a suffusion of yellow

Wednesday, 11 January 2017 08:43 am
freckles_and_doubt: (Default)
For some bizarre reason my morning Earl Grey tastes faintly of coffee. This seems both unlikely and a little unfair. I don't think there is actually any coffee in the house.

Today is my last day of leave, which I propose to spend doing entirely self-indulgent things which probably include comfort-replaying something hack-and-slashy. It's been a lovely three weeks of leave, which have been characterised by a nice balance of achievement and goofing off.
  • I examined a PhD thesis, for the first time ever, which was pretty terrifying going in but actually doable, and I think I've done a reasonably fair and conscientious job despite large tracts of it being in an unfamiliar critical field.
  • I should have written a paper, but three days in I examined my conscience and state of energy, thought "Hell no" and withdrew from the collection, which made me feel guilty for about three seconds, and then enormously relieved; the editor was nice about it and the world did not end. (I also have to say that if there's a silver lining to the student protest cloud, it makes a magnificent excuse for not being able to do stuff).
  • I finished Portal, Portal 2 and Firewatch, all three of which were highly enjoyable.
  • I've managed over the holiday period to get back into exercising, which means I've been walking for about 40 mins daily, and am feeling much better for it.
  • And, notwithstanding water restrictions, I have madly grown a batch of gem squash plants and a mango seedling from seed, by virtue of randomly planting the remnants of various meals, watering them at erratic intervals, standing back and let the currently rather fierce African sun and my predilection for compost do their stuff.

By way of some faint point to this slightly vague and wandering post, have some random linkery.

  • This is an obituary for Leia Organa, rather nicely done.
  • This is an Ursula Vernon YA portal fantasy, evincing her characteristic combination of whimsy and down-to-earthness, and featuring a particularly virulent toxic mother figure. I loved it.
  • This, on the other hand, is an entirely adult, very dark, very freaky, very good Ursula Vernon horror story, finishing which made me go "Holy fuck!" out loud. There's feminist fairy-tale rewrites, and then there's ... this.


My subject line is a random Dirk Gently quote for no reason other than a vague association with multiplicity, and the fact that Tumblr has a current sideline in gifs from the new Dirk Gently tv series. It sounds completely off the wall, has anyone seen it?
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
One of the things I did while I was on leave was actually to watch some movies, in an attempt to reduce the reproachful, tottering Pile of Unwatched Doom. (Currently embarked upon Star Wars: Clone Wars, which is so far vaguely cool, although its Anakin may be unduly... chiselled.) Two of the actual movies were the most recent Studio Ghibli offerings, both of which were lovely in rather different ways.



Arrietty is based on Mary Norton's classic children's book The Borrowers, which I ended up re-reading before I watched the film. Lord, I'd forgotten how harsh and claustrophobic and threatening a story it can be - the world of tiny little people living in the corners of normal human existence is precarious and paranoid, and the books are rather despairing about human attitudes to things that are tiny and powerless and vulnerable to being categorised, diminishingly, as either "vermin" or "cute". The Studio Ghibli version is slightly less cruel, but the story still fits naturally with the usual Ghibli preoccupations with environmental destruction, and with the sense of a fragile species watching their specific niche eroded inexorably by unthinking humanity. That being said, the film is beautiful, particularly in its sense of nature, and in its visual fascination with the contrasts and whimsies inherent in very small people interacting with very large things. It manages to retain the spirit of the Norton ending while still providing a sense of uplift, which is quite a feat. I enjoyed it, but it also made me realise that "enjoy" isn't really a word I ever applied to the books, they're too uncomfortable.



The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is very much more folkloric, and I've added it to my considerable list of fairy-tale things I should probably write papers on. Unlike Arrietty, which has a very standard Ghibli aesthetic and animation style, Princess Kaguya is something of a departure, its visual feel far more impressionistic and watercolour, and astonishingly beautiful. The recognisable folkloric motifs of the peasant man and wife who find a tiny, magical child in the bamboo grove very quickly give way to an exploration of the mannered artificiality of the Japanese medieval nobility - "Princess" as social construct rather than naturalised fairy-tale icon. (Don't worry, the mad fantastic elements snap right back into place). It's a sad story, and one which is as concerned as Arietty was with the importance of unfettered identity, and the idea of agency in, and celebration of, the natural world. It also has sweepingly fantastic sequences which are simply breathtaking, and it packs enough of an emotional punch that it made me cry at a couple of points. I loved this; it's very much its own thing, difficult to find comparisons, but I'll re-watch this over and over.

(My subject line is Bowie's "Glass Spider", which is weird and fairy-tale all in its own right).
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
Ah, the start of term. When lovesome students return in their droves from their dubious personal lives, bringing with them the collected germs of the earth's twelve quarters. Germs! exotic and teeming and ready to leap onto the unsuspecting and hapless forms of those of us luckless staff who are breathed on routinely by students and do not, in fact, possess any immunities to these exciting foreign strains. Half the faculty office is down with 'flu or whatever, including me, who was forced by a particular sod of a virus to lay extremely low all weekend, cancelling at short notice a theatre booking and two dinner dates. My hapless form is, alas, particularly hapless and is beset by various chronic complaints who lay low, like a rake in the grass, waiting to whump me upside the head with fatigue and/or glandular wossnames the second my guard is down. I have spent the last three and a half days pale, spaced, dizzy, nauseous and vaguely resenting the complete bastard who crept in sometime on Friday night and stuffed my throat and the bits under my chin with red-hot prickly burrs. Because, ow. I am back at work today, still pale and ick and very grumpy, but functional for most practical purposes, if they're slow practical purposes and not too demanding. The first student who gives me shit, I'm going to burst into tears and go home.

