osprey_archer: (books)
I got halfway through Catching Fire and WHISKY TANGO FOXTROT, I had to stop for a breather because spoilers )

Ahem. On a different note, I feel the strange urge to give President Snow How to Be a Better Dictator tips, because he clearly needs some help in this department.

And by “better” I definitely mean “capable of holding onto power indefinitely despite being evil,” not “actually being kind of a good ruler” tips. This poor man, he walks into Katniss’s house and is all “let’s speak honestly with each other,” and then he actually does it like a rank amateur. All the best dictators lie like rugs, President Snow. Get with the program.

Anyway, in the course of speaking honestly, President Snow strongly implies an ultimatum to Katniss, and later on he lets her know that she’s failed. President Snow! No! You never tell your political enemies that they have failed and are powerless putty in your hands until they’re actually walking down the hall to the firing squad! Until then, keep dangling shreds of false hope in front of them and make them jump through hoops like porpoises. Surely that’s amusing in a tedious sort of way.

At all times, keep this maxim in front of you: “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” You want to minimize your subjects’ freedom, you’ve got to make sure they’ve always got something to lose. The revolutions come when the bread lines get too long, President Snow.

And this is really his problem: he’s all iron fist and no velvet glove, when that soft fuzz of lies is what makes dictatorships function. You want to prevent revolution? Then you need buy-in. You need your subjects to believe the system offers them something.

Why present the Hunger Games as what they actually are - a terrifying reminder of the wealth and power of the Capitol and a punishment for recalcitrant districts - when they could be rebranded as a glorious opportunity for district bonding and social advancement? Make people root for their own district tributes! Set up tribute training centers in each district! Smile as parents fight each other for the chance to train their children to die gory gladiatorial deaths, because a win in the arena is their best and maybe only chance for social advancement.

(I get why Collins wanted the drama of selection-by-lottery, but as long as volunteers are allowed, I really think that every district no matter how poor would be training tributes. Sure, the poor districts’ tributes are going to be kind of like the Jamaican bobsled team in Cool Runnings, but they’re still going to give it their best shot.)

And all that intra-district bonding will have the glorious side effect of making all the districts loathe each other. Encourage that. To you all the districts may be indistinguishable conquered colonies, but don’t let them realize that. Play up their differences. Get them to direct their hate at each other. Divide and conquer, President Stone. Divide and conquer.
osprey_archer: (books)
This both is and is not a War and Peace post. I’ve gotten to the part of the book where Natasha falls ill following her broken engagement, and I was feeling a bit smug, as modern people are wont to do when confronted with the medical incompetence of the past, while Tolstoy snipes about the fact that doctors are useful purely for their placebo effect: the doctors “were of use to Natasha because they rubbed her ‘bobo’ and assured her that it would soon be over if the coachman went to the chemist’s in the Arbat and got some powders and pills in pretty boxes for a ruble and seventy kopecks, and if, without fail, she took these powders dissolved in boiled water and intervals of two hours, neither more not less.”

But then I came across this terrifying article, Lies, Damned Lies, and Medical Science, the gist of which is that modern medical research is also pretty awful at figuring out what’s actually wrong with people and how to fix it: “80 percent of non-randomized studies (by far the most common type) turn out to be wrong.”

Eighty percent! Forsooth!

The article goes into some depth about why this is so. Basically, a study that suggest drug X or nutrient Y can cause dramatic health improvements net researchers funding and career advancement, and therefore researchers desperately want those findings. They aren’t usually lying outright; they’re led astray by their own wishful thinking. And drug companies will test and retest a drug until they get a study that shows it having an effect.

The article is based on the meta-analysis of John Ioannidis, who offers the cheerful advice that the layperson should just ignore medical research. Most of it’s wrong, and anyway the body is an immensely complex system and we barely understand it. There is no one best diet or exercise regime, no magic bullet to ensure longevity, so just chillax.

From one point of view this is cheerful advice: no more fretting over dueling studies about whether a glass of red wine with dinner will lengthen your life or hasten your demise! But, like Natasha, I think that most of us like to have faith that someone out there knows how to fix what ails us, and from that point of view none of this is cheerful at all.

***

In other War and Peace news, Napoleon is invading Russia, and Pierre, God bless his strange soul, has become interested in numerology. By dint of adding up the letters in his name (using a different variation of his name each time), Pierre has discovered that his name adds up to 666 - the mark of the beast - just like Napoleon’s! Which means that he must in some mystical way be connected to Napoleon!!!

Oh Pierre. I love Pierre. He really is not the brightest candle in the box, though.
osprey_archer: (friends)
I’ve been dipping into Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s Gift from the Sea over the last few days, reading it slowly and leaving a bristling porcupine path of bookmarks through the book: quotes that I want to remember. I think it’s a good book, and an important book, although perhaps not a book that I needed at this very moment: it’s about finding solitude in a life that has grown too hectic, even if hectic with much-beloved things - “For it is not merely the trivial which clutters our lives but the important as well. We can have a surfeit of treasures - an excess of shells, where one or two would be sufficient.”

The shells are a metaphor for stages in life, relationships in life; really any part of life that you can imagine becomes embodied in shells. Lindberg wrote the book while staying in a cabin on the beach, and the rhythm of the waves creeps into her writing.

“We have so little faith in the ebb and flow of life, of love, and relationships. We leap at the flow of the tide and resist in terror its ebb. We are afraid it will never return. We insist on permanency, on duration, on continuity, when the only continuity possible, in life as in love, is in growth, in fluidity - in freedom, in the sense that the dancers are free, barely touching as they pass, but partners in the same pattern.”

If her major theme doesn’t feel applicable to my life right now (I have too much solitude, oceans of solitude), then this sub-theme of ebb and flow and continuity through change and living in the moment probably is: “One must accept the security of the wingèd life, of ebb and flow, and intermittency.” Other kinds of security are ultimately illusory.

