Friday, August 19, 2011

Review: The Mysteries of Udolpho


The Mysteries of Udolpho
The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe

My rating: 4 of 5 stars



NOTE: Thoughts from my second tour of the book at the bottom.

In the Mysteries of Udolpho we have the grandmother of the Gothic novel, springhead of every soap opera, the original melodrama, something so outlandish and overwrought that it has been -- and deserves to be -- much mocked and parodied. At the same time, it commands some respect because of what it is -- an early novel, written when the form was still in its infancy, written by a woman at a time when women had no access to much education or ability to make a living for themselves, written at a time when the very idea of "what was a woman" had barely pushed out the roots of change.

That in itself sounds overwrought, but one must make large claims for this novel, this great ancestor of the novel, still read when so many of its contemporaries are lost in the dusty stacks of archival libraries. I will admit readily that, to finish the last 200+ pages of the novel, I stayed up very late.

But now that we have spoken to its dignity and given the respect it deserves for its place in history, let's get to the myriad stupid, irritating things Radcliffe does that infuriate the modern reader and even drove contemporary readers (like Jane Austen, most famously) to mock it.

Our heroine, Emily St. Aubert, is the only child of a gentleman of retiring and pure nature. We know this because he has the word "Saint" abbreviated in his name and because he rhapsodizes about nature and death and makes pious speeches about Heaven and death. We are told he does good for the poor even though he is, for a person of his social status, poor himself, and so everyone loves him despite his somewhat holier-than-thou attitude. He has raised his daughter to be just like him. Emily is well educated (for a woman) with music and poetry and drawing, her fine, delicate, high spiritual nature underlined by her tendency to stare at trees and mountains.

Emily has many features which are designed to mark her as a woman of delicacy and grace. She has beauty and a very sympathetic heart -- we are told -- which she exhibits when it is convenient or will underline how kind and beautiful she is. What she lacks are any braincells devoted to such foreign things as logic, reason, common sense, or even the lessons of simple observation. While she may spend long hours in raptures over leaping rivulets and verdant demonstrations of nature's power, the simpler facts elude her.

Of course, the poor girl spends so much time fainting, she must have suffered dozens of head injuries or have some sort of medical affliction unknown in Radcliffe's time but treated in ours with a colorful little pill, possibly available in the cheaper generic. She faints a lot. She faints to excess, shall we say, and over everything. Some are understandable, while others are just plain annoying. I am tempted to buy my own copy of the book for the pleasure of taking a pink highlighter and marking every time Emily faints, nearly faints, or cannot support herself. Really, she should have loosened her corset.

When Emily is not fainting, she is weeping. When not weeping, there is sobbing, crying, gasping, moaning, and sighing (oh, let us not forget sighing).

Now, she has a few things to weep and sigh about. First, her mother dies rather suddenly. Then, within probably a year, her father becomes ill and, while traveling for his health, sickens and dies. By strange coincidence (which I really want to term "coinkedink, because that's how often these "just so happens" happen) he does so near an abandoned chateau where we are presented with our First Mystery -- and there will be many more, all made Very Mysterious. Orphaned and under age, she is sent to live with her capricious and self centered aunt. This aunt toys with her by first denying, then allowing, then denying again Emily to be married to her beloved Valencourt.

Oh, let's take a moment to talk about Valencourt. Here's another useless article. He is, indeed, Emily's soul mate and mirror, although instead of fainting and sinking helpless into conveniently placed chairs, he exclaims, paces around, and skulks in the darkness. Now that I think about it, except for the bloodsucking and sparkling, he is a forebear of Edward Cullens, what with his stalking behavior, declarations, and scary possessiveness. Yes, he is the template for the Romantic Hero. He also is fairly annoying because he doesn't do much except give his money away, get rapturous in the trees, and the aforementioned skulking.

Back to Emily. Torn from her love when her aunt marries an Italian named Montoni (Dun dun dun!) and taken to Italy, she waxes rhapsodic on Venetian gondolas rowed out to sea under the moonlight and resists the attempts of her aunt and Montoni to force her into marriage with a Count Moreno. Oh, did I not mention that at least 1/3 of men who spend time in Emily's presence fall in love -- or at least in lust -- with her, often violently? Talk about pheromones. Those who resist her charms either take up the villain role of wanting to control and torment her or want to father her. And that sums up all the male characters. Anyway, to escape Moreno (among other things) Montoni takes them all into the mountains to his castle Udolpho, where he turns warlord and bandit according to the rules of war in the Italian states at the time. The central part of the novel happens in this pile, and Emily experiences constant horror, terror, fear, etc.,etc., because she won't spend any time thinking.

Now, she is in a tough situation, but she does everything she can to milk it for all it's worth in drama -- much leaning on window casements, much tender poking at emotional wounds, more sighing. She also collects ghost stories and catches glimpses of things that thrill her with terror because she won't take any time to properly observe them or think it over. But these are important, because they are More Mysteries. Anyway, her aunt dies, leaving her inheritor of valuable properties Montoni wants her to sign over. Her serving woman, Annette -- another garrulous, irritating idiot who serves only as a bridge between Emily and one of the two sensible characters in the novel, Ludovico -- helps to keep Emily upset as much as possible. Ludovico eventually engineers an escape for Emily and a Frenchman kept prisoner in Udolpho. They sail back to France and by Some Chance, their ship wrecks near that very Chateau where we had our First Mystery. Now, with the introduction of Count de Villefort (the other sensible person in this novel, for which I am SO grateful), the mysteries pile up a bit and then unravel. Emily is almost reunited with Valencourt, but he's ruined his reputation and lost his fortune in Paris, so now he's not worthy of her. They spend quite a long time tormenting each other with declarations of Separating Forever, while not actually leaving the room, and Never Seeing Each Other More, while staring and sighing.

We then have some more ghost silliness which turns out to be pirates. Ludovico vanishes mysteriously only to turn up later when the Count is attacked by said pirates (in the mountains! but whatever) and finally the mysteries begin to unravel. Emily comes of age to inherit, Montoni is captured and killed so those properties are now hers, the real owner of Udolpho is a crazy nun in a nearby convent who was REALLY the Italian mistress of the previous owner of the chalet who contrived to kill her lover's wife who JUST HAPPENED to be Emily's aunt and the sister of her father, who wanted to CONCEAL the mystery of his beloved sister's death but Emily is such a twin to this particular paragon that the truth outs, and Valencourt is not really all that bad, but just noble and stupid.

Oh, and the Thing Behind the Veil that so terrified Emily is a wax figure. I think it is the predecessor of Aunt Ada Doom's "Something Nasty in the Woodshed".


Radcliffe does a few things that nearly sent her book crashing against a wall. First, Emily sees Mysterious Things that upset, terrify, haunt, and worry her -- but we do not get to see these things for ourselves, even in part. There are some words in a document she wasn't supposed to see (but fainting messed her up there) which Radcliffe never does clear up, although by the very end of the novel we get full and somewhat tedious explanations.

Second, Radcliffe never has a character tell us a thing until they have told us why they can't tell us and made us promise we won't tell. Once they agree to speak, we get a few more minutes of details about how horrible it is and why they can't speak of it. And when they finally DO speak of it, it's rare they actually SAY anything. Or, worse still, they will simply refuse to convey information "because of honour". There is a great deal of what I consider pure deception by omission, all done in the name of paper thin honour.

Radcliffe only tops that little technique, however, by use of the "Oh, YOU know what I mean" technique. Characters will assume they already know the substance of a conversation before it happens, which of course means they are wrong about what they think they know. Usually both characters think they know and think the other person knows, and so you can imagine how much useful information is passed along. It's like the Passive-Aggressive Playbook.

Then there are the travelogues, the interminable descriptions of every terrifying or overwhelming crag, tree, precipice, cascade,sunset, starry or cloudy sky, distant view, flower, twig, dust mote. Luckily, once you learn Radcliffe's set up for these, they can be skimmed or skipped entirely. She might as well have put [insert atmosphere X here] and saved ink.

My last complaint is about Emily's dog, Marchon. The poor creature keeps vanishing, completely forgotten, until he's needed to bark an ill-timed alert or lick his suffering mistress's hand. For all the begging she did to bring him along, he was left behind at Udolpho. Oh Well. Furry plot device.

