Sunday, 18 October 2015

Disbelieving in Apollo

I needed some spiritual renewal this Sunday, having possibly spent a bit too much of Saturday 'disbelieving in' Bacchus. Today will therefore be spent with the equally non-existent Apollo. In accordance, with long-standing religious tradition, let's begin with an injunction to avoid having too much fun. Apollo is the god of music, so here's Plato coming across like an evangelical Christian:
"Our music was once divided into its proper forms... There were no whistles, unmusical mob-noises, or clapping for applause. The rule was to listen silently and learn; boys, teachers, and the crowd were kept in order by threat of the stick... Later, an unmusical anarchy was led by poets who had natural talent... Through foolishness they deceived themselves into thinking that there was no right or wrong way in music, that it was to be judged good or bad by the pleasure it gave"
I immediately broke this rule by enjoying the First and Second Delphic Hymns to Apollo but your mileage may vary. These hymns are reconstituted from fragments of ancient Greek notation dated to 128 BCE, though I do suspect they're arranged to suit modern ears. If you hate them, well done, Plato would approve!

First Delphic Hymn to Apollo

Second Delphic Hymn to Apollo

When I was young and single enough to have a favorite poet, and that poet was W.H.Auden, I happily bought into his denunciation of Apollo in the poem entitled Under Which Lyre. True, he favored Hermes instead:
"The sons of Hermes love to play,
And only do their best when they
Are told they oughtn't;
Apollo's children never shrink
From boring jobs but have to think
Their work important."
It sounds like J.K.Rowling was inspired by this passage when she was creating the Hogwarts houses and in retrospect, those 20th century Oxford/Cambridge types like Auden probably did spend far too much time disbelieving in Greek gods. The interesting aspect of their habit is that it played quite a role in gay history - or at least the gay history of the upper classes - by exposing educated young men to a society where homosexuality had an acceptable form. But the important thing for me here is that Auden gives some really good tips on how not to believe in Apollo.

William Blake, who also disbelieved in Apollo,
depicts The Overthrow of Apollo and the
Pagan Gods
(on the morning of Christ's Nativity)
"Thou shalt not do as the dean pleases,
Thou shalt not write thy doctor's thesis
On education,
Thou shalt not worship projects nor
Shalt thou bow down before

Thou shalt not answer questionnaires
Or quizzes upon World-Affairs,
Nor with compliance
Take any test. Thou shalt not sit
With statisticians nor commit
A social science.

Thou shalt not be on friendly terms
With guys in advertising firms,
Nor speak with such
As read the Bible for its prose,
Nor, above all, make love to those
Who wash too much.

Thou shalt not live within thy means
Nor on plain water and raw greens.
If thou must choose 
Between the chances, choose the odd;
Read the New Yorker, trust in God;
And take short views."

I only agree with about half of all that. In many ways, I suspect Auden was misled on the subject of Apollo who was often quite disorderly and chaotic, bringing plagues and healing alternately, prophesying in mind-altering-substance-induced riddles, threatening not to make the sun rise at the drop of a hat, and trying to sleep with large numbers of humans and supernaturals of any sex whether they wanted him or not.

Since I disbelieve in him I won't have to take sides, which is good because bad things tended to happen to people on the opposite side of Apollo in competitions. Midas disliked his music and got donkey ears for his pains (maybe I should have mentioned that earlier) and Marsyas was flayed alive for losing a music competition against him. In other words, Apollo was a Bad Boy and worse than that, he was cute by definition.

Birthday cake with camels - because why not?

So, I was requested to make a birthday cake with camels.... because camels are in, obviously, and anyone who didn't know that is out, equally obviously.

DAY 1 AM: mess around trying to make cut-out camels from marzipan, then trying to make a cookie cutter to make cut-out camels from marzipan. Failed dismally. PM: started free modeling giant camels out of marzipan and was reasonably good at it. Had a blast. Went out to buy cake dowels to stop the camels from squashing the cake.

DAY 2 AM: decided to use new chocolate cake recipe off the internet. WARNING!!! Do not use this recipe. It has ten times too much sugar, probably as the result of a typo. I was tired and didn't notice, especially as it repeats the error lower down. Ended up with chocolate marshmallow fluff. PM: started again using tried and tested Delia Smith recipe with chocolate buttercream filling instead of prunes. Inserted cake dowels with hovering camels on top. Collapsed into bed.

DAY 3 AM & PM: ate, drank and made merry.

DAY 4: hangover.

This was not my fanciest cake ever. This one was much more elaborate in appearance, but didn't taste as good.

Saturday, 10 October 2015

Cartoon Saloon's feature-length animations

This is what we were watching while we were sick. Beautiful animations, music and stories.

Song of the Sea

My only complaint: it made us cry a lot. Also SPOILER WARNING AHEAD---- If you're half selkie and half human and you're forced to choose to give up one of your halves at the ripe old age of six, that doesn't actually make you all human or all selkie, does it? It just means you've been horrifically amputated of half your being. So that's not very sweet and endearing and romantic.

The Secret of Kells 

This is about the making of the Book of Kells. To my astonishment, there seem to some people around who have not heard of this book. We were interested in how the drawing developed between the Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea.

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

New Joan Littlewood sculpture

The Joan Littlewood sculpture by Philip Jackson just unveiled outside the Theatre Royal Stratford East on Sunday. A few quid well spent, I think.... from my point of view anyway, I think other people might have contributed more than a few quid.

I love the sculpture. Also I love the quote on the front of theatre (you can only see some of it):
"I built my life on the rock of change"
We had a beautiful autumnal day for the unveiling, then had to skip some of the festivities in order to carry out quality control on pizza and beer at The Crate, and to inspect the proper functioning of the locks along the canal. We came back for Joan's Jamboree in the evening and had a blast. Best Sunday for a while!!!

Saturday, 3 October 2015

What I went to see on a whim this Friday night.
Hofesh Shechter presents deGeneration, an inspiring opportunity to see the youngest dancers of Hofesh Shechter Company at the start of very promising careers, take on Shechter’s world and perform it with the ferocious physicality and intimate sensitivity for which his Company is internationally renowned.
It was very good of course. Strangely enough (if you know me) I just started dance classes - a kind of modern, creative dance. I've been to all of two of them, and they've already changed my perception of dance. Before, the dancers always seemed like a manifestation of the music. I never really thought about what they were doing. Now I'm sitting there thinking 'God, that looks hard'. And also, 'Why are our dance classes full of all this sweetness and light stuff? I want to do darker emotions, like this.'

Friday, 2 October 2015

SLAP at the Theatre Royal Stratord East

Wow, that was intense! I don't quite know what to say about Slap that wouldn't count as a spoiler. Well, maybe just one thing. When I read the blurb,
...Dominique, a glamorous transsexual hooker in the throes of an emotional meltdown, caught between a rock and hard face, juggling a stalker client with a crush and her cute, chavved out, drugged up boyf who hasn’t got out the bath in a week...
I thought, having known the occasional bloke who hasn't got into the bath for a week, that it could have been worse.

Well it was.

Much, much worse.

Wow. Lot's of fun though.

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Gone: An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred b'tween the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart

There's some seriously weird shit going on here...

This edition of anti-racist art reviewed features one of African-American artist Kara Walker’s best known works - the one with the superlong title in the heading. I happened across it in MOMA in New York about three weeks ago and at first, I drew a total blank at making sense of it. I tentatively attributed this to the fact that I’m not American enough, and filed it away to think about and/or research. Even now, I’m not sure it counts as anti-racist art so much as art about race, and I’m not sure this counts as a review, so much as an exploration. I’m going to organize it around the three things MOMA’s own label thinks Gone can do for us.

1. Refute the promise of romance 

Kara Walker’s Gone is connected with a book I haven’t read: Gone With the Wind, a 1936 historical romance by Margaret Mitchell, which is apparently immensely popular in the USA. From the little I knew of its plot, I was pretty sure it would not be my kind of thing. It turns out that Kara Walker and I are on the same page here. She has said, ‘Gone with the Wind was one of those books that I already had preconceived ideas about: I already knew that I wasn’t going to like it.’ Then she read it of course, and had to deal with the fact that it’s one of those ‘can’t-put-it-down’ kind of books.