Or this quote, which I have been chewing over since I read it, because I’m not sure if I believe it - and I’m not sure if it’s because I don’t believe it’s true, or if I do, but don’t want to. How true is a friendship that has no durability in the face of adversity?

But, on the other hand, perhaps a friendship doesn’t need to last forever to have been true at one time.

“Duration is not a test of true or false… Validity need have no relation to time, to duration, to continuity. It is on another plane, judged by other standards. It relates to the actual moment in time and place… The sunrise shell has the eternal validity of all beautiful and fleeting things.”
osprey_archer: (window)
I watched How to Marry a Millionaire a couple weeks ago, and while I don't have much to say about the movie itself (cute and interesting if you like 1950s comedies; probably not worth watching otherwise), it has led me to spend some time mulling over the issue of likability in fiction.

Or maybe I should put "likability," because I think there's a difference between what any particular person likes in fiction at any given time, as opposed to what creators or studios or culture or whatever thinks that we're supposed to like. I do like the characters in How to Marry a Millionaire - I have a particular soft spot of Schatze, which is probably no surprise: her cleverness and veneer of hard-bitten cynicism are more to twenty-first century tastes than her somewhat air-headed colleagues, Loco and Pola.

In particular, I think modern viewers would find Loco frustrating, because the poor thing is as dumb as a brick. A married man invites her to his lodge in Maine, and despite all signs to the contrary (including Schatze telling her "Don't do it, Loco, he wants you to be his mistress"), Loco remains convinced that this lodge is some sort of gathering place - like a lodge of Masons or Elks - where she'll meet lots of eligible bachelors, rather than, well, a secluded cabin the middle of nowhere.

(But don't worry. Once they're there, Loco gets the measles and meets a charming park ranger. She thinks that he's a wealthy man who owns timber until he actually shows her his itty bitty ranger cabin, but no matter, she's in love and happy to throw over her part in the gold-digging scheme.)

And that also makes me think of Oliver Twist. When I read the book, I found Oliver's denseness quite frustrating: he's literally watching Fagin teach his friends how to pickpocket, and yet he's totally gobsmacked when they actually go out and pickpocket people for real.

But Oliver's ignorance makes him unimpeachably innocent, and perhaps that was more important to early Victorian readers than his savvy or lack thereof.

And it occurs to me that this reflects a broader shift in what is defined as "likable" in a character: the burden of proof has switched from whether characters are virtuous to whether they're smart.

Although the pendulum may be swinging back in the other direction, at least in certain segments of fandom, although the standard of virtue is now twenty-first century social justice rather than early Victorian moralism.
osprey_archer: (books)
I almost mended a copy of Olivia today, but at the last minute we decided its condition was too poor for repairing, so into the recycling it went. :( Hopefully another Olivia will show up soon; I really want to read this book.

I did read Elizabeth Schoonmacher's Square Cat, which is about Euly, a square cat in a world of round cats. It's a hard life, being a square cat. She looks silly in stripes. She's invisible in rooms with lots of right angles. She tips over, and - being square - she's just kind of stuck there. At first Euly's friends try to make her feel more round, so she'll feel like she fits in; when that doesn't work, they put on cardboard boxes, and they all experience the square cat life together, at which point Euly realizes that being square has its advantages. At the end, they all flop down together and look at the sky, which is, the book tells us, a view "only a square cat could have."

I guess maybe the round cats would roll away if they tried to lie down and look at the sky. Or something.

There are many things I love about picture books, but one of the things I find irritating about them is that they can be so relentlessly upbeat. Every cloud has a silver lining. When one door closes, a vast panoramic window with a view of the Grand Canyon opens. The ugly duckling will always turn into a swan, and Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer will always save the day in the end.

And I like upbeat stories, I do. But in the aggregate, this relentless positivity begins to feel emotionally dishonest. I realize that picture book authors don't want to discourage the three-year-olds of the world, many of whom will in fact outgrow their ugly duckling stages and do just fine, but at the same time, I feel like it would be good if these books would occasionally allow disappointments to actually be disappointing.

Maybe being a square cat is tough, but Euly has managed to acquire two awesome cat friends who want nothing more than to cheer her up. Isn't that happy ending enough without pretending that round cats are incapable of looking up at the sky?
osprey_archer: (books)
What I’ve Just Finished Reading

You should take my opinion of William Deresiewicz’s Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life with a couple of handfuls of salt, because he was very much preaching to the choir here. It was a library book, so I didn't actually draw sparkly little hearts around the section where he talks about how research has supplanted teaching as the central duty of professors (with predictably awful results for undergraduates, and perhaps not quite as predictably awful results for the general quality of published research), but that was definitely my feeling about a lot of what he wrote.

I particularly liked this quote: "The problem is that students are incessantly encouraged to believe that academic excellence is excellence, full stop, that better at school means simply better - better morally, better metaphysically, higher on some absolute scale of human virtue." (214)

I know people who believe this, or an even stronger form: higher not just on a scale of virtue, but on a scale of absolute worth. It's a catastrophic belief, both in terms of social consequences - as Deresiewicz notes, the downside of the meritocracy is that the people at the top believe they deserve it (the very definition of meritocracy being, after all, rule by the most meritorious) and can't see that in many cases, the game was rigged in their favor: something like 75% of Ivy League students come from the top 25% of wage-earners.

But also because if you fail at anything, well then. You've just proved you're one of the worthless.

What I’m Reading Now

Marie Brennan’s A Natural History of Dragons, which is basically dragons in Regency England, if England were called Scirland and London were named Falchester. I have the impression that Brennan threw up her hands and said “Screw it, I don’t want to do a bunch of research about the Napoleonic Wars, I want to focus on DRAGONS.”