My state of mind has also been materially improved by the lovely email from the editor of the book to which I contributed 6000 reluctant and angst-filled words on African fairy-tale film. Despite the damned thing arriving in her inbox two months late and permeated with simulation, imposter syndrome and self-doubt, she has responded enthusiastically and with words like "excellent" and "wonderful" and "fascinating", which is particularly good for my lurgified self-esteem. She has also supplied a meticulous edit of the whole thing, with particular attention to eradicating the bits of my deathless prose most given to circumlocution and hesitation, and has materially improved the whole by about three thousand percent. Seriously, this part-time academia thing is very eroding to the linguistic wossnames: reading her edits, I cringe at my own tendency to over-elaboration and waffle. It's worst in the first couple of pages; after that, I settle into something that's mostly more sure and streamlined. I need to write more, clearly. And I need to write more clearly. Memo to self, kick the three and a half papers currently orbiting my brain in conceptual form OUT, and get them onto paper, and then beat them until they're acceptable and send them out into the world. I need the validation, and the practice.

It was a lovely feeling, though, lugging nine tomes on African film and oral literature back up to the library this morning and joyously dumping them. I felt, for once, like a Legit African Critic with the correct street cred, but it was lovely to get the hell rid of the pile.

My subject line is today's XKCD, which I loved, and which I have joyously bastardised. XKCD's apparently on a roll at the moment.

I came, I saw, Ipad

Sunday, 10 March 2013 07:10 pm
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
The Great New Year's Eve robbery relieved me of Winona, my netbook, whose petite Goth self I sincerely mourn. In a bizarre and unprecedented move straight out of left field, however, the insurance has actually paid out for more than the replacement cost of a low-end netbook, as a result of which the whole "resistance is futile, you will be assimilated" thing has kicked in, and this morning I toddled forth (with Jo&Stv for moral support and hand-holding) and acquired myself an Ipad entirely within the bounds of the insurance proceeds. While I still regard the whole Apple cult-edifice with a fair amount of distrust, I also feel that I badly need to acquire tablet and touch-screen skills, on account of how my tech cred is slipping and I'm becoming obsolete. So far I have resisted Itunes, which I loathe with a passion born from actual experience, but I have ordered the cute keyboard-case thingy that Claire had, which looks as though it'll make actual typing actually possible.

It's all very exciting, and I am not significantly deterred from my geeky "new tech!" dance of joy by the inevitable intervention of my personal techno-jinx, which promptly stalled the setup of the new Ipad by two hours while it meditatively downloaded and installed an OS upgrade. This is, alas, simply par for the course. It's all working now, and is offering me a friendly and intuitive interface with which I am becoming rapidly acquainted. I'm taking suggestions for a name for the new creature, though - I'm reverting to "Cupcake" in moments of stress, which is simply silly. (As in, "Please don't do this to me, cupcake!" in tones of plaintive despair).

I forgot to do month-end quotes again! I am a bad academic. Herewith the intellectual debts for February, which is fortunately a short month in which I haven't blogged much owing to thing, and have descended to actual originality in subject lines more than once.

  • 4th February: I quote a newspaper headline from E. Nesbit's fairy tale "The Deliverers of their Country", which features alarming plagues of dragons infesting Victorian Britain strictly according to the dictates both of Darwinian evolution and of the St. George narrative. Also notable for beautiful Victorian magical tech in the form of the Tap-Room, which controls the weather. One of my favourites, and I really must buckle down and write that damned Nesbit paper.
  • 12th February: a line from Thomas Moore's "The Fire Worshippers", which is one of the four poems in his Oriental romance Lalla Rookh, a marvellous concatenation of swooning emotion and sultry, exotic atmosphere. Also the poem which features the famous bit about dear gazelles gladding maidens with their soft black eyes, and thus a source from which I am frequently driven to quote more or less ironically in the context of students.
  • 14th February: a quote from Nimona early in the web-comic, while she's fangirling all over Sir Ballister Blackheart's villainy and trying to persuade him to take her on as a sidekick. Nimona rocks.
  • 23rd February: Tony Stark in the Avengers movie, as any fule kno, trying to dodge a call from Coulson. I'm madly amused by the Life Model Decoy reference, as it's one of the recurring elements in the comics which they use to retcon character deaths and behavioural weirdnesses - LMDs are S.H.I.E.L.D. robots programmed and constructed to replace and be controlled by actual people, and thus to serve as a plausible decoy for attacks. A beautiful narrative kludge, in other words. We like those.

Today I celebrated the new bookshelves by relocating a swathe of my sf collection and opening up shelves to store my DVDs, which have outgrown their cabinet by a factor of two, which is coincidentally the factor by which, it turns out, my collection of superhero films outnumbers the fairy tale ones. This possibly suggests the need for a change in my academic focus. I'm down with this.
freckles_and_doubt: (Default)
Right, one down. That was generally a lovely conference - smallish, beautifully run, papers uniformly interesting (I only really tuned out during one or two of them), and lovely people with whom I had lovely chats. The fun thing about fairy-tale theorists is that if you scratch strategically, just under the surface a high proportion of them are total geeks. Animated conversations at the conference dinner last night included fan fiction, LARPing, the exact wording of Bilbo's drunken birthday-party compliment/insult (under the influence of rather excellent wine none of us could remember the details) and the value of truly dismal B-movies and Alan Rickman. One of the papers was on fairy-tale elements in White Wolf's Changeling, causing me to get into a spirited debate with the speaker about her actual definition of fairy tale based on my actual knowledge of the system and role-playing generally, which I don't think she saw coming at all.

Accents represented at the conference: Flemish, French, American, English, Greek, German, Dutch, Israeli, Japanese, Polish, Russian, Spanish, Australian, Romanian and me, who apparently counts as "English" to the non-Brits and "weird unidentifiable colonial" to the Brits. Curse those creeping South African vowels. Most of the above non-English languages occurred in outbreaks within hearing more or less continually, frequently with mid-conversational switches: a lot of these people are at least bilingual and frequently multilingual, and their English is of course very good. All rather humbling. I was, however, congratulated on my reasonably French pronunciation of such tongue-twisting fairy-tale writers as Madame d'Aulnoy and Mlle l'Heritier, which I suppose makes up for getting "Nicolajeva" dead wrong.

