clichéd navelgazing, with the increased likelihood of one particular plot device.

But the UK cover, which I thought (and still think) rather lovely in its design tempted me, and when I downloaded the sample chapter from Amazon, I genuinely thought the author's voice (or rather, that of the main character, Cassandra, equally lovely). Though I was immediately suspicious of anyone who would name a character who divines (primarily water, but also the future) Cassandra, I was drawn in. Not enough to buy the book, mind you, but enough to take time to go to Barnes and Noble and find it, and settle down at a table to have a closer look. I was drawn in even after finding a review on Amazon that mentioned the "tragic things" that befell the character when she was a child.

I'm afraid I didn't end up liking the book at all, despite the author's clever voice, and generally likeable characters. Morrow seems to want to use the supernatural (the divining talent) as a hook, but not one that will have any real force in determining what happens in the story's main mystery, so there's no real logic in the way that the mystery develops and unravels. This is a great pity, because I don't think the mystery was really necessary at all. There is plenty of conflict without it, involving, variously, religion, disease, different generations, and the tensions associated with fitting or not fitting into one's community. There's an acknowledgement thanking a divining group for help with research, and I can wholeheartedly say that I loved reading about Cass's divining work, and her relationship with her father Nep, also a diviner. I can imagine loving this book wholeheartedly.

But I don't recommend it. Part of the problem is that I don't think the mystery is well woven into the rest of the plot (which is a great mistake when you consider that this book is being shelved in the mystery, rather than the litfic section). And to go further into that, I need to spoil the plot, a bit.


Spoiler: central to the development of this novel is the revelation that Cassandra, the protagonist, was violently molested at age 7 by a friend of her elder, now-deceased brother. Morrow goes into a fair amount of detail, and I suppose I can say that the abuse scenes didn't feel as formulaic as they might have; but I was left wishing that I could remind the authors of the literary fiction genre (because that's the genre that Morrow seems to write in usually, judging by his Amazon listings) that there are more ways to create a complex, sensitive female character than to molest her. The molestation does help a major piece of the puzzle fall into place (actually, it drops the villain into the reader's lap, which is why I say that this is a poorly woven mystery), but other than that, it seems that it's there principally to add poignant drama to the story. And its principle effect, on this reader, is to make me think, "oh, the author got lazy." Morrow's not the only one who does this. It's related, I think, to the "dead women on book covers sell better than dead men," the crime procedurals that slowly film women being tortured and murdered. And countless authors seem to think that childhood sexual abuse/molestation/rape is the easiest way to amplify the profundity of their plots. It's not that abuse can't ever be written about, but there seem to be a whole lot of books where the point of the abuse is that it's somehow necessary to show that the female character's childhood had meaning beyond playing with dolls, books, frogs, or what-have you. That the said female character grew up; her adulthood proven by the pain of being assaulted.

All I can say tonight is that if that's their idea of how to write a character whose life has meaning, then I have no interest in their books. And I will laugh out loud when I see someone blurbing such books as "original."

what might an interdisciplinary research methodologies course look like?

This morning, I was sorting through readings by E P Thompson, James Chandler, Ian Duncan, Fredric Jameson, and Alex Dick this morning, and juggling various strong opinions on the intersection of literature and economics, literary history, and the relation of history and historicism to the formation of political economy and economics. And I'm getting somewhere good with this, rather than just somewhere horribly muddled. But I felt a bit disheartened, too, because if I think back in my coursework, I can remember a lot of discussions tremendously well, but among them, there's little or nothing about how to develop a research methodology, or choose one (or most likely, a combination of those two) that addresses the challenges of interdisciplinary research.

The closest thing to a discussion like this took place in a Textual Studies course on early printed texts, which in addition to looking at the development of print from Caxton through the 18th century (the professor was a specialist in 18th century novels and dramas), and also covered the history of the emergence of textual studies/bibliography, and its fractious relationship with literary criticism in the 20th century. And that was nice, but it didn't address the issue of textual studies as interdisciplinary, understandably, because the whole point was to valorize it as worthwhile.

What I was wishing for this morning, was the memory of seminar discussions about the challenges of writing literary history, of balancing between close readings of literature and combining them with detailed factual and statistical research, not just on issues like book buying and readership (which I think of as a fairly usual place for lit critics to go to when they want to buff up an argument with historical data), but also poverty, famine, religion, politics, agriculture.* I don't mean that I wish someone had taught me how to do it "right," because it's entirely clear that there's not one single right way -- but I wish I had memories of discussions about the different effects of choosing one approach vs. another.

Part of that is no doubt that I'm working with three fields that really do have a fraught relationship. I can point to booklength discussions about whether literary history is or isn't possible, essays on the same, and quick little daggers flung in reviews about attempts to write literary history, directed, I think, at practitioners from both lit and historical backgrounds. Meanwhile, I'm still talking with several people who work on lit and econ. about the grenade that Mary Poovey lobbed when she published Genres of the Credit Economy in her assertion that literature simply wasn't a good medium for studying economics.

Anyway, assuming that I'm not the only one who wishes that there had been a course to directly address the issues of interdisciplinary research methodologies, here is a rough vision of what a course might look like, and/or might cover.

