January 12, 2013

Urban Fantasy Structures and Definitions III

OMG, so entirely this:

Urban fantasy is pretty much the only genre today exploring not only the ethics of power and consent, but also serious questions of violence and gender relations from a primarily female point of view.

And then, this:

The responses of female protagonists to violence lies at the heart of the moral and ethical ambiguity that makes for good urban fantasy. Our culture is horrified at the idea of the Dark Feminine--the woman who demands for herself the right of violence and doesn't feel bad about it.

And this:

The simple move of violating our expectations by placing a woman in the position to dish out the hurt introduces a lot more gray into areas normally considered black and white. Questions like When is violence acceptable? or What is justice, and can it be administered personally? become questions with no right answer, questions we must re-examine.

Which I don't really agree with. It would, if most UF didn't present female violence with the same lack of thoughtfulness with which action presents male violence. But it's not often reflected on, so it's often just transferring the violence over into hot wimmin bodies. Even Buffy did a lot of this.

But then, this:

The use of magic in UF is also particularly telling. Magic in fiction is the time-honored way of slipping a hand up the skirt of convention and giving her something to smile mysteriously about. It's a way to frame deep questions without getting boring; a way to explore what-ifs. Every urban fantasy novel worth its salt has magic that costs something, whether it's cash, blood, innocence, or just plain physical energy. Magic also allows more gray spaces to be opened up, so the ambiguity can breathe.

Again, word, but only if it actually DID that, instead of knee-jerkingly imposing magic on the proceedings because that's what the ladeez wants.

January 11, 2013

Urban Fantasy Structures and Definitions II

And there's this:

"There is simply something fascinating about vampires and werewolves. If there wasn't, there wouldn't be so many movies about the damned things. Or so many books. Or legends. There is something about the notion of great power coming with an awful curse, the notion of a man becoming both more than a man and less of a man at the same time that inspires the imagination. Whether it be the horror a man experiences as he loses the very things he never knew he held so dear and having to suffer that loss for all eternity, or the notion of becoming something so uncontrollable that a man would want nothing more than to die, if only for that single moment of peace. Talk all you want about those 'cheesy old Universal monster movies', but by god, those movies had heart. Those movies had soul. Those movies dealt with the very essence of what it was to be human.

Those 'cheesy old monster movies' managed to understand the very essence of what those crazy old legends were really all about.

But maybe that isn't what you like about Vampire/werewolf lore. Maybe you simply love the sheer fright of the notion of these once human beasts prowling the night, with the ability to suck a person dry of every last drop of blood whilst they slept or tear a grown man limb from limb in a heartbeat."

From here. Gotta remember this. But change "man" to "woman." This reviewer was right in saying that Underworld was structurally flawed because it was The Matrix told from Trinity's point of view. This is only ridiculous if you don't completely commit to telling The Matrix from Trinity's pov. If you do (and Underworld didn't, it's true) then you have something pretty damn cool, very urban fantasy-y, and dealing with WOMEN's issues and not men's, the way The Matrix did.

Anyway ...

January 10, 2013

Urban Fantasy Structures and Definitions

So I'm starting to see if I can put together an urban fantasy novel (and/or series) entirely by pre-plotting it. If it doesn't work, I won't write it. But I want to try writing this way, since I've never tried it. (I always start with a concept, a basic plot, even possibly an ending ... and nothing else. Then I start writing and see where it goes, leading to spending three years on a short story and ten years -- and counting -- on a novel. Trying something new now.)

So right now I'm investigating the urban fantasy novel formula. And I'm reading stuff I wanna respond to. Let's start with Carrie Vaughn's series of short posts on this (in which she never lays out the actual formula.) She does enumerate annoying clichés, though, and also says this:

I can’t help but look at the popularity of urban fantasy and ask, What is this symptomatic of? What anxiety in our culture is being expressed so eloquently in these works that they’re striking such a powerful chord in the readership, leading to phenomenal popularity?

The answer is pretty simple: these books are symptomatic of an anxiety about women and power. We have made so many gains over the last few decades. Women really can do anything, pursue nearly any career, become influential and powerful in any area. And yet. Women are still ostracized for appearing powerful. Women are still told that their role is to be deferential, nurturing, humble, self-deprecating, and they’re still criticized and marginalized when they don’t fit conventional images of femininity. Women still have to fight for acceptance in so many areas. You think this dichotomy, these mixed messages, aren’t real? Look at the coverage of Hillary Clinton’s (aka The Bitch) and Sarah Palin’s (aka Caribou Barbie) runs for office and get back to me.

So many of my pet peeves are symptomatic of this conflict: these aggressive yet conflicted women characters who are simultaneously strong yet exhibit low self esteems, who kick ass with violence but submit to the sexy alpha male. Another symptom: so many of these books only have one strong woman character, and many other female characters are stereotypical and inconsequential. Maybe lots of urban fantasy isn’t really about strong women, but about one special, chosen woman. (Thank you, Suzy McKee Charnas, for articulating this so well at Bubonicon.) There’s still anxiety about toppling the status quo. It’s possible in these worlds to have a strong woman, but not strong women.

I have to say that it's interesting to see her looking at the anxieties these fictions work on from the outside (i.e. NOT from the pov of the writers and readers.) But I think you also have to look at them from the pov of the people whose wishes are being fulfilled, i.e. the writers and readers, who are all or mostly urban professional women of childbearing (read: dating/marrying/relationships-with-men-having) age. And it's clear that these books are dealing with the confusion and anxieties of these women themselves, who want a number of conflicting things. Among these conflicting things are:

  • Personal power: the power to be and do what you want in life and in the world.
  • Negotiating power in your relationships; equality with your partner.
  • Kickassedness: the ability to protect yourself against exploitation, violence, oppression; but also the ability to appear very cool, to protect yourself in cool-looking and -seeming ways, not in gross or questionable ways. (e.g.: directly kicking someone's ass rather than being manipulative.)
  • Desirability: to men, that is. Most of these novels give very little thought to being a desirable friend/coworker/associate, much less lover, to women. Yes, sexual desirability. But only to men. This is heteronormativity, yes, but it's also about the kind of desirability that is the most problematic for urban career women. The wish being fulfilled here is to be desirable without negative consequences. (ETA: reading over this now and realizing how this sounds. I meant: sexual desirability to people with whom you have a massive, society-wide, gender-based power differential. And wanting to be desirable to them without incurring the negative consequences of being less powerful than they are. That's all.)
  • Competence: in life, but mostly in career. This never crosses over into desirability, i.e. being a desirable worker to employers and coworkers. That desirability is taken for granted, interestingly. Our heroines never have to stress about applying for a job, or even for a promotion. However, the wish fulfillment is to (grudgingly AND willingly) be acknowledged as competent/great by bosses and coworkers, who are mostly or entirely male.
  • A traditionally masculine man, who wants a contemporary, powerful woman: HA! The biggest crock, but also one of the biggest wishes being fulfilled. This one is the most regressive, but possibly the most understandable. It's wish fulfillment for women who were raised to desire the traditionally beautiful and masculine alpha male -- women for whom alternative masculinities have never been effectively promoted -- but were also raised post-second-wave-feminist, i.e. raised to take advantage of and expect to be treated as equals. This item is the one that shows up the biggest failure of second (and third) wave feminism: its failure to not just conceive of, but also actively promote, alternative masculine roles that work with the alternative roles for women we've essentially pushed through.
  • Outsider status: although all these conflicts and anxieties and desires are common and mainstream, there's still the desire to stand outside of the mainstream, to be special and also be to be a bit oppressed. This is partly adolescent, partly American (wherein our entire identity hinges on overcoming challenges and being individual), and partly guilty-white-girl. The last one is why so many urban fantasy heroines are mixed race (never just poc, though.) In this post-civil-rights-movement era, outsider status is most quickly vouchsafed by being a person of color. But, of course, no white woman REALLY dreams of being black, so it's always American Indian or Asian (although the half-Asians are usually the sidekicks.)
There are more, I'm sure, but these are the ones jumping out at me. No conclusions right now. More soon.

January 08, 2013

How to Stay in Touch with Friends When Sick?

Just had brunch with Praba this morning (at Brown Sugar Kitchen!) and it was the first time in a minute that I'd seen her. That's the suckiest thing about being sick: you don't have the energy to keep up with friends. And with Praba dealing with health issues too, it's even harder for us to keep up. (Although, I have to say, we keep up better than some well friends I know ...)

So we talked about how to maintain -- health, sanity, relationships -- and I told her about how I've been considering lately how to reach out to my friends in a way that actually works for me in this illness.

The first thing is to let everyone know that I'm sick and what the sickness is. What it does to me.

Then I have to figure out what kind of interaction I want with my friends. This is the big problem. Because I lose touch with people precisely because I don't have the energy to talk on the phone, or email, much less meet with them. I want to let my friends know that I need them to take responsibility for contacting me regularly, because I can't be relied upon to do that. But I'm not sure how capable I'm going to be of responding to their contacts.

Sigh. It's confusing. And difficult.

Anyone have any thoughts?

January 05, 2013

What I Read in 2012

  1. Terry Pratchett Guards! Guards!
  2. Terry Pratchett Men at Arms
  3. Terry Pratchett Feet of Clay
  4. Terry Pratchett Jingo
  5. Terry Pratchett The Fifth Elephant
  6. Terry Pratchett Night Watch
  7. Terry Pratchett Thud!
  8. Terry Pratchett Snuff
  9. E.C. Myers Fair Coin
  10. Naomi Novik Will Supervillains Be on the Final?
  11. Faith Hunter Raven Cursed
  12. Kim Harrison A Perfect Blood
  13. Diana Rowland Sins of the Demon
  14. Naomi Novik Crucible of Gold
  15. The entire Patricia Briggs Mercy Thompson series (reread)
  16. Seanan McGuire Discount Armageddon
  17. Robin Hobb Assassin's Apprentice
  18. Robin Hobb Royal Assassin
  19. Robin Hobb Assassin's Quest
  20. The entire Carrie Vaughn Kitty Norville series (reread)
  21. Robin Hobb Fool's Errand
  22. Robin Hobb Golden Fool
  23. Robin Hobb Fool's Fate
  24. Holly Black Black Heart
  25. The Hunger Games series (reread)
  26. Kristin Cashore Bitterblue
  27. Patricia Briggs Bloodbound
  28. The entire Patricia Briggs Alpha and Omega series (reread)
  29. Faith Hunter Mercy Blade
  30. C.E. Murphy Urban Shaman
  31. C.E. Murphy Thunderbird Falls
  32. C.E. Murphy Walking Dead
  33. C.E. Murphy Coyote Dreams
  34. C.E. Murphy Winter Moon
  35. C.E. Murphy Demon Hunts
  36. C.E. Murphy Spirit Dances
  37. C.E. Murphy Raven Calls
  38. C.E. Murphy Heart of Stone
  39. Ilona Andrews Gunmetal Magic
  40. Ilona Andrews Magic Dreams
  41. Carrie Vaughn Kitty Steals the Show
  42. Saima Wahab In My Father's Country
  43. Faith Hunter Cat Tales
  44. Kalayna Price Grave Witch
  45. Kalayna Price Grave Dance
  46. Kalayna Price Grave Memory

And this is where I stopped updating, sometime in ... August? In August, I think. The Chronic Fatigue Syndrome was worse this year than the previous two years and didn't let up when the summer was over. Also, I had to work through it so I was even more exhausted. So I did a LOT of rereads (which are comforting and unchallenging) especially of urban fantasy series (which are comforting and unchallenging) so it didn't really seem worth mentioning. But here, in no particular order and with no guarantee of completeness, are some of the new reads I completed since then:

  1. Seanan McGuire Ashes of Honor
  2. E. Lockhart The Boyfriend List series (four books)
  3. Diana Wynne Jones The Chronicles of Chrestomanci (five books)
  4. Mira Grant The Newsflesh Trilogy (three books, obviously)
  5. Seanan McGuire Velveteen vs. the Junior Super-Patriots
  6. Rachel Vincent Stray
  7. Stacia Kane Unholy Ghosts
  8. Lilith Saintcrow Night Shift

I know among my rereads was Harry Potter, Temeraire, all the Kristen Cashores, and the Ellen Kushners ... sigh, oh well, I'm not gonna remember. And it doesn't matter.

I seem to have torn through all the good woman-centered urban fantasy series and am now scraping the bottom of the barrel: series involving wish fulfillment about men controlling women in (apparently to others) sexy ways. Yuk. Stray was like that. And ... there was another one, whose title I've forgotten. No other female characters, but lots of vampires and werewolves telling our heroine what to do and she not objecting very much. Ugh. Oh well.

It's occurred to me this past week that something productive should come of reading (and rereading) so much urban fantasy: I should be able to write some. I've decided to see if I can come up with a good series -- but not in the usual organic way I write fiction. Rather, I'm going to try to outline a series, book by book, in detail; structure it from the ground up. And only write it if I can figure out the whole story beforehand. I don't know if I have the energy for this, but I'm going to try. Fun!

January 01, 2013

New Year's Resolution

I'm not sure why exactly, but reading GGP's account of his two-months' struggle with a rather mysterious illness has just kicked me in the ass a bit. I'm going to make an actual resolution for 2013 ... maybe two.

  1. I'm going to write in this here blog every week. I've been too unmotivated -- lacking in energy -- to write. But I'm going to do it, even if I have nothing to write about. And I'll write short.
  2. Get on top of this stupid disease: go to the Chronic Fatigue Syndrome clinic in Palo Alto. I forget what it's called. But I'm going to go. And I'm going to do what they tell me. And I'm going to try every stupid California new age acupusher thing that crosses my path.

September 13, 2012

How to Write a Grant Proposal

ETA: After reading a bunch of "How To Write A Grant Proposal" articles online, I realized that the grantwriting landscape for other sectors must be different. So please note that this post is written from the point of view of a grant writer and grants panelist in the nonprofit arts sector specifically. All such grants I've encountered so far have very specific application forms and sets of questions, which is why I didn't include a format for the grant narrative here.

I wrote this post at Hyphen magazine in 2005 after I'd sat on a couple of grantmakers' review panels and seen the horrific mistakes so many people make when they write grant proposals. Then Hyphen switched platforms and the formatting got all screwed up so you can't really read the post anymore. And in the past few years I've wanted to send people to this post because I think there's some good info in here. So I'm reposting (most of) it here, with proper formatting. I'm also adding some new info, so it's not exactly the same post. Oh well.