Despite being lovely, the academics present were, alas, clearly academics. A small but spirited catfight broke out on Day 1 around the issue of oral versus literary fairy tale, and intensified as the conference proceeded, with proponents of both sides among the keynote speakers. There was some pointed, slightly nasty and occasionally amusing dissing of each other's theories/works/previous intellectual attacks from behind the lectern, and some insistent spirited debates continuing not quite sotto voce in the back rows. A bit sad, really. Apparently highly-regarded academics require a reasonable dose of territorial instinct to become highly-regarded in the first place. Bother, that's where I'm going wrong.

[livejournal.com profile] rumint asked which abbey the conference was inhabiting. It's Saint Peter's Abbey; from the outside it looks like this. (The bits and pieces in the square are because there was a massive Leonard Cohen concert there over the weekend).



It also has a very beautiful refectory, in which restoration has recently revealed a roof mural no-one knew existed; herewith A Conference Inhabiting A Refectory, and a close-up of some of the murals. The abbey people insist the murals are 13th-century, but the style looks far more 15th or 16th to me. I attribute the slightly blurry roof picture to the peril-sensitive nature of my camera. It's protecting me from cherubs.



I slept beautifully late this morning, and am now going to trundle out and sight-see in the medieval quarter for the day. It's not a bad life. If you don't weaken.
freckles_and_doubt: (Default)
It is a truth universally acknowledged that the department which spawned me also despises my academic interests, and thinks they are Fluffy and Frivolous and UnAfrican. I am aware of this, and invoke my superhero power of Sheer Cussedness to insist on simply bumbling along doing them anyway, with considerable satisfaction and in the teeth of the odds. And, to be perfectly fair, while I will defend to the death my belief that fairy tale and genre and Gothic and non-realist narrative are neither fluffy nor frivolous, and that popular forms are valid and interesting in their own right, in my heart of hearts I know bloody well that they are as unAfrican as all get-out, at least in the contexts and iterations in which I pursue them.

What I do is really very Western: it's rooted in Western fairy tale, Tolkien, Victorian fantasy, the English detective story, Edwardian children's literature, and a resolutely educated technophiliac access to internet culture. It would mean, I think, absolutely nothing to a black kid straight out of a township, or from a rural community. It would be alienating, confusing, a language and idiom which was part and parcel of the strange, only semi-permeable membrane which keeps university culture - or, at least, the culture of this particular university - in the little Europe-fixated bubble which forms its identity, try we never so hard to transform. Black kids don't sign up for my seminars. I completely get it.

And, of course, to simply say that I should study African fairy tale is not, to my mind, a solution. While black languages and cultures absolutely have their own rich and varied non-realist and generic traditions, my access to them is limited by a similar membrane, a cultural and linguistic remove which I'd have to permeate only by acquiring the several new languages and multiple layers of sociological and postcolonial theory which would effectively make me into an entirely different creature, academically speaking. It's actually a fascinating mirror of the first problem: a black kid trying to understand, for example, Mary Shelley, is having to acquire equally wholesale an entire universe of cultural experience simply to place the text in context, and they're doing it from a starting point a whole lot less privileged than mine.

All of which is not, unfortunately, going to persuade me to transform myself into the differently-shaped, less eccentric academic creature who might actually be able to talk to said black kid about fairy tale on something like his or her own terms. Because, unAfrican or not, I like the shape I am.

In darker moments, I despair of being relevant. But I can also take heart from the little moments which hold out hope of bridging, just for an instant, that cultural divide. We had a fire drill yesterday, which of course ends up with the contents of the entire building disgorged into the road outside, including those of the 450-seater lecture theatre in the basement. One of the kids from the lecture was wearing a t-shirt I immediately coveted. This one.



He was a black kid. I didn't talk to him, so couldn't gauge his background; he may well have been an international student. But I'm hoping that he wasn't; that he was, at least, a middle-class black South African whose upbringing and experience were enough to introduce him not only to the (have you noticed how lily-white? Native American Metaphors notwithstanding) world of Twilight, but to enough of the far more robust Gothic tradition which gave rise to it that he can regard sparkly vampires with ironic distaste. Because I do read about impundulu even if I don't feel competent to write about them, and I'm made happy to think that somehow, somewhere, his world and mine might gradually converge. That's a conversation I want to have.
freckles_and_doubt: (Default)


There's this rather sad fact about Skyrim: its designers don't always seem to actually think like players. You realise this if, like me, you really enjoy both the house-buying and the crafting aspects of Skyrim play (look, ma! It's not all about the violence, promise!). I get personal about my houses. Many of them are rather lovely spaces, and it's easy to become emotionally invested in the idea of living in them in between bumbling off slaying bandits and dragons and undead, oh my! I get an unreasonable kick out of games which actually expect you to sleep at night. There are no real penalties if you don't, but there's this sense of ineffable satisfaction (probably not unrelated to my ongoing state of real-life fatigue) in having the "Well Rested" message pop up on the top of the screen.

What I don't enjoy is coming home after a hard day's adventuring, laden with loot, and having to dash across half the town in order to access the blacksmith's forge to upgrade the weapons and armour before I sell them. And then, when you lug them back home to enchant them at your nifty enchanting table (which the Whiterun house doesn't have, what's with that, dammit?), your storage for soul gems and what have you is upstairs in another room because the designers couldn't be arsed to stick a chest or strongbox or barrel next to the place where, you know, you'd actually use it. Ditto with alchemy and your ingredients stores. And the barrels are full of apples, anyway. I have eaten a quite ludicrous number of apples in Skyrim, just to get rid of them. The country's fruit industry must be rolling in it. (And you find the wretched things down in sealed dwemer ruins, locked up for centuries but still perfectly fresh. Undead apples. Explains a lot).

In short, the designers construct the houses without much thought given to the most likely activities a player will pursue within its walls. How difficult could it be to put a grindstone or armouring table in a corner? A chest next to the enchanting table? Instead, houses are filled with an awful lot of pointless "decorative" guff, most of which you can't alter in any way; the things you can alter, like baskets and bowls, are pretty much useless for storage because it's such a royal pain to put things into them.

