Archive for September, 2011

TT: Which Is Tougher?

September 29, 2011

If you’re looking for my Wednesday Wandering, just page back for a look at popcorn fiction.  Then come and join Alan and me and as we continue our discussion of alternate history fiction — and of overalls.

JANE: Last time, Alan, we were discussing what I think of as the two types of

A Few Old Friends

alternate history fiction.  One is the Tim Powers model, where history itself is not changed, but the reader gets an entirely new – often supernatural or science fictional – explanation for why and how things turned out the way they did.

The other is the type where a limited number of historical events are changed, then the author carries the situation forward.  This might be called the Harry Turtledove model, since he’s done so much of it.  Typical examples are the South winning the American Civil War or the Nazis winning WWII.

ALAN: Indeed so.  It’s always seemed to me as a reader that the Turtledove model would be much harder to research and write than the Powers model because Powers is free to disregard the nitty gritty detail of the period. If he comes across contradictions (or makes mistakes!) he can blame it on elements of his supernatural background.

For example the clown/magician Horrabin in “The Anubis Gates” allows Powers to play very fast and loose with the politics and sociology of nineteenth century London. Whereas the Turtledove model depends for its effect on legitimate historical and social constructs that simply have to be right or the story won’t work. If the Nazis win WWII and invade England you can’t disregard the role that Oswald Mosely and the Duke of Windsor would have played. And from the point of view of the man in the street, you would have to discuss the reaction to German lager appearing in English pubs. At that time you rarely saw lager for sale in England. The British predominantly drank bitter, a beer of quite a different character.

Ha! I knew we’d get back to beer sooner or later.

I don’t think you agree with me though. Why is that?

JANE: Well, I can’t really speak to the “Turtledove model” because I’ve never done an extended piece of that sort.  However, I can think of an easy way around the difficulties you suggest.  Since the author is changing a few big elements, why not remove Oswald Mosely or the Duke of Windsor, too?   On the other hand, why would you want to do so?  After all, wouldn’t the entire fun of writing such a piece be tracing down the details that would be changed and playing with them?

ALAN: I suspect there are some things that are just too fundamental to change and still take the reader along with you. Both Mosely and the Duke were strong Nazi sympathisers and would have had a prominent role to play in a post-war Nazi government. The only way you could ignore them would be to kill them off. Keeping them alive but not allowing them to influence events would probably not be acceptable to the reader who knew anything about the real historical record.

JANE: I agree wholeheartedly.  As I said, what would be the fun of writing an alternate history that didn’t embrace such complications?  It would be like drinking instant coffee – something of the character would be lost.

By the way,  I love your inclusion of  lager as an alternate history element.  That’s the sort of subtle detail that would really make an alternate history piece of that sort “sing.”  Maybe other classic British dishes would change.  Bangers and mash might be made with a different sort of sausage, horrifying the purists, for example.

ALAN: Wagner instead of Elgar at the last night of the proms! Oh my goodness, the horror!

JANE: By the way, have you read Turtledove’s “Ruled Britannia”?  I felt that in that novel Turtledove did a brilliant job of taking on a bunch of the changes that would occur if the Spanish Armada had actually won – and having Shakespeare recruited to write propaganda plays for the opposing side and then, very author-like, falling in love with both projects to the point that he sometimes forgets just how much is on the line…    For me, this was a book that showed how much alternate history can do.

ALAN: Yes indeed. That’s one of his very best. It’s well thought out and well written. And it isn’t part of a ten book trilogy. That’s a huge point in its favour from my perspective.

JANE: Darting back for a moment, I can say that the Powers model is far from easy.  For one thing, to make it work, you need to be absolutely accurate as to the historical model for which you’re providing an alternate explanation.  Otherwise, the story doesn’t work.

Let me use my recent novella “Like the Rain,” from the anthology “Golden Reflections,” as an example.    One of the most remarkable events in American colonial history is the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, when a relatively small group of unrelated (and often antagonistic) Indians managed to throw the much better armed and armored Spanish military completely out of the area.  This wasn’t a short-term victory, but one that lasted for over a decade.

I decided to provide an alternate explanation for this, but this first meant making myself absolutely familiar with the material.  I talked a bit about my research in one of my Wednesday Wanderings (WW 1-12-11), so I won’t repeat here, but the trick was finding real events for which I could provide another explanation.  When I learned that the Spanish depositions included such things as  Popay – the leader of the Revolt –  apparently having supernatural advisors and performing miracles like shooting fire from his hands and feet, I was well on my way.  When I learned that Popay had killed his own son-in-law, I had the heart of the personal conflict.

ALAN: I agree that the initial situation and premise has to be correct in terms of the real (whatever that means!) world. But after that it seems to me that you are free to diverge quite a lot.

JANE: Not really.  All divergence must go on behind the scenes, so details of the actual event must be perfect.  But, I do follow what you’re saying.

ALAN:  Speaking again as a reader, rather than as a writer, I find that the Turtledove model needs to stick so close to reality that the smallest thing can break the willing suspension of disbelief.

For example, in Connie Willis’ novel(s) “Blackout / All Clear” which are set in England during WWII, she has children playing “parcheesi”, a word I’d never heard in my life before. And that immediately took me out of the book and back into my lounge. I did a bit of digging and found that the game she was referring to is the game I knew as “Ludo”.  She is perfectly correct in having the children in her novel play the game (it was very popular at that time) but the use of the wrong name jarred so much that for me the spell of the book was momentarily broken. However I’d have accepted it in a Powers-mode novel simply because of the general strangeness that world view invokes.

JANE: Interestingly enough, right after you brought up the Willis books, a friend who is an absolute stickler for historical details mentioned she’d just read “Blackout.”   Now Sally once got taken out of a historical novel because one character was wearing overalls before they were invented.  So I figured she was the perfect person to ask about the ludo/Parcheesi problem.

