freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
I cling to my research pursuits by the skin of my teeth these days, cramming it into odd corners and for the large part watching with helpless regret as mental and physical fatigue torpedo what little footholds I can carve out. One of the upshots is that these days I go into the university library about twice a year, if that - not because I'm not researching at all, I am, but by and large research these days is done virtually rather than with hard-copy books, and such hard-copy books as are essential to my research interests are somewhat fringe and I tend to simply buy copies for myself. (Memo to self: Kindle. Because exploding bookshelves.) However, I am overdue by two months for 2000 words on the importance of Vladimir Propp to fairy tale criticism (because why pick a reasonably-sized topic, a sense of proportion is for the weak) and my copy of Morphology of the Folktale has vanished completely enough that I'm beginning to wonder if I hallucinated actually owning it, so on Friday I Braved The Library.

I should not, as a literature academic, be alienated by an academic library. Being alienated by a library is an alienating experience on a whole level above the library itself being alienating. They radically redesigned the space a couple of years ago, and moved things around, and ever since then I walk in and am immediately lost. It's a very beautifully appointed and glitzy space, and has added several zeroes onto the number of student study seats, but I realised today what the root of the change is: it's now a student-focused space, not an academic-focused space. I get lost because all the signposting is about where and how students can study, and which areas are for undergrads, and how you may use your cellphone. There are no guides at all to where you might find the actual books. The previous library layout gave clear, unequivocal maps by Dewey number, and the lack of those leaves me free-floating and slightly panicky, because on walking in, you can't actually see any books at all other than the few shelves of reference volumes in the front. I was rescued by a kindly library colleague (it's useful knowing all these people from university committees), and she commented that the head librarian is contemplating getting rid of large numbers of the books, based on what people are actually reading.

I don't want to sound like a Jurassic reactionary about this - this is the way things are going, information is increasingly virtual, and the shift to a focus on the student experience is an important and necessary address to the exclusionary elitism of academia's more traditional forms. And if I was a more consistent Academic, in the sense of using these facilities for more than about 5% of my job description, I would have got the alienation over in a few weeks and simply adapted to the new status quo, rather than spreading it out torturously over several years. But I mourn the old library, and the physicality of the experience when your wanderings among the shelves were done in the consciousness of the accreted weight of all those books. I used to read for fun in undergrad, mostly as a substitute for an actual social life: I remember randomly picking up fiction just because the name seemed significant, William Morris and Evelyn Waugh and Virginia Woolf and John Fowles and the weirder corners of Tolkien. I'm not sure I could still do that in the new space, or if the books would be there for me to stumble upon. It's all too goal-oriented now.

And I really, really mourn my lost sense of mastery of the space. I struggle with academic identity at the best of times; to be at sea in the quintessential academic space, to be unable to locate the texts which are central to my research identity, was actively eroding to a particular facet of my sense of self. It wasn't pleasant.

I have my dark suspicions as to whether or not the new library even generates L-space. I don't think .303 bookworms exist virtually, or if they do, we're all completely screwed. It's worrying, is all. My worry is indexed by the fact that my subject line is Doctor Who, more specifically "The Silence in the Library." Because of course it is.

We Can Do It!

Tuesday, 15 July 2014 05:44 pm
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
It may have come to the attention of my more alert and observant readers that I am a happy, geeky bookworm and have quite a lot of books. Really, rather a lot. Enough that, despite the fact that I moved into this house with eight tall bookshelves courtesy of a munificent Evil Landlord and subsequently imported another courtesy of Pam, I still had seven boxes of unshelved books piled in my study. This, too, after a relatively ruthless weeding process chronicled in these very pages. As far as books go, I am unashamed to admit that I have a Problem.

Fortunately, for such problems there are benevolent friends like Jo, who enjoys, by her own admission, a Project, and who possesses not only power tools and the will to use them, but considerably above basic cabinet-making expertise, an actuary's numerical precision, and more organisational skill and energy than is strictly fair or necessary in this imperfect world. As a result of which there has been, of an evening over the last few weeks, a sort of blur of activity in my living room, resulting in piles of planks, a small cloud of sawdust, and a satisfying and slightly bewildering tendency for bookshelves to arise, phoenix-like, from the whirlwind at a rate a smidgen in excess of half a bookshelf per hour. It has also revealed my own predilection for Handmaidening, if there is such a word: I derive an unholy kick out of facilitating efficient systems, and if Jo behind a power drill is anything, it's an efficient system. By the end of the process the balletic precision of our movements would bring a tear to the eye of efficiency experts. It really makes things go a lot faster if there's someone anticipating the process to hand the cabinet-maker tools, nails, planks, pencils, screws, gin-and-tonic, and that vital bit of stuck-together wood she was using to space shelves, so that she doesn't have to stand up or climb down ladders every two minutes.

It made, I have to say, my feminist wossnames incredibly happy. Not just the self-determination of bookshelf building - and I will look at those shelves for ever after with nostalgic joy because Jo built them and I helped - but something about efficient women with power tools. All Rosie the Riveter. Definitely speaking to that bit of me that's only mostly heterosexual, possibly because the patriarchy.

So I have five spanky new bookshelves, and my books are Housed, dammit, and all we have to do now is work through the mutual and perfectly symmetrical guilt feelings that have arisen because Jo feels bad about me paying for the materials for her Project, and I feel bad about all the time she's spent building me bookshelves. We freely admit that these are entirely irrational feelings that have nothing whatsoever to do with the considerable pleasures and achievements of the process, and that the two impulses do cancel each other out. The gin definitely helps.

And, look! Bookshelves! All full of books! (or, to be perfectly accurate, books and DVDs. I have a DVD problem too. Memo to self: Go digital. But not too digital. Because some things need to be tangible, and you can't help friends make furniture for your Kindle files.)

