Archive for January, 2016

FF: Mind Clearing

January 29, 2016

I was doing a lot of writing and researching this past week, so I shifted to some shorter works.  Like sherbet between courses, they were great for clearing the mental pallet.

Ogapoge's Fantasia

Ogapoge’s Fantasia

For those of you just discovering this feature, the Friday Fragments lists what I’ve read over the past week.  Most of the time I don’t include details of either short fiction (unless part of a book-length collection) or magazine articles.

The Fragments are not meant to be a recommendation list.  If you’re interested in a not-at-all-inclusive recommendation list, you can look on my website under Neat Stuff.

Once again, this is not a book review column.  It’s just a list with, maybe, a bit of description or a few opinions tossed in.

Recently Completed:

Kitty’s House of Horrors by Carrie Vaughn.  Audiobook.  Starts light and gets very scary.

Saga by Fiona Staples and Brian K. Vaughan.  Issues 25-30.  Comic book.  The art is still innovative, the story still willing to tackle difficult issues, but the sped-up timetable after the intimacy of the earlier issues jolted me.

Captains of the City Streets and Jenny and the Cat Club by Esther Averill.  Averill apparently wrote her stories out of order, filling in back stories on minor characters, which is rather fun. Yes. There are children’s books!

In Progress:

Kitty Goes to War by Carrie Vaughn.  Audiobook.  Especially after the closing lines of Kitty’s House of Horrors, I thought this would be a close sequel, but it’s going elsewhere.

Maddigan’s Fantasia by Margaret Mahy.  I’ve been wanting to read this since I found it while Christmas shopping for other people.  Just started.

Also:

A Wild Swan and Other Tales by Michael Cunningham.  “Re-imagined” fairy tales.  Author’s take not really to my taste at this time, so I stopped.

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TT: The Diversity Trope

January 28, 2016

ALAN: Last time you promised me that you’d tell me about some writers who have handled racial and gender issues without getting all preachy and twee about it. So please tell me more…

Diversity Troupe

The Diversity Troop

JANE: Okay…  First of all, I’m not saying that these are the only writers who have done so.  I think there have always been writers who have handled what my friend Yvonne has dubbed “the diversity trope” well.

ALAN: That’s quite true. Shakespeare had a lot of crossdressing characters in his plays and that wasn’t because, in his day, all the female parts were always played by men. The question of female competence was a very real issue at the time – Elizabeth was Queen of England, and there were those who strongly disapproved of a woman being in charge of the country. You only have to look at how Kate is brought to heel in The Taming of the Shrew to see an example of a woman being put firmly in her place.

Racial issues were also very familiar to the audiences that Shakespeare was writing for. Look at how Iago taunted Desdemona’s father in Othello, and how evil and manipulative the Jew Shylock is in The Merchant of Venice (also Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta was another contemporary example).

JANE: Exactly…  The question of how to deal with issues of gender and race is as old as the human impulse to say “I’m better,” rather than merely “I’m different.”

However, these days, a writer can come up for criticism from some corners if the characters in a novel aren’t widely spread to embrace every gender and racial option.   Also, if “minority” characters aren’t on the side of “good” (whatever that is for the work in question), the writer also risks being slammed.

Furthermore, if an otherwise “good” character even hints at feeling conflicted regarding racial and/or gender issues, again, the hydra-headed supporters of the diversity trope rear their many heads and howl “Unfair!”

ALAN: But I think these things are perfectly legitimate issues for a writer to address. After all, they do reflect the reality of the world.

JANE: Yeah, me too, but…

I’ve always written books that are diverse both in the gender of the characters and the races, but only where appropriate.  I’ve also included two other categories that often get ignored, even by those who are touting diversity:  older people and children.

You can imagine how shocked I was when a couple bloggers criticized Artemis Awakening because the cast was not diverse enough – this in a book that has a small cast, covers a relatively short span of time, and takes place in a very narrow geographical area.

It’s enough to give one pause.

ALAN: Not diverse enough in what way? Is there some secret mathematical formula that properly defines how diversity works in any given time and place among any given group of people? It’s all too easy to criticize a book for the things it isn’t about. That always leaves the writer without a leg to stand on and leaves the critics feeling smug.

JANE: Gosh, that’s an interesting way to look at it and one I hadn’t considered at all.

I had a brief – and I wish it could have been longer – chat with Mary Robinette Kowal at Bubonicon this year on the issue of diversity in historical fiction/fantasy.  She said that to her, when she was writing, it wasn’t about putting in something that wasn’t there, but including that which was there and was often ignored.  I think that’s a valid position and why diversity issues may be easier to handle gracefully within a historical, rather than contemporary, setting.

ALAN: She’s a very interesting writer – I recently read a collection of her short stories and I was most impressed. From what you say, clearly she has an interesting view of the world. I’m going to have to seek out more of her work.

JANE: Agreed.  Thanks to your review of her short story collection, it’s now on my short list.

