Missing the Hunger and other stories

I haven't seen The Hunger Games.

Oh, I read the books, and found them flawed but compelling. I watched the trailer several times; it gave me chills. I wondered whether Jennifer Lawrence would make a believable Katniss and how Lenny Kravitz would do as the gentle Cinna. And as people all over the blogosphere and Facebook have cheered or ranted or both this week, part of me has felt out of it, that I'm missing something.

Usually, I tell people I don't want the nightmares. So far, so true. But it's more than that, and it's hard to explain. The books were compelling, but they were also unbearable. For me, even the first. I don't want to sit through that as translated to screen. Also, I resent the marketing buzz's attempt to cast me as a citizen of the Capitol; Hollywood knows nothing about how I live my life. Much as I loved Peeta—partly because I hurt for him so badly—I don't want his name stamped on my underwear. Nor will I be buying nail polish named for the tributes, or whatever else they're selling. This is one phenomenon that I understand (believe me, I am sorely tempted at every turn in a Harry Potter shop) and yet I sincerely don't at the same time.

In case it needs to be said, I'm not judging a single person who walked into the theater, not even if they wore a pink Effie Trinket wig and gold spots on their face. People are drawn to a work of fiction for thousands of possible reasons, and there are good reasons to be drawn to The Hunger Games. I get it.

And yet I don't. I really don't. And I don't know why. All I know is that I can hardly think of that story without feeling like crying. Tears are not something I go to the theater for.

But here are three thoughtful articles by people who saw the movie, people whose responses I respected: Maggie Stiefvater fangirls the film but is floored by the irony, Danielle Tumminio asks "What if we didn't watch?" (I'm good at not watching, but not necessarily so good at taking the action she calls for; believe me, I found this piece convicting, though I think protesting is the weakest of the actions available to us), and Amy Simpson looks for the Bread of Life in the story (thanks for the link, Arabella.)

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Fans of The Hunger Games may be interested to know that I followed Katniss all around the grocery [incongruity!] this week. Not Jennifer Lawrence—just a wiry young woman with a narrow, sorrowful face and long dark brown hair braided slightly off to the side. It was her, I say.

Later, I went home and braided my own hair slightly off to the side.

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My seedlings are coming up!

Basil! See those little guys peering over the edge of the pot?
Chives! I love the way they poke up, all doubled over.
Other happy gardening thoughts:

Blooming peace lily! Even though Maia broke off three of the leaves last night.
Blueberry bushes in the brand-new raised bed...
Peonies and grape hyacinths...
Lou actually found rhubarb and a peony plant in the lawn. Unfortunately, I forgot to take pictures of those before it started pouring rain again.

Flowering quince! Actually, it's technically the neighbors', but
it's partly growing into our yard.
Currant bushes!
Helping things grow: one of the best feelings in the world.

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Writers' link of the week: Michael Wallace's How to Eat an Elephant, which is perhaps the most practical post on how to finish a novel that I've ever read. Two of my three current novels have reached completion on that basic principle, and the third follows closely. I might go look up that Freedom program, too...

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Music of the week: Maurice Duruflé's arrangement of the Ubi Caritas—some good Holy Week music, there. Lou and I have sung this in choir.

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Random amusement of the week: What's your architectural style? (I like my bungalow.)

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All right, I think this post is long enough. Happy weekend!


Currently Reading: The Outlaws of Sherwood

The Outlaws of Sherwood“One of the things you insist on leaving out of your calculations is that our absurd and uncomfortable life under Sherwood’s wide branches suits some of us,” said Will. “Say, Little John, if someone gave you a herd of cattle, would you go back to farming?”

“No,” said Little John immediately. “They’d get the pox, and I’d not have rent on quarter day, and soon I’d be an outlaw.”

“Nothing would drive me back to my father’s hall,” said Will; “not even a full pardon. Indeed, particularly not a full pardon, because then I’d be treated as the lord’s son again, and if you knew how boring it is, dressing up in frills and a clean shirt every day and praying that a guest will arrive some time soon with a few new jokes... You can even get bored with hunting and hawking occasionally, without the savour of need. I know why the Lionheart went off to Palestine; he couldn’t stand it either. All those state dinners. I’d have followed him if I hadn’t heard about Sherwood. I wanted to stay in England.”

Author: Robin McKinley

Synopsis: After a misfired arrow makes him an outlaw, Robin flees deep into Sherwood, which he knows well from having worked as one of the king’s foresters. He expects to be sought by the corrupt sheriff of Nottingham, but two of his friends find him first: Much and Marian, the former of whom has ideas for making him a Saxon rebel-hero against the domineering Normans, and the latter of whom he loves. Though Robin wants nothing to do with leadership, he soon finds himself responsible for a band of renegades in the forest—hiding them, teaching them how to hunt and survive, and superintending their work against the sheriff and all Norman cruelty.

Notes: In a brief note in the back, McKinley speaks straightforwardly about her interpretation of the Robin Hood legend, including the difficulties of drawing from widely varying versions and the incompatibility of the modern image with historical likelihood. I wish I’d read her note before the book, rather than after. But the few hey-wait-I-don’t-remember-thats hardly detracted from the pleasure of the tale.

McKinley’s note is important, however, because she reimagines a named time and place. The language and humorous banter—Much always made me laugh—are in the voice and tradition of fairy tales, not of plain history; also, the author overrides conventional portrayals to offer her female characters a stronger role.