Which seems legit. I feel like many authors would benefit from this approach. If you don’t care at all about the actual history, invent an alternate universe with period flavor! It would warn off serious history buffs and entice in the readers who are interested in the period tropes.

(And not just authors. If the producers of Reign had just admitted to themselves that they had no interest in history and set it in an alternate universe vaguely inspired by Mary Queen of Scots, all my qualms about watching it would disappear.)

What I Plan to Read Next

Maureen Johnson’s The Madness Underneath, the sequel to The Name of the Star.

Oh oh! And I have Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s Season of Ponies! Multi-colored horses, here I come!
osprey_archer: (cheers)
I went to see Captain America: The Winter Soldier again (they’re showing it at the Union), and in between this and dipping my toe in the waters of Winter Soldier fic I, like everyone else in the universe, have been having many Bucky thoughts.

1. The general assumption in fic seems to be that as soon as Bucky realized he was actually Bucky, he shucked off years of brainwashing and was left mostly with overwhelming guilt, anger issues, and the instincts of a feral cat.

But it would be really interesting if he doesn't shuck it off that quickly - if, for instance, once he starts working for SHIELD (everyone seems to assume he's going to work for SHIELD) he mostly expects it to work like Hydra, just maybe with less elecroshock memory-destroying chairs. "So when am I going back into cryo?" Bucky asked, after he and Steve completed their first mission. "What do you mean I'm not going back into cryo? That seems awfully wasteful."

And Steve died a little inside as he tried to explain that no, SHIELD doesn't put its agents in cryo between missions, and no really Bucky, it's not because we don't value your skill set properly. We do! Really! Even if we never tell you that your work is a gift to humanity.

It's like people raised in really restrictive environments, religious cults or whatever: even if they leave the fold and consciously reject those believes, that doesn't mean they've rooted all those unconscious assumptions about how the world works out of their heads. Or, actually, I think anyone who has decided to make a conscious effort to fight racism or sexism or so forth has probably experienced this: it's easier to change your conscious beliefs than your underlying assumptions.

2. Speaking of "your work is a gift to humanity" - and I love that scene, by the way, because Pierce gives this spiel about how the asset's work is a gift to humanity and shaped the century and is creating freedom for everyone blah blah blah, and Bucky listens and at the end of it he's like... But this isn't even slightly related to my question about the man on the bridge... Because Bucky is brainwashed, not stupid: he's observant enough to notice that Pierce didn't actually answer his question, just gave him a puff piece to distract him.

Anyway. The common assumption seems to be that once Bucky finds out he was brainwashed, he's going to feel super guilty about all those assassinations. But maybe not. Maybe he thinks some of them were unnecessary but some of those assassinations, goddamnit, really were gifts to humanity, and nothing Steve says is going to take that away from him!

After all, if he decides that all the assassinations were just wrong, that means that all his suffering and pain were pointless. It might be less painful to believe that some good came out of it.

I also think this would set up an interesting conflict, where Steve is inclined to see current Bucky as essentially a broken version of the old Bucky, and Bucky gives him a lot of push-back on that because, well, look at all I've accomplished! Fuck you, Steve, just because I'm not the same person you knew doesn't mean I'm nothing but the empty traumatized hull of your best friend. I've been doing things for the last seventy years! Can't say the same for you, glacier boy.

Not that he's totally ungrateful, mind. Just resentful at the same time. The world was a lot simpler when Pierce assured him that his work was a gift to humanity whenever he got confused.

3. Paranoia! I want so much more paranoia, you guys. Paranoia from all sides!

Sure, Bucky saved Steve's life, but then he just up and disappeared and who knows where he's been for the past few days/weeks/months before he turns himself in or Steve finds him or whatever. Going back to his Hydra handlers? Being recaptured, re-brainwashed, and sent to SHIELD as a Hydra spy? "You have to accept that possibility," Agent Coulson told Steve.

"But - !" Steve protested. "After what they did to him - !"

"If you can't," said Agent Coulson, "you're really too emotionally compromised to look after him. Because you have to keep an eye out for signs that he might be in contact with Hydra. We can't have them infiltrating us again."

And Steve is tormented, TORMENTED by the fact that he has to spy on Bucky, but when Bucky finally finds out he is all, "THANK GOD you guys are actually putting some effort into counterintelligence this time around, I don't want to wake up some day and discover that I am working for Hydra again because you fuckers couldn't be bothered to do your due diligence. Not that I would be waking up. The first thing they would do is stick both of us in cryo. TRUST NO ONE. CONSTANT VIGILANCE."

I kind of expect that Bucky would be at least as paranoid as Nick Fury. I'm not sure it counts as paranoid once you've realized that, no really, everyone you knew really was lying to you all the time about everything. With the aid of a memory-erasing chair, to boot.

Given that history, I think talking honestly to a therapist would be near the end of a very long process of healing. Because for a long time, being asked to discuss weaknesses, fears, and painful memories is just going to sound like, "Please hand us all your vulnerable points on a silver platter so we can use them again you."

Especially if the therapist is SHIELD connected. Especially given how Hydra-infested SHIELD was in the first place. Oh sure, you think you've caught all the Hydra agents, but... TRUST NO ONE.

***

I actually have some other thoughts, largely of the "Time to get my Soviet history geek on!" variety (I'm sure that if anyone ever acquainted Stalin with the idea of a brainwashed amnesiac super-assassin, Stalin would have responded by demanding a whole battalion of them, and possibly summoning the already existent one to shoot vodka glasses off Politburo members' heads), but this has become mammothly long so I'll stop.
osprey_archer: (books)
"The greatest benefit we owe to the artist, whether painter, poet, or novelist, is the extension of our sympathies." - George Eliot

I've been reading Rebecca Mead's My Life in Middlemarch, which I must confess to enjoying more than Middlemarch itself. I've always admired Eliot's literary goal of extending her readers' sympathy, but I find her hard to read, even tedious: Middlemarch's exhaustive delineation of all its characters mental states is rather, well, exhausting.. Of course it's nice to have everyone's perspective on everything, but at the same time, must we get their perspectives at quite such great length?