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freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
I am in the sweary stage of paper writing. It's fighting me; I'm wrestling it, it's largely winning. I hate it, and myself, and my writing, and African fairy-tale film, about equally. I am horribly bored by the need to finish the damned thing (it's now nearly a week after deadline) and the fact that I can't permit myself much in the way of socialising or happy domestic fuffling until it's bloody well done. Alarmingly enough, this is all familiar and status quo: never underestimate the extent to which the relationship academics have with academia is basically abusive. I'll finish it. This too will pass. Until then, swearing, and loathing, and hedgehoggy hermitting. But especially the swearing.

I did, however, track down the volume on African folklore which I'd randomly packed at the bottom of a whole box of Pratchett and Moorcock. This has led me, as a knock-on effect, to throw out more books, as I had to unpack and repack a bunch of them. I'm still obscurely enjoying the catharsis of the clear-out.

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There should be an almost complete Elric in the Moorcock, and a couple of other series as well - Corum, and Dorian Hawkmoon? I have kept the Jerry Cornelius ones, because postmodernism, and the Dancers at the End of Time ones, because I don't do hallucinogenic drugs and a girl has to have some substitutes. I am forced to admit that I've pretty much outgrown Elric, I haven't read them since undergrad. The John C. Wright are buying it because the frothing homophobia of the writer's online presence is having the Orson Effect, namely an inability to read his fiction without a sort of Pavlovian response of annoyance and distaste. Also, he's a sexist sod, frankly; I really like some of what the Orphans series does, but its ideological irritations are now outweighing its enjoyments. Never trust a writer who feels impelled to spank almost all of his women.  I have retained only the remnants of my Heinlein collection which are (a) genre classics and (b) I am able to read without actually throwing the book across the room, which in the event turns out not to be many of them. I've turfed out the young adult stuff, because frankly there's better y.a. sf out there, but they're actually fun and comparatively inoffensive - Pam, you might like them for the young'uns? The Michael Scott Rohan are swashbucklery fun, but I've kept Scott Lynch for that.

If anyone wants to appropriate any of these, please let me know! So far only the Kay and the Aldiss have been bagsed from the previous group.
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
gault library

I do like Tom Gauld's cartoons, they have a sort of wry, self-deprecating literacy to them which strikes something of a chord. If you haven't read his collection You're All Just Jealous Of My Jetpack, you darned well should, if only because its titular cartoon exemplifies so neatly my own stance in an uncaring academic world. The above cartoon is particularly relevant to my current interests as, while I am generally ensconced in my very own house somewhat ecstatically, I am still confronting the problem of the Library, which is approximately three times the size of my available shelf space. Unpacking my books has forced me to revisit the process of self-interrogation which led to my earlier exercises in Shuffling Off or Throwing Out books, with particular reference to Gauld's categories of "Saving For When I Have More Time" and "Will Never Read", because the usual processes of self-deception lead to an over-easy conflation of these categories. I am thus embarked upon a secondary literary weeding, with particular reference to the above categories and my new, idiosyncratic one, which is not so much "Wish I Hadn't Read" as "Am Reluctantly Forced to Admit I Will Never Read Again Because Really It's Not That Good."

In short, I have more books to throw out, and the next few posts will probably give alert readers a faint sense of déja vu. As before, Capetonian witterers are please to tell me if you want any of these and I'll shunt them your way before hauling the leftovers to the charity shop.



Guy Gavriel Kay, alas, is buying it, because I am way too old and ornery an English academic to survive another dose of flights of portentous emotionality. I've kept the interesting Tanith Lee short stories, I'm mostly throwing out her young adult stuff and the more over-the-top erotic horror. Some of the classics - Anderson, Aldiss, Lieber - I was keeping out of a vague sense of academic completeness, in case I ever needed to refer to them, which I really won't. I've kept some MacAvoy, thrown out the ones I don't flat-out love. The Kurtz has only survived thus far out of a vague nostalgia for my neo-pagan phase.

My Book Discards: How I Grew Up. Have at them.


The subject line is Pratchett, Rule 3 for Discworld librarians. In hanging onto books it's not so much causality that I've been trying to interfere with, as the nature of time.

world of wonders

Tuesday, 6 May 2014 05:34 pm
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
On with the motley! As in, motley collection of tomes mostly not sf or fantasy. A slew of historical, including the Dorothy Dunnet Lymond ones, and Jeffery Farnol; I am chucking the George Macdonald Fraser on the realisation that actually Flashman annoys me more than I enjoy the novels' agreeably warped view of history. The Robertson Davies is courtesy of a Jung-fancying aunt in early undergrad, and Jung really doesn't groove my ploons any more. I have absolutely no recollection of acquiring the Julian Barnes, it seems uncharacteristically highbrow of me - mother, if it's actually your book and I'm cavalierly disposing of it, please scream! (My mother's taste in literature is way more highbrow than mine, a point which probably wouldn't surprise my English department any). It is also something of a satisfaction to realise, lowbrow tastes notwithstanding, that I actually have no desire whatsoever to re-read Bridget Jones's Diary at any point. And apparently I've overcome the completist urge at least to some extent, I've kept the Couplands I actually enjoyed, and tossed the rest. The Chocolate Conscience is a history of the Quakers in the early chocolate industry, weirdly enough. It's kinda cute.

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take two

Monday, 5 May 2014 05:40 pm
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
Right, we're into the YA. The Sarah Rees Brennan is a duplicate, I ordered the UK one as well for its lovely cover, in a fit of sheer self-indulgence. Young adult gothic, she has a lovely line in character and dialogue. Like Cassandra Clare she's a fanfic writer who's gone fantasy pro; I like Brennan's writing a great deal more than I like Clare's, but I like both of their fanfic more than I like their novels, which is odd. Vague Very Secret Diary loyalty is not sufficient for me to give shelf space to the Clare, but I think they're both young writers who will probably mature interestingly. The Cabot is sheer fluff, I conceived a passion for the wretched things while I was convalescing from the whole DVT fiasco, and they suited my completely brain-dead state at the time. They're actually not as bad as you'd think, they're frequently funny and acute.