Scarlett O'Hara getting it on?
I do sort of know the plot outline of Gone With the Wind. It’s the story of a young white southern woman from a plantation-owning family, who, between the ages of 16 and 25 has several children by three different men without actually being in love with any of them. In the meantime, the civil war causes her a certain amount of personal hardship and leaves her fighting courageously for the survival of a lifestyle we all disapprove of. Also, she isn’t a particularly nice person.

I can see that there is a connection between Kara Walker’s frieze and the book, in that both feature grotesque and sometimes violent sexual disorderliness with a civil war setting and costumes, only in the artwork the sexual shenanigans are interracial and rather more extreme and explicit than those in Mitchell’s book.

Conclusion: promise of romance not refuted, because Gone With the Wind turns me off anyway. YMMV.

2. Critique historical narratives of slavery and the ongoing perpetuation of ethnic stereotypes. 

Maybe I would have to read Gone With the Wind to know which historical narratives of slavery are being critiqued here, but when it comes to the ongoing perpetuation of ethnic stereotypes, we are cooking with fire. Or playing with fire, maybe: when I was researching people’s reactions to Walker’s work, that of fellow African-American artist Betye Saar floated to the top of Google search.

Saar does not like Kara Walker’s work at all. According to the Telegraph, she "conducted a noisy campaign to get Walker’s work banned from public galleries, arguing that her imagery played straight into white fantasies about black people as a sexualised underclass." Kara herself has said, "You know, what black stands for in white America and what white stands for in white America are all loaded with our deepest psychological perversions and fears and longings."  Which is sort of interesting because it starts to look like a debate among African-Americans in which the subject of contestation is what white people think. And here's me, not knowing what I think, if anything.

Fortunately, there are some more coherent white people around, like Jerry Saltz, reviewing Walker’s exhibition My Complement, My Enemy, My Opressor, My Love. He says that her work makes him feel "sickened, thrilled, terrified," he describes it as a "toxic shock" and says that "Even the title (of Gone) is contaminated."  Hmm, I think he might be referring to that rather old-fashioned word ‘Negress’. And then, it’s true that the pictorial languages of racial representation Walker has decided to engage with are quite ‘old-fashioned’. I’d initially attributed this to the demands of the medium. If everybody is a black silhouette on a white background and you still want their race to be legible, you’re probably going to have to caricature a bit. Although, it was Kara Walker’s choice to use a medium that demanded that kind of exaggeration. And I can appreciate the point that where racial representations are concerned, ‘old-fashioned’ probably means bad.

Come to think of it, I really did know that quite a few white Americans think of everything from America’s racial past as a contaminant, a sort of poison which continues to infect their society and relationships today. And while I can think the same thing, many of them also seem to feel it very intensely and viscerally.

Conclusion: ongoing perpetuation of stereotypes critiqued, by the viewers, if not by the work.

3. Confound conventional attributions of power and oppression

Another thing that Saltz and several other white reviewers bring up fairly consistently is a response of anger, or rage, generally projected onto Walker herself. I’m not quite sure that’s where it belongs, at any rate, I haven’t seen her state or express that emotion directly. I do wonder if it isn’t partly a direct projection by white people onto black people, something like ‘well of course, you must be angry, how could you not be?’ True enough. But it’s also, I suspect, the anger of white people themselves (after all, they’ve found themselves dumped by history in the middle of a pile of toxic contaminants) and that they may be having a hard time, given those ‘conventional attributions of power and oppression’, fully owning and expressing their rage. It seems quite possible, given the dynamics of the situation, that they need black people to be angry on their behalf.

Also, if anyone is going to dig up the contaminants and show that they can be played with, they may feel they need a black person to do that as well. Honestly, I don’t think many white people believe a white artist could get away with work like this right now (supposing they wanted to try). Walker only just gets away with it herself. On the other hand, white people probably do make up a significant proportion of the audience. I daresay it does confound conventional attributions of power and oppression that they are prepared to cede the active role in this territory to black artists and willingly submit themselves to something that makes them feel contaminated, sickened, terrified, etc - notwithstanding the fact that the content Walker serves up nominally assigns them the dominant role. It is she, the black woman, who is clearly the initiator and controller of this particular enterprise.

Conclusion: yeah, the power attributions are quite complicated. As for oppression, we're supposed to be consensual participants these days, right? ...except for Betye Saar and other members of the public who end up seeing without consenting....

Fantasies? What fan... oh, those fantasies!
Actually, those are Kara Walker's fantasies,
not mine.
So what do I think of Gone in the end? Well, let’s make no bones about it, it's like a lot of Walker's work: S&M erotica built around racial as well as gender differences. I'm pretty sure from the interviews I've read with Walker that she's actively and consciously embracing that whole thing. I get around enough to be aware that she isn’t the only one. It takes all sorts, I suppose. Sex with a helping of violence isn’t really for me, with or without racial overtones. When you add the latter, I have a tendency to go all historian and look over the top of my glasses and say things like "you do realize that this is ultimately about real stuff that really happened to actual real people don’t you?" Only in Walker's case, it probably isn't meant to be. You can call Gone history painting if you like, but it's really for and about people today and what they might choose to do with the historical evidence left-over toxic contaminants. Like play 'terrifying' erotic games with them? Really?

I'm still not sure if I really get Gone, but I wanted to get this post written before I go to view Walker's latest work, Go to Hell or Atlanta, Whichever Comes First, which just opened in London. I'm expecting to do better at engaging with Hell or Atlanta, partly because I know Walker's work a little better now, and partly because it seems to have a more purely historical and art historical theme. I may even end up reviewing a piece of explicitly and deliberately pro-racist art in the process, which is weirdly interesting.

Steinbeck, misogyny and point of view

When I found out my daughter was studying Steinbeck at school, I was a bit wary about the level of misogyny in the education department's book choices. Steinbeck's handling of his female characters is, frankly, at its best when he doesn't mention them at all. Otherwise, they're virtuous wives and mothers in the home or whores in the brothel, right?

Turns out my daughter didn't see things quite that way - or rather, she didn't particularly notice the women at all. She just explained to me that a brothel "is a place men go to waste all their money on having sex with as many people as possible". Hmmm....

Monday, 10 August 2015

Hotel room lunches, USA style

So, I made it to the United States of America, despite the sterling efforts of United States Border Control to make me miss my flight... Now I'm here, I'm finding that I still love Chicago but the Chicago style pizza I ate yesterday was enough to feed a family for a week - and so is pretty much everything else you can buy. So here's today's very American gourmet lunch: beef jerky on watermelon cubes. Better than its photograph.

Friday, 31 July 2015

Icelandic Elves

Last time I was in Iceland, it was the best I could do to appreciate the scenery - and learn to cope with the weather! This time, I'm doing much better on understanding the history and culture. This post contains my thoughts on Icelandic elves, to be followed, if the Internet holds out over the next day or so, with a post about Icelandic sea monsters. I learned from Alda Sigmundsdóttir (see references at the end of the post) that Icelanders are all supposed to believe in elves, although she herself finds this assertion somewhat annoying. It would probably be fairer to say that Icelanders have traditionally had a lot of stories about elves. So, where do Icelandic elves come from and what are they like? Well, they partly come from a common European tradition, I expect, but I have my own ideas, based on hiking experiences in Iceland.

Summer in Iceland! That patch of water does not represent some high mountain lake, either, but the sea as I was arriving from Denmark. Of course, it all looks very different when the sun is out.

In Iceland’s past, it must at times have been as difficult to distinguish between the signs of human civilization and the works of nature as it was for 19th Century observers of Martian canals. Even today, I’ve followed hiking paths which were not so much trails on the ground as a question of knowing which geographical feature you’re meant to be following. Across the high plateaus, the way is marked by cairns, and in a good light, if they’re well-maintained, it’s reasonably easy to distinguish between a cairn and a pile of stones. In the all too common fog, not so much - and those wretched piles of stones have a way of forming themselves into alignments quite naturally.