Mead's book, however, I've been enjoying a lot, particularly for its examination of the way that a favorite book can become a part of the self. "Reading is sometimes thought of as a form of escapism, and it's a common turn of phrase to speak of getting lost in a book. But a book can also be where one finds oneself...There are books that grow with the reader as the reader grows, like a graft on a tree," she writes.

As such, there's an element of memoir to the book, as Mead is showing how Middlemarch has shaped her (and how her life has shaped her reading of Middlemarch. But Mead keeps the focus firmly on Eliot: both on Eliot's biography and on Middlemarch itself. Mead has more sympathy for Lydgate than I do - I tend to think that, given his opinions, Rosamund Vincy is exactly the wife he deserved - but the chapter about Casaubon, "The Dead Hand," is particularly fine, particularly in its discussion of insecurity and uncertainty.

***

I don't think that art necessarily enlarges the sympathies. In fact, I think there are certain kinds of art where the fact that one's sympathies will remain comfortably unenlarged is part of the appeal - war stories about the action-packed excitement of killing faceless enemies, or love stories where the protagonist's romantic rival is a completely unworthy person whose feelings about being losing their beloved need trouble the reader not at all. Doubtless there are other such stories, too.

Although I think often books have both elements to them - in most books, the circle of sympathy extends this far and no farther, if only because the nature of a book means that the author has to focus on certain things and not others.

For instance, Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings movies play up the "excitement of killing faceless enemies" bit of Tolkien's books (the faceless enemies are there in the books, although perhaps not so much the excitement of killing them?). But I wouldn't say that Lord of the Rings is on the whole an unsympathetic book. It's just that Tolkien directs the readers' sympathy and attention not to finding humanity in enemies, but toward sympathizing with the fallibility of good characters who succumb to temptation, like Boromir and Gollum and Frodo. (Perhaps Denethor, although in a very different way?)

Even for authors who do take enlarging sympathy as their goal, they need to find a receptive partner in their readers. The first time I read Middlemarch, despite all Eliot's care I found Casaubon vastly irritating: I described him, and I quote, as "a cramped and petty man with a mildewed soul, too small to commit any actual evil, but possessed of a personality so arid that it sucks the vitality out of everyone around him."

Clearly I was not about to allow my sympathy to be enlarged, at least not enough to include an anxious, fretful middle-aged pedant. But Mead's book has accomplished what Eliot did not: I do begin to feel for him, despite all the suffering their marriage visits on poor Dorothea.
osprey_archer: (kitty)
I’ve just finished reading Candy Tan and Sarah Wendell’s Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches’ Guide to Romance Novels, which is an affectionate, insightful, and hilarious lambasting of a genre that both authors love. I think it’s worth reading purely for the funny, although its capsule history of the romance genre (and brief romp through romance subgenres) are interesting for their own sakes, even though I would have enjoyed a more detailed section about subgenres in particular.

However, they briefly hit on a pet peeve of mine. The book is quite worth reading otherwise, but I just had to share.

Specifically, Tan and Wendell argue that the romance genre is inherently revolutionary, which is a move that slash fandom has made me wary of. I think in both cases there’s a kernel of truth to this argument: het romance and slash are both largely genres by women, for women, and there is something revolutionary about any marginalized group making a space where its voice is dominant.

But I think people who buy into this argument often go far beyond this kernel of truth and believe that their genre either is or ought to be revolutionary about everything. On the one hand, I am all in favor of self-improvement projects, and I think there’s a lot of pleasure (leaving aside, for the moment, the social justice benefits) to be gained from, for instance, watching/reading/playing more diverse source materials and striving to connect with a more diverse range of characters.

But on the other hand, the idea that a genre is justified by its inherently revolutionary nature leads to the embarrassing spectacle of fans twisting themselves into intellectual pretzels trying to rationalize that X, Y, or Z seemingly non-revolutionary (and note I say non-revolutionary, not anti-revolutionary) trope or pairing or whatever is actually totally revolutionary. As if that were the only possible excuse for liking something. Because we need excuses to like what we like.

And honestly, I’m sick of arguing about whether such-and-such a thing is revolutionary. It’s such a reductive question. Is Jane Eyre revolutionary because of the primacy it gives to Jane’s voice and her passion and her desires, to the extent that its forthrightness shocked many contemporaries? Is it anti-revolutionary because it channels those things into a marriage to Rochester (or because of its treatment of Rochester’s first wife Bertha)?

Of course the question is unanswerable. The book is both things at once, and a lot of other things as well. Most art is like that. If we could boil it down to one word, what would be the point?
osprey_archer: (history)
I’ve been reading Adam Gopnik’s Angels and Ages, which is a sort of extended musing about Lincoln, Darwin, and how they’ve shaped modernity. It’s a thought-provoking book in general, but this quote in particular stuck out to me: “The attempt to make Lincoln into just one more racist is part of the now common attempt to introduce a noxious equilibrium between minds and parties: liberals who struggle with their own prejudices are somehow equal in prejudice to those who never took the trouble to make the struggle.”

This sums up something that often bothered me in academic history (or simply academic discussions), a sort of “more enlightened than thou” mindset: the kind of mentality that looks at the radicals of the past, people who signed Emancipation Proclamations or suffered death threats or had their printing presses destroyed by mobs with axes, and says, “So what about their accomplishments? Those people never reached my pinnacle of twenty-first century enlightenment, and therefore I can look down upon them from my lofty moral heights.”

This is particularly pernicious in academia, which tends to encourage the idea that smart people, by sheer virtue of their intelligence, are in some absolute sense better than everyone else - as if intelligence were the ultimate measure of human worth.