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the exile waiting

Monday, 5 May 2014 05:32 pm
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
Still partially with the sf/fantasy, although starting to move into the bookshelves in the passage, which have non-fantasy and kiddielit sections. Some of these I haven't actually read, and have made a mature, adult judgement that probably I'm never going to read them. If you take any of the Brin or Asher you have to let me know how they were. Tracy, you may like the Benford on the grounds of hard sf writers called Greg. I am booting Mists of Avalon out of generalised irritation: as with the Donaldson, Fforde and Maguire it's amazingly and enjoyably cathartic to simply conclude that I can't be having with the varying degrees of pretension despite the authors' iconic status. The Steinbeck, Salinger, Carson McCullers and Spark are remnants of my attempt to read Serious Modern Literature when I was in high school, courtesy of a persuasive English teacher. It didn't stick.

Those of you who want any of these books had better get in quickly, Mac is evincing a tendency to say he wants all of them except one or two, and threatens to arrive with a bakkie.

freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
Is there no end to these, you cry? Possibly not. I really own an awful lot of books, some of which are rather more awful than they should be, and others of which I've read an awful lot less than I should. (Pardon while I channel a drunken Bilbo Baggins for a moment). In this batch I am tossing, with profound political joy, Orson Scott Card, since the man's frothing homophobia has finally reached the point where I can't actually bring myself to read anything he's written. (The Alvin Maker series were among my Masters dissertation texts, and were presumably fun at the time, but I appear to have grown out of them on multiple levels). I actually recommend the Gail Carriger, they're frothy romps if ever I read one. Victorian werewolves and gay vampires of the more urbane sort, and a feisty heroine who hits things with her parasol. I'll probably replace them in e-book format because they're a fun guilty pleasure read. Unike the Laurell K. Hamilton, which, despite the claim of its title, is simply a terrible piece of writing. The John Brunner are definitely in the category of things I should have read an awful lot more than I have. The Peter Dickinson is one of his adult ones, which I don't think are as good as his kids' books. You will pry my considerable collection of Dickinson kids' books from my cold, dead hands.

toll the hounds

Sunday, 4 May 2014 10:10 pm
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
More Kim Stanley Robinson. Why do I have all this Kim Stanley Robinson? I've only kept the Mars ones, which I thoroughly enjoyed. The Steven Erikson I bought because I had to mark a Masters dissertation in them; they were interestingish, but didn't really do it for me enough to warrant shelf space. I have limited sympathy for grim/dark/gritty fantasy. I am also, with a sense of vindictive satisfaction, getting rid of Thomas Covenant, which I've only really kept out of a vague feeling that I ought to as a good fantasy critic. Nope. Really, no. (The Philip Mann whose title you can't read is The Eye of the Queen. I bought the Philip Mann because a colleague recommended them as part of my Masters dissertation, and I referred to them in passing for half a sentence and never read them again.)

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freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
This would be all a lot easier without the discovery that my camera has a broken catch on its battery lid, which is why it's been telling me that the battery is flat after four photographs for the last few months. I have thrown out, with unnecessary imprecations, an awful lot of perfectly fine batteries. Further book stack photos are taken with my cellphone, with something of a reduction in quality, apologies.

There has been something deeply satisfying about arriving at the realisation that both Jasper Fforde and Gregory Maguire annoy me utterly and don't have to be given shelf space. Also, that while I enjoyed the C. J. Cherryh, I look elsewhere these days when I have a yen for feminist sf, and will probably never re-read these. And Kim Stanley Robinson is Worthy But Often Incomprehensible, and life's too short.



The subject line is Franz Ferdinand. I have been rediscovering Franz Ferdinand as driving music over the last few weeks, it's bloody good fun, although falling very distinctly into the category of "Rock Music Which Makes Me Drive Slightly Ferally". The song is "Live Alone", which has been making me laugh because it's so bloody apposite just at the moment. Anthem adopted, forthwith.
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
It is at this stage fairly possible that I've found myself a house rental, enabling me to remove myself from the domicile of the Evil Landlord, a gesture which will be accompanied by the unmistakeable sound-effects of stretching, twanging and pained meeping noises as deep-seated roots resist uprooting for all they're worth. Unless there's something fairly horrible lurking beneath the innocent surface of the rental agreement I should be moving within a couple of weeks, and have hence been forced to buckle down and, avoiding the ricochets of disturbed .303 bookworms, weed my giant L-space book collection so I have some faint hope of compressing it all into boxes for travel without actually collapsing the local space-time continuum. My study floor is currently bedecked with tottering piles of volumes, faintly tear-stained as a result of the emotional upheaval of deciding to chuck them.

I will, of course, stick most of them into voluminous bags and haul them off to the local charity shop, but before I do that I'd like to give CT-based witterers of the sf/fantasy persuasion (i.e. most of you) a crack at claiming any of them which look as though they might usefully enhance your reading life. Photographic listage follows. If you want any of these, please let me know and I'll label them yours and shunt them in your general direction via trained mongoose or brown paper parcel switches in the park, or something. (This is the first installment. It's approximately a sixth of them, and I haven't tackled the non-sf yet).

DSCN2706 DSCN2704

The house, for the curious, is a semi-detached recently-renovated two-bedroom Victorian in Lynfrae, which is a subset of Claremont; I re-toured it this morning in the company of Claire and Stv for moral support and second opinions, and they like it as much as I do, which is quite a lot. And it's not just because it's bucketing with rain at the moment and the whole world is a nicer place.