HOW TO WRITE A GRANT PROPOSAL:

  1. RESEARCH FUNDERS: DATABASES. Find a database of funders/grantmakers and research the ones who make grants in your geographical area and in your field. If you're a complete beginner, go to the Foundation Center's website. They have lots of resources and tips and hold grantwriting seminars all over the U.S. Webinars, too. They also have a database you can use online for a fee (or in one of their locations for free.) Once you've made up a list of funders you need to whittle this list down. Look at specifics, including: what kinds of programs do they fund really; how many grants do they make each year (i.e. do they hand out enough grants to include new orgs?), how large are their grants (i.e.: is it worth your while to write this grant for the amount of money they're giving?), which specific organizations have they funded recently? (i.e.: do they fund organizations like yours?), what is their schedule? (i.e.: if they don't have a deadline, when is the best time for you to submit your grant?), etc. If a funder's guidelines fit you perfectly, but they only give out three grants a year to three orgs which are 10 times your size, then this is not a realistic prospect. Look for the ones who give out lots of grants of different sizes to orgs of different sizes. Look for the ones who specifically are looking for new orgs to fund.
  2. RESEARCH FUNDERS: FUNDERS' WEBSITES: Once you have a more realistic list, go look up each funder's website and read all the information there. Often, their website will give you a lot more to go on, including: their mission, their intentions with specific grant programs, more about whom they've funded in the past, etc. They'll also usually have their actual grant application available for download on their website, which you need to read thoroughly.
  3. FIND OUT WHAT THE FUNDER'S REAL CRITERIA ARE. I cannot emphasize this enough. A lot of grant application questions are worded vaguely. Do not break your brain figuring out what information they want from you. Find it out from them directly (see #4). If your programs do not fit in with their criteria, don't write the proposal. Do not convince yourself that you should try it anyway. There are always more applicants than money and the funders will be deciding among the applicants who clearly fit their criteria. The ones who clearly don't fit their criteria will be the first into the circular file. Which leads us to:
  4. CALL AND TALK TO A PROGRAM OFFICER IN DETAIL. That's what the program officers are there for. They would vastly prefer wasting ten minutes of their day running through your programs with you on the phone and finding out right then that you don't fit in with their criteria, to having to spend a few hours processing and reading your grant application and making the whole panel read it only to discover the same thing. Save yourself and everyone time and work and talk to the program officer first. In detail. On the phone. Don't wimp out and email them. This is an opportunity to get the funders on your side. CALL them.
  5. FIND OUT WHO IS ON THE REVIEW PANEL. Are they the foundation's board members? Are they your peers (people who run similar organizations)? If your program is employing orphaned street kids in Atlantis, and the panel is made up of wealthy New York professionals, then you might have to explain to them the background and implications of your cause, and argue saving street kids over, say, saving whales. But if the panel is people who also work with third world street kids, you don't need to argue the relative value of saving street kids. You will, however, need to make a really good argument for how well your particular program works. Make the argument your audience needs to hear.
  6. GIVE THEM THE INFORMATION THEY WANT. If they want to know how your employing the orphans program fits in with their mission of saving the environment, tell them that employing the orphans who are cutting down trees for fuel will save those trees. Don't tell them that saving the orphans will cut down crime and poverty in Atlantis and bolster the self esteem of a whole generation. They may appreciate this, but they won't fund it. Answer their specific questions thoroughly and convincingly first. Then, if you have space, give them the other strong elements of your argument. But only if you've answered their questions first.
  7. DON'T BULLSHIT. Even the most naive funder will be able to tell bullshit from the real thing after reading a hundred proposals. Applicants who fit their criteria exactly will tell them so in specific language. Applicants who don't tell them so in specific language, clearly don't fit their criteria exactly. If you don't match one of their essential criteria be honest about it and tell them why you don't. They might be willing to overlook it. But if you try to cover with obfuscating language, you will be wasting their time and they won't give you the benefit of the doubt.
  8. BE SPECIFIC. Don't just tell them that you "save the environment by saving the orphans". Tell them exactly how you save the orphans ("We employ them in one of our twenty partner businesses and organizations as paid interns and then train them up to be full staff members") and exactly how this saves the environment ("The main threat to the rainforest in Atlantis is clear cutting by orphans. 90% of the children we work with were formerly engaged in illegal tree cutting. All of them learn a new, sustainable skill which takes them away from environmentally unfriendly practices for life.") Break down the elements of your program for them. Walk them through it, so they get a real, vivid idea of how your program works. The more they understand, the more they will like you.
  9. BE CLEAR. This means employing good writing techniques. Give them an overview, break it down, and then give details. Make sure your argument is clear and all the details are there to support the argument. Don't throw in extraneous shit. Stay on track and on target. Make your sentences short. Don't use lingo or big words. Funders aren't stupid, but they do have a lot of grant proposals to read. The easier yours is to read and understand, the more they will like you. And the reverse is also true. Oh yeah, and get the damn thing proofread before you send it off.
  10. GIVE THEM HARD DATA ON HOW YOUR PROGRAM/S IMPACT YOUR CONSTITUENTS. The best designed program ain't shit if it doesn't have its intended impact. If your grant doesn't show that your program is working then no one will give you money. Anecdotes are great, but evaluations are better. If you're not collecting data, start doing it now! Start evaluating your programs, and then be sure to put in a few sentences about your impact into the grant, whether they ask for it or not. "We train young people in environmentally sustainable job skills" sounds pretty good, but "We train young people in environmentally sustainable job skills. 89% of them are still in environmentally sustainable jobs 10 years later. The rain forest around our target area has recovered by 12% in the last 15 years" sounds very fundable.
  11. TAKE EVERY OPPORTUNITY THEY OFFER. If they offer a workshop on how to write grants for them, go. If they let you send them supplementary materials, get some supplementary materials together. Your goals here are two: 1) to get as clear a picture of their process as possible and 2) to give them as clear a picture of your program as possible. Don't be brief, be complete.
  12. ASK WHY YOU'RE REJECTED. If you get rejected, call them and ask them why. Ask them for notes from the grant review (if these are available to you). Get as much detail as you can from them. Be friendly and get them on your side. There is always next year, and the year after that, and the grantseeker who does his/her homework is the one they like and remember.

CAVEATS: This is about writing organizational grants. Also, keep in mind that every grant panel is different and every funder has a different process. Some of these things just aren't going to apply always. Good luck!

August 26, 2012

Reading Update: Yes, I'm Still Alive, and Still Reading Urban Fantasy

  1. Naomi Novik Crucible of Gold
  2. The entire Patricia Briggs Mercy Thompson series (reread)
  3. Seanan McGuire Discount Armageddon
  4. Robin Hobb Assassin's Apprentice
  5. Robin Hobb Royal Assassin
  6. Robin Hobb Assassin's Quest
  7. The entire Carrie Vaughn Kitty Norville series (reread)
  8. Robin Hobb Fool's Errand
  9. Robin Hobb Golden Fool
  10. Robin Hobb Fool's Fate
  11. Holly Black Black Heart
  12. The Hunger Games series (reread)
  13. Kristin Cashore Bitterblue
  14. Patricia Briggs Bloodbound
  15. The entire Patricia Briggs Alpha and Omega series (reread)
  16. Faith Hunter Mercy Blade
  17. C.E. Murphy Urban Shaman
  18. C.E. Murphy Thunderbird Falls
  19. C.E. Murphy Walking Dead
  20. C.E. Murphy Coyote Dreams
  21. C.E. Murphy Winter Moon
  22. C.E. Murphy Demon Hunts
  23. C.E. Murphy Spirit Dances
  24. C.E. Murphy Raven Calls
  25. C.E. Murphy Heart of Stone
  26. Ilona Andrews Gunmetal Magic
  27. Ilona Andrews Magic Dreams
  28. Carrie Vaughn Kitty Steals the Show
  29. Saima Wahab In My Father's Country
  30. Faith Hunter Cat Tales
  31. Kalayna Price Grave Witch
  32. Kalayna Price Grave Dance
  33. Kalayna Price Grave Memory

Well, it turns out that I didn't post about this, but around the time I stopped posting again this past spring, I was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Please note, that this is the diagnosis, not the onset of the disease. The onset happened around December 2009.

So, around the time I got the diagnosis, I realized that I actually had a pattern established, and that the disease got worse in the spring and summer and better in the fall and winter. And that is, indeed, what happened again this year.

This year's edition of Summer Slump was both better and worse than the previous years. Better because, unlike the previous two freelancey years, I had a regular, go-to-work job at KSW, and there was no one else around to keep the org afloat, so I had to do it. So I was forced to stay active. Worse for the same reason: I was forced to stay active, so what little energy I had was spoken for, and even that wasn't enough, leaving less energy than ever before for taking care of myself.

You'll notice that I have a lot of re-reads here, and most of my reading has been re-reading or catching up on the latest installments of my favorite urban fantasy series. I think it's a good indicator of my state of mind. Simply no energy to try to handle new input, only rehashes of the old input.

No other commentary. It's too hard on my brain.

Oh, wait, one other thing: my short term memory has grown so bad, from the CFS, that rereading entire series is necessary before I can read the latest installment. Sad.

March 03, 2012

Reading Update: Tired of Urban Fantasy?

Raven Cursed Faith Hunter
A Perfect Blood Kim Harrison
Sins of the Demon Diana Rowland

All of these are the latest installments of urban fantasy series I've been devouring since last year. I love the combination of mystery, horror, fantasy, and romance in the genre -- not too much of any one of these genres, each of which -- except for mystery -- is largely a turn-off for me. And I really dig that the wish-fulfillment in these series can only be fulfilled by that particular combo of elements. Because it's not something simple like needing the perfect man, or needing to be vindicated by solving a crime, or needing to cleanse the Earth of an evil, or needing to find a MacGuffin. It's all of those together, plus the complicated need of a not-super-young, urban, professional woman for self-actualization ... whatever that means.

Guilty pleasures though they be, good books in this genre manage a real socio-cultural balancing act in pushing so many buttons at once, but not pushing them too hard; and in moving the character arc forward book-by-book, without either resolving too much, or repeating the central conflict over and over.

However. I'm starting to get tired of the genre. None of these latest installments really got me excited. Maybe it's because I read the series that each of them belongs to all at once, and then had to wait for the next book and kind of forgot the last book in the meantime. But I also think I've sucked the genre dry, and am sated. Pun intended.

Also! I'm tired of Kim Harrison using mixed-white-Asian features as an attention-getter, without any culture backing it up. And duuuuude, Diana Rowland actually wrote "oriental" in reference to her mixed-white-Asian character's featurs at the end of Sins of the Demon. That is SO not okay. Dude, hasn't she read Said?

I'm feeling a need for nonfiction right now. I've got a couple of ideas lined up. Stay tuned.

February 20, 2012

Reading Update: Stuff, Bored

  • Terry Pratchett Guards! Guards!
  • Terry Pratchett Men at Arms
  • Terry Pratchett Feet of Clay
  • Terry Pratchett Jingo
  • Terry Pratchett The Fifth Elephant
  • Terry Pratchett Night Watch
  • Terry Pratchett Thud!
  • Terry Pratchett Snuff
  • E.C. Myers Fair Coin
  • Naomi Novik Will Supervillains Be on the Final?

I feel like there should be more books on this list. I've started a number of books and read a ways into them, and then abandoned them because they're nonfiction and I find it easy to abandon nonfiction, or because they bored me. I can think of at least three offhand.

Anyway, I got the latest Terry Pratchett (Snuff) for xmas (thanks, Uncle Chris!) and felt I had to read through the whole Watch series because I'd forgotten so much. Now I kinda wish I hadn't. Sam Vimes started out as a loser with nothing going for him but shrewdness and an outraged sense of justice. But as the series goes on, Pratchett retcons more and more badassness into him, until he becomes a middle-aged crouching tiger. It's boring and macho and it takes away everything I loved about Vimes. Snuff was unusually bad -- not the usual Pratchett bad, which is still good, but bad in the sense that the pacing was off, the tone was uneven, it didn't feel like a completed book-bad.

I'll be reviewing Fair Coin for Hyphen magazine online.

The Novik graphic nov is okay, but not particularly exciting. Partly because I hate manga-style drawing, and this is about as generically manga as it gets. But the main character isn't much of one yet; she's characterized mainly by being persecuted by a supervillain without her knowledge. This kind of passive character -- who responds to balls thrown at her -- bores me. We got through the entire first book without her having taken agency. Boring. I hope that gets fixed soon.

I might be running out of steam on the urban fantasy thing, because there are new Jane Yellowrock, Diana Rowland, and Ilona Andrews books out, and I'm finding them all hard going.

I might go through a biography phase. We'll see.

January 02, 2012

2012 Resolutions

Sigh.

There's basically only one: figure out this health thing and get on top of it.

That includes some sub-resolutions, though, including:

  • Talking to my GP this week
  • Trying out the gluten-free diet
  • Getting health insurance
  • Maybe visiting the Mayo clinic, if my hypothetical health insurance will pay for it
  • Getting acupuncture
  • Doing exercise every day, no matter what
  • Working on going to bed early and getting not only enough sleep, but the right kind of sleep
  • etc.

I'm so boring.

What I Read in 2011

  1. Graceling Kristin Cashore
  2. Fire Kristin Cashore
  3. Disgrace J.M. Coetzee
  4. Buffy Season 8 Vols. 1-7
  5. Bud, not Buddy Christopher Paul Curtis
  6. Diwata Barbara Jane Reyes
  7. Nine Rules to Break When Romancing a Rake Sarah Maclean
  8. Ten Ways to Be Adored When Landing a Lord Sarah Maclean
  9. Faking It Jennifer Crusie
  10. Welcome to Temptation Jennifer Crusie
  11. Chinatown Beat Henry Chang
  12. Rosemary and Rue Seanan McGuire
  13. A Local Habitation Seanan McGuire
  14. An Artificial Night Seanan McGuire
  15. Open Andre Agassi
  16. Mark of the Demon Diana Rowland
  17. Blood of the Demon Diana Rowland
  18. Secrets of the Demon Diana Rowland
  19. Moon Called Patricia Briggs
  20. Blood Bound Patricia Briggs
  21. Iron Kissed Patricia Briggs
  22. Bone Crossed Patricia Briggs 
  23. Silver Borne Patricia Briggs
  24. Fight Club Chuck Palahniuk
  25. Huntress Malinda Lo
  26. Beauty and the Beast Robin McKinley
  27. Speak Laurie Halse Anderson
  28. Late Eclipses Seanan McGuire
  29. River Marked Patricia Briggs
  30. Cry Wolf Patricia Briggs
  31. Hunting Ground Patricia Briggs
  32. The Thief Megan Whalen Turner
  33. The Queen of Attolia Megan Whalen Turner
  34. The King of Attolia Megan Whalen Turner
  35.  A Conspiracy of Kings Megan Whalen Turner
  36. Blood and Chocolate Annette Curtis Klause
  37. Patricia Briggs Moon Called
  38. Faith Hunter Skinwalker
  39. Faith Hunter Blood Cross
  40. Faith Hunter Mercy Blade
  41. Michael Frost and Holly Black White Cat
  42. Holly Black Red Glove
  43. Ilona Andrews On the Edge
  44. Ilona Andrews Bayou Moon
  45. Ilona Andrews Magic Bites
  46. Ilona Andrews Magic Burns
  47. Ilona Andrews Magic Strikes
  48. Ilona Andrews Magic Bleeds
  49. Patricia Briggs Masques
  50. Patricia Briggs Wolfsbane
  51. Patricia Briggs Steal the Dragon
  52. Patricia Briggs The Hob's Bargain
  53. Patricia Briggs Dragon Bones
  54. Patricia Briggs Dragon Blood
  55. Patricia Briggs Raven's Shadow
  56. Patricia Briggs Raven's Strike
  57. Kathryn Harrison The Kiss
  58. Hat Full of Sky Terry Pratchett
  59. Wintersmith Terry Pratchett
  60. I Shall Wear Midnight Terry Pratchett
  61. Kitty and the Midnight Hour Carrie Vaughn
  62. Kitty Goes to Washington Carrie Vaughn
  63. Kitty Takes a Holiday Carrie Vaughn
  64. Kitty and the Silver Bullet Carrie Vaughn
  65. Kitty and the Dead Man's Hand Carrie Vaughn
  66. Kitty Raises Hell Carrie Vaughn
  67. Kitty's House of Horrors Carrie Vaughn
  68. Kitty Goes to War Carrie Vaughn
  69. Voices of Dragons Carrie Vaughn
  70. Leche R. Zamora Linmark
  71. Cold Magic Kate Elliott
  72. Magic Slays Ilona Andrews
  73. Kitty's Big Trouble Carrie Vaughn
  74. Carrie Vaughan Steel
  75. Scott Lynch The Lies of Locke Lamora
  76. J.K. Rowling Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone
  77. J.K. Rowling Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
  78. J.K. Rowling Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
  79. J.K. Rowling Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
  80. J.K. Rowling Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
  81. J.K. Rowling Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince
  82. J.K. Rowling Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
  83. a friend's novel MS
  84. Tess Gerritsen The Silent Girl
  85. Patti Smith Just Kids
  86. The Power of Six Pittacus Lore 
  87. Knightley Academy Violet Haberdasher 
  88. The Secret Prince Violet Haberdasher 
  89. One Salt Sea Seanan McGuire 
  90. Goliath Scott Westerfeld 
  91. The Girl of Fire and Thorns Rae Carson 
  92. Drink, Slay, Love Sarah Beth Durst 
  93. Cold Fire Kate Elliott 
  94. Wolf Mark Joseph Bruchac
  95. Alanna Tamora Pierce 
  96. In the Hand of the Goddess Tamora Pierce 
  97. The Woman Who Rides Like a Man Tamora Pierce
  98. Lioness Rampant Tamora Pierce 
  99. Trickster's Choice Tamora Pierce 
  100. Trickster's Queen Tamora Pierce 
  101. Leviathan Scott Westerfeld 
  102. Behemoth Scott Westerfeld 
  103. The Thief Megan Whalen Turner 
  104. The Queen of Attolia Megan Whalen Turner 
  105. The King of Attolia Megan Whalen Turner 
  106. A Conspiracy of Kings Megan Whalen Turner 
  107. White Cat Holly Black 
  108. Red Glove Holly Black 
  109. Graceling Kristin Cashore 
  110. Cold Magic Kate Elliott
  111. Wolf Mark Joseph Bruchac
  112. Daugther of Smoke and Bone Laini Taylor
  113. Troubled Waters Sharon Shinn
  114. A Posse of Princesses Sherwood Smith
  115. Coronets and Steel Sherwood Smith
  116. Mastiff Tamora Pierce
  117. The Grimm Legacy Polly Shulman
  118. Blood Spirits Sherwood Smith
  119. The Trouble With Kings Sherwood Smith
  120. Crown Duel Sherwood Smith
  121. Dead Witch Walking Kim Harrison
  122. The Good, The Bad, and the Undead Kim Harrison
  123. Every Which Way But Dead Kim Harrison
  124. A Fistful of Charms Kim Harrison
  125. For a Few Demons More Kim Harrison
  126. The Outlaw Demon Wails Kim Harrison
  127. White Witch, Black Curse Kim Harrison
  128. Black Magic Sanction Kim Harrison
  129. Pale Demon Kim Harrison

ETA: Whoops. I allowed this to automatically post without finishing it. I started this post at the beginning of the year and just added books to it as I read. I set it to post automatically on Jan. 2.