Yet, with all these irritations (and more I don't have space or patience to list) the novel still managed to capture my attention. I shed a few tears with Emily over the death of her father. I felt anxious to know how she would escape. I was mystified over Ludovico's disappearance. I stayed up to read the ending.

And yet I could not help laughing, sometimes with irritation, over the contrivance and coincidence, over the extremes to which Radcliffe went to arouse her reader's emotion and bypass any reason or rationale. Here we have the heart of the romance novel, the seedlings of the horror story, the first dark shade of the mystery. Even fantasy and science fiction can trace their lineage back here, for Mary Shelly certainly read the book and felt its influence in [b:Frankenstein|18490|Frankenstein|Mary Shelley|http://photo.goodreads.com/books/1311647465s/18490.jpg|4836639]. The Mysteries of Udolpho stands as the Tree of Life for modern genre literature.

Also, you could make a great drinking game out of it.


[edited for clarity and because I hate typos]

July 30, 2011 -- Just got my own copy and am rereading it with the express purpose of marking every single fainting spell Emily has.

August 19, 2011 -- once again, stayed up late to finish the downhill slide of this book. Emily St. Aubert faints a total of 30 times, and gets a little faint-ish several more. Since the story encompasses a single year, you might easily suppose the young woman had a problem. Other characters who faint -- M. St. Aubert (more than once), Valencourt, Count Morona, Mme. Cheron/Montoni, Lady Blanche, St Foix, Dorothea, Annette, and an unnamed servant girl. Men usually faint due to injury, women from fear or excessive emotion. Oh, and one minor male character had fits and the mysterious nun Agnes/Lady Laurentini has "phrenzies".

And the CRYING. The weeping, sobbing, teardrops, flooded eyes, and so forth.

Still, the book holds up. I found it much easier to read, and actually looked into the occasional (stiff, boring, almost annoying) poems attributed to either Emily or Valencourt (stuff quoted from actual poets was usually good or at least tolerable). Radcliffe was not a poet, but she kept trying. The book gets an extra star for a second read (within a year!) and because it is a very good example of the early novel. It also stands as an excellent BAD example of what modern writers must not do -- the characters do not change despite all they experience. The only one who has even the smallest change at all is Mme. Cheron/Montoni who, upon the point of her death makes some atonement for her mistreatment of Emily, although it is less a change in her personality as using Emily to revenge herself upon Montoni. Still, the villains are villainous, the virtuous return always to their virtues, the silly stay silly, the loyal remain loyal -- everyone is the same person through and through from the start to the end. The only one who could be said to have learned a single thing is Valancourt, and all he learned is that he should stay out of Paris because it's full of vice he isn't smart enough to avoid.

This time through, Valancourt annoyed me far more than Emily did the first time. He's fickle, demanding, and despite his generous ways is still essentially driven only by his feelings at the moment. Still, both Emily and Valancourt are the sort who prefer to pick over the wounds of the past to keep them fresh and painful rather than moving on and letting stuff heal. Of course, if they did that, we'd have a completely different story.



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Saturday, July 23, 2011

Review: Shades of Milk and Honey


Shades of Milk and Honey
Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal

My rating: 4 of 5 stars



I picked up this book yesterday while shopping because I'd met the author online, liked her, and was curious.

Well, my curiosity is well served because I'm now hooked in at the very beginning of a series which is not yet existent. Damn it all! I hate the suspense of waiting for the next book in a series to come out, and my completionist soul rebels when publishers switch covers/sizes or forms (going from mass market to hardbacks for initial release, I'm looking at you, Dresden Files) so that I can't line the books up together on the shelf (and other things that provoke the book obsessed).

Anyway...this book is much in the same vein as [b:Sorcery and Cecelia or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot|64207|Sorcery and Cecelia or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot (Cecelia and Kate, #1)|Patricia C. Wrede|http://photo.goodreads.com/books/1276374483s/64207.jpg|505] in that it is Regency England touched with magic and modern conceits of romance. I sensed hints of [a:Georgette Heyer|18067|Georgette Heyer|http://photo.goodreads.com/authors/1202767292p2/18067.jpg] here and there (although the author is sticking more closely to Austen than to Heyer, I still see resemblances). This is an Austen-esque story told in the style of our contemporary novels, with an eye to how we think of things in the early 21st century. Under the layers of romantic intrigue are themes of style vs. substance, issues of self worth, and ideas of what makes art -- which is quite a lot to pack into a touch over 300 pages. The reading is quick and nearly effortless -- I tumbled through the first chapter sitting at the bookstore, got through three more before passing out in bed, picked it up in the morning when I woke, and read through the morning despite many cat and dog interruptions.

As for the story itself, I found a lot of themes familiar and interesting for me. I felt much sympathy for the main character, Jane Ellsworth (who surely approaches nearer the real interior life of Elinor Dashwood than we ever see in Sense & Sensibility itself). The worst I can say about the book -- and this is picking nits -- is that it ended in that whirling, pull-back-shot montage style I've noticed in YA fiction and have yet to like. I prefer stories to go on with what they started and end rather than sum up as if there is no more time. However, because there are sequels (damnitall!) I am magnanimous in my forgiveness to Ms. Kowal (even while chomping at the bit for the Winter 2012 release...is it available for preorder yet?)



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Monday, July 04, 2011

Review: Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Second Edition: How to Edit Yourself Into Print


Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Second Edition: How to Edit Yourself Into PrintSelf-Editing for Fiction Writers, Second Edition: How to Edit Yourself Into Print by Renni Browne

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


I think this will be a very practical book, a book from which I will take notes, a book I'll turn to for practice and reminders. It's an open door sort of book, the kind that welcomes you to come in and get comfortable while you listen to the information.

This is NOT a read-once-know-all sort of book. No, this one should sit under the elbow while writing and editing. It should have post-it flags, highlighting, notes in the margin. It's a work book, a book that teaches by making you do.

The hardest part of reading this book was in not rushing to my current manuscript to apply the thing I'd just read before I finished reading the whole book.



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Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Review: Nightlife


Nightlife (Cal Leandros, #1)Nightlife by Rob Thurman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Story time!

I picked up this book and its sequel in 2007, at the Borders in North Orlando where I was attending a NaNoWriMo event. Yes, I remember quite clearly when I picked up the books. I'd read or heard about them, looked through the blurbs and peeked into the opening pages, so I bought them and put them on a shelf for later.

Later ended up being 4 years later, of course, but I'm glad I waited. Some instinct or whispering voice warned me to wait until more the series existed so that when I finished one book, I could move on to the next because, dammit, that's what happens with series -- you start one, you really like it, but then you have to wait a year or two years for the next installment and that's crazy making. I've been through it a few times. Books are like relationships to me, which makes it hard to get involved if I feel like I'm being strung along. I really hate it. So, I tend to wait until most of the story is available (like waiting for the unavailable guy you're crushing on to be single.)

Anyway, I've had the good luck to chat on occasion with Rob Thurman on Twitter. Wow. There is one impressive mind. I like this lady a lot. And I had guilt because there were the books, pulled from my storage locker of books to be read this year, and what was I reading that I couldn't start one of them...so yesterday afternoon I cracked open Nightlife. I read it on and off all evening and went to bed about 11 pm.

And woke up at about 3:30 am, flipped on my little reading light, and started in on it again. I finished it this afternoon. My own writing is ignored, dishes rot in the sink, the dog really wishes I'd take him out, and the cats have had about enough of this nasty litter box, but I HAD TO FINISH THE BOOK.

And I am SO glad I know this is a series, that more books exist, the story goes on. I would not have made it through without that meta-information. Because I got really attached. Hooked, I should say. Here are all my favorite things -- a smart assy first person narrative, main characters who are kick ass but imperfect, emotional relationships that made sense to me and felt real, and a world full of darkness and light, mystery and wonder. You know, all that good stuff I want from my urban fantasy. Hell, what I want from any book.