The matter of outlaw femininity forms its own subplot to the tale. Marian, for instance, proves the true sharpshooter, and she and several other women struggle to be taken seriously by their male companions. McKinley develops this beautifully, although I might make the slight complaint that as marriage by nature is ordered toward the creation of children, it’s hard to imagine what all those girls and their respective lovers plan to do in their future situation. Slight complaints aside, the romances are enjoyable, and readers will delight alongside the young women as the latter hunt, shoot, learn woodscraft, join in the practices of Sherwood outlawry, and escape being sold into marriage for political advantage.

Robin—but here the reviewer struggles with the fact that author and protagonist carry the same first name. Robin Hood, in this incarnation, is strong and wood-wise but not quite legendary in his own right. His marksmanship is average, clearly inferior to Marian’s. Difficulties have left him silent and resentful. But like many others who have leadership thrust upon them by quick-thinking friends, rather than demanding the mantle for themselves, he proves more than capable.

My own acquaintance with the Sherwood hero comes mostly through Sir Walter Scott and Disney (though I’ve seen both Prince of Thieves and Men in Tights... maybe the less said about that, the better), and McKinley’s version proved thoroughly likable in its own right as a more careful and intimate development of the characters. In fact, the book’s main weakness—and it would have been admittedly difficult to fix—was that after the first chapter, it spent a little too long adding new characters without much progression of plot otherwise. It got far more interesting after Friar Tuck, one of the last of the main additions, entered the story, after which I had not a fault to find with the playing out of the tale.

At the end the book focuses on friendship, the power of camaraderie, and does so with a lot of beauty. For myself, I was sorry to see it come to a close; Sherwood Forest and the outlaws’ affection and woodscraft captured something exquisite from my childhood fantasies, and I would have been glad to remain there.

Recommendation: Read it for woodsy adventures, for humor and wonder and the strength of a band of true friends.


Top Ten Tuesday: Books I'd Play Hooky With

This is one of those lists that could change from day to day, let alone week to week. So, if I could drop everything today...

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish! Do come join the fun...

If it didn't matter That Much if the laundry didn't get done, if I could blow off pre-Easter choir practices, if I could just skip a day of house and writing work and disappear with a few books, here are the first ten that might jump off the shelves.

First, I need some Jane Austen, and at the moment I think I'd pick 1) Emma, which I haven't read in a long time.

It's also been a while since I've read 2) Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and I want to go through it so I can re-re-re-read 3) Order of the Phoenix and 4) Half-Blood Prince and 5) Deathly Hallows. Yes, I know that listing them individually is kind of cheating and I'm already well beyond the possibility of what can be read in a single day. We're dreaming here. Dreaming of playing hooky for a week. Which sounds like a good idea, actually. How did March get so busy?

Also, I'd take 6) Tuesdays at the Castle, which I'm halfway through. Must know what happens before anything else!

Most of my take-alongs would be re-reads, because I don't do enough of that nowadays, but my friend Jana just loaned me a copy of 7) Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes, which has gorgeous art in it and looks like a lovely middle-grade story.

Middle grade stories make me think of Percy Jackson, which series I'd like to re-read eventually. I'll put The Lightning Thief at number 8), but of course I want to go through them all.

My sister borrowed and adored and has just returned my copy of 9) Beauty, so I should read that again.

If I'm out getting Percy Jackson for the hooky trip, I might as well hunt down the next Bean book as well. I believe it's 10) Shadow Puppets.

That ought to get me through a good week of hooky. Maybe two....

What books would you take?

Author credits:
1) Jane Austen
2-5) J.K. Rowling
6) Jessica Day George
7) Jonathan Auxier
8) Rick Riordan
9) Robin McKinley
10) Orson Scott Card


I Know You Of Old: The Artist and the Community

“Artists discover as children that they have inappropriate responses to events around them, they also find...that these oddities are what constitute their value to others.” 
~Kathleen Norris

“I’d like to try continuing to connect the writer to his audience...writing well takes a good deal of dedication, almost as much as it takes talent; it also takes a particular calling - a vocation to ‘otherness’, to take up the voice of the community...”

I have a list, buried deep in Google Docs, of several terms I do not care for, and community is one of them. It's a sterile word, vague and unimaginative, something used by politicians and sociologists when they want to sound compassionate. Now, Masha isn't to be blamed in the least for matters of my distaste. But I'm going to call the word into question here for its lack of specificity nonetheless.

The problem is that the artist deals with more than one community. There are the people he lives with every day; then there are the communities of artists and critics and critique partners; then there's his audience. In all likelihood, these are different sets of people, with widely varying levels of artistic expertise, not to mention differing thought patterns and ideas of what should result from art. Whose voice is the artist responsible to take up?

It is true, as Masha points out, that any of these groups is liable to treat the artist in a variety of inappropriate ways. They may idealize him as a prophet at some moments and demand from him the vacuous entertainment of a freak show at others. The artist has no control over this sort of thing unless he portrays himself as such, and he probably ought not concern himself with it.

