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5 posts from August 2010

August 28, 2010

Reading Update: More Feminist Skiffy and Readin' 'Bout Writin'

Suzy McKee Charnas Motherlines

John Gardner On Becoming a Novelist

Motherlines is the second in Charnas' Holdfast Chronicles, about a post-apocalyptic future in which men have blamed the apocalypse on women and keep them in abject slavery. The first was mostly about the men, and was partly written to underline how completely women were rubbed out of the culture (although it was very reminiscent of Ancient Greece and Rome.) The second is entirely about the women who live without men: the Mares and the Fems.

The Mares are horse-riding plains tribes, like American Indians, who were in the past genetically altered to clone themselves "naturally." The Fems are runaway slaves from Holdfast. The protagonist is Alldera, a runaway slave who arrives pregnant and is therefore taken in by the Mares, who want to start a new bloodline, or "motherline," with the child. She doesn't fit in and then wanders over to the Fems, where she finds a less brutal version of the master/slave dynamic of Holdfast being recreated.

Well done so far. I'm looking forward to reading the other two books in the series.

The novel is basically about how Alldera reconciles the two groups in her own mind and also literally.

The Gardner book is, for me right now, writing porn. I find this kind of reading about myself and the work I do or want to do, very wish-fulfilling and satisfying. I'm also learning stuff, but mostly about how to articulate these things for my teaching, not so much about how to write. But Gardner does have some interesting ideas about writer's block that could end up being useful.

August 26, 2010

Reading Update: Teen Pregnancy, Swords and Sorcery, and Feminist Sci-fi

Nick Hornby Slam

Robin McKinley The Blue Sword

Suzy McKee Charnas Walk to the End of the World

Slam: Meh. 15 y/o kid obsessed with Tony Hawk gets his girlfriend pregnant. TH whisks him forward into the future to see what will happen. Then it happens. Good understanding of the teenaged male mind. Not much of a story, though.

The Blue Sword: Just about pure wish fulfillment. Girl brought to a colonial outpost near the wild hill people in a secondary world, gets kidnapped by their king and trained to be one of his warriors. No one mistreats her, everyone reveres her. She turns out to have magic and learns everything incredibly easily. Then it turns out that she has hill people blood in her. Yawn. Did I mention that the hill people are like a combo of American Indian and Bedouin, with magic added? There's hardly any conflict, and when it finally rears its head, in the form of the bad Northern war-maker, she just pulls out her magic sword and brings an avalanche down on him. Fun, but I'll forget I ever read it in about a minute.

Walk to the End of the World: The first of the groundbreaking Holdfast Chronicles, about a post-apocalyptic world in which men have completely enslaved women to the point that they are constantly in danger of dying out. If you swallow this premise, which is the only implausible part of the series, but is also clearly a product of its time (1974 pub date,) then the series is kind of amazing. Her characterization and depiction of interpersonal politics is spot on. Of course, it keeps stumbling over the problem of all men, everywhere, believing that all women everywhere are evil and also stupid. Centuries of a Christian theology that held women to be the root of all sin didn't succeed in convincing everybody of either of these premises, so I'm not sure why it would work now. (Like I said, this one piece is a huge stumbling block.) But if you can suspend that disbelief, it's a great read. I'm halfway through the second one right now.

Now I'm off to the gym to sit on a bike and continue reading the second book. Yee haw.

August 21, 2010

Reading Update: YA Trash

We break from our regularly scheduled nonfiction to bring you

Whip It by Shauna Cross

Which I read because I just couldn't bring myself to see the movie. I hate Ellen Page, ever since she made that horrible crypto-pro-life hipster jizz-bag Juno. A grown-ass woman who looks like a child is not my idea of a hipster queen. Argh.

And the book was YA genre trash that I tore through in two hours (seriously, three paragraph chapters are the rule here) but it was fun. The best part about it is the roller derby, and I really wish she had spent more time explaining and describing it. I was never interested in roller derby before (because of its extreme hipster cred) but now it sounds fun and interesting.