Now, for anyone familiar with urban fantasy, this isn't brand new ground, but it's well woven storytelling. The whole way through this book I caught threads of other books and series I've really devoted myself to (Jim Butcher's Dresden Files popped to mind, among others). Not a copy, just those same good qualities, the same level of involvement for me, the cleverness of the twists, the way the things I expected and the stuff I didn't expect came together. How much I liked all of it. How attached I got to Cal and Niko, and even to Robin and Promise and Georgina. Hell, even the Big Bad had repulsive fascination. I liked how things were not always explained out encyclopedia style because the characters don't know and don't always find out. The point of view worked really well, even though Thurman played some great tricks with it (I love tricks with points of view when they are done right.)

The second book is sitting on the couch next to me and I happen to know I will be in close proximity to the only large bookstore in a 3 county area on Friday -- if they have copies, I'll get the rest of the series. Then, yes, maybe I will delver into her other series (it isn't like I don't have some 300 books on my TBR pile, but we will let that pass for now.) I fully expect I will read these again (when I'll bump up to 5 stars). I expect I'll recommend them to others because when I get enthused, I get enthused.

I'm enthused. Sorry, Rob, that I waited so long, but at least I didn't wait forever. Now, I have to go read.




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Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Book Shelf Porn

Yeah, I had this sudden urge to post pictures of my current TBR shelves.  I'm just going to show my 2011 ambitions, though.

 Oh, it' s not like I don't have another 4 CASES of books (in the house) I want to read.  Oh, no, not that at all.  This is just a select few I actually pulled out to read SOON.  Because I'm an idiot.  Keep that fact in mind.  I am an idiot.  And that's because I also want to read this

and this

oh, and I want to read and take notes on these


Like I said.  Idiot.  Not that I couldn't do it...if I gave up everything else for the year.  Maybe.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

My New Camera

I love love love my new camera.  It's a Nikon Coolpix 18x.  I didn't think I would like it as much as I do.

You see, I was very fond of my (comparatively) elderly Canon digital.  It had a viewfinder, which let me find a compromise with my vision -- this whole nearsighted/farsighted/astigmatic thing has made my life complex.  I now have 4 (yes, FOUR) pairs of glasses with different lenses, plus sunglasses, plus a pair of stunt glasses with my regular prescription.  Two are just magnifiers, but, dammit, I need those anymore (plus I am pretty sure my readers need updating).  Anyway, this meant that if I used the viewscreen, I couldn't hold it far enough away to see both the picture and the setting while wearing my distance lenses, and if I took those off, I couldn't see what I was aiming at -- except if I used the viewfinder, which let me keep my glasses on for most shots. (we won't even go into the whole bi-focal thing.  It's not pretty and involves nausea.)

But MIL wanted a digital camera and couldn't find one that suited her, so we decided to give her my trusty Canon because it still had the viewfinder so she'd be able to take pictures either way, and she would buy me a new one.  We looked for a while and settled on the Nikon because now a viewfinder is a premium option not to be found on cameras under $500.  But it's ok.  It's working out.

Anyway, I still have the vision problem, but my new camera seems to compensate for my usually shaky hands, my poor vision, and my sensitivity to bright light.  I get shots like this... 


and this...

and even this
 It's almost like I know what I'm doing.  Almost.

(you can click on each picture to see it full sized)

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Review: Howl's Moving Castle


Howl's Moving Castle (Castle, #1)Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


How often are we our own problem? How often do our own beliefs -- about ourselves, about our world, and about what our lives will be -- stand like a wall between us and what we really want?

This is the essential conundrum facing Sophie, the protagonist in Howl's Moving Castle. She's a young woman living in a world where fairy tales and magic are a part of everyday life, and she has very firm -- and very self-defeating -- ideas about all of it. The eldest of three sisters, helping her stepmother run the hat shop her father left them, Sophie believes her life is all about sacrifice and messing things up. Fate is against her, she thinks. She'll always make mistakes and she will never achieve anything worthwhile.

Oh boy, is she wrong. But it takes her a lot of mistakes, worrying, misunderstanding, love, and courage for her to learn to see herself and the world around her in new ways.

That's what I love best about this book, this transformation of a young woman. Sophie is a marvelous character, someone a reader can relate to no matter what age the reader is. We all get in our own way, and we all struggle to realize it. Sophie's adventures with the Wizard Howl and his magical castle serve to help her grow and mature. The book itself is --oh, that most terrible of words -- charming, as if it cast its own spell.

It's not quite a perfect book. As with many books written for a young adult audience, it gets in a big hurry to end as fast as it can after the climactic action. Some questions are never answered (and, potentially, never should be). Some of the secondary characters are a bit thinner than I like. Then again, I found this book as an adult, and it isn't required to live up to my adult expectations.

One warning -- if you've seen the Miyazaki movie, this is NOT the same story. Miyazaki took elements from the book to illustrate his own story, and the two are only superficially related. I've seen the Miyazaki version several times and it's very wonderful, but it is not the book. The book is, in so many ways, a much superior story.


6/8/11 Good gravy on a stick but I enjoy this book! This time, of course, I saw a few new things -- like a harkening back to what irritated me so much when I read The Mysteries of Udolpho in the poor communication, the assumptions, and failure to think of things instead of reacting in fear because they are strange or unknown. Still, much better here!



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Saturday, June 04, 2011

Review: The Master and Margarita


The Master and MargaritaThe Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


I have no idea what I think of this strange tale of the devil and the mortals in early 20th century Soviet Russia. It is an angry tale, a vengeful satire, with references not known to me so that I couldn't appreciate the finer points and details. For me, it was a wild, whirling tale, a fluttering of colors and images told in an arch tone.

I read it slowly, taking in sections and letting them digest in my mind. I spent some time on Wikipedia looking up things like Primus Stoves and Woland, and reading about the novel itself. It does take some study to grasp a book translated from another language and written some 80+ years ago.

It's hard to run down any proper narrative thread, for there really isn't any, at least, not until well into the novel, when one finally meets the titular Master. The story comes to the reader like fluttery bits of torn colored paper collected together and laid down, adjacent and overlapping, fixed into a collage that eventually forms first one picture, then another, until the whole is apparent. Yet what the picture is, I cannot tell. It's still beyond me. I grasp the sarcastic tone, the dislike of overwhelming bureaucracy, the anger at restraint and cruelty and greed for power, money, and status, but I sense there are other layers in the book to which I am blind -- jokes, observations, philosophy and references for which I have no clue, glimpses into a time and a culture of which I know little.

Ah well, there's no help for it. Still, I enjoyed reading the novel, enjoyed the madness of it, the resolution of it, the odd tilt of it. I'll have to put it on my list of books to reread.



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Thursday, June 02, 2011

More on Stupid People

I must admire this particular article


Viewpoint: Facebook Is Not Your Friend

because, once again, it points out what is, to me, FREAKING OBVIOUS. I make no claims to genius, to greater perception, or to mystical knowledge. I've just had a lifetime of assuming that anything I did in public is, you know, PUBLIC, and after my first year or so waddling around the Internet (back in the dark ages), it was borne in upon me that the Internet was REALLY SUPER PUBLIC.

Maybe I should make that a larger font, with color.

THE INTERNET (including all social media, email, instant messaging, etc.) IS PUBLIC.

Yeah, I know. It won't help.  I feel a bit like Charlton Heston.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Music Muscle Memory

While randomly tooling through the TV channels while waiting for water to boil, I paused on VH1 Classics, on a show called Classic Albums.  They were talking about Queen.

I went back in time.

It would have been 1977 or possibly 1978.  My mom, stepdad and I had just moved to a newly built house in the wilds of Ocoee, Florida.  I am reasonably sure it was 1977 because I don't think I'd started junior high yet.  I sat on the floor of my new bedroom in front of my Micky Mouse record Player that looked exactly like this one, with my small, precious collection of "non-kid" albums -- ones I'd been carefully building up when I was spending weekends with my dad, who would buy me pretty much anything.


And on that record player, with its nubbly white plastic cover and the big white hand over the stylus, I would play Queen's A Night at the Opera.  I still have the LP, sitting in storage in a crate.  Inside, over the pictures of the band members, I recall I'd made little notes about which one I liked best -- at 12, I was quite fond of Roger Taylor, with John Deacon a close second, although now I rather admire Brian May.  I remember it being summer.  I remember the harvest gold carpet, the hum of my new ceiling fan just installed, my adamant refusal to get an actual stereo (which showed up for Christmas in a year or so and sounded much better), and listening to one particular song over and over again.



