tempestsarekind: (dido plus books)
Has anyone else ever heard of this poet and/or read this poem? I only just came across it via one of those internet-search rabbit holes that leads you indescribably far from the place you started, but now I'm haunted by it.


And here's a piece on Mew from the Guardian:

Apparently Mew was admired by writers like Thomas Hardy and Virginia Woolf, and some of her work was published by Ezra Pound - and yet she's never crossed my path before. Hmph.

text of the poem, from the Poetry Foundation website )
tempestsarekind: (dido plus books)
Transcript: President Obama on what books mean to him

I've linked to the transcript rather than the resulting article by Michiko Kakutani (who also did the interview) because I think it gives even more of a sense of how deeply reflective President Obama is about the books he discusses: the questions aren't particularly leading, so it's clear that his take on the books is coming from the way that he's turned them over in his head or categorized them, rather than being asked to think about such things for the first time by an unexpected question.
tempestsarekind: (ofelia)
Oh gosh, I like this line: "Schulz knew that shyness has no narrative arc: the shy just have to carry on being shy."

And I love this bit about the Moomins: "But the Moomins themselves are more successful role models for the shy. They like to wander in the forest alone, enjoying its silence and stillness, or to burrow into warm, private spaces. But they sulk and skulk only fleetingly. Mostly they retreat so as to think deeply and make something – a painting, a poem or a boat carved out of bark – as a way of whittling meaning out of a frightening world. Jansson’s lesson is not that shy people should come out of their shells; it is that they should embrace that shyness and put it to artful use."


[One of my favorite childhood books was Comet in Moominland - my mother brought it home in a mixed bag from a library book sale, so it was a while before I realized that there was a series of books involving Moomins! Consequently, Comet is the only one I know well, even though I've read many of the others; for a long time it was the only one I owned, and so the only one I could easily reread. Then, too, something about the…wry doom? pragmatic anxiety? cheerful foreboding? of the book spoke to me as a somewhat anxious child who, for a while (after a science video shown in class with a less than clear timeline), was afraid that the sun was about to turn into a red giant every time it set, and life on earth was therefore over. Seeing the Moomins fear the comet but then survive it was important to me.]

[I also had this great Peanuts anthology that I used to reread all the time; I liked things that were wry and gentle and a little bit melancholy, apparently. At least a part of me did.]
tempestsarekind: (ten is a bookworm)
Kory Stamper, lexicographer for Merriam-Webster and the writer of the Harmless Drudgery blog, has finished her book, and it'll be for sale in May:

I am very excited by this.
tempestsarekind: (margaret hale does laundry)
A.S. Byatt has written a nonfiction book about William Morris and Mariano Fortuny (I'm only familiar with the former):


I haven't read as much Byatt as I ought, probably (loved and have reread Possession; read The Virgin in the Garden but didn't seek out the other books of the Frederica Potter quartet). At one point I started reading The Children's Book, but partway through I realized that while it wasn't quite making me want to stick with the novel, it was making me want to read about William Morris and Edwardian children's book authors. So…I might want to read half of this new book?

(I always feel like I ought to know a lot more than I do about William Morris - not that this would be hard, because I hardly know anything about him. I did a research paper in college on Victorian uses of Arthurian imagery, so of course he popped up a bit there, but he got drowned out by Tennyson and the PRB. And I can recognize a Morris wallpaper pattern easily enough - once I visited the Evergreens, the home of Emily Dickinson's brother and wife Susan, when they'd opened it up for visits, and there were scraps of original Morris wallpaper still on the walls, and this was very exciting. I've looked at some of his stuff in the V&A, and I'm still disappointed that I've never had a chance to eat in the William Morris dining room there, because it's been full every time I've gone to the museum. But that's not much. So I feel as if I ought to make up for it, somehow. I don't know why I feel this way, though. There are tons of things in the world that I don't know anything about, after all.)

on Hild

Dec. 13th, 2015 01:26 pm
tempestsarekind: (branches and fairy lights)
I finally finished reading Hild by Nicola Griffith (which I started in September, but then had to put it down until Thanksgiving; since then I've been reading it on Saturdays when I really ought to be doing work). I enjoyed it - although the pause in the middle wasn't great; it was hard to keep the politics straight and I kept getting my Eadfriths and Osfriths and Osrics confused. I especially liked that this was a story set in the seventh century that didn't just shrug and go, "well, ladies had no rights or power then, am I right; who'd want to hear about that? Bring on the dudes!" which is the kind of thing that drove me crazy (along with, it is true, everything else) in The Tudors. As a seer, Hild is extraordinary, and she does have a lot more access to the World of Men (™) than most women - but the novel nevertheless recognizes the power and importance - or, for those women who are not influential, even just the real and rounded existence - that other women have, rather than doing that obnoxious thing where the historical heroine does nothing but chafe against the restrictions of the female world, and want to spend all of her time with men. It is true that there are restrictions, and those aren't downplayed - Hild's sister, Hereswith, for example, is married off as "peaceweaver" without so much as a by-your-leave, even though her husband-to-be has a woman and children that he refuses to set aside even after the marriage. But Hild also learns much of her political savvy from her mother, Breguswith, who has been grooming her since she was a child. She forms relationships and alliances with queens as well as kings, and recognizes that perfume - when it's a recognizable scent given by the queen, as a mark of her favor - can be just as important as carrying the king's token. She thinks about "soft power," about winning over people with food and gifts, as well as carrying a weapon into battle. (As seer, Hild winds up at a lot of battles and does have to protect herself and even kill, although she is not a Warrior Maiden (™) as such.) The novel is full of daily, "domestic" life just as much as war: the rhythms of weaving and herb gathering, cheese making and child minding, are all important in this book. And there is even a character of color, a deacon named James who comes to the king's court as part of the retinue of the king's new, Christian, wife Aethelburh; he doesn't have a huge role, but he becomes one of the people Hild turns to for advice and comfort, and he adds some welcome lightness to the book as the choir director who cares passionately about something that isn't battle and power.