The quest for Sensible, Efficient Living Space led me to my first encounter with Skyrim mods. Someone has expanded the basement of the Solitude house, which is my favourite anyway, to include a full smithy and lots of storage, plus an update on the currently rather brutal sleeping arrangements for your housecarl (she has a pallet on the floor in a cellar). It's beautiful. I installed it no problem, and wandered around blissfully storing everything, and then left the house, took two adventuring steps, and hit a crash-to-desktop bug which was completely insurmountable. It's a known bug with this mod, and was mostly resolved with the latest patch, but even so still affects a minority of players for inexplicable reasons. I got unlucky. Growl. (And I shall not inflict on you the righteous rant about Skyrim bugginess generally, and the evident cardboard-and-string construction of a game when modding the interior of a house causes save and fast travel crashes a day later at the other end of the world map. But it's a righteous rant).

However, as another inevitable step, this whole debacle has led me to discover the developer console. In fact, half an hour of research on the web and some judicious fiddling, and I have managed to fill my very own basement with smithy tools and barrels and chests galore, my very own self. (The "placeatme" command, and using "help" + keyword, chest, barrel, whatever, to add it where you're standing). It's fiddly and trial-and-error bound, but actually not that difficult. You would not believe the degree of empowered satisfaction this causes. It wriggles right down and pointedly prods the particular and personal button which makes me rejoice in the correct utilisation of system for good. (As an added bonus, the basic object/NPC interactions are nicely done; you stick a grindstone into your house, and your spouse promptly starts using it as part of their wander-around-vaguely domestic routine).

But it also interests me, inevitably, on a broader cultural level. As with Dragon Age, the Skyrim developer console is perfectly accessible, and the web is rich with how-to pages giving codes and tips. This is a base level of player empowerment which is quite a lot more universal than the far more complex and technical toolset available to the much smaller subgroup of players who actually write mods. But the interesting point is the same: while a computer game is a commercial product, it's not, like a movie, a monolithic product. The base assumption of interaction which a game has and a movie doesn't, is expanded outwards: you are not simply expected to interact with the game, you're expected to interact with its construction. To, in fact, adapt it to your own needs via creative input. Compare this to the attitude of film producers to their product - thou shalt not, in their book, do anything other than passively consume it; they frown on excerpting clips, creating mash-ups, using stills - hell, they don't even like their trailers to turn up on YouTube, which is inexplicable to me. A computer game, on the other hand, actively enables the use of the game as the basis for personalisation, adaptation and play, on a meta level quite above the freedom of your avatar in the game world.

It becomes inevitable to put this aspect together with the other striking aspect of Skyrim, which is its community. This is the first time I've ever played a computer game the instant of its release, i.e. at the same time as the rest of the world - hitherto I've played the Evil Landlord's hand-me-downs, sometimes years later. It has been something of a revelation to find out how many people on, for example, my Twitter feed, are hacking through it at the same time as I am. You end up contextualising your own play experience across a very broad spectrum of shared play, whether it's amusing tweets, tips, discussions on wiki pages and forums, or silly Skyrim memes (viz. my subject line).

All of which is leading up to saying: gawsh, computer games, while commercial products, also have a component which speaks to folkloric functions. They are communal, and they actively encourage not just consumption, but production in that communal sense. The fact that they're communally created even at the commercial level probably contributes to this - DRM and bloody Steam authentication notwithstanding, the idea of creative ownership is already distributed. And, of course, in the interaction between you and a game, you are already putting your own storytelling stamp on it in a way you can't with a movie (unless you're a mad fanficcer, and that doesn't really give you access to the images).

And it's fascinating that this personal-production element is reflected on the level of actually stuffing with the game's construction in the same way that a designer does, not just re-shaping on the level of play. That is, the production company doesn't just allow tailoring of game elements, it actively encourages them through the accessibility of the tools. It's a clever commercial move, because it facilitates investment and a sense of ownership, and thereby builds a loyal following, but it also neatly mimics, even in a limited sense, far older, pre-literate patterns of production and distribution within a communal context. And it also suggests, to go full circle to the whinge with which I started this, that some of the omissions and logical thoughtlessnesses in house construction may be a sort of designer shrug - why bother, if the players will sort it out themselves? Thereby increasing their investment and loyalty. Sneaky.

Then again, I'm a fairy-tale theorist, and therefore by necessity a bit of a folklorist. Give a fairy-tale theorist a hammer, and everything looks like a glass slipper.
freckles_and_doubt: (Default)
[livejournal.com profile] dicedcaret once incautiously asked me to explain structuralism, which inevitably led to a voluble email exchange from which he emerged dazed and staggering, and brushing Russian Formalists off himself like coat lint. (They're sticky). The Russian Formalists are the major big gun in my campaign to bring English literary criticism kicking and screaming back into the century before the Century of the Fruitbat, i.e. the one before postmodernism. (Yes, I just accused postmodernism of being a fruitbat). As represented by the distinct sub-school led by Vladimir Propp, the Russians advocate the structuralist analysis of literature, i.e. in terms of an individual text's participation in a larger structure of meaning, which rather often tends to be in terms of genre.

Since I deal with fairy tale, this is important: at the most basic level, fairy tale proffers itself as participating in a universal structure of meaning and form, however illusionary this universality might be. (This is where postmodernism comes in: it joyously explodes notions of universal structure in order to insist that all meaning is contextual and nothing is universal. I also enjoy this, particularly since if you use an interaction of structuralist and postmodernist criticism in your academic writing you can completely piss off two major and opposing schools of thought at once, thus giving yourself a really good excuse for a floundering career).