When Brian May started talking about the song on the VH1 show, and then played it, I found that I still remembered the words. I stood in my living room and sang along, recalling the harmonies I'd made up so many years ago.  I was just discovering science fiction about then, and the song appealed to me for that as well as the folk music influence, the harmonies, and just the sound itself, although I did not fully understand the lyrics until, really, today when May discussed them.  I could feel the sun through my west facing window, smell the newness of the house, feel the sharp corner of my wooden bedpost in my back where I would lean while listening. 

The show cut to a commercial in the middle of the song and I had to change the channel to stop the flood in my head -- the particular pains and pleasures of that summer, the sheer weight of years between that time and this, were just too much for me.  I rallied eventually, hunted up the song on YouTube -- the concert version was different enough not to hit as hard, and oh my but I love a 12-string. 

Brian May talked about his regrets that the song was never released as a single, because singles had more of a chance to affect someone's life.  No worries, sir.  It did.



 

What I Think Of People Who Don't Think

Grousing and bitching to ensue.

I recently ran across this article about a mother who, in response to the experiences of her other children, her own thoughts, the thoughts of her husband, and a reasonably well thought out philosophy, decided to keep the gender of her recently born child private.  Apparently this became a topic for news coverage with outcries of "GENDERLESS CHILD" - the first stupid thing I saw.  In the article she writes a well-reasoned, calm, and perfectly balanced response.

Where it got interesting was in the comments section where I witnessed just how little people actually read before reacting and also how little they think about what either they are reading or what they are saying.  What's more, I see the same stupidity being repeated in various news media.  It's plan irritating.

Let's go about this in small, logical steps, shall we?  I'll go slow, although I fully expect the 6 or 8 people who will read this are quite capable of the same simple thought process in which I am indulging.  At least three of them have already reached the same conclusions and could do a better job expressing them.

OK -- first, THIS CHILD IS NOT GENDERLESS.  "Genderless" means to be without gender, that is, without any discernible or detectable signs of being either male or female. While I imagine it might be in some measure possible, an actual case of it would be a medical issue (and no one's business, really) but nothing leads me to believe this is the case.  The child has a gender.

It is just not a publicly announced gender.  The family knows.  In time, the child will know.  After that, those whom the child and the family think should know will know, or the child will begin to present as one gender or another somewhere along the great continuum between the imaginary binary of "male" and "female".

Second -- WHY IS THIS AN ISSUE?  So, some small human being has not had his, her, hir or [pronoun of your choice] gender announced to the world at large, in the rather annoying traditional way.  This is important?  Why is it important?  What will happen if we, the public, do not know RIGHT NOW?

I have thoughts on that, and they relate to the mother's article.  Not revealing the child's gender does upset a tradition, and the many MANY institutions and behavior sets which are attached to and based on one's gender.  It denies people the option of NOT THINKING.  Gender is a code, a stereotype, a set of expectations at one time amorphous and rigid. We can tap into it and just follow a script without having to apply any critical thought.   Now, humans are constantly giving gender to items which have none -- bottles, pens, books, furniture, cars, etc. --  so you can see how this plays out.  Gender is part of our language, part of our social system.  We aren't always sure what it is, but we insist that everything conform to it.

Many people are upset about lacking the knowledge about this specific person because it denies them the ability and opportunity to shuttle that person into some rigid classification or other.  Pink or blue cloths.  Dolls or cars.  Long hair or short hair.  Music lessons or baseball camp.  Reading or mathematics.  Knowing a person's gender gives us a script so that we can talk without thinking.  I'm sure someone else could go into it far more deeply.  None of the screaming and accusing are actually about any damage or problems for the child -- they are screams and accusations of those being denied this particular power.  Their privilege has been removed.  They might have to *gasp* think before they say anything.  And they are reacting to that headline of "Genderless Child" as if the parents had taken up kitchen knives and deprived the child of physical gender identifying body parts.

None of which, of course, they are moved to do at this point.

Now, not much after I saw the article above (via facebook, as it happens) I saw this one come by on Twitter (yes, I'm back on Twitter and don't ask me why.  I suspect it's just a summer thing.)  Here we have an entire blog devoted to people who do not grasp the maxim "Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt".  Of course, these particular bad examples are taking The Onion as actual news instead of the satire it is, but the lack of thought there is typical of the lack of thinking about almost any news story that goes around.

I've long been critical of what I see in the media, and I tend to pull apart the stories and headlines before I wade in with an opinion (at least, a public opinion).  I try to apply the critical thinking I learned in school (and, hell, from Mythbusters, for cryin' out loud).  But it does take effort.  I can't give in to my first emotional impulse.  I especially can't get too close to any tool of social media, internet communication, or anything else where I can embarrass myself until I've completed it.  So, ok, it takes some discipline, but one only has to make the mistake a few times to want to avoid the consequences from then on.  However, I now wonder if those consequences are still around.  Does the derision and scorn I feel for such open displays of idiocy -- shared, I know, by at least a small portion of people -- have no power?  I fear it does not.  What I think about it -- because I do think about it, at length and sometimes when I'd rather be sleeping -- has no merit.  I'm tilting at windmills.  However, I will not be unseated from my Rocinante of a blog quite yet.

Monday, May 16, 2011

I'm Still Singin'

I got a new camera! This sexy new digital also does video (my old one did, too, but I never figured it out. This one is much easier.) So, when my little church group sang on Sunday, The Husband hit the "record" button and..


Saturday, May 14, 2011

Glamour Pup

The Husband had this week off between semesters, and it was Spring Graduation over at the big ol' University, so we wanted to stay far far away from anywhere Grads and Parents and panicky people with cameras might be. So, yesterday, we loaded the poodle into the car and took off north-ish.

Well, first we had to drop him off for an embarrassing haircut.

WE did not request pompom feet. WE asked for a short all over action cut, with just a little fluff on the head, ears, and tail, and -- of course -- his cute little beard. But we got pompom feet. I do not like pompom feet.

In any case, we have pompom feet, so we drove to a park on a lake and spent the afternoon teaching Zeus to swim.

Zeus is not sure about the swimming thing. We took him out on Monday to a beach on the river, and he discovered he could not walk on water. Yesterday he learned some other things about water.
Like how The Husband can emerge from under the water all submarine like and scare an unsuspecting puppy right out of the water.

Puppies still can't walk on water, though. This fact is not enough to keep him from trying.

















He's also a very glamorous puppy, even with an embarrassing haircut.



Review: The Annotated Sense and Sensibility

The Annotated Sense and SensibilityThe Annotated Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


It is always delightful to me to read (and re-read) Jane Austen's Sense & Sensibility. This annotated version just added to and expanded on that delight. The extensive notes, illustrations, and maps explain much -- in language, in social behavior, in culture and in period of time -- that either no longer exists in the 21st century or has altered greatly over 200 years. Here, at last, I understand the ideas behind the "Cult of Sensibility". I know now the significance of the word "picturesque" so often invoked in the novel, and why it means much more in context and in that era than it means now -- which made many a bit of irony and comedy suddenly funny to me. Like the other edition in this series, it included a detailed chronology of the novel and an extensive bibliography of source material, making this a perfect edition for anyone taking a scholarly approach to Austen (or late 18th/early 19th century literature in general). As always, the format of text on the left side and notes on the right made for easy reading.



In short, this edition did exactly what good annotation does -- expand, illuminate, explain, and reveal. While I probably won't read this version exclusively when I reread the novel, I expect to revisit it periodically.



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Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Review: The Annotated Persuasion

The Annotated PersuasionThe Annotated Persuasion by Jane Austen




This is an excellent edition for the reader coming to Persuasion for the second time, especially one who wants a greater familiarity with the physical reality of the setting and some insight on a literary level into the writing.