I’ve mentioned Libba Bray’s two “Diviners” novels a couple of times, so let’s draw an example from them of an author handling diversity well.  They’re set in the New York City during the Roaring Twenties, when Prohibition was the law of the land and an entire sub-culture had been set up based around those who either ignored the law or profited from it.

ALAN: I’ve always felt that Prohibition was a failed social experiment whose lessons still haven’t been learned. After all, we are still banning things and then wondering why they become even more popular. New Zealand recently banned a YA novel because of its sexual themes and content. I wasn’t at all surprised when sales went through the roof…

JANE: Really?  I’m not surprised.

Anyhow, Prohibition era culture is a great time in which to set a story that wants to investigate “marginal” characters, because they would find a place within a sub-culture that (at least ostensibly) declares that doesn’t agree with the mainstream.

Therefore, it seems perfectly reasonable that Henry the piano player (who also longs to be a jazz composer) is gay.  Or that Theta, Henry’s straight, female roommate (they pose as brother and sister, although most assume they are lovers) would meet and fall in love with a black poet (who is also a numbers runner) when visiting a Harlem nightclub.  The second book introduces a character who is half-Chinese, half-Irish… and uses her to take a really searing look at racial prejudice and immigration laws.

And then there are the Diviners themselves, a sub-culture of people who have psychic powers.   How society alternately embraces them and rejects them, depending on which voice of public opinion is shouting most loudly, provides a really good look at the fickleness of so-called “morality.”

However, none of this is in the least preachy or pedantic.  We simply have a suite of interesting characters who are doing their best to exist in a culture that wants to deny their existence.

ALAN: (Scribbling a note). I’ve never heard of these stories or this author, but from what you say, I think they’d be just my cup of tea.

JANE:  Hoorah!

Sometimes, however, the same thing can be overdone.  I sincerely enjoyed Elizabeth Bear’s Karen Memory, which is quite a compliment, since on the whole I find steampunk isn’t my flavor.  However, there were points when I felt that she had a diversity trope checklist and was working her way down it: gay characters, transvestite character, various minorities.

But, again, her setting was one in which characters who didn’t fit into mainstream society would find acceptance – in this case a high-class brothel and the semi-underworld in which it functioned – so I was able to feel that such a group just might assemble, and, as with “The Diviners” novels, there was a lot more going on.

ALAN: That’s the secret, isn’t it? When there’s a lot going on, diversity is just one element among many and so there’s much less of a feeling that the reader is being preached to.

JANE: But this series of Tangents started with your reaction to reviewers who are obsessed with the diversity trope, and Karen Memory was definitely getting kudos for satisfying that element.

As I said before, dealing with such issues in contemporary society is not as easy – in part because rather than gays being universally closeted, we live where there are Gay Pride parades in many cities, and even politicians and preachers can be publically gay.

Ditto racial issues…  “Bigot” is now a term with opprobrious connotations, rather than the relatively mainstream position of only a few generations ago.

I’m not saying problems have vanished.  Far from it!  However, the fact is that intolerance is finally a problem recognized by most.  Even those who make a public stance that includes some form of intolerance need to footnote their position with justifications.

ALAN: That’s a very positive thing which needs to be encouraged. But by definition, these attitudes can’t be applied retrospectively. Like it or not, we were what we were. By denying that, I think we still come across as bigots.

JANE: Interesting…  Bigoted by denying that people of another time thought in patterns shaped by their culture.  In other words, refusing to acknowledge their difference.

I really enjoyed how Rick Riordan dealt with the diversity trope …  Although his setting was contemporary, again, using a historical perspective came into it.  I thought about explaining more, but changed my mind because that would provide some major spoilers for those who haven’t read the books.  I’ll just leave it with, Riordan did something interesting and creative, and I raise my cup to him for it.

ALAN: Criticism based on the diversity trope is something that affects all forms of fiction. But I think that science fiction has a “lit crit” aspect of its own that no other form of fiction has.

JANE: Does it?  Hmm..  Tell me more…

Brain Stretches

January 27, 2016

The last couple of weeks have been amazingly creative.

Some of you may recall my mentioning that I was writing out a piece long-hand, in part to break with my usual procedures and freshen up my brain.  Well, the story kept getting longer and longer, but now it is done.  Make that “Done in rough draft.”  I’ve been told that my handwriting is pretty much illegible to anyone except me or a very patient cryptographer.  Therefore, I will need to type it all up if I want anyone else to read it.

Messy Scraps of Creativity

Messy Scraps of Creativity

That’s all right with me.  I found the return to writing long-hand (something I used to do much more often) a wonderful experience.  I’m sure I’ll be doing it again.

However, that project had me so completely obsessed that I nearly let a deadline slide by.

Therefore, practically before the ink was dry on the handwritten piece, I launched myself into a new project.  The story I’d been asked to write was for an anthology of stories in which a gun is an element.  The editor (Gerry Hausman, with whom Roger wrote Wilderness) made it very clear he wasn’t looking for stories that were pro-gun or anti-gun; he was just tossing the topic out and waiting to see what would come in.