She chuckled and admitted she hadn’t been aware of Willis’s error, so it hadn’t bothered her.  Then she raised the possibility that Willis had not known either – and if you don’t know there is a question, you can’t ask it.

ALAN:  And that’s what makes the writer’s job so hard! I suppose we each have our own areas of knowledge and expertise and our own individual breaking points. The overalls would have gone right over my head…

JANE: No, Alan…  Overalls are stepped into.  You can’t pull them on over your head…  Sorry.  After all our discussions of clothing, I couldn’t resist.

ALAN: But remember that from your point of view I am upside down at the bottom of the world… You’d be amazed at the difference it makes.

After all that research, don’t you get the urge to write a straight historical novel? Both Turtledove and L. Sprague de Camp (another brilliant alternate history novelist) have done just that.

JANE: Ah…  That’s a complicated question.  Let’s go for it next time!

Popcorn Fiction

September 28, 2011

I’m sitting here with what is one of my favorite afternoon snacks: a bowl of

Popcorn Fiction?

popcorn and a mug of black coffee.  As I was making the popcorn, I started thinking about the term “popcorn fiction.”

The term popcorn fiction is usually used to describe fiction that – like popcorn – is light, airy, and goes down very easily.  I’ve wondered if the term evolved from the association of popcorn and movies.  I’m pretty sure I’ve heard people refer to “popcorn movies” as distinct from “three hanky movies” or “kiddie movies” or suchlike.

However, whereas with movies “popcorn” can be used simply to mean a movie that’s fun and fast, when the same term is applied to books it is almost always used derisively or, at best, slightly apologetically.

I have a friend who is both an avid reader and very smart.  Sometimes, when mentioning a book she’s just finished she’ll say, “It’s popcorn, but it’s kinda fun nonetheless.”

“Beach book” is a term that seems to mean much the same, but it’s more seasonal.  Late every spring, just about the time when kids get their summer reading lists from school, their parents are bombarded with lists of beach books for the summer.  I’ve often thought it unfair that a kid has to pack along Wuthering Heights or Great Expectations  while his or her parents are mulling over whether to grab the book with cover featuring the guy and the big gun or the one with the undressed girl.

I wonder why it is that many people do feel this need to apologize for what they’re reading?  The friend I mentioned above does not apologize when she tells me about a light movie or television show she has just enjoyed.  Is there some idea that the very act of processing prose is a serious act and should be reserved for serious things?  Or is it that people fear being taken for intellectual lightweights if they admit to reading something other than Sartre or Proust?

Well, I will admit that although I do read “serious” works (right now I’m working my way through a Jungian psychological study), I also read lighter works.  Some of what I read might even be termed – horrors! – popcorn.

In fact, from a certain point of view, much of what I read would automatically be termed popcorn because it’s science fiction and fantasy.  Oh!  And I also love YA fiction.  That’s another type of fiction that regularly gets tagged “popcorn” – even though there’s some tremendously thoughtful and intelligent work coming out under that label.

Now I’ll make matters worse.  One of the authors praised (or blamed, depending on your point of view) for introducing a number of techniques from literary fiction into science fiction and fantasy was Roger Zelazny.  He had an M.A. in English, with a specialization in Renaissance and Jacobean tragedy.  He wrote poetry.  Obviously, he was an Intellectual.

I knew Roger well.  I can assure you that, although he read poetry just about every day, and usually had at least one book of history, biography, and some other non-fiction study on his active reading shelf at a given time, he also read a whole lot of really light fiction, too.  One of Roger’s favorites was the “Destroyer” series of action adventure novels.  Back when we were corresponding, he’d often mention he what he was reading.  He didn’t shy away from noting something along the lines of “and I just finished Destroyer number infinity and such, since, having read all the others, I might as well keep up with them.”

So, I’ve put my reputation as a serious intellectual on the line here.  How do you feel about popcorn fiction?  Do you read it or is life too short?  Is your new e-reader a chance to get to all those great French and Russian classics you couldn’t lift before?  If you do read popcorn fiction, what’s the appeal?

TT: Risky History

September 22, 2011

Hi, Folks.  If you’re looking for the Wednesday Wandering, just page down to read about how Chinese acrobatics and writing are related.  Or stay here and join me and Alan as we explore why we disagree on a crucial point…

JANE: Well, Alan, last week we left beer behind to talk about the works of an

Alternate Histories

author we both enjoy – Tim Powers.  In the process, we made the startling discovery that one of my favorite of his works – “Last Call” – is one of your least favorites – and one of your favorites – “Declare”
– is one my least favorites.

I spent several days mulling over this and think I may have figured out why.

I think our different reactions to these books  has to do with one of the risks an author takes when writing alternate history.  How the story impacts on the reader is related in some fashion to how familiar the reader is with the portion of history being alternated.

For example, you say that the “Cambridge spies” have entered folklore.  Well, maybe British folklore, but certainly not the folklore for this fairly well-read American.  Kim Philby was a vaguely familiar name to me.  That’s it.  So I had to read “Declare” withing knowing the background , and ended up wondering what (other than certain supernatural elements) was the “alternate” and which the reality.

Conversely, the settings of   Last Call are very American.  Many of the historical figures – especially the gangster-types – have been glamorized by film until they have become part of American folklore.

ALAN: That would certainly make sense. I grew up in an England that seemed to have an unholy fascination with the Cambridge Spies. There were lots of newspaper stories as new revelations emerged.  There were TV shows and countless novels. Alan Bennett wrote an utterly brilliant play called “An Englishman Abroad” which was about Guy Burgess living his life in exile in Moscow. You wouldn’t have had any of that.

JANE: Absolutely.  I’d like to re-read “Declare”, but I wonder if I should read some of the historical background first.   By contrast, the settings and characters in “The Drawing Of The Dark” and “The Anubis Gates” belong to what we might call a shared historical background.  We might not know the details, but we’ve heard of the main characters and know a little about them.