These days, Icelandic houses can seem quite attention seeking, with their bright red or blue roofs. When they were basically mounds of turf, I daresay they could look a lot like the other mounds of turf which aren’t houses - at least not human ones. And if the life of travelers depended on distinguishing the human ones (as it probably would from time to time), and avoiding the false ones which could lead them astray and consume essential time, energy and resources, their minds, senses and emotions would inevitably become intensely focused on these signs. All that mental intensity, that question mark over whether a feature was natural or man-made had to go somewhere - and I suspect some of it went into elves.

The king of cairns, made by the guys who built the road across this rather desolate high plateau, just because....
There’s still the behavior of Icelandic elves to consider. From the stories, they don’t really come across as particularly closely connected with nature, unlike the elves further south who are often half way to being nature spirits. Icelanders were probably as closely connected with nature themselves as they could just about stand, and it’s a feature of people in struggling agricultural and pastoral economies throughout the world that what they actually aspire to get closer to is a state of civilization, not a state of nature as some of us might. Icelandic elves live like Icelanders - except not quite! They live as Icelanders thought they would be living if everything went well for them: like rich Icelanders whose flocks and fields always do well. They have fine houses (still made of turf), fine clothes (of wool), plenty of sheep and they never run out of food, but what they don’t have is a different kind of society to the human Icelanders. More southerly Europeans also imagined the fairy world on the model of the fortunate in their society, their elites, and ended up with royal courts presided over by elven kings and queens. The situation is not so different in Iceland, but the Icelandic elites were in a different place.

Icelandic elves also seem to work as proto-deities. They’re potentially dangerous and threatening. Sometimes they take children or even adults, and possibly those people are going to a better place. It must be said that the demands of adult labor meant child supervision was limited, the demands of child labor meant children were often alone, and Iceland is a dangerous place, therefore children (and adults) had a tendency to disappear. On the good side, you could use elves to warn children away from places which were likely to be dangerous. While in Iceland, I read Sjón’s From the Mouth of the Whale, and particularly enjoyed the part in which Jonas Palmason reminisces about his childhood experiences at the elven mound: the immense fear of the mound with had been created in him by the adults around him, and the amazing revelation of what lay within.

Sometimes however, children were replaced by useless old elven men who appeared to be suffering from learning difficulties or behavioral issues, and then, I’m afraid, the way to get your own child back was to beat the imposter ruthlessly. The elves are not necessarily nice people, but people they certainly are. They can reward you if they like you, or if you help them. It’s possible to do deals with them. Sometimes young elven men formed relationships with the young unmarried human women who spent their summers alone in the mountain dairies and caused unexpected pregnancies. Most unusually - or perhaps not, given the elvish affection for human children - these elven men didn’t try to avoid their parental responsibilities, often taking charge of the child and raising it themselves in the elvish world. Alas, I suspect the unwanted babies in question were indeed ‘left out for the elves’. Basically, elves caused a lot of the unwanted difficulties in life, but they also smoothed them over. Elites, they might be, but they were useful ones.

  • Alda Sigmundsdóttir: The Little Book of Icelanders in the Old Days; The Little Book of the Hidden People: Stories of Elves from Icelandic Folklore
  • Sjón: From the Mouth of the Whale (highly recommended, btw)
  • There is a museum dedicated to Icelandic elves (and trolls and ghosts) at Stokkseyri, about 70km from Reykjavik in Iceland

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Magical realism, and a year of battling over the boundaries of fantasy

Last year a really cool thing called Worldcon happened almost outside my front door, so of course I went along, with my husband the hard core Science Fiction fan, and my daughter, the Japanese anime fan. It was fantastic, especially thanks to the focus it place on all kinds of diversity. SFF fandom tends to the Anglo, a word I’m using here (with some misgivings) to mean white AND native English speaking, but lots of people certainly wanted more demographic diversity, of writers, and if possible, of fellow fans.

Fast forward nearly a year and I’m embarked on a long, slow trip to the next Worldcon to be held in Spokane, Washington. It may turn out to be the last for a while. Worldcon, or at least the Hugo award it hands out each year, has gone to the dogs (a link for anyone who doesn’t get the dog reference).
The leader of the Rabid Puppies, the most successful canine faction, makes no bones about the strength of his preference for Anglo culture, especially the most conservative, xenophobic branches of it. The less successful Sad Puppies whine at suggestions that they might be trying to exclude anyone. They just want good, old-fashioned, unpretentious genre fantasy and science-fiction, and they don’t care who writes it.

The trouble is that demographic diversity of writers isn’t very likely to come unaccompanied by literary diversity. The fantastic, magical, supernatural and numinous are related forms of something which finds expression everywhere in culturally differentiated ways. Anglo genre fantasy is just a small subset of this spectrum. Presumed truth values, perceived literary value, types of motifs and interactions with the real world vary, as does literary form (more or less closely related to oral forms), and the status and role of writer and reader.

Consider next year's proposed Mistress of Hounds Kate Paulk’s emphasis on immersion in her analysis of what makes a book Hugo-worthy. It’s an esoteric thing, this ‘immersion’, a culturally specific practice of altering states of consciousness through words. It’s not clear that it’s either desired, or even easily accessible, outside the cultures in which it is practiced. Consider science-fiction as a genre: when it’s not fantasy with technology instead of magic, isn’t it a variation on prophecy? Is 'World'-con to be reserved for Anglo-specific cultural forms?

One of the points non-Anglo writers brought up again and again at Loncon 3 was that the core expectations of western fiction, expectations as ‘basic’ as plot form, conflict, focus on individual characters, ‘showing-not-telling’ don’t mesh well with their cultural priorities. Even those close neighbors of the Anglo cultural zone, the North Europeans of Scandinavia and Germany seem to favor far more exposition than is usually recommended in the Anglo literature. The French tend towards poetics and philosophy, and the 'tale', fairy or otherwise, is an important form with them.

Consequently, to say you want more diversity in the fantasy genre can mean one of two things: either you hope to convert people of other cultures to the minutiae of your own, or you intend to tear down the walls between genres and create a mixed reading space, open to numerous traditions of the fantastic.

Magical realism is one alternative form of the fantastic, the one I write, though hardly the only one. My own reading list also includes books with links to the tradition of animal fables like Alain Mabanckou’s Memoirs of the Porcupine (after all we have werewolves and witchcraft - why not porcupines and witchcraft?); mythopoeics (is that a word?) like Kazuo Ishiguro’s Buried Giant (not a million miles in spirit from Alan Garner); or works based in religion and spirituality: Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s Palace of Illusions reads an awful lot like the Katherine Anddison’s Goblin Emperor, and as the Puppies seem particularly keen to bring Christianity to our reading lists, why not also Hinduism? I read and enjoy books like these for the same reasons I read and enjoy fantasy. My own reading has been effortlessly demographically diverse, largely because I trawl through the literary shelves of the bookshops at the same time as the fantasy ones.

What I write is definitely magical realism, the combination or magical elements with a real world setting. It also has that feature associated with several core magical realist works: it makes sense as post-colonial literature - or are we post-globalized by now? - at any rate, it is about identity, especially cultural, and the way it emerges from the building blocks of history and politics, daily life and relationships. Where it nods towards the traditions of Anglo fantasy and science-fiction - dragons and UFOs for example - it’s because of the cultural identity of the protagonist, and she has many strings to her bow, as people do: the classical culture of the elites, the popular culture of her ancestors, fairy tales for her daughter, essays for academia…  It even uses language in a way that expresses these variations, and others regarding her state of consciousness, rather than aiming at the hypnotic immersion of the reader.

I know, of course, that this kind of writing isn’t everyone’s cup of tea (what is?) but with Loncon’s panel talks systematically turning away an overflow of people who wanted to talk about the kinds of issues I also found relevant and interesting, I came away feeling positive about throwing in my lot with a broad SFF community. I felt I could fit in, both as a reader and a writer, and my family circumstances favored my ongoing participation (a particularly important detail for many women and members of non-Anglo cultures).

A few months later, when Kazuo Ishiguro and Ursula Le Guin had their little discussion about whether Ishiguro’s latest book, Buried Giant, counted as fantasy or not, I understood both sides. Of course, the literary shelves are filled with books like Ishiguro’s and many of them are by non-Anglo authors. And perhaps the only reason Le Guin thought Ishiguro’s book should be fantasy is that a book can’t get much more Anglo in appearance than by mythologizing the Dark Ages of Britain, regardless of the fact that the author is a Briton of Japanese origin?