Since – as those of you who have read my short story collection Curiosities know –  I’ve been wanting to do another story set in the West with my character Prudence Bledsloe, I decided this was the perfect opportunity.  After all, guns and the Wild West go together like chocolate and peanut butter.

Funny thing was, once I started trying to narrow my ideas down, I discovered that finding the right story was a challenge.  As we drove around doing our errands, Jim and I bounced ideas back and forth.  We came up with two that were interesting in terms of the character and setting, but not right for the topic.  Then, when we were home and unpacking groceries, I had a flash.

Frequently, my reaction to having an idea for a story – no matter how much thinking I did to get to that point – is to think “Well, everyone probably is doing the same thing.”  So, leaving Jim to cook dinner, I rushed off to my office to e-mail Gerry and make sure no one else had taken that angle.  He got back to me quickly, encouraged me to go for it, and I started filling in my research.

I finally started actually writing the story last Wednesday.  I finished a draft on Friday.  Jim read on Saturday, and I turned it into Gerry on Tuesday.  (That’s yesterday…)

As a side result, I have two more stories about Prudence I’d like to write and that handwritten piece to type.  Since I wrote the story long-hand and in notebooks of widely varying size and style, I have no idea how long it is, but I suspect I’m going to need to set time aside over the next couple of weeks.

What’s really interesting to me is that last October, when I decided to start the handwritten project, I was feeling a bit “dry.”  My days were full, but something was missing.  As I started thinking about Christmas gifts, some of which I almost always make by hand, I realized that what was missing was time for crafts, for using my hands for something other than typing.

I decided that making that time was crucial – and not just because I needed to get gifts done or they wouldn’t be there to give.  I started by resuming beading.  I got out my polymer clay and addressed the challenge of making a camel for a Nativity set I’ve been making for my sister – this without any pattern or guideline or training at all in sculpting.  The day I pulled that one off I could actually feel my hands tingling, as if new nerve connections were being forged.

Even doing the story hand-written felt like a craft project.  I wrote on papers with different textures, drew little doodles on the pages to help myself visualize, and in general did everything that I could to loosen up.

Oddly enough, even with all the time spent with beads and clay, pen and ink, I found myself writing more – not less.

I’ve just taken on a new brain-stretching  exercise.  For many years, I’ve wanted to learn to do origami.  Despite looking at numerous books and various techniques, I discovered that I am very, very bad at it.  After a while, I began to feel guilty about the paper squares that were being sacrificed to my attempts, and let origami slide.

However, when shopping for a new office calendar, I came across a page-a-day calendar that features instructions for making a variety of origami figures.  The calendar pages are square, printed on one side with patterns just like “real” origami paper.  Even better, the calendar was marked seventy-five percent off…  Even I couldn’t see this as a “waste.”

So I’ve been struggling along, giving mountain folds and valley folds and all the rest a try.  I’m doing miserably when it comes to origami, but as far as stretching my brain, I can feel the tingle.

Over the last ten years or so, more and more emphasis has been put on the need for older people to do puzzles or other challenges to keep their brains limber.  What my experiences over the last few months have taught me is how important it is for a writer to keep the brain limber.  What may seem like a waste of time in terms of word count and productivity may be exactly what is needed to become even more creative!

FF: Homages

January 22, 2016

Purely by chance, most of the books I’ve been reading seem to be homages to other works.  What’s really nice is that they manage to be fresh stories on their own.

Kwahe'e Relaxes

Kwahe’e Relaxes

For those of you just discovering this feature, the Friday Fragments lists what I’ve read over the past week.  Most of the time I don’t include details of either short fiction (unless part of a book-length collection) or magazine articles.

The Fragments are not meant to be a recommendation list.  If you’re interested in a not-at-all-inclusive recommendation list, you can look on my website under Neat Stuff.

Once again, this is not a book review column.  It’s just a list with, maybe, a bit of description or a few opinions tossed in.

Recently Completed:

Summerland by Michael Chabon.  A delightful read.  An homage to baseball and myth.

Jenny’s Birthday Book by Esther Averill.  A picture book about Jenny the cat and friends.  An homage to the Cat Club.

Master of Devils by Dave Gross.  A Pathfinder novel.  Perhaps too reliant on fight scenes, but a good story between.  I particularly liked the plot line where the wolfhound is the main character.  An homage to Chinese martial arts film.

In Progress:

Kitty’s House of Horrors by Carrie Vaughn.  Audiobook.  Starts light and gets very scary.  An homage, I’d guess, to Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, but also moves the series plot along neatly.

A Wild Swan and Other Tales by Michael Cunningham.  “Re-imagined” fairy tales.  Just started.

Also:

Doing a lot of research for a short story I’m working on.

TT: Following the Trend

January 21, 2016

JANE: Last week we started chatting about a trend you have found bothersome – that of reviewers reviewing books based on current social standards rather than those of the time in which they were written.

A Time and a Place

A Time and a Place

Being us, we went off on a Tangent about language in general.  Today, I’d like you to provide an added example since – as I noted last week – I doubted that one review alone would be enough to make you irate.