The book is the first of a trilogy, according to the author, although nothing about the book itself makes that explicit before you start reading it, and then realize that you are definitely going to run out of pages before Hild - who is the woman who eventually is known as Saint Hilda of Whitby - runs out of life. The book does not at all get you to the point where Hild goes from being "pagan" seer to Christian future saint (although she does get baptized late in the book, this is largely a political maneuver and much of King Edwin's court does the same thing when he does). But I am certainly intrigued enough to read the next book, once it exists. And yet, I still don't feel like I've wrapped my mind around this novel yet…Did I enjoy it for itself, or because it does so many worthy things that I always want, but rarely get, in so much historical media? Does it even make sense to ask that question, as though those elements can be sifted out to get at the "objective" quality of my enjoyment, or of the book itself?

It did make me want to know more about this period, though: beyond a few flashes of delighted recognition at some cameos - the cowherd Caedmon who seems to have a knack for rewriting the prayers that Hild recites to him; someone mentioning how the scop sang a story about "the Geats and the dragon" - it's not a period I know at all well, so I could definitely stand to read some more things about it.
tempestsarekind: (rory died and turned into a roman)
[As this book doesn't really have much of a plot, I haven't cut for spoilers, but if you want to read the novel cold, you might not want to read this post.]

And here are some links, which I read before reading the book:

NPR review: http://www.npr.org/2015/07/08/418600139/speak-asks-hard-questions-about-communication-and-technology

Excerpt from Tor.com: http://www.tor.com/2015/07/07/excerpt-speak-louisa-hall/


I finished reading Speak by Louisa Hall; it is a fairly novel experience, these days, to pick up a library request and actually have a chance to finish reading it, so that was nice. I'm still trying to work out how I felt about the book. I'm glad I read it, and it was thought-provoking (although it might not be as much so for people who spend more time thinking about computers and AI in their everyday lives). One of the most effective things the book did, I think, was its use of recurring phrases (as the premise is that the MARY3 program became so lifelike - too lifelike, according to some - because it was fed with all of these voices, including the diary of Mary Bradford, a Puritan girl in 1663, and the letters of Alan Turing). Every time I recognized one of these, I think I saw it first in the narrative of the MARY3 program housed inside one of the "babybots" (lifelike robot dolls given to children, who then bonded with those babybots to the exclusion of other humans, so the babybots are taken away), and then subsequently in one of the narratives that helped to build the MARY3 program. So this technique effectively kept raising the question: are these repeated phrases evidence of the fact that these narratives are the same, that MARY3 is experiencing a similar feeling - as would usually be the case in a novel when recurring phrases appear? Or is it only that the program was programmed with those phrases long ago and is just selecting the most optimal phrase from data storage? Does that actually matter, if the selection of phrases gets "good" enough? When does the imitation of life actually become life? One of the letters of "Alan Turing" asks this question, or points out that we accept all the time that other humans feel emotion as deeply as we do, but we are always required to take this on faith based on external evidence - so how is a machine that seems to feel something any different?

I think the novel has a similar difficulty to that of Kage Baker's Company novels, though, which is that the future winds up being fairly bland and anonymous when compared to the vividness of the past. As with the Company novels, this may be intentional: nearly everyone in Speak seems to be confined to identikit developments where the grass is made from "recyclables" because they sold away their "transport rights" in order to afford houses in these developments. So there is clearly some intention here to talk about the separations between people, in particular these children who grew up lavishing all their affection on their babybots only to have them taken away when people got too worried that the bots were too lifelike. But the novel remains unhelpfully vague on how this process happened: we get to read about the creation of the babybot and the MARY3 program in the autobiography of their creator (written from prison, as he's been imprisoned for creating what the book jacket refers to as "illegally lifelike dolls"), but the babybots just…sort of became a worldwide sensation, and we don't see how or why; we only hear from a teenager chatting to an online version of the MARY3 program about what she lost.

And again, as with the Company novels, there's a sort of thinness to the future voices. The autobiography at least has a certain amount of self-aggrandizement, but the voice of that teenager comes off as rather bland when placed alongside the ungainly insistence of, in particular, the diary of Mary Bradford and the letters of Alan Turing. Again, this may well be on purpose - are we less human when we don't make human connections? - but that future teenager in the transcript, Gaby, could be anyone. These three narratives - Mary, Gaby, and Turing - all have in common the idea that they have loved one being in a fixed, intent way, and then lost that being: Mary has her dog Ralph, Turing his dear friend Chris, and Gaby her babybot Eva. But Mary and Turing sound like individuals, with their own quirks, and even the intensity of their affection, while perhaps unusual and incomprehensible to much of the outside world, makes them sound unique. But Gaby isn't unique: there are teenagers, mostly but not exclusively girls, all over the world suffering from her exact condition. And her voice never rises above the level of "my parents can't understand me, even my best friend is a faker because she's getting better and getting over the loss of her doll, my generation is nothing like my parents' generation" identikit teen stuff. There's little if anything in her transcript that tells us how or why she loved her babybot, why we should consider that loss a real loss like the loss of a dear friend or a dog. And like I said, some of this is probably on purpose - it's probably to the point that both Gaby and Eva talk about their experiences using "we," as part of a collective rather than an individual - but it unintentionally stacks the deck. I think the novel wants to ask questions about what makes consciousness and what makes a human human, but because Gaby is the only person we ever hear from who had a babybot, and we don't hear why these babybots were so all-consuming to the children who lost them, that side of the story never rang as true for me as Mary's monomaniacal grief for her dog.

