Category: Literature
Posted by: Therem
I just learned from Making Light that Thomas M. Disch, the author of 334 and On Wings of Song -- two of the best works of SF I've ever read -- killed himself two days ago. Damn. Fucking damn it. Yes, he was a bastard sometimes, particularly lately, but he wrote some amazing stuff that spoke of a larger spirit and artistic sensibility than most people ever know. I wish he had had a better life.

ETA: NY Times Obituary

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Category: Literature
Posted by: Therem
I recently finished the first three books of the Elemental Logic series by Laurie J. Marks. They are grave and thoughtful books about violence, personal responsibility, and friendship in an occupied land where magic works in unusual ways. The issues that are dealt with are serious, and I feel I owe the books (and author) the respect to say both what worked and what didnít in the series.

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Category: Literature
Posted by: Therem


You're To Kill a Mockingbird!

by Harper Lee

Perceived as a revolutionary and groundbreaking person, you have changed the minds of many people. While questioning the authority around you, you've also taken a significant amount of flack. But you've had the admirable guts to persevere. There's a weird guy in the neighborhood using dubious means to protect you, but you're pretty sure it's worth it in the end. In the end, it remains unclear to you whether finches and mockingbirds get along in real life.

Take the Book Quiz at the Blue Pyramid.
Category: Literature
Posted by: Therem
This is turning into a trend: for the second time recently, Iíve been inspired to pick up a classic book after watching an adaptation of it. In this instance, the starting point was the 2005 movie of Pride & Prejudice, directed by Joe Wright and starring Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen. Jane Austen has become even more famous and beloved than ever in the past ten years, so I probably donít need to provide a summary of the plot. Suffice it to say that it is an outstanding example of a romance between two characters who initially dislike and misunderstand one another only to be united in the end. How they get from here to there through the maze of society and their own personalities is the plot of the novel.

While watching the movie, I had no idea of how faithful it might be to the book. (I vaguely recalled reading the book in college, but could barely remember a hint of the written style, let alone the plot.) What struck me about it was the visual style, and the dreamy, emotional landscape it put me in. Early on, I was almost distracted by the beauty of the cinematography and the several showy tracking shots. Surely a bit arty for a comedy of manners? But by halfway, I was won over. As an entertainment and a thing of beauty in itself, I found it quite enjoyable.

How did it compare to the original? I wondered. Since my nearly 20 year old copy was still sitting on my shelf, I didnít have to wait to find out. I began reading and stayed up much later than I should have several nights running till I got to the end.

From page one, I noticed that the book had a very different tone from the movie. Austen is an acerbic and judgmental narrator who mercilessly catalogs the faults of her characters. In the movie, I quickly saw what was up with Mrs. Bennet; in the book, I didnít even have to notice, because Austen informed me on page three that she was ďa woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper.Ē Mr. Collins and other noteworthies are similarly skewered to humorous effect. Not a doubt remains of who these people are.

The two protagonists, Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, are allowed more complexity. But even there, we are explicitly told things that might have provided more suspense if left vague. It is only chapter 6 when we learn that Darcy is beginning to fall in love with Lizzy. After about halfway through the book, Lizzy has also come around and begun to regret refusing Darcyís proposal of marriage. The suspense in the book is no longer related to emotion -- it is all about the barriers of circumstance and propriety that remain between the two.

These barriers are real (or were in Austenís day), but in this instance, I found them frustrating. In the last third of the book, I kept wishing that people would for godís sake say something to one another instead of remaining politely silent. The thought of Lizzy writing a letter to Darcy apologizing for her earlier behavior was also a distant dream, but apart from itís being conduct unbecoming a lady, I can see why it didnít happen: it would have lopped off a third of the story!

Perhaps the best thing about the novel, apart from the humor, is the psychological insight into not only easy targets like Lady Catherine de Bourgh and Mr. Collins, but also more complicated characters like Lizzy and Darcy, who must face up to their own pride and prejudice before they can be united. This theme is almost entirely missing from the movie, which presents Darcy as misunderstood rather than haughty, and Lizzy as misinformed rather than willfully dismissive.

Still, all in all, I found that I liked the movie better. It is certainly not without faults. Some story edits are confusing (e.g. Colonel & Mrs. Forster are mentioned just as Mr. & Mrs. Gardiner appear on screen, so you never clearly know who is who), some of the romantic scenes are positively cloying, and Matthew Macfadyen, though cute, is more like a wet noodle than Darcy ever ought to be. But it still left me with a sense of pleasant satisfaction I didn't get from the book.

After reading several reviews (Abigail Nussbaum's; Gina Fattore's; and especially Anthony Lane's), I think I know why: Iím a BrontŽite. Apparently, it is a truth universally acknowledged that there must be a struggle between the BrontŽ and Austen sensibilities (letís not question why), and if I must take sides, Iím with the gothic melodramatists, not the bitter, sarcastic realists. Iím glad I know that now.

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02/03/07: Jane Eyre on stage

Category: Literature
Posted by: Therem
I just returned from a performance of Jane Eyre at the Flynn. Since I've been sick and tired (literally) for the past two days, I almost didn't go. At the last minute I found the strength to walk the three blocks, and I'm really glad I did because it was a thoroughly involving and moving experience.