I'm very fond of annotated versions of novels, especially novels written before the 20th century. Words change meaning and implication over time. Social mores change, styles of living change, even what it means to be rich and poor change. In the case of this, Jane Austen's last complete novel, someone who does not have a certain amount of familiarity with late 18th/early 19th century English society and culture will lose much of the nuance of the story -- the obstacles appear absurd and contrived, the situations dull, the various difficulties faced by the characters ridiculous without that knowledge. This annotated version gives all that information in a fairly unobtrusive but convenience way, by playing notes on each facing page of the text.

It includes maps of areas, references to Austen's letters as source material, interesting facts, definitions of words as used at the time, and much more detail, trivia, and observation by the editors which add to the novel without interfering with it. I enjoyed the Annotated Pride & Prejudice I read a few years ago, and I'm looking forward to starting the Annotated Sense & Sensibility by the same editors.



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Thursday, May 05, 2011

Review: The Wand in the Word: Conversations with Writers of Fantasy

The Wand in the Word: Conversations with Writers of FantasyThe Wand in the Word: Conversations with Writers of Fantasy by Leonard S. Marcus

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


This lovely collection of interviews with 13 well known fantasy authors concentrates mostly on their children's/YA fiction, but it gives lovely little glimpses in the varied world of writers. I only read the interviews with the authors with whom I was familiar -- Lloyd Alexander, Diane Wynn Jones, Ursula K. Le Guin, Madeleine L'Engle and Terry Pratchett -- and just glanced through the others. The interviews are not extensive or very personalized -- many of the questions are the same for each -- but that just made the comparisons more interesting.

What it really gave me was insight into the varied methods of writing. Some of these authors write daily, for set hours. Others write when moved. Some research, others consider their whole lives research for their writing. Some love to revise, some dread it, some have ambivalent feelings. Many faced difficulties getting published. All seem to love Tolkien. I enjoyed finding these little facts and knowing the authors that touched and formed me (Alexander's Time Cat stands in my memory as my first indication science fiction and fantasy existed).



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Review: Frankenstein's Daughters: Women Writing Science Fiction

Frankenstein's Daughters: Women Writing Science FictionFrankenstein's Daughters: Women Writing Science Fiction by Jane Donawerth

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


Wow. This book was...work. Work I enjoyed, work I took on by my own choice and work I was satisfied to do, but...work.

How does one review a book like this, full of things one didn't know diddly squat about until one read it? I can't speak to its accuracy, its depth, its breadth, or any other such qualities used to measure books that offer critique on other books. All I can tell you is my own experience with it.

Looking at the bones and growth of science fiction through a feminist theory lens is an interesting experience. Going through science fiction books and stories via the road of literary criticism renders even the familiar strange and even unknown territory. Donawerth caused me to add a lot of books to my reading list, both fiction and nonfiction. I've learned new words and phrases-- essentialism, hetero- and homodiegic, male narrative. I've discovered new forms of narrative I never realized I was reading. I have a lot of ways of looking at science fiction. I took a lot of notes.

Although structured in the "tell them what you will tell them, tell them, tell them what you told them" method I recall from 1990s college classes, and not occasionally diving deeply into academia-speak, I still found it very readable. Perhaps one of the most interesting features of this book were responses from some authors of works analyzed to Donawerth (chapters of the book were published elsewhere) in which these authors -- Anne McCaffrey and Emma Bull pop to mind most readily, but there was at least one other -- disagree or expand on Donawerth's assertions. This made the book more like a conversation. Donawerth was also very thorough in citing the texts from which she drew the ideas she applies to fiction, which added to the conversational tone.

I appreciate learning how to see literature in this particular way, because I am interested in how gender is handled in science fiction, both as stories and as writing.





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Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Rumination and Cud Chewing

I've kept some kind of journal or diary since I was roughly 12 or 13. I still have most of them in a chest upstairs -- except for the ones I kept on the computer, which are locked up in files of various shapes and sizes, or online, somewhere. For some years, this blog was my journal. It was amazing to write my thought and have other people, people I didn't even know, hear me and respond. It was affirming and enlightening and really cool.

Then the internet became the morass of interconnections and Google exposure that it is. I started thinking about what all those people I didn't know might think of what I thought. The blog slowed down, not because I wasn't thinking or had nothing to say, but because I had nothing to say that I felt comfortable with just any old person who happened by to hear. I saw over and over the unintended consequences that went with speaking one's mind in full out public. My venue changed and I wrote my thoughts in smaller, more protected areas, to a select group of people, but even that got tricky and had unintended consequences. I got careful. I went silent.

At some point in 2008 I started reading The Artist's Way. One of the techniques Julia Cameron, the author, recommends are Morning Pages -- basically, a daily diary or journal, three pages of hand writing, put the pen to the paper and don't pull it up again until done. I did this for a while, got scared at what came out, stopped. I went back to it last fall, trying to do it her way, but eventually doing it my way and going back to the original journaling I did as a kid. The three page format still lingers on stubbornly, but I'm breaking free of that particular dictum. Some days I don't write. Some days I write only a half page. Still, I write.

I hadn't realized all this until just this morning while randomly poking around at something else. I looked through the list of blogs on my feeds -- my old blog roll here is much neglected since not everyone uses a feed and even the blogs I have there I don't read regularly. I wondered why I don't read blogs like I once did, why I don't write in my own so much, why everything I start to write seems boring and trite and a waste of effort. Where once I would think "I can't wait to blog about this!", now the idea of telling everyone my latest adventure seems like an exercise in utter idiocy or egoism. Aside from a few dear people who stop by, no one really notices me and that, in and of itself, can take a certain toll. One puts a blog online for various reasons, but a big one -- one that can't be denied if your blog is public -- is to get some attention, to have acknowledgement from the world that you exist, that you have some weight and power, that you have worth. It's painful to be ignored and it is all to easy to ignore people these days. Our technology encourages us to live in little bubbles of our own, protected from intrusion by email, voice mail, iPod ear buds, personal video, cubicals, spots on the couch. We can sit in a room with a dozen other similarly hooked up people and be entirely alone -- and encouraged to be so.

So I'm ruminating about this and about why I have, as yet, not pulled the plug on this, my blog, my little corner of Internet real estate. Perhaps it is just because I've had it so very long. It's mine, more or less. It doesn't demand dusting or feeding. I don't have to pack it up when I move. It waits. I wonder what I want to do with it. Put out book reviews? Sure. Make observations on the world? Yeah, occasionally. Report on my life? OK, why not?

Many people have turned their blogs into businesses. I haven't done that. This started as a personal journal way back when I was clodging together and uploading individual pages. It's still like that. It's whatever I want it to be when I think about it, there the instant I want to access it. I still occasionally have little daydreams about it. I've also gotten a healthier perspective. I no longer derive any self worth from who reads it or what my stats are -- I can't remember the last time I checked my stats although I recall clearly a long period when I obsessed about them. I find that I no longer really mention the blog much. I don't have it listed in my Facebook account -- then again, I don't list much there because I resent even having to BE on Facebook, yet cultural pressure is such that I am on it.

But this isn't what it once was to me. My deeper, weirder thoughts don't show up here anymore. They go into a little notebook only I see. But, even there, the Rules of Blog I've internalized control what I say. Don't talk about other people, at least not beyond how what they do affects me directly. Don't mention names. Don't say anything embarrassing to yourself (how sad is that? I can't even tell MYSELF this stuff.) Careful talking about sex, about politics, about religion, about death, about children, about anything that might poke a troll to pour shit onto you for their own masturbatory pleasure. I find these rules emerging and I ponder them. I'm writing on paper with a pen, I remind myself. No one really is curious about the damn thing. I don't advertise it. Why can't I say what I want?

Yeah, there it is, the other side of freedom -- being responsible for what you say as soon as it becomes available to other ears, eyes, minds. And dealing with what other people think, dealing with what your thoughts expressed excites in them. Dealing with their defensiveness, their anger, their pain, their applause, their praise, their...whatever.