But intelligence is an accident, like beauty or athletic talent or rich parents or being born in the twentieth century. It’s not a reflection of virtue because it’s not something that we chose or earned; it’s something we were given, by luck or God or genetics, and therefore it’s foolish to look scornfully at people who lack any of those advantages, because “there but for the grace of God go I.”

I think that if one’s philosophy - any philosophy, feminism or Christianity or postcolonial theory, anything - becomes largely an excuse to look down in touchy judgment on 99.9% of humanity, past and present, then it’s not worth much. People so often seem to latch onto the judgmental parts of a worldview before they get to the parts that expand their kindness and compassion.

If we see farther than Abraham Lincoln did, it’s not because we’re fundamentally better human beings. It’s because we have the good luck to stand on the shoulders of giants.
osprey_archer: (fic corner)
It is a misty, misty morn! I meant to get up and be productive, and indeed I did eventually, but it took a while because I was up until two last night on account of having two pots of tea in the evening.

Not all to myself, mind. My parents brought me a box of Belgian chocolates (did I mention they went to Belgium? They went to Belgium. "You always go the best places when I'm in school," I said wistfully.

"Do you even know anything about Belgium?" asked my dad.

"They have chocolate!"

"Anything else?"

"...more chocolate?")

Anyway, having acquired this box of Belgian chocolates, it was clearly imperative to have my friends over for a Belgian chocolate tea party. Sadly the photos didn't come out very nicely - let's face it, the interior of a chocolate box is only visually interesting when you're trying to decide which one to eat - but it was a lovely party. We discussed whether or not ghosts count as undead. Rick said no, I said yes, provided they're the kind of ghost that can talk to you and still has feelings and such, rather than just a ghost that mechanically repeats the same movements as if they're in a movie.

And, as all loyal Scooby Doo fans know, if you find the second type of ghost, you should probably start looking around for the projector anyway.

You know what would be great for a non-Scooby supernatural investigation show? If the show split half and half between supernatural and non-supernatural causes. It would add an extra layer of interest to the investigation to have to put serious work into deciding if this one was really a ghost, or just a vengeful relative or disaffected teenager with a projector.

***

Also also! [livejournal.com profile] fic_corner stories are live!!!!! And I have TWO, OMG, both for Crown Duel, but filling different prompts! I haven't read them yet, because I am reading the dullest book ever for my nineteenth-century US history class - I shouldn't complain too much, this is the first bad book we've read - so I'm going to let myself read the stories when I hit milestones in the book.

I will link those once I've read them. (Also, any other recs I have for the exchange. WANT TO READ EVERYTHING RIGHT NOW.) For now, here are the stories I wrote:

Ivy and Thorns, Ella Enchanted, G. “The language of flowers,” said Manners Mistress, looking over the finishing school garden with a dreamy smile that usually meant she was thinking of the king and queen. “Ah! Is there a language in the world sweeter, more delicate, more suitable for gentle maidens than that of our petaled sisters of the garden?”

At finishing school, Ella and Areida learn about the language of flowers. Hattie, as usual, gets in the way.

I enjoyed writing all of this - Areida's sweetness, Ella's defiance, musings about how Ella's curse works - but I think my very favorite bit was writing Manners Mistress. My friend Emma betaed it for me.

The Persistence of Memory, Code Name Verity, G. “Did you ever read A Little Princess?” Julie asked. “I loved to pretend to be Sara Crewe." Maddie remembers playing pretend with Julie.

Betaed by our most excellent [livejournal.com profile] rymenhild, who pinpointed brilliantly why it wasn't quite gelling. I think it does now!
osprey_archer: (friends)
A few days ago [livejournal.com profile] asakiyume posted an excellent report about Readercon, particularly a section about not apologizing for your work when you perform it or post it - that apologizing is asking the audience to give you a gift of their acceptance, rather than giving them a gift of your work.

And it does make the story feel like a demand rather than a gift: as if it’s being shared for the sake of getting "No really, this is actually great!" feedback. But couching art in those terms in effect spoils the feedback: one has to wonder how sincere the feedback is when the work is presented in terms that suggest the author needs an ego boost.

Feedback is an expression of love and, like all expressions of love, maybe it loses something if you have to ask for it.

***

Clearly there are times when it appropriate to say, “I need you to tell me you love me; I need you to support me.” And being able to ask that - to have confidence that such a request will be fulfilled - can show the strength of a relationship.

But if someone offers these things only when asked, then I do think that’s a sign that something is wrong: that, probably, your love (not necessarily romantic love) is unrequited. A relationship is supposed to go both ways.

***

[livejournal.com profile] asakiyume pointed out that, though we rarely think of it that way, an apology is often a social demand: a particularly abject apology often ends with the injured party comforting the person apologizing - because the apology has focused attention on how terribly guilty the apologizer feels, not on the suffering of the person they wrong.

I've been thinking about guilt recently, and the way that people can use their own feeling of guilt to shield themselves from the consequences of the way they act to other people. They dwell on how guilty they feel, rather than how bad they made the other person feel - “You can't possibly accuse me of anything that I haven't accused myself of a thousand times.”

But often the point is not that you (general you) have never thought something and need to be told it, but that the other person needs to say it and to have you acknowledged that their pain is more important than your guilt.

Guilt is such a painful emotion that it's hard to think of it as something that we might indulge in. But wallowing in feelings of guilt allows us to get out of the hard part of actually making amends. Guilt is just a feeling, and simply feeling it does no good for the people we have hurt. Making amends requires action; and action is scary, because it can be rejected.
osprey_archer: (books)
A couple more Newbery books, both of which I feel bafflingly indifferent to. An award-winning book ought to be quality enough that you don’t forget all the characters’ names three days after you read it, don’t you think?