Authors seem to benefit financially from literary status and it also allows them to be taken seriously across a broad range of cultural groups, especially within their own (another issue raised by some non-Anglo writers at Loncon 3). On top of that, translation of foreign works into English currently follows a principle of parsimony - a book must seem ‘necessary’ in order to qualify for translation, with the result that being literary is almost a pre-condition for being translated. This severely limits the available writer demographic for genre literature - though it favors translation of other fantastic forms, such as magical realism.

All the same, I understood Le Guin’s frustration. The presence of authors whose value is recognized by a larger world raises the status - and the interest level - of the SFF genre. The idea that a ‘good’ author can’t be writing fantasy must quite justifiably seem like an affront to her, and looks like sheer snobbery on the part of those who do such categorizing.

Just about a month after that, I wondered if Le Guin felt embarrassed after the Puppies made it so very clear that they wanted to aggressively exclude from SFF the very type of writer she’d been castigating for keeping a distance. Even as a part member of the Anglo cultural group, it felt quite disturbing, to have the kind of literature I like to read and write made the target of such an explicit assault. I’m not optimistic about its effect on non-Anglo writers and the fans who certainly seem to want them.

*** Correction: I'm told Spokane is in Washington, not Idaho, so I changed it. Now at least, I'll end up in the right place!! ***


Monday, 20 July 2015

I made it through Denmark...

After a couple of days of solid train travel, I made it to Aalborg in the north of Denmark. Tomorrow, fingers crossed, I will be on the ferry to Iceland. Aalborg is beautiful, and where I'm staying, out of town among the marinas and summer cabins, is extra nice. The south of Denmark looked really very similar to Britain, but here in the north, there's a more Scandinavian feel. It's all sun, water and windswept grasses where I'm staying, and boats... lots and lots of boats! I feel like I haven't had this much exposure to ozone for years. This is from one of the boat yards along the way into town, I just liked it with the poppies. Now I have to start bracing myself for less summery weather in Iceland.

Thursday, 16 July 2015

Urban hiking in Cologne

Cologne has a promenade along both banks of the Rhine, a 'green belt' of parks between the city center and the outer suburbs, a botanical garden and an inner city forest. I must have walked at least 12 miles, almost all of it off road, although if I'd rented a bicycle I could have gone even further.

Kathe Kollwitz Museum in Cologne

Few artists who can arouse such intense emotion as Kathe Kollwitz, and not many art works are so much better in real life than in reproduction. She had an incredible mastery of her medium but what I especially love is her commitment to humanity. After visiting this museum, I find the kind of modernism which treats the body as pure form especially hollow and really did not want to see the largest collection of Pop Art outside the USA (even though Cologne has that too).

Kollwitz represented the harder parts of life, especially poverty and the suffering, death and degradation which all too often go with it. I think she understood that no matter what the circumstances, it isn't people who become dehumanized, though their representations, in the media, or in the minds of other people might.

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Cologne, then and now...

This is just a tiny detail from the amazing, but still blackened facade of Cologne Cathedral. I thought those two figures on the left were quite unusual for medieval sculpture. Slowly, it dawned on me that they're very different from their neighbors and must be modern.

When I told my father I was going to Cologne, he said he'd last been there in 1954 on a school trip, during which he'd stayed in a youth hostel in an old bomb shelter at the foot of Cologne Cathedral. It's not there now, but I went into a bookshop and browsed through a book of photographs of Cologne in 1945... It was nothing but a pile of rubble around the Cathedral which was still standing. In one picture I could see that the part of the Cathedral adjacent to this was blown out, but it was too fuzzy to show whether the original sculptures were broken then.

The consequence of the WWII bombing is that Cologne is quite a modern city, but very pleasant to be in, with a large pedestrian district and promenade along the Rhine.

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Still not scared...

I found a second piece of anxious art about the world out there in Brussels: Marie-Jo Lafontaine's When a Child Was Still a Child (War, Religion, Dreams). Made in 1950 but it could have been last week, so whatever a child was then, they probably still are. In the 'Dream' panel, the little boy is looking at a globe, but here, the beam got in the way. I liked the interaction with the architecture anyway.

Photographed in the Musees Royaux des Beaux Arts.

Out into the world...

London -> Brussels.... I've never been to Brussels before, but it's the generic European city foreshadowed by everyone who has. Still, I keep finding hidden treasures in it, like this tapestry in Brussels Cathedral. It's called Angoisse du Monde (The Fear of the World) by N. de Montalembert, and it has a surprisingly Asiatic feel for a Christian piece, with all those eyes and lips. Fear of the world must be in the mind of the beholder, because this work of art made me feel exhilarated, not afraid.

I like photographing art in its natural setting, so I actually rather like the cathedral windows reflecting in the top.

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Get out the vote!

While the Hugo controversy rages over the Internet, there is also the minor matter of a national election in Britain. Fortunately, the parties are all so boring there is no possibility of voting on anything except policy and political strategy.

I got interested by this Guardian article about political apathy among the young because it also mentioned 3 sites which try to match your policy preferences with a party. I'd already pretty much decided who I wanted to vote for, and wondered if the sites would turn up the same answer.

Vote Match has me bang to rights, with an 81% match to my party of choice, although my second choice party has a 79% match.

PositionDial forgot to ask where I was voting from and matched me with Plaid Cymru (hello Wales!) and the SNP (hello Scotland!). It's suggested 3rd and 4th choices were the same as VoteMatch's with 84% and 80% for the same two parties in the same order.

I didn't manage to get through the Vote for Policies survey. I particularly didn't appreciate being asked me to prefer whole slates of policies right from the start. When I refused to prefer any of them, it 'threatened' me that it was going to take 50 minutes to complete the survey, then tried again to get me to pick a slate.

After all that, I get to enter the ballot box knowing the party I picked really does represent my beliefs. Incidentally, my vote will be partly strategic. I know darn well my second choice party is going to win this seat - and as my preferences are so close, it doesn't worry me much. Trouble is, I think my second choice party needs a major kick up the backside to keep them on track with their program. I'm hoping a shift towards my first choice party will either a) give them the warning they need and/or b) build the strength of my first choice party to the point where they can take over. I really don't care which.

Now, back to the more serious matter of who should receive an award for contributions to the field of science-fiction/fantasy in the shape of a small rocket.

Thursday, 9 April 2015

Hugos versus Nebulas

No contest.

Darn, but the Hugos have a flat, insipid packet this year. I don't mind reading stuff I wouldn't have thought of reading by myself, but this takes the biscuit.

Oh yeah, that's because it was pre-selected for me by a sub-group(s) instead of emerging in the usual, rather more organic way. Congratulations guys, you proved that organized campaigning breaks the system in more ways than one.

The Nebula packet looks quite interesting and varied though. It even seems to have included The Three Body Problem, a book widely agreed could have united the various factions of SF fandom and won fair and square, had the Sad Puppies not done what they did.

I'm going to read the Nebula packet instead.

Since I already paid to be part of the Hugos, I'm going to vote for organized campaigning below NO AWARD.

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

This week: 5/4/15

  • I think I might have done some work earlier on in the week, but what with it being Eastercon, that's all forgotten now.
    Eastercon, what was that like?!!!

    It was fun. I've learned to do cons, I just go with whatever I think would be the most fun thing to do next. Like spontaneously wandering down the road to find a hotel that still had rooms in it, after deciding that a two-hour commute across London is not fun. Actually, finding the hotel was less fun than going to the bar, to a talk, or for a chat, but it made future fun possible.

  • So, speaking of fun, on the evening the Social Injustice Warriors crashed the Hugos, I was in said hotel room with Mr Fenwick, when he suddenly announced: 'The Jews are a stiff-necked people!'

    Now, I have seen what happens to people who unwisely joke about their Jewish partners in public, so for the public record I DID NOT offer any comment on this statement, however obviously biased towards a single data point any such comments would have been. Instead, I said, 'You what?'

    'It says so in this book.'

    'Mr Fenwick, why are you reading the Bible?'

    (For so he appeared to be doing. Secretly I was shocked, because I couldn't remember reading anything like that in the Bible and I have quite a good memory. As it turns out, it was a case of mistaken identity.)