It is also often true, though not always, that the artist is a loner, an outsider—someone who can spend hours, days, weeks on end with people who exist only on paper, but who may turn into an inept and anti-social bore when confronted with flesh and blood humanity. Mr. Pond defends this freedom:
At best [active community membership] teaches [the poet] compassion, which he can hack up into fuel for poetry. At worst it takes him away from his writing, devouring his time, crowding his mind with other things than the play of vision and colour and words, the light and texture of sound; it lets him flatter himself he is doing well when he has forsaken his true calling.
Which is hyperbolic, of course, but certainly to the point. Better yet, though, Mr. Pond explains:
His community is his tradition, the company of writers and poets who have followed this path before; the supple words of court poets from centuries ago speak to him with more power and immediacy than the pundits and activists on his neighborhood block.
The isolation of the poet, as put forward by Mr. Pond, brings me back to the part of Masha's post that especially intrigued me:
...writing well takes... a particular calling - a vocation to ‘otherness’
This connects strongly with Norris' claim that "Artists discover as children that they have inappropriate responses to events around them", yet "these oddities are what constitute their value to others." It also connects strongly with my own experience as a writer. Without getting into too much self-psychoanalysis, things like slow, repetitive mental process and sometimes-hypersensitivity and even depression help make me the writer I am. For instance, I am distressingly unobservant, thanks to the tendency to focus so hard that... well,  I have a lot of conversations like this:

Friend: "What is that awful noise?"

Me: "What noise?... Oh. I don't know, but it's loud, isn't it?"

That focus comes in handy, though, when I'm trying to hold an entire story in my head. And it's just one example among many of ways that human and social weaknesses may become artistic strengths. I'm not making excuses for artists making jerks of themselves; no amount of genius gives anyone the right to that. I only claim that Norris is correct about oddities constituting the artist's value to others.

As for taking up the voice of the community, that is something that may be best done unconsciously. I suspect that authors who try outright to speak for a particular group of people wind up coming across as if they have an agenda, which question this blogalectic has already covered.

If the writer takes up his own voice as he works, though—if he has any compassion, any empathy, any truth in him, he'll find that he's spoken for others as well as for himself.


Highlighted Miscellany and other stories

Not to start off with politics, but if all has gone well, as you read this, I'm down in Seattle protesting—very quietly and peaceably, but protesting nonetheless—against the HHS mandate. Even though I detest protesting. And that's all I have to say about that.

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Owing to my trip south, this will be a fairly abbreviated post. Hence, a few highlights from this week:

1. Daffodils!
2. In first-three-chapters revision, surpassing the original 11,059 words with 11,598 and counting.

3. Raised bed garden in the making!
4. The superb husband who is building it.
5. The likewise-superb in-laws who have contributed transportation
for long pieces of wood, plus tools and labor.
6. This chipotle recipe. I will use it again, oh yes.

7. Healthy baby cherry tree! Even if I can only take a blurry picture.
8. Discovering on Tuesday that I was still capable of waking up all the way. This, after spending Monday flat on the couch, sleeping or else reading with eyes half open and mind half aware. It's been a busy couple of weeks.

9. Pansies! And basil and chive starts. I hope they grow.

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Readers' and writers' link of the week: Nathan Bransford suggests we Beware of Stories. There are numerous possible essays to be written in response to this, but I'm ending an extraordinarily busy week and have no time. Feel free to write or imagine your own.

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Music of the week: There's just not enough Faure in the world.

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Random amusement of the week: Despite the fact that I think there ought to be less hate mail in the world, not more, this is funny.

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Happy weekend!


Currently Reading: The Curse of Chalion

The Curse of Chalion (Chalion, #1)He made his voice stern, for emphasis. “Dondo dy Jironal is a power you dare not treat with anything but strictest courtesy.”

Iselle swirled round, and stared intently at him. “No matter how corrupt that power is?”

“The more corrupt, the less safe.”

Iselle raised her chin. “So, Castillar, tell me—how safe, in your judgment, is Dondo dy Jironal?”

He was caught out, his mouth at half-cock. So say it—Dondo dy Jironal is the second-most-dangerous man in Chalion, after his brother. Instead, he picked up a new quill from the clay jar and began shaping its tip with the penknife. After a moment or two he got out, “I do not like his sweaty hands either.”

Author: Lois McMaster Bujold

Synopsis: After a stint of slavery and torture in enemy galleys, Castillar dy Cazaril returns to Chalion and seeks work in a ruling household he once served. Remembered by the family, Cazaril becomes secretary-tutor to young Royesse Iselle and her companion Lady Betriz—only to be sent with them to Chalion’s high court, where his own worst enemies hold a great deal of power and put all three of them in danger.

When those enemies move against the royesse, Cazaril must risk both body and soul to protect his charges and the whole generous but cursed royal family.

Notes: In modern fantasy, the common trope is to put an inexperienced young character into the cycle of hero’s journey, at some point giving him or her an archetypal Wise Old Mentor for instruction and aid. This book, however, gives its protagonist both age—thirty-five, with some gray hairs—and the wisdom of immense experience, as well as a mentor role. And throws him into the monomyth nonetheless.

I liked this. Cazaril proved both interesting and sympathetic, a good man who becomes a great one not so much by growing from naivete to wisdom (though there is some of that, particularly as regards his relationship to the gods) as by continual willingness to obey the demands of rightness despite his feelings. Though his ideas and decisions fit with his setting and culture and not always with twenty-first century Western sensibilities, he remains likable.

The setting, culture and gods are quite well-developed, especially the first and the last. I appreciate a good setting with lots of visuals, and apparently, so does McMaster Bujold. The culture had strong hints of old Spain, which helped unify the images; of course, it also made me want to read the names in a mostly Castilian way, which turned out to be mostly wrong. The world and worldbuilding felt real, though, believable, and no part of it was more interesting than the gods.