My subject line is, of course, Terry Pratchett, although I can't remember which book it's from and am callously leaving that as an exercise for the reader.
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
It being Stv's birthday and all, we went out to Overture for supper last night. I feel that it is important and indicative that, if the Salty Cracker crowd could be said to have a favourite default restaurant at which to hang out and celebrate anything at all, it's bloody upmarket and one of the top ten in the country. The waitstaff know us. Stv got free champagne. At in excess of R600 a head for a four-course meal with a wine pairing, that's an expensive neighbourhood joint. (And a bit distant, too, being half an hour's drive away in Stellenbosch). It was a lovely evening, although slightly negative notes were introduced by the following:
  1. It's faculty exam committee season, which means I'd spent the entire day checking and annotating the 635 student records on a 364-page board schedule which is a fraction under 2.5cm thick. This puts me in a strangely zen state composed of equal parts of numerical trance, Machiavellian structural insight, advisor empathy and seething resentment, and incidentally renders me completely exhausted and glandular to the max. I was only really capable of conversation by the end of the first course and my second glass of wine. Overture was a kindly panacea to the day's ills, but conversely I wasn't really in the best state to enjoy it properly.
  2. We may be overdoing the neighbourhood joint five-star expensive restaurant thing to the point of over-exposure. The food was, as always, excellent, but I didn't think it hit its usual plane of dizzy high. Lovely tomato risotto (they always do great risotto), but slightly arb green bean salad with unidentifiable duck, and bland square chunks of mostly tender pork. Fellow diners' mileage may vary, you are perfectly free to blame my exhausted state rather than any diminution in quality, but I wasn't blown away. Beautiful evening on the terrace, though, exquisite dusk clouds, and as always the best sort of company.
  3. It is possibly fortunate that my tiredness was sufficient for me not to rise to the provocation offered by a fellow guest, who during the course of conversation incautiously offered a statement to the effect that she thinks Stephenie Meyer writes well. Them's fighting words, where I come from. It is my professional opinion that Twilight's stylistic and narrative infelicities are only marginally better than its gender politics in general loathsomeness. In default of the spirited debate and righteous suppression I would normally offer to such provocation, I present, as threatened, the blog which picks Meyer's grammar apart, with maximum snark. Fortuitously, today also gave rise randomly to this Slate article, which does statistical/linguistic analysis comparing three hugely popular texts - Twilight, Harry Potter and The Hunger Games. It's a fascinating comparison, and in particular the tables which look at adjectives are extremely telling. Viz:





    The thing which immediately strikes me: Collins's characteristic adjectives and adverbs are generally more sophisticated, but they also relate to complex states and actions and very frequently to abstractions. Rowling's are very action-oriented, but you can see her younger audience intentions in their comparative simplicity, with a focus on straightforward emotional states which tend to reflect action. Meyer's are definitely less sophisticated than those used by Collins, but they're also almost entirely emotional, and when they're physical it's physicality which largely reflects or responds to emotion. This echoes the frustration I feel when reading Twilight (and, for the record, I've read the entire series twice and supervised a couple of graduate theses on the books, if I diss them it's from full knowledge and exposure), because really, when you get down to it, nothing much happens in them. You drift passively around in Bella's head while she angsts and reacts and feeeeeeeeeeels. The language is not accomplished at the structural level, frequently obvious and clumsy and weirdly unfocused (my undergrads can do better), but it's the pacing, characterisation and plot which are really problematical, and which are heartily outdone by almost any piece of fan fiction I have read recently. I stick by my assertion. Even without getting me started on the gender politics, Meyer does not write well.

Rantage and random analysis brought to you courtesy of my really rather strong feelings about this, did you notice? And by the sure and horrible knowledge that in about twenty minutes I go to meet my four-hour meeting doom. Doooooom! At least the energy from all that ranting has my blood buzzing enough to mostly compensate for my state of over-fed, mildly hung-over sleep deprivation. Now with extra glands. Sigh.

Subject line is still Arcade Fire, "Wasted Hours", from The Suburbs. It's a ridiculously catchy, lilting, gentle tune which was playing in the car this morning and which has thoroughly colonised my head. It's curiously soothing, particularly after losing a day to board schedule checking. One feels they understand.
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
lizzie bennet diariesI'm rather late on the bandwagon with this - I've seen mention of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries on the web over the last year or so, but what with the urgent need to read all the Avengers fanfiction, never really got around to watching them. (Apparently internet distraction time is finite rather than infinitely expandable. Which, given the infinite expandability of the internet is something of a problem. Oops.) Today I am wandering around in a bit of a daze, bumping into things, because I was up until after midnight fascinatedly watching a modernised Lizzie Bennet deal with Darcy revelations and Wickham fallout, and am consequently somewhat short on sleep. I'm at around episode 90 out of 100 (it's just finished, making this a good time to leap on board for people prone to my need for instant narrative gratification). It was significantly difficult to drag myself away in the small hours.

The Lizzie Bennet diaries are two things: (a) a beautifully-realised and highly intelligent modernisation of Pride and Prejudice via social media, and (b) proof positive that Jane Austen still has a fan following - still speaks to people, even modern internet-savvy people whose lives revolve around phones and tweets and job opportunities rather than marriage and social class. The show consists of 100 2-5 minute weblogs from Lizzie herself, with extensions into Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr accounts and a couple of offshoot video blogs (Lydia, mostly), and a fan following who interacts with the characters as though they're real. It strips down Austen's narrative to show only central characters, while peripheral characters such as Mr and Mrs Bennet or Catherine de Bourgh are represented by quick (and often very funny) theatrical impersonations by Lizzie and various hapless assistants. It's a show about social media on several levels, not just in its own transmission formats, but in the daily life and concerns of its protagonists. At the heart of it is an intrinsically conscious equation between Austen's social awareness and social media awareness, an insistence that culture is culture regardless of its technological paradigm.