So, it sometimes is hard to come here and write like I could 10 years ago or 12 years ago (yes, it's been that long). But I hold onto this because...because I can.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Germs, now with More Germs

Yes, The Husband brought home the latest version of plague from the teeming stewpot that is the university campus. True to form, the virus took one look at my allergy weakened system and jumped right in. I was aware the very instant it took root -- 3:45 pm yesterday afternoon. I woke up this morning at 10 til 6, hating my life, my head socked in hard with some variety of green cement. I've already exceeded recommended dosage on at least three different meds, so I'm just sitting up while the clock ticks. I can't even use the much hated "nasal irrigation system" because when I say Blocked Solidly, I am not using a metaphor. I am not comparing the state of my sinuses to some hypothetical situation. What we have here, people, are Facts in Snot.

So -- no going to a wedding of friends today. No taking the dog on an adventuresome walk. I'm not even planning to leave the house unless someone sets it on fire. Throat hurts, ears hurt, even my freaking teeth hurt. I will stay under my purple fuzzy blanket and fight this dragon of a virus, all the while bitching mightily. I have a new box of tissues and I'm not afraid to use them!

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Review: Candy Girl: A Year in the Life of an Unlikely Stripper

Candy Girl: A Year in the Life of an Unlikely StripperCandy Girl: A Year in the Life of an Unlikely Stripper by Diablo Cody

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


This book is a weird trip. It does not unfold as do others of its ilk, a fact acknowledged by the author in a little afterword (which redeemed the whole thing for me). Cody fooled me. So, let me explain.

This is a nice, white, middle class girl's trip into the dark side, only she doesn't quite know why she does it and neither do we (at least, until that final 6-8 pages). We get, in equal portions, funny, raw, wry, cruel, sickening, too-hip, trying-too-hard, and painfully-honest. She's not trying to make a political point. She's not on a feminist soap box. She's not handing out excuses or explanations, or accusations or blame. She's just telling us "Hey, I did this. This is what I saw. This is what I did. Boo-ya."

And it works. At times I didn't think it was going to work. Really, I almost stopped reading a time or two because (read my status notes!), trained as I am by other memoirs in which a Nice Girl/Guy does Something Transgressive and Has A Crisis, I was waiting for the big boom, the disaster, the Horrible Thing. Didn't happen. What I thought was a build up toward a climax wasn't anything but time going by. My bad. Cody maybe didn't know where she was going until she got there, but it was...cool. Once we both got there, I was good with it.

You could, if you wanted, take this book apart and use it in a number of ways, but you'd be pushing. Cody isn't going there. You'd have to pause at some points and put some words in her mouth or translate her unambiguous text through some version of Babelfish. There are no big lessons here, no realizations about culture, no sociopolitical conclusions. It is, to borrow a hackneyed phrase, what it is. And I like it a lot more because of that.



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Saturday, April 23, 2011

Still Life With Puppy Ain't Still

Life continues here in the Upstate to be a steady monotonous drone spiked with occasional train whistles and dog farts. The Husband is still awaiting confirmation of his summer employment, which would go a long way toward relieving some of my sublimated stress. Our 6 month old puppy is the Giant Farting Dog. At 50 lbs (yes, really) he has the power to clear a room. His are the "Silent but Deadly" variety. Unlike Ophelia, he doesn't even give warning purrs.

Speaking of which, Ophelia continues to amaze. On her last vet visit, we got the bad news that she had kidney disease and that her life expectancy was likely only weeks long. However, she got an antibiotic shot for a mild infection and another adjustment to her insulin. The prognosis was she would continue to lose weight until she failed.

Well, she's been eating like a fiend since then, even demanding I give her canned food, and gaining back some of the weight she's lost. She's wandering over the house at will and napping in her old favorite places. She sleeps on my pillow each night and no longer has the weird burbling purr but a normal purr. She's attentive. She understands when I tell her to head toward whatever it is she wanted me to do -- water from the sink, for instance, or the kitchen for a meal. She's using the litter box more (as long as the one she wants is clean, which we are striving to maintain) instead of pooping and peeing on towels. She's even cleaning herself more, which she has not done in a very long time. While I am under no illusion she is "cured", it does make me feel better in that her whatever time she has left, she is active and comfortable. When it is time for her to go, I still wish she goes quietly on her own without requiring medical intervention. Until then, I'm happy I still have my babycat.

Roses bloom in our little garden, along with some herbs and other flowers. I planted seeds that have sprouted and will (I hope) bloom over the summer. Right now it's rainy, and it's been rather cool since a couple of warm weeks at the beginning of the month -- more like early spring than late April. We put the comforter back on the bed last night, and we've been glad more than once we didn't take off the mattress warmer. All our winter clothes are packed and upstairs in the attic. Happy me -- my summer clothes from 2 and 3 years ago, which I haven't been able to wear the last year+, all fit or are a touch large. While my weight loss has stopped because I am stress eating (even when I'm not hungry, I find myself eating. It's a problem.), I have not gained significantly. I have to add in more exercise, which may help with the stress.

Obviously, walking the dog would be exercise, but he is going through a period of being impossible for me to walk. All the good manners we strived so hard to teach him only show up when The Husband is holding the leash, and even then only when he has his Gentle Leader head harness on. I want a new collar for him so that the rope burns, bruises, and pulled muscles in my shoulders will cease. I'm going to look for something else to let me control this teen-age puppymonster.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Review: Lord of Light

Lord of LightLord of Light by Roger Zelazny

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


I'm delving deeply into this book in one of my groups which is doing nothing to clarify my own thinking -- or maybe it is. Hard to tell on a stormy morning with chores ahead and a headache hovering behind a wall of caffeine.

So, let's see. First, this is my second Zelazny book, and -- shock of shocks -- the first I've liked. I enjoyed this one once I caught on to what was happening. So now I feel compelled to go back and read those damned Amber books with a different eye.

As to the book itself -- I think this is an example of Clark's Third Law turned sideways and maybe backwards. Any advanced technology that is forgotten is indistinguishable from magic and cloaked in mysticism.

<spoiler> So what happens when a group of technologically advanced humans seek to colonize a newly discovered world? How do they view themselves as they fight strange new life forms, carve out cities, create what they need to survive and thrive? And how to their descendants see and remember them?

What if those first colonists could be "reborn" into a new body as they wished? What if they could cultivate new abilities beyond their current technological levels? How would they see them selves?

Those are the questions this book poses and then sets about answering. In this world, those space colonists become Gods, adapting the Hindu pantheon as a model, and then set about keeping the world they've inhabited and conquered as their own version of paradise -- for themselves, not for their descendants.

And then, what happens when one of those first colonists, one of those would-be gods, decides the whole thing is a bad idea and he needs to fight it so that humankind can develop on their own, inheriting what they should have inherited in knowledge and ability? What happens when a man decides to kill the gods? </spoiler>

I wasn't initially interested in the book. It took some 50 pages or so before I got a handle on the structure (which is a looping frame -- the book starts at a point that chronologically connects to just before the ending, then jumps back to a new beginning to explain how things got to the point at the beginning of the book and then moves forward again. Also, it is helpful to have some background in Hindu mythology ( a few minutes with Wikipedia should be enough), The language has the somewhat stilted yet lyrical qualities we often associate with old myths and ancient tales, which juxtaposed nicely with the talk of technology-as-magic. The protagonist, Sam, is a full and complex character, faulty and flawed yet determined and capable of bouncing back from everything thrown at him. He learns and changes some, too, as the story progresses, although his original ideas and his determination to carry them out does not waver. He's adaptable, his goals being more important than his methods (ends justify the means, in his world).

It's a complex novel, but not a big one. Zelazny is sparing with description, hints rather than tells, indicates more than shows, and leaves much in the mind of the reader to be done. It's a book that yields to a lot of discussion.

A final note -- while the book is ostensibly science fiction and a good argument can be made to classify it as such, in my opinion it is a fantasy. We are TOLD that the various miraculous things we see are technologically based, that they are machines made by men (or entities who once were men), but their action, appearance, and how they are regarded tallies closely with how devices of mystical and unknown or unexplained properties are regarded in works of fantasy. We are told there is science, but we are not shown it, and even those who use this technology, who build it and understand it discuss it in terms nearly identical to those used by others who regard them as purely magical. So, per Clark's third law and the general understanding of the word "Fantasy" as a literary genre, I classify this book as a fantasy.