I happen to very much like a good portrayal of religion in fiction, and a richly-imagined fantasy faith can be especially enjoyable. What McMaster Bujold actually believes, and where she drew her ideas from, I could not entirely discern. But the fivefold family of gods—Father, Mother, Son, Daughter (all corresponding to the seasons), and Bastard (the god of odds and ends)—was fascinating to no end. Problematic morally at times, from a variety of different angles, but intriguing nonetheless. It was portrayed with common miracles and therefore a general certainty, but never failed to be comprehensible within its world.

It is in the area of faith that Cazaril most lacks understanding, and his character growth is largely spiritual. That trajectory thoughtfully develops the concept of a single human becoming a conduit for the gods’ work, within, of course, the context of Chalion’s religion.

Cazaril’s task forces him to choose between serious moral transgression and allowing the royesse, who is entirely under his care, to be seriously transgressed upon. It also involves him in a great deal of the grotesque—and on that note, I should add that this is an adult book. Blessedly free from the curse of the gratuitous sex scene, but straightforward in depiction of the story’s lecherous villain and other vulgarities. There’s also some violence, both magical and ordinary; for high fantasy, however, the tale is relatively short on gore.

Despite the presence of real tragedy, the book works toward joy and healing. It does so beautifully. If anything, it resolves a little too neatly, but you’ll not hear this reviewer complaining about that.

Recommendation: Read for its intelligent hero and his intriguing, beautifully-developed fantasy world.


Top Ten Tuesday: Books on My Spring To-Read List

This week's topic gives me an excellent excuse to start organizing my to-read list again. Honestly, I'm only now catching up on books from Christmas.

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish! Do come join the fun...

What do I want to read? Far, far more than I'm actually likely to get through this spring. Especially now that the garden wants fixing up and the weather sometimes fails to excuse me from outdoor duties. But here are some of the top tales I hope to get to soon.

1. The Giver by Lois Lowry. Honestly, I'm afraid of it a little. People make fearsome comments about the nature of the ending, and after pushing myself most of the way through The Silmarillion, I'm not in the mood for anything less than shameless paradise. But I mean to read this anyway.

2. The Righteous by Michael Wallace. Read the first few pages and am now officially hooked, which is unfortunate because I'm also hooked on and halfway through a Maeve Binchy novel. I'll have to wait a couple of days.

3. Finding Angel by Kat Heckenbach. I read the first chapter of this, which is available online, and very much want to go forward.

4. The Midnight Dancers by Regina Doman. A retelling, I believe, of The Twelve Dancing Princesses, which—as per a review I read on a smart and helpful little review blog—sounds fantastic.

5. Tuesdays at the Castle by Jessica Day George. I've meant to read something of hers for a long time, and hurried that up this week by putting this one on hold at the library.

6. The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery. Several of you have mentioned this one, and I'm anxious to read it.

7. The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. The title is so beautiful that I couldn't resist looking into it, and it sounds like good fantasy.

8. The Naming by Alison Croggon. I hear it's a very good read.

9. Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine. I've strained my eyes again, and feel like reading something short and easy with a happy ending.

10. Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson. This one somehow turned up twice in my to-read list, so I looked it up again, and sure enough it sounds worth reading.

What are you looking forward to reading throughout the spring?


Butterfly in the Sky: What we Write, Why we Read

“Why are we reading if not in hope of beauty laid bare, life heightened and its deepest mystery probed?…Why are we reading if not in hope that the writer will magnify and dramatize our days, will illuminate and inspire us with wisdom, courage, and the possibility of meaningfulness..?”
~Annie Dillard

“Why are we reading? What readers do we write for? And why, and how?”

The answers to these questions strike me as immense enough to fill books, or powerful enough to engender some good aphorisms, but I don't expect to easily answer them in a blog post. Especially not since Mr. Pond already said pretty much everything that can be said in summary form regarding the first:
Why do we do anything, really?

That’s not a fit of existential angst, that’s an honest answer. I read for more or less precisely the same reasons I do anything else. Because I want to, or have to, or am getting paid to, or might get paid eventually. Or because of the company I’m with. Or because I want to learn something new, or revisit something old. I want to be frightened, or soothed, or contented. I want to improve myself, or I want to put myself to sleep.
Good enough for me. It's not like I have a better reason. I learned to read at age four; that's about the time my memory kicked in, so I have no actual memories that involve not being able to read. Whereas I have numerous memories of the McGuffey Readers, trips to the library for Curious George or Billy and Blaze, and then reading my own copies of the Little House books and The Chronicles of Narnia. In high school, Mom sometimes grounded me from fiction for extended periods of time, not as a punishment, but to convince me to live some part of my life outside a book. I've always had trouble with that.

Why? I don't know why. I love story. Therefore, I read. And write.

Mr. Pond answers Masha's second question as follows:
We write for other people, other living people who read. It’s as simple as that.
True, but when I'm alone with my stories I find that I write for myself. Whatever I need to understand, whatever I wish I believed, whatever I want to read of—those are the things I write. And why? says Masha. Well, because I've read Harry Potter, and I've read Lewis' Space Trilogy, and I've read Shannon Hale and Robin McKinley and Tolstoy and Alcott and Austen and Spyri and Card and Jordan, and yet I still find myself searching for more of their kind.