All of this is important, because it explains why I utterly fell for Catherynne M. Valente's Deathless. Cat Valente is still my literary girl crush: she's an intensely crafted and self-conscious writer, whose abilities with prose cause me to lie voluptuously on the sofa with her books for hours at a time while beautiful words work their way down my body like lovers and my toes wriggle in delight. Deathless is based on the Russian folk tale "Koschei the Deathless", which is a marvellous agglomeration of fairy-tale motifs: ogre hearts hidden in eggs, useless Princes called Ivan, bird-grooms, bride-thefts, Baba Yaga, and Marya Morevna, the princess who slays whole armies. Valente's retelling sets the fairy-tale amid the startling political changes of early twentieth-century Russia. (The bird-grooms respectively hail from the Tsar's guard, the White Guard and the Red Army, with the bulk of the novel set in a Soviet Russia which co-exists with a fairy-tale realm).

This shouldn't work. It works like whoa and dammit: it creates a brilliant, incredible, unlikely, inevitable creature which you can't help but desire hopelessly even while it kicks you repeatedly in the teeth.

It's not just the novel's sense of Russian cold and cruelty, which equally apply to its folklore and its politics. The thing is that communism and fairy tale are both structuralist paradigms. (You knew I was going to get back to Vladimir Propp). Both fairy tale and communism insist on a transcendent, structural reality, a sense in which meaning exists universally on a level above the real. The sparse, stripped-down, essentialist meanings of fairy tale have a dreadful resonance with the sparse, stripped-down, essentialist rigours of life under communist rule. Both encodings believe all too terribly in their own universal rightness, the inescapable inevitability of their narratives. In Valente's hands they don't even conflict; they speak the same language, and the story's protagonists drift from one paradigm to another almost without noticing.

The result is desperately illuminating. The story's viewpoint is that of Marya Morevna, not the annoying Ivan, which is a relief; the tale becomes one of agency, female and political, as well as a love story, one about the bargains and sacrifices of marriage. For all of its novel-length detail and complexity, it retains both the starkness of fairy-tale narrative and its sense of fairy tale's inevitable place in the starkness of Russian life. The result shouldn't be seductive - particularly given my rooted dislike of political writing - but it is. It's an implacably brilliant book. Read it. And, possibly, weep.

into the woods

Monday, 12 September 2011 09:52 am
freckles_and_doubt: (Default)
The faculty is apparently OK with me ambling off on about six weeks of leave. I'm a bit weirded out, frankly. In celebration, and because one of the few things I plan to do with this six weeks is a restful, non-deadline-driven spot of academic writing, have some random fairy-tale links.

  • Ursula Vernon does "Little Red Riding Hood". Very well. It's both creepy and down-to-earth. Make sure you read Part II as well.

  • Cat Valente, who is still my literary girl crush, does Coyote myth with high school American football. I am stunned by how brilliantly this works.

There's a big fairy-tale conference in Belgium in August next year, including possibly the two biggest names in my field (Zipes, and one of my thesis examiners). Exploding legs notwithstanding, I am totally going to be there, and am determined to give a paper on E. Nesbit just because. (Just because she gives Billy the King a Lee Enfield rifle and makes her prince into a lift-man. The phrases "prop shift" and "paradigmatic change" will almost certainly be implicated).

In the meantime, the apparent effect of being given permission to be tired and ill is to make me really feel tired and ill. Odd how that happens.
freckles_and_doubt: (Default)
I have confessed before in this forum that Catherynne M. Valente is my literary girl crush. I love her work because it's astonishingly literary, dense and subtle and evocative, and frequently heartrendingly beautiful. The stories in her short story collections (I have The Omikuji Project) are odd, offbeat, postmodern creatures who sneak up on you; her fairy-tale work, mostly notably In the Night Garden, is layered and self-conscious and structurally inventive, which pushes enough of my happy buttons at once to make me basically incoherent. I've just acquired her recent novel Deathless, which is a sly take on Russian folktale set in Stalinist Russia, and am very much looking forward to reading it. This week she releases The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship Of Her Own Making, which is technically a young-adult novel, but which I think stands quite on its own merits as a postmodern fairy tale which rather more than nods at the Victorians (Macdonald, Molesworth, and especially Nesbit), Baum, Thurber and others.

Classic fairy tale has this thing with texture where it tends towards simplification - clean lines, clear symbols, well-defined narrative shapes. Postmodern fairy tale plays an endless game of identity tension, skating perilously on the thin line where complicating the tale and mucking with its texture edges it dangerously into some other kind of narrative. The Girl Who negotiates this magnificently, its whimsy and off-beat elements cluttering the story, but not too much and with a certain beautiful inevitability - however quirky or modern, the details feel right and appropriate and never disrupt the matter-of-fact acceptance proper to fairyland and all its ilk.

This is colourful, witty writing, with a strongly moral centre which lends it both impetus and pathos, but the joy is in the details as much as the shape of the tale. The characters are marvellous eccentrics, animated archetypes, but entirely original - there is nothing of cliché here, at least not without immediate, gleeful deconstruction.I hesitate to give you details because that might disrupt the wonder with which they hit you when you first read them, but I loved the wyverary, and the leopard, and the obsession with spoons. I cannot recommend this book highly enough - buy it, read it, rejoice. The first few chapters are up at here; it's also available on Loot for you locals.

As an appetizer, I also recommend Ms. Valente's stories available online: The Radiant Car Thy Sparrows Drew, which I think I've linked before, and How to Become a Mars Overlord. Warning: deliriously beautiful language.
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My latest Micfic is up. The theme was "cat", and I've gone all fairy tale. This last is predictable, but in fact this time I've gone so specifically fairy tale that the story is not going to make any sense at all unless you've read Mme D'Aulnoy's "The White Cat". This is actually a serious drawback, it's a moderately obscure tale which I doubt will be familiar to a lot of people.

I'm all torn about this. The story said exactly what I wanted to say about the tale, which revolves around my fascination with the obsessive relationship the prince has with the cat when she's still a cat - it's weird and significant, and has to be accounted for. I have no idea if my personal theory about it is going to be clearly readable from the story. I'm coming to regard this word limit as a nasty, iron-clad personal nemesis who fortnightly dings me over the head with his giant steel club of word-crushing doom. I swear this story could have made sense without the necessity of reading the original tale if I'd had more space.