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Monday, April 18, 2011

Review: A New Species: Gender and Science in Science Fiction

A New Species: Gender and Science in Science FictionA New Species: Gender and Science in Science Fiction by Robin Roberts

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


Not exactly light reading, but interesting enough that I read it a second time to take notes. A feminist analysis of science fiction starting with Frankenstein and ending up with The Handmaid's Tale and Always Coming Home is a bit of an undertaking, but this isn't that lengthy a book and most of the language is comprehensible to those not steeped in the mindset of literary criticism (although it helps if you took a couple of lit courses in college). Roberts delves into such things as the cover illustrations of Golden Age pulp SF magazines to explain how modern women SF writers used Science Fiction to discuss and illustrate issues of gender inequality, the dangers of patriarchies, and the conflicts and synthesis between so called "hard" and "aoft" science.

This also makes me rethink my responses to certain books I read years ago (and generally didn't like), so that, in addition to a new list of books I want to read, I also have to reread a few.



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Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Review: The Mysteries of Udolpho

The Mysteries of UdolphoThe Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In the Mysteries of Udolpho we have the grandmother of the Gothic novel, springhead of every soap opera, the original melodrama, something so outlandish and overwrought that it has been -- and deserves to be -- much mocked and parodied. At the same time, it commands some respect because of what it is -- an early novel, written when the form was still in its infancy, written by a woman at a time when women had no access to much education or ability to make a living for themselves, written at a time when the very idea of "what was a woman" had barely pushed out the roots of change.

That in itself sounds overwrought, but one must make large claims for this novel, this great ancestor of the novel, still read when so many of its contemporaries are lost in the dusty stacks of archival libraries. I will admit readily that, to finish the last 200+ pages of the novel, I stayed up very late.

But now that we have spoken to its dignity and given the respect it deserves for its place in history, let's get to the myriad of stupid, irritating things Radcliffe does that infuriate the modern reader and even drove contemporary readers (like Jane Austen, most famously) to mock it.

[;spoiler]Our heroine, Emily St. Aubert, is the only child of a gentleman of retiring and pure nature. We know this because he has the word "Saint" abbreviated in his name, and because he rhapsodizes about nature and death and makes pious speeches about Heaven and death. We are told he does good for the poor even though he is, for a person of his social status, poor himself, and so everyone loves him despite his somewhat holier-than-thou attitude. He has raised his daughter to be just like him. Emily is well educated (for a woman) with music and poetry and drawing, her fine, delicate, high spiritual nature underlined by her tendency to stare at trees and mountains.

Emily has many features which are designed to mark her as a woman of delicacy and grace. She has beauty and a very sympathetic heart -- we are told. What she lacks are any braincells devoted to such foriegn things as logic, reason, common sense, or even the lessons of simple observation. While she may spend long hours in raptures over leaping rivulets and verdant demonstrations of nature's power, the simpler facts elude her.

Of course, the poor girl spends so much time fainting, she must have suffered dozens of head injuries or have some sort of medical affliction unknown in Radcliffe's time but treated in ours with a colorful little pill, possibly available in the cheaper generic. She faints a lot. She faints to excess, shall we say, and over everything. Some are understandable, while others are just plain annoying. I am tempted to buy my own copy of the book for the pleasure of taking a pink highlighter and marking every time Emily faints, nearly faints, or cannot support herself. Really, she should have loosened her corset.

When Emily is not fainting, she is weeping. When not weeping, there is sobbing, crying, gasping, moaning, and sighing (oh, let us not forget sighing)

Now, she has a few things to weep and sigh about. First, her mother dies rather suddenly. Then, within probably a year, her father becomes ill and, while traveling for his health, sickens and dies. By strange coincidence (which I really want to term "coinkedink, because that's how often these "just so happens" happen) he does so near an abandoned chateau where we are presented with our First Mystery -- and there will be many more, all made Very Mysterious. Orphaned and under age, she is sent to live with her capricious and self centered aunt. This aunt toys with her by first denying, then allowing, then denying again Emily to be married to her beloved Valencourt.

Oh, let's take a moment to talk about Valencourt. Here's another useless article. He is, indeed, Emily's soul mate and mirror, although instead of fainting and sinking helpless into conveniently placed chairs, he exclaims, paces around, and skulks in the darkness. Now that I think about it, except for the bloodsucking and sparkling, he is a forebear of Edward Cullens, what with his stalking behavior, declarations, and scary possessiveness. Yes, he is the template for the Romantic Hero. He also is fairly annoying because he doesn't do much except give his money away, get rapturous in the trees, and the aforementioned skulking.

Back to Emily. Torn from her love when her aunt marries an Italian named Montoni (Dun dun dun!) and taken to Italy, she waxes rhapsodic on Venetian gondolas rowed out to sea under the moonlight and resists the attempts of her aunt and Montoni to force her into marriage with a Count Moreno. Oh, did I not mention that at least 1/3 of men who spend time in Emily's presence fall in love -- or at least in lust -- with her, often violently? Talk about pheromones. Those who resist her charms either take up the villain role of wanting to control and torment her, or wanting to father her. And that sums up all the male characters. Anyway, to escape Moreno (among other things) Montoni takes them all into the mountains to his castle Udolpho, where he turns warlord and bandit according to the rules of war in the Italian states at the time. The central part of the novel happens in this pile, and Emily experiences constant horror, terror, fear, etc. etc., because she won't spend any time thinking.

Now, she is in a tough situation, but she does everything she can to milk it for all it's worth in drama -- much leaning on window casements, much tender poking at emotional wounds, more sighing. She also collects ghost stories and catches glimpses of things that thrill her with terror because she won't take any time to properly observe them or think it over. But these are important, because they are More Mysteries. Anyway, her aunt dies, leaving her inheritor of valuable properties Montoni wants her to sign over. Her serving woman, Annette -- another garrulous, irritating idiot who serves only as a bridge between Emily and one of the two sensible characters in the novel, Ludovico -- helps to keep Emily upset as much as possible. Ludovico eventually engineers an escape for Emily and a Frenchman kept prisoner in Udolpho. They sail back to France and by Some Chance, their ship wrecks near that very Chateau where we had our First Mystery. Now, with the introduction of Count de Villefort (the other sensible person in this novel, for which I am SO grateful), the mysteries pile up a bit and then unravel. Emily is almost reunited with Valencourt, but he's ruined his reputation and lost his fortune in Paris, so now he's not worthy of her. They spend quite a long time tormenting each other with declarations of Separating Forever while not actually leaving the room, and Never Seeing Each Other More, while staring and sighing.

We then have some more ghost silliness which turns out to be pirates, Ludovico vanishes mysteriously only to turn up later when the Count is attacked by said pirates (in the mountains! but whatever) and finally the mysteries begin to unravel. Emily comes of age to inherit, Montoni is captured, the real owner of Udolpho is a crazy nun in a nearby convent who was REALLY the Italian mistress of the previous owner of the chalet who contrived to kill her lover's wife who JUST HAPPENED to be Emily's aunt and the sister of her father, who wanted to CONCEAL the mystery of his beloved sister's death but Emily is such a twin to this particular paragon, and Valencourt is not really all that bad, but just noble and stupid. [/spoiler]

Radcliffe does a few things that nearly sent her book crashing against a wall. First, Emily sees Mysterious Things that upset, terrify, haunt, and worry her -- but we do not get to see these things for ourselves, even in part. There are some words in a document she wasn't supposed to see (but fainting messed her up there) which Radcliffe never does clear up, although by the very end of the novel we get full and somewhat tedious explanations.

Second, Radcliffe never has a character tell us a thing until they have told us why they can't tell us and made us promise we won't tell. Once they agree to speak, we get a few more minutes of details about how horrible it is and why they can't speak of it. And when they finally DO speak of it, it's rare they actually SAY anything. Or, worse still, they will simply refuse to convey information "because of honour". There is a great deal of what I consider pure deception by omission, all done in the name of paper thin honour.

She only tops that little technique, however, by use of the "Oh, YOU know what I mean" technique. Characters will assume they already know the substance of a conversation before it happens, which of course means they are wrong about what they think they know. Usually both characters think they know and think the other person knows, and so you can imagine how much useful information is passed along. It's like the Passive-Aggressive Playbook.