(Actually I have a theory about this. One of the signs of a great book is its ability to inspire feeling, which means that great books are often inherently polarizing - people love them or loathe them. Therefore, often the best books only get honorable mentions for awards, because people feel too strongly about them to compromise.)

Even given this theory of quality, however, I am at a loss to explain why Emily Cheney Neville’s It’s Like This, Cat won anything; I kept forgetting the characters’ names as I read. Bafflingly, this beat Sterling North’s Rascal for the medal in 1964, and I’ve got to say, Rascal got robbed.

It’s Like This, Cat has a sort of Catcher in the Rye-lite feel to it: the protagonist is a disaffected youth who shares with Holden Caulfield the peculiar tendency to spell crummy “crumby.” I guess the Newbery committee must have read it and concluded that its pervasive slanginess made it Relevant to Today’s Youth.

I would love, incidentally, to know how Today’s Youth reacted to this book back in the sixties and seventies. I don’t suppose any of you read it then? Maybe it is asking too much to hope that anyone could remember it, though.

I don’t even hate It’s Like This, Cat: it’s too slight to inspire that much feeling.

Also Monica Shannon’s Dobry, about a peasant boy (named Dobry) in Bulgaria who becomes an artist. It reminds me of Rosemary Sutcliff’s Sun Horse, Moon Horse, only Sutcliff did it better. Dobry’s sculptures may live, but Dobry himself, not so much.

Therefore, rather than review Dobry, I will share with you a story of Bulgaria that my Bulgarian college roommate Slavena shared with me, about why Bulgarians nod to say “no.”

When the Ottomans invaded Bulgaria, one of the generals caught sight of a beautiful village girl. He sent his men to bring her to him, and he said, “Will you marry me?”

“No,” she said.

He took out his sword and put its point to her throat, close enough to bite the skin as she breathed. “You'll marry me now,” he ordered her.

“No,” she said; and as she spoke, she nodded her head, so that she impaled her throat on his sword.

And that is why Bulgarians nod to say no.
osprey_archer: (books)
Sylvia Louise Engdahl’s Enchantress from the Stars is like Star Trek, if the characters in Star Trek took the Prime Directive seriously (and the women got better parts). It is also like Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Lost Prince, in that nary a chapter passes without characters either swearing solemn oaths or going through hell to keep those oaths - except that unlike The Lost Prince, Enchantress from the Stars has a plot that rises to a crescendo that is not merely satisfying but stunning.

Oh, and it has telepathy. And a fairy tale retelling. And one of my favorite heroines of all time, Elana: bright and curious, empathetic, a little impetuous. As the story begins, she’s heading through space to join the Federation’s Anthropological Service, but - entirely against all orders and policy - sneaks onto a landing craft onto a Youngling planet.

(Younglings are people like us who haven’t yet evolved out of wars, greed, etc., and into our full psychic potential.)

Normally, an untrained civilian like Elana would be sent back to the Federation spacecraft sharpish - but because of plot complications, Elana is stuck planetside. So, untrained though she is, she has to take the Service Oath:

And I, Elana, swear that I will hold this responsibility above all other considerations, for as long as I shall live...

This is all we get of the Oath, and yet it becomes a mantra that the characters live by as their situation grows steadily more desperate. The Oath demands not only that you would die for it, but that you would go out of your way to get killed for it if need be. That is why Elana is stuck planetside, in fact: one of the Service agents in the landing party got vaporized distracting the Imperial soldiers who are invading the planet from the Federation landing craft.

This was not, let me be clear, a matter of military necessity. A Federation has no plans to go to war with the Imperials, and in any case a Federation landing craft is as technologically advanced over an Imperial one as an atomic bomb is over a tomahawk. The agent had to prevent disclosure, because if the Imperials discovered that there was a civilization hugely technologically advanced beyond them, it would mess up their cultural development.

This, then, is Elana’s mission: to stop the Imperial invasion of Andrecia (a planet where the inhabitants have a medieval level of technology), without disclosing the Service’s existence.

Elana accepts the anti-disclosure position until she visits a local village. She seems starvation - disease - a beggar who had his hands cut off by the king - and she is so horrified that she storms back to her father, the mission leader, who is up there with Atticus Finch in the Best Fictional Father Ever category. “Why doesn’t the Service do something?” she demands. “Why [can’t we] devise some way to correct obviously unnecessary evils without revealing ourselves?”

“The real issue here is the whole concept of ‘obviously unnecessary evils,’” her father replies. “Who are you to say that human suffering is unnecessary?”

Elana of course finds this answer horrifying. Enchantress from the Stars takes place in an Enlightenment universe, where overcoming human suffering truly does lead to lasting human progress (indeed, for the civilizations that make the Federation, has already led to utopia), so the balance of the evidence is on her father’s side; and yet Elana does not cease to find it horrifying.

One thing I really like about this book is that, while Engdahl has a definite point of view and makes it clear that this is so, she doesn’t try to force the reader to accept it. The reader can, with Elana, reject this answer, without rejecting the book, because there is so much going on in it.

One would think that the nature of good and evil and the ultimate disposition of the universe were quite enough to be getting on with in a single children’s story, but Enchantress from the Stars is endlessly prolific with ideas. It deals - and deals well! - with a myriad of other topics: symbolism, the nature of belief, providence, sacrifice (and the ability to meaningful consent to sacrifice in a situation where one doesn’t have all the information), the meaning of love, imperialism...

It has a great anti-imperialist screed: Jarel, a disillusioned Imperial officer, thinks bitterly, “We are on no higher a level than the natives, and we never will be; progress is a myth! If there are superior peoples in the university, it is pure luck...that they have never found us. For if they ever do, they will surely consider the Empire the worst disease ever to threaten the galaxy and will deal with us accordingly.”