(There's also the smaller problem that the novel introduces some terms without really explaining them - which is always a problem with these kinds of first-person narratives composed either for oneself or for a familiar reader, because it would be stilted and unbelievable for the computer scientist to suddenly write, "As you know, Bob, the Turing Test is…" Or "As you know, Jean, a captivity narrative is…" But I could imagine being a reader who didn't really know what those things are. And it doesn't answer one small question that I really wanted answered about Mary Bradford, because it got mentioned twice, but oh well.)

Still, I really liked the concept of the novel, and as I said, I'm glad I read it even if I wasn't as overwhelmed by it as its press suggested I would be.

[ETA: Because I'm me, the most thought-provoking part of the book for me is the way that Mary Bradford's seventeenth-century narrative gets caught up in the creation of artificial intelligence hundreds of years in the future. So much of this project, in the novel, is driven by the desire to remember, to keep things from being lost - and here's this narrative that only seems to survive because someone fed it into the original MARY program (which is named after Mary Bradford). That idea caught at me and hasn't quite let go yet - I've referred to this before as my "persistence of the past" kink (I still wish literary criticism had a better word for this - or any word; "kink" is useful, but I don't particularly like using the word. Does fandom have a new word for this yet?).]
tempestsarekind: (bananas are good)
I now need a movie about lady bartenders during and after WWII. Or a TV series. It would be like Agent Carter, but with more alcohol.


(link via The Toast.)

This is not really related, but I saw in the bookstore the other day that the book had come out in paperback: has anyone else read The Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine?

It's a '20s-era retelling of "The Twelve Dancing Princesses," and I read it in one sitting.
tempestsarekind: (dido plus books 2)
The Fortunes of Francis Barber: The True Story of the Jamaican Slave Who Became Samuel Johnson's Heir by Michael Bundock

It came out in March, but somehow I hadn't heard of it...
tempestsarekind: (too wise to woo peaceably)
What should I find on the new books display at the bookstore yesterday, after my recent rant about historical fiction as written about in the Guardian, but Viper Wine by Hermione Eyre? So I…bought it, obviously. (Like this story was going to have another ending?) It will probably be a little while before I get around to reading it, because that is what usually happens when I buy a book without the intention of starting it that evening, but it's there to look forward to.

In not related news, I am not very good at filling tacos properly. But if you put together black beans, chopped cilantro, queso fresco, kale, and avocado, it will be tasty even if you have to eat half of it with a fork because it fell out of your tortilla. I think it would make a good lunch salad with quinoa, as well. (I want to start packing my lunch more, once school starts up again, so I've been looking at everything with "would it make a lunch salad?" glasses.)

tempestsarekind: (fairy wings [ever after])
Another one of those things that I wrote (in August, apparently) and then didn't post because I'd already posted a lot that week, or something…I thought I'd written about my feelings about Rainbow Rowell's Landline, but couldn't find it in the "bookery" tag, so I searched my computer and pulled this up.

(I am trying to decide whether I am likely to want to reread Landline, or whether I should sell it [back] to the bookstore.)

4 August 2014

On Sunday morning, I caught David Edelstein talking about films that were released or available on-demand instead of in the cinema, in case your local cinema was only playing Guardians of the Galaxy and you didn’t have any (his words) “grownup-friendly” theaters nearby. I probably wouldn’t have thought anything beyond “Well, that was unnecessarily rude; just because you might well want an alternative doesn’t mean that the film isn’t for grownups,” if I hadn’t read Linda Holmes’ review of the film the other day, in which she commented that it’s really the only out-and-out comedy among the Marvel superhero movies (as opposed to “action movie with quips or occasionally funny moments”). With that in mind, it really stood out that among the “grown-up” movies Edelstein recommended, there wasn’t one real comedy – though there were two whole biting satires of modern life. And one of the movies was Snowpiercer, so I guess action films are allowed to be for grownups as long as they don’t look like they come from comic books or make people laugh?

Noticing when people are dismissive about comedy is kind of an inadvertent, hair-pulling sort of hobby of mine by this point, but it’s because I still can’t quite get over how often and how casually it happens: the way critics so often behave as though pure, enjoyable comedy is something we’re supposed to leave behind in our toy-boxes when we reach whatever age counts as “adult” these days (though black comedy is still okay – ooh, how subversive!). Linda Holmes (weekly reminder: I love Linda Holmes) had a great line in her Guardians review about the way that humorlessness masquerades as seriousness, and I think that’s true. Critics often treat films that seek to entertain – as opposed to provoke or discomfit – as morally suspect; they use words like “lull” and “pabulum,” as though reality is one-hundred percent grim and joyless, as though even if that were true, we wouldn’t deserve to dream about anything different. (This is also the way critics talk disapprovingly about adults reading YA novels, though there they often use “readability” alongside entertainment as the thing that is vaguely suspect and something you really should have grown out of wanting by now). It’s the inexplicable opprobrium heaped on the concept of “escapism” – as though every act of reading or watching doesn’t already involve consenting to leave your version of reality for a while and experience someone else’s (so why is it unexceptionable to experience the reality of a middle-class, middle-aged man dreaming of adultery, but problematic and immature to experience the reality of a teenage girl trying to figure out what she’s going to make of what life has handed her?); as though it’s terribly weak and childish to want to be comforted or uplifted or made to laugh – to be reminded that there can be joy and fun and love in the world.

