Sunday, December 07, 2008

Snow!

First I saw it on the grass, then I saw it on the rooftops, then I saw snowflakes in the air.

It has arrived.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Torchwood (first look)

I just watched the first two episodes of Torchwood. It made me wonder what people who have never seen the new Doctor Who would think of it - not just because it's an official spin-off, but because the premise for both is very similar: an ordinary young woman meets a charming, enigmatic man and discovers the existence of a secret universe. (I even thought that the two actresses who play the characters of Rose and Gwen resemble each other, but that may only be because they have to spend so much of their time with identical expressions of wide-eyed amazement on their faces.)

In the first episode, one of the characters asks, "Why does Earth always get the nasty aliens? Aren't there any nice ones out there? Or do we attract the filth because we are filth?" It's a disturbing question (even if you don't believe in aliens; then the question becomes, "why do we only tell stories about nasty aliens?") and very typical of the new Dr. Who as well as TW.

But the shows' creator, Mr. Davies, doesn't answer the question - he just puts it out there. In this he resembles the creator of the new Battlestar Galactica, who says that his goal is to ask tough questions, not (usually) to answer them. I happen to think that BSG is more sophisticated. At the very least, it has managed to avoid the SF TV formula of "each week we encounter a new alien life form, and kill it." Torchwood seems like it will cling to the formula.

However, Torchwood is a very strange combination of the awkward and the sophisticated. It's almost enough to make one wonder if the sophistication only happens by accident, if it's a trick of asking questions without any thought behind them at all. But somehow I don't think so.

The second episode is a perfect example of this. It's about an alien which feeds on the "life force" of human beings - an idea which has been done over and over. The twist is that this alien uses sex to extract its nourishment - and the sex is graphically depicted. Lots of people, apparently, can't see past the sex scenes. But there is more than that going on. (In other words: graphic depictions of sex can appear "sophisticated" to people who usually don't get to see such things. But it's more sophisticated to look beneath the surface.)

In fact, despite all evidence to the contrary, I assert that the creators of Torchwood are not obsessed with sex. They're obsessed with emotion. That's a lot more interesting, and it does, perhaps, account for many of the plot holes and general clumsiness to be found in the show. A certain amount of implausibility doesn't matter, because we, the audience, want to see the characters interacting with each other, triumphing against impossible odds, and generally having adventures. That's it.

Friday, November 07, 2008

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, by Anne Brontë

This book has been following me around for a while. I kept looking at it on the library shelf and wondering if I wanted to read it. Then I saw a copy at the book sale, passed it by, went back for it -- alas, it had already been covered by the shifting sands. So I finally had to check it out.

It is noticeably different from the work of other Brontës. It might even be a better novel. I found it much more realistic in the depiction of relationships.

The hero and heroine are still authentically Brontëan -- passionate, unconventional, and short-tempered. But we get a certain amount of explanation as to why they behave that way -- Jane Eyre, for example, or everybody in Wuthering Heights, just seems to have been born cranky.

While reading Wildfell Hall it occurred to me that other Brontë protagonists don't seem to believe that anybody else is real. There's very little objectivity in those novels. I found Wildfell Hall to be better at describing other people's points of view, and although it's also narrated in the first person, like all Brontë novels, the approach is quite different.

The first and last sections of the book are narrated by the hero. He spends most of his time describing that mystery woman, the heroine -- and because she is a mystery, and they don't like each other very much at first, we get a certain amount of distance.

The middle section of the book is the heroine's journal, depicting the destruction of her marriage. She has no objectivity; she keeps believing everything will work out for the best . . . but because we know she ended up separated from her husband, it's heartbreaking to see how much she idolized him in the beginning. I don't believe that Charlotte or Emily would ever have allowed one of their heroines to be so completely mistaken. In fact, their novels arguably subscribe to the notion that erring souls can be saved by love alone. Anne seems to have known that it ain't so.

Anne was the youngest of the Brontë siblings. She died in 1849, at the age of 29. Both of her novels were published under the name of "Acton Bell."

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

President Barack Obama

This is the most pleasant historical moment I've ever been a part of.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

When I Put on My Woolen Underwear . . .

I say, "Dear universe, thank you for inventing sheep."

Monday, October 27, 2008

Monday, September 29, 2008

"My little penwiper's lying on the beach all alone!"

(to continue the Tove Jansson motif)

My laptop had to go in for repairs, and I miss it the way the character above missed his penwiper. But I pulled my old desktop out of the closet, so blogging can continue unabated. There are two things to be learned from this:
  1. It still works. The laptop is only three years old. I bought the desktop used, six years ago, and it's still plugging away. Slowly of course, but surely. I have heard that laptops are less reliable.
  2. The screensaver on my old computer consists of one word: "Events." I remember why that is. Someone once asked a British prime minister, "What is the most troublesome thing about being prime minister?" and he replied, "Events, dear boy. Events." I created that screensaver over three years ago, and events are still hounding me.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Baby Squirrels

I am informed that gray squirrels have two litters a year, in February and August. I just recently saw some young squirrels (not tiny babies, old enough to run around on their own, but smaller than adult squirrels), and for the first time wondered about their life cycle.

They are cuter than adult squirrels. They remind me of Tove Jansson's "squirrel with the marvelous tail."

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

autumn poem

small boats fill the river
each white sail tinged pink by sunset

September air is cold

Saturday, September 20, 2008

From Science Fiction to Fantasy: Lois McMaster Bujold

Update (July 6, 2009): I used to like Bujold's books a lot. After finally reading her clueless comments from a couple months ago, I have lost most of my respect for her. Good writing is still good writing, but the things it leaves out are important too.