ALAN: Quite right. One example does not define a trend. But I am seeing this kind of thing more and more often. James Nicoll, for example, is a reviewer/critic, whose reviews I regularly read. He takes pride in reviewing books by female writers and “people of colour” (revolting euphemism) specifically because the writers are female and/or people of colour. Every so often he publishes statistics to show how even-handed he is in his reading. In November 2015 he reviewed 28 books, 15 by male writers and 13 by female writers. Seven of the writers (25%) were people of colour. He seems to think these figures are significant in some way that completely escapes me.

He’s actually a very good reviewer. I admire his insights into the books he reviews. But choosing the books you read on the basis of the race or gender of the writer rather than on whether or not you think the story might be worth reading strikes me as silly.

Also, he re-reads and reviews a lot of older works and he always makes a point of highlighting race and gender issues that, these days, make him feel uncomfortable. As a result, he often concludes that he is no longer able to enjoy books which he once admired.

JANE:  That’s sad, but I can see it happening.  Still, I don’t see Mr. Nicoll and the anonymous Reddit reviewer you mentioned last week to be enough for a trend…  Can you offer other examples?

ALAN: How about this? I recently heard a rather well-known SF writer giving a talk at a convention. She remarked quite forcefully that she had never read a book written by a male author or a book which had a male protagonist, and she never would. My jaw still hasn’t stopped dropping…

JANE: Okay.  That’s amazingly crazy.  I can’t imagine not reading anyone just because of their gender.  That leaves out Shakespeare – in fact almost all classic drama or works published before a certain time.

Then again, sadly, there are men who avoid books written by women because they assume these books will be too soft, too feminine, and too full of romance.

Maybe your unnamed “well-known SF writer” was poking fun at this still sadly common male reaction…  I can’t imagine she had really managed to achieve this unlikely goal.

ALAN: No, she wasn’t joking. She re-iterated the point several times over the course of the convention.

JANE: Incredible!  But go on…  You’re a reviewer.  How do you handle such issues?

ALAN: My own opinion is that because societal attitudes are constantly changing, it is very hard to apply those attitudes retrospectively. I find it amusing that in the early nineteenth century, Thomas Bowdler published an expurgated edition of Shakespeare, edited so as not to offend contemporary sensibilities (and by doing so he gave us a new verb, “to bowdlerise”).

If we were to repeat that exercise today, probably we’d keep much of what Thomas Bowdler cut out, and we’d cut out much of what he kept. For example, he modified Hamlet so that Ophelia’s death became an accidental drowning and all references to suicide were omitted. We wouldn’t do that now, but we probably would have problems with the anti-Semitism in The Merchant of Venice, the underage sex of Romeo and Juliet, and the racism of Othello (though the inter-racial romance of Othello might also be seen as demonstrating a positive, progressive attitude. Win some, lose some…)

In other words, cultural attitudes are moving targets. Best, in my opinion, to accept works from a certain time period just as they are, for just what they are. That way I can continue to enjoy the delightful wit and wisdom of Jane Austen without having to worry too much about the appalling gender stereotyping displayed by her novels…

JANE: Your example of Austen is interesting, actually.  I think one reason for her renewed popularity is that characters like Elizabeth Bennett resonate with modern women.  Despite the limits imposed on her, she strives to set wrongs right.  In fact the very title Pride and Prejudice can be read as a commentary on how societal attitudes are limiting.

What’s tougher for me is reading books where derogatory terminology, especially related to race, is used as it was at the time, with no self-consciousness because that’s how people talked.  When I couple months ago I read Eddie Rickenbacher’s autobiographical Fighting the Flying Circus, I kept flinching as he referred to the Germans as Bosch, Huns, Krauts – in fact, as anything except Germans.

Yet, if I were to decide to write a novel set in that time period, with that sort of character, I would feel it necessary to have my characters to do the same.

ALAN: Of course you would – verisimilitude is important. Sometimes there are (ill-advised) attempts to retrofit modern opinions into older works when they are republished. I read a story once in which the protagonist had a job removing smoking scenes from old Hollywood movies. And in the real world there’s the notorious case of a certain Agatha Christie novel…

JANE: Yep…  Ten Little Niggers, later retitled Ten Little Indians, also retitled And Then There Were None.  The last time I re-read the book, not only had it been issued under the title And Then There Were None, but the verse within (which details the gruesome fates of ten individuals) had been recast so that we now no longer had her original niggers, or the later Indians, but “solider boys.”

 One casualty of this is that when one character goes into hysterics over someone’s mention of “our black brothers,” it no longer makes any sense for her to react so strongly.

And, by the by, none of the people who die in the course of the novel are either niggers or Indians.  They’re all what we here in New Mexico would call “Anglos.”