Anyway. As you can probably tell, Kristen Cashore's Graceling is my comfort read of choice. Love that book! Can't wait for her new one to come out next this year.

Read a few memoirs this year: Andre Agassi's Open, Patti Smith's Just Kids, and, finally, Kathryn Harrison's The Kiss; all "celebrated" and talked about memoirs, and all worth reading for various reasons. The Kiss has all the faults and stupidities that I hate in popular "literary" memoir: the deadness of emotion that seems so trendy, the exact sort of "poetic" language that contributes to said deadness, the beautification of an ugly and sordid episode in someone's life, etc. But it was good to read the book that -- sort of -- started it all. Smith's Just Kids was a celebrity tell-all memoir written by a poet -- albeit a poet who never grew past adolescence, a permanent Rimbaud. There are a LOT of hints in the book as to why she's stuck in that stage, artistically, not least that she disembodies herself in her work and takes on male personas (physical personas.) And the ghost writer of Agassi's memoir is simply a terrific biographer and ventriloquist, who wrote a wonderful book about drive, obsession, and what it takes to be a top competitor and athlete.

I read a LOTTTT of series in the "urban fantasy" or "paranormal romance" vein. Still not sure which these are. Seanan McGuire's October Daye series (plus I met McGuire at Wiscon, in an elevator, and drooled on her!), Diana Rowland's demon series, Patricia Briggs' werewolf serieses (how do you indicate more than one series?), Faith Hunter's skinwalker series, Ilona Andrew's Kate Daniels series and Edge series (the first another werewolf/demon thingy, and the second definitely a world in which paranormal romances take place), Carrie Vaughn's Kitty werewolf series, and finally, Kim Harrison's witch series. LOVE. All of them. Of course, they're trash of the highest order, but oh, what middle-aged woman wish fulfillment! I love how most of the heroines are in their early thirties, are mixed race (or have a mixed-race best friend; it's all about the exoticism and wish fulfillment, ladeez!), kick much ass, and have these sensitive, macho, alpha males as suitors. Doesn't say ANYTHING about me, does it?

And finally, did a lot of YA again, although nothing that really stands out, although I did re-read the stuff that I loved, including Graceling, and the Megan Whalen Turner series. Oh, and I really dug Drink, Slay, Love, and not just because of the title. Unicorns and vampires! Yay!

The only really serious reading I did was reviews for Hyphen. I should do more of those.

And I read more actual books this year, although so many were re-reads ... because I was reading so much comfort food. It's all about the illness, I'm afraid. I think I'll try to read slightly more challenging stuff in 2012, but there will still be a lot of comfort food.

October 11, 2011

Overdue Reading Update

Whatever is wrong with me, it's causing me ups and downs in energy and attention. My focus, attention span, and even memory are all suffering. And I've been finding myself craving comfort reads -- especially things I've read before and loved -- just like when I was a kid.

August and September were pretty bad this year, just like June and July were last year. So I did a LOT of re-reads. I suppose it might be interesting to pick apart what so comforts me about those books, but I probably won't do it.

New reads:

The Power of Six Pittacus Lore
Knightley Academy Violet Haberdasher
The Secret Prince Violet Haberdasher
One Salt Sea Seanan McGuire
Goliath Scott Westerfeld
The Girl of Fire and Thorns Rae Carson
Drink, Slay, Love Sarah Beth Durst
Cold Fire Kate Elliott
Wolf Mark Joseph Bruchac

The Pittacus Lore I Am Number Four series -- about nine human-looking aliens hiding on Earth from their enemies, who can only kill them in numerical order -- is forgettable but fun. I'm going to continue reading. I'm rather enjoying the Knightley Academy series, and will continue, but am hoping that it will get into more complex ideas about violence and whether we really need it. It takes place in an alternate England that has done away with miliarism by law, but Scotland looks like it's militarizing in secret and about to invade. The action of the series seems to want to bring militarism back as an unalloyed good. We'll see.

Seanan McGuire never disappoints. In her latest October Daye novel, we get to see the fae undersea world in San Francisco Bay (accessible through Fisherman's Wharf, of course.) I was wondering when she'd bring half-Fae detective Toby Daye's long-lost daughter into the mix. I was bummed that her daughter won't be appearing in any further books (unless she pulls a really unacceptable retrofit) but was glad we finally got to see some resolution there. The finale to Scott Westerfeld's steampunk Leviathan trilogy was very satisfying, although I have to say I wasn't entirely satisfied by the romance between the two main characters. I can't really tell you why, but it just didn't get to me. But as a non-steampunk reader, I was convinced, and wouldn't mind reading more in the genre.

Rae Carson's Girl of Fire and Thorns was really well conceived and put together ... but I was horribly put off by the Christianity interwoven into the story. It takes place in a secondary fantasy world, and involves a royal marriage and politics, and rebellion ... all the stuff of classic high fantasy. But the main character carries a "Godstone" in her belly, a sign that she is chosen by God (an Abrahamic, monotheistic God) to fulfill a particular task. Her main struggle in the story is with her faith, although there's romance and adventure and all that. Having a real-world faith injected into an entirely secondary world -- especially one where all other societal relations have been recombined -- feels just as icky as a "novel" written to push a political agenda. It's a real testament to how well-written this book was that the ickiness was at war with my continued interest in the story and the characters. A lot has already been written about the fail involved in a kickass fat heroine only finding her confidence after she loses weight, so I won't add to it except to say: "boo!"

Drink, Slay, Love: awrsum! A unicorn stabs a teen-girl vampire, giving her the ability to withstand the sun -- but also giving her her conscience back. Now she has to deal with her scary vamp family insisting she use her new power to lure teens into the vampire lair to be eaten, while she falls in love with a guy who might be too good to be true. Excellent from the title to the unremitting snark of the main character, to the unslacking tension between utter silliness and a remarkably taut metaphor for teen soul-searching.

Cold Fire continues Kate Elliott's excellent, slightly steampunky, Cold Magic series, but isn't as good as the first book. Cat, daughter of some sort of spirit power and a human woman, and married off to the most powerful cold mage of her time, has to escape the clutches of the mage houses and the princely powers with her clairvoyant cousin and half-panther brother, while trying to figure out how she feels about her husband. An alternate history Napoleon is pursuing them, too, with uncertain intent. All of which should be awrsum, but isn't quite. I wish she'd had more time to refine this one, because it's a bit too picaresque for the series' purpose. I think it wasn't intended to be so ambulatory; it's just that she had to wander a bit to figure out where she was going, and didn't have time to clean up properly and restructure once she figured it out. Too long, too rambling, too much getting characters across rooms. Too much awkward dialogue. The punch of high-tension moments (like the main romance finally being consummated) dissipated because the surrounding action didn't heighten the tension. Etc. Still looking forward to the conclusion, but this wasn't a can't-put-it-down read like the first one.

Wolf Mark has an incredibly promising premise: Native American skinwalker black ops veterans dealing with the everyday reality of death and loss, and the discovery of the next generation of its potential for great violence. Unfortunately, the lure of kickassery and silly black-vs.-white simplicity proved too much for it, and the last half of the book devolves into hackery. Even the characters comment on how stereotypical they're being (not a good strategy, by the way.) Yet another good premise bites the dust. Oh, I'll read the next one, if there is one -- it was good, don't get me wrong -- but it could have been great.

Re-reads:

Alanna Tamora Pierce
In the Hand of the Goddess Tamora Pierce
The Woman Who Rides Like a Man Tamora Pierce
Lioness Rampant Tamora Pierce
Trickster's Choice Tamora Pierce
Trickster's Queen Tamora Pierce
Leviathan Scott Westerfeld
Behemoth Scott Westerfeld
The Thief Megan Whalen Turner
The Queen of Attolia Megan Whalen Turner
The King of Attolia Megan Whalen Turner
A Conspiracy of Kings Megan Whalen Turner
White Cat Holly Black
Red Glove Holly Black
Graceling Kristin Cashore
Cold Magic Kate Elliott

I wonder if I should even count most of these as reads. I read more Tamora Pierce than I listed here, but decided not to list it all. She's my go-to comfort read. Dunno why. I guess it's the simplicity and the way good absolutely triumphs. I re-read Scott Westerfeld and Kate Elliott to remind myself of the previous books in the series in which there was a new release. I have to do that now, because my memory has gotten so bad.

And I re-read the Turner and Black series because I saw mentions of them on blogs and got a yen to go there again.

That is all.

August 29, 2011

Reading Update: Just Disembodied Kids

I was explaining Just Kids to a friend today and she asked me if Patti Smith was a feminist. I immediately said no, although Smith might perhaps espouse feminism if you asked her directly. There's none of it in her work, though, and none of it in this book. Instead, there's her patent desire for boys, and to be a boy, both.

Until the book came out, I was a Patti Smith fan, but I had never delved into her life and wasn't aware of her association with Robert Mapplethorpe. But reading the book made the connection between Johnny in the hallway and Mapplethorpe's delicious hustlers. It all made sense. I'm not a connoisseur of her work, but I'm noticing now that she only becomes physical in the world when she's embodying a boy figure, like in "Birdland," or "Land." Her girl-bodies are all abortive, like in "Kimberly," or "Redondo Beach."

Her physicality is borrowed. And in the book, she has to be herself, so she's not physically present. She expresses no desire, no press or pressure, no sex, no gender. She's a mind wandering through a very physically enacted world, full of drag queens and drug addicts and street hustlers -- all of whom perform and live through their bodies. For most of the book she doesn't drink or do drugs, doesn't seem to experience the sex she has, goes for long periods without sex, goes for long periods without food, fails to describe the hunger she claims she felt, and finally admits to prudishness and alienation around the transgressive physicality of Mapplethorpe's photographs.

All the men she describes have physical descriptions and auras. The women only have resumes. Although she mentions many women who affected her life, reading the book is like reading a life led by a floating mind in an all-male camp.

So it meant something completely different to me than she likely intended when I saw her disclaim a "female artist" or "woman artist" identity in an interview on Youtube from 1998. Aside from my contemptuous "Way to throw all other women artists under the bus" response, I also thought: of course you don't see yourself as a woman artist. In the arts, do you see yourself as a woman at all?

August 26, 2011

Reading Update

Carrie Vaughan Steel
Scott Lynch The Lies of Locke Lamora
J.K. Rowling Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone
J.K. Rowling Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
J.K. Rowling Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
J.K. Rowling Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
J.K. Rowling Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
J.K. Rowling Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince
J.K. Rowling Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
a friend's novel MS
Tess Gerritsen The Silent Girl

 I think I might be missing a few books in there, but I'm not sure. I've started reading physical books again, not just stuff on my kindle, so it's easy to lose track.

I went through the Harry Potter series again after I saw the last movie, and it's still really good. Rowling was able to maintain the goodies of the first three (nearly identical) books, while allowing the characters to grow up, and the overall atmosphere to grow more complex and dark. Great writing.

Carrie Vaughan's Steel was fun, but since I'm not a big pirate fan, I didn't enjoy it as much as pirate fans probably will. Loved The Lies of Locke Lamora, but got stuck on its sequel. Will be reviewing the Gerritsen for Hyphen.

August 25, 2011

Not My Fault

Today is a Bad Day. I woke up with my alarm and knew instantly that I wouldn't get up. It took me two hours of dozing off and lazing around and cuddling with my cat. At times it felt a little luxurious, but mostly I just felt the fatigue: the mild exhaustion I knew wouldn't go away with more sleep; the minor fatigue that doesn't actually prevent me from doing anything in particular; that is like fog, that retreats in a vague diameter around you as you drive forward, but doesn't dissipate, and closes in behind you as you go.

It's taken me three years, but I'm finally learning to recognize the Good Days from the Bad, on a granular level. And I'm slowly learning to recognize that Bad Days are Not My Fault. When I started to really slow down three years ago, getting these waves of energy loss and occasional fatigue, I thought it was my fault. Of course, I was still drinking then, so I could blame them on the occasional hangover (although I was becoming surprised at how aging can cause you to get a hangover from one glass of wine.) I was also still drinking caffeine at that point, so I could treat the "hangover" with caffeine.

Three years and a myriad symptoms later, I'm through with the medical concept of blame. Being a lifelong chronic illness sufferer, I actually get blamed by my doctors for new symptoms less than most women. It's not the who's to blame game that I'm over, it's the what's to blame: which illness? Which condition? Which system? What can we blame this on? What is the single, root cause of your current suffering, and which drug can take care of it?

I've been seeing the evidence for thirty years, but it finally all came together for me earlier this year when I got dizzy again. I had started having dizzy spells in 2007 and was told by the ENT that it was most likely a virus that infected my inner ear and there was nothing I could do about it, only wait for it to go away. It did and I didn't think about it again until last year when I started getting dizzy spells again. The next ENT diagnosed it as BPPV, an easily treatable condition that you treat with exercises. I did the exercises, it went away. When I ask the doctor if maybe the previous bout was also BPPV, he laughed and said probably; they just diagnose the virus first because that's the protocol.

This was disturbing, but I didn't think about it until earlier this summer when I was hit with the worst allergies I've ever had ... accompanied by a return of the dizzyness. This time, the exercises didn't work right away, and it didn't matter anyway because I was so fatigued and sick-feeling from the allergies that the dizziness was the least of my problems. When the allergies cleared up -- lo and behold -- so did the dizziness. Then I remembered that the "BPPV" had also appeared around allergy time and disappeared as allergy season died down.

I didn't consult an ENT this time. Instead, I thought about it: what if it never was a virus or BPPV at all, but was always allergies? What if allergies had affected me the way a virus did, so it was essentially a "virus" after all? What if it was both a virus and BPPV? What if there were other factors? What if he only diagnosed BPPV because that's second on the protocol? Etc.

Upshot: the dizziness went away, but I still don't know for sure what the problem was and may never do so. The main point is that the dizziness went away, and if and when it comes back, I know it will most likely go away again, and I just have to manage it until then.

And the same thoughts can be applied to all my problems. There's probably more than just one cause for everything that's wrong with me -- given how many things are wrong with me. I can't wait for the savior diagnosis. I have to just live with what's going on now, and still have a life, even if things don't get better.

Sounds depressing, but it's actually heartening. It makes me feel stronger.

July 04, 2011

Reading Update: Lotsa Trash

Hat Full of Sky Terry Pratchett
Wintersmith Terry Pratchett
I Shall Wear Midnight Terry Pratchett
Kitty and the Midnight Hour Carrie Vaughn
Kitty Goes to Washington Carrie Vaughn
Kitty Takes a Holiday Carrie Vaughn
Kitty and the Silver Bullet Carrie Vaughn
Kitty and the Dead Man's Hand Carrie Vaughn
Kitty Raises Hell Carrie Vaughn
Kitty's House of Horrors Carrie Vaughn
Kitty Goes to War Carrie Vaughn
Voices of Dragons Carrie Vaughn
Leche R. Zamora Linmark
Cold Magic Kate Elliott
Magic Slays Ilona Andrews
Kitty's Big Trouble Carrie Vaughn

The first two Terry Pratchetts were re-reads, so that I was up to snuff for the third installment of the Tiffany Aching series. Love it!, although the third was was more thoughtful and therefore dragged a bit in parts. Pratchett's not that great at thoughtful.

I also re-read Cold Magic just because. I love that book!

Am getting a little bored with Ilona Andrews' Kate Daniels series. I'm sure it pays the rent, but her Edge novels are so much better.

I got completely addicted to Carrie Vaughn's Kitty Norville series, and am surprised that she was able to maintain it for so long. But it did finally jump the shark with Kitty's Big Trouble. Yeah, that's right, "Big Trouble" as in Little China. This one takes place mostly in San Francisco's Chinatown.

But I totally loved her YA alt-history dystopish Voices of Dragons. I SO hope there's going to be a sequel, but it would be great, also, if there wasn't.

Wrote a review of Leche in Hyphen magazine. Otherwise I just don't have much to say about it. That's not a bad thing. It's just something I took in, enjoyed, spun out thoughts on, etc. There's a difference between a book that makes you think about things, and a book that makes you think about it. This was the former.