Some people write science fiction, some write fantasy, some write a blend of the two. But I can think of very few writers who have gone from writing one to the other. Lois McMaster Bujold is one of them. She became known for her science fiction series about a person named Miles Vorkosigan. A few years ago she started writing fantasy novels, set in and around the country of Chalion. It might not be quite accurate to say that she writes "hard"SF, but when I discovered her fantasy novels I was very curious as to whether or not they would be any good. The short answer is "yes."

What does it mean to go from writing about spaceships and advanced technology to writing about castles and horses and magic? Do the two worlds have anything in common? Take tactics, for example. You would think they'd be very different, but Bujold handles them equally well in space and across country. That surprised me a little.

Bujold's Vorkosigan series focuses on a planet whose inhabitants live under a strict feudal system, despite their advanced technology, and are just starting to think about new ways of doing things. Feudalism is definitely a part of many fantasy novels . . . and yet Bujold doesn't overplay the feudal bit in her Chalion books.

I think the biggest difference comes with magic, which in this context also includes religion. Science fiction novels all seem to be written from an atheist point of view. I don't believe that all SF writers are in fact atheists, but either there are no gods, or what appear to be gods are simply advanced lifeforms . . . and magic can't exist because there are "rational explanations" for everything. (Put like that, it makes me wonder why I like science fiction at all.) I don't recall Bujold ever mentioning gods or theology in the Vorkosigan series. But they are omnipresent in her fantasy books, and she has some interesting things to say about them.

I have read three of her fantasy novels (which is not all of them I think) and they all have the same theme: gods, or other supernatural beings, getting involved with the human world. It really is the exact opposite of the science-fiction worldview. She starts from the premise that the gods cannot directly intervene; they have to work through human beings, and always, as far as I can recall, with human consent. Her human characters often refuse consent, which adds to the suspense.

Of the three, I think her first fantasy novel, The Curse of Chalion, is the best. The other two are still good -- I don't believe that Bujold is capable of writing a bad book -- but the language is not quite right. In the later books, she suffers from that common flaw of fantasy writers: creating awkward turns of phrase and believing that they must be right just because they are different from modern speech. It's hard to achieve the "right" fantasy voice and stick to it. She is such a good writer that it's possible to ignore these gaffes. In fact, even though I don't recall any such awkwardnesses in The Curse of Chalion, it's quite possible that there were some such and I just didn't notice them. In the later books I did notice.

I wonder how long she has been thinking about theology, and how she managed to keep it out of her SF work. Personally, I find magic and religion to be much more interesting than science. But all of Lois McMaster Bujold's books are very good. Read them!

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Joan Aiken does Jane Austen

(or, JA does JA)

The late Joan Aiken is one of my favorite authors. For the most part, I have only read her children's books. I adored The Wolves of Willoughby Chase when I was very young. Later my favorite of hers became (and still remains) The Whispering Mountain.

Recently I discovered her Jane Austen sequels. She handles the language pretty well,* which makes sense because many of her children's stories are set in the 19th century--specifically, an alternate 19th century in which the Hanoverians never came to the English throne and the Channel Tunnel opened in 1832 instead of 1994. She takes a similar "alternative" approach in these novels, which might be described as "Austen Through the Looking Glass." Aiken's style also tends to be dark--or rather, light on the surface with dark shadows clearly visible. This is not entirely incompatible, in my opinion, with Austen, but Aiken dares to go where Austen never could.

Here are my comments on specific books (listed in the order in which I read them):
  • Jane Fairfax: a retelling of Emma from Miss Fairfax's point of view, so technically not a sequel. In fact quite a bit of it is a prequel, depicting Jane and Emma as children. In the original novel, Emma gives the impression that she and Jane barely know each other, but Aiken tells us that they were once close friends, until parted by an unfortunate incident. This gives great poignancy to their later cold interactions. Although Jane is poor and orphaned, she ends up getting to live in London and travel abroad. When she goes back to the village of Highbury, she's struck by how parochial it is, and in fact she pities Emma, who despite her money and popularity is stuck in this narrow little world. (Might this not also be Aiken's comment on Austen?)
  • Eliza's Daughter: a sequel to Sense and Sensibility. This one differs most from the original novel, not only because the main character never appeared in the original, but also because when original characters appear, they are for the most part depicted quite differently, and, perhaps most important, the main character is someone who I don't believe Austen could ever have based a story on. Eliza's daughter is the illegitimate child of an illegitimate child; as such, she can never enter "good society." She's raised by peasants, in a village which seems to make its living by caring for respectable people's bastards. In time she goes to visit Elinor and Edward. Readers of the original novel tend to be shocked by the depiction of this couple. They live almost in poverty, Edward is a complete prig, and Elinor has faded away. Sense and Sensibility is one of my favorite Austens, and I was certainly shocked, but I can't entirely disagree with Aiken's approach. Here is another interesting detail: Eliza's daughter (also named Eliza, by the way) is sent to live with an aunt of Elinor's, a well-to-do lady who was once charged with shoplifting a piece of lace, priced at five shillings. The penalty for this heinous crime was either death or transportation: she was jailed for a few months, then tried and acquitted. I assumed that Aiken made this up, but apparently it really happened to Austen's aunt.
  • Mansfield Revisited. I think this was the first Austen sequel she did, because it starts off with a near-apology for the "presumption" of attempting to write a new Austen novel. Ironically, her later sequels got a lot more presumptuous. I was hoping she would turn Mansfield Park on its head; alas, no. I may also remark at this point that I rarely find Aiken's heterosexual romances to be convincing.
* It's not completely authentic, but then people don't want authentic. It's too hard to read. As a further digression, authors who attempt to write in the style of the 19th century often seem to end up doing Dickens, even when their stories are set in the Austenian (known to some as the Napoleonic) era. The excellent Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is another example of this.