But the overall question is more philosophical. Postmodernism and intertextuality and all that guff cheerfully assumes that you have to know other texts before you can fully understand the new one that's commenting on them. Is this a legitimate way of adding layering and density and implication? is it cheating? is it elitist? is it pretentious beyond belief? do I worry too much?

The picture, incidentally, is an illustration to the tale by children's illustrators Janet and Anne Grahame Johnstone, who also did The Hundred and One Dalmations. I've always loved those illustrations. This one is gorgeous - White Cat and prince and random courtier watch impressionistic fireworks.
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This conference trip was really enjoyable, and at the same time deeply surprising. I've mostly come to terms with how isolated I am in my academic interests here: there aren't really any other serious fairy-tale theorists in the country, and my other interests - genre, science fiction, the internet, children's lit, fanfic - are likewise not highly regarded. This has conspired to somehow give me the mental sense of being a negligible quality, academically speaking. A dabbler. Not serious. Certainly not theoretically accomplished.

My experience of the conference has revealed this as so much bosh. Distanced as I am from the European and American hubs of fairy-tale theory, I expected my book to vanish into the academic ocean with scarcely a splash or ripple. Instead, it was fairly high-profile in the conference consciousness: included in the conference recommended reading list, directly referenced by several papers, and quite a few people approached me to say they'd read it/liked it/had it and planned to read it/oh gosh let's talk about metafiction no-one else does! I didn't feel that my actual conference paper was particularly well delivered, and I always feel like a bit of a fraud trotting out the jargon, but again it received only positive feedback, engagement, validation. If nothing else my isolation means I do things slightly differently to the mainstream of this discipline, and my peers in the field seem to find that interesting.

Most importantly, though, I found that I actually fitted into this milieu without too much trouble. I deliberately don't socialise much with my academic contemporaries, I think that way madness lies, or at the very least princesses in ivory towers, but the result of this is that I'm very conscious of "not being a pretentious academic" in social settings. Not only do I self-consciously flag long words like marmalade when I'm holding forth, I self-censor like mad, and have apparently conditioned legions of my long-suffering friends into applying the firm hand of righteous mockery when the polysyllables become too polysyllabic. (And mad props to stv, for the suggestion that my next online identity of any sort is as "Polly Syllable".)

So it was a bit odd to find myself, for example, in animated discussion with one of the grad student presenters about Buffy and Supernatural and genre tropes, reflexively holding back on the jargon levels, only to think, "Wait! Hang on!" and crank it up instead. Which is, I have to say, fun. And tends to be met, capped and encouraged. And, somewhat to my own surprise, I pull it off. I actually know what I'm talking about. I know the critics being referenced, I have opinions on theoretical positions, I am swimming at ease in this verbal ocean and doing occasional back-flips in sheer joie de vivre.

As one of the nice professors pointed out after listening sympathetically to my minor rant about my employability in this country, this conference is a space in which no-one once felt the need to mention Africa. You have no idea how refreshing that is. And I am starting to realise, with slight horror, the actual and hideous extent to which this department, this institution, this intellectual climate, has sapped my belief in myself and the validity of what I do. It sucks. It must stop. I must go on more of these jaunts. They're good for the soul.
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My late papa was always very fond of reciting that deliberately pretentious and jargonistic version of "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" which goes as follows:

Scintillate, scintillate, globule vivific,
How do I ponder thy nature specific,
Poised up above in the ether capacious,
Closely resembling a gem carbonaceous.
As a child I always heard "ether capacious" as one word, and had a vague but wonderful sense of the "ethakapacious" as a sort of expansive, magical, spacious realm up there somewhere. It was something of a let-down when I realised what was actually meant, although in fact "ether capacious" has its own slightly dignified and Victorian sense of enchantment. It almost certainly contains steampunky skyships.

In other news, NPR are streaming the entirety of the new Arcade Fire album. It's luvverly. Large chunks of it sound like someone else entirely, or possibly someone else entirely pretending to be Arcade Fire.

I also forgot to mention that my latest Microfic is up. They incautiously gave me a fairy-tale topic. Oh, deary, deary me. I suspect it'll only fully make sense to anyone who's read as many "Sleeping Beauty" variants as I have (the Arabian Nights one is my favourite, the girl actually gets a say), but hopefully it will be enjoyable, in a slightly pretentious feminist postmodern way, nonetheless.

Literary Lions

Friday, 13 November 2009 10:39 am
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Following a vague recommendation from someone-or-other, I completely forget who, I've spent chunks of the last few weeks scientifically investigating the works of Tamora Pierce. Pierce is a writer of young adult fantasy, and I was interested in her because she does some quite deliberate things with feminist themes and strong women negotiating medieval, male-dominated societies. It's been a slightly ambivalent reading experience. She's easy to read, and I find myself mentally classing her stories with the Anne McCaffrey Dragonsinger ones in terms of their tendency towards wish-fulfilment and cute-creature-hugging; I also worry a little about a potentially slightly facile feminism. Nonetheless I'm left overall with a strong sense that her Tortall series is a worthwhile project that does something necessary in terms of role models for teenage girls.

The first Tortall series follows Alanna, who wants to train as a knight but has to disguise herself as a boy to do so. The disguised-as-a-boy bit is not treated realistically at all: young Alan should have been discovered posthaste and probably raped. But the urgency of the girl's need to fulfil a role not prescribed for her by her society is very apparent, and you end up rooting for her throughout. It's clearly an early work; the book's writing is a bit halting at times (she definitely gets better over time) and the magic/fighting combination is a little too idealised. The subsequent series which focuses on Keladry, the first girl to actually train openly as a knight, is stronger, more straightforwardly mundane and far more realistic as well as better written.

