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).