    'Because,' said Mr Fenwick, 'We are at an SF convention.'

    (Actually he didn't say that but he should have done, so being a writer, I helped him along a bit.)

    What he said is: 'They sought for things they could not understand. Wherefore, because of their blindness, which blindness came by looking beyond the mark, they must needs fall; for God hath taken his plainness from them, and delivered unto them many things which they cannot understand, because they desired it. And because they desired it God hath done it, that they may stumble.'

    'What is this 'it'?' I asked, but this much must be credited to the book's thesis, that even after a detailed perusal of the paragraph, Mr Fenwick was unable to answer my question.

    The moral of the story is that if you pick a hotel at random, it may turn out to be a Mormon establishment, where you will be subjected not only to the Gideon's Bible, but also to the Book of Mormon, for example these charming passages from Jacob 4:14.

    Where's the Twitter storm, that's what I want to know?
    Oh yeah, busy with the Hugos, is it?

  • At first I thought I wasn't going to find any new people to read at Eastercon, although I knew I was going to meet Aliette de Bodard whose next book The House of Shattered Wings is already on my to-read list. Then I found a whole load of new people to read, including practically the entire list at Elsewhen Press. They're an independent publisher with a progressive approach to not killing trees print-on-demand, and a tendency to let their authors be eclectic and idiosyncratic. Also Susan Bartholomew who is going to be writing about one of my favorite legendary people, Melusine. And a bunch of free books, I know not what they are.

  • I put out feelers for interest among independent writers to organize 'something' and possibilities for what might be organized. The answer is that 'something' will almost certainly happen eventually, if and when someone inputs the right amount of energy. That someone might be me. I'm currently counting my energy reserves to see if it is or not.

  • Right now, I have no energy reserves at all, which is typical for the day after a con. I need to sit in a darkened room on my own and do nothing.

  • As at Loncon, the subject of debate which stresses me out is the one surrounding cultural property and cultural appropriation. This is because I have Views. You know how it is. Possibly, I should write them down, but it's a multi-post job and I have no energy. So that's it for now.

Monday, 30 March 2015

This week: 29/3/15

  • Due to various demands and responsibilities, I’m in that horrible territory known as three-day-week land. Looks like it may go on for some time and trying to work through it just makes me burn out faster. I don’t like it.
  • Anyway, I had a wild weekend looking at art by Matt Stokes. One of my friends, Charlie Seber, is at the heart of a show called Madman in a Lifeboat. It’s part of a multi-media installation which I explained to my daughter as being like an SF story (about the movement known as the Truth Reality Activists). Instead of reading a book, you put the story together from a ‘museum display’. I found the script of the film at the heart of this show very funny right from the start so it was exciting to see it all put together.
    Then we drove across London (aaargh!) to see Cantata Profana which consists of these heavy metal dudes getting it on. I thought it was brilliant. The first time I watched it I laughed, the second time I got into it, the third time, if my well-wishers hadn’t dragged me away, I would have been banging my head on the walls. It’s in the oldest concrete church in Britain, no longer a church of course.
  • So then we went to see Studio Ghibli’s Tale of the Princess Kaguya on Sunday night at the cinema. It's not something that should be seen lightly by any couple whose only child is a beautiful pale-skinned daughter with long dark hair. Like us. Kaguya's life starts well, but her father thinks he knows what's best for her, he really does, and the results are appalling.  I think we all cried, but it is very beautiful, and very, very well observed. We think it's quite subversive of all kinds of traditional values, perhaps a bit belatedly. The original story is here.
  • Our daughter has now gone off for her Easter holiday with her grandparents, assuring us that like Kaguya herself, she is returning to her true home on the moon. We have asked her to bring back some cheese.
  • I'm trying to read too much at once, but I don't care. Discovered the desperately sleazy tale of author Benjanun Sriduangkaew's previous activities and was shocked into reading their book immediately since it was on my list. It should have been Asian mythology week here, clearly, but Scale-Bright wasn't really up to it (though it had some good points). I'm finishing up Palace of Illusions, a version of the Mahabharata story from the point of view of Draupadi and it's a million times superior. The original story behind Scale-Bright is cool though.
  • It's been blustery.

Monday, 23 March 2015

This week: 22/3/15

  • Monday was a travel day, Tuesday was a homeschooling day! I took the kid to the dentist, taught German, voice projection and other elements of public speaking, went to the Royal Opera House’s very good cinema transmission of Swan Lake. It was fun, but having a three-day work week stresses me out. 
  • Despite this, the editing, interior design and book cover design process are going reasonably well. 
  • Changed the way I use Goodreads to adapt to the fact that there are no private shelves. Instead of everything I’ve ever read, I’ve now only got books I read recently, and actually want to review and discuss. In my to-read shelf, I’ve only got books I plan to read this year. 
  • Signed up for Eastercon. Better late than never is only true if you get a membership before they sell out. I think sales must have slowed down a bit after the hotel rooms ran out first. I live in London, so although it’s a bit of a trek, I’m sleeping at home. 
  • Friday was the last great solar eclipse of Britain’s foreseeable future but it was a wash-out. Not that it didn’t get dark and dingy under the clouds, just no darker and dingier than is typical for Britain. 
  • Finished the beta read I’m doing for James Latimer’s The Winter Warrior. It gets a big thumbs up, and some more detailed comments written out this week. Blew 35 quid ordering Umberto Eco’s The Legendary Lands and ended up with something beautiful and also - as it is Eco - eminently readable. 
  • Had to blow off some things I wanted to do. For instance, due to general tiredness and a short week, I just couldn’t keep up with the course on Australian Literature on Coursera, nor did I manage to have a social life with anyone other than my daughter. Or get any of the extra writing done that I usually do.

Monday, 16 March 2015

This week: 15/3/15

  • Greatly tempted by a signed copy of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Buried Giant but left it for someone else in the end. The e-book is next on my reading list. 
  • Stagnated a bit on some editing of The American Dream, but to make up for it, I’ve been getting to grips with the e-book conversion process, making a mock-up of my book cover idea, and getting professional help sorted out! 
  • Saw Roy Williams’ Antigone at Stratford east on Tuesday night. Loved the urban grunge theme. Take away message: you can be powerful, but if you break the laws of human nature, you will pay. Wish it were true, but suspect people’s perception of the laws of human nature is socially mediated anyway. 
  • Went swimming and wished I’d been more often. Have decided a writer’s life is unnaturally sedentary. A natural lifestyle would involve hunting and gathering stories all day and telling them round the fire in the evening. 
  • Terry Pratchett died. I believe he was a good person, though I never met him personally. I know he was a great writer. The newspapers are filled with quotes he placed in the mouth of Death. 
  • Spent the weekend in Nottinghamshire for Mother’s Day. Ate too much, drank too much, had fun!

Thursday, 26 February 2015

The No Straight White Men Reading Challenge and how to do it.

It seems diversifying your reading base is the popular challenge of the year. Or perhaps the most incredibly unpopular one in a few circles!

I’m not planning on getting into whether you should, or whether you should be absolutist about it or whether you should just try to diversify a bit or a lot. This post - the first in a series if I get round to it - is for people who've decided on at least one of those options and aren't quite sure how they're going to decide what to read. And perhaps also for people who are wondering why their reading list was so un-diverse already.

So let's get started. Let's assume you have five books you really, really love by straight white guys, something like mine.

  • Neverwhere, Neil Gaiman 
  • Northern Lights (His Dark Materials), Philip Pullman 
  • The 13.5 Lives of Captain Bluebear, Walter Moers 
  • Wicked, Gregory Maguire 
  • The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco

How easy is it to use that to generate a super-diverse reading list you'll also love? It should be a singe, what with all those book recommendations you can get from Amazon, Goodreads, etc. So off I went to Amazon with my fave raves to see what would happen.

 My plan was to generate two new lists, one of women authors, one of POC. Your mileage may vary, and I have to say, I wasn’t swamped in choices. There was usually at least one, and a few books like Wicked open out into a genre where women are very active. It turns out that maybe it was a mistake to depend on a recommendation system which only works if most of the other readers are reading diversely. Still, let's look at the results.