I figured out why I never really warmed to Neal in Rainbow Rowell’s Landline, which I really liked a lot of things about: in part, it’s because he basically dismisses his girlfriend-and-then-wife Georgie’s ambitions to write comedy. (On the whole, the problem that I had with Landline is the problem that I have with the end of Notting Hill and the Barrymore/Fallon version of Fever Pitch: the relationship always felt unbalanced to me, and the person who winds up making the big, romantic gesture at the end was not the person who was the most in need of changing his or her ways. I think I was supposed to feel like Georgie was always putting her career ahead of her family, but I never felt that way: sure, she was rushed and busy, and sure, Neal was the stay-at-home parent, but it wasn’t like Georgie was constantly skipping out on family vacations or anything, and I didn’t appreciate the way Neal acted like she was, or the way he got all passive-aggressive about their relationship. But the dismissiveness probably sealed the deal; he’s essentially on record as saying that the thing that mattered most to the person he loved was worthless...which would have bothered me even if the thing Georgie cared about weren’t comedy.)

Neal and Georgie meet because he’s a cartoonist for the college humor magazine, which Georgie writes for – which is background for this exchange, in which Georgie tells him he could be a cartoonist for a living:

“I couldn’t do this for a living.” He gave the woodchuck he was drawing a cigar. “It’s just messing around – it’s just doodling.”

“So you wouldn’t want to be Matt Groening?”

“With all due respect, no.”

“Why not?”

Neal shrugged. “I want to do something real. I want to make a difference.”

“Making people laugh is real.”

The corner of his mouth twitched. “I’ll let you take up that mantle.”

“Do you think that comedy is just messing around, too?”

“Honestly?” he asked.

“Of course, honestly.”

“Then yes.” (pp. 117-8)

To be fair, Georgie challenges him on this point (“You think my dreams are a waste of time? / “I think your dreams would be a waste of my time”), but it was too late – Neal was one of those people. You know, the ones who think comedy is pointless, that it doesn’t provide any real value to the world. (The ones who choose the Oscar winners.) It turns out, unsurprisingly, that I believe exactly what Georgie believes: making people laugh is real. Letting people dream is real. Giving people a good time is real. And yes, comedy can often be challenging and subversive – laughing can make you think; it can disarm you so that the truth can creep in – but I dislike defending ‘my’ genre on those terms, because it suggests that comedy is only valuable if it does those things, and I don’t agree. Comedy is a valid mode of looking at the world, full stop. It may not be the whole story – but neither is tragedy, and tragedy never has to defend itself because it left out the humor, the way that comedy is constantly being dismissed and called to heel because it isn’t tragedy.

This is about the time that I start yelling about Much Ado’s Beatrice and childbirth and dancing stars – yelling that comedy is a choice, a willed orientation toward possibility, not just a naïve inability to see things the way they really are. When Beatrice is told that she must have been born in a merry hour, she replies by acknowledging two equally valid truths: “No, sure, my lord, my mother cried. But then there was a star danced, and under that was I born.” Simply responding with “my mother cried” would still have been a joke, turning the other person’s response inside-out – but it would have been tragedy, even cynicism: everything in life is pain and tears. (“When we are born, we cry that we are come / To this great stage of fools,” says Lear.) But the dancing star, opening your eyes wide enough to see that such a thing existed at the same moment? Not letting the darkness blind you to the presence of the light? That’s comedy.

When I’m feeling particularly grand and earnest, I like to think that maybe comedy makes us a little bit impervious: that if we can find a way to laugh at a thing, it hurts us less, knocks a little of the stuffing out of whatever that thing is. But one of the reasons that it’s so hard to talk about comedy, I think, is that it doesn’t just do that one thing – or have any one single goal in mind, when it comes down to it. Tragedy is easy, by comparison: it’s actually a far more rigid structure than comedy (even though comedy is the one that gets accused of being “formulaic” or “conventional,” like tragedy doesn’t have a formula); it’s all about catharsis and watching the precipitous fall of the hero or antihero. (“For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground / And tell sad stories of the death of kings.”) Which isn’t to dismiss the work that it does: after all, if you’re Richard II telling those sad stories, you can derive some comfort from knowing you are “not all alone unhappy” (to mix genres for a second and quote from As You Like It), and even find strength to bear up under your tragedy. But comedy is buoyant and slippery and protean, and I’m not sure it has a one-size-fits-all reason for being. That’s why comedy benefits from adjectives – romantic, situational, stand-up – because they’re actually separate things that all happen to have the capability to make us laugh. (Tragedy's adjectives tell us where a thing takes place, or the major motor of the plot - domestic tragedy, revenge tragedy - but I don't think they operate by rules that are as different as, say, the sitcom and the romcom, even though these things borrow from each other and get lumped together.)
tempestsarekind: (very few dates in this history)
Guess who's still struggling to read Wolf Hall? (I think I'm going to set it aside soon, if I keep having this problem, because right now I'm hypersensitive to this issue.) It's just that it feels demeaning, to keep taking ideas and beliefs that would have been normal to quite a few people if not everyone, and only holding them up as silly things that our urbane, clever characters like Cromwell and Wolsey could never believe. Wolsey tells Cromwell that Henry VIII can't actually believe that God has cursed his marriage to Katherine of Aragon - not because Wolsey thinks the king is self-serving enough to use such an idea for his own benefit, but because the king is too "rational" - that's the word Mantel has Wolsey use, "rational" - to believe in such a vengeful God. (And Cromwell's narrative voice backs this up, in case we were in doubt about what we should think: "It's not the hand of God kills our children. It's disease and hunger and war, rat bites and bad air and the miasma from plague pits" [75]). Never mind that the idea that it was a sin to marry your brother's wife was an accepted idea for many people - as was the idea that Wolsey disclaims a few pages later, when he says that "They say" that the sweating sickness is a visitation from God, only to continue airily that he "can't pretend to know his purposes" (83). Only the undifferentiated, dismissible masses of "They" could seriously entertain such an idea. Meanwhile, Cromwell mocks Thomas More for - so far; he hasn't actually shown up as a character yet - basically praying in the mornings. It's true that More gets in a swipe about how usury is bad - again, not an uncommon belief for a religious man to hold - but listen to the language Mantel uses to contrast these two men:
These are good days for him: every day a fight he can win. "Still serving your Hebrew God, I see," remarks Sir Thomas More. "I mean, your idol Usury." But when More, a scholar revered through Europe, wakes up in Chelsea to the prospect of morning prayers in Latin, he wakes up to a creator who speaks the swift patois of the markets; when More is settling in for a session of self-scourging, he and Rafe are sprinting to Lombard Street to get the day's exchange rates. (83-4)