Monday, August 18, 2008

A New Direction

Well. Long story short. I've started another blog, on another subject. I do intend to keep posting here, the same kind of stuff as always, but my orderly mind requires a new blog in addition.

Start here: the coming out letter.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Fooled by the Web

This morning I was thinking about colonial history, which I do every so often, and it suddenly occurred to me that I couldn't name any Scandinavian colonies (except for Iceland.) Lots of European countries colonized various bits of the rest of the world . . . but the Sweden-Norway-Finland-Denmark contingent? Like I say, I can't think of any.

I thought the Internet could help me out. I did a search on "Scandinavian colonies" and found a very interesting wiki on the subject. Unfortunately, it seems to refer to some alternate history project. I did kind of wonder, when it announced that all Scandinavian countries share the same language. But it had me completely fooled for a good five minutes.

Not the kind of thing I really need. One universe at a time is confusing enough for me, thanks very much. Now I still don't know if any Scandinavian colonies exist in our version of history, or if any Web page can be trusted. What a shock.

This is Not a Photo of My Cat

Yesterday one of my cats was sleeping with his neck wrapped around the arm of the chair in a most amusing manner. But by the time I got my camera he'd woken up. So you'll just have to imagine it.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

"Madiba says we must forgive"

Yes, I've written about forgiveness before on this blog, and how I don't really approve of the concept, as people often express it. But then I read about someone like Nelson Mandela, and you know, I can admire forgiveness, when it's done on a large scale like that, in a really classy way.

So when is forgiveness a good thing?
  • When you have a choice between killing a whole bunch of people or forgiving a whole bunch of people, it's better to forgive. Most of us, I believe, don't have the option of killing those who have wronged us. Some of us might like to. But really, it's not a good idea.
  • It seems to me that forgiveness operates differently when it applies to large groups of people. When individuals advise each other to practice forgiveness, it often sounds like they're saying, "You owe that person forgiveness. The relationship between the two of you is such that you have no right to withhold forgiveness." Which can also sound like "You have no right to stand up for yourself." I don't think anybody would argue that black South Africans owe white South Africans anything (well, except for that person who shall be nameless, who likes to talk about all the wonderful things that white people have done for black people.) No, in that case forgiveness was quite obviously . . . I want to say, it was a huge favor. It was going above and beyond.
  • When "forgiveness" doesn't mean "never talk about what happened to you." You'll notice that Mandela, Desmond Tutu and their comrades set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, where people could tell their stories. Forgiveness is not about covering up the truth.
  • When you have a chance to make things better. We can't be sure that all of the South Africans who supported apartheid have seen the error of their ways. Quite possibly they have not. But Mandela wanted to focus on improving things, not on vengeance. As he said later, "It is so easy to break down and destroy. The heroes are those who make peace and build." After everything that he had suffered, he didn't want any more destruction. That is so very civilized. Maybe someday, more people will follow his example.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Seen at the Supermarket

Dried grapes. Not raisins, you understand. Dried grapes.

(grumbles) What is the world coming to?

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Thunderstorms

We have been having thunderstorms every day for almost a week. One of my cats is terrified of thunder -- he goes creeping around the house to hide under the bed, or the couch, or wherever he feels safe, and doesn't come out until the storm is long over. The other cat seems oblivious.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Overheard (mythology)

I recently listened to a little boy and his mother (I assume it was a little boy, and his mother) talking about a book on Greek mythology.

"What is she the god of?"
"That's Athena. She's the goddess of wisdom."
"What's that?"
"It's like science."
"What is he the god of?"
"That's Zeus. He's the king of gods . . . and men. He's the head honcho. Like Optimus Prime."

Friday, June 06, 2008

Yellow Irises

I have been waiting and waiting for these to bloom. They were only planted a couple years ago, when this side of the riverbank was refurbished. (The other side belongs to a different town.) A few smaller clumps were also planted in other spots.

PS: There are a couple white iris plants too.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Good Book-to-Film Adaptations

I used to believe that there was no such thing as a good adaptation of a novel to film. "They always ruin it," I would say. But recently I have seen some good adaptations (and still some not-so-good.) The film can never be exactly the same as the book. Changes are required, but they can be good ones or bad -- or perhaps, done for good or bad reasons.

Here are a couple examples of adaptations (filmizations?) that I thought worked:
  • The Pallisers. Anthony Trollope wrote a series of six volumes, about 600 pages each, that was converted by the BBC into a 26-episode miniseries. I would say that they didn't leave out anything important. That's one mistake often made in film adaptations. They did have to leave out or simplify quite a few things, but I feel that they still captured the spirit of the books. Interestingly, the lines spoken by actors in The Pallisers tend to be paraphrases of what Trollope wrote. They get the point across, in a condensed modern style. (Dialogue, in historical novels or film adaptations, is a whole other interesting subject.)

    Somebody posted an irate review on IMDB, listing every single thing in the film version that differed from the books, in an attempt to demonstrate what a bad adaptation it was. Reading this review made me realize that change is not always bad. I would say that only one of those changes was major enough to surprise me.

    But this person, for example, complained about the fact that two characters took on the role of narrator, requiring them to say things and go places that they never did in the books. In effect, they passed on facts in the form of gossip . . . which seems perfectly reasonable.