ALAN: Exactly. Agatha Christie was just making a reference to a popular song of the time that reflected the broad outline of her plot. Actually, I thought it was quite a clever reference…

That same controversial word caused Sir Peter Jackson some amusing moments a while back when he announced that he was going to remake that classic movie The Dam Busters. In the original movie, and in real life, Wing Commander Guy Gibson who led the bombing raids on the dams had a black Labrador dog called Nigger. Immediately there was much speculation on the internet about what Sir Peter would call the dog in his movie. Obviously he couldn’t use the dog’s real name…

JANE: So, what did he decide to call the dog?

ALAN: Nobody knows. The film is still in the planning stage.

JANE: You’ll need to let us all know what happens.  Unless you’re exhausted by this topic, next time I’d enjoy talking about some authors who I feel have handled the difficult question of how to handle issues of race or gender orientation at different time periods well, without preaching and yet without ignoring the existence of the issue.

ALAN: That sounds good. It will be nice to find some positive examples.

Imaginary Friends

January 20, 2016

A couple of weeks ago, I saw a tee-shirt that said something like “I Mourn the Deaths of Fictional Characters.”   Even at the time I saw it, it made an impression.  Now, a week and a bit after the death of David Bowie, after reading numerous thoughtful and emotionally charged pieces that included some variation of “I never met him but…,” I’ve been thinking a lot about the impact that fictional characters – whether in print, or on film, or even celebrities with whom we feel a genuine connection – can have on a person.

Old Friends

Old Friends

Maybe because I was really shy as a kid and because I didn’t have many “real” friends until high school, some of the people who made the biggest impact on me didn’t exist.  My role models weren’t older kids or adults or teachers, but were fictional characters.

The first place I found these imaginary friends was in books.  While I read some of the standards of my day – I quite liked Nancy Drew, for example – my favorites were a little on the fringe.  It won’t surprise anyone who knows my work that both Mowgli and Tarzan were hugely appealing – not so much for themselves, as for the worlds in which they lived, where animals and humans lived side-by-side.  Tarzan may have been the Lord of the Beasts, but it was Mowgli, whose title “Master of the Jungle” was often used ironically, who was my favorite.

I also loved many of the “classics,” The Secret Garden, A Little Princess, The Princess and the Goblins and The Princess and Curdie, the Mary Poppins books, some of the Walter Farley “horse” books – although I preferred Flame, the Island Stallion, to the Black.

I read both adult mysteries and westerns fairly young as well, and I factored characters like Louis L’Amour’s Sacketts and Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple (and to a less extent Poiroit), into the group of fictional people who became friends, mentors, and role models.

Oh… And, of course, I was reading SF/F as well, this built up from a foundation of mythology.

I could keep on listing titles, but I’ll stop here because a list of titles does little to say why these books meant so much to me.

So why did they?  Well, especially for a kid without many friends, books showed me the “insides” of people: thoughts and dreams, ways of working through problems, values that both differed from the ones I encountered in my home and school, and that reinforced those values.

Going back to that tee-shirt, I think mourning for fictional characters is completely genuine, because you get to know them far more intimately than you do most of the people in your lives.   The story lets you in, past the façade, past the defenses, past the fictional versions of themselves that are all most people let you know about them anyhow.

That’s a creepy thought, isn’t it?  That most of our relationships are, in fact, with fictional characters?  It’s just that some of these fictional characters think they’re “real.”

But going back to actual fictional characters, in my tweens and teens, I found some more new friends via television.  (My parents didn’t forbid TV; we just didn’t watch a lot of it when I was small.)  Movies didn’t play a big role in my imaginative life, because I saw very few during those years when I was hungry for company.  However, especially once I was babysitting, late night re-runs introduced me to the Mission Impossible team, various cop shows, and, permitted me to fill in episodes of Star Trek.  From there, it was a quick jump to some of the popular shows of the day, especially those with an SF vibe like The Six Million Dollar Man.

I think a lot of the appeal of media tie-in fiction is that, like print media in general, it can let you further inside a character.  You’re not left guessing at what they think or what motivated an action.  You know, because you’re inside their head and they’re telling you.  Very early Star Trek tie-in fiction, including Alan Dean Foster’s adaptations of the animated episodes and James Blish’s adaptations of the main series episodes, fleshed out why the characters did what they did.  The occasional bits of backstory were an added bonus.

Stories remain important to me, even though these days it’s more rare for me to find a new “friend” on the pages or the screen.  Nonetheless, it happens.  An added pleasure has been sharing some of my old friends with Jim, and meeting some of his.

So what fictional characters have become your friends, mentors, or exemplars?  Who would you want to introduce to your “real” friends?  Do you mourn the deaths of fictional characters?

FF: Not Much Finished

January 15, 2016

This week two things really cut into my novel-reading time: research for a short story and reading a bunch of material related to the death of David Bowie.  (See my Wednesday Wandering for this week if you don’t understand why the latter should make a difference.)

Silver Considers Becoming a Super Model

Silver Considers Becoming a Super Model

For those of you just discovering this feature, the Friday Fragments lists what I’ve read over the past week.  Most of the time I don’t include details of either short fiction (unless part of a book-length collection) or magazine articles.