My only exposure to Jane Eyre before this was the revisionist take on it by Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea. Antoinette (a.k.a. Bertha, the mad wife in the attic) is the central character in that novel, and Rochester is written as a right bastard, so I was a bit skeptical of him and his romance with Jane before seeing the play. I was delighted to find him still prickly but in a much more likeable way, and Jane herself was tremendously appealing, particularly when she blurted out unflattering answers to Rochester's questions. ("Am I hideous, Jane?" "Yes, but then you always were.")

The play was staged in a spartan, but dynamic way, with cast members circling around each other moving chairs and rotating the central prop, a seven foot high box with one open side, a door, and a small window. The interior of this "room" was painted red and served as a sort of symbol of Jane's heart, where all the passion is kept confined. This passion was embodied by another actress, a sort of psychic twin of Jane, who was relegated to the box early on by the repressive cruelty of her aunt Mrs. Reed, and who in the course of the play transitioned into the madwoman in the attic, Bertha. Two of the most effective moments in the play used this twin figure. The first was Jane and Rochester's first kiss, when the twin sprang joyously from the door of the box with a sigh of release. The second was the famous suicide/fire scene in which Bertha climbed up a cleverly constructed staircase of chairs to the top of the box holding an alarmingly realistic torch, and, her voiced echoed by Rochester's, cried out, "Jane! Jane!" summoning the wayward governess back from her near-marriage to a missionary -- just in time!

I was very impressed with the way this play illuminated Jane's psyche and drew parallels between her rebelliousness and the "madness" of Bertha while at the same time preserving the romantic storyline. I don't know how true it was to the book overall, but now I really want to know! I thought I had an unread copy of Jane Eyre around the house somewhere, but I guess I was mistaken. Tomorrow, I'm off to the library.
Category: Literature
Posted by: Therem
Now that I've gotten more than 20 books into Terry Pratchett's Discworld series, I think it's time for an overview of what's what.

For those who don't know what Discworld is, I can sum it up as a long-running parody of the fantasy genre that is also well-written, psychologically apt, and quite deep at times. With puns. Lots of puns.

I had seen references to the Discworld books for years on internet communities before I asked a friend to borrow the first book, The Colour of Magic. It was silly, but had some genuinely funny jokes that weren't mean, so I asked for another. Then another. And the third one (Equal Rites) got me. I've been a Pratchett fan ever since. For the benefit of other possible Pratchett fans, underneath the Read More link I have a list of all the Discworld books I've read so far with their cast of characters, a brief plot overview, and a rating. I have tried to avoid any serious spoilers for individual books, but some character developments will be obvious from the summaries. Be warned, but... please read these books, and enjoy!

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10/04/06: True romance

Category: Literature
Posted by: Therem
When I went to Scotland, I took two books with me. One was The Game of Kings, by Dorothy Dunnett -- the tale of a noble rapscallion named Francis Crawford of Lymond who offends and/or fascinates everyone he meets while pursuing a mysterious agenda in 16th century Scotland. It's a challenging and worthy beginning to a six-book series that in its telling travels far beyond the borders of Scotland and conveys an impressive amount of historical detail while satisfying a thirst for good character drama and fabulous prose. I first read it about 5 years ago; the series was one of the factors that decided me on going to Scotland. An obvious choice for the trip.

The other book was a concession to impatience. The Privilege of the Sword, by Ellen Kushner, had been delivered to me in gorgeous hardcover mere days before; though space was at a premium in my luggage, I couldn't leave it behind. TPotS (as I pronounce the acronym, "teapots", it seems very appropriate for a book that has been called a "fantasy of manners") is the latest installment in a series of loosely connected works that began with the novel Swordspoint in 1987.

An old friend of mine lent Swordspoint to me not long after it was published, saying only that it was "strange." I'm not sure what he meant by that, but I suspect he was thinking of the upfront element of homosexual love, tinged with self-destructive behavior and sado-masochism. I found that unusual and interesting, though compared to the works of Samuel Delany I was also reading around that time it was fairly tame. What struck me as "strange" and noteworthy was not the subject matter itself but the style of the writing, which seemed to hold up each decadent moment in a pair of icy tongs and pass judgement on it. Not in a moralistic sense -- that would be old and familiar -- but in an aesthetic one. Time and again, appearances are treated as ends in themselves, and victory is determined by who comes out looking best, or who laughs last. Yet there were occasional glimpes of an ethical center to it all. Most of my literary experiences to that point had been fairly earnest and realistic (even in the genres of science fiction and fantasy), so I didn't know quite what to make of the tone. Was this how the author really viewed things? Or was this a wicked and peculiarly mannered put-on?

I eventually met Ellen Kushner at Wiscon in 1996. She had a certain style and dramatic flair, but she was obviously not a cynical society maven. She read from a novel in progress (which would eventually become TPotS), and took obvious joy in getting into the spirit of the thing. This gave me some valuable perspective on her work, and I realized, perhaps for the first time since childhood, that literature could be just about having FUN, not necessarily in a Mary Sue wish-fulfillment way, but in a knowingly referential homage to and expansion of beloved works. A sort of, "Let's get out the toys and play!" approach to books.