    One of the major characters dies towards the end of the series. This event takes place "between" two books -- Trollope doesn't describe it directly. In the miniseries, however, this character got a prolonged deathbed scene, which very much annoyed the fellow on IMDB. This is a perfect example of how film differs from literature: namely, you cannot deprive an actor of a good death scene. Even I know that. (Someone -- perhaps Christopher Eccleston -- said that those are the very best scenes of all.) I mean, you just can't.

  • Lady Audley's Secret. This book, little-known today, was first published in 1862. I like it. If you like Dracula (the original novel) you might like it too. It contains no supernatural elements whatsoever, but both books share a sense of brooding menace and a fascination with railway timetables. (Good stuff.) Anyway, some people made a movie out of it in the year 2000. And they changed some significant things, but strangely enough I didn't really mind. The reason, I think, is because Lady Audley is meant to be a sympathetic character, and the creators of the film felt so very sympathetic that they wanted to make things easier for her. One gets the impression that they actually read the book -- and, just as important, they respect the book. I think that's the key to a good adaptation. Filmmakers who think they can improve on the book (especially if they think that special effects should be used to add something that was not there before), or who want to tell a story of their own and use the book for window dressing . . . those are problematic. People who actually pay attention to the book, perhaps, are more likely to create a good adaptation.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Pink Lady's Slipper



As a child I was told that lady's slippers were very rare and never to be picked. They may indeed be rare, but I saw about a dozen of them flowering in this one spot in the woods. When you see that many of them together they cease to seem rare. (Still didn't pick any though.)

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Hear That Whistle Blow

There's a railroad near my house -- not so close that I can see it, but close enough for me to hear the train whistles, especially at night.

What is it that makes trains so cool? Is it the whistle saying "I'm going somewhere far away" (although most of the trains on this line in fact don't), or their purposeful unstoppingness?

I don't often get to ride the train, but when I do two of the things I enjoy are going through the railway crossing and seeing the cars that have to stop for us; and the amazing sight of how different my neighborhood looks from the train. It's another perspective.

I wish there were more trains, and that they were cheaper, so I could ride them more.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Double Tree: Another Metaphor

They say that the root system of a tree extends as far under the ground as its branches do above the ground. So the visible tree is really only half of a tree.

I've been contemplating a theory that the human mind is like that. The subconscious mind is a set of roots, extending into the dark, deeper than we can imagine. The conscious mind, however, is not the visible half of the tree. It's only a slender cross-section, at the point where the tree meets the ground, where the two halves of the tree become one. The conscious mind is a tiny part of the mind itself. I'm becoming more and more convinced of that.

What then is the visible half of the tree? I'm currently speculating that it is . . . the set of all actions and reactions that we perform in the waking world, our interactions with the world and its interactions with us. Every connection that we have with another living being, or with the world, forms a branch or a twig of the tree.

Yes, I'm starting to think that a person's mind, a person's self, exists in the world, as well as inside one's own head. I mean, we all have an inner self and an outer self, and often they are very different. Certainly they do very different things. The inner self spends a lot of time thinking about itself. (Very few of these thoughts, I suspect, are ever shared with another person.)

The outer self is "in charge of" interacting with the world. It takes in information from the world, and sends it to the inner self. And they say that we never really forget anything. All our memories are stored in the unconscious mind -- the mind duplicates our experience, the same way the root system of a tree duplicates the structure of the branches above.

I'm naturally an introverted person. That means that I feel much more interested in the subterranean half of the tree than the sky-inhabiting tree. The invisible world, what some people perhaps consider to be a nonexistent world. But for me it is real.



My previous metaphor was the ruined house.

Monday, May 05, 2008

A Visit to the Cemetery

There is a fairly large cemetery near my house, which apparently has always been a sort of tourist attraction. But not in a tacky way. It is known for its landscaping. Many of the trees and plants are labeled, so you know what you're looking at, which is a very helpful feature. Everything in nature should be labeled.

I saw a witch hazel bush, which I have never knowingly seen before, and an "alumroot" plant. Does alum come from plants? They have a couple elms, which were planted in 1998. When I was growing up, all the elms one ever saw or heard about were dead. These must be a new disease-resistant kind. I also saw some trees labeled "plane trees," but which I would call sycamores.

I do not know if the cemetery is still accepting reservations, as it were. But we saw one tombstone which is reserved for two people. One was born in 1923 and died in 2002. The other was born in 1920 and has not yet arrived at his final resting place.

At the center of the cemetery is a hill, and upon the hill is a tower. No one is buried there. You can go up to the top and look out over the landscape. There are 95 steps in the tower (which is spelled "ninty-five" on the informational placard) and when you get up to the top of the stairwell the walls of the tower curve inwards over your head.

I find cemeteries to be very peaceful places. There is no rational reason for it, but irrationally speaking, it's enough to make me wonder if death is not what we suppose it to be.

Friday, May 02, 2008

All Fantasy is Urban Fantasy (Charles Williams)

Okay, I don't really believe that all fantasy is urban fantasy. But I do believe that the genre we now call fantasy is about ordinary life, ordinary people, crossing over into "the other world," or about the other world (or its inhabitants) coming here. As Tolkien put it, "Fairy-Stories" are not about fairies, but about the land of Faerie, and our fascination with extraordinary worlds.

Most fairy tales start off as "an ordinary day when something strange happened," such as meeting a talking animal in the woods. That was back when woods, and animals, were part of everyday life for most people.