The Fragments are not meant to be a recommendation list.  If you’re interested in a not-at-all-inclusive recommendation list, you can look on my website under Neat Stuff.

Once again, this is not a book review column.  It’s just a list with, maybe, a bit of description or a few opinions tossed in.

Recently Completed:

Kitty Raises Hell by Carrie Vaughn. (Audiobook.) A very direct sequel to Kitty and the Deadman’s Hand.  Pretty good, although I thought the title was deceptive.  New antagonist introduced in a very creative fashion.

In Progress:

Summerland by Michael Chabon.  A baseball fantasy seems the right thing to counter winter.  I’m very much enjoying this.

Kitty’s House of Horrors by Carrie Vaughn.  (Audiobook.).  Just started.

Also:

A Guinea Pig Pride and Prejudice by Alex Goodwin.  This Christmas gift from Steve (S.M.) and Jan Stirling completely enchanted both me and Jim so we shared it with our guinea pig co-residents.

TT: Troubled By A Trend

January 14, 2016

JANE: Last time you mentioned that there is a trend in recent lit crit that bothers you. Since you’re a reviewer and presumably keep up on such trends more than I do, I may be unaware of this trend. What’s going on that has you so hot under the collar?

Turtle Pond (just because)

Turtle Pond (just because)

ALAN: Well, I’ve started to notice that some reviewers are judging the books they mention by modern day standards. This causes them to dismiss older works as flawed because of sexism or racism or some-other-ism. This strikes me as short sighted. All works of art are products of their time and judging them by the standards of a different generation is, in my opinion, a sterile exercise.

JANE: It certainly isn’t very useful.  I find the entire subject of how one should look at stories quite complex.

The first thing anyone should remember – in my opinion – is that fiction is not a gateway into understanding what a time period was like because what is “normal” does not get explained.

It’s like our discussion of coal.  Since I’ve never seen coal being burned, if I read the word “fireplace,” I automatically think of a wood-burning fireplace.

Nor, unless the author includes a bit of business like “To give herself a moment to think, Margaret added a few lumps of coal to the already burning fire,” would there be anything to correct my misapprehension.

ALAN: Quite right! And that assumption of what the world described by the novel considers to be normal can sometimes give a completely erroneous impression of the writer’s intentions or attitudes if the reader approaches a work with information and opinions of their own that the writer could never possibly have shared.

In other words, your own preconceptions may not be applicable when you try to define normality.

JANE: The same can be true of words.  Words that today we find offensive were once normal and not in the least insulting – and this doesn’t only apply to words related to race or gender.

As I think I’ve told you, my dad died slowly and with all too full awareness of what was going to happen to him of ALS – commonly called, until just a few years ago, “Lou Gehrig’s disease,” because most people hadn’t heard of if except in the context of one of the most famous people to suffer from it.

I’m curious…  What do “they” call ALS there?

ALAN: Over here it’s known as “motor neurone disease.”

JANE: Thanks!  I think the shift of terms here was from a desire to make clear that a lot more people suffer from ALS than Lou Gehrig (and physicist Stephen Hawking).  Once again, see the power of words…

Anyhow, back to my dad.  Dad was a good guy, but he definitely liked being provocative.  One day, he deliberately referred to himself as a “cripple,” knowing that this was no long an acceptable term.  “Handicapped” or “disabled” – or words less oriented to classifying people as a group, and instead looking at individual conditions –  had taken its place.

Dad was clearly hoping to get a rise out of me, so I replied: “My mom and dad, both of whom were rather liberal, always told us that labeling people in a reductive fashion was not a good thing to do.”

ALAN: And how did he react?

JANE: He grinned.  Dad liked jerking people’s chains (that’s American slang for “being negatively provocative”), but he loved nothing better than having it turned right back at him.

ALAN: Round about the time that my grandfather retired, people of his age were being euphemistically referred to as “senior citizens”. My grandfather hated that phrase. “I’m an old man,” he would say. “I’m an old age pensioner, damnit!”

That’s a much more trivial example of the same thing.

JANE: Actually, I suspect that if my dad had lived long enough, he would have enjoyed making similar comments, although we don’t use the phrase “old age pensioner” here.

Going back to your original statement, can you offer an example of reviewers finding fault with older works for the wrong reasons?

ALAN: Yes, I recently read a review of Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. It was posted on a Reddit discussion group. I don’t know who the reviewer was because real names tend not to be used on Reddit. It was quite a lengthy review and, although I disagreed with its conclusions, there is no doubt that it was very well-written

One thing that made the reviewer condemn the novel was the way that the female characters were portrayed:

The women themselves are almost unbelievably stupid, the living embodiment of the shrewish wife stereotype, who is also stupid and credulous. The nurse protagonist becomes an effective character almost entirely through an unlikely accident. The professions of onscreen female characters so far encountered are secretary, nurse, astrologer.

That statement is demonstrably untrue. Ann, for example, is a Fair Witness and in that role she is vital to the development of the story. Certainly the story does contain elements of gender stereotyping that might not have been present if the novel was being written today. So to that extent the reviewer has a valid point. But by concentrating on such superficialities to the exclusion of what the novel is really about, the reviewer seems not to have even noticed the (often clever and sometimes subtle) satire that makes up the bulk of the book.