June 28, 2011

On Being Harassed in the Street

Up front I'm telling you that this is about Hollaback's "I've Got Your Back" campaign, to create an online and offline movement to end street harassment. I've donated and I hope you'll consider doing the same.

Boy, it's been a long time since I posted. Actually, the last time I posted was right around the time that I moved back to San Francisco. And I'm so glad to be back.

But I don't tell people that one of the reasons I'm so glad to be back in the city is that the amount of harassment I encounter has gone waaaaaay down. The main reason I don't mention it is that the reactions of many people break my heart. Too many people, upon being told in general that I get a lot of harassment, act uncomfortable -- with me! -- and don't offer me any sympathy, much less engage in any discussion. I'm talking about abstract conversations here, where there's no immediate danger, and all I'm doing is communicating.

It's so much worse, then, when the harassment happens in front of your friends or social circle and they do nothing or act uncomfortable with you, as if you were the one who had done something wrong. I know that those situations can be sometimes scary or emotionally heightened. But think about the general emotional orientation of someone who doesn't, when the scary moment is over, automatically offer help and sympathy to a friend who has just been verbally assaulted.

I mean, c'mon, people! How hard is it to say to your friend who was just harassed, "I'm sorry you had to deal with that," or ask her "are you alright?"

It's those simple offerings that can make the difference between you being part of the problem, and you being part of the solution. Either you kick a friend who's just been kicked, or you blow on her bruise and offer her salve. Why is that such a hard choice?

The immediate sympathy and help is key, but what's an even greater act of friendship is listening, discussing, and helping your friend to process the harassment, to understand it, contextualize it, and help render it less powerful. Treating your friend as a thinking, feeling adult who is capable of understanding what has happened to her, and capable of insight, is a really important part of being an empowered woman in a society that often treats us as meat.

And the greatest act of friendship -- and righteousness -- of all is intervening on the spot, and standing up to the harasser for and with your friend.

This last one -- standing up for your friends -- should be automatic. If it isn't, maybe it's time to think long and hard about how you were raised, and what choices you learned to make to survive. Yeah, I was a bullied kid and I threw other outcasts under the bus if it would save me ... when I was in grade school. But now I'm an adult, and every failure of mine to protect and support my friends when they are attacked is my failure, not theirs. And yes, as an adult I've failed many times, or been weak or stupid in my support. But I'm glad to say that there have also been times when I was mindful enough to succeed in supporting and backing up my friends. And I strive to be that person every day.

I'm thankful for those fierce friends of mine who have done all of these things: Jaime, Patty, Cyndie, Robynn, and others whom I'm forgetting right now. (There have been so many incidents over the years, and when I was younger I deliberately forgot about it when friends failed to support me, so I managed to also forget when they did support me.)

And I'm also remembering people who shall remain nameless -- some of them people I greatly respected -- who stood by and did nothing. And, though I forgive quickly, I'll never forget. As MLK said:

In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.

You're not alone -- in being harassed, in feeling helpless, in not knowing what to do. But tackling street harassment as it happens in front of you is your responsibility, as it is the responsibility of every citizen of a free state.

Please donate to the Hollaback "I've Got Your Back" campaign, and start (or continue) to get everyone's back on this.

May 24, 2011

Long Overdue Reading Update: Mostly Stress-Escapey Binge

I am finally ensconced, if not firmly, in my new and rather bare-looking, apartment. During the weeks leading up to the move, I mainly spent my time avoiding packing and binging on Ilona Andrews and Patricia Briggs' fantasy (yes, she's an accomplished high fantasy writer!) Here's the listing:

Patricia Briggs Moon Called
Faith Hunter Skinwalker
Faith Hunter Blood Cross
Faith Hunter Mercy Blade
Michael Frost and Holly Black White Cat
Holly Black Red Glove
Ilona Andrews On the Edge
Ilona Andrews Bayou Moon
Ilona Andrews Magic Bites
Ilona Andrews Magic Burns
Ilona Andrews Magic Strikes
Ilona Andrews Magic Bleeds
Patricia Briggs Masques
Patricia Briggs Wolfsbane
Patricia Briggs Steal the Dragon
Patricia Briggs The Hob's Bargain
Patricia Briggs Dragon Bones
Patricia Briggs Dragon Blood
Patricia Briggs Raven's Shadow
Patricia Briggs Raven's Strike
Kathryn Harrison The Kiss

I'm afraid there's too much here to comment on. But the last entry: The Kiss was a rediscovery while unpacking my books. I've made many such rediscoveries. And with my books laid out in a much more accessible way (built-in bookshelves) I think I'll be reading more rediscoveries from my "library" in the coming months. Yay!

April 27, 2011

Rewriting "Hanna"

SPOILER ALERT. Don't read any of this until you've seen the movie!

I just saw Hanna and I'm both exhilarated and disappointed. The first three quarters of the film are wonderful: fresh and exciting and great filmmaking. Then the last quarter is shit.

The film takes a fairy tale situation and forces it into interaction with an elevated version of "reality." A beautifully filmed, highly selective version of the beauties of everyday life. A girl grows up in the forest, raised by her father, who is a hunter. She reaches a point in her growth where she has to go out into the world and claim her true identity. This is all stuff of fairy tales and myths: a child of mysterious birth who is supernaturally strong and powerful. In a fairy tale she'd be a secret princess, hidden from her father the evil king. In a myth, she'd be a demi-god, child of a god and a human, hidden from the human's evil king father, or something. Her quest is to discover her true identity and claim her power and status. So far, so good.

Along the way, on her quest, she receives help from various characters; in fairy tales they'd be kind humans and figures of power: a good witch, supernatural creatures who make bargains with her, etc. In the fairy tale, people who help her get left behind, never to be heard from again.

In the film, Hanna and her hunter/woodcutter father decide it's time for her to kill the evil king -- in this case, an evil CIA project director named Marissa Wiegler. She goes to the king's castle, kills a fake version of the king, and then escapes the castle into the "real world." Once there, the movie gets really great. The castle is an underground bunker in Morocco, and Hanna wanders through Morrocco and Spain, encountering a bunch of really surprising and beautiful set pieces, including women singing while they launder clothes in a river, and a group of Roma wearing Juicy Couture singing and dancing flamenco. She also hooks up with a quirky and wonderfully written family on vacation in their minibus, and sees what a good, albeit weird, family looks like. She gets her first kiss; not from the Spanish boys we expected, but rather from the English family's young daughter.

But then the fariy tale intrudes again. The evil king turns into a combination of evil witch and big bad wolf. Hanna careens through France and Germany and ends up confronting the baddies in Berlin. And this is where the movie turns to shit. Once she leaves the weird family, things get muddy. And, as my friend Jaime pointed out, once she starts using a computer to research her past, the movie completely falls apart.

This is because, once the English family gets left behind, she reenters the realm of fairy tale, but the filmmaker/s sort of lose their grip on the structure of the fairy tale. She discovers her true identity -- she's a genetically engineered supersoldier, of course. This shouldn't be a problem, because in a "modern" fairy tale, the demi-god/prince/ss would be a genetically engineered supersoldier. There's no such thing as gods or princesses or the supernatural in this story. And that's fine. BUT, the filmmakers -- or maybe just the writers -- let the genetically engineered supersoldier narrative take over the fairy tale, and those are two completely different (and not complementary) narrative structures. So the fairy tale goes to shit, as does the CIA supersoldier program story, because the latter wasn't how the story was set up.

The first half or more of the film is expansive, showing us how big and beautiful the real world is, and hinting at the stakes for this girl in trying to leave her fairy tale and enter reality. But the film narrows, in the latter part, to a simple confrontation between her and Marissa, and Marissa's defeat stops meaning anything broader for Hanna and for the audience members who identify with her as an everyman protagonist. Hanna, as would happen in a fairy tale, leaves all the people who have helped and nurtured her behind, but the baddies, as would happen in a spy tale, follow her and kill or hurt everyone who has helped her. Hanna never looks back, never even wonders what has happened to these people. This is made even more problematic by the revelation that she's been engineered to feel less fear, less pain, and less empathy. There's no redemption or expansion for her.

So I'm gonna try rewriting this to fix it and take this from a film that could have been great, to a film that would have been great. Wanna hear it? Here I go:

In the film Hanna doesn't return to see what happens to the people she left behind. In my version, she does. She turns around and goes back, one by one, to all the people who have helped her, thus retracing her steps back to the world of people and "reality."

We have three fairy tales being referenced here: The three little pigs, Hansel and Gretel, and Little Red Riding Hood. Once she leaves the English family, we're brought into these three, and reminded that she's on a quest through the scary forest of the CIA-ordered spy world. We also have three locations: her grandmother's house, a gingerbread house inhabited by a good gnome, and a fairy tale theme park, which was a really bad choice. But the three locations are important, because she's left four people, or sets of people, behind: the English family, the grandmother, the gnome/contact, and her father. The latter three, being part of the fairy tale world, die. But the English family's fate is left ambiguous. What she has to do is "bury" the dead, and save the family.

In the film she visits her grandmother's house -- where Marissa had invaded and killed her grandmother -- long before the climax, and the scene is completely thrown away. I'd rewrite this so that the grandmother's house is an actual house (the grandmother belongs to the fairy tale world) and not an apartment, and I'd show brief scenes of the grandmother in her house, getting the message from the hunter/father that Hanna is around and probably coming, reviewing the tapes from her daughter, cooking, cleaning, etc. But Hanna doesn't visit her house before the climax.

I'd also get rid of the climax in the playground. Marissa has sent three assassins after Hanna, and this could have been a smart choice: the three little pigs as bad guys going after the protagonist wolf, Hanna. Only ... the three little pigs is all about houses. They each have a house, and they run to each succeeding house until they find the one that will protect them. So the defeat of the evil three pigs has to involve a house, not an open air playground. There are two houses in this part of the movie: the grandmother's apartment and the gingerbread house the gnome/father's contact lives in. They should have put in a third one, maybe a CIA safe house, where Hanna traps the three pigs inside and kills them by blowing up the house. Or something, some inversion of the three pigs story.

In the process of this, her father gets killed, as he does in the film. In the film he distracts the pigs from her and she runs away and he kills the pigs and gets killed by Marissa. Bad choice. What should happen is that he distracts the pigs, she runs away, then he gets killed by the pigs. Hanna hears the gunshot that kills her father, but she doesn't go back in the film. In this one, the gunshot should be the turning point for her, the point where she makes the choice between being the killer/princess/demigod she was made to be, or the real person with a real family that the film keeps hinting she could be.

In my version, she stops, struggles with herself, and goes back to find her father. The pigs catch her there, and she traps them in the house and kills them, then makes some sort of burial/goodbye gesture to him. Then she returns to the gingerbread house where, in the film, the good gnome was tortured and killed for her sake. Marissa, in the guise of Hansel and Gretel's evil witch, should be waiting for her there. Hanna then traps Marissa in the oven; in this case, the only oven in the house is a waffle iron we see the gnome/contact using to make Hanna waffles. Maybe she burns Marissa with the waffle iron, or knocks her over the head with it. Then she makes some sort of settlement with the dead gnome/contact, and leaves without killing Marissa.

Next stop, grandmother's house. Of course, Marissa gets there before she does, and the grandmother is already dead. There, Hanna has a final confrontation with Marissa, kills her with an axe, as the big bad wolf must be killed, and finds her grandmother's body. Possibly, there's a final piece of the puzzle hidden in the grandmother's house, that Marissa tried to destroy by killing the grandmother, but Hanna finds it on the grandmother's body. She then "buries" the grandmother, symbolically.

I think when Hanna sneaks into her grandmother's house, she should hear the tail end of a phone conversation between Marissa and some agents who are holding the English family. In the film, these agents are the three pigs, but in my version there are other agents. Marissa tells them to get all the information they can out of the family and then dispose of them. After dealing with Marissa and the grandmother, Hanna has another struggle: her own personal issues have been dealt with, her demons killed, her questions answered, her family buried. Does she still have a responsibility?

And, of course, the answer is yes, because her quest here is to rejoin reality. So she races back to France to try to save the family, and does so, undramatically. My version of the film ends with them walking into a police station -- not a Hollywood police station, but a police station in a rural French town on a weekday, where nothing is going on and the police are doing whatever rural French police do to while away the time. Another lovely set piece.

And that's how Claire "C's" it.

April 04, 2011

Quick Reading Update: More Binging

Patricia Briggs Cry Wolf
Patricia Briggs Hunting Ground
Megan Whalen Turner The Thief
Megan Whalen Turner The Queen of Attolia
Megan Whalen Turner The King of Attolia
Megan Whalen Turner A Conspiracy of Kings
Annette Curtis Klause Blood and Chocolate

Still not ready to write about Patricia Briggs' werewolf series and its gender politics. Later. Megan Whalen Turner's Thief series rocks pretty dang hard. Don't feel like analyzing it much right now, though. And Klause's becoming-classic Blood and Chocolate was great, too. Nice to see a werewolf world in which werewolves aren't analogies for humans but are actually something different.

March 23, 2011

Why You Still Need to be a Feminist

Here they are, in black and white (or red and blue, actually): the breakdown of male/female representation in the most elite publications in the country in 2010 from Vida. Here's the speculative fiction version from Strange Horizons, along with links to discussion of the above.

Spoiler alert: men review more books and get more books reviewed than women -- and by a factor of two to three, depending on the publication.

But then, there's a good reason why; more men are being published:

We looked at fall 2010 catalogs from 13 publishing houses, big and small. ... Only one of the houses we investigated—the boutique Penguin imprint Riverhead—came close to parity, with 55 percent of its books by men and 45 percent by women. Random House came in second, with 37 percent by women. It was downhill from there, with three publishers scoring around 30 percent—Norton, Little Brown, and Harper—and the rest 25 percent and below, including the elite literary houses Knopf (23 percent) and FSG (21 percent). Harvard University Press, the sole academic press we considered, came in at just 15 percent.

I speculated that independents ... would turn out to be more equitable than the big commercial houses. Boy, was I wrong. ... Graywolf, with 25 percent female authors, was our highest-scoring independent. The cutting-edge Brooklyn publisher Melville House came in at 20 percent. The doggedly leftist house Verso was second-to-last at 11 percent. Our lowest scorer? ... Dalkey Archive Press ... it would be nice if more than 10 percent of [their books] were by women. (In the 2011 edition of Dalkey’s much-lauded Best European Fiction series, edited by Aleksandar Hemon, 30 percent of the stories are by women.)

... these numbers we found show that the magazines are reviewing female authors in something close to the proportion of books by women published each year.

So now you know.

Of course, this plays out across all elite and desirable fields:

According to a fact sheet published last year by the AFL-CIO’s Department for Professional Employees, in 2008, women constituted 32.4 percent of all lawyers and 32.2 percent of physicians and surgeons. (We’re 68.8 percent of psychologists, 92 percent of nurses, and 50.4 percent of technical writers, the only type of writer included in the report.)

We've evened out in law school and med school ... but then we outnumber men in MFA creative writing programs, and look at the publication and review numbers. So there are actually several moments of concern.

And, of course, Jessa Crispin at Bookslut uncovers further isshoes:

After talking with editor after editor, a pattern started to emerge. "We don't get enough submissions by women." At each publication I talked to, women were submitting an average of 35% of manuscripts, poems, articles, and pitches.

Which, of course, leads us to (part of the reason) why:

There's something about the culture at some of these places listed at Vida that make me think I would never in a million years be accepted there, and after taking a sampling of some female writer friends, I'm not the only one. Take the Atlantic, for example. Their rates of publishing women were not as devastatingly horrible as, say, The New York Review of Books. (What the fuck, NYRB?) But the women they are perhaps best known for publishing are Caitlin Flanagan, who writes about how abortion is bad, sex is bad, staying at home with the kids is awesome, doing her husband's laundry gives her purpose. Also Sandra Tsing Loh, who writes about her infidelity, the breakup of her marriage, being a bad mother. There is absolutely nothing about The Atlantic that screams out to me: We are totally respectful of women and their various viewpoints, and we'd be interested in publishing the work of a single, globetrotting, pro-choice feminist who does not under any circumstance want to write about her relationships, her femininity, or her sex life.

Hm. That's starting to sound strangely familiar.

So here we are again, folks. And, as usual, my response to all of this is to want people to do something about it. Only this time, instead of giving advice to others, I'm doing something myself.

If women aren't submitting at all in the proportions in which they are actually writing (and I've made that contention myself before) then let's get women submitting their work. I'm working on a way and will have more to say about that later. But here's a beginning.

March 21, 2011

Christine's painting below is so beautiful, I've been holding off on posting anything else because it looks so great on this page I don't want it to move down. Sigh. But I have a lot of reading to update (coming up soon.)