The rest is just typical YA crap: misfit teen with Parents Who Don't Understand Her. She finds something she loves and eventually Has A Showdown With Her Mom. Mom gets over it and turns up to cheer her on. Yay. The end. Whatever.

August 15, 2010

Miners and the Year Abroad

From Jolly Fellows: Male Milieus in Nineteenth Century America by Richard Stott:
The argonauts felt free to reject the tenets of bourgeois conventionality not only because of the absence of white women and churches but also because their California sojourn was temporary. ... Most of those involved understood that the day would come when they would return to their settled existence in the states. Horace Greeley thought that rural men went to cities "to balance a year's compelled decorum by a week's unrestrained debauchery." If a week on the Bowery could compensate for a year of pious and sober behavior, what would a year in California do? Balance it for a lifetime? California lived on in the memory of former miners as something close to paradise, a place that had afforded them a charmed season of youth, jolly fellowship, and few responsibilities. One forty-niner wrote of his "fascination in the memories of that time ... [and] intense longing for such days again, ... I feel a pang, almost a pain, at the thought that I shall never see their like again." Perhaps the careful gold-rush diaries that so many men kept were to help them vicariously relive their once in a lifetime adventure. For the returnees, indulging their unruly impulses during the gold rush may have helped reconcile them to their more sedate later lives in the field, workshop, and office and thus have facilitated the embrace of the values they temporarily abandoned.

It is possible that the rush thus served a significant function in consolidating the transformation in male comportment that had begun earlier in the century.
Indeed. In fact, the main part of the rush took place over only three years: between 1849 and 1851. By 1852, the placer gold had been removed, and individual mining was done for. But men -- especially young men -- were still coming out. It seems certain that they were looking more for the experience than for the fortune.

All this reminds me of the atmosphere in Prague in the early nineties. I remember well a conversation I had with an acquaintance in 1990. She was a fellow creative writing student a year ahead of me in the program and getting ready to graduate the following year. I asked what she would do then and she said she was going to Prague. "That's in Czechoslovakia," she automatically elucidated. I was astonished. Less than a year after the fall of the Wall, anyplace in a Warsaw Pact country felt like falling off the edge of the Earth to me. I asked why and she explained that it was cool there. I don't remember the words she used or the images. What she conveyed, though, was excitement at something wide open, intellectually and morally. "Their president is an avant-garde playwright!" she said. "How cool is that?"

I imagine that the word-of-mouth about the gold rush probably sounded a lot like that: the stories about picking up chunks of gold from the soil was probably less about making a fortune and more about conveying excitement at something wide open. When I finally got to Prague three years later, it was probably like arriving in Calaveras County in 1852. The gold was over, but the rush wasn't. The American gold miners were so thick on the ground, you couldn't have found the "gold" even if there had been any. But it was no longer about that anyway. It was about experiencing the openness, and the "miners" had started making a business out of making life possible and easy for newbies. The American cafes and hostels I found in Prague were like the groceries and saloons and general stores of 1852 San Francisco.

Not to belabor the point, but my sojourn in Europe ended around the time the struggle between former east and west was settling down, the renovations were finishing, the rents were going up, and the openness was closing down. And my nostalgia for that time has been at times an "intense longing," and "a pang, almost a pain." I suppose everyone has nostalgia for their young adulthood, particularly when they first start to hit middle age. But I do wonder if that nostalgia is stronger when it is for a time spent on the frontier between the productive middle-class existence to which we are all doomed/destined, and the open and anarchic freedom of the unsettled territories that are left to us.

And are there any such unsettled territories left to American youth? Where would they go now? Is that the attraction of the military and of places like Iraq and Afghanistan?


August 09, 2010

Reading Update: Masons, Comanches, and Iran

Secret Ritual and Manhood in Victorian America Mark C. Carnes

Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History S. C. Gwynne

Death to the Dictator! A Young Man Casts a Vote in Iran's 2009 Election and Pays a Devastating Price Afsaneh Mogadam

Secret Ritual is research for da nobble. I've gotten stuck (for several years) on a key chapter about 2/3s in, where one of my main characters, Leonard, is living in a Martian mining colony (in 1899; it's an alternate history: the gold rush on Mars.) It's an all-male society (something I'll never have any experience with) and something needs to happen to send Leonard running away from the mine.