Mantel undercuts this very, very slightly by remarking in the next sentence that Cromwell can't actually sprint, because of an old injury - but just look at the way she contrasts them here! That needling use of "Sir" before More's name, the way More "settles in" ponderously for his old-fashioned Latin and his old-fashioned scourging (and "session" suggests nastily that this is just measurable routine for More, rather than actual belief) - and Cromwell, by contrast, is a man of the future, whose God speaks in a "swift" tongue (so unlike that cumbersome Latin!) and who can 'sprint' off to where the real power and importance lie: not with the old, backward-looking scholarship of Europe (after all, if the scholars "revere" a man like More, they must be behind the times, right? It's More who is the "revered" false idol here, not usury), but with the fleet changing of every day's exchange rates.

But these aren't separate ideas, or at least they don't have to be; it's not actually the case that you can only be a good businessman by ridding yourself of the antiquated belief in morning prayer. It's not actually the case that just because you yourself don't pray in Latin, it's a given that you mock and belittle those who do. What keeps bothering me about the beginning of this book - and I've only made it eighty-five pages in, so things could change, I suppose - is that the world of the book is being set up so that the only people we are supposed to take seriously are the ones who hold only "modern" views, like Cromwell and Wolsey. Look, here's the thing: I already know that self-scourging is an extreme thing to do. I already recoil from imagining the pain of it. What I want to know, from historical fiction, is why someone like More would have seen this as an important part of his life, and yet as much a part of his day as putting on a shirt. I don't need some modern mouthpiece like Cromwell to feed back to me the prejudices that I already probably have, to praise the ideas of the present at the expense of mocking the past.
tempestsarekind: (don't get clever in latin! [donna])
I'm going to go ahead and post the last couple of things I've written about trying to read Wolf Hall recently (I figure I should try to read it before I see the miniseries? I have until April - which is when PBS is airing it), even though I am kind of embarrassed by them (why can I not appreciate this book that everyone else in the world loves? What is wrong with me?), but for the sake of honesty, here we go.

18 January 2015

Somewhat perversely, I would like to read some criticism of Wolf Hall by someone smart and thoughtful who didn't like it; maybe it would help me like it better, knowing that someone out there hadn't praised this book to the skies when I am not enjoying it. Admittedly I have only managed to struggle through the first three chapters - this is only partly the book's fault; I haven't been reading it consistently - so maybe I haven't adjusted to the prose yet and I will enjoy it more as I get used to it, but right now the book's very syntax is grating on my inward ear. Stop cramming all the paragraphs with so much syntactically unconnected detail, Hilary Mantel! Stop changing point of view in the middle of paragraphs! (You can't just throw "We hope he'll grow up tall" in the middle of a paragraph about Cromwell's son when the whole rest of the paragraph is being narrated in the third person, what are you even doing!) Also, I know this book is all dudes*, but if you could be a little bit clearer who you're talking about - so that every sentence isn't "He said to him that he was a great scholar" or whatever, although this would be less difficult to figure out if every paragraph weren't crammed with so much detail, because each one of those three pronouns could refer to a different man mentioned in the last two sentences, for all I know - that would be nice. (Yes, yes, I'm sure this is on purpose. That doesn't mean it doesn't grate.)

Also, the dialogue is also irking me, but this is more personal; it just sounds so terse and modern that it actually feels at odds with the way that Tudor people seem to me to think. Even their personal letters are more playful and elaborate with language than we are today - they like playing with words and coining new ones; they weren't like, "ah yes, in the halls of power we get right to the point, none of this fancy-dancy speechifying." And their speech could still be muscular and vivid - but they were not exactly a terse people. I know historical fiction doesn't have to represent the speech patterns of its historical period exactly, even in stories about speakers of whatever language one is writing in (a book set in ancient Rome but written in English is never going to sound like Latin), but still.

*This bit actually sounds more sarcastic about Mantel than I meant it to; it's not her fault that every important person in this period is a guy named Thomas!

21 January 2015

Still trying to read a chapter or so of Wolf Hall before bed; right now I am only managing three or four pages every couple of nights, but hey ho. I hit one of those bits last night where Mantel apparently uses what reviewers actually called "ye olde speech," because why not, in order to make a humorous contrast or whatever:
Above all, Mantel avoids ye olde-style diction, preferring more contemporary phrasing. Small rises in the level of language are frequently used for comic effect, as in: "Well, I tell you, Lady Shelton, if she had had an axe to hand, she would have essayed to cut off my head." The effortless-seeming management of contrasting registers plays a big part in the novel's success, as does Mantel's decision to let Cromwell have a sense of humour."