ALAN: Yes – a lot of the background in those novels is common coin – though, if pressed, I would be unable to produce more than vague wafflings about the details.   I’m very aware of the time and place in general, but not in particular. That’s probably all to the good.  Powers has an ability to place what feels like real details into the folk  memory we share.  It’s what gives his books that convincing extra edge. It also means, of course, that if his audience doesn’t share that folk memory to begin with, they are almost certainly going to be lost, since Powers never makes what he’s adding explicit.  Hence the similar reactions we both had to two different books.

JANE: I have another example…  When Jim read “The Stress of Her Regard,” a Tim Powers novel which features Byron, Shelley, and a bunch of their associates, he  kept asking me how much of what the characters were up to had actually happened since his encounter with these figures had been limited to a poem or two in high school English.   It made for some great discussions between us, but it could be said we read very different books, because I was bringing to Powers’ novel my extensive knowledge of the characters, their lives, and how they met their ends.

ALAN: Again, I was happy with “The Stress Of Her Regard” because (to a certain extent) I’d come across many of these people at school. I had an absolutely brilliant English Literature teacher who always took great pains to put things into context. And he liked gossip. He was particularly good at the salacious details of  love affairs and other scandals. So much of this came up in the classroom, perhaps just enough to leave room for me to fall into Powers’ verisimilitude trap. And so I quite enjoyed that book as well.

JANE: As we’ve been chatting, I’ve been thinking that the term “alternate history” really gets applied to two very different types of fiction.  What Tim Powers writes could be called “alternate explanation history.”  Thus, when readers finish “Last Call,” they understand the deep, secret reason behind the utterly crazy idea of building a massive city in a desert, filling it with water features, and catering to gambling.

ALAN:  I like to think of it as applied paranoia. It plays with  our secret fears, almost to the extremes of rabid conspiracy theories. Secret histories are always enormous fun to read about and Tim Powers is one of the very few authors to have realized this.  He is also, without a shadow of a doubt,  the very best at writing it convincingly.

JANE: Then there is the other type of alternate history – the type Harry Turtledove writes so often.  Here you take a recognized historical event, change it in some way (for some weird reasons, some American readers are addicted to stories where the South won our Civil War), and then go forward from that point.

ALAN: And that’s by far the most common type. Turtledove is by no means the only practitioner, though he’s certainly the most prolific. I’ve enjoyed several of his books but by their very nature they do tend to be a little bit formulaic; and I’m not sure there’s much that can be done about that. It’s inherent in the nature of the beast.

JANE: I’ve written a couple of stories that could fall into the Powers model.  There’s  my recent “Like the Rain” in the anthology “Golden Reflections” and my older piece “Three Choices: The Story of Lozen” in the anthology “New Amazons.”  Both of these play off of American Indian history – the Pueblo revolt and the Victorio Wars – so I suppose I fell into the trap of alternating history that most of my audience wouldn’t know well enough to know what I was playing with.  In both cases, the inclusion of  supernatural elements made history make more sense.

I don’t think I’ve ever written a “change history from this point” story, but as soon as this goes on-line, I bet I’ll remember one.

ALAN: From a writer’s point of view I suspect the Powers model is easier to follow because revealing deeply secret and entirely fictional histories requires much less research into historical realities than the Turtledove model does. Writers who follow the Powers model are generally dealing with folklore which can be twisted in all kinds of ways to suit the plot whereas writers who follow the Turtledove model have to fit their stories into known history and that means they have to get the details correct. So they really need to research it to the nth degree or risk losing their audience , particularly if the historical period they deal with is a well known one such as the South winning the Civil War or the Nazis winning World War II. Since you do this kind of thing for a living and I don’t, perhaps you could comment on that next time?

JANE: Absolutely, especially since I am aware just how much research the “secret history” approach takes if you want to do it right!

Handstands in the Air

September 21, 2011

When we were at the State Fair last week – yes, we do usually go more than once

High in the Sky

– we made a point to see several of the free shows.  “Walking with Lions” was mostly nice for a chance to view some beautiful animals.  “K9 Kings Flying Dog Show” was full of enthusiasm.  However, for us, the no-question favorite was the performance by the Yangdong Chinese Acrobatic Troupe.

In the span of about twenty-five minutes, we saw pole-climbing (and some fascinating controlled falls), hoop diving, astonishing leaps and bounces performed without benefit of a trampoline, an amazing contortionist, and a charming and dextrous woman who spun various lightweight objects (such as a paper umbrella) on her feet.

The troupe’s coach took the stage to give an awesome demonstration that involved highspeed twirling of a wide-blade trident.  This he whirled not only between his hands, but up and down his arms and over his back.  This was an impressive enough display of controlled dexterity when he did his first set, but when, for the second round, both ends of the trident were set on fire, it was really amazing.

To make all of these performances more interesting, monsoon season is upon us.  Gusty pre-thunderstorm winds meant that props often had their own idea where they should be heading.  This was hard enough on the hoop divers and the contortionist (part of her performance involved five lit candelabras).  However, several times the winds removed the umbrella the young woman was twirling on her feet right off the stage.

Even so, for all of these, the winds were an inconvenience.  The finale was a routine that the winds made not only challenging, but possibly dangerous.  Those of you who have seen Chinese acrobats are probably familiar with some version of this routine.  An acrobat, in this case a young woman, comes forth carrying a square-built chair and places it on the stage.  Then she gets up on the seat and does handstands of various sorts.

The act becomes thrilling when an assistant brings out another chair.  This one is set on top of the one below, upside down, so that the back of the upper chair rests on the seat of the lower chair.  Now the young woman mounts to the upper reaches of this unfastened platform and does more handstands and the like.

This continues through a third chair, a fourth, a fifth, with the woman mounting about three feet higher each time.  Jim and I were sitting in the center section, right in front of the stage and I am not exaggerating when I say that we could see the chairs swaying slightly when the winds hit.  If the tower had gone down, the chairs and the acrobat would have been in our laps.