I love and frequently re-read Pride and Prejudice, and I love this adaptation: it's funny and sensitive, and above all beautifully acute in its awareness of the central themes of the book, and the way in which they transcend historical context. The equivalences the show makes for Charlotte's pragmatic acceptance of Mr Collins, for Wickham's desecration of Lydia, for the whole socio-economic edifice of Pemberly and Darcy's wealth, beautifully encapsulate the spirit of the original while cheerfully updating its letter. (Their version of Mr Collins is sheer genius, both in concept and in execution. Also, obviously Darcy is a hipster. Suspenders. She says darkly.)

Where the series most blows me away, though, is in their treatment of the Wickham/Lydia plot. I was a bit dubious about how they were going to handle it given contemporary sexual freedoms, but updated, and with Lydia's greatly increased interiority, it becomes heartbreakingly cruel. It fascinates me, that the trauma and heartache displayed on video in this version are such an exact and faithful match to the trauma and heartbreak (although more restrained in expression) in Austen's original. She wrote about people, how they love and betray and survive, and above all how they agonise about their appearance in the eyes of the world. Even more so given the power of our technology, so do we.

bibliophibian

Wednesday, 9 May 2012 07:59 pm
freckles_and_doubt: (Default)
I had a weird and slightly horrible experience yesterday, which was to wander into the university library in order to dig books out of their stacks. The nice library assistant person who checked my record (and to whom I have definitely given curriculum advice in the last year or so) revealed that I last took books out over a year ago. This is not quite as sad as it sounds: it's not that I'm not doing Serious Academic Stuff, it's just that these days I seem to do the Serious Academic Stuff either from online versions of journal articles, or (given the peripheral and non-pc-in-the-SA-context nature of my interests), by simply ordering copies of the books for myself. The academic landscape has been radically transformed both by the contemporary movement into virtual idea-exchange, and by my still rather new and bizarre possession of disposable income.

What it did mean, though, was that I haven't tried to use the library for actual research since they did a huge re-arrange of it at the start of last year (bang, may I add, in the middle of my orientation programme's attempt to put 1300 students through library tours in two weeks. The confusion was indescribable). It's a very swish space now, all comfy chairs and fancy wall-mounted computer monitors, and filled with studious students umbilically attached to laptops. What you don't see when you first wander in, though, is any particularly striking number of books. The main area has become a reference collection, with no shelves above about waist height (and it's not real L-space until they're over your head) and a lot of computers and info desks. I couldn't find the 800s section where I am wont to hang out. They'd moved it into the subterranean lair that used to hold the older journal issues. I cannot help but find this worryingly significant.

And they're breaking up the Special Collections libraries, including the speculative fiction collection we originated back in the Tolkien Society days, and which has grown in the interim, by the efforts of its wonderful librarian, into a significant chunk of genre material, both primary and secondary. You have to study sf/fantasy in genre, not scattered in isolation across vast tracts of the Dewey. It's about writing in community and context, and particularly in the academic sense, if you don't appreciate that, you're lost. But clearly non-pc-non-South-African collections Take Up Space even more than other categories of books, and are therefore expendable.

I am very much a denizen of the internet, and I couldn't survive academically or intellectually without it, but I also can't help feeling that something has been lost. For a start, I shouldn't be alienated by my own library. I grew up in this library, all the way from a titchy undergrad and right through the rigours of a PhD. It should be my home planet, the warm seas or intellectual air through which I breathe or swim. I should be at home in its most involuted and space-warping corners. If I have become disconnected from it by a process of abstraction, my intellectual pursuits all solitary and virtual, then I am no longer at home among its musty stacks. And anyway, they seem to have shrunk. Does the virtual realm even have L-space? Its own twisty byways, certainly, but not created by the sheer weight of words on paper in the way a proper library does. And I shudder to contemplate the virtual version of a .303 bookworm. You don't want to meet a .404 hollowpoint bitcruncher in a dark corner.

It is deeply significant that enormous piles of books are the one thing in the multiverse I don't mentally classify as cluttery, and therefore undesirable, stuff. And libraries damned well shouldn't, either.

Jade Lady

Tuesday, 17 April 2012 09:39 am
freckles_and_doubt: (Default)
Lo these many moons ago, [livejournal.com profile] strawberryfrog introduced me to the Phryne Fisher mystery stories by Kerry Greenwood. A couple of years later, after some slightly addictive behaviour involving Loot, my credit card and my burning desire to read more, I have the whole collection, or at least those that are still in print. In my usual spirit, i.e. with my apparent and not particularly subliminal need to infect those in my immediate vicinity with whatever cultural effusions currently grab my attention, I shall now proceed to babble about them.

Kerry Greenwood is an Australian writer and the books are set in Australia, mostly Melbourne, which is a city I loved utterly after a two-day stay. And they're period pieces, 1920s, mid-Wars, which you can gather from the beautiful artwork here reproduced. (I love their covers. Striking, and minimalist, and absolutely atmospheric). Also, the books are well-researched: I am always obscurely cheered by an author who lists her references at the end of her novel. 1920s Australia is fascinating, both in comparison to the 1920s literature I'm more familiar with, which is very British (P.G. Wodehouse et al), and in its identity as a colonial space with resonances with our own South African history and experience. And the setting is shown with some really quite acute and occasionally nasty political realism. They're never actually gritty, but the stories dally repeatedly not only with murder but with abuse, rape, torture, poverty, back-street abortions, child slavery and the occasional severed ear.