It is, in short, a book that is good food for thinking with - and a real pleasure to read, to boot.
osprey_archer: (downton abbey)
Reading Partisans and Poets: The Political Work of American Poetry in the Great War, in which the author uses a Gramscian analysis to prove that the pacifists and radicals didn’t accomplish anything in their opposition to the war. The fact that they kept the US out of war until 1917 and remained powerful enough then that Wilson delayed for nearly two months after the Germans restarted unrestricted submarine warfare before he finally declared war does not apparently count as an achievement.

Do the radicals ever actually accomplish anything in this kind of analysis? It always seems to boil down to “The radicals did this which may seem like an achievement, but they didn’t manage to create utopia and also anyway their achievement was totally co-optable by the Conservative Forces of Evil so it doesn’t count.”

It is super boring reading books when I can basically summarize the argument of every chapter before I even read it.

Also, I’m pretty sure that if we make “completely non-co-optable” our standard of success, then every reform movement - nay, every movement in the history of the world, anywhere on the political spectrum! - was a failure, because people are capable of interpreting art in ways that seem diametrically opposed to any straightforward reading of it. Look at Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the US,” which Reagan used as his campaign song!

Left-wing academics really ought to know this. Isn’t the eminent slipperiness of meaning one of the main points of deconstruction theory? Saying, “This kind of imagery would later become a staple of pro-war propaganda” is all but meaningless, because any kind of imagery can be twisted to mean almost anything you want it to.

***

The valiant author also seems to have decided that any response to World War I other than doctrinaire pacifism was a priori wrong, and, moreover, that anyone who changed their mind about the was not responding to the fact that the war kept changing, but had simply allowed themselves to be brainwashed by propaganda.

He doesn’t present this as a proposition that he intends to defend, mind; he simply assumes that it is true and bases his analysis on it. Because clearly the highest duty of the historian is to strap historical figures to a Procrustean bed composed of modern-day, left-leaning, social justice morals and assail them for failing to fit. All while piously insisting that it is not the historians’ place to judge.

Postmodern histories overflow with sort of contradiction. (I would call it hypocrisy, but I’m not sure these historians are sufficiently self-aware to be hypocrites.) They have a pious horror about the idea of judgment, but that doesn’t prevent them from judging the hell out of everything.
osprey_archer: (Les Miz)
Here’s a thing I’ve noticed with a certain subset of liberal teachers, professors, message board moderators, etc.: they have a problem with authority.

Or, more precisely, they have a philosophical issue with the very existence of authority, have nonetheless found themselves in a position in which they exercise authority, find this contradiction mortifying, and - fatally - try to defuse their mortification by not quite admitting to themselves that they are, in fact, authority figures.

So they try not to be authority figures. The teachers try to be friends with their students; the professors will actually outline their philosophical objections to authority. But refusing to face the fact that they are authority figures doesn’t make them not authority figures; it just makes them authority figures who only exercise their authority when they’ve already lost control of the situation and have been pushed to their limit.

As there’s no way for their subordinates to know exactly where that limit is, it seems utterly arbitrary and frightening when the authority figure snaps and tries to exert some control. And what’s arbitrary and frightening authority? Tyranny.

Read more )

Amae

Feb. 12th, 2013 10:24 am
osprey_archer: (Default)
I've been reading Barbara Rosenwein's Emotional Communities in the Early Middle Ages, which is fun, even though I can't keep track of the various Merovingians.

The book is built around the idea of social constructionism: the idea that emotions are shaped by the social norms of society. Rosenwein comments that "In Japan there is a feeling, amae, of contented dependence on another; but in English there is nothing comparable and presumably no feeling that corresponds to it." (15)

I disagree. Or rather, I think Rosenwein is correct that most English-speaking adults would be embarrassed to say "I feel contentedly dependent on you!" given the cultural importance of independence. But the feeling of (or at least yearning for) amae exists, subterranean and furtive, and it comes out over and over again in stories.

There's a whole subset of hurt/comfort fic which wallows in amae: Character A is injured or sick, and thus is forced into dependence on Character B - and because that loss of independence is the result of fate, not something they asked for or wanted, it's all right that they rest content in their dependence.

It crops up in professional fiction, too; there's also a whole sequence in The Virginian, the first Western, wherein the Virginian - who has hitherto been a prototype of laconic manliness - gets shot and is utterly dependent on the ministrations of his lady love.

I suspect stories bear the stigmata of all the things we aren't supposed to feel, or can't admit to feeling.

Ficability

Jan. 30th, 2013 09:03 am
osprey_archer: (writing)
I’ve been thinking about what makes a source seem ficable to me, and I want to say, before I get into writing this, that this is of course very personal for everyone, and if you want to write Pan’s Labyrinth fic, then go forth and write! I do not share this desire, but I applaud your creativity!

But for me, the thing that makes a source ficable is a sense of incompleteness. There are a number of sources that I love but would never write or read fic for, because in my mind they are perfect and to add or take anything away would mar that perfection: The Perilous Gard or Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s The Changeling or Pan’s Labyrinth.

But that doesn’t mean incompleteness is necessarily a result of poor artistry. It can be: one of the reasons I wrote Torchwood fic was because the show handled its material so poorly, so inconsistently, with so many gaps and so much untapped potential, that I felt pretty much anything I wrote would be as good as their stuff.

But there are a ton of other reasons why something can feel incomplete. Television shows, for instance, often are incomplete, purely because they’re in the process of unfolding. And then there are things like Firefly, cut off without a proper ending. I don’t have much desire to write Firefly fic, though, sorry. Except maybe a fic where Inara is all “MAL, let us talk about BOUNDARIES and how I HAVE THEM” and possibly hits him over the head with something.

(Possibly this is why Mal disrespects her boundaries so flagrantly, because he wants her to call him a naughty, naughty boy? And is far too immature to actually discuss this with her or possibly even realize (or admit to himself) that this is what wants. I can see Mr. Manly Independence Mal having all kinds of issues about submitting or wanting to submit to anyone ever...)