  • The Assassin’s Apprentice, Robin Hobb 
  • The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, Kate diCamillo 
  • Deathless, Catherynne Valente 
  • The Round House, Louise Erdrich (also American of mixed German/Ojibwa origins) 

There are only 4 results because people who bought Captain Bluebear apparently didn’t buy a single other book by women.

  •  Perdido Street Station, China Mieville 
  • Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Haruki Murakami 
  • Stories of Your Life and Others, Ted Chiang 
  • Alice in Deadland, Mainak Dhar 
  • My Name is Red, Orhan Pamuk 

This is a nice list, at least it's got a nice cross-section of Asian background authors. It would appear that buyers of my fave raves don’t touch black authors?! I tried to improve on things by drilling down from this group and seeing what people who buy their books also buy.

The results of this second experiment were interesting. It would seem that Robin Hobb and China Mieville have been ‘discovered’ by people who usually read white male authors and not much else. The choices connected with Name of the Rose led to lots of black authors and other diverse choices, but they also led away from the more fantasy/magical realism stuff I like best. At no point at all, ever, was I connected to black authors I already knew I wanted to read. Not even black authors whose work resembles my fave raves.

The one exception was the chain which started from Captain Bluebear. Remember I said I found no women authors in its recommendations, and only one POC author, Ted Chiang? His book, Stories of Your Life and Others, isn’t even the sort of thing I normally read. I’m not a fan of short stories, though his seem so highly thought of I might give them a go.

What really matters about Ted Chiang is that his readers are also reading what’s in and diverse in the SF/Fantasy world. The list might not be perfect but it’s roughly where it’s at. They’ve discovered Octavia Butler at least. And from Octavia you can get to a number of other black writers in the SF/Fantasy world. You can find Nnedi Okorafor and Sofia Samataar. You can find that Nnedi has written a book called Afro SF. You can find Karen Lord.

That took 3 iterations and we’re still only talking about the big names. I don't know how you can do this unless you already know what you're looking for. I don't know how you get recommendations for black authors you will like using these strategies without going to a lot of effort. I know I can make a diverse reading list for myself a lot better than Amazon's algorithms did it for me:

The human-generated maximum diversity reading list

  • Neverwhere, Neil Gaiman -> Un Lun Dun, China Mieville
    Because London 
  • Northern Lights (His Dark Materials), Philip Pullman -> The Best of All Possible Worlds / The Galaxy Game, Karen Lord
    Because how the world is and how it could and should be (in SF form) 
  • The 13.5 Lives of Captain Bluebear, Walter Moers -> A Stranger in Olondria, Sofia Samatar & The Voyage of Edward Tulane, Kate diCamillo.
    Because journeys 
  • Wicked, Gregory Maguire -> Scale-Bright, Benjanun Sriduangkaew & The Palace of Illusions, Chitra Divakaruni
    Because retellings of classic tales. 
  • The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco -> The White Castle, Orhan Pamuk & The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Haruki Murakami
    Because classics, but also there’s that mysterious feel I liked in Name of the Rose. 
  • Also, I have every intention of reading Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon this year. I’ll likely read a Robin Hobb as well. And probably Ted Chiang, I feel he’s earned it. And Abdourahman Waberi's Passage of Tears and Alain Mabanckou's Les Fils de Vercingetorix.

That’s 13 authors, 6 women, 7 men, and I believe 2 of the women are white and 1 is Asian. Unless I counted wrong, 5 people are black, so I still have a bit of a bias towards Asian men, which is an artifact of the way I generated the list.

This also happens to be a reading list I really, really like. I'm pretty confident I will enjoy these books based on their similarities to books I've already enjoyed. No thanks to Amazon, though. Really, I produced the list by paying attention over a long period of time. Six of those books have been on my to-read list for some time, for the rest, all but two, Scale-Bright and the Ted Chiang stories, were already on my radar. It looks like diversifying your reading list might be more than a five-minute job.

What you really need is people, specifically you need to tap into a network of readers who are already widely read over a longish period of time. No wonder it hasn't just happened automatically for some readers. When you rely on Amazon/Goodreads and other recommendation systems, you're mostly relying on people who don't read diversely and algorithms which are practically calculated to give you something very, very similar to what you read before.

This is in fact one of the things which keeps people other than straight white men off people's reading lists. Finding them requires conscious and deliberate effort in the context of a recreational activity in which we expect to behave 'naturally', often impulsively. Only when you're already tapped into diverse networks do a fair cross-section of choices start presenting themselves to you automatically.

If you're willing to make that effort, one way to start is to skim the articles of people advocating a non-cis-straight-white-male reading challenge, completely ignore the comment sections (unless heavily moderated, John Scalzi does a good job), and head straight for the reading lists.

BTW, perhaps you'd like to know whether I'm doing this challenge? Actually, no. I'm still going to be reading books by straight white men as well. I also have a writing project for this year which requires me to research Australia and New Zealand - including lots of people and not excluding white men. But I do have a pretty diverse reading list already, and a huge backlog of books by almost every kind of author to get through. And I may have more to say about diversity in reading in due course.

Some links:

Sunili Govinage at the Guardian
K.T. Bradford at xoJane
Heina Dadabhoy at Heinous Dealings - manifesto and list
Aoife at Consider the Tea Cosy
Scalzi at Whatever

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

The genesis of the Reptilian meme

Indischer Maler um 1640 001.jpgThis is a bit of a dense post, mostly for my own research, so only read on if you're really, really interested in knowing where Reptilians come from.

Since they were popularized by David Icke (c.f. Children of the Matrix, 2001, and other works), there have been occasional sightings and reports of the shape-shifting trans-dimensional Reptilian Overlords of Humanity, also known as lizard people. But where on earth did Icke get them from?

It seems the main source was one Maurice Doreal of Oklahoma, although I wouldn’t exclude Icke digging into any of the upstream influences directly. Doreal was a follower of Helena Blavatsky’s theosophy, a man who mingled fiction and non-fiction by producing both a 1940-s dated pamphlet and a poem on the subject of shape-shifting serpent men from the lost continent of Lemuria. His claimed sources were some emerald tablets, allegedly written by an Atlantean high priest named Thoth. Michael Barkun, who seems to have done most of the research on the reptilian meme, thinks he really got it from fantasy author, Robert Howard.

I would have thought Blavatsky directly, but since Robert Howard himself was unashamedly influenced by Blavatsky, it’s hard to tell. Fortunately, he only applied her work to openly fictional purposes. In 1929, he published The Shadow Kingdom, about serpent men who lived in underground passages and used shape-changing abilities to imitate and infiltrate humanity. These characters later became incorporated into the Cthulu Mythos. I guess you could call them the more honest fictional spawn of Blavatsky’s ideas.

So now we come to the mother of them all, Helena Blavatsky, surely one of the most influential female authors of all time (though not necessarily in the most respectable way, so people tend not to mention her in that context). In her theosophical masterwork, The Secret Doctrine, Blavatsky wrote about dragon men who once lived on, you’ve guessed it, the lost continent of Lemuria in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Blavatsky claimed her source really existed, it just happened to be about as accessible as Lemuria itself, what with being guarded by a secret Tibetan organization at a time when foreigners just happened to be barred from Tibet. She called it The Book of Dzyan and claimed to have seen it, although others have accused her of drawing her inspiration from miscellaneous Asian sources and never going anywhere near Tibet.

Tthere is certainly a history of humanoid serpent-beings on the Indian sub-continent in the form of the nagas, and these seem a likely cultural source for Blavatsky, regardless of where she encountered them. I also happen to know that French folklore has a long-standing tradition of humanoid serpent-like beings, and though these seems a less obvious source for Blavatsky’s serpent beings, they may all resolve back to the same deep roots in the end.

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Mark Forsyth and the art of rhetoric: the chapter on alliteration

Never mind The Elements of Style. I've been feeling a bit burned out lately, so I decided for some reason that what I needed was Mark Forsyth's The Elements of Eloquence: How to Turn the Perfect English Phrase.

The first chapter is on alliteration, but since everyone knows what that is, I amused myself by hunting down other rhetorical patterns in Forsyth's writing. My plan is to see how many I can catch him using in advance of his introducing them officially.