JANE: I’m a great person to respond to that reviewer since I am female, and I read that book when I was fifteen.  Therefore, I was a teenager who should have been susceptible to negative stereotyping and had my horizons limited by these negative portrayals of the feminine.

Frankly, none of what the reviewer complains about bothered me at all.   At the time I read the book – which was quite a bit later than its 1961 publication date – most professional women still were secretaries, nurses, teachers, and the like.

Oh, and I should note that Stranger in a Strange Land was a book I read and re-read so many times that there was a point where if you opened the book at any point and read me part of a sentence, I could tell you exactly where in the story it was and often finish the line.

Despite my addiction to the book, I certainly wasn’t crippled in my ambitions as to what a female could do by how Gillian, Dorcas, Ann, and the other women were portrayed.

I might feel differently about the female characters if the book was written today – especially if it was written as if occurring today – but as a period piece, I was fine with it.  As I noted above, it still reflected the world in which I was growing up.  Although I knew some really exceptional women – including my mom, who raised four kids, then went to law school – most professional women were still teachers, nurses, secretaries…

ALAN: My thoughts exactly. I’m so glad we agree.

JANE: One more comment….  This bit of the review makes me crazy: “The nurse protagonist becomes an effective character almost entirely through an unlikely accident.”

How many books have started exactly that way?  Sheesh!  One could argue that Bilbo’s encounter with Gollum is an “unlikely accident,” yet I don’t see anyone trashing either The Hobbit or “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, both of which depend on that “unlikely accident” for that reason.

Growl…

I’m almost afraid to ask you to continue, but I suspect that one review alone would not have been enough to get you hot under the collar.

ALAN: Oh indeed. I’ll have some more examples for you next time.

Iron, Candy, (and David Bowie)

January 13, 2016

This week I fully intended to talk about the sixth anniversary of the Wednesday Wanderings.  I’d been looking forward to it, had checked and found out that the “traditional” gifts for the sixth anniversary are iron and candy, with wood as a “modern” alternative.  Then on Monday morning, as Jim and I were settling into work, Jim (who was reading the morning news highlights) said, “Oh!  David Bowie died.  I’m sorry.”  He got up from his desk and came over to give me a hug.

Some Bowie Stuff

Some Bowie Stuff

The fact that Jim offered condolences as if Bowie was a personal friend probably says something right there.  I never met the man, although I always hoped that I might someday – and I’m still feeling poleaxed that this is now impossible.  One thing I love about doing these Wanderings is that I can wander if I want to, and I plan to do so…  but first, let me give the anniversary date its deserved acknowledgement.

Six years is a long time, especially for a blog that appears faithfully every Wednesday, rather than being just a newsletter highlighting projects.  Over the years, the Wednesday Wanderings has spawned two children: the Thursday Tangents (with Alan Robson of New Zealand) and the Friday Fragments (with me and lots of books).   It’s also the parent of a book on writing – Wanderings on Writing – which is available both in paper and as an e-book.

To my delight, the Wednesday Wanderings have also picked up a suite of regular Commenters.  (Is that a word?)  Having exchanged e-mails with many of these, I know that there are a lot of people with strong opinions and thoughtful minds participating.  I want to thank you all for remaining courteous to each other and to me.  It’s nice to have an unofficial “no flame wars” zone.  I hope more of you will feel welcome to join the conversation.

I also encourage you – whether in the Comments or (if you’re shy) directly to me via e-mail at jane2@janelindskold.com – to ask questions and suggest topics you would be interested in me addressing.  I can’t promise – unlike some people who write blogs, I don’t pretend to be the last word on everything – but if I can, I’ll give your topic a shot.

And now…

David Bowie…  I’m not going to talk about the man and his works, because there are a lot of people out there more qualified to write about him, although to this point I’ve yet to read a book that I felt did him justice.  Maybe that’s because it’s impossible to produce a definitive picture of a chameleon in action.

Well, that’s fine, because part of what appealed to me was that very chameleon element.  So, instead of trying to talk about David Bowie or even “What David Bowie Meant to Me,” I’ll offer you a few snapshots (or, perhaps as a nod to one of his albums, I should say “Pinups”) of David Bowie’s work (in which I include more than his music) as it ambled through my life.

1975: My brother wins a copy of Young Americans by being the right caller to a local radio show.  As my sister reminded me, this was the first contemporary album to enter our household.  I remember sitting staring at the picture on the cover, trying to figure out if it was a guy or a gal.  At that point, I didn’t know the lyric from “Rebel, Rebel” “Is that a boy or a girl?”  I just knew I was being offered a puzzle.

1983: Let’s Dance is released and becomes wildly popular.  At the same time, DJs make numerous nasty comments about how Bowie has “sold out.”  I’m puzzled.  Even by then, even with my limited resources (I didn’t have money for albums, much less a stereo), I’m aware that if there is one constant in the work of David Bowie it is – as anyone who bothered to pay attention should know – “Changes.”