And this is even more grating than the lack of clarity regarding third-person singular masculine pronouns, because it's indicative of a thing that feels to me like a failure in the world being imagined. It's the same problem I had with Desperate Romantics, a not particularly good miniseries about the PRB, in which all the painters spoke in relatively modern speech, except for Millais (played by an adorably hapless Samuel Barnett), who was supposed to sound so quaint and prim and prudish...except that all he really sounded was Victorian. You know, like all of the other characters in the miniseries are as well. Or "The Shakespeare Code," which is supposedly set in 1599, but has an exchange between two of "Shakespeare's" actors in which they complain that they never know what old Will is going on about (yeah, Early Modern English must be really hard for you sixteenth-century guys to understand), and the only characters in the episode who ever sound remotely Elizabethan are the Carrionite "witches," who are supposed to be from the dawn of time. I mean, I get it: modern readers and viewers hear that language as old-fashioned and ridiculous, but that doesn't stop me from wanting to yell "do better!" at people when they pull this nonsense. It never stops bothering me when historical fiction or historical drama takes the language that people actually spoke and turns it into nothing more than a ridiculous joke. Surely historical fiction is supposed to be about imagining what the past was like, to the degree that we ever can, and trying to conjure up an actually different world, in which people thought - and yes, spoke - very differently from the way we do? And wouldn't it make more sense for critics to - let's get crazy here - respect that endeavor, instead of demeaning the so-called trappings of historical fiction as nothing more than "ye olde-style diction," and only praising those books of historical fiction that "make the past seem just like today" or "make the sixteenth-century court seem just like the modern halls of power," as though the erasure of difference and such easy parallelism between then and now are things to strive for?

I know I have ranted this rant before, about RTD-era Doctor Who historical episodes (oddly enough, Moffat managed to ameliorate this not by having a companion from the past - which I still want, and I'm still wistful about Victorian Clara - but by changing the Doctor so that he no longer says things like "This lot have still got one foot in the Dark Ages," but instead remarks offhandedly that he's on Virginia Woolf's bowling team, and has longstanding relationships with figures like Churchill, and takes Vincent van Gogh seriously and befriends him instead of making jokes about him like Ten does to Shakespeare), but still. This attitude is like nails on a chalkboard to me; I can't help it. And it's such a waste. (As much as I find myself yelling "what are you even doing right now" at Sleepy Hollow on a regular basis this season, one thing that they got right is that Ichabod's old-fashioned language doesn't mean that he's a joke - even though he is often funny, and Abbie rightly laughs at him when he takes refuge in an even greater level of formality because he doesn't want to deal with something. He speaks the way he speaks not because he's some kind of prudish fussbudget, but because he's, you know, from 1781. They spoke like that then. And he can still be curious and tender and exasperated and everything else in that language, because it is an actual language to him, not just an affectation a writer has him put on when he wants to make fun of someone else. I can't wrap my head around Mantel's decision, after reading what must have been tons of Tudor documents and history, to look at the way they spoke and then decide to use it only in mockery. Why not just choose not to use it at all?)


Nov. 28th, 2014 03:58 am
tempestsarekind: (oh noes)
Accidentally spoiled myself about the last book in a series and found out that all the characters I didn't care about survived and one I really cared about didn't…

boo. Now I'm not sure I want to read it anymore. Which is not the author's fault - I'm sure it's a reasonable storytelling choice - but I just don't want to deal with that, I guess.
tempestsarekind: (ofelia reading)
(Is the New Yorker's new stance "no one should like reading anything unless it is approved by us"? Didn't they just publish one of these finger-wagging pieces for adults? Did they feel like they weren't scolding enough readers with that last one? Thought they'd cast their net a little wider, did they?)

"What if the strenuous accessibility of 'Percy Jackson’s Greek Gods' proves so alluring to young readers that it seduces them in the opposite direction from that which Gaiman’s words presuppose—away from an engagement with more immediately difficult incarnations of the classics, Greek and otherwise? What if instead of urging them on to more challenging adventures on other, potentially perilous literary shores, it makes young readers hungry only for more of the palatable same?"

"The Percy Jackson Problem," Rebecca Mead

(link via Neil Gaiman's Tumblr.)

Won't somebody please think of the children??? (What if the books are so enjoyable that children can't help themselves? What if they're like drugs?)

…I sometimes wonder if people would be less odd and panicky about this if we didn't live in a culture that was so concerned with precocity and early development. Let's say children don't pick up difficult incarnations of the classics - let's say they don't read them until high school or even, god forbid, college. (I'm assuming for the sake of this argument that reading the classics is a good thing that we would like people to do at some point, but it is not the only way to build a life.) Is that so bad? And let's say - brazen thought, but humor me for a second - that when they do read those classics in high school or college or even (gasp) when they're not in school at all (because I hear tell that people do still develop interests once they graduate), they feel more comfortable with them because they remember some of the stories from reading Rick Riordan's books: where, exactly, is the problem?

I feel like these articles all seem to operate under the impression that if you're not reading it (whatever it is) by the time you're ten, it's all over for you, and you're intellectually stunted forever. But I can never take these handwringing pieces seriously, because my own experience was so different. I was a pretty precocious reader as a child, in some ways: I started reading when I was two, I read well above my grade level, and I had a pretty well-stocked vocabulary. And Rebecca Mead would probably have approved of me, because for some odd reason I was obsessed with Bullfinch's Mythology (I…appropriated my mother's copy without actually thinking about it, to the extent that she found it on one of my bookshelves a couple of years ago and commented, "I used to have this book…"), and my first encounters with a lot of Greek and Roman myths happened in that book (although I have a very strong memory of first reading the story of Pandora's box in Virginia Hamilton's collection In the Beginning). (I didn't really latch on to the D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths - mentioned in Mead's piece - but oh, how I loved their version of East of the Sun and West of the Moon. I wish it would come back into print.)

But I didn't "graduate" to reading "serious" adult fiction when I was a child, or even very much when I was a teen. I was quite happy in the children's section, for a long time. I read and loved Matilda, and thought wistfully about how nice it would be to have been a prodigy, to impress somebody like Miss Honey because I loved Dickens - but I never went out and tried to read any Dickens. Even in high school, I liked most of what we read in school, and I understood it pretty easily - but even after reading and loving Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion for class, I didn't run to seek out any other Austen novels. I was far too busy at the time reading Robin McKinley and Patricia McKillip and Josepha Sherman, and trying to find all the Gillian Bradshaw novels I could get my hands on. I knew Fortinbras as the Murry family's dog in A Wrinkle in Time well before I knew he was a character in Hamlet.