1. Tell the punters what they believe so you can tell them why they're wrong. I hate, loathe, detest this tactic when it's used crudely, as it all too often is in the media, but Forsyth's 'Of course, as we all know...' is a bit more subtle than that.
The standard work (on history) was Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, but Plutarch wrote in Greek, and, as Shakespeare's friend Ben Jonson later pointed out, 'thou hadst small Latin and less Greek'.
All this to tell us that he used a translation of the same work by Plutarch instead.

2. Be flippant. Refer to Shakespeare as a thief (not forgetting to drag the image out quite a bit) and draw our attention to the fact that 'Full fathom five thy father lies', is exactly the same as telling us 'the exact depth to which a chap's corpse has sunk'.

3. Ask rhetorical questions, e.g. 'Who needs sense when you have alliteration?' Like #4, this is often best done with a fake-innocent expression on your face, seeing as it's so damn obvious. What it can often do, on the battlefields of serious debate, is get you out of addressing the issue.

4. Conceal your irrelevant and unsupported value judgements by leaping from the sublime to the ridiculous while acting all innocent about it. For instance, you might choose to do this in your selection of examples. Even better you might let yourself be a bit obvious about it, in which case you have humor and people will go along with that because they like it.
He (Charles Dickens) knew which side his bread was buttered, as had those who came before him, like Jane Austen (Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice), and those who came after him (Where's Wally?)
5. Toss out some old familiar cliche, then turn it into an object of curiosity by expanding on it. Although Forsyth certainly does this, he's upstaged in the art by Charles Dickens.
Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

(Cue detailed discussion oF the exact deadness of door-nails.)
6. Use tricky words to make yourself sound clever. Not too often though, and always make it look like you've got an excuse:
So muddled was he (Thomas De Quincey) that he decided to add a footnote apologising for his paroemion (that's the technical term for excessive alliteration).
7. Segue cleverly between one subject and the next, making it look as though the connection is self-evident.
'Agent' seems a strange substitution for 'friend'. But he (Quincey again) probably had to do it as he couldn't change 'farewell farewells'. It's much too clever to use a word as an adjective and then a noun. In fact, the trick has a name. It's called polyptoton (the subject of the next chapter).
I'm waiting to see if it's Forsyth's modus operandi to shift between chapters with a quote containing an element from both the current chapter and the next.

8. Make bold assertions of dubious validity: see emphasized sentence above. In the next installment, I get to see whether Mark Forsyth can actually convince me that polyptoton is the bee's knees.

Time flies when you're snowed in

This is where I am.

Pretty, huh? Okay, I'm not really snowed in, except voluntarily, but there's no way a car is getting anywhere near that house and I have to haul things up to it on a sledge. It got a bit easier after I dug out my old ski pants.

Like other people who grew up in warm countries, my first snow experience is so cliched it's almost laughable (to other people), while being rather intense for me. For the record, here are some things which don't count as first snow experiences:

1) the time it snowed a bit during the night and my mother went round all the neighbors' cars and stole what little was left of the stuff so we could make a snowman 20 cm high on the bonnet of her car.

2) skidding around on the occasional plaque of frozen white ice during our summer holidays in the high mountains.

3) that story I read about how it did snow once, and the snow stole all the colors and sounds, and even the heroine's friend, so that she had to go out into the dead emptiness and rescue him. I didn't know it at the time, but the story was probably based on Hans Andersen's Snow Queen, transplanted to the Mediterranean.

The story of my first snow experience goes like this. I was about seven or eight when my great-grandfather died back in England, so our mother collected up her two children and some suitcases and went to the funeral. I didn't really know my great-grandfather except as a very old very wrinkled man with some missing fingers, someone I'd seen once or twice. I didn't understand death except as a kind of emptiness - like a missing tooth - I'd had a few of those by then. I'd never been to a funeral before, or to England in the winter, and I'd never seen it snow. I stood by the window of my grandmother's house and watched the sky falling down onto the street outside. After a while my grandmother came and tied bin bags over our shoes and sent us out in it. I wasn't exactly scared but I felt uneasy and I never could decide whether it was fun or not.

I still feel pretty much the same way about snow. Skiing on a beautiful sunny day with lots of happy people around you really is fun, though that doesn't alter the fact that snow really can be dangerous*. And neither of those two things has anything to do with the feeling I can never quite shake off that something about snow isn't right. It's like in Dr Seuss's Bartholomew and the Oobleck - if green stuff started falling from the sky and settling on everything, you'd be a bit concerned, wouldn't you? Why should white stuff be any different?

I expect that's why I'm being kind of pathetic and staying inside my cozy retreat writing stuff. Besides, the beautiful sunny days haven't arrived yet. So here is a vow: I vow that on Monday, I am going skiing, sun or no sun. No really. I guarantee that tomorrow evening, I will post a picture of a ski trail, right here on this blog. In the meantime, I'm going to take that strange disturbing feeling snow gives me and pour it back into some writing.

* It just occurred to me that maybe this is why my daughter and I weren't ever so in love with the movie Frozen. As I recall, we sat there in the cinema, saying stuff like, 'That girl is dead! She's out in a blizzard in an evening gown and ballerinas! Why is she still alive?'

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Into the Woods (the movie): review

In a way, this is the movie that had everything: good actors, , great sets and costumes, decent music... so where did it go wrong? Well, the trouble is that it lacked significant form, especially the significant part. It became nothing but a slightly extended mash-up of well-known fairy tale characters. Not being terribly familiar with the musical version, I was convinced the characters were saying it in song because if they'd stuck to dialogue the lack of meaningful content would have been too painful even for Hollywood.

Maybe I'm becoming frustrated with mash-up entertainment. Lately, I've been subjected to a huge variety of shows of all kinds which rely on a vague stitching together of stuff that's apparently been sent in or posted on YouTube. I don't think I'd give it much time normally, but it usually involves the outrageous or extraordinary and my daughter likes it. What it doesn't involve is significance.

I think the musical of Into the Woods is probably better. I have a feeling it somehow tackles the disintegration of the happy fairy tale endings and the inevitability of human discontent so much better than the film, purely by the inclusion of few little details the film left out. Also it may get away with the very cliched pantomime-like aspects of the whole spectacle better than a film does.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Creepy vintage photographs: two approaches

The Photoshopper

Chris Batty just goes all out and turns his vintage photos into aliens. I don't know if he actually uses Photoshop but I like the fact that he does art on his photographs. These fauns are one of the more toned-down ones but I liked the contrast with the picture lower down.

Courtesy of the Guardian where you can see a few more creepy Chris Battys.

The Collector

Ransom Riggs collected vintage photos which were already creepy, perhaps because the original photographers were experimenting with creepiness using every technique at their disposal. It was one of the things they did. Riggs used some of the images in his collection as inspiration for the characters in his novel Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children.

From Rigg's Huffington Post article.

Identical forms of satire: Newsweek's anti-sexism Charlie Hebdo's anti-racism

Content warning: explicit discussion of racist and sexist imagery in art.

I haven't reviewed anti-sexist art much but I was drawn to this one because it's identical in structure to the Charlie Hebdo cover featuring French finance minister Christine Taubira as a monkey which I reviewed a week or so ago.

Newsweek's discussion of sexism in Silicon Valley features the same large, central image which, left to its own devices, would be quite offensive. Then there's the text off to one side, attributing the noxious idea represented to Silicon Valley and suggesting that Newsweek might disapprove. And there's a relatively discreet symbol which viewers might or might not get, in the form of the black arrow/cursor indicating the agent of sexism, namely the IT establishment. And of course, the image is controversial for about the same reasons.

When I first discussed the Taubira cover, I provided a translation of the picture into words which was actually quite acceptable. I have to say that after spending more time thinking about the interpretation of images like this, I've changed the way I would translate them and I now feel obliged to apologize for posting this type of speech even in the context of a meta-discussion.

My translation of Newsweek's cover goes:

Or rather, look at Silicon Valley's approach to female staff..
Newsweek investigates!

My new translation of the Charlie Hebdo Taubira cover goes:

Can't you just see Taubira as a MONKEY?!!
The Front National sure can!
So much for their claims not to be racist, eh?

You can see what that cover looks like over here. Needless, to say, I think satire could do better than messages such as these.