1986: I’m walking down a street in the “Arthur Avenue” Little Italy in the Bronx where I live when a poster on a video rental store pulls me up short.  It depicts a roughly triangular montage of weird fantasy creatures, topped by somebody who looks like David Bowie.  It is.  He’s the Goblin King.   I see the movie and – after nearly dying from shock during an opening that seems to be for the most horrible Fantasy film ever – I fall head over heels.  I still love that film.

Mid-late eighties.  I’m done with my undergrad work, in grad school.  CDs have come out and LPs are being sold cheap.  I start building a vinyl collection.  Now I can finally listen to the music without relying on radio play.  I discover that a lot of the best pieces never made it to Top 40.  One particular treasure: David Bowie in Bertolt Brecht’s Baal from 1982.

1987: David Bowie has a new album out, Never Let Me Down.  Lots of critics think it’s terrible because, once again, he’s not living up to their expectations.  I love it.  I also fall head over heels for the video of the “Glass Spiders” concert tour.  Again, this is something the critics hate and even Bowie himself is quoted as saying was a huge mistake.  I think they’re wrong.  It’s not a rock concert; it’s surrealistic drama.  I understand that the critics are finally coming around to my point of view.  I hope Bowie realized that he’d done something very fine there.

My sister, Susan, actually went to the concert.  Later, she gave me her copy of the program.  I have it.  It’s a treasure.

1990: I’m done with grad school, living in Lynchburg, Virginia, where I teach college.  My youngest sister sends me a poster of Bowie for my birthday.  It’s a head and shoulders depiction, “Serious Moonlight” vintage, not a photo, but a drawing or watercolor.  I frame the poster, hang it on my office wall.  To this day, I remember fondly the number of students who came to see Dr. Lindskold during office hours, only to get distracted by the poster and finally blurt out: “Is that David Bowie?”

Mid-nineties to present.  I continue following Bowie’s work, both filling in older stuff I missed and sampling more recent.   I see several films (even though I’m not a film buff).  Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence blows me away.  I read several biographies and critical assessments (and avidly disagree with a lot of them).  I learn more about his work – older and newer — and I find a lot I don’t like.

Perversely – especially as I move into writing professionally and discover how even the best fans and critics want you to do more of the same but different – I respect Bowie for trying new things, trying to stay fresh.  Changes.

2013: Bowie releases The Next Day, his first album in quite a while.  I get it and at first am very unsure.  For one, I miss the strong vocals.  For another, the cover art is really disturbing – even for Bowie.  Over time, I decide I like The Next Day, that it’s my favorite of his albums since Heathen, which I loved.   It seems to me that Bowie’s moving into a new creative vibe.  I’m happy to hear another album is in the works.

Now.  David Bowie is dead.  Blackstar is released.  I haven’t heard it yet, but I will.  My friend, Yvonne, gave me a Man Who Fell to Earth tee-shirt for Christmas, but it’s too cold to wear it.

Merry Christmas, Mr. Jones.  Thanks for all the changes.  Thanks for always being a reminder that while some artists thrive refining the same thing into perfection, for some change is the only way to grow.

FF: A Veritable Vortex

January 8, 2016

News Flash! I took part in a segment of writer Dave Gross’s “Creative Colleagues” roundtable.  The subject this time was heroic fantasy.  Go here to read what I say, compare it to what some other writers think on the same topic, and, if you comment, be entered to win a chance at audio downloads of some of Dave’s Pathfinder novels.

Persephone and the Troll Cat

Persephone and the Troll Cat

For those of you just discovering this feature, the Friday Fragments lists what I’ve read over the past week.  Most of the time I don’t include details of either short fiction (unless part of a book-length collection) or magazine articles.

The Fragments are not meant to be a recommendation list.  If you’re interested in a not-at-all-inclusive recommendation list, you can look on my website under Neat Stuff.

Once again, this is not a book review column.  It’s just a list with, maybe, a bit of description or a few opinions tossed in.

Recently Completed:

X by Sue Grafton.  (Audiobook)  A bit all over the place, but interesting.

The Orpheus Descent by Tom Harper.  Two plot lines, one contemporary, one from the POV of a fortyish Plato.  Protagonists are moved by events, rather than instigating them.  However, I think the author intended this to create a sense of Fate in operation.

The Hotel Cat by Esther Averill.  A fun children’s book.  I plan to read, re-read, others in the series.

D’Aulaires’ Book of Trolls by Ingri and Edgar Parin D’Auliare.  Their books on Greek/Roman and Norse myths were old favorites, but I had never seen this collection of material on Trolls.  I quite enjoyed.

In Progress:

Kitty Goes to Hell.  (Audiobook)  A very direct sequel to Kitty and the Deadman’s Hand.  Just started.

Summerland by Michael Chabon.  A baseball fantasy seems the right thing to counter winter.  Just started.

Also:

Research for a short story whose deadline is creeping up faster than I thought possible!