Now, in modern times, ordinary life for many people is urban, and so urban fantasy came into being. I gather that the term was first used in the 1980s, but one suspects that urban fantasy is probably as old as the urbs themselves, and certainly examples of it can be found throughout the late 19th and early 20th century.

One of my favorite writers of premodern urban fantasy is Charles Williams. He seems to be forgotten today, which is a shame, but during his lifetime he was extremely popular. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis were friends of his -- in fact, he was a well-known writer while they were still bumbling about at Oxford.

The first book of his that I read was All Hallows' Eve. It may be the most popular, because it's the only one that I've ever seen in two different editions. After reading a friend's copy, I saw this and two other books by Williams in a bookstore and bought all three without even glancing at the two I didn't know. I was sure they would be good, and they are, but I also think I was lucky because I've read part of another that I didn't like as much.

These are the books of his that I know best:
  • All Hallows' Eve. This book was written during World War II, and set in London just after the end of the war. (Sadly, Williams died in 1945.) The two main characters are a young woman who discovers that she is a ghost, but still has some influence on the living world; and an ambitious man who has strange magic powers.
  • Many Dimensions. First published in 1931, this book is still topical in a way, because it deals with a conflict between the Muslim world and the West. Except in this case the treasured possession is not oil, but the Stone of Solomon. An unscrupulous Englishman steals it, and then finds out that not only can it grant practically any wish, but if you cut a piece off, the original stone gets no smaller, and the new piece has all the powers of the original. Meanwhile, the Muslims who had been guarding it (and not daring to use it) naturally want it back . . . but the English government is not inclined to let them have it. An English Chief Justice who takes his job title seriously also gets involved.
  • The Greater Trumps. This one might be my favorite. It's about the Tarot -- specifically, about a deck of Tarot cards which is supposed to be the very first Tarot, and therefore to have special powers. It's come into the possession of a man who knows nothing about the occult and doesn't want to know. But other people feel differently. (As you can see, the theme of these two novels is rather similar. But I tend to prefer the Tarot imagery.)
Aside from the magical elements, what makes these books fun to read is the sheer ordinariness of most of the characters. Like I was saying, that's what fantasy is all about, stirring magic into ordinary life. Some of us never get tired of it.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Spring Flowers


I don't usually take pictures of people's houses. But this arrangement of pink and yellow is too unusual to miss.

PS: if you click on this photo, you can see a larger version. Blogger seems to have shrunk it for some reason.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Basil Seeds Coming Up!

I planted them seven days ago. My windowsill garden consists of one pot of (perennial) oregano and one pot for basil.

Around here, basil seed sells out faster than the other seed packets, so you have to move fast. I went to two stores before finding "plain" Italian basil. Then ended up trying the "lime basil" anyway. Sounds yummy.

They're so cute.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Modern Authors Part 2: Emma Bull and Will Shetterly

In Part 1 I talked about Steven Brust, and therefore the only possible way to start Part 2 is by mentioning Freedom & Necessity, the epistolary novel co-written by Brust and Emma Bull. It is a very good book, arguably better than anything they've written individually. A charming book.

As Steven Brust tells the story, this book began when his friend Emma walked up to him, handed him a letter, and walked away without a word. He feared that he had accidentally offended her so badly that the only way she could communicate about it was in writing. What a relief it must have been to see that the letter was dated "9th October 1849" and was written by one James Cobham to his cousin Richard, to the effect of "I'm at an inn. I don't remember how I got here, and I've only just remembered who I am, who you are, and what your address is." (That is the first letter in the book -- I have no idea if it was the letter Bull gave to Brust, or even if she wrote it.)

Other books by Emma Bull:
  • Territory. I have just finished reading this, her newest book -- published in 2007 -- believe it to be the first novel she's published in a while. It is a "Western fantasy", on analogy with "urban fantasy." I'm not a huge fan of Westerns but I liked this. It moves along at a good pace (indeed I fear that it moves so fast as to leave some questions unanswered.) The style is deceptively simple; there are a whole lot of ideas packed into this little book.
  • Bone Dance. I like this one of her books the best, for entirely personal reasons. It contains two of my favorite things: androgyny and Voudou.
  • War for the Oaks. This is probably her best-known work. As far as I can tell, it was one of the first examples of the urban fantasy genre, or more specifically the late-20th-century revival of urban fantasy. (I would love to write about earlier examples.) Unfortunately I didn't get a chance to read it until after having read many of its successors; in other words, I didn't realize how original it was, which is too bad. But it is certainly very good. It was written in the 1980s, and the male protagonist reminds me of Prince (I don't mean that in a bad way.)
Will Shetterly is Emma Bull's husband. He has written some mediocre books, and I once came across one of his early works which was just appallingly bad (some sword-and-sorcery thing), but he has also written one book that makes up for all of that. It is absolutely one of the best books I've ever read. It's magnificent. It's called Dogland.

Dogland might be described as the story of a family who moves to Florida in the late 1950s to run a pre-Disney World theme park (the theme being "dogs.") It might be described that way, and has been described that way, and it is based on events from Shetterly's childhood but it is in fact a fantasy novel. Mixed in with "ordinary" Southerners, black and white, the Yankee family, and a whole bunch of dogs is another cast of characters, including Norse gods, Egyptian gods, a vampire, a traveling couple named Mary and Joseph whose son died a long time ago, and the Devil himself.

Those who read it as memoir perhaps accept the many strangenesses as normal for the South, or as a child's imagination, or as bad writing. I don't know, but I have read some very funny reviews, most of which contain the sentence "The ending doesn't make any sense." A book that can be read and enjoyed in two such different ways is a masterpiece -- and people do enjoy it as a memoir.