Then there are the travelogues, the interminable descriptions of every terrifying or overwhelming crag, tree, precipice, cascade, view, flower, twig, dust mote. Luckily, once you learn Radcliffe's set up for these, they can be skimmed or skipped entirely. She might as well have put [insert atmosphere X here].

My last complaint is about Emily's dog, Marchon. The poor creature keeps vanishing, completely forgotten, until he's needed to bark an ill-timed alert or lick his suffering mistress's hand. For all the begging she did to bring him along, he was left behind at Udolpho. Oh Well. Furry plot device.

Yet, with all these irritations (and more, I'm sure, I don't have space to list) the novel still managed to capture my attention. I shed a few tears with Emily over the death of her father. I felt anxious to know how she would escape. I was mystified over Ludovico's disappearance. I stayed up to read the ending.

And yet I could not help laughing, sometimes with irritation, over the contrivance and coincidence, over the extremes to which she went to arouse her reader's emotion and bypass any reason or rationale. Here we have the heart of the romance novel, the seedlings of the horror story, the first dark shade of the mystery. Even fantasy and science fiction can trace their lineage back here, for Mary Shelly certainly read the book and felt its influence in Frankenstein. The Mysteries of Udolpho stands as the Tree of Life for modern genre literature.

Also, you could make a great drinking game out of it.

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Thursday, March 31, 2011

Review: Decoding Gender in Science Fiction

Decoding Gender in Science FictionDecoding Gender in Science Fiction by Brian Attebery

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


I had written a lengthy and rather glowing praise of this book, but my browser saw fit to skip to some random page and delete the whole thing, which has rendered me too disgusted to attempt a rewrite at this moment.

Suffice it to say that I found this book so readable, so accessible, and so interesting that I am determined to shell out some $30+ to purchase my own copy after I return this one to the library, because as much as I tried to absorb the information and as many notes as I took (yes, I actually took notes on the book), I am sure I did not catch everything and that this book will stand up under repeated reading.

Do not translate "gender" into "feminism", because while that is one topic touched on in the book, that is not the sole subject, just as "feminine" is not the sole gender. This book is excellent for anyone who reads SF and identifies with "The Other" implied or overt, or for anyone curious about how exactly science fiction has stretched itself to explore issues attendant to issues of gender and otherness.



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Review: Johannes Cabal the Necromancer

Johannes Cabal the NecromancerJohannes Cabal the Necromancer by Jonathan L. Howard

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Johannes Cabal is, as the title says, a necromancer. He's a madman, that's for certain. But he's rather brilliant and a dedicated scientist. He's audacious in his single minded determination to continue his work, whatever the cost. And it has cost him -- his soul, for one thing, which he traded in the usual way to Satan. Only now he needs his soul back. Why should this be a problem?

I liked this book much more than I expected, and perhaps a bit more than I wanted. Johannes Cabal is not what you might call a likable character. He's a very broken person, but he has no idea that he's so very damaged. He verges on to real evil as he tosses away anything he thinks stands between him and his goal. Yet I developed a real sympathy for him, which surprised me.

Set in some indeterminate, alternate "now", Cabal takes a trainload of satanic carnies on a soul-gathering tour of the countryside -- it felt more English than American, but there are no real geographical points for reference, save that there is a Europe of some kind, and there's been at least one World War. Really, the time and place felt incidental to the plot. It's intended to be timeless, a fable.

Now, the whole idea of the Evil Carnival is well known -- Howard includes a thank you dedication to Ray Bradbury on the acknowledgments page -- but this particular angle on it is new to me. The idea of selling one's soul to the Devil is well used, too, as is the idea of wagering with Satan, but, still, I liked this particular twist and turn of it as the story developed. The part of the book I found most difficult -- and the part that engaged me emotionally -- was the relationship between Johannes and his brother Horst. They are both monsters, you see, but I kept getting echos of Frankenstein here, in that even monsters have feelings, and it is perhaps actions that determine who is the monster and who is not. I can't go further without spoilers, but the relationship between the brothers was a rich mine which, while not fully exposed, was at least very involving. I'd have liked it to turn out differently, but it was authentic to the characters. However, there is a sequel and this is a rather magical world, so I can foster a tiny hope.

As for the humor -- and this book is intended to be funny -- this isn't a laugh out loud sort of book, at least not for me. I'm fine with that. The humor was mostly dry and subtle, which is my preference, although Howard does take a few wild swings in his metaphor. It echoed Pratchett and Fforde with hints of Monty Python and avoided the sort of clowny winking and nudging I tend to find annoying.

If I wanted to dig up a quibble (and I really am not driven to quibble about this book) I'd say that the rather obvious Giant Questions are left barely sketched in. Why is Johannes so obsessed about defeating death (we get a tiny bit of explanation at the very end)? What really caused Johannes' damage, his particular kinds of blindness? Why does he both hate and love his older brother? What happens to certain other essential characters in the book after their brush with the Carnival? There's also a bit of playing with the presentation of the story -- one chapter is told in odd pieces via intercutting the much accented/misspelled/dialect-ridden school report of a young boy with the author's third person voice. I understood what was being attempted (trying to create a boy's version of being tempted and saved in his own voice) but it felt like a lot of work to make the couple of points the author was going for.

I guess I'll have to pick up the second book (sophomore efforts are so often weaker, but I'm rather hoping the whole story existed and was just broken into chunks). If any of the above sounds appealing, then you might want to take a peek into Johannes Cabal's journey, too.



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Just so SOMETHING shows up

Hey, now I can easily cross post my book reviews to here. Aren't all of you so lucky? At least it means something happens and maybe I'll get around to talking again.

Not that much is happening to talk about. Life is still somewhat suspended. Husband is still awaiting a permanent job. I'm still waiting until I'm not waiting for something else to happen. The puppy is still growing (and growing). Sure, I could tell you about Caliban and the Mouse. I could tell you about how Ben loves our new screen room. Ophelia chugs along. Bea is fatter than ever. I even have pictures I could post if I'd just take them off my camera.

But I don't and who knows when I will?

Well, maybe guilt will help.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Oh, Yeah, I have a Blog

It isn't that nothing much happens to me -- I never let that stop me from writing here before -- so much as nothing I felt like typing about has happened. Life tumbles from moment to moment. I do things, I see the results, but at this particular point in my life, yelling it to the ether (and the 12 stalwart souls who follow this blog) doesn't seem so crucial.

That could change, which is why I haven't taken the silly thing down. So...a summary of the first few weeks of 2011.

We have a dog. He is a standard poodle named Zeus and -- despite all my efforts -- he runs our lives.

We have four cats now and they run whatever parts of our lives the dog does not run.

We joined a Unitarian Universalist church in the area and are enjoying it very much. I'm very involved there with committees and choruses and running a group of my own. That runs the parts of our lives we can wrest away from the dog and the cats (although the dog does come with us on certain meeting nights).

We are back on that "where will the next job be?" treadmill. No guarantees, lots of promises and wishes. This is more stressful than I can really describe, since I do my best not to let even myself know about this stress.

I've lost about 40 lbs, with more to go, but hardly any of my pants fit anymore and I shall be forced soon to drag out the sewing machine and Start Taking In. However, it would be dreadfully easy to gain the weight back again. But, I had about 3 months of no aching hips or back and I got rather used to living with a minimum of pain. Then, about 2 weeks ago, I slipped and fell onto my back at the park. That, coming at the end of 2 weeks fighting a sinus infection, helped me stop losing any weight and start letting it sneak back up on me. I go to the chiropractor tomorrow. I LIKED living with minimal pain, I liked roaming around at will (well, with knee braces on) and I liked losing weight. My blood pressure is getting back to normal and I hope to get off the damn pills soon. I have little daydreams of what I'll be like when I lose the next 40 lbs.

We are still in SC, I still am allergic to the place (allergy season just started a few weeks early) and I'm hoping the rain will clear up today as I am quite tired of constant rain.

I'm reading a lot more, or trying to. That feels surprisingly good. I'm not knitting as much, which bothers me a bit. I'll get it balanced in time.

So, that's pretty much my news. How're all of you?