However, despite occasionally stopping for a moment when the winds were particularly strong, the young lady persisted.  When she had built a tower five chairs high, a sixth one was lifted up to her.  Not satisfied to repeat the routine she had done on the lower tiers, she braced this last chair at various angles and struck increasingly daring poses.

The photo accompanying these wanderings is of one of these.

Please remember, the acrobat is not in a theater with safety nets beneath her, but on an outdoor stage amid gusty winds, winds that must have been augmented by the thunderous applause and shouts of appreciation from the audience below.  The acrobat did have three spotters, but had she come down, they all would have been dodging chairs as they hoped to arrest her fall.

But she didn’t fall.  She finished her final twist, then,  chair by chair, she dismounted, taking her bows with a beaming smile.

Now, as I already said, this routine is something of a classic.  Even I, who have not seen that many Chinese acrobatic performances, have seen it before.  Thinking about the act afterwards, I found myself wondering.  When does something become a classic as opposed to “tried and true” or, far worse, “hackneyed,” “old hat,” and “cliched”?  Does something cease to be of value simply because you’ve seen it before?

Certainly, this was not the case for this tower of chairs routine.  I’d be happy to watch it again – with or without high winds – many, many times again.  Skill is skill.  Talent is talent, at least in athletic performances.

However, writers (and others in the creative arts) face a different challenge.  For writers (and the rest), often it is not enough to do the classic well.  There is a craving for novelty – especially on the part of reviewers and editors.  They want to see something new.  Sometimes I’m not sure that this “new” thing needs to be particularly good.  On the other hand, there are readers who want nothing new at all.

I once had my hair cut by a young woman in Santa Fe who, when she learned that I wrote for a living and even wrote fantasy, was very excited.  She told me that she read fantasy.  She read Terry Brooks.  When she had read whatever he had that was out and new, she went back and re-read old Terry Brooks novels.  That was, apparently, all she read.

Now, I admit, this is an extreme example.  However, as the writer of twenty-one published novels, I definitely have seen both sides of the issue.  For every fan letter I get expressing enthusiasm about a new project, I get two asking when I’m going to write a new Firekeeper novel, or a new Changer novel, or a fourth “Breaking the Wall” novel or maybe a sequel to my novels Child of a Rainless Year or The Buried Pyramid.

Sometimes fans of a particular series will not hesitate to tell me they cannot stand the other works I have done, as if this will encourage me to fulfill their request.  Even short stories can trigger this “more, but the same” response.  When I read my short story “Hunting the Unicorn” at Bubonicon, the first question was “What happens next?”

Yet reviewers and editors are the first to say “ho, hum” to the classic.  Sometimes, more puzzling, especially from those on the buying end, a writer hears, “Can you give us more of the same but different, please?”

So what is better?  Do you crave novelty in what you read?  Is something that’s classic in theme automatically boring?  If so, why is it that some of the biggest hits of the last few years have been variations on well-played themes?

As someone who likes to write a wide variety of types of stories, but also doesn’t write just to be different, I must admit I’m curious about where you stand…

TT: Drawing of the Dark

September 15, 2011

If you’re looking for Wednesday Wanderings, just page back and join me at the dance grounds.  Or stay here as Alan and I go off on a topic that proves we’re not afraid to tangent when the inspiration strikes…

JANE: So, Alan, as I thought about where to start asking questions about beer, I

Novels with Power, by Powers

ended up with a question about books instead.  Have you ever read Tim Powers’ early novel “The Drawing of the Dark”?

ALAN:  Indeed I have. It was the first Tim Powers novel I ever read and it turned me into a huge fan, mainly because it was about beer, of course. Unfortunately, much as I love his books, I’ve found all his other novels to be vastly inferior to “The Drawing of the Dark.” No beer!

Actually that’s not true. Many of Powers’ novels do feature beer but not to the same extent as in “The Drawing of the Dark” where the lore of beer is central to its plot. And don’t forget, I’m English –  beer is our national religion. How could I help but love the book?

JANE: I had the funniest initial encounter with “The Drawing of the Dark.”  I was still living in Virginia and one of my gaming group members – Bill Tedder – came over.  He was reading this cheesy-looking paperback while we waited for the others to arrive.  The title was in brilliant yellow highlighted with orange.  The art showed a white haired man in a vaguely medieval outfit battling a gargoyle wearing nothing but a pair of very brief briefs, platform shoes (no kidding), and tribal tattoos.

The title didn’t raise my estimate one bit.  “The Drawing of the Dark” seemed like the title of the worst of bad heroic fantasy.

When I said as much, Bill just grinned and said something along the lines of  “Give it a try.  You might be surprised.”  He loaned me the book then and there, since he’d read it before.

Boy, was I surprised!  The “dark” turned out to be dark beer and the tale itself  a convoluted saga of reincarnation entwined with the myth of the Fisher King.  I loved it.  The book made me an avid reader of Tim Powers’ work.

ALAN: What a strange coincidence! I also found the book in an odd way. One weekend I was terminally bored. I’d completely run out of things to read. I popped down to the corner shop to buy some milk. The shop had a very small collection of books for sale, perhaps a dozen or so.  They all looked like utter rubbish, but I was desperate for words so I grabbed the only one that looked even vaguely SF/Fantasy oriented even though I’d never heard of the author, and I took it home along with the milk. It was, of course, “The Drawing of the Dark” and the weekend quickly stopped being boring as I raced through the book, chortling at all the lovely jokes and reveling in the complex plot.

JANE: I think I’ve read all of Tim Powers’ novels – including hunting out a couple of his earliest efforts.  I never failed to enjoy one of his books, but for the longest time I found myself thinking “He’s almost got it.  He’s almost got it.  He just didn’t quite…”

Before we go further, I’d going to nod to those people eavesdropping on our conversation and try to explain what type of novel Tim Powers writes.  I suppose a definition would be “alternate history fantasy,” but Powers manages to do something more.  After reading one of Tim’s books, I become convinced that his version of history is the real one and the stuff in the history books is missing crucial details.