Dogland also confronts the issue of racism. It does this explicitly, as part of the plot, but more subtly as well. The Satanic character is named "Nick Lumiere." Everything about him is white -- his skin, his car, his clothes. Lumiere, meaning "light," is reminiscent of "Lucifer," but I also read it as a comment on the stereotype of light-equals-good and dark-equals-evil.

I can't say enough good things about it. If I had written anything like Dogland I would never write another novel as long as I lived. It is quite possibly unsurpassable. But we all need to earn a living, and perhaps Mr. Shetterly has lost his taste for day jobs.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Spring Sightings

  1. Robin
  2. Crocuses
It's supposed to snow on Friday, but who cares?

Update: it didn't actually snow. Has been kind of cold though.

It seems to me that at the end of winter I'm less tolerant of cold than I was at the beginning. Like, in autumn the cold weather is novel and interesting. But in March . . . it's not.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Modern Authors Part 1: Steven Brust

Books of his that I have read:
  • Agyar, a vampire novel. I liked this a lot when I read it, but afterwards I realized that I had no interest in reading it again, which is my test of a truly good book.
  • Cowboy Feng's Space Bar and Grille. I liked this okay, with two quibbles:
    1. I have never met Mr. Brust, or any of his friends (that I know of) in person. But I have eavesdropped on some of their conversations on the Internet. And I have to say that they all sound exactly like the conversations in this book. It's a very touching homage, but it's not really original, is it? (Plus they can all come up with bons mots off the tops of their heads, which I can't, so I'm jealous.)
    2. I read Agyar first, and as I was going through Feng it occurred to me, "If this was like Agyar then X would happen." And it did! I figured out the Big Secret of Feng without even trying, which is always a bummer. Although to be fair, I don't know how I did it. I'm not saying that the two books are identical in plot, because they're not. But there is a similarity.

  • The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars. I had high hopes for this novel, because it was originally published as part of "The Fairy Tale Series," edited by Terri Windling, which included some absolutely marvelous books. I only read this one recently, and I would not rate it among the best of that series. My problem with it was that the narrator is kind of a jerk. At some point I asked myself, "Can the author tell that his narrator is a jerk, or does he think this kind of behavior is perfectly normal?" That's when he lost me.
  • The Phoenix Guards and Five Hundred Years After. So there I was, not a huge fan of Brust's work. And yet, unlike some mediocre writers that I've encountered, it seemed like he could do better. He showed promise -- he just wasn't delivering. Then I discovered these two books (the first two in the Khaavren Romances series.) These are great! They're funny! They're written in the style of Alexandre Dumas. I don't know if M. Dumas intended people to find him humorous, but in Brust's hands it is extremely entertaining. The ornate style suits him. He does it well, which many people can't. It gives him a chance to show off. When I thought he could do better, I wasn't thinking in terms of "more pompous and more ludicrous," but perhaps that is what he needed.
Books of his I have not read: anything in the Vlad Taltos series (although I understand that it takes place in the same world as the Khaavren Romances, a couple generations later.) Perhaps I have to try them now (along with every other damn book that I haven't read yet.)

Update (October 2009):  Well, I picked up five of the Vlad Taltos books for fifty cents apiece at the library book sale.  They're not bad.  Vlad's constant wisecracks do get monotonous, but while reading Issola I figured out that they are a sign of inferiority -- that is, he only deploys them against his superiors (and Loiosh does the same thing.)  That was kind of interesting. Also, because I've recently become more sensitized to the issue, I have to point out that although Dragaera contains seventeen different ethnic groups (the Great Houses) and a few other races as well, all of them seem to be white.  That is unrealistic.

In Part 2, I'll discuss one of Brust's co-authors, and a related author.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Spider Story

On a recent evening, I was lying in bed, working on my laptop, when a spider appeared from somewhere in the bed, crawled across the keyboard and up the screen. I was naturally a little upset.

It sat on top of the screen for quite a while. I began to have a rather companionable feeling for it. Until I remembered that at some point I would have to go to sleep. I don't kill spiders, but I do object to sharing the bed with them. I finally persuaded it to crawl off the laptop, and it headed for the floor. That seemed good enough.

A few nights later, as I was falling asleep, my cat brushed my arm with his whiskers. My first reaction was "SPIDER!" My conscious mind had forgotten all about the spider, but obviously some subconscious sentinel was still on the alert.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

It's Not Dark Yet

It's after 6:00 in the evening and the sun is still up.

How is this possible?

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Novels of Charlotte Brontë

I have only brief comments about her four books, except for Shirley.
  • The Professor. This was her first completed novel, although it was not published until two years after her death. It is told from the point of view of a young Englishman who goes to Brussels to become a teacher. (He does this because he has no money, no talent or ambition for anything else in particular, and no family except a rich older brother who dislikes him.) In Brussels he gets involved with two women, who are also teachers. There are many autobiographical aspects to this novel. It's interesting to note that although Brontë went to school in Brussels and fell in love with her headmaster, there is no character in this book which corresponds to him.
  • Villette. This was Brontë's last completed novel; it is almost a mirror image of The Professor. A young Englishwoman goes to Brussels, first as a student and later becoming a teacher. She falls in love with her headmaster. The Professor has a happy ending but Villette does not.
  • Jane Eyre. So much has been said about this book that I doubt my ability to add anything. It was considered scandalous when it first came out, even though the heroine refuses to live in sin with the hero. But she is undeniably uppity. She freely asserts her love for him, and even goes so far as to declare that they are equal -- a penniless female and a rich man? Preposterous. But by the end of the book, Jane has come into some money and Rochester has been cut down to size. So perhaps they do end up equal. (Incidentally, the happy marriage which concludes The Professor is also depicted as a marriage of equals.)
  • Shirley. I like Shirley better than Jane Eyre because it has a larger cast of characters and a wider array of themes, as described below.
The main characters are Caroline Helstone, an orphan who lives with her uncle, a minister, and Shirley Keeldar, also an orphan, but an heiress and the owner of large amounts of property in the neighborhood. (At the time this book was written, "Shirley" was a man's name. I've heard that this book was responsible for it becoming a woman's name, but I find it hard to believe that this book was ever that popular.)