Masha did not try to answer her own question "And how?", but she gave us some suggestion of it with this:
...the stories that some people can shape into art, are within everyone. They’re the shared experiences of humanity, in some people they live forever within, unable to be formed into literature, and in others they burst out, unable to resist becoming literature, but they belong to each person because of our shared humanity.
Yes. That's not a method, but that is rather what it feels like. As for method, I don't know of one that could be called general, let alone universal. No one does. Steinbeck has said, and I quote secondhand from this post at TheAtlantic.com:
If there is a magic in story writing, and I am convinced there is, no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another. The formula seems to lie solely in the aching urge of the writer to convey something he feels important to the reader. If the writer has that urge, he may sometimes, but by no means always, find the way to do it. You must perceive the excellence that makes a good story good or the errors that makes a bad story. For a bad story is only an ineffective story.
I'll tell you what I do. I put pen to paper, and pray for magic.


Between Earth and Stars and other stories

When I consider the blizzards and hurricanes and tornadoes many other parts of America must face regularly, I sometimes think our rain is beautiful. True, it is gray—often cold and gray, with heavy low clouds, and the lack of sunshine is sincerely depressing. But if I look carefully, the gray has its own subtle lovelinesses. Soft shades of cloud. Dark fir-tree shapes waving against the sky. Fine droplets everywhere.

Still... late-winter rains make this the hardest time of year to see the stars, and I wish I weren't mostly missing this.

On the rare nights when I can catch sight of them, Venus and Jupiter are stunning, so close together. Never more so than when the moon drifts among them. Saturn, too, I love to see rising just before bed. Mars I have yet to find, and Mercury... Mercury would require a good stiff walk, just at dusk, on a clear night. That conjunction hasn't happened. But someday.

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After weeks of looking like they meant to bud any time, the ornamental cherry trees finally began to bloom out these past few days—an early sign of spring for which I am always immensely grateful.

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Maia's obsession of the week: clawing at the kitchen cabinet doors and yowling. I have no idea what she thinks she'll find inside, but it's hilarious. Scratching the ugly purple paint isn't the most destructive of her tricks, at least.

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Writers' link of the week: Contract lawyer Passive Guy talks about author/agency agreements, with links to several other of his posts on the subject.

Also, Strange Horizons' extensive list of Stories We've Seen Too Often.

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Music of the week: Last Friday night, Lou and I and his parents went up to WWU for an evening performance of Mozart's Don Giovanni. The libretto had been translated into English, and I must admit that the opera is pretty comical for being a tale about a man who won't stop womanizing, on account of which he gets dragged to hell.

This aria is between the Don and a young bride, Zerlina. Spoiler alert! Don't worry—he doesn't quite manage to complete the seduction.

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Random amusement of the week: Prayers specific to your Myers-Briggs personality type. I am an ISFJ, and yeah, the thought's pretty accurate. :D

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I'm off—I have a book to revise. Well, three. But one to focus on today.

Happy weekend!


Currently Reading: A Creed for the Third Millenium

A Creed for the Third MillenniumHe was going to be difficult to investigate, though. Already she had tabulated the points his dossier revealed as negative; he was a maverick in his field rather than well accepted and respected by his peers, he was not always very consistent in his attitudes, his operation was so small-scale it suggested he thought on a small scale, and there was a distinct possibility that he was riddled with Oedipal guilts. Dr. Carriol did not think highly of the internal resources of men in their thirties who still lived with Mother and to all intents and purposes had never embarked upon a sexual encounter with man or woman. Like the rest of the world, she found self-imposed celibacy a great deal harder to understand than any alternative sexual state, including the basest perversions; and this in spite of the fact that she was herself a frigid woman. The strength to resist one’s primal urges was far more suspect than the weakness of succumbing to them or avoiding them. For he didn’t have the eyes of a cold or an unfeeling man...

Author: Colleen McCullough

Synopsis: In the year 2032, another ice age advances upon the Earth, driving North Americans further south every year. Unhandsome but charismatic Dr. Joshua Christian is more than happy helping the people of his dying Connecticut town overcome their depression, which is induced by lengthening winters, a one-child policy, and constant change. But the depression isn’t limited to the town of Holloman, and government think tank leader Judith Carriol wants to see him bring his message to the world.

Notes: The difficulty in reading a 1985 sci-fi is that the turn of the millenium was such a big mythic deal leading up to it—but now that we’re twelve years in, it’s just not that different from the nineties. Which were different from the eighties primarily in having smaller hairdos and less neon and not quite so much disco.

That is to say, in 1985 it was comparatively believable that there might be an ice age early in the new millenium. Who knew what that dreaded ozone hole, caused by trillions of cans of hair spray, might do? Instead, people nowadays talk of global warming, which is hardly something Colleen McCullough could have predicted. But for the long-term believability of her novel, she probably would have been better off not setting a date.

The novel is more than mere dystopian setting, however, and its primary focus is on retelling the gospel narrative after removing all definition. No one in the book carries a subtle name: not Joshua Christian, not his brothers Andrew and James or his sisters Mary and Martha (whose personalities are reversed) and Miriam, not Operation Search genius Moshe Chasen, and not Judith Carriol (think about it.) McCullough knows she isn’t being subtle; she goes so far as to flaunt it, referring to Dr. Christian’s ideas as “the Christian myth” and “the Christian philosophy”.