Phryne herself is a beautifully-constructed icon, offering a fascinating balance between the above grittiness, and wish fulfilment (she's young, beautiful, rich, aristocratic, efficient and Bohemian). I like her because she's kick-butt effective at what she does, but also because she's a poster kid for various political manifestations of which I heartily approve. There is something of a Utopian gloss on her activities, which don't really have the serious social repercussions they ought to have, but they're nonetheless heartwarming. I think the Australian context is possibly less repressive than it would be in England, but there is still enormous prejudice against the Jews, Chinese, Socialists, prostitutes, anarchists, homosexuals, Bohemian poets, circus folk and various other categories of individual she cheerfully associates with and, in many cases, has ecstatic sex with. In the 1920s, Bohemianism notwithstanding, she's doing it all in the teeth of considerable social disapproval, which she either blithely ignores, or the perpetrators of which she confronts head-on in order to wrest them to less bigoted behaviour by sheer force of personality.

Above all, Phryne is a feminist icon. Not only does she represent agency and political awareness, but her sexuality is defined in terms which are directly appropriated from a particularly male stereotype which affirms the value of pleasure without either exclusivity or attachment. The stories are well-written detective pieces - and the Wodehouse echoes are in more than the setting, there are occasional phrases which, if not quite in the Performing Flea category, are neat and witty enough to make me laugh out loud - but they also chronicle Phryne's unabashed and wholehearted dalliances with a long string of beautiful young men. She's a vamp, and proud of it. The vamping doesn't in any way impair her intellectual and physical efficiency: she's a very cat-like creature, selfish, fastidious and hedonistic at the same time, and capable of being absolutely merciless when appropriate.

This multivalent strength, while rather rose-tinted, is also nicely rationalised. One of the huge attractions of the setting to me is the way in which it weaves the First World War into Phryne's life. Her origins and childhood are in lower-class Australian life; the wholesale swathes the war cut into the British population raises Phryne's family to nobility and wealth by dint of killing off all the other heirs. But she's an extremely reluctant aristocrat in many ways, and runs away from suitable marriages in order to, at the age of seventeen, drive an ambulance in the trenches. The blood and slaughter, and her need to deal with it in order to do an essential job, tempers her: she's a sprung steel construction in many ways, and you can see how she's earned that strength. She then refines it by hanging around Bohemian Paris for a couple of years as an artists model, while incidentally being taught street-fighting by Les Apaches. When she roughs up Australian wharfies who deserve it, you don't feel that it's too far-fetched.

This is not serious reading; it's detective pulp, and proud of it. But it's enormously pleasurable reading, not just because of the appeal of its main character and the rag-tag band of eccentrics which make up her world, but because of its unexpected historical and political layering. The feline creature which these novels represent may be unrealistically beautiful and effective, but she has teeth.

and so become yourself

Thursday, 29 March 2012 05:07 pm
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They (and that's the doom-laden unspecified-authoritorian "They" that should probably be THEY) have been renovating our building on campus since the beginning of the year. Today I fled the scene, silently screaming, at about 3.15, since my office had become absolutely untenable owing to the three scraping and two bashing-type fellows engaged in doing something nasty, brutal and permanent to the plaster around my windows. The noise was indescribable. I have had a much more productive couple of hours at home, peaceably answering emails while listening to the rain on the roof and the distant, premature mewling of cats. (Supper is at 6pm, and not a moment earlier. They know this. This does not in any way prevent them from daily attempting to speed up time by means of complaint, ankle-level seething and concentrated feline glares).

I have been working quite hard, she says with faint surprise. There are all sorts of interesting things afoot in the faculty with reference to new course structures and teaching/learning initiatives and what have you, and I'm having a lot of input into policy and design. Hideous power, in fact, is mine. It's pleasantly chewy and instrumental work, and contents a deeply authoritarian and structure-ridden portion of my psyche. Slowly, by exercise of will and guile, I am warping this job into something I may actually want to carry on doing.

Since I don't really think the gritty details of faculty policy are madly interesting to the uninitiated observer, I leave you instead with interesting linkery.
  • This is a spirited defence of popular fiction, one with which I wholeheartedly agree. No guilt!
  • This is simply beautiful. The world's ocean currents, as a dreamily-drifting graphic that looks like something by Van Gogh.
  • And this is simply amusing, and surprisingly heart-warming. Homophobia is slowly eroding, at least in contexts outside the religious right. There's hope.
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So. Jane Eyre. This is actually a favourite novel of mine; partially for its lovely Gothic elements and atmosphere; partially because of the amazing feminist analyses which enrich my readings of it (Gilbert & Gubar and madwomen in attics); and partially because of Jane herself, who I find both interesting and appealing. She's an amazingly self-contained spirit, Jane - someone who has risen through really quite awful circumstances of deprivation and mental assault, to become nonetheless a decided entity in her own right, a person with intelligence and will and opinions which are all the more powerful for being hidden by her generally self-effacing reserve. I love watching her vivid mental life spark out of that reserve. She's a fascinating icon for female suppression, and I like her for some of the same reasons I have a soft spot for Austen's Fanny Price.

I have to say, I never quite attained the requisite literary crush on Rochester - he seems to me to be an odd, abrupt, rather narcissistic individual whose conversational roughness and cruelty always prevent me from trusting him enough to like him. He's tormented, sure, but it never quite excuses his behaviour. (I like him a lot better if I imagine him played by a mid-career Alan Rickman; it gives him a complexity the book never quite manages).

I have been driven into a Jane Eyre kick by the lovely treatment of the novel in one of Sarah Rees Brennan's wildly amusing Gothic Tuesdays. ("THE PLOT: Suddenly, typhus!" Hee.) This has caused me to do the following:
  1. Repeatedly forget to bring my copy of Jane Eyre back from campus so I can re-read it.
  2. Order, acquire and re-read Mary Stewart's Nine Coaches Waiting, since my copy seems to have fallen to earth, I know not where. (If you're the one who borrowed it, consider it yours).
  3. Order, acquire and read Sharon Shinn's Jenna Starborn.
  4. Order, acquire and watch the recent film version of Jane Eyre featuring Mia Wasikovska and Michael Fassbender.
Lucky readers, you get a three-part review, whether you like it or not!