ALAN: Yes – it’s that verisimilitude that gets me every time. His novel “The Anubis Gates” is a time travel story in which a group of scholars travels to early nineteenth century London to attend a lecture by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Things go wrong and they end up stranded. Along the way they encounter the famous poet, William Ashbless. The plot is extremely convoluted and the evocation of bizarre London lowlife is brilliantly done even though it bears no relation to reality whatsoever. I was so drawn into the book that by the end I was absolutely convinced that Ashbless was a real poet and I was gobsmacked when I eventually found out that Powers had invented him.

But my very favourite of his novels (after “The Drawing of the Dark,” of course) is “Declare.” The novel is about the life and times of Kim Philby the infamous Soviet spy.  He’s a legendary figure in England – Burgess, MacLean, Philby and Blunt, the so-called “Cambridge Spies,”  have all entered the folklore. Powers manages to breathe new life into the legend and the very twisted supernatural ending of the novel is a tour de force.

My least favourite of his works is “Last Call.” I really don’t enjoy it at all, mainly because all the way through I felt that things were going on under the surface that nobody was telling me about. All the characters seemed to know stuff that I didn’t know, and none of it was ever explained. I spent the entire novel feeling bewildered and frustrated. For once, Powers’ talent for  sucking the reader into the world of the novel deserted him. It’s the only Tim Powers novel that I failed to finish. And I’ve read all of them, including his very early and very hard to find stuff.

JANE: Interesting how different our reactions were.  As I was saying, I always came away just a little disappointed from a Tim Powers novel.  Then came “Last Call.”  Now, my disappointment wasn’t because the books were bad – indeed, a flawed Tim Powers novel was, for me, still far better than most of the stuff being published.  It was because I felt Powers wasn’t carrying his idea through all the way.  There would be a problem with pacing or an issue too easily resolved (or not resolved at all).

Then I read “Last Call.”  It’s a complicated story, touching again on some of Power’s favorite themes, interweaving  old myths, magics, and legend into – in this case – a contemporary setting.  I liked the main characters and felt they were better fleshed out than many Powers had written in the past.

By coincidence, I was reading “Last Call” to keep me occupied on my flight to a World Fantasy Convention.  It’s a long, complex novel, and so I didn’t finish it.  I kept sneaking time between events to read it and even brought it along to the banquet, hoping to find a moment between speeches to finish.

I was attending this banquet as a Avon Books author and so was Tim Powers.  I’d met him a time or two before and, since I had his book in hand, I started telling him how much I liked it.  I was particularly concerned about the fate of the character Arky.  I remember telling Tim that it wasn’t that I was hoping for a miracle cure for Arky’s cancer (which had been Arky’s goal at the start of the novel), but that I hoped, if he had to die, he’d go out well.

Then I realized that this book was a keeper, so I asked if Tim would sign my copy.  He did so, writing as follows: “For Jane! – Hoping you approve of how Arky turns out – & (- just between you & me -) I hope that, an hour from now, this has won the World Fantasy Award.  Cheers, Tim Powers”.

Hard as it may be for those of you who follow these things, I hadn’t realized “Last Call” was on the awards ballot.  As I quickly scanned the program, I realized that there was a strong group of contenders that year.  “Last Call” was definitely not a sure fire to win.

When the time for the novel award came, my heart was pounding as hard as if one of my books was on the ballot – I mean, how could I have been such as idiot as to be nattering away at an author who was hoping his book might win?  What would I say if it didn’t?  I sneaked a glance over at Tim and found him watching me!

Well, “Last Call” did win, and all was well.  I could relax and offer sincere congratulations…  Whew…

Alan, I can understand why you had this feeling that “things were going on under the surface that no one is telling you about” when you read “Last Call” because, well, that’s pretty usual for a Tim Powers book.  The funny thing is I had a similar reaction to “Declare.”

Would you like to hear my theory why?

ALAN: Indeed I would. I find it very strange that we both had the same reaction, but to two completely different Tim Powers books. Perhaps we could do that next time? I need a glass of beer to drink and a good book to read. I wonder what book would be appropriate…

Dancing Native

September 14, 2011

It’s State Fair time again!

This past Saturday, Jim and I made our first trip to the Fair.  Last year I

Homie Dancer

wandered on about the Fair  (see “Fair Wanderings” 9-15-10 if you’d like a larger glimpse of the New Mexico State Fair).  This year, I want to focus in on a particular event I enjoyed a great deal.

As most of you probably already know, New Mexico is a state that encompasses many living cultures.  In addition to the Anglo and the Spanish, numerous American Indian tribes make their homes within the state’s extensive borders.  The State Fair acknowledges these nations in several ways.  The two most obvious are the Indian Arts building and the Indian Village.

You enter the Indian village through an elaborate entry framed by two pillars of rough stone slab Chacoan-style masonry.  (The residents of Chaco Canyon were Anasazi or Ancestral Puebloan people.)    Past these pillars are a number of structures reflecting the varied cultural types.   A very large tepee and a Navajo hogan balance each other on one end of the central plaza.  The edges of the area are framed with structures reminiscent of the adobe homes of the various pueblo peoples.

The term “village” may mislead first-timers into thinking they’re going to see one of those recreationist sites beloved of tourism departments.  The State Fair’s Indian Village is no such thing.  Rather than preserving cultures gone by, it is a showcase for living and breathing societies.

Nowhere else is this more apparent than the central dance ground, where every day different tribes take center stage to show their dances to any and all, usually to the accompaniment of live music and singing.  Many of these dances have traditional roots, but they have evolved over time and so keep pace with their people’s cultural worlds.