Which myth, by the bye, is rather shy of being theologically Christian. It’s a call to believe in God even if you cannot accept any of the religions available, and to stand up and save yourself. Make up your own idea of God, but don’t waste your love on someone so perfect and all-encompassing; love your fellow man instead. It’s the reverse—in one sense, at least—of Christian charity, which at its zenith is love so wholly given to a very specific God that it necessarily results in perfect and complete love for man.

To be very honest, I found the overt allegorizing a challenge to interpret. McCullough may have been attempting to show the frailty of humanism and unspecific spiritualism, but then she may also have been out to question the validity of messianic religion in general and Christianity in particular. Or perhaps she had no point except to explore, psychologically, the effects of messianism upon a human and imperfect messiah. Whatever the case, the funhouse-mirror imaging of Christ’s passion made for an uncomfortable and confusing read. Which, to be fair, was possibly as intended.

Dr. Christian and Dr. Carriol both engender some sympathy in the reader, but the former reads as too superhuman and the latter as too coldly ambitious to win hearts entirely. Most of the other characters are also a mix of likable and not-so-much. Interactions between the characters tended to be overly dramatic; the two consistently believable emotions in the story were the twin resentments against long winters and the one-child policy. The latter, Dr. Christian treats as necessary, but makes some stirring statements in understanding of the suffering it causes.

The story doesn’t hide the fact that it’s headed in a generally tragic direction, which took me by surprise considering the just-shy-of-romance-novel cover (and there’s nothing romantic about the tale itself). The ending leaves a number of untied and threatening plot threads. Whether McCullough intended a sequel, I couldn't say, but none exists as far as I know.

Dystopian fiction by nature portrays a bleak and brutal world, and no law states that a bleak book must offer hope somewhere. Also, McCullough is a talented author who may well have had something very important to say that I entirely missed. But though the story kept me engaged with both suspense and symbolism, I finished it without knowing what to make of it, and the ending unfortunately circumvented my desire to read it again and find out.

Recommendation: Read it if you want to see what the gospel narrative might have been like, had it lacked a named and personal God.


Top Ten Tuesday: Favorite Places to Read

This week's topic: Top Ten [insert genre name] Books, a list I'd feel much better about making if I felt myself truly master of any one genre. But of my two best options, I've come too recently to the realms of high fantasy, and I'm not sure I consider "classics" a genre. Even if I did, I'm not an English professor of great respect and tenure, and therefore not remotely qualified to tell the world which ten are the best.

All that to say, today I'm picking an old topic. A very easy one, because my brain is moving oh-so-slowly.

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish! Do come join the fun...

This topic has only one difficulty, which is that I spend nearly all of my reading time at number 1. But I'll try and get imaginative.

1. Tucked into the corner of the couch, wrapped up in a blanket. Preferably with coffee or tea or cookies and milk at hand.

2. Out in the yard, on a blanket in the grass, under the summer Sunday afternoon sun, with my husband and a gin and tonic.

3. In a high meadow, in a light breeze, overlooking wide open spaces, perhaps leaning against a rock or a tree or—as I sometimes did when I lived in such a place—a fence post.

4. On a stretch of quiet stony Washington beach, away from other people.

5. On a towel in the white sand of a tropical beach... although, to be honest, in this case I have a hard time staying out of the water. Unless there are sting rays or barracudas or rip tides.

6. In the grass beneath a leafy green tree, when the sky is warm and blue.

7. On an airplane or in the car or on a train, going somewhere interesting, with a new book.

8. On a bench in an old-fashioned flower garden, on a day just gray enough to keep the pages from glaring.

9. In the late evening, in an overstuffed chair, beside a fireplace.

10. In bed, by lamplight, mostly buried under the covers, with my husband reading beside me. Preferably with the Kindle, which is easier to manage while lying down.

Where are your favorite places to read?


Brief Interruption

Masha, carrying forward the discussion on discussion, gave me the option of a week off, which she was taking. I've had a delightful but exhausting weekend, and I'm going to take the freebie here.

Masha's post and Mr. Pond's are both worth reading, however, so there are the links. Enjoy, and I'll be back in the blogalectic next Monday.


Grateful for the Small Strong Stuff and other stories

It's good to be grateful for the small things, so I am grateful for having given up alcohol rather than coffee for Lent.

Right now I'm overtired and looking forward to a fun but busy weekend involving two dinner parties and a chili cookoff. Also, I'm grumpy and about ready to block a few Facebook friends (none of the offenders have ever claimed to read my blog, so probably not you) until the elections are over this fall (as Mom always said, it's not necessarily what you say, it's how you say it... and how many times you post about it in the space of ten minutes...) All of which adds up to a great deal of gratitude for the comforting hot cup in my hands and the energy boost it offers. And possibly even the ensuing jitters.

P.S. I live an hour and a half's drive from Seattle, where it's possible to get all kinds of excellent coffee—but my sister-in-law down in California makes the best. :)

* * *

All right, cat people: what do you do with a bored kitty?

Her toys include socks, little balls with bells, little balls without bells, an indestructible rubber strap, a cardboard box, and two humans with hands and feet and shoelaces. She's allowed in every room of the house but the laundry room. But still, she'll have evenings where none of this is good enough, and we'll hear her reaching for small items on the high shelves in the study, then yowling at the laundry room door, and then clawing at cabinet doors trying to get in, which she's discovered she can sometimes do. Next thing I know, she's digging up my greenery.