In Kushner's case, those beloved works include the novels of the aforementioned Dorothy Dunnett, as well as those of Alexandre Dumas (pŤre), Georgette Heyer, and Damon Runyon. And let me not forget the Bard, sparkling Shakespeare, whose works I too have come to love in the last ten years. (Someday I should write another blog entry about the series of read-throughs of Shakespeare's plays that my friend Beverly has been putting on since 2003. In short: great fun.) What Kushner does with these influences and her own imagination is nothing short of intoxicating. Political machinations, social connivance, betrayal, deception, gender ambiguity, true love, and LOTS of swordplay. This is frothy and fiercely intelligent stuff.

And that's just Swordspoint! Beyond the "Read More" link I will reveal all about The Privilege of the Sword, which I read till the wee hours several nights running on my trip.

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Category: Literature
Posted by: Therem
I'm a member of some fun new communities these days. Laura Quilter, the esteemed webmistress of FeministSF.org, a resource site with associated listserv that I have been a part of for more than 10 years, recently set up a wiki, a forum, and a blog.

I've been spending a lot of time editing the wiki (user name JLeland). Putting together bibliographies pleases my nitpicky research side without taxing my limited reserves of creativity. And my administrative powers do cause me to burst out in evil chuckles now and then. The forums are seeing a fair bit of activity related to the Book Discussion Group, a subset of the listserv for lo! these eight years which I coordinated for a while. I haven't joined in the current discussion of Nicola Griffith's Ammonite, but if you've read the book, you might want to check out the forum, because the author is there answering questions.

The most striking success of the lot is the blog. Already it has started some hopping discussions stretching across the blogosphere, from Emerald City to Making Light to Whedonesque (!). All this after being online for a little over two months. We've got a great group of contributors, and more are always welcome. Come check it out! Or join!
Category: Literature
Posted by: Therem
Have you ever read "The Eye of Argon"? If not, you should. Not because you will enjoy it, in the normal sense of the word, but because it is so exquisitely, incredibly BAD. First printed in 1970 in a science fiction fanzine, "The Eye of Argon" is the story of a barbarian hero named Grignr, running from trouble and toward the plunder and wenches he expects to find in the next town. Many adventures ensue, all involving more clichés, tortured grammar, and bad spelling than you would think possible. Consider the following:
Arriving after dusk in Gorzom,grignr descended down a dismal alley, reining his horse before a beaten tavern. The redhaired giant strode into the dimly lit hostelry reeking of foul odors, and cheap wine. The air was heavy with chocking fumes spewing from smolderingtorches encased within theden's earthen packed walls. Tables were clustered with groups of drunken thieves, and cutthroats, tossing dice, or making love to willing prostitutes.
The rest of it is fully as bad. It is so bad, in fact, that it's a popular SF convention activity to read it aloud competitively. (Whoever can resist laughing the longest wins.) It has also inspired a Mystery Science Theatre 3000-style commentary that is very popular on the internet.

In the SF world, it is a beloved classic. For that reason, it may seem strange that until recently almost no one knew if the author, Jim Theis, was a real person, or if the story was genuine or a sendup. Most people encountered it on the internet, printed from an internet source, or photocopied from a very poor original. None of these sources indicated where it came from. Even worse, until recently all readily-available copies were missing at least the last page of the story. Eager readers were left in unbearable suspense about what would happen to Grignr next!

But at last the suspense has been broken! The last page of "The Eye of Argon" has been found! In this month's New York Review of Science Fiction, Lee Weinstein revealed the final passage that was finally located in the archives of the Jack Williamson Collection at Eastern New Mexico University. With no further ado, here it is:
With a sloshing plop the thing fell to the ground, evaporating in a thick scarlet cloud until it reatained its original size. It remained thus for a moment as the puckered maw took the shape of a protruding red eyeball, the pupil of which seemed to unravel before it the tale of creation. How a shapeless mass slithered from the quagmires of the stygmatic pool of time, only to degenerate into a leprosy of avaricious lust. In that fleeting moment the grim mystery of life was revealed before Grignr's ensnared gaze.

The eyeballs glare turned to a sudden plea of mercy, a plea for the whole of humanity. Then the blob began to quiver with violent convulsions; the eyeball shattered into a thousand tiny fragments and evaporated in a curling wisp of scarlet mist. The very ground below the thing began to vibrate and swallow it up with a belch.

The thing was gone forever. All that remained was a dark red blotch upon the face of the earth, blotching things up. Shaking his head, his shaggy mane to clear the jumbled fragments of his mind, Grignr tossed the limp female over his shoulder. Mounting one of the disgruntled mares, and leading the other; the weary, scarred barbarian trooted slowly off into the horizon to become a tiny pinpoint in a filtered filed of swirling blue mists, leaving the Nobles, soldiers and peasants to replace the missing monarch. Long leave the king!!!
Ahhh. After all these years, what a sense of fulfillment.