March 13, 2011

The Apocalypse Artist on Stretcher

ShieldsSeeSaw

Hello everyone! A collaboration I worked on has just been posted on Stretcher, the local San Francisco arts webzine.

The feature is called See|Saw, and features works by artists and writers responding to each other. I was supposed to look at artist Christine Shields' work and respond to it, but she and I decided to get a little more complicated than that. She showed me a couple of her paintings, then I wrote a story responding to them. Then she read an early draft of my story and made a painting responding to that. (That's, of course, the painting you see above.)

Here's the post.

It was a really fun project and I look forward to seeing future See|Saw projects!

March 12, 2011

Reading Update: Bestiality and Violence

Patricia Briggs Bone Crossed
Patricia Briggs Silver Borne
Chuck Palahniuk Fight Club
Malinda Lo Huntress
Robin McKinley Beauty and the Beast
Seanan McGuire Late Eclipses
Patricia Briggs River Marked

Not gonna comment much here, except to say that Fight Club, which I finally read, is the male version of the woman-centered dark urban fantasies I've been bingeing on. Think about it. I might have more to say about the genre later.

McKinley's Beauty and the Beast was very readable, but not much of a departure, after all the Beauty and the Beast stuff that's happened since. Maybe this is the book that started it, who knows.

Huntress was fun, and it's always great to visit Lo's fantasy world in which same-sex relationships are a simple fact of life. But I was expecting more of an Asian fantasy world, and the world was still dominated by western fairy myths and monsters and magic. So I was disappointed there. But still good, solid YA fantasy, and beautifully written to boot.

March 10, 2011

Reading Update: Trigger Happy

Laurie Halse Anderson Speak

What a great book (despite the ending, which wrapped up a little too neatly)! A girl starts high school an outcast because of something she did over the summer: dropped by all of her friends, and incapable of speaking up for herself. It becomes clear [SPOILER], long before she addresses it, that she was raped at a party and feels disempowered and silenced as a result. Anderson does a fantastic job of layering in the symbolic and the subtle, exploring how time and growth can bring a person's power and voice back, and all the various ways in which teenage girls are silenced. I was particularly struck by how she shows girls being punished for speaking up: by their parents, teachers, classmates, and even their friends.

The protag starts out looking passive and victimized, but by the end of the book, you realize that perhaps she's the strongest character of all of these. Her instinct to be silent may be less the instinct of the eternal victim than that of the wounded predator who hides in her den to lick her wounds. When she comes roaring out at the end, it's not at all unexpected or inconsistent.

Also, I finally understand about trigger warnings. Speak was totally triggering me at the beginning, before Anderson started delving into the reasons behind the protag's ostracism. The bullying and ostracism itself was so upsetting to me that I was reading a page or so at a time and then pacing around my house (or the BART station, or wherever) yelling silently in my head at various characters in the book and memories in my head. Angry angry and frustrated. I finally realized I was doing it and managed to settle down and focus on the book -- but only by distancing myself from it somewhat.

My only quibble: the book is written in first person. It kind of (as in, very much) detracts from the power of the protag's silence when she is speaking to us throughout the book. If it had been in third person, particularly if it was sometimes close third and sometimes objective third, the times the protag spoke would have been infinitely more powerful, without the author losing the ability to get inside her head.

Otherwise, strongly recommended for teen girls and boys.

March 09, 2011

Oh My God

Gwenda has a post pointing to Ursula Le Guin talking about cursing.

Le Guin is talking essentially about the devaluation of language that's happened because everybody says and writes "shit" and "fuck" a lot.

But I just wanna say that I wish people would take the "Lord's" name in vain the way god intended. I'm really tired of hearing "Oh my gosh," as if that's somehow better than "Oh my god." "Gosh" exists for one reason only, to soften the use of the word "god" as a swear word. Since it's unchristian to swear using the epithets of the Judeo-Christian god, somehow it's more christian to swear using soundalike stand-ins for the epithets of the Judeo-Christian god (and states of lack of salvation,) instead of swearing using the names of flowers or household implements or pets, or just, I dunno, not swearing at all.

If you're gonna swear, swear, goshdarnit. Geez. Golly. Dang.

March 05, 2011

Reading Update: 40 Love Plus Demons

Rosemary and Rue Seanan McGuire
A Local Habitation Seanan McGuire
An Artificial Night Seanan McGuire
Open Andre Agassi
Mark of the Demon Diana Rowland
Blood of the Demon Diana Rowland
Secrets of the Demon Diana Rowland
Moon Called Patricia Briggs
Blood Bound Patricia Briggs
Iron Kissed Patricia Briggs

Yeah, yeah, okay, I've been bingeing. But I've never really read adult urban dark fantasy before, and it's pretty awesome. Better than the YA version so far.

I started with Seanan McGuire, at Jackie's recommendation, and loved it (just waiting for the next book to come out.) Then moved on from there via Amazon AI (that thing is very useful) to Diana Rowland. Then Amazon pointed me to another author, whose Amazon reviews complained that she was the poor woman's Patricia Briggs, so I went there. Not a lemon in the lot.

All of these are feminist-ish/dark fantasy/mysteries with just a touch of romance thrown in. (A lot of genre has requisite sex, but the development of romantic relationships is woven into the plot well and importantly enough to make these romances-ish.)

The Seanan McGuire series centers around October Daye, a "changeling" (misnomer: the series uses this to refer to mixed-blood fairies/humans) detective who returns to human form, having spent 14 years as a koi fish in the Golden Gate Park Japanese Tea Garden's pond after running afoul of an evil fae. She figures out fantastical mysteries while trying to choose between two suitors: her old courtier lover and the rough and tumble King of the Cats. (Because I'm psychic -- or just brilliant, I suspect she'll end up with the cat.)

Diana Rowland's series' detective is Kara Gillian, a Louisiana cop-cum-demon-summoner, who has some inborn magic that allows her to see when other magic is being used. She also solves mysteries, of course, and is being courted by two men. One is a demon lord who wants a relationship with her because it's useful, but they also have rawkin' sex and she's starting to fall for him. The other one is an FBI agent with supernatural abilities who's human ... or is he?

The Mercy Thompson series by Patricia Briggs follows a half-Native American mechanic who is possibly the last of the "Walkers" (not skinwalkers), an indigenous American supernatural who can turn into a coyote at will, but isn't a were-anything. (The weres came from Europe.) She was raised by werewolves, though. She's somewhat immune to European magic (sorry, I refuse to use the stupid word "magics") and can therefore solve mysteries the vampires, werewolves, and fae can't. She's, not surprisingly, also being courted by two men, both werewolves. One is a very old one who tried to get her to be his mate (she's useful because she could potentially give birth to werewolf babies and nobody else can) when she was a teenager. The other is the local Alpha, in charge of the local pack, and able to force others to obey him.

These all play off of a particular narrative. All of these protagonists are orphans or have been abandoned by their parents in various ways. All were raised by supernatural beings or those in touch with them. All have one foot in each world -- the human and the supernatural, and end up spending a lot of time managing the supernaturals and deceiving the humans. All have some human fighting skill, as well as a unique supernatural ability which, though it doesn't make them stronger than the supernaturals around them, does make them uniquely able to solve mysteries. All three are surrounded by supernaturals, and courted by dominant supernatural men who wish to dominate them, and at the same time are attracted to their independence. And all are classic heroes: people whose personalities compel them to pursue justice and right and protect the innocent without concern for their own safety.

But in these narratives, the hero's journey is the short arc: the one that starts, climaxes, and is complete in the course of a single book. It's the romance that forms the longer, multiple-book story. But the longer arc isn't just romance; all of that is bound together with a lifelong search for self, search to understand the hero's own power and position in the world, and to understand her suitors' power and position in the world.

I have a lot more to say about this, but I'm still reading, so I'm going to put it off. :P

Also read Andre Agassi's autobio Open which was really well done (kudos to his ghost writer!) I still don't understand athletes or competitive people, but the book gave me a little insight into that kind of personality. I'm pretty sure those will come out in my writing later on. I'm now fascinated, and want to read more about how athletes and driven, competitive people think.

February 14, 2011

Reading Update: I'm Busy

Diwata Barbara Jane Reyes
Nine Rules to Break When Romancing a Rake Sarah Maclean
Ten Ways to Be Adored When Landing a Lord Sarah Maclean
Faking It Jennifer Crusie
Welcome to Temptation Jennifer Crusie
Chinatown Beat Henry Chang

I'm not too busy to read, just too busy to write much about it.

Diwata I'm reviewing in the next issue of Hyphen, so keep an eye out for it there or on the website. I'm also reviewing Henry Chang's third novel in his Jack Yu series, so I'm reading the first two as well, Chinatown Beat being the first. I'll have more to say latah.

The Sarah Macleans and Jennifer Crusies were recommended by Gwenda Bond in a post about romance books. Jennifer Crusie? RAWK! Faking It is an awrsome romance between a con artist and an art forger, who have really REALLY bad sex the first few times they get together -- you know, kinda like real life? -- but persist because they really REALLY like each other. The prose is witty and energetic and the author actually knows something about art and how artists work, which is unusual in literature in general, and especially so in genre. I liked Welcome to Temptation too, but not as much.

Sarah Maclean? Meh, not so much. These two are Regencies, which is fine, of course, but any Regency romance writer is going up against Austen and Heyer, and those are hard acts to follow. Throwing in a bow and scrape here and "an air of decided fashion" there isn't gonna do it. Especially if, as Maclean does, you have your characters having sex every time they're alone in a room together. Not in a Regency romance, my dear. I did enjoy the premise of Nine Rules, which is that the beauty-challenged spinster protag begins to realize that nothing is ever going to happen to her, so she writes out a list of all the things she would like to do if she weren't afraid, and then goes and does them. Her passion and energy attract the notice, then love, of London's most notorious rake, and her longtime crush. So that one worked out.

But then the (sort of) sequel to Nine Rules, Ten Ways to Be Adored, was a complete wash out. First of all, the premise wasn't nearly so lighthearted as Nine Rules'. The protag is the daughter of an aristocratic gambling addict who has lost all his money and portable property (the estate is entailed.) He abandoned his family, and her mother died, so she has been in charge of the crumbling estate since she was 17. (Her father also tried to gamble her away several times.) She turned the estate into a refuge for abused women of all classes, but now that her father has died and her 10-year-old brother is the Earl, things have come to a head. They need money and a Duke's sister has just shown up at their door, pregnant.

All of this is a great premise, but it starts to fall to shit immediately when it becomes clear that the author doesn't believe her protagonist can succeed without being protected and guided by a man. So much for feminism! I'm not going to get into detail on this one, because it's not worth my time, but I was outright offended by the book and would have thrown it across the room if it hadn't been in my Kindle. What was she thinking?

Okay, back to my busy life.

February 12, 2011

Reading Update: Fuzzy Head

Graceling Kristin Cashore
Fire Kristin Cashore
Disgrace J.M. Coetzee
Buffy Season 8 Vols. 1-7
Bud, not Buddy Christopher Paul Curtis


I had a whole idea for this post which is long gone now. And I was going to actually talk about these books, especially Disgrace, but then I didn't and now I'm about five books down the road and it's almost a month later and I haven't posted this so forget it.

January 16, 2011

Trailer Sunday

Thought it might be fun.

 

I loved the book, but this trailer is awful. Can we agree that if the trailer doesn't make you want to read the book, it shouldn't be?

This is part of the reason why the book is so good: there's a lot of fighting in it, and good fights are really hard to stage. (cf. Buffy the Vampire Slayer.) Also? Not just any teen-girl voice will do. It has to have bottom, gravitas. Okay?

 

It's an Aryancrombie & Fitch ad, with special effects. Why would I want to watch a bunch of puerile, blond models try to act emo?

Okay, yes, I'm going to watch the movie, but I'll wait until it hits video ... about five minutes after it hits theaters.

And this book isn't even particularly diverse, but Hollymood managed to smooth away even the diversity of different kinds of European coloring. Argh!

 

And, of course, this fan trailer for The Hunger Games is much better than the previous two professional trailers. Makes me want to read the books all over again, but I just read them too recently. Can't wait to see the trailer for the movie, though. Wonder if it'll be as good as this trailer.

January 08, 2011

SLIGHTLY BEHIND Can Haz E-Reader Version!

Also, I just checked and the e-Reader version of Slightly Behind and to the Left is now available on Aqueduct Press' site, and on Amazon, both for $5.95.

Do buy directly from the publisher when you can, though -- I mean for small presses -- because then they get the whole price and not just the 50% or less that they get from distributors.

Yay!

Hey, my leetle book got onto io9's list of the top 15 books of 2010! Yay! It's good to have friends in high places!

Thanks, Annalee!

January 02, 2011

New Year's Resolutions for 2010

I've done this in the past: made new year's resolutions that I didn't keep. They were too ambitious. I'm going to do smaller ones, that are important, this year. We'll see how this works.

  1. Keep up with my bills. My credit score has gone down, ironically enough because I took steps to pay my bills on time. I used to pay all my bills a bit late. Not three notices late, but sometimes I'd get a late notice or something to remind me. Okay, not "sometimes" but often. So I Took Steps and put all my regular bills on automatic payment from my bank, so that I wouldn't have to think about them. And it worked. I mean, I didn't think about them. The regular bills were fine, but the non-regular ones started seriously falling by the wayside: doctor's bills and parking tickets especially. And those are the two that really don't mess around. So this year, I'm going to pay bills as they come in. No more letting them collect and putting them out of my mind. I'm sure my credit score will start rising immediately, and in seven years I'll be clear of this completely. Sigh.
  2. Exercise. Regularly. No benchmarks this time. No amounts or measurements. Just keep exercising. It's when I get ambitious and want to achieve something with the exercise that I get discouraged. Just get. to. the. gym. Doesn't matter when, doesn't matter why, doesn't matter what I do when I get there. Just go. Regularly.
  3. Finish the damn nobble already. No more fancy processes. No distractions by other projects. Butt in chair. Write. Finish it. This year.
  4. Get insulin pump by April. April is when my COBRA ends. If I'm gonna do it, I gotta do it by then. Maybe I'm still not committed to it, and if not, then I won't do it. I'm still very ambivalent about getting a pump. But I'll resolve intellectually to do it, and my gut (which is, appropriately, where I'll be carrying the damn thing) will make the decision.
  5. Be at peace. I know it's a lifelong, ongoing process, but I'm aiming for it now.

That's all. Maybe too ambitious. Maybe not enough. But we'll see what happens.