Ahem. But I write mostly book and movie fandoms, which do tend to have endings, so I don’t mean incomplete solely in terms of “not having an ending (yet).” Sometimes the ending is ambiguous, or unsatisfying - or satisfying, but nonetheless leaves open a lot of burning questions.

I think the contrast between Pan’s Labyrinth and Black Swan is instructive here, because they both have ambiguous endings, but they work in different ways. In Pan’s Labyrinth the story derives much of its power from that ambiguity, by holding so many possibilities in perfect tension with each other. Resolving the ambiguity would deflate the movie.

In Black Swan, on the other hand, the ending is ambiguous because it’s not clear if Nina literally dies at the end. But resolving that ambiguity doesn’t deflate the movie in the same way, because in a sense it doesn’t matter if Nina physically died. The point of the movie is her mental destruction, her break with reality, and that isn’t affected - it’s even enhanced - if her death is another hallucination.

It’s a perfect ending for the film as it stands, but it did leave me with the burning desire to know what happens next; and unlike in Pan’s Labyrinth, finding out doesn’t require gutting the central tension of the movie - at least, not to me. Someone else might feel that healing Nina would undercut the power of her implosion in the movie. This is, after all, very subjective.

Another kind of incompleteness: endings that leave some of the emotional business of the story unresolved. The Felicity books, for instance, don’t - and can’t - answer the most important emotional questions they raise, because they end in the early days of the Revolution, when Felicity is still a child. We can’t see if Felicity and Elizabeth’s friendship will survive the war and their families’ political differences, or if Felicity and Ben will realize they are perfect for each other and get together to live a life of joyous radicalism.

I think slash & femslash stories often partake of this kind of incompleteness, because they’re rarely explored in the canon. We don’t get to see, for instance, Marcus & Esca work through the emotional ramifications and cultural issues of being in love.

However! I have been focusing on endings, but there are other intriguing sources of incompleteness. Stories with big worlds or large casts of characters really lend themselves to fic, because there’s no way the original source can explore all the potentially interesting stories - think Harry Potter. (I also have no plans to write Harry Potter fic.)

Rosemary Sutcliff books often have interesting side characters who simply fall by the wayside: there is, for instance, no clear way to integrate Cradoc’s perspective into The Eagle of the Ninth. But his story would still be interesting and tragic.

(Some Sutcliff books are a good example of incompleteness-through-questionable-artistic-choices. Like Sword Song: why is Bjarni the main character when Aud the Deep-Minded who goes to Iceland and Angharad the cross-dressing ex-convent healer are infinitely more interesting?)

***

In other fic news, I have one last trope_bingo square I need a story idea for: Day at the Beach. My mind is a blank. So...beach story ideas, anyone?
osprey_archer: (kitty)
I have been reading yet more wittering about representation. Not "How can we represent the Other (broadly defined) in a way that is appropriate and respectful?" which I think it an important question, but "Is it possible to be an anthropologist/historian/write about anyone who in is not exactly like me in every way without totally becoming part of the oppressive problem OMG OMG OMG I have met the enemy and IT IS ME" academic wittering.

If an academic honestly feels that by representing something – not by representing it poorly, but purely by the act of representing it at all – they are a priori acting as an oppressive force, then they ought to stop writing. I have no respect for people who claim to feel that way but continue their academic careers.

Either they’re overstating their beliefs for shock value, or they are continuing to behave in a way they believe makes them a morally reprehensible accessory to oppression, because they have a good salary and benefits and excellent job security – because they have, in short, sold their souls to Mammon.

Anthropologists and historians and so forth seem quite hung up on this idea that they have a godlike power. They worry not about misrepresenting something, but fret about the mere act of representation, as if merely by writing about something they somehow materially injure that thing.

It’s as if we think that our writing is magic; as though we believe that a textual representation is a sort of voodoo doll. Not only does a representation control the way that our readers might see our subjects, but it controls our subjects themselves. The poor tribes about whom ethnographies are written are so weak, so powerless to resist, that the mere fact of being misrepresented to people thousands of miles away will cause massive damage to their fragile cultures.

Of course ethnographies (and histories) can be and have been used as tools of oppression. But that's a result of the power relations between the culture writing the ethnography and the culture being written about, not the mere act of representing.

Has Iran, by incessantly representing the US as the Great Satan, forced Americans to see themselves in that light? No! Because representation does not give them the military or economic power to change our opinion of ourselves! Representation can be a tool of power, but it is not in and of itself power.

Tl,dr, writing is not a form of wizardry. It is powerful, but it not so very powerful that merely writing a representation of a thing changes that thing.
osprey_archer: (friends)
This post. So much this post. Thinking of women as likeable in a misogynistic culture is truly a radical act.

It’s about the fact that American culture tries to teach us to see women as default unlikeable, and the fact that one of the most radical things we can do is to refuse to buy into that. To assume that the women we meet, and the female characters we read and watch, are likeable until proven otherwise.

This is, for me, the heart of being a feminist. We can speak all the right words, about rape culture and slut-shaming, and fathom all the mysteries of the patriarchy, and stand up against the iniquities of the earth, but without love, it is nothing. Without love, feminism can be used as just one more set of criteria to impose on women: yet another definition of the right way to be a woman, and yet another way to shame women who don’t fit that definition.

I always wince when I hear someone brag that they have “high standards” for female characters - that before they’ll deign to like a female character, she has to demonstrate X amount of awesomeness. Because we’ll just spot likeability to male characters, but women have to prove that they’re worth our time and sympathy, apparently.

It’s not that we should fling all criteria for judgment out the window - there are bad women just as there are bad men. But we should try to like more female characters - and more female people - not less. A mature philosophy (and I mean this not only about feminism) is one that enlarges our circle of compassion toward the world.

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