This week she got into the recipe box, of all things, spreading the contents all over the counter, and played in the pots of two plants, including the one with the pot taped and cardboarded over. How she got into that is a mystery to me.

It's a good thing cats are so cute. Sometimes they're especially cute when they're naughty. But when she digs in my plants, the cuteness loses its effect on me and she faces getting restricted to one room at night again. If we did that, though, she'd yowl and find a way to climb the curtains.

* * *

Writers' link of the week: Alicia over at EditTorrent asks whether writing voice can be taught.

Also, last week I linked Tim Parks' NYBooks post about writing as a career. That turned into a fascinating email conversation between some friends and I about creative writing school, Eliot, and the state of literature. Hogwarts professor John Granger, one of the participants in that conversation, just posted the whole thread. If that interests you, enjoy.

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Music of the week: We've had several days of snow and sleet alternating with lovely clear skies and leaves just on the point of bursting out, which makes this likable little song and video seem fitting.

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Random amusement of the week: TheHairPin.com's The Comment Section for Every Article Ever Written about PETA. Utterly hilarious. Via Rod Dreher.

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House to clean! Cat to amuse! Clam chowder to make! Better do it while the coffee's still acting on my energy levels.

Take care, and happy weekend!


Currently Reading: The Last Olympian (Percy Jackson, book 5)

The Last Olympian (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, #5)“You’re not serious,” he said. “Not the Underworld again.”

“I’m not asking you to come, man,” I promised. “I know you just woke up. But we need some music to open the door. Can you do it?”

Grover took out his reed pipes. “I guess I could try. I know a few Nirvana tunes that can split rocks. But, Percy, are you sure you want to do this?”

“Please, man,” I said. “It would mean a lot. For old times’ sake?”

He whimpered. “As I recall, in the old times we almost died a lot. But okay, here goes nothing.”

Author: Rick Riordan

Synopsis: Determined to fulfill the prophecy and take down Luke and Kronos if at all possible, Percy and Annabeth and the other half-bloods gather for the final showdown in New York. Meanwhile, the gods are distracted, too busy fighting the great monster Typhon to help defend Olympus against Kronos. Outnumbered and out-brute-forced, Percy takes Nico up on a dangerous offer, by which he hopes to give his friends an edge against the Titan’s army.

Notes: It’s hard not to love Percy’s enthusiastic, humorous middle-grade narrative, and he doesn’t let us down in this final installment. Granted, in five years his voice ages only subtly, but that’s a valid authorial choice and, in many ways, refreshing. Riordan maintains a clean flow of thought, fun and lighthearted.

Only in a middle-grade novel (or perhaps something by Terry Pratchett) can you find a series of massive war scenes attempting to be funny. Riordan succeeds where angels fear to tread, however, and as Kronos and Typhon bring chaos and death into New York, flying pigs and marching statues and careful handling keep the battle from becoming more than the average nine-year-old can handle.

Likewise, the full scandal of the myths themselves is neatly avoided, even as Percy falls in love himself. His affection for Annabeth manages to be sweet and believable without going into too much, too soon.

While the story plunges into action very quickly, it saves all its big reveals for the end. Considering how much was left to resolve—Annabeth’s secrets and Luke’s, Percy’s confrontation with Kronos and the prophecy, Nico’s troubles and Grover’s and Rachel Elizabeth Dare’s, etc.—this makes for a long, very satisfying wrap-up to the story. At certain moments I was both startled and moved, which was all I could ask for and, actually, more than I expected to get from the book.

The demigods fight bravely, and mortal stepfather Paul Blofis proves both amusing and lovable, but when the time comes for the last battle, the right characters are at Percy’s side. Percy, like most great child-victors before him, relies on his friends to help him—even after a dip in the Styx makes him rather tougher than the average youngster—and all of his best friends get their time in the spotlight.

The book closed with a vivid sense of summer, the sort of cheerfulness inspired by friends and camp and free days and sunshine and swimming. It’s a good way for a series to end, especially one for the young.

Recommendation: Likable and a great little stress-killer. Read it in the sunshine for full benefit.


Top Ten Tuesday: Favorite Book Covers

This topic took some real research. A few came to mind right off, but ah, there are so many options....

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish! Do come join the fun...

I could never come up with my absolute favorites, but here are a few I just love.

1. Enough with the knockoffs, but the original was inspired. Not just for its red/white/black starkness and alchemical imagery, but its suggestion of Genesis and forbidden fruit:

2. I happen to be one of those who like a real face on the cover, if it matches the character's description and is well-designed:

3. A little magical artistry can generally win my attention, too.

4. Of which I have seen many to love, including this one that I haven't yet read.

5. Likewise.

6. Pretty girls in extravagant dresses have been much overdone, but I have a few I love, such as this one:

7. And this one:

8. I also happen to admire unique uses of light and color (though the text on this one could be set off more clearly).

9. Especially when that happens to come with honestly pretty art.

10. And because I need a number 10, here's another pretty face in a design I find particularly arresting:

What are your favorite book covers?


But the Fighter Still Remains: The Purpose of This Discussion and Others

"In all matters of opinion our adversaries are insane"
~Oscar Wilde

What is the purpose of discussion, of argument, of this little discussion? How do minds change, and when, and why?

Oscar Wilde may have been the funniest man in recorded history. With the admirable quote above, he makes light of one of humanity's stupidest propensities. The sober truth behind that little witticism is part of why I avoid talking politics online, of why my strong opinions don't come out of their passive-aggressive wraps more often, of why the first hints of debate can leave me shuddering to the core. I am conflict-averse by nature, and that has been powerfully reinforced by various experiences.