January 01, 2011

What I read in 2010

  1. Cinda Williams Chima The Warrior Heir
  2. Cinda Williams Chima The Wizard Heir
  3. Cinda Williams Chima The Dragon Heir
  4. Canyon Sam Sky Train: Tibetan Women on the Edge of History
  5. Jane Yolen Wizard's Hall
  6. Terry Pratchett Unseen Academicals
  7. Tamora Pierce Alanna: The First Adventure
  8. Tamora Pierce In the Hand of the Goddess
  9. Tamora Pierce The Woman Who Rides Like a Man
  10. Tamora Pierce Lioness Rampant
  11. Lois Duncan A Gift of Magic
  12. Tamora Pierce Melting Stones
  13. Robin McKinley's Dragonhaven
  14. Jacqueline Woodson If You Come Softly
  15. Rick Riordan The Lightning Thief
  16. Rick Riordan The Sea of Monsters
  17. Rick Riordan The Titan's Curse
  18. Rick Riordan The Battle of the Labyrinth
  19. Rick Riordan The Last Olympian
  20. Cynthia Kadohata Outside Beauty
  21. Georgette Heyer The Nonesuch
  22. Georgette Heyer Friday's Child
  23. Georgette Heyer The Reluctant Widow
  24. David Small Stitches
  25. Malinda Lo Ash
  26. Georgette Heyer Faro's Daughter
  27. Sarah Hall The Carhullan Army
  28. Kristin Cashore Graceling
  29. Kristin Cashore Fire
  30. Scott Westerfeld Leviathan
  31. Zetta Elliott A Wish After Midnight
  32. Robin McKinley Sunshine
  33. Robin McKinley Chalice
  34. Robin McKinley Spindle's End
  35. Ed Lin This is a Bust
  36. Ed Lin Snakes Can't Run
  37. Robin McKinley The Hero and the Crown
  38. Nami Mun Miles from Nowhere
  39. Cynthia Kadohata Kira Kira
  40. Sarah Rees Brennan The Demon Lexicon
  41. Fumi Yoshinaga Ooku: The Inner Chambers Vol I
  42. Fumi Yoshinaga Ooku: The Inner Chambers Vol II
  43. Fumi Yoshinaga Ooku: The Inner Chambers Vol III
  44. Shailja Patel Migritude
  45. A. Lee Martinez The Automatic Detective
  46. Slave narratives:
    • Narrative of the Most Remarkable Particulars in the Life of James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw 
    • The Confessions of Nat Turner 
    • Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
    • Narrative of the Life of J. D. Green by Jacob D. Green
    • Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs
  47. John Green and David Levithan Will Grayson Will Grayson
  48. Mark C. Carnes Secret Ritual and Manhood in Victorian America
  49. S. C. Gwynne Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History
  50. Afsaneh Mogadam Death to the Dictator! A Young Man Casts a Vote in Iran's 2009 Election and Pays a Devastating Price
  51. Shauna Cross Whip It
  52. Nick Hornby Slam
  53. Robin McKinley The Blue Sword
  54. Suzy McKee Charnas Walk to the End of the World
  55. Suzy McKee Charnas Motherlines
  56. John Gardner On Becoming a Novelist
  57. Fumi Yoshinaga Ooku: The Inner Chambers Vol IV
  58. Angela S. Choi Hello Kitty Must Die
  59. Stieg Larson The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
  60. Suzy McKee Charnas The Furies
  61. Stieg Larsson The Girl Who Played with Fire
  62. Stieg Larsson The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest
  63. Meg Cabot The Mediator #1: Shadowland
  64. Meg Cabot The Mediator #2: Ninth Key
  65. Meg Cabot The Mediator #3: Reunion
  66. Meg Cabot The Mediator #4: Darkest Hour
  67. Meg Cabot The Mediator #5: Haunted 
  68. Meg Cabot The Mediator #6: Twilight
  69. Suzy McKee Charnas The Conqueror's Daughter
  70. Sharon Shinn Troubled Waters
  71. Patricia Wrede Mairelon the Magician
  72. Patricia Wrede The Magician's Ward
  73. Kate Elliott Cold Magic
  74. Gail Carrigan Soulless
  75. Gail Carrigan Shameless
  76. Gail Carrigan Blameless
  77. Robin McKinley Pegasus
  78. Marta Acosta Haunted Honeymoon
  79. Suzanne Collins The Hunger Games
  80. Suzanne Collins Catching Fire
  81. Suzanne Collins Mockingjay
  82. Richelle Mead Vampire Academy
  83. Richelle Mead Frostbite
  84. Richelle Mead Shadow Kiss
  85. Richelle Mead Blood Promise
  86. Naomi Novik Tongues of Serpents
  87. Richelle Mead Spirit Bound
  88. Ally Condie Matched
  89. Richelle Mead The Last Sacrifice
  90. Scott Westerfeld Behemoth
  91. Pittacus Lore I Am Number Four
  92. Pete Hautman Sweetblood
  93. James Dashner The Maze Runner
  94. A.S. King The Dust of 100 Dogs

Okay, that's a LOT of YA. This, more than any before, was the year of YA reading. Clearly I'm meant to be writing some of this. We'll see if that happens.

94 books

59 YA; 7 nonfiction; 1 single straight up litfic.

53 authors: 32 women/21 men; 19 writers of color (as far as I know.)

I'll be straight witcha: this year's reading was almost all escapism. I didn't try to see where the art form was going, how adult fiction is experimenting or developing. I read for pleasure and escape only. And I'm fine with it; 2011 was a rough year for me and I needed my escapism.

But I am looking forward to getting back to other kinds of reading in 2011.

December 31, 2010

E-existential Question of the Last Day of the Year

Why do I blog?

December 30, 2010

Reading Update: The Dust of 100 Dogs

A.S. King The Dust of 100 Dogs

Okay, first of all, great title!

Second of all, great concept! This is one of those rare books that is conceptually a complete original, owing to its mishmash of ideas, that all somehow work together. They barely work together, but if a miss is as good as a mile, a bare catch at the tip of your mitt is as good as a solid thunk in the pocket. It barely holds together, but it does, and that makes it a terrific read.

Emer Morrissey is a 17th century woman pirate captain attacking Spanish ships in the Caribbean. A survivor of Cromwell's Irish campaign, she was sold as a wife to an old man in Paris, ran away, and made her way to the new world and into her new role. It's complicated.

Just as she was about to escape it all with treasure and the love of her life, an old enemy gets to her. Everyone kills each other, but before she dies, she is cursed to live the life of 100 dogs. She does just that, spending three centuries in full awareness of who she is, yet living in the "consciousness" of one dog after another. Finally, the curse ends, and she is reborn, again with full memories of her old lives, as a suburban kid in seventies and eighties Pennsylvania.

But a suburban kid don't have it easy, either. Her father is a Vietnam vet with PTSD. Her mother, also Irish, survived abuse from nuns in an orphanage, and is functionally illiterate. And her older brother has just slipped from teenage rebellion into serious drug addiction. All she wants is to return to Jamaica and find her buried treasure, but that doesn't turn out to be that easy, either.

Honestly, the book shouldn't really have the impact it does. It's silly, unrealistic. The parts of history the author doesn't seem to know are rendered foggily in the book. The amount of rape and torture a beautiful and unprotected teenaged girl would suffer in the situations she finds herself in would probably defy description, yet she doesn't suffer them. And she's somehow a superhero when it comes to killing, with no training whatsoever. Also? The dogs thing? Very underplayed, often completely forgotten. Doesn't play a very big part in moving the plot forward.

Like I said, it barely holds together, but it does hold together, and is one of the most energetic, fun and interesting reads I've had this year. I don't recommend it for YA, necessarily. It's a bit gruesome. But I do recommend it.

December 28, 2010

Reading Update: A Waste of Time

James Dashner The Maze Runner

One of the worst books I've read this year.

Let me qualify that: when I was in eighth grade, I took the bus to a private school on the other side of town. My "bus friend" was a neighbor my age who went to the same school but was a year behind me. We kept each other entertained on the 45-minute ride by playing storyteller and audience. She was the storyteller and I was the audience. I wasn't allowed to watch TV, you see, and she could watch whatever she wanted. So she'd retell the stories of TV shows she'd seen, and I'd listen avidly. (Please note, this was, probably not coincidentally, the year I finally started to make friends, although the stink of book-reading nerd didn't come off for a while after that.)

Our favorite series was Voyagers!, a time travel show with a womanizing time travel dude and his boy sidekick, that only lasted one season. My friend and I developed a sort of storytelling ritual, much like the ritual of watching a TV show, with its snacks, and its commercials, and its cold opens. But ours was much more interactive. For example, whenever the dude met his love interest for that episode, she'd look at me, say, "and ..." and we'd both clap our hands and shout, "Chemistry!" It was a lot of fun.

She was a better storyteller than most seventh graders, but let's not fool ourselves: it was nowhere near as good as actually getting to watch the shows she described. But a) it was better than nothing, and b) it was a way for us to interact. We felt like very good friends, but when we started trying to invite each other over for dinner or sleepovers, the friendship didn't turn out to work so well. We were bus friends only, storytelling friends only.

This is what the experience of reading The Maze Runner was like: it wasn't as good a reading a good book, but it was a) better than nothing, and b) a way for me to interact with the newest YA dystopia trend while waiting for something better to come along.

The story is mostly okay, although it doesn't end up making a lot of sense. And the fact the story isn't over yet (it's a trilogy) can't account for all of it. It was suspenseful enough to keep me reading to the end to find out what it was all about, but when I got to the end, I was so bored by the whole thing that I can't be bothered to descri- zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

And the writing is terrible. Here's a sample paragraph:

Thomas cried, wept like he'd never wept before. His great, racking sobs echoed through the chamber like the sounds of tortured pain.

Uh ... aren't great, racking sobs actually the sound of tortured pain, and not just "like" them? Did anyone edit this book? The whole book is written like this. Argh.

Needless to say, I'm not reading the other two.

December 24, 2010

Reading Update: Beasties, Silly Aliens, and Boring Vampires

Scott Westerfeld Behemoth
Pittacus Lore I Am Number Four
Pete Hautman Sweetblood

I am totally loving Scott's Leviathan series, and can't wait for the next one to come out. Yay! Go read it!

I saw a trailer for I Am Number Four and had to go read the book. It's about -- in case you hadn't heard -- a kid from another planet, Lorien, which was attacked and destroyed by the Whatchamacallits (I'm too lazy to look it up.) The Whatchamacallits had their own planet, but used it all up, so they attacked Lorien to extract all their natural resources. They killed everyone except for 18 people: 9 kids and their keepers. The kids are "garde," people with superpowers. Somehow, the kids are going to repopulate the planet or something. And somehow, the Whatchamacallits want to kill them off. (I'm not sure why; it's never explained and makes no logical sense. I mean, if you're a user-upper species and you've used up your own planet to the extent that you need to go use up somebody else's, don't you want those people to go back and make their planet all shiny and new again, so that you can use it up again in a pinch? Anyhoo.

It's compulsive and fun and I'm looking forward to the next one, but ... well, it's kind of ... "contrived" is not the word I'm looking for to describe the wrong note in a science fiction/fantasy YA novel, is it? It felt deliberately constructed to appeal to teens, and the fact that a movie is coming out so soon after the book suggests that it was marketed more than conceived. I mean, it has all the elements that'll appeal to boy readers: a Mary Sue protag with superpowers, a hottie girlfriend, another hottie girl with superpowers, for boys who swing that way, a nerdy best friend who puts the Mary Sue before himself, a cool father figure, and a school bully who is easily tamed. What is missing is any real world-building integrity, any essentail logic in the premise or how it plays out. The bad guys are unremittingly, irrationally bad. And it makes no sense that beings from another planet are capable of breeding with humans, and in fact, look like us. This should have been a fantasy novel, not a -- nominal -- sci fi.

I'll keep reading, for a while, but I'm not going to talk about the, I'm sure, entirely contrived hype around the identity of the author.

Sweetblood sounded like a good read from the blurb. A diabetic girl has theories about vampirism and diabetes, and then meets a creepy guy who might be an actual vampire. Only SPOILER! he's not. He's just a creepy middle aged dude who lures teens to his house with parties and booze, and then hits on the girls. And she doesn't even meet him until halfway through the book. It's reasonably well-written, but it's boring. It's just about a diabetic girl who has trouble controling the diabetes and gets into a little bit of trouble. Then she straightens up and flies right.

It's rather typical thinking, actually: making the disease the bad guy in the story. It's never that simple in real life. Diabetes is a problem, always, especially when you're a teenager and learning how to manage it on your own. But it's never the only problem, and doesn't cause meltdowns like that in isolation. There's always other stuff going on that raises the stress levels and makes the disease harder to control.

Anyway.

December 11, 2010

Reading Update: Comparisons Are Odious, But Fun

Richelle Mead Spirit Bound
Ally Condie Matched
Richelle Mead Last Sacrifice

Ally Condie's first book in a new dystopian series follows a girl in a future "perfect" society, who is matched by computer program to her life partner on her seventeenth (?) birthday. Unusually for them (matches are usually total strangers) he turns out to be her best friend. But when she views his info chip, the face of another friend of hers, an "Aberration," or son of a criminal, flashes on the screen for a moment. This initial moment of confusion leads slowly, and inexorably, to the total breakdown of the protag's understanding of her perfect society. Of course, there's also a love triangle involved.

Matched has been getting a lot of play, and it's a decently conceived and written book. But ... well I think it's a good example of incompletely digested influences or sources. Truly inspired books like The Hunger Games can wear their sources on their sleeves and still have an identity and life of their own; you note the sources in retrospect, not while you're reading. But while I was reading Matched, every time a new layer was peeled away and the perfidy of their perfect society revealed, I was thrown out of the story by its resemblance to its sources.

SPOILERS AHEAD! When the grandfather was scheduled to die, I had to push Logan's Run out of my head. Several times I was annoyingly reminded of Brave New World, mostly in the cheerful attitude the characters had towards their entertainment. The communications monitor in their home gave me a 1984 hit. And several things -- the grandfather's relationship with the protag, the way she thought things through, the general atmosphere of the book -- gave me The Giver deja vu. At least the book has good taste in sources.

The Hunger Games, on the other hand, owes just as big a debt as Matched does to dystopias gone before. And THG's sources are a bit cheesier: every tournament/gladiator/fight-to-the-death genre flick and brick you can think of. And yet, THG, while influenced, seems to arise out of its own necessity: the choices the protag makes are based on her character and circumstances, not stolen from other stories and cobbled together. Matched, on the other hand, feels like a very smooth and expert pastiche, sewn together into a pleasing pattern like a quilt, but with the patches of acquired material still visible.

I don't know the processes of each author, but it's clear which result I prefer. I'm not saying Matched isn't worth reading: it is. It's smoothly done and holds together well, and I might even continue reading the series. But it's not a terribly good book. It's just okay.

Richelle Mead, as was almost inevitable, got very well, even honorably, through the first five books of the Vampire Academy series, and then dropped the ball in the last book. Again, Last Sacrifice isn't bad, but it's not very good, either.

In Spirit Bound SPOILERS! half-vampire guardian Rose gets the love of her life, half-vampire guardian Dmitri, back. He had been turned into an evil vampire, a Strigoi, previously, and Rose's good vampire (Moroi) best friend Lissa had brought him back by staking him with a silver stake, while pushing her spirit magic into him. (Yes, the series is hella complicated.) Spirit Bound was kinda interesting in how we got to see Dmitri push Rose away while he agonized over all the evil he did during his three whole months as an evil vampire.

(Let me just put in a word here about influences and sources. Mead does actually digest her sources pretty well, but they're right on the surface. Rose is a Buffy, and Dmitri is an Angel; no question. But their circumstances fit in so well with the world that Mead built here, that you don't have to notice these things until you're done with each book.)

But the problems all come crashing in in the last book. Mead had created too many characters who needed some sort of resolution. She also put the characters, emotionally, into untenable positions which had to be resolved before the series could end. She'd done a creditable job previously of teasing out emotional processes. Of course, the whole series takes place over the course of a single year, so the number and completeness of the emotional highs and lows throughout are completely unbelievable. However, even though each book covers only a few months, each book is a complete emotional arc, so it works.

The last book, however, gives each character several mini-arcs. For example SPOILER: in the heat of battle Rose finally kills one of the series' bad guys, a Moroi vampire, during a battle in which the much older, and sick, vampire was using his magic against her. She was being influenced by the dark side of spirit magic, but she falls into a five-minute funk in which she blames herself and decides that she's a savage and a monster. Then, literally a few hours later, she has an epiphany and realizes that she's just like Dmitri and that she has to forgive herself while he has to forgive himself. All of this is accomplished via one of the most awkwardly written dialogues in the history of genre trash. Of course, Dmitri, having spent all of a few months being evil, apparently only needed a couple of months to get over the guilt, too. Argh.

The speed with which everything has to be accomplished in the final book also starts to unravel the previous books. Like I said, I accepted the short timeline in the previous books, but when the time began passing waaaay too fast in the final book, it affected my view of what had happened previously. Rose starts to seem shallow, in how quickly she allowed herself to be courted by Adrian after Dmitri was turned. (It took, like, a few weeks. Don't people mourn anymore?)

I could bitch on about it, but I'm losing words and interest. The series' ending was disappointing, and not as good as Mead could've done. That's all.

November 29, 2010

Reading Update: More YA Binge, Plus Dragons!

Well, I thought I was done with the YA bingeing, but then I dared to take a peek into The Hunger Games (shoulda known better; the 40-teen waiting list for the book at the library mighta tipped me off) and got totally and completely hooked. Then I peeked into Vampire Academy, expecting it to be stoopid, and got totally and completely hooked again. The only possible thing that coulda peeled me away from Vampire Academy was another Temeraire book and ... lo and behold, one had come out during the summer and I had totally missed it!