Good Things: solid detail in fighting, war, tactics (I am so an SCA geek); training is hard work, particularly for girls trying to overcome the strength deficit compared to boys. Prejudice against girls fighting. Page hazing rituals. Social awareness: the feudal system's privilege is neatly deconstructed in Keladry's story. Good teaching. Realistic teen romance! ye gods, how rare is it for teens in y.a. books to (a) play around with sex (b) sensibly (c) in a valid emotional context and (d) with a shifting series of partners, crushes and relationships. Death to the One Troo Love! JK Rowling's bloody saccharine Epilogue, take that!
Bad Things: clunky writing at times, narrative hiccups, falters and rushes. Slightly Shakespearian gender-swapping unrealisms. Too much cutesy power, too many cutesy people, not quite enough grey between heroes and villains. Bloody magically-enhanced animal deus ex machinas, although I can completely see these appealing to the teen girl demographic.

In completely another area of the young-girl-protagonist spectrum, Cathrynne M. Valente has posted the final chapter of her wonderful fairy tale, the one with September and the leopard and the wyverary A-through-L. And the soap golem. Baumish. Nesbitesque. Thurberoid. Other good things, including unexpected and off-beat and occasionally very cruel. Definitely well worth a read, particularly now that the whole thing's up.
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My Masters student, who has a pleasingly demented streak which has not in any way prevented her submitting a slightly kick-butt dissertation on women in fairy tale (Basile, Perrault and Disney, my work here is done), just popped into my office in order to leave me the following offering:



You add water and it turns into a prince. Apparently. (If you have the duck version, apparently it turns into a princess. The logic here escapes me, although I'm somewhat charmed by the idea of "The Frog Duck to Prince Princess" advertised on the label).

My annoying day full of meetings and annoyance just improved immeasurably. Am off, chortling, to turn frogs into princes and (apparently) watch it grow 600%. For some reason I find this slightly dodgy. In other news, apparently I'm five.
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I have déjà vu. There's a half-grown fluffy ginger tom with a white shirt front who's been wandering into our kitchen of a night and spraying, very slightly, somewhere I can't actually find. In the last couple of days he's become bolder, or possibly desperate, and wanders in while I'm cooking to dive head first into our cats' food bowls with every evidence of starvation, or to stand at the doorway making plaintive meeping noises. He's actually a very sweet and affectionate creature, and will headbutt my ankles and purr if I give him half a chance. This is pretty much the same extremely successful tactical plan followed by Ounce, although I don't think Ginger is a stray, he's very emphatically glossy, fluffy and beautiful. Nonetheless I am losing the will to chase him from the kitchen, which I suspect is a Bad Sign. We really don't need another cat.

In other news: pitch-perfect fairy tale by Catherynn M. Valente, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In A Ship Of Her Own Making. Shades of Thackeray, Baum, Nesbit, all the good stuff. Matter-of-fact, off-beat, delectable. Look out for the soap golem and the flying leopard.

And, finally, annoying admin this week has driven me back into the arms of The Middleman's hyper-linguistic frivolity. Goofy Middleman Exclamations Du Jour: "Dagnabbit!" "Well, gosh!" "Scout's Honour!" "Swell!" "Shoot!" "Well, dagdiggity!" "Jeepers!" "Regoshdarneddiculous!" "Not a gosh-darned chance in heck!" and, memorably, "that was some darn fine cow-squirt!" Bonus points for the Jolly Fats Wehawkin Temp Agency. I feel much better now.
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ooooh! Neil Gaiman not only won the Newbery Medal for The Graveyard Book (about which, yay!), he just announced that Neil Jordan is writing and directing a live-action film version. This makes me very, very happy: Jordan's Company of Wolves is a haunting, haunted and truly amazing cinematic adaptation of Angela Carter's postmodern fairy tale, and one of my favourite films. (Freudian imagery, Gothic forests, fearsome werewolf transformations, embedded narrative, self-conscious invocation of the oral voice, and Terence Stamp as the Devil in a Rolls Royce). He does atmosphere, period feel and complicated subtext with focused virtuosity. I'd be even happier if Neil Gaiman was scripting it himself, but I expect good things.

Still working my butt off, but yesterday was an 11-hour day instead of Monday's 13, so perhaps things are looking up. Also, small but measurable improvement in the hobbling. We may yet survive this, troops! she says, charging down the Balaklava valley...
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Hah! in the last week I have vanquished my personal techno-jinx sufficiently to (a) persuade my DVD burner to burn DVDs after a year of software tantrum (by fiddling with the settings, particularly a perfectly obvious CD/DVD selection tab I'd never noticed before), and (b) persuade my headset to register actual sound in both directions (by fiddling with the settings, including a whole bunch of arcane and labyrinthine defaults which were persuading the system to put its nose in the air and refuse to recognise the existence of the microphone). I feel empowered, she says, shaking her tiny fist at the techno-cosmic wossnames. Of course the vainglorious parading of this sort of success infallibly means that I'll arrive home this evening to discover that every electronic gadget in the house has been stolen by Jawas, but hey, I will have my moment of triumph.

I am still turning into a lizard, fortunately not of the itchy variety. Currently I have a sort of reddish, leathery slash across my neck, as though I'd tried extremely inexpertly to saw through my jugular with a very blunt spoon1. I'm not sure if this is heat rash, stress rash, some sort of plague or pox, an allergy or simple bodily cussedness, but bored now. Today the techno-jinx, tomorrow my own stupid body.

1This is, for no adequately defined reason, giving me Angela Carter flashbacks. Her Bluebeard re-telling, "The Bloody Chamber", has the heroine wearing "a choker of rubies, two inches wide, like an extraordinarily precious slit throat", which I think must be almost exactly the inverse, metaphorically speaking, of what's afflicting me.

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Today's subject line courtesy of more than usually surrealist spam. It only works as an acrostic if the formatting hasn't scrambled it, which it had, but I'm also amused by the random disconnect between the nature of the product and the choice of words.