Working off my perhaps over-emphatic statement last week that "Minds develop, but they don't often change", Masha took the conversation on a detour from discussion about art and beauty to discussion about discussion. "Minds change," Masha says, "often and for good reason"—a flat contradiction of my own assertion, though I suspect our opinions don't diverge as much as might appear.

Mr. Pond elected to sit out this week, not because of the topic but because of other busyness, so it's just Masha and I in the ring for now.

There are at least two reasons why Masha and I chose clashing terminology. One is that I was simply more specific: minds develop rather than changing outright. More on this later, because I think it directly relates to the purpose of discussion. Two, we differ in emotional response to the idea of argument, probably for several reasons, but mostly because of personality variance.

So Masha asks us: what is the purpose "of discussion, of argument, of this little discussion?" Actually, those are three very different questions, requiring three very different answers:

1) The purpose of discussion is the exchange of ideas, which provides opportunity for mental growth and shared understanding.

2) The purpose of argument is to contrast opposing ideas, usually with the goal of finding a winner.

3) The purpose of this little discussion—at least, in my own opinion—is to exchange ideas generally relating to art and artistry, myth and beauty, in order to develop our own minds and gain common understanding even if we do not achieve agreement.

Masha goes on to ask "How do minds change, and when, and why?" They develop, I say. It is a rare thing for a mature mind to make a sudden reversal, and when it happens, it is generally due to new information. Old questions and new information gave me my own biggest mental shift, from armchair Calvinist theologian to Catholic—but I consider even that a development rather than a change. It happened in a matter of weeks and stunned me and everyone I knew, but my mind was much more prepared for that shift than anyone realized, including myself.

Most of the time, minds develop along a curving path, influenced by numerous factors: logic, emotion, imagination, experience, resonance, influx of ideas and the mode of their expression, and even personality-based thought processes. Discussion is one way of guiding the mind; reading is another, teaching yet another.

But whether we call it development or use the umbrella term change—we'll go with the latter for the moment—minds change when they're open to a new possibility and a convincing one comes along. Discussion can aid this. Argument, real argument, rarely does; it tends to reinforce already-held opinions. This is why debate around hot-button political issues polarizes instead of inspiring consensus; the more you can portray your sparring partner as the other team, as them, as the enemy, as crazy and/or evil, the more you rally your own—and the more you earn the hatred of the opposition. Each side feeds off the other's vitriol.

"Still a man hears what he wants to hear
And disregards the rest"
~Paul Simon

I don't have words for how much I hate this. Unfortunately, I don't have the answer to it, either. Throughout history, it's generally meant war. Nowadays in the West, at least it's usually just verbal bullying, though that's bad enough.

Conflict horrifies me; it always has, and I suppose it always will. But this blogalectic is not often truly confrontational. The three of us began with some diverging ideas which I believe we still hold, but we go on growing in our own thought and in understanding and respect for each other. None of us, I think, holds any hard feelings, and in this world of bloodshed, that's reason enough for gladness.


Cute with Teeth and Claws and other stories

This week has been cold, and Maia has spent a lot of hours curled up on my lap. Which is really, really cute until I move my arm a little, at which point she sinks her claws into my sweater and starts gnawing on my wrist.

Actually, that’s still cute. It’s just that those little teeth and claws are sharp. The cuteness is almost worth it, though.

* * *

Also this week, after throwing out numerous false starts, I think I have replaced nearly eight thousand of the eleven thousand words I cut from the beginning of my novel. With most of a chapter left to write, and at least one later scene I'll definitely have to revise if I keep this draft. At least now the task seems completable.

Someday I'll quit obsessing over this thing and make a real attempt at getting it published.

* * *

George sent this to me over two weeks ago, which technically makes it old news I guess, but I just saw it again on my Facebook page and every time I think of it I get excited. There's a release date for the last Wheel of Time book!

...next January.

It's going to be a long wait. Says the girl who was able to read the other thirteen from start to finish in about eight months last year. To those of you who have been waiting since 1990, when the first one was published, well... maybe it's not so long. :)

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Writers' link of the week: I've never even seen Tangled, but I could totally sympathize with Lisa Mantchev's illustrative post about the experience of finishing a book.

Also, here's a fascinating piece from the New York Review of Books on writing as a career choice.

* * *

Music of the week: Thank heaven for nerdy friends on Facebook, who do things like link nerd music I never even knew about. WHAT. (Advisory: at least one inappropriately-dressed comic figure in the video...)

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Random amusement of the week: BookRiot. I suggest Sixteen Things Calvin and Hobbes Said Better than Anyone Else. Or maybe Stop....Grammar Time! Isn't it Ironic? (It Isn't), which contains a rather amusing takedown of an Alanis Morissette song.

Or maybe What I Hate about Being a Reader, although the author of that one neglected to mention the desperate late-night need to finish a book on the off chance it'll end happily even though every sign points to tragedy, and even though you know you should never read a book like that right before bed because it'll mess with your dreams, and sure enough it ends tragically and messes with your dreams. Which was my experience Wednesday night.

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Most of the time I have been sitting here writing this post, Maia has been curled up under the blanket at my feet. All nice and warm... and then all at once, out come the claws and she attacks my ankles. Darn it, cat.

Happy weekend!