The long T-day weekend didn't help (I have tomorrow off, too.) So I gulped the following down and will do another group post, describing and reviewing each in five sentences or less. Ergo (HERE BE SPOILERS):

  1. Suzanne Collins The Hunger Games: A 16-year-old girl living in the coal-mining colony of a future, post-apocalyptic America becomes a contestant in the Hunger Games, an annual reality-TV-show-cum-minotauran-tribute the colonies must pay to the dictatorial regime in the city. Each colony must give up a 12-18-year-old boy and girl each year to compete in a to-the-death contest which only one of the tributes can win, or survive. Because she learned to hunt to feed her starving family, she turns out to be an excellent contestant, but finds herself torn between her desire to survive, and her need to not let the competition steal her soul. This was an amazing example of influence -- as opposed to Eragonian derivation -- with notes of "The Lottery," Greek heroic epic, "Survivor," Jarhead, and, yes, even Twilight (are you team Peeta or team Gale?) Totally addictive and very rewarding.
  2. Suzanne Collins Catching Fire: Believe it or not, the previous, near-perfect narrative, actually gets better. The second book in the trilogy isn't as perfectly structured, but introduces much more complexity, as Katniss and Peeta, her co-winner of the Hunger Games, have to pretend to be in love while they travel the country on a press junket, or else risk their families' lives. But Katniss seems to inspire rebellion wherever she goes; she's become an unwitting folk hero to the oppressed people of the outer colonies, who have begun to rise up.
  3. Suzanne Collins Mockingjay: The inevitable conclusion to the trilogy is almost unbelievably good -- unbelievable in that it improves on the previous two, and manages to make a satisfying ending to the whole. Katniss is now in the stronghold of the rebel district, and wondering if she hasn't gone from one dictatorship to another. They're at war, and Katniss is being forced, again, to be a media figurehead for the rebel forces, followed everywhere by cameras, and prodded to make rousing speeches. I won't hint at the conclusion, only to say it's the only thing that could happen. The palpable weariness and trauma of the characters, after so many reversals and tragedies, brings the spirit of this book down low; but it's realistic, and necessary, to make the series' point. Definitely the best YA I've read this year.
  4. Richelle Mead Vampire Academy
  5. Richelle Mead Frostbite
  6. Richelle Mead Shadow Kiss
  7. Richelle Mead Blood Promise (I'm gonna do all of these together): In this world, there are living vampires (Moroi) -- who marry and have kids, and are tall and thin, and have good reflexes, and drink blood and are weakened by the sun --  undead vampires (Strigoi) -- who are made, either from Moroi who kill someone by drinking their blood (Moroi don't kill, only feed a little at a time,) or from humans or Dhampirs, the usual way -- and Dhampirs, half-human, half-Moroi mixes, stronger than the Moroi, who act as their guardians. The protag is a Dhampir girl who is bonded to a Moroi princess, able to read her thoughts and know where she is at all times. Unlike many series, this one grows more complex as it goes along, with our protag learning slowly along the way to question their way of life and her near-subjugation. There's also a romance, and a love triangle, and not a little Buffy-style narrative-slicing thrown in. Character-building and clear logic are weak, but the series is more than just riding the twilit wave; recommended.
  8. Naomi Novik Tongues of Serpents: Captain Laurence of the aerial corps, and his Chinese Celestial dragon Temeraire, have been stripped of their military standing and transported for life to Australia, for their treason during the Napoleonic Wars. While trying to make themselves useful by building a road, they find that one of the dragon eggs they were sent out with to start a new covert in New South Wales has been stolen; the book follows their adventure across the entire continent in pursuit of the stolen eggs. A bit of a disappointment, this is the first Temeraire book to not match the quality and excitement of the others: unlike all of the previous novels -- in which Temeraire and Laurence have to perform important tasks which then turn out to be game-changing -- in this one, their task, to save the egg, is of relatively little importance to their immediate, and very little to their broader, world, and the game-changer at the end is inevitable and not brought about or influenced by anything they have done. In this one, they, although constantly active and experiencing things, are essentially passive, and the world they are moving through is curiously flat: uninformed, unlike all their previous worlds, by a complex political and cultural background. I hope her next one spends a little more time in Australia and picks up the slack of this one.

November 24, 2010

Exploratory Phase of Writing

When I teach writing, I'm constantly trying to get my students comfortable with the concept of exploratory writing. This is a part of the generative phase of writing, where you're producing a body of text which will become the subject of the other half of writing: revision.

Exploratory writing is where all your plans have broken down or been fulfilled; you've written whatever parts of the story you intended to write and now have to move forward without plans. Or else, if you're an obsessive outliner, you've tried to fulfill your plans, but the sketchy story you had in your head doesn't work out so well when you try to make rounded characters perform it. Or you're writing an unplanned story entirely, inspired by some sort of trigger or idea, and you're letting it unspool organically. Whatever way, you're in unmapped territory, and you don't know where you're going in the immediate future, and you don't know what will, much less what should, happen now.

This is a moment where you have to just let yourself go. You can't start making new plans. You can do research to make you more comfortable with the situation, but there comes a moment when you have to break off the research and just write. And that writing has to be open and experimental, because, as we just noted, you don't know what has to happen.

What happens for me in this phase is that I wander all over the place. I see a shiny thing, and I hare off in that direction, talk about it for a while, examine it, then eventually lose interest or turn it into something else. I'll see another shiny thing, and run off after that, often in exactly the opposite direction, and do what I need to with that. I let my interest level determine my course. Often an idea will lead me to the logical next idea, but the logical next idea isn't as interesting as the original idea. When I get bored, I stop going in that direction and head off in another one.

The goal of all of this is to hit the fire lode, the vein of liquid heat that consumes your conscious mind and takes you off in the right direction, the direction that will make your story amazing for you to write and for your readers to read. You don't always hit the motherlode. Sometimes you only find, so to speak, placer nuggest of fire, and you have to build your story around small, bright moments, knowing that this is a "good" story, but not a "brilliant" one -- by your own standards, that is. ;)

You can see it in my story "Vacation," where the first part of the story is told in short episodes that explore the new world, and the protagonist's relationship to it. This is all exploratory, and originally included a lot more exploratory stuff: how the women in this new world recreate government, how the media changes, etc. But once I hit the scene on the basketball court where the young boy disappeared, I took off. I knew that this was the direction the story needed to go in, and when I went back and revised, I cut out all the exploratory stuff that didn't contribute either to this part of the world, or do development of the protagonist's capacity to do what she does. I left the first part deliberately sketchy and exploratory, because I felt it set up the somewhat choppy rhythm of the story -- which isn't plot and action-heavy, but rather centers around a moment of transformation which proceeds from mosaic emotional logic rather than a causal chain.

Do this enough and you can see the different phases of writing in another writer's work as well. When I started being able to see this more clearly in the work I was reading, it inspired me to want to hide my tracks better. ;)

I'm going on about this right now because I'm in an exploratory phase right now with da nobble. And I'm not comfortable with it. I've just started year nine of work on da nobble (holy shit!) and thought I had left generative work behind me and was just going to revision. But I've hit a very important chapter that just wasn't working. I've rewritten this chapter twice, and have to rewrite it again now. And I'm having to generate. The research I did got me through an important scene, but now I'm dealing with the aftermath of that scene and I have no idea what happens now. Argh!

Now I just have to let-go-let-it-flow. I hate that shit! It's much easier telling my students to do it than doing it myself. I think part of the problem is that I'm out of practice. But part of it is certainly that I resent having to go back into exploratory on a novel that I've been working on for 8 years and have two finished drafts of. I don't feel starry-eyed and excited and in that fresh phase. I feel jaded and worn out. Committed, but worn out, like eight years into a rocky but loving marriage.

Sigh.

November 20, 2010

Reading Update: Fun Genre Binge

I haven't updated in a while, and it's mainly because I didn't have a whole lot to say about these books because I was reading them in the spirit of junk food or comfort food. I hooked up (from Shinn's Troubled Waters) with the Wrede books through Amazon's recommendations (yes, I did.) Same with Elliott. Then someone at Borderlands recommended Carrigan and I went forward from there. The next thing I knew, the new McKinley was out, and I had to read that, and then I discovered that Marta Acosta had released the last of the Casa Dracula books and I had to read that.

It was a binge.

So now, before I go back to the growing stack of books I'm supposed to be reviewing, I'm going to sort out my feelings about each of these (or at least, my thinkings) in five sentences or less. Wanna hear it? Here it go:

  • Patricia Wrede Mairelon the Magician: A teenaged street urchiness dressed as a boy tries to steal from a performing magician and finds that he's real, and powerful, and rich. She becomes his apprentice and travels with him and his servant, trying to prove that he didn't commit a crime he is accused of. Fun, but dragged a bit in the middle and there was too much going here, and then going there, and then coming back to here, and then going back there. Later we're tipped off to the fact that the novel is intended as a tribute to 19th century stage farces, but who wants to read those?
  • Patricia Wrede The Magician's Ward: Sequel to the preceding. The young woman apprentice magician apparently gets a class pass because wizards transcend class, so she's introduced to high society as her master's ward. There's a mystery to solve, which involves her going back to the underground economy she used to serve, and of course her master falls in love with her. Also fun, but also too beholden to uninteresting, early, and awkward forms of farce. And why do consummating kisses always have to be performed in front of the entire cast, never in private?
  • Kate Elliott Cold Magic: Definitely the best of this bunch and the start of a promising series. A young woman living with her aunt and uncle and cousins in an alternate steam-punky England, is given away into an unbreakable magical marriage -- as the oldest female in her family -- to a stranger, a "cold magician," in accordance with some old family agreement she never knew about. She discovers that SPOILER she's not actually a member of her family, at least not by blood, and that her aunt and uncle knowingly used her as a decoy to save her beloved cousin, who was the real target of the marriage agreement. Now her husband's family wants her dead, so that they can get their hands on her prescient cousin, and she's busy herself trying to figure out where she came from, what the truth of her family is, and how she feels about her new husband. Can't wait for the next one!
  • Gail Carrigan Soulless
    Gail Carrigan Shameless
    Gail Carrigan Blameless: I'll just do these three together: A "preternatural" Englishwoman, i.e. a person whose touch takes away vampires' and werewolves' supernatural powers, helps England's government ministry on supernaturals solve mysteries. The head of this agency, a werewolf, ends up SPOILER marrying her, and their relationship forms a central issue in the series. From Book 2 on, the author tries to make a virtue out of a series of unintentional malapropisms and misuses of language she committed in the first book by making one of her characters a malaprop; but it doesn't work: she has no gift for language and that's a HUGE problem in this book. I also didn't like the horribly anachronistic slang and attitudes (yes, I KNOW this is an alternate timeline, but the author doesn't seem to understand Victorian attitudes at all, although she tries to use them.) Despite these crippling flaws, the books are well structured and terrifically fun and I'm going to keep reading.
  • Robin McKinley Pegasus: I've mentioned before how annoying I find it when the first book of a series can't find a good place to stop. Each book has to have its own arc, people! Even Lord of the Rings did! A girl and her pegasus try to prove that the intelligent pegasi are just as important as humans, but the lesson is somewhat muted by the fact that the pegasus lets the girl ride him and basically brings his entire race of people to heel to serve her needs. Nothing by McKinley can truly be bad, and I'm anxious to find out how this one turns out, but probably not anxious enough to read this book again before the next one comes out, to remind myself of what actually happened.
  • Marta Acosta Haunted Honeymoon: The fourth and, sadly, the last book in the Casa Dracula series about a voluptuous, wild-child Latina writer who gets half-turned into a vampire by the man of her dreams. In this episode, she has to choose, finally, between the straight-arrow, righteous vamp who turned her, and the slightly scary, mysterious, but hella sexy vamp she's been doing on the side. Although a hundred percent chicklit -- down to detailed descriptions of every outfit she wears, every meal she eats, and every fuck she sexes -- the series doesn't skimp on fundamental character development for her protagonist. It's not terribly serious, but it is both fun and satisfying, and I'm sad to see Milagro go.

November 15, 2010

I'm Reading This Friday!

Fire flyer full color lo-res

November 04, 2010

NaBloWriMo Fail

Argh! Already!

I owe two stories today, but threw a dinner party instead. Now I'm drunk and it's not gonna happen!

Tomorrow I'll try to catch up on two stories and Sat two more. Argh!

November 03, 2010

NaBloWriMo: Stratosphere

Homemade Spacecraft from Luke Geissbuhler on Vimeo.

I tried four times and couldn't write anything. Argh! Now I'm gonna have to write two tomorrow!

November 02, 2010

NaBloWriMo: Please Join Us!

Dear Donor,

Sorry to address this letter in a form letter fashion, but I'm afraid I don't know how to mailmerge ... or to export a mailing list from our database ... or to get into the database in the first place. So I'm just going to photocopy the printed list from last year (thank God for my predecessor's mania for hardcopies) and cut and glue it onto the envelopes. I'm sure there's an easier way, but I don't know it. (If you know how to do any of these things, I sure could use a volunteer. I'm a program man myself, not an admin.)

I'm writing to ask you to make a donation to the Save Our Forests Alliance.

As you may know, it's been a hard year for the SOFA. We lost half our board of directors in an "attempted coup" and then the other half resigned when they discovered that their takeover was illegal and they'd have to invite the first half back for mediation. The first half declined to return to where they weren't wanted.

But their loss, right? After all, we're the premiere anti-deforestation organization in our part of the Midwest. Anyone who can't put the mission ahead of personal agendas doesn't need to be a part of that. But we know that you, dear Donor, are an intrinsic part of that.

The only downside to losing selfish board members was that our treasurer was in charge of our accounts, and s/he won't return my calls (I was advised by a lawyer not to name names or hint about genders on official documents,) and there's something strange going on with the bank misrecording our account activity so that our accounts are reading zero. But I haven't been confirmed as executive director by the board (because we no longer have one; that should all be fixed as soon as I get ahold of our advisory board members and get them to step onto the board on an interim basis, but as I said, I can't get into the database so I don't know who they are; if you're one of our advisors, could you please email me at nickt@sofa.org?) so I can't access our account records or demand an accounting from the bank. They keep referring me to our former treasurer.

Because our now-erstwhile E.D. had been fired previous to the board breakdown (the one thing they all could agree on was that the only effective leader in the organization had to go) the remaining managers couldn't access the accounts, and the staff couldn't be paid. No one wanted to listen to my explanation that it would all be sorted out eventually, when our lawsuit came up in court and we were able to get a judge to order our bank records to be released. So we lost our entire staff. No one was willing to work on spec or (God forbid!) volunteer for a few weeks. I understand; we're in a recession. But the forests can't save themselves, can they?

We at SOFA know that you know they can't. Which is why we need your help today. We're asking our most loyal donors to make a gift of $500, $100, $50, or whatever you can afford, to help us continue our valuable work.

We have the infrastructure, and the programs in place. All we need is some interim funding to get our operations going again. We still have that giant spool of nickel-plated chain, shiny and new and waiting to bind our volunteers to the trees in front of the capitol building. We still have our office (for another month, until the eviction goes through) and it's not to late to pay up our back rent and stay here! We could even start programming again, if our volunteer coordinator would only send me the spreadsheet of volunteer contacts. I know I shouldn't have slept with her when I knew I was getting back together with my girlfriend, but the girlfriend didn't work out after all, and anyway, I don't think our forests should be punished for my mistake, do you?

Please help. We can't do this vital work without you.

I'd enclose a remittance envelope, but I don't know where they are. I've put our address at the bottom of the letter however (I would have used letterhead, but I don't know where that is, either) to make things a little easier on you. I'm writing you because I know that you, like me, still have the passion for our forests, and can still see the forests without getting lost in the trees of doubters and haters and less-than-committed people.

Together, we can make this country great again. Please give today.

Our best wishes for the holiday season.

Sincerely,

Nick Tanner

Interim Executive Director

p.s.: Don't forget to ask your employer to match your donation! You could double or triple your donation that way! Please give today!

 

This is my second NaBloWriMo instant fiction post: short short stories I'm writing every day throughout November, mostly inspired by online videos and images. Stay tuned for another one tomorrow.

November 01, 2010

NaBloWriMo: Later, At Forty

She looked at him with disgust, but when she spoke, her tone was even.

"Is there any way I can convince you that the boyish grin is counter-productive?"

It was a question, but phrased as a statement. One of her teenaged students had asked her recently -- not entirely sarcastically -- if there were any upsides to growing old("-er" she had added silently) and losing one's highs and lows. Since then she had been ticking them off, somewhat desperately, in her head. Here was another one: the skill of modulating her tone of voice to suggest a richness of meanings -- double, triple, and quadruple meanings -- without even much having to try.

With this one sentence, she had conveyed her contempt, but also amusement, affection, longtime shared knowledge, weariness, and, finally, an openness (nonetheless) to whatever his boyish grin was trying to sell. She conveyed her preference that he learn how to just state his desire without trying to win her over. She could see the messages all received. Maybe it was her skill. But maybe they just knew each other too well at this point.

And maybe it was impossible for him to change. Maybe he was far too old a dog.

"It's just a date," he said. "Boyish grins shouldn't impact your decision."

"Aren't we past dating? Shouldn't we be watching videos at home with our hands on our paunches?"

"Why do you care what people think?" She wasn't sure if this was one of the advantages or disadvantages of growing old(er) with someone: that you can skip whole explanatory chunks of an argument.

"I care what people think because what they think could get me fired. I'm not supposed to be dating my students."

"I'm not your student."

"If any of my students see me with you, they'll try to flirt with me to get an A."

"Are you giving me an A?"