Disclaimer: I'm in a lit. program, and for the moment, I'm imagining this course based on what I wish had existed. I'd love to hear suggestions that might make it a course that would be useful for students in other disciplines as well. I think it might work best if it were oriented towards interdisciplinary research methods in the humanities, rather than IDRM across the board encompassing everything -- but that's just my temporary, preliminary opinion.

1. I think it would start by looking at disciplines that are so interwoven with literature that we barely even think of them as separate anymore: classics, history, and psychology. It would look at the emergence of literature departments in the 19th century as a separate discipline from classical studies, and probably review the literary/historical biography/New Criticism debates.

I know that these are old chestnuts, but I'd like to think that there are worthwhile and useful questions and points to consider, in terms of the intentions behind these early disciplinary combos, and in terms of the objections that were raised to them. And at the very least, I think that they merit being reviewed as formative influences on the discipline of literature today. The same goes for theory and psychoanalytic criticism.

How much time was spent on any of these would depend on the professor, but I imagine that this would account for between 30 and 50% of the entire course.** Readings, off the top of my head, might include: E.P. Thompson, Terry Eagleton, David Perkins, Rita Felski, Martha Nussbaum, Clifford Siskin, John Guillory, a selection from Theory's Empire...this list is not definitive.

2. From there, the course would shift into a more focused look at specific areas of interdisciplinary research that are currently active. Lit./econ. would be the subject of one week, and it probably wouldn't be a bad idea to spend another week on New Historicism. Other focuses might be anthropology/social sciences, public humanities and/or activism, history of science.

This would be the most challenging part of the course to put together, because the subject material would largely consist of a couple of readings from each of the interdisciplinary areas, in which the authors made direct claims or comments on the nature of the study, or which were otherwise emblematic of the particular area. Alternately, there's no reason that source material couldn't consist of digital archives, tools, etc., where those were available.

3. An exhausted, overcommitted professor could run this course and have it be useful just by using the standard method of having the students sign up to present on the readings and raise discussion questions each week. He or she would provide perhaps the most leadership in the beginning of the course, during those weeks where the focus is on literature and its origins as an interdisciplinary field. (I suppose that if I have an agenda for the course, that's part of it - the idea that literature has always been interdisciplinary).

I don't mean that he/she could tune out for the rest of it, because I would be counting on him/her to provide the sort of guidance and knowledge that only comes with having been a professional academic for longer than grad students have been -- for being familiar with different trends in research that have risen and fallen over time. I strongly suspect, however, that if the students were given some guiding questions to use: what specific goals arise in interdisciplinary research? What types of arguments does IDR lend itself to? What relationships can we see between the disciplines that are joined? -- that they could have lively and useful discussions which might later be useful to them while they were writing dissertation chapters. There's a lot of material that could be covered, but I've had some courses, one in particular, that overwhelmed with reading, and yet the massive avalanche of material, not to mention the syllabus itself, was useful and valuable, and I can still remember it in a fair amount of detail.

4. What would students get out of this? Primarily, an acquaintance with a bunch of readings outside their primary areas, in a context which included focused discussion about methodology -- what the authors were trying to do, and why. Probably, a useful final project/essay for this class would be to undertake an interdisciplinary research project/paper in one's own area. This assumes that the students are interested in IDR, but surely that's a safe assumption. It's an opportunity, then, for the student who's interested in literature and gender, to work on developing an argument that is overtly interdisciplinary, while thinking critically about what it means to be interdisciplinary, in terms of the types of sources used, and the types of questions raised.

Secondly, I hope the class would provide students with a space to think about the politics of interdisciplinary work, and probably the politics of the humanities in general. There's lots of territory there for literature, and surely for history, and library science, and philosophy, too. It's possible that what I really want, and am not fully articulating, is a class on the politics of literary study. (I do want that class.) But what I really wanted this morning, is a class where we might read Stephen Greenblatt one week, and Bruce Robbins Upward Mobility and the Common Good: Towards a Literary History of the Welfare State the next, and later, read Amartya Sen, and ask, in each case, what are they doing, and how, and why? And what does it look like when we discuss them as part of a sustained exploration? Are there techniques that are shared between all three? And assuming that there common techniques, that there are also differences, then what are they?

This is just one way that such a course could be put together. There are tons of others. The brilliant thing is that though such a course couldn't cover everything, that it would prompt insights and questions that would be transferable to other areas of interdisciplinary research, that might provide at the very least, a starting point for thinking about choices that one makes in developing an interdisciplinary research methodology.

But this is only a rough draft. How would you improve it?

ETA: I realized that by some standards, this may not look like an interdisciplinary research methodologies course at all -- surely that would involve techniques like statistics and ethnographic research being taught, right? I heartily agree, and if someone offered that class, I would have camped out all night in front of registration, just to make sure I got in.

One reason I didn't propose that class is that at the moment, my department would say "we don't have anyone who could teach that." I think a lot of departments might be in those straits. But the other reason I didn't propose that class is that there seems to be plenty of interdisciplinary work that shows up in books and essays even without bringing in quantitative research, and yet, is quite central to the author's main argument and/or his or her grounds for raising questions. And maybe that's Cultural Studies 101 stuff, but I sure would love it if we could interrogate it in the process of constructing seminar papers, conference papers, essays, abstracts, and dissertation chapters.

*And I don't just mean how to write Marxist criticism, though that certainly would be an applicable discussion to have.
**I'm thinking in terms of quarters, since that's the only system I've worked in. Semesters might work differently.