Last Saturday, just by chance, Jim and I wandered in when  Native Wisdom (a Powwow Dance Group) were in the middle of its performance.  A handsome young man in a costume well-ornamented with feathers was just finishing his piece and the M.C. (Chucki Begay) was starting to introduce  a mature woman who was going to demonstrate two versions of a woman’s dance.

Mr. Begay didn’t just name the dance and leave those of us from outside his culture to wonder what was going on.  He explained the significance of the costume the woman – his wife, as he let us know three or four times with evident pride – was wearing, explaining that the large white pendants were elk teeth, telling us the necklace she wore had come to be known as a woman’s breastplate, and other such interesting details.

Well, we’d come in to browse the booths that lined the dance ground, but I made a beeline to where I could see the dance and quite happily settled in to watch.  By the standards of European dance traditions, American Indian dances can seem very staid.  However, their measured steps hold a dignity that often gets lost when dance has turned into nothing more than acrobatics or mating rituals set to elaborate music.

The music for this performance was supplied by Chucki Begay singing, accompanying himself with measured beats on a drum.  I watched,  delighted and transfixed, as both the  “Woman’s Standing” dance, then its later form, the  “Woman’s Walking” dance, unfolded .  When the performance was ended, a young man came out to do the “Grass Stomping Dance.”   This is a dance that, with almost post-modernistic sensibility, recalls the labor involved in the preparation of a dance ground.  Again, the dancer’s movements were minimalistic but eloquent.  I could easily see which motions were stomping down the tall grass and which indicated the more demanding job of flattening gopher tunnels.

After this,  Native Wisdom announced they were going to do a two-step dance.  Traditionally, this is a dance where the woman invites the man to join her.  If he refuses, he has to pay a forfeit.  With a lot of teasing reminders to the ladies that this was their chance, Native Wisdom invited members of the audience to take part.   I thought about asking Jim to dance, but he’s pretty shy about such.   Since he’d already paid for the parking, I thought he was out enough in the way of forfeits.   I also wasn’t sure whether my lack of knowledge of the steps would be disrespectful.

However, several people from the audience did take up the invitation.  Some of these were Native Americans, but many were not.  My favorite was the very, very tall, thin cowboy who solemnly escorted his very tiny – maybe three-year-old daughter – around the circle to a measured two-step beat.

The final part of the performance was a “Friendship Circle” dance.  Again, members of the audience were invited to take part.  This time, more people came out.  Two little girls – about six or eight years-old – hurried out to stand next to the beautiful young woman dancer.  Their gazes wide and adoring, they each took one of her hands.    Others, young and old, of all  races, came out to join the circle.

Then, when the space was almost filled, a young Native American boy in his late teens or early twenties, bare to the waist, clad in classic urban “homie” garb, including precariously drooping trousers and pork-pie hat, came vaulting out.  His naked upper body was liberally tattooed.  In every way, he was the antithesis of the elaborately costumed dancers.

How would Chucki Begay and Native Wisdom take this?   I held my breath.  Then Chucki Begay laughed loudly and said, “That’s right, Homie.  Come on and dance.”  When the circle came around to our side, I saw that the largest of the young man’s tattoos proudly announced “Native” across his lower back.

I found myself grinning ear to ear…  This was exactly what the Indian Village should be: a living, breathing place, reflecting New Mexico’s living breathing cultures, proof that change is no reflection of lack of pride in where you come from.

It’s a good thing to remember…  Maybe next year, I’ll get out there and join the dance.

TT: A Fortnight’s Holiday

September 8, 2011

If  you’re looking for Wednesday Wanderings, just page back for  some thoughts on unexpected roots, then relax as Alan tells us about his exotic winter holiday.

JANE: So, Alan, last time you promised to tell about your fortnight’s winter

Winter in August

holiday on a Pacific isle.

By the way, when I was first reading British fiction, the term “fortnight” really confused me.   I could tell from context it was a measurement of time, but “fort” didn’t fit in with any usual time measurements.  It was a real revelation when I suddenly realized “Wait!  Fort!  Could that be short for ‘fourteen’”?

You folks certainly don’t make matters easy for us Americans.  I mean, you could have at least spelled it “fourtnight.”

ALAN: That’s right. It’s simply a contraction of the phrase “fourteen nights” – i.e. two weeks. A few hundred years ago we also used to talk about a “sennight” which is a contraction of “seven nights” – i.e. a week. “Sennight” has long since disappeared from the language, probably because we’ve already got a perfectly good (and much shorter) word for it (a week).

But there is no other word for a fortnight, and it is such a useful word that we’ve kept it alive. For example, both Robin and I get paid once a fortnight. If there wasn’t a word for it, we’d never receive our salary, and that would never do.

JANE: Indeed, it would not.   When you mentioned your “winter” holiday when I was sweltering in ninety-five plus degree temperatures here, I did feel a momentary shock.  Electronic communication makes it too easy to forget you’re on the other side of the world.

How cold does it get in New Zealand in the winter, anyhow?  I know that because I live in New Mexico, lots of people think “Southwest,” “hot,” “desert,” and are shocked when I tell them we have four seasons, right up to and including snow.

ALAN: Winters here tend to be rather on the chilly side. The prevailing winds blow straight off the Antarctic ice and they don’t stop until they hit New Zealand. Most winters see the South Island blanketed in snow. The North Island generally manages to avoid that (except for the ski fields on the mountain tops, of course). But this year the winter was particularly bitter and, for the first time in living memory, snow fell down to sea level in Wellington.

For a time it looked as if Robin and I were going to be cut off by the weather and wouldn’t be able to get to our Pacific island paradise for our winter break. The snow was creating havoc with the flights in and out of Wellington. But we were lucky, and we managed to escape ahead of the storm front.

JANE: And I am definitely glad you did…  Now, I’ve kept you from talking about your holiday long enough.  What did you do on your Pacific idyll?

ALAN:  The first thing we did was rejoice at the absence of snow. Then we put on shorts and tee-shirts and sun-block and sat by the swimming pool sipping beer. Occasionally we swam to cool ourselves off.