And you know, I think I turned out okay. I read the rest of Austen's novels in college, and fell as ardently in love as anyone could wish. It turns out that I really liked Bleak House, once I got around to reading it. Shakespeare pretty much knocked me over the head and dragged me off to grad school, where I don't seem to have done any worse because I didn't read all the plays when I was twelve. And if I still haven't read Tolstoy or a bunch of other things yet - well, I've still got time. Because I haven't stopped reading, and changing, and learning that things I heard about when I was younger actually come from other sources that I can choose to explore even though I didn't then. (Baby Me would not have been ready for Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, even though she had read a retelling of it. Baby Me was not ready for Twelfth Night, even though she could understand it perfectly well in her seventh-grade English class, because she hit backspace, appalled and embarrassed, at the first joke about venereal disease. Who knows what other riches Baby Me has left for Grownup Me to explore?)

The books that made me love reading - that turned me into the kind of person who could love Austen and Shakespeare as entirely as I do - were unabashedly children's books, populated with Moomins and dragons and children who ran away to hide in museums, and girls who traveled through time. The books that kept me in love with reading were the sorts of genre books that critics often sneer at (books that still have a purchase on my heart). Certainly the books that made me want to be a writer when I was younger, that made me think about how words worked together, were those kinds of books. (I literally started writing about writing because I wanted to figure out how McKillip's Riddlemaster books worked.) My reading abilities didn't atrophy and desiccate just because it took me a little longer to get around to the kinds of books that Rebecca Mead would consider important. So I bet those kids reading the Percy Jackson series are going to be fine.
tempestsarekind: (freema reading is sexy)
Only slightly related thoughts about literary enjoyment:

- Yesterday, one of my students remarked after class that although she could see that Hemingway was really good at what he was doing, and there was a lot to uncover about his writing, she still hadn't found a way to like him. I have not yet found a way to like Hemingway, either, but I think I would have said the same thing to her even if I had: that it's okay not to like things, because if we didn't like some things and dislike others, we wouldn't have taste. And that as long as she was taking the material seriously and not just dismissing it without thinking about it, then she was doing all I could ask from her as a student. I think this made her feel better, although perhaps she really wanted an actual way to like Hemingway instead.

- Maybe it's because I'm suffering from stuffy cold-brain right now, but I can't seem to make sense of this piece in the New Yorker by Christopher Beha about reading Henry James and (not) reading YA:

Beha writes at the very end: "Putting down 'Harry Potter' for Henry James is not one of adulthood’s obligations, like flossing and mortgage payments; it’s one of its rewards, like autonomy and sex. It seems to me not embarrassing or shameful but just self-defeating and a little sad to forego such pleasures in favor of reading a book that might just as easily be enjoyed by a child."

The one thing I genuinely never understand about these silly debates is the idea that reading is some sort of zero-sum game. By Beha's terms, I am a person who doesn't exist in the universe: if I have read Harry Potter as an adult, then I cannot also be a person who has read Henry James for fun. Now, admittedly I haven't gone through his collected works like Beha has, and I'm still waiting for my brain to work well enough to be able to deal with later-Jamesian syntax (seriously, what was anyone even talking about in those first fifty pages of The Ambassadors that I read while studying for the generals?), but I liked "In the Cage" and "The Aspern Papers" and The Europeans, and I've got a copy of What Maisie Knew waiting for me (though it has been waiting for a couple of years; my book purchases are often more ambitious than the amount of free time I have, and James is not a quick read). But the fact that I sometimes - even often - read books with teenage protagonists and magic in them has not prevented me from also spending some of my reading time on other things. Strange, huh? It's almost like what someone is reading at the moment you see him or her doesn't actually tell you anything about that person except what he or she happens to be reading at that moment.

Then there's this bit:
the [YA] label is sometimes wielded to make a real literary distinction. It is obviously possible to give a subject a treatment that is more appropriate for a young audience. For the most part, this involves simplifying things—first the diction and syntax, but finally the whole picture of life. There is nothing dishonorable about this simplification—it is a way to make material accessible to children. Nor does it strike me as shameful for adults to spend a lot of time reading these simplified treatments. But it does strike me as strange. If someone told you that he was an American-history buff and that his favorite work of American history was “Johnny Tremain,” you might not think this a cause for embarrassment but you would probably suspect that he didn’t know as much about history as he thought he did, and you would wonder why his interest in the subject had not led him to adult treatments of it. In some sense, you might even think he was missing out, that the simplified treatments of history that we give to children are not just less true but less interesting because of their lack of complexity.

Well, no: actually I'd just wonder why this person doesn't understand the difference between fiction and nonfiction. But mostly, [citation needed]. Seriously, can you find me one of these YA books that so greatly simplifies life? Or are you just talking about a bunch of books you haven't in fact read? And let's say you do find a book that simplifies life - like The Goldfinch, apparently, which Beha mentions in his piece because of that review that said it was basically a YA novel or whatever - does that mean that it's simplified because it's for teens? The fact that The Goldfinch can be criticized as simplified means that books for adults can be simplified too. In fact, it looks to me like a simplified book is a sign of a bad book, not an inherent quality belonging to YA novels exclusively. In order to make this comparison work, both Beha and John Wood (the original reviewer) have to set up a syllogism that relies on an unproven assertion:
a) The Goldfinch presents a simplified view of the world.
b) Young adult novels present simplified views of the world.
c) Therefore, The Goldfinch is basically a YA novel.