BTW, I'm not a Charlie or a Newsweek reader particularly, I was alerted to the existence of the Newsweek cover by Butterflies and Wheels (here and here).

Friday, 30 January 2015

Movie nights: Persepolis and Captain America

We saw Persepolis at the local cinema on Thursday night, in the original French. Based on Marjane Satrapi's comic books of the same name, it tells the story of her growing up in Iran, and to some extent in Austria, at the time of the Iranian Revolution and immediately afterward. It was sad, very sad, but in a good way, by which I mean it was a good film, with a beautifully told story. Well worth seeing. Also, it was really nice to hear a movie in French, especially as it was unexpected. I'd assumed it was going to be dubbed, right up to the moment where the soundtrack started.

We watched Captain America this evening at home and unfortunately I feel unable to summarize the plot because I couldn't discern one. I feel a bit dirty for watching enjoying it really, even if what I mostly enjoyed was exchanging sarcastic comments with my fellow viewers. Strangely enough, Captain America also had unexpected French in it, in the form of some French pirates. Now, seriously Hollywood, how did you invent some French pirates who aren't also Greenpeace activists? And if you later want to tell us they were really Algerian pirates, why did you have them talking with upper middle class Parisian accents? Also, retractable metal wings that fold up into a backpack? More cool than clever, don't you think? Although the other guy has a shield he uses as a frisbee... okay, enough said.

Next up: Into the Woods

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

When a character changes personality half-way through a story

Often enough in a story, the personality of a character develops in a gradual process. Or they may undergo very sudden emotional or lifestyle transitions which leave their basic personality unchanged. But what about characters who undergo a sudden and radical change in personality?

I was trying to solve this problem for one of my characters when I happened to read Terry Pratchett's YA novel, A Hat Full of Sky. In it, eleven-year-old Tiffany Aching is taken over by a hiver and well... she changes. She (that is the hiver) keeps all of Tiffany's memories and her goals. It 'thinks' it is Tiffany, while the real Tiffany becomes a tiny shred of personality buried deep inside it. So, I made a list of all the things Pratchett does to convey this:
  • Before the hiver takes Tiffany over there is plenty of foreshadowing, so we know what has happened, we just don't know how it will manifest itself.
  • Right from the start, we learn that Tiffany feels different - better actually. Later on, we see that all her negative thoughts, while they aren't entirely new, have become more extreme. She is more self-confident but also harsher towards other people.
  • She starts making little behavioral choices we had seen the real Tiffany reject not long before - nothing very important at first, but her new choices are generally more shallow.
  • Soon, the false Tiffany shows a willingness to engage in rude, arrogant and even violent behavior she would never have contemplated before. As with her thoughts and feelings, these are entirely foreign to her. Instead, they are the most extreme manifestation of the little ambitions and resentments she had previously repressed. The hiver Tiffany no longer has any moral boundaries at all.
  • While the humans around Tiffany don't notice the change at first, the spiritually sensitive goats and poltergeist know and don't want to be around her even before her behavior changes.
  • Her reflection sometimes shows her the hivers past identities, including prehistoric animals. At times, the memories associated with these identities threaten to take her over.
  • The real Tiffany finds a way to fight back and manifests herself.
  • Eventually, the narrator gives an explicit explanation of what is happening to hiver-Tiffany and real-Tiffany.
We only see hiver-Tiffany in action for two chapters out of fifteen and it's a rather intense experience. I wondered how long it's possible to keep up this kind of wholesale personality change before the reader's relationship with the 'real' character becomes compromised or replaced with a new relationship. Interestingly enough, my alternate personality character, Anat, is also present for about an eighth of a book and I was glad when the old one returned, even though the new one was, in some respects, a better person.

In other respects the way I manage Anat's change is quite different. She doesn't experience a possession, rather she undergoes a kind of controlled amnesia. She foregoes her memories, substituting a memorized record of her life, much as we might learn the life of another person from a very detailed biography or diary.
  • As with Tiffany and the hiver we see this process getting set up, but as with Tiffany, we don't know how it will manifest itself. 
  • Because Anat is the narrator, I had more opportunity to show change by altering the narrative voice. The old Anat constantly reveals the depth of her memories in the way she sees the world, through metaphor, allusion and story. I tried to show the relative shallowness of new-Anat's experiences by paring the imagery down to a minimum.
  • The new Anat has excellent recall of her past, but she's less biased and quickly understands things about her companions while remaining less affected by them than she would have been. Considering the old Anat is quite morally ambivalent at times, the new one has a greater tendency to think in moral terms rather than through her own feelings and reactions.
  • The new Anat experiences time quite differently from the old Anat. She moves through it faster for one thing, and with none of the tendencies to digress into memory, fantasy, or expectations of the future which the old Anat had.
  • Changes in Anat's magical abilities reflect these changes in her personality in ways that move the story along. The old Anat could see into the spirit world but paid little attention to everyday people. The new Anat has no visions, but does have an interesting ability to 'hear' people's stories, whether they were planning on telling them or not. This reflects her less biased, self-centered nature as well as the loss of depth.
  • Since it's important that Anat's change is never discovered by her companions, there had to be a lack of obvious changes in her behavior towards them.
Described like that, my alternate character feels a lot more subtle than Pratchett's but in both cases, the change is a logical consequence of what has happened to change her. Many differences stem from the fact that my character is the narrator and Pratchett's is not, but they also come from the fact that my character is very much living a double-life and needs to retain it, whereas Tiffany's identity and abilities are fully integrated into her social world. Oh, and the real Tiffany is distinctly 'good' whereas hiver-Tiffany is very bad indeed. With my character, these tendencies are less extreme, but they're also reversed.

I'll certainly be interested to hear what my beta readers think of the old-Anat, new-Anat change.

Saturday, 24 January 2015

One of those weeks...

The editing was all going so well, err... right up until Wednesday, when a stranger turned up at my front door at 8:45 am to tell me my husband had just slipped on something in the station at the end of the road. Cue descriptions of gore, ambulances, x-rays, plaster casts and a day and a half in the local hospitals.

A day and a half! For those who are not clients of the NHS, but of some other, more heavily billable option, please note that this doesn't amount to a complaint. The NHS systems are structured to dispense just the right amount of free medical care to those who need it most, when they need it most. If all you have is a broken wrist and blood all over your face, you can wait till they've taken care of the dying! So it goes... and the plus side is that we were in there long enough to make sure there was not going to be any serious concussion, which I must say was looking a bit frightening earlier in the day.

Okay, add to all that a surprise test - by which I mean that I knew I was taking an test but had no clue what subjects it was going to cover or what form it would take - and it's been quite a week. Now I'm left with choices for the weekend:
  • Do the two full days of work I missed - quite important, because I have a 4-day week coming up next and a deadline.
  • Clean the house, do the laundry and make something with the food currently rotting in the fridge.
  • Take my daughter to buy shoes that fit her, see that she does her homework and generally spend time with her. 
  • Make marmalade, or suffer the consequences and be forced to eat shop-bought marmalade for the whole of 2015.
  • Read books and write blog posts and emails to people I owe emails too.
  • Go out and do something fun in London and let the chips fall where they may!
Ugh! I'm so stressed out by the whole lot of it, I just slept for 11 hours. Also, my birthday has been postponed by a week to make room for just about everything which must come first. Oh, and I passed the test, but as a result I may need to significantly re-arrange my immediate future! Where are those frowny-face icons when you need them.

Sunday, 18 January 2015

A creation story

Our neighbors ought to hate us because we now have three didgeridoos, one for every member of the family. 'Why,' I can hear them thinking, 'did they not stay on their French mountain if they wanted to do that?' I can hear them thinking it because the walls here are quite thin, you see. There's a photo of the big didgeridoo, the medium didgeridoo and the little baby didgeridoo at the end of the post, but first something even more beautiful.

Space Christmas Story is a creation tale with clay figures and musical accompaniment including Druyd on didgeridoo. Druyd is Dubravko Lapaine, currently the big didgeridoo players tutor (and/or guru) from somewhere on the other side of Europe via Skype.

Druyd has a lot of other very impressive pieces on YouTube but this one is extra-pretty to look at. And here are the instruments with which we hope to achieve something similar, one day, eventually.