JANE: Other than avoiding the snow – of which I highly approve – that doesn’t sound worth leaving home for.   What about outside the resort?

ALAN: There was a beautiful beach lagoon just outside the hotel. There was deep blue, slightly angry water outside the reef. But inside the reef the lagoon was calm and green.  I’ve never seen a reef enclosing a lagoon before, but it was just as I’d imagined it from reading “Coral Island” when I was a child.

The sea inside the reef was full of multi-coloured fish which were obviously quite accustomed to having portly pakehas splash around them. They swam and shoaled so thickly that you almost felt you could walk on a living carpet of fish.

JANE: I’ve never seen a “wild” live reef, although our local aquarium has a nice “tame” one.  I’m always impressed when people can grow coral in captivity.  What else did you see?

ALAN: We left the coast and wandered up the road a little. A signpost pointed up a dilapidated side track. “Prison,” it said. “And Craft Centre.”

We walked past the Kikau Hut Restaurant. 200 metres further on we came across another sign. “Kikau Hut Restaurant”, it said. “200 metres back.”

We walked further along the road until we came to a dilapidated, tumbledown shack. A huge sign hung from it: “Ministry Of Infrastructure and Planning.”

I think Rarotonga must have been settled by surrealists.

JANE: Yes, Dali painting given reality…  Go on!

ALAN: We took a trip on a four wheel drive jeep into the thick, jungly interior of the island. The jeep struggled up a steep incline and stopped on a plateau. We got a perfect view of “The Needle,” a thin spire of rock that stands tall at the top of a mountain. Robin positioned me very carefully and took a photograph of me with The Needle growing out of the top of my head. It was a perfect partner to the photo she already had of me with a coconut palm growing out of my head.

JANE: Hmm…  This sounds like the start of a new trend.  Since Jim’s the one in our family who wields the camera, I believe I will strongly suggest he not join in.  I’m photo-shy enough as it is.  I love coconuts, though.  Did you eat any fresh ones?

ALAN: We did.  We even learned how to husk a coconut. “You need a special tool,” explained the teacher. “We call it a ko –  in English, that translates to a sharp stick.”

He stuck the stick in the ground, pointy side up. Then he rammed the coconut down on to it so that the point came right through the husk and out of the other side. He pulled the coconut off the stick, detaching the husk, turned it round and jammed it down again. He did that four times and then peeled the whole of the husk away from the nut. Then, with the blunt side of a machete, he cracked the nut in two. He passed around the lower half which was full of clear juice.  We all took a sip. It was warm and sweet and very refreshing. He carved the flesh from the nut and passed that round as well. I found it rather tough and chewy and a bit tasteless. Robin had two helpings.

JANE: I’m with Robin on fresh coconut, although my absolute favorite is shredded coconut dipped in dark chocolate.  This is one of the many ways Jim and I are well-suited.  He hates coconut, so I always get those pieces from a box of candy without feeling in the least guilty.  He, in turn, gets to eat the creams which, with the exception of an occasional chocolate cream, I could go to the end of my life without ever tasting again.

ALAN: Yuck! But then I never did understand chocolate. I can’t remember the last time I had any and it wouldn’t worry me if I never had any again.

Beer, on the other hand, is much more interesting. In Rarotonga I made a point of drinking the local brew (Cook Islands Lager), which was quite tasty.

JANE: You seem rather fond of beer.  As I’ve mentioned, I’m a non-drinker of such, but Jim loves a good beer and I often buy him something exotic for a gift.  I always get puzzled when confronted with ales and beers and lagers and porters and all the rest.  Do you have any advice for me about British – or even more exotic – beers?

ALAN: Oh, lots and lots! Perhaps next time?

Sending Down Roots

September 7, 2011

We took out the apricot tree this weekend – or rather Jim and Chip did, since it

In Better Times

was Chip’s chainsaw and there was really only room for two in the work area.  I weeded instead, but stayed close to stand witness.

This was a heartbreaking job for us.  The apricot (a Tilton) was the second tree Jim and I planted after moving in to this house.  Unlike the apple, which has always struggled, the apricot took to our hot, dry little yard as if it had been designed for it.  It grew up with flattering speed and with the most minimal pruning took on a lovely broad-crowned shape.

We always knew spring was coming for real when the apricot started flowering.  Mind you, that flowering was often early, the fruit buds getting killed off by the frost, but even so a few covert blossoms would sneak through and give us some amazingly sweet fruit.

In those years the apricot tree did produce fruit, the end result was amazing.  One year there was so much fruit that the tree looked as if some garden god with an odd sense of humor had been out with crazy glue and lined the branches without rhyme or reason.

But gradually this fecundity began to ebb and the tree looked tired.  Leaves curled.  We found little holes in branches and trunk, did some research and discovered that in this area stone fruit (the class to which apricots, peaches, and plums all belong) are susceptible to borers.

This year the apricot tree didn’t even flower.  When spring came, two limbs didn’t come back.  A third made a valiant effort before succumbing.  We trimmed these and hoped the rest of the tree would make it, that the unusually cold winter would have slowed the borers.  No such luck.  We realized we could watch the tree slowly die for the next couple of years or give in.

We gave in.

Most of the job went smoothly.  The tree had been slowly dying for several years and didn’t seem to have much fight left in it.  Limb after limb dropped away under the chainsaw’s touch.  Even the trunk wasn’t too hard to reduce to a couple of tidy logs.  Almost no sap was running through what had seemed to be living wood, another indication of how bad the damage was.

Then we got down to the roots.  If the rest of the tree had given up, the roots had not.  Some of them were as big around as my arm.  Others were only finger wide, but wiry and tenacious.  Even the hair-fine ones were spread in a wide halo, grabbing every bit of moisture.

We’ve taken down the tree, but getting out those roots is going to take longer.  Since we want to put another tree in the same area, we’re going to avoid chemicals, so the process will involve hard work with a variety of tools.