But neither Wood nor Beha actually proves the second part of the syllogism - they just take it for granted, because YA novels are for teens, right? They're obviously simplified; how could they not be? I feel like this argument is being had more and more often because a small handful of YA novels have gotten splashy, successful big-screen treatments, so we're probably going to keep seeing it with more frequency, but I always find it curious that the argument always seems to be about whether or not it's okay to read these "lesser" forms of entertainment, without the suggestion that maybe a lot of really talented writers are working in YA because the genre (if you can even call it that, really) is more flexible and lets you get away with more than the traditional literary fiction genre?

There's sort of a companion piece on the Tor blog (or at least a companion to another NYT piece that seems to have inspired Beha's) about what this "lack of adulthood" looks like in the SF world (look at all these grownups collecting Pokemon!), but this line really stood out to me: "adults are seeing fewer and fewer compelling reasons why they should live out their lives consuming media only produced for adults" (emphasis in original).

(piece here: http://www.tor.com/blogs/2014/09/the-death-of-adulthood-in-american-culture-nerd-culture-edition )

That's what strikes me, most of all: if good, compelling stories are being told in YA fiction, by writers who care about their craft (I don't understand the assumption that YA writers don't, just because they don't write prose like Henry James. Newsflash: nobody writes prose like Henry James. And plenty of qualified, all-dues-paid-up adults really hate his prose), why should I not read those stories? What is an actual good reason that I shouldn't? And why do columnists seem so concerned about what other people are going to get a chance to read, anyway? Because if I actually want to make time to read the works of Henry James, all the YA fiction in the world won't stop me from doing it - and if I don't, then taking away all the YA fiction and giving me a house full of James isn't going to make a dent in my desire not to.

tl;dr. Basically, I am still waiting for one of these pieces to boil down to something other than, "But whyyyyyy are you guys having so much fuuuuuuuuuuun?" or "But whyyyyyyy aren't you guys more like meeeeeee?" Christopher Beha, I'm happy that you seem to have found so much fun reading all of Henry James, but that is not actually a mark of adulthood. That just means you like Henry James.
tempestsarekind: (hamlet/horatio OTP)
I'm having an enjoyable time poking around in a book I...sort of accidentally bought while finishing up my Christmas shopping, Wordsmiths and Warriors: The English-Language Tourist's Guide to Britain, by the prolific David Crystal, this time in conjunction with Hilary Crystal (Oxford UP, 2013). And being me, of course I was greatly entertained by this bit of biography on Robert Cawdrey, compiler of English's first dictionary, A Table Alphabeticall (1604). Cawdrey was a rector in the 1570s, but relieved of his post for being a nonconformist:
Complaints were made. In 1576 he was charged with not reading the homilies and injunctions in church. A year later, the churchwardens complained to the Bishop of Peterborough that Cawdrey 'dothe not his service in due time as he ought to doo'. In 1578 he conducted the wedding of a fellow clergyman without the Bishop's permission, refused to submit himself for correction, and was suspended from his duties for three months. He promised to behave, but in 1586 was summoned before the Court of High Commission in London, charged with a range of offences, such as not wearing a surplice, using 'you' when he should have used 'thou', and saying in a lecture that the Book of Common Prayer was 'a vile book, fie on it'. The commissioners several times asked him to change his mind, but he repeatedly refused. Suspension from his ministry followed. (220-1, my emphasis)

It's a shame I didn't know this when we discussed Cawdrey during the History of English class I taught for last year! Pronouns are serious business, kids.

ooh look

Nov. 12th, 2013 11:23 am
tempestsarekind: (rory died and turned into a roman)
This book sounds like something I need to get my hands on: Under Another Sky: Journeys in Roman Britain by Charlotte Higgins. Here's a review:

tempestsarekind: (typewriter)
- I made pasta with broccoli and breadcrumbs yesterday! (I used panko because that is what I had. I keep my bread in the freezer, mostly, so I don't have stale bread around all that much. Also, I am lazy.) I was kind of doubtful about the whole thing; after all, I make a lot of pasta with broccoli, and figured the breadcrumbs wouldn't make much of a difference. But it was rather tasty.

- I saw this "feel better" card in the bookstore:

[text on card: "it's days like these i realize maybe i'm not from the future. if i was, i would have known you were getting sick and i could have done something to save you."]

I would love to read that story, but would have no idea how to write it...

- I also discovered that Adrian Tinniswood has a new book out, which is exciting! I really enjoyed his book The Verneys, and this one, The Rainborowes, likewise charts the history of an early modern family. (I still haven't read his book about the Great Fire of London, because every time I think I might want to read it, I follow that thought with "...but it's probably going to make me sad...")
tempestsarekind: (careful reading saves the day! [martha])
Whoever puts out the display books in the YA section of the library does a really good job, because I often walk out of there with something I hadn't gone in to get. Today it was Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong, a graphic novel by Prudence Shen and Faith Erin Hicks. I'd read Hicks' Friends With Boys last year and recognized the style, so it didn't take much to get me to pick this one up. No ghosts this time, alas, but a funny story about teenage cliques fighting, friendship, and building battle robots in basements.

In other news, I think I'm going to just stop buying hot chocolate mix. I like the just-add-water convenience, but I've only found one brand that actually tastes chocolaty enough for me, and when I was reading the ingredients on the box a few weeks ago, I thought, "surely one does not actually *need* hydrogenated coconut oil in one's hot chocolate?" So I tried a different brand today, because, hey, free trade cocoa and normal ingredients! Which would all be great if it actually tasted much like chocolate... I always seemed to have bad luck, somehow, making mugs of hot chocolate from cocoa powder and milk and sugar, but I guess I'll give it another go. (Also, there was NO cocoa powder in the store. Only baking chocolate. What even.)


tempestsarekind: (Default)

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