In loving Nine Coaches Waiting, I am utterly unrepentant. Mary Stewart romances are still a comfort read (far more so, in fact, than her Arthurian series). Nine Coaches is one of my favourites of hers, a loose Jane Eyre mirror featuring a French/English governess sent to a chateau in France (written late 50s, probably set contemporaneously) where she finds Lies And Shenanigans Afoot, possibly perpetrated by devilishly handsome Frenchmen. It's fascinating as a Jane Eyre response because it deals neatly with the problem of what Sarah RB calls "Edward 'Crazypants' Rochester" - i.e. he's both hero and villain, attractive and alienating, desirable and bloody dangerous - by splitting him into a father-son team who embody the two halves separately. This works beautifully. I spent most of my teens with a passionate crush on Raoul, possibly secondary only to my passionate crush on the chateau. But the novel also plays very nicely with the class issues in Bronte's novel, and the dangerous appeal of attraction in the middle of lies and cover-ups. It substitutes the standard Mary Steward thriller-tension for some of the Gothic moments, but still nods affectionately at the Gothic. It works.

Jenna Starborn is a far more up-front and faithful adaptation of the novel, but set in a far-future, multi-planetary setting where class divisions are those of citizenship and wealth rather than birth (although the characterising of the Jenna as a clone is a fascinating choice in terms of how it externalises difference and alienation). Lowly governess becomes lowly but essential technician; mad wives setting fire to houses become assaults on the containment and life support systems on a low-atmosphere planet. The "madness" of the hidden wife is beautifully translated, and I decline to spoiler it here, because it was effective in its unexpected revelation. However, the novel doesn't quite work, in part because its adaptation is too faithful: the constraints and strata of nineteenth-century British life are too wholesalely flung into the future, and there isn't much to account for why such retrograde social structures should be re-created. It also, given the update of the Jane-figure into a (technically) more enlightened era, spotlights the really gaping absences at the heart of the Jane/Rochester relationship, and the comparative lack of explanation for why Jane should fall for the ridiculous man when he's such a surly and uncommunicative bastard. I mean, please.

I watched the Jane Eyre movie last night. It's absorbing; slow, but beautifully made, and casting Mia Wasikowska as Jane was genius - she portrays that essential self-containment beautifully, playing right into my sense of Jane as all surface primness, all hidden fire. Fassbender also manages to make something almost human and understandable out of Edward Crazypants Rochester. The film is interesting, though, because it strips out a lot of the better-known Gothic moments to focus, instead, on relationship and feeling. Very little screaming from the attics, in fact. No Edward Crazypants Rochester in drag, therefore no gypsy figure. Absolute lack of the torn-wedding-veil moment, which I've always adored for its incredibly complex symbolism. You see the mad wife precisely once. Instead, the film gives you minute after drawn-out minute of beautiful landscapes, Jane trudging through them, rain, storm, high-angle shots of fields and downs and forests and fog and cliffs by the sea. It's landscape porn, which tries, I think, to use the landscape and environment as emotional indicators, but ultimately fails. The film feels as though it's been gutted, the heart stripped out of it; what makes Bronte's novel powerful is the way in which Gothic symbol and motif externalise and explore feeling and implication, and in a lot of ways substitute for character development. Rochester's pain and corruption aren't in what he says or does, they're in the figure of the mad wife, who also embodies the threat to Jane's integrity and safety, both mental and physical. You marginalise the mad wife and it really all stops hanging together. Which is sad, because the film is beautiful, and the actors are both beautiful and accomplished. (Total waste of Judi Dench, though.)

Thus endeth your dose of pseudo-lit-crit for the week. I must go and feed the cats, and water the garden, and possess my soul in patience until the second and third seasons of Veronica Mars hove to on the horizon. Twitch.
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Lordy, I'm tired. The last few weeks have represented a steadily-mounting degree of fatigue which has made me progressively slower, more irritable and more prone to talk in the husky contralto of someone who's spent the night imbibing whisky and cigarettes and is losing noun control badly. As I keep saying to students as I grope for words, I'm not actually drunk. I'd just like to be. And I have another week of this. I suspect it may be survivable, but only just.

Exhaustion tends to detach me a little from reality, to make everything just that little bit surreal or malignant. It's this state that has, I think, made me so receptive to reading Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, which has struck me forcibly as a truly chilling and effective ghost story with resonances of Henry James and Sheridan Lefanu and (oddly) Lovecraft. It seems bizarre and unlikely that, up until about a month ago, I'd never actually heard of it, since it was published in 1959, and is apparently a classic of the literary ghost genre. With one of those odd and possibly sinister synchronicities, it's popped up in mentions across several unrelated blogs that I read, and I ordered a copy in a spirit of enquiry.

It's an incredibly effective book. While operating as a classic haunted-house narrative, it's more about personalities than anything else - the personalities of the occupants of the house (Eleanor, in particular, is exquisitely drawn), and above all of the house itself. Like Turn of the Screw, it slides you backwards and forwards between belief in the manifestations and belief in the insane perceptions of the characters; like LeFanu, it's about the gradual building of atmosphere and implication into perfectly-poised moments of horrified realisation and chill. And, like Lovecraft, it's about the power of the unseen, the inexplicable, the unexplained; it's all the more powerful because it's not a detective story, the mystery is never penetrated. It grabbed me good and proper; even in my current state of tiredness and stress I found myself staying up later than I should to read. I Recommend This Book, if you like chills, or if you like twisty psychological implications, or if you simply like good writing.