Definitely a disadvantage. She had enjoyed this sort of comment (with accompanying raffish grin) when she was a girl. Then she had tolerated it. Now she found the whole thing abhorrent. Did his emotional development get frozen along with his body? She wondered that more and more. The next time they moved, she'd have to make him her son.

"Please?" His begging was disgusting, but also genuinely pathetic. She relented, more out of habit than anything else.

"We can go see a movie," she said. He jumped up and down with annoying irony. "But I get to choose which one. ... And don't try to hold my hand this time. Promise?"

"Promise," he said immediately, and with the same date-night inflection that meant he wouldn't keep that promise. Ugh. She felt smothered by the teen-boy attentions in public. It wasn't just what other people thought. It was also what she thought. He looked like a baby to her now. It just wasn't sexy anymore.

Nowadays, silver foxes turned her head. It was like some old-guy pheromone switch had gotten pulled in her libido. She couldn't help it. When she went to conferences these days, she nearly got whiplash from all the cross-angle ogling. She'd cheated on him several times with the tenured, and then had to shower three or four times to try to get the smell off. She still wasn't sure it had worked. Did he know? Did he put up with it the same way she put up with him? Why didn't he just leave? Wouldn't she prefer it?

She didn't have any answers.

This is the first of my instant fiction posts for NaBloWriMo. I'm going to write a short short story every day throughout November, inspired by a video or image I see online. I make no promises about quality.

October 31, 2010

Why Isn't College Dramatic?

During the summer TV slump, I watched all three seasons of Veronica Mars again. Yes, the first season was great, the second was good, and the third was heeeeeeinous. Still. What puzzled me was why the third season was so bad. I mean there's the fact that they moved to a different network, and that they were forced to cut the stories shorter, so there was no season-long arc. The shorter stories turned the show's premise into schlock: high-concept detective TV. Like Hart to Hart.

But what was really the problem with season three was that the show suddenly focused on (young) adult female sexuality, and it totally went to pieces. (SPOILERS FOLLOW.) In the first two seasons, Veronica was a nerd male fantasy: hot, smart, smart-ass, ass-kickin', and not at all scary with the sexual confidence 'n' stuff. She was a raped virgin. It was okay for white-hat-wearin' girls on this show to be virgins, or at least not sexually active.

But when she gets to college, it would look weird (i.e. non-normative) for her (and everybody else) to not be sexually active. And that's where the fantasy falls apart. Because for a hot chick who's that kickass to be sexually active, she has to be great in bed, too. And then she's suddenly beyond the nerd-boy's reach, not to mention scary. It's a dilemma, because for her to not be good in bed would kill the fantasy as well.

So suddenly the show has all of these weird sexual politics in it. The first story is about a serial campus rapist who shaves his victims' heads, just to make the power dynamic of a rape more visual. (Of course, it was completely ridiculous, b/c instead of actually shaving the actors' heads, they made them wear totally fake-looking fuzz-head wigs.) It's as if (showrunner) Rob Thomas had to balance out Veronica's suddenly active sexuality with a classic punishment for female sexuality.

Then he introduces what is apparently the only on-campus feminist group (at a private college? in California?) protesting the rapes (as if women who weren't outspoken feminists wouldn't be protesting serial rapes too: welcome to the 21st century you creep) who are a bunch of lying, cheating, conniving -- not to mention humorless -- bitches. He actually opposes da feminists to the lampoonists, two nerdy/misogynist guys who write a bad humor mag. As if the third wave of the most successful social justice movement of the last century -- which represents half of humanity, by the way -- was as trifling as a misogynist college humor mag. The "feminists" actually fake one of the rapes to make a point, an incredibly irresponsible thing to do in fiction in a culture that still blames rape victims and tries to scare them away from the very organizations that are there to help them. Gee, Rob, threatened much?

The second long story is a completely noirish story about the murder of a wealthy college dean, and the affair his young, beautiful wife is having with the hot, young professor. The wife isn't even an attempt at realism. Her hair is done forties-style, she dresses forties-style, and she has no personality, besides breathiness and lipstick. We, of course, never get to see her even kissing the hot young prof, although we do get to see him naked in a hotel room with her. (Why do we only get to see men in states of undress in this show? Could it be a fear of female sexuality?) And, of course, the hot-to-trot young wife is a femme fatale: she turns out to be the one who killed her husband and set up her lover to take the fall.

There's another story about a nerdy college boy whose friends hire a prostitute to take his virginity. He falls in love with her and hires Veronica to track her down, but then gets turned off to her when he realizes that her being a stripper and a prostitute isn't just an abstract concept: men are going to remember her and treat her accordingly. The show seems to think his hypocrisy is only natural, and rewards him for dumping his prosty girlfriend by giving him Veronica's best friend as a new girlfriend.

The problem here is clear: the male creator of the show didn't (doesn't?) understand adult female sexuality, and college is -- for people who go to college -- often or usually the place where sexuality blossoms and becomes adult. To write/create effective, realistic stories about girls becoming sexually active women, you have to understand how this happens.

Rape, usually date rape, is far too often a part of this. But the weird roofie-then-shave-head rape of Veronica Mars is most definitely not the usual way campus date rape happens. (Rob Thomas loves the roofie, by the way -- Veronica was roofied and raped in the first episode of the entire series. But far more often, the intoxicant of choice is simple booze.) And even -- or especially -- when rape doesn't happen, consensual sex in college is a very complicated mishmash of negotiation, persuasion, emotional blackmail, self-consciousness, wish-fulfillment, awkwardness, weird body issues, desperation, and, always always, desire. And that's just the women.

Because the cameras cut away the moment the bodies start getting horizontal, the real substance of a sexual liaison between very young adults is also cut away. There's a weird commitment, in this and all other shows, to making all consensual sex satisfying for both parties. (The first time in the series that we see Veronica in the afterglow, she's complimenting her 18-year-old boyfriend Logan on his sexual prowess by saying he could monetize it. That's not problematic at all.) Thus the weird, exciting, awkward, embarrassing, and above all, loooong sexual learning curve we go through throughout our twenties is compressed into a single encounter, and a whole new generation of late teens is subjected to a sexual inferiority complex.

Nobody ever shows a sexual encounter that is just as awkward and unpleasant as it is exciting and pleasurable. Nobody ever shows the young woman's sexual arc getting cut off before climax again and again as she (very slowly) learns to articulate her desires, and her young man partner learns (very slowly) to satisfy her. Instead of a multi-episode story arc in which Veronica complains embarrassedly and irritatedly to Mac that she's not getting off, and she and Mac puzzle over what they want and how to get their boyfriends to do it, instead we get super hot single girls being roofied, raped, and shaved, while Veronica looks unsympathetic and has sweaty orgiastic rock in a penthouse suite with a mysteriously game 18-year-old.

I remember the spring before I graduated, I and my equally 22-year-old friend took a road trip to San Diego to stick our toes in the ocean. We met two boys on the beach, 18 and 16, the elder of whom was trying to school the younger in picking up girls. We had the usual "how old are you?" discussion, which, at 22, was already becoming not so usual anymore. The boy told us "I'm 18, and I fuck like an 18-year-old, too!" My friend and I laughed and tried to convince him that wasn't a good thing. But beneath our overeager superiority and condescension, there was a very immediate realism informed by the four years of college we'd just been through, and the constant sexual disappointment we'd both experienced, plus our fairly recent awakening to the fact that good sex took a lot of work from both parties.

The highschooler was a veteran of sudden gropes and makeout sessions at parties. He hadn't yet gone through the process we'd gone through, which complicated sex and made it much more interesting, but also more confusing. It was an interesting moment, in retrospect, and meant much more than we thought it did at the time.

*****

I could go on, but I think I've made my point about Veronica Mars (which also applies to Buffy): kickass, hot, young, girl-things aren't necessarily evidence of feminism in their male creators.

But all this got me to thinking about why it is that there aren't any compelling dramas about college life. College always ends up being a joke in popular culture. This came up for me a few years ago when I was a devotee of Yahoo! Answers (where people ask questions and anyone can try to answer them. I was there mainly for the book recommendations.) Someone asked for recommendations of novels about college life, and wondered why this didn't seem to be a genre, in the way that YA high school novels were. People had a hard time coming up with titles (as did I.) The only one that anyone could think of was The Secret History. (I also thought of Brideshead Revisited but I don't really consider that a college novel, since the college part was just a prelude to the midlife crisis part.)

I think part of it is that, similar to Rob Thomas and female sexuality in Veronica Mars, people see and understand the difference between adolescence and adulthood, but don't seem to be aware of, or able to articulate, the process of moving from one to the other. Of course, for the half of the U.S. population that doesn't go to college, the transition between high school graduate and working adult is technically immediate. There's no discrete period of years or distinct set experience that is considered the coming of age moment. That's a large part of why college is considered so important: it's a distinct coming-of-age process that set off from the rest of the world -- age segregated -- and that is opaque to anyone who's not in it.

This opacity is bizarre to me. Half of us go through it. Why is it so hard for us to understand what happened? My boss of four years has a daughter who was fifteen when I started working for her and who was nineteen and coming out of her first year of college when I stopped working for her. I remember the girl being very shy and self-conscious and unable to talk to grownups like me in high school. Then she disappeared for nine months and came back from her first year of college smart, confident, firm, and able to look me in the eye, shake my hand, and ask me adult questions about how I was and what I was doing. The transformation was dramatic.

I  remember my freshman year myself. A lot happened, and I came back physically as well as emotionally different. But if I tried right now to narrate the incidents and trends that led me to dress differently, stand up straight, and represent myself with confidence to hundreds of strangers (I canvassed for a PIRG that summer) it would sound trifling and inconsequential. (There was a couple I befriended with a Doberman puppy. There were desperate makeout sessions with a guy friend I wasn't attracted to in a baseball dugout. There was a high-school-best-friend breakup scene long distance on the phone. There were mosh pits and vomit and second-hand clothing stores. There were various physical and emotional transformations happening throughout my family that I was leaving behind. There were certain dreams and desires collapsing, and other ones aborning. Need I go on?)

Why is it that everything that happens in college seems humorous or unimportant, like first world problems? Even when you're talking about the kids who have to work full time during school, or who have to take care of ailing parents, or of their own kids, or deal with illness or disability or abusive relationships, etc. etc. Even then, while the problems aren't inconsequential, somehow they don't seem as serious in narrative as the same problems in teenagerhood or in adulthood.

Maybe it's that the coming of age that happens in college is always triumphal (unless it culminates in someone dropping out.) Graduating from college, in our society, is in effect sealing your membership in the educated classes. Even if you work at McDonald's for the rest of your life, you'll never be less than middle class (whatever that means these days.) And you don't have to work at McDonald's for the rest of your life. This is always viewed as an accomplishment, meritorious, a permanent safe passage.

There's also the fact that college life is protected. High schoolers are protected as well, but they're a part of "real life," being part of families of people "out in the real world" dealing with problems in all classes, races, sectors, neighborhoods. Teens are dramatically transforming people half in and half out of childhood, but part of the totality of society. College, however, even city colleges and community colleges in urban campuses, are still physically and psychologically set off from the rest of the world.

This awareness of the special protectedness of college life and the privilege it confers is probably an enormous part of why, in this supremely class-conscious society, we don't take college drama very seriously. Especially not the people who go through it. There's some sort of merit in acknowledging privilege not by straightforwardly acknowledging it, but by tearing oneself or one's own peers down for being privileged.

Hm.

I think what I just said above is true, but it doesn't feel like the whole story. Any ideas? Why isn't college fictionally dramatic?

October 30, 2010

Wimmin Leaders in TVland

Ego-googling, I came across this post by Courtney Stoker on Geek Feminism, about why so-called feminist geeks hate women characters on tv.

This tendency to dislike female character reminds me of another ”being one of the guys” strategy: I often meet women who tell me proudly, “I just don’t get along with women.* All of my best friends have been guys.” These women also often think that this fact actually makes them progressive (because nothing’s more radical than failing to create female-centric relationships!). And most of the women I’ve known who say this are geeks. It’s actually one of the reasons it took so long for me to become friends with geeks, because “I don’t get along with women” is dealbreaker for me.

Liz Henry pointed to my post on Voyager in comments and "Burn" responded that:

I watch a lot of crime/procedural shows and there’s frequently a similar dynamic going on with the women bosses. ... A brilliant but non-conformist and risk-taking team leader, some team members, and then the big boss, who represents the government/police/military/whatever hierarchy. Team Leader takes risks, team members are also frequently risk-takers, and the Big Boss warns them not to push the boundaries, but of course the Team Leader goes against orders, and is pretty much always correct in the end. Recently, I’ve seen a lot of women cast as the Big Boss/representative of the Bureaucracy.  Since the narrative sets up the maverick Team Leader as a hero, and the Team Leader is almost always male, it sets up the dynamic of the audience sympathizing with the team rather than the bureaucracy, which places more women (usually middle-aged) into this almost-guaranteed-to-be-unlikeable role of the fun-killer.

I've actually responded viscerally to this without noticing it consciously before, so I'm glad Burn pointed it out. This may be part of the reason I don't enjoy most police procedurals. But I have been watching some recent woman-centered procedurals and they, more than sf shows, have been pioneering strong, interesting, middle-aged women leads.

I'm thinking about Saving Grace (which just ended its run recently,) The Closer, and In Plain Sight. All three of these shows posit strong, troubled, often obnoxious women cops (in In Plain Sight she's a U.S. Marshal) who are advanced enough in their field to work independently or be team leaders, without being the "big boss." All of them are unconventional risk-takers, all have alienated the establishment in their field and gotten themselves into trouble, and all have found a place where they can be accepted by finding male allies -- both superiors and equals -- partly through their sexual appeal, and partly by finding men who are as unconventional and troubled as themselves.

All three are also very strongly emotional, and are impelled by their empathy with the victims they work with. However, they all distort their emotional responses, subsuming their emotions in their work, acting out in small tics and rituals (in The Closer it's her compulsive sweets-eating,) taking their troubles out on their (unrealistically) understanding lovers, and only showing their vulnerability at special moments, often only to crime victims. All of them are dealing with serious histories with male authority figures: father abandonment, priest sexual abuse, a series of bad relationships.

I love all of these characters, and even compared Grace in Saving Grace to Starbuck in the new Battlestar Galactica, and called it a new archetype, the "Starbuck". I think Mary from In Plain Sight might be a "Starbuck" too, but there are arguments against it. For one, she and her younger sister and her mother, all three share the damage, so elements of the Starbuck archetype are divided among the three of them. Mary doesn't really have Starbuck's (or Grace Hanadarko's) charm, but her mother and sister do have it, without having the strength or kickassness. I don't think Brenda Leigh Johnson is a Starbuck at all, either. She might be more interesting, since she uses "feminine weakness" to compromise others.

I'm a character addict, in television and written fiction. I can enjoy a fiction with a good story and flat characters, but it doesn't stick with me. What makes something strong and abiding for me in fiction is strong characters. And I think what's really important about the way that women are portrayed in these shows isn't that the women are leads, or that they're strong and capable and kickass. It's rather that they're very particular characters, very individual and flawed and interesting.

Creating a new archetype isn't the same as  creating a new stereotype. Archetypes are more about place-holding in our imagination. They tell us that the individual we're seeing isn't anomaly, but rather is one individual among many in a similar situation, who has similar responses to that situation. Drawing a character from an archetype, or creating a new archetype, doesn't mean that your characters will become flat. Only if you flatten the character yourself will it become a stereotype. And what's happening with this new type of approaching-middle-age or middle-aged independent woman is that the shows are using them as maquettes to build very individual characters upon. Let's hope it lasts.

...

One more quick note: I think it's important to note that all three are blonde (as was Starbuck) and all bottle-blondes (including Starbuck.) There's something basic here about American beauty standards: I think presenting a non-blonde female lead in itself is fighting a small fight, and offering a sole female lead in a woman-centered fiction is probably enough fight for one show. I think the female leads have to be blonde. Look at the other female leads in woman-centered shows: Meredith Grey, Nurse Jackie, Hellcats, Secret Diary of a Call Girl, United States of Tara, the new one The Big C, etc. I think there are a few with brunettes, like Weeds, but not many. The ones that aren't (Cougartown, 30 Rock) are mainly comedies.

It's particularly interesting, about the bottle-blonde, because at least one of these isn't entirely white: Grace Hanadarko of Saving Grace is part ... you guessed it ... American Indian, although it's Choctaw (or Caddo?) in her case, not Cherokee. I haven't quite decided what to make of that yet; I'm trying to hold back sour commentary on the white American desire for mystical Indian ancestors to justify their existence here and wipe them clean of the racial sin of racism. But I ain't gonna go there.

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