I am currently locked in an epic battle with my contact lenses, or more accurately an advancing wave of contact lenses, bayonets fixed, all different. I wish to place on record here my jealousy of those of you who have (a) perfect vision, or (b) the ability to wear contact lenses all day without feeling the need to claw your own eyes out, screaming and scratching and convinced they are packing bayonets, after the four-hour mark. In the last seven or eight years my eyes have apparently developed interesting bumps inside the eyelids, and a tendency to under-produce tears, which means they tolerate lenses for a few hours before becoming bored, wriggly and fractious. (Great, my eyes are four-year-olds). This also means that in the last two weeks I've cycled through three different brands of trial lens, some of which are only mildly uncomfortable while others are screamingly annoying. My eyes really don't like wearing toric lenses, it seems, which is a bugger as the toric lenses correct the astigmatism and are necessary to prevent eye-strain headaches. It all seems tragically doomed.

I am somewhat amazed at the strength of my own disinclination to give up the whole thing as a bad job and embrace my inner Sarah Palin. It seems that I don't actually construct my ideal self as bespectacled. I'm actually wishing I had both the money and the courage to have the eye surgery. Sigh.

Today's September Retro Kiddielit entry, as promised to [livejournal.com profile] pumeza, is Eleanor Farjeon. I've always loved Farjeon's sweet, wistful and slightly oddball writing, in particular her two novel-length fairy tales, The Glass Slipper, which is a sort of innocent pantomime Cinderella, and The Silver Curlew, an utterly charming version of "Rumplestiltskin" with a spoiled-brat king who I adore. But the classic Farjeon stories are found in her Martin Pippin collections, Martin Pippin in the Apple Orchard (available here) and Martin Pippin in the Daisy Field. These are Scheherazade-style excuses for tale-telling, frame tales in which the eccentric wandering minstrel Martin tells stories to an audience of girls or children. The frame scenarios are lovely, if a bit syrupy at times, but the stories themselves are wonderful. Farjeon has a very strong sense of English folklore and landscape; her tales are full of English place-names, plants, scenery, people and children's games. They have an incredibly strong folkloric backbone, with the correct and satisfying use of repetition, pattern, symbol and timelessness, but they're never obvious. The mood and tone of the tales are often slightly dark, and the narrative lateral and eccentric, apt to twist in directions you don't expect without ever losing its folkloric character. Apple Orchard is all love stories, befitting the milkmaids to whom they're told, and often surprisingly sexy; Daisy Field, with its audience of children, has more varied themes. My favourites include the Gothic darkness and symbols of "Open Wilkins" and the beautifully deconstructed courtly love scenario of "Proud Rosalind". My grandparents had copies of both Martin Pippin books, and the stories have always fascinated me, not least because I grew up with and into them; they were memorable and satisfying when I was a child, but they've offered more depth and interest with each reading as I became more able to access their considerable sophistication.

Last Night I Dreamed: I was a secret agent of some sort (extremely high heels were involved), in a very fast car with a nifty ability to drive along the underside of elevated freeways, thereby avoiding traffic. Later I was a medieval bride arriving at my potential husband's thatched cottage home, only to be utterly rejected by his mother, who stole my silver and sapphire ring before turning me out the house while said potential husband stood feebly by and let it happen.
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In the Department of The Malice Of Inanimate Objects, my alarm clock hates me. Despite being set for 7am, it woke me up this morning at 1am, 2am and 5am, at which point I muzzily turned it off and trusted to luck that I'd wake up sometime before lunch. Investigation when slightly more awake reveals that the minute hand is apparently dragging the alarm hand around with it on a more or less random basis. Things To Do This Evening: buy new alarm clock. Oh, and go back to the gym. The gentle protrusion of my stomach is beginning to depress me.

Today's random linkery, in the Department Of Severely Postmodern Fairy Tales (an important and vociferous department in my personal Kafka-esque bureaucracy): An Old-Fashioned Unicorn's Guide To Courtship. Sarah Rees Brennan is perhaps better known to anyone who reads this blog as [livejournal.com profile] mistful - she writes very funny HP fanfic and an even more amusing blog, and has just landed a contract for her original Y.A. fantasy series. This story is witty, irreverent and thoughtful; in my professional fairy-tale opinion, Tanith Lee juveniles and Patricia C. Wrede also ran. Also: "the Rapunzel category"? Absolutely true!

In keeping with this theme, favourite kiddie fairy-tales! I was going to rhapsodise about James Thurber's Thirteen Clocks, but that's probably cheating: if you lot don't share my undying devotion to the book after lounging around on this blog for more than about three seconds, there's no hope for you. Instead, A. A. Milne! No, not Winnie-the-Pooh. (My love for Winnie-the-Pooh didn't actually survive Dorothy Parker's response to The House At Pooh Corner1). Did you know that A. A. Milne wrote a satirical children's fairy tale called Once On A Time?2 This is particularly important in my memories because I read it precisely once, when I was about 11 and found it at a school friend's house (her parents were Rich, TM, and she had beautiful toys and books); thereafter I couldn't find it again, until about four years ago when it turned up in one of my second-hand haunts. It thus has the particular appeal of the long-term unattainable. It features the foolish and unnecessary war between the neighbouring kingdoms of Euralia and Barodia; also, the desperately well-meaning Princess Hyacinth, serving girls called Wiggs and Woggs, a prince with a rabbit's head, and the beautiful, fascinating, thoroughly evil and scheming Countess Belvane. The characters are all bona fide eccentrics, and the political message surprisingly biting. It's also a bit Princess-Brideish in that the narrator continually references the historical accounts of one Roger Scurvilegs, mostly to disagree with them violently. Another in my favourite category of "off-the-wall", I would say.

1 "Tonstant Weader Fwowed Up!"

2 Good lord. I'm a bit shaken to discover that putting "a.a. milne once on a time" into Google gives a hit for a scholarly article entitled "Twelve short tandem repeat loci Y chromosome haplotypes" in the top three. They ain't making fairy-tale lit like they used to, is all I can say. Or, presumably, short tandem repeat loci Y chromosome haplotypes.

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