Unlike Jane Eyre, in Shirley female relationships are central. Caroline is extremely shy and retiring. She has no friends until Shirley arrives and takes her under her wing. Caroline is in love with Robert Moore, a local mill-owner. He is attracted to her, but tells himself that he's too busy making a living to think about getting married. Also, being poor, he hopes to marry a rich woman. Caroline has no money but Shirley has pots of it (in fact, she is Robert's landlord.)

But Caroline is never jealous of Shirley. Their friendship is too strong to be disturbed by the actions of such a trifling man as Robert. (This despite the fact that Caroline has known Robert for years, and Shirley only for a few months.) Like Mr. Rochester, Robert eventually gets taken down a peg. But before this happens, Caroline goes into a dangerous decline and almost dies.

She is not merely dying of a broken heart. She's convinced that a) Robert will never marry her; b) therefore, she will never marry; and c) an unmarried woman has no reason to live. Her life has no purpose. Caroline is saved, not by Robert, but by the sudden appearance of her long-lost mother. (Caroline had always been curious about her, but her uncle would never tell her anything.) This mother-daughter reunion is the heart of the book.

Two of the other motifs in this novel that interest me are the Industrial Revolution, and religion.

As I mentioned, Robert is a mill-owner. He wants to embrace new technology, which means bringing in machines. The local workers are outraged, and there are several scenes of sabotage, as well as armed confrontations between labor and management.

When I say "religion," I mean women and religion. Caroline's uncle, the minister, has a very low opinion of women (although ironically, he likes Shirley, who is a feisty little thing.) At one point, Caroline and Shirley have a discussion with another misogynist, a member of the working class. A good Protestant, he asserts his "right of private judgment" in interpreting the Bible. The girls ask him if women have the same right -- but no, they don't. They have to accept the interpretations of their husbands, fathers or ministers.

He quotes from the Bible to support the subjection of women, and then asks Caroline how she would interpret that quotation. She replies "I dare say, if I could read the original Greek, I should find that many of the words have been wrongly translated, perhaps misapprehended altogether." I was astonished. I didn't think that people started questioning translations of the Bible until much later. (Also, it shows that despite Caroline's meekness, she has a strong mind and a proud spirit.)

Charlotte Brontë apparently said that Shirley Keeldar was a portrait of her sister Emily (who died while Shirley was being written.) I cannot see the author of Wuthering Heights anywhere in the character of Shirley. Wuthering Heights is stuffed to bursting with passion: anger, hatred, love. It is not much of an exaggeration to say that nobody in the book is happy and nobody does anything nice for anybody else, until the very end. (Do I like Wuthering Heights? I do, actually, although not as much as I used to. But its author seems to be completely unaware of the fact that not everybody behaves like that.)

Shirley, on the other hand, appears to be a fundamentally happy person. She is usually cheerful, and very generous. She is rather arrogant and fond of having her own way, but that is due as much to her position as lady of the manor as to her personality. Unlike the people in Wuthering Heights, she is never cruel or violent. I'm not saying that she lacks passion, but she is moderate in expressing it. Occasionally she gets angry, but that only makes her cool. Towards the end of the book, we find out that she is in love with someone, but she doesn't want him to know.

Shirley may be a depiction of what Emily would have been like if she had grown up under different circumstances, but that doesn't mean she shows what Emily was really like.



Another comment: Charlotte was said to be very close to her siblings, and I can believe that watching them die all around her was one of the most traumatic -- and formative -- influences on her life. It's interesting , however, that she never depicts positive sibling relationships in any of her books. (Emily has a couple pairs of siblings in Wuthering Heights, but they don't especially get along.) Unlike Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë's heroines are always essentially alone.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Things that Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë had in Common

  • They were daughters of clergymen.
  • As children, they attended unsanitary boarding schools where they almost died. (Two of Brontë's sisters did die. Austen and her sister got very sick but survived.)
  • They started writing quite young. Austen seems to have started at twelve, Brontë at about thirteen.
  • They died tragically young also, Brontë at 39 (having outlived all of her siblings) and Austen at 42. They overlapped for only one year, Brontë arriving in 1816 and Austen departing in 1817.
  • During their lifetimes, none of their books were published under their own names. They used pseudonyms, remained anonymous, or were billed as "The Author of . . . " their previous novel.
This is somewhat speculative, but they seem to have had one more thing in common: they were more daring in their books than in real life. People spoke of them as being kind and gentle, good clergymen's daughters in fact. They seem to have saved all their rebelliousness and sharp wit for their books.

Or perhaps people spoke of them that way because it was the polite thing to do. It's hard to imagine that Austen, for example, could have kept all her cynical observations to herself, or that nobody noticed that all the Brontës were a little strange.

I suppose that's the other thing they have in common: nobody knows what they were really like. We imagine that their books reveal their personalities, but is that really true?