Note: Leo's gay, and my original thought was that there would be some violence around that, but it was too simplistic, and when I wrote the scene, it just didn't feel right. I don't understand what sexual dynamics would be in a 19th century, all-male, gold rush mining colony, and I suspect it'll be impossible to find any primary sources that address the topic directly. But I can't imagine that guys stuck out there with no women for miles, for months on end, wouldn't be getting down with each other ... at least some of them. So how would they work out the dynamics of such a situation?

One thing that I was thinking of focusing on was a cult the miners have developed. I thought Leo could be initiated into the cult, and have some sort of symbolic reckoning with his manhood that way, rather than addressing the sexuality issue directly. So when I saw the title of Carnes' book, I thought that would be the one for me.

And it was! The book is about fraternal organizations (Masons, Odd Fellows, etc.) and their rise during the latter half of the 19th century. Carnes sez that the main attraction of fraternal orgs in the 19th century, after they had gotten rid of the drinking and carousing that characterized them in the 18th, was the initiatory ritual. The ritual took them back to before Christianity (Christianity after the Second Great Awakening had become increasingly liberal and feminized) and (re)imposed a set of masculine values, and an emotional experience intended to appeal to men whose roles in society were changing rapidly.

So I got some good ideas about how to structure the initiation ritual (which was completely stumping me.) Now I'm reading Jolly Fellows, about male milieus in the same era, which should help me with dynamics some more. And I have a few more books to check out, too. Just a word: Secret Ritual is, for the most part, highly readable. There are some boggy requisite academic sections that twiddle with theory, but Carnes makes his way through his argument with expedition.

Empire of the Summer Moon actually helped me with da nobble too. In this alternate timeline, the U.S. has withdrawn from the Louisiana Purchase territories, and Mexico has sponsored a sort of federated Indian buffer state between its U.S. holdings in Alta California and Texas, and the new/old shape of the U.S. behind the Mississippi. (New Mexico and Texas are part of the Indian Federation, but Texas has an American contingent that won't leave, and New Mexico has a Mexican contingent that won't leave, and ... well, it gets complicated from here, and it's not a main part of the nobble.)

I was thinking earlier that the Federation would be led by Plains nations, but particularly by the Sioux (since they hold such pride of place within the American imagination,) but after reading Empire I'm thinking we can get more complex with it and have the Comanches doing their thing as well. The book makes the argument that the Comanches -- during the early to mid 19th century the best light cavalry in the world -- managed to turn back the tide of white settlement in the southern part of the plains for a couple of decades.

The book is particularly fascinated by Quanah Parker, the mixed-race child of Comanche chief Peta Nokona and Cynthia Parker, a white woman captured and adopted by Comanches as a child. Parker was wildly successful as a war chief during the last period of the Comanche "empire" on the plains, and then managed to reinvent himself  as a wildly successful assimilated reservation Indian when he saw the writing on the wall. He was an effective leader in getting his people to adapt their existing culture, but was unable to get a people raised free on the plains to adapt to sedentary farming life. Imagine, though, if the Comanches had gotten a new lease on their plains life -- at the cost of allying themselves with other plains tribes. I think maybe Quanah Parker could have managed it.

The book is an incredibly fun and interesting read, well-written as a cracking good tale, and without pulling any punches about either Indian atrocities, or Western mendacity and betrayal.

Death to the Dictator is a very engaging, and very fast, read. It's the true story (I think, can't seem to find information) of a young man who gets involved in the election campaign and subsequent protests in Tehran during the 2009 Iranian election (in which the opposition leader, expected to win, lost amid huge protests claiming fraud.) More than that, though, it's a view, from the ground, of what that historic episode was about. Not a lot of history is sketched out here, but enough to ground even the most ignorant reader (namely, me) in the context of last year's happenings. More than that, even, it's a portrait of the young adult generation of urban Iran: their attitudes, fears, concerns, blind-spots, and courage. I highly recommend this book. (Warning: he is arrested and subjected to torture and rape, so some of this might be triggering.)

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