Meantime, I’m thinking a lot about roots, about how many times as I’ve written these wanderings I’ve found myself going back to years gone by, to when I was very small, to high school, to college.  It seems that, like the apricot tree, I’m supported and inspired by invisible cables I’m not even aware of most of the time.

And like the apricot tree, there are new roots forming all the time, drawing in moisture, perhaps making for stories I haven’t yet formed.  My heart’s breaking for that little tree that put down such deep roots but still couldn’t make it.

Yet I’m glad to know that despite having been planted in unkind earth, the apricot tree had such grand roots.  I’m thankful for having this opportunity to dig down and realize how many and varied are my own.

TT: So Sweet!

September 1, 2011

Welcome to the Thursday Tangent.  If you’d like to wander into the question of  what to do when you meet an author, just page back.  Meanwhile, Alan and I are discussing  a sweet topic.

JANE: One thing I enjoy about my cookbook of British tea treats is how even the

Caster and Sugars

terms I can easily figure out seem more exotic.  For example, the book calls for “vanilla essence.”  We call that vanilla extract which sounds very practical and rather scientific.

On the other hand, to be fair, “bicarbonate of soda” sounds very medicinal.  Our usual term is “baking soda.”

One recipe that is particularly evocative is for a fruit gingerbread.  This must be a very sweet (rather than spicy) version because it calls for not only black treacle, but also golden syrup and caster sugar, whatever that might be.  Oh!  And that’s only for the bread itself.  The icing calls for icing sugar, more golden syrup, and crystallized ginger.

So, what is black treacle?  Does treacle come in other colors?

ALAN: As it happens, I learned all about syrup and treacle as a by-product of my organic chemistry courses. Don’t worry; I won’t blind you with science.

JANE: Go ahead.  I missed chemistry entirely.  (Maybe someday I’ll wander back to that story.)  I need to be educated.

ALAN: “Syrup” is a general term for any gooey, viscous, highly concentrated sugar solution. You can make your own syrups by dissolving vast amounts of sugar in water and I believe there are recipes that call for exactly that. Treacle, on the other hand, is the name given to syrups that are specifically a by-product of the process of refining sugar.

Depending on exactly how you treat the raw sugar cane (or sugar beet) you can end up with a very black treacle (sometimes called molasses) or a much lighter and sweeter amber coloured treacle which, confusingly, is called golden syrup. Why is it called golden syrup rather than golden treacle? I don’t know. Why is a raven like a writing desk? It’s just the way that languages work.

JANE: Black treacle is molasses!  Revelation!

All I remember about golden syrup is that Paddington Bear was addicted to it.  When I was a kid, I thought it was canned honey, but I gather it’s something else entirely.

ALAN:  Golden syrup does look rather like clear honey and the taste is similar. You can generally substitute one for the other in recipes. And I suppose that’s why Paddington Bear liked it so much. After all, if Winnie the Pooh liked honey…

JANE: And caster sugar?  To me,  “casters” are those little wheels your chair rolls around on.  How do you get sugar from those?

ALAN: Oh that’s easy. You sprinkle sugar on the floor and roll the furniture around on it so as to grind it very finely.

Actually, you don’t – a “caster” is really a very fine sieve or sprinkler. Caster sugar is very, very, very fine-grained sugar that can pass easily through the caster, so that it can be sprinkled on the top of your baking. Sort of like a salt shaker, except it’s for sugar and the holes are a lot smaller. My grandmother had a beautiful silver Georgian caster of which she was extremely fond. I imagine the gadget is called a caster because it lets you cast your sugar around with gay abandon. Because caster sugar is so fine grained, it also dissolves very quickly which comes in handy sometimes.

JANE: Interesting.  My international dictionary didn’t know about the sieve-type caster.  I believe in this country very fine sugar is often called “bartender’s sugar,” probably because it has to be to properly dissolve in cold drinks.

Now, last time you mentioned you didn’t much like sweet drinks.  Is there any sweet that has won you over?

ALAN: No, not really. I seldom indulge in baked goods. But there’s one exception to that, the thought of which always makes my mouth water and brings back many happy memories. Parkin is a moist, sticky cake made with oatmeal, ginger and treacle. In Yorkshire we eat it mainly on bonfire night – 5th November, Guy Fawkes:

Remember, remember the fifth of November
Gunpowder, treason and plot…

We used to call the celebration plot night. My childhood memories are full of cold, dark November evenings, with everybody well wrapped up in coats, scarves and gloves, our breath steaming in the chill. There’s a huge bonfire burning and sparks are flying everywhere. Potatoes are baking in the hot ashes, trays of parkin are being passed round and the air is full of the smell of gunpowder from the fireworks…

Strangely, I don’t recall eating parkin at any other time of the year. Only on plot night.

JANE: I’m the peculiar baker who can pass up  sweets – although I like dark chocolate almost too much.  However, Jim does like sweets, so I have an outlet for my desire to bake.  I make him oatmeal cookies and banana bread on a regular basis.  When I’m doing a local book signing, I usually make either brownies or cookies for those people who’ve been kind enough to show up.

Now, your earlier mention of molasses reminded me of something interesting about the production of sugar – it leads to the production of rum.

ALAN: Yes – all the sugar producing countries have a very profitable sideline in rum. In my part of the world, the Pacific Island nation of Fiji is a sugar producer and they make the most appalling rum you ever tasted. Every time I go there, I make sure to buy a bottle because it is so unbelievably cheap. But it really is quite undrinkable except when mixed with enough Coke to drown the taste. I dislike Coke as well (a singularly horrible drink) but the combination of the two revolting things turns out to be marinally less revolting than either of them separately. On a good day you might even call it palatable. It’s probably something to do with chemistry again.

Robin and I have actually just spent a fortnight luxuriating in the sun on a Pacific island. It was our mid-winter holiday.  Let me tell you all about it…

JANE: Let me run and refill my coffee mug…