(Incidentally, Shirley is my favorite of Brontë's books.)

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Black and Blue


I guess that really ought to be "blue and chocolate brown."

Friday, February 15, 2008

How Indigo Got His Name

My cats were given names by their previous owner which I never really liked, but it took me a while to come up with new ones. A certain event gave Indigo his name.

Many years ago, when my cats were only four years old, our household (two humans, five cats) moved to a new apartment, in a part of town where we thought it might be safe to let the cats go outside. We discovered our mistake when one of them dragged himself back to the house with an injured hind leg.

The vet said it was dislocated, and that he had been hit by a car. (In fact, if it was a car, he was so incredibly lucky not to have been more seriously injured that I sometimes wonder if it was something else.) Anyway, he came back from the animal hospital with two big pins holding his leg together. Plus all the fur had been shaved off, so it looked like a chicken leg. It was so very upsetting.

There was an open wound on the leg as well. As the wound healed, the new skin grew back in this amazing dark blue color. I've never heard of such a thing, but the cat was renamed Indigo in honor of his healing process.

However, I couldn't change his name until his brother also got a new name (that wouldn't be fair.) After deep thought, it occurred to me that his brother was a plump pear-shaped beast, very much like one of those dark green Avocadoes. Thus the new names were bestowed.

Friday, February 08, 2008

My Elderly Cats

My cats are thirteen years old (turning fourteen in a couple months.) They're brothers, and they've lived with me since they were little.

Until recently, they never had any health problems. But now the vet tells me that one of them is diabetic and the other one has hyperthyroidism. The diabetic one just got back from spending three days at the vet, being monitored I guess.

The good thing is that both of these conditions are treatable. I just gave my first insulin shot today, with the assistance of the vet's assistant. It's the kind of thing you imagine you could never do. As a matter of fact, the cat barely seems to notice. His brother complains a lot more about the thyroid medicine which has to be shoved into his mouth.

The best thing is that they are still happy and active. That's what really matters. I know that someday we'll have to say goodbye. But hopefully not yet.

I should tell the story about how my cat Indigo got his name.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Surprise Snowfall

Okay, I thought they predicted a small chance of snow for this weekend. I wasn't expecting this. I am too trusting of the weather report.

I didn't take any photos, because the snow wasn't sticking to the trees this time, nor was there that beautiful purple glow in the air which appeared the last time it snowed. But I wished I had my camera with me later, when I was walking along the river and a flock of geese sailed past, with snow piled up on their backs. Didn't they notice? Were they cold? (Of course, I was getting covered with snow too.)

Friday, January 25, 2008

Forgotten Film Magic: Lotte Reiniger

I recently watched an absolutely enchanting movie called The Adventures of Prince Achmed. It was made in 1926, and is believed to be the first full-length animated film (predating Walt Disney.) It was created by a German woman named Lotte Reiniger. Her animations were made out of silhouette figures, paper cut-outs, rather than being drawn as is usually the case.

These days movies are full of special effects and computer animation, but I enjoyed this silent film more than anything I've seen in a while. It was beautiful, exciting, and witty. (To digress -- I haven't seen all that many silent films, but it's interesting to contemplate just how few words a film needs in order to succeed.)

It's not technology that makes a good movie, but artistry. That is what Reiniger had. She was fortunate enough to be able to spend her whole life working as an artist and animator, doing what she loved (in partnership with her husband) and just barely making enough money to live on.

Let's see . . . this page has a short biography of her, and teases us with links to some of her short films which we're not allowed to watch. And here is a review of Prince Achmed with some nice stills.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Books: Still Around

I was just reading a news article about the woes of the music business.
In 2006 EMI, the world's fourth-biggest recorded-music company, invited some teenagers into its headquarters in London to talk to its top managers about their listening habits. At the end of the session the EMI bosses thanked them for their comments and told them to help themselves to a big pile of CDs sitting on a table. But none of the teens took any of the CDs, even though they were free. “That was the moment we realised the game was completely up,” says a person who was there.
They can't even give CDs away. How about that?

As I sit here, listening to music on my computer, I think about the fact that print media has not yet been replaced. They keep trying to come up with a viable e-book, but so far none of them have taken off. Reading a computer screen continues to be less comfortable than reading a piece of paper. Or to put it another way, music can be adequately reproduced on a computer. Words, ironically, cannot, even though (as far as I know) computers have been displaying words for longer than they have been playing music. That's so strange.

I suppose that reading is actually hard work -- harder than listening to music (or watching movies, another popular activity that has become computerized.) Even babies can enjoy music. I never thought before about how strenuous reading is.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Winter Trees


I went out on the back porch to take this picture. It's still snowing.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Surprises in Tea

Today's surprise: Lipton. Who knew?

I just tried Lipton's herbal "Ginger Twist" tea and I like it a lot. The first three ingredients* are orange peel, ginger root and coriander, which is quite unusual but tasty. The remaining ingredients are nice too.

Good herbal tea blends are hard to find. It seems like lots of companies put in too much of the wrong ingredient -- cinnamon, for example, which overwhelms all other flavors. Or hibiscus, which I have come to dislike. It's all right in small doses, but some teas overdo it. I stopped drinking most Celestial Seasonings tea for that reason.

The London Fruit and Herb Company makes the best herbal teas I've ever had, but they don't seem to be available in stores around here. This Lipton was a very pleasant surprise.

*In case you didn't know, ingredients are listed in order by amount -- ie, if the first ingredient is "salt" that means your snack food contains more salt than anything else. A friend of mine persistently declines to believe me about this, but it's true.