And in the midst of all the scary stuff, it has one of the most scathing and comic portrayals of spiritualistically-inclined insensitive stupidity that I've ever read.
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Neil Gaiman posted the link to this wonderful video, because of course he did: the man is patron saint of narrative and the fantastic, after all. It makes me think of the Wondermark strip about bibliophibians.



But the true joy in the link is not the video itself, joyous thought it is to contemplate the level of obsession, dedication and bibliophilery of the perpetrators. The true joy is in one of the comments it's garnered on YouTube:

My girlfriend told´╗┐ me this video sucks.
She's single now.
HAHAHA JUST KIDDING.
She's dead...
TheBesire 15 minutes ago
freckles_and_doubt: (Default)
I've always wanted to use that for a subject line. Life Goal Achieved!

I buy, as I have many times confessed, an awful lot of books online. Mostly this is because I have a pitiful saving throw versus Literary Shiny, and actual disposable income with which to indulge it. However, a lot of this is also because I read an awful lot of blogs by science fiction and fantasy writers (viz. left sidebar and my Friends page), and they are forever mentioning either (a) books they read and enjoyed, and (b) books they themselves have recently published. Amid my burgeoning shelves in category (a) we find, for example, Lud-in-the-Mist and The House Called Hadlows, both courtesy Neil Gaiman, and Libba Bray, courtesy Sarah Rees Brennan, excellent recommendations all. In category (b) are a large number of burgeoning-shelves culprits, but also, courtesy Elizabeth Bear, my current reading matter. This is a suitably large and be-tentacled tome entitled New Cthulhu: The Recent Weird, and containing stories by her, among other luminaries including Neil Gaiman, China Miévelle, Charles Stross, Cheri Priest and Michael Marshall Smith. It is, in short, a High Status Collection.

It's been an interesting week or so of reading, and Cthulhu be praised, has not made my dream-life any odder than it is usually, although frankly that isn't saying much. I am struck, however, by the really strange variation in quality among these stories. I'd judge that about a third of them are somewhat pedestrian, slightly arbitrary, nothing special. Another third are clever, effective, chilling, nicely done. The final third are blow-your-socks-off-wonderful, with added TNT; mostly these are by the Big Names, but not always, to which I say, strength to your elbow, lesser mortals who are rising like R'lyeh, and whose other writings I shall now proceed to seek out and order online. It's the Circle of Books!

As an exercise in Upbeat, I shall now proceed to burble enthusiastically about the really good ones.
  • Neil Gaiman's story in this anthology isn't "Shoggoth's Old Peculiar", the one everyone knows; it's "A Study In Emerald", which I think I first read in Fragile Things, but the Victorian newspaper mock-up online version of which is perfectly marvellous. It's one of those stories whose twists and oddments sneak up on you, so I shan't say anything other than it's a combination of Cthulhu and Sherlock Holmes pastiche, it's desperately chilling, and, this being Gaiman, the voice is pitch-perfect. It was lovely to have an excuse to read it again.
  • Marc Laidlaw's "The Vicar of R'lyeh" is notable both for its oddly effective crossover between Lovecraftian horror and the mannered English countryside of Trollope, Austen and Hardy, and its ability to configure the crunches and compromises of the corporate coding environment as chilling Cthulhoid horror. It's the one story in this anthology I really enjoyed while feeling that the writer didn't quite pull it off, but it's still a striking piece.
  • Michael Marshall Smith's "Fair Exchange" is Innsmouth in urban London, its voice all lower-class Brit, its denizens lesser criminals and fundamentally anti-social dole drones. Evil, the story says, is no less evil for being really petty.
  • William Browning Spencer is no-one I'd ever heard of before, and sounds suspiciously like an overly-literate alias. He is responsible both for the story "The Essayist in the Wilderness", and for the fact that I've just spent forty-five minutes and several hundred rand on Amazon Marketplace to discover his other work and purchase same. This story is possibly my favourite in the anthology (OK, favourite after "Emerald"), because it's, once again, an immaculate exercise in voice, but also has a restrained, blackly funny, lateral sort of comic horror which creeps up on you very, very slowly and mostly by dint of being just very slightly wrong. I haven't had this much fun reading in a very long time.
  • Elizabeth Bear's "Shoggoths in Bloom" is deservedly a Hugo novelette winner; it's an example of that rare and wonderful thing, a Lovecraftian pastiche which is deeply and sensitively political, and which achieves the almost impossible feat of creating empathy for a Lovecraftian horror. It's also a late 1930s period piece, and its mythos elements are beautifully enmeshed in pre-war politics; its awareness of American and German racism is a thoroughly satisfying antidote to Lovecraft's own bigotry.
  • Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette's collaboration, "Mongoose", is a deeply weird and lateral sf story about Kadath Space Station and its infestation of weird other-dimensional raths and toves and bandersnatches, which you hunt with an alien phase-tentacled beastie called a cheshire. It made me very happy. Lovecraft/Lewis Carroll crossovers are as inevitable as all get-out.
  • Finally, China Miéville's "Details" is about perception. He's always about perception. Here, horror is about perception, which is really the nub of it, isn't it? Once you've seen the horror, you can't unsee it. You're screwed.
I am struck by how many times in the above list I've referenced voice; even when I haven't mentioned it specifically, these stories do voice, or at least perspective, very well. It seems to be one of the classic features of horror: the writer needs to be able to immerse you in the world and feelings of the protagonist for horror to actually be effective. It's why Stephen King is as good as he is. For all that the Cthulhu mythos is about unimaginably massive, alien, indifferent forces in a vast and uncaring universe, their effects must be personal for us to apprehend their power. It's why a lot of these stories are better than Lovecraft in some ways. No-one touches him for rendering the indescribable, but he didn't, ultimately, depict people particularly well, probably because he didn't like them much. I think really good writers do.

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